Wednesday, 28 March 2012
The Three American Novels.
The prospect of official station and emolument which Hawthorne mentions in one of those paragraphs from his Journals which I have just quoted, as having offered itself and then passed away, was at last, in the event, confirmed by his receiving from the administration of President Polk the gift of a place in the Custom-house of his native town. The office was a modest one, and “official station” may perhaps appear a magniloquent formula for the functions sketched in the admirable Introduction to The Scarlet Letter . Hawthorne’s duties were those of Surveyor of the port of Salem, and they had a salary attached, which was the important part; as his biographer tells us that he had received almost nothing for the contributions to the Democratic Review . He bade farewell to his ex-parsonage and went back to Salem in 1846, and the immediate effect of his ameliorated fortune was to make him stop writing. None of his Journals of the period from his going to Salem to 1850 have been published; from which I infer that he even ceased to journalise. The Scarlet Letter was not written till 1849. In the delightful prologue to that work, entitled The Custom-house , he embodies some of the impressions gathered during these years of comparative leisure (I say of leisure because he does not intimate in this sketch of his occupations that his duties were onerous). He intimates, however, that they were not interesting, and that it was a very good thing for him, mentally and morally, when his term of service expired — or rather when he was removed from office by the operation of that wonderful “rotatory” system which his countrymen had invented for the administration of their affairs. This sketch of the Custom-house is, as simple writing, one of the most perfect of Hawthorne’s compositions, and one of the most gracefully and humorously autobiographic. It would be interesting to examine it in detail, but I prefer to use my space for making some remarks upon the work which was the ultimate result of this period of Hawthorne’s residence in his native town; and I shall, for convenience’ sake, say directly afterwards what I have to say about the two companions of The Scarlet Letter — The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance . I quoted some passages from the prologue to the first of these novels in the early pages of this essay. There is another passage, however, which bears particularly upon this phase of Hawthorne’s career, and which is so happily expressed as to make it a pleasure to transcribe it — the passage in which he says that “for myself, during the whole of my Custom-house experience, moonlight and sunshine, and the glow of the fire-light, were just alike in my regard, and neither of them was of one whit more avail than the twinkle of a tallow candle. An entire class of susceptibilities, and a gift connected with them — of no great richness or value, but the best I had — was gone from me.” He goes on to say that he believes that he might have done something if he could have made up his mind to convert the very substance of the commonplace that surrounded him into matter of literature.
“I might, for instance, have contented myself with writing out the narratives of a veteran shipmaster, one of the inspectors, whom I should be most ungrateful not to mention; since scarcely a day passed that he did not stir me to laughter and admiration by his marvellous gift as a story-teller.... Or I might readily have found a more serious task. It was a folly, with the materiality of this daily life pressing so intrusively upon me, to attempt to fling myself back into another age; or to insist on creating a semblance of a world out of airy matter.... The wiser effort would have been, to diffuse thought and imagination through the opaque substance of today, and thus make it a bright transparency ... to seek resolutely the true and indestructible value that lay hidden in the petty and wearisome incidents and ordinary characters with which I was now conversant. The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out before me was dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there.... These perceptions came too late.... I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs. That was all. But, nevertheless, it is anything but agreeable to be haunted by a suspicion that one’s intellect is dwindling away, or exhaling, without your consciousness, like ether out of phial; so that at every glance you find a smaller and less volatile residuum.”
As, however, it was with what was left of his intellect after three years’ evaporation, that Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter , there is little reason to complain of the injury he suffered in his Surveyorship.
His publisher, Mr. Fields, in a volume entitled Yesterdays with Authors , has related the circumstances in which Hawthorne’s masterpiece came into the world. “In the winter of 1849, after he had been ejected from the Custom-house, I went down to Salem to see him and inquire after his health, for we heard he had been suffering from illness. He was then living in a modest wooden house.... I found him alone in a chamber over the sitting-room of the dwelling, and as the day was cold he was hovering near a stove. We fell into talk about his future prospects, and he was, as I feared I should find him, in a very desponding mood.” His visitor urged him to bethink himself of publishing something, and Hawthorne replied by calling his attention to the small popularity his published productions had yet acquired, and declaring that he had done nothing and had no spirit for doing anything. The narrator of the incident urged upon him the necessity of a more hopeful view of his situation, and proceeded to take leave. He had not reached the street, however, when Hawthorne hurried to overtake him, and, placing a roll of MS. in his hand, bade him take it to Boston, read it, and pronounce upon it. “It is either very good or very bad,” said the author; “I don’t know which.” “On my way back to Boston,” says Mr. Fields, “I read the germ of The Scarlet Letter ; before I slept that night I wrote him a note all aglow with admiration of the marvellous story he had put into my hands, and told him that I would come again to Salem the next day and arrange for its publication. I went on in such an amazing state of excitement, when we met again in the little house, that he would not believe I was really in earnest. He seemed to think I was beside myself, and laughed sadly at my enthusiasm.” Hawthorne, however, went on with the book and finished it, but it appeared only a year later. His biographer quotes a passage from a letter which he wrote in February, 1850, to his friend Horatio Bridge. “I finished my book only yesterday; one end being in the press at Boston, while the other was in my head here at Salem, so that, as you see, my story is at least fourteen miles long.... My book, the publisher tells me, will not be out before April. He speaks of it in tremendous terms of approbation, so does Mrs. Hawthorne, to whom I read the conclusion last night. It broke her heart, and sent her to bed with a grievous headache — which I look upon, as a triumphant success. Judging from the effect upon her and the publisher, I may calculate on what bowlers call a ten-strike. But I don’t make any such calculation.” And Mr. Lathrop calls attention, in regard to this passage, to an allusion in the English Note–Books (September 14, 1855). “Speaking of Thackeray, I cannot but wonder at his coolness in respect to his own pathos, and compare it to my emotions when I read the last scene of The Scarlet Letter to my wife, just after writing it — tried to read it rather, for my voice swelled and heaved as if I were tossed up and down on an ocean as it subsides after a storm. But I was in a very nervous state then, having gone through a great diversity of emotion while writing it, for many months.”
