Is it ill-natured to suggest, as second amongst the causes which sent Pen astray, the influence of that consummate personage, Major Pendennis? How great he is in his own line, how absurd and how respectable; how one likes him in spite of himself, and how convincing is the neatness and finish of his unworthy code! Is the title of the novel in truth a conundrum, and which of the Pendennises is the hero? This is the reader’s point of view; but what if we had been brought up to reverence this old worldling, had been placed solemnly under his guardianship? What if, on our first going forth into life, such an one accompanied us as Mentor?
“God bless you, my dear boy,” Pendennis said to Arthur, as they were lighting their candles in Bury Street before going to bed. . . . “I beseech you, my dear Arthur, to remember through life that with an entrée—with a good entrée, mind—it is just as easy for you to have good society as bad, and that it costs a man, when properly introduced, no more trouble or soins to keep a good footing in the best houses in London that to dine with a lawyer in Bedford Square. Mind this when you are at Oxbridge pursuing your studies, and for heaven’s sake be very particular in the acquaintances which you make. The premier pas in life is the most important of all. Did you write to your mother to-day?—No? —Well, do, before you go, and call and ask Mr Foker for a frank—they like it. Good night. God bless you.”
We find the old fellow’s twaddle exquisitely absurd, but all the same we lodge his maxims in our memory; they may be of use some day. As for Pen, he was with the man whom his family had delighted to honour all his life, the man who had succeeded in that emprise upon which all young people set out—the conquest of the world; especially that enchanting social world of which young persons dream.
We elders are hardly aware of the ingenuousness of the young mind, of the ignorance and simplicity of youth; and, at the same time, we fail to realise the reverence in which young people hold us just for our experience’ sake. They say pert, clever, and flippant things, and we take it for granted that they are up to everything,—are, in fact, more men and women of the world than we simple elders; so we produce our little share of worldly wisdom,—they must not think
us quite simpletons,—and they are far more taken in than we suppose. They seize upon every scrap of talk which shows familiarity with the ways of the world—the rather wicked world, be it said—and from these construct a whole which is, in truth, widely different form our simple experience.
Dr Portman, the excellent rector of Clavering, will not be behindhand. He, too, has seen the world. Pen must order his wine, and that of the best, from a London vintner; and he does, and improves on his instructions. The Major praises a little dinner given in his honour, supposing the occasion to be a rare one. “Poor Pen! the worthy uncle little knew how often those dinners took place, while the reckless young Amphitryon delighted to show his hospitality and skill in gourmandise. There is no art than that (so long to learn, so difficult to acquire, so impossible and beyond the means of many unhappy people!) about which boys are more anxious to have an air of knowingness. A taste in and knowledge of wines and cookery appears to them to be the sign of an accomplished routé and manly gentleman.”
What is to be done? The young folk will have a knowledge of what they call ‘life.’ If we offer them our scraps of, perhaps, secondhand experience, they generalise and conclude that we are not really the worthy and perhaps rather saintly persons they had taken us for. We, too, have had experiences, they think, of the sort they mean to try. Here we perceive the cause of the incomprehensible attractiveness of bad companions—they know life. Here are words of wisdom worth pondering:—“What young men like in their companions is what had got Pen a great part of his own repute and popularity—a real or supposed
knowledge of life. A man who has seen the world, or can speak of it with a knowing air—a roué, Lovelace, who has his adventures to relate—is sure of an audience among boys. It is hard to confess, but so it is. We respect that sort of prowess. From our school-days we have been taught to admire it.”
