It has been well said that "the success of certain works may be traced to sympathy between the author's mediocrity of ideas, and mediocrity of ideas on the part of the public." In commenting on this passage, Mrs. Gore, herself a shrewd philosopher, observes that, whether as regards men or books, there exists an excellence too excellent for general favor. To "make a hit" -- to captivate the public eye, ear, or understanding without a certain degree of merit -- is impossible; but the "hardest hit" is seldom made, indeed we may say never made, by the highest merit. When we wrote the word seldom we were thinking of Dickens and the "Curiosity Shop," a work unquestionably of "the highest merit," and which at a first glance appears to have made the most unequivocal of "hits" but we suddenly remembered that the compositions called "Harry Lorrequer" and "Charles O'Malley" had borne the palm from "The Curiosity Shop" in point of what is properly termed popularity.
There can be no question, we think, that the philosophy of all this is to be found in the apothegm with which we began. Marryatt is a singular instance of its truth. He has always been a very popular writer in the most rigorous sense of the word. His books are essentially "mediocre." His ideas are the common property of the mob, and have been their common property time out of mind. We look throughout his writings in vain for the slightest indication of originality -- for the faintest incentive to thought. His plots, his language, his opinions are neither adapted nor intended for scrutiny. We must be contented with them as sentiments, rather than as ideas; and properly to estimate them, even in this view, we must bring ourselves into a sort of identification with the sentiment of the mass. Works composed in this spirit are sometimes purposely so composed by men of superior intelligence, and here we call to mind the Chansons of Béranger. But usually they are the natural exponent of the vulgar thought in the person of a vulgar thinker. In either case they claim for themselves that which, for want of a more definite expression, has been called by critics nationality. Whether this nationality in letters is a fit object for high-minded ambition, we cannot here pause to inquire. If it is, then Captain Marryatt occupies a more desirable position than, in our heart, we are willing to award him.
"Joseph Rushbrook" is not a book with which the critic should occupy many paragraphs. It is not very dissimilar to "Poor Jack," which latter is, perhaps, the best specimen of its author's cast of thought, and national manner, although inferior in interest to "Peter Simple."
The plot can only please those who swallow the probabilities of "Sinbad the Sailor," or "Jack and the Bean-Stalk" -- or we should have said, more strictly, the incidents; for, of plot, properly speaking, there is none at all.
Joseph Rushbrook is an English soldier who, having long served his country and received a wound in the head, is pensioned and discharged. He becomes a poacher, and educates his son (the hero of the tale and also named Joseph) to the same profession. A pedler, called Byres, is about to betray the father, who avenges himself by shooting him. The son takes the burden of the crime upon himself, and flees the country. A reward is offered for his apprehension -- a reward which one Furness, a schoolmaster, is very anxious to obtain. This Furness dogs the footsteps of our hero, much as Fagin, the Jew, dogs those of Oliver Twist, forcing him to quit place after place, just as he begins to get comfortably settled. In thus roaming about, little Joseph meets with all kinds of outrageously improbable adventures; and not only this, but the reader is bored to death with the outrageously improbable adventures of every one with whom little Joseph comes in contact. Good fortune absolutely besets him. Money falls at his feet wherever he goes, and he has only to stoop and pick it up. At length he arrives at the height of prosperity, and thinks he is entirely rid of Furness, when Furness re-appears. That Joseph should, in the end, be brought to trial for the pedler's murder is so clearly the author's design, that he who runs may read it, and we naturally suppose that his persecutor, Furness, is to be the instrument of this evil. We suppose also, of course, that in bringing this misfortune upon our hero, the schoolmaster will involve himself in ruin, in accordance with the common ideas of poetical justice. But no; Furness, being found in the way, is killed off, accidentally, having lived and plotted to no ostensible purpose, through the better half of the book. Circumstances that have nothing to do with the story involve Joseph in his trial. He refuses to divulge the real secret of the murder, and is sentenced to transportation. The elder Rushbrook, in the meantime, has avoided suspicion and fallen heir to a great property. Just as his son is about to be sent across the water, some of Joe's friends discover the true state of affairs, and obtain from the father, who is now conveniently upon his death-bed, a confession of his guilt. Thus all ends well -- if the word well can be applied in any sense to trash so ineffable -- the father dies, the son is released, inherits the estate, marries his lady-love, and prospers in every possible and impossible way.
We have mentioned the imitation of Fagin. A second plagiarism is feebly attempted in the character of one Nancy, a trull, who is based upon the Nancy of Oliver Twist -- for Marryatt is not often at the trouble of diversifying his thefts. This Nancy changes her name three or four times, and so in fact do each and all of the dramatis personae. This changing of name is one of the bright ideas with which the author of "Peter Simple" is most pertinaciously afflicted. We would not be bound to say how many aliases are borne by the hero in this instance -- some dozen perhaps.
The novels of Marryatt -- his later ones at least -- are evidently written to order, for certain considerations, and have to be delivered within certain periods. He thus finds it his interest to push on. Now, for this mode of progress, incident is the sole thing which answers. One incident begets another, and so on ad infinitum. There is never the slightest necessity for pausing; especially where no plot is to be cared for. Comment, in the author's own person, upon what is transacting, is left entirely out of question. There is thus none of that binding power perceptible, which often gives a species of unity (the unity of the writer's individual thought) to the most random narrations. All works composed as we have stated Marryatt's to be composed, will be run on, incidentally, in the manner described; and, notwithstanding that it would seem at first sight to be otherwise, yet it is true that no works are so insufferably tedious. These are the novels which we read with a hurry exactly consonant and proportionate with that in which they were indited. We seldom leave them unfinished, yet we labor through to the end, and reach it with unalloyed pleasure.
The commenting force can never be safely disregarded. It is far better to have a dearth of incident, with skilful observations upon it, than the utmost variety of event, without. In some previous review we have observed (and our observation is borne out by analysis), that it was the deep sense of the want of this binding and commenting power, in the old Greek drama, which gave rise to the chorus. The chorus came at length to supply, in some measure, a deficiency which is inseparable from dramatic action, and represented the expression of the public interest or sympathy in the matters transacted. The successful novelist must, in the same manner, be careful to bring into view his private interest, sympathy, and opinion, in regard to his own creations.
We have spoken of "The Poacher" at greater length than we intended; for it deserves little more than an announcement. It has the merit of a homely and not unnatural simplicity of style, and is not destitute of pathos; but this is all. Its English is excessively slovenly. Its events are monstrously improbable. There is no adaptation of parts about it. The truth is, it is a pitiable production. There are twenty young men of our acquaintance who make no pretension to literary ability, yet who could produce a better book in a week.