morceau de verre ... est-ce drole? Une vache de
monsieur, les vaches ... ca avale du verre a tout
age. J’en ai connu une qui a mange une eponge a laver les
cabriolets ... a sept ans! Elle en est morte.”
Caboussat. “Ce que c’est que notre pauvre humanite!”
Penny Dreadfuls and Matricide.
Our friends have been occupied with the case of a half-witted boy who consumed Penny Dreadfuls and afterwards went and killed his mother. They infer that he killed his mother because he had read Penny Dreadfuls (post hoc ergo propter hoc) and they conclude very naturally that Penny Dreadfuls should be suppressed. But before roundly pronouncing the doom of this—to me unattractive—branch of fiction, would it not be well to inquire a trifle more deeply into cause and effect? In the first place matricide is so utterly unnatural a crime that there must be something abominably peculiar in a form of literature that persuades to it. But a year or two back, on the occasion of a former crusade, I took the pains to study a considerable number of Penny Dreadfuls. My reading embraced all those—I believe I am right in saying all—which were reviewed, a few days back, in the Daily Chronicle; and some others. I give you my word I could find nothing peculiar about them. They were even rather ostentatiously on the side of virtue. As for the bloodshed in them, it would not compare with that in many of the five-shilling adventure stories at that time read so eagerly by boys of the middle and upper classes. The style was ridiculous, of course: but a bad style excites nobody but a reviewer, and does not even excite him to deeds of the kind we are now trying to account for. The reviewer in the Daily Chronicle thinks worse of these books than I do. But he certainly failed to quote anything from them that by the wildest fancy could be interpreted as sanctioning such a crime as matricide.
The Cause to be sought in the Boy rather than in the Book.
Let us for a moment turn our attention from the Penny Dreadful to the boy—from the eponge a laver les cabriolets to notre pauvre humanite. Now—to speak quite seriously—it is well known to every doctor and every schoolmaster (and should be known, if it is not, to every parent), that all boys sooner or later pass through a crisis in growth during which absolutely nothing can be predicted of their behavior. At such times honest boys have given way to lying and theft, gentle boys have developed an unexpected savagery, ordinary boys—“the small apple-eating urchins whom we know”—have fallen into morbid brooding upon unhealthy subjects. In the immense majority of cases the crisis is soon over and the boy is himself again; but while it lasts, the disease will draw its sustenance from all manner of things—things, it may be, in themselves