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CHARLIE CROMWELL . - - - . Lord Protector.
The column might be indefinitely extended, until, indeed, it ‘put a girdle round about the earth,’ and made us, perchance, liker to Saturn than to the world we know. Here, however, is only one of several grievances with which the fiction-monger is ridden, and its mention arises from some natural association with the real subject of this paper. As the novelist is bound by conventions of nomenclature, so is he bound by conventions of relationship; though, to be fair, the present age shows some signs of rebelling against its prescriptions. The motherin-law, for instance, is properly, with the bold bad baronet, played out. That is understood; but is it so certain that she was ever understood 7 For a generation or two we have accepted her, without apparent question, as the embodiment of all that is outrageous and unnatural in human relationship. She has stood a by-word for discord, and a reproach to the British matron—otherwise an example to nations—ever since the time, at least, of Leech and Thackeray. It is very likely that these two great authorities were responsible for the slander, since we find no considerable harping upon it before their time. And since—inasmuch as his failure to identify himself with the age of the giants is perpetually being drummed into the ears of the modern romancer—the pack has followed its leaders, in the hope, no doubt (a somewhat mixed metaphor), of its being accredited with their mantles—and emoluments. We have accepted the harridan mother-in-law, I say—and I am sure against our better judgment and experience—without apparent question; and the adjective is intentionally qualifying. For I have a confession to make, the fruit of some research. Your novelist is really an insidious fellow, whose worst fault is that he makes too much of a business of studying on which side his bread is buttered. Has he believed in this slander all these years, do you think? Not a bit of it. He has known perfectly well, while subscribing to the popular demand, who is the real bad relation, and has been consistently, if unobtrusively, “showing him up.” But Prejudice, not to be outdone by Justice, walks with blinded WOL. XXV.-No, 146, NS, 15
eyes; and no doubt there are enough truculent mothers-in-law in the world to make one formidable scapegoat—an illustration which I prefer, for obvious reasons, to the one which leads off this paper. A slander—it is a truism—is far more easily started than laid; and it is only after this long period that the one in question begins to attenuate—pour céder le pas—a qui ? I am half afraid of telling the truth. To popularise the villain is to distribute his profits. Yet sooner or later he must be found out, and the credit for the revelation claimed elsewhere. I will make two words of it and tell. The real bad relation, good people, is-as you might have known long ago if you had not wilfully courted your own obsession—the uncle. Story claims him to the part, and history authorises. There is no question whatever about it. His remotest antecedents show him an unscrupulous and designing fellow who is for ever seeking to step into dead men's shoes. There was Pelias—but indeed mythology reeks with the rascal. Laban exhibits an early instanc of his cunning, though his son-in-law's successful retaliation proves his bad pre-eminence in that respect to have been open, in those primitive times, to dispute. Rome itself was founded on the fruits of a piece of avuncular treachery; but, after all, what line, patrician or plebeian, in all the world could show its succession undeflected, if not in fact, in design, through the perfidy of an uncle? The great Charlemagne robbed his brother's heir of his moiety of the empire; in Spain there was the five years' struggle by Don Carlos against his niece Isabella; in Italy bad uncles (take Ludovico Sforza as an illustrious example) were so numerous that the cynical estimate in which their guile was held came to crystallise itself in the term Papal Nepotism. But our own history offers some choice examples of the breed, amongst whom King John and King Richard III. will most readily suggest themselves. In Saxon England the claims of uncle and nephew had been most flagrantly jumbled, generally to the detriment of the latter. This, however, had its excuse in those strenuous times, when kingdoms were not sufficiently maintained on the weak knees of youngsters. It was when the succession became fixed and hereditary that the rogue emerged in all his true colours, and pitched poor little Arthur (the name of a good boy, by the way) from the walls of Rouen. It is, however, with the dealings of the poet and the romancer in the business of bad relations that we are mainly concerned, and it is the uncle, I maintain, who has always, despite all appearances to the contrary, held the first place for them in that evil category. Shakespeare recognised very clearly the uses of the creature for exhibiting in an acute form the vices of envy and covetousness. The ‘satyr' king, Claudius of Denmark, stands, of course, the pre-eminent figure of the type. But there are lesser examples— Antonio, the breezy scamp of ‘The Tempest,’ who throws for duchies and wins or loses with a jest—for whom ‘the man i' the moon’s too slow' (we have encountered his kind in our own time— the fellow who will cheat his nephew of a shilling one day and take him to the pantomime, on borrowed money, the next); Don John of ‘Much Ado ’—the Uriah Heep type, fulsome and treacherous, slobbering his ‘kill' like the anaconda (which does nothing of the sort really) before swallowing it; and Frederick of ‘As You Like It," that bad mingling of fraud and religion which is also familiar to our century. Who was it, again, to glean a new field, delivered the poor babes to their obsequies in the wood, cock-robin attending 2 There is no more damning indictment