It is probably more instructive to entertain a sneaking kindness for any unpopular person than to give way to perfect raptures of moral indignation against his abstract vices. — ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON.
IT is not only more instructive — it is more enlivening. The conventionalities of criticism (moral, not literary, criticism) pass from mouth to mouth and from pen to pen, until the iterations of the press are crystallized in encyclopædias and biographical dictionaries. And from such verdicts there is no appeal. Their labored impartiality, their systematic adjustments, their careful avoidance of intuition, produce in the public mind a level sameness of misunderstanding. Many sensible people think this a good result. Even a man who did his own thinking, and maintained his own intellectual freehold, like Mr. Bagehot, knew and upheld the value of ruts. He was well aware how far a little intelligence can be made to go, unless it aspires to originality. Therefore he grumbled at the paradoxes which were somewhat of a novelty in his day, but which are outworn in ours, at the making over of virtue into vice, and of vice into something more inspiriting than virtue. ‘We have palliations of Tiberius, eulogies on Henry the Eighth, devotional exercises to Cromwell, and fulsome adulations of the first Napoleon.’
That was a half-century ago. To-day, Tiberius is not so much out of favor as out of mind; Mr. Froude was the last man really interested in the moral status of Henry the Eighth; Mr. Wells has given us his word for it that Napoleon was a very ordinary person; and the English people have erected a statue of Cromwell close to the Houses of Parliament, by way of reminding him (in his appointed place) of the survival of representative government. The twentieth century does not lean to extravagant partialities. Its trend is to disparagement, to searchlights, to that lavish candor which no man’s reputation can survive.
When Mr. Lytton Strachey reversed Mr. Stevenson’s suggestion, and chose, as subject-matter of a book, four people of whom the world had heard little but good, who had been praised and reverenced beyond their deserts, but for whom he cherished a secret and cold hostility, he experimented successfully with the latent uncharitableness of men’s minds. The brilliancy with which the four essays were written, the keenness of each assault, the charm and persuasiveness of the style, delighted even the uncensorious. The business of a biographer, said the author in a very engaging preface, is to maintain his own freedom of spirit, and lay bare the facts as he understands them, ‘dispassionately, impartially, and without ulterior intentions.'
It sounds fair and square; but the fact remains that Mr. Strachey disliked Manning, despised Arnold, had little sympathy with Gordon, and no great fancy for Florence Nightingale. It must be remembered also that in three cases out of four he was dealing with persons of stubborn character and compelling will, as far removed from irreproachable excellence as from criminality. Of such, much criticism may be offered; but the only way to keep an open outlook is to ask, ‘What was their life’s job?’ ‘How well did they do it?’ Men and women who have a pressing job on hand (Florence Nightingale was all job) cannot afford to cultivate the minor virtues. They move with an irresistible impulse to their goal. It is a curious fact that Mr. Strachey is never so illuminating as when he turns his back upon these forceful and disconcerting personages, and dallies with their more amenable contemporaries. What he writes about Gordon we should be glad to forget; what he writes about Sir Evelyn Baring and Lord Hartington we hope to remember while we live.
The popularity of Eminent Victorians inspired a host of followers. Critics began to look about them for other vulnerable reputations. Mr. J. A. Strahan, stepping back from Victoria to Anne, made the happy discovery that Addison had been systematically overpraised, and that every side of his character was open to assault. The result of this perspicuity is a damning denunciation of a man whom his contemporaries liked and esteemed, and concerning whom we have been content to take the word of those who knew him. He may have been, as Mr. Strahan asserts, a sot, a time-server, a toad-eater, a bad official, and a worse friend; but he managed to give a different impression. The just man falls seven times a day. Take sufficient account of all these falls, and he eclipses Lucifer. Addison’s friends and neighbors found him a modest, honorable, sweet-tempered gentleman; and Steele, whom he had affronted, wrote these generous words: ‘You can seldom get him to the tavern; but when once he is arrived to his pint, and begins to look about him, you admire a thousand things in him which before lay buried.’
This seems to me a singularly pleasant thing to say about anybody. Were I coveting praise, this is the form I’d like the praise to take.
