The Altar of the Dead/preface
The altar of the dead forms part of a volume bearing the title of Terminations, which appeared in 1895. Figuring last in that collection of short pieces, it here stands at the head of my list, not as prevailing over its companions by length, but as being ample enough and of an earlier date than several. I have to add that with this fact of its temporal order, and the fact that, as I remember, it had vainly been ‘hawked about’, knocking, in the world of magazines, at half a dozen editorial doors impenetrably closed to it, I shall have exhausted my fund of allusion to the influences attending its birth. I consult memory further to no effect; so that if I should seem to have lost every trace of ‘how I came to think’ of such a motive, did n’t I, by a longer reach of reflexion, help myself back to the state of not having had to think of it? The idea embodied in this composition must in other words never have been so absent from my view as to call for an organised search. It was ‘there’ – it had always, or from ever so far back, been there, not interfering with other conceits, yet at the same time not interfered with; and it naturally found expression at the first hour something more urgently undertaken happened not to stop the way. The way here, I recognise, would ever have been easy to stop, for the general patience, the inherent waiting faculty, of the principle of interest involved, was conscious of no strain, and above all of no loss, in amusedly biding its time. Other conceits might indeed come and go, born of light impressions and passing hours, for what sort of free intelligence would it be that, addressed to the human scene, should propose to itself, all vulgarly, never to be waylaid or arrested, never effectively inspired, by some imaged appeal of the lost Dead? The subject of my story is obviously, and quite as usual, the exhibition of a case; the case being that of an accepted, a cultivated habit (the cultivation is really the point) of regularly taking thought for them. Frankly, I can but gather, the desire, at last of the acutest, to give an example and represent an instance of some such practised communion, was a foredoomed consequence of life, year after year, amid the densest and most materialised aggregation of men upon earth, the society most wedded by all its conditions to the immediate and the finite. More exactly speaking, it was impossible for any critic or ‘creator’ at all worth his wage not, as a matter of course, again and again to ask himself what may not become of individual sensibility, of the faculty and the fibre itself, when everything makes against the indulgence of it save as a conscious, and indeed highly emphasised, dead loss.
The impression went back for its full intensity, no doubt, neither to a definite moment nor to a particular shock; but the author of the tale before us was long to cherish the memory of a pair of illuminating incidents that, happily for him – by which I mean happily for the generalisation he here makes – placed themselves, at no great distance apart, so late in a sustained experience of London as to find him profitably prepared for them, and yet early enough to let confirmatory matter gather in abundance round. Not to this day, in fine, has he forgotten the hard, handsome, gentlemanly face, as it was expressionally affected in a particular conjunction, of a personage occasionally met in other years at one of the friendliest, the most liberal of ‘entertaining’ houses and then lost to sight till after a long interval. The end of all mortal things had, during this period, and in the fulness of time, overtaken our delightful hosts and the scene of their long hospitality, a scene of constant welcome to my personage, as I have called him (a police-magistrate then seated, by reason of his office, well in the eye of London, but as conspicious for his private urbanity as for his high magisterial and penal mask). He too has now passed away, but what could exactly better attest the power of prized survival in personal signs than my even yet felt chill as I saw the old penal glare rekindled in him by the form of my aid to his memory. “We used sometimes to meet, in the old days, at the dear So-and-So’s, you may recall.” “The So-and-So’s?” said the awful gentleman, who appeared to recognise the name, across the table, only to be shocked at the allusion. “Why, they’re Dead, sir – dead these many years.” “Indeed they are, sir, alas,” I could but reply with spirit; “and it’s precisely why I like so to speak of them! – Il ne manquerait plus que cela, that because they’re dead I should n’t!” is what I came within an ace of adding; or rather might have come had n’t I felt my indecency too utterly put in its place. I was left with it in fact on my hands – where however I was quite everlastingly, as you see, to cherish it. My anecdote is mild and its companion perhaps milder; but impressions come as they can and stay as they will.
A distinguished old friend, a very eminent lady and highly marked character, though technically, as it were, a private person, unencompassed by literary luggage or other monumental matter, had dropped from the rank at a great age and, as I was to note after a sufficient interval, to my surprise, with a singularly uncommemorated and unchronicled effect: given, I mean, her social and historical value. One blushed, as the days passed, for the want of manners in it – there being twenty reasons in the case why manners should have been remembered. A friend of the interesting woman, there upon, seeing his opportunity, asked leave of an acquaintance of his own, the conductor of a ‘high class’ periodical, to intervene on behalf of her memory in the pages under the latter’s control. The amiable editor so far yielded to a first good impulse as to welcome the proposal; but the proposer was disconcerted to receive on the morrow a colder retractation. “I really don’t see why I should publish an article about Mrs X because – and because only, so far as I can make out – she’s dead.” Again I felt the inhibition, as the psychologists say, that I had felt in the other case; the vanity, in the conditions, of any yearning plea that this was the most beautiful of reasons. Clearly the conditions were against its being for an effective moment felt as such; and the article in question never appeared – nor, to the best of my knowledge, anything else of the sort: which fact was to take its place among other grim values. These pointed, as they all too largely accumulated, to the general black truth that London was a terrible place to die in; doubtless not so much more over by conscious cruelty or perversity as under the awful doom of general dishumanisation. It takes space to feel, it takes time to know, and great organisms as well as small have to pause, more or less, to possess themselves and to be aware. Monstrous masses are, by this truth, so impervious to vibration that the sharpest forces of feeling, locally applied, no more penetrate than a pin or a paper-cutter penetrates an elephant’s hide. Thus the very tradition of sensibility would perish if left only to their care. It has here and there to be rescued, to be saved by independent, intelligent zeal; which type of effort however, to avail, has to fly in the face of the conditions.
