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Title: Partial Portraits
Author: James, Henry
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                           PARTIAL PORTRAITS

                       [Illustration: colophon]



                           PARTIAL PORTRAITS

                                  BY
                              HENRY JAMES

                                London
                           MACMILLAN AND CO.
                             AND NEW YORK
                                 1894

                         _All rights reserved_


                               COPYRIGHT
                                  BY
                              HENRY JAMES
                                 1888

                 _First Edition 1888. Reprinted 1894_



NOTICE


The following attempts at literary portraiture originally appeared, with
three exceptions, in American periodicals--The _Atlantic Monthly_, _The
Century_, and _Harper’s Weekly_. The paper on Emerson was contributed to
_Macmillan’s Magazine_, that on “The Art of Fiction” to _Longman’s_ and
that on M. Guy de Maupassant to _The Fortnightly Review_. The
reminiscences of Turgénieff were written immediately after his death,
the article on Anthony Trollope on the same occasion, before the
publication of his interesting Autobiography, and the appreciation of
Alphonse Daudet before that of his three latest novels. The date affixed
to the sketch of Robert Louis Stevenson is that of composition.



CONTENTS


                                                                    PAGE

   I. EMERSON                                                          1

  II. THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT                                        37

 III. DANIEL DERONDA: A CONVERSATION                                  65

  IV. ANTHONY TROLLOPE                                                97

   V. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON                                         137

  VI. MISS WOOLSON                                                   177

 VII. ALPHONSE DAUDET                                                195

VIII. GUY DE MAUPASSANT                                              243

  IX. IVAN TURGÉNIEFF                                                291

   X. GEORGE DU MAURIER                                              327

  XI. THE ART OF FICTION                                             375



I

EMERSON


Mr. Elliot Cabot has made a very interesting contribution to a class of
books of which our literature, more than any other, offers admirable
examples: he has given us a biography[1] intelligently and carefully
composed. These two volumes are a model of responsible editing--I use
that term because they consist largely of letters and extracts from
letters: nothing could resemble less the manner in which the mere
bookmaker strings together his frequently questionable pearls and
shovels the heap into the presence of the public. Mr. Cabot has
selected, compared, discriminated, steered an even course between
meagreness and redundancy, and managed to be constantly and happily
illustrative. And his work, moreover, strikes us as the better done from
the fact that it stands for one of the two things that make an absorbing
memoir a good deal more than for the other. If these two things be the
conscience of the writer and the career of his hero, it is not
difficult to see on which side the biographer of Emerson has found
himself strongest. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a man of genius, but he led
for nearly eighty years a life in which the sequence of events had
little of the rapidity, or the complexity, that a spectator loves. There
is something we miss very much as we turn these pages--something that
has a kind of accidental, inevitable presence in almost any personal
record--something that may be most definitely indicated under the name
of colour. We lay down the book with a singular impression of
paleness--an impression that comes partly from the tone of the
biographer and partly from the moral complexion of his subject, but
mainly from the vacancy of the page itself. That of Emerson’s personal
history is condensed into the single word Concord, and all the
condensation in the world will not make it look rich. It presents a most
continuous surface. Mr. Matthew Arnold, in his _Discourses in America_,
contests Emerson’s complete right to the title of a man of letters; yet
letters surely were the very texture of his history. Passions,
alternations, affairs, adventures had absolutely no part in it. It
stretched itself out in enviable quiet--a quiet in which we hear the
jotting of the pencil in the note-book. It is the very life for
literature (I mean for one’s own, not that of another): fifty years of
residence in the home of one’s forefathers, pervaded by reading, by
walking in the woods and the daily addition of sentence to sentence.

If the interest of Mr. Cabot’s pencilled portrait is incontestable and
yet does not spring from variety, it owes nothing either to a source
from which it might have borrowed much and which it is impossible not to
regret a little that he has so completely neglected: I mean a greater
reference to the social conditions in which Emerson moved, the company
he lived in, the moral air he breathed. If his biographer had allowed
himself a little more of the ironic touch, had put himself once in a way
under the protection of Sainte-Beuve and had attempted something of a
general picture, we should have felt that he only went with the
occasion. I may overestimate the latent treasures of the field, but it
seems to me there was distinctly an opportunity--an opportunity to make
up moreover in some degree for the white tint of Emerson’s career
considered simply in itself. We know a man imperfectly until we know his
society, and we but half know a society until we know its manners. This
is especially true of a man of letters, for manners lie very close to
literature. From those of the New England world in which Emerson’s
character formed itself Mr. Cabot almost averts his lantern, though we
feel sure that there would have been delightful glimpses to be had and
that he would have been in a position--that is that he has all the
knowledge that would enable him--to help us to them. It is as if he
could not trust himself, knowing the subject only too well. This adds to
the effect of extreme discretion that we find in his volumes, but it is
the cause of our not finding certain things, certain figures and scenes,
evoked. What is evoked is Emerson’s pure spirit, by a copious, sifted
series of citations and comments. But we must read as much as possible
between the lines, and the picture of the transcendental time (to
mention simply one corner) has yet to be painted--the lines have yet to
be bitten in. Meanwhile we are held and charmed by the image of
Emerson’s mind and the extreme appeal which his physiognomy makes to our
art of discrimination. It is so fair, so uniform and impersonal, that
its features are simply fine shades, the gradations of tone of a surface
whose proper quality was of the smoothest and on which nothing was
reflected with violence. It is a pleasure of the critical sense to find,
with Mr. Cabot’s extremely intelligent help, a notation for such
delicacies.

We seem to see the circumstances of our author’s origin, immediate and
remote, in a kind of high, vertical moral light, the brightness of a
society at once very simple and very responsible. The rare singleness
that was in his nature (so that he was _all_ the warning moral voice,
without distraction or counter-solicitation), was also in the stock he
sprang from, clerical for generations, on both sides, and clerical in
the Puritan sense. His ancestors had lived long (for nearly two
centuries) in the same corner of New England, and during that period had
preached and studied and prayed and practised. It is impossible to
imagine a spirit better prepared in advance to be exactly what it
was--better educated for its office in its far-away unconscious
beginnings. There is an inner satisfaction in seeing so straight,
although so patient, a connection between the stem and the flower, and
such a proof that when life wishes to produce something exquisite in
quality she takes her measures many years in advance. A conscience like
Emerson’s could not have been turned off, as it were, from one
generation to another: a succession of attempts, a long process of
refining, was required. His perfection, in his own line, comes largely
from the non-interruption of the process.

As most of us are made up of ill-assorted pieces, his reader, and Mr.
Cabot’s, envies him this transmitted unity, in which there was no mutual
hustling or crowding of elements. It must have been a kind of luxury to
be--that is to feel--so homogeneous, and it helps to account for his
serenity, his power of acceptance, and that absence of personal passion
which makes his private correspondence read like a series of beautiful
circulars or expanded cards _pour prendre congé_. He had the equanimity
of a result; nature had taken care of him and he had only to speak. He
accepted himself as he accepted others, accepted everything; and his
absence of eagerness, or in other words his modesty, was that of a man
with whom it is not a question of success, who has nothing invested or
at stake. The investment, the stake, was that of the race, of all the
past Emersons and Bulkeleys and Waldos. There is much that makes us
smile, to-day, in the commotion produced by his secession from the mild
Unitarian pulpit: we wonder at a condition of opinion in which any
utterance of his should appear to be wanting in superior piety--in the
essence of good instruction. All that is changed: the great difference
has become the infinitely small, and we admire a state of society in
which scandal and schism took on no darker hue; but there is even yet a
sort of drollery in the spectacle of a body of people among whom the
author of _The American Scholar_ and of the Address of 1838 at the
Harvard Divinity College passed for profane, and who failed to see that
he only gave his plea for the spiritual life the advantage of a
brilliant expression. They were so provincial as to think that
brilliancy came ill-recommended, and they were shocked at his ceasing to
care for the prayer and the sermon. They might have perceived that he
_was_ the prayer and the sermon: not in the least a seculariser, but in
his own subtle insinuating way a sanctifier.

Of the three periods into which his life divides itself, the first was
(as in the case of most men) that of movement, experiment and
selection--that of effort too and painful probation. Emerson had his
message, but he was a good while looking for his form--the form which,
as he himself would have said, he never completely found and of which it
was rather characteristic of him that his later years (with their
growing refusal to give him the _word_), wishing to attack him in his
most vulnerable point, where his tenure was least complete, had in some
degree the effect of despoiling him. It all sounds rather bare and
stern, Mr. Cabot’s account of his youth and early manhood, and we get an
impression of a terrible paucity of alternatives. If he would be neither
a farmer nor a trader he could “teach school”; that was the main
resource and a part of the general educative process of the young New
Englander who proposed to devote himself to the things of the mind.
There was an advantage in the nudity, however, which was that, in
Emerson’s case at least, the things of the mind did get themselves
admirably well considered. If it be his great distinction and his
special sign that he had a more vivid conception of the moral life than
any one else, it is probably not fanciful to say that he owed it in part
to the limited way in which he saw our capacity for living illustrated.
The plain, God-fearing, practical society which surrounded him was not
fertile in variations: it had great intelligence and energy, but it
moved altogether in the straightforward direction. On three occasions
later--three journeys to Europe--he was introduced to a more complicated
world; but his spirit, his moral taste, as it were, abode always within
the undecorated walls of his youth. There he could dwell with that ripe
unconsciousness of evil which is one of the most beautiful signs by
which we know him. His early writings are full of quaint animadversion
upon the vices of the place and time, but there is something charmingly
vague, light and general in the arraignment. Almost the worst he can say
is that these vices are negative and that his fellow-townsmen are not
heroic. We feel that his first impressions were gathered in a community
from which misery and extravagance, and either extreme, of any sort,
were equally absent. What the life of New England fifty years ago
offered to the observer was the common lot, in a kind of achromatic
picture, without particular intensifications. It was from this table of
the usual, the merely typical joys and sorrows that he proceeded to
generalise--a fact that accounts in some degree for a certain inadequacy
and thinness in his enumerations. But it helps to account also for his
direct, intimate vision of the soul itself--not in its emotions, its
contortions and perversions, but in its passive, exposed, yet healthy
form. He knows the nature of man and the long tradition of its dangers;
but we feel that whereas he can put his finger on the remedies, lying
for the most part, as they do, in the deep recesses of virtue, of the
spirit, he has only a kind of hearsay, uninformed acquaintance with the
disorders. It would require some ingenuity, the reader may say too much,
to trace closely this correspondence between his genius and the frugal,
dutiful, happy but decidedly lean Boston of the past, where there was a
great deal of will but very little fulcrum--like a ministry without an
opposition.

The genius itself it seems to me impossible to contest--I mean the
genius for seeing character as a real and supreme thing. Other writers
have arrived at a more complete expression: Wordsworth and Goethe, for
instance, give one a sense of having found their form, whereas with
Emerson we never lose the sense that he is still seeking it. But no one
has had so steady and constant, and above all so natural, a vision of
what we require and what we are capable of in the way of aspiration and
independence. With Emerson it is ever the special capacity for moral
experience--always that and only that. We have the impression, somehow,
that life had never bribed him to look at anything but the soul; and
indeed in the world in which he grew up and lived the bribes and lures,
the beguilements and prizes, were few. He was in an admirable position
for showing, what he constantly endeavoured to show, that the prize was
within. Any one who in New England at that time could do that was sure
of success, of listeners and sympathy: most of all, of course, when it
was a question of doing it with such a divine persuasiveness. Moreover,
the way in which Emerson did it added to the charm--by word of mouth,
face to face, with a rare, irresistible voice and a beautiful mild,
modest authority. If Mr. Arnold is struck with the limited degree in
which he was a man of letters I suppose it is because he is more struck
with his having been, as it were, a man of lectures. But the lecture
surely was never more purged of its grossness--the quality in it that
suggests a strong light and a big brush--than as it issued from
Emerson’s lips; so far from being a vulgarisation, it was simply the
esoteric made audible, and instead of treating the few as the many,
after the usual fashion of gentlemen on platforms, he treated the many
as the few. There was probably no other society at that time in which he
would have got so many persons to understand that; for we think the
better of his audience as we read him, and wonder where else people
would have had so much moral attention to give. It is to be remembered
however that during the winter of 1847-48, on the occasion of his second
visit to England, he found many listeners in London and in provincial
cities. Mr. Cabot’s volumes are full of evidence of the satisfactions he
offered, the delights and revelations he may be said to have promised,
to a race which had to seek its entertainment, its rewards and
consolations, almost exclusively in the moral world. But his own
writings are fuller still; we find an instance almost wherever we open
them.

     “All these great and transcendent properties are ours.... Let us
     find room for this great guest in our small houses.... Where the
     heart is, there the muses, there the gods sojourn, and not in any
     geography of fame. Massachusetts, Connecticut River, and Boston
     Bay, you think paltry places, and the ear loves names of foreign
     and classic topography. But here we are, and if we will tarry a
     little we may come to learn that here is best.... The Jerseys were
     handsome enough ground for Washington to tread, and London streets
     for the feet of Milton.... That country is fairest which is
     inhabited by the noblest minds.”

We feel, or suspect, that Milton is thrown in as a hint that the London
streets are no such great place, and it all sounds like a sort of
pleading consolation against bleakness.

The beauty of a hundred passages of this kind in Emerson’s pages is that
they are effective, that they do come home, that they rest upon insight
and not upon ingenuity, and that if they are sometimes obscure it is
never with the obscurity of paradox. We seem to see the people turning
out into the snow after hearing them, glowing with a finer glow than
even the climate could give and fortified for a struggle with overshoes
and the east wind.

     “Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority,
     pleasure, and money, are nothing to you, are not as bandages over
     your eyes, that you cannot see; but live with the privilege of the
     immeasurable mind. Not too anxious to visit periodically all
     families and each family in your parish connection, when you meet
     one of these men or women be to them a divine man; be to them
     thought and virtue; let their timid aspirations find in you a
     friend; let their trampled instincts be genially tempted out in
     your atmosphere; let their doubts know that you have doubted, and
     their wonder feel that you have wondered.”

When we set against an exquisite passage like that, or like the familiar
sentences that open the essay on History (“He that is admitted to the
right of reason is made freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has
thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any
time has befallen any man, he can understand”); when we compare the
letters, cited by Mr. Cabot, to his wife from Springfield, Illinois
(January 1853) we feel that his spiritual tact needed to be very just,
but that if it was so it must have brought a blessing.

     “Here I am in the deep mud of the prairies, misled I fear into this
     bog, not by a will-of-the-wisp, such as shine in bogs, but by a
     young New Hampshire editor, who over-estimated the strength of both
     of us, and fancied I should glitter in the prairie and draw the
     prairie birds and waders. It rains and thaws incessantly, and if we
     step off the short street we go up to the shoulders, perhaps, in
     mud. My chamber is a cabin; my fellow-boarders are legislators....
     Two or three governors or ex-governors live in the house.... I
     cannot command daylight and solitude for study or for more than a
     scrawl.” ...

And another extract:--

     “A cold, raw country this, and plenty of night-travelling and
     arriving at four in the morning to take the last and worst bed in
     the tavern. Advancing day brings mercy and favour to me, but not
     the sleep.... Mercury 15° below zero.... I find well-disposed,
     kindly people among these sinewy farmers of the North, but in all
     that is called cultivation they are only ten years old.”

He says in another letter (in 1860), “I saw Michigan and its forests and
the Wolverines pretty thoroughly;” and on another page Mr. Cabot shows
him as speaking of his engagements to lecture in the West as the
obligation to “wade, and freeze, and ride, and run, and suffer all
manner of indignities.” This was not New England, but as regards the
country districts throughout, at that time, it was a question of degree.
Certainly never was the fine wine of philosophy carried to remoter or
queerer corners: never was a more delicate diet offered to “two or
three governors, or ex-governors,” living in a cabin. It was Mercury,
shivering in a mackintosh, bearing nectar and ambrosia to the gods whom
he wished those who lived in cabins to endeavour to feel that they might
be.

I have hinted that the will, in the old New England society, was a clue
without a labyrinth; but it had its use, nevertheless, in helping the
young talent to find its mould. There were few or none ready-made:
tradition was certainly not so oppressive as might have been inferred
from the fact that the air swarmed with reformers and improvers. Of the
patient, philosophic manner in which Emerson groped and waited, through
teaching the young and preaching to the adult, for his particular
vocation, Mr. Cabot’s first volume gives a full and orderly account. His
passage from the Unitarian pulpit to the lecture-desk was a step which
at this distance of time can hardly help appearing to us short, though
he was long in making it, for even after ceasing to have a parish of his
own he freely confounded the two, or willingly, at least, treated the
pulpit as a platform. “The young people and the mature hint at odium and
the aversion of faces, to be presently encountered in society,” he
writes in his journal in 1838; but in point of fact the quiet drama of
his abdication was not to include the note of suffering. The Boston
world might feel disapproval, but it was far too kindly to make this
sentiment felt as a weight: every element of martyrdom was there but
the important ones of the cause and the persecutors. Mr. Cabot marks the
lightness of the penalties of dissent; if they were light in somewhat
later years for the transcendentalists and fruit-eaters they could press
but little on a man of Emerson’s distinction, to whom, all his life,
people went not to carry but to ask the right word. There was no
consideration to give up, he could not have been one of the dingy if he
had tried; but what he did renounce in 1838 was a material profession.
He was “settled,” and his indisposition to administer the communion
unsettled him. He calls the whole business, in writing to Carlyle, “a
tempest in our washbowl”; but it had the effect of forcing him to seek a
new source of income. His wants were few and his view of life severe,
and this came to him, little by little, as he was able to extend the
field in which he read his discourses. In 1835, upon his second
marriage, he took up his habitation at Concord, and his life fell into
the shape it was, in a general way, to keep for the next half-century.
It is here that we cannot help regretting that Mr. Cabot had not found
it possible to treat his career a little more pictorially. Those fifty
years of Concord--at least the earlier part of them--would have been a
subject bringing into play many odd figures, many human incongruities:
they would have abounded in illustrations of the primitive New England
character, especially during the time of its queer search for something
to expend itself upon. Objects and occupations have multiplied since
then, and now there is no lack; but fifty years ago the expanse was wide
and free, and we get the impression of a conscience gasping in the void,
panting for sensations, with something of the movement of the gills of a
landed fish. It would take a very fine point to sketch Emerson’s
benignant, patient, inscrutable countenance during the various phases of
this democratic communion; but the picture, when complete, would be one
of the portraits, half a revelation and half an enigma, that suggest and
fascinate. Such a striking personage as old Miss Mary Emerson, our
author’s aunt, whose high intelligence and temper were much of an
influence in his earlier years, has a kind of tormenting representative
value: we want to see her from head to foot, with her frame and her
background; having (for we happen to have it), an impression that she
was a very remarkable specimen of the transatlantic Puritan stock, a
spirit that would have dared the devil. We miss a more liberal handling,
are tempted to add touches of our own, and end by convincing ourselves
that Miss Mary Moody Emerson, grim intellectual virgin and daughter of a
hundred ministers, with her local traditions and her combined love of
empire and of speculation, would have been an inspiration for a
novelist. Hardly less so the charming Mrs. Ripley, Emerson’s life-long
friend and neighbour, most delicate and accomplished of women, devoted
to Greek and to her house, studious, simple and dainty--an admirable
example of the old-fashioned New England lady. It was a freak of Miss
Emerson’s somewhat sardonic humour to give her once a broomstick to
carry across Boston Common (under the pretext of a “moving”), a task
accepted with docility but making of the victim the most benignant witch
ever equipped with that utensil.

These ladies, however, were very private persons and not in the least of
the reforming tribe: there are others who would have peopled Mr. Cabot’s
page to whom he gives no more than a mention. We must add that it is
open to him to say that their features have become faint and
indistinguishable to-day without more research than the question is apt
to be worth: they are embalmed--in a collective way--the apprehensible
part of them, in Mr. Frothingham’s clever _History of Transcendentalism
in New England_. This must be admitted to be true of even so lively a
“factor,” as we say nowadays, as the imaginative, talkative, intelligent
and finally Italianised and shipwrecked Margaret Fuller: she is now one
of the dim, one of Carlyle’s “then-celebrated” at most. It seemed indeed
as if Mr. Cabot rather grudged her a due place in the record of the
company that Emerson kept, until we came across the delightful letter he
quotes toward the end of his first volume--a letter interesting both as
a specimen of inimitable, imperceptible edging away, and as an
illustration of the curiously generalised way, as if with an implicit
protest against personalities, in which his intercourse, epistolary and
other, with his friends was conducted. There is an extract from a
letter to his aunt on the occasion of the death of a deeply-loved
brother (his own) which reads like a passage from some fine old
chastened essay on the vanity of earthly hopes: strangely unfamiliar,
considering the circumstances. Courteous and humane to the furthest
possible point, to the point of an almost profligate surrender of his
attention, there was no familiarity in him, no personal avidity. Even
his letters to his wife are courtesies, they are not familiarities. He
had only one style, one manner, and he had it for everything--even for
himself, in his notes, in his journals. But he had it in perfection for
Miss Fuller; he retreats, smiling and flattering, on tiptoe, as if he
were advancing. “She ever seems to crave,” he says in his journal,
“something which I have not, or have not for her.” What he had was
doubtless not what she craved, but the letter in question should be read
to see how the modicum was administered. It is only between the lines of
such a production that we read that a part of her effect upon him was to
bore him; for his system was to practise a kind of universal passive
hospitality--he aimed at nothing less. It was only because he was so
deferential that he could be so detached; he had polished his aloofness
till it reflected the image of his solicitor. And this was not because
he was an “uncommunicating egotist,” though he amuses himself with
saying so to Miss Fuller: egotism is the strongest of passions, and he
was altogether passionless. It was because he had no personal, just as
he had almost no physical wants. “Yet I plead not guilty to the malice
prepense. ’Tis imbecility, not contumacy, though perhaps somewhat more
odious. It seems very just, the irony with which you ask whether you may
not be trusted and promise such docility. Alas, we will all promise, but
the prophet loiters.” He would not say even to himself that she bored
him; he had denied himself the luxury of such easy and obvious short
cuts. There is a passage in the lecture (1844) called “Man the
Reformer,” in which he hovers round and round the idea that the practice
of trade, in certain conditions likely to beget an underhand
competition, does not draw forth the nobler parts of character, till the
reader is tempted to interrupt him with, “Say at once that it is
impossible for a gentleman!”

So he remained always, reading his lectures in the winter, writing them
in the summer, and at all seasons taking wood-walks and looking for
hints in old books.

     “Delicious summer stroll through the pastures.... On the steep park
     of Conantum I have the old regret--is all this beauty to perish?
     Shall none re-make this sun and wind; the sky-blue river; the
     river-blue sky; the yellow meadow, spotted with sacks and sheets of
     cranberry-gatherers; the red bushes; the iron-gray house, just the
     colour of the granite rocks; the wild orchard?”

His observation of Nature was exquisite--always the direct, irresistible
impression.

     “The hawking of the wild geese flying by night; the thin note of
     the companionable titmouse in the winter day; the fall of swarms
     of flies in autumn, from combats high in the air, pattering down on
     the leaves like rain; the angry hiss of the wood-birds; the pine
     throwing out its pollen for the benefit of the next century.” ...
     (_Literary Ethics._)

I have said there was no familiarity in him, but he was familiar with
woodland creatures and sounds. Certainly, too, he was on terms of free
association with his books, which were numerous and dear to him; though
Mr. Cabot says, doubtless with justice, that his dependence on them was
slight and that he was not “intimate” with his authors. They did not
feed him but they stimulated; they were not his meat but his wine--he
took them in sips. But he needed them and liked them; he had volumes of
notes from his reading, and he could not have produced his lectures
without them. He liked literature as a thing to refer to, liked the very
names of which it is full, and used them, especially in his later
writings, for purposes of ornament, to dress the dish, sometimes with an
unmeasured profusion. I open _The Conduct of Life_ and find a dozen on
the page. He mentions more authorities than is the fashion to-day. He
can easily say, of course, that he follows a better one--that of his
well-loved and irrepressibly allusive Montaigne. In his own bookishness
there is a certain contradiction, just as there is a latent
incompleteness in his whole literary side. Independence, the return to
nature, the finding out and doing for one’s self, was ever what he most
highly recommended; and yet he is constantly reminding his readers of
the conventional signs and consecrations--of what other men have done.
This was partly because the independence that he had in his eye was an
independence without ill-nature, without rudeness (though he likes that
word), and full of gentle amiabilities, curiosities and tolerances; and
partly it is a simple matter of form, a literary expedient, confessing
its character--on the part of one who had never really mastered the art
of composition--of continuous expression. Charming to many a reader,
charming yet ever slightly droll, will remain Emerson’s frequent
invocation of the “scholar”: there is such a friendly vagueness and
convenience in it. It is of the scholar that he expects all the heroic
and uncomfortable things, the concentrations and relinquishments, that
make up the noble life. We fancy this personage looking up from his book
and arm-chair a little ruefully and saying, “Ah, but why _me_ always and
only? Why so much of me, and is there no one else to share the
responsibility?” “Neither years nor books have yet availed to extirpate
a prejudice then rooted in me [when as a boy he first saw the graduates
of his college assembled at their anniversary], that a scholar is the
favourite of heaven and earth, the excellency of his country, the
happiest of men.”

In truth, by this term he means simply the cultivated man, the man who
has had a liberal education, and there is a voluntary plainness in his
use of it--speaking of such people as the rustic, or the vulgar, speak
of those who have a tincture of books. This is characteristic of his
humility--that humility which was nine-tenths a plain fact (for it is
easy for persons who have at bottom a great fund of indifference to be
humble), and the remaining tenth a literary habit. Moreover an American
reader may be excused for finding in it a pleasant sign of that
prestige, often so quaintly and indeed so extravagantly acknowledged,
which a connection with literature carries with it among the people of
the United States. There is no country in which it is more freely
admitted to be a distinction--_the_ distinction; or in which so many
persons have become eminent for showing it even in a slight degree.
Gentlemen and ladies are celebrated there on this ground who would not
on the same ground, though they might on another, be celebrated anywhere
else. Emerson’s own tone is an echo of that, when he speaks of the
scholar--not of the banker, the great merchant, the legislator, the
artist--as the most distinguished figure in the society about him. It is
because he has most to give up that he is appealed to for efforts and
sacrifices. “Meantime I know that a very different estimate of the
scholar’s profession prevails in this country,” he goes on to say in the
address from which I last quoted (the _Literary Ethics_), “and the
importunity with which society presses its claim upon young men tends to
pervert the views of the youth in respect to the culture of the
intellect.” The manner in which that is said represents, surely, a
serious mistake: with the estimate of the scholar’s profession which
then prevailed in New England Emerson could have had no quarrel; the
ground of his lamentation was another side of the matter. It was not a
question of estimate, but of accidental practice. In 1838 there were
still so many things of prime material necessity to be done that reading
was driven to the wall; but the reader was still thought the cleverest,
for he found time as well as intelligence. Emerson’s own situation
sufficiently indicates it. In what other country, on sleety winter
nights, would provincial and bucolic populations have gone forth in
hundreds for the cold comfort of a literary discourse? The distillation
anywhere else would certainly have appeared too thin, the appeal too
special. But for many years the American people of the middle regions,
outside of a few cities, had in the most rigorous seasons no other
recreation. A gentleman, grave or gay, in a bare room, with a
manuscript, before a desk, offered the reward of toil, the refreshment
of pleasure, to the young, the middle-aged and the old of both sexes.
The hour was brightest, doubtless, when the gentleman was gay, like
Doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes. But Emerson’s gravity never sapped his
career, any more than it chilled the regard in which he was held among
those who were particularly his own people. It was impossible to be more
honoured and cherished, far and near, than he was during his long
residence in Concord, or more looked upon as the principal gentleman in
the place. This was conspicuous to the writer of these remarks on the
occasion of the curious, sociable, cheerful public funeral made for him
in 1883 by all the countryside, arriving, as for the last honours to the
first citizen, in trains, in waggons, on foot, in multitudes. It was a
popular manifestation, the most striking I have ever seen provoked by
the death of a man of letters.

If a picture of that singular and very illustrative institution the old
American lecture-system would have constituted a part of the filling-in
of the ideal memoir of Emerson, I may further say, returning to the
matter for a moment, that such a memoir would also have had a chapter
for some of those Concord-haunting figures which are not so much
interesting in themselves as interesting because for a season Emerson
thought them so. And the pleasure of that would be partly that it would
push us to inquire how interesting he did really think them. That is, it
would bring up the question of his inner reserves and scepticisms, his
secret ennuis and ironies, the way he sympathised for courtesy and then,
with his delicacy and generosity, in a world after all given much to the
literal, let his courtesy pass for adhesion--a question particularly
attractive to those for whom he has, in general, a fascination. Many
entertaining problems of that sort present themselves for such readers:
there is something indefinable for them in the mixture of which he was
made--his fidelity as an interpreter of the so-called transcendental
spirit and his freedom from all wish for any personal share in the
effect of his ideas. He drops them, sheds them, diffuses them, and we
feel as if there would be a grossness in holding him to anything so
temporal as a responsibility. He had the advantage, for many years, of
having the question of application assumed for him by Thoreau, who took
upon himself to be, in the concrete, the sort of person that Emerson’s
“scholar” was in the abstract, and who paid for it by having a shorter
life than that fine adumbration. The application, with Thoreau, was
violent and limited (it became a matter of prosaic detail, the
non-payment of taxes, the non-wearing of a necktie, the preparation of
one’s food one’s self, the practice of a rude sincerity--all things not
of the essence), so that, though he wrote some beautiful pages, which
read like a translation of Emerson into the sounds of the field and
forest and which no one who has ever loved nature in New England, or
indeed anywhere, can fail to love, he suffers something of the
_amoindrissement_ of eccentricity. His master escapes that reduction
altogether. I call it an advantage to have had such a pupil as Thoreau;
because for a mind so much made up of reflection as Emerson’s everything
comes under that head which prolongs and reanimates the
process--produces the return, again and yet again, on one’s impressions.
Thoreau must have had this moderating and even chastening effect. It did
not rest, moreover, with him alone; the advantage of which I speak was
not confined to Thoreau’s case. In 1837 Emerson (in his journal)
pronounced Mr. Bronson Alcott the most extraordinary man and the highest
genius of his time: the sequence of which was that for more than forty
years after that he had the gentleman living but half a mile away. The
opportunity for the return, as I have called it, was not wanting.

His detachment is shown in his whole attitude toward the transcendental
movement--that remarkable outburst of Romanticism on Puritan ground, as
Mr. Cabot very well names it. Nothing can be more ingenious, more
sympathetic and charming, than Emerson’s account and definition of the
matter in his lecture (of 1842) called “The Transcendentalist”; and yet
nothing is more apparent from his letters and journals than that he
regarded any such label or banner as a mere tiresome flutter. He liked
to taste but not to drink--least of all to become intoxicated. He liked
to explain the transcendentalists but did not care at all to be
explained by them: a doctrine “whereof you know I am wholly guiltless,”
he says to his wife in 1842, “and which is spoken of as a known and
fixed element, like salt or meal. So that I have to begin with endless
disclaimers and explanations: ‘I am not the man you take me for.’” He
was never the man any one took him for, for the simple reason that no
one could possibly take him for the elusive, irreducible, merely
gustatory spirit for which he took himself.

     “It is a sort of maxim with me never to harp on the omnipotence of
     limitations. Least of all do we need any suggestion of checks and
     measures; as if New England were anything else.... Of so many fine
     people it is true that being so much they ought to be a little
     more, and missing that are naught. It is a sort of King Renè
     period; there is no doing, but rare thrilling prophecy from bands
     of competing minstrels.”

That is his private expression about a large part of a ferment in regard
to which his public judgment was that

     “That indeed constitutes a new feature in their portrait, that they
     are the most exacting and extortionate critics.... These exacting
     children advertise us of our wants. There is no compliment, no
     smooth speech with them; they pay you only this one compliment of
     insatiable expectation; they aspire, they severely exact, and if
     they only stand fast in this watch-tower, and stand fast unto the
     end, and without end, then they are terrible friends, whereof poet
     and priest cannot but stand in awe; and what if they eat clouds and
     drink wind, they have not been without service to the race of man.”

That was saying the best for them, as he always said it for everything;
but it was the sense of their being “bands of competing minstrels” and
their camp being only a “measure and check,” in a society too sparse for
a synthesis, that kept him from wishing to don their uniform. This was
after all but a misfitting imitation of his natural wear, and what he
would have liked was to put that off--he did not wish to button it
tighter. He said the best for his friends of the Dial, of Fruitlands and
Brook Farm, in saying that they were fastidious and critical; but he was
conscious in the next breath that what there was around them to be
criticised was mainly a negative. Nothing is more perceptible to-day
than that their criticism produced no fruit--that it was little else
than a very decent and innocent recreation--a kind of Puritan carnival.
The New England world was for much the most part very busy, but the Dial
and Fruitlands and Brook Farm were the amusement of the leisure-class.
Extremes meet, and as in older societies that class is known principally
by its connection with castles and carriages, so at Concord it came,
with Thoreau and Mr. W. H. Channing, out of the cabin and the wood-lot.

Emerson was not moved to believe in their fastidiousness as a productive
principle even when they directed it upon abuses which he abundantly
recognised. Mr. Cabot shows that he was by no means one of the
professional abolitionists or philanthropists--never an enrolled
“humanitarian.”

     “We talk frigidly of Reform until the walls mock us. It is that of
     which a man should never speak, but if he have cherished it in his
     bosom he should steal to it in darkness, as an Indian to his
     bride.... Does he not do more to abolish slavery who works all day
     steadily in his own garden, than he who goes to the abolition
     meeting and makes a speech? He who does his own work frees a
     slave.”

I must add that even while I transcribe these words there comes to me
the recollection of the great meeting in the Boston Music Hall, on the
first day of 1863, to celebrate the signing by Mr. Lincoln of the
proclamation freeing the Southern slaves--of the momentousness of the
occasion, the vast excited multitude, the crowded platform and the tall,
spare figure of Emerson, in the midst, reading out the stanzas that
were published under the name of the Boston Hymn. They are not the
happiest he produced for an occasion--they do not compare with the
verses on the “embattled farmers,” read at Concord in 1857, and there is
a certain awkwardness in some of them. But I well remember the immense
effect with which his beautiful voice pronounced the lines--

    “Pay ransom to the owner
     And fill the bag to the brim.
     Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
     And ever was. Pay _him_!”

And Mr. Cabot chronicles the fact that the _gran’ rifiuto_--the great
backsliding of Mr. Webster when he cast his vote in Congress for the
Fugitive Slave Law of 1850--was the one thing that ever moved him to
heated denunciation. He felt Webster’s apostasy as strongly as he had
admired his genius. “Who has not helped to praise him? Simply he was the
one American of our time whom we could produce as a finished work of
nature.” There is a passage in his journal (not a rough jotting, but,
like most of the entries in it, a finished piece of writing), which is
admirably descriptive of the wonderful orator and is moreover one of the
very few portraits, or even personal sketches, yielded by Mr. Cabot’s
selections. It shows that he could observe the human figure and “render”
it to good purpose.

     “His splendid wrath, when his eyes become fire, is good to see, so
     intellectual it is--the wrath of the fact and the cause he
     espouses, and not at all personal to himself.... These village
     parties must be dish-water to him, yet he shows himself just
     good-natured, just nonchalant enough; and he has his own way,
     without offending any one or losing any ground.... His
     expensiveness seems necessary to him; were he too prudent a Yankee
     it would be a sad deduction from his magnificence. I only wish he
     would not truckle [to the slave-holders]. I do not care how much he
     spends.”

I doubtless appear to have said more than enough, yet I have passed by
many of the passages I had marked for transcription from Mr. Cabot’s
volumes. There is one, in the first, that makes us stare as we come upon
it, to the effect that Emerson “could see nothing in Shelley,
Aristophanes, Don Quixote, Miss Austen, Dickens.” Mr. Cabot adds that he
rarely read a novel, even the famous ones (he has a point of contact
here as well as, strangely enough, on two or three other sides with that
distinguished moralist M. Ernest Renan, who, like Emerson, was
originally a dissident priest and cannot imagine why people should write
works of fiction); and thought Dante “a man to put into a museum, but
not into your house; another Zerah Colburn; a prodigy of imaginative
function, executive rather than contemplative or wise.” The confession
of an insensibility ranging from Shelley to Dickens and from Dante to
Miss Austen and taking Don Quixote and Aristophanes on the way, is a
large allowance to have to make for a man of letters, and may appear to
confirm but slightly any claim of intellectual hospitality and general
curiosity put forth for him. The truth was that, sparely constructed as
he was and formed not wastefully, not with material left over, as it
were, for a special function, there were certain chords in Emerson that
did not vibrate at all. I well remember my impression of this on walking
with him in the autumn of 1872 through the galleries of the Louvre and,
later that winter, through those of the Vatican: his perception of the
objects contained in these collections was of the most general order. I
was struck with the anomaly of a man so refined and intelligent being so
little spoken to by works of art. It would be more exact to say that
certain chords were wholly absent; the tune was played, the tune of life
and literature, altogether on those that remained. They had every wish
to be equal to their office, but one feels that the number was
short--that some notes could not be given. Mr. Cabot makes use of a
singular phrase when he says, in speaking of Hawthorne, for several
years our author’s neighbour at Concord and a little--a very little we
gather--his companion, that Emerson was unable to read his novels--he
thought them “not worthy of him.” This is a judgment odd almost to
fascination--we circle round it and turn it over and over; it contains
so elusive an ambiguity. How highly he must have esteemed the man of
whose genius _The House of the Seven Gables_ and _The Scarlet Letter_
gave imperfectly the measure, and how strange that he should not have
been eager to read almost anything that such a gifted being might have
let fall! It was a rare accident that made them live almost side by side
so long in the same small New England town, each a fruit of a long
Puritan stem, yet with such a difference of taste. Hawthorne’s vision
was all for the evil and sin of the world; a side of life as to which
Emerson’s eyes were thickly bandaged. There were points as to which the
latter’s conception of right could be violated, but he had no great
sense of wrong--a strangely limited one, indeed, for a moralist--no
sense of the dark, the foul, the base. There were certain complications
in life which he never suspected. One asks one’s self whether that is
why he did not care for Dante and Shelley and Aristophanes and Dickens,
their works containing a considerable reflection of human perversity.
But that still leaves the indifference to Cervantes and Miss Austen
unaccounted for.

It has not, however, been the ambition of these remarks to account for
everything, and I have arrived at the end without even pointing to the
grounds on which Emerson justifies the honours of biography, discussion
and illustration. I have assumed his importance and continuance, and
shall probably not be gainsaid by those who read him. Those who do not
will hardly rub him out. Such a book as Mr. Cabot’s subjects a
reputation to a test--leads people to look it over and hold it up to the
light, to see whether it is worth keeping in use or even putting away in
a cabinet. Such a revision of Emerson has no relegating consequences.
The result of it is once more the impression that he serves and will not
wear out, and that indeed we cannot afford to drop him. His instrument
makes him precious. He did something better than any one else; he had a
particular faculty, which has not been surpassed, for speaking to the
soul in a voice of direction and authority. There have been many
spiritual voices appealing, consoling, reassuring, exhorting, or even
denouncing and terrifying, but none has had just that firmness and just
that purity. It penetrates further, it seems to go back to the roots of
our feelings, to where conduct and manhood begin; and moreover, to us
to-day, there is something in it that says that it is connected somehow
with the virtue of the world, has wrought and achieved, lived in
thousands of minds, produced a mass of character and life. And there is
this further sign of Emerson’s singular power, that he is a striking
exception to the general rule that writings live in the last resort by
their form; that they owe a large part of their fortune to the art with
which they have been composed. It is hardly too much, or too little, to
say of Emerson’s writings in general that they were not composed at all.
Many and many things are beautifully said; he had felicities,
inspirations, unforgettable phrases; he had frequently an exquisite
eloquence.

     “O my friends, there are resources in us on which we have not yet
     drawn. There are men who rise refreshed on hearing a threat; men to
     whom a crisis which intimidates and paralyses the
     majority--demanding not the faculties of prudence and thrift, but
     comprehension, immovableness, the readiness of sacrifice, come
     graceful and beloved as a bride.... But these are heights that we
     can scarce look up to and remember without contrition and shame.
     Let us thank God that such things exist.”

None the less we have the impression that that search for a fashion and
a manner on which he was always engaged never really came to a
conclusion; it draws itself out through his later writings--it drew
itself out through his later lectures, like a sort of renunciation of
success. It is not on these, however, but on their predecessors, that
his reputation will rest. Of course the way he spoke was the way that
was on the whole most convenient to him; but he differs from most men of
letters of the same degree of credit in failing to strike us as having
achieved a style. This achievement is, as I say, usually the bribe or
toll-money on the journey to posterity; and if Emerson goes his way, as
he clearly appears to be doing, on the strength of his message alone,
the case will be rare, the exception striking, and the honour great.

1887.



II

THE LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT


The writer of these pages has observed that the first question usually
asked in relation to Mr. Cross’s long-expected biography is whether the
reader has not been disappointed in it. The inquirer is apt to be
disappointed if the question be answered in the negative. It may as well
be said, therefore, at the threshold of the following remarks, that such
is not the feeling with which this particular reader laid down the book.
The general feeling about it will depend very much on what has been
looked for; there was probably, in advance, a considerable belief that
we were to be treated to “revelations.” I know not exactly why it should
have been, but certain it is that the announcement of a biography of
George Eliot has been construed more or less as a promise that we were
to be admitted behind the scenes, as it were, of her life. No such
result has taken place. We look at the drama from the point of view
usually allotted to the public, and the curtain is lowered whenever it
suits the biographer. The most “intimate” pages in the book are those in
which the great novelist notes her derangements of health and
depression of spirits. This history, to my sense, is quite as
interesting as it might have been; that is, it is of the deepest
interest, and one misses nothing that is characteristic or essential
except perhaps a few more examples of the _vis comica_ which made half
the fortune of _Adam Bede_ and _Silas Marner_. There is little that is
absent that it would have been in Mr. Cross’s power to give us. George
Eliot’s letters and journals are only a partial expression of her
spirit, but they are evidently as full an expression as it was capable
of giving itself when she was not wound up to the epic pitch. They do
not explain her novels; they reflect in a singularly limited degree the
process of growth of these great works; but it must be added that even a
superficial acquaintance with the author was sufficient to assure one
that her rich and complicated mind did not overflow in idle confidences.
It was benignant and receptive in the highest degree, and nothing could
have been more gracious than the manner of its intercourse; but it was
deeply reserved and very far from egotistical, and nothing could have
been less easy or agreeable to it, I surmise, than to attempt to tell
people how, for instance, the plot of _Romola_ got itself constructed or
the character of Grandcourt got itself observed. There are critics who
refuse to the delineator of this gentleman the title of a genius; who
say that she had only a great talent overloaded with a great store of
knowledge. The label, the epithet, matters little, but it is certain
that George Eliot had this characteristic of the mind _possessed_: that
the creations which brought her renown were of the incalculable kind,
shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back-shop or secret
crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her
life. There is nothing more singular or striking in Mr. Cross’s volumes
than the absence of any indication, up to the time the _Scenes from
Clerical Life_ were published, that Miss Evans was a likely person to
have written them; unless it be the absence of any indication, after
they were published, that the deeply-studious, concentrated,
home-keeping Mrs. Lewes was a likely person to have produced their
successors. I know very well that there is no such thing in general as
the air of the novelist, which it behoves those who practise this art to
put on so that they may be recognised in public places; but there is
such a thing as the air of the sage, the scholar, the philosopher, the
votary of abstractions and of the lore of the ages, and in this pale but
rich _Life_ that is the face that is presented.

The plan on which it is composed is, so far as I know, without
precedent, but it is a plan that could have occurred only to an
“outsider” in literature, if I may venture to apply this term to one who
has executed a literary task with such tact and success. The regular
_littérateur_, hampered by tradition, would, I think, have lacked the
boldness, the artless artfulness, of conjoining in the same text
selected morsels of letters and journals, so as to form a continuous
and multifarious _talk_, on the writer’s part, punctuated only by
marginal names and dates and divisions into chapters. There is something
a little violent in the system, in spite of our feeling that it has been
applied with a supple hand; but it was probably the best that Mr. Cross
could have adopted, and it served especially well his purpose of
appearing only as an arranger, or rather of not appearing at all. The
modesty, the good taste, the self-effacement of the editorial element in
the book are, in a word, complete, and the clearness and care of
arrangement, the accuracy of reference, leave nothing to be desired. The
form Mr. Cross has chosen, or invented, becomes, in the application,
highly agreeable, and his rule of omission (for we have, almost always,
only parts and passages of letters) has not prevented his volumes from
being as copious as we could wish. George Eliot was not a great
letter-writer, either in quantity or quality; she had neither the
spirit, the leisure, nor the lightness of mind to conjure with the
epistolary pen, and after her union with George Henry Lewes her
disposition to play with it was further damped by his quick activity in
her service. Letter-writing was part of the trouble he saved her; in
this as in other ways he interposed between the world and his sensitive
companion. The difference is striking between her habits in this respect
and those of Madame George Sand, whose correspondence has lately been
collected into six closely-printed volumes which testify afresh to her
extraordinary energy and facility. Madame Sand, however, indefatigable
producer as she was, was not a woman of study; she lived from day to
day, from hand to mouth (intellectually), as it were, and had no general
plan of life and culture. Her English compeer took the problem of
production more seriously; she distilled her very substance into the
things she gave the world. There was therefore so much the less of it
left for casual utterance.

It was not till Marian Evans was past thirty, indeed, that she became an
author by profession, and it may accordingly be supposed that her early
letters are those which take us most into her confidence. This is true
of those written when she was on the threshold of womanhood, which form
a very full expression of her feelings at the time. The drawback here is
that the feelings themselves are rather wanting in interest--one may
almost say in amiability. At the age of twenty Marian Evans was a deeply
religious young woman, whose faith took the form of a narrow
evangelicism. Religious, in a manner, she remained to the end of her
life, in spite of her adoption of a scientific explanation of things;
but in the year 1839 she thought it ungodly to go to concerts and to
read novels. She writes to her former governess that she can “only sigh”
when she hears of the “marrying and giving in marriage that is
constantly transacted;” expresses enjoyment of Hannah More’s letters
(“the contemplation of so blessed a character as hers is very
salutary”); wishes that she “might be more useful in her own obscure and
lowly station” (“I feel myself to be a mere cumberer of the ground”),
that she “might seek to be sanctified wholly.” These first fragments of
her correspondence, first glimpses of her mind, are very curious; they
have nothing in common with the later ones but the deep seriousness of
the tone. Serious, of course, George Eliot continued to be to the end;
the sense of moral responsibility, of the sadness and difficulty of
life, was the most inveterate part of her nature. But the provincial
strain in the letters from which I have quoted is very marked: they
reflect a meagreness and grayness of outward circumstance; have a tinge
as of Dissent in a small English town, where there are brick chapels in
back streets. This was only a moment in her development; but there is
something touching in the contrast between such a state of mind and that
of the woman before whom, at middle age, all the culture of the world
unrolled itself, and towards whom fame and fortune, and an activity
which at the earlier period she would have thought very profane, pressed
with rapidity. In 1839, as I have said, she thought very meanly of the
art in which she was to attain such distinction. “I venture to believe
that the same causes which exist in my own breast to render novels and
romances pernicious have their counterpart in every fellow-creature....
The weapons of Christian warfare were never sharpened at the forge of
romance.” The style of these pietistic utterances is singularly
strenuous and hard; the light and familiar are absent from them, and I
think it is not too much to say that they show scarcely a single
premonitory ray of the genius which had _Silas Marner_ in reserve. This
dryness was only a phase, indeed; it was speedily dispelled by more
abundant showers of emotion--by the overflow of perception. Premonitory
rays are still absent, however, after her first asceticism passes
away--a change apparently co-incident with her removal from the country
to the pleasant old town of Coventry, where all American pilgrims to
midland shrines go and murmur Tennyson on the bridge. After the
evangelical note began to fade it was still the desire for faith (a
faith which could reconcile human affection with some of the unamiable
truths of science), still the religious idea that coloured her thought;
not the love of human life as a spectacle, nor the desire to spread the
wings of the artist. It must be remembered, though, that during these
years, if she was not stimulating prophecy in any definite form she was
inhaling those impressions which were to make her first books so full of
the delightful midland quality, the air of old-fashioned provincialism.
The first piece of literary work she attempted (and she brought it to
the best conclusion), was a translation of Strauss’s _Life of Jesus_,
which she began in 1844, when she was not yet twenty-five years of age;
a task which indicates not only the persistence of her religious
preoccupations, as well as the higher form they took, but the fact that
with the limited facilities afforded by her life at that time she had
mastered one of the most difficult of foreign languages and the
vocabulary of a German exegetist. In 1841 she thought it wrong to
encourage novels, but in 1847 she confesses to reading George Sand with
great delight. There is no exhibition in Mr. Cross’s pages of the steps
by which she passed over to a position of tolerant scepticism; but the
details of the process are after all of minor importance: the essential
fact is that the change was predetermined by the nature of her mind.

The great event of her life was of course her acquaintance with George
Henry Lewes. I say “of course,” because this relation had an importance
even more controlling than the publication and success of her first
attempt at fiction, inasmuch as it was in consequence of Mr. Lewes’s
friendly urgency that she wrote the _Scenes of Clerical Life_. She met
him for the first time in London, in the autumn of 1851; but it was not
till the summer of 1854 that the connection with him began (it was
marked to the world by their going to spend together several months in
Germany, where he was bent on researches for his _Life of Goethe_),
which was to become so much closer than many formal marriages and to
last till his death in 1878. The episode of Miss Evans’s life in London
during these three years was already tolerably well known. She had
become by this time a professional literary woman, and had regular work
as assistant editor of the _Westminster Review_, to which she gave her
most conscientious attention. Her accomplishments now were wide. She was
a linguist, a copious reader, an earnest student of history and
philosophy. She wrote much for her magazine as well as solicited
articles from others, and several of her contributions are contained in
the volume of essays published after her death--essays of which it is
fair to say that they give but a faint intimation of her latent powers.
George Henry Lewes was a versatile, hard-working journalist, with a
tendency, apparently, of the drifting sort; and after having been made
acquainted with each other by Mr. Herbert Spencer, the pair commingled
their sympathies and their efforts. Her letters, at this season, contain
constant mention of Lewes (one allusion to the effect that he “has quite
won my regard, after having had a good deal of my vituperation”); she
takes an interest in his health and corrects his proofs for him when he
is absent. It was impossible for Mr. Lewes to marry, as he had a wife
living, from whom he was separated. He had also three children, of whom
the care did not devolve upon their mother. The union Miss Evans formed
with him was a deliberate step, of which she accepted all the
consequences. These consequences were excellent, so far as the world is
at liberty to judge, save in an important particular. This particular
is the fact that her false position, as we may call it, produced upon
George Eliot’s life a certain effect of sequestration which was not
favourable to social freedom, or to freedom of observation, and which
excited on the part of her companion a protecting, sheltering,
fostering, precautionary attitude--the assumption that they lived in
special, in abnormal conditions. It would be too much to say that George
Eliot had not the courage of the situation she had embraced, but she
had, at least, not the levity, the indifference; she was unable, in the
premises, to be sufficiently superficial. Her deep, strenuous,
much-considering mind, of which the leading mark is the capacity for a
sort of luminous brooding, fed upon the idea of her irregularity with an
intensity which doubtless only her magnificent intellectual activity and
Lewes’s brilliancy and ingenuity kept from being morbid. The fault of
most of her work is the absence of spontaneity, the excess of
reflection; and by her action in 1854 (which seemed superficially to be
of the sort usually termed reckless), she committed herself to being
nothing if not reflective, to cultivating a kind of compensatory
earnestness. Her earnestness, her educated conscience, her exalted sense
of responsibility, were coloured by her peculiar position; they
committed her to a plan of life, of study, in which the accidental, the
unexpected, were too little allowed for, and this is what I mean by
speaking of her sequestration. If her relations with the world had been
easier, in a word, her books would have been less difficult. Mr. Cross,
very justly, merely touches upon this question of her forming a tie
which was deprived of the sanction of the law; but he gives a portion of
a letter written to Mrs. Bray more than a year after it had begun, which
sufficiently indicates the serenity of her resolution. Repentance, of
course, she never had--the success of her experiment was too rare and
complete for that; and I do not mean that her attitude was ever for a
moment apologetic. On the contrary, it was only too superabundantly
confirmatory. Her effort was to pitch her life ever in the key of the
superior wisdom that made her say to Mrs. Bray, in the letter of
September 1855, “That any unworldly, unsuperstitious person who is
sufficiently acquainted with the realities of life can pronounce my
relation to Mr. Lewes immoral, I can only understand when I remember how
subtle and complex are the influences that mould opinion.” I need not
attempt to project the light of criticism on this particular case of
conscience; there remains ever, in the mutual relations of intelligent
men and women, an element which is for themselves alone to consider. One
reflection, however, forces itself upon the mind: if the connection had
not taken place we should have lost the spectacle and influence of one
of the most successful partnerships presented to us in the history of
human affection. There has been much talk about George Eliot’s
“example,” which is not to be deprecated so long as it is remembered
that in speaking of the example of a woman of this value we can only
mean example for good. Exemplary indeed in her long connection with
George Henry Lewes were the qualities on which beneficent intimacy
rests.

