Henry James.

Partial portraits online

. (page 6 of 24)
Online LibraryHenry JamesPartial portraits → online text (page 6 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and through that fear she was afraid of her husband.
Well she might be ! I can imagine nothing more
vivid than the sense we get of his absolutely clammy

Pulcheria. She was not afraid of Deronda when,
immediately after her marriage and without any but
the most casual acquaintance with him, she begins to
hover about him at the Mallingers' and to drop little
confidences about her conjugal woes. That seems to
me very indelicate ; ask any woman.

Constantius. The very purpose of the author is to
give us an idea of the sort of confidence that Deronda
inspired its irresistible potency.

Pulcheria. A lay father-confessor horrid !

Constantius. And to give us an idea also of the
acuteness of Gwendolen's depression, of her haunting
sense of impending trouble.

Theodora. It must be remembered that Gwendolen
was in love with Deronda from the first, long before


she knew it. She didn't know it, poor girl, but that
was it.

Pulclieria. That makes the matter worse. It is
very disagreeable to see her hovering and rustling
about a man who is indifferent to her.

Theodora. He was not indifferent to her, since he
sent her back her necklace.

Pukheria. Of all the delicate attention to a charm-
ing girl that I ever heard of, that little pecuniary
transaction is the most felicitous.

Constantius. You must remember that he had been
en rapport with her at the gaming-table. She had
' been playing in defiance of his observation, and he,
continuing to observe her, had been in a measure
responsible for her loss. There was a tacit conscious-
ness of this between them. You may contest the
possibility of tacit consciousness going so far, but
that is not a serious objection. You may point out
two or three weak spots in detail ; the fact remains
that Gwendolen's whole history is vividly told.
And see how the girl is known, inside out, how
thoroughly she is felt and understood. It is the
most intelligent thing in all George Eliot's writing,
and that is saying much. It is so deep, so true, so
complete, it holds such a wealth of psychological
detail, it is more than masterly.

Theodora. I don't know where the perception of
character has sailed closer to the wind.

Pukheria. The portrait may be admirable, but it
has one little fault. You don't care a straw for the


original. Gwendolen is not an interesting girl, and
when the author tries to invest her with a deep tragic
interest she does so at the expense of consistency.
She has made her at the outset too light, too flimsy ;
tragedy has no hold on such a girl.

Theodora, You are hard to satisfy. You said this
morning that Dorothea was too heavy, and now you
find Gwendolen too light. George Eliot wished to
give us the perfect counterpart of Dorothea. Having
made one portrait she was worthy to make the other.

Pulcheria. She has committed the fatal error of
making Gwendolen vulgarly, pettily, drily selfish.
She was personally selfish.

Theodora. I know nothing more personal than

Pulcheria. I am selfish, but I don't go about with
my chin out like that ; at least I hope I don't. She
was an odious young woman, and one can't care what
becomes of her. When her marriage turned out ill
she would have become still more hard and positive ;
to make her soft and appealing is very bad logic.
The second Gwendolen doesn't belong to the first.

Constantius. She is perhaps at the first a little
childish for the weight of interest she has to carry, a
little too much after the patttern of the unconscien-
tious young ladies of Miss Yonge and Miss Sewell.

Theodora. Since when it is forbidden to make one's
heroine young ? Gwendolen is a perfect picture of
youthfulness its eagerness, its presumption, its pre-
occupation with itself, its vanity and silliness, its


sense of its own absoluteness. But she is extremely
intelligent and clever, and therefore tragedy can have
a hold upon her. Her conscience doesn't make the
tragedy ; that is an old story and, I think, a secondary
form of suffering. It is the tragedy that makes her
conscience, which then reacts upon it; and I can
think of nothing more powerful than the way in
which the growth of her conscience is traced, nothing
more touching than the picture of its helpless