of a relation in history. To come to the romancings of to-day, what other relation has been used, throughout the course of an entire volume, to point the moral of a persistent and awful wickedness, as Uncle Silas has been used by his creator Lefanu ? Uncle Silas stands to me for the embodiment of supreme inhumanity. His courtliness, his distinguished air and silvery locks, his subjugation of bodily torments by a demoniac will, his utterly soulless materialism, make of him one of the most terrific figures in fiction. Think of Mrs. Mackenzie by the side of him It is Whitechapel to all Gehenna. Uncle Ibbetson again—what suave depravity | The man wantons in his own pollution, rejoicing in the filth he can east on innocence. What instinct guided du Maurier's hand in his selection and portrayal It was his first essay in romance, and observe that the uses of the mother-in-law or the bad baronet never occurred to him in the connexion. Then we have Ebenezer, the squalid uncle of ‘Kidnapped,’ and the ‘oiled and curled’ rascal Marmaduke of ‘Vice Versa.” Every type is represented in modern romance, not excluding that ‘sharpest needle, warranted not to cut in the eye,” Uncle Scrooge, whose reformation we decline to accept on any but utilitarian grounds. It was only Dickens's irreclaimable optimism, indeed, which inclined him to detect redeeming points in the uncle (see old Anthony Chuzzlewit again) at the eleventh hour. On the other hand, he could give us, without any such half-hearted compromise, a Ralph Nickleby, surely as complete a scoundrel as any in literature. With Scott I fancy the spirit of clannishness prevailed over conviction, since I can recall, anyhow on the moment, no instance of a typical uncle occurring in his pages. Thackeray, obsessed with his mothers-in-law, treated the fellow with a comparative but still contemptuous leniency, as witness the cases of Major Pendennis and Sir Brian Newcome. Yet, at the best, they had but a grudging silence or a damning with faint praise to award him. It is true that both the jovial Ingoldsby and the moral Mrs. Elizabeth Turner have a passing word of approval, each in characteristic style, for the man's trick of moralising on occasion, as is evidenced in the following lines:— I remember, I remember, When I was a little boy, One fine morning in September Uncle brought me home a toy. I remember how he patted Both my cheeks in kindliest mood;
“Then,' said he, “you little Fat-head,
I must insist for myself, however, that I recognise nothing in either of these cases but a bid for a sister-in-law's approval, whether with a view to a subsequent loan, or at least to a bed and dinner, is not permitted to appear. And now, having confessed, I must ‘hedge,” or the game is up. Bad as are the examples I have quoted, it does not do to generalise from particular instances. We must not venture the statement that all uncles are inherently vicious. If we were to, there are Uncle Toby, and ‘the single gentleman,’ and the most lovable the Knight of La Mancha himself, to name no others, to refute it. There is nothing, I believe, which structurally or mentally differentiates an uncle from any other form of relation; indeed, he is not infrequently the most attractive member of the family group. The demoralisation which, perhaps in the majority of cases, has overtaken him, is due, I am sure, to the equivocal nature of his standing. This, operating upon a very keen and self-conscious intelligence, has effected in him that yeasty effervescence which counts for moral unstability. The laws of primogeniture have been for ever placing him in a false position. Think, for instance, of his having to address that offensive little cub his nephew as ‘Your Majesty’ on state occasions. Of course an uncle may be a king himself, and very often is; but how is that to better the situation of the uncrowned ones? “If years,” they might say, “are the measures of merit, and the two or three which divide me from my elder brother are represented by the disproportion between a kingdom and a competence, why should my brother's child rank for me above the whelps in my kennel ?’ It is this resentful grievance, no doubt, which lies at the root of avuncular depravity. The creature is for ever brooding his enforced insignificance. He knows that his title to the small authority he possesses is so little esteemed that he is often obliged to share it with intimate friends of the family, whose years forbid, or whose kindness deprecates, a manner of address either more familiar or more formal. And what is the consequence He goes to places where social distinctions are less observed, and morals therefore slacker, and makes himself a by-word for reckless unobservances. At intervals he comes home, ravages the sideboard for ‘nips’ at all unconScionable hours, boils his tea in a billy over the drawing-room fire, slaps valuable relations on the back, and is only blessed if he ends by dying, as I have known him to do, with his dropsical legs in a footbath and a pipe in his mouth. I am not, however, defending the uncle; I am merely touching on some causes which are possible to account for his reputation. That that is, on the whole, a villainously bad one, we have much testimony (though unobtrusive, as I say) by those whose business it is to assay the relative values of the bad metals of the world. Even his title has been degraded to a significant use; for do we not consign our pledges to “mine uncle,” contriving in that phrase a suggestion of something which is both brazen and underhand 2 Now, being regarded somewhat as a nameless and unattached vagabond, he has come cynically to develop the character attributed to him. He hangs, in short, on his bad name, and even seeks that distinction of being exalted, for the first and the last time in his life, above his fellows. The observant jurors of literature have long seen to it, in their quiet way, that he shall be accommodated.