Quarterly Review 1868: ‘Rather Hear the Flatulence of Camels than the Prayers of Fishes’

December 3, 2008 at 5:15 pm (General Victoriana)

If you find yourself on Charing Cross Road, on that stretch between Leicester Square Tube and Cambridge Circus, I urge you to check out Quinto’s second hand bookshop at 48a (on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Great Newport Street). Go downstairs, and turn hard right into a little room, and you’ll find a splendid range of old bound volumes of nineteenth-century periodicals on special offer: half price, no less.

A little while ago I impulse-bought a lovely single bound volume of the Quarterly Review from 1868, and it cost me a mere £3.50. I love picking up volumes like this; it’s a sort of lucky dip into various Victorian attitudes, opinions, facts and fancies. You never know what you’re going to find. And in this case I got a veritable cabinet of wonders, all for less than the price of most of the glossy magazines on sale at Smiths. [Some issues of the Quarterly are available in their entirety for even less (free) on Google books … this 1815 one, for instance … which makes for interesting browsing if you’ve a spare online moment. But most are snippet view only, alas.]

Here’s a taste of what the Quarterly 249 contains.

The first article is a lengthy review of The Life of David Garrick; from original Family papers (2 vols, London 1868) by Percy Fitzgerald M.A. F.S.A (‘Author of the ‘Life of Sterne’ &c.), of which the Q has a low opinion:

Like Johnson’s friend, Birch, Mr. Fitzgerald seems to be ‘a dead hand at life.’ Within two years or so he has grappled with Charles Lamb’s and Sterne’s, and now Garrick’s is before us in two volumes that number together nearly a thousand pages. Like all hasty literary work it is much too long. If lives are to be written on this scale, we must, as Sydney Smith said, get back to the days of Methusaleh, when men’s years were counted by hundreds and not by tens. [2]

Advice one or two modern biographers could usefully follow, don’t you think? The second article is called ‘Indian Railways’, ostensibly reviewing the Report to the Secretary of State for India in Council on Railways in India for the year 1867-68 (an official report composed by the excellently-named ‘Juland Danvers Esq., Government Director of the Indian Railways Companies’). Given that this is barely ten years after the Indian Mutiny, it makes very interesting reading by way of articulating the colonising power’s complex mix of attitudes about the subcontinent. It opens:

It was the remark of Lord Dalhousie that nothing short of a great victory or a great reverse was sufficient to create in English society even a transient interest in the affairs of india. Since this truth was uttered, eighty-four millions of English capital have been invested in Indian railways, and forty-nine thousand English proprietors of stock and debentures have acquired a direct interest in the prosperity of our Indian administration and in the permanence of our rule. It may therefore appear redundant to offer any apology for devoting a few pages to a summary review of an undertaking which involves pecuniary considerations of so large an amount, and which is fraught with consequences of the greatest importance to our great empire inthe East, and to the hundred and fifty millions who compose it. [48]

I especially like the way that last number (which refers to people) is offered in exactly the same manner as the first number (which refers to pounds sterling); as if human beings and units of money are somehow interchangeable as far as this question is concerned. It’s a thoroughly interesting article, actually; too lengthy to be summarised here. A couple of points. One is that the writer takes it for granted that peasants, whether Indian or English, will resist newfangled technology like Stevenson’s railway engines (twenty years ago ‘the people of Woolwich [were as likely] to suffer themselves to be fired off on one of Congreve’s wonder rockets as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate’, 49). Another is the level of anxiety about the effect building the railways might have upon the Western employees themselves:

The establishment of railways in India has led to the introduction of several thousand Europeans employed in various subordinate posts on the different lines. The temptations to which many of them are exposed, when separated from the salutary restraints under which they were accustomed to live at home, demand the constant attention of the Companies, who are, moreover, the greatest sufferers from the casualties and invaliding entailed by their irregularities … The Directors have spared no pains or expense to improve their position, and to counteract their proneness to those indulgences which lower the national character and dishonour the Christian name in the eyes of the natives. [69]

Isn’t that just fantastically tantalising? It almost compels you to wonder in what precisely these ‘indulgences which lower the national character’ consisted (I suppose we can imagine, broadly speaking …) But it’s interesting to realise the extent to which commercial companies felt that the moral pressure to corall their workers was part of their broader investment strategy.

Then there’s a review of The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (‘edited by Derwent and Sara Coleridge, A New Edition. London 1854’ … which is to say, this book had to wait fourteen years for its review. I bet the publishers were happy about that). There’s a lengthy article on recent advances in Gunpowder technology; and an article just as long reviewing the History of Lace. By Mrs Bury Palliser. London, 1865 (‘Lace is one of the most marvellous products of human industry, and, on looking at these fairy tissues, produced by infinitesimal touches of labour … one is struck with admiration of the profoundest character at seeing the victory of human hands in minuteness of toil’). Does the Q like the book? It does: ‘This graceful ornament of civilisation has found a worthy historian in Mrs Palliser.’

The seventh article is a much duller account of Siluria, a History of the Oldest Rocks in the British Isles and other Countries. By Sir Roderick I. Murchison, Bart., K.C.B. But the eighth is the best of all: a review of nineteen separate collections of proverbs, from all around the world, that includes amongst the obvious candidates (‘more haste, less speed’, ‘counting chickens before they are hatched’) some of the most gloriously bewildering proverbial wisdom I have ever encountered. Make sense, if you choose, of the following:

He that hath swallowed the Devil may swallow his horns. [Italian proverb]
To steal a pig and give the pettitoes to God. [Spanish proverb]
The she-goat has not yet yeaned, yet the kid is playing before the house. [Zenobius]
A scalded cat dreads cold water [Spanish proverb]
He that travels alone tells lies. [Oji proverb]
Women and bairns lein what they kenna. [Scots proverb]
Better one’s house too little one day, than too large all the year. [English proverb]
Rather hear the flatulences of camels than the prayers of the fishes [Egyptian proverb]

There’s no accounting for tastes, I suppose. (The Quarterly, at least, offers an explanation of this last one: ‘it bespeaks the Egyptians dislike of a sea voyage, which made him prefer the tedious land pilgrimage to Mecca’; which makes sense, but surely limits the applicability of the proverb.)

The final piece is a rather depressing article entitled ‘Ireland once more’, reviewing ‘Journals, Conversations &c., relating to Ireland. By the late Nassau W. Senior‘, which begins: ‘No apology is needed for so soon recurring to the subject of Ireland. It is, and we fear must long continue, the question of the day; the question to which statesmanship and patriotism alike yearn to settle.’ The Q urges, by way of solution, the following: ‘let us do, and do boldly and thoroughly’ [276] without ever saying exactly what it is that the doing actually might entail. But history conclusively demonstrated that, in 1868, there was no immediate solution to that question forthcoming. [AR]


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