MY CONTEMPORARIES IN FICTION
By David Christie Murray
CHATTO & WINDUS
MY CONTEMPORARIES IN FICTION
I.—FIRST, THE CRITICS, AND THEN A WORD ON DICKENS
III.—ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
IV.—LIVING MASTERS—MEREDITH AND HALL CAINE
V.—LIVING MASTERS—RUDYARD KIPLING
VI.—UNDER FRENCH ENCOURAGEMENT—THOMAS HARDY
VII.—UNDER FRENCH ENCOURAGEMENT—GEORGE MOORE
VIII.—MR. S. R. CROCKETT—IAN MACLAREN
IX.—DR. MACDONALD AND MR. J. M. BARRIE
X.—THE PROBLEM SEEKERS—SEA CAPTAIN AND LAND CAPTAIN
XI.—MISS MARIE CORELLI
XIII.—THE YOUNG ROMANCERS
When these essays were originally printed (they appeared simultaneously in many newspapers), I expected to make some enemies. So far, I have been most agreeably disappointed in that regard; but I can affirm that they have made me many friends, and that I have had encouragement enough from fellow craftsmen, from professional critics, and from casual readers at home, in the colonies, and the United States to bolster up the courage of the most timorous man that ever held a pen. As a set-off against all this, I have received one very noble and dignified rebuke from a Contemporary in Fiction, whom the world holds in high honour, who regrets that I am not engaged in creative work—in lieu of this—and pleads that 'authorship should be allowed the distinction of an exemption from rank and title.' With genuine respect I venture to urge that this is an impossible aspiration, and in spite of the lofty sanction which the writer's name must lend to his opinion, I have been unable to surrender the belief that the work done in these pages is alike honourable and useful. It is, as will be seen, in the nature of a crusade against puffery and hysteria. It is not meant to instruct the instructed, and it makes no pretence to be infallible, but it is issued in its present form in the belief that it will (in some degree) aid the average reader in the formation of just opinions on contemporary art, and in the hope that it may (in some degree) impose a check on certain interested or over-enthusiastic people.
MY CONTEMPORARIES IN FICTION
I.—FIRST, THE CRITICS, AND THEN A WORD ON DICKENS
The critics of to-day are suffering from a sort of epidemic of kindness. They have accustomed themselves to the administration of praise in unmeasured doses. They are not, taking them in the mass, critics any longer, but merely professional admirers. They have ceased to be useful to the public, and are becoming dangerous to the interests of letters. In their over-friendly eyes every painstaking apprentice in the art of fiction is a master, and hysterical schoolgirls, who have spent their brief day in the acquisition of ignorance, are reviewed as if they were so many Elizabeth Barrett Brownings or George Eliots. One of the most curious and instructive things in this regard is the use which the modern critic makes of Sir Walter Scott. Sir Walter is set up as a sort of first standard for the aspirant in the art of fiction to excel. Let the question be asked, with as much gravity as is possible: What is the use of a critic who gravely assures us that Mr. S. R. Crockett 'has rivalled, if not surpassed, Sir Walter'? The statement is, of course, most lamentably and ludicrously absurd, but it is made more than once, or twice, or thrice, and it is quoted and advertised. It is not Mr. Crockett's fault that he is set on this ridiculous eminence, and his name is not cited here with any grain of malice. He has his fellow-sufferers. Other gentlemen who have 'rivalled, if not surpassed, Sir Walter,' are Dr. Conan Doyle, Mr. J. M. Barrie, Mr. Ian Maclaren, and Mr. Stanley Weyman. No person whose judgment is worth a straw can read the writings of these accomplished workmen without respect and pleasure. But it is no more true that they rival Sir Walter than it is true that they are twelve feet high, or that any one of them believes in his own private mind the egregious announcement of the reviewer. The one great sufferer by this craze for setting men of middling stature side by side with Scott is our beautiful and beloved Stevenson, who, unless rescued by some judicious hand, is likely to be buried under foolish and unmeasured praises.
It would be easy to fill pages with verifications of the charge here made. Books of the last half-dozen years or so, which have already proved the ephemeral nature of their own claim, have been received with plaudits which would have been exaggerated if applied to some of our acknowledged classics. The critical declaration that 'Eric Bright-eyes' could have been written by no other Englishman of the last six hundred years than Mr. Rider Haggard may be allowed its own monumental place in the desert of silly and hysteric judgments.
It is time, for the sake of mere common-sense, to get back to something like a real standard of excellence. It is time to say plainly that our literature is in danger of degradation, and that the mass of readers is systematically misled.
Before I go further, I will offer one word in self-excuse. I have taken this work upon my own shoulders, because I cannot see that anybody else will take it, and because it seems to me to be calling loudly to be done. My one unwillingness to undertake it lies in the fact that I have devoted my own life to the pursuit of that art the exercise of which by my contemporaries I am now about to criticise. That has an evil and ungenerous look. But, whatever the declaration may seem to be worth, I make it with sincerity and truth. I have never tasted the gall of envy in my life. I have had my share, and my full share, of the critical sugarplums. I have never, in the critics, apprehension, 'rivalled or surpassed Sir Walter,' but on many thousands of printed pages (of advertisement) it is recorded that I have 'more genius for the delineation of rustic character than any half-dozen surviving novelists put together.' I laugh when I read this, for I remember Thomas Hardy, who is my master far and far away. I am quite persuaded that my critic was genuinely pleased with the book over which he thus 'pyrotechnicated' (as poor Artemus used to say), but I think my judgment the more sane and sober of the two. I have not the faintest desire to pull down other men's flags and leave my own flag flying. And there is the first and last intrusion of myself. I felt it necessary, and I will neither erase it nor apologise for its presence.
Side by side with the exaggerated admiration with which our professional censors greet the crowd of new-comers, it is instructive to note the contempt into which some of our old gods have fallen. The Superior Person we have always with us. He is, in his essence, a Prig; but when, as occasionally happens, his heart and intelligence ripen, he loses the characteristics which once made him a superior person. Whilst he holds his native status his special art is not to admire anything which common people find admirable. A year or two ago it became the shibboleth of his class that they couldn't read Dickens. We met suddenly a host of people who really couldn't stand Dickens. Most of them (of course) were 'the people of whom crowds are made,' owning no sort of mental furniture worth exchange or purchase. They killed the fashion of despising Dickens as a fashion, and the Superior Person, finding that his sorrowful inability was no longer an exclusive thing, ceased to brag about it. When a fashion in dress is popular on Hampstead Heath on Bank Holiday festivals, the people who originally set the fashion discard it, and set another. In half a generation some of our superiors, for the mere sake of originality in judgment, will be going back to the pages of that immortal master-immortal as men count literary immortality—and will begin to tell us that after all there was really something in him.
It was Mr. W. D. Howells, an American writer of distinguished ability, as times go, who set afloat the phrase that since the death of Thackeray and Dickens fiction has become a finer art. If Mr. Howells had meant what many people supposed him to mean, the saying would have been merely impudent He used the word 'finer' in its literal sense, and meant only that a fashion of minuteness in investigation and in style had come upon us. There is a sense in which the dissector who makes a reticulation of the muscular and nervous systems of a little finger is a 'finer' surgeon than the giant of the hospitals whose diagnosis is an inspiration, and whose knife carves unerringly to the root of disease. There is a sense in which a sculptor, carving on cherrystones likenesses of commonplace people, would be a 'finer' artist than Michael Angelo, whose custom it was to handle forms of splendour on an heroic scale of size. In that sense, and in the hands of some of its practitioners, fiction for a year or two became a finer art than it had ever been before. But the microscopist was never popular, and could never hope to be. He is dead now, and the younger men are giving us vigorous copies of Dumas, and Scott, and Edgar Allan Poe, and some of them are fusing the methods of Dickens with those of later and earlier writers. We are in for an era of broad effect again.
But a great many people, and, amongst them, some who ought to have known better, adopted the saying of Mr. Howells in a wider sense than he ever intended it to carry, and, partly as a result of this, we have arrived at a certain tacit depreciation of the greatest emotional master of fiction. There are other and more cogent reasons for the temporary obscuration of that brilliant light. It may aid our present purpose to discover what they are.
