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In Conclusion

Non-Fiction > Ten Novels and Their Authors >


(1)

After you have given a party, especially if your guests were of unusual distinction, when you have sped the last one on his way and you return to the sitting-room, it is only natural, human nature being what it is, that you and your wife, if you have one, the friend who lives with you, if you haven’t, should discuss them over a final drink before going to bed. A. was in fine form. B. has a tiresome habit of interrupting with an irrelevant remark just as someone is reaching the point of a good story, and so killing it; it was amusing to see A., indefatigably loquacious, take not the smallest notice and go on talking as though B. had never opened his mouth. D. and C. were disappointing. They wouldn’t make an effort. It had never occurred to them that, when you go to a party, it is your duty to do what you can to make it go. You defend one of them by saying that he is very shy, and the other by saying that it is a matter of principle with him; he will not speak unless he has something to say worth saying. Your friend justly retorts that if we were all as austere, conversation would perish. You laugh and pass on to E. He was as caustic as usual, and no less truculent: he is disgruntled because he thinks his merits have not been adequately recognised; success would soften him, but perhaps his wit would be less delectable if it lost its sting. You wonder how F.’s latest love affair is going on, and try to remember the exact wording of that brilliant repartee of his which made you laugh. On the whole it was a good party; you finish your drink, turn out the lights and go to your respective bedrooms.

So I, having spent many months in the company of the novelists with whom I have dealt, find myself inclined, before parting from them for good, to sum up in my mind, as though they had been my guests at a party, the various impressions they have made on me. It would have been a mixed gathering, but, taking it all in all, a convivial one. At first the conversation was general. Tolstoy, dressed as a peasant, with his great, untidy beard, his little grey eyes darting from one to another, discoursed with unction of God and with coarseness of sex. He said with complacency that in his youth he had been a great lecher, but in order to show that he was one at heart with the peasantry used a grosser word. Dostoevsky, angrily conscious that no one really appreciated his genius, for long maintained a moody silence; suddenly he broke out into a vituperative harangue which might have caused a quarrel, if the rest of the company had not been so busy talking themselves that they paid no attention. The party broke up into smaller groups. Dostoevsky went and sat by himself in a corner. His ravaged face was contorted by a sardonic sneer as he took note of the fact that Tolstoy’s smock was of a fine material that must have cost at least seven roubles a yard. He could not forgive Tolstoy because the editor of a magazine in Moscow had refused to buy a novel of his for serialisation, since he had just then paid so much money for Anna Karenina. It infuriated him that Tolstoy should talk of God as though He were his own peculiar perquisite: had he never read The Brothers Karamazov? Dostoevsky’s eyes wandered with indifference, tinged with sullen dislike, from person to person in the room, till they came to rest on a young woman who was seated by herself. She was not much to look at, but he read on her pale face a contemptuous disapproval of the persons in whose company she found herself, which touched a chord in his own tortured soul. There was in her expression a spirituality which attracted him. He had been told that she was a Miss Emily Brontë. He got up, walked towards her and, taking a chair, sat down beside her. She blushed scarlet. He saw that she was very shy and very nervous. He patted her kindly on the knee, which she withdrew with a start, and to put her at her ease began to tell her his favourite story of how in a bath-house in Moscow a governess had brought him a little girl whom he had raped; but as he spoke very quickly, in broken French, the young lady did not understand a word he said and, before he had half done telling her how agonising his remorse had been for the sin he had committed, and how terrible his sufferings, she rose abruptly and left him.