She was thirty-seven years old when the _Scenes from Clerical Life_ were
published, but this work opened wide for her the door of success, and
fame and fortune came to her rapidly. Her union with Lewes had been a
union of poverty: there is a sentence in her journal, of the year 1856,
which speaks of their ascending certain cliffs called the Tors, at
Ilfracombe, “only twice; for a tax of 3d. per head was demanded for this
luxury, and we could not afford a sixpenny walk very frequently.” The
incentive to writing _Amos Barton_ seems to have been mainly pecuniary.
There was an urgent need to make money, and it appears to have been
agreed between the pair that there was at least no harm in the lady’s
trying her hand at a story. Lewes professed a belief that she would
really do something in this line, while she, more sceptical, reserved
her judgment till after the test. The _Scenes from Clerical Life_ were
therefore pre-eminently an empirical work of fiction. With the sending
of the first episode to the late Mr. John Blackwood for approval, there
opened a relation between publisher and author which lasted to the end,
and which was probably more genial and unclouded than any in the annals
of literature, as well as almost unprecedentedly lucrative to both
parties. This first book of George Eliot’s has little of the usual air
of a first book, none of the crudity of an early attempt; it was not the
work of a youthful person, and one sees that the material had been long
in her mind. The ripeness, the pathos, a sort of considered quality, are
as striking to-day as when _Amos Barton_ and _Janet’s Repentance_ were
published, and enable us to understand that people should have asked
themselves with surprise, at that time, who it was, in the midst of
them, that had been taking notes so long and so wisely without giving a
sign. _Adam Bede_, written rapidly, appeared in 1859, and George Eliot
found herself a consummate novelist without having suspected it. The
book was an immense, a brilliant success, and from this moment the
author’s life took its definite and final direction. She accepted the
great obligations which to her mind belonged to a person who had the ear
of the public, and her whole effort thenceforth was highly to respond to
them--to respond to them by teaching, by vivid moral illustration and
even by direct exhortation. It is striking that from the first her
conception of the novelist’s task is never in the least as the game of
art. The most interesting passage in Mr. Cross’s volumes is to my sense
a simple sentence in a short entry in her journal in the year 1859, just
after she had finished the first volume of _The Mill on the Floss_ (the
original title of which, by the way, had been _Sister Maggie_): “We have
just finished reading aloud Père Goriot, a hateful book.” That Balzac’s
masterpiece should have elicited from her only this remark, at a time,
too, when her mind might have been opened to it by her own activity of
composition, is significant of so many things that the few words are, in
the whole _Life_, those I should have been most sorry to lose. Of course
they are not all George Eliot would have had to say about Balzac, if
some other occasion than a simple jotting in a diary had presented
itself. Still, what even a jotting may _not_ have said after a first
perusal of _Le Père Goriot_ is eloquent; it illuminates the author’s
general attitude with regard to the novel, which, for her, was not
primarily a picture of life, capable of deriving a high value from its
form, but a moralised fable, the last word of a philosophy endeavouring
to teach by example.

This is a very noble and defensible view, and one must speak
respectfully of any theory of work which would produce such fruit as
_Romola_ and _Middlemarch_. But it testifies to that side of George
Eliot’s nature which was weakest--the absence of free æsthetic life (I
venture this remark in the face of a passage quoted from one of her
letters in Mr. Cross’s third volume); it gives the hand, as it were, to
several other instances that may be found in the same pages. “My
function is that of the _æsthetic_, not the doctrinal teacher; the
rousing of the nobler emotions, which make mankind desire the social
right, not the prescribing of special measures, concerning which the
artistic mind, however strongly moved by social sympathy, is often not
the best judge.” That is the passage referred to in my parenthetic
allusion, and it is a good general description of the manner in which
George Eliot may be said to have acted on her generation; but the
“artistic mind,” the possession of which it implies, existed in her with
limitations remarkable in a writer whose imagination was so rich. We
feel in her, always, that she proceeds from the abstract to the
concrete; that her figures and situations are evolved, as the phrase is,
from her moral consciousness, and are only indirectly the products of
observation. They are deeply studied and massively supported, but they
are not _seen_, in the irresponsible plastic way. The world was, first
and foremost, for George Eliot, the moral, the intellectual world; the
personal spectacle came after; and lovingly humanly as she regarded it
we constantly feel that she cares for the things she finds in it only so
far as they are types. The philosophic door is always open, on her
stage, and we are aware that the somewhat cooling draught of ethical
purpose draws across it. This constitutes half the beauty of her work;
the constant reference to ideas may be an excellent source of one kind
of reality--for, after all, the secret of seeing a thing well is not
necessarily that you see nothing else. Her preoccupation with the
universe helped to make her characters strike you as also belonging to
it; it raised the roof, widened the area, of her æsthetic structure.
Nothing is finer, in her genius, than the combination of her love of
general truth and love of the special case; without this, indeed, we
should not have heard of her as a novelist, for the passion of the
special case is surely the basis of the story-teller’s art. All the
same, that little sign of all that Balzac failed to suggest to her
showed at what perils the special case got itself considered. Such
dangers increased as her activity proceeded, and many judges perhaps
hold that in her ultimate work, in _Middlemarch_ and _Daniel Deronda_
(especially the latter), it ceased to be considered at all. Such critics
assure us that Gwendolen and Grandcourt, Deronda and Myra, are not
concrete images, but disembodied types, pale abstractions, signs and
symbols of a “great lesson.” I give up Deronda and Myra to the objector,
but Grandcourt and Gwendolen seem to me to have a kind of superior
reality; to be, in a high degree, what one demands of a figure in a
novel, planted on their legs and complete.

The truth is, perception and reflection, at the outset, divided George
Eliot’s great talent between them; but as time went on circumstances led
the latter to develop itself at the expense of the former--one of these
circumstances being apparently the influence of George Henry Lewes.
Lewes was interested in science, in cosmic problems; and though his
companion, thanks to the original bent of her versatile, powerful mind,
needed no impulse from without to turn herself to speculation, yet the
contagion of his studies pushed her further than she would otherwise
have gone in the direction of scientific observation, which is but
another form of what I have called reflection. Her early novels are
full of natural as distinguished from systematic observation, though
even in them it is less the dominant note, I think, than the love of the
“moral,” the reaction of thought in the face of the human comedy. They
had observation sufficient, at any rate, to make their fortune, and it
may well be said that that is enough for any novel. In _Silas Marner_,
in _Adam Bede_, the quality seems gilded by a sort of autumn haze, an
afternoon light, of meditation, which mitigates the sharpness of
portraiture. I doubt very much whether the author herself had a clear
vision, for instance, of the marriage of Dinah Morris to Adam, or of the
rescue of Hetty from the scaffold at the eleventh hour. The reason of
this may be, indeed, that her perception was a perception of nature much
more than of art, and that these particular incidents do not belong to
nature (to my sense at least); by which I do not mean that they belong
to a very happy art. I cite them, on the contrary, as an evidence of
artistic weakness; they are a very good example of the view in which a
story must have marriages and rescues in the nick of time, as a matter
of course. I must add, in fairness to George Eliot, that the marriage of
the nun-like Dinah, which shocks the reader, who sees in it a base
concession, was a _trouvaille_ of Lewes’s and is a small sign of that
same faulty judgment in literary things which led him to throw his
influence on the side of her writing verse--verse which is _all_
reflection, with direct, vivifying vision, or emotion, remarkably
absent.

It is a part of this same limitation of the pleasure she was capable of
taking in the fact of representation for itself that the various
journals and notes of her visits to the Continent are, though by no
means destitute of the tempered enjoyment of foreign sights which was as
near as she ever came to rapture, singularly vague in expression on the
subject of the general and particular spectacle--the life and manners,
the works of art. She enumerates diligently all the pictures and statues
she sees, and the way she does so is a proof of her active, earnest
intellectual habits; but it is rarely apparent that they have said much
to her, or that what they have said is one of their deeper secrets. She
is capable of writing, after coming out of the great chapel of San
Lorenzo, in Florence, that “the world-famous statues of Michael Angelo
on the tombs ... remained to us as affected and exaggerated in the
original as in copies and casts.” That sentence startles one, on the
part of the author of _Romola_, and that Mr. Cross should have printed
it is a commendable proof of his impartiality.

It was in _Romola_, precisely, that the equilibrium I spoke of just now
was lost, and that reflection began to weigh down the scale. _Romola_ is
pre-eminently a study of the human conscience in an historical setting
which is studied almost as much, and few passages in Mr. Cross’s volumes
are more interesting than those relating to the production of this
magnificent romance. George Eliot took all her work with a noble
seriousness, but into none of it did she throw herself with more
passion. It drained from her as much as she gave to it, and none of her
writing ploughed into her, to use her biographer’s expression, so
deeply. She told him that she began it a young woman and finished it an
old one. More than any of her novels it was evolved, as I have said,
from her moral consciousness--a moral consciousness encircled by a
prodigious amount of literary research. Her literary ideal was at all
times of the highest, but in the preparation of _Romola_ it placed her
under a control absolutely religious. She read innumerable books, some
of them bearing only remotely on her subject, and consulted without
stint contemporary records and documents. She neglected nothing that
would enable her to live, intellectually, in the period she had
undertaken to describe. We know, for the most part, I think, the result.
_Romola_ is on the whole the finest thing she wrote, but its defects are
almost on the scale of its beauties. The great defect is that, except in
the person of Tito Melema, it does not seem positively to live. It is
overladen with learning, it smells of the lamp, it tastes just
perceptibly of pedantry. In spite of its want of blood, however, it
assuredly will survive in men’s remembrance, for the finest pages in it
belong to the finest part of our literature. It is on the whole a
failure, but such a failure as only a great talent can produce; and one
may say of it that there are many great “hits” far less interesting
than such a mistake. A twentieth part of the erudition would have
sufficed, would have given us the feeling and colour of the time, if
there had been more of the breath of the Florentine streets, more of the
faculty of optical evocation, a greater saturation of the senses with
the elements of the adorable little city. The difficulty with the book,
for the most part, is that it is not Italian; it has always seemed to me
the most Germanic of the author’s productions. I cannot imagine a German
writing (in the way of a novel) anything half so good; but if I could
imagine it I should suppose _Romola_ to be very much the sort of picture
he would achieve--the sort of medium through which he would show us how,
by the Arno-side, the fifteenth century came to an end. One of the
sources of interest in the book is that, more than any of its
companions, it indicates how much George Eliot proceeded by reflection
and research; how little important, comparatively, she thought that same
breath of the streets. It carries to a maximum the in-door quality.

The most definite impression produced, perhaps, by Mr. Cross’s volumes
(by the second and third) is that of simple success--success which had
been the result of no external accidents (unless her union with Lewes be
so denominated), but was involved in the very faculties nature had given
her. All the elements of an eventual happy fortune met in her
constitution. The great foundation, to begin with, was there--the
magnificent mind, vigorous, luminous, and eminently sane. To her
intellectual vigour, her immense facility, her exemption from cerebral
lassitude, her letters and journals bear the most copious testimony. Her
daily stint of arduous reading and writing was of the largest. Her
ability, as one may express it in the most general way, was astonishing,
and it belonged to every season of her long and fruitful career. Her
passion for study encountered no impediment, but was able to make
everything feed and support it. The extent and variety of her knowledge
is by itself the measure of a capacity which triumphed wherever it
wished. Add to this an immense special talent which, as soon as it tries
its wings, is found to be adequate to the highest, longest flights and
brings back great material rewards. George Eliot of course had drawbacks
and difficulties, physical infirmities, constant liabilities to
headache, dyspepsia, and other illness, to deep depression, to despair
about her work; but these jolts of the chariot were small in proportion
to the impetus acquired, and were hardly greater than was necessary for
reminding her of the secret of all ambitious workers in the field of
art--that effort, effort, always effort, is the only key to success. Her
great furtherance was that, intensely intellectual being as she was, the
life of affection and emotion was also widely open to her. She had all
the initiation of knowledge and none of its dryness, all the advantages
of judgment and all the luxuries of feeling. She had an imagination
which enabled her to sit at home with book and pen, and yet enter into
the life of other generations; project herself into Warwickshire
ale-houses and Florentine symposia, reconstitute conditions utterly
different from her own. Toward the end she triumphed over the great
impossible; she reconciled the greatest sensibility with the highest
serenity. She succeeded in guarding her pursuits from intrusion; in
carrying out her habits; in sacrificing her work as little as possible;
in leading, in the midst of a society united in conspiracies to
interrupt and vulgarise, an independent, strenuously personal life.
People who had the honour of penetrating into the sequestered precinct
of the Priory--the house in London in which she lived from 1863 to
1880--remember well a kind of sanctity in the place, an atmosphere of
stillness and concentration, something that suggested a literary temple.

It was part of the good fortune of which I speak that in Mr. Lewes she
had found the most devoted of caretakers, the most jealous of ministers,
a companion through whom all business was transacted. The one drawback
of this relation was that, considering what she attempted, it limited
her experience too much to itself; but for the rest it helped her in a
hundred ways--it saved her nerves, it fortified her privacy, it
protected her leisure, it diminished the friction of living. His
admiration of her work was of the largest, though not always, I think,
truly discriminating, and he surrounded her with a sort of temperate
zone of independence--independence of everything except him and her own
standards. Nervous, sensitive, delicate in every way in which genius is
delicate (except, indeed, that she had a robust reason), it was a great
thing for her to have accident made rare and exposure mitigated; and to
this result Lewes, as the administrator of her fame, admirably
contributed. He filtered the stream, giving her only the clearer water.
The accident of reading reviews of one’s productions, especially when
they are bad, is, for the artist of our day, one of the most frequent;
and Mr. Lewes, by keeping these things out of her way, enabled her to
achieve what was perhaps the highest form of her success--an
inaccessibility to the newspaper. “It is remarkable to me,” she writes
in 1876, “that I have entirely lost my _personal_ melancholy. I often,
of course, have melancholy thoughts about the destinies of my fellow
creatures, but I am never in that _mood_ of sadness which used to be my
frequent visitant even in the midst of external happiness.” Her later
years, coloured by this accumulated wisdom, when she had taken her final
form before the world and had come to be regarded more and more as a
teacher and philosopher, are full of suggestion to the critic, but I
have exhausted my limited space. There is a certain coldness in them
perhaps--the coldness that results from most of one’s opinions being
formed, one’s mind made up, on many great subjects; from the degree, in
a word, to which “culture” had taken the place of the more primitive
processes of experience.

“Ah, les livres, ils nous débordent, ils nous étouffent--nous périssons
par les livres!” That cry of a distinguished French novelist (there is
no harm in mentioning M. Alphonse Daudet), which fell upon the ear of
the present writer some time ago, represents as little as possible the
emotion of George Eliot confronted with literatures and sciences. M.
Alphonse Daudet went on to say that, to his mind, the personal
impression, the effort of direct observation, was the most precious
source of information for the novelist; that nothing could take its
place; that the effect of books was constantly to check and pervert this
effort; that a second-hand, third-hand, tenth-hand, impression was
constantly tending to substitute itself for a fresh perception; that we
were ending by seeing everything through literature instead of through
our own senses; and that in short literature was rapidly killing
literature. This view has immense truth on its side, but the case would
be too simple if, on one side or the other, there were only one way of
finding out. The effort of the novelist is to find out, to know, or at
least to see, and no one, in the nature of things, can less afford to be
indifferent to sidelights. Books are themselves, unfortunately, an
expression of human passions. George Eliot had no doubts, at any rate;
if impressionism, before she laid down her pen, had already begun to be
talked about, it would have made no difference with her--she would have
had no desire to pass for an impressionist.

There is one question we cannot help asking ourselves as we close this
record of her life; it is impossible not to let our imagination wander
in the direction of what turn her mind or her fortune might have taken
if she had never met George Henry Lewes, or never cast her lot with his.
It is safe to say that, in one way or another, in the long run, her
novels would have got themselves written, and it is possible they would
have been more natural, as one may call it, more familiarly and casually
human. Would her development have been less systematic, more
irresponsible, more personal, and should we have had more of _Adam Bede_
and _Silas Marner_ and less of _Romola_ and _Middlemarch_? The question,
after all, cannot be answered, and I do not push it, being myself very
grateful for _Middlemarch_ and _Romola_. It is as George Eliot does
actually present herself that we must judge her--a condition that will
not prevent her from striking us as one of the noblest, most beautiful
minds of our time. This impression bears the reader company throughout
these letters and notes. It is impossible not to feel, as we close them,
that she was an admirable being. They are less brilliant, less
entertaining, than we might have hoped; they contain fewer “good things”
and have even a certain grayness of tone, something measured and
subdued, as of a person talking without ever raising her voice. But
there rises from them a kind of fragrance of moral elevation; a love of
justice, truth, and light; a large, generous way of looking at things;
and a constant effort to hold high the torch in the dusky spaces of
man’s conscience. That is how we see her during the latter years of her
life: frail, delicate, shivering a little, much fatigued and
considerably spent, but still meditating on what could be acquired and
imparted; still living, in the intelligence, a freer, larger life than
probably had ever been the portion of any woman. To her own sex her
memory, her example, will remain of the highest value; those of them for
whom the “development” of woman is the hope of the future ought to erect
a monument to George Eliot. She helped on the cause more than any one,
in proving how few limitations are of necessity implied in the feminine
organism. She went so far that such a distance seems enough, and in her
effort she sacrificed no tenderness, no grace. There is much talk to-day
about things being “open to women”; but George Eliot showed that there
is nothing that is closed. If we criticise her novels we must remember
that her nature came first and her work afterwards, and that it is not
remarkable they should not resemble the productions, say, of Alexandre
Dumas. What _is_ remarkable, extraordinary--and the process remains
inscrutable and mysterious--is that this quiet, anxious, sedentary,
serious, invalidical English lady, without animal spirits, without
adventures or sensations, should have made us believe that nothing in
the world was alien to her; should have produced such rich, deep,
masterly pictures of the multiform life of man.

1885.



III

DANIEL DERONDA

A CONVERSATION


Theodora, one day early in the autumn, sat on her verandah with a piece
of embroidery, the design of which she made up as she proceeded, being
careful, however, to have a Japanese screen before her, to keep her
inspiration at the proper altitude. Pulcheria, who was paying her a
visit, sat near her with a closed book, in a paper cover, in her lap.
Pulcheria was playing with the pug-dog, rather idly, but Theodora was
stitching, steadily and meditatively. “Well,” said Theodora, at last, “I
wonder what he accomplished in the East.” Pulcheria took the little dog
into her lap and made him sit on the book. “Oh,” she replied, “they had
tea-parties at Jerusalem--exclusively of ladies--and he sat in the midst
and stirred his tea and made high-toned remarks. And then Mirah sang a
little, just a little, on account of her voice being so weak. Sit still,
Fido,” she continued, addressing the little dog, “and keep your nose out
of my face. But it’s a nice little nose, all the same,” she pursued, “a
nice little short snub nose and not a horrid big Jewish nose. Oh, my
dear, when I think what a collection of noses there must have been at
that wedding!” At this moment Constantius steps upon the verandah from
within, hat and stick in hand and his shoes a trifle dusty. He has some
distance to come before he reaches the place where the ladies are
sitting, and this gives Pulcheria time to murmur, “Talk of snub noses!”
Constantius is presented by Theodora to Pulcheria, and he sits down and
exclaims upon the admirable blueness of the sea, which lies in a
straight band across the green of the little lawn; comments too upon the
pleasure of having one side of one’s verandah in the shade. Soon Fido,
the little dog, still restless, jumps off Pulcheria’s lap and reveals
the book, which lies title upward. “Oh,” says Constantius, “you have
been finishing _Daniel Deronda_?” Then follows a conversation which it
will be more convenient to present in another form.

_Theodora._ Yes, Pulcheria has been reading aloud the last chapters to
me. They are wonderfully beautiful.

_Constantius_ (after a moment’s hesitation). Yes, they are very
beautiful. I am sure you read well, Pulcheria, to give the fine passages
their full value.

_Theodora._ She reads well when she chooses, but I am sorry to say that
in some of the fine passages of this last book she took quite a false
tone. I couldn’t have read them aloud myself; I should have broken
down. But Pulcheria--would you really believe it?--when she couldn’t go
on it was not for tears, but for--the contrary.

_Constantius._ For smiles? Did you really find it comical? One of my
objections to _Daniel Deronda_ is the absence of those delightfully
humorous passages which enlivened the author’s former works.

_Pulcheria._ Oh, I think there are some places as amusing as anything in
_Adam Bede_ or _The Mill on the Floss_: for instance where, at the last,
Deronda wipes Gwendolen’s tears and Gwendolen wipes his.

_Constantius._ Yes, I know what you mean. I can understand that
situation presenting a slightly ridiculous image; that is, if the
current of the story don’t swiftly carry you past.

_Pulcheria._ What do you mean by the current of the story? I never read
a story with less current. It is not a river; it is a series of lakes. I
once read of a group of little uneven ponds resembling, from a
bird’s-eye view, a looking-glass which had fallen upon the floor and
broken, and was lying in fragments. That is what _Daniel Deronda_ would
look like, on a bird’s-eye view.

_Theodora._ Pulcheria found that comparison in a French novel. She is
always reading French novels.

_Constantius._ Ah, there are some very good ones.

_Pulcheria_ (perversely). I don’t know; I think there are some very poor
ones.

_Constantius._ The comparison is not bad, at any rate. I know what you
mean by _Daniel Deronda_ lacking current. It has almost as little as
_Romola_.

_Pulcheria._ Oh, _Romola_ is unpardonably slow; it is a kind of literary
tortoise.

_Constantius._ Yes, I know what you mean by that. But I am afraid you
are not friendly to our great novelist.

_Theodora._ She likes Balzac and George Sand and other impure writers.

_Constantius._ Well, I must say I understand that.

_Pulcheria._ My favourite novelist is Thackeray, and I am extremely fond
of Miss Austen.

_Constantius._ I understand that too. You read over _The Newcomes_ and
_Pride and Prejudice_.

_Pulcheria._ No, I don’t read them over now; I think them over. I have
been making visits for a long time past to a series of friends, and I
have spent the last six months in reading _Daniel Deronda_ aloud.
Fortune would have it that I should always arrive by the same train as
the new number. I am accounted a frivolous, idle creature; I am not a
disciple in the new school of embroidery, like Theodora; so I was
immediately pushed into a chair and the book thrust into my hand, that I
might lift up my voice and make peace between all the impatiences that
were snatching at it. So I may claim at least that I have read every
word of the work. I never skipped.

_Theodora._ I should hope not, indeed!

_Constantius._ And do you mean that you really didn’t enjoy it?

_Pulcheria._ I found it protracted, pretentious, pedantic.

_Constantius._ I see; I can understand that.

_Theodora._ Oh, you understand too much! This is the twentieth time you
have used that formula.

_Constantius._ What will you have? You know I must try to understand;
it’s my trade.

_Theodora._ He means he writes reviews. Trying not to understand is what
I call that trade!

_Constantius._ Say then I take it the wrong way; that is why it has
never made my fortune. But I do try to understand; it is my--my--(He
pauses.)

_Theodora._ I know what you want to say. Your strong side.

_Pulcheria._ And what is his weak side?

_Theodora._ He writes novels.

_Constantius._ I have written _one_. You can’t call that a side. It’s a
little facet, at the most.

_Pulcheria._ You talk as if you were a diamond. I should like to read
it--not aloud!

_Constantius._ You can’t read it softly enough. But you, Theodora, you
didn’t find our book too “protracted”?

_Theodora._ I should have liked it to continue indefinitely, to keep
coming out always, to be one of the regular things of life.

_Pulcheria._ Oh, come here, little dog! To think that _Daniel Deronda_
might be perpetual when you, little short-nosed darling, can’t last at
the most more than nine or ten years!

_Theodora._ A book like _Daniel Deronda_ becomes part of one’s life; one
lives in it, or alongside of it. I don’t hesitate to say that I have
been living in this one for the last eight months. It is such a complete
world George Eliot builds up; it is so vast, so much-embracing! It has
such a firm earth and such an ethereal sky. You can turn into it and
lose yourself in it.

_Pulcheria._ Oh, easily, and die of cold and starvation!

_Theodora._ I have been very near to poor Gwendolen and very near to
that sweet Mirah. And the dear little Meyricks also; I know them
intimately well.

_Pulcheria._ The Meyricks, I grant you, are the best thing in the book.

_Theodora._ They are a delicious family; I wish they lived in Boston. I
consider Herr Klesmer almost Shakespearean, and his wife is almost as
good. I have been near to poor grand Mordecai----

_Pulcheria._ Oh, reflect, my dear; not too near!

_Theodora._ And as for Deronda himself I freely confess that I am
consumed with a hopeless passion for him. He is the most irresistible
man in the literature of fiction.

_Pulcheria._ He is not a man at all.

_Theodora._ I remember nothing more beautiful than the description of
his childhood, and that picture of his lying on the grass in the abbey
cloister, a beautiful seraph-faced boy, with a lovely voice, reading
history and asking his Scotch tutor why the Popes had so many nephews.
He must have been delightfully handsome.

_Pulcheria._ Never, my dear, with that nose! I am sure he had a nose,
and I hold that the author has shown great pusillanimity in her
treatment of it. She has quite shirked it. The picture you speak of is
very pretty, but a picture is not a person. And why is he always
grasping his coat-collar, as if he wished to hang himself up? The author
had an uncomfortable feeling that she must make him do something real,
something visible and sensible, and she hit upon that clumsy figure. I
don’t see what you mean by saying you have been _near_ those people;
that is just what one is not. They produce no illusion. They are
described and analysed to death, but we don’t see them nor hear them nor
touch them. Deronda clutches his coat-collar, Mirah crosses her feet,
Mordecai talks like the Bible; but that doesn’t make real figures of
them. They have no existence outside of the author’s study.

_Theodora._ If you mean that they are nobly imaginative I quite agree
with you; and if they say nothing to your own imagination the fault is
yours, not theirs.

_Pulcheria._ Pray don’t say they are Shakespearean again. Shakespeare
went to work another way.

_Constantius._ I think you are both in a measure right; there is a
distinction to be drawn. There are in _Daniel Deronda_ the figures
based upon observation and the figures based upon invention. This
distinction, I know, is rather a rough one. There are no figures in any
novel that are pure observation, and none that are pure invention. But
either element may preponderate, and in those cases in which invention
has preponderated George Eliot seems to me to have achieved at the best
but so many brilliant failures.

_Theodora._ And are _you_ turning severe? I thought you admired her so
much.

_Constantius._ I defy any one to admire her more, but one must
discriminate. Speaking brutally, I consider _Daniel Deronda_ the weakest
of her books. It strikes me as very sensibly inferior to _Middlemarch_.
I have an immense opinion of _Middlemarch_.

_Pulcheria._ Not having been obliged by circumstances to read
_Middlemarch_ to other people, I didn’t read it at all. I couldn’t read
it to myself. I tried, but I broke down. I appreciated Rosamond, but I
couldn’t believe in Dorothea.

_Theodora_ (very gravely). So much the worse for you, Pulcheria. I have
enjoyed _Daniel Deronda because_ I had enjoyed _Middlemarch_. Why should
you throw _Middlemarch_ up against her? It seems to me that if a book is
fine it is fine. I have enjoyed _Deronda_ deeply, from beginning to end.

_Constantius._ I assure you, so have I. I can read nothing of George
Eliot’s without enjoyment. I even enjoy her poetry, though I don’t
approve of it. In whatever she writes I enjoy her intelligence; it has
space and air, like a fine landscape. The intellectual brilliancy of
_Daniel Deronda_ strikes me as very great, in excess of anything the
author has done. In the first couple of numbers of the book this
ravished me. I delighted in its deep, rich English tone, in which so
many notes seemed melted together.

_Pulcheria._ The tone is not English, it is German.

_Constantius._ I understand that--if Theodora will allow me to say so.
Little by little I began to feel that I cared less for certain notes
than for others. I say it under my breath--I began to feel an occasional
temptation to skip. Roughly speaking, all the Jewish burden of the story
tended to weary me; it is this part that produces the poor illusion
which I agree with Pulcheria in finding. Gwendolen and Grandcourt are
admirable--Gwendolen is a masterpiece. She is known, felt and presented,
psychologically, altogether in the grand manner. Beside her and beside
her husband--a consummate picture of English brutality refined and
distilled (for Grandcourt is before all things brutal), Deronda,
Mordecai and Mirah are hardly more than shadows. They and their fortunes
are all improvisation. I don’t say anything against improvisation. When
it succeeds it has a surpassing charm. But it must succeed. With George
Eliot it seems to me to succeed, but a little less than one would expect
of her talent. The story of Deronda’s life, his mother’s story, Mirah’s
story, are quite the sort of thing one finds in George Sand. But they
are really not so good as they would be in George Sand. George Sand
would have carried it off with a lighter hand.

_Theodora._ Oh, Constantius, how can you compare George Eliot’s novels
to that woman’s? It is sunlight and moonshine.

_Pulcheria._ I really think the two writers are very much alike. They
are both very voluble, both addicted to moralising and philosophising _à
tout bout de champ_, both inartistic.

_Constantius._ I see what you mean. But George Eliot is solid, and
George Sand is liquid. When occasionally George Eliot liquefies--as in
the history of Deronda’s birth, and in that of Mirah--it is not to so
crystalline a clearness as the author of _Consuelo_ and _André_. Take
Mirah’s long narrative of her adventures, when she unfolds them to Mrs.
Meyrick. It is arranged, it is artificial, _ancien jeu_, quite in the
George Sand manner. But George Sand would have done it better. The false
tone would have remained, but it would have been more persuasive. It
would have been a fib, but the fib would have been neater.

_Theodora._ I don’t think fibbing neatly a merit, and I don’t see what
is to be gained by such comparisons. George Eliot is pure and George
Sand is impure; how can you compare them? As for the Jewish element in
Deronda, I think it a very fine idea; it’s a noble subject. Wilkie
Collins and Miss Braddon would not have thought of it, but that does
not condemn it. It shows a large conception of what one may do in a
novel. I heard you say, the other day, that most novels were so
trivial--that they had no general ideas. Here is a general idea, the
idea interpreted by Deronda. I have never disliked the Jews as some
people do; I am not like Pulcheria, who sees a Jew in every bush. I wish
there were one; I would cultivate shrubbery. I have known too many
clever and charming Jews; I have known none that were not clever.

_Pulcheria._ Clever, but not charming.

_Constantius._ I quite agree with you as to Deronda’s going in for the
Jews and turning out a Jew himself being a fine subject, and this quite
apart from the fact of whether such a thing as a Jewish revival be at
all a possibility. If it be a possibility, so much the better--so much
the better for the subject, I mean.

_Pulcheria._ _A la bonne heure!_

_Constantius._ I rather suspect it is not a possibility; that the Jews
in general take themselves much less seriously than that. They have
other fish to fry. George Eliot takes them as a person outside of
Judaism--æsthetically. I don’t believe that is the way they take
themselves.

_Pulcheria._ They have the less excuse then for keeping themselves so
dirty.

_Theodora._ George Eliot must have known some delightful Jews.

_Constantius._ Very likely; but I shouldn’t wonder if the most
delightful of them had smiled a trifle, here and there, over her book.
But that makes nothing, as Herr Klesmer would say. The subject is a
noble one. The idea of depicting a nature able to feel and worthy to
feel the sort of inspiration that takes possession of Deronda, of
depicting it sympathetically, minutely and intimately--such an idea has
great elevation. There is something very fascinating in the mission that
Deronda takes upon himself. I don’t quite know what it means, I don’t
understand more than half of Mordecai’s rhapsodies, and I don’t perceive
exactly what practical steps could be taken. Deronda could go about and
talk with clever Jews--not an unpleasant life.

_Pulcheria._ All that seems to me so unreal that when at the end the
author finds herself confronted with the necessity of making him start
for the East by the train, and announces that Sir Hugo and Lady
Mallinger have given his wife “a complete Eastern outfit,” I descend to
the ground with a ludicrous jump.

_Constantius._ Unreal, if you please; that is no objection to it; it
greatly tickles my imagination. I like extremely the idea of Mordecai
believing, without ground of belief, that if he only wait, a young man
on whom nature and society have centred all their gifts will come to him
and receive from his hands the precious vessel of his hopes. It is
romantic, but it is not vulgar romance; it is finely romantic. And there
is something very fine in the author’s own feeling about Deronda. He is
a very liberal creation. He is, I think, a failure--a brilliant failure;
if he had been a success I should call him a splendid creation. The
author meant to do things very handsomely for him; she meant apparently
to make a faultless human being.

_Pulcheria._ She made a dreadful prig.

_Constantius._ He _is_ rather priggish, and one wonders that so clever a
woman as George Eliot shouldn’t see it.

_Pulcheria._ He has no blood in his body. His attitude at moments is
like that of a high-priest in a _tableau vivant_.

_Theodora._ Pulcheria likes the little gentlemen in the French novels
who take good care of their attitudes, which are always the same
attitude, the attitude of “conquest”--of a conquest that tickles their
vanity. Deronda has a contour that cuts straight through the middle of
all that. He is made of a stuff that isn’t dreamt of in their
philosophy.

_Pulcheria._ Pulcheria likes very much a novel which she read three or
four years ago, but which she has not forgotten. It was by Ivan
Turgénieff, and it was called _On the Eve_. Theodora has read it, I
know, because she admires Turgénieff, and Constantius has read it, I
suppose, because he has read everything.

_Constantius._ If I had no reason but that for my reading, it would be
small. But Turgénieff is my man.

_Pulcheria._ You were just now praising George Eliot’s general ideas.
The tale of which I speak contains in the portrait of the hero very much
such a general idea as you find in the portrait of Deronda. Don’t you
remember the young Bulgarian student, Inssaroff, who gives himself the
mission of rescuing his country from its subjection to the Turks? Poor
man, if he had foreseen the horrible summer of 1876! His character is
the picture of a race-passion, of patriotic hopes and dreams. But what a
difference in the vividness of the two figures. Inssaroff is a man; he
stands up on his feet; we see him, hear him, touch him. And it has taken
the author but a couple of hundred pages--not eight volumes--to do it.

_Theodora._ I don’t remember Inssaroff at all, but I perfectly remember
the heroine, Helena. She is certainly most remarkable, but, remarkable
as she is, I should never dream of calling her as wonderful as
Gwendolen.

_Constantius._ Turgénieff is a magician, which I don’t think I should
call George Eliot. One is a poet, the other is a philosopher. One cares
for the aspect of things and the other cares for the reason of things.
George Eliot, in embarking with Deronda, took aboard, as it were, a far
heavier cargo than Turgénieff with his Inssaroff. She proposed,
consciously, to strike more notes.

_Pulcheria._ Oh, consciously, yes!

_Constantius._ George Eliot wished to show the possible
picturesqueness--the romance, as it were--of a high moral tone. Deronda
is a moralist, a moralist with a rich complexion.

_Theodora._ It is a most beautiful nature. I don’t know anywhere a more
complete, a more deeply analysed portrait of a great nature. We praise
novelists for wandering and creeping so into the small corners of the
mind. That is what we praise Balzac for when he gets down upon all fours
to crawl through _Le Père Goriot_ or _Les Parents Pauvres_. But I must
say I think it a finer thing to unlock with as firm a hand as George
Eliot some of the greater chambers of human character. Deronda is in a
manner an ideal character, if you will, but he seems to me triumphantly
married to reality. There are some admirable things said about him;
nothing can be finer than those pages of description of his moral
temperament in the fourth book--his elevated way of looking at things,
his impartiality, his universal sympathy, and at the same time his fear
of their turning into mere irresponsible indifference. I remember some
of it verbally: “He was ceasing to care for knowledge--he had no
ambition for practice--unless they could be gathered up into one current
with his emotions.”

_Pulcheria._ Oh, there is plenty about his emotions. Everything about
him is “emotive.” That bad word occurs on every fifth page.

_Theodora._ I don’t see that it is a bad word.

_Pulcheria._ It may be good German, but it is poor English.

_Theodora._ It is not German at all; it is Latin. So, my dear!

_Pulcheria._ As I say, then, it is not English.

_Theodora._ This is the first time I ever heard that George Eliot’s
style was bad!

_Constantius._ It is admirable; it has the most delightful and the most
intellectually comfortable suggestions. But it is occasionally a little
too long-sleeved, as I may say. It is sometimes too loose a fit for the
thought, a little baggy.

_Theodora._ And the advice he gives Gwendolen, the things he says to
her, they are the very essence of wisdom, of warm human wisdom, knowing
life and feeling it. “Keep your fear as a safeguard, it may make
consequences passionately present to you.” What can be better than that?

_Pulcheria._ Nothing, perhaps. But what can be drearier than a novel in
which the function of the hero--young, handsome and brilliant--is to
give didactic advice, in a proverbial form, to the young, beautiful and
brilliant heroine?

_Constantius._ That is not putting it quite fairly. The function of
Deronda is to make Gwendolen fall in love with him, to say nothing of
falling in love himself with Mirah.

_Pulcheria._ Yes, the less said about that the better. All we know about
Mirah is that she has delicate rings of hair, sits with her feet
crossed, and talks like an article in a new magazine.

_Constantius._ Deronda’s function of adviser to Gwendolen does not
strike me as so ridiculous. He is not nearly so ridiculous as if he were
lovesick. It is a very interesting situation--that of a man with whom a
beautiful woman in trouble falls in love and yet whose affections are so
preoccupied that the most he can do for her in return is to enter kindly
and sympathetically into her position, pity her and talk to her. George
Eliot always gives us something that is strikingly and ironically
characteristic of human life; and what savours more of the essential
crookedness of our fate than the sad cross-purposes of these two young
people? Poor Gwendolen’s falling in love with Deronda is part of her own
luckless history, not of his.

_Theodora._ I do think he takes it to himself rather too little. No man
had ever so little vanity.

_Pulcheria._ It is very inconsistent, therefore, as well as being
extremely impertinent and ill-mannered, his buying back and sending to
her her necklace at Leubronn.

_Constantius._ Oh, you must concede that; without it there would have
been no story. A man writing of him, however, would certainly have made
him more peccable. As George Eliot lets herself go, in that quarter, she
becomes delightfully, almost touchingly, feminine. It is like her making
Romola go to housekeeping with Tessa, after Tito Melema’s death; like
her making Dorothea marry Will Ladislaw. If Dorothea had married any one
after her misadventure with Casaubon, she would have married a trooper.

_Theodora._ Perhaps some day Gwendolen will marry Rex.

_Pulcheria._ Pray, who is Rex?

_Theodora._ Why, Pulcheria, how can you forget?

_Pulcheria._ Nay, how can I remember? But I recall such a name in the
dim antiquity of the first or second book. Yes, and then he is pushed to
the front again at the last, just in time not to miss the falling of the
curtain. Gwendolen will certainly not have the audacity to marry any one
we know so little about.

_Constantius._ I have been wanting to say that there seems to me to be
two very distinct elements in George Eliot--a spontaneous one and an
artificial one. There is what she is by inspiration and what she is
because it is expected of her. These two heads have been very
perceptible in her recent writings; they are much less noticeable in her
early ones.

_Theodora._ You mean that she is too scientific? So long as she remains
the great literary genius that she is, how can she be too scientific?
She is simply permeated with the highest culture of the age.

_Pulcheria._ She talks too much about the “dynamic quality” of people’s
eyes. When she uses such a phrase as that in the first sentence in her
book she is not a great literary genius, because she shows a want of
tact. There can’t be a worse limitation.

_Constantius._ The “dynamic quality” of Gwendolen’s glance has made the
tour of the world.

_Theodora._ It shows a very low level of culture on the world’s part to
be agitated by a term perfectly familiar to all decently-educated
people.

_Pulcheria._ I don’t pretend to be decently educated; pray tell me what
it means.

_Constantius_ (promptly). I think Pulcheria has hit it in speaking of a
want of tact. In the manner of the book, throughout, there is something
that one may call a want of tact. The epigraphs in verse are a want of
tact; they are sometimes, I think, a trifle more pretentious than really
pregnant; the importunity of the moral reflections is a want of tact;
the very diffuseness is a want of tact. But it comes back to what I said
just now about one’s sense of the author writing under a sort of
external pressure. I began to notice it in _Felix Holt_; I don’t think I
had before. She strikes me as a person who certainly has naturally a
taste for general considerations, but who has fallen upon an age and a
circle which have compelled her to give them an exaggerated attention.
She does not strike me as naturally a critic, less still as naturally a
sceptic; her spontaneous part is to observe life and to feel it, to feel
it with admirable depth. Contemplation, sympathy and faith--something
like that, I should say, would have been her natural scale. If she had
fallen upon an age of enthusiastic assent to old articles of faith, it
seems to me possible that she would have had a more perfect, a more
consistent and graceful development, than she has actually had. If she
had cast herself into such a current--her genius being equal--it might
have carried her to splendid distances. But she has chosen to go into
criticism, and to the critics she addresses her work; I mean the critics
of the universe. Instead of feeling life itself, it is “views” upon life
that she tries to feel.

_Pulcheria._ She is the victim of a first-class education. I am so glad!

_Constantius._ Thanks to her admirable intellect she philosophises very
sufficiently; but meanwhile she has given a chill to her genius. She has
come near spoiling an artist.

_Pulcheria._ She has quite spoiled one. Or rather I shouldn’t say that,
because there was no artist to spoil. I maintain that she is not an
artist. An artist could never have put a story together so monstrously
ill. She has no sense of form.

_Theodora._ Pray, what could be more artistic than the way that
Deronda’s paternity is concealed till almost the end, and the way we are
made to suppose Sir Hugo is his father?

_Pulcheria._ And Mirah his sister. How does that fit together? I was as
little made to suppose he was not a Jew as I cared when I found out he
was. And his mother popping up through a trap-door and popping down
again, at the last, in that scrambling fashion! His mother is very bad.

_Constantius._ I think Deronda’s mother is one of the unvivified
characters; she belongs to the cold half of the book. All the Jewish
part is at bottom cold; that is my only objection. I have enjoyed it
because my fancy often warms cold things; but beside Gwendolen’s history
it is like the empty half of the lunar disk beside the full one. It is
admirably studied, it is imagined, it is understood, but it is not
embodied. One feels this strongly in just those scenes between Deronda
and his mother; one feels that one has been appealed to on rather an
artificial ground of interest. To make Deronda’s reversion to his native
faith more dramatic and profound, the author has given him a mother who
on very arbitrary grounds, apparently, has separated herself from this
same faith and who has been kept waiting in the wing, as it were, for
many acts, to come on and make her speech and say so. This moral
situation of hers we are invited retrospectively to appreciate. But we
hardly care to do so.

_Pulcheria._ I don’t _see_ the princess, in spite of her flame-coloured
robe. Why should an actress and prima-donna care so much about religious
matters?

_Theodora._ It was not only that; it was the Jewish race she hated,
Jewish manners and looks. You, my dear, ought to understand that.

_Pulcheria._ I do, but I am not a Jewish actress of genius; I am not
what Rachel was. If I were I should have other things to think about.

_Constantius._ Think now a little about poor Gwendolen.

_Pulcheria._ I don’t care to think about her. She was a second-rate
English girl who got into a flutter about a lord.

_Theodora._ I don’t see that she is worse than if she were a first-rate
American girl who should get into exactly the same flutter.

_Pulcheria._ It wouldn’t be the same flutter at all; it wouldn’t be any
flutter. She wouldn’t be afraid of the lord, though she might be amused
at him.

_Theodora._ I am sure I don’t perceive whom Gwendolen was afraid of. She
was afraid of her misdeed--her broken promise--after she had committed
it, and through that fear she was afraid of her husband. Well she might
be! I can imagine nothing more vivid than the sense we get of his
absolutely clammy selfishness.

_Pulcheria._ She was not afraid of Deronda when, immediately after her
marriage and without any but the most casual acquaintance with him, she
begins to hover about him at the Mallingers’ and to drop little
confidences about her conjugal woes. That seems to me very indelicate;
ask any woman.

_Constantius._ The very purpose of the author is to give us an idea of
the sort of confidence that _Deronda_ inspired--its irresistible
potency.

_Pulcheria._ A lay father-confessor--horrid!

_Constantius._ And to give us an idea also of the acuteness of
Gwendolen’s depression, of her haunting sense of impending trouble.

_Theodora._ It must be remembered that Gwendolen was in love with
Deronda from the first, long before she knew it. She didn’t know it,
poor girl, but that was it.

_Pulcheria._ That makes the matter worse. It is very disagreeable to see
her hovering and rustling about a man who is indifferent to her.

_Theodora._ He was not indifferent to her, since he sent her back her
necklace.

_Pulcheria._ Of all the delicate attention to a charming girl that I
ever heard of, that little pecuniary transaction is the most felicitous.

_Constantius._ You must remember that he had been _en rapport_ with her
at the gaming-table. She had been playing in defiance of his
observation, and he, continuing to observe her, had been in a measure
responsible for her loss. There was a tacit consciousness of this
between them. You may contest the possibility of tacit consciousness
going so far, but that is not a serious objection. You may point out two
or three weak spots in detail; the fact remains that Gwendolen’s whole
history is vividly told. And see how the girl is known, inside out, how
thoroughly she is felt and understood. It is the most _intelligent_
thing in all George Eliot’s writing, and that is saying much. It is so
deep, so true, so complete, it holds such a wealth of psychological
detail, it is more than masterly.

_Theodora._ I don’t know where the perception of character has sailed
closer to the wind.

_Pulcheria._ The portrait may be admirable, but it has one little fault.
You don’t care a straw for the original. Gwendolen is not an
interesting girl, and when the author tries to invest her with a deep
tragic interest she does so at the expense of consistency. She has made
her at the outset too light, too flimsy; tragedy has no hold on such a
girl.

_Theodora._ You are hard to satisfy. You said this morning that Dorothea
was too heavy, and now you find Gwendolen too light. George Eliot wished
to give us the perfect counterpart of Dorothea. Having made one portrait
she was worthy to make the other.

_Pulcheria._ She has committed the fatal error of making Gwendolen
vulgarly, pettily, drily selfish. She was _personally_ selfish.

_Theodora._ I know nothing more personal than selfishness.

_Pulcheria._ I am selfish, but I don’t go about with my chin out like
that; at least I hope I don’t. She was an odious young woman, and one
can’t care what becomes of her. When her marriage turned out ill she
would have become still more hard and positive; to make her soft and
appealing is very bad logic. The second Gwendolen doesn’t belong to the
first.

_Constantius._ She is perhaps at the first a little childish for the
weight of interest she has to carry, a little too much after the pattern
of the unconscientious young ladies of Miss Yonge and Miss Sewell.

_Theodora._ Since when it is forbidden to make one’s heroine young?
Gwendolen is a perfect picture of youthfulness--its eagerness, its
presumption, its preoccupation with itself, its vanity and silliness,
its sense of its own absoluteness. But she is extremely intelligent and
clever, and therefore tragedy _can_ have a hold upon her. Her conscience
doesn’t make the tragedy; that is an old story and, I think, a secondary
form of suffering. It is the tragedy that makes her conscience, which
then reacts upon it; and I can think of nothing more powerful than the
way in which the growth of her conscience is traced, nothing more
touching than the picture of its helpless maturity.

_Constantius._ That is perfectly true. Gwendolen’s history is admirably
typical--as most things are with George Eliot: it is the very stuff that
human life is made of. What is it made of but the discovery by each of
us that we are at the best but a rather ridiculous fifth wheel to the
coach, after we have sat cracking our whip and believing that we are at
least the coachman in person? We think we are the main hoop to the
barrel, and we turn out to be but a very incidental splinter in one of
the staves. The universe forcing itself with a slow, inexorable pressure
into a narrow, complacent, and yet after all extremely sensitive mind,
and making it ache with the pain of the process--that is Gwendolen’s
story. And it becomes completely characteristic in that her supreme
perception of the fact that the world is whirling past her is in the
disappointment not of a base but of an exalted passion. The very chance
to embrace what the author is so fond of calling a “larger life” seems
refused to her. She is punished for being narrow, and she is not
allowed a chance to expand. Her finding Deronda pre-engaged to go to the
East and stir up the race-feeling of the Jews strikes me as a
wonderfully happy invention. The irony of the situation, for poor
Gwendolen, is almost grotesque, and it makes one wonder whether the
whole heavy structure of the Jewish question in the story was not built
up by the author for the express purpose of giving its proper force to
this particular stroke.

_Theodora._ George Eliot’s intentions are extremely complex. The mass is
for each detail and each detail is for the mass.

_Pulcheria._ She is very fond of deaths by drowning. Maggie Tulliver and
her brother are drowned, Tito Melema is drowned, Mr. Grandcourt is
drowned. It is extremely unlikely that Grandcourt should not have known
how to swim.

_Constantius._ He did, of course, but he had a cramp. It served him
right. I can’t imagine a more consummate representation of the most
detestable kind of Englishman--the Englishman who thinks it low to
articulate. And in Grandcourt the type and the individual are so happily
met: the type with its sense of the proprieties and the individual with
his absence of all sense. He is the apotheosis of dryness, a human
expression of the simple idea of the perpendicular.

_Theodora._ Mr. Casaubon, in _Middlemarch_, was very dry too; and yet
what a genius it is that can give us two disagreeable husbands who are
so utterly different!

_Pulcheria._ You must count the two disagreeable wives too--Rosamond
Vincy and Gwendolen. They are very much alike. I know the author didn’t
mean it; it proves how common a type the worldly, _pincée_, selfish
young woman seemed to her. They are both disagreeable; you can’t get
over that.