These are easily, one is obliged to add, too many for it; nothing being more visible for instance than that the life of inordinately numerous companies is hostile to friendship and intimacy – unless indeed it be the impropriety of such names applied to the actual terms of intercourse. The sense of the state of the dead is but part of the sense of the state of the living; and, congruously with that, life is cheated to almost the same degree of the finest homage (precisely this our possible friendships and intimacies) that we fain would render it. We clutch indeed at some shadow of these things, we stay our yearning with snatches and stop-gaps; but our struggle yields to the other arrayed things that defeat the cultivation, in such an air, of the finer flowers – creatures of cultivation as the finer flowers essentially are. We perforce fall back, for the application of that process, on the coarser – which form together the rank and showy bloom of ‘success’, of multiplied contact and multiplied motion; the bloom of a myriad many-coloured ‘relations’ – amid which the precious plant that is rare at the best becomes rare indeed. The altar of the dead then commemorates a case of what I have called the individual independent effort to keep it none the less tended and watered, to cultivate it, as I say, with an exasperated piety. I am not however here reconstituting my more or less vivid fable, but simply glancing at the natural growth of its prime idea, that of an invoked, a restorative reaction against certain general brutalities. Brutal, more and more, to wondering eyes, the great fact that the poor dead, all about one, were nowhere so dead as there; where to be caught in any rueful glance at them was to be branded at once as ‘morbid’. “Mourir, à Londres, c’est être bien mort!” – I have not forgotten the ironic emphasis of a distinguished foreign friend, for some years officially resident in England, as we happened once to watch together a funeral-train, on its way to Kensal Green or wherever, bound merrily by. That truth, to any man of memories, was too repeatedly and intolerably driven home, and the situation of my depicted George Stransom is that of the poor gentleman who simply at last could n’t ‘stand’ it.
To desire, amid these collocations, to place, so far as possible, like with like, was to invite The beast in the jungle to stand here next in order. As to the accidental determinant of which composition, once more – of comparatively recent date and destined, like its predecessor, first to see the light in a volume of miscellanies ( The better sort, 1903) – I remount the stream of time, all enquiringly, but to come back empty-handed. The subject of this elaborated fantasy – which, I must add, I hold a successful thing only as its motive may seem to the reader to stand out sharp – can’t quite have belonged to the immemorial company of such solicitations; though in spite of this I meet it, in ten lines of an old note-book, but as a recorded conceit and an accomplished fact. Another poor sensitive gentleman, fit indeed to mate with Stransom of The altar – my attested predilection for poor sensitive gentlemen almost embarrasses me as I march! – was to have been, after a strange fashion and from the threshold of his career, condemned to keep counting with the unreasoned prevision of some extraordinary fate; the conviction, lodged in his brain, part and parcel of his imagination from far back, that experience would be marked for him, and whether for good or for ill, by some rare distinction, some incalculable violence or unprecedented stroke. So I seemed to see him start in life – under the so mixed star of the extreme of apprehension and the extreme of confidence; all to the logical, the quite inevitable effect of the complication aforesaid: his having to wait and wait for the right recognition; none of the mere usual and normal human adventures, whether delights or disconcertments, appearing to conform to the great type of his fortune. So it is that he ’s depicted. No gathering appearance, no descried or interpreted promise or portent, affects his superstitious soul either as a damnation deep enough (if damnation be in question) for his appointed quality of consciousness, or as a translation into bliss sublime enough (on that hypothesis) to fill, in vulgar parlance, the bill. Therefore as each item of experience comes, with its possibilities, into view, he can but dismiss it under this sterilising habit of the failure to find it good enough and thence to appropriate it.
His one desire remains of course to meet his fate, or at least to divine it, to see it as intelligible, to learn it, in a word; but none of its harbingers, pretended or supposed, speak his ear in the true voice; they wait their moment at his door only to pass on unheeded, and the years ebb while he holds his breath and stays his hand and – from the dread not less of imputed pride than of imputed pusillanimity – stifles his distinguished secret. He perforce lets everything go – leaving all the while his general presumption disguised and his general abstention unexplained; since he ’s ridden by the idea of what things may lead to, since they mostly always lead to human communities, wider or intenser, of experience, and since, above all, in his uncertainty, he must n’t compromise others. Like the blinded seeker in the old-fashioned game he ‘burns’, on occasion, as with the sense of the hidden thing near – only to deviate again however into the chill; the chill that indeed settles on him as the striking of his hour is deferred. His career thus resolves itself into a great negative adventure, my report of which presents, for its centre, the fine case that has caused him most tormentedly to ‘burn’, and then most unprofitably to stray. He is afraid to recognise what he incidentally misses, since what his high belief amounts to is not that he shall have felt and vibrated less than any one else, but that he shall have felt and vibrated more; which no acknowledgement of the minor loss must conflict with. Such a course of existence naturally involves a climax – the final flash of the light under which he reads his lifelong riddle and sees his conviction proved. He has indeed been marked and indeed suffered his fortune – which is precisely to have been the man in the world to whom nothing whatever was to happen. My picture leaves him overwhelmed – at last he has understood; though in thus disengaging my treated theme for the reader’s benefit I seem to acknowledge that this more detached witness may not successfully have done so. I certainly grant that any felt merit in the thing must all depend on the clearness and charm with which the subject just noted expresses itself.