The pressure of disparagement, which is one result of the cooling of our blood after the fever-heat of war, is lowering our enthusiasms, thinning our sympathies, and giving us nothing very dazzling in the way of enlightenment. Americans are less critical than Englishmen, who so value their birthright of free speech that censure of public men has become a habit, a game of hazard (pulling planks out of the ship of state), at which long practice has made them perfect. ‘The editor of the Morning Post,’ observes Mr. Maurice Hewlett wearily, ‘begins his day by wondering whom he shall denounce’; and opposing editors, as nimble at the fray, match outcry against outcry, and malice against, malignity.
I doubt if any other than an Englishman could have written The Mirrors of Downing Street, and I am sure that, were an American able to write such a book (which is problematic), it would never occur to him to think of it, or to brag of it, as a duty. We grumble at our high officials, and expect our full share of impossibilities; but as task-masters we are not in it with the British. The difficulties surmounted by Mr. Lloyd George make the labors of Hercules look like a picnic; and to begrudge him an hour in his arm-chair, with his young daughter and a friend, seems to us like begrudging an engine-driver his sleep. There was a time when it was thought that an engine-driver could sleep less, and lamentable results ensued.
The public actions of public men are open to discussion; but Mr. Balfour’s personal selfishness, his parsimony, his indifference to his domestics, are not matters of general moment. To gossip about these things is to gossip with tradesmen and servants. To deny to Lord Kitchener ‘greatness of mind, greatness of character, and greatness of heart,’is harsh speaking of the dead; but to tell a gaping world that the woman ‘whom he loved hungrily and doggedly, and to whom he proposed several times, could never bring herself to marry him,’ is a personality which Town Topics would scorn. The Mirrors of Downing Street aspires to a moral purpose; but taste is the guardian of morality. Its delicate and severe dictates define the terms upon which we may improve the world at the expense of our neighbor’s character.
The sneaking kindness recommended by Mr. Stevenson is much harder to come by than the ‘raptures of moral indignation,’ of which he heard more than he wanted, and which are reverberating through the world to-day. The pages of history are heavy with moral indignation. We teach it in our schools, and there are historians like Macaulay who thunder it rapturously, with never a moment of misgiving. But here and there, as we step apprehensively into historic by-paths, we are cheered by patches of sunshine, straight glimpses into truths which put a more credible, because a more merciful, construction upon men’s actions, and lighten our burden of dispraise.
I have often wondered why, with Philippe de Commines as an avenue of approach, all writers except Scott should deal with Louis the Eleventh as with a moral monstrosity. Commines is no apologist. He has a natural desire to speak well of his master; but he reviews every side of Louis’s character with dispassionate sincerity.
First, as a Catholic: ‘The king was very liberal to the Church, and, in some respects, more so than was necessary, for he robbed the poor to give to the rich. But in this world no one can arrive at perfection.’
Next, as a husband: ‘As for ladies, he never meddled with them in my time; for when I came to his court, he lost a son, at whose death he was greatly afflicted; and he made a vow to God in my presence never to have intercourse with any other woman than the queen. And though this was no more than he was bound to do by the canons of the Church, yet it was much that he should have such self-command as to persevere firmly in his resolution, considering that the queen (though an excellent lady in other respects) was not a princess in whom a man could take any great delight.’
Finally, as a ruler: ‘The king was naturally kind and indulgent to persons of mean estate, and hostile to all great men who had no need of him. . . . But this I say boldly in his commendation, that in my whole life I never knew any man so wise in his misfortunes.’
To be brave in misfortune is to be worthy of manhood; to be wise in misfortune is to conquer fate. We cannot easily or advantageously regard Louis with affection; but when Commines epitomizes history in an ejaculation, ‘Our good master, Louis, whom God pardon!’ it rests our souls to say, ‘Amen!’
We cannot easily love Swift. The great ‘professional hater’ frightens us out of the timid regard which we should like — in honor of English literature — to cherish for his memory. But there is a noble sentence of Thackeray’s which, if it does not soften our hearts, cannot fail to clarify our minds, to free us from the stupid, clogging misapprehension which we confuse with moral distaste. ‘Through the storms and tempests of his [Swift’s] furious mind the stars of religion and love break out in the blue, shining serenely, though hidden by the driving clouds and maddening hurricane of his life.’ One clear and penetrating note (‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’) is worth much careful auditing of accounts.