Every age has its fashions in literature as it has in dress. All the beautiful fashions in literature, at least, have been thought worthy of revival and imitation, but there has come to each in turn a moment when it has begun to pall upon the fancy. Every school before its death is fated to inspire satiety and weariness. The more overwhelming its success has been, the more complete and sweeping is the welcomed change. We know how the world thrilled and wept over Pamela and Clarissa, and we know how their particular form of pathos sated the world and died. We know what a turn enchanted castles had, and how their spell withered into nothing. We know what a triumphal progress the Sentimental Sufferer made through the world, and what a bore he came to be. It is success which kills. Success breeds imitation, and the imitators are a weariness. And it is not the genius who dies. It is only the school which arose to mimic him. Richardson is alive for everybody but the dull and stupid. Now that the world of fiction is no longer crowded with enchanted castles, we can go to live in one occasionally for a change, and enjoy ourselves. Werther is our friend again, though the school he founded was probably the most tiresome the world has seen.
Now, with the solitary exception of Sir Walter Scott, it is probable that no man ever inspired such a host of imitators as Charles Dickens. There is not a writer of fiction at this hour, in any land where fiction is a recognised trade or art, who is not, whether he knows it and owns it, or no, largely influenced by Dickens. His method has got into the atmosphere of fiction, as that of all really great writers must do, and we might as well swear to unmix our oxygen and hydrogen as to stand clear of his influences. To stand clear of those influences you must stand apart from all modern thought and sentiment. You must have read nothing that has been written in the last sixty years, and you must have been bred on a desert island. Dickens has a living part in the life of the whole wide world. He is on a hundred thousand magisterial benches every day. There is not a hospital patient in any country who has not at this minute a right to thank God that Dickens lived. What his blessed and bountiful hand has done for the poor and oppressed, and them that had no helper, no man knows. He made charity and good feeling a religion. Millions and millions of money have flowed from the coffers of the rich for the benefit of the poor because of his books. A great part of our daily life, and a good deal of the best of it, is of his making.
No single man ever made such opportunities for himself. No single man was ever so widely and permanently useful. No single man ever sowed gentleness and mercy with so broad a sweep.
This is all true, and very far from new, but it has not been the fashion to say it lately. It is not the whole of the truth. Noble rivers have their own natural defects of swamp and mudbank. Sometimes his tides ran sluggishly, as in 'The Battle of Life,' for example, which has always seemed to me, at least, a most mawkish and unreal book. The pure stream of 'The Carol,' which washes the heart of a man, runs thin in 'The Chimes,' runs thinner in 'The Haunted Man,' and in 'The Battle of Life' is lees and mud. 'Nickleby,' again, is a young man's book, and as full of blemishes as of genius. But when all is said and done, it killed the Yorkshire schools.
The chief fault the superficial modern critic has to find with Dickens is a sort of rumbustious boisterousness in the expression of emotion. But let one thing be pointed out, and let me point it out in my own fashion. Tom Hood, who was a true poet, and the best of our English wits, and probably as good a judge of good work as any person now alive, went home after meeting with Dickens, and in a playful enthusiasm told his wife to cut off his hand and bottle it, because it had shaken hands with Boz. Lord Jeffrey, who was cold as a critic, cried over little Nell. So did Sydney Smith, who was very far from being a blubbering sentimentalist. To judge rightly of any kind of dish you must bring an appetite to it. Here is the famous Dickens pie, when first served, pronounced inimitable, not by a class or a clique, but by all men in all lands. But you get it served hot, and you get it served cold, it is rehashed in every literary restaurant, you detect its flavour in your morning leader and your weekly review. The pie gravy finds its way into the prose and the verse of a whole young generation. It has a striking flavour, an individual flavour, It gets into everything. We are weary of the ceaseless resurrections of that once so toothsome dish. Take it away.
The original pie is no worse and no better, but thousands of cooks have had the recipe for it, and have tried to make it. Appetite may have vanished, but the pie was a good pie.
No simile runs on all fours, and this parable in a pie-dish is a poor traveller.
But this principle of judgment applies of necessity to all great work in art. It does not apply to merely good work, for that is nearly always imitative, and therefore not much provocative of imitation. It happens sometimes that an imitator, to the undiscerning reader, may even seem better than the man he mimics, because he has a modern touch. But remember, in his time the master also was a modern.
The new man says of Dickens that his sentiment rings false. This is a mistake. It rings old-fashioned. No false note ever moved a world, and the world combined to love his very name. There were tears in thousands of households when he died, and they were as sincere and as real as if they had arisen at the loss of a personal friend.
We, who in spite of fashion remain true to our allegiance to the magician of our youth, who can never worship or love another as we loved and worshipped him, are quite contented in the slight inevitable dimming of his fame. He is still in the hearts of the people, and there he has only one rival.
No attempt at a review of modern fiction can be made without a mention of the men who were greatest when the art was great When we have done with the giants we will come down to the big fellows, and by that time we shall have an eye for the proportions of the rest. But before we part for the time being, let me offer the uncritical reader one valuable touchstone. Let him recall the stories he has read, say, five years ago. If he can find a live man or woman anywhere amongst his memories, who is still as a friend or an enemy to him, he has, fifty to one, read a sterling book. Dickens' people stand this test with all readers, whether they admire him or no. Even when they are grotesque they are alive. They live in the memory even of the careless like real people. And this is the one unfailing trial by which great fiction may be known.
Reade's position in literature is distinctly strange. The professional critics never came within miles of a just appreciation of his greatness, and the average 'cultured reader' receives his name with a droll air of allowance and patronage. But there are some, and these are not the least qualified as judges, who regard him as ranking with the great masters. You will find, I think, that the men holding this opinion are, in the main, fellow-workers in the craft he practised. His warmest and most constant admirers are his brother novelists. Trollope, to be sure, spoke of him as 'almost a man of genius,' but Trollope's mind was a quintessential distillation of the commonplace, and the man who was on fire with the romance and passion of his own age was outside the limit of his understanding. But amongst the writers of English fiction whom it has been my privilege to know personally, I have not met with one who has not reckoned Charles Reade a giant.
The critics have never acknowledged him, and, in a measure, he has been neglected by the public. There is a reason for everything, if we could only find it, and sometimes I seem to have a glimmering of light on this perplexing problem. Sir Walter Besant (Mr. Besant then) wrote in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' years ago a daring panegyric on Reade's work, giving him frankly a place among the very greatest. My heart glowed as I read, but I know now that it took courage of the rarer sort to express a judgment so unreserved in favour of a writer who never for an hour occupied in the face of the public such a position as is held by three or four men in our day, whom this dead master could have rolled in the hollow of his hand.
Let me try for a minute or two to show why and how he is so very great a man; and then let me try to point out one or two of the reasons for which the true reward of greatness has been denied him.
The very first essential to greatness in any pursuit is that a man should be in earnest in respect to it. You may as well try to kindle your household fire with pump water as to excite laughter by the invention of a story which does not seem laughable to yourself, or to draw real tears by a story conceived whilst your own heart is dry, 'The wounded is the wounding heart.' In Charles Reade's case this essential sympathy amounted to a passion. He derided difficulties, but he derided them after the fashion of the thorough-going enthusiast, and not after that of the sluggard. He made up his mind to write fiction, and he practised for years before he printed a line. He assured himself of methods of selection and of forms of expression. Better equipped by nature than one in a hundred of those who follow the profession he had chosen he laboured with a fiery, unresting patience to complete his armoury, and to perfect himself in the handling of its every weapon. He read omnivorously, and, throughout his literary lifetime, he made it his business to collect and to collate, to classify and to catalogue, innumerable fragments of character, of history, of current news, of evanescent yet vital stuffs of all sorts. In the last year but one of his life he went with me over some of the stupendous volumes he had built in this way. The vast books remain as an illustration of his industry, but only one who has seen him in consultation with their pages can guess the accuracy and intimacy of his knowledge of their contents. They seem to deal with everything, and with whatever they enclosed he was familiar.
This encyclopaedic industry would have left a commonplace man commonplace, and in the estimate of a great man's genius it takes rank merely as a characteristic. His sympathy for his chosen craft was backed by a sympathy for humanity just as intense and impassioned. He was a glorious lover and hater of lovable and hateful things.
In one respect he was almost unique amongst men, for he united a savage detestation of wrong with a most minute accuracy in his judgment of its extent and quality. He laboured in the investigation of the problems of his own age with the cold diligence of an antiquary. He came to a conclusion with the calm of a great judge. And when his cause was sure he threw himself upon it with an extraordinary and sustained energy. The rage of his advocacy is in surprising contrast with the patience exerted in building up his case.