_Constantius._ There is something in that, perhaps. I think, at any
rate, that the secondary people here are less delightful than in
_Middlemarch_; there is nothing so good as Mary Garth and her father, or
the little old lady who steals sugar, or the parson who is in love with
Mary, or the country relatives of old Mr. Featherstone. Rex Gascoigne is
not so good as Fred Vincy.

_Theodora._ Mr. Gascoigne is admirable, and Mrs. Davilow is charming.

_Pulcheria._ And you must not forget that you think Herr Klesmer
“Shakespearean.” Wouldn’t “Wagnerian” be high enough praise?

_Constantius._ Yes, one must make an exception with regard to the
Klesmers and the Meyricks. They are delightful, and as for Klesmer
himself, and Hans Meyrick, Theodora may maintain her epithet.
Shakespearean characters are characters that are born of the _overflow_
of observation--characters that make the drama seem multitudinous, like
life. Klesmer comes in with a sort of Shakespearean “value,” as a
painter would say, and so, in a different tone, does Hans Meyrick. They
spring from a much-peopled mind.

_Theodora._ I think Gwendolen’s confrontation with Klesmer one of the
finest things in the book.

_Constantius._ It is like everything in George Eliot; it will bear
thinking of.

_Pulcheria._ All that is very fine, but you cannot persuade me that
_Deronda_ is not a very ponderous and ill-made story. It has nothing
that one can call a subject. A silly young girl and a solemn, sapient
young man who doesn’t fall in love with her! That is the _donnée_ of
eight monthly volumes. I call it very flat. Is that what the exquisite
art of Thackeray and Miss Austen and Hawthorne has come to? I would as
soon read a German novel outright.

_Theodora._ There is something higher than form--there is spirit.

_Constantius._ I am afraid Pulcheria is sadly æsthetic. She had better
confine herself to Mérimée.

_Pulcheria._ I shall certainly to-day read over _La Double Méprise_.

_Theodora._ Oh, my dear, _y pensez-vous_?

_Constantius._ Yes, I think there is little art in _Deronda_, but I
think there is a vast amount of life. In life without art you can find
your account; but art without life is a poor affair. The book is full of
the world.

_Theodora._ It is full of beauty and knowledge, and that is quite art
enough for me.

_Pulcheria_ (to the little dog). We are silenced, darling, but we are
not convinced, are we? (The pug begins to bark.) No, we are not even
silenced. It’s a young woman with two bandboxes.

_Theodora._ Oh, it must be our muslins.

_Constantius_ (rising to go). I see what you mean!

1876.



IV

ANTHONY TROLLOPE


When, a few months ago, Anthony Trollope laid down his pen for the last
time, it was a sign of the complete extinction of that group of
admirable writers who, in England, during the preceding half century,
had done so much to elevate the art of the novelist. The author of _The
Warden_, of _Barchester Towers_, of _Framley Parsonage_, does not, to
our mind, stand on the very same level as Dickens, Thackeray and George
Eliot; for his talent was of a quality less fine than theirs. But he
belonged to the same family--he had as much to tell us about English
life; he was strong, genial and abundant. He published too much; the
writing of novels had ended by becoming, with him, a perceptibly
mechanical process. Dickens was prolific, Thackeray produced with a
freedom for which we are constantly grateful; but we feel that these
writers had their periods of gestation. They took more time to look at
their subject; relatively (for to-day there is not much leisure, at
best, for those who undertake to entertain a hungry public), they were
able to wait for inspiration. Trollope’s fecundity was prodigious;
there was no limit to the work he was ready to do. It is not unjust to
say that he sacrificed quality to quantity. Abundance, certainly, is in
itself a great merit; almost all the greatest writers have been
abundant. But Trollope’s fertility was gross, importunate; he himself
contended, we believe, that he had given to the world a greater number
of printed pages of fiction than any of his literary contemporaries. Not
only did his novels follow each other without visible intermission,
overlapping and treading on each other’s heels, but most of these works
are of extraordinary length. _Orley Farm_, _Can You Forgive Her?_, _He
Knew He Was Right_, are exceedingly voluminous tales. _The Way We Live
Now_ is one of the longest of modern novels. Trollope produced,
moreover, in the intervals of larger labour a great number of short
stories, many of them charming, as well as various books of travel, and
two or three biographies. He was the great _improvvisatore_ of these
latter years. Two distinguished story-tellers of the other sex--one in
France and one in England--have shown an extraordinary facility of
composition; but Trollope’s pace was brisker even than that of the
wonderful Madame Sand and the delightful Mrs. Oliphant. He had taught
himself to keep this pace, and had reduced his admirable faculty to a
system. Every day of his life he wrote a certain number of pages of his
current tale, a number sacramental and invariable, independent of mood
and place. It was once the fortune of the author of these lines to
cross the Atlantic in his company, and he has never forgotten the
magnificent example of plain persistence that it was in the power of the
eminent novelist to give on that occasion. The season was unpropitious,
the vessel overcrowded, the voyage detestable; but Trollope shut himself
up in his cabin every morning for a purpose which, on the part of a
distinguished writer who was also an invulnerable sailor, could only be
communion with the muse. He drove his pen as steadily on the tumbling
ocean as in Montague Square; and as his voyages were many, it was his
practice before sailing to come down to the ship and confer with the
carpenter, who was instructed to rig up a rough writing-table in his
small sea-chamber. Trollope has been accused of being deficient in
imagination, but in the face of such a fact as that the charge will
scarcely seem just. The power to shut one’s eyes, one’s ears (to say
nothing of another sense), upon the scenery of a pitching Cunarder and
open them upon the loves and sorrows of Lily Dale or the conjugal
embarrassments of Lady Glencora Palliser, is certainly a faculty which
could take to itself wings. The imagination that Trollope possessed he
had at least thoroughly at his command. I speak of all this in order to
explain (in part) why it was that, with his extraordinary gift, there
was always in him a certain infusion of the common. He abused his gift,
overworked it, rode his horse too hard. As an artist he never took
himself seriously; many people will say this was why he was so
delightful. The people who take themselves seriously are prigs and
bores; and Trollope, with his perpetual “story,” which was the only
thing he cared about, his strong good sense, hearty good nature,
generous appreciation of life in all its varieties, responds in
perfection to a certain English ideal. According to that ideal it is
rather dangerous to be explicitly or consciously an artist--to have a
system, a doctrine, a form. Trollope, from the first, went in, as they
say, for having as little form as possible; it is probably safe to
affirm that he had no “views” whatever on the subject of novel-writing.
His whole manner is that of a man who regards the practice as one of the
more delicate industries, but has never troubled his head nor clogged
his pen with theories about the nature of his business. Fortunately he
was not obliged to do so, for he had an easy road to success; and his
honest, familiar, deliberate way of treating his readers as if he were
one of them, and shared their indifference to a general view, their
limitations of knowledge, their love of a comfortable ending, endeared
him to many persons in England and America. It is in the name of some
chosen form that, of late years, things have been made most disagreeable
for the novel-reader, who has been treated by several votaries of the
new experiments in fiction to unwonted and bewildering sensations. With
Trollope we were always safe; there were sure to be no new experiments.

His great, his inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the
usual. This gift is not rare in the annals of English fiction; it would
naturally be found in a walk of literature in which the feminine mind
has laboured so fruitfully. Women are delicate and patient observers;
they hold their noses close, as it were, to the texture of life. They
feel and perceive the real with a kind of personal tact, and their
observations are recorded in a thousand delightful volumes. Trollope,
therefore, with his eyes comfortably fixed on the familiar, the actual,
was far from having invented a new category; his great distinction is
that in resting there his vision took in so much of the field. And then
he _felt_ all daily and immediate things as well as saw them; felt them
in a simple, direct, salubrious way, with their sadness, their gladness,
their charm, their comicality, all their obvious and measurable
meanings. He never wearied of the pre-established round of English
customs--never needed a respite or a change--was content to go on
indefinitely watching the life that surrounded him, and holding up his
mirror to it. Into this mirror the public, at first especially, grew
very fond of looking--for it saw itself reflected in all the most
credible and supposable ways, with that curiosity that people feel to
know how they look when they are represented, “just as they are,” by a
painter who does not desire to put them into an attitude, to drape them
for an effect, to arrange his light and his accessories. This exact and
on the whole becoming image, projected upon a surface without a strong
intrinsic tone, constitutes mainly the entertainment that Trollope
offered his readers. The striking thing to the critic was that his
robust and patient mind had no particular bias, his imagination no light
of its own. He saw things neither pictorially and grotesquely like
Dickens; nor with that combined disposition to satire and to literary
form which gives such “body,” as they say of wine, to the manner of
Thackeray; nor with anything of the philosophic, the transcendental
cast--the desire to follow them to their remote relations--which we
associate with the name of George Eliot. Trollope had his elements of
fancy, of satire, of irony; but these qualities were not very highly
developed, and he walked mainly by the light of his good sense, his
clear, direct vision of the things that lay nearest, and his great
natural kindness. There is something remarkably tender and friendly in
his feeling about all human perplexities; he takes the good-natured,
temperate, conciliatory view--the humorous view, perhaps, for the most
part, yet without a touch of pessimistic prejudice. As he grew older,
and had sometimes to go farther afield for his subjects, he acquired a
savour of bitterness and reconciled himself sturdily to treating of the
disagreeable. A more copious record of disagreeable matters could
scarcely be imagined, for instance, than _The Way We Live Now_. But, in
general, he has a wholesome mistrust of morbid analysis, an aversion to
inflicting pain. He has an infinite love of detail, but his details are,
for the most part, the innumerable items of the expected. When the
French are disposed to pay a compliment to the English mind they are so
good as to say that there is in it something remarkably _honnête_. If I
might borrow this epithet without seeming to be patronising, I should
apply it to the genius of Anthony Trollope. He represents in an eminent
degree this natural decorum of the English spirit, and represents it all
the better that there is not in him a grain of the mawkish or the
prudish. He writes, he feels, he judges like a man, talking plainly and
frankly about many things, and is by no means destitute of a certain
saving grace of coarseness. But he has kept the purity of his
imagination and held fast to old-fashioned reverences and preferences.
He thinks it a sufficient objection to several topics to say simply that
they are unclean. There was nothing in his theory of the story-teller’s
art that tended to convert the reader’s or the writer’s mind into a
vessel for polluting things. He recognised the right of the vessel to
protest, and would have regarded such a protest as conclusive. With a
considerable turn for satire, though this perhaps is more evident in his
early novels than in his later ones, he had as little as possible of the
quality of irony. He never played with a subject, never juggled with the
sympathies or the credulity of his reader, was never in the least
paradoxical or mystifying. He sat down to his theme in a serious,
business-like way, with his elbows on the table and his eye occasionally
wandering to the clock.

To touch successively upon these points is to attempt a portrait, which
I shall perhaps not altogether have failed to produce. The source of his
success in describing the life that lay nearest to him, and describing
it without any of those artistic perversions that come, as we have said,
from a powerful imagination, from a cynical humour or from a desire to
look, as George Eliot expresses it, for the suppressed transitions that
unite all contrasts, the essence of this love of reality was his extreme
interest in character. This is the fine and admirable quality in
Trollope, this is what will preserve his best works in spite of those
flatnesses which keep him from standing on quite the same level as the
masters. Indeed this quality is so much one of the finest (to my mind at
least), that it makes me wonder the more that the writer who had it so
abundantly and so naturally should not have just that distinction which
Trollope lacks, and which we find in his three brilliant contemporaries.
If he was in any degree a man of genius (and I hold that he was), it was
in virtue of this happy, instinctive perception of human varieties. His
knowledge of the stuff we are made of, his observation of the common
behaviour of men and women, was not reasoned nor acquired, not even
particularly studied. All human doings deeply interested him, human
life, to his mind, was a perpetual story; but he never attempted to take
the so-called scientific view, the view which has lately found ingenious
advocates among the countrymen and successors of Balzac. He had no airs
of being able to tell you _why_ people in a given situation would
conduct themselves in a particular way; it was enough for him that he
felt their feelings and struck the right note, because he had, as it
were, a good ear. If he was a knowing psychologist he was so by grace;
he was just and true without apparatus and without effort. He must have
had a great taste for the moral question; he evidently believed that
this is the basis of the interest of fiction. We must be careful, of
course, in attributing convictions and opinions to Trollope, who, as I
have said, had as little as possible of the pedantry of his art, and
whose occasional chance utterances in regard to the object of the
novelist and his means of achieving it are of an almost startling
simplicity. But we certainly do not go too far in saying that he gave
his practical testimony in favour of the idea that the interest of a
work of fiction is great in proportion as the people stand on their
feet. His great effort was evidently to make them stand so; if he
achieved this result with as little as possible of a flourish of the
hand it was nevertheless the measure of his success. If he had taken
sides on the droll, bemuddled opposition between novels of character and
novels of plot, I can imagine him to have said (except that he never
expressed himself in epigrams), that he preferred the former class,
inasmuch as character in itself is plot, while plot is by no means
character. It is more safe indeed to believe that his great good sense
would have prevented him from taking an idle controversy seriously.
Character, in any sense in which we can get at it, is action, and action
is plot, and any plot which hangs together, even if it pretend to
interest us only in the fashion of a Chinese puzzle, plays upon our
emotion, our suspense, by means of personal references. We care what
happens to people only in proportion as we know what people are.
Trollope’s great apprehension of the real, which was what made him so
interesting, came to him through his desire to satisfy us on this
point--to tell us what certain people were and what they did in
consequence of being so. That is the purpose of each of his tales; and
if these things produce an illusion it comes from the gradual abundance
of his testimony as to the temper, the tone, the passions, the habits,
the moral nature, of a certain number of contemporary Britons.

His stories, in spite of their great length, deal very little in the
surprising, the exceptional, the complicate; as a general thing he has
no great story to tell. The thing is not so much a story as a picture;
if we hesitate to call it a picture it is because the idea of
composition is not the controlling one and we feel that the author would
regard the artistic, in general, as a kind of affectation. There is not
even much description, in the sense which the present votaries of
realism in France attach to that word. The painter lays his scene in a
few deliberate, not especially pictorial strokes, and never dreams of
finishing the piece for the sake of enabling the reader to hang it up.
The finish, such as it is, comes later, from the slow and somewhat
clumsy accumulation of small illustrations. These illustrations are
sometimes of the commonest; Trollope turns them out inexhaustibly,
repeats them freely, unfolds them without haste and without rest. But
they are all of the most obvious sort, and they are none the worse for
that. The point to be made is that they have no great spectacular
interest (we beg pardon of the innumerable love-affairs that Trollope
has described), like many of the incidents, say, of Walter Scott and of
Alexandre Dumas: if we care to know about them (as repetitions of a
usual case), it is because the writer has managed, in his candid,
literal, somewhat lumbering way, to tell us that about the men and women
concerned which has already excited on their behalf the impression of
life. It is a marvel by what homely arts, by what imperturbable
button-holing persistence, he contrives to excite this impression. Take,
for example, such a work as _The Vicar of Bullhampton_. It would be
difficult to state the idea of this slow but excellent story, which is a
capital example of interest produced by the quietest conceivable means.
The principal persons in it are a lively, jovial, high-tempered country
clergyman, a young woman who is in love with her cousin, and a small,
rather dull squire who is in love with the young woman. There is no
connection between the affairs of the clergyman and those of the two
other persons, save that these two are the Vicar’s friends. The Vicar
gives countenance, for Christian charity’s sake, to a young countryman
who is suspected (falsely, as it appears), of murder, and also to the
lad’s sister, who is more than suspected of leading an immoral life.
Various people are shocked at his indiscretion, but in the end he is
shown to have been no worse a clergyman because he is a good fellow. A
cantankerous nobleman, who has a spite against him, causes a Methodist
conventicle to be erected at the gates of the vicarage; but afterward,
finding that he has no title to the land used for this obnoxious
purpose, causes the conventicle to be pulled down, and is reconciled
with the parson, who accepts an invitation to stay at the castle. Mary
Lowther, the heroine of _The Vicar of Bullhampton_, is sought in
marriage by Mr. Harry Gilmore, to whose passion she is unable to
respond; she accepts him, however, making him understand that she does
not love him, and that her affections are fixed upon her kinsman,
Captain Marrable, whom she would marry (and who would marry her), if he
were not too poor to support a wife. If Mr. Gilmore will take her on
these terms she will become his spouse; but she gives him all sorts of
warnings. They are not superfluous; for, as Captain Marrable presently
inherits a fortune, she throws over Mr. Gilmore, who retires to foreign
lands, heart-broken, inconsolable. This is the substance of _The Vicar
of Bullhampton_; the reader will see that it is not a very tangled
skein. But if the interest is gradual it is extreme and constant, and it
comes altogether from excellent portraiture. It is essentially a moral,
a social interest. There is something masterly in the large-fisted grip
with which, in work of this kind, Trollope handles his brush. The
Vicar’s nature is thoroughly analysed and rendered, and his monotonous
friend the Squire, a man with limitations, but possessed and consumed by
a genuine passion, is equally near the truth.

Trollope has described again and again the ravages of love, and it is
wonderful to see how well, in these delicate matters, his plain good
sense and good taste serve him. His story is always primarily a
love-story, and a love-story constructed on an inveterate system. There
is a young lady who has two lovers, or a young man who has two
sweethearts; we are treated to the innumerable forms in which this
predicament may present itself and the consequences, sometimes pathetic,
sometimes grotesque, which spring from such false situations. Trollope
is not what is called a colourist; still less is he a poet: he is seated
on the back of heavy-footed prose. But his account of those sentiments
which the poets are supposed to have made their own is apt to be as
touching as demonstrations more lyrical. There is something wonderfully
vivid in the state of mind of the unfortunate Harry Gilmore, of whom I
have just spoken; and his history, which has no more pretensions to
style than if it were cut out of yesterday’s newspaper, lodges itself in
the imagination in all sorts of classic company. He is not handsome, nor
clever, nor rich, nor romantic, nor distinguished in any way; he is
simply rather a dense, narrow-minded, stiff, obstinate, common-place,
conscientious modern Englishman, exceedingly in love and, from his own
point of view, exceedingly ill-used. He is interesting because he
suffers and because we are curious to see the form that suffering will
take in that particular nature. Our good fortune, with Trollope, is that
the person put before us will have, in spite of opportunities not to
have it, a certain particular nature. The author has cared enough about
the character of such a person to find out exactly what it is. Another
particular nature in _The Vicar of Bullhampton_ is the surly, sturdy,
sceptical old farmer Jacob Brattle, who doesn’t want to be patronised by
the parson, and in his dumb, dusky, half-brutal, half-spiritual
melancholy, surrounded by domestic troubles, financial embarrassments
and a puzzling world, declines altogether to be won over to clerical
optimism. Such a figure as Jacob Brattle, purely episodical though it
be, is an excellent English portrait. As thoroughly English, and the
most striking thing in the book, is the combination, in the nature of
Frank Fenwick--the delightful Vicar--of the patronising, conventional,
clerical element with all sorts of manliness and spontaneity; the union,
or to a certain extent the contradiction, of official and personal
geniality. Trollope touches these points in a way that shows that he
knows his man. Delicacy is not his great sign, but when it is necessary
he can be as delicate as any one else.

I alighted, just now, at a venture, upon the history of Frank Fenwick;
it is far from being a conspicuous work in the immense list of
Trollope’s novels. But to choose an example one must choose arbitrarily,
for examples of almost anything that one may wish to say are numerous to
embarrassment. In speaking of a writer who produced so much and produced
always in the same way, there is perhaps a certain unfairness in
choosing at all. As no work has higher pretensions than any other, there
may be a certain unkindness in holding an individual production up to
the light. “Judge me in the lump,” we can imagine the author saying; “I
have only undertaken to entertain the British public. I don’t pretend
that each of my novels is an organic whole.” Trollope had no time to
give his tales a classic roundness; yet there is (in spite of an
extraordinary defect), something of that quality in the thing that first
revealed him. _The Warden_ was published in 1855. It made a great
impression; and when, in 1857, _Barchester Towers_ followed it, every
one saw that English literature had a novelist the more. These were not
the works of a young man, for Anthony Trollope had been born in 1815. It
is remarkable to reflect, by the way, that his prodigious fecundity (he
had published before _The Warden_ three or four novels which attracted
little attention), was enclosed between his fortieth and his
sixty-seventh years. Trollope had lived long enough in the world to
learn a good deal about it; and his maturity of feeling and evidently
large knowledge of English life were for much in the effect produced by
the two clerical tales. It was easy to see that he would take up room.
What he had picked up, to begin with, was a comprehensive, various
impression of the clergy of the Church of England and the manners and
feelings that prevail in cathedral towns. This, for a while, was his
speciality, and, as always happens in such cases, the public was
disposed to prescribe to him that path. He knew about bishops,
archdeacons, prebendaries, precentors, and about their wives and
daughters; he knew what these dignitaries say to each other when they
are collected together, aloof from secular ears. He even knew what sort
of talk goes on between a bishop and a bishop’s lady when the august
couple are enshrouded in the privacy of the episcopal bedroom. This
knowledge, somehow, was rare and precious. No one, as yet, had been bold
enough to snatch the illuminating torch from the very summit of the
altar. Trollope enlarged his field very speedily--there is, as I
remember that work, as little as possible of the ecclesiastical in the
tale of _The Three Clerks_, which came after _Barchester Towers_. But he
always retained traces of his early divination of the clergy; he
introduced them frequently, and he always did them easily and well.
There is no ecclesiastical figure, however, so good as the first--no
creation of this sort so happy as the admirable Mr. Harding. _The
Warden_ is a delightful tale, and a signal instance of Trollope’s habit
of offering us the spectacle of a character. A motive more delicate,
more slender, as well as more charming, could scarcely be conceived. It
is simply the history of an old man’s conscience.

The good and gentle Mr. Harding, precentor of Barchester Cathedral, also
holds the post of warden of Hiram’s Hospital, an ancient charity where
twelve old paupers are maintained in comfort. The office is in the gift
of the bishop, and its emoluments are as handsome as the duties of the
place are small. Mr. Harding has for years drawn his salary in quiet
gratitude; but his moral repose is broken by hearing it at last begun to
be said that the wardenship is a sinecure, that the salary is a scandal,
and that a large part, at least, of his easy income ought to go to the
pensioners of the hospital. He is sadly troubled and perplexed, and when
the great London newspapers take up the affair he is overwhelmed with
confusion and shame. He thinks the newspapers are right--he perceives
that the warden is an overpaid and rather a useless functionary. The
only thing he can do is to resign the place. He has no means of his
own--he is only a quiet, modest, innocent old man, with a taste, a
passion, for old church-music and the violoncello. But he determines to
resign, and he does resign in spite of the sharp opposition of his
friends. He does what he thinks right, and goes to live in lodgings over
a shop in the Barchester High Street. That is all the story, and it has
exceeding beauty. The question of Mr. Harding’s resignation becomes a
drama, and we anxiously wait for the catastrophe. Trollope never did
anything happier than the picture of this sweet and serious little old
gentleman, who on most of the occasions of life has shown a lamblike
softness and compliance, but in this particular matter opposes a silent,
impenetrable obstinacy to the arguments of the friends who insist on his
keeping his sinecure--fixing his mild, detached gaze on the distance,
and making imaginary passes with his fiddle-bow while they demonstrate
his pusillanimity. The subject of _The Warden_, exactly viewed, is the
opposition of the two natures of Archdeacon Grantley and Mr. Harding,
and there is nothing finer in all Trollope than the vividness with which
this opposition is presented. The archdeacon is as happy a portrait as
the precentor--an image of the full-fed, worldly churchman, taking his
stand squarely upon his rich temporalities, and regarding the church
frankly as a fat social pasturage. It required the greatest tact and
temperance to make the picture of Archdeacon Grantley stop just where it
does. The type, impartially considered, is detestable, but the
individual may be full of amenity. Trollope allows his archdeacon all
the virtues he was likely to possess, but he makes his spiritual
grossness wonderfully natural. No charge of exaggeration is possible,
for we are made to feel that he is conscientious as well as arrogant,
and expansive as well as hard. He is one of those figures that spring
into being all at once, solidifying in the author’s grasp. These two
capital portraits are what we carry away from _The Warden_, which some
persons profess to regard as our writer’s masterpiece. We remember,
while it was still something of a novelty, to have heard a judicious
critic say that it had much of the charm of _The Vicar of Wakefield_.
Anthony Trollope would not have accepted the compliment, and would not
have wished this little tale to pass before several of its successors.
He would have said, very justly, that it gives too small a measure of
his knowledge of life. It has, however, a certain classic roundness,
though, as we said a moment since, there is a blemish on its fair face.
The chapter on Dr. Pessimist Anticant and Mr. Sentiment would be a
mistake almost inconceivable if Trollope had not in other places taken
pains to show us that for certain forms of satire (the more violent,
doubtless), he had absolutely no gift. Dr. Anticant is a parody of
Carlyle, and Mr. Sentiment is an exposure of Dickens: and both these
little _jeux d’esprit_ are as infelicitous as they are misplaced. It was
no less luckless an inspiration to convert Archdeacon Grantley’s three
sons, denominated respectively Charles James, Henry and Samuel, into
little effigies of three distinguished English bishops of that period,
whose well-known peculiarities are reproduced in the description of
these unnatural urchins. The whole passage, as we meet it, is a sudden
disillusionment; we are transported from the mellow atmosphere of an
assimilated Barchester to the air of ponderous allegory.

I may take occasion to remark here upon a very curious fact--the fact
that there are certain precautions in the way of producing that illusion
dear to the intending novelist which Trollope not only habitually
scorned to take, but really, as we may say, asking pardon for the heat
of the thing, delighted wantonly to violate. He took a suicidal
satisfaction in reminding the reader that the story he was telling was
only, after all, a make-believe. He habitually referred to the work in
hand (in the course of that work) as a novel, and to himself as a
novelist, and was fond of letting the reader know that this novelist
could direct the course of events according to his pleasure. Already, in
_Barchester Towers_, he falls into this pernicious trick. In describing
the wooing of Eleanor Bold by Mr. Arabin he has occasion to say that the
lady might have acted in a much more direct and natural way than the way
he attributes to her. But if she had, he adds, “where would have been my
novel?” The last chapter of the same story begins with the remark, “The
end of a novel, like the end of a children’s dinner party, must be made
up of sweetmeats and sugar-plums.” These little slaps at credulity (we
might give many more specimens) are very discouraging, but they are even
more inexplicable; for they are deliberately inartistic, even judged
from the point of view of that rather vague consideration of form which
is the only canon we have a right to impose upon Trollope. It is
impossible to imagine what a novelist takes himself to be unless he
regard himself as an historian and his narrative as a history. It is
only as an historian that he has the smallest _locus standi_. As a
narrator of fictitious events he is nowhere; to insert into his attempt
a back-bone of logic, he must relate events that are assumed to be real.
This assumption permeates, animates all the work of the most solid
story-tellers; we need only mention (to select a single instance), the
magnificent historical tone of Balzac, who would as soon have thought of
admitting to the reader that he was deceiving him, as Garrick or John
Kemble would have thought of pulling off his disguise in front of the
foot-lights. Therefore, when Trollope suddenly winks at us and reminds
us that he is telling us an arbitrary thing, we are startled and shocked
in quite the same way as if Macaulay or Motley were to drop the historic
mask and intimate that William of Orange was a myth or the Duke of Alva
an invention.

It is a part of this same ambiguity of mind as to what constitutes
evidence that Trollope should sometimes endow his people with such
fantastic names. Dr. Pessimist Anticant and Mr. Sentiment make, as we
have seen, an awkward appearance in a modern novel; and Mr. Neversay
Die, Mr. Stickatit, Mr. Rerechild and Mr. Fillgrave (the two last the
family physicians), are scarcely more felicitous. It would be better to
go back to Bunyan at once. There is a person mentioned in _The Warden_
under the name of Mr. Quiverful--a poor clergyman, with a dozen
children, who holds the living of Puddingdale. This name is a humorous
allusion to his overflowing nursery, and it matters little so long as he
is not brought to the front. But in _Barchester Towers_, which carries
on the history of Hiram’s Hospital, Mr. Quiverful becomes, as a
candidate for Mr. Harding’s vacant place, an important element, and the
reader is made proportionately unhappy by the primitive character of
this satiric note. A Mr. Quiverful with fourteen children (which is the
number attained in _Barchester Towers_) is too difficult to believe in.
We can believe in the name and we can believe in the children; but we
cannot manage the combination. It is probably not unfair to say that if
Trollope derived half his inspiration from life, he derived the other
half from Thackeray; his earlier novels, in especial, suggest an
honourable emulation of the author of _The Newcomes_. Thackeray’s names
were perfect; they always had a meaning, and (except in his absolutely
jocose productions, where they were still admirable) we can imagine,
even when they are most figurative, that they should have been borne by
real people. But in this, as in other respects, Trollope’s hand was
heavier than his master’s; though when he is content not to be too
comical his appellations are sometimes fortunate enough. Mrs. Proudie is
excellent, for Mrs. Proudie, and even the Duke of Omnium and Gatherum
Castle rather minister to illusion than destroy it. Indeed, the names of
houses and places, throughout Trollope, are full of colour.

I would speak in some detail of _Barchester Towers_ if this did not seem
to commit me to the prodigious task of appreciating each of Trollope’s
works in succession. Such an attempt as that is so far from being
possible that I must frankly confess to not having read everything that
proceeded from his pen. There came a moment in his vigorous career (it
was even a good many years ago) when I renounced the effort to “keep up”
with him. It ceased to seem obligatory to have read his last story; it
ceased soon to be very possible to know which was his last. Before that,
I had been punctual, devoted; and the memories of the earlier period are
delightful. It reached, if I remember correctly, to about the
publication of _He Knew He Was Right_; after which, to my recollection
(oddly enough, too, for that novel was good enough to encourage a
continuance of past favours, as the shopkeepers say), the picture
becomes dim and blurred. The author of _Orley Farm_ and _The Small House
at Allington_ ceased to produce individual works; his activity became a
huge “serial.” Here and there, in the vast fluidity, an organic particle
detached itself. _The Last Chronicle of Barset_, for instance, is one of
his most powerful things; it contains the sequel of the terrible history
of Mr. Crawley, the starving curate--an episode full of that literally
truthful pathos of which Trollope was so often a master, and which
occasionally raised him quite to the level of his two immediate
predecessors in the vivid treatment of English life--great artists whose
pathetic effects were sometimes too visibly prepared. For the most part,
however, he should be judged by the productions of the first half of
his career; later the strong wine was rather too copiously watered. His
practice, his acquired facility, were such that his hand went of itself,
as it were, and the thing looked superficially like a fresh inspiration.
But it was not fresh, it was rather stale; and though there was no
appearance of effort, there was a fatal dryness of texture. It was too
little of a new story and too much of an old one. Some of these ultimate
compositions--_Phineas Redux_ (_Phineas Finn_ is much better), _The
Prime Minister_, _John Caldigate_, _The American Senator_, _The Duke’s
Children_--betray the dull, impersonal rumble of the mill-wheel. What
stands Trollope always in good stead (in addition to the ripe habit of
writing), is his various knowledge of the English world--to say nothing
of his occasionally laying under contribution the American. His American
portraits, by the way (they are several in number), are always friendly;
they hit it off more happily than the attempt to depict American
character from the European point of view is accustomed to do: though,
indeed, as we ourselves have not yet learned to represent our types very
finely--are not apparently even very sure what our types are--it is
perhaps not to be wondered at that transatlantic talent should miss the
mark. The weakness of transatlantic talent in this particular is apt to
be want of knowledge; but Trollope’s knowledge has all the air of being
excellent, though not intimate. Had he indeed striven to learn the way
to the American heart? No less than twice, and possibly even oftener,
has he rewarded the merit of a scion of the British aristocracy with the
hand of an American girl. The American girl was destined sooner or later
to make her entrance into British fiction, and Trollope’s treatment of
this complicated being is full of good humour and of that fatherly
indulgence, that almost motherly sympathy, which characterises his
attitude throughout toward the youthful feminine. He has not mastered
all the springs of her delicate organism nor sounded all the mysteries
of her conversation. Indeed, as regards these latter phenomena, he has
observed a few of which he has been the sole observer. “I got to be
thinking if any one of them should ask me to marry him,” words
attributed to Miss Boncassen, in _The Duke’s Children_, have much more
the note of English American than of American English. But, on the
whole, in these matters Trollope does very well. His fund of
acquaintance with his own country--and indeed with the world at
large--was apparently inexhaustible, and it gives his novels a spacious,
geographical quality which we should not know where to look for
elsewhere in the same degree, and which is the sign of an extraordinary
difference between such an horizon as his and the limited world-outlook,
as the Germans would say, of the brilliant writers who practise the art
of realistic fiction on the other side of the Channel. Trollope was
familiar with all sorts and conditions of men, with the business of
life, with affairs, with the great world of sport, with every component
part of the ancient fabric of English society. He had travelled more
than once all over the globe, and for him, therefore, the background of
the human drama was a very extensive scene. He had none of the pedantry
of the cosmopolite; he remained a sturdy and sensible middle-class
Englishman. But his work is full of implied reference to the whole arena
of modern vagrancy. He was for many years concerned in the management of
the Post-Office; and we can imagine no experience more fitted to impress
a man with the diversity of human relations. It is possibly from this
source that he derived his fondness for transcribing the letters of his
love-lorn maidens and other embarrassed persons. No contemporary
story-teller deals so much in letters; the modern English epistle (very
happily imitated, for the most part), is his unfailing resource.

There is perhaps little reason in it, but I find myself comparing this
tone of allusion to many lands and many things, and whatever it brings
us of easier respiration, with that narrow vision of humanity which
accompanies the strenuous, serious work lately offered us in such
abundance by the votaries of art for art who sit so long at their desks
in Parisian _quatrièmes_. The contrast is complete, and it would be
interesting, had we space to do so here, to see how far it goes. On one
side a wide, good-humoured, superficial glance at a good many things; on
the other a gimlet-like consideration of a few. Trollope’s plan, as well
as Zola’s, was to describe the life that lay near him; but the two
writers differ immensely as to what constitutes life and what
constitutes nearness. For Trollope the emotions of a nursery-governess
in Australia would take precedence of the adventures of a depraved
_femme du monde_ in Paris or London. They both undertake to do the same
thing--to depict French and English manners; but the English writer
(with his unsurpassed industry) is so occasional, so accidental, so full
of the echoes of voices that are not the voice of the muse. Gustave
Flaubert, Emile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, on the other hand, are nothing if
not concentrated and sedentary. Trollope’s realism is as instinctive, as
inveterate as theirs; but nothing could mark more the difference between
the French and English mind than the difference in the application, on
one side and the other, of this system. We say system, though on
Trollope’s part it is none. He has no visible, certainly no explicit
care for the literary part of the business; he writes easily,
comfortably, and profusely, but his style has nothing in common either
with the minute stippling of Daudet or the studied rhythms of Flaubert.
He accepted all the common restrictions, and found that even within the
barriers there was plenty of material. He attaches a preface to one of
his novels--_The Vicar of Bullhampton_, before mentioned--for the
express purpose of explaining why he has introduced a young woman who
may, in truth, as he says, be called a “castaway”; and in relation to
this episode he remarks that it is the object of the novelist’s art to
entertain the young people of both sexes. Writers of the French school
would, of course, protest indignantly against such a formula as this,
which is the only one of the kind that I remember to have encountered in
Trollope’s pages. It is meagre, assuredly; but Trollope’s practice was
really much larger than so poor a theory. And indeed any theory was good
which enabled him to produce the works which he put forth between 1856
and 1869, or later. In spite of his want of doctrinal richness I think
he tells us, on the whole, more about life than the “naturalists” in our
sister republic. I say this with a full consciousness of the
opportunities an artist loses in leaving so many corners unvisited, so
many topics untouched, simply because I think his perception of
character was naturally more just and liberal than that of the
naturalists. This has been from the beginning the good fortune of our
English providers of fiction, as compared with the French. They are
inferior in audacity, in neatness, in acuteness, in intellectual
vivacity, in the arrangement of material, in the art of characterising
visible things. But they have been more at home in the moral world; as
people say to-day they know their way about the conscience. This is the
value of much of the work done by the feminine wing of the school--work
which presents itself to French taste as deplorably thin and insipid.
Much of it is exquisitely human, and that after all is a merit. As
regards Trollope, one may perhaps characterise him best, in opposition
to what I have ventured to call the sedentary school, by saying that he
was a novelist who hunted the fox. Hunting was for years his most valued
recreation, and I remember that when I made in his company the voyage of
which I have spoken, he had timed his return from the Antipodes exactly
so as to be able to avail himself of the first day on which it should be
possible to ride to hounds. He “worked” the hunting-field largely; it
constantly reappears in his novels; it was excellent material.

But it would be hard to say (within the circle in which he revolved)
what material he neglected. I have allowed myself to be detained so long
by general considerations that I have almost forfeited the opportunity
to give examples. I have spoken of _The Warden_ not only because it made
his reputation, but because, taken in conjunction with _Barchester
Towers_, it is thought by many people to be his highest flight.
_Barchester Towers_ is admirable; it has an almost Thackerayan richness.
Archdeacon Grantley grows more and more into life, and Mr. Harding is as
charming as ever. Mrs. Proudie is ushered into a world in which she was
to make so great an impression. Mrs. Proudie has become classical; of
all Trollope’s characters she is the most often referred to. She is
exceedingly true; but I do not think she is quite so good as her fame,
and as several figures from the same hand that have not won so much
honour. She is rather too violent, too vixenish, too sour. The truly
awful female bully--the completely fatal episcopal spouse--would have, I
think, a more insidious form, a greater amount of superficial padding.
The Stanhope family, in _Barchester Towers_, are a real _trouvaille_,
and the idea of transporting the Signora Vesey-Neroni into a
cathedral-town was an inspiration. There could not be a better example
of Trollope’s manner of attaching himself to character than the whole
picture of Bertie Stanhope. Bertie is a delightful creation; and the
scene in which, at the party given by Mrs. Proudie, he puts this
majestic woman to rout is one of the most amusing in all the chronicles
of Barset. It is perhaps permitted to wish, by the way, that this
triumph had been effected by means intellectual rather than physical;
though, indeed, if Bertie had not despoiled her of her drapery we should
have lost the lady’s admirable “Unhand it, sir!” Mr. Arabin is charming,
and the henpecked bishop has painful truth; but Mr. Slope, I think, is a
little too arrant a scamp. He is rather too much the old game; he goes
too coarsely to work, and his clamminess and cant are somewhat overdone.
He is an interesting illustration, however, of the author’s dislike (at
that period at least) of the bareness of evangelical piety. In one
respect _Barchester Towers_ is (to the best of our recollection) unique,
being the only one of Trollope’s novels in which the interest does not
centre more or less upon a simple maiden in her flower. The novel
offers us nothing in the way of a girl; though we know that this
attractive object was to lose nothing by waiting. Eleanor Bold is a
charming and natural person, but Eleanor Bold is not in her flower.
After this, however, Trollope settled down steadily to the English girl;
he took possession of her, and turned her inside out. He never made her
a subject of heartless satire, as cynical fabulists of other lands have
been known to make the shining daughters of those climes; he bestowed
upon her the most serious, the most patient, the most tender, the most
copious consideration. He is evidently always more or less in love with
her, and it is a wonder how under these circumstances he should make her
so objective, plant her so well on her feet. But, as I have said, if he
was a lover, he was a paternal lover; as competent as a father who has
had fifty daughters. He has presented the British maiden under
innumerable names, in every station and in every emergency in life, and
with every combination of moral and physical qualities. She is always
definite and natural. She plays her part most properly. She has always
health in her cheek and gratitude in her eye. She has not a touch of the
morbid, and is delightfully tender, modest and fresh. Trollope’s
heroines have a strong family likeness, but it is a wonder how finely he
discriminates between them. One feels, as one reads him, like a man with
“sets” of female cousins. Such a person is inclined at first to lump
each group together; but presently he finds that even in the groups
there are subtle differences. Trollope’s girls, for that matter, would
make delightful cousins. He has scarcely drawn, that we can remember, a
disagreeable damsel. Lady Alexandrina de Courcy is disagreeable, and so
is Amelia Roper, and so are various provincial (and indeed metropolitan)
spinsters, who set their caps at young clergymen and government clerks.
Griselda Grantley was a stick; and considering that she was intended to
be attractive, Alice Vavasor does not commend herself particularly to
our affections. But the young women I have mentioned had ceased to
belong to the blooming season; they had entered the bristling, or else
the limp, period. Not that Trollope’s more mature spinsters invariably
fall into these extremes. Miss Thorne of Ullathorne, Miss Dunstable,
Miss Mackenzie, Rachel Ray (if she may be called mature), Miss Baker and
Miss Todd, in _The Bertrams_, Lady Julia Guest, who comforts poor John
Eames: these and many other amiable figures rise up to contradict the
idea. A gentleman who had sojourned in many lands was once asked by a
lady (neither of these persons was English), in what country he had
found the women most to his taste. “Well, in England,” he replied. “In
England?” the lady repeated. “Oh yes,” said her interlocutor; “they are
so affectionate!” The remark was fatuous, but it has the merit of
describing Trollope’s heroines. They are so affectionate. Mary Thorne,
Lucy Robarts, Adela Gauntlet, Lily Dale, Nora Rowley, Grace Crawley,
have a kind of clinging tenderness, a passive sweetness, which is quite
in the old English tradition. Trollope’s genius is not the genius of
Shakespeare, but his heroines have something of the fragrance of Imogen
and Desdemona. There are two little stories to which, I believe, his
name has never been affixed, but which he is known to have written, that
contain an extraordinarily touching representation of the passion of
love in its most sensitive form. In _Linda Tressel_ and _Nina Balatka_
the vehicle is plodding prose, but the effect is none the less poignant.
And in regard to this I may say that in a hundred places in Trollope the
extremity of pathos is reached by the homeliest means. He often achieved
a conspicuous intensity of the tragical. The long, slow process of the
conjugal wreck of Louis Trevelyan and his wife (in _He Knew He Was
Right_), with that rather lumbering movement which is often
characteristic of Trollope, arrives at last at an impressive
completeness of misery. It is the history of an accidental rupture
between two stiff-necked and ungracious people--“the little rift within
the lute”--which widens at last into a gulf of anguish. Touch is added
to touch, one small, stupid, fatal aggravation to another; and as we
gaze into the widening breach we wonder at the vulgar materials of which
tragedy sometimes composes itself. I have always remembered the chapter
called “Casalunga,” toward the close of _He Knew He Was Right_, as a
powerful picture of the insanity of stiff-neckedness. Louis Trevelyan,
separated from his wife, alone, haggard, suspicious, unshaven,
undressed, living in a desolate villa on a hill-top near Siena and
returning doggedly to his fancied wrong, which he has nursed until it
becomes an hallucination, is a picture worthy of Balzac. Here and in
several other places Trollope has dared to be thoroughly logical; he has
not sacrificed to conventional optimism; he has not been afraid of a
misery which should be too much like life. He has had the same courage
in the history of the wretched Mr. Crawley and in that of the
much-to-be-pitied Lady Mason. In this latter episode he found an
admirable subject. A quiet, charming, tender-souled English gentlewoman
who (as I remember the story of _Orley Farm_) forges a codicil to a will
in order to benefit her son, a young prig who doesn’t appreciate immoral
heroism, and who is suspected, accused, tried, and saved from conviction
only by some turn of fortune that I forget; who is furthermore an object
of high-bred, respectful, old-fashioned gallantry on the part of a
neighbouring baronet, so that she sees herself dishonoured in his eyes
as well as condemned in those of her boy: such a personage and such a
situation would be sure to yield, under Trollope’s handling, the last
drop of their reality.

There are many more things to say about him than I am able to add to
these very general observations, the limit of which I have already
passed. It would be natural, for instance, for a critic who affirms that
his principal merit is the portrayal of individual character, to
enumerate several of the figures that he has produced. I have not done
this, and I must ask the reader who is not acquainted with Trollope to
take my assertion on trust; the reader who knows him will easily make a
list for himself. No account of him is complete in which allusion is not
made to his practice of carrying certain actors from one story to
another--a practice which he may be said to have inherited from
Thackeray, as Thackeray may be said to have borrowed it from Balzac. It
is a great mistake, however, to speak of it as an artifice which would
not naturally occur to a writer proposing to himself to make a general
portrait of a society. He has to construct that society, and it adds to
the illusion in any given case that certain other cases correspond with
it. Trollope constructed a great many things--a clergy, an aristocracy,
a middle-class, an administrative class, a little replica of the
political world. His political novels are distinctly dull, and I confess
I have not been able to read them. He evidently took a good deal of
pains with his aristocracy; it makes its first appearance, if I remember
right, in _Doctor Thorne_, in the person of the Lady Arabella de Courcy.
It is difficult for us in America to measure the success of that
picture, which is probably, however, not absolutely to the life. There
is in _Doctor Thorne_ and some other works a certain crudity of
reference to distinctions of rank--as if people’s consciousness of this
matter were, on either side, rather inflated. It suggests a general
state of tension. It is true that, if Trollope’s consciousness had been
more flaccid he would perhaps not have given us Lady Lufton and Lady
Glencora Palliser. Both of these noble persons are as living as
possible, though I see Lady Lufton, with her terror of Lucy Robarts, the
best. There is a touch of poetry in the figure of Lady Glencora, but I
think there is a weak spot in her history. The actual woman would have
made a fool of herself to the end with Burgo Fitzgerald; she would not
have discovered the merits of Plantagenet Palliser--or if she had, she
would not have cared about them. It is an illustration of the
business-like way in which Trollope laid out his work that he always
provided a sort of underplot to alternate with his main story--a strain
of narrative of which the scene is usually laid in a humbler walk of
life. It is to his underplot that he generally relegates his vulgar
people, his disagreeable young women; and I have often admired the
perseverance with which he recounts these less edifying items. Now and
then, it may be said, as in _Ralph the Heir_, the story appears to be
all underplot and all vulgar people. These, however, are details. As I
have already intimated, it is difficult to specify in Trollope’s work,
on account of the immense quantity of it; and there is sadness in the
thought that this enormous mass does not present itself in a very
portable form to posterity.

Trollope did not write for posterity; he wrote for the day, the moment;
but these are just the writers whom posterity is apt to put into its
pocket. So much of the life of his time is reflected in his novels that
we must believe a part of the record will be saved; and the best parts
of them are so sound and true and genial, that readers with an eye to
that sort of entertainment will always be sure, in a certain proportion,
to turn to them. Trollope will remain one of the most trustworthy,
though not one of the most eloquent, of the writers who have helped the
heart of man to know itself. The heart of man does not always desire
this knowledge; it prefers sometimes to look at history in another
way--to look at the manifestations without troubling about the motives.
There are two kinds of taste in the appreciation of imaginative
literature: the taste for emotions of surprise and the taste for
emotions of recognition. It is the latter that Trollope gratifies, and
he gratifies it the more that the medium of his own mind, through which
we see what he shows us, gives a confident direction to our sympathy.
His natural rightness and purity are so real that the good things he
projects must be real. A race is fortunate when it has a good deal of
the sort of imagination--of imaginative feeling--that had fallen to the
share of Anthony Trollope; and in this possession our English race is
not poor.

1883.



V

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON


I

If there be a writer of our language at the present moment who has the
effect of making us regret the extinction of the pleasant fashion of the
literary portrait, it is certainly the bright particular genius whose
name I have written at the head of these remarks. Mr. Stevenson fairly
challenges portraiture, as we pass him on the highway of literature (if
that be the road, rather than some wandering, sun-chequered by-lane,
that he may be said to follow), just as the possible model, in local
attire, challenges the painter who wanders through the streets of a
foreign town looking for subjects. He gives us new ground to wonder why
the effort to fix a face and figure, to seize a literary character and
transfer it to the canvas of the critic, should have fallen into such
discredit among us, and have given way, to the mere multiplication of
little private judgment-seats, where the scales and the judicial wig,
both of them considerable awry, and not rendered more august by the
company of a vicious-looking switch, have taken the place, as the
symbols of office, of the kindly, disinterested palette and brush. It
has become the fashion to be effective at the expense of the sitter, to
make some little point, or inflict some little dig, with a heated party
air, rather than to catch a talent in the fact, follow its line, and put
a finger on its essence: so that the exquisite art of criticism,
smothered in grossness, finds itself turned into a question of “sides.”
The critic industriously keeps his score, but it is seldom to be hoped
that the author, criminal though he may be, will be apprehended by
justice through the handbills given out in the case; for it is of the
essence of a happy description that it shall have been preceded by a
happy observation and a free curiosity; and desuetude, as we may say,
has overtaken these amiable, uninvidious faculties, which have not the
glory of organs and chairs.

We hasten to add that it is not the purpose of these few pages to
restore their lustre or to bring back the more penetrating vision of
which we lament the disappearance. No individual can bring it back, for
the light that we look at things by is, after all, made by all of us. It
is sufficient to note, in passing, that if Mr. Stevenson had presented
himself in an age, or in a country, of portraiture, the painters would
certainly each have had a turn at him. The easels and benches would have
bristled, the circle would have been close, and quick, from the canvas
to the sitter, the rising and falling of heads. It has happened to all
of us to have gone into a studio, a studio of pupils, and seen the thick
cluster of bent backs and the conscious model in the midst. It has
happened to us to be struck, or not to be struck, with the beauty or the
symmetry of this personage, and to have made some remark which, whether
expressing admiration or disappointment, has elicited from one of the
attentive workers the exclamation, “Character, character is what he
has!” These words may be applied to Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson; in the
language of that art which depends most on direct observation,
character, character is what he has. He is essentially a model, in the
sense of a sitter; I do not mean, of course, in the sense of a pattern
or a guiding light. And if the figures who have a life in literature may
also be divided into two great classes, we may add that he is
conspicuously one of the draped: he would never, if I may be allowed the
expression, pose for the nude. There are writers who present themselves
before the critic with just the amount of drapery that is necessary for
decency; but Mr. Stevenson is not one of these--he makes his appearance
in an amplitude of costume. His costume is part of the character of
which I just now spoke; it never occurs to us to ask how he would look
without it. Before all things he is a writer with a style--a model with
a complexity of curious and picturesque garments. It is by the cut and
the colour of this rich and becoming frippery--I use the term
endearingly, as a painter might--that he arrests the eye and solicits
the brush.

That is, frankly, half the charm he has for us, that he wears a dress
and wears it with courage, with a certain cock of the hat and tinkle of
the supererogatory sword; or in other words that he is curious of
expression and regards the literary form not simply as a code of
signals, but as the key-board of a piano, and as so much plastic
material. He has that voice deplored, if we mistake not, by Mr. Herbert
Spencer, a manner--a manner for manner’s sake it may sometimes doubtless
be said. He is as different as possible from the sort of writer who
regards words as numbers, and a page as the mere addition of them; much
more, to carry out our image, the dictionary stands for him as a
wardrobe, and a proposition as a button for his coat. Mr. William
Archer, in an article[2] so gracefully and ingeniously turned that the
writer may almost be accused of imitating even while he deprecates,
speaks of him as a votary of “lightness of touch,” at any cost, and
remarks that “he is not only philosophically content but deliberately
resolved, that his readers shall look first to his manner, and only in
the second place to his matter.” I shall not attempt to gainsay this; I
cite it rather, for the present, because it carries out our own sense.
Mr. Stevenson delights in a style, and his own has nothing accidental or
diffident; it is eminently conscious of its responsibilities, and meets
them with a kind of gallantry--as if language were a pretty woman, and a
person who proposes to handle it had of necessity to be something of a
Don Juan. This bravery of gesture is a noticeable part of his nature,
and it is rather odd that at the same time a striking feature of that
nature should be an absence of care for things feminine. His books are
for the most part books without women, and it is not women who fall most
in love with them. But Mr. Stevenson does not need, as we may say, a
petticoat to inflame him: a happy collocation of words will serve the
purpose, or a singular image, or the bright eye of a passing conceit,
and he will carry off a pretty paradox without so much as a scuffle. The
tone of letters is in him--the tone of letters as distinct from that of
philosophy, or of those industries whose uses are supposed to be
immediate. Many readers, no doubt, consider that he carries it too far;
they manifest an impatience for some glimpse of his moral message. They
may be heard to ask what it is he proposes to demonstrate, with such a
variety of paces and graces.

