[The Art of Fiction]
I have not hesitated to point out the defects as well as the merits that I see in these various novels, for nothing is of greater disservice to the general reader than the indiscriminate praise that is sometimes bestowed on certain works that are rightly accepted as classics. He reads and finds that such and such a motive is unconvincing, a certain character unreal, such and such episode irrelevant and a certain description tedious. If he is of an impatient temper, he will cry that the critics who tell him that the novel he is reading is a masterpiece are a set of fools, and if he is of a modest one, he will blame himself and think that it is above his head and not for the likes of him; if, on the other hand, he is by nature dogged and persistent he will read on conscientiously, though without enjoyment. But a novel is to be read with enjoyment. If it doesn't give the reader that, it is, so far as he is concerned, valueless. In this respect every reader is his own best critic, for he alone knows what he enjoys and what he doesn't. I think, however, that the novelist may claim that you do not do him justice unless you admit that he has the right to demand something of his readers. He has the right to demand that they should possess the small amount of application that is needed to read a book of three or four hundred pages. He has the right to demand that they should have sufficient imagination to be able to interest themselves in the lives, joys and sorrows, tribulations, dangers and adventures of the characters of his invention. Unless a reader is able to give something of himself he cannot get from a novel the best it has to give. And if he isn't able to do that, he had better not read it at all. There is no obligation to read a work of fiction.
A novelist, I have written these essays from my own standpoint. The danger of this is that the novelist is very apt to like best the sort of thing he does himself, and he will judge the work of others by how nearly they approach his own practice. In order to do full justice to works with which he has no natural sympathy, he needs a dispassionate integrity, a liberality of spirit, of which the members of an irritable race are seldom possessed. On the other hand, the critic who is not himself a creator is likely to know little about the technique of the novel, and so in his criticism he gives you either his personal impressions, which may well be of no great value, unless like Desmond MacCarthy he is not only a man of letters but also a man of the world; or else he proffers a judgement founded on hard and fast rules which must be followed to gain his approbation. It is as though a shoemaker made shoes only in two sizes and if neither ot them fitted your foot, you could for all he cared go shoeless.
The fact remains that to describe a novelist as a mere storyteller is to dismiss him with contumely. I venture to suggest that there is no such creature. By the incidents he chooses to relate, the characters he selects and his attitude towards them, the author offers you a criticism of life. It may not be a very original one, or very profound, but it is there; and consequently, though he may not know it, he is in his own modest way a moralist. But morals, unlike mathematics, are not a precise science. Morals cannot be inflexible for they deal with the behaviour of human beings, and human beings, as we know, are vain, changeable and vacillating.
When I consider how many obstacles the novelist has to contend with, how many pitfalls to avoid, I am not surprised that even the greatest novels are imperfect; I am only surprised that they are not more imperfect than they are.
What it all comes down to is the question whether the novel is a form of art or not. Is its aim to instruct or to please? If its aim is to instruct, then it is not a form of art. For the aim of art is to please. [...] But it is a truth that shocks a good many people, since Christianity has taught them to look upon pleasure with misgiving as snare to entangle the immortal soul. It seems more reasonable to look upon pleasure as a good, but to remember that certain pleasures have mischievous consequence and so may more wisely be eschewed. There is a general disposition to look upon pleasure as merely sensual, and that is natural since the sensual pleasures are more vivid than the intellectual; but that is surely an error, for there are pleasures of the mind as well as of the body, and if they are not so keen, they are more enduring.
I think it is an abuse to use the novel as a pulpit or a platform and I believe readers are misguided when they suppose they can thus easily acquire knowledge. It is a great nuisance that knowledge can only be acquired by hard work. It would be fine if we could swallow the powder of profitable information made palatable by the jam of fiction. But the truth is that, so made palatable, we can't be sure that the powder will be profitable, for the knowledge the novelist imparts is biased and thus unreliable; and it is better not know a thing at all than to know it in distorted fashion. There is no reason why a novelist should be anything but a novelist. It is enough if he is a good novelist. He should know a little about great many things, but it is unnecessary, and sometimes even harmful, for him to be a specialist in any particular subject. He need not eat a whole sheep to know what mutton tastes like; it is enough if he eats a chop. Then, by applying his imagination and his creative faculty to the chop he has eaten, he can give you a pretty good idea of an Irish stew; but when he goes on from this to broach his views on sheep-raising, the wool industry and the political situation in Australia, it is wise to accept them with reserve.
Now, owing to the invention of contraceptives, the high value that was once placed on chastity no longer obtains. Novelists have not been slow to notice the difference this has made in the relations of the sexes and so, whenever they feel that something must be done to sustain the reader's flagging interest, they cause their characters to indulge in copulation. I am not sure they are well advised. Of sexual intercourse Lord Chesterfield said that the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous and the expense damnable: if he had lived to read modern fiction he might have added that there is a monotony about the act which renders the reiterated narration of it excessively tedious.
The novelist is at the mercy of his bias. The subjects he chooses, the characters he invents and his attitude towards them are conditioned by it. Whatever he writes is the expression of his personality and it is the manifestation of his innate instincts, his feelings and his experience. However hard he tries to be objective, he remains the slave of his own idiosyncrasies. However hard he tries to be impartial, he cannot help taking sides. He loads his dice. [...] Henry James insisted again and again that the novelist must dramatize. That is a telling, though perhaps not very lucid, way of saying that he must arrange his facts in such a manner as to capture and hold your attention. So, if need be, he will sacrifice verisimilitude and credibility to the effect he wants to get. That, as we know, is not the way a work of scientific or informative value is written. The aim of the writer of fiction is not to instruct but to please.
[Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice]
Most of Jane’s letters that have remained were written to Cassandra when one or other of the sisters was staying away. Many of her warmest admirers have found them paltry, and have thought they showed that she was cold and unfeeling and that her interests were trivial. I am surprised. They are very natural. Jane Austen never imagined that anyone but Cassandra would read them, and she told her just the sort of things she knew would interest her. She told her what people were wearing, and how much she had paid for the flowered muslin she had bought, what acquaintances she had made, what old friends she had met and what gossip she had heard.
Of late years, several collections of letters by eminent authors have been published, and for my part, when I read them, I am now and then disposed to suspect that the writers had at the back of their minds the notion that one day they might find their way into print. And when I learn that they had kept copies of their letters, the suspicion is changed into certainty.
In one of her letters to Cassandra, Jane said: “I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth. I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter.” Of course she was quite right; that is the art of letter-writing. She attained it with consummate ease, and since she says that her conversation was exactly like her letters, and her letters are full of witty, ironical and malicious remarks, we may be pretty sure that her conversation was delightful. She hardly ever wrote a letter that had not a smile or a laugh in it, and for the delectation of the reader I will give some examples of her manner:
“Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.”
“Only think of Mrs. Holder being dead! Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the world she could possibly do to make one cease to abuse her.”
“Mrs. Hale, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”
“Mrs. Richard Harvey is going to be married, but as it is a great secret, and only known to half the neighbourhood, you must not mention it.”
“Dr. Hale is in such very deep morning that either his mother, his wife or himself must be dead.”
A relation of the Austens seems to have given occasion to gossip owing to the behaviour of a certain Dr. Mant, behaviour such that his wife retired to her mother’s, whereupon Jane wrote: “But as Dr. M. is a clergyman their attachment, however immoral, has a decorous air.”
Miss Austen had a sharp tongue and a prodigious sense of humour. She liked to laugh, and she liked to make others laugh. It is asking too much of the humorist to expect him – or her – to keep a good thing to himself when he thinks of it. And, heaven knows, it is hard to be funny without being sometimes a little malicious. There is not much kick in the milk of human kindness. Jane had a keen appreciation of the absurdity of others, their pretensions, their affectations and their insincerities; and it is to her credit that they amused rather than annoyed her. She was too amiable to say things to people that would pain them, but she certainly saw no harm in amusing herself at their expense with Cassandra. I see no ill-nature even in the most biting of her remarks; her humour was based, as humour should be, on observation and mother-wit.
Jane Austen shared the opinions common in her day and, so far as one can tell from her books and letters, was satisfied with the conditions that prevailed. She had no doubt that social distinctions were of importance, and she found it natural that there should be rich and poor. Young men, as was right and proper, obtained advancement in the service of the King by the influence of powerful friends. A woman's business was to marry, for love certainly, but in satisfactory conditions. This was in the order of things, and there is no sign that Miss Austen saw anything in it to object to. In one of her letters to Cassandra she remarks: “Carlo and his wife live in the most private manner imaginable in
keeping a servant of any kind. What a prodigious amount of virtue she must have
to marry under such circumstances.” The vulgar squalor in which Fanny Price’s
family lived, owing to her mother’s imprudent marriage, was an object-lesson to
show how careful a young woman should be. Portsmouth
Jane Austen’s novels are pure entertainment. If you happen to believe that to entertain should be the novelist’s main endeavour, you must put her in a class by herself. Greater novels than hers have been written, War and Peace, for example, and the Brothers Karamazov; but you must be fresh and alert to read them with profit. No matter if you are tired or dispirited, Jane Austen’s enchant.
At the time she wrote, it was thought far from lady-like to do so. Monk Lewis observed: “I have an aversion, a pity and contempt for all female scribblers. The needle, not the pen, is the instrument they should handle, and the only one they ever use dexterously.” The novel was a form held in scant esteem, and Miss Austen was herself not a little perturbed that Sir Walter Scott, a poet, should write fiction. She was “careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any person beyond her family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming.” Her eldest brother, James, never even told his son, then a boy at school, that the books he read with delight were by his Aunt Jane; and her brother Henry in his Memoir states: “No accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen.” So her first book to be published, Sense and Sensibility, was described on the title page as “by a Lady”.
It was not the first she completed. That was a novel called First Impressions. Her father wrote to a publisher offering for publication, at the author’s expense or otherwise, “a manuscript novel, comprising three volumes; about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina”. The offer was refused by return of post. First Impressions was begun during the winter of 1796 and finished in August 1797; it is generally supposed to have been substantially the same book as sixteen years later was issued as Pride and Prejudice. Then, in quick succession she wrote Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, but had no better luck with them, though after five years a Mr. Richard Crosby bought the latter, then called Susan, for ten pounds. He never published it, and eventually sold it back for what he had paid: since Miss Austen’s novels were published anonymously, he had no notion that the book with which he had parted for so small a sum was by the successful and popular author of Pride and Prejudice. She seems to have written little but a fragment, The Watsons, between 1798, when she finished Northanger Abbey, and 1809. It is a long time for a writer of such creative power to remain silent, and it has been suggested that the cause was a love affair that occupied her to the exclusion of other interests. We are told that, when staying with her mother and sister at a seaside resort in
Devonshire, “she became acquainted with a gentleman,
whose charm of person, mind and manners was such that Cassandra thought him
worthy to possess and likely to win her sister’s love. When they parted he
expressed his intention of soon seeing them again; and Cassandra felt no doubt
as to his motives. But they never met again. Within a short time, they heard of
his sudden death.” The acquaintance was short, and the author of Memoir adds that he is unable to say
“whether her feelings were of such a nature as to affect her happiness’. I do
not for my part think they were. I do not believe that Miss Austen was capable
of being very much in love. If she had been, she would surely have attributed
to her heroines a greater warmth of emotion than in fact she did. There is no
passion in their love. Their inclinations are tempered with prudence and
controlled by common sense. Real love has no truck with these estimable
qualities. Take Persuasion: Jane
states that Anne Elliot and Wentworth fell deeply in love with one another.
