Life And Letters Of Maria Edgeworth/Volume 2/Letter 98
To MRS. STARK. [Footnote 1: Who had sent Miss Edgeworth a long criticism from her cousin, Colonel Matthew Stewart (son of Dugald Stewart), on her Helen.</ref>
EDGEWORTHSTOWN, Sept. 6, 1834.
Some of my friends, knowing the timidity, not to say cowardice, of my nature, have feared that I should be daunted by Colonel Stewart's most just observations upon the defects and deficiencies of my past manner and principles of novel-writing; but, on the contrary, I, who know myself better, feel that, in spite of my timidity, I am, instead of being daunted, encouraged by such criticism. Such a writer and such a noble mind as Colonel Stewart's having bestowed so much thought and time upon me and my fictions, raises both them and myself in my own opinion far more than could the largest "draught of unqualified praise"  from any common critic. From feeling that he does justice in many points to the past, I rely upon his prophecies as to the future, and I feel my ambition strongly excited by his belief that I CAN, and his prognostic that I shall do better hereafter. Boileau says, "Trust a critic who puts his finger at once upon what you know to be your infirm part." I had often thought and said to myself some of those things which Colonel Stewart has written, but never so strongly expressed, so fully brought home: my own rod of feathers did not do my business. I had often and often a suspicion that my manner was too Dutch, too minute; and very, very often, and warmly, admired the bold, grand style of the master hand and master genius. I know I feel how much more is to be done, ought to be done, by suggestion than by delineation, by creative fancy than by facsimile copying,—how much more by skilful selection and fresh and consistent combination—than can be effected by the most acute observation of individuals, or diligent accumulation of particulars.
But where I have erred or fallen short of what it is thought I might have done, it has not been from "drawing from the life, or from individuals, or from putting together actions or sayings noted in commonplace books from observation or hearsay in society." I have seldom or ever drawn any one character—certainly not any ridiculous or faulty character, from any individual. Wherever, in writing, a real character rose to my view, from memory or resemblance, it has always been hurtful to me, because, to avoid that resemblance, I was tempted by cowardice or compelled by conscience to throw in differences, which often ended in making my character inconsistent, unreal.
At the hazard of talking too much of myself, which people usually do when once they begin, I must tell my penetrating critic exactly the facts, as far as I know them, about my habits of composition. He will at least see, by my throwing open my mind thus, that he has not made me afraid of him, but has won my confidence, and made me look for his future sympathy and assistance. I have no "vast magazine of a commonplace book." In my whole life, since I began to write, which is now, I am concerned to state, upwards of forty years, I have had only about half a dozen little note-books, strangely and irregularly kept, sometimes with only words of reference to some book, or fact I could not bring accurately to mind. At first I was much urged by my father to note down remarkable traits of character or incidents, which he thought might be introduced in stories; and he often blamed that idleness or laziness, as he thought it in me, which resisted his urgency. But I was averse to noting down, because I was conscious that it did better for me to keep the things in my head, if they suited my purpose; and if they did not, they would only encumber me. I knew that, when I wrote down, I put the thing out of my care, out of my head; and that, though it might be put by very safe, I should not know where to look for it; that the labour of looking over a note-book would never do when I was in the warmth and pleasure of inventing; that I should never recollect the facts or ideas at the right time, if I did not put them up in my own way in my own head: that is, if I felt with hope or pleasure "that thought or that fact will be useful to me in such a character or story, of which I have now a first idea, the same fact or thought would recur, I knew, when I wanted it, in right order for invention." In short, as Colonel Stewart guessed, the process of combination, generalisation, invention, was carried on always in my head best. Wherever I brought in bodily unaltered, as I have sometimes done, facts from real life, or sayings, or recorded observations of my own, I have almost always found them objected to by good critics as unsuited to the character, or in some way de trop. Sometimes, when the first idea of a character was taken from life from some ORIGINAL, and the characteristic facts noted down, or even noted only in my head, I have found it necessary entirely to alter these, not only from propriety, to avoid individual resemblance, but from the sense that the character would be only an EXCEPTION to general feeling and experience, not a rule. In short, exactly what Colonel Stewart says about "the conical hills" being the worst subjects for painters. As an instance I may mention King Corny, who is, I believe, considered more of a fancy piece, more as a romantic character than my usual common-life Dutch figures: the first idea of him was taken from the facts I heard of an oddity, a man, I believe, like no other, who lived in a remote part of Ireland, an ingenious despot in his own family, who blasted out of the rock on which his house was built half a kitchen, while he and family and guests were living in the house; who was so passionate, that children, grown-up sons, servants and all, ran out of the house at once when he fell into a passion with his own tangled hair; a man who used, in his impatience and rages, to call at the head of the kitchen stairs to his servants, "Drop whatever you have in your hand, and come here and be d——d!" He was generous and kind-hearted, but despotic, and conceited to the most ludicrous degree: for instance, he thought he could work gobelin tapestry and play on the harp or mandolin better than any one living.
