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as much an ally and prop of the aristocracy, a tool and pander of selfish interests as the church. The real and pretended descendents of the Norman conquerors have successfully hidden the characters and conduct of the men whose blood they boast. The true tale of the Conquest remains to be told. Surely the contrasts between the pretences and the practices of chivalry, the professions and the procedure of medieval popery, -the magnificent ceremonials and vulgar meannesses of royalty, abound with noblest subjects for the pencil of caricature. Satire as powerful as ever, Hogarth or Gillray, or Cruickshank, embodied in ludicrous pictures of the personages and manners of the day, would scarcely approach the demands of a fair and adequate satirical representation of the conquest, the chivalry, the church, the royalty of England. Were Mr. Leech possessed of a knowledge of English history at all correspondent with his knowledge of the politics of the day, he would be the very man to render this great service to truth, justice, and progress.
The advice of critics is seldom well taken; but impelled by respect for his talents and earnestness, we shall venture to bestow our advice on him. We submit that he has not formed a high enough conception of what his comic illustrations of English history might be. He does not avail himself of the great privilege of the caricaturist to be more true than the historical or portrait painter. His portraits of persons, his sketches of localities, of houses, scenes, and events, ought all to be based on the truest information he can obtain, the most authentic materials, the best testimonies. We should deem him a benefactor to letters were he to cause to be copied and reproduced some of the best of the grotesque and historical caricatures which are to be found in the British Museum and the Bibliotheque Royale. They are full of the past. They are suggestive of valuable ideas. Historical meanings of the past are to be seen in them, for they are parts of the past. In them the satirical passions of the dead are still alive. While recommending fidelity to the facts of history we are only inviting Mr. Leech to a worthier exercise than he makes at present of his gifts of imagination and intellect. Let him present us with the true Knight of Chivalry, as he was a splendid figure in the tournament and a squalid hound to his royal master. Let him show the lofty ceremonials and the low life of courts. In the monasteries set up as institutions of penitence let him exhibit the resemblance to the modern clubs, having often one identical central ideathe cuisine. Let him paint the confessional as a shrine of Venus. Coming down to the days of the Stuarts let our caricaturist display how royalty, triumphant over the aristocracy, the church, and the people, came to believe itself divine.
Let him depict how Royalism in the person of the first James, appears in the character of Sacred Majesty, tyrannical and tipsy. The royal martyr was a finer Pecksniff than Dickens could conceive. A court as beautiful and witty as that of either the second James or Charles could be furnished from off the pavement of Regentstreet any evening, identical in honour, principles, purposes, and spirit. And in the courts of the Georges the same morale prevailed, only in a stupefied condition. Undoubtedly there is a crying want of a comic and satiric artist to display all in the forms and colours of irresistible caricature. If imposture, crowned, coronetted, mitred, — imposture flaring in pictured coaches, affronting God, man, and eternity, right, truth, and goodness, be legitimate subjects for the caricaturist, a genius in his art may win the greatest fame and render the greatest services on the field of the 'Comic History of England.'
Of Mr. Gilbert A'Beckett's part of the work we can speak in terms of much praise. He is doing it well. He does not distort the facts of history for the sake of amusement. On the contrary, he presents the authentic and ascertained circumstances and events to his readers in a brief, lively, and elegant narrative. What he makes sport of is the fiction, and not the facts, of history. Fabulous incidents, glozing impostures, historical humbug, the fudge and not the facts of our antiquarians and chroniclers, are the things which he wraps up and preserves in puns and witticisms. Such a work was wanted. There is no history of England in existence which a wise father can place in the hands of his family with safety. Instead of wishing our children to regard the past through the spectacles of a Hume or a Clarendon, we should teach them to laugh at it all. To make scoundrelism seem splendid was the aim of both historians, and, as a consequence, to paint nobleness and sanctity in the colours of baseness and hypocrisy. The more closely his period is studied, and the more clearly its facts appear, the mendacity of Clarendon becomes manifest, conspicuous, and revolting. Long known to have been as remote from fact in his history as he was from faith in his creed, Hume is now-a-days celebrated by his apologists only as the writer of a brilliant historical fiction. Now, viewed in this light, we have small admiration for the work of Hume. It is a dull romance- -a prosy poem. Merits of style it undoubtedly possesses. Had not, however, grave authorities of church and state taught the last generation to believe it to be true, and the perusal of it therefore a duty, few would have travelled to the end of the long colonnade of pillars of polished ice of which the glittering and unsubstantial fabric is built. Hume was careful to erect only a monument to his own ingenuity. Hume saw not God in
history. In the ways of Providence there was nothing divine for him. The proverb tells us what to think of an undevout astronomer, and unquestionably a more favourable opinion is not to be formed of a godless historian.
To give a smattering of the history of their country to our children, the Comic is likely to be the best book to be had. There are two ways of treating a subject comically: a writer may display the fun there is in it, or he may joke about it. Mr. A'Beckett adopts the latter treatment. But in order to understand the peculiar characteristics of the wit and humour of our author, it is necessary to know what they are in themselves.
