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proportion do we lose our sense of the story being
a blade which may be drawn more or less out of its
sheath. The story and the novel, the idea and the
form, are the needle and thread, and I never heard
of a guild of tailors who recommended the use of
the thread without the needle, or the needle without
the thread. Mr. Besant is not the only critic who
may be observed to have spoken as if there were
certain things in life which constitute stories, and
certain others which do not. I find the same odd
implication in an entertaining article in the Pall Mall
Gazette, devoted, as it happens, to Mr. Besant's
lecture. " The story is the thing !" says this graceful
writer, as if with a tone of opposition to some other



THE ART OF FICTION 401

idea. I should think it was, as every painter who,
as the time for "sending in" his picture looms in the
distance, finds himself still in quest of a subject as
every belated artist not fixed about his theme will
heartily agree. There are some subjects which speak
to us and others which do not, but he would be a
clever man who should undertake to give a rule an
index expurgatorius by which the story and the
no-story should be known apart. It is impossible (to
me at least) to imagine any such rule which shall
not be altogether arbitrary. The writer in the Pall
Mall opposes the delightful (as I suppose) novel of
Mar got la Balafrte to certain tales in which " Bostonian
nymphs" appear to have " rejected English dukes for
psychological reasons." I am not acquainted with
the romance just designated, and can scarcely forgive
the Pall Mall critic for not mentioning the name of
the author, but the title appears to refer to a lady
who may have received a scar in some heroic adven-
ture. I am inconsolable at not being acquainted
with this episode, but am utterly at a loss to see why
it is a story when the rejection (or acceptance) of a
duke is not, and why a reason, psychological or other,
is not a subject when a cicatrix is. They are all
particles of the multitudinous life with which the
novel deals, and surely no dogma which pretends to
make it lawful to touch the one and unlawful to
touch the other will stand for a moment on its feet.
It is the special picture that must stand or fall,
according as it seem to possess truth or to lack it.
2 D



402 THE ART OF FICTION

Mr. Besant does not, to my sense, light up the subject
by intimating that a story must, under penalty of
not being a story, consist of " adventures." Why of
adventures more than of green spectacles ? He
mentions a category of impossible things, and among
them he places " fiction without adventure." Why
without adventure, more than without matrimony, or
celibacy, or parturition, or cholera, or hydropathy, or
Jansenism 1 This seems to me to bring the novel
back to the hapless little role of being an artificial,
ingenious thing bring it down from its large, free
character of an immense and exquisite correspond-
ence with life. And what is adventure, when it
comes to that, and by what sign is the listening pupil
to recognise it? It is an adventure an immense
one for me to write this little article ; and for a
Bostonian nymph to reject an English duke is an
adventure only less stirring, I should say, than for
an English duke to be rejected by a Bostonian
nymph. I see dramas within dramas in that, and
innumerable points of view. A psychological reason
is, to my imagination, an object adorably pictorial ;
to catch the tint of its complexion I feel as if that
idea might inspire one to Titianesque efforts. There
are few things more exciting to me, in short, than a
psychological reason, and yet, I protest, the novel
seems to me the most magnificent form of art. I
have just been reading, at the same time, the delight-
ful story of Treasure Island, by Mr. Robert Louis
Stevenson and, in a manner less consecutive, the



THE ART OF FICTION 403

last tale from M. Edmond de Goncourt, which is
entitled Chdrie. One of these works treats of murders,
mysteries, islands of dreadful renown, hairbreadth
escapes, miraculous coincidences and buried doubloons.
The other treats of a little French girl who lived in
a fine house in Paris, and died of wounded sensibility
because no one would marry her. I call Treasure
Island delightful, because it appears to me to have
succeeded wonderfully in what it attempts ; and I
venture to bestow no epithet upon Chdrie, which
strikes me as having failed deplorably in what it
attempts that is in tracing the development of the
moral consciousness of a child. But one of these
productions strikes me as exactly as much of a novel
as the other, and as having a " story " quite as much.
The moral consciousness of a child is as much a part
of life as the islands of the Spanish Main, and the
one sort of geography seems to me to have those
" surprises" of which Mr. Besant speaks quite as
much as the other. For myself (since it comes back
in the last resort, as I say, to the preference of the
individual), the picture of the child's experience has
the advantage that I can at successive steps (an
immense luxury, near to the "sensual pleasure" of
which Mr. Besant's critic in the Pall Mall speaks) say
Yes or No, as it may be, to what the artist puts
before me. I have been a child in fact, but I have
been on a quest for a buried treasure only in sup-
position, and it is a simple accident that with M. de
Goncourt I should have for the most part to say No.



404 THE ART OF FICTION

With George Eliot, when she painted that country
with a far other intelligence, I always said Yes.

