[This is taken from Thomas Clarkson's A Portraiture of Quakerism.]
Novels—novels forbidden—their fictitious nature no argument against them—arguments of the Quakers are, that they produce an affectation of knowledge—a romantic spirit—and a perverted morality—and that by creating an indisposition towards other kinds of reading, they prevent moral improvement and real delight of mind—hence novel-reading more pernicious than many other amusements.
Among the prohibitions, which the Quakers have adopted in their moral education, as barriers against vice, or as preservatives of virtue, I shall consider that next, which relates to the perusal of improper books. George Fox seems to have forgotten nothing, that was connected with the morals of the society. He was anxious for the purity of its character, he seemed afraid of every wind that blew, lest it should bring some noxious vapor to defile it. And as those things which were spoken or represented, might corrupt the mind, so those which were written and printed, might equally corrupt it also. He recommended therefore, that the youth of his newly formed society should abstain from the reading of romances. William Penn and others, expressed the same sentiments on this subject. And the same opinion has been held by the Quakers, as a body of Christians, down to the present day. Hence novels, as a particular species of romance, and as that which is considered as of the worst tendency, have been particularly marked for prohibition.
Some Quakers have been inclined to think, that novels ought to be rejected on account of the fictitious nature of their contents. But this consideration is, by no means, generally adopted by the society, as an argument against them. Nor would it be a sound argument, if it were. If novels contain no evil within themselves, or have no evil tendency, the mere circumstance of the subject, names or characters being feigned, will not stamp them as censurable. Such fiction will not be like the fiction of the drama, where men act and personate characters that are not their own. Different men, in different ages of the world, have had recourse to different modes of writing, for the promotion of virtue. Some have had recourse to allegories, others to fables. The fables of Aesop, though a fiction from the beginning to the end, have been useful to many. But we have a peculiar instance of the use and innocence of fictitious descriptions in the sacred writings. For the author of the Christian religion made use of parables on many and weighty occasions. We cannot therefore condemn fictitious biography, unless it condemn itself by becoming a destroyer of morals.
The arguments against novels, in which the Quakers agree as a body, are taken from the pernicious influence they have upon the minds of those, who read them.
The Quakers do not say, that all novels have this influence, but that they have it generally. The great demand for novels, inconsequence of the taste, which the world has shown for this species of writing, has induced persons of all descriptions, and of course many who have been but ill qualified to write them. Hence, though some novels have appeared of considerable merit, the worthless have been greatly preponderant. The demand also has occasioned foreign novels, of a complexion by no means suited to the good sense and character of our country, to be translated into our language. Hence a fresh weight has only been thrown into the preponderating scale. From these two causes it has happened, that the contents of a great majority of our novels have been unfavorable to the improvement of the moral character. Now when we consider this circumstance, and when we consider likewise, that professed novel-readers generally read all the compositions of this sort that come into their way, that they wait for no selection, but that they devour the good, the bad, and the indifferent alike, we shall see the reasons, which have induced the Quakers to believe, that the effect of this species of writing upon the mind has been generally pernicious.
One of the effects, which the Quakers consider to be produced by novels upon those who read them, is an affectation of knowledge, which leads them to become forward and presumptuous. This effect is highly injurious, for while it raises them unduly in their own estimation, it lowers them in that of the world. Nothing can be more disgusting, in the opinion of the Quakers, than to see persons assuming the authoritative appearance of men and women before their age or their talents can have given them any pretensions to do it.
Another effect is the following. The Quakers conceive that there is among professed novel readers a peculiar cast of mind. They observe in them a romantic spirit, a sort of wonder-loving imagination, and a disposition towards enthusiastic flights of the fancy, which to sober persons has the appearance of a temporary derangement. As the former effect must become injurious by producing forwardness, so this must become so by producing unsteadiness, of character.
A third effect, which the Quakers find to be produced among this description of readers, is conspicuous in a perverted morality. They place almost every value in feeling, and in the affectation of benevolence. They consider these as the true and only sources of good. They make these equivalent, to moral principle. And actions flowing from feeling, though feeling itself is not always well founded, and sometimes runs into compassion even against justice, they class as moral duties arising from moral principles. They consider also too frequently the laws of religion as barbarous restraints, and which their new notions of civilized refinement may relax at will. And they do not hesitate, in consequence, to give a color to some fashionable vices, which no Christian painter would admit into any composition, which was his own.
To this it may be added, that, believing their own knowledge to be supreme, and their own system of morality to be the only enlightened one, they fall often into skepticism, and pass easily from thence to infidelity. Foreign novels, however, more than our own, have probably contributed to the production of this latter effect.
These then are frequently the evils, and those which the Quakers insist upon, where persons devote their spare-time to the reading of novels, but more particularly among females, who, on account of the greater delicacy of their constitutions, are the more susceptible of such impressions. These effects the Quakers consider as particularly frightful, when they fall upon this sex. For an affectation of knowledge, or a forwardness of character, seems to be much more disgusting among women than among men. It may be observed also, that an unsteady or romantic spirit or a wonder-loving or flighty imagination, can never qualify a woman for domestic duties, or make her a sedate and prudent wife. Nor can a relaxed morality qualify her for the discharge of her duty as a parent in the religious education of her children.
But, independently of these, there is another evil, which the Quakers attach to novel-reading, of a nature too serious to be omitted in this account. It is that those who are attached to this species of reading, become indisposed towards any other.
This indisposition arises from the peculiar construction of novels. Their structure is similar to that of dramatic compositions. They exhibit characters to view. They have their heroes and heroines in the same manner. They lay open the checkered incidents in the lives of these. They interweave into their histories the powerful passion of love. By animated language, and descriptions which glow with sympathy, they rouse the sensibility of the reader, and fill his soul with interest in the tale. They fascinate therefore in the same manner as plays. They produce also the same kind of mental stimulus, or the same powerful excitement of the mind. Hence it is that this indisposition is generated. For if other books contain neither characters, nor incidents, nor any of the high seasoning, or gross stimulants, which belong to novels they become insipid.
It is difficult to estimate the injury which is done to persons, by this last mentioned effect of novel-reading upon the mind. For the contents of our best books consist usually of plain and sober narrative. Works of this description give no extravagant representations of things, because their object is truth. They are found often without characters or catastrophes, because these would be often unsuitable to the nature of the subject of which they treat. They contain repellants rather than stimulants, because their design is the promotion of virtue. The novel-reader therefore, by becoming indisposed towards these, excludes himself from moral improvement, and deprives himself of the most substantial pleasure, which reading can produce. In vain do books on the study of nature unfold to him the treasures of the mineral or the vegetable world. He foregoes this addition to his knowledge, and this innocent food for his mind. In vain do books on science lay open to him the constitution and the laws of the motion of bodies. This constitution and these laws are still mysteries to him. In vain do books on religion discover to him the true path to happiness. He has still this path to seek. Neither, if he were to dip into works like these, but particularly into those of the latter description, could he enjoy them. This latter consideration makes the reading of novels a more pernicious employment than many others. For though there may be amusements, which may sometimes produce injurious effects to those, who partake of them, yet these may be counteracted by the perusal of works of a moral tendency. The effects, on the other hand, which are produced by the reading of novels, seem to admit of no corrective or cure; for how, for instance, shall a perverted morality, which is considered to be one of them, be rectified, if the book which is to contain the advice for this purpose, be so uninteresting, or insipid, that the persons in question have no disposition to peruse it?
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