IN Boswell’s Life of Johnson it is related of OLIVER GOLDSMITH that he one day broke his shins in attempting to show his friends that he could perform a certain feat of agility, which had conferred great celebrity on a Clown who was the popular favourite of the day. The anecdote is generally accepted, with a high sense of relish, as one among many other amusing proofs of Goldsmith’s ridiculous vanity. Speaking for myself, I have never been able to look at it in that light. I have always believed that the misadventure to Goldsmith’s shins was caused by his acute sense of the neglected state of his muscular education. He knew that he possessed the same bodily apparatus as the Clown; he was ashamed of not being able to turn it to the same dexterous use; he gallantly endeavoured to make up for deficiencies in early training by self-directed efforts in later life; and, like many another man, who, in default of proper schooling, has tried to teach himself, he failed in accomplishing his meritorious purpose. Superficial spectators, who could not look beyond the broken shins, all burst out laughing at the accident, and cried: There is his vanity again! And, since that time, a superficial public has unanimously echoed the exclamation.

Grateful remembrances of The Vicar of Wakefield make me hope that I am right in the view I take of this anecdote. At the same time, common candour compels me to confess that all public exhibitions of great skill and dexterity have the same curious effect on my own mind, which I suppose the Clown’s feat to have had on the mind of Goldsmith. When, for example, I attend the performances of a conjuror; when I observe that his hands are in every respect like mine; and when I see the amazing uses to which he can put them, I blush at the mortifying sight of my own fingers and thumbs; I think of the dormant dexterities which my parents never cultivated, and which I can now never hope to acquire; and I leave the entertainment, secretly ashamed of my grossly ignorant hands, and secretly relieved when I find myself hiding them from the public eye in the kindly refuge of my pockets.

It must be a very strong feeling indeed which makes an Englishman ashamed of his own legs. The observant reader who has travelled abroad, will, I think, support me when I assert that no respectable Frenchman, German, or Italian, was ever yet seen to bend his head down while walking in the street, and survey the spectacle of his own legs with a grave and vacant satisfaction. The same observant reader, on returning to London from foreign parts, cannot fail to have noticed that all respectable Englishmen perform this action, at one period or another of their progress through the streets. It may be that we admire our own legs as a nation; or it may be that we are scrupulously anxious to see that our trousers are properly brushed. At any rate, there is no doubt of the fact that the Englishman enjoys the sight of his own legs in a state of progression—especially when they are taking him to Church. National in all other matters, I used to be national also in this. Some years since, unfortunately for myself, I saw a famous male opera-dancer. The sprightly leapings, twistings, twirlings, and twinklings of those incomparable and never-to-be-forgotten legs, sank deep into my mind, and dried up in me for ever, those sources of innocent national enjoyment, to which I have referred, I hope, with becoming tenderness and respect. I left the theatre, so heartily disgusted with the stolidity of my own uneducated legs, that I have never had the courage or the curiosity to look at them since.

Something of the same eccentric mental operation has been lately stirred into action within me by the perusal of a very remarkable book which is just now interesting the public in an unusual degree. I have been following a narrative of great dangers and trials, encountered in a good cause, by as honest and as courageous a man as ever lived. In other words, I have been reading DOCTOR LIVINGSTONE’S Account of his Travels in South Africa. What various results this book may have produced upon the minds of its very large circle of readers, I cannot pretend to say. One of the results which it has produced on my mind, is of a kind which I suspect neither its author, its publisher, nor its critics foresaw, when it was first presented to the world. The effect of it on me has been to lower my opinion of my own character in a most remarkable and most disastrous manner. I used to think that I possessed the moral virtues of courage, patience, resolution, and self-control. Since I have read Doctor Livingstone’s volume, I have been driven to the humiliating conclusion that, in forming my own opinion of myself, I have been imposed upon by a false and counterfeit article. Guided by the test of the South African Traveller, I find that my much-prized courage, patience, resolution, and self-control, turn out to be nothing but plated goods. A week ago I thought they were genuine silver—I did, indeed.

How can this possibly have happened?—some persons may be inclined to ask. Happy persons! who can lay the book down, thankful to the author (as I am thankful) for having written it; but, on the other hand, not depreciated in their own estimations, as I am depreciated in mine. It is no very difficult task to describe the manner in which my self-esteem oozed out of me as soon as I made Doctor Livingstone’s acquaintance. The process was simple in itself; and it began at the very first chapter in. the book. I had only reached page twelve, when I was irresistibly impelled to ask myself this searching and decisive question: Suppose I was travelling in South Africa, and suppose, at the very beginning of my wanderings, a lion laid hold of me by the shoulder, and got me down on the ground under his paw? What should I have done? Beyond all possibility of doubt, I should have shrieked for help to my savage friends running off in the background; and, receiving none, I should have fainted away with fright, and have known nothing more till my, faithful niggers brought me to, and set my pulse going again with news that the lion was dead. That is what I should have done under these circumstances. What does Doctor Livingstone do?

