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inconvertible that if she were a less superior per-
son he would have been a sad encumbrance. He
always figures in the corner of the scenes in which
she distinguishes herself, separated from her by



GEORGE DU MAURIER 367

something like the gulf that separated Caliban from
Ariel. He has his hands in his pockets, his head
poked forward ; what is going on is quite beyond
his comprehension. He vaguely wonders what his
wife will do next ; her manoeuvres fjuite transcend
him. Mrs. Ponsonby de Tomkyns always succeeds.
She is never at fault ; she is as quick as the instinct
of self-preservation. She is the little London lady
who is determined to be a greater one. She pushes,
pushes, gently but firmly always pushes. At last
she arrives. It is true that she had only the other
day, on 29th June 1882, a considerable failure; we
refer the reader to the little incident of Madame
Gamiuot, in the Punch for that date. But she will
recover from it ; she has already recovered from it.
She is not even afraid of Sir Gorgius Midas of the
dreadful Midas junior. She pretends to think Lady
Midas the most elegant of women ; when it is neces-
sary to flatter, she lays it on as with a trowel. She
hesitates at nothing; she is very modern. If she
doesn't take the aesthetic line more than is necessary,
she finds it necessary to take it a little ; for if we
are to believe Du Maurier, the passion for strange
raiment and blue china has during the last few
years made ravages in the London world. We
may be sure that Mrs. Ponsonby de Tomkyns has
an array of fragile disks attached to her walls, and
that she can put in a word about Botticelli at the
right moment. She is far, however,' from being a
representative of aestheticism, for her hair is very



368 GEORGE DU % MAURIER

neatly arranged, and her dress looks French and
superficial.

In Mrs. Cirnabue Brown we see the priestess of the
aesthetic cult, and this lady is on the whole a different
sort of person. She knows less about duchesses, but
she knows more about dados. Du Maurier's good-
natured "chaff" of the eccentricities of the plastic sense
so newly and so strangely awakened in England has per-
haps been the most brilliant episode of his long connec-
tion with Pwnch. He has invented Mrs. Cimabue Brown
he has invented Maudle and Postlethwaite. These
remarkable people have had great success in America,
and have contributed not a little to the curiosity felt
in that country on the subject of the English Eena-
scence. Strange rumours and legends in relation to
this great movement had made their way across the
Atlantic ; the sayings and doings of a mysterious
body of people, devotees of the lovely and the pre-
cious, living in goodly houses and walking in gracious
garments, were repeated and studied in our simpler
civilisation. There has not been as yet an American
Renascence, in spite of the taste for " sincere " side-
boards and fragments of crockery. American in-
teriors are perhaps to-day as " gracious " as English ;
but the movement in the United States has stopped
at household furniture, has not yet set its mark upon
speech and costume much less upon the human
physiognomy. Du Maurier of course has lent a
good deal of his own fame to the vagaries he de-
picts ; but it is certain that the new aesthetic life



GEORGE DU MAURIER 3 61)

has had a good deal of reality. A great many people
have discovered themselves to be fitted for it both
by nature and by grace ; so that noses and chins,
facial angles of every sort shaped according to this
higher rule have become frequent in London society.
This reaction of taste upon nature is really a marvel,
and the miracle has not been repeated in America,
nor so far as we know upon the continent of Europe.
The love of Botticelli has actually remoulded the
features of several persons. London, for many
seasons, was full of Botticelli women, with wan
cheeks and weary eyes, enveloped in mystical,
crumpled robes. Their language was apt to corres-
pond with their faces ; they talked in strange
accents, with melancholy murmurs and cadences.
They announced a gospel of joy, but their expres-
sion, their manners, were joyless. These peculiari-
ties did not cross the ocean ; for somehow the soil
of the western world was not as yet prepared for
them. American ladies were even heard to declare
that there was something in their constitution that
would prevent their ever dressing like that. They had
another ideal ; they were committed to the whalebone.
But meanwhile, as I say, there was something irri-
tating, fascinating, mystifying in the light thrown
on the subject by Punch. It seemed to many per-
sons to be desired that we too should have a gospel
of joy; American life was not particularly " gracious,"
and if only the wind could be made to blow from
the aesthetic quarter a great many dry places would
2 B



