Essays on literature
The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of his Discourses, in Four Books, the Enchiridion, and Fragments. A Translation from the Greek, based upon that of Elizabeth Carter. By Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1865.
The present edition of Epictetus, as the title-page affirms, rests upon Mrs. Carter's translation, which was published in a clumsy quarto in 1758. On comparing the two versions, we find that the modifications made by the present editor bear chiefly upon the undue quaintness, directness, and familiarity of Mrs. Carter's style. They were undertaken, he intimates, with the hope of popularizing the great Stoic moralist among modern readers. It is a significant fact, in view of this intention, that the present version has altogether a more literary air than Mrs. Carter's own, for which, to judge from the long list of aristocratic subscribers that accompanies it, a somewhat exclusive patronage was anticipated. The difference between the two versions is not very great, but it has seemed to us that the alterations made by Mr. Higginson tend to substitute the language of books for the language of talk. This, however, is but as it should be. The language of talk of the present day is quite as literary as the language of books of a hundred years ago.
How far under these new auspices Epictetus is destined to become familiar to modern English readers is a difficult question to decide. In every attempted resuscitation of an old author, one of two things is either expressly or tacitly claimed for him. He is conceived to possess either an historical or an intrinsic interest. He is introduced to us either as a phenomenon, an object worthy of study in connection with a particular phase of civilization, or as a teacher, an object worthy of study in himself, independently of time or place. In one case, in a word, he is offered us as a means; in the other case he is offered us as an end. To become popular he must fulfil the latter condition. The question suggested by this new edition of Epictetus is whether or not he is susceptible of a direct modern application. There are two ways of answering this question. One is to attempt an exposition of his character, and, with the reader's sympathy, to deduce thence our reply. The other is to give our opinion at once, and then to proceed to justify it by an exposition of his character. We select the latter course. We agree with the editor, then, that the teachings of Epictetus possess a permanent value, -- that they may properly form at least one department in a modern handbook of morals.
Little is known of our author's life. That he was a Greek by birth; that he lived at Rome in the latter part of the first century; that he was a slave, deformed and poor; and that he publicly discussed philosophy; -- these facts make up all that we know of his history. But these are assuredly enough. As his philosophy was avowedly a matter of living and acting, we may be sure -- the sympathetic reader of his Discourses cannot but be sure -- that he exemplified it in his own life and acts. We need to know little of the history of a man whose theory of conduct was so explicit, so emphatic, so detailed. There is in his precepts, possessing them even as we do at second hand, a personal accent, a tone of honesty, of sincerity, of feeling, -- an expression, so to speak, of temperament, -- which gives them a kind of autobiographical force. Like his great master, Socrates, -- the object of his constant and almost religious reference, -- we know him only as he stands reported by a disciple. But he has this advantage, that his disciple was a man of no particular originality. A thoroughly earnest man, moreover, a man of strong personal influence and lively idiosyncrasies, such as Epictetus must have been, may often be more successfully represented by another than by himself. In an age when morals and metaphysics were taught by direct exhortation, and the teacher's authority depended largely upon the accordance of his habits with his theories; when genius was reflected as much in the conduct as in the intellect, and was in fact measured as much by the one as by the other; and when the various incidents of a man's natural disposition -- that whole range of qualities which in the present day are held to be quite impertinent to public life -- increased or diminished the force of his precepts, -- in such an age it is probable that the general figure of a philosopher was in the eyes of his disciples a very vivid and absolute fact, and, provided they were neither Xenophons nor Platos, would be strictly respected in their recollections and reports. This is especially likely to have been the case with Epictetus, from the fact that he was a Stoic. The Stoic philosophy is emphatically a practical one, a rule of life: it applies to the day, the hour, the moment. As represented by Epictetus it is as far removed as possible from metaphysics. There is, therefore, no Stoicism of mere principle. And, lastly, there reigns throughout the parts of Epictetus's Discourses such a close mutual consistency as to fix the impression that his life was thoroughly consistent with the whole.
Stoicism is the most absolute and uncompromising system of morals ever accepted by man. We say system of morals, because it is in effect nothing of a philosophy. It is a stifling of philosophy, a prohibition of inquiry. It declares a man's happiness to be wholly in his own hands, to be identical with the strength of his will, to consist in a certain parti-pris of self-control, steadfastly maintained. It teaches the absolute supremacy of virtue, -- its superiority to health, riches, honor, and prosperity. Virtue consists in a state of moral satisfaction with those things which reason tells us are in our power, and in a sublime independence of those things which are not in our power. It is not in our power to be rich, to be free, to be sound of body. But it is in our power to be resigned to poverty, slavery, and sickness. It is in our power to live philosophically; i. e. patiently, passively, in conscious accordance with the divine part of our nature. It is easy to understand the efficacy of such a doctrine as this in the age of Nero and Domitian, before Christianity had had time to suggest that virtue is not necessarily a servitude, and that the true condition of happiness is freedom. In that age the only hope of mankind was in the virgin human will. Epictetus never once intimates the existence of an idea of rights. On the contrary, his whole theory of those things which are not in our power is inconsistent with such an idea. In his view, the conditions of humanity are permanently fixed. Life is beset on every side with poverty and suffering. Slavery is an accepted fact. Every man is subject, as a matter of course, to certain visitations of cruelty and injustice. These are so inevitable, so much a law of the universe, that we must regulate our lives accordingly. To declaim against them, to resist them, to deny them, is out of the question. Our duty is to accept them in order that we may properly reject them. Our own persons are the field of this operation. Over them we have no power; but over ourselves we have an absolute mastery, that is, over our true selves; not this contemptible carcass, these perishable limbs, this fleeting life, -- nothing so simple as that; and yet, if we would but perceive it, something infinitely more simple, -- the self-contained, unencumbered faculty of reason. Within our own souls we reign supreme. Cruelty and injustice may invade our bodies; the Stoic quietly awaits them on the threshold of his reason, arrests their progress, turns them to naught, and covers them with confusion. "You may hurt me," he says, "if you can, that is, if I will. I am only hurt so far as I heed my injuries; but I will not heed them. I have better things to think of, - - the providence of God, his wisdom, power, and beauty, and this god- like principle, my own nature, from which I derive courage, modesty, and religion. You may hurt me and misuse me, and much good may it do you. It will indeed gratify you, inasmuch as for you it is I that you persecute; but for me, who am the proper judge, I would have you know, it is not I, but this miserable body, to which you are welcome."
The age in which this attitude of mind was a refuge, a rest, a relief, the fruit of a philosophy, is an age which we cannot adequately conceive without a strong intellectual effort. And we must remember that men would not have assumed it, if, in spite of its apparent difficulties, it had not opened the wisest course. Aux grands maux les grands rem des. When injustice was on the heroic scale, submission had to be on the heroic scale too. Such were the consolations of a Romanized world. In a brutal age virtue is brutal as well as vice; and, indeed, we read the moral depression engendered by the Roman decline more clearly in these utterances of a reactionary piety than in any record of the flagrant profligacy of the time. When this was the last word of honest Paganism, it was high time that Christianity should arrive; for if vice called for a reform, virtue called for it equally. Christianity was needed to correct the Roman spirit, generally, -- in its good as well as in its evil manifestations. It was needed to teach the respect of weakness. The Stoicism of Epictetus is in its uncompromising sternness, its harshness, its one-sidedness, its lack of imagination, a thoroughly Roman principle. It rests upon common sense. It adapts itself to only one stand-point, and betrays no suspicion of the needs of a character different from that of its teacher. Common sense, in the character of a kind of deus ex machina, has often undertaken the solution of complex philosophical problems; but it has solved them only by cutting the knot.
Stoicism, then, is essentially unphilosophic. It simplifies human troubles by ignoring half of them. It is a wilful blindness, a constant begging of the question. It fosters apathy and paralyzes the sensibilities. It is through our sensibilities that we suffer, but it is through them, too, that we enjoy; and when, by a practical annihilation of the body, the soul is rendered inaccessible to pain, it is likewise rendered both inaccessible and incompetent to real pleasure, -- to the pleasure of action; for the source of half its impressions, the medium of its constant expression, the condition of human reciprocity, has been destroyed. Stoicism is thus a negation of the possibility of progress. If the world, taken at a given moment, were destined to maintain all its relations unchanged forevermore, then the doctrine in question would be the best theory of life within human attainment. But as to the modern mind there is always a possible future in which to lodge the fulfilment of impossible ideals, as besides our principle of Christian faith there exists for the things of this world a kindred principle of Christian hope, Stoicism seems, at the present day, to imply an utter social immobility. And if the majority of mankind became Stoics, it is certain that social immobility would ensue as the result of so general an assumption of passivity. The grand defect of the system is, that it discourages all responsibility to anything but one's own soul. There is a somewhat apocryphal anecdote of Epictetus having said to his master, Epaphroditus, as the latter was about to put his leg into the torture, "You will break my leg"; and, when in a few moments this result was accomplished, of his having quietly added, "Did not I tell you so?" It would be easy to quote this anecdote as an example of great nobleness of soul. But, on reflection, we see that it reveals, from our modern point of view, an astounding moral degradation. It assuredly does not diminish our respect for Epictetus, any more than the tub of Diogenes diminishes our respect for him; but it sets inflexible limits to our consideration for the spirit by which a noble nature was so enslaved. There is no doubt that, on its own ground, Pagan brutality was best refuted by such means as these. But it is equally certain that such means as these are possible only to spirits tainted by the evils which they deplore. It is against the experience of such evils that they react; but as long as the battle is fought on the old ground, the reactionists only half secure our sympathy. To future ages they have too much in common with their oppressors. It is only when the circle is broken, when the reaction is leavened by a wholly new element, that it seems to us to justify itself. The taint of Epictetus is the taint of slavery.
Mr. Higginson tells us, in his Preface, that these Discourses were the favorite reading of Toussaint l'Ouverture. When we add this fact to the fact that Epictetus was himself a slave, -- when we view, in connection, the affinity with these principles of two minds elevated, indeed, by the sentiment of liberty, but in a measure debased by the practice of servitude, -- we shall approach a perception of the ignoble side of Stoicism. It has occurred to us that we might realize it in the following fashion. Let us imagine a negro slave, under our former Southern dispensation, keenly conscious of all the indignities of his position, and with an intellect of exceptional power, dogmatically making the best of them, preaching indifference to them, and concluding, in fact, that weariness and blows and plantation fare are rather good things, -- we shall so take home to our minds the didactic character of Epictetus.
To the vivacity, the consistency, the intensity of belief, the uncompromising frankness of speech with which this character is maintained, we cannot pay too large a tribute of respect. He must have been a wholesome spectacle in that diseased age, this free-thinking, plain-speaking old man, a slave and a cripple, sturdily scornful of idleness, luxury, timidity, false philosophy, and all power and pride of place, and sternly reverent of purity, temperance, and piety, -- one of the few upright figures in the general decline. Of the universal corruption and laxity of character and will he is keenly, almost pathetically, sensible. "Show me some one person," he exclaims, "formed according to the principles which he professes. Show me one who is sick, and happy; in danger, and happy; dying, and happy; exiled, and happy; disgraced, and happy. Show him to me; for, by Heaven, I long to see a Stoic. . . . . Do me this favor. Do not refuse an old man a sight which he has never seen. . . . . Let any of you show me a human soul, desiring to be in unity with God; not to accuse either God or man; not to be angry; not to be envious; not to be jealous; in a word, desiring from a man to become a god, and in this poor mortal body aiming to have fellowship with Zeus. Show him to me. But you cannot." No indeed, they could not. And yet very little of the energy of Epictetus goes to merely deploring and lamenting the immorality about him. He is indefatigable in reproving, contradicting, and what we should now-a-days call snubbing, his auditors and interlocutors; in reminding them of their duties, in shaming them out of their foibles and vices. He is a merciless critic of all theorists, logicians, and rhetoricians, -- of all who fail to take the very highest ground in regard to the duties of a man, and who teach the conscience to satisfy itself with a form of words. He himself has no need of theories; his five senses teach him all he wants to know. "Have these things no weight?" he asks. "Let a Pyrrhonist or an Academic come and oppose them. For my part, I have neither leisure nor ability to stand up as advocate for common sense. . . . . I may not be able to explain how sensation takes place, whether it be diffused universally or reside in a particular part, for I find perplexities in either case; but that you and I are not the same person, I very exactly know." Like most men of a deep moral sense, he is not at all inquisitive; he feels very little curiosity concerning the phenomena of the external world. From beginning to end of his Discourses, there is no hint of a theory of nature, of being, or of the universe. He is ready to take all these things as they come, as the work of the gods, and as adding, in their marvellous beauty and complexity, to the debt we owe the gods. But they are no concern of his. His business is with human nature, with the elevation of human character to the divine ideal. To our perception he is very weak as a logician, although he constantly claims to arrive at truth and wisdom by a severe exercise of the reasoning faculty. His nature is pre-eminently a religious one; and it is when he speaks under the impulse of feeling, and with a certain accent of passion, that he is most worth quoting and remembering. There are moments when he talks very much as a modern Christian would talk. "What else can I do, a lame old man, but sing hymns to God? . . . . Since I am a reasonable creature, it is my duty to praise God. This is my business. I do it. Nor will I ever desert this post so long as it is permitted me; and I call upon you to join in the same song." Epictetus praises God because he is a reasonable creature; but what he calls reason, we should, in many cases, call faith. His sense of a Divine presence in human affairs never, indeed, rises to enthusiasm or to ecstasy; but it is, nevertheless, very far removed from the common sense on which, in treating of our attitude towards the things of this life, he invariably takes his stand. Religious natures are of no particular time, and of no particular faith. The piety of Epictetus was a religious instinct as pure as the devotion of a Christian saint; that is, it did for him the most that religion can do for any man, -- it enabled him to live hopefully in the midst of a miserable world. It enabled him to do so, indeed, only through the exercise of a force of will of which few Christian saints have probably felt the need; for they have rested their hopes on a definite assurance.
The great value of these Discourses, then, to our perception, is not in their philosophy, -- for, in strictness, they have none, -- but in the reflection they offer of their author's character. Intellectually he was no genius, -- he was, if we may use the expression, very slightly intellectual; he was without curiosity, without science, without imagination, -- the element which lends so great a charm to the writings of that other Stoic, Marcus Aurelius. He was simply a moralist; he had a genius for virtue. He was intensely a man among men, an untiring observer, and a good deal of a satirist. It was by the life of his style that he acted upon his immediate disciples, and it is by the same virtue, out-lasting almost two thousand years and a transformation into our modern speech, that he will act upon the readers of to-day. When moral nobleness finds solid expression, there is no limit to its duration or its influence. Epictetus dealt with crude human nature, which is the same in Christians and Pagans, in men of the nineteenth century and men of the first. In every doctrine there are good and bad possibilities, -- there is a good and a bad Stoicism. But a literal Stoicism our present social conditions render, to say the least, difficult. For the majority of mankind society is tender rather than harsh. We have no longer to hold out our necks to unjust persecutors, to bow our heads to gratuitous insults, to wrap our human nakedness in our simple virtue. This is not an heroic age, and it becomes daily more difficult to be gracefully proud. We, therefore, with less danger than earlier generations may accept and apply Epictetus. Such acceptance, indeed, as he may receive at our hands would hardly answer his desires, and would be but another instance of the unceremonious avidity with which the present fashions the past to its needs. The good a man does the world depends as much on the way the world takes him as on the way he offers himself. Let us take Epictetus as we take all things in these critical days, eclectically. Let us take what suits us, and leave what does not suit us. There is no doubt but we shall find much to our purpose; for we still suffer, and as long as we suffer we must act a part.
"I am acquainted with no book," says Mr. Higginson, "in which the inevitable laws of retribution are more grandly stated, with less of merely childish bribery or threatening." The reader of Epictetus will easily discover what is meant by this, and will decide that, explain it by Stoicism or any other name one may choose, it is for this fact that our author is pre-eminently valuable. That no gain can make up for the loss of virtue is an old story, but Epictetus makes it new. What is the punishment, he inquires, of craven spirits? "To be as they are." "Paris, they say," to quote from another chapter, "was undone when the Greeks invaded Troy and laid it waste, and his family were slain in battle. By no means; for no one is undone by an action not his own. . . . . His true undoing was when he lost modesty, faith, honor, virtue. When was Achilles undone? When Patroclus died? By no means. But when he gave himself up to rage." And in another place: "I lost my lamp because the thief was better at keeping awake than I. But for that lamp he paid the price of becoming a thief, for that lamp he lost his virtue and became like a wild beast. This seemed to him a good bargain; and so let it be!" And in still another: "Is there not a divine and inevitable law, which exacts the greatest punishments from those who are guilty of the greatest offences? For what says this law? Let him who claims what belongs not to him be arrogant, be vainglorious, be base, be a slave; let him grieve, let him envy, let him pity; and, in a word, let him lament and be miserable." "That he is unhappy," he says elsewhere, "is an addition every one must make for himself." This is good Stoicism; and to bear it well in mind is neither more nor less, for us moderns, than to apply Epictetus.
Julia Ward Howe, Later Lyrics. Boston: J. E. Tilton & Co., 1866. Elizabeth Akers (Florence Percy), Poems. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866. Amanda T. Jones, Poems. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1867. Elizabeth Rundle Charles, The Women of the Gospels: The Three Wakings, and other Poems. New York: M. W. Dodd, 1867.
Of the volumes whose titles are here set forth, the first two in order are also the first two in character. Mrs. Howe's verses, however, are very unequal. Those of Mrs. Akers, on the other hand, maintain throughout the same level of unassuming good taste. If Mrs. Howe is occasionally unsuccessful, it is because she is urged by a generous ambition and a more imperious fancy. The titles of some of her pieces will give a notion of the heights to which she sometimes aspires. Here are several in succession: "Philosophy," "Kosmos," "First Causes," "The Church," "The Christ." It is true that, on examination, we find these great topics to be dealt with in a more cursory fashion than might have been apprehended. The first-named piece, for instance, is a declaration of the author's willingness to share, for the sake of its glorious compensation, the discredit and discomfort attached to the pursuit of philosophy. The poet forgets that this is no longer the age in which Galileo was imprisoned, or Bruno was burned, and that indeed as a generation we are nothing if not philosophical. Of the second of the pieces just cited our most lively impression is that the sun is there assumed to be of the feminine gender. But besides these, Mrs. Howe handles an immense variety of profane subjects, and with very various felicity. She is most successful, to our mind, when her theme is simple and objective, as in the case of the War Poems which open the volume; although even the effect of the very best of these is marred by the introduction of some recondite fancy or some transcendental allusion. The fifth stanza of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is an instance in point. The first four stanzas are rapid and passionate; the last is cold-blooded and literary, and utterly at odds with the dignity of the Republic in whose name the whole is spoken. So in the lyric entitled "Our Orders," we regret that the author should not have suppressed the obscurely worded invocation to the "Sibyl Arts." The absence of any such impertinent matter in the "Harvard Students' Song," together with the animated measure of the poem, give it, in our opinion, the first place among the author's patriotic verses. Very forcible, too, are several of the series entitled "Lyrics of the Street," especially the little poem called "The Fine Lady." Under the head of "Poems of Study and Experience," Mrs. Howe has included three morsels of blank verse, -- "studies," we ought perhaps to call them, in the fashion of the day, -- which we fancy to have been inspired by certain of the pregnant monologues of Robert Browning. One of these compositions is a soliloquy by the Emperor Caligula,
It was a bold undertaking on the part of Mrs. Howe, in view of the fact here asserted, to unveil the heart of the profligate Roman; and it is perhaps, after all, to the credit of her fancy that her effort has fallen short of the mark. The same may be said of her attempt to reconstruct the character of the Emperor Claudius, whose
Mrs. Howe's prevailing fault is that she is too vague, too general, too lax; and it requires a more constant patience of facts, of linear divisions, and of shades of meaning, than properly belongs to her genius, to call back into being phases of life and of character so alien to our actual circumstances as the humors of Claudius and Caligula.
Mrs. Akers, as we have said, sails much nearer to the shore. She is fluent, pensive, and tender, and exhibits a very genuine love for physical nature, and a sympathy with its slighter phenomena, which in Mrs. Howe's volume is almost conspicuous by its absence. "Violet Planting," "Spring at the Capitol," and "Among the Laurels," are all good examples of graceful versification. They are nowhere disfigured by that painful straining for effect, that ludicrous dislocation of the members of the phrase, which we are apt to encounter in the compositions of writers in whom the poetic heat is not intense. Mrs. Akers is content to gather the thoughts and images that are within easy reach, and such as will subsist on good terms with her vocabulary. Occasionally her fancy and her language are charmingly mated. Speaking, for instance, of the indifference of Nature to the civil strife of men, she writes: --
Of the two remaining volumes on our list it is hard to write many words. Miss Jones is patriotic, bellicose, and slightly erudite; but both in her patriotic and her domestic pieces she is verbose and rhetorical, rather than earnest and truly lyrical. We confess to a lively mistrust of collections of verse presenting a frequent recurrence of those metres which require twice the breadth of the page. The chief merit of a great deal of the versification of the day lies in the brevity of its lines, as compared to the line of prose; but this merit is absent from Miss Jones's pages. They present a most formidable and impartial diffusion of matter. We conjecture that the praise most after this lady's heart would be the bestowal upon her performance of the epithet "spirited." This epithet we cordially concede. It is decidedly spirited, for example, on the part of a soldier's mother, to speak of being "impaled" by terror as to her son's fate. Miss Jones's analogies and metaphors are throughout of a terrible description. "Ghouls," "fiends," "tigers," and "scorpions" all play a prominent part. Occasionally, however, Miss Jones imparts a singular subtlety to her portrayal of terrible sensations; as when she represents the cry of the whippoorwill as "taxing the sense with a dulcitude fearfully keen."
The poetic style of the author of "The Schönberg-Cotta Family," on the other hand, is colorless to a fault. Her work is essentially common, destitute alike of the fervor of piety and the graces of poetry. We should be sorry to impugn the sincerity of the author's devotional feelings; but if devotional poetry owes something to religion, it also owes something to art, or at least to taste; and when it is indifferent to art and taste, it suffers the penalty of being unreadable.
Modern Women, and What Is Said of Them. Reprint of a series of articles in the Saturday Review, New York: J. R. Redfield, 1868.
This volume consists of a series of papers published during the last two or three years in the London Saturday Review, treating of various points connected with the characteristics and manners of the fairer and weaker sex. They belong to that branch of literature which has come to be known among us as the "social article." The Saturday Review has had the credit of having shown us how good the social article can be; but it seems also to have been disposed to show us how bad. Singly, as they came out, these pieces may have appeared to possess a certain brilliancy and vigor, and, at a stretch, one can imagine them to have furnished a group of idle people, of unformed taste, a theme for ten minutes' talk. But it is as incredible that, as we are told, they should have produced a sensation then as it is that they should produce a revolution now. The authorship of the papers we have no means of knowing. We gather from intrinsic evidence that they are the product of several hands -- in one of which, at least, we certainly detect the feminine griffe. But if they differ somewhat in tone, they differ imperceptibly in merit. They are all equally trivial, commonplace, and vulgar. The vulgarity of thought, indeed, which they display, the absence of reflection, observation, and feeling, of substance, of style, and of grace, and the manner in which the thinnest and crudest literary flippancy and colloquial slanginess are thrust forward in the place of these sacred essentials, is, when one considers their pretensions, the character of their subject, and the superior auspices under which they were ushered into the world, an almost inconceivable spectacle. As we read the volume, modern women -- heaven save the mark! -- passed quite out of our thoughts, and our attention transferred itself to modern scribblers. The great newspaper movement of the present moment has, we suppose, its proper and logical cause, and is destined to have its proper and logical effect; but its virtues need to be manifold, assuredly, to palliate the baseness and flimsiness of much of the writing to which daily and weekly journals serve as sponsors. But for their protecting shadow, persons ignorant of the very alphabet of style and of thought would not erect themselves as public monitors and teachers. But for the beautiful accessibility of their columns, how many beggarly hosts of intellectual jugglers and charlatans would not have thrust themselves into the great thoroughfare of honest thought, to the infinite annoyance of retarded and distracted enquirers. The world is great and is constantly growing greater; its shoulders are broad; it has an immense patience and a prodigious organ of digestion and disintegration. It is easily infatuated, but it is also profoundly indifferent. We suppose, therefore, that it will continue to endure without perceptible injury this immense pressure of unleavened literary matter. But we, nevertheless, recommend the producers and furnishers to be on their guard, and to listen once in a while to the rumblings of Etna.
The papers before us read like the result of an arrangement made, alike without conscience and without taste, by three or four sapient connoisseurs to "run" the flagellation of their female contemporaries as far as it would go. It has gone as far as "The Girl of the Period;" for this paper, which is placed first in the American reprint, is one of the later in the original series. The American reader will be struck by the remoteness and strangeness of the writer's tone and allusions. He will see that the society which makes these papers even hypothetically -- hyperbolically -- possible is quite another society from that of New York and Boston. American life, whatever may be said, is still a far simpler process than the domestic system of England. We never read a good English novel (and much more a bad one), we never read either Mr. Trollope or Mr. Trollope's inferiors, without drawing a long breath of relief at the thought of all that we are spared, and without thanking fortune that we are not part and parcel of that dark, dense British social fabric. An American is born into a so much simpler world; he inherits so many less obligations, conventions, and responsibilities. And so with the American girl. You have only to reflect how her existence, in comparison with that of her British sister, is simplified at a stroke by the suppression in this country of that distinguished being the "eldest son," of that romantic class the "younger sons." Another cause of greater complexity in life for Englishmen and English girls alike is their immediate proximity to that many-colored Continent, of which we, in comparison, have the means to learn so little. And this brings us back to the "Girl of the Period." This young lady, we are assured, is, in England, an exact reproduction, in appearance and manners, of a Parisian cocotte -- or whatever the latest term may be. If this is not true, it is at least slightly plausible. Irregular society, in France, has become so extensive and aggressive that he who runs -- and she who walks -- may easily read its minutest features. An English girl who makes with her parents a regular autumnal trip to the Continent encounters face to face, in all the great cities, at all the chief watering-places, the celebrities -- and indeed the obscurities -- of the demi-monde. The theory of the Saturday Reviewer is that familiarity breeds not contempt, but emulation. Whatever may be the worth of his theory, his description of the young lady thus demoralized is decidedly vigorous. She is a painted, powdered, "enamelled" creature, stained with belladonna and antimony, crowned with a shock of false hair, wearing her walking-dress indecently high and her evening dress abominably low. She has no manners and no feelings, and only brains enough to ensnare a rich husband. She frankly sells herself; she marries for money, without a semblance of sentiment or romance. The relation of the Girl of the Period to marriage forms, under one aspect or another, the subject of the greater number of the ensuing articles. We find it reiterated, of course, with emphasis, that to marry, and to marry well, is the one great object of young girls' energies and desires. According as a girl marries or not, life is a prize or a blank. Innumerable arts, therefore, are practised both by the young ladies and their mothers, cunning machinations are devised, in the interest of this sacred need. It is all a very old story, and English novels have long since made us acquainted with it: how a match-making matron fixes her cold, magnetic eye upon the unsuspecting possessor of a comfortable income -- how, with her daughter's aid and the insidious help of picnics and croquet and musical parties, she weaves about him the undisseverable web of a presumptive engagement, and finally leads him, muddled, confused, and bullied, to the altar. The various tricks of the marriage-market are enumerated with a bold, unpitying crudity. It is a very dismal truth that the only hope of most women, at the present moment, for a life worth the living, lies in marriage, and marriage with rich men or men likely to become so, and that in their unhappy weakness they often betray an ungraceful anxiety on this point. But to our minds there is nothing comical in the situation, and as a field for satirical novelists it has ceased to be actively worked. The attempt to draw an idle smile at the expense of poor girls apprehensive of spinsterhood is, therefore, not a very creditable one. On all other points women receive here equally hard measure. Some of the accusations touch, doubtless, upon real foibles and follies, but others seem to us thoroughly beside the mark. The article on "Pinchbeck," for instance, shows an absolute want of observation of facts. The writer's allegation is that women are given over body and soul to the adoration of sham finery, sham comfort, and sham elegance, and that, thanks to their insatiable longing for glitter and splendor where only false glitter and splendor are within their reach, our whole domestic economy is pervaded by a horrible system of Brummagem-ware. "If they cannot buy gold, they can manage pinchbeck; glass that looks like jet, like filagree-work, like anything else she fancies, is every bit to her as good as the real thing; and if she cannot compass Valenciennes and Mechlin, she can go to Nottingham and buy machine-made imitations that will make quite as fine a show. . . . Flimsy silks make as rich a rustle to her ear as the stateliest brocade, and cotton velvet delights the soul that cannot aspire to Genoa." The falseness of all this is apparent to the most superficial observer. Sham finery is of all things in the world the most abhorrent to women at all in regular "society" -- and it is throughout of such women that our writers speak. Quantities of false ornaments -- beads, buckles, pins, and the like -- are nowadays manufactured for fashionable wear; and they are worn in profusion and variety, as being avowedly and notoriously false. But we could hardly name three objects of livelier contempt to women of ordinary intelligence than "mean" silk, cotton velvet, and imitation lace. The real accusation is that when a woman with a taste for dress desires a handsome silk and cannot afford it, she buys it, notwithstanding. The real ground of complaint is the insolence of splendor of women of small means. Another grievous fault, we are told, is women's mania, "Interference." In the picture drawn in the article with this title of the impertinent and aggressive attitude of the average British spouse, we quite fail to recognize the far-famed humility of that exemplary person. Its tone is so obviously ill- humored, and the quality and process of its censure so crude and brutal, that we accept it only with very many grains of allowance. And then there are "Feminine Affectations" -- a dreadful and odious list; and the flimsiness and trashiness of "Aesthetic Women;" and the cold-blooded profligacy of "Modern Mothers;" and again, the indecency of the costume of the day; and the pitiable condition of "The Fading Flower;" and the odious pretensions of "La Femme Passée."
What do you see when on a clear autumn day you measure the length of the Fifth Avenue, or ascend the sunny slope of Beacon Street? Do you encounter a train of youthful Jezebels with plastered faces and lascivious eyes and a general dévergondage of mien? You meet a large number of very pretty and, on the whole, very fresh-looking girls, dressed in various degrees of the prevailing fashion. It is obvious that their persons betray a very lively desire to be well dressed, and that the idea "well dressed" has, to their minds, a peculiar significance. It has a sacred and absolute meaning. Their bonnets must be very small, their panniers very large, their heels very high, and all their appointments as elegant as possible. A young girl of fashion dressed to suit her own taste is undeniably a very artificial and composite creature, and doubtless not an especially edifying spectacle. She has largely compromised her natural freedom of movement. The most that you can say of her is that she is charming, with a quasi-corrupt arbitrary charm. She has, moreover, great composure and impenetrability of aspect. She practises a sort of half-cynical indifference to the beholder (we speak of the extreme cases). Accustomed to walk alone in the streets of a great city, and to be looked at by all sorts of people, she has acquired an unshrinking directness of gaze. She is the least bit hard. If she is more than this -- if she is painted and touzled and wantonly chiffonnée -- she is simply an exception, and the sisterhood of "modern women" are in no way responsible for her. She would have been the same in the good old times of our great- grandmothers. The faults and follies that can be really fastened upon the younger women of the present day are, in our opinion, all caused and explained by the growing love of luxury and elegance. The standard in these matters is so much higher than it was thirty and forty years ago that a young girl -- even when she has money -- needs a great deal more time to maintain herself at the proper level. She has frequently no time left for anything else -- for study, for reflection, or sentiment. She is absorbed in the care of her person. A young girl given up to dress is certainly a very flimsy and empty creature, and there is something truly ignoble in the incessant effort to gratify and stimulate the idle taste of a host of possible "admirers." But between this sort of thing and the sort of thing described by the Saturday Reviewers there is a very wide gulf -- a gulf made by that strong conservative element in the feminine nature of which the writer in question seems to have so little notion. Women turn themselves into painted courtesans for two reasons -- as a means of gaining a subsistence which is impracticable in any other way or because they have a natural taste for the business. The first motive is common, and the second is rare; so rare that where the first does not exist, the rapprochement of the Saturday Reviewer is a wanton exaggeration in the interest of sensationalism. The whole indictment represented by this volume seems to us perfectly irrational. It is impossible to discuss and condemn the follies of "modern women" apart from those of modern men. They are all part and parcel of the follies of modern civilization, which is working itself out through innumerable blunders. It seems to us supremely absurd to stand up in the high places and endeavor, with a long lash and a good deal of bad language, to drive women back into the ancient fold. Their extravagance is a part of their increased freedom, and their increased freedom a part of the growth of society. The lamentable results -- the extremely uncomfortable "wreck" society would be sure to incur from an attempt to fasten again upon womankind the tether which was sufficient unto the aspirations of Miss Hannah More and Miss Edgeworth, the authors of these papers would be the first to denounce. We are all of us extravagant, superficial, and luxurious together. It is a "sign of the times." Women share in the fault not as women, but as simple human beings. As women, they strike us as still remarkably patient, submissive, sympathetic -- remarkably well-disposed to model themselves on the judgment and wishes of men. They reflect with great clearness the state of the heart and imagination of men. When they present an ugly picture, therefore, we think it the part of wisdom for men to cast a glance at their own internal economy. If there is any truth in the volume before us, they have a vast deal to answer for. They give the ton -- they pitch the key.
Anne Thackeray Ritchie, Miss Angel. New York: Harper & Bros., 1875. Margaret Wilson Oliphant, Whiteladies. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1875. Mrs. Thomas Erskine, Wyncote. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1875. Henrietta Camilla Jenkin, Within an Ace. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1875. André Theuriet, Le Mariage de Gérard. Paris: Charpentier; New York: Christern, 1875. Gustave Droz, Les Etangs. Paris: Hetzel; New York: Christern, 1875. Lucy Bethia Walford, Mr. Smith. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1875.
In attempting to make a romance of the tolerably familiar biography of Angelica Kaufmann, Miss Thackeray's touch seems to us to have lost its usual fineness. The story is a pretty one in itself, but Miss Thackeray has not succeeded in giving it either the vividness or the coherence that we look for in a novel. It is part of her skill, generally, to remind the reader, lightly, of certain tones, certain half-tones, in the style of the author of `The Newcomes'; but in so far as `Miss Angel' suggests in any degree the minor graces of Thackeray's style, it suggests them to its disadvantage. Miss Thackeray emulates her father here, not perhaps in his most successful, but at least in his most difficult attempts. When he put Addison, Steele, Swift, Washington, Johnson, upon the stage, he was not at his best; but never, perhaps, was there more reason to notice the charm of a style which could carry off even a failure. Miss Thackeray deals with several persons registered in history not long since, but she has not made their images more lifelike than she found them. They strike us as rather pale and tame, and they are embedded in much discursive allusion, of a sentimental sort, in which a certain falsetto note has not always been evaded. Miss Thackeray is decidedly a writer, and she often phrases things in a very charming fashion, but she occasionally suffers herself to fall into a certain rhetorical amateurishness. An example of this presents itself in the opening lines of the book, where she tells us that Angelica's "little head is charmingly set upon its frame." What is the frame of a head? The analogy that the word suggests strikes us as imperfect. Miss Thackeray is very fond of description, but her descriptions are often fatally unbusinesslike. There is a general flashing and glowing and streaming and melting, but in the midst of it all rarely a definite image. If Nature, with Miss Thackeray, is meant to be merely incidental and parenthetic, we have rather too much of her; if she is meant to be important and essential, she is too vague and desultory. The author of `Miss Angel' has grace, humor, warmth, literary feeling, but she tells her tale too much by mere allusions.