There, I think, she deceived herself and deceives her readers. On Wentworth’s
side it was certainly what Stendhal called amour
passion, but on Anne’s no more than what he called amour goût. They became engaged. Anne allows herself to be
persuaded by that interfering snob, Lady Russell, that it would be imprudent to
marry a poor man, a naval officer, who might be killed in the war. If she had
been deeply in love with Wentworth, she would surely have taken the risk. It
was not a very great one, for on her marriage she was to receive her share of
her mother’s fortune; this share amounted to rather more than three thousand
pounds, equivalent now to over twelve thousand; so in any case she would not
have been penniless. She might very well, like Captain Benwick and Miss
Hargreaves, have remained engaged to Wentworth till he got his command and so
was able to marry her. Anne Elliot broke off her engagement because Lady
Russell persuaded her that she might make a better match if she waited, and it
was not till no suitor, whom she was prepared to marry, presented himself that
she discovered how much she loved Wentworth. We may be pretty sure that Jane
Austen thought her behaviour natural and sensible.
The most plausible explanation of her long silence is that she was discouraged by her inability to find a publisher. Her close relations, to whom she read her novels, were charmed by them, but she was as sensible as she was modest, and she may well have decided that their appeal was only to persons who were fond of her, and had, perhaps, a shrewd idea who the models of her characters were. The author of the Memoir rejects emphatically that she had such models and Dr. Chapman seems to agree with him. They are claiming for Jane Austen a power of invention which is frankly incredible. All the greatest novelists, Stendhal and Balzac, Tolstoy and Turgenev, Dickens and Thackeray, have had models from whom they created their characters. It is true that Jane said: ''I am too proud of my gentlemen to admit that they were only Mr. A., or Colonel B.'' There the significant word is only. As with every other novelist, by the time her imagination had worked on the person who had suggested the character, he was to all intents and purposes her own creation; but that is not to say that he was not evolved from an original Mr. A. or Colonel B.
Be that as it may, in 1809, in which year Jane settled with her mother and sister in the quiet of Chawton, she set about revising her old manuscripts, and in 1811 Sense and Sensibility at last appeared. By then it was no longer outrageous for a woman to write. Professor Spurgeon, in a lecture on Jane Austen delivered to the Royal Society of Literature, quotes a preface to Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay. This lady had been urged to publish them in 1782, but public opinion was so averse “to female authorship” that she declined. But writing in 1816, she said: “Since then a considerable change has gradually taken place in public sentiment, and its development; we have now not only as in former days a number of women who do honour to their sex as literary characters, but many unpretending females, who fearless of the critical perils that once attended the voyage, venture to launch their little barks on the vast ocean through which amusement or instruction is conveyed to a reading public.”
Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Jane Austen sold the copyright for one hundred and ten pounds.
Besides the three novels already mentioned, she wrote three more,
Emma and Persuasion. On these few books her fame rests, and her fame is
secure. She had to wait a long time to get a book published, but she no sooner
did than her charming gifts were recognized. Since then, the most eminent
persons have agreed to praise her. I will only quote what Sir Walter Scott had
to say; it is characteristically generous: “that young lady had a talent for
describing the involvements, feelings and characters of ordinary life which is
to me the most wonderful I have ever met with. The big bow-wow I can do myself
like anyone going; but the exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and
characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is
denied to me.” Mansfield Park
It is odd that that Sir Walter should have omitted to make mention of the young lady’s most precious talent: her observation was searching and her sentiment edifying, but it was her humour that gave point to her observation and prim liveliness to her sentiment. Her range was narrow. She wrote very much the same sort of story in all her books, and there is no great variety in her characters. They are very much the same persons, seen from a somewhat different point of view. She had common sense in a high degree, and no one knew better than she her limitations. Her experience of life was confined to a small circle of provincial society and that is what she was content to deal with. She wrote only of what she knew. As was first pointed out by Dr. Chapman, she never attempted to reproduce a conversation of men when by themselves, which in nature of things she could never have heard.
Most novelists have their ups and downs. Miss Austen is the only exception I know to prove the rule that only the mediocre maintain an equal level, a level of mediocrity. She is never more than a little below her best. Even in Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, in which there is much to cavil at, there is more to delight. Each of the others had its devoted, and even fanatic, admirers. Macaulay thought
achievement; other readers, equally illustrious, have preferred Emma; Disraeli read Pride and Prejudice seventeen times; to-day many look upon Persuasion as her most finished work. The
great mass of readers, I believe, has accepted Pride and Prejudice as her masterpiece, and in such case I think it
well to accept their judgement. What makes a classic is not that it is praised
by critics, expounded by professors and studied in schools, but that large
numbers of readers, generation after generation, have found pleasure and
spiritual profit in reading it.
I myself think that Pride and Prejudice is on the whole the most satisfactory of all the novels. Its first sentence puts you in good humour: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It sets the note, and the good humour it induces remains with you till, with regret, you have reached the last page. Emma is the only one of Miss Austen’s novels that I find long-winded. I can take no great interest in the love affair of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax; and, though Miss Bates is immensely amusing, don’t we get a little too much of her? The heroine is a snob, and the way she patronizes those whom she looks upon as her social inferiors is repulsive. But we must not blame Miss Austen for that: we must remember that we of to-day do not read the same novel that was read by the readers of her day. Changes in manners and customs have wrought changes in our outlook; in some ways we are narrower than our forebears, in others more liberal; an attitude which even a hundred years ago was general now affects us with malaise. We judge the books we read by our own prepossessions and our own standards of behaviour. This is unfair, but inevitable. In
Park the hero and heroine, Fanny and
Edmund, are intolerable prigs; and all my sympathies go out to the
unscrupulous, sprightly and charming Henry and Mary Crawford. I cannot understand
why Sir Thomas Bertram should have been enraged when, on his return from
overseas, he found his family amusing themselves with private theatricals. Since
Jane herself thoroughly enjoyed them, one cannot see why she found his anger
justifiable. Persuasion has a rare
charm, and though one may wish that Anne were a little less matter-of-fact, a
little more disinterested, a little more impulsive – in fact a little less
old-maidish – except for the incident on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, I should be
forced to look upon it as the most perfect of the six. Jane Austen had no
particular gift for inventing incident of an unusual character, and this one
seems to me a very clumsy contrivance. Louisa Musgrove runs up some steep
steps, and is “jumped down” by her admirer, Captain Wentworth. He misses her,
she falls on her head and is stunned. If he were going to give her his hands,
as we are told he had been in the habit of doing in “jumping her off” a stile,
even if the Cobb then were twice as high as it is now, she could not have been
more than six feet from the ground and, as she was jumping down, it is
impossible that she should have fallen on her head. In any case, she would have
fallen against the stalwart sailor and, though perhaps shaken and frightened,
could hardly have hurt herself. Anyhow, she was unconscious, and the fuss that
ensued is unbelievable. Captain Wentworth, who has seen action and made a
fortune from prize-money, is paralysed with horror. The immediately subsequent
behaviour of all concerned is so idiotic that I find it hard to believe that
Miss Austen, who was able to take the illnesses and death of her friends and
relations with quiet fortitude, did not look upon it as uncommonly foolish. Mansfield
Professor Garrod, a learned and witty critic, has said that Jane Austen was incapable of writing a story, by which, he explains, he means a sequence of happenings, either romantic or uncommon. But that is not what Jane had a talent for, and not what she tried to do. She had too much sense, and too sprightly a humour, to be romantic, and she was interested not in the uncommon, but in the common. She made it uncommon by the keenness of her observation, her irony and her playful wit.
Pride and Prejudice is a very well-constructed book. The incidents follow one another naturally, and one’s sense of probability is nowhere outraged. It is, perhaps, odd that Elizabeth and Jane should be well-bred and well-behaved, whereas their mother and their three younger sisters should be, as Lady Knatchbull put it, “very much below par as to good society and its ways”; but that this should be so was essential to the story. I have allowed myself to wonder that Miss Austen did not avoid this stumbling-block by making
and Jane the daughters of a first marriage
of Mr. Bennet and making the Mrs. Bennet of the novel his second wife and the
mother of the three younger daughters. She liked Elisabeth best of all her
heroines. "I must confess,” she wrote, ''that I think her as delightful a
creature as ever appeared in print.'' If, as some have thought, she was herself
the original for her portrait of Elisabeth – and she has certainly given her
own gaiety, high spirit and courage, wit and readiness, good sense and right
feeling – it is perhaps not rash to suppose that when she drew the placid,
kindly and beautiful Jane Bennet she had in mind her sister Cassandra. Darcy
has been generally regarded as a fearful cad. His first offence was his
disinclination to dance with people he didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, at
a public ball to which he had gone with a party. Not a very heinous one. It was
unfortunate that Elizabeth
should overhear the derogatory terms in which he spoke of her to Bingley, but
he could not know that she was listening, and his excuse might have been that
his friend was badgering him to do what he had no wish to. It is true that when
Darcy proposes to Elizabeth
it is with an unpardonable insolence, but pride, pride of birth and position,
was the predominant trait of his character, and without it there would have
been no story to tell. The manner of his proposal, moreover, gave Jane Austen
opportunity for the most dramatic scene in the book; it is conceivable that,
with the experience she gained later, she might have been able to indicate
Darcy’s feelings, very natural and comprehensible feelings, in such a way as to
antagonize Elizabeth, without putting into his mouth speeches so outrageous as
to shock the reader. There is, perhaps, some exaggeration in the drawing of
Lady Catherine and Mr Collins, but to my mind little more than comedy allows.
Comedy sees life in a light more sparkling, but colder, than that of common
day, and a touch of exaggeration, that is, of farce, is often no disadvantage.
A discreet amount of farce, like sprinkle of sugar on strawberries, may well
make comedy more palatable. With regard to Lady Catherine, one must remember
that in Miss Austen's day rank gave its possessors a sense of immense
superiority over persons of inferior station; and they not only expected to be
treated by them with utmost deference, but were. In my own youth I knew great
ladies whose sense of importance, though not quite so blatant, was not far
removed from Lady Catherine's. And as for Mr. Collins, who has not known, even
to-day, men with that combination of obsequiousness and pomposity? That they
have learnt to screen it with a front of geniality only makes it more odious. Elizabeth
Jane Austen was not a great stylist, but she wrote plainly and without affectation. I think the influence of Dr. Johnson may be discerned in the structure of her sentences. She is apt to use the word of Latin origin rather than the homely English one. It gives her phrase a slight formality which is far from unpleasant; indeed, it often adds point to a witty remark, and a demure savour to a malicious one. Her dialogue is probably as natural as dialogue could then be. To us it may seem somewhat stilted. Jane Bennet, speaking of her lover’s sisters, says: “They were certainly no friends to his acquaintance with me, which I cannot wonder at, since he might have chosen so much more advantageously in many respects.” It may, of course, be that these were the very words she uttered; I think it unlikely. It is obviously not how a modern novelist would phrase the same remark. To set down on paper speech exactly as it is spoken is very tedious, and some arrangement of it is certainly necessary. It is only of late years, comparatively, that novelists, striving for verisimilitude, have been at pains to make their dialogue as colloquial as possible: I suspect that it was a convention of the past to cause persons of education to express themselves with a balance, and with a grammatical correctness, which cannot commonly have been at their command, and I presume readers accepted it as natural.
Allowing, then, for the slight formality of Miss Austen’s dialogue, we must admit that she invariably made the person[s] of her stories speak in character. I have only noticed one occasion upon which she slipped up: “Anne smiled and said, ‘My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company’ ‘You are mistaken, said he gently, ‘that is not good company that is the best.’”