370 GEORGE DU MAURIER

be refreshed. These desires perhaps have subsided ;
for Punch of late has rather neglected the Kenascence.
Mrs. Cimabue Brown is advancing in years, and
Messrs. Maudle and Postlethwaite have been through
all their paces. The new aesthetic life, in short,
shows signs of drawing to a close, after having, as
many people tell us, effected a revolution in English
taste having at least, if not peopled the land with
beauty, made certain consecrated forms of ugliness
henceforth impossible.

The whole affair has been very curious and, we
think, very characteristic of the English mind. The
same episode fifty times repeated a hundred " revo-
lutions of taste," accompanied with an infinite ex-
penditure of money would fail to convince certain
observant and possibly too sceptical strangers that
the English are an aesthetic people. They have not
a spontaneous artistic life ; their taste is a matter of
conscience, reflection, duty, and the writer who in
our time has appealed to them most eloquently on
behalf of art has rested his plea on moral standards
has talked exclusively of right and wrong. It is
impossible to live much among them, to be a spec-
tator of their habits, their manners, their arrange-
ments, without perceiving that the artistic point of
view is the last that they naturally take. The sense
of manner is not part of their constitution. They
arrive at it, as they have arrived at so many things,
because they are ambitious, resolute, enlightened,
fond of difficulties ; but there is always a strange



GEORGE DU MAURIER 371

element either of undue apology or of exaggerated
defiance in. their attempts at the cultivation of
beauty. They carry on their huge broad back a
nameless mountain of conventions and prejudices, a
dusky cloud of inaptitudes and fears, which casts a
shadow upon the frank and confident practice of art.
The consequence of all this is that their revivals of
taste are even stranger than the abuses they are
meant to correct. They are violent, voluntary,
mechanical ; wanting in grace, in tact, in the sense
of humour and of proportion. A genuine artist like
Du Maurier could not fail to perceive all this, and to
perceive also that it gave him a capital opportunity.
None of his queer people are so queer as some of
these perverted votaries of joy. " Excuse me, it is
not a Botticelli before a Botticelli I am dumb," one
of them says to a poor plain man who shows him a
picture which has been attributed to that master.
We have said already, and repeated, that Du Maurier
has a great deal of irony the irony of the thorough-
going artist and of the observer who has a strain of
foreign blood in his veins. There are certain preten-
sions that such a mind can never take seriously ; in
the artist there is of necessity, as it appears to us, a
touch of the democrat though, perhaps, he is as
.unlikely to have more than a certain dose of this
disposition as he is to be wholly without it. Some
of his drawings seem to us to have for the public he
addresses a stinging democratic meaning; like the
adventure of M. Dubois (of whom we have spoken),



372 GEORGE DU MAURIER

who had had the inconvenience of dining with a
duke ; or the reply of the young man to whom Miss
Midas remarks that he is the first commoner she has
ever danced with : " And why is it the commoners
have avoided you so ? " or the response of the
German savant to Mrs. Lyon Hunter, who invites
him to dine, without his wife, though she is on his
arm, to meet various great ladies whom .she enu-
merates : " And pray, do you think they would not
be respectable company for my wife ? " Du Maurier
possesses in perfection the independence of the
genuine artist in the presence of a hundred worldly
superstitions and absurdities. We have said, how-
ever, that the morality, so to speak, of his drawings
was a subordinate question : what we wished to in-
sist upon is their completeness, their grace, their
beauty, their rare pictorial character. It is an acci-
dent that the author of such things should not have
been a painter that he has not been an ornament
of the English school. Indeed, with the restrictions
to which he has so well accommodated himself, he is
such an ornament. No English artistic work in
these latter years has, in our opinion, been more
exquisite in quality.

1883.



