Margaret Oliphant’s essay ‘The Byways of Literature: Reading for the Million’ (1858) is something of a seminal study in literature and popular culture. Her elegant piece is by turns endearing — particularly in her approval of our man Smith — and a worry for its tone of condescension towards ‘the Million,’ meaning the multitude, the ‘lower classes’.
Let us give the masses all credit for their gift of reading; but before we glorify ourselves over the march of intelligence, let us pause first to look into their books.
There is an irony, which is to some extent to be borne out:
These unfortunate masses! When first the schoolmaster began to be abroad, how tenderly we took care of the improvement of their minds, and how zealously exerted ourselves to make literature a universal dominie, graciously enlightening the neophyte on every subject under heaven!
Edinburgh-born ‘Mrs Oliphant’ (née Wilson, 1828–97) did not herself hail from an aristocratic background but a more bourgeois family. Her father was employed as a clerk in the customs and excise service, and she was afforded an education solid enough for her subsequently to produce more than ninety novels, among more than one hundred books. She was well received by critics and was Queen Victoria’s favourite novelist.
She fell out of currency until the late twentieth century, when some of her works returned into print, in an atmosphere of renewed interest in women’s writing. Merryn Williams compares her to Jane Austen and George Eliot and considers her ‘indispensible reading for anyone interested in women in the nineteenth century‘ (Women in the English Novel, 1800–1900).
Bear in mind that the occasional tone of condescension I mentioned is characteristic of the era, in which a revolution in industry — including the attachment of a steam engine to a rotary printing press capable of printing on both sides of a sheet of paper — made possible the production of millions of copies of a single page in a day, and thus the birth of a mass media. Political, moral and financial imperatives came into play: on the one hand, considerations of the education, edification, ‘betterment’ and socializing of the masses; on the other, anxieties about the breakdown of social order.
Questions arose such as, What kind of reading is appropriate for the working class (obviously, something useful)? And even fears about the ‘contamination’ of one class by another — more than a metaphor when it came down to instituting public libraries.
In her essay, Oliphant writes of a summer afternoon in a cathedral town. She has charge of a restless child, whom she takes to a grassy patch by the cathedral, beyond the ‘verdant turf of the cathedral close’, having spent sixpence on some miscellaneous literature to amuse her with. The child is more fascinated with the ‘living daisies outside better than the dead effigies within’, and Oliphant spreads the papers out on the grass.
Grave literature and learning, decorum and dignity, the authorities of society, stood represented in those grave old houses, from which no careless human eye looked out; and scattered over the daisies, with the wind among their leaves, lay the unauthoritative, undignified, unlearned broadsheets, which represent literature to a great portion of our country people, despite of all the better provision made for their pleasure.
There could not possibly be a more marked or total contrast than between the object of our immediate attention and the scene.
Thus is revealed an epiphany, which is not too far from the reader-response and reception theories of nowadays, to the effect that, ‘the multitude’, the reading public — those girls in the mills — will freely take what it pleases and do as it likes with the literature that is put in front of it. And so it ought.
But here’s the good part. Whom should she uncover from her little trove of cheap writings among the daisies? Of course:
Here is one personage, for instance, whom rival publications vie for the possession of, and whom the happy successful competitor advertises with all the glow and effusion of conscious triumph,—J. F.; nay, let us be particular,— John Frederick Smith, Esq. This gentleman is a great author, though nobody (who is anybody) ever was aware of it […]
[Y]et we protest we never read a word of his writings, nor heard a whisper of his existence, until we spread out our sixpenny budget of light literature upon the June daisies. What matter? His portrait, from a photograph by Mayall, may be had in those regions where his sway is acknowledged; and the everybody, who is nobody, bestows upon him that deep-rolling subterraneous universal applause which is fame.
Goliah Gob’s Watch — Great Excitement in the Village of Deerhurst — Two Fathers and Two Sons — Viscount Allworth and Lord Bury — The Schoolmaster and Benoni
Our readers, we flatter ourself, will step back with pleasure to see what some of their old acquaintances have been doing all this time.