The work has the tone of the circumstances in which it was produced. If Hawthorne was in a sombre mood, and if his future was painfully vague,The Scarlet Letter contains little enough of gaiety or of hopefulness. It is densely dark, with a single spot of vivid colour in it; and it will probably long remain the most consistently gloomy of English novels of the first order. But I just now called it the author’s masterpiece, and I imagine it will continue to be, for other generations than ours, his most substantial title to fame. The subject had probably lain a long time in his mind, as his subjects were apt to do; so that he appears completely to possess it, to know it and feel it. It is simpler and more complete than his other novels; it achieves more perfectly what it attempts, and it has about it that charm, very hard to express, which we find in an artist’s work the first time he has touched his highest mark — a sort of straightness and naturalness of execution, an unconsciousness of his public, and freshness of interest in his theme. It was a great success, and he immediately found himself famous. The writer of these lines, who was a child at the time, remembers dimly the sensation the book produced, and the little shudder with which people alluded to it, as if a peculiar horror were mixed with its attractions. He was too young to read it himself, but its title, upon which he fixed his eyes as the book lay upon the table, had a mysterious charm. He had a vague belief indeed that the “letter” in question was one of the documents that come by the post, and it was a source of perpetual wonderment to him that it should be of such an unaccustomed hue. Of course it was difficult to explain to a child the significance of poor Hester Prynne’s blood-coloured A . But the mystery was at last partly dispelled by his being taken to see a collection of pictures (the annual exhibition of the National Academy), where he encountered a representation of a pale, handsome woman, in a quaint black dress and a white coif, holding between her knees an elfish-looking little girl, fantastically dressed and crowned with flowers. Embroidered on the woman’s breast was a great crimson A , over which the child’s fingers, as she glanced strangely out of the picture, were maliciously playing. I was told that this was Hester Prynne and little Pearl, and that when I grew older I might read their interesting history. But the picture remained vividly imprinted on my mind; I had been vaguely frightened and made uneasy by it; and when, years afterwards, I first read the novel, I seemed to myself to have read it before, and to be familiar with its two strange heroines, I mention this incident simply as an indication of the degree to which the success of The Scarlet Letter had made the book what is called an actuality. Hawthorne himself was very modest about it; he wrote to his publisher, when there was a question of his undertaking another novel, that what had given the history of Hester Prynne its “vogue” was simply the introductory chapter. In fact, the publication of The Scarlet Letter was in the United States a literary event of the first importance. The book was the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country. There was a consciousness of this in the welcome that was given it — a satisfaction in the idea of America having produced a novel that belonged to literature, and to the forefront of it. Something might at last be sent to Europe as exquisite in quality as anything that had been received, and the best of it was that the thing was absolutely American; it belonged to the soil, to the air; it came out of the very heart of New England. ...
Monday, 26 March 2012
When up aloft
I fly and fly,
I see in pools
The shining sky,
And a happy bird
Am I, am I!
When I descend
Toward the brink
I stand and look
And stop and drink
And bathe my wings,
And chink, and prink.
When winter frost
Makes earth as steel,
I search and search
But find no meal,
And most unhappy
Then I feel.
But when it lasts,
And snows still fall,
I get to feel
No grief at all
For I turn to a cold, stiff
Saturday, 24 March 2012
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
|Bird thou never wert -|
|That from Heaven or near it|
|Pourest thy full heart|
|In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.|
|Higher still and higher|
|From the earth thou springest,|
|Like a cloud of fire;|
|The blue deep thou wingest,|
|And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.|
|In the golden lightning|
|Of the sunken sun,|
|O'er which clouds are bright'ning,|
|Thou dost float and run,|
|Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.|
|The pale purple even|
|Melts around thy flight;|
|Like a star of Heaven,|
|In the broad daylight|
|Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight -|
|Keen as are the arrows|
|Of that silver sphere|
|Whose intense lamp narrows|
|In the white dawn clear,|
|Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there.|
|All the earth and air|
|With thy voice is loud,|
|As, when night is bare,|
|From one lonely cloud|
|The moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overflowed.|
|What thou art we know not;|
|What is most like thee?|
|From rainbow clouds there flow not|
|Drops so bright to see,|
|As from thy presence showers a rain of melody: -|
|Like a Poet hidden|
|In the light of thought,|
|Singing hymns unbidden,|
|Till the world is wrought|
|To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:|
|Like a high-born maiden|
|In a palace-tower,|
|Soothing her love-laden|
|Soul in secret hour|
|With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:|
|Like a glow-worm golden|
|In a dell of dew,|
|Its aërial hue|
|Among the flowers and grass which screen it from the view:|
|Like a rose embowered|
|In its own green leaves,|
|By warm winds deflowered,|
|Till the scent it gives|
|Makes faint with too much sweet these heavy-wingéd thieves:|
|Sound of vernal showers|
|On the twinkling grass,|
|Rain-awakened flowers -|
|All that ever was|
|Joyous and clear and fresh - thy music doth surpass.|
|Teach us, Sprite or Bird,|
|What sweet thoughts are thine:|
|I have never heard|
|Praise of love or wine|
|That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.|
|Or triumphal chant,|
|Matched with thine would be all|
|but an empty vaunt -|
|A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.|
|What objects are the fountains|
|Of thy happy strain?|
|What fields, or waves, or mountains?|
|What shapes of sky or plain?|
|What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?|
|With thy clear keen joyance|
|Languor cannot be:|
|Shadow of annoyance|
|Never came near thee:|
|Thou lovest, but ne'er knew love's sad satiety.|
|Waking or asleep,|
|Thou of death must deem|
|Things more true and deep|
|Than we mortals dream,|
|Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?|
|We look before and after,|
|And pine for what is not:|
|Our sincerest laughter|
|With some pain is fraught;|
|Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.|
|Yet, if we could scorn|
|Hate and pride and fear,|
|If we were things born|
|Not to shed a tear,|
|I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.|
|Better than all measures|
|Of delightful sound,|