Constantius. That is perfectly true. Gwendolen's
history is admirably typical as most things are
with George Eliot : it is the very stuff that human
life is made of. What is it made of but the dis -
covery by each of us that we are at the best but
a rather ridiculous fifth wheel to the coach, after we
have sat cracking our whip and believing that we are
at least the coachman in person ? We think we are
the main hoop to the barrel, and we turn out to be
but a very incidental splinter in one of the staves.
The universe forcing itself with a slow, inexorable
pressure into a narrow, complacent, and yet after all
extremely sensitive mind, and making it ache with
the pain of the process that is Gwendolen's story.
And it becomes completely characteristic in that her
supreme perception of the fact that the world is
whirling past her is in the disappointment not of a
base but of an exalted passion. The very chance to
embrace what the author is so fond of calling a
" larger life " seems refused to her. She is punished


for being narrow, and she is not allowed a chance to
expand. Her finding Deronda pre-engaged to go to
the East and stir up the race-feeling of the Jews
strikes- me as a wonderfully happy invention. The
irony of the situation, for poor Gwendolen, is almost
grotesque, and it makes one wonder whether the
whole heavy structure of the Jewish question in the
story was not built up by the author for the express
purpose of giving its proper force to this particular

Theodora. George Eliot's intentions are extremely
complex. The mass is for each detail and each
detail is for the mass.

Pulcheria. She is very fond of deaths by drowning.
Maggie Tulliver and her brother are drowned, Tito
Melema is drowned, Mr. Grandcourt is drowned. It
is extremely unlikely that Grandcourt should not
have known how to swim.

Constantius. He did, of course, but he had a cramp.
It served him right. I can't imagine a more con-
summate representation of the most detestable kind
of Englishman the Englishman who thinks it low
to articulate. And in Grandcourt the type and the
individual are so happily met : the type with its
sense of the proprieties and the individual with his
absence of all sense. He is the apotheosis of dry-
ness, a human expression of the simple idea of the

Theodora. Mr. Casaubon, in Middlemarch, was very
dry too ; and yet what a genius it is that can give


us two disagreeable husbands who are so utterly
different !

Pvlcheria. You must count the two disagreeable
wives too Eosamond Vincy and Gwendolen. They
are very much alike. I know the author didn't
mean it ; it proves how common a type the worldly,
pinde, selfish young woman seemed to her. They
are both disagreeable ; you can't get over that.

Constantius. There is something in that, perhaps.
I think, at any rate, that the secondary people here
are less delightful than in Middlemarch ; there is
nothing so good as Mary Garth and her father, or
the little old lady who steals sugar, or the parson
who is in love with Mary, or the country relatives
of old Mr. Featherstone. Rex Gascoigne is not so
good as Fred Vincy.

Theodora. Mr. Gascoigne is admirable, and Mrs.
Davilow is charming.

Pulcheria. And you must not forget that you
think Herr Klesmer "Shakespearean." Wouldn't
" Wagnerian " be high enough praise ?

Constantius. Yes, one must make an exception with
regard to the Klesmers and the Meyricks. They are
delightful, and as for Klesmer himself, and Hans
Meyrick, Theodora may maintain her epithet.
Shakespearean characters are characters that are
born of the overflow of observation characters
that make the drama seem multitudinous, like life.
Klesmer comes in with a sort of Shakespearean
" value," as a painter would say, and so, in a different


tone, does Hans Meyrick. They spring from a much-
peopled mind.

Theodora. I think Gwendolen's confrontation with
Klesmer one of the finest things in the book

Constantius. It is like everything in George Eliot ;
it will bear thinking of.

Pukheria. All that is very fine, but you cannot
persuade me that Deronda is not a very ponderous
and ill-made story. It has nothing that one can call
a subject. A silly young girl and a solemn, sapient
young man who doesn't fall in love with her ! That
is the donnte of eight monthly volumes. I call it
very flat. Is that what the exquisite art of Thack-
eray and Miss Austen and Hawthorne has come to 1
I would as soon read a German novel outright.

Theodora. There is something higher than form
there is spirit.

Constantius. I am afraid Pulcheria is sadly aesthetic.
She had better confine herself to M6rime'e.

Pulcheria. I shall certainly to-day read over La
Double Mepri&e.

Theodora. Oh, my dear, y pensez-vous ?

Constantius. Yes, I think there is little art in
Deronda, but I think there is a vast amount of life.
In life without art you can find your account ; but
art without life is a poor affair. The book is full of
the world.

