The Contributors' Club
THE new books concerning Madame de Staël (Le Salon de Madame Necker and A Study of the Life and Times of Madame de Staël) will probably renew the everlasting riddle of Madame Récamier. In Dr. Stevens’s book we are again confronted by that gentle sphinx, smiling, shedding tears, sympathizing right and left as usual, making as many conquests in her Indian summer as in her May. Two distinguished men, who never bowed the knee at her shrine, have declared that by observing her dispassionately they discovered her secret. One of these was the celebrated lawyer and orator Berryer. There were strong influences to propel him within the circle of her sempiternal charm. Châteaubriand and Berryer were the most eminent members of the Legitimist party, and Châteaubriand and Madame Récamier were the sun and moon of the adoring group which assembled in her little drawing-room at the Abbaye aux Bois. But while Châteaubriand had withdrawn from the world, and stood apart, like the solitary column of the Colonnas, Berryer was in the fervid activity of professional and public life and social success, the standard-bearer of the white banner of the Bourbons. His personality and self-assertion were too marked to permit him to make one of Madame Récamier’s coterie, all men of talent, learning, or distinction, but among whom Châteaubriand alone was recognized as illustrious. So Berryer frequented the Abbaye aux Bois, not as a worshiper, but as a spectator, and he came to the conclusion that Madame Récamier’s irresistible attraction lay in her art of listening. He said that she had cultivated it as an accomplishment, and showed marvelous study and skill in the degrees and shades of her silence and attention ; that a man in talking to her always felt her presence, never her individuality,— she belonged to him for the moment.
The other recalcitrant is Mérimée, who asserted that her spell consisted in a few phrases of direct and rather coarse flattery, repeated like a litany in the ear of every man to whom she talked. His harsh judgment is confirmed in a measure by Sismondi, who in one of his letters or diaries records with impatience the arrival of Madame Récamier at Coppet, where Madame de Staël’s brainclub was in session, and says that now there will be no more conversation, as the beauty talks with only one person at a time, apart, and in an undertone. This account accords with Madame Sophie Gay’s description of Madame Récamier’s appearance in Madame de Staël’s drawing-room one night when the Duke of Wellington was expected there, and the lady of the house going aside and whispering with her until the duke was announced.
There is a convergence in the testimony of these witnesses which strengthens Berryer’s theory. Mérimée was not a talker himself ; his laconisms and epigrams did not give Madame Récamier scope to exercise her accomplishment, and he mistook the intention of her flattering murmurs. If listening was her one talent, it is easy to understand why she preferred a sort of public tête-à-tête to general conversation. But the mystery evaporates. To be the most beautiful woman of one’s time cannot be given to every daughter of Eve, nor, alas, to have a sweet temper and amiable disposition ; but it has never been asserted that these gifts, or even these in conjunction with graceful manners, explained Madame Récamier’s magical power over men. If, however, it lay in the perfection with which she listened, it is an open secret, and ladies all, you have the recipe ; it remains only to apply it!
— As old copies of favorite pieces of music grow tattered and tumble to pieces with much playing, and are replaced by new ones, I am surprised and sorry to see that the dedications have disappeared from the new editions. I find no exception ; it is the same whether published by old or new houses. There may be a reason for this, and I hope that there is, and a good one, as otherwise it is a species of robbery. After a composer’s death, the fame of his works belongs to him, the profit to his publishers, the sentimental association to those to whom they were originally inscribed. The dedications are data for the men’s memoirs. There are, no doubt, unwritten ones, not always understood even by those to whom they are addressed. The young daughter of Count Esterhazy, one of Schubert’s generous friends, herself the ideal love of his short, sad life, asked him once why he never dedicated anything to her. " Everything I write is dedicated to you,” he replied. So, doubtless, said Chopin to George Sand, whose name, written so indelibly on his life, appears on no composition of his. These dedications belong to the inner, secret history, which is told only in the music. But on the title-page of the first copy is generally the name of a splendid patron, like Beethoven’s Prince Lichnowsky; of a woman of fashion, whose smiles have encouraged the artist, and perhaps brought him into notice; of a brother or sister musician, composer or performer ; sometimes of an humble, obscure friend. With many of these, noble or obscure, the dedication is their best title to remembrance, and the honor which was paid them by a genius should connect their memory with his. All dedications have historical value; Thackeray’s to the tailor who gave him credit is a touching bit of biography. In taking a number of books from the shelf at hazard, I find the original dedication in the latest editions. If this right of property be respected in literature, why not in music ?