Reade had a poet's recognition for the greatness of his own time. He saw the epic nature of the events of his own hour, the epic character of the men who moulded those events. Hundreds of years hence, when federated Australia is thickly sown with great cities, and the island-continent has grown to its fulness of accomplished nationhood, and is grey in honour, Reade's nervous English, which may by that time have grown quaint, and only legible to learned eves, will preserve; the history of its beginnings. That part of His work, indeed, is purely and wholly epic in sentiment and discernment, however colloquial in form, and it is the sole example of its kind, since it was written by one who was contemporary with the events described.
Reade was pretty constantly at war with his critics, but he fairly justified himself of the reviewer in his own day, and at this time the people who assailed him have something like a right to sleep in peace. In private life one of the most amiable of men, and distinguished for courtesy and kindness, he was a swash-buckler in controversy. He had a trick of being in the right which his opponents found displeasing, and he was sometimes cruel in his impatience of stupidity and wrong-headedness. Scarcely any continuance in folly could have inspired most men to the retorts he occasionally made. He wrote to one unfortunate: 'Sir,—You have ventured to contradict me on a question with regard to which I am profoundly learned, where you are ignorant as dirt.' It was quite true, but another kind of man would have found another way of saying it.
That trick of being right came out with marked effect in the discussion which accompanied the issue of 'Hard Cash' in 'All the Year Round,' A practitioner in lunacy condemned one of the author's statements as a bald impossibility. Reade answered that the impossibility in question disguised itself as fact, and went through the hollow form of taking place on such and such a date in such and such a public court, and was recorded in such and such contemporary journals. Whenever he made a crusade against a public evil, as when he assailed the prison system, or the madhouse system, or the system of rattening in trades unions, his case was supported by huge collections of indexed fact, and in the fight which commonly followed he could appeal to unimpeachable records; but again and again the angry fervour of the advocate led people to forget or to distrust the judicial accuracy on which his case invariably rested.
When all is said and done, his claim to immortality lies less in the books which deal with the splendours and the scandals of his own age than in that monument of learning, of humour, of pathos, and of narrative skill, 'The Cloister and the Hearth.'* It is not too much to say of this book that, on its own lines, it is without a rival. To the reader it seems to be not less than the revival of a dead age. To assert dogmatically that the bygone people with whom it deals could not have been other than it paints them would be to pretend to a knowledge greater than the writer's own. But they are not the men and women with whom we are familiar in real life, and they are not the men and women with whom other writers of fiction have made us acquainted. Yet they are indubitably human and alive, and we doubt them no more than the people with whom we rub shoulders in the street. Dr. Conan Doyle once said to me what I thought a memorable thing about this book; To read it, he said, was 'like going through the Dark Ages with a dark lantern,' It is so, indeed. You pass along the devious route from old Sevenbergen to mediaeval Rome, and wherever the narrative leads you, the searchlight flashes on everything, and out of the darkness and the dust and death of centuries life leaps at you. And I know nothing in English prose which for a noble and simple eloquence surpasses the opening and the closing paragraphs of this great work, nor—with some naive and almost childish passages of humour omitted—a richer, terser, purer, or more perfect style than that of the whole narrative. Nowadays, the fashion in criticism has changed, and the feeblest duffer amongst us receives welcome ten times more enthusiastic and praise less measured than was bestowed upon 'The Cloister and the Hearth' when it first saw the light. Think only for a moment—think what would happen if such a book should suddenly be launched upon us. Honestly, there could be no reviewing it. Our superlatives have been used so often to describe, at the best, good, plain, sound work, and, at the worst, frank rubbish, that we have no vocabulary for excellence of such a cast.
* It is worth while to record here a phrase used by Charles Reade to me in reference to this work. He was rebutting the charge of plagiarism which had been brought against him, and he said laughingly, 'It is true that I milked three hundred cows into my bucket, but the butter I churned was my own.'
And now, how comes it that with genius, scholarship, and style, with laughter and terror and tears at his order, this great writer halts in his stride towards the place which should be his by right? It seems to me at times as if I had a partial answer to that question. I believe that a judicious editor, without a solitary act of impiety, could give Charles Reade undisputed and indisputable rank. One-half the whole business is a question of printing. This great and admirable writer had one constant fault, which is so vulgar and trivial that it remains as much of a wonder as it is of an offence. He seeks emphasis by the expedient of big type and small type, of capitals and small capitals, of italics and black letter, and of tawdry little illustrations. Long before the reader arrives at the point at which it is intended that his emotions shall be stirred, his eye warns him that the shock is coming. He knows beforehand that the rhetorical bolt is to fall just there, and when it comes it is ten to one that he finds the effect disappointing. Or the change from the uniformity of the page draws his eye to the 'displayed' passages, and he is tantalised into reading them out of their proper place and order. Take, for instance, an example which just occurs to me. In 'It is Never Too Late to Mend,' Fielding and Robinson are lost in an Australian forest—'bushed,' as the local phrase goes. At that hour they are being hunted for their lives. They fall into a sort of devil's circle, and, as lost men have often done, they come in the course of their wanderings upon their own trail. For awhile they follow it in the hope that it will lead them to some camp or settlement. Suddenly Fielding becomes aware that they are following the track of their own earlier footprints, and almost in the same breath he discovers that these are joined by the traces of other feet. He reads a fatal and true meaning into this sign, looks to his weapons, and starts off at a mended pace. 'What are you doing?' asks Robinson, and Fielding answers (in capital letters): 'I am hunting the hunters!' The situation is admirably dramatic. Chance has so ordered it that the pursued are actually behind the pursuers, and the presence of the intended murderers is proclaimed by a device which is at once simple, natural, novel, and surprising. All the elements for success in thrilling narrative are here, and the style never lulls for a second, or for a second allows the strain of the position to relax. But those capital letters have long since called the eye of the reader to themselves, and the point the writer tries to emphasise is doubly lost. It has been forestalled, and has become an irritation. You come on it twice; you have been robbed of anticipation and suspense, which, just here, are the life and soul of art. You know before you ought to be allowed to guess; and, worst of all, perhaps, you feel that your own intelligence has been affronted. Surely you had imagination enough to feel the significance of the line without this meretricious trick to aid you. It is not the business of a great master in fiction to jog the elbow of the unimaginative, and to say, 'Wake up at this,' or 'Here it is your duty to the narrative to experience a thrill.'
Another and an equally characteristic fault, though of far less frequent occurrence, is Reade's fashion of intruding himself upon his reader. He stands, in a curiously irritating way, between the picture he has painted and the man he has invited to look at it. In one instance he drags the eye down to a footnote in order that you may read: 'I, C. R., say this'—which is very little more or less than an impertinence. The sense of humour which probably twinkled in the writer's mind is faint at the best. We know that he, C. R., said that. We are giving of our time and intelligence to C. R., and we are rather sorry than otherwise to find him indulging in this small buffoonery.
It should, I think, be an instruction to future publishers of Charles Reade to give him Christian printing—to confine him in the body of his narrative to one fount of type, and rigorously to deny him the use (except in their accustomed and orthodox places) of capitals, small capitals, and italics. And I cannot think that any irreverence could be charged against an editor who had the courage to put a moist pen through those expressions of egotism and naive self-satisfaction and vanity which do occasionally disfigure his pages.
I ask myself if these trifles—for in comparison with the sum of Reade's genius they are small things indeed—can in any reasonable measure account for the neglect which undoubtedly besets him. In narrative vigour he has but one rival—Dumas pere—and he is far and away the master of that rival in everything but energy. No male writer surpasses him in the knowledge of feminine human nature. There is no love-making in literature to beat the story of the courtship of Julia Dodd and Alfred Hardy in 'Hard Cash.' In mere descriptive power he ranks with the giants. Witness the mill on fire in 'The Cloister and the Hearth'; the lark in exile in 'Never too Late to Mend'; the boat-race in 'Hard Cash'; the scene of Kate Peyton at the firelit window, and Griffith in the snow, in 'Griffith Gaunt.' There are a thousand bursts of laughter in his pages, not mere sniggers, but lung-shaking laughters, and the man who can go by any one of a hundred pathetic passages without tears is a man to be pitied. Let it be admitted that at times he wrenches his English rather fiercely, and yet let it be said that for delicacy, strength, sincerity, clarity, and all great graces of style, he is side by side with the noblest of our prose writers. Can it be that a few scattered drops of vulgarity in emphasis dim such a fire as this? Does so small a dead fly taint so big a pot of ointment? I will not be foolish enough to dogmatise on such a point, and yet I can find no other reasons than those I have already given why a master-craftsman should not hold a master-craftsman's place. Solomon has told us what 'a little folly' can do for him who is in reputation for wisdom.' The great mass of the public can always tell what pleases it, but it cannot always tell why it is pleased.