When the party dispersed about the spacious room, Miss Austen had chosen a seat somewhat apart. Stendhal, though he had never got over his timidity where women were concerned, felt it was a duty he owed himself to make a pass at her; but her cool amusement disconcerted him, and with a glance at Henry Fielding, who was talking with Herman Melville, he joined the noisy group of Balzac, Charles Dickens and Flaubert. Miss Austen was glad to be left to give her undisturbed attention to her fellow-guests. She saw Miss Brontë leave the ugly little man who had been talking to her, and seat herself in the corner of a sofa. Poor little thing, so badly dressed, with those leg-of-mutton sleeves; her eyes were fine and her hair was pretty, but why did she do it so unbecomingly? She looked distressingly like a governess, and though, of course, a clergyman’s daughter, was certainly of very humble origins. Miss Austen thought she looked lost and lonely, and felt it would be a kindness to speak to her. She got up and sat down on the sofa beside her. Emily gave her a startled look, and answered Miss Austen’s friendly questions with embarrassed monosyllables. Miss Austen had noticed without surprise that the elder Miss Brontë had not been invited to the party. Perhaps it was just as well, as she had a very low opinion of Pride and Prejudice, and thought that its author lacked poetry and sentiment; but, being a well-bred woman, Miss Austen felt it only polite to ask how Miss Charlotte was. Emily again replied with a monosyllable, and Miss Austen came to the conclusion that to talk with people she didn’t know was agony to the poor little thing and so she decided that it would be kinder to leave her to herself. She resumed her former seat, and for Cassandrea’s sake went on with her consideration of the other persons in the room. Of course, there was too much to tell in a letter, and she must wait till they were once more together at Chawton. She smiled when she thought how dear Cassandra would laugh when she described those queer people one by one.

Mr. Dickens was smaller than Miss Austen liked men to be, and much too smartly dressed; but he had a pleasant face and fine eyes, and from his lively air she thought it quite possible that he had a sense of humour. It was a pity he was so vulgar. There were two Russians there, one with an unpronounceable name who looked disagreeable and common; the other, Tolstoy, had the air of a gentleman, but you could never tell with foreigners. Miss Austen could not understand why he wore that strange smock, like an artist’s, and those great clumsy boots. They said he was a Count, but she had never thought a foreign title anything but rather ridiculous. And as for the others – Monsieur Beyle, whom they called Stendhal, was fat and ugly, Monsieur Flaubert laughed much too loudly for anyone who had pretensions to elegance, and as to Monsieur de Balzac, his manners were deplorable. The fact was that the only gentleman present was Mr. Fielding, and Miss Austen wondered what he could find to interest him in that American he was talking to. It was a Mr. Melville, a fine figure of a man, tall and upstanding, but he wore a beard, and it made him look like the captain of a merchant vessel. He was telling Mr. Fielding a story, which was evidently amusing, and Mr. Fielding laughed heartily. Mr. Fielding was a little the worse for liquor, but Miss Austen knew that gentlemen often were, and though she regretted it, it did not shock her. Mr. Fielding had a fine presence and, though something of a dissipated look, an air of good breeding, he would have held his own at Godmersham with any of her brother’s, Mr. Knight’s, friends. After all, he was a cousin of Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, and through the Earls of Denbigh descended from the Hapsburgs. He caught her look, rose to his feet and, leaving the strange American, came over to Miss Austen, and with a bow asked if he might sit beside her. She smiled her assent and set herself to be suitably gracious. he had a pleasant flow of small-talk, and presently Miss Austen felt emboldened to tell him that she had read Tom Jones when she was a girl.

‘And I’m sure it did you no harm, Madam,’ he said.

‘None whatever,’ she answered. ‘Nor do I believe that it would ever do so to any young woman of sound principles and good sense.’

Then Mr. Fielding, with a smile in which there was something of gallantry, asked Miss Austen how it happened that, with her charm, wit and grace, she had never married.

‘How could I, Mr. Fielding?’ she answered gaily. ‘The only man I could ever have brought myself to marry was Darcy, and he was married to my dear Elizabeth.’

