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Title: Notes on Novelists - With Some Other Notes
Author: James, Henry
Language: English
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                           NOTES ON NOVELISTS

                         WITH SOME OTHER NOTES



                             By HENRY JAMES


                         A SMALL BOY AND OTHERS

                       NOTES OF A SON AND BROTHER

                           NOTES ON NOVELISTS
                         WITH SOME OTHER NOTES



                           NOTES ON NOVELISTS
                         WITH SOME OTHER NOTES

                                   BY

                              HENRY JAMES



                                NEW YORK
                        CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS
                                  1914



                          Copyright, 1914, by
                        CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS
                 *        *        *        *        *
                        Published October, 1914



                                CONTENTS

                                                                   PAGE

  Robert Louis Stevenson                                              1
  Émile Zola                                                         26
  Gustave Flaubert                                                   65
  Honoré de Balzac, 1902                                            109
  Honoré de Balzac, 1913                                            143
  George Sand, 1897                                                 160
  George Sand, 1899                                                 187
  George Sand, 1914                                                 214
  Gabriele D’Annunzio, 1902                                         245
  Matilde Serao                                                     294
  The New Novel, 1914                                               314
  Dumas the Younger, 1895                                           362
  The Novel in “The Ring and the Book,” 1912                        385
  An American Art-Scholar: Charles Eliot Norton, 1908               412
  London Notes, January 1897                                        424
  London Notes, June 1897                                           428
  London Notes, July 1897                                           436
  London Notes, August 1897                                         446



                           NOTES ON NOVELISTS

                         WITH SOME OTHER NOTES



                           NOTES ON NOVELISTS



                         ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON


It was the happy fortune of Robert Louis Stevenson to have created
beyond any man of his craft in our day a body of readers inspired with
the feelings that we for the most part place at the service only of
those for whom our affection is personal. There was no one who knew the
man, one may safely assert, who was not also devoted to the
writer—conforming in this respect to a general law (if law it be) that
shows us many exceptions; but, naturally and not inconveniently, it had
to remain far from true that all devotees of the writer were able to
approach the man. The case was nevertheless that the man somehow
approached _them_, and that to read him—certainly to read him with the
full sense of his charm—came to mean for many persons much the same as
to “meet” him. It was as if he wrote himself outright and altogether,
rose straight to the surface of his prose, and still more of his
happiest verse; so that these things gave out, besides whatever else,
his look and motions and voice, showed his life and manners, all that
there was of him, his “tremendous secrets” not excepted. We grew in
short to possess him entire, and the example is the more curious and
beautiful as he neither made a business of “confession” nor cultivated
most those forms through which the _ego_ shines. His great successes
were supposititious histories of persons quite different from himself,
and the objective, as we have learned to call it, was the ideal to which
he oftenest sacrificed.

The effect of it all none the less was such that his Correspondence has
only seemed to administer delightfully a further push to a door already
half open and through which we enter with an extraordinary failure of
any sense of intrusion. We feel indeed that we are living with him, but
what is that but what we were doing before? Through his Correspondence
certainly the _ego_ does, magnificently, shine—which is much the best
thing that in any correspondence it can ever do. But even the “Vailima
Letters,” published by Mr. Sidney Colvin in 1895, had already both
established that and allayed our diffidence. “It came over me the other
day suddenly that this diary of mine to you would make good pickings
after I am dead, and a man could make some kind of book out of it
without much trouble. So, for God’s sake, don’t lose them.”

Being on these terms with our author, and feeling as if we had always
been, we profit by freedoms that seem but the consecration of intimacy.
Not only have we no sense of intrusion, but we are so prepared to
penetrate further that when we come to limits we quite feel as if the
story were mutilated and the copy not complete. There it is precisely
that we seize the secret of our tie. Of course it was personal, for how
did it operate in any connection whatever but to make us live with him?
We had lived with him in “Treasure Island,” in “Kidnapped” and in
“Catriona,” just as we do, by the light of these posthumous volumes, in
the South Seas and at Vailima; and our present confidence comes from the
fact of a particularly charming continuity. It is not that his novels
were “subjective,” but that his life was romantic, and in the very same
degree in which his own conception, his own presentation, of that
element touches and thrills. If we want to know even more it is because
we are always and everywhere in the story.

To this absorbing extension of the story then the two volumes of
Letters[1] now published by Mr. Sidney Colvin beautifully contribute.
The shelf of our library that contains our best letter-writers is
considerably furnished, but not overcrowded, and its glory is not too
great to keep Stevenson from finding there a place with the very first.
He will not figure among the writers—those apt in this line to enjoy
precedence—to whom only small things happen and who beguile us by
making the most of them; he belongs to the class who have both matter
and manner, substance and spirit, whom life carries swiftly before it
and who signal and communicate, not to say gesticulate, as they go. He
lived to the topmost pulse, and the last thing that could happen was
that he should find himself on any occasion with nothing to report. Of
all that he may have uttered on certain occasions we are inevitably not
here possessed—a fact that, as I have hinted above, affects us,
perversely, as an inexcusable gap in the story; but he never fails of
the thing that we most love letters for, the full expression of the
moment and the mood, the actual good or bad or middling, the thing in
his head, his heart or his house. Mr. Colvin has given us an admirable
“Introduction”—a characterisation of his friend so founded at once on
knowledge and on judgment that the whole sense of the man strikes us as
extracted in it. He has elucidated each group or period with notes that
leave nothing to be desired; and nothing remains that I can think of to
thank him for unless the intimation that we may yet look for another
volume—which, however much more free it might make us of the author’s
mystery, we should accept, I repeat, with the same absence of scruple.
Nothing more belongs to our day than this question of the inviolable, of
the rights of privacy and the justice of our claim to aid from editors
and other retailers in getting behind certain eminent or defiant
appearances; and the general knot so presented is indeed a hard one to
untie. Yet we may take it for a matter regarding which such publications
as Mr. Colvin’s have much to suggest.

There is no absolute privacy—save of course when the exposed subject
may have wished or endeavoured positively to constitute it; and things
too sacred are often only things that are not perhaps at all otherwise
superlative. One may hold both that people—that artists perhaps in
particular—are well advised to cover their tracks, and yet that our
having gone behind, or merely stayed before, in a particular case, may
be a minor question compared with our having picked up a value. Personal
records of the type before us can at any rate obviously be but the
reverse of a deterrent to the urged inquirer. They are too happy an
instance—they positively make for the risked indiscretion. Stevenson
never covered his tracks, and the tracks prove perhaps to be what most
attaches us. We follow them here, from year to year and from stage to
stage, with the same charmed sense with which he has made us follow some
hunted hero in the heather. Life and fate and an early catastrophe were
ever at his heels, and when he at last falls fighting, sinks down in the
very act of valour, the “happy ending,” as he calls it for some of his
correspondents, is, though precipitated and not conventional,
essentially given us.

His descent and his origin all contribute to the picture, which it seems
to me could scarce—since we speak of “endings”—have had a better
beginning had he himself prearranged it. Without prearrangements indeed
it was such a cluster of terms as could never be wasted on him, one of
those innumerable matters of “effect,” Scotch and other, that helped to
fill his romantic consciousness. Edinburgh, in the first place, the
“romantic town,” was as much his “own” as it ever was the great
precursor’s whom, in “Weir of Hermiston” as well as elsewhere, he
presses so hard; and this even in spite of continual absence—in virtue
of a constant imaginative reference and an intense intellectual
possession. The immediate background formed by the profession of his
family—the charge of the public lights on northern coasts—was a
setting that he could not have seen his way to better; while no less
happy a condition was met by his being all lonely in his father’s
house—the more that the father, admirably commemorated by the son and
after his fashion as strongly marked, was antique and strenuous, and
that the son, a genius to be and of frail constitution, was (in the
words of the charming anecdote of an Edinburgh lady retailed in one of
these volumes), if not exactly what could be called bonny, “pale,
penetrating and interesting.” The poet in him had from the first to be
pacified—temporarily, that is, and from hand to mouth, as is the manner
for poets; so that with friction and tension playing their part, with
the filial relation quite classically troubled, with breaks of tradition
and lapses from faith, with restless excursions and sombre returns, with
the love of life at large mixed in his heart with every sort of local
piety and passion and the unjustified artist fermenting on top of all in
the recusant engineer, he was as well started as possible toward the
character he was to keep.

All this obviously, however, was the sort of thing that the story the
most generally approved would have had at heart to represent as the mere
wild oats of a slightly uncanny cleverness—as the life handsomely
reconciled in time to the common course and crowned, after a fling or
two of amusement, with young wedded love and civic responsibility. The
actual story, alas, was to transcend the conventional one, for it
happened to be a case of a hero of too long a wind and too well turned
out for his part. Everything was right for the discipline of Alan
Fairford but that the youth _was_ after all a phœnix. As soon as it
became a case of justifying himself for straying—as in the enchanting
“Inland Voyage” and the “Travels with a Donkey”—how was he to escape
doing so with supreme felicity? The fascination in him from the first is
the mixture, and the extraordinary charm of his letters is that they are
always showing this. It is the proportions moreover that are so
admirable—the quantity of each different thing that he fitted to each
other one and to the whole. The free life would have been all his dream
if so large a part of it had not been that love of letters, of
expression and form, which is but another name for the life of service.
Almost the last word about him, by the same law, would be that he had at
any rate consummately written, were it not that he seems still better
characterised by his having at any rate supremely lived.

Perpetually and exquisitely amusing as he was, his ambiguities and
compatibilities yielded, for all the wear and tear of them, endless
“fun” even to himself; and no one knew so well with what linked
diversities he was saddled or, to put it the other way, how many horses
he had to drive at once. It took his own delightful talk to show how
more than absurd it might be, and, if convenient, how very obscurely so,
that such an incurable rover should have been complicated both with such
an incurable scribbler and such an incurable invalid, and that a man
should find himself such an anomaly as a drenched yachtsman haunted with
“style,” a shameless Bohemian haunted with duty, and a victim at once of
the personal hunger and instinct for adventure and of the critical,
constructive, sedentary view of it. He had everything all
round—adventure most of all; to feel which we have only to turn from
the beautiful flush of it in his text to the scarce less beautiful
vision of the great hilltop in Pacific seas to which he was borne after
death by islanders and chiefs. Fate, as if to distinguish him as
handsomely as possible, seemed to be ever treating him to some chance
for an act or a course that had almost nothing in its favour but its
inordinate difficulty. If the difficulty was in these cases not _all_
the beauty for him it at least never prevented his finding in it—or our
finding, at any rate, as observers—so much beauty as comes from a great
risk accepted either for an idea or for simple joy. The joy of risks,
the more personal the better, was never far from him, any more than the
excitement of ideas. The most important step in his life was a signal
instance of this, as we may discern in the light of “The Amateur
Emigrant” and “Across the Plains,” the report of the conditions in which
he fared from England to California to be married. Here as always the
great note is the heroic mixture—the thing he _saw_, morally as well as
imaginatively; action and performance at any cost, and the cost made
immense by want of health and want of money, illness and anxiety of the
extremest kind, and by unsparing sensibilities and perceptions. He had
been launched in the world for a fighter with the organism say of a
“composer,” though also it must be added with a beautiful saving sanity.

It is doubtless after his settlement in Samoa that his letters have most
to give, but there are things they throw off from the first that strike
the note above all characteristic, show his imagination always at play,
for drollery or philosophy, with his circumstances. The difficulty in
writing of him under the personal impression is to suggest enough how
directly his being the genius that he was kept counting in it. In 1879
he writes from Monterey to Mr. Edmund Gosse, in reference to certain
grave symptoms of illness: “I may be wrong, but . . . I believe I must
go. . . . But death is no bad friend; a few aches and gasps, and we are
done; like the truant child, I am beginning to grow weary and timid in
this big, jostling city, and could run to my nurse, even although she
should have to whip me before putting me to bed.” This charming
renunciation expresses itself at the very time his talent was growing
finer; he was so fond of the sense of youth and the idea of play that he
saw whatever happened to him in images and figures, in the terms almost
of the sports of childhood. “Are you coming over again to see me some
day soon? I keep returning, and now hand over fist, from the realms of
Hades. I saw that gentleman between the eyes, and fear him less after
each visit. Only Charon and his rough boatmanship I somewhat fear.”

The fear remained with him, sometimes greater, sometimes less, during
the first years after his marriage, those spent abroad and in England in
health resorts, and it marks constantly, as one may say, one end of the
range of his humour—the humour always busy at the other end with the
impatience of timidities and precautions and the vision and invention of
essentially open-air situations. It was the possibility of the open-air
situation that at last appealed to him as the cast worth staking all
for—on which, as usual in his admirable rashnesses, he was
extraordinarily justified. “No man but myself knew all my bitterness in
those days. Remember that, the next time you think I regret my
exile. . . . Remember the pallid brute that lived in Skerryvore like a
weevil in a biscuit.”

He found after an extraordinarily adventurous quest the treasure island,
the climatic paradise that met, that enhanced his possibilities; and
with this discovery was ushered in his completely full and rich period,
the time in which—as the wondrous whimsicality and spontaneity of his
correspondence testify—his genius and his character most overflowed. He
had done as well for himself in his appropriation of Samoa as if he had
done it for the hero of a novel, only with the complications and
braveries actual and palpable. “I have no more hope in anything”—and
this in the midst of magnificent production—“than a dead frog; I go
into everything with a composed despair, and don’t mind—just as I
always go to sea with the conviction I am to be drowned, and like it
before all other pleasures.” He could go to sea as often as he liked and
not be spared such hours as one of these pages vividly evokes—those of
the joy of fictive composition in an otherwise prostrating storm, amid
the crash of the elements and with his grasp of his subject but too
needfully sacrificed, it might have appeared, to his clutch of seat and
ink-stand. “If only I could secure a violent death, what a fine success!
I wish to die in my boots; no more Land of Counterpane for me. To be
drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse—aye, to be hanged rather
than pass again through that slow dissolution.”

He speaks in one of the “Vailima Letters,” Mr. Colvin’s publication of
1895, to which it is an office of these volumes promptly to make us
return, of one of his fictions as a “long tough yarn with some pictures
of the manners of to-day in the greater world—not the shoddy sham world
of cities, clubs and colleges, but the world where men still live a
man’s life.” That is distinct, and in the same letter he throws off a
summary of all that in his final phase satisfied and bribed him which is
as significant as it is racy. His correspondent, as was inevitable now
and then for his friends at home, appears to have indulged in one of
those harmless pointings of the moral—as to the distant dangers he
_would_ court—by which we all were more or less moved to relieve
ourselves of the depressed consciousness that he could do beautifully
without us and that our collective tameness was far (which indeed was
distinctly the case) from forming his proper element. There is no
romantic life for which something amiable has not to be sweepingly
sacrificed, and of _us_ in our inevitable category the sweep practically
was clean.

    Your letter had the most wonderful “I told you so” I ever heard
    in the course of my life. Why, you madman, I wouldn’t change my
    present installation for any post, dignity, honour, or advantage
    conceivable to me. It fills the bill; I have the loveliest time.
    And as for wars and rumours of wars, you surely know enough of
    me to be aware that I like that also a thousand times better
    than decrepit peace in Middlesex. I do not quite like politics.
    I am too aristocratic, I fear, for that. God knows I don’t care
    who I chum with; perhaps like sailors best; but to go round and
    sue and sneak to keep a crowd together—never.

His categories satisfied him; he had got hold of “the world where men
still live a man’s life”—which was not, as we have just seen, that of
“cities, clubs and colleges.” He was supremely suited in short at
last—at the cost, it was to be said, of simplifications of view that,
intellectually, he failed quite exactly (it was one of his few
limitations) to measure; but in a way that ministered to his rare
capacity for growth and placed in supreme relief his affinity with the
universal romantic. It was not that anything could ever be for him plain
sailing, but that he had been able at forty to turn his life into the
fairytale of achieving, in a climate that he somewhere describes as “an
expurgated heaven,” such a happy physical consciousness as he had never
known. This enlarged in every way his career, opening the door still
wider to that real puss-in-the-corner game of opposites by which we have
critically the interest of seeing him perpetually agitated. Let me
repeat that these new volumes, from the date of his definite
expatriation, direct us for the details of the picture constantly to the
“Vailima Letters;” with as constant an effect of our thanking our
fortune—to say nothing of his own—that he should have had in these
years a correspondent and a confidant who so beautifully drew him out.
If he possessed in Mr. Sidney Colvin his literary chargé d’affaires at
home, the ideal friend and _alter ego_ on whom he could unlimitedly
rest, this is a proof the more—with the general rarity of such
cases—of what it was in his nature to make people wish to do for him.
To Mr. Colvin he is more familiar than to any one, more whimsical and
natural and frequently more inimitable—of all of which a just notion
can be given only by abundant citation. And yet citation itself is
embarrassed, with nothing to guide it but his perpetual spirits,
perpetual acuteness and felicity, restlessness of fancy and of judgment.
These things make him jump from pole to pole and fairly hum, at times,
among the objects and subjects that filled his air, like a charged bee
among flowers.

He is never more delightful than when he is most egotistic, most
consciously charmed with something he has done.

    And the papers are some of them up to dick, and no mistake. I
    agree with you, the lights seem a little turned down.

When we learn that the articles alluded to are those collected in
“Across the Plains” we quite assent to this impression made by them
after a troubled interval, and envy the author who, in a far Pacific
isle, could see “The Lantern Bearers,” “A Letter to a Young Gentleman”
and “Pulvis et Umbra” float back to him as a guarantee of his faculty
and between covers constituting the book that is to live. Stevenson’s
masculine wisdom moreover, his remarkable final sanity, is always—and
it was not what made least in him for happy intercourse—close to his
comedy and next door to his slang.

    And however low the lights are, the stuff is true, and I believe
    the more effective; after all, what I wish to fight is the best
    fought by a rather cheerless presentation of the truth. The
    world must return some day to the word “duty,” and be done with
    the word “reward.” There are no rewards, and plenty duties. And
    the sooner a man sees that and acts upon it, like a gentleman or
    a fine old barbarian, the better for himself.

It would perhaps be difficult to quote a single paragraph giving more
than that of the whole of him. But there is abundance of him in this
too:

    How do journalists fetch up their drivel? . . . It has taken me
    two months to write 45,500 words; and, be damned to my wicked
    prowess, I am proud of the exploit! . . . A respectable little
    five-bob volume, to bloom unread in shop windows. After that
    I’ll have a spank at fiction. And rest? I shall rest in the
    grave, or when I come to Italy. If only the public will continue
    to support me! I lost my chance not dying; there seems blooming
    little fear of it now. I worked close on five hours this
    morning; the day before, close on nine; and unless I finish
    myself off with this letter I’ll have another hour and a half,
    or _aiblins twa_, before dinner. Poor man, how you must envy me
    as you hear of these orgies of work, and you scarce able for a
    letter. But Lord! Colvin, how lucky the situations are not
    reversed, for I have no situation, nor am fit for any. Life is a
    steigh brae. Here, have at Knappe, and no more clavers!

If he talked profusely—and this is perfect talk—if he loved to talk
above all of his work in hand, it was because, though perpetually frail,
he was never inert, and did a thing, if he did it at all, with passion.
He was not fit, he says, for a situation, but a situation overtook him
inexorably at Vailima, and doubtless at last indeed swallowed him up.
His position, with differences, comparing in some respects smaller
things to greater, and with fewer differences after all than likenesses,
his position resembles that of Scott at Abbotsford, just as, sound,
sensible and strong on each side in spite of the immense gift of
dramatic and poetic vision, the earlier and the later man had something
of a common nature. Life became bigger for each than the answering
effort could meet, and in their death they were not divided. Stevenson’s
late emancipation was a fairytale only because he himself was in his
manner a magician. He liked to handle many matters and to shrink from
none; nothing can exceed the impression we get of the things that in
these years he dealt with from day to day and as they came up, and the
things that, as well, almost without order or relief, he planned and
invented, took up and talked of and dropped, took up and talked of and
carried through. Had I space to treat myself to a clue for selection
from the whole record there is nothing I should better like it to be
than a tracking of his “literary opinions” and literary projects, the
scattered swarm of his views, sympathies, antipathies, _obiter dicta_,
as an artist—his flurries and fancies, imaginations, evocations, quick
infatuations, as a teller of possible tales. Here is a whole little
circle of discussion, yet such a circle that to engage one’s self at all
is to be too much engulfed.

His overflow on such matters is meanwhile amusing enough as mere spirits
and sport—interesting as it would yet be to catch as we might, at
different moments, the congruity between the manner of his feeling a
fable in the germ and that of his afterwards handling it. There are
passages again and again that light strikingly what I should call his
general conscious method in this relation, were I not more tempted to
call it his conscious—for that is what it seems to come to—negation of
method. A whole delightful letter—to Mr. Colvin, February 1, 1892—is a
vivid type. (This letter, I may mention, is independently notable for
the drollery of its allusion to a sense of scandal—of all things in the
world—excited in some editorial breast by “The Beach of Falesà;” which
leads him to the highly pertinent remark that “this is a poison bad
world for the romancer, this Anglo-Saxon world; I usually get out of it
by not having any women in it at all.” Then he remembers he had “The
Treasure of Franchard” refused as unfit for a family magazine and
feels—as well he may—“despair weigh upon his wrists.” The despair
haunts him and comes out on another occasion. “Five more chapters of
David. . . . All love affair; seems pretty good to me. Will it do for
the young person? I don’t know: since the Beach, I know nothing except
that men are fools and hypocrites, and I know less of them than I was
fond enough to fancy.”) Always a part of his physiognomy is the play, so
particularly salient, of his moral fluctuations, the way his spirits are
upset by his melancholy and his grand conclusions by his rueful doubts.

He communicates to his confidant with the eagerness of a boy
confabulating in holidays over a Christmas charade; but I remember no
instance of his expressing a subject, as one may say, as a
subject—hinting at what novelists mainly know, one would imagine, as
the determinant thing in it, the idea out of which it springs. The form,
the envelope, is there with him, headforemost, _as_ the idea; titles,
names, that is, chapters, sequences, orders, while we are still asking
ourselves how it was that he primarily put to his own mind what it was
all to be about. He simply _felt_ this, evidently, and it is always the
one dumb sound, the stopped pipe or only unexpressed thing, in all his
contagious candour. He finds none the less in the letter to which I
refer one of the problems of the wonderful projected “Sophia Scarlet”
“exactly a Balzac one, and I wish I had his fist—for I have already a
better method—the kinetic—whereas he continually allowed himself to be
led into the static.” There we have him—Stevenson, not Balzac—at his
most overflowing, and after all radiantly capable of conceiving at
another moment that his “better method” would have been none at all for
Balzac’s vision of a subject, least of all of _the_ subject, the whole
of life. Balzac’s method was adapted to his notion of
presentation—which we may accept, it strikes me, under the protection
of what he presents. Were it not, in fine, as I may repeat, to embark in
a bigger boat than would here turn round I might note further that
Stevenson has elsewhere—was disposed in general to have—too short a
way with this master. There is an interesting passage in which he
charges him with having never known what to leave out, a passage which
has its bearing on condition of being read with due remembrance of the
class of performance to which “Le Colonel Chabert,” for instance, “Le
Curé de Tours,” “L’Interdiction,” “La Messe de l’Athée” (to name but a
few brief masterpieces in a long list) appertain.

These, however, are comparatively small questions; _the_ impression, for
the reader of the later letters, is simply one of singular beauty—of
deepening talent, of happier and richer expression, and in especial of
an ironic desperate gallantry that burns away, with a finer and finer
fire, in a strange alien air and is only the more touching to us from
his own resolute consumption of the smoke. He had incurred great
charges, he sailed a ship loaded to the brim, so that the strain under
which he lived and wrought was immense; but the very grimness of it all
is sunny, slangy, funny, familiar; there is as little of the florid in
his flashes of melancholy as of the really grey under stress of his
wisdom. This wisdom had sometimes on matters of art, I think, its
lapses, but on matters of life it was really winged and inspired. He has
a soundness as to questions of the vital connection, a soundness all
liberal and easy and born of the manly experience, that it is a luxury
to touch. There are no compunctions nor real impatiences, for he had in
a singular degree got what he wanted, the life absolutely
discockneyfied, the situation as romantically “swagger” as if it had
been an imagination made real; but his practical anxieties necessarily
spin themselves finer, and it is just this production of the thing
imagined that has more and more to meet them. It all hung, the
situation, by _that_ beautiful golden thread, the swinging of which in
the wind, as he spins it in alternate doubt and elation, we watch with
much of the suspense and pity with which we sit at the serious drama. It
is serious in the extreme; yet the forcing of production, in the case of
a faculty so beautiful and delicate, affects us almost as the straining
of a nerve or the distortion of a feature.

    I sometimes sit and yearn for anything in the nature of an
    income that would come in—mine has all got to be gone and
    fished for with the immortal mind of man. What I want is the
    income that really comes in of itself, while all you have to do
    is just to blossom and exist and sit on chairs. . . . I should
    probably amuse myself with works that would make your hair curl,
    if you had any left.

To read over some of his happiest things, to renew one’s sense of the
extraordinarily fine temper of his imagination, is to say to one’s self
“What a horse to have to ride every week to market!” We must all go to
market, but the most fortunate of us surely are those who may drive
thither, and on days not too frequent, nor by a road too rough, a ruder
and homelier animal. He touches in more than one place—and with notable
beauty and real authority in that little mine of felicities the “Letter
to a Young Gentleman”—on the conscience for “frugality” which should be
the artist’s finest point of honour: so that one of his complications
here was undoubtedly the sense that on this score his position had
inevitably become somewhat false. The literary romantic is by no means
necessarily expensive, but of the many ways in which the practical, the
active, has to be paid for this departure from frugality would be, it is
easy to conceive, not the least. And we perceive his recognising this as
he recognised everything—if not in time, then out of it; accepting
inconsistency, as he always did, with the gaiety of a man of
courage—not being, that is, however intelligent, priggish for logic and
the grocer’s book any more than for anything else. Only everything made
for keeping it up, and it was a great deal to keep up; though when he
throws off “The Ebb-Tide” and rises to “Catriona,” and then again to
“Weir of Hermiston,” as if he could rise to almost anything, we breathe
anew and look longingly forward. The latest of these letters contain
such admirable things, testify so to the reach of his intelligence and
in short vibrate so with genius and charm, that we feel him at moments
not only unexhausted but replenished, and capable perhaps, for all we
know to the contrary, of new experiments and deeper notes. The
intelligence and attention are so fine that he misses nothing from
unawareness; not a gossamer thread of the “thought of the time” that,
wafted to him on the other side of the globe, may not be caught in a
branch and played with; he puts such a soul into nature and such human
meanings, for comedy and tragedy, into what surrounds him, however
shabby or short, that he really lives in society by living in his own
perceptions and generosities or, as we say nowadays, his own atmosphere.
In this atmosphere—which seems to have had the gift of abounding the
more it was breathed by others—these pages somehow prompt us to see
almost every object on his tropic isle bathed and refreshed.

So far at any rate from growing thin for want of London he can transmit
to London or to its neighbourhood communications such as it would scarce
know otherwise where to seek. A letter to his cousin, R. A. M.
Stevenson, of September 1894, touches so on all things and, as he would
himself have said, so adorns them, brimming over with its happy
extravagance of thought, that, far again from our feeling Vailima, in
the light of it, to be out of the world, it strikes us that the world
has moved for the time to Vailima. There is world enough everywhere, he
quite unconsciously shows, for the individual, the right one, to be what
we call a man of it. He has, like every one not convenienced with the
pleasant back-door of stupidity, to make his account with seeing and
facing more things, seeing and facing everything, with the unrest of new
impressions and ideas, the loss of the fond complacencies of youth.

    But as I go on in life, day by day, I become more of a
    bewildered child; I cannot get used to this world, to
    procreation, to heredity, to sight, to hearing; the commonest
    things are a burthen. The prim obliterated polite face of life,
    and the broad, bawdy and orgiastic—or mænadic—foundations,
    form a spectacle to which no habit reconciles me; and “I could
    wish my days to be bound each to each” by the same open-mouthed
    wonder. They _are_ anyway, and whether I wish it or not. . . . I
    remember very well your attitude to life—this conventional
    surface of it. You have none of that curiosity for the social
    stage directions, the trivial _ficelles_ of the business; it is
    simian; but that is how the wild youth of man is captured.

The whole letter is enchanting.

    But no doubt there is something great in the half success that
    has attended the effort of turning into an emotional region Bald
    Conduct without any appeal, or almost none, to the figurative,
    mysterious and constitutive facts of life. Not that conduct is
    not constitutive, but dear! it’s dreary! On the whole, conduct
    is better dealt with on the cast-iron “gentleman” and duty
    formula, with as little fervour and poetry as possible; stoical
    and short.

The last letter of all, it will have been abundantly noted, has, with
one of those characteristically thrown-out references to himself that
were always half a whim, half a truth and all a picture, a remarkable
premonition. It is addressed to Mr. Edmond Gosse.

    It is all very well to talk of renunciation, and of course it
    has to be done. But for my part, give me a roaring toothache! I
    do like to be deceived and to dream, but I have very little use
    for either watching or meditation. I was not born for age. . . .
    I am a childless, rather bitter, very clear-eyed, blighted
    youth. I have, in fact, lost the path that makes it easy and
    natural for you to descend the hill. I am going at it straight.
    And where I have to go down it is a precipice. . . . You can
    never write another dedication that can give the same pleasure
    to the vanished Tusitala.

Two days later he met his end in the happiest form, by the straight
swift bolt of the gods. It was, as all his readers know, with an
admirable unfinished thing in hand, scarce a quarter written—a
composition as to which his hopes were, presumably with much justice and
as they were by no means always, of the highest. Nothing is more
interesting than the rich way in which, in “Weir of Hermiston” and
“Catriona,” the predominant imaginative Scot reasserts himself after
gaps and lapses, distractions and deflections superficially extreme.
There are surely few backward jumps of this energy more joyous and _à
pieds joints_, or of a kind more interesting to a critic. The
imaginative vision is hungry and tender just in proportion as the actual
is otherwise beset; so that we must sigh always in vain for the quality
that this purified flame, as we call it, would have been able to give
the metal. And how many things for the critic the case suggests—how
many possible reflections cluster about it and seem to take light from
it! It was “romance” indeed, “Weir of Hermiston,” we feel, as we see it
only grow in assurance and ease when the reach to it over all the spaces
becomes more positively artificial. The case is _literary_ to intensity,
and, given the nature of the talent, only thereby the more beautiful: he
embroiders in silk and silver—in defiance of climate and nature, of
every near aspect, and with such another antique needle as was nowhere,
least of all in those latitudes, to be bought—in the intervals of
wondrous international and insular politics and of fifty material cares
and complications. His special stock of association, most personal style
and most unteachable trick fly away again to him like so many strayed
birds to nest, each with the flutter in its beak of some scrap of
document or legend, some fragment of picture or story, to be retouched,
revarnished and reframed.

These things he does with a gusto, moreover, for which it must be
granted that his literary treatment of the islands and the island life
had ever vainly waited. Curious enough that his years of the tropics and
his fraternity with the natives never drew from him any such “rendered”
view as might have been looked for in advance. For the absent and
vanished Scotland he _has_ the image—within the limits (too narrow ones
we may perhaps judge) admitted by his particular poetic; but the law of
these things in him was, as of many others, amusingly, conscientiously
perverse. The Pacific, in which he materially delighted, made him
“descriptively” serious and even rather dry; with his own country, on
the other hand, materially impossible, he was ready to tread an endless
measure. He easily sends us back again here to our vision of his
mixture. There was only one thing on earth that he loved as much as
literature—which was the total absence of it; and to the present, the
immediate, whatever it was, he always made the latter offering. Samoa
was susceptible of no “style”—none of that, above all, with which he
was most conscious of an affinity—save the demonstration of its
rightness for life; and this left the field abundantly clear for the
Border, the Great North Road and the eighteenth century. I have been
reading over “Catriona” and “Weir” with the purest pleasure with which
we can follow a man of genius—that of seeing him abound in his own
sense. In “Weir” especially, like an improvising pianist, he
superabounds and revels, and his own sense, by a happy stroke, appeared
likely never more fully and brightly to justify him; to have become even
in some degree a new sense, with new chords and possibilities. It is the
“old game,” but it is the old game that he exquisitely understands. The
figure of Hermiston is creative work of the highest order, those of the
two Kirsties, especially that of the elder, scarce less so; and we ache
for the loss of a thing which could give out such touches as the quick
joy, at finding herself in falsehood, of the enamoured girl whose
brooding elder brother has told her that as soon as she has a lover she
will begin to lie (“ ‘Will I have gotten my jo now?’ she thought with
secret rapture”); or a passage so richly charged with imagination as
that in which the young lover recalls her as he has first seen and
desired her, seated at grey of evening on an old tomb in the moorland
and unconsciously making him think, by her scrap of song, both of his
mother, who sang it and whom he has lost, and

    of their common ancestors now dead, of their rude wars composed,
    their weapons buried with them, and of these strange
    changelings, their descendants, who lingered a little in their
    places and would soon be gone also, and perhaps sung of by
    others at the gloaming hour. By one of the unconscious arts of
    tenderness the two women were enshrined together in his memory.
    Tears, in that hour of sensibility, came into his eyes
    indifferently at the thought of either; and the girl, from being
    something merely bright and shapely, was caught up into the zone
    of things serious as life and death and his dead mother. So
    that, in all ways and on either side, Fate played his game
    artfully with this poor pair of children. The generations were
    prepared, the pangs were made ready, before the curtain rose on
    the dark drama.

It is not a tribute that Stevenson would at all have appreciated, but I
may not forbear noting how closely such a page recalls many another in
the tenderest manner of Pierre Loti. There would not, compared, be a pin
to choose between them. How, we at all events ask ourselves as we
consider “Weir,” could he have kept it up?—while the reason for which
he didn’t reads itself back into his text as a kind of beautiful rash
divination in him that he mightn’t have to. Among prose fragments it
stands quite alone, with the particular grace and sanctity of mutilation
worn by the marble morsels of masterwork in another art. This and the
other things of his best he left; but these things, lovely as, on
rereading many of them at the suggestion of his Correspondence, they
are, are not the whole, nor more than the half, of his abiding charm.
The finest papers in “Across the Plains,” in “Memories and Portraits,”
in “Virginibus Puerisque,” stout of substance and supremely silver of
speech, have both a nobleness and a nearness that place them, for
perfection and roundness, above his fictions, and that also may well
remind a vulgarised generation of what, even under its nose, English
prose can be. But it is bound up with his name, for our wonder and
reflection, that he is something other than the author of this or that
particular beautiful thing, or of all such things together. It has been
his fortune (whether or no the greatest that can befall a man of
letters) to have had to consent to become, by a process not purely
mystic and not wholly untraceable—what shall we call it?—a Figure.
Tracing is needless now, for the personality has acted and the
incarnation is full. There he is—he has passed ineffaceably into happy
legend. This case of the figure is of the rarest and the honour surely
of the greatest. In all our literature we can count them, sometimes with
the work and sometimes without. The work has often been great and yet
the figure _nil_. Johnson was one, and Goldsmith and Byron; and the two
former moreover not in any degree, like Stevenson, in virtue of the
element of grace. Was it this element that fixed the claim even for
Byron? It seems doubtful; and the list at all events as we approach our
own day shortens and stops. Stevenson has it at present—may we not
say?—pretty well to himself, and it is not one of the scrolls in which
he least will live.

-----

Footnote 1:

“The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson to his Family and Friends.
Selected and Edited, with Notes and Introduction, by Sidney Colvin,”
1899.



                               ÉMILE ZOLA


If it be true that the critical spirit to-day, in presence of the rising
tide of prose fiction, a watery waste out of which old standards and
landmarks are seen barely to emerge, like chimneys and the tops of trees
in a country under flood—if it be true that the anxious observer, with
the water up to his chin, finds himself asking for the _reason_ of the
strange phenomenon, for its warrant and title, so we likewise make out
that these credentials rather fail to float on the surface. We live in a
world of wanton and importunate fable, we breathe its air and consume
its fruits; yet who shall say that we are able, when invited, to account
for our preferring it so largely to the world of fact? To do so would be
to make some adequate statement of the good the product in question does
us. What does it do for our life, our mind, our manners, our
morals—what does it do that history, poetry, philosophy may not do, as
well or better, to warn, to comfort and command the countless thousands
for whom and by whom it comes into being? We seem too often left with
our riddle on our hands. The lame conclusion on which we retreat is that
“stories” are multiplied, circulated, paid for, on the scale of the
present hour, simply because people “like” them. As to why people
_should_ like anything so loose and mean as the preponderant mass of the
“output,” so little indebted for the magic of its action to any mystery
in the making, is more than the actual state of our perceptions enables
us to say.

This bewilderment might be our last word if it were not for the
occasional occurrence of accidents especially appointed to straighten
out a little our tangle. We are reminded that if the unnatural
prosperity of the wanton fable cannot be adequately explained, it can at
least be illustrated with a sharpness that is practically an argument.
An abstract solution failing we encounter it in the concrete. We catch
in short a new impression or, to speak more truly, recover an old one.
It was always there to be had, but we ourselves throw off an oblivion,
an indifference for which there are plenty of excuses. We become
conscious, for our profit, of a _case_, and we see that our
mystification came from the way cases had appeared for so long to fail
us. None of the shapeless forms about us for the time had attained to
the dignity of one. The one I am now conceiving as suddenly
effective—for which I fear I must have been regarding it as somewhat in
eclipse—is that of Émile Zola, whom, as a manifestation of the sort we
are considering, three or four striking facts have lately combined to
render more objective and, so to speak, more massive. His close
connection with the most resounding of recent public quarrels; his
premature and disastrous death; above all, at the moment I write, the
appearance of his last-finished novel, bequeathed to his huge public
from beyond the grave—these rapid events have thrust him forward and
made him loom abruptly larger; much as if our pedestrian critic,
treading the dusty highway, had turned a sharp corner.

It is not assuredly that Zola has ever been veiled or unapparent; he
had, on the contrary been digging his field these thirty years, and for
all passers to see, with an industry that kept him, after the fashion of
one of the grand grim sowers or reapers of his brother of the brush, or
at least of the canvas, Jean-François Millet, duskily outlined against
the sky. He was there in the landscape of labour—he had always been;
but he was there as a big natural or pictorial feature, a spreading
tree, a battered tower, a lumpish round-shouldered useful hayrick,
confounded with the air and the weather, the rain and the shine, the day
and the dusk, merged more or less, as it were, in the play of the
elements themselves. We had got used to him, and, thanks in a measure
just to this stoutness of his presence, to the long regularity of his
performance, had come to notice him hardly more than the dwellers in the
marketplace notice the quarters struck by the town-clock. On top of all
accordingly, for our skeptical mood, the sense of his work—a sense
determined afresh by the strange climax of his personal history—rings
out almost with violence as a reply to our wonder. It is as if an
earthquake or some other rude interference had shaken from the
town-clock a note of such unusual depth as to compel attention. We
therefore once more give heed, and the result of this is that we feel
ourselves after a little probably as much enlightened as we can hope
ever to be. We have worked round to the so marked and impressive anomaly
of the adoption of the futile art by one of the stoutest minds and
stoutest characters of our time. This extraordinarily robust worker has
found it good enough for him, and if the fact is, as I say, anomalous,
we are doubtless helped to conclude that by its anomalies, in future,
the bankrupt business, as we are so often moved to pronounce it, will
most recover credit.

What is at all events striking for us, critically speaking, is that, in
the midst of the dishonour it has gradually harvested by triumphant
vulgarity of practice, its pliancy and applicability can still plead for
themselves. The curious contradiction stands forth for our relief—the
circumstance that thirty years ago a young man of extraordinary brain
and indomitable purpose, wishing to give the measure of these endowments
in a piece of work supremely solid, conceived and sat down to Les
Rougon-Macquart rather than to an equal task in physics, mathematics,
politics or economics. He saw his undertaking, thanks to his patience
and courage, practically to a close; so that it is exactly neither of
the so-called constructive sciences that happens to have had the
benefit, intellectually speaking, of one of the few most constructive
achievements of our time. There then, provisionally at least, we touch
bottom; we get a glimpse of the pliancy and variety, the ideal of
vividness, on behalf of which our equivocal form may appeal to a strong
head. In the name of what ideal on its own side, however, does the
strong head yield to the appeal? What is the logic of its so deeply
committing itself? Zola’s case seems to tell us, as it tells us other
things. The logic is in its huge freedom of adjustment to the
temperament of the worker, which it carries, so to say, as no other
vehicle can do. It expresses fully and directly the whole man, and big
as he may be it can still be big enough for him without becoming false
to its type. We see this truth made strong, from beginning to end, in
Zola’s work; we see the temperament, we see the whole man, with his size
and all his marks, stored and packed away in the huge hold of Les
Rougon-Macquart as a cargo is packed away on a ship. His personality is
the thing that finally pervades and prevails, just as so often on a
vessel the presence of the cargo makes itself felt for the assaulted
senses. What has most come home to me in reading him over is that a
scheme of fiction so conducted is in fact a capacious vessel. It can
carry anything—with art and force in the stowage; nothing in this case
will sink it. And it is the only form for which such a claim can be
made. All others have to confess to a smaller scope—to selection, to
exclusion, to the danger of distortion, explosion, combustion. The novel
has nothing to fear but sailing too light. It will take aboard all we
bring in good faith to the dock.

An intense vision of this truth must have been Zola’s comfort from the
earliest time—the years, immediately following the crash of the Empire,
during which he settled himself to the tremendous task he had mapped
out. No finer act of courage and confidence, I think, is recorded in the
history of letters. The critic in sympathy with him returns again and
again to the great wonder of it, in which something so strange is mixed
with something so august. Entertained and carried out almost from the
threshold of manhood, the high project, the work of a lifetime,
announces beforehand its inevitable weakness and yet speaks in the same
voice for its admirable, its almost unimaginable strength. The strength
was in the young man’s very person—in his character, his will, his
passion, his fighting temper, his aggressive lips, his squared shoulders
(when he “sat up”) and overweening confidence; his weakness was in that
inexperience of life from which he proposed not to suffer, from which he
in fact suffered on the surface remarkably little, and from which he was
never to suspect, I judge, that he had suffered at all. I may mention
for the interest of it that, meeting him during his first short visit to
London—made several years before his stay in England during the Dreyfus
trial—I received a direct impression of him that was more informing
than any previous study. I had seen him a little, in Paris, years before
that, when this impression was a perceptible promise, and I was now to
perceive how time had made it good. It consisted, simply stated, in his
fairly bristling with the betrayal that nothing whatever had happened to
him in life but to write Les Rougon-Macquart. It was even for that
matter almost more as if Les Rougon-Macquart had written _him_, written
him as he stood and sat, as he looked and spoke, as the long,
concentrated, merciless effort had made and stamped and left him.
Something very fundamental was to happen to him in due course, it is
true, shaking him to his base; fate was not wholly to cheat him of an
independent evolution. Recalling him from this London hour one strongly
felt during the famous “Affair” that his outbreak in connection with it
was the act of a man with arrears of personal history to make up, the
act of a spirit for which life, or for which at any rate freedom, had
been too much postponed, treating itself at last to a luxury of
experience.

I welcomed the general impression at all events—I intimately
entertained it; it represented so many things, it suggested, just as it
was, such a lesson. You could neither have everything nor be
everything—you had to choose; you could not at once sit firm at your
job and wander through space inviting initiations. The author of Les
Rougon-Macquart had had all those, certainly, that this wonderful
company could bring him; but I can scarce express how it was implied in
him that his time had been fruitfully passed with _them_ alone. His
artistic evolution struck one thus as, in spite of its magnitude,
singularly simple, and evidence of the simplicity seems further offered
by his last production, of which we have just come into possession.
“Vérité” truly does give the measure, makes the author’s high maturity
join hands with his youth, marks the rigid straightness of his course
from point to point. He had seen his horizon and his fixed goal from the
first, and no cross-scent, no new distance, no blue gap in the hills to
right or to left ever tempted him to stray. “Vérité,” of which I shall
have more to say, is in fact, as a moral finality and the crown of an
edifice, one of the strangest possible performances. Machine-minted and
made good by an immense expertness, it yet makes us ask how, for
disinterested observation and perception, the writer had used so much
time and so much acquisition, and how he can all along have handled so
much material without some larger subjective consequence. We really rub
our eyes in other words to see so great an intellectual adventure as Les
Rougon-Macquart come to its end in deep desert sand. Difficult truly to
read, because showing him at last almost completely a prey to the danger
that had for a long time more and more dogged his steps, the danger of
the mechanical all confident and triumphant, the book is nevertheless
full of interest for a reader desirous to penetrate. It speaks with more
distinctness of the author’s temperament, tone and manner than if, like
several of his volumes, it achieved or enjoyed a successful life of its
own. Its heavy completeness, with all this, as of some prodigiously
neat, strong and complicated scaffolding constructed by a firm of
builders for the erection of a house whose foundations refuse to bear it
and that is unable therefore to rise—its very betrayal of a method and
a habit more than adequate, on past occasions, to similar ends, carries
us back to the original rare exhibition, the grand assurance and grand
patience with which the system was launched.

If it topples over, the system, by its own weight in these last
applications of it, that only makes the history of its prolonged success
the more curious and, speaking for myself, the spectacle of its origin
more attaching. Readers of my generation will remember well the
publication of “La Conquête de Plassans” and the portent, indefinable
but irresistible, after perusal of the volume, conveyed in the general
rubric under which it was a first instalment, Natural and Social History
of a Family under the Second Empire. It squared itself there at its
ease, the announcement, from the first, and we were to learn promptly
enough what a fund of life it masked. It was like the mouth of a cave
with a signboard hung above, or better still perhaps like the big booth
at a fair with the name of the show across the flapping canvas. One
strange animal after another stepped forth into the light, each in its
way a monster bristling and spotted, each a curiosity of that “natural
history” in the name of which we were addressed, though it was doubtless
not till the issue of “L’Assommoir” that the true type of the monstrous
seemed to be reached. The enterprise, for those who had attention, was
even at a distance impressive, and the nearer the critic gets to it
retrospectively the more so it becomes. The pyramid had been planned and
the site staked out, but the young builder stood there, in his sturdy
strength, with no equipment save his two hands and, as we may say, his
wheelbarrow and his trowel. His pile of material—of stone, brick and
rubble or whatever—was of the smallest, but this he apparently felt as
the least of his difficulties. Poor, uninstructed, unacquainted,
unintroduced, he set up his subject wholly from the outside, proposing
to himself wonderfully to get into it, into its depths, as he went.

If we imagine him asking himself what he knew of the “social” life of
the second Empire to start with, we imagine him also answering in all
honesty: “I have my eyes and my ears—I have all my senses: I have what
I’ve seen and heard, what I’ve smelled and tasted and touched. And then
I’ve my curiosity and my pertinacity; I’ve libraries, books, newspapers,
witnesses, the material, from step to step, of an _enquête_. And then
I’ve my genius—that is, my imagination, my passion, my sensibility to
life. Lastly I’ve my method, and that will be half the battle. Best of
all perhaps even, I’ve plentiful lack of doubt.” Of the absence in him
of a doubt, indeed of his inability, once his direction taken, to
entertain so much as the shadow of one, “Vérité” is a positive
monument—which again represents in this way the unity of his tone and
the meeting of his extremes. If we remember that his design was nothing
if not architectural, that a “majestic whole,” a great balanced façade,
with all its orders and parts, that a singleness of mass and a unity of
effect, in fine, were before him from the first, his notion of picking
up his bricks as he proceeded becomes, in operation, heroic. It is not
in the least as a record of failure for him that I note this particular
fact of the growth of the long series as on the whole the liveliest
interest it has to offer. “I don’t know my subject, but I must live into
it; I don’t know life, but I must learn it as I work”—that attitude and
programme represent, to my sense, a drama more intense on the worker’s
own part than any of the dramas he was to invent and put before us.

It was the fortune, it was in a manner the doom, of Les Rougon-Macquart
to deal with things almost always in gregarious form, to be a picture of
_numbers_, of classes, crowds, confusions, movements, industries—and
this for a reason of which it will be interesting to attempt some
account. The individual life is, if not wholly absent, reflected in
coarse and common, in generalised terms; whereby we arrive precisely at
the oddity just named, the circumstance that, looking out somewhere, and
often woefully athirst, for the taste of fineness, we find it not in the
fruits of our author’s fancy, but in a different matter altogether. We
get it in the very history of his effort, the image itself of his
lifelong process, comparatively so personal, so spiritual even, and,
through all its patience and pain, of a quality so much more
distinguished than the qualities he succeeds in attributing to his
figures even when he most aims at distinction. There can be no question
in these narrow limits of my taking the successive volumes one by
one—all the more that our sense of the exhibition is as little as
possible an impression of parts and books, of particular “plots” and
persons. It produces the effect of a mass of imagery in which shades are
sacrificed, the effect of character and passion in the lump or by the
ton. The fullest, the most characteristic episodes affect us like a
sounding chorus or procession, as with a hubbub of voices and a
multitudinous tread of feet. The setter of the mass into motion, he
himself, in the crowd, figures best, with whatever queer idiosyncrasies,
excrescences and gaps, a being of a substance akin to our own. Taking
him as we must, I repeat, for quite heroic, the interest of detail in
him is the interest of his struggle at every point with his problem.

The sense for crowds and processions, for the gross and the general, was
largely the _result_ of this predicament, of the disproportion between
his scheme and his material—though it was certainly also in part an
effect of his particular turn of mind. What the reader easily discerns
in him is the sturdy resolution with which breadth and energy supply the
place of penetration. He rests to his utmost on his documents, devours
and assimilates them, makes them yield him extraordinary appearances of
life; but in his way he too improvises in the grand manner, the manner
of Walter Scott and of Dumas the elder. We feel that he _has_ to
improvise for his moral and social world, the world as to which vision
and opportunity must come, if they are to come at all, unhurried and
unhustled—must take their own time, helped undoubtedly more or less by
blue-books, reports and interviews, by inquiries “on the spot,” but
never wholly replaced by such substitutes without a general
disfigurement. Vision and opportunity reside in a personal sense and a
personal history, and no short cut to them in the interest of plausible
fiction has ever been discovered. The short cut, it is not too much to
say, was with Zola the subject of constant ingenious experiment, and it
is largely to this source, I surmise, that we owe the celebrated element
of his grossness. He was _obliged_ to be gross, on his system, or
neglect to his cost an invaluable aid to representation, as well as one
that apparently struck him as lying close at hand; and I cannot withhold
my frank admiration from the courage and consistency with which he faced
his need.

His general subject in the last analysis was the nature of man; in
dealing with which he took up, obviously, the harp of most numerous
strings. His business was to make these strings sound true, and there
were none that he did not, so far as his general economy permitted,
persistently try. What happened then was that many—say about half, and
these, as I have noted, the most silvered, the most golden—refused to
give out their music. They would only sound false, since (as with all
his earnestness he must have felt) he could command them, through want
of skill, of practice, of ear, to none of the right harmony. What
therefore was more natural than that, still splendidly bent on producing
his illusion, he should throw himself on the strings he might thump with
effect, and should work them, as our phrase is, for all they were worth?
The nature of man, he had plentiful warrant for holding, is an
extraordinary mixture, but the great thing was to represent a sufficient
part of it to show that it was solidly, palpably, commonly the nature.
With this preoccupation he doubtless fell into extravagance—there was
clearly so much to lead him on. The coarser side of his subject, based
on the community of all the instincts, was for instance the more
practicable side, a sphere the vision of which required but the general
human, scarcely more than the plain physical, initiation, and dispensed
thereby conveniently enough with special introductions or revelations. A
free entry into this sphere was undoubtedly compatible with a youthful
career as hampered right and left even as Zola’s own.

He was in prompt possession thus of the range of sympathy that he
_could_ cultivate, though it must be added that the complete exercise of
that sympathy might have encountered an obstacle that would somewhat
undermine his advantage. Our friend might have found himself able, in
other words, to pay to the instinctive, as I have called it, only such
tribute as protesting taste (his own dose of it) permitted. Yet there it
was again that fortune and his temperament served him. Taste as he knew
it, taste as his own constitution supplied it, proved to have nothing to
say to the matter. His own dose of the precious elixir had no
perceptible regulating power. Paradoxical as the remark may sound, this
accident was positively to operate as one of his greatest felicities.
There are parts of his work, those dealing with romantic or poetic
elements, in which the inactivity of the principle in question is
sufficiently hurtful; but it surely should not be described as hurtful
to such pictures as “Le Ventre de Paris,” as “L’Assommoir,” as
“Germinal.” The conception on which each of these productions rests is
that of a world with which taste has nothing to do, and though the act
of representation may be justly held, as an artistic act, to involve its
presence, the discrimination would probably have been in fact, given the
particular illusion sought, more detrimental than the deficiency. There
was a great outcry, as we all remember, over the rank materialism of
“L’Assommoir,” but who cannot see to-day how much a milder infusion of
it would have told against the close embrace of the subject aimed at?
“L’Assommoir” is the nature of man—but not his finer, nobler, cleaner
or more cultivated nature; it is the image of his free instincts, the
better and the worse, the better struggling as they can, gasping for
light and air, the worse making themselves at home in darkness,
ignorance and poverty. The whole handling makes for emphasis and scale,
and it is not to be measured how, as a picture of conditions, the thing
would have suffered from timidity. The qualification of the painter was
precisely his stoutness of stomach, and we scarce exceed in saying that
to have taken in and given out again less of the infected air would,
with such a resource, have meant the waste of a faculty.

I may add in this connection moreover that refinement of intention did
on occasion and after a fashion of its own unmistakably preside at these
experiments; making the remark in order to have done once for all with a
feature of Zola’s literary physiognomy that appears to have attached the
gaze of many persons to the exclusion of every other. There are judges
in these matters so perversely preoccupied that for them to see anywhere
the “improper” is for them straightway to cease to see anything else.
The said improper, looming supremely large and casting all the varieties
of the proper quite into the shade, suffers thus in their consciousness
a much greater extension than it ever claimed, and this consciousness
becomes, for the edification of many and the information of a few, a
colossal reflector and record of it. Much may be said, in relation to
some of the possibilities of the nature of man, of the nature in
especial of the “people,” on the defect of our author’s sense of
proportion. But the sense of proportion of many of those he has
scandalised would take us further yet. I recall at all events as
relevant—for it comes under a very attaching general head—two
occasions of long ago, two Sunday afternoons in Paris, on which I found
the question of intention very curiously lighted. Several men of letters
of a group in which almost every member either had arrived at renown or
was well on his way to it, were assembled under the roof of the most
distinguished of their number, where they exchanged free confidences on
current work, on plans and ambitions, in a manner full of interest for
one never previously privileged to see artistic conviction, artistic
passion (at least on the literary ground) so systematic and so
articulate. “Well, I on my side,” I remember Zola’s saying, “am engaged
on a book, a study of the _mœurs_ of the people, for which I am making a
collection of all the ‘bad words,’ the _gros mots_, of the language,
those with which the vocabulary of the people, those with which their
familiar talk, bristles.” I was struck with the tone in which he made
the announcement—without bravado and without apology, as an interesting
idea that had come to him and that he was working, really to arrive at
character and particular truth, with all his conscience; just as I was
struck with the unqualified interest that his plan excited. It was _on_
a plan that he was working—formidably, almost grimly, as his fatigued
face showed; and the whole consideration of this interesting element
partook of the general seriousness.

But there comes back to me also as a companion-piece to this another
day, after some interval, on which the interest was excited by the fact
that the work for love of which the brave license had been taken was
actually under the ban of the daily newspaper that had engaged to
“serialise” it. Publication had definitively ceased. The thing had run a
part of its course, but it had outrun the courage of editors and the
curiosity of subscribers—that stout curiosity to which it had evidently
in such good faith been addressed. The chorus of contempt for the ways
of such people, their pusillanimity, their superficiality, vulgarity,
intellectual platitude, was the striking note on this occasion; for the
journal impugned had declined to proceed and the serial, broken off,
been obliged, if I am not mistaken, to seek the hospitality of other
columns, secured indeed with no great difficulty. The composition so
qualified for future fame was none other, as I was later to learn, than
“L’Assommoir”; and my reminiscence has perhaps no greater point than in
connecting itself with a matter always dear to the critical spirit,
especially when the latter has not too completely elbowed out the
romantic—the matter of the “origins,” the early consciousness, early
steps, early tribulations, early obscurity, as so often happens, of
productions finally crowned by time.

Their greatness is for the most part a thing that has originally begun
so small; and this impression is particularly strong when we have been
in any degree present, so to speak, at the birth. The course of the
matter is apt to tend preponderantly in that case to enrich our stores
of irony. In the eventual conquest of consideration by an abused book we
recognise, in other terms, a drama of romantic interest, a drama often
with large comic no less than with fine pathetic interweavings. It may
of course be said in this particular connection that “L’Assommoir” had
not been one of the literary things that creep humbly into the world.
Its “success” may be cited as almost insolently prompt, and the fact
remains true if the idea of success be restricted, after the inveterate
fashion, to the idea of circulation. What remains truer still, however,
is that for the critical spirit circulation mostly matters not the least
little bit, and it is of the success with which the history of Gervaise
and Coupeau nestles in _that_ capacious bosom, even as the just man
sleeps in Abraham’s, that I here speak. But it is a point I may better
refer to a moment hence.

Though a summary study of Zola need not too anxiously concern itself
with book after book—always with a partial exception from this remark
for “L’Assommoir”—groups and varieties none the less exist in the huge
series, aids to discrimination without which no measure of the presiding
genius is possible. These divisions range themselves to my sight,
roughly speaking, however, as scarce more than three in number—I mean
if the ten volumes of the Œuvres Critiques and the Théâtre be left out
of account. The critical volumes in especial abound in the
characteristic, as they were also a wondrous addition to his sum of
achievement during his most strenuous years. But I am forced not to
consider them. The two groups constituted after the close of Les
Rougon-Macquart—“Les Trois Villes” and the incomplete “Quatre
Évangiles”—distribute themselves easily among the three types, or, to
speak more exactly, stand together under one of the three. This one, so
comprehensive as to be the author’s main exhibition, includes to my
sense all his best volumes—to the point in fact of producing an effect
of distinct inferiority for those outside of it, which are, luckily for
his general credit, the less numerous. It is so inveterately pointed out
in any allusion to him that one shrinks, in repeating it, from sounding
flat; but as he was admirably equipped from the start for the evocation
of number and quantity, so those of his social pictures that most easily
surpass the others are those in which appearances, the appearances
familiar to him, are at once most magnified and most multiplied.

To make his characters swarm, and to make the great central thing they
swarm about “as large as life,” portentously, heroically big, that was
the task he set himself very nearly from the first, that was the secret
he triumphantly mastered. Add that the big central thing was always some
highly representative institution or industry of the France of his time,
some seated Moloch of custom, of commerce, of faith, lending itself to
portrayal through its abuses and excesses, its idol-face and great
devouring mouth, and we embrace main lines of his attack. In “Le Ventre
de Paris” he had dealt with the life of the huge Halles, the general
markets and their supply, the personal forces, personal situations,
passions, involved in (strangest of all subjects) the alimentation of
the monstrous city, the city whose victualling occupies so inordinately
much of its consciousness. Paris richly gorged, Paris sublime and
indifferent in her assurance (so all unlike poor Oliver’s) of “more,”
figures here the theme itself, lies across the scene like some vast
ruminant creature breathing in a cloud of parasites. The book was the
first of the long series to show the full freedom of the author’s hand,
though “La Curée” had already been symptomatic. This freedom, after an
interval, broke out on a much bigger scale in “L’Assommoir,” in “Au
Bonheur des Dames,” in “Germinal,” in “La Bête Humaine,” in “L’Argent,”
in “La Débâcle,” and then again, though more mechanically and with much
of the glory gone, in the more or less wasted energy of “Lourdes,”
“Rome,” “Paris,” of “Fécondité,” “Travail” and “Vérité.”

“Au Bonheur des Dames” handles the colossal modern shop, traces the
growth of such an organisation as the Bon Marché or the
Magasin-du-Louvre, sounds the abysses of its inner life, marshals its
population, its hierarchy of clerks, counters, departments, divisions
and sub-divisions, plunges into the labyrinth of the mutual relations of
its staff, and above all traces its ravage amid the smaller fry of the
trade, of all the trades, pictures these latter gasping for breath in an
air pumped clean by its mighty lungs. “Germinal” revolves about the
coal-mines of Flemish France, with the subterranean world of the pits
for its central presence, just as “La Bête Humaine” has for its
protagonist a great railway and “L’Argent” presents in terms of human
passion—mainly of human baseness—the fury of the Bourse and the
monster of Credit. “La Débâcle” takes up with extraordinary breadth the
first act of the Franco-Prussian war, the collapse at Sedan, and the
titles of the six volumes of The Three Cities and the Four Gospels
sufficiently explain them. I may mention, however, for the last
lucidity, that among these “Fécondité” manipulates, with an amazing
misapprehension of means to ends, of remedies to ills, no less thickly
peopled a theme than that of the decline in the French birth-rate, and
that “Vérité” presents a fictive equivalent of the Dreyfus case, with a
vast and elaborate picture of the battle in France between lay and
clerical instruction. I may even further mention, to clear the ground,
that with the close of Les Rougon-Macquart the diminution of freshness
in the author’s energy, the diminution of intensity and, in short, of
quality, becomes such as to render sadly difficult a happy life with
some of the later volumes. Happiness of the purest strain never indeed,
in old absorptions of Zola, quite sat at the feast; but there was mostly
a measure of coercion, a spell without a charm. From these last-named
productions of the climax everything strikes me as absent but quantity
(“Vérité,” for instance, is, with the possible exception of “Nana,” the
longest of the list); though indeed there is something impressive in the
way his quantity represents his patience.

There are efforts here at stout perusal that, frankly, I have been
unable to carry through, and I should verily like, in connection with
the vanity of these, to dispose on the spot of the sufficiently strange
phenomenon constituted by what I have called the climax. It embodies in
fact an immense anomaly; it casts back over Zola’s prime and his middle
years the queerest grey light of eclipse. Nothing moreover—nothing
“literary”—was ever so odd as in this matter the whole turn of the
case, the consummation so logical yet so unexpected. Writers have grown
old and withered and failed; they have grown weak and sad; they have
lost heart, lost ability, yielded in one way or another—the possible
ways being so numerous—to the cruelty of time. But the singular doom of
this genius, and which began to multiply its symptoms ten years before
his death, was to find, with life, at fifty, still rich in him, strength
only to undermine all the “authority” he had gathered. He had not grown
old and he had not grown feeble; he had only grown all too wrongly
insistent, setting himself to wreck, poetically, his so massive
identity—to wreck it in the very waters in which he had formally
arrayed his victorious fleet, (I say “poetically” on purpose to give him
the just benefit of all the beauty of his power.) The process of the
disaster, so full of the effect, though so without the intention, of
perversity, is difficult to trace in a few words; it may best be
indicated by an example or two of its action.

The example that perhaps most comes home to me is again connected with a
personal reminiscence. In the course of some talk that I had with him
during his first visit to England I happened to ask him what opportunity
to travel (if any) his immense application had ever left him, and
whether in particular he had been able to see Italy, a country from
which I had either just returned or which I was luckily—not having the
Natural History of a Family on my hands—about to revisit. “All I’ve
done, alas,” he replied, “was, the other year, in the course of a little
journey to the south, to my own _pays_—all that has been possible was
then to make a little dash as far as Genoa, a matter of only a few
days.” “Le Docteur Pascal,” the conclusion of Les Rougon-Macquart, had
appeared shortly before, and it further befell that I asked him what
plans he had for the future, now that, still _dans la force de l’âge_,
he had so cleared the ground. I shall never forget the fine promptitude
of his answer—“Oh, I shall begin at once Les Trois Villes.” “And which
cities are they to be?” The reply was finer still—“Lourdes, Paris,
Rome.”

It was splendid for confidence and cheer, but it left me, I fear, more
or less gaping, and it was to give me afterwards the key, critically
speaking, to many a mystery. It struck me as breathing to an almost
tragic degree the fatuity of those in whom the gods stimulate that vice
to their ruin. He was an honest man—he had always bristled with it at
every pore; but no artistic reverse was inconceivable for an adventurer
who, stating in one breath that his knowledge of Italy consisted of a
few days spent at Genoa, was ready to declare in the next that he had
planned, on a scale, a picture of Rome. It flooded his career, to my
sense, with light; it showed how he had marched from subject to subject
and had “got up” each in turn—showing also how consummately he had
reduced such getting-up to an artifice. He had success and a rare
impunity behind him, but nothing would now be so interesting as to see
if he could again play the trick. One would leave him, and welcome,
Lourdes and Paris—he had already dealt, on a scale, with his own
country and people. But was the adored Rome also to be his on such
terms, the Rome he was already giving away before possessing an inch of
it? One thought of one’s own frequentations, saturations—a history of
long years, and of how the effect of them had somehow been but to make
the subject too august. Was _he_ to find it easy through a visit of a
month or two with “introductions” and a Bædeker?

It was not indeed that the Bædeker and the introductions didn’t show, to
my sense, at that hour, as extremely suggestive; they were positively a
part of the light struck out by his announcement. They defined the
system on which he had brought Les Rougon-Macquart safely into port. He
had had his Bædeker and his introductions for “Germinal,” for
“L’Assommoir,” for “L’Argent,” for “La Débâcle,” for “Au Bonheur des
Dames”; which advantages, which researches, had clearly been all the
more in character for being documentary, extractive, a matter of
_renseignements_, published or private, even when most mixed with
personal impressions snatched, with _enquêtes sur les lieux_, with facts
obtained from the best authorities, proud and happy to co-operate in so
famous a connection. That was, as we say, all right, all the more that
the process, to my imagination, became vivid and was wonderfully
reflected back from its fruits. There _were_ the fruits—so it hadn’t
been presumptuous. Presumption, however, was now to begin, and what omen
mightn’t there be in its beginning with such complacency? Well, time
would show—as time in due course effectually did. “Rome,” as the second
volume of The Three Cities, appeared with high punctuality a year or two
later; and the interesting question, an occasion really for the
moralist, was by that time not to recognise in it the mere triumph of a
mechanical art, a “receipt” applied with the skill of long practice, but
to do much more than this—that is really to give a name to the
particular shade of blindness that could constitute a trap for so great
an artistic intelligence. The presumptuous volume, without sweetness,
without antecedents, superficial and violent, has the minimum instead of
the maximum of _value_; so that it betrayed or “gave away” just in this
degree the state of mind on the author’s part responsible for its
inflated hollowness. To put one’s finger on the state of mind was to
find out accordingly what was, as we say, the matter with him.

It seemed to me, I remember, that I found out as never before when, in
its turn, “Fécondité” began the work of crowning the edifice.
“Fécondité” is physiological, whereas “Rome” is not, whereas “Vérité”
likewise is not; yet these three productions joined hands at a given
moment to fit into the lock of the mystery the key of my meditation.
They came to the same thing, to the extent of permitting me to read into
them together the same precious lesson. This lesson may not, barely
stated, sound remarkable; yet without being in possession of it I should
have ventured on none of these remarks. “The matter with” Zola then, so
far as it goes, was that, as the imagination of the artist is in the
best cases not only clarified but intensified by his equal possession of
Taste (deserving here if ever the old-fashioned honour of a capital) so
when he has lucklessly never inherited that auxiliary blessing the
imagination itself inevitably breaks down as a consequence. There is
simply no limit, in fine, to the misfortune of being tasteless; it does
not merely disfigure the surface and the fringe of your performance—it
eats back into the very heart and enfeebles the sources of life. When
you have no taste you have no discretion, which is the conscience of
taste, and when you have no discretion you perpetrate books like “Rome,”
which are without intellectual modesty, books like “Fécondité,” which
are without a sense of the ridiculous, books like “Vérité,” which are
without the finer vision of human experience.

It is marked that in each of these examples the deficiency has been
directly fatal. No stranger doom was ever appointed for a man so plainly
desiring only to be just than the absurdity of not resting till he had
buried the felicity of his past, such as it was, under a great flat
leaden slab. “Vérité” is a plea for science, as science, to Zola, is
_all_ truth, the mention of any other kind being mere imbecility; and
the simplification of the human picture to which his negations and
exasperations have here conducted him was not, even when all had been
said, credible in advance. The result is amazing when we consider that
the finer observation is the supposed basis of all such work. It is not
that even here the author has not a queer idealism of his own; this
idealism is on the contrary so present as to show positively for the
falsest of his simplifications. In “Fécondité” it becomes grotesque,
makes of the book the most muscular mistake of _sense_ probably ever
committed. Where was the judgment of which experience is supposed to be
the guarantee when the perpetrator could persuade himself that the
lesson he wished in these pages to convey could be made immediate and
direct, chalked, with loud taps and a still louder commentary, the sexes
and generations all convoked, on the blackboard of the “family
sentiment?”

I have mentioned, however, all this time but one of his categories. The
second consists of such things as “La Fortune des Rougon” and “La
Curée,” as “Eugène Rougon” and even “Nana,” as “Pot-Bouille,” as
“L’Œuvre” and “La Joie de Vivre.” These volumes may rank as social
pictures in the narrowest sense, studies, comprehensively speaking, of
the manners, the morals, the miseries—for it mainly comes to that—of a
bourgeoisie grossly materialised. They deal with the life of individuals
in the liberal professions and with that of political and social
adventures, and offer the personal character and career, more or less
detached, as the centre of interest. “La Curée” is an evocation, violent
and “romantic,” of the extravagant appetites, the fever of the senses,
supposedly fostered, for its ruin, by the hapless second Empire, upon
which general ills and turpitudes at large were at one time so freely
and conveniently fathered. “Eugène Rougon” carries out this view in the
high colour of a political portrait, not other than scandalous, for
which one of the ministerial _âmes damnées_ of Napoleon III., M. Rouher,
is reputed, I know not how justly, to have sat. “Nana,” attaching itself
by a hundred strings to a prearranged table of kinships, heredities,
transmissions, is the vast crowded _epos_ of the daughter of the people
filled with poisoned blood and sacrificed as well as sacrificing on the
altar of luxury and lust; the panorama of such a “progress” as Hogarth
would more definitely have named—the progress across the high plateau
of “pleasure” and down the facile descent on the other side. “Nana” is
truly a monument to Zola’s patience; the subject being so ungrateful, so
formidably special, that the multiplication of illustrative detail, the
plunge into pestilent depths, represents a kind of technical
intrepidity.

There are other plunges, into different sorts of darkness; of which the
esthetic, even the scientific, even the ironic motive fairly escapes
us—explorations of stagnant pools like that of “La Joie de Vivre,” as
to which, granting the nature of the curiosity and the substance
laboured in, the patience is again prodigious, but which make us wonder
what pearl of philosophy, of suggestion or just of homely recognition,
the general picture, as of rats dying in a hole, has to offer. Our
various senses, sight, smell, sound, touch, are, as with Zola always,
more or less convinced; but when the particular effect upon each of
these is added to the effect upon the others the mind still remains
bewilderedly unconscious of any use for the total. I am not sure indeed
that the case is in this respect better with the productions of the
third order—“La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret,” “Une Page d’Amour,” “Le Rêve,”
“Le Docteur Pascal”—in which the appeal is more directly, is in fact
quite earnestly, to the moral vision; so much, on such ground, was to
depend precisely on those discriminations in which the writer is least
at home. The volumes whose names I have just quoted are his express
tribute to the “ideal,” to the select and the charming—fair fruits of
invention intended to remove from the mouth so far as possible the
bitterness of the ugly things in which so much of the rest of his work
had been condemned to consist. The subjects in question then are
“idyllic” and the treatment poetic, concerned essentially to please on
the largest lines and involving at every turn that salutary need. They
are matters of conscious delicacy, and nothing might interest us more
than to see what, in the shock of the potent forces enlisted, becomes of
this shy element. Nothing might interest us more, literally, and might
positively affect us more, even very nearly to tears, though indeed
sometimes also to smiles, than to see the constructor of Les
Rougon-Macquart trying, “for all he is worth,” to be fine with fineness,
finely tender, finely true—trying to be, as it is called,
distinguished—in face of constitutional hindrance.

The effort is admirably honest, the tug at his subject splendidly
strong; but the consequences remain of the strangest, and we get the
impression that—as representing discriminations unattainable—they are
somehow the price he paid. “Le Docteur Pascal,” for instance, which
winds up the long chronicle on the romantic note, on the note of invoked
beauty, in order to sweeten, as it were, the total draught—“Le Docteur
Pascal,” treating of the erotic ardour entertained for each other by an
uncle and his niece, leaves us amazed at such a conception of beauty,
such an application of romance, such an estimate of sweetness, a
sacrifice to poetry and passion so little in order. Of course, we
definitely remind ourselves, the whole long chronicle is explicitly a
scheme, solidly set up and intricately worked out, lighted, according to
the author’s pretension, by “science,” high, dry and clear, and with
each part involved and necessitated in all the other parts, each block
of the edifice, each “morceau de vie,” _physiologically_ determined by
previous combinations. “How can I help it,” we hear the builder of the
pyramid ask, “if experience (by which alone I proceed) shows me certain
plain results—if, holding up the torch of my famous ‘experimental
method,’ I find it stare me in the face that the union of certain types,
the conflux of certain strains of blood, the intermarriage, in a word,
of certain families, produces nervous conditions, conditions
temperamental, psychical and pathological, in which nieces _have_ to
fall in love with uncles and uncles with nieces? Observation and
imagination, for any picture of life,” he as audibly adds, “know no
light but science, and are false to all intellectual decency, false to
their own honour, when they fear it, dodge it, darken it. To pretend to
any other guide or law is mere base humbug.”

That is very well, and the value, in a hundred ways, of a mass of
production conceived in such a spirit can never (when robust execution
has followed) be small. But the formula really sees us no further. It
offers a definition which is no definition. “Science” is soon said—the
whole thing depends on the ground so covered. Science accepts surely
_all_ our consciousness of life; even, rather, the latter closes
maternally round it—so that, becoming thus a force within us, not a
force outside, it exists, it illuminates only as we apply it. We do
emphatically apply it in art. But Zola would apparently hold that it
much more applies _us_. On the showing of many of his volumes then it
makes but a dim use of us, and this we should still consider the case
even were we sure that the article offered us in the majestic name is
absolutely at one with its own pretension. This confidence we can on too
many grounds never have. The matter is one of appreciation, and when an
artist answers for science who answers for the artist—who at the least
answers for art? Thus it is with the mistakes that affect us, I say, as
Zola’s penalties. We are reminded by them that the game of art has, as
the phrase is, to be played. It may not with any sure felicity for the
result be both taken and left. If you insist on the common you must
submit to the common; if you discriminate, on the contrary, you must,
however invidious your discriminations may be called, trust to them to
see you through.

To the common then Zola, often with splendid results, inordinately
sacrifices, and this fact of its overwhelming him is what I have called
his paying for it. In “L’Assommoir,” in “Germinal,” in “La Débâcle,”
productions in which he must most survive, the sacrifice is ordered and
fruitful, for the subject and the treatment harmonise and work together.
He describes what he best feels, and feels it more and more as it
naturally comes to him—quite, if I may allow myself the image, as we
zoologically see some mighty animal, a beast of a corrugated hide and a
portentous snout, soaking with joy in the warm ooze of an African
riverside. In these cases everything matches, and “science,” we may be
permitted to believe, has had little hand in the business. The author’s
perceptions go straight, and the subject, grateful and responsive, gives
itself wholly up. It is no longer a case of an uncertain smoky torch,
but of a personal vision, the vision of genius, springing from an inward
source. Of this genius “L’Assommoir” is the most extraordinary record.
It contains, with the two companions I have given it, all the best of
Zola, and the three books together are solid ground—or would be could I
now so take them—for a study of the particulars of his power. His
strongest marks and features abound in them; “L’Assommoir” above all is
(not least in respect to its bold free linguistic reach, already glanced
at) completely genial, while his misadventures, his unequipped and
delusive pursuit of the life of the spirit and the tone of culture, are
almost completely absent.