Mr. Elliot had faults of character; but if he was capable of making so admirable a reply to Anne’s remark, he must have had qualities with which his creator did not see fit to acquaint us. For my part, I am so charmed with it that I would have been content to see her marry him rather than the stodgy Captain Wentworth. It is true that Mr. Elliot had married a woman “of inferior station” for her money, and neglected her; and his treatment of Mrs. Smith was ungenerous; but, after all, we only have her side of the story, and it may be that, had we been given a chance to hear his, we should have found his conduct pardonable.
There is one merit which Miss Austen has and which I have almost omitted to mention. She is wonderfully readable – more readable than some greater and more famous novelists. She deals, as Walter Scott said, with commonplace things, ''the involvements, feelings and characters of ordinary life''; nothing very much happens in her books, and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next. Nothing very much does and again you eagerly turn the page. The novelist who has the power to achieve this has the most precious gift a novelist can possess.
 R. W. Chapman, Jane Austen: Facts and Problems, first published in 1948.
 H. W. Garrod, Jane Austen: A Deprecation, first published in 1928.
[Charles Dickens and David Copperfield]
In a famous essay Matthew Arnold insists that poetry to be truly excellent must have a high seriousness, and because he finds it lacking in Chaucer, refuses him, though praising him handsomely, a place among the greatest poets. Arnold was too austere not to look upon humour with a faint misgiving, and I don’t suppose he could ever have been brought to admit that there might be as high a seriousness in Rabelais’ laughter as in Milton’s desire to justify the works of God to man. But I see his point, and it does not apply only to poetry. It may be because this high seriousness is lacking in Dickens’s novels that, for all their great merits, they leave us faintly dissatisfied. When we read them now with the great French and Russian novels in mind, and not only those, but George Eliot’s, we are taken aback by their naïveté. In comparison with them, Dickens’s are scarcely adult. But, of course, we must remember that we do not read the novel he wrote. We have changed, and they have changed with us. It is impossible to recapture the emotions with which his contemporaries read them, as they came hot from the press.
For my part, I find myself still immensely amused by Dickens’s humour, but his pathos leaves me cold. I am inclined to say that he had strong emotions, but no heart. I hasten to qualify that. He had a generous heart, a passionate sympathy with the poor and oppressed, and, as we know, he took a persistent and effective interest in social reform. But it was an actor’s heart, by which I mean that he could feel intensely an emotion that he wished to depict in the same way as an actor playing a tragic part can feel the emotion he represents. ‘What’s he to Hecuba or Hecuba to him?’ […] I have no doubt that Dickens was sincere, but it was an actor’s sincerity; and that, perhaps, is why now, no matter how he piled up the agony, we feel that his pathos was not quite genuine and so are no longer moved by it.
Dickens’s general method of creating character was to exaggerate the traits, peculiarities, foibles, of his models and to put into the mouth of each one some phrase, or string of phrases, which stamped his quintessence on the reader’s mind. He never showed the development of characters and, on the whole, what his creatures were at the beginning they remain at the end. (There are in Dickens’s work one or two exceptions, but the change of nature he has indicated is highly unconvincing; it is occasioned to bring about a happy ending.) The danger of drawing character in this way is that the limits of plausibility may be exceeded, and the result is caricature. Caricature is all very well when the author presents you with character at whom you can laugh, as you can at Mr Micawber, but it will not serve when he expects you to sympathize. Dickens was never particularly successful with his female characters unless, like Mrs. Micawber, with her “I will never desert Mr. Micawber”, and Betsy Trotwood, they were caricatured. Dora, drawn after Dickens’s first love, Maria Beadnell, is too silly and too childish; Agnes, drawn after Mary and Georgy Hogarth, is too good and too sensible: they are both fearfully tiresome. Little Em’ly seems to me a failure: she only got what she asked for. Her ambition was to be a “lady”, and in the hope, presumably, that she would be able to get Steerforth to marry her, she ran away with him. She seems to have made him a most unsatisfactory mistress, sullen, tearful and sorry for herself; and it is no wonder that he grew tired of her. The most baffling female character in David Copperfield is Rosa Dartle. I suspect that Dickens meant to make greater use of her in his story than he did, and if he did not do so, it was because he feared to offend his public. I can only suppose that Steerforth had been her lover and she hated him because he had abandoned her, but, notwithstanding, loved him still with a jealous, hungry, vindictive love. Dickens here invented a character that Balzac would have made much of. Of the leading actors in David Copperfield, Steerforth is the only one that is drawn “straight”, using the word as actors do when they speak of a “straight part”. Dickens has given the reader an admirable impression of Steerforth’s charm, grace and elegance, his friendliness, his kindliness, his amiable gift of being able to get on with all kinds of people, his gaiety, his courage, his selfishness, his unscrupulousness, his recklessness, his callousness. He has drawn here a portrait of the sort of man that most of us have known, who gives delight wherever he goes and leaves disaster behind him. […] To-day, the novelist is under the necessity of making the events he relates not only likely, but so far as possible inevitable. Dickens was under no such constraint. That Steerforth, coming from
Portugal by sea
after an absence from England
of some years, should be wrecked and drowned in sight of just when David Copperfield had gone
there on a brief visit to his old friends, is a coincidence that really puts
too great a strain on the reader’s credulity. If Steerforth had to die in order
to satisfy the Victorian demand that vice should be punished, Dickens might
surely have thought of a more plausible way of bringing this about. Yarmouth
So to see people well suited the idiosyncrasy of Dickens’s temper. Mr. Micawber was drawn from his father. John Dickens was grandiloquent in speech and shifty in money matters, but he was no fool and far from incompetent; he was industrious, kindly and affectionate. We know what Dickens made of him. If Falstaff is the greatest comic character in literature, Mr. Micawber is the greatest but one. Dickens has been blamed, to my mind unjustly, for making him end up as a respectable magistrate in
and some critics have thought that he should have remained reckless and
improvident to the end. Australia
was a sparsely settled country. Mr. Micawber was a man of fine presence, of
some education and of flamboyant address; I do not see why, in that environment
and with those advantages, he should not have attained official position. But
it was not only in his creation of comic characters that Dickens was masterly.
Steerforth’s smooth servant is admirably drawn; he has a mysterious, sinister
quality which sends cold shivers down one’s back. Uriah Heep smacks of what
used to be called transpontine melodrama; but for all that he is a powerful,
horrifying figure, and he is most skilfully presented. Indeed, David Copperfield is filled with
characters of the most astonishing variety, vividness and originality. There
never were such people as the Micawbers, Peggotty and Barkis, Traddles, Betsy
Trotwood and Mr Dick, Uriah Heep and his mother: they are the fantastic
inventions of Dickens’s exultant imagination; but they have so much vigour,
they are so consistent, they are presented with so much verisimilitude and with
so much conviction, that while you read you cannot but believe in them. They
may not be real; they are very much alive. Australia
But we have no right to ask of an author more than he can give, and if Dickens lacked that high seriousness which Matthew Arnold demanded of the greatest poets, he had much else. He was a very great novelist. He had enormous gifts. He thought David Copperfield the best of all his books. An author is not always a good judge of his own work, but in this case Dickens’s judgement seems to me correct. David Copperfield, as I suppose everyone knows, is in great part autobiographical; but Dickens was writing a novel, not an autobiography, and though he drew much of his material from his own life, he made only such use of it as suited his purpose. For the rest, he fell back on his vivid imagination. He was never much of a reader, literary conversation bored him, and such acquaintance with literature as he made later in life seems to have had little effect in lessening the very strong impressions he had received from the works he first read as a boy at Chatham. Of these it was, I think, the novels of Smollett that in the long run chiefly influenced him. The figures Smollett presents to the reader are not so much larger than life as more highly coloured. They are “humours” rather than characters.
It was a misfortune for English literature that Keats died too soon and Wordsworth too late; it was a misfortune almost as serious that, just at the time when the greatest novelists our country has produced were in full possession of their gifts, the methods of publication then prevalent encouraged, to the detriment of their production, the tendency to diffuseness and prolixity and digression to which by their nature English novelists have for the most part been inclined. The Victorian novelists were working men who lived by their pen. They had to accept contracts to provide a definite amount of copy for eighteen, twenty or twenty-four numbers, and they had so to arrange their narrative as to end each number in such a way as to induce the reader the buy the following one. They doubtless had in mind the main lines of the story they set out to tell, but we know that they were satisfied if they had two or three numbers written before publication started. They wrote the rest as they were needed, trusting that their invention would provide them with enough material to fill the requisite number of pages; and we know, from their own admissions, that on occasion their invention failed them and they had to make the best job they could when they had nothing to write about. Sometimes it happened that their story was finished when there were perhaps two or three numbers still to be written, and then they had to use any device they could think of to delay the conclusion. Naturally their novels were shapeless and long-winded; they were forced to digression and prolixity.
Dickens did not escape the danger that confronts the author of a semi-autobiographical novel in which himself is the principal character. David Copperfield at the age of ten was put to work by his stern stepfather, as Charles Dickens was by his father, and suffered from the “degradation” of having to mix with boys of his own age whom he did not consider his social equals, in the same way as Dickens, in the fragment of autobiography which he gave to Forster, persuaded himself that he had suffered. Dickens did all he could to excite the reader’s sympathy for his hero, and indeed on the celebrated journey to Dover, when David ran away in order to seek the protection of his aunt Betsy Trotwood, a delightful, amusing character, he loads his dice without scruple. Innumerable readers have found the narration of this escapade wonderfully pathetic. I am made of sterner stuff. I am surprised that the little boy should have been such a ninny as to let everyone he came across rob and cheat him. After all, he had been in the factory for some months and had wandered about London early and late; one would have thought that the other boys at the factory, even though they were not up to his social standard, would have taught him a thing or two; he had lived with the Micawbers and pawned their bits and pieces for them, and had visited them at the Marshalsea: if he had really been the bright boy he is described to be, even at that tender age he would surely have acquired some knowledge of the world and enough sharpness to fend for himself. But it is not only in his childhood that David Copperfield shows himself sadly incompetent. He is incapable of coping with a difficulty. His weakness with Dora, his lack of common sense in dealing with the ordinary problems of domestic life, are almost more than one can bear; and he is so obtuse that he does not guess that Agnes is in love with him. I cannot persuade myself that in the end he became the successful novelist we are told he did. If he wrote novels, I suspect that they were more like those of Mrs. Henry Wood than those of Charles Dickens. It is strange that his creator should have given him none of his own drive, vitality and exuberance. David was slim and good-looking; and he had charm, or he would not have attracted the affection of almost everyone he encountered; he was honest, kindly and conscientious; but he was surely a bit of a fool. He remains the least interesting person in the book. Nowhere does he show himself in so poor a light, so feckless, so incapable of dealing with an awkward situation, as in the monstrous scene between Little Em’ly and Rosa Dartle in the attic in
Soho which David witnesses but,
for the very flimsiest reason, makes no attempt to stop. This scene affords a
good example how the method of writing a novel in the first person may result
in the narrator being forced into a position so shockingly false, so unworthy
of a hero of fiction, that the reader is justly indignant with him. If
described in the third person, from the standpoint of omniscience, the scene
would still have been melodramatic and repellent, but, even though with
difficulty, credible. But of course the pleasure one gets from reading David Copperfield does not arise from
any persuasion one may have that life is, or ever was, anything like what
Dickens describes. That is not to depreciate him. Fiction, like the kingdom of
heaven, has many mansions, and the author may invite you to visit whichever he
chooses. One has just as much right to exist as another, but you must suit
yourselves to the surroundings into which you are led. […] David Copperfield is a fantastication, sometimes gay, sometimes
pathetic, on life, composed out of recollections and wish-fulfilments by a man
of lively imagination and warm feelings. You must read it in the same spirit as
you read As You Like It. It provides an entertainment almost as delightful.
