Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Review of Guy Fawkes” [Text-02], Graham's Magazine, November 1841, pp. 248-249


[page 248:]


Guy Fawkes; or The Gunpowder Treason. An Historical Romance. By WILLIAM HARRISON AINSWORTH, Author of “The Tower of London,” “Jack Sheppard,” &c. Philadelphia. Lea and Blanchard.

WHAT Mr. William Harrison Ainsworth had been doing before he wrote “Rookwood” is uncertain; but it seems to us that he made his literary début with that work. It was generally commended; but we found no opportunity of perusing it. “Crichton” followed, and this we read; for our curiosity was much excited in regard to it by certain discrepancies of critical opinion. In one or two instances it was unequivocally condemned as “flat, stale and unprofitable,” although, to be sure, the critics, in these one or two instances, were men of little note. The more prevalent idea appeared to be that the book was a miracle of wit and wisdom, and that Ainsworth who wrote “Crichton,” was in fact Crichton redivivus. We have now before us a number of a Philadelphia Magazine for the month of April, 1840, in which the learned editor thus speaks of the work in question — “Mr. Ainsworth is a powerful writer; his ‘Crichton’ stands at the head of the long list of English novelsunapproachable and alone. . . . This great glory is fairly Mr. Ainsworth's due, and in our humble opinion, the fact is incontrovertible.” Upon a perusal of the novel so belauded, we found it a somewhat ingenious admixture of pedantry, bombast, and rigmarole. No man ever read “Crichton” through twice. From beginning to end it is one continued abortive effort at effect. The writer keeps us in a perpetual state of preparation for something magnificent; but the something magnificent never arrives. He is always saying to the reader, directly or indirectly, “now, in a very brief time, you shall see what you shall see!” The reader turns over the page in expectation, and meets with nothing beyond the same everlasting assurance: — another page and the same result — another and still the same — and so on to the end of the performance. One cannot help fancying the novelist in some perplexing dream — one of those frequently recurring visions, half night-mare half asphyxia, in which the sufferer, although making the most strenuous efforts to run, finds a walk or a crawl thene plus ultra of his success in locomotion.

The plot is monstrously improbable, and yet not so much improbable as inconsequential. A German critic would say that the whole is excessively ill-motivert. No one action follows necessarily upon any one other. There is, at all times, the greatest parade of measures, but measures that have no comprehensible result. The author works busily for a chapter or two with a view of bringing matters in train for a certain end; and then suffers this end to be either omitted — unaccomplished — or brought to pass by accidental and irrelevant circumstances. The reader of taste very soon perceives this defect in the conduct of the story, and, ceasing to feel any interest in marches and countermarches that promise no furtherance of any object, abandons himself to the investigation of the page only which is immediately before him. Despairing of all amusement from the construction [column 2:] of the book, he falls back upon its immediate descriptions. But, alas, what is there here to excite any emotion in the bosom of a well-read man, beyond that of contempt? If an occasional interest is aroused, he feels it due, not to the novelist, but to the historical reminiscences which even that novelist's inanity cannot render altogether insipid. The turgid pretension of the style annoys, and the elaborately-interwoven pedantry irritates, insults, and disgusts. He must be blind, indeed, who cannot understand the great pains taken by Mr. Ainsworth to interlard the book in question with second-hand bits of classical and miscellaneous erudition; and he must be equally blind who cannot perceive that this is the chicanery which has so impressed the judgment, and dazzled the imagination of such critics as he of the aforesaid Magazine. We know nothing at all of Mr. Ainsworth's scholarship. There are some very equivocal blunders in “Crichton,” to be sure; but Ainsworth is a classical name, and we must make very great allowances for the usual errors of press. We say, however, that, from all that appears in the novel in question, he may be as really ignorant as a bear. True erudition — by which term we here mean only to imply much diversified reading — is certainly discoverable — is positively indicated only in its ultimate and total results. We have observed elsewhere, that the mere grouping together of fine things from the greatest multiplicity of the rarest works, or even the apparently natural inweaving into any composition of the sentiments and manner of these works, is an attainment within the reach of every moderately-informed, ingenious, and not indolent man, having access to any ordinary collection of good books. Of all vanities the vanity of the unlettered pedant is the most sickening, and the most transparent.

