Sept. 29, 1894. The “Great Heart” of the Public.
I observe that our hoary friend, the Great Heart of the Public, has been taking his annual outing in September. Thanks to the German Emperor and the new head of the House of Orleans, he has had the opportunity of a stroll through the public press arm in arm with his old crony and adversary, the Divine Right of Kings. And the two have gone once more a-roaming by the light of the moon, to drop a tear, perchance, on the graves of the Thin End of the Wedge and the Stake in the Country. You know the unhappy story?–how the Wedge drove its thin end into the Stake, with fatal results: and how it died of remorse and was buried at the cross-roads with the Stake in its inside! It is a pathetic tale, and the Great Heart of the Public can always be trusted to discriminate true pathos from false.
Miss Marie Corelli’s Opinion of it.
It was Mr. G.B. Burgin, in the September number of the Idler, who let the Great Heart loose this time–unwittingly, I am sure; for Mr. Burgin, when he thinks for himself (as he usually does), writes sound sense and capital English. But in the service of Journalism Mr. Burgin called on Miss Marie Corelli, the authoress of Barabbas, and asked what she thought of the value of criticism. Miss Corelli “idealised the subject by the poetic manner in which she mingled tea and criticism together.” She said–
“I think authors do not sufficiently bear in mind the important fact that, in this age of ours, the public thinks for itself much more extensively than we give it credit for. It is a cultured public, and its great brain is fully capable of deciding things. It rather objects to be treated like a child and told ‘what to read and what to avoid’; and, moreover, we must not fail to note that it mistrusts criticism generally, and seldom reads ‘reviews.’ And why? Simply ‘logrolling.’ It is perfectly aware, for instance, that Mr. Theodore Watts is logroller-in-chief to Mr. Swinburne; that Mr. Le Gallienne ‘rolls’ greatly for Mr. Norman Gale; and that Mr. Andrew Lang tumbles his logs along over everything for as many as his humour fits….”
–I don’t know the proportion of tea to criticism in all this: but Miss Corelli can hardly be said to “idealise the subject” here:–
“… The public is the supreme critic; and though it does not write in the Quarterly or the Nineteenth Century, it thinks and talks independently of everything and everybody, and on its thought and word alone depends the fate of any piece of literature.”
Mr. Hall Caine’s View.
Then Mr. Burgin called on Mr. Hall Caine, who “had just finished breakfast.” Mr. Hall Caine gave reasons which compelled him to believe that “for good or bad, criticism is a tremendous force.” But he, too, confessed that in his opinion the public is the “ultimate critic.” “It often happens that the public takes books on trust from the professed guides of literature, but if the books are not right, it drops them.” And he proceeded to make an observation, with which we may most cordially agree. “I am feeling,” he said, “increasingly, day by day, that rightness in imaginative writing is more important than subject, or style, or anything else. If a story is right in its theme, and the evolution of its theme, it will live; if it is not right, it will die, whatever its secondary literary qualities.”
In what sense the Public is the “Ultimate Critic.”
I say that we may agree with this most cordially: and it need not cost us much to own that the public is the “ultimate critic,” if we mean no more than this, that, since the public holds the purse, it rests ultimately with the public to buy, or neglect to buy, an author’s books. That, surely, is obvious enough without the aid of fine language. But if Mr. Hall Caine mean that the public, without instruction from its betters, is the best judge of a book; if he consent with Miss Corelli that the general public is a cultured public with a great brain, and by the exercise of that great brain approves itself an infallible judge of the rightness or wrongness of a book, then I would respectfully ask for evidence. The poets and critics of his time united in praising Campion as a writer of lyrics: the Great Brain and Heart of the Public neglected him utterly for three centuries: then a scholar and critic arose and persuaded the public that Campion was a great lyrical writer: and now the public accepts him as such. Shall we say, then, the Great Heart of the Public is the “ultimate judge” of Campion’s lyrics? Perhaps: but we might as well praise for his cleanliness a boy who has been held under the pump. When Martin Farquhar Tupper wrote, the Great Heart of the Public expanded towards him at once. The public bought his effusions by tens of thousands. Gradually the small voice of skilled criticism made itself heard, and the public grew ashamed of itself; and, at length, laughed at Tupper. Shall we, then, call the public the ultimate judge of Tupper? Perhaps: but we might as well praise the continence of a man who turns in disgust from drink on the morning after a drunken fit.[A]