Theodora. It is full of beauty and knowledge, and
that is quite art enough for me.

Pulcheria (to the little dog). We are silenced,


darling, but we are not convinced, are we? (The
pug begins to bark.) No, we are not even silenced.
It's a young woman with two bandboxes.

Theodora. Oh, it must be our muslins.

Constantius (rising to go). I see what you mean !




WHEN, a few months ago, Anthony Trollope laid
down his pen for the last time, it was a sign of the
complete extinction of that group of admirable writers
who, in England, during the preceding half century,
had done so much to elevate the art of the novelist.
The author of The Warden, of Barchester Towers, of
Framley Parsonage, does not, to our mind, stand on
the very same level as Dickens, Thackeray and
George Eliot; for his talent was of a quality less
fine than theirs. But he belonged to the same
family he had as much to tell us about English life ;
he was strong, genial and abundant. He published
too much ; the writing of novels had ended by be-
coming, with him, a perceptibly mechanical process.
Dickens was prolific, Thackeray produced with a
freedom for which we are constantly grateful ; but
we feel that these writers had their periods of ges-
tation. They took more time to look at their subject ;
relatively (for to-day there is not much leisure, at
best, for those who undertake to entertain a hungry
public), they were able to wait for inspiration,



Trollope's fecundity was prodigious ; there was no
limit to the work he was ready to do. It is not
unjust to say that he sacrificed quality to quantity.
Abundance, certainly, is in itself a great merit ;
almost all the greatest writers have been abundant.
But Trollope's fertility was gross, importunate ; he
himself contended, we believe, that he had given to
the world a greater number of printed pages of fiction
than any of his literary contemporaries. Not only
did his novels follow each other without visible inter-
mission, overlapping and treading on each other's
heels, but most of these works are of extraordinary
length. Orley Farm, Can You Forgive Her ? He Knew
He Was Eight, are exceedingly voluminous tales.
The Way We Live Now is one of the longest of modern
novels. Trollope produced, moreover, in the intervals
of larger labour a great number of short stories,
many of them charming, as well as various books of
travel, and two or three biographies. He was the
great improvvisatore of these latter years. Two dis-
tinguished story-tellers of the other sex one in
France and one in England have shown an extra-
ordinary facility of composition ; but Trollope's pace
was brisker even than that of the wonderful Madame
Sand and the delightful Mrs. Oliphant. He had
taught himself to keep this pace, and had reduced his
admirable faculty to a system. Every day of his life
he wrote a certain number of pages of his current
tale, a number sacramental and invariable, indepen-
dent of mood and place. It was once the fortune of


the author of these lines to cross the Atlantic in his
company, and he has never forgotten the magnificent
example of plain persistence that it was in the power
of the eminent novelist to give on that occasion.
The season was unpropitious, the vessel overcrowded,
the voyage detestable ; but Trollope shut himself up
in his cabin every morning for a purpose which, on
the part of a distinguished writer who was also an
invulnerable sailor, could only be communion with
the muse. He drove his pen as steadily on the
tumbling ocean as in Montague Square ; and as his
voyages were many, it was his practice before sailing
to come down to the ship and confer with the car-
penter, who was instructed to rig up a rough writing-
table in his small sea-chamber. Trollope has been
accused of being deficient in imagination, but in the
face of such a fact as that the charge will scarcely
seem just. The power to shut one's eyes, one's ears
(to say nothing of another sense), upon the scenery
of a pitching Cunarder and open them upon the
loves and sorrows of Lily Dale or the conjugal em-
barrassments of Lady Glencora Palliser, is certainly
a faculty which could take to itself wings. The
imagination that Trollope possessed he had at least
thoroughly at his command. I speak of all this in
order to explain (in part) why it was that, with his
extraordinary gift, there was always in him a certain
infusion of the common. He abused his gift, over-
worked it, rode his horse too hard. As an artist he
never took himself seriously ; many people will say


