The Romance of Modern Life

THE assertion that life in our times is devoid of romance is the most common of commonplaces. It is one of many sayings which is trite without being true. Romance is the result or expression of inherent qualities and tendencies of human nature, and cannot become extinct. Under the conditions of modern life it has changed its exterior, and is no longer recognized in its new aspect; hence the report of its death has gone abroad. It is the everlasting error of taking form for substance, names for facts. There is no standard definition of romance which answers to the general use and acceptation of the word. I think that it may be stated to mean, in common parlance, that which is unusual, striking, picturesque, and dramatic in public events or private existence; that which is pitched in a different key from the tenor of daily life. In former ages there were laws, manners, and customs which to our imagination met the exigencies of romance, creating situations or maintaining a medium in which it naturally developed. It is a cheap

form of common sense and humor to deride those ancient, obsolete modes ; to prove how much better housed, fed, and clad we are than the lords and ladies in their mediæval castles, how much safer and quicker the penny-post is than a messenger-bird or a foot-page ; in short, to keep on repeating at second-hand the grand satire of Cervantes ; and to conclude from these and similar irrefutable arguments that romance nowadays is the ghost of defunct silliness. It would be silly to dispute self-evident propositions, but it is both silly and ignorant to make romance consist in, or depend upon, outward and material circumstances. To the mediæval knight or lady, rushes on the floor were no more picturesque than carpets are to us ; a charger or palfrey was no more imposing as a mode of conveyance than a horse-car or an omnibus seems at present. Indeed, the further back we go, the less romance we find in the mind and temper of the times. We may learn from old rhymers and chroniclers — Chaucer and Froissart, for instance — that knights and dames were mostly matter-of-fact, prosaic personages ; posterity has endowed them with the sentiments and attributes of heroes and heroines. As the mind of man emerges from the shadow of the Dark Ages, the most noticeable habits of thought are the devout and the humoristic ; the sentimental comes later; for the idea of romance we must wait for a fairly advanced state of civilization and intellectual development.

There have been romantic natures in all times, although they are not always to be found in the most romantic figures ; but the only truly romantic epoch, both in the circumstances and conception of life, was the troubadour period of Provence. The genius of the people created the ideal ; their language perpetuated the term. The lutes, daggers, rope-ladders, and rapiers of the troubadours, after playing their part in fiction, were swept out to the melodrama, from which they have in turn disappeared ; royal betrothals and espousals in infancy, marriage by proxy, single combat as a military or judicial ordeal, have fallen out of use in the Old World, but romance keeps its roots in human nature and its hold on the imagination. Its seeds are latent in the primitive passions and emotions, love, hatred, jealousy, grief, pride ; they begin to germinate in the earliest stages of patriotism, loyalty, chivalry, and certain temperaments and circumstances are peculiarly favorable to their perfection. Modern education and the conventional uniformity of modern manners deprive the elementary emotions of some of their strength; the development of self-consciousness leads us to check or conceal high-flown feelings ; mechanical ingenuity and contrivance supply practical and wholesale methods for effecting our purposes, be they vulgar or sublime. It is to be observed, however, that lovers of romance generally look for it in the past : Don Quixote found it in tales of chivalry written long after the deeds which they commemorated ; Cherubina in Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels, which do not deal with the people and doings of her own day. Sir Walter Scott took his material chiefly from by-gone times. This requires no explanation ; as George Eliot says somewhere, we are not troubled by the shabbiness of the trappings in a PanAthenaic procession, the fact being that we do not perceive them. The attempted escape of Jefferson Davis in woman’s clothes struck the whole North as ridiculous and degrading, yet the escapes of Charles Edward, the Earl of Nithsdale, and M. de Lavalette in a similar disguise seem romantic, and do not detract from their dignity.

On the other hand, there are people who maintain that there is more romance in the results of scientific discovery and modern invention than in the worn-out old paraphernalia and expedients ; that it is more romantic to send a message by a flash of lightning than by a carrier-dove, and to elope with the aid of a steed of iron and steam than behind a lover on horseback. There is no romance in either mode ; it exists in the feeling or in the action; and when the history of our country, the land of modern discovery and invention, is written in time to come, romantic characters and incidents will be as plentiful as we find them in past ages.

