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Memories and Portraits by Robert Louis Stevenson

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morality, which is one of the chief merits of the book, makes one
of the main joys of its perusal, and sets it high above more
popular rivals. Athos, with the coming of years, has declined too
much into the preacher, and the preacher of a sapless creed; but
d'Artagnan has mellowed into a man so witty, rough, kind and
upright, that he takes the heart by storm. There is nothing of the
copy-book about his virtues, nothing of the drawing-room in his
fine, natural civility; he will sail near the wind; he is no
district visitor - no Wesley or Robespierre; his conscience is void
of all refinement whether for good or evil; but the whole man rings
true like a good sovereign. Readers who have approached the
VICOMTE, not across country, but by the legitimate, five-volumed
avenue of the MOUSQUETAIRES and VINGT ANS APRES, will not have
forgotten d'Artagnan's ungentlemanly and perfectly improbable trick
upon Milady. What a pleasure it is, then, what a reward, and how
agreeable a lesson, to see the old captain humble himself to the
son of the man whom he had personated! Here, and throughout, if I
am to choose virtues for myself or my friends, let me choose the
virtues of d'Artagnan. I do not say there is no character as well
drawn in Shakespeare; I do say there is none that I love so wholly.
There are many spiritual eyes that seem to spy upon our actions -
eyes of the dead and the absent, whom we imagine to behold us in
our most private hours, and whom we fear and scruple to offend: our
witnesses and judges. And among these, even if you should think me
childish, I must count my d'Artagnan - not d'Artagnan of the
memoirs whom Thackeray pretended to prefer - a preference, I take
the freedom of saying, in which he stands alone; not the d'Artagnan
of flesh and blood, but him of the ink and paper; not Nature's, but
Dumas's. And this is the particular crown and triumph of the
artist - not to be true merely, but to be lovable; not simply to
convince, but to enchant.

There is yet another point in the VICOMTE which I find
incomparable. I can recall no other work of the imagination in
which the end of life is represented with so nice a tact. I was
asked the other day if Dumas made me laugh or cry. Well in this my
late fifth reading of the VICOMTE, I did laugh once at the small
Coquelin de Voliere business, and was perhaps a thought surprised
at having done so: to make up for it, I smiled continually. But
for tears, I do not know. If you put a pistol to my throat, I must
own the tale trips upon a very airy foot - within a measurable
distance of unreality; and for those who like the big guns to be
discharged and the great passions to appear authentically, it may
even seem inadequate from first to last. Not so to me; I cannot
count that a poor dinner, or a poor book, where I meet with those I
love; and, above all, in this last volume, I find a singular charm
of spirit. It breathes a pleasant and a tonic sadness, always
brave, never hysterical. Upon the crowded, noisy life of this long
tale, evening gradually falls; and the lights are extinguished, and
the heroes pass away one by one. One by one they go, and not a
regret embitters their departure; the young succeed them in their
places, Louis Quatorze is swelling larger and shining broader,
another generation and another France dawn on the horizon; but for
us and these old men whom we have loved so long, the inevitable end
draws near and is welcome. To read this well is to anticipate
experience. Ah, if only when these hours of the long shadows fall
for us in reality and not in figure, we may hope to face them with
a mind as quiet!

But my paper is running out; the siege guns are firing on the Dutch
frontier; and I must say adieu for the fifth time to my old comrade
fallen on the field of glory. ADIEU - rather AU REVOIR! Yet a
sixth time, dearest d'Artagnan, we shall kidnap Monk and take horse
together for Belle Isle.


IN anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process
itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a
book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal,
our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images,
incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the
book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the
noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself
in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye. It was for this last
pleasure that we read so closely, and loved our books so dearly, in
the bright, troubled period of boyhood. Eloquence and thought,
character and conversation, were but obstacles to brush aside as we
dug blithely after a certain sort of incident, like a pig for
truffles. For my part, I liked a story to begin with an old
wayside inn where, "towards the close of the year 17-," several
gentlemen in three-cocked hats were playing bowls. A friend of
mine preferred the Malabar coast in a storm, with a ship beating to
windward, and a scowling fellow of Herculean proportions striding
along the beach; he, to be sure, was a pirate. This was further
afield than my home-keeping fancy loved to travel, and designed
altogether for a larger canvas than the tales that I affected.
Give me a highwayman and I was full to the brim; a Jacobite would
do, but the highwayman was my favourite dish. I can still hear
that merry clatter of the hoofs along the moonlit lane; night and
the coming of day are still related in my mind with the doings of
John Rann or Jerry Abershaw; and the words "post-chaise," the
"great North road," "ostler," and "nag" still sound in my ears like
poetry. One and all, at least, and each with his particular fancy,
we read story-books in childhood, not for eloquence or character or
thought, but for some quality of the brute incident. That quality
was not mere bloodshed or wonder. Although each of these was
welcome in its place, the charm for the sake of which we read
depended on something different from either. My elders used to
read novels aloud; and I can still remember four different passages
which I heard, before I was ten, with the same keen and lasting
pleasure. One I discovered long afterwards to be the admirable
opening of WHAT WILL HE DO WITH IT: it was no wonder I was pleased
with that. The other three still remain unidentified. One is a
little vague; it was about a dark, tall house at night, and people
groping on the stairs by the light that escaped from the open door
of a sickroom. In another, a lover left a ball, and went walking
in a cool, dewy park, whence he could watch the lighted windows and
the figures of the dancers as they moved. This was the most
sentimental impression I think I had yet received, for a child is
somewhat deaf to the sentimental. In the last, a poet, who had
been tragically wrangling with his wife, walked forth on the sea-
beach on a tempestuous night and witnessed the horrors of a wreck.
(8) Different as they are, all these early favourites have a
common note - they have all a touch of the romantic.