XI
THE ART OF FICTION



THE ART OF FICTION

I SHOULD not have affixed so comprehensive a title
to these few remarks, necessarily wanting in any
completeness upon a subject the full consideration
of which would carry us far, did I not seem to dis-
cover a pretext for my temerity in the interesting
pamphlet lately published under this name by Mr.
Walter Besant. Mr. Besant's lecture at the Eoyal
Institution the original form of his pamphlet
appears to indicate that many persons are interested
in the art of fiction, and are not indifferent to such
remarks, as those who practise it may attempt to
make about it. I am therefore anxious not to lose
the benefit of this favourable association, and to edge
in a few words under cover of the attention which
Mr. Besant is sure to have excited. There is some-
thing very encouraging in his having put into form
certain of his ideas on the mystery of story-telling.

It is a proof of life and curiosity curiosity on
the part of the brotherhood of novelists as well as
on the part of their readers. Only a short time ago
it might have been supposed that the English novel



376 THE ART OF FICTION

was not what the French call discutable. It had no
air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness
of itself behind it of being the expression of an
artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison.
I do not say it was necessarily the worse for that : it
would take much more courage than I possess to
intimate that the form of the novel as Dickens
and Thackeray (for instance) saw it had any taint of
incompleteness. It was, however, naif (if I may
help myself out with another French word); and
evidently if it be destined to suffer in any way for
having lost its naivdi it has now an idea of making
sure of the corresponding advantages. During the
period I have alluded to there was a comfortable,
good-humoured feeling abroad that a novel is a novel,
as a pudding is a pudding, and that our only busi-
ness with it could be to swallow it. But within a
year or two, for some reason or other, there have
been signs of returning animation the era of dis-
cussion would appear to have been to a certain
extent opened. Art lives upon discussion, upon
experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt,
upon the exchange of views and the comparison of
standpoints ; and there is a presumption that those
times when no one has anything particular to say
about it, and has no reason to give for practice or
preference, though they may be times of honour, are
not times of development are times, possibly even,
a little of dulness. The successful application of
any art is a delightful spectacle, but the theory too



THE ART OF FICTION 377

is interesting ; and though there is a great deal of
the latter without the former I suspect there has
never been a genuine success that has not had a
latent core of conviction. Discussion, suggestion,
formulation, these things are fertilising when they
are frank and sincere. Mr. Besant has set an
excellent example in saying what he thinks, for his
part, about the way in which fiction should be
written, as well as about the way in which it should
be published ; for his view of the " art," carried on
into an appendix, covers that too. Other labourers
' in the same field will doubtless take up the argument,
they will give it the light of their experience, and
the effect will surely be to make our interest in the
novel a little more what it had for some time threat-
ened to fail to be a serious, active, inquiring
interest, under protection of which this delightful
study may, in moments of confidence, venture to say
a little more what it thinks of itself.

It must take itself seriously for the public to take
it so. The old superstition about fiction being
" wicked " has doubtless died out in England ; but
the spirit of it lingers in a certain oblique regard
directed toward any story which does not more or
less admit that it is only a joke. Even the most
jocular novel feels in some degree the weight of
the proscription that was formerly directed against
literary levity : the jocularity does not always suc-
ceed in passing for orthodoxy. It is still expected,
though perhaps people are ashamed to say it, that a



378 THE ART OF FICTION

production which is after all only a " make-believe "
(for what else is a "story"?) shall be in some
degree apologetic shall renounce the pretension of
attempting really to represent life. This, of course,
any sensible, wide-awake story declines to do, for it
quickly perceives that the tolerance granted to it on
such a condition is only an attempt to stifle it dis-
guised in the form of generosity. The old evan-
gelical hostility to the novel, which was as explicit as
it was narrow, and which regarded it as little less
favourable to our immortal part than a stage-play,
was in reality far less insulting. The only reason
for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to
represent life. When it relinquishes this attempt,
the same attempt that we see on the canvas of the
painter, it will have arrived at a very strange pass.
It is not expected of the picture that it will make
itself humble in order to be forgiven; and the analogy
between the art of the painter and the art of the
novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete.
Their inspiration is the same, their process (allowing
for the different quality of the vehicle), is the same,
their success is the same. They may learn from
each other, they may explain and sustain each
other. Their cause is the same, and the honour of
one is the honour of another. The Mahometans
think a picture an unholy thing, but it is a long
time since any Christian did, and it is therefore the
more odd that in the Christian mind the traces (dis-
simulated though they may be) of a suspicion of the



