Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

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tion in which all ranks were to mingle, all careers
to cross, all the greatness and all the meanness, all
the public efforts, the private intrigues, the diverse
passions of which the human tragi-comedy is com-
posed, to blend. The whole work of Balzac or of
Dickens would not be too much to justify the quo-
tation with which Lord Beaconsfield has adorned
his novel's forefront. And yet even these great
connoisseurs in reality have left many a gap in their
galleries of society. As for "Endymion," it is
simply a picture of political life in England —
indeed only one corner of such a picture. Now,
however great a place politics may hold in the life
of nations, they are yet but one scene in the social
drama, but a single episode in the medley of ambi-
tion and interests.

Since I am in the way of noting the weak sides
of Lord Beaconsfield' s book, I will at once point
out another fault. A novel, when well done, is a
biography. You are present at the development of
a principal character which the revolutions of the
story served to set in relief, which by turns domi-
nates and submits to the course of things, and
round which the other personages group themselves
in order to contribute their contingent to that des-


tiny the history of which is presented to interest
us. Art, in this kind of writing, consists in put-
ting as much diversity as is compatible with bio-
graphical unity in the devising of the facts and the
tracing of the characters. The more varied and
interesting the details are in themselves — thus
showing the author's inventive resources and his
exactness of observation — the more noteworthy
the work will be ; but on one condition only, that
these details shall be subordinate to the main end,
which is, I repeat, the dramatic setting forth of a
masterful personality. Now, the author of " Endy-
mion" has neglected these conditions of his art.
His hero is a rather insipid bundle of talents and
virtues, the commonplace spoilt-child of a marvel-
lous fortune. We are told what happens to him,
but he is not made to live before us, nor is he
shown to us acting upon others, counting for some-
thing in the direction of events. He has no power,
he has not even a special physiognomy of his own.
Endymion is nothing in the story but a thread
somehow or other connecting together incidents
which are themselves without any great romantic
consequence, and personages whose traits are not
more marked than his own.

" Endymion " belongs to the class of historical
novels, and to a sub-variety of this class, that of
the historico-political novel. It is clear that the
attraction of this kind of fiction becomes lively
enough when the work is written by a man who has

" ENDYMION *" 239

liiinself played a great part, and when the events
lie tells of and the personages he introduces are
contemporary. Such is the case in *'Endymion,"
the action of which passes between the death of
Canning and the Crimean war; and in the pages of
which we meet Sir Eobert Peel, Lord Palmerston,
and Napoleon the Third. On the other hand, the
class has a drawback — the personages are too near
us for it to be permissible to keep their names, or
even to put them on the stage, in a strictly histori-
cal manner. It is clearly impossible to make dead
men like Lord Melbourne and Mr. Cobden, still
more living men like Prince Bismarck and Cardinal
Manning, act and talk with the freedom which
Walter Scott used in regard to Louis XL, to Mary
Stuart, and to Charles II. The novelist is obliged
to weaken their personality, to modify their char-
acter, to disfigure their physiognomy — in a word,
to falsify the history which frames the novel.
Lord Beaconsfield has got himself out of his diffi-
culty by mingling traits, confusiug characters,
creating personages who are at once real and ficti-
tious, historical and imaginary, who escape the
reader at the moment when he thinks he recognizes
them, and only excite his curiosity to baffle it
immediately afterwards. The pretender who after-
wards became Emperor of the Prench is here a
handsome man, of a good figure, and witty. He
marries the widow of an English peer, and recov-
ers his dominions by a triumphant expedition. It


is difficult to imagine liow irritating this trick
becomes in the long run.