There are doubtless now living many well-informed people who have never heard of Mrs. Oliphant, but we can assure them that Mrs. Oliphant and her writings are among the most extraordinary literary phenomena of the day. This lady's fertility has long been a familiar source of amazement to us; she turns off, if we are not mistaken, her half-dozen works a year. The most singular part of it is that they are very good; it is not mere speed; it is speed and safety too. You open `Whiteladies' -- the latest, we were going to say, but we will by no means answer for that -- you read half-a-dozen pages, and you feel like laying down the book. You see what it is -- fiction by the square yard; its portentous prolixity tells you that. The author is writing so fast that she has no time to choose; she must take everything that comes. Mrs. Oliphant takes everything, and tells a very long story, but the stream of improvisation is so well under her control and flows in so clear a current that she is able to offer us a very fair average brilliancy. You feel at the end of your half-dozen pages that you know the mechanism, and declare that you don't want machine-made entertainment; that this sort of thing can possibly have no illusion. But your eye wanders further; it skims and skips; and presently you find you are mildly interested. You go from one chapter to another, you turn the pages, the even current bears you along, and at the end of an hour you are actually reading `Whiteladies.' You can have done both better and worse -- worse, certainly, vastly worse, if you pick up a novel of the day at hazard. Practice makes perfect; Mrs. Oliphant has prodigious fertility and fluency, and, considering the quantity, the quality is quite remarkable. `Whiteladies' is the story of an old country-house of Henry VII.'s time, and of the surreptitious attempt of an amiable spinster to introduce a false heir. False heirs in novels are a trifle stale, and old country-houses (which, it is true, are not always so prettily described as this one of Mrs. Oliphant's) have not the glamor they once possessed; but there was some novelty in the idea of making a comfortable elderly lady of the type of Miss Susan Austin perpetrator of a serious penal offence. We would not have had her pay the full penalty of her indiscretion, but we cannot help thinking that something more interesting in a dramatic way might have been made to come of it than her confession, as it is here related, and her placid tea-drinking life afterwards. `Whiteladies' strikes us as having been written from page to page, without a plan, and we imagine that when Mrs. Oliphant began to relate Miss Susan's fraud she had very little idea whether she would make it a tragedy or a comedy. The drawback of this inexpensive improvisation has been that her pages are filled with persons whom she is quite at a loss how to dispose of, at the same time that, although prettily enough sketched, they are not as mere portraits sufficiently entertaining to justify themselves. The whole story moves in the Austin family, some of whom it has been the author's fancy to make Belgian shopkeepers, and some others French gentlefolk. We incline to believe that, if she had allowed herself time to think, she would not have created this complexity of foreign races. It is very well and very picturesque that the baby whom Miss Austin attempts to smuggle into the family should be Belgian, but we do not see what was gained by making the rightful heir two-thirds a Frenchman. His sister is the youthful heroine of the tale, but it is hard to imagine a heroine whose position should be more of a sinecure. Of course, at the worst, Mrs. Oliphant can marry her, but this, under the circumstances, is a scanty service. Why, too, should Giovanna, Miss Austin's accomplice, who pretends to be the mother of this interpolated baby, be three-quarters an Italian? The colors in Giovanna's portrait strike us as very much mixed, and all this imbroglio of nationalities seems decidedly arbitrary. The book is clever and readable, however, and decidedly superior to most current novels by female hands. Mrs. Oliphant can write English, though she has some rather foolish mannerisms, and her style conveys a suggestion of a greater general intellectual force than is now usually thought requisite for prosperous novel-writing. But she constantly gives us an impression that she might do better if she would suffer her ideas to ripen. We may be wrong, however, and this diffuse, superficial, occasionally slipshod Mrs. Oliphant may be, on the whole, the best Mrs. Oliphant possible. We confess, however, that as we read we were conscious of the importunity of two alternating questions: Is this a writer capable of finer things, jaded and demoralized by incessant production? or is it a writer in whom inspiration naturally flows thin, who has thoroughly learnt the trick of the trade, and who, in grinding out a smooth, tame, respectable novel, is simply fulfilling her ideal? We gave it up, as the phrase is, but the problem in its way was interesting, and it helped us through `Whiteladies.'
The author of `Wyncote' has much less practice and facility, but we are by no means sure that there is not more illusion in her simple and shrewd little narrative than in the clever amplitude of the tale we have just noticed. `Wyncote' is, indeed, a very pleasing little novel; it is what young girls call an extremely pretty story. It looks like no great things at first (especially when one finds Mrs. Erskine getting the simplest Italian words quite wrong -- she has brought her people as tourists to Rome), but as the reader goes on he finds humor and a neat and graceful style, and discrimination of character, and, in a quiet way, considerable art. `Wyncote' is also the history of an old country-house, with which the fortunes of various persons are more or less entertainingly connected. English novelists are greatly to be envied with their easy abundance of historic manors and legendary halls. Americans are apt to feel that if they only had such material they would make no vulgar use of it. Mrs. Erskine's heroine is a young girl who has been brought from Rome, where she was the much-tried daughter of a blind and starving old English artist, to officiate as companion to an ancient lady, under the eye of the latter's daughter, a strenuous old maid of charitable pursuits and a romantic history. Miss Camilla, the old maid, is extremely good, and the author has happily commingled in her composition the disagreeable and the sympathetic. There are various other persons, especially a certain Lydia Ashton, a young lady who "goes in" for the highest aesthetic culture, and who, if she lived in New York or Boston, would be a representative of Morris wall-papers and eccentric dados. She is very well done, her companions are lightly but happily touched, and the story, albeit rather tame, is agreeably and naturally unfolded. It has a compactness and symmetry which denote an artistic instinct, and it is, in a very good sense of the term, a ladylike book.
Mrs. Jenkin has done very much better things than `Within an Ace,' and we are quite at loss to explain the genesis of this incongruous tale. It treats of a gentleman in Edinburgh who has taken a young girl named "Cattie" to live with him as a daughter. He has several other daughters, one in especial named Tottie, whose conversation consists exclusively in feeble and ill-timed conundrums. To these young ladies comes a French Count, and forthwith proposes to marry Cattie. We had expected, from the début, a quiet tale of life in Edinburgh from the point of view of the author of the `Heir of Redclyffe,' but we are speedily transported to France, and to the most illustrious society (the French Count's mother, for instance, is near of kin to a reigning sovereign), and entangled among Cattie's matrimonial vicissitudes. We do not profess to have understood them or to have obtained the slightest inkling of Mrs. Jenkin's purpose, moral or dramatic. French counts in English novels are generally very loose fellows, and the ladies who marry them are not to be envied. Mrs. Jenkin apparently has had a wish to rehabilitate an injured race, and she has made her Count the victim of his Scotch wife's naughtiness. Cattie pouts and sulks, distresses her husband, and disgusts the reader. The latter has no clue to her moods, and, to tell the truth, he takes but a languid interest in the tale. He has never got over his surprise at finding that the household in Edinburgh, and Tottie's conundrums, and the enmity borne to Cattie by a certain ill-conditioned Uncle Dan, are all a mere blind alley, leading nowhither, and that he is launched into a pale simulacrum of the usual French novel of matrimonial impropriety. Not that there is any impropriety here: Mrs. Jenkin, to account for Cattie's vapors, hasn't given her the shadow of a lover. She has only given her a pernicious friend, a certain Mme. d'Aiguillon, who treats her to all manner of wicked counsel. There is no knowing, however, what Cattie might have done in consequence, if the story had not suddenly terminated. Mrs. Jenkin relates all this incoherent stuff with a vivacity and assurance worthy of a better cause.
The general difference between English and French novels is that the former are obviously addressed in a great measure to young unmarried women, and that the latter directly count them out. The strength of each species, we think, lies on the whole in their adhering to this natural division. M. André Theuriet apparently thinks otherwise. He has written a novel which (we suppose) a demoiselle may read, but which, in spite of its having originally come out in the Revue des Deux Mondes, will not be found remunerative by sterner minds. A French novel pitched in the English key is apt both to forfeit its characteristic charms and to miss the homelier graces of our own school. This has been the fortune of M. Theuriet, who has not succeeded any more than several cleverer Frenchmen before him in drawing a tolerable portrait of that familiar figure in English fiction, the young girl who combines liberty with modesty. M. Theuriet, like his predecessors, loses no time in telling us that this and that and the other point in his heroine's carriage and conversation were very "chaste." From the moment that we have to be assured and reminded of this circumstance, the illusion, for ourselves, is gone. We had no idea that that thing of pernicious possibilities, a "French novel," could be so flat and pointless as `Le Mariage de Gérard.'
M. Gustave Droz, after being for several years the most brilliant of the younger French story-tellers, has passed into an unaccountable eclipse. With `Les Etangs' he only partly emerges from it; for if the story is more readable than the one which preceded it (the inconceivable `Femme Gênante'), it owes this merit to its not really being a story. The author has laid his hand upon some curious old letters, and he publishes them in a slender fictitious setting. Or are the letters, too, possibly an invention of his own? In this case, `Les Etangs' would be very clever, and yet be still very inferior to the works which made its author's fame.
The first fifty pages of `Mr. Smith' tempt the reader to believe that Jane Austen has found a rival, or at least a very successful imitator. As the story advances, this impression fades away; though the reader is still entertained, he lowers his expectations. Miss Austen, in her best novels, is interesting to the last page; the tissue of her narrative is always close and firm, and though she is minute and analytical, she is never prolix or redundant. In being twice too long, `Mr. Smith' only incurs the same reproach as nine- tenths of the clever novels of the day. The author has undertaken to report in full every sentence of every conversation that took place in a certain village and its neighborhood during a certain winter when Mr. Smith came to take up his abode there and put the marriageable young ladies into a flutter. Her pages contain an inordinate amount of talk; at least half of it might be spared. Half, however, is excellent for humor and observation; it is just the talk which would have taken place in those particular circumstances. The "sensational" novel has been greatly denounced, but the English fiction of our day has certainly gone very far in the portrayal of quiet life. `Mr. Smith,' it seems to us, marks the uttermost limit, and in reading this volume we have wondered not a little at the skill which could throw such homely incidents into so entertaining a light. The skill is for the most part in the writer's humor -- humor of a gentle, circumspect, feminine order, but, such as it is, very alert and abundant. Mr. Smith is a rich old bachelor who comes to make himself a home in a genteel village, and the story relates the matrimonial campaign of four or five more or less desperate spinsters. This is a familiar situation, but the author makes us smile at it afresh. Indeed, looking at things critically, we feel tempted to accuse her of making us smile too much. The state of mind of young girls like the Misses Tolleton and the Misses Hunt is half-pitiable and half- contemptible, and Miss Walford seems to us to have gone quite astray in attempting, toward the close of her tale, to inspire us with a sympathetic interest in a heroine whose baser nature she has so satirically exposed as that of Helen Tolleton. This young person baits her hook for Mr. Smith more artfully than her rivals, and fairly lands her prize. But just after being accepted, Mr. Smith, who remains throughout the book a rather impalpable shadow, dies abruptly of a mysterious malady, and this man;oeuvring maid is brought to confusion. Here, on all grounds, the story should have ended. But it has contained one other marriageable man, and he is promptly handed over to Miss Tolleton in compensation for her loss. This surely is rather vulgar morality -- for morality it pretends to be. Be very mercenary, we infer, be cold and hypocritical and snobbish, and all things, at the end, will be well with you. `Mr. Smith' will possibly be even more entertaining to American readers than to English, but the former will ask themselves a few independent questions. Is the matrimonial market in England really so "tight" as Miss Walford would have us believe, and is the business of procuring a husband carried on with such explicit frankness? Do well-conditioned young girls, like the Misses Tolleton, discuss their own private enterprises in this line with the crudity -- the brutality, we might almost say -- observable in the conversations here recorded? If this is the case, `Mr. Smith' is more than entertaining; it is really valuable. We should not forget to commend the portrait of Mrs. Hunt, the doctor's wife, and another of two unremunerative daughters whom Mr. Smith does not marry. She is drawn with a quite masterly acuteness, and we would retain all her conversation verbatim. We decidedly recommend the book as it stands, but the author will do still better if she makes a point of compression.
Frank Lee Benedict, St. Simon's Niece. A Novel. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1875. Charles H. Doe, Buffets. Boston: J. R. Osgood & Co., 1875. Mrs. Annie Edwards, Leah: A Woman of Fashion. New York: Sheldon & Co., 1875. George Sand, Flamarande. Paris: Michel Lévy, 1875. Octave Feuillet, Un Mariage dans le Monde. Paris: 1875.
St. Simon's niece' is a story of the Colony -- in other words, the American colony in Paris. It treats of a young lady who lives with her uncle and aunt -- the former a dissolute adventurer of elegant appearance and charming manners, the latter an old lady known as the "Tortoise," and possessed of many singular attributes. The niece of this ill-assorted couple is in love with Talbot Castlemaine (the finest thing yet in names, it strikes us), who is also a dissolute adventurer of a fascinating exterior. The young lady herself is decidedly dissolute as well, and of course most fascinating, as may be illustrated by her constant habit of addressing her aunt -- the "Tortoise" -- as "T." They live, as we have said, in Paris, in the Avenue Friedland, together with Gregory Alleyne, Helen Devereux, Marian Payne, and Roland Spencer. They are all, even the "Tortoise," remarkably handsome; they possess lots of money; and they are all having, as the envious home- phrase is, "a delightful time over there." Talbot Castlemaine is indeed an Englishman (he in especial is as beautiful as a god), and he marries Marian Payne, who becomes Lady Castlemaine. Helen Devereux, however, is the most brilliant figure, for of her these things are related: "This round of visits among some of the most charming country-houses in England was a sufficiently new experience to be very agreeable, and might crowd several chapters with the stereotyped accounts of hunts, dinners, county-balls, and the like. I might add to the list three days spent at the Royal castle which overlooks Windsor town -- rather long, heavy days, Miss Devereux was forced to admit, under her breath -- and a week in the quiet of Chiselhurst, where her old admiration for the most gracious, winning woman of our century warmed into a higher homage at the sight of the uncomplaining fortitude which ennobled that uncrowned brow." The touch about the young lady being bored with the society of the Queen of England, and yet keeping her ennui to herself lest the Queen should be distressed, strikes us as particularly fine. As she stayed a whole week with the Empress of the French, it is to be hoped that, in spite of this lady's sad situation, she found things more lively. But what does Mr. Benedict mean by his allusion to the "uncrowned brow" of the Empress? It seems ambiguous; for, to remind us that she never had been crowned diminishes the pathos of his image, and yet, as she never had been crowned, the phrase of course cannot be an inadvertence for discrowned. Miss Devereux, at any rate, afterwards went to Italy. "The court had left bella Firenze, but it was very pleasant there nevertheless, and quite gay. Miss Devereux went out a great deal, and the Castlemaines accompanied her." Miss Devereux is a young girl from New York, without visible protectors or affiliations (she has, indeed, a mamma, who is barely mentioned), who is represented as going hither and thither about Europe at discretion, and occupying, in propriâ personâ, a great social position. We think, nevertheless, that when she "went out" in Florence it might have been conceded that she was in the care of the married couple just mentioned, rather than they in hers. This, however, is a peculiarity of Mr. Benedict's young ladies; we are told that in Paris "there was no trace of sadness or gloom in the pretty salons where Fanny St. Simon held sway." We are afraid that Mr. Benedict knows his Paris less well than he would have us believe. To "hold sway" in a salon means, for a woman, if it means anything, to preside in a salon of one's own. But as the author has put his substantive into the plural (and as we take it that he does not mean that Miss St. Simon literally "held," as the phrase is, several distinct salons), it is to be supposed that he simply alludes to his heroine's general sovereignty at evening entertainments. It was certainly very good-natured on the part of the other brilliant ornaments of the French capital to have left it in her hands. Miss Devereux, however, comes over (she has been living in Devonshire) to dispute Miss St. Simon's sway -- comes over in a special train, after having telegraphed in advance: "I want an apartment for a month -- longer, if I choose; the one we formerly had in the Champs Elysées if possible. They must send from the Café Anglais to manage the dinners." Miss Devereux might have done better for her dinners than to have them "sent in"; but when a poor young lady has to take care of herself, and of her friends as well, to the degree that had fallen to Miss Devereux's lot, she can hardly be expected to keep these little niceties in mind. We are unable to trace further the fortunes of the various members of the "Colony" as Mr. Benedict relates them, and indeed we feel guilty of a certain want of candor in having expatiated on them thus far. `St. Simon's Niece' is a book to be briefly dismissed -- an extremely unpleasant book. Snobbish, vulgar, cheaply meretricious, unwholesome, it reads like the work of a young woman of tawdry imagination, who has battened upon the productions of Miss Braddon and Edmund Yates. We say of a young woman, in spite of the name on the title-page (which may easily be a pseudonym) and because of the intrinsic evidence of the book. The style is inimitably feminine. "So they talked on until Fanny worked herself into one of her nervous states, and was absurdly gay." We think the reader will agree with us that these simple words were not written by a masculine hand.
`Buffets' is a much pleasanter performance; the tone of the story indeed, it must be confessed, is wholesome even to insipidity -- unsophisticated to puerility. We cannot say that Mr. Doe's tale has riveted our attention, but it has left an agreeable impression of elevated purpose, of manly sympathies, and even of a slender natural facetiousness. The author has bravely attempted to write a characteristic American novel, which should be a tale of civilization -- be void of big-hearted backwoodsmen and of every form of "dialect." He has laid his scene in the city of New York, and he has desired his story to savor of the soil. Unfortunately, his design has been more commendable than his success, and if this is the most that local influences can do for the aspiring and confiding American artist, he will not be encouraged to appeal to them. The first trouble with Mr. Doe's story is, that it is really not a story at all; the author has gone to quite too little cost in invention. A rich merchant in New York is made bankrupt by the breaking out of the war of the Rebellion; he dies of the shock, and leaves his son to care for his widow, his daughter, and a young girl without near relations who lives with these ladies. The young man, who, so long as he had plenty of pocket- money, was naturally not remarkable for thrift or industry, puts his shoulder to the wheel, cultivates economy, devotes himself to his mother and sister, makes them very comfortable, and at last marries the other young lady, while another young man marries the sister. The drama, it will be seen, is of primitive simplicity; it is like a story written for children. The author has introduced a number of accessory figures; but, as no one has anything particular to do, no one produces much illusion. We have in especial a side-glimpse of New York club-life, upon which, more than upon anything else, the author would appear to have expended himself. The theme is treated in the light satirical vein, with an intention, apparently, of consoling all black-balled members. The envied frequenters of the luxurious halls chatter away and puff at their cigars like schoolboys who have locked the door and are trying heroically to get tipsy. We cannot congratulate Mr. Doe on his picture of young New York. When it comes away from its club -- which it seems to frequent with an assiduity prompted, at off-hours, by scepticism as to its really and truly belonging to one -- it entertains itself with twisting off the bell-handles of the brown-stone fronts and dodging the policeman; and when it wishes to express itself pleased with a ball at which it has been dancing it declares that it is "forced to admit that while there were some queer coves there whom [it] had never met anywhere before, it was a regular bustin', jolly old toot, and the Houldworthys had done themselves proud no end." We did wrong, perhaps, just now to say that the author had eschewed "dialect." The above is a specimen of the mode of speech of his humorous hero; here is the conversational style of his serious one: "`Not bad, these people, eh, Frederic, my son?' addressing himself paternally, and in French. `Madame a little too well preserved, a little stiff; but mademoiselle is charming, a pretty child; I like her much, la petite. . . . Decidedly, my brave boy, we must cultivate this acquaintance. It will do to pass the time.'" It is regrettable that, having attempted to portray a number of typical young Americans, Mr. Doe should not have hit it more happily. The frolicsome ones are deplorably puerile, and we do not think the sober ones are quite in the right vein. After the young man who has lost his father and his fortune has knuckled down to work he receives an invitation from one of his old friends to dine with him at a club. He replies to it by a solemn letter declining the invitation, and declaring that he must break with all his old associates and give up all society of every kind. This strikes us as a trifle pedantic; manly virtue should be a little more flexible. It would seem as if taking care of one's mother and sister were an act so unwonted, so strenuous and heroic, that it would be quite fatal to "let go" for an instant. All this is not easy and mature. The other good young man (the only one in the book who goes to the war, which is raging all this while) is perhaps on one occasion a trifle too easy. Going to confer with a young lady about another young lady with whom he is in love, and wishes his interlocutress to intercede for him, on her promising her support he proceeds to kiss her. The young lady's lover is of course passing the door at the time, and naturally concludes that he is kissing her for her own sake and not for another's. He discovers very promptly the roundabout character of the embrace, and this little ripple has to do duty with Mr. Doe as an episode. It is probable that all story-tellers proposing to deal with New York life will for some time to come, in the way of color and picturesqueness, be obliged to give more to their subject than they receive from it, but the author of `Buffets' may be charged with not having taken what lay at hand. He has brought the war into his tale, but he has left it standing at the door. It is a singular fact that only one of the author's numerous young New Yorkers (and he in rather a dilatory fashion) is represented as repairing to the defence of his country. If this is satire (we have said Mr. Doe is satirical) it is rather "rough," as the gentlemen concerned would say. `Buffets,' in fine, is tame and unskilled as a story, but we have read more masterly works which left one a less friendly feeling for the writer. The book is written (when the author is not too severely humorous) in correct and agreeable English, and seems to suggest that if Mr. Doe cannot write good novels he has it in him to write something better worth while than poor ones.
`Leah: A Woman of Fashion' belongs to the same family as `St. Simon's Niece'; but they order this matter much better in England. `Leah,' we take it, represents the artistic ideal of the author of `St. Simon's Niece' -- the full-blown perfection of the manner to which the author of that work ineffectually aspires. Mrs. Edwards, however, has the advantage of being in her own line decidedly clever, and of describing things which, if uncommonly disagreeable, are nevertheless tolerably real. Her line is the Continental English of damaged reputation -- the adventurers, the gamblers and escaped debtors, the desperate economists, the separated wives, the young ladies without mammas who smoke cigarettes and "compromise" themselves with moustachioed foreigners. The word we have just used is the key-note of Mrs. Edwards's imagination; every one is compromised and compromising; her fancy revels in the idea, and presents it in every possible combination. Everything and every one is excessively improper, and are walking the tight-rope over depths of depravity. The depravity, of course, is chiefly of that particular species which, for ladies, is considered most "compromising," and the author's skill lies in making us know as much of it as possible without laying herself open to fatal charges. It is not Feydeau nor Flaubert we are reading, but the work of a British female hand, and here surely there can be nothing to blush at. In truth, the agility of the British female hand in playing tricks with "improper" subjects is something that we must leave to braver analysts than ourselves. Mrs. Edwards's present heroine is a young woman with "subtle-colored hair," a mouth that age might render "sensual or crafty, or both" ("or both" indeed!), and eyes of the "opal tint that Titian has painted for us." Of course, with Titian for a precedent Mrs. Edwards can afford to go very far. Her subtle, sensual, opaline heroine marries and has lovers. That is, has she them or has she not? The story, such as there is of it, consists of a great fumbling and whispering and sighing and nodding over this important point; but of course Mrs. Edwards balks at the definite fact, for if the propriety of writers of her school is extremely prurient, their audacity is singularly pusillanimous. We are spared the consummation of those dreadful tendencies about our heroine's mouth, for she dies at the age of twenty in the arms of her second husband, a young Frenchman, with whom, before her first marriage, she had attended at a late hour of the night a café chantant in the Champs Elysées. Mrs. Edwards, as we say, is clever; she infuses a certain force of color into her pictures of shabby gentility and Anglo- foreign Bohemia. She describes in these pages, with a good deal of ingenuity and vividness, an English boarding-house in the Rue Castiglione, and if Thackeray had been before her in his `Philip' this is hardly her fault. All women at heart, says the familiar axiom, love a rake; whether or no the author of `Leah' loves hers we cannot say, but she portrays them with a good deal of discretion. The distinguished, depraved, and impecunious Lord Stair is the best-drawn figure in the present volume. Mrs. Edwards is indeed clever enough to do much better than she does. She has no excuse, save indolence of invention, for putting us off with so very slender an apology for a plot. It is simple to baldness, and yet the commonest probability is violated. Leah is represented in the opening chapters as a horribly vicious young woman -- a regular "bad 'un," as they say in England; and yet without anything in the world having happened to change her, save the death of an ignobly dissipated husband, whom she despised and detested, she is transfigured at the close into a creature too perfect to live. Why also should the story be related exclusively in the present tense? This device, prolonged through a whole volume, becomes most irritating. It is like reading a letter all italicized. But we are afraid advice is wasted upon a writer who can in any case beguile her readers with tit-bits like this: "Lady Jane Fuller is about the fastest visited woman in London -- probably one of the fastest women of any class in Europe." This of course is irresistible -- the historical impartiality of the "probably," the weightiness of the statement, the vista opened to the imagination as to what it is that Lady Jane Fuller does. It is almost as serious as reading Motley or Buckle -- and so much more exciting.
Madame Sand continues, in the evening of her industrious life, to publish novels as rapidly as in her prime, and it would seem that, if some readers perceive in her tales a very natural weariness of imagination, she has not lost her power to entertain the general public. `Flamarande' is but lately out, and it is already in a fifth edition. This indeed is better fortune than some of her earlier tales enjoyed, for she has never been an eminent "selling" writer, and it was not to the general public that she appealed. But she long ago ceased to write argumentative novels; she now produces "stories," pure and simple, that no one can quarrel about, and that pretend only to entertain. Considering the enormous amount of work Mme. Sand has done in this way, and the exquisite quality of so much of it, she still is a wonderful improvisatrice. She reminds us of those famous old singers who have retired from the stage (or have not retired, as the case may be -- the analogy so is more complete), who have lost their voice and their physical means, but who continue to charm the ear by the perfection of their method and their genius. Mme. Sand sings with but a thread of voice, comparatively -- the volume and spontaneity of the organ are gone; but it is still singing, it is still melody -- the tradition and style are left. In pure form, she is as nearly as possible the perfect story-teller; she unreels her narrative with a smoothness and softness that are quite beyond defining. The reader of `Flamarande' floats along the limpid current of her prose, which seems too serene to be called voluble, and too finished ever to be called prolix, with a perpetual intention of closing the book -- of going ashore -- in the next chapter, and a perpetual inability to execute his intention. The story is superannuated, improbable, fantastic -- it is like gliding in a gondola past a painted landscape. But the painting is so facile and mellow and harmonious that he at last "makes believe," at least, that he is deceived. If there is not illusion, there is friendly assent. As young artists go to listen reverently to the old voiceless singers, so young writers may do worse than read these last fruits of Madame Sand's indefatigable imagination. They will at least get a reminder of style, in the highest sense of the word. `Flamarande' is moreover, for more trivial purposes, a capital romance of the old school.
Nothing is more striking in a clever French novel, as a general thing, than its superiority in artistic neatness and shapeliness to a clever English one. When we call an English novel clever, we usually mean that there are good things in it; we do not mean that, as a total, it is a good thing; but when we compliment a French novel, that is what we mean. It is the difference between a copious "Irish stew," or any dish of that respectable family, with its savory and nourishing chunks and lumps, and a scientific little entrée, compactly defined by the margin of its platter. M. Octave Feuillet serves us up entrées of the most symmetrical shape and the most spicy flavor. Putting aside Mme. Sand, it is hard to see who, among the French purveyors of more or less ingenious fiction, is more accomplished than he. There are writers who began with doing better things -- Flaubert, Gustave Droz, and Victor Cherbuliez -- but they have lately done worse, whereas M. Feuillet never falls below himself. He is the fashionable novelist -- a gentleman or lady without a de to their name is, to the best of our recollection, not to be found in all his tales. He is perhaps a trifle too elegant and superfine; his imagination turns out its toes, as it were, a trifle too much; but grant him his field -- the drawing-room carpet -- and he is a real master. `Un Mariage dans le Monde' is the novel of the moment in France. It is of course about the conjugal aberrations of young Madame de Rias. Her husband, as the French say, "avait des torts," and Madame, in consequence, in his absence, gives a rendezvous in her garden at midnight to M. de Pontis. Another gentleman, M. de Kévern, takes a friendly interest in her, and being informed by his sister, her intimate friend, of her projected folly, writes on a sheet of paper the simple words -- "you will be very unhappy to-morrow," and sends it off to her. Hereupon he settles down by the fireside to conversation and reading aloud with his sister. The evening advances, the clock strikes eleven, the door opens and admits Mme. de Rias, who flings herself into the sister's arms and asks if she can have a night's lodging. The sister assents with silent tact, and Mme. de Rias then approaches the brother, extends her hand, and utters the eloquent word -- "Merci!" M. Feuillet, after a year or two, always converts his novels into plays, and we can imagine the effect of this scene upon the stage, and how the curtain will fall upon Mme. de Rias's "Merci!" amid the plaudits of effervescent French sentiment. It is quite in the taste of a scene which we remember in one of the dramas of Dumas the younger, in which a jeune fille has been accused of having parted with that particular attribute in virtue of which she claims this title: greatly to the distress of a gentleman who loves her, and who has been inclined to believe the charge. Sifting the matter, however, he satisfies himself of its falsity, and, delicately to indicate his change of conviction -- the young lady is aware that her reputation is on trial -- as he is leaving a room at the moment she enters it, he addresses her with a bow and an italicized and commendatory "Bon soir, Mademoiselle!" This touch, we believe, had a great sentimental success.
I should not have affixed so comprehensive a title to these few remarks, necessarily wanting in any completeness upon a subject the full consideration of which would carry us far, did I not seem to discover a pretext for my temerity in the interesting pamphlet lately published under this name by Mr. Walter Besant. Mr. Besant's lecture at the Royal Institution -- the original form of his pamphlet -- appears to indicate that many persons are interested in the art of fiction, and are not indifferent to such remarks, as those who practise it may attempt to make about it. I am therefore anxious not to lose the benefit of this favourable association, and to edge in a few words under cover of the attention which Mr. Besant is sure to have excited. There is something very encouraging in his having put into form certain of his ideas on the mystery of story-telling.
It is a proof of life and curiosity -- curiosity on the part of the brotherhood of novelists as well as on the part of their readers. Only a short time ago it might have been supposed that the English novel was not what the French call discutable. It had no air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it -- of being the expression of an artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison. I do not say it was necessarily the worse for that: it would take much more courage than I possess to intimate that the form of the novel as Dickens and Thackeray (for instance) saw it had any taint of incompleteness. It was, however, naif (if I may help myself out with another French word); and evidently if it be destined to suffer in any way for having lost its naiveteé it has now an idea of making sure of the corresponding advantages. During the period I have alluded to there was a comfortable, good-humoured feeling abroad that a novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding, and that our only business with it could be to swallow it. But within a year or two, for some reason or other, there have been signs of returning animation -- the era of discussion would appear to have been to a certain extent opened. Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints; and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of honour, are not times of development -- are times, possibly even, a little of dulness. The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle, but the theory too is interesting; and though there is a great deal of the latter without the former I suspect there has never been a genuine success that has not had a latent core of conviction. Discussion, suggestion, formulation, these things are fertilising when they are frank and sincere. Mr. Besant has set an excellent example in saying what he thinks, for his part, about the way in which fiction should be written, as well as about the way in which it should be published; for his view of the "art," carried on into an appendix, covers that too. Other labourers in the same field will doubtless take up the argument, they will give it the light of their experience, and the effect will surely be to make our interest in the novel a little more what it had for some time threatened to fail to be -- a serious, active, inquiring interest, under protection of which this delightful study may, in moments of confidence, venture to say a little more what it thinks of itself.
It must take itself seriously for the public to take it so. The old superstition about fiction being "wicked" has doubtless died out in England; but the spirit of it lingers in a certain oblique regard directed toward any story which does not more or less admit that it is only a joke. Even the most jocular novel feels in some degree the weight of the proscription that was formerly directed against literary levity: the jocularity does not always succeed in passing for orthodoxy. It is still expected, though perhaps people are ashamed to say it, that a production which is after all only a "make-believe" (for what else is a "story"?) shall be in some degree apologetic -- shall renounce the pretension of attempting really to represent life. This, of course, any sensible, wide-awake story declines to do, for it quickly perceives that the tolerance granted to it on such a condition is only an attempt to stifle it disguised in the form of generosity. The old evangelical hostility to the novel, which was as explicit as it was narrow, and which regarded it as little less favourable to our immortal part than a stage-play, was in reality far less insulting. The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life. When it relinquishes this attempt, the same attempt that we see on the canvas of the painter, it will have arrived at a very strange pass. It is not expected of the picture that it will make itself humble in order to be forgiven; and the analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. Their inspiration is the same, their process (allowing for the different quality of the vehicle), is the same, their success is the same. They may learn from each other, they may explain and sustain each other. Their cause is the same, and the honour of one is the honour of another. The Mahometans think a picture an unholy thing, but it is a long time since any Christian did, and it is therefore the more odd that in the Christian mind the traces (dissimulated though they may be) of a suspicion of the sister art should linger to this day. The only effectual way to lay it to rest is to emphasise the analogy to which just alluded -- to insist on the fact that as the picture is reality, so the novel is history. That is the only general description (which does it justice) that we may give of the novel. But history also is allowed to represent life; it is not, any more than painting, expected to apologise. The subject-matter of fiction is stored up likewise in documents and records, and if it will not give itself away, as they say in California, it must speak with assurance, with the tone of the historian. Certain accomplished novelists have a habit of giving themselves away which must often bring tears to the eyes of people who take their fiction seriously. I was lately struck, in reading over many pages of Anthony Trollope, with his want of discretion in this particular. In a digression, a parenthesis or an aside, he concedes to the reader that he and this trusting friend are only "making believe." He admits that the events he narrates have not really happened, and that he can give his narrative any turn the reader may like best. Such a betrayal of a sacred office seems to me, I confess, a terrible crime; it is what I mean by the attitude of apology, and it shocks me every whit as much in Trollope as it would have shocked me in Gibbon or Macaulay. It implies that the novelist is less occupied in looking for the truth (the truth, of course I mean, that he assumes, the premises that we must grant him, whatever they may be), than the historian, and in doing so it deprives him at a stroke of all his standing-room. To represent and illustrate the past, the actions of men, is the task of either writer, and the only difference that I can see is, in proportion as he succeeds, to the honour of the novelist, consisting as it does in his having more difficulty in collecting his evidence, which is so far from being purely literary. It seems to me to give him a great character, the fact that he has at once so much in common with the philosopher and the painter; this double analogy is a magnificent heritage.
It is of all this evidently that Mr. Besant is full when he insists upon the fact that fiction is one of the fine arts, deserving in its turn of all the honours and emoluments that have hitherto been reserved for the successful profession of music, poetry, painting, architecture. It is impossible to insist too much on so important a truth, and the place that Mr. Besant demands for the work of the novelist may be represented, a trifle less abstractly, by saying that he demands not only that it shall be reputed artistic, but that it shall be reputed very artistic indeed. It is excellent that he should have struck this note, for his doing so indicates that there was need of it, that his proposition may be to many people a novelty. One rubs one's eyes at the thought; but the rest of Mr. Besant's essay confirms the revelation. I suspect in truth that it would be possible to confirm it still further, and that one would not be far wrong in saying that in addition to the people to whom it has never occurred that a novel ought to be artistic, there are a great many others who, if this principle were urged upon them, would be filled with an indefinable mistrust. They would find it difficult to explain their repugnance, but it would operate strongly to put them on their guard. "Art," in our Protestant communities, where so many things have got so strangely twisted about, is supposed in certain circles to have some vaguely injurious effect upon those who make it an important consideration, who let it weigh in the balance. It is assumed to be opposed in some mysterious manner to morality, to amusement, to instruction. When it is embodied in the work of the painter (the sculptor is another affair!) you know what it is: it stands there before you, in the honesty of pink and green and a gilt frame; you can see the worst of it at a glance, and you can be on your guard. But when it is introduced into literature it becomes more insidious -- there is danger of its hurting you before you know it. Literature should be either instructive or amusing, and there is in many minds an impression that these artistic preoccupations, the search for form, contribute to neither end, interfere indeed with both. They are too frivolous to be edifying, and too serious to be diverting; and they are moreover priggish and paradoxical and superfluous. That, I think, represents the manner in which the latent thought of many people who read novels as an exercise in skipping would explain itself if it were to become articulate. They would argue, of course, that a novel ought to be "good," but they would interpret this term in a fashion of their own, which indeed would vary considerably from one critic to another. One would say that being good means representing virtuous and aspiring characters, placed in prominent positions; another would say that it depends on a "happy ending," on a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks. Another still would say that it means being full of incident and movement, so that we shall wish to jump ahead, to see who was the mysterious stranger, and if the stolen will was ever found, and shall not be distracted from this pleasure by any tiresome analysis or "description." But they would all agree that the "artistic" idea would spoil some of their fun. One would hold it accountable for all the description, another would see it revealed in the absence of sympathy. Its hostility to a happy ending would be evident, and it might even in some cases render any ending at all impossible. The "ending" of a novel is, for many persons, like that of a good dinner, a course of dessert and ices, and the artist in fiction is regarded as a sort of meddlesome doctor who forbids agreeable aftertastes. It is therefore true that this conception of Mr. Besant's of the novel as a superior form encounters not only a negative but a positive indifference. It matters little that as a work of art it should really be as little or as much of its essence to supply happy endings, sympathetic characters, and an objective tone, as if it were a work of mechanics: the association of ideas, however incongruous, might easily be too much for it if an eloquent voice were not sometimes raised to call attention to the fact that it is at once as free and as serious a branch of literature as any other.