The main thing that he demonstrates, to our own perception, is that it
is a delight to read him, and that he renews this delight by a constant
variety of experiment. Of this anon, however; and meanwhile, it may be
noted as a curious characteristic of current fashions that the writer
whose effort is perceptibly that of the artist is very apt to find
himself thrown on the defensive. A work of literature is a form, but
the author who betrays a consciousness of the responsibilities involved
in this circumstance not rarely perceives himself to be regarded as an
uncanny personage. The usual judgment is that he may be artistic, but
that he must not be too much so; that way, apparently, lies something
worse than madness. This queer superstition has so successfully imposed
itself, that the mere fact of having been indifferent to such a danger
constitutes in itself an originality. How few they are in number and how
soon we could name them, the writers of English prose, at the present
moment, the quality of whose prose is personal, expressive, renewed at
each attempt! The state of things that one would have expected to be the
rule has become the exception, and an exception for which, most of the
time, an apology appears to be thought necessary. A mill that grinds
with regularity and with a certain commercial fineness--that is the
image suggested by the manner of a good many of the fraternity. They
turn out an article for which there is a demand, they keep a shop for a
speciality, and the business is carried on in accordance with a useful,
well-tested prescription. It is just because he has no speciality that
Mr. Stevenson is an individual, and because his curiosity is the only
receipt by which he produces. Each of his books is an independent
effort--a window opened to a different view. _Doctor Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde_ is as dissimilar as possible from _Treasure Island_; _Virginibus
Puerisque_ has nothing in common with _The New Arabian Nights_, and I
should never have supposed _A Child’s Garden of Verses_ to be from the
hand of the author of _Prince Otto_.

Though Mr. Stevenson cares greatly for his phrase, as every writer
should who respects himself and his art, it takes no very attentive
reading of his volumes to show that it is not what he cares for most,
and that he regards an expressive style only, after all, as a means. It
seems to me the fault of Mr. Archer’s interesting paper, that it
suggests too much that the author of these volumes considers the art of
expression as an end--an ingenious game of words. He finds that Mr.
Stevenson is not serious, that he neglects a whole side of life, that he
has no perception, and no consciousness, of suffering; that he speaks as
a happy but heartless pagan, living only in his senses (which the critic
admits to be exquisitely fine), and that in a world full of heaviness he
is not sufficiently aware of the philosophic limitations of mere
technical skill. In sketching these aberrations Mr. Archer himself, by
the way, displays anything but ponderosity of hand. He is not the first
reader, and he will not be the last, who shall have been irritated by
Mr. Stevenson’s jauntiness. That jauntiness is an essential part of his
genius; but to my sense it ceases to be irritating--it indeed becomes
positively touching and constitutes an appeal to sympathy and even to
tenderness--when once one has perceived what lies beneath the
dancing-tune to which he mostly moves. Much as he cares for his phrase,
he cares more for life, and for a certain transcendently lovable part
of it. He feels, as it seems to us, and that is not given to every one.
This constitutes a philosophy which Mr. Archer fails to read between his
lines--the respectable, desirable moral which many a reader doubtless
finds that he neglects to point. He does not feel everything equally, by
any manner of means; but his feelings are always his reasons. He regards
them, whatever they may be, as sufficiently honourable, does not
disguise them in other names or colours, and looks at whatever he meets
in the brilliant candle-light that they shed. As in his extreme artistic
vivacity he seems really disposed to try everything he has tried once,
by way of a change, to be inhuman, and there is a hard glitter about
_Prince Otto_ which seems to indicate that in this case too he has
succeeded, as he has done in most of the feats that he has attempted.
But _Prince Otto_ is even less like his other productions than his other
productions are like each other.

The part of life which he cares for most is youth, and the direct
expression of the love of youth is the beginning and the end of his
message. His appreciation of this delightful period amounts to a
passion, and a passion, in the age in which we live, strikes us on the
whole as a sufficient philosophy. It ought to satisfy Mr. Archer, and
there are writers who press harder than Mr. Stevenson, on whose behalf
no such moral motive can be alleged. Mingled with this almost equal love
of a literary surface, it represents a real originality. This
combination is the keynote of Mr. Stevenson’s faculty and the
explanation of his perversities. The feeling of one’s teens, and even of
an earlier period (for the delights of crawling, and almost of the
rattle, are embodied in _A Child’s Garden of Verses_), and the feeling
for happy turns--these, in the last analysis (and his sense of a happy
turn is of the subtlest), are the corresponding halves of his character.
If _Prince Otto_ and _Doctor Jekyll_ left me a clearer field for the
assertion, I would say that everything he has written is a direct
apology for boyhood; or rather (for it must be confessed that Mr.
Stevenson’s tone is seldom apologetic), a direct rhapsody on the age of
heterogeneous pockets. Even members of the very numerous class who have
held their breath over _Treasure Island_ may shrug their shoulders at
this account of the author’s religion; but it is none the less a great
pleasure--the highest reward of observation--to put one’s hand on a rare
illustration, and Mr. Stevenson is certainly rare. What makes him so is
the singular maturity of the expression that he has given to young
sentiments: he judges them, measures them, sees them from the outside,
as well as entertains them. He describes credulity with all the
resources of experience, and represents a crude stage with infinite
ripeness. In a word, he is an artist accomplished even to
sophistication, whose constant theme is the unsophisticated. Sometimes,
as in _Kidnapped_, the art is so ripe that it lifts even the subject
into the general air: the execution is so serious that the idea (the
idea of a boy’s romantic adventures), becomes a matter of universal
relations. What he prizes most in the boy’s ideal is the imaginative
side of it, the capacity for successful make-believe. The general
freshness in which this is a part of the gloss seems to him the divinest
thing in life; considerably more divine, for instance, than the passion
usually regarded as the supremely tender one. The idea of making believe
appeals to him much more than the idea of making love. That delightful
little book of rhymes, the _Child’s Garden_, commemorates from beginning
to end the picturing, personifying, dramatising faculty of infancy--the
view of life from the level of the nursery-fender. The volume is a
wonder for the extraordinary vividness with which it reproduces early
impressions: a child might have written it if a child could see
childhood from the outside, for it would seem that only a child is
really near enough to the nursery floor. And what is peculiar to Mr.
Stevenson is that it is his own childhood he appears to delight in, and
not the personal presence of little darlings. Oddly enough, there is no
strong implication that he is fond of babies; he doesn’t speak as a
parent, or an uncle, or an educator--he speaks as a contemporary
absorbed in his own game. That game is almost always a vision of dangers
and triumphs, and if emotion, with him, infallibly resolves itself into
memory, so memory is an evocation of throbs and thrills and suspense. He
has given to the world the romance of boyhood, as others have produced
that of the peerage and the police and the medical profession.

This amounts to saying that what he is most curious of in life is
heroism--personal gallantry, if need be with a manner, or a banner,
though he is also abundantly capable of enjoying it when it is artless.
The delightful exploits of Jim Hawkins, in _Treasure Island_, are
unaffectedly performed; but none the less “the finest action is the
better for a piece of purple,” as the author remarks in the paper on
“The English Admirals” in _Virginibus Puerisque_, a paper of which the
moral is, largely, that “we learn to desire a grand air in our heroes;
and such a knowledge of the human stage as shall make them put the dots
on their own i’s, and leave us in no suspense as to when they mean to be
heroic.” The love of brave words as well as brave deeds--which is simply
Mr. Stevenson’s essential love of style--is recorded in this little
paper with a charming, slightly sophistical ingenuity. “They served
their guns merrily when it came to fighting, and they had the readiest
ear for a bold, honourable sentiment of any class of men the world ever
produced.” The author goes on to say that most men of high destinies
have even high-sounding names. Alan Breck, in _Kidnapped_, is a
wonderful picture of the union of courage and swagger; the little
Jacobite adventurer, a figure worthy of Scott at his best, and
representing the highest point that Mr. Stevenson’s talent has reached,
shows us that a marked taste for tawdry finery--tarnished and tattered,
some of it indeed, by ticklish occasions--is quite compatible with a
perfectly high mettle. Alan Breck is at bottom a study of the love of
glory, carried out with extreme psychological truth. When the love of
glory is of an inferior order the reputation is cultivated rather than
the opportunity; but when it is a pure passion the opportunity is
cultivated for the sake of the reputation. Mr. Stevenson’s kindness for
adventurers extends even to the humblest of all, the mountebank and the
strolling player, or even the pedlar whom he declares that in his
foreign travels he is habitually taken for, as we see in the whimsical
apology for vagabonds which winds up _An Inland Voyage_. The hungry
conjurer, the gymnast whose _maillot_ is loose, have something of the
glamour of the hero, inasmuch as they too pay with their person. “To be
even one of the outskirters of art leaves a fine stamp on a man’s
countenance.... That is the kind of thing that reconciles me to life: a
ragged, tippling, incompetent old rogue, with the manners of a gentleman
and the vanity of an artist, to keep up his self-respect!” What
reconciles Mr. Stevenson to life is the idea that in the first place it
offers the widest field that we know of for odd doings, and that in the
second these odd doings are the best of pegs to hang a sketch in three
lines or a paradox in three pages.

As it is not odd, but extremely usual, to marry, he deprecates that
course in _Virginibus Puerisque_, the collection of short essays which
is most a record of his opinions--that is, largely, of his likes and
dislikes. It all comes back to his sympathy with the juvenile and that
feeling about life which leads him to regard women as so many
superfluous girls in a boy’s game. They are almost wholly absent from
his pages (the main exception is _Prince Otto_, though there is a Clara
apiece in _The Rajah’s Diamond_ and _The Pavilion on the Links_), for
they don’t like ships and pistols and fights, they encumber the decks
and require separate apartments, and, almost worst of all, have not the
highest literary standard. Why should a person marry when he might be
swinging a cutlass or looking for a buried treasure? Why should he waste
at the nuptial altar precious hours in which he might be polishing
periods? It is one of those curious and to my sense fascinating
inconsistencies that we encounter in Mr. Stevenson’s mind, that though
he takes such an interest in the childish life he takes no interest in
the fireside. He has an indulgent glance for it in the verses of the
_Garden_, but to his view the normal child is the child who absents
himself from the family-circle, in fact when he can, in imagination when
he cannot, in the disguise of a buccaneer. Girls don’t do this, and
women are only grown-up girls, unless it be the delightful maiden, fit
daughter of an imperial race, whom he commemorates in _An Inland
Voyage_.

     “A girl at school, in France, began to describe one of our
     regiments on parade to her French schoolmates; and as she went on,
     she told me, the recollection grew so vivid, she became so proud
     to be the countrywoman of such soldiers, that her voice failed her
     and she burst into tears. I have never forgotten that girl; and I
     think she very nearly deserves a statue. To call her a young lady,
     with all its niminy associations, would be to offer her an insult.
     She may rest assured of one thing; although she never should many a
     heroic general, never see any great or immediate result of her
     life, she will not have lived in vain for her native land.”

There is something of that in Mr. Stevenson; when he begins to describe
a British regiment on parade (or something of that sort), he too almost
breaks down for emotion: which is why I have been careful to traverse
the insinuation that he is primarily a chiseller of prose. If things had
gone differently with him (I must permit myself this allusion to his
personal situation, and I shall venture to follow it with two or three
others), he might have been an historian of famous campaigns--a great
painter of battle-pieces. Of course, however, in this capacity it would
not have done for him to break down for emotion.

Although he remarks that marriage “is a field of battle and not a bed of
roses,” he points out repeatedly that it is a terrible renunciation and
somehow, in strictness, incompatible even with honour--the sort of
roving, trumpeting honour that appeals most to his sympathy. After that
step,

     “There are no more bye-path meadows where you may innocently
     linger, but the road lies long and straight and dusty to the
     grave.... You may think you had a conscience and believed in God;
     but what is a conscience to a wife?... To marry is to domesticate
     the Recording Angel. Once you are married, there is nothing left
     for you, not even suicide, but to be good.... How then, in such an
     atmosphere of compromise, to keep honour bright and abstain from
     base capitulations?... The proper qualities of each sex are
     eternally surprising to the other. Between the Latin and the Teuton
     races there are similar divergences, not to be bridged by the most
     liberal sympathy.... It is better to face the fact and know, when
     you marry, that you take into your life a creature of equal if
     unlike frailties; whose weak, human heart beats no more tunefully
     than yours.”

If there be a grimness in that it is as near as Mr. Stevenson ever comes
to being grim, and we have only to turn the page to find the
corrective--something delicately genial, at least, if not very much less
sad.

     “The blind bow-boy who smiles upon us from the end of terraces in
     old Dutch gardens laughingly hurls his bird-bolts among a fleeting
     generation. But for as fast as ever he shoots, the game dissolves
     and disappears into eternity from under his falling arrows; this
     one is gone ere he is struck; the other has but time to make one
     gesture and give one passionate cry; and they are all the things of
     a moment.”

That is an admission that though it is soon over, the great sentimental
surrender is inevitable. And there is geniality too, still over the page
(in regard to quite another matter), geniality, at least, for the
profession of letters, in the declaration that there is

     “One thing you can never make Philistine natures understand; one
     thing which yet lies on the surface, remains as unseizable to their
     wit as a high flight of metaphysics--namely, that the business of
     life is mainly carried on by the difficult art of literature, and
     according to a man’s proficiency in that art shall be the freedom
     and fulness of his intercourse with other men.”

Yet it is difficult not to believe that the ideal in which our author’s
spirit might most gratefully have rested would have been the character
of the paterfamilias, when the eye falls on such a charming piece of
observation as these lines about children in the admirable paper on
_Child’s Play_:

     “If it were not for this perpetual imitation we should be tempted
     to fancy they despised us outright, or only considered us in the
     light of creatures brutally strong and brutally silly, among whom
     they condescended to dwell in obedience, like a philosopher at a
     barbarous court.”


II

We know very little about a talent till we know where it grew up, and it
would halt terribly at the start, any account of the author of
_Kidnapped_ which should omit to insist promptly that he is a Scot of
the Scots. Two facts, to my perception, go a great way to explain his
composition: the first of which is that his boyhood was passed in the
shadow of Edinburgh Castle, and the second that he came of a family that
had set up great lights on the coast. His grandfather, his uncle, were
famous constructors of lighthouses, and the name of the race is
associated above all with the beautiful and beneficent tower of
Skerryvore. We may exaggerate the way in which, in an imaginative youth,
the sense of the “story” of things would feed upon the impressions of
Edinburgh--though I suspect it would be difficult really to do so. The
streets are so full of history and poetry, of picture and song, of
associations springing from strong passions and strange characters,
that, for our own part, we find ourselves thinking of an urchin going
and coming there as we used to think (wonderingly, enviously), of the
small boys who figured as supernumeraries, pages or imps, in showy
scenes at the theatre: the place seems the background, the complicated
“set” of a drama, and the children the mysterious little beings who are
made free of the magic world. How must it not have beckoned on the
imagination to pass and repass, on the way to school, under the Castle
rock, conscious, acutely yet familiarly, of the gray citadel on the
summit, lighted up with the tartans and bagpipes of Highland regiments?
Mr. Stevenson’s mind, from an early age, was furnished with the concrete
Highlander, who must have had much of the effect that we nowadays call
decorative. We have encountered somewhere a fanciful paper[3] of our
author’s, in which there is a reflection of half-holiday afternoons and,
unless our own fancy plays us a trick, of lights red, in the winter
dusk, in the high-placed windows of the old town--a delightful rhapsody
on the penny sheets of figures for the puppet-shows of infancy, in
life-like position and awaiting the impatient yet careful scissors. “If
landscapes were sold,” he says in _Travels with a Donkey_, “like the
sheets of characters of my boyhood, one penny plain and twopence
coloured, I should go the length of twopence every day of my life.”

Indeed the colour of Scotland has entered into him altogether, and
though, oddly enough, he has written but little about his native
country, his happiest work shows, I think, that she has the best of his
ability, the best of his ambition. _Kidnapped_ (whose inadequate title I
may deplore in passing) breathes in every line the feeling of moor and
loch, and is the finest of his longer stories, and _Thrawn Janet_, a
masterpiece in thirteen pages (lately republished in the volume of _The
Merry Men_), is, among the shorter, the strongest in execution. The
latter consists of a gruesome anecdote of the supernatural, related in
the Scotch dialect, and the genuineness which this medium (at the sight
of which, in general, the face of the reader grows long) wears in Mr.
Stevenson’s hands is a proof of how living the question of form always
is to him, and what a variety of answers he has for it. It would never
have occurred to us that the style of _Travels with a Donkey_ or
_Virginibus Puerisque_ and the idiom of the parish of Balweary could be
a conception of the same mind. If it be a good fortune for a genius to
have had such a country as Scotland for its primary stuff, this is
doubly the case when there has been a certain process of detachment, of
extreme secularisation. Mr. Stevenson has been emancipated: he is, as we
may say, a Scotchman of the world. None other, I think, could have drawn
with such a mixture of sympathetic and ironical observation the
character of the canny young Lowlander, David Balfour, a good boy but an
exasperating. _Treasure Island_, _The New Arabian Nights_, _Prince
Otto_, _Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde_, are not very directly founded on
observation; but that quality comes in with extreme fineness as soon as
the subject involves consideration of race.

I have been wondering whether there is something more than this that our
author’s pages would tell us about him, or whether that particular
something is in the mind of an admirer because he happens to have had
other lights on it. It has been possible for so acute a critic as Mr.
William Archer to read pure high spirits and the gospel of the young man
rejoicing in his strength and his matutinal cold bath between the lines
of Mr. Stevenson’s prose. And it is a fact that the note of a morbid
sensibility is so absent from his pages, they contain so little
reference to infirmity and suffering, that we feel a trick has really
been played upon us on discovering by accident the actual state of the
case with the writer who has indulged in the most enthusiastic allusion
to the joy of existence. We must permit ourselves another mention of his
personal situation, for it adds immensely to the interest of volumes
through which there draws so strong a current of life, to know that they
are not only the work of an invalid, but that they have largely been
written in bed, in dreary “health-resorts,” in the intervals of sharp
attacks. There is almost nothing in them to lead us to guess this: the
direct evidence indeed is almost all contained in the limited compass of
_The Silverado Squatters_. In such a case, however, it is the indirect
that is the most eloquent, and I know not where to look for that, unless
in the paper called “Ordered South,” and its companion “Aes Triplex,”
in _Virginibus Puerisque_. It is impossible to read “Ordered South”
attentively without feeling that it is personal: the reflections it
contains are from experience, not from fancy. The places and climates to
which the invalid is carried to recover or to die are mainly beautiful,
but

     “In his heart of hearts he has to confess that [they are] not
     beautiful for him.... He is like an enthusiast leading about with
     him a stolid, indifferent tourist. There is some one by who is out
     of sympathy with the scene, and is not moved up to the measure of
     the occasion; and that some one is himself.... He seems to himself
     to touch things with muffled hands and to see them through a
     veil.... Many a white town that sits far out on the promontory,
     many a comely fold of wood on the mountain side, beckons and
     allures his imagination day after day, and is yet as inaccessible
     to his feet as the clefts and gorges of the clouds. The sense of
     distance grows upon him wonderfully; and after some feverish
     efforts and the fretful uneasiness of the first few days he falls
     contentedly in with the restrictions of his weakness.... He feels,
     if he is to be thus tenderly weaned from the passion of life, thus
     gradually inducted into the slumber of death, that when at last the
     end comes it will come quietly and fitly.... He will pray for
     Medea: when she comes let her either rejuvenate or slay.”

The second of the short essays I have mentioned has a taste of mortality
only because the purpose of it is to insist that the only sane behaviour
is to leave death and the accidents that lead to it out of our
calculations. Life “is a honeymoon with us all through, and none of the
longest. Small blame to us if we give our whole hearts to this glowing
bride of ours.” The person who does so “makes a very different
acquaintance with the world, keeps all his pulses going true and fast,
and gathers impetus as he runs, until if he be running towards anything
better than wildfire, he may shoot up and become a constellation in the
end.” Nothing can be more deplorable than to “forego all the issues of
living in a parlour with a regulated temperature.” Mr. Stevenson adds
that as for those whom the gods love dying young, a man dies too young
at whatever age he parts with life. The testimony of “Aes Triplex” to
the author’s own disabilities is after all very indirect. It consists
mainly in the general protest not so much against the fact of extinction
as against the theory of it. The reader only asks himself why the hero
of _Travels with a Donkey_, the historian of Alan Breck, should think of
these things. His appreciation of the active side of life has such a
note of its own that we are surprised to find that it proceeds in a
considerable measure from an intimate acquaintance with the passive. It
seems too anomalous that the writer who has most cherished the idea of a
certain free exposure should also be the one who has been reduced most
to looking for it within, and that the figures of adventurers who, at
least in our literature of to-day, are the most vivid, should be the
most vicarious. The truth is, of course, that as the _Travels with a
Donkey_ and _An Inland Voyage_ abundantly show, the author has a fund of
reminiscences. He did not spend his younger years “in a parlour with a
regulated temperature.” A reader who happens to be aware of how much it
has been his later fate to do so may be excused for finding an added
source of interest--something indeed deeply and constantly touching--in
this association of peculiarly restrictive conditions with the vision of
high spirits and romantic accidents, of a kind of honourably picaresque
career. Mr. Stevenson is, however, distinctly, in spite of his
occasional practice of the gruesome, a frank optimist--an observer who
not only loves life but does not shrink from the responsibility of
recommending it. There is a systematic brightness in him which testifies
to this and which is after all but one of the innumerable ingenuities of
patience. What is remarkable in his case is that his productions should
constitute an exquisite expression, a sort of whimsical gospel of
enjoyment. The only difference between _An Inland Voyage_ or _Travels
with a Donkey_ and _The New Arabian Nights_ or _Treasure Island_ or
_Kidnapped_, is that in the later books the enjoyment is reflective
(though it simulates spontaneity with singular art), whereas in the
first two it is natural and, as it were, historical.

These little histories--the first volumes, if I mistake not, that
introduced Mr. Stevenson to lovers of good writing--abound in charming
illustrations of his disposition to look at the world as a not exactly
refined but glorified, pacified Bohemia. They narrate the quest of
personal adventure, on one occasion in a canoe on the Sambre and the
Oise and on another at a donkey’s tail over the hills and valleys of
the Cévennes. I well remember that when I read them in their novelty,
upwards of ten years ago, I seemed to see the author, unknown as yet to
fame, jump before my eyes into a style. His steps in literature
presumably had not been many; yet he had mastered his form--it had in
these cases perhaps more substance than his matter--and a singular air
of literary experience. It partly, though not completely, explains the
phenomenon, that he had already been able to write the exquisite little
story of _Will of the Mill_, published previously to _An Inland Voyage_,
and republished to-day in the volume of _The Merry Men_, for in _Will of
the Mill_ there is something exceedingly rare, poetical and unexpected,
with that most fascinating quality a work of imagination can have--a
dash of alternative mystery as to its meaning, an air (the air of life
itself), of half inviting, half defying you to interpret. This brief but
finished composition stood in the same relation to the usual “magazine
story” that a glass of Johannisberg occupies to a draught of table
d’hôte _vin ordinaire_.

     “One evening he asked the miller where the river went.... ‘It goes
     out into the lowlands, and waters the great corn country, and runs
     through a sight of fine cities (so they say) where kings live all
     alone in great palaces, with a sentry walking up and down before
     the door. And it goes under bridges, with stone men upon them,
     looking down and smiling so curious at the water, and living folks
     leaning on their elbows on the wall and looking over too. And then
     it goes on and on, and down through marshes and sands, until at
     last it falls into the sea, where the ships are that bring tobacco
     and parrots from the Indies.’”

It is impossible not to open one’s eyes at such a paragraph as that,
especially if one has taken a common texture for granted. Will of the
Mill spends his life in the valley through which the river runs, and
through which, year after year, post-chaises and waggons and
pedestrians, and once an army, “horse and foot, cannon and tumbrel, drum
and standard,” take their way, in spite of the dreams he once had of
seeing the mysterious world, and it is not till death comes that he goes
on his travels. He ends by keeping an inn, where he converses with many
more initiated spirits; and though he is an amiable man he dies a
bachelor, having broken off with more plainness than he would have used
had he been less untravelled (of course he remains sadly provincial),
his engagement to the parson’s daughter. The story is in the happiest
key and suggests all kinds of things: but what does it in particular
represent? The advantage of waiting, perhaps--the valuable truth that,
one by one, we tide over our impatiences. There are sagacious people who
hold that if one does not answer a letter it ends by answering itself.
So the sub-title of Mr. Stevenson’s tale might be “The Beauty of
Procrastination.” If you do not indulge your curiosities your slackness
itself makes at last a kind of rich element, and it comes to very much
the same thing in the end. When it came to the point poor Will had not
even the curiosity to marry; and the author leaves us in stimulating
doubt as to whether he judges him too selfish or only too philosophic.

I find myself speaking of Mr. Stevenson’s last volume (at the moment I
write), before I have spoken, in any detail, of its predecessors: which
I must let pass as a sign that I lack space for a full enumeration. I
may mention two more of his productions as completing the list of those
that have a personal reference. _The Silverado Squatters_ describes a
picnicking episode, undertaken on grounds of health, on a mountain-top
in California; but this free sketch, which contains a hundred humorous
touches, and in the figure of Irvine Lovelands one of Mr. Stevenson’s
most veracious portraits, is perhaps less vivid, as it is certainly less
painful, than those other pages in which, some years ago, he
commemorated the twelvemonth he spent in America--the history of a
journey from New York to San Francisco in an emigrant train, performed
as a sequel to a voyage across the Atlantic in the same severe
conditions. He has never made his points better than in this
half-humorous, half-tragical recital, nor given a more striking instance
of his talent for reproducing the feeling of queer situations and
contacts. It is much to be regretted that this little masterpiece had
not been brought to light a second time, as also that he has not given
the world (as I believe he came very near doing), his observations in
the steerage of an Atlantic liner. If, as I say, our author has a taste
for the impressions of Bohemia, he has been very consistent, and has not
shrunk from going far afield in search of them. And as I have already
been indiscreet, I may add that if it has been his fate to be converted
in fact from the sardonic view of matrimony, this occurred under an
influence which should have the particular sympathy of American readers.
He went to California for his wife, and Mrs. Stevenson, as appears
moreover by the title-page of his work, has had a hand--evidently a
light and practised one--in _The Dynamiter_, the second series,
characterised by a rich extravagance, of _The New Arabian Nights_. _The
Silverado Squatters_ is the history of a honeymoon, prosperous it would
seem, putting Irvine Lovelands aside, save for the death of dog Chuchu
“in his teens, after a life so shadowed and troubled, continually shaken
with alarm and with the tear of elegant sentiment permanently in his
eye.”

Mr. Stevenson has a theory of composition in regard to the novel on
which he is to be congratulated, as any positive and genuine conviction
of this kind is vivifying so long as it is not narrow. The breath of the
novelist’s being is his liberty, and the incomparable virtue of the form
he uses is that it lends itself to views innumerable and diverse, to
every variety of illustration. There is certainly no other mould of so
large a capacity. The doctrine of M. Zola himself, so jejune if
literally taken, is fruitful, inasmuch as in practice he romantically
departs from it. Mr. Stevenson does not need to depart, his individual
taste being as much to pursue the romantic as his principle is to defend
it. Fortunately, in England to-day, it is not much attacked. The
triumphs that are to be won in the portrayal of the strange, the
improbable, the heroic, especially as these things shine from afar in
the credulous eye of youth, are his strongest, most constant incentive.
On one happy occasion, in relating the history of _Doctor Jekyll_, he
has seen them as they present themselves to a maturer vision. _Doctor
Jekyll_ is not a “boy’s book,” nor yet is _Prince Otto_; the latter,
however, is not, like the former, an experiment in mystification--it is,
I think, more than anything else, an experiment in style, conceived one
summer’s day when the author had given the reins to his high
appreciation of Mr. George Meredith. It is perhaps the most literary of
his works, but it is not the most natural. It is one of those
coquetries, as we may call them for want of a better word, which may be
observed in Mr. Stevenson’s activity--a kind of artful inconsequence. It
is easy to believe that if his strength permitted him to be a more
abundant writer he would still more frequently play this eminently
literary trick--that of dodging off in a new direction--upon those who
might have fancied they knew all about him. I made the reflection, in
speaking of _Will of the Mill_, that there is a kind of anticipatory
malice in the subject of that fine story: as if the writer had intended
to say to his reader “You will never guess, from the unction with which
I describe the life of a man who never stirred five miles from home,
that I am destined to make my greatest hits in treating of the rovers
of the deep.” Even here, however, the author’s characteristic irony
would have come in; for--the rare chances of life being what he most
keeps his eye on--the uncommon belongs as much to the way the inquiring
Will sticks to his door-sill as to the incident, say, of John Silver and
his men, when they are dragging Jim Hawkins to his doom, hearing in the
still woods of Treasure Island the strange hoot of the maroon.

The novelist who leaves the extraordinary out of his account is liable
to awkward confrontations, as we are compelled to reflect in this age of
newspapers and of universal publicity. The next report of the next
divorce case (to give an instance) shall offer us a picture of
astounding combinations of circumstance and behaviour, and the annals of
any energetic race are rich in curious anecdote and startling example.
That interesting compilation _Vicissitudes of Families_ is but a
superficial record of strange accidents: the family (taken of course in
the long piece), is as a general thing a catalogue of odd specimens and
tangled situations, and we must remember that the most singular products
are those which are not exhibited. Mr. Stevenson leaves so wide a margin
for the wonderful--it impinges with easy assurance upon the text--that
he escapes the danger of being brought up by cases he has not allowed
for. When he allows for Mr. Hyde he allows for everything, and one feels
moreover that even if he did not wave so gallantly the flag of the
imaginative and contend that the improbable is what has most character,
he would still insist that we ought to make believe. He would say we
ought to make believe that the extraordinary is the best part of life
even if it were not, and to do so because the finest feelings--suspense,
daring, decision, passion, curiosity, gallantry, eloquence,
friendship--are involved in it, and it is of infinite importance that
the tradition of these precious things should not perish. He would
prefer, in a word, any day in the week, Alexandre Dumas to Honoré de
Balzac, and it is indeed my impression that he prefers the author of
_The Three Musketeers_ to any novelist except Mr. George Meredith. I
should go so far as to suspect that his ideal of the delightful work of
fiction would be the adventures of Monte Cristo related by the author of
_Richard Feverel_. There is some magnanimity in his esteem for Alexandre
Dumas, inasmuch as in _Kidnapped_ he has put into a fable worthy of that
inventor a closeness of notation with which Dumas never had anything to
do. He makes us say, Let the tradition live, by all means, since it was
delightful; but at the same time he is the cause of our perceiving
afresh that a tradition is kept alive only by something being added to
it. In this particular case--in _Doctor Jekyll_ and _Kidnapped_--Mr.
Stevenson has added psychology.

_The New Arabian Nights_ offer us, as the title indicates, the wonderful
in the frankest, most delectable form. Partly extravagant and partly
very specious, they are the result of a very happy idea, that of
placing a series of adventures which are pure adventures in the setting
of contemporary English life, and relating them in the placidly
ingenuous tone of Scheherezade. This device is carried to perfection in
_The Dynamiter_, where the manner takes on more of a kind of high-flown
serenity in proportion as the incidents are more “steep.” In this line
_The Suicide Club_ is Mr. Stevenson’s greatest success, and the first
two pages of it, not to mention others, live in the memory. For reasons
which I am conscious of not being able to represent as sufficient, I
find something ineffaceably impressive--something really haunting--in
the incident of Prince Florizel and Colonel Geraldine, who, one evening
in March, are “driven by a sharp fall of sleet into an Oyster Bar in the
immediate neighbourhood of Leicester Square,” and there have occasion to
observe the entrance of a young man followed by a couple of
commissionaires, each of whom carries a large dish of cream tarts under
a cover--a young man who “pressed these confections on every one’s
acceptance with exaggerated courtesy.” There is no effort at a picture
here, but the imagination makes one of the lighted interior, the London
sleet outside, the company that we guess, given the locality, and the
strange politeness of the young man, leading on to circumstances
stranger still. This is what may be called putting one in the mood for a
story. But Mr. Stevenson’s most brilliant stroke of that kind is the
opening episode of _Treasure Island_, the arrival of the brown old
seaman with the sabre-cut at the “Admiral Benbow,” and the advent, not
long after, of the blind sailor, with a green shade over his eyes, who
comes tapping down the road, in quest of him, with his stick. _Treasure
Island_ is a “boy’s book” in the sense that it embodies a boy’s vision
of the extraordinary, but it is unique in this, and calculated to
fascinate the weary mind of experience, that what we see in it is not
only the ideal fable but, as part and parcel of that, as it were, the
young reader himself and his state of mind: we seem to read it over his
shoulder, with an arm around his neck. It is all as perfect as a
well-played boy’s game, and nothing can exceed the spirit and skill, the
humour and the open-air feeling with which the thing is kept at the
palpitating pitch. It is not only a record of queer chances, but a study
of young feelings: there is a moral side in it, and the figures are not
puppets with vague faces. If Jim Hawkins illustrates successful daring,
he does so with a delightful rosy good-boyishness and a conscious,
modest liability to error. His luck is tremendous, but it does not make
him proud, and his manner is refreshingly provincial and human. So is
that, even more, of the admirable John Silver, one of the most
picturesque and indeed in every way most genially presented villains in
the whole literature of romance. He has a singularly distinct and
expressive countenance, which of course turns out to be a grimacing
mask. Never was a mask more knowingly, vividly painted. _Treasure
Island_ will surely become--it must already have become and will
remain--in its way a classic: thanks to this indescribable mixture of
the prodigious and the human, of surprising coincidences and familiar
feelings. The language in which Mr. Stevenson has chosen to tell his
story is an admirable vehicle for these feelings: with its humorous
braveries and quaintnesses, its echoes of old ballads and yarns, it
touches all kinds of sympathetic chords.

Is _Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde_ a work of high philosophic intention, or
simply the most ingenious and irresponsible of fictions? It has the
stamp of a really imaginative production, that we may take it in
different ways; but I suppose it would generally be called the most
serious of the author’s tales. It deals with the relation of the baser
parts of man to his nobler, of the capacity for evil that exists in the
most generous natures; and it expresses these things in a fable which is
a wonderfully happy invention. The subject is endlessly interesting, and
rich in all sorts of provocation, and Mr. Stevenson is to be
congratulated on having touched the core of it. I may do him injustice,
but it is, however, here, not the profundity of the idea which strikes
me so much as the art of the presentation--the extremely successful
form. There is a genuine feeling for the perpetual moral question, a
fresh sense of the difficulty of being good and the brutishness of being
bad; but what there is above all is a singular ability in holding the
interest. I confess that that, to my sense, is the most edifying thing
in the short, rapid, concentrated story, which is really a masterpiece
of concision. There is something almost impertinent in the way, as I
have noticed, in which Mr. Stevenson achieves his best effects without
the aid of the ladies, and _Doctor Jekyll_ is a capital example of his
heartless independence. It is usually supposed that a truly poignant
impression cannot be made without them, but in the drama of Mr. Hyde’s
fatal ascendency they remain altogether in the wing. It is very
obvious--I do not say it cynically--that they must have played an
important part in his development. The gruesome tone of the tale is, no
doubt, deepened by their absence: it is like the late afternoon light of
a foggy winter Sunday, when even inanimate objects have a kind of wicked
look. I remember few situations in the pages of mystifying fiction more
to the purpose than the episode of Mr. Utterson’s going to Doctor
Jekyll’s to confer with the butler when the Doctor is locked up in his
laboratory, and the old servant, whose sagacity has hitherto encountered
successfully the problems of the sideboard and the pantry, confesses
that this time he is utterly baffled. The way the two men, at the door
of the laboratory, discuss the identity of the mysterious personage
inside, who has revealed himself in two or three inhuman glimpses to
Poole, has those touches of which irresistible shudders are made. The
butler’s theory is that his master has been murdered, and that the
murderer is in the room, personating him with a sort of clumsy
diabolism. “Well, when that masked thing like a monkey jumped from
among the chemicals and whipped into the cabinet, it went down my spine
like ice.” That is the effect upon the reader of most of the story. I
say of most rather than of all, because the ice rather melts in the
sequel, and I have some difficulty in accepting the business of the
powders, which seems to me too explicit and explanatory. The powders
constitute the machinery of the transformation, and it will probably
have struck many readers that this uncanny process would be more
conceivable (so far as one may speak of the conceivable in such a case),
if the author had not made it so definite.

I have left Mr. Stevenson’s best book to the last, as it is also the
last he has given (at the present speaking) to the public--the tales
comprising _The Merry Men_ having already appeared; but I find that on
the way I have anticipated some of the remarks that I had intended to
make about it. That which is most to the point is that there are parts
of it so fine as to suggest that the author’s talent has taken a fresh
start, various as have been the impulses in which it had already
indulged, and serious the hindrances among which it is condemned to
exert itself. There would have been a kind of perverse humility in his
keeping up the fiction that a production so literary as _Kidnapped_ is
addressed to immature minds, and, though it was originally given to the
world, I believe, in a “boy’s paper,” the story embraces every occasion
that it meets to satisfy the higher criticism. It has two weak spots,
which need simply to be mentioned. The cruel and miserly uncle, in the
first chapters, is rather in the tone of superseded tradition, and the
tricks he plays upon his ingenuous nephew are a little like those of
country conjurers. In these pages we feel that Mr. Stevenson is thinking
too much of what a “boy’s paper” is expected to contain. Then the
history stops without ending, as it were; but I think I may add that
this accident speaks for itself. Mr. Stevenson has often to lay down his
pen for reasons that have nothing to do with the failure of inspiration,
and the last page of David Balfour’s adventures is an honourable plea
for indulgence. The remaining five-sixths of the book deserve to stand
by _Henry Esmond_ as a fictive autobiography in archaic form. The
author’s sense of the English idiom of the last century, and still more
of the Scotch, has enabled him to give a gallant companion to
Thackeray’s _tour de force_. The life, the humour, the colour of the
central portions of _Kidnapped_ have a singular pictorial virtue: these
passages read like a series of inspired footnotes on some historic page.
The charm of the most romantic episode in the world, though perhaps it
would be hard to say why it is the most romantic, when it was associated
with so much stupidity, is over the whole business, and the forlorn hope
of the Stuarts is revived for us without evoking satiety. There could be
no better instance of the author’s talent for seeing the familiar in
the heroic, and reducing the extravagant to plausible detail, than the
description of Alan Breck’s defence in the cabin of the ship and the
really magnificent chapters of “The Flight in the Heather.” Mr.
Stevenson has in a high degree (and doubtless for good reasons of his
own) what may be called the imagination of physical states, and this has
enabled him to arrive at a wonderfully exact translation of the miseries
of his panting Lowland hero, dragged for days and nights over hill and
dale, through bog and thicket, without meat or drink or rest, at the
tail of an Homeric Highlander. The great superiority of the book resides
to my mind, however, in the fact that it puts two characters on their
feet with admirable rectitude. I have paid my tribute to Alan Breck, and
I can only repeat that he is a masterpiece. It is interesting to observe
that though the man is extravagant, the author’s touch exaggerates
nothing: it is throughout of the most truthful, genial, ironical kind;
full of penetration, but with none of the grossness of moralising
satire. The figure is a genuine study, and nothing can be more charming
than the way Mr. Stevenson both sees through it and admires it. Shall I
say that he sees through David Balfour? This would be perhaps to
under-estimate the density of that medium. Beautiful, at any rate, is
the expression which this unfortunate though circumspect youth gives to
those qualities which combine to excite our respect and our objurgation
in the Scottish character. Such a scene as the episode of the quarrel
of the two men on the mountain-side is a real stroke of genius, and has
the very logic and rhythm of life; a quarrel which we feel to be
inevitable, though it is about nothing, or almost nothing, and which
springs from exasperated nerves and the simple shock of temperaments.
The author’s vision of it has a profundity which goes deeper, I think,
than _Doctor Jekyll_. I know of few better examples of the way genius
has ever a surprise in its pocket--keeps an ace, as it were, up its
sleeve. And in this case it endears itself to us by making us reflect
that such a passage as the one I speak of is in fact a signal proof of
what the novel can do at its best, and what nothing else can do so well.
In the presence of this sort of success we perceive its immense value.
It is capable of a rare transparency--it can illustrate human affairs in
cases so delicate and complicated that any other vehicle would be
clumsy. To those who love the art that Mr. Stevenson practises he will
appear, in pointing this incidental moral, not only to have won a
particular triumph, but to have given a delightful pledge.

1887.



VI

MISS WOOLSON


Flooded as we have been in these latter days with copious discussion as
to the admission of women to various offices, colleges, functions, and
privileges, singularly little attention has been paid, by themselves at
least, to the fact that in one highly important department of human
affairs their cause is already gained--gained in such a way as to
deprive them largely of their ground, formerly so substantial, for
complaining of the intolerance of man. In America, in England, to-day,
it is no longer a question of their admission into the world of
literature: they are there in force; they have been admitted, with all
the honours, on a perfectly equal footing. In America, at least, one
feels tempted at moments to exclaim that they are in themselves the
world of literature. In Germany and in France, in this line of
production, their presence is less to be perceived. To speak only of the
latter country, France has brought forth in the persons of Madame de
Sévigné, Madame de Staël, and Madame Sand, three female writers of the
first rank, without counting a hundred ladies to whom we owe charming
memoirs and volumes of reminiscence; but in the table of contents of the
_Revue des Deux Mondes_, that epitome of the literary movement (as
regards everything, at least, but the famous doctrine, in fiction, of
“naturalism”), it is rare to encounter the name of a female contributor.
The covers of American and English periodicals tell a different story;
in these monthly joints of the ladder of fame the ladies stand as thick
as on the staircase at a crowded evening party.

There are, of course, two points of view from which this free possession
of the public ear may be considered--as regards its effect upon the life
of women, and as regards its effect upon literature. I hasten to add
that I do not propose to consider either, and I touch on the general
fact simply because the writer whose name I have placed at the head of
these remarks happens to be a striking illustration of it. The work of
Miss Constance Fenimore Woolson is an excellent example of the way the
door stands open between the personal life of American women and the
immeasurable world of print, and what makes it so is the particular
quality that this work happens to possess. It breathes a spirit
singularly and essentially conservative--the sort of spirit which, but
for a special indication pointing the other way, would in advance seem
most to oppose itself to the introduction into the feminine lot of new
and complicating elements. Miss Woolson evidently thinks that lot
sufficiently complicated, with the sensibilities which even in primitive
ages women were acknowledged to possess; fenced in by the old
disabilities and prejudices, they seem to her to have been by their very
nature only too much exposed, and it would never occur to her to lend
her voice to the plea for further exposure--for a revolution which
should place her sex in the thick of the struggle for power. She sees it
in preference surrounded certainly by plenty of doors and windows (she
has not, I take it, a love of bolts and Oriental shutters), but
distinctly on the private side of that somewhat evasive and exceedingly
shifting line which divides human affairs into the profane and the
sacred. Such is the turn of mind of the author of _Rodman the Keeper_
and _East Angels_, and if it has not prevented her from writing books,
from competing for the literary laurel, this is a proof of the strength
of the current which to-day carries both sexes alike to that mode of
expression.

Miss Woolson’s first productions were two collections of short tales,
published in 1875 and 1880, and entitled respectively _Castle Nowhere_
and _Rodman the Keeper_. I may not profess an acquaintance with the
former of these volumes, but the latter is full of interesting artistic
work. Miss Woolson has done nothing better than the best pages in this
succession of careful, strenuous studies of certain aspects of life,
after the war, in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. As the fruit of a
remarkable minuteness of observation and tenderness of feeling on the
part of one who evidently did not glance and pass, but lingered and
analysed, they have a high value, especially when regarded in the light
of the _voicelessness_ of the conquered and reconstructed South. Miss
Woolson strikes the reader as having a compassionate sense of this
pathetic dumbness--having perceived that no social revolution of equal
magnitude had ever reflected itself so little in literature, remained so
unrecorded, so unpainted and unsung. She has attempted to give an
impression of this circumstance, among others, and a sympathy altogether
feminine has guided her pen. She loves the whole region, and no daughter
of the land could have handled its peculiarities more indulgently, or
communicated to us more of the sense of close observation and intimate
knowledge. Nevertheless it must be confessed that the picture, on the
whole, is a picture of dreariness--of impressions that may have been
gathered in the course of lonely afternoon walks at the end of hot days,
when the sunset was wan, on the edge of rice-fields, dismal swamps, and
other brackish inlets. The author is to be congratulated in so far as
such expeditions may have been the source of her singularly exact
familiarity with the “natural objects” of the region, including the
negro of reality. She knows every plant and flower, every vague odour
and sound, the song and flight of every bird, every tint of the sky and
murmur of the forest, and she has noted scientifically the dialect of
the freedmen. It is not too much to say that the negroes in _Rodman the
Keeper_ and in _East Angels_ are a careful philological study, and that
if Miss Woolson preceded Uncle Remus by a considerable interval, she
may have the credit of the initiative--of having been the first to take
their words straight from their lips.

No doubt that if in _East Angels_, as well as in the volume of tales,
the sadness of Miss Woolson’s South is more striking than its high
spirits, this is owing somewhat to the author’s taste in the way of
subject and situation, and especially to her predilection for cases of
heroic sacrifice--sacrifice sometimes unsuspected and always
unappreciated. She is fond of irretrievable personal failures, of people
who have had to give up even the memory of happiness, who love and
suffer in silence, and minister in secret to the happiness of those who
look over their heads. She is interested in general in secret histories,
in the “inner life” of the weak, the superfluous, the disappointed, the
bereaved, the unmarried. She believes in personal renunciation, in its
frequency as well as its beauty. It plays a prominent part in each of
her novels, especially in the last two, and the interest of _East
Angels_ at least is largely owing to her success in having made an
extreme case of the virtue in question credible to the reader. Is it
because this element is weaker in _Anne_, which was published in 1882,
that _Anne_ strikes me as the least happily composed of the author’s
works? The early chapters are charming and full of promise, but the
story wanders away from them, and the pledge is not taken up. The reader
has built great hopes upon Tita, but Tita vanishes into the vague, after
putting him out of countenance by an infant marriage--an accident in
regard to which, on the whole, throughout her stories, Miss Woolson
shows perhaps an excessive indulgence. She likes the unmarried, as I
have mentioned, but she likes marriages even better, and also sometimes
hurries them forward in advance of the reader’s exaction. The only
complaint it would occur to me to make of _East Angels_ is that Garda
Thorne, whom we cannot think of as anything but a little girl, discounts
the projects we have formed for her by marrying twice; and somehow the
case is not bettered by the fact that nothing is more natural than that
she should marry twice, unless it be that she should marry three times.
We have perceived her, after all, from the first, to be peculiarly
adapted to a succession of pretty widowhoods.

_For the Major_ has an idea, a little fantastic perhaps, but eminently
definite. This idea is the secret effort of an elderly woman to appear
really as young to her husband as (owing to peculiar circumstances) he
believed her to be when he married her. Nature helps her (she happens to
preserve, late in life, the look of comparative youth), and art helps
nature, and her husband’s illusions, fostered by failing health and a
weakened brain, help them both, so that she is able to keep on the mask
till his death, when she pulls it off with a passionate cry of
relief--ventures at last, gives herself the luxury, to be old. The
sacrifice in this case has been the sacrifice of the maternal instinct,
she having had a son, now a man grown, by a former marriage, who
reappears after unsuccessful wanderings in far lands, and whom she may
not permit herself openly to recognise. The sacrificial attitude is
indeed repeated on the part of her step-daughter, who, being at last
taken into Madam Carroll’s confidence, suffers the young man--a shabby,
compromising, inglorious acquaintance--to pass for her lover, thereby
discrediting herself almost fatally (till the situation is straightened
out), with the Rev. Frederick Owen, who has really been marked out by
Providence for the character, and who cannot explain on any comfortable
hypothesis her relations with the mysterious Bohemian. Miss Woolson’s
women in general are capable of these refinements of devotion and
exaltations of conscience, and she has a singular talent for making our
sympathies go with them. The conception of Madam Carroll is highly
ingenious and original, and the small stippled portrait has a real
fascination. It is the first time that a woman has been represented as
painting her face, dyeing her hair, and “dressing young,” out of
tenderness for another: the effort usually has its source in tenderness
for herself. But Miss Woolson has done nothing of a neater execution
than this fanciful figure of the little ringleted, white-frocked,
falsely juvenile lady, who has the toilet-table of an actress and the
conscience of a Puritan.

The author likes a glamour, and by minute touches and gentle,
conciliatory arts, she usually succeeds in producing a valid one. If I
had more space I should like to count over these cumulative strokes, in
which a delicate manipulation of the real is mingled with an
occasionally frank appeal to the romantic muse. But I can only mention
two of the most obvious: one the frequency of her reference to the
episcopal church as an institution giving a tone to American life (the
sort of tone which it is usually assumed that we must seek in
civilisations more permeated with ecclesiasticism); the other her
fondness for family histories--for the idea of perpetuation of race,
especially in the backward direction. I hasten to add that there is
nothing of the crudity of sectarianism in the former of these
manifestations, or of the dreariness of the purely genealogical passion
in the latter; but none the less is it clear that Miss Woolson likes
little country churches that are dedicated to saints not vulgarised by
too much notoriety, that are dressed with greenery (and would be with
holly if there were any), at Christmas and Easter; that have “rectors,”
well connected, who are properly garmented, and organists, slightly
deformed if possible, and addicted to playing Gregorian chants in the
twilight, who are adequately artistic; likes also generations that have
a pleasant consciousness of a few warm generations behind them,
screening them in from too bleak a past, from vulgar draughts in the
rear. I know not whether for the most part we are either so Anglican or
so long-descended as in Miss Woolson’s pages we strike ourselves as
being, but it is certain that as we read we protest but little against
the soft impeachment. She represents us at least as we should like to
be, and she does so with such discretion and taste that we have no fear
of incurring ridicule by assent. She has a high sense of the
picturesque; she cannot get on without a social atmosphere. Once, I
think, she has looked for these things in the wrong place--at the
country boarding-house denominated Caryl’s, in _Anne_, where there must
have been flies and grease in the dining-room, and the ladies must have
been overdressed; but as a general thing her quest is remarkably happy.
She stays at home, and yet gives us a sense of being “abroad”; she has a
remarkable faculty of making the new world seem ancient. She succeeds in
representing Far Edgerly, the mountain village in _For the Major_, as
bathed in the precious medium I speak of. Where is it meant to be, and
where was the place that gave her the pattern of it? We gather vaguely,
though there are no negroes, that it is in the south; but this, after
all, is a tolerably indefinite part of the United States. It is
somewhere in the midst of forests, and yet it has as many idiosyncrasies
as Mrs. Gaskell’s _Cranford_, with added possibilities of the pathetic
and the tragic. What new town is so composite? What composite town is so
new? Miss Woolson anticipates these questions; that is she prevents us
from asking them: we swallow Far Edgerly whole, or say at most, with a
sigh, that if it couldn’t have been like that it certainly ought to have
been.

