Most men who with some earnestness of mind examine into the mysteries of our social state will perhaps pass through that stage of self-education in which this Novel was composed. The contrast between conventional frauds, received as component parts of the great system of civilization, and the less deceptive invasions of the laws which discriminate the meum from the tuum, is tempting to a satire that is not without its justice. The tragic truths which lie hid in what I may call the Philosophy of Circumstance strike through our philanthropy upon our imagination. We see masses of our fellow-creatures the victims of circumstances over which they had no control — contaminated in infancy by the example of parents, their intelligence either extinguished or turned against them, according as the conscience is stifled in ignorance or perverted to apologies for vice. A child who is cradled in ignominy, whose schoolmaster is the felon, whose academy is the House of Correction — who breathes an atmosphere in which virtue is poisoned, to which religion does not pierce — becomes less a responsible and reasoning human being than a wild beast which we suffer to range in the wilderness, till it prowls near our homes, and we kill it in self-defence.
In this respect the Novel of “Paul Clifford” is a loud cry to society to amend the circumstance — to redeem the victim. It is an appeal from Humanity to Law. And in this, if it could not pretend to influence or guide the temper of the times, it was at least a foresign of a coming change. Between the literature of imagination, and the practical interests of a people, there is a harmony as complete as it is mysterious. The heart of an author is the mirror of his age. The shadow of the sun is cast on the still surface of literature long before the light penetrates to law; but it is ever from the sun that the shadow falls, and the moment we see the shadow we may be certain of the light.
Since this work was written, society has been busy with the evils in which it was then silently acquiescent. The true movement of the last fifteen years has been the progress of one idea — Social Reform. There it advances with steady and noiseless march behind every louder question of constitutional change. Let us do justice to our time. There have been periods of more brilliant action on the destinies of States, but there is no time visible in History in which there was so earnest and general a desire to improve the condition of the great body of the people. In every circle of the community that healthful desire is astir. It unites in one object men of parties the most opposed; it affords the most attractive nucleus for public meetings; it has cleansed the statute-book from blood; it is ridding the world of the hangman. It animates the clergy of all sects in the remotest districts; it sets the squire on improving cottages and parcelling out allotments. Schools rise in every village; in books the lightest, the Grand Idea colours the page, and bequeaths the moral. The Government alone (despite the professions on which the present Ministry was founded) remains unpenetrated by the common genius of the age; but on that question, with all the subtleties it involves, and the experiments it demands — not indeed according to the dreams of an insane philosophy, but according to the immutable laws which proportion the rewards of labour to the respect for property — a Government must be formed at last.
There is in this work a subtler question suggested, but not solved — that question which perplexes us in the generous ardour of our early youth — which, unsatisfactory as all metaphysics, we rather escape from than decide as we advance in years; namely, make what laws we please, the man who lives within the pale can be as bad as the man without. Compare the Paul Clifford of the fiction with the William Brandon — the hunted son with the honoured father, the outcast of the law with the dispenser of the law, the felon with the judge; and as at the last they front each other — one on the seat of justice, the other at the convict’s bar — who can lay his hand on his heart and say that the Paul Clifford is a worse man than the William Brandon.
There is no immorality in a truth that enforces this question; for it is precisely those offences which society cannot interfere with that society requires fiction to expose. Society is right, though youth is reluctant to acknowledge it. Society can form only certain regulations necessary for its self-defence — the fewer the better — punish those who invade, leave unquestioned those who respect them. But fiction follows truth into all the strongholds of convention; strikes through the disguise, lifts the mask, bares the heart, and leaves a moral wherever it brands a falsehood.
Out of this range of ideas the mind of the Author has, perhaps, emerged into an atmosphere which he believes to be more congenial to Art. But he can no more regret that he has passed through it than he can regret that while he dwelt there his heart, like his years, was young. Sympathy with the suffering that seems most actual, indignation at the frauds which seem most received as virtues, are the natural emotions of youth, if earnest. More sensible afterwards of the prerogatives, as of the elements, of Art, the Author, at least, seeks to escape where the man may not, and look on the practical world through the serener one of the ideal.
With the completion of this work closed an era in the writer’s self-education. From “Pelham” to “Paul Clifford” (four fictions, all written at a very early age), the Author rather observes than imagines; rather deals with the ordinary surface of human life than attempts, however humbly, to soar above it or to dive beneath. From depicting in “Paul Clifford” the errors of society, it was almost the natural progress of reflection to pass to those which swell to crime in the solitary human heart — from the bold and open evils that spring from ignorance and example, to track those that lie coiled in the entanglements of refining knowledge and speculative pride. Looking back at this distance of years, I can see as clearly as if mapped before me, the paths which led across the boundary of invention from “Paul Clifford” to “Eugene Aram.” And, that last work done, no less clearly can I see where the first gleams from a fairer fancy broke upon my way, and rested on those more ideal images which I sought with a feeble hand to transfer to the “Pilgrims of the Rhine” and the “Last Days of Pompeii.” We authors, like the Children in the Fable, track our journey through the maze by the pebbles which we strew along the path. From others who wander after us, they may attract no notice, or, if noticed, seem to them but scattered by the caprice of chance; but we, when our memory would retrace our steps, review in the humble stones the witnesses of our progress, the landmarks of our way.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51