At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: March 12, 1892


Sir Roger—What have we here?
Giles—There is everything under the sun set down with some show of reason; they run atilt at the world, and treat men and manners as familiar as an old hat.
Sir Roger—Think you they protest too much? I like a matter disposed bravely, but—
Giles—Methinks they have a genial tongue. Will you hear them?
Sir Roger—Well, an’ it be not too long I’ll have some sack, and you read on.

— Old Play.

       The Wakabees of the Arabian Nedjed, who are to the general body of Islam what the Puritans were to the Church of England, maintain that, next to blaspheming the name of God, smoking and drinking “the shameful,” as they define tobacco and wine, are the two deadliest and unpardonable sins. To me the most touching passage in Francis Palgrave’s story of his journey through Central Arabia is that in which he describes how in the Wakabee City of Bereidek he and his companion, Barakat-es-Shamee, the Syrian, being overcome by the sinful desire of tobacco, made their way out through a neglected fissure in the city wall, and creeping down into a tall field of Indian corn, indulged themselves for a blissful hour in silent and surreptitious fumigation. We notice that the Wakabee is not confined to Central Arabia but is getting quite common in almost every land; wherever we go we meet the Wakabee, who stares and makes faces at our pipe, plainly indicating by his manner and expression that he regards us as a beast. I always make it a point to agree with the Wakabee. Assuming an expression full of hypocrisy I admit that tobacco is a deleterious weed. I admit that it injures the digestion, that it weakens the will power, that it causes a man to waste valuable time that might be more meritoriously employed in boxing or doing hurt to his fellow-creatures, and that it is a lamentable waste of money ($5 or $6 a year, perhaps, if he is a moderate smoker of plain tobacco). All this I admit, and then when he is gone, I adjust myself comfortably and fill another pipe. If a man talks about tobacco he will find himself forever rehearsing its praise and blame, in violent strophe and antistrophe, just as Charles Lamb did; but on the whole I think that the smoker of moderate—perhaps I should say very moderate—tobacco find the injury not so great after all as the benefit. What doe the Wakabee say, I wonder, to the spectacle of the immortal Alfred Tennyson sitting for hours with a long clay pipe between his teeth, puffing the smoke “straight out from the lips,” and patiently evolving, let us say, the “Charge of the Light Brigade.” I find tobacco very conducive to prolonged meditation. It allays the disturbance that the mind is in, owing to the competition of too many subjects of thought. Out of the condition almost approaching reverie, which it produces, the subject which is actually most momentous gradually emerges; and at the end of a little time we find ourselves pursuing some single line of steady and effective thought. This result, as it seems to me, is not wholly due to the influence of tobacco as a stimulant, but is largely caused by the sort of gentle occupation that the act of smoking affords—an occupation not pronounced enough to draw the mind’s attention, yet sufficiently an occupation to keep the nerves at rest. The practice of knitting with those women who have attained such skill in the art that they are wholly unconscious of the movement of the fingers and progress of the work has the same effect of allaying the nervous and distracting energies of the body, and composing the mind to thought. I have sometimes obtained a similar result from fishing—especially on a tepid and motionless summer day and in waters, where, as I subsequently ascertained, there were hardly any fish.

       We hear a great deal said about the (so-called) influence of our universities, of which we have many, in the different Provinces. Now I do not want to say anything derogatory to these institutions, but I would like to put a question if it be not too pertinent. What are these colleges doing on behalf of the national life? To be direct, what are they doing for the national literature? Have they ever in the slightest way shown that they recognize such a growth in the land? My simple statement is they have not. It is a disgrace to Canada to say that our young men have to go over to the “much-abused neighboring republic” to win recognition in the higher pursuits, while our universities are utterly callous in the matter. To say the least there is something radically wrong. We will never have a true nationality while this miserable condition of things lasts. And those who desire to build up Canada’s future as an independent nation may see too late the folly of ignoring her rising men, while our universities are being stocked with old country professors and tutors who can have no real interest in or knowledge of our nationality and literature. This kind of thing has gone on too long. The older Canadians may think the younger men are fools, but the result must be that in a shorter time than most dream we either must take the position in our land that is due to us, or else we will go where we can at least get fair play and a chance to develop.

       You can always tell a gentleman by the manner in which he addresses his servant. If a man is not a gentleman he will either address him as if he were the dirt under his feet or he will treat him with a coarse familiarity equally offensive. So deeply are we affected by the democratic spirit that to the thoughtful and sensitive mind of our time and country the very relation of master and servant seems unjust and unnatural, and consequently in the most delicate type of character you will find this relation characterized by a hesitating and almost shamefaced courtesy.

       Now and again we meet a self-opinionated being who condemns all fiction as trash and beneath the notice of the choice elect. This being is generally found to be engrossed in some particular occupation or study which gives him no time for personal expansion. His condition is very similar to that of the young girl, when asked did Angelina Maria get time to read. “No, she don’t, Angelina Maria’s a good girl, she don’t waste no time on sich things, she’s too took-up with her studies.” There is also an extremely narrow class in religion which condemns all novels as “abominations of the evil one.” This class, in its sect-prejudice, is unanswerable to any law but its own egotistic ignorance. But to the first, the “too took-up with their studies” class, we would say that it may be possible for a man to fill himself up to the brim with histories and biographies, as a cistern is filled with rain water, and yet for him to be only a narrow, attenuated soul after all, utterly devoid of any knowledge of or sympathy with the great world of humanity about him.
       The man who claims to know, understand and love history and yet condemns Scott, Bulwer, Thackeray, Dickens, Hawthorne, Eliot, Kingsley, Cooper, Lever, etc., as light-reading or silly fiction or evil abomination is either a fool or a hypocrite, and no language is too strong to express contempt for him or his kind. We have, sad to say, too much of this class in Canada today, where literary culture and a broad human knowledge is terribly needed to soften and annul the bigotry and narrowness we see around us.

