One of the chief differences between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century voices of critical prose is that the former wrote for the salon or coffee house; for rooms that could hold fewer voices, where no voice dominated quite as easily. The critical prose of the nineteenth-century, on the other hand, comes, with Hazlitt being a definitive early case, to be written for a lecture hall, in the era of public education, workingman’s colleges, and the lyceum; for large rooms of passive audiences with one voice dominating over many, and instructing them.
The Victorian journalist, editor and critic, R.H. Hutton is an exception in that he seems to occupy no such physical space. Rather than attend the Lyceum to hear his oratory, we meet Hutton as strangers in his study; he is mid-way through his work and wants to stop us to show us, not as friends or any other intimate acquaintances, but as chance arrivers and passersby, what he has found in his experimental labors. Except for him, the labors and e are reading.
For over 30 years, R.H. Hutton wrote literary essays, reviews and journalistic surveys, for The Spectator, which he also edited, and he represents a level of discourse in Victorian letters distinct from Arnold, whose essays search further without being more searching, and distinct also from notices and brief reviews. Even his brief literary essays run to several pages in a normal hardcopy.
His sense of an immediate audience bears out in one striking strength (and limitation) of his criticism: the immense comparative advantage he enjoys when writing on his contemporary or near-contemporary Victorians, as compared to authors of the past. It is not that his judgment on the earlier generation, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Austen is deficient; he is simply not very excited by them. He does not approach their work with a sense that there is anything to be discovered or newly understood.
Whereas Arnold declined to extend his critical discussion of poetry in “The Study of poetry” into the nineteenth century, Hutton declines to operate on the past with his characteristic methods of spontaneous analysis. This is not because he is opposed to Arnold. Instead, when writing on the past authors he becomes a much more Arnoldian critic, summing up achievements, offering fairly bland characterizations of their strengths; but, as Wedgwood observed, he is not passionate, as Arnold is, about sifting the good from the great, about distinguishing shades of quality, success and failure. But apparently he feels, perhaps writing in Arnold’s shadow, perhaps writing in the expectations of his age, that sort of estimation and characterization was what was expected of critics writing of authors long revered. Writing of his present, for and of readers and writers who might walk into his workshop, he is liberated to be himself: an analytical mind, less keen on evaluation than dissection.
Another vivacious reader and astute reviewer of his age, Julia Wedgwood honored Hutton on his death with a memorial essay:
Nothing that he has written is bitter, or stinging, or pregnant with innuendo. Think of all that he cut off in that renunciation! Remove ill-nature, and how much of what the world counts wit would remain?…Could the same be said of any other journalist of his time? Think over all the temptations to smartness which beset a writer who had to consult the exigencies of the hour, and weight the renunciation of one who always refused the cheap efficiency of deprecation…
We must allow that a critic who aims, above all things, at doing no injustice to any one whom he mentions, whatever his other excellencies, will rarely attain that of a simple style. Justice, either in what we must reluctantly call the true sense of the word as an impartial estimate of praise and blame, or in Hutton’s sense of a careful allotment of every word of praise that can sincerely be given, is not a simple thing. The endeavor to strain away from criticism every word that is untrue in itself, and then again every word that, being true in itself, is yet misleading its is general connotation, as so many true words are–this is an endeavor which the exigencies of periodical writing almost inevitably associate with an involved style. There is not time to boil down the substance of every parenthesis into the main sentence, and the frequent use of parenthesis must be accepted, no doubt, as a defect of style….
His ideal of the critic’s office, as far as he carried it out in his own person (and I can remember but few inconsistencies in what he permitted) was like that of a captain described by Xenophon, who ‘thought it enough to praise the good, and not to praise the bad.’ Whatsoever things were true, whatsoever were sincere, if there were any virtue, and any possible praise, it was Hutton’s care to bring these before the attention of his readers, and he does not seem to have felt it incumbent on him to appraise them in comparison with similar productions, or in any way to graduate his approval. He had hardly any sense of rank in literature.
Wedgwood goes too far: Hutton regularly suggests some authors are greater than others. Among his contemporaries, for instance, he prizes Eliot and Tennyson above the rest. What’s more, comparison is a frequent method: he appraises Tennyson and Eliot alongside one another in one essay, ending with a note of hesitating disappointment in the latter’s pessimism.
