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"I was not so much surprized with the lightning, as I was with a thought which darted into my mind as swift as the light.ning itself: O my powder !»
If we compare this with even the most artfully designed strokes in such works as « The Swiss Family Robinson, or the « Memoirs of Sir Edward Seaward » we sball find out in what the difference between genius and imitation consists. But the best critics in the present case are, as we have said, children : and their judgment has been recorded.
We are not sure whether a peculiarity which runs through all De Foe's works, and which might at first sight appear likely to injure the effect of many of them, does not in this case add to the effect of Crusoe. We allude to that belief in divine interference with everyday human affairs, and that attention to dreams, omens, and the mysterious emotions which, though exceedingly common in De Foe's age and condition , seems to have been carried by him to an unusual heigbl ; and which contrasts so remarkably with the plain, unvisionary, and generally unimpassioned tone of his style,
That the first convictions of religion in a mind uncultivated and comparalively ignorant as Crusoe is represented to be, should be accompanied by fancied, signs and omens, particularly when the subject of these impressions is, from his loneliness, in precisely the position most calculated to receive Ibem, is but natural. Even the presentiments, and the Sortes Biblicæ of the worthy tradesman who is supposed to keep the Journal of the Plague Year » are admirably conceived if they are no more than an artifice of the author to inspire us with some portion of the dread which must have darkened all mens' minds at the approach of the « Pestilence that walketh in darkness » : but perhaps the most wonderful instance of that power by which De Foe could annihilate that great gulf which is fixed between this life and the next is to be found in his narrative of the Apparition of Mrs. Veal — in which he bas succeeded in bringing a visitor from the world of spirits in close contact—and this without in the least shocking our feeling of probability — with the dullest and most common-place details of a provincial town.
As this is perhaps the most astounding instance of De Foe's literary boldness, and at the same time one of the hardiest experiments ever ventured upon human credulity, we trust that some account of it will not be displeasing to our readers -as the book is not generally known, at least in this country.
De Foe's publisher, who in all probability was likewise a personal friend, appears to have printed a large impression of a work written by a French Protestant clergyman named Drelincourt, and translated into English, under the title of the Christian's Defence against the Fear of Death, with several directions how to prepare ourselves to die well. This work, it appears, met with no more attention from the public than the very uninviting nature of the subject rendered probableand lay a dead and ponderous load upon the shelves of the too adventurous publisher. In this emergency De Foe conceived and executed a plan to give popularity to this weight of dull divinity, which for audacious ingenuity, we believe has no parallel in the history of puffing. He wrote a narrative, supposed to be drawn up by « a Justice of Peace at Maidstone in Kent, and a very intelligent person, and attested by a very sober and understanding gentlewoman, a kinswoman of the said gentleman's, who lives in Canterbury, within a few doors of the house in which the within named Mrs. Bargrave lives. This narrative, entitled: A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, the next day after her death, to one Mrs. Bargrage, at Canterbury, the 8th of Septembei, 1705, which Apparition recommends the perisal of Drelincourt's Book of Consolations against the fears of Death: was appended to the work of Drelincourt, which bad immediately a vogue which abundantly attested the success of De Foe's most extraordinary advertisement.
The scene, the language, the dramatis personæ of this singular fiction were all selected with De Foe's usual skill, and with that happy audacity which silences the objections of incredulity by the very impossibility which the reader feels to believe that it can be assumed. The artful manner in which it is attested—and the care which the author takes to reply to any preliminary objections as to the credibility of his story, not concealing, as an author of less confidence would have done, that such objections had been advanced, but assigning reasonable and natural grounds for them--every circumstance unites to render the reader a dupe to the imposition.