It is, however, in _East Angels_ that she has been most successful in
this feat of evoking a local tone, and this is a part of the general
superiority of that very interesting work, which to my mind represents
a long stride of her talent, and has more than the value of all else she
has done. In _East Angels_ the attempt to create an atmosphere has had,
to a considerable degree, the benefit of the actual quality of things in
the warm, rank peninsula which she has studied so exhaustively and loves
so well. Miss Woolson found a tone in the air of Florida, but it is not
too much to say that she has left it still more agreeably
rich--converted it into a fine golden haze. Wonderful is the tact with
which she has pressed it into the service of her story, draped the bare
spots of the scene with it, and hung it there half as a curtain and half
as a background. _East Angels_ is a performance which does Miss Woolson
the highest honour, and if her talent is capable, in another novel, of
making an advance equal to that represented by this work in relation to
its predecessors, she will have made a substantial contribution to our
new literature of fiction. Long, comprehensive, copious, still more
elaborate than her other elaborations, _East Angels_ presents the
interest of a large and well-founded scheme. The result is not flawless
at every point, but the undertaking is of a fine, high kind, and, for
the most part, the effect produced is thoroughly worthy of it. The
author has, in other words, proposed to give us the complete natural
history, as it were, of a group of persons collected, in a complicated
relationship, in a little winter-city on a southern shore, and she has
expended on her subject stores of just observation and an infinite deal
of the true historical spirit. How much of this spirit and of artistic
feeling there is in the book, only an attentive perusal will reveal. The
central situation is a very interesting one, and is triumphantly
treated, but I confess that what is most substantial to me in the book
is the writer’s general conception of her task, her general attitude of
watching life, waiting upon it and trying to catch it in the fact. I
know not what theories she may hold in relation to all this business, to
what camp or league she may belong; my impression indeed would be that
she is perfectly free--that she considers that though camps and leagues
may be useful organisations for looking for the truth, it is not in
their own bosom that it is usually to be found. However this may be, it
is striking that, artistically, she has had a fruitful instinct in
seeing the novel as a picture of the actual, of the characteristic--a
study of human types and passions, of the evolution of personal
relations. In _East Angels_ she has gone much farther in this direction
than in either of her other novels.

The book has, to my sense, two defects, which I may as well mention at
once--two which are perhaps, however, but different faces of the same.
One is that the group on which she has bent her lens strikes us as too
detached, too isolated, too much on a desert island. Its different
members go to and fro a good deal, to New York and to Europe, but they
have a certain shipwrecked air, as of extreme dependence on each other,
though surrounded with every convenience. The other fault is that the
famous “tender sentiment” usurps among them a place even greater perhaps
than that which it holds in life, great as the latter very admittedly
is. I spoke just now of their complicated relationships, but the
complications are almost exclusively the complications of love. Our
impression is of sky and sand--the sky of azure, the sand of silver--and
between them, conspicuous, immense, against the low horizon, the
question of engagement and marriage. I must add that I do not mean to
imply that this question is not, in the very nature of things, at any
time and in any place, immense, or that in a novel it should be expected
to lose its magnitude. I take it indeed that on such a simple shore as
Miss Woolson has described, love (with the passions that flow from it),
is almost inevitably the subject, and that the perspective is not really
false. It is not that the people are represented as hanging together by
that cord to an abnormal degree, but that, there being few accessories
and circumstances, there is no tangle and overgrowth to disguise the
effect. It is a question of effect, but it is characteristic of the
feminine, as distinguished from the masculine hand, that in any portrait
of a corner of human affairs the particular effect produced in _East
Angels_, that of what we used to call the love-story, will be the
dominant one. The love-story is a composition in which the elements are
distributed in a particular proportion, and every tale which contains a
great deal of love has not necessarily a title to the name. That title
depends not upon how much love there may be, but upon how little of
other things. In novels by men other things are there to a greater or
less degree, and I therefore doubt whether a man may be said ever to
have produced a work exactly belonging to the class in question. In
men’s novels, even of the simplest strain, there are still other
references and other explanations; in women’s, when they are of the
category to which I allude, there are none but that one. And there is
certainly much to be said for it.

In _East Angels_ the sacrifice, as all Miss Woolson’s readers know, is
the great sacrifice of Margaret Harold, who immolates herself--there is
no other word--deliberately, completely, and repeatedly, to a husband
whose behaviour may as distinctly be held to have absolved her. The
problem was a very interesting one, and worthy to challenge a superior
talent--that of making real and natural a transcendent, exceptional act,
representing a case in which the sense of duty is raised to exaltation.
What makes Margaret Harold’s behaviour exceptional and transcendent is
that, in order to render the barrier between herself and the man who
loves her, and whom she loves, absolutely insurmountable, she does her
best to bring about his marriage, endeavours to put another woman into
the frame of mind to respond to him in the event (possible, as she is a
woman whom he has once appeared to love) of his attempting to console
himself for a bitter failure. The care, the ingenuity, the precautions
the author has exhibited, to make us accept Mrs. Harold in her
integrity, are perceptible on every page, and they leave us finally no
alternative but to accept her; she remains exalted, but she remains at
the same time thoroughly sound. For it is not a simple question of
cleverness of detail, but a question of the larger sort of imagination,
and Margaret Harold would have halted considerably if her creator had
not taken the supreme precaution of all, and conceived her from the germ
as capable of a certain heroism--of clinging at the cost of a grave
personal loss to an idea which she believes to be a high one, and taking
such a fancy to it that she endeavours to paint it, by a refinement of
magnanimity, with still richer hues. She is a picture, not of a woman
indulging in a great spasmodic flight or moral _tour de force_, but of a
nature bent upon looking at life from a high point of view, an attitude
in which there is nothing abnormal, and which the author illustrates, as
it were, by a test case. She has drawn Margaret with so close and firm
and living a line that she seems to put us in the quandary, if we
repudiate her, of denying that a woman _may_ look at life from a high
point of view. She seems to say to us: “Are there distinguished natures,
or are there not? Very well, if there are, that’s what they can do--they
can try and provide for the happiness of others (when they adore them)
even to their own injury.” And we feel that we wish to be the first to
agree that there _are_ distinguished natures.

Garda Thorne is the next best thing in the book to Margaret, and she is
indeed equally good in this, that she is conceived with an equal
clearness. But Margaret produces her impression upon us by moving before
us and doing certain things, whereas Garda is more explained, or rather
she explains herself more, tells us more about herself. She says
somewhere, or some one says of her, that she doesn’t narrate, but in
fact she does narrate a good deal, for the purpose of making the reader
understand her. This the reader does, very constantly, and Garda is a
brilliant success. I must not, however, touch upon the different parts
of _East Angels_, because in a work of so much patience and conscience a
single example carries us too far. I will only add that in three places
in especial the author has been so well inspired as to give a definite
pledge of high accomplishment in the future. One of these salient
passages is the description of the closing days of Mrs. Thorne, the
little starved yet ardent daughter of the Puritans, who has been
condemned to spend her life in the land of the relaxed, and who, before
she dies, pours out her accumulations of bitterness--relieves herself in
a passionate confession of everything she has suffered and missed, of
how she has hated the very skies and fragrances of Florida, even when,
as a consistent Christian, thankful for every mercy, she has pretended
most to appreciate them. Mrs. Thorne is the pathetic, tragic form of the
type of which Mrs. Stowe’s Miss Ophelia was the comic. In almost all of
Miss Woolson’s stories the New England woman is represented as
regretting the wholesome austerities of the region of her birth. She
reverts to them, in solemn hours, even when, like Mrs. Thorne, she may
appear for a time to have been converted to mild winters. Remarkably
fine is the account of the expedition undertaken by Margaret Harold and
Evert Winthrop to look for Lanse in the forest, when they believe him,
or his wife thinks there may be reason to believe him, to have been lost
and overtaken by a storm. The picture of their paddling the boat by
torchlight into the reaches of the river, more or less smothered in the
pestilent jungle, with the personal drama, in the unnatural place,
reaching an acute stage between them--this whole episode is in a high
degree vivid, strange, and powerful. Lastly, Miss Woolson has risen
altogether to the occasion in the scene in which Margaret “has it out,”
as it were, with Evert Winthrop, parts from him and, leaving him baffled
and unsurpassably sore, gives him the measure of her determination to
accept the necessity of her fate. These three episodes are not alike,
yet they have, in the high finish of Miss Woolson’s treatment of them, a
family resemblance. Moreover, they all have the stamp which I spoke of
at first--the stamp of the author’s conservative feeling, the
implication that for her the life of a woman is essentially an affair of
private relations.

1887.



VII

ALPHONSE DAUDET


I

“The novel of manners grows thick in England, and there are many reasons
for it. In the first place it was born there, and a plant always
flourishes in its own country.” So wrote M. Taine, the French critic,
many years ago. But those were the years of Dickens and Thackeray (as a
prelude to a study of the latter of whom the remark was made); and the
branch of literature mentioned by M. Taine has no longer, in the soil of
our English-speaking genius, so strong a vitality. The French may bear
the palm to-day in the representation of manners by the aid of fiction.
Formerly, it was possible to oppose Balzac and Madame Sand to Dickens
and Thackeray; but at present we have no one, either in England or in
America, to oppose to Alphonse Daudet. The appearance of a new novel by
this admirable genius is to my mind the most delightful literary event
that can occur just now; in other words Alphonse Daudet is at the head
of his profession. I say of his profession advisedly, for he belongs to
our modern class of trained men of letters; he is not an occasional or a
desultory poet; he is a novelist to his finger-tips--a soldier in the
great army of constant producers. But such as he is, he is a master of
his art, and I may as well say definitely that if I attempt to sketch in
a few pages his literary countenance, it will be found that the portrait
is from the hand of an admirer. We most of us feel that among the
artists of our day certain talents have more to say to us and others
less; we have our favourites, and we have our objects of indifference.
The writer of these remarks has always had a sympathy for the author of
the _Lettres de mon Moulin_; he began to read his novels with a
prejudice in their favour. This prejudice sprang from the Letters
aforesaid, which do not constitute a novel, but a volume of the lightest
and briefest tales. They had, to my mind, an extraordinary charm; they
put me quite on the side of Alphonse Daudet, whatever he might do in the
future. One of the first things he did was to publish the history of
_Fromont Jeune et Risler Aîné_. It is true that this work did not give
me the pleasure that some of its successors have done, and though it has
been crowned by the French Academy, I still think it weaker than _Les
Rois en Exil_ and _Numa Roumestan_. But I liked it better on a second
reading than on a first; it contains some delightful things. After that
came _Jack_ and _Le Nabab_, and the two novels I have just mentioned,
and that curious and interesting tale of _L’Evangéliste_, which
appeared a few months since, and which proves that the author’s genius,
though on the whole he has pressed it hard, is still nervous, fresh, and
young. Each of these things has been better than the last, with the
exception, perhaps, of _L’Evangéliste_, which, to my taste, is not
superior to _Numa Roumestan_. _Numa Roumestan_ is a masterpiece; it is
really a perfect work; it has no weakness, no roughness; it is a compact
and harmonious whole. Daudet’s other works have had their inequalities,
their infirmities, certain places where, if you tapped them, they
sounded hollow. His danger has always been a perceptible tendency to the
factitious; sometimes he has fallen into the trap laid for him by a
taste for superficial effects. In _Fromont Jeune_, for instance, it
seems to me difficult to care much for the horrid little heroine
herself, carefully as she is studied. She has been pursued, but she has
not been caught, for she is not interesting (even for a _coquine_), not
even human. She is a mechanical doll, with nothing for the imagination
to take hold of. She is one more proof of the fact that it is difficult
to give the air of consistency to vanity and depravity, though the
portraiture of the vicious side of life would seem, from the pictorial
point of view, to offer such attractions. The reader’s quarrel with
Sidonie Chèbe is not that she is bad, but that she is not _felt_, as the
æsthetic people say. In _Jack_ the hollow spot, as I have called it, is
the episode of Doctor Rivals and his daughter Cécile, which reminds us
of the more genial parts of Dickens. It is perhaps because to us readers
of English speech the figure of the young girl, in a French novel, is
almost always wanting in reality--seems to be thin and conventional; in
any case poor Jack’s love-affair, at the end of the book, does not
produce the illusion of the rest of his touching history. In _Le Nabab_
this artificial element is very considerable; it centres about the
figure of Paul de Géry and embraces the whole group of M. Joyeuse and
his blooming daughters, with their pretty attitudes--taking in also the
very shadowy André Maranne, so touchingly re-united to his mother, who
had lived for ten years with an Irish doctor to whom she was not
married. In _Les Rois en Exil_, Tom Lévis and the diabolical Séphora
seem to me purely fanciful creations, without any relation to reality;
they are the inferior part of the book. They are composed by a master of
composition, and the comedian Tom is described with immense spirit, an
art which speaks volumes as to a certain sort of Parisian initiation.
But if this artistic and malignant couple are very clever water-colour,
they are not really humanity. Ruffians and rascals have a certain moral
nature, as well as the better-behaved; but in the case I have mentioned
M. Daudet fails to put his finger upon it. The same with Madame
Autheman, the evil genius of poor Eline Ebsen, in the _L’Evangéliste_.
She seems to me terribly, almost grotesquely, void. She is an elaborate
portrait of a fanatic of Protestantism, a bigot to the point of
monstrosity, cold-blooded, implacable, cruel. The figure is painted with
Alphonse Daudet’s inimitable art; no one that handles the pen to-day is
such a pictorial artist as he. But Madame Autheman strikes me as quite
automatic; psychologically she is a blank. One does not see the
operation of her character. She must have had a soul, and a very curious
one. It was a great opportunity for a piece of spiritual portraiture;
but we know nothing about Madame Autheman’s inner springs, and I think
we fail to believe in her. I should go so far as to say that we get
little more of an inside view, as the phrase is, of Eline Ebsen; we are
not shown the spiritual steps by which she went over to the
enemy--vividly, admirably as the outward signs and consequences of this
disaster are depicted. The logic of the matter is absent in both cases,
and it takes all the magic of the author’s legerdemain to prevent us
from missing it. These things, however, are exceptions, and the tissue
of each of his novels is, for all the rest, really pure gold. No one has
such grace, such lightness and brilliancy of execution; it is a
fascination to see him at work. The beauty of _Numa Roumestan_ is that
it has no hollow places; the idea and the picture melt everywhere into
one. Emile Zola, criticising the work in a very friendly spirit, speaks
of the episode of Hortense Le Quesnoy and the Provençal _tambourinaire_
as a false note, and declares that it wounds his sense of delicacy.
Valmajour is a peasant of the south of France; he is young, handsome,
wears a costume, and is a master of the rustic fife and
tambourine--instruments that are much appreciated in his part of the
country. Mademoiselle Le Quesnoy, living in Paris, daughter of a
distinguished member of the French judiciary--“le premier magistrat de
France”--young, charming, imaginative, romantic, marked out for a malady
of the chest, and with a certain innocent perversity of mind, sees him
play before an applauding crowd in the old Roman arena at Nîmes, and
forthwith conceives a secret, a singular but not, under the
circumstances, an absolutely unnatural passion for him. He comes up to
Paris to seek his fortune at the “variety” theatres, where his feeble
and primitive music quite fails to excite enthusiasm. The young girl,
reckless and impulsive, and full of sympathy with his mortification,
writes him in three words (upon one of her little photographs) an
assurance of her devotion; and this innocent missive, falling soon into
the hands of his rapacious and exasperated sister (a wonderful figure,
one of the most living that has ever come from Daudet’s pen), becomes a
source of infinite alarm to the family of Mademoiselle Le Quesnoy, who
see her compromised, calumniated and black-mailed, and finally of
complete humiliation to poor Hortense herself, now fallen into a rapid
consumption, and cured of her foolish infatuation by a nearer view of
the vain and ignorant Valmajour. An agent of the family recovers the
photograph (with the aid of ten thousand francs), and the young girl,
with the bitter taste of her disappointment still in her soul, dies in
her flower.

This little story, as I say, is very shocking to M. Zola, who cites it
as an example of the folly of a departure from consistent realism. What
is observed, says M. Zola, on the whole very justly, is strong; what is
invented is always weak, especially what is invented to please the
ladies. “See in this case,” he writes, “all the misery of invented
episodes. This love of Hortense, with which the author has doubtless
wished to give the impression of something touching, produces a
discomfort, as if it were a violation of nature. It is therefore the
pages written for the ladies that are repulsive--even to a man
accustomed to the saddest dissections of the human corpse.” I am not of
M. Zola’s opinion--delightful as it would be to be of that opinion when
M. Zola’s sense of propriety is ruffled. The incident of Hortense and
Valmajour is not (to my sense) a blot upon _Numa Roumestan_; on the
contrary, it is perfectly conceivable, and is treated with admirable
delicacy. “This romantic stuff,” says M. Zola, elsewhere, “is as painful
as a pollution. That a young girl should lose her head over a tenor,
that may be explained, for she loves the operatic personage in the
interpreter. She has before her a young man sharpened and refined by
life, elegant, having at least certain appearances of talent and
intelligence. But this tambourinist, with his drum and penny-whistle,
this village dandy, a poor devil who doesn’t even know how to speak!
No, life has not such cruelties as that, I protest, I who certainly, as
a general thing, am not accustomed to give ground before human
aberrations!” This objection was worth making; but I should look at the
matter in another way. It seems to me much more natural that a girl of
the temper and breeding that M. Daudet has described should take a
momentary fancy to a prepossessing young rustic, bronzed by the sun of
Provence (even if it be conceded that his soul was vulgar), than that
she should fasten her affections upon a “lyric artist,” suspected of
pomatum and paint, and illuminated by the footlights. These are points
which it is vain to discuss, however, both because they are delicate and
because they are details. I have come so far simply from a desire to
justify my high admiration of _Numa Roumestan_. But Emile Zola, again,
has expressed this feeling more felicitously than I can hope to do.
“This, moreover, is a very slight blemish in a work which I regard as
one of those, of all Daudet’s productions, that is most personal to
himself. He has put his whole nature into it, helped by his southern
temperament, having only to make large draughts upon his innermost
recollections and sensations. I do not think that he has hitherto
reached such an intensity either of irony or of geniality.... Happy the
books which arrive in this way, at the hour of the complete maturity of
a talent! They are simply the widest unfolding of an artist’s nature;
they have in happy equilibrium the qualities of observation and the
qualities of style. For Alphonse Daudet _Numa Roumestan_ will mark this
interfusion of a temperament and a subject that are made for each other,
the perfect plenitude of a work which the writer exactly fills.”


II

As I say, however, these are details, and I have touched them
prematurely. Alphonse Daudet is a charmer, and the effect of his
brilliant, friendly, indefinable genius is to make it difficult, in
speaking of him, to take things in their order or follow a plan. In
writing of him some time ago, in another place, I so far lost my head as
to remark, with levity, that he was “a great little novelist.” The
diminutive epithet then, I must now say, was nothing more than a term of
endearment, the result of an irresistible impulse to express a sense of
personal fondness. This kind of feeling is difficult to utter in
English, and the utterance of it, so far as this is possible, is not
thought consistent with the dignity of a critic. If we were talking
French, nothing would be simpler than to say that Alphonse Daudet is
adorable, and have done with it. But this resource is denied me, and I
must arrive at my meaning by a series of circumlocutions. I am not able
even to say that he is very “personal”; that epithet, so valuable in the
vocabulary of French literary criticism, has, when applied to the talent
of an artist, a meaning different from the sense in which we use it. “A
novelist so personal and so penetrating,” says Emile Zola, speaking of
the author of _Numa Roumestan_. That phrase, in English, means nothing
in particular; so that I must add to it that the charm of Daudet’s
talent comes from its being charged to an extraordinary degree with his
temperament, his feelings, his instincts, his natural qualities. This,
of course, is a charm, in a style, only when nature has been generous.
To Alphonse Daudet she has been exceptionally so; she has placed in his
hand an instrument of many chords. A delicate, nervous organisation,
active and indefatigable in spite of its delicacy, and familiar with
emotion of almost every kind, equally acquainted with pleasure and with
pain; a light, quick, joyous, yet reflective, imagination, a faculty of
seeing images, making images, at every turn, of conceiving everything in
the visible form, in the plastic spirit; an extraordinary sensibility to
all the impressions of life and a faculty of language which is in
perfect harmony with his wonderful fineness of perception--these are
some of the qualities of which he is the happy possessor, and which make
his equipment for the work he has undertaken exceedingly rich. There are
others besides; but enumerations are ponderous, and we should avoid that
danger in speaking of a genius whose lightness of touch never belies
itself. His elder brother, who has not his talent, has written a little
book about him in which the word _modernité_ perpetually occurs. M.
Ernest Daudet, in _Mon Frère et Moi_, insists upon his possession of
the qualities expressed by this barbarous substantive, which is so
indispensable to the new school. Alphonse Daudet is, in truth, very
modern; he has all the newly-developed, the newly-invented, perceptions.
Nothing speaks so much to his imagination as the latest and most
composite things, the refinements of current civilisation, the most
delicate shades of the actual. It is scarcely too much to say that
(especially in the Parisian race), modern manners, modern nerves, modern
wealth, and modern improvements, have engendered a new sense, a sense
not easily named nor classified, but recognisable in all the most
characteristic productions of contemporary art. It is partly physical,
partly moral, and the shortest way to describe it is to say that it is a
more analytic consideration of appearances. It is known by its tendency
to resolve its discoveries into pictorial form. It sees the connection
between feelings and external conditions, and it expresses such
relations as they have not been expressed hitherto. It deserves to win
victories, because it has opened its eyes well to the fact that the
magic of the arts of representation lies in their appeal to the
associations awakened by things. It traces these associations into the
most unlighted corners of our being, into the most devious paths of
experience. The appearance of things is constantly more complicated as
the world grows older, and it needs a more and more patient art, a
closer notation, to divide it into its parts. Of this art Alphonse
Daudet has a wonderfully large allowance, and that is why I say that he
is peculiarly modern. It is very true that his manner is not the manner
of patience--though he must always have had a great deal of that virtue
in the preparation of his work. The new school of fiction in France is
based very much on the taking of notes; the library of the great
Flaubert, of the brothers de Goncourt, of Emile Zola, and of the writer
of whom I speak, must have been in a large measure a library of
memorandum-books. This of course only puts the patience back a stage or
two. In composition Daudet proceeds by quick, instantaneous vision, by
the happiest divination, by catching the idea as it suddenly springs up
before him with a whirr of wings. What he mainly sees is the great
surface of life and the parts that lie near the surface. But life is,
immensely, a matter of surface, and if our emotions in general are
interesting, the _form_ of those emotions has the merit of being the
most definite thing about them. Like most French imaginative writers
(judged, at least, from the English standpoint), he is much less
concerned with the moral, the metaphysical world, than with the
sensible. We proceed usually from the former to the latter, while the
French reverse the process. Except in politics, they are uncomfortable
in the presence of abstractions, and lose no time in reducing them to
the concrete. But even the concrete, for them, is a field for poetry,
which brings us to the fact that the delightful thing in Daudet’s talent
is the inveterate poetical touch. This is what mainly distinguishes him
from the other lights of the realistic school--modifies so completely in
his case the hardness of consistent realism. There is something very
hard, very dry, in Flaubert, in Edmond de Goncourt, in the robust Zola;
but there is something very soft in Alphonse Daudet. “Benevolent
nature,” says Zola, “has placed him at that exquisite point where poetry
ends and reality begins.” That is happily said; Daudet’s great
characteristic is this mixture of the sense of the real with the sense
of the beautiful. His imagination is constantly at play with his theme;
it has a horror of the literal, the limited; it sees an object in all
its intermingled relations--on its sentimental, its pathetic, its
comical, its pictorial side. Flaubert, in whom Alphonse Daudet would
probably recognise to a certain degree a literary paternity, is far from
being a simple realist; but he was destitute of this sense of the
beautiful, destitute of facility and grace. He had, to take its place, a
sense of the strange, the grotesque, to which _Salammbo_, _La Tentation
de Saint-Antoine_, his indescribable posthumous novel of _Bouvard et
Pécuchet_, abundantly testify. The talent of the brothers Goncourt
strikes us as a talent that was associated originally with a sense of
beauty; but we receive an impression that this feeling has been
perverted and warped. It has ceased to be natural and free; it has
become morbid and peevish, has turned mainly to curiosity and mannerism.
And these two authors are capable, during a whole book (as in _Germinie
Lacerteux_ or _La Fille Elisa_), of escaping from its influence
altogether. No one would probably ever think of accusing Emile Zola of
having a perception of the beautiful. He has an illimitable, and at
times a very valuable, sense of the ugly, of the unclean; but when he
addresses himself to the poetic aspect of things, as in _La Faute de
l’Abbé Mouret_, he is apt to have terrible misadventures.


III

It is for the expressive talents that we feel an affection, and Daudet
is eminently expressive. His manner is the manner of talk, and if the
talk is sincere, that makes a writer touch us. Daudet expresses many
things; but he most frequently expresses himself--his own temper in the
presence of life, his own feeling on a thousand occasions. This personal
note is especially to be observed in his earlier productions--in the
_Lettres de mon Moulin_, the _Contes du Lundi_, _Le Petit Chose_; it is
also very present in the series of prefaces which he has undertaken to
supply to the octavo edition of his works. In these prefaces he gives
the history of each successive book--relates the circumstances under
which it was written. These things are ingenuously told, but what we are
chiefly conscious of in regard to them, is that Alphonse Daudet must
express himself. His brother informs us that he is writing his memoirs,
and this will have been another opportunity for expression. Ernest
Daudet, as well (as I have mentioned), has attempted to express him.
_Mon Frère et Moi_ is one of those productions which it is difficult
for an English reader to judge in fairness: it is so much more
confidential than we, in public, ever venture to be. The French have, on
all occasions, the courage of their emotion, and M. Ernest Daudet’s
leading emotion is a boundless admiration for his junior. He lays it
before us very frankly and gracefully--not, on the whole, indiscreetly;
and I have no quarrel whatever with his volume, for it contains a
considerable amount of information on a very interesting subject.
Indirectly, indeed, as well as directly, it helps us to a knowledge of
his brother. Alphonse Daudet was born in Provence; he comes of an
expansive, a confidential race. His style is impregnated with the
southern sunshine, and his talent has the sweetness of a fruit that has
grown in the warm, open air. He has the advantage of being a Provençal
converted, as it were--of having a southern temperament and a northern
reason. We know what he thinks of the southern temperament--_Numa
Roumestan_ is a vivid exposition of that. “_Gau de carriero, doulou
d’oustau_,” as the Provençal has it; “_joie de rue, douleur de
maison_--joy in the street and pain in the house”--that proverb, says
Alphonse Daudet, describes and formulates a whole race. It has given him
the subject of an admirable story, in which he has depicted with equal
force and tenderness the amiable weaknesses, the mingled violence and
levity of the children of the clime of the fig and olive. He has put
before us, above all, their mania for talk, their irrepressible chatter,
the qualities that, with them, render all passion, all purpose,
inordinately vocal. Himself a complete “_produit du Midi_,” like the
famille Mèfre in _Numa Roumestan_, he has achieved the feat of becoming
objective to his own vision, getting outside of his ingredients and
judging them. This he has done by the aid of his Parisianised
conscience, his exquisite taste, and that finer wisdom which resides in
the artist, from whatever soil he springs. Successfully as he has done
it, however, he has not done it so well but that he too does not show a
little of the heightened colour, the super-abundant statement, the
restless movement of his compatriots. He is nothing if not
demonstrative; he is always in a state of feeling; he has not a very
definite ideal of reserve. It must be added that he is a man of genius,
and that genius never spends its capital; that he is an artist, and that
an artist always has a certain method and order. But it remains
characteristic of his origin that the author of _Numa Roumestan_, one of
the happiest and most pointed of satires, should have about him the
aroma of some of the qualities satirised. There are passages in his
tales and in his prefaces that are genuine “produits du Midi,” and his
brother’s account of him could only have been written by a Provençal
brother.

To be _personnel_ to that point, transparent, effusive, gushing, to give
one’s self away in one’s books, has never been, and will never be, the
ideal of us of English speech; but that does not prevent our enjoying
immensely, when we meet it, a happy example of this alien spirit. For
myself, I am free to confess, half my affection for Alphonse Daudet
comes from the fact that he writes in a way in which I would not write
even if I could. There are certain kinds of feeling and observation,
certain impressions and ideas, to which we are rather ashamed to give a
voice, and yet are ashamed not to have in our scale. In these matters
Alphonse Daudet renders us a great service: he expresses such things on
our behalf. I may add that he usually does it much better than the
cleverest of us could do even if we were to try. I have said that he is
a Provençal converted, and I should do him a great injustice if I did
not dwell upon his conversion. His brother relates the circumstances
under which he came up to Paris, at the age of twenty (in a threadbare
overcoat and a pair of india-rubbers), to seek his literary fortune. His
beginnings were difficult, his childhood had been hard, he was familiar
with poverty and disaster. He had no adventitious aid to success--his
whole fortune consisted in his exquisite organisation. But Paris was to
be, artistically, a mine of wealth to him, and of all the anxious and
eager young spirits who, on the battle-field of uncarpeted _cinquièmes_,
have laid siege to the indifferent city, none can have felt more deeply
conscious of the mission to take possession of it. Alphonse Daudet, at
the present hour, is in complete possession of Paris; he knows it, loves
it; uses it; he has assimilated it to its last particle. He has made of
it a Paris of his own--a Paris like a vast crisp water-colour, one of
the water-colours of the school of Fortuny. The French have a great
advantage in the fact that they admire their capital very much as if it
were a foreign city. Most of their artists, their men of letters, have
come up from the provinces, and well as they may learn to know the
metropolis, it never ceases to be a spectacle, a wonder, a fascination
for them. This comes partly from the intrinsic brilliancy and interest
of the place, partly from the poverty of provincial life, and partly
from the degree to which the faculty of appreciation is developed in
Frenchmen of the class of which I speak. To Daudet, at any rate, the
familiar aspects of Paris are endlessly pictorial, and part of the charm
of his novels (for those who share his relish for that huge flower of
civilisation) is in the way he recalls it, evokes it, suddenly presents
it, in parts or as a whole, to our senses. The light, the sky, the
feeling of the air, the odours of the streets, the look of certain
vistas, the silvery, muddy Seine, the cool, grey tone of colour, the
physiognomy of particular quarters, the whole Parisian expression, meet
you suddenly in his pages, and remind you again and again that if he
paints with a pen he writes with a brush. I remember that when I read
_Le Nabab_ and _Les Rois en Exil_ for the first time, I said to myself
that this was the _article de Paris_ in supreme perfection, and that no
reader could understand such productions who had not had a copious
experience of the scene. It is certain, at any rate, that those books
have their full value only for minds more or less Parisianised; half
their meaning, their magic, their subtlety of intention is liable to be
lost. It may be said that this is a great limitation--that the works of
the best novelists may be understood by all the world. There is
something in that; but I know not, all the same, whether the fact I
indicate be a great limitation. It is certainly a very illustrative
quality. Daudet has caught the tone of a particular pitch of manners; he
applies it with the lightest, surest hand, and his picture shines and
lives. The most generalised representation of life cannot do more than
that.

I shrink very much from speaking of systems, in relation to such a
genius as this: I should incline to believe that Daudet’s system is
simply to be as vivid as he can. Emile Zola has a system--at least he
says so; but I do not remember, on the part of the author of _Numa
Roumestan_, the smallest technical profession of faith. Nevertheless, he
has taken a line, as we say, and his line is to sail as close as
possible to the actual. The life of Paris being his subject, his
attempt, most frequently, is to put his finger upon known examples; so
that he has been accused of portraying individuals instead of portraying
types. There are few of his figures to which the name of some celebrity
of the day has not been attached. The Nabob is François Bravais; the Duc
de Mora is the Duc de Morny. The Irish Doctor Jenkins is an English
physician who flourished in Paris from such a year to such another;
people are still living (wonderful to say), who took his little pills _à
base arsénicale_. Félicia Ruys is Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt;
Constance Crenmitz is Madame Taglioni; the Queen of Illyria is the Queen
of Naples; the Prince of Axel is the Prince of Orange; Tom Lévis is an
English house-agent (_not_ in the Rue Royale, but hard by); Elysée
Méraut is a well-known journalist, and Doctor Bouchereau a well-known
surgeon. Such is the key, we are told, to these ingenious
mystifications, and to many others which I have not the space to
mention. It matters little, to my mind, whether in each case the cap
fits the supposed model; for nothing is more evident than that Alphonse
Daudet has proposed to himself to represent not only the people but the
persons of his time. The conspicuity of certain individuals has added to
the force with which they speak to his imagination. His taste is for
salient figures, and he has said to himself that there is no greater
proof of being salient than being known. The temptation to “put people
into a book” is a temptation of which every writer of fiction knows
something, and I hold that to succumb to it is not only legitimate but
inevitable. Putting people into books is what the novelist lives upon;
the question in the matter is the question of delicacy, for according to
that delicacy the painter conjures away recognition or insists upon it.
Daudet has been accused of the impertinence of insisting, and I believe
that two or three of his portraits have provoked a protest. He is
charged with ingratitude for having produced an effigy of the Duke of
Morny, who had been his benefactor, and employed him as a secretary.
Such a matter as this is between M. Daudet and his conscience, and I am
far from pretending to pronounce upon it. The uninitiated reader can
only say that the figure is a very striking one--such a picture as (it
may be imagined) the Duc de Morny would not be displeased to have
inspired. It may fairly be conceded, however, that Daudet is much more
an observer than an inventor. The invented parts of his tales, like the
loves of Jack and of Paul de Géry and the machinations of Madame
Autheman (the theological vampire of _L’Evangéliste_, to whom I shall
return for a moment), are the vague, the ineffective as well as the
romantic parts. (I remember that in reading _Le Nabab_, it was not very
easy to keep Paul de Géry and André Maranne apart.) It is the real--the
transmuted real--that he gives us best; the fruit of a process that adds
to observation what a kiss adds to a greeting. The joy, the excitement
of recognition, are keen, even when the object recognised is dismal.
They are part of his spirit--part of his way of seeing things.
_L’Evangéliste_ is the saddest story conceivable; but it is lighted,
throughout, by the author’s irrepressibly humorous view of the
conditions in which its successive elements present themselves, and by
the extraordinary vivacity with which, in his hands, narration and
description proceed. His humour is of the finest; it is needless to say
that it is never violent nor vulgar. It is a part of the high
spirits--the animal spirits, I should say, if the phrase had not an
association of coarseness--that accompany the temperament of his race;
and it is stimulated by the perpetual entertainment which so rare a
visual faculty naturally finds in the spectacle of life, even while
encountering there a multitude of distressing things. Daudet’s gaiety is
a part of his poetry, and his poetry is a part of everything he touches.
There is little enough gaiety in the subject of _Jack_, and yet the
whole story is told with a smile. To complete the charm of the thing,
the smile is full of feeling. Here and there it becomes an immense
laugh, and the result is a delightful piece of drollery. _Les Aventures
Prodigieuses de Tartarin de Tarascon_ contains all his high spirits; it
is one of his few stories in which laughter and tears are not
intermingled.

This little tale, which is one of his first, is, like _Numa Roumestan_,
a satire on a southern foible. Tartarin de Tarascon is an excellent man
who inhabits the old town on the Rhone over which the palace of the good
King René keeps guard; he has not a fault in the world except an
imagination too vivid. He is liable to visions, to hallucinations; the
desire that a thing shall happen speedily resolves itself into the
belief that the thing will happen--then that it is happening--then that
it _has_ happened. Tartarin accordingly presents himself to the world
(and to himself) as a gentleman to whom all wonders are familiar; his
experience blooms with supposititious flowers. The coveted thing for a
man of his romantic mould is that he shall be the bravest of the brave,
and he passes his life in a series of heroic exploits, in which, as you
listen to him, it is impossible not to believe. He passes over from
Marseilles to Algiers, where his adventures deepen to a climax, and
where he has a desperate flirtation with the principal ornament of the
harem of a noble Arab. The lady proves at the end to be a horribly
improper little Frenchwoman, and poor Tartarin, abused and disabused,
returns to Tarascon to meditate on what might have been. Nothing could
be more charming than the light comicality of the sketch, which fills a
small volume. This is the most mirthful, the most completely diverting
of all Daudet’s tales; but the same element, in an infinitely subtler
form, runs through the others. The essence of it is the wish to please,
and this brings me back to the point to which I intended to return. The
wish to please is the quality by which Daudet persuades his readers
most; it is this that elicits from them that friendliness, that
confession that they are charmed, of which I spoke at the beginning of
these remarks. It gives a sociability to his manner, in spite of the
fact that he describes all sorts of painful and odious things. This
contradiction is a part of his originality. He has no pretension to
being simple, he is perfectly conscious of being complex, and in
nothing is he more modern than in this expressive and sympathetic
smile--the smile of the artist, the sceptic, the man of the world--with
which he shows us the miseries and cruelties of life. It is singular
that we should like him for that--and doubtless many people do not, or
think they do not. What they really dislike, I believe, is the things he
relates, which are often lamentable.


IV

The first of these were slight and simple, and for the most part
cheerful; little anecdotes and legends of Provence, impressions of an
artist’s holidays in that strange, bare, lovely land, and of wanderings
further afield, in Corsica and Algeria; sketches of Paris during the
siege; incidents of the invasion, the advent of the Prussian rule in
other parts of the country. In all these things there is _la note émue_,
the smile which is only a more synthetic sign of being moved. And then
such grace of form, such lightness of touch, such alertness of
observation! Some of the chapters of the _Lettres de mon Moulin_ are
such perfect vignettes, that the brief treatment of small subjects might
well have seemed, at first, Alphonse Daudet’s appointed work. He had
almost invented a manner, and it was impossible to do better than he the
small piece, or even the passage. Glimpses, reminiscences, accidents, he
rendered them with the brilliancy of a violinist improvising on a sudden
hint. The _Lettres de mon Moulin_, moreover, are impregnated with the
light, with the fragrance of a Provençal summer; the rosemary and thyme
are in the air as we read, the white rocks and the grey foliage stretch
away to an horizon of hills--the Alpilles, the little Alps--on which
colour is as iridescent as the breast of a dove. The Provence of
Alphonse Daudet is a delightful land; even when the mistral blows there
it has a music in its whistle. Emile Zola has protested against this; he
too is of Provençal race, he passed his youth in the old Languedoc, and
he intimates that his fanciful friend throws too much sweetness into the
picture. It is beyond contradiction that Daudet, like Tartarin de
Tarascon and Numa Roumestan, exaggerates a little; he sees with great
intensity, and is very sensitive to agreeable impressions. _Le Petit
Chose_, his first long story, reads to-day like the attempt of a
beginner, and of a beginner who had read and enjoyed Dickens. I risk
this allusion to the author of _Copperfield_ in spite of a conviction
that Alphonse Daudet must be tired of hearing that he imitates him. It
is not imitation; there is nothing so gross as imitation in the length
and breadth of Daudet’s work; but it is conscious sympathy, for there is
plenty of that. There are pages in his tales which seem to say to us
that at one moment of his life Dickens had been a revelation to
him--pages more particularly in _Le Petit Chose_, in _Fromont Jeune_ and
in _Jack_. The heroine of the first of these works (a very shadowy
personage) is never mentioned but as the “black eyes”; some one else is
always spoken of as the _dame de grand mérite_; the heroine’s father,
who keeps a flourishing china-shop, never opens his mouth without saying
“C’est le cas de le dire.” These are harmless, they are indeed sometimes
very happy, Dickensisms. We make no crime of them to M. Daudet, who must
have felt as intelligently as he has felt everything else the
fascinating form of the English novelist’s drollery. _Fromont Jeune et
Risler Aîné_ is a study of life in the old quarter of the Marais, the
Paris of the seventeenth century, whose stately _hôtels_ have been
invaded by the innumerable activities of modern trade. When I say a
study, I use the word with all those restrictions with which it must be
applied to a genius who is truthful without being literal, and who has a
pair of butterfly’s wings attached to the back of his observation. If
sub-titles were the fashion to-day, the right one for _Fromont Jeune_
would be--_or the Dangers of Partnership_. The action takes place for
the most part in a manufactory of wall-papers, and the persons in whom
the author seeks to interest us are engaged in this useful industry.
There are delightful things in the book, but, as I intimated at the
beginning of these remarks, there are considerable inequalities. The
pages that made M. Daudet’s fortune--for it was with _Fromont Jeune_
that his fortune began--are those which relate to the history of M.
Delobelle, the superannuated tragedian, his long-suffering wife, and his
exquisite lame daughter, who makes butterflies and humming-birds for
ladies’ head-dresses. This eccentric and pathetic household was an
immense hit, and Daudet has never been happier than in the details of
the group. Delobelle himself, who has not had an engagement for ten
years, and who never will have one again, but who holds none the less
that it is his duty not to leave the stage, “not to give up the
theatre,” though his platonic passion is paid for by the weary eyesight
of his wife and daughter, who sit up half the night attaching bead-eyes
to little stuffed animals--the blooming and sonorous Delobelle,
ferociously selfish and fantastically vain, under the genial forms of
melodrama, is a beautiful representation of a vulgarly factitious
nature. The book revealed a painter; all the descriptive passages, the
pictorial touches, had the truest felicity. No one better than Daudet
gives what we call the feeling of a place. The story illustrates, among
other things, the fact that a pretty little woman who is consumed with
the lowest form of vanity, and unimpeded in her operations by the
possession of a heart, may inflict an unlimited amount of injury upon
people about her, if she only have the opportunity. The case is well
demonstrated, and Sidonie Chèbe is an elaborate study of flimsiness; her
papery quality, as I may call it, her rustling dryness, are effectively
rendered. But I think there is a limit to the interest which the
English-speaking reader of French novels can take to-day in the
adventures of a lady who leads the life of Madame Sidonie. In the first
place he has met her again and again--he knows exactly what she will do
and say in every situation; and in the second there always seems to him
to be in her vices, her disorders, an element of the conventional. There
is a receipt among French novelists for making little high-heeled
reprobates. However this may be, he has at least a feeling that at night
all cats are grey, and that the particular tint of depravity of a woman
whose nature has the shallowness of a sanded floor is not a very
important _constatation_. Daudet has expended much ingenuity in
endeavouring to hit the particular tint of Sidonie; he has wished to
make her a type--the type of the daughter of small unsuccessful
shopkeepers (narrow-minded and self-complacent to imbecility), whose
corruption comes from the examples, temptations, opportunities of a
great city, as well as from her impure blood and the infection of the
meanest associations. But what all this illustrates was not worth
illustrating.

The early chapters of _Jack_ are admirable; the later ones suffer a
little, I think, from the story being drawn out too much, like an
accordion when it wishes to be plaintive. Jack is a kind of younger
brother of the Petit Chose, though he takes the troubles of life rather
more stoutly than that delicate and diminutive hero; a poor boy with a
doting and disreputable mother, whose tenderness is surpassed by her
frivolity, and who sacrifices her son to the fantastic egotism of an
unsuccessful man of letters with whom she passes several years of her
life. She is another study of _coquinerie_--she is another shade; but
she is a more apprehensible figure than Sidonie Chèbe--she is, indeed,
a very admirable portrait. The success of the book, however, is the
figure of her lover, that is of her protector and bully, the
unrecognised genius aforesaid, author of _Le Fils de Faust_, an
uncirculated dramatic poem in the manner of Goethe, and centre of a
little group of _ratés_--a collection of dead-beats, as we say to-day,
as pretentious, as impotent, as envious and as bilious as himself. He
conceives a violent hatred of the offspring of his amiable companion,
and the subject of _Jack_ is the persecution of the boy by this
monstrous charlatan. This persecution is triumphantly successful; the
youthful hero dies on the threshold of manhood, broken down by his
tribulations and miseries: he has been thrown upon the world to earn his
bread, and among other things seeks a livelihood as a stoker on an
Atlantic steamer. Jack has been taken young, and though his nature is
gentle and tender, his circumstances succeed in degrading him. He is
reduced at the end to a kind of bewildered brutishness. The story is
simply the history of a juvenile martyrdom, pityingly, expansively told,
and I am afraid that Mr. Charles Dudley Warner, who, in writing lately
about “Modern Fiction,”[4] complains of the abuse of pathetic effects in
that form of composition, would find little to commend in this brilliant
paraphrase of suffering. Mr. Warner’s complaint is eminently just, and
the fault of _Jack_ is certainly the abuse of pathos. Mr. Warner does
not mention Alphonse Daudet by name, but it is safe to assume that in
his reflections upon the perversity of those writers who will not make a
novel as comfortable as one’s stockings, or as pretty as a Christmas
card, he was thinking of the author of so many uncompromising
_dénouements_. It is true that this probability is diminished by the
fact that when he remarks that surely “the main object in the novel is
to entertain,” he appears to imply that the writers who furnish his text
are faithless to this duty. It is possible he would not have made that
implication if he had had in mind the productions of a story-teller who
has the great peculiarity of being “amusing,” as the old-fashioned
critics say, even when he touches the source of tears. The word
entertaining has two or three shades of meaning; but in whatever sense
it is used I may say, in parenthesis, that I do not agree with Mr.
Warner’s description of the main object of the novel. I should put the
case differently: I should say that the main object of the novel is to
represent life. I cannot understand any other motive for interweaving
imaginary incidents, and I do not perceive any other measure of the
value of such combinations. The _effect_ of a novel--the effect of any
work of art--is to entertain; but that is a very different thing. The
success of a work of art, to my mind, may be measured by the degree to
which it produces a certain illusion; that illusion makes it appear to
us for the time that we have lived another life--that we have had a
miraculous enlargement of experience. The greater the art the greater
the miracle, and the more certain also the fact that we have been
entertained--in the best meaning of that word, at least, which signifies
that we have been living at the expense of some one else. I am perfectly
aware that to say the object of a novel is to represent life does not
bring the question to a point so fine as to be uncomfortable for any
one. It is of the greatest importance that there should be a very free
appreciation of such a question, and the definition I have hinted at
gives plenty of scope for that. For, after all, may not people differ
infinitely as to what constitutes life--what constitutes representation?
Some people, for instance, hold that Miss Austen deals with life, that
Miss Austen represents. Others attribute these achievements to the
accomplished Ouida. Some people find that illusion, that enlargement of
experience, that miracle of living at the expense of others, of which I
have spoken, in the novels of Alexandre Dumas. Others revel in them in
the pages of Mr. Howells.


V

M. Daudet’s unfortunate Jack, at any rate, lives altogether at his own
cost--that of his poor little juvenile constitution, and of his innocent
affections and aspirations. He is sent to the horrible Gymnase Moronval,
where he has no beguiling works of fiction to read. The Gymnase Moronval
is a Dotheboys’ Hall in a Parisian “passage”--a very special class of
academy. Nothing could be more effective than Daudet’s picture of this
horrible institution, with its bankrupt and exasperated proprietors, the
greasy penitentiary of a group of unremunerative children whose parents
and guardians have found it convenient to forget them. The episode of
the wretched little hereditary monarch of an African tribe who has been
placed there for a royal education, and who, livid with cold, short
rations, and rough usage, and with his teeth chattering with a sense of
dishonour, steals away and wanders in the streets of Paris, and then,
recaptured and ferociously punished, surrenders his little dusky soul in
the pestilential dormitory of the establishment--all this part of the
tale is a masterpiece of vivid description. We seem to assist at the
terrible soirées where the _ratés_ exhibit their talents (M. Moronval is
of course a _raté_), and where the wife of the principal, a very small
woman with a very big head and a very high forehead, expounds the
wonderful Méthode-Décostère (invented by herself and designated by her
maiden name), for pronouncing the French tongue with elegance. My
criticism of this portion of the book, and indeed of much of the rest of
it, would be that the pathetic element is too intentional, too _voulu_,
as the French say. And I am not sure that the reader enters into the
author’s reason for making Charlotte, Jack’s mother, a woman of the
class that we do not specify in American magazines. She is an
accommodating idiot, but her good nature is unfortunately not
consecutive, and she consents, at the instigation of the diabolical
d’Argenton, to her child’s being brought up like a pauper. D’Argenton,
like Delobelle, is a study of egotism pushed to the grotesque; but the
portrait is still more complete, and some of the details are inimitable.
As regards the infatuated Charlotte, who sacrifices her child to the
malignity of her lover, I repeat that certain of the features of her
character appear to me a mistake, judged in relation to the effect that
the author wishes to produce. He wishes to show us all that the boy
loses in being disinherited--if I may use that term with respect to a
situation in which there is nothing to inherit. But his loss is not
great when we consider that his mother had, after all, very little to
give him. She had divested herself of important properties. Bernard
Jansoulet, in _Le Nabab_, is not, like the two most successful figures
that Daudet has previously created, a representation of full-blown
selfishness. The unhappy nabab is generous to a fault; he is the most
good-natured and free-handed of men, and if he has made use of all sorts
of means to build up his enormous fortune, he knows an equal number of
ways of spending it. This voluminous tale had an immense success; it
seemed to show that Daudet had found his manner, a manner that was
perfectly new and remarkably ingenious. As I have said, it held up the
mirror to contemporary history, and attempted to complete for us, by
supplementary revelations, those images which are projected by the
modern newspaper and the album of photographs. _Les Rois en Exil_ is an
historical novel of this pattern, in which the process is applied with
still more spirit. In these two works Daudet enlarged his canvas
surprisingly, and showed his ability to deal with a multitude of
figures.

The distance traversed artistically from the little anecdotes of the
_Lettres de mon Moulin_ to the complex narrative of _Le Nabab_ and its
successor, are like the transformation--often so rapid--of a slim and
charming young girl into a blooming and accomplished woman of the world.
The author’s style had taken on bone and muscle, and become conscious of
treasures of nervous agility. I have left myself no space to speak of
these things in detail, and it was not part of my purpose to examine
Daudet’s novels piece by piece; but I may say that it is the items, the
particular touches, that make the value of writing of this kind. I am
not concerned to defend the process, the system, so far as there is a
system; but I cannot open either _Le Nabab_ or _Les Rois en Exil_,
cannot rest my eyes upon a page, without being charmed by the brilliancy
of execution. It is difficult to give an idea, by any general terms, of
Daudet’s style--a style which defies convention, tradition, homogeneity,
prudence, and sometimes even syntax, gathers up every patch of colour,
every colloquial note, that will help to illustrate, and moves eagerly,
lightly, triumphantly along, like a clever woman in the costume of an
eclectic age. There is nothing classic in this mode of expression; it is
not the old-fashioned drawing in black and white. It never rests, never
is satisfied, never leaves the idea sitting half-draped, like patience
on a monument; it is always panting, straining, fluttering, trying to
add a little more, to produce the effect which shall make the reader see
with his eyes, or rather with the marvellous eyes of Alphonse Daudet.
_Le Nabab_ is full of episodes which are above all pages of execution,
triumphs of translation. The author has drawn up a list of the Parisian
solemnities and painted the portrait--or given a summary--of each of
them. The opening day at the Salon, a funeral at Père-la-Chaise, a
debate in the Chamber of Deputies, the _première_ of a new play at a
favourite theatre, furnish him with so many opportunities for his
gymnastics of observation. I should like to say how rich and
entertaining I think the figure of Jansoulet, the robust and
good-natured son of his own works (originally a dock-porter at
Marseilles), who, after amassing a fabulous number of millions in
selling European luxuries on commission to the Bey of Tunis, comes to
Paris to try to make his social fortune as he has already made his
financial, and after being a nine-days’ wonder, a public joke, and the
victim of his boundless hospitality; after being flattered by
charlatans, rifled by adventurers, belaboured by newspapers, and
“exploited” to the last penny of his coffers and the last pulsation of
his vanity by every one who comes near him, dies of apoplexy in his box
at the theatre, while the public hoots him for being unseated for
electoral frauds in the Chamber of Deputies, where for a single mocking
hour he has tasted the sweetness of political life. I should like to
say, too, that however much or however little the Duc de Mora may
resemble the Duc de Morny, the character depicted by Daudet is a
wonderful study of that modern passion, the love of “good form.” The
chapter that relates the death of the Duke, and describes the tumult,
the confusion, of his palace, the sudden extinction of the rapacious
interests that crowd about him, and to which the collapse of his
splendid security comes as the first breath of a revolution--this
chapter is famous, and gives the fullest measure of what Daudet can do
when he fairly warms to his work.

