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Title:      The Common Reader, First Series (1925)
Author:     Virginia Woolf
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Title:      The Common Reader, First Series (1925)
Author:     Virginia Woolf


Some of these papers appeared originally in the Times Literary
Supplement, the Athenaeum, the Nation and Athanaeum, the New
Statesman, the London Mercury, the Dial (New York); the New
Republic (New York), and I have to thank the editors for allowing
me to reprint them here.  Some are based upon articles written for
various newspapers, while others appear now for the first time.


The Common Reader

The Pastons and Chaucer

On not knowing Greek

The Elizabethan Lumber Room

Notes on an Elizabethan Play


The Duchess of Newcastle

Rambling round Evelyn



Lives of the Obscure--

    I.  Taylors and Edgeworths

   II.  Laetitia Pilkington

Jane Austen

Modern Fiction

"Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights"

George Eliot

The Russian Point of View


    I.  Miss Mitford

   II.  Dr. Bentley

  III.  Lady Dorothy Nevill

   IV.  Archbishop Thomson

The Patron and the Crocus

The Modern Essay

Joseph Conrad

How it strikes a Contemporary


There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson's Life of Gray which might well
be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called
libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is
carried on by private people.  ". . . I rejoice to concur with the
common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by
literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the
dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to
poetical honours."  It defines their qualities; it dignifies their
aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time,
and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the
sanction of the great man's approval.

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic
and the scholar.  He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted
him so generously.  He reads for his own pleasure rather than to
impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.  Above all, he
is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever
odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole--a portrait of a
man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing.  He never
ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric
which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking
sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter,
and argument.  Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now
this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he
finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his
purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are
too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson
maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours,
then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the
ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet
contribute to so mighty a result.


The tower of Caister Castle still rises ninety feet into the air,
and the arch still stands from which Sir John Fastolf's barges
sailed out to fetch stone for the building of the great castle.
But now jackdaws nest on the tower, and of the castle, which once
covered six acres of ground, only ruined walls remain, pierced by
loop-holes and surmounted by battlements, though there are neither
archers within nor cannon without.  As for the "seven religious
men" and the "seven poor folk" who should, at this very moment, be
praying for the souls of Sir John and his parents, there is no sign
of them nor sound of their prayers.  The place is a ruin.
Antiquaries speculate and differ.

[1] The Paston Letters, edited by Dr. James Gairdner (1904), 4 vols.

Not so very far off lie more ruins--the ruins of Bromholm Priory,
where John Paston was buried, naturally enough, since his house was
only a mile or so away, lying on low ground by the sea, twenty
miles north of Norwich.  The coast is dangerous, and the land, even
in our time, inaccessible.  Nevertheless, the little bit of wood at
Bromholm, the fragment of the true Cross, brought pilgrims
incessantly to the Priory, and sent them away with eyes opened and
limbs straightened.  But some of them with their newly-opened eyes
saw a sight which shocked them--the grave of John Paston in
Bromholm Priory without a tombstone.  The news spread over the
country-side.  The Pastons had fallen; they that had been so
powerful could no longer afford a stone to put above John Paston's
head.  Margaret, his widow, could not pay her debts; the eldest
son, Sir John, wasted his property upon women and tournaments,
while the younger, John also, though a man of greater parts,
thought more of his hawks than of his harvests.

The pilgrims of course were liars, as people whose eyes have just
been opened by a piece of the true Cross have every right to be;
but their news, none the less, was welcome.  The Pastons had risen
in the world.  People said even that they had been bondmen not so
very long ago.  At any rate, men still living could remember John's
grandfather Clement tilling his own land, a hard-working peasant;
and William, Clement's son, becoming a judge and buying land; and
John, William's son, marrying well and buying more land and quite
lately inheriting the vast new castle at Caister, and all Sir
John's lands in Norfolk and Suffolk.  People said that he had
forged the old knight's will.  What wonder, then, that he lacked a
tombstone?  But, if we consider the character of Sir John Paston,
John's eldest son, and his upbringing and his surroundings, and the
relations between himself and his father as the family letters
reveal them, we shall see how difficult it was, and how likely to
be neglected--this business of making his father's tombstone.

For let us imagine, in the most desolate part of England known to
us at the present moment, a raw, new-built house, without
telephone, bathroom or drains, arm-chairs or newspapers, and one
shelf perhaps of books, unwieldy to hold, expensive to come by.
The windows look out upon a few cultivated fields and a dozen
hovels, and beyond them there is the sea on one side, on the other
a vast fen.  A single road crosses the fen, but there is a hole in
it, which, one of the farm hands reports, is big enough to swallow
a carriage.  And, the man adds, Tom Topcroft, the mad bricklayer,
has broken loose again and ranges the country half-naked,
threatening to kill any one who approaches him.  That is what they
talk about at dinner in the desolate house, while the chimney
smokes horribly, and the draught lifts the carpets on the floor.
Orders are given to lock all gates at sunset, and, when the long
dismal evening has worn itself away, simply and solemnly, girt
about with dangers as they are, these isolated men and women fall
upon their knees in prayer.

In the fifteenth century, however, the wild landscape was broken
suddenly and very strangely by vast piles of brand-new masonry.
There rose out of the sandhills and heaths of the Norfolk coast a
huge bulk of stone, like a modern hotel in a watering-place; but
there was no parade, no lodging-houses, and no pier at Yarmouth
then, and this gigantic building on the outskirts of the town was
built to house one solitary old gentleman without any children--
Sir John Fastolf, who had fought at Agincourt and acquired great
wealth.  He had fought at Agincourt and got but little reward.  No
one took his advice.  Men spoke ill of him behind his back.  He was
well aware of it; his temper was none the sweeter for that.  He was
a hot-tempered old man, powerful, embittered by a sense of
grievance.  But whether on the battlefield or at court he thought
perpetually of Caister, and how, when his duties allowed, he would
settle down on his father's land and live in a great house of his
own building.

The gigantic structure of Caister Castle was in progress not so
many miles away when the little Pastons were children.  John
Paston, the father, had charge of some part of the business, and
the children listened, as soon as they could listen at all, to talk
of stone and building, of barges gone to London and not yet
returned, of the twenty-six private chambers, of the hall and
chapel; of foundations, measurements, and rascally work-people.
Later, in 1454, when the work was finished and Sir John had come to
spend his last years at Caister, they may have seen for themselves
the mass of treasure that was stored there; the tables laden with
gold and silver plate; the wardrobes stuffed with gowns of velvet
and satin and cloth of gold, with hoods and tippets and beaver hats
and leather jackets and velvet doublets; and how the very pillow-
cases on the beds were of green and purple silk.  There were
tapestries everywhere.  The beds were laid and the bedrooms hung
with tapestries representing sieges, hunting and hawking, men
fishing, archers shooting, ladies playing on their harps, dallying
with ducks, or a giant "bearing the leg of a bear in his hand ".
Such were the fruits of a well-spent life.  To buy land, to build
great houses, to stuff these houses full of gold and silver plate
(though the privy might well be in the bedroom), was the proper aim
of mankind.  Mr. and Mrs. Paston spent the greater part of their
energies in the same exhausting occupation.  For since the passion
to acquire was universal, one could never rest secure in one's
possessions for long.  The outlying parts of one's property were in
perpetual jeopardy.  The Duke of Norfolk might covet this manor,
the Duke of Suffolk that.  Some trumped-up excuse, as for instance
that the Pastons were bondmen, gave them the right to seize the
house and batter down the lodges in the owner's absence.  And how
could the owner of Paston and Mauteby and Drayton and Gresham be in
five or six places at once, especially now that Caister Castle was
his, and he must be in London trying to get his rights recognised
by the King?  The King was mad too, they said; did not know his own
child, they said; or the King was in flight; or there was civil war
in the land.  Norfolk was always the most distressed of counties
and its country gentlemen the most quarrelsome of mankind.  Indeed,
had Mrs. Paston chosen, she could have told her children how when
she was a young woman a thousand men with bows and arrows and pans
of burning fire had marched upon Gresham and broken the gates and
mined the walls of the room where she sat alone.  But much worse
things than that had happened to women.  She neither bewailed her
lot nor thought herself a heroine.  The long, long letters which
she wrote so laboriously in her clear cramped hand to her husband,
who was (as usual) away, make no mention of herself.  The sheep had
wasted the hay.  Heyden's and Tuddenham's men were out.  A dyke had
been broken and a bullock stolen.  They needed treacle badly, and
really she must have stuff for a dress.

But Mrs. Paston did not talk about herself.

Thus the little Pastons would see their mother writing or dictating
page after page, hour after hour, long long letters, but to
interrupt a parent who writes so laboriously of such important
matters would have been a sin.  The prattle of children, the lore
of the nursery or schoolroom, did not find its way into these
elaborate communications.  For the most part her letters are the
letters of an honest bailiff to his master, explaining, asking
advice, giving news, rendering accounts.  There was robbery and
manslaughter; it was difficult to get in the rents; Richard Calle
had gathered but little money; and what with one thing and another
Margaret had not had time to make out, as she should have done, the
inventory of the goods which her husband desired.  Well might old
Agnes, surveying her son's affairs rather grimly from a distance,
counsel him to contrive it so that "ye may have less to do in the
world; your father said, In little business lieth much rest.  This
world is but a thoroughfare, and full of woe; and when we depart
therefrom, right nought bear with us but our good deeds and ill."

The thought of death would thus come upon them in a clap.  Old
Fastolf, cumbered with wealth and property, had his vision at the
end of Hell fire, and shrieked aloud to his executors to distribute
alms, and see that prayers were said "in perpetuum", so that his
soul might escape the agonies of purgatory.  William Paston, the
judge, was urgent too that the monks of Norwich should be retained
to pray for his soul "for ever".  The soul was no wisp of air, but
a solid body capable of eternal suffering, and the fire that
destroyed it was as fierce as any that burnt on mortal grates.  For
ever there would be monks and the town of Norwich, and for ever the
Chapel of Our Lady in the town of Norwich.  There was something
matter-of-fact, positive, and enduring in their conception both of
life and of death.

With the plan of existence so vigorously marked out, children of
course were well beaten, and boys and girls taught to know their
places.  They must acquire land; but they must obey their parents.
A mother would clout her daughter's head three times a week and
break the skin if she did not conform to the laws of behaviour.
Agnes Paston, a lady of birth and breeding, beat her daughter
Elizabeth.  Margaret Paston, a softer-hearted woman, turned her
daughter out of the house for loving the honest bailiff Richard
Calle.  Brothers would not suffer their sisters to marry beneath
them, and "sell candle and mustard in Framlingham".  The fathers
quarrelled with the sons, and the mothers, fonder of their boys
than of their girls, yet bound by all law and custom to obey their
husbands, were torn asunder in their efforts to keep the peace.
With all her pains, Margaret failed to prevent rash acts on the
part of her eldest son John, or the bitter words with which his
father denounced him.  He was a "drone among bees", the father
burst out, "which labour for gathering honey in the fields, and the
drone doth naught but taketh his part of it".  He treated his
parents with insolence, and yet was fit for no charge of
responsibility abroad.

But the quarrel was ended, very shortly, by the death (22nd May
1466) of John Paston, the father, in London.  The body was brought
down to Bromholm to be buried.  Twelve poor men trudged all the way
bearing torches beside it.  Alms were distributed; masses and
dirges were said.  Bells were rung.  Great quantities of fowls,
sheep, pigs, eggs, bread, and cream were devoured, ale and wine
drunk, and candles burnt.  Two panes were taken from the church
windows to let out the reek of the torches.  Black cloth was
distributed, and a light set burning on the grave.  But John
Paston, the heir, delayed to make his father's tombstone.

He was a young man, something over twenty-four years of age.  The
discipline and the drudgery of a country life bored him.  When he
ran away from home, it was, apparently, to attempt to enter the
King's household.  Whatever doubts, indeed, might be cast by their
enemies on the blood of the Pastons, Sir John was unmistakably a
gentleman.  He had inherited his lands; the honey was his that the
bees had gathered with so much labour.  He had the instincts of
enjoyment rather than of acquisition, and with his mother's
parsimony was strangely mixed something of his father's ambition.
Yet his own indolent and luxurious temperament took the edge from
both.  He was attractive to women, liked society and tournaments,
and court life and making bets, and sometimes, even, reading books.
And so life now that John Paston was buried started afresh upon
rather a different foundation.  There could be little outward
change indeed.  Margaret still ruled the house.  She still ordered
the lives of the younger children as she had ordered the lives of
the elder.  The boys still needed to be beaten into book-learning
by their tutors, the girls still loved the wrong men and must be
married to the right.  Rents had to be collected; the interminable
lawsuit for the Fastolf property dragged on.  Battles were fought;
the roses of York and Lancaster alternately faded and flourished.
Norfolk was full of poor people seeking redress for their
grievances, and Margaret worked for her son as she had worked for
her husband, with this significant change only, that now, instead
of confiding in her husband, she took the advice of her priest.

But inwardly there was a change.  It seems at last as if the hard
outer shell had served its purpose and something sensitive,
appreciative, and pleasure-loving had formed within.  At any rate
Sir John, writing to his brother John at home, strayed sometimes
from the business on hand to crack a joke, to send a piece of
gossip, or to instruct him, knowingly and even subtly, upon the
conduct of a love affair.  Be "as lowly to the mother as ye list,
but to the maid not too lowly, nor that ye be too glad to speed,
nor too sorry to fail.  And I shall always be your herald both
here, if she come hither, and at home, when I come home, which I
hope hastily within XI. days at the furthest."  And then a hawk was
to be bought, a hat, or new silk laces sent down to John in
Norfolk, prosecuting his suit, flying his hawks, and attending with
considerable energy and not too nice a sense of honesty to the
affairs of the Paston estates.

The lights had long since burnt out on John Paston's grave.  But
still Sir John delayed; no tomb replaced them.  He had his excuses;
what with the business of the lawsuit, and his duties at Court, and
the disturbance of the civil wars, his time was occupied and his
money spent.  But perhaps something strange had happened to Sir
John himself, and not only to Sir John dallying in London, but to
his sister Margery falling in love with the bailiff, and to Walter
making Latin verses at Eton, and to John flying his hawks at
Paston.  Life was a little more various in its pleasures.  They
were not quite so sure as the elder generation had been of the
rights of man and of the dues of God, of the horrors of death, and
of the importance of tombstones.  Poor Margaret Paston scented the
change and sought uneasily, with the pen which had marched so
stiffly through so many pages, to lay bare the root of her
troubles.  It was not that the lawsuit saddened her; she was ready
to defend Caister with her own hands if need be, "though I cannot
well guide nor rule soldiers", but there was something wrong with
the family since the death of her husband and master.  Perhaps her
son had failed in his service to God; he had been too proud or too
lavish in his expenditure; or perhaps he had shown too little mercy
to the poor.  Whatever the fault might be, she only knew that Sir
John spent twice as much money as his father for less result; that
they could scarcely pay their debts without selling land, wood, or
household stuff ("It is a death to me to think if it"); while every
day people spoke ill of them in the country because they left John
Paston to lie without a tombstone.  The money that might have
bought it, or more land, and more goblets and more tapestry, was
spent by Sir John on clocks and trinkets, and upon paying a clerk
to copy out Treatises upon Knighthood and other such stuff.  There
they stood at Paston--eleven volumes, with the poems of Lydgate and
Chaucer among them, diffusing a strange air into the gaunt,
comfortless house, inviting men to indolence and vanity,
distracting their thoughts from business, and leading them not only
to neglect their own profit but to think lightly of the sacred dues
of the dead.

For sometimes, instead of riding off on his horse to inspect his
crops or bargain with his tenants, Sir John would sit, in broad
daylight, reading.  There, on the hard chair in the comfortless
room with the wind lifting the carpet and the smoke stinging his
eyes, he would sit reading Chaucer, wasting his time, dreaming--or
what strange intoxication was it that he drew from books?  Life was
rough, cheerless, and disappointing.  A whole year of days would
pass fruitlessly in dreary business, like dashes of rain on the
window-pane.  There was no reason in it as there had been for his
father; no imperative need to establish a family and acquire an
important position for children who were not born, or if born, had
no right to bear their father's name.  But Lydgate's poems or
Chaucer's, like a mirror in which figures move brightly, silently,
and compactly, showed him the very skies, fields, and people whom
he knew, but rounded and complete.  Instead of waiting listlessly
for news from London or piecing out from his mother's gossip some
country tragedy of love and jealousy, here, in a few pages, the
whole story was laid before him.  And then as he rode or sat at
table he would remember some description or saying which bore upon
the present moment and fixed it, or some string of words would
charm him, and putting aside the pressure of the moment, he would
hasten home to sit in his chair and learn the end of the story.

To learn the end of the story--Chaucer can still make us wish to do
that.  He has pre-eminently that story-teller's gift, which is
almost the rarest gift among writers at the present day.  Nothing
happens to us as it did to our ancestors; events are seldom
important; if we recount them, we do not really believe in them; we
have perhaps things of greater interest to say, and for these
reasons natural story-tellers like Mr. Garnett, whom we must
distinguish from self-conscious storytellers like Mr. Masefield,
have become rare.  For the story-teller, besides his indescribable
zest for facts, must tell his story craftily, without undue stress
or excitement, or we shall swallow it whole and jumble the parts
together; he must let us stop, give us time to think and look about
us, yet always be persuading us to move on.  Chaucer was helped to
this to some extent by the time of his birth; and in addition he
had another advantage over the moderns which will never come the
way of English poets again.  England was an unspoilt country.  His
eyes rested on a virgin land, all unbroken grass and wood except
for the small towns and an occasional castle in the building.  No
villa roofs peered through Kentish tree-tops; no factory chimney
smoked on the hill-side.  The state of the country, considering how
poets go to Nature, how they use her for their images and their
contrasts even when they do not describe her directly, is a matter
of some importance.  Her cultivation or her savagery influences the
poet far more profoundly than the prose writer.  To the modern
poet, with Birmingham, Manchester, and London the size they are,
the country is the sanctuary of moral excellence in contrast with
the town which is the sink of vice.  It is a retreat, the haunt of
modesty and virtue, where men go to hide and moralise.  There is
something morbid, as if shrinking from human contact, in the nature
worship of Wordsworth, still more in the microscopic devotion which
Tennyson lavished upon the petals of roses and the buds of lime
trees.  But these were great poets.  In their hands, the country
was no mere jeweller's shop, or museum of curious objects to be
described, even more curiously, in words.  Poets of smaller gift,
since the view is so much spoilt, and the garden or the meadow must
replace the barren heath and the precipitous mountain-side, are now
confined to little landscapes, to birds' nests, to acorns with
every wrinkle drawn to the life.  The wider landscape is lost.

But to Chaucer the country was too large and too wild to be
altogether agreeable.  He turned instinctively, as if he had
painful experience of their nature, from tempests and rocks to the
bright May day and the jocund landscape, from the harsh and
mysterious to the gay and definite.  Without possessing a tithe of
the virtuosity in word-painting which is the modern inheritance, he
could give, in a few words, or even, when we come to look, without
a single word of direct description, the sense of the open air.

     And se the fresshe floures how they sprynge

--that is enough.

Nature, uncompromising, untamed, was no looking-glass for happy
faces, or confessor of unhappy souls.  She was herself; sometimes,
therefore, disagreeable enough and plain, but always in Chaucer's
pages with the hardness and the freshness of an actual presence.
Soon, however, we notice something of greater importance than the
gay and picturesque appearance of the mediaeval world--the solidity
which plumps it out, the conviction which animates the characters.
There is immense variety in the Canterbury Tales, and yet,
persisting underneath, one consistent type.  Chaucer has his world;
he has his young men; he has his young women.  If one met them
straying in Shakespeare's world one would know them to be
Chaucer's, not Shakespeare's.  He wants to describe a girl, and
this is what she looks like:

     Ful semely hir wimpel pinched was,
     Hir nose tretys; hir eyen greye as glas;
     Hir mouth ful smal, and ther-to soft and reed;
     But sikerly she hadde a fair foreheed;
     It was almost a spanne brood, I trowe;
     For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe.

Then he goes on to develop her; she was a girl, a virgin, cold in
her virginity:

     I am, thou woost, yet of thy companye,
     A mayde, and love hunting and venerye,
     And for to walken in the wodes wilde,
     And noght to been a wyf and be with childe.

Next he bethinks him how

     Discreet she was in answering alway;
     And though she had been as wise as Pallas
     No countrefeted termes hadde she
     To seme wys; but after hir degree
     She spak, and alle hir wordes more and lesse
     Souninge in vertu and in gentillesse.

Each of these quotations, in fact, comes from a different Tale, but
they are parts, one feels, of the same personage, whom he had in
mind, perhaps unconsciously, when he thought of a young girl, and
for this reason, as she goes in and out of the Canterbury Tales
bearing different names, she has a stability which is only to be
found where the poet has made up his mind about young women, of
course, but also about the world they live in, its end, its nature,
and his own craft and technique, so that his mind is free to apply
its force fully to its object.  It does not occur to him that his
Griselda might be improved or altered.  There is no blur about her,
no hesitation; she proves nothing; she is content to be herself.
Upon her, therefore, the mind can rest with that unconscious ease
which allows it, from hints and suggestions, to endow her with many
more qualities than are actually referred to.  Such is the power of
conviction, a rare gift, a gift shared in our day by Joseph Conrad
in his earlier novels, and a gift of supreme importance, for upon
it the whole weight of the building depends.  Once believe in
Chaucer's young men and women and we have no need of preaching or
protest.  We know what he finds good, what evil; the less said the
better.  Let him get on with his story, paint knights and squires,
good women and bad, cooks, shipmen, priests, and we will supply the
landscape, give his society its belief, its standing towards life
and death, and make of the journey to Canterbury a spiritual

This simple faithfulness to his own conceptions was easier then
than now in one respect at least, for Chaucer could write frankly
where we must either say nothing or say it slyly.  He could sound
every note in the language instead of finding a great many of the
best gone dumb from disuse, and thus, when struck by daring
fingers, giving off a loud discordant jangle out of keeping with
the rest.  Much of Chaucer--a few lines perhaps in each of the
Tales--is improper and gives us as we read it the strange sensation
of being naked to the air after being muffled in old clothing.
And, as a certain kind of humour depends upon being able to speak
without self-consciousness of the parts and functions of the body,
so with the advent of decency literature lost the use of one of its
limbs.  It lost its power to create the Wife of Bath, Juliet's
nurse, and their recognisable though already colourless relation,
Moll Flanders.  Sterne, from fear of coarseness, is forced into
indecency.  He must be witty, not humorous; he must hint instead of
speaking outright.  Nor can we believe, with Mr. Joyce's Ulysses
before us, that laughter of the old kind will ever be heard again.

     But, lord Christ!  When that it remembreth me
     Up-on my yowthe, and on my Iolitee,
     It tikleth me aboute myn herte rote.
     Unto this day it doth myn herte bote
     That I have had my world as in my tyme.

The sound of that old woman's voice is still.

But there is another and more important reason for the surprising
brightness, the still effective merriment of the Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer was a poet; but he never flinched from the life that was
being lived at the moment before his eyes.  A farmyard, with its
straw, its dung, its cocks and its hens, is not (we have come to
think) a poetic subject; poets seem either to rule out the farmyard
entirely or to require that it shall be a farmyard in Thessaly and
its pigs of mythological origin.  But Chaucer says outright:

     Three large sowes hadde she, and namo,
     Three kyn, and eek a sheep that highte Malle;

or again,

     A yard she hadde, enclosed al aboute
     With stikkes, and a drye ditch with-oute.

He is unabashed and unafraid.  He will always get close up to his
object--an old man's chin--

     With thikke bristles of his berde unsofte,
     Lyk to the skin of houndfish, sharp as brere;

or an old man's neck--

     The slakke skin aboute his nekke shaketh
     Whyl that he sang;

and he will tell you what his characters wore, how they looked,
what they ate and drank, as if poetry could handle the common facts
of this very moment of Tuesday, the sixteenth day of April, 1387,
without dirtying her hands.  If he withdraws to the time of the
Greeks or the Romans, it is only that his story leads him there.
He has no desire to wrap himself round in antiquity, to take refuge
in age, or to shirk the associations of common grocer's English.

Therefore when we say that we know the end of the journey, it is
hard to quote the particular lines from which we take our
knowledge.  Chaucer fixed his eyes upon the road before him, not
upon the world to come.  He was little given to abstract
contemplation.  He deprecated, with peculiar archness, any
competition with the scholars and divines:

     The answere of this I lete to divynis,
     But wel I woot, that in this world grey pyne is.

     What is this world?  What asketh men to have?
     Now with his love, now in the colde grave
     Allone, withouten any companye,

     O cruel goddes, that governe
     This world with binding of your worde eterne,
     And wryten in the table of athamaunt
     Your parlement, and your eterne graunt,
     What is mankinde more un-to yow holde
     Than is the sheepe, that rouketh in the folde?

Questions press upon him; he asks them, but he is too true a poet
to answer them; he leaves them unsolved, uncramped by the solution
of the moment, and thus fresh for the generations that come after
him.  In his life, too, it would be impossible to write him down a
man of this party or of that, a democrat or an aristocrat.  He was
a staunch churchman, but he laughed at priests.  He was an able
public servant and a courtier, but his views upon sexual morality
were extremely lax.  He sympathised with poverty, but did nothing
to improve the lot of the poor.  It is safe to say that not a
single law has been framed or one stone set upon another because of
anything that Chaucer said or wrote; and yet, as we read him, we
are absorbing morality at every pore.  For among writers there are
two kinds: there are the priests who take you by the hand and lead
you straight up to the mystery; there are the laymen who imbed
their doctrines in flesh and blood and make a complete model of the
world without excluding the bad or laying stress upon the good.
Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley are among the priests; they give
us text after text to be hung upon the wall, saying after saying to
be laid upon the heart like an amulet against disaster--

     Farewell, farewell, the heart that lives alone

     He prayeth best that loveth best
     All things both great and small

--such lines of exhortation and command spring to memory instantly.
But Chaucer lets us go our ways doing the ordinary things with the
ordinary people.  His morality lies in the way men and women behave
to each other.  We see them eating, drinking, laughing, and making
love, and come to feel without a word being said what their
standards are and so are steeped through and through with their
morality.  There can be no more forcible preaching than this where
all actions and passions are represented, and instead of being
solemnly exhorted we are left to stray and stare and make out a
meaning for ourselves.  It is the morality of ordinary intercourse,
the morality of the novel, which parents and librarians rightly
judge to be far more persuasive than the morality of poetry.

And so, when we shut Chaucer, we feel that without a word being
said the criticism is complete; what we are saying, thinking,
reading, doing, has been commented upon.  Nor are we left merely
with the sense, powerful though that is, of having been in good
company and got used to the ways of good society.  For as we have
jogged through the real, the unadorned country-side, with first one
good fellow cracking his joke or singing his song and then another,
we know that though this world resembles, it is not in fact our
daily world.  It is the world of poetry.  Everything happens here
more quickly and mere intensely, and with better order than in life
or in prose; there is a formal elevated dullness which is part of
the incantation of poetry; there are lines speaking half a second
in advance what we were about to say, as if we read our thoughts
before words cumbered them; and lines which we go back to read
again with that heightened quality, that enchantment which keeps
them glittering in the mind long afterwards.  And the whole is held
in its place, and its variety and divagations ordered by the power
which is among the most impressive of all--the shaping power, the
architect's power.  It is the peculiarity of Chaucer, however, that
though we feel at once this quickening, this enchantment, we cannot
prove it by quotation.  From most poets quotation is easy and
obvious; some metaphor suddenly flowers; some passage breaks off
from the rest.  But Chaucer is very equal, very even-paced, very
unmetaphorical.  If we take six or seven lines in the hope that the
quality will be contained in them it has escaped.

     My lord, ye woot that in my fadres place,
     Ye dede me strepe out of my povre wede,
     And richely me cladden, o your grace
     To yow broghte I noght elles, out of drede,
     But feyth and nakedness and maydenhede.

In its place that seemed not only memorable and moving but fit to
set beside striking beauties.  Cut out and taken separately it
appears ordinary and quiet.  Chaucer, it seems, has some art by
which the most ordinary words and the simplest feelings when laid
side by side make each other shine; when separated, lose their
lustre.  Thus the pleasure he gives us is different from the
pleasure that other poets give us, because it is more closely
connected with what we have ourselves felt or observed.  Eating,
drinking, and fine weather, the May, cocks and hens, millers, old
peasant women, flowers--there is a special stimulus in seeing all
these common things so arranged that they affect us as poetry
affects us, and are yet bright, sober, precise as we see them out
of doors.  There is a pungency in this unfigurative language; a
stately and memorable beauty in the undraped sentences which follow
each other like women so slightly veiled that you see the lines of
their bodies as they go--

     And she set down hir water pot anon
     Biside the threshold in an oxe's stall.

And then, as the procession takes its way, out from behind peeps
the face of Chaucer, in league with all foxes, donkeys, and hens,
to mock the pomps and ceremonies of life--witty, intellectual,
French, at the same time based upon a broad bottom of English

So Sir John read his Chaucer in the comfortless room with the wind
blowing and the smoke stinging, and left his father's tombstone
unmade.  But no book, no tomb, had power to hold him long.  He was
one of those ambiguous characters who haunt the boundary line where
one age merges in another and are not able to inhabit either.  At
one moment he was all for buying books cheap; next he was off to
France and told his mother, "My mind is now not most upon books."
In his own house, where his mother Margaret was perpetually making
out inventories or confiding in Gloys the priest, he had no peace
or comfort.  There was always reason on her side; she was a brave
woman, for whose sake one must put up with the priest's insolence
and choke down one's rage when the grumbling broke into open abuse,
and "Thou proud priest" and "Thou proud Squire" were bandied
angrily about the room.  All this, with the discomforts of life and
the weakness of his own character, drove him to loiter in
pleasanter places, to put off coming, to put off writing, to put
off, year after year, the making of his father's tombstone.

Yet John Paston had now lain for twelve years under the bare
ground.  The Prior of Bromholm sent word that the grave-cloth was
in tatters, and he had tried to patch it himself.  Worse still, for
a proud woman like Margaret Paston, the country people murmured at
the Pastons' lack of piety, and other families she heard, of no
greater standing than theirs, spent money in pious restoration in
the very church where her husband lay unremembered.  At last,
turning from tournaments and Chaucer and Mistress Anne Hault, Sir
John bethought him of a piece of cloth of gold which had been used
to cover his father's hearse and might now be sold to defray the
expenses of his tomb.  Margaret had it in safe keeping; she had
hoarded it and cared for it, and spent twenty marks on its repair.
She grudged it; but there was no help for it.  She sent it him,
still distrusting his intentions or his power to put them into
effect.  "If you sell it to any other use," she wrote, "by my troth
I shall never trust you while I live."

But this final act, like so many that Sir John had undertaken in
the course of his life, was left undone.  A dispute with the Duke
of Suffolk in the year 1479 made it necessary for him to visit
London in spite of the epidemic of sickness that was abroad; and
there, in dirty lodgings, alone, busy to the end with quarrels,
clamorous to the end for money, Sir John died and was buried at
Whitefriars in London.  He left a natural daughter; he left a
considerable number of books; but his father's tomb was still

The four thick volumes of the Paston letters, however, swallow up
this frustrated man as the sea absorbs a raindrop.  For, like all
collections of letters, they seem to hint that we need not care
overmuch for the fortunes of individuals.  The family will go on,
whether Sir John lives or dies.  It is their method to heap up in
mounds of insignificant and often dismal dust the innumerable
trivialities of daily life, as it grinds itself out, year after
year.  And then suddenly they blaze up; the day shines out,
complete, alive, before our eyes.  It is early morning, and strange
men have been whispering among the women as they milk.  It is
evening, and there in the churchyard Warne's wife bursts out
against old Agnes Paston:  "All the devils of Hell draw her soul to
Hell."  Now it is the autumn in Norfolk, and Cecily Dawne comes
whining to Sir John for clothing.  "Moreover, Sir, liketh it your
mastership to understand that winter and cold weather draweth nigh
and I have few clothes but of your gift."  There is the ancient
day, spread out before us, hour by hour.

But in all this there is no writing for writing's sake; no use of
the pen to convey pleasure or amusement or any of the million
shades of endearment and intimacy which have filled so many English
letters since.  Only occasionally, under stress of anger for the
most part, does Margaret Paston quicken into some shrewd saw or
solemn curse.  "Men cut large thongs here out of other men's
leather. . . .  We beat the bushes and other men have the
birds. . . .  Haste reweth . . . which is to my heart a very spear."
That is her eloquence and that her anguish.  Her sons, it is true,
bend their pens more easily to their will.  They jest rather
stiffly; they hint rather clumsily; they make a little scene like a
rough puppet show of the old priest's anger and give a phrase or two
directly as they were spoken in person.  But when Chaucer lived he
must have heard this very language, matter of fact, unmetaphorical,
far better fitted for narrative than for analysis, capable of
religious solemnity or of broad humour, but very stiff material to
put on the lips of men and women accosting each other face to face.
In short, it is easy to see, from the Paston letters, why Chaucer
wrote not Lear or Romeo and Juliet, but the Canterbury Tales.

Sir John was buried; and John the younger brother succeeded in his
turn.  The Paston letters go on; life at Paston continues much the
same as before.  Over it all broods a sense of discomfort and
nakedness; of unwashed limbs thrust into splendid clothing; of
tapestry blowing on the draughty walls; of the bedroom with its
privy; of winds sweeping straight over land unmitigated by hedge or
town; of Caister Castle covering with solid stone six acres of
ground, and of the plain-faced Pastons indefatigably accumulating
wealth, treading out the roads of Norfolk, and persisting with an
obstinate courage which does them infinite credit in furnishing the
bareness of England.


For it is vain and foolish to talk of knowing Greek, since in our
ignorance we should be at the bottom of any class of schoolboys,
since we do not know how the words sounded, or where precisely we
ought to laugh, or how the actors acted, and between this foreign
people and ourselves there is not only difference of race and
tongue but a tremendous breach of tradition.  All the more strange,
then, is it that we should wish to know Greek, try to know Greek,
feel for ever drawn back to Greek, and be for ever making up some
notion of the meaning of Greek, though from what incongruous odds
and ends, with what slight resemblance to the real meaning of
Greek, who shall say?

It is obvious in the first place that Greek literature is the
impersonal literature.  Those few hundred years that separate John
Paston from Plato, Norwich from Athens, make a chasm which the vast
tide of European chatter can never succeed in crossing.  When we
read Chaucer, we are floated up to him insensibly on the current of
our ancestors' lives, and later, as records increase and memories
lengthen, there is scarcely a figure which has not its nimbus of
association, its life and letters, its wife and family, its house,
its character, its happy or dismal catastrophe.  But the Greeks
remain in a fastness of their own.  Fate has been kind there too.
She has preserved them from vulgarity.  Euripides was eaten by
dogs; Aeschylus killed by a stone; Sappho leapt from a cliff.  We
know no more of them than that.  We have their poetry, and that is

But that is not, and perhaps never can be, wholly true.  Pick up
any play by Sophocles, read--

   Son of him who led our hosts at Troy of old, son of Agamemnon,

and at once the mind begins to fashion itself surroundings.  It
makes some background, even of the most provisional sort, for
Sophocles; it imagines some village, in a remote part of the
country, near the sea.  Even nowadays such villages are to be found
in the wilder parts of England, and as we enter them we can
scarcely help feeling that here, in this cluster of cottages, cut
off from rail or city, are all the elements of a perfect existence.
Here is the Rectory; here the Manor house, the farm and the
cottages; the church for worship, the club for meeting, the cricket
field for play.  Here life is simply sorted out into its main
elements.  Each man and woman has his work; each works for the
health or happiness of others.  And here, in this little community,
characters become part of the common stock; the eccentricities of
the clergyman are known; the great ladies' defects of temper; the
blacksmith's feud with the milkman, and the loves and matings of
the boys and girls.  Here life has cut the same grooves for
centuries; customs have arisen; legends have attached themselves to
hilltops and solitary trees, and the village has its history, its
festivals, and its rivalries.

It is the climate that is impossible.  If we try to think of
Sophocles here, we must annihilate the smoke and the damp and the
thick wet mists.  We must sharpen the lines of the hills.  We must
imagine a beauty of stone and earth rather than of woods and
greenery.  With warmth and sunshine and months of brilliant, fine
weather, life of course is instantly changed; it is transacted out
of doors, with the result, known to all who visit Italy, that small
incidents are debated in the street, not in the sitting-room, and
become dramatic; make people voluble; inspire in them that
sneering, laughing, nimbleness of wit and tongue peculiar to the
Southern races, which has nothing in common with the slow reserve,
the low half-tones, the brooding introspective melancholy of people
accustomed to live more than half the year indoors.

That is the quality that first strikes us in Greek literature, the
lightning-quick, sneering, out-of-doors manner.  It is apparent in
the most august as well as in the most trivial places.  Queens and
Princesses in this very tragedy by Sophocles stand at the door
bandying words like village women, with a tendency, as one might
expect, to rejoice in language, to split phrases into slices, to be
intent on verbal victory.  The humour of the people was not good-
natured like that of our postmen and cab-drivers.  The taunts of
men lounging at the street corners had something cruel in them as
well as witty.  There is a cruelty in Greek tragedy which is quite
unlike our English brutality.  Is not Pentheus, for example, that
highly respectable man, made ridiculous in the Bacchae before he is
destroyed?  In fact, of course, these Queens and Princesses were
out of doors, with the bees buzzing past them, shadows crossing
them, and the wind taking their draperies.  They were speaking to
an enormous audience rayed round them on one of those brilliant
southern days when the sun is so hot and yet the air so exciting.
The poet, therefore, had to bethink him, not of some theme which
could be read for hours by people in privacy, but of something
emphatic, familiar, brief, that would carry, instantly and
directly, to an audience of seventeen thousand people perhaps, with
ears and eyes eager and attentive, with bodies whose muscles would
grow stiff if they sat too long without diversion.  Music and
dancing he would need, and naturally would choose one of those
legends, like our Tristram and Iseult, which are known to every one
in outline, so that a great fund of emotion is ready prepared, but
can be stressed in a new place by each new poet.

Sophocles would take the old story of Electra, for instance, but
would at once impose his stamp upon it.  Of that, in spite of our
weakness and distortion, what remains visible to us?  That his
genius was of the extreme kind in the first place; that he chose a
design which, if it failed, would show its failure in gashes and
ruin, not in the gentle blurring of some insignificant detail;
which, if it succeeded, would cut each stroke to the bone, would
stamp each fingerprint in marble.  His Electra stands before us
like a figure so tightly bound that she can only move an inch this
way, an inch that.  But each movement must tell to the utmost, or,
bound as she is, denied the relief of all hints, repetitions,
suggestions, she will be nothing but a dummy, tightly bound.  Her
words in crisis are, as a matter of fact, bare; mere cries of
despair, joy, hate

[Greek text-1]

But these cries give angle and outline to the play.  It is thus,
with a thousand differences of degree, that in English literature
Jane Austen shapes a novel.  There comes a moment--"I will dance
with you," says Emma--which rises higher than the rest, which,
though not eloquent in itself, or violent, or made striking by
beauty of language, has the whole weight of the book behind it.  In
Jane Austen, too, we have the same sense, though the ligatures are
much less tight, that her figures are bound, and restricted to a
few definite movements.  She, too, in her modest, everyday prose,
chose the dangerous art where one slip means death.

But it is not so easy to decide what it is that gives these cries
of Electra in her anguish their power to cut and wound and excite.
It is partly that we know her, that we have picked up from little
turns and twists of the dialogue hints of her character, of her
appearance, which, characteristically, she neglected; of something
suffering in her, outraged and stimulated to its utmost stretch of
capacity, yet, as she herself knows ("my behaviour is unseemly and
becomes me ill"), blunted and debased by the horror of her
position, an unwed girl made to witness her mother's vileness and
denounce it in loud, almost vulgar, clamour to the world at large.
It is partly, too, that we know in the same way that Clytemnestra
is no unmitigated villainess.  "[Greek text-2]" she says--"there is
a strange power in motherhood".  It is no murderess, violent and
unredeemed, whom Orestes kills within the house, and Electra bids
him utterly destroy--"Strike again."  No; the men and women
standing out in the sunlight before the audience on the hill-side
were alive enough, subtle enough, not mere figures, or plaster
casts of human beings.

Yet it is not because we can analyse them into feelings that they
impress us.  In six pages of Proust we can find more complicated
and varied emotions than in the whole of the Electra.  But in the
Electra or in the Antigone we are impressed by something different,
by something perhaps more impressive--by heroism itself, by
fidelity itself.  In spite of the labour and the difficulty it is
this that draws us back and back to the Greeks; the stable, the
permanent, the original human being is to be found there.  Violent
emotions are needed to rouse him into action, but when thus stirred
by death, by betrayal, by some other primitive calamity, Antigone
and Ajax and Electra behave in the way in which we should behave
thus struck down; the way in which everybody has always behaved;
and thus we understand them more easily and more directly than we
understand the characters in the Canterbury Tales.  These are the
originals, Chaucer's the varieties of the human species.

It is true, of course, that these types of the original man or
woman, these heroic Kings, these faithful daughters, these tragic
Queens who stalk through the ages always planting their feet in the
same places, twitching their robes with the same gestures, from
habit not from impulse, are among the greatest bores and the most
demoralising companions in the world.  The plays of Addison,
Voltaire, and a host of others are there to prove it.  But
encounter them in Greek.  Even in Sophocles, whose reputation for
restraint and mastery has filtered down to us from the scholars,
they are decided, ruthless, direct.  A fragment of their speech
broken off would, we feel, colour oceans and oceans of the
respectable drama.  Here we meet them before their emotions have
been worn into uniformity.  Here we listen to the nightingale whose
song echoes through English literature singing in her own Greek
tongue.  For the first time Orpheus with his lute makes men and
beasts follow him.  Their voices ring out clear and sharp; we see
the hairy, tawny bodies at play in the sunlight among the olive
trees, not posed gracefully on granite plinths in the pale
corridors of the British Museum.  And then suddenly, in the midst
of all this sharpness and compression, Electra, as if she swept her
veil over her face and forbade us to think of her any more, speaks
of that very nightingale: "that bird distraught with grief, the
messenger of Zeus.  Ah, queen of sorrow, Niobe, thee I deem divine--
thee; who evermore weepest in thy rocky tomb."

And as she silences her own complaint, she perplexes us again with
the insoluble question of poetry and its nature, and why, as she
speaks thus, her words put on the assurance of immortality.  For
they are Greek; we cannot tell how they sounded; they ignore the
obvious sources of excitement; they owe nothing of their effect to
any extravagance of expression, and certainly they throw no light
upon the speaker's character or the writer's.  But they remain,
something that has been stated and must eternally endure.

Yet in a play how dangerous this poetry, this lapse from the
particular to the general must of necessity be, with the actors
standing there in person, with their bodies and their faces
passively waiting to be made use of!  For this reason the later
plays of Shakespeare, where there is more of poetry than of action,
are better read than seen, better understood by leaving out the
actual body than by having the body, with all its associations and
movements, visible to the eye.  The intolerable restrictions of the
drama could be loosened, however, if a means could be found by
which what was general and poetic, comment, not action, could be
freed without interrupting the movement of the whole.  It is this
that the choruses supply; the old men or women who take no active
part in the drama, the undifferentiated voices who sing like birds
in the pauses of the wind; who can comment, or sum up, or allow the
poet to speak himself or supply, by contrast, another side to his
conception.  Always in imaginative literature, where characters
speak for themselves and the author has no part, the need of that
voice is making itself felt.  For though Shakespeare (unless we
consider that his fools and madmen supply the part) dispensed with
the chorus, novelists are always devising some substitute--
Thackeray speaking in his own person, Fielding coming out and
addressing the world before his curtain rises.  So to grasp the
meaning of the play the chorus is of the utmost importance.  One
must be able to pass easily into those ecstasies, those wild and
apparently irrelevant utterances, those sometimes obvious and
commonplace statements, to decide their relevance or irrelevance,
and give them their relation to the play as a whole.

We must "be able to pass easily"; but that of course is exactly
what we cannot do.  For the most part the choruses, with all their
obscurities, must be spelt out and their symmetry mauled.  But we
can guess that Sophocles used them not to express something outside
the action of the play, but to sing the praises of some virtue, or
the beauties of some place mentioned in it.  He selects what he
wishes to emphasize and sings of white Colonus and its nightingale,
or of love unconquered in fight.  Lovely, lofty, and serene, his
choruses grow naturally out of his situations, and change, not the
point of view, but the mood.  In Euripides, however, the situations
are not contained within themselves; they give off an atmosphere of
doubt, of suggestion, of questioning; but if we look to the
choruses to make this plain we are often baffled rather than
instructed.  At once in the Bacchae we are in the world of
psychology and doubt; the world where the mind twists facts and
changes them and makes the familiar aspects of life appear new and
questionable.  What is Bacchus, and who are the Gods, and what is
man's duty to them, and what the rights of his subtle brain?  To
these questions the chorus makes no reply, or replies mockingly, or
speaks darkly as if the straitness of the dramatic form had tempted
Euripides to violate it, in order to relieve his mind of its
weight.  Time is so short and I have so much to say, that unless
you will allow me to place together two apparently unrelated
statements and trust to you to pull them together, you must be
content with a mere skeleton of the play I might have given you.
Such is the argument.  Euripides therefore suffers less than
Sophocles and less than Aeschylus from being read privately in a
room, and not seen on a hill-side in the sunshine.  He can be acted
in the mind; he can comment upon the questions of the moment; more
than the others he will vary in popularity from age to age.