|Better than all treasures|
|That in books are found,|
|Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!|
|Teach me half the gladness|
|That thy brain must know;|
|Such harmonious madness|
|From my lips would flow,|
|The world should listen then, as I am listening now.|
Monday, 19 March 2012
The "historical novel " is a literary hybrid which is apt to offend opposite sides. Either the historian condemns it for its inaccuracy, or the novel-reader complains of its dulness. It is hard to avoid that Scylla and Charybdis. In my youth, I remember that classical students used to pore over two lively works, Gallus and Charicles, which represented the efforts of a German professor to empty a dictionary of classical antiquities into the framework of a novel. They were no doubt accurate, but I don't know whether anybody ever read them through. Scott's historical romances, on the other hand, fascinated the world, but are generally marked by a gallant indifference to any quantity of anachronisms. A historical critic, I suppose, would tear Ivanhoe to pieces, and forbid any student to read a book which would confuse his ideas in direct proportion to the literary attractiveness. Of course, we may request the historical critic to mind his own business. I have often thought that the beginning of Ivanhoe, the scene in the forest where Gurth and Wamba are chatting at the foot of the old barrow, and encounter the Templar and the Prior on their way to Cedric's house, is the best opening of a story ever written. It is inimitably graphic and picturesque, and introduces us at once to a set of actors most dramatically contrasted. Moreover, the interest does not flag till certain unfortunate concessions to the old-fashioned rules of story-telling spoil the concluding scenes. Still it is true that the indifference to accuracy, or even possibility, forces one to admit that it requires a rather juvenile readiness to accept the obvious unrealities. It suggests the thought that the charm might be even heightened if, for example, Robin Hood and Friar Tuck had a little stronger resemblance to real or at least possible outlaws. The problem had been attacked by two or three of George Eliot's contemporaries. Bulwer in Rienzi had, like George Eliot, found a theme in Italian history, besides dealing with Harold and with Warwick the Last of the Barons. Though Freeman admired Harold, and George Eliot read Rienzi respectfully, I do not suppose that these rapid dashes into a mixture of fiction, history, and political philosophy can now interest any one. Kingsley in Hypatia and Westward Ho! had shown abundant vigour as a story-teller, in spite of a large infusion of the religious and political pamphleteer; but did not convince readers that he had given the true spirit of his periods. Charles Reade's remarkable novel The Cloister and the Hearth, which appeared in 1861, was a more serious attempt to make general history into fiction, and has been greatly admired by some eminent critics, such as Mr. Swinburne, who possibly have in mind the comparison with Romola. I only mention these books, however, to justify the remark that, in a period when the serious study of history was developing, the attempt to combine the vigour of Scott with more thorough knowledge of facts represented a very natural and plausible enterprise.
It may be taken for granted that the first condition of success is that you should become a contemporary of the society described. It is no easy task to go back for some centuries; to immerse yourself so thoroughly in the extinct modes of thought and sentiment that you can instinctively feel what the actors would have felt under the supposed circumstances. You can see into the mind of a British rustic of sixty years ago, especially if you happen to have been his daughter; but to get back to the inhabitant of Florence in the fifteenth century requires a more difficult transformation. Did George Eliot achieve it even approximately? To that, as it seems to me, there can be but one answer. She saw most clearly that the feat was necessary. She tried to qualify herself most industriously, but the very nature of her preparation shows the extreme difficulty, or, as I think, the impracticability of the task. "She spent," says an admiring critic, "six weeks" (really seven) "in Florence in order to familiarize herself with the manners and conversation of the inhabitants." In spite of this, it is said, her characters, when she began to write, not only "refused to speak Italian to her, but refused to speak at all." By hard reading, however, she reduced "these recalcitrant spirits to order," and "succeeded so well, especially in her delineation of the lower classes, that they have been recognized by Italians as true to life." The Italians are an eminently intelligent as well as an eminently courteous people; and we will hope that these anonymous critics had not to put any great strain upon their consciences. Yet one cannot help contrasting this initiation into the Italian characteristics with the unconscious process which had lasted for twenty years at Chilvers-Coton. Seven weeks is a brief period for acclimatization in a new social atmosphere. If an intelligent Italian lady had spent seven weeks at the Charing Cross Hotel, walked diligently about Leicester Square and the Strand, read steadily at the British Museum, and rummaged old bookshops in back streets, how much knowledge would she have acquired of the British costermonger? No doubt with the help of a few books on London labour, and study of Sam Weller's cockney slang, she might manage to make him talk and behave himself in such a way that a critic could not put his finger upon any directly assignable blunder. There is, too, a certain likeness between human beings everywhere, which might save the costermonger from being a mere monstrosity. But one would not expect a very vivid realization of the genuine Englishman; nor can I see any indications that the description of the Italian "lower classes" in Romola gets beyond careful observance of costume and commonplace. George Eliot had not, like some novelists, been primarily interested in a period, steeped her mind in its literature simply for the love of it, and then felt a prompting to give form to her impressions. "They," said Scott, speaking of certain imitators, "have to read old books and consult antiquarian collections to get their knowledge. I write because I have long since read such works, and possess, thanks to a strong memory, the information which they have to seek for." [Journal, i. 275.] George Eliot had, it is to be presumed, a fair knowledge of the general outlines of history. She came to Florence as a highly intelligent sightseer; and it then struck her that "the place would make a picturesque background, and that the Savonarola period offered a number of interesting situations. She proceeded to get up the necessary knowledge; but with the result like that which happens when a manager presents Julius Caesar or Coriolanus in the costume "of the period." The costume may be as correct as the manager's archaeological knowledge allows, but Julius Caesar and Coriolanus remain what Shakespeare made them, not ancient Romans at all, but frankly and unmistakably Elizabethans.