_Les Rois en Exil_, however, has a greater perfection; it is simpler,
more equal, and it contains much more of the beautiful. In _Le Nabab_
there are various lacunæ and a certain want of logic; it is not a
sustained narrative, but a series of almost diabolically clever
pictures. But the other book has more largeness of line--a fine tragic
movement which deepens and presses to the catastrophe. Daudet had
observed that several dispossessed monarchs had taken up their residence
in the French capital--some of them waiting and plotting for a
restoration, and chafing under their disgrace; others indifferent,
resigned, relieved, eager to console themselves with the pleasures of
Paris. It occurred to him to suppose a drama in which these exalted
personages should be the actors, and which, unlike either of his former
productions, should have a pure and noble heroine. He was conscious of a
dauntless little imagination, the idea of making kings and queens talk
among themselves had no terror for him; he had faith in his good taste,
in his exquisite powers of divination. The success is worthy of the
spirit--the gallant artistic spirit--in which it was invoked. _Les Rois
en Exil_ is a finished picture. He has had, it is true, to simplify his
subject a good deal to make it practicable; the court of the king and
queen of Illyria, in the suburb of Saint-Mandé, is a little too much
like a court in a fairy-tale. But the amiable depravity of Christian,
in whom conviction, resolution, ambition, are hopelessly dead, and whose
one desire is to enjoy Paris with the impunity of a young man about
town; the proud, serious, concentrated nature of Frederica, who believes
ardently in her royal function, and lives with her eyes fixed on the
crown, which she regards as a symbol of duty; both of these conceptions
do M. Daudet the utmost honour, and prove that he is capable of handling
great situations--situations which have a depth of their own, and do not
depend for their interest on amusing accidents. It takes perhaps some
courage to say so, but the feelings, the passions, the view of life, of
royal personages, differ essentially from those of common mortals; their
education, their companions, their traditions, their exceptional
position, take sufficient care of that. Alphonse Daudet has comprehended
the difference; and I scarcely know, in the last few years, a straighter
flight of imagination. The history of the queen of Illyria is a tragedy.
Her husband sells his birthright for a few millions of francs, and rolls
himself in the Parisian gutter; her child perishes from poverty of
blood; she herself dries up in her despair. There is nothing finer in
all Daudet than the pages, at the end of the book, which describe her
visits to the great physician Bouchereau, when she takes her poor
half-blind child by the hand, and (wishing an opinion unbiassed by the
knowledge of her rank) goes to sit in his waiting-room like one of the
vulgar multitude. Wonderful are the delicacy, the verity, the
tenderness of these pages; we always point to them to justify our
predilection. But we must stop pointing. We will not say more of _Numa
Roumestan_ than we have already said; for it is better to pass so happy
a work by than to speak of it inadequately. We will only repeat that we
delight in _Numa Roumestan_. Alphonse Daudet’s last book is a novelty at
the time I write; _L’Evangéliste_ has been before the public but a month
or two. I will say but little of it, partly because my opportunity is
already over, and partly because I have found that, for a fair judgment
of one of Daudet’s works, the book should be read a second time, after a
certain interval has elapsed. This interval has not brought round my
second perusal of _L’Evangéliste_. My first suggests that with all the
author’s present mastery of his resources the book has a grave defect.
It is not that the story is painful; that is a defect only when the
sources of this element are not, as I may say, abundant. It treats of a
young girl (a Danish Protestant) who is turned to stone by a Medusa of
Calvinism, the sombre and fanatical wife of a great Protestant banker.
Madame Autheman persuades Eline Ebsen to wash her hands of the poor old
mother with whom up to this moment she has lived in the closest
affection, and go forth into strange countries to stir up the wicked to
conversion. The excellent Madame Ebsen, bewildered, heart-broken,
desperate, terrified at the imagined penalties of her denunciation of
the rich and powerful bigot (so that she leaves her habitation and
hides in a household of small mechanics to escape from them--one of the
best episodes in the book), protests, struggles, goes down on her knees
in vain; then, at last, stupefied and exhausted, desists, looks for the
last time at her inexorable, impenetrable daughter, who has hard texts
on her lips and no recognition in her eye, and who lets her pass away,
without an embrace, for ever. The incident in itself is perfectly
conceivable: many well-meaning persons have held human relationships
cheap in the face of a religious call. But Daudet’s weakness has been
simply a want of acquaintance with his subject. Proposing to himself to
describe a particular phase of French Protestantism, he has “got up”
certain of his facts with commendable zeal; but he has not felt nor
understood the matter, has looked at it solely from the outside, sought
to make it above all things grotesque and extravagant. Into these
excesses it doubtless frequently falls; but there is a general human
verity which regulates even the most stubborn wills, the most perverted
lives; and of this saving principle the author, in quest of striking
pictures, has rather lost his grasp. His pictures are striking, as a
matter of course; but to us readers of Protestant race, familiar with
the large, free, salubrious life which the children of that faith have
carried with them over the globe, there is almost a kind of drollery in
these fearsome pictures of the Protestant temperament. The fact is that
M. Daudet has not (to my belief) any natural understanding of the
religious passion; he has a quick perception of many things, but that
province of the human mind cannot be _fait de chic_--experience, there,
is the only explorer. Madame Autheman is not a real bigot; she is simply
a dusky effigy, she is undemonstrated. Eline Ebsen is not a victim,
inasmuch as she is but half alive, and victims are victims only in
virtue of being thoroughly sentient. I do not easily perceive her
spiritual joints. All the human part of the book, however, has the
author’s habitual felicity; and the reader of these remarks knows what I
hold that to be. It may seem to him, indeed, that in making the
concession I made just above--in saying that Alphonse Daudet’s insight
fails him when he begins to take the soul into account--I partly retract
some of the admiration I have expressed for him. For that amounts, after
all, to saying that he has no high imagination, and, as a consequence,
no ideas. It is very true, I am afraid, that he has not a great number
of ideas. There are certain things he does not conceive--certain forms
that never appear to him. Imaginative writers of the first order always
give us an impression that they have a kind of philosophy. We should be
embarrassed to put our finger on Daudet’s philosophy. “And yet you have
praised him so much,” we fancy we hear it urged; “you have praised him
as if he were one of the very first.” All that is very true, and yet we
take nothing back. Determinations of rank are a delicate matter, and it
is sufficient priority for an author that one likes him immensely.
Daudet is bright, vivid, tender; he has an intense artistic life. And
then he is so free. For the spirit that moves slowly, going carefully
from point to point, not sure whether this or that or the other will
“do,” the sight of such freedom is delightful.

1883.



VIII

GUY DE MAUPASSANT


I

The first artists, in any line, are doubtless not those whose general
ideas about their art are most often on their lips--those who most
abound in precept, apology, and formula and can best tell us the reasons
and the philosophy of things. We know the first usually by their
energetic practice, the constancy with which they apply their
principles, and the serenity with which they leave us to hunt for their
secret in the illustration, the concrete example. None the less it often
happens that a valid artist utters his mystery, flashes upon us for a
moment the light by which he works, shows us the rule by which he holds
it just that he should be measured. This accident is happiest, I think,
when it is soonest over; the shortest explanations of the products of
genius are the best, and there is many a creator of living figures whose
friends, however full of faith in his inspiration, will do well to pray
for him when he sallies forth into the dim wilderness of theory. The
doctrine is apt to be so much less inspired than the work, the work is
often so much more intelligent than the doctrine. M. Guy de Maupassant
has lately traversed with a firm and rapid step a literary crisis of
this kind; he has clambered safely up the bank at the further end of the
morass. If he has relieved himself in the preface to _Pierre et Jean_,
the last-published of his tales, he has also rendered a service to his
friends; he has not only come home in a recognisable plight, escaping
gross disaster with a success which even his extreme good sense was far
from making in advance a matter of course, but he has expressed in
intelligible terms (that by itself is a ground of felicitation) his most
general idea, his own sense of his direction. He has arranged, as it
were, the light in which he wishes to sit. If it is a question of
attempting, under however many disadvantages, a sketch of him, the
critic’s business therefore is simplified: there will be no difficulty
in placing him, for he himself has chosen the spot, he has made the
chalk-mark on the floor.

I may as well say at once that in dissertation M. de Maupassant does not
write with his best pen; the philosopher in his composition is
perceptibly inferior to the story-teller. I would rather have written
half a page of _Boule de Suif_ than the whole of the introduction to
Flaubert’s _Letters to Madame Sand_; and his little disquisition on the
novel in general, attached to that particular example of it which he has
just put forth,[5] is considerably less to the point than the
masterpiece which it ushers in. In short, as a commentator M. de
Maupassant is slightly common, while as an artist he is wonderfully
rare. Of course we must, in judging a writer, take one thing with
another, and if I could make up my mind that M. de Maupassant is weak in
theory, it would almost make me like him better, render him more
approachable, give him the touch of softness that he lacks, and show us
a human flaw. The most general quality of the author of _La Maison
Tellier_ and _Bel-Ami_, the impression that remains last, after the
others have been accounted for, is an essential hardness--hardness of
form, hardness of nature; and it would put us more at ease to find that
if the fact with him (the fact of execution) is so extraordinarily
definite and adequate, his explanations, after it, were a little vague
and sentimental. But I am not sure that he must even be held foolish to
have noticed the race of critics: he is at any rate so much less foolish
than several of that fraternity. He has said his say concisely and as if
he were saying it once for all. In fine, his readers must be grateful to
him for such a passage as that in which he remarks that whereas the
public at large very legitimately says to a writer, “Console me, amuse
me, terrify me, make me cry, make me dream, or make me think,” what the
sincere critic says is, “Make me something fine in the form that shall
suit you best, according to your temperament.” This seems to me to put
into a nutshell the whole question of the different classes of fiction,
concerning which there has recently been so much discourse. There are
simply as many different kinds as there are persons practising the art,
for if a picture, a tale, or a novel be a direct impression of life (and
that surely constitutes its interest and value), the impression will
vary according to the plate that takes it, the particular structure and
mixture of the recipient.

I am not sure that I know what M. de Maupassant means when he says, The
critic shall appreciate the result only according to the nature of the
effort; he has no right to concern himself with tendencies.” The second
clause of that observation strikes me as rather in the air, thanks to
the vagueness of the last word. But our author adds to the definiteness
of his contention when he goes on to say that any form of the novel is
simply a vision of the world from the standpoint of a person constituted
after a certain fashion, and that it is therefore absurd to say that
there is, for the novelist’s use, only one reality of things. This seems
to me commendable, not as a flight of metaphysics, hovering over
bottomless gulfs of controversy, but, on the contrary, as a just
indication of the vanity of certain dogmatisms. The particular way we
see the world is our particular illusion about it, says M. de
Maupassant, and this illusion fits itself to our organs and senses; our
receptive vessel becomes the furniture of _our_ little plot of the
universal consciousness.

     “How childish, moreover, to believe in reality, since we each carry
     our own in our thought and in our organs. Our eyes, our ears, our
     sense of smell, of taste, differing from one person to another,
     create as many truths as there are men upon earth. And our minds,
     taking instruction from these organs, so diversely impressed,
     understand, analyse, judge, as if each of us belonged to a
     different race. Each one of us, therefore, forms for himself an
     illusion of the world, which is the illusion poetic, or
     sentimental, or joyous, or melancholy, or unclean, or dismal,
     according to his nature. And the writer has no other mission than
     to reproduce faithfully this illusion, with all the contrivances of
     art that he has learned and has at his command. The illusion of
     beauty, which is a human convention! The illusion of ugliness,
     which is a changing opinion! The illusion of truth, which is never
     immutable! The illusion of the ignoble, which attracts so many! The
     great artists are those who make humanity accept their particular
     illusion. Let us, therefore, not get angry with any one theory,
     since every theory is the generalised expression of a temperament
     asking itself questions.”

What is interesting in this is not that M. de Maupassant happens to hold
that we have no universal measure of the truth, but that it is the last
word on a question of art from a writer who is rich in experience and
has had success in a very rare degree. It is of secondary importance
that our impression should be called, or not called, an illusion; what
is excellent is that our author has stated more neatly than we have
lately seen it done that the value of the artist resides in the
clearness with which he gives forth that impression. His particular
organism constitutes a _case_, and the critic is intelligent in
proportion as he apprehends and enters into that case. To quarrel with
it because it is not another, which it could not possibly have been
without a wholly different outfit, appears to M. de Maupassant a
deplorable waste of time. If this appeal to our disinterestedness may
strike some readers as chilling (through their inability to conceive of
any other form than the one they like--a limitation excellent for a
reader but poor for a judge), the occasion happens to be none of the
best for saying so, for M. de Maupassant himself precisely presents all
the symptoms of a “case” in the most striking way, and shows us how far
the consideration of them may take us. Embracing such an opportunity as
this, and giving ourselves to it freely, seems to me indeed to be a
course more fruitful in valid conclusions, as well as in entertainment
by the way, than the more common method of establishing one’s own
premises. To make clear to ourselves those of the author of _Pierre et
Jean_--those to which he is committed by the very nature of his mind--is
an attempt that will both stimulate and repay curiosity. There is no way
of looking at his work less dry, less academic, for as we proceed from
one of his peculiarities to another, the whole horizon widens, yet
without our leaving firm ground, and we see ourselves landed, step by
step, in the most general questions--those explanations of things which
reside in the race, in the society. Of course there are cases and cases,
and it is the salient ones that the disinterested critic is delighted to
meet.

What makes M. de Maupassant salient is two facts: the first of which is
that his gifts are remarkably strong and definite, and the second that
he writes directly _from_ them, as it were: holds the fullest, the most
uninterrupted--I scarcely know what to call it--the boldest
communication with them. A case is poor when the cluster of the artist’s
sensibilities is small, or they themselves are wanting in keenness, or
else when the personage fails to admit them--either through ignorance,
or diffidence, or stupidity, or the error of a false ideal--to what may
be called a legitimate share in his attempt. It is, I think, among
English and American writers that this latter accident is most liable to
occur; more than the French we are apt to be misled by some convention
or other as to the sort of feeler we _ought_ to put forth, forgetting
that the best one will be the one that nature happens to have given us.
We have doubtless often enough the courage of our opinions (when it
befalls that we have opinions), but we have not so constantly that of
our perceptions. There is a whole side of our perceptive apparatus that
we in fact neglect, and there are probably many among us who would erect
this tendency into a duty. M. de Maupassant neglects nothing that he
possesses; he cultivates his garden with admirable energy; and if there
is a flower you miss from the rich parterre, you may be sure that it
could not possibly have been raised, his mind not containing the soil
for it. He is plainly of the opinion that the first duty of the artist,
and the thing that makes him most useful to his fellow-men, is to
master his instrument, whatever it may happen to be.

His own is that of the senses, and it is through them alone, or almost
alone, that life appeals to him; it is almost alone by their help that
he describes it, that he produces brilliant works. They render him this
great assistance because they are evidently, in his constitution,
extraordinarily alive; there is scarcely a page in all his twenty
volumes that does not testify to their vivacity. Nothing could be
further from his thought than to disavow them and to minimise their
importance. He accepts them frankly, gratefully, works them, rejoices in
them. If he were told that there are many English writers who would be
sorry to go with him in this, he would, I imagine, staring, say that
that is about what was to have been expected of the Anglo-Saxon race, or
even that many of them probably could not go with him if they would.
Then he would ask how our authors can be so foolish as to sacrifice such
a _moyen_, how they can afford to, and exclaim, “They must be pretty
works, those they produce, and give a fine, true, complete account of
life, with such omissions, such lacunæ!” M. de Maupassant’s productions
teach us, for instance, that his sense of smell is exceptionally
acute--as acute as that of those animals of the field and forest whose
subsistence and security depend upon it. It might be thought that he
would, as a student of the human race, have found an abnormal
development of this faculty embarrassing, scarcely knowing what to do
with it, where to place it. But such an apprehension betrays an
imperfect conception of his directness and resolution, as well as of his
constant economy of means. Nothing whatever prevents him from
representing the relations of men and women as largely governed by the
scent of the parties. Human life in his pages (would this not be the
most general description he would give of it?) appears for the most part
as a sort of concert of odours, and his people are perpetually engaged,
or he is engaged on their behalf, in sniffing up and distinguishing
them, in some pleasant or painful exercise of the nostril. “If
everything in life speaks to the nostril, why on earth shouldn’t we say
so?” I suppose him to inquire; “and what a proof of the empire of poor
conventions and hypocrisies, _chez vous autres_, that you should pretend
to describe and characterise, and yet take no note (or so little that it
comes to the same thing) of that essential sign!”

Not less powerful is his visual sense, the quick, direct discrimination
of his eye, which explains the singularly vivid concision of his
descriptions. These are never prolonged nor analytic, have nothing of
enumeration, of the quality of the observer, who counts the items to be
sure he has made up the sum. His eye _selects_ unerringly,
unscrupulously, almost impudently--catches the particular thing in which
the character of the object or the scene resides, and, by expressing it
with the artful brevity of a master, leaves a convincing, original
picture. If he is inveterately synthetic, he is never more so than in
the way he brings this hard, short, intelligent gaze to bear. His vision
of the world is for the most part a vision of ugliness, and even when it
is not, there is in his easy power to generalise a certain absence of
love, a sort of bird’s-eye-view contempt. He has none of the
superstitions of observation, none of our English indulgences, our
tender and often imaginative superficialities. If he glances into a
railway carriage bearing its freight into the Parisian suburbs of a
summer Sunday, a dozen dreary lives map themselves out in a flash.

     “There were stout ladies in farcical clothes, those middle-class
     goodwives of the _banlieue_ who replace the distinction they don’t
     possess by an irrelevant dignity; gentlemen weary of the office,
     with sallow faces and twisted bodies, and one of their shoulders a
     little forced up by perpetual bending at work over a table. Their
     anxious, joyless faces spoke moreover of domestic worries,
     incessant needs for money, old hopes finally shattered; for they
     all belonged to the army of poor threadbare devils who vegetate
     frugally in a mean little plaster house, with a flower-bed for a
     garden.” ...

Even in a brighter picture, such as the admirable vignette of the drive
of Madame Tellier and her companions, the whole thing is an impression,
as painters say nowadays, in which the figures are cheap. The six women
at the station clamber into a country cart and go jolting through the
Norman landscape to the village.

     “But presently the jerky trot of the nag shook the vehicle so
     terribly that the chairs began to dance, tossing up the travellers
     to right, to left, with movements like puppets, scared grimaces,
     cries of dismay suddenly interrupted by a more violent bump. They
     clutched the sides of the trap, their bonnets turned over on to
     their backs, or upon the nose or the shoulder; and the white horse
     continued to go, thrusting out his head and straightening the
     little tail, hairless like that of a rat, with which from time to
     time he whisked his buttocks. Joseph Rivet, with one foot stretched
     upon the shaft, the other leg bent under him, and his elbows very
     high, held the reins and emitted from his throat every moment a
     kind of cluck which caused the animal to prick up his ears and
     quicken his pace. On either side of the road the green country
     stretched away. The colza, in flower, produced in spots a great
     carpet of undulating yellow, from which there rose a strong,
     wholesome smell, a smell penetrating and pleasant, carried very far
     by the breeze. In the tall rye the cornflowers held up their little
     azure heads, which the women wished to pluck; but M. Rivet refused
     to stop. Then, in some place, a whole field looked as if it were
     sprinkled with blood, it was so crowded with poppies. And in the
     midst of the great level, taking colour in this fashion from the
     flowers of the soil, the trap passed on with the jog of the white
     horse, seeming itself to carry a nosegay of richer hues; it
     disappeared behind the big trees of a farm, to come out again where
     the foliage stopped and parade afresh through the green and yellow
     crops, pricked with red or blue, its blazing cartload of women,
     which receded in the sunshine.”

As regards the other sense, the sense _par excellence_, the sense which
we scarcely mention in English fiction, and which I am not very sure I
shall be allowed to mention in an English periodical, M. de Maupassant
speaks for that, and of it, with extraordinary distinctness and
authority. To say that it occupies the first place in his picture is to
say too little; it covers in truth the whole canvas, and his work is
little else but a report of its innumerable manifestations. These
manifestations are not, for him, so many incidents of life; they are
life itself, they represent the standing answer to any question that we
may ask about it. He describes them in detail, with a familiarity and a
frankness which leave nothing to be added; I should say with singular
truth, if I did not consider that in regard to this article he may be
taxed with a certain exaggeration. M. de Maupassant would doubtless
affirm that where the empire of the sexual sense is concerned, no
exaggeration is possible: nevertheless it may be said that whatever
depths may be discovered by those who dig for them, the impression of
the human spectacle for him who takes it as it comes has less analogy
with that of the monkeys’ cage than this admirable writer’s account of
it. I speak of the human spectacle as we Anglo-Saxons see it--as we
Anglo-Saxons pretend we see it, M. de Maupassant would possibly say.

At any rate, I have perhaps touched upon this peculiarity sufficiently
to explain my remark that his point of view is almost solely that of the
senses. If he is a very interesting case, this makes him also an
embarrassing one, embarrassing and mystifying for the moralist. I may as
well admit that no writer of the day strikes me as equally so. To find
M. de Maupassant a lion in the path--that may seem to some people a
singular proof of want of courage; but I think the obstacle will not be
made light of by those who have really taken the measure of the animal.
We are accustomed to think, we of the English faith, that a cynic is a
living advertisement of his errors, especially in proportion as he is a
thorough-going one; and M. de Maupassant’s cynicism, unrelieved as it
is, will not be disposed of off-hand by a critic of a competent literary
sense. Such a critic is not slow to perceive, to his no small confusion,
that though, judging from usual premises, the author of _Bel-Ami_ ought
to be a warning, he somehow is not. His baseness, as it pervades him,
ought to be written all over him; yet somehow there are there certain
aspects--and those commanding, as the house-agents say--in which it is
not in the least to be perceived. It is easy to exclaim that if he
judges life only from the point of view of the senses, many are the
noble and exquisite things that he must leave out. What he leaves out
has no claim to get itself considered till after we have done justice to
what he takes in. It is this positive side of M. de Maupassant that is
most remarkable--the fact that his literary character is so complete and
edifying. “Auteur à peu près irréprochable dans un genre qui ne l’est
pas,” as that excellent critic M. Jules Lemaître says of him, he
disturbs us by associating a conscience and a high standard with a
temper long synonymous, in our eyes, with an absence of scruples. The
situation would be simpler certainly if he were a bad writer; but none
the less it is possible, I think, on the whole, to circumvent him, even
without attempting to prove that after all he is one.

The latter part of his introduction to _Pierre et Jean_ is less
felicitous than the beginning, but we learn from it--and this is
interesting--that he regards the analytic fashion of telling a story,
which has lately begotten in his own country some such remarkable
experiments (few votaries as it has attracted among ourselves), as very
much less profitable than the simple epic manner which “avoids with care
all complicated explanations, all dissertations upon motives, and
confines itself to making persons and events pass before our eyes.” M.
de Maupassant adds that in his view “psychology should be hidden in a
book, as it is hidden in reality under the facts of existence. The novel
conceived in this manner gains interest, movement, colour, the bustle of
life.” When it is a question of an artistic process, we must always
mistrust very sharp distinctions, for there is surely in every method a
little of every other method. It is as difficult to describe an action
without glancing at its motive, its moral history, as it is to describe
a motive without glancing at its practical consequence. Our history and
our fiction are what we do; but it surely is not more easy to determine
where what we do begins than to determine where it ends--notoriously a
hopeless task. Therefore it would take a very subtle sense to draw a
hard and fast line on the borderland of explanation and illustration. If
psychology be hidden in life, as, according to M. de Maupassant, it
should be in a book, the question immediately comes up, “From whom is
it hidden?” From some people, no doubt, but very much less from others;
and all depends upon the observer, the nature of one’s observation, and
one’s curiosity. For some people motives, reasons, relations,
explanations, are a part of the very surface of the drama, with the
footlights beating full upon them. For me an act, an incident, an
attitude, may be a sharp, detached, isolated thing, of which I give a
full account in saying that in such and such a way it came off. For you
it may be hung about with implications, with relations, and conditions
as necessary to help you to recognise it as the clothes of your friends
are to help you know them in the street. You feel that they would seem
strange to you without petticoats and trousers.

M. de Maupassant would probably urge that the right thing is to know, or
to guess, how events come to pass, but to say as little about it as
possible. There are matters in regard to which he feels the importance
of being explicit, but that is not one of them. The contention to which
I allude strikes me as rather arbitrary, so difficult is it to put one’s
finger upon the reason why, for instance, there should be so little
mystery about what happened to Christiane Andermatt, in _Mont-Oriol_,
when she went to walk on the hills with Paul Brétigny, and so much, say,
about the forces that formed her for that gentleman’s convenience, or
those lying behind any other odd collapse that our author may have
related. The rule misleads, and the best rule certainly is the tact of
the individual writer, which will adapt itself to the material as the
material comes to him. The cause we plead is ever pretty sure to be the
cause of our idiosyncrasies, and if M. de Maupassant thinks meanly of
“explanations,” it is, I suspect, that they come to him in no great
affluence. His view of the conduct of man is so simple as scarcely to
require them; and indeed so far as they are needed he _is_, virtually,
explanatory. He deprecates reference to motives, but there is one,
covering an immense ground in his horizon, as I have already hinted, to
which he perpetually refers. If the sexual impulse be not a moral
antecedent, it is none the less the wire that moves almost all M. de
Maupassant’s puppets, and as he has not hidden it, I cannot see that he
has eliminated analysis or made a sacrifice to discretion. His pages are
studded with that particular analysis; he is constantly peeping behind
the curtain, telling us what he discovers there. The truth is that the
admirable system of simplification which makes his tales so rapid and so
concise (especially his shorter ones, for his novels in some degree, I
think, suffer from it), strikes us as not in the least a conscious
intellectual effort, a selective, comparative process. He tells us all
he knows, all he suspects, and if these things take no account of the
moral nature of man, it is because he has no window looking in that
direction, and not because artistic scruples have compelled him to close
it up. The very compact mansion in which he dwells presents on that
side a perfectly dead wall.

This is why, if his axiom that you produce the effect of truth better by
painting people from the outside than from the inside has a large
utility, his example is convincing in a much higher degree. A writer is
fortunate when his theory and his limitations so exactly correspond,
when his curiosities may be appeased with such precision and
promptitude. M. de Maupassant contends that the most that the analytic
novelist can do is to put himself--his own peculiarities--into the
costume of the figure analysed. This may be true, but if it applies to
one manner of representing people who are not ourselves, it applies also
to any other manner. It is the limitation, the difficulty of the
novelist, to whatever clan or camp he may belong. M. de Maupassant is
remarkably objective and impersonal, but he would go too far if he were
to entertain the belief that he has kept himself out of his books. They
speak of him eloquently, even if it only be to tell us how easy--how
easy, given his talent of course--he has found this impersonality. Let
us hasten to add that in the case of describing a character it is
doubtless more difficult to convey the impression of something that is
not one’s self (the constant effort, however delusive at bottom, of the
novelist), than in the case of describing some object more immediately
visible. The operation is more delicate, but that circumstance only
increases the beauty of the problem.

On the question of style our author has some excellent remarks; we may
be grateful indeed for every one of them, save an odd reflection about
the way to “become original” if we happen not to be so. The recipe for
this transformation, it would appear, is to sit down in front of a
blazing fire, or a tree in a plain, or any object we encounter in the
regular way of business, and remain there until the tree, or the fire,
or the object, whatever it be, become different for us from all other
specimens of the same class. I doubt whether this system would always
answer, for surely the resemblance is what we wish to discover, quite as
much as the difference, and the best way to preserve it is not to look
for something opposed to it. Is not this indication of the road to take
to become, as a writer, original touched with the same fallacy as the
recommendation about eschewing analysis? It is the only _naïveté_ I have
encountered in M. de Maupassant’s many volumes. The best originality is
the most unconscious, and the best way to describe a tree is the way in
which it has struck us. “Ah, but we don’t always know how it has struck
us,” the answer to that may be, “and it takes some time and
ingenuity--much fasting and prayer--to find out.” If we do not know, it
probably has not struck us very much: so little indeed that our inquiry
had better be relegated to that closed chamber of an artist’s
meditations, that sacred back kitchen, which no _a priori_ rule can
light up. The best thing the artist’s adviser can do in such a case is
to trust him and turn away, to let him fight the matter out with his
conscience. And be this said with a full appreciation of the degree in
which M. de Maupassant’s observations on the whole question of a
writer’s style, at the point we have come to to-day, bear the stamp of
intelligence and experience. His own style is of so excellent a
tradition that the presumption is altogether in favour of what he may
have to say.

He feels oppressively, discouragingly, as many another of his countrymen
must have felt--for the French have worked their language as no other
people have done--the penalty of coming at the end of three centuries of
literature, the difficulty of dealing with an instrument of expression
so worn by friction, of drawing new sounds from the old familiar pipe.
“When we read, so saturated with French writing as we are that our whole
body gives us the impression of being a paste made of words, do we ever
find a line, a thought, which is not familiar to us, and of which we
have not had at least a confused presentiment?” And he adds that the
matter is simple enough for the writer who only seeks to amuse the
public by means already known; he attempts little, and he produces “with
confidence, in the candour of his mediocrity,” works which answer no
question and leave no trace. It is he who wants to do more than this
that has less and less an easy time of it. Everything seems to him to
have been done, every effect produced, every combination already made.
If he be a man of genius, his trouble is lightened, for mysterious ways
are revealed to him, and new combinations spring up for him even after
novelty is dead. It is to the simple man of taste and talent, who has
only a conscience and a will, that the situation may sometimes well
appear desperate; he judges himself as he goes, and he can only go step
by step over ground where every step is already a footprint.

If it be a miracle whenever there is a fresh tone, the miracle has been
wrought for M. de Maupassant. Or is he simply a man of genius to whom
short cuts have been disclosed in the watches of the night? At any rate
he has had faith--religion has come to his aid; I mean the religion of
his mother tongue, which he has loved well enough to be patient for her
sake. He has arrived at the peace which passeth understanding, at a kind
of conservative piety. He has taken his stand on simplicity, on a
studied sobriety, being persuaded that the deepest science lies in that
direction rather than in the multiplication of new terms, and on this
subject he delivers himself with superlative wisdom. “There is no need
of the queer, complicated, numerous, and Chinese vocabulary which is
imposed on us to-day under the name of artistic writing, to fix all the
shades of thought; the right way is to distinguish with an extreme
clearness all those modifications of the value of a word which come from
the place it occupies. Let us have fewer nouns, verbs and adjectives of
an almost imperceptible sense, and more different phrases variously
constructed, ingeniously cast, full of the science of sound and rhythm.
Let us have an excellent general form rather than be collectors of rare
terms.” M. de Maupassant’s practice does not fall below his exhortation
(though I must confess that in the foregoing passage he makes use of the
detestable expression “stylist,” which I have not reproduced). Nothing
can exceed the masculine firmness, the quiet force of his own style, in
which every phrase is a close sequence, every epithet a paying piece,
and the ground is completely cleared of the vague, the ready-made and
the second-best. Less than any one to-day does he beat the air; more
than any one does he hit out from the shoulder.


II

He has produced a hundred short tales and only four regular novels; but
if the tales deserve the first place in any candid appreciation of his
talent it is not simply because they are so much the more numerous: they
are also more characteristic; they represent him best in his
originality, and their brevity, extreme in some cases, does not prevent
them from being a collection of masterpieces. (They are very unequal,
and I speak of the best.) The little story is but scantily relished in
England, where readers take their fiction rather by the volume than by
the page, and the novelist’s idea is apt to resemble one of those
old-fashioned carriages which require a wide court to turn round. In
America, where it is associated pre-eminently with Hawthorne’s name,
with Edgar Poe’s, and with that of Mr. Bret Harte, the short tale has
had a better fortune. France, however, has been the land of its great
prosperity, and M. de Maupassant had from the first the advantage of
addressing a public accustomed to catch on, as the modern phrase is,
quickly. In some respects, it may be said, he encountered prejudices
too friendly, for he found a tradition of indecency ready made to his
hand. I say indecency with plainness, though my indication would perhaps
please better with another word, for we suffer in English from a lack of
roundabout names for the _conte leste_--that element for which the
French, with their _grivois_, their _gaillard_, their _égrillard_, their
_gaudriole_, have so many convenient synonyms. It is an honoured
tradition in France that the little story, in verse or in prose, should
be liable to be more or less obscene (I can think only of that
alternative epithet), though I hasten to add that among literary forms
it does not monopolise the privilege. Our uncleanness is less
producible--at any rate it is less produced.

For the last ten years our author has brought forth with regularity
these condensed compositions, of which, probably, to an English reader,
at a first glance, the most universal sign will be their licentiousness.
They really partake of this quality, however, in a very differing
degree, and a second glance shows that they may be divided into numerous
groups. It is not fair, I think, even to say that what they have most in
common is their being extremely _lestes_. What they have most in common
is their being extremely strong, and after that their being extremely
brutal. A story may be obscene without being brutal, and _vice versâ_,
and M. de Maupassant’s contempt for those interdictions which are
supposed to be made in the interest of good morals is but an incident--a
very large one indeed--of his general contempt. A pessimism so great
that its alliance with the love of good work, or even with the
calculation of the sort of work that pays best in a country of style,
is, as I have intimated, the most puzzling of anomalies (for it would
seem in the light of such sentiments that nothing is worth anything),
this cynical strain is the sign of such gems of narration as _La Maison
Tellier_, _L’Histoire d’une Fille de Ferme_, _L’Ane_, _Le Chien_,
_Mademoiselle Fifi_, _Monsieur Parent_, _L’Héritage_, _En Famille_, _Le
Baptême_, _Le Père Amable_. The author fixes a hard eye on some small
spot of human life, usually some ugly, dreary, shabby, sordid one, takes
up the particle, and squeezes it either till it grimaces or till it
bleeds. Sometimes the grimace is very droll, sometimes the wound is very
horrible; but in either case the whole thing is real, observed, noted,
and represented, not an invention or a castle in the air. M. de
Maupassant sees human life as a terribly ugly business relieved by the
comical, but even the comedy is for the most part the comedy of misery,
of avidity, of ignorance, helplessness, and grossness. When his laugh is
not for these things, it is for the little _saletés_ (to use one of his
own favourite words) of luxurious life, which are intended to be
prettier, but which can scarcely be said to brighten the picture. I like
_La Bête à Maître Belhomme_, _La Ficelle_, _Le Petit Fût_, _Le Cas de
Madame Luneau_, _Tribuneaux Rustiques_, and many others of this category
much better than his anecdotes of the mutual confidences of his little
_marquises_ and _baronnes_.

Not counting his novels for the moment, his tales may be divided into
the three groups of those which deal with the Norman peasantry, those
which deal with the _petit employé_ and small shopkeeper, usually in
Paris, and the miscellaneous, in which the upper walks of life are
represented, and the fantastic, the whimsical, the weird, and even the
supernatural, figure as well as the unexpurgated. These last things
range from _Le Horla_ (which is not a specimen of the author’s best
vein--the only occasion on which he has the weakness of imitation is
when he strikes us as emulating Edgar Poe) to _Miss Harriet_, and from
_Boule de Suif_ (a triumph) to that almost inconceivable little growl of
Anglophobia, _Découverte_--inconceivable I mean in its irresponsibility
and ill-nature on the part of a man of M. de Maupassant’s distinction;
passing by such little perfections as _Petit Soldat_, _L’Abandonné_, _Le
Collier_ (the list is too long for complete enumeration), and such gross
imperfections (for it once in a while befalls our author to go woefully
astray), as _La Femme de Paul_, _Châli_, _Les Sœurs Rondoli_. To these
might almost be added as a special category the various forms in which
M. de Maupassant relates adventures in railway carriages. Numerous, to
his imagination, are the pretexts for enlivening fiction afforded by
first, second, and third class compartments; the accidents (which have
nothing to do with the conduct of the train) that occur there constitute
no inconsiderable part of our earthly transit.

It is surely by his Norman peasant that his tales will live; he knows
this worthy as if he had made him, understands him down to the ground,
puts him on his feet with a few of the freest, most plastic touches. M.
de Maupassant does not admire him, and he is such a master of the
subject that it would ill become an outsider to suggest a revision of
judgment. He is a part of the contemptible furniture of the world, but
on the whole, it would appear, the most grotesque part of it. His
caution, his canniness, his natural astuteness, his stinginess, his
general grinding sordidness, are as unmistakable as that quaint and
brutish dialect in which he expresses himself, and on which our author
plays like a virtuoso. It would be impossible to demonstrate with a
finer sense of the humour of the thing the fatuities and densities of
his ignorance, the bewilderments of his opposed appetites, the
overreachings of his caution. His existence has a gay side, but it is
apt to be the barbarous gaiety commemorated in _Farce Normande_, an
anecdote which, like many of M. de Maupassant’s anecdotes, it is easier
to refer the reader to than to repeat. If it is most convenient to place
_La Maison Tellier_ among the tales of the peasantry, there is no doubt
that it stands at the head of the list. It is absolutely unadapted to
the perusal of ladies and young persons, but it shares this peculiarity
with most of its fellows, so that to ignore it on that account would be
to imply that we must forswear M. de Maupassant altogether, which is an
incongruous and insupportable conclusion. Every good story is of course
both a picture and an idea, and the more they are interfused the better
the problem is solved. In _La Maison Tellier_ they fit each other to
perfection; the capacity for sudden innocent delights latent in natures
which have lost their innocence is vividly illustrated by the singular
scenes to which our acquaintance with Madame and her staff (little as it
may be a thing to boast of), successively introduces us. The breadth,
the freedom, and brightness of all this give the measure of the author’s
talent, and of that large, keen way of looking at life which sees the
pathetic and the droll, the stuff of which the whole piece is made, in
the queerest and humblest patterns. The tone of _La Maison Tellier_ and
the few compositions which closely resemble it, expresses M. de
Maupassant’s nearest approach to geniality. Even here, however, it is
the geniality of the showman exhilarated by the success with which he
feels that he makes his mannikins (and especially his womankins) caper
and squeak, and who after the performance tosses them into their box
with the irreverence of a practised hand. If the pages of the author of
_Bel-Ami_ may be searched almost in vain for a manifestation of the
sentiment of respect, it is naturally not by Mme. Tellier and her
charges that we must look most to see it called forth; but they are
among the things that please him most.

Sometimes there is a sorrow, a misery, or even a little heroism, that he
handles with a certain tenderness (_Une Vie_ is the capital example of
this), without insisting on the poor, the ridiculous, or, as he is fond
of saying, the bestial side of it. Such an attempt, admirable in its
sobriety and delicacy, is the sketch, in _L’Abandonné_, of the old lady
and gentleman, Mme. de Cadour and M. d’Apreval, who, staying with the
husband of the former at a little watering-place on the Normandy coast,
take a long, hot walk on a summer’s day, on a straight, white road, into
the interior, to catch a clandestine glimpse of a young farmer, their
illegitimate son. He has been pensioned, he is ignorant of his origin,
and is a common-place and unconciliatory rustic. They look at him, in
his dirty farmyard, and no sign passes between them; then they turn away
and crawl back, in melancholy silence, along the dull French road. The
manner in which this dreary little occurrence is related makes it as
large as a chapter of history. There is tenderness in _Miss Harriet_,
which sets forth how an English old maid, fantastic, hideous,
sentimental, and tract-distributing, with a smell of india-rubber, fell
in love with an irresistible French painter, and drowned herself in the
well because she saw him kissing the maid-servant; but the figure of the
lady grazes the farcical. Is it because we know Miss Harriet (if we are
not mistaken in the type the author has had in his eye) that we suspect
the good spinster was not so weird and desperate, addicted though her
class may be, as he says, to “haunting all the _tables d’hôte_ in
Europe, to spoiling Italy, poisoning Switzerland, making the charming
towns of the Mediterranean uninhabitable, carrying everywhere their
queer little manias, their _mœurs de vestales pétrifiées_, their
indescribable garments, and that odour of india-rubber which makes one
think that at night they must be slipped into a case?” What would Miss
Harriet have said to M. de Maupassant’s friend, the hero of the
_Découverte_, who, having married a little Anglaise because he thought
she was charming when she spoke broken French, finds she is very flat as
she becomes more fluent, and has nothing more urgent than to denounce
her to a gentleman he meets on the steamboat, and to relieve his wrath
in ejaculations of “Sales Anglais”?

M. de Maupassant evidently knows a great deal about the army of clerks
who work under government, but it is a terrible tale that he has to tell
of them and of the _petit bourgeois_ in general. It is true that he has
treated the _petit bourgeois_ in _Pierre et Jean_ without holding him up
to our derision, and the effort has been so fruitful, that we owe to it
the work for which, on the whole, in the long list of his successes, we
are most thankful. But of _Pierre et Jean_, a production neither comic
nor cynical (in the degree, that is, of its predecessors), but serious
and fresh, I will speak anon. In _Monsieur Parent_, _L’Héritage_, _En
Famille_, _Une Partie de Campagne_, _Promenade_, and many other pitiless
little pieces, the author opens the window wide to his perception of
everything mean, narrow, and sordid. The subject is ever the struggle
for existence in hard conditions, lighted up simply by more or less
_polissonnerie_. Nothing is more striking to an Anglo-Saxon reader than
the omission of all the other lights, those with which our imagination,
and I think it ought to be said our observation, is familiar, and which
our own works of fiction at any rate do not permit us to forget: those
of which the most general description is that they spring from a certain
mixture of good-humour and piety--piety, I mean, in the civil and
domestic sense quite as much as in the religious. The love of sport, the
sense of decorum, the necessity for action, the habit of respect, the
absence of irony, the pervasiveness of childhood, the expansive tendency
of the race, are a few of the qualities (the analysis might, I think, be
pushed much further) which ease us off, mitigate our tension and
irritation, rescue us from the nervous exasperation which is almost the
commonest element of life as depicted by M. de Maupassant. No doubt
there is in our literature an immense amount of conventional blinking,
and it may be questioned whether pessimistic representation in M. de
Maupassant’s manner do not follow his particular original more closely
than our perpetual quest of pleasantness (does not Mr. Rider Haggard
make even his African carnage pleasant?) adheres to the lines of the
world we ourselves know.

Fierce indeed is the struggle for existence among even our pious and
good-humoured millions, and it is attended with incidents as to which
after all little testimony is to be extracted from our literature of
fiction. It must never be forgotten that the optimism of that literature
is partly the optimism of women and of spinsters; in other words the
optimism of ignorance as well as of delicacy. It might be supposed that
the French, with their mastery of the _arts d’agrément_, would have more
consolations than we, but such is not the account of the matter given by
the new generation of painters. To the French we seem superficial, and
we are certainly open to the reproach; but none the less even to the
infinite majority of readers of good faith there will be a wonderful
want of correspondence between the general picture of _Bel-Ami_, of
_Mont-Oriol_, of _Une Vie_, _Yvette_ and _En Famille_, and our own
vision of reality. It is an old impression of course that the satire of
the French has a very different tone from ours; but few English readers
will admit that the feeling of life is less in ours than in theirs. The
feeling of life is evidently, _de part et d’autre_, a very different
thing. If in ours, as the novel illustrates it, there are
superficialities, there are also qualities which are far from being
negatives and omissions: a large imagination and (is it fatuous to say?)
a large experience of the positive kind. Even those of our novelists
whose manner is most ironic pity life more and hate it less than M. de
Maupassant and his great initiator Flaubert. It comes back I suppose to
our good-humour (which may apparently also be an artistic force); at any
rate, we have reserves about our shames and our sorrows, indulgences
and tolerances about our Philistinism, forbearances about our blows, and
a general friendliness of conception about our possibilities, which take
the cruelty from our self-derision and operate in the last resort as a
sort of tribute to our freedom. There is a horrible, admirable scene in
_Monsieur Parent_, which is a capital example of triumphant ugliness.
The harmless gentleman who gives his name to the tale has an abominable
wife, one of whose offensive attributes is a lover (unsuspected by her
husband), only less impudent than herself. M. Parent comes in from a
walk with his little boy, at dinner-time, to encounter suddenly in his
abused, dishonoured, deserted home, convincing proof of her
misbehaviour. He waits and waits dinner for her, giving her the benefit
of every doubt; but when at last she enters, late in the evening,
accompanied by the partner of her guilt, there is a tremendous domestic
concussion. It is to the peculiar vividness of this scene that I allude,
the way we hear it and see it, and its most repulsive details are evoked
for us: the sordid confusion, the vulgar noise, the disordered table and
ruined dinner, the shrill insolence of the wife, her brazen mendacity,
the scared inferiority of the lover, the mere momentary heroics of the
weak husband, the scuffle and somersault, the eminently unpoetic justice
with which it all ends.

When Thackeray relates how Arthur Pendennis goes home to take pot-luck
with the insolvent Newcomes at Boulogne, and how the dreadful Mrs.
Mackenzie receives him, and how she makes a scene, when the frugal
repast is served, over the diminished mutton-bone, we feel that the
notation of that order of misery goes about as far as we can bear it.
But this is child’s play to the history of M. and Mme. Caravan and their
attempt, after the death (or supposed death) of the husband’s mother, to
transfer to their apartment before the arrival of the other heirs
certain miserable little articles of furniture belonging to the
deceased, together with the frustration of the manœuvre not only by the
grim resurrection of the old woman (which is a sufficiently fantastic
item), but by the shock of battle when a married daughter and her
husband appear. No one gives us like M. de Maupassant the odious words
exchanged on such an occasion as that: no one depicts with so just a
hand the feelings of small people about small things. These feelings are
very apt to be “fury”; that word is of strikingly frequent occurrence in
his pages. _L’Héritage_ is a drama of private life in the little world
of the Ministère de la Marine--a world, according to M. de Maupassant,
of dreadful little jealousies and ineptitudes. Readers of a robust
complexion should learn how the wretched M. Lesable was handled by his
wife and her father on his failing to satisfy their just expectations,
and how he comported himself in the singular situation thus prepared for
him. The story is a model of narration, but it leaves our poor average
humanity dangling like a beaten rag.

Where does M. de Maupassant find the great multitude of his detestable
women? or where at least does he find the courage to represent them in
such colours? Jeanne de Lamare, in _Une Vie_, receives the outrages of
fate with a passive fortitude; and there is something touching in Mme.
Roland’s _âme tendre de caissière_, as exhibited in _Pierre et Jean_.
But for the most part M. de Maupassant’s heroines are a mixture of
extreme sensuality and extreme mendacity. They are a large element in
that general disfigurement, that _illusion de l’ignoble, qui attire tant
d’êtres_, which makes the perverse or the stupid side of things the one
which strikes him first, which leads him, if he glances at a group of
nurses and children sunning themselves in a Parisian square, to notice
primarily the _yeux de brute_ of the nurses; or if he speaks of the
longing for a taste of the country which haunts the shopkeeper fenced in
behind his counter, to identify it as the _amour bête de la nature_; or
if he has occasion to put the boulevards before us on a summer’s
evening, to seek his effect in these terms: “The city, as hot as a stew,
seemed to sweat in the suffocating night. The drains puffed their
pestilential breath from their mouths of granite, and the underground
kitchens poured into the streets, through their low windows, the
infamous miasmas of their dishwater and old sauces.” I do not contest
the truth of such indications, I only note the particular selection and
their seeming to the writer the most _apropos_.

Is it because of the inadequacy of these indications when applied to the
long stretch that M. de Maupassant’s novels strike us as less complete,
in proportion to the talent expended upon them, than his _contes_ and
_nouvelles_? I make this invidious distinction in spite of the fact that
_Une Vie_ (the first of the novels in the order of time) is a remarkably
interesting experiment, and that _Pierre et Jean_ is, so far as my
judgment goes, a faultless production. _Bel-Ami_ is full of the bustle
and the crudity of life (its energy and expressiveness almost bribe one
to like it), but it has the great defect that the physiological
explanation of things here too visibly contracts the problem in order to
meet it. The world represented is too special, too little inevitable,
too much to take or to leave as we like--a world in which every man is a
cad and every woman a harlot. M. de Maupassant traces the career of a
finished blackguard who succeeds in life through women, and he
represents him primarily as succeeding in the profession of journalism.
His colleagues and his mistresses are as depraved as himself, greatly to
the injury of the ironic idea, for the real force of satire would have
come from seeing him engaged and victorious with natures better than his
own. It may be remarked that this was the case with the nature of Mme.
Walter; but the reply to that is--hardly! Moreover the author’s whole
treatment of the episode of Mme. Walter is the thing on which his
admirers have least to congratulate him. The taste of it is so
atrocious, that it is difficult to do justice to the way it is made to
stand out. Such an instance as this pleads with irresistible eloquence,
as it seems to me, the cause of that salutary diffidence or practical
generosity which I mentioned on a preceding page. I know not the English
or American novelist who could have written this portion of the history
of _Bel-Ami_ if he would. But I also find it impossible to conceive of a
member of that fraternity who would have written it if he could. The
subject of _Mont-Oriol_ is full of queerness to the English mind. Here
again the picture has much more importance than the idea, which is
simply that a gentleman, if he happen to be a low animal, is liable to
love a lady very much less if she presents him with a pledge of their
affection. It need scarcely be said that the lady and gentleman who in
M. de Maupassant’s pages exemplify this interesting truth are not united
in wedlock--that is with each other.