Charles Dickens had joined the group of the three eminent novelists, Stendhal, Balzac and Flaubert, but he did not feel quite at ease. Though they were cordial enough, he could not but see that they looked upon him as an amiable barbarian. They were quite plainly of opinion that nothing of literary importance could be produced out of France. That an Englishman should write novels was an amusing performance, like the antics of trained dogs in a circus, but, of course, without any pretension to artistic merit. Stendhal admitted that England had Shakespeare, and was fond of saying every now and then: ‘To be or not to be’; and once, when Flaubert was more than usually vociferous, he gave Dickens a quizzical look and murmured: ‘The rest is silence.’ Dickens, generally the life and soul of a party, tried his best to seem amused at the conversation of those great talkers, but his laughter was forced. He was frankly shocked at the bawdy freedom with which they related their sexual adventures. Sex was not a matter that he cared to hear spoken of. When they asked him if it was not true that English women were frigid, he did not know what to answer, and he listened in pained silence to Balzac’s ribald account of his affair with the Countess Guidoboni, a member of the highest English aristocracy. They chaffed him about the English prudishness; ‘improper’ was the commonest word in the English vocabulary; this was improper, that was improper; and Stendhal stated as a fact that in England they put the legs of pianos into trousers so that the young girls who were learning to play should not be distracted from their five-finger exercises by lascivious thoughts. Dickens bore their banter with his usual good humour; but he smiled within himself when he thought how little they knew of the larks he and Wilkie Collins had when they went on their jaunts to Paris. On the last one, as they sighted the white cliffs of Dover, Wilkie had turned to him with a solemnity unusual to him: ‘Charles,’ he had said, ‘the respectability of England, thank God, is firmly established on the immorality of France.’ For a moment, Dickens was speechless, and then, as he realised the profound significance of the remark, his eyes filled with patriotic tears. ‘God save the Queen,’ he muttered in a husky voice. Wilkie, always the gentleman, gravely raised his top-hat. A memorable moment!

(2)

It is evident that these novelists were persons of marked and unusual individuality. They had the creative instinct strongly developed, and they had a passion for writing. If they are anything to go by, one may safely say that it is not much of a writer who hates writing. That is not to say that they found it easy. It is difficult to write well. But still, to write was their passion. It was not only the business of their lives, but a need as urgent as hunger or thirst. There is probably in everyone something of the creative instinct. It is natural for a child to play about with coloured pencils and paint little pictures in water-colour, and then, often enough, when it learns to read and write, to write little verses and little stories. I believe that the creative instinct reaches its height during the twenties and then, sometimes because it was merely a product of adolescence, sometimes because the affairs of life, the necessity of earning a living, leave no time for its exercise, it languishes and dies. But in many persons, in more than most of us know, it continues to burden and enchant them. They become writers because of the compulsion within them. Unfortunately, the creative instinct may be powerful and yet the capacity to create anything of merit may be lacking.

What is it that must be combined with the creative instinct to make it possible for a writer to produce a work of value? Well, I suppose it is personality. It may be a pleasant or an unpleasant one; that doesn’t matter. What matters is that, by some idiosyncrasy of nature, the writer is enabled to see in a manner peculiar to himself. It doesn’t matter if he sees in a way that common opinion regards as neither just nor true. You may not like the world he sees, the world, for instance, that Stendhal, Dostoevsky or Flaubert saw, and then his world will be distasteful to you; but you can hardly fail to be impressed by the power with which he has presented it; or you may like his world, as you like the world of Fielding and Jane Austen, and then you will take the author to your heart. That depends on your own disposition. It has nothing to do with the merits of the work.

