Yeast: a Problem, by Charles Kingsley


I can foresee many criticisms, and those not unreasonable ones, on this little book — let it be some excuse at least for me, that I have foreseen them. Readers will complain, I doubt not, of the very mythical and mysterious denouement of a story which began by things so gross and palpable as field-sports and pauperism. But is it not true that, sooner or later, ‘omnia exeunt in mysterium’? Out of mystery we all came at our birth, fox-hunters and paupers, sages and saints; into mystery we shall all return . . . at all events, when we die; probably, as it seems to me, some of us will return thither before we die. For if the signs of the times mean anything, they portend, I humbly submit, a somewhat mysterious and mythical denouement to this very age, and to those struggles of it which I have herein attempted, clumsily enough, to sketch. We are entering fast, I both hope and fear, into the region of prodigy, true and false; and our great-grandchildren will look back on the latter half of this century, and ask, if it were possible that such things could happen in an organised planet? The Benthamites will receive this announcement, if it ever meets their eyes, with shouts of laughter. Be it so . . . nous verrons . . . In the year 1847, if they will recollect, they were congratulating themselves on the nations having grown too wise to go to war any more . . . and in 1848? So it has been from the beginning. What did philosophers expect in 1792? What did they see in 1793? Popery was to be eternal: but the Reformation came nevertheless. Rome was to be eternal: but Alaric came. Jerusalem was to be eternal: but Titus came. Gomorrha was to be eternal, I doubt not; but the fire-floods came. . . . ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating, drinking, marrying, and giving in marriage; and the flood came and swept them all away.’ Of course they did not expect it. They went on saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For all things continue as they were from the beginning.’ Most true; but what if they were from the beginning — over a volcano’s mouth? What if the method whereon things have proceeded since the creation were, as geology as well as history proclaims, a cataclysmic method? What then? Why should not this age, as all others like it have done, end in a cataclysm, and a prodigy, and a mystery? And why should not my little book do likewise?

Again — Readers will probably complain of the fragmentary and unconnected form of the book. Let them first be sure that that is not an integral feature of the subject itself, and therefore the very form the book should take. Do not young men think, speak, act, just now, in this very incoherent, fragmentary way; without methodic education or habits of thought; with the various stereotyped systems which they have received by tradition, breaking up under them like ice in a thaw; with a thousand facts and notions, which they know not how to classify, pouring in on them like a flood? — a very Yeasty state of mind altogether, like a mountain burn in a spring rain, carrying down with it stones, sticks, peat-water, addle grouse-eggs and drowned kingfishers, fertilising salts and vegetable poisons — not, alas! without a large crust, here and there, of sheer froth. Yet no heterogeneous confused flood-deposit, no fertile meadows below. And no high water, no fishing. It is in the long black droughts, when the water is foul from lowness, and not from height, that Hydras and Desmidiae, and Rotifers, and all uncouth pseud-organisms, bred of putridity, begin to multiply, and the fish are sick for want of a fresh, and the cunningest artificial fly is of no avail, and the shrewdest angler will do nothing — except with a gross fleshly gilt-tailed worm, or the cannibal bait of roe, whereby parent fishes, like competitive barbarisms, devour each other’s flesh and blood — perhaps their own. It is when the stream is clearing after a flood, that the fish will rise. . . . When will the flood clear, and the fish come on the feed again?

Next; I shall be blamed for having left untold the fate of those characters who have acted throughout as Lancelot’s satellites. But indeed their only purpose consisted in their influence on his development, and that of Tregarva; I do not see that we have any need to follow them farther. The reader can surely conjecture their history for himself. . . . He may be pretty certain that they have gone the way of the world . . . abierunt ad plures . . . for this life or for the next. They have done — very much what he or I might have done in their place — nothing. Nature brings very few of her children to perfection, in these days or any other. . . . And for Grace, which does bring its children to perfection, the quantity and quality of the perfection must depend on the quantity and quality of the grace, and that again, to an awful extent — The Giver only knows to how great an extent — on the will of the recipients, and therefore in exact proportion to their lowness in the human scale, on the circumstances which environ them. So my characters are now — very much what the reader might expect them to be. I confess them to be unsatisfactory; so are most things: but how can I solve problems which fact has not yet solved for me? How am I to extricate my antitypal characters, when their living types have not yet extricated themselves? When the age moves on, my story shall move on with it. Let it be enough, that my puppets have retreated in good order, and that I am willing to give to those readers who have conceived something of human interest for them, the latest accounts of their doings.

