A Rhapsody on the Noble Profession of Novel-Reading

By Young E. Allison

old novel It must have been at about the good-bye age of forty that Thomas Moore, that choleric and pompous yet genial little Irish gentleman, turned a sigh into good marketable “copy” for Grub Street and with shrewd economy got two full pecuniary bites out of one melancholy apple of reflection:

“Kind friends around me fall
Like leaves in wintry weather,”

he sang of his own dead heart in the stilly night.

“Thus kindly I scatter thy leaves on the bed
Where thy mates of the garden lie scentless and dead.”

he sang to the dying rose. In the red month of October the rose is forty years old, as roses go. How small the world has grown to a man of forty, if he has put his eyes, his ears and his brain to the uses for which they are adapted. And as for time—why, it is no longer than a kite string. At about the age of forty everything that can happen to a man, death excepted, has happened; happiness has gone to the devil or is a mere habit; the blessing of poverty has been permanently secured or you are exhausted with the cares of wealth; you can see around the corner or you do not care to see around it; in a word—that is, considering mental existence—the bell has rung on you and you are up against a steady grind for the remainder of your life. It is then there comes to the habitual novel reader the inevitable day when, in anguish of heart, looking back over his life, he—wishes he hadn’t; then he asks himself the bitter question if there are not things he has done that he wishes he hadn’t. Melancholy marks him for its own. He sits in his room some winter evening, the lamp swarming shadowy seductions, the grate glowing with siren invitation, the cigar box within easy reach for that moment when the pending sacrifice between his teeth shall be burned out; his feet upon the familiar corner of the mantel at that automatically calculated altitude which permits the weight of the upper part of the body to fall exactly upon the second joint from the lower end of the vertebral column as it rests in the comfortable depression created by continuous wear in the cushion of that particular chair to which every honest man who has acquired the library vice sooner or later gets attached with a love no misfortune can destroy. As he sits thus, having closed the lids of, say, some old favorite of his youth, he will inevitably ask himself if it would not have been better for him if he hadn’t. And the question once asked must be answered; and it will be an honest answer, too. For no scoundrel was ever addicted to the delicious vice of novel-reading. It is too tame for him. “There is no money in it.”


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And every habitual novel-reader will answer that question he has asked himself, after a sigh. A sigh that will echo from the tropic deserted island of Juan Fernandez to that utmost ice-bound point of Siberia where by chance or destiny the seven nails in the sole of a certain mysterious person’s shoe, in the month of October, 1831, formed a cross—thus:



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while on the American promontory opposite, “a young and handsome woman replied to the man’s despairing gesture by silently pointing to heaven.” The Wandering Jew may be gone, but the theater of that appalling prologue still exists unchanged. That sigh will penetrate the gloomy cell of the Abbe Faria, the frightful dungeons of the Inquisition, the gilded halls of Vanity Fair, the deep forests of Brahmin and fakir, the jousting list, the audience halls and the petits cabinets of kings of France, sound over the trackless and storm-beaten ocean—will echo, in short, wherever warm blood has jumped in the veins of honest men and wherever vice has sooner or later been stretched groveling in the dust at the feet of triumphant virtue.

And so, sighing to the uttermost ends of the earth, the old novel-reader will confess that he wishes he hadn’t. Had not read all those novels that troop through his memory. Because, if he hadn’t—and it is the impossibility of the alternative that chills his soul with the despair of cruel realization—if he hadn’t, you see, he could begin at the very first, right then and there, and read the whole blessed business through for the first time. For the FIRST TIME, mark you! Is there anywhere in this great round world a novel reader of true genius who would not do that with the joy of a child and the thankfulness of a sage?

