Among the Authors: The Case of Mr. Hall Caine

Among the Authors: The Case of Mr. Hall Caine

I remember reading a vivid ghost-story, of a man who volunteered to sleep in a haunted chamber, on the understanding that if he rang his alarm-bell once — twice — his friends were to do no more than prepare themselves, but if he rang a third time they were to come with all speed. Once, twice — and thrice — the bell sounded, and the rescue-party rushed to the room, only to hear the dying adventurer whisper with his last breath, “I have seen it.”

In like manner (except that, owing doubtless to my vegetarian diet, I am able to survive the shock), I have now to announce that “I have read it.” I have read “The Christian,” by Hall Caine. I have never before read any of Mr. Hall Caine’s works, and I doubt if I shall ever again venture into the haunted corridors of his genius; so, having rung my bell three times, I will proceed to lay my ghostly experience before the readers of the Review, the Psychical Research Society, and anyone else whom it may concern. But first let me allay all nervous apprehensions by an illustration of more homely and matter-of-fact sort.

We all know that margarine is often sold as butter, an instance of commercial depravity which Vegetarians especially must reprobate. But it is stated, on behalf of the manufacture of margarine, that it is not by any means bad stuff in itself, provided it is sold as what it is, and not what it is not; the mischief being caused not by the actual sale, but by the false impressions under which that sale is effected. This will serve to make clear my meaning as to the case of Mr. Hall Caine. “The Christian” appears to me to stand in the same relation to great and genuine fiction as margarine to butter; it is not literature, but composition, not life, but make-believe. Its character may be summed up in a couple of sentences from one of the chapters:—

“What a funny little romantic world it is, to be sure!” said Drake. “Yes; it’s like poetry, isn’t it?” she answered.

It is like poetry—of a rather minor kind. It is evident that, all other questions apart, Mr. Hall Caine knows well the tastes of the margarine-loving public, though it may be suspected that he is himself under some illusion as to the nature and value of the food-stuffs which he so plentifully supplies, for no one would accuse him of consciously imposing on his readers. He deals largely in coincidences, in fact you may always reckon on the right man, hero or villain, turning up at the right moment, a symmetrical arrangement not observable in actual life, but perhaps the more precious on that account. Then we have “The Christian” a subtle mixture of romantic and moving incidents—sensational death-beds, mysterious disappearances, a Prime Minister, dissipated noblemen, Vice embattled against Virtue, Derby days, Judgment-day panics, with ever and anon an opportune thunderstorm crashing overhead—even a bloodhound (undoubtedly Mr. Hall Caine knows his public) coursing through the London streets. The very names of the hero and heroine, Storm and Glory, are indicative of their distinctive characters, as also are those of some of the minor passengers, such as Canon Wealthy and Polly Love; for in his nomenclature, as in his plot, Mr. Caine is determined to “go one better” than the sordid actuality of life.

The best thing in the book, beyond doubt, is the character of Glory Quayle, which is prettily and pleasantly sketched for us, especially in the letters written by her from the strange great city of her friends on the Isle of Man. I wish I could conscientiously say a good word for the Rev. John Storm, the “Christian” of the story, whose cyclonic career of protest against luxury and vice develops dangerous activity, as the meteorologists would say, in this modern Babylon. But the very fact that luxury and vice are such tremendous evils, and call for effective protest and vigorous action, is the reason why one cannot take John Storm seriously; for we have passed the point where any sane man can expect to improve matters by running amuck against the curses of our so-called civilization. The problem is far too complex to be solved by denunciatory clerics, especially if the prophet or monitor happens to be, like John Storm, an entirely unreasonable dullard, gloomy, tactless, and fanatical, and qualified to do nothing but make himself, and all who come in contact with him, thoroughly and incurably wretched. What Mr. Hall Caine meant by this character, or why he called him the “Christian,” I cannot imagine. Storm might conceivably stand as an overdrawn study of a fanatical enthusiast who imagined himself to have a mission, but had not the wit to give it any practical shape; but then there is the difficulty that such a person could not have had any influence, and would have been gently removed with all haste to a Home for Imbeciles, whereas Mr. Caine’s hero becomes the scourge and terror of London. As for “The Christian” having any bearing on the social question, as some of its critics seem to imagine, it is difficult to see how such an idea can have arisen; for it is safe to say that there is not a sentence in the book that throws the least light on any serious problem. To regard John Storm as in any sense typical “Christian” would be difficult; to regard him as a “Christian Socialist” would be nothing short of libellous. The meaning, therefore, of the phantom personage must be left unfathomed—one of the awful mysteries of that haunted chamber of which I spoke.

But, as I hinted, “The Christian,” properly regarded, is not all a bad book; on the contrary it is the sort of production that might very well take a prize, were a novel-writing competition organized, let us say, among the students at some municipal Polytechnic or Institute. There is evidently a large public for a work of this order, and it may be truly pleaded that, if it is not very elevating, it at least is not very demoralizing. The mischief lies wholly in the misunderstanding of the real status of such a book—in the ignorance that mistakes the margarine for butter. That Mr. Hall Caine’s “Christian” should be hailed as a great work is one of the symptoms of that wide-spread lack of literary circles, which makes the production of great literature so doubly difficult and rare.