Drama is the poetry of conduct, romance the poetry of circumstance.
The pleasure that we take in life is of two sorts - the active and
the passive. Now we are conscious of a great command over our
destiny; anon we are lifted up by circumstance, as by a breaking
wave, and dashed we know not how into the future. Now we are
pleased by our conduct, anon merely pleased by our surroundings.
It would be hard to say which of these modes of satisfaction is the
more effective, but the latter is surely the more constant.
Conduct is three parts of life, they say; but I think they put it
high. There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not
immoral, but simply a-moral; which either does not regard the human
will at all, or deals with it in obvious and healthy relations;
where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do,
but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and
hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and
of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the
shock of arms or the diplomacy of life. With such material as this
it is impossible to build a play, for the serious theatre exists
solely on moral grounds, and is a standing proof of the
dissemination of the human conscience. But it is possible to
build, upon this ground, the most joyous of verses, and the most
lively, beautiful, and buoyant tales.

One thing in life calls for another; there is a fitness in events
and places. The sight of a pleasant arbour puts it in our mind to
sit there. One place suggests work, another idleness, a third
early rising and long rambles in the dew. The effect of night, of
any flowing water, of lighted cities, of the peep of day, of ships,
of the open ocean, calls up in the mind an army of anonymous
desires and pleasures. Something, we feel, should happen; we know
not what, yet we proceed in quest of it. And many of the happiest
hours of life fleet by us in this vain attendance on the genius of
the place and moment. It is thus that tracts of young fir, and low
rocks that reach into deep soundings, particularly torture and
delight me. Something must have happened in such places, and
perhaps ages back, to members of my race; and when I was a child I
tried in vain to invent appropriate games for them, as I still try,
just as vainly, to fit them with the proper story. Some places
speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder;
certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set
apart for shipwreck. Other spots again seem to abide their
destiny, suggestive and impenetrable, "miching mallecho." The inn
at Burford Bridge, with its arbours and green garden and silent,
eddying river - though it is known already as the place where Keats
wrote some of his ENDYMION and Nelson parted from his Emma - still
seems to wait the coming of the appropriate legend. Within these
ivied walls, behind these old green shutters, some further business
smoulders, waiting for its hour. The old Hawes Inn at the Queen's
Ferry makes a similar call upon my fancy. There it stands, apart
from the town, beside the pier, in a climate of its own, half
inland, half marine - in front

the ferry bubbling with the tide and the guardship swinging to her
anchor; behind, the old garden with the trees. Americans seek it
already for the sake of Lovel and Oldbuck, who dined there at the
beginning of the ANTIQUARY. But you need not tell me - that is not
all; there is some story, unrecorded or not yet complete, which
must express the meaning of that inn more fully. So it is with
names and faces; so it is with incidents that are idle and
inconclusive in themselves, and yet seem like the beginning of some
quaint romance, which the all-careless author leaves untold. How
many of these romances have we not seen determine at their birth;
how many people have met us with a look of meaning in their eye,
and sunk at once into trivial acquaintances; to how many places
have we not drawn near, with express intimations - "here my destiny
awaits me" - and we have but dined there and passed on! I have
lived both at the Hawes and Burford in a perpetual flutter, on the
heels, as it seemed, of some adventure that should justify the
place; but though the feeling had me to bed at night and called me
again at morning in one unbroken round of pleasure and suspense,
nothing befell me in either worth remark. The man or the hour had
not yet come; but some day, I think, a boat shall put off from the
Queen's Ferry, fraught with a dear cargo, and some frosty night a
horseman, on a tragic errand, rattle with his whip upon the green
shutters of the inn at Burford. (9)

Now, this is one of the natural appetites with which any lively
literature has to count. The desire for knowledge, I had almost
added the desire for meat, is not more deeply seated than this
demand for fit and striking incident. The dullest of clowns tells,
or tries to tell, himself a story, as the feeblest of children uses
invention in his play; and even as the imaginative grown person,
joining in the game, at once enriches it with many delightful
circumstances, the great creative writer shows us the realisation
and the apotheosis of the day-dreams of common men. His stories
may be nourished with the realities of life, but their true mark is
to satisfy the nameless longings of the reader, and to obey the
ideal laws of the day-dream. The right kind of thing should fall
out in the right kind of place; the right kind of thing should
follow; and not only the characters talk aptly and think naturally,
but all the circumstances in a tale answer one to another like
notes in music. The threads of a story come from time to time
together and make a picture in the web; the characters fall from
time to time into some attitude to each other or to nature, which
stamps the story home like an illustration. Crusoe recoiling from
the footprint, Achilles shouting over against the Trojans, Ulysses
bending the great bow, Christian running with his fingers in his
ears, these are each culminating moments in the legend, and each
has been printed on the mind's eye for ever. Other things we may
forget; we may forget the words, although they are beautiful; we
may forget the author's comment, although perhaps it was ingenious
and true; but these epoch-making scenes, which put the last mark of
truth upon a story and fill up, at one blow, our capacity for
sympathetic pleasure, we so adopt into the very bosom of our mind
that neither time nor tide can efface or weaken the impression.
This, then, is the plastic part of literature: to embody character,
thought, or emotion in some act or attitude that shall be
remarkably striking to the mind's eye. This is the highest and
hardest thing to do in words; the thing which, once accomplished,
equally delights the schoolboy and the sage, and makes, in its own
right, the quality of epics. Compared with this, all other
purposes in literature, except the purely lyrical or the purely
philosophic, are bastard in nature, facile of execution, and feeble
in result. It is one thing to write about the inn at Burford, or
to describe scenery with the word-painters; it is quite another to
seize on the heart of the suggestion and make a country famous with
a legend. It is one thing to remark and to dissect, with the most
cutting logic, the complications of life, and of the human spirit;
it is quite another to give them body and blood in the story of
Ajax or of Hamlet. The first is literature, but the second is
something besides, for it is likewise art.