If The birthplace deals with another poor gentleman – of interest as being yet again too fine for his rough fate – here at least I can claim to have gone by book, here once more I lay my hand, for my warrant, on the clue of actuality. It was one of the cases in which I was to say at the first brush of the hint: “How can there possibly not be innumerable things in it?” ‘It’ was the mentioned adventure of a good intelligent man rather recently appointed to the care of a great place of pilgrimage, a shrine sacred to the piety and curiosity of the whole English-speaking race, and haunted by other persons as well; who, coming to his office with infinite zest, had after a while desperately thrown it up – as a climax to his struggle, some time prolonged, with “the awful nonsense he found himself expected and paid, and thence quite obliged, to talk.” It was in these simple terms his predicament was named to me – not that I would have had a word more, not indeed that I had n’t at once to turn my back for very joy of the suppressed details: so unmistakeably, on the spot, was a splendid case all there, so complete, in fine, as it stood, was the appeal to fond fancy; an appeal the more direct, I may add, by reason, as happened, of an acquaintance, lately much confirmed, on my own part, with the particular temple of our poor gentleman’s priesthood. It struck me, at any rate, that here, if ever, was the perfect theme of a nouvelle – and to some such composition I addressed myself with a confidence unchilled by the certainty that it would nowhere, at the best (a prevision not falsified) find ‘acceptance’. For the rest I must but leave The birthplace to plead its own cause; only adding that here afresh and in the highest degree were the conditions reproduced for that mystic, that ‘chemical’ change wrought in the impression of life by its dedication to an æsthetic use, that I lately spoke of in connexion with The Coxon fund. Beautiful on all this ground exactly, to the projector’s mind, the process by which the small cluster of actualities latent in the fact reported to him was to be reconstituted and, so far as they might need, altered; the felt fermentation, ever interesting, but flagrantly so in the example before us, that enables the sense originally communicated to make fresh and possibly quite different terms for the new employment there awaiting it. It has been liberated (to repeat, I believe, my figure) after the fashion of some sound young draught-horse who may, in the great meadow, have to be re-captured and re-broken for the saddle.
I proceed almost eagerly, in any case, to The private life – and at the cost of reaching for a moment over The jolly corner: I find myself so fondly return to ground on which the history even of small experiments may be more or less written. This mild documentation fairly thickens for me, I confess, the air of the first-mentioned of these tales; the scraps of records flit through that medium, to memory, as with the incalculable brush of wings of the imprisoned bat at eventide. This piece of ingenuity rests for me on such a handful of acute impressions as I may not here tell over at once; so that, to be brief, I select two of the sharpest. Neither of these was, in old London days, I make out, to be resisted even under its single pressure; so that the hour struck with a vengeance for “Dramatise it, dramatise it!” (dramatise, that is, the combination) from the first glimpse of a good way to work together two cases that happened to have been given me. They were those – as distinct as possible save for belonging alike to the ‘world’, the London world of a time when Discrimination still a little lifted its head – of a highly distinguished man, constantly to be encountered, whose fortune and whose peculiarity it was to bear out personally as little as possible (at least to my wondering sense) the high denotements, the rich implications and rare associations, of the genius to which he owed his position and his renown. One may go, naturally, in such a connexion, but by one’s own applied measure; and I have never ceased to ask myself, in this particular loud, sound, normal, hearty presence, all so assertive and so whole, all bristling with prompt responses and expected opinions and usual views, radiating all a broad daylight equality of emphasis and impartiality of address (for most relations) – I never ceased, I say, to ask myself what lodgement, on such premises, the rich proud genius one adored could ever have contrived, what domestic commerce the subtlety that was its prime ornament and the world’s wonder have enjoyed, under what shelter the obscurity that was its luckless drawback and the world’s despair have flourished. The whole aspect and allure of the fresh sane man, illustrious and undistinguished – no ‘sensitive poor gentleman’ he! – was mystifying; they made the question of who then had written the immortal things such a puzzle.
