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    Ch. 16 - A Humble Remonstrance

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    Chapter 17
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    WE have recently (12) enjoyed a quite peculiar pleasure: hearing,
    in some detail, the opinions, about the art they practise, of Mr.
    Walter Besant and Mr. Henry James; two men certainly of very
    different calibre: Mr. James so precise of outline, so cunning of
    fence, so scrupulous of finish, and Mr. Besant so genial, so
    friendly, with so persuasive and humorous a vein of whim: Mr. James
    the very type of the deliberate artist, Mr. Besant the
    impersonation of good nature. That such doctors should differ will
    excite no great surprise; but one point in which they seem to agree
    fills me, I confess, with wonder. For they are both content to
    talk about the "art of fiction"; and Mr. Besant, waxing exceedingly
    bold, goes on to oppose this so-called "art of fiction" to the "art
    of poetry." By the art of poetry he can mean nothing but the art
    of verse, an art of handicraft, and only comparable with the art of
    prose. For that heat and height of sane emotion which we agree to
    call by the name of poetry, is but a libertine and vagrant quality;
    present, at times, in any art, more often absent from them all; too
    seldom present in the prose novel, too frequently absent from the
    ode and epic. Fiction is the same case; it is no substantive art,
    but an element which enters largely into all the arts but
    architecture. Homer, Wordsworth, Phidias, Hogarth, and Salvini,
    all deal in fiction; and yet I do not suppose that either Hogarth
    or Salvini, to mention but these two, entered in any degree into
    the scope of Mr. Besant's interesting lecture or Mr. James's
    charming essay. The art of fiction, then, regarded as a
    definition, is both too ample and too scanty. Let me suggest
    another; let me suggest that what both Mr. James and Mr. Besant had
    in view was neither more nor less than the art of narrative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


    (1) 1881.

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

    (3) Professor Tait's laboratory assistant.

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

    (5) The late Fleeming Jenkin.

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

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

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

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

    (10) 1882.

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

    (12) 1884

    (13) Now no longer so, thank Heaven!
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