M. de Maupassant tells us that he has imbibed many of his principles
from Gustave Flaubert, from the study of his works as well as, formerly,
the enjoyment of his words. It is in _Une Vie_ that Flaubert’s influence
is most directly traceable, for the thing has a marked analogy with
_L’Education Sentimentale_. That is, it is the presentation of a simple
piece of a life (in this case a long piece), a series of observations
upon an episode _quelconque_, as the French say, with the minimum of
arrangement of the given objects. It is an excellent example of the way
the impression of truth may be conveyed by that form, but it would have
been a still better one if in his search for the effect of dreariness
(the effect of dreariness may be said to be the subject of _Une Vie_, so
far as the subject is reducible) the author had not eliminated
excessively. He has arranged, as I say, as little as possible; the
necessity of a “plot” has in no degree imposed itself upon him, and his
effort has been to give the uncomposed, unrounded look of life, with its
accidents, its broken rhythm, its queer resemblance to the famous
description of “Bradshaw”--a compound of trains that start but don’t
arrive, and trains that arrive but don’t start. It is almost an
arrangement of the history of poor Mme. de Lamare to have left so many
things out of it, for after all she is described in very few of the
relations of life. The principal ones are there certainly; we see her as
a daughter, a wife, and a mother, but there is a certain accumulation of
secondary experience that marks any passage from youth to old age which
is a wholly absent element in M. de Maupassant’s narrative, and the
suppression of which gives the thing a tinge of the arbitrary. It is in
the power of this secondary experience to make a great difference, but
nothing makes any difference for Jeanne de Lamare as M. de Maupassant
puts her before us. Had she no other points of contact than those he
describes?--no friends, no phases, no episodes, no chances, none of the
miscellaneous _remplissage_ of life? No doubt M. de Maupassant would say
that he has had to select, that the most comprehensive enumeration is
only a condensation, and that, in accordance with the very just
principles enunciated in that preface to which I have perhaps too
repeatedly referred, he has sacrificed what is uncharacteristic to what
is characteristic. It characterises the career of this French country
lady of fifty years ago that its long gray expanse should be seen as
peopled with but five or six figures. The essence of the matter is that
she was deceived in almost every affection, and that essence is given if
the persons who deceived her are given.

The reply is doubtless adequate, and I have only intended my criticism
to suggest the degree of my interest. What it really amounts to is that
if the subject of this artistic experiment had been the existence of an
English lady, even a very dull one, the air of verisimilitude would have
demanded that she should have been placed in a denser medium. _Une Vie_
may after all be only a testimony to the fact of the melancholy void of
the coast of Normandy, even within a moderate drive of a great seaport,
under the Restoration and Louis Philippe. It is especially to be
recommended to those who are interested in the question of what
constitutes a “story,” offering as it does the most definite sequences
at the same time that it has nothing that corresponds to the usual idea
of a plot, and closing with an implication that finds us prepared. The
picture again in this case is much more dominant than the idea, unless
it be an idea that loneliness and grief are terrible. The picture, at
any rate, is full of truthful touches, and the work has the merit and
the charm that it is the most delicate of the author’s productions and
the least hard. In none other has he occupied himself so continuously
with so innocent a figure as his soft, bruised heroine; in none other
has he paid our poor blind human history the compliment (and this is
remarkable, considering the flatness of so much of the particular
subject) of finding it so little _bête_. He may think it, here, but
comparatively he does not say it. He almost betrays a sense of moral
things. Jeanne is absolutely passive, she has no moral spring, no active
moral life, none of the edifying attributes of character (it costs her
apparently as little as may be in the way of a shock, a complication of
feeling, to discover, by letters, after her mother’s death, that this
lady has not been the virtuous woman she has supposed); but her
chronicler has had to handle the immaterial forces of patience and
renunciation, and this has given the book a certain purity, in spite of
two or three “physiological” passages that come in with violence--a
violence the greater as we feel it to be a result of selection. It is
very much a mark of M. de Maupassant that on the most striking occasion,
with a single exception, on which his picture is not a picture of
libertinage it is a picture of unmitigated suffering. Would he suggest
that these are the only alternatives?

The exception that I here allude to is for _Pierre et Jean_, which I
have left myself small space to speak of. Is it because in this
masterly little novel there is a show of those immaterial forces which I
just mentioned, and because Pierre Roland is one of the few instances of
operative character that can be recalled from so many volumes, that many
readers will place M. de Maupassant’s latest production altogether at
the head of his longer ones? I am not sure, inasmuch as after all the
character in question is not extraordinarily distinguished, and the
moral problem not presented in much complexity. The case is only
relative. Perhaps it is not of importance to fix the reasons of
preference in respect to a piece of writing so essentially a work of art
and of talent. _Pierre et Jean_ is the best of M. de Maupassant’s novels
mainly because M. de Maupassant has never before been so clever. It is a
pleasure to see a mature talent able to renew itself, strike another
note, and appear still young. This story suggests the growth of a
perception that everything has not been said about the actors on the
world’s stage when they are represented either as helpless victims or as
mere bundles of appetites. There is an air of responsibility about
Pierre Roland, the person on whose behalf the tale is mainly told, which
almost constitutes a pledge. An inquisitive critic may ask why in this
particular case M. de Maupassant should have stuck to the _petit
bourgeois_, the circumstances not being such as to typify that class
more than another. There are reasons indeed which on reflection are
perceptible; it was necessary that his people should be poor, and
necessary even that to attenuate Madame Roland’s misbehaviour she should
have had the excuse of the contracted life of a shopwoman in the Rue
Montmartre. Were the inquisitive critic slightly malicious as well, he
might suspect the author of a fear that he should seem to give way to
the _illusion du beau_ if in addition to representing the little group
in _Pierre et Jean_ as persons of about the normal conscience he had
also represented them as of the cultivated class. If they belong to the
humble life this belittles and--I am still quoting the supposedly
malicious critic--M. de Maupassant _must_, in one way or the other,
belittle. To the English reader it will appear, I think, that Pierre and
Jean are rather more of the cultivated class than two young Englishmen
in the same social position. It belongs to the drama that the struggle
of the elder brother--educated, proud, and acute--should be partly with
the pettiness of his opportunities. The author’s choice of a _milieu_,
moreover, will serve to English readers as an example of how much more
democratic contemporary French fiction is than that of his own country.
The greater part of it--almost all the work of Zola and of Daudet, the
best of Flaubert’s novels, and the best of those of the brothers De
Goncourt--treat of that vast, dim section of society which, lying
between those luxurious walks on whose behalf there are easy
presuppositions and that darkness of misery which, in addition to being
picturesque, brings philanthropy also to the writer’s aid, constitutes
really, in extent and expressiveness, the substance of any nation. In
England, where the fashion of fiction still sets mainly to the country
house and the hunting-field, and yet more novels are published than
anywhere else in the world, that thick twilight of mediocrity of
condition has been little explored. May it yield triumphs in the years
to come!

It may seem that I have claimed little for M. de Maupassant, so far as
English readers are concerned with him, in saying that after publishing
twenty improper volumes he has at last published a twenty-first, which
is neither indecent nor cynical. It is not this circumstance that has
led me to dedicate so many pages to him, but the circumstance that in
producing all the others he yet remained, for those who are interested
in these matters, a writer with whom it was impossible not to reckon.
This is why I called him, to begin with, so many ineffectual names: a
rarity, a “case,” an embarrassment, a lion in the path. He is still in
the path as I conclude these observations, but I think that in making
them we have discovered a legitimate way round. If he is a master of his
art and it is discouraging to find what low views are compatible with
mastery, there is satisfaction, on the other hand in learning on what
particular condition he holds his strange success. This condition, it
seems to me, is that of having totally omitted one of the items of the
problem, an omission which has made the problem so much easier that it
may almost be described as a short cut to a solution. The question is
whether it be a fair cut. M. de Maupassant has simply skipped the whole
reflective part of his men and women--that reflective part which governs
conduct and produces character. He may say that he does not see it, does
not know it; to which the answer is, “So much the better for you, if you
wish to describe life without it. The strings you pull are by so much
the less numerous, and you can therefore pull those that remain with
greater promptitude, consequently with greater firmness, with a greater
air of knowledge.” Pierre Roland, I repeat, shows a capacity for
reflection, but I cannot think who else does, among the thousand figures
who compete with him--I mean for reflection addressed to anything higher
than the gratification of an instinct. We have an impression that M.
d’Apreval and Madame de Cadour reflect, as they trudge back from their
mournful excursion, but that indication is not pushed very far. An
aptitude for this exercise is a part of disciplined manhood, and
disciplined manhood M. de Maupassant has simply not attempted to
represent. I can remember no instance in which he sketches any
considerable capacity for conduct, and his women betray that capacity as
little as his men. I am much mistaken if he has once painted a
gentleman, in the English sense of the term. His gentlemen, like Paul
Brétigny and Gontran de Ravenel, are guilty of the most extraordinary
deflections. For those who are conscious of this element in life, look
for it and like it, the gap will appear to be immense. It will lead
them to say, “No wonder you have a contempt if that is the way you limit
the field. No wonder you judge people roughly if that is the way you see
them. Your work, on your premisses, remains the admirable thing it is,
but is your ‘case’ not adequately explained?”

The erotic element in M. de Maupassant, about which much more might have
been said, seems to me to be explained by the same limitation, and
explicable in a similar way wherever else its literature occurs in
excess. The carnal side of man appears the most characteristic if you
look at it a great deal; and you look at it a great deal if you do not
look at the other, at the side by which he reacts against his
weaknesses, his defeats. The more you look at the other, the less the
whole business to which French novelists have ever appeared to English
readers to give a disproportionate place--the business, as I may say, of
the senses--will strike you as the only typical one. Is not this the
most useful reflection to make in regard to the famous question of the
morality, the decency, of the novel? It is the only one, it seems to me,
that will meet the case as we find the case to-day. Hard and fast rules,
_a priori_ restrictions, mere interdictions (you shall not speak of
this, you shall not look at that), have surely served their time, and
will in the nature of the case never strike an energetic talent as
anything but arbitrary. A healthy, living and growing art, full of
curiosity and fond of exercise, has an indefeasible mistrust of rigid
prohibitions. Let us then leave this magnificent art of the novelist to
itself and to its perfect freedom, in the faith that one example is as
good as another, and that our fiction will always be decent enough if it
be sufficiently general. Let us not be alarmed at this prodigy (though
prodigies are alarming) of M. de Maupassant, who is at once so
licentious and so impeccable, but gird ourselves up with the conviction
that another point of view will yield another perfection.

1888.



IX

IVAN TURGÉNIEFF


When the mortal remains of Ivan Turgénieff were about to be transported
from Paris for interment in his own country, a short commemorative
service was held at the Gare du Nord. Ernest Renan and Edmond About,
standing beside the train in which his coffin had been placed, bade
farewell in the name of the French people to the illustrious stranger
who for so many years had been their honoured and grateful guest. M.
Renan made a beautiful speech, and M. About a very clever one, and each
of them characterised, with ingenuity, the genius and the moral nature
of the most touching of writers, the most lovable of men. “Turgénieff,”
said M. Renan, “received by the mysterious decree which marks out human
vocations the gift which is noble beyond all others: he was born
essentially impersonal.” The passage is so eloquent that one must repeat
the whole of it. “His conscience was not that of an individual to whom
nature had been more or less generous: it was in some sort the
conscience of a people. Before he was born he had lived for thousands of
years; infinite successions of reveries had amassed themselves in the
depths of his heart. No man has been as much as he the incarnation of a
whole race: generations of ancestors, lost in the sleep of centuries,
speechless, came through him to life and utterance.”

I quote these lines for the pleasure of quoting them; for while I see
what M. Renan means by calling Turgénieff impersonal, it has been my
wish to devote to his delightful memory a few pages written under the
impression of contact and intercourse. He seems to us impersonal,
because it is from his writings almost alone that we of English, French
and German speech have derived our notions--even yet, I fear, rather
meagre and erroneous--of the Russian people. His genius for us is the
Slav genius; his voice the voice of those vaguely-imagined multitudes
whom we think of more and more to-day as waiting their turn, in the
arena of civilisation, in the grey expanses of the North. There is much
in his writings to encourage this view, and it is certain that he
interpreted with wonderful vividness the temperament of his
fellow-countrymen. Cosmopolite that he had become by the force of
circumstances, his roots had never been loosened in his native soil. The
ignorance with regard to Russia and the Russians which he found in
abundance in the rest of Europe--and not least in the country he
inhabited for ten years before his death--had indeed the effect, to a
certain degree, to throw him back upon the deep feelings which so many
of his companions were unable to share with him, the memories of his
early years, the sense of wide Russian horizons, the joy and pride of
his mother-tongue. In the collection of short pieces, so deeply
interesting, written during the last few years of his life, and
translated into German under the name of _Senilia_, I find a passage--it
is the last in the little book--which illustrates perfectly this
reactionary impulse: “In days of doubt, in days of anxious thought on
the destiny of my native land, thou alone art my support and my staff, O
great powerful Russian tongue, truthful and free! If it were not for
thee how should man not despair at the sight of what is going on at
home? But it is inconceivable that such a language has not been given to
a great people.” This Muscovite, home-loving note pervades his
productions, though it is between the lines, as it were, that we must
listen for it. None the less does it remain true that he was not a
simple conduit or mouthpiece; the inspiration was his own as well as the
voice. He was an individual, in other words, of the most unmistakable
kind, and those who had the happiness to know him have no difficulty
to-day in thinking of him as an eminent, responsible figure. This
pleasure, for the writer of these lines, was as great as the pleasure of
reading the admirable tales into which he put such a world of life and
feeling: it was perhaps even greater, for it was not only with the pen
that nature had given Turgénieff the power to express himself. He was
the richest, the most delightful, of talkers, and his face, his person,
his temper, the thoroughness with which he had been equipped for human
intercourse, make in the memory of his friends an image which is
completed, but not thrown into the shade, by his literary distinction.
The whole image is tinted with sadness: partly because the element of
melancholy in his nature was deep and constant--readers of his novels
have no need to be told of that; and partly because, during the last
years of his life, he had been condemned to suffer atrociously.
Intolerable pain had been his portion for too many months before he
died; his end was not a soft decline, but a deepening distress. But of
brightness, of the faculty of enjoyment, he had also the large allowance
usually made to first-rate men, and he was a singularly complete human
being. The author of these pages had greatly admired his writings before
having the fortune to make his acquaintance, and this privilege, when it
presented itself, was highly illuminating. The man and the writer
together occupied from that moment a very high place in his affection.
Some time before knowing him I committed to print certain reflections
which his tales had led me to make; and I may perhaps, therefore,
without impropriety give them a supplement which shall have a more
vivifying reference. It is almost irresistible to attempt to say, from
one’s own point of view, what manner of man he was.

It was in consequence of the article I just mentioned that I found
reason to meet him, in Paris, where he was then living, in 1875. I
shall never forget the impression he made upon me at that first
interview. I found him adorable; I could scarcely believe that he would
prove--that any man could prove--on nearer acquaintance so delightful as
that. Nearer acquaintance only confirmed my hope, and he remained the
most approachable, the most practicable, the least unsafe man of genius
it has been my fortune to meet. He was so simple, so natural, so modest,
so destitute of personal pretension and of what is called the
consciousness of powers, that one almost doubted at moments whether he
were a man of genius after all. Everything good and fruitful lay near to
him; he was interested in everything; and he was absolutely without that
eagerness of self-reference which sometimes accompanies great, and even
small, reputations. He had not a particle of vanity; nothing whatever of
the air of having a part to play or a reputation to keep up. His humour
exercised itself as freely upon himself as upon other subjects, and he
told stories at his own expense with a sweetness of hilarity which made
his peculiarities really sacred in the eyes of a friend. I remember
vividly the smile and tone of voice with which he once repeated to me a
figurative epithet which Gustave Flaubert (of whom he was extremely
fond) had applied to him--an epithet intended to characterise a certain
expansive softness, a comprehensive indecision, which pervaded his
nature, just as it pervades so many of the characters he has painted. He
enjoyed Flaubert’s use of this term, good-naturedly opprobrious, more
even than Flaubert himself, and recognised perfectly the element of
truth in it. He was natural to an extraordinary degree; I do not think I
have ever seen his match in this respect, certainly not among people who
bear, as he did, at the same time, the stamp of the highest cultivation.
Like all men of a large pattern, he was composed of many different
pieces; and what was always striking in him was the mixture of
simplicity with the fruit of the most various observation. In the little
article in which I had attempted to express my admiration for his works,
I had been moved to say of him that he had the aristocratic temperament:
a remark which in the light of further knowledge seemed to me singularly
inane. He was not subject to any definition of that sort, and to say
that he was democratic would be (though his political ideal was a
democracy), to give an equally superficial account of him. He felt and
understood the opposite sides of life; he was imaginative, speculative,
anything but literal. He had not in his mind a grain of prejudice as
large as the point of a needle, and people (there are many) who think
this a defect would have missed it immensely in Ivan Serguéitch. (I give
his name, without attempting the Russian orthography, as it was uttered
by his friends when they addressed him in French.) Our Anglo-Saxon,
Protestant, moralistic, conventional standards were far away from him,
and he judged things with a freedom and spontaneity in which I found a
perpetual refreshment. His sense of beauty, his love of truth and
right, were the foundation of his nature; but half the charm of
conversation with him was that one breathed an air in which cant phrases
and arbitrary measurements simply sounded ridiculous.

I may add that it was not because I had written a laudatory article
about his books that he gave me a friendly welcome; for in the first
place my article could have very little importance for him, and in the
second it had never been either his habit or his hope to bask in the
light of criticism. Supremely modest as he was, I think he attached no
great weight to what might happen to be said about him; for he felt that
he was destined to encounter a very small amount of intelligent
appreciation, especially in foreign countries. I never heard him even
allude to any judgment which might have been passed upon his productions
in England. In France he knew that he was read very moderately; the
“demand” for his volumes was small, and he had no illusions whatever on
the subject of his popularity. He had heard with pleasure that many
intelligent persons in the United States were impatient for everything
that might come from his pen; but I think he was never convinced, as one
or two of the more zealous of these persons had endeavoured to convince
him, that he could boast of a “public” in America. He gave me the
impression of thinking of criticism as most serious workers think of
it--that it is the amusement, the exercise, the subsistence of the
critic (and, so far as this goes, of immense use); but that though it
may often concern other readers, it does not much concern the artist
himself. In comparison with all those things which the production of a
considered work forces the artist little by little to say to himself,
the remarks of the critic are vague and of the moment; and yet, owing to
the large publicity of the proceeding, they have a power to irritate or
discourage which is quite out of proportion to their use to the person
criticised. It was not, moreover (if this explanation be not more gross
than the spectre it is meant to conjure away), on account of any esteem
which he accorded to my own productions (I used regularly to send them
to him) that I found him so agreeable, for to the best of my belief he
was unable to read them. As regards one of the first that I had offered
him he wrote me a little note to tell me that a distinguished friend,
who was his constant companion, had read three or four chapters aloud to
him the evening before and that one of them was written _de main de
maître_! This gave me great pleasure, but it was my first and last
pleasure of the kind. I continued, as I say, to send him my fictions,
because they were the only thing I had to give; but he never alluded to
the rest of the work in question, which he evidently did not finish, and
never gave any sign of having read its successors. Presently I quite
ceased to expect this, and saw why it was (it interested me much), that
my writings could not appeal to him. He cared, more than anything else,
for the air of reality, and my reality was not to the purpose. I do not
think my stories struck him as quite meat for men. The manner was more
apparent than the matter; they were too _tarabiscoté_, as I once heard
him say of the style of a book--had on the surface too many little
flowers and knots of ribbon. He had read a great deal of English, and
knew the language remarkably well--too well, I used often to think, for
he liked to speak it with those to whom it was native, and, successful
as the effort always was, it deprived him of the facility and raciness
with which he expressed himself in French.

I have said that he had no prejudices, but perhaps after all he had one.
I think he imagined it to be impossible to a person of English speech to
converse in French with complete correctness. He knew Shakespeare
thoroughly, and at one time had wandered far and wide in English
literature. His opportunities for speaking English were not at all
frequent, so that when the necessity (or at least the occasion)
presented itself, he remembered the phrases he had encountered in books.
This often gave a charming quaintness and an unexpected literary turn to
what he said. “In Russia, in spring, if you enter a beechen
grove”--those words come back to me from the last time I saw him. He
continued to read English books and was not incapable of attacking the
usual Tauchnitz novel. The English writer (of our day) of whom I
remember to have heard him speak with most admiration was Dickens, of
whose faults he was conscious, but whose power of presenting to the eye
a vivid, salient figure he rated very high. In the young French school
he was much interested; I mean, in the new votaries of realism, the
grandsons of Balzac. He was a good friend of most of them, and with
Gustave Flaubert, the most singular and most original of the group, he
was altogether intimate. He had his reservations and discriminations,
and he had, above all, the great back-garden of his Slav imagination and
his Germanic culture, into which the door constantly stood open, and the
grandsons of Balzac were not, I think, particularly free to accompany
him. But he had much sympathy with their experiment, their general
movement, and it was on the side of the careful study of life as the
best line of the novelist that, as may easily be supposed, he ranged
himself. For some of the manifestations of the opposite tradition he had
a great contempt. This was a kind of emotion he rarely expressed, save
in regard to certain public wrongs and iniquities; bitterness and
denunciation seldom passed his mild lips. But I remember well the little
flush of conviction, the seriousness, with which he once said, in
allusion to a novel which had just been running through the _Revue des
Deux Mondes_, “If I had written anything so bad as that, I should blush
for it all my life.”

His was not, I should say, predominantly, or even in a high degree, the
artistic nature, though it was deeply, if I may make the distinction,
the poetic. But during the last twelve years of his life he lived much
with artists and men of letters, and he was eminently capable of
kindling in the glow of discussion. He cared for questions of form,
though not in the degree in which Flaubert and Edmond de Goncourt cared
for them, and he had very lively sympathies. He had a great regard for
Madame George Sand, the head and front of the old romantic tradition;
but this was on general grounds, quite independent of her novels, which
he never read, and which she never expected him, or apparently any one
else, to read. He thought her character remarkably noble and sincere. He
had, as I have said, a great affection for Gustave Flaubert, who
returned it; and he was much interested in Flaubert’s extraordinary
attempts at bravery of form and of matter, knowing perfectly well when
they failed. During those months which it was Flaubert’s habit to spend
in Paris, Turgénieff went almost regularly to see him on Sunday
afternoon, and was so good as to introduce me to the author of _Madame
Bovary_, in whom I saw many reasons for Turgénieff’s regard. It was on
these Sundays, in Flaubert’s little salon, which, at the top of a house
at the end of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, looked rather bare and
provisional, that, in the company of the other familiars of the spot,
more than one of whom[6] have commemorated these occasions, Turgénieff’s
beautiful faculty of talk showed at its best. He was easy, natural,
abundant, more than I can describe, and everything that he said was
touched with the exquisite quality of his imagination. What was
discussed in that little smoke-clouded room was chiefly questions of
taste, questions of art and form; and the speakers, for the most part,
were in æsthetic matters, radicals of the deepest dye. It would have
been late in the day to propose among them any discussion of the
relation of art to morality, any question as to the degree in which a
novel might or might not concern itself with the teaching of a lesson.
They had settled these preliminaries long ago, and it would have been
primitive and incongruous to recur to them. The conviction that held
them together was the conviction that art and morality are two perfectly
different things, and that the former has no more to do with the latter
than it has with astronomy or embryology. The only duty of a novel was
to be well written; that merit included every other of which it was
capable. This state of mind was never more apparent than one afternoon
when _ces messieurs_ delivered themselves on the subject of an incident
which had just befallen one of them. _L’Assommoir_ of Emile Zola had
been discontinued in the journal through which it was running as a
serial, in consequence of repeated protests from the subscribers. The
subscriber, as a type of human imbecility, received a wonderful
dressing, and the Philistine in general was roughly handled. There were
gulfs of difference between Turgénieff and Zola, but Turgénieff, who, as
I say, understood everything, understood Zola too, and rendered perfect
justice to the high solidity of much of his work. His attitude, at such
times, was admirable, and I could imagine nothing more genial or more
fitted to give an idea of light, easy, human intelligence. No one could
desire more than he that art should be art; always, ever, incorruptibly,
art. To him this proposition would have seemed as little in need of
proof, or susceptible of refutation, as the axiom that law should always
be law or medicine always medicine. As much as any one he was prepared
to take note of the fact that the demand for abdications and concessions
never comes from artists themselves, but always from purchasers,
editors, subscribers. I am pretty sure that his word about all this
would have been that he could not quite see what was meant by the talk
about novels being moral or the reverse; that a novel could no more
propose to itself to be moral than a painting or a symphony, and that it
was arbitrary to lay down a distinction between the numerous forms of
art. He was the last man to be blind to their unity. I suspect that he
would have said, in short, that distinctions were demanded in the
interest of the moralists, and that the demand was indelicate, owing to
their want of jurisdiction. Yet at the same time that I make this
suggestion as to his state of mind I remember how little he struck me as
bound by mere neatness of formula, how little there was in him of the
partisan or the pleader. What he thought of the relation of art to life
his stories, after all, show better than anything else. The immense
variety of life was ever present to his mind, and he would never have
argued the question I have just hinted at in the interest of particular
liberties--the liberties that were apparently the dearest to his French
_confrères_. It was this air that he carried about with him of feeling
all the variety of life, of knowing strange and far-off things, of
having an horizon in which the Parisian horizon--so familiar, so wanting
in mystery, so perpetually _exploité_--easily lost itself, that
distinguished him from these companions. He was not all there, as the
phrase is; he had something behind, in reserve. It was Russia, of
course, in a large measure; and, especially before the spectacle of what
is going on there to-day, that was a large quantity. But so far as he
was on the spot, he was an element of pure sociability.

I did not intend to go into these details immediately, for I had only
begun to say what an impression of magnificent manhood he made upon me
when I first knew him. That impression, indeed, always remained with me,
even after it had been brought home to me how much there was in him of
the quality of genius. He was a beautiful intellect, of course, but
above all he was a delightful, mild, masculine figure. The combination
of his deep, soft, lovable spirit, in which one felt all the tender
parts of genius, with his immense, fair Russian physique, was one of the
most attractive things conceivable. He had a frame which would have made
it perfectly lawful, and even becoming, for him to be brutal; but there
was not a grain of brutality in his composition. He had always been a
passionate sportsman; to wander in the woods or the steppes, with his
dog and gun, was the pleasure of his heart. Late in life he continued to
shoot, and he had a friend in Cambridgeshire for the sake of whose
partridges, which were famous, he used sometimes to cross the Channel.
It would have been impossible to imagine a better representation of a
Nimrod of the north. He was exceedingly tall, and broad and robust in
proportion. His head was one of the finest, and though the line of his
features was irregular, there was a great deal of beauty in his face. It
was eminently of the Russian type--almost everything in it was wide. His
expression had a singular sweetness, with a touch of Slav languor, and
his eye, the kindest of eyes, was deep and melancholy. His hair,
abundant and straight, was as white as silver, and his beard, which he
wore trimmed rather short, was of the colour of his hair. In all his
tall person, which was very striking wherever it appeared, there was an
air of neglected strength, as if it had been a part of his modesty never
to remind himself that he was strong. He used sometimes to blush like a
boy of sixteen. He had very few forms and ceremonies, and almost as
little manner as was possible to a man of his natural _prestance_. His
noble appearance was in itself a manner; but whatever he did he did very
simply, and he had not the slightest pretension to not being subject to
rectification. I never saw any one receive it with less irritation.
Friendly, candid, unaffectedly benignant, the impression that he
produced most strongly and most generally was, I think, simply that of
goodness.

When I made his acquaintance he had been living, since his removal from
Baden-Baden, which took place in consequence of the Franco-Prussian war,
in a large detached house on the hill of Montmartre, with his friends of
many years, Madame Pauline Viardot and her husband, as his
fellow-tenants. He occupied the upper floor, and I like to recall, for
the sake of certain delightful talks, the aspect of his little green
sitting-room, which has, in memory, the consecration of irrecoverable
hours. It was almost entirely green, and the walls were not covered with
paper, but draped in stuff. The _portières_ were green, and there was
one of those immense divans, so indispensable to Russians, which had
apparently been fashioned for the great person of the master, so that
smaller folk had to lie upon it rather than sit. I remember the white
light of the Paris street, which came in through windows more or less
blinded in their lower part, like those of a studio. It rested, during
the first years that I went to see Turgénieff, upon several choice
pictures of the modern French school, especially upon a very fine
specimen of Théodore Rousseau, which he valued exceedingly. He had a
great love of painting, and was an excellent critic of a picture. The
last time I saw him--it was at his house in the country--he showed me
half a dozen large copies of Italian works, made by a young Russian in
whom he was interested, which he had, with characteristic kindness,
taken into his own apartments in order that he might bring them to the
knowledge of his friends. He thought them, as copies, remarkable; and
they were so, indeed, especially when one perceived that the original
work of the artist had little value. Turgénieff warmed to the work of
praising them, as he was very apt to do; like all men of imagination he
had frequent and zealous admirations. As a matter of course there was
almost always some young Russian in whom he was interested, and refugees
and pilgrims of both sexes were his natural clients. I have heard it
said by persons who had known him long and well that these enthusiasms
sometimes led him into error, that he was apt to _se monter la tête_ on
behalf of his protégés. He was prone to believe that he had discovered
the coming Russian genius; he talked about his discovery for a month,
and then suddenly one heard no more of it. I remember his once telling
me of a young woman who had come to see him on her return from America,
where she had been studying obstetrics at some medical college, and who,
without means and without friends, was in want of help and of work. He
accidentally learned that she had written something, and asked her to
let him see it. She sent it to him, and it proved to be a tale in which
certain phases of rural life were described with striking truthfulness.
He perceived in the young lady a great natural talent; he sent her
story off to Russia to be printed, with the conviction that it would
make a great impression, and he expressed the hope of being able to
introduce her to French readers. When I mentioned this to an old friend
of Turgénieff he smiled, and said that we should not hear of her again,
that Ivan Serguéitch had already discovered a great many surprising
talents, which, as a general thing, had not borne the test. There was
apparently some truth in this, and Turgénieff’s liability to be deceived
was too generous a weakness for me to hesitate to allude to it, even
after I have insisted on the usual certainty of his taste. He was deeply
interested in his young Russians; they were what interested him most in
the world. They were almost always unhappy, in want and in rebellion
against an order of things which he himself detested. The study of the
Russian character absorbed and fascinated him, as all readers of his
stories know. Rich, unformed, undeveloped, with all sorts of
adumbrations, of qualities in a state of fusion, it stretched itself out
as a mysterious expanse in which it was impossible as yet to perceive
the relation between gifts and weaknesses. Of its weaknesses he was
keenly conscious, and I once heard him express himself with an energy
that did him honour and a frankness that even surprised me (considering
that it was of his countrymen that he spoke), in regard to a weakness
which he deemed the greatest of all--a weakness for which a man whose
love of veracity was his strongest feeling would have least toleration.
His young compatriots, seeking their fortune in foreign lands, touched
his imagination and his pity, and it is easy to conceive that under the
circumstances the impression they often made upon him may have had great
intensity. The Parisian background, with its brilliant sameness, its
absence of surprises (for those who have known it long), threw them into
relief and made him see them as he saw the figures in his tales, in
relations, in situations which brought them out. There passed before him
in the course of time many wonderful Russian types. He told me once of
his having been visited by a religious sect. The sect consisted of but
two persons, one of whom was the object of worship and the other the
worshipper. The divinity apparently was travelling about Europe in
company with his prophet. They were intensely serious but it was very
handy, as the term is, for each. The god had always his altar and the
altar had (unlike some altars) always its god.

In his little green salon nothing was out of place; there were none of
the odds and ends of the usual man of letters, which indeed Turgénieff
was not; and the case was the same in his library at Bougival, of which
I shall presently speak. Few books even were visible; it was as if
everything had been put away. The traces of work had been carefully
removed. An air of great comfort, an immeasurable divan and several
valuable pictures--that was the effect of the place. I know not exactly
at what hours Turgénieff did his work; I think he had no regular times
and seasons, being in this respect as different as possible from Anthony
Trollope, whose autobiography, with its candid revelation of
intellectual economies, is so curious. It is my impression that in Paris
Turgénieff wrote little; his times of production being rather those
weeks of the summer that he spent at Bougival, and the period of that
visit to Russia which he supposed himself to make every year. I say
“supposed himself,” because it was impossible to see much of him without
discovering that he was a man of delays. As on the part of some other
Russians whom I have known, there was something Asiatic in his faculty
of procrastination. But even if one suffered from it a little one
thought of it with kindness, as a part of his general mildness and want
of rigidity. He went to Russia, at any rate, at intervals not
infrequent, and he spoke of these visits as his best time for
production. He had an estate far in the interior, and here, amid the
stillness of the country and the scenes and figures which give such a
charm to the _Memoirs of a Sportsman_, he drove his pen without
interruption.

It is not out of place to allude to the fact that he possessed
considerable fortune; this is too important in the life of a man of
letters. It had been of great value to Turgénieff, and I think that much
of the fine quality of his work is owing to it. He could write according
to his taste and his mood; he was never pressed nor checked (putting
the Russian censorship aside) by considerations foreign to his plan, and
never was in danger of becoming a hack. Indeed, taking into
consideration the absence of a pecuniary spur and that complicated
indolence from which he was not exempt, his industry is surprising, for
his tales are a long list. In Paris, at all events, he was always open
to proposals for the midday breakfast. He liked to breakfast _au
cabaret_, and freely consented to an appointment. It is not unkind to
add that, at first, he never kept it. I may mention without reserve this
idiosyncrasy of Turgénieff’s, because in the first place it was so
inveterate as to be very amusing--it amused not only his friends but
himself; and in the second, he was as sure to come in the end as he was
sure not to come in the beginning. After the appointment had been made
or the invitation accepted, when the occasion was at hand, there arrived
a note or a telegram in which Ivan Serguéitch excused himself, and
begged that the meeting might be deferred to another date, which he
usually himself proposed. For this second date still another was
sometimes substituted; but if I remember no appointment that he exactly
kept, I remember none that he completely missed. His friends waited for
him frequently, but they never lost him. He was very fond of that
wonderful Parisian _déjeûner_--fond of it I mean as a feast of reason.
He was extremely temperate, and often ate no breakfast at all; but he
found it a good hour for talk, and little, on general grounds, as one
might be prepared to agree with him, if he was at the table one was
speedily convinced. I call it wonderful, the _déjeûner_ of Paris, on
account of the assurance with which it plants itself in the very middle
of the morning. It divides the day between rising and dinner so
unequally, and opposes such barriers of repletion to any prospect of
ulterior labours, that the unacclimated stranger wonders when the
fertile French people do their work. Not the least wonderful part of it
is that the stranger himself likes it, at last, and manages to piece
together his day with the shattered fragments that survive. It was not,
at any rate, when one had the good fortune to breakfast at twelve
o’clock with Turgénieff that one was struck with its being an
inconvenient hour. Any hour was convenient for meeting a human being who
conformed so completely to one’s idea of the best that human nature is
capable of. There are places in Paris which I can think of only in
relation to some occasion on which he was present, and when I pass them
the particular things I heard him say there come back to me. There is a
café in the Avenue de l’Opéra--a new, sumptuous establishment, with very
deep settees, on the right as you leave the Boulevard--where I once had
a talk with him, over an order singularly moderate, which was prolonged
far into the afternoon, and in the course of which he was
extraordinarily suggestive and interesting, so that my memory now
reverts affectionately to all the circumstances. It evokes the grey
damp of a Parisian December, which made the dark interior of the café
look more and more rich and hospitable, while the light faded, the lamps
were lit, the habitués came in to drink absinthe and play their
afternoon game of dominoes, and we still lingered over our morning meal.
Turgénieff talked almost exclusively about Russia, the nihilists, the
remarkable figures that came to light among them, the curious visits he
received, the dark prospects of his native land. When he was in the
vein, no man could speak more to the imagination of his auditor. For
myself, at least, at such times, there was something extraordinarily
vivifying and stimulating in his talk, and I always left him in a state
of “intimate” excitement, with a feeling that all sorts of valuable
things had been suggested to me; the condition in which a man swings his
cane as he walks, leaps lightly over gutters, and then stops, for no
reason at all, to look, with an air of being struck, into a shop window
where he sees nothing. I remember another symposium, at a restaurant on
one of the corners of the little _place_ in front of the Opéra Comique,
where we were four, including Ivan Serguéitch, and the two other guests
were also Russian, one of them uniting to the charm of this nationality
the merit of a sex that makes the combination irresistible. The
establishment had been a discovery of Turgénieff’s--a discovery, at
least, as far as our particular needs were concerned--and I remember
that we hardly congratulated him on it. The dinner, in a low entresol,
was not what it had been intended to be, but the talk was better even
than our expectations. It was not about nihilism but about some more
agreeable features of life, and I have no recollection of Turgénieff in
a mood more spontaneous and charming. One of our friends had, when he
spoke French, a peculiar way of sounding the word _adorable_, which was
frequently on his lips, and I remember well his expressive prolongation
of the _a_ when, in speaking of the occasion afterwards, he applied this
term to Ivan Serguéitch. I scarcely know, however, why I should drop
into the detail of such reminiscences, and my excuse is but the desire
that we all have, when a human relationship is closed, to save a little
of it from the past--to make a mark which may stand for some of the
happy moments of it.

Nothing that Turgénieff had to say could be more interesting than his
talk about his own work, his manner of writing. What I have heard him
tell of these things was worthy of the beautiful results he produced; of
the deep purpose, pervading them all, to show us life itself. The germ
of a story, with him, was never an affair of plot--that was the last
thing he thought of: it was the representation of certain persons. The
first form in which a tale appeared to him was as the figure of an
individual, or a combination of individuals, whom he wished to see in
action, being sure that such people must do something very special and
interesting. They stood before him definite, vivid, and he wished to
know, and to show, as much as possible of their nature. The first thing
was to make clear to himself what he did know, to begin with; and to
this end, he wrote out a sort of biography of each of his characters,
and everything that they had done and that had happened to them up to
the opening of the story. He had their _dossier_, as the French say, and
as the police has of that of every conspicuous criminal. With this
material in his hand he was able to proceed; the story all lay in the
question, What shall I make them do? He always made them do things that
showed them completely; but, as he said, the defect of his manner and
the reproach that was made him was his want of “architecture”--in other
words, of composition. The great thing, of course, is to have
architecture as well as precious material, as Walter Scott had them, as
Balzac had them. If one reads Turgénieff’s stories with the knowledge
that they were composed--or rather that they came into being--in this
way, one can trace the process in every line. Story, in the conventional
sense of the word--a fable constructed, like Wordsworth’s phantom, “to
startle and waylay”--there is as little as possible. The thing consists
of the motions of a group of selected creatures, which are not the
result of a preconceived action, but a consequence of the qualities of
the actors. Works of art are produced from every possible point of view,
and stories, and very good ones, will continue to be written in which
the evolution is that of a dance--a series of steps the more
complicated and lively the better, of course, determined from without
and forming a figure. This figure will always, probably, find favour
with many readers, because it reminds them enough, without reminding
them too much, of life. On this opposition many young talents in France
are ready to rend each other, for there is a numerous school on either
side. We have not yet in England and America arrived at the point of
treating such questions with passion, for we have not yet arrived at the
point of feeling them intensely, or indeed, for that matter, of
understanding them very well. It is not open to us as yet to discuss
whether a novel had better be an excision from life or a structure built
up of picture-cards, for we have not made up our mind as to whether life
in general may be described. There is evidence of a good deal of shyness
on this point--a tendency rather to put up fences than to jump over
them. Among us, therefore, even a certain ridicule attaches to the
consideration of such alternatives. But individuals may feel their way,
and perhaps even pass unchallenged, if they remark that for them the
manner in which Turgénieff worked will always seem the most fruitful. It
has the immense recommendation that in relation to any human occurrence
it begins, as it were, further back. It lies in its power to tell us the
most about men and women. Of course it will but slenderly satisfy those
numerous readers among whom the answer to this would be, “Hang it, we
don’t care a straw about men and women: we want a good story!”

And yet, after all, _Elena_ is a good story, and _Lisa_ and _Virgin
Soil_ are good stories. Reading over lately several of Turgénieff’s
novels and tales, I was struck afresh with their combination of beauty
and reality. One must never forget, in speaking of him, that he was both
an observer and a poet. The poetic element was constant, and it had
great strangeness and power. It inspired most of the short things that
he wrote during the last few years of his life, since the publication of
_Virgin Soil_, things that are in the highest degree fanciful and
exotic. It pervades the frequent little reveries, visions, epigrams of
the _Senilia_. It was no part of my intention, here, to criticise his
writings, having said my say about them, so far as possible, some years
ago. But I may mention that in re-reading them I find in them all that I
formerly found of two other elements--their richness and their sadness.
They give one the impression of life itself, and not of an arrangement,
a _réchauffé_ of life. I remember Turgénieff’s once saying in regard to
Homais, the little Norman country apothecary, with his pedantry of
“enlightened opinions,” in _Madame Bovary_, that the great strength of
such a portrait consisted in its being at once an individual, of the
most concrete sort, and a type. This is the great strength of his own
representations of character; they are so strangely, fascinatingly
particular, and yet they are so recognisably general. Such a remark as
that about Homais makes me wonder why it was that Turgénieff should have
rated Dickens so high, the weakness of Dickens being in regard to just
that point. If Dickens fail to live long, it will be because his figures
are particular without being general; because they are individuals
without being types; because we do not feel their continuity with the
rest of humanity--see the matching of the pattern with the piece out of
which all the creations of the novelist and the dramatist are cut. I
often meant, but accidentally neglected, to put Turgénieff on the
subject of Dickens again, and ask him to explain his opinion. I suspect
that his opinion was in a large measure merely that Dickens diverted
him, as well he might. That complexity of the pattern was in itself
fascinating. I have mentioned Flaubert, and I will return to him simply
to say that there was something very touching in the nature of the
friendship that united these two men. It is much to the honour of
Flaubert, to my sense, that he appreciated Ivan Turgénieff. There was a
partial similarity between them. Both were large, massive men, though
the Russian reached to a greater height than the Norman; both were
completely honest and sincere, and both had the pessimistic element in
their composition. Each had a tender regard for the other, and I think
that I am neither incorrect nor indiscreet in saying that on
Turgénieff’s part this regard had in it a strain of compassion. There
was something in Gustave Flaubert that appealed to such a feeling. He
had failed, on the whole, more than he had succeeded, and the great
machinery of erudition,--the great polishing process,--which he brought
to bear upon his productions, was not accompanied with proportionate
results. He had talent without having cleverness, and imagination
without having fancy. His effort was heroic, but except in the case of
_Madame Bovary_, a masterpiece, he imparted something to his works (it
was as if he had covered them with metallic plates) which made them sink
rather than sail. He had a passion for perfection of form and for a
certain splendid suggestiveness of style. He wished to produce perfect
phrases, perfectly interrelated, and as closely woven together as a suit
of chain-mail. He looked at life altogether as an artist, and took his
work with a seriousness that never belied itself. To write an admirable
page--and his idea of what constituted an admirable page was
transcendent--seemed to him something to live for. He tried it again and
again, and he came very near it; more than once he touched it, for
_Madame Bovary_ surely will live. But there was something ungenerous in
his genius. He was cold, and he would have given everything he had to be
able to glow. There is nothing in his novels like the passion of Elena
for Inssaroff, like the purity of Lisa, like the anguish of the parents
of Bazaroff, like the hidden wound of Tatiana; and yet Flaubert yearned,
with all the accumulations of his vocabulary, to touch the chord of
pathos. There were some parts of his mind that did not “give,” that did
not render a sound. He had had too much of some sorts of experience and
not enough of others. And yet this failure of an organ, as I may call
it, inspired those who knew him with a kindness. If Flaubert was
powerful and limited, there is something human, after all, and even
rather august in a strong man who has not been able completely to
express himself.

After the first year of my acquaintance with Turgénieff I saw him much
less often. I was seldom in Paris, and sometimes when I was there he was
absent. But I neglected no opportunity of seeing him, and fortune
frequently assisted me. He came two or three times to London, for visits
provokingly brief. He went to shoot in Cambridgeshire, and he passed
through town in arriving and departing. He liked the English, but I am
not sure that he liked London, where he had passed a lugubrious winter
in 1870-71. I remember some of his impressions of that period,
especially a visit that he had paid to a “bishopess” surrounded by her
daughters, and a description of the cookery at the lodgings which he
occupied. After 1876 I frequently saw him as an invalid. He was
tormented by gout, and sometimes terribly besieged; but his account of
what he suffered was as charming--I can apply no other word to it--as
his description of everything else. He had so the habit of observation,
that he perceived in excruciating sensations all sorts of curious images
and analogies, and analysed them to an extraordinary fineness. Several
times I found him at Bougival, above the Seine, in a very spacious and
handsome chalet--a little unsunned, it is true--which he had built
alongside of the villa occupied by the family to which, for years, his
life had been devoted. The place is delightful; the two houses are
midway up a long slope, which descends, with the softest inclination, to
the river, and behind them the hill rises to a wooded crest. On the
left, in the distance, high up and above an horizon of woods, stretches
the romantic aqueduct of Marly. It is a very pretty domain. The last
time I saw him, in November 1882, it was at Bougival. He had been very
ill, with strange, intolerable symptoms, but he was better, and he had
good hopes. They were not justified by the event. He got worse again,
and the months that followed were cruel. His beautiful serene mind
should not have been darkened and made acquainted with violence; it
should have been able to the last to take part, as it had always done,
in the decrees and mysteries of fate. At the moment I saw him, however,
he was, as they say in London, in very good form, and my last impression
of him was almost bright. He was to drive into Paris, not being able to
bear the railway, and he gave me a seat in the carriage. For an hour and
a half he constantly talked, and never better. When we got into the city
I alighted on the boulevard extérieur, as we were to go in different
directions. I bade him good-bye at the carriage window, and never saw
him again. There was a kind of fair going on, near by, in the chill
November air, beneath the denuded little trees of the Boulevard, and a
Punch and Judy show, from which nasal sounds proceeded. I almost regret
having accidentally to mix up so much of Paris with this perhaps too
complacent enumeration of occasions, for the effect of it may be to
suggest that Ivan Turgénieff had been Gallicised. But this was not the
case; the French capital was an accident for him, not a necessity. It
touched him at many points, but it let him alone at many others, and he
had, with that great tradition of ventilation of the Russian mind,
windows open into distances which stretched far beyond the _banlieue_. I
have spoken of him from the limited point of view of my own acquaintance
with him, and unfortunately left myself little space to allude to a
matter which filled his existence a good deal more than the
consideration of how a story should be written--his hopes and fears on
behalf of his native land. He wrote fictions and dramas, but the great
drama of his life was the struggle for a better state of things in
Russia. In this drama he played a distinguished part, and the splendid
obsequies that, simple and modest as he was, have unfolded themselves
over his grave, sufficiently attest the recognition of it by his
countrymen. His funeral, restricted and officialised, was none the less
a magnificent “manifestation.” I have read the accounts of it, however,
with a kind of chill, a feeling in which assent to the honours paid him
bore less part than it ought. All this pomp and ceremony seemed to lift
him out of the range of familiar recollection, of valued reciprocity,
into the majestic position of a national glory. And yet it is in the
presence of this obstacle to social contact that those who knew and
loved him must address their farewell to him now. After all, it is
difficult to see how the obstacle can be removed. He was the most
generous, the most tender, the most delightful, of men; his large nature
overflowed with the love of justice: but he also was of the stuff of
which glories are made.

1884.



X

GEORGE DU MAURIER


Many years ago a small American child, who lived in New York and played
in Union Square, which was then inclosed by a high railing and governed
by a solitary policeman--a strange, superannuated, dilapidated
functionary, carrying a little cane and wearing, with a very copious and
very dirty shirt-front, the costume of a man of the world--a small
American child was a silent devotee of _Punch_. Half an hour spent
to-day in turning over the early numbers transports him quite as much to
old New York as to the London of the first Crystal Palace and the years
that immediately followed it. From about 1850 to 1855 he lived, in
imagination, no small part of his time, in the world represented by the
pencil of Leech. He pored over the pictures of the people riding in the
Row, of the cabmen and the costermongers, of the little pages in
buttons, of the bathing-machines at the sea-side, of the small boys in
tall hats and Eton jackets, of the gentlemen hunting the fox, of the
pretty girls in striped petticoats and coiffures of the shape of the
mushroom. These things were the features of a world which he longed so
to behold, that the familiar woodcuts (they were not so good in those
days as they have become since) grew at last as real to him as the
furniture of his home; and when he at present looks at the _Punch_ of
thirty years ago he finds in it an odd association of mediæval New York.
He remembers that it was in such a locality, in that city, that he first
saw such a picture: he recalls the fading light of the winter dusk, with
the red fire and the red curtains in the background, in which more than
once he was bidden to put down the last numbers of the humorous sheet
and come to his tea. _Punch_ was England; _Punch_ was London; and
England and London were at that time words of multifarious suggestion to
this small American child. He liked much more to think of the British
Empire than to indulge in the sports natural to his tender age, and many
of his hours were spent in making mental pictures of the society of
which the recurrent woodcuts offered him specimens and revelations. He
had from year to year the prospect of really beholding this society (he
heard every spring, from the earliest period, that his parents would go
to Europe, and then he heard that they would not), and he had measured
the value of the prospect with a keenness possibly premature. He knew
the names of the London streets, of the theatres, of many of the shops:
the dream of his young life was to take a walk in Kensington Gardens and
go to Drury Lane to see a pantomime. There was a great deal in the old
_Punch_ about the pantomimes, and harlequins and columbines peopled the
secret visions of this perverted young New Yorker. It was a mystic
satisfaction to him that he had lived in Piccadilly when he was a baby;
he remembered neither the period nor the place, but the name of the
latter had a strange delight for him. It had been promised him that he
should behold once more that romantic thoroughfare, and he did so by the
time he was twelve years old. Then he found that if _Punch_ had been
London (as he lay on the hearth-rug inhaling the exotic fragrance of the
freshly-arrived journal), London was _Punch_ and something more. He
remembers to-day vividly his impression of the London streets in the
summer of 1855; they had an extraordinary look of familiarity, and every
figure, every object he encountered, appeared to have been drawn by
Leech. He has learned to know these things better since then; but his
childish impression is subject to extraordinary revivals. The expansive
back of an old lady getting into an omnibus, the attitude of a little
girl bending from her pony in the park, the demureness of a maid-servant
opening a street-door in Brompton, the top-heavy attitude of the small
“Ameliar-Ann,” as she stands planted with the baby in her arms on the
corner of a Westminster slum, the coal-heavers, the cabmen, the
publicans, the butcher-boys, the flunkeys, the guardsmen, the policemen
(in spite of their change of uniform), are liable at this hour, in
certain moods, to look more like sketchy tail-pieces than natural
things. (There are moments indeed--not identical with those we speak
of--in which certain figures, certain episodes, in the London streets,
strike an even stranger, deeper note of reminiscence. They remind the
American traveller of Hogarth: he may take a walk in Oxford Street--on
some dirty winter afternoon--and find everything he sees Hogarthian.)