A man's talent — an orator's, for instance — is
not always in the exact ratio of his personal value ;
and in the same way the interest excited by a book
may be out of proportion to its intrinsic merit.
Lord Beaconsfield's new novel is an instance of
this. As a novel it is hardly distinguished from
the run of those which the English press turns out
every year. It permits itself to be, rather than
insists on being, read. It amuses the reader with-
out enthralling him. And yet it has been in
everybody's hand, and for the moment has been
the theme of everybody's talk. People were anx-
ious to see the present state of the talent and
the opinions of a man who has for so long a time
both held the political stage and plied the pen of
the novelist. They were curious once more to
meet this puzzling personage on whose score pub-
lic opinion has not yet made itself up. I venture
to think that it is Lord Beaconsfield's personality
which gives the interest to his books, and even to
his policy. One cannot help, in the absorption of
so remarkable a physiognomy, putting aside the
question what both are really worth. With Lord
Beaconsfield everything is in keeping; the novelist
is part of the man, and the Prime Minister of the
novelist. I can never read his books or see him at
work on the world's stage without recalling the
Mr. Disraeli of fifty years ago, as a contemporary

" ENDYMION " 241

depicts him, dressed in velvet and satin, his wrists
encircled by ruffles, his hair cunningly curled, his
fingers loaded with rings, an ivory cane in his hand :
with all the exterior of a dandy — a dandy of
genius ; a bundle of contradictions, ambition allied
to scepticism, determination hiding itself under
sallies and paradoxes. So much for his person:
his life has followed suit. A foreigner, a Jew, he
raised himself from an attorney's office to the peer-
age of England, and the headship of his country's
government. The character of his policy — full
of theatrical strokes, of new departures, whimsical
or bold as the case may be — is well known. In
everything that he has done, you feel the Orien-
tal's taste for the brilliant, the adventurer's taste
for the turns of Fortune's wheel, the parvenu's
taste for pomp. But it is in his writings more
than anywhere else that he shows himself as he
is: because Lord Beaconsfield is at bottom an
artist first of all. His old dandyism was already
literary; and his modern policy is still romantic.
" Endymion " is in this respect really character-
istic. The chief personages are all parvenus or
adventurers — the hero (to begin with him), as
well as his sister, Ferroll as well as Florestan,
Nigel Penruddock the future cardinal as well as
Imogene the future duchess, Job Thornberry the
manufacturer as well as Vigo the tailor. And
what is most remarkable of all is that these adven-
turous lives seem to have, at the bottom of them,


the love not so mucli of power as of the pomp that
surrounds it. In " Endymion, " as in "Lothair,"
the author takes pleasure in nothing so much as in
the splendor of the life of Society : he rubs shoul-
ders with none but ministers and ambassadors,
dukes and duchesses; he dreams only of princely
establishments, enchanted castles, magnificent
horses, gold plate, sparkling crystal, porcelain
beyond price. At every line one sees the Jew and
the rings on his fingers. The talent of Lord
Beaconsfield is, if I may use the expression, all on
the street frontage. Do not ask him for heartfelt
descriptions of nature, for profound analysis of
motives, even for dramatic play of passion. Do
not look in his books for any sincerity, any experi-
ence, any startling view, any philosophy of any
kind. Be content with finding a certain vivacious
wit, a kind of brio and " go, " thanks to which the
reader gets to the end of the three volumes without
too much trouble. If the metal has not the reso-
nance that one might wish for, we are obliged to
confess that the tinsel is prettily worked, and does
not fail to produce a certain effect of dazzling.

Lord Beaconsfield has velleities of creation,
rather than the faculty of it. We see that at the
outset of his novel he meant to sketch the epoch at
which the story begins, the England of the first
half of this century, in the infancy of railways,
when Grosvenor Square was not even lighted by
gas, and when the development of manufactures

" ENDYMION '* 243

had not yet raised up, in the persons of the new
rich men, a political influence rivalling that of the
aristocracy. But it is all told rather than shown.
What a difference, for instance, is there between
this kind of statistical information and the descrip-
tion of England at exactly the same time by which
George Eliot's "Felix Holt" opens. She, by
patient study and by force of imagination, has
evoked the past in a far more lively manner than
the author of "Endymion," though he had the
advantage of personal acquaintance with the times

Lord Beaconsfield is hardly more happy in the
drawing of character. His personages lack origi-
nality, they are wanting in the real; they leave on
us the kind of impression which we receive in pass-
ing through a drawing-room. We elbow men in
full dress, we notice women richly costumed, we
catch as we pass a few words on the events of the
day; but we leave without having learnt anything
of the world through which we have brushed. The
men and women are strangers yet for us. We have
been the audience at a play, and that is all. A
more remarkable thing still is that Lord Beacons-
field's characters are not even very witty. ^ I
must except some sallies of Walder share's, some