I have been curious to discover, if I could, what precisely were the characteristics of these novelists I have been discussing which made them able to produce books to which the consensus of qualified opinion has agreed to ascribe greatness. Little is known of Fielding, Jane Austen and Emily Brontë, but as regards the others, the material for such an enquiry is over-whelming. Stendhal and Tolstoy wrote volume after volume about themselves; Flaubert’s revealing correspondence is enormous; and of the rest, friends and relations have written reminiscences and biographers elaborate lives. Strangely enough, they do not seem to have been highly cultured. Flaubert and Tolstoy were great readers, but chiefly to obtain material for what they wanted to write; the others were no more widely read than the average persons of the class they belonged to. They appear to have taken little interest in any art other than their own. Jane Austen confessed that concerts bored her. Tolstoy was fond of music and played the piano. Stendhal had a predilection for opera, which is the form of musical entertainment which affords pleasure to people who don’t like music. he went to the Scala every night when he was in Milan to gossip with his friends, have supper and play cards, and, like them, gave his attention to what was happening on the stage only when a famous singer sang a well-known aria. he had an equal admiration for Mozart, Cimarosa and Rossini. I have not discovered that music meant anything to the rest. Nor did the plastic arts. Such references as you find in their books to painting or sculpture indicate that their taste was distressingly conventional. Tolstoy, as everyone knows, discarded all painting as worthless unless the subject provided a moral lesson. Stendhal deplored the fact that Leonardo had not had the advantage of Guido Reni’s guidance and example, and he claimed that Canova was a greater sculptor than Michael Angelo because he had produced thirty masterpieces, whereas Michael Angelo had produced but one.

Of course, it requires intelligence to write a good novel, but of a peculiar, and perhaps not of a very high, order, and these great writers were intelligent; but they were not strikingly intellectual. Their naïveté, when they deal with general ideas, is often startling. They accept the commonplaces of the philosophy current in their day, and when they put them in use in their fiction, the result is seldom happy. The fact is, ideas are not their affair, and their concern with them, when they are concerned with them, is emotional. They have little gift for conceptual thought. They are not interested in the proposition, but in the example; for it is the concrete that interests them. But if intellect is not their strong point, they make up for it with gifts that are more useful to them. They feel strongly, even passionately; they have imagination, keen observation and an ability to put themselves in the shoes of the characters of their invention, to rejoice in their joys and suffer with their pains; and, finally, they have a faculty for giving with force and distinctness body and shape to what they have seen, felt and imagined.

These are great gifts, and an author is fortunate to possess them, but they will not suffice unless he has something else besides. Gavarni said of Balzac that in general information on all subjects he was completely ignare. One’s first impulse is to translate that by ‘ignorant’, but that is a French word too, and ignare means more than that. It suggests the crass ignorance of a moron. But when Balzac began to write, Gavarni went on, he had an intuition of things, so that he seemed to know everything about everything. I take intuition to be a judgment one makes on grounds which are, or which one thinks are, legitimate, but which are not present to consciousness. But this, apparently, was not the case with Balzac. There were no grounds for the knowledge he displayed. I think Gavarni used the wrong word; I think a better one would have been inspiration. Inspiration is that something else the author needs in order to write greatly. But what is inspiration? I possess a number of books on psychology, and I have looked through them in vain to find something that would enlighten me. The only piece of writing I have come across that attempts to deal with the subject is an essay by Edmond Jaloux entitled L’Inspiration Poétique et l’Aridité. Edmond Jaloux was a Frenchman, and he wrote of his fellow-countrymen. It may be that their response to a spiritual state is more intense than that of the sober Anglo-Saxons. He describes, as follows, the aspect of the French poet when he is under the spell of his inspiration. He is transfigured. His countenance is calm and at the same time radiant; his features are relaxed, his eyes shine with a singular clearness, with a sort of strange desire that reaches out to nothing real. It is an indubitable physical presence. But inspiration, Edmond Jaloux goes on to say, is not permanent. It is followed by aridity, which may last a little while or may last for years. Then the author, feeling himself only half alive, is ill-humoured, afflicted with a bitterness that not only depresses him but makes him aggressive, spiteful, misanthropic and jealous, both of the works of his fellow-writers and of the power to work which he has lost. I find it curious, and even rather alarming, to perceive how like these states are to those of the mystics when, in moments of illumination, they feel themselves at one with the Infinite, and when, in those periods which they call the Dark Night of the Soul, they feel dry, empty and abandoned of God.