Certainly this might sometimes be doubted in presence of the enormous number of works of fiction that appeal to the credulity of our generation, for it might easily seem that there could be no great character in a commodity so quickly and easily produced. It must be admitted that good novels are much compromised by bad ones, and that the field at large suffers discredit from overcrowding. I think, however, that this injury is only superficial, and that the superabundance of written fiction proves nothing against the principle itself. It has been vulgarised, like all other kinds of literature, like everything else to-day, and it has proved more than some kinds accessible to vulgarisation. But there is as much difference as there ever was between a good novel and a bad one: the bad is swept with all the daubed canvases and spoiled marble into some unvisited limbo, or infinite rubbish-yard beneath the back-windows of the world, and the good subsists and emits its light and stimulates our desire for perfection. As I shall take the liberty of making but a single criticism of Mr. Besant, whose tone is so full of the love of his art, I may as well have done with it at once. He seems to me to mistake in attempting to say so definitely beforehand what sort of an affair the good novel will be. To indicate the danger of such an error as that has been the purpose of these few pages; to suggest that certain traditions on the subject, applied a priori, have already had much to answer for, and that the good health of an art which undertakes so immediately to reproduce life must demand that it be perfectly free. It lives upon exercise, and the very meaning of exercise is freedom. The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting. That general responsibility rests upon it, but it is the only one I can think of. The ways in which it is at liberty to accomplish this result (of interesting us) strike me as innumerable, and such as can only suffer from being marked out or fenced in by prescription. They are as various as the temperament of man, and they are successful in proportion as they reveal a particular mind, different from others. A novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life: that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression. But there will be no intensity at all, and therefore no value, unless there is freedom to feel and say. The tracing of a line to be followed, of a tone to be taken, of a form to be filled out, is a limitation of that freedom and a suppression of the very thing that we are most curious about. The form, it seems to me, is to be appreciated after the fact: then the author's choice has been made, his standard has been indicated; then we can follow lines and directions and compare tones and resemblances. Then in a word we can enjoy one of the most charming of pleasures, we can estimate quality, we can apply the test of execution. The execution belongs to the author alone; it is what is most personal to him, and we measure him by that. The advantage, the luxury, as well as the torment and responsibility of the novelist, is that there is no limit to what he may attempt as an executant -- no limit to his possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes. Here it is especially that he works, step by step, like his brother of the brush, of whom we may always say that he has painted his picture in a manner best known to himself. His manner is his secret, not necessarily a jealous one. He cannot disclose it as a general thing if he would; he would be at a loss to teach it to others. I say this with a due recollection of having insisted on the community of method of the artist who paints a picture and the artist who writes a novel. The painter is able to teach the rudiments of his practice, and it is possible, from the study of good work (granted the aptitude), both to learn how to paint and to learn how to write. Yet it remains true, without injury to the rapprochement, that the literary artist would be obliged to say to his pupil much more than the other, "Ah, well, you must do it as you can!" It is a question of degree, a matter of delicacy. If there are exact sciences, there are also exact arts, and the grammar of painting is so much more definite that it makes the difference.
I ought to add, however, that if Mr. Besant says at the beginning of his essay that the "laws of fiction may be laid down and taught with as much precision and exactness as the laws of harmony, perspective, and proportion," he mitigates what might appear to be an extravagance by applying his remark to "general" laws, and by expressing most of these rules in a manner with which it would certainly be unaccommodating to disagree. That the novelist must write from his experience, that his "characters must be real and such as might be met with in actual life;" that "a young lady brought up in a quiet country village should avoid descriptions of garrison life," and "a writer whose friends and personal experiences belong to the lower middle-class should carefully avoid introducing his characters into society;" that one should enter one's notes in a common-place book; that one's figures should be clear in outline; that making them clear by some trick of speech or of carriage is a bad method, and "describing them at length" is a worse one; that English Fiction should have a "conscious moral purpose;" that "it is almost impossible to estimate too highly the value of careful workmanship -- that is, of style;" that "the most important point of all is the story," that "the story is everything": these are principles with most of which it is surely impossible not to sympathise. That remark about the lower middle-class writer and his knowing his place is perhaps rather chilling; but for the rest I should find it difficult to dissent from any one of these recommendations. At the same time, I should find it difficult positively to assent to them, with the exception, perhaps, of the injunction as to entering one's notes in a common-place book. They scarcely seem to me to have the quality that Mr. Besant attributes to the rules of the novelist -- the "precision and exactness" of "the laws of harmony, perspective, and proportion." They are suggestive, they are even inspiring, but they are not exact, though they are doubtless as much so as the case admits of: which is a proof of that liberty of interpretation for which I just contended. For the value of these different injunctions -- so beautiful and so vague -- is wholly in the meaning one attaches to them. The characters, the situation, which strike one as real will be those that touch and interest one most, but the measure of reality is very difficult to fix. The reality of Don Quixote or of Mr. Micawber is a very delicate shade; it is a reality so coloured by the author's vision that, vivid as it may be, one would hesitate to propose it as a model: one would expose one's self to some very embarrassing questions on the part of a pupil. It goes without saying that you will not write a good novel unless you possess the sense of reality; but it will be difficult to give you a recipe for calling that sense into being. Humanity is immense, and reality has a myriad forms; the most one can affirm is that some of the flowers of fiction have the odour of it, and others have not; as for telling you in advance how your nosegay should be composed, that is another affair. It is equally excellent and inconclusive to say that one must write from experience; to our supposititious aspirant such a declaration might savour of mockery. What kind of experience is intended, and where does it begin and end? Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative -- much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius -- it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations. The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military. Greater miracles have been seen than that, imagination assisting, she should speak the truth about some of these gentlemen. remember an English novelist, a woman of genius, telling me that she was much commended for the impression she had managed to give in one of her tales of the nature and way of life of the French Protestant youth. She had been asked where she learned so much about this recondite being, she had been congratulated on her peculiar opportunities. These opportunities consisted in her having once, in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience. She had got her direct personal impression, and she turned out her type. She knew what youth was, and what Protestantism; she also had the advantage of having seen what it was to be French, so that she converted these ideas into a concrete image and produced a reality. Above all, however, she was blessed with the faculty which when you give it an inch takes an ell, and which for the artist is a much greater source of strength than any accident of residence or of place in the social scale. The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it -- this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, "Write from experience and experience only," I should feel that this was rather a tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!"
I am far from intending by this to minimise the importance of exactness -- of truth of detail. One can speak best from one's own taste, and I may therefore venture to say that the air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel -- the merit on which all its other merits (including that conscious moral purpose of which Mr. Besant speaks) helplessly and submissively depend. If it be not there they are all as nothing, and if these be there, they owe their effect to the success with which the author has produced the illusion of life. The cultivation of this success, the study of this exquisite process, form, to my taste, the beginning and the end of the art of the novelist. They are his inspiration, his despair, his reward, his torment, his delight. It is here in very truth that he competes with life; it is here that he competes with his brother the painter in his attempt to render the look of things, the look that conveys their meaning, to catch the colour, the relief, the expression, the surface, the substance of the human spectacle. It is in regard to this that Mr. Besant is well inspired when he bids him take notes. He cannot possibly take too many, he cannot possibly take enough. All life solicits him, and to "render" the simplest surface, to produce the most momentary illusion, is a very complicated business. His case would be easier, and the rule would be more exact, if Mr. Besant had been able to tell him what notes to take. But this, I fear, he can never learn in any manual; it is the business of his life. He has to take a great many in order to select a few, he has to work them up as he can, and even the guides and philosophers who might have most to say to him must leave him alone when it comes to the application of precepts, as we leave the painter in communion with his palette. That his characters "must be clear in outline," as Mr. Besant says -- he feels that down to his boots; but how he shall make them so is a secret between his good angel and himself. It would be absurdly simple if he could be taught that a great deal of "description" would make them so, or that on the contrary the absence of description and the cultivation of dialogue, or the absence of dialogue and the multiplication of "incident," would rescue him from his difficulties. Nothing, for instance, is more possible than that he be of a turn of mind for which this odd, literal opposition of description and dialogue, incident and description, has little meaning and light. People often talk of these things as if they had a kind of internecine distinctness, instead of melting into each other at every breath, and being intimately associated parts of one general effort of expression. I cannot imagine composition existing in a series of blocks, nor conceive, in any novel worth discussing at all, of a passage of description that is not in its intention narrative, a passage of dialogue that is not in its intention descriptive, a touch of truth of any sort that does not partake of the nature of incident, or an incident that derives its interest from any other source than the general and only source of the success of a work of art -- that of being illustrative. A novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like any other organism, and in proportion as it lives will it be found, think, that in each of the parts there is something of each of the other parts. The critic who over the close texture of a finished work shall pretend to trace a geography of items will mark some frontiers as artificial, I fear, as any that have been known to history. There is an old-fashioned distinction between the novel of character and the novel of incident which must have cost many a smile to the intending fabulist who was keen about his work. It appears to me as little to the point as the equally celebrated distinction between the novel and the romance -- to answer as little to any reality. There are bad novels and good novels, as there are bad pictures and good pictures; but that is the only distinction in which I see any meaning, and I can as little imagine speaking of a novel of character as I can imagine speaking of a picture of character. When one says picture one says of character, when one says novel one says of incident, and the terms may be transposed at will. What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? What is either a picture or a novel that is not of character? What else do we seek in it and find in it? It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way; or if it be not an incident I think it will be hard to say what it is. At the same time it is an expression of character. If you say you don't see it (character in that -- allons donc!), this is exactly what the artist who has reasons of his own for thinking he does see it undertakes to show you. When a young man makes up his mind that he has not faith enough after all to enter the church as he intended, that is an incident, though you may not hurry to the end of the chapter to see whether perhaps he doesn't change once more. I do not say that these are extraordinary or startling incidents. I do not pretend to estimate the degree of interest proceeding from them, for this will depend upon the skill of the painter. It sounds almost puerile to say that some incidents are intrinsically much more important than others, and I need not take this precaution after having professed my sympathy for the major ones in remarking that the only classification of the novel that I can understand is into that which has life and that which has it not.
The novel and the romance, the novel of incident and that of character -- these clumsy separations appear to me to have been made by critics and readers for their own convenience, and to help them out of some of their occasional queer predicaments, but to have little reality or interest for the producer, from whose point of view it is of course that we are attempting to consider the art of fiction. The case is the same with another shadowy category which Mr. Besant apparently is disposed to set up -- that of the "modern English novel"; unless indeed it be that in this matter he has fallen into an accidental confusion of standpoints. It is not quite clear whether he intends the remarks in which he alludes to it to be didactic or historical. It is as difficult to suppose a person intending to write a modern English as to suppose him writing an ancient English novel: that is a label which begs the question. One writes the novel, one paints the picture, of one's language and of one's time, and calling it modern English will not, alas! make the difficult task any easier. No more, unfortunately, will calling this or that work of one's fellow-artist a romance -- unless it be, of course, simply for the pleasantness of the thing, as for instance when Hawthorne gave this heading to his story of Blithedale. The French, who have brought the theory of fiction to remarkable completeness, have but one name for the novel, and have not attempted smaller things in it, that I can see, for that. I can think of no obligation to which the "romancer" would not be held equally with the novelist; the standard of execution is equally high for each. Of course it is of execution that we are talking -- that being the only point of a novel that is open to contention. This is perhaps too often lost sight of, only to produce interminable confusions and cross- purposes. We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donnée: our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it. Naturally I do not mean that we are bound to like it or find it interesting: in case we do not our course is perfectly simple -- to let it alone. We may believe that of a certain idea even the most sincere novelist can make nothing at all, and the event may perfectly justify our belief; but the failure will have been a failure to execute, and it is in the execution that the fatal weakness is recorded. If we pretend to respect the artist at all, we must allow him his freedom of choice, in the face, in particular cases, of innumerable presumptions that the choice will not fructify. Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions, and some of the most interesting experiments of which it is capable are hidden in the bosom of common things. Gustave Flaubert has written a story about the devotion of a servant-girl to a parrot, and the production, highly finished as it is, cannot on the whole be called a success. We are perfectly free to find it flat, but I think it might have been interesting; and I, for my part, am extremely glad he should have written it; it is a contribution to our knowledge of what can be done -- or what cannot. Ivan Turgénieff has written a tale about a deaf and dumb serf and a lap-dog, and the thing is touching, loving, a little masterpiece. He struck the note of life where Gustave Flaubert missed it -- he flew in the face of a presumption and achieved a victory.
Nothing, of course, will ever take the place of the good old fashion of "liking" a work of art or not liking it: the most improved criticism will not abolish that primitive, that ultimate test. mention this to guard myself from the accusation of intimating that the idea, the subject, of a novel or a picture, does not matter. It matters, to my sense, in the highest degree, and if I might put up a prayer it would be that artists should select none but the richest. Some, as I have already hastened to admit, are much more remunerative than others, and it would be a world happily arranged in which persons intending to treat them should be exempt from confusions and mistakes. This fortunate condition will arrive only, I fear, on the same day that critics become purged from error. Meanwhile, I repeat, we do not judge the artist with fairness unless we say to him, "Oh, I grant you your starting-point, because if I did not I should seem to prescribe to you, and heaven forbid I should take that responsibility. If I pretend to tell you what you must not take, you will call upon me to tell you then what you must take; in which case I shall be prettily caught. Moreover, it isn't till I have accepted your data that I can begin to measure you. I have the standard, the pitch; I have no right to tamper with your flute and then criticise your music. Of course I may not care for your idea at all; I may think it silly, or stale, or unclean; in which case wash my hands of you altogether. I may content myself with believing that you will not have succeeded in being interesting, but I shall, of course, not attempt to demonstrate it, and you will be as indifferent to me as I am to you. I needn't remind you that there are all sorts of tastes: who can know it better? Some people, for excellent reasons, don't like to read about carpenters; others, for reasons even better, don't like to read about courtesans. Many object to Americans. Others (I believe they are mainly editors and publishers) won't look at Italians. Some readers don't like quiet subjects; others don't like bustling ones. Some enjoy a complete illusion, others the consciousness of large concessions. They choose their novels accordingly, and if they don't care about your idea they won't, a fortiori, care about your treatment."
So that it comes back very quickly, as I have said, to the liking: in spite of M. Zola, who reasons less powerfully than he represents, and who will not reconcile himself to this absoluteness of taste, thinking that there are certain things that people ought to like, and that they can be made to like. I am quite at a loss to imagine anything (at any rate in this matter of fiction) that people ought to like or to dislike. Selection will be sure to take care of itself, for it has a constant motive behind it. That motive is simply experience. As people feel life, so they will feel the art that is most closely related to it. This closeness of relation is what we should never forget in talking of the effort of the novel. Many people speak of it as a factitious, artificial form, a product of ingenuity, the business of which is to alter and arrange the things that surround us, to translate them into conventional, traditional moulds. This, however, is a view of the matter which carries us but a very short way, condemns the art to an eternal repetition of a few familiar clichés, cuts short its development, and leads us straight up to a dead wall. Catching the very note and trick, the strange irregular rhythm of life, that is the attempt whose strenuous force keeps Fiction upon her feet. In proportion as in what she offers us we see life without rearrangement do we feel that we are touching the truth; in proportion as we see it with rearrangement do we feel that we are being put off with a substitute, a compromise and convention. It is not uncommon to hear an extraordinary assurance of remark in regard to this matter of rearranging, which is often spoken of as if it were the last word of art. Mr. Besant seems to me in danger of falling into the great error with his rather unguarded talk about "selection." Art is essentially selection, but it is a selection whose main care is to be typical, to be inclusive. For many people art means rose-coloured window-panes, and selection means picking a bouquet for Mrs. Grundy. They will tell you glibly that artistic considerations have nothing to do with the disagreeable, with the ugly; they will rattle off shallow commonplaces about the province of art and the limits of art till you are moved to some wonder in return as to the province and the limits of ignorance. It appears to me that no one can ever have made a seriously artistic attempt without becoming conscious of an immense increase -- a kind of revelation -- of freedom. One perceives in that case -- by the light of a heavenly ray -- that the province of art is all life, all feeling, all observation, all vision. As Mr. Besant so justly intimates, it is all experience. That is a sufficient answer to those who maintain that it must not touch the sad things of life, who stick into its divine unconscious bosom little prohibitory inscriptions on the end of sticks, such as we see in public gardens -- "It is forbidden to walk on the grass; it is forbidden to touch the flowers; it is not allowed to introduce dogs or to remain after dark; it is requested to keep to the right." The young aspirant in the line of fiction whom we continue to imagine will do nothing without taste, for in that case his freedom would be of little use to him; but the first advantage of his taste will be to reveal to him the absurdity of the little sticks and tickets. If he have taste, I must add, of course he will have ingenuity, and my disrespectful reference to that quality just now was not meant to imply that it is useless in fiction. But it is only a secondary aid; the first is a capacity for receiving straight impressions.
Mr. Besant has some remarks on the question of "the story" which I shall not attempt to criticise, though they seem to me to contain a singular ambiguity, because I do not think I understand them. I cannot see what is meant by talking as if there were a part of a novel which is the story and part of it which for mystical reasons is not -- unless indeed the distinction be made in a sense in which it is difficult to suppose that any one should attempt to convey anything. "The story," if it represents anything, represents the subject, the idea, the donnée of the novel; and there is surely no "school" -- Mr. Besant speaks of a school -- which urges that a novel should be all treatment and no subject. There must assuredly be something to treat; every school is intimately conscious of that. This sense of the story being the idea, the starting-point, of the novel, is the only one that see in which it can be spoken of as something different from its organic whole; and since in proportion as the work is successful the idea permeates and penetrates it, informs and animates it, so that every word and every punctuation-point contribute directly to the expression, in that proportion do we lose our sense of the story being a blade which may be drawn more or less out of its sheath. The story and the novel, the idea and the form, are the needle and thread, and I never heard of a guild of tailors who recommended the use of the thread without the needle, or the needle without the thread. Mr. Besant is not the only critic who may be observed to have spoken as if there were certain things in life which constitute stories, and certain others which do not. I find the same odd implication in an entertaining article in the Pall Mall Gazette, devoted, as it happens, to Mr. Besant's lecture. "The story is the thing!" says this graceful writer, as if with a tone of opposition to some other idea. I should think it was, as every painter who, as the time for "sending in" his picture looms in the distance, finds himself still in quest of a subject -- as every belated artist not fixed about his theme will heartily agree. There are some subjects which speak to us and others which do not, but he would be a clever man who should undertake to give a rule -- an index expurgatorius -- by which the story and the no-story should be known apart. It is impossible (to me at least) to imagine any such rule which shall not be altogether arbitrary. The writer in the Pall Mall opposes the delightful (as I suppose) novel of Margot la Balafrée to certain tales in which "Bostonian nymphs" appear to have "rejected English dukes for psychological reasons." I am not acquainted with the romance just designated, and can scarcely forgive the Pall Mall critic for not mentioning the name of the author, but the title appears to refer to a lady who may have received a scar in some heroic adventure. I am inconsolable at not being acquainted with this episode, but am utterly at a loss to see why it is a story when the rejection (or acceptance) of a duke is not, and why a reason, psychological or other, is not a subject when a cicatrix is. They are all particles of the multitudinous life with which the novel deals, and surely no dogma which pretends to make it lawful to touch the one and unlawful to touch the other will stand for a moment on its feet. It is the special picture that must stand or fall, according as it seem to possess truth or to lack it. Mr. Besant does not, to my sense, light up the subject by intimating that a story must, under penalty of not being a story, consist of "adventures." Why of adventures more than of green spectacles? He mentions a category of impossible things, and among them he places "fiction without adventure." Why without adventure, more than without matrimony, or celibacy, or parturition, or cholera, or hydropathy, or Jansenism? This seems to me to bring the novel back to the hapless little rôle of being an artificial, ingenious thing -- bring it down from its large, free character of an immense and exquisite correspondence with life. And what is adventure, when it comes to that, and by what sign is the listening pupil to recognise it? It is an adventure -- an immense one -- for me to write this little article; and for a Bostonian nymph to reject an English duke is an adventure only less stirring, I should say, than for an English duke to be rejected by a Bostonian nymph. I see dramas within dramas in that, and innumerable points of view. A psychological reason is, to my imagination, an object adorably pictorial; to catch the tint of its complexion -- I feel as if that idea might inspire one to Titianesque efforts. There are few things more exciting to me, in short, than a psychological reason, and yet, I protest, the novel seems to me the most magnificent form of art. I have just been reading, at the same time, the delightful story of Treasure Island, by Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson and, in a manner less consecutive, the last tale from M. Edmond de Goncourt, which is entitled Chérie. One of these works treats of murders, mysteries, islands of dreadful renown, hairbreadth escapes, miraculous coincidences and buried doubloons. The other treats of a little French girl who lived in a fine house in Paris, and died of wounded sensibility because no one would marry her. I call Treasure Island delightful, because it appears to me to have succeeded wonderfully in what it attempts; and I venture to bestow no epithet upon Chérie, which strikes me as having failed deplorably in what it attempts -- that is in tracing the development of the moral consciousness of a child. But one of these productions strikes me as exactly as much of a novel as the other, and as having a "story" quite as much. The moral consciousness of a child is as much a part of life as the islands of the Spanish Main, and the one sort of geography seems to me to have those "surprises" of which Mr. Besant speaks quite as much as the other. For myself (since it comes back in the last resort, as I say, to the preference of the individual), the picture of the child's experience has the advantage that I can at successive steps (an immense luxury, near to the "sensual pleasure" of which Mr. Besant's critic in the Pall Mall speaks) say Yes or No, as it may be, to what the artist puts before me. I have been a child in fact, but I have been on a quest for a buried treasure only in supposition, and it is a simple accident that with M. de Goncourt should have for the most part to say No. With George Eliot, when she painted that country with a far other intelligence, I always said Yes.
The most interesting part of Mr. Besant's lecture is unfortunately the briefest passage -- his very cursory allusion to the "conscious moral purpose" of the novel. Here again it is not very clear whether he be recording a fact or laying down a principle; it is a great pity that in the latter case he should not have developed his idea. This branch of the subject is of immense importance, and Mr. Besant's few words point to considerations of the widest reach, not to be lightly disposed of. He will have treated the art of fiction but superficially who is not prepared to go every inch of the way that these considerations will carry him. It is for this reason that at the beginning of these remarks I was careful to notify the reader that my reflections on so large a theme have no pretension to be exhaustive. Like Mr. Besant, I have left the question of the morality of the novel till the last, and at the last I find I have used up my space. It is a question surrounded with difficulties, as witness the very first that meets us, in the form of a definite question, on the threshold. Vagueness, in such a discussion, is fatal, and what is the meaning of your morality and your conscious moral purpose? Will you not define your terms and explain how (a novel being a picture) a picture can be either moral or immoral? You wish to paint a moral picture or carve a moral statue: will you not tell us how you would set about it? We are discussing the Art of Fiction; questions of art are questions (in the widest sense) of execution; questions of morality are quite another affair, and will you not let us see how it is that you find it so easy to mix them up? These things are so clear to Mr. Besant that he has deduced from them a law which he sees embodied in English Fiction, and which is "a truly admirable thing and a great cause for congratulation." It is a great cause for congratulation indeed when such thorny problems become as smooth as silk. I may add that in so far as Mr. Besant perceives that in point of fact English Fiction has addressed itself preponderantly to these delicate questions he will appear to many people to have made a vain discovery. They will have been positively struck, on the contrary, with the moral timidity of the usual English novelist; with his (or with her) aversion to face the difficulties with which on every side the treatment of reality bristles. He is apt to be extremely shy (whereas the picture that Mr. Besant draws is a picture of boldness), and the sign of his work, for the most part, is a cautious silence on certain subjects. In the English novel (by which of course mean the American as well), more than in any other, there is a traditional difference between that which people know and that which they agree to admit that they know, that which they see and that which they speak of, that which they feel to be a part of life and that which they allow to enter into literature. There is the great difference, in short, between what they talk of in conversation and what they talk of in print. The essence of moral energy is to survey the whole field, and I should directly reverse Mr. Besant's remark and say not that the English novel has a purpose, but that it has a diffidence. To what degree a purpose in a work of art is a source of corruption I shall not attempt to inquire; the one that seems to me least dangerous is the purpose of making a perfect work. As for our novel, I may say lastly on this score that as we find it in England to-day it strikes me as addressed in a large degree to "young people," and that this in itself constitutes a presumption that it will be rather shy. There are certain things which it is generally agreed not to discuss, not even to mention, before young people. That is very well, but the absence of discussion is not a symptom of the moral passion. The purpose of the English novel -- "a truly admirable thing, and a great cause for congratulation" -- strikes me therefore as rather negative.
There is one point at which the moral sense and the artistic sense lie very near together; that is in the light of the very obvious truth that the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer. In proportion as that intelligence is fine will the novel, the picture, the statue partake of the substance of beauty and truth. To be constituted of such elements is, to my vision, to have purpose enough. No good novel will ever proceed from a superficial mind; that seems to me an axiom which, for the artist in fiction, will cover all needful moral ground: if the youthful aspirant take it to heart it will illuminate for him many of the mysteries of "purpose." There are many other useful things that might be said to him, but I have come to the end of my article, and can only touch them as I pass. The critic in the Pall Mall Gazette, whom I have already quoted, draws attention to the danger, in speaking of the art of fiction, of generalising. The danger that he has in mind is rather, I imagine, that of particularising, for there are some comprehensive remarks which, in addition to those embodied in Mr. Besant's suggestive lecture, might without fear of misleading him be addressed to the ingenuous student. I should remind him first of the magnificence of the form that is open to him, which offers to sight so few restrictions and such innumerable opportunities. The other arts, in comparison, appear confined and hampered; the various conditions under which they are exercised are so rigid and definite. But the only condition that I can think of attaching to the composition of the novel is, as I have already said, that it be sincere. This freedom is a splendid privilege, and the first lesson of the young novelist is to learn to be worthy of it. "Enjoy it as it deserves," I should say to him; "take possession of it, explore it to its utmost extent, publish it, rejoice in it. All life belongs to you, and do not listen either to those who would shut you up into corners of it and tell you that it is only here and there that art inhabits, or to those who would persuade you that this heavenly messenger wings her way outside of life altogether, breathing a superfine air, and turning away her head from the truth of things. There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novelist may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert have worked in this field with equal glory. Do not think too much about optimism and pessimism; try and catch the colour of life itself. In France to-day we see a prodigious effort (that of Emile Zola, to whose solid and serious work no explorer of the capacity of the novel can allude without respect), we see an extraordinary effort vitiated by a spirit of pessimism on a narrow basis. M. Zola is magnificent, but he strikes an English reader as ignorant; he has an air of working in the dark; if he had as much light as energy, his results would be of the highest value. As for the aberrations of a shallow optimism, the ground (of English fiction especially) is strewn with their brittle particles as with broken glass. If you must indulge in conclusions, let them have the taste of a wide knowledge. Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as possible -- to make as perfect a work. Be generous and delicate and pursue the prize."
Longman's Magazine, September 1884
It took place accidentally, after dinner at a hotel in London, and I can pretend to transcribe it only as the story was told me by one of the interlocutors, who was not a professional reporter. The general sense of it -- but general sense was possibly just what it lacked. At any rate, by what I gather, it was a friendly, lively exchange of ideas (on a subject or two in which at this moment we all appear to be infinitely interested) among several persons who evidently considered that they were not destitute of matter. The reader will judge if they were justified in this arrogance. The occasion was perhaps less remarkable than my informant deemed it; still, the reunion of half a dozen people with ideas at a lodging-house in Sackville Street on a foggy November night cannot be accounted a perfectly trivial fact. The apartment was the brilliant Belinda's, and the day before she had asked Camilla and Oswald to dine with her. After this she had invited Clifford and Darcy to meet them. Lastly, that afternoon, encountering Belwood in a shop in Piccadilly, she had begged him to join the party. The "ideas" were not produced in striking abundance, as I surmise, till the company had passed back into the little sitting-room, and cigarettes, after the coffee, had been permitted by the ladies, and in the case of one of them (the reader must guess which) perhaps even more actively countenanced. The train was fired by a casual question from the artless Camilla: she asked Darcy if he could recommend her a nice book to read on the journey to Paris. Then immediately the colloquy took a turn which, little dramatic though it may appear, I can best present in the scenic form:
Darcy. My dear lady, what do you mean by a nice book? That's so vague.
Belinda. You could tell her definitely enough, if she asked for a n -- for one that's not nice.
Darcy. How do you mean -- I could tell her?
Belinda. There are so many; and in this cosmopolitan age they are in every one's hands.
Camilla. Really, Belinda, they are not in mine.
Oswald. My wife, though she lives in Paris, doesn't read French books; she reads nothing but Tauchnitz.
Belinda. She has to do that, to make up for you -- with your French pictures.
Camilla. He doesn't paint the kind you mean; he paints only landscapes.
Belinda. That's the kind I mean.
Oswald. You may call me French if you like, but don't call me cosmopolitan. I'm sick of that word.
Belwood. You may call me so -- I like it.
Belinda. Oh, you of course -- you're an analyst.
Clifford. Bless me, how you're abusing us!
Belinda. Ah, not you -- you certainly are not one.
Darcy (to Clifford). You don't get off the better. But it's as you take it.
Clifford. A plague on analysis!
Darcy. Yes, that's one way. Only, you make me ashamed of my question to Camilla -- it's so refined.
Camilla. What, then, do you call a book when you like it? mean a nice, pretty, pleasant, interesting book; rather long, so as not to be over quickly.
Oswald. It never is with you, my dear. You read a page a day.
Belwood. I should like to write something for Camilla.
Belinda. To make her read faster?
Camilla. I shouldn't understand it.
Belinda. Precisely -- you'd skip. But Darcy never likes anything -- he's a critic.
Darcy. Only of books -- not of people, as you are.
Belinda. I mean I care for them even when I don't like them -- it's all life.
Darcy (smiling). That's just what I often think about books.
Belwood. Ah, yes, life -- life!
Clifford. Oh, bother life! Of course you mean a novel, Camilla.
Belinda. What else can a woman mean? The book to-day is the novel.
Oswald. And the woman is the public. I'm glad I don't write. It's bad enough to paint.
Belwood. I protest against that.
Belwood. Against everything. The woman being the public, to begin with.
Belinda. It's very ungrateful of you. Where would you be without them?
Darcy. Belwood is right, in this sense: that though they are very welcome as readers, it is fatal to write for them.
Belwood. Who writes for them? One writes for one's self.
Belinda. They write for themselves.
Oswald. I didn't know women did anything for each other.
Darcy. It shows how little you read; for if they are, as you say, the great consumers to-day, they are still more the great producers. No one seems to notice it -- but no one notices anything. Literature is simply undergoing a transformation -- it's becoming feminine. That's a portentous fact.
Belinda. Take care -- we shall paint yet.
Oswald. I've no doubt you will -- it will be fine!
Belwood. It will contribute in its degree to the great evolution which as yet is only working vaguely and dumbly in the depths of things, but which is even now discernible, by partial, imperfect signs, to the intelligent, and which will certainly become the huge "issue" of the future, belittling and swallowing up all our paltry present strife, our armaments and wars, our international hatreds, and even our international utopias, our political muddles, and looming socialisms. It will make these things seem, in retrospect, a bed of roses.
Belwood. The essential, latent antagonism of the sexes -- the armed opposed array of men and women, founded on irreconcilable interests. Hitherto we have judged these interests reconcilable, and even practically identical. But all that is changing because women are changing, and their necessary hostility to men -- or that of men to them, I don't care how you put it -- is rising by an inexorable logic to the surface. It is deeper -- ah, far deeper, than our need of each other, deep as we have always held that to be; and some day it will break out on a scale that will make us all turn pale.
Belinda. The Armageddon of the future, quoi!
Belinda. I don't -- I blush for his folly.
Darcy. Excuse the timidity of my imagination, but it seems to me that we must be united.
Belwood. That's where it is, as they say. We shall be united by hate.
Belinda. The Kilkenny cats, quoi!
Oswald. Well, we shall have the best of it -- we can thrash them.
Belwood. I am not so sure; for if it's a question of the power of the parties to hurt each other, that of the sex to which these ladies belong is immense.
Camilla. Why, Belwood, I wouldn't hurt you for the world.
Belinda. I would, but I don't want to wait a thousand years.
Belwood. I'm sorry, but you'll have to. Meanwhile we shall be comfortable enough, with such women as Camilla.
Belinda. Thank you -- for her.
Belwood. And as it won't be for a thousand years, I may say that Darcy's account of the actual transformation of literature is based on rather a partial, local view. It isn't at all true of France.
Darcy. Oh, France! France is sometimes tiresome; she contradicts all one's generalizations.
Belinda. Dame, she contradicts her own!
Belwood. They're so clever, the French; they've arranged everything, in their system, so much more comfortably than we. They haven't to bother about women's work; that sort of thing doesn't exist for them, and they are not flooded with the old maids' novels which (a cynic or a purist would say) make English literature ridiculous.
Darcy. No, they have no Miss Austen.
Belinda. And what do you do with George Sand?
Belwood. Do you call her an old maid?
Belinda. She was a woman; we are speaking of that.
Belwood. Not a bit -- she was only a motherly man.
Clifford. For Heaven's sake, and with all respect to Belwood, don't let us be cosmopolitan! Our prejudices are our responsibilities, and I hate to see a fine, big, healthy one dying of neglect, when it might grow up to support a family.
Belwood. Ah, they don't support families now; it's as much as they can do to scrape along for themselves.
Clifford. If you weren't a pessimist I should nearly become one. Our literature is good enough for us, and I don't at all complain of the ladies. They write jolly good novels sometimes, and don't see why they shouldn't.
Oswald. It's true they play lawn-tennis.
Belwood. So they do, and that's more difficult. I'm perfectly willing to be English.
Belwood. Take care -- that's cosmopolitan.
Belinda. For you, yes, but not for me.
Belwood. Yes, see what a muddle -- with Clifford's simplifications. That's another thing the French have been clever enough to keep out of: the great silly schism of language, of usage, of literature. They have none of those clumsy questions -- American- English and English-American. French is French, and that's the end of it.
Clifford. And English is English.
Belinda. And American's American.
Belwood. Perhaps; but that's not the end of it, it's the very beginning. And the beginning of such a weariness!
Darcy. A weariness only if our frivolity makes it so. It is true our frivolity is capable of anything.
Clifford. Oh, I like our frivolity!
Darcy. So it would seem, if you fail to perceive that our insistence on international differences is stupid.
Clifford. I'm not bound to perceive anything so metaphysical. The American papers are awfully funny. Why shouldn't one say so? I don't insist -- I never insisted on anything in my life.
Oswald. We are awfully different, say what you will.
Darcy. Rubbish -- rubbish -- rubbish!
Oswald. Go to Paris and you'll see.
Clifford. Oh, don't go to Paris again!
Darcy. What has Paris to do with it?
Belwood. We must be large -- we must be rich.
Oswald. All the American painters are there. Go and see what they are doing, what they hold painting to be; and then come and look at the English idea.
Belinda. Do you call it an idea?
Darcy. You ought to be fined, and I think I shall propose the establishment of a system of fines, for the common benefit of the two peoples and the discouragement of aggravation.
Belinda. Dear friend, can't one breathe? Who does more for the two peoples than I, and for the practical solution of their little squabbles? Their squabbles are purely theoretic, and the solution is real, being simply that of personal intercourse. While we talk, and however we talk, association is cunningly, insidiously doing its indestructible work. It works while we're asleep -- more than we can undo while we're awake. It is wiser than we -- it has a deeper motive. And what could be a better proof of what I say than the present occasion? All our intercourse is a perpetual conference, and this is one of its sittings. They're informal, casual, humorous, but none the less useful, because they are full of an irrepressible give-and-take. What other nations are continually meeting to talk over the reasons why they shouldn't meet? What others are so sociably separate -- so intertwinedly, cohesively alien? We talk each other to sleep; it's becoming insipid -- that's the only drawback. Am I not always coming and going, so that I have lost all sense of where I "belong"? And aren't we, in this room, such a mixture that we scarcely, ourselves, know who is who and what is what? Clifford utters an inarticulate and ambiguous sound, but I rejoice in the confusion, for it makes for civilization.
Belwood. All honor to Belinda, mistress of hospitality and of irony!
Clifford. Your party is jolly, but I didn't know it was so improving. Don't let us at any rate be insipid.
Belinda. We shall not, while you're here -- even though you have no general ideas.
Belwood. Belinda has an extraordinary number, for a woman.
Belinda. Perhaps I am only a motherly man.
Oswald. Sisterly, rather. Talk of the fraternité of the French! But I feel rather out of it, in Paris.