If then in Sophocles the play is concentrated in the figures
themselves, and in Euripides is to be retrieved from flashes of
poetry and questions far flung and unanswered, Aeschylus makes
these little dramas (the Agamemnon has 1663 lines; Lear about 2600)
tremendous by stretching every phrase to the utmost, by sending
them floating forth in metaphors, by bidding them rise up and stalk
eyeless and majestic through the scene.  To understand him it is
not so necessary to understand Greek as to understand poetry.  It
is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without
the support of words which Shakespeare also asks of us.  For words,
when opposed to such a blast of meaning, must give out, must be
blown astray, and only by collecting in companies convey the
meaning which each one separately is too weak to express.
Connecting them in a rapid flight of the mind we know instantly and
instinctively what they mean, but could not decant that meaning
afresh into any other words.  There is an ambiguity which is the
mark of the highest poetry; we cannot know exactly what it means.
Take this from the Agamemnon for instance--

[Greek text-3]

The meaning is just on the far side of language.  It is the meaning
which in moments of astonishing excitement and stress we perceive
in our minds without words; it is the meaning that Dostoevsky
(hampered as he was by prose and as we are by translation) leads us
to by some astonishing run up the scale of emotions and points at
but cannot indicate; the meaning that Shakespeare succeeds in

Aeschylus thus will not give, as Sophocles gives, the very words
that people might have spoken, only so arranged that they have in
some mysterious way a general force, a symbolic power, nor like
Euripides will he combine incongruities and thus enlarge his little
space, as a small room is enlarged by mirrors in odd corners.  By
the bold and running use of metaphor he will amplify and give us,
not the thing itself, but the reverberation and reflection which,
taken into his mind, the thing has made; close enough to the
original to illustrate it, remote enough to heighten, enlarge, and
make splendid.

For none of these dramatists had the licence which belongs to the
novelist, and, in some degree, to all writers of printed books, of
modelling their meaning with an infinity of slight touches which
can only be properly applied by reading quietly, carefully, and
sometimes two or three times over.  Every sentence had to explode
on striking the ear, however slowly and beautifully the words might
then descend, and however enigmatic might their final purport be.
No splendour or richness of metaphor could have saved the Agamemnon
if either images or allusions of the subtlest or most decorative
had got between us and the naked cry

[Greek text-4]

Dramatic they had to be at whatever cost.

But winter fell on these villages, darkness and extreme cold
descended on the hill-side.  There must have been some place
indoors where men could retire, both in the depths of winter and in
the summer heats, where they could sit and drink, where they could
lie stretched at their ease, where they could talk.  It is Plato,
of course, who reveals the life indoors, and describes how, when a
party of friends met and had eaten not at all luxuriously and drunk
a little wine, some handsome boy ventured a question, or quoted an
opinion, and Socrates took it up, fingered it, turned it round,
looked at it this way and that, swiftly stripped it of its
inconsistencies and falsities and brought the whole company by
degrees to gaze with him at the truth.  It is an exhausting
process; to concentrate painfully upon the exact meaning of words;
to judge what each admission involves; to follow intently, yet
critically, the dwindling and changing of opinion as it hardens and
intensifies into truth.  Are pleasure and good the same?  Can
virtue be taught?  Is virtue knowledge?  The tired or feeble mind
may easily lapse as the remorseless questioning proceeds; but no
one, however weak, can fail, even if he does not learn more from
Plato, to love knowledge better.  For as the argument mounts from
step to step, Protagoras yielding, Socrates pushing on, what
matters is not so much the end we reach as our manner of reaching
it.  That all can feel--the indomitable honesty, the courage, the
love of truth which draw Socrates and us in his wake to the summit
where, if we too may stand for a moment, it is to enjoy the
greatest felicity of which we are capable.

Yet such an expression seems ill fitted to describe the state of
mind of a student to whom, after painful argument, the truth has
been revealed.  But truth is various; truth comes to us in
different disguises; it is not with the intellect alone that we
perceive it.  It is a winter's night; the tables are spread at
Agathon's house; the girl is playing the flute; Socrates has washed
himself and put on sandals; he has stopped in the hall; he refuses
to move when they send for him.  Now Socrates has done; he is
bantering Alcibiades; Alcibiades takes a fillet and binds it round
"this wonderful fellow's head".  He praises Socrates.  "For he
cares not for mere beauty, but despises more than any one can
imagine all external possessions, whether it be beauty or wealth or
glory, or any other thing for which the multitude felicitates the
possessor.  He esteems these things and us who honour them, as
nothing, and lives among men, making all the objects of their
admiration the playthings of his irony.  But I know not if any one
of you has ever seen the divine images which are within, when he
has been opened and is serious.  I have seen them, and they are so
supremely beautiful, so golden, divine, and wonderful, that
everything which Socrates commands surely ought to be obeyed even
like the voice of a God."  All this flows over the arguments of
Plato--laughter and movement; people getting up and going out; the
hour changing; tempers being lost; jokes cracked; the dawn rising.
Truth, it seems, is various; Truth is to be pursued with all our
faculties.  Are we to rule out the amusements, the tendernesses,
the frivolities of friendship because we love truth?  Will truth be
quicker found because we stop our ears to music and drink no wine,
and sleep instead of talking through the long winter's night?  It
is not to the cloistered disciplinarian mortifying himself in
solitude that we are to turn, but to the well-sunned nature, the
man who practises the art of living to the best advantage, so that
nothing is stunted but some things are permanently more valuable
than others.

So in these dialogues we are made to seek truth with every part of
us.  For Plato, of course, had the dramatic genius.  It is by means
of that, by an art which conveys in a sentence or two the setting
and the atmosphere, and then with perfect adroitness insinuates
itself into the coils of the argument without losing its liveliness
and grace, and then contracts to bare statement, and then,
mounting, expands and soars in that higher air which is generally
reached only by the more extreme measures of poetry--it is this art
which plays upon us in so many ways at once and brings us to an
exultation of mind which can only be reached when all the powers
are called upon to contribute their energy to the whole.

But we must beware.  Socrates did not care for "mere beauty", by
which he meant, perhaps, beauty as ornament.  A people who judged
as much as the Athenians did by ear, sitting out-of-doors at the
play or listening to argument in the market-place, were far less
apt than we are to break off sentences and appreciate them apart
from the context.  For them there were no Beauties of Hardy,
Beauties of Meredith, Sayings from George Eliot.  The writer had to
think more of the whole and less of the detail.  Naturally, living
in the open, it was not the lip or the eye that struck them, but
the carriage of the body and the proportions of its parts.  Thus
when we quote and extract we do the Greeks more damage than we do
the English.  There is a bareness and abruptness in their
literature which grates upon a taste accustomed to the intricacy
and finish of printed books.  We have to stretch our minds to grasp
a whole devoid of the prettiness of detail or the emphasis of
eloquence.  Accustomed to look directly and largely rather than
minutely and aslant, it was safe for them to step into the thick of
emotions which blind and bewilder an age like our own.  In the vast
catastrophe of the European war our emotions had to be broken up
for us, and put at an angle from us, before we could allow
ourselves to feel them in poetry or fiction.  The only poets who
spoke to the purpose spoke in the sidelong, satiric manner of
Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.  It was not possible for them
to be direct without being clumsy; or to speak simply of emotion
without being sentimental.  But the Greeks could say, as if for the
first time, "Yet being dead they have not died".  They could say,
"If to die nobly is the chief part of excellence, to us out of all
men Fortune gave this lot; for hastening to set a crown of freedom
on Greece we lie possessed of praise that grows not old".  They
could march straight up, with their eyes open; and thus fearlessly
approached, emotions stand still and suffer themselves to be looked

But again (the question comes back and back), Are we reading Greek
as it was written when we say this?  When we read these few words
cut on a tombstone, a stanza in a chorus, the end or the opening of
a dialogue of Plato's, a fragment of Sappho, when we bruise our
minds upon some tremendous metaphor in the Agamemnon instead of
stripping the branch of its flowers instantly as we do in reading
Lear--are we not reading wrongly? losing our sharp sight in the
haze of associations? reading into Greek poetry not what they have
but what we lack?  Does not the whole of Greece heap itself behind
every line of its literature?  They admit us to a vision of the
earth unravaged, the sea unpolluted, the maturity, tried but
unbroken, of mankind.  Every word is reinforced by a vigour which
pours out of olive-tree and temple and the bodies of the young.
The nightingale has only to be named by Sophocles and she sings;
the grove has only to be called [Greek text-5], "untrodden", and we
imagine the twisted branches and the purple violets.  Back and back
we are drawn to steep ourselves in what, perhaps, is only an image
of the reality, not the reality itself, a summer's day imagined in
the heart of a northern winter.  Chief among these sources of
glamour and perhaps misunderstanding is the language.  We can never
hope to get the whole fling of a sentence in Greek as we do in
English.  We cannot hear it, now dissonant, now harmonious, tossing
sound from line to line across a page.  We cannot pick up
infallibly one by one all those minute signals by which a phrase is
made to hint, to turn, to live.  Nevertheless, it is the language
that has us most in bondage; the desire for that which perpetually
lures us back.  First there is the compactness of the expression.
Shelley takes twenty-one words in English to translate thirteen
words of Greek--[Greek text-6] (". . . for everyone, even if before
he were ever so undisciplined, becomes a poet as soon as he is
touched by love").

Every ounce of fat has been pared off, leaving the flesh firm.
Then, spare and bare as it is, no language can move more quickly,
dancing, shaking, all alive, but controlled.  Then there are the
words themselves which, in so many instances, we have made
expressive to us of our own emotions, [Greek text-7]--to take the
first that come to hand; so clear, so hard, so intense, that to
speak plainly yet fittingly without blurring the outline or
clouding the depths, Greek is the only expression.  It is useless,
then, to read Greek in translations.  Translators can but offer us
a vague equivalent; their language is necessarily full of echoes
and associations.  Professor Mackail says "wan", and the age of
Burne-Jones and Morris is at once evoked.  Nor can the subtler
stress, the flight and the fall of the words, be kept even by the
most skilful of scholars--

. . . thee, who evermore weepest in thy rocky tomb

is not

[Greek text-8]

Further, in reckoning the doubts and difficulties there is this
important problem--Where are we to laugh in reading Greek?  There
is a passage in the Odyssey where laughter begins to steal upon us,
but if Homer were looking we should probably think it better to
control our merriment.  To laugh instantly it is almost necessary
(though Aristophanes may supply us with an exception) to laugh in
English.  Humour, after all, is closely bound up with a sense of
the body.  When we laugh at the humour of Wycherley, we are
laughing with the body of that burly rustic who was our common
ancestor on the village green.  The French, the Italians, the
Americans, who derive physically from so different a stock, pause,
as we pause in reading Homer, to make sure that they are laughing
in the right place, and the pause is fatal.  Thus humour is the
first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue, and when we turn
from Greek to English literature it seems, after a long silence, as
if our great age were ushered in by a burst of laughter.

These are all difficulties, sources of misunderstanding, of
distorted and romantic, of servile and snobbish passion.  Yet even
for the unlearned some certainties remain.  Greek is the impersonal
literature; it is also the literature of masterpieces.  There are
no schools; no forerunners; no heirs.  We cannot trace a gradual
process working in many men imperfectly until it expresses itself
adequately at last in one.  Again, there is always about Greek
literature that air of vigour which permeates an "age", whether it
is the age of Aeschylus, or Racine, or Shakespeare.  One generation
at least in that fortunate time is blown on to be writers to the
extreme; to attain that unconsciousness which means that the
consciousness is stimulated to the highest extent; to surpass the
limits of small triumphs and tentative experiments.  Thus we have
Sappho with her constellations of adjectives; Plato daring
extravagant flights of poetry in the midst of prose; Thucydides,
constricted and contracted; Sophocles gliding like a shoal of trout
smoothly and quietly, apparently motionless, and then, with a
flicker of fins, off and away; while in the Odyssey we have what
remains the triumph of narrative, the clearest and at the same time
the most romantic story of the fortunes of men and women.

The Odyssey is merely a story of adventure, the instinctive story-
telling of a sea-faring race.  So we may begin it, reading quickly
in the spirit of children wanting amusement to find out what
happens next.  But here is nothing immature; here are full-grown
people, crafty, subtle, and passionate.  Nor is the world itself a
small one, since the sea which separates island from island has to
be crossed by little hand-made boats and is measured by the flight
of the sea-gulls.  It is true that the islands are not thickly
populated, and the people, though everything is made by hands, are
not closely kept at work.  They have had time to develop a very
dignified, a very stately society, with an ancient tradition of
manners behind it, which makes every relation at once orderly,
natural, and full of reserve.  Penelope crosses the room;
Telemachus goes to bed; Nausicaa washes her linen; and their
actions seem laden with beauty because they do not know that they
are beautiful, have been born to their possessions, are no more
self-conscious than children, and yet, all those thousands of years
ago, in their little islands, know all that is to be known.  With
the sound of the sea in their ears, vines, meadows, rivulets about
them, they are even more aware than we are of a ruthless fate.
There is a sadness at the back of life which they do not attempt to
mitigate.  Entirely aware of their own standing in the shadow, and
yet alive to every tremor and gleam of existence, there they
endure, and it is to the Greeks that we turn when we are sick of
the vagueness, of the confusion, of the Christianity and its
consolations, of our own age.


These magnificent volumes[1] are not often, perhaps, read through.
Part of their charm consists in the fact that Hakluyt is not so
much a book as a great bundle of commodities loosely tied together,
an emporium, a lumber room strewn with ancient sacks, obsolete
nautical instruments, huge bales of wool, and little bags of rubies
and emeralds.  One is for ever untying this packet here, sampling
that heap over there, wiping the dust off some vast map of the
world, and sitting down in semi-darkness to snuff the strange
smells of silks and leathers and ambergris, while outside tumble
the huge waves of the uncharted Elizabethan sea.

[1] Hakluyt's Collection of the Early Voyages, Travels, and
Discoveries of the English Nation, five volumes, 4to, 1810.

For this jumble of seeds, silks, unicorns' horns, elephants' teeth,
wool, common stones, turbans, and bars of gold, these odds and ends
of priceless value and complete worthlessness, were the fruit of
innumerable voyages, traffics, and discoveries to unknown lands in
the reign of Queen Elizabeth.  The expeditions were manned by "apt
young men" from the West country, and financed in part by the great
Queen herself.  The ships, says Froude, were no bigger than modern
yachts.  There in the river by Greenwich the fleet lay gathered,
close to the Palace.  "The Privy council looked out of the windows
of the court . . . the ships thereupon discharge their ordnance
. . . and the mariners they shouted in such sort that the sky rang
again with the noise thereof."  Then, as the ships swung down the
tide, one sailor after another walked the hatches, climbed the
shrouds, stood upon the mainyards to wave his friends a last
farewell.  Many would come back no more.  For directly England and
the coast of France were beneath the horizon, the ships sailed into
the unfamiliar; the air had its voices, the sea its lions and
serpents, its evaporations of fire and tumultuous whirlpools.  But
God too was very close; the clouds but sparely hid the divinity
Himself; the limbs of Satan were almost visible.  Familiarly the
English sailors pitted their God against the God of the Turks, who
"can speake never a word for dulnes, much lesse can he helpe them
in such an extremitie. . . .  But howsoever their God behaved
himself, our God showed himself a God indeed. . . ."  God was as
near by sea as by land, said Sir Humfrey Gilbert, riding through
the storm.  Suddenly one light disappeared; Sir Humfrey Gilbert had
gone beneath the waves; when morning came, they sought his ship in
vain.  Sir Hugh Willoughby sailed to discover the North-West
Passage and made no return.  The Earl of Cumberland's men, hung up
by adverse winds off the coast of Cornwall for a fortnight, licked
the muddy water off the deck in agony.  And sometimes a ragged and
worn-out man came knocking at the door of an English country house
and claimed to be the boy who had left it years ago to sail the
seas.  "Sir William his father, and my lady his mother knew him not
to be their son, until they found a secret mark, which was a wart
upon one of his knees."  But he had with him a black stone, veined
with gold, or an ivory tusk, or a silver ingot, and urged on the
village youth with talk of gold strewn over the land as stones are
strewn in the fields of England.  One expedition might fail, but
what if the passage to the fabled land of uncounted riches lay only
a little farther up the coast?  What if the known world was only
the prelude to some more splendid panorama?  When, after the long
voyage, the ships dropped anchor in the great river of the Plate
and the men went exploring through the undulating lands, startling
grazing herds of deer, seeing the limbs of savages between the
trees, they filled their pockets with pebbles that might be
emeralds or sand that might be gold; or sometimes, rounding a
headland, they saw, far off, a string of savages slowly descending
to the beach bearing on their heads and linking their shoulders
together with heavy burdens for the Spanish King.

These are the fine stories used effectively all through the West
country to decoy "the apt young men" lounging by the harbour-side
to leave their nets and fish for gold.  But the voyagers were sober
merchants into the bargain, citizens with the good of English trade
and the welfare of English work-people at heart.  The captains are
reminded how necessary it is to find a market abroad for English
wool; to discover the herb from which blue dyes are made; above all
to make inquiry as to the methods of producing oil, since all
attempts to make it from radish seed have failed.  They are
reminded of the misery of the English poor, whose crimes, brought
about by poverty, make them "daily consumed by the gallows".  They
are reminded how the soil of England had been enriched by the
discoveries of travellers in the past; how Dr. Linaker brought
seeds of the damask rose and tulipas, and how beasts and plants and
herbs, "without which our life were to be said barbarous", have all
come to England gradually from abroad.  In search of markets and of
goods, of the immortal fame success would bring them, the apt young
men set sail for the North, and were left, a little company of
isolated Englishmen surrounded by snow and the huts of savages, to
make what bargains they could and pick up what knowledge they might
before the ships returned in the summer to fetch them home again.
There they endured, an isolated company, burning on the rim of the
dark.  One of them, carrying a charter from his company in London,
went inland as far as Moscow, and there saw the Emperor "sitting in
his chair of estate with his crown on his head, and a staff of
goldsmiths' work in his left hand".  All the ceremony that he saw
is carefully written out, and the sight upon which the English
merchant first set eyes has the brilliancy of a Roman vase dug up
and stood for a moment in the sun, until, exposed to the air, seen
by millions of eyes, it dulls and crumbles away.  There, all these
centuries, on the outskirts of the world, the glories of Moscow,
the glories of Constantinople have flowered unseen.  The Englishman
was bravely dressed for the occasion, led "three fair mastiffs in
coats of red cloth", and carried a letter from Elizabeth "the paper
whereof did smell most fragrantly of camphor and ambergris, and the
ink of perfect musk".  And sometimes, since trophies from the
amazing new world were eagerly awaited at home, together with
unicorns' horns and lumps of ambergris and the fine stories of the
engendering of whales and "debates" of elephants and dragons whose
blood, mixed, congealed into vermilion, a living sample would be
sent, a live savage caught somewhere off the coast of Labrador,
taken to England, and shown about like a wild beast.  Next year
they brought him back, and took a woman savage on board to keep him
company.  When they saw each other they blushed; they blushed
profoundly, but the sailors, though they noted it, knew not why.
Later the two savages set up house together on board ship, she
attending to his wants, he nursing her in sickness.  But, as the
sailors noted again, the savages lived together in perfect

All this, the new words, the new ideas, the waves, the savages, the
adventures, found their way naturally into the plays which were
being acted on the banks of the Thames.  There was an audience
quick to seize upon the coloured and the high-sounding; to
associate those

     frigates bottom'd with rich Sethin planks,
     Topt with the lofty firs of Lebanon,

with the adventures of their own sons and brothers abroad.  The
Verneys, for example, had a wild boy who had gone as pirate, turned
Turk, and died out there, sending back to Claydon to be kept as
relics of him some silk, a turban, and a pilgrim's staff.  A gulf
lay between the spartan domestic housecraft of the Paston women and
the refined tastes of the Elizabethan Court ladies, who, grown old,
says Harrison, spent their time reading histories, or "writing
volumes of their own, or translating of other men's into our
English and Latin tongue", while the younger ladies played the lute
and the citharne and spent their leisure in the enjoyment of music.
Thus, with singing and with music, springs into existence the
characteristic Elizabethan extravagance; the dolphins and lavoltas
of Greene; the hyperbole, more surprising in a writer so terse and
muscular, of Ben Jonson.  Thus we find the whole of Elizabethan
literature strewn with gold and silver; with talk of Guiana's
rarities, and references to that America--"O my America! my new-
found-land"--which was not merely a land on the map, but symbolised
the unknown territories of the soul.  So, over the water, the
imagination of Montaigne brooded in fascination upon savages,
cannibals, society, and government.

But the mention of Montaigne suggests that though the influence of
the sea and the voyages, of the lumber room crammed with sea beasts
and horns and ivory and old maps and nautical instruments, helped
to inspire the greatest age of English poetry, its effects were by
no means so beneficial upon English prose.  Rhyme and metre helped
the poets to keep the tumult of their perceptions in order.  But
the prose writer, without these restrictions, accumulated clauses,
petered out in interminable catalogues, tripped and stumbled over
the convolutions of his own rich draperies.  How little Elizabethan
prose was fit for its office, how exquisitely French prose was
already adapted, can be seen by comparing a passage from Sidney's
Defense of Poesie with one from Montaigne's Essays.

He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the
margent with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulness:
but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either
accompanied with, or prepared for the well enchanting Skill of
Music, and with a tale (forsooth) he cometh unto you, with a tale
which holdeth children from play, and old men from the Chimney
corner; and pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the mind
from wickedness to virtue; even as the child is often brought to
take most wholesome things by hiding them in such other as have a
pleasant taste: which if one should begin to tell them the nature of
the Aloës or Rhubarbarum they should receive, would sooner take
their physic at their ears than at their mouth, so is it in men
(most of which are childish in the best things, till they be
cradled in their graves) glad they will be to hear the tales of
Hercules. . . .

And so it runs on for seventy-six words more.  Sidney's prose is an
uninterrupted monologue, with sudden flashes of felicity and
splendid phrases, which lends itself to lamentations and
moralities, to long accumulations and catalogues, but is never
quick, never colloquial, unable to grasp a thought closely and
firmly, or to adapt itself flexibly and exactly to the chops and
changes of the mind.  Compared with this, Montaigne is master of an
instrument which knows its own powers and limitations, and is
capable of insinuating itself into crannies and crevices which
poetry can never reach; capable of cadences different but no less
beautiful; of subtleties and intensities which Elizabethan prose
entirely ignores.  He is considering the way in which certain of
the ancients met death:

. . . ils l'ont faicte couler et glisser parmy la lascheté de leurs
occupations accoustumées entre des garses et bons compaignons; nul
propos de consolation, nulle mention de testament, nulle
affectation ambitieuse de constance, nul discours de leur condition
future; mais entre les jeux, les festins, facecies, entretiens
communs et populaires, et la musique, et des vers amoureux.

An age seems to separate Sidney from Montaigne.  The English
compared with the French are as boys compared with men.

But the Elizabethan prose writers, if they have the formlessness of
youth, have, too, its freshness and audacity.  In the same essay
Sidney shapes language, masterfully and easily, to his liking;
freely and naturally reaches his hand for a metaphor.  To bring
this prose to perfection (and Dryden's prose is very near
perfection) only the discipline of the stage was necessary and the
growth of self-consciousness.  It is in the plays, and especially
in the comic passages of the plays, that the finest Elizabethan
prose is to be found.  The stage was the nursery where prose learnt
to find its feet.  For on the stage people had to meet, to quip and
crank, to suffer interruptions, to talk of ordinary things.

Cler.  A pox of her autumnal face, her pieced beauty! there's no
man can be admitted till she be ready now-a-days; till she has
painted, and perfumed, and washed, and scoured, but the boy here;
and him she wipes her oiled lips upon, like a sponge.  I have made
a song (I pray thee hear it) on the subject.

[Page sings.

Still to be neat, still to be drest, &c.

True.  And I am clearly on the other side: I love a good dressing
before any beauty o' the world.  O, a woman is then like a delicate
garden; nor is there one kind of it; she may vary every hour; take
often counsel of her glass, and choose the best.  If she have good
ears, show them; good hair, lay it out; good legs, wear short
clothes; a good hand, discover it often: practise any art to mend
breath, cleanse teeth, repair eyebrows; paint and profess it.

So the talk runs in Ben Jonson's Silent Woman, knocked into shape
by interruptions, sharpened by collisions, and never allowed to
settle into stagnancy or swell into turbidity.  But the publicity
of the stage and the perpetual presence of a second person were
hostile to that growing consciousness of one's self, that brooding
in solitude over the mysteries of the soul, which, as the years
went by, sought expression and found a champion in the sublime
genius of Sir Thomas Browne.  His immense egotism has paved the way
for all psychological novelists, auto-biographers, confession-
mongers, and dealers in the curious shades of our private life.  He
it was who first turned from the contacts of men with men to their
lonely life within.  "The world that I regard is myself; it is the
microcosm of my own frame that I cast mine eye on; for the other I
use it but like my globe, and turn it round sometimes for my
recreation."  All was mystery and darkness as the first explorer
walked the catacombs swinging his lanthorn.  "I feel sometimes a
hell within myself; Lucifer keeps his court in my breast; Legion is
revived in me."  In these solitudes there were no guides and no
companions.  "I am in the dark to all the world, and my nearest
friends behold me but in a cloud."  The strangest thoughts and
imaginings have play with him as he goes about his work, outwardly
the most sober of mankind and esteemed the greatest physician in
Norwich.  He has wished for death.  He has doubted all things.
What if we are asleep in this world and the conceits of life are as
mere dreams?  The tavern music, the Ave Mary bell, the broken pot
that the workman has dug out of the field--at the sight and sound
of them he stops dead, as if transfixed by the astonishing vista
that opens before his imagination.  "We carry with us the wonders
we seek without us; there is all Africa and her prodigies in us."
A halo of wonder encircles everything that he sees; he turns his
light gradually upon the flowers and insects and grasses at his
feet so as to disturb nothing in the mysterious processes of their
existence.  With the same awe, mixed with a sublime complacency, he
records the discovery of his own qualities and attainments.  He was
charitable and brave and averse from nothing.  He was full of
feeling for others and merciless upon himself.  "For my conversation,
it is like the sun's, with all men, and with a friendly aspect to
good and bad."  He knows six languages, the laws, the customs and
policies of several states, the names of all the constellations and
most of the plants of his country, and yet, so sweeping is his
imagination, so large the horizon in which he sees this little
figure walking that "methinks I do not know so many as when I did
but know a hundred, and had scarcely ever simpled further than

He is the first of the autobiographers.  Swooping and soaring at
the highest altitudes, he stoops suddenly with loving particularity
upon the details of his own body.  His height was moderate, he
tells us, his eyes large and luminous; his skin dark but constantly
suffused with blushes.  He dressed very plainly.  He seldom
laughed.  He collected coins, kept maggots in boxes, dissected the
lungs of frogs, braved the stench of the spermaceti whale,
tolerated Jews, had a good word for the deformity of the toad, and
combined a scientific and sceptical attitude towards most things
with an unfortunate belief in witches.  In short, as we say when we
cannot help laughing at the oddities of people we admire most, he
was a character, and the first to make us feel that the most
sublime speculations of the human imagination are issued from a
particular man, whom we can love.  In the midst of the solemnities
of the Urn Burial we smile when he remarks that afflictions induce
callosities.  The smile broadens to laughter as we mouth out the
splendid pomposities, the astonishing conjectures of the Religio
Medici.  Whatever he writes is stamped with his own idiosyncrasy,
and we first become conscious of impurities which hereafter stain
literature with so many freakish colours that, however hard we try,
it is difficult to be certain whether we are looking at a man or
his writing.  Now we are in the presence of sublime imagination;
now rambling through one of the finest lumber rooms in the world--a
chamber stuffed from floor to ceiling with ivory, old iron, broken
pots, urns, unicorns' horns, and magic glasses full of emerald
lights and blue mystery.


There are, it must be admitted, some highly formidable tracts in
English literature, and chief among them that jungle, forest, and
wilderness which is the Elizabethan drama.  For many reasons, not
here to be examined, Shakespeare stands out, Shakespeare who has
had the light on him from his day to ours, Shakespeare who towers
highest when looked at from the level of his own contemporaries.
But the plays of the lesser Elizabethans--Greene, Dekker, Peele,
Chapman, Beaumont and Fletcher,--to adventure into that wilderness
is for the ordinary reader an ordeal, an upsetting experience which
plys him with questions, harries him with doubts, alternately
delights and vexes him with pleasures and pains.  For we are apt to
forget, reading, as we tend to do, only the masterpieces of a
bygone age, how great a power the body of a literature possesses to
impose itself: how it will not suffer itself to be read passively,
but takes us and reads us; flouts our preconceptions; questions
principles which we had got into the habit of taking for granted,
and, in fact, splits us into two parts as we read, making us, even
as we enjoy, yield our ground or stick to our guns.

At the outset in reading an Elizabethan play we are overcome by the
extraordinary discrepancy between the Elizabethan view of reality
and our own.  The reality to which we have grown accustomed is,
speaking roughly, based upon the life and death of some knight
called Smith, who succeeded his father in the family business of
pitwood importers, timber merchants and coal exporters, was well
known in political, temperance, and church circles, did much for
the poor of Liverpool, and died last Wednesday of pneumonia while
on a visit to his son at Muswell Hill.  That is the world we know.
That is the reality which our poets and novelists have to expound
and illuminate.  Then we open the first Elizabethan play that comes
to hand and read how

     I once did see
     In my young travels through Armenia
     An angry unicorn in his full career
     Charge with too swift a foot a jeweller
     That watch'd him for the treasure of his brow,
     And ere he could get shelter of a tree
     Nail him with his rich antlers to the earth.

Where is Smith, we ask, where is Liverpool?  And the groves of
Elizabethan drama echo "Where?"  Exquisite is the delight, sublime
the relief of being set free to wander in the land of the unicorn
and the jeweller among dukes and grandees, Gonzaloes and
Bellimperias, who spend their lives in murder and intrigue, dress
up as men if they are women, as women if they are men, see ghosts,
run mad, and die in the greatest profusion on the slightest
provocation, uttering as they fall imprecations of superb vigour or
elegies of the wildest despair.  But soon the low, the relentless
voice, which if we wish to identify it we must suppose typical of a
reader fed on modern English literature, and French and Russian,
asks why, then, with all this to stimulate and enchant, these old
plays are for long stretches of time so intolerably dull?  Is it
not that literature, if it is to keep us on the alert through five
acts or thirty-two chapters, must somehow be based on Smith, have
one toe touching Liverpool, take off into whatever heights it
pleases from reality?  We are not so purblind as to suppose that a
man because his name is Smith and he lives at Liverpool is
therefore "real".  We know indeed that this reality is a chameleon
quality, the fantastic becoming as we grow used to it often the
closest to the truth, the sober the furthest from it, and nothing
proving a writer's greatness more than his capacity to consolidate
his scene by the use of what, until he touched them, seemed wisps
of cloud and threads of gossamer.  Our contention merely is that
there is a station, somewhere in mid-air, whence Smith and
Liverpool can be seen to the best advantage; that the great artist
is the man who knows where to place himself above the shifting
scenery; that while he never loses sight of Liverpool he never sees
it in the wrong perspective.  The Elizabethans bore us, then,
because their Smiths are all changed to dukes, their Liverpools to
fabulous islands and palaces in Genoa.  Instead of keeping a proper
poise above life they soar miles into the empyrean, where nothing
is visible for long hours at a time but clouds at their revelry,
and a cloud landscape is not ultimately satisfactory to human eyes.
The Elizabethans bore us because they suffocate our imaginations
rather than set them to work.

Still, though potent enough, the boredom of an Elizabethan play is
of a different quality altogether from the boredom which a
nineteenth-century play, a Tennyson or a Henry Taylor play,
inflicts.  The riot of images, the violent volubility of language,
all that cloys and satiates in the Elizabethans yet appears to be
drawn up with a roar as a feeble fire is sucked up by a newspaper.
There is, even in the worst, an intermittent bawling vigour which
gives us the sense in our quiet arm-chairs of ostlers and orange-
girls catching up the lines, flinging them back, hissing or
stamping applause.  But the deliberate drama of the Victorian age
is evidently written in a study.  It has for audience ticking
clocks and rows of classics bound in half morocco.  There is no
stamping, no applause.  It does not, as, with all its faults, the
Elizabethan audience did, leaven the mass with fire.  Rhetorical
and bombastic, the lines are flung and hurried into existence and
reach the same impromptu felicities, have the same lip-moulded
profusion and unexpectedness, which speech sometimes achieves, but
seldom in our day the deliberate, solitary pen.  Indeed, half the
work of the dramatists, one feels, was done in the Elizabethan age
by the public.

Against that, however, is to be set the fact that the influence of
the public was in many respects detestable.  To its door we must
lay the greatest infliction that Elizabethan drama puts upon us--
the plot; the incessant, improbable, almost unintelligible
convolutions which presumably gratified the spirit of an excitable
and unlettered public actually in the playhouse, but only confuse
and fatigue a reader with the book before him.  Undoubtedly
something must happen; undoubtedly a play where nothing happens is
an impossibility.  But we have a right to demand (since the Greeks
have proved that it is perfectly possible) that what happens shall
have an end in view.  It shall agitate great emotions; bring into
existence memorable scenes; stir the actors to say what could not
be said without this stimulus.  Nobody can fail to remember the
plot of the Antigone, because what happens is so closely bound up
with the emotions of the actors that we remember the people and the
plot at one and the same time.  But who can tell us what happens in
the White Devil, or the Maid's Tragedy, except by remembering the
story apart from the emotions which it has aroused?  As for the
lesser Elizabethans, like Greene and Kyd, the complexities of their
plots are so great, and the violence which those plots demand so
terrific, that the actors themselves are obliterated and emotions
which, according to our convention at least, deserve the most
careful investigation, the most delicate analysis, are clean
sponged off the slate.  And the result is inevitable.  Outside
Shakespeare and perhaps Ben Jonson, there are no characters in
Elizabethan drama, only violences whom we know so little that we
can scarcely care what becomes of them.  Take any hero or heroine
in those early plays--Bellimperia in the Spanish Tragedy will serve
as well as another--and can we honestly say that we care a jot for
the unfortunate lady who runs the whole gamut of human misery to
kill herself in the end?  No more than for an animated broomstick,
we must reply, and in a work dealing with men and women the
prevalence of broomsticks is a drawback.  But the Spanish Tragedy
is admittedly a crude forerunner, chiefly valuable because such
primitive efforts lay bare the formidable framework which greater
dramatists could modify, but had to use.  Ford, it is claimed, is
of the school of Stendhal and of Flaubert; Ford is a psychologist.
Ford is an analyst.  "This man", says Mr. Havelock Ellis, "writes
of women not as a dramatist nor as a lover, but as one who has
searched intimately and felt with instinctive sympathy the fibres
of their hearts."

The play--'Tis pity she's a Whore--upon which this judgement is
chiefly based shows us the whole nature of Annabella spun from pole
to pole in a series of tremendous vicissitudes.  First, her brother
tells her that he loves her; next she confesses her love for him;
next finds herself with child by him; next forces herself to marry
Soranzo; next is discovered; next repents; finally is killed, and
it is her lover and brother who kills her.  To trace the trail of
feelings which such crises and calamities might be expected to
breed in a woman of ordinary sensibility might have filled volumes.
A dramatist, of course, has no volumes to fill.  He is forced to
contract.  Even so, he can illumine; he can reveal enough for us to
guess the rest.  But what is it that we know without using
microscopes and splitting hairs about the character of Annabella?
Gropingly we make out that she is a spirited girl, with her
defiance of her husband when he abuses her, her snatches of Italian
song, her ready wit, her simple glad love-making.  But of character
as we understand the word there is no trace.  We do not know how
she reaches her conclusions, only that she has reached them.
Nobody describes her.  She is always at the height of her passion,
never at its approach.  Compare her with Anna Karenina.  The
Russian woman is flesh and blood, nerves and temperament, has
heart, brain, body and mind where the English girl is flat and
crude as a face painted on a playing card; she is without depth,
without range, without intricacy.  But as we say this we know that
we have missed something.  We have let the meaning of the play slip
through our hands.  We have ignored the emotion which has been
accumulating because it has accumulated in places where we have not
expected to find it.  We have been comparing the play with prose,
and the play, after all, is poetry.

The play is poetry, we say, and the novel prose.  Let us attempt to
obliterate detail, and place the two before us side by side,
feeling, so far as we can, the angles and edges of each, recalling
each, so far as we are able, as a whole.  Then, at once, the prime
differences emerge; the long leisurely accumulated novel; the
little contracted play; the emotion all split up, dissipated and
then woven together, slowly and gradually massed into a whole, in
the novel; the emotion concentrated, generalised, heightened in the
play.  What moments of intensity, what phrases of astonishing
beauty the play shot at us!

     O, my lords,
     I but deceived your eyes with antic gesture,
     When one news straight came huddling on another
     Of death! and death! and death! still I danced forward.


     You have oft for these two lips
     Neglected cassia or the natural sweets
     Of the spring-violet: they are not yet much wither'd.

With all her reality, Anna Karenina could never say

    "You have oft for these two lips
     Neglected cassia".

Some of the most profound of human emotions are therefore beyond
her reach.  The extremes of passion are not for the novelist; the
perfect marriages of sense and sound are not for him; he must tame
his swiftness to sluggardry; keep his eyes on the ground, not on
the sky: suggest by description, not reveal by illumination.
Instead of singing

     Lay a garland on my hearse
     Of the dismal yew;
     Maidens, willow branches bear;
     Say I died true,

he must enumerate the chrysanthemums fading on the grave and the
undertakers' men snuffling past in their four-wheelers.  How then
can we compare this lumbering and lagging art with poetry?  Granted
all the little dexterities by which the novelist makes us know the
individual and recognise the real, the dramatist goes beyond the
single and the separate, shows us not Annabella in love, but love
itself; not Anna Karenina throwing herself under the train, but
ruin and death and the

     . . . soul, like a ship in a black storm,
     . . . driven, I know not whither.

So with pardonable impatience we might exclaim as we shut our
Elizabethan play.  But what then is the exclamation with which we
close War and Peace?  Not one of disappointment; we are not left
lamenting the superficiality, upbraiding the triviality of the
novelist's art.  Rather we are made more than ever aware of the
inexhaustible richness of human sensibility.  Here, in the play, we
recognise the general; here, in the novel, the particular.  Here we
gather all our energies into a bunch and spring.  Here we extend
and expand and let come slowly in from all quarters deliberate
impressions, accumulated messages.  The mind is so saturated with
sensibility, language so inadequate to its experience, that, far
from ruling off one form of literature or decreeing its inferiority
to others, we complain that they are still unable to keep pace with
the wealth of material, and wait impatiently the creation of what
may yet be devised to liberate us of the enormous burden of the

Thus, in spite of dullness, bombast, rhetoric, and confusion, we
still read the lesser Elizabethans, still find ourselves
adventuring in the land of the jeweller and the unicorn.  The
familiar factories of Liverpool fade into thin air and we scarcely
recognise any likeness between the knight who imported timber and
died of pneumonia at Muswell Hill and the Armenian Duke who fell
like a Roman on his sword while the owl shrieked in the ivy and the
Duchess gave birth to a still-born babe 'mongst women howling.  To
join those territories and recognise the same man in different
disguises we have to adjust and revise.  But make the necessary
alterations in perspective, draw in those filaments of sensibility
which the moderns have so marvellously developed, use instead the
ear and the eye which the moderns have so basely starved, hear
words as they are laughed and shouted, not as they are printed in
black letters on the page, see before your eyes the changing faces
and living bodies of men and women--put yourself, in short, into a
different but not more elementary stage of your reading development
and then the true merits of Elizabethan drama will assert
themselves.  The power of the whole is undeniable.  Theirs, too, is
the word-coining genius, as if thought plunged into a sea of words
and came up dripping.  Theirs is that broad humour based upon the
nakedness of the body, which, however arduously the public-spirited
may try, is impossible since the body is draped.  Then at the back
of this, imposing not unity but some sort of stability, is what we
may briefly call a sense of the presence of the Gods.  He would be
a bold critic who should attempt to impose any creed upon the swarm
and variety of the Elizabethan dramatists, and yet it implies some
timidity if we take it for granted that a whole literature with
common characteristics is a mere evaporation of high spirits, a
money-making enterprise, a fluke of the mind which, owing to
favourable circumstances, came off successfully.  Even in the
jungle and the wilderness the compass still points.

    "Lord, Lord, that I were dead!"

they are for ever crying.

     O thou soft natural death that art joint-twin
     To sweetest slumber--

The pageant of the world is marvellous, but the pageant of the
world is vanity.

     Of human greatness are but pleasing dreams
     And shadows soon decaying: on the stage
     Of my mortality my youth hath acted
     Some scenes of vanity--

To die and be quit of it all is their desire; the bell that tolls
throughout the drama is death and disenchantment.

     All life is but a wandering to find home,
     When we're gone, we're there.

Ruin, weariness, death, perpetually death, stand grimly to confront
the other presence of Elizabethan drama which is life: life compact
of frigates, fir trees and ivory, of dolphins and the juice of July
flowers, of the milk of unicorns and panthers' breath, of ropes of
pearl, brains of peacocks and Cretan wine.  To this, life at its
most reckless and abundant, they reply

     Man is a tree that hath no top in cares,
     No root in comforts; all his power to live
     Is given to no end but t' have power to grieve.

It is this echo flung back and back from the other side of the play
which, if it has not the name, still has the effect of the presence
of the Gods.  So we ramble through the jungle, forest, and
wilderness of Elizabethan drama.  So we consort with Emperors and
clowns, jewellers and unicorns, and laugh and exult and marvel at
the splendour and humour and fantasy of it all.  A noble rage
consumes us when the curtain falls; we are bored too, and nauseated
by the wearisome old tricks and florid bombast.  A dozen deaths of
full-grown men and women move us less than the suffering of one of
Tolstoi's flies.  Wandering in the maze of the impossible and
tedious story suddenly some passionate intensity seizes us; some
sublimity exalts, or some melodious snatch of song enchants.  It is
a world full of tedium and delight, pleasure and curiosity, of
extravagant laughter, poetry, and splendour.  But gradually it
comes over us, what then are we being denied?  What is it that we
are coming to want so persistently, that unless we get it instantly
we must seek elsewhere?  It is solitude.  There is no privacy here.
Always the door opens and some one comes in.  All is shared, made
visible, audible, dramatic.  Meanwhile, as if tired with company,
the mind steals off to muse in solitude; to think, not to act; to
comment, not to share; to explore its own darkness, not the bright-
lit-up surfaces of others.  It turns to Donne, to Montaigne, to Sir
Thomas Browne, to the keepers of the keys of solitude.


Once at Bar-le-Duc Montaigne saw a portrait which René, King of
Sicily, had painted of himself, and asked, "Why is it not, in like
manner, lawful for every one to draw himself with a pen, as he did
with a crayon?"  Off-hand one might reply, Not only is it lawful,
but nothing could be easier.  Other people may evade us, but our
own features are almost too familiar.  Let us begin.  And then,
when we attempt the task, the pen falls from our fingers; it is a
matter of profound, mysterious, and overwhelming difficulty.

After all, in the whole of literature, how many people have
succeeded in drawing themselves with a pen?  Only Montaigne and
Pepys and Rousseau perhaps.  The Religio Medici is a coloured glass
through which darkly one sees racing stars and a strange and
turbulent soul.  A bright polished mirror reflects the face of
Boswell peeping between other people's shoulders in the famous
biography.  But this talking of oneself, following one's own
vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference
of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection--this
art belonged to one man only: to Montaigne.  As the centuries go
by, there is always a crowd before that picture, gazing into its
depths, seeing their own faces reflected in it, seeing more the
longer they look, never being able to say quite what it is that
they see.  New editions testify to the perennial fascination.  Here
is the Navarre Society in England reprinting in five fine volumes[1]
Cotton's translation; while in France the firm of Louis Conard is
issuing the complete works of Montaigne with the various readings
in an edition to which Dr. Armaingaud has devoted a long lifetime
of research.

[1] Essays of Montaigne, translated by Charles Cotton, 5 vols.  The
Navarre Society, £6: 6s. net.

To tell the truth about oneself, to discover oneself near at hand,
is not easy.

We hear of but two or three of the ancients who have beaten this
road [said Montaigne].  No one since has followed the track; 'tis a
rugged road, more so than it seems, to follow a pace so rambling
and uncertain, as that of the soul; to penetrate the dark
profundities of its intricate internal windings; to choose and lay
hold of so many little nimble motions; 'tis a new and extraordinary
undertaking, and that withdraws us from the common and most
recommended employments of the world.