It is a singular sight enough this of a producer of illusions whose
interest for us is so independent of our pleasure or at least of our
complacency—who touches us deeply even while he most “puts us off,” who
makes us care for his ugliness and yet himself at the same time
pitilessly (pitilessly, that is, for _us_) makes a mock of it, who fills
us with a sense of the rich which is none the less never the rare.
Gervaise, the most immediately “felt,” I cannot but think, of all his
characters, is a lame washerwoman, loose and gluttonous, without will,
without any principle of cohesion, the sport of every wind that assaults
her exposed life, and who, rolling from one gross mistake to another,
finds her end in misery, drink and despair. But her career, as
presented, has fairly the largeness that, throughout the chronicle, we
feel as epic, and the intensity of her creator’s vision of it and of the
dense sordid life hanging about it is one of the great things the modern
novel has been able to do. It has done nothing more completely
constitutive and of a tone so rich and full and sustained. The tone of
“L’Assommoir” is, for mere “keeping up,” unsurpassable, a vast deep
steady tide on which every object represented is triumphantly borne. It
never shrinks nor flows thin, and nothing for an instant drops, dips or
catches; the high-water mark of sincerity, of the genial, as I have
called it, is unfailingly kept.

For the artist in the same general “line” such a production has an
interest almost inexpressible, a mystery as to origin and growth over
which he fondly but rather vainly bends. How after all does it so get
itself _done_?—the “done” being admirably the sign and crown of it. The
light of the richer mind has been elsewhere, as I have sufficiently
hinted, frequent enough, but nothing truly in all fiction was ever built
so strong or made so dense as here. Needless to say there are a thousand
things with more charm in their truth, with more beguilement of every
sort, more prettiness of pathos, more innocence of drollery, for the
spectator’s sense of truth. But I doubt if there has ever been a more
totally _represented_ world, anything more founded and established, more
provided for all round, more organised and carried on. It is a world
practically workable, with every part as functional as every other, and
with the parts all chosen for direct mutual aid. Let it not be said
either that the equal constitution of parts makes for repletion or
excess; the air circulates and the subject blooms; deadness comes in
these matters only when the right parts are absent and there is vain
beating of the air in their place—the refuge of the fumbler incapable
of the thing “done” at all.

The mystery I speak of, for the reader who reflects as he goes, is the
wonder of the scale and energy of Zola’s assimilations. This wonder
besets us above all throughout the three books I have placed first. How,
all sedentary and “scientific,” did he get so _near_? By what art,
inscrutable, immeasurable, indefatigable, did he arrange to make of his
documents, in these connections, a use so vivified? Say he was “near”
the subject of “L’Assommoir” in imagination, in more or less familiar
impression, in temperament and humour, he could not after all have been
near it in personal experience, and the copious personalism of the
picture, not to say its frank animalism, yet remains its note and its
strength. When the note had been struck in a thousand forms we had, by
multiplication, as a kind of cumulative consequence, the finished and
rounded book; just as we had the same result by the same process in
“Germinal.” It is not of course that multiplication and accumulation,
the extraordinary pair of legs on which he walks, are easily or directly
consistent with his projecting himself morally; this immense diffusion,
with its appropriation of everything it meets, affects us on the
contrary as perpetually delaying access to what we may call the private
world, the world of the individual. Yet since the individual—for it so
happens—is simple and shallow our author’s dealings with him, as met
and measured, maintain their resemblance to those of the lusty bee who
succeeds in plumping for an instant, of a summer morning, into every
flower-cup of the garden.

Grant—and the generalisation may be emphatic—that the shallow and the
simple are _all_ the population of his richest and most crowded
pictures, and that his “psychology,” in a psychologic age, remains
thereby comparatively coarse, grant this and we but get another view of
the miracle. We see enough of the superficial among novelists at large,
assuredly, without deriving from it, as we derive from Zola at his best,
the concomitant impression of the solid. It is in general—I mean among
the novelists at large—the impression of the _cheap_, which the author
of Les Rougon-Macquart, honest man, never faithless for a moment to his
own stiff standard, manages to spare us even in the prolonged sandstorm
of “Vérité.” The Common is another matter; it is one of the forms of the
superficial—pervading and consecrating all things in such a book as
“Germinal”—and it only adds to the number of our critical questions.
How in the world is it made, this deplorable democratic malodorous
Common, so strange and so interesting? How is it taught to receive into
its loins the stuff of the epic and still, in spite of that association
with poetry, never depart from its nature? It is in the great lusty game
he plays with the shallow and the simple that Zola’s mastery resides,
and we see of course that when values are small it takes innumerable
items and combinations to make up the sum. In “L’Assommoir” and in
“Germinal,” to some extent even in “La Débâcle,” the values are all,
morally, personally, of the lowest—the highest is poor Gervaise
herself, richly human in her generosities and follies—yet each is as
distinct as a brass-headed nail.

What we come back to accordingly is the unprecedented case of such a
combination of parts. Painters, of great schools, often of great talent,
have responded liberally on canvas to the appeal of ugly things, of
Spanish beggars, squalid and dusty-footed, of martyred saints or other
convulsed sufferers, tortured and bleeding, of boors and louts soaking a
Dutch proboscis in perpetual beer; but we had never before had to reckon
with so literary a treatment of the mean and vulgar. When we others of
the Anglo-Saxon race are vulgar we are, handsomely and with the best
conscience in the world, vulgar all through, too vulgar to be in any
degree literary, and too much so therefore to be critically reckoned
with at all. The French are different—they separate their sympathies,
multiply their possibilities, observe their shades, remain more or less
outside of their worst disasters. They mostly contrive to get the
_idea_, in however dead a faint, down into the lifeboat. They may lose
sight of the stars, but they save in some such fashion as that their
intellectual souls. Zola’s own reply to all puzzlements would have been,
at any rate, I take it, a straight summary of his inveterate
professional habits. “It is all very simple—I produce, roughly
speaking, a volume a year, and of this time some five months go to
preparation, to special study. In the other months, with all my _cadres_
established, I write the book. And I can hardly say which part of the
job is stiffest.”

The story was not more wonderful for him than that, nor the job more
complex; which is why we must say of his whole process and its results
that they constitute together perhaps the most extraordinary _imitation_
of observation that we possess. Balzac appealed to “science” and
proceeded by her aid; Balzac had _cadres_ enough and a tabulated world,
rubrics, relationships and genealogies; but Balzac affects us in spite
of everything as personally overtaken by life, as fairly hunted and run
to earth by it. He strikes us as struggling and all but submerged, as
beating over the scene such a pair of wings as were not soon again to be
wielded by any visitor of his general air and as had not at all events
attached themselves to Zola’s rounded shoulders. His bequest is in
consequence immeasurably more interesting, yet who shall declare that
his adventure was in its greatness more successful? Zola “pulled it
off,” as we say, supremely, in that he never but once found himself
obliged to quit, to our vision, his magnificent treadmill of the
pigeonholed and documented—the region we may qualify as that of
experience by imitation. His splendid economy saw him through, he
laboured to the end within sight of his notes and his charts.

The extraordinary thing, however, is that on the single occasion when,
publicly—as his whole manifestation was public—life did swoop down on
him, the effect of the visitation was quite perversely other than might
have been looked for. His courage in the Dreyfus connection testified
admirably to his ability to live for himself and out of the order of his
volumes—little indeed as living at all might have seemed a question for
one exposed, when his crisis was at its height and he was found guilty
of “insulting” the powers that were, to be literally torn to pieces in
the precincts of the Palace of Justice. Our point is that nothing was
ever so odd as that these great moments should appear to have been
wasted, when all was said, for his creative intelligence. “Vérité,” as I
have intimated, the production in which they might most have been
reflected, is a production unrenewed and unrefreshed by them, spreads
before us as somehow flatter and greyer, not richer and more relieved,
by reason of them. They really arrived, I surmise, too late in the day;
the imagination they might have vivified was already fatigued and spent.

I must not moreover appear to say that the power to evoke and present
has not even on the dead level of “Vérité” its occasional minor
revenges. There are passages, whole pages, of the old full-bodied sort,
pictures that elsewhere in the series would in all likelihood have
seemed abundantly convincing. Their misfortune is to have been
discounted by our intensified, our finally fatal sense of the _procédé_.
Quarrelling with all conventions, defiant of them in general, Zola was
yet inevitably to set up his own group of them—as, for that matter,
without a sufficient collection, without their aid in simplifying and
making possible, how could he ever have seen his big ship into port? Art
welcomes them, feeds upon them always; no sort of form is practicable
without them. It is only a question of what particular ones we use—to
wage war on certain others and to arrive at particular forms. The
convention of the blameless being, the thoroughly “scientific” creature
possessed impeccably of all truth and serving as the mouthpiece of it
and of the author’s highest complacencies, this character is for
instance a convention inveterate and indispensable, without whom the
“sympathetic” side of the work could never have been achieved. Marc in
“Vérité,” Pierre Froment in “Lourdes” and in “Rome,” the wondrous
representatives of the principle of reproduction in “Fécondité,” the
exemplary painter of “L’Œuvre,” sublime in his modernity and paternity,
the patient Jean Macquart of “La Débâcle,” whose patience is as
guaranteed as the exactitude of a well-made watch, the supremely
enlightened Docteur Pascal even, as I recall him, all amorous nepotism
but all virtue too and all beauty of life—such figures show us the
reasonable and the good not merely in the white light of the old George
Sand novel and its improved moralities, but almost in that of our
childhood’s nursery and school-room, that of the moral tale of Miss
Edgeworth and Mr. Thomas Day.

Yet let not these restrictions be my last word. I had intended, under
the effect of a reperusal of “La Débâcle,” “Germinal” and “L’Assommoir,”
to make no discriminations that should not be in our hero’s favour. The
long-drawn incident of the marriage of Gervaise and Cadet-Cassis and
that of the Homeric birthday feast later on in the laundress’s workshop,
each treated from beginning to end and in every item of their coarse
comedy and humanity, still show the unprecedented breadth by which they
originally made us stare, still abound in the particular kind and degree
of vividness that helped them, when they appeared, to mark a date in the
portrayal of manners. Nothing had then been so sustained and at every
moment of its grotesque and pitiful existence lived into as the nuptial
day of the Coupeau pair in especial, their fantastic processional
pilgrimage through the streets of Paris in the rain, their bedraggled
exploration of the halls of the Louvre museum, lost as in the labyrinth
of Crete, and their arrival at last, ravenous and exasperated, at the
_guinguette_ where they sup at so much a head, each paying, and where we
sit down with them in the grease and the perspiration and succumb, half
in sympathy, half in shame, to their monstrous pleasantries, acerbities
and miseries. I have said enough of the mechanical in Zola; here in
truth is, given the elements, almost insupportably the sense of life.
That effect is equally in the historic chapter of the strike of the
miners in “Germinal,” another of those illustrative episodes, viewed as
great passages to be “rendered,” for which our author established
altogether a new measure and standard of handling, a new energy and
veracity, something since which the old trivialities and poverties of
treatment of such aspects have become incompatible, for the novelist,
with either rudimentary intelligence or rudimentary self-respect.

As for “La Débâcle,” finally, it takes its place with Tolstoi’s very
much more universal but very much less composed and condensed epic as an
incomparably human picture of war. I have been re-reading it, I confess,
with a certain timidity, the dread of perhaps impairing the deep
impression received at the time of its appearance. I recall the effect
it then produced on me as a really luxurious act of submission. It was
early in the summer; I was in an old Italian town; the heat was
oppressive, and one could but recline, in the lightest garments, in a
great dim room and give one’s self up. I like to think of the conditions
and the emotion, which melt for me together into the memory I fear to
imperil. I remember that in the glow of my admiration there was not a
reserve I had ever made that I was not ready to take back. As an
application of the author’s system and his supreme faculty, as a triumph
of what these things could do for him, how could such a performance be
surpassed? The long, complex, horrific, pathetic battle, embraced,
mastered, with every crash of its squadrons, every pulse of its thunder
and blood resolved for us, by reflection, by communication from two of
the humblest and obscurest of the military units, into immediate vision
and contact, into deep human thrills of terror and pity—this bristling
centre of the book was such a piece of “doing” (to come back to our
word) as could only shut our mouths. That doubtless is why a generous
critic, nursing the sensation, may desire to drop for a farewell no term
into the other scale. That our author was clearly great at congruous
subjects—this may well be our conclusion. If the others, subjects of
the private and intimate order, gave him more or less inevitably “away,”
they yet left him the great distinction that the more he could be
promiscuous and collective, the more even he could (to repeat my
imputation) illustrate our large natural allowance of health, heartiness
and grossness, the more he could strike us as penetrating and true. It
was a distinction not easy to win and that his name is not likely soon
to lose.



                            GUSTAVE FLAUBERT


The first thing I find to-day and on my very threshold[2] to say about
Gustave Flaubert is that he has been reported on by M. Émile Faguet in
the series of Les Grands Écrivains Français with such lucidity as may
almost be taken to warn off a later critic. I desire to pay at the
outset my tribute to M. Faguet’s exhaustive study, which is really in
its kind a model and a monument. Never can a critic have got closer to a
subject of this order; never can the results of the approach have been
more copious or more interesting; never in short can the master of a
complex art have been more mastered in his turn, nor his art more
penetrated, by the application of an earnest curiosity. That remark I
have it at heart to make, so pre-eminently has the little volume I refer
to not left the subject where it found it. It abounds in contributive
light, and yet, I feel on reflection that it scarce wholly dazzles
another contributor away. One reason of this is that, though I enter
into everything M. Faguet has said, there are things—things perhaps
especially of the province of the artist, the fellow-craftsman of
Flaubert—that I am conscious of his not having said; another is that
inevitably there are particular possibilities of reaction in our
English-speaking consciousness that hold up a light of their own.
Therefore I venture to follow even on a field so laboured, only paying
this toll to the latest and best work because the author has made it
impossible to do less.

Flaubert’s life is so almost exclusively the story of his literary
application that to speak of his five or six fictions is pretty well to
account for it all. He died in 1880 after a career of fifty-nine years
singularly little marked by changes of scene, of fortune, of attitude,
of occupation, of character, and above all, as may be said, of mind. He
would be interesting to the race of novelists if only because, quite
apart from the value of his work, he so personally gives us the example
and the image, so presents the intellectual case. He was born a
novelist, grew up, lived, died a novelist, breathing, feeling, thinking,
speaking, performing every operation of life, only as that votary; and
this though his production was to be small in amount and though it
constituted all his diligence. It was not indeed perhaps primarily so
much that he was born and lived a novelist as that he was born and lived
literary, and that to be literary represented for him an almost
overwhelming situation. No life was long enough, no courage great
enough, no fortune kind enough to support a man under the burden of this
character when once such a doom had been laid on him. His case was a
doom because he felt of his vocation almost nothing but the difficulty.
He had many strange sides, but this was the strangest, that if we argued
from his difficulty to his work, the difficulty being registered for us
in his letters and elsewhere, we should expect from the result but the
smallest things. We should be prepared to find in it well-nigh a
complete absence of the signs of a gift. We should regret that the
unhappy man had not addressed himself to something he might have found
at least comparatively easy. We should singularly miss the consecration
supposedly given to a work of art by its having been conceived in joy.
That is Flaubert’s remarkable, his so far as I know unmatched
distinction, that he has left works of an extraordinary art even the
conception of which failed to help him to think in serenity. The chapter
of execution, from the moment execution gets really into the shafts, is
of course always and everywhere a troubled one—about which moreover too
much has of late been written; but we frequently find Flaubert cursing
his subjects themselves, wishing he had not chosen them, holding himself
up to derision for having done so, and hating them in the very act of
sitting down to them. He cared immensely for the medium, the task and
the triumph involved, but was himself the last to be able to say why. He
is sustained only by the rage and the habit of effort; the mere _love_
of letters, let alone the love of life, appears at an early age to have
deserted him. Certain passages in his correspondence make us even wonder
if it be not hate that sustains him most. So, successively, his several
supremely finished and crowned compositions came into the world, and we
may feel sure that none others of the kind, none that were to have an
equal fortune, had sprung from such adversity.

I insist upon this because his at once excited and baffled passion gives
the key of his life and determines its outline. I must speak of him at
least as I feel him and as in his very latest years I had the fortune
occasionally to see him. I said just now, practically, that he is for
many of our tribe at large _the_ novelist, intent and typical, and so,
gathered together and foreshortened, simplified and fixed, the lapse of
time seems to show him. It has made him in his prolonged posture
extraordinarily objective, made him even resemble one of his own
productions, constituted him as a subject, determined him as a figure;
the limit of his range, and above all of his reach, is after this
fashion, no doubt, sufficiently indicated, and yet perhaps in the event
without injury to his name. If our consideration of him cultivates a
certain tenderness on the double ground that he suffered supremely in
the cause and that there is endlessly much to be learned from him, we
remember at the same time that, indirectly, the world at large possesses
him not less than the _confrère_. He has fed and fertilised, has
filtered through others, and so arrived at contact with that public from
whom it was his theory that he was separated by a deep and impassable
trench, the labour of his own spade. He is none the less more
interesting, I repeat, as a failure however qualified than as a success
however explained, and it is as so viewed that the unity of his career
attaches and admonishes. Save in some degree by a condition of health (a
liability to epileptic fits at times frequent, but never so frequent as
to have been generally suspected,) he was not outwardly hampered as the
tribe of men of letters goes—an anxious brotherhood at the best; yet
the fewest possible things appear to have ever succeeded in happening to
him. The only son of an eminent provincial physician, he inherited a
modest ease and no other incumbrance than, as was the case for Balzac,
an over-attentive, an importunate mother; but freedom spoke to him from
behind a veil, and when we have mentioned the few apparent facts of
experience that make up his landmarks over and beyond his interspaced
publications we shall have completed his biography. Tall, strong,
striking, he caused his friends to admire in him the elder, the florid
Norman type, and he seems himself, as a man of imagination, to have
found some transmission of race in his stature and presence, his
light-coloured salient eyes and long tawny moustache.

The central event of his life was his journey to the East in 1849 with
M. Maxime Du Camp, of which the latter has left in his “Impressions
Littéraires” a singularly interesting and, as we may perhaps say,
slightly treacherous report, and which prepared for Flaubert a state of
nostalgia that was not only never to leave him, but that was to work in
him as a motive. He had during that year, and just in sufficient
quantity, his revelation, the particular appropriate disclosure to which
the gods at some moment treat the artist unless they happen too
perversely to conspire against him: he tasted of the knowledge by which
he was subsequently to measure everything, appeal from everything, find
everything flat. Never probably was an impression so assimilated, so
positively transmuted to a function; he lived on it to the end and we
may say that in “Salammbô” and “La Tentation de Saint-Antoine” he almost
died of it. He made afterwards no other journey of the least importance
save a disgusted excursion to the Rigi-Kaltbad shortly before his death.
The Franco-German War was of course to him for the time as the valley of
the shadow itself; but this was an ordeal, unlike most of his other
ordeals, shared after all with millions. He never married—he declared,
toward the end, to the most comprehending of his confidants, that he had
been from the first “afraid of life”; and the friendliest element of his
later time was, we judge, that admirable comfortable commerce, in her
fullest maturity, with Madame George Sand, the confidant I just referred
to; which has been preserved for us in the published correspondence of
each. He had in Ivan Turgenieff a friend almost as valued; he spent each
year a few months in Paris, where (to mention everything) he had his
natural place, so far as he cared to take it, at the small literary
court of the Princess Mathilde; and, lastly, he lost toward the close of
his life, by no fault of his own, a considerable part of his modest
fortune. It is, however, in the long security, the almost unbroken
solitude of Croisset, near Rouen, that he mainly figures for us, gouging
out his successive books in the wide old room, of many windows, that,
with an intervening terrace, overlooked the broad Seine and the passing
boats. This was virtually a monastic cell, closed to echoes and
accidents; with its stillness for long periods scarce broken save by the
creak of the towing-chain of the tugs across the water. When I have
added that his published letters offer a view, not very refreshing, of
his youthful entanglement with Madame Louise Colet—whom we name
because, apparently not a shrinking person, she long ago practically
named herself—I shall have catalogued his personal vicissitudes. And I
may add further that the connection with Madame Colet, such as it was,
rears its head for us in something like a desert of immunity from such
complications.

His complications were of the spirit, of the literary vision, and though
he was thoroughly profane he was yet essentially anchoretic. I perhaps
miss a point, however, in not finally subjoining that he was liberally
accessible to his friends during the months he regularly spent in Paris.
Sensitive, passionate, perverse, not less than _immediately_
sociable—for if he detested his collective contemporaries this dropped,
thanks to his humanising shyness, before the individual encounter—he
was in particular and superexcellently not _banal_, and he attached men
perhaps more than women, inspiring a marked, a by no means colourless
shade of respect; a respect not founded, as the air of it is apt to be,
on the vague presumption, but addressed almost in especial to his
disparities and oddities and thereby, no doubt, none too different from
affection. His friends at all events were a rich and eager _cénacle_,
among whom he was on occasion, by his picturesque personality, a natural
and overtopping centre; partly perhaps because he was so much and so
familiarly at home. He wore, up to any hour of the afternoon, that long,
colloquial dressing-gown, with trousers to match, which one has always
associated with literature in France—the uniform really of freedom of
talk. Freedom of talk abounded by his winter fire, for the _cénacle_ was
made up almost wholly of the more finely distinguished among his
contemporaries; of philosophers, men of letters and men of affairs
belonging to his own generation and the next. He had at the time I have
in mind a small perch, far aloft, at the distant, the then almost
suburban, end of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where on Sunday afternoons,
at the very top of an endless flight of stairs, were to be encountered
in a cloud of conversation and smoke most of the novelists of the
general Balzac tradition. Others of a different birth and complexion
were markedly not of the number, were not even conceivable as present;
none of those, unless I misremember, whose fictions were at that time
“serialised” in the Revue des Deux Mondes. In spite of Renan and Taine
and two or three more, the contributor to the Revue would indeed at no
time have found in the circle in question his foot on his native heath.
One could recall if one would two or three vivid allusions to him, not
of the most quotable, on the lips of the most famous of
“naturalists”—allusions to him as represented for instance by M. Victor
Cherbuliez and M. Octave Feuillet. The author of these pages recalls a
concise qualification of this last of his fellows on the lips of Émile
Zola, which that absorbed auditor had too directly, too rashly asked
for; but which is alas not reproducible here. There was little else but
the talk, which had extreme intensity and variety; almost nothing, as I
remember, but a painted and gilded idol, of considerable size, a relic
and a memento, on the chimney-piece. Flaubert was huge and diffident,
but florid too and resonant, and my main remembrance is of a conception
of courtesy in him, an accessibility to the human relation, that only
wanted to be sure of the way taken or to take. The uncertainties of the
French for the determination of intercourse have often struck me as
quite matching the sharpness of their certainties, as we for the most
part feel these latter, which sometimes in fact throw the indeterminate
into almost touching relief. I have thought of them at such times as the
people in the world one may have to go more of the way to meet than to
meet any other, and this, as it were, through their being seated and
embedded, provided for at home, in a manner that is all their own and
that has bred them to the positive preacceptance of interest on their
behalf. We at least of the Anglo-American race, more abroad in the
world, perching everywhere, so far as grounds of intercourse are
concerned, more vaguely and superficially, as well as less
intelligently, are the more ready by that fact with inexpensive
accommodations, rather conscious that these themselves forbear from the
claim to fascinate, and advancing with the good nature that is the
mantle of our obtuseness to any point whatever where entertainment may
be offered us. My recollection is at any rate simplified by the fact of
the presence almost always, in the little high room of the Faubourg’s
end, of other persons and other voices. Flaubert’s own voice is clearest
to me from the uneffaced sense of a winter week-day afternoon when I
found him by exception alone and when something led to his reading me
aloud, in support of some judgment he had thrown off, a poem of
Théophile Gautier’s. He cited it as an example of verse intensely and
distinctively French, and French in its melancholy, which neither Goethe
nor Heine nor Leopardi, neither Pushkin nor Tennyson nor, as he said,
Byron, could at all have matched in _kind_. He converted me at the
moment to this perception, alike by the sense of the thing and by his
large utterance of it; after which it is dreadful to have to confess not
only that the poem was then new to me, but that, hunt as I will in every
volume of its author, I am never able to recover it. This is perhaps
after all happy, causing Flaubert’s own full tone, which was the note of
the occasion, to linger the more unquenched. But for the rhyme in fact I
could have believed him to be spouting to me something strange and
sonorous of his own. The thing really rare would have been to hear him
do that—hear him _gueuler_, as he liked to call it. Verse, I felt, we
had always with us, and almost any idiot of goodwill could give it a
value. The value of so many a passage of “Salammbô” and of “L’Éducation”
was on the other hand exactly such as gained when he allowed himself, as
had by the legend ever been frequent _dans l’intimité_, to “bellow” it
to its fullest effect.

One of the things that make him most exhibitional and most describable,
so that if we had invented him as an illustration or a character we
would exactly so have arranged him, is that he was formed intellectually
of two quite distinct compartments, a sense of the real and a sense of
the romantic, and that his production, for our present cognisance, thus
neatly and vividly divides itself. The divisions are as marked as the
sections on the back of a scarab, though their distinctness is
undoubtedly but the final expression of much inward strife. M. Faguet
indeed, who is admirable on this question of our author’s duality, gives
an account of the romanticism that found its way for him into the real
and of the reality that found its way into the romantic; but he none the
less strikes us as a curious splendid insect sustained on wings of a
different coloration, the right a vivid red, say, and the left as frank
a yellow. This duality has in its sharp operation placed “Madame Bovary”
and “L’Éducation” on one side together and placed together on the other
“Salammbô” and “La Tentation.” “Bouvard et Pécuchet” it can scarce be
spoken of, I think, as having placed anywhere or anyhow. If it was
Flaubert’s way to find his subject impossible there was none he saw so
much in that light as this last-named, but also none that he appears to
have held so important for that very reason to pursue to the bitter end.
Posterity agrees with him about the impossibility, but rather takes upon
itself to break with the rest of the logic. We may perhaps, however, for
symmetry, let “Bouvard et Pécuchet” figure as the tail—if scarabs ever
have tails—of our analogous insect. Only in that case we should also
append as the very tip the small volume of the “Trois Contes,”
preponderantly of the deepest imaginative hue.

His imagination was great and splendid; in spite of which, strangely
enough, his masterpiece is not his most imaginative work. “Madame
Bovary,” beyond question, holds that first place, and “Madame Bovary” is
concerned with the career of a country doctor’s wife in a petty Norman
town. The elements of the picture are of the fewest, the situation of
the heroine almost of the meanest, the material for interest,
considering the interest yielded, of the most unpromising; but these
facts only throw into relief one of those incalculable incidents that
attend the proceedings of genius. “Madame Bovary” was doomed by
circumstances and causes—the freshness of comparative youth and good
faith on the author’s part being perhaps the chief—definitely to take
its position, even though its subject was fundamentally a negation of
the remote, the splendid and the strange, the stuff of his fondest and
most cultivated dreams. It would have seemed very nearly to exclude the
free play of the imagination, and the way this faculty on the author’s
part nevertheless presides is one of those accidents, manœuvres,
inspirations, we hardly know what to call them, by which masterpieces
grow. He of course knew more or less what he was doing for his book in
making Emma Bovary a victim of the imaginative habit, but he must have
been far from designing or measuring the total effect which renders the
work so general, so complete an expression of himself. His separate
idiosyncrasies, his irritated sensibility to the life about him, with
the power to catch it in the fact and hold it hard, and his hunger for
style and history and poetry, for the rich and the rare, great
reverberations, great adumbrations, are here represented together as
they are not in his later writings. There is nothing of the near, of the
directly observed, though there may be much of the directly perceived
and the minutely detailed, either in “Salammbô” or in “Saint-Antoine,”
and little enough of the extravagance of illusion in that indefinable
last word of restrained evocation and cold execution “L’Éducation
Sentimentale.” M. Faguet has of course excellently noted this—that the
fortune and felicity of the book were assured by the stroke that made
the central figure an embodiment of helpless romanticism. Flaubert
himself but narrowly escaped being such an embodiment after all, and he
is thus able to express the romantic mind with extraordinary truth. As
to the rest of the matter he had the luck of having been in possession
from the first, having begun so early to nurse and work up his plan
that, familiarity and the native air, the native soil, aiding, he had
finally made out to the last lurking shade the small sordid sunny dusty
village picture, its emptiness constituted and peopled. It is in the
background and the accessories that the real, the real of his theme,
abides; and the romantic, the romantic of his theme, accordingly
occupies the front. Emma Bovary’s poor adventures are a tragedy for the
very reason that in a world unsuspecting, unassisting, unconsoling, she
has herself to distil the rich and the rare. Ignorant, unguided,
undiverted, ridden by the very nature and mixture of her consciousness,
she makes of the business an inordinate failure, a failure which in its
turn makes for Flaubert the most pointed, the most _told_ of anecdotes.

There are many things to say about “Madame Bovary,” but an old admirer
of the book would be but half-hearted—so far as they represent reserves
or puzzlements—were he not to note first of all the circumstances by
which it is most endeared to him. To remember it from far back is to
have been present all along at a process of singular interest to a
literary mind, a case indeed full of comfort and cheer. The finest of
Flaubert’s novels is to-day, on the French shelf of fiction, one of the
first of the classics; it has attained that position, slowly but
steadily, before our eyes; and we seem so to follow the evolution of the
fate of a classic. We see how the thing takes place; which we rarely
can, for we mostly miss either the beginning or the end, especially in
the case of a consecration as complete as this. The consecrations of the
past are too far behind and those of the future too far in front. That
the production before us _should_ have come in for the heavenly crown
may be a fact to offer English and American readers a mystifying side;
but it is exactly our ground and a part moreover of the total interest.
The author of these remarks remembers, as with a sense of the way such
things happen, that when a very young person in Paris he took up from
the parental table the latest number of the periodical in which
Flaubert’s then duly unrecognised masterpiece was in course of
publication. The moment is not historic, but it was to become in the
light of history, as may be said, so unforgettable that every small
feature of it yet again lives for him: it rests there like the backward
end of the span. The cover of the old Revue de Paris was yellow, if I
mistake not, like that of the new, and “Madame Bovary: Mœurs de
Province,” on the inside of it, was already, on the spot, as a title,
mysteriously arresting, inscrutably charged. I was ignorant of what had
preceded and was not to know till much later what followed; but present
to me still is the act of standing there before the fire, my back
against the low beplushed and begarnished French chimney-piece and
taking in what I might of that instalment, taking it in with so
surprised an interest, and perhaps as well such a stir of faint
foreknowledge, that the sunny little salon, the autumn day, the window
ajar and the cheerful outside clatter of the Rue Montaigne are all now
for me more or less in the story and the story more or less in them. The
story, however, was at that moment having a difficult life; its fortune
was all to make; its merit was so far from suspected that, as Maxime Du
Camp—though verily with no excess of contrition—relates, its cloth of
gold barely escaped the editorial shears. This, with much more,
contributes for us to the course of things to come. The book, on its
appearance as a volume, proved a shock to the high propriety of the
guardians of public morals under the second Empire, and Flaubert was
prosecuted as author of a work indecent to scandal. The prosecution in
the event fell to the ground, but I should perhaps have mentioned this
agitation as one of the very few, of any public order, in his short
list. “Le Candidat” fell at the Vaudeville Theatre, several years later,
with a violence indicated by its withdrawal after a performance of but
two nights, the first of these marked by a deafening uproar; only if the
comedy was not to recover from this accident the misprised lustre of the
novel was entirely to reassert itself. It is strange enough at
present—so far have we travelled since then—that “Madame Bovary”
should in so comparatively recent a past have been to that extent a
cause of reprobation; and suggestive above all, in such connections, as
to the large unconsciousness of superior minds. The desire of the
superior mind of the day—that is the governmental, official, legal—to
distinguish a book with such a destiny before it is a case conceivable,
but conception breaks down before its design of making the distinction
purely invidious. We can imagine its knowing so little, however face to
face with the object, what it had got hold of; but for it to have been
so urged on by a blind inward spring to publish to posterity the extent
of its ignorance, that would have been beyond imagination, beyond
everything but pity.

And yet it is not after all that the place the book has taken is so
overwhelmingly explained by its inherent dignity; for here comes in the
curiosity of the matter. Here comes in especially its fund of admonition
for alien readers. The dignity of its substance is the dignity of Madame
Bovary herself as a vessel of experience—a question as to which,
unmistakably, I judge, we can only depart from the consensus of French
critical opinion. M. Faguet for example commends the character of the
heroine as one of the most living and discriminated figures of women in
all literature, praises it as a field for the display of the romantic
spirit that leaves nothing to be desired. Subject to an observation I
shall presently make and that bears heavily in general, I think, on
Flaubert as a painter of life, subject to this restriction he is right;
which is a proof that a work of art may be markedly open to objection
and at the same time be rare in its kind, and that when it is perfect to
this point nothing else particularly matters. “Madame Bovary” has a
perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost
alone; it holds itself with such a supreme unapproachable assurance as
both excites and defies judgment. For it deals not in the least, as to
unapproachability, with things exalted or refined; it only confers on
its sufficiently vulgar elements of exhibition a final unsurpassable
form. The form is in _itself_ as interesting, as active, as much of the
essence of the subject as the idea, and yet so close is its fit and so
inseparable its life that we catch it at no moment on any errand of its
own. That verily is to _be_ interesting—all round; that is to be
genuine and whole. The work is a classic because the thing, such as it
is, is ideally _done_, and because it shows that in such doing eternal
beauty may dwell. A pretty young woman who lives, socially and morally
speaking, in a hole, and who is ignorant, foolish, flimsy, unhappy,
takes a pair of lovers by whom she is successively deserted; in the
midst of the bewilderment of which, giving up her husband and her child,
letting everything go, she sinks deeper into duplicity, debt, despair,
and arrives on the spot, on the small scene itself of her poor
depravities, at a pitiful tragic end. In especial she does these things
while remaining absorbed in romantic intention and vision, and she
remains absorbed in romantic intention and vision while fairly rolling
in the dust. That is the triumph of the book as the triumph stands, that
Emma interests us by the nature of her consciousness and the play of her
mind, thanks to the reality and beauty with which those sources are
invested. It is not only that they represent _her_ state; they are so
true, so observed and felt, and especially so shown, that they represent
the state, actual or potential, of all persons like her, persons
romantically determined. Then her setting, the medium in which she
struggles, becomes in its way as important, becomes eminent with the
eminence of art; the tiny world in which she revolves, the contracted
cage in which she flutters, is hung out in space for her, and her
companions in captivity there are as true as herself.

I have said enough to show what I mean by Flaubert’s having in this
picture expressed something of his intimate self, given his heroine
something of his own imagination: a point precisely that brings me back
to the restriction at which I just now hinted, in which M. Faguet fails
to indulge and yet which is immediate for the alien reader. Our
complaint is that Emma Bovary, in spite of the nature of her
consciousness and in spite of her reflecting so much that of her
creator, is really too small an affair. This, critically speaking, is in
view both of the value and the fortune of her history, a wonderful
circumstance. She associates herself with Frédéric Moreau in
“L’Éducation” to suggest for us a question that can be answered, I hold,
only to Flaubert’s detriment. Emma taken alone would possibly not so
directly press it, but in her company the hero of our author’s second
study of the “real” drives it home. Why did Flaubert choose, as special
conduits of the life he proposed to depict, such inferior and in the
case of Frédéric such abject human specimens? I insist only in respect
to the latter, the perfection of Madame Bovary scarce leaving one much
warrant for wishing anything other. Even here, however, the general
scale and size of Emma, who is small even of her sort, should be a
warning to hyperbole. If I say that in the matter of Frédéric at all
events the answer is inevitably detrimental I mean that it weighs
heavily on our author’s general credit. He wished in each case to make a
picture of experience—middling experience, it is true—and of the world
close to him; but if he imagined nothing better for his purpose than
such a heroine and such a hero, both such limited reflectors and
registers, we are forced to believe it to have been by a defect of his
mind. And that sign of weakness remains even if it be objected that the
images in question were addressed to his purpose better than others
would have been: the purpose itself then shows as inferior. “L’Éducation
Sentimentale” is a strange, an indescribable work, about which there
would be many more things to say than I have space for, and all of them
of the deepest interest. It is moreover, to simplify my statement, very
much less satisfying a thing, less pleasing whether in its unity or its
variety, than its specific predecessor. But take it as we will, for a
success or a failure—M. Faguet indeed ranks it, by the measure of its
quantity of intention, a failure, and I on the whole agree with him—the
personage offered us as bearing the weight of the drama, and in whom we
are invited to that extent to interest ourselves, leaves us mainly
wondering what our entertainer could have been thinking of. He takes
Frédéric Moreau on the threshold of life and conducts him to the extreme
of maturity without apparently suspecting for a moment either our wonder
or our protest—“Why, why him?” Frédéric is positively too poor for his
part, too scant for his charge; and we feel with a kind of
embarrassment, certainly with a kind of compassion, that it is somehow
the business of a protagonist to prevent in his designer an excessive
waste of faith. When I speak of the faith in Emma Bovary as
proportionately wasted I reflect on M. Faguet’s judgment that she is
from the point of view of deep interest richly or at least roundedly
representative. Representative of what? he makes us ask even while
granting all the grounds of misery and tragedy involved. The plea for
her is the plea made for all the figures that live without evaporation
under the painter’s hand—that they are not only particular persons but
types of their kind, and as valid in one light as in the other. It is
Emma’s “kind” that I question for this responsibility, even if it be
inquired of me why I then fail to question that of Charles Bovary, in
its perfection, or that of the inimitable, the immortal Homais. If we
express Emma’s deficiency as the poverty of her consciousness for the
typical function, it is certainly not, one must admit, that she is
surpassed in this respect either by her platitudinous husband or by his
friend the pretentious apothecary. The difference is none the less
somehow in the fact that they are respectively studies but of their
character and office, which function in each expresses adequately _all_
they are. It may be, I concede, because Emma is the only woman in the
book that she is taken by M. Faguet as _femininely_ typical, typical in
the larger illustrative way, whereas the others pass with him for images
specifically conditioned. Emma is this same for myself, I plead; she is
conditioned to such an excess of the specific, and the specific in her
case leaves out so many even of the commoner elements of conceivable
life in a woman when we are invited to see that life as pathetic, as
dramatic agitation, that we challenge both the author’s and the critic’s
scale of importances. The book is a picture of the middling as much as
they like, but does Emma attain even to _that_? Hers is a narrow
middling even for a little imaginative person whose “social”
significance is small. It is greater on the whole than her capacity of
consciousness, taking this all round; and so, in a word, we feel her
less illustrational than she might have been not only if the world had
offered her more points of contact, but if she had had more of these to
give it.

We meet Frédéric first, we remain with him long, as a _moyen_, a
provincial bourgeois of the mid-century, educated and not without
fortune, thereby with freedom, in whom the life of his day reflects
itself. Yet the life of his day, on Flaubert’s showing, hangs together
with the poverty of Frédéric’s own inward or for that matter outward
life; so that, the whole thing being, for scale, intention and
extension, a sort of epic of the usual (with the Revolution of 1848
introduced indeed as an episode,) it affects us as an epic without air,
without wings to lift it; reminds us in fact more than anything else of
a huge balloon, all of silk pieces strongly sewn together and patiently
blown up, but that absolutely refuses to leave the ground. The
discrimination I here make as against our author is, however, the only
one inevitable in a series of remarks so brief. What it really
represents—and nothing could be more curious—is that Frédéric enjoys
his position not only without the aid of a single “sympathetic”
character of consequence, but even without the aid of one with whom we
can directly communicate. Can we communicate with the central personage?
or would we really if we could? A hundred times no, and if he himself
can communicate with the people shown us as surrounding him this only
proves him of their kind. Flaubert on his “real” side was in truth an
ironic painter, and ironic to a tune that makes his final accepted
state, his present literary dignity and “classic” peace, superficially
anomalous. There is an explanation to which I shall immediately come;
but I find myself feeling for a moment longer in presence of
“L’Éducation” how much more interesting a writer may be on occasion by
the given failure than by the given success. Successes pure and simple
disconnect and dismiss him; failures—though I admit they must be a bit
qualified—keep him in touch and in relation. Thus it is that as the
work of a “grand écrivain” “L’Éducation,” large, laboured, immensely
“written,” with beautiful passages and a general emptiness, with a kind
of leak in its stored sadness, moreover, by which its moral dignity
escapes—thus it is that Flaubert’s ill-starred novel is a curiosity for
a literary museum. Thus it is also that it suggests a hundred
reflections, and suggests perhaps most of them directly to the intending
labourer in the same field. If in short, as I have said, Flaubert is the
novelist’s novelist, this performance does more than any other toward
making him so.

I have to add in the same connection that I had not lost sight of Madame
Arnoux, the main ornament of “L’Éducation,” in pronouncing just above on
its deficiency in the sympathetic. Madame Arnoux is exactly the author’s
one marked attempt, here or elsewhere, to represent beauty otherwise
than for the senses, beauty of character and life; and what becomes of
the attempt is a matter highly significant. M. Faguet praises with
justice his conception of the figure and of the relation, the relation
that never bears fruit, that keeps Frédéric adoring her, through
hindrance and change, from the beginning of life to the end; that keeps
her, by the same constraint, forever immaculately “good,” from youth to
age, though deeply moved and cruelly tempted and sorely tried. Her
contacts with her adorer are not even frequent, in proportion to the
field of time; her conditions of fortune, of association and occupation
are almost sordid, and we see them with the march of the drama, such as
it is, become more and more so; besides which—I again remember that M.
Faguet excellently notes it—nothing in the nature of “parts” is
attributed to her; not only is she not presented as clever, she is
scarce invested with a character at all. Almost nothing that she says is
repeated, almost nothing that she does is shown. She is an image none
the less beautiful and vague, an image of passion cherished and abjured,
renouncing all sustenance and yet persisting in life. Only she has for
real distinction the extreme drawback that she is offered us quite
preponderantly through Frédéric’s vision of her, that we see her
practically in no other light. Now Flaubert unfortunately has not been
able not so to discredit Frédéric’s vision in general, his vision of
everyone and everything, and in particular of his own life, that it
makes a medium good enough to convey adequately a noble impression.
Madame Arnoux is of course ever so much the best thing in his
life—which is saying little; but his life is made up of such queer
material that we find ourselves displeased at her being “in” it on
whatever terms; all the more that she seems scarcely to affect, improve
or determine it. Her creator in short never had a more awkward idea than
this attempt to give us the benefit of such a conception in such a way;
and even though I have still something else to say about that I may as
well speak of it at once as a mistake that gravely counts against him.
It is but one of three, no doubt, in all his work; but I shall not, I
trust, pass for extravagant if I call it the most indicative. What makes
it so is its being the least superficial; the two others are, so to
speak, intellectual, while this is somehow moral. It was a mistake, as I
have already hinted, to propose to register in so mean a consciousness
as that of such a hero so large and so mixed a quantity of life as
“L’Éducation” clearly intends; and it was a mistake of the tragic sort
that is a theme mainly for silence to have embarked on “Bouvard et
Pécuchet” at all, not to have given it up sooner than be given up by it.
But these were at the worst not wholly compromising blunders. What _was_
compromising—and the great point is that it remained so, that nothing
has an equal weight against it—is the unconsciousness of error in
respect to the opportunity that would have counted as his finest. We
feel not so much that Flaubert misses it, for that we could bear; but
that he doesn’t _know_ he misses it is what stamps the blunder. We do
not pretend to say how he might have shown us Madame Arnoux better—that
was his own affair. What is ours is that he really thought he was
showing her as well as he could, or as she might be shown; at which we
veil our face. For once that he had a conception quite apart, apart I
mean from the array of his other conceptions and more delicate than any,
he “went,” as we say, and spoiled it. Let me add in all tenderness, and
to make up for possibly too much insistence, that it is the only stain
on his shield; let me even confess that I should not wonder if, when all
is said, it is a blemish no one has ever noticed.

Perhaps no one has ever noticed either what was present to me just above
as the partial makeweight there glanced at, the fact that in the midst
of this general awkwardness, as I have called it, there is at the same
time a danger so escaped as to entitle our author to full credit. I
scarce know how to put it with little enough of the ungracious, but I
think that even the true Flaubertist finds himself wondering a little
that some flaw of taste, some small but unfortunate lapse by the way,
_should_ as a matter of fact not somehow or somewhere have waited on the
demonstration of the platonic purity prevailing between this heroine and
her hero—so far as we do find that image projected. It is alike
difficult to indicate without offence or to ignore without unkindness a
fond reader’s apprehension here of a possibility of the wrong touch, the
just perceptibly false note. I would not have staked my life on
Flaubert’s security of instinct in such a connection—as an absolutely
fine and predetermined security; and yet in the event that felicity has
settled, there is not so much as the lightest wrong breath (speaking of
the matter in this light of tact and taste) or the shade of a crooked
stroke. One exclaims at the end of the question “Dear old Flaubert after
all—!” and perhaps so risks seeming to patronise for fear of not making
a point. The point made for what it is worth, at any rate, I am the more
free to recover the benefit of what I mean by critical “tenderness” in
our general connection—expressing in it as I do our general respect,
and my own particular, for our author’s method and process and history,
and my sense of the luxury of such a sentiment at such a vulgar literary
time. It is a respect positive and settled and the thing that has most
to do with consecrating for us that loyalty to him as the novelist of
the novelist—unlike as it is even the best feeling inspired by any
other member of the craft. He may stand for our operative conscience or
our vicarious sacrifice; animated by a sense of literary honour,
attached to an ideal of perfection, incapable of lapsing in fine from a
self-respect, that enable us to sit at ease, to surrender to the age, to
indulge in whatever comparative meannesses (and no meanness in art is so
mean as the sneaking economic,) we may find most comfortable or
profitable. May it not in truth be said that we practise our industry,
so many of us, at relatively little cost just _because_ poor Flaubert,
producing the most expensive fictions ever written, so handsomely paid
for it? It is as if this put it in our power to produce cheap and
thereby sell dear; as if, so expressing it, literary honour being by his
example effectively secure for the firm at large and the general
concern, on its whole esthetic side, floated once for all, we find our
individual attention free for literary and esthetic indifference. All
the while we thus lavish our indifference the spirit of the author of
“Madame Bovary,” in the cross-light of the old room above the Seine, is
trying to the last admiration for the thing itself. That production puts
the matter into a nutshell: “Madame Bovary,” subject to whatever
qualification, is absolutely the most literary of novels, so literary
that it covers us with its mantle. It shows us once for all that there
is no _intrinsic_ call for a debasement of the type. The mantle I speak
of is wrought with surpassing fineness, and we may always, under stress
of whatever charge of illiteracy, frivolity, vulgarity, flaunt it as the
flag of the guild. Let us therefore frankly concede that to surround
Flaubert with our consideration is the least return we can make for such
a privilege. The consideration moreover is idle unless it be real,
unless it be intelligent enough to measure his effort and his success.
Of the effort as mere effort I have already spoken, of the desperate
difficulty involved for him in making his form square with his
conception; and I by no means attach general importance to these secrets
of the workshop, which are but as the contortions of the fastidious muse
who is the servant of the oracle. They are really rather secrets of the
kitchen and contortions of the priestess of _that_ tripod—they are not
an upstairs matter. It is of their specially distinctive importance I am
now speaking, of the light shed on them by the results before us.

They all represent the pursuit of a style, of the ideally right one for
its relations, and would still be interesting if the style had not been
achieved. “Madame Bovary,” “Salammbô,” “Saint-Antoine,” “L’Éducation”
are so written and so composed (though the last-named in a minor degree)
that the more we look at them the more we find in them, under this head,
a beauty of intention and of effect; the more they figure in the too
often dreary desert of fictional prose a class by themselves and a
little living oasis. So far as that desert is of the complexion of our
own English speech it supplies with remarkable rarity this particular
source of refreshment. So strikingly is that the case, so scant for the
most part any dream of a scheme of beauty in these connections, that a
critic betrayed at artless moments into a plea for composition may find
himself as blankly met as if his plea were for trigonometry. He makes
inevitably his reflections, which are numerous enough; one of them being
that if we turn our back so squarely, so universally to this order of
considerations it is because the novel is so preponderantly cultivated
among us by women, in other words by a sex ever gracefully, comfortably,
enviably unconscious (it would be too much to call them even
suspicious,) of the requirements of form. The case is at any rate
sharply enough made for us, or against us, by the circumstance that
women are held to have achieved on all our ground, in spite of this
weakness and others, as great results as any. The judgment is
undoubtedly founded: Jane Austen was instinctive and charming, and the
other recognitions—even over the heads of the ladies, some of them,
from Fielding to Pater—are obvious; without, however, in the least
touching my contention. For signal examples of what composition,
distribution, arrangement can do, of how they intensify the life of a
work of art, we have to go elsewhere; and the value of Flaubert for us
is that he admirably points the moral. This is the explanation of the
“classic” fortune of “Madame Bovary” in especial, though I may add that
also of Hérodias and Saint-Julien l’Hospitalier in the “Trois Contes,”
as well as an aspect of these works endlessly suggestive. I spoke just
now of the small field of the picture in the longest of them, the small
capacity, as I called it, of the vessel; yet the way the thing is done
not only triumphs over the question of value but in respect to it fairly
misleads and confounds us. Where else shall we find in anything
proportionately so small such an air of dignity of size? Flaubert _made_
things big—it was his way, his ambition and his necessity; and I say
this while remembering that in “L’Éducation” (in proportion I mean
again,) the effect has not been produced. The subject of “L’Éducation”
is in spite of Frédéric large, but an indefinable shrinkage has
overtaken it in the execution. The exception so marked, however, is
single; “Salammbô” and “Saint-Antoine” are both at once very “heavy”
conceptions and very consistently and splendidly high applications of a
manner.

It is in this assured manner that the lesson sits aloft, that the spell
for the critical reader resides; and if the conviction under which
Flaubert labours is more and more grossly discredited among us his
compact mass is but the greater. He regarded the work of art as
_existing_ but by its expression, and defied us to name any other
measure of its life that is not a stultification. He held style to be
accordingly an indefeasible part of it, and found beauty, interest and
distinction as dependent on it for emergence as a letter committed to
the post-office is dependent on an addressed envelope. Strange enough it
may well appear to us to have to apologise for such notions as
eccentric. There are persons who consider that style comes of itself—we
see and hear at present, I think, enough of them; and to whom he would
doubtless have remarked that it goes, of itself, still faster. The thing
naturally differs in fact with the nature of the imagination; the
question is one of proprieties and affinities, sympathy and proportion.
The sympathy of the author of “Salammbô” was all with the magnificent,
his imagination for the phrase as variously noble or ignoble in itself,
contribute or destructive, adapted and harmonious or casual and common.
The worse among such possibilities have been multiplied by the infection
of bad writing, and he denied that the better ever do anything so
obliging as to come of themselves. They scarcely indeed for Flaubert
“came” at all; their arrival was determined only by fasting and prayer
or by patience of pursuit, the arts of the chase, long waits and
watches, figuratively speaking, among the peaks or by the waters. The
production of a book was of course made inordinately slow by the fatigue
of these measures; in illustration of which his letters often record
that it has taken him three days[3] to arrive at one right sentence,
tested by the pitch of his ideal of the right for the suggestion aimed
at. His difficulties drew from the author, as I have mentioned, much
resounding complaint; but those voices have ceased to trouble us and the
final voice remains. No feature of the whole business is more edifying
than the fact that he in the first place never misses style and in the
second never appears to have beaten about for it. That betrayal is of
course the worst betrayal of all, and I think the way he has escaped it
the happiest form of the peace that has finally visited him. It was
truly a wonderful success to be so the devotee of the phrase and yet
never its victim. Fine as he inveterately desired it should be he still
never lost sight of the question Fine for what? It is always so related
and associated, so properly part of something else that is in turn part
of something other, part of a reference, a tone, a passage, a page, that
the simple may enjoy it for its least bearing and the initiated for its
greatest. That surely is to be a writer of the first order, to resemble
when in the hand and however closely viewed a shapely crystal box, and
yet to be seen when placed on the table and opened to contain
innumerable compartments, springs and tricks. One is ornamental either
way, but one is in the second way precious too.

The crystal box then figures the style of “Salammbô” and “Saint-Antoine”
in a greater degree than that of “Bovary,” because, as the two former
express the writer’s romantic side, he had in them, while equally
covering his tracks, still further to fare and still more to hunt.
Beyond this allusion to their completing his duality I shall not attempt
closely to characterise them; though I admit that in not insisting on
them I press most lightly on the scale into which he had in his own view
cast his greatest pressure. He lamented the doom that drove him so
oddly, so ruefully, to choose his subjects, but he lamented it least
when these subjects were most pompous and most exotic, feeling as he did
that they had then after all most affinity with his special eloquence.
In dealing with the near, the directly perceived, he had to keep down
his tone, to make the eloquence small; though with the consequence, as
we have seen, that in spite of such precautions the whole thing mostly
insists on being ample. The familiar, that is, under his touch, took on
character, importance, extension, one scarce knows what to call it, in
order to carry the style or perhaps rather, as we may say, sit with
proper ease in the vehicle, and there was accordingly a limit to its
smallness; whereas in the romantic books, the preferred world of
Flaubert’s imagination, there was practically no need of compromise. The
compromise gave him throughout endless trouble, and nothing would be
more to the point than to show, had I space, why in particular it
distressed him. It was obviously his strange predicament that the only
spectacle open to him by experience and direct knowledge was the
bourgeois, which on that ground imposed on him successively his three so
intensely bourgeois themes. He was obliged to treat these themes, which
he hated, because his experience left him no alternative; his only
alternative was given by history, geography, philosophy, fancy, the
world of erudition and of imagination, the world especially of this
last. In the bourgeois sphere his ideal of expression laboured under
protest; in the other, the imagined, the projected, his need for facts,
for matter, and his pursuit of them, sat no less heavily. But as his
style all the while required a certain exercise of pride he was on the
whole more at home in the exotic than in the familiar; he escaped above
all in the former connection the associations, the disparities he
detested. He could be frankly noble in “Salammbô” and “Saint-Antoine,”
whereas in “Bovary” and “L’Éducation” he could be but circuitously and
insidiously so. He could in the one case cut his coat according to his
cloth—if we mean by his cloth his predetermined tone, while in the
other he had to take it already cut. Singular enough in his life the
situation so constituted: the comparatively meagre human
consciousness—for we must come back to that in him—struggling with the
absolutely large artistic; and the large artistic half wreaking itself
on the meagre human and half seeking a refuge from it, as well as a
revenge against it, in something quite different.

Flaubert had in fact command of two refuges which he worked in turn. The
first of these was the attitude of irony, so constant in him that
“L’Éducation” bristles and hardens with it and “Bouvard et
Pécuchet”—strangest of “poetic” justices—is made as dry as sand and as
heavy as lead; the second only was, by processes, by journeys the most
expensive, to get away altogether. And we inevitably ask ourselves
whether, eschewing the policy of flight, he might not after all have
fought out his case a little more on the spot. Might he not have
addressed himself to the human still otherwise than in “L’Éducation” and
in “Bouvard”? When one thinks of the view of the life of his country, of
the vast French community and its constituent creatures, offered in
these productions, one declines to believe it could make up the _whole_
vision of a man of his quality. Or when all was said and done was he
absolutely and exclusively condemned to irony? The second refuge I speak
of, the getting away from the human, the congruously and measurably
human, altogether, perhaps becomes in the light of this possibility but
an irony the more. Carthage and the Thebaid, Salammbô, Spendius, Matho,
Hannon, Saint Anthony, Hilarion, the Paternians, the Marcosians and the
Carpocratians, what are all these, inviting because queer, but a
confession of supreme impatience with the actual and the near, often
queer enough too, no doubt, but not consolingly, not transcendently?
Last remains the question whether, even if our author’s immediate as
distinguished from his remote view had had more reach, the particular
gift we claim for him, the perfection of arrangement and form, would
have had in certain directions the acquired flexibility. States of mind,
states of soul, of the simpler kind, the kinds supposable in the Emma
Bovarys, the Frédérics, the Bouvards and the Pécuchets, to say nothing
of the Carthaginians and the Eremites—for Flaubert’s eremites are
eminently artless—these conditions represent, I think, his proved
psychological range. And that throws us back remarkably, almost
confoundingly, upon another face of the general anomaly. The “gift” was
of the greatest, a force in itself, in virtue of which he is a
consummate writer; and yet there are whole sides of life to which it was
never addressed and which it apparently quite failed to suspect as a
field of exercise. If he never approached the complicated character in
man or woman—Emma Bovary is not the least little bit complicated—or
the really furnished, the finely civilised, was this because,
surprisingly, he could not? _L’âme française_ at all events shows in him
but ill.

This undoubtedly marks a limit, but limits are for the critic familiar
country, and he may mostly well feel the prospect wide enough when he
finds something positively well enough done. By disposition or by
obligation Flaubert selected, and though his selection was in some
respects narrow he stops not too short to have left us three really
“cast” works and a fourth of several perfect parts, to say nothing of
the element of perfection, of the superlative for the size, in his three
_nouvelles_. What he attempted he attempted in a spirit that gives an
extension to the idea of the achievable and the achieved in a literary
thing, and it is by this that we contentedly gauge the matter. As
success goes in this world of the approximate it may pass for success of
the greatest. If I am unable to pursue the proof of my remark in
“Salammbô” and “Saint-Antoine” it is because I have also had to select
and have found the questions connected with their two companions more
interesting. There are numerous judges, I hasten to mention, who,
showing the opposite preference, lose themselves with rapture in the
strange bristling archæological picture—yet all amazingly vivified and
co-ordinated—of the Carthaginian mercenaries in revolt and the sacred
veil of the great goddess profaned and stolen; as well in the still more
peopled panorama of the ancient sects, superstitions and mythologies
that swim in the desert before the fevered eyes of the Saint. One may be
able, however, at once to breathe more freely in “Bovary” than in
“Salammbô” and yet to hope that there is no intention of the latter that
one has missed. The great intention certainly, and little as we may be
sweetly beguiled, holds us fast; which is simply the author’s
indomitable purpose of fully pervading his field. There are countries
beyond the sea in which tracts are allowed to settlers on condition that
they will really, not nominally, cultivate them. Flaubert is on his
romantic ground like one of these settlers; he makes good with all his
might his title to his tract, and in a way that shows how it is not only
for him a question of safety but a question of honour. Honour demands
that he shall set up his home and his faith there in such a way that
every inch of the surface be planted or paved. He would have been
ashamed merely to encamp and, after the fashion of most other
adventurers, knock up a log hut among charred stumps. This was not what
would have been for him taking artistic possession, it was not what
would have been for him even personal honour, let alone literary; and
yet the general lapse from integrity was a thing that, wherever he
looked, he saw not only condoned but acclaimed and rewarded. He lived,
as he felt, in an age of mean production and cheap criticism, the
practical upshot of which took on for him a name that was often on his
lips. He called it the hatred of literature, a hatred in the midst of
which, the most literary of men, he found himself appointed to suffer. I
may not, however, follow him in that direction—which would take us far;
and the less that he was for himself after all, in spite of groans and
imprecations, a man of resources and remedies, and that there was always
his possibility of building himself in.

This he did equally in all his books—built himself into literature by
means of a material put together with extraordinary art; but it leads me
again to the question of what such a stiff ideal imposed on him for the
element of exactitude. This element, in the romantic, was his merciless
law; it was perhaps even in the romantic that—if there could indeed be
degrees for him in such matters—he most despised the loose and the
more-or-less. To be intensely definite and perfectly positive, to know
so well what he meant that he could at every point strikingly and
conclusively verify it, was the first of his needs; and if in addition
to being thus synthetically final he could be strange and sad and
terrible, and leave the cause of these effects inscrutable, success then
had for him its highest savour. We feel the inscrutability in those
memorable few words that put before us Frédéric Moreau’s start upon his
vain course of travel, “Il connût alors la mélancholie des paquebots;”
an image to the last degree comprehensive and embracing, but which
haunts us, in its droll pathos, without our quite knowing why. But he
was really never so pleased as when he could be both rare and precise
about the dreadful. His own sense of all this, as I have already
indicated, was that beauty comes with expression, that expression is
creation, that it _makes_ the reality, and only in the degree in which
it _is_, exquisitely, expression; and that we move in literature through
a world of different values and relations, a blest world in which we
know nothing except by style, but in which also everything is saved by
it, and in which the image is thus always superior to the thing itself.
This quest and multiplication of the image, the image tested and
warranted and consecrated for the occasion, was accordingly his high
elegance, to which he too much sacrificed and to which “Salammbô” and
partly “Saint-Antoine” are monstrous monuments. Old cruelties and
perversities, old wonders and errors and terrors, endlessly appealed to
him; they constitute the unhuman side of his work, and if we have not
the bribe of curiosity, of a lively interest in method, or rather in
evocation just _as_ evocation, we tread our way among them, especially
in “Salammbô,” with a reserve too dry for our pleasure. To my own view
the curiosity and the literary interest are equal in dealing with the
non-romantic books, and the world presented, the aspects and agents, are
less deterrent and more amenable both to our own social and expressional
terms. Style itself moreover, with all respect to Flaubert, never
_totally_ beguiles; since even when we are so queerly constituted as to
be ninety-nine parts literary we are still a hundredth part something
else. This hundredth part may, once we possess the book—or the book
possesses us—make us imperfect as readers, and yet without it should we
want or get the book at all? The curiosity at any rate, to repeat, is
even greatest for me in “Madame Bovary,” say, for here I can measure,
can more directly appreciate, the terms. The aspects and impressions
being of an experience conceivable to me I am more touched by the
beauty; my interest gets more of the benefit of the beauty even though
this be not intrinsically greater. Which brings back our appreciation
inevitably at last to the question of our author’s lucidity.

I have sufficiently remarked that I speak from the point of view of his
interest to a reader of his own craft, the point of view of his
extraordinary technical wealth—though indeed when I think of the
general power of “Madame Bovary” I find myself desiring not to narrow
the ground of the lesson, not to connect the lesson, to its prejudice,
with that idea of the “technical,” that question of the way a thing is
done, so abhorrent, as a call upon attention, in whatever art, to the
wondrous Anglo-Saxon mind. Without proposing Flaubert as the type of the
newspaper novelist, or as an easy alternative to golf or the bicycle, we
should do him less than justice in failing to insist that a masterpiece
like “Madame Bovary” may benefit even with the simple-minded by the way
it has been done. It derives from its firm roundness that sign of all
rare works that there is something in it for every one. It may be read
ever so attentively, ever so freely, without a suspicion of how it is
written, to say nothing of put together; it may equally be read under
the excitement of these perceptions alone, one of the greatest known to
the reader who is fully open to them. Both readers will have been
transported, which is all any can ask. Leaving the first of them,
however that may be, to state the case for himself, I state it yet again
for the second, if only on this final ground. The book and its
companions represent for us a practical solution, Flaubert’s own
troubled but settled one, of the eternal dilemma of the painter of life.
From the moment this rash adventurer deals with his mysterious matter at
all directly his desire is not to deal with it stintedly. It at the same
time remains true that from the moment he desires to produce forms in
which it shall be preserved, he desires that these forms, things of
_his_ creation, shall not be, as testifying to his way with them, weak
or ignoble. He must make them complete and beautiful, of satisfactory
production, intrinsically interesting, under peril of disgrace with
those who know. Those who don’t know of course don’t count for him, and
it neither helps nor hinders him to say that every one knows about life.
Every one does not—it is distinctly the case of the few; and if it were
in fact the case of the many the knowledge still might exist, on the
evidence around us, even in an age of unprecedented printing, without
attesting itself by a multiplication of masterpieces. The question for
the artist can only be of doing the artistic utmost, and thereby of
_seeing_ the general task. When it is seen with the intensity with which
it presented itself to Flaubert a lifetime is none too much for fairly
tackling it. It must either be left alone or be dealt with, and to leave
it alone is a comparatively simple matter.

To deal with it is on the other hand to produce a certain number of
finished works; there being no other known method; and the quantity of
life depicted will depend on this array. What will this array, however,
depend on, and what will condition the number of pieces of which it is
composed? The “finish,” evidently, that the formula so glibly postulates
and for which the novelist is thus so handsomely responsible. He has on
the one side to feel his subject and on the other side to render it, and
there are undoubtedly two ways in which his situation may be expressed,
especially perhaps by himself. The more he feels his subject the more he
_can_ render it—that is the first way. The more he renders it the more
he _can_ feel it—that is the second way. This second way was
unmistakeably Flaubert’s, and if the result of it for him was a bar to
abundant production he could only accept such an incident as part of the
game. He probably for that matter would have challenged any easy
definition of “abundance,” contested the application of it to the
repetition, however frequent, of the thing not “done.” What but the
“doing” makes the thing, he would have asked, and how can a positive
result from a mere iteration of negatives, or wealth proceed from the
simple addition of so many instances of penury? We should here, in
closer communion with him, have got into his highly characteristic and
suggestive view of the fertilisation of subject by form, penetration of
the sense, ever, by the expression—the latter reacting creatively on
the former; a conviction in the light of which he appears to have
wrought with real consistency and which borrows from him thus its high
measure of credit. It would undoubtedly have suffered if his books had
been things of a loose logic, whereas we refer to it not only without
shame but with an encouraged confidence by their showing of a logic so
close. Let the phrase, the form that the whole is at the given moment
staked on, be beautiful and related, and the rest will take care of
itself—such is a rough indication of Flaubert’s faith; which has the
importance that it was a faith sincere, active and inspiring. I hasten
to add indeed that we must most of all remember how in these matters
everything hangs on definitions. The “beautiful,” with our author,
covered for the phrase a great deal of ground, and when every sort of
propriety had been gathered in under it and every relation, in a
complexity of such, protected, the idea itself, the presiding thought,
ended surely by being pretty well provided for.

These, however, are subordinate notes, and the plain question, in the
connection I have touched upon, is of whether we would really wish him
to have written more books, say either of the type of “Bovary” or of the
type of “Salammbô,” and not have written them so well. When the
production of a great artist who has lived a length of years has been
small there is always the regret; but there is seldom, any more than
here, the conceivable remedy. For the case is doubtless predetermined by
the particular kind of great artist a writer happens to be, and this
even if when we come to the conflict, to the historic case, deliberation
and delay may not all have been imposed by temperament. The admirable
George Sand, Flaubert’s beneficent friend and correspondent, is exactly
the happiest example we could find of the genius constitutionally
incapable of worry, the genius for whom style “came,” for whom the
sought effect was ever quickly and easily struck off, the book freely
and swiftly written, and who consequently is represented for us by
upwards of ninety volumes. If the comparison were with this lady’s great
contemporary the elder Dumas the disparity would be quadrupled, but that
ambiguous genius, somehow never really caught by us in the _fact_ of
composition, is out of our concern here: the issue is of those
developments of expression which involve a style, and as Dumas never so
much as once grazed one in all his long career, there was not even
enough of that grace in him for a fillip of the finger-nail. Flaubert is
at any rate represented by six books, so that he may on that estimate
figure as poor, while Madame Sand, falling so little short of a hundred,
figures as rich; and yet the fact remains that I can refer the congenial
mind to him with confidence and can do nothing of the sort for it in
respect to Madame Sand. She is loose and liquid and iridescent, as
iridescent as we may undertake to find her; but I can imagine
compositions quite without virtue—the virtue I mean, of sticking
together—begotten by the impulse to emulate her. She had undoubtedly
herself the benefit of her facility, but are we not left wondering to
what extent _we_ have it? There is too little in her, by the literary
connection, for the critical mind, weary of much wandering, to rest
upon. Flaubert himself wandered, wandered far, went much roundabout and
sometimes lost himself by the way, but how handsomely he provided for
our present repose! He found the French language inconceivably difficult
to write with elegance and was confronted with the equal truths that
elegance is the last thing that languages, even as they most mature,
seem to concern themselves with, and that at the same time taste,
asserting rights, insists on it, to the effect of showing us in a
boundless circumjacent waste of effort what the absence of it may mean.
He saw the less of this desert of death come back to that—that
everything at all saved from it for us since the beginning had been
saved by a soul of elegance within, or in other words by the last
refinement of selection, by the indifference on the part of the very
idiom, huge quite other than “composing” agent, to the individual
pretension. Recognising thus that to carry through the individual
pretension is at the best a battle, he adored a hard surface and
detested a soft one—much more a muddled; regarded a style without
rhythm and harmony as in a work of pretended beauty no style at all. He
considered that the failure of complete expression so registered made of
the work of pretended beauty a work of achieved barbarity. It would take
us far to glance even at his fewest discriminations; but rhythm and
harmony were for example most menaced in his scheme by repetition—when
repetition had not a positive grace; and were above all most at the
mercy of the bristling particles of which our modern tongues are mainly
composed and which make of the desired surface a texture pricked
through, from beneath, even to destruction, as by innumerable thorns.

On these lines production was of course slow work for him—especially as
he met the difficulty, met it with an inveteracy which shows how it
_can_ be met; and full of interest for readers of English speech is the
reflection he causes us to make as to the possibility of success at all
comparable among ourselves. I have spoken of his groans and
imprecations, his interminable waits and deep despairs; but what would
these things have been, what would have become of him and what of his
wrought residuum, had he been condemned to deal with a form of speech
consisting, like ours, as to one part, of “that” and “which”; as to a
second part, of the blest “it,” which an English sentence may repeat in
three or four opposed references without in the least losing caste; as
to a third face of all the “tos” of the infinitive and the preposition;
as to a fourth of our precious auxiliaries “be” and “do”; and as to a
fifth, of whatever survives in the language for the precious art of
pleasing? Whether or no the fact that the painter of “life” among us has
to contend with a medium intrinsically indocile, on certain sides, like
our own, whether this drawback accounts for his having failed, in our
time, to treat us, arrested and charmed, to a single case of crowned
classicism, there is at any rate no doubt that we in some degree owe
Flaubert’s counter-weight for that deficiency to _his_ having, on his
own ground, more happily triumphed. By which I do not mean that “Madame
Bovary” is a classic because the “thats,” the “its” and the “tos” are
made to march as Orpheus and his lute made the beasts, but because the
element of order and harmony works as a symbol of everything else that
is preserved for us by the history of the book. The history of the book
remains the lesson and the important, the delightful thing, remains
above all the drama that moves slowly to its climax. It is what we come
back to for the sake of what it shows us. We see—from the present to
the past indeed, never alas from the present to the future—how a
classic almost inveterately grows. Unimportant, unnoticed, or, so far as
noticed, contested, unrelated, alien, it has a cradle round which the
fairies but scantly flock and is waited on in general by scarce a hint
of significance. The significance comes by a process slow and small, the
fact only that one perceptive private reader after another discovers at
his convenience that the book is rare. The addition of the perceptive
private readers is no quick affair, and would doubtless be a vain one
did they not—while plenty of other much more remarkable books come and
go—accumulate and count. They count by their quality and continuity of
attention; so they have gathered for “Madame Bovary,” and so they are
held. That is really once more the great circumstance. It is always in
order for us to feel yet again what it is we are held by. Such is my
reason, definitely, for speaking of Flaubert as the novelist’s novelist.
Are we not moreover—and let it pass this time as a happy hope!—pretty
well all novelists now?

-----

Footnote 2:

On the occasion of these prefatory remarks to a translation of “Madame
Bovary,” appearing in A Century of French Romance, under the auspices of
Mr. Edmund Gosse and Mr. William Heinemann, in 1902.

Footnote 3:

It was true, delightfully true, that, extravagance in this province of
his life, though apparently in no other, being Flaubert’s necessity and
law, he deliberated and hung fire, wrestled, retreated and returned,
indulged generally in a tragi-comedy of waste; which I recall a charming
expression of on the lips of Edmond de Goncourt, who quite recognised
the heroic legend, but prettily qualified it: “Il faut vous dire qu’il y
avait là-dedans beaucoup de coucheries et d’école buissonière.” And he
related how on the occasion of a stay with his friend under the roof of
the Princess Mathilde, the friend, missed during the middle hours of a
fine afternoon, was found to have undressed himself and gone to bed to
think!



                            HONORÉ DE BALZAC
                                  1902


                                   I

Stronger than ever, even than under the spell of first acquaintance and
of the early time, is the sense—thanks to a renewal of intimacy and, I
am tempted to say, of loyalty—that Balzac stands signally apart, that
he is the first and foremost member of his craft, and that above all the
Balzac-lover is in no position till he has cleared the ground by saying
so. The Balzac-lover alone, for that matter, is worthy to have his word
on so happy an occasion as this[4] about the author of “La Comédie
Humaine,” and it is indeed not easy to see how the amount of attention
so inevitably induced could at the worst have failed to find itself
turning to an act of homage. I have been deeply affected, to be frank,
by the mere refreshment of memory, which has brought in its train
moreover consequences critical and sentimental too numerous to figure
here in their completeness. The authors and the books that have, as we
say, done something for us, become part of the answer to our curiosity
when our curiosity had the freshness of youth, these particular agents
exist for us, with the lapse of time, as the substance itself of
knowledge: they have been intellectually so swallowed, digested and
assimilated that we take their general use and suggestion for granted,
cease to be aware of them because they have passed out of sight. But
they have passed out of sight simply by having passed into our lives.
They have become a part of our personal history, a part of ourselves,
very often, so far as we may have succeeded in best expressing
ourselves. Endless, however, are the uses of great persons and great
things, and it may easily happen in these cases that the connection,
even as an “excitement”—the form mainly of the connections of youth—is
never really broken. We have largely been living on our
benefactor—which is the highest acknowledgment one can make; only,
thanks to a blest law that operates in the long run to rekindle
excitement, we are accessible to the sense of having neglected him. Even
when we may not constantly have read him over the neglect is quite an
illusion, but the illusion perhaps prepares us for the finest emotion we
are to have owed to the acquaintance. Without having abandoned or denied
our author we yet come expressly back to him, and if not quite in
tatters and in penitence like the Prodigal Son, with something at all
events of the tenderness with which we revert to the parental threshold
and hearthstone, if not, more fortunately, to the parental presence. The
beauty of this adventure, that of seeing the dust blown off a relation
that had been put away as on a shelf, almost out of reach, at the back
of one’s mind, consists in finding the precious object not only fresh
and intact, but with its firm lacquer still further figured, gilded and
enriched. It is all overscored with traces and impressions—vivid,
definite, almost as valuable as itself—of the recognitions and
agitations it originally produced in us. Our old—that is our
young—feelings are very nearly what page after page most gives us. The
case has become a case of authority _plus_ association. If Balzac in
himself is indubitably wanting in the sufficiently common felicity we
know as charm, it is this association that may on occasion contribute
the grace.

The impression then, confirmed and brightened, is of the mass and weight
of the figure and of the extent of ground it occupies; a tract on which
we might all of us together quite pitch our little tents, open our
little booths, deal in our little wares, and not materially either
diminish the area or impede the circulation of the occupant. I seem to
see him in such an image moving about as Gulliver among the pigmies, and
not less good-natured than Gulliver for the exercise of any function,
without exception, that can illustrate his larger life. The first and
the last word about the author of “Les Contes Drolatiques” is that of
all novelists he is the most serious—by which I am far from meaning
that in the human comedy as he shows it the comic is an absent quantity.
His sense of the comic was on the scale of his extraordinary senses in
general, though his expression of it suffers perhaps exceptionally from
that odd want of elbow-room—the penalty somehow of his close-packed,
pressed-down contents—which reminds us of some designedly beautiful
thing but half-disengaged from the clay or the marble. It is the scheme
and the scope that are supreme in him, applying this moreover not to
mere great intention, but to the concrete form, the proved case, in
which we possess them. We most of us aspire to achieve at the best but a
patch here and there, to pluck a sprig or a single branch, to break
ground in a corner of the great garden of life. Balzac’s plan was simply
to do everything that could be done. He proposed to himself to “turn
over” the great garden from north to south and from east to west; a
task—immense, heroic, to this day immeasurable—that he bequeathed us
the partial performance of, a prodigious ragged clod, in the twenty
monstrous years representing his productive career, years of
concentration and sacrifice the vision of which still makes us ache. He
had indeed a striking good fortune, the only one he was to enjoy as an
harassed and exasperated worker: the great garden of life presented
itself to him absolutely and exactly in the guise of the great garden of
France, a subject vast and comprehensive enough, yet with definite edges
and corners. This identity of his universal with his local and national
vision is the particular thing we should doubtless call his greatest
strength were we preparing agreeably to speak of it also as his visible
weakness. Of Balzac’s weaknesses, however, it takes some assurance to
talk; there is always plenty of time for them; they are the last signs
we know him by—such things truly as in other painters of manners often
come under the head of mere exuberance of energy. So little in short do
they earn the invidious name even when we feel them as defects.