English people of the present day (10) are apt, I know not why, to
look somewhat down on incident, and reserve their admiration for
the clink of teaspoons and the accents of the curate. It is
thought clever to write a novel with no story at all, or at least
with a very dull one. Reduced even to the lowest terms, a certain
interest can be communicated by the art of narrative; a sense of
human kinship stirred; and a kind of monotonous fitness, comparable
to the words and air of SANDY'S MULL, preserved among the
infinitesimal occurrences recorded. Some people work, in this
manner, with even a strong touch. Mr. Trollope's inimitable
clergymen naturally arise to the mind in this connection. But even
Mr. Trollope does not confine himself to chronicling small beer.
Mr. Crawley's collision with the Bishop's wife, Mr. Melnotte
dallying in the deserted banquet-room, are typical incidents,
epically conceived, fitly embodying a crisis. Or again look at
Thackeray. If Rawdon Crawley's blow were not delivered, VANITY
FAIR would cease to be a work of art. That scene is the chief
ganglion of the tale; and the discharge of energy from Rawdon's
fist is the reward and consolation of the reader. The end of
ESMOND is a yet wider excursion from the author's customary fields;
the scene at Castlewood is pure Dumas; the great and wily English
borrower has here borrowed from the great, unblushing French thief;
as usual, he has borrowed admirably well, and the breaking of the
sword rounds off the best of all his books with a manly, martial
note. But perhaps nothing can more strongly illustrate the
necessity for marking incident than to compare the living fame of
is a book of a far more startling import, worked out, on a great
canvas, with inimitable courage and unflagging art. It contains
wit, character, passion, plot, conversations full of spirit and
insight, letters sparkling with unstrained humanity; and if the
death of the heroine be somewhat frigid and artificial, the last
days of the hero strike the only note of what we now call Byronism,
between the Elizabethans and Byron himself. And yet a little story
of a shipwrecked sailor, with not a tenth part of the style nor a
thousandth part of the wisdom, exploring none of the arcana of
humanity and deprived of the perennial interest of love, goes on
from edition to edition, ever young, while CLARISSA lies upon the
shelves unread. A friend of mine, a Welsh blacksmith, was twenty-
five years old and could neither read nor write, when he heard a
chapter of ROBINSON read aloud in a farm kitchen. Up to that
moment he had sat content, huddled in his ignorance, but he left
that farm another man. There were day-dreams, it appeared, divine
day-dreams, written and printed and bound, and to be bought for
money and enjoyed at pleasure. Down he sat that day, painfully
learned to read Welsh, and returned to borrow the book. It had
been lost, nor could he find another copy but one that was in
English. Down he sat once more, learned English, and at length,
and with entire delight, read ROBINSON. It is like the story of a
love-chase. If he had heard a letter from CLARISSA, would he have
been fired with the same chivalrous ardour? I wonder. Yet
CLARISSA has every quality that can be shown in prose, one alone
excepted - pictorial or picture-making romance. While ROBINSON
depends, for the most part and with the overwhelming majority of
its readers, on the charm of circumstance.

In the highest achievements of the art of words, the dramatic and
the pictorial, the moral and romantic interest, rise and fall
together by a common and organic law. Situation is animated with
passion, passion clothed upon with situation. Neither exists for
itself, but each inheres indissolubly with the other. This is high
art; and not only the highest art possible in words, but the
highest art of all, since it combines the greatest mass and
diversity of the elements of truth and pleasure. Such are epics,
and the few prose tales that have the epic weight. But as from a
school of works, aping the creative, incident and romance are
ruthlessly discarded, so may character and drama be omitted or
subordinated to romance. There is one book, for example, more
generally loved than Shakespeare, that captivates in childhood, and
still delights in age - I mean the ARABIAN NIGHTS - where you shall
look in vain for moral or for intellectual interest. No human face
or voice greets us among that wooden crowd of kings and genies,
sorcerers and beggarmen. Adventure, on the most naked terms,
furnishes forth the entertainment and is found enough. Dumas
approaches perhaps nearest of any modern to these Arabian authors
in the purely material charm of some of his romances. The early
part of MONTE CRISTO, down to the finding of the treasure, is a
piece of perfect story-telling; the man never breathed who shared
these moving incidents without a tremor; and yet Faria is a thing
of packthread and Dantes little more than a name. The sequel is
one long-drawn error, gloomy, bloody, unnatural and dull; but as
for these early chapters, I do not believe there is another volume
extant where you can breathe the same unmingled atmosphere of
romance. It is very thin and light to be sure, as on a high
mountain; but it is brisk and clear and sunny in proportion. I saw
the other day, with envy, an old and a very clever lady setting
forth on a second or third voyage into MONTE CRISTO. Here are
stories which powerfully affect the reader, which can he reperused
at any age, and where the characters are no more than puppets. The
bony fist of the showman visibly propels them; their springs are an
open secret; their faces are of wood, their bellies filled with
bran; and yet we thrillingly partake of their adventures. And the
point may be illustrated still further. The last interview between
Lucy and Richard Feveril is pure drama; more than that, it is the
strongest scene, since Shakespeare, in the English tongue. Their
first meeting by the river, on the other hand, is pure romance; it
has nothing to do with character; it might happen to any other boy
or maiden, and be none the less delightful for the change. And yet
I think he would be a bold man who should choose between these
passages. Thus, in the same book, we may have two scenes, each
capital in its order: in the one, human passion, deep calling unto
deep, shall utter its genuine voice; in the second, according
circumstances, like instruments in tune, shall build up a trivial
but desirable incident, such as we love to prefigure for ourselves;
and in the end, in spite of the critics, we may hesitate to give
the preference to either. The one may ask more genius - I do not
say it does; but at least the other dwells as clearly in the