The most interesting part of Mr. Besant's lecture
is unfortunately the briefest passage his very cur-
sory allusion to the " conscious moral purpose " of the
novel. Here again it is not very clear whether he be
recording a fact or laying down a principle ; it is a
great pity that in the latter case he should not have
developed his idea. This branch of the subject is of
immense importance, and Mr. Besant's few words
point to considerations of the widest reach, not to be
lightly disposed of. He will have treated the art of
fiction but superficially who is not prepared to go
every inch of the way that these considerations will
carry him. It is for this reason that at the beginning
of these remarks I was careful to notify the reader
that my reflections on so large a theme have no pre
tension to be exhaustive. Like Mr. Besant, I have
left the question of the morality of the novel till the
last, and at the last I find I have used up my space.
It is a question surrounded with difficulties, as wit-
ness the very first that meets us, in the form of a
definite question, on the threshold. Vagueness, in
such a discussion, is fatal, and what is the meaning
of your morality and your conscious moral purpose 1
Will you not define your terms and explain how (a
novel being a picture) a picture can be either moral
or immoral ? You wish to paint a moral picture or
carve a moral statue : will you not tell us how you
would set about it ? We are discussing the Art of



THE ART OF FICTION 405

Fiction ; questions of art are questions (in the widest
sense) of execution ; questions of morality are quite
another affair, and will you not let us see how it is
that you find it so easy to mix them up ? These
things are so clear to Mr. Besant that he has deduced
from them a law which he sees embodied in English
Fiction, and which is " a truly admirable thing and a
great cause for congratulation." It is a great cause
for congratulation indeed when such thorny problems
become as smooth as silk I may add that in so
far as Mr. Besant perceives that in point of fact
English Fiction has addressed itself preponderantly
to these delicate questions he will appear to many
people to have made a vain discovery. They will
have been positively struck, on the contrary, with
the moral timidity of the usual English novelist;
with his (or with her) aversion to face the difficulties
with which on every side the treatment of reality
bristles. He is apt to be extremely shy (whereas
the picture that Mr. Besant draws is a picture of
boldness), and the sign of his work, for the most part,
is a cautious silence on certain subjects. In the
English novel (by which of course I mean the Ameri-
can as well), more than in any other, there is a tradi-
tional difference between that which people know
and that which they agree to admit that they know,
that which they see and that which they speak of,
that which they feel to be a part of life and that
which they allow to enter into literature. There is
the great difference, in short, between what they



406 THE ART OF FICTION

talk of in conversation and what they talk of in
print. The essence of moral energy is to survey the
whole field, and I should directly reverse Mr. Besant's
remark and say not that the English novel has a
purpose, but that it has a diffidence. To what degree
a purpose in a work of art is a source of corruption I
shall not attempt to inquire ; the one that seems to
me least dangerous is the purpose of making a perfect
work As for our novel, I may say lastly on this
score that as we find it in England to-day it strikes
me as addressed in a large degree to "young people,"
and that this in itself constitutes a presumption that
it will be rather shy. There are certain things which
it is generally agreed not to discuss, not even to men-
tion, before young people. That is very well, but the
absence of discussion is not a symptom of the moral
passion. The purpose of the English novel "a
truly admirable thing, and a great cause for congratu-
lation " strikes me therefore as rather negative.

There is one point at which the moral sense and
the artistic sense lie very near together ; that is in
the light of the very obvious truth that the deepest
quality of a work of art will always be the quality of
the mind of the producer. In proportion as that
intelligence is fine will the novel, the picture, the
statue partake of the substance of beauty and truth.
To be constituted of such elements is, to my vision,
to have purpose enough. No good novel will ever
proceed from a superficial mind ; that seems to me an
axiom which, for the artist in fiction, will cover all



THE ART OF FICTION 407

needful moral ground : if the youthful aspirant take
it to heart it will illuminate for him many of the
mysteries of " purpose." There are many other use-
ful things that might be said to him, but I have
come to the end of my article, and can only touch
them as I pass. The critic in the Pall Mall Gazette,
whom I have already quoted, draws attention to the
danger, in speaking of the art of fiction, of general-
ising. The danger that he has in mind is rather, I
imagine, that of particularising, for there are some
comprehensive remarks which, in addition to those
embodied in Mr Besant's suggestive lecture, might
without fear of misleading him be addressed to the
ingenuous student. I should remind him first of
the magnificence of the form that is open to him,
which offers to sight so few restrictions and such in-
numerable opportunities. The other arts, in com-
parison, appear confined and hampered ; the various
conditions under which they are exercised are so
rigid and definite. But the only condition that I can
think of attaching to the composition of the novel is,
as I have already said, that it be sincere. This free-
dom is a splendid privilege, and the first lesson of
the young novelist is to learn to be worthy of it.
" Enjoy it as it deserves," I should say to him ; " take
possession of it, explore it to its utmost extent, publish
it, rejoice in it. All life belongs to you, and do not
listen either to those who would shut you up into
corners of it and tell you that it is only here and
there that art inhabits, or to those who would per-



408 THE ART OF FICTION

suade you that this heavenly messenger wings her
way outside of life altogether, breathing a superfine
air, and turning away her head from the truth of
things. There is no impression of life, no manner of
seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the
novelist may not offer a place ; you have only to
remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alex-
andre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and
Gustave Flaubert have worked in this field with
equal glory. Do not think too much about optimism
and pessimism ; try and catch the colour of life itself.
In France to-day we see a prodigious effort (that of
Emile Zola, to whose solid and serious work no ex-
plorer of the capacity of the novel can allude without
respect), we see an extraordinary effort vitiated by
a spirit of pessimism on a narrow basis. M. Zola
is magnificent, but he strikes an English reader as
ignorant ; he has an air of working in the dark ; if
he had as much light as energy, his results would
be of the highest value. As for the aberrations of
a shallow optimism, the ground (of English fiction
especially) is strewn with their brittle particles as
with broken glass. If you must indulge in conclu-
sions, let them have the taste of a wide knowledge.
Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as
possible to make as perfect a work. Be generous
and delicate and pursue the prize."

1884.

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