[Flaubert and Madame Bovary]
If, as I believe, the sort of books an author writes depends on the sort of man he is, and so it is well to know what is relevant to his personal history, this, as will presently appear, in the case of Flaubert is essential. He was a very unusual man. No writer that we know of devoted himself with such a fierce and indomitable industry to the art of literature. It was not with him, as it is with most authors, an activity of paramount importance but one that allows for other activities which rest the mind, refresh the body and enrich experience. He did not think that to live was the object of life; for him the object of life was to write: no monk in his cell more resolutely sacrificed the pleasures of the world to the love of God than Flaubert sacrificed the fullness and variety of life to his ambition to create a work of art. He was at once a romantic and a realist. Now, at the bottom of romanticism, as I said in speaking of Balzac, is a hatred of reality and a passionate desire to escape from it. Like the rest of the romantics, Flaubert sought refuge in the extraordinary and the fantastic, in the Orient and in antiquity; and yet, for all his hatred of reality, for all his loathing of the meanness, the platitude, the imbecility of the bourgeois, he was fascinated by it; for there was something in his nature that horribly attracted him to what he most detested. Human stupidity had a revolting charm for him, and he took a morbid delight in exhibiting it in all its odiousness. It got on his nerves with the force of any obsession; it was like a sore on the body that is pain to touch and that yet you can’t help touching. The realist in him pored over human nature as though it were a pile of garbage, not to find something he could value, but to show to all and sundry how base, for all their outward seeming, were human beings.
He was emotional and imaginative, and, like many another child and boy, was troubled by that sense of inner loneliness which the sensitive carry with them all their lives. ‘I went to school when I was only ten,’ he wrote, ‘and I very soon contracted a profound aversion to the human race.’ This is not just a quip; he meant it. He was a pessimist from his youth up.
‘Your love isn’t love,’ Louise [Colet, his mistress] wrote, ‘in any case it doesn’t mean much in your life.’ To this he replied: ‘You want to know if I love you. Well, yes, as much as I can love; that’s to say, for me love isn’t the first thing in life, but the second.’ Flaubert prided himself on his frankness; it was indeed brutal. His tactlessness was amazing. On one occasion, he asked Louise to find out from a friend of hers who had lived in
Cayenne what had happened to Eulalie Foucaud, the object
of his adventure in ,
and even asked her to have a letter delivered to her; he was frankly astonished
when she accepted the commission with irritation. He even told her of his
encounters with prostitutes, for whom he had, according to his own story, an
inclination which he frequently gratified. But there is nothing men lie about
so much as about their sex life, and it is probable that he was boasting of
powers which he did not possess. Marseilles
With the exception of La Tentation de St Antoine, the more important of his early works had been strictly personal; they were, in fact, novelizations of his amorous experience: his aim now was to be strictly objective. He determined to tell the truth without being bias or prejudice, narrating the facts and exposing the characters of the persons he had to deal with without comment of his own, neither condemning nor praising: if he sympathized with one, not to show it; if the stupidity of another exasperated him, the malice of a third outraged him, not to allow word of his own to reveal it. This, on the whole, is what he succeeded in doing, and that is perhaps why many readers have found a certain coldness in the novel. There is nothing heart-warming in this calculated, obstinate detachment. Though it may be a weakness in us, my impression is that, as readers, we find comfort in knowing that the author shares the emotions he had made us feel.
But the attempt at complete impersonality fails with Flaubert, as it fails with every novelist, because complete impersonality is impossible to achieve. It is very well that the writer should let his characters explain themselves and, as far as may be, let their actions be the outcome of their natures, and he may easily make a nuisance of himself when he draws your attention to his heroine’s charm or his villain’s malevolence, when he moralizes or irrelevantly digresses, when, in short, he is a personage in the story he is telling; but this is only a matter of method, one that some very good novelists have used and, if it happens to have gone out of fashion at the moment, this is not to say it is a bad one. But the author who avoids it keeps his personality only out of the surface of his novel; he reveals it willy-nilly by his choice of subject, his choice of character and the point of view from which he describes them. Flaubert eyed the world with gloomy indignation. He was violently intolerant. He had no patience with stupidity. The bourgeois, the commonplace, the ordinary filled him with exasperation. He had no pity. He had no charity. Most of his adult life he was a sick man, oppressed by the humiliation which his distemper caused him to feel. His nerves were in a constant state of perturbation. He was, as I have said, at once a romantic and a realist; and he flung himself into the sordid story of Emma Bovary with the fury of a man revenging himself by wallowing in the gutter because life has not met the demands of his passion for the ideal. We are introduced to many persons in the course of the novel’s five hundred pages, and but for Dr Lariviére, a minor character, they have hardly a redeeming feature. They are base, mean, stupid, trivial and vulgar. A great many people are, but not all; and it is inconceivable that in a town, however small, there should not be found one person at least, if not two or three, who is sensible, kindly and helpful. Flaubert failed to keep his personality out of his novel.
His deliberate intention was to choose a set of characters who were thoroughly commonplace, and devise incidents that would inevitably arise from their nature and their circumstances; but he was well aware of the possibility that no one would be interested in persons so dull, and that the incidents he had to relate would prove tedious. How he proposed to deal with this I will come to later. Before doing so, I want to consider how far he succeeded in his attempt. The characters are drawn with consummate skill. We are persuaded of their truth. We no sooner meet them than we accept them as living creatures, standing on their own feet, in the world we know. We take them for granted, as we take our plumber, our grocer, our doctor. It never occurs to us that they are figures in a novel. Homais, to mention one, is a creature as humorous as Mr. Micawber, and he has become as familiar to the French as Mr. Micawber is to us; and we believe in him as we can never quite believe in Mr. Micawber, for, unlike Mr. Micawber, he is always consistently himself. But Emma Bovary is not by any means the ordinary farmer’s daughter. That there is in her something of every woman and of every man is true. We are all given to extravagant and absurd reveries, in which we see ourselves rich, handsome, successful, the heroes or heroines of romantic adventures; but most of us are too sensible, too timorous or too unadventurous to let our day-dreams seriously affect our behaviour. Emma Bovary was exceptional in that she tried to live her fantasies; she was exceptional in her beauty. As is well known, when the novel was published author and printer were prosecuted on the charge that it was immoral. I have read the speeches of the public prosecutor and of the defending counsel. The prosecutor recited a number of passages which he claimed were pornographic: they make one smile now, they are so restrained in comparison with the descriptions of sexual intercourse to which modern novelists have accustomed us; but one cannot believe that even then (in 1875) the prosecutor was shocked by them. The defending counsel pleaded that the passages were necessary, and that the moral of the novel was good because Emma Bovary suffered for her misconduct. The judges accepted this view, and the defendants were acquitted. It is evident, however, that if Emma came to a bad end, it was not, as the morality of the time demanded, because she had committed adultery, but because she run up bills that she hadn’t the money to pay, and if she had had the notoriously thrifty instincts of the Norman peasant, there was no reason why she should not have gone from lover to lover without coming to harm.
On publication, Flaubert’s great novel was enthusiastically received by readers and immediately became a best-seller, but the critics were, when not hostile, indifferent. Strange as it may seem, they were more inclined to attach importance to a novel called Fanny by a certain Ernest Feydeau, which was issued about the same time; and it was only the deep impression that Madame Bovary made on the public, and the influence it had on subsequent writers of fiction, that obliged them in the end to take it seriously.
Madame Bovary is a hard-luck story rather than a tragedy. I should say that the difference between the two is that in a hard-luck story the events that occur are brought about by chance, whereas in a tragedy they are the result of the characters of the persons engaged. It was bad luck that, with her looks and charm, Emma should have married such a dull fool as Charles Bovary. It was bad luck that when she was pregnant and wanted a son to make up for the disillusionment of her marriage, she should have a daughter. It was bad luck that Rodolphe Boulanger, Emma’s first lover, was a selfish, brutal fellow who let her down. It was bad luck that her second was mean, weak and timorous. It was bad luck that when she was desperate, the village priest, to whom she went for help and guidance, should be a callous and fatuous dolt. It was bad luck that when Emma found herself hopelessly in debt and, threatened with proceedings, so far humiliated herself as to ask Rodolphe for money, he couldn’t give it her, though we are told he would have been ready to do so, because he didn’t happen to have any with him. It was bad luck that it ever occurred to him that his credit was good and his lawyer would immediately have given him the required sum. The story Flaubert had to tell necessarily ended in Emma’s death, but it must be confessed that the means by which he brought it about strains the reader’s credulity to the breaking-point.
Some have found it a fault that, though Emma is the central character, the novel begins with an account of Bovary’s early youth and his first marriage, and ends with his disintegration and death. I surmise Flaubert’s idea was enclose the story of Emma Bovary within that of her husband, as you enclose a painting in a frame. He may have felt that thus he rounded off his narrative and gave it the unity of a work of art. If this was his intention, it would have been more evident if the end were not hurried and arbitrary. Throughout the book, Charles Bovary has been shown to be weak and easily led. Flaubert tells us that after Emma’s death he changed utterly. That is very summary. Broken as he was, it is hard to credit that he should have become quarrelsome, self-willed and obstinate. Though a stupid man, he was conscientious, and it seems strange that he should have neglected his patients. He badly needed their money. He had Emma’s debts to pay and his daughter to provide for. The radical change in Bovary’s character requires a good deal more explanation than Flaubert has given it. Finally he dies. He was a robust man in the prime of life, and the only reason one can give for his death is that Flaubert, after fifty-five months of exhausting labour, wanted to be done with the book. Since we are expressly told that Bovary’s memories of Emma with time grew dim, and so presumably less poignant, one cannot but ask oneself why Flaubert did not let Bovary’s mother arrange a third marriage for him, as she had arranged the first. It would have added one more note of futility to the story of Emma Bovary, and accorded well with Flaubert’s ferocious sense of irony.
On the whole, Madame Bovary gives an impression of intense reality, and this arises, I think, not only because Flaubert’s characters are eminently lifelike, but because he has described detail with extreme accuracy. The first four years of Emma’s married life were passed in a village called Tostes; she was hideously bored there, but for the balance of the book this period had to be described at the same pace and with the same detail as the rest. Now, it is difficult to describe a boring time without boring the reader; yet you read the long passage with interest. Flaubert has narrated a series of very trivial incidents, and you are not bored because you are reading something fresh all the time; but since each little incident, whether it is something that Emma does, feels or sees, is so commonplace, so trivial, you do get a vivid impression of her boredom. [...] Flaubert introduces his characters in action, and we learn of their appearance, their mode of living, their setting, in a continuous process; as, in fact, we come know people in real life.