True romantic art, again, makes a romance of all things. It
reaches into the highest abstraction of the ideal; it does not
refuse the most pedestrian realism. ROBINSON CRUSOE is as
realistic as it is romantic; both qualities are pushed to an
extreme, and neither suffers. Nor does romance depend upon the
material importance of the incidents. To deal with strong and
deadly elements, banditti, pirates, war and murder, is to conjure
with great names, and, in the event of failure, to double the
disgrace. The arrival of Haydn and Consuelo at the Canon's villa
is a very trifling incident; yet we may read a dozen boisterous
stories from beginning to end, and not receive so fresh and
stirring an impression of adventure. It was the scene of Crusoe at
the wreck, if I remember rightly, that so bewitched my blacksmith.
Nor is the fact surprising. Every single article the castaway
recovers from the hulk is "a joy for ever" to the man who reads of
them. They are the things that should be found, and the bare
enumeration stirs the blood. I found a glimmer of the same
interest the other day in a new book, THE SAILOR'S SWEETHEART, by
Mr. Clark Russell. The whole business of the brig MORNING STAR is
very rightly felt and spiritedly written; but the clothes, the
books and the money satisfy the reader's mind like things to eat.
We are dealing here with the old cut-and-dry, legitimate interest
of treasure trove. But even treasure trove can be made dull.
There are few people who have not groaned under the plethora of
goods that fell to the lot of the SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, that
dreary family. They found article after article, creature after
creature, from milk kine to pieces of ordnance, a whole
consignment; but no informing taste had presided over the
selection, there was no smack or relish in the invoice; and these
riches left the fancy cold. The box of goods in Verne's MYSTERIOUS
ISLAND is another case in point: there was no gusto and no glamour
about that; it might have come from a shop. But the two hundred
and seventy-eight Australian sovereigns on board the MORNING STAR
fell upon me like a surprise that I had expected; whole vistas of
secondary stories, besides the one in hand, radiated forth from
that discovery, as they radiate from a striking particular in life;
and I was made for the moment as happy as a reader has the right to

To come at all at the nature of this quality of romance, we must
bear in mind the peculiarity of our attitude to any art. No art
produces illusion; in the theatre we never forget that we are in
the theatre; and while we read a story, we sit wavering between two
minds, now merely clapping our hands at the merit of the
performance, now condescending to take an active part in fancy with
the characters. This last is the triumph of romantic story-
telling: when the reader consciously plays at being the hero, the
scene is a good scene. Now in character-studies the pleasure that
we take is critical; we watch, we approve, we smile at
incongruities, we are moved to sudden heats of sympathy with
courage, suffering or virtue. But the characters are still
themselves, they are not us; the more clearly they are depicted,
the more widely do they stand away from us, the more imperiously do
they thrust us back into our place as a spectator. I cannot
identify myself with Rawdon Crawley or with Eugene de Rastignac,
for I have scarce a hope or fear in common with them. It is not
character but incident that woos us out of our reserve. Something
happens as we desire to have it happen to ourselves; some
situation, that we have long dallied with in fancy, is realised in
the story with enticing and appropriate details. Then we forget
the characters; then we push the hero aside; then we plunge into
the tale in our own person and bathe in fresh experience; and then,
and then only, do we say we have been reading a romance. It is not
only pleasurable things that we imagine in our day-dreams; there
are lights in which we are willing to contemplate even the idea of
our own death; ways in which it seems as if it would amuse us to be
cheated, wounded or calumniated. It is thus possible to construct
a story, even of tragic import, in which every incident, detail and
trick of circumstance shall be welcome to the reader's thoughts.
Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there
that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life; and when the
game so chimes with his fancy that he can join in it with all his
heart, when it pleases him with every turn, when he loves to recall
it and dwells upon its recollection with entire delight, fiction is
called romance.

Walter Scott is out and away the king of the romantics. THE LADY
OF THE LAKE has no indisputable claim to be a poem beyond the
inherent fitness and desirability of the tale. It is just such a
story as a man would make up for himself, walking, in the best
health and temper, through just such scenes as it is laid in.
Hence it is that a charm dwells undefinable among these slovenly
verses, as the unseen cuckoo fills the mountains with his note;
hence, even after we have flung the book aside, the scenery and
adventures remain present to the mind, a new and green possession,
not unworthy of that beautiful name, THE LADY OF THE LAKE, or that
direct, romantic opening - one of the most spirited and poetical in
literature - "The stag at eve had drunk his fill." The same
strength and the same weaknesses adorn and disfigure the novels.
In that ill-written, ragged book, THE PIRATE, the figure of
Cleveland - cast up by the sea on the resounding foreland of
Dunrossness - moving, with the blood on his hands and the Spanish
words on his tongue, among the simple islanders - singing a
serenade under the window of his Shetland mistress - is conceived
in the very highest manner of romantic invention. The words of his
song, "Through groves of palm," sung in such a scene and by such a
lover, clench, as in a nutshell, the emphatic contrast upon which
the tale is built. IN GUY MANNERING, again, every incident is
delightful to the imagination; and the scene when Harry Bertram
lands at Ellangowan is a model instance of romantic method.

"I remember the tune well," he says, "though I cannot guess what
should at present so strongly recall it to my memory." He took his
flageolet from his pocket and played a simple melody. Apparently
the tune awoke the corresponding associations of a damsel. She
immediately took up the song -

" 'Are these the links of Forth, she said;
Or are they the crooks of Dee,
Or the bonny woods of Warroch Head
That I so fain would see?'

" 'By heaven!' said Bertram, 'it is the very ballad.'"