The picture of John Wilkes drawn by Sir George Otto Trevelyan in his Early History of Charles James Fox, and the picture of Aaron Burr drawn by Mr. Albert J. Beveridge in his Life of John Marshall are happy illustrations of unpopular subjects treated with illuminating kindness. Wilkes was a demagogue and Burr a trouble-maker (the terms are not necessarily synonymous), and neither of them is a man whose history is widely or accurately known. Both historians are swayed by their political passions. An historian without political passions is as rare as a wasp without a sting. To Trevelyan all Conservatives were in fault, and all Liberals in the right. Opposition to George the Third is the acid test he applies, to separate gold from dross. Mr. Beveridge regards the Federalists as the strength and the Republicans as the weakness of the young nation. Thomas Jefferson is his test, and a man hated and hounded by Jefferson necessarily wins his support.
Nevertheless, Wilkes and Burr are presented to us by their sympathizers in a cold north light, which softens and conceals nothing. Men of positive quality, they look best when clearly seen. ‘Research and fact are ever in collision with fancy and legend,’ observes Mr. Beveridge soberly; and it is to research and fact that he trusts, to rescue his accomplished filibuster from those unproved charges which live by virtue of their vagueness. American school histories, remembering the duty of moral indignation, have played havoc with the reputation of Aaron Burr; and American school-children, if they know him at all, know him as a duelist and a traitor. They are sure about the duel (it was one of the few facts firmly established in my own mind after a severe struggle with American history); but concerning the treason, they are at least as ill informed as their elders.
British children do better, perhaps, with John Wilkes. Little Londoners can gaze at the obelisk which commemorates his mayoralty, and think of him as a catless Whittington. The slogan ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ has an attractive ring to all who are not of Madame Roland’s way of thinking. No man ever gave his partisans more to defend, or his opponents better chances to attack; and friends and foes rose repeatedly and fervently to their opportunities. A century later, Sir George Trevelyan, a friend well worth the having, reviews the case with wise sincerity, undaunted confidence, a careful art in the arrangement of his high lights, and a niceness of touch which wins half-way all readers who love the English language. Wilkes was as naturally and inevitably in debt as was William Godwin, and Wilkes’s debts were as naturally and inevitably paid by someone else as were Godwin’s; but when Trevelyan alludes softly to his ‘unambitious standard of solvency,’ this sordid detail becomes unexpectedly pleasurable. So easily are transgressions pardoned, if they provoke the shadow of a smile.
Lord Rosebery’s Napoleon: the Last Phase is a work nobly conceived and admirably executed; but its impelling motive is an austere resolve to make what amends a single Englishman can make for an ungenerous episode in English history. Its sympathy for a fallen foe bears no likeness to the sympathy which impelled Théodore de Banville, broken in health and hope by the siege of Paris, to write a lyric in memory of a young Prussian officer, a mere boy, who was found dead on the field, with a blood-stained volume of Pindar in his tunic. Lord Rosebery’s book is written with a proud sadness, a stern indignation, eminently fitted to its subject; but he is not so much kind as just. Napoleon is too vast a figure to be approached with benevolence. It is true, as Mr. Wells asserts, that, had he been unselfish and conscientious, he would never have conquered Europe; but only Mr. Wells is prepared to say that a lack of these qualities won him renown. He shares the lack with Wilhelm the Second, who has had neither an Austerlitz nor a Waterloo.
There is a wide assortment of unpopular characters whose company it would be very instructive to keep. They belong to all ages, countries, and creeds. Spain alone offers us three splendid examples — the Duke of Alva, Cardinal Ximenez, and Philip the Second. Alva, like the Corsair, possessed one virtue, which was a more valuable virtue than the Corsair’s, but brings him in less credit, because the object of his unswerving loyalty and devotion was not a guileless lady, but a sovereign, less popular, if possible, than himself. Cardinal Ximenez, soldier, statesman, scholar, priest, ascetic, author, and educator, was also Grand Inquisitor, and this fact alone seems to linger in the minds of men. That, for his day, he was a moderate, avails him little. That he made a point of protecting scholars and professors from the troublesome interference of the Inquisition ought to avail him a great deal. It might were it better known. There is a play of Sardou’s in which he is represented as concentrating all the deadly powers of his office against the knowledge which he most esteemed. This is the way the drama educates.
