Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Stock incidents of fiction

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Novel-writing is an art that is getting more and more difficult every day. Originality being one of the chief merits of a novel, every original thought in a novel strikes off a chance for all succeeding writers. Given that there are a certain number of characters in the world, every time one of these is drawn and held up in a book to public view the task of finding a new one becomes more difficult. It is very like the Salmon fishery. Time was when Salmon were for anybody’s catching. Now it is by no means so easy to get them. Imagine, then, some character fishery, in some intellectual river—somewhere. Thither go your character-catchers and fish, and fish. Then back they come to sell. “All fresh! all fresh!” The hungry public buy, and get some fresh, some tainted, some very rotten indeed.

It may be said, of course, that the stock is inexhaustible, for it is as wide as the world; that as no two sheep’s faces are the same, so no two characters are the same—granted—granted. And if only men of first-rate ability wrote novels you would meet with no repetition, but as many novel-writers can see only the broad distinctions in character, and as many characters are only distinguished by minute touches, so in many novels you find either monsters, or persons with “no characters at all.”

As with characters, so with incidents, and if repetition be blameable in the former case, it is still more so in the latter. Variety of incident is much easier to obtain than variety of character, and yet remark the coolness, the brutality with which authors ride incidents to death. Why, you might trace the pedigree of many of them, and as old families boast of having come in with the Conqueror, you will find that in general these incidents “came in” with that great conqueror, Sir Walter Scott.

But it may be urged that these things constantly repeat themselves in real life, then why should they not be repeated in fiction? Yes! but names constantly repeat themselves in real life, but you don’t think of giving the hero of your novel the same name as another man’s hero. An author would think twice, I fancy, before calling his hero Edgar Ravenswood or Guy Mannering, yet he has no hesitation about taking Scott’s incidents and putting them into his own tale. Oh! when are we to hear the last of that terrible water-party where nobody is drowned? Of that house on fire where the lover extinguishes all the professional firemen? Of that man who is supposed to be dead and yet isn’t? Of that uncle who is always turning up at last, just when he is wanted? Of that dear old hardworked, ill-used, bellowing, harmless bull?

Now observe! Here’s a novelist has got his handsome, virtuous, but low-born young man, desperately in love with his beautiful, virtuous, and high-born young woman. What is he to do? The affection is mutual. These two young people are admirably fitted for each other in all respects but this one of difference of rank. What is to remove this dreadful bar? The Earl is inexorable. “Dares the low-born caitiff to aspire to the hand of my daughter—ha! What will become of society—ha! when the insects in the dust—” and all that kind of thing. The Countess won’t hear of it. “Disgracing your family, Amelia, in such a way. What will the world say? Think no more about it, my dear; the County Paris dines here to-night.” But the County Paris will talk his small talk and display his many attractions to no purpose. Our novelist has all the regular remedies at hand. He considers which he shall take. “Fire!” says our novelist. “Blazing rafters—falling beams—shrieking women—shouting men—engines dash up—firemen stand appalled—Orlando breaks through the crowd—plants a ladder—ascends—disappears into the smoke and flame—crowd waits in breathless silence—Orlando reappears, bearing in his arms the Earl, the Countess, and Amelia—shouts rend the skies. Or shall we try water?” says our novelist. “Water-party—boat overset—Amelia precipitated into the foaming torrent—the wretched parents, with streaming eyes, entreat the company generally to go in after her—the company generally decline—the Earl himself—an old man and feeble, but with all a father’s feelings strong within him—throws off his coat, and prepares to breast the flood, but he is held back by the Countess, and by the company generally, who prefer saving the parent on dry land, to taking the water to save the child—all hope seems past, when suddenly a figure is seen to spring from the opposite bank. Swiftly it cleaves the parting waves. Will he reach her in time? No! yes! No! yes! He does! He clasps her in his arms! She is saved! and by whom? Who is the happy man? Who? Orlando.” Of course: our novelist sent him on purpose. And what can the Earl refuse him after such a service? “Young man,” says the Earl, “you have restored to me my daughter. The life that you have saved she shall dedicate to you. Take her and bless you! Bless you both, my children!” Our novelist may wipe his pen in peace after that.