1 [It is odd that M. Scherer should have missed in the opening
a phrase of political wit worthy of the most brilliant of his own
countrymen. I remember that in reviewing it "the transient
and embarrassed phantom of Lord Goderich" put me in good
humor for the whole book. — Trans.]


amusing political paradoxes put in tlie mouth of a
certain Bertie Tremaine. But the dialogue lacks
the vivacity which we might have expected from
a writer whose public speech is notable for its
mordancy. And what happens when we get to
sentimental scenes? There is a declaration in
which the lover thus expresses himself: — "All
seasons of the year would be a delight to me if I
were only at your side. 'No; I can no longer
refrain from avowing my love. I am here only
because I love you. I left Oxford and all its
glories to have the happiness of your society now
and then. My thoughts were not presumptuous —
I thought this would suffice me. But I can no
longer resist the prodigious charm, and I offer you
my heart and my life." Elsewhere a lady, speak-
ing of herself, says, " My pride, my intense pride,
has never allowed me any slip of the heart."

The most interesting thing, as I have said, in
the book is the author himself. It is always
piquant to surprise the secrets of a man who has
become part of history ; and is not the publication
of a book, especially of a novel, a fashion of sur-
rendering oneself? The hero comes down from his
pedestal, the orator from his tribune, and gives us
the chance of catching him in the act, of taking
his measure as best we can. Lord Beaconsfield
could not write a political novel without betraying
himself somewhere, without letting escape some of
those words in which a career is summed up and

" ENDYMION " 245

inner feelings are revealed. Endymion says some-
wliere, " Wlietlier it is a question of temperament
or tlie result of the vicissitudes of "my life, I have
a great power of waiting." He numbers among
the advantages of wealth to a politician that it
"gives him time to breathe and to expect." Else-
where, again, we read that never a State perished
for lack of money, " nor a private man either, if he
had pluck." Do we not seem to hear Mr. Disraeli
speaking of his youth? But he will grow up, he
will become a statesman, and we shall recognize
him by other strokes. It is will that has made
him what he is, and so he believes in will above
everything. "Any man in the world can succeed
in doing what he has a mind to, if only he makes
up his mind to it." On the other hand, we find a
profound distrust of sentiment. " Sentiment with-
out an object is sickness or drunkenness." He
has enemies, but what then? "I can't help it,
everybody is hated by somebody." Besides, he
loves fighting, and he sometimes thinks that, if he
has found so much pleasure in ministerial life, " it
is that it has been a constant fight for life." Cer-
tain reflections, even if they do not admit such
personal explanation, nevertheless exhibit the ex-
perience acquired in the practice of public affairs.
Such is the remark that judgment of character is
the capital element in the management of men and
things. Nor is exact information less important.
" As a general rule the man who succeeds best in


life is he who has the best information." " You will
see that there is nothing more important in public
life," says the Count of FerroU, "than to know
personally all those who direct the affairs of this
world. Everything depends on the character of
the individual, his ways of thought, his prejudices,
his superstitions, his little foibles, his health.
Politics without this advantage is a mere matter
of stationery; pens and paper are in communica-
tion, not human beings."

If there is not exactly great novelty or depth in
these sallies, they are certainly not without neat-
ness. Sometimes, too, the point is whetted
sharper: — "All men of intelligence are of the
same religion," says Waldershare. "And what is
that religion?" asked the Prince. "Men of intel-
ligence never tell."^

Mr. Gladstone would not have permitted him-
self a gibe of this kind; but what a difference
there is in everything between these two rivals,
what a contrast in their characters, in their polit-
ical careers, in their writings! Mr. Gladstone's
nature is essentially moral; the categories to
which he refers all things are those of good and
evil. And his extreme seriousness, though it
excludes extravagance, does not exclude enthu-
siasm. Mr. Gladstone brings the fervor of faith

1 [It is very curious that M. Scherer should not have known
that this is a borrowed jest, familiar long before the days of
Endymion, and usually fathered on Chesterfield. — Trans.]