And the man who writes for wide and lasting fame has to depend, not upon the verdict of the expert and the cultured, but on the love of those who only know they love, and who have no power to give the critical why and wherefore. The public—'the stupid and ignorant pig of a public,' as 'Pococurante' called it years ago—is always being abused, and yet it is only the public which, in the end, can tell us if we have done well or ill. We have all to consent to be measured by it, and, in the long run, it estimates our stature with a perfect accuracy.
I hope I may not be thought impertinent in intruding here a reminiscence of Reade which seems characteristic of his sweeter side. In reading over these pages for the press I have been moved to a mournful and tender remembrance of the only one of the three great Vanished Masters whom it was my happy chance to meet in the flesh. I dedicated to him the second novel which left my pen—the third to reach the public—and in sending him the volumes on the day of issue I wrote what I remember as a rather boyish letter, in which I was at no pains to disguise my admiration for his genius. That admiration was not then tempered by the considerations which are expressed above, for they touched me only after many years of practice in the art he adorned so richly. He answered with a gentle and sad courtesy, and concluded with these words: 'It is no discredit in a young man to esteem a senior beyond his merits.' I have always thought that very graceful and felicitous, and now that I am myself grown to be a senior I am more persuaded of its charm than ever.
III.—ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
In the scheme of this series, as originally-announced, Thackeray's work should have formed the subject of the third chapter. But, on reflection, I have decided that, considering my present purpose, it would be little more than a useless self-indulgence to do what I at first intended. There is no sort of dispute about Thackeray. There is no need for any revision of the general opinion concerning him. It would be to me, personally, a delightful thing to write such an appreciation as I had in mind, but this is not the place for it.
Let us pass, then, at once to the consideration of the incomplete and arrested labours of the charming and accomplished workman whose loss all lovers of English literature are still lamenting.
I have special and private reasons for thinking warmly of Robert Louis Stevenson, the man; and these reasons seem to give me some added warrant for an attempt to do justice to Robert Louis Stevenson, the writer. With the solitary exception of the unfortunate cancelled letters from Samoa, which were written whilst he was in ill-health, and suffered a complete momentary eclipse of style, he has scarcely published a line which may not afford the most captious reader pleasure. With that sole exception he was always an artist in his work, and always showed himself alive to the fingertips. He was in constant conscious search of felicities in expression, and his taste was exquisitely just. His discernment in the use of words kept equal pace with his invention—he knew at once how to be fastidious and daring. It is to be doubted if any writer has laboured with more constancy to enrich and harden the texture of his style, and at the last a page of his was like cloth of gold for purity and solidity.
This is the praise which the future critics of English literature will award him. But in this age of critical hysteria it is not enough to yield a man the palm for his own qualities. With regard to Stevenson our professional guides have gone fairly demented, and it is worth while to make an effort to give him the place he has honestly earned, before the inevitable reaction sets in, and unmerited laudations have brought about an unmerited neglect. His life was arduous. His meagre physical means and his fervent spirit were pathetically ill-mated. It was impossible to survey his career without a sympathy which trembled from admiration to pity. Certain, in spite of all precaution, to die young, and in the face of that stern fact genially and unconquerably brave, he extorted love. Let the whole virtue of this truth be acknowledged, and let it stand in excuse for praises which have been carried beyond the limits of absurdity. It is hard to exercise a sober judgment where the emotions are brought strongly into play. The inevitable tragedy of Stevenson's fate, the unescapable assurance that he would not live to do all which such a spirit in a sounder frame would have done for an art he loved so fondly, the magnetism of his friendship, his downright incapacity for envy, his genuine humility with regard to his own work and reputation, his unboastful and untiring courage, made a profound impression upon many of his contemporaries. It is, perhaps, small wonder if critical opinion were in part moulded by such influences as these. Errors of judgment thus induced are easily condoned. They are at least a million times more respectable than the mendacities of the publisher's tout, or the mutual ecstasies of the rollers of logs and the grinders of axes.
The curious ease with which, nowadays, every puny whipster gets the sword of Sir Walter has already been remarked. If any Tom o' Bedlam chooses to tell the world that all the New Scottish novelists are Sir Walter's masters, what does it matter to anybody? It is shamelessly silly and impertinent, of course, and it brings newspaper criticism into contempt, but there is an end of it. If the writers who are thus made ridiculous choose to pluck the straws out of their critics' hair and stick them in their own, they are poorer creatures than I take them for. The thing makes us laugh, or makes us mourn, just as it happens to hit our humour; but it really matters very little. It establishes one of two things—the critic is hopelessly incapable or hopelessly dishonest. The dilemma is absolute. The peccant gentleman may choose his horn, and no honest and capable reader cares one copper which he takes.
But with regard to Stevenson the case is very different. Stevenson has made a bid for lasting fame. He is formally entered in the list of starters for the great prize of literary immortality. No man alive can say with certainty whether he will get it. Every forced eulogy handicaps his chances. Every exaggeration of his merits will tend to obscure them. The pendulum of taste is remorseless. Swing it too far on one side, it will swing itself too far on the other.
In his case it has unfortunately become a critical fashion to set him side by side with the greatest master of narrative fiction the world has ever seen. In the interests of a true artist, whom this abuse of praise will greatly injure if it be persisted in, it will be well to endeavour soberly and quietly to measure the man, and to arrive at some approximate estimate of his stature.
It may be assumed that the least conscientious and instructed of our professional guides has read something of the history of Sir Walter Scott, and is, if dimly, aware of the effect he produced in the realm of literature in his lifetime. Sir Walter (who is surpassed or equalled by six writers of our own day, in the judgment of those astounding gentlemen who periodically tell us what we ought to think) was the founder of three great schools. He founded the school of romantic mediaeval poetry; he founded the school of antiquarian romance; and he founded the school of Scottish-character romance. He did odds and ends of literary work, such as the compilation and annotation of 'The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border,' and the notes to the poems and the Waverley Series. These were sparks from his great stithy, but a man of industry and talent might have shown them proudly as a lifetime's labour. The great men in literature are the epoch makers, and Sir Walter is the only man in the literary history of the world who was an epoch maker in more than one direction. It is the fashion to-day to decry him as a poet. There are critics who, setting a high value on the verse of Wordsworth or of Browning, for example, cannot concede the name of poetry to any modern work which is not subtle and profound, metaphysical or analytical. But as a mere narrative poet few men whose judgment is of value will deny Scott the next place to Homer. As a poet he created an epoch. It filled no great space in point of time, but we owe to Sir Walter's impetus 'he Giaour,' 'he Corsair,' the 'Bride of Abydos.' In his second character of antiquarian romancist, he awoke the elder Dumas, and such a host of imitators, big and little, as no writer ever had at his heels before or since. When he turned to Scottish character he made Galt, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and Dr. George Macdonald, and all the modern gentlemen who, gleaning modestly in the vast field he found, and broke, and sowed, and reaped, are now his rivals.
Do the writers who claim to guide our opinions read Scott at all? Do they know the scene of the hidden and revealed forces in the Trossach glen—the carriage of the Fiery Cross—the sentence on the erring nun —the last fight of her betrayer? Do they know the story of Jeannie Deans? But it is useless to ask these questions or to multiply these instances. Scott is placed. Master of laughter, master of tears, giant of swiftness; crowned king, without one all-round rival.
One of those astonishing and yet natural things which sometimes startle us is the value some minds attach to mere modernity in art. An old thing is tossed up in a new way, and there are those who attach more value to the way than the thing, and are instantly agape with admiration of originality. But originality and modishness are different things. People who have a right to guide public opinion discern the difference.
The absurd and damaging comparison between Scott and Stevenson has been gravely offered by the latter's friends. They are doing a beautiful artist a serious injustice, You could place Stevenson's ravishing assortment of cameos in any chamber of Scott's feudal castle. It is an intaglio beside a cathedral, a humming-bird beside an eagle. It is anything exquisite beside anything nobly huge.
Let any man, who may be strongly of opinion that I am mistaken, conceive Scott and Stevenson living in the same age and working in complete ignorance of each other. Scott would still have set the world on fire. Stevenson with his deft, swift, adaptive spirit, and his not easily over-praised perfection in his craft, would have still done something; but he would have missed his loftiest inspiration, his style would have been far other than it is.