* * * "I took a good aim at his body through the bush, and fired both barrels into it. * * I did not see any one else shoot at him, but I saw the lion’s tail erected in anger behind the bush, and, turning to the people said, Stop a little till I load again. When in the act of ramming down the bullets, I heard a shout. Starting and looking half-round, I saw the lion in the act of springing upon me."

That is where I should have shrieked for help.

"I was upon a little height; he caught my shoulder as he sprang, and we both came to the ground below together. Growling horribly close to my ear"—

This is where I should have fainted with fright—

"he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain, nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife. This singular condition was not the result of any mental process. The shake annihilated fear, and allowed no sense of horror in looking round at the beast. * * * Turning round to relieve myself of the weight, as he had one paw on the back of my head, I saw his eyes directed to Mebalwe who was trying to shoot him at a distance of ten or fifteen yards. His gun, a flint one, missed fire in both barrels; the lion immediately left me, and, attacking Mebalwe bit his thigh. Another man, whose life I had saved before, after he had been tossed by a buffalo, attempted to spear the lion while he was biting Mebalwe. He left Mebalwe and caught this man by the shoulder, but at that moment the bullets he had received took effect, and he fell down dead. The whole was the work of a few moments, and must have been his paroxysm of dying rage. * * * Besides crushing the bone into splinters, he left eleven teeth-wounds on the upper part of my arm."

Gentle reader, if you were under the paw of a lion could you move to make your position more comfortable? Could you notice whether your companion’s gun missed fire or not? Could you keep your consciousness, and analyse your feelings afterwards? I could have done none of these things; and, knowing that, it did not surprise me to find that the perusal of the passage just quoted and the loss of all belief in my own courage, were simultaneous mental operations, in my case, no longer than a week ago.

Another example. Suppose I set forth, as Doctor Livingstone set forth, to spread the blessings of Christianity among savages to whom the mere sight of a white man was a marvel—strong in my determination to do good—stronger yet in my freedom from the mischievous spiritual crotchets of sects and their high-priests at home, and in my wise resolution to give the cause of Religion the whole benefit of my plainest common sense, without regarding worn-out traditions, without stooping to powerful prejudices, without fearing senseless blame. Suppose I had been a Missionary of this rare sort—as Doctor Livingstone was, and is—how would my patience have held out, when I came to put my plans in practice, against such vexations and such trials as these?

* * * "It is, however, difficult to give an idea to an European of the little effect teaching produces, because no one can realise the degradation to which their minds have been sunk by centuries of barbarism and hard struggling for the necessaries of life; like most others, they listen with respect and attention, but, when we kneel down, and address an unseen Being, the position and the act often appear to them so ridiculous that they cannot refrain from bursting into uncontrollable laughter. After a few services they get over this tendency. I was once present when a missionary attempted to sing among a wild heathen tribe of Bechuanas, who had no music in their composition; the effect on the risible muscles of the audience was such that the tears actually ran down their cheeks. Nearly all their thoughts are directed to the supply of their bodily wants, and this has been the case with the race for ages: If asked, then, what effect the preaching of the Gospel has had at the commencement on such individuals, I am unable to tell, except that some have confessed long afterwards that they then first began to pray in secret." * * *

And again, a little further on:

* * * "When all knelt down, many of those who had children, in following the example of the rest, bent over their little ones; the children, in terror of being crushed to death, set up a simultaneous yell, which so tickled the whole assembly there was often a subdued titter, to be turned into a hearty laugh as soon as they heard Amen. This was not so difficult to overcome in them as similar peccadilloes were in the case of the women farther south. Long after we had settled at Mabotsa, when preaching on the most solemn subjects, a woman might be observed to look round, and, seeing a neighbour seated on her dress, give her a hunch with the elbow to make her move off; the other would return it with interest, and perhaps the remark, Take the nasty thing away, will you? Then three or four would begin to hustle the first offenders, and the men to swear at them all, by way of enforcing silence."

Would my patience have resisted such attacks on it as these? I am more than afraid that I should have lost it altogether before I had advanced many miles into the African continent, and should have continued my journey in the character of a mere traveller, bent on making discoveries, but ennobled no longer by the better ambition of making conversions.