We know not whether the form of infantine nostalgia of which we speak is
common, or was then common, among small Americans; but we are sure that,
when fortune happens to favour it, it is a very delightful pain. In
those days, in America, the manufacture of children’s picture-books was
an undeveloped industry; the best things came from London, and brought
with them the aroma of a richer civilisation. The covers were so
beautiful and shining, the paper and print so fine, the coloured
illustrations so magnificent, that it was easy to see that over there
the arts were at a very high point. The very name of the publisher on
the title-page (the small boy we speak of always looked at that) had a
thrilling and mystifying effect. But, above all, the contents were so
romantic and delectable! There were things in the English story-books
that one read as a child, just as there were things in _Punch_, that one
couldn’t have seen in New York, even if one had been fifty years old.
The age had nothing to do with it; one had a conviction that they were
not there to be seen--we can hardly say why. It is, perhaps, because
the plates in the picture-books were almost always coloured; but it was
evident that there was a great deal more colour in that other world. We
remember well the dazzling tone of a little Christmas book by Leech,
which was quite in the spirit of _Punch_, only more splendid, for the
plates were plastered with blue and pink. It was called _Young
Troublesome; or, Master Jacky’s Holidays_, and it has probably become
scarce to-day. It related the mischievous pranks of an Eton school-boy
while at home for his Christmas vacation, and the exploit we chiefly
recollect was his blacking with a burnt stick the immaculate calves of
the footman who is carrying up some savoury dish to the banquet from
which (in consequence of his age and his habits), Master Jacky is
excluded. Master Jacky was so handsome, so brilliant, so heroic, so
regardless of dangers and penalties, so fertile in resources; and those
charming young ladies, his sisters, his cousins--the innocent victims of
his high spirits--had such golden ringlets, such rosy cheeks, such
pretty shoulders, such delicate blue sashes over such fresh muslin
gowns. Master Jacky seemed to lead a life all illumined with rosy
Christmas fire. A little later came Richard Doyle’s delightful volume,
giving the history of _Brown, Jones, and Robinson_, and it would be
difficult to exaggerate the action of these remarkable designs in
forming the taste of our fantastic little amateur. They told him,
indeed, much less about England than about the cities of the continent;
but that was not a drawback, for he could take in the continent too.
Moreover, he felt that these three travellers were intensely British;
they looked at everything from the London point of view, and it gave him
an immense feeling of initiation to be able to share their
susceptibilities. Was there not also a delightful little picture at the
end, which represented them as restored to British ground, each holding
up a tankard of foaming ale, with the boots, behind them, rolling their
battered portmanteaux into the inn? This seemed somehow to commemorate
one’s own possible arrival in old England, even though it was not likely
that overflowing beer would be a feature of so modest an event; just as
all the rest of it was a foretaste of Switzerland, of the Rhine, of
North Italy, which after this would find one quite prepared. We are
sorry to say that when, many years later, we ascended, for the first
time, to the roof of Milan Cathedral, what we first thought of was not
the “waveless plain of Lombardy” nor the beauty of the edifice, but the
“little London snob” whom Brown, Jones, and Robinson saw writing his
name on one of the pinnacles of the church. We had our preferences in
this genial trio. We adored little Jones, the artist--if memory doesn’t
betray us (we haven’t seen the book for twenty years), and Jones _was_
the artist. It is difficult to say why we adored him, but it was
certainly the dream of our life at that foolish period to make his
acquaintance. We did so, in fact, not very long after. We were taken in
due course to Europe, and we met him on a steamboat on the Lake of
Geneva. There was no introduction, we had no conversation, but he was
the Jones we had prefigured and loved. Thackeray’s Christmas books (_The
Rose and the Ring_ apart--it dates from 1854) came before this: we
remember them in our earliest years. They, too, were of the family of
_Punch_--which is my excuse for this superfluity of preface--and they
were a revelation of English manners. “English manners,” for a child,
could of course only mean certain individual English figures--the
figures in _Our Street_, in _Doctor Birch and his Young Friends_ (we
were glad we were not of the number), in _Mrs. Perkins’s Ball_. In the
first of these charming little volumes there is a pictorial exposition
of the reason why the nurse-maids in _Our Street_ like Kensington
Gardens. When in the course of time we were taken to walk in those
lovely shades, we looked about us for a simpering young woman and an
insinuating soldier on a bench, with a bawling baby sprawling on the
path hard by, and we were not slow to discover the group.

Many people in the United States, and doubtless in other countries, have
gathered their knowledge of English life almost entirely from _Punch_,
and it would be difficult to imagine a more abundant, and on the whole a
more accurate, informant. The accumulated volumes of this periodical
contain evidence on a multitude of points of which there is no mention
in the serious works--not even in the novels--of the day. The smallest
details of social habit are depicted there, and the oddities of a race
of people in whom oddity is strangely compatible with the dominion of
convention. That the ironical view of these things is given does not
injure the force of the testimony, for the irony of _Punch_, strangely
enough, has always been discreet, even delicate. It is a singular fact
that, though taste is not supposed to be the strong point of the English
mind, this eminently representative journal has rarely been guilty of a
violation of decorum. The taste of _Punch_, like its good-humour, has
known very few lapses. The _London Charivari_--we remember how difficult
it was (in 1853) to arrive at the right pronunciation--has in this
respect very little to envy its Parisian original. English comedy is
coarse, French comedy is fine--that would be the general assumption,
certainly, on the part of a French critic. But a comparison between the
back volumes of the _Charivari_ and the back volumes of _Punch_ would
make it necessary to modify this formula. English humour is simple,
innocent, plain, a trifle insipid, apt to sacrifice to the graces, to
the proprieties; but if _Punch_ be our witness English humour is not
coarse. We are fortunately not obliged to declare just now what French
humour appears to be--in the light of the _Charivari_, the _Journal
Amusant_, the _Journal Pour Rire_. A Frenchman may say, in perfect good
faith, that (to his sense) English drollery has doubtless every merit
but that of being droll. French drollery, he may say, is salient,
saltatory; whereas the English comic effort has little freedom of wing.
The French, in these matters, like a great deal of salt; whereas the
English, who spice their food very highly and have a cluster of sharp
condiments on the table, take their caricatures comparatively mild.
_Punch_, in short, is for the family--_Punch_ may be sent up to the
nursery. This surely may be admitted; and it is the fact that _Punch_ is
for the family that constitutes its high value. The family is, after
all, the people; and a satirical sheet which holds up the mirror to this
institution can hardly fail to be instructive. “Yes, if it hold the
mirror up impartially,” we can imagine the foreign critic to rejoin;
“but in these matters the British caricaturist is not to be trusted. He
slurs over a great deal--he omits a great deal more. He must, above all
things, be proper; and there is a whole side of life which, in spite of
his Juvenalian pretensions, he never touches at all.” We must allow the
foreign critic his supposed retort, without taking space to answer
back--we may imagine him to be a bit of a “naturalist”--and admit that
it is perhaps because they are obliged to be proper that Leech and Du
Maurier give us, on the whole, such a cleanly, healthy, friendly picture
of English manners. Such sustained and inveterate propriety is in itself
a great force; it takes in a good deal, as well as leaves out. The
general impression that we derive from the long series of _Punch_ is a
very cheerful and favourable one; it speaks of a vigorous,
good-humoured, much-civilised people. The good-humour is, perhaps, the
most striking point--not only the good-humour of the artist who
represents the scene, but that of the figures engaged in it. The
difference is remarkable in this respect between _Punch_ and the French
comic papers. The wonderful Cham, who for so many years contributed to
those sheets, had an extraordinary sense of the ludicrous and a
boundless stock of facetious invention. He was strangely expressive; he
could place a figure before you, in the most violent action, with half a
dozen strokes of his pencil. But his people were like wild-cats and
scorpions. The temper of the French _bourgeoisie_, as represented by
Cham, is a thing to make one take to one’s heels. They perpetually tear
and rend each other, show their teeth and their claws, kick each other
down-stairs, and pitch each other from windows. All this is in the
highest degree farcical and grotesque; but at bottom it is almost
horrible. (It must be admitted that Cham and his wonderful colleague,
Daumier, are much more horrible than Gavarni, who was admirably real,
and at the same time capable of beauty and grace. Gavarni’s women are
charming; those of Cham and Daumier are monsters.) There is nothing, or
almost nothing, of the horrible in _Punch_. The author of these remarks
has a friend whom he has heard more than once maintain the too-ingenious
thesis that the caricatures of Cham prove the French to be a cruel
people; the same induction could, at least, never be made, even in an
equal spirit of paradox, from the genial pages of _Punch_. “If _Punch_
is never horrible, it is because _Punch_ is always superficial, for life
is full of the horrible”--so we may imagine our naturalistic objector to
go on. However this may be, _Punch_ is fortunate in having fallen on so
smooth a surface. English life, as depicted by Leech and Du Maurier, and
by that admirable Charles Keene--the best-humoured perhaps of the three,
whose talent is so great that we have always wondered why it is not more
comprehensive--is a compound of several very wholesome tastes: the love
of the country, the love of action, the love of a harmless joke within
the limits of due reverence, the love of sport, of horses and dogs, of
family life, of children, of horticulture. With this there are a few
other tastes of a less innocent kind--the love of ardent spirits, for
instance, or of punching people’s heads--or even the love of a lord. In
Leech’s drawings, country life plays a great part; his landscapes, in
their extreme sketchiness, are often admirable. He gave in a few strokes
the look of the hunting-field in winter--the dark damp slopes, the black
dense hedges, the low thick sky. He was very general; he touched on
everything, sooner or later; but he enjoyed his sporting subjects more
than anything else. In this he was thoroughly English. No close observer
of that people can fail to perceive that the love of sport is the thing
that binds them most closely together, and in which they have the
greatest number of feelings in common. Leech depicted, with infinite
vividness, the accidents of the chase and of the fishing-season; and his
treatment of the horse in especial contributed greatly to his
popularity. He understood the animal, he knew him intimately, he loved
him; and he drew him as if he knew how to ride as well as to draw. The
English forgive a great deal to those who ride well; and this is
doubtless why the badness of some of the sporting subjects that have
appeared in _Punch_ since Leech’s death has been tolerated: the artist
has been presumed to have a good seat. Leech never made a mistake; he
did well whatever he did; and it must be remembered that for many years
he furnished the political cartoon to _Punch_, as well as the smaller
drawings. He was always amusing, always full of sense and point, always
intensely English. His foreigner is always an inferior animal--his
Frenchman is the Frenchman of Leicester Square, the Frenchman whom the
Exhibition of 1851 revealed to the people of London. His point is
perfectly perceptible--it is never unduly fine. His children are models
of ruddy, chubby, shy yet sturdy British babyhood; and nothing could be
nicer than his young women. The English maiden, in Leech, is
emphatically a nice girl; modest and fresh, simple and blooming, and
destined evidently for use as much as for ornament. In those early days
to which we referred at the beginning of this article we were deeply in
love with the young ladies of Leech, and we have never ceased to admire
the simple art with which he made these hastily designed creatures
conform unerringly to the English type. They have English eyes and
English cheeks, English figures, English hands and feet, English
ringlets, English petticoats. Leech was extremely observant, but he had
not a strong imagination; he had a sufficient, but not a high sense of
beauty; his ideal of the beautiful had nothing of the unattainable; it
was simply a _résumé_ of the fresh faces he saw about him. The great
thing, however, was that he was a natural, though not in the least an
analytic or an exact, draughtsman; his little figures live and move;
many of his little scenes are stamped on the memory. I have spoken of
his representations of the country, but his town-pictures are numerous
and capital. He knew his London, and his sketches of the good people of
that metropolis are as happy as his episodes in the drawing-room and the
hunting-field. He was admirably broad and free; and no one in his line
has had more than he the knack of giving what is called a general
effect. He conveys at times the look of the London streets--the colour,
the temperature, the damp blackness. He does the winter weather to
perfection. Long before I had seen it I was acquainted, through his
sketches, with the aspect of Baker Street in December. Out of such a
multitude of illustrations it is difficult to choose; the two volumes of
_Sketches of Life and Character_, transferred from _Punch_, are a real
museum. But I recall, for instance, the simple little sketch of the
worthy man up to his neck in bed on a January morning, to whom, on the
other side of the door, the prompt housemaid, with her hammer in her
hand, announces that “I have just broken the ice in your bath, sir.” The
black cold dawn, the very smell of the early chill, that raw sootiness
of the London winter air, the red nose of the housemaid, the
unfashionable street seen through the window--impart a peculiar
vividness to the small inky-looking woodcut.

We have said too much about Leech, however, and the purpose of these
remarks is not to commemorate his work. _Punch_, for the last fifteen
years, has been, artistically speaking, George du Maurier. (We ought,
perhaps, before this, to have said that none of our observations are to
be taken as applying to the letterpress of the comic journal, which has
probably never been fully appreciated in America.) It has employed other
talents than his--notably Charles Keene, who is as broad, as jovial, as
English (half his jokes are against Scotchmen) as Leech, but whose sense
of the beautiful, the delicate, is inferior even to Leech’s. But for a
great many people, certainly in America, Du Maurier has long been, as I
say, the successor of Leech, the embodiment of the pictorial spirit of
_Punch_. Shut up in the narrow limits of black and white, without space,
without colour, without the larger opportunities, Du Maurier has
nevertheless established himself as an exquisite talent and a genuine
artist. He is not so much of a laugher as Leech--he deals in the smile
rather than the laugh--but he is a much deeper observer, and he carries
his drawing infinitely further. He has not Leech’s animal spirits; a
want of boyishness, a tendency to reflection, to lowness of tone, as his
own Postlethwaite would say, is perhaps his limitation. But his
seriousness--if he be too serious--is that of the satirist as
distinguished from the simple joker; and if he reflects, he does so in
the literal sense of the word--holds up a singularly polished and lucid
mirror to the drama of English society. More than twenty years ago, when
he began to draw in _Once a Week_--that not very long-lived periodical
which set out on its career with a high pictorial standard--it was
apparent that the careful young artist who finished his designs very
highly and signed them with a French name, stood very much upon his own
feet. The earliest things of his that we know have the quality which has
made him distinguished to-day--the union of a great sense of beauty with
a great sense of reality. It was apparent from the first that this was
not a simple and uniform talent, but a gift that had sprung from a
combination of sources. It is important to remember, in speaking of Du
Maurier--who is one of the pillars of the British journal _par
excellence_--that he has French blood in his veins. George du Maurier,
as we understand his history, was born in England, of a French father
and an English mother, but was removed to France in his early years and
educated according to the customs of that country. Later, however, he
returned to England; and it would not be difficult for a careful
student of his drawings to guess that England is the land of his
predilection. He has drawn a great many French figures, but he has drawn
them as one who knows them rather than as one who loves them. He has
perhaps been, as the phrase is, a little hard upon the French; at any
rate, he has been decidedly easy for the English. The latter are
assuredly a very handsome race; but if we were to construct an image of
them from the large majority of Du Maurier’s drawings we should see
before us a people of gods and goddesses. This does not alter the fact
that there is a very Gallic element in some of Du Maurier’s gifts--his
fineness of perception, his remarkable power of specifying types, his
taste, his grace, his lightness, a certain refinement of art. It is hard
to imagine that a talent so remarkable should not have given early
evidences; but in spite of such evidences Du Maurier was, on the
threshold of manhood, persuaded by those to whom it was his duty to
listen to turn his attention, as Mrs. Micawber says, to chemistry. He
pursued this science without enthusiasm, though he had for some time a
laboratory of his own. Before long, however, the laboratory was
converted into a studio. His talent insisted on its liberty, and he
committed himself to the plastic. He studied this charming element in
Paris, at Düsseldorf; he began to work in London. This period of his
life was marked by a great calamity, which has left its trace on his
career and his work, and which it is needful to mention in order to
speak with any fairness of these things. Abruptly, without a warning,
his eyesight partly forsook him, and his activity was cruelly
threatened. It is a great pleasure, in alluding to this catastrophe, to
be able to speak of it as a signal example of difficulty vanquished.
George du Maurier was condemned to many dark days, at the end of which
he learned that he should have to carry on his task for the rest of his
life with less than half a man’s portion of the sense most valuable to
the artist. The beautiful work that he has produced in such abundance
for so many years has been achieved under restrictions of vision which
might well have made any work impossible. It is permitted, accordingly,
to imagine that if the artist had had the usual resources, we should not
at the present moment have to consider him simply as an accomplished
draughtsman in black and white. It is impossible to look at many of his
drawings without perceiving that they are full of the art of the
painter, and that the form they have taken, charming as it has been, is
arbitrary and inadequate.

John Leech died on 27th October 1864, and the first sketches in _Punch_
that we recognise as Du Maurier’s appeared in that year. The very
earliest that we have detected belong, indeed, to 5th December 1863.
These beginnings are slight and sketchy head-pieces and vignettes; the
first regular “picture” (with a legend beneath it) that we remember is
of the date of 11th June 1864. It represents a tipsy waiter (or college
servant) on a staircase, where he has smashed a trayful of crockery. We
perceive nothing else of importance for some time after this, but
suddenly his hand appears again in force, and from the summer of 1865
its appearances are frequent. The finish and delicacy, the real elegance
of these early drawings, are extreme: the hand was already the hand of a
brilliant executant. No such manner as this had hitherto been seen in
_Punch_. By the time one had recognised that it was not a happy
accident, but an accomplished habit, it had become the great feature,
the “attraction,” of the comic journal. _Punch_ had never before
suspected that it was so artistic; had never taken itself, in such
matters, so seriously. Much the larger part of Du Maurier’s work has
been done for _Punch_, but he has designed as well many illustrations
for books. The most charming of these perhaps are the drawings he
executed in 1868 for a new edition of Thackeray’s _Esmond_, which had
been preceded several years before by a set of designs for Mrs.
Gaskell’s _Wives and Daughters_, first ushered into the world as a
serial in the _Cornhill_. To the _Cornhill_ for many years Du Maurier
has every month contributed an illustration; he has reproduced every
possible situation that is likely to be encountered in the English novel
of manners; he has interpreted pictorially innumerable flirtations,
wooings, philanderings, ruptures. The interest of the English novel of
manners is frequently the interest of the usual; the situations
presented to the artist are apt to lack superficial strangeness. A lady
and gentleman sitting in a drawing-room, a lady and a gentleman going
out to walk, a sad young woman watching at a sick-bed, a handsome young
man lighting a cigarette--this is the range of incident through which
the designer is called upon to move. But in these drawing-room and
flower-garden episodes the artist is thoroughly at home; he accepts of
course the material that is given him, but we fancy him much more easily
representing quiet, harmonious things than depicting deeds of violence.
It is a noticeable fact that in _Punch_, where he has his liberty, he
very seldom represents such deeds. His occasional departures from this
habit are of a sportive and fantastic sort, in which he ceases to
pretend to be real: like the dream of the timorous Jenkins (15th
February 1868), who sees himself hurled to destruction by a colossal
foreshortened cab-horse. Du Maurier’s fantastic--we speak of the extreme
manifestations of it--is always admirable, ingenious, unexpected,
pictorial; so much so, that we have often wondered that he should not
have cultivated this vein more largely. As a general thing, however, in
these excursions into the impossible it is some _charming_ impossibility
that he offers us--a picture of some happy contrivance which would make
life more diverting: such as the playing of lawn-tennis on skates (on a
lawn of ice), or the faculty on the part of young men on bicycles of
carrying their sweethearts behind them on a pillion. We recommend the
reader to turn to _Punch’s Almanac_ for 1865, in which two brilliant
full-page illustrations represent the “Probable Results of the
Acclimatisation Society.” Nothing could be fuller of delicate fancy and
of pictorial facility than this prophecy of the domestication in the
London streets, and by the Serpentine of innumerable strange
beasts--giraffes, ostriches, zebras, kangaroos, hippopotami, elephants,
lions, panthers. Speaking of strange beasts, the strangest of all
perhaps is the wonderful big dog who has figured of late years in Du
Maurier’s drawings, and who has probably passed with many persons as a
kind of pictorial caprice. He is depicted as of such super-canine
proportions, quite overshadowing and dwarfing the amiable family to whom
he is represented as belonging, that he might be supposed to be another
illustration of the artist’s turn for the heroic in the graceful. But,
as it happens, he is not an invention, but a portrait--the portrait of a
magnificent original, a literally gigantic St. Bernard, the property of
the artist--the biggest, the handsomest, the most benignant of all
domesticated shaggy things.

We think we are safe in saying that those ruder forms of incongruity
which as a general thing constitute the stock-in-trade of the
caricaturist fail to commend themselves to this particular satirist. He
is too fond of the beautiful--his great passion is for the lovely; not
for what is called ideal beauty, which is usually a matter of not very
successful guess-work, but for loveliness observed in the life and
manners around him, and reproduced with a generous desire to represent
it as usual. The French express a certain difference better than we;
they talk of those who see _en beau_ and those who see _en laid_. Du
Maurier is as highly developed an example as we could desire of the
former tendency--just as Cham and Daumier are examples of the latter;
just, too, if we may venture to select instances from the staff of
_Punch_, as Charles Keene and Linley Sambourne are examples of the
latter. Du Maurier can see ugliness wonderfully well when he has a
strong motive for looking for it, as witness so many of the figures in
his crusade against the “æsthetic” movement. Who could be uglier than
Maudle and Postlethwaite and all the other apparitions from “passionate
Brompton”? Who could have more bulging foreheads, more protuberant eyes,
more retreating jaws, more sloping shoulders, more objectionable hair,
more of the signs generally of personal debility? To say, as we said
just now, that Du Maurier carries his specification of types very far is
to say mainly that he defines with peculiar completeness his queer
people, his failures, his grotesques. But it strikes us that it is just
this vivid and affectionate appreciation of beauty that makes him do
such justice to the eccentrics. We have heard his ugly creations called
malignant--compared (to their disadvantage) with similar figures in
Leech. Leech, it was said, is always good-natured and jovial, even in
the excesses of caricature; whereas his successor (with a much greater
brilliancy of execution) betrays, in dealing with the oddities of the
human family, a taint of “French ferocity.” We think the discrimination
fallacious; and it is only because we do not believe Du Maurier’s
reputation for amiability to be really in danger that we do not hasten
to defend him from the charge of ferocity--French or English. The fact
is he attempts discriminations that Leech never dreamt of. Leech’s
characterisations are all simple, whereas Du Maurier’s are extremely
complicated. He would like every one to be tall and straight and fair,
to have a well-cut mouth and chin, a well-poised head, well-shaped legs,
an air of nobleness, of happy development. He perceives, however, that
nature plays us some dreadful tricks, and he measures her departure from
these beautiful conditions with extreme displeasure. He regrets it with
all the force of his appreciation of the beautiful, and he feels the
strongest desire to indicate the culpability of the aberration. He has
an artistic æsthetic need to make ugly people as ugly as they are; he
holds that such serious facts should not be superficially treated. And
then, besides that, his fancy finds a real entertainment in the
completeness, in the perfection, of certain forms of facial queerness.
No one has rendered like Du Maurier the ridiculous little people who
crop up in the interstices of that huge and complicated London world. We
have no such finished types as these in America. If the English find us
all a little odd, oddity, in American society, never ripens and rounds
itself off so perfectly as in some of these products of a richer
tradition. All those English terms of characterisation which exist in
America at the most only as precarious exotics, but which are on every
one’s lips in England--the snob, the cad, the prig, the duffer--Du
Maurier has given us a thousand times the figure they belong to. No one
has done the “duffer” so well; there are a hundred variations of the
countenance of Mr. McJoseph, the gentleman commemorated in _Punch_ on
the 19th August 1876; or the even happier physiognomy of the other
gentleman who on the 2d November 1872 says to a lady that he “never
feels safe from the British snob till he is south of the Danube,” and to
whom the lady retorts, “And what do the South Danubians say?” This
personage is in profile: his face is fat, complacent, cautious; his hair
and whiskers have as many curves and flourishes as the signature of a
writing-master; he is an incarnation of certain familiar elements of
English life--“the great middle class,” the Philistinism, the absence of
irony, the smugness and literalism. Du Maurier is full of soft irony: he
has that infusion of it which is indispensable to an artistic nature,
and we may add that in this respect he seems to us more French than
English. This quality has helped him immensely to find material in the
so-called æsthetic movement of the last few years. None of his duffers
have been so good as his æsthetic duffers. But of this episode we must
wait a little to speak. The point that, for the moment, we wished to
make is, that he has a peculiar perception of the look of breeding, of
race; and that, left to himself, as it were, he would ask nothing better
than to make it the prerogative of all his characters. Only he is not
left to himself. For, looking about into the world he perceives Sir
Gorgius Midas and Mr. McJoseph, and the whole multitude of the vulgar
who have not been cultivated like orchids and race-horses. But his
extreme inclination to give his figures the benefit of the supposition
that most people have the feelings of gentlemen makes him, as we began
by saying, a very happy interpreter of those frequent works of fiction
of which the action goes on for the most part in the drawing-room of the
British country house. Every drawing-room, unfortunately, is not a home
of the graces; but for the artist, given such an apartment, a group of
quiet, well-shaped people is more or less implied. The “fashionable
novel,” as it flourished about 1830, is no more; and its extinction is
not to be regretted. We believe it was rarely accompanied with
illustrations; but if it were to be revived Du Maurier would be the man
to make the pictures--the pictures of people rather slim and still, with
long necks and limbs so straight that they look stiff, who might be
treated with the amount of derision justified (if the fashionable novel
of 1830 is to be believed) by their passion for talking bad French.

We have been looking over the accumulations of _Punch_ for the last
twenty years, and Du Maurier’s work, which during this long period is
remarkably abundant and various, has given us more impressions than we
can hope to put into form. The result of sitting for several hours at
such a banquet of drollery, of poring over so many caricatures, of
catching the point of so many jokes, is a kind of indigestion of the
visual sense. This is especially the case if one happens to be liable to
confusions and lapses of memory. Every picture, every pleasantry, drives
the last out of the mind, and even the figures we recall best get mixed
up with another story than their own. The early drawings, as a general
thing, are larger than the late ones; we believe that the artist was
obliged to make them large in order to make them at all. (They were then
photographed, much reduced, upon the block; and it is impossible to form
an idea of the delicacy of Du Maurier’s work without having seen the
designs themselves, which are in pen and ink.) As the years have gone on
the artist has apparently been able to use a shorter stroke, there has
been less need of reducing it, and the full-page picture has become more
rare. The wealth of execution was sometimes out of proportion to the
jest beneath the cut; the joke might be as much or as little of a joke
as one would, the picture was at any rate before all things a picture.
What could be more charming than the drawing (24th October 1868) of the
unconscious Oriana and the ingenious Jones? It is a real work of art, a
thing to have had the honours of colour, and of the “line” at the
Academy; and that the artist should have been able to give it to us for
threepence, on the reverse of a printed page, is a striking proof of his
affluence. The unconscious Oriana--she is drawn very large--sits in the
foreground, in the shadow of some rocks that ornament the sands at a
bathing-place. Her beautiful hair falls over her shoulders (she has been
taking her bath, and has hung her tresses out to dry), and her charming
eyes are bent upon the second volume of a novel. The beach stretches
away into the distance--with all the expression of space; and here the
ingenious Jones carries out his little scheme of catching a portrait of
the object--an object profoundly indifferent--of his adoration. He
pretends to sit to an itinerant photographer, and apparently places
himself in the line of the instrument, which in reality, thanks to a
private understanding with the artist, is focussed upon the figure of
his mistress. There is not much landscape in Du Maurier--the background
is almost always an interior; but whenever he attempts an out-of-door
scene he does it admirably. What could be prettier and at the same time
more real than the big view (9th September 1876) of the low tide on
Scarborough sands? We forget the joke, but we remember the scene--two or
three figures, with their backs to us, leaning over a terrace or balcony
in the foreground, and looking down at the great expanse of the
uncovered beach, which is crowded with the activities of a populous
bathing-place. The bathers, the walkers, the machines, the horses, the
dogs, are seen with distinctness--a multitude of little black
points--as under a magnifying glass; the whole place looks vast and
swarming, and the particular impression the artist wished to convey is
thoroughly caught. The particular impression--that is the great point
with Du Maurier; his intention is never vague; he likes to specify the
place, the hour, the circumstances. We forget the joke, but we remember
the scene. This may easily happen, as one looks over Du Maurier’s work;
we frankly confess that though he often amuses us, he never strikes us
primarily as a joker. It is not the exuberance of his humour but the
purity of his line that arrests us, and we think of him much less as a
purveyor of fun than as a charming draughtsman who has been led by
circumstances to cultivate a vein of pleasantry. At every turn we find
the fatal gift of beauty, by which we mean that his people are so
charming that their prettiness throws the legend into the shade. Beauty
comes so easily to him that he lavishes it with unconscious freedom. If
he represents Angelina reprimanding the housemaid, it is ten to one that
Angelina will be a Juno and the housemaid a Hebe. Whatever be the joke,
this element of grace almost makes the picture serious. The point of
course is not that Angelina should be lovely, but that the housemaid
should be ridiculous; and you feel that if you should call the artist’s
attention to this he would reply: “I am really very sorry, but she is
the plainest woman I can make--for the money!” This is what happens
throughout--his women (and we may add his children) being monotonously,
incorrigibly fair. He is exceedingly fond of children; he has
represented them largely at every age and in every attitude; but we can
scarcely recall an instance of his making them anything but beautiful.
They are always delightful--they are the nicest children in the world.
They say droll things, but they never do ugly ones, and their whole
child-world is harmonious and happy. We might have referred that critic
whom we quoted above, who observed in Du Maurier’s manner the element of
“ferocity,” to the leniency of his treatment of the rising generation.
The children of Cham are little monsters; so are Daumier’s; and the
infants of Gavarni, with a grace of their own, like everything he drew,
are simply rather diminutive and rather more sophisticated adults. Du
Maurier is fond of large families, of the picturesqueness of the British
nursery; he is a votary of the _culte du bébé_ and has never a happier
touch than when he represents a blooming brood walking out in gradations
of size. The pretty points of children are intimately known to him, and
he throws them into high relief; he understands, moreover, the infant
wardrobe as well as the infant mind. His little boys and girls are
“turned out” with a completeness which has made the despair of many an
American mother. It may perhaps appear invidious to say that the little
girls are even nicer than the little boys, but this is no more than
natural, with the artist’s delicate appreciation of female loveliness.
It begins, to his vision, in the earliest periods and goes on increasing
till it is embodied in the stature of those slim Junos of whom we have
spoken.

It is easy to see that Du Maurier is of the eminently justifiable
opinion that nothing in the world is so fair as the fairness of fair
women; and if so many of his women are fair, it is to be inferred that
he has a secret for drawing out their advantages. This secret, indeed,
is simply that fineness of perception of which we have already had
occasion to speak and to which it is necessary so often to refer. He is
evidently of the opinion that almost any woman has beauty if you look at
her in the right way--carefully enough, intelligently enough; and that
_a fortiori_ the exceptionally handsome women contain treasures of
plasticity. Feminine line and surface, curves of shoulder, stretches of
arm, turns of head, undulations of step, are matters of attentive study
to him; and his women have for the most part the art of looking as if
they excelled in amiability as much as in contour. We know a gentleman
who, on being requested to inscribe himself on one of those formidable
folios kept in certain houses, in which you indite the name of your
favourite flower, favourite virtue, favourite historical character,
wrote, in the compartment dedicated to the “three favourite qualities in
a woman” the simple words: “Grace. Grace. Grace.” Du Maurier might have
been this gentleman, for his women are inveterately and imperturbably
graceful. We have heard people complain of it; complain too that they
all look alike, that they are always sisters--all products of a single
birth. They have indeed a mutual resemblance; but when once the
beautiful type has been found, we see no reason why, from a restless
love of change, the artist should depart from it. We should feel as if
Du Maurier had been fickle and faithless if he were suddenly to cease to
offer us the tall, tranquil persons he understands so well. They have an
inestimable look of repose, a kind of Greek serenity. There is a figure
in a cut of which we have forgotten both the “point” and the date (we
mention it at hazard--it is one in a hundred), which only needed to be
modelled in clay to be a truly “important” creation. A couple of
children address themselves to a youthful aunt, who leans her hand upon
a toilet-table, presenting her back, clothed in a loose gown, not
gathered in at the waist, to the spectator. Her charming pose, the way
her head slowly turns, the beautiful folds of her robe, make her look
more like a statuette in a museum than like a figure in _Punch_. We have
forgotten what the children are saying, but we remember her charming
attitude, which is a capital example of the love of beauty for beauty’s
sake. It is the same bias as the characteristic of the poet.

The intention of these remarks has been supposed to be rather a view of
Du Maurier in his relation to English society than a technical estimate
of his powers--a line of criticism to which we may already appear
unduly to have committed ourselves. He is predominantly a painter of
social as distinguished from popular life, and when the other day he
collected some of his drawings into a volume he found it natural to give
them the title of _English Society at Home_. He looks at the luxurious
classes more than at the people, though he by no means ignores the
humours of humble life. His consideration of the peculiarities of
costermongers and “cadgers” is comparatively perfunctory, as he is too
fond of civilisation and of the higher refinements of the grotesque. His
colleague, the frank and objective Keene, has a more natural familiarity
with the British populace. There is a whole side of English life at
which Du Maurier scarcely glances--the great sporting element, which
supplies half of their gaiety and all their conversation to millions of
her Majesty’s subjects. He is shy of the turf and of the cricket-field;
he only touches here and there upon the river; but he has made “society”
completely his own--he has sounded its depths, explored its mysteries,
discovered and divulged its secrets. His observation of these things is
extraordinarily acute, and his illustrations, taken together, form a
complete comedy of manners, in which the same personages constantly
reappear, so that we have the sense, indispensable to keenness of
interest, of tracing their adventures to a climax. So many of the
conditions of English life are spectacular (and to American eyes even
romantic) that Du Maurier has never been at a loss for subjects. He may
have been at a loss for his joke--we hardly see how he could fail to be,
at the rate at which he has been obliged to produce; but we repeat that
to ourselves the joke is the least part of the affair. We mean that he
is never at a loss for scenes. English society makes scenes all round
him, and he has only to look to see the most charming combinations,
which at the same time have the merit that you can always take the
satirical view of them. He sees, for instance, the people in the Park;
the crowd that gathers under the trees on June afternoons to watch the
spectacle of the Row, with the slow, solemn jostle of the drive going on
behind it. Such a spectacle as this may be vain and unprofitable to a
mind bent upon higher business, but it is full of material for the
artist, who finds a fund of inspiration in the thousand figures, faces,
types, accidents, attitudes. The way people stand and sit, the way they
stroll and pause, the way they lean over the rail to talk to one of the
riders, the way they stare and yawn and bore themselves--these things
are charming to Du Maurier, who always reproduces the _act_ with
wonderful fidelity. This we should bear in mind, having spoken above of
his aversion to the violent. He has indeed a preference for quiet and
gradual movements. But it is not in the least because he is not able to
make the movement definite. No one represents a particular attitude
better than he; and it is not too much to say that the less flagrant the
attitude, the more latent its intention, the more successfully he
represents it.

The postures people take while they are waiting for dinner, while they
are thinking what to say, while they are pretending to listen to music,
while they are making speeches they don’t mean; the thousand strange and
dreary expressions (of face and figure) which the detached mind may
catch at any moment in wandering over a collection of people who are
supposed to be amusing themselves in a superior manner--all this is
entirely familiar to Du Maurier; he renders it with inimitable fidelity.
His is the detached mind--he takes refuge in the divine independence of
art. He reproduces to the life the gentleman who is looking with
extraordinary solemnity at his boots, the lady who is gazing with sudden
rapture at the ceiling, the grimaces of fifty people who would be
surprised at their reflection if the mirror were suddenly to be
presented to them. In such visions as these of course the comical
mingles with the beautiful, and fond as Du Maurier is of the beautiful,
it is sometimes heroically sacrificed. At any rate the comic effect is
(in the drawing) never missed. The legend that accompanies it may
sometimes appear to be wanting in the grossest drollery, but the
expression of the figures is always such that you must say: “How he has
hit it!” This is the kind of comedy in which Du Maurier excels--the
comedy of those social relations in which the incongruities are pressed
beneath the surface, so that the picture has need of a certain amount of
explanation. The explanation is often rather elaborate--in many cases
one may almost fancy that the image came first and the motive afterward.
That is, it looks as if the artist, having seen a group of persons in
certain positions, had said to himself: “They must--or at least they
_may_--be saying so and so;” and then had represented these positions
and affixed the interpretation. He passes over none of those occasions
on which society congregates--the garden-party, the picnic, the
flower-show, the polo-match (though he has not much cultivated the
humours of sport, he has represented polo more than once, and he has
done ample justice to lawn-tennis, just as he did it, years ago, to the
charming, dawdling, “spooning” tedium of croquet, which he depicted as
played only by the most adorable young women, with the most diminutive
feet); but he introduces us more particularly to indoors
entertainments--to the London dinner-party in all those variations which
cover such a general sameness; to the afternoon tea, to the fashionable
“squash,” to the late and suffocating “small and early,” to the
scientific _conversazione_, to the evening with a little music. His
musical parties are numerous and admirable--he has exposed in perfection
the weak points of those entertainments: the infatuated tenor, bawling
into the void of the public indifference; the air of lassitude that
pervades the company; the woe-begone look of certain faces; the false
and overacted attention of certain others; the young lady who is wishing
to sing, and whose mamma is glaring at the young lady who _is_ singing;
the bristling heads of foreigners of the professional class, which stand
out against the sleekness of British respectability.

Du Maurier understands the foreigner as no caricaturist has done
hitherto; and we hasten to add that his portraits of continental types
are never caricatures. They are serious studies, in which the
idiosyncrasies of the race in question are vividly presented. His
Germans would be the best if his French folk were not better still; but
he has rendered most happily the aspect--and indeed the very
temperament--of the German pianist. He has not often attempted the
American; and the American reader who turns over the back volumes of
_Punch_ and encounters the cartoons, born under an evil star, in which,
during the long weary years of the War, the obedient pencil of Mr.
Tenniel contributed at the expense of the American physiognomy to the
gaiety of nations, will not perhaps regret that Du Maurier should have
avoided this particular field of portraiture. It is not, however, that
he has not occasionally been inspired by the American girl, whom he
endows with due prettiness, as in the case of the two transatlantic
young ladies who, in the presence of a fine Alpine view, exclaim to a
British admirer: “My! ain’t it rustic?” As for the French, he knows them
intimately, as he has a right to do. He thinks better of the English of
course; but his Frenchman is a very different affair from the Frenchman
of Leech--the Frenchman who is sea-sick (as if it were the appanage of
his race alone!) on the Channel steamer. In such a matter as this Du
Maurier is really psychological; he is versed in the qualities which
illustrate the difference of race. He accentuates first of course the
physical variation; he contrasts--with a subtlety which may not at first
receive all the credit it deserves--the long, fair English body,
inclined to the bony, the lean, the angular, with the short, plump
French personality, in which the neck is rarely a feature, in which the
stomach is too much of one, in which the calves of the legs grow fat, in
which in the women several of the joints, the wrists, the shape of the
hand, are apt to be charming. Some of his happiest drawings are
reminiscences of a midsummer sojourn at a French watering-place. We have
long been in the habit of looking for _Punch_ with peculiar impatience
at this season of the year. When the artist goes to France he takes his
big dog with him, and he has more than once commemorated the effect of
this impressive member of a quiet English family upon the Norman and
Breton populations. There have appeared at this time certain anecdotic
pictures of English travellers in French towns--in shops, markets,
tramcars--in which some of the deeper disparities of the two peoples
have been (under the guise of its being all a joke) very sufficiently
exposed. Du Maurier on the whole does justice to the French; his
English figures, in these international tableaux, by no means always
come off best. When the English family of many persons troops into the
_charcutier_’s or the perfumer’s and stands planted there--mute,
inexpressive, perpendicular--the demonstrations, the professions, the
abundant speech of the neat, plump, insinuating _boutiquière_ are a
well-intended tribute to the high civilisation of her country. Du
Maurier has done the “low” foreigner of the London (or of his native)
streets--the foreigner whose unspeakable baseness prompts the
Anglo-Saxon observer to breathe the Pharisee’s vow of thanks that he is
not as these people are; but, as we have seen, he has done the low
Englishman quite as well--the ’Arry of the London music-halls, the
companion of ’Andsome ’Arriet and Mr. Belville. Du Maurier’s rendering
of ’Arry’s countenance, with its bloated purple bloom, of ’Arry’s
figure, carriage and costume--of his deportment at the fancy fair, where
the professional beauties solicit his custom--is a triumph of
exactitude. One of the most poignant of the drawings that illustrate his
ravages in our civilisation is the large design which a year or two ago
represented the narrow canal beneath the Bridge of Sighs. The hour is
evening, and the period is the detested date at which the penny-steamer
was launched upon the winding water-ways of the loveliest city in the
world. The odious little vessel, belching forth a torrent of black
smoke, passes under the covered arch which connects the ducal palace
with the ducal prison. ’Andsome ’Arriet and Mr. Belville (personally
conducted) are of course on board, and ’Arriet remarks that the Bridge
of Sighs isn’t much of a size after all. To which her companion rejoins
that it has been immortalised by Byron, any way--“’im as wrote ‘Our
Boys,’ you know.” This fragment of dialogue expresses concisely the
arguments both for and against the importation of the cheap and nasty
into Venetian waters.

Returning for a moment to Du Maurier’s sketches of the French, we must
recall the really interesting design in which, at a child’s party at the
Casino of a _station balnéaire_, a number of little natives are inviting
a group of English children to dance. The French children have much the
better manners; they make their little bows with a smile, they click
their heels together and crook their little arms as they offer them to
their partners. The sturdy British infants are dumb, mistrustful,
vaguely bewildered. Presently you perceive that in the very smart attire
of the gracious little Gauls _everything is wrong_--their high heels,
their poor little legs, at once too bare and too much covered, their
superfluous sashes and scarfs. The small English are invested in plain
Jerseys and knickerbockers. The whole thing is a pearl of observation,
of reflection. Let us recall also the rebuke administered to M. Dubois,
the distinguished young man of science who, just arrived from Paris and
invited to dine by the Duke of Stilton, mentions this latter fact in
apology for being late to a gentleman to whose house he goes on leaving
the Duke’s. This gentleman, assisted by Mr. Grigsby (both of them
specimens of the snob-philistine whom Du Maurier has brought to such
perfection), reprehends him in a superior manner for his rashness,
reminds him that in England it is “not usual for a professional man” to
allude in that promiscuous manner to having dined with a duke--a
privilege which Grigsby characterises “the perfection of consummate
achievement.” The advantage is here with poor M. Dubois, who is a
natural and sympathetic figure, a very _gentil_ little Frenchman. The
advantage is doubtless also with Mlle. Serrurier and her mother, though
Mademoiselle is not very pretty, in a scene in which, just after the
young lady has been singing at Mrs. Ponsonby de Tomkyns’s, the clever
Mrs. Ponsonby plays her off on the Duchess (as an inducement to come to
another party) and then plays the Duchess off on the little vocalist and
her mother, who, in order to secure the patronage of the Duchess,
promise to come to the entertainment in question. The clever Mrs.
Ponsonby thus gets both the Duchess and the vocalist for nothing. The
broad-faced French girl, with small, salient eyes, her countenance
treated in the simplest and surest manner, is a capital specimen of Du
Maurier’s skill in race-portraiture; and though they may be a knowing
couple in their way, we are sure that she and her mamma are incapable of
the machinations of Mrs. Ponsonby de Tomkyns.

This lady is a real creation. She is an incident of one of the later
phases of Du Maurier’s activity--a child of the age which has also
produced Mrs. Cimabue Brown and Messrs. Maudle and Postlethwaite. She is
not one of the heroines of the æsthetic movement, though we may be sure
she dabbles in that movement so far as it pays to do so. Mrs. Ponsonby
de Tomkyns is a little of everything, in so far as anything pays. She is
always on the lookout, she never misses an opportunity. She is not a
specialist, for that cuts off too many opportunities, and the æsthetic
people have the _tort_, as the French say, to be specialists. No, Mrs.
Ponsonby de Tomkyns is--what shall we call her?--well, she is the modern
social spirit. She is prepared for everything; she is ready to take
advantage of everything; she would invite Mr. Bradlaugh to dinner if she
thought the Duchess would come to meet him. The Duchess is her great
achievement--she never lets go of her Duchess. She is young, very
nice-looking, slim, graceful, indefatigable. She tires poor Ponsonby
completely out; she can keep going for hours after poor Ponsonby is
reduced to stupefaction. This unfortunate husband is indeed almost
always stupefied. He is not, like his wife, a person of imagination. She
leaves him far behind, though he is so inconvertible that if she were a
less superior person he would have been a sad encumbrance. He always
figures in the corner of the scenes in which she distinguishes herself,
separated from her by something like the gulf that separated Caliban
from Ariel. He has his hands in his pockets, his head poked forward;
what is going on is quite beyond his comprehension. He vaguely wonders
what his wife will do next; her manœuvres quite transcend him. Mrs.
Ponsonby de Tomkyns always succeeds. She is never at fault; she is as
quick as the instinct of self-preservation. She is the little London
lady who is determined to be a greater one. She pushes, pushes, gently
but firmly--always pushes. At last she arrives. It is true that she had
only the other day, on 29th June 1882, a considerable failure; we refer
the reader to the little incident of Madame Gaminot, in the _Punch_ for
that date. But she will recover from it; she has already recovered from
it. She is not even afraid of Sir Gorgius Midas--of the dreadful Midas
junior. She pretends to think Lady Midas the most elegant of women; when
it is necessary to flatter, she lays it on as with a trowel. She
hesitates at nothing; she is very modern. If she doesn’t take the
æsthetic line more than is necessary, she finds it necessary to take it
a little; for if we are to believe Du Maurier, the passion for strange
raiment and blue china has during the last few years made ravages in the
London world. We may be sure that Mrs. Ponsonby de Tomkyns has an array
of fragile disks attached to her walls, and that she can put in a word
about Botticelli at the right moment. She is far, however, from being a
representative of æstheticism, for her hair is very neatly arranged,
and her dress looks French and superficial.

In Mrs. Cimabue Brown we see the priestess of the æsthetic cult, and
this lady is on the whole a different sort of person. She knows less
about duchesses, but she knows more about dados. Du Maurier’s
good-natured “chaff” of the eccentricities of the plastic sense so newly
and so strangely awakened in England has perhaps been the most brilliant
episode of his long connection with _Punch_. He has invented Mrs.
Cimabue Brown--he has invented Maudle and Postlethwaite. These
remarkable people have had great success in America, and have
contributed not a little to the curiosity felt in that country on the
subject of the English Renascence. Strange rumours and legends in
relation to this great movement had made their way across the Atlantic;
the sayings and doings of a mysterious body of people, devotees of the
lovely and the precious, living in goodly houses and walking in gracious
garments, were repeated and studied in our simpler civilisation. There
has not been as yet an American Renascence, in spite of the taste for
“sincere” sideboards and fragments of crockery. American interiors are
perhaps to-day as “gracious” as English; but the movement in the United
States has stopped at household furniture, has not yet set its mark upon
speech and costume--much less upon the human physiognomy. Du Maurier of
course has lent a good deal of his own fame to the vagaries he depicts;
but it is certain that the new æsthetic life has had a good deal of
reality. A great many people have discovered themselves to be fitted for
it both by nature and by grace; so that noses and chins, facial angles
of every sort shaped according to this higher rule have become frequent
in London society. This reaction of taste upon nature is really a
marvel, and the miracle has not been repeated in America, nor so far as
we know upon the continent of Europe. The love of Botticelli has
actually remoulded the features of several persons. London, for many
seasons, was full of Botticelli women, with wan cheeks and weary eyes,
enveloped in mystical, crumpled robes. Their language was apt to
correspond with their faces; they talked in strange accents, with
melancholy murmurs and cadences. They announced a gospel of joy, but
their expression, their manners, were joyless. These peculiarities did
not cross the ocean; for somehow the soil of the western world was not
as yet prepared for them. American ladies were even heard to declare
that there was something in their constitution that would prevent their
ever dressing like that. They had another ideal; they were committed to
the whalebone. But meanwhile, as I say, there was something irritating,
fascinating, mystifying in the light thrown on the subject by _Punch_.
It seemed to many persons to be desired that we too should have a gospel
of joy; American life was not particularly “gracious,” and if only the
wind could be made to blow from the æsthetic quarter a great many dry
places would be refreshed. These desires perhaps have subsided; for
_Punch_ of late has rather neglected the Renascence. Mrs. Cimabue Brown
is advancing in years, and Messrs. Maudle and Postlethwaite have been
through all their paces. The new æsthetic life, in short, shows signs of
drawing to a close, after having, as many people tell us, effected a
revolution in English taste--having at least, if not peopled the land
with beauty, made certain consecrated forms of ugliness henceforth
impossible.

The whole affair has been very curious and, we think, very
characteristic of the English mind. The same episode fifty times
repeated--a hundred “revolutions of taste,” accompanied with an infinite
expenditure of money--would fail to convince certain observant and
possibly too sceptical strangers that the English are an æsthetic
people. They have not a spontaneous artistic life; their taste is a
matter of conscience, reflection, duty, and the writer who in our time
has appealed to them most eloquently on behalf of art has rested his
plea on moral standards--has talked exclusively of right and wrong. It
is impossible to live much among them, to be a spectator of their
habits, their manners, their arrangements, without perceiving that the
artistic point of view is the last that they naturally take. The sense
of manner is not part of their constitution. They arrive at it, as they
have arrived at so many things, because they are ambitious, resolute,
enlightened, fond of difficulties; but there is always a strange
element either of undue apology or of exaggerated defiance in their
attempts at the cultivation of beauty. They carry on their huge broad
back a nameless mountain of conventions and prejudices, a dusky cloud of
inaptitudes and fears, which casts a shadow upon the frank and confident
practice of art. The consequence of all this is that their revivals of
taste are even stranger than the abuses they are meant to correct. They
are violent, voluntary, mechanical; wanting in grace, in tact, in the
sense of humour and of proportion. A genuine artist like Du Maurier
could not fail to perceive all this, and to perceive also that it gave
him a capital opportunity. None of his queer people are so queer as some
of these perverted votaries of joy. “Excuse me, it is not a
Botticelli--before a Botticelli I am dumb,” one of them says to a poor
plain man who shows him a picture which has been attributed to that
master. We have said already, and repeated, that Du Maurier has a great
deal of irony--the irony of the thorough-going artist and of the
observer who has a strain of foreign blood in his veins. There are
certain pretensions that such a mind can never take seriously; in the
artist there is of necessity, as it appears to us, a touch of the
democrat--though, perhaps, he is as unlikely to have more than a certain
dose of this disposition as he is to be wholly without it. Some of his
drawings seem to us to have for the public he addresses a stinging
democratic meaning; like the adventure of M. Dubois (of whom we have
spoken), who had had the inconvenience of dining with a duke; or the
reply of the young man to whom Miss Midas remarks that he is the first
commoner she has ever danced with: “And why is it the commoners have
avoided you so?”--or the response of the German _savant_ to Mrs. Lyon
Hunter, who invites him to dine, without his wife, though she is on his
arm, to meet various great ladies whom she enumerates: “And pray, do you
think they would not be respectable company for my wife?” Du Maurier
possesses in perfection the independence of the genuine artist in the
presence of a hundred worldly superstitions and absurdities. We have
said, however, that the morality, so to speak, of his drawings was a
subordinate question: what we wished to insist upon is their
completeness, their grace, their beauty, their rare pictorial character.
It is an accident that the author of such things should not have been a
painter--that he has not been an ornament of the English school. Indeed,
with the restrictions to which he has so well accommodated himself, he
is such an ornament. No English artistic work in these latter years has,
in our opinion, been more exquisite in quality.

1883.



XI

THE ART OF FICTION


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, _naïf_ (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 _naïveté_ 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 I 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 airborne 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. I 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, I 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. I 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 I 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 I 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 I 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 I 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
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1884.


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FOOTNOTES:

[1] _A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson_; by James Elliot Cabot. Two
volumes: London, 1887.

[2] “R. L. Stevenson, his Style and Thought,” _Time_, November 1885.

[3] “A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured.” Republished, since the above
was written, in _Memories and Portraits_, 1887.

[4] In the _Atlantic Monthly_, for April 1883.

[5] _Pierre et Jean._ Paris: Ollendorf, 1888.

[6] Maxime Du Camp, Alphonse Daudet, Emile Zola.





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