George Moore.

Muslin online

. (page 1 of 23)
Online LibraryGeorge MooreMuslin → online text (page 1 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Malcolm Farmer and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.









MUSLIN

By

GEORGE MOORE



_Originally published under the title of 'A Drama in Muslin,' 1886._

_New Edition, September, 1915._





PREFACE


My excuse for modifying the title of this book is, that _A Drama in
Muslin_ has long seemed to me to be the vulgar one among the titles of
my many books. But to change the title of a book that has been in
circulation, however precarious, for more than thirty years, is not
permissible, and that is why I rejected the many titles that rose up in
my mind while correcting the proofs of this new edition. In _Neophytes_,
_Débutantes_, and _The Baiting of Mrs. Barton_, readers would have
divined a new story, but the dropping out of the unimportant word
'drama' will not deceive the most casual follower of literature. The
single word 'muslin' is enough. _Mousseline_ would be more euphonious, a
fuller, richer word; and _Bal Blanc_, besides being more picturesque,
would convey my meaning; but a shade of meaning is not sufficient
justification for the use of French titles or words, for they lessen the
taste of our language; we don't get the smack, and Milord's epigrams
poisoned my memory of _A Drama in Muslin_. But they cannot be omitted
without much re-writing, I said, and remembering my oath never to
attempt the re-writing of an old book again, I fell back on the
exclusion of _A Drama in Muslin_ as the only way out of the dilemma. A
wavering resolution was precipitated by recollection of some disgraceful
pages, but a moment after I was thinking that the omission of the book
would create a hiatus. _A Drama in Muslin_, I reflected, is a link
between two styles; and a book that has achieved any notoriety cannot be
omitted from a collected edition, so my publishers said, and they harped
on this string, until one day I flung myself out of their office and
rattled down the stairs muttering, 'What a smell of shop!' But in the
Strand near the Cecil Inn, the thought glided into my mind that the
pages that seemed so disgraceful in memory might not seem so in print,
'and the only way to find out if this be so,' the temptation continued,
'will be to ask the next policeman the way to Charing Cross Road.'
Another saw me over a dangerous crossing (London is the best policed
city in Europe), a third recommended a shop 'over yonder: you've just
passed it by, sir.' 'Thank you, thank you,' I cried back, and no sooner
was I on the other side than, overcome by shyness, as always in these
stores of dusty literature, I asked for the _Drama in Muslin_,
pronouncing the title so timidly that the bookseller guessed me at once
to be the author, and began telling of the books that were doing well in
first editions. 'If I had any I wanted to get rid of?' he mentioned
several he would be glad to buy. Whereupon in turn I grew confidential
and confided to him my present dilemma, failing, however, to dissuade
him from his opinion that _A Drama in Muslin_ ought to be included. 'Any
corrections you make in the new edition will keep up the price of the
old,' he added as he wrapped up the brown paper parcel. 'You will like
the book better than you think for.' 'Thank you, thank you,' I cried
after me, and hopped into a taxi, unsuspicious that I carried a
delightful evening under my arm. A comedy novel, written with
sprightliness and wit, I said, as I turned to the twentieth page, and it
needs hardly any editing. A mere re-tying of a few bows that the
effluxion of time has untied, or were never tied by the author, who, if
I remember right, used to be less careful of his literary appearance
than his prefacer, neglecting to examine his sentences, and to scan them
as often as one might expect from an admirer, not to say disciple, of
Walter Pater.

An engaging young man rose out of the pages of his book, one that Walter
Pater would admire (did admire), one that life, I added, seems to have
affected through his senses violently, and who was (may we say
therefore) a little over anxious to possess himself of a vocabulary
which would suffer him to tell all he saw, heard, smelt and touched.