       In another place I have referred to the lack of interest in the national literature in our universities and colleges. Now, all intellectual men will admit that this is a grave condition of things, to say the least. We all know that the ideal university ought to be the centre of the best culture and aspirations of the growing national life, and it is to them that we look for the coming thought and inspiration that is to make or mar the future. It is true of all great foreign seats of learning. How about Canada? I would like to ask some of our most ardent patriots—some of those who are so sure of our “certain glorious future”—do they know how many professors of literature and history three are in our many colleges who are deeply imbued with the national spirit; who are truly Canadians in birth, hope, sympathy and education? If we have not been merely playing at nation-building this is a grave and all-important question, and will go far towards solving the much-bemoaned question—the Canadian contempt and lack of feeling for a Canadian literature and nationality. The younger Canadians who have been born on Canadian soil will be put off no longer with indifference or contempt. Even the most ardent believer in the unity of the empire must admit that we are no longer mere colonists. Canada for the Canadians must be the first thing now, or else we must reluctantly admit that we have no country at all; and God help the young Canadian who has to bitterly admit that without any fault of his own he is “a man without a country.”

       In this age of instantaneous and universal communication literary reputations spring up and spread with bewildering rapidity. Just now comes to us the fame of Maurice Maeterlinck, a very young Belgian poet, who was suddenly and enthusiastically hailed a short time ago by the literary press of Paris as “the Belgian Shakespeare.” One of his short plays has just been translated and brought out in a London theatre, but it appears with only indifferent success. This young writer is the author of a volume of poems, described to be rather absurdly imitative of Walt Whitman, a tragedy and two short plays. The latter are said to be the chief evidences of his genius, and the power of the author consists in a knack of giving startling reality to tragic situations by touches of extreme simplicity and naturalness.

       Amongst the many good gifts for which we have to thank the enterprising publishing house of Roberts Bros., Boston, we must count the edition of the novels of George Meredith. In this sentence I have written myself an enthusiast, and if in the one I am now writing I could emphasise the statement I would do so. And yet, I trust I admire with temperance and prudence and have not been rendered uncritical and undiscerning by the great and supreme excellencies of my favorite. I can see his faults; but some of them I won’t admit, out of human perversity, I suppose, and from a desire to show a bold front to those who want it to frighten the hosts of readers who would be delighted by his genius and benefited by his wisdom. It must be said, I think, that this author is prejudged with a hasty and unjust finding. Our peculiar method of reading, which is to read everything that we can lay our hands on written about a book, and leave the book itself alone, has operated disastrously for George Meredith’s fame. At present he exists in the minds of many persons solely by reason of the confusion of thought which arises when they think of Owen Meredith; they never can remember which one wrote “Lucile.” Now, this is unfortunate, because George Meredith is a living force, a genius of incomparable power and energy; and the author of “Lucile” is a sentimental poet of limited range. It is unnecessary to press the antithesis further; it would be an injustice to both writers. But these are mere generalities; the purpose of this writing is to deal with only one of George Meredith’s novels, not in every sense the greatest, but in some respects at least the equal of any fiction he has ever given us. I have chosen “Harry Richmond,” or as the full title goes “The Adventures of Harry Richmond,” for this first review because, although it is not the first in order of publication, it is one which will, I think, attract most readers. But it admirers may be won for “Sandra Belloni” and “Diana of the Correways,” who would have been repelled by “Evan Harrington” or “The Egoist.” “Harry Richmond” is more than any other book of Meredith’s full of stir, robust force, and genial human interest. It is so rapid, so full of charm, so crowded with life, so brim full of a humor that it is by turns pathetic and beneficently satirical, and it is done with such command, such virile force and completeness. The very opening chapter has an authority which demands attention; from this picture we cannot escape: the strokes are cut too trenchantly; the image of old Squire Beltham struck off in these first pages follows us to the end of the book. Awakened at night by the visit of his hated son-in-law, he calls out to his steward, “Hand me my breeches; I can’t think out of my breeches.” It is the same old man who lashes this same son-in-law in the inn at the watering place with a tongue too honest to be ice about his words and a heart too impetuous to soften them. Squire Beltham is a success, and where shall we point to the failure? To have created Roy Richmond would have been possible for George Meredith alone of all novelists; and, not only has he done this, but he has created Dorothy Beltham and Janet Ilchester; the host of his minor characters exist with the distinctness of one’s own acquaintances, but his great men and women are one’s personal friends. I need not say his boys are one’s personal friends. If George Meredith is supreme in anything it is in this. Let anyone who wants to live over again his boyish days read the first fifteen chapters of “Harry Richmond”; when he has finished them he will have regained his youth and will have read one of the raciest narratives in the language. Capt. Welsh comes in by the way, and Heriot and Julia, and Harry’s friend Temple; and the effect is so lively, the whole relation moves with such a rush and play of fancy. Surely here at least George Meredith is the ideal writer. And very often afterwards is he the ideal writer; far more often than one would suppose to hear those wise ones talk who allow the occasional vagaries of a man of genius to overtop his ever-present excellencies. But have I gained a reader anywhere for “Harry Richmond”? That is what I set out to do. If I have succeeded in making only one reader my time will not have been lost, and I will only consider that I have discharged a little of the debt of pleasure and profit I owe this splendid novel.