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Modern Fiction
by [?]

It is scarcely possible to touch upon our recent fiction, any more than upon our recent poetry, without taking into account what is called the Esthetic movement–a movement more prominent in England than elsewhere. A slight contemplation of this reveals its resemblance to the Romantic movement in Germany, of which the brothers Schlegel were apostles, in the latter part of the last century. The movements are alike in this: that they both sought inspiration in mediaevalism, in feudalism, in the symbols of a Christianity that ran to mysticism, in the quaint, strictly pre-Raphael art which was supposed to be the result of a simple faith. In the one case, the artless and childlike remains of old German pictures and statuary were exhumed and set up as worthy of imitation; in the other, we have carried out in art, in costume, and in domestic life, so far as possible, what has been wittily and accurately described as “stained-glass attitudes.” With all its peculiar vagaries, the English school is essentially a copy of the German, in its return to mediaevalism. The two movements have a further likeness, in that they are found accompanied by a highly symbolized religious revival. English aestheticism would probably disown any religious intention, although it has been accused of a refined interest in Pan and Venus; but in all its feudal sympathies it goes along with the religious art and vestment revival, the return to symbolic ceremonies, monastic vigils, and sisterhoods. Years ago, an acute writer in the Catholic World claimed Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a Catholic writer, from the internal evidence of his poems. The German Romanticism, which was fostered by the Romish priesthood, ended, or its disciples ended, in the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church. It will be interesting to note in what ritualistic harbor the aestheticism of our day will finally moor. That two similar revivals should come so near together in time makes us feel that the world moves onward–if it does move onward–in circular figures of very short radii. There seems to be only one thing certain in our Christian era, and that is a periodic return to classic models; the only stable standards of resort seem to be Greek art and literature.

The characteristics which are prominent, when we think of our recent fiction, are a wholly unidealized view of human society, which has got the name of realism; a delight in representing the worst phases of social life; an extreme analysis of persons and motives; the sacrifice of action to psychological study; the substitution of studies of character for anything like a story; a notion that it is not artistic, and that it is untrue to nature, to bring any novel to a definite consummation, and especially to end it happily; and a despondent tone about society, politics, and the whole drift of modern life. Judged by our fiction, we are in an irredeemably bad way. There is little beauty, joy, or light-heartedness in living; the spontaneity and charm of life are analyzed out of existence; sweet girls, made to love and be loved, are extinct; melancholy Jaques never meets a Rosalind in the forest of Arden, and if he sees her in the drawing-room he poisons his pleasure with the thought that she is scheming and artificial; there are no happy marriages –indeed, marriage itself is almost too inartistic to be permitted by our novelists, unless it can be supplemented by a divorce, and art is supposed to deny any happy consummation of true love. In short, modern society is going to the dogs, notwithstanding money is only three and a half per cent. It is a gloomy business life, at the best. Two learned but despondent university professors met, not long ago, at an afternoon “coffee,” and drew sympathetically together in a corner. “What a world this would be,” said one, “without coffee!” “Yes,” replied the other, stirring the fragrant cup in a dejected aspect “yes; but what a hell of a world it is with coffee!”