What he did above all was to read the universe, as hard and as loud as
he could, _into_ the France of his time; his own eyes regarding his work
as at once the drama of man and a mirror of the mass of social phenomena
the most rounded and registered, most organised and administered, and
thereby most exposed to systematic observation and portrayal, that the
world had seen. There are happily other interesting societies, but these
are for schemes of such an order comparatively loose and incoherent,
with more extent and perhaps more variety, but with less of the great
enclosed and exhibited quality, less neatness and sharpness of
arrangement, fewer categories, sub-divisions, juxtapositions. Balzac’s
France was both inspiring enough for an immense prose epic and reducible
enough for a report or a chart. To allow his achievement all its dignity
we should doubtless say also treatable enough for a history, since it
was as a patient historian, a Benedictine of the actual, the living
painter of his living time, that he regarded himself and handled his
material. All painters of manners and fashions, if we will, are
historians, even when they least don the uniform: Fielding, Dickens,
Thackeray, George Eliot, Hawthorne among ourselves. But the great
difference between the great Frenchman and the eminent others is that,
with an imagination of the highest power, an unequalled intensity of
vision, he saw his subject in the light of science as well, in the light
of the bearing of all its parts on each other, and under pressure of a
passion for exactitude, an appetite, the appetite of an ogre, for _all_
the kinds of facts. We find I think in the union here suggested
something like the truth about his genius, the nearest approach to a
final account of him. Of imagination on one side all compact, he was on
the other an insatiable reporter of the immediate, the material, the
current combination, and perpetually moved by the historian’s impulse to
fix, preserve and explain them. One asks one’s self as one reads him
what concern the poet has with so much arithmetic and so much criticism,
so many statistics and documents, what concern the critic and the
economist have with so many passions, characters and adventures. The
contradiction is always before us; it springs from the inordinate scale
of the author’s two faces; it explains more than anything else his
eccentricities and difficulties. It accounts for his want of grace, his
want of the lightness associated with an amusing literary form, his
bristling surface, his closeness of texture, so rough with richness, yet
so productive of the effect we have in mind when we speak of not being
able to see the wood for the trees.

A thorough-paced votary, for that matter, can easily afford to declare
at once that this confounding duality of character does more things
still, or does at least the most important of all—introduces us without
mercy (mercy for ourselves I mean) to the oddest truth we could have
dreamed of meeting in such a connection. It was certainly _a priori_ not
to be expected we should feel it of him, but our hero is after all not
in his magnificence totally an artist: which would be the strangest
thing possible, one must hasten to add, were not the smallness of the
practical difference so made even stranger. His endowment and his effect
are each so great that the anomaly makes at the most a difference only
by adding to his interest for the critic. The critic worth his salt is
indiscreetly curious and wants ever to know how and why—whereby Balzac
is thus a still rarer case for him, suggesting that exceptional
curiosity may have exceptional rewards. The question of what makes the
artist on a great scale is interesting enough; but we feel it in
Balzac’s company to be nothing to the question of what on an equal scale
frustrates him. The scattered pieces, the _disjecta membra_ of the
character are here so numerous and so splendid that they prove
misleading; we pile them together, and the heap assuredly is monumental;
it forms an overtopping figure. The genius this figure stands for, none
the less, is really such a lesson to the artist as perfection itself
would be powerless to give; it carries him so much further into the
special mystery. Where it carries him, at the same time, I must not in
this scant space attempt to say—which would be a loss of the fine
thread of my argument. I stick to our point in putting it, more
concisely, that the artist of the Comédie Humaine is half smothered by
the historian. Yet it belongs as well to the matter also to meet the
question of whether the historian himself may not be an artist—in which
case Balzac’s catastrophe would seem to lose its excuse. The answer of
course is that the reporter, however philosophic, has one law, and the
originator, however substantially fed, has another; so that the two laws
can with no sort of harmony or congruity make, for the finer sense, a
common household. Balzac’s catastrophe—so to name it once again—was in
this perpetual conflict and final impossibility, an impossibility that
explains his defeat on the classic side and extends so far at times as
to make us think of his work as, from the point of view of beauty, a
tragic waste of effort.

What it would come to, we judge, is that the irreconcilability of the
two kinds of law is, more simply expressed, but the irreconcilability of
two different ways of composing one’s effect. The principle of
composition that his free imagination would have, or certainly might
have, handsomely imposed on him is perpetually dislocated by the quite
opposite principle of the earnest seeker, the inquirer to a useful end,
in whom nothing is free but a born antipathy to his yoke-fellow. Such a
production as “Le Curé de Village,” the wonderful story of Madame
Graslin, so nearly a masterpiece yet so ultimately not one, would be, in
this connection, could I take due space for it, a perfect illustration.
If, as I say, Madame Graslin’s creator was confined by his doom to
patches and pieces, no piece is finer than the first half of the book in
question, the half in which the picture is determined by his unequalled
power of putting people on their feet, planting them before us in their
habit as they lived—a faculty nourished by observation as much as one
will, but with the inner vision all the while wide-awake, the vision for
which ideas are as living as facts and assume an equal intensity. This
intensity, greatest indeed in the facts, has in Balzac a force all its
own, to which none other in any novelist I know can be likened. His
touch communicates on the spot to the object, the creature evoked, the
hardness and permanence that certain substances, some sorts of stone,
acquire by exposure to the air. The hardening medium, for the image
soaked in it, is the air of his mind. It would take but little more to
make the peopled world of fiction as we know it elsewhere affect us by
contrast as a world of rather gray pulp. This mixture of the solid and
the vivid is Balzac at his best, and it prevails without a break,
without a note not admirably true, in “Le Curé de Village”—since I have
named that instance—up to the point at which Madame Graslin moves out
from Limoges to Montégnac in her ardent passion of penitence, her
determination to expiate her strange and undiscovered association with a
dark misdeed by living and working for others. Her drama is a
particularly inward one, interesting, and in the highest degree, so long
as she herself, her nature, her behaviour, her personal history and the
relations in which they place her, control the picture and feed our
illusion. The firmness with which the author makes them play this part,
the whole constitution of the scene and of its developments from the
moment we cross the threshold of her dusky stuffy old-time birth-house,
is a rare delight, producing in the reader that sense of local and
material immersion which is one of Balzac’s supreme secrets. What
characteristically befalls, however, is that the spell accompanies us
but part of the way—only until, at a given moment, his attention
ruthlessly transfers itself from inside to outside, from the centre of
his subject to its circumference.

This is Balzac caught in the very fact of his monstrous duality, caught
in his most complete self-expression. He is clearly quite unwitting that
in handing over his _data_ to his twin-brother the impassioned economist
and surveyor, the insatiate general inquirer and reporter, he is in any
sort betraying our confidence, for his good conscience at such times,
the spirit of edification in him, is a lesson even to the best of us,
his rich robust temperament nowhere more striking, no more marked
anywhere the great push of the shoulder with which he makes his theme
move, overcharged though it may be like a carrier’s van. It is not
therefore assuredly that he loses either sincerity or power in putting
before us to the last detail such a matter as, in this case, his
heroine’s management of her property, her tenantry, her economic
opportunities and visions, for these are cases in which he never shrinks
nor relents, in which positively he stiffens and terribly towers—to
remind us again of M. Taine’s simplifying word about his being an artist
doubled with a man of business. Balzac was indeed doubled if ever a
writer was, and to that extent that we almost as often, while we read,
feel ourselves thinking of him as a man of business doubled with an
artist. Whichever way we turn it the oddity never fails, nor the wonder
of the ease with which either character bears the burden of the other. I
use the word burden because, as the fusion is never complete—witness in
the book before us the fatal break of “tone,” the one unpardonable sin
for the novelist—we are beset by the conviction that but for this
strangest of dooms one or other of the two partners might, to our relief
and to his own, have been disembarrassed. The disembarrassment, for
each, by a more insidious fusion, would probably have conduced to the
mastership of interest proceeding from form, or at all events to the
search for it, that Balzac fails to embody. Perhaps the possibility of
an artist constructed on such strong lines is one of those fine things
that are not of this world, a mere dream of the fond critical spirit.
Let these speculations and condonations at least pass as the amusement,
as a result of the high spirits—if high spirits be the word—of the
reader feeling himself again in touch. It was not of our author’s
difficulties—that is of his difficulty, the great one—that I proposed
to speak, but of his immense clear action. Even that is not truly an
impression of ease, and it is strange and striking that we are in fact
so attached by his want of the unity that keeps surfaces smooth and
dangers down as scarce to feel sure at any moment that we shall not come
back to it with most curiosity. We are never so curious about successes
as about interesting failures. The more reason therefore to speak
promptly, and once for all, of the scale on which, in its own quarter of
his genius, success worked itself out for him.

It is to that I _should_ come back—to the infinite reach in him of the
painter and the poet. We can never know what might have become of him
with less importunity in his consciousness of the machinery of life, of
its furniture and fittings, of all that, right and left, he causes to
assail us, sometimes almost to suffocation, under the general rubric of
_things_. Things, in this sense with him, are at once our delight and
our despair; we pass from being inordinately beguiled and convinced by
them to feeling that his universe fairly smells too much of them, that
the larger ether, the diviner air, is in peril of finding among them
scarce room to circulate. His landscapes, his “local colour”—thick in
his pages at a time when it was to be found in his pages almost
alone—his towns, his streets, his houses, his Saumurs, Angoulêmes,
Guérandes, his great prose Turner-views of the land of the Loire, his
rooms, shops, interiors, details of domesticity and traffic, are a short
list of the terms into which he saw the real as clamouring to be
rendered and into which he rendered it with unequalled authority. It
would be doubtless more to the point to make our profit of this
consummation than to try to reconstruct a Balzac planted more in the
open. We hardly, as the case stands, know most whether to admire in such
an example as the short tale of “La Grenadière” the exquisite feeling
for “natural objects” with which it overflows like a brimming wine-cup,
the energy of perception and description which so multiplies them for
beauty’s sake and for the love of their beauty, or the general wealth of
genius that can calculate, or at least count, so little and spend so
joyously. The tale practically exists for the sake of the enchanting
aspects involved—those of the embowered white house that nestles on its
terraced hill above the great French river, and we can think, frankly,
of no one else with an equal amount of business on his hands who would
either have so put himself out for aspects or made them almost by
themselves a living subject. A born son of Touraine, it must be said, he
pictures his province, on every pretext and occasion, with filial
passion and extraordinary breadth. The prime aspect in his scene all the
while, it must be added, is the money aspect. The general money question
so loads him up and weighs him down that he moves through the human
comedy, from beginning to end, very much in the fashion of a camel, the
ship of the desert, surmounted with a cargo. “Things” for him are francs
and centimes more than any others, and I give up as inscrutable,
unfathomable, the nature, the peculiar avidity of his interest in them.
It makes us wonder again and again what then is the use on Balzac’s
scale of the divine faculty. The imagination, as we all know, may be
employed up to a certain point in inventing uses for money; but its
office beyond that point is surely to make us forget that anything so
odious exists. This is what Balzac never forgot; his universe goes on
expressing itself for him, to its furthest reaches, on its finest sides,
in the terms of the market. To say these things, however, is after all
to come out where we want, to suggest his extraordinary scale and his
terrible completeness. I am not sure that he does not see character too,
see passion, motive, personality, as quite in the order of the “things”
we have spoken of. He makes them no less concrete and palpable, handles
them no less directly and freely. It is the whole business in fine—that
grand total to which he proposed to himself to do high justice—that
gives him his place apart, makes him, among the novelists, the largest
weightiest presence. There are some of his obsessions—that of the
material, that of the financial, that of the “social,” that of the
technical, political, civil—for which I feel myself unable to judge
him, judgment losing itself unexpectedly in a particular shade of pity.
The way to judge him is to try to walk all round him—on which we see
how remarkably far we have to go. He is the only member of his order
really monumental, the sturdiest-seated mass that rises in our path.

-----

Footnote 4:

The appearance of a translation of the “Deux Jeunes Mariées” in A
Century of French Romance.


                                   II

We recognise none the less that the finest consequence of these
re-established relations is linked with just that appearance in him,
that obsession of the actual under so many heads, that makes us look at
him, as we would at some rare animal in captivity, between the bars of a
cage. It amounts to a sort of suffered doom, since to be solicited by
the world from all quarters at once, what is that for the spirit but a
denial of escape? We feel his doom to be his want of a private door, and
that he felt it, though more obscurely, himself. When we speak of his
want of charm therefore we perhaps so surrender the question as but to
show our own poverty. If charm, to cut it short, is what he lacks, how
comes it that he so touches and holds us that—above all if we be actual
or possible fellow-workers—we are uncomfortably conscious of the
disloyalty of almost any shade of surrender? We are lodged perhaps by
our excited sensibility in a dilemma of which one of the horns is a
compassion that savours of patronage; but we must resign ourselves to
that by reflecting that our partiality at least takes nothing away from
him. It leaves him solidly where he is and only brings us near, brings
us to a view of _all_ his formidable parts and properties. The
conception of the Comédie Humaine represents them all, and represents
them mostly in their felicity and their triumph—or at least the
execution does: in spite of which we irresistibly find ourselves
thinking of him, in reperusals, as most essentially the victim of a
cruel joke. The joke is one of the jokes of fate, the fate that rode him
for twenty years at so terrible a pace and with the whip so constantly
applied. To have wanted to do so much, to have thought it possible, to
have faced and in a manner resisted the effort, to have felt life
poisoned and consumed by such a bravery of self-committal—these things
form for us in him a face of trouble that, oddly enough, is not
appreciably lighted by the fact of his success. It was the having wanted
to do so much that was the trap, whatever possibilities of glory might
accompany the good faith with which he fell into it. What accompanies
_us_ as we frequent him is a sense of the deepening ache of that good
faith with the increase of his working consciousness, the merciless
development of his huge subject and of the rigour of all the conditions.
We see the whole thing quite as if Destiny had said to him: “You want to
‘do’ France, presumptuous, magnificent, miserable man—the France of
revolutions, revivals, restorations, of Bonapartes, Bourbons, republics,
of war and peace, of blood and romanticism, of violent change and
intimate continuity, the France of the first half of your century? Very
well; you most distinctly _shall_, and you shall particularly let me
hear, even if the great groan of your labour do fill at moments the
temple of letters, how you like the job.” We must of course not appear
to deny the existence of a robust joy in him, the joy of power and
creation, the joy of the observer and the dreamer who finds a use for
his observations and his dreams as fast as they come. The “Contes
Drolatiques” would by themselves sufficiently contradict us, and the
savour of the “Contes Drolatiques” is not confined to these productions.
His work at large tastes of the same kind of humour, and we feel him
again and again, like any other great healthy producer of these matters,
beguiled and carried along. He would have been, I dare say, the last not
to insist that the artist has pleasures forever indescribable; he lived
in short in his human comedy with the largest life we can attribute to
the largest capacity. There are particular parts of his subject from
which, with our sense of his enjoyment of them, we have to check the
impulse to call him away—frequently as I confess in this relation that
impulse arises.

The relation is with the special element of his spectacle from which he
never fully detaches himself, the element, to express it succinctly, of
the “old families” and the great ladies. Balzac frankly revelled in his
conception of an aristocracy—a conception that never succeeded in
becoming his happiest; whether, objectively, thanks to the facts
supplied him by the society he studied, or through one of the strangest
deviations of taste that the literary critic is in an important
connection likely to encounter. Nothing would in fact be more
interesting than to attempt a general measure of the part played in the
total comedy, to his imagination, by the old families; and one or two
contributions to such an attempt I must not fail presently to make. I
glance at them here, however, the delectable class, but as most
representing on the author’s part free and amused creation; by which too
I am far from hinting that the amusement is at all at their expense. It
is in their great ladies that the old families most shine out for him,
images of strange colour and form, but “felt” as we say, to their
finger-tips, and extraordinarily interesting as a mark of the high
predominance—predominance of character, of cleverness, of will, of
general “personality”—that almost every scene of the Comedy attributes
to women. It attributes to them in fact a recognised, an uncontested
supremacy; it is through them that the hierarchy of old families most
expresses itself; and it is as surrounded by them even as some
magnificent indulgent pasha by his overflowing seraglio that Balzac sits
most at his ease. All of which reaffirms—if it be needed—that his
inspiration, and the sense of it, were even greater than his task. And
yet such betrayals of spontaneity in him make for an old friend at the
end of the chapter no great difference in respect to the pathos—since
it amounts to that—of his genius-ridden aspect. It comes to us as we go
back to him that his spirit had fairly made of itself a cage in which he
was to turn round and round, always unwinding his reel, much in the
manner of a criminal condemned to hard labour for life. The cage is
simply the complicated but dreadfully definite French world that built
itself so solidly in and roofed itself so impenetrably over him.

It is not that, caught there with him though we be, we ourselves
prematurely seek an issue: we throw ourselves back, on the contrary, for
the particular sense of it, into his ancient superseded comparatively
_rococo_ and quite patriarchal France—patriarchal in spite of social
and political convulsions; into his old-time antediluvian Paris, all
picturesque and all workable, full, to the fancy, of an amenity that has
passed away; into his intensely differentiated sphere of _la province_,
evoked in each sharpest or faintest note of its difference, described
systematically as narrow and flat, and yet attaching us if only by the
contagion of the author’s overflowing sensibility. He feels in his vast
exhibition many things, but there is nothing he feels with the
communicable shocks and vibrations, the sustained fury of
perception—not always a fierceness of judgment, which is another
matter—that _la province_ excites in him. Half our interest in him
springs still from our own sense that, for all the convulsions, the
revolutions and experiments that have come and gone, the order he
describes is the old order that our sense of the past perversely recurs
to as to something happy we have irretrievably missed. His pages bristle
with the revelation of the lingering earlier world, the world in which
places and people still had their queerness, their strong marks, their
sharp type, and in which, as before the platitude that was to come, the
observer with an appetite for the salient could by way of precaution
fill his lungs. Balzac’s appetite for the salient was voracious, yet he
came, as it were, in time, in spite of his so often speaking as if what
he sees about him is but the last desolation of the modern. His
conservatism, the most entire, consistent and convinced that ever
was—yet even at that much inclined to whistling in the dark as if to
the tune of “Oh how mediæval I _am_!”—was doubtless the best point of
view from which he could rake his field. But if what he sniffed from
afar in that position was the extremity of change, we in turn feel both
subject and painter drenched with the smell of the past. It is preserved
in his work as nowhere else—not vague nor faint nor delicate, but as
strong to-day as when first distilled.

It may seem odd to find a conscious melancholy in the fact that a great
worker succeeded in clasping his opportunity in such an embrace, this
being exactly our usual measure of the felicity of great workers. I
speak, I hasten to reassert, all in the name of sympathy—without which
it would have been detestable to speak at all; and the sentiment puts
its hand instinctively on the thing that makes it least futile. This
particular thing then is not in the least Balzac’s own hold of his
terrible mass of matter; it is absolutely the convolutions of the
serpent he had with a magnificent courage invited to wind itself round
him. We must use the common image—he had created his Frankenstein
monster. It is the fellow-craftsman who can most feel for him—it being
apparently possible to read him from another point of view without
getting really into his presence. We undergo with him from book to book,
from picture to picture, the convolutions of the serpent, we especially
whose refined performances are given, as we know, but with the small
common or garden snake. I stick to this to justify my image just above
of his having been “caged” by the intensity with which he saw his
general matter as a whole. To see it always as a whole is our wise, our
virtuous effort, the very condition, as we keep in mind, of superior
art. Balzac was in this connection then wise and virtuous to the most
exemplary degree; so that he doubtless ought logically but to prompt to
complacent reflections. No painter ever saw his general matter nearly so
much as a whole. Why is it then that we hover about him, if we are real
Balzacians, not with cheerful chatter, but with a consideration deeper
in its reach than any mere moralising? The reason is largely that if you
wish with absolute immaculate virtue to look at your matter as a whole
and yet remain a theme for cheerful chatter, you must be careful to take
some quantity that will not hug you to death. Balzac’s active intention
was, to vary our simile, a beast with a hundred claws, and the spectacle
is in the hugging process of which, as energy against energy, the beast
was capable. Its victim died of the process at fifty, and if what we see
in the long gallery in which it is mirrored is not the defeat, but the
admirable resistance, we none the less never lose the sense that the
fighter is shut up with his fate. He has locked himself in—it is
doubtless his own fault—and thrown the key away. Most of all perhaps
the impression comes—the impression of the adventurer committed and
anxious, but with no retreat—from the so formidably concrete nature of
his plastic stuff. When we work in the open, as it were, our material is
not classed and catalogued, so that we have at hand a hundred ways of
being loose, superficial, disingenuous, and yet passing, to our no small
profit, for remarkable. Balzac had no “open”; he held that the great
central normal fruitful country of his birth and race, overarched with
its infinite social complexity, yielded a sufficiency of earth and sea
and sky. We seem to see as his catastrophe that the sky, all the same,
came down on him. He couldn’t keep it up—in more senses than one. These
are perhaps fine fancies for a critic to weave about a literary figure
of whom he has undertaken to give a plain account; but I leave them so
on the plea that there are relations in which, for the Balzacian,
criticism simply drops out. That is not a liberty, I admit, ever to be
much encouraged; critics in fact are the only people who have a right
occasionally to take it. There is no such plain account of the Comédie
Humaine as that it makes us fold up our yard-measure and put away our
note-book quite as we do with some extraordinary character, some
mysterious and various stranger, who brings with him his own standards
and his own air. There is a kind of eminent presence that abashes even
the interviewer, moves him to respect and wonder, makes him, for
consideration itself, not insist. This takes of course a personage sole
of his kind. But such a personage precisely is Balzac.


                                  III

By all of which have I none the less felt it but too clear that I must
not pretend in this place to take apart the pieces of his immense
complicated work, to number them or group them or dispose them about.
The most we can do is to pick one up here and there and wonder, as we
weigh it in our hand, at its close compact substance. That is all even
M. Taine could do in the longest and most penetrating study of which our
author has been the subject. Every piece we handle is so full of stuff,
condensed like the edibles provided for campaigns and explorations,
positively so charged with distilled life, that we find ourselves
dropping it, in certain states of sensibility, as we drop an object
unguardedly touched that startles us by being animate. We seem really
scarce to want anything to _be_ so animate. It would verily take Balzac
to detail Balzac, and he has had in fact Balzacians nearly enough
affiliated to affront the task with courage. The “Répertoire de la
Comédie Humaine” of MM. Anatole Cerfberr and Jules Christophe is a
closely-printed octavo of 550 pages which constitutes in relation to his
characters great and small an impeccable biographical dictionary. His
votaries and expositors are so numerous that the Balzac library of
comment and research must be, of its type, one of the most copious. M.
de Lovenjoul has laboured all round the subject; his “Histoire des
Œuvres” alone is another crowded octavo of 400 pages; in connection with
which I must mention Miss Wormeley, the devoted American translator,
interpreter, worshipper, who in the course of her own studies has so
often found occasion to differ from M. de Lovenjoul on matters of fact
and questions of date and of appreciation. Miss Wormeley, M. Paul
Bourget and many others are examples of the passionate piety that our
author can inspire. As I turn over the encyclopedia of his characters I
note that whereas such works usually commemorate but the ostensibly
eminent of a race and time, every creature so much as named in the
fictive swarm is in this case preserved to fame: so close is the
implication that to have _been_ named by such a dispenser of life and
privilege is to be, as we say it of baronets and peers, created. He
infinitely divided moreover, as we know, he subdivided, altered and
multiplied his heads and categories—his “Vie Parisienne,” his “Vie de
Province,” his “Vie Politique,” his “Parents Pauvres,” his “Études
Philosophiques,” his “Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes,” his
“Envers de l’Histoire Contemporaine” and all the rest; so that nominal
reference to them becomes the more difficult. Yet without prejudice
either to the energy of conception with which he mapped out his theme as
with chalk on a huge blackboard, or to the prodigious patience with
which he executed his plan, practically filling in with a wealth of
illustration, from sources that to this day we fail to make out, every
compartment of his table, M. de Lovenjoul draws up the list, year by
year, from 1822 to 1848, of his mass of work, giving us thus the measure
of the tension represented for him by almost any twelvemonth. It is
wholly unequalled, considering the quality of Balzac’s show, by any
other eminent abundance.

I must be pardoned for coming back to it, for seeming unable to leave
it; it enshrouds so interesting a mystery. How was so solidly systematic
a literary attack on life to be conjoined with whatever workable minimum
of needful intermission, of free observation, of personal experience?
Some small possibility of personal experience and disinterested life
must, at the worst, from deep within or far without, feed and fortify
the strained productive machine. These things were luxuries that Balzac
appears really never to have tasted on any appreciable scale. His
published letters—the driest and most starved of those of any man of
equal distinction—are with the exception of those to Madame de Hanska,
whom he married shortly before his death, almost exclusively the audible
wail of a galley-slave chained to the oar. M. Zola, in our time, among
the novelists, has sacrificed to the huge plan in something of the same
manner, yet with goodly modern differences that leave him a
comparatively simple instance. His work assuredly has been more nearly
dried up by the sacrifice than ever Balzac’s was—so miraculously, given
the conditions, was Balzac’s to escape the anti-climax. Method and
system, in the chronicle of the tribe of Rougon-Macquart, an economy in
itself certainly of the rarest and most interesting, have spread so from
centre to circumference that they have ended by being almost the only
thing we feel. And then M. Zola has survived and triumphed in his
lifetime, has continued and lasted, has piled up and, if the remark be
not frivolous, enjoyed in all its _agréments_ the reward for which
Balzac toiled and sweated in vain. On top of which he will have had also
his literary great-grandfather’s heroic example to start from and profit
by, the positive heritage of a _fils de famille_ to enjoy, spend, save,
waste. Balzac had frankly no heritage at all but his stiff subject, and
by way of model not even in any direct or immediate manner that of the
inner light and kindly admonition of his genius. Nothing adds more to
the strangeness of his general performance than his having failed so
long to find his inner light, groped for it almost ten years, missed it
again and again, moved straight away from it, turned his back on it,
lived in fine round about it, in a darkness still scarce penetrable, a
darkness into which we peep only half to make out the dreary little
waste of his numerous _œuvres de jeunesse_. To M. Zola was vouchsafed
the good fortune of settling down to the Rougon-Macquart with the
happiest promptitude; it was as if time for one look about him—and I
say it without disparagement to the reach of his look—had sufficiently
served his purpose. Balzac moreover might have written five hundred
novels without our feeling in him the faintest hint of the breath of
doom, if he had only been comfortably capable of conceiving the short
cut of the fashion practised by others under his eyes. As Alexandre
Dumas and George Sand, illustrious contemporaries, cultivated a personal
life and a disinterested consciousness by the bushel, having, for their
easier duration, not too consistently known, as the true painter knows
it, the obsession of the thing to be done, so Balzac was condemned by
his constitution itself, by his inveterately seeing this “thing to be
done” as part and parcel, as of the very essence, of his enterprise. The
latter existed for him, as the process worked and hallucination settled,
in the form, and the form only, of the thing done, and not in any
hocus-pocus about doing. There was no kindly convenient escape for him
by the little swinging back-door of the thing _not_ done. He desired—no
man more—to get out of his obsession, but only at the other end, that
is by boring through it. “How then, thus deprived of the outer air
almost as much as if he were gouging a passage for a railway through an
Alp, _did_ he live?” is the question that haunts us—with the
consequence for the most part of promptly meeting its fairly tragic
answer. He did _not_ live—save in his imagination, or by other aid than
he could find there; his imagination was all his experience; he had
provably no time for the real thing. This brings us to the rich if
simple truth that his imagination alone did the business, carried
through both the conception and the execution—as large an effort and as
proportionate a success, in all but the vulgar sense, as the faculty
when equally handicapped was ever concerned in. Handicapped I say
because this interesting fact about him, with the claim it makes, rests
on the ground, the high distinction, that more than all the rest of us
put together he went in, as we say, for detail, circumstance and
specification, proposed to himself _all_ the connections of every part
of his matter and the full total of the parts. The whole thing, it is
impossible not to keep repeating, was what he deemed treatable. One
really knows in all imaginative literature no undertaking to compare
with it for courage, good faith and sublimity. There, once more, was the
necessity that rode him and that places him apart in our homage. It is
no light thing to have been condemned to become provably sublime. And
looking through, or trying to, at what is beneath and behind, we are
left benevolently uncertain if the predominant quantity be audacity or
innocence.

It is of course inevitable at this point to seem to hear the colder
critic promptly take us up. He undertook the whole thing—oh exactly,
the ponderous person! But _did_ he “do” the whole thing, if you please,
any more than sundry others of fewer pretensions? The retort to this it
can only be a positive joy to make, so high a note instantly sounds as
an effect of the inquiry. Nothing is more interesting and amusing than
to find one’s self recognising both that Balzac’s pretensions were
immense, portentous, and that yet, taking him—and taking
_them_—altogether, they but minister in the long run to our fondness.
They affect us not only as the endearing eccentricities of a person we
greatly admire, but fairly as the very condition of his having become
such a person. We take them thus in the first place for the very terms
of his plan, and in the second for a part of that high robustness and
that general richness of nature which made him in face of such a project
believe in himself. One would really scarce have liked to see such a job
as La Comédie Humaine tackled without swagger. To think of the thing
really as practicable _was_ swagger, and of the very rarest order. So to
think assuredly implied pretensions, pretensions that risked showing as
monstrous should the enterprise fail to succeed. It is for the colder
critic to take the trouble to make out that of the two parties to it the
body of pretension remains greater than the success. One may put it
moreover at the worst for him, may recognise that it is in the matter of
opinion still more than in the matter of knowledge that Balzac offers
himself as universally competent. He has flights of judgment—on
subjects the most special as well as the most general—that are
vertiginous and on his alighting from which we greet him with a special
indulgence. We can easily imagine him to respond, confessing
humorously—if he had only time—to such a benevolent understanding
smile as would fain hold our own eyes a moment. Then it is that he would
most show us his scheme and his necessities and how in operation they
all hang together. _Naturally_ everything about everything, though how
he had time to learn it is the last thing he has time to tell us; which
matters the less, moreover, as it is not over the question of his
knowledge that we sociably invite him, as it were (and remembering the
two augurs behind the altar) to wink at us for a sign. His convictions
it is that are his great pardonable “swagger”; to them in particular I
refer as his general operative condition, the constituted terms of his
experiment, and not less as his consolation, his support, his amusement
by the way. They embrace everything in the world—that is in his world
of the so parti-coloured France of his age: religion, morals, politics,
economics, physics, esthetics, letters, art, science, sociology, every
question of faith, every branch of research. They represent thus his
equipment of ideas, those ideas of which it will never do for a man who
aspires to constitute a State to be deprived. He must take them with him
as an ambassador extraordinary takes with him secretaries, uniforms,
stars and garters, a gilded coach and a high assurance. Balzac’s
opinions are his gilded coach, in which he is more amused than anything
else to feel himself riding, but which is indispensably concerned in
getting him over the ground. What more inevitable than that they should
be intensely Catholic, intensely monarchical, intensely saturated with
the real genius—as between 1830 and 1848 he believed it to be—of the
French character and French institutions?

Nothing is happier for us than that he should have enjoyed his outlook
before the first half of the century closed. He could then still treat
his subject as comparatively homogeneous. Any country could have a
Revolution—every country _had_ had one. A Restoration was merely what a
revolution involved, and the Empire had been for the French but a
revolutionary incident, in addition to being by good luck for the
novelist an immensely pictorial one. He was free therefore to arrange
the background of the comedy in the manner that seemed to him best to
suit anything so great; in the manner at the same time prescribed
according to his contention by the noblest traditions. The church, the
throne, the noblesse, the bourgeoisie, the people, the peasantry, all in
their order and each solidly kept in it, these were precious things,
things his superabundant insistence on the price of which is what I
refer to as his exuberance of opinion. It was a luxury for more reasons
than one, though one, presently to be mentioned, handsomely
predominates. The meaning of that exchange of intelligences in the rear
of the oracle which I have figured for him with the perceptive friend
bears simply on his pleading guilty to the purport of the friend’s
discrimination. The point the latter makes with him—a beautiful cordial
critical point—is that he truly cares for nothing in the world, thank
goodness, so much as for the passions and embroilments of men and women,
the free play of character and the sharp revelation of type, all the
real stuff of drama and the natural food of novelists. Religion, morals,
politics, economics, esthetics would be thus, as systematic matter, very
well in their place, but quite secondary and subservient. Balzac’s
attitude is again and again that he cares for the adventures and
emotions because, as his last word, he cares for the good and the
greatness of the State—which is where his swagger, with a whole society
on his hands, comes in. What we on our side in a thousand places
gratefully feel is that he cares for his monarchical and hierarchical
and ecclesiastical society because it rounds itself for his mind into
the most congruous and capacious theatre for the repertory of his
innumerable comedians. It has above all, for a painter abhorrent of the
superficial, the inestimable benefit of the accumulated, of strong marks
and fine shades, contrasts and complications. There had certainly been
since 1789 dispersals and confusions enough, but the thick tradition, no
more at the most than half smothered, lay under them all. So the whole
of his faith and no small part of his working omniscience were neither
more nor less than that historic sense which I have spoken of as the
spur of his invention and which he possessed as no other novelist has
done. We immediately feel that to name it in connection with him is to
answer every question he suggests and to account for each of his
idiosyncrasies in turn. The novel, the tale, however brief, the passage,
the sentence by itself, the situation, the person, the place, the motive
exposed, the speech reported—these things were in his view history,
with the absoluteness and the dignity of history. This is the source
both of his weight and of his wealth. What is the historic sense after
all but animated, but impassioned knowledge seeking to enlarge itself? I
have said that his imagination did the whole thing, no other
explanation—no reckoning of the possibilities of personal
saturation—meeting the mysteries of the case. Therefore his imagination
achieved the miracle of absolutely resolving itself into multifarious
knowledge. Since history proceeds by documents he constructed, as he
needed them, the documents too—fictive sources that imitated the actual
to the life. It was of course a terrible business, but at least in the
light of it his claims to creatorship are justified—which is what was
to be shown.


                                   IV

It is very well even in the sketchiest attempt at a portrait of his
genius to try to take particulars in their order: one peeps over the
shoulder of another at the moment we get a feature into focus. The loud
appeal not to be left out prevails among them all, and certainly with
the excuse that each as we fix it seems to fall most into the picture. I
have so indulged myself as to his general air that I find a whole list
of vivid contributive marks almost left on my hands. Such a list, in any
study of Balzac, is delightful for intimate edification as well as for
the fine humour of the thing; we proceed from one of the items of his
breathing physiognomy to the other with quite the same sense of life,
the same active curiosity, with which we push our way through the thick
undergrowth of one of the novels. The difficulty is really that the
special point for which we at the moment observe him melts into all the
other points, is swallowed up before our eyes in the formidable mass.
The French apply the happiest term to certain characters when they speak
of them as _entiers_, and if the word had been invented for Balzac it
could scarce better have expressed him. He is “entire” as was never a
man of his craft; he moves always in his mass; wherever we find him we
find him in force; whatever touch he applies he applies it with his
whole apparatus. He is like an army gathered to besiege a cottage
equally with a city, and living voraciously in either case on all the
country about. It may well be, at any rate, that his infatuation with
the idea of the social, the practical primacy of “the sex” is the
article at the top of one’s list; there could certainly be no better
occasion than this of a rich reissue of the “Deux Jeunes Mariées” for
placing it there at a venture. Here indeed precisely we get a sharp
example of the way in which, as I have just said, a capital illustration
of one of his sides becomes, just as we take it up, a capital
illustration of another. The correspondence of Louise de Chaulieu and
Renée de Maucombe is in fact one of those cases that light up with a
great golden glow all his parts at once. We needn’t mean by this that
such parts are themselves absolutely all golden—given the amount of
tinsel for instance in his view, supereminent, transcendent here, of the
old families and the great ladies. What we do convey, however, is that
his creative temperament finds in such _data_ as these one of its best
occasions for shining out. Again we fondly recognise his splendid, his
attaching swagger—that of a “bounder” of genius and of feeling; again
we see how, with opportunity, its elements may vibrate into a perfect
ecstasy of creation.

Why shouldn’t a man swagger, he treats us to the diversion of asking
ourselves, who has created from top to toe the most brilliant, the most
historic, the most insolent, above all the most detailed and
discriminated of aristocracies? Balzac carried the uppermost class of
his comedy, from the princes, dukes, and unspeakable duchesses down to
his poor barons _de province_, about in his pocket as he might have
carried a tolerably befingered pack of cards, to deal them about with a
flourish of the highest authority whenever there was the chance of a
game. He knew them up and down and in and out, their arms, infallibly
supplied, their quarterings, pedigrees, services, intermarriages,
relationships, ramifications and other enthralling attributes. This
indeed is comparatively simple learning; the real wonder is rather when
we linger on the ground of the patrician consciousness itself, the
innermost, the esoteric, the spirit, temper, tone—tone above all—of
the titled and the proud. The questions multiply for every scene of the
comedy; there is no one who makes us walk in such a cloud of them. The
clouds elsewhere, in comparison, are at best of questions not worth
asking. _Was_ the patrician consciousness that figured as our author’s
model so splendidly fatuous as he—almost without irony, often in fact
with a certain poetic sympathy—everywhere represents it? His
imagination lives in it, breathes its scented air, swallows this element
with the smack of the lips of the connoisseur; but I feel that we never
know, even to the end, whether he be here directly historic or only
quite misguidedly romantic. The romantic side of him has the extent of
all the others; it represents in the oddest manner his escape from the
walled and roofed structure into which he had built himself—his longing
for the vaguely-felt outside and as much as might be of the rest of the
globe. But it is characteristic of him that the most he could do for
this relief was to bring the fantastic into the circle and fit it
somehow to his conditions. Was his tone for the duchess, the marquise
but the imported fantastic, one of those smashes of the window-pane of
the real that reactions sometimes produce even in the stubborn? or are
we to take it as observed, as really reported, as, for all its
difference from our notion of the natural—and, quite as much, of the
artificial—in another and happier strain of manners, substantially
true? The whole episode, in “Les Illusions Perdues,” of Madame de
Bargeton’s “chucking” Lucien de Rubempré, on reaching Paris with him,
under pressure of Madame d’Espard’s shockability as to his coat and
trousers and other such matters, is either a magnificent lurid document
or the baseless fabric of a vision. The great wonder is that, as I
rejoice to put in, we can never really discover which, and that we feel
as we read that we can’t, and that we suffer at the hands of no other
author this particular helplessness of immersion. It is _done_—we are
always thrown back on that; we can’t get out of it; all we can do is to
say that the true itself can’t be more than done and that if the false
in this way equals it we must give up looking for the difference. Alone
among novelists Balzac has the secret of an insistence that somehow
makes the difference nought. He warms his facts into life—as witness
the certainty that the episode I just cited has absolutely as much of
that property as if perfect matching had been achieved. If the great
ladies in question _didn’t_ behave, wouldn’t, couldn’t have behaved,
like a pair of nervous snobs, why so much the worse, we say to
ourselves, for the great ladies in question. We _know_ them so—they owe
their being to our so seeing them; whereas we never can tell ourselves
how we should otherwise have known them or what quantity of being they
would on a different footing have been able to put forth.

The case is the same with Louise de Chaulieu, who besides coming out of
her convent school, as a quite young thing, with an amount of
sophistication that would have chilled the heart of a horse-dealer,
exhales—and to her familiar friend, a young person of a supposedly
equal breeding—an extravagance of complacency in her “social position”
that makes us rub our eyes. Whereupon after a little the same phenomenon
occurs; we swallow her bragging, against our better reason, or at any
rate against our startled sense, under coercion of the total intensity.
We do more than this, we cease to care for the question, which loses
itself in the hot fusion of the whole picture. He has “gone for” his
subject, in the vulgar phrase, with an avidity that makes the attack of
his most eminent rivals affect us as the intercourse between introduced
indifferences at a dull evening party. He squeezes it till it cries out,
we hardly know whether for pleasure or pain. In the case before us for
example—without wandering from book to book, impossible here, I make
the most of the ground already broken—he has seen at once that the
state of marriage itself, sounded to its depths, is, in the connection,
his real theme. He sees it of course in the conditions that exist for
him, but he weighs it to the last ounce, feels it in all its dimensions,
as well as in all his own, and would scorn to take refuge in any
engaging side-issue. He gets, for further intensity, into the very skin
of his _jeunes mariées_—into each alternately, as they are different
enough; so that, to repeat again, any other mode of representing women,
or of representing anybody, becomes, in juxtaposition, a thing so void
of the active contortions of truth as to be comparatively wooden. He
bears children with Madame de l’Estorade, knows intimately how she
suffers for them, and not less intimately how her correspondent suffers,
as well as enjoys, without them. Big as he is he makes himself small to
be handled by her with young maternal passion and positively to handle
her in turn with infantile innocence. These things are the very
flourishes, the little technical amusements of his penetrating power.
But it is doubtless in his hand for such a matter as the jealous passion
of Louise de Chaulieu, the free play of her intelligence and the almost
beautiful good faith of her egotism, that he is most individual. It is
one of the neatest examples of his extraordinary leading gift, his
art—which is really moreover not an art—of working the exhibition of a
given character up to intensity. I say it is not an art because it acts
for us rather as a hunger on the part of his nature to take on in all
freedom another nature—take it by a direct process of the senses. Art
is for the mass of us who have only the process of art, comparatively so
stiff. The thing amounts with him to a kind of shameless personal,
physical, not merely intellectual, duality—the very spirit and secret
of transmigration.



                            HONORÉ DE BALZAC
                                  1913


It is a pleasure to meet M. Émile Faguet[5] on the same ground of
mastered critical method and in the same air of cool deliberation and
conclusion that so favoured his excellent study of Flaubert in the rich
series to which the present volume belongs. It was worth while waiting
these many years for a Balzac to get it at last from a hand of so firm a
grip, if not quite of the very finest manipulative instinct. It can
scarce ever be said of M. Faguet that he tends to play with a subject,
at least a literary one; but nobody is better for circling his theme in
sound and easy pedestrian fashion, for taking up each of its aspects in
order, for a sense, above all, of the order in which they _should_ be
taken, and for then, after doing them successively justice, reaching the
point from which they appear to melt together. He thus gives us one of
those literary portraits the tradition of which, so far at least as they
are the fruit of method, has continued scantily to flourish among
ourselves. We cannot help thinking indeed that an ideally authoritative
portrait of Balzac would be the work of some pondering painter able to
measure the great man’s bequest a little more from within or by a
coincidence of special faculty, or that in other words the particular
initiation and fellow-feeling of some like—that is not too
unlike—imaginative projector as well are rather wanted here to warm and
colour the critical truth to the right glow of appreciation. Which comes
to saying, we quite acknowledge, that a “tribute” to Balzac, of however
embracing an intention, may still strike us as partly unachieved if we
fail to catch yearning and shining through it, like a motive in a
musical mixture or a thread of gold in a piece of close weaving, the all
but overriding sympathy of novelist with novelist. M. Faguet’s
intelligence at any rate sweeps his ground clear of the anecdotal, the
question-begging reference to odds and ends of the personal and
superficial, in a single short chapter, and, having got so promptly over
this second line of defence, attacks at once the issue of his author’s
general ideas—matters apt to be, in any group of contributors to a
“series” of our own, exactly what the contributor most shirks
considering.

It is true that few writers, and especially few novelists, bring up that
question with anything like the gross assurance and systematic
confidence of Balzac, who clearly took for involved in his plan of a
complete picture of the manners and aspects of his country and his
period that he should have his confident “say” about as many things as
possible, and who, throughout his immense work, appears never for an
instant or in any connection to flinch from that complacency. Here it is
easy to await him, waylay him and catch him in the act, with the
consequence, for the most part, of our having to recognise almost with
compassion the disparity between the author of “La Cousine Bette”
exercising his genius, as Matthew Arnold said of Ruskin, in making a
like distinction, and the same writer taking on a character not in the
least really rooted in that soil. The fact none the less than his
generalising remains throughout so markedly inferior to his
particularising—which latter element and very essence of the novelist’s
art it was his greatness to carry further and apply more consistently
than any member of the craft, without exception, has felt the impulse,
to say nothing of finding the way, to do—by no means wholly destroys
the interest of the habit itself or relieves us of a due attention to
it; so characteristic and significant, so suggestive even of his special
force, though in a manner indirect, are the very folds and redundancies
of this philosopher’s robe that flaps about his feet and drags along the
ground like an assumed official train. The interest here—where it is
exactly that a whole face of his undertaking would be most illumined for
the fellow-artist we imagine trying to exhibit him—depends much less on
what his reflection and opinion, his irrepressible _obiter dicta_ and
monstrous _suffisances_ of judgment may be, than on the part played in
his scheme by his holding himself ready at every turn and at such short
notice to judge. For this latter fact probably lights up more than any
other his conception of the range of the novel, the fashion after which,
in his hands, it had been felt as an all-inclusive form, a form without
rift or leak, a tight mould, literally, into which everything relevant
to a consideration of the society surrounding him—and the less relevant
unfortunately, as well as the more—might be poured in a stream of
increasing consistency, the underlapping subject stretched, all so
formidably, to its own constituted edge and the compound appointed to
reproduce, as in finest and subtlest relief, its every minutest feature,
overlying and corresponding with it all round to the loss of no fraction
of an inch.

It is thus the painter’s aspiring and rejoicing consciousness of the
great square swarming picture, the picture of France from side to side
and from top to bottom, which he proposes to copy—unless we see the
collective quantity rather as the vast primary model or sitter that he
is unprecedentedly to portray, it is this that, rendering him enviable
in proportion to his audacity and his presumption, gives a dignity to
everything that makes the consciousness whole. The result is a state of
possession of his material unlike that of any other teller of tales
whatever about a circumjacent world, and the process of his gain of
which opens up well-nigh the first of those more or less baffling
questions, parts indeed of the great question of the economic rule, the
practical secret, of his activity, that beset us as soon as we study
him. To fit what he was and what he did, that is the measure of how he
used himself and how he used every one and everything else, into his
after all so brief career (for twenty years cover the really productive
term of it) is for ourselves, we confess, to renounce any other solution
than that of his having proceeded by a sense for facts, the
multitudinous facts of the scene about him, that somehow involved a
preliminary, a pre-experiential inspiration, a straightness of intuition
truly impossible to give an account of and the like of which had never
before been shown. He had not to learn things in order to know them; and
even though he multiplied himself in more ways than we can reckon up,
going hither and thither geographically, leading his life with violence,
as it were, though always with intention, and wasting almost nothing
that had ever touched him, the natural man, the baptised and registered
Honoré, let loose with harsh promptitude upon a world formed from the
first moment to excite his voracity, can only have been _all_ the
exploiting agent, the pushing inquirer, the infallible appraiser, the
subject of an _arrière-pensée_ as merciless, in spite of being otherwise
genial, as the black care riding behind the horseman. There was thus
left over for him less of mere human looseness, of mere emotion, of mere
naturalness, or of any curiosity whatever, that didn’t “pay”—and the
extent to which he liked things to pay, to see them, think of them, and
describe them as prodigiously paying, is not to be expressed—than
probably marks any recorded relation between author and subject as we
know each of these terms.

So it comes that his mastership of whatever given identity might be in
question, and much more of the general identity of his rounded (for the
artistic vision), his compact and containing France, the fixed, felt
frame to him of the vividest items and richest characteristics of human
life, can really not be thought of as a matter of degrees of confidence,
as acquired or built up or cumbered with verifying fears. He _was_ the
given identity and, on the faintest shade of a hint about it caught up,
became one with it and lived it—this in the only way in which he could
live, anywhere or at any time: which was by losing himself in its
relation to his need or to what we call his voracity. Just so his mind,
his power of apprehension, worked _naturally_ in the interest of a
society disclosed to that appetite; on the mere approach to the display
he inhaled information, he recognised himself as what he might best be
known for, an historian unprecedented, an historian documented as none
had not only ever been, but had ever dreamed of being—and even if the
method of his documentation can leave us for the most part but
wondering. The method of his use of it, or of a portion of it, we more
or less analyse and measure; but the wealth of his provision or outfit
itself, the crammed store of his categories and _cadres_, leaves us the
more stupefied as we feel it to have been honestly come by. All this is
what it is impossible not to regard as in itself a fundamental felicity
as no _confrère_ had known; so far, indeed, as Balzac suffered
_confrères_ or as the very nature of his faculty could be thought of for
them. M. Brunetière’s monograph of some years ago, which is but a couple
of degrees less weighty, to our sense, than this of M. Faguet before us,
justly notes that, whatever other felicity may have graced the exercise
of such a genius, for instance, as that rare contemporary George Sand,
she was reduced well-nigh altogether to drawing upon resources and
enjoying advantages comparatively vague and unassured. She had of course
in a manner her special resource and particular advantage, which
consisted, so to speak, in a finer feeling about what she did possess
and could treat of with authority, and particularly in a finer command
of the terms of expression, than any involved in Balzac’s “happier”
example. But her almost fatal weakness as a novelist—an exponent of the
art who has waned exactly as, for our general long-drawn appreciation,
Balzac has waxed—comes from her having had to throw herself upon ground
that no order governed, no frame, as we have said, enclosed, and no
safety attended; safety of the sort, we mean, the safety of the
constitutive, illustrative fact among facts, which we find in her rival
as a warm socialised air, an element supremely assimilable.

It may freely be pronounced interesting that whereas, in her instinct
for her highest security, she threw herself upon the consideration of
love as the _type_ attraction or most representable thing in the human
scene, so, assuredly, no student of that field has, in proportion to the
thoroughness of his study, felt he could afford to subordinate or almost
even to neglect it to anything like the tune in which we see it put and
kept in its place through the parts of the Comédie Humaine that most
count. If this passion but too often exhales a tepid breath in much
other fiction—much other of ours at least—that is apt to come
decidedly less from the writer’s sense of proportion than from his
failure of art, or in other words of intensity. It is rarely absent by
intention or by intelligence, it is pretty well always there as the
theoretic principal thing—any difference from writer to writer being
mostly in the power to put the principal thing effectively forward. It
figures as a pressing, an indispensable even if a perfunctory motive,
for example, in every situation devised by Walter Scott; the case being
simply that if it doesn’t in fact attractively occupy the foreground
this is because his hand has had so native, so much greater, an ease for
other parts of the picture. What makes Balzac so pre-eminent and
exemplary that he was to leave the novel a far other and a vastly more
capacious and significant affair than he found it, is his having felt
his fellow-creatures (almost altogether for him his contemporaries) as
quite failing of reality, as swimming in the vague and the void and the
abstract, unless their social conditions, to the last particular, their
generative and contributive circumstances, of every discernible sort,
enter for all these are “worth” into his representative attempt. This
great compound of the total looked into and starting up in its element,
as it always does, to meet the eye of genius and patience half way,
bristled for him with all its branching connections, those thanks to
which any figure could _be_ a figure but by showing for endlessly
entangled in them.

So it was then that his huge felicity, to re-emphasise our term, was in
his state of circulating where recognitions and identifications didn’t
so much await as rejoicingly assault him, having never yet in all the
world, grudged or at the best suspected feeders as they were at the
board where sentiment occupied the head, felt themselves so finely
important or subject to such a worried intention. They hung over a scene
as to which it was one of the forces of his inspiration that history had
lately been there at work, with incomparable energy and inimitable art,
to pile one upon another, not to say squeeze and dovetail violently into
each other, after such a fashion as might defy competition anywhere, her
successive deposits and layers of form and order, her restless
determinations of appearance—so like those of the different “states” of
an engraver’s impression; all to an effect which _should_ have
constituted, as by a miracle of coincidence it did, the paradise of an
extraordinary observer. Balzac lived accordingly, extraordinary since he
was, in an earthly heaven so near perfect for his kind of vision that he
could have come at no moment more conceivably blest to him. The later
part of the eighteenth century, with the Revolution, the Empire and the
Restoration, had inimitably conspired together to scatter abroad their
separate marks and stigmas, their separate trails of character and
physiognomic hits—for which advantage he might have arrived too late,
as his hapless successors, even his more or less direct imitators,
visibly have done. The fatal fusions and uniformities inflicted on our
newer generations, the running together of all the differences of form
and tone, the ruinous liquefying wash of the great industrial brush over
the old conditions of contrast and colour, doubtless still have left the
painter of manners much to do, but have ground him down to the sad fact
that his ideals of differentiation, those inherent oppositions from type
to type, in which drama most naturally resides, have well-nigh perished.
They pant for life in a hostile air; and we may surely say that their
last successful struggle, their last bright resistance to eclipse among
ourselves, was in their feverish dance to the great fiddling of Dickens.
Dickens made them dance, we seem to see, caper and kick their heels,
wave their arms, and above all agitate their features, for the simple
reason that he couldn’t make them stand or sit _at once_ quietly and
expressively, couldn’t make them look straight out as for
themselves—quite in fact as through his not daring to, not feeling he
could afford to, in a changing hour when ambiguities and the wavering
line, droll and “dodgy” dazzlements and the possibly undetected
factitious alone, might be trusted to keep him right with an incredibly
uncritical public, a public blind to the difference between a shade and
a patch.

Balzac on the other hand, born as we have seen to confidence, the tonic
air of his paradise, might make character, in the sense in which we use
it, that of the element exposable to the closest verification, sit or
stand for its “likeness” as still as ever it would. It is true that he
could, as he often did, resort to fond extravagance, since he was apt at
his worst to plunge into agitation for mere agitation’s sake—which is a
course that, by any turn, may cast the plunger on the barrenest strand.
But he is at his best when the conditions, the whole complex of
subdivisible form and pressure, are virtually themselves the situation,
the action and the interest, or in other words when these things exhaust
themselves, as it were, in expressing the persons we are concerned with,
agents and victims alike, and when by such vivified figures, whether
victims or agents, they are themselves completely expressed. The three
distinguished critics who have best studied him, Taine, Brunetière and
now (as well as before this) M. Faguet—the first the most eloquent but
the loosest, and the last the closest even if the dryest—are in
agreement indeed as to the vast quantity of waste in him, inevitably
judging the romanticist as whom he so frequently, speculatively,
desperately paraded altogether inferior to the realist whose function he
could still repeatedly and richly and for his greater glory exercise.
This estimate of his particularly greater glory is of a truth not wholly
shared by M. Taine; but the three are virtually at one, where we of
course join them, or rather go further than they, as to the enviability,
so again to call it (and by which we mean the matchless freedom of
play), of his harvesting sense when he gave himself up in fullest
measure to his apprehension of the dense wholeness of reality. It was
this that led him on and kept him true to that happily largest side of
his labour by which he must massively live; just as it is this, the
breath of his real geniality, when every abatement is made, that stirs
to loyalty those who under his example also take his direction and find
their joy in watching him thoroughly at work. We see then how, when
social character and evolved type are the prize to be grasped, the facts
of observation and certification, unrestingly social and historic too,
that form and fondle and retouch it, never relaxing their action, are so
easily and blessedly absolute to him that this is what we mean by their
virtue.

When there were enough of these quantities and qualities flowering into
the definite and the absolute for him to feed on, feed if not to satiety
at least to the largest loosening of his intellectual belt, there were
so many that we may even fall in with most of M. Faguet’s
discriminations and reserves about him and yet find his edifice rest on
proportioned foundations. For it is his assimilation of things and
things, of his store of them and of the right ones, the right for
representation, that leaves his general image, even with great chunks of
surface surgically, that is critically, removed, still coherent and
erect. There are moments when M. Faguet—most surgical he!—seems to
threaten to remove so much that we ask ourselves in wonder what may be
left; but no removal matters while the principle of observation
animating the mass is left unattacked. Our present critic for instance
is “down”—very understandingly down as seems to us—on some of the
sides of his author’s rich temperamental vulgarity; which is accompanied
on those sides by want of taste, want of wit, want of style, want of
knowledge of ever so many parts of the general subject, too
precipitately proposed, and want of fineness of feeling about ever so
many others. We agree with him freely enough, subject always to this
reserve already glanced at, that a novelist of a high esthetic
sensibility must always find more in any other novelist worth
considering seriously at all than he can perhaps hope to impart even to
the most intelligent of critics pure and simple his subtle reasons for.
This said, we lose ourselves, to admiration, in such a matter for
example as the tight hug of the mere material, the supremely important
if such ever was, represented by the appeal to us on behalf of the
money-matters of César Birotteau.

This illustration gains logically, much more than loses, from the rank
predominance of the money-question, the money-vision, throughout all
Balzac. There are lights in which it can scarce not appear to us that
his own interest is greater, his possibilities of attention truer, in
these pressing particulars than in all other questions put together;
there could be no better sign of the appreciation of “things,” exactly,
than so never relaxed a grasp of the part played in the world by just
these. Things for things, the franc, the shilling, the dollar, are the
very most underlying and conditioning, even dramatically, even
poetically, that call upon him; and we have everywhere to recognise how
little he feels himself to be telling us of this, that and the other
person unless he has first given us full information, with every detail,
either as to their private means, their income, investments, savings,
losses, the state in fine of their pockets, or as to their immediate
place of habitation, their home, their outermost shell, with its windows
and doors, its outside appearance and inside plan, its rooms and
furniture and arrangements, its altogether intimate facts, down to its
very smell. This prompt and earnest evocation of the shell and its
lining is but another way of testifying with due emphasis to economic
conditions. The most personal shell of all, the significant dress of the
individual, whether man or woman, is subject to as sharp and as deep a
notation—it being no small part of his wealth of luck that the age of
dress differentiated and specialised from class to class and character
to character, not least moreover among men, could still give him
opportunities of choice, still help him to define and intensify, or
peculiarly to _place_ his apparitions. The old world in which costume
had, to the last refinement of variety, a social meaning happily
lingered on for him; and nothing is more interesting, nothing goes
further in this sense of the way the social concrete could minister to
him, than the fact that “César Birotteau,” to instance that masterpiece
again, besides being a money-drama of the closest texture, the very epic
of retail bankruptcy, is at the same time the all-vividest exhibition of
the habited and figured, the representatively stamped and countenanced,
buttoned and buckled state of the persons moving through it. No livelier
example therefore can we name of the triumphant way in which any given,
or as we should rather say taken, total of conditions works out under
our author’s hand for accentuation of type. The story of poor Birotteau
is just in this supreme degree a hard total, even if every one’s
money-relation does loom larger, for his or her case, than anything
else.

The main thing doubtless to agree with M. Faguet about, however, is the
wonder of the rate at which this genius for an infatuated grasp of the
environment could multiply the creatures swarming, and swarming at their
best to perfection, in that jungle of elements. A jungle certainly the
environment, the rank many-coloured picture of France, would have been
had it not really created in our observer the joy, thanks to his need of
a clear and marked order, of its becoming so arrangeable. Nothing could
interest us more than to note with our critic that such
multiplications—taken after all at such a rush—have to be paid for by
a sort of limitation of quality in each, the quality that, beyond a
certain point and after a certain allowance, ever looks askance at any
approach to what it may be figured as taking for _insolence_ of
quantity. Some inquiry into the general mystery of such laws of payment
would beckon us on had we the space—whereby we might glance a little at
the wondrous why and wherefore of the sacrifice foredoomed, the loss,
greater or less, of those ideals now compromised by the tarnished names
of refinement and distinction, yet which we are none the less, at our
decentest, still ashamed too entirely to turn our backs on, in the
presence of energies that, shaking the air by their embrace of the
common, tend to dispossess the rare of a certified place in it.
Delightful to the critical mind to estimate the point at which, in the
picture of life, a sense for the element of the rare ceases to consort
with a sense, necessarily large and lusty, for the varieties of the real
that super-abound. Reducible perhaps to some exquisite measure is this
point of fatal divergence. It declared itself, the divergence, in the
heart of Balzac’s genius; for nothing about him is less to be gainsaid
than that on the other or further side of a certain line of rareness
drawn his authority, so splendid on the hither or familiar side, is
sadly liable to lapse. It fails to take in whatever fine truth
experience may have vouchsafed to us about the highest kinds of temper,
the inward life of the mind, the _cultivated_ consciousness. His truest
and vividest people are those whom the conditions in which they are so
palpably embedded have simplified not less than emphasised; simplified
mostly to singleness of motive and passion and interest, to quite
measurably finite existence; whereas his ostensibly higher spirits,
types necessarily least observed and most independently thought out, in
the interest of their humanity, as we would fain ourselves think them,
are his falsest and weakest and show most where his imagination and his
efficient sympathy break down.

To say so much as this is doubtless to provoke the question of where and
how then, under so many other restrictions, he is so great—which
question is answered simply by our claim for his unsurpassed mastery of
the “middling” sort, so much the most numerous in the world, the
middling sort pressed upon by the vast variety of their dangers. These
it is in their multitude whom he makes individually living, each with a
clustered bunch of concomitants, as no one, to our mind, has equalled
him in doing—above all with the amount of repetition of the feat
considered. Finer images than the middling, but so much fewer, other
creative talents have thrown off; swarms of the common, on the other
hand, have obeyed with an even greater air of multitude perhaps than in
Balzac’s pages the big brandished enumerative wand—only with a signal
forfeiture in this case of that gift of the sharply separate, the really
rounded, personality which he untiringly conferred. Émile Zola, by so
far the strongest example of his influence, mustered groups and crowds
beyond even the master’s own compass; but as throughout Zola we live and
move for the most part but in crowds (he thinking his best but in terms
of crowdedness), so in Balzac, where he rises highest, we deal, whether
or no more for our sense of ugliness than of beauty, but with memorable
person after person. He thought, on his side—when he thought at least
to good purpose—in terms the most expressively personal, in such as
could even eventuate in monsters and forms of evil the most finished we
know; so that if he too has left us a multitude of which we may say that
it stands alone for solidity, it nevertheless exists by addition and
extension, not by a chemical shaking-together, a cheapening or
diminishing fusion.

It is not that the series of the Rougon-Macquart has not several
distinct men and women to show—though they occur, as a fact, almost in
“L’Assommoir” alone; it is not either that Zola did not on occasion try
for the cultivated consciousness, a thing of course, so far as ever
achieved anywhere, necessarily separate and distinguished; it is that he
tried, on such ground, with a futility only a shade less marked than
Balzac’s, and perhaps would have tried with equal disaster had he
happened to try oftener. If we find in his pages no such spreading waste
as Balzac’s general picture of the classes “enjoying every advantage,”
that is of the socially highest—to the elder writer’s success in
depicting particularly the female members of which Sainte-Beuve, and
Brunetière in his footsteps, have rendered such strange and stupefying
homage—the reason may very well be that such groups could not in the
nature of the case figure to him after the fashion in which he liked
groups to figure, as merely herded and compressed. To Balzac they were
groups in which individualisation might be raised to its very finest;
and it is by this possibility in them that we watch him and his fertile
vulgarity, his peccant taste, so fallible for delicacies, so unerring
for simplicities, above all doubtless the homeliest, strongest and
grimmest, wofully led astray. But it is fairly almost a pleasure to our
admiration, before him, to see what we have permitted ourselves to call
the “chunks” of excision carted off to the disengagement of the values
that still live. The wondrous thing is that they live best where his
grand vulgarity—since we are not afraid of the word—serves him rather
than betrays; which it _has_ to do, we make out, over the greater part
of the field of any observer for whom man is on the whole cruelly,
crushingly, deformedly conditioned. We grant _that_ as to Balzac’s view,
and yet feel the view to have been at the same time incomparably active
and productively genial; which are by themselves somehow qualities and
reactions that redress the tragedy and the doom. The vulgarity was at
any rate a force that simply got nearer than any other could have done
to the whole detail, the whole intimate and evidenced story, of
submission and perversion, and as such it could but prove itself
immensely human. It is on all this considered ground that he has for so
many years stood firm and that we feel him by reason of it and in spite
of them, in spite of all that has come and gone, not to have yielded,
have “given,” an inch.

-----

Footnote 5:

Balzac. Par Émile Faguet, de l’Académie Française. Les Grands Écrivains
Français. Paris, Hachette, 1913.



                              GEORGE SAND
                                  1897


I have been reading in the Revue de Paris for November 1st, 1896, some
fifty pages, of an extraordinary interest, which have had in respect to
an old admiration a remarkable effect. Undoubtedly for other admirers
too who have come to fifty year—admirers, I mean, once eager, of the
distinguished woman involved—the perusal of the letters addressed by
George Sand to Alfred de Musset in the course of a famous friendship
will have stirred in an odd fashion the ashes of an early ardour. I
speak of ashes because early ardours for the most part burn themselves
out, while the place they hold in our lives varies, I think, mainly
according to the degree of tenderness with which we gather up and
preserve their dust; and I speak of oddity because in the present case
it is difficult to say whether the agitation of the embers results at
last in a returning glow or in a yet more sensible chill. That indeed is
perhaps a small question compared with the simple pleasure of the
reviving emotion. One reads and wonders and enjoys again, just for the
sake of the renewal. The small fry of the hour submit to further
shrinkage, and we revert with a sigh of relief to the free genius and
large life of one of the greatest of all masters of expression. Do
people still handle the works of this master—people other than young
ladies studying French with La “Mare au Diable” and a dictionary? Are
there persons who still read “Valentine”? Are there others capable of
losing themselves in “Mauprat”? Has “André,” the exquisite, dropped out
of knowledge, and is any one left who remembers “Teverino”? I ask these
questions for the mere sweet sound of them, without the least
expectation of an answer. I remember asking them twenty years ago, after
Madame Sand’s death, and not then being hopeful of the answer of the
future. But the only response that matters to us perhaps is our own,
even if it be after all somewhat ambiguous. “André” and “Valentine” then
are rather on our shelves than in our hands, but in the light of what is
given us in the “Revue de Paris” who shall say that we do not, and with
avidity, “read” George Sand? She died in 1876, but she lives again
intensely in these singular pages, both as to what in her spirit was
most attaching and what most disconcerting. We are vague as to what they
may represent for the generation that has come to the front since her
death; nothing, I dare say, very imposing or even very pleasing. But
they give out a great deal to a reader for whom thirty years ago—the
best time to have taken her as a whole—she was a high clear figure, a
great familiar magician. This impression is a strange mixture, but
perhaps not quite incommunicable; and we are steeped as we receive it in
one of the most curious episodes in the annals of the literary race.


                                   I

It is the great interest of such an episode that, apart from its
proportionate place in the unfolding of a personal life it has a
wonderful deal to say on the relation between experience and art at
large. It constitutes an eminent special case, in which the workings of
that relation are more or less uncovered; a case too of which one of the
most striking notes is that we are in possession of it almost
exclusively by the act of one of the persons concerned. Madame Sand at
least, as we see to-day, was eager to leave nothing undone that could
make us further acquainted than we were before with one of the liveliest
chapters of her personal history. We cannot, doubtless, be sure that her
conscious purpose in the production of “Elle et Lui” was to show us the
process by which private ecstasies and pains find themselves transmuted
in the artist’s workshop into promising literary material—any more than
we can be certain of her motive for making toward the end of her life
earnest and complete arrangements for the ultimate publication of the
letters in which the passion is recorded and in which we can remount to
the origin of the volume. If “Elle et Lui” had been the inevitable
picture, postponed and retouched, of the great adventure of her youth,
so the letters show us the crude primary stuff from which the moral
detachment of the book was distilled. Were they to be given to the world
for the encouragement of the artist-nature—as a contribution to the
view that no suffering is great enough, no emotion tragic enough to
exclude the hope that such pangs may sooner or later be esthetically
assimilated? Was the whole proceeding, in intention, a frank plea for
the intellectual and in some degree even the commercial profit, to a
robust organism, of a store of erotic reminiscence? Whatever the reasons
behind the matter, that is to a certain extent the moral of the strange
story.

It may be objected that this moral is qualified to come home to us only
when the relation between art and experience really proves a happier one
than it may be held to have proved in the combination before us. The
element in danger of being most absent from the process is the element
of dignity, and its presence, so far as that may ever at all be hoped
for in an appeal from a personal quarrel, is assured only in proportion
as the esthetic event, standing on its own feet, represents a noble
gift. It was vain, the objector may say, for our author to pretend to
justify by so slight a performance as “Elle et Lui” that sacrifice of
all delicacy which has culminated in this supreme surrender. “If you
sacrifice all delicacy,” I hear such a critic contend, “show at least
that you were right by giving us a masterpiece. The novel in question is
no more a masterpiece,” I even hear him proceed, “than any other of the
loose liquid lucid works of its author. By your supposition of a great
intention you give much too fine an account on the one hand of a
personal habit of incontinence and on the other of a literary habit of
egotism. Madame Sand, in writing her tale and in publishing her
love-letters, obeyed no prompting more exalted than that of exhibiting
her personal (in which I include her verbal) facility, and of doing so
at the cost of whatever other persons might be concerned; and you are
therefore—and you might as well immediately confess it—thrown back for
the element of interest on the attraction of her general eloquence, the
plausibility of her general manner and the great number of her
particular confidences. You are thrown back on your mere curiosity or
sympathy—thrown back from any question of service rendered to ‘art.’ ”
One might be thrown back doubtless still further even than such remarks
would represent if one were not quite prepared with the confession they
propose. It is only because such a figure is interesting—in every
manifestation—that its course is marked for us by vivid footprints and
possible lessons. And to enable us to find these it scarcely need have
aimed after all so extravagantly high. George Sand lived her remarkable
life and drove her perpetual pen, but the illustration that I began by
speaking of is for ourselves to gather—if we can.

I remember hearing many years ago in Paris an anecdote for the truth of
which I am far from vouching, though it professed to come direct—an
anecdote that has recurred to me more than once in turning over the
revelations of the Revue de Paris, and without the need of the special
reminder (in the shape of an allusion to her intimacy with the hero of
the story) contained in those letters to Sainte-Beuve which are
published in the number of November 15th. Prosper Mérimée was said to
have related—in a reprehensible spirit—that during a term of
association with the author of “Lélia” he once opened his eyes, in the
raw winter dawn, to see his companion, in a dressing-gown, on her knees
before the domestic hearth, a candlestick beside her and a red _madras_
round her head, making bravely, with her own hands, the fire that was to
enable her to sit down betimes to urgent pen and paper. The story
represents him as having felt that the spectacle chilled his ardour and
tried his taste; her appearance was unfortunate, her occupation an
inconsequence and her industry a reproof—the result of all of which was
a lively irritation and an early rupture. To the firm admirer of Madame
Sand’s prose the little sketch has a very different value, for it
presents her in an attitude which is the very key to the enigma, the
answer to most of the questions with which her character confronts us.
She rose early because she was pressed to write, and she was pressed to
write because she had the greatest instinct of expression ever conferred
on a woman; a faculty that put a premium on all passion, on all pain, on
all experience and all exposure, on the greatest variety of ties and the
smallest reserve about them. The really interesting thing in these
posthumous _laideurs_ is the way the gift, the voice, carries its
possessor through them and lifts her on the whole above them. It gave
her, it may be confessed at the outset and in spite of all magnanimities
in the use of it, an unfair advantage in every connection. So at least
we must continue to feel till—for our appreciation of this particular
one—we have Alfred de Musset’s share of the correspondence. For we
shall have it at last, in whatever faded fury or beauty it may still
possess—to that we may make up our minds. Let the galled jade wince, it
is only a question of time. The greatest of literary quarrels will in
short, on the general ground, once more come up—the quarrel beside
which all others are mild and arrangeable, the eternal dispute between
the public and the private, between curiosity and delicacy.

This discussion is precisely all the sharper because it takes place for
each of us within as well as without. When we wish to know at all we
wish to know everything; yet there happen to be certain things of which
no better description can be given than that they are simply none of our
business. “What _is_ then forsooth of our business?” the genuine analyst
may always ask; and he may easily challenge us to produce any rule of
general application by which we shall know when to push in and when to
back out. “In the first place,” he may continue, “half the ‘interesting’
people in the world have at one time or another set themselves to drag
us in with all their might; and what in the world in such a relation is
the observer that he should absurdly pretend to be in more of a flutter
than the object observed? The mannikin, in all schools, is at an early
stage of study of the human form inexorably superseded by the man. Say
that we are to give up the attempt to understand: it might certainly be
better so, and there would be a delightful side to the new arrangement.
But in the name of common-sense don’t say that the continuity of life is
not to have some equivalent in the continuity of pursuit, the renewal of
phenomena in the renewal of notation. There is not a door you can lock
here against the critic or the painter, not a cry you can raise or a
long face you can pull at him, that are not quite arbitrary things. The
only thing that makes the observer competent is that he is neither
afraid nor ashamed; the only thing that makes him decent—just
think!—is that he is not superficial.” All this is very well, but
somehow we all equally feel that there is clean linen and soiled and
that life would be intolerable without some acknowledgment even by the
pushing of such a thing as forbidden ground. M. Émile Zola, at the
moment I write, gives to the world his reasons for rejoicing in the
publication of the physiological _enquête_ of Dr. Toulouse—a marvellous
catalogue or handbook of M. Zola’s outward and inward parts, which
leaves him not an inch of privacy, so to speak, to stand on, leaves him
nothing about himself that is _for_ himself, for his friends, his
relatives, his intimates, his lovers, for discovery, for emulation, for
fond conjecture or flattering deluded envy. It is enough for M. Zola
that everything is for the public and no sacrifice worth thinking of
when it is a question of presenting to the open mouth of that apparently
gorged but still gaping monster the smallest spoonful of truth. The
truth, to his view, is never either ridiculous or unclean, and the way
to a better life lies through telling it, so far as possible, about
everything and about every one.

There would probably be no difficulty in agreeing to this if it didn’t
seem on the part of the speaker the result of a rare confusion between
give and take, between “truth” and information. The true thing that most
matters to us is the true thing we have most use for, and there are
surely many occasions on which the truest thing of all is the necessity
of the mind, its simple necessity of feeling. Whether it feels in order
to learn or learns in order to feel, the event is the same: the side on
which it shall most feel will be the side to which it will most incline.
If it feels more about a Zola functionally undeciphered it will be
governed more by that particular truth than by the truth about his
digestive idiosyncrasies, or even about his “olfactive perceptions” and
his “arithmomania or impulse to count.” An affirmation of our “mere
taste” may very supposedly be our individual contribution to the general
clearing up. Nothing often is less superficial than to ignore and
overlook, or more constructive (for living and feeling at all) than to
want impatiently to choose. If we are aware that in the same way as
about a Zola undeciphered we should have felt more about a George Sand
unexposed, the true thing we have gained becomes a poor substitute for
the one we have lost; and I scarce see what difference it makes that the
view of the elder novelist appears in this matter quite to march with
that of the younger. I hasten to add that as to being of course asked
why in the world with such a leaning we have given time either to M.
Zola’s physician or to Musset’s correspondent, this is only another
illustration of the bewildering state of the subject.

When we meet on the broad highway the rueful denuded figure we need some
presence of mind to decide whether to cut it dead or to lead it gently
home, and meanwhile the fatal complication easily occurs. We have
_seen_, in a flash of our own wit, and mystery has fled with a shriek.
These encounters are indeed accidents which may at any time take place,
and the general guarantee in a noisy world lies, I judge, not so much in
any hope of really averting them as in a regular organisation of the
struggle. The reporter and the reported have duly and equally to
understand that they carry their life in their hands. There are secrets
for privacy and silence; let them only be cultivated on the part of the
hunted creature with even half the method with which the love of
sport—or call it the historic sense—is cultivated on the part of the
investigator. They have been left too much to the natural, the
instinctive man; but they will be twice as effective after it begins to
be observed that they may take their place among the triumphs of
civilisation. Then at last the game will be fair and the two forces face
to face; it will be “pull devil, pull tailor,” and the hardest pull will
doubtless provide the happiest result. Then the cunning of the inquirer,
envenomed with resistance, will exceed in subtlety and ferocity anything
we to-day conceive, and the pale forewarned victim, with every track
covered, every paper burnt and every letter unanswered, will, in the
tower of art, the invulnerable granite, stand, without a sally, the
siege of all the years.


                                   II

It was not in the tower of art that George Sand ever shut herself up;
but I come back to a point already made in saying that it is in the
citadel of style that, notwithstanding rash _sorties_, she continues to
hold out. The outline of the complicated story that was to cause so much
ink to flow gives, even with the omission of a hundred features, a
direct measure of the strain to which her astonishing faculty was
exposed. In the summer of 1833, as a woman of nearly thirty, she
encountered Alfred de Musset, who was six years her junior. In spite of
their youth they were already somewhat bowed by the weight of a troubled
past. Musset, at twenty-three, had that of his confirmed libertinism—so
Madame Arvède Barine, who has had access to materials, tells us in the
admirable short biography of the poet contributed to the rather markedly
unequal but very interesting series of Hachette’s Grands Écrivains
Français. Madame Sand had a husband, a son and a daughter, and the
impress of that succession of lovers—Jules Sandeau had been one,
Prosper Mérimée another—to which she so freely alludes in the letters
to Sainte-Beuve, a friend more disinterested than these and qualified to
give much counsel in exchange for much confidence. It cannot be said
that the situation of either of our young persons was of good omen for a
happy relation, but they appear to have burnt their ships with much
promptitude and a great blaze, and in the December of that year they
started together for Italy. The following month saw them settled, on a
frail basis, in Venice, where the elder companion remained till late in
the summer of 1834 and where she wrote, in part, “Jacques” and the
“Lettres d’un Voyageur,” as well as “André” and “Léone-Léoni,” and
gathered the impressions to be embodied later in half-a-dozen stories
with Italian titles—notably in the delightful “Consuelo.” The journey,
the Italian climate, the Venetian winter at first agreed with neither of
the friends; they were both taken ill—the young man very gravely—and
after a stay of three months Musset returned, alone and much ravaged, to
Paris.

