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October 28 , 2008

Modern Flirtations (Illustrated)


It was the rule of a celebrated equestrian, which might be adapted to authors as well as to horsemen, that every one should ride as if he expected to be thrown, and drive as if he expected to be upset. Impunity in publishing, far from rendering an author presumptuous, should tend rather to increase his timidity, the danger being greater always of venturing too much, than of hazarding too little; and the more cause any writer has to feel grateful for the lenient judgment of an enlightened public, the more circumspect should he become, not to trespass by an obtrusive reappearance on that notice which has already perhaps been, as in respect to the author herself, beyond all expectation favorable.

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An old proverb declares that "a goose-quill is more powerful than a lion's claw," and authors have been called "keepers of the public conscience;" but no influence is perhaps so extensive as that exercised by what is termed "light reading," which has now in a great measure superseded public places and theatrical entertainments, affording a popular resource with which the busiest men relax their hard-working minds, and the idlest occupy their idleness. It becomes a deep responsibility, therefore, of which the author trusts she has ever felt duly sensible, to claim the leisure hours of so many, while it is her first desire that whatever be the defect of these pages, no actual evil may be intermingled, and the cause of sound religion and morality supported, for her feelings are best expressed in the words of the poet,

"If I one soul improve, I have not liv'd in vain."

Novel-reading, formerly considered the lowest resource of intellectual vacuity, has been lately promoted to a new place in the literary world, since men of the brightest genius as well as of the highest attainments in learning and philosophy, allow their pens occasionally to wander in the attractive regions of fiction; therefore works of imagination, no longer merely a clandestine amusement to frivolous minds, are now avowedly read and enjoyed, to beguile an idle hour, or to cheer a gloomy one, by men of science, of wisdom, and of piety. Such is the general encouragement given now to works of fancy, that, as the literary existence of authors depends on attracting readers, there will scarcely be encouragement enough soon to induce historians and biographers to dip the pen of veracity into the ink of retrospection, while it is perhaps to be lamented that when so large a proportion of the public attention is occupied by novelists, their works being certain of instant circulation, for a very short period and for no more, few authors afford themselves time to aspire at the highest grade of imaginary composition. When such volumes are really true to nature, they convey very important truths in a form more popular than a dry sententious volume of moral precepts, and perhaps history itself can scarcely afford so graphic a portrait of human life as many of those fictitious volumes, written under the inspiration of genius, which portray in vivid coloring, the thoughts and motives by which men are internally influenced.

The Life of Cleopatra, or the Memoirs of Agrippina, can afford scarcely so much direction to young ladies respecting their views of life and manners in the present day, as might be conveyed by a judiciously-drawn portrait of that world as it is, on the stage of which they are about to be personally introduced; and a large proportion of those elaborate volumes dignified with the name of history, can only be considered in the main fictitious, because, while biographers would confidently state the private opinions, secret intentions, and real characters of illustrious men who lived and acted several hundred years ago, they cannot justly estimate the actual dispositions and motives of their own most intimate friends, nor confidently point out what circumstances have influenced the greatest events in their own day. If two authors, entertaining opposite political sentiments, were to write the history of last year, every fact recorded, and every individual mentioned must inevitably be represented, or misrepresented, according to the writer's own private feelings, while each would believe he was writing unadulterated truth.

Thus poetry and fiction, when true to the principles of human life, exhibit the mind and soul of man visibly to the senses; and history, which has been called "the Newgate Calendar of Kings and Emperors," supplies the facts of human existence, and may be considered a portrait of men's persons and external actions.

In writing a story of domestic life, it is singular to reflect how commonly men are remembered by their eccentricities, and loved for their very faults, while the most difficult task in fiction is, to describe amiable persons so as to render them at all interesting and not utterly insipid. Probably it may be for this reason that modern writers too frequently, instead of describing the principles which ennoble human nature, and the sentiments which embellish life, have painted in vivid coloring, all that is low, mean, and vicious in society, introducing their readers into scenes, the reality of which would be shunned with abhorrence, and flinging over vice such a mantle of genius as converts the deformities of society into subjects of interest—unfortunately even of sympathy.

Were authors obliged hereafter, to live with the characters they create, how few would desire to share with them in such a world! Even where the intention is to represent an attractive character, it seldom appears as one which could be an agreeable acquisition to any family circle; and in works of sentiment or feeling, nothing is less successfully pictured than a generous and refined attachment, fitted to survive every trial or vicissitude of existence, between those who are to love each other for ever. Few stories could be written, if lovers in a romance acted with the slightest degree of confidence or esteem; but such narratives are generally founded on a teazing succession of narrow-minded suspicions, and unwarrantable concealments on the part of heroes and heroines, who condemn each other unheard, and go through volumes of heart-breaking alienation, enough to terminate life itself, rather than ask the most simple explanation, while the reader cannot but feel a certain conviction in closing the last page, that an engagement begun with cavilling jealousies and painful recriminations, can never become productive of lasting peace.

The mothers and daughters in fashionable society have of late been so harshly stigmatized by the press, that it seems as if some authors had taken up a porcupine's quill dipped in gall, to ridicule their conduct and motives, while not a pen has yet been drawn from the scabbard, nor a drop of ink spilled in their justification; but the weight of censure might become greatly lightened by being more equitably divided among all who are entitled to carry a share, and in these volumes an endeavor is made to rectify the balance more justly, though with what success remains to be discovered by the author herself, as not a single friend ever sees her pages, or puts on the spectacles of criticism till after they are printed. The only peculiarity to which she makes any pretension, in once more presuming to publish, is, that avoiding all caricature, all improbability, and all personality, she has introduced a few individuals acting and thinking in the ordinary routine of every-day life, while her highest ambition is to represent in natural colors, the conduct and feelings of men elevated and ennobled by the influence of Christianity.

When Dr. Johnson remarked once that it required a clever person to talk nonsense well, Boswell replied, "Yes, sir! If you were to represent little fishes speaking, you would make them talk like great whales;" and on a similar plan, authors describing society, instead of sketching the good-humoured chit-chat and lively persiflage with which the business and amusements of fashionable life are carried on, too frequently fill up their dialogues with set speeches, moral essays, and long quotations, such as never are extemporized in any drawing-room, where too energetic a stroke given to the shuttlecock of conversation makes it instantly fall to the ground. The flagrant impossibilities by which a carelessly-written narrative is carried on, destroys often at once the illusion. Persons are described, who maybe overheard speaking aloud their most secret thoughts when supposing themselves alone, soliloquizing audibly in the streets, journalizing a history of their own crimes, becoming permanent guests in houses to which they have no introduction, preserving the noblest sentiments amidst the most degraded habits, and dying enlightened Christians when they have lived as dissolute infidels.

A celebrated mathematician threw aside a novel once in disgust, saying that "it proved nothing;" but in these pages the author has endeavoured to prove much. Amidst the bustle and business, the joys and sorrows of life, she has attempted to illustrate how truly "wisdom's ways are of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace,"—how superior is the Christian standard of principle to the mere worldly code of honour or expediency, and how much of the happiness intended for man by his Creator is ruined and forfeited by the perversity of his own will, in neglecting the good of others, and in vainly grasping, like a spoiled child, at more than is intended for his share. While thus writing a fiction, which may perhaps be denominated a large religious tract in high life, the author humbly submits her pages to the judgment of others, and cannot conclude in the words of a more universally venerated, or of a more generally popular fictitious author than the excellent Bunyan:

"Thus I set pen to paper with delight, And quickly had my thought—in black and white; For having now my method by the end, Still as I pulled it came, and so I penned It down, until at last it came to be, For length and breadth, the bigness which you see."

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