Edmond Jaloux wrote as though only poets had inspiration, and it is perhaps true that it is more necessary to them than to the writers of prose. Certainly the difference between the poet’s verse when he writes because he is a poet, and the verse he writes when he is inspired, is more obvious; but the writer of prose, the novelist, has his inspiration too. It would be only prejudice that could deny that certain brief passages in Wuthering Heights, in Moby Dick, in Anna Karenina, are as inspired as any poem of Keats or Shelley. The novelist may consciously depend on this mysterious entity. Dostoevsky, in letters to his publisher, frequently outlined some scene he had in mind to write and said it would be masterly if, when he sat down to it, inspiration came. Inspiration pertains to youth. It seldom persists to old age, and then only sporadically. No effort of will can evoke it, but authors have found that it can often be coaxed into activity. Schiller, when he went into his study to work, smelt the rotten apples he kept in a drawer so as to awaken it. Dickens had to have certain objects on his desk, without which he could not write a line. For some reason, it was the presence of those objects that brought his inspiration into play. But it is terribly unreliable. The writer may be seized by an inspiration as genuine as that which seized Keats when he wrote his greatest ode, and yet produce something that is worthless. To this again the mystics offer a parallel: St. Theresa attached no value to the ecstasies, the visions, of her nuns unless they resulted in works. I am well aware that I have not told the reader, as I should have done, just what inspiration is. I wish I could. I do not know. It is a mysterious something that enables the author to write things that he had no idea he knew, so that, looking back, he asks himself: ‘Where on earth did I get that from?’ We know that Charlotte Brontë was puzzled by the fact that her sister Emily could write of things and people that, to her knowledge, she had no acquaintance with. When the author is seized by this welcome power, ideas, images, comparisons, even solid facts, crowd upon him and he feels himself merely an instrument, a stenographer, as it were, taking down what is dictated to him. But I have said enough on this obscure subject. I have spoken of it only to make the point that whatever gifts an author may have, without the influence, or the power, of this mysterious something, none of them will avail.

(3)

It is an abnormal thing for the creative instinct to possess a person after the age of thirty, and with the exception of Jane Austen, who seems to have had all the virtues that a woman can have, without being a paragon that no one could put up with, in some respects all these writers were abnormal. Dostoevsky was an epileptic; so was Flaubert, and the drugs prescribed to him are generally believed to have affected his production. This brings me to a notion which has been put forward that a physical disability, or an unhappy experience in childhood, is the determining force of the creative instinct. Thus, Byron would never have become a poet if he had not had a club-foot, and Dickens would never have become a novelist if he had not spent a few weeks in a blacking factory. This seems to me nonsensical. Innumerable men have been born with a malformed foot, innumerable children have been put to work they found ignominious, without ever writing ten lines of verse or prose. The creative instinct, common to all, in a privileged number is vigorous and persistent; neither Byron, with his club-foot, Dostoevsky with his epilepsy, nor Dickens with his unfortunate experience at Hungerford Stairs, would have become a writer at all unless he had had the urge from the composition of his nature. It is the same urge as possessed the healthy Henry Fielding, the healthy Jane Austen and the healthy Tolstoy. I have no doubt that a physical or spiritual disability affects the character of an author’s work. To some extent it sets him apart from his fellows, makes him self-conscious, prejudices him, so that he sees the world, life and his fellow-creatures from a standpoint, often unduly jejune, which is not the usual one; and more than all, it adds introversion to the extroversion with which the creative instinct is inexorably associated. I do not doubt that Dostoevsky would not have written the sort of books he did if he had not been an epileptic, but neither do I doubt that, in that case, he would still have been the voluminous writer he was.