In the meantime a great deal had happened, for their union had been
stormy and their security small. Madame Sand had nursed her companion in
illness (a matter-of-course office, it must be owned) and her companion
had railed at his nurse in health. A young physician, called in, had
become a close friend of both parties, but more particularly a close
friend of the lady, and it was to his tender care that on quitting the
scene Musset solemnly committed her. She took up life with Pietro
Pagello—the transition is startling—for the rest of her stay, and on
her journey back to France he was no inconsiderable part of her luggage.
He was simple, robust and kind—not a man of genius. He remained,
however, but a short time in Paris; in the autumn of 1834 he returned to
Italy, to live on till our own day but never again, so far as we know,
to meet his illustrious mistress. Her intercourse with her poet was, in
all its intensity, one may almost say its ferocity, promptly renewed,
and was sustained in that key for several months more. The effect of
this strange and tormented passion on the mere student of its records is
simply to make him ask himself what on earth is the matter with the
subjects of it. Nothing is more easy than to say, as I have intimated,
that it has no need of records and no need of students; but this leaves
out of account the thick medium of genius in which it was foredoomed to
disport itself. It was self-registering, as the phrase is, for the
genius on both sides happened to be the genius of eloquence. It is all
rapture and all rage and all literature. The “Lettres d’un Voyageur”
spring from the thick of the fight; “La Confession d’un Enfant du
Siècle” and “Les Nuits” are immediate echoes of the concert. The lovers
are naked in the market-place and perform for the benefit of society.
The matter with them, to the perception of the stupefied spectator, is
that they entertained for each other every feeling in life but the
feeling of respect. What the absence of that article may do for the
passion of hate is apparently nothing to what it may do for the passion
of love.

By our unhappy pair at any rate the luxury in question—the little
luxury of plainer folk—was not to be purchased, and in the comedy of
their despair and the tragedy of their recovery nothing is more striking
than their convulsive effort either to reach up to it or to do without
it. They would have given for it all else they possessed, but they only
meet in their struggle the inexorable _never_. They strain and pant and
gasp, they beat the air in vain for the cup of cold water of their hell.
They missed it in a way for which none of their superiorities could make
up. Their great affliction was that each found in the life of the other
an armoury of weapons to wound. Young as they were, young as Musset was
in particular, they appeared to have afforded each other in that
direction the most extraordinary facilities; and nothing in the matter
of the mutual consideration that failed them is more sad and strange
than that even in later years, when their rage, very quickly, had
cooled, they never arrived at simple silence. For Madame Sand, in her so
much longer life, there was no hush, no letting alone; though it would
be difficult indeed to exaggerate the depth of relative indifference
from which, a few years after Musset’s death, such a production as “Elle
et Lui” could spring. Of course there had been floods of tenderness, of
forgiveness; but those, for all their beauty of expression, are quite
another matter. It is just the fact of our sense of the ugliness of so
much of the episode that makes a wonder and a force of the fine style,
all round, in which it is offered us. That force is in its turn a sort
of clue to guide, or perhaps rather a sign to stay, our feet in paths
after all not the most edifying. It gives a degree of importance to the
somewhat squalid and the somewhat ridiculous story, and, for the old
George-Sandist at least, lends a positive spell to the smeared and
yellowed paper, the blotted and faded ink. In this twilight of
association we seem to find a reply to our own challenge and to be able
to tell ourselves why we meddle with such old dead squabbles and waste
our time with such grimacing ghosts. If we were superior to the
weakness, moreover, how should we make our point (which we must really
make at any cost) as to the so valuable vivid proof that a great talent
is the best guarantee—that it may really carry off almost anything?

The rather sorry ghost that beckons us on furthest is the rare
personality of Madame Sand. Under its influence—or that of old memories
from which it is indistinguishable—we pick our steps among the
_laideurs_ aforesaid: the misery, the levity, the brevity of it all, the
greatest ugliness in particular that this life shows us, the way the
devotions and passions that we see heaven and earth called to witness
are over before we can turn round. It may be said that, for what it was,
the intercourse of these unfortunates surely lasted long enough; but the
answer to that is that if it had only lasted longer it wouldn’t have
been what it was. It was not only preceded and followed by intimacies,
on one side and the other, as unadorned by the stouter sincerity, but
was mixed up with them in a manner that would seem to us dreadful if it
didn’t still more seem to us droll, or rather perhaps if it didn’t
refuse altogether to come home to us with the crudity of contemporary
things. It is antediluvian history, a queer vanished world—another
Venice from the actually, the deplorably familiarised, a Paris of
greater bonhomie, an inconceivable impossible Nohant. This relegates it
to an order agreeable somehow to the imagination of the fond
quinquegenarian, the reader with a fund of reminiscence. The vanished
world, the Venice unrestored, the Paris unextended, is a bribe to his
judgment; he has even a glance of complacency for the lady’s liberal
_foyer_. Liszt, one lovely year at Nohant, “jouait du piano au
rez-de-chaussée, et les rossignols, ivres de musique et de soleil,
s’égosillaient avec rage sur les lilas environnants.” The beautiful
manner confounds itself with the conditions in which it was exercised,
the large liberty and variety overflow into admirable prose, and the
whole thing makes a charming faded medium in which Chopin gives a hand
to Consuelo and the small Fadette has her elbows on the table of
Flaubert.

There is a terrible letter of the autumn of 1834 in which our heroine
has recourse to Alfred Tattet on a dispute with the bewildered
Pagello—a disagreeable matter that involved a question of money. “À
Venise il comprenait,” she somewhere says, “à Paris il ne comprend
plus.” It was a proof of remarkable intelligence that he did understand
in Venice, where he had become a lover in the presence and with the
exalted approval of an immediate predecessor—an alternate
representative of the part, whose turn had now, on the removal to Paris,
come round again and in whose resumption of office it was looked to him
to concur. This attachment—to Pagello—had lasted but a few months; yet
already it was the prey of complication and change, and its sun appears
to have set in no very graceful fashion. We are not here in truth among
very graceful things, in spite of superhuman attitudes and great
romantic flights. As to these forced notes Madame Arvède Barine
judiciously says that the picture of them contained in the letters to
which she had had access, and some of which are before us, “presents an
example extraordinary and unmatched of what the romantic spirit could do
with beings who had become its prey.” She adds that she regards the
records in question, “in which we follow step by step the ravages of the
monster,” as “one of the most precious psychological documents of the
first half of the century.” That puts the story on its true footing,
though we may regret that it should not divide these documentary honours
more equally with some other story in which the monster has not quite so
much the best of it. But it is the misfortune of the comparatively short
and simple annals of conduct and character that they should ever seem to
us somehow to cut less deep. Scarce—to quote again his best
biographer—had Musset, at Venice, begun to recover from his illness
than the two lovers were seized afresh by _le vertige du sublime et de
l’impossible_. “Ils imaginèrent les déviations de sentiment les plus
bizarres, et leur intérieur fut le théâtre de scènes qui égalaient en
étrangeté les fantaisies les plus audacieuses de la littérature
contemporaine;” that is of the literature of their own day. The register
of virtue contains no such lively items—save indeed in so far as these
contortions and convulsions were a conscious tribute to virtue.

Ten weeks after Musset has left her in Venice his relinquished but not
dissevered mistress writes to him in Paris: “God keep you, my friend, in
your present disposition of heart and mind. Love is a temple built by
the lover to an object more or less worthy of his worship, and what is
grand in the thing is not so much the god as the altar. Why should you
be afraid of the risk?”—of a new mistress she means. There would seem
to be reasons enough why he should have been afraid, but nothing is more
characteristic than her eagerness to push him into the arms of another
woman—more characteristic either of her whole philosophy in these
matters or of their tremendous, though somewhat conflicting, effort to
be good. She is to be good by showing herself so superior to jealousy as
to stir up in him a new appetite for a new object, and he is to be so by
satisfying it to the full. It appears not to occur to either one that in
such an arrangement his own honesty is rather sacrificed. Or is it
indeed because he has scruples—or even a sense of humour—that she
insists with such ingenuity and such eloquence? “Let the idol stand long
or let it soon break, you will in either case have built a beautiful
shrine. Your soul will have lived in it, have filled it with divine
incense, and a soul like yours must produce great works. The god will
change perhaps, the temple will last as long as yourself.” “Perhaps,”
under the circumstances, was charming. The letter goes on with the ample
flow that was always at the author’s command—an ease of suggestion and
generosity, of beautiful melancholy acceptance, in which we foresee, on
her own horizon, the dawn of new suns. Her simplifications are
delightful—they remained so to the end; her touch is a wondrous
sleight-of-hand. The whole of this letter in short is a splendid
utterance and a masterpiece of the shade of sympathy, not perhaps the
clearest, which consists of wishing another to feel as you feel
yourself. To feel as George Sand felt, however, one had to be, like
George Sand, of the true male inwardness; which poor Musset was far from
being. This, we surmise, was the case with most of her lovers, and the
truth that makes the idea of her _liaison_ with Mérimée, who _was_ of a
consistent virility, sound almost like a union against nature. She
repeats to her correspondent, on grounds admirably stated, the
injunction that he is to give himself up, to let himself go, to take his
chance. That he took it we all know—he followed her advice only too
well. It is indeed not long before his manner of doing so draws from her
a cry of distress. “Ta conduite est déplorable, impossible. Mon Dieu, à
quelle vie vais-je te laisser? l’ivresse, le vin, les filles, et encore
et toujours!” But apprehensions were now too late; they would have been
too late at the very earliest stage of this celebrated connection.


                                  III

The great difficulty was that, though they were sublime, the couple were
really not serious. But on the other hand if on a lady’s part in such a
relation the want of sincerity or of constancy is a grave reproach the
matter is a good deal modified when the lady, as I have mentioned,
happens to be—I may not go so far as to say a gentleman. That George
Sand just fell short of this character was the greatest difficulty of
all; because if a woman, in a love affair, may be—for all she is to
gain or to lose—what she likes, there is only one thing that, to carry
it off with any degree of credit, a man may be. Madame Sand forgot this
on the day she published “Elle et Lui”; she forgot it again more gravely
when she bequeathed to the great snickering public these present shreds
and relics of unutterably personal things. The aberration refers itself
to the strange lapses of still other occasions—notably to the
extraordinary absence of scruples with which she in the delightful
“Histoire de ma Vie” gives away, as we say, the character of her
remarkable mother. The picture is admirable for vividness, for breadth
of touch; it would be perfect from any hand not a daughter’s, and we ask
ourselves wonderingly how through all the years, to make her capable of
it, a long perversion must have worked and the filial fibre—or rather
the general flower of sensibility—have been battered. Not this
particular anomaly, however, but many another, yields to the reflection
that as just after her death a very perceptive person who had known her
well put it to the author of these remarks, she was a woman quite by
accident. Her immense plausibility was almost the only sign of her sex.
She needed always to prove that she had been in the right; as how indeed
could a person fail to who, thanks to the special equipment I have
named, might prove it so brilliantly? It is not too much to say of her
gift of expression—and I have already in effect said so—that from
beginning to end it floated her over the real as a high tide floats a
ship over the bar. She was never left awkwardly straddling on the
sandbank of fact.

For the rest, in any case, with her free experience and her free use of
it, her literary style, her love of ideas and questions, of science and
philosophy, her comradeship, her boundless tolerance, her intellectual
patience, her personal good-humour and perpetual tobacco (she smoked
long before women at large felt the cruel obligation), with all these
things and many I don’t mention she had more of the inward and outward
of the other sex than of her own. She had above all the mark that, to
speak at this time of day with a freedom for which her action in the
matter of publicity gives us warrant, the history of her personal
passions reads singularly like a chronicle of the ravages of some male
celebrity. Her relations with men closely resembled those relations with
women that, from the age of Pericles or that of Petrarch, have been
complacently commemorated as stages in the unfolding of the great
statesman and the great poet. It is very much the same large list, the
same story of free appropriation and consumption. She appeared in short
to have lived through a succession of such ties exactly in the manner of
a Goethe, a Byron or a Napoleon; and if millions of women, of course, of
every condition, had had more lovers, it was probable that no woman
independently so occupied and so diligent had had, as might be said,
more unions. Her fashion was quite her own of extracting from this sort
of experience all that it had to give her and being withal only the more
just and bright and true, the more sane and superior, improved and
improving. She strikes us as in the benignity of such an intercourse
even more than maternal: not so much the mere fond mother as the
supersensuous grandmother of the wonderful affair. Is not that
practically the character in which Thérèse Jacques studies to present
herself to Laurent de Fauvel? the light in which “Lucrezia Floriani” (a
memento of a friendship for Chopin, for Liszt) shows the heroine as
affected toward Prince Karol and his friend? George Sand is too
inveterately moral, too preoccupied with that need to do good which is
in art often the enemy of doing well; but in all her work the
story-part, as children call it, has the freshness and good faith of a
monastic legend. It is just possible indeed that the moral idea was the
real mainspring of her course—I mean a sense of the duty of avenging on
the unscrupulous race of men their immemorial selfish success with the
plastic race of women. Did she wish above all to turn the tables—to
show how the sex that had always ground the other in the volitional mill
was on occasion capable of being ground?

However this may be, nothing is more striking than the inward impunity
with which she gave herself to conditions that are usually held to
denote or to involve a state of demoralisation. This impunity (to speak
only of consequences or features that concern us) was not, I admit,
complete, but it was sufficiently so to warrant us in saying that no one
was ever less demoralised. She presents a case prodigiously discouraging
to the usual view—the view that there is no surrender to
“unconsecrated” passion that we escape paying for in one way or another.
It is frankly difficult to see where this eminent woman conspicuously
paid. She positively got off from paying—and in a cloud of fluency and
dignity, benevolence, competence, intelligence. She sacrificed, it is
true, a handful of minor coin—suffered by failing wholly to grasp in
her picture of life certain shades and certain delicacies. What she paid
was this irrecoverable loss of her touch for them. That is undoubtedly
one of the reasons why to-day the picture in question has perceptibly
faded, why there are persons who would perhaps even go so far as to say
that it has really a comic side. She doesn’t know, according to such
persons, her right hand from her left, the crooked from the straight and
the clean from the unclean: it was a sense she lacked or a tact she had
rubbed off, and her great work is by the fatal twist quite as lopsided a
monument as the leaning tower of Pisa. Some readers may charge her with
a graver confusion still—the incapacity to distinguish between fiction
and fact, the truth straight from the well and the truth curling in
steam from the kettle and preparing the comfortable tea. There is no
word oftener on her pen, they will remind us, than the verb to
“arrange.” She arranged constantly, she arranged beautifully; but from
this point of view, that of a general suspicion of arrangements, she
always proved too much. Turned over in the light of it the story of
“Elle et Lui” for instance is an attempt to prove that the mistress of
Laurent de Fauvel was little less than a prodigy of virtue. What is
there not, the intemperate admirer may be challenged to tell us, an
attempt to prove in “L’Histoire de ma Vie”?—a work from which we gather
every delightful impression but the impression of an impeccable
veracity.

These reservations may, however, all be sufficiently just without
affecting our author’s peculiar air of having eaten her cake and had it,
been equally initiated in directions the most opposed. Of how much cake
she partook the letters to Musset and Sainte-Beuve well show us, and yet
they fall in at the same time, on other sides, with all that was noble
in her mind, all that is beautiful in the books just mentioned and in
the six volumes of the general “Correspondance: 1812-1876,” out of which
Madame Sand comes so immensely to her advantage. She had, as liberty,
all the adventures of which the dots are so put on the i’s by the
documents lately published, and then she had, as law, as honour and
serenity, all her fine reflections on them and all her splendid busy
literary use of them. Nothing perhaps gives more relief to her masculine
stamp than the rare art and success with which she cultivated an
equilibrium. She made from beginning to end a masterly study of
composure, absolutely refusing to be upset, closing her door at last
against the very approach of irritation and surprise. She had arrived at
her quiet elastic synthesis—a good-humour, an indulgence that were an
armour of proof. The great felicity of all this was that it was neither
indifference nor renunciation, but on the contrary an intense partaking;
imagination, affection, sympathy and life, the way she had found for
herself of living most and living longest. However well it all agreed
with her happiness and her manners, it agrees still better with her
style, as to which we come back with her to the sense that this was
really her _point d’appui_ or sustaining force. Most people have to say,
especially about themselves, only what they can; but she said—and we
nowhere see it better than in the letters to Musset—everything in life
that she wanted. We can well imagine the effect of that consciousness on
the nerves of this particular correspondent, his own poor gift of
occasional song (to be so early spent) reduced to nothing by so
unequalled a command of the last word. We feel it, I hasten to add, this
last word, in all her letters: the occasion, no matter which, gathers it
from her as the breeze gathers the scent from the garden. It is always
the last word of sympathy and sense, and we meet it on every page of the
voluminous “Correspondance.” These pages are not so “clever” as those,
in the same order, of some other famous hands—the writer always denied,
justly enough, that she had either wit or presence of mind—and they are
not a product of high spirits or of a marked avidity for gossip. But
they have admirable ease, breadth and generosity; they are the clear
quiet overflow of a very full cup. They speak above all for the author’s
great gift, her eye for the inward drama. Her hand is always on the
fiddle-string, her ear is always at the heart. It was in the soul, in a
word, that she saw the drama begin, and to the soul that, after whatever
outward flourishes, she saw it confidently come back. She herself lived
with all her perceptions and in all her chambers—not merely in the
showroom of the shop. This brings us once more to the question of the
instrument and the tone, and to our idea that the tone, when you are so
lucky as to possess it, may be of itself a solution.

By a solution I mean a secret for saving not only your reputation but
your life—that of your soul; an antidote to dangers which the unendowed
can hope to escape by no process less uncomfortable or less inglorious
than that of prudence and precautions. The unendowed must go round
about, the others may go straight through the wood. Their weaknesses,
those of the others, shall be as well redeemed as their books shall be
well preserved; it may almost indeed be said that they are made wise in
spite of themselves. If you have never in all your days _had_ a weakness
worth mentioning, you can be after all no more, at the very most, than
large and cheerful and imperturbable. All these things Madame Sand
managed to be on just the terms she had found, as we see, most
convenient. So much, I repeat, does there appear to be in a tone. But if
the perfect possession of one made her, as it well might, an optimist,
the action of it is perhaps more consistently happy in her letters and
her personal records than in her “creative” work. Her novels to-day have
turned rather pale and faint, as if the image projected—not intense,
not absolutely concrete—failed to reach completely the mind’s eye. And
the odd point is that the wonderful charm of expression is not really a
remedy for this lack of intensity, but rather an aggravation of it
through a sort of suffusion of the whole thing by the voice and speech
of the author. These things set the subject, whatever it be, afloat in
the upper air, where it takes a happy bath of brightness and vagueness
or swims like a soap-bubble kept up by blowing. This is no drawback when
she is on the ground of her own life, to which she is tied by a certain
number of tangible threads; but to embark on one of her confessed
fictions is to have—after all that has come and gone, in our time, in
the trick of persuasion—a little too much the feeling of going up in a
balloon. We are borne by a fresh cool current and the car delightfully
dangles; but as we peep over the sides we see things—as we usually know
them—at a dreadful drop beneath. Or perhaps a better way to express the
sensation is to say what I have just been struck with in the re-perusal
of “Elle et Lui”; namely that this book, like others by the same hand,
affects the reader—and the impression is of the oddest—not as a first
but as a second echo or edition of the immediate real, or in other words
of the subject. The tale may in this particular be taken as typical of
the author’s manner; beautifully told, but told, as if on a last remove
from the facts, by some one repeating what he has read or what he has
had from another and thereby inevitably becoming more general and
superficial, missing or forgetting the “hard” parts and slurring them
over and making them up. Of everything but feelings the presentation is
dim. We recognise that we shall never know the original narrator and
that the actual introducer is the only one we can deal with. But we sigh
perhaps as we reflect that we may never confront her with her own
informant.

To that, however, we must resign ourselves; for I remember in time that
the volume from which I take occasion to speak with this levity is the
work that I began by pronouncing a precious illustration. With the aid
of the disclosures of the Revue de Paris it was, as I hinted, to show us
that no mistakes and no pains are too great to be, in the air of art,
triumphantly convertible. Has it really performed this function? I thumb
again my copy of the limp little novel and wonder what, alas, I shall
reply. The case is extreme, for it was the case of a suggestive
experience particularly dire, and the literary flower that has bloomed
upon it is not quite the full-blown rose. “Oeuvre de rancune” Arvède
Barine pronounces it, and if we take it as that we admit that the
artist’s distinctness from her material was not ideally complete. Shall
I not better the question by saying that it strikes me less as a work of
rancour than—in a peculiar degree—as a work of egotism? It becomes in
that light at any rate a sufficiently happy affirmation of the author’s
infallible form. This form was never a more successful vehicle for the
conveyance of sweet reasonableness. It is all superlatively calm and
clear; there never was a kinder, balmier last word. Whatever the measure
of justice of the particular representation, moreover, the picture has
only to be put beside the recent documents, the “study,” as I may call
them, to illustrate the general phenomenon. Even if “Elle et Lui” is not
the full-blown rose we have enough here to place in due relief an
irrepressible tendency to bloom. In fact I seem already to discern that
tendency in the very midst of the storm; the “tone” in the letters too
has its own way and performs on its own account—which is but another
manner of saying that the literary instinct, in the worst shipwreck, is
never out of its depth. The worker observed at the fire by Mérimée could
be drowned but in an ocean of ink. Is that a sufficient account of what
I have called the laying bare of the relation between experience and
art? With the two elements, the life and the genius, face to face—the
smutches and quarrels at one end of the chain and the high luminosity at
the other—does some essential link still appear to be missing? How do
the graceless facts after all confound themselves with the beautiful
spirit? They do so, incontestably, before our eyes, and the
mystification remains. We try to trace the process, but before we break
down we had better perhaps hasten to grant that—so far at least as
George Sand is concerned—some of its steps are impenetrable secrets of
the grand manner.



                              GEORGE SAND
                                  1899


Those among us comfortably conscious of our different usage—aware, some
would say, of our better conscience—may well have remarked the general
absence from French practice of biographic commemoration of extinct
worthies. The Life as we understand it, the prompt pious spacious record
and mirror of the eminent career, rarely follows the death. The ghost of
the great man, when he happens to have been a Frenchman, “sits” for such
portraiture, we gather, with a confidence much less assured than among
ourselves, and with fewer relatives and friends to surround the chair.
The manner in which even for persons of highest mark among our
neighbours biography either almost endlessly hangs back or altogether
fails, suggests that the approach is even when authorised too often
difficult. This general attitude toward the question, it would thus
appear, implies for such retrospects the predominance of doors bolted
and barred. Hesitation is therefore fairly logical, for it rests on the
assumption that men and women of great gifts will have lived with
commensurate intensity, and that as regards some of the forms of this
intensity the discretion of the inquirer may well be the better part of
his enthusiasm. The critic can therefore only note with regret so much
absent opportunity for the play of perception and the art of
composition. The race that produced Balzac—to say nothing of
Sainte-Beuve—would surely have produced a Boswell, a Lockhart and a
Trevelyan if the fashion had not set so strongly against it. We have
lately had a capital example of the encounter of an admirable English
portraitist and an admirable English subject. It is not irrelevant to
cite such a book as Mr. Mackail’s “Life of William Morris” as our
high-water mark—a reminder of how we may be blessed on both faces of
the question. Each term of the combination appears supposable in France,
but only as distinct from the other term. The artist, we gather, would
there have lost his chance and the sitter his ease.

It completes in an interesting way these observations, which would bear
much expansion, to perceive that when we at last have a Life of George
Sand—a celebrity living with the imputed intensity, if ever a celebrity
did—we are indebted for it to the hand of a stranger. No fact could
more exactly point the moral of my few remarks. Madame Sand’s genius and
renown would have long ago made her a subject at home if alacrity in
such a connection had been to be dreamed of. There is no more
significant sign of the general ban under which alacrity rests.
Everything about this extraordinary woman is interesting, and we can
easily imagine the posthumous honours we ourselves would have hastened
to assure to a part taken, in literature and life, with such brilliancy
and sincerity. These demonstrations, where we should most look for them,
have been none the less as naught—save indeed, to be exact, for the
publication of a number of volumes of letters. It is just Madame Sand’s
letters, however—letters interesting and admirable, peculiarly
qualified to dispose the reader in her favour—that in England or in
America would have quickened the need for the rest of the evidence. But
now that, as befalls, we do at last have the rest of the evidence as we
never have had it before, we are of course sufficiently enlightened as
to the reasons for a special application of the law of reserves and
delays. It is not in fact easy to see how a full study of our heroine
could have been produced earlier; and even at present there is a
sensible comfort in its being produced at such a distance as practically
assigns the act to a detached posterity. Contemporaneously it was wise
to forbear; but to-day, and in Russia, by good luck, it is permitted to
plunge.

Mme. Wladimir Karénine’s extraordinarily diffuse, but scarcely less
valuable, biography, of which the first instalment,[6] in two large
volumes, brings the story but to the year 1838, reaches us in a French
version, apparently from the author’s own hand, of chapters patiently
contributed to Russian periodicals. Were it not superficially ungrateful
to begin with reserves about a book so rich and full, there might be
some complaint to make of this wonderful tribute on grounds of form and
taste. Ponderous and prolix, the author moves in a mass, escorted by all
the penalties of her indifference to selection and compression. She
insists and repeats, she wanders wide; her subject spreads about her, in
places, as rather a pathless waste. Above all she has produced a book
which manages to be at once remarkably expert and singularly provincial.
Our innocence is perhaps at fault, but we are moved to take the mixture
for characteristically Russian. Would indeed any but that admirable
“Slav” superiority to prejudice of which we have lately heard so much
have availed to handle the particular facts in this large free way?
Nothing is at all events more curious than the union, on the part of our
biographer, of psychological intelligence and a lame esthetic. The
writer’s literary appreciations lag in other words half a century behind
her human and social. She treats us to endless disquisitions on pages of
her author to which we are no longer in any manageable relation at
all—disquisitions pathetic, almost grotesque, in their misplaced good
faith. But her attitude to her subject is admirable, her thoroughness
exemplary, the spirit of service in her of the sort that builds the
monument stone by stone. When we see it reared to the summit, as we are
clearly to do, we shall feel the structure to be solid if not shapely.
Nothing is more possible meanwhile than that a culture more
homogeneous—a French hand or a German—could not have engaged in the
work with anything like the same sincerity. An English hand—and the
fact, for _our_ culture, means much—would have been incapable of
touching it. The present scale of it at all events is certainly an
exotic misconception. But we can take of it what concerns us.

The whole thing of course, we promptly reflect, concerns at the best
only those of us who can remount a little the stream of time. The author
of “L’Histoire de ma Vie” died in 1876, and the light of actuality rests
to-day on very different heads. It may seem to belittle her to say that
to care for her at all one must have cared for her from far back, for
such is not in general the proviso we need to make on behalf of the
greatest figures. It describes Madame Sand with breadth, but not with
extravagance, to speak of her as a sister to Goethe, and we feel that
for Goethe it can never be too late to care. But the case exemplifies
perhaps precisely the difference even in the most brilliant families
between sisters and brothers. She was to have the family spirit, but she
was to receive from the fairies who attended at her cradle the silver
cup, not the gold. She was to write a hundred books but she was not to
write “Faust.” She was to have all the distinction but not all the
perfection; and there could be no better instance of the degree in which
a woman may achieve the one and still fail of the other. When it is a
question of the rare originals who have either she confirms us,
masculine as she is, in believing that it takes a still greater
masculinity to have both. What she had, however, she had in profusion;
she was one of the deepest voices of that great mid-century concert
against the last fine strains of which we are more and more banging the
doors. Her work, beautiful, plentiful and fluid, has floated itself out
to sea even as the melting snows of the high places are floated. To feel
how she has passed away as a “creator” is to feel anew the immense waste
involved in the general ferment of an age, and how much genius and
beauty, let alone the baser parts of the mixture, it takes to produce a
moderate quantity of literature. Smaller people have conceivably ceased
to count; but it is strange for a member of the generation immediately
succeeding her own that she should have had the same fate as smaller
people: all the more that such a mourner may be ruefully conscious of
contributing not a little himself to the mishap. Does he still read,
re-read, can he to-day at all deal with, this wonderful lady’s novels?
It only half cheers him up that on the occasion of such a publication as
I here speak of he finds himself as much interested as ever.

The grounds of the interest are difficult to give—they presuppose so
much of the old impression. If the old impression therefore requires
some art to sustain and justify itself we must be content, so far as we
are still under the charm, to pass, though only at the worst, for
eccentric. The work, whether we still hold fast to it or not, has twenty
qualities and would still have an immense one if it had only its style;
but what I suppose it has paid for in the long-run is its want of
plastic intensity. Does any work of representation, of imitation, live
long that is predominantly loose? It may live in spite of looseness; but
that, we make out, is only because closeness has somewhere, where it has
most mattered, played a part. It is hard to say of George Sand’s
productions, I think, that they show closeness anywhere; the sense of
that fluidity which is more than fluency is what, in speaking of them,
constantly comes back to us, and the sense of fluidity is fundamentally
fatal to the sense of particular truth. The thing presented by intention
is never the stream of the artist’s inspiration; it is the deposit of
the stream. For the things presented by George Sand, for the general
picture, we must look elsewhere, look at her life and her nature, and
find them in the copious documents in which these matters and many
others are now reflected. All _this_ mass of evidence it is that
constitutes the “intensity” we demand. The mass has little by little
become large, and our obligation to Madame Karénine is that she makes it
still larger. She sets our face, and without intending to, more and more
in the right direction. Her injudicious analyses of forgotten fictions
only confirm our discrimination. We feel ourselves in the presence of
the extraordinary author of the hundred tales, and yet also feel it to
be not by reason of them that she now presents herself as one of the
most remarkable of human creatures. By reason then of what? Of
everything that determined, accompanied, surrounded their appearance.
They formed all together a great feature in a career and a character,
but the career and the character are the real thing.

Such is far from usually the case, I hasten to recognise, with the
complete and consistent artist. Poor is the art, a thing positively to
be ashamed of, that, generally speaking, is not far more pressing for
this servant of the altar than anything else, anything outside the
church, can possibly be. To have been the tempered and directed hammer
that makes the metal hard: if that be not good enough for such a
ministrant, we may know him by whatever he has found better—we shall
not know him by the great name. The immense anomaly in Madame Sand was
that she freely took the form of being, with most zest, quite another
sort of hammer. It testifies sufficiently to her large endowment that,
given the wide range of the rest of her appetite, she should seem to us
to-day to have sacrificed even superficially to _any_ form of objective
expression. She had in spite of herself an imagination almost of the
first order, which overflowed and irrigated, turning by its mere swift
current, without effort, almost without direction, every mill it
encountered, and launching as it went alike the lightest skiff and the
stateliest ship. She had in especial the gift of speech, speech supreme
and inspired, to which we particularly owe the high value of the “case”
she presents. For the case was definitely a bold and direct experiment,
not at all in “art,” not at all in literature, but conspicuously and
repeatedly in the business of living; so that our profit of it is before
anything else that it was conscious, articulate, vivid—recorded,
reflected, imaged. The subject of the experiment became also at first
hand the journalist—much of her work being simply splendid
journalism—commissioned to bring it up to date. She interviewed nobody
else, but she admirably interviewed herself, and this is exactly our
good fortune. Her autobiography, her letters, her innumerable prefaces,
all her expansive parentheses and excursions, make up the generous
report. We have in this form accordingly a literary title for her far
superseding any derived from her creative work. But that is the result
of a mere betrayal, not the result of an intention. Her masterpiece, by
a perversity of fate, is the thing she least sat down to. It
consists—since she is a case—in the mere notation of her symptoms, in
help given to the study of them. To this has the author of “Consuelo”
come.

But how in the world indeed was the point so indicated _not_ to be the
particular cross-road at which the critic should lie in wait for a poor
child of the age whom preceding ages and generations had almost
infernally conspired to trap for him, to give up, candidly astray, to
his hands? If the element of romance for which our heroine’s name stands
is best represented by her personal sequences and solutions, it is
sufficiently visible that her heredity left her a scant alternative.
Space fails me for the story of this heredity, queer and complicated,
the very stuff that stories are made of—a chain of generations
succeeding each other in confidence and joy and with no aid asked of
legal or other artificial sanctions. The facts are, moreover,
sufficiently familiar, though here as elsewhere Madame Karénine adds to
our knowledge. Presented, foreshortened, stretching back from the quiet
Nohant funeral of 1876 to the steps of the throne of King Augustus the
Strong of Poland, father of Maurice de Saxe, great-great-grandfather of
Aurore Dupin, it all hangs together as a cluster of components more
provocative than any the great novelist herself ever handled. Her
pre-natal past was so peopled with _dramatis personæ_ that her future
was really called on to supply them in such numbers as would preserve
the balance. The tide of illegitimacy sets straight through the series.
No one to speak of—Aurore’s father is an exception—seems to have had a
“regular” paternity. Aurore herself squared with regularity but by a
month or two; the marriage of her parents gave her a bare escape. She
was brought up by her paternal grandmother between a son of her father
and a daughter of her mother born out of wedlock. It all moves before us
as a vivid younger world, a world on the whole more amused and more
amusing than ours. The period from the Restoration to the events of 1848
is the stretch of time in which, for more reasons than we can now go
into, French life gives out to those to whom its appeal never fails most
of its charm—most, at all events, of its ancient sociability. Happy is
our sense of the picturesque Paris unconscious of a future all “avenues”
and exhibitions; happy our sense of these middle years of a great
generation, easy and lusty despite the ensanguined spring that had gone
before. They live again, piecing themselves ever so pleasantly and
strangely together, in Madame Sand’s records and references; almost as
much as the conscious close of the old régime so vaunted by Talleyrand
they strike us as a season it would have been indispensable to know for
the measure of what intercourse could richly be.

The time was at any rate unable to withhold from the wonderful young
person growing up at Nohant the conditions she was so freely to use as
measures of her own. Though the motto of her autobiography is _Wahrheit
und Dichtung_ quite as much as it had been that of Goethe’s, there is a
truth beyond any projected by her more regular compositions in her
evocation of the influences of her youth. Upon these influences Madame
Karénine, who has enjoyed access through her heroine’s actual
representatives to much evidence hitherto unpublished, throws a hundred
interesting lights. Madame Dupin de Francueil and Madame Dupin the
younger survive and perform for us, “convince” us as we say, better than
any Lélia or any Consuelo. Our author’s whole treatment of her
remarkable mother’s figure and history conveniently gives the critic the
pitch of the great fact about her—the formation apparently at a given
moment, yet in very truth, we may be sure, from far back, of the
capacity and the determination to live with high consistency for
herself. What she made of this resolve to allow her nature all its
chances and how she carried on the process—these things are, thanks to
the immense illustration her genius enabled her to lend them, the
essence of her story; of which the full adumbration is in the detached
pictorial way she causes her mother to live for us. Motherhood,
daughterhood, childhood, embarrassed maturity, were phenomena she early
encountered in her great adventure, and nothing is more typical of her
energy and sincerity than the short work we can scarce help feeling she
makes of them. It is not that she for a moment blinks or dodges them;
she weaves them straight in—embarks with them indeed as her principal
baggage. We know to-day from the pages before us everything we need to
know about her marriage and the troubled years that followed; about M.
Casimir Dudevant and his possible points of view, about her separation,
her sharp secession, rather, as it first presents itself, and her
discovery, at a turn of the road as it can only be called, of her
genius.

She stumbled on this principle, we see, quite by accident and as a
consequence of the attempt to do the very humblest labour, to support
herself from day to day. It would be difficult to put one’s finger more
exactly upon a case of genius unaided and unprompted. She embarked, as I
have called it, on her great voyage with no grounds of confidence
whatever; she had obscurely, unwittingly the spirit of Columbus, but not
so much even as his exiguous outfit. She found her gift of
improvisation, found her tropic wealth, by leaping—a surprised
_conquistador_ of “style”—straight upon the coral strand. No awakened
instinct, probably, was ever such a blessing to a writer so much in
need. This instinct was for a long time all her initiation, practically
all her equipment. The curious thing is that she never really arrived at
the fruit of it as the result of a process, but that she started with
the whole thing as a Patti or a Mario starts with a voice which _is_ a
method, which _is_ music, and that it was simply the train in which she
travelled. It was to render her as great a service as any supreme
faculty ever rendered its possessor, quite the same service as the
strategic eye renders a commander in the field or instant courage the
attacking soldier: it was to carry her through life still more
inimitably than through the career of authorship. Her books are all rich
and resonant with it, but they profit by it meagrely compared with her
character. She walks from first to last in music, that is in literary
harmonies, of her own making, and it is in truth sometimes only, with
her present biographer to elbow us a little the way, that these
triumphant sounds permit us a near enough approach to the procession to
make out quite exactly its course.

No part of her career is to my sense so curious as this particular
sudden bound into the arena. Nothing but the indescribable heredity I
have spoken of appears traceably to have prepared it. We have on one
side the mere poverty and provinciality of her marriage and her early
contacts, the crudity of her youth and her ignorance (which included so
small a view of herself that she had begun by looking for a future in
the bedaubing, for fancy-shops, of little boxes and fans); and on the
other, at a stride, the full-blown distinction of “Valentine” and
“Jacques,” which had had nothing to lead up to it, we seem to make out,
but the very rough sketch of a love-affair with M. Jules Sandeau. I
spoke just now of the possible points of view of poor M. Dudevant; at
which, had we space, it might be of no small amusement to glance—of an
amusement indeed large and suggestive. We see him, surely, in the light
of these records, as the most “sold” husband in literature, and not at
all, one feels, by his wife’s assertion of her freedom, but simply by
her assertion of her mind. He appears to have married her for a nobody
approved and guaranteed, and he found her, on his hands, a sister, as we
have seen, of Goethe—unless it be but a figure to say that he ever
“found” her anything. He appears to have lived to an advanced age
without having really—in spite of the lawsuits he lost—comprehended
his case; not the least singular feature of which had in fact positively
been the deceptive delay of his fate. It was not till after several
years of false calm that it presented itself in its special form. We see
him and his so ruthlessly superseded name, never to be gilded by the
brilliant event, we see him reduced, like a leaf in a whirlwind, to a
mere vanishing-point.

We deal here, I think, with something very different from the usual
tittle-tattle about “private” relations, for the simple reason that we
deal with relations foredoomed to publicity by the strange economy
involved in the play of genius itself. Nothing was ever less wasted,
from beginning to end, than all this amorous experience and all this
luxury of woe. The parties to it were to make an inveterate use of it,
the principal party most of all; and what therefore on that marked
ground concerns the critic is to see what they were appreciably to get
out of it. The principal party, the constant one through all mutations,
was alone qualified to produce the extract that affects us as final. It
was by the publication four years since of her letters to Alfred de
Musset and to Sainte-Beuve, by the appearance also of Madame Arvède
Barine’s clear compact biography of Musset, that we began to find her
personal history brought nearer to us than her own communications had in
her lifetime already brought it. The story of her relations with Musset
is accordingly so known that I need only glance at the fact of her
having—shortly after the highest degree of intimacy between them had,
in the summer of 1833, established itself in Paris—travelled with him
to Italy, settled with him briefly in Venice, and there passionately
quarrelled and parted with him—only, however, several months later, on
their return to France, to renew again, to quarrel and to part again,
all more passionately, if possible, even than before. Madame Karénine,
besides supplying us with all added light on this episode, keeps us
abreast of others that were to follow, leaves us no more in the dark
about Michel de Bourges, Félicien Mallefille and Chopin than we had
already been left about their several predecessors. She is commendably
lucid on the subject of Franz Liszt, impartially examines the case and
authoritatively dismisses it. Her second volume brings her heroine to
the eve of the historic departure with Chopin for Majorca. We have thus
in a convenient form enough for one mouthful of entertainment, as well
as for superabundant reflection.

We have indeed the whole essence of what most touches us, for this
consists not at all of the quantity of the facts, nor even of their
oddity: they are practically all there from the moment the heroine’s
general attitude defines itself. That is the solid element—the details
to-day are smoke. Yet I hasten to add that it was in particular by
taking her place of an autumn evening in the southward-moving diligence
with Alfred de Musset, it was on this special occasion that she gave
most the measure of her choice of the consistent, even though it so
little meant the consequent, life. She had reached toward such a life
obviously in quitting the conjugal roof in 1831—had attacked the
experiment clumsily, but according to her light, by throwing herself on
such material support as faculties yet untested might furnish, and on
such moral as several months of the _intimité_ of Jules Sandeau and a
briefer taste of that of Prosper Mérimée might further contribute. She
had done, in other words, what she could; subsequent lights show it as
not her fault that she had not done better. With Musset her future took
a long stride; emotionally speaking it “looked up.” Nothing was wanting
in this case—independently of what might then have appeared her
friend’s equal genius—quite ideally to qualify it. He was several years
her junior, and as she had her husband and her children, he had, in the
high degree of most young Frenchmen of sensibility, his mother. It is
recorded that with this lady on the eve of the celebrated step she quite
had the situation, as the phrase is, out; which is a note the more in
the general, the intellectual lucidity. The only other note in fact to
be added is that of the absence of funds for the undertaking. Neither
partner had a penny to spare; the plan was wholly to “make money,” on a
scale, as they went. A great deal was in the event, exactly speaking, to
be made—but the event was at the time far from clear to them. The
enterprise was in consequence purely and simply, with a rounded
perfection that gives it its value for the critic, an affair of the
heart. That the heart, taking it as a fully representative organ, should
fail of no good occasion completely and consistently to engage itself
was the definite and, as appeared, the promising assumption on which
everything rested. The heart was real life, frank, fearless, intelligent
and even, so far as might be, intelligible life; everything else was
stupid as well as poor, muddle as well as misery. The heart of course
might be misery, for nothing was more possible than that life
predominantly was; but it was at all events the misery that is least
ignoble.

This was the basis of Madame Sand’s personal evolution, of her immense
moral energy, for many a year; it was a practical system, applied and
reapplied, and no “inquiry” concerning her has much point save as
settling what, for our enlightenment and our esteem, she made of it. The
answer meets us, I think, after we have taken in the facts, promptly
enough and with great clearness, so long as we consider that it is not,
that it cannot be in the conditions, a simple one. She made of it then
intellectually a splendid living, but she was able to do this only
because she was an altogether exceptional example of our human stuff. It
is here that her famous heredity comes in: we see what a
race-accumulation of “toughness” had been required to build her up.
Monstrous monarchs and bastards of kings, great generals and bastards of
bastards, courtesans, dancers supple and hard, accomplished men and
women of the old dead great world, seasoned young soldiers of the
Imperial epic, grisettes of the _pavé de Paris_, Parisian to the core;
the mixture was not quite the blood of people in general, and obviously
such a final flower of such a stem might well fix the attention and
appeal to the vigilance of those qualified to watch its development.
These persons would, doubtless, however, as a result of their
observation, have acquired betimes a sense of the high vitality of their
young friend. Formed essentially for independence and constructed for
resistance and survival she was to be trusted, as I have hinted, to take
care of herself: this was always the residuary fact when a passion was
spent. She took care of Musset, she took care of Chopin, took care, in
short, through her career, of a whole series of nurslings, but never
failed, under the worst ingratitude, to be by her own elasticity still
better taken care of. This is why we call her anomalous and deprecate
any view of her success that loses sight of the anomaly. The success was
so great that but _for_ the remainder she would be too encouraging. She
was one in a myriad, and the cluster of circumstances is too unlikely to
recur.

It is by her success, none the less, we must also remember, that we know
her; it is this that makes her interesting and calls for study. She had
all the illumination that sensibility, that curiosity, can give, and
that so ingeniously induces surrender to it; but the too numerous
weaknesses, vulgarities and penalties of adventure and surrender she had
only in sufficient degree to complete the experience before they shaped
themselves into the eloquence into which she could always reascend. Her
eloquence—it is the simplest way to explain her—fairly _made_ her
success; and eloquence is superlatively rare. When passion can always
depend upon it to vibrate passion becomes to that extent action, and
success is nothing but action repeated and confirmed. In Madame Sand’s
particular case the constant recurrence of the malady of passion
promoted in the most extraordinary way the superior appearance, the
general expression, of health. It is of course not to be denied that
there are in her work infirmities and disfigurements, odd smutches even,
or unwitting drolleries, which show a sense on some sides enfeebled. The
sense of her characters themselves for instance is constantly a confused
one; they are too often at sea as to what is possible and what
impossible for what we roughly call decent people. Her own categories,
loose and liberal, are yet ever positive enough; when they err it is by
excess of indulgence and by absence of the humorous vision, a nose for
the ridiculous—the fatal want, this last almost always, we are
reminded, the heel of Achilles, in the sentimental, the romantic
estimate. The general validity of her novels, at any rate, I leave
impugned, and the feature I have just noted in them is but one of the
points at which they fail of reality. I stick to the history of her
personal experiment, as the now so numerous documents show it; for it is
here, and here only, that her felicity is amusing and confounding;
amusing by the quaintness of some of the facts exposed, and yet
confounding by reason of the beauty mixed with them.

The “affair” with Musset for example has come to figure, thanks to the
talent of both parties, as one of the great affairs in the history of
letters; and yet on the near view of it now enjoyed we learn that it
dragged out scarce more than a year. Even this measure indeed is
excessive, so far as any measure serves amid so much that is incoherent.
It supposed itself to have dropped for upwards of six months, during
which another connection, another imperious heart-history, reigned in
its stead. The enumeration of these trifles is not, I insist, futile; so
that while we are about it we shall find an interest in being clear. The
events of Venice, with those that immediately preceded and followed
them, distinctly repay inspection as an epitome, taken together, of the
usual process. They appear to contain, as well as an intensity all their
own, the essence of all that of other occasions. The young poet and the
young novelist met then, appear to have met for the first time, toward
the end of June 1833, and to have become finally intimate in the month
of August of that year. They started together for Italy at the beginning
of the winter and were settled—if settled be not too odd a word to
use—by the end of January in Venice. I neglect the question of Musset’s
serious illness there, though it is not the least salient part of the
adventure, and observe simply that by the end of March he had started to
return to Paris, while his friend, remaining behind, had yielded to a
new affection. This new affection, the connection with Pietro Pagello,
dates unmistakably from before Musset’s departure; and, with the
completion of “Jacques” and the composition of the beautiful “André,”
the wonderful “Léone-Léoni” and some of the most interesting of the
“Lettres d’un Voyageur,” constituted the main support of our heroine
during the spring and early summer. By midsummer she had left Italy with
Pagello, and they arrive in Paris on August 14th. This arrival marks
immediately the term of their relations, which had by that time lasted
some six or seven months. Pagello returned to Italy, and if they ever
met again it was the merest of meetings and after long years.

In October, meanwhile, the connection with Musset was renewed, and
renewed—this is the great point—because the sentiments still
entertained by each (in spite of Pagello, in spite of everything) are
stronger even than any awkwardness of which either might have been
conscious. The whole business really is one in which we lose our measure
alike of awkwardness and of grace. The situation is in the hands of
comedy—or _would_ be, I should rather say, were it not so distinctly
predestined to fall, as I have noted, into those of the nobler form. It
is prolonged till the following February, we make out, at furthest, and
only after having been more than once in the interval threatened with
violent extinction. It bequeaths us thus in a handful of dates a picture
than which probably none other in the annals of “passion” was ever more
suggestive. The passion is of the kind that is called “immortal”—and so
called, wonderful to say, with infinite reason and justice. The poems,
the letters, the diaries, the novels, the unextinguished accents and
lingering echoes that commemorate it are among the treasures of the
human imagination. The literature of the world is appreciably the richer
for it. The noblest forms, in a word, on both sides, marked it for their
own; it was born, according to the adage, with a silver spoon in its
mouth. It was an affection in short transcendent and sublime, and yet
the critic sees it come and go before he can positively turn round. The
brief period of some seventeen or eighteen months not only affords it
all its opportunity, but places comfortably in its lap a relation
founded on the same elements and yet wholly distinct from it. Musset
occupied in fact but two-thirds of his mistress’s time. Pagello
overlapped him because Pagello also appealed to the heart; but Pagello’s
appeal to the heart was disposed of as expeditiously. Musset, in the
same way, succeeded Pagello at the voice of a similar appeal, and this
claim, in its turn, was polished off in yet livelier fashion.

Liveliness is of course the tune of the “gay” career; it has always been
supposed to relegate to comedy the things to which it puts its mark—so
that as a series of sequences amenable mainly to satire the
approximations I have made would fall neatly into place. The anomaly
here, as on other occasions of the same sort in Madame Karénine’s
volumes, is that the facts, as we are brought near to them, strike us as
so out of relation to the beautiful tone. The effect and the achieved
dignity are those of tragedy—tragedy rearranging, begetting afresh, in
its own interest, all the elements of ecstasy and despair. How can it
not be tragedy when this interest is just the interest, which I have
touched on, of exemplary eloquence? There are lights in which the
material, with its want of nobleness, want of temper, want even of
manners, seems scarcely life at all, as the civilised conscience
understands life; and yet it is as the most magnanimous of surrenders to
life that the whole business is triumphantly reflected in the documents.
It is not only that “La Nuit d’Octobre” is divine, that Madame Sand’s
letters are superb and that nothing can exceed, in particular, the high
style of the passage that we now perceive Musset to have borrowed from
one of them for insertion in “On ne Badine pas avec l’Amour”—to the
extreme profit of the generation which was, for many years thereafter,
to hear Delaunay exquisitely declaim it at the Théâtre Français; it is
that, strange to say, almost the finest flower of the bouquet is the
now-famous written “declaration” addressed to Pagello one evening by the
lady. Musset was ill in bed; he was the attendant doctor; and while,
watching and ignorant of French, he twirled his thumbs or dipped into a
book, his patient’s companion, on the other side of the table and with
the lamp between them, dashed off (it took time) a specimen of her
finest prose, which she then folded and handed to him, and which, for
perusal more at leisure, he carried off in his pocket. It proved neither
more nor less than one of the pontoon bridges which a force engaged in
an active campaign holds itself ready at any time to throw across a
river, and was in fact of its kind a stout and beautiful structure. It
happily spanned at all events the gulf of a short acquaintance.

The incident bears a family resemblance to another which our biographer
finds in her path in the year 1837. Having to chronicle the close of the
relation with Michel de Bourges, from which again her heroine had so
much to suffer, she has also to mention that this catastrophe was
precipitated, to all appearance, by the contemporaneous dawn of an
affection “plus douce, moins enthousiaste, moins âpre aussi, et j’espère
plus durable.” The object of this affection was none other than the
young man then installed at Nohant as preceptor to Madame Sand’s
children—but as to whom in the event we ask ourselves what by this time
her notion of measure or durability can have become. It is just this
element that has positively least to do, we seem to make out, with
“affection” as so practised. Affection in any sense worth speaking of
_is_ durability; and it is the repeated impermanence of those
manifestations of it on behalf of which the high horse of “passion” is
ridden so hard that makes us wonder whether such loves and such
licences, in spite of the quality of free experience they represent, had
really anything to do with it. It was surely the last thing they
contained. Félicien Mallefille may be, to his heart’s content, of 1837
and even of a portion of 1838; it is Chopin who is of the rest of the
year and—let us hope our biographer will have occasion to show us—of
at least the whole of the following. It is here that, as I have
mentioned, she pauses.

One of the most interesting contributions to her subject is the long
letter from Balzac to his future wife, Madame Hanska, now reproduced in
the most substantial of the few volumes of his correspondence (“Lettres
à l’Étrangère, 1833-1842,” published 1899) and printed by Madame
Karénine. The author, finding himself near Nohant in the spring of 1838,
went over to pay his illustrious colleague a visit and spent more than a
day in sustained conversation with her. He had the good fortune to find
her alone, so that they could endlessly talk and smoke by the fire, and
nothing can be all at once more vivid, more curious and more judicious
than his immediate report of the occasion. It lets into the whole
question of his hostess’s character and relations—inevitably more or
less misrepresented by the party most involved—air and light and truth;
it fixes points and re-establishes proportions. It shows appearances
confronted, in a word, with Balzac’s strong sense of the real and offers
the grateful critic still another chance to testify for that precious
gift. This same critic’s mind, it must be added, rests with complacency
on the vision thus evoked, the way that for three days, from five
o’clock in the afternoon till five in the morning, the wonderful friends
must have had things out. For once, we feel sure, fundamental questions
were not shirked. As regards his comrade at any rate Balzac puts his
finger again and again on the truth and the idiosyncrasy. “She is not
_aimable_ and in consequence will always find it difficult to be loved.”
He adds—and it is here that he comes nearest straightening the
question—that she has in character all the leading marks of the man and
as few as possible those of his counterpart. He implies that, though
judged as a woman she may be puzzling enough, she hangs together
perfectly if judged as a man. She _is_ a man, he repeats, “and all the
more that she wants to be, that she has sunk the woman, that she isn’t
one. Women attract, and she repels; and, as I am much of a man, if this
is the effect she produces on me she must produce it on men who are like
me—so that she will always be unhappy.” He qualifies as justly, I may
parenthesise, her artistic side, the limits of which, he moreover
intimates, she had herself expressed to him. “She has neither intensity
of conception, nor the constructive gift, nor the faculty of reaching
the truth”—Balzac’s own deep dye of the truth—“nor the art of the
pathetic. But she holds that, without knowing the French language, she
has _style_. And it’s true.”

The light of mere evidence, the light of such researches as Madame
Karénine’s, added to her so copious correspondence and autobiography,
makes Madame Sand so much of a riddle that we grasp at Balzac’s
authoritative word as at an approach to a solution. It is, strange to
say, by reading another complexity into her image that we finally
simplify it. The riddle consists in the irreconcilability of her
distinction and her vulgarity. Vulgar somehow in spite of everything is
the record of so much taking and tasting and leaving, so much publicity
and palpability of “heart,” so much experience reduced only to the terms
of so many more or less greasy males. And not only vulgar but in a
manner grotesque—from the moment, that is, that the experience is
presented to us with any emphasis in the name of terror and pity. It was
not a passive but an active situation, that of a nature robust and not
too fastidious, full at all times of resistance and recovery. No history
gives us really more ground to protest against the new fashion, rife in
France, of transporting “love,” as there mainly represented, to the air
of morals and of melancholy. The fashion betrays only the need to
rejuvenate, at a considerable cost of falsity, an element in connection
with which levity is felt either to have exhausted itself or to look
thin as a motive. It is in the light of levity that many of the facts
presented by Madame Karénine are most intelligible, and that is the
circumstance awkward for sensibility and for all the graces it is
invited to show.

The scene quite changes when we cease to expect these graces. As a man
Madame Sand was admirable—especially as a man of the dressing-gown and
slippers order, easy of approach and of _tutoiement_, rubbing shoulders
with queer company and not superstitiously haunted by the conception of
the gentleman. There have been many men of genius, delightful, prodigal
and even immortal, who squared but scantly with that conception, and it
is a company to which our heroine is simply one of the most interesting
of recruits. She has in it all her value and loses none of her charm.
Above all she becomes in a manner comprehensible, as any frank Bohemian
is comprehensible. We have only to imagine the Bohemian really endowed,
the Bohemian, that is, both industrious and wise, to get almost all her
formula. She keeps here and there a feminine streak—has at moments an
excess of volubility and too great an insistence on having been in the
right; but for the rest, as Balzac says, the character, confronted with
the position, is an explanation. “Son mâle,” he tells Madame Hanska,
“était rare”—than which nothing could have been more natural. Yet for
this masculine counterpart—so difficult to find—she ingenuously spent
much of her early life in looking. That the search was a mistake is what
constitutes, in all the business of which the Musset episode is the
type, the only, the real melancholy, the real moral tragedy.

For all such mistakes, none the less, the whole lesson of the picture is
precisely in the disconcerting success of her system. Everything was at
the start against that presumption; but everything at the end was to
indicate that she was not to have been defeated. Others might well have
been, and the banks of the stream of her career are marked, not
invisibly, with mouldering traces of the less lucky or the less buoyant;
but her attitude as life went on was more and more that of showing how
she profited of all things for wisdom and sympathy, for a general
expertness and nobleness. These forces, all clarified to an admirable
judgment, kept her to the last day serene and superior, and they are one
of the reasons why the monument before us is felt not to be misplaced.
There should always be a monument to those who have achieved a prodigy.
What greater prodigy than to have bequeathed in such mixed elements, to
have principally made up of them, the affirmation of an unprecedented
intensity of life? For though this intensity was one that broke down in
each proposed exhibition the general example remains, incongruously,
almost the best we can cite. And all we can say is that this brings us
back once more to the large manner, the exceptional energy and well-nigh
monstrous vitality, of the individual concerned. Nothing is so absurd as
a half-disguise, and Madame Sand’s abiding value will probably be in her
having given her sex, for its new evolution and transformation, the real
standard and measure of change. This evolution and this transformation
are all round us unmistakable; the change is in the air; women are
turned more and more to looking at life as men look at it and to getting
from it what men get. In this direction their aim has been as yet
comparatively modest and their emulation low; the challenge they have
hitherto picked up is but the challenge of the “average” male. The
approximation of the extraordinary woman has been practically, in other
words, to the ordinary man. George Sand’s service is that she planted
the flag much higher—her own approximation at least was to the
extraordinary. She reached him, she surpassed him, and she showed how,
with native dispositions, the thing could be done. So far as we have
come these new records will live as the precious text-book of the
business.

-----

Footnote 6:

“George Sand, sa Vie et ses Œuvres, 1804-1876.” Paris, 1899.



                              GEORGE SAND
                                  1914


It has much occurred to us, touching those further liberations of the
subordinate sex which fill our ears just now with their multitudinous
sound, that the promoters of the great cause make a good deal less than
they might of one of their very first contentious “assets,” if it may
not indeed be looked at as quite the first; and thereby fail to pass
about, to the general elation, a great vessel of truth. Is this because
the life and example of George Sand are things unknown or obscure to the
talkers and fighters of to-day—present and vivid as they were to those
of the last mid-century, or because of some fear that to invoke victory
in her name might, for particular, for even rueful reasons, not be
altogether a safe course? It is difficult to account otherwise for the
fact that so ample and embossed a shield, and one that shines too at
last with a strong and settled lustre, is rather left hanging on the
wall than seen to cover advances or ward off attacks in the fray.
Certain it is that if a lapse of tradition appeared at one time to have
left a little in the lurch the figure of the greatest of all women of
letters, of Letters in truth most exactly, as we hold her surely to have
been, that explanation should have begun to fail, some fourteen years
ago, with the publication of the first volume of Madame Wladimir
Karénine’s biography, and even in spite of the fact that this singularly
interesting work was not till a twelvemonth ago to arrive at the dignity
of a third,[7] which leaves it, for all its amplitude, still incomplete.
The latest instalment, now before us, follows its predecessors after an
interval that had alarmed us not a little for the proper consummation;
and the story is even now carried but to the eve of the Revolution of
1848, after which its heroine (that of the Revolution, we may almost
say, as well as of the narrative) was to have some twenty-seven years to
live. Madame Karénine appears to be a Russian critic writing under a
pseudonym; portions of her overbrimming study have appeared dispersedly,
we gather, in Russian periodicals, but the harmonious French idiom, of
which she is all-sufficient mistress, welds them effectively together,
and the result may already be pronounced a commemorative monument of all
but the first order. The first order in such attempts has for its sign a
faculty of selection and synthesis, not to say a sense of composition
and proportion, which neither the chronicler nor the critic in these too
multiplied pages is able consistently to exhibit; though on the other
hand they represent quite the high-water mark of patience and
persistence, of the ideal biographic curiosity. They enjoy further the
advantage of the documented state in a degree that was scarce to have
been hoped for, every source of information that had remained in
reserve—and these proved admirably numerous—having been opened to our
inquirer by the confidence of the illustrious lady’s two
great-granddaughters, both alive at the time the work was begun. Add to
this that there has grown up in France a copious George Sand literature,
a vast body of illustrative odds and ends, relics and revelations, on
which the would-be propagator of the last word is now free to
draw—always with discrimination. Ideally, well-nigh overwhelmingly
informed we may at present therefore hold ourselves; and were that state
all that is in question for us nothing could exceed our advantage.

-----

Footnote 7:

George Sand, sa Vie et ses Œuvres, vol. iii. (1838-1848). Par Wladimir
Karénine. Paris, Plon, 1912.


                                   I

Just the beauty and the interest of the case are, however, that such a
condition by no means exhausts our opportunity, since in no like
connection could it be less said that to know most is most easily or
most complacently to conclude. May we not decidedly feel the sense and
the “lesson,” the suggestive spread, of a career as a thing scarce
really to be measured when the effect of more and more acquaintance with
it is simply to make the bounds of appreciation recede? This is why the
figure now shown us, blazed upon to the last intensity by the lamplight
of investigation, and with the rank oil consumed in the process fairly
filling the air, declines to let us off from an hour of that
contemplation which yet involves discomfiture for us so long as certain
lucidities on our own part, certain serenities of assurance, fail
correspondingly to play up. We feel ourselves so outfaced, as it were;
we somehow want in any such case to meet and match the assurances with
which the subject himself or herself immitigably bristles, and are
nevertheless by no means certain that our bringing up premature forces
or trying to reply with lights of our own may not check the current of
communication, practically without sense for us unless flowing at its
fullest. At our biographer’s rate of progress we shall still have much
to wait for; but it can meanwhile not be said that we have not plenty to
go on with. To this may be added that the stretch of “life,” apart from
the more concrete exhibition, already accounted for by our three volumes
(if one may discriminate between “production” and life to a degree that
is in this connection exceptionally questionable), represents to all
appearance the most violently and variously agitated face of the career.
The establishment of the Second Empire ushered in for Madame Sand, we
seem in course of preparation to make out, the long period already more
or less known to fame, that is to criticism, as the period of her great
placidity, her more or less notorious appeasement; a string of afternoon
hours as hazily golden as so many reigns of Antonines, when her genius
had mastered the high art of acting without waste, when a happy play of
inspiration had all the air, so far as our spectatorship went, of
filling her large capacity and her beautiful form to the brim, and when
the gathered fruit of what she had dauntlessly done and been heaped
itself upon her table as a rich feast for memory and philosophy. So she
came in for the enjoyment of all the _sagesse_ her contemporaries (with
only such exceptions as M. Paul de Musset and Madame Louise Colet and
the few discordant pleaders for poor Chopin) finally rejoiced on their
side to acclaim; the sum of her aspects “composing,” arranging
themselves in relation to each other, with a felicity that nothing could
exceed and that swept with great glosses and justifications every aspect
of the past. To few has it been given to “pay” so little, according to
_our_ superstition of payment, in proportion to such enormities of
ostensibly buying or borrowing—which fact, we have to recognise, left
an existence as far removed either from moral, or intellectual, or even
social bankruptcy as if it had proceeded from the first but on the most
saving lines.

That is what remains on the whole most inimitable in the picture—the
impression it conveys of an art of life by which the rough sense of the
homely adage that we may not both eat our cake and have it was to be
signally falsified; this wondrous mistress of the matter strikes us so
as having consumed _her_ refreshment, her vital supply, to the last
crumb, so far as the provision meant at least freedom and ease, and yet
having ever found on the shelf the luxury in question undiminished.
Superlatively interesting the idea of how this result was, how it
_could_ be, achieved—given the world as we on our side of the water
mainly know it; and it is as meeting the mystery that the monument
before us has doubtless most significance. We shall presently see, in
the light of our renewed occasion, how the question is solved; yet we
may as well at once say that this will have had for its conclusion to
present our heroine—mainly figuring as a novelist of the romantic or
sentimental order once pre-eminent but now of shrunken credit—simply as
a supreme case of the successful practice of life itself. We have to
distinguish for this induction after a fashion in which neither Madame
Sand nor her historian has seemed at all positively concerned to
distinguish; the indifference on the historian’s part sufficiently
indicated, we feel, by the complacency with which, to be thorough, she
explores even the most thankless tracts of her author’s fictional
activity, telling the tales over as she comes to them on much the same
scale on which she unfolds the situations otherwise documented. The
writer of “Consuelo” and “Claudie” and a hundred other things is to this
view a literary genius whose output, as our current term so gracefully
has it, the exercise of an inordinate personal energy happens to mark;
whereas the exercise of personal energy is for ourselves what most
reflects the genius—recorded though this again chances here to be
through the inestimable fact of the possession of style. Of the action
of that perfect, that only real preservative in face of other perils
George Sand is a wondrous example; but her letters alone suffice to show
it, and the style of her letters is no more than the breath of her
nature, her so remarkable one, in which expression and aspiration were
much the same function. That is what it is really to _have_ style—when
you set about performing the act of life. The forms taken by this latter
impulse then cover everything; they serve for your adventures not less
than they may serve at their most refined pitch for your Lélias and your
Mauprats.

This means accordingly, we submit, that those of us who at the present
hour “feel the change,” as the phrase is, in the computation of the
feminine range, with the fullest sense of what it may portend, shirk at
once our opportunity and our obligation in not squeezing for its last
drop of testimony such an exceptional body of illustration as we here
possess. It has so much to say to any view—whether, in the light of old
conventions, the brightest or the darkest—of what may either glitter or
gloom in a conquest of every license by our contemporaries of the
contending sex, that we scarce strain a point in judging it a provision
of the watchful fates for this particular purpose and profit: its
answers are so full to most of our uncertainties. It is to be noted of
course that the creator of Lélia and of Mauprat was on the one hand a
woman of an extraordinary gift and on the other a woman resignedly and
triumphantly voteless—doing without that boon so beautifully, for free
development and the acquisition and application of “rights,” that we
seem to see her sardonically smile, before our present tumults, as at a
rumpus about nothing; as if women need set such preposterous machinery
in motion for obtaining things which she had found it of the first
facility, right and left, to stretch forth her hand and take. There it
is that her precedent stands out—apparently to a blind generation; so
that some little insistence on the method of her appropriations would
seem to be peculiarly in place. It was a method that may be summed up
indeed in a fairly simple, if comprehensive, statement: it consisted in
her dealing with life exactly as if she had been a man—exactly not
being too much to say. Nature certainly had contributed on her behalf to
this success; it had given her a constitution and a temperament, the
kind of health, the kind of mind, the kind of courage, that might most
directly help—so that she had but to convert these strong matters into
the kind of experience. The writer of these lines remembers how a
distinguished and intimate friend of her later years, who was a very
great admirer, said of her to him just after her death that her not
having been born a man seemed, when one knew her, but an awkward
accident: she had been to all intents and purposes so fine and frank a
specimen of the sex. This anomalous native turn, it may be urged, can
have no general application—women cannot be men by the mere trying or
by calling themselves “as good”; they must have been provided with what
we have just noted as the outfit. The force of George Sand’s exhibition
consorts, we contend, none the less perfectly with the logic of the
consummation awaiting us, if a multitude of signs are to be trusted, in
a more or less near future: that effective repudiation of the
_distinctive_, as to function and opportunity, as to working and playing
activity, for which the definite removal of immemorial disabilities is
but another name. We are in presence already of a practical shrinkage of
the distinctive, at the rapidest rate, and that it must shrink till
nothing of it worth mentioning be left, what is this but a war-cry
(presenting itself also indeed as a plea for peace) with which our ears
are familiar? Unless the suppression of the distinctive, however, is to
work to the prejudice, as we may fairly call it, of men, drawing them
over to the feminine type rather than drawing women over to
theirs—which is not what seems most probable—the course of the
business will be a virtual undertaking on the part of the half of
humanity acting ostensibly for the first time in freedom to annex the
male identity, that of the other half, so far as may be at all
contrivable, to its own cluster of elements. Individuals are in great
world and race movements negligible, and if that undertaking must
inevitably appeal to different recruits with a differing cogency, its
really enlisting its army or becoming reflected, to a perfectly
conceivable vividness, in the mass, is all our demonstration requires.
At that point begins the revolution, the shift of the emphasis from the
idea of woman’s weakness to the idea of her strength—which is where the
emphasis has lain, from far back, by his every tradition, on behalf of
man; and George Sand’s great value, as we say, is that she gives us the
vision, gives us the particular case, of the shift achieved, displayed
with every assurance and working with every success.

The answer of her life to the question of what an effective annexation
of the male identity may amount to, amount to in favouring conditions
certainly, but in conditions susceptible to the highest degree of
encouragement and cultivation, leaves    nothing to be desired for
completeness. This is the moral of her tale, the beauty of what she does
for us—that at no point whatever of her history or her character do
their power thus to give satisfaction break down; so that what we in
fact on the whole most recognise is not the extension she gives to the
feminine nature, but the richness that she adds to the masculine. It is
not simply that she could don a disguise that gaped at the seams, that
she could figure as a man of the mere carnival or pantomime variety, but
that she made so virile, so efficient and homogeneous a one. Admirable
child of the old order as we find her, she was far from our late-coming
theories and fevers—by the reason simply of her not being reduced to
them; as to which nothing about her is more eloquent than her living at
such ease with a conception of the main relevance of women that is
viewed among ourselves as antiquated to “quaintness.” She could afford
the traditional and sentimental, the old romantic and historic theory of
the function most natural to them, since she entertained it exactly as a
man would. It is not that she fails again and again to represent her
heroines as doing the most unconventional things—upon these they freely
embark; but they never in the least do them for themselves, themselves
as the “sex,” they do them altogether for men. Nothing could well be
more interesting thus than the extraordinary union of the pair of
opposites in her philosophy of the relation of the sexes—than the
manner in which her immense imagination, the imagination of a man for
range and abundance, intervened in the whole matter for the benefit,
absolutely, of the so-called stronger party, or to liberate her sisters
up to the point at which men may most gain and least lose by the
liberation. She read the relation essentially in the plural term—the
relations, and her last word about these was as far as possible from
being that they are of minor importance to women. Nothing in her view
could exceed their importance to women—it left every other far behind
it; and nothing that could make for authority in her, no pitch of tone,
no range of personal inquiry nor wealth of experience, no acquaintance
with the question that might derive light from free and repeated
adventure, but belonged to the business of driving this argument home.


                                   II

Madame Karénine’s third volume is copiously devoted to the period of her
heroine’s intimacy with Chopin and to the events surrounding this
agitated friendship, which largely fill the ten years precedent to ’48.
Our author is on all this ground overwhelmingly documented, and enlisted
though she is in the service of the more successful party to the
association—in the sense of Madame Sand’s having heartily outlived and
survived, not to say professionally and brilliantly “used,” it—the
great composer’s side of the story receives her conscientious attention.
Curious and interesting in many ways, these reflections of George Sand’s
middle life afford above all the most pointed illustration of the turn
of her personal genius, her aptitude for dealing with men, in the
intimate relation, exactly after the fashion in which numberless
celebrated men have contributed to their reputation, not to say crowned
their claim to superiority, by dealing with women. This being above all
the note of her career, with its vivid show of what such dealing could
mean for play of mind, for quickening of gift, for general experience
and, as we say, intellectual development, for determination of
philosophic bent and education of character and fertilisation of fancy,
we seem to catch the whole process in the fact, under the light here
supplied us, as we catch it nowhere else. It gives us in this
application endlessly much to consider—it is in itself so replete and
rounded a show; we at once recognise moreover how comparatively little
it matters that such works as “Lucrezia Floriani” and “Un Hiver à
Majorque” should have proceeded from it, cast into the shade as these
are, on our biographer’s evidence, by a picture of concomitant energies
still more attaching. It is not here by the force of her gift for rich
improvisation, beautiful as this was, that the extraordinary woman holds
us, but by the force of her ability to act herself out, given the
astounding quantities concerned in this self. That energy too, we feel,
was in a manner an improvisation—so closely allied somehow are both the
currents, the flow of literary composition admirably instinctive and
free, and the handling power, as we are constantly moved to call it, the
flow of a splendid intelligence all the while at its fullest
expressional ease, for the _actual_ situations created by her, for
whatever it might be that vitally confronted her. Of how to bring about,
or at the least find one’s self “in for,” an inordinate number of
situations, most of them of the last difficulty, and then deal with them
on the spot, in the narrowest quarters as it were, with an eloquence and
a plausibility that does them and one’s own nature at once a sort of
ideal justice, the demonstration here is the fullest—as of what it was
further to have her unfailing verbal as well as her unfailing moral
inspiration. What predicament could have been more of an hourly strain
for instance, as we cannot but suppose, than her finding herself
inevitably accompanied by her two children during the stay at Majorca
made by Chopin in ’38 under her protection? The victory of assurance and
of the handling power strikes us as none the less never an instant in
doubt, that being essentially but over the general _kind_ of
inconvenience or embarrassment involved for a mother and a friend in any
real consistency of attempt to carry things off male fashion. We do not,
it is true, see a man as a mother, any more than we easily see a woman
as a gentleman—and least of all perhaps in either case as an awkwardly
placed one; but we see Madame Sand as a sufficiently bustling, though
rather a rough and ready, father, a father accepting his charge and
doing the best possible under the circumstances; the truth being of
course that the circumstances never _can_ be, even at the worst, or
still at the best, the best for parental fondness, so awkward for him as
for a mother.

What call, again, upon every sort of presence of mind could have been
livelier than the one made by the conditions attending and following the
marriage of young Solange Dudevant to the sculptor Clésinger in 1846,
when our heroine, summoned by the stress of events both to take
responsible action and to rise to synthetic expression, in a situation,
that is in presence of a series of demonstrations on her daughter’s
part, that we seem to find imaginable for a perfect dramatic adequacy
only in that particular home circle, fairly surpassed herself by her
capacity to “meet” everything, meet it much incommoded, yet undismayed,
unabashed and unconfuted, and have on it all, to her great advantage,
the always prodigious last word? The elements of this especial crisis
claim the more attention through its having been, as a test of her
powers, decidedly the most acute that she was in her whole course of
life to have traversed, more acute even, because more complicated, than
the great occasion of her rupture with Alfred de Musset, at Venice in
’35, on which such a wealth of contemplation and of ink has been
expended. Dramatic enough in their relation to each other certainly
those immortal circumstances, immortal so far as immortalised on either
side by genius and passion: Musset’s return, ravaged and alone, to
Paris; his companion’s transfer of her favour to Pietro Pagello, whom
she had called in to attend her friend medically in illness and whose
intervention, so far from simplifying the juncture, complicated it in a
fashion probably scarce paralleled in the history of the erotic
relation; her retention of Pagello under her protection for the rest of
her period in Venice; her marvellously domesticated state, in view of
the literary baggage, the collection of social standards, even taking
these but at what they were, and the general amplitude of personality,
that she brought into residence with her; the conveyance of Pagello to
Paris, on her own return, and the apparent signification to him at the
very gate that her countenance was then and there withdrawn. This was a
brilliant case for her—of coming off with flying colours; but it
strikes us as a mere preliminary flourish of the bow or rough practice
of scales compared to the high virtuosity which Madame Karénine’s new
material in respect to the latter imbroglio now enables us ever so
gratefully to estimate. The protagonist’s young children were in the
Venetian crisis quite off the scene, and on occasions subsequent to the
one we now glance at were old enough and, as we seem free to call it,
initiated enough not to solicit our particular concern for them; whereas
at the climax of the connection with Chopin they were of the perfect age
(which was the fresh marriageable in the case of Solange) to engage our
best anxiety, let alone their being of a salience of sensibility and
temper to leave no one of their aspects negligible. That their parent
should not have found herself conclusively “upset,” sickened beyond
repair, or otherwise morally bankrupt, on her having to recognise in her
daughter’s hideous perversity and depravity, as we learn these things to
have been, certain inevitabilities of consequence from the social air of
the maternal circle, is really a monumental fact in respect to our great
woman’s elasticity, her instinct for never abdicating by mere
discouragement. Here in especial we get the broad male note—it being so
exactly the manly part, and so very questionably the womanly, not to
have to draw from such imputations of responsibility too crushing a
self-consciousness. Of the extent and variety of danger to which the
enjoyment of a moral tone could be exposed and yet superbly survive
Madame Karénine’s pages give us the measure; they offer us in action the
very ideal of an exemplary triumph of character and mind over one of the
very highest tides of private embarrassment that it is well possible to
conceive. And it is no case of that _passive_ acceptance of deplorable
matters which has abounded in the history of women, even distinguished
ones, whether to the pathetic or to the merely scandalous effect; the
acceptance is active, constructive, almost exhilarated by the resources
of affirmation and argument that it has at its command. The whole
instance is sublime in its sort, thanks to the acuteness of _all_ its
illustrative sides, the intense interest of which loses nothing in the
hands of our chronicler; who perhaps, however, reaches off into the vast
vague of Chopin’s native affiliations and references with an energy with
which we find it a little difficult to keep step.