Upon this sudden sympathy the book, of which I had read but twenty
pages, dropped on my knees, and I sat engulfed in a reverie of the
charming article I should have written about this book if it had come to
me for review. 'But it couldn't have come to me,' I reflected, 'for
myself and the young man that wrote it were not contemporaries.' It
would be true, however, to say that our lives overlapped; but when did
the author of the _Drama in Muslin_ disappear from literature? His next
book was _Confession of a Young Man_. It was followed by _Spring Days_;
he must have died in the last pages of that story, for we find no trace
of him in _Esther Waters_! And my thoughts, dropping away from the books
he had written, began to take pleasure in the ridiculous appearance that
the author of _A Drama in Muslin_ presented in the mirrors of Dublin
Castle as he tripped down the staircases in parly morning. And a smile
played round my lips as I recalled his lank yellow hair (often standing
on end), his sloping shoulders and his female hands - a strange
appearance which a certain vivacity of mind sometimes rendered engaging.

He was writing at that time _A Mummer's Wife_ in his bedroom at the
Shelbourne Hotel, and I thought how different were the two visions, _A
Mummer's Wife_ and _A Drama in Muslin_ and how the choice of these two
subjects revealed him to me. 'It was life that interested him rather
than the envelope' I said. 'He sought Alice Barton's heart as eagerly as
Kate Ede's;' and my heart went out to the three policemen to whose
assiduities I owed this pleasant evening, all alone with my cat and my
immediate ancestor; and as I sat looking into the fire I fell to
wondering how it was that the critics of the 'eighties could have been
blind enough to dub him an imitator of Zola. 'A soul searcher, if ever
there was one,' I continued, 'whose desire to write well is apparent on
every page, a headlong, eager, uncertain style (a young hound yelping at
every trace of scent), but if we look beneath the style we catch sight
of the young man's true self, a real interest in religious questions and
a hatred as lively as Ibsen's of the social conventions that drive women
into the marriage market. It seems strange,' I said, abandoning myself
to recollection, 'that the critics of the 'eighties failed to notice
that the theme of _A Drama in Muslin_ is the same as that of the _Doll's
House_; the very title should have pointed this put to them.' But they
were not interested in themes; but in morality, and how they might crush
a play which, if it were uncrushed by them, would succeed in undermining
the foundations of society - their favourite phrase at the time, it
entered into every article written about the _Doll's House_ - and,
looking upon themselves as the saviours of society, these
master-builders kept on staying and propping the damaged construction
till at length they were joined by some dramatists and story-tellers who
feared with them for the 'foundations of society,' and these latter set
themselves the task of devising new endings that would be likely to
catch the popular taste and so mitigate the evil, the substitution of an
educational motive for a carnal one. For Nora does not leave her husband
for a lover, but to educate herself. The critics were used to lovers,
and what we are used to is bearable, but a woman who leaves her husband
and her children for school-books is unbearable, and much more immoral
than the usual little wanton. So the critics thought in the 'eighties,
and they thought truly, if it be true that morality and custom are
interchangeable terms. The critics were right in a way; everybody is
right in a way, for nothing is wholly right and nothing wholly wrong, a
truth often served up by philosophers; but the public has ever eschewed
it, and perhaps our argument will be better appreciated if we dilute
this truth a little, saying instead that it is the telling that makes a
story true or false, and that the dramatic critics of the 'eighties were
not altogether as wrong as Mr. Archer imagined them to be, but failed to
express themselves.

The public is without power of expression, and it felt that it was being
fooled for some purpose not very apparent and perhaps anarchical. Nor is
a sudden revelation very convincing in modern times. In the space of
three minutes, Nora, who has been her husband's sensual toy, and has
taken pleasure in being that, and only that, leaves her husband and her
children, as has been said, for school-books. A more arbitrary piece of
stage craft was never devised; but it was not the stage craft the
critics were accustomed to, and the admirers of Ibsen did not dare to
admit that he had devised Nora to cry aloud that a woman is more than a
domestic animal. It would have been fatal for an apostle or even a
disciple to admit the obvious fact that Ibsen was a dramatist of moral
ideas rather than of sensuous emotions; and there was nobody in the
'eighties to explain the redemption of Ibsen by his dialogue, the
strongest and most condensed ever written, yet coming off the reel like
silk. A wonderful thread, that never tangles in his hands. Ibsen is a
magical weaver, and so closely does he weave that we are drawn along in
the net like fishes.