Mr. Ainsworth having thus earned for himself the kind of renown which “Crichton” could establish with the rabble, made his next appearance before that rabble with “Jack Sheppard.” Seeing what we have just seen, we should by no means think it wonderful that this romance threw into the greatest astonishment the little critics who so belauded the one preceding. They could not understand it at all. They would not believe that the same author had written both. Thus they condemned it in loud terms. The Magazine before alluded to, styles it, in round terms, “the most corrupt, flat, and vulgar fabrication in the English language . . . a disgrace to the literature of the day.” Corrupt and vulgar it undoubtedly is, but it is by no means soflat (if we understand the critic's idea of the term) as the “Crichton” to which it is considered so terribly inferior. By “ flat” we presume “uninteresting” is intended. To us, at least, no novel was less interesting than “Crichton,” and the only interest which it could have had for any reader must have arisen from admiration excited by the ap-parently miraculous learning of the plagiarist, and from the air of owlish profundity which he contrives to throw over the work. The interest, if any, must have had regard to the author and not to his book. Viewed as a work of art, and without reference to any supposed moral or immoral tendencies, (things with which the critic has nothing [page 249:] to do) “Jack Sheppard” is by no means the very wretched composition which some gentlemen would have us believe. Its condemnation has been brought about by the revulsion consequent upon the exaggerated estimate of “Crichton.” It is altogether a much better book than “Crichton.” Although its incidents are improbable — (the frequent miraculous escapes of the hero, for instance, without competent means) still they are not, as in “Crichton,” at the same time inconsequential. Admitting the facts, these facts hang together sufficiently well. Nor is there any bombast of style; this negative merit, to be sure, being no merit of the author's, but an enforced one resulting from the subject. The chief defect of the work is a radical one, the nature and effect of which we were at some pains to point out in a late notice of Captain Marryatt's “Poacher.” The story being, no doubt, written to order, for Magazine purposes, and in a violent hurry, has been scrambled through by means of incident solely. It is totally wanting in the autorial comment. The writer never pauses to speak, in his own person, of what is going on. It is possible to have too much of this comment; but it is far easier to have too little. The most tedious books, ceteris paribus, are those which have none at all. “Sir Charles Grandison,” “Clarissa Harlowe,” and the “Ernest Maltravers” of Bulwer embody instances of its superabundance. The genius of the author of “Pelham” is in nothing more evident than in the interest which he has infused into some of his late works in spite of their ultra-didacticism. The “Poacher” just mentioned, and “The Arabian Nights” are examples of deficiency in the commenting principle, and are both intolerably tedious in spite of their rich variety of incident. The juste milieu was never more admirably attained than in De Foe's “Robinson Crusoe” and in the “Caleb Williams” of Godwin. This latter work, from the character of its incidents, affords a fine opportunity of contrast with “Jack Sheppard.” In both novels the hero escapes repeatedly from prison. In the work of Ainsworth the escapes are merely narrated. In that of Godwin they are discussed. With the latter we become at once absorbed in those details which so manifestly absorb his own soul. We read with the most breathless attention. We close the book with a real regret. The former puts us out of all patience. His marvels have a nakedness which repels. Nothing he relates seems either probable or possible, or of the slightest interest, whether the one or the other. His hero impresses us as a mere chimÆra with whom we have no earthly concern, and when he makes his final escape and comes to the gallows, we would feel a very sensible relief, but for the impracticability of hanging up Mr. Ainsworth in his stead. But if “Jack Sheppard” is a miserably inartistical book, still it is by no means so utterly contemptible and silly as the tawdry stuff which has been pronounced “ the best of English novels, standing at the head of the long list unapproachable and alone!”

Of “The Tower of London” we have read only some detached passages — enough to assure us, however, that the “work,” like Yankee razors, has been manufactured merely “to sell.” “Guy Fawkes,” the book now lying before us, and the slast completed production of its author, is positively beneath criticism and beneath contempt. The design of Mr. Ainsworth has been to fill, for a certain sum of money, a stipulated number of pages. There existed a necessity of engaging the readers whom especially he now addresses — that is to say the lowest order of the lettered mob — a necessity of enticing them into the commencement of a perusal. For this end the title “Guy Fawkes or The Gunpowder Plot” was all sufficient, at least within the regions of Cockaigne. As for fulfilling any reasonable expectations, derived either from the ad cap-tandum title, or from his own notoriety (we dare not say reputation) as a novelist — as for exerting himself for the permanent or continuous amusement of the poor flies whom he had inveigled into his trap — all this, [column 2:] with him, has been a consideration of no moment. He had a task to perform, and not a duty. What were his readers to Mr. Ainsworth? “What Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?” The result of such a state of affairs is self-evident. With his best exertions, in his earliest efforts, with all the goadings of a sickening vanity which stood him well instead of nobler ambition — with all this, he could do — he has done — but little; and without them he has now accomplished exactly nothing at all. If ever, indeed, a novel were less than nothing, then that novel is “Guy Fawkes.” To say a word about it in the way of serious criticism, would be to prove ourselves as great a blockhead as its author. Macte virtute, my dear sir — proceed and flourish. In the meantime we bid you a final farewell. Your next volume, which will have some such appellation as “The Ghost of Cock-Lane,” we shall take the liberty of throwing unopened out of the window. Our pigs are not all of the description called learned, but they will have more leisure for its examination than we.





[S:0 - GM, 1841] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Review of Guy Fawkes [Text-02]