In speaking as we have done of George Sand’s “use” of each twist of her
road as it came—a use which we now recognise as the very thriftiest—we
touch on that principle of vital health in her which made nothing that
might by the common measure have been called one of the graver dilemmas,
that is one of the checks to the continuity of life, really matter. What
this felicity most comes to in fact is that doing at any cost the work
that lies to one’s hand shines out again and yet again as the saving
secret of the soul. She affirmed her freedom right and left, but her
most characteristic assertion of it throughout was just in the luxury of
labour. The exhaustive account we at any rate now enjoy of the family
life surrounding her during the years here treated of and as she had
constituted it, the picture of all the queer conflicting sensibilities
engaged, and of the endless ramifications and reflections provided for
these, leaves us nothing to learn on that congested air, that
obstructive medium for the range of the higher tone, which the lady of
Nohant was so at her “objective” happiest, even if at her superficially,
that is her nervously, most flurried and depressed, in bravely
breasting. It is as if the conditions there and in Paris during these
several years had been consistently appointed by fate to throw into
relief the applications of a huge facility, a sort of universal
readiness, with a rare intelligence to back it. Absolutely nothing was
absent, or with all the data _could_ have been, that might have
bewildered a weaker genius into some lapse of eloquence or of industry;
everything that might have overwhelmed, or at least have disconcerted,
the worker who could throw off the splendid “Lucrezia Floriani” in the
thick of battle came upon her at once, inspiring her to show that on her
system of health and cheer, of experiential economy, as we may call it,
to be disconcerted was to be lost. To be lacerated and calumniated was
in comparison a trifle; with a certain sanity of reaction these things
became as naught, for the sanity of reaction was but the line of
consistency, the theory and attitude of sincerity kept at the highest
point. The artist in general, we need scarcely remind ourselves, is in a
high degree liable to arrive at the sense of what he may have seen or
felt, or said or suffered, by working it out as a subject, casting it
into some form prescribed by his art; but even here he in general knows
limits—unless perchance he be loose as Byron was loose, or possess such
a power of disconnection, such a clear stand-off of the intelligence, as
accompanied the experiments of Goethe. Our own experiments, we commonly
feel, are comparatively timid, just as we can scarce be said, in the
homely phrase, to serve our esthetic results of them hot and hot; we are
too conscious of a restrictive instinct about the conditions we may, in
like familiar language let ourselves in for, there being always the
question of what we should be able “intellectually” to show for them.
The life of the author of “Lucrezia Floriani” at its most active may
fairly be described as an immunity from restrictive instincts more ably
cultivated than any we know. Again and yet again we note the positive
premium so put upon the surrender to sensibility, and how, since the
latter was certain to spread to its maximum and to be admired in
proportion to its spread, some surrender was always to have been worth
while. “Lucrezia Floriani” ought to have been rather measurably
bad—lucidity, harmony, maturity, definiteness of sense, being so likely
to fail it in the troubled air in which it was born. Yet how can we do
less than applaud a composition throwing off as it goes such a passage
as the splendid group of pages cited by Madame Karénine from the
incident of the heroine’s causing herself to be rowed over to the island
in her Italian lake on that summer afternoon when the sense of her
situation had become sharp for her to anguish, in order to take stock of
the same without interruption and see, as we should say to-day, where
she is? The whole thing has the grand manner and the noblest eloquence,
reaching out as it does on the spot to the lesson and the moral of the
convulsions that have been prepared in the first instance with such
complacency, and illustrating in perfection the author’s faculty for the
clear re-emergence and the prompt or, as we may call it, the paying
reaction. The case is put for her here as into its final nutshell: you
may “live” exactly as you like, that is live in perfect security and
fertility, when such breadth of rendering awaits your simply sitting
down to it. Is it not true, we say, that without her breadth our
wonderful woman would have been “nowhere”?—whereas with it she is
effectively and indestructibly at any point of her field where she may
care to pretend to stand.

This biographer, I must of course note, discriminates with delicacy
among her heroine’s felicities and mistakes, recognising that some of
the former, as a latent awkwardness in them developed, inevitably parted
with the signs that distinguished them from the latter; but I think we
feel, as the instances multiply, that no regret could have equalled for
us that of our not having the display vivid and complete. Once all the
elements of the scarce in advance imaginable were there it would have
been a pity that they should not offer us the show of their full
fruition. What more striking show, for example, than that, as recorded
by Madame Karénine in a footnote, the afflicted parent of Solange should
have lived to reproduce, or rather, as she would herself have said, to
“arrange” the girlish character and conduct of that young person, so
humiliating at the time to any near relation, let alone a mother, in the
novel of “Mademoiselle Merquem,” where the truth to the original facts
and the emulation of the graceless prime “effects” are such as our
author can vouch for? The fiction we name followed indeed after long
years, but during the lifetime of the displeasing daughter and with an
ease of reference to the past that may fairly strike us as the last word
of superiority to blighting association. It is quite as if the close and
amused matching of the character and its play in the novel with the
wretched old realities, those that had broken in their day upon the
scared maternal vision, had been a work of ingenuity attended with no
pang. The example is interesting as a measure of the possible victory of
time in a case where we might have supposed the one escape to have been
by forgetting. Madame Sand remembers to the point of
gratefully—gratefully as an artist—reconstituting; we in fact feel
her, as the irrepressible, the “healthy” artist, positively to enjoy so
doing. Thus it clearly defined itself for her in the fulness of time
that, humiliating, to use our expression, as the dreadful Solange might
have been and have incessantly remained, she herself had never in the
least consented to the stupidity or sterility of humiliation. So it
could be that the free mind and the free hand were ever at her service.
A beautiful indifferent agility, a power to cast out that was at least
proportioned to the power to take in, hangs about all this and meets us
in twenty connections. Who of her readers has forgotten the harmonious
dedication—her inveterate dedications have always, like her clear light
prefaces, the last grace—of “Jeanne,” so anciently, so romantically
readable, to her faithful Berrichon servant who sits spinning by the
fire? “Vous ne savez pas lire, ma paisible amie,” but that was not to
prevent the association of her name with the book, since both her own
daughter and the author’s are in happy possession of the art and will be
able to pass the entertainment on to her. This in itself is no more than
a sign of the writer’s fine democratic ease, which she carried at all
times to all lengths, and of her charming habit of speech; but it
somehow becomes further illustrational, testifying for the manner in
which genius, if it be but great enough, lives its life at small cost,
when we learn that after all, by a turn of the hand, the “paisible amie”
was, under provocation, bundled out of the house as if the beautiful
relation had not meant half of what appeared. Françoise and her presence
were dispensed with, but the exquisite lines remain, which we would not
be without for the world.


                                  III

The various situations determined for the more eminent of George Sand’s
intimate associates would always be independently interesting, thanks to
the intrinsic appeal of these characters and even without the light
reflected withal on the great agent herself; which is why poor Chopin’s
figuration in the events of the year 1847, as Madame Karénine so fully
reconstitutes them, is all that is wanted to point their almost
nightmare quality. Without something of a close view of them we fail of
a grasp of our heroine’s genius—her genius for keeping her head in deep
seas morally and reflectively above water, though but a glance at them
must suffice us for averting this loss. The old-world quality of drama,
which throughout so thickens and tones the air around her, finds
remarkable expression in the whole picture of the moment. Every
connection involved bristles like a conscious consequence, tells for all
it is worth, as we say, and the sinister complexity of reference—for
all the golden clearings-up that awaited it on the ideal plane—leaves
nothing to be desired. The great and odd sign of the complications and
convulsions, the alarms and excursions recorded, is that these are all
the more or less direct fruits of sensibility, which had primarily been
indulged in, under the doom of a preparation of them which no
preparation of anything else was to emulate, with a good faith fairly
touching in presence of the eventual ugliness. Madame Sand’s wonderful
mother, commemorated for us in “L’Histoire de ma Vie” with the truth
surely attaching in a like degree to no mother in all the literature of
so-called confession, had had for cousin a “fille entretenue” who had
married a mechanic. This Adèle Brault had had in the course of her
adventures a daughter in whom, as an unfortunate young relative, Madame
Dupin had taken an interest, introducing her to the heiress of Nohant,
who viewed her with favour—she appears to have been amiable and
commendable—and eventually associated her with her own children. She
was thus the third member of that illegitimate progeny with which the
Nohant scene was to have become familiar, George Sand’s natural brother
on her father’s side and her natural sister on her mother’s representing
this element from the earlier time on. The young Augustine, fugitive
from a circle still less edifying, was thus made a companion of the son
and the daughter of the house, and was especially held to compare with
the latter to her great advantage in the matter of character, docility
and temper. These young persons formed, as it were, with his more
distinguished friend, the virtual family of Chopin during those years of
specifically qualified domestication which affect us as only less of a
mystification to taste than that phase of the unrestricted which had
immediately preceded them. Hence a tangled tissue of relations within
the circle that became, as it strikes us, indescribable for difficulty
and “delicacy,” not to say for the perfection of their impracticability,
and as to which the great point is that Madame Sand’s having taken them
so robustly for granted throws upon her temperamental genius a more
direct light than any other. The whole case belongs doubtless even more
to the hapless history of Chopin himself than to that of his terrible
friend—terrible for her power to flourish in conditions sooner or later
fatal to weaker vessels; but is in addition to this one of the most
striking illustrations possible of that view or theory of social life
handed over to the reactions of sensibility almost alone which, while
ever so little the ideal of the Anglo-Saxon world, has largely governed
the manners of its sister societies. It has been our view, very
emphatically, in general, that the sane and active social body—or, for
that matter, the sane and active individual, addressed to the natural
business of life—goes wrongly about it to _encourage_ sensibility, or
to do anything on the whole but treat it as of no prime importance; the
traps it may lay for us, however, being really of the fewest in a race
to which the very imagination of it may be said, I think, to have been
comparatively denied. The imagination of it sat irremovably, on the
other hand, and as a matter of course, at the Nohant fireside; where
indeed we find the play and the ravage chiefly interesting through our
thus seeing the delicate Chopin, whose semi-smothered appeal remains
peculiarly pathetic, all helpless and foredoomed at the centre of the
whirl. Nothing again strikes us more in the connection than the familiar
truth that interesting persons make everything that concerns them
interesting, or seldom fail to redeem from what might in another air
seem but meanness and vanity even their most compromised states and
their greatest wastes of value. Every one in the particular Nohant drama
here exposed loses by the exposure—so far as loss could be predicated
of amounts which, in general, excepting the said sensibility, were so
scant among them; every one, that is, save the ruling spirit of all,
with the extraordinary mark in her of the practical defiance of waste
and of her inevitable enrichment, for our measure, as by reflection from
the surrounding shrinkage. One of the oddest aspects of the scene is
also one of the wretchedest, but the oddity makes it interesting, by the
law I just glanced at, in spite of its vulgar side. How could it not be
interesting, we ask as we read, to feel that Chopin, though far from the
one man, was the one gentleman of the association, the finest set of
nerves and scruples, and yet to see how little that availed him, in
exasperated reactions, against mistakes of perverted sympathy? It is
relevant in a high degree to our view of his great protectress as
reducible at her best to male terms that she herself in this very light
fell short, missed the ideal safeguard which for her friend had been
preinvolved—as of course may be the peril, ever, with the creature so
transmuted, and as is so strikingly exemplified, in the pages before us,
when Madame Karénine ingenuously gives us chapter and verse for her
heroine’s so unqualified demolition of the person of Madame d’Agoult,
devotee of Liszt, mother to be, by that token, of Richard Wagner’s
second wife, and sometime intimate of the author of “Isidora,” in which
fiction we are shown the parody perpetrated. If women rend each other on
occasion with sharper talons than seem to belong on the whole to the
male hand, however intendingly applied, we find ourselves reflect
parenthetically that the loss of this advantage may well be a matter for
them to consider when the new approximation is the issue.

The great sign of the Nohant circle on all this showing, at any rate, is
the intense personalism, as we may call it, reigning there, or in other
words the vivacity, the acuity and irritability of the personal
relations—which flourished so largely, we at the same time feel, by
reason of the general gift for expression, that gift to which we owe the
general superiority of every letter, from it scarce matters whom, laid
under contribution by our author. How could people not feel with acuity
when they could, when they had to, write with such point and such
specific intelligence?—just indeed as one asks how letters could fail
to remain at such a level among them when they incessantly generated
choice matter for expression. Madame Sand herself is of course on this
ground easily the most admirable, as we have seen; but every one “knows
how” to write, and does it well in proportion as the matter in hand most
demands and most rewards proper saying. Much of all this stuff of
history seems indeed to have been susceptible of any amount of force of
statement; yet we note all the while how in the case of the great
mistress of the pen at least some shade of intrinsic beauty attends even
the presentation of quite abominable facts. We can only see it as
abominable, at least, so long as we have Madame Sand’s words—which are
somehow a different thing from her word—for it, that Chopin had from
the first “sided” with the atrocious Solange in that play of her genius
which is characterised by our chronicler as wickedness for the sake of
wickedness, as art for the sake of art, without other logic or other
cause. “Once married,” says Madame Karénine, “she made a double use of
this wickedness. She had always hated Augustine; she wished, one doesn’t
know why, to break off her marriage, and by calumnies and insinuations
she succeeded. Then angry with her mother she avenged herself on her as
well by further calumnies. Thereupon took place at Nohant such events
that”—that in fine we stop before them with this preliminary shudder.
The cross-currents of violence among them would take more keeping apart
than we have time for, the more that everything comes back, for
interest, to the intrinsic weight of the tone of the principal sufferer
from them—as we see her, as we wouldn’t for the world not see her, in
spite of the fact that Chopin was to succumb scarce more than a year
later to multiplied lacerations, and that she was to override and
reproduce and pre-appointedly flourish for long years after. If it is
interesting, as I have pronounced it, that Chopin, again, should have
consented to be of the opinion of Solange that the relations between her
brother Maurice and the hapless Augustine were of the last impropriety,
I fear I can account no better for this than by our sense that the more
the _genius loci_ has to feed her full tone the more our faith in it, as
such a fine thing in itself, is justified. Almost immediately after the
precipitated marriage of the daughter of the house has taken place, the
Clésinger couple, avid and insolent, of a breadth of old time impudence
in fact of which our paler day has lost the pattern, are back on the
mother’s hands, to the effect of a vividest picture of Maurice well-nigh
in a death-grapple with his apparently quite monstrous “bounder” of a
brother-in-law, a picture that further gives us Madame Sand herself
smiting Clésinger in the face and receiving from him a blow in the
breast, while Solange “coldly,” with an iciness indeed peculiarly her
own, fans the rage and approves her husband’s assault, and while the
divine composer, though for that moment much in the background, approves
the wondrous approval. He still approves, to all appearance, the
daughter’s interpretation of the mother’s wish to “get rid” of him as
the result of an amorous design on the latter’s part in respect of a
young man lately introduced to the circle as Maurice’s friend and for
the intimate relation with whom it is thus desirable that the coast
shall be made clear. How else than through no fewer consistencies of the
unedifying on the part of these provokers of the expressional reaction
should we have come by innumerable fine epistolary passages, passages
constituting in themselves verily such adornments of the tale, such
notes in the scale of all the damaged dignity redressed, that we should
be morally the poorer without them? One of the vividest glimpses indeed
is not in a letter but in a few lines from “L’Histoire de ma Vie,” the
composition of which was begun toward the end of this period and while
its shadow still hung about—early in life for a projected
autobiography, inasmuch as the author had not then reached her
forty-fifth year. Chopin at work, improvising and composing, was apt to
become a prey to doubts and depressions, so that there were times when
to break in upon these was to render him a service.

    But it was not always possible to induce him to leave the piano,
    often so much more his torment than his joy, and he began
    gradually to resent my proposing he should do so. I never
    ventured on these occasions to insist. Chopin in displeasure was
    appalling, and as with me he always controlled himself it was as
    if he might die of suffocation.

It is a vision of the possibilities of vibration in such organisms that
does in fact appal, and with the clash of vibrations, those both of
genius and of the general less sanctioned sensibility, the air must have
more than sufficiently resounded. Some eight years after the beginning
of their friendship and the year after the final complete break in it
she writes to Madame Pauline Viardot:

    Do you see Chopin? Tell me about his health. I have been unable
    to repay his fury and his hatred by hatred and fury. I think of
    him as of a sick, embittered, bewildered child. I saw much of
    Solange in Paris, the letter goes on, and made her my constant
    occupation, but without finding anything but a stone in the
    place of her heart. I have taken up my work again while waiting
    for the tide to carry me elsewhere.

All the author’s “authority” is in these few words, and in none more
than in the glance at the work and the tide. The work and the tide rose
ever as high as she would to float her, and wherever we look there is
always the authority. “I find Chopin _magnificent_,” she had already
written from the thick of the fray, “to keep seeing, frequenting and
approving Clésinger, who struck me because I snatched from his hands the
hammer he had raised upon Maurice—Chopin whom every one talks of as my
most faithful and devoted friend.” Well indeed may our biographer have
put it that from a certain date in May 1847 “the two _Leitmotive_ which
might have been called in the terms of Wagner the _Leitmotif_ of
soreness and the _Leitmotif_ of despair—Chopin, Solange—sound together
now in fusion, now in a mutual grip, now simply side by side, in all
Madame Sand’s unpublished letters and in the few (of the moment) that
have been published. A little later a third joins in—Augustine Brault,
a motive narrowly and tragically linked to the _basso obligato_ of
Solange.” To meet such a passage as the following under our heroine’s
hand again is to feel the whole temper of intercourse implied slip
straight out of our analytic grasp. The allusion is to Chopin and to the
“defection” of which he had been guilty, to her view, at the time when
it had been most important that she might count on him. What we have
first, as outsiders, to swallow down, as it were, is the state of
things, the hysteric pitch of family life, in which any ideal of
reticence, any principle, as we know it, of minding one’s business, for
mere dignity’s sake if for none other, had undergone such collapse.

    I grant you I am not sorry that he has withdrawn from me the
    government of his life, for which both he and his friends wanted
    to make me responsible in so much too absolute a fashion. His
    temper kept growing in asperity, so that it had come to his
    constantly blowing me up, from spite, ill-humour and jealousy,
    in presence of my friends and my children. Solange made use of
    it with the astuteness that belongs to her, while Maurice began
    to give way to indignation. Knowing and seeing _la chasteté de
    nos rapports_, he saw also that the poor sick soul took up,
    without _wanting to_ and perhaps without being able to help it,
    the attitude of the lover, the husband, the proprietor of my
    thoughts and actions. He was on the point of breaking out and
    telling him to his face that he was making me play, at
    forty-three years of age, a ridiculous part, and that it was an
    abuse of my kindness, my patience, and my pity for his nervous
    morbid state. A few months more, a few days perhaps, of this
    situation, and an impossible frightful struggle would have
    broken out between them. Foreseeing the storm, I took advantage
    of Chopin’s predilection for Solange and left him to sulk,
    without an effort to bring him round. We have not for three
    months exchanged a word in writing, and I don’t know how such a
    cooling-off will end.

She develops the picture of the extravagance of his sick irritability;
she accepts with indifference the certainty that his friends will accuse
her of having cast him out to take a lover; the one thing she “minds” is
the force of evil in her daughter, who is the centre of all the
treachery. “She will come back to me when she needs me, that I know. But
her return will be neither tender nor consoling.” Therefore it is when
at the beginning of the winter of this same dreadful year she throws off
the free rich summary of what she has been through in the letter to M.
Charles Poncy already published in her Correspondence we are swept into
the current of sympathy and admiration. The preceding months had been
the heaviest and most painful of her life.

    I all but broke down under them utterly, though I had for long
    seen them coming. But you know how one is not always overhung by
    the evil portent, however clear one may read it—there are days,
    weeks, even whole months, when one lives on illusion and fondly
    hopes to divert the blow that threatens. It is always at last
    the most probable ill that surprises us unarmed and unprepared.
    To this explosion of unhappy underground germs joined themselves
    sundry contributive matters, bitter things too and quite
    unexpected; so that I am broken by grief in body and soul. I
    believe my grief incurable, for I never succeed in throwing it
    off for a few hours without its coming upon me again during the
    next in greater force and gloom. I nevertheless struggle against
    it without respite, and if I don’t hope for a victory which
    would have to consist of not feeling at all, at least I have
    reached that of still bearing with life, of even scarcely
    feeling ill, of having recovered my taste for work and of not
    showing my distress. I have got back outside calm and cheer,
    which are so necessary for others, and everything in my life
    seems to go on well.

We had already become aware, through commemorations previous to the
present, of that first or innermost line of defence residing in George
Sand’s splendid mastery of the letter, the gift that was always so to
assure her, on every issue, the enjoyment of the first chance with
posterity. The mere cerebral and manual activity represented by the
quantity no less than the quality of her outflow through the post at a
season when her engagements were most pressing and her anxieties of
every sort most cruel is justly qualified by Madame Karénine as
astounding; the new letters here given to the world heaping up the
exhibition and testifying even beyond the finest of those gathered in
after the writer’s death—the mutilations, suppressions and other
freedoms then used, for that matter, being now exposed. If no plot of
her most bustling fiction ever thickened at the rate at which those
agitations of her inner circle at which we have glanced multiplied upon
her hands through the later ’forties, so we are tempted to find her
rather less in possession of her great _moyens_ when handling the
artificial presentation than when handling what we may call the natural.
It is not too much to say that the long letter addressed to the cynical
Solange in April ’52, and which these pages give us _in extenso_, would
have made the fortune of any mere interesting “story” in which one of
the characters might have been presented as writing it. It is a document
of the highest psychological value and a practical summary of all the
elements of the writer’s genius, of all her indefeasible advantages; it
is verily the gem of her biographer’s collection. Taken in connection
with a copious communication to her son, of the previous year, on the
subject of his sister’s character and vices, and of their common
experience of these, it offers, in its ease of movement, its
extraordinary frankness and lucidity, its splendid apprehension and
interpretation of realities, its state, as it were, of saturation with
these, exactly the kind of interest for which her novels were held
remarkable, but in a degree even above their maximum. Such a letter is
an effusion of the highest price; none of a weight so baffling to
estimation was probably ever inspired in a mother by solicitude for a
clever daughter’s possibilities. Never surely had an accomplished
daughter laid under such contribution a mother of high culture; never
had such remarkable and pertinent things had to flow from such a source;
never in fine was so urgent an occasion so admirably, so inimitably
risen to. Marvellous through it all is the way in which, while a common
recognition of the “facts of life,” as between two perfectly intelligent
men of the world, gives the whole diapason, the abdication of moral
authority and of the rights of wisdom never takes place. The tone is a
high implication of the moral advantages that Solange had inveterately
enjoyed and had decided none the less to avail herself of so little;
which advantages we absolutely believe in as we read—_there_ is the
prodigious part: such an education of the soul, and in fact of every
faculty, such a claim for the irreproachable, it would fairly seem, do
we feel any association with the great fluent artist, in whatever
conditions taking place, inevitably, necessarily to have been. If we put
ourselves questions we yet wave away doubts, and with whatever remnants
of prejudice the writer’s last word may often have to clash, our own is
that there is nothing for grand final rightness like a sufficiently
_general_ humanity—when a particularly beautiful voice happens to serve
it.



                          GABRIELE D’ANNUNZIO
                                  1902


The great feast-days of all, for the restless critic, are those much
interspaced occasions of his really meeting a “case,” as he soon enough
learns to call, for his convenience and assistance, any supremely
contributive or determinant party to the critical question. These are
recognitions that make up for many dull hours and dry contacts, many a
thankless, a disconcerted gaze into faces that have proved
expressionless. Always looking, always hoping for his happiest chance,
the inquirer into the reasons of things—by which I mean especially into
the reasons of books—so often misses it, so often wastes his steps and
withdraws his confidence, that he inevitably works out for himself,
sooner or later, some handy principle of recognition. It may be a rough
thing, a mere home-made tool of his trade, but it serves his purpose if
it keeps him from beginning with mistakes. He becomes able to note in
its light the signs and marks of the possible precious identity, able to
weigh with some exactitude the appearances that make for its reality. He
ends, through much expenditure of patience, by seeing when, how, why,
the “case” announces and presents itself, and he perhaps even feels that
failure and felicity have worked together to produce in him a sense for
it that may at last be trusted as an instinct. He thus arrives at a view
of all the candidates, frequently interesting enough, who fall short of
the effective title, because he has at need, perhaps even from afar,
scented along the wind the strongest member of the herd. He may perhaps
not always be able to give us the grounds of his certainty, but he is at
least never without knowing it in presence of one of the full-blown
products that are the joy of the analyst. He recognises as well how the
state of being full-blown comes above all from the achievement of
consistency, of that last consistency which springs from the
unrestricted enjoyment of freedom.

Many of us will doubtless not have forgotten how we were witnesses a
certain number of years since to a season and a society that had found
themselves of a sudden roused, as from some deep drugged sleep, to the
conception of the “esthetic” law of life; in consequence of which this
happy thought had begun to receive the honours of a lively appetite and
an eager curiosity, but was at the same time surrounded and manipulated
by as many different kinds of inexpertness as probably ever huddled
together on a single pretext. The spectacle was strange and finally was
wearisome, for the simple reason that the principle in question, once it
was proclaimed—a principle not easily formulated, but which we may
conveniently speak of as that of beauty at any price, beauty appealing
alike to the senses and to the mind—was never felt to fall into its
place as really adopted and efficient. It remained for us a queer
high-flavoured fruit from overseas, grown under another sun than ours,
passed round and solemnly partaken of at banquets organised to try it,
but not found on the whole really to agree with us, not proving
thoroughly digestible. It brought with it no repose, brought with it
only agitation. We were not really, not fully convinced, for the state
of conviction is quiet. This was to have been the state itself—that is
the state of mind achieved and established—in which we were to know
ugliness no more, to make the esthetic consciousness feel at home with
us, or learn ourselves at any rate to feel at home with _it_. That would
have been the reign of peace, the supreme beatitude; but stability
continued to elude us. We had mustered a hundred good reasons for it,
yet the reasons but lighted up our desert. They failed to flower into a
single concrete esthetic “type.” One authentic, one masterful specimen
would have done wonders for us, would at least have assuaged our
curiosity. But we were to be left till lately with our curiosity on our
hands.

This is a yearning, however, that Signor D’Annunzio may at last strike
us as supremely formed to gratify; so promptly we find in him as a
literary figure the highest expression of the reality that our own
conditions were to fail of making possible. He has immediately the value
of giving us by his mere logical unfolding the measure of our
shortcomings in the same direction, that of our timidities and penuries
and failures. He throws a straighter and more inevitable light on the
esthetic consciousness than has, to my sense, in our time, reached it
from any other quarter; and there is many a mystery that properly
interrogated he may help to clear up for us, many an explanation of our
misadventure that—as I have glanced at it—he may give. He starts with
the immense advantage of enjoying the invoked boon by grace and not by
effort, of claiming it under another title than the sweat of his brow
and the aspiration of his culture. He testifies to the influence of
things that have had time to get themselves taken for granted. Beauty at
any price is an old story to him; art and form and style as the aim of
the superior life are a matter of course; and it may be said of him, I
think, that, thanks to these transmitted and implanted instincts and
aptitudes, his individual development begins where the struggle of the
mere earnest questioner ends. Signor D’Annunzio is earnest in his way,
quite extraordinarily—which is a feature of his physiognomy that we
shall presently come to and about which there will be something to say;
but we feel him all the while in such secure possession of his heritage
of favouring circumstance that his sense of intellectual responsibility
is almost out of proportion. This is one of his interesting special
marks, the manner in which the play of the esthetic instinct in him
takes on, for positive extravagance and as a last refinement of freedom,
the crown of solicitude and anxiety. Such things but make with him for
ornament and parade; they are his tribute to civility; the essence of
the matter is meanwhile in his blood and his bones. No mistake was
possible from the first as to his being of the inner literary camp—a
new form altogether of perceptive and expressive energy; the question
was settled by the intensity and variety, to say nothing of the
precocity, of his early poetic production.

Born at Pescara, in the Regno, the old kingdom of Naples, “toward” 1863,
as I find noted by a cautious biographer, he had while scarce out of his
teens allowed his lyric genius full opportunity of scandalising even the
moderately austere. He defined himself betimes very much as he was to
remain, a rare imagination, a poetic, an artistic intelligence of
extraordinary range and fineness concentrated almost wholly on the life
of the senses. For the critic who simplifies a little to state clearly,
the only ideas he urges upon us are the erotic and the plastic, which
have for him about an equal intensity, or of which it would be doubtless
more correct to say that he makes them interchangeable faces of the same
figure. He began his career by playing with them together in verse, to
innumerable light tunes and with an extraordinary general effect of
curiosity and brilliancy. He has continued still more strikingly to play
with them in prose; they have remained the substance of his intellectual
furniture. It is of his prose only, however, that, leaving aside the
Intermezzo, L’Isottèo, La Chimera, Odi Navali and other such matters, I
propose to speak, the subject being of itself ample for one occasion.
His five novels and his four plays have extended his fame; they suggest
by themselves as many observations as we shall have space for. The group
of productions, as the literary industry proceeds among us to-day, is
not large, but we may doubt if a talent and a temperament, if indeed a
whole “view of life,” ever built themselves up as vividly for the reader
out of so few blocks. The writer is even yet enviably young; but this
solidity of his literary image, as of something already seated on time
and accumulation, makes him a rare example. Precocity is somehow an
inadequate name for it, as precocity seldom gets away from the element
of promise, and it is not exactly promise that blooms in the hard
maturity of such a performance as “The Triumph of Death.” There are
certain expressions of experience, of the experience of the whole man,
that are like final milestones, milestones for his possible fertility if
not for his possible dexterity; a truth that has not indeed prevented
“Il Fuoco,” with its doubtless still ampler finality, from following the
work just mentioned. And we have had particularly before us, in verse, I
must add, “Francesca da Rimini,” with the great impression a great
actress has enabled this drama to make.

Only I must immediately in this connection also add that Signor
D’Annunzio’s plays are, beside his novels, of decidedly minor weight;
testifying abundantly to his style, his romantic sense and his command
of images, but standing in spite of their eloquence only for half of his
talent, largely as he yet appears in “Il Fuoco” to announce himself by
implication as an intending, indeed as a pre-eminent dramatist. The
example is interesting when we catch in the fact the opportunity for
comparing with the last closeness the capacity of the two rival
canvases, as they become for the occasion, on which the picture of life
may be painted. The closeness is never so great, the comparison never so
pertinent, as when the separate efforts are but different phases of the
same talent. It is not at any rate under this juxtaposition that the
infinitely greater amplitude of portrayal resident in the novel strikes
us least. It in fact strikes us the more, in this quarter, for Signor
D’Annunzio, that his plays have been with one exception successes. We
must none the less take “Francesca” but for a success of curiosity; on
the part of the author I mean even more than on the part of the public.
It is primarily a pictorial and ingenious thing and, as a picture of
passion, takes, in the total collection, despite its felicities of
surface and arrangement, distinctly a “back seat.” Scarcely less than
its companions it overflows with the writer’s plenitude of verbal
expression, thanks to which, largely, the series will always prompt a
curiosity and even a tenderness in any reader interested precisely in
this momentous question of “style in a play”—interested in particular
to learn by what esthetic chemistry a play would as a work of art
propose to eschew it. It is in any such connection so inexpugnable that
we have only to be cheated of it in one place to feel the subject cry
aloud for it, like a sick man forsaken, in another.

I may mention at all events the slightly perverse fact that, thanks, on
this side, to the highest watermark of translation, Signor D’Annunzio
makes his best appeal to the English public as a dramatist. Of each of
the three English versions of other examples of his work whose titles
are inscribed at the beginning of these remarks it may be said that they
are adequate and respectable considering the great difficulty
encountered. The author’s highest good fortune has nevertheless been at
the hands of his French interpreter, who has managed to keep constantly
close to him—allowing for an occasional inconsequent failure of courage
when the directness of the original _brave l’honnêteté_—and yet to
achieve a tone not less idiomatic, and above all not less marked by
“authority,” than his own. Mr. Arthur Symons, among ourselves, however,
has rendered the somewhat insistent eloquence of “La Gioconda” and the
intricate and difficult verse of “Francesca” with all due sympathy, and
in the latter case especially—a highly arduous task—with remarkably
patient skill. It is not his fault, doubtless, if the feet of his
English text strike us as moving with less freedom than those of his
original; such being the hard price paid always by the translator who
tries for correspondence from step to step, tries for an identical
order. Even less is he responsible for its coming still more home to us
in a translation that the meagre anecdote here furnishing the subject,
and on which the large superstructure rests, does not really lend itself
to those developments that make a full or an interesting tragic
complexity. Behind the glamour of its immense literary association the
subject of “Francesca” is for purposes of essential, of enlarged
exhibition delusive and “short.”

These, however, are for the moment side-issues; what is more relevant is
the stride taken by our author’s early progress in his first novel and
his second, “Il Piacere” and “L’Innocente”; a pair from the freshness,
the direct young energy of which he was, for some of his admirers, too
promptly and to markedly to decline. We may take it as characteristic of
the intensity of the literary life in him that his brief career falls
already thus into periods and supplies a quantity of history sufficient
for those differences among students by which the dignity of history
appears mainly to be preserved. The nature of his prime inspiration I
have already glanced at; and we are helped to a characterisation if I
say that the famous enthroned “beauty” which operates here, so straight,
as the great obsession, is not in any perceptible degree moral beauty.
It would be difficult perhaps to find elsewhere in the same compass so
much expression of the personal life resting so little on any picture of
the personal character and the personal will. It is not that Signor
D’Annunzio has not more than once pushed his furrow in this latter
direction; but nothing is exactly more interesting, as we shall see,
than the seemingly inevitable way in which the attempt falls short.

“Il Piacere,” the first in date of the five tales, has, though with
imperfections, the merit of giving us strongly at the outset the
author’s scale and range of view, and of so constituting a sort of
prophetic summary of his elements. All that is done in the later things
is more or less done here, and nothing is absent here that we are not
afterwards also to miss. I propose, however, that it shall not be
prematurely a question with us of what we miss; no intelligible
statement of which, for that matter, in such considerations as these, is
ever possible till there has been some adequate statement of what we
find. Count Andrea Sperelli is a young man who pays, pays heavily, as we
take it that we are to understand, for an unbridled surrender to the
life of the senses; whereby it is primarily a picture of that life that
the story gives us. He is represented as inordinately, as quite
monstrously, endowed for the career that from the first absorbs and that
finally is to be held, we suppose, to engulf him; and it is a tribute to
the truth with which his endowment is presented that we should scarce
know where else to look for so complete and convincing an account of
such adventures. Casanova de Seingalt is of course infinitely more
copious, but his autobiography is cheap loose journalism compared with
the directed, finely-condensed iridescent epic of Count Andrea.

This young man’s years have run but half their course from twenty to
thirty when he meets and becomes entangled with a woman more infernally
expert even than himself in the matters in which he is most expert—and
he is given us as a miracle of social and intellectual
accomplishment—the effect of whom is fatally to pervert and poison his
imagination. As his imagination is applied exclusively to the
employments of “love,” this means, for him, a frustration of all
happiness, all comfortable consistency, in subsequent relations of the
same order. The author’s view—this is fundamental—is all of a world in
which relations of any other order whatever mainly fail to offer
themselves in any attractive form. Andrea Sperelli, loving,
accordingly—in the manner in which D’Annunzio’s young men love and to
which we must specifically return—a woman of good faith, a woman as
different as possible from the creature of evil communications, finds
the vessel of his spirit itself so infected and disqualified that it
falsifies and dries up everything that passes through it. The idea that
has virtually determined the situation appears in fact to be that the
hero _would_ have loved in another manner, or would at least have wished
to, but that he had too promptly put any such fortune, so far as his
capacity is concerned, out of court. We have our reasons, presently
manifest, for doubting the possibility itself; but the theory has
nevertheless given its direction to the fable.

For the rest the author’s three sharpest signs are already unmistakable:
first his rare notation of states of excited sensibility; second his
splendid visual sense, the quick generosity of his response to the
message, as we nowadays say, of aspects and appearances, to the beauty
of places and things; third his ample and exquisite style, his curious,
various, inquisitive, always active employment of language as a means of
communication and representation. So close is the marriage between his
power of “rendering,” in the light of the imagination, and whatever he
sees and feels, that we should much mislead in speaking of his manner as
a thing distinct from the matter submitted to it. The fusion is complete
and admirable, so that, though his work is nothing if not “literary,” we
see at no point of it where literature or where life begins or ends: we
swallow our successive morsels with as little question as we swallow
food that has by proper preparation been reduced to singleness of
savour. It is brought home to us afresh that there is no complete
creation without style any more than there is complete music without
sound; also that when language becomes as closely applied and impressed
a thing as for the most part in the volumes before us the fact of
artistic creation is registered at a stroke. It is never more present
than in the thick-sown illustrative images and figures that fairly bloom
under D’Annunzio’s hand. I find examples in “Il Piacere,” as elsewhere,
by simply turning the pages. “His will”—of the hero’s
weakness—“useless as a sword of base temper hung at the side of a
drunkard or a dullard.” Or of his own southern land in September: “I
scarce know why, looking at the country in this season, I always think
of some beautiful woman after childbirth, who lies back in her white
bed, smiling with a pale astonished inextinguishable smile.” Or the
incision of this: “Where for him now were those unclean short-lived
loves that left in the mouth the strange acidity of fruit cut with a
steel knife?” Or the felicity of the following, of a southern night seen
and felt from the terrace of a villa. “Clear meteors at intervals
streaked the motionless air, running over it as lightly and silently as
drops of water on a crystal pane.” “The sails on the sea,” he says of
the same look-out by day, “were as pious and numberless as the wings of
cherubim on the gold grounds of old Giottesque panels.”

But it is above all here for two things that his faculty is admirable;
one of them his making us feel through the windows of his situation, or
the gaps, as it were, of his flowering wood, the golden presence of
Rome, the charm that appeals to him as if he were one of the pilgrims
from afar, save that he reproduces it with an authority in which, as we
have seen, the pilgrims from afar have mainly been deficient. The other
is the whole category of the phenomena of “passion,” as passion prevails
between his men and his women—and scarcely anything else prevails; the
states of feeling, of ecstasy and suffering engendered, the play of
sensibility from end to end of the scale. In this direction he has left
no dropped stitches for any worker of like tapestries to pick up. We
shall here have made out that many of his “values” are much to be
contested, but that where they are true they are as fresh as
discoveries; witness the passage where Sperelli, driving back to Rome
after a steeplechase in which he has been at the supreme moment worsted,
meets nothing that does not play with significance into his vision and
act with force on his nerves. He has before the race had “words,” almost
blows, on the subject of one of the ladies present, with one of the
other riders, of which the result is that they are to send each other
their seconds; but the omens are not for his adversary, in spite of the
latter’s success on the course.

    From the mail-coach, on the return, he overtook the flight
    toward Rome of Giannetto Rutolo, seated in a small two-wheeled
    trap, behind the quick trot of a great roan, over whom he bent
    with tight reins, holding his head down and his cigar in his
    teeth, heedless of the attempts of policemen to keep him in
    line. Rome, in the distance, stood up dark against a zone of
    light as yellow as sulphur; and the statues crowning St. John
    Lateran looked huge, above the zone, in their violet sky. _Then
    it was that Andrea fully knew the pain he was making another
    soul suffer._

Nothing could be more characteristic of the writer than the way what has
preceded flowers into that last reality; and equally in his best manner,
doubtless, is such a passage as the following from the same volume,
which treats of the hero’s first visit to the sinister great lady whose
influence on his soul and his senses is to become as the trail of a
serpent. She receives him, after their first accidental meeting, with
extraordinary promptitude and the last intimacy, receives him in the
depths of a great Roman palace which the author, with a failure of taste
that is, unfortunately for him, on ground of this sort, systematic,
makes a point of naming. “Then they ceased to speak. Each felt the
presence of the other flow and mingle with his own, with her own, very
blood; till it was _her_ blood at last that seemed to have become his
life, and his that seemed to have become hers. The room grew larger in
the deep silence; the crucifix of Guido Reni made the shade of the
canopy and curtains religious; the rumour of the city came to them like
the murmur of some far-away flood.” Or take for an instance of the
writer’s way of showing the consciousness as a full, mixed cup, of
touching us ourselves with the mystery at work in his characters, the
description of the young man’s leaving the princely apartments in
question after the initiation vouchsafed to him. He has found the great
lady ill in bed, with remedies and medicine-bottles at her side, but not
too ill, as we have seen, to make him welcome. “Farewell,” she has said.
“Love me! Remember!”

    It seemed to him, crossing the threshold again, that he heard
    behind him a burst of sobs. But he went on, a little uncertain,
    wavering like a man who sees imperfectly. The odour of the
    chloroform clung to his sense like some fume of intoxication;
    but at each step something intimate passed away from him,
    wasting itself in the air, so that, impulsively, instinctively,
    he would have kept himself as he was, have closed himself in,
    have wrapped himself up to prevent the dispersion. The rooms in
    front of him were deserted and dumb. At one of the doors
    “Mademoiselle” appeared, with no sound of steps, with no rustle
    of skirts, standing there like a ghost. “This way, signor conte.
    You won’t find it.” She had an ambiguous, irritating smile, and
    her curiosity made her grey eyes more piercing. Andrea said
    nothing. The woman’s presence again disconcerted and troubled
    him, affected him with a vague repugnance, stirred indeed his
    wrath.

Even the best things suffer by detachment from their context; but so it
is that we are in _possession_ of the young man’s exit, so it is that
the act interests us. Fully announced from the first, among these
things, was D’Annunzio’s signal gift of never approaching the thing
particularly to be done, the thing that so presents itself to the
painter, without consummately doing it. Each of his volumes offers thus
its little gallery of episodes that stand out like the larger pearls
occurring at intervals on a string of beads. The steeplechase in “Il
Piacere,” the auction sale of precious trinkets in Via Sistina on the
wet afternoon, the morning in the garden at Schifanoia, by the southern
sea, when Donna Maria, the new revelation, first comes down to Andrea,
who awaits her there in the languor of convalescence from the almost
fatal wound received in the duel of which the altercation on the
race-course has been the issue: the manner of such things as these has
an extraordinary completeness of beauty. But they are, like similar
pages in “Il Trionfo” and “Il Fuoco,” not things for adequate citation,
not things that lend themselves as some of the briefer felicities. Donna
Maria, on the September night at Schifanoia, has been playing for Andrea
and their hostess certain old quaint gavottes and toccatas.

    It lived again wondrously beneath her fingers, the
    eighteenth-century music, so melancholy in its
    dance-tunes—tunes that might have been composed to be danced,
    on languid afternoons of some St. Martin’s summer, in a deserted
    park, among hushed fountains and pedestals without their
    statues, over carpets of dead roses, by pairs of lovers soon to
    love no more.

Autobiographic in form, “L’Innocente” sticks closely to its theme, and
though the form is on the whole a disadvantage to it the texture is
admirably close. The question is of nothing less than a young husband’s
relation to the illegitimate child of his wife, born confessedly as
such, and so born, marvellous to say, in spite of the circumstance that
the wife adores him, and of the fact that, though long grossly, brutally
false to her, he also adores his wife. To state these data is
sufficiently to express the demand truly made by them for superiority of
treatment; they require certainly two or three almost impossible
postulates. But we of course never play the fair critical game with an
author, never get into relation with him at all, unless we grant him his
postulates. His subject is what is given him—given him by influences,
by a process, with which we have nothing to do; since what art, what
revelation, can ever really make such a mystery, such a passage in the
private life of the intellect, adequately traceable for us? His
treatment of it, on the other hand, is what he actively gives; and it is
with what he gives that we are critically concerned. If there is nothing
in him that effectually induces us to make the postulate, he is then
empty for us altogether, and the sooner we have done with him the
better; little as the truly curious critic enjoys, as a general thing,
having publicly to throw up the sponge.

Tullio Hermil, who finally compasses the death of the little “innocent,”
the small intruder whose presence in the family life has become too
intolerable, retraces with a master’s hand each step of the process by
which he has arrived at this sole issue. Save that his wife dumbly
divines and accepts it his perpetration of the deed is not suspected,
and we take the secret confession of which the book consists as made for
the relief and justification of his conscience. The action all goes
forward in that sphere of exasperated sensibility which Signor
D’Annunzio has made his own so triumphantly that other story-tellers
strike us in comparison as remaining at the door of the inner precinct,
as listening there but to catch an occasional faint sound, while he
alone is well within and moving through the place as its master. The
sensibility has again in itself to be qualified; the exasperation of
feeling is ever the essence of the intercourse of some man with some
woman who has reduced him, as in “L’Innocente” and in “Il Trionfo,” to
homicidal madness, or of some woman with some man who, as in “Il Fuoco,”
and also again by a strange duplication of its office in “L’Innocente,”
causes her atrociously to suffer. The plane of the situation is thus
visibly a singularly special plane; that, always, of the more or less
insanely demoralised pair of lovers, for neither of whom is any other
personal relation indicated either as actual or as conceivably possible.
Here, it may be said on such a showing, is material rather alarmingly
cut down as to range, as to interest and, not least, as to charm; but
here precisely it is that, by a wonderful chance, the author’s magic
comes effectively into play.

Little in fact as the relation of the erotically exasperated _with_ the
erotically exasperated, when pushed on either side to frenzy, would
appear to lend itself to luminous developments, the difficulty is
surmounted each time in a fashion that, for consistency no less than for
brilliancy, is all the author’s own. Though surmounted triumphantly as
to interest, that is, the trick is played without the least
falsification of the luckless subjects of his study. They remain the
abject victims of sensibility that his plan has originally made them;
they remain exasperated, erotic, hysterical, either homicidally or
suicidally determined, cut off from any personal source of life that
does not poison them; notwithstanding all of which they neither starve
dramatically nor suffer us to starve with them. How then is this
seemingly inevitable catastrophe prevented? We ask it but to find on
reflection that the answer opens the door to their historian’s whole
secret. The unfortunates are deprived of any enlarging or saving
personal relation, that is of any beneficent reciprocity; but they make
up for it by their relation both to the _idea_ in general and to the
whole world of the senses, which is the completest that the author can
conceive for them. He may be described as thus executing on their behalf
an artistic _volte-face_ of the most effective kind, with results
wonderful to note. The world of the senses, with which he surrounds
them—a world too of the idea, that is of a few ideas admirably
expressed—yields them such a crop of impressions that the need of other
occasions to vibrate and respond, to act or to aspire, is superseded by
their immense factitious agitation. This agitation runs its course in
strangely brief periods—a singular note, the brevity, of every
situation; but the period is while it lasts, for all its human and
social poverty, quite inordinately peopled and furnished. The
innumerable different ways in which his concentrated couples are able to
feel about each other and about their enclosing cage of golden wire, the
nature and the art of Italy—these things crowd into the picture and
pervade it, lighting it scarcely less, strange to say, because they are
things of bitterness and woe.

It is one of the miracles of the imagination; the great shining element
in which the characters flounder and suffer becomes rich and beautiful
for them, as well as in so many ways for us, by the action of the
writer’s mind. They not only live in his imagination, but they borrow it
from him in quantities; indeed without this charitable advance they
would be poor creatures enough, for they have in each case almost
nothing of their own. On the aid thus received they start, they get into
motion; it makes their common basis of “passion,” desire, enchantment,
aversion. The essence of the situation is the same in “Il Trionfo” and
“Il Fuoco” as in “L’Innocente”: the temporarily united pair devour each
other, tear and rend each other, wear each other out through a series of
erotic convulsions and nervous reactions that are made
interesting—interesting to _us_—almost exclusively by the special
wealth of their consciousness. The medium in which they move is
admirably reflected in it; the autumn light of Venice, the afterglow of
her past, in the drama of the elderly actress and the young rhetorician
of “Il Fuoco”; the splendour of the summer by the edge of the lower
Adriatic in that of the two isolated erotomaniacs of “Il Trionfo,”
indissolubly linked at last in the fury of physical destruction into
which the man drags the woman by way of retribution for the fury of
physical surrender into which she has beguiled him.

As for “L’Innocente” again, briefly, there is perhaps nothing in it to
match the Roman passages of “Il Piacere”; but the harmony of the
general, the outer conditions pervades the picture; the sweetness of the
villeggiatura life, the happiness of place and air, the lovability of
the enclosing scene, all at variance with the sharpness of the inner
tragedy. The inner tragedy of “L’Innocente” has a concentration that is
like the carrying, through turns and twists, upstairs and down, of some
cup filled to the brim, of which no drop is yet spilled; such cumulative
truth rules the scene after we have once accepted the postulate. It is
true that the situation as exhibited involves for Giuliana, the young
wife, the vulgarest of adventures; yet she becomes, as it unfolds, the
figure of the whole gallery in whom the pathetic has at once most of
immediate truth and of investing poetry. I much prefer her for beauty
and interest to Donna Maria in “Il Piacere,” the principal other image
of faith and patience sacrificed. We see these virtues as still supreme
in her even while she faces, in advance, her ordeal, in respect to which
it has been her hope, in fact her calculation, that her husband will
have been deceived about the paternity of her child; and she is so
truthfully touching when this possibility breaks down that even though
we rub our eyes at the kind of dignity claimed for her we participate
without reserve in her predicament. The origin of the infant is frankly
ignoble, whereas it is on the nobleness of Giuliana that the story
essentially hinges; but the contradiction is wonderfully kept from
disconcerting us altogether. What the author has needed for his
strangest truth is that the mother shall feel exactly as the husband
does, and that the husband shall after the first shock of his horror
feel intimately and explicitly with the mother. They take in this way
the same view of their woeful excrescence; and the drama of the child’s
advent and of the first months of his existence, his insistent and hated
survival, becomes for them in respect to the rest of the world a drama
of silence and dissimulation, in every step of which we feel a terror.

The effect, I may add, gains more than one kind of intensity from that
almost complete absence of _other_ contacts to which D’Annunzio
systematically condemns his creatures; introducing here, however, just
the two or three that more completely mark the isolation. It may
doubtless be conceded that our English-speaking failure of insistence,
of inquiry and penetration, in certain directions, springs partly from
our deep-rooted habit of dealing with man, dramatically, on his social
and gregarious side, as a being the variety of whose intercourse with
his fellows, whatever forms his fellows may take, is positively half his
interesting motion. We fear to isolate him, for we remember that as we
see and know him he scarce understands himself save in action, action
which inevitably mixes him with his kind. To see and know him, like
Signor D’Annunzio, almost only in passion is another matter, for passion
spends itself quickly in the open and burns hot mainly in nooks and
corners. Nothing, too, in the picture is more striking than the manner
in which the merely sentimental abyss—that of the couple brought
together by the thing that might utterly have severed them—is
consistently and successfully avoided. We should have been certain to
feel it in many other hands yawning but a few steps off. We see the
dreadful facts in themselves, are brought close to them with no
interposing vaguenesses or other beggings of the question, and are
forcibly reminded how much more this “crudity” makes for the
communication of tenderness—what is aimed at—than an attitude
conventionally more reticent. We feel what the tenderness can be when it
rests on _all_ the items of a constituted misery, not one of which is
illogically blinked.

For the pangs and pities of the flesh in especial D’Annunzio has in all
his work the finest hand—those of the spirit exist with him indeed only
as proceeding from these; so that Giuliana for instance affects us,
beyond any figure in fiction we are likely to remember, as living and
breathing under our touch and before our eyes, as a creature of organs,
functions and processes, palpable, audible, pitiful physical conditions.
These are facts, many of them, of an order in pursuit of which many a
spectator of the “picture of life” will instinctively desire to stop
short, however great in general his professed desire to enjoy the
borrowed consciousness that the picture of life gives us; and nothing,
it may well be said, is more certain than that we have a right in such
matters to our preference, a right to choose the kind of adventure of
the imagination we like best. No obligation whatever rests on us in
respect to a given kind—much light as our choice may often throw for
the critic on the nature of our own intelligence. _There_ at any rate,
we are disposed to say of such a piece of penetration as “L’Innocente,”
there is a particular dreadful adventure, as large as life, for those
who can bear it. The conditions are all present; it is only the reader
himself who may break down. When in general, it may be added, we see
readers do so, this is truly more often because they are shocked at
really finding the last consistency than because they are shocked at
missing it.

“Il Trionfo della Morte” and “Il Fuoco” stand together as the amplest
and richest of our author’s histories, and the earlier, and more rounded
and faultless thing of the two, is not unlikely to serve, I should
judge, as an unsurpassable example of his talent. His accomplishment
here reaches its maximum; all his powers fight for him; the wealth of
his expression drapes the situation represented in a mantle of
voluminous folds, stiff with elaborate embroidery. The “story” may be
told in three words: how Giorgio Aurispa meets in Rome the young and
extremely pretty wife of a vulgar man of business, her unhappiness with
whom is complete, and, falling in love with her on the spot, eventually
persuades her—after many troubled passages—to come and pass a series
of weeks with him in a “hermitage” by the summer sea, where, in a
delirium of free possession, he grows so to hate her, and to hate
himself for his subjection to her, and for the prostration of all honour
and decency proceeding from it, that his desire to destroy her even at
the cost of perishing with her at last takes uncontrollable form and he
drags her, under a pretext, to the edge of a sea-cliff and hurls her,
interlocked with him in appalled resistance, into space. We get at an
early stage the note of that aridity of agitation in which the narrator
has expended treasures of art in trying to interest us. “Fits of
indescribable fury made them try which could torture each other best,
which most lacerate the other’s heart and keep it in martyrdom.” But
they understand, at least the hero does; and he formulates for his
companion the essence of their _impasse_. It is not her fault when she
tears and rends.

    Each human soul carries in it for love but a determinate
    quantity of sensitive force. It is inevitable that this quantity
    should use itself up with time, as everything else does; so that
    when it _is_ used up no effort has power to prevent love from
    ceasing. Now it’s a long time that you have been loving me;
    nearly two years!

The young man’s intelligence is of the clearest; the woman’s here is
inferior, though in “Il Fuoco” the two opposed faculties are almost
equal; but the pair are alike far from living in their intelligence,
which only serves to bestrew with lurid gleams the black darkness of
their sensual life. So far as the intelligence is one with the will our
author fundamentally treats it as cut off from all communication with
any other quarter—that is with the senses arrayed and encamped. The
most his unfortunates arrive at is to carry their extremely embellished
minds with them through these dusky passages as a kind of gilded
glimmering lantern, the effect of which is merely fantastic and
ironic—a thing to make the play of their shadows over the walls of
their catacomb more monstrous and sinister. Again in the first pages of
“Il Trionfo” the glimmer is given.

    He recognised the injustice of any resentment against her,
    because he recognised the fatal necessities that controlled them
    alike. No, his misery came from no other human creature; it came
    from the very essence of life. The lover had not the lover to
    complain of, but simply love itself. Love, toward which his
    whole being reached out, from within, with a rush not to be
    checked, love was of all the sad things of this earth the most
    lamentably sad. And to this supreme sadness he was perhaps
    condemned till death.

That, in a nutshell, is D’Annunzio’s subject-matter; not simply that his
characters see in advance what love is worth for them, but that they
nevertheless need to make it the totality of their consciousness. In “Il
Trionfo” and “Il Fuoco” the law just expressed is put into play at the
expense of the woman, with the difference, however, that in the latter
tale the woman perceives and judges, suffers in mind, so to speak, as
well as in nerves and in temper. But it would be hard to say in which of
these two productions the inexhaustible magic of Italy most helps the
effect, most hangs over the story in such a way as to be one with it and
to make the ugliness and the beauty melt together. The ugliness, it is
to be noted, is continually _presumed_ absent; the pursuit and
cultivation of beauty—that fruitful preoccupation which above all, I
have said, gives the author his value as our “case”—being the very
ground on which the whole thing rests. The ugliness is an accident, a
treachery of fate, the intrusion of a foreign substance—having for the
most part in the scheme itself no admitted inevitability. Against it
every provision is made that the most developed taste in the world can
suggest; for, ostensibly, transcendently, Signor D’Annunzio’s _is_ the
most developed taste in the world—his and that of the ferocious yet so
contracted _conoscenti_ his heroes, whose virtual identity with himself,
affirmed with a strangely misplaced complacency by some of his critics,
one would surely hesitate to take for granted. It is the wondrous
physical and other endowments of the two heroines of “Il Piacere,” it is
the joy and splendour of the hero’s intercourse with them, to say
nothing of the lustre of his own person, descent, talents, possessions,
and of the great general setting in which everything is offered us—it
is all this that makes up the picture, with the constant suggestion that
nothing of a baser quality for the esthetic sense, or at the worst for a
pampered curiosity, might hope so much as to live in it. The case is the
same in “L’Innocente,” a scene all primarily smothered in flowers and
fruits and fragrances and soft Italian airs, in every implication of
flattered embowered constantly-renewed desire, which happens to be a
blighted felicity only for the very reason that the cultivation of
delight—in the form of the wife’s luckless experiment—has so awkwardly
overleaped itself. Whatever furthermore we may reflectively think either
of the Ippolita of “Il Trionfo” or of her companion’s scheme of
existence with her, it is enchanting grace, strange, original,
irresistible in kind and degree, that she is given us as representing;
just as her material situation with her young man during the greater
part of the tale is a constant communion, for both of them, with the
poetry and the nobleness of classic landscape, of nature consecrated by
association.

The mixture reaches its maximum, however, in “Il Fuoco,” if not perhaps
in “The Virgins of the Rocks”; the mixture I mean of every exhibited
element of personal charm, distinction and interest, with every
insidious local influence, every glamour of place, season and
surrounding object. The heroine of the first-named is a great tragic
actress, exquisite for everything but for being unfortunately
middle-aged, battered, marked, as we are constantly reminded, by all the
after-sense of a career of promiscuous carnal connections. The hero is a
man of letters, a poet, a dramatist of infinite reputation and resource,
and their union is steeped to the eyes in the gorgeous medium of Venice,
the moods of whose melancholy and the voices of whose past are an active
part of the perpetual concert. But we see _all_ the persons introduced
to us yearn and strain to exercise their perceptions and taste their
impressions as deeply as possible, conspiring together to interweave
them with the pleasures of passion. They “go in” as the phrase is, for
beauty at any cost—for each other’s own to begin with; their creator,
in the inspiring quest, presses them hard, and the whole effect becomes
for us that of an organised general sacrifice to it and an organised
general repudiation of everything else. It is not idle to repeat that
the value of the Italian background has to this end been inestimable,
and that every spark of poetry it had to contribute has been struck from
it—with what supreme felicity we perhaps most admiringly learn in “The
Virgins of the Rocks.” To measure the assistance thus rendered, and
especially the immense literary lift given, we have only to ask
ourselves what appearance any one of the situations presented would have
made in almost any Cisalpine or “northern” frame of circumstance
whatever. Supported but by such associations of local or of literary
elegance as _our_ comparatively thin resources are able to furnish, the
latent weakness in them all, the rock, as to final effect, on which they
split and of which I shall presently speak, would be immeasurably less
dissimulated. All this is the lesson of style, by which we here catch a
writer in the very act of profiting after a curious double fashion.
D’Annunzio arrives at it both by expression and by material—that is, by
a whole side of the latter; so that with such energy at once and such
good fortune it would be odd indeed if he had not come far. It is verily
in the very name and interest of beauty, of the lovely impression, that
Giorgio Aurispa becomes homicidal in thought and finally in act.

    She would in death become for me matter of thought, pure
    ideality. From a precarious and imperfect existence she would
    enter into an existence complete and definitive, forsaking
    forever the infirmity of her weak luxurious flesh. Destroy to
    possess—there is no other way for him who seeks the absolute in
    love.

To these reflections he has been brought by the long, dangerous past
which, as the author says, his connection with his mistress has behind
it—a past of recriminations of which the ghosts still walk. “It dragged
behind it, through time, an immense dark net, all full of dead things.”
To quote here at all is always to desire to continue, and “Il Trionfo”
abounds in the illustrative episodes that are ever made so masterfully
concrete. Offering in strictness, incidentally, the only exhibition in
all the five volumes of a human relation other than the acutely sexual,
it deals admirably enough with this opportunity when the hero pays his
visit to his provincial parents before settling with his mistress at
their hermitage. His people are of ancient race and have been much at
their ease; but the home in the old Apulian town, overdarkened by the
misdeeds of a demoralised father, is on the verge of ruin, and the dull
mean despair of it all, lighted by outbreaks of helpless rage on the
part of the injured mother, is more than the visitor can bear, absorbed
as he is in impatiences and concupiscences which make everything else
cease to exist for him. His terror of the place and its troubles but
exposes of course the abjection of his weakness, and the sordid
squabbles, the general misery and mediocrity of life that he has to
face, constitute precisely, for his personal design, the abhorred
challenge of ugliness, the interference of a call other than erotic. He
flees before it, leaving it to make shift as it can; but nothing could
be more “rendered” in detail than his overwhelmed vision of it.

So with the other finest passages of the story, notably the summer day
spent by the lovers in a long dusty dreadful pilgrimage to a famous
local miracle-working shrine, where they mingle with the multitude of
the stricken, the deformed, the hideous, the barely human, and from
which they return, disgusted and appalled, to plunge deeper into
consoling but too temporary transports; notably also the incident,
masterly in every touch, of the little drowned contadino, the whole
scene of the small starved dead child on the beach, in all the beauty of
light and air and view, with the effusions and vociferations and
grimnesses round him, the sights and sounds of the quasi-barbaric life
that have the relief of antique rites portrayed on old tombs and urns,
that quality and dignity of looming larger which a great feeling on the
painter’s part ever gives to small things. With this ampler truth the
last page of the book is above all invested, the description of the
supreme moment—for some time previous creeping nearer and nearer—at
which the delirious protagonist beguiles his vaguely but not fully
suspicious companion into coming out with him toward the edge of a dizzy
place over the sea, where he suddenly grasps her for her doom and the
sense of his awful intention, flashing a light back as into their
monstrous past, makes her shriek for her life. She dodges him at the
first betrayal, panting and trembling.

    “Are you crazy?” she cried with wrath in her throat. “Are you
    crazy?” But as she saw him make for her afresh in silence, as
    she felt herself seized with still harsher violence and dragged
    afresh toward her danger, she understood it all in a great
    sinister flash which blasted her soul with terror. “No, no,
    Giorgio! Let me go! Let me go! Another minute—listen, listen!
    Just a minute! I want to say——!” She supplicated, mad with
    terror, getting herself free and hoping to make him wait, to put
    him off with pity. “A minute! Listen! I love you! Forgive me!
    Forgive me!” She stammered incoherent words, desperate, feeling
    herself overcome, losing her ground, seeing death close.
    “Murder!” she then yelled in her fury. And she defended herself
    with her nails, with her teeth, biting like a wild beast.
    “Murder!” she yelled, feeling herself seized by the hair, felled
    to the ground on the edge of the precipice, lost. The dog
    meanwhile barked out at the scuffle. The struggle was short and
    ferocious, as between implacable enemies who had been nursing to
    this hour in the depths of their souls an intensity of hate. And
    they plunged into death locked together.

The wonder-working shrine of the Abruzzi, to which they have previously
made their way, is a local Lourdes, the resort from far and wide of the
physically afflicted, the evocation of whose multitudinous presence, the
description of whose unimaginable miseries and ecstasies, grovelling
struggles and supplications, has the mark of a pictorial energy for such
matters not inferior to that of Émile Zola—to the degree even that the
originality of the pages in question was, if I remember rightly, rather
sharply impugned in Paris. D’Annunzio’s defence, however, was easy,
residing as it does in the fact that to handle any subject successfully
handled by Zola (his failures are another matter) is quite inevitably to
walk more or less in his footsteps, in prints so wide and deep as to
leave little margin for passing round them. To which I may add that,
though the judgment may appear odd, the truth and force of the young
man’s few abject days at Guardiagrele, his _casa paterna_, are such as
to make us wish that other such corners of life were more frequent in
the author’s pages. He has the supremely interesting quality in the
novelist that he _fixes_, as it were, the tone of every cluster of
objects he approaches, fixes it by the consistency and intensity of his
reproduction. In “The Virgins of the Rocks” we have also a _casa
paterna_, and a thing, as I have indicated, of exquisite and wonderful
tone; but the tone here is of poetry, the truth and the force are less
measurable and less familiar, and the whole question, after all, in its
refined and attenuated form, is still that of sexual pursuit, which
keeps it within the writer’s too frequent limits. Giorgio Aurispa, in
“Il Trionfo,” lives in communion with the spirit of an amiable and
melancholy uncle who had committed suicide and made him the heir of his
fortune, and one of the nephew’s most frequent and faithful loyalties is
to hark back, in thought, to the horror of his first knowledge of the
dead man’s act, put before us always with its accompaniment of loud
southern resonance and confusion. He is in the place again, he is in the
room, at Guardiagrele, of the original appalled vision.

    He heard, in the stillness of the air and of his arrested soul,
    the small shrill of an insect in the wainscot. And the little
    fact sufficed to dissipate for the moment the extreme violence
    of his nervous tension, as the puncture of a needle suffices to
    empty a swollen bladder. Every particular of the terrible day
    came back to his memory: the news abruptly brought to Torretta
    di Sarsa, toward three in the afternoon, by a panting messenger
    who stammered and whimpered: the ride on horseback, at lightning
    speed, under the canicular sky and up the torrid slopes, and,
    during the rush, the sudden faintnesses that turned him dizzy in
    his saddle; then the house at home, filled with sobs, filled
    with a noise of doors slamming in the general scare, filled with
    the strumming of his own arteries; and at last his irruption
    into the room, the sight of the corpse, the curtains inflated
    and rustling, the tinkle on the wall of the little font for holy
    water.

This young man’s great mistake, we are told, had been his insistence on
regarding love as a form of enjoyment. He would have been in a possible
relation to it only if he had learned to deal with it as a form of
suffering. This is the lesson brought home to the heroine of “Il Fuoco,”
who suffers indeed, as it seems to us, so much more than is involved in
the occasion. We ask ourselves continually why; that is we do so at
first; we do so before the special force of the book takes us captive
and reduces us to mere charmed absorption of its successive parts and
indifference to its moral sense. Its defect is verily that it has no
moral sense proportionate to the truth, the constant high style of the
general picture; and this fact makes the whole thing appear given us
simply because it has happened, because it was material that the author
had become possessed of, and not because, in its almost journalistic
“actuality,” it has any large meaning. We get the impression of a direct
transfer, a “lift,” bodily, of something seen and known, something not
really produced by the chemical process of art, the crucible or retort
from which things emerge for a new function. Their meaning here at any
rate, extracted with difficulty, would seem to be that there is an
inevitable leak of ease and peace when a mistress happens to be
considerably older than her lover; but even this interesting yet not
unfamiliar truth loses itself in the great poetic, pathetic, psychologic
ceremonial.

That matters little indeed, as I say, while we read; the two
sensibilities concerned bloom, in all the Venetian glow, like wondrous
water-plants, throwing out branches and flowers of which we admire the
fantastic growth even while we remain, botanically speaking, bewildered.
They are other sensibilities than those with which we ourselves have
community—one of the main reasons of their appearing so I shall
presently explain; and, besides, they are isolated, sequestrated,
according to D’Annunzio’s constant view of such cases, for an exclusive,
an intensified and arid development. The mistress has, abnormally, none
of the protection, the alternative life, the saving sanity of other
interests, ties, employments; while the hero, a young poet and dramatist
with an immense consciousness of genius and fame, has for the time at
least only those poor contacts with existence that the last intimacies
of his contact with his friend’s person, her poor _corpo non più
giovane_, as he so frequently repeats, represent for him. It is not for
us, however, to contest the relation; it is in the penetrating way again
in which the relation is rendered that the writer has his triumph; the
way above all in which the world-weary interesting sensitive woman, with
her infinite intelligence, yet with her longing for some happiness still
among all her experiments untasted, and her genius at the same time for
familiar misery, is marked, featured, individualised for us, and, with
the strangest art in the world—one of those mysteries of which great
talents alone have the trick—at once ennobled with beauty and
desecrated by a process that we somehow feel to be that of exposure, to
spring from some violation of a privilege. “ ‘Do with me,’ ” says the
Foscarina on a certain occasion, “ ‘whatever you will’; and she smiled
in her offered abjection. She belonged to him like the thing one holds
in one’s fist, like the ring on one’s finger, like a glove, like a
garment, like a word that may be spoken or not, like a draught that may
be drunk or poured on the ground.” There are some lines describing an
hour in which she has made him feel as never before “the incalculable
capacity of the heart of man. And it seemed to him as he heard the
beating of his own heart and divined the violence of the other beside
him that he had in his ears the loud repercussion of the hammer on the
hard anvil where human destiny is forged.” More than ever here the pitch
of the personal drama is taken up by everything else in the
scene—everything else being in fact but the immediate presence of
Venice, her old faded colour and old vague harmonies, played with
constantly as we might play with some rosy fretted faintly-sounding
sea-shell.

It would take time to say what we play with in the silver-toned “Virgins
of the Rocks,” the history of a visit paid by a transcendent young
man—always pretty much the same young man—to an illustrious family
whose fortunes have tragically shrunken with the expulsion of the
Bourbons from the kingdom of Naples, and the three last lovely daughters
of whose house are beginning to wither on the stem, undiscovered,
unsought, in a dilapidated old palace, an old garden of neglected pomp,
a place of fountains and colonnades, marble steps and statues, all
circled with hard bright sun-scorched volcanic scenery. They are tacitly
candidates for the honour of the hero’s hand, and the subject of the
little tale, which deals with scarce more than a few summer days, is the
manner of their presenting themselves for his admiration and his choice.
I decidedly name this exquisite composition as my preferred of the
series; for if its tone is thoroughly romantic the romance is yet of the
happiest kind, the kind that consists in the imaginative development of
observable things, things present, significant, related to us, and not
in a weak false fumble for the remote and the disconnected.

It is indeed the romantic mind itself that makes the picture, and there
could be no better case of the absolute artistic vision. The mere facts
are soon said; the main fact, above all, of the feeble remnant of an
exhausted race waiting in impotence to see itself cease to be. The
father has nothing personal left but the ruins of his fine presence and
of his old superstitions, a handful of silver dust; the mother, mad and
under supervision, stalks about with the delusion of imperial greatness
(there is a wonderful page on her parading through the gardens in her
rococo palanquin, like a Byzantine empress, attended by sordid keepers,
while the others are hushed into pity and awe); the two sons,
hereditarily tainted, are virtually imbecile; the three daughters,
candidly considered, are what we should regard in our Anglo-Saxon world
as but the stuff of rather particularly dreary and shabby, quite
unutterably idle old maids. Nothing, within the picture, occurs; nothing
is done or, more acutely than usual, than everywhere, suffered; it is
all a mere affair of the rich impression, the complexity of images
projected upon the quintessential spirit of the hero, whose own report
is what we have—an affair of the quality of observation, sentiment and
eloquence brought to bear. It is not too much to say even that the whole
thing is in the largest sense but a theme for style, style of substance
as well as of form. Within this compass it blooms and quivers and
shimmers with light, becomes a wonderful little walled garden of
romance. The young man has a passage of extreme but respectful
tenderness with each of the sisters in turn, and the general cumulative
effect is scarcely impaired by the fact that “nothing comes” of any of
these relations. Too little comes of anything, I think, for any very
marked human analogy, inasmuch as if it is interesting to be puzzled to
a certain extent by what an action, placed before us, is designed to
show or to signify, so we require for this refined amusement at least
the sense that some general idea _is_ represented. We must feel it
present.

Therefore if making out nothing very distinct in “Le Vergini” but the
pictorial idea, and yet cleaving to the preference I have expressed, I
let the anomaly pass as a tribute extorted by literary art, I may seem
to imply that a book may have a great interest without showing a perfect
sense. The truth is undoubtedly that I am in some degree beguiled and
bribed by the particularly intense expression given in these pages to
the author’s esthetic faith. If he is so supremely a “case” it is
because this production has so much to say for it, and says it with such
a pride of confidence, with an assurance and an elegance that fairly
make it the last conceivable word of such a profession. The observations
recorded have their origin in the narrator’s passionate reaction against
the vulgarity of the day. All the writer’s young men react; but
Cantelmo, in the volume before us, reacts with the finest contempt. He
is, like his brothers, a _raffiné_ conservative, believing really, so
far as we understand it, only in the virtue of “race” and in the grand
manner. The blighted Virgins, with all that surrounds them, are an
affirmation of the grand manner—that is of the shame and scandal of
what in an odious age it has been reduced to. It consists indeed of a
number of different things which I may not pretend to have completely
fitted together, but which are, with other elements, the sense of the
supremacy of beauty, the supremacy of style and, last not least, of the
personal will, manifested for the most part as a cold insolence of
attitude—not manifested as anything much more edifying. What it really
appears to come to is that the will is a sort of romantic ornament, the
application of which, for life in the present and the future, remains
awkwardly vague, though we are always to remember that it has been
splendidly forged in the past. The will in short _is_ beauty, is style,
is elegance, is art—especially in members of great families and
possessors of large fortunes. That of the hero of “Le Vergini” has been
handed down to him direct, as by a series of testamentary provisions,
from a splendid young ancestor for whose memory and whose portrait he
has a worship, a warrior and virtuoso of the Renaissance, the model of
his spirit.

    He represents for me the mysterious meaning of the power of
    style, not violable by any one, and least of all ever by myself
    in my own person.

And elsewhere:—

    The sublime hands of Violante [the beauty and interest of hands
    play a great part, in general, in the picture], pressing out in
    drops the essence of the tender flowers and letting them fall
    bruised to the ground, performed an act which, as a symbol,
    corresponded perfectly to the character of my style; this being
    ever to extract from a thing its very last scent of life, to
    take from it all it could give and leave it exhausted. Was not
    this one of the most important offices of my art of life?

The book is a singularly rich exhibition of an inward state, the state
of private poetic intercourse with things, the kind of current that in a
given personal experience flows to and fro between the imagination and
the world. It represents the esthetic consciousness, proud of its
conquests and discoveries, and yet trying, after all, as with the vexed
sense of a want, to look through other windows and eyes. It goes all
lengths, as is of course indispensable on behalf of a personage
constituting a case. “I firmly believe that the greatest sum of future
dominion will be precisely that which shall have its base and its apex
in Rome”—such being in our personage the confidence of the “Latin”
spirit. Does it not really all come back to style? It was to the Latin
spirit that the Renaissance was primarily vouchsafed; and was not, for a
simplified statement, the last word of the Renaissance the question of
taste? That is the esthetic question; and when the Latin spirit after
many misadventures again clears itself we shall see how all the while
this treasure has been in its keeping. Let us as frankly as possible add
that there is a whole side on which the clearance may appear to have
made quite a splendid advance with Signor D’Annunzio himself.

But there is another side, which I have been too long in coming to, yet
which I confess is for me much the more interesting. No account of our
author is complete unless we really make out what becomes of that
esthetic consistency in him which, as I have said, our own collective
and cultivated effort is so earnestly attempting and yet so
pathetically, if not so grotesquely, missing. We are struck,
unmistakably, early in our acquaintance with these productions, by the
fact that their total beauty somehow extraordinarily fails to march with
their beauty of parts, and that something is all the while at work
undermining that bulwark against ugliness which it is their obvious
theory of their own office to throw up. The disparity troubles and
haunts us just in proportion as we admire; and our uneasy wonderment
over the source of the weakness fails to spoil our pleasure only because
such questions have so lively an interest for the critic. We feel
ourselves somehow in presence of a singular incessant _leak_ in the
effect of distinction so artfully and copiously produced, and we apply
our test up and down in the manner of the inquiring person who, with a
tin implement and a small flame, searches our premises for an escape of
gas. The bad smell has, as it were, to be accounted for; and yet where,
amid the roses and lilies and pomegranates, the thousand essences and
fragrances, can such a thing possibly be? Quite abruptly, I think, at
last (if we have been much under the spell) our test gives us the news,
not unaccompanied with the shock with which we see our escape of gas
spring into flame. There is no mistaking it; the leak of distinction is
produced by a positive element of the vulgar; and that the vulgar should
flourish in an air so charged, intellectually speaking, with the
“aristocratic” element, becomes for us straightway the greatest of
oddities and at the same time, critically speaking, one of the most
interesting things conceivable.