But it is with the subject of the _Doll's House_ rather than with the
art with which it is woven that we are concerned here. The subject of _A
Drama in Muslin_ is the same as that of _A Doll's House_, and for this
choice of subject I take pride in my forerunner. It was a fine thing for
a young man of thirty to choose the subject instinctively that Ibsen had
chosen a few years before; it is a feather in his cap surely; and I
remember with pleasure that he was half through his story when Dr.
Aveling read him the first translation of _A Doll's House_, a poor
thing, done by a woman, that withheld him from any appreciation of the
play. The fact that he was writing the same subject from an entirely
different point of view prejudiced him against Ibsen; and the making of
a woman first in a sensual and afterward transferring her into an
educational mould with a view to obtaining an instrument to thunder out
a given theme could not be else than abhorrent to one whose art, however
callow, was at least objective. In the _Doll's House_ Ibsen had
renounced all objectivity. It does not seem to me that further apologies
are necessary for my predecessor's remark to Dr. Aveling after the
reading that he was engaged in moulding a woman in one of Nature's
moulds. 'A puritan,' he said, 'I am writing of, but not a sexless
puritan, and if women cannot win their freedom without leaving their sex
behind they had better remain slaves, for a slave with his sex is better
than a free eunuch;' and he discoursed on the book he was writing,
convinced that Alice Barton represented her sex better than the
archetypal hieratic and clouded figure of Nora which Ibsen had dreamed
so piously, allowing, he said, memories of Egyptian sculpture to mingle
with his dreams.

My ancestor could not have understood the _Doll's House_ while he was
writing _A Drama in Muslin_, not even in Mr. Archer's translation; he
was too absorbed in his craft at that time, in observing and remembering
life, to be interested in moral ideas. And his portrait of Alice Barton
gives me much the same kind of pleasure as a good drawing. She keeps her
place in the story, moving through it with quiet dignity, commanding our
sympathy and respect always, and for her failure to excite our wonder
like Nora we may say that the author's design was a comedy, and that in
comedy the people are not and perhaps should not be above life size. But
why apologize for what needs no apology? Alice Barton is a creature of
conventions and prejudices, not her mother's but her own; so far she had
freed herself, and it may well be that none obtains a wider liberty. She
leaves her home with the dispensary doctor, who has bought a small
practice in Notting Hill, and the end seems a fulfilment of the
beginning. The author conducts her to the door of womanhood, and there
he leaves her with the joys and troubles, no doubt, of her new estate;
but with these he apparently does not consider himself to be concerned,
though he seems to have meditated at this time a sort of small _comédie
humaine_ - small, for he must have known that he could not withstand the
strain of Balzac's shifts of fourteen hours. We are glad he was able to
conquer the temptation to imitate, yet we cannot forego a regret that he
did not turn to Violet Scully that was and look into the married life of
the Marchioness of Kilcamey - her grey intense eyes shining through a
grey veil, and her delightful thinness - her epicene bosom and long
thighs are the outward signs of a temper, constant perhaps, but not
narrow. He would have been able to discover an intrigue of an engaging
kind in her, and the thinking out of the predestined male would have
been as agreeable a task as falls to the lot of a man of letters. And
being a young man he would begin by considering the long series of
poets, painters and musicians, he had read of in Balzac's novels, but as
none of these would be within the harmony of Violet's perverse humour,
he would turn to life, and presently a vague shaggy shape would emerge
from the back of his mind, but it would refuse to condense into any
recognizable face; which is as well, perhaps, else I might be tempted to
pick up this forgotten flower, though I am fain to write no more long
stories.

