Dr. Johnson once took Bishop Percy's little daughter on his knee, and asked her what she thought of the "Pilgrim's Progress." The child answered that she had not read it. "No?" replied the Doctor; "then I would not give one farthing for you," and he set her down and took no further notice of her.
This story, if true, proves that the Doctor was rather intolerant. We must not excommunicate people because they have not our taste in books. The majority of people do not care for books at all.
Yet, little as the world in general cares for reading, it has read Bunyan more than most. One hundred thousand copies of the "Pilgrim" are believed to have been sold in his own day, and the story has been done into the most savage languages, as well as into those of the civilised world.
Dr. Johnson, who did not like Dissenters, praises the "invention, imagination, and conduct of the story," and knew no other book he wished longer except "Robinson Crusoe" and "Don Quixote." Well, Dr. Johnson would not have given a farthing for ME, as I am quite contented with the present length of these masterpieces. What books do YOU wish longer? I wish Homer had written a continuation of the Odyssey, and told us what Odysseus did among the far-off men who never tasted salt nor heard of the sea. A land epic after the sea epic, how good it would have been--from Homer! But it would have taxed the imagination of Dante to continue the adventures of Christian and his wife after they had once crossed the river and reached the city.
John Bunyan has been more fortunate than most authors in one of his biographies.
His life has been written by the Rev. Dr. Brown, who is now minister of his old congregation at Bedford; and an excellent life it is. Dr. Brown is neither Roundhead nor Cavalier; for though he is, of course, on Bunyan's side, he does not throw stones at the beautiful Church of England.
Probably most of us are on Bunyan's side now. It might be a good thing that we should all dwell together in religious unity, but history shows that people cannot be bribed into brotherhood. They tried to bully Bunyan; they arrested and imprisoned him--unfairly even in law, according to Dr. Brown, not unfairly, Mr. Froude thinks--and he would not be bullied.
What was much more extraordinary, he would not be embittered. In spite of all, he still called Charles II. "a gracious Prince." When a subject is in conscience at variance with the law, Bunyan said, he has but one course--to accept peaceably the punishment which the law awards. He was never soured, never angered by twelve years of durance, not exactly in a loathsome dungeon, but in very uncomfortable quarters. When there came a brief interval of toleration, he did not occupy himself in brawling, but in preaching, and looking after the manners and morals of the little "church," including one woman who brought disagreeable charges against "Brother Honeylove." The church decided that there was nothing in the charges, but somehow the name of Brother Honeylove does not inspire confidence.
Almost everybody knows the main facts of Bunyan's life. They may not know that he was of Norman descent (as Dr. Brown seems to succeed in proving), nor that the Bunyans came over with the Conqueror, nor that he was a gipsy, as others hold. On Dr. Brown's showing, Bunyan's ancestors lost their lands in process of time and change, and Bunyan's father was a tinker. He preferred to call himself a brazier--his was the rather unexpected trade to which Mr. Dick proposed apprenticing David Copperfield.
Bunyan himself, "the wondrous babe," as Dr. Brown enthusiastically styles him, was christened on November 30th, 1628. He was born in a cottage, long fallen, and hard by was a marshy place, "a veritable slough of despond." Bunyan may have had it in mind when he wrote of the slough where Christian had so much trouble. He was not a travelled man: all his knowledge of people and places he found at his doors. He had some schooling, "according to the rate of other poor men's children," and assuredly it was enough.
The great civil war broke out, and Bunyan was a soldier; he tells us not on which side. Dr. Brown and Mr. Lewis Morris think he was on that of the Parliament, but his old father, the tinker, stood for the King. Mr. Froude is rather more inclined to hold that he was among the "gay gallants who struck for the crown." He does not seem to have been much under fire, but he got that knowledge of the appearance of war which he used in his siege of the City of Mansoul. One can hardly think that Bunyan liked war--certainly not from cowardice, but from goodness of heart. ...