As a bit of pure literary enjoyment there are not many things better than to turn from Stevenson's more recent pages to Scott's letters in Lockhart's 'Life,' and to see where the modern found the staple of his best and latest style.
The comparison, which has been urged so often, will not stand a moment's examination. Stevenson is not a great creative artist. He is not an epoch maker. He cannot be set shoulder to shoulder with any of the giants. It is no defect in him which prompts this protest. Except in the sense in which his example of purity, delicacy, and finish in verbal work will inspire other artists, Stevenson will have no imitators, as original men always have. He has 'done delicious things,' but he has done nothing new. He has with astonishing labour and felicity built a composite style out of the style of every good writer of English. Even in a single page he sometimes reflected many manners. He is the embodiment of the literary as distinguished from the originating intellect. His method is almost perfect, but it is devoid of personality. He says countless things which are the very echo of Sir Walter's epistolary manner. He says things like Lamb, and sometimes they are as good as the original could have made them. He says things like Defoe, like Montaigne, like Rochefoucauld.
His bouquet is culled in every garden, and set in leaves which have grown in all forests of literature. He is deft, apt, sprightly, and always sincerely a man. He is just and brave, and essentially a gentleman. He has the right imitative romance, and he can so blend Defoe and Dickens with a something of himself which is almost, but not quite, creative, that he can present you with a blind old Pugh or a John Silver. He is a litterateur born—and made. A verbal invention is meat and drink to him. There are places where you see him actively in pursuit of one, as when Markheim stops the clock with 'an interjected finger,' or when John Silver's half-shut, cunning, and cruel eye sparkles 'like a crumb of glass.' Stevenson has run across the Channel for that crumb, and it is worth the journey.
Stevenson certainly had that share of genius which belongs to the man who can take infinite pains. Add to this a beautiful personal character, and an almost perfect receptivity. Add again the power of sympathetic realisation in a purely literary sense, and you have the man. Let me make my last addition clear. It is a common habit of his to think as his literary favourites would have thought He could think like Lamb. He could think like Defoe. He could even fuse two minds in this way, and make, as it were, a composite mind for himself to think with. His intellect was of a very rare and delicate sort, and whilst he was essentially a reproducer, he was in no sense an imitator, or even for a single second a plagiarist. He had an alembic of his own which made old things new. His best possession was that very real sense of proportion which was at the root of all his humour. 'Why doesn't God explain these things to a gentleman like me?' There, a profound habitual reverence of mind suddenly encounters with a ludicrous perception of his own momentary self-importance. The two electric opposites meet, and emit that flash of summer lightning.
Stevenson gave rare honour to his work, and the artist who shows his self-respect in that best of ways will always be respected by the world. He has fairly won our affection and esteem, and we give them ungrudgingly. In seeming to belittle him I have taken an ungrateful piece of work in hand. But in the long run a moderately just estimate of a good man's work is of more service to his reputation than a strained laudation can be. It is not the critics, and it is not I, who will finally measure his proportions. He seems to me to stand well in the middle of the middle rank of accepted writers. He will not live as an inventor, for he has not invented. He will not live as one of those who have opened new fields of thought. He will not live amongst those who have explored the heights and the deeps of the spirit of man. He may live—'the stupid and ignorant pig of a public' will settle the question—as a writer in whose works stand revealed a lovable, sincere, and brave soul and an unsleeping vigilance of artistic effort.
The most beautiful thing he has done—to my mind—is his epitaph. There are but eight lines of it, but I know nothing finer in its way:
Under the wide and starry sky Lay me down and let me lie. Glad did I live and gladly die, And I laid me down with a will!
This be the verse you grave for me: Here he lies where he longed to be: Home is the Sailor, home from sea, And the Hunter home from the hill.
Sleep there, bright heart! In your waking hours you would have laughed at the exaggerated praises which do you such poor service now!
IV.—LIVING MASTERS—MEREDITH AND HALL CAINE
There is a very old story to the effect that a party of gentlemen who were compiling a dictionary described a crab as 'a small red animal which walks backwards.' Apart from the facts that the crab is not red, is not an animal, and does not walk backwards, the definition was pronounced to be wholly admirable. I was reminded of this bit of ancient history when, some time ago, I read a criticism on George Meredith from the pen of Mr. George Moore. Mr. Moore represented his subject as a shouting, gesticulating man in a crowd, who, in spite of great efforts to be heard, remained unintelligible. As a description of a curiously calm sage who soliloquises for his own amusement in a study this is perfect. The enormous growth in the number of unthinking readers, and the corresponding increase in our printed output, have brought about some singular conditions, and, amongst them, this: that it is possible to sustain a reputation by the mere act of being absurd.
In attempting anything like a just review of the influence of the critical press in recent years, one has to admit that in its treatment of George Meredith it has performed a very considerable and praiseworthy public service. For many years Meredith worked in obscurity so far as the general public were concerned. Here and there he won an impassioned admirer, and from his beginning it may be said that he found audience fit though few; but he owes much of the present extent of his reputation to the efforts of generous and enlightened critics, who would not let the public rest until they had at least given his genius a hearing. He is now, and has for some time been, a fashionable cult. It is not likely that in the broad sense he will ever be a popular writer, for the mass of novel-readers are an idle and pleasure-loving folk, and no mere idler and pleasure-seeker will read Meredith often or read him long at a time. The little book which the angel gave to John of Patmos, commanding that he should eat it, was like honey in the mouth, but in the belly it was bitter. To the reader who first approaches him, a book of Meredith's offers an accurate contrast to the roll presented by the angel. It is tough chewing, but in digestion most suave and fortifying. The people who instantly enjoy him, who relish him at first bite, are rare. Fine intelligences are always rare. Personally, I am not one of the happy few. I am at my third reading of any one of Meredith's later books before I am wholly at my ease with it. I can find a most satisfying simile (to myself). A new book of Meredith's comes to me like a hamper of noble wines. I know the vintages, and I rejoice. I set to work to open the hamper. It is corded and wired in the most exasperating way, but at last I get it open. That is my first reading. Then I range my bottles in the cellar—port, burgundy, hock, champagne, imperial tokay; subtle and inspiring beverages, not grown in common vineyards, and demanding to be labelled. That is my second reading. Then I sit down to my wine, and that is my third; and in any book of Meredith's I have a cellarful for a lifetime.
In view of a benefaction like this it becomes a man to be grateful, but for all that it is a pity that a great writer and a willing reader should be held apart by any avoidable hindrances. It is quite true that an immediate popularity is no test of high merit. But the real man of genius is, after all, he who permanently appeals to the widest public.
To the middle-aged and the elderly fiction is a luxury. A story-book is like a pipe. It soothes and gratifies, and it helps an idle hour to pass. But younger people find actual food or actual poison where their elders find mere amusement. There are hundreds of thousands of young men and women who feel that they would like to have a clear outlook on things, who are searching more or less in earnest for a mental standing-place and point of view. If I had my way they should all be made to read Meredith, and the book at which I would start them should be 'The Shaving of Shagpat.' It is in the nature of a handbook or guide to a young person of genius, it is true, and we can't all be persons of genius; but there is enough human nature in it to make it serviceable to all but the stupid. In the midst of its fantastic phantasmagoria there is a view of life so sane, so lofty, so feminine-tender, so masculine-strong, so piercing, keen and clear, that it is not easy to find an expression for admiration which shall be at once adequate and sober. On the mere surface it is almost as good as the 'Arabian Nights,' and at the first flush of it you think that fancy is running riot. But when once the intention is grasped you find beneath that playful foam of seeming fun and frolic a very astonishing and deep philosophy, and the whole wild masquerade is filled with meaning. Read 'The Shaving of Shagpat,' earnest young men and maidens. There is not much that is better for mere amusement in all the libraries, and if you care for the ripe conclusions of a scholar and a gentleman who knows the whole game of life better than any other man now living, you may find them there.