What Wedgwood does not say, but which is all about and within her words, is that Hutton is not especially keen on explicitly praising much either. He is not, as Randall Jarrell might be said to be, an “oooh-aahh” critic. The adjectives of praise would be often be too “misleading in [their] general connotations” : to do justice, Hutton instead looks ahead, somewhat more exuberantly than his descendants, to academic criticism, or to the best literary journalism of the twentieth-century, informed by academia: Hutton seeks justice in understanding, and understanding may consist in any number of processes, from description to analysis, from classification to biography.
The involution of his critical phrasing stems both from a desire to understand and also a desire to find that which is worth understanding and worth caring about in an author: we can only understand that for which we have some degree of sympathy. (That adage might frighten those who would seek to understand evil; but it does not say we cannot recognize or know that against which our sympathy falters).
The desire to criticize, censure, and damn with faint praise need not hinder understanding; but often, for most critics, it does. And the note of qualm is the note so characteristic of so much of literary-critical journalism from Hazlitt through to the anonymous TLS. Foregoing that note, Hutton is limiting his opportunities for showmanship—but in limiting his opportunities for showmanship, Hutton is taking a step towards standing out of the ring, declining to participate in the show, and thereby giving us the public Victorian Man of Letters in a different light, out of the limelight; not private, but not speaking forth in whatever lecturing or hectoring or governess-ing or professing tone the British public clamored to attention for, clamored with attention for, through the century.
That he shied from censure and clever put-downs even when reviewing his contemporaries is most surprising, since those are the easiest targets, less defended by convention, by former approbation, and by assumption. But his determination to understand contemporary figures as best he can, even when dissatisfied—a determination to find some strength and to characterize it as precisely as possible—makes him both persistently relevant as a critic and also valuable as a witness to his time.
The best way to proceed is, I think, with a small selection of Hutton’s critical remarks on his contemporaries, followed by brief remarks on each:
Mr Pecksniff is vastly overdrawn. No real hypocrite would ever be so ostentatiously hypocritical as he is. Still, there is not less but more of real humour in that exhibition of him….than in the more delicate and real painting of Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s immeasurable self-importance. The humour does not consist in the reality of the whole picture in either case, but in the shock of surprise with which the grotesque blending of meaning and pretentious elements is in both cases alike brought home to the reader. Where this shock is keenest and full of real moral paradox the feat of humour is greatest. And that this is often greatest in cases where the humourist has left something out of nature, and perhaps exaggerated something else in it, in order to bring home his special paradox more powerfully, seems to me past doubt. (“What is Humour?)
The emphasis on leaving out, on exclusion is apt. Dickens’ characters are often discussed as trenches of particular feelings and aspirations. But another way to look at them would be as aborted growths. The ideal of “bildung,” of a cultivated, whole person is an ideal in Dickens’ novels, even if it is no more substantially imagined or carefully thought through than Dickens’ ideal of the afterlife; unlike that ideal, at any rate, it has bearing on the lives he imagines. Those lives are often marked as much by where they did not grow, where they grew inwards, or where they lost, through trauma or time, an essential element of personality, as they are by their especially deepened passions. Some of Dickens’ most powerful moments come when the absence of traits, defenses, and feeling are brought home; when characters cannot reach one another, despite proximity, because they are lacking what would permit contact and connection.
…so far as Tennyson has dealt with the ideas of his age at all, he has always seemed to be at least as keenly urged on by the desire truly to apprehend and effectually to combat false ideas, as by the desire to express powerfully those which are true. (“Tennyson’s Poem on ‘Despair'”)
Not only to “combat false ideas” but “truly to apprehend them”: the insight is that Tennyson’s poetry does not simply trumpet Victorian truisms; nor even devote its sole energies to combating false ideas directly, through denunciations or deprecations; instead, his poetry exposes and combats false ideas by apprehending them, presenting them, and placing them so that their false notes ring clearly and rightly; the dramatic monologue is especially helpful for this; the relation that the poems establish between what they would count as false and what they would count as true does not usually depend on Tennyson’s standing on one side and opposing the other through rhetoric, but instead through his inhabiting various positions that he would account false (as well as true), arranging them and playing them off each other.
