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On Novels (Written In A Lady’s Album)
by [?]

A false ridicule has settled upon Novels, and upon Young Ladies as the readers of novels. Love, we are told authoritatively, has not that importance in the actual practice of life–nor that extensive influence upon human affairs–which novel-writers postulate, and which the interest of novels presumes. Something to this effect has been said by an eminent writer; and the law is generally laid down upon these principles by cynical old men, and envious blue-stockings who have outlived their personal attractions. The sentiment however is false even for the present condition of society; and it will become continually more false as society improves. For what is the great commanding event, the one sole revolution, in a woman’s life? Marriage. Viewing her course from the cradle to the grave in the light of a drama, I am entitled to say that her wedding-day is its catastrophe–or, in technical language, its peripeteia: whatever else is important to her in succeeding years has its origin in that event. So much for that sex. For the other, it is admitted that Love is not, in the same exclusive sense, the governing principle under which their lives move: but what then are the concurrent forces, which sometimes happen to cooeperate with that agency–but more frequently disturb it? They are two; Ambition, and Avarice. Now for the vast majority of men–Ambition, or the passion for personal distinction, has too narrow a stage of action, its grounds of hope are too fugitive and unsteady, to furnish any durable or domineering influence upon the course of life. Avarice again is so repulsive to the native nobility of the human heart, that it rarely obtains the dignity of a passion: great energy of character is requisite to form a consistent and accomplished miser: and of the mass of men it may be said–that, if the beneficence of nature has in some measure raised them above avarice by the necessity of those social instincts which she has impressed upon their hearts, in some measure also they sink below it by their deficiencies in that austerity of self-denial and that savage strength of will which are indispensable qualifications for the role of heroic miser. A perfect miser in fact is a great man, and therefore a very rare one. Take away then the two forces of Ambition and Avarice,–what remains even to the male sex as a capital and overruling influence in life, except the much nobler force of Love? History confirms this view: the self-devotions and the voluntary martyrdoms of all other passions collectively have been few by comparison with those which have been offered at the altar of Love. If society should ever make any great advance, and man as a species grow conspicuously nobler, Love also will grow nobler; and a passion, which at present is possible in any elevated form for one perhaps in a hundred, will then be coextensive with the human heart.

On this view of the grandeur which belongs to the passion of Sexual Love in the economy of life, as it is and as it may be, Novels have an all-sufficient justification; and Novel-readers are obeying a higher and more philosophic impulse than they are aware of. They seek an imaginary world where the harsh hindrances, which in the real one too often fret and disturb the ‘course of true love,’ may be forced to bend to the claims of justice and the pleadings of the heart. In company with the agitations and the dread suspense–the anguish and the tears, which so often wait upon the uncertainties of earthly love, they demand at the hands of the Novelist a final event corresponding to the natural award of celestial wisdom and benignity. What they are striving after, in short, is–to realize an ideal; and to reproduce the actual world under more harmonious arrangements. This is the secret craving of the reader; and Novels are shaped to meet it. With what success, is a separate and independent question: the execution cannot prejudice the estimate of their aim and essential purpose.

Fair and unknown Owner of this Album, whom perhaps I have never seen–whom perhaps I never shall see, pardon me for wasting two pages of your elegant manual upon this semi-metaphysical disquisition. Let the subject plead my excuse. And believe that I am, Fair Incognita!

Your faithful servant,
THOMAS DE QUINCEY.

Professor Wilson’s–Glocester Place, Edinburgh.

Friday night, December 3, 1830.