" ENDYMION " 247

into every cause that lie espouses. He is also
essentially a believer; lie has the noble sides of
the character — its sincerity, its straightforward-
ness, its ardor. He has also its defects; his
gravity lacks humor, his solidity becomes stiffness,
his intelligence — gifted as it is with the most
varied aptitudes, served by prodigious activity
and capacity for work, able to descend from the
general direction of an empire to the technical
details of a bill or the complicated schedules of a
budget — his intelligence has more breadth than
suppleness. His reasonings are abstract because
he occupies himself rather with principles than
with facts; his judgments absolute because he
takes every truth at the same valuation — that of
an article of religion. This explains his tendency,
daily more pronounced, towards Radical ideas,
Eadicalism being nothing but the application of
the absolute to politics. Unluckily politics are
the most relative things in the world, so that Ead-
icalism is good for nothing but to bring about rev-
olutions, and in ordinary times runs a perpetual
risk of letting institutions get ahead of moral and
social conditions. In his books Mr. G-ladstone
shows himself the same man as in public affairs.
His solidity and sincerity are here translated into
conscientiousness of study and exactitude of erudi-
tion; but the lack of suppleness and of delicacy
betrays itself at the same time by his weakness in
criticism. Mr. Gladstone, in his craving for ready-


made theses, carries liis submission of spirit into
the study of Homer as into the study of the Bible.
He has no more doubts about Homer and the siege
of Troy than about Moses and the passage of the
Red Sea. He even delights in combining the two
things in a single belief, in making Homeric my-
thology an echo of Christian revelation. Mr. Glad-
stone, rightly taken, is a survival of scholasticism.
He still belongs to those ages of human thought
when intellectual strength applied itself to data
furnished by tradition, when men discussed tenets
ad infinitum without dreaming of examining their
value, when the most keenly whetted subtlety kept
on good terms with a superstitious respect for

Take in every respect the exact opposite to Mr.
Gladstone's character, and you will have the char-
acter of Lord Beaconsfield. The latter's bottom is
scepticisn. He believes in success and that noth-
ing succeeds like it, and he is consequently
inclined not to pry too narrowly into the ethics of
the means of succeeding. His worth is less than
his rival's, but his savoir fairs is greater. He is
less austere but more genial; he has less sub-
stance, but more man-of-the-worldliness. Very in-
ferior to Mr. Gladstone in studying the details of
a matter, he is not sO in courage when a resolution
has to be taken, especially when there is something
adventurous about this resolution. I should not
venture to call Lord Beaconsfield the cleverer of

" ENDYMION " 249

the two in the knowledge and the handling of men ;
for if Mr. Gladstone makes the mistake of believ-
ing them all as sincere and as impassioned as he is
himself, Lord Beaconsfield deceives himself equally
in supposing them to be his equals in freedom
from prejudice. Sceptic as he is, and as I have
called him, he is too prone to consult men's foibles
rather than their virtues. In the same way, in-
stead of going to the bottom of things, he contents
himself with appearances and with the surface.
Why, indeed, resolve problems, search questions
out, if you can reach the end with a trumpet-
blast or two and a coup de thedtref The doubter
becomes a manager willingly enough, and the man-
ager easily has a dash of the charlatan. We saw in
the history of the Berlin Congress, and in all the
foreign policy of the late Cabinet, that Lord
Beaconsfield thinks he has done enough if he has
appealed to the imagination. I may add that he is
just the same in his books : he shows in them as a
writer brilliant, amusing, but superficial ; he rouses
the curiosity of the public for a fortnight, but he
has not started a single profound sentiment or a
single new idea. His last novel leaves the impres-
sion of talent which would be promising in a young
man, but which in a veteran of literature denotes,
on the contrary, the saddening close of a career
that has been, on the whole, a failure.