Meanwhile the attempt to be historically accurate has a painfully numbing effect on her imagination. She seems to be always trembling at the possibility of an intruding anachronism. She tells an admirable critic, R. H. Hutton, that "there is scarcely a phrase, an incident, an allusion [in Romola] that did not gather its value to me from its supposed subservience to my main artistic purpose." She always strives after as full a vision of the medium in which a "character moves as of the character itself. The psychological causes which prompted me to give such details of Florentine life and history as I have given are precisely the same as those which determined me in giving the details of English village life." That, no doubt, is perfectly true; but then she had seen the English details with her own eyes, and she only makes a judicious selection from authorities when describing Florentine details. There was, it appears, an article of dress called a "scarsella," which always gets upon my nerves in Romola. The thing will intrude without any (to me) perceptible relation to her "main artistic purpose." The scarlet waistcoats and brand-new white smock-frocks in Adam Bede make a picture at once. We see the rustics on their way to the squire's feast; but this wretched scarsella worries me, and only suggests a hint for Leighton's illustrations. A more important result of this weakness is shown in another case defended by George Eliot herself. She complains that "the general ignorance of old Florentine literature" and other causes have led to misunderstandings of many parts of Romola--"the scene of the quack doctor and the monkey, for example, which is a specimen not of humour as I relish it, but of the practical joking which was the amusement of the gravest old Florentines, and without which no conception of them would be historical. The whole piquancy of that scene in question was intended to lie in the antithesis between the puerility which stood for wit and humour in the old republic, and the majesty of its front in graver matters." She appeals to the precedent of the chase of the false herald in Quentin Durward, which makes Louis XI. and Charles of Burgundy "laugh even to tears." Now, I am quite unable to speak of the historical accuracy. All one can say is that if the ancient Florentines laughed so heartily at the dreary joke of imposing a monkey upon a quack for a baby, they must have been duller than one would have supposed. The precedent from Scott is curiously inapplicable. The scene in Quentin Durward is effective and an essential part of the story, because the "joke" shows both the brutality of the performers and the cunning of Louis XI. The king is skilfully getting rid of a cast-off agent in his intrigues against Charles with the help of Charles himself. To detail a wearisome practical joke in all its native unadulterated badness in order to make a contrast with other parts of the book is a hazardous experiment. It is to be deliberately dull, because history proves that people could be dull four centuries ago. The truth is that in her English books George Eliot can make bad joking amusing, because she makes us smile not at the joke, but at the jokers. The talkers at the "Rainbow" are inimitable, because their talk is so pointless. Here the incongruity which is to interest us has to be gradually inferred from subsequent reflection, and the writer falls into the common error of boring us by describing bores.
These are trifling illustrations of the more general difficulty. Romola is to give us the spirit of the Renaissance. It requires no dissertation to show why the Renaissance should have a surpassing charm for the imagination. There is, I suppose, no book which opens the eyes of the respectable modern reader with more startling effect than the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini in the next generation. The combination of artistic inspiration, intellectual audacity, gross superstition, and supreme indifference to morality, gives the shock of entering a new world where all established formula break down, or are in a chaotic state of internecine conflict. When we take up a book in which one is to be a contemporary with the Borgias, and to have personal interviews with Machiavelli, we may expect a similar sensation. We are to be spectators of a state of things in which the elementary human passions have been let loose, when violence and treachery are normal parts of the day's work, where new intellectual horizons have opened, and yet the old creeds are still potent, and there is the strangest mingling of high aspirations and brutal indulgence, when the nobler and baser elements of belief are so strangely blended that the ruffian is still religious, and the enlightened reformer fanatically superstitious. If anybody derives any vivid impressions of such a world from Romola, his eyes must be much keener than mine. George Eliot has, it must be noticed, chosen one of the two alternatives which are open to the historical novelist. She deals with a private history and the great public characters, and their political proceedings remain for the most part in the background. Savonarola, indeed, has to act in the story as well as in the history. Hutton considers the portrait of the reformer to be one of George Eliot's great triumphs, and appeals especially to one scene. I am the more glad to be able to point to an appreciative and genial criticism, as I have to confess my inability to accept it. I should have taken the same scene for the clearest illustration of failure. The prophet is in his cell. He is trying to make up his mind to accept the test proposed by his enemies. Representatives of both parties are to walk through fire, counting upon a miraculous intervention; the flames are to burn the heretic and spare the orthodox. Savonarola's enthusiasm prompts him to run the risk; but when he tries to imagine the scene, the flesh shrinks, he begins to suspect that the appeal may be presumptuous, and is well aware at the bottom of his mind that it is a trap devised by his enemies. To show Savonarola tortured by these conflicting impulses would no doubt require the highest dramatic genius. What we really have is not the concrete man at all, but a long and very able psychological analysis of his mental state. A bit of it gets into inverted commas to pass for a soliloquy; but instead of seeing and hearing Savonarola, we are really listening through several pages to a highly intelligent lecture upon an interesting specimen. The style becomes cumbrous and flagging. I venture to quote a long sentence as a specimen of George Eliot at her worst. The