And Philip? It would be a big piece of work to win for Philip even a partial recognition of his moderate merits. The hand of history has dealt heavily with him, and romance has preyed upon his vitals. In fact, history and romance are undistinguishable when they give free play to the moral indignation he inspires. It is not enough to accuse him of the murder of the son whom he hated (though not more heartily than George the Second hated the Prince of Wales): they would have us understand that he probably poisoned the brother whom he loved. ‘Don John’s ambitions had become troublesome, and he ceased to live at an opportune moment for Philip’s peace of mind,’is the fashion in which Gayarré insinuates his suspicions; and Gayarré’s narrative — very popular in my youth—was recommended to the American public by Bancroft, who, I am convinced, never read it. Had he penetrated to the eleventh page, where Philip is alluded to as the Christian Tiberius, or to the twentieth, where he is compared to an Indian idol, he would have known that, whatever the book might be, it was not history, and that, as an historian, it ill became him to tell innocent Americans to read it.
But how were they to be better informed? Motley will not even allow that Philip’s fanatical devotion to his church was a sincere devotion. He accuses him of hypocrisy, which is like accusing Cromwell of levity, or Burke of Jacobinism. Prescott has a fashion of turning the King’s few amiabilities, as, for example, his tenderness for his third wife, Isabella of France, into a suggestion of reproach. ‘Well would it be for the memory of Philip, could the historian find no heavier sin to lay to his charge than his treatment of Isabella.’ Well would it be for all of us, could the recording angel lay no heavier charge to our account than our legitimate affections. The Prince of Orange, it is true, charged Philip with murdering both wife and son; but that was merely a political argument. He would as soon have charged him with the murder of his father, had the Emperor not been safely isolated at Yuste; and Philip, in return, banned the Prince of Orange — a brave and wise ruler — as ‘an enemy of the human race.’
Twenty-four years ago, an Englishman who was by nature distrustful of popular verdicts, and who had made careful studies of certain epochs of Spanish history, ventured to paint Philip in fresh colors. Mr. Martin Hume’s monograph shows us a cultivated gentleman, with a correct taste in architecture and art, sober, abstemious, kind to petitioners, loyal and affectionate to his friends, generous to his soldiers and sailors — a man beloved by his own household, and reverenced by his subjects, to whom he brought nothing but misfortune. The book makes melancholy reading because Philip’s political sins were also political blunders, his mad intolerance was a distortion, rather than a rejection, of conscience, and his inconceivable rigidity left him helpless to face the essential readjustments of life. ‘I could not do otherwise than I have done,’ he said with piercing sincerity, ‘though the world should fall in ruins around me.’
Now what befell Mr. Hume, who wrote history in this fashion, with no more liking for Philip than for Elizabeth or the Prince of Orange, but with a natural desire to get within the purlieus of truth? Certain empty honors were conferred upon him: a degree from Cambridge, membership in a few societies, the privilege of having some letters printed after his name. But the University of Glasgow and the University of Liverpool stoutly refused to give him the chairs of history and Spanish. He might know more than most men on these subjects, but they did not want their students exposed to new impressions. The good old way for them. Mr. Hume, being a reader, may have recalled in bitterness of spirit the words of the acute and unemotional Sully, who had scant regard for Catholicism (though the Huguenots tried him sorely), and none at all for Spain; but who said, in his balanced, impersonal way, that Philip’s finer qualities, his patience, piety, fortitude, and single-mindedness, were all alike ‘lost on the vulgar.’
Lucrezia Borgia is less available for our purpose, because the imaginary Lucrezia, though not precisely beloved, is more popular in her way than the real Lucrezia could ever hope to be. ' In the matter of pleasantness,’ says Lucian, ‘truth is far surpassed by falsehood’; and never has it been more agreeably overshadowed than in this fragment of Italian history. We really could not bear to lose the Lucrezia of romance. She has done fatigue duty along every line of iniquity. She has specialized in all of the seven deadly sins. On Rossetti’s canvas, in Donizetti’s opera, in Victor Hugo’s play, in countless poems and stories and novels, she has erred exhaustively for our entertainment. The idea of an attractive young woman poisoning her supper guests is one which the world will not lightly let go.