With the exception, that is, of Mellot and Sabina. Them I confess to be an utterly mysterious, fragmentary little couple. Why not? Do you not meet with twenty such in the course of your life? — Charming people, who for aught you know may be opera folk from Paris, or emissaries from the Czar, or disguised Jesuits, or disguised Angels . . . who evidently ‘have a history,’ and a strange one, which you never expect or attempt to fathom; who interest you intensely for a while, and then are whirled away again in the great world-waltz, and lost in the crowd for ever? Why should you wish my story to be more complete than theirs is, or less romantic than theirs may be? There are more things in London, as well as in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in our philosophy. If you but knew the secret history of that dull gentleman opposite whom you sat at dinner yesterday! — the real thoughts of that chattering girl whom you took down! —‘Omnia exeunt in mysterium,’ I say again. Every human being is a romance, a miracle to himself now; and will appear as one to all the world in That Day.

But now for the rest; and Squire Lavington first. He is a very fair sample of the fate of the British public; for he is dead and buried: and readers would not have me extricate him out of that situation. If you ask news of the reason and manner of his end, I can only answer, that like many others, he went out — as candles do. I believe he expressed general repentance for all his sins — all, at least, of which he was aware. To confess and repent of the state of the Whitford Priors estate, and of the poor thereon, was of course more than any minister, of any denomination whatsoever, could be required to demand of him; seeing that would have involved a recognition of those duties of property, of which the good old gentleman was to the last a staunch denier; and which are as yet seldom supposed to be included in any Christian creed, Catholic or other. Two sermons were preached in Whitford on the day of his funeral; one by Mr. O’Blareaway, on the text from Job, provided for such occasions; ‘When the ear heard him, then it blessed him,’ etc. etc.: the other by the Baptist preacher, on two verses of the forty-ninth Psalm —

‘They fancy that their houses shall endure for ever, and call the lands after their own names.

‘Yet man being in honour hath no understanding, but is compared to the beasts that perish.’

Waiving the good taste, which was probably on a par in both cases, the reader is left to decide which of the two texts was most applicable.

Mrs. Lavington is Mrs. Lavington no longer. She has married, to the astonishment of the world in general, that ‘excellent man,’ Mr. O’Blareaway, who has been discovered not to be quite as young as he appeared, his graces being principally owing to a Brutus wig, which he has now wisely discarded. Mrs. Lavington now sits in state under her husband’s ministry, as the leader of the religious world in the fashionable watering-place of Steamingbath, and derives her notions of the past, present, and future state of the universe principally from those two meek and unbiased periodicals, the Protestant Hue-and-Cry and the Christian Satirist, to both of which O’Blareaway is a constant contributor. She has taken such an aversion to Whitford since Argemone’s death, that she has ceased to have any connection with that unhealthy locality, beyond the popular and easy one of rent-receiving. O’Blareaway has never entered the parish to his knowledge since Mr. Lavington’s funeral; and was much pleased, the last time I rode with him, at my informing him that a certain picturesque moorland which he had been greatly admiring, was his own possession. . . . After all, he is ‘an excellent man;’ and when I met a large party at his house the other day, and beheld dory and surmullet, champagne and lachryma Christi, amid all the glory of the Whitford plate . . . (some of it said to have belonged to the altar of the Priory Church four hundred years ago), I was deeply moved by the impressive tone in which, at the end of a long grace, he prayed ‘that the daily bread of our less favoured brethren might be mercifully vouchsafed to them.’ . . . My dear readers, would you have me, even if I could, extricate him from such an Elysium by any denouement whatsoever?

Poor dear Luke, again, is said to be painting lean frescoes for the Something-or-other-Kirche at Munich; and the vicar, under the name of Father Stylites, of the order of St. Philumena, is preaching impassioned sermons to crowded congregations at St. George’s, Bedlam. How can I extricate them from that? No one has come forth of it yet, to my knowledge, except by paths whereof I shall use Lessing’s saying, ‘I may have my whole hand full of truth, and yet find good to open only my little finger.’ But who cares for their coming out? They are but two more added to the five hundred, at whose moral suicide, and dive into the Roman Avernus, a quasi-Protestant public looks on with a sort of savage satisfaction, crying only, ‘Didn’t we tell you so?’— and more than half hopes that they will not come back again, lest they should be discovered to have learnt anything while they were there. What are two among that five hundred? much more among the five thousand who seem destined shortly to follow them?