The young man who has a motive stronger than those which assail him because he is a youth among youths, if it be only that of winning academic distinction, gets through somehow. But a good many young fellows of parts, power, and generous temper, men like Pen himself, come to grief; and it is a serious question, what can be done to fortify these against the special temptations that belong to their time of life. Excellent help is found in novels. Here is the very knowledge of life the young person craves; the personages of the novel play their parts before him, and he is admitted to greater intimacy with them than we often arrive at with our fellows; there is no personal attack upon the reader, no preaching. If the novelist moralise a little here and there, it is but to relieve his own feelings. He is not preaching to the young reader, to whom the lessons of life come home with illustrations never to be forgotten. It is told that Mr Meredith was accused by a neighbour of caricaturing him in the character of ‘Willoughby Patterne,’ and that he replied—‘Why, I am Willoughby Patterne, everybody in Willoughby Patterne! We are all Egoists.’ In like manner, every young man who reads of Arthur Pendennis, or Edward Waverly, or Fred Vincey, or, alas, of Tito Melema, or of Darsie Latimer, George Warrington, or Martin Chuzzlewit—the list is endless, of course—finds himself in the hero. Novels are our lesson-
books only so far as we give thoughtfulness, considerate reading to such novels as are also literature. The young person who reads three books a week from Mudie’s, or elsewhere, is not likely to find in any of them ‘example of life and instruction in manners.’ These things arrive to us after many readings of a book that is worth while; and the absurdity of saying, ‘I have read’ Jane Austen or the Waverley novels should be realised. We do not say ‘I have read’ Shakespeare, or even Browning or Tennyson; but to ‘have read’ any of the great novels is also a mark of ignorance.
How many parents see to it that their sons and daughters read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this one novel Pendennis before they go to college, or otherwise go out into life? It is stupid to disregard such a means of instruction; and yet, judicious parents either ‘disapprove of novel reading for their young people,’ or let them read freely the insipid trash of the circulating library until they are unable to discern the flavour of a good book. ‘But,’ says a good mother, ‘I disapprove of novels for another reason besides that they are a waste of time. I have striven to bring up my family in innocence, and wish to keep them still from that very knowledge of life which novels offer.’ There is a good deal to be said for this point of view; but the decisions of life are not simple, and to taboo knowledge is not to secure innocence.
We must remember that ignorance is not innocence, and also that ignorance is the parent of insatiable curiosity. But I do not offer a plea for indiscriminate novel reading. Novels are divisible into two classes—sensational, and, to coin a word, reflectional. Narrations
of hairbreadth escapes and bold adventures need not be what I should call sensational novels; but those which appeal, with whatever apparent innocence, to those physical sensations which are the begetters of lust,—the ‘his lips met hers,’ ‘the touch of her hand thrilled him in every nerve’ sort of thing which abounds in goody-goody storybooks, set apart in many families for Sunday reading, but the complete absence of which distinguishes our best English novels. To read that a girl has been betrayed by no means affects an innocent mind; but to allow oneself to thrill with the emotions which led to the betrayal is to get into the habit of emotional dram-drinking—a habit as enervating and as vitiating as that of the gin-shop. By the reflectional novel I mean, not that which makes reflections for us, after the manner of a popular lady-writer of the day. He who would save us the trouble of reflection ministers to the intellectual slothfulness which lies at the bottom of the poverty of our thoughts and the meanness of our lives. The reflectional novel is one which, like this of Pendennis, awakens reflection with every page we read; offers in every character and in every situation a criterion by which to try our random thoughts or our careless conduct. If we bear in mind that the obvious reflection proposed to us is as vicious in its way as the sensation suggested, we shall find that this test—the property of arousing reflection—eliminates all flimsy work, and confines us to the books of our great novelists.
We must record another step of this young ‘rake’s progress’ in Thackeray’s own words. To comment is, here as elsewhere, as superfluous as it is impertinent. “Mr Bloundell playfully took up a green wineglass
from the supper-table, which had been destined to contain iced cup, but into which he inserted something still more pernicious—namely, a pair of dice, which the gentleman took out of his waistcoat pocket and put into the glass. Then giving the glass a graceful wave, which showed that his hand was quite experienced in the throwing of dice, he called Seven’s the main, and whisking the ivory cubes gently on the table, swept them up again lightly from the cloth, and repeated this process two or three times. . . . Presently, instead of going home, most of the party were seated round the table playing at dice, the green glass going round from hand to hand, until Pen finally shivered it after throwing six mains. From that night Pen plunged into the delights of hazard as eagerly as it was his custom to pursue any new pleasure.”