I learn, on very good authority, that Meredith has but a poor comparative opinion of his earlier work, and that he would dissent rather strongly from the critic who pronounced 'The Ordeal of Richard Feverel' his masterpiece. Yet it seems to me to be so, and in one particular it takes high rank indeed. It is remarkable that whilst love-making is so essential a part of the general human business, and whilst no novel or play which ignores it stands much chance of success, there are only two or three really virile presentations in fiction of 'the way of a man with a maid.' Shakspere gave us one in 'Romeo and Juliet,' but then Shakspere gave us everything. Charles Reade, in 'Hard Cash,' has shown us a pure girl growing into pure passion—a bit of truth and beauty which alone might make a sterling and enduring name for him. And Meredith in 'Feverel' has given us scenes of young courtship which are beyond the praises of a writer like myself. The two young people on their magic island are amongst the real-ideal figures which haunt my mind with sweetness. Nature on either side is virginal. It flames and trembles with natural passion both in boy and girl, and they are as pure as a pair of daisies. Any workman in the school of Namby-Pamby could have kept their purity. Any writer of the Roman-candle-volcanic tribe could have heaped up their fires, after a fashion. But for this special piece of work God had first to make a gentleman, and then to give him genius.
One peculiarity in Meredith is worthy of notice. He makes known to us the interior personality of his characters; he does this so completely that we are persuaded that we could predict their line of conduct in given circumstances; and then a set of circumstances occur in which they do something we should never have believed of them, and we have to confess that their maker is just and right, and that there is no disputing him.
There are inconsistencies in his pages more glaring than anything we can imagine outside real life. The average artist, dealing with these manifestations, is a spectacle for pity, as the average man would be on Blondin's tight rope. The faintest deviation, the most momentary uncertainty of footing, a doubt, even, and it is all over. But Meredith never falters. He proves the impossible true by the mere fact of recording it.
He has no cranks or crazes or 'isms. He sees human nature with an eye which is at once broad and microscopic. What seem the very faults of style are virtues pushed to an extreme. He says more in a page than most men can say in a chapter. Modern science can put the nutritive properties of a whole ox into a very modest canister. Meredith's best sentences have gone through just such a digestive process. He is not for everybody's table, but he is a pride and a delight to the pick of English epicures.
From Meredith to Hall Caine is from the study of the analyst to the foundry of the statuary; from art in cold calm to art in stormy fire. Here, too, is a force at work but it is strength at stress, and not at ease. Meredith is not very greatly moved. He sympathises, but he sympathises from the brain. His heart is right towards the world, but it is cool. The man we are now dealing with has a passionate sympathy. He is hot at heart, and he does not look on at the movement of mankind as merely understanding it, and analysing it, and liking it,—and making allowances for it. He is tumultuous and urgent, daring and impetuous, eager to say a great word. His conceptions shake him. They are all grandiose and huge. The great passions are awake in them—avarice, lust, hate, love, god-like pity, supreme courage, base fear. The whole trend of his mind is towards the heroic. He struggles to be in touch with the actual, and he makes many incursions upon it, but Romance snatches him away again, and claims him for her own. His native and ineradicable concept of a work of art in fiction is a story that shall shake the soul. This inborn passion for the vast and splendid in spiritual things is always in strict subordination to a moral purpose. Here is the reason for his hold upon the English-speaking people, which is probably, at this moment, deeper and wider than that of any other living writer.
I do not deal in what I am now about to say with the critical adjustment of relative powers, but simply with a question of temperament You may draw a triangle, and at one of its extremes you may place Meredith, at another Stevenson, and at another Hall Caine. At one extremity you have an artist whose methods are almost purely intellectual, at the next you have an embodiment of sympathetic receptivity, and at the third a man whose forces are almost wholly emotional and dynamic. Stevenson's main literary prompting was to say a thing as well as it could possibly be said. Hall Caine's chief spur is a fiery impulse to a moral warning.
From the earliest stages of Hall Caine's literary career until now his impulse has not changed, but he has made such a steady advance in craftsmanship as could not be made by any man who did not take his work in serious earnest. The faults of his first style still linger, but they are chastened. He has the defect of his quality. In each of his books he strives for an increasing stress of passion, a sustained crescendo; a full and steady breeze for the beginning, and then a gale, a tempest, a tornado. The story is always constructed with this view towards emotional growth and culmination. Sometimes he lets us see the effort this prodigious task imposes upon him, but in his later work more and more rarely. The natural temptation is towards a resonant and insistent eloquence, and he occasionally still forgets that he might, with ease to himself, profitably leave the catastrophe he has created to make its own impression. The artistic demand in the form of work to which his instinct draws him is heavier than in any other. It is simply to be white-hot in purpose and stone-cold in self-criticism at the same instant of time.
Bar Meredith, who is quite sui generis, and Rudyard Kipling, whose characteristics will be dealt with later on, Hall Caine has less of the mark of his predecessors upon him than any of his contemporaries. His work has grown out of himself. He has had a word to speak, and he has spoken it So far he has increased in strength with every book, has grown more master of his own conceptions and himself. In 'A Son of Hagar' he forced his story upon his reader in defiance of possibility; but no such blot on construction as the continued presence of a London cad in the person of a Cumberland man in the latter's native village has been seen in his more recent work. It is worth notice that even in this portion of his story the narrator shows no remotest sign of a disposition to crane at any of the numerous fences which lie before him. He takes them all in his stride, and the reader goes with him, willy-nilly, protesting perhaps, but helplessly whirled along in the author's grip. This faculty of daring is sometimes an essential to the story-teller's art, and Hall Caine has it in abundance, not merely in the occasional facing of improbabilities, but in that much loftier and more admirable form where it enables him to confront the cataclysmic emotions of the mind, and to carry to a legitimate conclusion scenes of tremendous conception and of no less tremendous difficulty. In the minds of vulgar and careless readers the defects which are hardest to separate from this form of art are so many added beauties, just as the over-emphasis of a tragic actor is the very thing which best appeals to the gallery. But Hall Caine does not address himself to the vulgar and the careless. He is eager to leave his reputation to his peers and to posterity. With every year of ripening power his capacity for self-restraint has grown. When it has come of age in him, there will be nothing but fair and well. There has been no man in his time who has shown a deeper reverence for his work, or a more consistent increase in his command of it. His method is large and noble, in accord with his design. He has given us the right to look to him for better and better and always better, and it is only in the direction indicated that he can mend.
V.—LIVING MASTERS—RUDYARD KIPLING
I was 'up in the back blocks' of Victoria when I lighted upon some stray copies of the weekly edition of the 'Melbourne Argus,' and became aware of the fact that we had amongst us a new teller of stories, with a voice and a physiognomy of his own. The 'Argus' had copied from some journal in far-away India a poem and a story, each unsigned, and each bearing evidence of the same hand. A year later I came back to England, and found everybody talking about 'The Man from Nowhere,' who had just taken London by storm. Rudyard Kipling's best work was not as yet before us, but there was no room for doubt as to the newcomer's quality, and the only question possible was as to whether he had come to stay. That inquiry has now been satisfactorily answered. The new man of half a dozen years ago is one of England's properties, and not the one of which she is least proud. About midway in his brief and brilliant career, counting from his emergence until now, people began to be afraid that he had emptied his sack. Partly because he had lost the spell of novelty, and partly because he did too much to be always at his best, there came a time when we thought we saw him sinking to a place with the ruck.
Sudden popularity carries with it many grave dangers, but the gravest of all is the temptation to produce careless and unripe work. To this temptation the new man succumbed, but only for awhile. Like the candid friend of Lady Clara Vere de Vere, he saw the snare, and he retired. But at the time when, instead of handing out the bread of life in generous slices, he took to giving us the sweepings of the basket I wrote a set of verses, which I called 'The Ballad of the Rudyard Kipling.' I never printed it, because by the time it was fairly written.
Kipling's work had not merely gone back to its first quality, but seemed brighter and finer than before, and the poor thing, such as it was, was in the nature of a satire. I venture to write down the opening verses here, since they express the feeling with which at least one writer of English fiction hailed his first appearance.
I Oh, we be master mariners that sail the snorting seas, Right red-plucked mariners that dare the peril of the storm But we be old and worn and cold, and far from rest and ease, And only love and brotherhood can keep our tired hearts warm.
II We were a noble company in days not long gone by, And mighty craft our elders sailed to every earthly shore. Men of worship, and dauntless soul, that feared nor sea nor sky; But God's hand stilled the valiant hearts, and the masters sail no more.
III And for awhile, though we be brave and handy of our trade, We sailed no master-galleon, but wrought in cockboats all, Slight craft and manned with a single hand; yet many a trip we made, Though we but crept from port to port with cargoes scant and small.
IV But on a day of wonder came ashining on the deep, A royal Splendour, proud with sail, and generous roar of guns; She passed us, and we gaped and stared. Her lofty bows were steep, And deep she rode the waters deep with a weight of countless tons.