The banker, thanks to Barnakill’s assistance, is rapidly getting rich again — who would wish to stop him? However, he is wiser, on some points at least, than he was of yore. He has taken up the flax movement violently of late — perhaps owing to some hint of Barnakill’s — talks of nothing but Chevalier Claussen and Mr. Donellan, and is very anxious to advance capital to any landlord who will grow flax on Mr. Warnes’s method, either in England or Ireland. . . . John Bull, however, has not yet awakened sufficiently to listen to his overtures, but sits up in bed, dolefully rubbing his eyes, and bemoaning the evanishment of his protectionist dream — altogether realising tolerably, he and his land, Dr. Watts’ well-known moral song concerning the sluggard and his garden.

Lord Minchampstead again prospers. Either the nuns of Minchampstead have left no Nemesis behind them, like those of Whitford, or a certain wisdom and righteousness of his, however dim and imperfect, averts it for a time. So, as I said, he prospers, and is hated; especially by his farmers, to whom he has just offered long leases, and a sliding corn-rent. They would have hated him just the same if he had kept them at rack-rents; and he has not forgotten that; but they have. They looked shy at the leases, because they bind them to farm high, which they do not know how to do; and at the corn-rent, because they think that he expects wheat to rise again — which, being a sensible man, he very probably does. But for my story — I certainly do not see how to extricate him or any one else from farmers’ stupidity, greed, and ill-will. . . . That question must have seven years’ more free-trade to settle it, before I can say anything thereon. Still less can I foreshadow the fate of his eldest son, who has just been rusticated from Christ Church for riding one of Simmon’s hacks through a china-shop window; especially as the youth is reported to be given to piquette and strong liquors, and, like many noblemen’s eldest sons, is considered ‘not to have the talent of his father.’ As for the old lord himself, I have no wish to change or develop him in any way — except to cut slips off him, as you do off a willow, and plant two or three in every county in England. Let him alone to work out his own plot . . . we have not seen the end of it yet; but whatever it will be, England has need of him as a transition-stage between feudalism and * * * *; for many a day to come. If he be not the ideal landlord, he is nearer it than any we are like yet to see . . . .

Except one; and that, after all, is Lord Vieuxbois. Let him go on, like a gallant gentleman as he is, and prosper. And he will prosper, for he fears God, and God is with him. He has much to learn; and a little to unlearn. He has to learn that God is a living God now, as well as in the middle ages; to learn to trust not in antique precedents, but in eternal laws: to learn that his tenants, just because they are children of God, are not to be kept children, but developed and educated into sons; to learn that God’s grace, like His love, is free, and that His spirit bloweth where it listeth, and vindicates its own free-will against our narrow systems, by revealing, at times, even to nominal Heretics and Infidels, truths which the Catholic Church must humbly receive, as the message of Him who is wider, deeper, more tolerant, than even she can be . . . And he is in the way to learn all this. Let him go on. At what conclusions he will attain, he knows not, nor do I. But this I know, that he is on the path to great and true conclusions. . . . And he is just about to be married, too. That surely should teach him something. The papers inform me that his bride elect is Lord Minchampstead’s youngest daughter. That should be a noble mixture; there should be stalwart offspring, spiritual as well as physical, born of that intermarriage of the old and the new. We will hope it: perhaps some of my readers, who enter into my inner meaning, may also pray for it.

Whom have I to account for besides? Crawy — though some of my readers may consider the mention of him superfluous. But to those who do not, I may impart the news, that last month, in the union workhouse — he died; and may, for aught we know, have ere this met Squire Lavington . . . He is supposed, or at least said, to have had a soul to be saved . . . as I think, a body to be saved also. But what is one more among so many? And in an over-peopled country like this, too. . . . One must learn to look at things — and paupers — in the mass.

The poor of Whitford also? My dear readers, I trust you will not ask me just now to draw the horoscope of the Whitford poor, or of any others. Really that depends principally on yourselves. . . . But for the present, the poor of Whitford, owing, as it seems to them and me, to quite other causes than an ‘overstocked labour-market,’ or too rapid ‘multiplication of their species,’ are growing more profligate, reckless, pauperised, year by year. O’Blareaway complained sadly to me the other day that the poor-rates were becoming ‘heavier and heavier’— had nearly reached, indeed, what they were under the old law . . . .

But there is one who does not complain, but gives and gives, and stints herself to give, and weeps in silence and unseen over the evils which she has yearly less and less power to stem.