— The pang of envy with which we listen to Jones when he tells of his intimate acquaintance with famous authors, artists, etc., admits of consolation. Jones has often purchased his privilege at a considerable advance beyond its value. If he is a man of sensibility, he has suffered much disappointment in the destruction of those ideals which his synthetic fancy had created from qualities apparently indicated in the artists by their various works. Until calloused by experience, he must have been pained to find that Apollo was not Apollo unless padded with his art, and that the god was, morally, a very knock-kneed, undeveloped divinity. This ruinous effect of a near approach to the creative sources brings unwelcome doubts as to whether art has any essential connection with morals ; and even after overcoming our skepticism we are still confronted with the paradox so frequently exhibited by artists whose cleverest strokes are made in delineating the very qualities which they personally lack.
It is commonly assumed that when work shows a delicate appreciation for some lofty idea its creator must be actuated, in his private relations, by a corresponding sentiment. But if we accept the logical import of Jones’s evidence, we are led to the conclusion that so long as the world yields moral material to work in, artists may, without much detriment to their visible standard of production, dispense with a direct interest in questions relating to the rectitude of their own actions. That sensitiveness to the beauty of virtue which is evinced in their works does not argue a corresponding thinness of the moral epidermis.
This is an unfailing source of wonder to Jones. It nonpluses him that Mrs. Q., who leaves her sick baby in order to appear in society, can sing lullabies with such exquisite tenderness ; and that T., the actor, is able to portray such delightful constancy, when his domestic affairs are known to be in hopeless confusion. Happily for those concerned, Jones turns from the ruins of one ideal to the construction of another. This touching, obstinate faith may compensate for all the short-comings found among instances like those referred to ; but it does not help us to answer the puzzling question how artists are often able seemingly to refute the aphorism that “ something cannot come from nothing.” The usual way of getting over the difficulty is to accuse our own powers of perception, and to assume that the poet, actor, painter, possesses, in some unfamiliar form, the virtue of which his works show a fine conception. Taken in the broad sense, which regards him as one of nature’s forces, working always and by impulsion towards what is highest, such a view is not wide of the mark; but it shows him as he should be, rather than as we find him. The present question is personal, not general. A dealer in artists’ materials is not reconciled to the theft of his brushes because they are to be used in painting a picture of Honesty.
The moral temperament examines everything from within, outwards. Its interest is first awakened by the indwelling intent, and from this it proceeds to external effects, which are regarded as of secondary importance, being but reflections of the real and valuable. It perceives beauty only from the central point of morality, and weighs it in its single regard to the social welfare.
The æsthetic temperament stands without, and looks inwards. It sees, first, beauty; then, if its vision be clear enough, virtue. Its antennæ are so acutely sensitive as to reveal to it the harmonies not only of sensuous, but also of moral, things. Its attention is absorbed by these harmonies, however, and there is needed the addition of a sympathy with that which lies beyond, if it is ever to see and reach so far. This sympathy is not akin to the so-called “feeling ” betrayed by the best artists. The former incites to a moral act; the latter to the reproduction of the beauty contained in such an act. Pure morality arrives at beauty through goodness; pure æstheticism reaches goodness through beauty. By the latter progression goodness is indeed reached, but in the impersonal form, as a result of law.
It is at this point that we are apt to become perplexed, when we descend from generalizations, and undertake to consider the artist as an individual. We see him constantly making little journeys towards the moral centre, and we are surprised that he has not long since reached it. At a certain place we lose sight of him. The work leaves its author behind, shakes off his fettering personality, and becomes part of a divine whole, as a spirit is said to be merged in the essence of Brahma.
The man who remains unsatisfied with his expression of a lofty idea in art until he has followed that idea still farther, and made it a part of his moral code, does just what we expect of him. He has produced something grand and elevating, — has strengthened his soul by the intelligent exercise of his genius in order to reach an aim greater than that which forms the immediate office of art. The type which puzzles us consists of such as stop short at the point of revealment. They are endowed with an intellectual appreciation, delicate sensibility, æsthetic sense, — call it what you will, — that enables them to conjure up from the materials which creation offers conceits which are often not inferior to those of the first-mentioned type ; but, having made them perceptible to others, they rest content with the beauty they have brought into the world. Such people look at a stone arch for its pictorial effect; the question respecting its strength is of comparatively small importance to them. They do not, indeed, omit this element from their calculations, for they know its æsthetic value ; there being, however, no probability that they will ever stand upon the arch, their interest ceases when their own end is served.
An artist can render to us only the likenesses of his impressions ; but whether the latter have accorded with his individual virtues, or been influenced by the mere desire to accomplish art’s proximate object, — to please, — is not discoverable from his impressions as reflected in his work, because these may consist of only a perfect intellectual appreciation of the manner in which this or that virtue makes itself manifest. When weaknesses are shown, it is not because they exist in the artist’s character, and must therefore force themselves into notice, but because they happen to preponderate over his æsthetic capabilities. His art is not large enough to hide him. If, however, he is able to give full expression to a love for beauty, his failings may be veiled by the inherent morality of his work. In this way, we can imagine a devil lost to his own deviltry by an overpowering attraction to the beautiful, and giving his own nature the lie by the production of highly moral works. As the artist’s picture, poem, statue, gives us only the representation of a thing, and not the thing itself, so his relation to virtue may be simply external, connecting him, in proportion to his degree of talent, more or less completely with its indications, but not, as an artist, with its internal experience.
