Page images
PDF

607

TWO VIEWS OF THE NOWELIST.

IF imagination can trace an Alexander's dust till he find it stopping a bung-hole, an opposite line of thought, were we to consider too curiously, might often find strange sources for the opinions and theories of men. Had Hobbes been physically brave, the school of Bentham and Austin might never have seen the light; but for the peculiar character of Rousseau's “Maman,” his theory of a state of nature might never have been born, and the course of the French Revolution have run in a wholly different channel. And if this is true in the regions of abstract speculation, it is a fortiori true where the subject of the writer's work is the world of men moving around him. If the literature of knowledge, at any rate where knowledge drifts into speculation, is greatly influenced by the individual characteristics and special environment of its author, much more does this hold good in the case of the literature of power. Of course, with respect to novels, it is possible to take a good deal too seriously discussions upon their theory. The old-fashioned view with regard to them was very simple and intelligible. Most people, for a variety of reasons, find the world in which they live a trifle dull, and, shipwrecked on the desert island of their own minds, naturally welcome the approaching sail of the lending library. It is true that the manner of finding consolation is as various as are the temperaments of men, but the motive at bottom is the same—the need of excitement. The excitement differs toto coelo in character; the excitement of a boy in a tale of adventure is one thing, the excitement of a “cultured ” female, assisting at an analytic vivisection is another, but both spring from a common attribute of human nature—the desire of the unknown. Thus “novels are to love as fairy tales to dreams,” because love is the most universally interesting of human themes, and the one which the most excites and transports men into a new world, outside the cramping limits of their common surroundings. Novels should bring back as much of fairy land as the unbelieving grown-up can appreciate. This is the old-fashioned theory, and it seems satisWOL. X. 38

factorily to account for every kind of fiction, from Hans Andersen to Mr. Howells. So simple an explanation, however, does not Satisfy an age which is nothing if not serious. That the art of a generation reflects somehow that generation's lives and beliefs is a truth which few would be found now to deny. Just as the style of a man has been declared to be the man's true self, so the life of a generation and its literary expression are separate manifestations of a single being. The moral and intellectual new birth of the Elizabethan age naturally received literary embodiment in the blank verse of Marlowe. The sameness and security of modern life are reflected in the homely prose of the modern novel. Only one further step is needed and we reach the theory which claims a new dignity and place for the novel, by enlisting it, in a scientific age, as the handmaid and help-mate of sociology, the, as yet, undeveloped science of human nature in its social relations. The works of the novelist are to be a thesaurus of systematic experience for the student of the facts of life. Something of all this the great masters have been already, but let us listen to the new gospel as preached by one who is a master of the novelists' craft. Of Mr. George Meredith, it may be said, as has been happily said of Chapman, “that when inspired he is not always articulate,” so that it is well, as far as possible, to give his views in his own words. According then to him, what is required for the emancipation of the novelist's art, is “ that our system shall have been fortified by philosophy.” As things are, the novel is the miserable outcome of the “cancelling contest " of “rose-pink,” and “dirty drab.” Sentimentalism and naturalism hold alternate sway over the art that has not reached to philosophy. The novelist is to be the diarist of the inner life, the historian of the heart and brain. Only then will he “paint the woman, and the man, infuse blood to the hero, blood, brains to the virginal doll, the heroine.” “You have to teach your imagination of the feminine image you have set up to bend your civilized knees to, that it must temper its fastidiousness, shun the grossness of the over-dainty.” These are brave words, but their significance is, to some extent, lessened by the fact that their utterer is not one about to put them in practice, but a veteran, to all appearance, retiring from the fray. If, indeed, the book in which they are contained is to be taken as the first-fruits of the new fiction, there are very many who will prefer to stand on the old ways; the philosophy of Diana of the Crossways may be “divine,” but ordinary readers will prefer the “sentimentalism" of Richard Feverel or Harry Richmond. The moral of Diana of the Crossways, if I understand it, is a very sound, though a very old one. The contrast between the rough and ready verdict of the vulgar, and the judgment arrived at when the case is re-heard before a tribunal seised with the facts of the inner life, has been the frequent theme of writers. In Mr. Browning's Ring and the Book especially, the problem of Pompilia's character and relation with Caponsacchi is approached from every point of view, and treated with exhaustive, and alas ! to the multitude, exhausting subtilty. In the novel, however, the introduction of real people under imaginary names, and the confusion of true and false incidents, provokes and puzzles the reader. In the game of cross purposes in our mind between Diana and Mrs. Norton, we feel our interest in either on the wane. Mrs. Norton may have been all that her admirers conceived her, her poetry may have deserved the beautiful eulogium pronounced on it in the Noctes Ambrosianae, but she and her poetry alike belong to the past. Nor does the character in the novel, as a whole, live for us. We scent from afar the methods of the historical apologist; the author, with all his philosophy, appears to have been retained for the defence. Moreover, the particular form of misdoing which drives from Diana her politician lover is not one calculated to excite our sympathy. We are Philistine enough to consider that the lady love who tells our secrets to a newspaper, “heroine " though she may be “of reality,” had better not have the keeping of our household gods. Cases, there may be, in which, under immediate pressure, men and women of real goodness have thus demeaned themselves, but if so, they belong to the arcana of moral pathology rather than to the stock in trade of the novelist. They are the hard cases that assuredly make bad art. I have pressed, with some pertinacity, criticism upon this heroine of the future, because the considerations involved seem very germane to the question at issue. The ideal novelist is to be “veraciously historical, honestly transcriptive,” but who is to answer for the historian, or go surety for the absolute accuracy of his point of view 2 The analogy drawn between the diarist and the novelist is surely misleading. A diary, we may say without paradox, is interesting in proportion as it is without art. If written consciously for an audience, or pruned and shaped by the skill of an editor, it loses its character, and becomes a kind of immature history. A diary, moreover, will generally be found interesting in proportion as it is cynical. It holds the other side of the balance to the tone of gush that is inevitable in much public utterance. The historian weighs the two sides of the scales, and arrives at the opproximate truth. The position, then, of the diarist who jots down facts without method and without sympathy is tolerably simple. Unless he is a conscious knave he cannot go far wrong. But with the novelist the case is very different. Compelled by the necessity of his art to select and to sympathize—for without selection and without sympathy there can be no art—how difficult will it be for him to select without suppressio veri, and to sympathize without playing the partizan. For, unhappily, the mind of man is not yet “a smooth, clear, and equal glass, wherein the beams of things reflect according to their true incidence.” The idols at least of the cave, are as subtle and dangerous now as they were when Bacon wrote. Every profession we know, tends to produce its own appropriate temperament, and perhaps this truth holds good of the profession of the novelist. Thackeray's published letters to Mrs. Brookfield throw a flood of light upon this interesting question. The character presented by them is precisely what one would expect from a careful study of his movels. The shallow criticism that proclaimed Thackeray a cynic, that, in the language of Helps, could not believe “that he could possess any kind or generous sympathies towards the human race,” is certainly not countenanced by these letters, but neither is it by his novels. Everywhere we find in Thackeray the marks of a noble mature, dissatisfied with the conditions in which it lives; in the world, but not wholly of the world, and yet unable to break with the world. “We are taught to be ashamed of our best feelings all our life.” “At the train whom do you think I found 2 Miss G–-, who says she is Blanche Amory, and I think she is Blanche Amory; amiable, at times amusing, clever and depraved. We talked and persiflated all the way to London, and the idea of her will help me to a good chapter. . . . Oh me! we are wicked worldlings most of us; may God better us and cleanse us !” “However, I got a character in making Madame de B–’s acquaintance, and some day she will turn up in that inevitable repertory of all one's thoughts and experiences.” “There's a deal of good in this wicked world, isn't there? I am sure that it is partly because he is a lord that I like that man; but it is his lovingness, manliness, and simplicity that I like best.” “Isn't it curious that there are people who would give their ears to go to these fine places 2 ” And then an unkind cut at some Old Bailey barrister : “It is thus we make flèche de tout bois; and I–I suppose that every single circumstance which occurs to pain or pleasure me henceforth will go into print somehow or the other, so take care if you please, to be very well behaved and kind to me, or else,” &c. &c. This is, of course, joking, but it is joking that has its serious side. One more extract, and it shall be the last. “I have had the politest offer made to me to go to Scotland . . . but it doesn’t seem much pleasure or rest, does it 2 Best clothes every day, and supporting conversation over three courses at dinner: London over again. And a month of solitary idleness and wandering