The interest then springs from its being involved for us in the “case.”
We recognise so many suggested consequences if the case is really to
prove responsible for it. We ask ourselves if there be not a connection,
we almost tremble lest there shouldn’t be; since what is more obvious
than that, if a high example of exclusive estheticism—as high a one as
we are likely ever to meet—is bound sooner or later to spring a leak,
the general question receives much light? We recognise here the value of
our author’s complete consistency: he would have kept his bottom sound,
so to speak, had he not remained so long at sea. If those imperfect
exponents of his faith whom we have noted among ourselves fail to
flower, for a climax, in any proportionate way, we make out that they
are embarrassed not so much by any force they possess as by a force—a
force of temperament—that they lack. The anomaly I speak of presents
itself thus as the dilemma in which Signor D’Annunzio’s consistency has
inexorably landed him; and the disfigurement breaks out, strikingly
enough, in the very forefront of his picture, at the point where he has
most lavished his colour. It is where he has most trusted and depended
that he is most betrayed, the traitor sharing certainly his tent and his
confidence. What is it that in the interest of beauty he most
elaborately builds on if not on the love-affairs of his heroes and
heroines, if not on his exhibition of the free play, the sincere play,
the play closely studied and frankly represented, of the sexual
relation? It is round this exercise, for him, that expressible,
demonstrable, communicable beauty prevailingly clusters; a view indeed
as to which we all generously go with him, subject to the reserve for
each of us of our own expression and demonstration. It is these things
on his part that break down, it is his discrimination that falls short,
and thereby the very kind of intellectual authority most implied by his
pretension. There is according to him an immense amenity that can be
saved—saved by style—from the general wreck and welter of what is most
precious, from the bankruptcy determined more and more by our basely
democratic conditions. As we watch the actual process, however, it is
only to see the lifeboat itself founder. The vulgarity into which he so
incongruously drops is, I will not say the space he allots to
love-affairs, but the weakness of his sense of “values” in depicting
them.

We begin to ask ourselves at an early stage what this queer passion may
be in the representation of which the sense of beauty ostensibly finds
its richest expression and which is yet attended by nothing else at
all—neither duration, nor propagation, nor common kindness, nor common
consistency with other relations, common congruity with the rest of
life—to make its importance good. If beauty is the supreme need so let
it be; nothing is more certain than that we can never get too much of it
if only we get it of the right sort. It is therefore on this very
ground—the ground of its own sufficiency—that Signor D’Annunzio’s
invocation of it collapses at our challenge. The vulgarity comes from
the disorder really introduced into values, as I have called them; from
the vitiation suffered—that we should have to record so mean an
accident—by taste, impeccable taste, itself. The truth of this would
come out fully in copious examples, now impossible; but it is not too
much to say, I think, that in every principal situation presented the
fundamental weakness causes the particular interest to be inordinately
compromised.

I must not, I know, make too much of “Il Piacere”—one of those works of
promising youth with which criticism is always easy—and I should indeed
say nothing of it if it were also a work of less ability. It really,
however, to my mind, quite gives us the key, all in the morning early,
to our author’s general misadventure. Andrea Sperelli is the key; Donna
Maria is another key of a slightly different shape. They have neither of
them the esthetic importance, any more than the moral, that their
narrator claims for them and in his elaborate insistence on which he has
so hopelessly lost his way. If they _were_ important—by which I mean if
they showed in any other light than that of their particular erotic
exercise—they would justify the claim made for them with such superior
art. They have no general history, since their history is only, and
immediately and extravagantly, that of their too cheap and too easy
romance. Why should the career of the young man be offered as a sample
of pathetic, of tragic, of edifying corruption?—in which case it might
indeed be matter for earnest exhibition. The march of corruption, the
insidious influence of propinquity, opportunity, example, the ravage of
false estimates and the drama of sterilising passion—all this is a
thinkable theme, thinkable especially in the light of a great talent.
But for Andrea Sperelli there is not only no march, no drama, there is
not even a weakness to give him the semblance of dramatic, of plastic
material; he is solidly, invariably, vulgarly strong, and not a bit more
corrupt at the end of his disorders than at the beginning. His
erudition, his intellectual accomplishments and elevation, are too
easily spoken for; no view of him is given in which we can feel or taste
them. Donna Maria is scarcely less signal an instance of the apparent
desire on the author’s part to impute a “value” defeated by his
apparently not knowing what a value is. She is apparently an immense
value for the occasions on which the couple secretly meet, but how is
she otherwise one? and what becomes therefore of the beauty, the
interest, the pathos, the struggle, or whatever else, of her
relation—relation of character, of judgment, even of mere taste—to her
own collapse? The immediate physical sensibility that surrenders in her
is, as throughout, exquisitely painted; but since nothing operates for
her, one way or the other, _but_ that familiar faculty, we are left
casting about us almost as much for what else she has to give as for
what, in any case, she may wish to keep.

The author’s view of the whole matter of durations and dates, in these
connections, gives the scale of “distinction” by itself a marked
downward tilt; it confounds all differences between the trivial and the
grave. Giuliana, in “L’Innocente,” is interesting because she has had a
misadventure, and she is exquisite in her delineator’s view because she
has repented of it. But the misadventure, it appears, was a matter but
of a minute; so that we oddly see this particular romance attenuated on
the ground of its brevity. Given the claims of the exquisite, the
attenuation should surely be sought in the very opposite quarter; since,
where these remarkable affections are concerned, how otherwise than by
the element of comparative duration do we obtain the element of
comparative good faith, on which we depend for the element, in turn, of
comparative dignity? Andrea Sperelli becomes in the course of a few
weeks in Rome the lover of some twenty or thirty women of fashion—the
number scarce matters; but to make this possible his connection with
each has but to last a day or two; and the effect of that in its order
is to reduce to nothing, by vulgarity, by frank grotesqueness of
association, the romantic capacity in him on which his chronicler’s
whole appeal to us is based. The association rising before us more
nearly than any other is that of the manners observable in the most
mimetic department of any great menagerie.

The most serious relation depicted—in the sense of being in some degree
the least suggestive of mere zoological sociability—is that of the
lovers in “Il Fuoco,” as we also take this pair for their creator’s
sanest and most responsible spirits. It is a question between them of an
heroic affection, and yet the affection appears to make good for itself
no place worth speaking of in their lives. It holds but for a scant few
weeks; the autumn already reigns when the connection begins, and the
connection is played out (or if it be not the ado is about nothing) with
the first flush of the early Italian spring. It suddenly, on our hands,
becomes trivial, with all our own estimate of reasons and realities and
congruities falsified. The Foscarina has, on professional business, to
“go away,” and the young poet has to do the same; but such a separation,
so easily bridged over by such great people, makes a beggarly climax for
an intercourse on behalf of which all the forces of poetry and tragedy
have been set in motion. Where then we ask ourselves is the
weakness?—as we ask it, very much in the same way, in respect to the
vulgarised aspect of the tragedy of Giorgio Aurispa. The pang of pity,
the pang that springs from a conceivable community in doom, is in this
latter case altogether wanting. Directly we lift a little the
embroidered mantle of that gift for appearances which plays, on Signor
D’Annunzio’s part, such tricks upon us, we find ourselves put off, as
the phrase is, with an inferior article. The inferior article is the
hero’s poverty of life, which cuts him down for pathetic interest just
as the same limitation in “Il Piacere” cuts down Donna Maria. Presented
each as victims of another rapacious person who has got the better of
them, there is no process, no complexity, no suspense in their story;
and thereby, we submit, there is no esthetic beauty. Why _shouldn’t_
Giorgio Aurispa go mad? Why shouldn’t Stelio Effrena go away? We make
the inquiry as disconcerted spectators, not feeling in the former case
that we have had any communication with the wretched youth’s sanity, and
not seeing in the latter why the tie of all the passion that has been
made so admirably vivid for us should not be able to weather change.

Nothing is so singular with D’Annunzio as that the very basis and
subject of his work should repeatedly go aground on such shallows as
these. He takes for treatment a situation that is substantially
none—the most fundamental this of his values, and all the more
compromising that his immense art of producing illusions still leaves it
exposed. The idea in each case is superficially specious, but _where_ it
breaks down is what makes all the difference. “Il Piacere” would have
meant what it seems to try to mean only if a provision had been made in
it for some adequate “inwardness” on the part either of the nature
disintegrated or of the other nature to which this poisoned contact
proves fatal. “L’Innocente,” of the group, comes nearest to justifying
its idea; and I leave it unchallenged, though its meaning surely would
have been written larger if the attitude of the wife toward her
misbegotten child had been, in face of the husband’s, a little less that
of the dumb detached animal suffering in her simplicity. As a picture of
such suffering, the pain of the mere dumb animal, the work is indeed
magnificent; only its connections are poor with the higher dramatic, the
higher poetic, complexity of things.

I can only repeat that to make “The Triumph of Death” a fruitful thing
we should have been able to measure the triumph by its frustration of
some conceivable opportunity at least for life. There is a moment at
which we hope for something of this kind, the moment at which the young
man pays his visit to his family, who have grievous need of him and
toward whom we look to see some one side or other of his fine
sensibility turn. But nothing comes of that for the simple reason that
the personage is already dead—that nothing exists in him but the
established _fear_ of life. He turns his back on everything but a
special sensation, and so completely shuts the door on the elements of
contrast and curiosity. Death really triumphs, in the matter, but over
the physical terror of the inordinate woman; a pang perfectly
communicated to us, but too small a surface to bear the weight laid on
it, which accordingly affects us as that of a pyramid turned over on its
point. It is throughout one of D’Annunzio’s strongest marks that he
treats “love” as a matter not to be mixed with life, in the larger sense
of the word, at all—as a matter all of whose other connections are
dropped; a sort of secret game that can go on only if each of the
parties has nothing to do, even on any _other_ terms, with any one else.

I have dwelt on the fact that the sentimental intention in “Il Fuoco”
quite bewilderingly fails, in spite of the splendid accumulation of
material. We wait to the end to see it declare itself, and then are
left, as I have already indicated, with a mere meaningless anecdote on
our hands. Brilliant and free, each freighted with a talent that is
given us as incomparable, the parties to the combination depicted have,
for their affection, the whole world before them—and not the simple
terraqueous globe, but that still vaster sphere of the imagination in
which, by an exceptionally happy chance, they are able to move together
on very nearly equal terms. A tragedy is a tragedy, a comedy is a
comedy, when the effect, in either sense, is _determined_ for us,
determined by the interference of some element that starts a
complication or precipitates an action. As in “Il Fuoco” nothing
whatever interferes—or nothing certainly that need weigh with the high
spirits represented—we ask why such precious revelations are made us
for nothing. Admirably made in themselves they yet strike us as,
esthetically speaking, almost cruelly wasted.

This general remark would hold good, as well, of “Le Vergini,” if I
might still linger, though its application has already been virtually
made. Anatolia, in this tale, the most robust of the three sisters,
declines marriage in order to devote herself to a family who have, it
would certainly appear, signal need of her nursing. But this, though it
sufficiently represents _her_ situation, covers as little as possible
the ground of the hero’s own, since he, quivering intensely with the
treasure of his “will,” inherited in a straight line from the
_cinque-cento_, only asks to affirm his sublimated energy. The
temptation to affirm it erotically, at least, has been great for him in
relation to each of the young women in turn; but it is for Anatolia that
his admiration and affection most increase in volume, and it is
accordingly for her sake that, with the wonderful moral force behind him
(kept as in a Florentine casket,) we most look to see him justified. He
has a fine image—and when has the author not fine images?—to
illustrate the constant readiness of this possession. The young woman
says something that inspires him, whereupon, “as a sudden light playing
over the dusky wall of a room causes the motionless sword in a trophy to
shine, so her word drew a great flash from my suspended _volontà_. There
was a virtue in her,” the narrator adds, “which could have produced
portentous fruit. Her substance might have nourished a superhuman germ.”
In spite of which it never succeeds in becoming so much as a question
that his affection for her shall _act_, that this grand imagination in
him shall operate, that he himself is, in virtue of such things, exactly
the person to come to her aid and to combine with her in devotion. The
talk about the _volontà_ is amusing much in the same way as the
complacency of a primitive man, unacquainted with the uses of things,
who becomes possessed by some accident of one of the toys of
civilisation, a watch or a motor-car. And yet artistically and for our
author the will _has_ an application, since without it he could have
done no rare vivid work.

Here at all events we put our finger, I think, on the very point at
which his esthetic plenitude meets the misadventure that discredits it.
We see just where it “joins on” with vulgarity. That sexual passion from
which he extracts such admirable detached pictures insists on remaining
for him _only_ the act of a moment, beginning and ending in itself and
disowning any representative character. From the moment it depends on
itself alone for its beauty it endangers extremely its distinction, so
precarious at the best. For what it represents, precisely, is it
poetically interesting; it finds its extension and consummation only in
the rest of life. Shut out from the rest of life, shut out from all
fruition and assimilation, it has no more dignity than—to use a homely
image—the boots and shoes that we see, in the corridors of promiscuous
hotels, standing, often in double pairs, at the doors of rooms. Detached
and unassociated these clusters of objects present, however obtruded, no
importance. What the participants do with their agitation, in short, or
even what it does with them, _that_ is the stuff of poetry, and it is
never really interesting save when something finely contributive in
themselves makes it so. It is this absence of anything finely
contributive in themselves, on the part of the various couples here
concerned, that is the open door to the trivial. I have said, with all
appreciation, that they present the great “relation,” for intimacy, as
we shall nowhere else find it presented; but to see it related, in its
own turn, to nothing in the heaven above or the earth beneath, this
undermines, we definitely learn, the charm of that achievement.

And so it is, strangely, that our esthetic “case” enlightens us. The
only question is whether it be the only case of the kind conceivable.
May we not suppose another with the elements differently mixed? May we
not in imagination alter the proportions within or the influences
without, and look with cheerfulness for a different issue? _Need_ the
esthetic adventure, in a word, organised for real discovery, give us no
more comforting news of success? Are there not, so to speak, finer
possible combinations? are there not safeguards against futility that in
the example before us were but too presumably absent? To which the sole
answer probably is that no man can say. It is Signor D’Annunzio alone
who has really sailed the sea and brought back the booty. The actual
case is so good that all the potential fade beside it. It has for it
that it exists, and that, whether for the strength of the original
outfit or for the weight of the final testimony, it could scarce
thinkably be bettered.



                             MATILDE SERAO


Few attentive readers, I take it, would deny that the English
novelist—from whom, in this case, there happens to be even less
occasion than usual for distinguishing the American—testifies in his
art much more than his foreign comrade, from whatever quarter, to the
rigour of convention. There are whole sides of life about which he has
as little to say as possible, about which he observes indeed in general
a silence that has visibly ended by becoming for the foreign comrade his
great characteristic. He strikes the spectator as having with a
misplaced humility consented once for all to be admonished as to what he
shall or shall not “mention”—and to be admonished in especial by an
authority altogether indefinite. He subscribes, when his turn comes
round, to an agreement in the drawing-up of which he has had no hand; he
sits down to his task with a certain received canon of the “proper”
before his eyes. The critic I am supposing reproaches him, naturally, in
this critic’s way, with a marked failure ever to challenge, much less to
analyse, that conception; with having never, as would appear, so much as
put to himself in regard to most of the matters of which he makes his
mystery the simple question “Proper to what?” How can any authority,
even the most embodied, asks the exponent of other views, decide for us
in advance what shall in any case be proper—with the consequent
implication of impropriety—to our given subject?

The English novelist would, I imagine, even sometimes be led on to
finding that he has practically had to meet such an overhauling by a
further admission, though an admission still tacit and showing him not a
little shy of the whole discussion—principles and formulas being in
general, as we know, but little his affair. Would he not, if off his
guard, have been in peril of lapsing into the doctrine—suicidal when
reflected upon—that there may be also an _a priori_ rule, a “Thou shalt
not,” if not a “Thou shalt,” as to treatable subjects themselves? Then
it would be that his alien foe might fairly revel in the sense of having
him in a corner, laughing an evil laugh to hear him plead in explanation
that it is exactly _most_ as to the subject to be treated that he feels
the need laid upon him to conform. What is he to do when he has an idea
to embody, we might suspect him rashly to inquire, unless, frankly to
ask himself in the first place of _all_ if it be proper? Not indeed—we
catch the reservation—that he is consciously often accessible to ideas
for which that virtue may not be claimed. Naturally, however, still,
such a plea only brings forth for his interlocutor a repetition of the
original appeal: “Proper to what?” There is only one propriety the
painter of life can ask of his morsel of material: Is it, or is it not,
of the stuff of life? So, in simplified terms at any rate, I seem to
hear the interchange; to which I need listen no longer than thus to have
derived from it a word of support for my position. The question of our
possible rejoinder to the scorn of societies otherwise affected I must
leave for some other connection. The point is—if point I may expect to
obtain any countenance to its being called—that, in spite of our great
Dickens and, in a minor degree, of our great George Eliot, the
limitations of our practice are elsewhere than among ourselves pretty
well held to have put us out of court. The thing least conceded to us
moreover is that we handle at all frankly—if we put forward such a
claim—even our own subject-matter or in other words our own life. “Your
own is all we want of you, all we should like to see. But that your
system really touches your own is exactly what we deny. Never, never!”
For what it really comes to is that practically we, of all people in the
world, are accused of a system. Call this system a conspiracy of
silence, and the whole charge is upon us.

The fact of the silence, whether or no of the system, is fortunately all
that at present concerns us. Did this not happen to be the case nothing
could be more interesting, I think, than to follow somewhat further
several of the bearings of the matter, which would bring us face to face
with some wonderful and, I hasten to add, by no means doubtless merely
disconcerting truths about ourselves. It has been given us to read a
good deal, in these latter days, about _l’âme Française_ and _l’âme
Russe_—and with the result, in all probability, of our being rather
less than more penetrated with the desire, in emulation of these
opportunities, to deliver ourselves upon the English or the American
soul. There would appear to be nothing we are totally conscious of that
we are less eager to reduce to the mere expressible, to hand over to
publicity, current journalistic prose aiding, than either of these fine
essence; and yet incontestably there are neighbourhoods in which we feel
ourselves within scent and reach of them by something of the same sense
that in thick forests serves the hunter of great game. He may not quite
touch the precious presence, but he knows when it is near. So somehow we
know that the “Anglo-Saxon” soul, the modern at least, is not far off
when we frankly consider the practice of our race—comparatively recent
though it be—in taking for granted the “innocence” of literature.

Our perhaps a trifle witless way of expressing our conception of this
innocence and our desire for it is, characteristically enough, by taking
refuge in another vagueness, by invoking the allowances that we
understand works of imagination and of criticism to make to the “young.”
I know not whether it has ever officially been stated for us that, given
the young, given literature, and given, under stress, the need of
sacrificing one or the other party, it is not certainly by our sense of
“style” that our choice would be determined: no great art in the reading
of signs and symptoms is at all events required for a view of our
probable instinct in such a case. That instinct, however, has too many
deep things in it to be briefly or easily disposed of, and there would
be no greater mistake than to attempt too simple an account of it. The
account most likely to be given by a completely detached critic would be
that we are as a race better equipped for action than for thought, and
that to let the art of expression go by the board is through that very
fact to point to the limits of what we mostly have to express. If we
accept such a report we shall do so, I think, rather from a strong than
from a weak sense of what may easily be made of it; but I glance at
these things only as at objects almost too flooded with light, and come
back after my parenthesis to what more immediately concerns me: the
plain reflection that, if the elements of compromise—compromise with
fifty of the “facts of life”—be the common feature of the novel of
English speech, so it is mainly indebted for this character to the sex
comparatively without a feeling for logic.

Nothing is at any rate _a priori_ more natural than to trace a
connection between our general mildness, as it may conveniently be
called, and the fact that we are likewise so generally feminine. Is the
English novel “proper” because it is so much written by women, or is it
only so much written by women because its propriety has been so firmly
established? The intimate relation is on either determination all that
is here pertinent—effect and cause may be left to themselves. What is
further pertinent, as happens, is that on a near view the relation is
not constant; by which I mean that, though the ladies are always
productive, the fashion of mildness is not always the same. Convention
in short has its ups and downs, and these votaries have of late years, I
think, been as often seen weltering in the hollow of the wave as borne
aloft on its crest. Some of them may even be held positively to have
distinguished themselves most—whether or no in veils of anonymity—on
the occasion of the downward movement; making us really wonder if their
number might not fairly, under any steadier force of such a movement, be
counted on to increase. All sorts of inquiries are suggested in truth by
the sight. “Emancipations” are in the air, and may it not possibly be
that we shall see two of the most striking coincide? If convention has,
to the tune to which I just invited an ear, blighted our fiction, what
shall we say of its admitted, its still more deprecated and in so many
quarters even deplored, effect upon the great body under the special
patronage of which the “output” has none the less insisted on becoming
incomparably copious? Since the general inaptitude of women appears by
this time triumphantly to have been proved an assumption particularly
hollow, despoiled more and more each day of the last tatters of its
credit, why should not the new force thus liberated really, in the
connection I indicate, give something of its measure?

It is at any rate keeping within bounds to say that the novel will
surely not become less free in proportion as the condition of women
becomes more easy. It is more or less in deference to their constant
concern with it that we have seen it, among ourselves, pick its steps so
carefully; but there are indications that the future may reserve us the
surprise of having to thank the very class whose supposed sensibilities
have most oppressed us for teaching it not only a longer stride, but a
healthy indifference to an occasional splash. It is for instance only of
quite recent years that the type of fiction commonly identified as the
“sexual” has achieved—for purposes of reference, so far as notices in
newspapers may be held to constitute reference—a salience variously
estimated. Now therefore, though it is early to say that all
“imaginative work” from the female hand is subject to this description,
there is assuredly none markedly so subject that is _not_ from the
female hand. The female mind has in fact throughout the competition
carried off the prize in the familiar game, known to us all from
childhood’s hour, of playing at “grown-up;” finding thus its
opportunity, with no small acuteness, in the more and more marked
tendency of the mind of the other gender to revert, alike in the grave
and the gay, to those simplicities which there would appear to be some
warrant for pronouncing puerile. It is the ladies in a word who have
lately done most to remind us of man’s relations with himself, that is
with woman. His relations with the pistol, the pirate, the police, the
wild and the tame beast—are not these prevailingly what the gentlemen
have given us? And does not the difference sufficiently point my moral?

Let me, however, not seem to have gone too far afield to seek it; for my
reflections—general perhaps to excess—closely connect themselves with
a subject to which they are quite ready to yield in interest. I have
lately been giving a happy extension to an old acquaintance, dating from
early in the eighties, with the striking romantic work of Matilde Serao;
a writer who, apart from other successes, has the excellent effect, the
sign of the stronger few, that the end of her story is, for her reader,
never the end of her work. On thus recently returning to her I have
found in her something much more to my present purpose than the mere
appearance of power and ease. If she is interesting largely because she
is, in the light of her free, her extraordinary Neapolitan temperament,
a vivid painter and a rich register of sensations and impressions, she
is still more so as an exceptionally compact and suggestive _case_, a
case exempt from interference and presenting itself with a beautiful
unconsciousness. She has had the good fortune—if it be, after all, not
the ill—to develop in an air in which convention, in our invidious
sense, has had as little to say to her as possible; and she is
accordingly a precious example of the possibilities of free exercise.
The questions of the proper and the improper are comfortably far from
her; and though more than in the line of her sisters of English speech
she may have to reckon with prescriptions as to form—a burden at which
in truth she snaps her fingers with an approach to impertinence—she
moves in a circle practically void of all pre-judgment as to subject and
matter. Conscious enough, doubtless, of a literary law to be offended,
and caring little in fact, I repeat—for it is her weakness—what wrong
it may suffer, she has not even the agreeable incentive of an ability to
calculate the “moral” shocks she may administer.

Practically chartered then she is further happy—since they both
minister to ease—in two substantial facts: she is a daughter of the
veritable south and a product of the contemporary newspaper. A
Neapolitan by birth and a journalist by circumstance, by marriage and in
some degree doubtless also by inclination, she strikes for us from the
first the note of facility and spontaneity and the note of initiation
and practice. Concerned, through her husband, in the conduct of a
Neapolitan morning paper, of a large circulation and a radical colour,
she has, as I infer, produced her novels and tales mainly in such
snatches of time and of inspiration as have been left her by urgent
day-to-day journalism. They distinctly betray, throughout, the
conditions of their birth—so little are they to the literary sense
children of maturity and leisure. On the question of style in a foreign
writer it takes many contributive lights to make us sure of our ground;
but I feel myself on the safe side in conceiving that this lady, full of
perception and vibration, can not only not figure as a purist, but must
be supposed throughout, in spite of an explosive eloquence, to pretend
but little to distinction of form: which for an Italian is a much graver
predicament than for one of our shapeless selves. That, however, would
perhaps pass for a small quarrel with a writer, or rather with a talker
and—for it is what one must most insist on—a _feeler_, of Matilde
Serao’s remarkable spontaneity. Her Neapolitan nature is by itself a
value, to whatever literary lapses it may minister. A torch kindled at
that flame can be but freely waved, and our author’s arm has a fine
action. Loud, loquacious, abundant, natural, happy, with luxurious
insistences on the handsome, the costly and the fleshly, the fine
persons and fine clothes of her characters, their satin and velvet,
their bracelets, rings, white waistcoats, general appointments and
bedroom furniture, with almost as many repetitions and as free a tongue,
in short, as Juliet’s nurse, she reflects at every turn the wonderful
mixture that surrounds her—the beauty, the misery, the history, the
light and noise and dust, the prolonged paganism and the renewed
reactions, the great style of the distant and the past and the generally
compromised state of the immediate and the near. These things were all
in the germ for the reader of her earlier novels—they have since only
gathered volume and assurance—so that I well remember the impression
made on me, when the book was new (my copy, apparently of the first
edition, bears the date of 1885), by the rare energy, the immense
_disinvoltura_, of “La Conquista di Roma.” This was my introduction to
the author, in consequence of which I immediately read “Fantasia” and
the “Vita e Avventure di Riccardo Joanna,” with some smaller pieces;
after which, interrupted but not detached, I knew nothing more till, in
the course of time, I renewed acquaintance on the ground of “Il Paese di
Cuccagna,” then, however, no longer in its first freshness. That work
set me straightway to reading everything else I could lay hands on, and
I think therefore that, save “Il Ventre di Napoli” and two or three
quite recent productions that I have not met, there is nothing from our
author that I have not mastered. Such as I find her in everything, she
remains above all things the signal “case.”

If, however, she appears, as I am bound to note, not to have kept the
full promise of her early energy, this is because it has suited her to
move less in the direction—where so much might have awaited her—of
“Riccardo Joanna” and “La Conquista” than in that, on the whole less
happily symptomatic, of “Fantasia.” “Fantasia” is, before all else, a
study of “passion,” or rather of the intenser form of that mystery which
the Italian _passione_ better expresses; and I hasten to confess that
had she not so marked herself an exponent of this specialty I should
probably not now be writing of her. I conceive none the less that it
would have been open to her to favour more that side of her great talent
of which the so powerful “Paese di Cuccagna” is the strongest example.
There is by good fortune in this large miscellaneous picture of
Neapolitan life no _passione_ save that of the observer curiously and
pityingly intent upon it, that of the artist resolute at any cost to
embrace and reproduce it. Admirably, easily, convincingly objective, the
thing is a sustained panorama, a chronicle of manners finding its unity
in one recurrent note, that of the consuming lottery-hunger which
constitutes the joy, the curse, the obsession and the ruin, according to
Matilde Serao, of her fellow-citizens. Her works are thus divided by a
somewhat unequal line, those on one side of which the critic is tempted
to accuse her of having not altogether happily sacrificed to those on
the other. When she for the most part invokes under the name of
_passione_ the main explanation of the mortal lot it is to follow the
windings of this clue in the upper walks of life, to haunt the
aristocracy, to embrace the world of fashion, to overflow with clothes,
jewels and promiscuous intercourse, all to the proportionate eclipse of
her strong, full vision of the more usually vulgar. “La Conquista” is
the story of a young deputy who comes up to the Chamber, from the
Basilicata, with a touching candour of ambition and a perilous ignorance
of the pitfalls of capitals. His dream is to conquer Rome, but it is by
Rome naturally that he is conquered. He alights on his political twig
with a flutter of wings, but has reckoned in his innocence without the
strong taste in so many quarters for sport; and it is with a charge of
shot in his breast and a drag of his pinions in the dust that he takes
his way back to mediocrity, obscurity and the parent nest. It is from
the ladies—as was indeed even from the first to be expected with
Serao—that he receives his doom; _passione_ is in these pages already
at the door and soon arrives; _passione_ rapidly enough passes its
sponge over everything not itself.

In “Cuore Infermo,” in “Addio Amore,” in “Il Castigo,” in the two
volumes of “Gli Amanti” and in various other pieces this effacement is
so complete that we see the persons concerned but in the one relation,
with every other circumstance, those of concurrent profession,
possession, occupation, connection, interest, amusement, kinship,
utterly superseded and obscured. Save in the three or four books I have
named as exceptional the figures evoked are literally professional
lovers, “available,” as the term is, for _passione_ alone: which is the
striking sign, as I shall presently indicate, of the extremity in which
her enjoyment of the freedom we so often have to envy has strangely
landed our author. “Riccardo Joanna,” which, like “La Conquista,” has
force, humour and charm, sounding with freshness the note of the general
life, is such a picture of certain of the sordid conditions of Italian
journalism as, if I may trust my memory without re-perusal, sharply and
pathetically imposes itself. I recall “Fantasia” on the other hand as
wholly _passione_—all concentration and erotics, the latter practised
in this instance, as in “Addio Amore,” with extreme cruelty to the
“good” heroine, the person innocent and sacrificed; yet this volume too
contributes its part in the retrospect to that appearance of marked
discipleship which was one of the original sources of my interest.
Nothing could more have engaged one’s attention in these matters at that
moment than the fresh phenomenon of a lady-novelist so confessedly
flushed with the influence of Émile Zola. Passing among ourselves as a
lurid warning even to workers of his own sex, he drew a new grace from
the candid homage—all implied and indirect, but, as I refigure my
impression, not the less unmistakable—of that half of humanity which,
let alone attempting to follow in his footsteps, was not supposed even
to turn his pages. There is an episode in “Fantasia”—a scene in which
the relations of the hero and the “bad” heroine are strangely
consolidated by a visit together to a cattle-show—in which the courage
of the pupil has but little to envy the breadth of the master. The hot
day and hot hour, the heavy air and the strong smells, the great and
small beasts, the action on the sensibilities of the lady and the
gentleman of the rich animal life, the collapse indeed of the lady in
the presence of the prize bull—all these are touches for which luckily
our author has the warrant of a greater name. The general picture, in
“Fantasia,” of the agricultural exhibition at Caserta is in fact not the
worse at any point for a noticeable echo of more than one French model.
Would the author have found so full an occasion in it without a fond
memory of the immortal Cornices of “Madame Bovary”?

These, however, are minor questions—pertinent only as connecting
themselves with the more serious side of her talent. We may rejoice in
such a specimen of it as is offered by the too brief series of episodes
of “The Romance of the Maiden.” These things, dealing mainly with the
small miseries of small folk, have a palpable truth, and it is striking
that, to put the matter simply, Madame Serao is at her best almost in
direct proportion as her characters are poor. By poor I mean literally
the reverse of rich; for directly they _are_ rich and begin, as the
phrase is, to keep their carriage, her taste totters and lapses, her
style approximates at moments to that of the ladies who do the fashions
and the letters from the watering-places in the society papers. She has
acutely and she renders with excellent breadth the sense of benighted
lives, of small sordid troubles, of the general unhappy youthful (on the
part of her own sex at least) and the general more or less starved
plebeian consciousness. The degree to which it testifies to all this is
one of the great beauties of “Il Paese di Cuccagna,” even if the moral
of that dire picture be simply that in respect to the gaming-passion,
the madness of “numbers,” no walk of life at Naples is too high or too
low to be ravaged. Beautiful, in “Il Romanzo della Fanciulla,” are the
exhibitions of grinding girl-life in the big telegraph office and in the
State normal school. The gem of “Gli Amanti” is the tiny tale of
“Vicenzella,” a masterpiece in twenty small pages—the vision of what
three or four afternoon hours could contain for a slip of a creature of
the Naples waterside, a poor girl who picks up a living by the cookery
and sale, on the edge of a parapet, of various rank dismembered polyps
of the southern sea, and who is from stage to stage despoiled of the
pence she patiently pockets for them by the successive small emissaries
of her artful, absent lover, constantly faithless, occupied, not too far
off, in regaling a lady of his temporary preference, and proportionately
clamorous for fresh remittances. The moment and the picture are but a
scrap, yet they are as large as life.

“Canituccia,” in “Piccole Anime,” may happily pair with “Vicenzella,”
Canituccia being simply the humble rustic guardian, in field and
wood—scarce more than a child—of the still more tender Ciccotto; and
Ciccotto being a fine young pink-and-white pig, an animal of endowments
that lead, after he has had time to render infatuated his otherwise
quite solitary and joyless friend, to his premature conversion into
bacon. She assists, helplessly silent, staring, almost idiotic, from a
corner of the cabin-yard, by night and lamplight, in the presence of
gleaming knives and steaming pots and bloody tubs, at the sacrifice that
deprives her of all company, and nothing can exceed the homely truth of
the touch that finally rounds off the scene and for which I must refer
my reader to the volume. Let me further not fail to register my
admiration for the curious cluster of scenes that, in “Il Romanzo,”
bears the title of “Nella Lava.” Here frankly, I take it, we have the
real principle of “naturalism”—a consistent presentment of the famous
“slice of life.” The slices given us—slices of shabby hungry maidenhood
in small cockney circles—are but sketchily related to the volcanic
catastrophe we hear rumbling behind them, the undertone of all the noise
of Naples; but they have the real artistic importance of showing us how
little “story” is required to hold us when we get, before the object
evoked and in the air created, the impression of the real thing.
Whatever thing—interesting inference—has but effectively to _be_ real
to constitute in itself story enough. There is no story without it, none
that is not rank humbug; whereas with it the very desert blooms.

This last-named phenomenon takes place, I fear, but in a minor degree in
such of our author’s productions as “Cuore Infermo,” “Addio Amore,” “Il
Castigo” and the double series of “Gli Amanti”; and for a reason that I
the more promptly indicate as it not only explains, I think, the
comparative inanity of these pictures, but does more than anything else
to reward our inquiry. The very first reflection suggested by Serao’s
novels of “passion” is that they perfectly meet our speculation as to
what might with a little time become of our own fiction were our
particular convention suspended. We see so what, on its actual lines,
does, what _has_, become of it, and are so sated with the vision that a
little consideration of the latent other chance will surely but refresh
us. The effect then, we discover, of the undertaking to give _passione_
its whole place is that by the operation of a singular law no place
speedily appears to be left for anything else; and the effect of that in
turn is greatly to modify, first, the truth of things, and second, with
small delay, what may be left them of their beauty. We find ourselves
wondering after a little whether there may not really be more truth in
the world misrepresented according to our own familiar fashion than in
such a world as that of Madame Serao’s exuberant victims of Venus. It is
not only that if Venus herself is notoriously beautiful her altar, as
happens, is by no means always proportionately august; it is also that
we draw, in the long run, small comfort from the virtual suppression, by
any painter, of whatever skill—and the skill of this particular one
fails to rise to the height—of every relation in life but that over
which Venus presides. In “Fior di Passione” and the several others of a
like connection that I have named the suppression is really complete;
the common humanities and sociabilities are wholly absent from the
picture.

The effect of this is extraordinarily to falsify the total show and to
present the particular affair—the intimacy in hand for the moment,
though the moment be but brief—as taking place in a strange false
perspective, a denuded desert which experience surely fails ever to give
us the like of and the action of which on the faculty of observation in
the painter is anything but favourable. It strikes at the root, in the
impression producible and produced, of discrimination and irony, of
humour and pathos. Our present author would doubtless contend on behalf
of the works I have mentioned that pathos at least does abound in
them—the particular bitterness, the inevitable despair that she again
and again shows to be the final savour of the cup of _passione_. It
would be quite open to her to urge—and she would be sure to do so with
eloquence—that if we pusillanimously pant for a moral, no moral really
can have the force of her almost inveterate evocation of the absolute
ravage of Venus, the dry desolation that in nine cases out of ten Venus
may be perceived to leave behind her. That, however, but half meets our
argument—which bears by no means merely on the desolation behind, but
on the desolation before, beside and generally roundabout. It is not in
short at all the moral but the fable itself that in the exclusively
sexual light breaks down and fails us. Love, at Naples and in Rome, as
Madame Serao exhibits it, is simply unaccompanied with any interplay of
our usual conditions—with affection, with duration, with circumstances
or consequences, with friends, enemies, husbands, wives, children,
parents, interests, occupations, the manifestation of tastes. Who are
these people, we presently ask ourselves, who love indeed with
fury—though for the most part with astonishing brevity—but who are so
without any suggested situation in life that they can only strike us as
loving for nothing and in the void, to no gain of experience and no
effect of a felt medium or a breathed air. We know them by nothing but
their convulsions and spasms, and we feel once again that it is not the
passion of hero and heroine that gives, that can ever give, the heroine
and the hero interest, but that it is they themselves, with the ground
they stand on and the objects enclosing them, who give interest to their
passion. This element touches us just in proportion as we see it mixed
with other things, with all the things with which it has to reckon and
struggle. There is moreover another reflection with which the pathetic
in this connection has to count, even though it undermine not a little
the whole of the tragic effect of the agitations of _passione_. Is it,
ruthlessly speaking, certain that the effect most consonant, for the
spectator, with truth is half as tragic as it is something else? Should
not the moral be sought in the very different quarter where the muse of
comedy rather would have the last word? The ambiguity and the difficulty
are, it strikes me, of a new growth, and spring from a perverse desire
on the part of the erotic novelist to secure for the adventures he
depicts a dignity that is not of the essence. To compass this dignity he
has to cultivate the high pitch and beat the big drum, but when he has
done so he has given everything the wrong accent and the whole the wrong
extravagance. Why see it all, we ask him, as an extravagance of the
solemn and the strained? Why make _such_ an erotic a matter of tears and
imprecations, and by so doing render so poor a service both to pleasure
and to pain? Since by your own free showing it is pre-eminently a matter
of folly, let us at least have folly with her bells, or when these
must—since they must—sound knells and dirges, leave them only to the
light hand of the lyric poet, who turns them at the worst to music.
Matilde Serao is in this connection constantly lugubrious; even from the
little so-called pastels of “Gli Amanti” she manages, with an ingenuity
worthy of a better cause, to expunge the note of gaiety.

This dismal _parti pris_ indeed will inevitably, it is to be feared,
when all the emancipations shall have said their last word, be that of
the ladies. Yet perhaps too, whatever such a probability, the tone
scarce signifies—in the presence, I mean, of the fundamental mistake
from which the author before us warns us off. That mistake, we gather
from her warning, would be to encourage, after all, any considerable
lowering of the level of our precious fund of reserve. When we come to
analyse we arrive at a final impression of what we pay, as lovers of the
novel, for such a chartered state as we have here a glimpse of; and we
find it to be an exposure, on the intervention at least of such a
literary temperament as the one before us, to a new kind of vulgarity.
We have surely as it is kinds enough. The absence of the convention
throws the writer back on tact, taste, delicacy, discretion, subjecting
these principles to a strain from which the happy office of its presence
is, in a considerable degree and for performers of the mere usual
endowment, to relieve him. When we have not a very fine sense the
convention appears in a manner to have it on our behalf. And how
frequent to-day, in the hurrying herd of brothers and sisters of the
pen, _is_ a fine sense—of _any_ side of their affair? Do we not
approach the truth in divining that only an eminent individual here and
there may be trusted for it? Here—for the case is our very lesson—is
this robust and wonderful Serao who is yet not to be trusted at all.
Does not the dim religious light with which we surround its shrine do
more, on the whole, for the poetry of _passione_ than the flood of
flaring gas with which, in her pages, and at her touch, it is drenched?
Does it not shrink, as a subject under treatment, from such expert
recognitions and easy discussions, from its so pitiless reduction to the
category of the familiar? It issues from the ordeal with the aspect with
which it might escape from a noisy family party or alight from a crowded
omnibus. It is at the category of the familiar that vulgarity begins.
There may be a cool virtue therefore even for “art,” and an appreciable
distinction even for truth, in the grace of hanging back and the choice
of standing off, in that shade of the superficial which we best defend
by simply practising it in season. A feeling revives at last, after a
timed intermission, that we may not immediately be quite able, quite
assured enough, to name, but which, gradually clearing up, soon defines
itself almost as a yearning. We turn round in obedience to
it—unmistakably we turn round again to the opposite pole, and there
before we know it have positively laid a clinging hand on dear old Jane
Austen.



                             THE NEW NOVEL
                                  1914


We feel it not to be the paradox it may at the first blush seem that the
state of the novel in England at the present time is virtually very much
the state of criticism itself; and this moreover, at the risk perhaps of
some added appearance of perverse remark, by the very reason that we see
criticism so much in abeyance. So far as we miss it altogether how and
why does its “state” matter, and why and how can it or should it, as an
absent force, enjoy a relation to that constant renewal of our supply of
fiction which is a present one so far as a force at all? The relation is
this, in the fewest words: that no equal outpouring of matter into the
mould of literature, or what roughly passes for such, has been noted to
live its life and maintain its flood, its level at least of quantity and
mass, in such free and easy independence of critical attention. It
constitutes a condition and a perversity on the part of this element to
remain irresponsive before an appeal so vociferous at least and so
incessant; therefore how can such a neglect of occasions, so careless a
habit in spite of marked openings, be better described than as
responsibility declined in the face of disorder? The disorder thus
determines the relation, from the moment we feel that it might be less,
that it might be different, that something in the way of an order even
might be disengaged from it and replace it; from the moment in fact that
the low critical pitch is logically _reflected_ in the poetic or, less
pedantically speaking, the improvisational at large. The effect, if not
the prime office, of criticism is to make our absorption and our
enjoyment of the things that feed the mind as aware of itself as
possible, since that awareness quickens the mental demand, which thus in
turn wanders further and further for pasture. This action on the part of
the mind practically amounts to a reaching out for the reasons of its
interest, as only by its so ascertaining them can the interest grow more
various. This is the very education of our imaginative life; and thanks
to it the general question of how to refine, and of why certain things
refine more and most, on that happy consciousness, becomes for us of the
last importance. Then we cease to be only instinctive and at the mercy
of chance, feeling that we can ourselves take a hand in our satisfaction
and provide for it, making ourselves safe against dearth, and through
the door opened by that perception criticism enters, if we but give it
time, as a flood, the great flood of awareness; so maintaining its high
tide unless through some lapse of our sense for it, some flat reversion
to instinct alone, we block up the ingress and sit in stale and
shrinking waters. Stupidity may arrest any current and fatuity transcend
any privilege. The comfort of those who at such a time consider the
scene may be a little, with _their_ curiosity still insistent, to survey
its platitude and record the exhibited shrinkage; which amounts to the
attempt to understand how stupidity could so have prevailed. We take it
here that the answer to that inquiry can but be ever the same. The flood
of “production” has so inordinately exceeded the activity of control
that this latter anxious agent, first alarmed but then indifferent, has
been forced backward out of the gate, leaving the contents of the
reservoir to boil and evaporate. It is verily on the wrong side of the
gate that we just now seem to see criticism stand, for never was the
reservoir so bubblingly and noisily full, at least by the superficial
measure of life. We have caught the odd accident in the very fact of its
occurrence; we have seen the torrent swell by extravagant cheap
contribution, the huge increase of affluents turbid and unstrained.
Beyond number are the ways in which the democratic example, once
gathering momentum, sets its mark on societies and seasons that stand in
its course. Nowhere is that example written larger, to our perception,
than in “the new novel”; though this, we hasten to add, not in the least
because prose fiction now occupies itself as never before with the
“condition of the people,” a fact quite irrelevant to the nature it has
taken on, but because that nature amounts exactly to the complacent
declaration of a common literary level, a repudiation the most operative
even if the least reasoned of the idea of differences, the virtual law,
as we may call it, of sorts and kinds, the values of individual quality
and weight in the presence of undiscriminated quantity and
rough-and-tumble “output”—these attestations made, we naturally mean,
in the air of composition and on the esthetic plane, if such terms have
still an attenuated reference to the case before us. With which, if we
be asked, in the light of that generalisation, whether we impute to the
novel, or in other words the novelist, _all_ the stupidity against which
the spirit of appreciation spends itself in vain, we reply perforce that
we stop short of that, it being too obvious that of an exhibition so
sterilised, so void of all force and suggestion, there would be nothing
whatever to say. Our contention is exactly that, in spite of all vain
aspects, it does yet present an interest, and that here and there seem
written on it likelihoods of its presenting still more—always on
condition of its consenting to that more intimate education which is
precisely what democratised movements look most askance at. It strikes
us as not too much to say that our actual view of the practice of
fiction gives as just a measure as could be desired of the general, the
incurable democratic suspicion of the selective and comparative
principles in almost any application, and the tendency therewith to
regard, and above all to treat, one manner of book, like one manner of
person, as, if not absolutely as good as another, yet good enough for
any democratic use. Criticism reflects contentiously on that appearance,
though it be an appearance in which comfort for the book and the manner
much resides; so that the idea prompting these remarks of our own is
that the comfort may be deeply fallacious.


                                   I

Still not to let go of our imputation of interest to some part at least
of what is happening in the world of production in this kind, we may say
that non-selective and non-comparative practice appears bent on showing
us all it can do and how far or to what appointed shores, what waiting
havens and inviting inlets, the current that is mainly made a current by
looseness, by want of observable direction, shall succeed in carrying
it. We respond to any sign of an intelligent view or even of a lively
instinct—which is why we give the appearance so noted the benefit of
every presumption as to its life and health. It may be that the dim
sense is livelier than the presentable reason, but even that is no
graceless fact for us, especially when the keenness of young curiosity
and energy is betrayed in its pace, and betrayed, for that matter, in no
small abundance and variety. The new or at least the young novel is up
and doing, clearly, with the best faith and the highest spirits in the
world; if we but extend a little our measure of youth indeed, as we are
happily more and more disposed to, we may speak of it as already
chin-deep in trophies. The men who are not so young as the youngest were
but the other day very little older than these: Mr. Joseph Conrad, Mr.
Maurice Hewlett and Mr. Galsworthy, Mr. H. G. Wells and Mr. Arnold
Bennett, have not quite perhaps the early bloom of Mr. Hugh Walpole, Mr.
Gilbert Cannan, Mr. Compton Mackenzie and Mr. D. H. Lawrence, but the
spring unrelaxed is still, to our perception, in their step, and we see
two or three of them sufficiently related to the still newer generation
in a quasi-parental way to make our whole enumeration as illustrational
as we need it. Mr. Wells and Mr. Arnold Bennett have their strongest
mark, the aspect by which we may most classify them, in common—even if
their three named contemporaries are doubtless most interesting in one
of the connections we are not now seeking to make. The author of
“Tono-Bungay” and of “The New Machiavelli,” and the author of “The Old
Wives’ Tale” and of “Clayhanger,” have practically launched the boat in
which we admire the fresh play of oar of the author of “The Duchess of
Wrexe,” and the documented aspect exhibited successively by “Round the
Corner,” by “Carnival” and “Sinister Street,” and even by “Sons and
Lovers” (however much we may find Mr. Lawrence, we confess, hang in the
dusty rear). We shall explain in a moment what we mean by this
designation of the element that these best of the younger men strike us
as more particularly sharing, our point being provisionally that Mr.
Wells and Mr. Arnold Bennett (speaking now only of them) began some time
back to show us, and to show sundry emulous and generous young spirits
then in the act of more or less waking up, what the state in question
might amount to. We confound the author of “Tono-Bungay” and the author
of “Clayhanger” in this imputation for the simple reason that with the
sharpest differences of character and range they yet come together under
our so convenient measure of value by _saturation_. This is the greatest
value, to our sense, in either of them, their other values, even when at
the highest, not being quite in proportion to it; and as to be saturated
is to be documented, to be able even on occasion to prove quite enviably
and potently so, they are alike in the authority that creates emulation.
It little signifies that Mr. Wells’s documented or saturated state in
respect to a particular matter in hand is but one of the faces of his
_generally_ informed condition, of his extraordinary mass of gathered
and assimilated knowledge, a miscellaneous collection more remarkable
surely than any teller of “mere” tales, with the possible exception of
Balzac, has been able to draw upon, whereas Mr. Arnold Bennett’s
corresponding provision affects us as, though singularly copious,
special, exclusive and artfully economic. This distinction avails
nothing against that happy fact of the handiest possession by Mr. Wells
of immeasurably more concrete material, amenable for straight and vivid
reference, convertible into apt illustration, than we should know where
to look for other examples of. The author of “The New Machiavelli”
knows, somehow, to our mystified and dazzled apprehension, because he
writes and because that act constitutes for him the need, on occasion a
most desperate, of absorbing knowledge at the pores; the chronicler of
the Five Towns writing so much more discernibly, on the other hand,
because he knows, and conscious of no need more desperate than that
particular circle of civilisation may satisfy.

Our argument is that each is ideally immersed in his own body of
reference, and that immersion in any such degree and to the effect of
any such variety, intensity and plausibility is really among us a new
feature of the novelist’s range of resource. We have seen him, we have
even seen _her_, otherwise auspiciously endowed, seen him observant,
impassioned, inspired, and in virtue of these things often very
charming, very interesting, very triumphant, visibly qualified for the
highest distinction before the fact and visibly crowned by the same
after it—we have seen him with a great imagination and a great sense of
life, we have seen him even with a great sense of expression and a
considerable sense of art: so that we have only to reascend the stream
of our comparatively recent literature to meet him serene and immortal,
brow-bound with the bay and erect on his particular pedestal. We have
only to do that, but have only also, while we do it, to recognise that
meantime other things still than these various apotheoses have taken
place, and that, to the increase of our recreation, and even if our
limited space condemns us to put the matter a trifle clumsily, a change
has come over our general receptive sensibility not less than over our
productive tradition. In these connections, we admit, overstatement is
easy and over-emphasis tempting; we confess furthermore to a frank
desire to enrich the case, the historic, with all the meaning we can
stuff into it. So viewed accordingly it gives us the “new,” to repeat
our expression, as an appetite for a closer notation, a sharper
specification of the signs of life, of consciousness, of the human scene
and the human subject in general, than the three or four generations
before us had been at all moved to insist on. They had insisted indeed,
these generations, we see as we look back to them, on almost nothing
whatever; what was to come to them had come, in enormous affluence and
freshness at its best, and to our continued appreciation as well as to
the honour of their sweet susceptibility, because again and again the
great miracle of genius took place, while they gaped, in their social
and sentimental sky. For ourselves that miracle has not been markedly
renewed, but it has none the less happened that by hook and by crook the
case for appreciation remains interesting. The great thing that saves
it, under the drawback we have named, is, no doubt, that we have
simply—always for appreciation—learned a little to insist, and that we
thus get back on one hand something of what we have lost on the other.
We are unable of course, with whatever habit of presumption engendered,
to insist upon genius; so that who shall describe the measure of success
we still achieve as not virtually the search for freshness, and above
all for closeness, in quite a different direction? To this nearer view
of commoner things Mr. Wells, say, and Mr. Arnold Bennett, and in their
degree, under the infection communicated, Mr. D. H. Lawrence and Mr.
Gilbert Cannan and Mr. Compton Mackenzie and Mr. Hugh Walpole, strike us
as having all gathered themselves up with a movement never yet
undertaken on our literary scene, and, beyond anything else, with an
instinctive divination of what had most waved their predecessors off it.
What had this lion in the path been, we make them out as after a fashion
asking themselves, what had it been from far back and straight down
through all the Victorian time, but the fond superstition that the key
of the situation, of each and every situation that could turn up for the
novelist, was the sentimental key, which might fit into no door or
window opening on closeness or on freshness at all? Was it not for all
the world as if even the brightest practitioners of the past, those we
now distinguish as saved for glory in spite of themselves, had been as
sentimental as they could, or, to give the trick another name, as
romantic and thereby as shamelessly “dodgy”?—just in order _not_ to be
close and fresh, not to be authentic, as that takes trouble, takes
talent, and you can be sentimental, you can be romantic, you can be
dodgy, alas, not a bit less on the footing of genius than on the footing
of mediocrity or even of imbecility? Was it not as if the sentimental
had been more and more noted as but another name for the romantic, if
not indeed the romantic as but another name for the sentimental, and as
if these things, whether separate or united, had been in the same degree
recognised as unamenable, or at any rate unfavourable, to any consistent
fineness of notation, once the tide of the copious as a condition of the
thorough had fairly set in?

So, to express it briefly, the possibility of hugging the shore of the
real as it had not, among us, been hugged, and of pushing inland, as far
as a keel might float, wherever the least opening seemed to smile,
dawned upon a few votaries and gathered further confidence with
exercise. Who could say, of course, that Jane Austen had not been close,
just as who could ask if Anthony Trollope had not been copious?—just as
who could _not_ say that it all depended on what was meant by these
terms? The demonstration of what was meant, it presently appeared, could
come but little by little, quite as if each tentative adventurer had
rather anxiously to learn for himself what _might_ be meant—this
failing at least the leap into the arena of some great demonstrative,
some sudden athletic and epoch-making authority. Who could pretend that
Dickens was anything but romantic, and even more romantic in his humour,
if possible, than in pathos or in queer perfunctory practice of the
“plot”? Who could pretend that Jane Austen didn’t leave much more untold
than told about the aspects and manners even of the confined circle in
which her muse revolved? Why shouldn’t it be argued against her that
where her testimony complacently ends the pressure of appetite within us
presumes exactly to begin? Who could pretend that the reality of
Trollope didn’t owe much of its abundance to the diluted, the quite
extravagantly watered strain, no less than to the heavy hand, in which
it continued to be ladled out? Who of the younger persuasion would not
have been ready to cite, as one of the liveliest opportunities for the
critic eager to see representation searching, such a claim for the close
as Thackeray’s sighing and protesting “look-in” at the acquaintance
between Arthur Pendennis and Fanny Bolton, the daughter of the Temple
laundress, amid the purlieus of that settlement? The sentimental habit
and the spirit of romance, it was unmistakably chargeable, stood out to
sea as far as possible the moment the shore appeared to offer the least
difficulty to hugging, and the Victorian age bristled with perfect
occasions for our catching them in the act of this showy retreat. All
revolutions have been prepared in spite of their often striking us as
sudden, and so it was doubtless that when scarce longer ago than the
other day Mr. Arnold Bennett had the fortune to lay his hand on a
general scene and a cluster of agents deficient to a peculiar degree in
properties that might interfere with a desirable density of
illustration—deficient, that is, in such connections as might carry the
imagination off to some sport on its own account—we recognised at once
a set of conditions auspicious to the newer kind of appeal. Let us
confess that we were at the same time doubtless to master no better way
of describing these conditions than by the remark that they were, for
some reason beautifully inherent in them, susceptible at once of being
entirely known and of seeming detectably thick. Reduction to exploitable
knowledge is apt to mean for many a case of the human complexity
reduction to comparative thinness; and nothing was thereby at the first
blush to interest us more than the fact that the air and the very smell
of packed actuality in the subject-matter of such things as the author’s
two longest works was clearly but another name for his personal
competence in that matter, the fulness and firmness of his embrace of
it. This was a fresh and beguiling impression—that the state of
inordinate possession on the chronicler’s part, the mere state as such
and as an energy directly displayed, _was_ the interest, neither more
nor less, _was_ the sense and the meaning and the picture and the drama,
all so sufficiently constituting them that it scarce mattered what they
were in themselves. Of what they were in themselves their being in Mr.
Bennett, as Mr. Bennett to such a tune harboured them, represented their
one conceivable account—not to mention, as reinforcing this, our own
great comfort and relief when certain high questions and wonderments
about them, or about our mystified relation to them, began one after
another to come up.

Because such questions did come, we must at once declare, and we are
still in presence of them, for all the world as if that case of the
perfect harmony, the harmony between subject and author, were just
marked with a flaw and didn’t meet the whole assault of restless
criticism. What we make out Mr. Bennett as doing is simply recording his
possession or, to put it more completely, his saturation; and to see him
as virtually shut up to that process is a note of all the more moment
that we see our selected cluster of his interesting juniors, and whether
by his direct action on their collective impulse or not, embroiled, as
we venture to call it, in the same predicament. The act of squeezing out
to the utmost the plump and more or less juicy orange of a particular
acquainted state and letting this affirmation of energy, however
directed or undirected, constitute for them the “treatment” of a
theme—_that_ is what we remark them as mainly engaged in, after
remarking the example so strikingly, so originally set, even if an undue
subjection to it be here and there repudiated. Nothing is further from
our thought than to undervalue saturation and possession, the fact of
the particular experience, the state and degree of acquaintance
incurred, however such a consciousness may have been determined; for
these things represent on the part of the novelist, as on the part of
any painter of things seen, felt or imagined, just one half of his
authority—the other half being represented of course by the application
he is inspired to make of them. Therefore that fine secured half is so
much gained at the start, and the fact of its brightly being there may
really by itself project upon the course so much colour and form as to
make us on occasion, under the genial force, almost not miss the answer
to the question of application. When the author of “Clayhanger” has put
down upon the table, in dense unconfused array, every fact required,
every fact in any way invocable, to make the life of the Five Towns
press upon us, and to make our sense of it, so full-fed, content us, we
may very well go on for the time in the captive condition, the beguiled
and bemused condition, the acknowledgment of which is in general our
highest tribute to the temporary master of our sensibility. Nothing at
such moments—or rather at the end of them, when the end begins to
threaten—may be of a more curious strain than the dawning unrest that
suggests to us fairly our first critical comment: “Yes, yes—but is this
_all_? These are the circumstances of the interest—we see, we see; but
where is the interest itself, where and what is its centre, and how are
we to measure it in relation to _that_?” Of course we may in the act of
exhaling that plaint (which we have just expressed at its mildest) well
remember how many people there are to tell us that to “measure” an
interest is none of our affair; that we have but to take it on the
cheapest and easiest terms and be thankful; and that if by our very
confession we have been led the imaginative dance the music has done for
us all it pretends to. Which words, however, have only to happen to be
for us the most unintelligent conceivable not in the least to arrest our
wonderment as to where our bedrenched consciousness may still not
awkwardly leave us for the pleasure of appreciation. That appreciation
is also a mistake and a priggishness, being reflective and thereby
corrosive, is another of the fond dicta which we are here concerned but
to brush aside—the more closely to embrace the welcome induction that
appreciation, attentive and reflective, inquisitive and conclusive, is
in this connection absolutely the golden _key_ to our pleasure. The more
it plays up, the more we recognise and are able to number the sources of
our enjoyment, the greater the provision made for security in that
attitude, which corresponds, by the same stroke, with the reduced danger
of waste in the undertaking to amuse us. It all comes back to our
amusement, and to the noblest surely, on the whole, we know; and it is
in the very nature of clinging appreciation not to sacrifice
consentingly a single shade of the art that makes for that blessing.
From this solicitude spring our questions, and not least the one to
which we give ourselves for the moment here—this moment of our being
regaled as never yet with the fruits of the movement (if the name be not
of too pompous an application where the flush and the heat of accident
too seem so candidly to look forth), in favour of the “expression of
life” in terms as loose as may pretend to an effect of expression at
all. The relegation of terms to the limbo of delusions outlived so far
as ever really cultivated becomes of necessity, it will be plain, the
great mark of the faith that for the novelist to show he “knows all
about” a certain congeries of aspects, the more numerous within their
mixed circle the better, is thereby to set in motion, with due
intensity, the pretension to interest. The state of knowing all about
whatever it may be has thus only to become consistently and abundantly
active to pass for his supreme function; and to its so becoming active
few difficulties appear to be descried—so great may on occasion be the
mere excitement of activity. To the fact that the exhilaration is, as we
have hinted, often infectious, to this and to the charming young good
faith and general acclamation under which each case appears to
proceed—each case we of course mean really repaying attention—the
critical reader owes his opportunity so considerably and so gratefully
to generalise.


                                   II

We should have only to remount the current with a certain energy to come
straight up against Tolstoy as the great illustrative master-hand on all
this ground of the disconnection of method from matter—which encounter,
however, would take us much too far, so that we must for the present but
hang off from it with the remark that of all great painters of the
social picture it was given that epic genius most to serve admirably as
a rash adventurer and a “caution,” and execrably, pestilentially, as a
model. In this strange union of relations he stands alone: from no other
great projector of the human image and the human idea is so much truth
to be extracted under an equal leakage of its value. All the proportions
in him are so much the largest that the drop of attention to our nearer
cases might by its violence leave little of that principle alive; which
fact need not disguise from us, none the less, that as Mr. H. G. Wells
and Mr. Arnold Bennett, to return to them briefly again, derive, by
multiplied if diluted transmissions, from the great Russian (from whose
all but equal companion Turgenieff we recognise no derivatives at all),
so, observing the distances, we may profitably detect an unexhausted
influence in our minor, our still considerably less rounded vessels.
Highly attaching as indeed the game might be, of inquiring as to the
centre of the interest or the sense of the whole in “The Passionate
Friends,” or in “The Old Wives’ Tale,” after having sought those
luxuries in vain not only through the general length and breadth of “War
and Peace,” but within the quite respectable confines of any one of the
units of effect there clustered: this as preparing us to address a like
friendly challenge to Mr. Cannan’s “Round the Corner,” say, or to Mr.
Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers”—should we wish to be very friendly to Mr.
Lawrence—or to Mr. Hugh Walpole’s “Duchess of Wrexe,” or even to Mr.
Compton Mackenzie’s “Sinister Street” and “Carnival,” discernibly, we
hasten to add, though certain betrayals of a controlling idea and a
pointed intention do comparatively gleam out of the two fictions last
named. “The Old Wives’ Tale” is the history of two sisters, daughters of
a prosperous draper in a Staffordshire town, who, separating early in
life, through the flight of one of them to Paris with an ill-chosen
husband and the confirmed and prolonged local pitch of the career of the
other, are reunited late in life by the return of the fugitive after
much Parisian experience and by her pacified acceptance of the
conditions of her birthplace. The divided current flows together again,
and the chronicle closes with the simple drying up determined by the
death of the sisters. That is all; the canvas is covered, ever so
closely and vividly covered, by the exhibition of innumerable small
facts and aspects, at which we assist with the most comfortable sense of
their substantial truth. The sisters, and more particularly the less
adventurous, are at home in their author’s mind, they sit and move at
their ease in the square chamber of his attention, to a degree beyond
which the production of that ideal harmony between creature and creator
could scarcely go, and all by an art of demonstration so familiar and so
“quiet” that the truth and the poetry, to use Goethe’s distinction, melt
utterly together and we see no difference between the subject of the
show and the showman’s feeling, let alone the showman’s manner, about
it. This felt identity of the elements—because we at least consciously
feel—becomes in the novel we refer to, and not less in “Clayhanger,”
which our words equally describe, a source for us of abject confidence,
confidence truly _so_ abject in the solidity of every appearance that it
may be said to represent our whole relation to the work and completely
to exhaust our reaction upon it. “Clayhanger,” of the two fictions even
the more densely loaded with all the evidence in what we should call the
case presented did we but learn meanwhile for what case, or for a case
of what, to take it, inscribes the annals, the private more
particularly, of a provincial printer in a considerable way of business,
beginning with his early boyhood and going on to the complications of
his maturity—these not exhausted with our present possession of the
record, inasmuch as by the author’s announcement there is more of the
catalogue to come. This most monumental of Mr. Arnold Bennett’s
recitals, taking it with its supplement of “Hilda Lessways,” already
before us, is so describable through its being a monument exactly not to
an idea, a pursued and captured meaning, or in short _to_ anything
whatever, but just simply _of_ the quarried and gathered material it
happens to contain, the stones and bricks and rubble and cement and
promiscuous constituents of every sort that have been heaped in it and
thanks to which it quite massively piles itself up. Our perusal and our
enjoyment are our watching of the growth of the pile and of the
capacity, industry, energy with which the operation is directed. A huge
and in its way a varied aggregation, without traceable lines, divinable
direction, effect of composition, the mere number of its pieces, the
great dump of its material, together with the fact that here and there
in the miscellany, as with the value of bits of marble or porphyry, fine
elements shine out, it keeps us standing and waiting to the end—and
largely just because it keeps us wondering. We surely wonder more what
it may all propose to mean than any equal appearance of preparation to
relieve us of that strain, any so founded and grounded a postponement of
the disclosure of a sense in store, has for a long time called upon us
to do in a like connection. A great thing it is assuredly that _while_
we wait and wonder we are amused—were it not for that, truly, our
situation would be thankless enough; we may ask ourselves, as has
already been noted, why on such ambiguous terms we should consent to be,
and why the practice doesn’t at a given moment break down; and our
answer brings us back to that many-fingered grasp of the orange that the
author squeezes. This particular orange is of the largest and most
rotund, and his trust in the consequent flow is of its nature
communicative. Such is the case always, and most naturally, with that
air in a person who has something, who at the very least has much to
tell us: we _like_ so to be affected by it, we meet it half way and lend
ourselves, sinking in up to the chin. Up to the chin only indeed, beyond
doubt; we even then feel our head emerge, for judgment and articulate
question, and it is from that position that we remind ourselves how the
real reward of our patience is still to come—the reward attending not
at all the immediate sense of immersion, but reserved for the
after-sense, which is a very different matter, whether in the form of a
glow or of a chill.

If Mr. Bennett’s tight rotundity then is of the handsomest size and his
manipulation of it so firm, what are we to say of Mr. Wells’s, who, a
novelist very much as Lord Bacon was a philosopher, affects us as taking
all knowledge for his province and as inspiring in us to the very
highest degree the confidence enjoyed by himself—enjoyed, we feel, with
a breadth with which it has been given no one of his fellow-craftsmen to
enjoy anything. If confidence alone could lead utterly captive we should
all be huddled in a bunch at Mr. Wells’s heels—which is indeed where we
_are_ abjectly gathered so far as that force does operate. It is
literally Mr. Wells’s own mind, and the experience of his own mind,
incessant and extraordinarily various, extraordinarily reflective, even
with all sorts of conditions made, of whatever he may expose it to, that
forms the reservoir tapped by him, that constitutes his provision of
grounds of interest. It is, by our thinking, in his power to name to us,
as a preliminary, more of these grounds than all his contemporaries put
together, and even to exceed any competitor, without exception, in the
way of suggesting that, thick as he may seem to lay them, they remain
yet only contributive, are not in themselves full expression but are
designed strictly to subserve it, that this extraordinary writer’s spell
resides. When full expression, the expression of some particular truth,
seemed to lapse in this or that of his earlier novels (we speak not here
of his shorter things, for the most part delightfully wanton and
exempt,) it was but by a hand’s breadth, so that if we didn’t
inveterately quite know what he intended we yet always felt sufficiently
that _he_ knew. The particular intentions of such matters as “Kipps,” as
“Tono-Bungay,” as “Ann Veronica,” so swarmed about us, in their
blinding, bluffing vivacity, that the mere sum of them might have been
taken for a sense over and above which it was graceless to inquire. The
more this author learns and learns, or at any rate knows and knows,
however, the greater is this impression of his holding it good enough
for us, such as we are, that he shall but turn out his mind and its
contents upon us by any free familiar gesture and as from a high window
forever open—an entertainment as copious surely as any occasion should
demand, at least till we have more intelligibly expressed our title to a
better. Such things as “The New Machiavelli,” “Marriage,” “The
Passionate Friends,” are so very much more attestations of the presence
of material than attestations of an interest in the use of it that we
ask ourselves again and again why so fondly neglected a state of leakage
comes not to be fatal to _any_ provision of quantity, or even to stores
more specially selected for the ordeal than Mr. Wells’s always strike us
as being. Is not the pang of witnessed waste in fact great just in
proportion as we are touched by our author’s fine off-handedness as to
the value of the stores, about which he can for the time make us believe
what he will? so that, to take an example susceptible of brief
statement, we wince at a certain quite peculiarly gratuitous sacrifice
to the casual in “Marriage” very much as at seeing some fine and
indispensable little part of a mechanism slip through profane fingers
and lose itself. Who does not remember what ensues after a little upon
the aviational descent of the hero of the fiction just named into the
garden occupied, in company with her parents, by the young lady with
whom he is to fall in love?—and this even though the whole opening
scene so constituted, with all the comedy hares its function appears to
be to start, remains with its back squarely turned, esthetically
speaking, to the quarter in which the picture develops. The point for
our mortification is that by one of the first steps in this development,
the first impression on him having been made, the hero accidentally
meets the heroine, of a summer eventide, in a leafy lane which supplies
them with the happiest occasion to pursue their acquaintance—or in
other words supplies the author with the liveliest consciousness (as we
at least feel it should have been) that just so the relation between the
pair, its seed already sown and the fact of that bringing about all that
is still to come, pushes aside whatever veil and steps forth into life.
To show it step forth and affirm itself as a relation, what is this but
the interesting function of the whole passage, on the performance of
which what follows is to hang?—and yet who can say that when the
ostensible sequence is presented, and our young lady, encountered again
by her stirred swain, under cover of night, in a favouring wood, is at
once encompassed by his arms and pressed to his lips and heart (for
celebration thus of their third meeting) we do not assist at a well-nigh
heartbreaking miscarriage of “effect”? We see effect, invoked in vain,
simply stand off unconcerned; effect not having been at all consulted in
advance she is not to be secured on such terms. And her presence would
so have redounded—perfectly punctual creature as she is on a made
appointment and a clear understanding—to the advantage of all
concerned. The bearing of the young man’s act is all in our having begun
to conceive it as possible, begun even to desire it, in the light of
what has preceded; therefore if the participants have _not_ been shown
us as on the way to it, nor the question of it made beautifully to
tremble for us in the air, its happiest connections fail and we but
stare at it mystified. The instance is undoubtedly trifling, but in the
infinite complex of such things resides for a work of art the shy
virtue, shy at least till wooed forth, of the whole susceptibility. The
case of Mr. Wells might take us much further—such remarks as there
would be to make, say, on such a question as the due understanding, on
the part of “The Passionate Friends” (not as associated persons but as a
composed picture), of what that composition is specifically _about_ and
where, for treatment of this interest, it undertakes to find its centre:
all of which, we are willing however to grant, falls away before the
large assurance and incorrigible levity with which this adventurer
carries his lapses—far more of an adventurer as he is than any other of
the company. The composition, as we have called it, heaven saving the
mark, is simply at any and every moment “about” Mr. Wells’s general
adventure; which is quite enough while it preserves, as we trust it will
long continue to do, its present robust pitch.

We have already noted that “Round the Corner,” Mr. Gilbert Cannan’s
liveliest appeal to our attention, belongs to the order of
_constatations_ pure and simple; to the degree that _as_ a document of
that nature and of that rigour the book could perhaps not more
completely affirm itself. When we have said that it puts on record the
“tone,” the manners, the general domestic proceedings and _train de vie_
of an amiable clergyman’s family established in one of the more sordid
quarters of a big black northern city of the Liverpool or Manchester
complexion we have advanced as far in the way of descriptive statement
as the interesting work seems to warrant. For it _is_ interesting, in
spite of its leaving itself on our hands with a consistent indifference
to any question of the charmed application springing from it all that
places it in the forefront of its type. Again as under the effect of Mr.
Bennett’s major productions our sole inference is that things, the
things disclosed, _go on and on, in any given case, in spite of
everything_—with Mr. Cannan’s one discernible care perhaps being for
how extraordinarily much, in the particular example here before him,
they were able to go on in spite of. The conception, the presentation of
this enormous inauspicious amount as bearing upon the collective career
of the Folyats is, we think, as near as the author comes at any point to
betraying an awareness of a subject. Yet again, though so little
encouraged or “backed,” a subject after a fashion makes itself, even as
it has made itself in “The Old Wives’ Tale” and in “Clayhanger,” in
“Sons and Lovers,” where, as we have hinted, any assistance rendered us
for a view of one _most_ comfortably enjoys its absence, and in Mr. Hugh
Walpole’s newest novel, where we wander scarcely less with our hand in
no guiding grasp, but where the author’s good disposition, as we feel
it, to provide us with what we lack if he only knew how, constitutes in
itself such a pleading liberality. We seem to see him in this spirit lay
again and again a flowered carpet for our steps. If we do not include
Mr. Compton Mackenzie to the same extent in our generalisation it is
really because we note a difference in him, a difference in favour of
his care for the application. Preoccupations seem at work in “Sinister
Street,” and withal in “Carnival,” the brush of which we in other
quarters scarce even suspect and at some of which it will presently be
of profit to glance. “I answer for it, you know,” we seem at any rate to
hear Mr. Gilbert Cannan say with an admirably genuine young pessimism,
“I answer for it that they were really _like_ that, odd or unpleasant or
uncontributive, and therefore tiresome, as it may strike you;” and the
charm of Mr. Cannan, so far as up or down the rank we so disengage a
charm, is that we take him at his word. His guarantee, his straight
communication, of his general truth is a value, and values are rare—the
flood of fiction is apparently capable of running hundreds of miles
without a single glint of one—and thus in default of satisfaction we
get stopgaps and are thankful often under a genial touch to get even so
much. The value indeed is crude, it would be quadrupled were it only
wrought and shaped; yet it has still the rude dignity that it counts to
us for experience or at least for what we call under our present pitch
of sensibility force of impression. The experience, we feel, is ever
something to conclude upon, while the impression is content to wait; to
wait, say, in the spirit in which we must accept this younger bustle if
we accept it at all, the spirit of its serving as a rather presumptuous
lesson to us in patience. While we wait, again, we are amused—not in
the least, also to repeat, up to the notch of our conception of
amusement, which draws upon still other forms and sources; but none the
less for the wonder, the intensity, the actuality, the probity of the
vision. This is much as in “Clayhanger” and in “Hilda Lessways,” where,
independently of the effect, so considerably rendered, of the long lapse
of time, always in this type of recital a source of amusement in itself,
and certainly of the noblest, we get such an admirably substantial thing
as the collective image of the Orgreaves, the local family in whose
ample lap the amenities and the humanities so easily sit, for Mr.
Bennett’s evocation and his protagonist’s recognition, and the manner of
the presentation of whom, with the function and relation of the picture
at large, strikes such a note of felicity, achieves such a simulation of
sense, as the author should never again be excused for treating, that is
for neglecting, as beyond his range. Here figures signally the
interesting case of a compositional function absolutely performed by
mere multiplication, the flow of the facts: the Orgreaves, in
“Clayhanger,” are there, by what we make out, but for “life,” for
general life only, and yet, with their office under any general or
inferential meaning entirely unmarked, come doubtless as near squaring
esthetically with the famous formula of the “slice of life” as any
example that could be adduced; happening moreover as they probably do to
owe this distinction to their coincidence at once with reality and
charm—a fact esthetically curious and delightful. For we attribute the
bold stroke they represent much more to Mr. Arnold Bennett’s esthetic
instinct than to anything like a calculation of his bearings, and more
to his thoroughly acquainted state, as we may again put it, than to all
other causes together: which strikingly enough shows how much complexity
of interest may be simulated by mere presentation of material, mere
squeezing of the orange, when the material happens to be “handsome” or
the orange to be sweet.