Are we to blame Mr. Hall Caine for this, and say of him, as some one says of John Storm, “The man is insufferable from the desire to be original?” I think this would be hardly just; it is more charitable to assume, as we have warrant for doing in Mr. Hall Caine’s literary style, that he knows not what he does, that he is himself under the same illusion as his public, and persuaded that he is to be taken seriously as a writer of high fiction. This is the case of Mr. Hall Caine which seems to need the consideration of all humanely-minded persons. For which, I  would ask, is the sadder—to be a real genius neglected in his lifetime but recognized and honoured by posterity, or to be a literary Dives, an exalted mediocrity, who enjoys, while living, the good things of authorship but is decidedly destined not to be “comforted” hereafter? Surely there can be no doubt that the case of Lazarus; for to those who look beneath the surface of things there is a grim and dreadful humour in poor Dives’ mortal unconsciousness of the true facts of the situation, and in his proud acceptance of the ephemeral homage that is accorded him. There is an almost infantine simplicity in such readiness to believe in his own dignity and importance. One is reminded of Thoreau’s suggestive description of the Irishman’s poverty stricken shanty, and of “the wrinkled, Sybil-like, cone-headed infant that sat upon its father’s knee as in the palaces of nobles, and looked out from its home in the midst of wet and hunger inquisitively upon the stranger, not knowing but what it was the last of a noble line, and the hope and cynosure of the world, instead of John Field’s poor starveling brat.”

For these reasons my view of Mr. Hall Caine is that he is far less interesting as a novelist than as a psychological study: his is a case of acute personal hallucination, originating doubtless in the patient himself, but reacted on, aggravated, and intensified by the similar delusions which he has infected a portion of the public. How far the mischief has gone may be judged from the many adulatory press notices, paragraphs, and interviews, to which Mr. Hall Caine himself is presumably a consenting party, or against which, at any rate, he has not raised the indignant protest which might be expected from a man who saw himself thus made ridiculous. “Goes straight to the roots of human passion and emotion”—“will take its place in the literary inheritance of the English speaking nations”—“reaches heights which are attained only by the great masters of fiction”—“distinctly ahead of all the fictional literature of our time, and fit to rank with the most powerful fictional writing of the past century”—“almost Homeric power in its massive and grand simplicity”—“a Rembrandt among novelists”—etc., etc. Would it be surprising that a poor gentleman who had convinced himself that he was, say, the Duke of Wellington or George the Third, should cling to this conviction the more tenaciously if thus assured of its correctness by half the people whom he met, or that he should proceed with imperturbable gravity to play the part assigned him? For instance, in one of the October magazines there was a special interview, entitled “Hall Caine on Social Questions,” in which the author of “The Christian” obligingly discoursed on such themes as the novel, heredity, the marriage question, the woman movement, Ibsen, socialism, etc., and in such manner as to show clearly his belief that these casual remarks of–some very sensible, some very foolish, all extremely common-place—were matters of public significance. The force of hallucination could go no further.

Is there, then, a cure for this malady? I fear none, except the gradual disillusionment of time; and that will be too late to benefit the chief sufferer. Here and there in the press, as notably in the Saturday Review, a humane attempt has been made by sympathetic observers to do Mr. Caine the inestimable service of making known to him his identity, but it is almost inevitable that such efforts should be fruitless. They would naturally be regarded as prompted by jealousy or ignorance, when testimonials to the genius of the other, the Homeric, Mr. Hall Caine can readily be procured from Mr. Gladstone, Dean Farrar, and so many eminent authorities. And, after all, what does it matter, since “dreams are true while they last,” as the poet tells us? Why should we over-sensitive humanitarians rush in to right matters, out of our exceeding compassion for one who would not thank us for our trouble? If the margarine produces, for the time being, all the effects of butter, and conjures up, in the imagination of those who taste it, a poetic vision of serene upland pastures and sweet-breathed kine, what use to insist on the prosaic fact that it is nothing more than lard? Would it not be wiser to humour the sick fancies of the patient and his fellow-sufferers, and to avoid a contradictory tone which might be irritating to them and possibly dangerous to ourselves? Here is a question of treatment on which I need not further dwell; my main point is simply this, that the case of Mr. Hall Caine is full of psychological interest, and one which deserves the attention of all students of curious mental phenomena. That “The Christian” should be regarded as a work of literary magnitude, and its writer as a man of genius, and that Mr. Hall Caine himself should be both the author and the victim of this extraordinary hallucination, is a fact more strange and portentous than any modern ghost-story. I have now discharged my duty in narrating my experience; it is for the Physical Research Society and the mental specialist to take the case in hand.

Henry S. Salt

Vegetarian Review, 1897