Belinda. You're not in Paris -- you're just here.
Camilla. But we are going to-morrow, and no one has yet told me a book for the train.
Clifford. Get "The Rival Bridesmaids"; it's a tremendous lark. And I am large, I am rich, as Belwood says, in recommending it, because it's about New York -- one of your "society-novels," full of "snap"! And by a woman, I guess; though it strikes me that with American novels you can't be very sure.
Camilla. The women write like men?
Clifford. Or the men write like women.
Camilla. Then I expect (if you like that better) that it's horrid, one of those American productions that are never heard of là- bas and yet find themselves circulating in England.
Clifford. I see -- the confusion commended by Belinda. It's very dense.
Camilla. Besides, whoever it was that said a book is as a matter of course a novel, it wasn't I.
Belwood. As no one seems prepared to father that terrible proposition, I will just remark, in relation to the matter we are talking about --
Oswald. Lord, which? We are talking of so many!
Belwood. You will understand when I say that an acuteness of national sentiment on the part of my nation and yours (as against each other, of course, I mean) is more and more an artificial thing -- a matter of perverted effort and deluded duty. It is kept up by the newspapers, which must make a noise at any price, and whose huge, clumsy machinery (it exists only for that) is essentially blundering. They are incapable of the notation of private delicacies, in spite of the droll assumption of so many sheets that private life is their domain; and they keep striking the wrong hour with a complacency which misleads the vulgar. Unfortunately the vulgar are many. All the more reason why the children of light should see clear.
Darcy. Ah, those things are an education which I think even the French might envy us.
Darcy. The recriminations, the little digs, whatever you choose to call them, between America and England.
Oswald. I thought you just said they were rubbish.
Darcy. It's the perception that they are rubbish that constitutes the education.
Oswald. I see -- you're educated. I'm afraid I'm not.
Clifford. And I, too, perceive how much I have to learn.
Belinda. You are both naughty little boys who won't go to school.
Darcy. An education of the intelligence, of the temper, of the manners.
Clifford. Do you think your manners to us show so much training?
Oswald (to Clifford). They are perhaps on the whole as finished as yours to us!
Belinda. A fine, a fine to each of you!
Darcy. Quite right, and Belinda shall impose them. I don't say we are all formed -- the formation will have to be so large: I see it as majestic, as magnificent. But we are forming. The opportunity is grand, there has never been anything like it in the world.
Oswald. I'm not sure I follow you.
Darcy. Why, the opportunity for two great peoples to accept, or rather to cultivate with talent, a common destiny, to tackle the world together, to unite in the arts of peace -- by which I mean of course in the arts of life. It will make life larger and the arts finer for each of them. It will be an immense and complicated problem of course -- to see it through; but that's why I speak of it as an object of envy to other nations, in its discipline, its suggestiveness, the initiation, the revelation it will lead to. Their problems, in comparison, strike me as small and vulgar. It's not true that there is nothing new under the sun; the donnée of the drama that England and America may act out together is absolutely new. Essentially new is the position in which they stand towards each other. It rests with all of us to make it newer still.
Clifford. I hope there will be a scene in the comedy for international copyright.
Darcy. That will come -- very soon: to a positive certainty.
Clifford. What do you call very soon? You seem to be talking for the ages.
Belwood. It's time -- yes, it's time now. I can understand that hitherto --
Darcy. I'm not sure whether I can or not. I'm trying what can understand. But it's all in the day's work -- we are learning.
Clifford. Learning at our expense! That's very nice. observe that Oswald is silent; as an example of good manners he ought to defend the case.
Belinda. He's thinking of what he can say, and so am I.
Camilla. Let me assist my husband. How did Clifford come by "The Rival Bridesmaids"? Wasn't it a pirated copy?
Clifford. Do you call that assisting him? I don't know whether it was or not, and at all events it needn't have been. Very likely the author lives in England.
Clifford. Round the corner, quoi, as Belinda says.
Oswald. We have had to have cheap books, we have always been hard-working, grinding, bread-earning readers.
Clifford. Bravo -- at last! You might have had them as cheap as you liked. What you mean is you wanted them for nothing. Ah, yes, you're so poor!
Belwood. Well, it has made you, your half-century of books for nothing, a magnificent public for us now. We appreciate that.
Belinda. Magnanimous Belwood! Thank you for that.
Darcy. The better day is so surely coming that I was simply taking it for granted.
Clifford. Wait till it comes and then we'll start fair.
Belinda. Yes, we really can't talk till it does.
Darcy. On the contrary, talking will help it to come.
Belinda. If it doesn't come, and very soon -- to-morrow, next week -- our mouths will be shut forever.
Clifford. Yes, you won't like that.
Oswald. You will; so it's perhaps your interest.
Darcy. I don't mean our shut mouths -- I mean the reason for them.
Belinda (to Oswald). You remind me that you and Clifford are fined. But I think it must only be a farthing for Clifford.
Clifford. I won't pay even that. I speak but the truth, and under the circumstances I think I'm very civil.
Oswald. Don't give up your grievance -- it will be worth everything to you.
Belinda. You're fined five dollars!
Darcy. If copyright doesn't come, I'll -- (hesitating).
Clifford (waiting). What will you do?
Darcy. I'll get me to a nunnery.
Clifford. Much good will that do!
Darcy. My nunnery shall be in the United States, and I shall found there a library of English novels in the original three volumes.
Belinda. I shall do very differently. I shall come out of my cell like Peter the Hermit; I shall cry aloud for a crusade.
Clifford. Your comparison doesn't hold, for you are yourself an infidel.
Belinda. A fig for that! I shall fight under the cross.
Belwood. There's a great army over there now.
Belwood. If they don't, you Americans must make a great literature, such as we shall read with delight, pour it out on us unconditionally, and pay us back that way.
Clifford. I shall not object to that arrangement if we do read with delight!
Belwood. Ah, that will depend partly also on us.
Darcy. Delicate Belwood! If what we do becomes great, you will probably understand it -- at least I hope so! But I like the way you talk about great literatures. Does it strike you that they are breaking out about the world that way?
Clifford. Send us over some good novels for nothing, and we'll call it square.
Belwood. I admit, our preoccupations, everywhere -- those of the race in general -- don't seem to make for literature.
Clifford. Then we English shall never be repaid.
Oswald. Are the works you give to America then so literary?
Clifford. We give everything -- we have given all the great people.
Oswald. Ah, the great people -- if you mean those of the past -- were not yours to give. They were ours too; you pay no more for them than we.
Clifford. It depends upon what you mean by the past.
Darcy. I don't think it's particularly in our interest to go into the chronology of the matter. We pirated Byron -- we pirated Scott. Nor does it profit to differ about which were the great ones. They were all great enough for us to take, and we took them. We take them to-day, however the superior may estimate them, and we should take them still, even if the superior were to make more reservations. It has been our misfortune (in the long run, I mean) that years and years ago, when the taking began, it was, intelligently viewed, quite inevitable. We were poor then, and we were hungry and lonely and far away, and we had to have something to read. We helped ourselves to the literature that was nearest, which was all the more attractive that it had about it, in its native form, such a fine glamour of expense, of the guinea volume and the wide margin. It was aristocratic, and a civilization can't make itself without that. If it isn't the bricks, it's the mortar. The first thing a society does after it has left the aristocratic out is to put it in again: of course, I use the word in a loose way. We couldn't pay a fancy price for that element, and we only paid what we could. The booksellers made money, and the public only asked if there wasn't more -- it asked no other questions. You can treat books as a luxury, and authors with delicacy, only if you've already got a lot: you can't start on that basis.
Clifford. But I thought your claim is precisely that you had a lot -- all our old writers.
Darcy. The old writers, yes. But the old writers, uncontemporary and more or less archaic, were a little grim. We were so new ourselves, and our very newness was in itself sufficiently grim. The English books of the day (their charm was that they were of the day) were our society -- we had very little other. We were happy to pay the servant for opening the door -- the bookseller for republishing; but I dare say that even if we had thought of it we should have had a certain hesitation in feeing the visitors. A money-question when they were so polite! It was too kind of them to come.
Clifford. I don't quite recognize the picture of your national humility, at any stage of your existence. Even if you had thought of it, you say? It didn't depend upon that. We began to remind you long ago -- ever so long ago.
Darcy. Yes, you were fairly prompt. But our curse, in the disguise of a blessing, was that meanwhile we had begun to regard your company as a matter of course. Certainly, that should have been but a detail when reflection and responsibility had come. At what particular period was it to have been expected of our conscience to awake?
Clifford. If it was last year it's enough.
Darcy. Oh, it was long ago -- very long ago, as you say. assign an early date. But you can't put your finger on the place.
Darcy. On the period. Our conscience -- to speak of that -- has the defect of not being homogeneous. It's very big.
Clifford. You mean it's elastic?
Darcy. On the contrary, it's rigid, in places; it's numb; it's not animated to the extremities. A conscience is a natural organ, but if it's to be of any use in the complications of life it must also be a cultivated one. Ours is cultivated, highly cultivated, in spots; but there are large, crude patches.
Clifford. I see -- an occasional oasis in the desert.
Darcy. No -- blooming farms in the prairie. The prairie is rich, but it's not all settled; there are promising barbarous tracts. Therefore the different parts of the organ to which I have likened it don't, just as yet, all act together. But when they do --
Clifford. When they do we shall all be dead of starvation.
Belinda. I'll divide my own pittance with you first.
Camilla. I'm glad we live in Paris. In Paris they don't mind.
Darcy. They mind something else.
Oswald (bracing himself). He means the invidious duty the American government has levied on foreign works of art. In intention it's prohibitive -- they won't admit free any but American productions.
Belwood. That's a fine sort of thing for the culture of a people.
Clifford. It keeps out monarchical pictures.
Belinda (to Oswald). Why did you tell -- before two Englishmen?
Camilla. I never even heard of it -- in Paris.
Belwood. Ah, there they are too polite to reproach you with it.
Oswald. It doesn't keep out anything, for in fact the duty, though high, isn't at all prohibitive. If it were effective it would be effective almost altogether against the French, whose pictures are not monarchical, but as republican as our own, so that Clifford's taunt is wasted. The people over there who buy foreign works of art are very rich, and they buy them just the same, duty and all.
Darcy. Doesn't what you say indicate that the tax restricts that ennobling pleasure to the very rich? Without it amateurs of moderate fortune might pick up some bits.
Oswald. Good pictures are rarely cheap. When they are dear only the rich can buy them. In the few cases where they are cheap the tax doesn't make them dear.
Belinda. Bravo -- I'm reassured!
Darcy. It doesn't invalidate the fact that French artists have spoken of the matter to me with passion and scorn, and that I have hung my head and had nothing to say.
Belinda. Oh, Darcy -- how can you? Wait till they go!
Clifford. Hadn't we better go now?
Belinda. Dear me, no -- not on that note. Wait till we work round.
Clifford. What can you work round to?
Camilla. Why, to the novel. I insist on being told of a good one.
Oswald. The foreigners were frightened at first, but things have turned out much better than they feared.
Oswald. Otherwise do you think I could bear to stay in Paris?
Darcy. That makes me wince, as I have the face to stay in London.
Oswald. Oh, English pictures -- !
Darcy. I'm not thinking of English pictures; though I might, for some of them are charming.
Belwood. What will you have? It's all protection.
Darcy. We protect the industry and demolish the art.
Oswald. I thought you said you were not thinking of the art.
Darcy. Dear Oswald, there are more than one. The art of letters.
Oswald. Where do you find it to-day -- the art of letters? It seems to me to be the industry, all round and everywhere.
Clifford (to Belwood). They squabble among themselves -- that may be good for us!
Darcy. Don't say squabble, say discuss. Of course we discuss; but from the moment we do so vous en êtes, indefeasibly. There is no such thing as "themselves," on either side; it's all ourselves. The fact of discussion welds us together, and we have properties in common that we can't get rid of.
Oswald. My dear Darcy, you're fantastic.
Clifford. You do squabble, you do!
Darcy. Call it so, then: don't you see how you're in it?
Belwood. I see very well -- I feel it all.
Clifford. I don't then -- hanged if I'm in it!
Camilla. Now they are squabbling!
Belwood. Our conversation certainly supports Belinda's contention that we are in indissoluble contact. Our interchange of remarks just now about copyright was a signal proof of union.
Clifford. It was humiliating for these dear Americans -- if you call that union!
Belwood. Clifford, I'm ashamed of you.
Camilla. They are squabbling -- they are!
Belinda. Yes, but we don't gain by it. I am humiliated, and Darcy was pulled up short.
Clifford. You're in a false position, quoi! You see how intolerable that is. You feel it in everything.
Belinda. Yes, it's a loss of freedom -- the greatest form of suffering. A chill has descended upon me, and I'm not sure can shake it off. I don't want this delightful party to break up, yet feel as if we -- I mean we four -- had nothing more to say.
Oswald. We have all in fact chattered enough.
Camilla. Oh, be cheerful and talk about the novel.
Clifford. Innocent Camilla -- as if the novel to-day were cheerful!
Belinda. I see Darcy has more assurance.
Belwood. You mean he has more ideas.
Darcy. It is because dear Belwood is here. If I were alone with Clifford I dare say I should be rather low. But I have more to say, inconsequent, and perhaps even indecent, as that may be. I have it at heart to say that the things that divide us appear to me, when they are enumerated by the people who profess to be acutely conscious of them, ineffably small.
Belinda. Clifford, if you are impertinent I shall rise from my ashes. Darcy is so charming.
Belwood. Continue to be charming, Darcy. That's the spell!
Darcy. I'm not ingenious at all; I'm only a God-fearing, plain man, saying things as they strike him.
Darcy. Well, it doesn't prevent me from having noticed the other day, in a magazine, in a recriminatory, a retaliatory (I don't know what to call it) article, a phrase to the effect that the author, an American, would frankly confess, and take his stand on it, that he liked rocking-chairs, Winchester rifles, and iced water. He seemed a very bristling gentleman, and they apparently were his ultimatum. It made me reflect on these symbols of our separateness, and I wanted to put the article into the fire before a Frenchman or a German should see it.
Clifford. Iced water, rocking-chairs, and copyright.
Darcy. Well, add copyright after all!
Belinda. Darcy is irrepressible.
Darcy. It wouldn't make the spectacle sensibly less puerile, or I may say less grotesque, for a Frenchman or a German. They are not quarrelling about copyright -- or even about rocking-chairs.
Clifford. Or even about fisheries, or even about the public manners engendered by presidential elections.
Oswald (to Darcy). Don't you know your country-people well enough to know just how much they care, by which I mean how little, for what a Frenchman or a German may think of them?
Clifford. And don't you know mine?
Darcy. Oh, every country cares, much more in practice than in theory. The form of national susceptibility differs with different peoples, but the substance is very much the same.
Belwood. I am appalled, when I look at the principal nations of the globe, at the vivacity of their mutual hatreds, as revealed by the bright light of the latter end of the nineteenth century. We are very proud of that light, but that's what it principally shows us. Look at the European family -- it's a perfect menagerie of pet aversions. And some countries resemble fat old ladies -- they have so many pets. It is certainly worse than it used to be; of old we didn't exchange compliments every day.
Darcy. It is only worse in this sense, that we see more of each other now, we touch each other infinitely more.
Belwood. Our acrimonies are a pleasant result of that.
Darcy. They are not a final one. We must get used to each other. It's a rough process, if you like, but there are worse discomforts. Our modern intimacy is a very new thing, it has brought us face to face, and in this way the question comes up for each party of whether it likes, whether it can live with the other. The question is practical, it's social now; before it was academic and official. Newspapers, telegraphs, trains, fast steamers, all the electricities and publicities that are playing over us like a perpetual thunder-storm, have made us live in a common medium, which is far from being a non- conductor. The world has become a big hotel, the Grand Hotel of the Nations, and we meet -- I mean the nations meet -- on the stairs and at the table d'hôte. You know the faces at the table d'hôte, one is never enthusiastic about them; they give on one's nerves. All the same, their wearers fall into conversation, and often find each other quite nice. We are in the first stage, looking at each other, glaring at each other, if you will, while the entrée goes round. We play the piano, we smoke, we chatter in our rooms, and the sound and the fumes go through. But we won't pull down the house, because by to-morrow we shall have found our big polyglot inn, with its German waiters, rather amusing.
Belinda. Call them Jews as well as Germans. The landlord is German, too.
Oswald. What a horrible picture! I don't accept it for America and England; I think those parties have each a very good house of their own.
Darcy. From the moment you resent, on our behalf, the vulgarity of the idea of hotel-life, see what a superior situation, apart in our duality and distinguished, you by that very fact conceive for us. Belwood's image is, to my sense, graceful enough, even though it may halt a little. The fisheries, and all the rest, are simply the piano in the next room. It may be played at the wrong hour, but that isn't a casus belli; we can thump on the wall, we can rattle the door, we can arrange. And for that matter, surely it is not to be desired that all questions between us should cease. There must be enough to be amusing, que diable! As Belinda said, it's already becoming insipid.
Clifford. Perhaps we had better keep the copyright matter open for the fun of it. It's remarkable fun for us.
Oswald. It's fun for you that our tongues are tied, as Belinda and Darcy declare.
Clifford. Are they indeed? I haven't perceived it.
Belinda. Every one on our side, I admit, has not Darcy's delicacy.
Oswald. Yet I think of innumerable things we don't say -- that we might!
Clifford. You mean that you yourself might. If you think of them, pray say them.
Oswald. Oh, no, my tongue is tied.
Clifford. Come, I'll let you off.
Oswald. It's very good of you, but there are others who wouldn't.
Clifford. How would "others" know? Would your remarks have such a reverberation?
Belinda. I won't let him off, and please remember that this is my house.
Clifford. It's doubtless a great escape for me.
Oswald. You are all escaping all the while, under cover of your grievance. There would be a great deal to be said for the policy of your not letting it go. The advantage of it may be greater than the injury. If we pay you we can criticise you.
Clifford. Why, on the contrary, it's that that will be an advantage for us. Fancy, immense!
Oswald. Oh, you won't like it!
Clifford. Will it be droller than it is already? We shall delight in it.
Belwood. Oh, there are many things to say!
Belwood. Attached, on the contrary. Attached to everything we have in common.
Belinda (to Clifford). That's the way you and Oswald should be.
Clifford. It makes me rather sick, and I think, from the expression of Oswald's face, that it has the same effect upon him.
Oswald. I hate a fool's paradise; it's the thing in the world I most pray to keep clear of.
Darcy. There is no question of paradise -- that's the last thing. Your folly as well as your ecstasy is, on the contrary, in your rigid national consciousness; it's the extravagance of a perpetual spasm. What I go in for is a great reality, and our making it comprehensive and fruitful. Of course we shall never do anything without imagination -- by remaining dull and dense and literal.
Clifford. What does Oswald mean? I don't understand French.
Oswald. I have heard you speak it to-night.
Clifford. Then I don't understand your pronunciation.
Oswald. It's not that of Stratford-at-Bow. The difference between your ideas about yourselves and the way your performances strike the rest of the world is one of the points that might be touched upon if it were not, as I am advised, absolutely impossible. The emanation of talent and intelligence from your conversation, your journals, your books --
Clifford. I give you up our conversation, and even our journals. As for our books, they are clever enough for you to steal.
Belinda. See what an immense advantage Clifford has!
Oswald. I acknowledge it in advance.
Camilla. I like their books better than ours. I love a good English novel.
Oswald. If you were not so naive, you wouldn't dare to say so in Paris. Darcy was talking about what a German, what a Frenchman thinks. Parlons-en, of what a Frenchman thinks!
Belinda. I thought you didn't care.
Belwood. He means thinks of us.
Darcy. An intelligent foreigner might easily think it is open to us to have the biggest international life in the world.
Oswald. Darcy has formed the foolish habit of living in England, and it has settled upon him so that he has become quite provincialized. I believe he really supposes that that's the centre of ideas.
Oswald. Thank you, Clifford. He has lost all sense of proportion and perspective, of the way things strike people on the continent -- on the continents -- in the clear air of the world. He has forfeited his birthright.
Darcy. On the contrary, I have taken it up, and my eye for perspective has grown so that I see an immensity where you seem to me to see a dusky little cul-de-sac.
Clifford. Is Paris the centre of ideas?
Belinda. I thought it was Berlin.
Camilla. Oh, dear, must we go and live in Berlin?
Darcy. Why will no one have the courage to say frankly that it's New York?
Belwood. Wouldn't it be Boston, rather?
Oswald. I am not obliged to say where it is, and I am not at all sure that there is such a place. But I know very well where it's not. There are places where there are more ideas -- places where there are fewer -- and places where there are none at all. In Paris there are many, in constant circulation; you meet them in periodicals, in books, and in the conversation of the people. The people are not afraid of them -- they quite like them.
Belinda. Some of them are charming, and one must congratulate the people who like them on their taste.
Oswald. They are not all for women, and, mon Dieu, you must take one with another. You must have all sorts to have many, and you must have many to have a few good ones.
Clifford. You express yourself like a preliminary remark in a French étude.
Belinda. Clifford, I shall have to double that farthing!
Belwood. If the book at present is the novel, the French book is the French novel. And if the ideas are in the book, we must go to the French novel for our ideas.
Clifford. Another preliminary remark -- does any one follow?
Darcy. We must go everywhere for them, and we may form altogether, you and we -- that this our common mind may form -- the biggest net in the world for catching them.
Oswald. I should like to analyze that queer mixture -- our common mind -- and refer the different ingredients to their respective contributors. However, it doesn't strike me as true of France, and it is not of France that one would mean it, that the book is the novel. Across the Channel there are other living forms. Criticism, for instance, is alive: I notice that in what is written about the art endeavor to practise. Journalism is alive.
Belwood. And isn't the novel alive?
Oswald. Oh, yes, there are ideas in it -- there are ideas about it.
Darcy. In England, too, there are ideas about it; there seems to be nothing else just now.
Oswald. I haven't come across one.
Belwood. You might pass it without noticing it -- they are not so salient.
Belinda. But I thought we agreed that it was in England that it is the form?
Oswald. We didn't agree; but that would be my impression. In England, however, even "the form" -- !
Belwood. I see what you mean. Even "the form" doesn't carry you very far. That's a pretty picture of our literature!
Oswald. I should like Darcy to think so.
Darcy. My dear fellow, Darcy thinks a great many things, whereas you appear to him to be able to think but one or two.
Belinda. Do wait till Belwood and Clifford go.
Belwood. We must, or at least I must, in fact, be going.
Clifford. So must I, though there is a question I should have liked still to ask Darcy.
Camilla. Oh, I'm so disappointed -- I hoped we should have talked about novels. There seemed a moment when we were near it.
Belinda. We must do that yet -- we must all meet again.
Camilla. But, my dear, Oswald and I are going to Paris.
Belinda. That needn't prevent; the rest of us will go over and see you. We'll talk of novels in your salon.
Camilla. That will be lovely -- but will Clifford and Belwood come?
Clifford. Oh, I go to Paris sometimes; but not for "the form." Nor even for the substance!
Clifford. Oh, just for the lark!
Belwood (to Camilla). I shall go to see you.
Camilla. You're the nicest Englishman I ever saw. And, in spite of my husband, I delight in your novels.
Oswald. I said nothing against Belwood's. And, in general, they are proper enough for women -- especially for little girls like you.
Clifford (to Camilla). Have you read "Mrs. Jenks of Philadelphia"?
Camilla. Of Philadelphia? Jamais de la vie!
Darcy (to Oswald). You think me so benighted to have a fancy for London; but is it your idea that one ought to live in Paris?
Belwood. Paris is very well, but why should you people give yourself away at such a rate to the French? Much they thank you for it! They don't even know that you do it!
Oswald. Darcy is a man of letters, and it's in Paris that letters flourish.
Belinda. Tiens, does Darcy write?
Belwood. He writes, but before he writes he observes. Why should he observe in a French medium?
Oswald. For the same reason that I do. C'est plus clair.
Darcy. Oswald has no feeling of race.
Belwood. On the contrary, he feels it as a Frenchman. But why should you Americans keep pottering over French life and observing that? They themselves do nothing else, and surely they suffice to the task. Stick to our race -- saturate yourself with that.
Oswald. Do you mean the English?
Oswald. You are mighty mysterious if you do.
Darcy. I am of Camilla's opinion -- I think Belwood's the nicest Englishman I ever saw.
Belinda. I am amused at the way it seems not to occur to any of us that the proper place to observe our own people is in our own country.
Darcy. Oh, London's the place; it swarms with our own people!
Oswald. Do you mean with English people? You have mixed things up so that it's hard to know what you do mean.
Darcy. I mean with English people and with Americans -- mean with all. Enough is as good as a feast, and there are more Americans there than even the most rapacious observer can tackle.
Belinda. This hotel is full of them.
Darcy. You have only to stand quiet and every type passes by. And over here they have a relief -- it's magnificent!
Belinda. They have a relief, but sometimes I have none! You must remember, however, that life isn't all observation. It's also action; it's also sympathy.
Darcy. To observe for a purpose is action. But there are more even than one can sympathize with; I am willing to put it that way.
Oswald. Rubbish -- rubbish -- rubbish!
Belinda. You're rough, Oswald.
Oswald. He used the same words a while ago.
Darcy. And then there are all the English, too -- thrown in. Think what that makes of London, think of the collection, the compendium. And Oswald talks of Paris!
Oswald. The Americans go to Paris in hordes -- they are famous for it.
Darcy. They used to be, but it's not so now. They flock to London.
Darcy. Those are so many, then, that they are typical; they must be watched.
Belinda. Go away, you two Englishmen; we are washing our dirty linen.
Belwood. I go. But we have washed ours before you.
Clifford. I also take leave, but I should like to put in my question to Darcy first.
Belinda. He's so exalted -- he doesn't hear you.
Oswald. He sophisticates scandalously, in the interest of a fantastic theory. I might even say in that of a personal preference.
Darcy. Oh, don't speak of my personal preferences -- you'll never get to the bottom of them!
Oswald (to Camilla). Ain't he mysterious?
Belinda. I have an idea he hasn't any personal preferences. Those are primitive things.
Camilla. Well, we have them -- over there in the Avenue Marceau. So we can't cast the first stone. I am rather ashamed, before these gentlemen. We're a bad lot, we four.
Clifford. Yes, you're a bad lot. That's why I prefer "Mrs. Jenks." Can't any of you stand it, over there?
Belinda. I am going home next year, to remain forever.
Belwood. Then Clifford and I will come over -- so it will amount to the same thing.
Darcy. Those are details, and whatever we do or don't do, it will amount to the same thing. For we are weaving our work together, and it goes on forever, and it's all one mighty loom. And we are all the shuttles -- Belinda and Camilla, Belwood, Clifford, Oswald, and Darcy -- directed by the master-hand. We fly to and fro, in our complicated, predestined activity, and it matters very little where we are at a particular moment. We are all of us here, there, and everywhere, wherever the threads are crossed. And the tissue grows and grows, and we weave into it all our lights and our darkness, all our quarrels and reconciliations, all our stupidities and our strivings, all the friction of our intercourse, and all the elements of our fate. The tangle may seem great at times, but it is all an immeasurable pattern, a spreading, many-colored figure. And the figure, when it is finished, will be a magnificent harmony.
Belinda. If I'm only an unconscious, irresponsible shuttle, and it doesn't matter where I am, I think I won't, after all, go home.
Darcy. I don't care where you go. The world is ours!
Clifford. Yes, our common mind is to swallow it up. But what about our common language?
Belinda. This is Clifford's great question.
Darcy. How do you mean, what about it?
Clifford. Do you expect Belwood and me to learn American?
Belwood. It is a great question.
Clifford. Will it be obligatory?
Darcy. Oh, no, quite optional.
Oswald. What do you mean by American?
Clifford. I mean your language. (To Darcy.) You consider that you will continue to understand ours?
Belinda. The upper classes, yes.
Camilla. My dear, there will be no upper classes when we are all little drudging bobbins!
Belinda. Oh, yes, there'll be the bobbins for silk and the bobbins for wool.
Camilla. And I suppose the silk will be English.
Oswald (to Clifford). What do you mean by my language?
Oswald. Haven't we a right to have a language of our own?
Clifford (to Oswald). I don't understand you.
Clifford. I mean that Oswald seems at once to resent the imputation that you have a national tongue and to wish to insist on the fact that you have it. His position is not clear.
Darcy. That is partly because our tongue itself is not clear as yet. We must hope that it will be clearer. Oswald needn't resent anything, for the evolution was inevitable. A body of English people crossed the Atlantic and sat down in a new climate on a new soil, amid new circumstances. It was a new heaven and a new earth. They invented new institutions, they encountered different needs. They developed a particular physique, as people do in a particular medium, and they began to speak in a new voice. They went in for democracy, and that alone would affect -- it has affected -- the tone immensely. C'est bien le moins (do you follow?) that that tone should have had its range and that the language they brought over with them should have become different to express different things. A language is a very sensitive organism. It must be convenient -- it must be handy. It serves, it obeys, it accommodates itself.
Clifford. Ours, on your side of the water, has certainly been very accommodating.
Darcy. It has struck out different notes.
Clifford. He talks as if it were music!
Belinda. I like that idea of our voice being new; do you mean it creaks? I listen to Darcy with a certain surprise, however, for I am bound to say I have heard him criticise the American idiom.
Darcy. You have heard me criticise it as neglected, as unstudied: you have never heard me criticise it as American. The fault I find with it is that it's irresponsible -- it isn't American enough.
Darcy. It's the candid truth. I repeat, its divergence was inevitable. But it has grown up roughly, and we haven't had time to cultivate it. That is all I complain of, and it's awkward for us, for surely the language of such a country ought to be magnificent. That is one of the reasons why I say that it won't be obligatory upon you English to learn it. We haven't quite learned it ourselves. When we shall at last have mastered it we'll talk the matter over with you. We'll agree upon our signs.
Camilla. Do you mean we must study it in books?
Darcy. I don't care how -- or from the lips of the pretty ladies.
Belinda. I must bravely concede that often the lips of the pretty ladies --
Darcy (interrupting). At any rate, it's always American.
Camilla. But American improved -- that's simply English.
Clifford. Your husband will tell you it's simply French.
Darcy. If it's simply English, that perhaps is what was to be demonstrated. Extremes meet!
Belwood. You have the drawback (and I think it a great disadvantage) that you come so late, that you have not fallen on a language-making age. The people who first started our vocabularies were very naifs.
Belwood. When I listen to Darcy I find it hard to believe it.
Belwood. The first words must have been rather vulgar.
Belwood. New signs are crude, and you, in this matter, are in the crude, the vulgar stage.
Darcy. That no doubt is our misfortune.
Belinda. That's what I mean by the pathos!
Darcy. But we have always the resource of English. We have lots of opportunity to practise it.
Clifford. As a foreign tongue, yes.
Darcy. To speak it as the Russians speak French.
Belwood. Oh, you'll grow very fond of it.
Clifford. The Russians are giving up French.
Darcy. Yes, but they've got the language of Tolstoı.
Clifford (groaning). Oh, heavens, Tolstoı!
Darcy. Our great writers have written in English. That's what I mean by American having been neglected.
Clifford. If you mean ours, of course.
Darcy. I mean -- yours -- ours -- yes!
Oswald. It isn't a harmony. It's a labyrinth.
Clifford. It plays an odd part in Darcy's harmony, this duality of tongues.
Darcy. It plays the part of amusement. What could be more useful?
Clifford. Ah, then, we may laugh at you?
Darcy. It will make against tameness.
Clifford. Especially if you get angry.
Belinda. No, you and Belwood go first. We Americans must stay to pray.
Camilla (to Clifford). Well, mind you come to Paris.
Clifford. Will your husband receive me?
Oswald. Oh, in Paris I'm all right.
Belinda. I'll bring every one.
Clifford (to Camilla). Try "Mrs. Gibbs of Nebraska," the companion-piece to "Mrs. Jenks."
Oswald. That's another one you stole!
Belwood. Ah, the French and Germans!
Belinda (pushing him out with Clifford). Go, go. (To the others.) Let us pray.
Scribner's Magazine, March 1889
Reprinted in Essays in London and Elsewhere,
Letter to the Deerfield Summer School (8)
I am afraid I can do little more than thank you for your courteous invitation to be present at the sittings of your delightfully- sounding school of romance, which ought to inherit happiness and honor from such a name. I am so very far away from you that I am afraid can't participate very intelligibly in your discussions, but can only give them the furtherance of a dimly discriminating sympathy. I am not sure that I apprehend very well your apparent premise, "the materialism of our present tendencies," and I suspect that this would require some clearing up before I should be able (if even then) to contribute any suggestive or helpful word. To tell the truth, I can't help thinking that we already talk too much about the novel, about and around it, in proportion to the quantity of it having any importance that we produce. What I should say to the nymphs and swains who propose to converse about it under the great trees at Deerfield is: "Oh, do something from your point of view; an ounce of example is worth a ton of generalizations; do something with the great art and the great form; do something with life. Any point of view is interesting that is a direct impression of life. You each have an impression colored by your individual conditions; make that into a picture, a picture framed by your own personal wisdom, your glimpse of the American world. The field is vast for freedom, for study, for observation, for satire, for truth." I don't think I really do know what you mean by "materializing tendencies" any more than should by "spiritualizing" or "etherealizing." There are no tendencies worth anything but to see the actual or the imaginative, which is just as visible, and to paint it. I have only two little words for the matter remotely approaching to rule or doctrine; one is life and the other freedom. Tell the ladies and gentlemen, the ingenious inquirers, to consider life directly and closely, and not to be put off with mean and puerile falsities, and to be conscientious about it. It is infinitely large, various, and comprehensive. Every sort of mind will find what it looks for in it, whereby the novel becomes truly multifarious and illustrative. That is what I mean by liberty; give it its head, and let it range. If it is in a bad way, and the English novel is, I think, nothing but absolute freedom can refresh it and restore its self-respect. Excuse these raw brevities, and please convey to your companions, my dear sir, the cordial good wishes of yours and theirs,
New York Tribune, August 4, 1889
If literary criticism may be said to flourish among us at all, it certainly flourishes immensely, for it flows through the periodical press like a river that has burst its dikes. The quantity of it is prodigious, and it is a commodity of which, however the demand may be estimated, the supply will be sure to be in any supposable extremity the last thing to fail us. What strikes the observer above all, in such an affluence, is the unexpected proportion the discourse uttered bears to the objects discoursed of -- the paucity of examples, of illustrations and productions, and the deluge of doctrine suspended in the void; the profusion of talk and the contraction of experiment, of what one may call literary conduct. This, indeed, ceases to be an anomaly as soon as we look at the conditions of contemporary journalism. Then we see that these conditions have engendered the practice of "reviewing" -- a practice that in general has nothing in common with the art of criticism. Periodical literature is a huge, open mouth which has to be fed -- a vessel of immense capacity which has to be filled. It is like a regular train which starts at an advertised hour, but which is free to start only if every seat be occupied. The seats are many, the train is ponderously long, and hence the manufacture of dummies for the seasons when there are not passengers enough. A stuffed mannikin is thrust into the empty seat, where it makes a creditable figure till the end of the journey. It looks sufficiently like a passenger, and you know it is not one only when you perceive that it neither says anything nor gets out. The guard attends to it when the train is shunted, blows the cinders from its wooden face and gives a different crook to its elbow, so that it may serve for another run. In this way, in a well-conducted periodical, the blocks of remplissage are the dummies of criticism -- the recurrent, regulated breakers in the tide of talk. They have a reason for being, and the situation is simpler when we perceive it. It helps to explain the disproportion I just mentioned, as well, in many a case, as the quality of the particular discourse. It helps us to understand that the "organs of public opinion" must be no less copious than punctual, that publicity must maintain its high standard, that ladies and gentlemen may turn an honest penny by the free expenditure of ink. It gives us a glimpse of the high figure presumably reached by all the honest pennies accumulated in the cause, and throws us quite into a glow over the march of civilization and the way we have organized our conveniences. From this point of view it might indeed go far towards making us enthusiastic about our age. What is more calculated to inspire us with a just complacency than the sight of a new and flourishing industry, a fine economy of production? The great business of reviewing has, in its roaring routine, many of the signs of blooming health, many of the features which beguile one into rendering an involuntary homage to successful enterprise.