                                  III

The orange of our persistent simile is in Mr. Hugh Walpole’s hands very
remarkably sweet—a quality we recognise in it even while reduced to
observing that the squeeze pure and simple, the fond, the lingering, the
reiterated squeeze, constitutes as yet his main perception of method. He
enjoys in a high degree the consciousness of saturation, and is on such
serene and happy terms with it as almost make of critical interference,
in so bright an air, an assault on personal felicity. Full of material
is thus the author of “The Duchess of Wrexe,” and of a material which we
should describe as the consciousness of youth were we not rather
disposed to call it a peculiar strain of the extreme unconsciousness.
Mr. Walpole offers us indeed a rare and interesting case—we see about
the field none other like it; the case of a positive identity between
the spirit, not to say the time of life or stage of experience, of the
aspiring artist and the field itself of his vision. “The Duchess of
Wrexe” reeks with youth and the love of youth and the confidence of
youth—youth taking on with a charming exuberance the fondest costume or
disguise, that of an adventurous and voracious felt interest, interest
in life, in London, in society, in character, in Portland Place, in the
Oxford Circus, in the afternoon tea-table, in the torrid weather, in
fifty other immediate things as to which its passion and its curiosity
are of the sincerest. The wonderful thing is that these latter forces
operate, in their way, without yet being disengaged and
hand-free—disengaged, that is, from their state of _being_ young, with
its billowy mufflings and other soft obstructions, the state of being
present, being involved and aware, close “up against” the whole mass of
possibilities, being in short intoxicated with the mixed liquors of
suggestion. In the fumes of this acute situation Mr. Walpole’s
subject-matter is bathed; the situation being all the while so much more
his own and that of a juvenility reacting, in the presence of
everything, “for all it is worth,” than the devised and imagined one,
however he may circle about some such cluster, that every cupful of his
excited flow tastes three times as much of his temperamental freshness
as it tastes of this, that or the other character or substance, above
all of this, that or the other group of antecedents and references,
supposed to be reflected in it. All of which does not mean, we hasten to
add, that the author of “The Duchess of Wrexe” has not the gift of life;
but only that he strikes us as having received it, straight from nature,
with such a concussion as to have kept the boon at the stage of
violence—so that, fairly pinned down by it, he is still embarrassed for
passing it on. On the day he shall have worked free of this primitive
predicament, the crude fact of the convulsion itself, there need be no
doubt of his exhibiting matter into which method may learn how to bite.
The tract meanwhile affects us as more or less virgin snow, and we look
with interest and suspense for the imprint of a process.

If those remarks represent all the while, further, that the performances
we have glanced at, with others besides, lead our attention on, we hear
ourselves the more naturally asked what it is then that we expect or
want, confessing as we do that we have been in a manner interested, even
though, from case to case, in a varying degree, and that Thackeray,
Turgenieff, Balzac, Dickens, Anatole France, no matter who, can not do
more than interest. Let us therefore concede to the last point that
small mercies are better than none, that there are latent within the
critic numberless liabilities to being “squared” (the extent to which he
may on occasion betray his price!) and so great a preference for being
pleased over not being, that you may again and again see him assist with
avidity at the attempt of the slice of life to butter itself thick. Its
explanation that it _is_ a slice of life and pretends to be nothing else
figures for us, say, while we watch, the jam super-added to the butter.
For since the jam, on this system, descends upon our desert, in its form
of manna, from quite another heaven than the heaven of method, the mere
demonstration of its agreeable presence is alone sufficient to hint at
our more than one chance of being supernaturally fed. The happy-go-lucky
fashion of it is indeed not then, we grant, an objection so long as we
do take in refreshment: the meal may be of the last informality and yet
produce in the event no small sense of repletion. The slice of life
devoured, the butter and the jam duly appreciated, we are ready, no
doubt, on another day, to trust ourselves afresh to the desert. We break
camp, that is, and face toward a further stretch of it, all in the faith
that we shall be once more provided for. We take the risk, we enjoy more
or less the assistance—more or less, we put it, for the vision of a
possible arrest of the miracle or failure of our supply never wholly
leaves us. The phenomenon is too uncanny, the happy-go-lucky, as we know
it in general, never _has_ been trustable to the end; the absence of the
last true touch in the preparation of its viands becomes with each
renewal of the adventure a more sensible fact. By the last true touch we
mean of course the touch of the hand of selection; the principle of
selection having been involved at the worst or the least, one would
suppose, in any approach whatever to the loaf of life with the
_arrière-pensée_ of a slice. There being no question of a slice upon
which the further question of where and how to cut it does not wait, the
office of method, the idea of choice and comparison, have occupied the
ground from the first. This makes clear, to a moment’s reflection, that
there can be no such thing as an amorphous slice, and that any waving
aside of inquiry as to the sense and value of a chunk of matter has to
reckon with the simple truth of its having been _born_ of naught else
but measured excision. Reasons have been the fairies waiting on its
cradle, the possible presence of a bad fairy in the form of a bad reason
to the contrary notwithstanding. It has thus had connections at the very
first stage of its detachment that are at no later stage logically to be
repudiated; let it lie as lumpish as it will—for adoption, we mean, of
the ideal of the lump—it has been tainted from too far back with the
hard liability to form, and thus carries in its very breast the hapless
contradiction of its sturdy claim to have none. This claim has the
inevitable challenge at once to meet. How can a slice of life be
anything but illustrational of the loaf, and how can illustration not
immediately bristle with every sign of the extracted and related state?
The relation is at once to what the thing comes from and to what it
waits upon—which last is our act of recognition. We accordingly
appreciate it in proportion as it so accounts for itself; the quantity
and the intensity of its reference are the measure of our knowledge of
it. This is exactly why illustration breaks down when reference,
otherwise application, runs short, and why before any assemblage of
figures or aspects, otherwise of samples and specimens, the question of
what these are, extensively, samples and specimens _of_ declines not to
beset us—why, otherwise again, we look ever for the supreme reference
that shall avert the bankruptcy of sense.

Let us profess all readiness to repeat that we may still have had, on
the merest “life” system, or that of the starkest crudity of the slice,
all the entertainment that can come from watching a wayfarer engage with
assurance in an alley that we know to have no issue—and from watching
for the very sake of the face that he may show us on reappearing at its
mouth. The recitals of Mr. Arnold Bennett, Mr. Gilbert Cannan, Mr. D. H.
Lawrence, fairly smell of the real, just as the “Fortitude” and “The
Duchess” of Mr. Hugh Walpole smell of the romantic; we have sufficiently
noted then that, once on the scent, we are capable of pushing ahead. How
far it is at the same time from being all a matter of smell the terms in
which we just above glanced at the weakness of the spell of the
happy-go-lucky may here serve to indicate. There faces us all the while
the fact that the act of consideration as an incident of the esthetic
pleasure, consideration confidently knowing us to _have_ sooner or later
to arrive at it, may be again and again postponed, but can never hope
not some time to fall due. Consideration is susceptible of many forms,
some one or other of which no conscious esthetic effort fails to cry out
for; and the simplest description of the cry of the novel when
sincere—for have we not heard such compositions bluff us, as it were,
with false cries?—is as an appeal to us when we have read it once to
read it yet again. _That_ is the act of consideration; no other process
of considering approaches this for directness, so that anything short of
it is virtually not to consider at all. The word has sometimes another
sense, that of the appeal to us _not_, for the world, to go back—this
being of course consideration of a sort; the sort clearly that the truly
flushed production should be the last to invoke. The effect of
consideration, we need scarce remark, is to light for us in a work of
art the hundred questions of how and why and whither, and the effect of
these questions, once lighted, is enormously to thicken and complicate,
even if toward final clarifications, what we have called the amused
state produced in us by the work. The more our amusement multiplies its
terms the more fond and the more rewarded consideration becomes; the
fewer it leaves them, on the other hand, the less to be resisted for us
is the impression of “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds
sang.” Birds that have appeared to sing, or whose silence we have not
heeded, on a first perusal, prove on a second to have no note to
contribute, and whether or no a second is enough to admonish us of those
we miss, we mostly expect much from it in the way of emphasis of those
we find. Then it is that notes of intention become more present or more
absent; then it is that we take the measure of what we have already
called our effective provision. The bravest providers and designers show
at this point something still in store which only the second rummage was
appointed to draw forth. To the variety of these ways of not letting our
fondness fast is there not practically no limit?—and of the arts, the
devices, the graces, the subtle secrets applicable to such an end what
presumptuous critic shall pretend to draw the list? Let him for the
moment content himself with saying that many of the most effective are
mysteries, precisely, of method, or that even when they are not most
essentially and directly so it takes method, blest method, to extract
their soul and to determine their action.

It is odd and delightful perhaps that at the very moment of our urging
this truth we should happen to be regaled with a really supreme specimen
of the part playable in a novel by the source of interest, the principle
of provision attended to, for which we claim importance. Mr. Joseph
Conrad’s “Chance” is none the less a signal instance of provision the
most earnest and the most copious for its leaving ever so much to be
said about the particular provision effected. It is none the less an
extraordinary exhibition of method by the fact that the method is, we
venture to say, without a precedent in any like work. It places Mr.
Conrad absolutely alone as a votary of the way to do a thing that shall
make it undergo most doing. The way to do it that shall make it undergo
least is the line on which we are mostly now used to see prizes carried
off; so that the author of “Chance” gathers up on this showing all sorts
of comparative distinction. He gathers up at least two sorts—that of
bravery in absolutely reversing the process most accredited, and that,
quite separate, we make out, of performing the manœuvre under salvos of
recognition. It is not in these days often given to a refinement of
design to be recognised, but Mr. Conrad has made his achieve that
miracle—save in so far indeed as the miracle has been one thing and the
success another. The miracle is of the rarest, confounding all
calculation and suggesting more reflections than we can begin to make
place for here; but the sources of surprise surrounding it might be,
were this possible, even greater and yet leave the fact itself in all
independence, the fact that the whole undertaking was committed by its
very first step either to be “art” exclusively or to be nothing. This is
the prodigious rarity, since surely we have known for many a day no
other such case of the whole clutch of eggs, and these withal of the
freshest, in that one basket; to which it may be added that if we say
for many a day this is not through our readiness positively to associate
the sight with any very definite moment of the past. What concerns us is
that the general effect of “Chance” is arrived at by a pursuance of
means to the end in view contrasted with which every other current form
of the chase can only affect us as cheap and futile; the carriage of the
burden or amount of service required on these lines exceeding surely all
other such displayed degrees of energy put together. Nothing could well
interest us more than to see the exemplary value of attention, attention
given by the author and asked of the reader, attested in a case in which
it has had almost unspeakable difficulties to struggle with—since so we
are moved to qualify the particular difficulty Mr. Conrad has “elected”
to face: the claim for method in itself, method in this very sense of
attention applied, would be somehow less lighted if the difficulties
struck us as less consciously, or call it even less wantonly, invoked.
What they consist of we should have to diverge here a little to say, and
should even then probably but lose ourselves in the dim question of why
so special, eccentric and desperate a course, so deliberate a plunge
into threatened frustration, should alone have seemed open. It has been
the course, so far as three words may here serve, of his so multiplying
his creators or, as we are now fond of saying, producers, as to make
them almost more numerous and quite emphatically more material than the
creatures and the production itself in whom and which we by the general
law of fiction expect such agents to lose themselves. We take for
granted by the general law of fiction a primary author, take him so much
for granted that we forget him in proportion as he works upon us, and
that he works upon us most in fact by making us forget him.

Mr. Conrad’s first care on the other hand is expressly to posit or set
up a reciter, a definite responsible intervening first person singular,
possessed of infinite sources of reference, who immediately proceeds to
set up another, to the end that this other may conform again to the
practice, and that even at that point the bridge over to the creature,
or in other words to the situation or the subject, the thing “produced,”
shall, if the fancy takes it, once more and yet once more glory in a
gap. It is easy to see how heroic the undertaking of an effective fusion
becomes on these terms, fusion between what we are to know and that
prodigy of our knowing which is ever half the very beauty of the
atmosphere of authenticity; from the moment the reporters are thus
multiplied from pitch to pitch the tone of each, especially as
“rendered” by his precursor in the series, becomes for the prime poet of
all an immense question—these circumferential tones having not only to
be such individually separate notes, but to keep so clear of the others,
the central, the numerous and various voices of the agents proper, those
expressive of the action itself and in whom the objectivity resides. We
usually escape the worst of this difficulty of a tone _about_ the tone
of our characters, our projected performers, by keeping it single,
keeping it “down” and thereby comparatively impersonal or, as we may
say, inscrutable; which is what a creative force, in its blest fatuity,
likes to be. But the omniscience, remaining indeed nameless, though
constantly active, which sets Marlow’s omniscience in motion from the
very first page, insisting on a reciprocity with it throughout, this
original omniscience invites consideration of itself only in a degree
less than that in which Marlow’s own invites it; and Marlow’s own is a
prolonged hovering flight of the subjective over the outstretched ground
of the case exposed. We make out this ground but through the shadow cast
by the flight, clarify it though the real author visibly reminds himself
again and again that he must—all the more that, as if by some
tremendous forecast of future applied science, the upper aeroplane
causes another, as we have said, to depend from it and that one still
another; these dropping shadow after shadow, to the no small menace of
intrinsic colour and form and whatever, upon the passive expanse. What
shall we most call Mr. Conrad’s method accordingly but his attempt to
clarify _quand même_—ridden as he has been, we perceive at the end of
fifty pages of “Chance,” by such a danger of steeping his matter in
perfect eventual obscuration as we recall no other artist’s consenting
to with an equal grace. This grace, which presently comes over us as the
sign of the whole business, is Mr. Conrad’s gallantry itself, and the
shortest account of the rest of the connection for our present purpose
is that his gallantry is thus his success. It literally strikes us that
his volume sets in motion more than anything else a drama in which his
own system and his combined eccentricities of recital represent the
protagonist in face of powers leagued against it, and of which the
dénouement gives us the system fighting in triumph, though with its back
desperately to the wall, and laying the powers piled up at its feet.
This frankly has been _our_ spectacle, our suspense and our thrill; with
the one flaw on the roundness of it all the fact that the predicament
was not imposed rather than invoked, was not the effect of a challenge
from without, but that of a mystic impulse from within.

Of an exquisite refinement at all events are the critical questions
opened up in the attempt, the question in particular of by what it
exactly is that the experiment is crowned. Pronouncing it crowned and
the case saved by sheer gallantry, as we did above, is perhaps to fall
just short of the conclusion we might reach were we to push further.
“Chance” _is_ an example of objectivity, most precious of aims, not only
menaced but definitely compromised; whereby we are in presence of
something really of the strangest, a general and diffused lapse of
authenticity which an inordinate number of common readers—since it
always takes this and these to account encouragingly for
“editions”—have not only condoned but have emphatically commended. They
can have done this but through the bribe of some authenticity other in
kind, no doubt, and seeming to them equally great if not greater, which
gives back by the left hand what the right has, with however
dissimulated a grace, taken away. What Mr. Conrad’s left hand gives back
then is simply Mr. Conrad himself. We asked above what would become, by
such a form of practice, of indispensable “fusion” or, to call it by
another name, of the fine process by which our impatient material, at a
given moment, shakes off the humiliation of the handled, the fumbled
state, puts its head in the air and, to its own beautiful illusory
consciousness at least, simply runs its race. Such an amount of handling
and fumbling and repointing has it, on the system of the multiplied
“putter into marble,” to shake off! And yet behold, the sense of
discomfort, as the show here works out, _has_ been conjured away. The
fusion has taken place, or at any rate _a_ fusion; only it has been
transferred in wondrous fashion to an unexpected, and on the whole more
limited plane of operation; it has succeeded in getting effected, so to
speak, not on the ground but in the air, not between our writer’s idea
and his machinery, but between the different parts of his genius itself.
His genius is what is left over from the other, the compromised and
compromising quantities—the Marlows and their determinant inventors and
interlocutors, the Powells, the Franklins, the Fynes, the tell-tale
little dogs, the successive members of a cue from one to the other of
which the sense and the interest of the subject have to be passed on
together, in the manner of the buckets of water for the improvised
extinction of a fire, before reaching our apprehension: all with
whatever result, to this apprehension, of a quantity to be allowed for
as spilt by the way. The residuum has accordingly the form not of such
and such a number of images discharged and ordered, but that rather of a
wandering, circling, yearning imaginative _faculty_, encountered in its
habit as it lives and diffusing itself as a presence or a tide, a noble
sociability of vision. So we have as the force that fills the cup just
the high-water mark of a beautiful and generous mind at play in
conditions comparatively thankless—thoroughly, unweariedly, yet at the
same time ever so elegantly at play, and doing more for itself than it
succeeds in getting done for it. Than which nothing could be of a
greater reward to critical curiosity were it not still for the wonder of
wonders, a new page in the record altogether—the fact that these things
are apparently what the common reader has seen and understood. Great
then would seem to be after all the common reader!


                                   IV

We must not fail of the point, however, that we have made these remarks
not at all with an eye to the question of whether “Chance” has been well
or ill inspired as to its particular choice of a way of really attending
to itself among all the possible alternatives, but only on the ground of
its having compared, selected and held on; since any alternative that
might have been preferred and that should have been effectively adopted
would point our moral as well—and this even if it is of profit none the
less to note the most striking of Mr. Conrad’s compositional
consequences. There is one of these that has had most to do with making
his pages differ in texture, and to our very first glance, from that
straggle of ungoverned verbiage which leads us up and down those of his
fellow fabulists in general on a vain hunt for some projected mass of
truth, some solidity of substance, as to which the deluge of “dialogue,”
the flooding report of things said, or at least of words pretendedly
spoken, shall have learned the art of being merely illustrational. What
first springs from any form of real attention, no matter which, we on a
comparison so made quickly perceive to be a practical challenge of the
preposterous pretension of this most fatuous of the luxuries of
looseness to acquit itself with authority of the structural and
compositional office. Infinitely valid and vivid as illustration, it
altogether depends for dignity and sense upon our state of possession of
its historic preliminaries, its promoting conditions, its supporting
ground; that is upon our waiting occupancy of the chamber it proposes to
light and which, when no other source of effect is more indicated, it
doubtless inimitably fills with life. Then its relation to what encloses
and confines and, in its sovereign interest, finely compresses it,
offering it constituted aspects, surfaces, presences, faces and figures
of the matter we are either generally or acutely concerned with to play
over and hang upon, then this relation gives it all its value: it has
flowered from the soil prepared and sheds back its richness into the
field of cultivation. It is interesting, in a word, only when nothing
else is equally so, carrying the vessel of the interest with least of a
stumble or a sacrifice; but it is of the essence that the sounds so set
in motion (it being as sound above all that they undertake to convey
sense,) should have something to proceed from, in their course, to
address themselves to and be affected by, with all the sensibility of
sounds. It is of the essence that they should live in a medium, and in a
medium only, since it takes a medium to give them an identity, the
intenser the better, and that the medium should subserve them by
enjoying in a like degree the luxury of an existence. We need of course
scarce expressly note that the play, as distinguished from the novel,
lives exclusively on the spoken word—not on the report of the thing
said but, directly and audibly, on that very thing; that it thrives by
its law on the exercise under which the novel hopelessly collapses when
the attempt is made disproportionately to impose it. There is no danger
for the play of the cart before the horse, no disaster involved in it;
that form being _all_ horse and the interest itself mounted and astride,
and not, as that of the novel, dependent in the first instance on
wheels. The order in which the drama simply says things gives it all its
form, while the story told and the picture painted, as the novel at the
pass we have brought it to embraces them, reports of an infinite
diversity of matters, gathers together and gives out again a hundred
sorts, and finds its order and its structure, its unity and its beauty,
in the alternation of parts and the adjustment of differences. It is no
less apparent that the novel may be fundamentally _organised_—such
things as “The Egoist” and “The Awkward Age” are there to prove it; but
in this case it adheres unconfusedly to that logic and has nothing to
say to any other. Were it not for a second exception, one at this season
rather pertinent, “Chance” then, to return to it a moment, would be as
happy an example as we might just now put our hand on of the automatic
working of a scheme unfavourable to that treatment of the colloquy by
endless dangling strings which makes the current “story” in general so
figure to us a porcupine of extravagant yet abnormally relaxed bristles.

The exception we speak of would be Mrs. Wharton’s “Custom of the
Country,” in which, as in this lady’s other fictions, we recognise the
happy fact of an abuse of no one of the resources it enjoys at the
expense of the others; the whole series offering as general an example
of dialogue flowering and not weeding, illustrational and not itself
starved of illustration, or starved of referability and association,
which is the same thing, as meets the eye in any glance that leaves Mr.
Wells at Mr. Wells’s best-inspired hour out of our own account. The
truth is, however, that Mrs. Wharton is herself here out of our account,
even as we have easily recognised Mr. Galsworthy and Mr. Maurice Hewlett
to be; these three authors, with whatever differences between them,
remaining essentially votaries of selection and intention and being
embodiments thereby, in each case, of some state over and above that
simple state of possession of much evidence, that confused conception of
what the “slice” of life must consist of, which forms the text of our
remarks. Mrs. Wharton, _her_ conception of the “slice” so clarified and
cultivated, would herself of course form a text in quite another
connection, as Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Galsworthy would do each in his own,
which we abstain from specifying; but there are two or three grounds on
which the author of “Ethan Frome,” “The Valley of Decision” and “The
House of Mirth,” whom we brush by with reluctance, would point the moral
of the treasure of amusement sitting in the lap of method with a
felicity peculiarly her own. If one of these is that she too has clearly
a saturation—which it would be ever so interesting to determine and
appreciate—we have it from her not in the crude state but in the
extract, the extract that makes all the difference for our sense of an
artistic economy. If the extract, as would appear, is the result of an
artistic economy, as the latter is its logical motive, so we find it
associated in Mrs. Wharton with such appeals to our interest, for
instance, as the fact that, absolutely sole among our students of this
form, she suffers, she even encourages, her expression to flower into
some sharp image or figure of her thought when that will make the
thought more finely touch us. Her step, without straying, encounters the
living analogy, which she gathers, in passing, without awkwardness of
pause, and which the page then carries on its breast as a trophy plucked
by a happy adventurous dash, a token of spirit and temper as well as a
proof of vision. We note it as one of the _kinds_ of proof of vision
that most fail us in that comparative desert of the inselective where
our imagination has itself to hunt out or call down (often among strange
witnessed flounderings or sand-storms) such analogies as may mercifully
“put” the thing. Mrs. Wharton not only owes to her cultivated art of
putting it the distinction enjoyed when some ideal of expression has the
_whole_ of the case, the case once made its concern, in charge, but
might further act for us, were we to follow up her exhibition, as
lighting not a little that question of “tone,” the author’s own
intrinsic, as to which we have just seen Mr. Conrad’s late production
rather tend to darken counsel. “The Custom of the Country” is an eminent
instance of the sort of tonic value most opposed to that baffled
relation between the subject-matter and its emergence which we find
constituted by the circumvalations of “Chance.” Mrs. Wharton’s reaction
in presence of the aspects of life hitherto, it would seem, mainly
exposed to her is for the most part the ironic—to which we gather that
these particular aspects have so much ministered that, were we to pursue
the quest, we might recognise in them precisely the saturation as to
which we a moment ago reserved our judgment. “The Custom of the Country”
is at any rate consistently, almost scientifically satiric, as indeed
the satiric light was doubtless the only one in which the elements
engaged could at all be focussed together. But this happens directly to
the profit of something that, as we read, becomes more and more one with
the principle of authority at work; the light that gathers is a dry
light, of great intensity, and the effect, if not rather the very
essence, of its dryness is a particular fine asperity. The usual
“creative” conditions and associations, as we have elsewhere languished
among them, are thanks to this ever so sensibly altered; the general
authoritative relation attested becomes clear—we move in an air purged
at a stroke of the old sentimental and romantic values, the perversions
with the maximum of waste of perversions, and we shall not here attempt
to state what this makes for in the way of esthetic refreshment and
relief; the waste having kept us so dangling on the dark esthetic abyss.
A shade of asperity may be in such fashion a security against waste, and
in the dearth of displayed securities we should welcome it on that
ground alone. It helps at any rate to constitute for the talent manifest
in “The Custom” a rare identity, so far should we have to go to seek
another instance of the dry, or call it perhaps even the hard,
intellectual touch in the soft, or call it perhaps even the humid,
temperamental air; in other words of the masculine conclusion tending so
to crown the feminine observation.

If we mentioned Mr. Compton Mackenzie at the beginning of these
reflections only to leave him waiting for some further appreciation,
this is exactly because his case, to the most interesting effect, is no
simple one, like two or three of our others, but on the contrary
mystifying enough almost to stand by itself. What would be this striking
young writer’s state of acquaintance and possession, and should we find
it, on our recognition of it, to be all he is content to pitch forth,
without discriminations or determinants, without motives or lights? Do
“Carnival” and “Sinister Street” proceed from the theory of the slice or
from the conception of the extract, “the extract flasked and fine,” the
chemical process superseding the mechanical? Mr. Compton Mackenzie’s
literary aspect, though decidedly that of youth, or that of experience,
a great deal of young experience, in its freshness, offers the
attraction of a complexity defiant of the prompt conclusion, really
charms us by giving us something to wonder about. We literally find it
not easy to say if there may not lurk in “Carnival,” for example, a
selective sense more apprehensible, to a push of inquiry, than its
overflooded surface, a real invitation to wade and upon which everything
within the author’s ken appears poured out, would at first lead us to
suspect. The question comes up in like fashion as to the distinctly more
developed successor of that work, before which we in fact find questions
multiply to a positive quickening of critical pleasure. We ask ourselves
what “Sinister Street” may mean as a whole in spite of our sense of
being brushed from the first by a hundred subordinate purposes, the
succession and alternation of which seem to make after a fashion a plan,
and which, though full of occasional design, yet fail to gather
themselves for application or to converge to an idea. Any idea will
serve, ever, that has held up its candle to composition—and it is
perhaps because composition proposes itself under Mr. Compton
Mackenzie’s energy on a scale well-nigh of the most prodigious that we
must wait to see whither it tends. The question of what he may here mean
“on the whole,” as we just said, is doubtless admonished to stand back
till we be possessed of the whole. This interesting volume is but a
first, committed up to its eyes to continuity and with an announced
sequel to follow. The recital exhibits at the point we have reached the
intimate experience of a boy at school and in his holidays, the
amplification of which is to come with his terms and their breaks at a
university; and the record will probably form a more squared and
extended picture of life equally conditioned by the extremity of youth
than we shall know where else to look for. Youth clearly has been Mr.
Mackenzie’s saturation, as it has been Mr. Hugh Walpole’s, but we see
this not as a subject (youth in itself is no specific subject, any more
than age is,) but as matter for a subject and as requiring a motive to
redeem it from the merely passive state of the slice. We are sure
throughout both “Sinister Street” and “Carnival” of breathing the air of
the extract, as we contentiously call it, only in certain of the rounded
episodes strung on the loose cord as so many vivid beads, each of its
chosen hue, and the series of which, even with differences of price
between them, we take for a lively gage of performance to come. These
episodes would be easy to cite; they are handsomely numerous and each
strikes us as giving in its turn great salience to its motive; besides
which each is in its turn “done” with an eminent sense and a remarkably
straight hand for doing. They may well be cited together as both
signally and finely symptomatic, for the literary gesture and the
_bravura_ breadth with which such frequent medallions as the adventure
on the boy’s part of the Catholic church at Bournemouth, as his
experiment of the Benedictine house in Wiltshire, as his period of
acquaintance with the esthetic _cénacle_ in London, as his relation with
his chosen school friend under the intensity of boyish choosing, are
ornamentally hung up, differ not so much in degree as in kind from any
play of presentation that we mostly see elsewhere offered us. To which
we might add other like matters that we lack space to enumerate, the
scene, the aspect, the figure in motion tending always, under touches
thick and strong, to emerge and flush, sound and strike, catch us in its
truth. We have read “tales of school life” in which the boys more or
less swarmed and sounded, but from which the masters have practically
been quite absent, to the great weakening of any picture of the boyish
consciousness, on which the magisterial fact is so heavily projected. If
that is less true for some boys than for others, the “point” of Michael
Fane is that for him it is truest. The types of masters have in
“Sinister Street” both number and salience, rendered though they be
mostly as grotesques—which effect we take as characterising the
particular turn of mind of the young observer and discoverer
commemorated.

That he _is_ a discoverer is of the essence of his interest, a
successful and resourceful young discoverer, even as the poor
ballet-girl in “Carnival” is a tragically baffled and helpless one; so
that what each of the works proposes to itself is a recital of the
things discovered. Those thus brought to our view in the boy’s case are
of much more interest, to our sense, than like matters in the other
connection, thanks to his remarkable and living capacity; the heroine of
“Carnival” is frankly too minute a vessel of experience for treatment on
the scale on which the author has honoured her—she is done assuredly,
but under multiplications of touch that become too much, in the narrow
field, monotonies; and she leaves us asking almost as much what she
exhibitionally means, what application resides in the accumulation of
facts concerning her, as if she too were after all but a slice, or at
the most but a slice _of_ a slice, and her history but one of the
aspects, on her author’s part, of the condition of repleteness against
the postulate of the entire adequacy of which we protest. So far as this
record does affect us as an achieved “extract,” to reiterate our term,
that result abides in its not losing its centre, which is its fidelity
to the one question of her dolefully embarrassed little measure of life.
We know to that extent with some intensity what her producer would be
at, yet an element of the arbitrary hangs for us about the particular
illustration—illustrations leaving us ever but half appreciative till
we catch that one bright light in which they give out all they contain.
This light is of course always for the author to set somewhere. Is it
set then so much as it should be in “Sinister Street,” and is our
impression of the promise of this recital one with a dawning divination
of the illustrative card that Mr. Mackenzie may still have up his sleeve
and that our after sense shall recognise as the last thing left on the
table? By no means, we can as yet easily say, for if a boy’s experience
has ever been given us for its face value simply, for what it is worth
in mere recovered intensity, it is so given us here. Of all the
saturations it can in fact scarce have helped being the most sufficient
in itself, for it is exactly, where it is best, from beginning to end
the remembered and reported thing, that thing alone, that thing existent
in the field of memory, though gaining value too from the applied
intelligence, or in other words from the lively talent, of the
memoriser. The memoriser helps, he contributes, he completes, and what
we have admired in him is that in the case of each of the pearls fished
up by his dive—though indeed these fruits of the rummage are not all
pearls—his mind has had a further iridescence to confer. It is the
fineness of the iridescence that on such an occasion matters, and this
appeal to our interest is again and again on Mr. Compton Mackenzie’s
page of the happiest and the brightest. It is never more so than when we
catch him, as we repeatedly do, in the act of positively caring for his
expression as expression, positively providing for his phrase as a
fondly foreseeing parent for a child, positively loving it in the light
of what it may do for him—meeting revelations, that is, in what it may
do, and appearing to recognise that the value of the offered thing, its
whole relation to us, is created by the breath of language, that on such
terms exclusively, for appropriation and enjoyment, we know it, and that
any claimed independence of “form” on its part is the most abject of
fallacies. Do these things mean that, moved by life, this interesting
young novelist is even now uncontrollably on the way to style? We might
cite had we space several symptoms, the very vividest, of that
possibility; though such an appearance in the field of our general
survey has against it presumptions enough to bring us surely back to our
original contention—the scant degree in which that field has ever had
to reckon with criticism.



                           DUMAS THE YOUNGER
                                  1895


One of the things that most bring home his time of life to a man of
fifty is the increase of the rate at which he loses his friends. Some
one dies every week, some one dies every day, and if the rate be high
among his coevals it is higher still in the generation that, on awaking
to spectatorship, he found in possession of the stage. He begins to feel
his own world, the world of his most vivid impressions, gradually become
historical. He is present, and closely present, at the process by which
legend grows up. He sees the friends in question pictured as only death
can picture them—a master superior to the Rembrandts and Titians. They
have been of many sorts and many degrees, they have been private and
public, but they have had in common that they were the furniture of this
first fresh world, the world in which associations are formed. That one
by one they go is what makes the main difference in it. The landscape of
life, in foreground and distance, becomes, as the painters say, another
composition, another subject; and quite as much as the objects directly
under our eyes we miss the features that have educated for us our sense
of proportion.

Among such features for the author of these lines the younger Dumas, who
has just passed away, was in the public order long one of the most
conspicuous. Suffused as he is already with the quick historic haze,
fixed, for whatever term, in his ultimate value, he appeals to me, I
must begin by declaring, as a party to one of these associations that
have the savour of the prime. I knew him only in his work, but he is the
object of an old-time sentiment for the beginning of which I have to go
back absurdly far. He arrived early—he was so loudly introduced by his
name. I am tempted to say that I knew him when he was young, but what I
suppose I mean is that I knew him when I myself was. I knew him indeed
when we both were, for I recall that in Paris, in distant days and
undeveloped conditions, I was aware with perhaps undue and uncanny
precocity of his first successes. There emerges in my memory from the
night of time the image of a small boy walking in the Palais Royal with
innocent American girls who were his cousins and wistfully hearing them
relate how many times (they lived in Paris) they had seen Madame Doche
in “La Dame aux Camélias” and what floods of tears she had made them
weep. It was the first time I had heard of pockethandkerchiefs as a
provision for the play. I had no remotest idea of the social position of
the lady of the expensive flowers, and the artless objects of my envy
had, in spite of their repeated privilege, even less of one; but her
title had a strange beauty and her story a strange meaning—things that
ever after were to accompany the name of the author with a faint yet
rich echo. The younger Dumas, after all, was then not only relatively
but absolutely young; the American infants, privileged and unprivileged,
were only somewhat younger; the former going with their _bonne_, who
must have enjoyed the adventure, to the “upper boxes” of the old
Vaudeville of the Place de la Bourse, where later on I remember thinking
Madame Fargueil divine. He was quite as fortunate moreover in his own
designation as in that of his heroine; for it emphasised that bloom of
youth (I don’t say bloom of innocence—a very different matter) which
was the signal-note of the work destined, in the world at large, to
bring him nine-tenths of his celebrity.

Written at twenty-five “La Dame aux Camélias” remains in its combination
of freshness and form, of the feeling of the springtime of life and the
sense of the conditions of the theatre, a singular, an astonishing
production. The author has had no time to part with his illusions, but
has had full opportunity to master the most difficult of the arts.
Consecrated as he was to this mastery he never afterwards showed greater
adroitness than he had then done in keeping his knowledge and his
_naïveté_ from spoiling each other. The play has been blown about the
world at a fearful rate, but it has never lost its happy juvenility, a
charm that nothing can vulgarise. It is all champagne and tears—fresh
perversity, fresh credulity, fresh passion, fresh pain. We have each
seen it both well done and ill done, and perhaps more particularly the
latter—in strange places, in barbarous tongues, with Marguerite Gautier
fat and Armand Duval old. I remember ages ago in Boston a version in
which this young lady and this young gentleman were represented as
“engaged”: that indeed for all I know may still be the form in which the
piece most enjoys favour with the Anglo-Saxon public. Nothing makes any
difference—it carries with it an April air: some tender young man and
some coughing young woman have only to speak the lines to give it a
great place among the love-stories of the world. I recollect coming out
of the Gymnase one night when Madame Pierson had been the
Marguerite—this was very long since—and giving myself up on the
boulevard to a fine critical sense of what in such a composition was
flimsy and what was false. Somehow, none the less, my fine critical
sense never prevented my embracing the next opportunity to expose it to
the same irritation; for I have been, I am happy to think to-day, a
playgoer who, whatever else he may have had on his conscience, has never
had the neglect of any chance to see this dramatist acted. Least of all,
within a much shorter period, has it undermined one’s kindness to have
had occasion to admire in connection with the piece such an artist for
instance as Eleonora Duse. We have seen Madame Duse this year or two in
her tattered translation, with few advantages, with meagre accessories
and with one side of the character of the heroine scarcely touched at
all—so little indeed that the Italian version joins hands with the
American and the relation of Marguerite and Armand seems to present
itself as a question of the consecrated even if not approved “union.”
For this interesting actress, however, the most beautiful thing is
always the great thing, and her performance—if seen on a fortunate
evening—lives in the mind as a fine vindication of the play. I am not
sure indeed that it is the very performance Dumas intended; but he lived
long enough to have forgotten perhaps what that performance was. He
might on some sides, I think, have accepted Madame Duse’s as a reminder.

If I have stopped to be myself so much reminded, it is because after and
outside of “La Dame aux Camélias” Dumas really never figured among us
all again—a circumstance full of illustration of one of the most
striking of our peculiarities, the capacity for granting a prodigious
ear to some one manifestation of an author’s talent and caring nothing
whatever for the others. It is solely the manifestation and never the
talent that interests us, and nothing is stranger than the fact that no
critic has ever explained on our behalf the system by which we hurl
ourselves on a writer to-day and stare at him to-morrow as if we had
never heard of him. It gives us the air of perpetually awaking from
mistakes, but it renders obscure all our canons of judgment. A great
force makes a great success, but a great force is furthermore no less a
great force on Friday than on Monday. Was the reader a sorry dupe on the
first day, or is the writer a wanton sacrifice on the second? That the
public is intelligent on both occasions is a claim it can scarcely make:
it can only choose between having its acuteness impugned or its manners
condemned. At any rate if we have in England and the United States only
the two alternatives of the roar of the market and the silence of the
tomb the situation is apt to be different in France, where the quality
that goes into a man’s work and gives it an identity is the source of
the attention excited. It happens that the interest in the play of the
genius is greater there than the “boom” of the particular hit, the
concern primarily for the author rather than the subject, instead of, as
among ourselves, primarily for the subject rather than the author. Is
this because the French have been acute enough to reflect that authors
comprehend subjects, but that subjects can unfortunately not be said to
comprehend authors? Literature would be a merry game if the business
were arranged in the latter fashion. However such a question may be
answered, Dumas was in his own country, to the end, the force that, save
in connection with his first play, he failed to become elsewhere; and if
he was there much the most original worker in his field one of the
incidental signs of his originality was that, despite our inveterate
practice, in theatrical matters, of helping ourselves from our
neighbour’s plate, he was inveterately not a convenience to us. We
picked our morsels from the plates of smaller people—we never found on
that of the author of “Le Fils Naturel” any we could swallow. He was not
to our poor purpose, and I cannot help thinking that this helps a little
to give his artistic measure. It would be a bad note for him now if we
had found him amenable to that graceless game of which we show signs
to-day of having grown ashamed, but which flourished for years in two
imperturbable communities as the art of theatrical adaptation. A Dumas
adaptable is a Dumas inconceivable; and in point of fact he was touched
by the purveyors of the English-speaking stage only to prove fatal to
them. If the history of so mean a traffic as the one here glanced at
were worth writing it would throw light on some odd conceptions of the
delicacy in the abused name of which it was carried on. It is all to the
honour of our author’s seriousness that he was, in such conditions, so
unmanageable; though one must of course hasten to add that this
seriousness was not the only reason of it. There were several others,
not undiscoverable, and the effect of the whole combination was, in view
of the brilliant fortune of his productions at home and the eager
foraging of English and American speculators, to place him on a footing
all his own. He was of active interest among us only to individual
observers—simply as one of the most devoted of whom I trace these few
pages of commemoration.

It takes some analysis, yet is not impossible, to explain why among the
men of his time to whom the creative gift had been granted his image,
for sundry such admirers, always presented him as somehow the happiest
consciousness. They were perhaps not always aware of it, but now that he
is gone they have a revelation of the place he occupied in the envious
mind. This envy flowed doubtless, to begin with, from the sense of his
extraordinarily firm grasp of his hard refractory art; the grasp that
had put him into possession of it without fumblings or gropings made him
canter away on the back of it the moment he had touched the stirrup. He
had the air through all his career of a man riding a dangerous horse
without ever being thrown. Every one else had a fall—he alone never
really quitted the saddle, never produced a play that was not to stay to
be revived and in the case of his comparative failures enjoy some sort
of revenge, even to that of travelling in the repertory of great
actresses round the globe. Such travels, moreover, much as they may
please his shade, are far from having been the only felicities of his
long career. The others strike me as so numerous that I scarcely indeed
know where to begin to reckon them. Greatly even if oddly auspicious for
instance was just his stark son-ship to his prodigious father, his
having been launched with that momentum into the particular world in
which he was to live. It was a privilege to make up for the legal
irregularity attaching to his birth; we think of it really almost to
wonder that it didn’t lift him on a still higher wave. His limitations,
which one encounters with a sort of violence, were not to be overlooked;
it expresses them in some degree to say that he was bricked up in his
hard Parisianism, but it is also incontestable that some of them were
much concerned in producing his firm and easy equilibrium. We
understand, however, the trap they set for him when we reflect that a
certain omniscience, a great breadth of horizon, may well have seemed to
him to be transmitted, in his blood, from such a boundless fountain of
life. What mattered to him the fact of a reach of reference that stopped
at the _banlieue_, when experience had sat at his cradle in the shape
not at all of a fairy godmother but of an immediate progenitor who was
at once fabulous and familiar? He had been encompassed by all history in
being held in such arms—it was an entrance into possession of more
matters than he could even guess what to do with. The profit was all the
greater as the son had the luxury of differing actively from the father,
as well as that of actively admiring and, in a splendid sense, on all
the becoming sides, those of stature, strength and health, vividly
reproducing him. He had in relation to his special gift, his mastery of
the dramatic form, a faculty of imagination as contracted as that of the
author of “Monte Cristo” was boundless, but his moral sense on the other
hand, as distinguished from that of his parent, was of the liveliest,
was indeed of the most special and curious kind. The moral sense of the
parent was to be found only in his good humour and his good health—the
moral sense of a musketeer in love. This lack of adventurous vision, of
the long flight and the joy of motion, was in the younger genius quite
one of the conditions of his strength and luck, of his fine assurance,
his sharp edge, his high emphasis, his state untroubled above all by
things not within his too irregularly conditioned ken. The things close
about him were the things he saw—there were alternatives, differences,
opposites, of which he lacked so much as the suspicion. Nothing
contributes more to the prompt fortune of an artist than some such
positive and exclusive temper, the courage of his convictions, as we
usually call it, the power to neglect something thoroughly, to abound
aggressively in his own sense and express without reserve his own
saturation. The saturation of the author of “Le Demi-Monde” was never
far to seek. He was as native to Paris as a nectarine to a south wall.
He would have fared ill if he had not had a great gift and Paris had not
been a great city.

It was another element of the happy mixture that he came into the world
at the moment in all our time that was for a man of letters the most
amusing and beguiling—the moment exactly when he could see the end of
one era and the beginning of another and join hands luxuriously with
each. This was an advantage to which it would have taken a genius more
elastic to do full justice, but which must have made him feel himself
both greatly related and inspiringly free. He sprang straight from the
lap of full-grown romanticism; he was a boy, a privileged and initiated
youth, when his father, when Victor Hugo, when Lamartine and Musset and
Scribe and Michelet and Balzac and George Sand were at the high tide of
production. He saw them all, knew them all, lived with them and made of
them his profit, tasting just enough of the old concoction to understand
the proportions in which the new should be mixed. He had above all in
his father, for the purpose that was in him, a magnificent
springboard—a background to throw into relief, as a ruddy sunset seems
to make a young tree doubly bristle, a profile of another type. If it
was not indispensable it was at any rate quite poetic justice that the
successor to the name should be, in his conditions, the great casuist of
the theatre. He had seen the end of an age of imagination, he had seen
all that could be done and shown in the way of mere illustration of the
passions. That the passions are always with us is a fact he had not the
smallest pretension to shut his eyes to—they were to constitute the
almost exclusive subject of his study. But he was to study them not for
the pleasure, the picture, the poetry they offer; he was to study them
in the interest of something quite outside of them, about which the
author of “Antony” and “Kean,” about which Victor Hugo and Musset,
Scribe and Balzac and even George Sand had had almost nothing to say. He
was to study them from the point of view of the idea of the right and
the wrong, of duty and conduct, and he was to this end to spend his
artistic life with them and give a new turn to the theatre. He was in
short to become, on the basis of a determined observation of the manners
of his time and country, a professional moralist.

There can scarcely be a better illustration of differences of national
habit and attitude than the fact that while among his own people this is
the character, as an operative force, borne by the author of “Le
Demi-Monde” and “Les Idées de Madame Aubray,” so among a couple of
others, in the proportion in which his reputation there has emerged from
the vague, his most definite identity is that of a mere painter of
indecent people and indecent doings. There are, as I have hinted,
several reasons for the circumstance already noted, the failure of the
attempt to domesticate him on the English-speaking stage; but one states
the case fairly, I think, in saying that what accounts for half of it is
our passion, in the presence of a work of art, for confounding the
object, as the philosophers have it, with the subject, for losing sight
of the idea in the vehicle, of the intention in the fable. Dumas is a
dramatist as to whom nine playgoers out of ten would precipitately
exclaim: “Ah, but you know, isn’t he dreadfully immoral?” Such are the
lions in the path of reputation, such the fate, in an alien air, of a
master whose main reproach in his native clime is the importunity and
the rigour of his lesson. The real difference, I take it, is that
whereas we like to be good the French like to be better. We like to be
moral, they like to moralise. This helps us to understand the number of
our innocent writers—writers innocent even of reflection, a practice of
course essentially indelicate, inasmuch as it speedily brings us face to
face with scandal and even with evil. It accounts doubtless also for the
number of writers on the further side of the Channel who have made the
journey once for all and to whom, in the dangerous quarter they have
reached, it appears of the very nature of scandal and evil to be
inquired about. The whole undertaking of such a writer as Dumas is,
according to his light, to carry a particular, an esthetic form of
investigation as far as it will stretch—to study, and study thoroughly,
the bad cases. These bad cases were precisely what our managers and
adapters, our spectators and critics would have nothing to do with. It
defines indeed the separation that they should have been, in the light
in which he presented them, precisely what made them for his own public
exceptionally edifying. One of his great contentions is, for instance,
that seduced girls should under all circumstances be married—by
somebody or other, failing the seducer. This is a contention that, as we
feel, barely concerns us, shut up as we are in the antecedent conviction
that they should under no circumstances be seduced. He meets all the
cases that, as we see him, we feel to have been spread out before him;
meets them successively, systematically, at once with a great
earnestness and a great wit. He is exuberantly sincere: his good faith
sometimes obscures his humour, but nothing obscures his good faith. So
he gives us in their order the unworthy brides who must be denounced,
the prenuptial children who must be adopted, the natural sons who must
be avenged, the wavering ladies who must be saved, the credulous fiancés
who must be enlightened, the profligate wives who must be shot, the
merely blemished ones who must be forgiven, the too vindictive ones who
must be humoured, the venal young men who must be exposed, the
unfaithful husbands who must be frightened, the frivolous fathers who
must be pulled up and the earnest sons who must pull them. To enjoy his
manner of dealing with such material we must grant him in every
connection his full premise: that of the importunity of the phenomenon,
the ubiquity of the general plight, the plight in which people are left
by an insufficient control of their passions. We must grant him in fact
for his didactic and dramatic purpose a great many things. These things,
taken together and added to some others, constitute the luxurious terms
on which I have spoken of him as appearing to the alien admirer to have
practised his complicated art.

When we speak of the passions in general we really mean, for the most
part, the first of the number, the most imperious in its action and the
most interesting in its consequences, the passion that unites and
divides the sexes. It is the passion, at any rate, to which Dumas as
dramatist and pamphleteer mainly devoted himself: his plays, his
prefaces, his manifestos, his few tales roll exclusively on the special
relation of the man to the woman and the woman to the man, and on the
dangers of various sorts, even that of ridicule, with which this
relation surrounds each party. This element of danger is what I have
called the general plight, for when our author considers the sexes as
united and divided it is with the predominance of the division that he
is principally struck. It is not an unfair account of him to say that
life presented itself to him almost wholly as a fierce battle between
the woman and the man. He sides now with one and now with the other; the
former combatant, in her own country, however, was far from pronouncing
him sympathetic. His subject at all events is what we of English race
call the sexes and what they in France call the sex. To talk of love is
to talk, as we have it, of men and women; to talk of love is, as the
French have it, to _parler femmes_. From every play of our author’s we
receive the impression that to _parler femmes_ is its essential and
innermost purpose. It is not assuredly singular that a novelist, a
dramatist _should_ talk of love, or even should talk of nothing else:
what, in addition to his adroitness and his penetration, makes the
position special for Dumas is that he talks of it—and in the form of
address most associated with pure diversion—altogether from the anxious
point of view of the legislator and the citizen.

“Diane de Lys,” which immediately followed “La Dame aux Camélias,” is,
so far as I can recall it, a picture pure and simple, a pretty story, as
we say, sufficiently romantic and rather long-winded; but with “Le
Demi-Monde” began his rich argumentative series, concluding only the
other day with “Denise” and “Francillon,” the series in which every
theme is a proposition to be established and every proposition a form of
duty to be faced. The only variation that I can recollect in the list is
the disinterested portraiture of “Le Père Prodigue,” with its remarkable
presentation, in the figure of Albertine de la Borde, of vice
domesticated and thrifty, keeping early hours and books in double-entry,
and its remarkable illustration, I may further add, of all that was the
reverse of infallible in the author’s power to distinguish between
amiable infirmities and ugly ones. The idea on which “Le Père Prodigue”
rests belongs more distinctively to the world of comedy than almost any
other situation exhibited in the series; but what are we to say of the
selection, for comic effect, of a fable of which the principal feature
is a son’s not unfounded suspicion of the attitude of his own father to
his own wife? The father is the image of a nature profusely frivolous,
but we scent something more frivolous still in the way his frivolity is
disposed of. At the time the play was produced the spectator thought
himself warranted in recognising in this picture the personal character
(certainly not the personal genius) of the elder Dumas. If the spectator
_was_ so warranted, that only helps, I think, to make “Le Père Prodigue”
a stumbling-block for the critic—make it, I mean, an exhibition of the
author off his guard and a fact to be taken into account in an estimate
of his moral reach; a moral reach, for the rest, at all events, never
impugned by any obliquity in facing that conception of the duty imposed
which it is the main source of the writer’s interest in the figured
circumstances that they may be held to impose it, and which he was apt
to set forth more dogmatically, or at least more excitedly, in an
occasional and polemical pamphlet. These pamphlets, I may
parenthetically say, strike me as definitely compromising to his
character as artist. What shines in them most is the appetite for a
discussion, or rather the appetite for a conclusion, and the passion for
a simplified and vindictive justice. But I have never found it easy to
forgive a writer who, in possession of a form capable of all sorts of
splendid application, puts on this resource the slight of using
substitutes for it at will, as if it is good but for parts of the cause.
If it is good for anything it is good for the whole demonstration, and
if it is not good for the whole demonstration it is good for
nothing—nothing that _he_ is concerned with. If the picture of life
doesn’t cover the ground what in the world _can_ cover it? The fault can
only be the painter’s. Woe, in the esthetic line, to any example that
requires the escort of precept. It is like a guest arriving to dine
accompanied by constables. Our author’s prefaces and treatises show a
mistrust of disinterested art. He would have declared probably that his
art was not disinterested; to which our reply would be that it had then
no right to put us off the scent and prepare deceptions for us by coming
within an ace of being as good as if it were.

The merits of the play—that is of the picture, in these hands—are
sometimes singularly independent of the lesson conveyed. The merits of
the lesson conveyed are in other cases much more incontestable than
those of the picture, than the production of the air of life or the
happiest observance of the conditions of the drama. The conclusion, the
prescription, of “Denise” strikes me (to give an instance) as singularly
fine, but the subject belongs none the less to the hapless order of
those that fail to profit by the dramatic form though they have
sacrificed the highest advantages of the literary. A play—even the
best—pays so tremendously by what it essentially can not do for the
comparatively little it practically can, that a mistake in the
arithmetic of this positive side speedily produces a wide deviation. In
other words the spectator, and still more the reader, sees such a theme
as that of “Denise,” which may be described as the evolution of a view,
presented most in accordance with its nature when the attempt is not
made to present it in accordance with the nature of the theatre. It is
the nature of the theatre to give its victims, in exchange for
melancholy concessions, a vision of the immediate not to be enjoyed in
any other way; and consequently when the material offered it to deal
with is not the immediate, but the contingent, the derived, the
hypothetic, our melancholy concessions have been made in vain and the
inadequacy of the form comes out. In “Francillon,” partly perhaps
because the thing has nothing to do with anybody’s duty—least of all
with the heroine’s, which would be surely to keep off the streets—the
form happens to be remarkably adequate. The question is of the liberty
of the protagonist, the right of a wronged and indignant wife to work
out her husband’s chastisement in the same material as his sin, work it
out moreover on the spot, as a blow is repaid by a blow, exacting an eye
for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The play has all the kinds of life
that the theatre can achieve, because in the first place Dumas, though
acting as the wife’s advocate, has had the intelligence to give us a
solution which is only a scenic sequence and not a real, still less a
“philosophic,” one; and because in the second it deals with emotions and
impulses, which can be shown by the short measure, and not with
reflections and aspirations, which can be shown but by the long.

I am not pretending to take things in turn, but a critic with a generous
memory of the spell of Dumas should not, however pressed, neglect to
strain a point for “Le Demi-Monde.” I doubt my competence, however, to
consider that admirable work scientifically—I find myself too condemned
to consider it sentimentally. A critic is lost, as a critic, from the
moment his feeling about the worse parts of the matter he investigates
fails to differ materially from his feeling about the better. That is an
attitude even less enlightened than being unconscious of the blemishes;
all the same it must serve me for the present case. I am perfectly aware
that Olivier de Jalin is a man of no true delicacy; in spite of which I
take when I see them represented the liveliest interest in his
proceedings. I am perfectly aware that Madame d’Ange, with her _calme
infernal_, as George Sand calls it, is tainted and tortuous; in spite of
which my imagination quite warms to Madame d’Ange. Perhaps I should
indeed rather say that this interest and this sympathy have for their
object the great total of the play. It is the member of the series in
which Dumas first took up the scales in one hand and the sword in the
other, and it is a wonderful piece of work, wonderful in kind of
maturity, for a man of thirty. It has all the easy amplitude we call
authority. I won’t pretend to say what I think, here, of the author’s
justice, and if I happen to think ill of it I won’t pretend to care. I
see the thing through too many old memories, old echoes, old charms. In
the light of the admirable acting of ancient days, of the faded image of
the exquisite Desclée, of a dim recollection even of the prehistoric
Rose Chéri and of Mademoiselle Delaporte, it represents too many of the
reasons why I saw him always ideally triumphant. To practise an art
which for its full, its rich effect depended on interpretation, and to
be able to do one’s work with an eye on interpretation of that
quality—this had in common with supreme bliss the element at any rate
of being attainable only by the elect. It partook of a peace the world
cannot give. To be a moralist with the aid of Croizette, a philosopher
with the aid of Delaunay, an Academician, even, with the aid of
Bartet—such things suggested an almost equivocal union of virtue and
success. One had never seen virtue so agreeable to one’s self, nor
success so useful to others. One had never seen a play that was a model
so alive in spite of it. Models in the theatre were apt to be dead and
vivacities vulgar. One had never above all seen on the stage a picture
so conformable to deep pictorial art, a drama so liberally, gradually,
scientifically flushed with its action. Beautiful in “Le Demi-Monde” is
the way the subject quietly, steadily, strongly expands from within.

It was always the coercive force that his tone gave one the strongest
sense of life, and it remains the interesting thing that this element in
Dumas abounds in spite of not being fed from the source that we usually
assume to be the richest. It was not fed from the imagination, for his
imagination, by no means of the great plastic sort, has left us a
comparatively small heritage of typical figures. His characters are all
pointed by observation, they are clear notes in the concert, but not one
of them has known the little invisible push that, even when shyly and
awkwardly administered, makes the puppet, in spite of the string, walk
off by himself and quite “cut,” if the mood take him, that distant
relation his creator. They are always formal with this personage and
thoroughly conscious and proud of him; there is a charm of mystery and
poetry and oddity, a glory of unexpectedness, that they consistently
lack. Their life, and that, in each case, of the whole story (quite the
most wonderful part of this) is simply the author’s own life, his high
vitality, his very presence and temperament and voice. They do more for
him even than they do for the subject, and he himself is at last
accordingly the most vivid thing in every situation. He keeps it at
arm’s length because he has the instinct of the dramatist and the
conscience of the artist, but we feel all the while that his face is
bigger than his mask. Nothing about his work is more extraordinary than
this manner in which his personality pervades without spoiling it the
most detached and most impersonal of literary forms. The reasons for
such an impunity are first that his precautions, the result of a great
intelligence, were so effective, and second that his personality, the
result of a great affiliation, was so robust. It may be said that the
precautions were not effective if the man himself was what one most
enjoyed in the play. The only answer to that can be that I speak merely
for myself and for the fresher sensibility of the happy time. Other
admirers found certainly other things; what I found most was a tall
figure in muscular motion and the sense of a character that had made
admirably free with life. If it was mainly as an unabashed observer that
he had made free, and if the life supplied was much of it uncommonly
queer, that never diminished the action of his hard masculinity and his
fine intellectual brutality. There was an easy competence in it all, and
a masterful experience, and a kind of vicarious courage. In particular
there was a real genius for putting all persons—especially all bad
ones—very much in their place. Then it was all, for another bribe, so
copious and so close, so sustained and so quiet, with such fascinating
unities and complex simplicities and natural solutions. It was the
breath of the world and the development of an art.

All the good, however, that I recollect thinking of Dumas only reminds
me how little I desired that my remarks in general should lead me into
vain discriminations. There are some indeed that are not vain—at least
they help us to understand. He has a noble strain of force, a fulness of
blood that has permitted him to be tapped without shrinking. We must
speak of him in the present tense, as we always speak of the masters.
The theatre of his time, wherever it has been serious, has on the ground
of general method lived on him; wherever it has not done so it has not
lived at all. To pretend to be too shocked to profit by him was a way of
covering up its levity, but there was no escaping its fate. He was the
kind of artistic influence that is as inevitable as a medical specific:
you may decline it from black bottle to-day—you will take it from a
green bottle to-morrow. The energy that went forth blooming as Dumas has
come back grizzled as Ibsen, and would under the latter form, I am sure,
very freely acknowledge its debt. A critic whose words meet my eyes as I
write very justly says that: “Just as we have the novel before Balzac
and the novel after Balzac, the poetry that preceded Victor Hugo and the
poetry that followed him, so we have the drama before Alexandre Dumas
and the drama after him.” He has left his strong hand upon it; he
remodelled it as a vehicle, he refreshed it as an art. His passion for
it was obviously great, but there would be a high injustice to him in
not immediately adding that his interest in the material it dealt with,
in his subject, his question, his problem, was greater still than this
joy of the craftsman. That might well be, but there are celebrated cases
in which it has not been. The largest quality in Dumas was his immense
concern about life—his sense of human character and human fate as
commanding and controllable things. To do something on their behalf was
paramount for him, and _what_ to do in his own case clear: what else but
act upon the conscience as violently as he could, and with the
remarkable weapons that Providence had placed within his grasp and for
which he was to show his gratitude by a perfectly intrepid application?
These weapons were three: a hard rare wit, not lambent like a flame, but
stiff and straight like an arrow from a crossbow; a perception not less
rare of some of the realities of the particular human tendency about
which most falsities have clustered; and lastly that native instinct for
the conditions of dramatic presentation without which any attempt to
meet them is a helpless groping.

It must always be remembered of him that he was the observer of a
special order of things, the moralist of a particular relation as the
umpire of a yacht-race is the legislator of a particular sport. His
vision and his talent, as I have said, were all for the immediate, for
the manners and the practices he himself was drenched with: he had none
of the faculty that scents from afar, that wings away and dips beyond
the horizon. There are moments when a reader not of his own race feels
that he simplifies almost absurdly. There are too many things he didn’t
after all guess, too many cases he didn’t after all provide for. He has
a certain odour of bad company that almost imperils his distinction.
This was doubtless the deepest of the reasons why among ourselves he
flourished so scantly: we felt ourselves to be of a world in which the
elements were differently mixed, the proportions differently marked, so
that the tables of our law would have to be differently graven. His very
earnestness was only a hindrance—he might have had more to say to us if
he had consented to have less application. This produced the curious
dryness, the obtrusive economy of his drama—the hammered sharpness of
every outline, the metallic ring of every sound. His terrible knowledge
suggested a kind of uniform—gilt buttons, a feathered hat and a little
official book; it was almost like an irruption of the police. The most
general masters are the poets, with all the things they blessedly don’t
hold for so very certain and all the things they blessedly and
preferably invent. It is true that Dumas was splendid, in his way,
exactly because he was not vague: his concentration, all confidence and
doctrine and epigram, is the explanation of his extraordinary force.
That force is his abiding quality: one feels that he was magnificently a
man—that he stands up high and sees straight and speaks loud. It is his
great temperament, undiminished by what it lacks, that endears him to
his admirers. It made him still of the greater race and played well its
part in its time—so well that one thinks of him finally as perhaps not,
when all is said, of the very happiest group, the group of those for
whom in the general affection there is yet more to come. He had an
immense reverberation—he practised the art that makes up for being the
most difficult by being the most acclaimed. There is no postponed poetic
justice for those who have had everything. He was seconded in a manner
that must have made success a double delight. There are indications that
the dramatist of the future will be less and less elated. He may well
become so if he is to see himself less and less interpreted.



                THE NOVEL IN “THE RING AND THE BOOK”[8]
                                  1912


If on such an occasion as this—even with our natural impulse to shake
ourselves free of reserves—some sharp choice between the dozen
different aspects of one of the most copious of our poets becomes a
prime necessity, though remaining at the same time a great difficulty,
so in respect to the most voluminous of his works the admirer is
promptly held up, as we have come to call it; finds himself almost
baffled by alternatives. “The Ring and the Book” is so vast and so
essentially gothic a structure, spreading and soaring and branching at
such a rate, covering such ground, putting forth such pinnacles and
towers and brave excrescences, planting its transepts and chapels and
porticos, its clustered hugeness or inordinate muchness, that with any
first approach we but walk vaguely and slowly, rather bewilderedly,
round and round it, wondering at what point we had best attempt such
entrance as will save our steps and light our uncertainty, most enable
us to reach our personal chair, our indicated chapel or shrine, when
once within. For it is to be granted that to this inner view the
likeness of the literary monument to one of the great religious gives
way a little, sustains itself less than in the first, the affronting
mass; unless we simply figure ourselves, under the great roof, looking
about us through a splendid thickness and dimness of air, an
accumulation of spiritual presences or unprofaned mysteries, that makes
our impression heavily general—general only—and leaves us helpless for
reporting on particulars. The particulars for our purpose have thus
their identity much rather in certain features of the twenty
faces—either of one or of another of these—that the structure turns to
the outer day and that we can, as it were, sit down before and consider
at our comparative ease. I say comparative advisedly, for I cling to the
dear old tradition that Browning is “difficult”—which we were all
brought up on and which I think we should, especially on a rich
retrospective day like this, with the atmosphere of his great career
settling upon us as much as possible, feel it a shock to see break down
in too many places at once. Selecting my ground, by your kind
invitation, for sticking in and planting before you, to flourish so far
as it shall, my little sprig of bay, I have of course tried to measure
the quantity of ease with which our material may on that noted spot
allow itself to be treated. There are innumerable things in “The Ring
and the Book”—as the comprehensive image I began with makes it needless
I should say; and I have been above all appealed to by the possibility
that one of these, pursued for a while through the labyrinth, but at
last overtaken and then more or less confessing its identity, might have
yielded up its best essence as a grateful theme under some fine strong
economy of _prose_ treatment. So here you have me talking at once of
prose and seeking that connection to help out my case.

From far back, from my first reading of these volumes, which took place
at the time of their disclosure to the world, when I was a fairly young
person, the sense, almost the pang, of the novel they might have
constituted sprang sharply from them; so that I was to go on through the
years almost irreverently, all but quite profanely if you will, thinking
of the great loose and uncontrolled composition, the great heavy-hanging
cluster of related but unreconciled parts, as a fiction of the so-called
historic type, that is as a suggested study of the manners and
conditions from which our own have more or less traceably issued, just
tragically spoiled—or as a work of art, in other words, smothered in
the producing. To which I hasten to add my consciousness of the scant
degree in which such a fresh start from our author’s documents, such a
reprojection of them, wonderful documents as they can only have been,
may claim a critical basis. Conceive me as simply astride of my
different fancy, my other dream, of the matter—which bolted with me, as
I have said, at the first alarm.

Browning worked in this connection literally _upon_ documents; no page
of his long story is more vivid and splendid than that of his find of
the Book in the litter of a market-stall in Florence and the swoop of
practised perception with which he caught up in it a treasure. Here was
a subject stated to the last ounce of its weight, a living and breathing
record of facts pitiful and terrible, a mass of matter bristling with
revelations and yet at the same time wrapped over with layer upon layer
of contemporary appreciation; which appreciation, in its turn, was a
part of the wealth to be appreciated. What our great master saw was his
situation founded, seated there in positively packed and congested
significance, though by just so much as it was charged with meanings and
values were those things undeveloped and unexpressed. They looked up at
him, even in that first flush and from their market-stall, and said to
him, in their compressed compass, as with the muffled rumble of a
slow-coming earthquake, “Express us, express us, immortalise us as we’ll
immortalise _you_!”—so that the terms of the understanding were so far
cogent and clear. It was an understanding, on their side, with the poet;
and since that poet had produced “Men and Women,” “Dramatic Lyrics,”
“Dramatis Personæ” and sundry plays—we needn’t even foist on him
“Sordello”—he could but understand in his own way. That way would have
had to be quite some other, we fully see, had he been by habit and
profession not just the lyric, epic, dramatic commentator, the
extractor, to whatever essential potency and redundancy, of the moral of
the fable, but the very fabulist himself, the inventor and projector,
layer down of the postulate and digger of the foundation. I doubt if we
have a precedent for this energy of appropriation of a deposit of
_stated_ matter, a block of sense already in position and requiring not
to be shaped and squared and caused any further to solidify, but rather
to suffer disintegration, be pulled apart, melted down, hammered, by the
most characteristic of the poet’s processes, to powder—dust of gold and
silver, let us say. He was to apply to it his favourite system—that of
looking at his subject from the point of view of a curiosity almost
sublime in its freedom, yet almost homely in its method, and of
smuggling as many more points of view together into that one as the
fancy might take him to smuggle, on a scale on which even he had never
before applied it; this with a courage and a confidence that, in
presence of all the conditions, conditions many of them arduous and arid
and thankless even to defiance, we can only pronounce splendid, and of
which the issue was to be of a proportioned monstrous magnificence.

The one definite forecast for this product would have been that it
should figure for its producer as a poem—as if he had simply said, “I
embark at any rate for the Golden Isles”; everything else was of the
pure incalculable, the frank voyage of adventure. To what extent the
Golden Isles were in fact to be reached is a matter we needn’t pretend,
I think, absolutely to determine; let us feel for ourselves and as we
will about it—either see our adventurer, disembarked bag and baggage
and in possession, plant his flag on the highest eminence within his
circle of sea, or, on the other hand, but watch him approach and beat
back a little, tack and turn and stand off, always fairly in sight of
land, catching rare glimpses and meeting strange airs, but not quite
achieving the final _coup_ that annexes the group. He returns to us
under either view all scented and salted with his measure of contact,
and that for the moment is enough for us—more than enough for me at any
rate, engaged for your beguilement in this practical relation of
snuffing up what he brings. He brings, however one puts it, a detailed
report, which is but another word for a story; and it is with his story,
his offered, not his borrowed one—a very different matter—that I am
concerned. We are probably most of us so aware of its general content
that if I sum this up I may do so briefly. The Book of the Florentine
rubbish-heap is the full account (as full accounts were conceived in
those days) of the trial before the Roman courts, with inquiries and
judgments by the Tuscan authorities intermixed, of a certain Count Guido
Franceschini of Arezzo, decapitated, in company with four
confederates—these latter hanged—on February 22, 1698, for the murder
of his young wife Pompilia Comparini and her ostensible parents, Pietro
and Violante of that ilk.

The circumstances leading to this climax were primarily his marriage to
Pompilia, some years before, in Rome—she being then but in her
thirteenth year—under the impression, fostered in him by the elder
pair, that she was their own child and on this head heiress to moneys
settled on them from of old in the event of their having a child. They
had in fact had none, and had, in substitution, invented, so to speak,
Pompilia, the luckless base-born baby of a woman of lamentable character
easily induced to part with her for cash. They bring up the hapless
creature as their daughter, and as their daughter they marry her, in
Rome, to the middle-aged and impecunious Count Guido, a rapacious and
unscrupulous fortune-seeker by whose superior social position, as we
say, dreadfully _decaduto_ though he be, they are dazzled out of all
circumspection. The girl, innocent, ignorant, bewildered, scared and
purely passive, is taken home by her husband to Arezzo, where she is at
first attended by Pietro and Violante and where the direst
disappointment await the three. Count Guido proves the basest of men and
his home a place of terror and of torture, from which at the age of
seventeen, and shortly prior to her giving birth to an heir to the
house, such as it is, she is rescued by a pitying witness of her misery,
Canon Caponsacchi, a man of the world and adorning it, yet in holy
orders, as men of the world in Italy might then be, who clandestinely
helps her, at peril of both their lives, back to Rome, and of whom it is
attested that he has had no other relation with her but this of
distinguished and all-disinterested friend in need. The pretended
parents have at an early stage thrown up their benighted game, fleeing
from the rigour of their dupe’s domestic rule, disclosing to him
vindictively the part they have played and the consequent failure of any
profit to him through his wife, and leaving him in turn to wreak his
spite, which has become infernal, on the wretched Pompilia. He pursues
her to Rome, on her eventual flight, and overtakes her, with her
companion, just outside the gates; but having, by the aid of the local
powers, reachieved possession of her, he contents himself for the time
with procuring her sequestration in a convent, from which, however, she
is presently allowed to emerge in view of the near birth of her child.
She rejoins Pietro and Violante, devoted to her, oddly enough, through
all their folly and fatuity; and under their roof, in a lonely Roman
suburb, her child comes into the world. Her husband meanwhile, hearing
of her release, gives way afresh to the fury that had not at the climax
of his former pursuit taken full effect; he recruits a band of four of
his young tenants or farm-labourers and makes his way, armed, like his
companions, with knives, to the door behind which three of the parties
to all the wrong done him, as he holds, then lurk. He pronounces, after
knocking and waiting, the name of Caponsacchi; upon which, as the door
opens, Violante presents herself. He stabs her to death on the spot with
repeated blows—like her companions she is off her guard; and he throws
himself on each of these with equal murderous effect. Pietro, crying for
mercy, falls second beneath him; after which he attacks his wife, whom
he literally hacks to death. She survives, by a miracle, long enough, in
spite of all her wounds, to testify; which testimony, as may be
imagined, is not the least precious part of the case. Justice is on the
whole, though deprecated and delayed, what we call satisfactory; the
last word is for the Pope in person, Innocent XII. Pignatelli, at whose
deliberation, lone and supreme, on Browning’s page, we splendidly
assist; and Count Guido and his accomplices, bloodless as to the act
though these appear to have been, meet their discriminated doom.

That is the bundle of facts, accompanied with the bundle of proceedings,
legal, ecclesiastical, diplomatic and other, _on_ the facts, that our
author, of a summer’s day, made prize of; but our general temptation, as
I say—out of which springs this question of the other values of
character and effect, the other completeness of picture and drama, that
the confused whole might have had for us—is a distinctly different
thing. The difference consists, you see, to begin with, in the very
breath of our poet’s genius, already, and so inordinately, at play on
them from the first of our knowing them. And it consists in the second
place of such an extracted sense of the whole, which becomes, after the
most extraordinary fashion, bigger by the extraction, immeasurably
bigger than even the most cumulative weight of the mere crude evidence,
that our choice of how to take it all is in a manner determined for us:
we can only take it as tremendously interesting, interesting not only in
itself but with the great added interest, the dignity and authority and
beauty, of Browning’s general perception of it. We can’t not accept
this, and little enough on the whole do we want not to: it sees us, with
its tremendous push, that of its poetic, esthetic, historic, psychologic
shoulder (one scarce knows how to name it), so far on our way. Yet all
the while we are in presence not at all of an achieved form, but of a
mere preparation for one, though on the hugest scale; so that, you see,
we are no more than decently attentive with our question: “Which of them
all, of the various methods of casting the wondrously mixed metal, is
he, as he goes, preparing?” Well, as he keeps giving and giving, in
immeasurable plenty, it is in our selection from it all and our picking
it over that we seek, and to whatever various and unequal effect find,
our account. He works over his vast material, and we then work _him_
over, though not availing ourselves, to this end, of a grain he himself
doesn’t somehow give us; and there we are.

I admit that my faith in my particular contention would be a degree
firmer and fonder if there didn’t glimmer through our poet’s splendid
hocus-pocus just the hint of one of those flaws that sometimes deform
the fair face of a subject otherwise generally appealing or
promising—of such a subject in especial as may have been submitted to
us, possibly even with the pretension to impose it, in too complete a
shape. The idea but half hinted—when it is a very good one—is apt to
contain the germ of happier fruit than the freight of the whole branch,
waved at us or dropped into our lap, very often proves. This happens
when we take over, as the phrase is, established data, take them over
from existing records and under some involved obligation to take them as
they stand. That drawback rests heavily for instance on the so-called
historic fiction—so beautiful a case it is of a muddlement of
terms—and is just one of the eminent reasons why the embarrassed Muse
of that form, pulled up again and again, and the more often the fine
intelligence invokes her, by the need of a superior harmony which shall
be after all but a superior truth, catches up her flurried skirts and
makes her saving dash for some gap in the hedge of romance. Now the flaw
on this so intensely expressive face, that of the general _donnée_ of
the fate of Pompilia, is that amid the variety of forces at play about
her the unity of the situation isn’t, by one of those large straight
ideal gestures on the part of the Muse, handed to us at a stroke. The
question of the whereabouts of the unity of a group of data subject to
be wrought together into a thing of art, the question in other words of
the point at which the various implications of interest, no matter how
many, _most_ converge and interfuse, becomes always, by my sense of the
affair, quite the first to be answered; for according to the answer
shapes and fills itself the very vessel of that beauty—the beauty,
exactly, _of_ interest, of maximum interest, which is the ultimate
extract of any collocation of facts, any picture of life, and the finest
aspect of any artistic work. Call a novel a picture of life as much as
we will; call it, according to one of our recent fashions, a slice, or
even a chunk, even a “bloody” chunk, of life, a rough excision from that
substance as superficially cut and as summarily served as possible, it
still fails to escape this exposure to appreciation, or in other words
to criticism, that it has had to be selected, selected under some sense
for something; and the unity of the exhibition should meet us, does meet
us if the work be done, at the point at which that sense is most patent.
If the slice or the chunk, or whatever we call it, if _it_ isn’t “done,”
as we say—and as it so often declines to be—the work itself of course
isn’t likely to be; and there we may dismiss it.

The first thing we do is to cast about for some centre in our field;
seeing that, for such a purpose as ours, the subject might very nearly
go a-begging with none more definite than the author has provided for
it. I find that centre in the embracing consciousness of Caponsacchi,
which, coming to the rescue of our question of treatment, of our search
for a point of control, practically saves everything, and shows itself
moreover the only thing that _can_ save. The more we ask of any other
part of our picture that it shall exercise a comprehensive function, the
more we see that particular part inadequate; as inadequate even in the
extraordinarily magnified range of spirit and reach of intelligence of
the atrocious Franceschini as in the sublime passivity and plasticity of
the childish Pompilia, educated to the last point though she be indeed
by suffering, but otherwise so untaught that she can neither read nor
write. The magnified state is in this work still more than elsewhere the
note of the intelligence, of any and every faculty of thought, imputed
by our poet to his creatures; and it takes a great mind, one of the
greatest, we may at once say, to make these persons express and confess
themselves to such an effect of intellectual splendour. He resorts
primarily to _their_ sense, their sense of themselves and of everything
else they know, to exhibit them, and has for this purpose to keep them,
and to keep them persistently and inexhaustibly, under the fixed lens of
his prodigious vision. He this makes out in them boundless treasures of
truth—truth even when it happens to be, as in the case of Count Guido,
but a shining wealth of constitutional falsity. Of the extent to which
he may after this fashion unlimitedly draw upon them his exposure of
Count Guido, which goes on and on, though partly, I admit, by repeating
itself, is a wondrous example. It is not too much to say of
Pompilia—Pompilia pierced with twenty wounds, Pompilia on her
death-bed, Pompilia but seventeen years old and but a fortnight a
mother—that she _acquires_ an intellectual splendour just by the fact
of the vast covering charity of imagination with which her recording,
our commemorated, avenger, never so as in this case an avenger of the
wronged beautiful things in life, hangs over and breathes upon her. We
see her come out to him, and the extremely remarkable thing is that we
see it, on the whole, without doubting that it might just have been.
Nothing could thus be more interesting, however it may at moments and in
places puzzle us, than the impunity, on our poet’s part, of most of
these overstretchings of proportion, these violations of the immediate
appearance. Browning is deep down below the immediate with the first
step of his approach; he has vaulted over the gate, is already far
afield and never, so long as we watch him, has occasion to fall back. We
wonder, for, after all, the real is his quest, the very ideal of the
real, the real most finely mixed with life, which _is_ in the last
analysis the ideal; and we know, with our dimmer vision, no such reality
as a Franceschini fighting for his life, fighting for the vindication of
his baseness, embodying his squalor, with an audacity of wit, an
intensity of colour, a variety of speculation and illustration, that
represent well-nigh the maximum play of the human mind. It is in like
sort scarce too much to say of the exquisite Pompilia that on her part
intelligence and expression are disengaged to a point at which the
angels may well begin to envy her; and all again without our once
wincing so far as our consistently liking to see and hear and believe is
concerned. Caponsacchi regales us, of course, with the rarest fruit of a
great character, a great culture and a great case; but Caponsacchi is
acceptedly and naturally, needfully and illustratively, splendid. He
_is_ the soul of man at its finest—having passed through the smoky
fires of life and emerging clear and high. Greatest of all the spirits
exhibited, however, is that of the more than octogenarian Pope, at whose
brooding, pondering, solitary vigil, by the end of a hard grey winter
day in the great bleak waiting Vatican—“in the plain closet where he
does such work”—we assist as intimately as at every other step of the
case, and on whose grand meditation we heavily hang. But the Pope
strikes us at first—though indeed perhaps only at first—as too high
above the whole connection functionally and historically for us to place
him within it dramatically. Our novel faces provisionally the question
of dispensing with him, as it dispenses with the amazing, bristling, all
too indulgently presented Roman advocates on either side of the case,
who combine to put together the most formidable monument we possess to
Browning’s active curiosity and the liveliest proof of his almost
unlimited power to give on his readers’ nerves without giving on his
own.