And suppose I had gone on as a traveller? Suppose I had toiled through unknown tracts of country, through savage tribes with whose disposition towards strangers no man’s previous experience had made me acquainted—suppose I had dared perils of sickness, of hunger, and of death from wild animals, rather than abandon my resolution to open up anew trade to the world, and to make such geographical discoveries as no other man had made in my time—suppose I had run these risks and compassed these achievements, whereabouts would the miserable counterfeit which has hitherto falsely represented to my mind the sterling virtue of Perseverance, have at last exposed itself and shown what it was really worth? Where should I have discovered unmistakeably that I was not what I had hitherto believed myself to be—a genuinely persevering man? At this point of my journey, I think—if not long before it.

"Next morning, by climbing the highest trees, we could see a fine large sheet of water, but surrounded on all sides by the same impenetrable belt of reeds. This is the broad part of the river Chobe, and is called Zabesa. Two tree-covered islands seemed to be much nearer to the water than the shore on which we were, so we made an attempt to get to them first. It was not the reeds alone we had to pass through; a peculiar serrated grass, which at certain angles cut the hands like a razor, was mingled with the reeds; and the climbing convolvulus, with stalks which felt as strong as whipcord, bound the mass together. We felt like pigmies in it; and, often, the only way we could get on, was by both of us leaning against a part, and bending it down till we could stand upon it. The perspiration streamed off our bodies, and as the sun rose high, there being no ventilation among the reeds, the heat was stifling, and the water, which was up to the knees, felt agreeably refreshing. After some hours’ toil we reached one of the islands. Here we met an old friend, the bramble bush. My strong moleskins were quite worn through at the knees, and the leather trousers of my companion were torn, and his legs bleeding. Tearing my handkerchief in two, I tied the pieces round my knees, and then encountered another difficulty. We were still forty or fifty yards from the clear water, but now we were opposed by great masses of papyrus, which are like palms in miniature, eight or ten feet high, and an inch and a half in diameter. These were laced together by twining convolvulus, so strongly that the weight of both of us could not make way into the clear water. At last, we fortunately found a passage prepared by a hippopotamus. Eager, as soon as we reached the island, to look along the vista to clear water, I stepped in, and found it took me at once up to the neck."

I should never have got up to my neck in water. I should have stopped at the bramble-bushes and saved my moleskins.

Another, and a last example. I have always been accustomed to consider myself as possessed in a remarkable degree of the virtue of self-control. I said "No," this very last Christmas Day, at a large dinner-party, when the servant offered me champagne. A week ago, my wife (to whom I am passionately attached) implored me to set her up with a supply of the new-fashioned red stockings. I did violence to my own feelings, and said "No," again—remembering the expense. Yesterday fortnight, I roused my sinking heart, and nerved my sluggish legs, and went to a large ball; smiling and chattering, and making myself agreeable, through heat, crowding, confusion, and dulness, as if I really enjoyed the evening. At this very moment, I am writing these very lines, with the third volume of a breathlessly interesting novel tempting me in vain, on a table within my reach. Is this self-control? It is what we, who live at home at ease, are accustomed to consider as representing that virtue in its most practical and meritorious form. Are we all deceived, then, by a counterfeit? I cannot presume to answer that question for others; but I should be exceedingly glad to know what readers of well-regulated minds thought of their own self-control, when they read these passages in the eighteenth chapter of Doctor Livingstone’s Travels:

"We heard some of the Chiboque remark, ‘They have only five guns;’ and about mid-day Njambi collected all his people, and surrounded our encampment. Their object was evidently to plunder us of everything. My men seized their javelins, and stood on the defensive, while the young Chiboque had drawn their swords, and brandished them with great fury. Some even pointed their guns at me, and nodded to each other, as much as to say, ‘This is the way we shall do with him.’ I sat on my camp-stool, with my double-barrelled gun across my knees, and invited the chief to be seated also. When he and his counsellors had sat down on the ground in front of me, I asked what crime we had committed that he had come armed in that way. * * * In reference to a man being given, I declared that we were all ready to die rather than to give up one of our number to be a slave; that my men might as well give me as I give one of them, for we were all free men. * * * My men now entreated me to give something. * * * I gave him (the chief) one of my shirts. The young Chiboque were dissatisfied, and began shouting and brandishing their swords, for a greater fine.

" As Pitsane felt that he had been the cause of this disagreeable affair, he asked me to add something else. I gave a bunch of beads, but the counsellors objected this time, so I added a large handkerchief. The more I yielded, the more unreasonable their demands became, and at every fresh demand, a shout was raised by the armed party, and a rush made around us with brandishing of arms. One young man made a charge at my head from behind, but I quickly brought round the muzzle of my gun to his mouth, and he retreated. I pointed him out to the chief, and he ordered him to retire a little. I felt anxious to avoid the effusion of blood; and though sure of being able with my Makololo, who had been drilled by Sebituane, to drive off twice the number of our assailants, though now a large body, and well armed with spears, swords, arrows, and guns, I strove to avoid actual collision. My men were quite unprepared for this exhibition, but behaved with admirable coolness. The chief and counsellors, by accepting my invitation to be seated, had placed themselves in a trap; for my men very quietly surrounded them, and made them feel that there was no chance of escaping their spears. I then said, that, as one thing after another had failed to satisfy them, it was evident that they wanted to fight, while we only wanted to pass peaceably through the country; that they must begin first and bear the guilt before God: we would not fight till they had struck the first blow. I then sat silent for some time. It was rather trying for me, because I knew that the Chiboque would aim at the white man first; but I was careful not to appear flurried, and having four barrels ready for instant action, looked quietly at the savage scene around."