After the publication of Madame Bovary Flaubert wrote Salambô, which is generally considered a failure, then another version of L’Education Sentimentale, in which he again described his love for Elisa Schlesinger. Many men of letters in
look upon it as his
masterpiece. It is confused and hard to read. Frédéric Moreau, the hero, is
partly a portrait of Flaubert, as he saw himself, and partly a portrait of
Maxime du Camp as he saw him; but the two men were two different to make a
plausible amalgam, and the character remains unconvincing. He is singularly
uninteresting. The book, however, begins admirably, and towards the end there
is a parting scene between Madame Arnoux (Elisa Schlesinger) and Frédéric
(Flaubert) of rare beauty. Then, for the third time, he wrote La Tentation de St. Antoine. Though
Flaubert said he had enough ideas for books to last him to the end of his life,
they remained vague projects. It is curious that with the exception of Madame
Bovary, the story of which was given him ready-made, the only novels he wrote
were founded on ideas he had had early in his life. He aged prematurely. At
thirty he was already bald and pot-bellied. It may well be, as Maxime de Camp
said, that his nerve storms and the depressing sedatives he took to counteract
them impaired his power of imagination creation. France
The last work he published was a volume of three stories, one of which, Un Coeur Simple, is of a rare excellence. He engaged upon a novel called Bouvard et Pecuchet, in which he determined to have still another fling at the stupidity of the human race, and with his usual thoroughness he read fifteen hundred books to provide himself with the material he thought necessary. It was to be in two volumes, and he almost reached the end of the first. On the morning of May 8, 1880, the maid went into the library into eleven to bring him lunch. She found him lying on the divan, muttering incomprehensible words. She ran for the doctor and brought him back with her. He could do nothing. In less than an hour Gustave Flaubert was dead.
The only woman he sincerely, devotedly and disinterestedly loved in his life was Elisa Schlesinger. One evening at dinner chez Magny, when Theophile Gautier, Taine and Edmond de Goncourt were present, Flaubert made a curious statement: he said that he had never really possessed a woman, that he was virgin, that all the women that he had had were never anything but “mattresses” for another woman, the woman of his dreams. Maurice Schlesinger’s speculations had ended in disaster, and he took his wife and children to
In 1871 he died. Flaubert, after loving Elisa for thirty-five years, wrote his
first love letter to her. Instead of beginning as he had been used to do: “Chère Madame,” he began: “My old love,
my only loved one.” She came to Croisset. Both were greatly changed since they
had last seen one another. Flaubert was gross and fat, his face red and
blotchy; he wrote an immense moustache and to cover his baldness a black cap.
Elisa had grown thin, her skin had lost its delicate hues and her hair was
white. The lovely description in L’Education
Sentimentale of the last meeting of Madame Arnoux and Frédéric Moreau
probably faithfully describes the meeting of Flaubert and Elisa after so many
years. They met once or twice after that, and then, so far as anyone knows,
A year after Flaubert’s death, Maxime du Camp spent the summer at
Baden, and one day, when he was
out shooting, found himself near the lunatic asylum of Illenau. The gates were
opened to allow the female inmates, under the care of keepers, to take their
daily walk. They came out two by two. Among them was one who bowed to him. It
was Elisa Schlesinger, the woman whom Flaubert so long and so vainly loved.
[Herman Melville and Moby Dick]
Melville’s reading, though desultory, had always been wide. It seems that he was chiefly attracted by the poets and prose writers of the seventeenth century, and one must presume that he found in them something that peculiarly accorded with his own confused propensities. Whether their influence was harmful to him or beneficial is a matter of personal opinion. His early education was slight and, as often happens in such cases, he did not quite assimilate the culture he acquired in later years. Culture is not something you put on like a ready-made suit of clothes, but a nourishment you absorb to build up your personality, just as food builds up the body of a growing boy; it is not an ornament to decorate a phrase, still less to show off your knowledge, but a means, painfully acquired, to enrich your soul.
“To produce a mighty book,” wrote Melville, “you must choose a mighty theme,” and it is pretty clear that he thought it must be dealt with in the grand style. Robert Louis Stevenson claimed that Melville had no ear; I don’t know what he meant by that. Melville had a true sense of rhythm, and the balance of his sentences, however long, is in general excellent. He liked the high-sounding phrase, and the stately vocabulary he employed in fact enabled him frequently to get effects of great beauty. Sometimes this inclination led him to tautology, as when he speaks of the “umbrageous shade”, which only means the shady shade; but you can scarcely deny that the sound is rich. Sometimes one is pulled up by such a tautology as “hasty precipitancy” only to discover with some awe that
wrote: “Thither they hasted with glad
precipitance.” Sometimes Melville uses common words in an unexpected way, and
often obtains by this a pleasant novelty of effect; and even when it seems to
you that he has used them in a sense they cannot bear, it is rash to blame him
with “hasty precipitancy”, for he may well have authority to go on. When he
speaks of “redundant hair”, it may occur to you that hair may be redundant on a
maiden’s lip, but hardly on a young man’s head; but if you look it out in the
dictionary you will find that the second sense of redundant is copious, and Milton wrote of
“redundant locks”. Milton
The difficulty of the kind of writing Melville set himself to use in Moby Dick is that the rhetorical level must be maintained throughout. The matter must fit the manner. The writer cannot afford to be sentimental or humorous. Melville was too often both, and then you read him with embarrassment.
His taste was unsure and sometimes, attempting the poetic, he only succeeded in being absurd: “But few thoughts of Pan stirred Ahab’s brain, as standing like an iron statue at his accustomed place beside the mizzen rigging, with one nostril he unthinkingly sniffed the sugary musk from the Banshee isles (in whose sweet woods mild lovers must be walking), and with the other consciously inhaled the salt breath of the new-found sea….” To smell one odour with one nostril and, at the same time, another with the other is more than a remarkable feat; it is an impossible one. I have little sympathy with Melville’s partiality for archaic words and words only in poetic usage: o’er for over; nigh for near; ere for before; anon and eftsoons; they give a fusty, meretricious air to prose that at its best is solid and virile. He had an extensive vocabulary, and sometimes it run away with him. He found it hard to set down a noun without tacking on it an adjective and often two or three. He was peculiarly fond of the adjective mystic, and used it as though it meant strange, mysterious, awe-inspiring, frightening, in fact whatever at the moment he wanted it to mean. Professor Stoll in the article to which I have already referred, and which is as eminently, and even as devastatingly, sensible as everything he writes, has justly stigmatized this as pseudo-poetic. In this article Professor Stoll has remarked on a characteristic that must disturb all readers of Melville, and that is his predilection for adverbs formed out of participles. It may be that it is on this account that Stevenson claimed that Melville had no ear, for one has to admit that these constructions seldom have euphony to recommend them. The most ill-sounding that I have noticed is whistlingly, but Professor Stoll has quoted others, burstingly, suckingly, and he might have quoted a hundred more that run it pretty close. Newton Arvin in his painstaking, but to my mind wrong-headed, book in the American Men of Letters Series has given examples of Melville’s coining of words: footmanism, omnitooled, uncatastrophied, domineerings; and appears to think that they add a peculiar excellence to his style. They certainly add to its idiosyncrasy, but surely not to its beauty. If Melville had had an education more catholic, and taste less uncertain, he could have achieved the effects he was presumably aiming at without the distortions of language he affected.
But for all that, notwithstanding the reservations one may make, Melville wrote English uncommonly well. Sometimes, as I have pointed out, the manner he had acquired led him to rhetorical extravagance, but at its best it has a copious magnificence, a sonority, a grandeur, an eloquence that no modern writer, so far as I know, has achieved. It does, indeed, at times recall the majestic phrase of Sir Thomas Browne and the stately period of
. I should like to call the reader’s
attention to the ingenuity with which Melville wove into the elaborate pattern
of his prose the ordinary nautical terms used by sailor-men in the course of
their daily work. The effect is to bring a note of realism, a savour of the
fresh salt of the sea, to the sombre symphony which is the strange and powerful
novel of Moby Dick. Every author has
the right to be judged by his best. How good Melville’s best is the reader can
judge for himself by reading the chapter entitled ‘The Great Armada.’ When he
has action to describe, he does it magnificently, with force, and then his
formal manner of writing grandly enhances the thrilling effect. Milton
No one who has read anything I have written will expect me to speak of Moby Dick, Melville’s only title to rank with the great writers of fiction, as an allegory. Readers must go elsewhere for that. I can only deal with it from my own standpoint of a not inexperienced novelist. The purpose of fiction is to give aesthetic pleasure. It has no practical ends. The business of the novelist is not to advance philosophical theories; that is the business of the philosopher, who can do it better. But since some very intelligent persons have taken Moby Dick for an allegory, it is proper that I should deal with the matter. They have regarded as ironical Melville’s own remark: “He feared,” he wrote, “that his work might be looked upon as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.” Is it rash to assume that when a practised writer says a thing, he is more likely to mean what he says than what his commentators think he means? It is true that in a letter to Mrs. Hawthorne he stated that he had, while writing, “some vague idea that the whole book was susceptible of an allegorical construction”; but that is slender evidence that he had the intention of writing an allegory. May it not be possible that if, in fact, it is susceptible to such an interpretation, it is something that came about by accident and, as his words to Mrs. Hawthorne seem to indicate, not a little to his dismay? I don’t how critics write novels, but I have some notion how novelists write them. They do not take a general proposition, such as Honesty is the Best Policy or All is not Gold that Glitters, and say: “Let’s write an allegory about that.” A group of characters, generally suggested by persons they have known, excites their imagination, and sometimes simultaneously, sometimes after an interval, an incident or a string of incidents, experienced, heard or invented, appears to them out of the blue to enable them to make suitable use of it in the development of the theme that has arisen in their minds by a sort of collaboration between the characters and the incidents. Melville was not fanciful, or at least, when he attempted to be so, as in Mardi, he came a cropper. To imagine, and his imagination was powerful, he needed a solid basis of fact. Indeed, certain critics have on this account accused him of lacking invention – I think, without reason. It is true that he invented more convincingly when he had a substratum of experience, his own or that of others, to sustain him; but then so do most novelists; and when he had this, his imagination worked freely and with power. When, as in
, he had
not, he wrote absurdly. It is true that Melville was of a “pondering” turn and,
as he grew older, he became absorbed in metaphysics, which Raymond Weaver,
strangely enough, states is “but misery dissolved in thought”. That is a narrow view: there is no subject to which a man can more fitly give
his attention, for it deals with the greatest problems that confront his soul.
Melville’s approach to them was not intellectual, but emotional; he thought as
he did because he felt as he did; but this does not prevent many of his
reflections from being memorable. I should have thought that deliberately to
write an allegory required an intellectual detachment of which Melville was
Professor Stoll has shown how ridiculous and contradictory are the symbolic interpretations of Moby Dick that have been hurled at the heads of an inoffensive public. He has done it so conclusively that there is no need for me to enlarge upon the topic. In defence of these critics, however, I would say this: the novelist does not copy life, he arranges it to suit his purpose. He disposes of the data given him according to the peculiarity of his own temperament. He draws a coherent pattern, but the pattern he draws varies according to the attitude, interests and idiosyncrasy of the reader. According to your proclivities, you may take a snow-clad Alpine peak, as it rises to the empyrean in radiant majesty, as a symbol of man’s aspiration to union with the Infinite; or since, if you like to believe that, a mountain range may be thrown up by some violent convulsion in the earth’s depths, you may take it as a symbol of the dark and sinister passions of man that lour to destroy him; of, if you want to be in the fashion, you may take it a phallic symbol. Newton Arvin regards Ahab’s ivory leg as “an equivocal symbol both of his impotence and of the independent male principle directed cripplingly against him”, and the white whale as “the archetypal Parent; the father, yes, but the mother also, so far as she becomes a substitute for the father”. For Ellery Sedgwick, who claims that it is its symbolism that makes the book great, Ahab is “Man – Man sentient, speculative, purposive, religious, standing his full stature against the immense mystery of creation. His antagonist, Moby Dick, is that immense mystery. He is not the author of it, but is identical with that galling impartiality in the laws and lawlessness of the universe which Isaiah devoutly fathered on the Creator.” Lewis Mumford takes Moby Dick as a symbol of evil, and Ahab’s conflict with him as the conflict of good and evil in which good is finally vanquished. There is a certain plausibility in this, and it accords well with Melville’s moody pessimism.
