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For JANUARY, 1820.
ART. I. Anastasius; or Memoirs of a Greek, written at the
Close of the Eighteenth Century. Crown 8vo. 3 Vols. il. 118.6d.
Boards. Murray. . 1819. “AS
s the active world,” says Lord Bacon, “is inferior to
the rational mind, so fiction gives to man that which history withholds; and in some sort satisfies the soul with shadows of things, of which it cafinot obtain the substance. For, on a slight inspection, fiction strongly shews a greater diversity of things, a more perfect order, and a more beautiful variety, than can any where be found in nature, to be pleasing to the mind. As real history gives us not the success of things according to the deserts of vice and virtue, fiction corrects it, and displays to us the fates and fortunes of persons rewarded or punished according to their merit; — and, as real history disgusts us with a familiar and constant similitude of things, fiction relieves us by unexpected turns and changes, and thus not only delights but at the same time inspires morality and nobleness of soul. It raises the mind by accommodating the images of things to our desires, and not; like history and reason, subjecting the mind to things." (De Augment. Sci.
From the influence of reasons of this kind, the appetite for fiction derives the wide scope and potent influence which we see it possess. Arising primarily from that curiosity which is one of our first and simplest emotions, it is perpetually sending us in quest of all that is new and interesting. It fascinates, indeed, our infancy: but it is our charm and solace as we advance in years; for, though the position may seem strange, it has undoubtedly the strongest hold at that period of our lives, in which the ceaseless recurrence of stale pursuits, worn-out pleasures, and familiar objects, begins first to fatigue us. In our early years, like the fields refreshed with the dews and gladdened with the beams of the morning, every obsect wears the gloss of an unsullied newness, and fills us with delight: any event which is new to us breathes the very soul of romance; and, as each successive page of our VOL. XCI.
existence unfolds itself, it is brightened with the charms of fiction. A principle in education has taught us to receive as an axiom, that fabled and romantic incidents have the greatest prevalence over the affections of childhood: but, in making this rule, we overlook the almost obvious truth that the events of real history, if represented to young minds in language not above their faculties, would still more strongly attract them. Yet the fact is as indisputable as any that are connected with the phænomena of our nature. No fictitious distress, or imaginary change of fortune, affects us in our young days more powerfully than the real events recorded by history, such as the fall of Macedon, and the adversities of Demetrius and Pyrrhus: for it is then that the actual and the historic world are almost equally new to us. The curtain, as it were, has been but just lifted up, to shew us the gay and shifting scenes of the one as they actually glide before us, or the dazzling and heroic figures of the other as they are reHected in the pure mirror of narration.
Time, however, that chills our other pleasures, lays also his deadening hand on this. When our curiosity has run the whole circle of reality, when the variety of nature is exhausted, and when even history itself ceases to be more than a dull chain of analogies to all that experience has been satiated with observing, then comes on us what Sir Thomas Brown calls “ the weariness of actual things :" we grow impatient of uniformity; and we sigh for a wider range, in the same manner as we wish to stray beyond the level walks and trimmed hedges of our gardens, into the wilder varieties and less familiar tracks of the country. Society, as it exists around us, tires us with a catalogue of every-day remarks, every-day incidents, every-day virtues and vices. We begin to be less moved even with history; chiefly because we are acquainted with its leading facts; sometimes because the scenes and actors of history, “high actions and high passions best describing," are too far removed from our sympathies; and most generally because it awakens sentiments which our own view of our nature and its ills has too frequently suggested, and our own participation in them has too mournfully impressed.
When this impatience, too incident even to those who are the most endued with the gifts of fortune, and to whom all that surrounds them apparently suggests complacent reflections, creates a lassitude and a weariness which become, from whatever causes, a painful and overwhelming sense of reality, - it is then that the escape into a world of fiction has a redoubled delight; a delight differing rather in degree than in quality from that which was felt by afflicted humanity, when
it shadowed out its first faint sketches of a more perfect state of being. Hence it is that in all countries, but particularly in those in which the natural lots of man is embittered by the adventitious evils of oppression and tyranny, a sort of imaginary life in tales and apophthegms has been the refuge of wearied feelings. Not that even in this ideal world much is not to be endured, or that the human beings who move in it are exempted from the evils which are part of their birthright in real life, but they are not our own evils.
We are for once merely spectators of suffering. “ It is pleasant,” says Lucretius, “ to behold from the shore the ocean tossed into tempests: not because it is pleasing to view the perils and struggles of others, but because we are ourselves free from the dangers which we contemplate.” We must add, too, that retribution has in general a more visible connection with crime, and compensation with suffering, than in the natural order: that the costume in which Fiction dresses up her events and her characters is more imposing; and that the virtues, which in daily life are clipped into a dull conformity, and pulled down from their aspirings by fashion and usage, are here unchecked in their career. Thus the world of imagination is an improved and repaired state of existence.