On the whole, these great writers, with the exception of Emily Brontë and Dostoevsky, must have been very pleasant to meet. They had vitality. They were good company and great talkers, and their charm impressed everyone who came in contact with them. They had a prodigious power of enjoyment, and loved the good things of life. It is a mistake to suppose that the creative artist likes to live in a garret. He does not. There is an exuberance in his nature that leads him to display. He relishes luxury. Remember Fielding with his prodigality, Stendhal with his fine clothes, his cabriolet and his groom, Balzac with his senseless ostentation, Dickens with his grand dinner parties, his fine house and his carriage and pair. There was nothing of the ascetic about them. They wanted money, not to hoard it, but to squander it, and they were not always scrupulous in the way they got it. Extravagance was natural to their buoyant temper, and if it is a fault, it is one with which most of us can sympathise. But, again with one or two exceptions, they cannot have been easy to live with. They had traits which can hardly fail to disconcert even the most tolerant. They were self-centred. Nothing really mattered to them but their work, and to this they were prepared to sacrifice, without a qualm, everyone connected with them. They were vain, inconsiderate, selfish and pigheaded. They had little self-control, and it never occurred to them not to gratify a whim because it might bring distress to others. They do not seem to have been much inclined to marry, and when they did, either on account of their natural irritability or on account of their inconstancy, they brought their wives scant happiness. I think they married to escape from the hurly-burly of their agitating instincts: to settle down seemed to offer them peace and rest, and they imagined that marriage was an anchorage where they could live safe from the stormy waves of the tempestuous world. But escape, peace and rest, safety, were the last things to suit their temperaments. Marriage is an affair of perpetual compromise, and how could they be expected to compromise when a stubborn egoism was of the essence of their natures? They had love affairs, but they do not appear to have been very satisfactory either to themselves or to the objects of their affections. And that is understandable: real love surrenders, real love is selfless, real love is tender; but tenderness, selflessness and self-surrender were not virtues of which they were capable. With the exception of the eminently normal Fielding, and the lecherous Tolstoy, they do not seem to have been highly sexed. One suspects that when they had love affairs it was more to gratify their vanity, or to prove to themselves their own virility, than because they were carried off their feet by an irresistible attraction. I venture the suggestion that when they had achieved these objects, they returned to their work with a sigh of relief.

These, of course, are generalisations, and generalisations, as we know, are only more or less true. I have chosen a few persons about whom I have learnt something and made statements about them which, in one case or another, might easily be shown to be exaggerated. I have left out of consideration the environment and the climate of opinion (an expression now sadly shop-soiled, but convenient) in which my authors passed their lives, though, evidently, their influence on them was far from negligible. With the exception of Tom Jones, the novels with which I have dealt appeared in the nineteenth century. This was a period of revolution, social, industrial and political; men abandoned ways of life and ways of thought which had prevailed with little change for generations. It may be that such a period, when old beliefs are no longer unquestionably accepted, when there is a great ferment in the air and life is a new and exciting adventure, is conducive to the production of exceptional characters and of exceptional works. The fact remains that during the nineteenth century, if you are prepared to hold that it did not end till 1914, greater novels were written than had ever been written before, or have been written since.

I think one may roughly divide novels into the realistic and the sensational. This is very indefinite, since many a realistic novelist on occasion introduces a sensational incident, and contrariwise, the sensational novelist generally tries by realistic detail to make the events he relates more plausible. The sensational novel has a bad name, but you cannot dismiss with a shrug of the shoulders a method which was practised by Balzac, Dickens and Dostoevsky. It is merely a different genre. The enormous popularity of detective stories shows how great an appeal it has to readers. They wish to be excited, shocked and harrowed. The sensational novelist endeavours, by violent and extravagant events, to rivet your attention, to dazzle and amaze. The danger he runs is that you will not believe him. But, as Balzac said, it is essential that you should believe that what he tells you really happened. He can best manage to do this by creating characters so unusual to common experience that their behaviour is plausible. The sensational novel demands characters a little more than life-size, such characters as Dostoevsky called more real than reality; creatures of uncontrollable passions, excessive in their emotions, impetuous and unprincipled. Melodrama is their legitimate province and to frown on it, as is usual, is as unreasonable as to disparage a cubist picture because it is not representational.