But allegories are awkward animals to handle; you can take them by the head or by the tail, and it seems to me that an interpretation quite contrary is equally possible. Why should it be assumed that Moby Dick is a symbol of evil? It is true that Melville causes Ishmael, the narrator, to adopt Ahab’s crazy passion to revenge himself on the dumb beast that had maimed him; but that is a literary artifice which he had to make use of, first, because there was Starbuck already there to represent common sense, and second, because he needed someone to share, and to an extent sympathize with, Ahab’s tenacious purpose, and so induce the reader to accept it as not quite unreasonable. Now, the “empty malice” of which Professor Mumford speaks consists in Moby Dick defending himself when he is attacked.
“Cet animal est très méchant,
Quand on l’attaque, il se défend.”
Why should the White Whale not represent goodness rather than evil? Splendid in beauty, vast in size, great in strength, he swims the seas in freedom. Ahab, with his insane pride, is pitiless, harsh, cruel and vindictive; he is evil; and when the final encounter comes and Ahab and his crew of “mongrel renegades, castaways and cannibals” is destroyed, and the White Whale, imperturbable, justice having been done, goes his mysterious way, evil has been vanquished and good at last triumphed. This seems to me as plausible an interpretation as any other; for let us not forget that Typee is a glorification of the noble savage, uncorrupted by the vices of civilization, and that Melville looked upon the natural man as good.
Fortunately Moby Dick may be read, and read with intense interest, without a thought of what allegorical or symbolic significance it may or may not have. I cannot repeat too often that a novel is not to be read for instruction or edification, but for intelligent enjoyment, and if you find you cannot get this from it you had far better not read it at all. But it must be admitted that Melville seems to have done his best to hinder his readers’ enjoyment. He was writing a strange, original and thrilling story, but a perfectly straightforward one. The romantic beginning is admirable. Your interest is aroused and held. The characters, as they are introduced one by one, are clearly presented, alive and plausible. The tension rises and, with the acceleration of the action, your excitement increases. The climax is intensely dramatic. It is hard to understand why Melville should have deliberately sacrificed the grip he had got on his readers by pausing here and there to write chapters dealing with the natural history of the whale, its size, skeleton, amours and so forth. It is as senseless, on the face of it, as it would be for a man telling a story over the dinner table to stop now and then to tell you the etymological meaning of some word he had used. Montgomery Belgion, in a judicious introduction to an edition of Moby Dick, has supposed that since it is a tale of pursuit, and the end of a pursuit must be perpetually delayed, Melville wrote these chapters merely to do so. I cannot believe that. Had he had any such purpose, during the three years he spent in the Pacific he must surely have witnessed incidents, or been told tales, that he could have woven into his narrative more fitly to effect it. I myself think that Melville wrote these chapters for the simple reason that, like many another self-educated man, he attached an exaggerated importance to the knowledge he had so painfully acquired and could not resist the temptation to parade it, just as in his earlier writings he “called up Burton, Shakespeare, Byron, Milton, Coleridge and Chesterfield, as well as Prometheus and Cinderella, Mahomet and Cleopatra, Madonna and Houris, Medici and Mussulman, to stew carelessly across his pages.”
For my part, I can read most of these chapters with interest, but it cannot be denied that they are digressions which sadly impair the tension. Melville lacked what the French call l’esprit de suite, and it would be stupid to assert that the novel is well-constructed. But if he composed it in the way he did, it is because that is how he wanted it. You must take it or leave it. He knew very well that Moby Dick would not please. He was of an obstinate temper, and it may be that the neglect of the public, the savage onslaught of the critics, and the lack of understanding in those nearest to him only confirmed him in his determination to write exactly as he chose. You must put up with his vagaries, his faulty taste, his ponderous playfulness, his errors of construction, for the sake of his excellencies, the frequent splendour of his language, his vivid and thrilling descriptions of action, his delicate sense of beauty and the tragic power of his “mystic” ponderings which, perhaps because he was somewhat muddleheaded, with no striking gift of ratiocination, for just that reason are emotionally impressive. But, of course, it is the sinister and gigantic figure of Captain Ahab that pervades the book and gives it its unique force. You must go to the Greek dramatists for anything like that sense of doom with which everything you are told about him fills you, and to Shakespeare to find beings of such terrible power. It is because Herman Melville created him that, notwithstanding any reservation one may make, Moby Dick is a great book.
I have said, and said again, that in order to get a real insight into a great novel you must know what there is to be known about the man who wrote it. I have an idea that in the case of Melville something like the contrary obtains. When one reads, and re-reads, Moby Dick, it seems to me that one gets a more convincing, a more definite, impression of the man than from anything one may learn of his life and circumstances; an impression of a man endowed by nature with a great gift blighted by an evil genius, so that, like the agave, no sooner had it put forth its splendid blooming than it withered; a moody, unhappy man tormented by instincts he shrank from with horror; a man conscious that the virtue had gone out of him, and embittered by failure and poverty; a man of heart craving for friendship, only to find that friendship too was vanity. Such, as I see him, was Herman Melville, a man whom one can only regard with deep compassion.
 Elmer E. Stoll, “Symbolism in Moby-Dick”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Jun., 1951), pp. 440-465.
 Raymond Weaver, Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, George H. Doran , p. 16
 William Ellery Sedgwick, Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind, first published in 1944.
 Lewis Mumford, Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1929. A Revised Edition appeared in 1956; too late for Maugham to make use of it in Ten Novels and Their Authors.
 “This animal is very malicious; when attacked it defends itself.”
: Cresset Press,
[Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights]
It must be admitted that it is badly written. The Brontë sisters did not write well. Like the governesses they were, they affected the turgid and pedantic style for which the word litératise has been coined. The main part of the story is told by Mrs Dean, a
Yorkshire maid of all work like the Brontës’ Tabby; a conversational style would have been suitable;
Emily makes her express herself as no human being could. Here is a typical
example: “I tried to smooth away all disquietude on the subject, by affirming,
with frequent iteration, that that betrayal of trust, if it merited so harsh an
appellation, should be the last.” Emily Brontë
seems to have been aware that she was putting in Mrs. Dean’s mouth words that it
was unlikely she would have known, and, to explain it, makes her say that in
the course of her service she has had the opportunity to read books, but, even
at that, the pretentiousness of her discourse is appalling. She does not read a
letter, she peruses an epistle; she doesn’t send a letter, but a missive. She
does not leave a room, she quits a chamber. She calls her day’s work her
diurnal occupation. She commences rather than begins. People don’t shout or
yell, they vociferate; nor do they listen, they hearken. There is pathos in
this parson’s daughter striving so hard to write in a lady-like way, only to
succeed in being genteel. Yet one would not wish Wuthering Heights to have been written with
grace: it would be none the better for being better written. Just as in one of
those early Flemish pictures of the burial of Christ the anguished grimaces of
the emaciated creatures concerned, their stiff, ungainly gestures, seem to add
a greater horror, a matter-of-fact brutality, to the scene, which makes it more
poignant, more tragic, than when the same event is pictured in beauty by
Titian; so there is in this uncouth stylization of the language something which
strangely heightens the violent passion of the story.
Wuthering Heights is clumsily constructed. That is not surprising, for Emily Brontë had never written a novel before, and she had a complicated story to tell, dealing with two generations. This is a difficult thing to do because the author has to give some sort of unity to two sets of characters and two sets of events; and he must be careful not to allow the interest of one to overshadow the interest of the other. This Emily did not succeed in doing. After the death of Catherine Earnshaw there is, until you come to the last finely imaginative pages, some loss of power. The younger Catherine is an unsatisfactory character, and Emily Brontë seems not to have known what to make of her; obviously she could not give her the passionate independence of the older Catherine, nor the foolish weakness of her father. She is a spoilt, silly, wilful, and ill-mannered creature; and you cannot greatly pity her sufferings. The steps are not made clear which to her falling in love with young Hareton. He is a shadowy figure, and you know no more of him than that he was sullen and handsome. […] I do not suppose that Emily Brontë deliberately thought out how to get a unit of impression into a straggling story, but I think she must have asked herself how to make it coherent; and it may have occurred to her that she could best do this by making one character narrate the long succession of events to another. It is a convenient way of telling a story, and she did not invent it. Its disadvantage is that it is impossible to maintain anything like a conversational manner when the narrator has to tell a number of things, descriptions of scenery for instance, which no sane person would think of doing.
But more than that, I think the method she adopted might have been expected of her, when you consider her extreme, her morbid, shyness and her reticence. What were the alternatives? One was to write the novel from the standpoint of omniscience, as, for instance, Middlemarch and Madame Bovary were written. I think it would have shocked her harsh, uncompromising virtue to tell the outrageous story as a creation of her own; and if she had, moreover, she could hardly have avoided giving some account of Heathcliff during the few years he spent away from Wuthering Heights – years in which he managed to acquire an education and to make quite a lot of money. She couldn’t do this, because she simply didn’t know how he had done it. The fact the reader is asked to accept is hard to believe, and she was content to state it and leave it at that. Another alternative was to have the story narrated to her, Emily Brontë, by Mrs. Dean, say, and tell it then in the first person; but I suspect that that, too, would have brought her into a contact with the reader too close for her quivering sensitivity. By having the story in its beginning told by Lockwood, and unfolded to Lockwood by Mrs Dean, she hid herself behind, as it were, a double mask.
And why did Emily need to hide herself when she wrote this powerful, passionate and terrible book? I think because she disclosed in it her innermost instincts. She looked deep into the well of loneliness in her heart, and saw there unavowable secrets of which, notwithstanding, her impulse as a writer drove her to unburden herself. It is said that her imagination was kindled by the weird stories her father used to tell of the Ireland of his youth, and by the tales of Hoffmann which she learned to read when she went to school in Belgium, and which she continued to read, we are told, back at the parsonage, seated on a hearthrug by the fire with her arm around Keeper’s neck. I am willing to believe that she found in the stories of mystery, violence and horror of the German romantic writers something that appealed to her own fierce nature; but I think she found Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw in the hidden depths of her own soul. I think she was herself Heathcliff, I think she was herself Catherine Earnshaw. Is it strange that she should have put herself into the two chief characters of her book? Not at all. We are none of us all of a piece; more than one person dwells within us, often in uncanny companionship with his fellows; and the peculiarity of the writer of fiction is that he has the power to objectify the diverse persons of which he is compounded in individual characters: his misfortune is that he cannot bring to life characters, however necessary to his story they may be, in which there is no part of himself. That is why the younger Catherine in
Wuthering Heights is unsatisfactory.
