A Forgotten Literary Phenomenon

— At one of Charles Dickens’s dinner - parties, during a certain holiday season at Gad’s Hill, the conversation turned upon the peculiar nature of an author’s enjoyment of his own productions, and the question arose whether the pleasure of creation or composition could properly be compared with that of intelligent perusal. With his customary energy and animation, the host at once set himself to prove that no mere reader, however sympathetic, could understand the satisfaction of originating a fine literary design, or appreciate the delight of carrying a work of imagination through successive steps to its culmination. The majority of the guests were writers, most of whom accepted the great novelist’s views as truths too self-evident for discussion ; but one of the company, not included in the gifted circle, contended that no matter what the author’s individual feeling might be, there were points of advantage of which he, the speaker, in common with the world at large, could not be deprived. Neither Dickens, nor Collins, nor Reade, nor any of the craft there present knew what it meant to read one of his own volumes with the eager zest of the general public. For Charles Reade there was, strictly speaking, no such thing as a new book by Charles Reade. What were Wilkie Collins’s ingenious combinations and startling surprises to Wilkie Collins himself ? What conception had Dickens of the thrill with which the expectant reader seized upon each monthly installment of Dombey or Copperfield, not dreaming what the pages might bring forth, and with foreknowledge of nothing but the gratification in store ? Propositions so plain as these could not be controverted, although abundance of argument and illustration was brought forward to demonstrate the author’s possession of innumerable privileges denied to the multitude. The representative of the masses held his own. “ If Charles Dickens,” he said, “ can tell us he does not envy me my first reading of the Christmas Carol, I will surrender, — not otherwise.” Thus confronted, sophistry was unavailing, and it was conceded that the romance-writer, familiar with his work from beginning to end, cannot share the sensations of those who approach it in unprepared and happy ignorance.

Recalling this conversation, not long after it took place, one of the participants remarked that it was singular that nobody had thought at the moment of a very striking case in which an eminent author actually did make acquaintance with some of his most brilliant fictions after they were completed and published. The statement is one which seems to contradict itself, but the occurrence is thoroughly authenticated, and the wonder is that so remarkable a phenomenon should have been passed by, with scarcely a word of notice, for the better part of a century. The writer who underwent the strange experience was Sir Walter Scott, and the works which he was enabled to read with the same sense of novelty as if he had been one of the general public were The Bride of Lammermoor, A Legend of Montrose, and Ivanhoe. When these printed books were first put into his hands, he was as much a stranger to them as if he had had no part in their parentage. The conditions of their production were exceptional. They were dictated by him during a prolonged and painful illness, from which, indeed, it was not expected that he could recover. After his restoration to health, it was found that every circumstance of their composition had escaped his memory. With reference to The Bride of Lammermoor, in particular, he remarked that he “ did not recollect one single incident, character, or conversation it contained.”

It is unfortunate that we have no satisfactory report of the impressions produced upon him by the three tales. One might suppose that Scott himself, whose diaries give evidence of his fondness for introspective study, and who was candid beyond most of his fraternity in disclosing the operations of his mind, would have taken a deep interest in the subject, and given us the means of judging how he was affected by the marvel. But he appears to have deliberately avoided the theme. His few allusions to it were frivolous, and, so far as they have any bearing upon his estimate of the novels, not altogether sincere. No one can doubt that if they had been written by another person his admiration would have been outspoken and emphatic. It was always an affectation with him to undervalue his works, but the mockery of modesty becomes too obvious when he has only this to say of the effect produced by Lammermoor : “ As a whole, I felt it monstrous gross and grotesque ; but still, the worst of it made me laugh, and I trusted the goodnatured public would not be less indulgent.” Nobody will believe that Scott really rated one of his best productions so low as that, and it would have fared ill with any presumptuous censor who should have ventured a similar criticism in his hearing. Witness his fury when Blackwood attempted to convince him that the termination of The Black Dwarf might be advantageously changed. “ I have received Blackwood’s impudent letter. God damn his soul! ” wrote the offended author. The probability is that he thoroughly and heartily enjoyed the dictated romances. He certainly had no hesitation in avowing his high opinion of the character of Dalgetty, in Montrose. If he had allowed himself to depart, for the occasion, from the practice of self-depreciation which men of letters in his day considered indispensable, he might have gratified a natural and legitimate curiosity, and contributed an interesting chapter to psychological science. No similar opportunity, we may assume, has been given to any other man. Certainly no similar example is recorded in literary history.