There is, in the first place, the difficulty of expression.  We all
indulge in the strange, pleasant process called thinking, but when
it comes to saying, even to some one opposite, what we think, then
how little we are able to convey!  The phantom is through the mind
and out of the window before we can lay salt on its tail, or slowly
sinking and returning to the profound darkness which it has lit up
momentarily with a wandering light.  Face, voice, and accent eke
out our words and impress their feebleness with character in
speech.  But the pen is a rigid instrument; it can say very little;
it has all kinds of habits and ceremonies of its own.  It is
dictatorial too: it is always making ordinary men into prophets,
and changing the natural stumbling trip of human speech into the
solemn and stately march of pens.  It is for this reason that
Montaigne stands out from the legions of the dead with such
irrepressible vivacity.  We can never doubt for an instant that his
book was himself.  He refused to teach; he refused to preach; he
kept on saying that he was just like other people.  All his effort
was to write himself down, to communicate, to tell the truth, and
that is a "rugged road, more than it seems".

For beyond the difficulty of communicating oneself, there is the
supreme difficulty of being oneself.  This soul, or life within us,
by no means agrees with the life outside us.  If one has the
courage to ask her what she thinks, she is always saying the very
opposite to what other people say.  Other people, for instance,
long ago made up their minds that old invalidish gentlemen ought to
stay at home and edify the rest of us by the spectacle of their
connubial fidelity.  The soul of Montaigne said, on the contrary,
that it is in old age that one ought to travel, and marriage,
which, rightly, is very seldom founded on love, is apt to become,
towards the end of life, a formal tie better broken up.  Again with
politics, statesmen are always praising the greatness of Empire,
and preaching the moral duty of civilising the savage.  But look at
the Spanish in Mexico, cried Montaigne in a burst of rage.  "So
many cities levelled with the ground, so many nations exterminated
. . . and the richest and most beautiful part of the world turned
upside down for the traffic of pearl and pepper!  Mechanic
victories!"  And then when the peasants came and told him that they
had found a man dying of wounds and deserted him for fear lest
justice might incriminate them, Montaigne asked:

What could I have said to these people?  'Tis certain that this
office of humanity would have brought them into trouble. . . .
There is nothing so much, nor so grossly, nor so ordinarily faulty
as the laws.

Here the soul, getting restive, is lashing out at the more palpable
forms of Montaigne's great bugbears, convention and ceremony.  But
watch her as she broods over the fire in the inner room of that
tower which, though detached from the main building, has so wide a
view over the estate.  Really she is the strangest creature in the
world, far from heroic, variable as a weathercock, "bashful,
insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate;
ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing,
ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal"--in short, so complex,
so indefinite, corresponding so little to the version which does
duty for her in public, that a man might spend his life merely in
trying to run her to earth.  The pleasure of the pursuit more than
rewards one for any damage that it may inflict upon one's worldly
prospects.  The man who is aware of himself is henceforward
independent; and he is never bored, and life is only too short, and
he is steeped through and through with a profound yet temperate
happiness.  He alone lives, while other people, slaves of ceremony,
let life slip past them in a kind of dream.  Once conform, once do
what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over
all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul.  She becomes all
outer show and inward emptiness; dull, callous, and indifferent.

Surely then, if we ask this great master of the art of life to tell
us his secret, he will advise us to withdraw to the inner room of
our tower and there turn the pages of books, pursue fancy after
fancy as they chase each other up the chimney, and leave the
government of the world to others.  Retirement and contemplation--
these must be the main elements of his prescription.  But no;
Montaigne is by no means explicit.  It is impossible to extract a
plain answer from that subtle, half smiling, half melancholy man,
with the heavy-lidded eyes and the dreamy, quizzical expression.
The truth is that life in the country, with one's books and
vegetables and flowers, is often extremely dull.  He could never
see that his own green peas were so much better than other
people's.  Paris was the place he loved best in the whole world--
"jusques à ses verrues et à ses taches".  As for reading, he could
seldom read any book for more than an hour at a time, and his
memory was so bad that he forgot what was in his mind as he walked
from one room to another.  Book learning is nothing to be proud of,
and as for the achievements of science, what do they amount to?  He
had always mixed with clever men, and his father had a positive
veneration for them, but he had observed that, though they have
their fine moments, their rhapsodies, their visions, the cleverest
tremble on the verge of folly.  Observe yourself: one moment you
are exalted; the next a broken glass puts your nerves on edge.  All
extremes are dangerous.  It is best to keep in the middle of the
road, in the common ruts, however muddy.  In writing choose the
common words; avoid rhapsody and eloquence--yet, it is true, poetry
is delicious; the best prose is that which is most full of poetry.

It appears, then, that we are to aim at a democratic simplicity.
We may enjoy our room in the tower, with the painted walls and the
commodious bookcases, but down in the garden there is a man digging
who buried his father this morning, and it is he and his like who
live the real life and speak the real language.  There is certainly
an element of truth in that.  Things are said very finely at the
lower end of the table.  There are perhaps more of the qualities
that matter among the ignorant than among the learned.  But again,
what a vile thing the rabble is! "the mother of ignorance,
injustice, and inconstancy.  Is it reasonable that the life of a
wise man should depend upon the judgment of fools?"  Their minds
are weak, soft and without power of resistance.  They must be told
what it is expedient for them to know.  It is not for them to face
facts as they are.  The truth can only be known by the well-born
soul--"l'âme bien née".  Who, then, are these well-born souls, whom
we would imitate if only Montaigne would enlighten us more

But no.  "Je n'enseigne poinct; je raconte."  After all, how could
he explain other people's souls when he could say nothing "entirely
simply and solidly, without confusion or mixture, in one word",
about his own, when indeed it became daily more and more in the
dark to him?  One quality or principle there is perhaps--that one
must not lay down rules.  The souls whom one would wish to
resemble, like Etienne de La Boétie, for example, are always the
supplest.  "C'est estre, mais ce n'est pas vivre, que de se tenir
attaché et oblige par necessité a un seul train."  The laws are
mere conventions, utterly unable to keep touch with the vast
variety and turmoil of human impulses; habits and customs are a
convenience devised for the support of timid natures who dare not
allow their souls free play.  But we, who have a private life and
hold it infinitely the dearest of our possessions, suspect nothing
so much as an attitude.  Directly we begin to protest, to
attitudinise, to lay down laws, we perish.  We are living for
others, not for ourselves.  We must respect those who sacrifice
themselves in the public service, load them with honours, and pity
them for allowing, as they must, the inevitable compromise; but for
ourselves let us fly fame, honour, and all offices that put us
under an obligation to others.  Let us simmer over our incalculable
cauldron, our enthralling confusion, our hotch-potch of impulses,
our perpetual miracle--for the soul throws up wonders every second.
Movement and change are the essence of our being; rigidity is
death; conformity is death: let us say what comes into our heads,
repeat ourselves, contradict ourselves, fling out the wildest
nonsense, and follow the most fantastic fancies without caring what
the world does or thinks or says.  For nothing matters except life;
and, of course, order.

This freedom, then, which is the essence of our being, has to be
controlled.  But it is difficult to see what power we are to invoke
to help us, since every restraint of private opinion or public law
has been derided, and Montaigne never ceases to pour scorn upon the
misery, the weakness, the vanity of human nature.  Perhaps, then,
it will be well to turn to religion to guide us?  "Perhaps" is one
of his favourite expressions; "perhaps" and "I think" and all those
words which qualify the rash assumptions of human ignorance.  Such
words help one to muffle up opinions which it would be highly
impolitic to speak outright.  For one does not say everything;
there are some things which at present it is advisable only to
hint.  One writes for a very few people, who understand.
Certainly, seek the Divine guidance by all means, but meanwhile
there is, for those who live a private life, another monitor, an
invisible censor within, "un patron au dedans", whose blame is much
more to be dreaded than any other because he knows the truth; nor
is there anything sweeter than the chime of his approval.  This is
the judge to whom we must submit; this is the censor who will help
us to achieve that order which is the grace of a well-born soul.
For "C'est une vie exquise, celle qui se maintient en ordre jusques
en son privé".  But he will act by his own light; by some internal
balance will achieve that precarious and everchanging poise which,
while it controls, in no way impedes the soul's freedom to explore
and experiment.  Without other guide, and without precedent,
undoubtedly it is far more difficult to live well the private life
than the public.  It is an art which each must learn separately,
though there are, perhaps, two or three men, like Homer, Alexander
the Great, and Epaminondas among the ancients, and Etienne de La
Boétie among the moderns, whose example may help us.  But it is an
art; and the very material in which it works is variable and
complex and infinitely mysterious--human nature.  To human nature
we must keep close.  ". . . il faut vivre entre les vivants".  We
must dread any eccentricity or refinement which cuts us off from
our fellow-beings.  Blessed are those who chat easily with their
neighbours about their sport or their buildings or their quarrels,
and honestly enjoy the talk of carpenters and gardeners.  To
communicate is our chief business; society and friendship our chief
delights; and reading, not to acquire knowledge, not to earn a
living, but to extend our intercourse beyond our own time and
province.  Such wonders there are in the world; halcyons and
undiscovered lands, men with dogs' heads and eyes in their chests,
and laws and customs, it may well be, far superior to our own.
Possibly we are asleep in this world; possibly there is some other
which is apparent to beings with a sense which we now lack.

Here then, in spite of all contradictions and all qualifications,
is something definite.  These essays are an attempt to communicate
a soul.  On this point at least he is explicit.  It is not fame
that he wants; it is not that men shall quote him in years to come;
he is setting up no statue in the market-place; he wishes only to
communicate his soul.  Communication is health; communication is
truth; communication is happiness.  To share is our duty; to go
down boldly and bring to light those hidden thoughts which are the
most diseased; to conceal nothing; to pretend nothing; if we are
ignorant to say so; if we love our friends to let them know it.

". . . car, comme je scay par une trop certaine expérience, il
n'est aucune si douce consolation en la perte de nos amis que celle
que nous aporte la science de n'avoir rien oublié a leur dire et
d'avoir eu avec eux une parfaite et entière communication."

There are people who, when they travel, wrap themselves up, "se
défendans de la contagion d'un air incogneu" in silence and
suspicion.  When they dine they must have the same food they get at
home.  Every sight and custom is bad unless it resembles those of
their own village.  They travel only to return.  That is entirely
the wrong way to set about it.  We should start without any fixed
idea where we are going to spend the night, or when we propose to
come back; the journey is everything.  Most necessary of all, but
rarest good fortune, we should try to find before we start some man
of our own sort who will go with us and to whom we can say the
first thing that comes into our heads.  For pleasure has no relish
unless we share it.  As for the risks--that we may catch cold or
get a headache--it is always worth while to risk a little illness
for the sake of pleasure.  "Le plaisir est des principales espèces
du profit."  Besides if we do what we like, we always do what is
good for us.  Doctors and wise men may object, but let us leave
doctors and wise men to their own dismal philosophy.  For
ourselves, who are ordinary men and women, let us return thanks to
Nature for her bounty by using every one of the senses she has
given us; vary our state as much as possible; turn now this side,
now that, to the warmth, and relish to the full before the sun goes
down the kisses of youth and the echoes of a beautiful voice
singing Catullus.  Every season is likeable, and wet days and fine,
red wine and white, company and solitude.  Even sleep, that
deplorable curtailment of the joy of life, can be full of dreams;
and the most common actions--a walk, a talk, solitude in one's own
orchard--can be enhanced and lit up by the association of the mind.
Beauty is everywhere, and beauty is only two finger's-breadth from
goodness.  So, in the name of health and sanity, let us not dwell
on the end of the journey.  Let death come upon us planting our
cabbages, or on horseback, or let us steal away to some cottage and
there let strangers close our eyes, for a servant sobbing or the
touch of a hand would break us down.  Best of all, let death find
us at our usual occupations, among girls and good fellows who make
no protests, no lamentations; let him find us "parmy les jeux, les
festins, faceties, entretiens communs et populaires, et la musique,
et des vers amoureux".  But enough of death; it is life that

It is life that emerges more and more clearly as these essays reach
not their end, but their suspension in full career.  It is life
that becomes more and more absorbing as death draws near, one's
self, one's soul, every fact of existence: that one wears silk
stockings summer and winter; puts water in one's wine; has one's
hair cut after dinner; must have glass to drink from; has never
worn spectacles; has a loud voice; carries a switch in one's hand;
bites one's tongue; fidgets with one's feet; is apt to scratch
one's ears; likes meat to be high; rubs one's teeth with a napkin
(thank God, they are good!); must have curtains to one's bed; and,
what is rather curious, began by liking radishes, then disliked
them, and now likes them again.  No fact is too little to let it
slip through one's fingers, and besides the interest of facts
themselves there is the strange power we have of changing facts by
the force of the imagination.  Observe how the soul is always
casting her own lights and shadows; makes the substantial hollow
and the frail substantial; fills broad daylight with dreams; is as
much excited by phantoms as by reality; and in the moment of death
sports with a trifle.  Observe, too, her duplicity, her complexity.
She hears of a friend's loss and sympathises, and yet has a bitter-
sweet malicious pleasure in the sorrows of others.  She believes;
at the same time she does not believe.  Observe her extraordinary
susceptibility to impressions, especially in youth.  A rich man
steals because his father kept him short of money as a boy.  This
wall one builds not for oneself, but because one's father loved
building.  In short, the soul is all laced about with nerves and
sympathies which affect her every action, and yet, even now in
1580, no one has any clear knowledge--such cowards we are, such
lovers of the smooth conventional ways--how she works or what she
is except that of all things she is the most mysterious, and one's
self the greatest monster and miracle in the world.  ". . . plus je
me hante et connois, plus ma difformité m'estonne, moins je
m'entens en moy."  Observe, observe perpetually, and, so long as ink
and paper exist, "sans cesse et sans travail" Montaigne will write.

But there remains one final question which, if we could make him
look up from his enthralling occupation, we should like to put to
this great master of the art of life.  In these extraordinary
volumes of short and broken, long and learned, logical and
contradictory statements, we have heard the very pulse and rhythm
of the soul, beating day after day, year after year, through a veil
which, as time goes on, fines itself almost to transparency.  Here
is some one who succeeded in the hazardous enterprise of living;
who served his country and lived retired; was landlord, husband,
father; entertained kings, loved women, and mused for hours alone
over old books.  By means of perpetual experiment and observation
of the subtlest he achieved at last a miraculous adjustment of all
these wayward parts that constitute the human soul.  He laid hold
of the beauty of the world with all his fingers.  He achieved
happiness.  If he had had to live again, he said, he would have
lived the same life over.  But, as we watch with absorbed interest
the enthralling spectacle of a soul living openly beneath our eyes,
the question frames itself, Is pleasure the end of all?  Whence
this overwhelming interest in the nature of the soul?  Why this
overmastering desire to communicate with others?  Is the beauty of
this world enough, or is there, elsewhere, some explanation of the
mystery?  To this what answer can there be?  There is none.  There
is only one more question:  "Que scais-je?"


". . . All I desire is fame ", wrote Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of
Newcastle.  And while she lived her wish was granted.  Garish in
her dress, eccentric in her habits, chaste in her conduct, coarse
in her speech, she succeeded during her lifetime in drawing upon
herself the ridicule of the great and the applause of the learned.
But the last echoes of that clamour have now all died away; she
lives only in the few splendid phrases that Lamb scattered upon her
tomb; her poems, her plays, her philosophies, her orations, her
discourses--all those folios and quartos in which, she protested,
her real life was shrined--moulder in the gloom of public
libraries, or are decanted into tiny thimbles which hold six drops
of their profusion.  Even the curious student, inspired by the
words of Lamb, quails before the mass of her mausoleum, peers in,
looks about him, and hurries out again, shutting the door.

[1] The Life of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle, Etc., edited
by C. H. Firth; Poems and Fancies, by the Duchess of Newcastle; The
World's Olio, Orations of divers Sorts Accommodated to Divers
Places; Female Orations; Plays; Philosophical Letters, etc., etc.

But that hasty glance has shown him the outlines of a memorable
figure.  Born (it is conjectured) in 1624, Margaret was the
youngest child of a Thomas Lucas, who died when she was an infant,
and her upbringing was due to her mother, a lady of remarkable
character, of majestic grandeur and beauty "beyond the ruin of
time".  "She was very skilful in leases, and setting of lands and
court keeping, ordering of stewards, and the like affairs."  The
wealth which thus accrued she spent, not on marriage portions, but
on generous and delightful pleasures, "out of an opinion that if
she bred us with needy necessity it might chance to create in us
sharking qualities".  Her eight sons and daughters were never
beaten, but reasoned with, finely and gaily dressed, and allowed no
conversation with servants, not because they are servants but
because servants "are for the most part ill-bred as well as meanly
born".  The daughters were taught the usual accomplishments "rather
for formality than for benefit", it being their mother's opinion
that character, happiness, and honesty were of greater value to a
woman than fiddling and singing, or "the prating of several

Already Margaret was eager to take advantage of such indulgence to
gratify certain tastes.  Already she liked reading better than
needlework, dressing and "inventing fashions" better than reading,
and writing best of all.  Sixteen paper books of no title, written
in straggling letters, for the impetuosity of her thought always
outdid the pace of her fingers, testify to the use she made of her
mother's liberality.  The happiness of their home life had other
results as well.  They were a devoted family.  Long after they were
married, Margaret noted, these handsome brothers and sisters, with
their well-proportioned bodies, their clear complexions, brown
hair, sound teeth, "tunable voices", and plain way of speaking,
kept themselves "in a flock together".  The presence of strangers
silenced them.  But when they were alone, whether they walked in
Spring Gardens or Hyde Park, or had music, or supped in barges upon
the water, their tongues were loosed and they made "very merry
amongst themselves, . . . judging, condemning, approving,
commending, as they thought good".

The happy family life had its effect upon Margaret's character.  As
a child, she would walk for hours alone, musing and contemplating
and reasoning with herself of "everything her senses did present".
She took no pleasure in activity of any kind.  Toys did not amuse
her, and she could neither learn foreign languages nor dress as
other people did.  Her great pleasure was to invent dresses for
herself, which nobody else was to copy, "for", she remarks, "I
always took delight in a singularity, even in accoutrements of

Such a training, at once so cloistered and so free, should have
bred a lettered old maid, glad of her seclusion, and the writer
perhaps of some volume of letters or translations from the
classics, which we should still quote as proof of the cultivation
of our ancestresses.  But there was a wild streak in Margaret, a
love of finery and extravagance and fame, which was for ever
upsetting the orderly arrangements of nature.  When she heard that
the Queen, since the outbreak of the Civil War, had fewer maids-of-
honour than usual, she had "a great desire" to become one of them.
Her mother let her go against the judgement of the rest of the
family, who, knowing that she had never left home and had scarcely
been beyond their sight, justly thought that she might behave at
Court to her disadvantage.  "Which indeed I did," Margaret
confessed; "for I was so bashful when I was out of my mother's,
brothers', and sisters' sight that . . . I durst neither look up
with my eyes, nor speak, nor be any way sociable, insomuch as I was
thought a natural fool."  The courtiers laughed at her; and she
retaliated in the obvious way.  People were censorious; men were
jealous of brains in a woman; women suspected intellect in their
own sex; and what other lady, she might justly ask, pondered as she
walked on the nature of matter and whether snails have teeth?  But
the laughter galled her, and she begged her mother to let her come
home.  This being refused, wisely as the event turned out, she
stayed on for two years (1643-45), finally going with the Queen to
Paris, and there, among the exiles who came to pay their respects
to the Court, was the Marquis of Newcastle.  To the general
amazement, the princely nobleman, who had led the King's forces to
disaster with indomitable courage but little skill, fell in love
with the shy, silent, strangely dressed maid-of-honour.  It was not
"amorous love, but honest, honourable love", according to Margaret.
She was no brilliant match; she had gained a reputation for prudery
and eccentricity.  What, then, could have made so great a nobleman
fall at her feet?  The onlookers were full of derision, 
disparagement, and slander.  "I fear", Margaret wrote to the
Marquis, "others foresee we shall be unfortunate, though we see it
not ourselves, or else there would not be such pains to untie the
knot of our affections."  Again, "Saint Germains is a place of much
slander, and thinks I send too often to you".  "Pray consider", she
warned him, "that I have enemies."  But the match was evidently
perfect.  The Duke, with his love of poetry and music and play-
writing, his interest in philosophy, his belief "that nobody knew
or could know the cause of anything", his romantic and generous
temperament, was naturally drawn to a woman who wrote poetry
herself, was also a philosopher of the same way of thinking, and
lavished upon him not only the admiration of a fellow-artist, but
the gratitude of a sensitive creature who had been shielded and
succoured by his extraordinary magnanimity.  "He did approve", she
wrote, "of those bashful fears which many condemned, . . . and
though I did dread marriage and shunned men's company as much as I
could, yet I . . . had not the power to refuse him."  She kept him
company during the long years of exile; she entered with sympathy,
if not with understanding, into the conduct and acquirements of
those horses which he trained to such perfection that the Spaniards
crossed themselves and cried "Miraculo!" as they witnessed their
corvets, voltoes, and pirouettes; she believed that the horses even
made a "trampling action" for joy when he came into the stables;
she pleaded his cause in England during the Protectorate; and, when
the Restoration made it possible for them to return to England,
they lived together in the depths of the country in the greatest
seclusion and perfect contentment, scribbling plays, poems,
philosophies, greeting each other's works with raptures of delight,
and confabulating, doubtless, upon such marvels of the natural
world as chance threw their way.  They were laughed at by their
contemporaries; Horace Walpole sneered at them.  But there can be
no doubt that they were perfectly happy.

For now Margaret could apply herself uninterruptedly to her
writing.  She could devise fashions for herself and her servants.
She could scribble more and more furiously with fingers that became
less and less able to form legible letters.  She could even achieve
the miracle of getting her plays acted in London and her
philosophies humbly perused by men of learning.  There they stand,
in the British Museum, volume after volume, swarming with a
diffused, uneasy, contorted vitality.  Order, continuity, the
logical development of her argument are all unknown to her.  No
fears impede her.  She has the irresponsibility of a child and the
arrogance of a Duchess.  The wildest fancies come to her, and she
canters away on their backs.  We seem to hear her, as the thoughts
boil and bubble, calling to John, who sat with a pen in his hand
next door, to come quick, "John, John, I conceive!"  And down it
goes--whatever it may be; sense or nonsense; some thought on
women's education--"Women live like Bats or Owls, labour like
Beasts, and die like Worms, . . . the best bred women are those
whose minds are civilest"; some speculation that had struck her,
perhaps, walking that afternoon alone--why "hogs have the measles",
why "dogs that rejoice swing their tails", or what the stars are
made of, or what this chrysalis is that her maid has brought her,
and she keeps warm in a corner of her room.  On and on, from
subject to subject she flies, never stopping to correct, "for there
is more pleasure in making than in mending", talking aloud to
herself of all those matters that filled her brain to her perpetual
diversion--of wars, and boarding-schools, and cutting down trees,
of grammar and morals, of monsters and the British, whether opium
in small quantities is good for lunatics, why it is that musicians
are mad.  Looking upwards, she speculates still more ambitiously
upon the nature of the moon, and if the stars are blazing jellies;
looking downwards she wonders if the fishes know that the sea is
salt; opines that our heads are full of fairies, "dear to God as we
are"; muses whether there are not other worlds than ours, and
reflects that the next ship may bring us word of a new one.  In
short, "we are in utter darkness".  Meanwhile, what a rapture is

As the vast books appeared from the stately retreat at Welbeck the
usual censors made the usual objections, and had to be answered,
despised, or argued with, as her mood varied, in the preface to
every work.  They said, among other things, that her books were not
her own, because she used learned terms, and "wrote of many matters
outside her ken".  She flew to her husband for help, and he
answered, characteristically, that the Duchess "had never conversed
with any professed scholar in learning except her brother and
myself ".  The Duke's scholarship, moreover, was of a peculiar
nature.  "I have lived in the great world a great while, and have
thought of what has been brought to me by the senses, more than was
put into me by learned discourse; for I do not love to be led by
the nose, by authority, and old authors; ipse dixit will not serve
my turn."  And then she takes up the pen and proceeds, with the
importunity and indiscretion of a child, to assure the world that
her ignorance is of the finest quality imaginable.  She has only
seen Des Cartes and Hobbes, not questioned them; she did indeed ask
Mr. Hobbes to dinner, but he could not come; she often does not
listen to a word that is said to her; she does not know any French,
though she lived abroad for five years; she has only read the old
philosophers in Mr. Stanley's account of them; of Des Cartes she
has read but half of his work on Passion; and of Hobbes only "the
little book called De Cive", all of which is infinitely to the
credit of her native wit, so abundant that outside succour pained
it, so honest that it would not accept help from others.  It was
from the plain of complete ignorance, the untilled field of her own
consciousness, that she proposed to erect a philosophic system that
was to oust all others.  The results were not altogether happy.
Under the pressure of such vast structures, her natural gift, the
fresh and delicate fancy which had led her in her first volume to
write charmingly of Queen Mab and fairyland, was crushed out of

     The palace of the Queen wherein she dwells,
     Its fabric's built all of hodmandod shells;
     The hangings of a Rainbow made that's thin,
     Shew wondrous fine, when one first enters in;
     The chambers made of Amber that is clear,
     Do give a fine sweet smell, if fire be near;
     Her bed a cherry stone, is carved throughout,
     And with a butterfly's wing hung about;
     Her sheets are of the skin of Dove's eyes made
     Where on a violet bud her pillow's laid.

So she could write when she was young.  But her fairies, if they
survived at all, grew up into hippopotami.  Too generously her
prayer was granted:

     Give me the free and noble style,
     Which seems uncurb'd, though it be wild.

She became capable of involutions, and contortions and conceits of
which the following is among the shortest, but not the most

     The human head may be likened to a town:
     The mouth when full, begun
     Is market day, when empty, market's done;
     The city conduct, where the water flows,
     Is with two spouts, the nostrils and the nose.

She similised, energetically, incongruously, eternally; the sea
became a meadow, the sailors shepherds, the mast a maypole.  The
fly was the bird of summer, trees were senators, houses ships, and
even the fairies, whom she loved better than any earthly thing,
except the Duke, are changed into blunt atoms and sharp atoms, and
take part in some of those horrible manoeuvres in which she
delighted to marshal the universe.  Truly, "my Lady Sanspareille
hath a strange spreading wit".  Worse still, without an atom of
dramatic power, she turned to play-writing.  It was a simple
process.  The unwieldly thoughts which turned and tumbled within
her were christened Sir Golden Riches, Moll Meanbred, Sir Puppy
Dogman, and the rest, and sent revolving in tedious debate upon the
parts of the soul, or whether virtue is better than riches, round a
wise and learned lady who answered their questions and corrected
their fallacies at considerable length in tones which we seem to
have heard before.

Sometimes, however, the Duchess walked abroad.  She would issue out
in her own proper person, dressed in a thousand gems and furbelows,
to visit the houses of the neighbouring gentry.  Her pen made
instant report of these excursions.  She recorded how Lady C. R.
"did beat her husband in a public assembly"; Sir F. O. "I am sorry
to hear hath undervalued himself so much below his birth and wealth
as to marry his kitchen-maid"; "Miss P. I. has become a sanctified
soul, a spiritual sister, she has left curling her hair, black
patches are become abominable to her, laced shoes and Galoshoes are
steps to pride--she asked me what posture I thought was the best to
be used in prayer".  Her answer was probably unacceptable.  "I
shall not rashly go there again", she says of one such "gossip-
making".  She was not, we may hazard, a welcome guest or an
altogether hospitable hostess.  She had a way of "bragging of
myself" which frightened visitors so that they left, nor was she
sorry to see them go.  Indeed, Welbeck was the best place for her,
and her own company the most congenial, with the amiable Duke
wandering in and out, with his plays and his speculations, always
ready to answer a question or refute a slander.  Perhaps it was
this solitude that led her, chaste as she was in conduct, to use
language which in time to come much perturbed Sir Egerton Brydges.
She used, he complained, "expressions and images of extraordinary
coarseness as flowing from a female of high rank brought up in
courts".  He forgot that this particular female had long ceased to
frequent the Court; she consorted chiefly with fairies; and her
friends were among the dead.  Naturally, then, her language was
coarse.  Nevertheless, though her philosophies are futile, and her
plays intolerable, and her verses mainly dull, the vast bulk of the
Duchess is leavened by a vein of authentic fire.  One cannot help
following the lure of her erratic and lovable personality as it
meanders and twinkles through page after page.  There is something
noble and Quixotic and high-spirited, as well as crack-brained
and bird-witted, about her.  Her simplicity is so open; her
intelligence so active; her sympathy with fairies and animals so
true and tender.  She has the freakishness of an elf, the
irresponsibility of some non-human creature, its heartlessness, and
its charm.  And although "they", those terrible critics who had
sneered and jeered at her ever since, as a shy girl, she had not
dared look her tormentors in the face at Court, continued to mock,
few of her critics, after all, had the wit to trouble about the
nature of the universe, or cared a straw for the sufferings of the
hunted hare, or longed, as she did, to talk to some one "of
Shakespeare's fools".  Now, at any rate, the laugh is not all on
their side.

But laugh they did.  When the rumour spread that the crazy Duchess
was coming up from Welbeck to pay her respects at Court, people
crowded the streets to look at her, and the curiosity of Mr. Pepys
twice brought him to wait in the Park to see her pass.  But the
pressure of the crowd about her coach was too great.  He could only
catch a glimpse of her in her silver coach with her footmen all in
velvet, a velvet cap on her head, and her hair about her ears.  He
could only see for a moment between the white curtains the face of
"a very comely woman", and on she drove through the crowd of
staring Cockneys, all pressing to catch a glimpse of that romantic
lady, who stands, in the picture at Welbeck, with large melancholy
eyes, and something fastidious and fantastic in her bearing,
touching a table with the tips of long pointed fingers, in the calm
assurance of immortal fame.


Should you wish to make sure that your birthday will be celebrated
three hundred years hence, your best course is undoubtedly to keep
a diary.  Only first be certain that you have the courage to lock
your genius in a private book and the humour to gloat over a fame
that will be yours only in the grave.  For the good diarist writes
either for himself alone or for a posterity so distant that it can
safely hear every secret and justly weigh every motive.  For such
an audience there is need neither of affectation nor of restraint.
Sincerity is what they ask, detail, and volume; skill with the pen
comes in conveniently, but brilliance is not necessary; genius is a
hindrance even; and should you know your business and do it
manfully, posterity will let you off mixing with great men,
reporting famous affairs, or having lain with the first ladies in
the land.

The diary, for whose sake we are remembering the three hundredth
anniversary of the birth of John Evelyn,[1] is a case in point.  It
is sometimes composed like a memoir, sometimes jotted down like a
calendar; but he never used its pages to reveal the secrets of his
heart, and all that he wrote might have been read aloud in the
evening with a calm conscience to his children.  If we wonder,
then, why we still trouble to read what we must consider the
uninspired work of a good man we have to confess, first that
diaries are always diaries, books, that is, that we read in
convalescence, on horseback, in the grip of death; second, that
this reading, about which so many fine things have been said, is
for the most part mere dreaming and idling; lying in a chair with a
book; watching the butterflies on the dahlias; a profitless
occupation which no critic has taken the trouble to investigate,
and on whose behalf only the moralist can find a good word to say.
For he will allow it to be an innocent employment; and happiness,
he will add, though derived from trivial sources, has probably done
more to prevent human beings from changing their religions and
killing their kings than either philosophy or the pulpit.

[1] Written in 1920.

It may be well, indeed, before reading much further in Evelyn's
book, to decide where it is that our modern view of happiness
differs from his.  Ignorance, surely, ignorance is at the bottom of
it; his ignorance and our comparative erudition.  No one can read
the story of Evelyn's foreign travels without envying in the first
place his simplicity of mind, in the second his activity.  To take
a simple example of the difference between us--that butterfly will
sit motionless on the dahlia while the gardener trundles his barrow
past it, but let him flick the wings with the shadow of a rake, and
off it flies, up it goes, instantly on the alert.  So, we may
reflect, a butterfly sees but does not hear; and here no doubt we
are much on a par with Evelyn.  But as for going into the house to
fetch a knife and with that knife dissecting a Red Admiral's head,
as Evelyn would have done, no sane person in the twentieth century
would entertain such a project for a second.  Individually we may
know as little as Evelyn, but collectively we know so much that
there is little incentive to venture on private discoveries.  We
seek the encyclopædia, not the scissors; and know in two minutes
not only more than was known to Evelyn in his lifetime, but that
the mass of knowledge is so vast that it is scarcely worth while to
possess a single crumb.  Ignorant, yet justly confident that with
his own hands he might advance not merely his private knowledge but
the knowledge of mankind, Evelyn dabbled in all the arts and
sciences, ran about the Continent for ten years, gazed with
unflagging gusto upon hairy women and rational dogs, and drew
inferences and framed speculations which are now only to be matched
by listening to the talk of old women round the village pump.  The
moon, they say, is so much larger than usual this autumn that no
mushrooms will grow, and the carpenter's wife will be brought to
bed of twins.  So Evelyn, Fellow of the Royal Society, a gentleman
of the highest culture and intelligence, carefully noted all comets
and portents, and thought it a sinister omen when a whale came up
the Thames.  In 1658, too, a whale had been seen.  "That year died
Cromwell."  Nature, it seems, was determined to stimulate the
devotion of her seventeenth-century admirers by displays of
violence and eccentricity from which she now refrains.  There were
storms, floods, and droughts; the Thames frozen hard; comets
flaring in the sky.  If a cat so much as kittened in Evelyn's bed
the kitten was inevitably gifted with eight legs, six ears, two
bodies, and two tails.

But to return to happiness.  It sometimes appears that if there is
an insoluble difference between our ancestors and ourselves it is
that we draw our happiness from different sources.  We rate the
same things at different values.  Something of this we may ascribe
to their ignorance and our knowledge.  But are we to suppose that
ignorance alters the nerves and the affections?  Are we to believe
that it would have been an intolerable penance for us to live
familiarly with the Elizabethans?  Should we have found it
necessary to leave the room because of Shakespeare's habits, and to
have refused Queen Elizabeth's invitation to dinner?  Perhaps so.
For Evelyn was a sober man of unusual refinement, and yet he
pressed into a torture chamber as we crowd to see the lions fed.

. . . they first bound his wrists with a strong rope or small
cable, and one end of it to an iron ring made fast to the wall
about four feet from the floor, and then his feet with another
cable, fastened about five feet farther than his utmost length to
another ring on the floor of the room.  Thus suspended, and yet
lying but aslant, they slid a horse of wood under the rope which
bound his feet, which so exceedingly stiffened it, as severed the
fellow's joints in miserable sort, drawing him out at length in an
extraordinary manner, he having only a pair of linen drawers upon
his naked body . . .

And so on.  Evelyn watched this to the end, and then remarked that
"the spectacle was so uncomfortable that I was not able to stay the
sight of another", as we might say that the lions growl so loud and
the sight of raw meat is so unpleasant that we will now visit the
penguins.  Allowing for his discomfort, there is enough discrepancy
between his view of pain and ours to make us wonder whether we see
any fact with the same eyes, marry any woman from the same motives,
or judge any conduct by the same standards.  To sit passive when
muscles tore and bones cracked, not to flinch when the wooden horse
was raised higher and the executioner fetched a horn and poured two
buckets of water down the man's throat, to suffer this iniquity on
a suspicion of robbery which the man denied--all this seems to put
Evelyn in one of those cages where we still mentally seclude the
riff-raff of Whitechapel.  Only it is obvious that we have somehow
got it wrong.  If we could maintain that our susceptibility to
suffering and love of justice were proof that all our humane
instincts were as highly developed as these, then we could say that
the world improves, and we with it.  But let us get on with the

In 1652, when it seemed that things had settled down unhappily
enough, "all being entirely in the rebels' hands", Evelyn returned
to England with his wife, his Tables of Veins and Arteries, his
Venetian glass and the rest of his curiosities, to lead the life of
a country gentleman of strong Royalist sympathies at Deptford.
What with going to church and going to town, settling his accounts
and planting his garden--"I planted the orchard at Sayes Court; new
moon, wind west"--his time was spent much as ours is.  But there
was one difference which it is difficult to illustrate by a single
quotation, because the evidence is scattered all about in little
insignificant phrases.  The general effect of them is that he used
his eyes.  The visible world was always close to him.  The visible
world has receded so far from us that to hear all this talk of
buildings and gardens, statues and carving, as if the look of
things assailed one out of doors as well as in, and were not
confined to a few small canvases hung upon the wall, seems strange.
No doubt there are a thousand excuses for us; but hitherto we have
been finding excuses for him.  Wherever there was a picture to be
seen by Julio Romano, Polydore, Guido, Raphael, or Tintoretto, a
finely built house, a prospect, or a garden nobly designed, Evelyn
stopped his coach to look at it, and opened his diary to record his
opinion.  On August 27, Evelyn, with Dr. Wren and others, was in
St. Paul's surveying "the general decay of that ancient and
venerable church"; held with Dr. Wren another judgement from the
rest; and had a mind to build it with "a noble cupola, a form of
church building not as yet known in England but of wonderful
grace", in which Dr. Wren concurred.  Six days later the Fire of
London altered their plans.  It was Evelyn again who, walking by
himself, chanced to look in at the window of "a poor solitary
thatched house in a field in our parish", there saw a young man
carving at a crucifix, was overcome with an enthusiasm which does
him the utmost credit, and carried Grinling Gibbons and his carving
to Court.

Indeed, it is all very well to be scrupulous about the sufferings
of worms and sensitive to the dues of servant girls, but how
pleasant also if, with shut eyes, one could call up street after
street of beautiful houses.  A flower is red; the apples rosy-gilt
in the afternoon sun; a picture has charm, especially as it
displays the character of a grandfather and dignifies a family
descended from such a scowl; but these are scattered fragments--
little relics of beauty in a world that has grown indescribably
drab.  To our charge of cruelty Evelyn might well reply by pointing
to Bayswater and the purlieus of Clapham; and if he should assert
that nothing now has character or conviction, that no farmer in
England sleeps with an open coffin at his bedside to remind him of
death, we could not retort effectually offhand.  True, we like the
country.  Evelyn never looked at the sky.

But to return.  After the Restoration Evelyn emerged in full
possession of a variety of accomplishments which in our time of
specialists seems remarkable enough.  He was employed on public
business; he was Secretary to the Royal Society; he wrote plays and
poems; he was the first authority upon trees and gardens in
England; he submitted a design for the rebuilding of London; he
went into the question of smoke and its abatement--the lime trees
in St. James's Park being, it is said, the result of his
cogitations; he was commissioned to write a history of the Dutch
war--in short, he completely outdid the Squire of "The Princess",
whom in many respects he anticipated--

     A lord of fat prize-oxen and of sheep,
     A raiser of huge melons and of pine,
     A patron of some thirty charities,
     A pamphleteer on guano and on grain,
     A quarter-sessions chairman abler none.

All that he was, and shared with Sir Walter another characteristic
which Tennyson does not mention.  He was, we cannot help
suspecting, something of a bore, a little censorious, a little
patronising, a little too sure of his own merits, and a little
obtuse to those of other people.  Or what is the quality, or
absence of quality, that checks our sympathies?  Partly, perhaps,
it is due to some inconsistency which it would be harsh to call by
so strong a name as hypocrisy.  Though he deplored the vices of his
age he could never keep away from the centre of them.  "The
luxurious dallying and profaneness" of the Court, the sight of
"Mrs. Nelly" looking over her garden Wall and holding "very
familiar discourse" with King Charles on the green walk below,
caused him acute disgust; yet he could never decide to break with
the Court and retire to "my poor but quiet villa", which was of
course the apple of his eye and one of the show-places in England.
Then, though he loved his daughter Mary, his grief at her death did
not prevent him from counting the number of empty coaches drawn by
six horses apiece that attended her funeral.  His women friends
combined virtue with beauty to such an extent that we can hardly
credit them with wit into the bargain.  Poor Mrs. Godolphin at
least, whom he celebrated in a sincere and touching biography,
"loved to be at funerals" and chose habitually "the dryest and
leanest morsels of meat", which may be the habits of an angel but
do not present her friendship with Evelyn in an alluring light.
But it is Pepys who sums up our case against Evelyn; Pepys who said
of him after a long morning's entertainment:  "In fine a most
excellent person he is and must be allowed a little for a little
conceitedness; but he may well be so, being a man so much above
others".  The words exactly hit the mark, "A most excellent person
he was"; but a little conceited.

Pepys it is who prompts us to another reflection, inevitable,
unnecessary, perhaps unkind.  Evelyn was no genius.  His writing is
opaque rather than transparent; we see no depths through it, nor
any very secret movements of mind or heart.  He can neither make us
hate a regicide nor love Mrs. Godolphin beyond reason.  But he
writes a diary; and he writes it supremely well.  Even as we
drowse, somehow or other the bygone gentleman sets up, through
three centuries, a perceptible tingle of communication, so that
without laying stress on anything in particular, stopping to dream,
stopping to laugh, stopping merely to look, we are yet taking
notice all the time.  His garden, for example--how delightful is
his disparagement of it, and how acid his criticism of the gardens
of others.  Then, we may be sure, the hens at Sayes Court laid the
very best eggs in England; and when the Tsar drove a wheelbarrow
through his hedge, what a catastrophe it was; and we can guess how
Mrs. Evelyn dusted and polished; and how Evelyn himself grumbled;
and how punctilious and efficient and trustworthy he was; how ready
to give advice; how ready to read his own works aloud; and how
affectionate, withal, lamenting bitterly, but not effusively--for
the man with the long-drawn sensitive face was never that--the
death of the little prodigy Richard, and recording how "after
evening prayers was my child buried near the rest of his brothers--
my very dear children".  He was not an artist; no phrases linger
in the mind; no paragraphs build themselves up in memory; but
as an artistic method this of going on with the day's story 
circumstantially, bringing in people who will never be mentioned
again, leading up to crises which never take place, introducing Sir
Thomas Browne but never letting him speak, has its fascination.
All through his pages good men, bad men, celebrities, nonentities
are coming into the room and going out again.  The greater number
we scarcely notice; the door shuts upon them and they disappear.
But now and again the sight of a vanishing coat-tail suggests more
than a whole figure sitting still in a full light.  Perhaps it is
that we catch them unawares.  Little they think that for three
hundred years and more they will be looked at in the act of jumping
a gate, or observing, like the old Marquis of Argyle, that the
turtle doves in the aviary are owls.  Our eyes wander from one to
the other; our affections settle here or there--on hot-tempered
Captain Wray, for instance, who was choleric, had a dog that killed
a goat, was for shooting the goat's owner, was for shooting his
horse when it fell down a precipice; on M. Saladine; on M.
Saladine's daughter; on Captain Wray lingering at Geneva to make
love to M. Saladine's daughter; on Evelyn himself most of all,
grown old, walking in his garden at Wotton, his sorrows smoothed
out, his grandson doing him credit, the Latin quotations falling
pat from his lips, his trees flourishing, and the butterflies
flying and flaunting on his dahlias too.


The fear which attacks the recorder of centenaries lest he should
find himself measuring a diminishing spectre and forced to foretell
its approaching dissolution is not only absent in the case of
Robinson Crusoe but the mere thought of it is ridiculous.  It may
be true that Robinson Crusoe is two hundred years of age upon the
twenty-fifth of April 1919, but far from raising the familiar
speculations as to whether people now read it and will continue to
read it, the effect of the bi-centenary is to make us marvel that
Robinson Crusoe, the perennial and immortal, should have been in
existence so short a time as that.  The book resembles one of the
anonymous productions of the race rather than the effort of a
single mind; and as for celebrating its centenary we should as soon
think of celebrating the centenaries of Stonehenge itself.
Something of this we may attribute to the fact that we have all had
Robinson Crusoe read aloud to us as children, and were thus much in
the same state of mind towards Defoe and his story that the Greeks
were in towards Homer.  It never occurred to us that there was such
a person as Defoe, and to have been told that Robinson Crusoe was
the work of a man with a pen in his hand would either have
disturbed us unpleasantly or meant nothing at all.  The impressions
of childhood are those that last longest and cut deepest.  It still
seems that the name of Daniel Defoe has no right to appear upon the
title-page of Robinson Crusoe, and if we celebrate the bi-centenary
of the book we are making a slightly unnecessary allusion to the
fact that, like Stonehenge, it is still in existence.

[1] Written 1919.

The great fame of the book has done its author some injustice; for
while it has given him a kind of anonymous glory it has obscured
the fact that he was a writer of other works which, it is safe to
assert, were not read aloud to us as children.  Thus when the
Editor of the Christian World in the year 1870 appealed to "the
boys and girls of England" to erect a monument upon the grave of
Defoe, which a stroke of lightning had mutilated, the marble was
inscribed to the memory of the author of Robinson Crusoe.  No
mention was made of Moll Flanders.  Considering the topics which
are dealt with in that book, and in Roxana, Captain Singleton,
Colonel Jack and the rest, we need not be surprised, though we may
be indignant, at the omission.  We may agree with Mr. Wright, the
biographer of Defoe, that these "are not works for the drawing-room
table".  But unless we consent to make that useful piece of
furniture the final arbiter of taste, we must deplore the fact that
their superficial coarseness, or the universal celebrity of
Robinson Crusoe, has led them to be far less widely famed than they
deserve.  On any monument worthy of the name of monument the names
of Moll Flanders and Roxana, at least, should be carved as deeply
as the name of Defoe.  They stand among the few English novels
which we can call indisputably great.  The occasion of the
bicentenary of their more famous companion may well lead us to
consider in what their greatness, which has so much in common with
his, may be found to consist.