On this quotation two remarks fall to be made. First, as an
instance of modern feeling for romance, this famous touch of the
flageolet and the old song is selected by Miss Braddon for
omission. Miss Braddon's idea of a story, like Mrs. Todgers's idea
of a wooden leg, were something strange to have expounded. As a
matter of personal experience, Meg's appearance to old Mr. Bertram
on the road, the ruins of Derncleugh, the scene of the flageolet,
and the Dominie's recognition of Harry, are the four strong notes
that continue to ring in the mind after the book is laid aside.
The second point is still more curious. The, reader will observe a
mark of excision in the passage as quoted by me. Well, here is how
it runs in the original: "a damsel, who, close behind a fine spring
about half-way down the descent, and which had once supplied the
castle with water, was engaged in bleaching linen." A man who gave
in such copy would be discharged from the staff of a daily paper.
Scott has forgotten to prepare the reader for the presence of the
"damsel"; he has forgotten to mention the spring and its relation
to the ruin; and now, face to face with his omission, instead of
trying back and starting fair, crams all this matter, tail
foremost, into a single shambling sentence. It is not merely bad
English, or bad style; it is abominably bad narrative besides.

Certainly the contrast is remarkable; and it is one that throws a
strong light upon the subject of this paper. For here we have a
man of the finest creative instinct touching with perfect certainty
and charm the romantic junctures of his story; and we find him
utterly careless, almost, it would seem, incapable, in the
technical matter of style, and not only frequently weak, but
frequently wrong in points of drama. In character parts, indeed,
and particularly in the Scotch, he was delicate, strong and
truthful; but the trite, obliterated features of too many of his
heroes have already wearied two generations of readers. At times
his characters will speak with something far beyond propriety with
a true heroic note; but on the next page they will he wading
wearily forward with an ungrammatical and undramatic rigmarole of
words. The man who could conceive and write the character of
Elspeth of the Craigburnfoot, as Scott has conceived and written
it, had not only splendid romantic, but splendid tragic gifts. How
comes it, then, that he could so often fob us off with languid,
inarticulate twaddle?

It seems to me that the explanation is to be found in the very
quality of his surprising merits. As his books are play to the
reader, so were they play to him. He conjured up the romantic with
delight, but he had hardly patience to describe it. He was a great
day-dreamer, a seer of fit and beautiful and humorous visions, but
hardly a great artist; hardly, in the manful sense, an artist at
all. He pleased himself, and so he pleases us. Of the pleasures
of his art he tasted fully; but of its toils and vigils and
distresses never man knew less. A great romantic - an idle child.


WE have recently (12) enjoyed a quite peculiar pleasure: hearing,
in some detail, the opinions, about the art they practise, of Mr.
Walter Besant and Mr. Henry James; two men certainly of very
different calibre: Mr. James so precise of outline, so cunning of
fence, so scrupulous of finish, and Mr. Besant so genial, so
friendly, with so persuasive and humorous a vein of whim: Mr. James
the very type of the deliberate artist, Mr. Besant the
impersonation of good nature. That such doctors should differ will
excite no great surprise; but one point in which they seem to agree
fills me, I confess, with wonder. For they are both content to
talk about the "art of fiction"; and Mr. Besant, waxing exceedingly
bold, goes on to oppose this so-called "art of fiction" to the "art
of poetry." By the art of poetry he can mean nothing but the art
of verse, an art of handicraft, and only comparable with the art of
prose. For that heat and height of sane emotion which we agree to
call by the name of poetry, is but a libertine and vagrant quality;
present, at times, in any art, more often absent from them all; too
seldom present in the prose novel, too frequently absent from the
ode and epic. Fiction is the same case; it is no substantive art,
but an element which enters largely into all the arts but
architecture. Homer, Wordsworth, Phidias, Hogarth, and Salvini,
all deal in fiction; and yet I do not suppose that either Hogarth
or Salvini, to mention but these two, entered in any degree into
the scope of Mr. Besant's interesting lecture or Mr. James's
charming essay. The art of fiction, then, regarded as a
definition, is both too ample and too scanty. Let me suggest
another; let me suggest that what both Mr. James and Mr. Besant had
in view was neither more nor less than the art of narrative.

But Mr. Besant is anxious to speak solely of "the modern English
novel," the stay and bread-winner of Mr. Mudie; and in the author
of the most pleasing novel on that roll, ALL SORTS AND CONDITIONS
OF MEN, the desire is natural enough. I can conceive, then, that
he would hasten to propose two additions, and read thus: the art of

Now the fact of the existence of the modern English novel is not to
be denied; materially, with its three volumes, leaded type, and
gilded lettering, it is easily distinguishable from other forms of
literature; but to talk at all fruitfully of any branch of art, it
is needful to build our definitions on some more fundamental ground
then binding. Why, then, are we to add "in prose"? THE ODYSSEY
appears to me the best of romances; THE LADY OF THE LAKE to stand
high in the second order; and Chaucer's tales and prologues to
contain more of the matter and art of the modern English novel than
the whole treasury of Mr. Mudie. Whether a narrative be written in
blank verse or the Spenserian stanza, in the long period of Gibbon
or the chipped phrase of Charles Reade, the principles of the art
of narrative must be equally observed. The choice of a noble and
swelling style in prose affects the problem of narration in the
same way, if not to the same degree, as the choice of measured
verse; for both imply a closer synthesis of events, a higher key of
dialogue, and a more picked and stately strain of words. If you
are to refuse DON JUAN, it is hard to see why you should include
ZANONI or (to bracket works of very different value) THE SCARLET
LETTER; and by what discrimination are you to open your doors TO
THE PILGRIM'S PROGRESS and close them on THE FAERY QUEEN? To bring
things closer home, I will here propound to Mr. Besant a conundrum.
A narrative called PARADISE LOST was written in English verse by
one John Milton; what was it then? It was next translated by
Chateaubriand into French prose; and what was it then? Lastly, the
French translation was, by some inspired compatriot of George
Gilfillan (and of mine) turned bodily into an English novel; and,
in the name of clearness, what was it then?