The realist purports to describe life as it is. He avoids violent incidents because, on the whole, in the lives of the ordinary creatures with whom he deals they do not occur. The occurrences he relates must be not only likely but, so far as may be, inevitable. He does not seek to astound you or make your blood run faster. He appeals to the pleasure of recognition. You know the sort of people in whom he asks you to interest yourself. You are familiar with their ways of life. You enter into their thoughts and feelings because they are very like your own. What happens to them might very well happen to you. But life on the whole is monotonous, and so the realistic novelist is haunted by the fear that he may bore. Then he may be seduced into bringing in a sensational incident. The note is forced, and the reader is disillusioned. Thus, in Le Rouge et le Noir, Stendhal’s manner is realistic till Julien goes to Paris and is brought into contact with Mathilde de la Môle; then it becomes sensational, and you accompany the author with discomfort along the new path he has unaccountably chosen to follow. The danger of being dull was clear to Flaubert when he set about the composition of Madame Bovary and he decided that he could only avoid it by beauty of style. Jane Austen escaped it by her unfailing humour. But there are not many novelists who, like Flaubert and Jane Austen, have managed to conserve to the end, without faltering, the realistic mode. It requires consummate tact.

I have quoted somewhere or other a remark of Chekhov’s, which, since it is to the point, I venture to quote again. ‘People don’t go to the North Pole and fall off icebergs,’ he said, ‘they go to the office, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup.’ That is unduly to narrow the scope of the realistic novel. People do go to the North Pole, and if they don’t fall off icebergs, they undergo adventures as formidable. They go to Africa, Asia and the South Seas. Not the same things happen in those parts as in the squares of Bloomsbury, or the seaside resorts of the South Coast. They may be sensational, but if they are the sort of things that are usual, there is no reason why the realistic novelist should hesitate to describe them. It is true that the ordinary person goes to the office, quarrels with his wife and eats cabbage soup; but it is the realist’s business to bring out what is not ordinary in the ordinary person. Then to eat cabbage soup may be of as great moment as falling of an iceberg.

But even the realist does not copy life. He arranges it to suit his purpose. To the best of his ability he avoids improbability, but some improbabilities are so necessary and so general that readers accept them without demur. For instance, if the hero of a novel urgently needs to meet a certain person without delay, he will run across him while walking along the crowded pavement of Piccadilly. ‘Hulloa,’ he says, ‘fancy meeting you! The very person I want to see.’ The occurrence is as unlikely as for a bridge-player to be dealt thirteen spades, but the reader will take it in his stride. Probability changes with the sophistication of readers: a coincidence which at one time passed unnoticed will cause in the reader of to-day a jolt of unbelief. I do not suppose the contemporary readers of Mansfield Park thought it odd that Sir Thomas Bertram should arrive from the West Indies on the very day his family were having private theatricals. A novelist to-day would feel obliged to make his arrival at so awkward a juncture more likely. I make this point merely to indicate that the realistic novel is in fact, though more subtly, less blatantly, no more true to life than the sensational one.

(4)

The novels I have dealt with in these pages are very different from one another; but one thing they have in common: they tell good stories, and their authors have told them in a very straightforward way. They have narrated events and delved into motives without recourse to any of the tiresome literary tricks, such as the stream of thought, the throw-back, which make so many modern novels tedious. They have told the reader what they wished him to know, and not, as is the present fashion, left him to guess who the characters were, what their calling was and what their circumstances: in fact, they have done all they could to make things easy for him. It does not appear that they sought to impress by their subtlety, or startle by their originality. As men, they are complicated enough; as writers, they are astonishingly simple. They are subtle and original, as naturally as Monsieur Jourdain spoke prose. They tried to tell the truth, but inevitably saw it through the distorting lens of their own idiosyncrasies. With a sure instinct, they eschewed topics of temporary interest, which with the passage of time lose their import; they dealt with the subjects of enduring concern to mankind: God, love and hate, death, money, ambition, envy, pride, good and evil; in short, with the passions and instincts common to all from the beginning of time, and it is on that account that from generation to generation men have found in these books something to their purpose. It is because these writers saw life, judged and described it as their unusual personalities revealed it to them, that their works have the tang, the individuality, which continues so powerfully to attract us. In the final analysis, all the author has to give is himself, and it is because these several authors were creatures of peculiar force and great singularity that their novels, notwithstanding the passage of time, bringing with it different habits and life and new ways of thought, retain their fascination.