this was why he was so delightful. The people who
take themselves seriously are prigs and bores ; and
Trollope, with his perpetual "story," which was the
only thing he cared about, his strong good sense,
hearty good nature, generous appreciation of life in
all its varieties, responds in perfection to a certain
English ideal. According to that ideal it is rather
dangerous to be explicitly or consciously an artist
to have a system, a doctrine, a form. Trollope, from
the first, went in, as they say, for having as little
form as possible ; it is probably safe to affirm that
he had no " views " whatever on the subject of novel-
writing. His whole manner is that of a man who
regards the practice as one of the more delicate
industries, but has never troubled his head nor
clogged his pen with theories about the nature of his
business. Fortunately he was not obliged to do so,
for he had an easy road to success ; and his honest,
familiar, deliberate way of treating his readers as if
he were one of them, and shared their indifference to
a general view, their limitations of knowledge, their
love of a comfortable ending, endeared him to many
persons in England and America. It is in the name
of some chosen form that, of late years, things have
been made most disagreeable for the novel-reader, who
has been treated by several votaries of the new ex-
periments in fiction to unwonted and bewildering
sensations. With Trollope we were always safe ;
there were sure to be no new experiments.

His great, his inestimable merit was a complete


appreciation of the usual. This gift is not rare in
the annals of English fiction ; it would naturally be
found in a walk of literature in which the feminine
mind has laboured so fruitfully. Women are delicate
and patient observers ; they hold their noses close, as
it were, to the texture of life. They feel and perceive
the real with a kind of personal tact, and their ob-
servations are recorded in a thousand delightful
volumes. Trollope, therefore, with his eyes comfort-
ably fixed on the familiar, the actual, was far from
having invented a new category ; his great distinction
is that in resting there his vision took in so much of
the field. And then he felt all daily and immediate
things as well as saw them ; felt them in a simple,
direct, salubrious way, with their sadness, their glad-
ness, their charm, their comicality, all their obvious
and measurable meanings. He never wearied of
the pre-established round of English customs never
needed a respite or a change was content to go on
indefinitely watching the life that surrounded him,
and holding up his mirror to it. Into this mirror
the public, at first especially, grew very fond of
looking for it saw itself reflected in all the most
credible and supposable ways, with that curiosity that
people feel to know how they look when they are
represented, "just as they are," by a painter who
does not desire to put them into an attitude, to drape
them for an effect, to arrange his light and his
accessories. This exact and on the whole becoming
image, projected upon a surface without a strong


intrinsic tone, constitutes mainly the entertainment
that Trollope offered his readers. The striking thing
to the critic was that his robust and patient mind
had no particular bias, his imagination no light of
its own. He saw things neither pictorially and
grotesquely like Dickens ; nor with that combined
disposition to satire and to literary form which gives
such " body," as they say of wine, to the manner of
Thackeray ; nor with anything of the philosophic,
the transcendental cast the desire to follow them to
their remote relations which we associate with the
name of George Eliot. Trollope had his elements of
fancy, of satire, of irony ; but these qualities were
not very highly developed, and he walked mainly by
the light of his good sense, his clear, direct vision of
the things that lay nearest, and his great natural
kindness. There is something remarkably tender
and friendly in his feeling about all human per-
plexities ; he takes the good-natured, temperate, con-
ciliatory view the humorous view, perhaps, for the
most part, yet without a touch of pessimistic pre-
judice. As he grew older, and had sometimes to go
farther afield for his subjects, he acquired a savour
of bitterness and reconciled himself sturdily to treat-
ing of the disagreeable. A more copious record of
disagreeable matters could scarcely be imagined, for
instance, than The Way We Live Now. But, in
general, he has a wholesome mistrust of morbid
analysis, an aversion to inflicting pain. He has an
infinite love of detail, but his details are, for the most