Yet it is not to be denied that certain captious persons are to be met who are not carried away by the spectacle, who look at it much askance, who see but dimly whither it tends, and who find no aid to vision even in the great light (about itself, its spirit, and its purposes, among other things) that it might have been expected to diffuse. "Is there any such great light at all?" we may imagine the most restless of the sceptics to inquire, "and isn't the effect rather one of a certain kind of pretentious and unprofitable gloom?" The vulgarity, the crudity, the stupidity which this cherished combination of the off-hand review and of our wonderful system of publicity have put into circulation on so vast a scale may be represented, in such a mood, as an unprecedented invention for darkening counsel. The bewildered spirit may ask itself, without speedy answer, What is the function in the life of man of such a periodicity of platitude and irrelevance? Such a spirit will wonder how the life of man survives it, and, above all, what is much more important, how literature resists it; whether, indeed, literature does resist it and is not speedily going down beneath it. The signs of this catastrophe will not in the case we suppose be found too subtle to be pointed out -- the failure of distinction, the failure of style, the failure of knowledge, the failure of thought. The case is therefore one for recognizing with dismay that we are paying a tremendous price for the diffusion of penmanship and opportunity; that the multiplication of endowments for chatter may be as fatal as an infectious disease; that literature lives essentially, in the sacred depths of its being, upon example, upon perfection wrought; that, like other sensitive organisms, it is highly susceptible of demoralization, and that nothing is better calculated than irresponsible pedagogy to make it close its ears and lips. To be puerile and untutored about it is to deprive it of air and light, and the consequence of its keeping bad company is that it loses all heart. We may, of course, continue to talk about it long after it has bored itself to death, and there is every appearance that this is mainly the way in which our descendants will hear of it. They will, however, acquiesce in its extinction.
This, I am aware, is a dismal conviction, and I do not pretend to state the case gayly. The most I can say is that there are times and places in which it strikes one as less desperate than at others. One of the places is Paris, and one of the times is some comfortable occasion of being there. The custom of rough-and-ready reviewing is, among the French, much less rooted than with us, and the dignity of criticism is, to my perception, in consequence much higher. The art is felt to be one of the most difficult, the most delicate, the most occasional; and the material on which it is exercised is subject to selection, to restriction. That is, whether or no the French are always right as to what they do notice, they strike me as infallible as to what they don't. They publish hundreds of books which are never noticed at all, and yet they are much neater bookmakers than we. It is recognized that such volumes have nothing to say to the critical sense, that they do not belong to literature, and that the possession of the critical sense is exactly what makes it impossible to read them and dreary to discuss them -- places them, as a part of critical experience, out of the question. The critical sense, in France, ne se dérange pas, as the phrase is, for so little. No one would deny, on the other hand, that when it does set itself in motion it goes further than with us. It handles the subject in general with finer finger-tips. The bluntness of ours, as tactile implements addressed to an exquisite process, is still sometimes surprising, even after frequent exhibition. We blunder in and out of the affair as if it were a railway station -- the easiest and most public of the arts. It is in reality the most complicated and the most particular. The critical sense is so far from frequent that it is absolutely rare, and the possession of the cluster of qualities that minister to it is one of the highest distinctions. It is a gift inestimably precious and beautiful; therefore, so far from thinking that it passes overmuch from hand to hand, one knows that one has only to stand by the counter an hour to see that business is done with baser coin. We have too many small school-masters; yet not only do I not question in literature the high utility of criticism, but I should be tempted to say that the part it plays may be the supremely beneficent one when it proceeds from deep sources, from the efficient combination of experience and perception. In this light one sees the critic as the real helper of the artist, a torch-bearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother. The more the tune is noted and the direction observed the more we shall enjoy the convenience of a critical literature. When one thinks of the outfit required for free work in this spirit, one is ready to pay almost any homage to the intelligence that has put it on; and when one considers the noble figure completely equipped -- armed cap-à- pie in curiosity and sympathy -- one falls in love with the apparition. It certainly represents the knight who has knelt through his long vigil and who has the piety of his office. For there is something sacrificial in his function, inasmuch as he offers himself as a general touchstone. To lend himself, to project himself and steep himself, to feel and feel till he understands, and to understand so well that he can say, to have perception at the pitch of passion and expression as embracing as the air, to be infinitely curious and incorrigibly patient, and yet plastic and inflammable and determinable, stooping to conquer and serving to direct -- these are fine chances for an active mind, chances to add the idea of independent beauty to the conception of success. Just in proportion as he is sentient and restless, just in proportion as he reacts and reciprocates and penetrates, is the critic a valuable instrument; for in literature assuredly criticism is the critic, just as art is the artist; it being assuredly the artist who invented art and the critic who invented criticism, and not the other way round.
And it is with the kinds of criticism exactly as it is with the kinds of art -- the best kind, the only kind worth speaking of, is the kind that springs from the liveliest experience. There are a hundred labels and tickets, in all this matter, that have been pasted on from the outside and appear to exist for the convenience of passers-by; but the critic who lives in the house, ranging through its innumerable chambers, knows nothing about the bills on the front. He only knows that the more impressions he has the more he is able to record, and that the more he is saturated, poor fellow, the more he can give out. His life, at this rate, is heroic, for it is immensely vicarious. He has to understand for others, to answer for them; he is always under arms. He knows that the whole honor of the matter, for him, besides the success in his own eyes, depends upon his being indefatigably supple, and that is a formidable order. Let me not speak, however, as if his work were a conscious grind, for the sense of effort is easily lost in the enthusiasm of curiosity. Any vocation has its hours of intensity that is so closely connected with life. That of the critic, in literature, is connected doubly, for he deals with life at second-hand as well as at first; that is, he deals with the experience of others, which he resolves into his own, and not of those invented and selected others with whom the novelist makes comfortable terms, but with the uncompromising swarm of authors, the clamorous children of history. He has to make them as vivid and as free as the novelist makes his puppets, and yet he has, as the phrase is, to take them as they come. We must be easy with him if the picture, even when the aim has really been to penetrate, is sometimes confused, for there are baffling and there are thankless subjects; and we make everything up to him by the peculiar purity of our esteem when the portrait is really, like the happy portraits of the other art, a text preserved by translation.
Reprinted under the title "Criticism"
in Essays in London and Elsewhere,
Written for The International Library of Famous Literature, ed. Richard Garnett.
Beginnings, as we all know, are usually small things, but continuations are not always strikingly great ones, and the place occupied in the world by the prolonged prose fable has become, in our time, among the incidents of literature, the most surprising example to be named of swift and extravagant growth, a development beyond the measure of every early appearance. It is a form that has had a fortune so little to have been foretold at its cradle. The germ of the comprehensive epic was more recognisable in the first barbaric chant than that of the novel as we know it to-day in the first anecdote retailed to amuse. It arrived, in truth, the novel, late at self- consciousness; but it has done its utmost ever since to make up for lost opportunities. The flood at present swells and swells, threatening the whole field of letters, as would often seem, with submersion. It plays, in what may be called the passive consciousness of many persons, a part that directly marches with the rapid increase of the multitude able to possess itself in one way and another of the book. The book, in the Anglo-Saxon world, is almost everywhere, and it is in the form of the voluminous prose fable that we see it penetrate easiest and farthest. Penetration appears really to be directly aided by mere mass and bulk. There is an immense public, if public be the name, inarticulate, but abysmally absorbent, for which, at its hours of ease, the printed volume has no other association. This public -- the public that subscribes, borrows, lends, that picks up in one way and another, sometimes even by purchase -- grows and grows each year, and nothing is thus more apparent than that of all the recruits it brings to the book the most numerous by far are those that it brings to the "story."
This number has gained, in our time, an augmentation from three sources in particular, the first of which, indeed, is perhaps but a comprehensive name for the two others. The diffusion of the rudiments, the multiplication of common schools, has had more and more the effect of making readers of women and of the very young. Nothing is so striking in a survey of this field, and nothing to be so much borne in mind, as that the larger part of the great multitude that sustains the teller and the publisher of tales is constituted by boys and girls; by girls in especial, if we apply the term to the later stages of the life of the innumerable women who, under modern arrangements, increasingly fail to marry -- fail, apparently, even, largely, to desire to. It is not too much to say of many of these that they live in a great measure by the immediate aid of the novel -- confining the question, for the moment, to the fact of consumption alone. The literature, as it may be called for convenience, of children is an industry that occupies by itself a very considerable quarter of the scene. Great fortunes, if not great reputations, are made, we learn, by writing for schoolboys, and the period during which they consume the compound artfully prepared for them appears -- as they begin earlier and continue later -- to add to itself at both ends. This helps to account for the fact that public libraries, especially those that are private and money-making enterprises, put into circulation more volumes of "stories" than of all other things together of which volumes can be made. The published statistics are extraordinary, and of a sort to engender many kinds of uneasiness. The sort of taste that used to be called "good" has nothing to do with the matter: we are so demonstrably in presence of millions for whom taste is but an obscure, confused, immediate instinct. In the flare of railway bookstalls, in the shop- fronts of most booksellers, especially the provincial, in the advertisements of the weekly newspapers, and in fifty places besides, this testimony to the general preference triumphs, yielding a good- natured corner at most to a bunch of treatises on athletics or sport, or a patch of theology old and new.
The case is so marked, however, that illustrations easily overflow, and there is no need of forcing doors that stand wide open. What remains is the interesting oddity or mystery -- the anomaly that fairly dignifies the whole circumstance with its strangeness: the wonder, in short, that men, women, and children should have so much attention to spare for improvisations mainly so arbitrary and frequently so loose. That, at the first blush, fairly leaves us gaping. This great fortune then, since fortune it seems, has been reserved for mere unsupported and unguaranteed history, the inexpensive thing, written in the air, the record of what, in any particular case, has not been, the account that remains responsible, at best, to "documents" with which we are practically unable to collate it. This is the side of the whole business of fiction on which it can always be challenged, and to that degree that if the general venture had not become in such a manner the admiration of the world it might but too easily have become the derision. It has in truth, I think, never philosophically met the challenge, never found a formula to inscribe on its shield, never defended its position by any better argument than the frank, straight blow: "Why am I not so unprofitable as to be preposterous? Because I can do that. There!" And it throws up from time to time some purely practical masterpiece. There is nevertheless an admirable minority of intelligent persons who care not even for the masterpieces, nor see any pressing point in them, for whom the very form itself has, equally at its best and at its worst, been ever a vanity and a mockery. This class, it should be added, is beginning to be visibly augmented by a different circle altogether, the group of the formerly subject, but now estranged, the deceived and bored, those for whom the whole movement too decidedly fails to live up to its possibilities. There are people who have loved the novel, but who actually find themselves drowned in its verbiage, and for whom, even in some of its approved manifestations, it has become a terror they exert every ingenuity, every hypocrisy, to evade. The indifferent and the alienated testify, at any rate, almost as much as the omnivorous, to the reign of the great ambiguity, the enjoyment of which rests, evidently, on a primary need of the mind. The novelist can only fall back on that -- on his recognition that man's constant demand for what he has to offer is simply man's general appetite for a picture. The novel is of all pictures the most comprehensive and the most elastic. It will stretch anywhere -- it will take in absolutely anything. All it needs is a subject and a painter. But for its subject, magnificently, it has the whole human consciousness. And if we are pushed a step farther backward, and asked why the representation should be required when the object represented is itself mostly so accessible, the answer to that appears to be that man combines with his eternal desire for more experience an infinite cunning as to getting his experience as cheaply as possible. He will steal it whenever he can. He likes to live the life of others, yet is well aware of the points at which it may too intolerably resemble his own. The vivid fable, more than anything else, gives him this satisfaction on easy terms, gives him knowledge abundant yet vicarious. It enables him to select, to take and to leave; so that to feel he can afford to neglect it he must have a rare faculty, or great opportunities, for the extension of experience -- by thought, by emotion, by energy -- at first hand.
Yet it is doubtless not this cause alone that contributes to the contemporary deluge; other circumstances operate, and one of them is probably, in truth, if looked into, something of an abatement of the great fortune we have been called upon to admire. The high prosperity of fiction has marched, very directly, with another "sign of the times," the demoralisation, the vulgarisation of literature in general, the increasing familiarity of all such methods of communication, the making itself supremely felt, as it were, of the presence of the ladies and children -- by whom I mean, in other words, the reader irreflective and uncritical. If the novel, in fine, has found itself, socially speaking, at such a rate, the book par excellence, so on the other hand the book has in the same degree found itself a thing of small ceremony. So many ways of producing it easily have been discovered that it is by no means the occasional prodigy, for good or for evil, that it was taken for in simpler days, and has therefore suffered a proportionate discredit. Almost any variety is thrown off and taken up, handled, admired, ignored by too many people, and this, precisely, is the point at which the question of its future becomes one with that of the future of the total swarm. How are the generations to face, at all, the monstrous multiplications? Any speculation on the further development of a particular variety is subject to the reserve that the generations may at no distant day be obliged formally to decree, and to execute, great clearings of the deck, great periodical effacements and destructions. It fills, in fact, at moments the expectant ear, as we watch the progress of the ship of civilisation -- the huge splash that must mark the response to many an imperative, unanimous "Overboard!" What at least is already very plain is that practically the great majority of volumes printed within a year cease to exist as the hour passes, and give up by that circumstance all claim to a career, to being accounted or provided for. In speaking of the future of the novel we must of course, therefore, be taken as limiting the inquiry to those types that have, for criticism, a present and a past. And it is only superficially that confusion seems here to reign. The fact that in England and in the United States every specimen that sees the light may look for a "review" testifies merely to the point to which, in these countries, literary criticism has sunk. The review is in nine cases out of ten an effort of intelligence as undeveloped as the ineptitude over which it fumbles, and the critical spirit, which knows where it is concerned and where not, is not touched, is still less compromised, by the incident. There are too many reasons why newspapers must live.
So, as regards the tangible type, the end is that in its undefended, its positively exposed state, we continue to accept it, conscious even of a peculiar beauty in an appeal made from a footing so precarious. It throws itself wholly on our generosity, and very often indeed gives us, by the reception it meets, a useful measure of the quality, of the delicacy, of many minds. There is to my sense no work of literary, or of any other, art, that any human being is under the smallest positive obligation to "like." There is no woman -- no matter of what loveliness -- in the presence of whom it is anything but a man's unchallengeably own affair that he is "in love" or out of it. It is not a question of manners; vast is the margin left to individual freedom; and the trap set by the artist occupies no different ground -- Robert Louis Stevenson has admirably expressed the analogy -- from the offer of her charms by the lady. There only remain infatuations that we envy and emulate. When we do respond to the appeal, when we are caught in the trap, we are held and played upon; so that how in the world can there not still be a future, however late in the day, for a contrivance possessed of this precious secret? The more we consider it the more we feel that the prose picture can never be at the end of its tether until it loses the sense of what it can do. It can do simply everything, and that is its strength and its life. Its plasticity, its elasticity are infinite; there is no colour, no extension it may not take from the nature of its subject or the temper of its craftsman. It has the extraordinary advantage -- a piece of luck scarcely credible -- that, while capable of giving an impression of the highest perfection and the rarest finish, it moves in a luxurious independence of rules and restrictions. Think as we may, there is nothing we can mention as a consideration outside itself with which it must square, nothing we can name as one of its peculiar obligations or interdictions. It must, of course, hold our attention and reward it, it must not appeal on false pretences; but these necessities, with which, obviously, disgust and displeasure interfere, are not peculiar to it -- all works of art have them in common. For the rest it has so clear a field that if it perishes this will surely be by its fault -- by its superficiality, in other words, or its timidity. One almost, for the very love of it, likes to think of its appearing threatened with some such fate, in order to figure the dramatic stroke of its revival under the touch of a life-giving master. The temperament of the artist can do so much for it that our desire for some exemplary felicity fairly demands even the vision of that supreme proof. If we were to linger on this vision long enough, we should doubtless, in fact, be brought to wondering -- and still for very loyalty to the form itself -- whether our own prospective conditions may not before too long appear to many critics to call for some such happy coup on the part of a great artist yet to come.
There would at least be this excuse for such a reverie: that speculation is vain unless we confine it, and that for ourselves the most convenient branch of the question is the state of the industry that makes its appeal to readers of English. From any attempt to measure the career still open to the novel in France I may be excused, in so narrow a compass, for shrinking. The French, as a result of having ridden their horse much harder than we, are at a different stage of the journey, and we have doubtless many of their stretches and baiting- places yet to traverse. But if the range grows shorter from the moment we drop to inductions drawn only from English and American material, am not sure that the answer comes sooner. I should have at all events -- a formidably large order -- to plunge into the particulars of the question of the present. If the day is approaching when the respite of execution for almost any book is but a matter of mercy, does the English novel of commerce tend to strike us as a production more and more equipped by its high qualities for braving the danger? It would be impossible, I think, to make one's attempt at an answer to that riddle really interesting without bringing into the field many illustrations drawn from individuals -- without pointing the moral with names both conspicuous and obscure. Such a freedom would carry us, here, quite too far, and would moreover only encumber the path. There is nothing to prevent our taking for granted all sorts of happy symptoms and splendid promises -- so long, of course, I mean, as we keep before us the general truth that the future of fiction is intimately bound up with the future of the society that produces and consumes it. In a society with a great and diffused literary sense the talent at play can only be a less negligible thing than in a society with a literary sense barely discernible. In a world in which criticism is acute and mature such talent will find itself trained, in order successfully to assert itself, to many more kinds of precautionary expertness than in a society in which the art I have named holds an inferior place or makes a sorry figure. A community addicted to reflection and fond of ideas will try experiments with the "story" that will be left untried in a community mainly devoted to travelling and shooting, to pushing trade and playing football. There are many judges, doubtless, who hold that experiments - - queer and uncanny things at best -- are not necessary to it, that its face has been, once for all, turned in one way, and that it has only to go straight before it. If that is what it is actually doing in England and America the main thing to say about its future would appear to be that this future will in very truth more and more define itself as negligible. For all the while the immense variety of life will stretch away to right and to left, and all the while there may be, on such lines, perpetuation of its great mistake of failing of intelligence. That mistake will be, ever, for the admirable art, the only one really inexcusable, because of being a mistake about, as we may say, its own soul. The form of novel that is stupid on the general question of its freedom is the single form that may, a priori, be unhesitatingly pronounced wrong.
The most interesting thing to-day, therefore, among ourselves is the degree in which we may count on seeing a sense of that freedom cultivated and bearing fruit. What else is this, indeed, but one of the most attaching elements in the great drama of our wide English-speaking life! As the novel is at any moment the most immediate and, as it were, admirably treacherous picture of actual manners -- indirectly as well as directly, and by what it does not touch as well as by what it does -- so its present situation, where we are most concerned with it, is exactly a reflection of our social changes and chances, of the signs and portents that lay most traps for most observers, and make up in general what is most "amusing" in the spectacle we offer. Nothing, I may say, for instance, strikes me more as meeting this description than the predicament finally arrived at, for the fictive energy, in consequence of our long and most respectable tradition of making it defer supremely, in the treatment, say, of a delicate case, to the inexperience of the young. The particular knot the coming novelist who shall prefer not simply to beg the question, will have here to untie may represent assuredly the essence of his outlook. By what it shall decide to do in respect to the "young" the great prose fable will, from any serious point of view, practically see itself stand or fall. What is clear is that it has, among us, veritably never chosen -- it has, mainly, always obeyed an unreasoning instinct of avoidance in which there has often been much that was felicitous. While society was frank, was free about the incidents and accidents of the human constitution, the novel took the same robust ease as society. The young then were so very young that they were not table-high. But they began to grow, and from the moment their little chins rested on the mahogany, Richardson and Fielding began to go under it. There came into being a mistrust of any but the most guarded treatment of the great relation between men and women, the constant world-renewal, which was the conspicuous sign that whatever the prose picture of life was prepared to take upon itself, it was not prepared to take upon itself not to be superficial. Its position became very much: "There are other things, don't you know? For heaven's sake let that one pass!" And to this wonderful propriety of letting it pass the business has been for these so many years -- with the consequences we see to-day -- largely devoted. These consequences are of many sorts, not a few altogether charming. One of them has been that there is an immense omission in our fiction -- which, though many critics will always judge that it has vitiated the whole, others will continue to speak of as signifying but a trifle. One can only talk for one's self, and of the English and American novelists of whom I am fond, I am so superlatively fond that I positively prefer to take them as they are. I cannot so much as imagine Dickens and Scott without the "love- making" left, as the phrase is, out. They were, to my perception, absolutely right -- from the moment their attention to it could only be perfunctory -- practically not to deal with it. In all their work it is, in spite of the number of pleasant sketches of affection gratified or crossed, the element that matters least. Why not therefore assume, it may accordingly be asked, that discriminations which have served their purpose so well in the past will continue not less successfully to meet the case? What will you have better than Scott and Dickens?
Nothing certainly can be, it may at least as promptly be replied, and I can imagine no more comfortable prospect than jogging along perpetually with a renewal of such blessings. The difficulty lies in the fact that two of the great conditions have changed. The novel is older, and so are the young. It would seem that everything the young can possibly do for us in the matter has been successfully done. They have kept out one thing after the other, yet there is still a certain completeness we lack, and the curious thing is that it appears to be they themselves who are making the grave discovery. "You have kindly taken," they seem to say to the fiction-mongers, "our education off the hands of our parents and pastors, and that, doubtless, has been very convenient for them, and left them free to amuse themselves. But what, all the while, pray, if it is a question of education, have you done with your own? These are directions in which you seem dreadfully untrained, and in which can it be as vain as it appears to apply to you for information?" The point is whether, from the moment it is a question of averting discredit, the novel can afford to take things quite so easily as it has, for a good while now, settled down into the way of doing. There are too many sources of interest neglected -- whole categories of manners, whole corpuscular classes and provinces, museums of character and condition, unvisited; while it is on the other hand mistakenly taken for granted that safety lies in all the loose and thin material that keeps reappearing in forms at once ready-made and sadly the worse for wear. The simple themselves may finally turn against our simplifications; so that we need not, after all, be more royalist than the king or more childish than the children. It is certain that there is no real health for any art -- I am not speaking, of course, of any mere industry -- that does not move a step in advance of its farthest follower. It would be curious -- really a great comedy -- if the renewal were to spring just from the satiety of the very readers for whom the sacrifices have hitherto been supposed to be made. It bears on this that as nothing is more salient in English life to-day, to fresh eyes, than the revolution taking place in the position and outlook of women -- and taking place much more deeply in the quiet than even the noise on the surface demonstrates -- so we may very well yet see the female elbow itself, kept in increasing activity by the play of the pen, smash with final resonance the window all this time most superstitiously closed. The particular draught that has been most deprecated will in that case take care of the question of freshness. It is the opinion of some observers that when women do obtain a free hand they will not repay their long debt to the precautionary attitude of men by unlimited consideration for the natural delicacy of the latter.
To admit, then, that the great anodyne can ever totally fail to work, is to imply, in short, that this will only be by some grave fault in some high quarter. Man rejoices in an incomparable faculty for presently mutilating and disfiguring any plaything that has helped create for him the illusion of leisure; nevertheless, so long as life retains its power of projecting itself upon his imagination, he will find the novel work off the impression better than anything he knows. Anything better for the purpose has assuredly yet to be discovered. He will give it up only when life itself too thoroughly disagrees with him. Even then, indeed, may fiction not find a second wind, or a fiftieth, in the very portrayal of that collapse? Till the world is an unpeopled void there will be an image in the mirror. What need more immediately concern us, therefore, is the care of seeing that the image shall continue various and vivid. There is much, frankly, to be said for those who, in spite of all brave pleas, feel it to be considerably menaced, for very little reflection will help to show us how the prospect strikes them. They see the whole business too divorced on the one side from observation and perception, and on the other from the art and taste. They get too little of the first-hand impression, the effort to penetrate -- that effort for which the French have the admirable expression to fouiller -- and still less, if possible, of any science of composition, any architecture, distribution, proportion. It is not a trifle, though indeed it is the concomitant of an edged force, that "mystery" should, to so many of the sharper eyes, have disappeared from the craft, and a facile flatness be, in place of it, in acclaimed possession. But these are, at the worst, even for such of the disconcerted, signs that the novelist, not that the novel, has dropped. So long as there is a subject to be treated, so long will it depend wholly on the treatment to rekindle the fire. Only the ministrant must really approach the altar; for if the novel is the treatment, it is the treatment that is essentially what I have called the anodyne.
International Library of Famous Literature,
The Present Literary Situation in France (11)
There are as many reasons just now, I dare say, as can well be pointed out for a certain sense of difficulty on the part of those who, caring for the things of the mind, desire, as the century draws to its end, to accompany its last steps with some acknowledgment of a great particular debt. We have all owed so much to the France of the past fifty years, that we should fail of common good manners were we to neglect the right moment -- as this might naturally be deemed -- for putting our gratitude on record. The difficulty I just spoke of is, however, that the right moment happens, by a shocking perversity and just in time to disconcert us, to have assumed every appearance -- every superficial one, at least -- of being the wrong. There has, unfortunately, for all the fifty years, been no crisis in France at which the things of the mind were so little the fashion. Practically suppressed and smothered, stricken and silent behind the bars of their hideous political cage, we must think of them as, at the worst, only living by the light of faith and biding their time. What is, at any rate, most clear to us is that to doubt of any but a happy issue for them would be a particularly cheap disloyalty. They are there, and they will again show it. They were still there till the other day, and any appearance of virtual extinction is, therefore, promptly to be challenged. The bad dream must pass, and the prospect of relief and of a good day's work must come with the morning.
Our concern, moreover -- to speak of ourselves -- is, at this date, mainly for those who shall follow us. The question for us, in the presence of the actual, sharp eclipse, is of the prospect of profit for the new generation; of whether it may count, at the best, on forming ties and receiving benefits that shall have been at all a match for our own. We have been, we others, a fortunate company, and it is only of late that our fortune has sensibly shrunken. When I think of the "good time" we have had, the readers who began in the fifties and sixties to be aware of their luck, I have to acknowledge with a sigh that the longest feast comes, in the nature of things, to an end. "It is not to be expected," we are prepared blandly to say to our children, "that you should be as happy as we." Yet it comes back, after all, to what may really be left for them.
There is no convenient measure of this that does not involve some measure, first, of what has been taken; and yet I am afraid of going but too far if I begin to analyze the sense of loss that abides with the elder contemporary. I must remember, too, that he pleads in such a case for his own house, and that his own house -- poor wretch that he is -- is essentially his own youth and the irrecoverable freshness of its first curiosities and its first responses. Lucky for him, indeed, if letters were his bent, that he could cultivate them in the near presence of the greater figures -- of Victor Hugo and Sainte- Beuve, of Balzac and George Sand, of Taine and Renan and Flaubert. The generosity of youth, all the same, I bear in mind, makes its own heyday; and I am not without envy of those who, at present, are able to add that agreeable sauce to their relish of -- for instance -- M. Anatole France. On the other hand, of course, it is quite open to the new generation to spend their time, to their hearts' content, with Victor Hugo and Balzac, with Sainte-Beuve and Madame Sand. The truth, however, remains that preference, at any period, settles, gracefully enough, on those flowers of production that the period itself wears in its breast. The other flowers, faded petals and withered herbage, come too much within the definition of the "pressed." They lurk between the leaves of the books that have ceased to lie on the table, the books that lurk, themselves, behind cold glass. It is with those on the table that we are now concerned; and, to be definite about the moment at which they may be taken as exchanging the table for the honor of the upper shelves, shall assume this occasion to be that of the author's death.
The great historians are dead, then -- the last of them went with Renan; the great critics are dead -- the last of them went with Taine; the great dramatists are dead -- the last of them went with Dumas; and, of the novelists of the striking group originally fathered by the Second Empire, Emile Zola is the only one still happily erect. The present men, in different quarters, are the younger -- so much the younger that Zola, among them, rises almost like a patriarch. This is the case even with the critics -- the race which, as a general thing, is least accountable for itself when positively young. It much enriches the experience of a reader who has come to fifty years, that he can really recall the time when Jules Lemaître was not. It even, perhaps, in truth, contributes to that wisdom that he has lived to be conscious of a period once more practically deprived of this possession. M. Lemaître is still on the table, but I think it not injudicious to say that his happiest star has, within less than twenty years, set as well as risen. None the less, with whatever losses, it is not yet on the critical side that the French intelligence may be noted as faltering to any such degree as shall minister to the comparative complacency of observers -- and, least of all, of competitors -- of our own race. The spirit of conversation is so indefeasible a part of the genius of the people that, however among them the creative gift may flicker, the last light markedly to pale must ever necessarily be the form that has most in common with suggested talk. If the races personally inexpressive, mono-syllabic at best, may be -- as regards letters and art -- handicapped by that fact for criticism, so it is beyond contradiction, think, that the French, on the opposite basis, have so much the start of us that the spirit of the matter begins for them quite where we are condemned to see it -- and in no little exhaustion -- give way. There are always criticism and causerie, in short, in France, even if there be not always Sainte-Beuve; and this can never, it is well to remember, be so much an advantage to a nation as on the occasion of its having to recognize other conditions of weakness. Marked as such conditions may, on other lines, have become, it is still the French genius that would have the most and the best to say about them. Twenty volumes of free discussion of such and other kinds of possibility appear in Paris for one that is published in London or in New York. This is a circumstance not to be lost sight of in any estimate, on our own part, of the rise or the fall; it may turn so in favor of the presumption that our standpoint for appreciation needs a little further building up. I confess that am conscious of how much, among us all, it requires an indifference to lurking irony to say that M. Jules Lemaître is not so good as -- well, as he used to be.
He is not so good just now, at all events, as M. Emile Faguet; nor as the authors of several of the happiest little volumes -- at once so much and so little on the pattern of the series of the "English Men of Letters" -- in Hachette's undertaking of "Les Grands Ecrivains Français." The latter publication has had its ups and downs, but nothing is more suggestive, in many ways, than to compare the spirit and the form of it with those of its predecessor. The authors of the English studies appear to labor, in general, under a terror of critical responsibility; the authors of the French, on the contrary, to hunger and thirst for it. The authors of the English, shirking and dodging, at every turn, any relation of their subject that may compel them to broach an idea, hug the safe and easy shore of small biographical fact and anecdote; the authors of the French are impatient till they can put out into the open and sound its depths and breathe its air. That he was so far from being afraid of ideas as to find, on the contrary, something like intoxication in them, was the more particular secret of that early freshness of M. Jules Lemaître which makes us recall with delight the first years of his activity. It was, perhaps, his defect that one could serve for his amusement almost as well as another; this led him, in time, to play with them too much the game of cup-and-ball -- there was none too light or too heavy for him to toss in the air, with an art all his own, and catch again. He had acquired his perfection at this exercise in the great and beautiful school -- had, with a diligence only to be matched in Anatole France, studied under Ernest Renan that art of imperturbable charmed inquiry, vertiginous speculation and inconclusive thought of which this beautiful genius was so happy a master. Whereas, however, the positive high beauty of Renan's temper was ever in itself a kind of conclusion, it was the fate of this most promising of his pupils to give us, finally, the impression of a critic trying rather vainly not only to make up a mind, but to make up a character. Had I space in these too few pages to do more, on any side, than glance, it would be extremely interesting -- it would, I think, sharply point a moral -- to follow the successive steps by which the author of "Les Contemporains" was to become, little by little, and comparatively speaking, a sort of reduced, disembodied agility, playing his trick in a close room and a stale air. The strange thing was that, when he at last elected, as we say, to represent a conviction, he should have fixed upon one of the ugliest. His voice was loud, throughout the "Affair" -- by no means concluded as I write -- in the anti-revisionist and anti-Semitic interest. And I remember, with due deference to the mystery of things, that there was a year or two in the time of their working, as it were, side by side when I wondered if Anatole France were not, of the two, the less to be desired.
Things have changed since then, and the author of "La Rôtisserie de la Reine Pedauque," the creator of Monsieur Bergeret and of Sylvestre Bonnard, has shown a complexity of talent in the presence of which the interest that he inspires deepens more and more -- I speak at least for myself -- to a sense of fascination. M. Lemaître, on the other hand, has pushed his fortune, both in the critical and in the more directly productive way, more and more in the quarter of the theatre -- a phenomenon which would, precisely, receive its due attention in any study of what I cannot help thinking his rather dark deviation. Of the more distinctly critical industry of his happier rival, I may take no space to speak, the later development of M. France placing him in a new and special category. And then there remain M. Bruneti re, the editor of the "Revue des Deux Mondes," who has lectured, with authority, in the United States, and M. Emile Faguet and M. Paul Bourget, each in his degree a striking representative of certain sides of the French critical spirit. M. Bourget, indeed, like M. France, has found his most effective vocation as a novelist -- though his productions in this character bristle, not less than those of M. France, and much, I hasten to add, to their enrichment, with that superior presence of the insistent question which the fiction of our day has so happily learned to treat as an aid to the rendering of appearances. Of all novelists, M. Bourget has most the mark of having learnt his trade in a school -- the school of reflection -- not hitherto supposed to be that of the novel; which is exactly, moreover, one of the things that make him most interesting. His subject is always an idea, and he is capable of regarding an idea as a positive source of "excitement."
I have the less regret at being able, in this small summary, only to testify to the large space occupied, in the public eye, by M. Bruneti re, as, critically speaking, he has been, to my judgment, the least genial, in the German sense, of all such recent appearances. M. Bruneti re is two distinct things which are much better kept so than united: an extremely erudite mind and an extremely irritated temper. He is full of information and chagrin, and it is one way to describe him -- since I may deal but in the shortest cuts -- to say that his intelligence has not kept pace with his learning. It has gone into that large and lighted, but unduly heated, chamber and closed the door behind it; and there, perched at the narrowest of windows, it has looked through a glass darkly -- with fatal frustration. He produces the impression of second-rate opinion, of perception arrested and confused. It does him no injustice to say that he represents that least luminous of all things, official criticism. The only office of the critical understanding that does not stultify it is to give itself, to the last drop of its blood. If M. Bruneti re has made this surrender, it can only be said that he had not originally much to give. Of the most interesting things that have happened round about him, he strikes me as having been the interpreter the most hampered; and it is scarcely too much to say that his country and his age have, to a certain extent, been wasted on him. There are other periods, certainly other climes, that, frankly, would have served him quite as well.
With M. Emile Faguet, since I must also be brief, I prefer to speak under impressions most recently received, and in particular under that of the extraordinarily able little study of Gustave Flaubert just contributed to the "Grands Ecrivains." Remarkably full and remarkably intelligent, M. Faguet had previously struck me as -- I confess it with compunction -- perceptibly common. The case, indeed, was almost ambiguous -- how could a writer be common who not only always knew, but always felt, his affair so well? M. Faguet's affair was invariably excellent. But I remember the ambiguity dropped when, one day last spring, in the reading-room of a foreign hotel, I came across the newspaper in which, on the occasion of the death of Francisque Sarcey, our critic, in an admirable piece of fore-shortening, commemorated that colleague. The portrait, in a few strokes, yet of a handling the largest and fairest, was a little miracle of understanding and expression. Decidedly, M. Faguet was not, in this case, common; and that imputation appears to me, on the whole, to apply equally little to his exhaustive -- his almost too exhaustive -- analysis of the author of "Madame Bovary." I am reduced, however, admit, in respect to this performance, almost to a single state of mind -- that of absolutely grateful appreciation of the particular long chapter devoted to Flaubert's masterpiece. It is not that this chapter contains no utterance whatever with which I find myself at odds: if one had space one might, surely, on the contrary, contest with some spirit the supreme place it assigns to "Madame Bovary" as an exhibition of the perverse female creature. Nothing will ever prevent Flaubert's heroine from having been an extremely minor specimen, even of the possibilities of her own type, a two-penny lady, in truth, of an experience so limited that some of her chords, it is clear, can never have sounded at all. It is a mistake, in other words, to speak of any feminine nature as consummately exhibited, that is exhibited in so small a number of its possible relations. Give it three or four others, we feel moved to say -- "then we can talk." But this, I hasten to add, is beside the matter in my mind, which is that of the happy lift assuredly given to any worker in Flaubert's field who may read M. Faguet's chapter. What can it be else than a joy to an artist to encounter so concrete an example of the undertaking, in the presence of a work of art, to consider? The pages I speak of are a masterpiece of consideration. Let them remain as a proof of what, to the critic, is possible in that line. There is no excuse after them for any question of the matter.