Defoe was an elderly man when he turned novelist, many years the
predecessor of Richardson and Fielding, and one of the first indeed
to shape the novel and launch it on its way.  But it is unnecessary
to labour the fact of his precedence, except that he came to his
novel-writing with certain conceptions about the art which he
derived partly from being himself one of the first to practise it.
The novel had to justify its existence by telling a true story and
preaching a sound moral.  "This supplying a story by invention is
certainly a most scandalous crime", he wrote.  "It is a sort of
lying that makes a great hole in the heart, in which by degrees a
habit of lying enters in."  Either in the preface or in the text of
each of his works, therefore, he takes pains to insist that he has
not used his invention at all but has depended upon facts, and that
his purpose has been the highly moral desire to convert the vicious
or to warn the innocent.  Happily these were principles that
tallied very well with his natural disposition and endowments.
Facts had been drilled into him by sixty years of varying fortunes
before he turned his experience to account in fiction.  "I have
some time ago summed up the Scenes of my life in this distich," he

     No man has tasted differing fortunes more,
     And thirteen times I have been rich and poor.

He had spent eighteen months in Newgate and talked with thieves,
pirates, highwaymen, and coiners before he wrote the history of
Moll Flanders.  But to have facts thrust upon you by dint of living
and accident is one thing; to swallow them voraciously and retain
the imprint of them indelibly, is another.  It is not merely that
Defoe knew the stress of poverty and had talked with the victims of
it, but that the unsheltered life, exposed to circumstances and
forced to shift for itself, appealed to him imaginatively as the
right matter for his art.  In the first pages of each of his great
novels he reduces his hero or heroine to such a state of unfriended
misery that their existence must be a continued struggle, and their
survival at all the result of luck and their own exertions.  Moll
Flanders was born in Newgate of a criminal mother; Captain
Singleton was stolen as a child and sold to the gipsies; Colonel
Jack, though "born a gentleman, was put 'prentice to a pickpocket";
Roxana starts under better auspices, but, having married at
fifteen, she sees her husband go bankrupt and is left with five
children in "a condition the most deplorable that words can

Thus each of these boys and girls has the world to begin and the
battle to fight for himself.  The situation thus created was
entirely to Defoe's liking.  From her very birth or with half a
year's respite at most, Moll Flanders, the most notable of them, is
goaded by "that worst of devils, poverty", forced to earn her
living as soon as she can sew, driven from place to place, making
no demands upon her creator for the subtle domestic atmosphere
which he was unable to supply, but drawing upon him for all he knew
of strange people and customs.  From the outset the burden of
proving her right to exist is laid upon her.  She has to depend
entirely upon her own wits and judgement, and to deal with each
emergency as it arises by a rule-of-thumb morality which she has
forged in her own head.  The briskness of the story is due partly
to the fact that having transgressed the accepted laws at a very
early age she has henceforth the freedom of the outcast.  The one
impossible event is that she should settle down in comfort and
security.  But from the first the peculiar genius of the author
asserts itself, and avoids the obvious danger of the novel of
adventure.  He makes us understand that Moll Flanders was a woman
on her own account and not only material for a succession of
adventures.  In proof of this she begins, as Roxana also begins, by
falling passionately, if unfortunately, in love.  That she must
rouse herself and marry some one else and look very closely to her
settlements and prospects is no slight upon her passion, but to be
laid to the charge of her birth; and, like all Defoe's women, she
is a person of robust understanding.  Since she makes no scruple of
telling lies when they serve her purpose, there is something
undeniable about her truth when she speaks it.  She has no time to
waste upon the refinements of personal affection; one tear is
dropped, one moment of despair allowed, and then "on with the
story".  She has a spirit that loves to breast the storm.  She
delights in the exercise of her own powers.  When she discovers
that the man she has married in Virginia is her own brother she is
violently disgusted; she insists upon leaving him; but as soon as
she sets foot in Bristol, "I took the diversion of going to Bath,
for as I was still far from being old so my humour, which was
always gay; continued so to an extreme".  Heartless she is not, nor
can any one charge her with levity; but life delights her, and a
heroine who lives has us all in tow.  Moreover, her ambition has
that slight strain of imagination in it which puts it in the
category of the noble passions.  Shrewd and practical of necessity,
she is yet haunted by a desire for romance and for the quality
which to her perception makes a man a gentleman.  "It was really a
true gallant spirit he was of, and it was the more grievous to me.
'Tis something of relief even to be undone by a man of honour
rather than by a scoundrel", she writes when she had misled a
highwayman as to the extent of her fortune.  It is in keeping with
this temper that she should be proud of her final partner because
he refuses to work when they reach the plantations but prefers
hunting, and that she should take pleasure in buying him wigs and
silver-hilted swords "to make him appear, as he really was, a very
fine gentleman".  Her very love of hot weather is in keeping, and
the passion with which she kissed the ground that her son had trod
on, and her noble tolerance of every kind of fault so long as it is
not "complete baseness of spirit, imperious, cruel, and relentless
when uppermost, abject and low-spirited when down".  For the rest
of the world she has nothing but good-will.

Since the list of the qualities and graces of this seasoned old
sinner is by no means exhausted we can well understand how it was
that Borrow's apple-woman on London Bridge called her "blessed
Mary" and valued her book above all the apples on her stall; and
that Borrow, taking the book deep into the booth, read till his
eyes ached.  But we dwell upon such signs of character only by way
of proof that the creator of Moll Flanders was not, as he has been
accused of being, a mere journalist and literal recorder of facts
with no conception of the nature of psychology.  It is true that
his characters take shape and substance of their own accord, as if
in despite of the author and not altogether to his liking.  He
never lingers or stresses any point of subtlety or pathos, but
presses on imperturbably as if they came there without his
knowledge.  A touch of imagination, such as that when the Prince
sits by his son's cradle and Roxana observes how "he loved to look
at it when it was asleep", seems to mean much more to us than to
him.  After the curiously modern dissertation upon the need of
communicating matters of importance to a second person lest, like
the thief in Newgate, we should talk of it in our sleep, he
apologises for his digression.  He seems to have taken his
characters so deeply into his mind that he lived them without
exactly knowing how; and, like all unconscious artists, he leaves
more gold in his work than his own generation was able to bring to
the surface.

The interpretation that we put on his characters might therefore
well have puzzled him.  We find for ourselves meanings which he was
careful to disguise even from his own eye.  Thus it comes about
that we admire Moll Flanders far more than we blame her.  Nor can
we believe that Defoe had made up his mind as to the precise degree
of her guilt, or was unaware that in considering the lives of the
abandoned he raised many deep questions and hinted, if he did not
state, answers quite at variance with his professions of belief.
From the evidence supplied by his essay upon the "Education of
Women" we know that he had thought deeply and much in advance, of
his age upon the capacities of women, which he rated very high, and
the injustice done to them, which he rated very harsh.

I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in
the world, considering us as a civilised and a Christian country,
that we deny the advantages of learning to women.  We reproach the
sex every day with folly and impertinence; which I am confident,
had they the advantages of education equal to us, they would be
guilty of less than ourselves.

The advocates of women's rights would hardly care, perhaps, to
claim Moll Flanders and Roxana among their patron saints; and yet
it is clear that Defoe not only intended them to speak some very
modern doctrines upon the subject, but placed them in circumstances
where their peculiar hardships are displayed in such a way as to
elicit our sympathy.  Courage, said Moll Flanders, was what women
needed, and the power to "stand their ground"; and at once gave
practical demonstration of the benefits that would result.  Roxana,
a lady of the same profession, argues more subtly against the
slavery of marriage.  She "had started a new thing in the world"
the merchant told her; "it was a way of arguing contrary to the
general practise".  But Defoe is the last writer to be guilty of
bald preaching.  Roxana keeps our attention because she is
blessedly unconscious that she is in any good sense an example to
her sex and is thus at liberty to own that part of her argument is
"of an elevated strain which was really not in my thoughts at
first, at all".  The knowledge of her own frailties and the honest
questioning of her own motives, which that knowledge begets, have
the happy result of keeping her fresh and human when the martyrs
and pioneers of so many problem novels have shrunken and shrivelled
to the pegs and props of their respective creeds.

But the claim of Defoe upon our admiration does not rest upon the
fact that he can be shown to have anticipated some of the views of
Meredith, or to have written scenes which (the odd suggestion
occurs) might have been turned into plays by Ibsen.  Whatever his
ideas upon the position of women, they are an incidental result of
his chief virtue, which is that he deals with the important and
lasting side of things and not with the passing and trivial.  He is
often dull.  He can imitate the matter-of-fact precision of a
scientific traveller until we wonder that his pen could trace or
his brain conceive what has not even the excuse of truth to soften
its dryness.  He leaves out the whole of vegetable nature, and a
large part of human nature.  All this we may admit, though we have
to admit defects as grave in many writers whom we call great.  But
that does not impair the peculiar merit of what remains.  Having at
the outset limited his scope and confined his ambitions he achieves
a truth of insight which is far rarer and more enduring than the
truth of fact which he professed to make his aim.  Moll Flanders
and her friends recommended themselves to him not because they
were, as we should say, "picturesque"; nor, as he affirmed, because
they were examples of evil living by which the public might profit.
It was their natural veracity, bred in them by a life of hardship,
that excited his interest.  For them there were no excuses; no
kindly shelter obscured their motives.  Poverty was their
taskmaster.  Defoe did not pronounce more than a judgement of the
lips upon their failings.  But their courage and resource and
tenacity delighted him.  He found their society full of good talk,
and pleasant stories, and faith in each other, and morality of a
home-made kind.  Their fortunes had that infinite variety which he
praised and relished and beheld with wonder in his own life.  These
men and women, above all, were free to talk openly of the passions
and desires which have moved men and women since the beginning of
time, and thus even now they keep their vitality undiminished.
There is a dignity in everything that is looked at openly.  Even
the sordid subject of money, which plays so large a part in their
histories, becomes not sordid but tragic when it stands not for
ease and consequence but for honour, honesty, and life itself.  You
may object that Defoe is humdrum, but never that he is engrossed
with petty things.

He belongs, indeed, to the school of the great plain writers, whose
work is founded upon a knowledge of what is most persistent, though
not most seductive, in human nature.  The view of London from
Hungerford Bridge, grey, serious, massive, and full of the subdued
stir of traffic and business, prosaic if it were not for the masts
of the ships and the towers and domes of the city, brings him to
mind.  The tattered girls with violets in their hands at the street
corners, and the old weather-beaten women patiently displaying
their matches and bootlaces beneath the shelter of arches, seem
like characters from his books.  He is of the school of Crabbe and
of Gissing, and not merely a fellow-pupil in the same stern place
of learning, but its founder and master.


In July, 1843, Lord Macaulay pronounced the opinion that Joseph
Addison had enriched our literature with compositions "that will
live as long as the English language".  But when Lord Macaulay
pronounced an opinion it was not merely an opinion.  Even now, at a
distance of seventy-six years, the words seem to issue from the
mouth of the chosen representative of the people.  There is an
authority about them, a sonority, a sense of responsibility, which
put us in mind of a Prime Minister making a proclamation on behalf
of a great empire rather than of a journalist writing about a
deceased man of letters for a magazine.  The article upon Addison
is, indeed, one of the most vigorous of the famous essays.  Florid,
and at the same time extremely solid, the phrases seem to build up
a monument, at once square and lavishly festooned with ornament,
which should serve Addison for shelter so long as one stone of
Westminster Abbey stands upon another.  Yet, though we may have
read and admired this particular essay times out of number (as we
say when we have read anything three times over), it has never
occurred to us, strangely enough, to believe that it is true.  That
is apt to happen to the admiring reader of Macaulay's essays.
While delighting in their richness, force, and variety, and finding
every judgement, however emphatic, proper in its place, it seldom
occurs to us to connect these sweeping assertions and undeniable
convictions with anything so minute as a human being.  So it is
with Addison.  "If we wish", Macaulay writes, "to find anything
more vivid than Addison's best portraits, we must go either to
Shakespeare or to Cervantes".  "We have not the least doubt that if
Addison had written a novel on an extensive plan it would have been
superior to any that we possess."  His essays, again, "fully
entitle him to the rank of a great poet"; and, to complete the
edifice, we have Voltaire proclaimed "the prince of buffoons", and
together with Swift forced to stoop so low that Addison takes rank
above them both as a humorist.

[1] Written in 1919.

Examined separately, such flourishes of ornament look grotesque
enough, but in their place--such is the persuasive power of design--
they are part of the decoration; they complete the monument.
Whether Addison or another is interred within, it is a very fine
tomb.  But now that two centuries have passed since the real body
of Addison was laid by night under the Abbey floor, we are, through
no merit of our own, partially qualified to test the first of the
flourishes on that fictitious tombstone to which, though it may be
empty, we have done homage, in a formal kind of way, these sixty-
seven years.  The compositions of Addison will live as long as the
English language.  Since every moment brings proof that our mother
tongue is more lusty and lively than sorts with complete sedateness
or chastity, we need only concern ourselves with the vitality of
Addison.  Neither lusty nor lively is the adjective we should apply
to the present condition of the Tatler and the Spectator.  To take
a rough test, it is possible to discover how many people in the
course of a year borrow Addison's works from the public library,
and a particular instance affords us the not very encouraging
information that during nine years two people yearly take out the
first volume of the Spectator.  The second volume is less in
request than the first.  The inquiry is not a cheerful one.  From
certain marginal comments and pencil marks it seems that these rare
devotees seek out only the famous passages and, as their habit is,
score what we are bold enough to consider the least admirable
phrases.  No; if Addison lives at all, it is not in the public
libraries.  It is in libraries that are markedly private, secluded,
shaded by lilac trees and brown with folios, that he still draws
his faint, regular breath.  If any man or woman is going to solace
himself with a page of Addison before the June sun is out of the
sky to-day, it is in some such pleasant retreat as this.

Yet all over England at intervals, perhaps wide ones, we may be
sure that there are people engaged in reading Addison, whatever the
year or season.  For Addison is very well worth reading.  The
temptation to read Pope on Addison, Macaulay on Addison, Thackeray
on Addison, Johnson on Addison rather than Addison himself is to be
resisted, for you will find, if you study the Tatler and the
Spectator, glance at Cato, and run through the remainder of the six
moderate-sized volumes, that Addison is neither Pope's Addison nor
anybody else's Addison, but a separate, independent individual
still capable of casting a clear-cut shape of himself upon the
consciousness, turbulent and distracted as it is, of nineteen
hundred and nineteen.  It is true that the fate of the lesser
shades is always a little precarious.  They are so easily obscured
or distorted.  It seems so often scarcely worth while to go through
the cherishing and humanising process which is necessary to get
into touch with a writer of the second class who may, after all,
have little to give us.  The earth is crusted over them; their
features are obliterated, and perhaps it is not a head of the best
period that we rub clean in the end, but only the chip of an old
pot.  The chief difficulty with the lesser writers, however, is not
only the effort.  It is that our standards have changed.  The
things that they like are not the things that we like; and as the
charm of their writing depends much more upon taste than upon
conviction, a change of manners is often quite enough to put us out
of touch altogether.  That is one of the most troublesome barriers
between ourselves and Addison.  He attached great importance to
certain qualities.  He had a very precise notion of what we are
used to call "niceness" in man or woman.  He was extremely fond of
saying that men ought not to be atheists, and that women ought not
to wear large petticoats.  This directly inspires in us not so much
a sense of distaste as a sense of difference.  Dutifully, if at
all, we strain our imaginations to conceive the kind of audience to
whom these precepts were addressed.  The Tatler was published in
1709; the Spectator a year or two later.  What was the state of
England at that particular moment?  Why was Addison so anxious to
insist upon the necessity of a decent and cheerful religious
belief?  Why did he so constantly, and in the main kindly, lay
stress upon the foibles of women and their reform?  Why was he so
deeply impressed with the evils of party government?  Any historian
will explain; but it is always a misfortune to have to call in the
services of any historian.  A writer should give us direct
certainty; explanations are so much water poured into the wine.  As
it is, we can only feel that these counsels are addressed to ladies
in hoops and gentlemen in wigs--a vanished audience which has
learnt its lesson and gone its way and the preacher with it.  We
can only smile and marvel and perhaps admire the clothes.

And that is not the way to read.  To be thinking that dead people
deserved these censures and admired this morality, judged the
eloquence, which we find so frigid, sublime, the philosophy to us
so superficial, profound, to take a collector's joy in such signs
of antiquity, is to treat literature as if it were a broken jar of
undeniable age but doubtful beauty, to be stood in a cabinet behind
glass doors.  The charm which still makes Cato very readable is
much of this nature.  When Syphax exclaims,

     So, where our wide Numidian wastes extend,
     Sudden, th'impetuous hurricanes descend,
     Wheel through the air, in circling eddies play,
     Tear up the sands, and sweep whole plains away.
     The helpless traveller, with wild surprise,
     Sees the dry desert all around him rise,
     And smother'd in the dusty whirlwind dies,

we cannot help imagining the thrill in the crowded theatre, the
feathers nodding emphatically on the ladies' heads, the gentlemen
leaning forward to tap their canes, and every one exclaiming to his
neighbour how vastly fine it is and crying "Bravo!"  But how can WE
be excited?  And so with Bishop Hurd and his notes--his "finely
observed", his "wonderfully exact, both in the sentiment and
expression", his serene confidence that when "the present humour of
idolising Shakespeare is over", the time will come when Cato is
"supremely admired by all candid and judicious critics".  This is
all very amusing and productive of pleasant fancies, both as to the
faded frippery of our ancestors' minds and the bold opulence of our
own.  But it is not the intercourse of equals, let alone that other
kind of intercourse, which as it makes us contemporary with the
author, persuades us that his object is our own.  Occasionally in
Cato one may pick up a few lines that are not obsolete; but for the
most part the tragedy which Dr. Johnson thought "unquestionably the
noblest production of Addison's genius" has become collector's

Perhaps most readers approach the essays also with some suspicion
as to the need of condescension in their minds.  The question to be
asked is whether Addison, attached as he was to certain standards
of gentility, morality, and taste, has not become one of those
people of exemplary character and charming urbanity who must never
be talked to about anything more exciting than the weather.  We
have some slight suspicion that the Spectator and the Tatler are
nothing but talk, couched in perfect English, about the number of
fine days this year compared with the number of wet the year
before.  The difficulty of getting on to equal terms with him is
shown by the little fable which he introduces into one of the early
numbers of the Tatler, of "a young gentleman, of moderate
understanding, but great vivacity, who . . . had got a little
smattering of knowledge, just enough to make an atheist or a
freethinker, but not a philosopher, or a man of sense".  This young
gentleman visits his father in the country, and proceeds "to
enlarge the narrowness of the country notions; in which he
succeeded so well, that he had seduced the butler by his table-
talk, and staggered his eldest sister. . . .  'Till one day,
talking of his setting dog . . . said 'he did not question but Tray
was as immortal as any one of the family'; and in the heat of the
argument told his father, that for his own part, 'he expected to
die like a dog'.  Upon which, the old man, starting up in a very
great passion, cried out, 'Then, sirrah, you shall live like one';
and taking his cane in his hand, cudgelled him out of his system.
This had so good an effect upon him, that he took up from that day,
fell to reading good books, and is now a bencher in the Middle-
Temple".  There is a good deal of Addison in that story: his
dislike of "dark and uncomfortable prospects"; his respect for
"principles which are the support, happiness, and glory of all
public societies, as well as private persons"; his solicitude for
the butler; and his conviction that to read good books and become a
bencher in the Middle-Temple is the proper end for a very vivacious
young gentleman.  This Mr. Addison married a countess, "gave his
little senate laws", and, sending for young Lord Warwick, made that
famous remark about seeing how a Christian can die which has fallen
upon such evil days that our sympathies are with the foolish, and
perhaps fuddled, young peer rather than with the frigid gentleman,
not too far gone for a last spasm of self-complacency, upon the

Let us rub off such incrustations, so far as they are due to the
corrosion of Pope's wit or the deposit of mid-Victorian
lachrymosity, and see what, for us in our time, remains.  In the
first place, there remains the not despicable virtue, after two
centuries of existence, of being readable.  Addison can fairly lay
claim to that; and then, slipped in on the tide of the smooth,
well-turned prose, are little eddies, diminutive waterfalls,
agreeably diversifying the polished surface.  We begin to take note
of whims, fancies, peculiarities on the part of the essayist which
light up the prim, impeccable countenance of the moralist and
convince us that, however tightly he may have pursed his lips, his
eyes are very bright and not so shallow after all.  He is alert to
his finger-tips.  Little muffs, silver garters, fringed gloves draw
his attention; he observes with a keen, quick glance, not unkindly,
and full rather of amusement than of censure.  To be sure, the age
was rich in follies.  Here were coffee-houses packed with
politicians talking of Kings and Emperors and letting their own
small affairs go to ruin.  Crowds applauded the Italian opera every
night without understanding a word of it.  Critics discoursed of
the unities.  Men gave a thousand pounds for a handful of tulip
roots.  As for women--or "the fair sex", as Addison liked to call
them--their follies were past counting.  He did his best to count
them, with a loving particularity which roused the ill-humour of
Swift.  But he did it very charmingly, with a natural relish for
the task, as the following passage shows:

I consider woman as a beautiful romantic animal, that may be
adorned with furs and feathers, pearls and diamonds, ores and
silks.  The lynx shall cast its skin at her feet to make her a
tippet; the peacock, parrot, and swan, shall pay contributions to
her muff; the sea shall be searched for shells, and the rocks for
gems; and every part of nature furnish out its share towards the
embellishment of a creature that is the most consummate work of it.
All this I shall indulge them in; but as for the petticoat I have
been speaking of, I neither can nor will allow it.

In all these matters Addison was on the side of sense and taste and
civilisation.  Of that little fraternity, often so obscure and yet
so indispensable, who in every age keep themselves alive to the
importance of art and letters and music, watching, discriminating,
denouncing and delighting, Addison was one--distinguished and
strangely contemporary with ourselves.  It would have been, so one
imagines, a great pleasure to take him a manuscript; a great
enlightenment, as well as a great honour, to have his opinion.  In
spite of Pope, one fancies that his would have been criticism of
the best order, open-minded and generous to novelty, and yet, in
the final resort, unfaltering in its standards.  The boldness which
is a proof of vigour is shown by his defence of "Chevy Chase".  He
had so clear a notion of what he meant by the "very spirit and soul
of fine writing" as to track it down in an old barbarous ballad or
rediscover it in "that divine work" "Paradise Lost".  Moreover, far
from being a connoisseur only of the still, settled beauties of the
dead, he was aware of the present; a severe critic of its "Gothic
taste", vigilant in protecting the rights and honours of the
language, and all in favour of simplicity and quiet.  Here we have
the Addison of Will's and Button's, who, sitting late into the
night and drinking more than was good for him, gradually overcame
his taciturnity and began to talk.  Then he "chained the attention
of every one to him".  "Addison's conversation", said Pope, "had
something in it more charming than I have found in any other man."
One can well believe it, for his essays at their best preserve the
very cadence of easy yet exquisitely modulated conversation--the
smile checked before it has broadened into laughter, the thought
lightly turned from frivolity or abstraction, the ideas springing,
bright, new, various, with the utmost spontaneity.  He seems to
speak what comes into his head, and is never at the trouble of
raising his voice.  But he has described himself in the character
of the lute better than any one can do it for him.

The lute is a character directly opposite to the drum, that sounds
very finely by itself, or in a very small concert.  Its notes are
exquisitely sweet, and very low, easily drowned in a multitude of
instruments, and even lost among a few, unless you give a
particular attention to it.  A lute is seldom heard in a company of
more than five, whereas a drum will show itself to advantage in an
assembly of 500.  The lutanists, therefore, are men of a fine
genius, uncommon reflection, great affability, and esteemed chiefly
by persons of a good taste, who are the only proper judges of so
delightful and soft a melody.

Addison was a lutanist.  No praise, indeed, could be less
appropriate than Lord Macaulay's.  To call Addison on the strength
of his essays a great poet, or to prophesy that if he had written a
novel on an extensive plan it would have been "superior to any that
we possess", is to confuse him with the drums and trumpets; it is
not merely to overpraise his merits, but to overlook them.  Dr.
Johnson superbly, and, as his manner is, once and for all has
summed up the quality of Addison's poetic genius:

His poetry is first to be considered; of which it must be confessed
that it has not often those felicities of diction which give lustre
to sentiments, or that vigour of sentiment that animates diction;
there is little of ardour, vehemence, or transport; there is very
rarely the awfulness of grandeur, and not very often the splendour
of elegance.  He thinks justly; but he thinks faintly.

The Sir Roger de Coverley papers are those which have the most
resemblance, on the surface, to a novel.  But their merit consists
in the fact that they do not adumbrate, or initiate, or anticipate
anything; they exist, perfect, complete, entire in themselves.  To
read them as if they were a first hesitating experiment containing
the seed of greatness to come is to miss the peculiar point of
them.  They are studies done from the outside by a quiet spectator.
When read together they compose a portrait of the Squire and his
circle all in characteristic positions--one with his rod, another
with his hounds--but each can be detached from the rest without
damage to the design or harm to himself.  In a novel, where each
chapter gains from the one before it or adds to the one that
follows it, such separations would be intolerable.  The speed, the
intricacy, the design, would be mutilated.  These particular
qualities are perhaps lacking, but nevertheless Addison's method
has great advantages.  Each of these essays is very highly
finished.  The characters are defined by a succession of extremely
neat, clean strokes.  Inevitably, where the sphere is so narrow--an
essay is only three or four pages in length--there is not room for
great depth or intricate subtlety.  Here, from the Spectator, is a
good example of the witty and decisive manner in which Addison
strikes out a portrait to fill the little frame:

Sombrius is one of these sons of sorrow.  He thinks himself obliged
in duty to be sad and disconsolate.  He looks on a sudden fit of
laughter as a breach of his baptismal vow.  An innocent jest
startles him like blasphemy.  Tell him of one who is advanced to a
title of honour, he lifts up his hands and eyes; describe a public
ceremony, he shakes his head; shew him a gay equipage, he blesses
himself.  All the little ornaments of life are pomps and vanities.
Mirth is wanton, and wit profane.  He is scandalized at youth for
being lively, and at childhood for being playful.  He sits at a
christening, or at a marriage-feast, as at a funeral; sighs at the
conclusion of a merry story, and grows devout when the rest of the
company grow pleasant.  After all Sombrius is a religious man, and
would have behaved himself very properly, had he lived when
Christianity was under a general persecution.

The novel is not a development from that model, for the good reason
that no development along these lines is possible.  Of its kind
such a portrait is perfect; and when we find, scattered up and down
the Spectator and the Tatler, numbers of such little masterpieces
with fancies and anecdotes in the same style, some doubt as to the
narrowness of such a sphere becomes inevitable.  The form of the
essay admits of its own particular perfection; and if anything is
perfect the exact dimensions of its perfection become immaterial.
One can scarcely settle whether, on the whole, one prefers a
raindrop to the River Thames.  When we have said all that we can
say against them--that many are dull, others superficial, the
allegories faded, the piety conventional, the morality trite--there
still remains the fact that the essays of Addison are perfect
essays.  Always at the highest point of any art there comes a
moment when everything seems in a conspiracy to help the artist,
and his achievement becomes a natural felicity on his part of which
he seems, to a later age, half-unconscious.  So Addison, writing
day after day, essay after essay, knew instinctively and exactly
how to do it.  Whether it was a high thing, or whether it was a low
thing, whether an epic is more profound or a lyric more passionate,
undoubtedly it is due to Addison that prose is now prosaic--the
medium which makes it possible for people of ordinary intelligence
to communicate their ideas to the world.  Addison is the
respectable ancestor of an innumerable progeny.  Pick up the first
weekly journal and the article upon the "Delights of Summer" or the
"Approach of Age" will show his influence.  But it will also show,
unless the name of Mr. Max Beerbohm, our solitary essayist, is
attached to it, that we have lost the art of writing essays.  What
with our views and our virtues, our passions and profundities, the
shapely silver drop, that held the sky in it and so many bright
little visions of human life, is now nothing but a hold-all knobbed
with luggage packed in a hurry.  Even so, the essayist will make an
effort, perhaps without knowing it, to write like Addison.

In his temperate and reasonable way Addison more than once amused
himself with speculations as to the fate of his writings.  He had a
just idea of their nature and value.  "I have new-pointed all the
batteries of ridicule", he wrote.  Yet, because so many of his
darts had been directed against ephemeral follies, "absurd
fashions, ridiculous customs, and affected forms of speech", the
time would come, in a hundred years, perhaps, when his essays, he
thought, would be "like so many pieces of old plate, where the
weight will be regarded, but the fashion lost".  Two hundred years
have passed; the plate is worn smooth; the pattern almost rubbed
out; but the metal is pure silver.


Five shillings, perhaps, will secure a life subscription to this
faded, out-of-date, obsolete library, which, with a little help
from the rates, is chiefly subsidised from the shelves of
clergymen's widows, and country gentlemen inheriting more books
than their wives like to dust.  In the middle of the wide airy
room, with windows that look to the sea and let in the shouts of
men crying pilchards for sale on the cobbled street below, a row of
vases stands, in which specimens of the local flowers droop, each
with its name inscribed beneath.  The elderly, the marooned, the
bored, drift from newspaper to newspaper, or sit holding their
heads over back numbers of The Illustrated London News and the
Wesleyan Chronicle.  No one has spoken aloud here since the room
was opened in 1854.  The obscure sleep on the walls, slouching
against each other as if they were too drowsy to stand upright.
Their backs are flaking off; their titles often vanished.  Why
disturb their sleep?  Why reopen those peaceful graves, the
librarian seems to ask, peering over his spectacles, and resenting
the duty, which indeed has become laborious, of retrieving from
among those nameless tombstones Nos. 1763, 1080, and 606.


Taylors and Edgeworths

For one likes romantically to feel oneself a deliverer advancing
with lights across the waste of years to the rescue of some
stranded ghost--a Mrs. Pilkington, a Rev. Henry Elman, a Mrs. Ann
Gilbert--waiting, appealing, forgotten, in the growing gloom.
Possibly they hear one coming.  They shuffle, they preen, they
bridle.  Old secrets well up to their lips.  The divine relief of
communication will soon again be theirs.  The dust shifts and Mrs.
Gilbert--but the contact with life is instantly salutary.  Whatever
Mrs. Gilbert may be doing, she is not thinking about us.  Far from
it.  Colchester, about the year 1800, was for the young Taylors, as
Kensington had been for their mother, "a very Elysium".  There were
the Strutts, the Hills, the Stapletons; there was poetry,
philosophy, engraving.  For the young Taylors were brought up to
work hard, and if, after a long day's toil upon their father's
pictures, they slipped round to dine with the Strutts, they had a
right to their pleasure.  Already they had won prizes in Darton and
Harvey's pocket-book.  One of the Strutts knew James Montgomery,
and there was talk, at those gay parties, with the Moorish
decorations and all the cats--for old Ben Strutt was a bit of a
character: did not communicate; would not let his daughters eat
meat, so no wonder they died of consumption--there was talk of
printing a joint volume to be called The Associate Minstrels, to
which James, if not Robert himself, might contribute.  The
Stapletons were poetical, too.  Moira and Bithia would wander over
the old town wall at Balkerne Hill reading poetry by moonlight.
Perhaps there was a little too much poetry in Colchester in 1800.
Looking back in the middle of a prosperous and vigorous life, Ann
had to lament many broken careers, much unfulfilled promise.  The
Stapletons died young, perverted, miserable; Jacob, with his "dark,
scorn-speaking countenance", who had vowed that he would spend the
night looking for Ann's lost bracelet in the street, disappeared,
"and I last heard of him vegetating among the ruins of Rome--
himself too much a ruin"; as for the Hills, their fate was worst of
all.  To submit to public baptism was flighty, but to marry Captain
M.!  Anybody could have warned pretty Fanny Hill against Captain M.
Yet off she drove with him in his fine phaeton.  For years nothing
more was heard of her.  Then one night, when the Taylors had moved
to Ongar and old Mr. and Mrs. Taylor were sitting over the fire,
thinking how, as it was nine o'clock, and the moon was full, they
ought, according to their promise, to look at it and think of their
absent children, there came a knock at the door.  Mrs. Taylor went
down to open it.  But who was this sad, shabby-looking woman
outside?  "Oh, don't you remember the Strutts and the Stapletons,
and how you warned me against Captain M.?" cried Fanny Hill, for it
was Fanny Hill--poor Fanny Hill, all worn and sunk; poor Fanny
Hill, that used to be so sprightly.  She was living in a lone house
not far from the Taylors, forced to drudge for her husband's
mistress, for Captain M. had wasted all her fortune, ruined all her

Ann married Mr. G., of course--of course.  The words toll
persistently through these obscure volumes.  For in the vast world
to which the memoir writers admit us there is a solemn sense of
something unescapable, of a wave gathering beneath the frail
flotilla and carrying it on.  One thinks of Colchester in 1800.
Scribbling verses, reading Montgomery--so they begin; the Hills,
the Stapletons, the Strutts disperse and disappear as one knew they
would; but here, after long years, is Ann still scribbling, and at
last here is the poet Montgomery himself in her very house, and she
begging him to consecrate her child to poetry by just holding him
in his arms, and he refusing (for he is a bachelor), but taking her
for a walk, and they hear the thunder, and she thinks it the
artillery, and he says in a voice which she will never, never
forget:  "Yes!  The artillery of Heaven!"  It is one of the
attractions of the unknown, their multitude, their vastness; for,
instead of keeping their identity separate, as remarkable people
do, they seem to merge into one another, their very boards and
title-pages and frontispieces dissolving, and their innumerable
pages melting into continuous years so that we can lie back and
look up into the fine mist-like substance of countless lives, and
pass unhindered from century to century, from life to life.  Scenes
detach themselves.  We watch groups.  Here is young Mr. Elman
talking to Miss Biffen at Brighton.  She has neither arms nor legs;
a footman carries her in and out.  She teaches miniature painting
to his sister.  Then he is in the stage coach on the road to Oxford
with Newman.  Newman says nothing.  Elman nevertheless reflects
that he has known all the great men of his time.  And so back and
so forwards, he paces eternally the fields of Sussex until, grown
to an extreme old age, there he sits in his Rectory thinking of
Newman, thinking of Miss Biffen, and making--it is his great
consolation--string bags for missionaries.  And then?  Go on
looking.  Nothing much happens.  But the dim light is exquisitely
refreshing to the eyes.  Let us watch little Miss Frend trotting
along the Strand with her father.  They meet a man with very bright
eyes.  "Mr. Blake", says Mr. Frend.  It is Mrs. Dyer who pours out
tea for them in Clifford's Inn.  Mr. Charles Lamb has just left the
room.  Mrs. Dyer says she married George because his washerwoman
cheated him so.  What do you think George paid for his shirts, she
asks?  Gently, beautifully, like the clouds of a balmy evening,
obscurity once more traverses the sky, an obscurity which is not
empty but thick with the star dust of innumerable lives.  And
suddenly there is a rift in it, and we see a wretched little
packet-boat pitching off the Irish coast in the middle of the
nineteenth century.  There is an unmistakable air of 1840 about the
tarpaulins and the hairy monsters in sou'westers lurching and
spitting over the sloping decks, yet treating the solitary young
woman who stands in shawl and poke bonnet gazing, gazing, not
without kindness.  No, no, no!  She will not leave the deck.  She
will stand there till it is quite dark, thank you!  "Her great love
of the sea . . . drew this exemplary wife and mother every now and
then irresistibly away from home.  No one but her husband knew
where she had gone, and her children learnt only later in life that
on these occasions, when suddenly she disappeared for a few days,
she was taking short sea voyages . . ." a crime which she expiated
by months of work among the Midland poor.  Then the craving would
come upon her, would be confessed in private to her husband, and
off she stole again--the mother of Sir George Newnes.

One would conclude that human beings were happy, endowed with such
blindness to fate, so indefatigable an interest in their own
activities, were it not for those sudden and astonishing
apparitions staring in at us, all taut and pale in their
determination never to be forgotten, men who have just missed fame,
men who have passionately desired redress--men like Haydon, and
Mark Pattison, and the Rev. Blanco White.  And in the whole world
there is probably but one person who looks up for a moment and
tries to interpret the menacing face, the furious beckoning fist,
before, in the multitude of human affairs, fragments of faces,
echoes of voices, flying coat-tails, and bonnet strings
disappearing down the shrubbery walks, one's attention is
distracted for ever.  What is that enormous wheel, for example,
careering downhill in Berkshire in the eighteenth century?  It runs
faster and faster; suddenly a youth jumps out from within; next
moment it leaps over the edge of a chalk pit and is dashed to
smithereens.  This is Edgeworth's doing--Richard Lovell Edgeworth,
we mean, the portentous bore.

For that is the way he has come down to us in his two volumes of
memoirs--Byron's bore, Day's friend, Maria's father, the man who
almost invented the telegraph, and did, in fact, invent machines
for cutting turnips, climbing walls, contracting on narrow bridges
and lifting their wheels over obstacles--a man meritorious,
industrious, advanced, but still, as we investigate his memoirs,
mainly a bore.  Nature endowed him with irrepressible energy.  The
blood coursed through his veins at least twenty times faster than
the normal rate.  His face was red, round, vivacious.  His brain
raced.  His tongue never stopped talking.  He had married four
wives and had nineteen children, including the novelist Maria.
Moreover, he had known every one and done everything.  His energy
burst open the most secret doors and penetrated to the most private
apartments.  His wife's grandmother, for instance, disappeared
mysteriously every day.  Edgeworth blundered in upon her and found
her, with her white locks flowing and her eyes streaming, in prayer
before a crucifix.  She was a Roman Catholic then, but why a
penitent?  He found out somehow that her husband had been killed in
a duel, and she had married the man who killed him.  "The
consolations of religion are fully equal to its terrors", Dick
Edgeworth reflected as he stumbled out again.  Then there was the
beautiful young woman in the castle among the forests of Dauphiny.
Half paralysed, unable to speak above a whisper, there she lay when
Edgeworth broke in and found her reading.  Tapestries flapped on
the castle walls; fifty thousand bats--"odious animals whose stench
is uncommonly noisome"--hung in clusters in the caves beneath.
None of the inhabitants understood a word she said.  But to the
Englishman she talked for hour after hour about books and politics
and religion.  He listened; no doubt he talked.  He sat
dumbfounded.  But what could one do for her?  Alas, one must leave
her lying among the tusks, and the old men, and the cross-bows,
reading, reading, reading.  For Edgeworth was employed in turning
the Rhone from its course.  He must get back to his job.  One
reflection he would make.  "I determined on steadily persevering in
the cultivation of my understanding."

He was impervious to the romance of the situations in which he
found himself.  Every experience served only to fortify his
character.  He reflected, he observed, he improved himself daily.
You can improve, Mr. Edgeworth used to tell his children, every day
of your life.  "He used to say that with this power of improving
they might in time be anything, and without it in time they would
be nothing."  Imperturbable, indefatigable, daily increasing in
sturdy self-assurance, he has the gift of the egoist.  He brings
out, as he bustles and bangs on his way, the diffident, shrinking
figures who would otherwise be drowned in darkness.  The aged lady,
whose private penance he disturbed, is only one of a series of
figures who start up on either side of his progress, mute,
astonished, showing us in a way that is even now unmistakable,
their amazement at this well-meaning man who bursts in upon them at
their studies and interrupts their prayers.  We see him through
their eyes; we see him as he does not dream of being seen.  What a
tyrant he was to his first wife!  How intolerably she suffered!
But she never utters a word.  It is Dick Edgeworth who tells her
story in complete ignorance that he is doing anything of the kind.
"It was a singular trait of character in my wife," he observes,
"who had never shown any uneasiness at my intimacy with Sir Francis
Delaval, that she should take a strong dislike to Mr. Day.  A more
dangerous and seductive companion than the one, or a more moral and
improving companion than the other, could not be found in England."
It was, indeed, very singular.

For the first Mrs. Edgeworth was a penniless girl, the daughter of
a ruined country gentleman, who sat over his fire picking cinders
from the hearth and throwing them into the grate, while from time
to time he ejaculated "Hein!  Heing!" as yet another scheme for
making his fortune came into his head.  She had had no education.
An itinerant writing-master had taught her to form a few words.
When Dick Edgeworth was an undergraduate and rode over from Oxford
she fell in love with him and married him in order to escape the
poverty and the mystery and the dirt, and to have a husband and
children like other women.  But with what result?  Gigantic wheels
ran downhill with the bricklayer's son inside them.  Sailing
carriages took flight and almost wrecked four stage coaches.
Machines did cut turnips, but not very efficiently.  Her little boy
was allowed to roam the country like a poor man's son, bare-legged,
untaught.  And Mr. Day, coming to breakfast and staying to dinner,
argued incessantly about scientific principles and the laws of

But here we encounter one of the pitfalls of this nocturnal
rambling among forgotten worthies.  It is so difficult to keep, as
we must with highly authenticated people, strictly to the facts.
It is so difficult to refrain from making scenes which, if the past
could be recalled, might perhaps be found lacking in accuracy.
With a character like Thomas Day, in particular, whose history
surpasses the bounds of the credible, we find ourselves oozing
amazement, like a sponge which has absorbed so much that it can
retain no more but fairly drips.  Certain scenes have the
fascination which belongs rather to the abundance of fiction than
to the sobriety of fact.  For instance, we conjure up all the drama
of poor Mrs. Edgeworth's daily life; her bewilderment, her
loneliness, her despair, how she must have wondered whether any one
really wanted machines to climb walls, and assured the gentlemen
that turnips were better cut simply with a knife, and so blundered
and floundered and been snubbed that she dreaded the almost daily
arrival of the tall young man with his pompous, melancholy face,
marked by the smallpox, his profusion of uncombed black hair, and
his finical cleanliness of hands and person.  He talked fast,
fluently, incessantly, for hours at a time about philosophy and
nature, and M. Rousseau.  Yet it was her house; she had to see to
his meals, and, though he ate as though he were half asleep, his
appetite was enormous.  But it was no use complaining to her
husband.  Edgeworth said, "She lamented about trifles".  He went on
to say:  "The lamenting of a female with whom we live does not
render home delightful".  And then, with his obtuse open-
mindedness, he asked her what she had to complain of.  Did he ever
leave her alone?  In the five or six years of their married life he
had slept from home not more than five or six times.  Mr. Day could
corroborate that.  Mr. Day corroborated everything that Mr.
Edgeworth said.  He egged him on with his experiments.  He told him
to leave his son without education.  He did not care a rap what the
people of Henley said.  In short, he was at the bottom of all the
absurdities and extravagances which made Mrs. Edgeworth's life a
burden to her.

Yet let us choose another scene--one of the last that poor Mrs.
Edgeworth was to behold.  She was returning from Lyons, and Mr. Day
was her escort.  A more singular figure, as he stood on the deck of
the packet which took them to Dover, very tall, very upright, one
finger in the breast of his coat, letting the wind blow his hair
out, dressed absurdly, though in the height of fashion, wild,
romantic, yet at the same time authoritative and pompous, could
scarcely be imagined; and this strange creature, who loathed women,
was in charge of a lady who was about to become a mother, had
adopted two orphan girls, and had set himself to win the hand of
Miss Elizabeth Sneyd by standing between boards for six hours daily
in order to learn to dance.  Now and again he pointed his toe with
rigid precision; then, waking from the congenial dream into which
the dark clouds, the flying waters, and the shadow of England upon
the horizon had thrown him, he rapped out an order in the smart,
affected tones of a man of the world.  The sailors stared, but they
obeyed.  There was something sincere about him, something proudly
indifferent to what you thought; yes, something comforting and
humane, too, so that Mrs. Edgeworth for her part was determined
never to laugh at him again.  But men were strange; life was
difficult, and with a sigh of bewilderment, perhaps of relief, poor
Mrs. Edgeworth landed at Dover, was brought to bed of a daughter,
and died.

Day meanwhile proceeded to Lichfield.  Elizabeth Sneyd, of course,
refused him--gave a great cry, people said; exclaimed that she had
loved Day the blackguard, but hated Day the gentleman, and rushed
from the room.  And then, they said, a terrible thing happened.
Mr. Day, in his rage, bethought him of the orphan, Sabrina Sydney,
whom he had bred to be his wife; visited her at Sutton Coldfield;
flew into a passion at the sight of her; fired a pistol at her
skirts, poured melted sealing-wax over her arms, and boxed her
ears.  "No; I could never have done that", Mr. Edgeworth used to
say, when people described the scene.  And whenever, to the end of
his life, he thought of Thomas Day, he fell silent.  So great, so
passionate, so inconsistent--his life had been a tragedy, and in
thinking of his friend, the best friend he had ever had, Richard
Edgeworth fell silent.