acceptance of the ordeal is inevitable: "Not that Savonarola had uttered and written a falsity when he declared his belief in a future supernatural attestation of his work; but his mind was so constituted that while it was easy for him to believe in a miracle which, being distant and undefined, was screened behind the strong reasons he saw for its occurrence, and yet easier for him to have a belief in inward miracles such as his own prophetic inspiration and divinely-wrought intuitions, it was at the same time insurmountably difficult to him to believe in the probability of a miracle which, like this of being carried unhurt through the fire, pressed in all its details on his imagination and involved a demand not only for belief but for exceptional action." Savonarola's mind was surely, in this respect, constituted like most people's; we all think that we can bear the dentist's forceps till we get into his armchair; but this almost Germanic concatenation of clauses not only puts such obvious truths languidly, but keeps Savonarola himself at a distance. We are not listening to a Hamlet, but to a judicious critic analysing the state of mind which prompts "to be or not to be." The same languor affects all the historical framework of the story. We come upon many scenes which seem to demand a forcible presentation: the entry of the French into Florence; the "bonfire of Vanities"; and the strange tragicomedy of the ordeal; but when we want to see the crowd and bustle and the play of popular fun and passion, we get careful narrative; and as half of it,--we do not know which half,--is obviously only fiction, we think that we might as well have been reading Guicciardini or Professor Villari. The story of the political intrigues is necessary to determine the fate of the characters; but it is as dull as any of the ordinary history books. Machiavelli talks, but he talks like a book, and does not manage one really good bit of Mephistophelian cynicism. The great men of Florence seem to be as prosy when they are feasting as when they are playing practical jokes. One of them receives credit for "short and pithy" speech to which the "formal dignity" of his interlocutor is an amusing contrast. This short and pithy gentleman manages to take a page to say that he takes the Savonarola party to be composed of psalm-singing humbugs, not to be trusted by men of sense. ... Leslie Stephen
Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Wednesday, 7 March 2012
|The Bronte sisters' writing room|
But this only increases the wonder of a triumph which had no artificial means to heighten it, nothing but genius on the part of a writer possessing little experience or knowledge of the world, and no sort of social training or adventitious aid. The genius was indeed unmistakable, and possessed in a very high degree the power of expressing itself in the most vivid and actual pictures of life. But the life of which it had command was seldom attractive, often narrow, local, and of a kind which meant keen personal satire more than any broader view of human existence. A group of commonplace clergymen, intense against their little parochial background as only the most real art of portraiture, intensified by individual scorn and dislike, could have made them: the circle of limited interests, small emulations, keen little spites and rancours, filling the atmosphere of a great boarding school, the Brussels Pensionnat des filles—these were the two spheres chiefly portrayed: but portrayed with an absolute untempered force which knew neither charity, softness, nor even impartiality, but burned upon the paper and made everything round dim in the contrast. I imagine it was this extraordinary naked force which was the great cause of a success, never perhaps like the numerical successes in literature of the present day, when edition follows edition, and thousand thousand, of the books which are the favourites of the public: but one which has lived and lasted through nearly half a century, and is even now potent enough to carry on a little literature of its own, book after book following each other not so much to justify as to reproclaim and echo to all the winds the fame originally won. No one else of the century, I think, has called forth this persevering and lasting homage. Not Dickens, though perhaps more of him than of any one else has been dealt out at intervals to an admiring public; not Thackeray, of whom still we know but little; not George Eliot, though her fame has more solid foundations than that of Miss Brontë. Scarcely Scott has called forth more continual droppings of elucidation, explanation, remark. Yet the books upon which this tremendous reputation is founded though vivid, original, and striking in the highest degree, are not great books. Their philosophy of life is that of a schoolgirl, their knowledge of the world almost nil, their conclusions confused by the haste and passion of a mind self-centred and working in the narrowest orbit. It is rather, as we have said, the most incisive and realistic art of portraiture than any exercise of the nobler arts of fiction—imagination, combination, construction—or humorous survey of life or deep apprehension of its problems—upon which this fame is built.
The curious circumstance that Charlotte Brontë was, if the word may be so used, doubled by her sisters, the elder, Emily, whose genius has been taken for granted, carrying the wilder elements of the common inspiration to extremity in the strange, chaotic and weird romance of "Wuthering Heights," while Anne diluted such powers of social observation as were in the family into two mildly disagreeable novels of a much commoner order, has no doubt also enhanced the central figure of the group to an amazing degree. They placed her strength in relief by displaying its separate elements, and thus commending the higher skill and larger spirit which took in both, understanding the moors and wild country and rude image of man better than the one, and misunderstanding the common course of more subdued life less than the other. The three together are for ever inseparable; they were homely, lowly, somewhat neglected in their lives, had few opportunities and few charms to the careless eye: yet no group of women, undistinguished by rank, unendowed by beauty, and known to but a limited circle of friends as unimportant as themselves have ever, I think, in the course of history—certainly never in this century—come to such universal recognition. The effect is quite unique, unprecedented, and difficult to account for; but there cannot be the least doubt that it is a matter of absolute fact which nobody can deny.