THE ART OF FICTION 379

sister art should linger to this day. The only effec-
tual way to lay it to rest is to emphasise the analogy
to which I just alhided to insist on the fact that
as the picture is reality, so the novel is history.
That is the only general description (which does it
justice) that we may give of the novel. But history
also is allowed to represent life ; it is not, any more
than painting, expected to apologise. The subject-
matter of fiction is stored up likewise in documents
and records, and if it will not give itself away, as
they say in California, it must speak with assurance,
with the tone of the historian. Certain accomplished
novelists have a habit of giving themselves away
which must often bring tears to the eyes of people
who take their fiction seriously. I was lately struck,
in reading over many pages of Anthony Trollope,
with his want of discretion in this particular. In a
digression, a parenthesis or an aside, he concedes to
the reader that he and this trusting friend are only
"making believe." He admits that the events he
narrates have not really happened, and that he can
give his narrative any turn the reader may like best.
Such a betrayal of a sacred office seems to me, I con-
fess, a terrible crime; it is what I mean by the
attitude of apology, and it shocks me every whit as
much in Trollope as it would have shocked me in
Gibbon or Macaulay. It implies that the novelist is
less occupied in looking for the truth (the truth, of
course I mean, that he assumes, the premises that we
must grant him, whatever they may be), than the



380 THE ART OF FICTION

historian, and in doing so it deprives him at a stroke
of all his standing-room. To represent and illustrate
the past, the actions of men, is the task of either
writer, and the only difference that I can see is, in
proportion as he succeeds, to the honour of the
novelist, consisting as it does in his having more
difficulty in collecting his evidence, which is so far
from being purely literary. It seems to me to give
him a great character, the fact that he has at once
so much in common with the philosopher and the
painter; this double analogy is a magnificent heritage.
It is of all this evidently that Mr. Besant is full
when he insists upon the fact that fiction is one of
the fine arts, deserving in its turn of all the honours
and emoluments that have hitherto been reserved
for the successful profession of music, poetry, paint-
ing, architecture. It is impossible to insist too
much on so important a truth, and the place that
Mr. Besant demands for the work of the novelist
may be represented, a trifle less abstractly, by
saying that he demands not only that it shall be
reputed artistic, but that it shall be reputed very
artistic indeed. It is excellent that he should have
struck this note, for his doing so indicates that there
was need of it, that his proposition may be to many
people a novelty. One rubs one's eyes at the thought;
but the rest of Mr. Besant's essay confirms the revela-
tion. I suspect in truth that it would be possible
to confirm it still further, and that one would not be
far wrong in saying that in addition to the people



THE ART OF FICTION 381

to whom it has never occurred that a novel ought to
be artistic, there are a great many others who, if this
principle were urged upon them, would be filled with
an indefinable mistrust. They would find it difficult
to explain their repugnance, but it would operate
strongly to put them on their guard. "Art," in our
Protestant communities, where so many things have
got so strangely twisted about, is supposed in certain
circles to have some vaguely injurious effect upon
those who make it an important consideration, who
let it weigh in the balance. It is assumed to be
opposed in some mysterious manner to morality, to
amusement, to instruction. When it is embodied in
the work of the painter (the sculptor is another
affair ! ) you know what it is : it stands there before
you, in the honesty of pink and green and a gilt
frame ; you can see the worst of it at a glance, and
you can be on your guard. But when it is intro-
duced into literature it becomes more insidious
there is danger of its hurting you before you know
it. Literature should be either instructive or amus-
ing, and there is in many minds an impression that
these artistic preoccupations, the search for form,
contribute to neither end, interfere indeed with both.
They are too frivolous to be edifying, and too serious
to be diverting; and they are moreover priggish
and paradoxical and superfluous. That, I think,
represents the manner in which the latent thought
of many people who read novels as an exercise in
skipping would explain itself if it were to become