So at least one could but take the case – though one’s need for relief depended, no doubt, on what one (so to speak) suffered. The writer of these lines, at any rate, suffered so much – I mean of course but by the unanswered question – that light had at last to break under pressure of the whimsical theory of two distinct and alternate presences, the assertion of either of which on any occasion directly involved the entire extinction of the other. This explained to the imagination the mystery: our delightful inconceivable celebrity was double, constructed in two quite distinct and ‘water-tight’ compartments – one of these figured by the gentleman who sat at a table all alone, silent and unseen, and wrote admirably deep and brave and intricate things; while the gentleman who regularly came forth to sit at a quite different table and substantially and promiscuously and multitudinously dine stood for its companion. They had nothing to do, the so dissimilar twins, with each other; the diner could exist but by the cessation of the writer, whose emergence, on his side, depended on his – and our! – ignoring the diner. Thus it was amusing to think of the real great man as a presence known, in the late London days, all and only to himself – unseen of other human eye and converted into his perfectly positive, but quite secondary, alter ego by any approach to a social contact. To the same tune was the social personage known all and only to society, was he conceivable but as ‘cut dead’, on the return home and the threshold of the closed study, by the waiting spirit who would flash at that signal into form and possession. Once I had so seen the case I could n’t see it otherwise; and so to see it moreover was inevitably to feel in it a situation and a motive. The ever-importunate murmur, “Dramatise it, dramatise it!” haunted, as I say, one’s perception; yet without giving the idea much support till, by the happiest turn, the whole possibility was made to glow.
For did n’t there immensely flourish in those very days and exactly in that society the apparition the most qualified to balance with the odd character I have referred to and to supply to ‘drama’, if ‘drama’ there was to be, the precious element of contrast and antithesis? – that most accomplished of artists and most dazzling of men of the world whose effect on the mind repeatedly invited to appraise him was to beget in it an image of representation and figuration so exclusive of any possible inner self that, so far from there being here a question of an alter ego, a double personality, there seemed scarce a question of a real and single one, scarce foothold or margin for any private and domestic ego at all. Immense in this case too, for any analytic witness, the solicitation of wonder – which struggled all the while, not less amusingly than in the other example, toward the explanatory secret; a clear view of the perpetual, essential performer, consummate, infallible, impeccable, and with his high shining elegance, his intensity of presence, on these lines, involving to the imagination an absolutely blank reverse or starved residuum, no other power of presence whatever. One said it under one’s breath, one really yearned to know: was he, such an embodiment of skill and taste and tone and composition, of every public gloss and grace, thinkable even as occasionally single? – since to be truly single is to be able, under stress, to be separate, to be solus, to know at need the interlunar swoon of some independent consciousness. Yes, had our dazzling friend any such alternative, could he so unattestedly exist, and was the withdrawn, the sequestered, the unobserved and unhonoured condition so much as imputable to him? Was n’t his potentiality of existence public, in fine, to the last squeeze of the golden orange, and when he passed from our admiring sight into the chamber of mystery what, the next minute, was on the other side of the door? It was irresistible to believe at last that there was at such junctures inveterately nothing; and the more so, once I had begun to dramatise, as this supplied the most natural opposition in the world to my fond companion-view – the other side of the door only cognisant of the true Robert Browning. One’s harmless formula for the poetic employment of this pair of conceits could n’t go much further than ‘Play them against each other’ – the ingenuity of which small game The private life reflects as it can.
I fear I can defend such doings but under the plea of my amusement in them – an amusement I of course hoped others might succeed in sharing. But so comes in exactly the principle under the wide strong wing of which several such matters are here harvested; things of a type that might move me, had I space, to a pleading eloquence. Such compositions as The jolly corner, printed here not for the first time, but printed elsewhere only as I write and after my quite ceasing to expect it; The friends of the friends, to which I here change the colourless title of The way it came (1896), Owen Wingrave (1893), Sir Edmund Orme (1891), The real right thing (1900), would obviously never have existed but for that love of ‘a story as a story’ which had from far back beset and beguiled their author. To this passion, the vital flame at the heart of any sincere attempt to lay a scene and launch a drama, he flatters himself he has never been false; and he will indeed have done his duty but little by it if he has failed to let it, whether robustly or quite insidiously, fire his fancy and rule his scheme. He has consistently felt it (the appeal to wonder and terror and curiosity and pity and to the delight of fine recognitions, as well as to the joy, perhaps sharper still, of the mystified state) the very source of wise counsel and the very law of charming effect. He has revelled in the creation of alarm and suspense and surprise and relief, in all the arts that practise, with a scruple for nothing but any lapse of application, on the credulous soul of the candid or, immeasurably better, on the seasoned spirit of the cunning, reader. He has built, rejoicingly, on that blest faculty of wonder just named, in the latent eagerness of which the novelist so finds, throughout, his best warrant that he can but pin his faith and attach his car to it, rest in fine his monstrous weight and his queer case on it, as on a strange passion planted in the heart of man for his benefit, a mysterious provision made for him in the scheme of nature. He has seen this particular sensibility, the need and the love of wondering and the quick response to any pretext for it, as the beginning and the end of his affair – thanks to the innumerable ways in which that chord may vibrate. His prime care has been to master those most congruous with his own faculty, to make it vibrate as finely as possible – or in other words to the production of the interest appealing most (by its kind) to himself. This last is of course the particular clear light by which the genius of representation ever best proceeds – with its beauty of adjustment to any strain of attention whatever. Essentially, meanwhile, excited wonder must have a subject, must face in a direction, must be, increasingly, about something. Here comes in then the artist’s bias and his range – determined, these things, by his own fond inclination. About what, good man, does he himself most wonder? – for upon that, whatever it may be, he will naturally most abound. Under that star will he gather in what he shall most seek to represent; so that if you follow thus his range of representation you will know how, you will see where, again, good man, he for himself most aptly vibrates.