But, once more, why should we add "fictitious"? The reason why is
obvious. The reason why not, if something more recondite, does not
want for weight. The art of narrative, in fact, is the same,
whether it is applied to the selection and illustration of a real
series of events or of an imaginary series. Boswell's LIFE OF
JOHNSON (a work of cunning and inimitable art) owes its success to
the same technical manoeuvres as (let us say) TOM JONES: the clear
conception of certain characters of man, the choice and
presentation of certain incidents out of a great number that
offered, and the invention (yes, invention) and preservation of a
certain key in dialogue. In which these things are done with the
more art - in which with the greater air of nature - readers will
differently judge. Boswell's is, indeed, a very special case, and
almost a generic; but it is not only in Boswell, it is in every
biography with any salt of life, it is in every history where
events and men, rather than ideas, are presented - in Tacitus, in
Carlyle, in Michelet, in Macaulay - that the novelist will find
many of his own methods most conspicuously and adroitly handled.
He will find besides that he, who is free - who has the right to
invent or steal a missing incident, who has the right, more
precious still, of wholesale omission - is frequently defeated,
and, with all his advantages, leaves a less strong impression of
reality and passion. Mr. James utters his mind with a becoming
fervour on the sanctity of truth to the novelist; on a more careful
examination truth will seem a word of very debateable propriety,
not only for the labours of the novelist, but for those of the
historian. No art - to use the daring phrase of Mr. James - can
successfully "compete with life"; and the art that seeks to do so
is condemned to perish MONTIBUS AVIIS. Life goes before us,
infinite in complication; attended by the most various and
surprising meteors; appealing at once to the eye, to the ear, to
the mind - the seat of wonder, to the touch - so thrillingly
delicate, and to the belly - so imperious when starved. It
combines and employs in its manifestation the method and material,
not of one art only, but of all the arts, Music is but an arbitrary
trifling with a few of life's majestic chords; painting is but a
shadow of its pageantry of light and colour; literature does but
drily indicate that wealth of incident, of moral obligation, of
virtue, vice, action, rapture and agony, with which it teems. To
"compete with life," whose sun we cannot look upon, whose passions
and diseases waste and slay us - to compete with the flavour of
wine, the beauty of the dawn, the scorching of fire, the bitterness
of death and separation - here is, indeed, a projected escalade of
heaven; here are, indeed, labours for a Hercules in a dress coat,
armed with a pen and a dictionary to depict the passions, armed
with a tube of superior flake-white to paint the portrait of the
insufferable sun. No art is true in this sense: none can "compete
with life": not even history, built indeed of indisputable facts,
but these facts robbed of their vivacity and sting; so that even
when we read of the sack of a city or the fall of an empire, we are
surprised, and justly commend the author's talent, if our pulse be
quickened. And mark, for a last differentia, that this quickening
of the pulse is, in almost every case, purely agreeable; that these
phantom reproductions of experience, even at their most acute,
convey decided pleasure; while experience itself, in the cockpit of
life, can torture and slay.

What, then, is the object, what the method, of an art, and what the
source of its power? The whole secret is that no art does "compete
with life." Man's one method, whether he reasons or creates, is to
half-shut his eyes against the dazzle and confusion of reality.
The arts, like arithmetic and geometry, turn away their eyes from
the gross, coloured and mobile nature at our feet, and regard
instead a certain figmentary abstraction. Geometry will tell us of
a circle, a thing never seen in nature; asked about a green circle
or an iron circle, it lays its hand upon its mouth. So with the
arts. Painting, ruefully comparing sunshine and flake-white, gives
up truth of colour, as it had already given up relief and movement;
and instead of vying with nature, arranges a scheme of harmonious
tints. Literature, above all in its most typical mood, the mood of
narrative, similarly flees the direct challenge and pursues instead
an independent and creative aim. So far as it imitates at all, it
imitates not life but speech: not the facts of human destiny, but
the emphasis and the suppressions with which the human actor tells
of them. The real art that dealt with life directly was that of
the first men who told their stories round the savage camp-fire.
Our art is occupied, and bound to be occupied, not so much in
making stories true as in making them typical; not so much in
capturing the lineaments of each fact, as in marshalling all of
them towards a common end. For the welter of impressions, all
forcible but all discreet, which life presents, it substitutes a
certain artificial series of impressions, all indeed most feebly
represented, but all aiming at the same effect, all eloquent of the
same idea, all chiming together like consonant notes in music or
like the graduated tints in a good picture. From all its chapters,
from all its pages, from all its sentences, the well-written novel
echoes and re-echoes its one creative and controlling thought; to
this must every incident and character contribute; the style must
have been pitched in unison with this; and if there is anywhere a
word that looks another way, the book would be stronger, clearer,
and (I had almost said) fuller without it. Life is monstrous,
infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in
comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing and
emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate
thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of
experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.
A proposition of geometry does not compete with life; and a
proposition of geometry is a fair and luminous parallel for a work
of art. Both are reasonable, both untrue to the crude fact; both
inhere in nature, neither represents it. The novel, which is a
work of art, exists, not by its resemblances to life, which are
forced and material, as a shoe must still consist of leather, but
by its immeasurable difference from life, which is designed and
significant, and is both the method and the meaning of the work.

The life of man is not the subject of novels, but the inexhaustible
magazine from which subjects are to be selected; the name of these
is legion; and with each new subject - for here again I must differ
by the whole width of heaven from Mr. James - the true artist will
vary his method and change the point of attack. That which was in
one case an excellence, will become a defect in another; what was
the making of one book, will in the next be impertinent or dull.
First each novel, and then each class of novels, exists by and for
itself. I will take, for instance, three main classes, which are
fairly distinct: first, the novel of adventure, which appeals to
certain almost sensual and quite illogical tendencies in man;
second, the novel of character, which appeals to our intellectual
appreciation of man's foibles and mingled and inconstant motives;
and third, the dramatic novel, which deals with the same stuff as
the serious theatre, and appeals to our emotional nature and moral