Backed by a body of men on whom I could depend, and persecuted by the insatiable rapacity of a horde of greedy savages, I could no more have kept that double-barrelled gun, across my knees, and sat looking quietly at’ the scene around, than I could command the evolutions of a vessel, reduced to extremities within sight of a lee shore. I should instantly have let off my guns, have shed blood without the excuse of absolute necessity, have roused the whole country against me, and have perished to a dead certainty, in a longer or shorter time, the victim of my own rashness. Doctor Livingstone’s genuine self-control brought him and his men out of the scrape without the degradation of submission on the one hand, and without the horrors of slaughter on the other. He got to the end of his journey, and saw the faces of his own countrymen again on the western coast. I should have been buried hundreds of miles on the wrong side of my destination, and should never have been heard of more. When my friends talk next of their own self-control, or of mine, I think I know a little African anecdote which is likely to exercise a marvellous influence in leading the conversation to some other topic.

Such is the effect which this book of African Travels has had upon me. It has done me a world of good in modifying my own favourable opinion of myself. Although I might well rest satisfied with acknowledging the usefulness of such a result of my reading as this (not at all a common one, in my case, when I occupy myself with the works of travellers in general), I must still ask leave to say a few more last words before I bid farewell to Doctor Livingstone and his book.

I have no intention of attempting to tell the Traveller’s story at second-hand. If it be indeed a great critical triumph to crush a long narrative into a space which cannot possibly contain so much as the one hundredth part of it, in a moderately fair and unmutilated form, that great triumph has been already achieved in more instances than I can undertake to reckon up. I have no need, as I have certainly no desire, to treat a book which I am bound to respect, in this summary fashion. Neither is it my ambition to put on record, in this place, any favourite opinions of my own on the future prospects of the Missionary cause in Africa. Not being a professed critic, I do not feel bound to set myself up in the character of a person who is, by virtue of his office, always better informed than the author himself on the author’s own subject. My only object, in writing these final lines, is to express my admiration, in all seriousness and sincerity, of the manly truthfulness of Doctor Livingstone’s book. and of the admirable tone of unaffected modesty in which it is written from the first page to the last. The author’s unflinching honesty in describing his difficulties and acknowledging his disappointments in the attempt to plant Christianity among the African savages; his sensible independence of all those mischievous sectarian influences which fetter so lamentably the exertions of so many other good men; and his fearless recognition of the absolute necessity of associating every legitimate aid which this world’s wisdom can give with the work of preaching the Gospel to heathen listeners, are merits beyond all praise, because they are merits without a parallel in the previous history of Missionary literature. Surprisingly new and delightful to read, in this respect, the book is hardly less remarkable viewed simply as the narrative of a traveller’s adventures. With certain rare and honourable exceptions, the tone adopted in these days by literary travellers in general, is one of flippant mockery and wearisome self-conceit. The matter-of-fact tendencies of English readers induce them, apparently, to grant a species of privilege to men who profess to treat of something that has really happened, which they refuse to extend to men who pursue the higher, or, in plainer terms, the more imaginative branches of literature. A tone which is condemned as offensive in a writer of novels, is either quietly accepted, as a matter of course, or is positively approved as rather entertaining, in a writer of travels. After reading the ordinary run of books by the ordinary run of travellers, it is a positive refreshment to the mind to turn to Doctor Livingstone’s volume, and to follow the simple—I had almost written the artless—narrative of an unaffectedly modest man. On this account, especially, I have met with no book, for a long time past, which, to my mind, sets so excellent an example before other writers—no book which has stirred up within me so strong an interest in the author, and in the future that lies before him. None of Doctor Livingstone’s many readers more cordially wish him success in the noble work to which he has again devoted himself—none will rejoice more sincerely in hearing of his safe and prosperous progress, whenever tidings of him may reach England—than the writer of these few lines, who now heartily and gratefully bids him farewell.

Taken from Household Words 23 January 1858 XVII 121-125


go back to e-text list

go back to Wilkie Collins front page

visit the Paul Lewis front page

All material on these pages is © Paul Lewis 1997-2006