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Chapter 7: “a very moral and nice book”

It was once the good-fortune of the present writer to read, in the Island of Fayal, a letter just written by a young lady of Portuguese-English birth who had been reading the New Testament for the first time. It was worth while to see such a letter, for many persons must have felt, first or last, with Thoreau, that it would be a delightful thing for any one to encounter those wonderful narratives as a fresh discovery, in maturer years, apart from all the too familiar associations of Sunday-school and sermon. Such was, at any rate, this young lady's experience, and her statement of the result was at least a little astonishing. She wrote, in her half-foreign English, to an American friend in these words: “Did you ever happen to read a book called the New Testament? If not, I advise you to do so. I have just been reading it one of [56] these days, and I find it a very moral and nice book.”

It is not given to a veteran author like Mr. Andrew Lang to afford his readers many experiences of an engaging frankness like this; yet he has come nearer to it than might have been expected. It seems that, he having rashly undertaken the enterprise of editing the novels of Sir Walter Scott, it occurred to him very properly that it might be well to read them; and as The Betrothed happened to be next on the list, he has just read that for the first time, and thinks well of it. The feat itself is perhaps not so very extraordinary. On inquiry at a large public library, it appears that there are very few American children of tolerably intelligent families who have not accomplished the same enterprise by the age of fourteen. At any rate, the editor of the new edition of Scott's novels has achieved it, and is prepared to pronounce, of his own knowledge, that he finds The Betrothed to be a very moral and nice book. Now we get used in this country, and, indeed, in the English-speaking world, to very curious limitations of what is called culture. Mr. Smalley describes an English lady “of great social position” who had never heard of Matthew [57] Arnold until the time when his death was announced. When the present writer inquired of the late Mr. Froude, twenty years ago, about his neighbor in London, the late Kenelm H. Digby, author of that delightful book The Broad Stone of Honor, the historian proved never to have heard of either the man or the book. A friend of mine, visiting Stoke Pogis last year, had pointed out to her by the verger the grave of “the American poet, Thomas Gray.” A young English girl of eighteen, just arrived in this country, and looking at the name of Thackeray on my book-shelf, remarked, “He is one of your American novelists, is he not?” And a well-known Canadian statesman told me that a London maiden had just made to him a similar remark about Tennyson. Yet the least probable of these anecdotes, or the joint improbability of all put together, is brought within the domain of reasonable credibility by the announcement that Mr. Lang is just reading the Waverley Novels, or any one of them, for the first time.

For this author, it must be remembered, is proud to proclaim himself a child of the Tweed; and though his severest foes, like Mr.

Robert Buchanan, may pronounce him “a [58] cockney of cockneys,” they are compelled to admit in the same breath that he is a Scotchman. Now if to be a Scotchman is not to be brought up on the Waverley Novels, to have drunk them in, every one of them, with one's early breath, what is the advantage in having been a child of the Tweed at all? One might as well have been born an Australian, or even an American. Even these humbler beings can at least read Scott. The present writer counts it among the joys of his life that he remembers the actual birth of the last two novels of the great series; and that he stoutly declared, with the omnivorous appetite of boyhood, that Count Robert of Paris, and even Castie Dangerous, were as delightful as all their predecessors. He would have walked ten miles gladly — and so would any of his companions — to reach some blissful spot where there was to be found a Waverley Novel (as, for instance, The Betrothed) still unread. What an embarras des richesses must have surrounded Mr. Andrew Lang, that he should have lived fifty years in the world and only just bethought himself of reading this book for the first time! It is fortunate that he now kindly pronounces it to be, in some respects, “noble and moving” ; in fact, “a moral and nice book.” [59]

What enhances the zest of the affair is that, while Mr. Lang thus leaves his Scott thus insufficiently read, he yet holds his neighbor of the Tweed as a rod over the head of any luckless modern writer who dares to criticise him. Mr. Howells cannot so much as venture the remark that good Sir Walter's opening chapter of genealogy is sometimes a little long-winded, and that it may be permissible to begin with Chapter Second, but he rouses Mr. Lang's utmost indignation. Mr. Haggard cannot be classed as a dime novelist without protests of amazement and assurances that he is the lineal successor of Scott, and that to have left unread a single story of Haggard's is to have fallen short of the highest culture. Omit, if you will, the

Widowed wife and wedded maid,
Betrothed, betrayer, and betrayed,

but read every word about She-if the phrase be not ungrammatical-or you are lost. It is painful, but really Mr. Lang's confessions recall the case of that New England bookseller in a small town who recently informed an inquirer that he had never heard of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, but that he was probably the husband of Mrs. Mary J. Holmes, who wrote such lovely novels.


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