In 1938, with the gloriously musical literary voices of Victoria’s reign just fading from living memory, Oxford University Press published English Prose of the Victorian Era. The table of contents of this 1,700-page behemoth is a literary Who’s Who of the nineteenth century: Carlyle, Macaulay, Newman, Mill, Ruskin, Thackeray, Arnold, T. H. Huxley, William Morris, J. A. Froude, Walter Pater, Robert Louis Stevenson. Though they are now seldom accorded the respect they deserve, they are familiar – though often, sadly, only in name. There is a single exception. One gentle soul has been forsaken. His name is Alexander Smith, and in 1863 he gave us a quiet masterpiece: Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country.
The village of Dreamthorp is the inner sanctuary of a man condemned by financial necessity to a city life, but whose heart and mind are never at ease until his foot sinks into the soft turf of the country, where he can ‘breathe freely as the first man’. It is a world made more real by the stone and mortar of his imagination than it could possibly have been made by the mason’s art. Here his muse can soar. Dreamthorp is an exquisitely melancholy book. It is not the moralizing, brooding melancholy of Hawthorne (whom Smith admired), nor the black abyss of Poe. It is delicate, warm and welcoming, only occasionally touching the threshold of darkness. It is poignant, looking wistfully to the past and hopefully to t
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