part, the innumerable items of the expected. When
the French are disposed to pay a compliment to the
English mind they are so good as to say that there
is in it something remarkably honnUe. If I might
borrow this epithet without seeming to be patronising,
I should apply it to the genius of Anthony Trollope.
He represents in an eminent degree this natural
decorum of the English spirit, and represents it all
the better that there is not in him a grain of the
mawkish or the prudish. He writes, he feels, he
judges like a man, talking plainly and frankly about
many things, and is by no means destitute of a cer-
tain saving grace of coarseness. But he has kept
the purity of his imagination and held fast to old-
fashioned reverences and preferences. He thinks it a
sufficient objection to several topics to say simply
that they are unclean. There was nothing in his
theory of the story-teller's art that tended to convert
the reader's or the writer's mind into a vessel for pollut-
ing things. He recognised the right of the vessel to
protest, and would have regarded such a protest as
conclusive. With a considerable turn for satire,
though this perhaps is more evident in his early
novels than in his later ones, he had as little as
possible of the quality of irony. He never played
with a subject, never juggled with the sympathies or
the credulity of his reader, was never in the least para-
doxical or mystifying. He sat down to his theme in
a serious, business-like way, with his elbows on the
table and his eye occasionally wandering to the clock


To touch successively upon these points is to
attempt a portrait, which I shall perhaps not alto-
gether have failed to produce. The source of his
success in describing the life that lay nearest to
him, and describing it without any of those artistic
perversions that come, as we have said, from a power-
ful imagination, from a cynical humour or from a
desire to look, as George Eliot expresses it, for the
suppressed transitions that unite all contrasts, the
essence of this love of reality was his extreme interest
in character. This is the fine and admirable quality
in Trollope, this is what will preserve his best works
in spite of those flatnesses which keep him from
standing on quite the same level as the masters.
Indeed this quality is so much one of the finest (to
my mind at least), that it makes me wonder the more
that the writer who had it so abundantly and so
naturally should not have just that distinction which
Trollope lacks, and which we find in his three brill-
iant contemporaries. If he was in any degree a man
of genius (and I hold that he was), it was in virtue of
this happy, instinctive perception of human varieties.
His knowledge of the stuff we are made of, his obser-
vation of the common behaviour of men and women,
was not reasoned nor acquired, not even particularly
studied. All human doings deeply interested him,
human life, to his mind, was a perpetual story ; but
he never attempted to take the so-called scientific
view, the view which has lately found ingenious advo-
cates among the countrymen and successors of Balzac.


He had no airs of being able to tell you why people
in a given situation would conduct themselves in a
particular way ; it was enough for him that he felt
their feelings and struck the right note, because he
had, as it were, a good ear. If he was a knowing
psychologist he was so by grace ; he was just and
true without apparatus and without effort. He must
have had a great taste for the moral question ; he
evidently believed that this is the basis of the interest
of fiction. We must be careful, of course, in attri-
buting convictions and opinions to Trollope, who, as
I have said, had as little as possible of the pedantry
of his art, and whose occasional chance utterances in
regard to the object of the novelist and his means of
achieving it are of an almost startling simplicity.
But we certainly do not go too far in saying that he
gave his practical testimony in favour of the idea that
the interest of a work of fiction is great in propor-
tion as the people stand on their feet. His great
effort was evidently to make them stand so ; if he
achieved this result with as little as possible of a
nourish of the hand it was nevertheless the measure
of his success. If he had taken sides on the droll, be-
muddled opposition between novels of character and
novels of plot, I can imagine him to have said (except
that he never expressed himself in epigrams), that he
preferred the former class, inasmuch as character in
itself is plot, while plot is by no means character. It is
more safe indeed to believe that his great good sense
would have prevented him from taking an idle contro-


versy seriously. Character, in any sense in which we
can get at it, is action, and action is plot, and any plot
which hangs together, even if it pretend to interest
us only in the fashion of a Chinese puzzle, plays upon
our emotion, our suspense, by means of personal
references. We care what happens to people only in
proportion as we know what people are. Trollope's
great apprehension of the real, which was what made
him so interesting, came to him through his desire to
satisfy us on this point to tell us what certain
people were and what they did in consequence of
being so. That is the purpose of each of his tales ;
and if these things produce an illusion it comes from
the gradual abundance of his testimony as to the
temper, the tone, the passions, the habits, the moral
nature, of a certain number of contemporary Britons.
His stories, in spite of their great length, deal very

Online LibraryHenry JamesPartial portraits → online text (page 6 of 24)