It is almost the only occasion upon which silence is recorded of
him.  To muse, to repent, to contemplate were foreign to his
nature.  His wife and friends and children are silhouetted with
extreme vividness upon a broad disc of interminable chatter.  Upon
no other background could we realise so clearly the sharp fragment
of his first wife, or the shades and depths which make up the
character, at once humane and brutal, advanced and hidebound, of
the inconsistent philosopher, Thomas Day.  But his power is not
limited to people; landscapes, groups, societies seem, even as he
describes them, to split off from him, to be projected away, so
that we are able to run just ahead of him and anticipate his
coming.  They are brought out all the more vividly by the extreme
incongruity which so often marks his comment and stamps his
presence; they live with a peculiar beauty, fantastic, solemn,
mysterious, in contrast with Edgeworth, who is none of these
things.  In particular, he brings before us a garden in Cheshire,
the garden of a parsonage, an ancient but commodious parsonage.

One pushed through a white gate and found oneself in a grass court,
small but well kept, with roses growing in the hedges and grapes
hanging from the walls.  But what, in the name of wonder, were
those objects in the middle of the grass plot?  Through the dusk of
an autumn evening there shone out an enormous white globe.  Round
it at various distances were others of different sizes--the planets
and their satellites, it seemed.  But who could have placed them
there, and why?  The house was silent; the windows shut; nobody was
stirring.  Then, furtively peeping from behind a curtain, appeared
for a second the face of an elderly man, handsome, dishevelled,
distraught.  It vanished.

In some mysterious way, human beings inflict their own vagaries
upon nature.  Moths and birds must have flitted more silently
through the little garden; over everything must have brooded the
same fantastic peace.  Then, red-faced, garrulous, inquisitive, in
burst Richard Lovell Edgeworth.  He looked at the globes; he
satisfied himself that they were of "accurate design and
workmanlike construction".  He knocked at the door.  He knocked and
knocked.  No one came.  At length, as his impatience was overcoming
him, slowly the latch was undone, gradually the door was opened; a
clergyman, neglected, unkempt, but still a gentleman, stood before
him.  Edgeworth named himself, and they retired to a parlour
littered with books and papers and valuable furniture now fallen to
decay.  At last, unable to control his curiosity any longer,
Edgeworth asked what were the globes in the garden?  Instantly the
clergyman displayed extreme agitation.  It was his son who had made
them, he exclaimed; a boy of genius, a boy of the greatest
industry, and of virtue and acquirements far beyond his age.  But
he had died.  His wife had died.  Edgeworth tried to turn the
conversation, but in vain.  The poor man rushed on passionately,
incoherently about his son, his genius, his death.  "It struck me
that his grief had injured his understanding", said Edgeworth, and
he was becoming more and more uncomfortable, when the door opened
and a girl of fourteen or fifteen entering with a tea-tray in her
hand, suddenly changed the course of his host's conversation.
Indeed, she was beautiful; dressed in white; her nose a shade too
prominent, perhaps--but no, her proportions were exquisitely right.
"She is a scholar and an artist!" the clergyman exclaimed as she
left the room.  But why did she leave the room?  If she was his
daughter why did she not preside at the tea-table?  Was she his
mistress?  Who was she?  And why was the house in this state of
litter and decay?  Why was the front door locked?  Why was the
clergyman apparently a prisoner, and what was his secret story?
Questions began to crowd into Edgeworth's head as he sat drinking
his tea; but he could only shake his head and make one last
reflection, "I feared that something was not right", as he shut the
white wicket gate behind him, and left alone for ever in the untidy
house among the planets and their satellites, the mad clergyman and
the lovely girl.



Let us bother the librarian once again.  Let us ask him to reach
down, dust, and hand over to us that little brown book over there,
the Memoirs of Mrs. Pilkington, three volumes bound in one, printed
by Peter Hoey in Dublin, MDCCLXXVI.  The deepest obscurity shades
her retreat; the dust lies heavy on her tomb--one board is loose,
that is to say, and nobody has read her since early in the last
century when a reader, presumably a lady, whether disgusted by her
obscenity or stricken by the hand of death, left off in the middle
and marked her place with a faded list of goods and groceries.  If
ever a woman wanted a champion, it is obviously Laetitia
Pilkington.  Who then was she?

Can you imagine a very extraordinary cross between Moll Flanders
and Lady Ritchie, between a rolling and rollicking woman of the
town and a lady of breeding and refinement?  Laetitia Pilkington
(1712-1759) was something of the sort--shady, shifty, adventurous,
and yet, like Thackeray's daughter, like Miss Mitford, like Madame
de Sévigné and Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth, so imbued with the
old traditions of her sex that she wrote, as ladies talk, to give
pleasure.  Throughout her Memoirs, we can never forget that it is
her wish to entertain, her unhappy fate to sob.  Dabbing her eyes
and controlling her anguish, she begs us to forgive an odious
breach of manners which only the suffering of a lifetime, the
intolerable persecutions of Mr. P----n, the malignant, she must say
the h----h, spite of Lady C----t can excuse.  For who should know
better than the Earl of Killmallock's great-granddaughter that it
is the part of a lady to hide her sufferings?  Thus Laetitia is in
the great tradition of English women of letters.  It is her duty to
entertain; it is her instinct to conceal.  Still, though her room
near the Royal Exchange is threadbare, and the table is spread with
old play-bills instead of a cloth, and the butter is served in a
shoe, and Mr. Worsdale has used the teapot to fetch small beer that
very morning, still she presides, still she entertains.  Her
language is a trifle coarse, perhaps.  But who taught her English?
The great Doctor Swift.

In all her wanderings, which were many, and in her failings, which
were great, she looked back to those early Irish days when Swift
had pinched her into propriety of speech.  He had beaten her for
fumbling at a drawer: he had daubed her cheeks with burnt cork to
try her temper; he had bade her pull off her shoes and stockings
and stand against the wainscot and let him measure her.  At first
she had refused; then she had yielded.  "Why," said the Dean, "I
suspected you had either broken Stockings or foul toes, and in
either case should have delighted to expose you."  Three feet two
inches was all she measured, he declared, though, as Laetitia
complained, the weight of Swift's hand on her head had made her
shrink to half her size.  But she was foolish to complain.
Probably she owed her intimacy to that very fact--she was only
three feet two.  Swift had lived a lifetime among the giants; now
there was a charm in dwarfs.  He took the little creature into his
library.  "'Well,' said he, 'I have brought you here to show you
all the Money I got when I was in the Ministry, but don't steal any
of it.'  'I won't, indeed, Sir,' said I; so he opened a Cabinet,
and showed me a whole parcel of empty drawers.  'Bless me,' says
he, 'the Money is flown.'"  There was a charm in her surprise;
there was a charm in her humility.  He could beat her and bully
her, make her shout when he was deaf, force her husband to drink
the lees of the wine, pay their cab fares, stuff guineas into a
piece of gingerbread, and relent surprisingly, as if there were
something grimly pleasing to him in the thought of so foolish a
midget setting up to have a life and a mind of her own.  For with
Swift she was herself; it was the effect of his genius.  She had to
pull off her stockings if he told her to.  So, though his satire
terrified her, and she found it highly unpleasant to dine at the
Deanery and see him watching, in the great glass which hung before
him for that purpose, the butler stealing beer at the sideboard,
she knew that it was a privilege to walk with him in his garden; to
hear him talk of Mr. Pope and quote Hudibras; and then be hustled
back in the rain to save coach hire, and then to sit chatting in
the parlour with Mrs. Brent, the housekeeper, about the Dean's
oddity and charity, and how the sixpence he saved on the coach he
gave to the lame old man who sold gingerbread at the corner, while
the Dean dashed up the front stairs and down the back so violently
that she was afraid he would fall and hurt himself.

But memories of great men are no infallible specific.  They fall
upon the race of life like beams from a lighthouse.  They flash,
they shock, they reveal, they vanish.  To remember Swift was of
little avail to Laetitia when the troubles of life came thick about
her.  Mr. Pilkington left her for Widow W--rr--n.  Her father--her
dear father--died.  The sheriff's officers insulted her.  She was
deserted in an empty house with two children to provide for.  The
tea chest was secured, the garden gate locked, and the bills left
unpaid.  And still she was young and attractive and gay, with an
inordinate passion for scribbling verses and an incredible hunger
for reading books.  It was this that was her undoing.  The book was
fascinating and the hour late.  The gentleman would not lend it,
but would stay till she had finished.  They sat in her bedroom.  It
was highly indiscreet, she owned.  Suddenly twelve watchmen broke
through the kitchen window, and Mr. Pilkington appeared with a
cambric handkerchief tied about his neck.  Swords were drawn and
heads broken.  As for her excuse, how could one expect Mr.
Pilkington and the twelve watchmen to believe that?  Only reading!
Only sitting up late to finish a new book!  Mr. Pilkington and the
watchmen interpreted the situation as such men would.  But lovers
of learning, she is persuaded, will understand her passion and
deplore its consequences.

And now what was she to do?  Reading had played her false, but
still she could write.  Ever since she could form her letters,
indeed, she had written, with incredible speed and considerable
grace, odes, addresses, apostrophes to Miss Hoadley, to the
Recorder of Dublin, to Dr. Delville's place in the country.  "Hail,
happy Delville, blissful seat!"  "Is there a man whose fixed and
steady gaze----"--the verses flowed without the slightest
difficulty on the slightest occasion.  Now, therefore, crossing to
England, she set up, as her advertisement had it, to write letters
upon any subject, except the law, for twelve pence ready money, and
no trust given.  She lodged opposite White's Chocolate House, and
there, in the evening, as she watered her flowers on the leads, the
noble gentlemen in the window across the road drank her health,
sent her over a bottle of burgundy; and later she heard old Colonel
------ crying, "Poke after me, my lord, poke after me," as he
shepherded the D---- of M--lb--gh up her dark stairs.  That lovely
gentleman, who honoured his title by wearing it, kissed her,
complimented her, opened his pocket-book, and left her with a bank-
note for fifty pounds upon Sir Francis Child.  Such tributes
stimulated her pen to astonishing outbursts of impromptu gratitude.
If, on the other hand, a gentleman refused to buy or a lady hinted
impropriety, this same flowery pen writhed and twisted in agonies
of hate and vituperation.  "Had I said that your F----r died
Blaspheming the Almighty", one of her accusations begins, but the
end is unprintable.  Great ladies were accused of every depravity,
and the clergy, unless their taste in poetry was above reproach,
suffered an incessant castigation.  Mr. Pilkington, she never
forgot, was a clergyman.

Slowly but surely the Earl of Killmallock's great-granddaughter
descended in the social scale.  From St. James's Street and its
noble benefactors she migrated to Green Street to lodge with Lord
Stair's valet de chambre and his wife, who washed for persons of
distinction.  She, who had dallied with dukes, was glad for
company's sake to take a hand at quadrille with footmen and
laundresses and Grub Street writers, who, as they drank porter,
sipped green tea, and smoked tobacco, told stories of the utmost
scurrility about their masters and mistresses.  The spiciness of
their conversation made amends for the vulgarity of their manners.
From them Laetitia picked up those anecdotes of the great which
sprinkled her pages with dashes and served her purpose when
subscribers failed and landladies grew insolent.  Indeed, it was a
hard life--to trudge to Chelsea in the snow wearing nothing but a
chintz gown and be put off with a beggarly half-crown by Sir Hans
Sloane; next to tramp to Ormond Street and extract two guineas from
the odious Dr. Meade, which, in her glee, she tossed in the air and
lost in a crack of the floor; to be insulted by footmen; to sit
down to a dish of boiling water because her landlady must not guess
that a pinch of tea was beyond her means.  Twice on moonlight
nights, with the lime trees in flower, she wandered in St. James's
Park and contemplated suicide in Rosamond's Pond.  Once, musing
among the tombs in Westminster Abbey, the door was locked on her,
and she had to spend the night in the pulpit wrapped in a carpet
from the Communion Table to protect herself from the assaults of
rats.  "I long to listen to the young-ey'd cherubims!" she
exclaimed.  But a very different fate was in store for her.  In
spite of Mr. Colley Cibber, and Mr. Richardson, who supplied her
first with gilt-edged notepaper and then with baby linen, those
harpies, her landladies, after drinking her ale, devouring her
lobsters, and failing often for years at a time to comb their hair,
succeeded in driving Swift's friend, and the Earl's great-
granddaughter, to be imprisoned with common debtors in the

Bitterly she cursed her husband, who had made her a lady of
adventure instead of what nature intended, "a harmless household
dove".  More and more wildly she ransacked her brains for
anecdotes, memories, scandals, views about the bottomless nature of
the sea, the inflammable character of the earth--anything that
would fill a page and earn her a guinea.  She remembered that she
had eaten plovers' eggs with Swift.  "Here, Hussey," said he,
"is a Plover's egg.  King William used to give crowns apiece for
them. . . ."  Swift never laughed, she remembered.  He used to suck
in his cheeks instead of laughing.  And what else could she
remember?  A great many gentlemen, a great many landladies; how the
window was thrown up when her father died, and her sister came
downstairs, with the sugar-basin, laughing.  All had been bitterness
and struggle, except that she had loved Shakespeare, known Swift,
and kept through all the shifts and shades of an adventurous career
a gay spirit, something of a lady's breeding, and the gallantry
which, at the end of her short life, led her to crack her joke and
enjoy her duck with death at her heart and duns at her pillow.


It is probable that if Miss Cassandra Austen had had her way we
should have had nothing of Jane Austen's except her novels.  To her
elder sister alone did she write freely; to her alone she confided
her hopes and, if rumour is true, the one great disappointment of
her life; but when Miss Cassandra Austen grew old, and the growth
of her sister's fame made her suspect that a time might come when
strangers would pry and scholars speculate, she burnt, at great
cost to herself, every letter that could gratify their curiosity,
and spared only what she judged too trivial to be of interest.

Hence our knowledge of Jane Austen is derived from a little gossip,
a few letters, and her books.  As for the gossip, gossip which has
survived its day is never despicable; with a little rearrangement
it suits our purpose admirably.  For example, Jane "is not at all
pretty and very prim, unlike a girl of twelve . . . Jane is
whimsical and affected," says little Philadelphia Austen of her
cousin.  Then we have Mrs. Mitford, who knew the Austens as girls
and thought Jane "the prettiest, silliest, most affected husband-
hunting butterfly she ever remembers ".  Next, there is Miss
Mitford's anonymous friend "who visits her now [and] says that she
has stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece
of 'single blessedness' that ever existed, and that, until Pride
and Prejudice showed what a precious gem was hidden in that
unbending case, she was no more regarded in society than a poker or
firescreen. . . .  The case is very different now", the good lady
goes on; "she is still a poker--but a poker of whom everybody is
afraid. . . .  A wit, a delineator of character, who does not talk
is terrific indeed!"  On the other side, of course, there are the
Austens, a race little given to panegyric of themselves, but
nevertheless, they say, her brothers "were very fond and very proud
of her.  They were attached to her by her talents, her virtues, and
her engaging manners, and each loved afterwards to fancy a
resemblance in some niece or daughter of his own to the dear sister
Jane, whose perfect equal they yet never expected to see."
Charming but perpendicular, loved at home but feared by strangers,
biting of tongue but tender of heart--these contrasts are by no
means incompatible, and when we turn to the novels we shall find
ourselves stumbling there too over the same complexities in the

To begin with, that prim little girl whom Philadelphia found so
unlike a child of twelve, whimsical and affected, was soon to be
the authoress of an astonishing and unchildish story, Love and
Freindship,[1] which, incredible though it appears, was written
at the age of fifteen.  It was written, apparently, to amuse the
schoolroom; one of the stories in the same book is dedicated with
mock solemnity to her brother; another is neatly illustrated with
water-colour heads by her sister.  These are jokes which, one
feels, were family property; thrusts of satire, which went home
because all little Austens made mock in common of fine ladies who
"sighed and fainted on the sofa".

[1] Love and Freindship, Chatto and Windus.

Brothers and sisters must have laughed when Jane read out loud her
last hit at the vices which they all abhorred.  "I die a martyr to
my grief for the loss of Augustus.  One fatal swoon has cost me my
life.  Beware of Swoons, Dear Laura. . . .  Run mad as often as you
chuse, but do not faint. . . ."  And on she rushed, as fast as she
could write and quicker than she could spell, to tell the
incredible adventures of Laura and Sophia, of Philander and
Gustavus, of the gentleman who drove a coach between Edinburgh and
Stirling every other day, of the theft of the fortune that was kept
in the table drawer, of the starving mothers and the sons who acted
Macbeth.  Undoubtedly, the story must have roused the schoolroom to
uproarious laughter.  And yet, nothing is more obvious than that
this girl of fifteen, sitting in her private corner of the common
parlour, was writing not to draw a laugh from brother and sisters,
and not for home consumption.  She was writing for everybody, for
nobody, for our age, for her own; in other words, even at that
early age Jane Austen was writing.  One hears it in the rhythm and
shapeliness and severity of the sentences.  "She was nothing more
than a mere good-tempered, civil, and obliging young woman; as such
we could scarcely dislike her--she was only an object of contempt."
Such a sentence is meant to outlast the Christmas holidays.
Spirited, easy, full of fun, verging with freedom upon sheer
nonsense,--Love and Freindship is all that; but what is this note
which never merges in the rest, which sounds distinctly and
penetratingly all through the volume?  It is the sound of laughter.
The girl of fifteen is laughing, in her corner, at the world.

Girls of fifteen are always laughing.  They laugh when Mr. Binney
helps himself to salt instead of sugar.  They almost die of
laughing when old Mrs. Tomkins sits down upon the cat.  But they
are crying the moment after.  They have no fixed abode from which
they see that there is something eternally laughable in human
nature, some quality in men and women that for ever excites our
satire.  They do not know that Lady Greville who snubs, and poor
Maria who is snubbed, are permanent features of every ballroom.
But Jane Austen knew it from her birth upwards.  One of those
fairies who perch upon cradles must have taken her a flight through
the world directly she was born.  When she was laid in the cradle
again she knew not only what the world looked like, but had already
chosen her kingdom.  She had agreed that if she might rule over
that territory, she would covet no other.  Thus at fifteen she had
few illusions about other people and none about herself.  Whatever
she writes is finished and turned and set in its relation, not to
the parsonage, but to the universe.  She is impersonal; she is
inscrutable.  When the writer, Jane Austen, wrote down in the most
remarkable sketch in the book a little of Lady Greville's
conversation, there is no trace of anger at the snub which the
clergyman's daughter, Jane Austen, once received.  Her gaze passes
straight to the mark, and we know precisely where, upon the map of
human nature, that mark is.  We know because Jane Austen kept to
her compact; she never trespassed beyond her boundaries.  Never,
even at the emotional age of fifteen, did she round upon herself in
shame, obliterate a sarcasm in a spasm of compassion, or blur an
outline in a mist of rhapsody.  Spasms and rhapsodies, she seems to
have said, pointing with her stick, end THERE; and the boundary
line is perfectly distinct.  But she does not deny that moons and
mountains and castles exist--on the other side.  She has even one
romance of her own.  It is for the Queen of Scots.  She really
admired her very much.  "One of the first characters in the world",
she called her, "a bewitching Princess whose only friend was then
the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones now Mr. Whitaker, Mrs.
Lefroy, Mrs. Knight and myself."  With these words her passion is
neatly circumscribed, and rounded with a laugh.  It is amusing to
remember in what terms the young Brontë's wrote, not very much
later, in their northern parsonage, about the Duke of Wellington.

The prim little girl grew up.  She became "the prettiest, silliest,
most affected husband-hunting butterfly" Mrs. Mitford ever
remembered, and, incidentally, the authoress of a novel called
Pride and Prejudice, which, written stealthily under cover of a
creaking door, lay for many years unpublished.  A little later, it
is thought, she began another story, The Watsons, and being for
some reason dissatisfied with it, left it unfinished.  The second-
rate works of a great writer are worth reading because they offer
the best criticism of his masterpieces.  Here her difficulties are
more apparent, and the method she took to overcome them less
artfully concealed.  To begin with, the stiffness and the bareness
of the first chapters prove that she was one of those writers who
lay their facts out rather baldly in the first version and then go
back and back and back and cover them with flesh and atmosphere.
How it would have been done we cannot say--by what suppressions and
insertions and artful devices.  But the miracle would have been
accomplished; the dull history of fourteen years of family life
would have been converted into another of those exquisite and
apparently effortless introductions; and we should never have
guessed what pages of preliminary drudgery Jane Austen forced her
pen to go through.  Here we perceive that she was no conjuror after
all.  Like other writers, she had to create the atmosphere in which
her own peculiar genius could bear fruit.  Here she fumbles; here
she keeps us waiting.  Suddenly she has done it; now things can
happen as she likes things to happen.  The Edwardses are going to
the ball.  The Tomlinsons' carriage is passing; she can tell us
that Charles is "being provided with his gloves and told to keep
them on"; Tom Musgrave retreats to a remote corner with a barrel of
oysters and is famously snug.  Her genius is freed and active.  At
once our senses quicken; we are possessed with the peculiar
intensity which she alone can impart.  But of what is it all
composed?  Of a ball in a country town; a few couples meeting and
taking hands in an assembly room; a little eating and drinking; and
for catastrophe, a boy being snubbed by one young lady and kindly
treated by another.  There is no tragedy and no heroism.  Yet for
some reason the little scene is moving out of all proportion to its
surface solemnity.  We have been made to see that if Emma acted so
in the ball-room, how considerate, how tender, inspired by what
sincerity of feeling she would have shown herself in those graver
crises of life which, as we watch her, come inevitably before our
eyes.  Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than
appears upon the surface.  She stimulates us to supply what is not
there.  What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed
of something that expands in the reader's mind and endows with the
most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial.
Always the stress is laid upon character.  How, we are made to
wonder, will Emma behave when Lord Osborne and Tom Musgrave make
their call at five minutes before three, just as Mary is bringing
in the tray and the knife-case?  It is an extremely awkward
situation.  The young men are accustomed to much greater
refinement.  Emma may prove herself ill-bred, vulgar, a nonentity.
The turns and twists of the dialogue keep us on the tenterhooks of
suspense.  Our attention is half upon the present moment, half upon
the future.  And when, in the end, Emma behaves in such a way as to
vindicate our highest hopes of her, we are moved as if we had been
made witnesses of a matter of the highest importance.  Here,
indeed, in this unfinished and in the main inferior story, are all
the elements of Jane Austen's greatness.  It has the permanent
quality of literature.  Think away the surface animation, the
likeness to life, and there remains, to provide a deeper pleasure,
an exquisite discrimination of human values.  Dismiss this too from
the mind and one can dwell with extreme satisfaction upon the more
abstract art which, in the ball-room scene, so varies the emotions
and proportions the parts that it is possible to enjoy it, as one
enjoys poetry, for itself, and not as a link which carries the
story this way and that.

But the gossip says of Jane Austen that she was perpendicular,
precise, and taciturn--"a poker of whom everybody is afraid".  Of
this too there are traces; she could be merciless enough; she is
one of the most consistent satirists in the whole of literature.
Those first angular chapters of The Watsons prove that hers was not
a prolific genius; she had not, like Emily Brontë, merely to open
the door to make herself felt.  Humbly and gaily she collected the
twigs and straws out of which the nest was to be made and placed
them neatly together.  The twigs and straws were a little dry and a
little dusty in themselves.  There was the big house and the little
house; a tea party, a dinner party, and an occasional picnic; life
was hedged in by valuable connections and adequate incomes; by
muddy roads, wet feet, and a tendency on the part of the ladies to
get tired; a little principle supported it, a little consequence,
and the education commonly enjoyed by upper middle-class families
living in the country.  Vice, adventure, passion were left outside.
But of all this prosiness, of all this littleness, she evades
nothing, and nothing is slurred over.  Patiently and precisely she
tells us how they "made no stop anywhere till they reached Newbury,
where a comfortable meal, uniting dinner and supper, wound up the
enjoyments and fatigues of the day".  Nor does she pay to
conventions merely the tribute of lip homage; she believes in them
besides accepting them.  When she is describing a clergyman, like
Edmund Bertram, or a sailor, in particular, she appears debarred by
the sanctity of his office from the free use of her chief tool, the
comic genius, and is apt therefore to lapse into decorous panegyric
or matter-of-fact description.  But these are exceptions; for the
most part her attitude recalls the anonymous lady's ejaculation--"A
wit, a delineator of character, who does not talk is terrific
indeed!"  She wishes neither to reform nor to annihilate; she is
silent; and that is terrific indeed.  One after another she creates
her fools, her prigs, her worldlings, her Mr. Collinses, her Sir
Walter Elliotts, her Mrs. Bennets.  She encircles them with the
lash of a whip-like phrase which, as it runs round them, cuts out
their silhouettes for ever.  But there they remain; no excuse is
found for them and no mercy shown them.  Nothing remains of Julia
and Maria Bertram when she has done with them; Lady Bertram is left
"sitting and calling to Pug and trying to keep him from the flower-
beds" eternally.  A divine justice is meted out; Dr. Grant, who
begins by liking his goose tender, ends by bringing on "apoplexy
and death, by three great institutionary dinners in one week".
Sometimes it seems as if her creatures were born merely to give
Jane Austen the supreme delight of slicing their heads off.  She is
satisfied; she is content; she would not alter a hair on anybody's
head, or move one brick or one blade of grass in a world which
provides her with such exquisite delight.

Nor, indeed, would we.  For even if the pangs of outraged vanity,
or the heat of moral wrath, urged us to improve away a world so
full of spite, pettiness, and folly, the task is beyond our powers.
People are like that--the girl of fifteen knew it; the mature woman
proves it.  At this very moment some Lady Bertram is trying to keep
Pug from the flower beds; she sends Chapman to help Miss Fanny a
little late.  The discrimination is so perfect, the satire so just,
that, consistent though it is, it almost escapes our notice.  No
touch of pettiness, no hint of spite, rouse us from our
contemplation.  Delight strangely mingles with our amusement.
Beauty illumines these fools.

That elusive quality is, indeed, often made up of very different
parts, which it needs a peculiar genius to bring together.  The wit
of Jane Austen has for partner the perfection of her taste.  Her
fool is a fool, her snob is a snob, because he departs from the
model of sanity and sense which she has in mind, and conveys to us
unmistakably even while she makes us laugh.  Never did any novelist
make more use of an impeccable sense of human values.  It is
against the disc of an unerring heart, an unfailing good taste, an
almost stern morality, that she shows up those deviations from
kindness, truth, and sincerity which are among the most delightful
things in English literature.  She depicts a Mary Crawford in her
mixture of good and bad entirely by this means.  She lets her
rattle on against the clergy, or in favour of a baronetage and ten
thousand a year, with all the ease and spirit possible; but now and
again she strikes one note of her own, very quietly, but in perfect
tune, and at once all Mary Crawford's chatter, though it continues
to amuse, rings flat.  Hence the depth, the beauty, the complexity
of her scenes.  From such contrasts there comes a beauty, a
solemnity even, which are not only as remarkable as her wit, but an
inseparable part of it.  In The Watsons she gives us a foretaste of
this power; she makes us wonder why an ordinary act of kindness, as
she describes it, becomes so full of meaning.  In her masterpieces,
the same gift is brought to perfection.  Here is nothing out of the
way; it is midday in Northamptonshire; a dull young man is talking
to rather a weakly young woman on the stairs as they go up to dress
for dinner, with housemaids passing.  But, from triviality, from
commonplace, their words become suddenly full of meaning, and the
moment for both one of the most memorable in their lives.  It fills
itself; it shines; it glows; it hangs before us, deep, trembling,
serene for a second; next, the housemaid passes, and this drop, in
which all the happiness of life has collected, gently subsides
again to become part of the ebb and flow of ordinary existence.

What more natural, then, with this insight into their profundity,
than that Jane Austen should have chosen to write of the
trivialities of day-to-day existence, of parties, picnics, and
country dances?  No "suggestions to alter her style of writing"
from the Prince Regent or Mr. Clarke could tempt her; no romance,
no adventure, no politics or intrigue could hold a candle to life
on a country-house staircase as she saw it.  Indeed, the Prince
Regent and his librarian had run their heads against a very
formidable obstacle; they were trying to tamper with an
incorruptible conscience, to disturb an infallible discretion.  The
child who formed her sentences so finely when she was fifteen never
ceased to form them, and never wrote for the Prince Regent or his
Librarian, but for the world at large.  She knew exactly what her
powers were, and what material they were fitted to deal with as
material should be dealt with by a writer whose standard of
finality was high.  There were impressions that lay outside her
province; emotions that by no stretch or artifice could be properly
coated and covered by her own resources.  For example, she could
not make a girl talk enthusiastically of banners and chapels.  She
could not throw herself whole-heartedly into a romantic moment.
She had all sorts of devices for evading scenes of passion.  Nature
and its beauties she approached in a sidelong way of her own.  She
describes a beautiful night without once mentioning the moon.
Nevertheless, as we read the few formal phrases about "the
brilliancy of an unclouded night and the contrast of the deep shade
of the woods", the night is at once as "solemn, and soothing, and
lovely" as she tells us, quite simply, that it was.

The balance of her gifts was singularly perfect.  Among her
finished novels there are no failures, and among her many chapters
few that sink markedly below the level of the others.  But, after
all, she died at the age of forty-two.  She died at the height of
her powers.  She was still subject to those changes which often
make the final period of a writer's career the most interesting of
all.  Vivacious, irrepressible, gifted with an invention of great
vitality, there can be no doubt that she would have written more,
had she lived, and it is tempting to consider whether she would not
have written differently.  The boundaries were marked; moons,
mountains, and castles lay on the other side.  But was she not
sometimes tempted to trespass for a minute?  Was she not beginning,
in her own gay and brilliant manner, to contemplate a little voyage
of discovery?

Let us take Persuasion, the last completed novel, and look by its
light at the books she might have written had she lived.  There is
a peculiar beauty and a peculiar dullness in Persuasion.  The
dullness is that which so often marks the transition stage between
two different periods.  The writer is a little bored.  She has
grown too familiar with the ways of her world; she no longer notes
them freshly.  There is an asperity in her comedy which suggests
that she has almost ceased to be amused by the vanities of a Sir
Walter or the snobbery of a Miss Elliott.  The satire is harsh, and
the comedy crude.  She is no longer so freshly aware of the
amusements of daily life.  Her mind is not altogether on her
object.  But, while we feel that Jane Austen has done this before,
and done it better, we also feel that she is trying to do something
which she has never yet attempted.  There is a new element in
Persuasion, the quality, perhaps, that made Dr. Whewell fire up and
insist that it was "the most beautiful of her works".  She is
beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious,
and more romantic than she had supposed.  We feel it to be true of
herself when she says of Anne:  "She had been forced into prudence
in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older--the natural
sequel of an unnatural beginning".  She dwells frequently upon the
beauty and the melancholy of nature, upon the autumn where she had
been wont to dwell upon the spring.  She talks of the "influence so
sweet and so sad of autumnal months in the country".  She marks
"the tawny leaves and withered hedges".  "One does not love a place
the less because one has suffered in it", she observes.  But it is
not only in a new sensibility to nature that we detect the change.
Her attitude to life itself is altered.  She is seeing it, for the
greater part of the book, through the eyes of a woman who, unhappy
herself, has a special sympathy for the happiness and unhappiness
of others, which, until the very end, she is forced to comment upon
in silence.  Therefore the observation is less of facts and more of
feelings than is usual.  There is an expressed emotion in the scene
at the concert and in the famous talk about woman's constancy which
proves not merely the biographical fact that Jane Austen had loved,
but the aesthetic fact that she was no longer afraid to say so.
Experience, when it was of a serious kind, had to sink very deep,
and to be thoroughly disinfected by the passage of time, before she
allowed herself to deal with it in fiction.  But now, in 1817, she
was ready.  Outwardly, too, in her circumstances, a change was
imminent.  Her fame had grown very slowly.  "I doubt ", wrote Mr.
Austen Leigh, "whether it would be possible to mention any other
author of note whose personal obscurity was so complete."  Had she
lived a few more years only, all that would have been altered.  She
would have stayed in London, dined out, lunched out, met famous
people, made new friends, read, travelled, and carried back to the
quiet country cottage a hoard of observations to feast upon at

And what effect would all this have had upon the six novels that
Jane Austen did not write?  She would not have written of crime, of
passion, or of adventure.  She would not have been rushed by the
importunity of publishers or the flattery of friends into
slovenliness or insincerity.  But she would have known more.  Her
sense of security would have been shaken.  Her comedy would have
suffered.  She would have trusted less (this is already perceptible
in Persuasion) to dialogue and more to reflection to give us a
knowledge of her characters.  Those marvellous little speeches
which sum up, in a few minutes' chatter, all that we need in order
to know an Admiral Croft or a Mrs. Musgrove for ever, that
shorthand, hit-or-miss method which contains chapters of analysis
and psychology, would have become too crude to hold all that she
now perceived of the complexity of human nature.  She would have
devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more
suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they
leave unsaid; not only what they are, but what life is.  She would
have stood farther away from her characters, and seen them more as
a group, less as individuals.  Her satire, while it played less
incessantly, would have been more stringent and severe.  She would
have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust--but enough.
Vain are these speculations: the most perfect artist among women,
the writer whose books are immortal, died "just as she was
beginning to feel confidence in her own success".


In making any survey, even the freest and loosest, of modern
fiction, it is difficult not to take it for granted that the modern
practice of the art is somehow an improvement upon the old.  With
their simple tools and primitive materials, it might be said,
Fielding did well and Jane Austen even better, but compare their
opportunities with ours!  Their masterpieces certainly have a
strange air of simplicity.  And yet the analogy between literature
and the process, to choose an example, of making motor cars
scarcely holds good beyond the first glance.  It is doubtful
whether in the course of the centuries, though we have learnt much
about making machines, we have learnt anything about making
literature.  We do not come to write better; all that we can be
said to do is to keep moving, now a little in this direction, now
in that, but with a circular tendency should the whole course of
the track be viewed from a sufficiently lofty pinnacle.  It need
scarcely be said that we make no claim to stand, even momentarily,
upon that vantage ground.  On the flat, in the crowd, half blind
with dust, we look back with envy to those happier warriors, whose
battle is won and whose achievements wear so serene an air of
accomplishment that we can scarcely refrain from whispering that
the fight was not so fierce for them as for us.  It is for the
historian of literature to decide; for him to say if we are now
beginning or ending or standing in the middle of a great period of
prose fiction, for down in the plain little is visible.  We only
know that certain gratitudes and hostilities inspire us; that
certain paths seem to lead to fertile land, others to the dust and
the desert; and of this perhaps it may be worth while to attempt
some account.

Our quarrel, then, is not with the classics, and if we speak of
quarrelling with Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy, it is
partly that by the mere fact of their existence in the flesh their
work has a living, breathing, everyday imperfection which bids us
take what liberties with it we choose.  But it is also true that,
while we thank them for a thousand gifts, we reserve our
unconditional gratitude for Mr. Hardy, for Mr. Conrad, and in a
much lesser degree for the Mr. Hudson of The Purple Land, Green
Mansions, and Far Away and Long Ago.  Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and
Mr. Galsworthy have excited so many hopes and disappointed them so
persistently that our gratitude largely takes the form of thanking
them for having shown us what they might have done but have not
done; what we certainly could not do, but as certainly, perhaps, do
not wish to do.  No single phrase will sum up the charge or
grievance which we have to bring against a mass of work so large in
its volume and embodying so many qualities, both admirable and the
reverse.  If we tried to formulate our meaning in one word we
should say that these three writers are materialists.  It is
because they are concerned not with the spirit but with the body
that they have disappointed us, and left us with the feeling that
the sooner English fiction turns its back upon them, as politely as
may be, and marches, if only into the desert, the better for its
soul.  Naturally, no single word reaches the centre of three
separate targets.  In the case of Mr. Wells it falls notably wide
of the mark.  And yet even with him it indicates to our thinking
the fatal alloy in his genius, the great clod of clay that has got
itself mixed up with the purity of his inspiration.  But Mr.
Bennett is perhaps the worst culprit of the three, inasmuch as he
is by far the best workman.  He can make a book so well constructed
and solid in its craftsmanship that it is difficult for the most
exacting of critics to see through what chink or crevice decay can
creep in.  There is not so much as a draught between the frames of
the windows, or a crack in the boards.  And yet--if life should
refuse to live there?  That is a risk which the creator of The Old
Wives' Tale, George Cannon, Edwin Clayhanger, and hosts of other
figures, may well claim to have surmounted.  His characters live
abundantly, even unexpectedly, but it remains to ask how do they
live, and what do they live for?  More and more they seem to us,
deserting even the well-built villa in the Five Towns, to spend
their time in some softly padded first-class railway carriage,
pressing bells and buttons innumerable; and the destiny to which
they travel so luxuriously becomes more and more unquestionably an
eternity of bliss spent in the very best hotel in Brighton.  It can
scarcely be said of Mr. Wells that he is a materialist in the sense
that he takes too much delight in the solidity of his fabric.  His
mind is too generous in its sympathies to allow him to spend much
time in making things shipshape and substantial.  He is a
materialist from sheer goodness of heart, taking upon his shoulders
the work that ought to have been discharged by Government
officials, and in the plethora of his ideas and facts scarcely
having leisure to realise, or forgetting to think important, the
crudity and coarseness of his human beings.  Yet what more damaging
criticism can there be both of his earth and of his Heaven than
that they are to be inhabited here and hereafter by his Joans and
his Peters?  Does not the inferiority of their natures tarnish
whatever institutions and ideals may be provided for them by the
generosity of their creator?  Nor, profoundly though we respect the
integrity and humanity of Mr. Galsworthy, shall we find what we
seek in his pages.

If we fasten, then, one label on all these books, on which is one
word materialists, we mean by it that they write of unimportant
things; that they spend immense skill and immense industry making
the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.

We have to admit that we are exacting, and, further, that we find
it difficult to justify our discontent by explaining what it is
that we exact.  We frame our question differently at different
times.  But it reappears most persistently as we drop the finished
novel on the crest of a sigh--Is it worth while?  What is the point
of it all?  Can it be that, owing to one of those little deviations
which the human spirit seems to make from time to time, Mr. Bennett
has come down with his magnificent apparatus for catching life just
an inch or two on the wrong side?  Life escapes; and perhaps
without life nothing else is worth while.  It is a confession of
vagueness to have to make use of such a figure as this, but we
scarcely better the matter by speaking, as critics are prone to do,
of reality.  Admitting the vagueness which afflicts all criticism
of novels, let us hazard the opinion that for us at this moment the
form of fiction most in vogue more often misses than secures the
thing we seek.  Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or
reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and
refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as
we provide.  Nevertheless, we go on perseveringly, conscientiously,
constructing our two and thirty chapters after a design which more
and more ceases to resemble the vision in our minds.  So much of
the enormous labour of proving the solidity, the likeness to life,
of the story is not merely labour thrown away but labour misplaced
to the extent of obscuring and blotting out the light of the
conception.  The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will
but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall,
to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and
an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable that if all
his figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed
down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour.
The tyrant is obeyed; the novel is done to a turn.  But sometimes,
more and more often as time goes by, we suspect a momentary doubt,
a spasm of rebellion, as the pages fill themselves in the customary
way.  Is life like this?  Must novels be like this?

Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being "like this".
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.  The mind
receives a myriad impressions--trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or
engraved with the sharpness of steel.  From all sides they come, an
incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they
shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent
falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not
here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a
slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he
could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention,
there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or
catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button
sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it.  Life is not a
series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous
halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning
of consciousness to the end.  Is it not the task of the novelist to
convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit,
whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little
mixture of the alien and external as possible?  We are not pleading
merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper
stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us
believe it.

It is, at any rate, in some such fashion as this that we seek to
define the quality which distinguishes the work of several young
writers, among whom Mr. James Joyce is the most notable, from that
of their predecessors.  They attempt to come closer to life, and to
preserve more sincerely and exactly what interests and moves them,
even if to do so they must discard most of the conventions which
are commonly observed by the novelist.  Let us record the atoms as
they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us
trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in
appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the
consciousness.  Let us not take it for granted that life exists
more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly
thought small.  Any one who has read The Portrait of the Artist as
a Young Man or, what promises to be a far more interesting work,
Ulysses,[1] now appearing in the Little Review, will have hazarded
some theory of this nature as to Mr. Joyce's intention.  On our
part, with such a fragment before us, it is hazarded rather than
affirmed; but whatever the intention of the whole, there can be no
question but that it is of the utmost sincerity and that the
result, difficult or unpleasant as we may judge it, is undeniably
important.  In contrast with those whom we have called materialists,
Mr. Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the
flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages
through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with
complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be
probability, or coherence, or any other of these signposts which for
generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when
called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see.  The scene
in the cemetery, for instance, with its brilliancy, its sordidity,
its incoherence, its sudden lightning flashes of significance, does
undoubtedly come so close to the quick of the mind that, on a first
reading at any rate, it is difficult not to acclaim a masterpiece.
If we want life itself, here surely we have it.  Indeed, we find
ourselves fumbling rather awkwardly if we try to say what else we
wish, and for what reason a work of such originality yet fails to
compare, for we must take high examples, with Youth or The Mayor of
Casterbridge.  It fails because of the comparative poverty of the
writer's mind, we might say simply and have done with it.  But it is
possible to press a little further and wonder whether we may not
refer our sense of being in a bright yet narrow room, confined and
shut in, rather than enlarged and set free, to some limitation
imposed by the method as well as by the mind.  Is it the method that
inhibits the creative power?  Is it due to the method that we feel
neither jovial nor magnanimous, but centred in a self which, in
spite of its tremor of susceptibility, never embraces or creates
what is outside itself and beyond?  Does the emphasis laid, perhaps
didactically, upon indecency, contribute to the effect of something
angular and isolated?  Or is it merely that in any effort of such
originality it is much easier, for contemporaries especially, to
feel what it lacks than to name what it gives?  In any case it is a
mistake to stand outside examining "methods".  Any method is right,
every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express, if we
are writers; that brings us closer to the novelist's intention if we
are readers.  This method has the merit of bringing us closer to
what we were prepared to call life itself; did not the reading of
Ulysses suggest how much of life is excluded or ignored, and did it
not come with a shock to open Tristram Shandy or even Pendennis and
be by them convinced that there are not only other aspects of life,
but more important ones into the bargain.

[1] Written April 1919.

However this may be, the problem before the novelist at present, as
we suppose it to have been in the past, is to contrive means of
being free to set down what he chooses.  He has to have the courage
to say that what interests him is no longer "this" but "that": out
of "that" alone must he construct his work.  For the moderns
"that", the point of interest, lies very likely in the dark places
of psychology.  At once, therefore, the accent falls a little
differently; the emphasis is upon something hitherto ignored; at
once a different outline of form becomes necessary, difficult for
us to grasp, incomprehensible to our predecessors.  No one but a
modern, no one perhaps but a Russian, would have felt the interest
of the situation which Tchekov has made into the short story which
he calls "Gusev".  Some Russian soldiers lie ill on board a ship
which is taking them back to Russia.  We are given a few scraps of
their talk and some of their thoughts; then one of them dies and is
carried away; the talk goes on among the others for a time, until
Gusev himself dies, and looking "like a carrot or a radish" is
thrown overboard.  The emphasis is laid upon such unexpected places
that at first it seems as if there were no emphasis at all; and
then, as the eyes accustom themselves to twilight and discern the
shapes of things in a room we see how complete the story is, how
profound, and how truly in obedience to his vision Tchekov has
chosen this, that, and the other, and placed them together to
compose something new.  But it is impossible to say "this is
comic", or "that is tragic", nor are we certain, since short
stories, we have been taught, should be brief and conclusive,
whether this, which is vague and inconclusive, should be called a
short story at all.

The most elementary remarks upon modern English fiction can hardly
avoid some mention of the Russian influence, and if the Russians
are mentioned one runs the risk of feeling that to write of any
fiction save theirs is waste of time.  If we want understanding of
the soul and heart where else shall we find it of comparable
profundity?  If we are sick of our own materialism the least
considerable of their novelists has by right of birth a natural
reverence for the human spirit.  "Learn to make yourself akin to
people. . . .  But let this sympathy be not with the mind--for it
is easy with the mind--but with the heart, with love towards them."
In every great Russian writer we seem to discern the features of a
saint, if sympathy for the sufferings of others, love towards them,
endeavour to reach some goal worthy of the most exacting demands of
the spirit constitute saintliness.  It is the saint in them which
confounds us with a feeling of our own irreligious triviality, and
turns so many of our famous novels to tinsel and trickery.  The
conclusions of the Russian mind, thus comprehensive and
compassionate, are inevitably, perhaps, of the utmost sadness.
More accurately indeed we might speak of the inconclusiveness of
the Russian mind.  It is the sense that there is no answer, that if
honestly examined life presents question after question which must
be left to sound on and on after the story is over in hopeless
interrogation that fills us with a deep, and finally it may be with
a resentful, despair.  They are right perhaps; unquestionably they
see further than we do and without our gross impediments of vision.
But perhaps we see something that escapes them, or why should this
voice of protest mix itself with our gloom?  The voice of protest
is the voice of another and an ancient civilisation which seems to
have bred in us the instinct to enjoy and fight rather than to
suffer and understand.  English fiction from Sterne to Meredith
bears witness to our natural delight in humour and comedy, in the
beauty of earth, in the activities of the intellect, and in the
splendour of the body.  But any deductions that we may draw from
the comparison of two fictions so immeasurably far apart are futile
save indeed as they flood us with a view of the infinite
possibilities of the art and remind us that there is no limit to
the horizon, and that nothing--no "method", no experiment, even of
the wildest--is forbidden, but only falsity and pretence.  "The
proper stuff of fiction" does not exist; everything is the proper
stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of
brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss.  And if
we can imagine the art of fiction come alive and standing in our
midst, she would undoubtedly bid us break her and bully her, as
well as honour and love her, for so her youth is renewed and her
sovereignty assured.