All of which makes a desired point for the little group of compositions here placed together; the point that, since the question has ever been for me but of wondering and, with all achievable adroitness, of causing to wonder, so the whole fairy-tale side of life has used, for its tug at my sensibility, a cord all its own. When we want to wonder there ’s no such good ground for it as the wonderful – premising indeed always, by an induction as prompt, that this element can but be at best, to fit its different cases, a thing of appreciation. What is wonderful in one set of conditions may quite fail of its spell in another set; and, for that matter, the peril of the unmeasured strange, in fiction, being the silly, just as its strength, when it saves itself, is the charming, the wind of interest blows where it lists, the surrender of attention persists where it can. The ideal, obviously, on these lines, is the straight fairy-tale, the case that has purged in the crucible all its bêtises while keeping all its grace. It may seem odd, in a search for the amusing, to try to steer wide of the silly by hugging close the ‘supernatural’; but one man’s amusement is at the best (we have surely long had to recognise) another’s desolation; and I am prepared with the confession that the ‘ghost-story’, as we for convenience call it, has ever been for me the most possible form of the fairy-tale. It enjoys, to my eyes, this honour by being so much the neatest – neat with that neatness without which representation, and therewith beauty, drops. One’s working of the spell is of course – decently and effectively – but by the represented thing, and the grace of the more or less closely represented state is the measure of any success; a truth by the general smug neglect of which it ’s difficult not to be struck. To begin to wonder, over a case, I must begin to believe – to begin to give out (that is to attend) I must begin to take in, and to enjoy that profit I must begin to see and hear and feel. This would n’t seem, I allow, the general requirement – as appears from the fact that so many persons profess delight in the picture of marvels and prodigies which by any, even the easiest, critical measure is no picture; in the recital of wonderful horrific or beatific things that are neither represented nor, so far as one makes out, seen as representable: a weakness not invalidating, round about us, the most resounding appeals to curiosity. The main condition of interest – that of some appreciable rendering of sought effects – is absent from them; so that when, as often happens, one is asked how one ‘likes’ such and such a ‘story’ one can but point responsively to the lack of material for a judgement.
The apprehension at work, we thus see, would be of certain projected conditions, and its first need therefore is that these appearances be constituted in some other and more colourable fashion than by the author’s answering for them on his more or less gentlemanly honour. This is n’t enough; give me your elements, treat me your subject, one has to say – I must wait till then to tell you how I like them. I might ‘rave’ about them all were they given and treated; but there is no basis of opinion in such matters without a basis of vision, and no ground for that, in turn, without some communicated closeness of truth. There are portentous situations, there are prodigies and marvels and miracles as to which this communication, whether by necessity or by chance, works comparatively straight – works, by our measure, to some convincing consequence; there are others as to which the report, the picture, the plea, answers no tithe of the questions we would put. Those questions may perhaps then, by the very nature of the case, be unanswerable – though often again, no doubt, the felt vice is but in the quality of the provision made for them: on any showing, my own instinct, even in the service of great adventures, is all for the best terms of things; all for ground on which touches and tricks may be multiplied, the greatest number of questions answered, the greatest appearance of truth conveyed. With the preference I have noted for the ‘neat’ evocation – the image, of any sort, with fewest attendant vaguenesses and cheapnesses, fewest loose ends dangling and fewest features missing, the image kept in fine the most susceptible of intensity – with this predilection, I say, the safest arena for the play of moving accidents and mighty mutations and strange encounters, or whatever odd matters, is the field, as I may call it, rather of their second than of their first exhibition. By which, to avoid obscurity, I mean nothing more cryptic than I feel myself show them best by showing almost exclusively the way they are felt, by recognising as their main interest some impression strongly made by them and intensely received. We but too probably break down, I have ever reasoned, when we attempt the prodigy, the appeal to mystification, in itself ; with its ‘objective’ side too emphasised the report (it is ten to one) will practically run thin. We want it clear, goodness knows, but we also want it thick, and we get the thickness in the human consciousness that entertains and records, that amplifies and interprets it. That indeed, when the question is (to repeat) of the ‘supernatural’, constitutes the only thickness we do get; here prodigies, when they come straight, come with an effect imperilled; they keep all their character, on the other hand, by looming through some other history – the indispensable history of somebody’s normal relation to something. It ’s in such connexions as these that they most interest, for what we are then mainly concerned with is their imputed and borrowed dignity. Intrinsic values they have none – as we feel for instance in such a matter as the would-be portentous climax of Edgar Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, where the indispensable history is absent, where the phenomena evoked, the moving accidents, coming straight, as I say, are immediate and flat, and the attempt is all at the horrific in itself. The result is that, to my sense, the climax fails – fails because it stops short, and stops short for want of connexions. There are no connexions; not only, I mean, in the sense of further statement, but of our own further relation to the elements, which hang in the void: whereby we see the effect lost, the imaginative effort wasted.