But if neither of these suit him, that is to say, if he has used them in his previous works—for, otherwise, they would be sure to suit him—there is the uncle for him—the novel-uncle—and surely never relative was so useful. He has, in general, been in India for many years before the first volume opens; and, indeed, for two volumes and a-half, the reader is only kept aware of his existence by some such sentence as this, now and then introduced: “I have here a letter from your uncle Nat. He has had an attack of yellow fever that nearly brought him to his grave.” Or, “Your uncle Nat, when hunting in India some time ago, fell from his elephant into the very jaws of a royal tiger, and had he not had the presence of mind to——”, or something of that kind. Of course, being in India and making your fortune are synonymous terms in a novel, so it is quite unnecessary for the author to state that uncle Nat is immensely rich; equally unnecessary to say that he has no liver, is passionate but kind-hearted, provokingly particular about trifles, and a bachelor. About the time that the third volume is beginning in England, then the uncle finds that the climate of India is seriously affecting his health, and that his native air is the only thing to restore him; he therefore determines to return home, and sails accordingly, of course without sending notice of his coming. Things, in the meanwhile, are going on very badly with the lovers. Orlando, in addition to his other trials, has poverty to contend with; or, perhaps, as our novelist always has the uncle ready if matters come to a crisis, Orlando has run into debt. Well! about the ninety-sixth chapter, things get to their worst and mend. The lover, despair in his heart and bailiffs in the kitchen, is utterly at his wits’ end. He does not know which way to look, except towards his razors. While he is meditating whether to commit suicide, or to abscond and leave his lady-love, his servant—an old man, faithful and familiar, who has spent his life in the service of Orlando, his father, and grandfather—enters with a note. It is from Amelia. “We must part. All hope is extinguished. Oh, my Orlando!—but I must no longer call thee so. Filial duty—parental anger—must see thee no more—shall never love another—forget me—farewell!” Page blotted with tears. Orlando reads the note twice—crushes it—kisses it—grasps his brow with his extended hand (though how on earth he manages to do that, I can’t for the life of me explain; but, if anyone doubts that this is a regular novel action, I am prepared to quote chapter and verse to prove it; the name of a novel in which the hero does it is even now trembling on my tongue—but I forbear;)—gasps—chokes—and strops a razor. Our novelist’s eagle glance perceives that the moment has arrived. He closes his telescope, like Wellington at Waterloo, and orders up the novel uncle. What follows needs little explanation. The razor is returned to its case. The bailiffs are sent away satisfied. Orlando and the uncle drive to Amelia’s house. The money-bags overbalance the noble birth. The County Paris gets his dismissal and Orlando the lady, and the novel concludes in the regular ‘Morning Post’ style.

Another remedy which our novelist has at hand for a bad case of crossed love is the man who is supposed to be dead. This is sometimes the lover and sometimes the rival. I have known instances in which the lady’s father, who at the time was opposed to the marriage, had to undergo this temporary snuffing out. But most frequently it happens to the lover himself, and the means vary according to the period of which the novel treats. If the time is the knight-errant romantic period, the cause of the supposed death is an affray with hostile knights. In the time of Charles I., it is a fight with Cavaliers or Roundheads, as the case may be. In later times highwaymen are in general the instruments. After highwaymen the pressgang had its day. In novels treating of the last twenty years authors have been a good deal puzzled. Supposed death by drowning is the favourite. A fall while hunting has had its supporters, and the accidental discharge of a friend’s gun in a turnip-field is by no means uncommon. Duelling, too, still has its victims—in the novel. But if our novelist has exhausted all these means, he has only to take his hero to Italy, where he can get him assassinated, or nearly assassinated, quite consistently. The period makes not the slightest difference there.

“By the bones of Saint Jerome,” said the leech to Sir Adrian, “an the steel had pierced but the twentieth part of an inch farther, the haughty Inglese had gone the dark road. Assist me, Sir Knight, to remove his armour.”

“Certain death must have ensued,” said the Doctor, “if the stiletto had gone a shade deeper. You’d better telegraph, Mr. Jenkins.”

The sixteenth century, or the nineteenth, it does not matter—assassination is popularly believed to be the custom of the country, and the novelist ought to be thankful that there is one place left where he can have his hero romantically stabbed without the charge of extravagance being brought against him. Well! We must suppose the lover stabbed, but not killed. The effect is that the lady, shocked at the intelligence of his death, falls ill. Gradually she gets weaker and weaker. Nothing cheers her; nothing amuses her. The light leaves her eye, the rose her cheek, and her silvery laughter is heard no longer. Her parents, who were at first rather pleased that the objectionable lover was got rid of, begin at length to fear for their child’s happiness, then for her life, and end by bitterly regretting that they ever opposed her wishes. The County Paris, finding that there is no hope of success for his suit, retires, and our novelist, seeing all hindrances removed, sounds trumpets and the lover lives again.