[ocr errors]

would be better than that, wouldn't it 2 On the other hand, it is a thing to do, a sight to see, sure to be useful, professionally, Some day or the other, and to come in in some story unborn as yet.” Yes; this is the continual dilemma of the novelist's position. He must be always busying himself with the details of human Society, the raw material from which he weaves his manufactures. He is obliged, if he wishes to draw from the life, to mix much with his fellow men, and yet he is always haunted by the fear lest his higher nature suffer in the contact. In the constant pursuit of “copy,” the very facts of life assume for him a professional physiognomy. Poets, although they may descend, and, thank God! often do descend, like the Homeric deities, into the arena of human struggle, do not thus require the society of men: “the visitations of the divinity in man" necessitate frequent solitude. It is true that the novelist will be told that it is as a watcher, not as a companion, that he must be among men; but is not such a position an almost impossible one 2 Will not his fellow men get somewhat to resent the presence in their midst of this superior “chiel taking notes " ? The comments of the Chorus of ancient Greek tragedy are, no doubt, models of wisdom and good sense, but one feels that, in real life, they would have been a hard trial to the patience of the actors. Moreover, will it be possible for a man of generous feelings to preserve his absolute balance in the moving scenes around him? And if he does, will not his heart suffer at the expense of his head 2 In one of George Meredith's novels there is a character termed “the wise youth,” for whom the puppets of the piece enact their comedy. Is this kind of gentleman to be the ideal novelist 2 But if, on the other hand, the great writer associates much with his fellow men, into what opposite risks does he run ? Society, slowly perhaps, but no less surely, will dim his visions, and clog his aspirations, it will squander his time and his health in its frivolous pleasures, and, to him, its yet more frivolous business, and finally, perhaps, weary of him, rendered even such an one as is itself. It has been well said, that the choice between good and evil never presents itself as in the allegory of Prodicus, for, in that case, no one would choose evil; but how difficult, how almost impossible, that choice is to the novelist, in its complication of pros and cons, the letters of Thackeray are eloquent to show ! It is true that, in the case of an author, in some ways even greater than Thackeray, there was none of this feverish experience. George Eliot, all the last years of her life, lived in an artificial atmosphere, secluded, by the love and homage of those who surrounded her, from the rude blasts of the outside world. But who can doubt that the living figures of her great portrait gallery were

« PreviousContinue »