I dare say, to conclude, that whenever, in quest, as I have noted, of the amusing, I have invoked the horrific, I have invoked it, in such air as that of The turn of the screw, that of The jolly corner, that of The friends of the friends, that of Sir Edmund Orme, that of The real right thing, in earnest aversion to waste and from the sense that in art economy is always beauty. The apparitions of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, in the first of the tales just named, the elusive presence nightly ‘stalked’ through the New York house by the poor gentleman in the second, are matters as to which in themselves, really, the critical challenge (essentially nothing ever but the spirit of fine attention) may take a hundred forms – and a hundred felt or possibly proved infirmities is too great a number. Our friends’ respective minds about them, on the other hand, are a different matter – challengeable, and repeatedly, if you like, but never challengeable without some consequent further stiffening of the whole texture. Which proposition involves, I think, a moral. The moving accident, the rare conjunction, whatever it be, does n’t make the story – in the sense that the story is our excitement, our amusement, our thrill and our suspense; the human emotion and the human attestation, the clustering human conditions we expect presented, only make it. The extraordinary is most extraordinary in that it happens to you and me, and it ’s of value (of value for others) but so far as visibly brought home to us. At any rate, odd though it may sound to pretend that one feels on safer ground in tracing such an adventure as that of the hero of The Jolly Corner than in pursuing a bright career among pirates or detectives, I allow that composition to pass as the measure or limit, on my own part, of any achievable comfort in the ‘adventure-story’; and this not because I may ‘render’ – well, what my poor gentleman attempted and suffered in the New York house – better than I may render detectives or pirates or other splendid desperadoes, though even here too there would be something to say; but because the spirit engaged with the forces of violence interests me most when I can think of it as engaged most deeply, most finely and most ‘subtly’ (precious term!). For then it is that, as with the longest and firmest prongs of consciousness, I grasp and hold the throbbing subject; there it is above all that I find the steady light of the picture.
After which attempted demonstration I drop with scant grace perhaps to the admission here of a general vagueness on the article of my different little origins. I have spoken of these in three or four connexions, but ask myself to no purpose, I fear, what put such a matter as Owen Wingrave or as The friends of the friends, such a fantasy as Sir Edmund Orme, into my head. The habitual teller of tales finds these things in old note-books – which however but shifts the burden a step; since how, and under what inspiration, did they first wake up in these rude cradles? One’s notes, as all writers remember, sometimes explicitly mention, sometimes indirectly reveal, and sometimes wholly dissimulate, such clues and such obligations. The search for these last indeed, through faded or pencilled pages, is perhaps one of the sweetest of our more pensive pleasures. Then we chance on some idea we have afterwards treated; then, greeting it with tenderness, we wonder at the first form of a motive that was to lead us so far and to show, no doubt, to eyes not our own, for so other; then we heave the deep sigh of relief over all that is never, thank goodness, to be done again. Would we have embarked on that stream had we known? – and what might n’t we have made of this one had n’t we known! How, in a proportion of cases, could we have dreamed ‘there might be something’? – and why, in another proportion, did n’t we try what there might be, since there are sorts of trials (ah indeed more than one sort!) for which the day will soon have passed? Most of all, of a certainty, is brought back, before these promiscuities, the old burden of the much life and the little art, and of the portentous dose of the one it takes to make any show of the other. It is n’t however that one ‘minds’ not recovering lost hints; the special pride of any tinted flower of fable, however small, is to be able to opine with the celebrated Topsy that it can only have ‘growed’. Does n’t the fabulist himself indeed recall even as one of his best joys the particular pang (both quickening and, in a manner, profaning possession) of parting with some conceit of which he can give no account but that his sense – of beauty or truth or whatever – has been for ever so long saturated with it? Not, I hasten to add, that measurements of time may n’t here be agreeably fallacious, and that the ‘ever so long’ of saturation shan’t often have consisted but of ten minutes of perception. It comes back to me of Owen Wingrave, for example, simply that one summer afternoon many years ago, on a penny chair and under a great tree in Kensington Gardens, I must at the end of a few such visionary moments have been able to equip him even with details not involved or not mentioned in the story. Would that adequate intensity all have sprung from the fact that while I sat there in the immense mild summer rustle and the ever so softened London hum a young man should have taken his place on another chair within my limit of contemplation, a tall quiet slim studious young man, of admirable type, and have settled to a book with immediate gravity? Did the young man then, on the spot, just become Owen Wingrave, establishing by the mere magic of type the situation, creating at a stroke all the implications and filling out all the picture? That he would have been capable of it is all I can say – unless it be, otherwise put, that I should have been capable of letting him; though there hovers the happy alternative that Owen Wingrave, nebulous and fluid, may only, at the touch, have found himself in this gentleman; found, that is, a figure and a habit, a form, a face, a fate, the interesting aspect presented and the dreadful doom recorded; together with the required and multiplied connexions, not least that presence of some self-conscious dangerous girl of lockets and amulets offered by the full-blown idea to my very first glance. These questions are as answerless as they are, luckily, the reverse of pressing – since my poor point is only that at the beginning of my session in the penny chair the seedless fable had n’t a claim to make or an excuse to give, and that, the very next thing, the pennyworth still partly unconsumed, it was fairly bristling with pretexts. “Dramatise it, dramatise it!” would seem to have rung with sudden intensity in my ears. But dramatise what? The young man in the chair? Him perhaps indeed – however disproportionately to his mere inoffensive stillness; though no imaginative response can be disproportionate, after all, I think, to any right, any really penetrating, appeal. Only, where and whence and why and how sneaked in, during so few seconds, so much penetration, so very much rightness? However, these mysteries are really irrecoverable; besides being doubtless of interest, in general, at the best, but to the infatuated author.