Of the hundred years that have passed since Charlotte Brontë was
born, she, the centre now of so much legend, devotion, and
literature, lived but thirty-nine.  It is strange to reflect how
different those legends might have been had her life reached the
ordinary human span.  She might have become, like some of her
famous contemporaries, a figure familiarly met with in London and
elsewhere, the subject of pictures and anecdotes innumerable, the
writer of many novels, of memoirs possibly, removed from us well
within the memory of the middle-aged in all the splendour of
established fame.  She might have been wealthy, she might have been
prosperous.  But it is not so.  When we think of her we have to
imagine some one who had no lot in our modern world; we have to
cast our minds back to the 'fifties of the last century, to a
remote parsonage upon the wild Yorkshire moors.  In that parsonage,
and on those moors, unhappy and lonely, in her poverty and her
exaltation, she remains for ever.

[1] Written in 1916.

These circumstances, as they affected her character, may have left
their traces on her work.  A novelist, we reflect, is bound to
build up his structure with much very perishable material which
begins by lending it reality and ends by cumbering it with rubbish.
As we open Jane Eyre once more we cannot stifle the suspicion that
we shall find her world of imagination as antiquated, mid-
Victorian, and out of date as the parsonage on the moor, a place
only to be visited by the curious, only preserved by the pious.  So
we open Jane Eyre; and in two pages every doubt is swept clean from
our minds.

Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the
left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating
me from the drear November day.  At intervals, while turning over
the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that winter
afternoon.  Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near,
a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain
sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.

There is nothing there more perishable than the moor itself, or
more subject to the sway of fashion than the "long and lamentable
blast".  Nor is this exhilaration short-lived.  It rushes us
through the entire volume, without giving us time to think, without
letting us lift our eyes from the page.  So intense is our
absorption that if some one moves in the room the movement seems to
take place not there but up in Yorkshire.  The writer has us by the
hand, forces us along her road, makes us see what she sees, never
leaves us for a moment or allows us to forget her.  At the end we
are steeped through and through with the genius, the vehemence, the
indignation of Charlotte Brontë.  Remarkable faces, figures of
strong outline and gnarled feature have flashed upon us in passing;
but it is through her eyes that we have seen them.  Once she is
gone, we seek for them in vain.  Think of Rochester and we have to
think of Jane Eyre.  Think of the moor, and again there is Jane
Eyre.  Think of the drawing-room,[1] even, those "white carpets on
which seemed laid brilliant garlands of flowers", that "pale Parian
mantelpiece" with its Bohemia glass of "ruby red" and the "general
blending of snow and fire"--what is all that except Jane Eyre?

[1] Charlotte and Emily Brontë had much the same sense of colour.
". . . we saw--ah! it was beautiful--a splendid place carpeted with
crimson, and crimson-covered chairs and tables, and a pure white
ceiling bordered by gold, a shower of glass drops hanging in silver
chains from the centre, and shimmering with little soft tapers"
(Wuthering Heights).  "Yet it was merely a very pretty drawing-
room, and within it a boudoir, both spread with white carpets, on
which seemed laid brilliant garlands of flowers; both ceiled with
snowy mouldings of white grapes and vine leaves, beneath which
glowed in rich contrast crimson couches and ottomans; while the
ornaments on the pale Parian mantelpiece were of sparkling Bohemia
glass, ruby red; and between the windows large mirrors repeated the
general blending of snow and fire" (Jane Eyre).

The drawbacks of being Jane Eyre are not far to seek.  Always to be
a governess and always to be in love is a serious limitation in a
world which is full, after all, of people who are neither one nor
the other.  The characters of a Jane Austen or of a Tolstoi have a
million facets compared with these.  They live and are complex by
means of their effect upon many different people who serve to
mirror them in the round.  They move hither and thither whether
their creators watch them or not, and the world in which they live
seems to us an independent world which we can visit, now that they
have created it, by ourselves.  Thomas Hardy is more akin to
Charlotte Brontë in the power of his personality and the narrowness
of his vision.  But the differences are vast.  As we read Jude the
Obscure we are not rushed to a finish; we brood and ponder and
drift away from the text in plethoric trains of thought which build
up round the characters an atmosphere of question and suggestion of
which they are themselves, as often as not, unconscious.  Simple
peasants as they are, we are forced to confront them with destinies
and questionings of the hugest import, so that often it seems as if
the most important characters in a Hardy novel are those which have
no names.  Of this power, of this speculative curiosity, Charlotte
Brontë has no trace.  She does not attempt to solve the problems of
human life; she is even unaware that such problems exist; all her
force, and it is the more tremendous for being constricted, goes
into the assertion, "I love", "I hate", "I suffer".

For the self-centred and self-limited writers have a power denied
the more catholic and broad-minded.  Their impressions are close
packed and strongly stamped between their narrow walls.  Nothing
issues from their minds which has not been marked with their own
impress.  They learn little from other writers, and what they adopt
they cannot assimilate.  Both Hardy and Charlotte Brontë appear to
have founded their styles upon a stiff and decorous journalism.
The staple of their prose is awkward and unyielding.  But both with
labour and the most obstinate integrity, by thinking every thought
until it has subdued words to itself, have forged for themselves a
prose which takes the mould of their minds entire; which has, into
the bargain, a beauty, a power, a swiftness of its own.  Charlotte
Brontë, at least, owed nothing to the reading of many books.  She
never learnt the smoothness of the professional writer, or acquired
his ability to stuff and sway his language as he chooses.  "I could
never rest in communication with strong, discreet, and refined
minds, whether male or female", she writes, as any leader-writer in
a provincial journal might have written; but gathering fire and
speed goes on in her own authentic voice "till I had passed the
outworks of conventional reserve and crossed the threshold of
confidence, and won a place by their hearts' very hearthstone".  It
is there that she takes her seat; it is the red and fitful glow of
the heart's fire which illumines her page.  In other words, we read
Charlotte Brontë not for exquisite observation of character--her
characters are vigorous and elementary; not for comedy--hers is
grim and crude; not for a philosophic view of life--hers is that of
a country parson's daughter; but for her poetry.  Probably that is
so with all writers who have, as she has, an overpowering
personality, so that, as we say in real life, they have only to
open the door to make themselves felt.  There is in them some
untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of
things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to
observe patiently.  This very ardour, rejecting half shades and
other minor impediments, wings its way past the daily conduct of
ordinary people and allies itself with their more inarticulate
passions.  It makes them poets, or, if they choose to write in
prose, intolerant of its restrictions.  Hence it is that both Emily
and Charlotte are always invoking the help of nature.  They both
feel the need of some more powerful symbol of the vast and
slumbering passions in human nature than words or actions can
convey.  It is with a description of a storm that Charlotte ends
her finest novel Villette.  "The skies hang full and dark--a wrack
sails from the west; the clouds cast themselves into strange
forms."  So she calls in nature to describe a state of mind which
could not otherwise be expressed.  But neither of the sisters
observed nature accurately as Dorothy Wordsworth observed it, or
painted it minutely as Tennyson painted it.  They seized those
aspects of the earth which were most akin to what they themselves
felt or imputed to their characters, and so their storms, their
moors, their lovely spaces of summer weather are not ornaments
applied to decorate a dull page or display the writer's powers of
observation--they carry on the emotion and light up the meaning of
the book.

The meaning of a book, which lies so often apart from what happens
and what is said and consists rather in some connection which
things in themselves different have had for the writer, is
necessarily hard to grasp.  Especially this is so when, like the
Brontës, the writer is poetic, and his meaning inseparable from his
language, and itself rather a mood than a particular observation.
Wuthering Heights is a more difficult book to understand than Jane
Eyre, because Emily was a greater poet than Charlotte.  When
Charlotte wrote she said with eloquence and splendour and passion
"I love", "I hate", "I suffer".  Her experience, though more
intense, is on a level with our own.  But there is no "I" in
Wuthering Heights.  There are no governesses.  There are no
employers.  There is love, but it is not the love of men and women.
Emily was inspired by some more general conception.  The impulse
which urged her to create was not her own suffering or her own
injuries.  She looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder
and felt within her the power to unite it in a book.  That gigantic
ambition is to be felt throughout the novel--a struggle, half
thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the
mouths of her characters which is not merely "I love" or "I hate",
but "we, the whole human race" and "you, the eternal powers . . ."
the sentence remains unfinished.  It is not strange that it should
be so; rather it is astonishing that she can make us feel what she
had it in her to say at all.  It surges up in the half-articulate
words of Catherine Earnshaw, "If all else perished and HE remained,
I should still continue to be; and if all else remained and he were
annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger; I should
not seem part of it".  It breaks out again in the presence of the
dead.  "I see a repose that neither earth nor hell can break, and I
feel an assurance of the endless and shadowless hereafter--the
eternity they have entered--where life is boundless in its
duration, and love in its sympathy and joy in its fulness."  It is
this suggestion of power underlying the apparitions of human nature
and lifting them up into the presence of greatness that gives the
book its huge stature among other novels.  But it was not enough
for Emily Brontë to write a few lyrics, to utter a cry, to express
a creed.  In her poems she did this once and for all, and her poems
will perhaps outlast her novel.  But she was novelist as well as
poet.  She must take upon herself a more laborious and a more
ungrateful task.  She must face the fact of other existences,
grapple with the mechanism of external things, build up, in
recognisable shape, farms and houses and report the speeches of men
and women who existed independently of herself.  And so we reach
these summits of emotion not by rant or rhapsody but by hearing a
girl sing old songs to herself as she rocks in the branches of a
tree; by watching the moor sheep crop the turf; by listening to the
soft wind breathing through the grass.  The life at the farm with
all its absurdities and its improbability is laid open to us.  We
are given every opportunity of comparing Wuthering Heights with a
real farm and Heathcliff with a real man.  How, we are allowed to
ask, can there be truth or insight or the finer shades of emotion
in men and women who so little resemble what we have seen
ourselves?  But even as we ask it we see in Heathcliff the brother
that a sister of genius might have seen; he is impossible we say,
but nevertheless no boy in literature has a more vivid existence
than his.  So it is with the two Catherines; never could women feel
as they do or act in their manner, we say.  All the same, they are
the most lovable women in English fiction.  It is as if she could
tear up all that we know human beings by, and fill these
unrecognisable transparences with such a gust of life that they
transcend reality.  Hers, then, is the rarest of all powers.  She
could free life from its dependence on facts; with a few touches
indicate the spirit of a face so that it needs no body; by speaking
of the moor make the wind blow and the thunder roar.


To read George Eliot attentively is to become aware how little one
knows about her.  It is also to become aware of the credulity, not
very creditable to one's insight, with which, half consciously and
partly maliciously, one had accepted the late Victorian version of
a deluded woman who held phantom sway over subjects even more
deluded than herself.  At what moment and by what means her spell
was broken it is difficult to ascertain.  Some people attribute it
to the publication of her Life.  Perhaps George Meredith, with his
phrase about the "mercurial little showman" and the "errant woman"
on the daïs, gave point and poison to the arrows of thousands
incapable of aiming them so accurately, but delighted to let fly.
She became one of the butts for youth to laugh at, the convenient
symbol of a group of serious people who were all guilty of the same
idolatry and could be dismissed with the same scorn.  Lord Acton
had said that she was greater than Dante; Herbert Spencer exempted
her novels, as if they were not novels, when he banned all fiction
from the London Library.  She was the pride and paragon of her sex.
Moreover, her private record was not more alluring than her public.
Asked to describe an afternoon at the Priory, the story-teller
always intimated that the memory of those serious Sunday afternoons
had come to tickle his sense of humour.  He had been so much
alarmed by the grave lady in her low chair; he had been so anxious
to say the intelligent thing.  Certainly, the talk had been very
serious, as a note in the fine clear hand of the great novelist
bore witness.  It was dated on the Monday morning, and she accused
herself of having spoken without due forethought of Marivaux when
she meant another; but no doubt, she said, her listener had already
supplied the correction.  Still, the memory of talking about
Marivaux to George Eliot on a Sunday afternoon was not a romantic
memory.  It had faded with the passage of the years.  It had not
become picturesque.

Indeed, one cannot escape the conviction that the long, heavy face
with its expression of serious and sullen and almost equine power
has stamped itself depressingly upon the minds of people who
remember George Eliot, so that it looks out upon them from her
pages.  Mr. Gosse has lately described her as he saw her driving
through London in a victoria:

a large, thick-set sybil, dreamy and immobile, whose massive
features, somewhat grim when seen in profile, were incongruously
bordered by a hat, always in the height of Paris fashion, which in
those days commonly included an immense ostrich feather.

Lady Ritchie, with equal skill, has left a more intimate indoor

She sat by the fire in a beautiful black satin gown, with a green
shaded lamp on the table beside her, where I saw German books lying
and pamphlets and ivory paper-cutters.  She was very quiet and
noble, with two steady little eyes and a sweet voice.  As I looked
I felt her to be a friend, not exactly a personal friend, but a
good and benevolent impulse.

A scrap of her talk is preserved.  "We ought to respect our
influence," she said.  "We know by our own experience how very much
others affect our lives, and we must remember that we in turn must
have the same effect upon others."  Jealously treasured, committed
to memory, one can imagine recalling the scene, repeating the
words, thirty years later and suddenly, for the first time,
bursting into laughter.

In all these records one feels that the recorder, even when he was
in the actual presence, kept his distance and kept his head, and
never read the novels in later years with the light of a vivid, or
puzzling, or beautiful personality dazzling in his eyes.  In
fiction, where so much of personality is revealed, the absence of
charm is a great lack; and her critics, who have been, of course,
mostly of the opposite sex, have resented, half consciously
perhaps, her deficiency in a quality which is held to be supremely
desirable in women.  George Eliot was not charming; she was not
strongly feminine; she had none of those eccentricities and
inequalities of temper which give to so many artists the endearing
simplicity of children.  One feels that to most people, as to Lady
Ritchie, she was "not exactly a personal friend, but a good and
benevolent impulse".  But if we consider these portraits more
closely we shall find that they are all the portraits of an elderly
celebrated woman, dressed in black satin, driving in her victoria,
a woman who has been through her struggle and issued from it with a
profound desire to be of use to others, but with no wish for
intimacy, save with the little circle who had known her in the days
of her youth.  We know very little about the days of her youth; but
we do know that the culture, the philosophy, the fame, and the
influence were all built upon a very humble foundation--she was the
grand-daughter of a carpenter.

The first volume of her life is a singularly depressing record.  In
it we see her raising herself with groans and struggles from the
intolerable boredom of petty provincial society (her father had
risen in the world and become more middle class, but less
picturesque) to be the assistant editor of a highly intellectual
London review, and the esteemed companion of Herbert Spencer.  The
stages are painful as she reveals them in the sad soliloquy in
which Mr. Cross condemned her to tell the story of her life.
Marked in early youth as one "sure to get something up very soon in
the way of a clothing club", she proceeded to raise funds for
restoring a church by making a chart of ecclesiastical history; and
that was followed by a loss of faith which so disturbed her father
that he refused to live with her.  Next came the struggle with the
translation of Strauss, which, dismal and "soul-stupefying" in
itself, can scarcely have been made less so by the usual feminine
tasks of ordering a household and nursing a dying father, and the
distressing conviction, to one so dependent upon affection, that by
becoming a blue-stocking she was forfeiting her brother's respect.
"I used to go about like an owl," she said, "to the great disgust
of my brother."  "Poor thing," wrote a friend who saw her toiling
through Strauss with a statue of the risen Christ in front of her,
"I do pity her sometimes, with her pale sickly face and dreadful
headaches, and anxiety, too, about her father."  Yet, though we
cannot read the story without a strong desire that the stages of
her pilgrimage might have been made, if not more easy, at least
more beautiful, there is a dogged determination in her advance upon
the citadel of culture which raises it above our pity.  Her
development was very slow and very awkward, but it had the
irresistible impetus behind it of a deep-seated and noble ambition.
Every obstacle at length was thrust from her path.  She knew every
one.  She read everything.  Her astonishing intellectual vitality
had triumphed.  Youth was over, but youth had been full of
suffering.  Then, at the age of thirty-five, at the height of her
powers, and in the fulness of her freedom, she made the decision
which was of such profound moment to her and still matters even to
us, and went to Weimar, alone with George Henry Lewes.

The books which followed so soon after her union testify in the
fullest manner to the great liberation which had come to her with
personal happiness.  In themselves they provide us with a plentiful
feast.  Yet at the threshold of her literary career one may find in
some of the circumstances of her life influences that turned her
mind to the past, to the country village, to the quiet and beauty
and simplicity of childish memories and away from herself and the
present.  We understand how it was that her first book was Scenes
of Clerical Life, and not Middlemarch.  Her union with Lewes had
surrounded her with affection, but in view of the circumstances and
of the conventions it had also isolated her.  "I wish it to be
understood", she wrote in 1857, "that I should never invite any one
to come and see me who did not ask for the invitation."  She had
been "cut off from what is called the world", she said later, but
she did not regret it.  By becoming thus marked, first by
circumstances and later, inevitably, by her fame, she lost the
power to move on equal terms unnoted among her kind; and the loss
for a novelist was serious.  Still, basking in the light and
sunshine of Scenes of Clerical Life, feeling the large mature mind
spreading itself with a luxurious sense of freedom in the world of
her "remotest past", to speak of loss seems inappropriate.
Everything to such a mind was gain.  All experience filtered down
through layer after layer of perception and reflection, enriching
and nourishing.  The utmost we can say, in qualifying her attitude
towards fiction by what little we know of her life, is that she had
taken to heart certain lessons not usually learnt early, if learnt
at all, among which, perhaps, the most branded upon her was the
melancholy virtue of tolerance; her sympathies are with the
everyday lot, and play most happily in dwelling upon the homespun
of ordinary joys and sorrows.  She has none of that romantic
intensity which is connected with a sense of one's own individuality,
unsated and unsubdued, cutting its shape sharply upon the background
of the world.  What were the loves and sorrows of a snuffy old
clergyman, dreaming over his whisky, to the fiery egotism of Jane
Eyre?  The beauty of those first books, Scenes of Clerical Life,
Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, is very great.  It is impossible
to estimate the merit of the Poysers, the Dodsons, the Gilfils, the
Bartons, and the rest with all their surroundings and dependencies,
because they have put on flesh and blood and we move among them, now
bored, now sympathetic, but always with that unquestioning
acceptance of all that they say and do, which we accord to the great
originals only.  The flood of memory and humour which she pours so
spontaneously into one figure, one scene after another, until the
whole fabric of ancient rural England is revived, has so much in
common with a natural process that it leaves us with little
consciousness that there is anything to criticise.  We accept; we
feel the delicious warmth and release of spirit which the great
creative writers alone procure for us.  As one comes back to the
books after years of absence they pour out, even against our
expectation, the same store of energy and heat, so that we want more
than anything to idle in the warmth as in the sun beating down from
the red orchard wall.  If there is an element of unthinking
abandonment in thus submitting to the humours of Midland farmers and
their wives, that, too, is right in the circumstances.  We scarcely
wish to analyse what we feel to be so large and deeply human.  And
when we consider how distant in time the world of Shepperton and
Hayslope is, and how remote the minds of farmer and agricultural
labourers from those of most of George Eliot's readers, we can only
attribute the ease and pleasure with which we ramble from house to
smithy, from cottage parlour to rectory garden, to the fact that
George Eliot makes us share their lives, not in a spirit of
condescension or of curiosity, but in a spirit of sympathy.  She is
no satirist.  The movement of her mind was too slow and cumbersome
to lend itself to comedy.  But she gathers in her large grasp a
great bunch of the main elements of human nature and groups them
loosely together with a tolerant and wholesome understanding which,
as one finds upon re-reading, has not only kept her figures fresh
and free, but has given them an unexpected hold upon our laughter
and tears.  There is the famous Mrs. Poyser.  It would have been
easy to work her idiosyncrasies to death, and, as it is, perhaps,
George Eliot gets her laugh in the same place a little too often.
But memory, after the book is shut, brings out, as sometimes in
real life, the details and subtleties which some more salient
characteristic has prevented us from noticing at the time.  We
recollect that her health was not good.  There were occasions upon
which she said nothing at all.  She was patience itself with a sick
child.  She doted upon Totty.  Thus one can muse and speculate about
the greater number of George Eliot's characters and find, even in
the least important, a roominess and margin where those qualities
lurk which she has no call to bring from their obscurity.

But in the midst of all this tolerance and sympathy there are, even
in the early books, moments of greater stress.  Her humour has
shown itself broad enough to cover a wide range of fools and
failures, mothers and children, dogs and flourishing midland
fields, farmers, sagacious or fuddled over their ale, horse-
dealers, inn-keepers, curates, and carpenters.  Over them all
broods a certain romance, the only romance that George Eliot
allowed herself--the romance of the past.  The books are
astonishingly readable and have no trace of pomposity or pretence.
But to the reader who holds a large stretch of her early work in
view it will become obvious that the mist of recollection gradually
withdraws.  It is not that her power diminishes, for, to our
thinking, it is at its highest in the mature Middlemarch, the
magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few
English novels written for grown-up people.  But the world of
fields and farms no longer contents her.  In real life she had
sought her fortunes elsewhere; and though to look back into the
past was calming and consoling, there are, even in the early works,
traces of that troubled spirit, that exacting and questioning and
baffled presence who was George Eliot herself.  In Adam Bede there
is a hint of her in Dinah.  She shows herself far more openly and
completely in Maggie in The Mill on the Floss.  She is Janet in
Janet's Repentance, and Romola, and Dorothea seeking wisdom and
finding one scarcely knows what in marriage with Ladislaw.  Those
who fall foul of George Eliot do so, we incline to think, on
account of her heroines; and with good reason; for there is no
doubt that they bring out the worst of her, lead her into difficult
places, make her self-conscious, didactic, and occasionally vulgar.
Yet if you could delete the whole sisterhood you would leave a much
smaller and a much inferior world, albeit a world of greater
artistic perfection and far superior jollity and comfort.  In
accounting for her failure, in so far as it was a failure, one
recollects that she never wrote a story until she was thirty-seven,
and that by the time she was thirty-seven she had come to think of
herself with a mixture of pain and something like resentment.  For
long she preferred not to think of herself at all.  Then, when the
first flush of creative energy was exhausted and self-confidence
had come to her, she wrote more and more from the personal
standpoint, but she did so without the unhesitating abandonment of
the young.  Her self-consciousness is always marked when her
heroines say what she herself would have said.  She disguised them
in every possible way.  She granted them beauty and wealth into the
bargain; she invented, more improbably, a taste for brandy.  But
the disconcerting and stimulating fact remained that she was
compelled by the very power of her genius to step forth in person
upon the quiet bucolic scene.

The noble and beautiful girl who insisted upon being born into the
Mill on the Floss is the most obvious example of the ruin which a
heroine can strew about her.  Humour controls her and keeps her
lovable so long as she is small and can be satisfied by eloping
with the gipsies or hammering nails into her doll; but she
develops; and before George Eliot knows what has happened she has a
full-grown woman on her hands demanding what neither gipsies, nor
dolls, nor St. Ogg's itself is capable of giving her.  First Philip
Wakem is produced, and later Stephen Guest.  The weakness of the
one and the coarseness of the other have often been pointed out;
but both, in their weakness and coarseness, illustrate not so much
George Eliot's inability to draw the portrait of a man, as the
uncertainty, the infirmity, and the fumbling which shook her hand
when she had to conceive a fit mate for a heroine.  She is in the
first place driven beyond the home world she knew and loved, and
forced to set foot in middle-class drawing-rooms where young men
sing all the summer morning and young women sit embroidering
smoking-caps for bazaars.  She feels herself out of her element, as
her clumsy satire of what she calls "good society" proves.

Good society has its claret and its velvet carpets, its dinner
engagements six weeks deep, its opera, and its faery ball rooms
. . . gets its science done by Faraday and its religion by the
superior clergy who are to be met in the best houses; how should
it have need of belief and emphasis?

There is no trace of humour or insight there, but only the
vindictiveness of a grudge which we feel to be personal in its
origin.  But terrible as the complexity of our social system is in
its demands upon the sympathy and discernment of a novelist
straying across the boundaries, Maggie Tulliver did worse than drag
George Eliot from her natural surroundings.  She insisted upon the
introduction of the great emotional scene.  She must love; she must
despair; she must be drowned clasping her brother in her arms.  The
more one examines the great emotional scenes the more nervously one
anticipates the brewing and gathering and thickening of the cloud
which will burst upon our heads at the moment of crisis in a shower
of disillusionment and verbosity.  It is partly that her hold upon
dialogue, when it is not dialect, is slack; and partly that she
seems to shrink with an elderly dread of fatigue from the effort of
emotional concentration.  She allows her heroines to talk too much.
She has little verbal felicity.  She lacks the unerring taste which
chooses one sentence and compresses the heart of the scene within
that.  "Whom are you going to dance with?" asked Mr. Knightley, at
the Westons' ball.  "With you, if you will ask me," said Emma; and
she has said enough.  Mrs. Casaubon would have talked for an hour
and we should have looked out of the window.

Yet, dismiss the heroines without sympathy, confine George Eliot to
the agricultural world of her "remotest past", and you not only
diminish her greatness but lose her true flavour.  That greatness
is here we can have no doubt.  The width of the prospect, the large
strong outlines of the principal features, the ruddy light of the
early books, the searching power and reflective richness of the
later tempt us to linger and expatiate beyond our limits.  But it
is upon the heroines that we would cast a final glance.  "I have
always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl,"
says Dorothea Casaubon.  "I used to pray so much--now I hardly ever
pray.  I try not to have desires merely for myself. . . ."  She is
speaking for them all.  That is their problem.  They cannot live
without religion, and they start out on the search for one when
they are little girls.  Each has the deep feminine passion for
goodness, which makes the place where she stands in aspiration and
agony the heart of the book--still and cloistered like a place of
worship, but that she no longer knows to whom to pray.  In learning
they seek their goal; in the ordinary tasks of womanhood; in the
wider service of their kind.  They do not find what they seek, and
we cannot wonder.  The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with
suffering and sensibility, and for so many ages dumb, seems in them
to have brimmed and overflowed and uttered a demand for something--
they scarcely know what--for something that is perhaps incompatible
with the facts of human existence.  George Eliot had far too strong
an intelligence to tamper with those facts, and too broad a humour
to mitigate the truth because it was a stern one.  Save for the
supreme courage of their endeavour, the struggle ends, for her
heroines, in tragedy, or in a compromise that is even more
melancholy.  But their story is the incomplete version of the story
of George Eliot herself.  For her, too, the burden and the
complexity of womanhood were not enough; she must reach beyond the
sanctuary and pluck for herself the strange bright fruits of art
and knowledge.  Clasping them as few women have ever clasped them,
she would not renounce her own inheritance--the difference of view,
the difference of standard--nor accept an inappropriate reward.
Thus we behold her, a memorable figure, inordinately praised and
shrinking from her fame, despondent, reserved, shuddering back into
the arms of love as if there alone were satisfaction and, it might
be, justification, at the same time reaching out with "a fastidious
yet hungry ambition" for all that life could offer the free and
inquiring mind and confronting her feminine aspirations with the
real world of men.  Triumphant was the issue for her, whatever it
may have been for her creations, and as we recollect all that she
dared and achieved, how with every obstacle against her--sex and
health and convention--she sought more knowledge and more freedom
till the body, weighted with its double burden, sank worn out, we
must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow
of laurel and rose.


Doubtful as we frequently are whether either the French or the
Americans, who have so much in common with us, can yet understand
English literature, we must admit graver doubts whether, for all
their enthusiasm, the English can understand Russian literature.
Debate might protract itself indefinitely as to what we mean by
"understand".  Instances will occur to everybody of American
writers in particular who have written with the highest
discrimination of our literature and of ourselves; who have lived
a lifetime among us, and finally have taken legal steps to become
subjects of King George.  For all that, have they understood us,
have they not remained to the end of their days foreigners?  Could
any one believe that the novels of Henry James were written by a
man who had grown up in the society which he describes, or that his
criticism of English writers was written by a man who had read
Shakespeare without any sense of the Atlantic Ocean and two or
three hundred years on the far side of it separating his
civilisation from ours?  A special acuteness and detachment, a
sharp angle of vision the foreigner will often achieve; but not
that absence of self-consciousness, that ease and fellowship and
sense of common values which make for intimacy, and sanity, and the
quick give and take of familiar intercourse.

Not only have we all this to separate us from Russian literature,
but a much more serious barrier--the difference of language.  Of
all those who feasted upon Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, and Tchekov during
the past twenty years, not more than one or two perhaps have been
able to read them in Russian.  Our estimate of their qualities has
been formed by critics who have never read a word of Russian, or
seen Russia, or even heard the language spoken by natives; who have
had to depend, blindly and implicitly, upon the work of

What we are saying amounts to this, then, that we have judged a
whole literature stripped of its style.  When you have changed
every word in a sentence from Russian to English, have thereby
altered the sense a little, the sound, weight, and accent of the
words in relation to each other completely, nothing remains except
a crude and coarsened version of the sense.  Thus treated, the
great Russian writers are like men deprived by an earthquake or a
railway accident not only of all their clothes, but also of
something subtler and more important--their manners, the
idiosyncrasies of their characters.  What remains is, as the
English have proved by the fanaticism of their admiration,
something very powerful and very impressive, but it is difficult to
feel sure, in view of these mutilations, how far we can trust
ourselves not to impute, to distort, to read into them an emphasis
which is false.

They have lost their clothes, we say, in some terrible catastrophe,
for some such figure as that describes the simplicity, the
humanity, startled out of all effort to hide and disguise its
instincts, which Russian literature, whether it is due to
translation or to some more profound cause, makes upon us.  We find
these qualities steeping it through, as obvious in the lesser
writers as in the greater.  "Learn to make yourselves akin to
people.  I would even like to add: make yourself indispensable to
them.  But let this sympathy be not with the mind--for it is easy
with the mind--but with the heart, with love towards them."  "From
the Russian", one would say instantly, where-ever one chanced on
that quotation.  The simplicity, the absence of effort, the
assumption that in a world bursting with misery the chief call upon
us is to understand our fellow-sufferers, "and not with the mind--
for it is easy with the mind--but with the heart"--this is the
cloud which broods above the whole of Russian literature, which
lures us from our own parched brilliancy and scorched thoroughfares
to expand in its shade--and of course with disastrous results.  We
become awkward and self-conscious; denying our own qualities, we
write with an affectation of goodness and simplicity which is
nauseating in the extreme.  We cannot say "Brother" with simple
conviction.  There is a story by Mr. Galsworthy in which one of the
characters so addresses another (they are both in the depths of
misfortune).  Immediately everything becomes strained and affected.
The English equivalent for "Brother" is "Mate"--a very different
word, with something sardonic in it, an indefinable suggestion of
humour.  Met though they are in the depths of misfortune the two
Englishmen who thus accost each other will, we are sure, find a
job, make their fortunes, spend the last years of their lives in
luxury, and leave a sum of money to prevent poor devils from
calling each other "Brother" on the Embankment.  But it is common
suffering, rather than common happiness, effort, or desire that
produces the sense of brotherhood.  It is the "deep sadness" which
Dr. Hagberg Wright finds typical of the Russian people that creates
their literature.

A generalisation of this kind will, of course, even if it has some
degree of truth when applied to the body of literature, be changed
profoundly when a writer of genius sets to work on it.  At once
other questions arise.  It is seen that an "attitude" is not
simple; it is highly complex.  Men reft of their coats and their
manners, stunned by a railway accident, say hard things, harsh
things, unpleasant things, difficult things, even if they say them
with the abandonment and simplicity which catastrophe has bred in
them.  Our first impressions of Tchekov are not of simplicity but
of bewilderment.  What is the point of it, and why does he make a
story out of this? we ask as we read story after story.  A man
falls in love with a married woman, and they part and meet, and in
the end are left talking about their position and by what means
they can be free from "this intolerable bondage".

"'How?  How?' he asked, clutching his head. . . .  And it seemed as
though in a little while the solution would be found and then a new
and splendid life would begin."  That is the end.  A postman drives
a student to the station and all the way the student tries to make
the postman talk, but he remains silent.  Suddenly the postman says
unexpectedly, "It's against the regulations to take any one with
the post".  And he walks up and down the platform with a look of
anger on his face.  "With whom was he angry?  Was it with people,
with poverty, with the autumn nights?"  Again, that story ends.

But is it the end, we ask?  We have rather the feeling that we have
overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short
without the expected chords to close it.  These stories are
inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon
the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we
recognise.  In so doing, we raise the question of our own fitness
as readers.  Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic--
lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed--as it is in
most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the
tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely
the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we
need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear
the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the
harmony.  Probably we have to read a great many stories before we
feel, and the feeling is essential to our satisfaction, that we
hold the parts together, and that Tchekov was not merely rambling
disconnectedly, but struck now this note, now that with intention,
in order to complete his meaning.

We have to cast about in order to discover where the emphasis in
these strange stories rightly comes.  Tchekov's own words give us a
lead in the right direction.  ". . . such a conversation as this
between us", he says, "would have been unthinkable for our parents.
At night they did not talk, but slept sound; we, our generation,
sleep badly, are restless, but talk a great deal, and are always
trying to settle whether we are right or not."  Our literature of
social satire and psychological finesse both sprang from that
restless sleep, that incessant talking; but after all, there is an
enormous difference between Tchekov and Henry James, between
Tchekov and Bernard Shaw.  Obviously--but where does it arise?
Tchekov, too, is aware of the evils and injustices of the social
state; the condition of the peasants appals him, but the reformer's
zeal is not his--that is not the signal for us to stop.  The mind
interests him enormously; he is a most subtle and delicate analyst
of human relations.  But again, no; the end is not there.  Is it
that he is primarily interested not in the soul's relation with
other souls, but with the soul's relation to health--with the
soul's relation to goodness?  These stories are always showing us
some affectation, pose, insincerity.  Some woman has got into a
false relation; some man has been perverted by the inhumanity of
his circumstances.  The soul is ill; the soul is cured; the soul is
not cured.  Those are the emphatic points in his stories.

Once the eye is used to these shades, half the "conclusions" of
fiction fade into thin air; they show like transparences with a
light behind them--gaudy, glaring, superficial.  The general
tidying up of the last chapter, the marriage, the death, the
statement of values so sonorously trumpeted forth, so heavily
underlined, become of the most rudimentary kind.  Nothing is
solved, we feel; nothing is rightly held together.  On the other
hand, the method which at first seemed so casual, inconclusive, and
occupied with trifles, now appears the result of an exquisitely
original and fastidious taste, choosing boldly, arranging
infallibly, and controlled by an honesty for which we can find no
match save among the Russians themselves.  There may be no answer
to these questions, but at the same time let us never manipulate
the evidence so as to produce something fitting, decorous,
agreeable to our vanity.  This may not be the way to catch the ear
of the public; after all, they are used to louder music, fiercer
measures; but as the tune sounded so he has written it.  In
consequence, as we read these little stories about nothing at all,
the horizon widens; the soul gains an astonishing sense of freedom.

In reading Tchekov we find ourselves repeating the word "soul"
again and again.  It sprinkles his pages.  Old drunkards use it
freely; ". . . you are high up in the service, beyond all reach,
but haven't real soul, my dear boy . . . there's no strength in
it".  Indeed, it is the soul that is the chief character in Russian
fiction.  Delicate and subtle in Tchekov, subject to an infinite
number of humours and distempers, it is of greater depth and volume
in Dostoevsky; it is liable to violent diseases and raging fevers,
but still the predominant concern.  Perhaps that is why it needs so
great an effort on the part of an English reader to read The
Brothers Karamazov or The Possessed a second time.  The "soul" is
alien to him.  It is even antipathetic.  It has little sense of
humour and no sense of comedy.  It is formless.  It has slight
connection with the intellect.  It is confused, diffuse,
tumultuous, incapable, it seems, of submitting to the control of
logic or the discipline of poetry.  The novels of Dostoevsky are
seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss
and boil and suck us in.  They are composed purely and wholly of
the stuff of the soul.  Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled
round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a
giddy rapture.  Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting
reading.  We open the door and find ourselves in a room full of
Russian generals, the tutors of Russian generals, their step-
daughters and cousins, and crowds of miscellaneous people who are
all talking at the tops of their voices about their most private
affairs.  But where are we?  Surely it is the part of a novelist to
inform us whether we are in an hotel, a flat, or hired lodging.
Nobody thinks of explaining.  We are souls, tortured, unhappy
souls, whose only business it is to talk, to reveal, to confess, to
draw up at whatever rending of flesh and nerve those crabbed sins
which crawl on the sand at the bottom of us.  But, as we listen,
our confusion slowly settles.  A rope is flung to us; we catch hold
of a soliloquy; holding on by the skin of our teeth, we are rushed
through the water; feverishly, wildly, we rush on and on, now
submerged, now in a moment of vision understanding more than we
have ever understood before, and receiving such revelations as we
are wont to get only from the press of life at its fullest.  As we
fly we pick it all up--the names of the people, their relationships,
that they are staying in an hotel at Roulettenburg, that Polina is
involved in an intrigue with the Marquis de Grieux--but what
unimportant matters these are compared with the soul!  It is the
soul that matters, its passion, its tumult, its astonishing medley
of beauty and vileness.  And if our voices suddenly rise into
shrieks of laughter, or if we are shaken by the most violent
sobbing, what more natural?--it hardly calls for remark.  The pace
at which we are living is so tremendous that sparks must rush off
our wheels as we fly.  Moreover, when the speed is thus increased
and the elements of the soul are seen, not separately in scenes of
humour or scenes of passion as our slower English minds conceive
them, but streaked, involved, inextricably confused, a new panorama
of the human mind is revealed.  The old divisions melt into each
other.  Men are at the same time villains and saints; their acts are
at once beautiful and despicable.  We love and we hate at the same
time.  There is none of that precise division between good and bad
to which we are used.  Often those for whom we feel most affection
are the greatest criminals, and the most abject sinners move us to
the strongest admiration as well as love.

Dashed to the crest of the waves, bumped and battered on the stones
at the bottom, it is difficult for an English reader to feel at
ease.  The process to which he is accustomed in his own literature
is reversed.  If we wished to tell the story of a General's love
affair (and we should find it very difficult in the first place not
to laugh at a General), we should begin with his house; we should
solidify his surroundings.  Only when all was ready should we
attempt to deal with the General himself.  Moreover, it is not the
samovar but the teapot that rules in England; time is limited;
space crowded; the influence of other points of view, of other
books, even of other ages, makes itself felt.  Society is sorted
out into lower, middle, and upper classes, each with its own
traditions, its own manners, and, to some extent, its own language.
Whether he wishes it or not, there is a constant pressure upon an
English novelist to recognise these barriers, and, in consequence,
order is imposed on him and some kind of form; he is inclined to
satire rather than to compassion, to scrutiny of society rather
than understanding of individuals themselves.

No such restraints were laid on Dostoevsky.  It is all the same to
him whether you are noble or simple, a tramp or a great lady.
Whoever you are, you are the vessel of this perplexed liquid, this
cloudy, yeasty, precious stuff, the soul.  The soul is not
restrained by barriers.  It overflows, it floods, it mingles with
the souls of others.  The simple story of a bank clerk who could
not pay for a bottle of wine spreads, before we know what is
happening, into the lives of his father-in-law and the five
mistresses whom his father-in-law treated abominably, and the
postman's life, and the charwoman's, and the Princesses' who lodged
in the same block of flats; for nothing is outside Dostoevsky's
province; and when he is tired, he does not stop, he goes on.  He
cannot restrain himself.  Out it tumbles upon us, hot, scalding,
mixed, marvellous, terrible, oppressive--the human soul.

There remains the greatest of all novelists--for what else can we
call the author of War and Peace?  Shall we find Tolstoi, too,
alien, difficult, a foreigner?  Is there some oddity in his angle
of vision which, at any rate until we have become disciples and so
lost our bearings, keeps us at arm's length in suspicion and
bewilderment?  From his first words we can be sure of one thing at
any rate--here is a man who sees what we see, who proceeds, too, as
we are accustomed to proceed, not from the inside outwards, but
from the outside inwards.  Here is a world in which the postman's
knock is heard at eight o'clock, and people go to bed between ten
and eleven.  Here is a man, too, who is no savage, no child of
nature; he is educated; he has had every sort of experience.  He is
one of those born aristocrats who have used their privileges to the
full.  He is metropolitan, not suburban.  His senses, his
intellect, are acute, powerful, and well nourished.  There is
something proud and superb in the attack of such a mind and such a
body upon life.  Nothing seems to escape him.  Nothing glances off
him unrecorded.  Nobody, therefore, can so convey the excitement of
sport, the beauty of horses, and all the fierce desirability of the
world to the senses of a strong young man.  Every twig, every
feather sticks to his magnet.  He notices the blue or red of a
child's frock; the way a horse shifts its tail; the sound of a
cough; the action of a man trying to put his hands into pockets
that have been sewn up.  And what his infallible eye reports of a
cough or a trick of the hands his infallible brain refers to
something hidden in the character, so that we know his people, not
only by the way they love and their views on politics and the
immortality of the soul, but also by the way they sneeze and choke.
Even in a translation we feel that we have been set on a mountain-
top and had a telescope put into our hands.  Everything is
astonishingly clear and absolutely sharp.  Then, suddenly, just as
we are exulting, breathing deep, feeling at once braced and
purified, some detail--perhaps the head of a man--comes at us out
of the picture in an alarming way, as if extruded by the very
intensity of its life.  "Suddenly a strange thing happened to me:
first I ceased to see what was around me; then his face seemed to
vanish till only the eyes were left, shining over against mine;
next the eyes seemed to be in my own head, and then all became
confused--I could see nothing and was forced to shut my eyes, in
order to break loose from the feeling of pleasure and fear which
his gaze was producing in me. . . ."  Again and again we share
Masha's feelings in Family Happiness.  One shuts one's eyes to
escape the feeling of pleasure and fear.  Often it is pleasure that
is uppermost.  In this very story there are two descriptions, one
of a girl walking in a garden at night with her lover, one of a
newly married couple prancing down their drawing-room, which so
convey the feeling of intense happiness that we shut the book to
feel it better.  But always there is an element of fear which makes
us, like Masha, wish to escape from the gaze which Tolstoi fixes on
us.  Is it the sense, which in real life might harass us, that such
happiness as he describes is too intense to last, that we are on
the edge of disaster?  Or is it not that the very intensity of our
pleasure is somehow questionable and forces us to ask, with
Pozdnyshev in the Kreutzer Sonata, "But why live?"  Life dominates
Tolstoi as the soul dominates Dostoevsky.  There is always at the
centre of all the brilliant and flashing petals of the flower this
scorpion, "Why live?"  There is always at the centre of the book
some Olenin, or Pierre, or Levin who gathers into himself all
experience, turns the world round between his fingers, and never
ceases to ask, even as he enjoys it, what is the meaning of it, and
what should be our aims.  It is not the priest who shatters our
desires most effectively; it is the man who has known them, and
loved them himself.  When he derides them, the world indeed turns
to dust and ashes beneath our feet.  Thus fear mingles with our
pleasure, and of the three great Russian writers, it is Tolstoi who
most enthralls us and most repels.

But the mind takes its bias from the place of its birth, and no
doubt, when it strikes upon a literature so alien as the Russian,
flies off at a tangent far from the truth.