One odd thing about them is that, though they wrote and re-wrote, and for the most part endlessly corrected, they were not great stylists. Flaubert alone seems to have made efforts to write well. It is an irony that Madame Bovary, on which he spent such enormous pains, should now, just on account of its style, be less appreciated by the French intelligentsia than the carelessly written letters. Years ago, Prince Kropotkin, talking to me about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, told me that Tolstoy wrote like a gentleman and Dostoevsky like Eugène Sue. If he meant that Tolstoy wrote in the conversational style of a well-bred and cultivated man, that, it seems to me, is a very good one for a novelist to adopt. I should say that Miss Austen wrote very much as we may suppose a gentlewoman in her day talked, and it is a style that admirably suits her novels. A novel is not a scientific treatise. Every novel demands its own particular style, as Flaubert very well knew, and so the style of Madame Bovary differs from that of Salammbô and that of Salammbô from that of Bouvard et Pécuchet. No one, so far as I know, has ever claimed that Balzac, Dickens and Emily Brontë wrote with distinction. Flaubert said it was impossible for him to read Stendhal, because his style was so bad. Even in translations it is obvious that Dostoevsky’s style was slovenly. It looks as though to write well were not an essential part of the novelist’s equipment; but that vigour and vitality, imagination, creative force, keenness of observation, knowledge of human nature, with an interest in it and a sympathy with it, fertility and intelligence are more important. All the same, it is better to write well than indifferently.

But strange as it may be that these distinguished authors did not write their respective languages better than they did, what is stranger still is that they wrote at all. There is nothing in their heredity to account for their talent. Their families, more or less respectable, and perfectly commonplace, were neither particularly intelligent nor particularly cultivated. They themselves were not in youth thrown in contact with persons interested in arts and letters. They knew no authors. They were not inordinately studious. They joined in the amusements and occupations of the girls and boys of their age and station. There was nothing to show that they had unusual capacity. With the exception of Tolstoy, who was an aristocrat, they belonged to the middle class. With their environment and upbringing one would have expected them to become doctors or lawyers, government officials or business men. They took to writing as the new fledged bird takes to the air. Surely it is very strange that of two members of a family, Cassandra and Jane Austen, Fyodor and Michael Dostoevsky, for example, brought up in the same way, leading very much the same sort of lives, exposed to the same circumstances and bound together by mutual affection, one, and not the other, should be endowed with a supreme gift. I think I have shown that the great novelist needs a variety of parts, not only creativeness, but quickness of perception, an attentive eye, the power to profit by experience, and above all an absorbing interest in human nature, by the happy conjunction of which to become just the sort of novelist he is. But why these faculties should be meted out to one person rather than to another; why, against all likelihood, they should be possessed by the daughter of a country parson, the son of an obscure doctor, the son of a pettifogging attorney or of a shifty government clerk, is a mystery which, so far as I know, is insoluble. How these novelists came by their rare gifts, none can tell. It seems to depend on the personality, and the personality, with few exceptions, seems compounded of estimable qualities and sinister defects.

The artist’s special gift, his talent or, if you wish, his genius, is like the seed of the orchid that comes to rest, at haphazard it would seem, upon a tree in the tropical jungle, there to burgeon, deriving no nourishment from it, but from the air, and then to bring forth a strange and beautiful flower; but the tree is cut down to be made into logs or floated down the river to a sawmill, and the wood on which grew the rich, fantastic flower is no different from a thousand other trees in the primeval forest.

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