And what is offered in return? Only the dull statements of people who chanced to know the lady, and who considered her a model wife and duchess, a little over-anxious about the education of her numerous children, but kind to the poor, generous to artists, and pitiful to Jews. ‘She is graceful, modest, lovable, decorous, and devout,’ wrote Johannes Lucas from Rome to Ercole, the old Duke of Ferrara. ‘She is beautiful and good, gentle and amiable,’ echoed the Chevalier Bayard years later. Were we less avid for thrills, we might like to think of this young creature, snatched at twenty-one from the maelstrom of Rome, where she had been a pawn in the game of politics, and placed in a secure and splendid home. The Lucrezia of romance would have found the court of Ferrara intolerably dull. The Lucrezia of history took to dullness as a duck to water. She was a sensible, rather than a brilliant woman, fully alive to the duties and dignities of her position, and well aware that respectability is a strong card to play in a vastly disreputable world.
There was a time when Robespierre and Marat made a high bid for unpopularity. Even those who clearly understood the rehabilitation of man in the French Revolution found little to say for its chosen instruments, whose purposes were high, but whose methods were open to reproach. Of late, however, a certain weariness has been observable in men’s minds when these reformers are in question, a reluctance to expand with any emotion where they are concerned. M. Lauzanne is, indeed, by way of thinking that the elemental Clemenceau closely resembles the elemental Robespierre; but this is not a serious valuation; it is letting picturesqueness run away with reason — a habit incidental to editorship.
The thoroughly modern point of view is that Robespierre and Marat were ineffective — not without ability in their respective lines, but unfitted for the parts they played. Marat’s turn of mind was scientific (our own Benjamin Franklin found him full of promise). Robespierre’s turn of mind was legal; he would have made an acute and successful lawyer. The Revolution came along and ruined both these lives, for which we are expected to be sorry. M. Lauzanne does not go so far as to say that the great war ruined Clemenceau’s life. The ‘Tiger’ was seventy-three when the Germans marched into Belgium. Had he been content to spend all his years teaching in a girls’ school, he might (though I am none too sure of it) have been a gentler and a better man. But France was surely worth the price he paid. A lifeboat is not expected to have the graceful lines of a gondola.
‘Almost everybody,’ says Stevenson, ‘can understand and sympathize with an admiral, or a prize-fighter’; which genial sentiment is less contagious now than when it was uttered, thirty years ago. A new type of admiral has presented itself to the troubled consciousness of men, a type unknown to Nelson, unsuspected by Farragut, unsung by Newbolt. In robbing the word of its ancient glory, Tirpitz has robbed us of an emotion we can ill afford to lose. ‘The traditions of sailors,’ says Mr. Shane Leslie, ‘have been untouched by the lowering of ideals which has invaded every other class and profession.’ The truth of his words was brought home to readers by the behavior of the British merchant marine, peaceful, poorly paid men, who in the years of peril went out unflinchingly, and as a matter of course, to meet ‘their duty and their death.’ Many and varied are the transgressions of seafaring men; but we have hitherto been able to believe them sound in their nobler parts. We should like to cherish this simple faith, and, though alienated from prize-fighters by the narrowness of our civic and social code, to retain our sympathy for admirals. It cannot be that their fair fame will be forever smirched by the tactics of a man who ruined the government he served.
The function of criticism is presumably to clear our mental horizon, to get us within close range of the criticized. It recognizes moral as well as intellectual issues; but it differentiates them. When Emerson said, ‘Goethe can never be dear to men. His is not even the devotion to pure truth, but to truth for the sake of culture,’ he implied that truth, besides being a better thing than culture, was also a more lovable thing, which is not the case. It takes temerity to love Goethe; but there are always men — young, keen, speculative, beautyloving men, — to whom he is inexpressibly clear because of the vistas he opens, the thoughts he releases, the ‘inward freedom’ which is all he claimed to give. It takes no less temerity to love Emerson, and he meant that it should be so, that we should climb high to reach him. He is not lovable as Lamb is lovable, and he would not have wanted to be. A man who all his life repelled unwelcome intimacies had no desire to surrender his memory to the affection of every idle reader.
It is such a sure thing to appeal from intelligence to conscience, from the trouble involved in understanding to the ease with which judgment is passed, that critics may be pardoned their frequent transcursions. Yet problems of conduct are just as puzzling as problems of intellect. That is why Mr. Stevenson pronounced a sneaking kindness to be ‘instructive.’ He offered it as a road to knowledge rather than as a means of enjoyment. Not that he was unaware of the pleasures which follow in its wake. He knew the world up and down well enough to be thankful that he had never lost his taste for bad company.