Speaking truthfully, Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings is
not a good book.  It neither enlarges the mind nor purifies the
heart.  There is nothing in it about Prime Ministers and not very
much about Miss Mitford.  Yet, as one is setting out to speak the
truth, one must own that there are certain books which can be read
without the mind and without the heart, but still with considerable
enjoyment.  To come to the point, the great merit of these
scrapbooks, for they can scarcely be called biographies, is that
they license mendacity.  One cannot believe what Miss Hill says
about Miss Mitford, and thus one is free to invent Miss Mitford for
oneself.  Not for a second do we accuse Miss Hill of telling lies.
That infirmity is entirely ours.  For example:  "Alresford was the
birthplace of one who loved nature as few have loved her, and whose
writings 'breathe the air of the hayfields and the scent of the
hawthorn boughs', and seem to waft to us 'the sweet breezes that
blow over ripened cornfields and daisied meadows'."  It is
perfectly true that Miss Mitford was born at Alresford, and yet,
when it is put like that, we doubt whether she was ever born at
all.  Indeed she was, says Miss Hill; she was born "on the 16th
December, 1787.  'A pleasant house in truth it was,' Miss Mitford
writes.  'The breakfast-room . . . was a lofty and spacious
apartment.'"  So Miss Mitford was born in the breakfast-room about
eight-thirty on a snowy morning between the Doctor's second and
third cups of tea.  "Pardon me," said Mrs. Mitford, turning a
little pale, but not omitting to add the right quantity of cream to
her husband's tea, "I feel . . ."  That is the way in which
Mendacity begins.  There is something plausible and even ingenious
in her approaches.  The touch about the cream, for instance, might
be called historical, for it is well known that when Mary won
£20,000 in the Irish lottery, the Doctor spent it all upon Wedgwood
china, the winning number being stamped upon the soup plates in the
middle of an Irish harp, the whole being surmounted by the Mitford
arms, and encircled by the motto of Sir John Bertram, one of
William the Conqueror's knights, from whom the Mitfords claimed
descent.  "Observe", says Mendacity, "with what an air the Doctor
drinks his tea, and how she, poor lady, contrives to curtsey as she
leaves the room."  Tea?  I inquire, for the Doctor, though a fine
figure of a man, is already purple and profuse, and foams like a
crimson cock over the frill of his fine laced shirt.  "Since the
ladies have left the room", Mendacity begins, and goes on to make
up a pack of lies with the sole object of proving that Dr. Mitford
kept a mistress in the purlieus of Reading and paid her money on
the pretence that he was investing it in a new method of lighting
and heating houses invented by the Marquis de Chavannes.  It came
to the same thing in the end--to the King's Bench Prison, that is
to say; but instead of allowing us to recall the literary and
historical associations of the place, Mendacity wanders off to the
window and distracts us again by the platitudinous remark that it
is still snowing.  There is something very charming in an ancient
snowstorm.  The weather has varied almost as much in the course of
generations as mankind.  The snow of those days was more formally
shaped and a good deal softer than the snow of ours, just as an
eighteenth-century cow was no more like our cows than she was like
the florid and fiery cows of Elizabethan pastures.  Sufficient
attention has scarcely been paid to this aspect of literature,
which, it cannot be denied, has its importance.

Our brilliant young men might do worse, when in search of a
subject, than devote a year or two to cows in literature, snow in
literature, the daisy in Chaucer and in Coventry Patmore.  At any
rate, the snow falls heavily.  The Portsmouth mail-coach has
already lost its way; several ships have foundered, and Margate
pier has been totally destroyed.  At Hatfield Peveral twenty sheep
have been buried, and though one supports itself by gnawing wurzels
which it has found near it, there is grave reason to fear that the
French king's coach has been blocked on the road to Colchester.  It
is now the 16th of February 1808.

Poor Mrs. Mitford!  Twenty-one years ago she left the breakfast-
room, and no news has yet been received of her child.  Even
Mendacity is a little ashamed of itself, and, picking up Mary
Russell Mitford and her Surroundings, assures us that everything
will come right if we possess ourselves in patience.  The French
king's coach was on its way to Bocking; at Becking lived Lord and
Lady Charles Murray-Aynsley; and Lord Charles was shy.  Lord
Charles had always been shy.  Once when Mary Mitford was five years
old--sixteen years, that is, before the sheep were lost and the
French king went to Bocking--Mary "threw him into an agony of
blushing by running up to his chair in mistake for that of my
papa".  He had indeed to leave the room.  Miss Hill, who, somewhat
strangely, finds the society of Lord and Lady Charles pleasant,
does not wish to quit it without "introducing an incident in
connection with them which took place in the month of February,
1808".  But is Miss Mitford concerned in it? we ask, for there must
be an end of trifling.  To some extent, that is to say, Lady
Charles was a cousin of the Mitfords, and Lord Charles was shy.
Mendacity is quite ready to deal with "the incident" even on these
terms; but, we repeat, we have had enough of trifling.  Miss
Mitford may not be a great woman; for all we know she was not even
a good one; but we have certain responsibilities as a reviewer
which we are not going to evade.

There is, to begin with, English literature.  A sense of the beauty
of nature has never been altogether absent, however much the cow
may change from age to age, from English poetry.  Nevertheless, the
difference between Pope and Wordsworth in this respect is very
considerable.  Lyrical Ballads was published in 1798; Our Village
in 1824.  One being in verse and the other in prose, it is not
necessary to labour a comparison which contains, however, not only
the elements of justice, but the seeds of many volumes.  Like her
great predecessor, Miss Mitford much preferred the country to the
town; and thus, perhaps, it may not be inopportune to dwell for a
moment upon the King of Saxony, Mary Anning, and the ichthyosaurus.
Let alone the fact that Mary Anning and Mary Mitford had a
Christian name in common, they are further connected by what can
scarcely be called a fact, but may, without hazard, be called a
probability.  Miss Mitford was looking for fossils at Lyme Regis
only fifteen years before Mary Anning found one.  The King of
Saxony visited Lyme in 1844, and seeing the head of an ichthyosaurus
in Mary Anning's window, asked her to drive to Pinny and explore the
rocks.  While they were looking for fossils, an old woman seated
herself in the King's coach--was she Mary Mitford? Truth compels us
to say that she was not; but there is no doubt, and we are not
trifling when we say it, that Mary Mitford often expressed a wish
that she had known Mary Anning, and it is singularly unfortunate to
have to state that she never did.  For we have reached the year
1844; Mary Mitford is fifty-seven years of age, and so far, thanks
to Mendacity and its trifling ways, all we know of her is that she
did not know Mary Anning, had not found an ichthyosaurus, had not
been out in a snowstorm, and had not seen the King of France.

It is time to wring the creature's neck, and begin again at the
very beginning.

What considerations, then, had weight with Miss Hill when she
decided to write Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings?  Three
emerge from the rest, and may be held of paramount importance.  In
the first place, Miss Mitford was a lady; in the second, she was
born in the year 1787; and in the third, the stock of female
characters who lend themselves to biographic treatment by their own
sex is, for one reason or another, running short.  For instance,
little is known of Sappho, and that little is not wholly to her
credit.  Lady Jane Grey has merit, but is undeniably obscure.  Of
George Sand, the more we know the less we approve.  George Eliot
was led into evil ways which not all her philosophy can excuse.
The Brontës, however highly we rate their genius, lacked that
indefinable something which marks the lady; Harriet Martineau was
an atheist; Mrs. Browning was a married woman; Jane Austen, Fanny
Burney, and Maria Edgeworth have been done already; so that, what
with one thing and another, Mary Russell Mitford is the only woman

There is no need to labour the extreme importance of the date when
we see the word "surroundings" on the back of a book.  Surroundings,
as they are called, are invariably eighteenth-century surroundings.
When we come, as of course we do, to that phrase which relates how
"as we looked upon the steps leading down from the upper room, we
fancied we saw the tiny figure jumping from step to step", it would
be the grossest outrage upon our sensibilities to be told that those
steps were Athenian, Elizabethan, or Parisian.  They were, of
course, eighteenth-century steps, leading down from the old panelled
room into the shady garden, where, tradition has it, William Pitt
played marbles, or, if we like to be bold, where on still summer
days we can almost fancy that we hear the drums of Bonaparte on the
coast of France.  Bonaparte is the limit of the imagination on one
side, as Monmouth is on the other; it would be fatal if the
imagination took to toying with Prince Albert or sporting with King
John.  But fancy knows her place, and there is no need to labour the
point that her place is the eighteenth century.  The other point is
more obscure.  One must be a lady.  Yet what that means, and whether
we like what it means, may both be doubtful.  If we say that Jane
Austen was a lady and that Charlotte Brontë was not one, we do as
much as need be done in the way of definition, and commit ourselves
to neither side.

It is undoubtedly because of their reticence that Miss Hill is on
the side of the ladies.  They sigh things off and they smile things
off, but they never seize the silver table by the legs or dash the
teacups on the floor.  It is in many ways a great convenience to
have a subject who can be trusted to live a long life without once
raising her voice.  Sixteen years is a considerable stretch of
time, but of a lady it is enough to say, "Here Mary Mitford passed
sixteen years of her life and here she got to know and love not
only their own beautiful grounds but also every turn of the
surrounding shady lanes".  Her loves were vegetable, and her lanes
were shady.  Then, of course, she was educated at the school where
Jane Austen and Mrs. Sherwood had been educated.  She visited Lyme
Regis, and there is mention of the Cobb.  She saw London from the
top of St. Paul's, and London was much smaller then than it is now.
She changed from one charming house to another, and several
distinguished literary gentlemen paid her compliments and came to
tea.  When the dining-room ceiling fell down it did not fall on her
head, and when she took a ticket in a lottery she did win the
prize.  If in the foregoing sentences there are any words of more
than two syllables, it is our fault and not Miss Hill's; and to do
that writer justice, there are not many whole sentences in the book
which are neither quoted from Miss Mitford nor supported by the
authority of Mr. Crissy.

But how dangerous a thing is life!  Can one be sure that anything
not wholly made of mahogany will to the very end stand empty in the
sun?  Even cupboards have their secret springs, and when,
inadvertently we are sure, Miss Hill touches this one, out,
terrible to relate, topples a stout old gentleman.  In plain
English, Miss Mitford had a father.  There is nothing actually
improper in that.  Many women have had fathers.  But Miss Mitford's
father was kept in a cupboard; that is to say, he was not a nice
father.  Miss Hill even goes so far as to conjecture that when "an
imposing procession of neighbours and friends" followed him to the
grave, "we cannot help thinking that this was more to show sympathy
and respect for Miss Mitford than from special respect for him".
Severe as the judgement is, the gluttonous, bibulous, amorous old
man did something to deserve it.  The less said about him the
better.  Only, if from your earliest childhood your father has
gambled and speculated, first with your mother's fortune, then with
your own, spent your earnings, driven you to earn more, and spent
that too; if in old age he has lain upon a sofa and insisted that
fresh air is bad for daughters; if, dying at length, he has left
debts that can only be paid by selling everything you have or
sponging upon the charity of friends--then even a lady sometimes
raises her voice.  Miss Mitford herself spoke out once.  "It was
grief to go; there I had toiled and striven and tasted as deeply of
bitter anxiety, of fear, and of hope as often falls to the lot of
woman."  What language for a lady to use! for a lady, too, who owns
a teapot.  There is a drawing of the teapot at the bottom of the
page.  But it is now of no avail; Miss Mitford has smashed it to
smithereens.  That is the worst of writing about ladies; they have
fathers as well as teapots.  On the other hand, some pieces of Dr.
Mitford's Wedgwood dinner service are still in existence, and a
copy of Adam's Geography, which Mary won as a prize at school, is
"in our temporary possession".  If there is nothing improper in the
suggestion, might not the next book be devoted entirely to them?



As we saunter through those famous courts where Dr. Bentley once
reigned supreme we sometimes catch sight of a figure hurrying on
its way to Chapel or Hall which, as it disappears, draws our
thoughts enthusiastically after it.  For that man, we are told, has
the whole of Sophocles at his finger-ends; knows Homer by heart;
reads Pindar as we read the Times; and spends his life, save for
these short excursions to eat and pray, wholly in the company of
the Greeks.  It is true that the infirmities of our education
prevent us from appreciating his emendations as they deserve; his
life's work is a sealed book to us; none the less, we treasure up
the last flicker of his black gown, and feel as if a bird of
Paradise had flashed by us, so bright is his spirit's raiment, and
in the murk of a November evening we had been privileged to see it
winging its way to roost in fields of amaranth and beds of moly.
Of all men, great scholars are the most mysterious, the most
august.  Since it is unlikely that we shall ever be admitted to
their intimacy, or see much more of them than a black gown crossing
a court at dusk, the best we can do is to read their lives--for
example, the Life of Dr. Bentley by Bishop Monk.

There we shall find much that is odd and little that is reassuring.
The greatest of our scholars, the man who read Greek as the most
expert of us read English not merely with an accurate sense of
meaning and grammar but with a sensibility so subtle and widespread
that he perceived relations and suggestions of language which
enabled him to fetch up from oblivion lost lines and inspire new
life into the little fragments that remained, the man who should
have been steeped in beauty (if what they say of the Classics is
true) as a honey-pot is ingrained with sweetness was, on the
contrary, the most quarrelsome of mankind.

"I presume that there are not many examples of an individual who
has been a party in six distinct suits before the Court of King's
Bench within the space of three years", his biographer remarks; and
adds that Bentley won them all.  It is difficult to deny his
conclusion that though Dr. Bentley might have been a first-rate
lawyer or a great soldier "such a display suited any character
rather than that of a learned and dignified clergyman".  Not all
these disputes, however, sprung from his love of literature.  The
charges against which he had to defend himself were directed
against him as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.  He was
habitually absent from chapel; his expenditure upon building and
upon his household was excessive; he used the college seal at
meetings which did not consist of the statutable number of sixteen,
and so on.  In short, the career of the Master of Trinity was one
continuous series of acts of aggression and defiance, in which Dr.
Bentley treated the Society of Trinity College as a grown man might
treat an importunate rabble of street boys.  Did they dare to hint
that the staircase at the Lodge which admitted four persons abreast
was quite wide enough?--did they refuse to sanction his expenditure
upon a new one?  Meeting them in the Great Court one evening after
chapel he proceeded urbanely to question them.  They refused to
budge.  Whereupon, with a sudden alteration of colour and voice,
Bentley demanded whether "they had forgotten his rusty sword?"  Mr.
Michael Hutchinson and some others, upon whose backs the weight of
that weapon would have first descended, brought pressure upon their
seniors.  The bill for £350 was paid and their preferment secured.
But Bentley did not wait for this act of submission to finish his

So it went on, year after year.  Nor was the arrogance of his
behaviour always justified by the splendour or utility of the
objects he had in view--the creation of the Backs, the erection of
an observatory, the foundation of a laboratory.  More trivial
desires were gratified with the same tyranny.  Sometimes he wanted
coal; sometimes bread and ale; and then Madame Bentley, sending her
servant with a snuffbox in token of authority, got from the
butteries at the expense of the college a great deal more of these
commodities than the college thought that Dr. Bentley ought to
require.  Again, when he had four pupils to lodge with him who paid
him handsomely for their board, it was drawn from the College, at
the command of the snuff-box, for nothing.  The principles of
"delicacy and good feeling" which the Master might have been
expected to observe (great scholar as he was, steeped in the wine
of the classics) went for nothing.  His argument that the "few
College loaves" upon which the four young patricians were nourished
were amply repaid by the three sash windows which he had put into
their rooms at his own expense failed to convince the Fellows.  And
when, on Trinity Sunday 1719, the Fellows found the famous College
ale not to their liking, they were scarcely satisfied when the
butler told them that it had been brewed by the Master's orders,
from the Master's malt, which was stored in the Master's granary,
and though damaged by "an insect called the weevil" had been paid
for at the very high rates which the Master demanded.

Still these battles over bread and beer are trifles and domestic
trifles at that.  His conduct in his profession will throw more
light upon our inquiry.  For, released from brick and building,
bread and beer, patricians and their windows, it may be found that
he expanded in the atmosphere of Homer, Horace, and Manilius, and
proved in his study the benign nature of those influences which
have been wafted down to us through the ages.  But there the
evidence is even less to the credit of the dead languages.  He
acquitted himself magnificently, all agree, in the great
controversy about the letters of Phalaris.  His temper was
excellent and his learning prodigious.  But that triumph was
succeeded by a series of disputes which force upon us the
extraordinary spectacle of men of learning and genius, of authority
and divinity, brawling about Greek and Latin texts, and calling
each other names for all the world like bookies on a racecourse or
washerwomen in a back street.  For this vehemence of temper and
virulence of language were not confined to Bentley alone; they
appear unhappily characteristic of the profession as a whole.
Early in life, in the year 1691, a quarrel was fastened upon him by
his brother chaplain Hody for writing Malelas, not as Hody
preferred, Malela.  A controversy in which Bentley displayed
learning and wit, and Hody accumulated endless pages of bitter
argument against the letter s ensued.  Hody was worsted, and "there
is too much reason to believe, that the offence given by this
trivial cause was never afterwards healed".  Indeed, to mend a line
was to break a friendship.  James Gronovius of Leyden--"homunculus
eruditione mediocri, ingenio nullo", as Bentley called him--
attacked Bentley for ten years because Bentley had succeeded in
correcting a fragment of Callimachus where he had failed.

But Gronovius was by no means the only scholar who resented the
success of a rival with a rancour that grey hairs and forty years
spent in editing the classics failed to subdue.  In all the chief
towns of Europe lived men like the notorious de Pauw of Utrecht, "a
person who has justly been considered the pest and disgrace of
letters", who, when a new theory or new edition appeared, banded
themselves together to deride and humiliate the scholar.  ". . .
all his writings", Bishop Monk remarks of de Pauw, "prove him to be
devoid of candour, good faith, good manners, and every gentlemanly
feeling: and while he unites all the defects and bad qualities that
were ever found in a critic or commentator, he adds one peculiar to
himself, an incessant propensity to indecent allusions."  With such
tempers and such habits it is not strange that the scholars of
those days sometimes ended lives made intolerable by bitterness,
poverty, and neglect by their own hands, like Johnson, who after a
lifetime spent in the detection of minute errors of construction,
went mad and drowned himself in the meadows near Nottingham.  On
May 20, 1712, Trinity College was shocked to find that the
professor of Hebrew, Dr. Sike, had hanged himself "some time this
evening, before candlelight, in his sash".  When Kuster died, it
was reported that he, too, had killed himself.  And so, in a sense,
he had.  For when his body was opened "there was found a cake of
sand along the lower region of his belly.  This, I take it, was
occasioned by his sitting nearly double, and writing on a very low
table, surrounded with three or four circles of books placed on the
ground, which was the situation we usually found him in."  The
minds of poor schoolmasters, like John Ker of the dissenting
Academy, who had had the high gratification of dining with Dr.
Bentley at the Lodge, when the talk fell upon the use of the word
equidem, were so distorted by a lifetime of neglect and study that
they went home, collected all uses of the word equidem which
contradicted the Doctor's opinion, returned to the Lodge,
anticipating in their simplicity a warm welcome, met the Doctor
issuing to dine with the Archbishop of Canterbury, followed him
down the street in spite of his indifference and annoyance and,
being refused even a word of farewell, went home to brood over
their injuries and wait the day of revenge.

But the bickerings and animosities of the smaller fry were
magnified, not obliterated, by the Doctor himself in the conduct of
his own affairs.  The courtesy and good temper which he had shown
in his early controversies had worn away.  ". . . a course of
violent animosities and the indulgence of unrestrained indignation
for many years had impaired both his taste and judgement in
controversy", and he condescended, though the subject in dispute
was the Greek Testament, to call his antagonist "maggot", "vermin",
"gnawing rat", and "cabbage head", to refer to the darkness of his
complexion, and to insinuate that his wits were crazed, which
charge he supported by dwelling on the fact that his brother, a
clergyman, wore a beard to his girdle.

Violent, pugnacious, and unscrupulous, Dr. Bentley survived these
storms and agitations, and remained, though suspended from his
degrees and deprived of his mastership, seated at the Lodge
imperturbably.  Wearing a broad-brimmed hat indoors to protect his
eyes, smoking his pipe, enjoying his port, and expounding to his
friends his doctrine of the digamma, Bentley lived those eighty
years which, he said, were long enough "to read everything which
was worth reading", "Et tunc", he added, in his peculiar manner,

     Et tunc magna mei sub terris ibit imago.

A small square stone marked his grave in Trinity College, but the
Fellows refused to record upon it the fact that he had been their

But the strangest sentence in this strange story has yet to be
written, and Bishop Monk writes it as if it were a commonplace
requiring no comment.  "For a person who was neither a poet, nor
possessed of poetical taste to venture upon such a task was no
common presumption."  The task was to detect every slip of language
in Paradise Lost, and all instances of bad taste and incorrect
imagery.  The result was notoriously lamentable.  Yet in what, we
may ask, did it differ from those in which Bentley was held to have
acquitted himself magnificently?  And if Bentley was incapable of
appreciating the poetry of Milton, how can we accept his verdict
upon Horace and Homer?  And if we cannot trust implicitly to
scholars, and if the study of Greek is supposed to refine the
manners and purify the soul--but enough.  Our scholar has returned
from Hall; his lamp is lit; his studies are resumed; and it is time
that our profane speculations should have an end.  Besides, all
this happened many, many years ago.



She had stayed, in a humble capacity, for a week in the ducal
household.  She had seen the troops of highly decorated human
beings descending in couples to eat, and ascending in couples to
bed.  She had, surreptitiously, from a gallery, observed the Duke
himself dusting the miniatures in the glass cases, while the
Duchess let her crochet fall from her hands as if in utter
disbelief that the world had need of crochet.  From an upper window
she had seen, as far as eye could reach, gravel paths swerving
round isles of greenery and losing themselves in little woods
designed to shed the shade without the severity of forests; she had
watched the ducal carriage bowling in and out of the prospect, and
returning a different way from the way it went.  And what was her
verdict?  "A lunatic asylum."

It is true that she was a lady's-maid, and that Lady Dorothy
Nevill, had she encountered her on the stairs, would have made an
opportunity to point out that that is a very different thing from
being a lady.

My mother never failed to point out the folly of workwomen, shop-
girls, and the like calling each other "Ladies".  All this sort of
thing seemed to her to be mere vulgar humbug, and she did not fail
to say so.

What can we point out to Lady Dorothy Nevill? that with all her
advantages she had never learned to spell? that she could not write
a grammatical sentence? that she lived for eighty-seven years and
did nothing but put food into her mouth and slip gold through her
fingers?  But delightful though it is to indulge in righteous
indignation, it is misplaced if we agree with the lady's-maid that
high birth is a form of congenital insanity, that the sufferer
merely inherits the diseases of his ancestors, and endures them,
for the most part very stoically, in one of those comfortably
padded lunatic asylums which are known, euphemistically, as the
stately homes of England.

Moreover, the Walpoles are not ducal.  Horace Walpole's mother was
a Miss Shorter; there is no mention of Lady Dorothy's mother in the
present volume, but her great-grandmother was Mrs. Oldfield the
actress, and, to her credit, Lady Dorothy was "exceedingly proud"
of the fact.  Thus she was not an extreme case of aristocracy; she
was confined rather to a bird-cage than to an asylum; through the
bars she saw people walking at large, and once or twice she made a
surprising little flight into the open air.  A gayer, brighter,
more vivacious specimen of the caged tribe can seldom have existed;
so that one is forced at times to ask whether what we call living
in a cage is not the fate that wise people, condemned to a single
sojourn upon earth, would choose.  To be at large is, after all, to
be shut out; to waste most of life in accumulating the money to buy
and the time to enjoy what the Lady Dorothys find clustering and
glowing about their cradles when their eyes first open--as hers
opened in the year 1826 at number eleven Berkeley Square.  Horace
Walpole had lived there.  Her father, Lord Orford, gambled it away
in one night's play the year after she was born.  But Wolterton
Hall, in Norfolk, was full of carving and mantelpieces, and there
were rare trees in the garden, and a large and famous lawn.  No
novelist could wish a more charming and even romantic environment
in which to set the story of two little girls, growing up, wild yet
secluded, reading Bossuet with their governess, and riding out on
their ponies at the head of the tenantry on polling day.  Nor can
one deny that to have had the author of the following letter among
one's ancestors would have been a source of inordinate pride.  It
is addressed to the Norwich Bible Society, which had invited Lord
Orford to become its president:

I have long been addicted to the Gaming Table.  I have lately taken
to the Turf.  I fear I frequently blaspheme.  But I have never
distributed religious tracts.  All this was known to you and your
Society.  Notwithstanding which you think me a fit person to be
your president.  God forgive your hypocrisy.

It was not Lord Orford who was in the cage on that occasion.  But,
alas!  Lord Orford owned another country house, Ilsington Hall, in
Dorsetshire, and there Lady Dorothy came in contact first with the
mulberry tree, and later with Mr. Thomas Hardy; and we get our
first glimpse of the bars.  We do not pretend to the ghost of an
enthusiasm for Sailors' Homes in general; no doubt mulberry trees
are much nicer to look at; but when it comes to calling people
"vandals" who cut them down to build houses, and to having
footstools made from the wood, and to carving upon those footstools
inscriptions which testify that "often and often has King George
III taken his tea" under this very footstool, then we want to
protest--"Surely you must mean Shakespeare?"  But as her subsequent
remarks upon Mr. Hardy tend to prove, Lady Dorothy does not mean
Shakespeare.  She "warmly appreciated" the works of Mr. Hardy, and
used to complain "that the county families were too stupid to
appreciate his genius at its proper worth".  George the Third
drinking his tea; the county families failing to appreciate Mr.
Hardy: Lady Dorothy is undoubtedly behind the bars.

Yet no story more aptly illustrates the barrier which we perceive
hereafter between Lady Dorothy and the outer world than the story
of Charles Darwin and the blankets.  Among her recreations Lady
Dorothy made a hobby of growing orchids, and thus got into touch
with "the great naturalist".  Mrs. Darwin, inviting her to stay
with them, remarked with apparent simplicity that she had heard
that people who moved much in London society were fond of being
tossed in blankets.  "I am afraid", her letter ended, "we should
hardly be able to offer you anything of that sort."  Whether in
fact the necessity of tossing Lady Dorothy in a blanket had been
seriously debated at Down, or whether Mrs. Darwin obscurely hinted
her sense of some incongruity between her husband and the lady of
the orchids, we do not know.  But we have a sense of two worlds in
collision; and it is not the Darwin world that emerges in
fragments.  More and more do we see Lady Dorothy hopping from perch
to perch, picking at groundsel here, and at hempseed there,
indulging in exquisite trills and roulades, and sharpening her beak
against a lump of sugar in a large, airy, magnificently equipped
bird-cage.  The cage was full of charming diversions.  Now she
illuminated leaves which had been macerated to skeletons; now she
interested herself in improving the breed of donkeys; next she took
up the cause of silkworms, almost threatened Australia with a
plague of them, and "actually succeeded in obtaining enough silk to
make a dress"; again she was the first to discover that wood, gone
green with decay, can be made, at some expense, into little boxes;
she went into the question of funguses and established the virtues
of the neglected English truffle; she imported rare fish; spent a
great deal of energy in vainly trying to induce storks and Cornish
choughs to breed in Sussex; painted on china; emblazoned heraldic
arms, and, attaching whistles to the tails of pigeons, produced
wonderful effects "as of an aerial orchestra" when they flew
through the air.  To the Duchess of Somerset belongs the credit of
investigating the proper way of cooking guinea-pigs; but Lady
Dorothy was one of the first to serve up a dish of these little
creatures at luncheon in Charles Street.

But all the time the door of the cage was ajar.  Raids were made
into what Mr. Nevill calls "Upper Bohemia"; from which Lady Dorothy
returned with "authors, journalists, actors, actresses, or other
agreeable and amusing people".  Lady Dorothy's judgement is proved
by the fact that they seldom misbehaved, and some indeed became
quite domesticated, and wrote her "very gracefully turned letters".
But once or twice she made a flight beyond the cage herself.
"These horrors", she said, alluding to the middle class, "are so
clever and we are so stupid; but then look how well they are
educated, while our children learn nothing but how to spend their
parents' money!"  She brooded over the fact.  Something was going
wrong.  She was too shrewd and too honest not to lay the blame
partly at least upon her own class.  "I suppose she can just about
read?" she said of one lady calling herself cultured; and of
another, "She is indeed curious and well adapted to open bazaars".
But to our thinking her most remarkable flight took place a year or
two before her death, in the Victoria and Albert Museum:

I do so agree with you, she wrote--though I ought not to say so--
that the upper class are very--I don't know what to say--but they
seem to take no interest in anything--but golfing, etc.  One day I
was at the Victoria and Albert Museum, just a few sprinkles of
legs, for I am sure they looked too frivolous to have bodies and
souls attached to them--but what softened the sight to my eyes were
2 little Japs poring over each article with a handbook . . . our
bodies, of course, giggling and looking at nothing.  Still worse,
not one soul of the higher class visible: in fact I never heard of
any one of them knowing of the place, and for this we are spending
millions--it is all too painful.

It was all too painful, and the guillotine, she felt, loomed ahead.
That catastrophe she was spared, for who could wish to cut off the
head of a pigeon with a whistle attached to its tail?  But if the
whole bird-cage had been overturned and the aerial orchestra sent
screaming and fluttering through the air, we can be sure, as Mr.
Joseph Chamberlain told her, that her conduct would have been "a
credit to the British aristocracy".



The origin of Archbishop Thomson was obscure.  His great-uncle "may
reasonably be supposed" to have been "an ornament to the middle
classes".  His aunt married a gentleman who was present at the
murder of Gustavus III of Sweden; and his father met his death at
the age of eighty-seven by treading on a cat in the early hours of
the morning.  The physical vigour which this anecdote implies was
combined in the Archbishop with powers of intellect which promised
success in whatever profession he adopted.  At Oxford it seemed
likely that he would devote himself to philosophy or science.
While reading for his degree he found time to write the Outlines of
the Laws of Thought, which "immediately became a recognised text-
book for Oxford classes".  But though poetry, philosophy, medicine,
and the law held out their temptations he put such thoughts aside,
or never entertained them, having made up his mind from the first
to dedicate himself to Divine service.  The measure of his success
in the more exalted sphere is attested by the following facts:
Ordained deacon in 1842 at the age of twenty-three, he became Dean
and Bursar of Queen's College, Oxford, in 1845; Provost in 1855,
Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol in 1861, and Archbishop of York in
1862.  Thus at the early age of forty-three he stood next in rank
to the Archbishop of Canterbury himself; and it was commonly though
erroneously expected that he would in the end attain to that
dignity also.

It is a matter of temperament and belief whether you read this list
with respect or with boredom; whether you look upon an archbishop's
hat as a crown or as an extinguisher.  If, like the present
reviewer, you are ready to hold the simple faith that the outer
order corresponds to the inner--that a vicar is a good man, a canon
a better man, and an archbishop the best man of all--you will find
the study of the Archbishop's life one of extreme fascination.  He
has turned aside from poetry and philosophy and law, and
specialised in virtue.  He has dedicated himself to the service of
the Divine.  His spiritual proficiency has been such that he has
developed from deacon to dean, from dean to bishop, and from bishop
to archbishop in the short space of twenty years.  As there are
only two archbishops in the whole of England the inference seems to
be that he is the second best man in England; his hat is the proof
of it.  Even in a material sense his hat was one of the largest; it
was larger than Mr. Gladstone's; larger than Thackeray's; larger
than Dickens's; it was in fact, so his hatter told him and we are
inclined to agree, an "eight full."  Yet he began much as other men
begin.  He struck an undergraduate in a fit of temper and was
rusticated; he wrote a text-book of logic and rowed a very good
oar.  But after he was ordained his diary shows that the
specialising process had begun.  He thought a great deal about the
state of his soul; about "the monstrous tumour of Simony"; about
Church reform; and about the meaning of Christianity.  "Self-
renunciation", he came to the conclusion, "is the foundation of
Christian Religion and Christian Morals. . . .  The highest wisdom
is that which can enforce and cultivate this self-renunciation.
Hence (against Cousin) I hold that religion is higher far than
philosophy."  There is one mention of chemists and capillarity, but
science and philosophy were, even at this early stage, in danger of
being crowded out.  Soon the diary takes a different tone.  "He
seems", says his biographer, "to have had no time for committing
his thoughts to paper"; he records his engagements only, and he
dines out almost every night.  Sir Henry Taylor, whom he met at one
of these parties, described him as "simple, solid, good, capable,
and pleasing".  Perhaps it was his solidity combined with his
"eminently scientific" turn of mind, his blandness as well as his
bulk, that impressed some of these great people with the confidence
that in him the Church had found a very necessary champion.  His
"brawny logic" and massive frame seemed to fit him to grapple with
a task that taxed the strongest--how, that is, to reconcile the
scientific discoveries of the age with religion, and even prove
them "some of its strongest witnesses for the truth".  If any one
could do this Thomson could; his practical ability, unhampered by
any mystical or dreaming tendency, had already proved itself in the
conduct of the business affairs of his College.  From Bishop he
became almost instantly Archbishop; and in becoming Archbishop he
became Primate of England, Governor of the Charterhouse and King's
College, London, patron of one hundred and twenty livings, with the
Archdeaconries of York, Cleveland, and the East Riding in his gift,
and the Canonries and Prebends in York Minster.  Bishopthorpe
itself was an enormous palace; he was immediately faced by the
"knotty question" of whether to buy all the furniture--"much of it
only poor stuff"--or to furnish the house anew, which would cost a
fortune.  Moreover there were seven cows in the park; but these,
perhaps, were counterbalanced by nine children in the nursery.
Then the Prince and Princess of Wales came to stay, and the
Archbishop took upon himself the task of furnishing the Princess's
apartments.  He went up to London and bought eight Moderator lamps,
two Spanish figures holding candles, and reminded himself of the
necessity of buying "soap for Princess".  But meanwhile far more
serious matters claimed every ounce of his strength.  Already he
had been exhorted to "wield the sure lance of your brawny logic
against the sophistries" of the authors of Essays and Reviews, and
had responded in a work called Aids to Faith.  Near at hand the
town of Sheffield, with its large population of imperfectly
educated working men, was a breeding ground of scepticism and
discontent.  The Archbishop made it his special charge.  He was
fond of watching the rolling of armour plate, and constantly
addressed meetings of working men.  "Now what are these Nihilisms,
and Socialisms, and Communisms, and Fenianisms, and Secret
Societies--what do they all mean?" he asked.  "Selfishness," he
replied, and "assertion of one class against the rest is at the
bottom of them all".  There was a law of nature, he said, by which
wages went up and wages went down.  "You must accept the declivity
as well as the ascent. . . .  If we could only get people to learn
that, then things would go on a great deal better and smoother."
And the working men of Sheffield responded by giving him five
hundred pieces of cutlery mounted in sterling silver.  But
presumably there were a certain number of knives among the spoons
and the forks.

Bishop Colenso, however, was far more troublesome than the working
men of Sheffield; and the Ritualists vexed him so persistently that
even his vast strength felt the strain.  The questions which were
referred to him for decision were peculiarly fitted to tease and
annoy even a man of his bulk and his blandness.  Shall a drunkard
found dead in a ditch, or a burglar who has fallen through a
skylight, be given the benefit of the Burial Service? he was asked.
The question of lighted candles was "most difficult"; the wearing
of coloured stoles and the administration of the mixed chalice
taxed him considerably; and finally there was the Rev. John
Purchas, who, dressed in cope, alb, biretta and stole "cross-wise",
lit candles and extinguished them "for no special reason"; filled a
vessel with black powder and rubbed it into the foreheads of his
congregation; and hung over the Holy Table "a figure, image, or
stuffed skin of a dove, in a flying attitude".  The Archbishop's
temper, usually so positive and imperturbable, was gravely ruffled,
"Will there ever come a time when it will be thought a crime to
have striven to keep the Church of England as representing the
common sense of the Nation?" he asked.  "I suppose it may, but I
shall not see it.  I have gone through a good deal, but I do not
repent of having done my best."  If, for a moment, the Archbishop
himself could ask such a question, we must confess to a state of
complete bewilderment.  What has become of our superlatively good
man?  He is harassed and cumbered; spends his time settling
questions about stuffed pigeons and coloured petticoats; writes
over eighty letters before breakfast sometimes; scarcely has time
to run over to Paris and buy his daughter a bonnet; and in the end
has to ask himself whether one of these days his conduct will not
be considered a crime.

Was it a crime?  And if so, was it his fault?  Did he not start out
in the belief that Christianity had something to do with
renunciation and was not entirely a matter of common sense?  If
honours and obligations, pomps and possessions, accumulated and
encrusted him, how, being an Archbishop, could he refuse to accept
them?  Princesses must have their soap; palaces must have their
furniture; children must have their cows.  And, pathetic though it
seems, he never completely lost his interest in science.  He wore a
pedometer; he was one of the first to use a camera; he believed in
the future of the typewriter; and in his last years he tried to
mend a broken clock.  He was a delightful father too; he wrote
witty, terse, sensible letters; his good stories were much to the
point; and he died in harness.  Certainly he was a very able man,
but if we insist upon goodness--is it easy, is it possible, for a
good man to be an Archbishop?


Young men and women beginning to write are generally given the
plausible but utterly impracticable advice to write what they have
to write as shortly as possible, as clearly as possible, and
without other thought in their minds except to say exactly what is
in them.  Nobody ever adds on these occasions the one thing
needful:  "And be sure you choose your patron wisely", though that
is the gist of the whole matter.  For a book is always written for
somebody to read, and, since the patron is not merely the
paymaster, but also in a very subtle and insidious way the
instigator and inspirer of what is written, it is of the utmost
importance that he should be a desirable man.

But who, then, is the desirable man--the patron who will cajole the
best out of the writer's brain and bring to birth the most varied
and vigorous progeny of which he is capable?  Different ages have
answered the question differently.  The Elizabethans, to speak
roughly, chose the aristocracy to write for and the playhouse
public.  The eighteenth-century patron was a combination of coffee-
house wit and Grub Street bookseller.  In the nineteenth century
the great writers wrote for the half-crown magazines and the
leisured classes.  And looking back and applauding the splendid
results of these different alliances, it all seems enviably simple,
and plain as a pikestaff compared with our own predicament--for
whom should we write?  For the present supply of patrons is of
unexampled and bewildering variety.  There is the daily Press, the
weekly Press, the monthly Press; the English public and the
American public; the bestseller public and the worst-seller public;
the highbrow public and the red-blood public; all now organised
self-conscious entities capable through their various mouthpieces
of making their needs known and their approval or displeasure felt.
Thus the writer who has been moved by the sight of the first crocus
in Kensington Gardens has, before he sets pen to paper, to choose
from a crowd of competitors the particular patron who suits him
best.  It is futile to say, "Dismiss them all; think only of your
crocus", because writing is a method of communication; and the
crocus is an imperfect crocus until it has been shared.  The first
man or the last may write for himself alone, but he is an exception
and an unenviable one at that, and the gulls are welcome to his
works if the gulls can read them.

Granted, then, that every writer has some public or other at the
end of his pen, the high-minded will say that it should be a
submissive public, accepting obediently whatever he likes to give
it.  Plausible as the theory sounds, great risks are attached to
it.  For in that case the writer remains conscious of his public,
yet is superior to it--an uncomfortable and unfortunate
combination, as the works of Samuel Butler, George Meredith, and
Henry James may be taken to prove.  Each despised the public; each
desired a public; each failed to attain a public; and each wreaked
his failure upon the public by a succession, gradually increasing
in intensity, of angularities, obscurities, and affectations which
no writer whose patron was his equal and friend would have thought
it necessary to inflict.  Their crocuses, in consequence, are
tortured plants, beautiful and bright, but with something wry-
necked about them, malformed, shrivelled on the one side, overblown
on the other.  A touch of the sun would have done them a world of
good.  Shall we then rush to the opposite extreme and accept (if in
fancy alone) the flattering proposals which the editors of the
Times and the Daily News may be supposed to make us--"Twenty pounds
down for your crocus in precisely fifteen hundred words, which
shall blossom upon every breakfast table from John o' Groats to the
Land's End before nine o'clock to-morrow morning with the writer's
name attached"?

But will one crocus be enough, and must it not be a very brilliant
yellow to shine so far, to cost so much, and to have one's name
attached to it?  The Press is undoubtedly a great multiplier of
crocuses.  But if we look at some of these plants, we shall find
that they are only very distantly related to the original little
yellow or purple flower which pokes up through the grass in
Kensington Gardens early in March every year.  The newspaper crocus
is an amazing but still a very different plant.  It fills precisely
the space allotted to it.  It radiates a golden glow.  It is
genial, affable, warm-hearted.  It is beautifully finished, too,
for let nobody think that the art of "our dramatic critic" of the
Times or of Mr. Lynd of the Daily News is an easy one.  It is no
despicable feat to start a million brains running at nine o'clock
in the morning, to give two million eyes something bright and brisk
and amusing to look at.  But the night comes and these flowers
fade.  So little bits of glass lose their lustre if you take them
out of the sea; great prima donnas howl like hyenas if you shut
them up in telephone boxes; and the most brilliant of articles when
removed from its element is dust and sand and the husks of straw.

Journalism embalmed in a book is unreadable.  The patron we want,
then, is one who will help us to preserve our flowers from decay.
But as his qualities change from age to age, and it needs
considerable integrity and conviction not to be dazzled by the
pretensions or bamboozled by the persuasions of the competing
crowd, this business of patron-finding is one of the tests and
trials of authorship.  To know whom to write for is to know how to
write.  Some of the modern patron's qualities are, however, fairly
plain.  The writer will require at this moment, it is obvious, a
patron with the book-reading habit rather than the play-going
habit.  Nowadays, too, he must be instructed in the literature of
other times and races.  But there are other qualities which our
special weaknesses and tendencies demand in him.  There is the
question of indecency, for instance, which plagues us and puzzles
us much more than it did the Elizabethans.  The twentieth-century
patron must be immune from shock.  He must distinguish infallibly
between the little clod of manure which sticks to the crocus of
necessity, and that which is plastered to it out of bravado.  He
must be a judge, too, of those social influences which inevitably
play so large a part in modern literature, and able to say which
matures and fortifies, which inhibits and makes sterile.  Further,
there is emotion for him to pronounce on, and in no department can
he do more useful work than in bracing a writer against
sentimentality on the one hand and a craven fear of expressing his
feeling on the other.  It is worse, he will say, and perhaps more
common, to be afraid of feeling than to feel too much.  He will
add, perhaps, something about language, and point out how many
words Shakespeare used and how much grammar Shakespeare violated,
while we, though we keep our fingers so demurely to the black notes
on the piano, have not appreciably improved upon Antony and
Cleopatra.  And if you can forget your sex altogether, he will say,
so much the better; a writer has none.  But all this is by the way--
elementary and disputable.  The patron's prime quality is
something different, only to be expressed perhaps by the use of
that convenient word which cloaks so much--atmosphere.  It is
necessary that the patron should shed and envelop the crocus in an
atmosphere which makes it appear a plant of the very highest
importance, so that to misrepresent it is the one outrage not to be
forgiven this side of the grave.  He must make us feel that a
single crocus, if it be a real crocus, is enough for him; that he
does not want to be lectured, elevated, instructed, or improved;
that he is sorry that he bullied Carlyle into vociferation,
Tennyson into idyllics, and Ruskin into insanity; that he is now
ready to efface himself or assert himself as his writers require;
that he is bound to them by a more than maternal tie; that they are
twins indeed, one dying if the other dies, one flourishing if the
other flourishes; that the fate of literature depends upon their
happy alliance--all of which proves, as we began by saying, that
the choice of a patron is of the highest importance.  But how to
choose rightly?  How to write well?  Those are the questions.


As Mr. Rhys truly says, it is unnecessary to go profoundly into the
history and origin of the essay--whether it derives from Socrates
or Siranney the Persian--since, like all living things, its present
is more important than its past.  Moreover, the family is widely
spread; and while some of its representatives have risen in the
world and wear their coronets with the best, others pick up a
precarious living in the gutter near Fleet Street.  The form, too,
admits variety.  The essay can be short or long, serious or
trifling, about God and Spinoza, or about turtles and Cheapside.
But as we turn over the pages of these five little volumes,[1]
containing essays written between 1870 and 1920, certain principles
appear to control the chaos, and we detect in the short period
under review something like the progress of history.

[1] Modern English Essays, edited by Ernest Rhys, 5 vols. (Dent).

Of all forms of literature, however, the essay is the one which
least calls for the use of long words.  The principle which
controls it is simply that it should give pleasure; the desire
which impels us when we take it from the shelf is simply to receive
pleasure.  Everything in an essay must be subdued to that end.  It
should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only
wake, refreshed, with its last.  In the interval we may pass
through the most various experiences of amusement, surprise,
interest, indignation; we may soar to the heights of fantasy with
Lamb or plunge to the depths of wisdom with Bacon, but we must
never be roused.  The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain
across the world.