There was great excitement in the village of Deerhurst when it was known that Goliah Gob had received a splendid gold watch from one of the girls he assisted to rescue, and the interest was still further increased by the mysterious manner in which it had been conveyed to him — left at his mother’s farm by an itinerant preacher who had slept at the house overnight, and found on the table in his room, addressed to the honest rustic.
It was a great puzzle to him, no doubt. But the London lawyer knew how to choose his agents.
Peggy Hurst spitefully declared, without ever seeing it, that the watch would prove brass. Even Susan doubted, but it might be otherwise.
We wonder if she had an eye to future contingencies. At any rate, she gave her mother, who watched her with the stealthiness of a lynx, no reasonable cause of complaint. She quitted her home, which had become intolerably dull since the departure of William, only on Sundays, to accompany her father to church. Not even his wife’s influence could prevent the old man from attending it. He had done naught to disgrace himself, he said, and would not give his neighbours cause to blame him.
Mrs. Hurst prudently abstained. She had not forgotten the scene in the justice room at Squire Tyrell’s, the insults of the crowd, and above all, the triumphant, jeering glances of the Widow Gob.
Absenting herself from church was the one weak spot in the programme she had traced for keeping Goliah and her daughter apart. There might be nothing between them at present; she admitted that, and determined within herself there never should be if she could prevent it.
The last few days had greatly intensified her hatred of the Gob dynasty.
‘Mind and return as soon as the service is over,’ she said, after carefully tying her husband’s cravat.
‘I don’t expect anyone will invite us to stay,’ observed her husband, dryly.
‘And look closely after Susan,’ added his wife.
‘Aye, aye. I’ll take care on her.’
‘And watch if she exchanges looks or words with any of the singers in the organ galleries.’
‘I can’t,’ said the farmer.
‘I won’t,’ he added, firmly. ‘Susan be a good girl. Why should I play the spy upon her and feel ashamed to look my own child in the face? And it is my opinion there be naught to spy out. Now you know my meaning.’
Mrs. Hurst looked thunderstruck. It was the first symptom of rebellion against domestic government that had occurred since they had been married. No wonder it startled, if it did not greatly alarm her.
As for her daughter, she appeared rather amused than otherwise at her mother’s astonishment. Possibly she also did not place much confidence in her father’s resolution.
‘Peter,’ gasped his wife, in a tragic tone, ‘answer me one question.’
‘I will if I can.’
‘Are you in your right senses?’
‘No.’ The admission seemed to afford Peggy considerable relief.
‘I thought not,’ she muttered.
‘But I am coming to them,’ added her husband.
Catching up his hat with an air of determination, the speaker quitted the kitchen, and, accompanied by Susan, started on his way to church; and Peggy, disconcerted by forebodings of the approaching end of her reign, sank into her easy chair to meditate.
The truth was, she had stretched her authority too far. She muttered to herself: ‘He misses Willie, and the loss has made him mad.’
This conclusion appeared to afford her considerable relief.
‘It can’t last, and it sha’n’t last,’ she resumed. ‘Why, Peter never ventured to cry snip unless I first said snap! and now — We shall see, we shall see. I’d rather die than give in to him. What would Mrs. Gob say?’
Many wives have made similar resolutions before, and yet been obliged eventually to yield. Patience, gentle reader; the domestic battle is only just commenced. A shot from the outposts; nothing more.
Up to our present writing we have barely alluded to the village schoolmaster, and yet he is destined to play an important part in our tale, as well as his treacherous son, Benoni.
Theophilus Blackmore — or old Theo, as his pupils called him — seemed to have been born without any strong moral perceptions; and yet he was neither dissipated in his habits, vindictive in temper, nor naturally inclined to cruelty. He had no sympathies, no hates, but looked upon life as a mathematical problem, which, once solved, could have no further interest for him.
His one solitary passion was for books; provided that were gratified, the world with its petty rivalries, jealousies, ambitions and crimes, might jog on as it pleased. They were the one necessity of his existence; he hungered for them.