To have just encountered, in connection with this name, I may further observe, the much more diffused one of the late M. Sarcey, is to feel afresh with what eagerness I profit by my exemption from speaking of the dead. This most sedentary of spectators -- his eminent office, as all know, was that of theatrical reporter for upwards of thirty years to "Le Temps" was incontestably, during much of his career, one of the "forces" of literary criticism in France; but he would take us much further than it would be worth our while to go. He was, in his way, a massive and genial figure, but he was, on the whole, little of a light. One may desire all honor to his shade and still be conscious that one has even yet not forgotten, among many things indeed, certain recent cases in which his vulgarity of judgment was a strange -- was, in fact, a ridiculous -- false note in the "authority" he had so patiently built up. I recall, from a few months ago, a presentation of "Othello" at the Théâtre Français, which, both as to the version adopted and the rendering offered, was a sufficient challenge to wonder; but this performance was the flower of distinction compared with M. Sarcey's remarks on it. It went hard with him, at any time, to admit that any play of Shakespeare was "une pi ce," and, indeed, for his doom of having had, on occasion, to examine several of them in the light of this question, I hold that he was much to be pitied. If I write the name of M. de Vogu in the same neighborhood, it is only that M. de Vogu too is critically eminent, and that I am yet obliged to pass him by. Consummately clever, yet without having created a manner, he is, perhaps, as but one of a number, the best instance of how the most characteristic French aptitude may assert itself even in dull days. The man of genius is always a wonder, but the man of M. de Vogu 's particular combination of resources may, perhaps, still more, on occasion, cause the observer to lose himself in meditation. He shows at times as what the observer would, perhaps, himself fain have been. He is, at all events, in especial, the man of the world of his partie; he knows many things and has a clear and frequent eloquence and a wonderful easy hand. The hand, assuredly, in France, never fails, and may be seen at the century's end nervously reaching out from the abyss of an intellectual experience, that almost seems at moments to threaten to operate as a shaft sunk too straight. A great curiosity still survives this experience. French critical literature is even now a monument of it, and if the time ever was when the preponderance of inquiry was on our side of the Atlantic and of the Channel, contemporary periodical literature in the opposite quarter has quite reversed the relation. We at present, Americans and English together, push our intellectual feelers with a vivacity by no means proportionate to our own exposure. We seem unlikely to create any successful diversion to our being ourselves understood.
It is distinctly when we come to the novelists -- for I must make a long stride over historians, philosophers and poets, sustained by the reflection that the best novelists are all three -- that we remain rather persistently more aware of what is gone than of what is left. There is in this quarter, evidently, a distinct chill in the air; there are empty places, gaps into space, the look of a field less occupied. Daudet, so individual and beautiful, died but yesterday; Maupassant, as strong -- productively speaking -- as a young horse, and with a voice all his own, passed away the day before. Emile Zola, of the elder men, alone remains; with Paul Bourget and Pierre Loti and M. Huysmans -- with Anatole France, perhaps, too -- among the younger; and with MM. Paul Hervieu and Marcel Prévost among the youngest of all. Merely to enumerate these names, however, is to become freshly aware of my inability to take them in turn: the most that, in these conditions, they may help the critic to is some new demonstration, much abbreviated, of the intensity with which, in France, this wondrous form has been worked. At whatever result the serious inquirer might arrive, he would recognize no want of the real energy, the proper passion, in the working of their material by this interesting group. Of the material itself, there would easily be much to say -- I cannot help thinking that there is much; but there is little that is not obvious to be said of the intelligence and the courage. These remain so great -- are capable of giving out, on occasion, such vivid lights and of throwing up such renewals -- as to bring back a possibility by no means unfamiliar, dare say, to any ingenious mind attentive to these things: the apprehension that there may, after all, be some strange and fatal disparity between French talent and French life. That puts the case, no doubt, with a certain breadth; but it may, none the less, represent one of the occasional wonderments of a spectator from a distance. Does French life support being worked with the fury -- as we may almost say -- that the great combination, from Balzac down, have brought to bear on it? Would our bigger Anglo-Saxon life, even? Would any collective life that is now being led on the globe? The Anglo-Saxon world, with the multitude of its practical experiments and the variety of its material habitats, would, perhaps, hold out longest; and I express a fancy that have sometimes idly entertained when I say, that we alone would have offered a broad enough back to such acute penetration and such consistent irony. The spirit of the French novel at its best, in other words, would have been worthy to plunge into us, and we should have been, as a rich world-people, worthy to be stretched on the table. We should not certainly have been Paris at all -- in which there would have been a loss; but we should, on the other hand, not have been Paris only and ever -- in which there would have been a gain.
The danger I glance at is, in a word, the danger arising from sameness of subject. There tends too much to be only one -- the subject, so familiar to us all that this light emphasis suffices to identify it. The complications, the perils, that wait on concealed attachments play, it may perfectly be argued, an immense part in life, and a face of proportionate surprise may be offered to any plea that so general and indispensable an element of truth and interest is lightly to be dispensed with. This is a position with which, of course, all suggestion has to reckon; and I may as well say at once that I have no direct remedy to produce. The candid critic is, I even hold, excusable for not being wholly sure that, taking into account the general play of the French imagination, the remedy is quite within reach. It might, none the less, be tried. If I said just now that Flaubert's Emma Bovary is at best the demonstration of a poor case, and that the case would have been bettered if more relations had been shown, so this may, perhaps, serve as a hint of the quarter in which general help lies. Might not, in general, the painter of French life do something towards conjuring away that demon of staleness who hovers very dreadfully, at this time of day, everywhere, I acknowledge, on the horizon of us belated workers, by cultivating just this possibility of the vision of more relations? There are others, after all, than those of the eternal triangle of the husband, the wife and the lover, or of that variation of this to which we are too much condemned as an only alternative -- the mistress, the first and the second, or the second and the third, the third and the fourth, lovers. What we continue to have, for the most part, is the paraphernalia of concealment -- the drama of alarm and exposure; on which, with prodigious ingenuity, all the changes have been rung. Our real satiety lies, however, I think, not even in our familiarity with this range of representation; it lies, at bottom, in our unassuaged thirst for some more constant and more various portrayal of character. It may fairly be said that the French parti-pris not only turns too persistent a back on those quarters of life in which character does play, but also -- and with still less justice -- tends to pervert and minimize the idea of "passion." Passion still abides with us, though its wings have undoubtedly been clipped; the possibility of it is, in the vulgar phrase, all over the place. But it lives a great variety of life, burns with other flames and throbs with other obsessions than the sole sexual. In some of these connections it absolutely becomes character; whereas character, on the contrary, encounters in the sexual the particular air, the special erotic fog, that most muffles and dampens it. Closely observed, indeed, the erotic drama gives us, for all the prodigious bustle involved, almost never a striking illustration of it. "Passion" crowds it out; but passion is strangely brief, while character, like art itself, as we know, is long. The great Balzac, clearly, had made this reflection when, beating the bush with a cudgel all his own, he started up game of so many different kinds. I know not really if there be a better possible admonition to his successors than to go back to him. It would probably ensue from their doing so, that what I have called their sameness of subject would find itself by the very fact eased off, relieved of the undue strain upon it and enabled to recover some of its lost elasticity.
The reporter free to proceed to particulars would, at any rate, to-day find the superficial space occupied by M. Emile Zola not sensibly shrunken during these dozen years. His competitors have in most cases, come and gone, but M. Zola has solidly stayed. Perhaps this it is that most makes him difficult to dispose of briefly; he is, at one and the same time, so little a genius of the highest distinction and so little a negligible quantity. He would still be magnificent if he had nothing for him but his solidity -- in the contemplation of which I should almost luxuriously lose myself were it permitted to me to treat in summary fashion even one side of his work. He is a large enough figure to make us lose time in walking round him for the most convenient view. The question of choice, however, let me hasten to add, finds itself, if the critic happen to be also a member, however subordinate, of the author's own guild, materially simplified -- so much more does M. Zola, when it comes to the entertainment a brother-novelist may seek from him, speak of one particular matter than of all the others together. He speaks of the great, plain, measurable matter of method, and his own is the thing that has ended by making him most interesting. So, at least, must one put it for one's self, taking courage to do this even in face of the multitudinous results of an energy extraordinarily "creative." What he has most vividly created, to my sense, is the process that has seen him through. None of M. Zola's heroes stand so squarely on their feet as M. Zola's heroic system; the evolution of none of his heroines has been so unbrokenly patient. There the system is to- day, supremely representing on his behalf the communication of life. We have seen it at work, time after time -- seen it more and more a calculated means to an end; and have, surely -- if it has engaged our curiosity at all -- lived with it during these years very greatly to our entertainment, if not to our highest edification. I may not here undertake the business of describing it, and I mention it, indeed, mainly to pay it publicly my respects. For it has been in its way an intellectual lesson. Quite apart from what may be urged to its advantage or its detriment, it has shown, at least, admirably what a method can do. To arrive -- as he has arrived -- at the goal he began with fixing, M. Zola had to make out his special economy -- see it steadily and see it whole. He has seen, moreover, many things besides; not the individual soul, the individual life, perhaps, with any great intimacy -- never, indeed, with an inspired penetration; but always, vividly, its happy mean, or general average, of sense; its associated, confounded, scarce discriminated state. He has given us in this way -- and the phenomenon is curious enough -- an immense deal of life, a big chronicle of tragedy and comedy, action and passion, while giving us, nevertheless, comparatively little consciousness. Once or twice -- as in the case of "Rome" -- he has, in the absence of subjective saturation, been reduced to method alone; and remarkable enough, no doubt, is the spectacle of what, out of habit and gratitude, method alone has there done to him. This case was curious enough for those who knew. But the horse is not, I take it, to be trusted to repeat the jump.
It is not, certainly, true of M. Paul Bourget that his manner is a compromise founded on any generalization of the consciousness. It involves, on the contrary, a specification, for the individual represented, that is intense and exhaustive. M. Bourget literally inhabits the consciousness, as writers of the temperament of M. Zola inhabit the outer world. His relation to it is not that of a visitor for a purpose or of a collector with a note-book; it is that of a resident, of habits so confirmed that he on no pretext whatever can bring himself to stir from home. His travels far and wide are accomplished in that wonderful continuous gallery. It forms for him, as a spectator of life, a large glass cage equipped with wheels, stoves and other conveniences, in which he moves over his field very much as a great American railway-director moves over his favorite line in his "luxuriously-appointed" private car. For the consciousness inhabited by M. Bourget is luxuriously appointed. I only regret that it is impossible we should here accompany him on one or two of his journeys. We must use at this moment shorter cuts. I so feel that it fairly makes mince-meat of M. Anatole France to throw off a rough estimate of "L'Orme du Mail" and "Le Mannequin d'Osier," that I prefer to escape altogether from the question of shades by saying that he is a writer who freshly stirs up one's gratitude to his country, and one's frank recognition of the rich conditions that could produce him. We take him, as we have, first and last, gladly taken Pierre Loti, for a regular happy case. He is, in fine, at this moment, the great luxury of the time; he helps us to resign ourselves to an age that at last cynically confesses itself -- in a million volumes -- "unliterary." M. Anatole France and his fortune are really the facts that, at the actual hour, most save it. To his own country, in especial, at a juncture when she has need, he renders extraordinary redemptive service; he persists in being what he is -- and sells. It makes up for many things that there is still a liberal ear in France for such native notes, still a diffused taste for a mixture so artful. The author of "L'Anneau d'Améthyste," therefore, does the best thing a good patriot can do -- he makes others like to think, in spite of his own strictures upon it, of his public. Who makes anyone like to think of ours?
Revised and enlarged version of "The Younger Generation," The Times Literary Supplement, March 19 and April 2, 1914.
We feel it not to be the paradox it may at the first blush seem that the state of the novel in England at the present time is virtually very much the state of criticism itself; and this moreover, at the risk perhaps of some added appearance of perverse remark, by the very reason that we see criticism so much in abeyance. So far as we miss it altogether how and why does its "state" matter, and why and how can it or should it, as an absent force, enjoy a relation to that constant renewal of our supply of fiction which is a present one so far as a force at all? The relation is this, in the fewest words: that no equal outpouring of matter into the mould of literature, or what roughly passes for such, has been noted to live its life and maintain its flood, its level at least of quantity and mass, in such free and easy independence of critical attention. It constitutes a condition and a perversity on the part of this element to remain irresponsive before an appeal so vociferous at least and so incessant; therefore how can such a neglect of occasions, so careless a habit in spite of marked openings, be better described than as responsibility declined in the face of disorder? The disorder thus determines the relation, from the moment we feel that it might be less, that it might be different, that something in the way of an order even might be disengaged from it and replace it; from the moment in fact that the low critical pitch is logically reflected in the poetic or, less pedantically speaking, the improvisational at large. The effect, if not the prime office, of criticism is to make our absorption and our enjoyment of the things that feed the mind as aware of itself as possible, since that awareness quickens the mental demand, which thus in turn wanders further and further for pasture. This action on the part of the mind practically amounts to a reaching out for the reasons of its interest, as only by its so ascertaining them can the interest grow more various. This is the very education of our imaginative life; and thanks to it the general question of how to refine, and of why certain things refine more and most, on that happy consciousness, becomes for us of the last importance. Then we cease to be only instinctive and at the mercy of chance, feeling that we can ourselves take a hand in our satisfaction and provide for it, making ourselves safe against dearth, and through the door opened by that perception criticism enters, if we but give it time, as a flood, the great flood of awareness; so maintaining its high tide unless through some lapse of our sense for it, some flat reversion to instinct alone, we block up the ingress and sit in stale and shrinking waters. Stupidity may arrest any current and fatuity transcend any privilege. The comfort of those who at such a time consider the scene may be a little, with their curiosity still insistent, to survey its platitude and record the exhibited shrinkage; which amounts to the attempt to understand how stupidity could so have prevailed. We take it here that the answer to that inquiry can but be ever the same. The flood of "production" has so inordinately exceeded the activity of control that this latter anxious agent, first alarmed but then indifferent, has been forced backward out of the gate, leaving the contents of the reservoir to boil and evaporate. It is verily on the wrong side of the gate that we just now seem to see criticism stand, for never was the reservoir so bubblingly and noisily full, at least by the superficial measure of life. We have caught the odd accident in the very fact of its occurrence; we have seen the torrent swell by extravagant cheap contribution, the huge increase of affluents turbid and unstrained. Beyond number are the ways in which the democratic example, once gathering momentum, sets its mark on societies and seasons that stand in its course. Nowhere is that example written larger, to our perception, than in "the new novel"; though this, we hasten to add, not in the least because prose fiction now occupies itself as never before with the "condition of the people," a fact quite irrelevant to the nature it has taken on, but because that nature amounts exactly to the complacent declaration of a common literary level, a repudiation the most operative even if the least reasoned of the idea of differences, the virtual law, as we may call it, of sorts and kinds, the values of individual quality and weight in the presence of undiscriminated quantity and rough-and-tumble "output" -- these attestations made, we naturally mean, in the air of composition and on the esthetic plane, if such terms have still an attenuated reference to the case before us. With which, if we be asked, in the light of that generalisation, whether we impute to the novel, or in other words the novelist, all the stupidity against which the spirit of appreciation spends itself in vain, we reply perforce that we stop short of that, it being too obvious that of an exhibition so sterilised, so void of all force and suggestion, there would be nothing whatever to say. Our contention is exactly that, in spite of all vain aspects, it does yet present an interest, and that here and there seem written on it likelihoods of its presenting still more -- always on condition of its consenting to that more intimate education which is precisely what democratised movements look most askance at. It strikes us as not too much to say that our actual view of the practice of fiction gives as just a measure as could be desired of the general, the incurable democratic suspicion of the selective and comparative principles in almost any application, and the tendency therewith to regard, and above all to treat, one manner of book, like one manner of person, as, if not absolutely as good as another, yet good enough for any democratic use. Criticism reflects contentiously on that appearance, though it be an appearance in which comfort for the book and the manner much resides; so that the idea prompting these remarks of our own is that the comfort may be deeply fallacious.
Still not to let go of our imputation of interest to some part at least of what is happening in the world of production in this kind, we may say that non-selective and non-comparative practice appears bent on showing us all it can do and how far or to what appointed shores, what waiting havens and inviting inlets, the current that is mainly made a current by looseness, by want of observable direction, shall succeed in carrying it. We respond to any sign of an intelligent view or even of a lively instinct -- which is why we give the appearance so noted the benefit of every presumption as to its life and health. It may be that the dim sense is livelier than the presentable reason, but even that is no graceless fact for us, especially when the keenness of young curiosity and energy is betrayed in its pace, and betrayed, for that matter, in no small abundance and variety. The new or at least the young novel is up and doing, clearly, with the best faith and the highest spirits in the world; if we but extend a little our measure of youth indeed, as we are happily more and more disposed to, we may speak of it as already chin-deep in trophies. The men who are not so young as the youngest were but the other day very little older than these: Mr. Joseph Conrad, Mr. Maurice Hewlett and Mr. Galsworthy, Mr. H. G. Wells and Mr. Arnold Bennett, have not quite perhaps the early bloom of Mr. Hugh Walpole, Mr. Gilbert Cannan, Mr. Compton Mackenzie and Mr. D. H. Lawrence, but the spring unrelaxed is still, to our perception, in their step, and we see two or three of them sufficiently related to the still newer generation in a quasi-parental way to make our whole enumeration as illustrational as we need it. Mr. Wells and Mr. Arnold Bennett have their strongest mark, the aspect by which we may most classify them, in common -- even if their three named contemporaries are doubtless most interesting in one of the connections we are not now seeking to make. The author of "Tono-Bungay" and of "The New Machiavelli," and the author of "The Old Wives' Tale" and of "Clayhanger," have practically launched the boat in which we admire the fresh play of oar of the author of "The Duchess of Wrexe," and the documented aspect exhibited successively by "Round the Corner," by "Carnival" and "Sinister Street," and even by "Sons and Lovers" (however much we may find Mr. Lawrence, we confess, hang in the dusty rear). We shall explain in a moment what we mean by this designation of the element that these best of the younger men strike us as more particularly sharing, our point being provisionally that Mr. Wells and Mr. Arnold Bennett (speaking now only of them) began some time back to show us, and to show sundry emulous and generous young spirits then in the act of more or less waking up, what the state in question might amount to. We confound the author of "Tono-Bungay" and the author of "Clayhanger" in this imputation for the simple reason that with the sharpest differences of character and range they yet come together under our so convenient measure of value by saturation. This is the greatest value, to our sense, in either of them, their other values, even when at the highest, not being quite in proportion to it; and as to be saturated is to be documented, to be able even on occasion to prove quite enviably and potently so, they are alike in the authority that creates emulation. It little signifies that Mr. Wells's documented or saturated state in respect to a particular matter in hand is but one of the faces of his generally informed condition, of his extraordinary mass of gathered and assimilated knowledge, a miscellaneous collection more remarkable surely than any teller of "mere" tales, with the possible exception of Balzac, has been able to draw upon, whereas Mr. Arnold Bennett's corresponding provision affects us as, though singularly copious, special, exclusive and artfully economic. This distinction avails nothing against that happy fact of the handiest possession by Mr. Wells of immeasurably more concrete material, amenable for straight and vivid reference, convertible into apt illustration, than we should know where to look for other examples of. The author of "The New Machiavelli" knows, somehow, to our mystified and dazzled apprehension, because he writes and because that act constitutes for him the need, on occasion a most desperate, of absorbing knowledge at the pores; the chronicler of the Five Towns writing so much more discernibly, on the other hand, because he knows, and conscious of no need more desperate than that particular circle of civilisation may satisfy.
Our argument is that each is ideally immersed in his own body of reference, and that immersion in any such degree and to the effect of any such variety, intensity and plausibility is really among us a new feature of the novelist's range of resource. We have seen him, we have even seen her, otherwise auspiciously endowed, seen him observant, impassioned, inspired, and in virtue of these things often very charming, very interesting, very triumphant, visibly qualified for the highest distinction before the fact and visibly crowned by the same after it -- we have seen him with a great imagination and a great sense of life, we have seen him even with a great sense of expression and a considerable sense of art: so that we have only to reascend the stream of our comparatively recent literature to meet him serene and immortal, brow-bound with the bay and erect on his particular pedestal. We have only to do that, but have only also, while we do it, to recognise that meantime other things still than these various apotheoses have taken place, and that, to the increase of our recreation, and even if our limited space condemns us to put the matter a trifle clumsily, a change has come over our general receptive sensibility not less than over our productive tradition. In these connections, we admit, overstatement is easy and overemphasis tempting; we confess furthermore to a frank desire to enrich the case, the historic, with all the meaning we can stuff into it. So viewed accordingly it gives us the "new," to repeat our expression, as an appetite for a closer notation, a sharper specification of the signs of life, of consciousness, of the human scene and the human subject in general, than the three or four generations before us had been at all moved to insist on. They had insisted indeed, these generations, we see as we look back to them, on almost nothing whatever; what was to come to them had come, in enormous affluence and freshness at its best, and to our continued appreciation as well as to the honour of their sweet susceptibility, because again and again the great miracle of genius took place, while they gaped, in their social and sentimental sky. For ourselves that miracle has not been markedly renewed, but it has none the less happened that by hook and by crook the case for appreciation remains interesting. The great thing that saves it, under the drawback we have named, is, no doubt, that we have simply -- always for appreciation -- learned a little to insist, and that we thus get back on one hand something of what we have lost on the other. We are unable of course, with whatever habit of presumption engendered, to insist upon genius; so that who shall describe the measure of success we still achieve as not virtually the search for freshness, and above all for closeness, in quite a different direction? To this nearer view of commoner things Mr. Wells, say, and Mr. Arnold Bennett, and in their degree, under the infection communicated, Mr. D. H. Lawrence and Mr. Gilbert Cannan and Mr. Compton Mackenzie and Mr. Hugh Walpole, strike us as having all gathered themselves up with a movement never yet undertaken on our literary scene, and, beyond anything else, with an instinctive divination of what had most waved their predecessors off it. What had this lion in the path been, we make them out as after a fashion asking themselves, what had it been from far back and straight down through all the Victorian time, but the fond superstition that the key of the situation, of each and every situation that could turn up for the novelist, was the sentimental key, which might fit into no door or window opening on closeness or on freshness at all? Was it not for all the world as if even the brightest practitioners of the past, those we now distinguish as saved for glory in spite of themselves, had been as sentimental as they could, or, to give the trick another name, as romantic and thereby as shamelessly "dodgy"? -- just in order not to be close and fresh, not to be authentic, as that takes trouble, takes talent, and you can be sentimental, you can be romantic, you can be dodgy, alas, not a bit less on the footing of genius than on the footing of mediocrity or even of imbecility? Was it not as if the sentimental had been more and more noted as but another name for the romantic, if not indeed the romantic as but another name for the sentimental, and as if these things, whether separate or united, had been in the same degree recognised as unamenable, or at any rate unfavourable, to any consistent fineness of notation, once the tide of the copious as a condition of the thorough had fairly set in?
So, to express it briefly, the possibility of hugging the shore of the real as it had not, among us, been hugged, and of pushing inland, as far as a keel might float, wherever the least opening seemed to smile, dawned upon a few votaries and gathered further confidence with exercise. Who could say, of course, that Jane Austen had not been close, just as who could ask if Anthony Trollope had not been copious? - - just as who could not say that it all depended on what was meant by these terms? The demonstration of what was meant, it presently appeared, could come but little by little, quite as if each tentative adventurer had rather anxiously to learn for himself what might be meant -- this failing at least the leap into the arena of some great demonstrative, some sudden athletic and epoch-making authority. Who could pretend that Dickens was anything but romantic, and even more romantic in his humour, if possible, than in pathos or in queer perfunctory practice of the "plot"? Who could pretend that Jane Austen didn't leave much more untold than told about the aspects and manners even of the confined circle in which her muse revolved? Why shouldn't it be argued against her that where her testimony complacently ends the pressure of appetite within us presumes exactly to begin? Who could pretend that the reality of Trollope didn't owe much of its abundance to the diluted, the quite extravagantly watered strain, no less than to the heavy hand, in which it continued to be ladled out? Who of the younger persuasion would not have been ready to cite, as one of the liveliest opportunities for the critic eager to see representation searching, such a claim for the close as Thackeray's sighing and protesting "look-in" at the acquaintance between Arthur Pendennis and Fanny Bolton, the daughter of the Temple laundress, amid the purlieus of that settlement? The sentimental habit and the spirit of romance, it was unmistakably chargeable, stood out to sea as far as possible the moment the shore appeared to offer the least difficulty to hugging, and the Victorian age bristled with perfect occasions for our catching them in the act of this showy retreat. All revolutions have been prepared in spite of their often striking us as sudden, and so it was doubtless that when scarce longer ago than the other day Mr. Arnold Bennett had the fortune to lay his hand on a general scene and a cluster of agents deficient to a peculiar degree in properties that might interfere with a desirable density of illustration -- deficient, that is, in such connections as might carry the imagination off to some sport on its own account -- we recognised at once a set of conditions auspicious to the newer kind of appeal. Let us confess that we were at the same time doubtless to master no better way of describing these conditions than by the remark that they were, for some reason beautifully inherent in them, susceptible at once of being entirely known and of seeming delectably thick. Reduction to exploitable knowledge is apt to mean for many a case of the human complexity reduction to comparative thinness; and nothing was thereby at the first blush to interest us more than the fact that the air and the very smell of packed actuality in the subject-matter of such things as the author's two longest works was clearly but another name for his personal competence in that matter, the fulness and firmness of his embrace of it. This was a fresh and beguiling impression -- that the state of inordinate possession on the chronicler's part, the mere state as such and as an energy directly displayed, was the interest, neither more nor less, was the sense and the meaning and the picture and the drama, all so sufficiently constituting them that it scarce mattered what they were in themselves. Of what they were in themselves their being in Mr. Bennett, as Mr. Bennett to such a tune harboured them, represented their one conceivable account -- not to mention, as reinforcing this, our own great comfort and relief when certain high questions and wonderments about them, or about our mystified relation to them, began one after another to come up.
Because such questions did come, we must at once declare, and we are still in presence of them, for all the world as if that case of the perfect harmony, the harmony between subject and author, were just marked with a flaw and didn't meet the whole assault of restless criticism. What we make out Mr. Bennett as doing is simply recording his possession or, to put it more completely, his saturation; and to see him as virtually shut up to that process is a note of all the more moment that we see our selected cluster of his interesting juniors, and whether by his direct action on their collective impulse or not, embroiled, as we venture to call it, in the same predicament. The act of squeezing out to the utmost the plump and more or less juicy orange of a particular acquainted state and letting this affirmation of energy, however directed or undirected, constitute for them the "treatment" of a theme -- that is what we remark them as mainly engaged in, after remarking the example so strikingly, so originally set, even if an undue subjection to it be here and there repudiated. Nothing is further from our thought than to undervalue saturation and possession, the fact of the particular experience, the state and degree of acquaintance incurred, however such a consciousness may have been determined; for these things represent on the part of the novelist, as on the part of any painter of things seen, felt or imagined, just one half of his authority -- the other half being represented of course by the application he is inspired to make of them. Therefore that fine secured half is so much gained at the start, and the fact of its brightly being there may really by itself project upon the course so much colour and form as to make us on occasion, under the genial force, almost not miss the answer to the question of application. When the author of "Clayhanger" has put down upon the table, in dense unconfused array, every fact required, every fact in any way invocable, to make the life of the Five Towns press upon us, and to make our sense of it, so full-fed, content us, we may very well go on for the time in the captive condition, the beguiled and bemused condition, the acknowledgment of which is in general our highest tribute to the temporary master of our sensibility. Nothing at such moments -- or rather at the end of them, when the end begins to threaten -- may be of a more curious strain than the dawning unrest that suggests to us fairly our first critical comment: "Yes, yes -- but is this all? These are the circumstances of the interest -- we see, we see; but where is the interest itself, where and what is its centre, and how are we to measure it in relation to that?" Of course we may in the act of exhaling that plaint (which we have just expressed at its mildest) well remember how many people there are to tell us that to "measure" an interest is none of our affair; that we have but to take it on the cheapest and easiest terms and be thankful; and that if by our very confession we have been led the imaginative dance the music has done for us all it pretends to. Which words, however, have only to happen to be for us the most unintelligent conceivable not in the least to arrest our wonderment as to where our bedrenched consciousness may still not awkwardly leave us for the pleasure of appreciation. That appreciation is also a mistake and a priggishness, being reflective and thereby corrosive, is another of the fond dicta which we are here concerned but to brush aside -- the more closely to embrace the welcome induction that appreciation, attentive and reflective, inquisitive and conclusive, is in this connection absolutely the golden key to our pleasure. The more it plays up, the more we recognise and are able to number the sources of our enjoyment, the greater the provision made for security in that attitude, which corresponds, by the same stroke, with the reduced danger of waste in the undertaking to amuse us. It all comes back to our amusement, and to the noblest surely, on the whole, we know; and it is in the very nature of clinging appreciation not to sacrifice consentingly a single shade of the art that makes for that blessing. From this solicitude spring our questions, and not least the one to which we give ourselves for the moment here -- this moment of our being regaled as never yet with the fruits of the movement (if the name be not of too pompous an application where the flush and the heat of accident too seem so candidly to look forth), in favour of the "expression of life" in terms as loose as may pretend to an effect of expression at all. The relegation of terms to the limbo of delusions outlived so far as ever really cultivated becomes of necessity, it will be plain, the great mark of the faith that for the novelist to show he "knows all about" a certain congeries of aspects, the more numerous within their mixed circle the better, is thereby to set in motion, with due intensity, the pretension to interest. The state of knowing all about whatever it may be has thus only to become consistently and abundantly active to pass for his supreme function; and to its so becoming active few difficulties appear to be descried -- so great may on occasion be the mere excitement of activity. To the fact that the exhilaration is, as we have hinted, often infectious, to this and to the charming young good faith and general acclamation under which each case appears to proceed -- each case we of course mean really repaying attention -- the critical reader owes his opportunity so considerably and so gratefully to generalise.
We should have only to remount the current with a certain energy to come straight up against Tolstoy as the great illustrative master-hand on all this ground of the disconnection of method from matter -- which encounter, however, would take us much too far, so that we must for the present but hang off from it with the remark that of all great painters of the social picture it was given that epic genius most to serve admirably as a rash adventurer and a "caution," and execrably, pestilentially, as a model. In this strange union of relations he stands alone: from no other great projector of the human image and the human idea is so much truth to be extracted under an equal leakage of its value. All the proportions in him are so much the largest that the drop of attention to our nearer cases might by its violence leave little of that principle alive; which fact need not disguise from us, none the less, that as Mr. H. G. Wells and Mr. Arnold Bennett, to return to them briefly again, derive, by multiplied if diluted transmissions, from the great Russian (from whose all but equal companion Turgenieff we recognise no derivatives at all), so, observing the distances, we may profitably detect an unexhausted influence in our minor, our still considerably less rounded vessels. Highly attaching as indeed the game might be, of inquiring as to the centre of the interest or the sense of the whole in "The Passionate Friends," or in "The Old Wives' Tale," after having sought those luxuries in vain not only through the general length and breadth of "War and Peace," but within the quite respectable confines of any one of the units of effect there clustered: this as preparing us to address a like friendly challenge to Mr. Cannan's "Round the Corner," say, or to Mr. Lawrence's "Sons and Lovers" -- should we wish to be very friendly to Mr. Lawrence -- or to Mr. Hugh Walpole's "Duchess of Wrexe," or even to Mr. Compton Mackenzie's "Sinister Street" and "Carnival," discernibly, we hasten to add, though certain betrayals of a controlling idea and a pointed intention do comparatively gleam out of the two fictions last named. "The Old Wives' Tale" is the history of two sisters, daughters of a prosperous draper in a Staffordshire town, who, separating early in life, through the flight of one of them to Paris with an ill-chosen husband and the confirmed and prolonged local pitch of the career of the other, are reunited late in life by the return of the fugitive after much Parisian experience and by her pacified acceptance of the conditions of her birthplace. The divided current flows together again, and the chronicle closes with the simple drying up determined by the death of the sisters. That is all; the canvas is covered, ever so closely and vividly covered, by the exhibition of innumerable small facts and aspects, at which we assist with the most comfortable sense of their substantial truth. The sisters, and more particularly the less adventurous, are at home in their author's mind, they sit and move at their ease in the square chamber of his attention, to a degree beyond which the production of that ideal harmony between creature and creator could scarcely go, and all by an art of demonstration so familiar and so "quiet" that the truth and the poetry, to use Goethe's distinction, melt utterly together and we see no difference between the subject of the show and the showman's feeling, let alone the showman's manner, about it. This felt identity of the elements -- because we at least consciously feel -- becomes in the novel we refer to, and not less in "Clayhanger," which our words equally describe, a source for us of abject confidence, confidence truly so abject in the solidity of every appearance that it may be said to represent our whole relation to the work and completely to exhaust our reaction upon it. "Clayhanger," of the two fictions even the more densely loaded with all the evidence in what we should call the case presented did we but learn meanwhile for what case, or for a case of what, to take it, inscribes the annals, the private more particularly, of a provincial printer in a considerable way of business, beginning with his early boyhood and going on to the complications of his maturity -- these not exhausted with our present possession of the record, inasmuch as by the author's announcement there is more of the catalogue to come. This most monumental of Mr. Arnold Bennett's recitals, taking it with its supplement of "Hilda Lessways," already before us, is so describable through its being a monument exactly not to an idea, a pursued and captured meaning, or in short to anything whatever, but just simply of the quarried and gathered material it happens to contain, the stones and bricks and rubble and cement and promiscuous constituents of every sort that have been heaped in it and thanks to which it quite massively piles itself up. Our perusal and our enjoyment are our watching of the growth of the pile and of the capacity, industry, energy with which the operation is directed. A huge and in its way a varied aggregation, without traceable lines, divinable direction, effect of composition, the mere number of its pieces, the great dump of its material, together with the fact that here and there in the miscellany, as with the value of bits of marble or porphyry, fine elements shine out, it keeps us standing and waiting to the end -- and largely just because it keeps us wondering. We surely wonder more what it may all propose to mean than any equal appearance of preparation to relieve us of that strain, any so founded and grounded a postponement of the disclosure of a sense in store, has for a long time called upon us to do in a like connection. A great thing it is assuredly that while we wait and wonder we are amused -- were it not for that, truly, our situation would be thankless enough; we may ask ourselves, as has already been noted, why on such ambiguous terms we should consent to be, and why the practice doesn't at a given moment break down; and our answer brings us back to that many-fingered grasp of the orange that the author squeezes. This particular orange is of the largest and most rotund, and his trust in the consequent flow is of its nature communicative. Such is the case always, and most naturally, with that air in a person who has something, who at the very least has much to tell us: we like so to be affected by it, we meet it half way and lend ourselves, sinking in up to the chin. Up to the chin only indeed, beyond doubt; we even then feel our head emerge, for judgment and articulate question, and it is from that position that we remind ourselves how the real reward of our patience is still to come -- the reward attending not at all the immediate sense of immersion, but reserved for the after-sense, which is a very different matter, whether in the form of a glow or of a chill.