But though we regret that the author of _Muslin_ did not gather this
Violet for his literary buttonhole, let no one suggest that the old man
should return to his Springtime to do what the young man left undone.
Our gathering-time is over, and we are henceforth prefacers. _The Brook
Cherith_ is our last. Some may hear this decision with sorrow, but we
have written eighteen books, which is at least ten too many, and none
shall persuade us to pick up the burden of another long story. We swear
it and close our ears to our admirers, and to escape them we plunge into
consideration of Violet's soul and her aptitudes, saying, and saying
well, that if polygamy thrives with Mohammedanism in the East, polyandry
has settled down in the West with Christianity, and that since Nora
slammed the door the practice of acquiring a share in a woman's life,
rather than insisting on the whole of it, has caught such firm root in
our civilization that it is no exaggeration to say that every married
woman to-day will admit she could manage two men better than her husband
could manage two wives. If we inquire still further, we submit, and
confidently, that every woman - saint or harlot, it matters not
which - would confess she would prefer to live with two men rather than
share her husband with another woman. All women are of one mind on this
subject; it is the one thing on which they all agree irrespective of
creed or class, so these remarks barely concern them; but should male
eyes fall on this page, and if in the pride of his heart he should cry
out, 'This is not so,' I would have him make application to his wife or
sister, and if he possess neither he may discover the truth in his own
mind. Let him ask himself if it could be otherwise, since our usage and
wont is that a woman shall prepare for the reception of visitors by
adorning her rooms with flowers and dressing herself in fine linen and
silk attire, and be to all men alike as they come and go. She must cover
all with winning glances, and beguile all with seductive eyes and foot,
and talk about love, though, perhaps she would prefer to think of one
who is far away. Men do not live under such restraint. A man may reserve
all his thoughts for his mistress, but the moment he leaves, his
mistress must begin to cajole the new-comer, however indifferent he may
be to her. The habit of her life is to cajole, to please, to inspire, if
possible, and if she be not a born coquette she becomes one, and takes
pleasure in her art, devoting her body and mind to it, reading only
books about love and lovers, singing songs of love, and seeking always
new scents and colours and modes of fascination. If lovers are away and
none calls, she abandons herself to dreams, and her imagination
furnishes quickly a new romance. Somebody she has half-forgotten rises
up in her memory, and she thinks that she could like him if he were to
come into her drawing-room now. It would be happiness indeed to walk
forward into his arms and to call her soul into her eyes; or, if a
letter were to come from him asking her to dinner, she would accept it;
and, lying back among her silken cushions, she thinks she could spend
many hours in his company without weariness. She creates his rooms and
his person and his conversation, and when he is exhausted a new intrigue
rises up in her mind, and then another and another. Some drop away and
remain for ever unfulfilled, while others 'come into their own,' as the
saying is.

If this be a true analysis of a woman's life - and who will say it is
not? - the dreams of the Marchioness of Kilcarney would begin in her
easy-chair about the second spring after her marriage, the shaggy shape
that haunts the back of my mind would hear her dreams, and the wooing
that began with the daffodils would continue always, for she is a woman
that could keep a lover till the end of time. At her death husband and
lover would visit her grave together and talk of her perfections in the
winter evenings. But if Violet did not die another vagrant male would
steal through the ilex-trees, a hunter in pursuit of game, or else it
might be a fisher, seated among the rocks waiting, for tunny-fish.
Either might take Violet's fancy. The author of _Muslin_ seems to have
entertained a thought of some such pastoral frolic in the Shelbourne
Hotel - the opposition of husband and lover to the newcomer, Harding,
whom it had occurred to Mrs. Barton to invite to Brookfield, and whom
she would have invited had it not been for her great matrimonial
projects; my forerunner, who was an artist, saw that any deflection of
Mrs. Barton's thoughts would jeopardize his composition, and he allowed
Mrs. Barton to remain a chaperon. He was right in this, but Violet
should have been the impulse and nucleus of a new story. . . . I began to
think suddenly of the blight that would fall on the twain if Violet's
lover were to die, and to figure them sitting in the evenings meditating
on the admirable qualities of the deceased till in their loneliness he
would come to seem to them as a being more than human, touching almost
on the Divine. Their ears would retain the sound of his voice, and the
familiar furniture would provoke remembrances of him. Ashamed of their
weakness, their eyes would seek the chair he used to sit in: it is away
in a far corner, lest a casual visitor should draw it forward and defile
it with his presence - a thing that happened once (the unhappy twain
remember how they lacked moral courage to beg him to choose another
chair). The table, laid for two, was too painful to behold, and they
never enjoyed a meal, hardly could they eat, till at last it was decided
that his place should be laid for him as if he had gone away on a
journey, and might appear in the doorway and sit down with them and
share the repast as of yore - a pretty deception the folly of which they
were alive to (a little) but would not willingly be without.

