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NOVELS, TALES, AND PROSE WORKS
Tales of Fashionable Life. By Miss EDGEWORTH, Author of
“ Practical Education," “ Belinda,” “Castle Rackrent,” &c. 12mo. 3 vols. London: 1809.
If it were possible for reviewers to Envy the authors who are brought before them for judgment, we rather think we should be tempted to envy Miss Edgeworth;not, however, so much for her matchless powers of probable invention - her never-failing good sense and cheerfulness — nor her fine discrimination of characters — as for the delightful consciousness of having done more good than any other writer, male or female, of her
generation. Other arts and sciences have their use, no doubt; and, Heaven knows, they have their reward and their fame. But the great art is the art of living; and the chief science the science of being happy. Where there is an absolute deficiency of good sense, these cannot indeed be taught; and, with an extraordinary share of it, they may be acquired without an instructor: but the most common case is, to be capable of learning, and yet to require teaching; and a far greater part of the misery which exists in society arises from ignorance, than either from vice or from incapacity.
Miss Edgeworth is the great modern mistress in this school of true philosophy; and has eclipsed, we think, the fame of all her predecessors. By her many excellent tracts on education, she has conferred a benefit on the
- FASHIONABLE TALES.
whole mass of the population; and discharged, with exemplary patience as well as extraordinary judgment, a task which superficial spirits may perhaps mistake for an humble and easy one." By her Popular Tales, she has rendered an invaluable service to the middling and lower orders of the people; and by her novels, and by the volumes before us, has made a great and meritorious effort to promote the happiness and respectability of the higher classes. On a former occasion we believe we hinted to her, that these would probably be the least successful of all her labours; and that it was doubtful whether she could be justified for bestowing so much of her time on the case of a few persons, who scarcely deserved to be cured, and were scarcely capable of being corrected. The foolish and unhappy part of the fashionable world, for the most part, “is not fit to bear itself convinced.” It is too vain, too busy, and too dissipated to listen to, or remember any thing that is said to it. Every thing serious it repels, by "its dear wit and gay rhetoric;" and against every thing poignant, it seeks shelter in the impenetrable armour of its conjunct audacity.
“ Laugh'd at, it laughs again ; — and, stricken hard,
Turns to the stroke its adamantine scales,
A book, on the other hand, and especially a witty and popular book, is still a thing of consequence, to such of the middling classes of society as are in the habit of reading. They dispute about it, and think of it; and as they occasionally make themselves ridiculous by copying the manners it displays, so they are apt to be impressed with the great lessons it may be calculated to teach ; and, on the whole, receive it into considerable authority among the regulators of their lives and opinions. But a fashionable person has scarcely any leisure to read; and none to think of what he has been reading. It would be a derogation from his dignity to speak of a book in any terms but those of frivolous derision; and a strange desertion of his own superiority, to allow himself to receive,
PRESCRIBES FOR ENNUI AND LOVE OF FASHION.
from its perusal any impressions which could at all affect his conduct or opinions.
But though, for these reasons, we continue to think that Miss Edgeworth's fashionable patients will do less credit to her prescriptions than the more numerous classes to whom they might have been directed, we admit that her plan of treatment is in the highest degree judicious, and her conception of the disorder most luminous and precise.
There are two great sources of unhappiness to those whom fortune and nature seem to have placed above the reach of ordinary miseries. The one is ennui -- that stagnation of life and feeling which results from the absence of all motives to exertion; and by which the justice of providence has so fully compensated the partiality of fortune, that it may be fairly doubted whether, upon the whole, the race of beggars is not happier than the race of lords and whether those vulgar wants that are sometimes so importunate, are not, in this world, the chief ministers of enjoyment. This is a plague that infects all indolent persons who can live on in the rank in which they were born, without the necessity of working: but, in a free country, it rarely occurs in any great degree of virulence, except among those who are already at the summit of human felicity. Below this, there is room for ambition, and envy, and emulation, and all the feverish movements of aspiring vanity and unresting selfishness, which act as prophylactics against this more dark and deadly distemper. It is the canker which corrodes the full-blown flower of human felicity — the pestilence which sinites at the bright hour of noon.