Moved to say that of Sir Edmund Orme I remember absolutely nothing, I yet pull myself up ruefully to retrace the presumption that this morsel must first have appeared, with a large picture, in a weekly newspaper and, as then struck me, in the very smallest of all possible print – at sight of which I felt sure that, in spite of the picture (a thing, in its way, to be thankful for) no one would ever read it. I was never to hear in fact that any one had done so – and I therefore surround it here with every advantage and give it without compunction a new chance. For as I meditate I do a little live it over, do a little remember in connexion with it the felt challenge of some experiment or two in one of the finer shades, the finest (that was the point) of the gruesome. The gruesome gross and obvious might be charmless enough; but why should n’t one, with ingenuity, almost infinitely refine upon it? – as one was prone at any time to refine almost on anything? The study of certain of the situations that keep, as we say, the heart in the mouth might renew itself under this star; and in the recital in question, as in The friends of the friends, The jolly corner and The real right thing, the pursuit of such verily leads us into rarefied air. Two sources of effect must have seemed to me happy for Sir Edmund Orme; one of these the bright thought of a state of unconscious obsession or, in romantic parlance, hauntedness, on the part of a given person; the consciousness of it on the part of some other, in anguish lest a wrong turn or forced betrayal shall determine a break in the blest ignorance, becoming thus the subject of portrayal, with plenty of suspense for the occurrence or non-occurrence of the feared mischance. Not to be liable herself to a dark visitation, but to see such a danger play about her child as incessantly as forked lightning may play unheeded about the blind, this is the penalty suffered by the mother, in Sir Edmund Orme, for some hardness or baseness of her own youth. There I must doubtless have found my escape from the obvious; there I avoided a low directness and achieved one of those redoubled twists or sportive – by which I don’t at all mean wanton – gambols dear to the fastidious, the creative fancy and that make for the higher interest. The higher interest – and this is the second of the two flowers of evidence that I pluck from the faded cluster – must further have dwelt, to my appraisement, in my placing my scene at Brighton, the old, the mid-Victorian, the Thackerayan Brighton; where the twinkling sea and the breezy air, the great friendly, fluttered, animated, many-coloured ‘front’, would emphasise the note I wanted; that of the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy.
This was to be again, after years, the idea entertained for The jolly corner, about the composition of which there would be more to say than my space allows; almost more in fact than categorical clearness might see its way to. A very limited thing being on this occasion in question, I was moved to adopt as my motive an analysis of some one of the conceivably rarest and intensest grounds for an ‘unnatural’ anxiety, a malaise so incongruous and discordant, in the given prosaic prosperous conditions, as almost to be compromising. Spencer Brydon’s adventure however is one of those finished fantasies that, achieving success or not, speak best even to the critical sense for themselves – which I leave it to do, while I apply the remark as well to The friends of the friends (and all the more that this last piece allows probably for no other comment).
I have placed Julia Bride, for material reasons, at the end of this volume, quite out of her congruous company, though not very much out of her temporal order; and mainly with this drawback alone that any play of criticism she may seem formed to provoke rather misses its link with the reflexions I have here been making. That link is with others Sir Edmund Orme to come, and I must leave it to suggest itself on the occasion of these others; when I shall be inevitably saying, for instance, that if there are voluminous, gross and obvious ways of seeking that effect of the distinctively rich presentation for which it has been my possibly rather thankless fate to strive, so doubtless the application of patches and the multiplication of parts make up a system with a train of votaries; but that the achieved iridescence from within works, I feel sure, more kinds of magic; and our interest, our decency and our dignity can of course only be to work as many kinds as possible. Such value as may dwell in Julia Bride, for example, seems to me, on re-perusal, to consist to a high degree in the strength of the flushing through on the part of the subject-matter, and in the mantle of iridescence naturally and logically so produced. Julia is ‘foreshortened’, I admit, to within an inch of her life; but I judge her life still saved and yet at the same time the equal desideratum, its depicted full fusion with other lives that remain undepicted, not lost. The other lives, the rest of the quantity of life, press in, squeeze forward, to the best of their ability; but, restricted as the whole thing is to implications and involutions only, they prevail at best by indirectness; and the bid for amusement, the effect presumably sought, is by making us conceive and respond to them, making us feel, taste, smell and enjoy them, without our really knowing why or how. Full-fed statement here, to repeat my expression – the imaged résumé of as many of the vivifying elements as may be coherently packed into an image at once – is the predominant artifice; thanks to which we catch by the very small reflector, which is of absolutely minimum size for its task, a quite ‘unlikely’ amount, I surmise, of the movement of life. But, again and again, it would take me long to retail the refinements of ingenuity I felt poor re-invoked Julia all anxiously, all intelligently invite me to place, for this belated, for this positively final appearance, at her disposal. “Here we are again!” she seemed, with a chalked grimace, to call out to me, even as the clown at the circus launches the familiar greeting; and it was quite as if, while she understood all I asked of her, I confessed to her the oddity of my predicament. This was but a way, no doubt, of confessing it to myself – except indeed that she might be able to bear it. Her plea was – well, anything she would; but mine, in return, was that I really did n’t take her for particularly important in herself, and would in fact have had no heart for her without the note, attaching to her as not in the least to poor little dim and archaic Daisy Miller, say; the note, so to call it, of multitudinous reference. I had had, for any confidence, to make it out to myself that my little frisking haunter, under private stress, of the New York public scene, was related with a certain intensity to the world about her; so that her case might lose itself promptly enough in a complexus of larger and stranger cases – even in the very air, by what seemed to promise, of the largest possibilities of comedy. What if she were the silver key, tiny in itself, that would unlock a treasure? – the treasure of a whole view of manners and morals, a whole range of American social aspects?