V Her rig was strange, her name unknown, she came we knew not whence, But on the flag at her peak we read 'The Drums of the Fore and Aft.' And—I speak for one—my breath came thick and my pulse beat hard and tense, And we cheered with tears of splendid joy at sight of the splendid craft.
VI She swept us by; her master came and spoke us from the side; We knew our elder, though his beard was scarce yet fully grown; She spanked for home through churning foam with favouring wind and tide, And while we hailed like mad he sailed, a King, to take his own.
Some men are born rich, and some are born lucky, and some are born both to luck and riches. Kipling is one of the last. Nature endowed him with uncommon qualities, and circumstances sent him into the sphere in which those qualities could be most fortunately exercised. It seems strange that the great store of treasure which he opened to us should have been unhandled and unknown so long. His Indian pictures came like a revelation. It is always so when a man of real genius dawns upon the world. It was so when Scott showed men and women the jewelled mines of romance which lay in the highways and byways of homely Scotland. It was so when Dickens bared the Cockney hearth to the sight of all men. Meg Merrilies, and Rob Roy, and Edie Ochiltree were all there—the wild, the romantic, the humorous were at the doors of millions of men before Scott saw them. In London, in the early days of Dickens, there were hordes of capable writers eager for something new. Not one of them saw Bob Cratchit, or Fagin, or the Marchioness until Dickens saw them. So, in India, the British Tommy had lived for many a year, and the jungle beasts were there, and Government House and its society were there, and capable men went up and down the land, sensible of its charm, its wonder, its remoteness from themselves, and yet not discerning truly. At last, when a thousand feet have trodden upon a thing of inestimable price, there comes along a newspaper man, doing the driest kind of hackwork, bound to a drudgery as stale and dreary as any in life, and he sees what no man has ever seen before him, though it has been plain in view for years and years. Through scorn and discouragement and contumely he polishes his treasure, in painful hours snatched from distasteful labour, and at last he brings it where it can be seen and known for what it is.*
* I learn, on the very best authority, that Mr. Kipling regards his early and unrecognised days in India with much kindlier eyes than this would seem to indicate. It may be thought that, knowing this, I should amend or delete the passage. I let it stand, however, with this note as a qualification, because I think it possible that he, like the rest of us, looks on the past through tinted spectacles.
It is only genius which owns the seeing eye. There are in Great Britain to-day a dozen writers of fine faculty, trained to observe, trained to give to observation its fullest artistic result; and they are all panting for something new. The something new is under their noses. They see it and touch it every day. If I could find it, my name in a year would sail over the seas, and I should be a great personage. But I shall not find it. None of the men who are now known will find it. It is always the unknown man who makes that sort of discovery. He will come in time, and when he comes we shall wonder and admire, and say: 'How new! How true!' Why, in that very matter of Tommy Atkins, whose manifold portraits have done as much as anything to endear Kipling to the English people—it is known to many that in my own foolish youth I enlisted in the Army. I lived with Tommy. I fought and chaffed and drank and drilled and marched, and went 'up tahn' with him, and did pack drill, and had C.B. with him. I turned novel-writer afterwards, and never so much as dreamt of giving Tommy a place in my pages. Then comes Kipling, not knowing him one-half as well in one way, and knowing him a thousand times better in another way, and makes a noble and beautiful and merited reputation out of him; shows the man inside the military toggery, and makes us laugh and cry, and exult with feeling. There was a man in New South Wales—a shepherd—who went raving mad when he learnt that the heavy black dust which spoilt his pasture was tin, and that he had waked and slept for years without discovering the gigantic fortune which was all about him. I will not go mad, if I can help it, but I do think it rather hard lines on me that I hadn't the simple genius to see what lay in Tommy.
A good deal has been said of the occasional coarseness of Kipling's pages. There are readers who find it offensive, and they have every right to the expression of their feelings. I confess to having been startled once or twice, but never in a wholly disagreeable fashion—never as 'Jude the Obscure' startled. Poor Captain Mayne Reid, who is still beloved by here and there a schoolboy, wrote a preface to one of his books—I think 'The Rifle Rangers,' but it is years on years since I saw it—in order to put forth his defence for the introduction of an occasional oath or impious expletive in the conversation of his men of the prairies. He pleaded necessity. It was impossible to portray his men without it. And he argued that an oath does not soil the mind 'like the clinging immorality of an unchaste episode.' The majority of Englishmen will agree with the gallant Captain. Kipling is rough at times, and daring, but he is always clean and honest. There are no hermaphroditic cravings after sexual excitement in him. He is too much of a man to care for that kind of thing.
What a benefactor an honest laughter-maker is! Since Dickens there has been nobody to fill our lungs like Kipling. Is it not better that the public should have 'My Lord the Elephant' and 'Brugglesmith' to laugh outright at than that they should be feebly sniggering over the jest-books begotten on English Dulness by Yankee humour, as they were eight or nine years ago? That jugful of Cockney sky-blue, with a feeble dash of Mark Twain in it, which was called 'Three Men in a Boat' was not a cheerful tipple for a mental bank-holiday, but we poor moderns got no better till the coming of Kipling. We have a right to be grateful to the man who can make us laugh.
The thing which strikes everybody who reads Kipling—and who does not?—is the truly astonishing range of his knowledge of technicalities. He is very often beyond me altogether, but I presume him to be accurate, because nobody finds him out, and that is a thing which specialists are so fond of doing that we may be sure they would have been about him in clouds if he had been vulnerable. He gives one the impression at times of being arrogant about this special fund of knowledge. But he nowhere cares to make his modesty conspicuous to the reader, and his cocksureness is only the obverse of his best literary virtue. It comes from the very crispness and definiteness with which he sees things. There are no clouds about the edges of his perceptions. They are all clear and nette, Things observed by such a man dogmatise to the mind, and it is natural that he should dogmatise as to what he sees with such apparent precision and completeness.
A recent writer, anonymous, but speaking from a respectable vehicle as platform, has told us that the short story is the highest form into which any expression of the art of fiction can be cast. This to me looks very like nonsense. I do not know any short story which can take rank with 'Pere Goriot,' or 'Vanity Fair,' or 'David Copper-field.' The short story has charms of its own, and makes demands of its own. What those demands are only the writers who have subjected themselves to its tyranny can know. The ordinary man who tries this form of art finds early that he is emptying his mental pockets. Kipling's riches in this respect have looked as if they were without end, and no man before him has paid away so much. But it has to be remembered here that in many examples of his power in this way he has been purely episodic, and the discovery or creation of an episode is a much simpler thing than the discovery or creation of a story proper, which is a collection of episodes, arranged in close sequence, and leading to a catastrophe, tragic or comic, as the theme may determine.
In estimating the value of any writer's work you must take his range into consideration. Kipling stretches, in emotion, from deep seriousness to exuberant laughter; and his grasp of character is quite firm and sure, whether he deal with Mrs. Hawksbee or with Dinah Shadd; with a field officer or with Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd; with the Inspector of Forests or with Mowgli. He knows the ways of thinking of them all, and he knows the tricks of speech of all, and the outer garniture and daily habitudes of all. His mind seems furnished with an instantaneous camera and a phonographic recorder in combination; and keeping guard over this rare mental mechanism is a spirit of catholic affection and understanding.
Finally, he is an explorer, one of the original discoverers, one of the men who open new regions to our view. A revelation has waited for him. He is as much the master of his English compeers in originality as Stevenson was their master in finished craftsmanship.
VI.—UNDER FRENCH ENCOURAGEMENT—THOMAS HARDY
Within the last half-score of years an extraordinary impulse towards freedom in the artistic representation of life has touched some of our English writers. Thackeray, in 'Pendennis,' laments that since Fielding no English novelist has 'dared to draw a man.' Dr. George Macdonald, in his 'Robert Falconer,' whispers, in a sort of stage aside, his wish that it were possible to be both decent and honest in the exposition of the character of the Baron of Rothie, who is a seducer by profession. Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of Thackeray was, that he was a gentleman, and that his good-breeding and his manliness were essentially of the English pattern. Dr. Mac-donald's most intense impulse is towards purity of life, as an integral necessity for that communion with the Eternal Fatherhood which he preaches with so much earnestness and charm. That two such men should have felt that their work was subject to a painful limitation on one side of it is significant, but it is a fact which may be used with equal force as an argument by the advocates of the old method and the adopters of the new. It is perfectly true that they felt the restriction, but it is equally true that they respected it, and were resolute not to break through it. Their cases are cited here, not as an aid to argument on one side or the other, but simply to show that the argument itself is no new thing—that the question as to how far freedom is allowable has been debated in the minds of honest writers, and decided in one way, long before it came to be debated by another set of honest writers, who decided it in another.