And first for the novel of adventure. Mr. James refers, with
singular generosity of praise, to a little book about a quest for
hidden treasure; but he lets fall, by the way, some rather
startling words. In this book he misses what he calls the "immense
luxury" of being able to quarrel with his author. The luxury, to
most of us, is to lay by our judgment, to be submerged by the tale
as by a billow, and only to awake, and begin to distinguish and
find fault, when the piece is over and the volume laid aside.
Still more remarkable is Mr. James's reason. He cannot criticise
the author, as he goes, "because," says he, comparing it with
QUEST FOR BURIED TREASURE." Here is, indeed, a wilful paradox; for
if he has never been on a quest for buried treasure, it can be
demonstrated that he has never been a child. There never was a
child (unless Master James) but has hunted gold, and been a pirate,
and a military commander, and a bandit of the mountains; but has
fought, and suffered shipwreck and prison, and imbrued its little
hands in gore, and gallantly retrieved the lost battle, and
triumphantly protected innocence and beauty. Elsewhere in his
essay Mr. James has protested with excellent reason against too
narrow a conception of experience; for the born artist, he
contends, the "faintest hints of life" are converted into
revelations; and it will be found true, I believe, in a majority of
cases, that the artist writes with more gusto and effect of those
things which he has only wished to do, than of those which he has
done. Desire is a wonderful telescope, and Pisgah the best
observatory. Now, while it is true that neither Mr. James nor the
author of the work in question has ever, in the fleshly sense, gone
questing after gold, it is probable that both have ardently desired
and fondly imagined the details of such a life in youthful day-
dreams; and the author, counting upon that, and well aware (cunning
and low-minded man!) that this class of interest, having been
frequently treated, finds a readily accessible and beaten road to
the sympathies of the reader, addressed himself throughout to the
building up and circumstantiation of this boyish dream. Character
to the boy is a sealed book; for him, a pirate is a beard, a pair
of wide trousers and a liberal complement of pistols. The author,
for the sake of circumstantiation and because he was himself more
or less grown up, admitted character, within certain limits, into
his design; but only within certain limits. Had the same puppets
figured in a scheme of another sort, they had been drawn to very
different purpose; for in this elementary novel of adventure, the
characters need to be presented with but one class of qualities -
the warlike and formidable. So as they appear insidious in deceit
and fatal in the combat, they have served their end. Danger is the
matter with which this class of novel deals; fear, the passion with
which it idly trifles; and the characters are portrayed only so far
as they realise the sense of danger and provoke the sympathy of
fear. To add more traits, to be too clever, to start the hare of
moral or intellectual interest while we are running the fox of
material interest, is not to enrich but to stultify your tale. The
stupid reader will only be offended, and the clever reader lose the

The novel of character has this difference from all others: that it
requires no coherency of plot, and for this reason, as in the case
of GIL BLAS, it is sometimes called the novel of adventure. It
turns on the humours of the persons represented; these are, to be
sure, embodied in incidents, but the incidents themselves, being
tributary, need not march in a progression; and the characters may
be statically shown. As they enter, so they may go out; they must
be consistent, but they need not grow. Here Mr. James will
recognise the note of much of his own work: he treats, for the most
part, the statics of character, studying it at rest or only gently
moved; and, with his usual delicate and just artistic instinct, he
avoids those stronger passions which would deform the attitudes he
loves to study, and change his sitters from the humorists of
ordinary life to the brute forces and bare types of more emotional
moments. In his recent AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO, so just in
conception, so nimble and neat in workmanship, strong passion is
indeed employed; but observe that it is not displayed. Even in the
heroine the working of the passion is suppressed; and the great
struggle, the true tragedy, the SCENE-A-FAIRE passes unseen behind
the panels of a locked door. The delectable invention of the young
visitor is introduced, consciously or not, to this end: that Mr.
James, true to his method, might avoid the scene of passion. I
trust no reader will suppose me guilty of undervaluing this little
masterpiece. I mean merely that it belongs to one marked class of
novel, and that it would have been very differently conceived and
treated had it belonged to that other marked class, of which I now
proceed to speak.

I take pleasure in calling the dramatic novel by that name, because
it enables me to point out by the way a strange and peculiarly
English misconception. It is sometimes supposed that the drama
consists of incident. It consists of passion, which gives the
actor his opportunity; and that passion must progressively
increase, or the actor, as the piece proceeded, would be unable to
carry the audience from a lower to a higher pitch of interest and
emotion. A good serious play must therefore be founded on one of
the passionate CRUCES of life, where duty and inclination come
nobly to the grapple; and the same is true of what I call, for that
reason, the dramatic novel. I will instance a few worthy
specimens, all of our own day and language; Meredith's RHODA
FLEMING, that wonderful and painful book, long out of print, (13)
and hunted for at bookstalls like an Aldine; Hardy's PAIR OF BLUE
EYES; and two of Charles Reade's, GRIFFITH GAUNT and the DOUBLE
MARRIAGE, originally called WHITE LIES, and founded (by an accident
quaintly favourable to my nomenclature) on a play by Maquet, the
partner of the great Dumas. In this kind of novel the closed door
of THE AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO must be broken open; passion must
appear upon the scene and utter its last word; passion is the be-
all and the end-all, the plot and the solution, the protagonist and
the DEUS EX MACHINA in one. The characters may come anyhow upon
the stage: we do not care; the point is, that, before they leave
it, they shall become transfigured and raised out of themselves by
passion. It may be part of the design to draw them with detail; to
depict a full-length character, and then behold it melt and change
in the furnace of emotion.