It rather surprises me that a writer who has so completely made a sort of prismatic prose style for himself,—a style which to every man who makes acquaintance with Mr. Carlyle for the first time is apt to seem (no doubt very untruly and unjustly) a wonder of artificiality and affectation,—should be the one to assert that the form and matter of human thought are quite separable from each other, and that it is the latter only which has any real importance…And as for the “earnestness” of our age, Mr. Carlyle’s own mind can hardly be said—except under some very peculiar use of the term—to want earnestness. Many would say that he is overstocked with some forms of that quality. And how does it show itself? Not indeed in climbing “the loose sandhills” of metre, but, on the other hand, in elaborating a sort of special language for himself, which is over-loaded and indistinct with excess of colour, which combines with a great hunger for the adequate vision of all physical facts a certain wrathful melancholy at the littleness of the human world, and a vain yearning to introduce Titan-worship into it, in the hope of thereby making it somewhat less contemptible. This is expressed in Mr. Carlyle’s writings by an illuminated kind of style, in which the hinting and suggesting resources of language are all so developed as to produce an almost inconceivable sense of high pressure. The crowding of the colours into a sort of Turneresque shorthand seems to shadow forth Mr. Carlyle’s contempt for mere speech, and his wish to saturate language with meaning under the pressure of some half-dozen atmospheres till it has gained something of the electric atmospheres of a moral discharged, and become rather a personal action than a speech… (“Mr. Carlyle on Verse”)
The admiration is evident; but so is the exasperation. Many Victorians must have felt it. But the conflict in exasperation and admiration is what drives Hutton here to try to understand and say just what Carlyle is doing, in the hope that an accurate description will account for strength and weakness alike.
Now the power of this great series of poems [Tennyson’s Idylls of the King] consists entirely in the absolute unity of the imaginative centre to be traced in every pieces from first to last,—in the continuous grandeur of that great earthly illusion by which Arthur founds an empire on foundations far too lofty to last, sees, without seeing, it slowly crumbling away beneath his touch from the very moment it appears to have gained its victory, dimply apprehends that he has in some sense injured his followers by the very loftiness of his requirements,—the grandeur of the vows which blight those by whom they are broken,–and survives the ruin of all his hopes with only a faithful fool to bewail their destruction….The illusion that blinds the king is the illusion of infinite light—far more real than the world to which it blinds him. (“The Idealism of George Eliot and Mr Tennyson)
This is a good version of a strong case that can be made for the poem.
There speaks the true George Eliot, and we may clearly say of her that in fiction it is her great aim, while illustrating what she believes to be the true facts and laws of human life, to find a fit stage for ideal feelings nobler than any which seem to her to be legitimately bred by those facts and laws. But she too often finds herself compelled to injure her own finest moral effects by the sceptical atmosphere with which she permeates them. She makes the high-hearted heroine of her Mill on the Floss all but yield to the physiological attraction of a poor sort of man of science. She makes the enthusiastic Dorothea in Middlemarch decline upon a poor creature like Ladislaw, who has earned her regard chiefly by being the object of Mr. Casaubon’s jealousy. She takes religious patriotism for the subject of her last great novel, but is at some pains to show that her hero may be religious without any belief in God, and patriotic without any but an ideal country. This reflective vacuum, which she pumps out behind all noble action, gives to the workings of her great imagination a general effect of supreme melancholy. (“George Eliot”)
Once again, the ambivalent admiration yields not a reckoning of worth, but an estimate of properties and motives. Even where Hutton gets something wrong—does Lladislaw earn her regard by being the object of jealousy?—he also suggests that there is something wrong about what he trying to get hold of: what does Dorothea see in him anyway? The final sentence bears the burden of his searching ambivalence: “reflective vacuum” could refer either to Eliot’s failure to properly reflect, or else the vacuum of reflection that motivates her greatest characters: they are damagingly unreflective. It might be more neutral, too: “workings” suggests a machine, and a vacuum might have a role in a machine: in this case it is to invest her works with that “general effect of supreme melancholy,” an emptiness deep down in things. That final phrase, “supreme melancholy,” turns the point of the remark from dissatisfaction with Eliot to insight into her pathos (does he have Virgil in mind?); it balances what might seem a deficiency (“reflective vacuum”) with a description of the rare effect of her art. In that it is characteristic of Hutton, especially Hutton on the Victorians.