There never was an age in which outspoken honesty was indecent. There never was an age in which pruriency in any guise could cease to be indecent. There never was an age when the fashion of outspoken honesty did not give a seeming excuse to pruriency; and it is this fact, that freedom in the artistic presentation of the sexual problems has invariably led to license, which has in many successive ages of literature forced the artist back to restraint, and has made him content to be bound by a rigid puritanism. In the beat of the eternal pendulum of taste it seems ordained that puritanism shall become so very puritanic that art shall grow tired of its bonds, and that liberty in turn shall grow offensive, and shall compel art by an overmastering instinct to return towards puritanism.
It is France which has led the way in the latest protest against the restrictions imposed by modern taste upon art. It may be admitted as a fact that those restrictions were felt severely, for it is obvious that until they began to chafe there was no likelihood of their being violently broken. The chief apostle of the new movement towards entire freedom is, of course, Emile Zola. After having excited for many years an incredulous amazement and disgust, he is now almost universally recognised as an honest and honourable artist, and as a great master in his craft. Nobody who is at all instructed ventures any longer to say that Zola is indecent because he loves indecency, or is pleased by the contemplation of the squalid and obscene. We see him as he truly is—a pessimist in humanity—sad and oppressed, and bitter with the gall of a hopeless sympathy with suffering and distorted mankind.
One English artist, whom, in the just language of contemporary criticism, it is no exaggeration to describe as great, has elected (rather late in life for so strong a departure) to cast in his lot with the new school. That his ambitions are wholly honourable it would be the mere vanity of injustice to deny. That his new methods contrast very unfavourably with his old ones, that he is lending the weight of his authority to a movement which is full of mischief, that in obeying in all sincerity an artistic impulse he is doing a marked disservice to his own art in particular, and to English art in general, are with me so many rooted personal convictions; but I dare not pretend that they are more. Mr. Hardy is just as sincere in his belief that he is right as I and others among his critics are in our belief that he is wrong. The question must be threshed out dispassionately and judicially, if it be faced at all. It cannot be settled by an appeal to personal sentiment on either side. But in the limits to which I am now restricted it is impossible to do justice to the discussion, and it would, indeed, be barely possible to state even the whole of its terms.
I am forced to content myself, therefore, with a temperamental expression of opinion in place of a judicial one, pleading only that the arguments against me are recognised and respected, although I have no present opportunity of recapitulating and disputing them. It appears, then—to speak merely as an advocate ex parte—to us of the old school that an essential part of the fiction writer's duty is to be harmless. That, of course, to the men of the cayenne-pepper-caster creed seems a very milky sort of proclamation, but to us it is a matter of grave moment. I have always thought, for my own part, that the novelist might well take for his motto the last five words of that passage in 'The Tempest' where we read: 'This isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, which give delight and hurt not! Simple as the motto seems, it will be found to offer a fairly wide range. When Reade tilted against prison abuses and the abuses of private asyla, or when Dickens rode down on the law of Chancery as administered in his day, or when Thackeray scourged snobbery and selfishness in society, they were all well within the limits of this rule. We experience a delight which hurts not, but on the contrary is entirely tonic and inspiring, when Satire swings his lash on the bared back of Hypocrisy or cruel and intentioned Vice. We experience a delight which hurts not, but on the contrary freshens the whole flood of feeling within us, when a true artist deals truly with the sorrows and infirmities of our kind. To offer it as our intent to give delight and hurt not is no mere profession of an artistic Grundyism. It is the proclamation of what is to our minds the simple truth, that fiction should be a joyful, an inspiring, a sympathetic, and a helpful art. There are certain questions the public discussion of which we purposely avoid. There are certain manifestations of character the exhibition of which we hold to be something like a crime.
Mr. Hardy would plead, and with perfectly apparent propriety, that he does not choose to write for 'the young person.' But I answer that he cannot help himself. He cannot choose his audience. Fiction appeals to everybody, and fiction so robust, so delicate and charming as his own finds its way into all hands. When a man can take a hall, and openly advertise that he intends to speak therein 'to men only,' he is reasonably allowed a certain latitude. If he pitches his cart on the village green, and talks with the village lads and lasses within hearing, he will, if he be a decent fellow, avoid the treatment of certain themes.
To take the most striking example:—In 'Jude the Obscure' Mr. Hardy deals very largely with the emotions and reasons which animate a young woman when she decides not to sleep with her husband, when she decides that she will sleep with her husband, when she decides to sleep with a man who is not her husband, and when she decides not to sleep with the man who is not her husband. Now, all this does not matter to the mentally solid and well-balanced reader. It is not very interesting, for one thing, and apart from the fact that it is, from a workman's point of view, astonishingly well done, it would not be interesting at all. Mr. Hardy offers it as the study of a temperament. Very well. It is an excellent study of a temperament, but it bores. The theme is not big enough to be worth the effort expended upon it. Here is an hysterical, wrong-headed, and confused-hearted little hussy who can't make up her mind as to what is right and what is wrong, and who is a prey to the impulse of the moment, psychical or physical. I don't think there are many people like her. I don't think that from the broad human-natural point of view it matters a great deal how she decides. But I am sure of this—that the more that kind of small monstrosity is publicly analysed and anatomised and made much of, the more her morbidities will increase in her, and the more unbearable in real life she is likely to become. Mr. Hardy's labour in this particular is a direct incentive to the study of hysteria as a fine art amongst such women as are natively prone to it. One of the gravest dangers which beset women is that of hysterical self-deception. The common-sense fashion of dealing with them when they suffer in that way is kindly and gently to ignore their symptoms until the reign of common-sense returns. To make them believe that their emotions are worthy of the scrutiny of a great analyst of the human heart is to increase their morbid temptations, and in the end to render those temptations irresistible. The one kind of person to whom 'Jude the Obscure' must necessarily appeal with the greatest power is the kind of person depicted in its pages, and the tendency of the book is unavoidably towards the development and multiplication of the type described. This is the only end the book can serve, apart from the fact that it does reveal to us Mr. Hardy's special knowledge of a dangerous and disagreeable form of mental disorder, But it is not the physician's business to sow disease, and any treatise on hysteria which is thrown into a captivating popular form, and makes hysteria look like an interesting and romantic thing, will spread the malady as surely as a spark will ignite gunpowder. This at least is not a mere matter of opinion, but of sound scientific fact, which no student of that disorder which Mr. Hardy has so masterfully handled will deny. In this respect, then, the book is a centre of infection, and that the author of 'A Pair of Blue Eyes' should have written it is matter at once for astonishment and grief. That is to say, it is a matter of astonishment and grief to me, and to those who think as I do. There is a large and growing contingent of writers and readers to whom it is a theme for joyful congratulation. It is one of the rules of the game we are now playing to respect all honest conviction.
Of Mr. Hardy, from the purely artistic side, there is little time to speak. On that side let me first set down what is to be said in dispraise, for the mere sake of leaving a sweet taste in the mouth at the end. Even from his own point of view—that lauded 'sense of the overwhelming sadness of modern life' which captivates the admirers of his latest style—it is possible to spread the epic table of sorrow without finding a place upon it for scraps of the hoggish anatomy which are not nameable except in strictly scientific or wholly boorish speech. But it seems necessary to the new realism that its devotee should be able to write for the perusal of gentlemen and ladies about things he dared not mention orally in the presence of either; so that what a drunken cabman would be deservedly kicked for saying in a lady's hearing may be honourably printed for a lady's reading by a scholar and a sage. It was once thought otherwise, but I am arguing here, not against realism per se, but against the inartistic introduction of gross episodes. Every reader of Mr. Hardy will recognise my meaning, and the passage in my mind seems gratuitously and unserviceably offensive.
To come to less unpleasing themes, where, still expressing disapproval, one may do it with some grace, one of the few limitations to Mr. Hardy's great charm as a writer lies in his tendency to encumber his page with detail. At a supremely romantic moment one of his people sits down to contemplate a tribe of ants, and watches them through two whole printed pages. In another case a man in imminent deadly peril surveys through two pages the history of the geologic changes which have befallen our planet. Each passage, taken by itself, is good enough. Taken where it is, each is terribly wearisome and wrong.