One after another, in working out King Corny, from the first wrong hint I was obliged to give up every fact, except that he propped up the roof of his house and built downwards, and to generalise all; to make him a man of expedients, of ingenious substitutes, such as any clever Irishman in middle life is used to. I was obliged to retain, but soften, the despotism, and exalt the generosity, to make it a character that would interest. Not one word I ever heard said by the living man, or had ever heard repeated of his saying, except "Drop what you have," etc., went into my King Corny's mouth—would not have suited him. I was obliged to make him according to the general standard of wit and acuteness, shrewd humour and sarcasm, of that class of unread natural geniuses, an overmatch for Sir Ulick, who is of a more cultivated class of acute and roguish Irish gentlemen. Colonel Stewart sees from this how far he has guessed rightly as to several points, but I think I have always aimed more at making my characters representatives of classes than he conceives. It is plain that I have not attained my aim.
I never could use notes in writing Dialogues; it would have been as impossible to me to get in the prepared good things at the right moment in the warmth of writing conversation, as it would be to lug them in in real conversation, perhaps more so—for I could not write dialogues at all without being at the time fully impressed with the characters, imagining myself each speaker, and that too fully engrosses the imagination to leave time for consulting note-books; the whole fairy vision would melt away, and the warmth and the pleasure of invention be gone. I might often, while writing, recollect from books or life what would suit, and often from note-book, but then I could not stop to look, and often quoted therefore inaccurately. I have a quick recollective memory and retentive for the sort of things I particularly want; they will recur to me at the moment I want them years and years after they have lain dormant, but alas! my memory is inaccurate, has hold of the object only by one side—the side or face that struck my imagination, and if I want more afterwards I do not know even where to look for it. I mention this because Dugald Stewart once was curious to know what sort of memory I had, whether recollective or retentive.
I understand what Colonel Stewart so admirably says about parable, apologue, and fables being general truths and morals which cannot be conveyed or depended upon equally when we come to modern novels, where Lady B. or Lord D. are not universal characters like Fox or Goose. I acknowledge that even a perfectly true character absolutely taken as a fac-simile from real life would not be interesting in a fiction, might not be believed, and could not be useful. The value of these odd characters depends, I acknowledge, upon their being actually known to be true. In history, extraordinary characters always interest us with all their inconsistencies, feeling we thus add to our actual knowledge of human nature. In fiction we have not this conviction, and therefore not this sort or source of pleasure even if ever so well done; if it be quite a new inconsistency we feel doubtful and averse; but we submit when we know it is true: we say, "don't therefore tell me it is not in human nature."
I am not sure that I agree with Colonel Stewart about particular morals to stories, but this point might lead to long and intricate discussion.
I feel and admire all he says so eloquently, I am sure from his own heart, touching the advantage of raising the standard of our moral ambition; and the higher this standard can be raised by works of fiction the better. I feel and understand how many poets and novelists have raised in the mind that sort of enthusiasm which exalts and purifies the soul. Happy and gifted with heaven's best gift must be the poet, the inventor of any sort of fiction that can raise this enthusiasm. I recollect Mrs. Barbauld's lines describing—
- Generous youth that feeds
- On pictured tales of vast heroic deeds.
How I wish I could furnish, as Scott has, some of those pictured tales coloured to the life; but I fear I have not that power, therefore it is perhaps that I strive to console myself for my deficiencies by flattering myself that there is much, though not such glorious use, in my own lesser manner and department. The great virtues, the great vices excite strong enthusiasm, vehement horror, but after all it is not so necessary to warn the generality of mankind against these, either by precept or example, as against the lesser faults; we are all sufficiently aware that we must not break the commandments, and the reasons against all vices all feel even to the force of demonstration, but demonstration does not need and cannot receive additional force from fiction. The Old Bailey trials, Les Causes Célèbres, come with more force, as with the force of actual truth, than can any of the finest fictions producing what Colonel Stewart calls "momentary belief in the reality of a fictitious character or event." Few readers do or can put themselves in the places of great criminals, or fear to yield to such and such temptations; they know that they cannot fall to the depth of evil at once, and they have no sympathy, no fear; their spirits are not "put in the act of falling." But show them the steep path, the little declivity at first, the step by step downwards, and they tremble. Show them the postern gates or little breaches in their citadel of virtue, and they fly to guard these; in short, show to them their own little faults which may lead on to the greatest, and they shudder; that is, if this be done with truth and brought home to their consciousness. This is all, which by reflection on my own mind and comparison with others and with records in books full as much as observations on living subjects, I feel or fancy I have sometimes done or can do.
But while I am thus ladling out praise to myself in this way, I do not flatter myself that I deserve the quantity of praise which Colonel Stewart gives me for laborious observation, or for steadiness and nicety of dissection. My father, to whose judgment I habitually refer to help out my own judgment of myself, and who certainly must from long acquaintance, to say no more, have known my character better than any other person can, always reproached me for trusting too much to my hasty glances, aperçus, as he called them, of character or truths; and often have I had, and have still (past my grand climacteric) to repent every day my mistaken conclusions and hasty jumps to conclusions. Perhaps you wish I should jump to conclusion now, and so I will.
- Quoted from Mr. Croker, who said that nothing ever satisfied an author, but large draughts of unqualified praise.