Reading had made him a ripe scholar. Science rendered him familiar with the latest discoveries; and yet he had never applied his knowledge to any practical or useful purposes.
When we say the old man had no sympathies, we ought to have admitted one exception. He felt a sort of dreamy kind of regard for his son Benoni. He had educated, but failed to make a man of him. All the higher qualities of manhood were lacking — honor, truthfulness, courage, fidelity in friendship.
The fatal influences of his childhood clung to the young hypocrite still.
How the old schoolmaster ever thought of marrying was a wonder to most persons who knew him. Possibly he wanted a cook or housekeeper. Certain it is that love had small, if any, share in his resolution. Since the death of his wife he had never been known to allude to her. In short, there appeared to be a mystery about the man which no one had ever been able to fathom.
For several days the continued presence of Benoni in the house failed to excite his attention. When he did notice it he attributed it to the absence of his companion, Willie. As weeks passed, and the youth still avoided going to the village, or event attending church service on Sundays, the curiosity of Theophilus Blackmore became excited; not that he thought of questioning him. He knew his soon too well for that. Truthfulness was not one of Benoni’s characteristics. He took a surer way, and speedily learnt from his pupils the story of the boy’s treachery.
Some parents would have felt grieved — would have remonstrated, corrected; not so the old bookworm. He regarded it as a thing that was to be — a mere incident in the drama of existence.
The state of quietude was broken by a very unusual circumstance — the arrival of a visitor, who drove directly to their solitary abode, and remained nearly two hours in close conversation with the owner. Vainly did Benoni try to catch the subject — he was not above listening — but the door of the room was kept locked till the departure of the stranger.
The following day his father delighted his pupils by informing them that for three days they might take a holiday — business of importance obliging him to pass that period in London. In short, he at once dismissed them, and as they quitted the school-room, settled himself down to one of his favourite authors. The curiosity of his son was excited to the highest pitch.
‘Did you say you were going to London?’ he demanded, alter a pause, trusting that his father might impart something more.
‘Did you not hear me?’
‘Am I to accompany you?’
The querist looked terribly disappointed.
‘I have never been in London,’ he observed.
‘And what would you do there?’ inquired Mr. Blackmore, sharply. ‘You have not a single friend or acquaintance there that I am aware of. You might have had one, but foolishly lost him by your treachery.’
The youth colored deeply.
‘To preserve a friend,’ added the speaker, ‘we must observe the laws which govern friendship — truth, honor, sincerity.’
‘Do you reproach me?’ exclaimed Benoni, getting excited.
‘I never indulge in reproaches,’ observed his father, for the first time raising his eyes from the volume before him. ‘They do no good. Besides, you would not feel them.’
‘And whose the fault?’ retorted the young man. ‘Yours! You trained me to distrust the natural feelings of the heart, calling them weakness; taught me to be as cold and artificial as yourself; and now find fault with your own work.
‘I tried to make you a philosopher,’ said the schoolmaster.
‘And trained a hypocrite,’ replied his son.
‘We will not dispute on terms,’ remarked the book-worm. ‘They are convertible, as mathematics teaches. What folly induced you to release the two ruffians in the Red Barn?’
‘They were from the Bittern’s Marsh,’ answered the youth, sullenly.
‘Ah!’ ejaculated his hearer.
‘And recognised me.’
‘That gave the act some show of reason,’ observed Mr. Blackmore after a pause. ‘An excuse, but not a necessity,’ he added. ‘You should have consulted me.’
‘There was no time for consultation. I had to decide,’ replied his son. ‘Consult, indeed! Father,’ he continued, ‘has there ever existed the least confidence between us? I know as little of your past life as of the future. That you are a cold selfish hypocrite, I have long since discovered; but there my knowledge ends. It would be better for us to part.’
‘What!’ said the old man sarcastically. ‘The tiger cub would break its chain?’
‘You should have forged it stronger,’ was the muttered reply.