For in a darkened chamber of the fine house at Steamingbath, lies on a sofa Honoria Lavington — beautiful no more; the victim of some mysterious and agonising disease, about which the physicians agree on one point only — that it is hopeless. The ‘curse of the Lavingtons’ is on her; and she bears it. There she lies, and prays, and reads, and arranges her charities, and writes little books for children, full of the Beloved Name which is for ever on her lips. She suffers — none but herself knows how much, or how strangely — yet she is never heard to sigh. She weeps in secret — she has long ceased to plead — for others, not for herself; and prays for them too — perhaps some day her prayers will yet he answered. But she greets all visitors with a smile fresh from heaven; and all who enter that room leave it saddened, and yet happy, like those who have lingered a moment at the gates of paradise, and seen angels ascending and descending upon earth. There she lies — who could wish her otherwise? Even Doctor Autotheus Maresnest, the celebrated mesmeriser, who, though he laughs at the Resurrection of the Lord, is confidently reported to have raised more than one corpse to life himself, was heard to say, after having attended her professionally, that her waking bliss and peace, although unfortunately unattributable even to autocatalepsy, much less to somnambulist exaltation, was on the whole, however unscientific, almost as enviable.

There she lies — and will lie till she dies — the type of thousands more, ‘the martyrs by the pang without the palm,’ who find no mates in this life . . . and yet may find them in the life to come., . . Poor Paul Tregarva! Little he fancies how her days run by! . . .

At least, there has been no news since that last scene in St. Paul’s Cathedral, either of him or Lancelot. How their strange teacher has fulfilled his promise of guiding their education; whether they have yet reached the country of Prester John; whether, indeed, that Caucasian Utopia has a local and bodily existence, or was only used by Barnakill to shadow out that Ideal which is, as he said of the Garden of Eden, always near us, underlying the Actual, as the spirit does its body, exhibiting itself step by step through all the falsehoods and confusions of history and society, giving life to all in it which is not falsehood and decay; on all these questions I can give my readers no sort of answer; perhaps I may as yet have no answer to give; perhaps I may be afraid of giving one; perhaps the times themselves are giving, at once cheerfully and sadly, in strange destructions and strange births, a better answer than I can give. I have set forth, as far as in me lay, the data of my problem: and surely, if the premises be given, wise men will not have to look far for the conclusion. In homely English I have given my readers Yeast; if they be what I take them for, they will be able to bake with it themselves.

And yet I have brought Lancelot, at least — perhaps Tregarva too — to a conclusion, and an all-important one, which whoso reads may find fairly printed in these pages. Henceforth his life must begin anew. Were I to carry on the thread of his story continuously he would still seem to have overleaped as vast a gulf as if I had reintroduced him as a gray-haired man. Strange! that the death of one of the lovers should seem no complete termination to their history, when their marriage would have been accepted by all as the legitimate denouement, beyond which no information was to be expected. As if the history of love always ended at the altar! Oftener it only begins there; and all before it is but a mere longing to love. Why should readers complain of being refused the future history of one life, when they are in most novels cut short by the marriage finale from the biography of two?

But if, over and above this, any reader should be wroth at my having left Lancelot’s history unfinished on questions in his opinion more important than that of love, let me entreat him to set manfully about finishing his own history — a far more important one to him than Lancelot’s. If he shall complain that doubts are raised for which no solution is given, that my hero is brought into contradictory beliefs without present means of bringing them to accord, into passive acquiescence in vast truths without seeing any possibility of practically applying them — let him consider well whether such be not his own case; let him, if he be as most are, thank God when he finds out that such is his case, when he knows at last that those are most blind who say they see, when he becomes at last conscious how little he believes, how little he acts up to that small belief. Let him try to right somewhat of the doubt, confusion, custom-worship, inconsistency, idolatry, within him — some of the greed, bigotry, recklessness, respectably superstitious atheism around him; and perhaps before his new task is finished, Lancelot and Tregarva may have returned with a message, if not for him — for that depends upon him having ears to hear it — yet possibly for strong Lord Minchampstead, probably for good Lord Vieuxbois, and surely for the sinners and the slaves of Whitford Priors. What it will be, I know not altogether; but this I know, that if my heroes go on as they have set forth, looking with single mind for some one ground of human light and love, some everlasting rock whereon to build, utterly careless what the building may be, howsoever contrary to precedent and prejudice, and the idols of the day, provided God, and nature, and the accumulated lessons of all the ages, help them in its construction — then they will find in time the thing they seek, and see how the will of God may at last be done on earth, even as it is done in heaven. But, alas! between them and it are waste raging waters, foul mud banks, thick with dragons and sirens; and many a bitter day and blinding night, in cold and hunger, spiritual and perhaps physical, await them. For it was a true vision which John Bunyan saw, and one which, as the visions of wise men are wont to do, meant far more than the seer fancied, when he beheld in his dream that there was indeed a land of Beulah, and Arcadian Shepherd Paradise, on whose mountain tops the everlasting sunshine lay; but that the way to it, as these last three years are preaching to us, went past the mouth of Hell, and through the valley of the Shadow of Death.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56