These three daughters of a poor country clergyman came into the world early in the century, the dates of their births being 1816, 1818, 1820, in the barest of little parsonages in the midst of the moors—a wild but beautiful country, and a rough but highly characteristic and keen-witted people. Yorkshire is the very heart of England; its native force, its keen practical sense, its rough wit, and the unfailing importance in the nation of the largest of the shires has given it a strong individual character and position almost like that of an independent province. But the Brontës, whose name is a softened and decorated edition of a common Irish name, were not of that forcible race: and perhaps the strong strain after emotion, and revolt against the monotonies of life, which were so conspicuous in them were more easily traceable to their Celtic origin than many other developments attributed to that cause. They were motherless from an early age, children of a father who, after having been depicted as a capricious tyrant, seems now to have found a fairer representation as a man with a high spirit and peculiar temper, yet neither unkind to his family nor uninterested in their welfare. There was one son, once supposed to be the hero and victim of a disagreeable romance, but apparent now as only a specimen, not alas, uncommon, of the ordinary ne'er-do-well of a family, without force of character or self-control to keep his place with decency in the world.
These children all scribbled from their infancy as soon as the power of inscribing words upon paper was acquired by them, inventing imaginary countries and compiling visionary records of them as so many imaginative children do. The elder girl and boy made one pair, the younger girls another, connected by the closest links of companionship. It was thought or hoped that the son was the genius of the family, and at the earliest possible age he began to send his effusions to editors, and to seek admission to magazines with the mingled arrogance and humility of a half-fledged creature. But the world knows now that it was not poor Branwell who was the genius of the family; and this injury done him in his cradle, and the evil report of him that everybody gives throughout his life, awakens a certain pity in the mind for the unfortunate youth so unable to keep any supremacy among the girls whom he must have considered his natural inferiors and vassals. We are told by Charlotte Brontë herself that he never knew of the successes of his sisters, the fact of their successive publications being concealed from him out of tenderness for his feelings; but it is scarcely to be credited that when the parish knew the unfortunate brother did not find out. The unhappy attempt of Mrs. Gaskell in writing the lives of the sisters to make this melancholy young man accountable for the almost brutal element in Emily Brontë's conception of life, and the strange views of Charlotte as to what men were capable of, has made him far too important in their history; where, indeed, he had no need to have appeared at all, had the family pride consisted, as the pride of so many families does, in veiling rather than exhibiting the faults of its members. So far as can be made out now, he had as little as possible to do with their development in any way.
There was nothing unnatural or out of the common in the youthful life of the family except that strange gift of genius, which though consistent with every genial quality of being, in such a nature as that of Scott, seems in other developments of character to turn all the elements into chaos. Its effect upon the parson's three daughters was, indeed, not of a very wholesome kind. It awakened in them an uneasy sense of superiority which gave double force to every one of the little hardships which a girl in a great school of a charitable kind, and a governess in a middle-class house, has to support: and made life harder instead of sweeter to them in many ways, since it was full of the biting experience of conditions less favourable than those of many persons round them whom they could not but feel inferior to themselves.
The great school, which it was Charlotte Brontë's first act when she began her literary career to invest with an almost tragic character of misery, privation, and wrong, was her first step from home. Yorkshire schools did not at that period enjoy a very good reputation in the world, and Nicholas Nickleby was forming his acquaintance with the squalid cruelty of Dotheboys Hall just about the same time when Charlotte Brontë's mind was being filled with the privations and discontents of Lowood. In such a case there is generally some fire where there is so much smoke, and probably Lowood was under no very heavenly régime: but at the same time its drawbacks were sharply accentuated by that keen criticism which is suggested by the constant sense of injured worth and consciousness of a superiority not acknowledged. The same feeling pursued her into the situations as governess which she occupied one after another, and in which her indignation at being expected to feel affection for the children put under her charge, forms a curious addition to the other grievances with which fate pursues her life. No doubt there are many temptations in the life of a governess; the position of a silent observer in a household, looking on at all its mistakes, and seeing the imperfection of its management with double force because of the effect they have on herself—especially if she feels herself competent, had she but the power, to set things right—must always be a difficult one. It was not continued long enough, however, to involve very much suffering; though no doubt it helped to mature the habit of sharp personal criticism and war with the world.
At the same time Charlotte Brontë made some very warm personal friendships, and wrote a great many letters to the school friends who pleased her, in which a somewhat stilted tone and demure seriousness is occasionally invaded by the usual chatter of girlhood, to the great improvement of the atmosphere if not of the mind. Ellen Nussey, Mary Taylor, women not manifestly intellectual but sensible and independent without either exaggeration of sentiment or hint of tragic story, remained her close friends as long as she lived, and her letters to them, though always a little demure, give us a gentler idea of her than anything else she has written. Not that there is much charm either of style or subject in them: but there is no sort of bitterness or sense of insufficient appreciation. Nothing can be more usual and commonplace, indeed, than this portion of her life. As in so many cases, the artificial lights thrown upon it by theories formed afterwards, clear away when we examine its actual records, and it is apparent that there was neither exceptional harshness of circumstance nor internal struggle in the existence of the girl who, though more or less in arms against everybody outside—especially when holding a position superior to her own, more especially still when exercising authority over her in any way—was yet quite an easy-minded, not unhappy, young woman at home, with friends to whom she could pour out long pages of what is, on the whole, quite moderate and temperate criticism of life, not without cheerful allusion to now and then a chance curate or other young person of the opposite sex, suspected of "paying attention" to one or other of the little coterie. These allusions are not more lofty or dignified than are similar notes of girls of less exalted pretensions, but there is not a touch in them of the keen pointed pen which afterwards put up the Haworth curates in all their imperfections before the world.
