As a matter of fact, there was little that interested them, or which at all events didn’t disappoint and somewhat bewilder. The novel was groaning under the thraldom of realism; poetry, with one or two exceptions, was given up to bric-a-brac and metrical ingenuity. To young men for whom French romanticism was still alive, who were still content to see the world through the spiritual eyes of Shelley and Keats, and who had not yet learned to belittle Carlyle, there seemed a strange lack of generosity and, indeed, vitality in the literary ideals of the hour. The novel particularly seemed barren and unprofitable to them, more and more an instrument of science than a branch of literature. Laughter had deserted it, as clearly as romance or pathos, and more and more it was becoming the vehicle of cynical biology on the one hand, and Unitarian theology on the other. Besides, strangest of all, men were praised for lacking those very qualities which to these boys had seemed essential to literature. The excellences praised were the excellences of science, not literature. In fact, there seemed to be but one excellence, namely, accuracy of observation; and to write a novel with any eye to beauty of language was to err, as the writer of a scientific treatise would err who endeavoured to add charm and grace to the sober record of his investigations. Dull sociological analysts reigned in the once laughing domain of Cervantes, of Fielding and Thackeray, of Dumas and Dickens, of Hugo and Gautier and George Sand.
Were they born too late? Were they anachronisms from the forgotten age of romanticism, or were they just born in time to assist at the birth of another romantic, idealistic age? Would dreams and love and beautiful writing ever come into fashion again? Would the poet be again a creature of passion, and the novelist once more make you laugh and cry; and would there be essayists any more, whose pages you would mark and whose phrases you would roll over and over again on your tongue, with delight at some mysterious magic in the words?
History may be held to have answered these questions since then, much in favour of those young men, or at all events is engaged in answering them; but, meanwhile, what a miraculous refreshment in a dry and thirsty land was the new book Henry Mesurier had just discovered, and had eagerly brought to share with Ned in their tavern corner one summer evening in 1885.