[The follow passage appears in Stopford A. Brooke's Life and Letters (1865). George P. Landow, Professor of English and the History of Art, Brown University, has scanned it from the text of the 1902 edition (see bibliography) and formatted it in HTML.]
I have finished reading 'Ruth' and 'Villette,' and several of Walter Scott's, and am much struck by the marked difference between the fiction of his day and ours; the effect produced is very opposite. From those of Scott you rise with a vigorous, healthy tone of feeling; from the others, with that sense of exhaustion and a weakness which comes from feeling stirred up to end in nothing. Scott's narratives run smoothly on with a profusion of information respecting the outer life of the days which he describes — the manners, customs, dress, modes of thought, and general feeling; but you have no glances into the inner life — no throes and convulsions of conscience — no conflicts of Duty with Inclination — no mysteries of a soul treading wilfully? or compelled by circumstances, the dangerous, narrow border-land between right and wrong. Partly this is accounted for by the fact that in his stirring times life was an outer thing, and men were not forced into those mysterious problems which are pressing for solution now ; and partly by another fact, that women have since then taken the lead in the world of literature, and imparted to fiction a new character. They are trying to aborder questions which men had looked upon as settled; and this might have been expected, from their being less able to understand or recognize the authority of statute law and conventional moralities than men, and much less disposed to acknowledge their eternal obligation, and also much more quick to feel the stirring laws of nature — mysterious, dim, but yet, in their way, even more sacred. The result of this has been, that questions which men would rather have left unexamined, or else approached with coarseness, are now the staple subjects of our modern fiction — 'Jane Eyre, 'Villette,' 'Ruth,' and many things in Margaret Fuller's writings; these, with the works of several American writers, as Hawthorne, in whom, though men, the woman movement has worked deeply, are the most remarkable of our modern novels, and characterise the commencement of an epoch. That great question, how far conventional law is to stifle the workings of inclination, and how far inclination — supposing it to be sacred and from our higher nature — is justified in bidding it defiance, what a wide field that opens! It is a perilous question, and opens a door for boundless evil as well as good.
The French writers have said, as usual, with the full licence of a nation to whom Duty has no meaning, that the door is to be wide as hell; 'Evil, be thou my good,' seems to be the watchword of those that I have read. If they are right, God is a Being whose existence is as superfluous as a devils. A sense of horrible materialism steals over me in reading their attempts to solve the problem, and the laws of materialism seem the only ones left to guide man. The 'constitution of man' must replace the prophets, and a study of the cerebral laws of organisation sweep away the sanctions both of the Law and the Gospel. Mesmerism and Electro-biology must take the place of the New Testament, and les beaux sentiments become our com- pass instead of the Book of Life. Happily, the English novelists have approached the question with purer instincts and a more severely moral tone — witness 'Jane Eyre' and 'Ruth;' and yet they do open the question, and I rejoice to see it opened: yes, and more — opened by women, for I despair of men ever doing it with justice. The new divorce law, as proposed, refuses to the woman the right to divorce her husband, let his crimes be what they may, unless he adds brutal ill-treatment of her to crime. What hope is there from such a social state of feeling ?
The worst, however, of the new tone in novel-writing is, that it sets one thinking in a way that can find no vent in action, and makes one dissatisfied with existing errors and institutions, without the slightest possibility of altering them; nay, or even knowing what alteration to desire. The result of this becoming general, may, perhaps, produce a restlessness which will issue in improvement; meantime, each must [158 Cheltenham, 1853, pp. 300-1]
Brooke, Stopford A. Life and Letters of Fred[erick]. W. Robertson, M. A., Incumbent of Trinity Chapel, Brighton, 1847-53. People's Edition. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., 1902.
Last modified 5 December 2007