What remains with us all this time, none the less, is the effect of
magnification, the exposure of each of these figures, in its degree, to
that iridescent wash of personality, of temper and faculty, that our
author ladles out to them, as the copious share of each, from his own
great reservoir of spiritual health, and which makes us, as I have
noted, seek the reason of a perpetual anomaly. Why, bristling so with
references to _him_ rather than with references to each other or to any
accompanying set of circumstances, do they still establish more truth
and beauty than they sacrifice, do they still, according to their
chance, help to make “The Ring and the Book” a great living thing, a
great objective mass? I brushed by the answer a moment ago, I think, in
speaking of the development in Pompilia of the resource of expression,
which brings us round, it seems to me, to the justification of
Browning’s method. To express his inner self—his outward was a
different affair!—and to express it utterly, even if no matter how, was
clearly, for his own measure and consciousness of that inner self, to
_be_ poetic; and the solution of all the deviations and disparities or,
speaking critically, monstrosities, in the mingled tissue of this work,
is the fact that whether or no by such convulsions of soul and sense
life got delivered for him, the garment of life (which for him was
poetry and poetry alone) got disposed in its due and adequate
multitudinous folds. We move with him but in images and references and
vast and far correspondences; we eat but of strange compounds and drink
but of rare distillations; and very soon, after a course of this, we
feel ourselves, however much or however little to our advantage we may
on occasion pronounce it, in the world of Expression at any cost. That,
essentially, _is_ the world of poetry—which in the cases known to our
experience where it seems to us to differ from Browning’s world does so
but through this latter’s having been, by the vigour and violence, the
bold familiarity, of his grasp and pull at it, moved several degrees
nearer us, so to speak, than any other of the same general sort with
which we are acquainted; so that, intellectually, we back away from it a
little, back down before it, again and again, as we try to get off from
a picture or a group or a view which is too much _upon_ us and thereby
out of focus. Browning is “upon” us, straighter upon us always, somehow,
than anyone else of his race; and we thus recoil, we push our chair
back, from the table he so tremendously spreads, just to see a little
better what is on it. This makes a relation with him that it is
difficult to express; as if he came up against us, each time, on the
same side of the street and not on the other side, across the way, where
we mostly see the poets elegantly walk, and where we greet them without
danger of concussion. It is on this same side, as I call it, on _our_
side, on the other hand, that I rather see our encounter with the
novelists taking place; we being, as it were, more mixed with them, or
they at least, by their desire and necessity, more mixed with us, and
our brush of them, in their minor frenzy, a comparatively muffled
encounter.

We have in the whole thing, at any rate, the element of action which is
at the same time constant picture, and the element of picture which is
at the same time constant action; and with a fusion, as the mass moves,
that is none the less effective, none the less thick and complete, from
our not owing it in the least to an artful economy. Another force pushes
its way through the waste and rules the scene, making wrong things right
and right things a hundred times more so—that breath of Browning’s own
particular matchless Italy which takes us full in the face and remains
from the first the felt rich coloured air in which we live. The quantity
of that atmosphere that he had to give out is like nothing else in
English poetry, any more than in English prose, that I recall; and since
I am taking these liberties with him, let me take one too, a little,
with the fruit of another genius shining at us here in association—with
that great placed and timed prose fiction which we owe to George Eliot
and in which _her_ projection of the stage and scenery is so different a
matter. Curious enough this difference where so many things make for
identity—the quantity of talent, the quantity of knowledge, the high
equality (or almost) of culture and curiosity, not to say of “spiritual
life.” Each writer drags along a far-sweeping train, though indeed
Browning’s spreads so considerably furthest; but his stirs up, to my
vision, a perfect cloud of gold-dust, while hers, in “Romola,” by
contrast, leaves the air about as clear, about as white, and withal
about as cold, as before she had benevolently entered it. This straight
saturation of our author’s, this prime assimilation of the elements for
which the name of Italy stands, is a single splendid case, however; I
can think of no second one that is not below it—if we take it as
supremely expressed in those of his lyrics and shorter dramatic
monologues that it has most helped to inspire. The Rome and Tuscany of
the early ’fifties had become for him so at once a medium, a bath of the
senses and perceptions, into which he could sink, in which he could
unlimitedly soak, that wherever he might be touched afterwards he gave
out some effect of that immersion. This places him to my mind quite
apart, makes the rest of our poetic record of a similar experience
comparatively pale and abstract. Shelley and Swinburne—to name only his
compeers—are, I know, a part of the record; but the author of “Men and
Women,” of “Pippa Passes,” of certain of the Dramatic Lyrics and other
scattered felicities, not only expresses and reflects the matter; he
fairly, he heatedly, if I may use such a term, exudes and perspires it.
Shelley, let us say in the connection, is a light and Swinburne, let us
say, a sound; Browning alone of them all is a temperature. We feel it,
we are in it at a plunge, with the very first pages of the thing before
us; to which, I confess, we surrender with a momentum drawn from fifty
of their predecessors, pages not less sovereign, elsewhere.

The old Florence of the late spring closes round us; the hand of Italy
is at once, with the recital of the old-world litter of Piazza San
Lorenzo, with that of the great glare and of the great shadow-masses,
heavy upon us, heavy with that strange weight, that mixed pressure,
which is somehow, to the imagination, at once a caress and a menace. Our
poet kicks up on the spot and at short notice what I have called his
cloud of gold-dust. I can but speak for myself at least—something that
I want to feel both as historic and esthetic truth, both as pictorial
and moral interest, something that will repay my fancy tenfold if I can
but feel it, hovers before me, and I say to myself that, whether or no a
great poem is to come off, I will be hanged if one of the vividest of
all stories and one of the sharpest of all impressions doesn’t. I beckon
these things on, I follow them up, I so desire and need them that I of
course, by my imaginative collaboration, contribute to them—from the
moment, that is, of my finding myself really in relation to the great
points. On the other hand, as certainly, it has taken the author of the
first volume, and of the two admirable chapters of the same—since I
can’t call them cantos—entitled respectively “Half-Rome” and “The Other
Half-Rome,” to put me in relation; where it is that he keeps me more and
more, letting the closeness of my state, it must be owned, occasionally
drop, letting the finer call on me even, for bad quarters-of-an-hour,
considerably languish, but starting up before me again in vivid
authority if I really presume to droop or stray. He takes his wilful way
with me, but I make it my own, picking over and over as I have said,
like some lingering talking pedlar’s client, his great unloosed pack;
and thus it is that by the time I am settled with Pompilia at Arezzo I
have lived into all the conditions. They press upon me close, those
wonderful dreadful beautiful particulars of the Italy of the eve of the
eighteenth century—Browning himself moving about, darting hither and
thither in them, at his mighty ease: beautiful, I say, because of the
quantity of romantic and esthetic tradition from a more romantic and
esthetic age still visibly, palpably, in solution there; and wonderful
and dreadful through something of a similar tissue of matchless and
ruthless consistencies and immoralities. I make to my hand, as this
infatuated reader, _my_ Italy of the eve of the eighteenth century—a
vast painted and gilded rococo shell roofing over a scenic, an amazingly
figured and furnished earth, but shutting out almost the whole of our
own dearly-bought, rudely-recovered spiritual sky. You see I have this
right, all the while, if I recognise my suggested material, which keeps
coming and coming in the measure of my need, and my duty to which _is_
to recognise it, and as handsomely and actively as possible. The great
thing is that I have such a group of figures moving across so
constituted a scene—figures so typical, so salient, so reeking with the
old-world character, so impressed all over with its manners and its
morals, and so predestined, we see, to this particular horrid little
drama. And let me not be charged with giving it away, the idea of the
latent prose fiction, by calling it little and horrid; let me not—for
with my contention I can’t possibly afford to—appear to agree with
those who speak of the Franceschini-Comparini case as a mere vulgar
criminal anecdote.

It might have been such but for two reasons—counting only the principal
ones; one of these our fact that we see it so, I repeat, in Browning’s
inordinately-coloured light, and the other—which is indeed perhaps but
another face of the same—that, with whatever limitations, it gives us
in the rarest manner three characters of the first importance. I hold
three a great many; I could have done with it almost, I think, if there
had been but one or two; our rich provision shows you at any rate what I
mean by speaking of our author’s performance as above all a preparation
for something. Deeply he felt that with the three—the three built up at
us each with an equal genial rage of reiterative touches—there couldn’t
eventually not be something done (artistically done, I mean) if someone
would only do it. There they are in their old yellow Arezzo, that
miniature milder Florence, as sleepy to my recollection as a little
English cathedral city clustered about a Close, but dreaming not so
peacefully nor so innocently; there is the great fretted fabric of the
Church on which they are all swarming and grovelling, yet after their
fashion interesting parasites, from the high and dry old Archbishop,
meanly wise or ignobly edifying, to whom Pompilia resorts in her woe and
who practically pushes her way with a shuffling velvet foot; down
through the couple of Franceschini cadets, Canon Girolamo and Abate
Paul, mere minions, fairly in the verminous degree, of the overgrown
order or too-rank organism; down to Count Guido himself and to Canon
Caponsacchi, who have taken the tonsure at the outset of their careers,
but none too strictly the vows, and who lead their lives under some
strangest profanest pervertedest clerical category. There have been
before this the Roman preliminaries, the career of the queer Comparini,
the adoption, the assumption of the parentship, of the ill-starred
little girl, with the sordid cynicism of her marriage out of hand,
conveying her presumptive little fortune, her poor handful of even less
than contingent cash, to hungry middle-aged Count Guido’s stale “rank”;
the many-toned note or turbid harmony of all of which recurs to us in
the vivid image of the pieties and paganisms of San Lorenzo in Lucina,
that banal little church in the old upper Corso—banal, that is, at the
worst, with the rare Roman _banalité_; bravely banal, or banal with
style—that we have all passed with a sense of its reprieve to our
sight-seeing, and where the bleeding bodies of the still-breathing
Pompilia and her extinct companions are laid out on the greasy marble of
the altar-steps. To glance at these things, however, is fairly to be
tangled, and at once, in the author’s complexity of suggestion, to which
our own thick-coming fancies respond in no less a measure; so that I
have already missed my time to so much even as name properly the
tremendous little chapter we should have devoted to the Franceschini
interior as revealed at last to Comparini eyes; the sinister scene or
ragged ruin of the Aretine “palace,” where pride and penury and, at
once, rabid resentment show their teeth in the dark and the void, and
where Pompilia’s inspired little character, clear silver hardened,
effectually beaten and battered, to steel, begins to shine at the
blackness with a light that fairly outfaces at last the gleam of wolfish
fangs—the character that draws from Guido, in his, alas, too boundless
harangue of the fourth volume, some of the sharpest specifications into
which that extraordinary desert, that indescribable waste of
intellectual life, as I have hinted at its being, from time to time
flowers.

    “None of your abnegation of revenge!
    Fly at me frank, tug where I tear again!
    Away with the empty stare! Be holy still,
    And stupid ever! Occupy your patch
    Of private snow that’s somewhere in what world
    May now be growing icy round your head,
    And aguish at your foot-print—freeze not me!”

I have spoken of the enveloping consciousness—or call it just the
struggling, emerging, comparing, at last intensely living conscience—of
Caponsacchi as the indicated centre of our situation or determinant of
our form, in the matter of the excellent novel; and know of course what
such an indication lets me in for, responsibly speaking, in the way of a
rearrangement of relations, in the way of liberties taken. To lift our
subject out of the sphere of anecdote and place it in the sphere of
drama, liberally considered, to give it dignity by extracting its finest
importance, causing its parts to flower together into some splendid
special sense, we supply it with a large lucid reflector, which we find
only, as I have already noted, in that mind and soul concerned in the
business that have at once the highest sensibility and the highest
capacity, or that are, as we may call it, most admirably agitated. There
is the awkward fact, the objector may say, that by our record the mind
and soul in question are not concerned till a given hour, when many
things have already happened and the climax is almost in sight; to which
we reply, at our ease, that we simply don’t suffer that fact to be
awkward. From the moment I am taking liberties I suffer _no_
awkwardness; I should be very helpless, quite without resource and
without vision, if I did. I said it to begin with: Browning works the
whole thing over—the whole thing as originally given him—and we work
_him_; helpfully, artfully, boldly, which is our whole blest basis. We
therefore turn Caponsacchi on earlier, ever so much earlier; turn him
on, with a brave ingenuity, from the very first—that is in Rome if need
be; place him there in the field, at once recipient and agent, vaguely
conscious and with splendid brooding apprehension, awaiting the
adventure of his life, awaiting his call, his real call (the others have
been such vain shows and hollow stopgaps), awaiting, in fine, his
terrible great fortune. His direct connection with Pompilia begins
certainly at Arezzo, only after she has been some time hideously
mismated and has suffered all but her direst extremity—that is of the
essence; we _take_ it; it’s all right. But his indirect participation is
another affair, and we get it—at a magnificent stroke—by the fact that
his view of Franceschini, his fellow-Aretine sordidly “on the make,” his
measure of undesired, indeed of quite execrated contact with him,
brushed against in the motley hungry Roman traffic, where and while that
sinister soul snuffs about on the very vague or the very foul scent of
_his_ fortune, may begin whenever we like. We have only to have it begin
right, only to make it, on the part of two men, a relation of strong
irritated perception and restless righteous convinced instinct in the
one nature and of equally instinctive hate and envy, jealousy and latent
fear, on the other, to see the indirect connection, the one with
Pompilia, as I say, throw across our page as portentous a shadow as we
need. Then we get Caponsacchi as a recipient up to the brim—as an
agent, a predestined one, up to the hilt. I can scarce begin to tell you
what I see him give, as we say, or how his sentient and observational
life, his fine reactions in presence of such a creature as Guido, such a
social type and image and lurid light, as it were, make him
comparatively a modern man, breathed upon, to that deep and interesting
agitation I have mentioned, by more forces than he yet reckons or knows
the names of.

The direct relation—always to Pompilia—is made, at Arezzo, as we know,
by Franceschini himself; preparing his own doom, in the false light of
his debased wit, by creating an appearance of hidden dealing between his
wife and the priest which shall, as promptly as he likes—if he but work
it right—compromise and overwhelm them. The particular deepest
damnation he conceives for his weaker, his weakest victim is that she
shall take the cleric Caponsacchi for her lover, he indubitably
willing—to Guido’s apprehension; and that her castigation at his hands
for this, sufficiently proved upon her, shall be the last luxury of his
own baseness. He forges infernally, though grossly enough, an imputed
correspondence between them, as series of love-letters, scandalous
scrawls, of the last erotic intensity; which we in the event see
solemnly weighed by his fatuous judges, all fatuous save the grave old
Pope, in the scale of Pompilia’s guilt and responsibility. It is this
atrocity that at the _dénouement_ damns Guido himself most, or
well-nigh; but if it fails and recoils, as all his calculations do—it
is only his rush of passion that doesn’t miss—this is by the fact
exactly that, as we have seen, his wife and her friend are, for our
perfect persuasion, characters of the deepest dye. There, if you please,
is the finest side of our subject; such sides come up, such sides flare
out upon us, when we get such characters in such embroilments. Admire
with me therefore our felicity in this first-class value of Browning’s
beautiful critical genial vision of his Caponsacchi—vision of him as
the tried and tempered and illuminated _man_, a great round smooth,
though as yet but little worn gold-piece, an embossed and figured ducat
or sequin of the period, placed by the poet in my hand. He gives me that
value to spend for him, spend on all the strange old experience, old
sights and sounds and stuffs, of the old stored Italy—so we have at
least the wit to spend it to high advantage; which is just what I mean
by our taking the liberties we spoke of. I see such bits we can get with
it; but the difficulty is that I see so many more things than I can have
even dreamed of giving you a hint of. I see the Arezzo life and the
Arezzo crisis with every “i” dotted and every circumstance presented;
and when Guido takes his wife, as a possible trap for her, to the
theatre—the theatre of old Arezzo: share with me the tattered vision
and inhale the musty air!—I am well in range of Pompilia, the
tragically exquisite, in her box, with her husband not there for the
hour but posted elsewhere; I look at her in fact over Caponsacchi’s
shoulder and that of his brother-canon Conti, while this light
character, a vivid recruit to our company, manages to toss into her lap,
and as coming in guise of overture from his smitten friend, “a
papertwist of comfits.” There is a particular famous occasion at the
theatre in a work of more or less contemporary fiction—at a petty
provincial theatre which isn’t even, as you might think, the place where
Pendennis had his first glimpse of Miss Fotheringay. The evening at the
Rouen playhouse of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” has a relief not elsewhere
equalled—it is the most _done_ visit to the play in all
literature—but, though “doing” is now so woefully out of favour, my
idea would be to give it here a precious _pendant_; which connection,
silly Canon Conti, the old fripperies and levities, the whole queer
picture and show of manners, is handed over to us, expressly, as inapt
for poetic illustration.

What is equally apt for poetic or for the other, indeed, is the thing
for which we feel “The Ring and the Book” preponderantly done—it is at
least what comes out clearest, comes out as straightest and strongest
and finest, from Browning’s genius—the exhibition of the great
constringent relation between man and woman at once at its maximum and
as the relation most worth while in life for either party; an exhibition
forming quite the main substance of our author’s message. He has dealt,
in his immense variety and vivacity, with other relations, but on this
he has thrown his most living weight; it remains the thing of which his
own rich experience most convincingly spoke to him. He has testified to
it as charged to the brim with the burden of the senses, and has
testified to it as almost too clarified, too liberated and sublimated,
for traceable application or fair record; he has figured it as never too
much either of the flesh or of the spirit for him, so long as the
possibility of both of these is in each, but always and ever as the
thing absolutely most worth while. It is in the highest and rarest
degree clarified and disengaged for Caponsacchi and Pompilia; but what
their history most concludes to is how ineffably it was, whatever
happened, worth while. Worth while most then for them or for us is the
question? Well, let us say worth while assuredly for us, in this noble
exercise of our imagination. Which accordingly shows us what we, for all
our prose basis, would have found, to repeat my term once more, prepared
for us. There isn’t a detail of their panting flight to Rome over the
autumn Apennines—the long hours when they melt together only _not_ to
meet—that doesn’t positively plead for our perfect prose transcript.
And if it be said that the mere massacre at the final end is a lapse to
passivity from the high plane, for our pair of protagonists, of
constructive, of heroic vision, this is not a blur from the time
everything that happens happens most effectively to Caponsacchi’s life.
Pompilia’s is taken, but she is none the less given; and it is in his
consciousness and experience that she most intensely flowers—with all
her jubilation for doing so. So that _he_ contains the whole—unless
indeed after all the Pope does, the Pope whom I was leaving out as too
transcendent for _our_ version. Unless, unless, further and further, I
see what I have at this late moment no right to; see, as the very end
and splendid climax of all, Caponsacchi sent for to the Vatican and
admitted alone to the Papal presence. _There_ is a scene if we will; and
in the mere mutual confrontation, brief, silent, searching, recognising,
consecrating, almost as august on the one part as on the other. It
rounds us off; but you will think I stray too far. I have wanted, alas,
to say such still other fond fine things—it being of our poet’s great
nature to prompt them at every step—that I almost feel I have missed
half my points; which will doubtless therefore show you these remarks in
their nakedness. Take them and my particular contention as a pretext and
a minor affair if you will only feel them at the same time as at the
worst a restless refinement of homage. It has been easy in many another
case to run to earth the stray prime fancy, the original anecdote or
artless tale, from which a great imaginative work, starting off after
meeting it, has sprung and rebounded again and soared; and perhaps it is
right and happy and final that one should have faltered in attempting by
a converse curiosity to clip off or tie back the wings that once have
spread. You will agree with me none the less, I feel, that Browning’s
great generous wings are over us still and even now, more than ever now;
and also that they shake down on us his blessing.

-----

Footnote 8:

Address delivered before the Academic Committee of the Royal Society of
Literature in Commemoration of the Centenary of Robert Browning, May 7,
1912.



             AN AMERICAN ART-SCHOLAR: CHARLES ELIOT NORTON
                                  1908


I gladly embrace the occasion to devote a few words to the honoured
memory of my distinguished friend the late Charles Eliot Norton, who,
dying at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the 21st of October last, after
having reached his eightieth year, had long occupied—and with an
originality of spirit and a beneficence of effect all his own—the chair
of the History of the Fine Arts at Harvard University, as well as, in
the view of the American world surrounding that seat of influence, the
position of one of the most accomplished of scholars and most efficient
of citizens. This commemorative page may not disclaim the personal tone,
for I can speak of Charles Norton but in the light of an affection which
began long years ago, even though my part in our relation had to be, for
some time, markedly that of a junior; of which tie I was to remain ever
after, despite long stretches of material separation, a conscious and
grateful beneficiary. I can speak of him therefore as I happened myself
to see and know him—with interest and sympathy acting, for considerable
periods together, across distances and superficial differences, yet with
the sense of his extremely individual character and career suffering no
abatement, and indeed with my impression of the fine consistency and
exemplary value of these things clear as never before.

I find this impression go back for its origin very far—to one autumn
day when, an extremely immature aspirant to the rare laurel of the
critic, I went out from Boston to Cambridge to offer him a contribution
to the old, if I should not rather say the then middle-aged, “North
American Review,” of which he had recently undertaken the editorship. I
already knew him a little, enough to have met casual kindness at his
hands; but my vision of his active presence and function, in the
community that had happily produced and that was long to enjoy him,
found itself, I think, completely constituted at that hour, with scarce
an essential touch to be afterwards added. He largely developed and
expanded as time went on; certain more or less local reserves and
conservatisms fell away from him; but his temper and attitude, all his
own from the first, were to give a singular unity to his life. This
intensity of perception on his young visitor’s part may perhaps have
sprung a little from the fact that he accepted on the spot, as the
visitor still romantically remembers, a certain very first awkward essay
in criticism, and was to publish it in his forthcoming number; but I
little doubt whether even had he refused it the grace of the whole
occasion would have lost anything to my excited view, and feel sure that
the interest in particular would have gained had he charmingly put
before me (as he would have been sure to do) the ground of his
discrimination. For his eminent character as a “representative of
culture” announced itself exactly in proportion as one’s general sense
of the medium in which it was to be exerted was strong; and I seem
verily to recall that even in the comparative tenderness of that season
I had grasped the idea of the precious, the quite far-reaching part such
an exemplar might play. Charles Norton’s distinction and value—this was
still some years before his professorate had taken form—showed early
and above all the note and the advantage that they were to be virtues of
American application, and were to draw their life from the signal
American opportunity; to that degree that the detailed record of his
influence would be really one of the most interesting of American social
documents, and that his good work is best lighted by a due acquaintance
with the conditions of the life about him, indispensable for a founded
recognition of it. It is not too much to say that the representative of
culture—always in the high and special sense in which he practised that
faith—had before him in the United States of those days a great and
arduous mission, requiring plentiful courage as well as plentiful
knowledge, endless good humour as well as assured taste.

What comes back to me then from the early day I have glanced at is
exactly that prompt sense of the clustered evidence of my friend’s
perfect adaptation to the civilising mission, and not least to the
needfully dauntless and unperturbed side of it. His so pleasant old
hereditary home, with its ample acres and numerous spoils—at a time
when acres merely marginal and, so to speak, atmospheric, as well as
spoils at all felicitously gathered, were rare in the United
States—seemed to minister to the general assurance, constituting as
they did such a picture of life as one vaguely supposed recognisable,
right and left, in an old society, or, otherwise expressed, in that
“Europe” which was always, roundabout one, the fond alternative of the
cultivated imagination, but of which the possible American copy ever
seemed far to seek. To put it in a nutshell, the pilgrimage to the Shady
Hill of those years had, among the “spoils,” among pictures and books,
drawings and medals, memories and relics and anecdotes, things of a
remote but charming reference, very much the effect of a sudden rise
into a finer and clearer air and of a stopgap against one’s own coveted
renewal of the more direct experience. If I allude to a particular, to a
personal yearning appreciation of those matters, it is with the
justified conviction—this justification having been all along
abundantly perceptible—that appreciation of the general sort only
waited to be called for, though to be called for with due authority. It
was the sign of our host, on the attaching spot, and almost the
principal one, that he spoke, all round and with the highest emphasis,
as under the warrant of authority, and that at a time when, as to the
main matter of his claim and his discourse, scarce anyone pretended to
it, he carried himself valiantly under that banner. The main matter of
his discourse offered itself just simply as the matter of
_civilisation_—the particular civilisation that a young roaring and
money-getting democracy, inevitably but almost exclusively occupied with
“business success,” most needed to have brought home to it. The New
England air in especial was no natural conductor of any appeal to an
esthetic aim, but the interest of Professor Norton’s general work, to
say nothing of the interest of his character for a closer view, is
exactly that the whole fruitful enterprise was to prove intimately a New
England adventure; illustrating thus at the same time and once more the
innate capacity of New England for leavening the great American mass on
the finer issues.

To have grown up as the accomplished man at large was in itself at that
time to have felt, and even in some degree to have suffered, this hand
of differentiation; the only accomplished men of the exhibited New
England Society had been the ministers, the heads of the
congregations—whom, however, one docks of little of their credit in
saying that their accomplishments and their earnestness had been almost
wholly in the moral order. The advantage of that connection was indeed
what Norton was fundamentally to have enjoyed in his descent, both on
his father’s and his mother’s side (pre-eminently on the latter, the
historic stock of the Eliots) from a long line of those stalwart
pastoral worthies who had notably formed the aristocracy of
Massachusetts. It was largely, no doubt, to this heritage of character
and conscience that he owed the strong and special strain of confidence
with which he addressed himself to the business of perfect candour
toward his fellow-citizens—his pupils in particular; they, to whom this
candour was to become in the long run the rarest and raciest and most
endearing of “treats,” being but his fellow-citizens in the making. This
view of an urgent duty would have been a comparatively slight thing,
moreover, without the special preoccupations, without the love of the
high humanities and curiosities and urbanities in themselves, without
the conception of science and the ingrained studious cast of mind, which
had been also an affair of heredity with him and had opened his eyes
betimes to educative values and standards other than most of those he
saw flourish near at hand. He would defer to dilettantism as little as
to vulgarity, and if he ultimately embraced the fine ideal of taking up
the work that lay close to him at home, and of irrigating the immediate
arid tracts and desert spaces, it was not from ignorance of the
temptation to wander and linger where the streams already flowed and the
soil had already borne an abiding fruit.

He had come to Italy and to England early in life; he had repeated his
visits to these countries with infinite relish and as often as
possible—though never, as a good New Englander, without certain firm
and, where they had to be, invidious discriminations; he was attached to
them by a hundred intellectual and social ties; but he had been from the
first incapable of doubting that the best activity and the liveliest
interest lay where it always, given certain conditions, lies in
America—in a measure of response to intellectual and esthethic
“missionary” labour more traceable and appreciable, more distinguishably
attested and registered, more directly and artlessly grateful, in a
word, than in the thicker elemental mixture of Europe. On the whole side
of taste and association his choice was thus betimes for conscious exile
and for a considerably, though doubtless not altogether irremediably,
deprived state; but it was at the same time for a freedom of exhortation
and a play of ironic comment less restricted, after all, in the clear
American air, than on ground more pretentiously enclosed—less
restricted, that is, from the moment personal conviction might be
absolute and indifference to every form of provincial bewilderment
equally patient and complete. The incontestable _crânerie_ of his
attitude—a thing that one felt to be a high form of sincerity—always
at last won success; the respect and affection that more and more
surrounded him and that finally made his situation sole of its kind and
pre-eminently happy, attest together the interesting truth that
unqualified confidence in one’s errand, the serenest acceptance of a
responsibility and the exercise of a critical authority never too apt to
return critically upon itself, only require for beneficent action that
they be attended at once with a fund of illustration and a fund of good
humour.

Professor Norton’s pre-eminent work in the interpretation of Dante—by
which I mean his translation, text and notes, of the “Divine Comedy” and
the “New Life,” an achievement of infinite piety, patience and resource;
his admirable volume on Church-Building in the Middle Ages (to say
nothing of his charming earlier one, “Study and Travel in Italy,”
largely devoted to the cathedral of Orvieto); his long and intimate
friendship with Ruskin, commemorated by his publication, as
joint-executor to Ruskin’s will, of the best fruits of the latter’s
sustained correspondence with him; his numerous English friendships, in
especial—to say nothing of his native—all with persons of a highly
representative character: these things give in part the measure of his
finest curiosities and of his appetite, in all directions, for the best
sources and examples and the best company. But it is probable that if
his Harvard lectures are in form for publication, and if his general
correspondence, and above all his own easily handsomest show in it,
comes to be published, as most emphatically it should be, they will
testify not in the least to any unredeemed contraction of life, but to
the largest and happiest and most rewarded energy. An exhilarated
invocation of close responsibility, an absolute ease of mind about one’s
point of view, a thorough and never-failing intellectual wholeness, are
so far from weakening the appeal to young allegiances that, once they
succeed at all, they succeed the better for going all their length. So
it was that, with admirable urbanity of form and uncompromising
straightness of attack, the Professor of the History of the Fine Arts at
Harvard for a quarter of a century let himself go; thinking no trouble
wasted and no flutter and no scandal other than auspicious if only he
might, to the receptive and aspiring undergraduate mind, brand the ugly
and the vulgar and the inferior wherever he found them, tracking them
through plausible disguises and into trumpery strongholds; if only he
might convert young products of the unmitigated American order into
material for men of the world in the finer sense of that term; if only
in short he might render more supple their view, liable to obfuscation
from sights and sounds about them, of the true meaning of a liberal
education and of the civilised character and spirit in the civilised
State.

What it came to thus was that he availed himself to the utmost of his
free hand for sowing and planting ideals—ideals that, though they might
after all be vague and general things, lacking sometimes a little the
clearer connections with practice, were yet a new and inspiring note to
most of his hearers, who could be trusted, just so far as they were
intelligent and loyal, not to be heavily embarrassed by them, not to
want for fields of application. It was given him, quite unprecedentedly,
to be popular, to be altogether loved and cherished, even while “rubbing
it into” whomever it might concern that such unfortunates were mainly
given over to mediocrity and vulgarity, and that half the crude and ugly
objects and aspects, half the low standards and loose ends surrounding
them and which they might take for granted with a facility and a
complacency alike deplorable, represented a platitude of imagination
that dishonoured the citizen on whom a University worthy of the name
should have left its stamp. Happy, it would thus in fact seem, beyond
any other occasion for educative influence, the immense and delightful
opportunity he enjoyed, the clear field and long reach attached to
preaching an esthetic crusade, to pleading for the higher amenities in
general, in a new and superficially tutored, yet also but superficially
prejudiced, country, where a consequently felt and noted rise of the
tide of manners may be held to have come home to him, or certainly to
have visited his dreams. His effect on the community at large, with
allowances of time, was ever indubitable—even though such workers have
everywhere to take much on trust and to remember that bushels of
doctrine, and even tons of example, make at the most ounces and grains
of responsive life. It can only be the very general and hopeful view
that sustains and rewards—with here and there, at wide intervals, the
prized individual instance of the sown seed actively emerging and
flowering.

If not all ingenious disciples could give independent proof, however,
all could rally and feel the spirit; all could crowd to a course of
instruction which, largely elective and optional, yet united more
listeners than many others put together, and in which the subject
itself, the illustration of European artistic endeavour at large, or in
other words the record of man’s most comprehensive sacrifice to
organised beauty, tended so to take up on familiar ground the question
of manners, character, conscience, tone, to bristle with questions
addressed to the actual and possible American scene. That, I hasten to
add, was of course but one side of the matter; there were wells of
special science for those who chose to draw from them, and an inner
circle of pupils whose whole fruitful relation to their philosopher and
friend—the happy and easy privilege of Shady Hill in general, where
other charming personal influences helped, not counting as least in
this—can scarce have failed to prepare much practical evidence for
observation still to come. The ivory tower of study would ever, by his
natural bent, I think, have most solicited Charles Norton; but he liked,
as I say, he accepted without a reserve, the function of presiding over
young destinies; he believed in the personal and the social
communication of light, and had a gift for the generous and personal
relation that perhaps found its best issue, as I have already hinted, in
his admirable letters. These were not of this hustled and hustling age,
but of a cooler and steadier sphere and rhythm, and of a charming
mannerly substantial type to which he will have been, I think, among
correspondents truly animated by the social spirit and a due cosmopolite
ideal, one of the last systematically to sacrifice. With the lapse of
years I ceased to be, I admit, a near spectator of his situation; but my
sense of his activity—with more intimate renewals, besides,
occasionally taking place—was to be, all along, so constantly fed by
echo and anecdote and all manner of indirect glimpses, that I find
myself speak quite with the confidence and with all the attachment of a
continuous “assistant.”

With which, if I reflect on this, I see how interesting a _case_ above
all my distinguished friend was ever to remain to me—a case, I mean, of
such a mixture of the elements as would have seemed in advance,
critically speaking, quite anomalous or at least highly incalculable.
His interest was predominantly in Art, as the most beneficial of human
products; his ostensible plea was for the esthetic law, under the wide
wing of which we really move, it may seem to many of us, in an air of
strange and treacherous appearances, of much bewilderment and not a
little mystification; of terribly fine and complicated issues in short,
such as call for the highest interpretative wisdom. But if nothing was
of a more delightful example than Professor Norton’s large and nourished
serenity in all these connections, a serenity seasoned and tempered, as
it were, by infinite interest in his “subject,” by a steadying faith in
exact and extensive knowledge, so to a fond and incorrigible student of
character the case, as I have called it, and the long and genial career,
may seem to shine in the light of quite other importances, quite other
references, than the presumed and the nominal. Nothing in fact _can_ be
more interesting to a haunter of other intellectual climes and a
worshipper at the esthetic shrine _quand même_ than to note once more
how race and implanted quality and association always in the end come by
their own; how for example a son of the Puritans the most intellectually
transmuted, the most liberally emancipated and initiated possible, could
still plead most for substance when proposing to plead for style, could
still try to lose himself in the labyrinth of delight while keeping
tight hold of the clue of duty, tangled even a little in his feet; could
still address himself all consistently to the moral conscience while
speaking as by his office for our imagination and our free curiosity.
All of which vision of him, however, is far from pointing to a wasted
effort. The great thing, whatever turn we take, is to find before us
perspectives and to have a weight to throw; in accordance with which
wisdom the world he lived in received for long no firmer nor more
gallant and generous impress than that of Charles Eliot Norton.



                              LONDON NOTES
                             _January_ 1897


I am afraid the interest of the world of native letters is not at this
moment so great as to make us despise mere translation as an aid to
curiosity. There is indeed no reason why we should forbear to say in
advance what we are certain, every time, to say after (after the heat
has cooled I mean:) namely, that nothing is easier to concede than that
Ibsen—contentious name!—would be much less remarked if he were one of
a dozen. It is impossible, in London at least, to shut one’s eyes to the
fact that if to so many ingenious minds he is a kind of pictorial
monster, a grotesque on the sign of a side-show, this is at least partly
because his form has a monstrous rarity. It is one of the odd things of
our actual esthetics that the more theatres multiply the less any one
reads a play—the less any one cares, in a word, for the text of the
adventure. That no one ever _does_ read a play has long been a
commonplace of the wisdom of booksellers. Ibsen, however, is a text, and
Ibsen is read, and Ibsen contradicts the custom and confounds the
prejudice; with the effect thereby, in an odd way, of being doubly an
exotic. His violent substance imposes, as it were, his insidious form;
it is not (as would have seemed more likely) the form that imposes the
substance. Mr. William Archer has just published his version of “John
Gabriel Borkman,” of which, moreover, French and German versions reach
us at the same moment. There are therefore all the elements of a fresh
breeze in the wind—one has already a sense as of a cracking of whips
and a girding of loins. You may by this time be terribly tired of it all
in America; but, as I mentioned a fortnight ago, we have had very recent
evidence that languor here, in this connection, is by no means as yet
the dominant note. It is not the dispute itself, however, that most
interests me: let me pay it, for what it has been and what it still may
be, the mere superficial tribute of saying that it constitutes one of
the very few cases of contagious discussion of a matter not political, a
question not of mere practice, of which I remember to have felt, in a
heavy air, the engaging titillation. In London generally, I think, the
wandering breath of criticism is the stray guest at the big party—the
shy young man whom nobody knows. In this remarkable instance the shy
young man has ventured to pause and hover, has lighted on a topic,
introduced himself and, after a gasp of consternation in the company,
seen a little circle gather round him. I can only speak as one of the
little circle, testifying to my individual glee.

The author who at the age of seventy, a provincial of provincials, turns
out “John Gabriel” is frankly for me so much one of the peculiar
pleasures of the day, one of the current strong sensations, that, erect
as he seems still to stand, I deplore his extreme maturity and, thinking
of what shall happen, look round in vain for any other possible source
of the same kind of emotion. For Ibsen strikes me as an extraordinary
curiosity, and every time he sounds his note the miracle to my
perception is renewed. I call it a miracle because it is a result of so
dry a view of life, so indifferent a vision of the comedy of things. His
idea of the thing represented is never the comic idea, though this is
evidently what it often only can be for many of his English readers and
spectators. Comedy moreover is a product mainly of observation, and I
scarcely know what to say of his figures except that they haven’t the
_signs_. The answer to that is doubtless partly that they haven’t the
English, but have the Norwegian. In such a case one of the Norwegian
must be in truth this very lack of signs.

They have no tone but their moral tone. They are highly animated
abstractions, with the extraordinary, the brilliant property of becoming
when represented at once more abstract and more living. If the spirit is
a lamp within us, glowing through what the world and the flesh make of
us as through a ground-glass shade, then such pictures as Little Eyolf
and John Gabriel are each a _chassez-croisez_ of lamps burning, as in
tasteless parlours, with the flame practically exposed. There are no
shades in the house, or the Norwegian ground-glass is singularly clear.
There is a positive odour of spiritual paraffin. The author nevertheless
arrives at the dramatist’s great goal—he arrives for all his meagreness
at intensity. The meagreness, which is after all but an unconscious, an
admirable economy, never interferes with that: it plays straight into
the hands of his rare mastery of form. The contrast between this
form—so difficult to have reached, so “evolved,” so civilised—and the
bareness and bleakness of his little northern democracy is the source of
half the hard frugal charm that he puts forth. In the cold fixed light
of it the notes we speak of as deficiencies take a sharp value in the
picture. There is no small-talk, there are scarcely any manners. On the
other hand there is so little vulgarity that this of itself has almost
the effect of a deeper, a more lonely provincialism. The background at
any rate is the sunset over the ice. Well in the very front of the scene
lunges with extraordinary length of arm the Ego against the Ego, and
rocks in a rigour of passion the soul against the soul—a spectacle, a
movement, as definite as the relief of silhouettes in black paper or of
a train of Eskimo dogs on the snow. Down from that desolation the sturdy
old symbolist comes this time with a supreme example of his method. It
is a high wonder and pleasure to welcome such splendid fruit from sap
that might by now have shown something of the chill of age. Never has he
juggled more gallantly with difficulty and danger than in this really
prodigious “John Gabriel,” in which a great span of tragedy is taken
between three or four persons—a trio of the grim and grizzled—in the
two or three hours of a winter’s evening; in which the whole thing
throbs with an actability that fairly shakes us as we read; and in
which, as the very flower of his artistic triumph, he has given us for
the most beautiful and touching of his heroines a sad old maid of sixty.
Such “parts,” even from the vulgarest point of view, are Borkman and
Ella Rentheim.



                              LONDON NOTES
                              _June_ 1897


I am afraid there are at this moment only two notes for a communication
from London to strike. One is that of the plunge into the deep and
turbid waters of the Jubilee; the other is that of the inevitable
retreat from them—the backward scramble up the bank and scurry over its
crest and out of sight. London is in a sorry state; nevertheless I judge
that the number of persons about to arrive undaunted will not fall
substantially short of the number of horror-stricken fugitives. Not to
depart is practically to arrive; for there is little difference in the
two kinds of violence, the shock you await or the shock that awaits you.
Let me hasten, however, to declare that—to speak for the present only
of the former of these—the prospect is full of suggestion, the affair
promises a rare sort of interest. It began a fortnight since to be
clear—and the certitude grows each day—that we are to be treated to a
revelation really precious, the domestic or familiar vision, as it were,
the back-stairs or underside view, of a situation that will rank as
celebrated. Balzac’s image of _l’envers de l’histoire contemporaine_ is
in fact already under our nose, already offered us in a big bouncing
unmistakable case. We brush with an irreverent hand the back of the
tapestry—we crawl on unabashed knees under the tent of the circus. The
commemoration of the completed sixtieth year of her Majesty’s reign will
figure to the end of time in the roll of English wonders and can
scarcely fail to hold its own as an occasion unparalleled. And yet we
touch it as we come and go—we feel it mainly as a great incommodity. It
has already so intimate, so ugly, so measurable a side that these
impressions begin to fall into their place with a kind of representative
force, to figure as a symbol of the general truth that the principal
pomps and circumstances of the historic page have had their most intense
existence as material and social arrangements, disagreeable or amusing
accidents, affecting the few momentary mortals at that time in the
neighbourhood. The gross defacement of London, the uproarious traffic in
seats, the miles of unsightly scaffolding between the West End and the
City, the screaming advertisements, the sordid struggle, the individual
questions—“Haven’t we been cheated by the plausible wretch?” or “How
the devil shall we get _to_ our seats after paying such a lot,
hey?”—these things are actually the historic page. If we are writing
that page every hour let us at any rate commend ourselves for having
begun betimes, even though this early diligence be attended with
extraordinary effects. The great day was a week ago still a month off,
but what we even then had full in view, was, for the coming stretch of
time, a London reduced to such disfigurement as might much better seem
to consort with some great national penance or mourning. The show, when
the show comes off, is to last but a couple of hours; and nothing so odd
surely ever occurred in such a connection as so huge a disproportion
between the discipline and the joy. If this be honour, the simple may
well say, give us, merciful powers, the rigour of indifference! From
Hyde Park Corner to the heart of the City and over the water to the
solid south the long line of thoroughfares is masked by a forest of
timber and smothered in swaggering posters and catchpenny bids, with all
of which and with the vociferous air that enfolds them we are to spend
these next weeks in such comfort as we may. The splendour will have of
course to be great to wash down the vulgarity—and infinitely dazzling
no doubt it will be; yet even if it falls short I shall still feel that,
let the quantity of shock, as I have ventured to call it, be what it
must, it will on the whole be exceeded by what I have ventured to call
the quantity of suggestion. This, to be frank, has even now rolled up at
such a rate that to deal with it I should scarce know where to take it
first. Let me not therefore pretend to deal, but only glance and pass.

The foremost, the immense impression is of course the constant, the
permanent, the ever-supreme—the impression of that greatest glory of
our race, its passionate feeling for trade. I doubt if the commercial
instinct be not, as London now feels it throb and glow, quite as
striking as any conceivable projection of it that even our American
pressure of the pump might, at the highest, produce. That is the real
tent of the circus—that is the real back of the tapestry. There have
long, I know, been persons ready to prove by book that the explanation
of the “historical event” has always been somebody’s desire to make
money; never, at all events, from the near view, will that explanation
have covered so much of the ground. No result of the fact that the Queen
has reigned sixty years—no sort of sentimental or other association
with it—begins to have the air of coming home to the London conscience
like this happy consequence of the chance in it to sell something dear.
As yet that chance is the one sound that fills the air, and will
probably be the only note audibly struck till the plaudits of the day
itself begin to substitute, none too soon, a more mellifluous one. When
the people are all at the windows and in the trees and on the
water-spouts, house-tops, scaffolds and other ledges and coigns of
vantage set as traps for them by the motive power, _then_ doubtless
there will be another aspect to reckon with—then we shall see, of the
grand occasion, nothing but what is decently and presentably historic.
All I mean is that, pending the apotheosis, London has found in this
particular chapter of the career of its aged sovereign only an enormous
selfish advertisement. It came to me the other day in a quoted epigram
that the advertisement shows as far off as across the Channel and all
the way to Paris, where one of the reflections it has suggested—as it
must inevitably suggest many—appears to be that, in contrast, when, a
year ago, the Russian sovereigns were about to arrive no good Parisian
thought for a moment of anything but how he could most work for the
adornment of his town. I dare say that in fact from a good Parisian or
two a window or a tree was to be hired; but the echo is at least
interesting _as_ an echo, not less than as a reminder of how we still
wait here for the outbreak of the kind of enthusiasm that shall take the
decorative form. The graceful tip of its nose has, it must be admitted,
yet to show. But there are other sides still, and one of them
immense—the light we may take as flooding, I mean, the whole question
of the solidity of the throne. It is impossible to live long in England
without feeling that the monarchy is—below-ground, so to speak, in
particular—a rock; but it was reserved for these days to accentuate the
immobility of even that portion of the rock which protrudes above the
surface. It is being tested in a manner by fire, and it resists with a
vitality nothing short of prophetic. The commercial instinct, as I say,
perches upon it with a security and a success that banish a rival from
the field. It is the biggest of all draws for the biggest of all
circuses; it will bring more money to more doors than anything that can
be imagined in its place. It will march through the ages unshaken. The
coronation of a new sovereign is an event, at the worst, well within the
compass of the mind, and what will that bring with it so much as a fresh
lively market and miles of new posters and new carpentry? Then, who
knows?—coronations will, for a stretch and a change perhaps, be more
frequent than anniversaries; and the bargains struck over the last will,
again at the worst, carry an hilarious country well on to the next. Has
not the monarchy moreover—besides thus periodically making trade
roar—the lively merit, for such an observer as I fancy considering
these things, of helping more than anything else the answers to the
questions into which our actual curiosity most overflows; the question
for instance of whether in the case before us the triumph of vulgarity
be not precisely the flushed but muscular triumph of the inevitable? If
vulgarity thrones now on the house-tops, “blown” and red in the face, is
it not because it has been pushed aloft by deep forces and is really
after all itself the show? The picturesque at any rate has to meet the
conditions. We miss, we regret the old “style” of history; but the style
would, I think, be there if we let it: the age has a manner of its own
that disconcerts, that swamps it. The age is the loudest thing of all.
What has altered is simply the conditions. Poor history has to meet
them, these conditions; she must accommodate herself. She must accept
vulgarity or perish. Some day doubtless she _will_ perish, but for a
little while longer she remembers and struggles. She becomes indeed, as
we look up Piccadilly in the light of this image, perhaps rather more
dramatic than ever—at any rate more pathetic, more noble in her choked
humiliation. Then even as we pity her we try perhaps to bring her round,
to make her understand a little better. We try to explain that if we are
dreadful to deal with it is only, really, a good deal because we so
detestably grow and grow. There is so horribly much of us—that’s where
_our_ style breaks down. Small crowds and paltry bargains didn’t matter,
and a little vulgarity—just a very little—could in other times manage
to pass. Our shame, alas, is our quantity.

I have no sooner, none the less, qualified it so ungraciously than I ask
myself what after all we should do without it. If we have opened the
floodgates we have at least opened them wide, and it is our very
quantity that perhaps in the last resort will save us. It cuts both
ways, as the phrase is—it covers all the ground; it helps the escape as
well as produces the assault. If retreat for instance at the present
juncture is, as I began by hinting, urgently imposed, it is thanks to
our having so much of everything that we find a bridge for our feet. We
hope to get off in time, but meanwhile even on the spot there are
blessed alternatives and reliefs. I have been trying a number very hard,
but I have expatiated so on the complaint that I have left little room
for the remedy. London reminds one of nothing so often as of the help
she gives one to forget her. One of the forms actually taken by this
happy habit is the ingenious little exhibition, at the Grafton
Galleries, of so-called Dramatic and Musical Art. The name is rather a
grand one and the show has many gaps; but it profits, as such places in
London so often profit, by the law that makes you mostly care less what
you get into than what you get out of. With its Hogarths and
Zoffanys—none too many, I admit—its other last-century portraits and
relics, its numerous ghosts of Garrick, its old play-bills and prints,
its echoes of dead plaudits and its very thin attendance, it happens to
be for the moment a quiet bower in the bear-garden. It is a “scratch”
company, but only—and I can scarce say why—in the portion in which the
portraits of the day prevail is the impression vulgar. Even there indeed
this suspicion receives a grand lift from Mr. Whistler’s exquisite image
of Henry Irving as the Philip of Tennyson’s “Queen Mary.” To pause
before such a work is in fact to be held to the spot by just the highest
operation of the charm one has sought there—the charm of a certain
degree of melancholy meditation. Meditation indeed forgets Garrick and
Hogarth and all the handsome heads of the Kembles in wonder
reintensified at the attitude of a stupid generation toward an art and a
taste so rare. Wonder is perhaps after all not the word to use, for how
_should_ a stupid generation, liking so much that it does like and with
a faculty trained to coarser motions, recognise in Mr. Whistler’s work
one of the finest of all distillations of the artistic intelligence? To
turn from his picture to the rest of the show—which, of course, I
admit, is not a collection of masterpieces—is to drop from the world of
distinction, of perception, of beauty and mystery and perpetuity,
into—well, a very ordinary place. And yet the effect of Whistler at his
best is exactly to give to the place he hangs in—or perhaps I should
say to the person he hangs for—something of the sense, of the illusion,
of a great museum. He isolates himself in a manner all his own; his
presence is in itself a sort of implication of a choice corner. Have we
in this a faint foresight of the eventual turn of the wheel—of one of
the nooks of honour, those innermost rooms of great collections, in
which our posterity shall find him? Look at him at any rate on any
occasion, but above all at his best, only long enough, and hallucination
sets in. We are in the presence of one of the prizes marked with two
stars in the guidebook; the polished floor is beneath us and the rococo
roof above; the great names are ranged about, and the eye is aware of
the near window, in its deep recess, that overhangs old gardens or a
celebrated square.



                              LONDON NOTES
                              _July_ 1897


I continued last month to seek private diversion, which I found to be
more and more required as the machinery of public began to work. Never
was a better chance apparently for the great anodyne of art. It was a
supreme opportunity to test the spell of the magician, for one felt one
was saved if a fictive world would open. I knocked in this way at a
dozen doors, I read a succession of novels; with the effect perhaps of
feeling more than ever before my individual liability in our great
general debt to the novelists. The great thing to say for them is surely
that at any given moment they offer us another world, another
consciousness, an experience that, as effective as the dentist’s ether,
muffles the ache of the actual and, by helping us to an interval, tides
us over and makes us face, in the return to the inevitable, a
combination that may at least have changed. What we get of course, in
proportion as the picture lives, is simply another actual—the actual of
other people; and I no more than any one else pretend to say _why_ that
should be a relief, a relief as great, I mean, as it practically proves.
We meet in this question, I think, the eternal mystery—the mystery that
sends us back simply to the queer constitution of man and that is not in
the least lighted by the plea of “romance,” the argument that relief
depends wholly upon the quantity, as it were, of fable. It depends, to
my sense, on the quantity of nothing but art—in which the material,
fable or fact or whatever it be, falls so into solution, is so reduced
and transmuted, that I absolutely am acquainted with no receipt whatever
for computing its proportion and amount.

The only amount I can compute is the force of the author, for that is
directly registered in my attention, my submission. A hundred things
naturally go to make it up; but he knows so much better than I what they
are that I should blush to give him a glimpse of my inferior account of
them. The anodyne is not the particular picture, it is our own act of
surrender, and therefore most, for each reader, what he most surrenders
to. This latter element would seem in turn to vary from case to case,
were it not indeed that there are readers prepared, I believe, to limit
their surrender in advance. With some, we gather, it declines for
instance to operate save on an exhibition of “high life.” In others
again it is proof against any solicitation but that of low. In many it
vibrates only to “adventure”; in many only to Charlotte Brontë; in
various groups, according to affinity, only to Jane Austen, to old
Dumas, to Miss Corelli, to Dostoievsky or whomever it may be. The
readers easiest to conceive, however, are probably those for whom, in
the whole impression, the note of sincerity in the artist is what most
matters, what most reaches and touches. That, obviously, is the relation
that gives the widest range to the anodyne.

I am afraid that, profiting by my license, I drag forward Mr. George
Gissing from an antiquity of several weeks. I blow the dust of oblivion
from M. Pierre Loti and indeed from all the company—they have been
published for days and days. I foresee, however, that I must neglect the
company for the sake of the two members I have named, writers—I speak
for myself—always in order, though not, I admit, on quite the same
line. Mr. Gissing would have been particularly in order had he only kept
for the present period the work preceding his latest; all the more that
“In the Year of Jubilee” has to my perception some points of superiority
to “The Whirlpool.” For this author in general, at any rate, I profess,
and have professed ever since reading “The New Grub Street,” a
persistent taste—a taste that triumphs even over the fact that he
almost as persistently disappoints me. I fail as yet to make out why
exactly it is that going so far he so sturdily refuses to go further.
The whole business of distribution and composition he strikes me as
having cast to the winds; but just this fact of a question about him is
a part of the wonder—I use the word in the sense of enjoyment—that he
excites. It is not every day in the year that we meet a novelist about
whom there is a question. The circumstance alone is almost sufficient to
beguile or to enthrall; and I seem to myself to have said almost
everything in speaking of something that Mr. Gissing “goes far” enough
to do. To go far enough to do anything is, in the conditions we live in,
a lively achievement.

“The Whirlpool,” I crudely confess, was in a manner a grief to me, but
the book has much substance, and there is no light privilege in an
emotion so sustained. This emotion perhaps it is that most makes me, to
the end, stick to Mr. Gissing—makes me with an almost nervous clutch
quite cling to him. I shall not know how to deal with him, however, if I
withhold the last outrage of calling him an interesting case. He seems
to me above all a case of saturation, and it is mainly his saturation
that makes him interesting—I mean especially in the sense of making him
singular. The interest would be greater were his art more complete; but
we must take what we can get, and Mr. Gissing has a way of his own. The
great thing is that his saturation is with elements that, presented to
us in contemporary English fiction, affect us as a product of
extraordinary oddity and rarity: he reeks with the savour, he is bowed
beneath the fruits, of contact with the lower, with the lowest
middle-class, and that is sufficient to make him an authority—_the_
authority in fact—on a region vast and unexplored.

The English novel has as a general thing kept so desperately, so
nervously clear of it, whisking back compromised skirts and bumping
frantically against obstacles to retreat, that we welcome as the boldest
of adventurers a painter who has faced it and survived. We have had low
life in plenty, for, with its sores and vices, its crimes and penalties,
misery has colour enough to open the door to any quantity of artistic
patronage. We have shuddered in the dens of thieves and the cells of
murderers, and have dropped the inevitable tear over tortured childhood
and purified sin. We have popped in at the damp cottage with my lady and
heard the quaint rustic, bless his simple heart, commit himself for our
amusement. We have fraternised on the other hand with the peerage and
the county families, staying at fine old houses till exhausted nature
has, for this source of intoxication, not a wink of sociability left. It
has grown, the source in question, as stale as the sweet biscuit with
pink enhancements in that familiar jar of the refreshment counter from
which even the attendant young lady in black, with admirers and a social
position, hesitates to extract it. We have recognised the humble, the
wretched, even the wicked; also we have recognised the “smart.” But save
under the immense pressure of Dickens we have never done anything so
dreadful as to recognise the vulgar. We have at the very most recognised
it as the extravagant, the grotesque. The case of Dickens was absolutely
special; he dealt intensely with “lower middle,” with “lowest” middle,
elements, but he escaped the predicament of showing them as vulgar by
showing them only as prodigiously droll. When his people are not funny
who shall dare to say what they are? The critic may draw breath as from
a responsibility averted when he reflects that they almost always _are_
funny. They belong to a walk of life that we may be ridiculous but never
at all serious about. We may be tragic, but that is often but a form of
humour. I seem to hear Mr. Gissing say: “Well, dreariness for
dreariness, let us try Brondesbury and Pinner; especially as in the
first place I know them so well; as in the second they are the essence
of England; and as in the third they are, artistically speaking, virgin
soil. Behold them glitter in the morning dew.”

So he _is_ serious—almost imperturbably—about them, and, as it turns
out, even quite manfully and admirably sad. He has the great thing: his
saturation (with the visible and audible common) can project itself, let
him get outside of it and walk round it. I scarcely think he stays, as
it were, outside quite as much as he might; and on the question of form
he certainly strikes me as staying far too little. It is form above all
that is talent, and if Mr. Gissing’s were proportionate to his
knowledge, to what may be called his possession, we should have a larger
force to reckon with. That—not to speak of the lack of intensity in his
imagination—is the direction in which one would wish him to go further.
Our Anglo-Saxon tradition of these matters remains surely in some
respects the strangest. After the perusal of such a book as “The
Whirlpool” I feel as if I had almost to explain that by “these matters”
I mean the whole question of composition, of foreshortening, of the
proportion and relation of parts. Mr. Gissing, to wind up my reserves,
overdoes the ostensible report of spoken words; though I hasten to add
that this abuse is so general a sign, in these days, of the English and
the American novel as to deprive a challenge of every hope of credit. It
is attended visibly—that is visibly to those who can see—with two or
three woeful results. If it had none other it would still deserve
arraignment on the simple ground of what it crowds out—the golden
blocks themselves of the structure, the whole divine exercise and
mystery of the exquisite art of presentation.

The ugliest trick it plays at any rate is its effect on that side of the
novelist’s effort—the side of most difficulty and thereby of most
dignity—which consists in giving the sense of duration, of the lapse
and accumulation of time. This is altogether to my view the stiffest
problem that the artist in fiction has to tackle, and nothing is more
striking at present than the blankness, for the most part, of his
indifference to it. The mere multiplication of quoted remarks is the
last thing to strengthen his hand. Such an expedient works exactly to
the opposite end, absolutely minimising, in regard to time, our
impression of lapse and passage. That is so much the case that I can
think of no novel in which it prevails as giving at all the sense of the
gradual and the retarded—the stretch of the years in which developments
really take place. The picture is nothing unless it be a picture of the
conditions, and the conditions are usually hereby quite omitted. Thanks
to this perversity everything dealt with in fiction appears at present
to occur simply on the occasion of a few conversations about it; there
is no other constitution of it. A few hours, a few days seem to account
for it. The process, the “dark backward and abysm,” is really so little
reproduced. We feel tempted to send many an author, to learn the
rudiments of this secret, back to his Balzac again, the most
accomplished master of it. He will learn also from Balzac while he is
about it that nothing furthermore, as intrinsic effect, so much
discounts itself as this abuse of the element of colloquy.

“Dialogue,” as it is commonly called, is singularly suicidal from the
moment it is not directly illustrative of something given us by another
method, something constituted and presented. It is impossible to read
work even as interesting as Mr. Gissing’s without recognising the
impossibility of making people both talk “all the time” and talk with
the needful differences. The thing, so far as we have got, is simply too
hard. There is always at the best the author’s voice to be kept out. It
can be kept out for occasions, it can not be kept out always. The
solution therefore is to leave it its function, for it has the supreme
one. This function, properly exercised, averts the disaster of the
blight of the colloquy really in place—illustrative and indispensable.
Nothing is more inevitable than such a blight when antecedently the
general effect of the process has been undermined. We then want the
report of the spoken word—want that only. But, proportionately, it
doesn’t come, doesn’t count. It has been fatally cheapened. There is no
effect, no relief.

I am writing a treatise when I meant only to give a glance; and it may
be asked if the best thing I find in Mr. Gissing is after all then but
an opportunity to denounce. The answer to that is that I find two other
things—or should find them rather had I not deprived myself as usual of
proper space. One of these is the pretext for speaking, by absolute
rebound, as it were, and in the interest of vivid contrast, of Pierre
Loti; the other is a better occasion still, an occasion for the
liveliest sympathy. It is impossible not to be affected by the frankness
and straightness of Mr. Gissing’s feeling for his subject, a subject
almost always distinctly remunerative to the ironic and even to the
dramatic mind. He has the strongest deepest sense of common humanity, of
the general struggle and the general grey grim comedy. He loves the
real, he renders it, and though he has a tendency to drift too much with
his tide, he gives us, in the great welter of the savourless, an
individual manly strain. If he only had distinction he would make the
suburbs “hum.” I don’t mean of course by his circulation there—the
effect Ibsen is supposed to have on them; I mean objectively and as a
rounded whole, as a great theme treated.

I am ashamed of having postponed “Ramuntcho,” for “Ramuntcho” is a
direct recall of the beauty of “Pêcheur d’Islande” and “Mon Frère
Yves”—in other words a literary impression of the most exquisite order.
Perhaps indeed it is as well that a critic _should_ postpone—and quite
indefinitely—an author as to whom he is ready to confess that his
critical instinct is quite suspended. Oh the blessing of a book, the
luxury of a talent, that one is only anxious not to reason about, only
anxious to turn over in the mind and to taste! It is a poor business
perhaps, but I have nothing more responsible to say of Loti than that I
adore him. I love him when he is bad—and heaven knows he has
occasionally been so—more than I love other writers when they are good.
If therefore he is on the whole quite at his best in “Ramuntcho” I fear
my appreciation is an undertaking too merely active for indirect
expression. I can give it no more coherent form than to say that he
makes the act of partaking one of the joys that, as things mainly go, a
reader must be pretty well provided to be able not to jump at. And yet
there are readers, apparently, who _are_ so provided. There are readers
who don’t jump and are cocksure they can do without it. My sense of the
situation is that they are wrong—that with famine stalking so abroad
literally no one can. I defy it not to tell somewhere—become a gap one
can immediately “spot.”

It is well to content one’s self, at all events, with affection; so
stiff a job, in such a case, is understanding or, still more,
explanation. There is a kind of finality in Loti’s simplicity—if it
even _be_ simplicity. He performs in an air in which, on the part of the
spectator, analysis withers and only submission lives. Has it anything
to do with literature? Has it anything to do with nature? It must be, we
should suppose, the last refinement either of one or of the other. Is it
all emotion, is it all calculation, is it all truth, is it all humbug?
All we can say as readers is that it is for ourselves all experience,
and of the most personal intensity. The great question is whether it be
emotion “neat” or emotion rendered and reduced. If it be resolved into
art why hasn’t it more of the chill? If it be sensibility pure why isn’t
it cruder and clumsier? What is exquisite is the contact of sensibility
made somehow so convenient—with only the beauty preserved. It is not
too much to say of Loti that his sensibility begins where that of most
of those who _use_ the article ends. If moreover in effect he represents
the triumph of instinct, when was instinct ever so sustained and so
unerring? It keeps him unfailingly, in the matter of “dialogue,” out of
the overflow and the waste. It is a joy to see how his looseness is
pervaded after all by proportion.



                              LONDON NOTES
                             _August_ 1897


I shrink at this day from any air of relapsing into reference to those
Victorian saturnalia of which the force may now be taken as pretty well
spent; and if I remount the stream for an instant it is but with the
innocent intention of plucking the one little flower of literature that,
while the current roared, happened—so far at least as I could
observe—to sprout by the bank. If it was sole of its kind moreover it
was, I hasten to add, a mere accident of the Jubilee and as little a
prominent as a preconcerted feature. What it comes to therefore is that
if I gathered at the supreme moment a literary impression, the literary
impression had yet nothing to do with the affair; nothing, that is,
beyond the casual connection given by a somewhat acrid aftertaste, the
vision of the London of the morrow as I met this experience in a woeful
squeeze through town the day after the fair. It was the singular fate of
M. Paul Bourget, invited to lecture at Oxford under university patronage
and with Gustave Flaubert for his subject, to have found his appearance
arranged for June 23. I express this untowardness but feebly, I know,
for those at a distance from the edge of the whirlpool, the vast
concentric eddies that sucked down all other life.

I found, on the morrow in question—the great day had been the 22nd—the
main suggestion of a journey from the south of England up to Waterloo
and across from Waterloo to Paddington to be that of one of those deep
gasps or wild staggers, losses of wind and of balance, that follow some
tremendous effort or some violent concussion. The weather was splendid
and torrid and London a huge dusty cabless confusion of timber already
tottering, of decorations already stale, of _badauds_ already bored. The
banquet-hall was by no means deserted, but it was choked with mere
echoes and candle-ends; one had heard often enough of a “great national
awakening,” and this was the greatest it would have been possible to
imagine. Millions of eyes, opening to dust and glare from the scenery of
dreams, seemed slowly to stare and to try to recollect. Certainly at
that distance the omens were poor for such concentration as a French
critic might have been moved to count upon, and even on reaching Oxford
I was met by the sense that the spirit of that seat of learning, though
accustomed to intellectual strain, had before the afternoon but little
of a margin for pulling itself together. Let me say at once that it made
the most of the scant interval and that when five o’clock came the bare
scholastic room at the Taylorian offered M. Bourget’s reputation and
topic, in the hot dead Oxford air, an attention as deep and as
many-headed as the combination could ever have hoped to command.

For one auditor of whom I can speak, at all events, the occasion had an
intensity of interest transcending even that of Flaubert’s strange
personal story—which was part of M. Bourget’s theme—and of the new and
deep meanings that the lecturer read into it. Just the fact of the
occasion itself struck me as having well-nigh most to say, and at any
rate fed most the all but bottomless sense that constitutes to-day my
chief receptacle of impressions; a sense which at the same time I fear I
cannot better describe than as that of the way we are markedly going. No
undue eagerness to determine whether this be well or ill attaches to the
particular consciousness I speak of, and I can only give it frankly for
what, on the whole, it most, for beguilement, for amusement, for the
sweet thrill of perception, represents and achieves—the quickened
notation of our “modernity.” I feel that I can pay this last-named
lively influence no greater tribute than by candidly accepting as an aid
to expression its convenient name. To do that doubtless is to accept
with the name a host of other things. From the moment, at any rate, the
quickening I speak of sets in it is wonderful how many of these other
things play, by every circumstance, into the picture.

That the day should have come for M. Bourget to lecture at Oxford, and
should have come by the same stroke for Gustave Flaubert to be lectured
about, filled the mind to a degree, and left it in an agitation of
violence, which almost excluded the question of what in especial one of
these spirits was to give and the other to gain. It was enough of an
emotion, for the occasion, to live in the circumstance that the author
of “Madame Bovary” could receive in England a public baptism of such
peculiar solemnity. With the vision of that, one could bring in all the
light and colour of all the rest of the picture and absolutely see, for
the instant, something momentous in the very act of happening, something
certainly that might easily become momentous with a little
interpretation. Such are the happy chances of the critical spirit,
always yearning to interpret, but not always in presence of the right
mystery.

There was a degree of poetic justice, or at least of poetic generosity,
in the introduction of Flaubert to a scene, to conditions of credit and
honour, so little to have been by himself ever apprehended or estimated:
it was impossible not to feel that no setting or stage for the crowning
of his bust could less have appeared familiar to him, and that he
wouldn’t have failed to wonder into what strangely alien air his glory
had strayed. So it is that, as I say, the whole affair was a little
miracle of our breathless pace, and no corner from which another member
of the craft could watch it was so quiet as to attenuate the small
magnificence of the hour. No novelist, in a word, worth his salt could
fail of a consciousness, under the impression, of his becoming rather
more of a novelist than before. Was it not, on the whole, just the
essence of the matter that had for the moment there its official
recognition? were not the blest mystery and art ushered forward in a
more expectant and consecrating hush than had ever yet been known to
wait upon them?

One may perhaps take these things too hard and read into them foolish
fancies; but the hush in question was filled to my imagination—quite
apart from the listening faces, of which there would be special things
to say that I wouldn’t for the world risk—with the great picture of all
the old grey quads and old green gardens, of all the so totally
different traditions and processions that were content at last, if only
for the drowsy end of a summer afternoon, to range themselves round and
play at hospitality. What it appeared possible to make out was a certain
faint convergence: that was the idea of which, during the whole process,
I felt the agreeable obsession. From the moment it brushed the mind
certainly the impulse was to clutch and detain it: too doleful would it
have been to entertain for an instant the fear that M. Bourget’s lecture
could leave the two elements of his case facing each other only at the
same distance at which it had found them. No, no; there was nothing for
it but to assume and insist that with each tick of the clock they moved
a little nearer together. That was the process, as I have called it, and
none the less interesting to the observer that it may not have been, and
may not yet be, rapid, full, complete, quite easy or clear or
successful. It was the seed of contact that assuredly was sown; it was
the friendly beginning that in a manner was made. The situation was
handled and modified—the day was a date. I shall perhaps remain obscure
unless I say more expressly and literally that the particular thing into
which, for the perfect outsider, the occasion most worked was a lively
interest—so far as an outsider could feel it—in the whole odd
phenomenon and spectacle of a certain usual positive _want_ of
convergence, want of communication between what the seat and habit of
the classics, the famous frequentation and discipline, do for their
victims in one direction and what they do not do for them in another.
Was the invitation to M. Bourget not a dim symptom of a bridging of this
queerest of all chasms? I can only so denominate—as a most anomalous
gap—the class of possibilities to which we owe its so often coming over
us in England that the light kindled by the immense academic privilege
is apt suddenly to turn to thick smoke in the air of contemporary
letters.

There are movements of the classic torch round modern objects—strange
drips and drops and wondrous waverings—that have the effect of putting
it straight out. The range of reference that I allude to and that is
most the fashion draws its credit from being an education of the taste,
and it doubtless makes on the prescribed lines and in the close company
of the ancients tremendous tests and triumphs for that principle.
Nothing, however, is so singular as to see what again and again becomes
of it in the presence of examples for which prescription and association
are of no avail. I am speaking here of course not of unexpected
reserves, but of unexpected raptures, bewildering revelations of a
failure of the sense of perspective. This leads at times to queer
conjunctions, strange collocations in which Euripides gives an arm to
Sarah Grand and Octave Feuillet harks back to Virgil. It is the breath
of a madness in which one gropes for a method—probes in vain the hiatus
and sighs for the missing link. I am far from meaning to say that all
this will find itself amended by the discreet dose administered the
other day at the Taylorian of even so great an antidote as Flaubert; but
I come back to my theory that there is after all hope for a world still
so accessible to salutary shocks. That was apparent indeed some years
ago. Was it not at the Taylorian that Taine and Renan successively
lectured? Oxford, wherever it was, heard them even then to the end. It
is for the Taines, Renans and Bourgets very much the salting of the tail
of the bird: there must be more than one try.

It is possible to have glanced at some of the odd estimates that the
conversation of the cultivated throws to the surface and yet to say
quite without reserve that the world of books has suffered no small
shrinkage by the recent death of Mrs. Oliphant. She had long lived and
worked in it, and from no individual perhaps had the great contemporary
flood received a more copious tribute. I know not if some study of her
remarkable life, and still more of her remarkable character, be in
preparation, but she was a figure that would on many sides still lend
itself to vivid portraiture. Her success had been in its day as great as
her activity, yet it was always present to me that her singular gift was
less recognised, or at any rate less reflected, less reported upon, than
it deserved: unless indeed she may have been one of those difficult
cases for criticism, an energy of which the spirit and the form,
straggling apart, never join hands with that effect of union which in
literature more than anywhere else is strength.

Criticism, among us all, has come to the pass of being shy of difficult
cases, and no one, for that matter, practised it more in the hit-or-miss
fashion and on happy-go-lucky lines than Mrs. Oliphant herself. She
practised it, as she practised everything, on such an inordinate scale
that her biographer, if there is to be one, will have no small task in
the mere drafting of lists of her contributions to magazines and
journals in general and to “Blackwood” in particular. She wrought in
“Blackwood” for years, anonymously and profusely; no writer of the day
found a _porte-voix_ nearer to hand or used it with an easier personal
latitude and comfort. I should almost suppose in fact that no woman had
ever, for half a century, had her personal “say” so publicly and
irresponsibly. Her facilities of course were of her own making, but the
wonder was that once made they could be so applied.

The explanation of her extraordinary fecundity was a rare original
equipment, an imperturbability of courage, health and brain, to which
was added the fortune or the merit of her having had to tune her
instrument at the earliest age. That instrument was essentially a Scotch
one; her stream flowed long and full without losing its primary colour.
To say that she was organised highly for literature would be to make too
light of too many hazards and conditions; but few writers of our time
have been so organised for liberal, for—one may almost put it—heroic
production. One of the interesting things in big persons is that they
leave us plenty of questions, if only about themselves; and precisely
one of those that Mrs. Oliphant suggests is the wonder and mystery of a
love of letters that could be so great without ever, on a single
occasion even, being greater. It was of course not a matter of mere
love; it was a part of her volume and abundance that she understood life
itself in a fine freehanded manner and, I imagine, seldom refused to
risk a push at a subject, however it might have given pause, that would
help to turn her wide wheel. She worked largely from obligation—to meet
the necessities and charges and pleasures and sorrows of which she had a
plentiful share. She showed in it all a sort of sedentary dash—an
acceptance of the day’s task and an abstention from the plaintive note
from which I confess I could never withhold my admiration.

Her capacity for labour was infinite—for labour of the only sort that,
with the fine strain of old Scotch pride and belated letterless toryism
that was in her, she regarded as respectable. She had small patience
with new-fangled attitudes or with a finical conscience. What was good
enough for Sir Walter was good enough for her, and I make no doubt that
her shrewd unfiltered easy flow, fed after all by an immensity of
reading as well as of observation and humour, would have been good
enough for Sir Walter. If this had been the case with her abounding
history, biography and criticism, it would have been still more the case
with her uncontrolled flood of fiction. She was really a great
_improvisatrice_, a night-working spinner of long, loose, vivid yarns,
numberless, pauseless, admirable, repeatedly, for their full, pleasant,
reckless rustle over depths and difficulties—admirable indeed, in any
case of Scotch elements, for many a close engagement with these. She
showed in no literary relation more acuteness than in the relation—so
profitable a one as it has always been—to the inexhaustible little
country which has given so much, yet has ever so much more to give, and
all the romance and reality of which she had at the end of her pen. Her
Scotch folk have a wealth of life, and I think no Scotch talk in fiction
less of a strain to the patience of the profane. It may be less
austerely veracious than some—but these are esoteric matters.

Reading since her death “Kirsteen”—one of the hundred, but published in
her latest period and much admired by some judges—I was, though
beguiled, not too much beguiled to be struck afresh with that elusive
fact on which I just touched, the mixture in the whole thing. Such a
product as “Kirsteen” has life—is full of life, but the critic is
infinitely baffled. It may of course be said to him that he has nothing
to do with compositions of this order—with such wares altogether as
Mrs. Oliphant dealt in. But he can accept that retort only with a
renunciation of some of his liveliest anxieties. Let him take some early
day for getting behind, as it were, the complexion of a talent that
could care to handle a thing to the tune of so many pages and yet not
care more to “do” it. There is a fascination in the mere spectacle of so
serene an instinct for the middle way, so visible a conviction that to
reflect is to be lost.

Mrs. Oliphant was never lost, but she too often saved herself at the
expense of her subject. I have no space to insist, but so much of the
essence of the situation in “Kirsteen” strikes me as missed, dropped out
without a thought, that the wonder is all the greater of the fact that
in spite of it the book does in a manner scramble over its course and
throw up a fresh strong air. This was certainly the most that the author
would have pretended, and from her scorn of precautions springs a gleam
of impertinence quite in place in her sharp and handsome physiognomy,
that of a person whose eggs are not all in one basket, nor all her
imagination in service at once. There is scant enough question of “art”
in the matter, but there is a friendly way for us to feel about so much
cleverness, courage and humanity. We meet the case in wishing that the
timid talents were a little more like her and the bold ones a little
less.

                                THE END



                           TRANSCRIBER NOTES


Mis-spelled words and printer errors have been fixed.
Inconsistency in hyphenation has been retained.





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