His parent closed the book he had been reading, and commenced pacing up and down the room for several minutes, muttering to himself, ‘Kismet! Kismet!’ the Arabic word for fate. Suddenly he paused in his peregrination, and fixed his glaring blue eyes upon the inflamed countenance of the speaker.
‘You are right,’ he said. ‘It is time that we should part. Cold as you think me, I will not suffer you to cast yourself upon the world without some chance of escaping shipwreck. But you must leave the means to me. This visit to London is most opportune. Yes, yes,’ he muttered to himself, ‘I will insist upon it. You must await my return. My absence will not exceed three days. Promise me.’
Benoni pledged his word to remain. Nor that the speaker placed much reliance upon it; he trusted more to the fact that, with the exception of a few shillings, he knew him to be penniless. That same evening he started upon his journey, and at the time appointed returned to Deerhurst.
Vainly did his son try to read in his face the success or disappointment of his hopes. The countenance of the Sphinx could not have been more impassive. Unable to endure the suspense of doubt, he boldly questioned him.
‘Have you succeeded?’ he demanded.
‘Yes,’ was the reply, ‘In a week or two you will enter the office of Brit and Son, London.’
‘What are they?’
‘Only lawyers!’ remarked Benoni, in a tone of disappointment.
‘Did you expect to be articled to a cabinet minister?’ asked his father, sarcastically. ‘Such personages do not generally take apprentices.’
‘No. But I –‘
‘Shall I tell you what a lawyer really is?’ continued, the former, interrupting him. ‘He is the depository of secrets affecting the honor, and sometimes the fortune, and sometimes the lives, of his clients; an agent to baffle the ends of justice more frequently than to assist them. The fortunes of the fools who trust them pass through their hands, which are birdlimed, and some of the feathers of the golden geese are sure to stick to them. Only lawyers!’ he repeated. ‘You are unworthy to be my pupil if you fail to find your advantage in this.’
‘But all lawyers are not alike,’ suggested the young man.
‘Perhaps not,’ was the reply. ‘I only state the rule, and waste no time or thought upon the exceptions, I know what is best for you.’
His son thought so, too, and began to feel pleased with the idea, although it was not the profession he would have chosen. But, then, it promised change — change from the dreary, dull, unloving home to the busy realities of life; activity, success, and possibly revenge upon his former friend, Willie, whose honest scorn of his treachery had deeply stung him.
Two weeks before the departure of Benoni for London there was to be a wedding at Deerhurst church, which Susan naturally felt desirous of attending. All girls like to be present at weddings; at least we never knew one that did not.
Peggy Hurst made but a faint attempt to prevent her daughter from going. The wish was so natural. Then her father spoke out, and somehow his wife felt less inclined to oppose him than formerly. It did not appear quite so safe. She was a tactician in her way, and husbanded her forces for serious occasions.
The church was crowded, as is usual on such occasions. The farmer met several old friends and acquaintances, who appeared something less inclined than lately to censure him very strongly. The fact was, they knew where the shoe pinched. They were mostly married men, and had worn it themselves, Opinions, like the weathercock, were veering round in the old man’s favour.
Whilst he was chatting with some and shaking hands with others Susan contrived to slip from his side, and made her way to the organ-gallery. Behind the instrument she found Goliah. Of course she appeared very much surprised.
‘Dear me, Mr. Gob,’ she exclaimed. ‘You here!’
‘Ees,’ answered the rustic; ‘beant this the place?’
She had forgotten, for the instant, a message she had sent him. There was no time for coquetting. She felt that, and came at once to her purpose.
‘I am uneasy in my mind’ she began. ‘Benoni is about leaving for London, and I have written a letter to put my cousin on his guard, for I feel certain some treachery is intended. He has twice held long talks with mother at the bottom of the orchard. I dare not post it in the village. Mother and post-mistress are too intimate. Can’t you take it?’
‘You may swear to that,’ replied her admirer — ‘not that I ever heard of thee swearing. I be goin’ wi’ a load of hay in the mornin’. Dear! Dear!’ he added. ‘I do feel mortal bad.’
‘What can be the matter with you?’ inquired Susan, archly .