If Mr. Bennett's tight rotundity then is of the handsomest size and his manipulation of it so firm, what are we to say of Mr. Wells's, who, a novelist very much as Lord Bacon was a philosopher, affects us as taking all knowledge for his province and as inspiring in us to the very highest degree the confidence enjoyed by himself -- enjoyed, we feel, with a breadth with which it has been given no one of his fellow- craftsmen to enjoy anything. If confidence alone could lead utterly captive we should all be huddled in a bunch at Mr. Wells's heels -- which is indeed where we are abjectly gathered so far as that force does operate. It is literally Mr. Wells's own mind, and the experience of his own mind, incessant and extraordinarily various, extraordinarily reflective, even with all sorts of conditions made, of whatever he may expose it to, that forms the reservoir tapped by him, that constitutes his provision of grounds of interest. It is, by our thinking, in his power to name to us, as a preliminary, more of these grounds than all his contemporaries put together, and even to exceed any competitor, without exception, in the way of suggesting that, thick as he may seem to lay them, they remain yet only contributive, are not in themselves full expression but are designed strictly to subserve it, that this extraordinary writer's spell resides. When full expression, the expression of some particular truth, seemed to lapse in this or that of his earlier novels (we speak not here of his shorter things, for the most part delightfully wanton and exempt,) it was but by a hand's breadth, so that if we didn't inveterately quite know what he intended we yet always felt sufficiently that he knew. The particular intentions of such matters as "Kipps," as "Tono-Bungay," as "Ann Veronica," so swarmed about us, in their blinding, bluffing vivacity, that the mere sum of them might have been taken for a sense over and above which it was graceless to inquire. The more this author learns and learns, or at any rate knows and knows, however, the greater is this impression of his holding it good enough for us, such as we are, that he shall but turn out his mind and its contents upon us by any free familiar gesture and as from a high window forever open -- an entertainment as copious surely as any occasion should demand, at least till we have more intelligibly expressed our title to a better. Such things as "The New Machiavelli," "Marriage," "The Passionate Friends," are so very much more attestations of the presence of material than attestations of an interest in the use of it that we ask ourselves again and again why so fondly neglected a state of leakage comes not to be fatal to any provision of quantity, or even to stores more specially selected for the ordeal than Mr. Wells's always strike us as being. Is not the pang of witnessed waste in fact great just in proportion as we are touched by our author's fine off-handedness as to the value of the stores, about which he can for the time make us believe what he will? so that, to take an example susceptible of brief statement, we wince at a certain quite peculiarly gratuitous sacrifice to the casual in "Marriage" very much as at seeing some fine and indispensable little part of a mechanism slip through profane fingers and lose itself. Who does not remember what ensues after a little upon the aviational descent of the hero of the fiction just named into the garden occupied, in company with her parents, by the young lady with whom he is to fall in love? -- and this even though the whole opening scene so constituted, with all the comedy hares its function appears to be to start, remains with its back squarely turned, esthetically speaking, to the quarter in which the picture develops. The point for our mortification is that by one of the first steps in this development, the first impression on him having been made, the hero accidentally meets the heroine, of a summer eventide, in a leafy lane which supplies them with the happiest occasion to pursue their acquaintance -- or in other words supplies the author with the liveliest consciousness (as we at least feel it should have been) that just so the relation between the pair, its seed already sown and the fact of that bringing about all that is still to come, pushes aside whatever veil and steps forth into life. To show it step forth and affirm itself as a relation, what is this but the interesting function of the whole passage, on the performance of which what follows is to hang? -- and yet who can say that when the ostensible sequence is presented, and our young lady, encountered again by her stirred swain, under cover of night, in a favouring wood, is at once encompassed by his arms and pressed to his lips and heart (for celebration thus of their third meeting) we do not assist at a well-nigh heartbreaking miscarriage of "effect"? We see effect, invoked in vain, simply stand off unconcerned; effect not having been at all consulted in advance she is not to be secured on such terms. And her presence would so have redounded -- perfectly punctual creature as she is on a made appointment and a clear understanding -- to the advantage of all concerned. The bearing of the young man's act is all in our having begun to conceive it as possible, begun even to desire it, in the light of what has preceded; therefore if the participants have not been shown us as on the way to it, nor the question of it made beautifully to tremble for us in the air, its happiest connections fail and we but stare at it mystified. The instance is undoubtedly trifling, but in the infinite complex of such things resides for a work of art the shy virtue, shy at least till wooed forth, of the whole susceptibility. The case of Mr. Wells might take us much further -- such remarks as there would be to make, say, on such a question as the due understanding, on the part of "The Passionate Friends" (not as associated persons but as a composed picture), of what that composition is specifically about and where, for treatment of this interest, it undertakes to find its centre: all of which, we are willing however to grant, falls away before the large assurance and incorrigible levity with which this adventurer carries his lapses -- far more of an adventurer as he is than any other of the company. The composition, as we have called it, heaven saving the mark, is simply at any and every moment "about" Mr. Wells's general adventure; which is quite enough while it preserves, as we trust it will long continue to do, its present robust pitch.
We have already noted that "Round the Corner," Mr. Gilbert Cannan's liveliest appeal to our attention, belongs to the order of constatations pure and simple; to the degree that as a document of that nature and of that rigour the book could perhaps not more completely affirm itself. When we have said that it puts on record the "tone," the manners, the general domestic proceedings and train de vie of an amiable clergyman's family established in one of the more sordid quarters of a big black northern city of the Liverpool or Manchester complexion we have advanced as far in the way of descriptive statement as the interesting work seems to warrant. For it is interesting, in spite of its leaving itself on our hands with a consistent indifference to any question of the charmed application springing from it all that places it in the forefront of its type. Again as under the effect of Mr. Bennett's major productions our sole inference is that things, the things disclosed, go on and on, in any given case, in spite of everything -- with Mr. Cannan's one discernible care perhaps being for how extraordinarily much, in the particular example here before him, they were able to go on in spite of. The conception, the presentation of this enormous inauspicious amount as bearing upon the collective career of the Folyats is, we think, as near as the author comes at any point to betraying an awareness of a subject. Yet again, though so little encouraged or "backed," a subject after a fashion makes itself, even as it has made itself in "The Old Wives' Tale" and in "Clayhanger," in "Sons and Lovers," where, as we have hinted, any assistance rendered us for a view of one most comfortably enjoys its absence, and in Mr. Hugh Walpole's newest novel, where we wander scarcely less with our hand in no guiding grasp, but where the author's good disposition, as we feel it, to provide us with what we lack if he only knew how, constitutes in itself such a pleading liberality. We seem to see him in this spirit lay again and again a flowered carpet for our steps. If we do not include Mr. Compton Mackenzie to the same extent in our generalisation it is really because we note a difference in him, a difference in favour of his care for the application. Preoccupations seem at work in "Sinister Street," and withal in "Carnival," the brush of which we in other quarters scarce even suspect and at some of which it will presently be of profit to glance. "I answer for it, you know," we seem at any rate to hear Mr. Gilbert Cannan say with an admirably genuine young pessimism, "I answer for it that they were really like that, odd or unpleasant or uncontributive, and therefore tiresome, as it may strike you;" and the charm of Mr. Cannan, so far as up or down the rank we so disengage a charm, is that we take him at his word. His guarantee, his straight communication, of his general truth is a value, and values are rare -- the flood of fiction is apparently capable of running hundreds of miles without a single glint of one -- and thus in default of satisfaction we get stopgaps and are thankful often under a genial touch to get even so much. The value indeed is crude, it would be quadrupled were it only wrought and shaped; yet it has still the rude dignity that it counts to us for experience or at least for what we call under our present pitch of sensibility force of impression. The experience, we feel, is ever something to conclude upon, while the impression is content to wait; to wait, say, in the spirit in which we must accept this younger bustle if we accept it at all, the spirit of its serving as a rather presumptuous lesson to us in patience. While we wait, again, we are amused -- not in the least, also to repeat, up to the notch of our conception of amusement, which draws upon still other forms and sources; but none the less for the wonder, the intensity, the actuality, the probity of the vision. This is much as in "Clayhanger" and in "Hilda Lessways," where, independently of the effect, so considerably rendered, of the long lapse of time, always in this type of recital a source of amusement in itself, and certainly of the noblest, we get such an admirably substantial thing as the collective image of the Orgreaves, the local family in whose ample lap the amenities and the humanities so easily sit, for Mr. Bennett's evocation and his protagonist's recognition, and the manner of the presentation of whom, with the function and relation of the picture at large, strikes such a note of felicity, achieves such a simulation of sense, as the author should never again be excused for treating, that is for neglecting, as beyond his range. Here figures signally the interesting case of a compositional function absolutely performed by mere multiplication, the flow of the facts: the Orgreaves, in "Clayhanger," are there, by what we make out, but for "life," for general life only, and yet, with their office under any general or inferential meaning entirely unmarked, come doubtless as near squaring esthetically with the famous formula of the "slice of life" as any example that could be adduced; happening moreover as they probably do to owe this distinction to their coincidence at once with reality and charm -- a fact esthetically curious and delightful. For we attribute the bold stroke they represent much more to Mr. Arnold Bennett's esthetic instinct than to anything like a calculation of his bearings, and more to his thoroughly acquainted state, as we may again put it, than to all other causes together: which strikingly enough shows how much complexity of interest may be simulated by mere presentation of material, mere squeezing of the orange, when the material happens to be "handsome" or the orange to be sweet.
The orange of our persistent simile is in Mr. Hugh Walpole's hands very remarkably sweet -- a quality we recognise in it even while reduced to observing that the squeeze pure and simple, the fond, the lingering, the reiterated squeeze, constitutes as yet his main perception of method. He enjoys in a high degree the consciousness of saturation, and is on such serene and happy terms with it as almost make of critical interference, in so bright an air, an assault on personal felicity. Full of material is thus the author of "The Duchess of Wrexe," and of a material which we should describe as the consciousness of youth were we not rather disposed to call it a peculiar strain of the extreme unconsciousness. Mr. Walpole offers us indeed a rare and interesting case -- we see about the field none other like it; the case of a positive identity between the spirit, not to say the time of life or stage of experience, of the aspiring artist and the field itself of his vision. "The Duchess of Wrexe" reeks with youth and the love of youth and the confidence of youth -- youth taking on with a charming exuberance the fondest costume or disguise, that of an adventurous and voracious felt interest, interest in life, in London, in society, in character, in Portland Place, in the Oxford Circus, in the afternoon tea-table, in the torrid weather, in fifty other immediate things as to which its passion and its curiosity are of the sincerest. The wonderful thing is that these latter forces operate, in their way, without yet being disengaged and hand-free -- disengaged, that is, from their state of being young, with its billowy mufflings and other soft obstructions, the state of being present, being involved and aware, close "up against" the whole mass of possibilities, being in short intoxicated with the mixed liquors of suggestion. In the fumes of this acute situation Mr. Walpole's subject-matter is bathed; the situation being all the while so much more his own and that of a juvenility reacting, in the presence of everything, "for all it is worth," than the devised and imagined one, however he may circle about some such cluster, that every cupful of his excited flow tastes three times as much of his temperamental freshness as it tastes of this, that or the other character or substance, above all of this, that or the other group of antecedents and references, supposed to be reflected in it. All of which does not mean, we hasten to add, that the author of "The Duchess of Wrexe" has not the gift of life; but only that he strikes us as having received it, straight from nature, with such a concussion as to have kept the boon at the stage of violence -- so that, fairly pinned down by it, he is still embarrassed for passing it on. On the day he shall have worked free of this primitive predicament, the crude fact of the convulsion itself, there need be no doubt of his exhibiting matter into which method may learn how to bite. The tract meanwhile affects us as more or less virgin snow, and we look with interest and suspense for the imprint of a process.
If those remarks represent all the while, further, that the performances we have glanced at, with others besides, lead our attention on, we hear ourselves the more naturally asked what it is then that we expect or want, confessing as we do that we have been in a manner interested, even though, from case to case, in a varying degree, and that Thackeray, Turgenieff, Balzac, Dickens, Anatole France, no matter who, can not do more than interest. Let us therefore concede to the last point that small mercies are better than none, that there are latent within the critic numberless liabilities to being "squared" (the extent to which he may on occasion betray his price!) and so great a preference for being pleased over not being, that you may again and again see him assist with avidity at the attempt of the slice of life to butter itself thick. Its explanation that it is a slice of life and pretends to be nothing else figures for us, say, while we watch, the jam super-added to the butter. For since the jam, on this system, descends upon our desert, in its form of manna, from quite another heaven than the heaven of method, the mere demonstration of its agreeable presence is alone sufficient to hint at our more than one chance of being supernaturally fed. The happy-go-lucky fashion of it is indeed not then, we grant, an objection so long as we do take in refreshment: the meal may be of the last informality and yet produce in the event no small sense of repletion. The slice of life devoured, the butter and the jam duly appreciated, we are ready, no doubt, on another day, to trust ourselves afresh to the desert. We break camp, that is, and face toward a further stretch of it, all in the faith that we shall be once more provided for. We take the risk, we enjoy more or less the assistance -- more or less, we put it, for the vision of a possible arrest of the miracle or failure of our supply never wholly leaves us. The phenomenon is too uncanny, the happy-go-lucky, as we know it in general, never has been trustable to the end; the absence of the last true touch in the preparation of its viands becomes with each renewal of the adventure a more sensible fact. By the last true touch we mean of course the touch of the hand of selection; the principle of selection having been involved at the worst or the least, one would suppose, in any approach whatever to the loaf of life with the arri re-pensée of a slice. There being no question of a slice upon which the further question of where and how to cut it does not wait, the office of method, the idea of choice and comparison, have occupied the ground from the first. This makes clear, to a moment's reflection, that there can be no such thing as an amorphous slice, and that any waving aside of inquiry as to the sense and value of a chunk of matter has to reckon with the simple truth of its having been born of naught else but measured excision. Reasons have been the fairies waiting on its cradle, the possible presence of a bad fairy in the form of a bad reason to the contrary notwithstanding. It has thus had connections at the very first stage of its detachment that are at no later stage logically to be repudiated; let it lie as lumpish as it will -- for adoption, we mean, of the ideal of the lump -- it has been tainted from too far back with the hard liability to form, and thus carries in its very breast the hapless contradiction of its sturdy claim to have none. This claim has the inevitable challenge at once to meet. How can a slice of life be anything but illustrational of the loaf, and how can illustration not immediately bristle with every sign of the extracted and related state? The relation is at once to what the thing comes from and to what it waits upon -- which last is our act of recognition. We accordingly appreciate it in proportion as it so accounts for itself; the quantity and the intensity of its reference are the measure of our knowledge of it. This is exactly why illustration breaks down when reference, otherwise application, runs short, and why before any assemblage of figures or aspects, otherwise of samples and specimens, the question of what these are, extensively, samples and specimens of declines not to beset us -- why, otherwise again, we look ever for the supreme reference that shall avert the bankruptcy of sense.
Let us profess all readiness to repeat that we may still have had, on the merest "life" system, or that of the starkest crudity of the slice, all the entertainment that can come from watching a wayfarer engage with assurance in an alley that we know to have no issue -- and from watching for the very sake of the face that he may show us on reappearing at its mouth. The recitals of Mr. Arnold Bennett, Mr. Gilbert Cannan, Mr. D. H. Lawrence, fairly smell of the real, just as the "Fortitude" and "The Duchess" of Mr. Hugh Walpole smell of the romantic; we have sufficiently noted then that, once on the scent, we are capable of pushing ahead. How far it is at the same time from being all a matter of smell the terms in which we just above glanced at the weakness of the spell of the happy-go-lucky may here serve to indicate. There faces us all the while the fact that the act of consideration as an incident of the esthetic pleasure, consideration confidently knowing us to have sooner or later to arrive at it, may be again and again postponed, but can never hope not some time to fall due. Consideration is susceptible of many forms, some one or other of which no conscious esthetic effort fails to cry out for; and the simplest description of the cry of the novel when sincere -- for have we not heard such compositions bluff us, as it were, with false cries? -- is as an appeal to us when we have read it once to read it yet again. That is the act of consideration; no other process of considering approaches this for directness, so that anything short of it is virtually not to consider at all. The word has sometimes another sense, that of the appeal to us not, for the world, to go back -- this being of course consideration of a sort; the sort clearly that the truly flushed production should be the last to invoke. The effect of consideration, we need scarce remark, is to light for us in a work of art the hundred questions of how and why and whither, and the effect of these questions, once lighted, is enormously to thicken and complicate, even if toward final clarifications, what we have called the amused state produced in us by the work. The more our amusement multiplies its terms the more fond and the more rewarded consideration becomes; the fewer it leaves them, on the other hand, the less to be resisted for us is the impression of "bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang." Birds that have appeared to sing, or whose silence we have not heeded, on a first perusal, prove on a second to have no note to contribute, and whether or no a second is enough to admonish us of those we miss, we mostly expect much from it in the way of emphasis of those we find. Then it is that notes of intention become more present or more absent; then it is that we take the measure of what we have already called our effective provision. The bravest providers and designers show at this point something still in store which only the second rummage was appointed to draw forth. To the variety of these ways of not letting our fondness fast is there not practically no limit? -- and of the arts, the devices, the graces, the subtle secrets applicable to such an end what presumptuous critic shall pretend to draw the list? Let him for the moment content himself with saying that many of the most effective are mysteries, precisely, of method, or that even when they are not most essentially and directly so it takes method, blest method, to extract their soul and to determine their action.
It is odd and delightful perhaps that at the very moment of our urging this truth we should happen to be regaled with a really supreme specimen of the part playable in a novel by the source of interest, the principle of provision attended to, for which we claim importance. Mr. Joseph Conrad's "Chance" is none the less a signal instance of provision the most earnest and the most copious for its leaving ever so much to be said about the particular provision effected. It is none the less an extraordinary exhibition of method by the fact that the method is, we venture to say, without a precedent in any like work. It places Mr. Conrad absolutely alone as a votary of the way to do a thing that shall make it undergo most doing. The way to do it that shall make it undergo least is the line on which we are mostly now used to see prizes carried off; so that the author of "Chance" gathers up on this showing all sorts of comparative distinction. He gathers up at least two sorts -- that of bravery in absolutely reversing the process most accredited, and that, quite separate, we make out, of performing the man;oeuvre under salvos of recognition. It is not in these days often given to a refinement of design to be recognised, but Mr. Conrad has made his achieve that miracle -- save in so far indeed as the miracle has been one thing and the success another. The miracle is of the rarest, confounding all calculation and suggesting more reflections than we can begin to make place for here; but the sources of surprise surrounding it might be, were this possible, even greater and yet leave the fact itself in all independence, the fact that the whole undertaking was committed by its very first step either to be "art" exclusively or to be nothing. This is the prodigious rarity, since surely we have known for many a day no other such case of the whole clutch of eggs, and these withal of the freshest, in that one basket; to which it may be added that if we say for many a day this is not through our readiness positively to associate the sight with any very definite moment of the past. What concerns us is that the general effect of "Chance" is arrived at by a pursuance of means to the end in view contrasted with which every other current form of the chase can only affect us as cheap and futile; the carriage of the burden or amount of service required on these lines exceeding surely all other such displayed degrees of energy put together. Nothing could well interest us more than to see the exemplary value of attention, attention given by the author and asked of the reader, attested in a case in which it has had almost unspeakable difficulties to struggle with -- since so we are moved to qualify the particular difficulty Mr. Conrad has "elected" to face: the claim for method in itself, method in this very sense of attention applied, would be somehow less lighted if the difficulties struck us as less consciously, or call it even less wantonly, invoked. What they consist of we should have to diverge here a little to say, and should even then probably but lose ourselves in the dim question of why so special, eccentric and desperate a course, so deliberate a plunge into threatened frustration, should alone have seemed open. It has been the course, so far as three words may here serve, of his so multiplying his creators or, as we are now fond of saying, producers, as to make them almost more numerous and quite emphatically more material than the creatures and the production itself in whom and which we by the general law of fiction expect such agents to lose themselves. We take for granted by the general law of fiction a primary author, take him so much for granted that we forget him in proportion as he works upon us, and that he works upon us most in fact by making us forget him.
Mr. Conrad's first care on the other hand is expressly to posit or set up a reciter, a definite responsible intervening first person singular, possessed of infinite sources of reference, who immediately proceeds to set up another, to the end that this other may conform again to the practice, and that even at that point the bridge over to the creature, or in other words to the situation or the subject, the thing "produced," shall, if the fancy takes it, once more and yet once more glory in a gap. It is easy to see how heroic the undertaking of an effective fusion becomes on these terms, fusion between what we are to know and that prodigy of our knowing which is ever half the very beauty of the atmosphere of authenticity; from the moment the reporters are thus multiplied from pitch to pitch the tone of each, especially as "rendered" by his precursor in the series, becomes for the prime poet of all an immense question -- these circumferential tones having not only to be such individually separate notes, but to keep so clear of the others, the central, the numerous and various voices of the agents proper, those expressive of the action itself and in whom the objectivity resides. We usually escape the worst of this difficulty of a tone about the tone of our characters, our projected performers, by keeping it single, keeping it "down" and thereby comparatively impersonal or, as we may say, inscrutable; which is what a creative force, in its blest fatuity, likes to be. But the omniscience, remaining indeed nameless, though constantly active, which sets Marlow's omniscience in motion from the very first page, insisting on a reciprocity with it throughout, this original omniscience invites con- sideration of itself only in a degree less than that in which Marlow's own invites it; and Marlow's own is a prolonged hovering flight of the subjective over the outstretched ground of the case exposed. We make out this ground but through the shadow cast by the flight, clarify it though the real author visibly reminds himself again and again that he must -- all the more that, as if by some tremendous forecast of future applied science, the upper aeroplane causes another, as we have said, to depend from it and that one still another; these dropping shadow after shadow, to the no small menace of intrinsic colour and form and whatever, upon the passive expanse. What shall we most call Mr. Conrad's method accordingly but his attempt to clarify quand même -- ridden as he has been, we perceive at the end of fifty pages of "Chance," by such a danger of steeping his matter in perfect eventual obscuration as we recall no other artist's consenting to with an equal grace. This grace, which presently comes over us as the sign of the whole business, is Mr. Conrad's gallantry itself, and the shortest account of the rest of the connection for our present purpose is that his gallantry is thus his success. It literally strikes us that his volume sets in motion more than anything else a drama in which his own system and his combined eccentricities of recital represent the protagonist in face of powers leagued against it, and of which the dénouement gives us the system fighting in triumph, though with its back desperately to the wall, and laying the powers piled up at its feet. This frankly has been our spectacle, our suspense and our thrill; with the one flaw on the roundness of it all the fact that the predicament was not imposed rather than invoked, was not the effect of a challenge from without, but that of a mystic impulse from within.
Of an exquisite refinement at all events are the critical questions opened up in the attempt, the question in particular of by what it exactly is that the experiment is crowned. Pronouncing it crowned and the case saved by sheer gallantry, as we did above, is perhaps to fall just short of the conclusion we might reach were we to push further. "Chance" is an example of objectivity, most precious of aims, not only menaced but definitely compromised; whereby we are in presence of something really of the strangest, a general and diffused lapse of authenticity which an inordinate number of common readers -- since it always takes this and these to account encouragingly for "editions" -- have not only condoned but have emphatically commended. They can have done this but through the bribe of some authenticity other in kind, no doubt, and seeming to them equally great if not greater, which gives back by the left hand what the right has, with however dissimulated a grace, taken away. What Mr. Conrad's left hand gives back then is simply Mr. Conrad himself. We asked above what would become, by such a form of practice, of indispensable "fusion" or, to call it by another name, of the fine process by which our impatient material, at a given moment, shakes off the humiliation of the handled, the fumbled state, puts its head in the air and, to its own beautiful illusory consciousness at least, simply runs its race. Such an amount of handling and fumbling and repointing has it, on the system of the multiplied "putter into marble," to shake off! And yet behold, the sense of discomfort, as the show here works out, has been conjured away. The fusion has taken place, or at any rate a fusion; only it has been transferred in wondrous fashion to an unexpected, and on the whole more limited plane of operation; it has succeeded in getting effected, so to speak, not on the ground but in the air, not between our writer's idea and his machinery, but between the different parts of his genius itself. His genius is what is left over from the other, the compromised and compromising quantities -- the Marlows and their determinant inventors and interlocutors, the Powells, the Franklins, the Fynes, the tell-tale little dogs, the successive members of a cue from one to the other of which the sense and the interest of the subject have to be passed on together, in the manner of the buckets of water for the improvised extinction of a fire, before reaching our apprehension: all with whatever result, to this apprehension, of a quantity to be allowed for as spilt by the way. The residuum has accordingly the form not of such and such a number of images discharged and ordered, but that rather of a wandering, circling, yearning imaginative faculty, encountered in its habit as it lives and diffusing itself as a presence or a tide, a noble sociability of vision. So we have as the force that fills the cup just the high-water mark of a beautiful and generous mind at play in conditions comparatively thankless -- thoroughly, unweariedly, yet at the same time ever so elegantly at play, and doing more for itself than it succeeds in getting done for it. Than which nothing could be of a greater reward to critical curiosity were it not still for the wonder of wonders, a new page in the record altogether -- the fact that these things are apparently what the common reader has seen and understood. Great then would seem to be after all the common reader!
We must not fail of the point, however, that we have made these remarks not at all with an eye to the question of whether "Chance" has been well or ill inspired as to its particular choice of a way of really attending to itself among all the possible alternatives, but only on the ground of its having compared, selected and held on; since any alternative that might have been preferred and that should have been effectively adopted would point our moral as well -- and this even if it is of profit none the less to note the most striking of Mr. Conrad's compositional consequences. There is one of these that has had most to do with making his pages differ in texture, and to our very first glance, from that straggle of ungoverned verbiage which leads us up and down those of his fellow fabulists in general on a vain hunt for some projected mass of truth, some solidity of substance, as to which the deluge of "dialogue," the flooding report of things said, or at least of words pretendedly spoken, shall have learned the art of being merely illustrational. What first springs from any form of real attention, no matter which, we on a comparison so made quickly perceive to be a practical challenge of the preposterous pretension of this most fatuous of the luxuries of looseness to acquit itself with authority of the structural and compositional office. Infinitely valid and vivid as illustration, it altogether depends for dignity and sense upon our state of possession of its historic preliminaries, its promoting conditions, its supporting ground; that is upon our waiting occupancy of the chamber it proposes to light and which, when no other source of effect is more indicated, it doubtless quite inimitably fills with life. Then its relation to what encloses and confines and, in its sovereign interest, finely compresses it, offering it constituted aspects, surfaces, presences, faces and figures of the matter we are either generally or acutely concerned with to play over and hang upon, then this relation gives it all its value: it has flowered from the soil prepared and sheds back its richness into the field of cultivation. It is interesting, in a word, only when nothing else is equally so, carrying the vessel of the interest with least of a stumble or a sacrifice; but it is of the essence that the sounds so set in motion (it being as sound above all that they undertake to convey sense,) should have something to proceed from, in their course, to address themselves to and be affected by, with all the sensibility of sounds. It is of the essence that they should live in a medium, and in a medium only, since it takes a medium to give them an identity, the intenser the better, and that the medium should subserve them by enjoying in a like degree the luxury of an existence. We need of course scarce expressly note that the play, as distinguished from the novel, lives exclusively on the spoken word -- not on the report of the thing said but, directly and audibly, on that very thing; that it thrives by its law on the exercise under which the novel hopelessly collapses when the attempt is made disproportionately to impose it. There is no danger for the play of the cart before the horse, no disaster involved in it; that form being all horse and the interest itself mounted and astride, and not, as that of the novel, dependent in the first instance on wheels. The order in which the drama simply says things gives it all its form, while the story told and the picture painted, as the novel at the pass we have brought it to embraces them, reports of an infinite diversity of matters, gathers together and gives out again a hundred sorts, and finds its order and its structure, its unity and its beauty, in the alternation of parts and the adjustment of differences. It is no less apparent that the novel may be fundamentally organised -- such things as "The Egoist" and "The Awkward Age" are there to prove it; but in this case it adheres unconfusedly to that logic and has nothing to say to any other. Were it not for a second exception, one at this season rather pertinent, "Chance" then, to return to it a moment, would be as happy an example as we might just now put our hand on of the automatic working of a scheme unfavourable to that treatment of the colloquy by endless dangling strings which makes the current "story" in general so figure to us a porcupine of extravagant yet abnormally relaxed bristles.
The exception we speak of would be Mrs. Wharton's "Custom of the Country," in which, as in this lady's other fictions, we recognise the happy fact of an abuse of no one of the resources it enjoys at the expense of the others; the whole series offering as general an example of dialogue flowering and not weeding, illustrational and not itself starved of illustration, or starved of referability and association, which is the same thing, as meets the eye in any glance that leaves Mr. Wells at Mr. Wells's best-inspired hour out of our own account. The truth is, however, that Mrs. Wharton is herself here out of our account, even as we have easily recognised Mr. Galsworthy and Mr. Maurice Hewlett to be; these three authors, with whatever differences between them, remaining essentially votaries of selection and intention and being embodiments thereby, in each case, of some state over and above that simple state of possession of much evidence, that confused conception of what the "slice" of life must consist of, which forms the text of our remarks. Mrs. Wharton, her conception of the "slice" so clarified and cultivated, would herself of course form a text in quite another connection, as Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Galsworthy would do each in his own, which we abstain from specifying; but there are two or three grounds on which the author of "Ethan Frome," "The Valley of Decision" and "The House of Mirth," whom we brush by with reluctance, would point the moral of the treasure of amusement sitting in the lap of method with a felicity peculiarly her own. If one of these is that she too has clearly a saturation -- which it would be ever so interesting to determine and appreciate -- we have it from her not in the crude state but in the extract, the extract that makes all the difference for our sense of an artistic economy. If the extract, as would appear, is the result of an artistic economy, as the latter is its logical motive, so we find it associated in Mrs. Wharton with such appeals to our interest, for instance, as the fact that, absolutely sole among our students of this form, she suffers, she even encourages, her expression to flower into some sharp image or figure of her thought when that will make the thought more finely touch us. Her step, without straying, encounters the living analogy, which she gathers, in passing, without awkwardness of pause, and which the page then carries on its breast as a trophy plucked by a happy adventurous dash, a token of spirit and temper as well as a proof of vision. We note it as one of the kinds of proof of vision that most fail us in that comparative desert of the inselective where our imagination has itself to hunt out or call down (often among strange witnessed flounderings or sand-storms) such analogies as may mercifully "put" the thing. Mrs. Wharton not only owes to her cultivated art of putting it the distinction enjoyed when some ideal of expression has the whole of the case, the case once made its concern, in charge, but might further act for us, were we to follow up her exhibition, as lighting not a little that question of "tone," the author's own intrinsic, as to which we have just seen Mr. Conrad's late production rather tend to darken counsel. "The Custom of the Country" is an eminent instance of the sort of tonic value most opposed to that baffled relation between the subject-matter and its emergence which we find constituted by the circumvalations of "Chance." Mrs. Wharton's reaction in presence of the aspects of life hitherto, it would seem, mainly exposed to her is for the most part the ironic -- to which we gather that these particular aspects have so much ministered that, were we to pursue the quest, we might recognise in them precisely the saturation as to which we a moment ago reserved our judgment. "The Custom of the Country" is at any rate consistently, almost scientifically satiric, as indeed the satiric light was doubtless the only one in which the elements engaged could at all be focussed together. But this happens directly to the profit of something that, as we read, becomes more and more one with the principle of authority at work; the light that gathers is a dry light, of great intensity, and the effect, if not rather the very essence, of its dryness is a particular fine asperity. The usual "creative" conditions and associations, as we have elsewhere languished among them, are thanks to this ever so sensibly altered; the general authoritative relation attested becomes clear -- we move in an air purged at a stroke of the old sentimental and romantic values, the perversions with the maximum of waste of perversions, and we shall not here attempt to state what this makes for in the way of esthetic refreshment and relief; the waste having kept us so dangling on the dark esthetic abyss. A shade of asperity may be in such fashion a security against waste, and in the dearth of displayed securities we should welcome it on that ground alone. It helps at any rate to constitute for the talent manifest in "The Custom" a rare identity, so far should we have to go to seek another instance of the dry, or call it perhaps even the hard, intellectual touch in the soft, or call it perhaps even the humid, temperamental air; in other words of the masculine conclusion tending so to crown the feminine observation.
If we mentioned Mr. Compton Mackenzie at the beginning of these reflections only to leave him waiting for some further appreciation, this is exactly because his case, to the most interesting effect, is no simple one, like two or three of our others, but on the contrary mystifying enough almost to stand by itself. What would be this striking young writer's state of acquaintance and possession, and should we find it, on our recognition of it, to be all he is content to pitch forth, without discriminations or determinants, without motives or lights? Do "Carnival" and "Sinister Street" proceed from the theory of the slice or from the conception of the extract, "the extract flasked and fine," the chemical process superseding the mechanical? Mr. Compton Mackenzie's literary aspect, though decidedly that of youth, or that of experience, a great deal of young experience, in its freshness, offers the attraction of a complexity defiant of the prompt conclusion, really charms us by giving us something to wonder about. We literally find it not easy to say if there may not lurk in "Carnival," for example, a selective sense more apprehensible, to a push of inquiry, than its overflooded surface, a real invitation to wade and upon which everything within the author's ken appears poured out, would at first lead us to suspect. The question comes up in like fashion as to the distinctly more developed successor of that work, before which we in fact find questions multiply to a positive quickening of critical pleasure. We ask ourselves what "Sinister Street" may mean as a whole in spite of our sense of being brushed from the first by a hundred subordinate purposes, the succession and alternation of which seem to make after a fashion a plan, and which, though full of occasional design, yet fail to gather themselves for application or to converge to an idea. Any idea will serve, ever, that has held up its candle to composition -- and it is perhaps because composition proposes itself under Mr. Compton Mackenzie's energy on a scale well-nigh of the most prodigious that we must wait to see whither it tends. The question of what he may here mean "on the whole," as we just said, is doubtless admonished to stand back till we be possessed of the whole. This interesting volume is but a first, committed up to its eyes to continuity and with an announced sequel to follow. The recital exhibits at the point we have reached the intimate experience of a boy at school and in his holidays, the amplification of which is to come with his terms and their breaks at a university; and the record will probably form a more squared and extended picture of life equally conditioned by the extremity of youth than we shall know where else to look for. Youth clearly has been Mr. Mackenzie's saturation, as it has been Mr. Hugh Walpole's, but we see this not as a subject (youth in itself is no specific subject, any more than age is,) but as matter for a subject and as requiring a motive to redeem it from the merely passive state of the slice. We are sure throughout both "Sinister Street" and "Carnival" of breathing the air of the extract, as we contentiously call it, only in certain of the rounded episodes strung on the loose cord as so many vivid beads, each of its chosen hue, and the series of which, even with differences of price between them, we take for a lively gage of performance to come. These episodes would be easy to cite; they are handsomely numerous and each strikes us as giving in its turn great salience to its motive; besides which each is in its turn "done" with an eminent sense and a remarkably straight hand for doing. They may well be cited together as both signally and finely symptomatic, for the literary gesture and the bravura breadth with which such frequent medallions as the adventure on the boy's part of the Catholic church at Bournemouth, as his experiment of the Benedictine house in Wiltshire, as his period of acquaintance with the esthetic cénacle in London, as his relation with his chosen school friend under the intensity of boyish choosing, are ornamentally hung up, differ not so much in degree as in kind from any play of presentation that we mostly see elsewhere offered us. To which we might add other like matters that we lack space to enumerate, the scene, the aspect, the figure in motion tending always, under touches thick and strong, to emerge and flush, sound and strike, catch us in its truth. We have read "tales of school life" in which the boys more or less swarmed and sounded, but from which the masters have practically been quite absent, to the great weakening of any picture of the boyish consciousness, on which the magisterial fact is so heavily projected. If that is less true for some boys than for others, the "point" of Michael Fane is that for him it is truest. The types of masters have in "Sinister Street" both number and salience, rendered though they be mostly as grotesques -- which effect we take as characterising the particular turn of mind of the young observer and discoverer commemorated.
That he is a discoverer is of the essence of his interest, a successful and resourceful young discoverer, even as the poor ballet- girl in "Carnival" is a tragically baffled and helpless one; so that what each of the works proposes to itself is a recital of the things discovered. Those thus brought to our view in the boy's case are of much more interest, to our sense, than like matters in the other connection, thanks to his remarkable and living capacity; the heroine of "Carnival" is frankly too minute a vessel of experience for treatment on the scale on which the author has honoured her -- she is done assuredly, but under multiplications of touch that become too much, in the narrow field, monotonies; and she leaves us asking almost as much what she exhibitionally means, what applicaton resides in the accumulation of facts concerning her, as if she too were after all but a slice, or at the most but a slice of a slice, and her history but one of the aspects, on her author's part, of the condition of repleteness against the postulate of the entire adequacy of which we protest. So far as this record does affect us as an achieved "extract," to reiterate our term, that result abides in its not losing its centre, which is its fidelity to the one question of her dolefully embarrassed little measure of life. We know to that extent with some intensity what her producer would be at, yet an element of the arbitrary hangs for us about the particular illustration -- illustrations leaving us ever but half appreciative till we catch that one bright light in which they give out all they contain. This light is of course always for the author to set somewhere. Is it set then so much as it should be in "Sinister Street," and is our impression of the promise of this recital one with a dawning divination of the illustrative card that Mr. Mackenzie may still have up his sleeve and that our after sense shall recognise as the last thing left on the table? By no means, we can as yet easily say, for if a boy's experience has ever been given us for its face value simply, for what it is worth in mere recovered intensity, it is so given us here. Of all the saturations it can in fact scarce have helped being the most sufficient in itself, for it is exactly, where it is best, from beginning to end the remembered and reported thing, that thing alone, that thing existent in the field of memory, though gaining value too from the applied intelligence, or in other words from the lively talent, of the memoriser. The memoriser helps, he contributes, he completes, and what we have admired in him is that in the case of each of the pearls fished up by his dive -- though indeed these fruits of the rummage are not all pearls -- his mind has had a further iridescence to confer. It is the fineness of the iridescence that on such an occasion matters, and this appeal to our interest is again and again on Mr. Compton Mackenzie's page of the happiest and the brightest. It is never more so than when we catch him, as we repeatedly do, in the act of positively caring for his expression as expression, positively providing for his phrase as a fondly fore-seeing parent for a child, positively loving it in the light of what it may do for him -- meeting revelations, that is, in what it may do, and appearing to recognise that the value of the offered thing, its whole relation to us, is created by the breath of language, that on such terms exclusively, for appropriation and enjoyment, we know it, and that any claimed independence of "form" on its part is the most abject of fallacies. Do these things mean that, moved by life, this interesting young novelist is even now uncontrollably on the way to style? We might cite had we space several symptoms, the very vividest, of that possibility; though such an appearance in the field of our general survey has against it presumptions enough to bring us surely back to our original contention - - the scant degree in which that field has ever had to reckon with criticism.