The other curse of the happy, has a range more wide and indiscriminate. It, too, tortures only the comparatively rich and fortunate; but is most active among the least distinguished; and abates in malignity as we ascend to the lofty regions of pure ennui. This is the desire of being fashionable ;—the restless and insatiable passion to pass for creatures a little more distinguished than we really are— with the mortification of frequent failure, and the humiliating consciousness of being perpetually
WORKS FOR INCURABLES,
exposed to it. Among those who are secure of “ meat, clothes, and fire," and are thus above the chief physical evils of existence, we do believe that this is a more prolific source of unhappiness, than guilt, disease, or wounded affection; and that more positive misery is created, and more true enjoyment excluded, by the eternal fretting and straining of this pitiful ambition, than by all the ravages of passion, the desolations of war, or the accidents of mortality. This may appear a strong statement; but we make it deliberately, and are deeply convinced of its truth. The wretchedness which it
produces may not be so intense; but it is of much longer duration, and spreads over a far wider circle. It is quite dreadful, indeed, to think what a sweep this pest has taken among the comforts of our prosperous population. To be thought fashionable—that is, to be thought more opulent and tasteful, and on a footing of intimacy with a greater number of distinguished persons than they really are, is the great and laborious pursuit of four families out of five, the members of which are exempted from the necessity of daily industry. In this pursuit, their time, spirits, and talents are wasted; their tempers, soured; their affections palsied ; and their natural manners and dispositions altogether sophisticated and lost.
These are the giant curses of fashionable life; and Miss Edgeworth has accordingly dedicated her two best tales to the delineation of their symptoms. The history of “Lord Glenthorn” is a fine picture of ennui —that of “ Almeria” an instructive representation of the miseries of aspirations after fashion. We do not know whether it was a part of the fair writer's design to represent these maladies as absolutely incurable, without a change of condition ; but the fact is, that in spite of the best dispositions and capacities, and the most powerful inducements to action, the hero of ennui makes no advances towards amendment, till he is deprived of his title and estate! and the victiin of fashion is left, at the end of the tale, pursuing her weary career, with fading hopes and wasted spirits, but with increased anxiety and per: severance. The moral use of these narratives, therefore,
ENNUYÉS, AND MANEUVRERS.
must consist in warning us against the first approaches of evils which can never afterwards be resisted.
These are the great twin scourges of the prosperous: But there are other maladies, of no slight malignity, to which they are peculiarly liable. One of these, arising mainly from want of more worthy occupation, is that perpetual use of stratagem and contrivance— that little, artful diplomacy of private life, by which the simplest and most natural transactions are rendered complicated and difficult, and the common business of existence made to depend on the success of plots and counterplots. By the incessant practice of this petty policy, a habit of duplicity and anxiety is infallibly generated, which is equally fatal to integrity and enjoyment. We gradually come to look on others with the distrust which we are conscious of deserving; and are insensibly formed to sentiments of the most unamiable selfishness and suspicion. It is needless to say, that all these elaborate artifices are worse than useless to the person who employs them; and that the ingenious plotter is almost always baffled and exposed by the downright honesty of some undesigning competitor. Miss Edgeworth, in her tale of “Maneuvring,” has given a very complete and most entertaining representation of "the by-paths and indirect crook'd ways,” by which these artful and inefficient people generally make their way to disappointment. In the tale, entitled “Madame de Fleury,” she has given some useful examples of the ways in which the rich may most effectually do good to the poor — an operation which, we really believe, fails more frequently from want of ski than of inclination: And, in “ The Dun,” she has drawn a touching and most impressive picture of the wretchedness which the poor so frequently suffer, from the unfeeling thoughtlessness which withholds from them the scanty earnings of their labour.
Of these tales, “ Ennui" is the best and the most entertaining — though the leading character is somewhat caricatured, and the dénouement is brought about by a discovery which shocks by its needless improbability. Lord Glenthorn is bred up, by a false and indulgent