Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

establishment, partly with land confiscation, and exhibiting to the public horror the infinite wickedness of the Whigs. Lothair came, and all these speculators were wrong. A gentleman of cool habitude, somewhat of the St. Aldegonde class, had remarked that, given the name, anybody who knew Disraeli could write the novel; and to a certain extent he was right. The mere story is a replica of The Young Duke and of Tancred, but with the closer resemblance to the latter. Lothair is an orphan noble, who at his coming of age inherits vast estates, and who has not exactly made up his mind what to do with himself and his property. He will certainly begin with building a cathedral—whether it shall be for Protestant or Catholic use he cannot quite determine. The ease with which his intentions are altered, may be guessed from the fact that the money designed for a cathedral is supposed to be devoted to Garibaldi's Mentana expedition. Lothair is nearly killed at Mentana, and afterwards nearly perverted at Eome; but he gets through all his perils as becomes a hero, and, after a trip to Jerusalem, returns to marry and settle in quite a humdrum way.

Simple enough is this story,—a mere variation on the author's favourite theme; but it introduces us to a marvellously brilliant gallery of character-pictures, and to sparkling scenes of society, drawn with an easy mastery. There are a few people who bear no remote resemblance to living members of society; the greater number, however, are typical and rather exaggerated specimens of the class to which they belong. A distinguished clerical pervert, who has become a cardinal; a Roman lady, who has been

"LOTHAIR." 3

a dramatic artist and is intensely eager for the liberation of her native city; a Garibaldian general; a consummately successful artist of Gascon descent, whose genius and vanity are both inexhaustible; a duke's eldest son, who regards most things as a bore, and has an inveterate habit of saying unpleasant things at an awkward moment;— these are a few of the characters that glow on Mr. Disraeli's brilliant canvas. Lothair himself is the least marked of all the figures that occupy the scene; perchance our author desires to enforce the moral that a hereditary aristocrat is too often a dull fellow—

"The tenth transmitter of a foolish face."

Indeed, to make him of weak fibre was a necessity of the story, since no man of resolute will would have been so easy a prey to either priests or conspirators. Nor is the heroine, Lady Corisande (a name of the Gramont), any more than a fashionable young lady fulfilling regularly the sole duties of her station—elle s'habille, elle babitte, elle se dishabille. Almost all the other dramatis personal, however slightly introduced, are vivid and intelligible pictures, so that the negative shadowy aspect of hero and heroine strikes one somewhat strangely.

Not such was the hero of Mr. Disraeli's first novel, Vivian Grey, which took the world by surprise just fortyfive years ago. That young gentleman cannot be accused of any vagueness of character or weakness of will. Mr. Disraeli was, to some extent, ashamed of this first book of his, and for many years refused to reprint it; but as foreign editions were obtainable, he withdrew the prohibition when his works were collected. He was right. He calls the book "a kind of literary lusus," and certainly it is a perfectly marvellous production, when we consider that its author was a mere boy. He was a boy peculiarly situated; his father, the writer of The Calamities of Authors, probably thought that the greatest of those calamities was to have the responsibility of children; and the young dreamer was left to gather ideas as he read in his father's library, or listened to the desultory converse of his father's friends. That the world of which he read and heard was changed in the mirror of his mind to something bizarre and extravagant, is no wonder: perhaps a philosophic analyst would trace to this early training, or want of training, much of what has been erratic and erroneous in Disraeli's subsequent career. The boy of nineteen fancied he had formed sound conclusions on all conceivable questions; he panted for political strife and triumph; he wrote his own imaginary story with a pen that never paused, in swift sentences which seemed to burn the paper. "At this moment," he soliloquised, "how many a powerful noble wants only wit to be a minister; and what wants Vivian Grey to attain the same end? That noble's influence." Accident brings him into the company of the Marquis of Carabas, a very great noble with very moderate intellect; and so successful for awhile are his combinations, that his intense ambition seems likely to be gratified; but a jealous woman interferes, and the whole scheme is suddenly spoilt. The character of Mrs. Felix Lorraine, the lady destined to thwart Vivian Grey, is a wonderful conception for a boyish brain; and the scene where the hero, glancing

"VIVIAN GREY. 5

accidentally at a mirror, sees her throw a powder into the hock and seltzer which she is mixing for him, is thoroughly dramatic. The effervescent fluid in question reminds us of Byron's recipe for slaking matutinal thirst with a draught that shall confer

"A pleasure worthy Xerxes, the great king." And the reminder is not inappropriate, for if there be any one thing certain as to the stimulus of Disraeli's earliest literary work, it is that Byron gave it. The culture of English literature in the last century was for the most part Latin and French: in the present it has been Greek, German, and Italian. Italian poetry was a revelation to Byron; after having wasted his time in imitating Coleridge and Scott, the works of Pulci and Ariosto taught him wherein consisted his true powers. Hence came Don Juan, that marvellous mingling of strength and weakness—of iron and miry clay. Now, Don Juan was haunting the world in Disraeli's boyhood; and we, who find excitement in a new Tennysonian episode of King Arthur's life, cannot realise the expectation wherewith men awaited another canto of that remarkable poem. Byron, though far below Shakespeare, "was the greatest elementary power since Shakespeare" in the literature of the English; and had he lived to clear and to mature that marvellous brain, he would assuredly have achieved far greater things than we can venture to imagine, for who can guess the power of an original poet? Now Vivian Grey is just what one might expect from a boy-novelist who had saturated himself with Don Juan. The cynicism is mimicked, the false rhetoric is exaggerated, the humour and epigram are weakly yet successfully imitated. Even the hero himself may be styled the Don Juan of politics; he is always brilliant, adventurous, dauntless, utterly unscrupulous; a being without morals, but with some metaphysics. In tracing the resemblances, it should be at no time forgotten that Byron is of the Aryan type, while Disraeli is pure Semitic; hence the theories of the poet become curiously transmuted as they pass into the prose of the fashionable novelist. This is noticeable in Venetia, which was published in 1837. In its dedication to Lord Lyndhurst, the author states that it was his design "to shadow forth, though as 'in a glass darkly,' two of the most renowned and refined spirits that have adorned these our latter days." These are Byron and Shelley. Such an attempt must of necessity be a failure. Who can conceive Mr. Disraeli depicting with success that purest and subtlest of the children of poetry, that most unworldly yet rebellious spirit, Percy Bysshe Shelley? And the scheme of Venetia was a mistake. Lord Byron is reflected in Plantagenet Lord Cadurcis ; Shelley, in Marmion Herbert. The relations between them are curiously transformed: Shelley is supposed, for some mysterious reason, to have separated from his wife, who is left to take charge of his daughter, the heroine, Venetia; and with Venetia, Byron is assumed to fall in love while yet in his boyhood. Now one cannot conceive of Shelley as anybody's possible father-in-law. He died young; his eidolon is preserved in the ether of imperishable youth; to think of him in age is impossible. Moreover, of Shelley's exquisitely

« ZurückWeiter »