Laughter is caused by sudden collisions of ideas, or assemblages of ideas. When objects are represented with qualities the opposite of their own, the clash of the ideas and of the opposite feelings in the mind at the same instant produces the physical expression, laughter. It is the utterance of a sudden conflict of emotions. To illustrate this explanation: a smart little girl, brought up in the Presbyterian church, when she was taken to an Episcopalian church for the first time, saw, to her astonishment, a clergyman preaching in his surplice. She had often seen clergymen in the pulpit dressed in black, but never in white. As she was returning home, the phenomenon occupied her thoughts, and at last she said, 'Mamma, what a hurry that clergyman must have been in this morning to be obliged to preach in his night-shirt!' Here two opposite assemblages of ideas clash in all minds acquainted with the meanings and associations which cluster round those resembling, but different articles, the surplice and the night-shirt. This was not the case in the mind of the child. Brought up in ignorance of the priestly pretensions and superstitions of which the surplice is the symbol, she saw nothing but a night-shirt. In her mind there was no collision of ideas, and for her there was therefore no laughter. A young clergyman of our acquaintance is habitually blunt and honest in conversation. When examined for holy orders, the bishop asked him what his motives were for desiring ordination. Chiefly pecuniary, my lord,' was the prompt and truthful reply. This anecdote excites laughter by clashing the ideas proper, to the desire for ordination, with the improper ideas, which everybody knows are very often the real motives for seeking the holy office.
Puns are collisions of ideas produced by the different meanings of words and phrases. Mr. A'Beckett's wit uses for its tools words much more frequently than things. The laughter caused by the remark of the little girl comes out of the collision of a surplice with a night-shirt. The laughter caused by the
frank and veracious avowal of pecuniary motives by the candidate for ordination, springs out of the collision of reality with formality. The fun, humour, and laughter, have nothing to do with the words. But the wit of Mr. Gilbert A'Beckett plays chiefly on words. Of course, the very core of his book consists in clashing the splendid blazonry of the pretensions of royalty, feudalism, and priestcraft, against the real squalidness of their deeds and motives. But, apart from this general feature, Mr. A'Beckett chiefly treats his subject, and wars with the past, punically--to adopt a hoary and venerable pun, whose aged limbs have not yet brought it with sorrow to the grave.
No man ever despised puns who ever made a good one. There is no form of art into which genius may not, if it wills it, throw its own glorious qualities. The vile criticism which the Edinburgh reviewers taught, has now no adherents worthy of name or notice. The spirit, and not the form, is now the thing by which authors are judged. Strong enough to retard the renown of William Wordsworth, and prevent Thomas Hood from receiving on his living head the grateful chaplet which adorns his dead brow, the French-polish school has now-a-days happily ceased to be a living power in English literature. Dating from the restoration of Charles II., and hostile to nearly all that is simple, national, natural, true, and fresh, in the mental and moral life of the three kingdoms, this school of criticism has been, on the whole, a malign influence on thought and art. But the day of every dog goes down, King Charles's breed not excepted.
Nobody worth a rush will now object to a history of England in puns. Gilbert A'Beckett's puns are excellent. In playing upon words, we know of only one writer superior to himThomas Hood, the greatest of punsters, and one of the greatest poets of our age. Though he rivals, Mr. A'Beckett does not imitate Hood. Like Hood, he is not a mere punster, he is an elegant and forcible writer, and a true wit. His fancy sports successfully with ideas and things. Though the genius of Mr. A'Beckett occupies itself with slang phrases and colloquial humour, there is little in the book to offend the most fastidious taste. It is often marvellous to witness how skilfully, in dangerous localities, his refined taste saves him from coarseness and vulgarity. He dances his egg-dance with a precision and an ease which is quite astonishing; and, amidst all the capers and caprices of his fancy, not a single shell is chipped.
There is, however, an error of taste, which we would respectfully caution our author to avoid. He occasionally makes jokes on subjects on which jokes cannot be successfully made. Such jokes fail because the serious and grave feelings they excite pre
dominates over the light and frivolous emotions. Such jokes cause a shudder instead of a laugh. There is no clash or collision of emotions, because the painful feelings obtain and maintain an entire mastery over their opposites. A comic artist so practised and expert as Mr. A'Beckett, ought to have avoided this mistake from the mere instinct or experience of his art. We shall content ourselves with only one instance of this error: The Danes,' says our author, still continued the awful business of dyeing and scouring; for they scoured the country round, and dyed it with the blood of the inhabitants.' Mr. A'Beckett has indulged his habit of punning, until he has dulled his feeling of horror at the mention of ravage and bloodshed. There is no real inhumanity, but there is an apparent inhumanity in the obtuseness to the painful feeling which such a joke displays. With his attention devoted to the puns and jokes, he overlooks or scarcely feels the painful emotions. readers are just in the opposite state of mind. They have their attention all the more forcibly directed to the painful ideas by the failure of the attempt to make them laugh at them. They shudder first at the ideas, and next at the author who tries to make a joke of them. If of the class of readers who are quick to condemn, they mistake an error of habit, a mere mistake in the use of words, for actual and positive and practical obtuseness of heart. More judicious readers, judging more correctly, see that the author has carried his facetiousness too far. A critical reader must condemn the error as a blunder in art. No reader of this book can suspect Mr. A'Beckett, whose feelings are strong and decided against oppression and injustice of any real inhumanity, any practical obtuseness to human suffering, any sympathy with the shedders of blood.
The first four numbers of the Comic History of England' bring the narrative down from the earliest times to the death of Henry III. Authentic history commences with the invasion of Julius Cæsar. We are therefore presented with a sketch of the great Roman general, attended by his guards, at an oyster stall, looking for the pearls for which Britain was formerly celebrated.'
Cæsar, who might have been so called from his readiness to seize upon every thing, now turned his eyes and directed his arms upon Britain. According to some, he was tempted by the expectation of finding pearls, which he hoped to get out of the oysters, and he therefore broke in upon the natives with considerable energy. Whatever may have been Caesar's motives, the fact is pretty well ascertained, that about ten o'clock one fine morning in August-some say a quarter past-he reached the British coast with 12,000 infantry,