An incidental remark has escaped us, that fictitious narrative was the solace of man when his condition was embittered by oppression; and the origin of romance-writing bears attestation to the fact. Tales that charmed away the of present or impending misery were the first literature of the East; and in that region the life and enjoyments of man have been, from the earliest periods, the play-things of despotic caprice. The gloom of civil insecurity, and the dread of uncertain evils, inseparable from such a state, required the oblivious antidote of an amusing narrator; as the old woman in Apuleius drives off, by her Milesian fables, the alarms and sorrows of the person who was confined in the cave of the robbers. The fables of Pilpay, the first narratives of the East, and those beautiful romances, lineally descended from them, which are called “ The Arabian Nights,” are in their original forms the oldest fictions of the world.
Yet it is not merely because it whiles away the monotony of life, or dissipates its glooms, that this enchanting literature claims our gratitude. From its hold on the mind, powerful hands may form into a vast engine of moral reformation, and of general instruction, a mode of writing which comprises in so fascinating a shape nearly the whole of what we are required to do or fated to suffer. In course, our remark does not comprehend the sentimental millinery of the circulating
libraries, but is applicable only to those fictions which have a rightful place in the literature of a country, as being interesting views of general or local life, and faithful portraits of universal or particular manners; and which enter into alliance with the lessons of philosophy, and the precepts of morality, for the joint purpose of elevating and improving our natures. When this salutary end is attained, they have another and not an ignobleoffice. They pass down to future times as monuments of manners, and registers of opinions, and thus become no unimportant auxiliaries to the history of man. What work, for instance, is a more exact picture of the customs and personages of the sixteenth century, or contains more anecdotes of an age fertile in great counsels and interesting events, than the Novelle of Bondello ? and do not the Clarissa and Grandison of our own country begin already to be valuable as portraitures of the buckram gallantry and elaborate politeness of our fathers, who lived in the first part of the eighteenth century?
The work, which is the subject of our present article, belongs to a class that has a still superior title to merit. Of the manners and humours of our own island, we are daily spectators: but the author of this fiction *, to whom a very important branch of antient literature is indebted for much elegant illustration and useful knowlege, has, under the veil of an interesting romance, introduced us to a kind of panoramic spectacle of regions till lately but little known and rarely visited. It is obvious, also, that he has embodied into it the result of his own travels and observations in those countries; which are interesting to us in so many respects, but especially as they may be said to be peopled with recollections derived from the most delightful portions of antient history, and to hang about our fancies with that part of our youthful reading which lingers the latest in our memories; countries the most smiling in the habitable world, and the seats of early civility, freedom, and luxury: but which, as if to humble the pride of natural greatness, are now paying usurious retribution for their former glory in the lowest prostration and debasement of nations. The plan, indeed, is not original, but has been beautifully finished by Xenophon in his Cyropædeia, partially executed by Madame de Staël in her fascinating Corinne, and, in a more developed form, with the difference of the scenes being laid in antient history and the disadvantage of not being the fruit of living observation,
* It is said to be the production of Mr. Thomas Hope, author of the Costume of the Antients, &c.
in the Athenian Letters * and the travels of the younger Anacharsis. Anastasius, though occasionally prolix and sometimes unnecessarily verbose, is a work of felicitous execution. No specific moral lesson is to be extracted from it: but, independently of the fiction, it presents us with a series of moving pictures of customs and manners, in a part of the world which has supplied much food to modern curiosity, and must always afford abundant materials for reflection. It gives us also various historical and biographical notices, which breathe the very air of authenticity ; although, with a deference in which we do not participate, to the turbaned personages who figure in the crooked politics of the Porte, they are brought before us under the disguise of fictitious names.
In his minor adventures, Anastasius is a sort of oriental Gil Blas. He is involved in the endless perplexities, and entangled in the maze of contradictory adventures, which marked the life of the Spanish libertine; with one feature of distinction, that, instead of the ductile ingenuousness and almost harmless aberrations of the scholar of Salamanca, the Greek is a monster unredeemed by a single virtue; false in friendship, treacherous in love, dead to the charities of kindred, rapacious of the property of others, and prodigal of his own. He excites no sympathy, for he deserves none; and even the solitary merit of the frankness with which he confesses, the work being conducted in the first person, is more than counterbalanced by the blackness of the crimes which he perpetrates, and the hardness of heart which steels him to their consequences. The occasional homage, which he pays to virtue, is not fostered by the warmth of kindly feeling, but is reluctantly extorted from him by the penalties of his misconduct : while the stiletto and the poignard are the almost constant instruments with which his ambition and selfishness perform their daily work, and earn their daily bread. Born a Christian, at least a member of the gorgeous and theatrical communion of the Greeks, he wears his faith, while it suits his convenience, as a garment which sits well upon him, from habit rather than conviction : but, when it encumbers his march in
progress of his enormities, he throws it off, with a callous indifference concerning the consolations which it imparts or the doctrines which it inculcates. Islamism happens to be a stepping-stone to preferment; and he hesitates not to repudiate the religion of his fathers and his country, without a compunctious visiting to interpose one doubt against the un
* By Lord Hardwicke, his brother, Mr. Yorke, and other contributors, about the year 1756.