When the supposed defunct is the rival and not the lover, a most extraordinary change takes place in his character. It is just as if the novelist had consented to let him live, on condition that he behaved better for the future. Some arrangement of this kind is absolutely necessary, for it is quite evident to every one that if he continues to act as he has been acting for two volumes and a half, there is no hope of the right people being married at the end of the book. So the novelist is compelled to take desperate measures with him. Accordingly the rival disappears for a time. People suppose he is dead. Everything goes on beautifully without him. The lady is delivered from his importunity: the lover from his rivalry. The parents are on the point of giving their consent to the marriage, when suddenly he re-appears. Oh! thinks every one, it’s all over with the lovers now. Not at all. He is quite a changed man. He disappeared a cruel, malicious, selfish villain: he reappears a mild, peaceable, benevolent creature, with no wish but for the good of his kind. When he disappeared he was the great opponent of the marriage: when he re-appears he is its great promoter. In fact, he seems to have absented himself for a time merely to “throw away the worser part of him,” and to have come back determined to “live the purer with the other half.”

But what is our novelist to do if he has already made use of all these stratagems in assisting other ill-starred lovers? How is he to help Orlando and Amelia then? How is he to help them! Why he has not yet employed the most favourite of all remedies for unhappy love affairs,—the specific, the grand specific, the novel bull.

Listen. Amelia wearing a red shawl (the heroine always puts on a red shawl to go into the field where the bull is) is walking through the verdant meadows with Orlando. When they reach the middle of the field (crafty animal that bull!—always lets them get to the middle of the field), Taurus shows himself, and bellows.

“Walk quietly to the gate,” says Orlando, “I’ll take off his attention.”

(Wonderful how easily the novel bull will allow his attention to be taken off!)

After a short hesitation Miss Amelia walks towards the gate, leaving the red shawl in Orlando’s hands. Taurus stares as if he scarcely understood this arrangement, finally does a little bellowing, and trots forward; Orlando shouts and waves the shawl; Taurus stops, stares, and again trots forward. More shouting and waving of the shawl; more bellowing and trotting. By this time Amelia has reached the gate; Taurus being quite satisfied about this makes his rush; Orlando then performs astounding feats with stones and his hat, steadily retreating at every opportunity. Finally, with all the skill of a matador, he blinds the bull with the shawl and escapes through the gate. The Earl, who has seen all this from his study-window, now comes forward, places Amelia’s hand in Orlando’s, blesses them with many tears, and then they all go in to luncheon. The bull observing this from his side of the gate, apparently thinks it a good idea, and returns to his pasture. That is the regular course. Sometimes it is varied with labourers armed with pitchforks and hoes, but it comes to exactly the same thing in the end: the bull is foiled and the lovers are made happy.

The principal attributes of the novel bull appear to be these. A great taste for stamping, bellowing, staring, lashing himself with his tail, and digging up the turf with his horns. All true to Nature, doubtless, but still rather wearying on the tenth or twentieth recital. Then good-nature and forbearance are very strong points of his. For he never really hurts the lady after all. He’s only in fun. A careful study of the novel bull has assured me of this fact, that he never makes his rush till the lady has got to the gate. Still further, he never hurts the lover. He makes rushes at him, he stamps on his hat, sometimes sends his horns through his coat, but hurt him! not for the smiles of all the cows in England. Like the lion that will not touch the true prince, the novel bull will not touch the true lover. He is “as valiant as Hercules—but beware instinct.” Hurt the true lover! He would die first, as did his great ancestor, who founded the family. Yes. That bull that ran at Lucy Ashton and was shot by Edgar Ravenswood, in dying gave life to hundreds. It would be impossible to name half his descendants. Sometimes they appear in herds; sometimes singly; sometimes you have both the single bull and the herd. But however, or whenever, the novel bull appears, it is for a good purpose: to show the daring of the true lover, or the cowardice of the false; to excite the affection of the lady, or the gratitude of the parent. How bad soever things may look, let the bull once show his face and they are sure to mend. Oh! heroes and heroines, fear him not for the future. Though his bellow may sound very harsh, it is in reality “an amiable low.”

Bless the bull! all the novelists that ever made use of him, and their name is Legion, ought to subscribe and raise a statue to him. It would look well in Trafalgar Square, and should stand near Jenner’s. People would think it had some reference to vaccination. Bless that bull! In how many love affairs has he not assisted? How many stern parents has he not softened? Oh yes! If you are in love with Virgo, the Virgin, pray for the aid of Taurus, the Bull.

Now these are a few of the commonest novel incidents. I don’t deny that they are all quite natural and very effective, but though we may still feel the thrill of excitement when we read of the house on fire and the water party, though that rich old uncle and that good-natured bull may still be dear to us all,—as how could they be otherwise after so long an acquaintance,—yet surely novelists might shape their ends with means a little more original—a little less hackneyed than these. I think—if it is not so, I am greatly mistaken—I think the word novel has some connection with novelty. Why does this connection hold good in etymology alone?