The other sisters at this time in the background, two figures always clinging together, looking almost like one, have no great share in this softer part of Charlotte's life. They were, though so different in character, completely devoted to each other, apparently forming no other friendships, each content with the one other partaker of her every thought. A little literature seems to have been created between them, little chapters of recollection and commentary upon their life, sealed up and put away for three years in each case, to be opened on Emily's or on Anne's birthday alternately, as a pathetic sign of their close unity, though the little papers were in themselves simple in the extreme. Anne too became a governess with something of the same experience as Charlotte, and uttering very hard judgments of unconscious people who were not the least unkind to her. But Emily had no such trials. She remained at home perhaps because she was too uncompromising to be allowed to make the experiment of putting up with other people, perhaps because one daughter at home was indispensable. The family seems to have had kind and trusted old servants, so that the cares of housekeeping did not weigh heavily upon the daughter in charge, and there is no evidence of exceptional hardness or roughness in their circumstances in any way.
In 1842, Charlotte and Emily, aged respectively twenty-six and twenty-four, went to Brussels. Their design was "to acquire a thorough familiarity with French," also some insight into other languages, with the view of setting up a school on their own account. The means were supplied by the aunt, who had lived in their house and taken more or less care of them since their mother's death. The two sisters were nearly a year in the Pensionnat Héger, now so perfectly known in every detail of its existence to all who have read "Villette." They were recalled by the death of the kind aunt who had procured them this advantage, and afterwards Charlotte, no one quite knows why, went back to Brussels for a second year, in which all her impressions were probably strengthened and intensified. Certainly a more clear and lifelike picture, scathing in its cold yet fierce light, was never made than that of the white tall Brussels house, its class rooms, its gardens, its hum of unamiable girls, its sharp display of rancorous and shrill teachers, its one inimitable professor. It startles the reader to find—a fact which we had forgotten—that M. Paul Emmanuel was M. Héger, the husband of Madame Héger and legitimate head of the house: and that this daring and extraordinary girl did not hesitate to encounter gossip or slander by making him so completely the hero of her romance. Slander in its commonplace form had nothing to do with such a fiery spirit as that of Charlotte Brontë: but it shows her perfect independence of mind and scorn of comment that she should have done this. In the end of '43 she returned home, and the episode was over. It was really the only episode of possible practical significance in her life until we come to the records of her brief literary career and her marriage, both towards its end. ...
Thursday, 1 March 2012
|Henry James's study|
The Essays contained in this volume are on purely literary subjects; which is for us, by itself, a strong recommendation. English literature, especially contemporary literature, is, compared with that of France and Germany, very poor in collections of this sort. A great deal of criticism is written, but little of it is kept; little of it is deemed to contain any permanent application. Mr. Arnold will doubtless find in this fact—if indeed he has not already signalized it—but another proof of the inferiority of the English to the Continental school of criticism, and point to it as a baleful effect of the narrow practical spirit which animates, or, as he would probably say, paralyzes, the former. But not only is his book attractive as a whole, from its exclusively literary character; the subject of each essay is moreover particularly interesting. The first paper is on the function of Criticism at the present time; a question, if not more important, perhaps more directly pertinent here than in England. The second, discussing the literary influence of Academies, contains a great deal of valuable observation and reflection in a small compass and under an inadequate title. The other essays are upon the two De Guérins, Heinrich Heine, Pagan and Mediæval Religious Sentiment, Joubert, Spinoza, and Marcus Aurelius. The first two articles are, to our mind, much the best; the next in order of excellence is the paper on Joubert; while the others, with the exception, perhaps, of that on Spinoza, are of about equal merit.
Mr. Arnold's style has been praised at once too much and too little. Its resources are decidedly limited; but if the word had not become so cheap, we should nevertheless call it fascinating. This quality implies no especial force; it rests in this case on the fact that, whether or not you agree with the matter beneath it, the manner inspires you with a personal affection for the author. It expresses great sensibility, and at the same time great good-nature; it indicates a mind both susceptible and healthy. With the former element alone it would savour of affectation; with the latter, it would be coarse. As it stands, it represents a spirit both sensitive and generous. We can best describe it, perhaps, by the word sympathetic. It exhibits frankly, and without detriment to its national character, a decided French influence. Mr. Arnold is too wise to attempt to write French English; he probably knows that a language can only be indirectly enriched; but as nationality is eminently a matter of form, he knows too that he can really violate nothing so long as he adheres to the English letter.
His Preface is a striking example of the intelligent amiability which animates his style. His two leading Essays were, on their first appearance, made the subject of much violent contention, their moral being deemed little else than a wholesale schooling of the English press by the French programme. Nothing could have better proved the justice of Mr. Arnold's remarks upon the "provincial" character of the English critical method than the reception which they provoked. He now acknowledges this reception in a short introduction, which admirably reconciles smoothness of temper with sharpness of wit. The taste of this performance has been questioned; but wherever it may err, it is assuredly not in being provincial; it is essentially civil. Mr. Arnold's amiability is, in our eye, a strong proof of his wisdom. If he were a few degrees more short-sighted, he might have less equanimity at his command. Those who sympathise with him warmly will probably like him best as he is; but with such as are only half his friends, this freedom from party passion, from what is after all but a lawful professional emotion, will argue against his sincerity.