To put that question was to see one’s subject swell at its mere touch; but to do this, by the same stroke, was to ask one’s self, alas, how such a majestic mass could be made to turn round in a nouvelle. For, all tainted with the up-town debility though it still might be – and this too, after all, comparative – did n’t it yet strain the minor key, to re-employ my expression, almost to breaking? How had the prime idea come to me, in the first place, but as possibly and perhaps even minutely illustrating, in respect of consequences and remoter bearings, that freedom repeatedly to contract for the fond preliminaries of marriage which has been immemorially cherished by the American female young? The freedoms of American life are, together with some of its queer restrictions and timidities, the suggestive matter for painter, poet or satirist; and who should say that one of the greatest of all such birthrights, the large juvenile licence as to getting ‘engaged’, disengaged and re-engaged, had received half the attention the charmed dramatist or moralist would appear consistently to owe it? Presumably of the greatest its bearing on the social tone at large, on the manners, habits and ideals of communities clinging to it – of generations wedded, that is, to the young speculative exchange of intimate vows – as to the palladium of their liberties. What had struck me nevertheless was that, in common with a hundred other native traditions and practices, it had suffered from the attitude of poets and statisticians banded alike to display it as quite devoid of attendant signs or appreciable effects. From far back a more perverse student, doubtless, of the human scene in general had ventured to suspect in it some at least of the properties of presentable truth: so hard it appeared to believe that the number of a young lady’s accepted lovers would n’t in some degree determine the mixture of the elements in the young lady’s consciousness and have much to ‘say’, in one way and another, to the young lady’s general case. What it might have to say (of most interest to poet and moralist) was certainly meanwhile no matter for a priori judgement – it might have to say but the most charming, the most thrilling things in the world; this, however, was exactly the field for dramatic analysis, no such fine quantities being ever determinable till they have with due intelligence been ‘gone into’. “Dramatise, dramatise!” one had, in fine, before the so signal appearance, said to one’s self : then, and not sooner, would one see.
By the same token and the same process would one arrive at a similar profit on the score of that other almost equally prized social provision – which has indeed received more critical attention – the unrestricted freedom of re-marriage in the lifetime of the parties, the unhampered ease of rupture and repudiation for each. On this ground, as I say, the fond interpreter of life has had, wherever we observe him, the acute appeal apparently enough in his ears; and it was to reach me in the present connexion but as a source of sound re-enforcement to my possibly too exiguous other example. “Superadd some view of the so enjoyed and so typical freedoms of the mother to the element, however presented, of the daughter’s inimitable career of licence; work in, as who should say, a tablespoonful of the due display of responsible consciousness, of roused and reflective taste, of delicacy spreading a tentative wing; season and stir according to judgement and then set the whole to simmer, to stew, or whatever, serving hot and with extreme neatness”; such, briefly stated, had been my careful formula or recipe – by which I of course had to abide in spite of suspecting the process to promise, from an early stage, a much stronger broth, smoking in a much bigger bowl, than I had engaged to prepare. The fumes exhaled by the mixture were the gage, somehow, of twenty more ingredients than I had consciously put in; and this means in short that, even with the actual liquid drained off, I make out a residuum of admirable rich ‘stock’, which – in common deference to professional and technical thrift – must again certainly serve. Such are both the penalties and the profits of that obsession by the sense of an ampler comedy in human things�– latent and a little lost, but all responsive to the interested squeeze, to the roused passion of pursuit – than even quite expert and anxious preliminaries of artistic relation to any theme may always be trusted to give the measure of. So what does this truth amount to, after all, but a sort of consecration of what I have called, for Julia Bride, my predicament? – the consciousness, in that connexion, but of finding myself, after so many years astride the silver-shod, sober-paced, short-stepping, but oh so hugely nosing, so tenderly and yearningly and ruefully sniffing, grey mule of the ‘few thousand words’, ridiculously back where I had started. I clutch at the claim in question indeed, since I feel that without it the shadow I may have cast might n’t bear comparison even with that of limping Don Quixote assisted through his castle-gate and showing but thankless bruises for laurels – might in fact resign itself rather to recalling Moses Primrose welcomed home from the Fair.