‘I think it be love. And now the murder’s out!’
‘Nonsense!’ said the village beauty, as she disappeared down the gallery staircase. ‘Mrs. Gob’s dumplings were too heavy! It can only be indigestion!’
The honest fellow looked after her wistfully.
‘It beant dumplings,’ he muttered. ‘Mother’s dumplings are allays light. What will I do?’ he added. ‘Sartin it be love!’
We think so, too.
Viscount Allworth would have made an excellent stage manager of a vaudeville theatre. Neither was he without some talent for tragedy. His mise en scene, too, was admirable. He could set his face to any expression he pleased, for, like the Roman actor who of old had worn the mask so long, his features took the impress of bronze.
For several days his lordship had been expecting a visit from his son, and remained at home, watching with calm confidence his arrival. No sooner did he perceive the brougham enter the square than he walked deliberately to the mirror in the dressing-room, to arrange his countenance for the occasion. Satisfied of his artistic success, he seated himself at a table. The bell had rung for the performance. He was ready.
‘Welcome, my dear boy!’ he exclaimed, as the young man entered the apartment. ‘I am glad you are come. I have been anxiously expecting you.’
‘Doubtless, my lord,’ was the reply, ‘for the honour of our name is dear to me.’
‘The honour of our name is untouched.’
‘Hear me, father –‘
‘You must first hear me,’ interrupted the aged hypocrite, with well-affected dignity. ‘Unjust accusations are always regretted; forbearance rarely is so. You have heard the rumours?’
Lord Bury bowed in the affirmative. I have done everything in my power to stifle them — not without success, I flatter myself. Something also I have exacted by way of atonement. Clarence Marsham has quitted the army.’
‘His debts compelled him.’
‘Not so,’ observed his parent. ‘Lady Allworth was quite prepared to pay them but I refused to listen to any compromise.’
‘And where is the scoundrel now?’ demanded the visitor, the, frown upon his brow slightly relaxing.
‘I presume so.’
At the very moment he uttered the equivocating lie the speaker had a letter dated from Dinent, in Brittany, written by his step-son, in his pocket.
‘What more can I do?’ continued his father. ‘I cannot divorce my wife because her son has acted like a fool. Is it not better to let the rumors quietly die out than to create any further scandal? My own conduct has been perfectly clear in the affair, but I leave the decision with you.’
‘Possibly you are right,’ observed Lord Bury, after reflecting on the circumstances. ‘At least, I shall not oppose it; but this acquiescence, forced upon me by consideration for my cousin, Kate, will not prevent me from proceeding immediately to Paris and calling Clarence to account.’
‘I have no opinion to offer on that point,’ observed the viscount, gravely. ‘And now, Egbert,’ he continued, ‘weigh all that has taken place calmly; question me on any point of my conduct you please, I am ready to answer you.’
‘Father,’ replied the young guardsman, ‘I would fain believe, and dare not question you, lest some painful doubts should be re-awakened. God forgive you if you have deceived me!’
It is a hard thing to force upon a son the terrible conviction that his father is a villain. Lord Bury took his leave, hoping and trusting probably against his better reason. A few minutes after his departure Lady Allworth entered the dressing-room. She had overheard every word that passed.
‘Admirable!’ she said. ‘Yes; I think I have pretty well mystified him. We have now a clear field before us. ‘But the bonds?’ he added, eagerly.
‘Shall be paid the instant you have signed the lease of the Bittern’s Marsh.’
Notes, References, Further Reading
dominie: Scottish English term for a schoolmaster.
[Margaret Oliphant], The Byways of Literature: Reading for the Million’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 84 (August 1858) 200-16. Available at Internet Archive. [Author’s name not given on the text.]
John Sutherland, ed., Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, 2d ed. (Routledge, 1988).
Victorian Fiction Research Guides, ‘Margaret Oliphant‘.
Lewis C. Roberts, ‘Disciplining and Disinfecting Working-Class Readers in the Victorian Public Library’, Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1998),105-132.
Categories: Mystery of the Marsh