The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 6. J. Westland Marston
The age, becoming more and more critical, scientific and unemotional, fell, more and more, out of touch with tragedy. It was almost certainly the desire to bring tragedy back to the business and bosoms of men that induced John Westland Marston to attempt a verse tragedy of contemporary life. The Patrician’s Daughter (1842) tells the story of an able politician of humble birth, who is “taken up” by an aristocratic family for political ends, and then treated with contumely when asking for the hand of the daughter of the house. He takes his revenge by rejecting the lady (something in the manner of Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing) when her family has found it necessary to offer him her hand in exchange for his support; and the insult kills the girl, who had loved him all the time. The plot, in one place, runs thin; the humiliation of the hero is accomplished by means of a commonplace of stage-craft, one of those misunderstandings or misrepresentations which a moment’s calm enquiry would have cleared up. But Marston was a poet and a scholar; his mind was richer, his social knowledge greater and his poetical faculty more highly trained than those of the other tragedians mentioned in this chapter. He wrote sense, and he understood character. And he showed considerable courage in writing what was so near to a political play as The Patrician’s Daughter. “The play,” as he said later, “represents a period when the fierce class animosities excited by the first Reform bill had by no means subsided.” It is a mainfesto for neither aristocracy nor democracy: indeed, it exposes the particular danger on each side, on the side of the patricians, pride; on the side of the patricians, pride; on the plebeian, the tendency to “indulge a passion in the belief that he was vindicating a principle.” But, considering the strictness of the censorship and the heated state of public feeling, Marston went as near as anyone dared to writing a poetical play about the actual life of his time; and the favour with which the play was received ought, it would be imagined, to have inspired others to follow his example and win for tragedy a new vigour. Nothing came of it; and this opposition between the haughty, heartless world of high life and the meritorious poor became a favourite subject of other kinds of drama than tragedy. Marston’s other tragedies in verse, Strathmore (1849) and Marie de Méranie (1850), were the last of their kind that deserve consideration from the student of literature. The drama was soon to develop along lines more suited to the age. With the retirement of Macready and Helen Faucit, the succession of great actors who had inspired dramatists with the desire to write poetical drama came to an end, and was not to be renewed. Thus, Marston’s exciting and romantic Life for Life (1869), his equally romantic and slightly Byronic A Life’s Ransom (1857) and others, had no successors worthy of comparison with them in the ordinary traffic of the stage.