For ourselves, we doubt not that Mr. Arnold possesses thoroughly what the French call the courage of his opinions. When you lay down a proposition which is forthwith controverted, it is of course optional with you to take up the cudgels in its defence. If you are deeply convinced of its truth, you will perhaps be content to leave it to take care of itself; or, at all events, you will not go out of your way to push its fortunes; for you will reflect that in the long run an opinion often borrows credit from the forbearance of its patrons. In the long run, we say; it will meanwhile cost you an occasional pang to see your cherished theory turned into a football by the critics. A football is not, as such, a very respectable object, and the more numerous the players, the more ridiculous it becomes. Unless, therefore, you are very confident of your ability to rescue it from the chaos of kicks, you will best consult its interests by not mingling in the game. Such has been Mr. Arnold's choice. His opponents say that he is too much of a poet to be a critic; he is certainly too much of a poet to be a disputant. In the Preface in question he has abstained from reiterating any of the views put forth in the two offensive Essays; he has simply taken a delicate literary vengeance upon his adversaries.
For Mr. Arnold's critical feeling and observation, used independently of his judgment, we profess a keen relish. He has these qualities, at any rate, of a good critic, whether or not he have the others,—the science and the logic. It is hard to say whether the literary critic is more called upon to understand or to feel. It is certain that he will accomplish little unless he can feel acutely; although it is perhaps equally certain that he will become weak the moment that he begins to "work," as we may say, his natural sensibilities. The best critic is probably he who leaves his feelings out of account, and relies upon reason for success. If he actually possesses delicacy of feeling, his work will be delicate without detriment to its solidity. The complaint of Mr. Arnold's critics is that his arguments are too sentimental. Whether this complaint is well founded, we shall hereafter inquire; let us determine first what sentiment has done for him. It has given him, in our opinion, his greatest charm and his greatest worth. Hundreds of other critics have stronger heads; few, in England at least, have more delicate perceptions. We regret that we have not the space to confirm this assertion by extracts. We must refer the reader to the book itself, where he will find on every page an illustration of our meaning. He will find one, first of all, in the apostrophe to the University of Oxford, at the close of the Preface,—"home of lost causes and forsaken beliefs and unpopular names and impossible loyalties." This is doubtless nothing but sentiment, but it seizes a shade of truth, and conveys it with a directness which is not at the command of logical demonstration. Such a process might readily prove, with the aid of a host of facts, that the University is actually the abode of much retarding conservatism; a fine critical instinct alone, and the measure of audacity which accompanies such an instinct, could succeed in placing her on the side of progress by boldly saluting her as the Queen of Romance: romance being the deadly enemy of the commonplace; the commonplace being the fast ally of Philistinism, and Philistinism the heaviest drag upon the march of civilisation.
Mr. Arnold is very fond of quoting Goethe's eulogy upon Schiller, to the effect that his friend's greatest glory was to have left so far behind him was uns alle bändigt, das Gemeine, that bane of mankind, the common. Exactly how much the inscrutable Goethe made of this fact, it is hard at this day to determine; but it will seem to many readers that Mr. Arnold makes too much of it. Perhaps he does, for himself; but for the public in general he decidedly does not. One of the chief duties of criticism is to exalt the importance of the ideal; and Goethe's speech has a long career in prospect before we can say with the vulgar that it is "played out." Its repeated occurrence in Mr. Arnold's pages is but another instance of poetic feeling subserving the ends of criticism.
The famous comment upon the girl Wragg, over which the author's opponents made so merry, we likewise owe—we do not hesitate to declare it—to this same poetic feeling. Why cast discredit upon so valuable an instrument of truth? Why not wait at least until it is used in the service of error? The worst that can be said of the paragraph in question is, that it is a great ado about nothing. All thanks, say we, to the critic who will pick up such nothings as these; for if he neglects them, they are blindly trodden under foot. They may not be especially valuable, but they are for that very reason the critic's particular care. Great truths take care of themselves; great truths are carried aloft by philosophers and poets; the critic deals in contributions to truth.
Another illustration of the nicety of Mr. Arnold's feeling is furnished by his remarks upon the quality of distinction as exhibited in Maurice and Eugénie de Guérin, "that quality which at last inexorably corrects the world's blunders and fixes the world's ideals, [which] procures that the popular poet shall not pass for a Pindar, the popular historian for a Tacitus, nor the popular preacher for a Bossuet." Another is offered by his incidental remarks upon Coleridge, in the article on Joubert; another, by the remarkable felicity with which he has translated Maurice de Guérin's Centaur; and another, by the whole body of citations with which, in his second Essay, he fortifies his proposition that the establishment in England of an authority answering to the French Academy would have arrested certain evil tendencies of English literature,—for to nothing more offensive than this, as far as we can see, does this argument amount.
In the first and most important of his Essays Mr. Arnold puts forth his views upon the actual duty of criticism. They may be summed up as follows. Criticism has no concern with the practical; its function is simply to get at the best thought which is current,—to see things in themselves as they are,—to be disinterested. Criticism can be disinterested, says Mr. Arnold,
"by keeping from practice; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches, by steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior political, practical considerations about ideas which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them, which perhaps ought often to be attached to them, which in this country, at any rate, are certain to be attached to them, but which criticism has really nothing to do with. Its business is simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and, by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas. Its business is to do this with inflexible honesty, with due ability; but its business is to do no more, and to leave alone all questions of practical consequences and applications,—questions which will never fail to have due prominence given to them." ...