Times Literary Supplement, March 19 and April 2, 1914
under the title "The Younger Generation"
Reprinted and revised in Notes on Novelists,
Mr. and Mrs. James T. Fields (13)
If at such a time as this a man of my generation finds himself on occasion revert to our ancient peace in some soreness of confusion between envy and pity, I know well how best to clear up the matter for myself at least and to recover a workable relation with the blessing in eclipse. I recover it in some degree with pity, as I say, by reason of the deep illusions and fallacies in which the great glare of the present seems to show us as then steeped; there being always, we can scarce not feel, something pathetic in the recoil from fond fatuities. When these are general enough, however, they make their own law and impose their own scheme; they go on, with their fine earnestness, to their utmost limit, and the best of course are those that go on longest. When think that the innocent confidence cultivated over a considerable part of the earth, over all the parts most offered to my own view, was to last well-nigh my whole lifetime, I cannot deny myself a large respect for it, cannot but see that if our illusion was complete we were at least insidiously and artfully beguiled. What we had taken so actively to believing in was to bring us out at the brink of the abyss, yet as look back I see nothing but our excuses; I cherish at any rate the image of their bright plausibility. We really, we nobly, we insanely (as it can only now strike us) held ourselves comfortably clear of the worst horror that in the past had attended the life of nations, and to the grounds of this conviction we could point with lively assurance. They all come back, one now recognizes, to a single supporting proposition, to the question when in the world peace had so prodigiously flourished. It had been broken, and was again briefly broken, within our view, but only as if to show with what force and authority it could freshly assert itself; whereby it grew to look too increasingly big, positively too massive even in its blandness, for interruptions not to be afraid of it.
It is in the light of this memory, I confess, that I bend fondly over the age -- so prolonged, I have noted, as to yield ample space for the exercise -- in which any challenge to our faith fell below the sweet serenity of it. I see that by any measure I might personally have applied, the American, or at least the Northern, state of mind and of life that began to develop just after the Civil War formed the headspring of our assumption. Odd enough might it have indeed appeared that this conception should need four years of free carnage to launch it; yet what did that mean, after all, in New York and Boston, into which places remembrance reads the complacency soon to be the most established -- what did that mean unless that we had exactly shed the bad possibilities, were publicly purged of the dreadful disease which had come within an inch of being fatal to us, and were by that token warranted sound forever, superlatively safe? -- as we could see that during the previous existence of the country we had been but comparatively so. The breathless campaign of Sadowa, which occurred but a year after our own sublime conclusion had been sealed by Lee's surrender, enlarged the prospect much rather than ruffled it; and though we had to confess that the siege of Paris, four years later, was a false note, it was drowned in the solidification of Germany, so true, so resounding and, for all we then suspected to the contrary, so portentously pacific a one. How could peace not flourish, moreover, when wars either took only seven weeks or lasted but a summer and scarce more than a long-drawn autumn? -- the siege of Paris dragging out, to our pitying sense, at the time, but raised before all the rest of us, preparing food-succor, could well turn round, and with the splendid recovery of France to follow so close on her amputation that violence fairly struck us as moving away confounded. So it was that our faith was confirmed -- violence sitting down again with averted face, and the conquests we felt the truly golden ones spreading and spreading behind its back.
It was not perhaps in the purest gold of the matter that we pretended to deal in the New York and the Boston to which I have referred; but if I wish to catch again the silver tinkle at least, straining my ear for it through the sounds of to-day, I have but to recall the dawn of those associations that seemed then to promise everything, and the last declining ray of which rests, just long enough to be caught, on the benign figure of Mrs. Fields, of the latter city, recently deceased and leaving behind her much of the material out of which legend obligingly grows. She herself had the good fortune to assist, during all her later years, at an excellent case of such growth, for which nature not less than circumstance had perfectly fitted her -- she was so intrinsically charming a link with the past and abounded so in the pleasure of reference and the grace of fidelity. She helped the present, that of her own actuality, to think well of her producing conditions, to think better of them than of many of those that open for our wonderment to-day: what a note of distinction they were able to contribute, she moved us to remark, what a quality of refinement they appeared to have encouraged, what a minor form of the monstrous modern noise they seemed to have been consistent with!
The truth was of course very decidedly that the seed I speak of, the seed that has flowered into legend, and with the thick growth of which her domestic scene was quite embowered, had been sown in soil peculiarly grateful and favored by pleasing accidents. The personal beauty of her younger years, long retained and not even at the end of such a stretch of life quite lost; the exquisite native tone and mode of appeal, which anciently we perhaps thought a little `precious,' but from which the distinctive and the preservative were in time to be snatched, a greater extravagance supervening; the signal sweetness of temper and lightness of tact, in fine, were things that prepared together the easy and infallible exercise of what I have called her references. It adds greatly to one's own measure of the accumulated years to have seen her reach the age at which she could appear to the younger world about her to `go back' wonderfully far, to be almost the only person extant who did, and to owe much of her value to this delicate aroma of antiquity.
My title for thus speaking of her is that of being myself still extant enough to have known by ocular and other observational evidence what it was she went back to and why the connection should consecrate her. Every society that amounts, as we say, to anything has it own annals, and luckless any to which this cultivation of the sense of a golden age that has left a precious deposit happens to be closed. A local present of proper pretensions has in fact to invent a set of antecedents, something in the nature of an epoch either of giants or of fairies, when literal history may in this respect have failed it, in order to look other temporal claims of a like complexion in the face. Boston, all letterless and unashamed as she verily seems to-day, needs luckily, for recovery of self-respect, no resort to such make-believes -- to legend, that is, before the fact; all her legend is well after it, absolutely upon it, the large, firm fact, and to the point of covering, and covering yet again, every discernible inch of it. I felt myself during the half-dozen years of my younger time spent thereabouts just a little late for history perhaps, though well before, or at least well abreast of, poetry; whereas now it all densely foreshortens, it positively all melts beautifully together, and I square myself in the state of mind of an authority not to be questioned. In other words, my impression of the golden age was a first-hand one, not a second or a third; and since those with whom I shared it have dropped off one by one, -- I can think of but two or three of the distinguished, the intelligent and participant, that is, as left, -- I fear there is no arrogance of authority that I am not capable of taking on.
James T. Fields must have had about him when I first knew him much of the freshness of the season, but I remember thinking him invested with a stately past; this as an effect of the spell cast from an early, or at least from my early, time by the `Ticknor, Reed and Fields' at the bottom of every title-page of the period that conveyed, however shyly, one of the finer presumptions. I look back with wonder to what would seem a precocious interest in title-pages, and above all into the mysterious or behind-the-scenes world suggested by publishers' names -- which, in their various collocations, had a color and a character beyond even those of authors, even those of books themselves; an anomaly that I seek not now to fathom, but which the brilliant Mr. Fields, as I aspiringly saw him, had the full benefit of, not less when I first came to know him than before. Mr. Reed, Mr. Ticknor, were never at all to materialize for me; the former was soon to forfeit any pertinence, and the latter, so far as I was concerned, never so much as peeped round the titular screen. Mr. Fields, on the other hand, planted himself well before that expanse; not only had he shone betimes with the reflected light of Longfellow and Lowell, of Emerson and Hawthorne and Whittier, but to meet him was, for an ingenuous young mind, to find that he was understood to return with interest any borrowed glory and to keep the social, or I should perhaps rather say the sentimental, account straight with each of his stars. What he truly shed back, of course, was a prompt sympathy and conversability; it was in this social and personal color that he emerged from the mere imprint, and was alone, I gather, among the American publishers of the time in emerging. He had a conception of possibilities of relation with his authors and contributors that I judge no other member of his body in all the land to have had; and one easily makes out for that matter that his firm was all but alone in improving, to this effect of amenity, on the crude relation -- crude, I mean, on the part of the author. Few were our native authors, and the friendly Boston house had gathered them in almost all: the other, the New York and Philadelphia houses (practically all we had) were friendly, I make out at this distance of time, to the public in particular, whose appetite they met to abundance with cheap reprints of the products of the London press, but were doomed to represent in a lower, sometimes indeed in the very lowest, degree the element of consideration for the British original. The British original had during that age been reduced to the solatium of publicity pure and simple; knowing, or at least presuming, that he was read in America by the fact of his being appropriated, he could himself appropriate but the complacency of this consciousness.
To the Boston constellation then almost exclusively belonged the higher complacency, as one may surely call it, of being able to measure with some closeness the good purpose to which they glittered. The Fieldses could imagine so much happier a scene that the fond fancy they brought to it seems to flush it all, as I look back, with the richest tints. I so describe the sweet influence because by the time found myself taking more direct notice the singularly graceful young wife had become, so to speak, a highly noticeable feature; her beautiful head and hair and smile and voice (we wonder if a social circle worth naming was ever ruled by a voice without charm of quality) were so many happy items in a general array. Childless, what is vulgarly called unencumbered, addicted to every hospitality and every benevolence, addicted to the cultivation of talk and wit and to the ingenious multiplication of such ties as could link the upper half of the title-page with the lower, their vivacity, their curiosity, their mobility, the felicity of their instinct for any manner of gathered relic, remnant or tribute, conspired to their helping the `literary world' roundabout to a self-consciousness more fluttered, no doubt, yet also more romantically resolute.
To turn attention from any present hour to a past that has become distant is always to have to look through overgrowths and reckon with perversions; but even so the domestic, the waterside museum of the Fieldses hangs there clear to me; their salon positively, so far as salons were in the old Puritan city dreamed of -- by which I mean allowing for a couple of exceptions not here to be lingered on. We knew in those days little of collectors; the name of the class, however, already much impressed us, and in that long and narrow drawing-room of odd dimensions -- unfortunately somewhat sacrificed, I frankly confess, as American drawing-rooms are apt to be, to its main aperture or command of outward resonance -- one learned for the first time how vivid a collection might be. Nothing would reconcile me at this hour to any attempt to resolve back into its elements the brave effect of the exhibition, in which the inclusive range of `old' portrait and letter, of old pictorial and literal autograph and other material gage or illustration, of old original edition or still more authentically consecrated current copy, disposed itself over against the cool sea- presence of the innermost great basin of Boston's port. Most does it come to me, I think, that the enviable pair went abroad with freedom and frequency, and that the inscribed and figured walls were a record of delightful adventure, a display as of votive objects attached by restored and grateful mariners to the nearest shrine. To go abroad, to be abroad (for the return thence was to the advantage, after all, only of those who could not so proceed) represented success in life, and our couple were immensely successful.
Dickens at that time went a great way with us, the best of him falling after this fashion well within the compass of our life; and Thackeray, for my own circle, went, I think, a greater way still, even if already, at the season I recall, to a more ghostly effect and as a presence definitely immortalized. The register of his two American visits was piously, though without the least solemnity, kept in Charles Street; which assisted, however, at Dickens's second visit to the States and a comparatively profane contemporaneity. I was not to see him there; I was, save for a brief moment elsewhere, but to hear him and to wonder at his strange histrionic force in public; nevertheless the waterside museum never ceased to retain, for my earnest recognition, certain fine vibrations and dying echoes of all that episode. I liked to think of the house, I could n't do without thinking of it, as the great man's safest harborage through the tremendous gale of those even more leave-taking appearances, as fate was to appoint, than we then understood; and this was a fact about it, to my taste, which made all sorts of other, much more prolonged and reiterated, facts comparatively subordinate and flat. The single drawback was that the intimacies and privileges it witnessed for in that most precious connection seemed scarce credible; the inimitable presence was anecdotically enough attested, but I somehow rather missed the evidential sample, `a feather, an eagle's feather,' as Browning says, which I should, ideally speaking, have picked up on the stairs.
I doubtless meanwhile found it the most salient of all the circumstances that the Atlantic Monthly had at no ancient date virtually come into being under the fostering roof, and that a charm, or at least a felt soft weight, attached to one's thinking of its full- flushed earlier form as very much edited from there. There its contributors, or many of them, dined and supped and went to tea, and there above all, in many a case, was almost gloriously revealed to them the possible relation between such amenities and hospitalities and the due degree of inspiration. It would take me too far to say how dispose of J. R. Lowell in this reconstruction, the very first editor as he was, if I mistake not, of the supremely sympathetic light miscellany that I figure; but though I have here to pick woefully among my reminiscences I must spare a word or two for another presence too intimately associated with the scene, and too constantly predominant there, to be overlooked.
The Atlantic was for years practically the sole organ of that admirable writer and wit, that master of almost every form of observational, of meditational, and of humorous ingenuity, the author of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table and of Elsie Venner. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes had been from the first the great `card' of the new recueil, and this with due deference to the fact that Emerson and Longfellow and Whittier, that Lowell himself and Hawthorne and Francis Parkman, were prone to figure in no other periodical (speaking thus of course but of the worthies originally drawn upon). Mr. Longfellow was frequent and remarkably even, neither rising above nor falling below a level ruled as straight as a line for a copybook; Emerson, on the other hand, was rare, but, to make up for it, sometimes surprising; and when ask myself what best distinction the magazine owed to our remaining hands I of course remember that it put forth the whole later array of The Biglow Papers, and that the impressions and reminiscences of England gathered up by Hawthorne into Our Old Home had enjoyed their first bloom of publicity from month to month under Fields's protection. These things drew themselves out in delightful progression, to say nothing of other cognate felicities -- everything that either Lowell or Hawthorne published in those days making its first appearance, inveterately, in the Atlantic pages. Lowell's serious as well as his hilarious, that is his broadly satiric, verse was pressed into their service; though of his literary criticism, I recall, the magazine was less avid -- little indeed, at the same time, as it could emulate in advance its American-born fellows of to-day in apparent dread of that insidious appeal to attention. Which remarks, as I make them, but throw into relief for me the admirable vivacity and liberality of Dr. Holmes's Atlantic career, quite warranting, as they again flicker and glow, no matter what easy talk about a golden age. The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, the American contribution to literature, that I can recall, most nearly meeting the conditions and enjoying the fortune of a classic, quite sufficiently accounts, I think, for our sense not only at the time, but during a long stretch of the subsequent, that we had there the most precious of the metals in the very finest fusion. Such perhaps was not entirely the air in which we saw Elsie Venner bathed -- since if this too was a case of the shining substance of the author's mind, so extraordinarily agile within its own circle of content, the application of the admirable engine was yet not perhaps so happy; in spite of all of which nothing would induce me now to lower our then claim for this fiction as the charmingest of the `old' American group, the romances of Hawthorne of course always excepted.
The new American novel -- for that was preparing -- had at the season I refer to scarce glimmered into view; but its first seeds were to be sown very exactly in Atlantic soil, where my super-excellent friend and confr re W. D. Howells soon began editorially to cultivate them. I should find myself crossing in this reference the edge of a later period, were I moved here at all to stiff discriminations; which am so far from being that I absolutely like to remember, pressing out elated irony in it, that the magazine seemed pleased to profit by Howells, whether as wise editor or delightful writer, only up to the verge of his broadening out into mastership. He broadened gradually, and far-away back numbers exhibit the tentative light footprints that were to become such firm and confident steps; but affectionate appreciation quite consciously assisted at a process in which it could mark and measure each stage -- up to the time, that is, when the process quite outgrew, as who should say, the walls of the drill-ground itself.
By this time many things, as was inevitable, -- things not of the earlier tradition, -- had come to pass; not the least of these being that J. T. Fields, faithfully fathering man, had fallen for always out of the circle. What was to follow his death made for itself other connections, many of which indeed had already begun; but what I think of in particular, as his beguiled loose chronicler straightening out a little -- though I would not for the world overmuch -- the confusion of old and doubtless, in some cases, rather shrunken importances, what especially run to earth is that there were forms of increase which the `original' organ might have seemed to grow rather weak in the knees for carrying. I pin my remembrance, however, only to the Fieldses -- that is, above all, to his active relation to the affair, and to the image left with me of guiding and nursing pleasure shown always as the intensity of personal pleasure. No confident proprietor can ever have drawn more happiness from a cherished and computed value than he drew from Dr. Holmes's success, which likewise provided so blest a medium for the Autocrat's own expansive spirit that I see the whole commerce and inspiration in the cheerful waterside light.
I find myself couple together the two Charles Street houses, though even with most weight of consideration for that where The Autocrat, The Professor, Elsie Venner, and the long and bright succession of the unsurpassed Boston pi ces de circonstance in verse, to say nothing of all the eagerest and easiest and funniest, all the most winged and kept-up, most illustrational and suggestional, table- talk that ever was, sprang smiling to life. Ineffaceably present to me is all that atmosphere, though I enjoyed it of course at the time but as the most wonderstruck and most indulged of extreme juniors; and in the mere ghostly breath of it old unspeakable vibrations revive. I find innumerable such for instance between the faded leaves of Soundings from the Atlantic, and in one of the papers there reprinted, `My Hunt for the Captain,' in especial, the recital of the author's search among the Virginia battlefields for his gallant wounded son; which, with its companions, evokes for me also at this end of time, and mere fond memory aiding, a greater group of sacred images than I may begin to name, as well as the charm and community of that overlooking of the wide inlet which so corrected the towniness. The Autocrat's insuperable instinct for the double sense of words, when the drollery of the collocation was pointed enough, has its note in the title of the volume I have just mentioned (where innumerable other neglected notes would respond again, I imagine, to the ear a bit earnestly applied); but the clue that has lengthened out so far is primarily attached, no doubt, to the eloquence of the final passage of the paper, in which the rejoicing father, back from his anxious quest, sees Boston bristle again on his lifelong horizon, the immemorial signs multiply, the great dome of the State House rise not a whit less high than before, and the Bunker Hill obelisk point as sharply as ever its beveled capstone against the sky.
The charm I thus rake out of the period, and the aspect of the Fieldses as bathed in that soft medium -- so soft after the long internecine harshness -- gloss over to my present view every troubled face of my young relation with the Atlantic; the poor pathetic faces, as they now pass before me, being troubled for more reasons than I can recall, but above all, I think, because from the first I found `writing for the magazines' an art still more difficult than delightful. Yet I doubt whether I wince at this hour any more than I winced on the spot at hearing it quoted from this proprietor of the first of those with which I effected an understanding that such a strain of pessimism in the would-be picture of life had an odd, had even a ridiculous, air on the part of an author with his mother's milk scarce yet dry on his lips. It was to my amused W. D. H. that I owed this communication, as I was to owe him ever such numberless invitations to partake of his amusement; and I trace back to that with interest the first note of the warning against not `ending happily' that was for the rest of my literary life to be sounded in my ear with a good faith of which the very terms failed to reach me intelligibly enough to correct my apparent perversity. I labored always under the conviction that to terminate a fond aesthetic effort in felicity had to be as much one's obeyed law as to begin it and carry it on in the same; whereby how could one be anything less than bewildered at the non-recognition of one's inveterately plotted climax of expression and intensity? One went so far as literally to claim that in a decent production -- such as one at least hoped any particular specimen of one's art to show for -- the terminal virtue, driven by the whole momentum gathered on the way, had to be most expressional of one's subject, and thereby more fortunately pointed than whatever should have gone before. I remember clinging to that measure of the point really made even in the tender dawn of the bewilderment I glance at and which I associate with the general precarious element in those first Atlantic efforts. It really won me to an anxious kindness for Mr. Fields that though finding me precociously dismal he yet indulgently suffered me -- and this not the less for my always feeling that Howells, during a season his sub-editor, must more or less have intervened with a good result.
The great, the reconciling thing, however, was the easy medium, the generally teeming Fields atmosphere, out of which possibilities that ravished me increasingly sprang; though doubtless these may speak in the modern light quite preponderantly of the young observer's and devourer's irrepressible need to appreciate -- as compared, I mean, with his need to be appreciated, and a due admixture of that recognized. preserve doubtless imperfectly the old order of these successions, the thrill sometimes but blandly transmitted, sometimes directly snatched, the presented occasion and the rather ruefully missed, the apprehension that in such a circle -- with centre and circumference, in Charles Street, coming well together despite the crowded, the verily crammed, space between them -- the brush of aesthetic, of social, of cultural suggestion worked, when most lively, at the end of a long handle that had stretched all the way over from Europe. How it struck me as working, I remember well, on a certain afternoon when the great Swedish singer Christine Nielsen, then young and beautiful and glorious, was received among us -- that is, when she stood between a pair of the windows of the Fields museum, to which she was for the moment the most actual recruit, and accepted the homage of extremely presented and fluttered persons, not one of whom could fail to be dazzled by her extraordinary combination of different kinds of lustre. Then there was the period of Charles Fechter, who had come over from London, whither he had originally come from Paris, to establish a theatre in Boston, where he was to establish it to no great purpose, alas! and who during the early brightness of his legend seemed to create for us on the same spot an absolute community of interests with the tremendously knowing dilettanti to whom he referred. He referred most of course to Dickens, who had directed him straight upon Charles Street under a benediction that was at first to do much for him, launch him violently and to admiration, even if he was before long, no doubt, to presume overmuch on its virtue.
Highly effective too, in this connection, while the first portents lasted, was the bustling virtue of the Fieldses -- on that ground and on various others indeed directly communicated from Dickens's own, and infinitely promoting the delightful roused state under which we grasped at the aesthetic freshness of Fechter's Hamlet in particular. Didn't we react with the finest collective and perceptive intensity against the manner of our great and up to that time unquestioned exponent of the part, Edwin Booth? -- who, however he might come into his own again after the Fechter flurry, never recovered real credit, it was interesting to note, for the tradition of his `head,' his facial and physiognomic make-up, of a sudden quite luridly revealed as provincial, as formed even to suggest the powerful support rendered the Ophelia of Pendennis's Miss Fotheringay. I remember, in fine, thinking that the emissary of Dickens and the fondling of the Fieldses, to express it freely, seemed to play over our classic, our livid ringletted image a sort of Scandinavian smoky torch, out of the lurid flicker of which it never fully emerged.
These are trivial and perhaps a bit tawdry illustrations; but there were plenty of finer accidents: projected assurances and encountered figures and snatched impressions, such as naturally make at present but a faded show, and yet not one of which has lost its distinctness for my own infatuated piety. I see now what an overcharged glory could attach to the fact that Anthony Trollope, in his habit as he lived, was at a given moment literally dining in Charles Street. I can do justice to the rich notability of my partaking of Sunday supper there in company with Mrs. Beecher Stowe, and making out to my satisfaction that if she had, of intensely local New England type as she struck me as being, not a little of the nonchalance of real renown, she `took in' circumjacent objects and more agitated presences with the true economy of genius. I even invest with the color of romance, or I did at the time, the bestowal on me, for temporary use, of the precursory pages of Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism, honorably smirched by the American compositor's fingers, from which the Boston edition of that volume, with the classicism of its future awaiting it, had just been set up. I can still recover the rapture with which, then suffering under the effects of a bad accident, I lay all day on a sofa in Ashburton Place and was somehow transported, as in a shining silvery dream, to London, to Oxford, to the French Academy, to Languedoc, to Brittany, to ancient Greece; all under the fingered spell of the little loose smutty London sheets. And I somehow even felt in my face the soft side wind of that `arranging' for punctualities of production of the great George Eliot, with whom our friends literally conversed, to the last credibility, every time they went to London, and, thanks to whose intimate confidence in them, does n't it seem to me that I enjoyed the fragrant foretaste of Middlemarch? -- roundabout which I patch together certain confused reminiscences of a weekly periodical, a younger and plainer sister of the Atlantic, its title now lost to me and the activity of which was all derivative, consisting as it did of bang-on-the-hour English first-fruits, `advance' felicities of the London press. This must all have meant an elated season during which, in the still prolonged absence of an international copyright law, the favor of early copy, the alertness of postal transmission, in consideration of the benefit of the quickened fee, was to make international harmony prevail. I retain but an inferential sense of it all, yet gilded again to memory by perusals of Trollope, of Wilkie Collins, of Charles Reade, of others of the then distinguished, quite beneath their immediate rejoicing eye and with double the amount of quality we had up to that time extracted oozing gratefully through their pores.
Mrs. Fields was to survive her husband for many years and was to flourish as a copious second volume -- the connection licenses the free figure -- of the work anciently issued. She had a further and further, a very long life, all of infinite goodness and grace, and, while ever insidiously referring to the past, could not help meeting the future at least half-way. And all her implications were gay, since no one so finely sentimental could be noted as so humorous; just as no feminine humor was perhaps ever so unmistakingly directed, and no state of amusement, amid quantities of reminiscence, perhaps ever so merciful. It was not that she could think no ill, but that she could n't see others thinking it, much less doing it; which was quite compatible too with her being as little trapped by any presumptuous form of it as if she had had its measure to the last fineness. It became a case of great felicity; she was all the gentle referee and servant, the literary and social executor, so to speak, of a hundred ghosts, but the scroll of her vivid commission had never been rolled up, so that it hung there open to whatever more names and pleas might softly inscribe themselves. She kept her whole connection insistently modern, in the sense that all new recruits to it found themselves in concert with the charming old tone, and, only wanting to benefit by its authority, were much more affected by it than it was perhaps fortunately in certain cases affected by them. Beautiful the instance of an exquisite person for whom the mere grace of unimpaired duration, drawing out and out the grace implanted, established an importance that she never lifted so much as a finger to claim, and the manner of which was that, while people surrounded her, admiringly and tenderly, only to do in their own interest all the reminding, she was herself ever as little as possible caught in the more or less invidious act. It was they who preferred her possibilities of allusion to any aspect of the current jostle, and her sweetness under their pressure made her consentingly modern even while the very sound of the consent was as the voice of a time so much less strident.
My sense of all this later phase was able on occasion to renew itself, but perhaps never did so in happier fashion than when Mrs. Fields, revisiting England, as she continued to embrace every opportunity of doing, kindly traveled down to see me in the country, bringing with her a young friend of great talent whose prevailing presence in her life had come little by little to give it something like a new centre. To speak in a mere parenthesis of Miss Jewett, mistress of an art of fiction all her own, even though of a minor compass, and surpassed only by Hawthorne as producer of the most finished and penetrating of the numerous `short stories' that have the domestic life of New England for their general and their doubtless somewhat lean subject, is to do myself, I feel, the violence of suppressing a chapter of appreciation that I should long since somewhere have found space for. Her admirable gift, that artistic sensibility in her which rivaled the rare personal, that sense for the finest kind of truthful rendering, the sober and tender note, the temperately touched, whether in the ironic or the pathetic, would have deserved some more pointed commemoration than judge her beautiful little quantum of achievement, her free and high, yet all so generously subdued character, a sort of elegance of humility or fine flame of modesty, with her remarkably distinguished outward stamp, to have called forth before the premature and overdarkened close of her young course of production. She had come to Mrs. Fields as an adoptive daughter, both a sharer and a sustainer, and nothing could more have warmed the ancient faith of their confessingly a bit disoriented countryman than the association of the elder and the younger lady in such an emphasized susceptibility. Their reach together was of the firmest and easiest, and I verily remember being struck with the stretch of wing that the spirit of Charles Street could bring off on finding them all fragrant of a recent immersion in the country life of France, where admiring friends had opened to them iridescent vistas that made it by comparision a charity they should show the least dazzle from my so much ruder display. I preserve at any rate the memory of a dazzle corresponding, or in other words of my gratitude for their ready apprehension of the greatness of big `composed' Sussex, which we explored together almost to extravagance -- the lesson to my own sense all remaining that of how far the pure, the peculiarly pure, old Boston spirit, old even in these women of whom one was miraculously and the other familiarly young, could travel without a scrap of loss of its ancient immunity to set against its gain of vivacity.
There was vivacity of a new sort somehow in the fact that the elder of my visitors, the elder in mere calculable years, had come fairly to cultivate, as it struck me, a personal resemblance to the great George Eliot -- and this but through the quite lawful art of causing a black lace mantilla to descend from her head and happily consort with a droop of abundant hair, a formation of brow and a general fine benignity: things that at once markedly recalled the countenance of Sir Frederick Burton's admirable portrait of the author of Romola and made it a charming anomaly that such remains of beauty should match at all a plainness not to be blinked even under the play of Sir Frederick's harmonizing crayon. Other amplified aspects of the whole legend, as have called it, I was afterwards to see presented on its native scene -- whereby it comes back to me that Sarah Jewett's brave ghost would resent my too roughly Bostonizing her: there hangs before me such a picture of her right setting, the antique dignity -- as antiquity counts thereabouts -- of a clear colonial house, in Maine, just over the New Hampshire border, and a day spent amid the very richest local revelations. These things were not so much of like as of equally flushed complexion with two or three occasions of view, at the same memorable time, of Mrs. Fields's happy alternative home on the shining Massachusetts shore, where I seem to catch in latest afternoon light the quite final form of all the pleasant evidence. To say which, however, is still considerably to foreshorten; since there supervenes for me with force as the very last word, or the one conclusive for myself at least, a haunted little feast as of ghosts, if not of skeletons, at the banquet, with the image of that immemorial and inextinguishable lady Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, the most evidential and most eminent presence of them all, as she rises in her place, under the extremity of appeal, to disclaim a little quaveringly, but ever so gallantly, that `Battle-hymn of the Republic,' which she had caused to be chanted half a century before and still could accompany with a real breadth of gesture, her great clap of hands and indication of the complementary step, on the triumphant line,
`Be swift my hands to welcome him, be jubilant my feet!'
The geniality of this performance swept into our collective breast again the whole matter of my record, which I thus commend to safe spiritual keeping.
Also under the title "Mr. & Mrs. Fields"
The Founding of the "Nation" (14)
RECOLLECTIONS OF THE "FAIRIES" THAT
My recollections of the very early life of the Nation should fall by their slight intrinsic weight into a clear enough form and make a straight and simple story, and yet to take them up in the portentous light of our present public conditions is to become aware at once of a danger which ought perhaps to stay my hand. That danger, I feel, is the exhibition of a complacency out of all proportion to the modest little facts themselves, such light matters of history as they must assuredly appear. My difficulty comes from the sense that to turn from our distracted world of to-day to the world of the questions surrounding, even with their then so great bustle of responsibility, the cradle of the most promising scion of the newspaper stock as that stock had rooted itself in American soil, is to sink into a social lap of such soft, sweet material as to suggest comparatively a general beatific state.
The whole scene and the whole time flushed to my actual view with a felicity and a unity that make them rather a page of romance than a picture of that degree of the real, that potentially so terrible truth of the life of man, which has now learnt to paint itself with so different a brush. They were, they flourished, they temporarily triumphed, that scene, that time, those conditions; they are not a dream that we drug ourselves to enjoy, but a chapter, and the most copious, of experience, experience attested by documents that would fill the vastest of treasure-houses. These things compose the record of the general life of civilization for almost the whole period during which men of my generation were to know it; an immense good fortune to us, since if the backward vision feeds upon bliss by the simple fact of not being the immediate, the importunate, or the too precariously forward, this bliss naturally grows with the extent of the pasture. I measure the spread as that of half a century -- only with the air turning more and more to the golden as space recedes, turning to the clearness of all the sovereign exemptions, the serenity of all the fond assurances, that were to keep on and on, seeing themselves not only so little menaced but so admirably crowned. This we now perceive to have been so much their mistake that as other periods of history have incurred, to our convenience, some distinctive and descriptive name, so it can only rest with us to write down the fifty years I speak of, in the very largest letters, as the Age of the Mistake.
That title might, of course, be blighting to retrospect if one chose to take it so; it might present the whole time as too tragically stupid, too deplorably wasted, to be lived over again critically without sickness and shame. There is, however, another way of taking it, which is to live it over personally and sentimentally, exactly to the sought confusion and reprobation of the forces now preying upon us, exactly to the effect of saving it at least for the imagination if we may not save it for the reconciling reason. To look at it in the light of its good faith is to measure the depth of its delusion, not to say the height of its fatuity, but the good faith may nevertheless figure for us, it figures at least for the author of these remarks, thanks to its vast proportions, the inattackable sphere of romance, all at one with itself -- and this, too, while remembering that the romantic condition does involve certain dangers and doubts, if only for the thrill of tilting at them and knocking them quite over. We had that thrill in ample measure, and our difficulties went down before us. To think of all this is to cultivate the complacency into which such a trivial fact as that contributed, in my young innocence, an "important" article to the first number of the enterprise is capable of beguiling me; the fact tastes so, to memory, of our innocence; our innocence tastes so of our confidence, and our confidence of the appearances that crowded gracefully about it. These might have been the very fairies themselves, the invoked and approving godmothers who surround in any proper legend the earliest pillow of the new-born great, a group with no interfering "bad" fairy in this case, or none worth speaking of now. I might recall an influence that would serve indeed, a hand stretched out to rock the cradle, by the apprehension of most of the company, quite with the wrong violence, and in that manner gain credit as one of the very few witnesses now left so to testify; but I prefer to retrace the fashion after which seemed to see the very first and greatest blessing possible flutter down upon the infant scene.
This was in the course of a visit to Shady Hill, at Cambridge, where my admirable friend, the late Charles Eliot Norton, spoke to me of his having just returned from New York, whither he had gone, as he smilingly said, on affairs of the Nation -- the freshness of the joke was, of course, fleeting. The light that was so to spread and brighten then first broke upon me, as I had also never heard before pronounced the name of E. L. Godkin, with whom I was soon to begin to cherish a relation, one of the best of my life, which lasted for long years. He "sounded" at that hour, I remember, most unusual and interesting, his antecedents being not in the least commonplace, as antecedents went with us then; and memory next jumps for me to the occasion of a visit from him in Ashburton Place (I then had a Boston domicile); where, prodigious to consider, he looked me up, in the course of a busy rush from New York, for the purpose of proposing to me to contribute to the weekly journal, for which every preparation -- save, as it were, that of his actual instance! -- had been made, to all appearance, most auspiciously, and of which he had undertaken the editorship. The verb to contribute took on at once to my ears a weird beauty of its own, and I applied it during that early time with my best frequency and zeal; which doesn't, however, now prevent my asking myself, and with no grain of mock humility, little indeed as humility of any sort costs at my age, what price could have seemed to attach to antecedents of mine, that I should have been so fondly selected. I was very young and very willing, but only as literary and as critical as I knew how to be -- by which I mean, of course, as I had been able to learn of myself. Round my cradle, in the connection, the favoring fairies, and this time with never a wicked one at all, must have absurdly elbowed each other. That winter of Ashburton Place, the winter following the early summer-birth of the confident sheet, fairly reeks for me, as I carry myself back to it, with the romantic bustle of getting my reviews of books off.
I got them off, bustle as I would, inveterately too late, it seemed, for the return of a proof from New York; which is why there also lives on with me from those so well-meant years the direst memory of a certain blindly inveterate defacement of what I was pleased to suppose my style, a misrepresentation as ingenious as if it had been intended, though this it was never in the smallest degree, and only owing its fatal action to its being so little self-confessed. I was never "cut" that I can remember, never corrected nor disapproved, postponed, nor omitted; but just sweetly and profusely and plausibly misprinted, so as to make a sense which was a dreadful sense -- though one for which I dare say my awkwardness of hand gave large occasion. The happy, if imperfect, relation went on, but I see it as much rectified during the winter and spring of 1875, which I spent in New York, on a return from three or four years of Europe; to the effect of my being for the first time able to provide against accidents. These were small things, and the occasions of them small things, but the sense of those months is almost in a prime degree the sense of the luxury of proof. The great thing really, of course, was that my personal relation with Godkin had become in itself a blest element.
I should like to light a taper at the shrine of his memory here, but the altar is necessarily scant, and I forego the rite. should like also, I confess, to treat myself to some expression of my sense of those aspects of my native city to which I then offered their last free chance to play in upon me; but though such a hint of my having on the occasion had to conclude against them does but scant justice to the beautiful theme -- I really should be able, I think, to draw both smiles and tears from it -- I find myself again smothered. I had contributed, on one opportunity and another, during my stretches of absence in Europe, just as I had done so during '67 and '68, the years preceding my more or less settled resumption of the European habit, and just as I was not definitely to break till this habit had learnt to know the adverse pressure that '76, '77, and '78, in Paris and in London, were to apply to it. I had ceased to be able to "notice books" -- that faculty seemed to diminish for me, perversely, as my acquaintance with books grew; and though I suppose I should have liked regularly to correspond from London, nothing came of that but three or four pious efforts which broke down under the appearance that people liked most to hear of what I could least, of what in fact nothing would have induced me to, write about. What I could write about they seemed, on the other hand, to view askance; on any complete lapse of which tendency in them I must not now, however, too much presume.