Such are the two men who in turn attract the
attention of the literary public by their writings


and that of Europe by their policy. To complete
their portraits I ought to be able to add a more
precise characterization of the eloquence of the
two orators than it would beseem a foreigner to
attempt. I have no doubt that there, too, one
would again discover traces of the fundamental
qualities I have pointed out: in Mr. Grladstone a
mixture of subtle dialectic and passionate convic-
tion; in Lord Beaconsfield the sarcasm which
floors an adversary, and so saves the trouble of
refuting him, the smart saying which sounds like
an idea, the cleverness of a party chief more
busied about success than about truth. I ought,
too, to complete the parallel, to consider the two
antagonists as statesmen in their actual adminis-
tration of their country. But it is the event which
decides here — one cannot speak in full assurance
till facts have definitely pronounced. All that I
may say is that Lord Beaconsfield is to Lord Chat-
ham pretty much what Mr. Gladstone is to Pitt,
and the ancient European role of England to the
dwarfed and uncertain policy which now satisfies
that country's ambition.^
December 1880.

1 [This is an odd antithesis, and I find it rather difficult to
work out its parts; but it is as M. Scherer wrote it.— Trans^



The name of George Eliot miglit serve as a
measure of the distance wliicli separates France
from England. The fact that there is an English
author whose life has been published in three vol-
umes, and that this voluminous biography has been
greedily read by all Englishmen, discussed and
commented by all their newspapers, distracting
their attention from painful political preoccupa-
tions; and the other fact that the very name of
this writer, whom our neighbors regard with so
much admiration, is hardly known among our-
selves, and arouses neither memory nor interest
— are not these things great matter for wonder?

And this wonder might even turn to vexation
and incredulity if we were to add that this George
Eliot, so utterly ignored in France, was one of
the finest geniuses of our time, and that for the
woman who adopted this pseudonym was reserved
the honor of writing the most perfect novels as yet

Thus the life of George Eliot which Mr. Cross
has just published, was a real event to our neigh-
bors. But did it satisfy the expectation which it



had aroused? Does it merit the interest -with
•which it was received? I hardly know what to
answer. If I myself set about the reading with a
curiosity too greedy to find anything tedious in it,
it has certainly, on the whole, left on me the
impression that in these three volumes we must
look rather for the materials of a book still to be
written than for the book itself. The reasons lie
in the plan followed by Mr. Cross — a new plan,
but no doubt the only one which is seemly in the
case of a husband who is sketching the life of his
wife. Except a very few explanatory passages,
the work is entirely composed of letters, written
by George Eliot to her friends, and of fragments
of a private journal in which she kept a record of
incidents and of thoughts. From these manu-
scripts the editor has extracted the passages which
seemed to him of such a nature as to be fitly set
before the public eye. And as a fact these pas-
sages constitute a continuous history — the history
of a very fine talent and a very beautiful soul.

We must then understand that this is neither a
biography in the ordinary sense of the word —
that is to say, the complete relation of an exist-
ence; nor a correspondence such as we possess
many, and some of them precious — that is to say,
letters printed as they were written and revealing
the strong and weak sides of a character alike.
Mr. Cross confines himself to letting the letters
speak, and he takes good care not to give these


letters themselves as wholes. Indeed, he warns us
that he takes from them nothing that does not suit
his plan, and we may be sure beforehand that he
has not let slip any of those involuntary revela-
tions, of those blessed indiscretions, which rejoice
the reader and edify the psychologist. Yet from
this we must certainly not conclude that Mr.
Cross, despite his own reticences and those which
he has imposed on George Eliot, has published
anything but a book of the highest value. How
could it be otherwise when George Eliot holds the
pen and speaks to us of herself?

Mary Ann Evans was born in 1819. Her father,
a carpenter by trade, but of education superior to
his class, had made his way little by little and had
become the agent of a man of large property in
Warwickshire. He lived in the country, with an
establishment at once easy and rustic, in a part of
England which is not excessively picturesque.
Mary Ann had a brother three years older than
herself, with whom she played, and for whom she
felt the affection and the deference which she
afterwards described in some charming sonnets.
We cannot help recognizing in this passionate sub-
missiveness the need of affection and of support
which always distinguished George Eliot, and
which explains more than one incident of her life.

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Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 17 of 21)