But there is no obligation of the sort; nice portraiture is not
required; and we are content to accept mere abstract types, so they
be strongly and sincerely moved. A novel of this class may be even
great, and yet contain no individual figure; it may be great,
because it displays the workings of the perturbed heart and the
impersonal utterance of passion; and with an artist of the second
class it is, indeed, even more likely to be great, when the issue
has thus been narrowed and the whole force of the writer's mind
directed to passion alone. Cleverness again, which has its fair
field in the novel of character, is debarred all entry upon this
more solemn theatre. A far-fetched motive, an ingenious evasion of
the issue, a witty instead of a passionate turn, offend us like an
insincerity. All should be plain, all straightforward to the end.
Hence it is that, in RHODA FLEMING, Mrs. Lovell raises such
resentment in the reader; her motives are too flimsy, her ways are
too equivocal, for the weight and strength of her surroundings.
Hence the hot indignation of the reader when Balzac, after having
begun the DUCHESSE DE LANGEAIS in terms of strong if somewhat
swollen passion, cuts the knot by the derangement of the hero's
clock. Such personages and incidents belong to the novel of
character; they are out of place in the high society of the
passions; when the passions are introduced in art at their full
height, we look to see them, not baffled and impotently striving,
as in life, but towering above circumstance and acting substitutes
for fate.

And here I can imagine Mr. James, with his lucid sense, to
intervene. To much of what I have said he would apparently demur;
in much he would, somewhat impatiently, acquiesce. It may be true;
but it is not what he desired to say or to hear said. He spoke of
the finished picture and its worth when done; I, of the brushes,
the palette, and the north light. He uttered his views in the tone
and for the ear of good society; I, with the emphasis and
technicalities of the obtrusive student. But the point, I may
reply, is not merely to amuse the public, but to offer helpful
advice to the young writer. And the young writer will not so much
be helped by genial pictures of what an art may aspire to at its
highest, as by a true idea of what it must be on the lowest terms.
The best that we can say to him is this: Let him choose a motive,
whether of character or passion; carefully construct his plot so
that every incident is an illustration of the motive, and every
property employed shall bear to it a near relation of congruity or
contrast; avoid a sub-plot, unless, as sometimes in Shakespeare,
the sub-plot be a reversion or complement of the main intrigue;
suffer not his style to flag below the level of the argument; pitch
the key of conversation, not with any thought of how men talk in
parlours, but with a single eye to the degree of passion he may be
called on to express; and allow neither himself in the narrative
nor any character in the course of the dialogue, to utter one
sentence that is not part and parcel of the business of the story
or the discussion of the problem involved. Let him not regret if
this shortens his book; it will be better so; for to add irrelevant
matter is not to lengthen but to bury. Let him not mind if he miss
a thousand qualities, so that he keeps unflaggingly in pursuit of
the one he has chosen. Let him not care particularly if he miss
the tone of conversation, the pungent material detail of the day's
manners, the reproduction of the atmosphere and the environment.
These elements are not essential: a novel may be excellent, and yet
have none of them; a passion or a character is so much the better
depicted as it rises clearer from material circumstance. In this
age of the particular, let him remember the ages of the abstract,
the great books of the past, the brave men that lived before
Shakespeare and before Balzac. And as the root of the whole
matter, let him bear in mind that his novel is not a transcript of
life, to be judged by its exactitude; but a simplification of some
side or point of life, to stand or fall by its significant
simplicity. For although, in great men, working upon great
motives, what we observe and admire is often their complexity, yet
underneath appearances the truth remains unchanged: that
simplification was their method, and that simplicity is their


Since the above was written another novelist has entered repeatedly
the lists of theory: one well worthy of mention, Mr. W. D. Howells;
and none ever couched a lance with narrower convictions. His own
work and those of his pupils and masters singly occupy his mind; he
is the bondslave, the zealot of his school; he dreams of an advance
in art like what there is in science; he thinks of past things as
radically dead; he thinks a form can be outlived: a strange
immersion in his own history; a strange forgetfulness of the
history of the race! Meanwhile, by a glance at his own works
(could he see them with the eager eyes of his readers) much of this
illusion would be dispelled. For while he holds all the poor
little orthodoxies of the day - no poorer and no smaller than those
of yesterday or to-morrow, poor and small, indeed, only so far as
they are exclusive - the living quality of much that he has done is
of a contrary, I had almost said of a heretical, complexion. A
man, as I read him, of an originally strong romantic bent - a
certain glow of romance still resides in many of his books, and
lends them their distinction. As by accident he runs out and
revels in the exceptional; and it is then, as often as not, that
his reader rejoices - justly, as I contend. For in all this
excessive eagerness to be centrally human, is there not one central
human thing that Mr. Howells is too often tempted to neglect: I
mean himself? A poet, a finished artist, a man in love with the
appearances of life, a cunning reader of the mind, he has other
passions and aspirations than those he loves to draw. And why
should he suppress himself and do such reverence to the Lemuel
Barkers? The obvious is not of necessity the normal; fashion rules
and deforms; the majority fall tamely into the contemporary shape,
and thus attain, in the eyes of the true observer, only a higher
power of insignificance; and the danger is lest, in seeking to draw
the normal, a man should draw the null, and write the novel of
society instead of the romance of man.


(1) 1881.

(2) Written for the "Book" of the Edinburgh University Union Fancy

(3) Professor Tait's laboratory assistant.

(4) In Dr. Murray's admirable new dictionary, I have remarked a
flaw SUB VOCE Beacon. In its express, technical sense, a beacon
may be defined as "a founded, artificial sea-mark, not lighted."

(5) The late Fleeming Jenkin.

(6) This sequel was called forth by an excellent article in THE

(7) Waiter, Watty, Woggy, Woggs, Wogg, and lastly Bogue; under
which last name he fell in battle some twelve months ago. Glory
was his aim and he attained it; for his icon, by the hand of
Caldecott, now lies among the treasures of the nation.

(8) Since traced by many obliging correspondents to the gallery of
Charles Kingsley.

(9) Since the above was written I have tried to launch the boat
with my own hands in KIDNAPPED. Some day, perhaps, I may try a
rattle at the shutters.

(10) 1882.

(11) This paper, which does not otherwise fit the present volume,
is reprinted here as the proper continuation of the last.

(12) 1884

(13) Now no longer so, thank Heaven!

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