Such a dream would be the foundation of the story of a really noble Dr.  Faustus. How contemptible is the man who, having staked his life freely upon a career, whines at the close and begs for another chance; just one more—and a different career! It is no more than Mr. Jack Hamlin, a friend from Calaveras County, California, would call “the baby act,” or his compeer, Mr. John Oakhurst, would denominate “a squeal.” How glorious, on the other hand, is the man who has spent his life in his own way, and, at its eventide, waves his hand to the sinking sun and cries out: “Goodbye; but if I could do so, I should be glad to go over it all again with you—just as it was!” If honesty is rated in heaven as we have been taught to believe, depend upon it the novel-reader who sighs to eat the apple he has just devoured, will have no trouble hereafter.

What a great flutter was created a few years ago when a blind multi-millionaire of New York offered to pay a million dollars in cash to any scientist, savant or surgeon in the world who would restore his sight. Of course he would! It was no price at all to offer for the service—considering the millions remaining. It was no more to him than it would be to me to offer ten dollars for a peep at Paradise. Poor as I am I will give any man in the world one hundred dollars in cash who will enable me to remove every trace of memory of M. Alexandre Dumas’ “Three Guardsmen,” so that I may open that glorious book with the virgin capacity of youth to enjoy its full delight. More; I will duplicate the same offer for any one or all of the following:

“Les Miserables,” of M. Hugo.

“Don Quixote,” of Senor Cervantes.

“Vanity Fair,” of Mr. Thackeray.

“David Copperfield,” of Mr. Dickens.

“The Cloister and the Hearth,” of Mr. Reade.

And if my good friend, Isaac of York, is lending money at the old stand and will take pianos, pictures, furniture, dress suits and plain household plate as collateral, upon even moderate valuation, I will go fifty dollars each upon the following:

“The Count of Monte Cristo,” of M. Dumas.

“The Wandering Jew,” of M. Sue.

“The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq.,” of Mr. Thackeray.

“Treasure Island,” of Mr. Robbie Stevenson.

“The Vicar of Wakefield,” of Mr. Goldsmith.

“Pere Goriot,” of M. de Balzac.

“Ivanhoe,” of Baronet Scott.

(Any one previously unnamed of the whole layout of M. Dumas, excepting only a paretic volume entitled “The Conspirators.”)

Now, the man who can do the trick for one novel can do it for all—and there’s a thousand dollars waiting to be earned, and a blessing also.  It’s a bald “bluff,” of course, because it can’t be done as we all know.  I might offer a million with safety. If it ever could have been done the noble intellectual aristocracy of novel-readers would have been reduced to a condition of penury and distress centuries ago.

For, who can put fetters upon even the smallest second of eternity? Who can repeat a joy or duplicate a sweet sorrow? Who has ever had more than one first sweetheart, or more than one first kiss under the honeysuckle?  Or has ever seen his name in print for the first time, ever again? Is it any wonder that all these inexplicable longings, these hopeless hopes, were summed up in the heart-cry of Faust—

“Stay, yet awhile, O moment of beauty.”


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Yet, I maintain, Dr. Faustus was a weak creature. He begged to be given another and wholly different chance to linger with beauty. How much nobler the magnificent courage of the veteran novel-reader, who in the old age of his service, asks only that he may be permitted to do again all that he has done, blindly, humbly, loyally, as before.