His room, too, awaits him, and his clothes have not been destroyed or
given to the poor, but he folded by charitable hands in the drawers
kept safe from moth with orris-root and lavender. His hat hangs on its
accustomed peg in the hall, and they think of it among many other
things. At last the silence of these lonely meditations is broken by
sudden recollections - for dinner the cook had sent up a boiled chicken
instead of roast, and he had looked upon boiled chicken as a vulgar
insularism always. Nor were there bananas on the table. Bananas were an
acquired taste with them, they had learned to eat the fruit for love of
their friend, and since he has gone they have not eaten the chicken
roast nor the fruit, and it seems to them that they should have eaten of
these things in memory of him. In the Spring they come upon his
pruning-knife, and discourse sadly on the changes he would have advised.
Spring opens into summer, and when summer drops into the autumn
Kilcarney's black passes into grey; he appears one morning in a violet
tie, and the tie, picked out of a drawer with indifferent hand, causes
Violet to doubt her husband's constancy. It was soon after this
thoughtless act that he began, for the thousandth time, to remind her
that the world might be searched in its dimmest corners and no friend
again found like the one they had lost. . . . The reflection had become
part of their habitual thought, and, feeling a little trite and
commonplace, Violet listened, or half-listened, engulfed in retrospect.

'I met in Merrion Square,' and she mentioned a name, 'and do you know
whom he seemed to be very like?' The colour died out of Kilcarney's
cheek and he could but murmur, 'Oh, Violet!' and colouring at being
caught up on what might be looked upon as a mental infidelity, she
answered, 'of course, none is like him . . . I wish you would not seek to
misunderstand me.'

The matter passed off, but next evening she sat looking at her husband,
her thoughts suspended for so long that he began to fear, wrongly
however, that she was about to put forward some accusation, to twit him
perchance on his lack of loyalty to his dead friend. He had not eaten a
banana for dinner, though he had intended to eat one. 'Of course, we
shall never find anyone like him,' she said - 'not if we were to search
all the corners of the world. That is so, we're both agreed on that
point, but I've been thinking which of all our friends and acquaintances
would least unworthily fill his place in our lives.' 'Violet! Violet!'
'If you persist in misunderstanding me,' she answered, 'I have no more
to say,' whereupon the Marquis tried to persuade the Marchioness out of
the morose silence that had fallen upon them, and failing to move her he
raised the question that had divided them. 'If you mean, Violet, that
our racing friend would be a poor shift for our dead friend, meaning
thereby that nobody in Dublin is comparable' - 'could I have meant
anything else, you old dear?' she replied; and the ice having been
broken, the twain plunged at once into the waters of recollection, and
coming upon a current they were borne onward, swiftly and more swiftly,
till at length a decision had to be come to - they would invite their
racing friend.

It was on the Marquis's lips to say a word or two in disparagement of
the invited guest, but on second thoughts it seemed to him that he had
better refrain; the Marchioness, too, was about to plead, she did not
know exactly what, but she thought she would like to reassure the
Marquis. . . . On second thoughts she decided too that it would be better
(perhaps) to refrain. Well, to escape from the toils of an interesting
story (for I'm no longer a story-teller but a prefacer) I will say that
three nights later Sir Hugh took the Marchioness in to dinner; he sat in
his predecessor's chair, knowing nothing of him, thereby startling his
hosts, who, however, soon recovered their presence of mind. After dinner
the Marquis said, 'Now, Sir Hugh, I hope you will excuse me if I go
upstairs. I am taking the racing calendar with me, you see.'

My forerunner, the author of _Muslin_, should have written the story
sketched here with a failing hand, his young wit would have allowed him
to tell how the marriage that had wilted sadly after the death of Uncle
Toby now renewed its youth, opening its leaves to the light again,
shaking itself in the gay breezes floating by. He would have been able
in this story to present three exemplars of the domestic virtues,
telling how they went away to the seaside together, and returned
together to their castle among tall trees in October compelling the
admiration of the entire countryside. He would have shown us the
Marchioness entertaining visitors while the two men talked by the
fireplace, delighting in each other's company, and he would not have
forgotten to put them before us in their afternoon walks, sharing
between them Violet's knick-knacks, her wraps, her scarf, her fan, her


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryGeorge MooreMuslin → online text (page 1 of 23)