Every one is ready to laugh at the story which Mr. Lewes tells of a French actor, whose person was unsafe in public because of the ire roused against him by his truthful delineation of the character of a villain ; yet the public sentiment in this case is perhaps no more to be ridiculed than a private prejudice which, founded upon the similar ground of an art manifestation, should induce the opposite conclusion, and cause one to regard the artist as a necessarily model man.
— A while ago one of the members of the Contributors’ Club remarked that some Americans consider the German ideal of wifehood the true one, but deprecated any general imitation of the German wife by American women.
Now, although the English authoress of German Home Life gives a painful picture of the narrowness, drudgery, and ungrace of the lives of matrons in Germany, and compares them most unfavorably with her own countrywomen, and though my fellow contributor intimated that few American ladies ever iron a shirt-front, peel potatoes, or are scolded over the household bills, the evidence before us favors the belief that our ladies are constantly undergoing just those experiences, or their equivalents. As for the housekeeping-book, is there a family in the land, of which the husband holds the purse-strings, where it is not the unfailing casus belli ? I mean where the married pair have any disagreements at all. Of course there are pairs who never have any differences, and their situation, as Dr. Watts said concerning the conventicle, must be
“Like a little heaven below.”
But my contributor admits that the German wife is contented, and assumes that her contentment with her shirts and potatoes indicates an inferiority ; and, conversely, that the American is not contented ; she has, in fact, a soul above buttons. Now, I maintain that by so much as the German haus-frau is satisfied with her lot, to that extent has she the advantage of her American sister, for many reasons. The portraitures in German Home Life notwithstanding, I must give the experience of a gifted American girl, who spent six years in various German families in Hamburg and Berlin, as contradicting the assertion that German husbands are not attentive to their wives. This lady stated that she had been much struck not only with the skill of the German housewives, and their entire supremacy in their homes, but with the devotion of their husbands to them. She said that the matrons went constantly to theatres and gardens with their husbands, who also escorted them, as a matter of course, to all the social gatherings which they were pleased to attend. Everywhere the presence of married ladies was observable.
Thus it appears that the German wife, hard as her labors are, is rewarded by a certain social consideration, and a certain amount of out-door diversion, which no doubt is the secret of her contentment. She also entertains her friends according to her means, and enjoys the approval which her culinary successes call forth from them. But the American wife differs from the foreign in several prime respects, especially in our highly respectable and educated New England. First, because in the depths of her free-born soul the ideal existence does not include housework, while the real article compels much of it, generally complicated by incompetent servants. Secondly, the American wife pays a degree of homage to the demon of style, which the German does not. In the American wife’s house there must be upholstery and carpets, upon her clothing all the varieties of trimming it is able to carry, and everything about her must be as orderly and as ornate as her own ingenuity and exertion can make it. Not so with the German matron, who puts the money those things cost into hospitality, and the delightful pleasures of music, drama, and a hundred little inexpensive excursions outof-doors. Consequently she is less nervous and debilitated with the care of her six or eight children crowded into a flat than the American in her fourstory house, with few or no children. For the American matron tries to be a good manager, careful mother, skillful cook, nurse, dressmaker, general decorator, philanthropist, and active church member besides, and runs up and down stairs sempiternally to do it all. The German woman leaves the church to the government, wears dowdy dresses, and when she goes out visiting takes her bit of exquisite fancy-work or knitting to employ her fingers ; she is not counting the minutes, card-case in hand, to make sure that her full-dress “ call ” is not too long ! The American matron must be well dressed, though her husband is usually conspicuously absent from her side ; so we judge that she arrays her person, as she regulates her conscience, in accordance with some higher law, and not with a view to selfish advantage.
Summing up the difference between the two, we find it as follows : The German matron is less beautiful and ethereal, less dainty in her surroundings. But she has more real pleasure and greater social prestige, though there is less show of compliment to her, and she is not troubled with vain ambitions nor weak nerves. The American woman is a more complex creature ; more outwardly charming, less inwardly harmonious. She is the slave of appearances, willing or not, and once married is, in Solomon’s expressive phrase, “a fountain sealed.” If she have children, she is practically lost to society until they are nearly grown up, and she is too fatigued with the effort of rearing them to care for anything but the eventless quiet of a forgotten middle age.
For my part, I think that the German matron has the best of it.