Wuthering Heights is a love story, perhaps the strangest that was ever written, and not the least strange part of it is that the lovers remain chaste. Catherine was passionately in love with Heathcliff, as passionately in love with him as Heathcliff was with her. One wonders why those two people who were consumed with love did not, whatever the poverty that might have faced them, run away together. One wonders why they didn’t become real lovers. It may be that Emily’s upbringing caused her to look upon adultery as an unforgivable sin, or it may be that the idea of sexual intercourse between the sexes filled her with disgust. I believe both the sisters were highly sexed.
was plain, with a sallow skin and a
large nose on one side of her face. She had proposals of marriage when she was
obscure and penniless, and at that period a man expected his wife to bring a
portion with her. But beauty is not the only thing that makes a woman
attractive; indeed, great beauty is often somewhat chilling: you admire, but
are not moved. If young men fell in love with Charlotte , a captious and critical young
woman, it can surely have only been because they found her sexually attractive,
which means that they felt obscurely that she was highly sexed. She was not in
love with Mr Nicholls when she married him; she thought him narrow, dogmatic,
sullen and far from intelligent. It is clear from her letters that after she
married him she felt very differently towards him; for her they are positively
skittish. She fell in love with him, and his defects ceased to matter. The most
probable explanation is that those sexual desires of hers were at last
satisfied. There is no reason to suppose that Emily was less highly sexed than Charlotte . Charlotte
But though, as I have said, it is conceivable that Emily constructed
Wuthering Heights entirely out of her own
fantasies, I do not believe it. I should have thought that it was only very
rarely that the fruitful idea that will give rise to a fiction comes to an
author, like a falling star, out of the blue; for the most part, it comes to
him from an experience, generally emotional, of his own, or, if it is told him
by another, emotionally appealing; and then his imagination in travail,
character and incidents little by little grow out of it, until at length the
finished work comes into being. Few people, however, know how small a hint, how
trivial to all appearances an occurrence, may be that will serve to set the
spark that will kindle the author’s invention. When you look at the cyclamen
with its heart-shaped leaves surrounding a profusion of flowers, their careless
petals wearing a wilful look as though they grew haphazard, it seems incredible
that this luscious beauty, this rich colour, should have come from a seed
hardly larger than a pin’s head. So it may be with the productive seed that
will give rise to an immortal book.
It seems to me that one only has to read Emily Brontë’s poems to guess what the emotional experience was that led her to seek release from cruel pain by writing Wuthering Heights. She wrote a good deal of verse. It is uneven; some of it is commonplace, some of it moving, some of it lovely. […] In 1845, three years before her death, she wrote a poem called The Prisoner. So far as is known, she had never read the works of any of the mystics, yet in these verses she so describes the mystical experience that it is impossible to believe that they do not tell of what she knew from personal acquaintance. She uses almost the very words that the mystics use when they describe the anguish felt on the return from union with the Infinite:
Oh dreadful is the check – intense the agony –
When the ear begins to hear, the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.
These lines surely reflect a felt, a deeply felt, experience. Why should one suppose that Emily Brontë’s love poems were no more than a literary exercise? I should have thought they pointed very clearly to her having fallen in love, to her love having being repulsed, and then to her having been bitterly hurt. She wrote these particular poems when she was teaching at a girls’ school at Law Hill, near
She was nineteen. There was little chance of her meeting men there (and we know
how she fled from men), and so, from what we surmise of her disposition, it is
likely enough that she fell in love with one or other of the mistresses, or
with one of the girls. It was the only love of her life. It may well be that
the unhappiness it caused her sufficed to implant the seed in the fruitful soil
of her tortured sensibility which enabled her to create the strange book we
know. I can think of no other novel in which the pain, the ecstasy, the
ruthlessness of love have been so powerfully set forth. Wuthering Heights has great faults, but they do not matter; they
matter as little as the fallen tree-trunks, the strewn rock, the snow-drifts
which impede, but do not stem, the alpine torrent in its tumultuous course down
the mountain-side. You cannot liken Halifax Wuthering Heights to any other book. You can liken
it only to one of those great pictures of El Greco in which in a sombre, arid
landscape, under clouds heavy with thunder, long emaciated figures in contorted
attitudes, spell-bound by an unearthly emotion, hold their breath. A streak of
lightning, flitting across the leaden sky, gives a mysterious terror to the
[Dostoyevsky and The Brothers Karamazov]
Dostoevsky was vain, envious, quarrelsome, suspicious, cringing, selfish, boastful, unreliable, inconsiderate, narrow and intolerant. In short he had an odious character. But that is not the whole story. If it had been, it is unimaginable that he could have created Alyosha Karamazov, perhaps the most engaging creature in all fiction. It is unimaginable that he could have created the saintly Father Zosima. Dostoevsky was the least censorious of men. While in prison, he had learned that men may commit fearful crimes, murder, rape and banditry, and yet have qualities of courage, generosity and loving-kindness towards their fellows.
I can think of no one in whom the dichotomy between the man and the writer has been greater than it was in Dostoevsky. It probably exists in all creative artists, but it is more conspicuous in authors than in others because their medium is words, and the contradiction between their behaviour and their communication is more shocking. It may be that the creative gift, a normal faculty of childhood and early youth, if it persists after adolescence is a disease which can only flourish at the expense of normal human attributes and, just as the melon is sweeter when grown in manure, thrives best in a soil compounded of vicious traits. It was not the good in Dostoevsky, it was the bad that was the source of the startling originality which made him one of the supreme novelists of the world.
Balzac and Dickens created an immense number of characters. They were fascinated by the diversity of human beings, and their imagination was kindled by the differences they saw in them and the peculiarities that individualized them. No matter if men were good or bad, stupid or clever, they were themselves, and so, material to be put to good use. I suspect that Dostoevsky was interested in no one but himself, and in others only as they intimately affected him. He was in a way like those people who care about beautiful objects only if they own them. He was content to make do with a very small number of characters, and they are repeated in novel after novel. Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov is the same man, less the epilepsy, as Prince Myshkin in The Idiot; Stavrogin in The Possessed is merely an elaboration of Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment. The hero of that book, Raskolnikov, is a less forcible version of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. All are emanations of Dostoevsky’s tortured, warped, morbid sensibility. There is even less variety in his female characters. Polina Alexandrovna in The Gambler, Lizabetta in The Possessed, Nastasia in The Idiot, Katrina and Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov are the same woman; they are modelled directly on Polina Suslova. The suffering she caused him, the indignities she heaped upon him, were the fillip he needed to satisfy his masochism. He knew that she hated him; he felt sure that she loved him; and so the women who are modelled on her want to dominate and torture the man they love, and at the same time submit to him and suffer at his hands. They are hysterical, spiteful and malevolent because Polina was. Some years after the break, Dostoevsky met her in Petersburg and made her still another proposal of marriage. She refused it. He could not bring himself to believe that she simply did not like him, and so conceived the idea, to salve, one may suppose, his wounded vanity, that a woman attaches so great an importance to her virginity that she can only hate a man who has taken it without being married to her.
Dostoevsky was deeply conscious of the duality in himself, and he ascribed it to all his self-willed characters. His meek characters, of which Prince Myshkin and Alyosha are examples, with all their sweetness are strangely ineffectual. But the very word duality suggests a simplification of human nature which does not accord with the facts. Man is an imperfect creature. The mainspring of his being is self-interest, it is folly to deny it; but it is folly to deny that he is capable of disinterestedness which is sublime. We all know to what heights he may rise in a moment of crisis, and then show a nobility which neither he nor anyone else knew was in him. Spinoza has told us that “everything in so far as it is in itself endeavours to persevere in its own being”; and yet we know that it is not so rare for a man to lay down his life for his friend. Man is a jumble of vices and virtues, goodness and badness, of selfishness and unselfishness, of fears of all kinds and the courage to face them, of tendencies and predispositions which lure this way and that. He is made up of elements so discordant that it is amazing that they can exist together in the individual, and yet so come to terms with one another as to form a plausible harmony. There is no such complication in the creatures of Dostoevsky’s invention. They are constituted of a desire to dominate and a desire to submit themselves, of love devoid of tenderness and hate charged with malice. They are strangely lacking in the normal attributes of human beings. They only have passions. They have neither self-control nor self-respect. Their evil instincts are not mitigated by education, the experience of life or that sense of decency which prevents a man from disgracing himself. This is why, to common sense, their activities seem wildly improbable and the motives of them madly inconsequential.
We in Western Europe consider their unaccountable behaviour with astonishment and accept it, if we do accept it, as the natural behaviour of Russians. But are Russians like that? Were Russians like that in Dostoevsky’s day? Turgenev and Tolstoy were his contemporaries. Turgenev’s characters very much resemble ordinary people. [...] [Dostoevsky’s characters] are devoid of culture. They have atrocious manners. They take a malignant pleasure in being rude to one another merely in order to wound and humiliate. In The Idiot Varvara spits in her brother’s face because he is proposing to marry a woman she does not approve of, and in The Brothers Karamazov Dmitri, when Madame Hohlakov refuses him the loan of a large sum of money which there is no reason for her to lend him, in his anger spits on the floor of the room in which she has received him. They are an outrageous lot. But they are extraordinarily interesting. Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, Ivan Karamazov are of the same breed as Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff and Melville’s Captain Ahab. They palpitate with life.
Dostoevsky had been pondering over The Brothers Karamazov for a long time, and he took more pains over it than his financial difficulties had allowed him to take with any novel since his first. On the whole it is his best constructed work. As his letters show, he implicitly believed in that mysterious entity which we call inspiration, and counted upon it to enable him to write what he vaguely saw in his mind’s eye. Now, inspiration is uncertain. It is more apt to come in isolated passages. To construct a novel, you need esprit de suite, that logical sense by means of which you may arrange your material in a coherent order, so that the various parts shall follow one another with verisimilitude and the whole shall be complete, with no loose ends hanging. Dostoevsky had no great capacity for this. That is why he is best in scenes. He had a truly remarkable gift for creating suspense and dramatizing a situation. I know no scene in fiction more terrifying than that in which Raskolnikov murders the old pawnbroker, and few more striking than that in The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan meets in the form of a devil his troubled conscience. With the prolixity of which he could not correct himself, Dostoevsky indulges in conversations of immense length; but even though the persons concerned express themselves with such abandon that you can hardly believe that human beings can so conduct themselves, they are almost always enthralling.
Alyosha was designed to be the central figure of The Brothers Karamazov, as is plainly indicated by the first sentence: “Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well-known in the district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place.” Dostoevsky was too practised a novelist to have without intention begun his book with a definite statement that marks Alyosha out. But in the novel, as we have it, he plays a subordinate role compared with those of his brothers Dmitri and Ivan. He passes in and out of the story, and seems to have little influence on the persons who play their more important parts in it. His own activity is chiefly concerned with a group of schoolboys whose doings, beyond showing Alyosha’s charm and loving-kindness, have nothing to do with the development of the theme.
The explanation is that The Brothers Karamazov, which runs in Mrs. Garnett’s translation to 838 pages, is but a fragment of the novel Dostoevsky proposed to write. He intended in further volumes to continue the development of Alyosha, taking him through a number of vicissitudes, in which it is supposed he was to undergo the great experience of sin and finally, through suffering, achieve salvation. But death prevented Dostoevsky from carrying out his intention, and The Brothers Karamazov remains a fragment. It is, nevertheless, one of the greatest novels ever written, and stands at the head of the small, wonderful group of works of fiction which by their intensity and power hold a place apart from other novels, conspicuous as their different merits may be, and of which two thrilling examples are Wuthering Heights and Moby Dick.
Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a besotted buffoon, has four sons, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha, whom I have already spoken of, and a bastard, Smerdyakov, who lives in his house as cook and valet. The two elder sons hate their disgraceful father; Alyosha, the only lovable character in the book, is incapable of hating anyone. Professor E. J. Simmons thinks* Dmitri should be considered the hero of the novel. He is the sort of man whom the tolerant are apt to describe as his own worst enemy, and, as such men often are, he is attractive to women. “Simplicity and deep feeling are the essence of his nature,” says Professor Simmons; and further: “There is poetry in his soul which is reflected in his behaviour and colourful language. His whole life is like an epic in which the turbulent action is relieved by occasional lyric flights.” It is true that he makes high-flown protestations of his moral aspirations, but as they do not lead to any change for the better in his conduct, I think one is justified in attaching small importance to them. It is true that he is capable on occasion of great generosity, but he is also capable of shocking meanness. He is a drunken, boastful bully, recklessly extravagant, dishonest and dishonourable. Both he and his father are furiously in love with Grushenka, a kept woman who lives in the town, and he is insanely jealous of the old man.