So great a feat is seldom accomplished, though the fault may well
be as much on the reader's side as on the writer's.  Habit and
lethargy have dulled his palate.  A novel has a story, a poem
rhyme; but what art can the essayist use in these short lengths of
prose to sting us wide awake and fix us in a trance which is not
sleep but rather an intensification of life--a basking, with every
faculty alert, in the sun of pleasure?  He must know--that is the
first essential--how to write.  His learning may be as profound as
Mark Pattison's, but in an essay it must be so fused by the magic
of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface
of the texture.  Macaulay in one way, Froude in another, did this
superbly over and over again.  They have blown more knowledge into
us in the course of one essay than the innumerable chapters of a
hundred text-books.  But when Mark Pattison has to tell us, in the
space of thirty-five little pages, about Montaigne, we feel that he
had not previously assimilated M. Grün.  M. Grün was a gentleman
who once wrote a bad book.  M. Grün and his book should have been
embalmed for our perpetual delight in amber.  But the process is
fatiguing; it requires more time and perhaps more temper than
Pattison had at his command.  He served M. Grün up raw, and he
remains a crude berry among the cooked meats, upon which our teeth
must grate for ever.  Something of the sort applies to Matthew
Arnold and a certain translator of Spinoza.  Literal truth-telling
and finding fault with a culprit for his good are out of place in
an essay, where everything should be for our good and rather for
eternity than for the March number of the Fortnightly Review.  But
if the voice of the scold should never be heard in this narrow
plot, there is another voice which is as a plague of locusts--the
voice of a man stumbling drowsily among loose words, clutching
aimlessly at vague ideas, the voice, for example, of Mr. Hutton in
the following passage:

Add to this that his married life was very brief, only seven years
and a half, being unexpectedly cut short, and that his passionate
reverence for his wife's memory and genius--in his own words, "a
religion"--was one which, as he must have been perfectly sensible,
he could not make to appear otherwise than extravagant, not to say
an hallucination, in the eyes of the rest of mankind, and yet that
he was possessed by an irresistible yearning to attempt to embody
it in all the tender and enthusiastic hyperbole of which it is so
pathetic to find a man who gained his fame by his "dry-light" a
master, and it is impossible not to feel that the human incidents
in Mr. Mill's career are very sad.

A book could take that blow, but it sinks an essay.  A biography in
two volumes is indeed the proper depository, for there, where the
licence is so much wider, and hints and glimpses of outside things
make part of the feast (we refer to the old type of Victorian
volume), these yawns and stretches hardly matter, and have indeed
some positive value of their own.  But that value, which is
contributed by the reader, perhaps illicitly, in his desire to get
as much into the book from all possible sources as he can, must be
ruled out here.

There is no room for the impurities of literature in an essay.
Somehow or other, by dint of labour or bounty of nature, or both
combined, the essay must be pure--pure like water or pure like
wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous
matter.  Of all writers in the first volume, Walter Pater best
achieves this arduous task, because before setting out to write his
essay ("Notes on Leonardo da Vinci") he has somehow contrived to
get his material fused.  He is a learned man, but it is not
knowledge of Leonardo that remains with us, but a vision, such as
we get in a good novel where everything contributes to bring the
writer's conception as a whole before us.  Only here, in the essay,
where the bounds are so strict and facts have to be used in their
nakedness, the true writer like Walter Pater makes these
limitations yield their own quality.  Truth will give it authority;
from its narrow limits he will get shape and intensity; and then
there is no more fitting place for some of those ornaments which
the old writers loved and we, by calling them ornaments, presumably
despise.  Nowadays nobody would have the courage to embark on the
once famous description of Leonardo's lady who has

learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas
and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange
webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen
of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary . . .

The passage is too thumb-marked to slip naturally into the context.
But when we come unexpectedly upon "the smiling of women and the
motion of great waters", or upon "full of the refinement of the
dead, in sad, earth-coloured raiment, set with pale stones", we
suddenly remember that we have ears and we have eyes, and that the
English language fills a long array of stout volumes with
innumerable words, many of which are of more than one syllable.
The only living Englishman who ever looks into these volumes is, of
course, a gentleman of Polish extraction.  But doubtless our
abstention saves us much gush, much rhetoric, much high-stepping
and cloud-prancing, and for the sake of the prevailing sobriety and
hard-headedness we should be willing to barter the splendour of Sir
Thomas Browne and the vigour of Swift.

Yet, if the essay admits more properly than biography or fiction of
sudden boldness and metaphor, and can be polished till every atom
of its surface shines, there are dangers in that too.  We are soon
in sight of ornament.  Soon the current, which is the life-blood of
literature, runs slow; and instead of sparkling and flashing or
moving with a quieter impulse which has a deeper excitement, words
coagulate together in frozen sprays which, like the grapes on a
Christmas-tree, glitter for a single night, but are dusty and
garish the day after.  The temptation to decorate is great where
the theme may be of the slightest.  What is there to interest
another in the fact that one has enjoyed a walking tour, or has
amused oneself by rambling down Cheapside and looking at the
turtles in Mr. Sweeting's shop window?  Stevenson and Samuel Butler
chose very different methods of exciting our interest in these
domestic themes.  Stevenson, of course, trimmed and polished and
set out his matter in the traditional eighteenth-century form.  It
is admirably done, but we cannot help feeling anxious, as the essay
proceeds, lest the material may give out under the craftsman's
fingers.  The ingot is so small, the manipulation so incessant.
And perhaps that is why the peroration--

To sit still and contemplate--to remember the faces of women
without desire, to be pleased by the great deeds of men without
envy, to be everything and everywhere in sympathy and yet content
to remain where and what you are--

has the sort of insubstantiality which suggests that by the time he
got to the end he had left himself nothing solid to work with.
Butler adopted the very opposite method.  Think your own thoughts,
he seems to say, and speak them as plainly as you can.  These
turtles in the shop window which appear to leak out of their shells
through heads and feet suggest a fatal faithfulness to a fixed
idea.  And so, striding unconcernedly from one idea to the next, we
traverse a large stretch of ground; observe that a wound in the
solicitor is a very serious thing; that Mary Queen of Scots wears
surgical boots and is subject to fits near the Horse Shoe in
Tottenham Court Road; take it for granted that no one really cares
about Æschylus; and so, with many amusing anecdotes and some
profound reflections, reach the peroration, which is that, as he
had been told not to see more in Cheapside than he could get into
twelve pages of the Universal Review, he had better stop.  And yet
obviously Butler is at least as careful of our pleasure as
Stevenson; and to write like oneself and call it not writing is a
much harder exercise in style than to write like Addison and call
it writing well.

But, however much they differ individually, the Victorian essayists
yet had something in common.  They wrote at greater length than is
now usual, and they wrote for a public which had not only time to
sit down to its magazine seriously, but a high, if peculiarly
Victorian, standard of culture by which to judge it.  It was worth
while to speak out upon serious matters in an essay; and there was
nothing absurd in writing as well as one possibly could when, in a
month or two, the same public which had welcomed the essay in a
magazine would carefully read it once more in a book.  But a change
came from a small audience of cultivated people to a larger
audience of people who were not quite so cultivated.  The change
was not altogether for the worse.  In volume iii. we find Mr.
Birrell and Mr. Beerbohm.  It might even be said that there was a
reversion to the classic type, and that the essay by losing its
size and something of its sonority was approaching more nearly the
essay of Addison and Lamb.  At any rate, there is a great gulf
between Mr. Birrell on Carlyle and the essay which one may suppose
that Carlyle would have written upon Mr. Birrell.  There is little
similarity between A Cloud of Pinafores, by Max Beerbohm, and A
Cynic's Apology, by Leslie Stephen.  But the essay is alive; there
is no reason to despair.  As the conditions change so the essayist,
most sensitive of all plants to public opinion, adapts himself, and
if he is good makes the best of the change, and if he is bad the
worst.  Mr. Birrell is certainly good; and so we find that, though
he has dropped a considerable amount of weight, his attack is much
more direct and his movement more supple.  But what did Mr.
Beerbohm give to the essay and what did he take from it?  That is a
much more complicated question, for here we have an essayist who
has concentrated on the work and is without doubt the prince of his

What Mr. Beerbohm gave was, of course, himself.  This presence,
which has haunted the essay fitfully from the time of Montaigne,
had been in exile since the death of Charles Lamb.  Matthew Arnold
was never to his readers Matt, nor Walter Pater affectionately
abbreviated in a thousand homes to Wat.  They gave us much, but
that they did not give.  Thus, some time in the nineties, it must
have surprised readers accustomed to exhortation, information, and
denunciation to find themselves familiarly addressed by a voice
which seemed to belong to a man no larger than themselves.  He was
affected by private joys and sorrows, and had no gospel to preach
and no learning to impart.  He was himself, simply and directly,
and himself he has remained.  Once again we have an essayist
capable of using the essayist's most proper but most dangerous and
delicate tool.  He has brought personality into literature, not
unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we
do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist
and Mr. Beerbohm the man.  We only know that the spirit of
personality permeates every word that he writes.  The triumph is
the triumph of style.  For it is only by knowing how to write that
you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while
it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous
antagonist.  Never to be yourself and yet always--that is the
problem.  Some of the essayists in Mr. Rhys' collection, to be
frank, have not altogether succeeded in solving it.  We are
nauseated by the sight of trivial personalities decomposing in the
eternity of print.  As talk, no doubt, it was charming, and
certainly the writer is a good fellow to meet over a bottle of
beer.  But literature is stern; it is no use being charming,
virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless,
she seems to reiterate, you fulfil her first condition--to know how
to write.

This art is possessed to perfection by Mr. Beerbohm.  But he has
not searched the dictionary for polysyllables.  He has not moulded
firm periods or seduced our ears with intricate cadences and
strange melodies.  Some of his companions--Henley and Stevenson,
for example--are momentarily more impressive.  But A Cloud of
Pinafores has in it that indescribable inequality, stir, and final
expressiveness which belong to life and to life alone.  You have
not finished with it because you have read it, any more than
friendship is ended because it is time to part.  Life wells up and
alters and adds.  Even things in a book-case change if they are
alive; we find ourselves wanting to meet them again; we find them
altered.  So we look back upon essay after essay by Mr. Beerbohm,
knowing that, come September or May, we shall sit down with them
and talk.  Yet it is true that the essayist is the most sensitive
of all writers to public opinion.  The drawing-room is the place
where a great deal of reading is done nowadays, and the essays of
Mr. Beerbohm lie, with an exquisite appreciation of all that the
position exacts, upon the drawing-room table.  There is no gin
about; no strong tobacco; no puns, drunkenness, or insanity.
Ladies and gentlemen talk together, and some things, of course, are
not said.

But if it would be foolish to attempt to confine Mr. Beerbohm to
one room, it would be still more foolish, unhappily, to make him,
the artist, the man who gives us only his best, the representative
of our age.  There are no essays by Mr. Beerbohm in the fourth or
fifth volumes of the present collection.  His age seems already a
little distant, and the drawing-room table, as it recedes, begins
to look rather like an altar where, once upon a time, people
deposited offerings--fruit from their own orchards, gifts carved
with their own hands.  Now once more the conditions have changed.
The public needs essays as much as ever, and perhaps even more.
The demand for the light middle not exceeding fifteen hundred
words, or in special cases seventeen hundred and fifty, much
exceeds the supply.  Where Lamb wrote one essay and Max perhaps
writes two, Mr. Belloc at a rough computation produces three
hundred and sixty-five.  They are very short, it is true.  Yet with
what dexterity the practised essayist will utilise his space--
beginning as close to the top of the sheet as possible, judging
precisely how far to go, when to turn, and how, without sacrificing
a hair's-breadth of paper, to wheel about and alight accurately
upon the last word his editor allows!  As a feat of skill it is
well worth watching.  But the personality upon which Mr. Belloc,
like Mr. Beerbohm, depends suffers in the process.  It comes to us
not with the natural richness of the speaking voice, but strained
and thin and full of mannerisms and affectations, like the voice of
a man shouting through a megaphone to a crowd on a windy day.
"Little friends, my readers", he says in the essay called "An
Unknown Country", and he goes on to tell us how--

There was a shepherd the other day at Findon Fair who had come from
the east by Lewes with sheep, and who had in his eyes that
reminiscence of horizons which makes the eyes of shepherds and of
mountaineers different from the eyes of other men. . . .  I went
with him to hear what he had to say, for shepherds talk quite
differently from other men.

Happily this shepherd had little to say, even under the stimulus of
the inevitable mug of beer, about the Unknown Country, for the only
remark that he did make proves him either a minor poet, unfit for
the care of sheep, or Mr. Belloc himself masquerading with a
fountain pen.  That is the penalty which the habitual essayist must
now be prepared to face.  He must masquerade.  He cannot afford the
time either to be himself or to be other people.  He must skim the
surface of thought and dilute the strength of personality.  He must
give us a worn weekly halfpenny instead of a solid sovereign once a

But it is not Mr. Belloc only who has suffered from the prevailing
conditions.  The essays which bring the collection to the year 1920
may not be the best of their authors' work, but, if we except
writers like Mr. Conrad and Mr. Hudson, who have strayed into essay
writing accidentally, and concentrate upon those who write essays
habitually, we shall find them a good deal affected by the change
in their circumstances.  To write weekly, to write daily, to write
shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or
for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heart-breaking
task for men who know good writing from bad.  They do it, but
instinctively draw out of harm's way anything precious that might
be damaged by contact with the public, or anything sharp that might
irritate its skin.  And so, if one reads Mr. Lucas, Mr. Lynd, or
Mr. Squire in the bulk, one feels that a common greyness silvers
everything.  They are as far removed from the extravagant beauty of
Walter Pater as they are from the intemperate candour of Leslie
Stephen.  Beauty and courage are dangerous spirits to bottle in a
column and a half; and thought, like a brown paper parcel in a
waistcoat pocket, has a way of spoiling the symmetry of an article.
It is a kind, tired, apathetic world for which they write, and the
marvel is that they never cease to attempt, at least, to write

But there is no need to pity Mr. Clutton Brock for this change in
the essayist's conditions.  He has clearly made the best of his
circumstances and not the worst.  One hesitates even to say that he
has had to make any conscious effort in the matter, so naturally
has he effected the transition from the private essayist to the
public, from the drawing-room to the Albert Hall.  Paradoxically
enough, the shrinkage in size has brought about a corresponding
expansion of individuality.  We have no longer the "I" of Max and
of Lamb, but the "we" of public bodies and other sublime
personages.  It is "we" who go to hear the Magic Flute; "we" who
ought to profit by it; "we", in some mysterious way, who, in our
corporate capacity, once upon a time actually wrote it.  For music
and literature and art must submit to the same generalisation or
they will not carry to the farthest recesses of the Albert Hall.
That the voice of Mr. Clutton Brock, so sincere and so disinterested,
carries such a distance and reaches so many without pandering to the
weakness of the mass or its passions must be a matter of legitimate
satisfaction to us all.  But while "we" are gratified, "I", that
unruly partner in the human fellowship, is reduced to despair.  "I"
must always think things for himself, and feel things for himself.
To share them in a diluted form with the majority of well-educated
and well-intentioned men and women is for him sheer agony; and while
the rest of us listen intently and profit profoundly, "I" slips off
to the woods and the fields and rejoices in a single blade of grass
or a solitary potato.

In the fifth volume of modern essays, it seems, we have got some
way from pleasure and the art of writing.  But in justice to the
essayists of 1920 we must be sure that we are not praising the
famous because they have been praised already and the dead because
we shall never meet them wearing spats in Piccadilly.  We must know
what we mean when we say that they can write and give us pleasure.
We must compare them; we must bring out the quality.  We must point
to this and say it is good because it is exact, truthful, and

Nay, retire men cannot when they would; neither will they, when it
were Reason; but are impatient of Privateness, even in age and
sickness, which require the shadow: like old Townsmen: that will
still be sitting at their street door, though therby they offer Age
to Scorn . . .

and to this, and say it is bad because it is loose, plausible, and

With courteous and precise cynicism on his lips, he thought of
quiet virginal chambers, of waters singing under the moon, of
terraces where taintless music sobbed into the open night, of
pure maternal mistresses with protecting arms and vigilant eyes,
of fields slumbering in the sunlight, of leagues of ocean
heaving under warm tremulous heavens, of hot ports, gorgeous and
perfumed. . . .

It goes on, but already we are bemused with sound and neither feel
nor hear.  The comparison makes us suspect that the art of writing
has for backbone some fierce attachment to an idea.  It is on the
back of an idea, something believed in with conviction or seen with
precision and thus compelling words to its shape, that the diverse
company which includes Lamb and Bacon, and Mr. Beerbohm and Hudson,
and Vernon Lee and Mr. Conrad, and Leslie Stephen and Butler and
Walter Pater reaches the farther shore.  Very various talents have
helped or hindered the passage of the idea into words.  Some scrape
through painfully; others fly with every wind favouring.  But Mr.
Belloc and Mr. Lucas and Mr. Squire are not fiercely attached to
anything in itself.  They share the contemporary dilemma--that lack
of an obstinate conviction which lifts ephemeral sounds through the
misty sphere of anybody's language to the land where there is a
perpetual marriage, a perpetual union.  Vague as all definitions
are, a good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it
must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts
us in, not out.


Suddenly, without giving us time to arrange our thoughts or prepare
our phrases, our guest has left us; and his withdrawal without
farewell or ceremony is in keeping with his mysterious arrival,
long years ago, to take up his lodging in this country.  For there
was always an air of mystery about him.  It was partly his Polish
birth, partly his memorable appearance, partly his preference for
living in the depths of the country, out of ear-shot of gossips,
beyond reach of hostesses, so that for news of him one had to
depend upon the evidence of simple visitors with a habit of ringing
door-bells who reported of their unknown host that he had the most
perfect manners, the brightest eyes, and spoke English with a
strong foreign accent.

[1] August, 1914.

Still, though it is the habit of death to quicken and focus our
memories, there clings to the genius of Conrad something
essentially, and not accidentally, difficult of approach.  His
reputation of later years was, with one obvious exception,
undoubtedly the highest in England; yet he was not popular.  He was
read with passionate delight by some; others he left cold and
lustreless.  Among his readers were people of the most opposite
ages and sympathies.  Schoolboys of fourteen, driving their way
through Marryat, Scott, Henty, and Dickens, swallowed him down with
the rest; while the seasoned and the fastidious, who in process of
time have eaten their way to the heart of literature and there turn
over and over a few precious crumbs, set Conrad scrupulously upon
their banqueting table.  One source of difficulty and disagreement
is, of course, to be found where men have at all times found it, in
his beauty.  One opens his pages and feels as Helen must have felt
when she looked in her glass and realised that, do what she would,
she could never in any circumstances pass for a plain woman.  So
Conrad had been gifted, so he had schooled himself, and such was
his obligation to a strange language wooed characteristically for
its Latin qualities rather than its Saxon that it seemed impossible
for him to make an ugly or insignificant movement of the pen.  His
mistress, his style, is a little somnolent sometimes in repose.
But let somebody speak to her, and then how magnificently she bears
down upon us, with what colour, triumph, and majesty!  Yet it is
arguable that Conrad would have gained both in credit and in
popularity if he had written what he had to write without this
incessant care for appearances.  They block and impede and
distract, his critics say, pointing to those famous passages which
it is becoming the habit to lift from their context and exhibit
among other cut flowers of English prose.  He was self-conscious
and stiff and ornate, they complain, and the sound of his own voice
was dearer to him than the voice of humanity in its anguish.  The
criticism is familiar, and as difficult to refute as the remarks of
deaf people when Figaro is played.  They see the orchestra; far off
they hear a dismal scrape of sound; their own remarks are
interrupted, and, very naturally, they conclude that the ends of
life would be better served if instead of scraping Mozart those
fifty fiddlers broke stones upon the road.  That beauty teaches,
that beauty is a disciplinarian, how are we to convince them, since
her teaching is inseparable from the sound of her voice and to that
they are deaf?  But read Conrad, not in birthday books but in the
bulk, and he must be lost indeed to the meaning of words who does
not hear in that rather stiff and sombre music, with its reserve,
its pride, its vast and implacable integrity, how it is better to
be good than bad, how loyalty is good and honesty and courage,
though ostensibly Conrad is concerned merely to show us the beauty
of a night at sea.  But it is ill work dragging such intimations
from their element.  Dried in our little saucers, without the magic
and mystery of language, they lose their power to excite and goad;
they lose the drastic power which is a constant quality of Conrad's

For it was by virtue of something drastic in him, the qualities of
a leader and captain, that Conrad kept his hold over boys and young
people.  Until Nostromo was written his characters, as the young
were quick to perceive, were fundamentally simple and heroic,
however subtle the mind and indirect the method of their creator.
They were seafarers, used to solitude and silence.  They were in
conflict with Nature, but at peace with man.  Nature was their
antagonist; she it was who drew forth honour, magnanimity, loyalty,
the qualities proper to man; she who in sheltered bays reared to
womanhood beautiful girls unfathomable and austere.  Above all, it
was Nature who turned out such gnarled and tested characters as
Captain Whalley and old Singleton, obscure but glorious in their
obscurity, who were to Conrad the pick of our race, the men whose
praises he was never tired of celebrating:

They had been strong as those are strong who know neither doubts
nor hopes.  They had been impatient and enduring, turbulent and
devoted, unruly and faithful.  Well-meaning people had tried to
represent these men as whining over every mouthful of their food,
as going about their work in fear of their lives.  But in truth
they had been men who knew toil, privation, violence, debauchery--
but knew not fear, and had no desire of spite in their hearts.  Men
hard to manage, but easy to inspire; voiceless men--but men enough
to scorn in their hearts the sentimental voices that bewailed the
hardness of their fate.  It was a fate unique and their own; the
capacity to bear it appeared to them the privilege of the chosen!
Their generation lived inarticulate and indispensable, without
knowing the sweetness of affections or the refuge of a home--and
died free from the dark menace of a narrow grave.  They were the
everlasting children of the mysterious sea.

Such were the characters of the early books--Lord Jim, Typhoon, The
Nigger of the "Narcissus", Youth; and these books, in spite of the
changes and fashions, are surely secure of their place among our
classics.  But they reach this height by means of qualities which
the simple story of adventure, as Marryat told it, or Fenimore
Cooper, has no claim to possess.  For it is clear that to admire
and celebrate such men and such deeds, romantically, whole-
heartedly and with the fervour of a lover, one must be possessed of
the double vision; one must be at once inside and out.  To praise
their silence one must possess a voice.  To appreciate their
endurance one must be sensitive to fatigue.  One must be able to
live on equal terms with the Whalleys and the Singletons and yet
hide from their suspicious eyes the very qualities which enable one
to understand them.  Conrad alone was able to live that double
life, for Conrad was compound of two men; together with the sea
captain dwelt that subtle, refined, and fastidious analyst whom he
called Marlow.  "A most discreet, understanding man", he said of

Marlow was one of those born observers who are happiest in
retirement.  Marlow liked nothing better than to sit on deck, in
some obscure creek of the Thames, smoking and recollecting; smoking
and speculating; sending after his smoke beautiful rings of words
until all the summer's night became a little clouded with tobacco
smoke.  Marlow, too, had a profound respect for the men with whom
he had sailed; but he saw the humour of them.  He nosed out and
described in masterly fashion those livid creatures who prey
successfully upon the clumsy veterans.  He had a flair for human
deformity; his humour was sardonic.  Nor did Marlow live entirely
wreathed in the smoke of his own cigars.  He had a habit of opening
his eyes suddenly and looking--at a rubbish heap, at a port, at a
shop counter--and then complete in its burning ring of light that
thing is flashed bright upon the mysterious background.
Introspective and analytical, Marlow was aware of this peculiarity.
He said the power came to him suddenly.  He might, for instance,
overhear a French officer murmur "Mon Dieu, how the time passes!"

Nothing [he comments] could have been more commonplace than this
remark; but its utterance coincided for me with a moment of vision.
It's extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with
dull ears, with dormant thoughts. . . .  Nevertheless, there can be
but few of us who had never known one of these rare moments of
awakening, when we see, hear, understand, ever so much--everything--
in a flash, before we fall back again into our agreeable
somnolence.  I raised my eyes when he spoke, and I saw him as
though I had never seen him before.

Picture after picture he painted thus upon that dark background;
ships first and foremost, ships at anchor, ships flying before the
storm, ships in harbour; he painted sunsets and dawns; he painted
the night; he painted the sea in every aspect; he painted the gaudy
brilliancy of Eastern ports, and men and women, their houses and
their attitudes.  He was an accurate and unflinching observer,
schooled to that "absolute loyalty towards his feelings and
sensations", which, Conrad wrote, "an author should keep hold of in
his most exalted moments of creation".  And very quietly and
compassionately Marlow sometimes lets fall a few words of epitaph
which remind us, with all that beauty and brilliancy before our
eyes, of the darkness of the background.

Thus a rough-and-ready distinction would make us say that it is
Marlow who comments, Conrad who creates.  It would lead us, aware
that we are on dangerous ground, to account for that change which,
Conrad tells us, took place when he had finished the last story in
the Typhoon volume--"a subtle change in the nature of the
inspiration"--by some alteration in the relationship of the two old
friends.  ". . . it seemed somehow that there was nothing more in
the world to write about."  It was Conrad, let us suppose, Conrad
the creator, who said that, looking back with sorrowful
satisfaction upon the stories he had told; feeling as he well might
that he could never better the storm in The Nigger of the
"Narcissus", or render more faithful tribute to the qualities of
British seamen than he had done already in Youth and Lord Jim.  It
was then that Marlow, the commentator, reminded him how, in the
course of nature, one must grow old, sit smoking on deck, and give
up seafaring.  But, he reminded him, those strenuous years had
deposited their memories; and he even went so far perhaps as to
hint that, though the last word might have been said about Captain
Whalley and his relation to the universe, there remained on shore a
number of men and women whose relationships, though of a more
personal kind, might be worth looking into.  If we further suppose
that there was a volume of Henry James on board and that Marlow
gave his friend the book to take to bed with him, we may seek
support in the fact that it was in 1905 that Conrad wrote a very
fine essay upon that master.

For some years, then, it was Marlow who was the dominant partner.
Nostromo, Chance, The Arrow of Gold represent that stage of the
alliance which some will continue to find the richest of all.  The
human heart is more intricate than the forest, they will say; it
has its storms; it has its creatures of the night; and if as
novelist you wish to test man in all his relationships, the proper
antagonist is man; his ordeal is in society, not solitude.  For
them there will always be a peculiar fascination in the books where
the light of those brilliant eyes falls not only upon the waste of
waters but upon the heart in its perplexity.  But it must be
admitted that, if Marlow thus advised Conrad to shift his angle of
vision, the advice was bold.  For the vision of a novelist is both
complex and specialised; complex, because behind his characters and
apart from them must stand something stable to which he relates
them; specialised because since he is a single person with one
sensibility the aspects of life in which he can believe with
conviction are strictly limited.  So delicate a balance is easily
disturbed.  After the middle period Conrad never again was able to
bring his figures into perfect relation with their background.  He
never believed in his later, and more highly sophisticated
characters as he had believed in his early seamen.  When he had to
indicate their relation to that other unseen world of novelists,
the world of values and convictions, he was far less sure what
those values were.  Then, over and over again, a single phrase, "He
steered with care", coming at the end of a storm, carried in it a
whole morality.  But in this more crowded and complicated world
such terse phrases became less and less appropriate.  Complex men
and women of many interests and relations would not submit to so
summary a judgement; or, if they did, much that was important in
them escaped the verdict.  And yet it was very necessary to
Conrad's genius, with its luxuriant and romantic power, to have
some law by which its creations could be tried.  Essentially--such
remained his creed--this world of civilised and self-conscious
people is based upon "a few very simple ideas"; but where, in the
world of thoughts and personal relations, are we to find them?
There are no masts in drawing-rooms; the typhoon does not test the
worth of politicians and business men.  Seeking and not finding
such supports, the world of Conrad's later period has about it an
involuntary obscurity, an inconclusiveness, almost a disillusionment
which baffles and fatigues.  We lay hold in the dusk only of the old
nobilities and sonorities: fidelity, compassion, honour, service--
beautiful always, but now a little wearily reiterated, as if times
had changed.  Perhaps it was Marlow who was at fault.  His habit of
mind was a trifle sedentary.  He had sat upon deck too long;
splendid in soliloquy, he was less apt in the give and take of
conversation; and those "moments of vision" flashing and fading, do
not serve as well as steady lamplight to illumine the ripple of life
and its long, gradual years.  Above all, perhaps, he did not take
into account how, if Conrad was to create, it was essential first
that he should believe.

Therefore, though we shall make expeditions into the later books
and bring back wonderful trophies, large tracts of them will remain
by most of us untrodden.  It is the earlier books--Youth, Lord Jim,
Typhoon, The Nigger of the "Narcissus"--that we shall read in their
entirety.  For when the question is asked, what of Conrad will
survive and where in the ranks of novelists we are to place him,
these books, with their air of telling us something very old and
perfectly true, which had lain hidden but is now revealed, will
come to mind and make such questions and comparisons seem a little
futile.  Complete and still, very chaste and very beautiful, they
rise in the memory as, on these hot summer nights, in their slow
and stately way first one star comes out and then another.


In the first place a contemporary can scarcely fail to be struck by
the fact that two critics at the same table at the same moment will
pronounce completely different opinions about the same book.  Here,
on the right, it is declared a masterpiece of English prose; on the
left, simultaneously, a mere mass of waste-paper which, if the fire
could survive it, should be thrown upon the flames.  Yet both
critics are in agreement about Milton and about Keats.  They
display an exquisite sensibility and have undoubtedly a genuine
enthusiasm.  It is only when they discuss the work of contemporary
writers that they inevitably come to blows.  The book in question,
which is at once a lasting contribution to English literature and a
mere farrago of pretentious mediocrity, was published about two
months ago.  That is the explanation; that is why they differ.

The explanation is a strange one.  It is equally disconcerting to
the reader who wishes to take his bearings in the chaos of
contemporary literature and to the writer who has a natural desire
to know whether his own work, produced with infinite pains and in
almost utter darkness, is likely to burn for ever among the fixed
luminaries of English letters or, on the contrary, to put out the
fire.  But if we identify ourselves with the reader and explore his
dilemma first, our bewilderment is short-lived enough.  The same
thing has happened so often before.  We have heard the doctors
disagreeing about the new and agreeing about the old twice a year
on the average, in spring and autumn, ever since Robert Elsmere, or
was it Stephen Phillips, somehow pervaded the atmosphere, and there
was the same disagreement among grown-up people about these books
too.  It would be much more marvellous, and indeed much more
upsetting, if, for a wonder, both gentlemen agreed, pronounced
Blank's book an undoubted masterpiece, and thus faced us with the
necessity of deciding whether we should back their judgement to the
extent of ten and sixpence.  Both are critics of reputation; the
opinions tumbled out so spontaneously here will be starched and
stiffened into columns of sober prose which will uphold the dignity
of letters in England and America.

It must be some innate cynicism, then, some ungenerous distrust of
contemporary genius, which determines us automatically as the talk
goes on that, were they to agree--which they show no signs of
doing--half a guinea is altogether too large a sum to squander upon
contemporary enthusiasms, and the case will be met quite adequately
by a card to the library.  Still the question remains, and let us
put it boldly to the critics themselves.  Is there no guidance
nowadays for a reader who yields to none in reverence for the dead,
but is tormented by the suspicion that reverence for the dead is
vitally connected with understanding of the living?  After a rapid
survey both critics are agreed that there is unfortunately no such
person.  For what is their own judgement worth where new books are
concerned?  Certainly not ten and sixpence.  And from the stores of
their experience they proceed to bring forth terrible examples of
past blunders; crimes of criticism which, if they had been
committed against the dead and not against the living, would have
lost them their jobs and imperilled their reputations.  The only
advice they can offer is to respect one's own instincts, to follow
them fearlessly and, rather than submit them to the control of any
critic or reviewer alive, to check them by reading and reading
again the masterpieces of the past.

Thanking them humbly, we cannot help reflecting that it was not
always so.  Once upon a time, we must believe, there was a rule, a
discipline, which controlled the great republic of readers in a way
which is now unknown.  That is not to say that the great critic--
the Dryden, the Johnson, the Coleridge, the Arnold--was an
impeccable judge of contemporary work, whose verdicts stamped the
book indelibly and saved the reader the trouble of reckoning the
value for himself.  The mistakes of these great men about their own
contemporaries are too notorious to be worth recording.  But the
mere fact of their existence had a centralising influence.  That
alone, it is not fantastic to suppose, would have controlled the
disagreements of the dinner-table and given to random chatter about
some book just out an authority now entirely to seek.  The diverse
schools would have debated as hotly as ever, but at the back of
every reader's mind would have been the consciousness that there
was at least one man who kept the main principles of literature
closely in view: who, if you had taken to him some eccentricity of
the moment, would have brought it into touch with permanence and
tethered it by his own authority in the contrary blasts of praise
and blame.[1]  But when it comes to the making of a critic, nature
must be generous and society ripe.  The scattered dinner-tables of
the modern world, the chase and eddy of the various currents which
compose the society of our time, could only be dominated by a giant
of fabulous dimensions.  And where is even the very tall man whom
we have the right to expect?  Reviewers we have but no critic; a
million competent and incorruptible policemen but no judge.  Men of
taste and learning and ability are for ever lecturing the young and
celebrating the dead.  But the too frequent result of their able
and industrious pens is a desiccation of the living tissues of
literature into a network of little bones.  Nowhere shall we find
the downright vigour of a Dryden, or Keats with his fine and
natural bearing, his profound insight and sanity, or Flaubert and
the tremendous power of his fanaticism, or Coleridge, above all,
brewing in his head the whole of poetry and letting issue now and
then one of those profound general statements which are caught up
by the mind when hot with the friction of reading as if they were
of the soul of the book itself.

[1] How violent these are two quotations will show.  "It [Told by
an Idiot] should be read as the Tempest should be read, and as
Gulliver's Travels should be read, for if Miss Macaulay's poetic
gift happens to be less sublime than those of the author of the
Tempest, and if her irony happens to be less tremendous than that
of the author of Gulliver's Travels, her justice and wisdom are no
less noble than theirs."--The Daily News.

The next day we read:  "For the rest one can only say that if Mr.
Eliot had been pleased to write in demotic English The Waste Land
might not have been, as it just is to all but anthropologists, and
literati, so much waste-paper."--The Manchester Guardian.

And to all this, too, the critics generously agree.  A great
critic, they say, is the rarest of beings.  But should one
miraculously appear, how should we maintain him, on what should we
feed him?  Great critics, if they are not themselves great poets,
are bred from the profusion of the age.  There is some great man to
be vindicated, some school to be founded or destroyed.  But our age
is meagre to the verge of destitution.  There is no name which
dominates the rest.  There is no master in whose workshop the young
are proud to serve apprenticeship.  Mr. Hardy has long since
withdrawn from the arena, and there is something exotic about the
genius of Mr. Conrad which makes him not so much an influence as an
idol, honoured and admired, but aloof and apart.  As for the rest,
though they are many and vigorous and in the full flood of creative
activity, there is none whose influence can seriously affect his
contemporaries, or penetrate beyond our day to that not very
distant future which it pleases us to call immortality.  If we make
a century our test, and ask how much of the work produced in these
days in England will be in existence then, we shall have to answer
not merely that we cannot agree upon the same book, but that we are
more than doubtful whether such a book there is.  It is an age of
fragments.  A few stanzas, a few pages, a chapter here and there,
the beginning of this novel, the end of that, are equal to the best
of any age or author.  But can we go to posterity with a sheaf of
loose pages, or ask the readers of those days, with the whole of
literature before them, to sift our enormous rubbish heaps for our
tiny pearls?  Such are the questions which the critics might
lawfully put to their companions at table, the novelists and poets.

At first the weight of pessimism seems sufficient to bear down all
opposition.  Yes, it is a lean age, we repeat, with much to justify
its poverty; but, frankly, if we pit one century against another
the comparison seems overwhelmingly against us.  Waverley, The
Excursion, Kubla Khan, Don Juan, Hazlitt's Essays, Pride and
Prejudice, Hyperion, and Prometheus Unbound were all published
between 1800 and 1821.  Our century has not lacked industry; but if
we ask for masterpieces it appears on the face of it that the
pessimists are right.  It seems as if an age of genius must be
succeeded by an age of endeavour; riot and extravagance by
cleanliness and hard work.  All honour, of course, to those who
have sacrificed their immortality to set the house in order.  But
if we ask for masterpieces, where are we to look?  A little poetry,
we may feel sure, will survive; a few poems by Mr. Yeats, by Mr.
Davies, by Mr. De la Mare.  Mr. Lawrence, of course, has moments of
greatness, but hours of something very different.  Mr. Beerbohm, in
his way, is perfect, but it is not a big way.  Passages in Far Away
and Long Ago will undoubtedly go to posterity entire.  Ulysses was
a memorable catastrophe--immense in daring, terrific in disaster.
And so, picking and choosing, we select now this, now that, hold it
up for display, hear it defended or derided, and finally have to
meet the objection that even so we are only agreeing with the
critics that it is an age incapable of sustained effort, littered
with fragments, and not seriously to be compared with the age that
went before.

But it is just when opinions universally prevail and we have added
lip service to their authority that we become sometimes most keenly
conscious that we do not believe a word that we are saying.  It is
a barren and exhausted age, we repeat; we must look back with envy
to the past.  Meanwhile it is one of the first fine days of spring.
Life is not altogether lacking in colour.  The telephone, which
interrupts the most serious conversations and cuts short the most
weighty observations, has a romance of its own.  And the random
talk of people who have no chance of immortality and thus can speak
their minds out has a setting, often, of lights, streets, houses,
human beings, beautiful or grotesque, which will weave itself into
the moment for ever.  But this is life; the talk is about
literature.  We must try to disentangle the two, and justify the
rash revolt of optimism against the superior plausibility, the
finer distinction, of pessimism.

Our optimism, then, is largely instinctive.  It springs from the
fine day and the wine and the talk; it springs from the fact that
when life throws up such treasures daily, daily suggests more than
the most voluble can express, much though we admire the dead, we
prefer life as it is.  There is something about the present which
we would not exchange, though we were offered a choice of all
past ages to live in.  And modern literature, with all its
imperfections, has the same hold on us and the same fascination.
It is like a relation whom we snub and scarify daily, but, after
all, cannot do without.  It has the same endearing quality of being
that which we are, that which we have made, that in which we live,
instead of being something, however august, alien to ourselves and
beheld from the outside.  Nor has any generation more need than
ours to cherish its contemporaries.  We are sharply cut off from
our predecessors.  A shift in the scale--the sudden slip of masses
held in position for ages--has shaken the fabric from top to
bottom, alienated us from the past and made us perhaps too vividly
conscious of the present.  Every day we find ourselves doing,
saying, or thinking things that would have been impossible to our
fathers.  And we feel the differences which have not been noted far
more keenly than the resemblances which have been very perfectly
expressed.  New books lure us to read them partly in the hope that
they will reflect this re-arrangement of our attitude--these
scenes, thoughts, and apparently fortuitous groupings of
incongruous things which impinge upon us with so keen a sense of
novelty--and, as literature does, give it back into our keeping,
whole and comprehended.  Here indeed there is every reason for
optimism.  No age can have been more rich than ours in writers
determined to give expression to the differences which separate
them from the past and not to the resemblances which connect them
with it.  It would be invidious to mention names, but the most
casual reader dipping into poetry, into fiction, into biography can
hardly fail to be impressed by the courage, the sincerity, in a
word, by the widespread originality of our time.  But our
exhilaration is strangely curtailed.  Book after book leaves us
with the same sense of promise unachieved, of intellectual poverty,
of brilliance which has been snatched from life but not transmuted
into literature.  Much of what is best in contemporary work has the
appearance of being noted under pressure, taken down in a bleak
shorthand which preserves with astonishing brilliance the movements
and expressions of the figures as they pass across the screen.  But
the flash is soon over, and there remains with us a profound
dissatisfaction.  The irritation is as acute as the pleasure was

After all, then, we are back at the beginning, vacillating from
extreme to extreme, at one moment enthusiastic, at the next
pessimistic, unable to come to any conclusion about our
contemporaries.  We have asked the critics to help us, but they
have deprecated the task.  Now, then, is the time to accept their
advice and correct these extremes by consulting the masterpieces of
the past.  We feel ourselves indeed driven to them, impelled not by
calm judgement but by some imperious need to anchor our instability
upon their security.  But, honestly, the shock of the comparison
between past and present is at first disconcerting.  Undoubtedly
there is a dullness in great books.  There is an unabashed
tranquillity in page after page of Wordsworth and Scott and Miss
Austen which is sedative to the verge of somnolence.  Opportunities
occur and they neglect them.  Shades and subtleties accumulate and
they ignore them.  They seem deliberately to refuse to gratify
those senses which are stimulated so briskly by the moderns; the
senses of sight, of sound, of touch--above all, the sense of the
human being, his depth and the variety of his perceptions, his
complexity, his confusion, his self, in short.  There is little of
all this in the works of Wordsworth and Scott and Jane Austen.
From what, then, arises that sense of security which gradually,
delightfully, and completely overcomes us?  It is the power of
their belief--their conviction, that imposes itself upon us.  In
Wordsworth, the philosophic poet, this is obvious enough.  But it
is equally true of the careless Scott, who scribbled masterpieces
to build castles before breakfast, and of the modest maiden lady
who wrote furtively and quietly simply to give pleasure.  In both
there is the same natural conviction that life is of a certain
quality.  They have their judgement of conduct.  They know the
relations of human beings towards each other and towards the
universe.  Neither of them probably has a word to say about the
matter outright, but everything depends on it.  Only believe, we
find ourselves saying, and all the rest will come of itself.  Only
believe, to take a very simple instance which the recent
publication of The Watsons brings to mind, that a nice girl will
instinctively try to soothe the feelings of a boy who has been
snubbed at a dance, and then, if you believe it implicitly and
unquestioningly, you will not only make people a hundred years
later feel the same thing, but you will make them feel it as
literature.  For certainty of that kind is the condition which
makes it possible to write.  To believe that your impressions hold
good for others is to be released from the cramp and confinement of
personality.  It is to be free, as Scott was free, to explore with
a vigour which still holds us spell-bound the whole world of
adventure and romance.  It is also the first step in that
mysterious process in which Jane Austen was so great an adept.  The
little grain of experience once selected, believed in, and set
outside herself, could be put precisely in its place, and she was
then free to make it, by a process which never yields its secrets
to the analyst, into that complete statement which is literature.

So then our contemporaries afflict us because they have ceased to
believe.  The most sincere of them will only tell us what it is
that happens to himself.  They cannot make a world, because they
are not free of other human beings.  They cannot tell stories
because they do not believe that stories are true.  They cannot
generalise.  They depend on their senses and emotions, whose
testimony is trustworthy, rather than on their intellects whose
message is obscure.  And they have perforce to deny themselves the
use of some of the most powerful and some of the most exquisite of
the weapons of their craft.  With the whole wealth of the English
language at the back of them, they timidly pass about from hand to
hand and book to book only the meanest copper coins.  Set down at a
fresh angle of the eternal prospect they can only whip out their
notebooks and record with agonised intensity the flying gleams,
which light on what? and the transitory splendours, which may,
perhaps, compose nothing whatever.  But here the critics interpose,
and with some show of justice.

If this description holds good, they say, and is not, as it may
well be, entirely dependent upon our position at the table and
certain purely personal relationships to mustard pots and flower
vases, then the risks of judging contemporary work are greater than
ever before.  There is every excuse for them if they are wide of
the mark; and no doubt it would be better to retreat, as Matthew
Arnold advised, from the burning ground of the present to the safe
tranquillity of the past.  "We enter on burning ground," wrote
Matthew Arnold, "as we approach the poetry of times so near to us,
poetry like that of Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth, of which the
estimates are so often not only personal, but personal with
passion," and this, they remind us, was written in the year 1880.
Beware, they say, of putting under the microscope one inch of a
ribbon which runs many miles; things sort themselves out if you
wait; moderation, and a study of the classics are to be
recommended.  Moreover, life is short; the Byron centenary is at
hand; and the burning question of the moment is, did he, or did he
not, marry his sister?  To sum up, then--if indeed any conclusion
is possible when everybody is talking at once and it is time to be
going--it seems that it would be wise for the writers of the
present to renounce the hope of creating masterpieces.  Their
poems, plays, biographies, novels are not books but notebooks, and
Time, like a good schoolmaster, will take them in his hands, point
to their blots and scrawls and erasions, and tear them across; but
he will not throw them into the waste-paper basket.  He will keep
them because other students will find them very useful.  It is from
the notebooks of the present that the masterpieces of the future
are made.  Literature, as the critics were saying just now, has
lasted long, has undergone many changes, and it is only a short
sight and a parochial mind that will exaggerate the importance of
these squalls, however they may agitate the little boats now
tossing out at sea.  The storm and the drenching are on the
surface; continuity and calm are in the depths.

As for the critics whose task it is to pass judgement upon the
books of the moment, whose work, let us admit, is difficult,
dangerous, and often distasteful, let us ask them to be generous of
encouragement, but sparing of those wreaths and coronets which are
so apt to get awry, and fade, and make the wearers, in six months
time, look a little ridiculous.  Let them take a wider, a less
personal view of modern literature, and look indeed upon the
writers as if they were engaged upon some vast building, which
being built by common effort, the separate workmen may well remain
anonymous.  Let them slam the door upon the cosy company where
sugar is cheap and butter plentiful, give over, for a time at
least, the discussion of that fascinating topic--whether Byron
married his sister--and, withdrawing, perhaps, a handsbreadth from
the table where we sit chattering, say something interesting about
literature itself.  Let us buttonhole them as they leave, and
recall to their memory that gaunt aristocrat, Lady Hester Stanhope,
who kept a milk-white horse in her stable in readiness for the
Messiah and was for ever scanning the mountain tops, impatiently
but with confidence, for signs of his approach, and ask them to
follow her example; scan the horizon; see the past in relation to
the future; and so prepare the way for masterpieces to come.


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