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THE LITERATURE OF THE VICTORIAN ERA

by Hugh Walker (1910)

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Previous Page  ...newspapers was in effect an enfranchisement. Moreover, we too readily forget the numerous causes, trivial as they seem to us now, which less than a century ago exposed newspapers and authors and publishers to the risk of prosecution, and which, down to a far later date, brought less definite but no less real penalties on all who dared to think unpopular thoughts. Leigh Hunt was imprisoned from 1813 to 1815 for criticisms of the Prince Regent, whose chief fault was that they were scandalously true; and if these criticisms were injudicious, it might be pleaded in excuse that they were provoked by panegyrics which were scandalously false. The trial of Richard Carlile for " blasphemous libel" in publishing the works of Thomas Paine took place in 1819; and the sentence against Thomas Pooley, which roused the indignation of Mill and of Buckle, was pronounced in 1857. Later still, Huxley found it necessary to devote a considerable portion of his life to an effort to secure for himself and others unfettered liberty of thought. In the part of the field where he fought the battle has been won; but it would be rash to conclude that the evil has ceased to exist. Intolerance can be practised in the name of science as well as in that of religion, and recent trials have come perilously near to disputing the mature and sane man's right even to die except secundum artem. It is, however, certain that in this direction progress has been great and rapid.

What have been and what will be the effects upon literature of a political, social and intellectual development and enfranchisement such as this, are questions which have never been fully investigated. That these effects must be profound and far-reaching is obvious. The mere multiplication of the number of readers is a fact of great significance. More important still is the change in their social position, their ambitions, their training, their character. In the middle of the eighteenth century Johnson fought his desperate way - reduced at one time to living upon 4 1/2d. a day - from the system of patronage to that of direct dependence upon a reading public. Carlyle, in the middle of the nineteenth century, saw in this fact the birth of the Hero as Man of Letters: " Much had been sold and bought, and left to make its own bargain in the market-place; but the inspired wisdom of ...Next Page




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