Indeed it requires all the self-command even of a reader who is acquainted with the true history of the work to peruse it without falling into the snare. The conversation of the two interloculors too, one of wbom has quitted the land of spirits for the benevolent purpose of recommending (i. e. helping the sale) of Drelincourt's book on Death, is so exactly suited to the condition of the supposed speakers--one an exciseman's sister and the other a seamstress,--that it is difficult to say which feeling predominales in the reader's mind-admiration of De Foe's boldness and skill, or a half involuntary belief in the truth of his narration, Mixed up with religious consolation and recommendation of good books, we find the two friends talking of broken tea-cups, scoured silk gowns, and such humble matters, which naturally form so great a proportion of conversation between persons of their sex, age, and mean condition. Now the reader finds it impossible to deny his belief to circumstances which it seems so unlikely that any author would have thought of feigning, and his incredulity is further soothed by the candour with which the objections against the credibility of the story are stated.
The impression of reality in the present case is greatly heightened by the absence of all the usual « mise en scène » of a supernatural drama. The apparition arrives at noon-day, has all the manners and apparent reality of the person whom it represents-nay even the infirmities--is sensible to touch, and departs, as it came, with all the circumstance of flesh and blood : nor is the favoured object of this ghostly communication aware, until after the departure of the person with whom she has been talking, that her companion was a visitant from the olher world. It is curious to remark, that beside Drelincourt's book, " which was the best, she said, on the subject ever wrote,” she (the ghost) « also mentioned Doctor Sherlock, and two Dutch books, which were translated, wrote upon death, and several others : . is it very improbable that these - Dutch books were to be found on the shelves of the same publisher, so strangely assisted by De Foe? This surprising discourse, « which the apparition put in much finer words than Mrs. Bargrave says she can pretend to,» lasted an hour and three quarters, at the end of which the ghost » said she would take leave of her, and walked from Mrs. Bargrave, in ber view till a turning interrupted the sight of her, which was three quarters after one in the afternoon. »
Nothing can be better than the quiet air with wbich De Foe adds, towards the end of bis story, „Drelincourt's Book of Death is, since this happened, bought up strangely.Our task of skelching the literary character of De Foe would be but imperfectly executed, were we to omit all notice of a class of works which acquired at the time a higher degree of popularity than they have retained.
This diminution of esteem may be attributed in some measure to two very different causes : first the overwhelming and universal fame of Robinson Crusoe, wbich has eclipsed all the other works of our author, and secondly a gradual refinement of taste which renders disgustful to us, pictures of profligacy and vice, however vigorous the pencil which delineales, and however brilliant the colouring which embodies them. With regard to the first-mentioned cause, there are, alas, innumerable instances in the history of letters which show how surely one chief work renders us blind to others of great but inferior excellence : that the Paradise Lost has caused us to remain in comparative ignorance of the Lycidas, is in accordance with external nature --we cannot see the stars until the sun is set, though they are always in the heavens. The works to which we have just alluded are stamped with the same genius which distinguishes Crusoe, and the Plague year ; but the scenes which they describe, and the personages who move on the stage, are generally of an odious and revolting character : and the very skill which paints the adventures of prostilutes and ruffians causes disgust in proportion to its perfection. The Spanish literature abounds with these delineations of the Vida Picaresca, as it was called, and Gil Blas and Lazarillo de Tormés are instances which will occur to every reader of fiction : but we must confess that whether from the greater gaiety and more sunny cheerfulness of the Continental —and particularly of the Spanish-national character, or from the coarseness being in some measure softened by a foreign language, these pictures of careless witty profligacy are free from an air of brutality which offends us in similar subjects in English. Like the inimitable beggars of Murillo, who carried the picaresco taste to its highest pitch in a sister art, the Spanish and even French vagabond wears his rags with something of a jaunty air, while the English ragamuffin retains little of poverty but its squalor, little of ingenuity but its rascalities.
It is melancholy to think that the school in which De Foe acquired his accurate knowledge of the habits and adventures of these rogues and cheats, was a prison ; generally the school of their education, as well as the Olympic arena of their proficiency : in the vigorous language of one of our old Dramatists :
To make the keepers trust him-
. Say they do ? Sir A.Wend. Then he's a graduate. Sir A. AP.
Say they trust him not ?
And never shall commence ; but being still barred,
Or else i'the Hole beg place.
When, money being the theme,
And get out clear-then he's a Master of Arts ("). 19 The Roaring Girl. Act. III.