Don’t I know? Have I not been there? It is no child’s play, the life of a man who—paraphrasing the language of Spartacus, the much neglected hero of the ages—has met upon the printed page every shape of perilous adventure and dangerous character that the broad empire of fiction could furnish, and never yet lowered his arm. Believe me it is no carpet duty to have served on the British privateers in Guiana, under Commodore Kingsley, alongside of Salvation Yeo; to have been a loyal member of Thuggee and cast the scarf for Bowanee; to have watched the tortures of Beatrice Cenci (pronounced as written in honest English, and I spit upon the weaklings of the service who imagine that any freak of woman called Bee-ah-treech-y Chon-chy could have endured the agonies related of that sainted lady)--to have watched those tortures, I say, without breaking down; to have fought under the walls of Acre with Richard Coeur de Lion; to have crawled, amid rats and noxious vapors, with Jean Valjean through the sewers of Paris; to have dragged weary miles through the snow with Uncas, Chief of the Mohicans; to have lived among wild beasts with Morok the lion tamer; to have charged with the impis of Umslopogaas; to have sailed before the mast with Vanderdecken, spent fourteen gloomy years in the next cell to Edmund Dantes, ferreted out the murders in the Rue Morgue, advised Monsieur Le Cocq and given years of life’s prime in tedious professional assistance to that anointed idiot and pestiferous scoundrel, Tittlebat Titmouse! Equally, of course, it has not been all horror and despair. Life averages up fairly, as any novel-reader will admit, and there has been much of delight—even luxury and idleness—between the carnage hours of battle. Is it not so? Ask that boyish-hearted old scamp whom you have seen scuttling away from the circulating library with M. St. Pierre’s memoirs of young Paul and his beloved Virginia under his arm; or stepping briskly out of the book store hugging to his left side a carefully wrapped biography of Lady Diana Vernon, Mlle. de la Valliere, or Madame Margaret Woffington; or in fact any of a thousand charming ladies whom it is certain he had met before. Ladies too, who, born whensoever, are not one day older since he last saw them. Nearly a hundred years of Parisian residence have not served to induce the Princess Haydee of Yanina to forego her picturesque Greek gowns and coiffures, or to alter the somewhat embarrassing status of her relations with her striking but gloomy protector, the Count of Monte Cristo.

The old memories are crowded with pleasures. Those delicious mornings in the alley of the park, where you were permitted to see Cosette with her old grandfather, M. Fauchelevent; those hours of sweet pain when it was impossible to determine whether it was Rebecca or Rowena who seemed to give most light to the day; the flirtations with Blanche Amory, and the notes placed in the hollow tree; the idyllic devotion of Little Emily, dating from the morning when you saw her dress fluttering on the beam as she ran along it, lightly, above the flowing tide--(devotion that is yet tender, for, God forgive you Steerforth as I do, you could not smirch that pure heart;) the melancholy, yet sweet sorrow, with which you saw the loved and lost Little Eva borne to her grave over which the mocking-bird now sings his liquid requiem. Has it not been sweet good fortune to love Maggie Tulliver, Margot of Savoy, Dora Spenlow (undeclared because she was an honest wife—even though of a most conceited and commonplace jackass, totally undeserving of her); Agnes Wicklow (a passion quickly cured when she took Dora’s pitiful leavings), and poor ill-fated Marie Antoinette? You can name dozens if you have been brought up in good literary society.


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These love affairs may be owned freely, as being perfectly honorable, even if hopeless. And, of course, there have been gallantries—mere affaires du jour—such as every man occasionally engages in. Sometimes they seemed serious, but only for a moment. There was Beatrix Esmond, for whom I could certainly have challenged His Grace of Hamilton, had not Lord Mohun done the work for me. Wandering down the street in London one night, in a moment of weak admiration for her unrivalled nerve and aplomb, I was hesitating—whether to call on Mrs. Rawdon Crawley, knowing that her thick-headed husband was in hoc for debt—when the door of her house crashed open and that old scoundrel, Lord Steyne, came wildly down the steps, his livid face blood-streaked, his topcoat on his arm and a dreadful look in his eye. The world knows the rest as I learned it half an hour later at the greengrocer’s, where the Crawleys owed an inexcusably large bill. Then the Duchess de Langeais—but all this is really private.

After all, a man never truly loves but once. And somewhere in Scotland there is a mound above the gentle, tender and heroic Helen Mar, where lies buried the first love of my soul. That mound, O lovely and loyal Helen, was watered by the first blinding and unselfish tears that ever sprang from my eyes. You were my first love; others may come and inevitably they go, but you are still here, under the pencil pocket of my waistcoat.

Who can write in such a state? It is only fair to take a rest and brace up.







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