Ivan, to my mind, is a more interesting character. He is highly intelligent, prudent, determined to make his way in the world and ambitious. At the age of twenty-four he has already made something of a name for himself by the brilliant articles he has contributed to the reviews. Dostoevsky describes him as practical, and intellectually superior to the mass of needy and unfortunate students who hang about newspaper offices. He, too, hates his father. The sensual old wretch is murdered by Smerdyakov for the three thousand roubles he had hidden away to give Grushenka if she could be induced to go to bed with him, and Dmitri, who had often threatened to kill his father, is accused of the crime, tried and convicted. It was in accordance with Dostoevsky’s plan that he should be, but in order to effect this he was obliged to make the various persons concerned behave in a manner that outrages probability. On the eve of the trial, Smerdyakov goes to Ivan and confesses that it was he who had committed the crime and returns him the money he had stolen. He makes it plain to Ivan that he had murdered the old man on his (Ivan’s) instigation, and with his connivance. Ivan goes all to pieces, just as Raskolnikov does after murdering the old pawnbroker. But Raskolnikov was wildly neurotic, half-starved and destitute. Ivan was not. His first impulse is to go at once to the public prosecutor and tell him the facts, but he decides to wait and do so at the trial. Why? So far as I can see, only because Dostoevsky saw that then the confession would come with more thrilling effect. Then comes the very curious scene, to which I have already referred, in which Ivan has an hallucination in which his double, in the form of a shabby gentleman in reduced circumstances, confronts him with his worse self, with its baseness and insincerity. There is a furious knocking at the door. It is Alyosha. He comes in and tells Ivan that Smerdyakov has hanged himself. The situation is critical. Dmitri’s fate is in the balance. It is true that Ivan was distraught, but he was not demented. From what we know of his character, we would have expected him at such a moment to have the strength to pull himself together and act with common sense. The natural thing, the obvious thing, was for the two of them to go there and then to the defending counsel, tell him of Smerdyakov’s confession and suicide and give him the three thousand roubles he had stolen. With these materials the defending counsel, who, we are told, was an uncommonly able man, would surely have thrown enough doubt in the jury’s minds to cause them to hesitate to bring a verdict of guilty. Alyosha puts cold compresses on Ivan’s head and tucks him up in bed. I have mentioned before that, for all his goodness, this gentle creature was strangely ineffectual. He was never more so than on this occasion.
Nor is an explanation given of Smerdyakov’s suicide. He has been shown to be the most calculating, callous, clear-headed and self-confident of Karamazov’s four sons. He had made his plans beforehand. With great presence of mind, he seized the opportunity that a lucky chance presented to him, and killed the old man. He had a reputation for complete honesty and no one could have suspected him of stealing the money. The evidence pointed to Dmitri. So far as I can see, there was no reason for Smerdyakov to hang himself, except to give Dostoevsky the occasion to end a chapter with a highly dramatic announcement. Dostoevsky was a sensational, not a realistic, writer, and so felt himself justified in using methods which the latter is bound to eschew.
After Dmitri has been found guilty, he makes a statement in which he proclaims his innocence and ends it with the words: “I accept the torture of accusation, and my public shame. I want to suffer, and by suffering I shall purify myself.” Dostoevsky had a deep-rooted belief in the spiritual value of suffering, and thought that by the willing acceptance of it one atoned for one’s sins, and so reached happiness. From this the surprising inference seems to emerge that, since it gives rise to suffering and suffering leads to happiness, sin is necessary and profitable. But was Dostoevsky right in thinking that suffering cleanses and refines the character? There is no evidence in The House of the Dead that it had any such effect on his fellow convicts, and it certainly had none on him: as I have said, he emerged from prison the same man as he entered it. So far as physical suffering is concerned, my experience is that long and painful illness makes people querulous, egotistic, intolerant, petty and jealous. Far from making them better, it makes them worse. Of course I know that there are some, and I have known one or two myself, who in a long and distressing illness, from which recovery was impossible, have shown courage, unselfishness, patience and resignation; but they had those qualities before. The occasion revealed them. There is spiritual suffering too. No one can have lived long in the world of letters without having known men who had enjoyed success and then, for one reason or another, lost it. It made them sullen, bitter, spiteful and envious. I can think of only one case in which this misfortune, accompanied as it is by humiliations which only those who have witnessed them know, has been borne with courage, dignity and good humour. The man of whom I speak no doubt had those qualities before, but the mask of frivolity he wore prevented one from discerning them. Suffering is part of our human lot, but that does not make it any the less evil.
Though one may deplore Dostoevsky’s prolixity, a fault he was well aware of, but could not, or would not, correct; though one may wish he had seen fit to avoid the improbabilities – improbabilities of character, improbabilities of incident – which cannot but disconcert the attentive reader; though one may think some of his ideas erroneous, The Brothers Karamazov remains a stupendous book. It has a theme of profound significance. Many critics have said that this was the quest of God; I, for my part, should have said it was the problem of evil. It is in the section called “Pro and Contra”, which Dostoevsky rightly considered the culminating point of his novel, that it is dealt with. “Pro and Contra” consists of a long monologue which Ivan delivers to the sweet Alyosha. To the human intelligence the existence of a God who is all-powerful and all-good seems incompatible with the existence of evil. That men should suffer for their sins seems reasonable enough, but that innocent children should suffer revolts the heart as well as the head. Ivan tells Alyosha a horrible story. A little serf boy, a child of eight, threw a stone and by accident lamed his master’s favourite dog. His master, owner of great estates, had the child stripped naked and made to run; and as he ran he set his pack of hounds on him and he is torn to pieces before his mother’s eyes. Ivan is willing to believe that God exists, but he cannot accept the cruelty of the world God created. He insists that there is no reason for the innocent to suffer for the sins of the guilty; and if they do, and they do, God either is evil or does not exist. Dostoevsky never wrote with greater power than in this piece; but having written it, he was afraid of what he had done. The argument was cogent, but the conclusion repugnant to what with all his heart he wished to believe, namely that the world, for all its evil, is beautiful because it is the creation of God. He hastened to write a refutation. No one was better aware than he that he had not succeeded. The section is tedious and the refutation unconvincing.
The problem of evil still awaits solution, and Ivan Karamazov’s indictment has not yet been answered.
*Probably in Dostoevsky: The Making of a Novelist, New York: Alfred A. Knopf and Random House, 1940. Ed.
[Henry Fielding and Tom Jones]
[Balzac and Le Pere Goriot]
[Stendhal and Le Rouge et Le Noir]
[Tolstoy and War and Peace]
What is it that must be combined with the creative instinct to make it possible for a writer to produce a work of value? Well, I suppose it is personality. It may be a pleasant or an unpleasant one; that doesn’t matter. What matters is that, by some idiosyncrasy of nature, the writer is enable to see in a manner peculiar to himself. It doesn’t matter if he sees in a way that common opinion regards neither just nor true.
They appear to have taken little interest in any art other than their own. Jane Austen confessed that concerts bored her. Tolstoy was fond of music and played the piano. Stendhal had a predilection for opera, which is the form of musical entertainment which affords pleasure to people who don’t like music. He went to the Scala every night when he was in Milan to gossip with his friends, have supper and play cards, and, like them, gave his attention to what was happening on the stage only when a famous singer sang a well-known aria. He had equal admiration for Mozart, Cimarosa and Rossini.
Of course, it requires intelligence to write a good novel, but of a peculiar, and perhaps not of a very high, order, and these great writers were intelligent; but they were not strikingly intellectual. Their naïveté, when they deal with general ideas, is often startling. They accept the commonplaces of the philosophy current in their day, and when they put them in use in their action, the result is seldom happy. The fact is, ideas are not their affair, and their concern with them, when they are concerned with them, is emotional.
Genius is a word that is very loosely used nowadays. It is ascribed to persons to whom a more sober judgement would be satisfied to allow talent. Genius and talent are very different things. Many people have talent; it is not rare: genius is. Talent is adroit and dexterous; it can be cultivated; genius is innate, and too often strangely allied to grave defects. But what is genius?
He had passed his life in the pursuit of happiness, and had never learnt that happiness is best attained when it is not sought; and, moreover, is only known when it is lost. It is doubtful whether anyone can say "I am happy"; but only "I was happy". For happiness is not well-being, content, heart's ease, pleasure, enjoyment: all these go to make happiness, but they are not happiness.
One of the odd things about Stendhal is that though he was always on the watch lest anyone made a fool of him, he was constantly making a fool of himself.
Like many another member of the gentle sex, she seems to have been ready enough to accept the perquisites of her position, but saw no reason why she should be asked to give anything in return.
But there is all the difference between loving and being in love. It is possible to love without desire, but without desire impossible to be in love.
Passion may be false, trivial or unnatural, but, if violent enough, is not without some trace of grandeur.
He would not have been the first man to find that he loved his wife more when he was parted from her than was with her, and that the expectation of sexual congress was more exciting than the realisation.
Is it rash to assume that when a practised writer says a thing, he is more likely to mean what he says than what his commentators think he means?
According to your proclivities, you may take a snow-clad Alpine peak, as it rises to the empyrean in radiant majesty, as symbol of man's aspiration to union with the Infinite; or since, if you like to believe that, a mountain range may be thrown up by some violent convulsion in the earth's depths, you may take it as a symbol of the dark and sinister passions of man that lour to destroy him; or, if you want to be in the fashion, you may take it as a phallic symbol.
...as we know, Christian charity has always been able to make allowances for a lot of good honest hatred,...
She was one of those writers, far from rare in the world of letters, who suppose that push and pull are an adequate substitute for talent;
No novel is entirely free of improbabilities, and to the more usual ones readers have become so accustomed that they accept them as a matter of course. The novelist cannot give a literal transcript of life, he draws a picture for you which, if he is a realist, he tries to make life-like; and if you believe him he has succeeded.
The particular value attached of virginity is a fabrication of the male, due partly to superstition, partly to masculine vanity, and partly, of course, to a disinclination to father someone else's child. Women, I should say, have ascribed importance to it chiefly because the value men place on it, and also from fear of consequences. I think I am right in saying that a man, to satisfy a need as natural as eating his dinner when he is hungry, may have sexual intercourse without any particular feeling for the object of his appetite; whereas with a woman sexual intercourse, without something in the nature, if not of love, at least of sentiment, is merely a tiresome business which she accepts as obligation, or from the wish to give pleasure.
Nothing, I suppose, exasperates a woman more than the sexual desire for her of a man who is physically repellent to her, and when, to put it bluntly, he will not take no for an answer, she may very well come to hate him.
Man is an imperfect creature. The mainspring of his being is self-interest; it is folly to deny it; but it is folly to deny that he is capable of disinterestedness which is sublime. We all know to what heights he may rise in a moment of crisis, and then show a nobility which neither he nor anyone else knew was in him.
Man is a jumble of vices and virtues, goodness and badness, of selfishness and unselfishness, of fears of all kinds and the courage to face them, of tendencies and predispositions which lure him this way and that. He is made from elements so discordant that it is amazing that they can exist together in the individual, and yet so come to terms with one another as to form plausible harmony.