382 THE ART OF FICTION

articulate. They would argue, of course, that a
novel ought to be " good," but they would interpret
this term in a fashion of their own, which indeed
would vary considerably from one critic to another.
One would say that being good means representing
virtuous and aspiring characters, placed in prominent
positions ; another would say that it depends on a
"happy ending," on a distribution at the last of
prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions,
appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks. Another
still would say that it means being full of incident
and movement, so that we shall wish to jump ahead,
to see who was the mysterious stranger, and if the
stolen will was ever found, and shall not be distracted
from this pleasure by any tiresome analysis or " des-
cription." But they would all agree that the "artistic"
idea would spoil some of their fun. One would hold
it accountable for all the description, another would
see it revealed in the absence of sympathy. Its
hostility to a happy ending would be evident, and
it might even in some cases render any ending at all
impossible. The " ending " of a novel is, for many
persons, like that of a good dinner, a course of dessert
and ices, and the artist in fiction is regarded as a
sort of meddlesome doctor who forbids agreeable
aftertastes. It is therefore true that this conception
of Mr. Besant's of the novel as a superior form en-
counters not only a negative but a positive indiffer-
ence. It matters little that as a work of art it
should really be as little or as much of its essence to



THE ART OF FICTION 383

supply happy endings, sympathetic characters, and
an objective tone, as if it were a work of mechanics :
the association of ideas, however incongruous, might
easily be too much for it if an eloquent voice were
not sometimes raised to call attention to the fact
that it is at once as free and as serious a branch of
literature as any other.

Certainly this might sometimes be doubted in
presence of the enormous number of works of fiction
that appeal to the credulity of our generation, for it
might easily seem that there could be no great char-
acter in a commodity so quickly and easily pro-
duced. It must be admitted that good novels are
much compromised by bad ones, and that the field
at large suffers discredit from overcrowding. I think,
however, that this injury is only superficial, and that
the superabundance of written fiction proves nothing
against the principle itself. It has been vulgarised,
like all other kinds of literature, like everything else
to-day, and it has proved more than some kinds
accessible to vulgarisation. But there is as much
difference as there ever was between a good novel
and a bad one : the bad is swept with all the daubed
canvases and spoiled marble into some unvisited limbo,
or infinite rubbish-yard beneath the back-windows of
the world, and the good subsists and emits its light
and stimulates our desire for perfection. As I shall
take the liberty of making but a single criticism of
Mr. Besant, whose tone is so full of the love of his
art, I may as well have done with it at once. He



384 THE ART O FICTION

seems to me to mistake in attempting to say so
definitely beforehand what sort of an affair the good
novel will be. To indicate the danger of such an
error as that has been the purpose of these few pages ;
to suggest that certain traditions on the subject,
applied a priori, have already had much to answer
for, and that the good health of an art which under-
takes so immediately to reproduce life must demand
that it be perfectly free. It lives upon exercise, and
the very meaning of exercise is freedom. The only
obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel,
without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is
that it be interesting. That general responsibility
rests upon it, but it is the only one I can think of.
The ways in which it is at liberty to accomplish this
result (of interesting us) strike me as innumerable,
and such as can only suffer from being marked out
or fenced in by prescription. They are as various as
the temperament of man, and they are successful in
proportion as they reveal a particular mind, different
from others. A novel is in its broadest definition a
personal, a direct impression of life : that, to begin
with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less
according to the intensity of the impression. But
there will be no intensity at all, and therefore no
value, unless there is freedom to feel and say. The
tracing of a line to be followed, of a tone to be taken,
of a form to be filled out, is a limitation of that
freedom and a suppression of the very thing that we
are most curious about. The form, it seems to me,



THE ART OF FICTION 385

is to be appreciated after the fact : then the author's


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Online LibraryHenry JamesPartial portraits → online text (page 22 of 24)