Let us look over the chart of Europe for the last fifty years. Has there ever been a period of such startling catastrophes and vicissitudes for monarchs and potentates ? Was the Yehmgericht more secret and terrible than Nihilism and Communism, undermining the foundations of government and society, threatening the lives of great and small? Has any previous century seen so many crowned heads wandering in banishment and disguise, with a greater variety of risk and adventure? Within twenty years we have seen representatives of three French dynasties in exile, two ex-queens of Spain, Italian and German sovereigns, and pretenders in numbers. Louis Napoleon and his wife and son are not romantic personages, but their lives have been full of changes and contrasts as violent and unforeseen as ever made the plot of an opera, novel, or ballad. Among their royal rivals there were none so prosaic as the Orleans princes. They come of the most contemned branch of the family tree, — grandsons of the renegade Egalité, sons of the citizen king; their best praise is that they have borne their reverses and misfortunes with dignity and discretion, and made themselves models of modern private gentlemen. Yet fate at times has forced them into positions of singular heroism and interest, and in the annals of the code of honor there are few more striking examples of poetic justice than the quiet, well-bred Duke of Montpensier’s fatal duel with his kinsman, Don Enriquede Bourbon, wantonly provoked by the latter, which put an end forever to his pretensions to the Spanish throne. There is no handsomer or more tragic royal couple in history than the Archduke Maximilian and his “poor Carlotta.” The dark-browed young Queen of Naples, too, directing the siege of Gaëta, in her trooper’s hat and cloak, was then a heroine who in a better cause would have been a lasting inspiration of poets, painters, and sculptors. The late exKing of Bavaria, Louis, who played a sorry part enough in the eyes of his contemporaries, may wear a very different mien to posterity, surveying the galleries and monuments with which he adorned his capital, and remembering that he threw away his kingdom for love of a dancer : there was something of Mark Antony in him, if only the baser part. The present young king, shut in his castles and country-seats, telling the time by an orrery instead of a clock, having Wagner’s operas performed for himself as sole auditor, traveling by night only, and dashing through the sleeping villages with his retinue like the Wild Huntsman, will look more interesting through the vista of years, when his decision in the Franco-Prussian war is considered as part of the great Germanic movement.

The late King of Italy is the best specimen of the old romantic type to be found in our day. Probably there never was a man who dealt more exclusively with the positive and practical side of life, or one who was less influenced by sentiment and imagination. He was brave and bluff as an old feudal baron, with a dignity which was the more royal for its simplicity. He was the representative of the most ancient reigning house in Europe, and his personal history is as full of strange adventures and situations as that of any ancestor in the thirteenth century. His valor and his gallantries were equally notorious. Public taste has happily lost its relish for the latter, but happily, too, not for courage and prowess, and it will be long before kingly daring ceases to thrill the heart and kindle the imagination. There was something in the disposition of the man which led him into dangers to which it would seem as if no modern sovereign could be exposed. On one occasion, in following his favorite pastime of hunting, his horse was thrown down and wounded, and he himself nearly killed, by a furious wild boar. Another time, when on a journey which he pleased to perform on horseback, he and a gentleman in waiting outrode the escort, and were surrounded by brigands. The King of Italy, the doughty Victor Emmanuel, taken at odds, was forced to allow himself to be robbed, to escape being carried into the mountain fastnesses and held for ransom. Literal, shrewd, and unplagued by metaphysics as he was, certain notions and beliefs were allpowerful with him: it was to his sense of the claims of country that he gave up his ancient patrimony and title to unite Italy under a new-made crown, which to him was lined with thorns, — an act often and severely commented upon, but never to my knowledge by a sovereign, and only his peers are in a position to judge him on this count. His mediæval veneration for the church constrained him to submit to an undesired and unfitting marriage, as he could obtain absolution on no other terms, at an hour when his life was given up. Standing between the patriot Garibaldi, in his red shirt, and Pius IX., invested with more than pontifical state by his misfortunes, his martyr attitude, the close of a millennial hierarchy, and the fulfillment of a more than millennial prophecy in his person, Il Re Galantuomo is as fine a figure, the three form as imposing a group, as can be found on any page of history.

Garibaldi and Louis Kossuth deserve high places on the list of the picturesque and romantic characters of present times, if only for their costume ; their bravery, eloquence, and high aims confirm the right. Neither of them achieved his purpose, but they failed nobly, and perhaps fortunately. United Italy and Austro-Hungary are the monuments of their patriotism, in spite of the defeat of their individual idea.

If we turn from public to private life, we still find the material of romance as plentiful as ever. There aro few who do not know, by personal experience or familiar and recent tradition, of secret espousals, lost heirs, forged or stolen wills, mysterious disappearances, hair-breadth escapes, supernatural warnings and coincidences, deeds of courage and self-devotion, as strange and exciting as anything in history or fiction. War-times always abound in these elements, and develop or afford a stage for natures adapted to them. Our civil war was a fine field for adventures and adventurous souls; it has romantic episodes enough to fill volumes ; the Southerners are highly conscious and complacent as to their share. Among many women who played conspicuous parts in that national tragedy, there is one at least who may be named without indiscretion, as she never avoided notoriety, — Mrs. Greenhow. Her career began long enough before 1861. Her beauty, cleverness, audacity; her intrepid journeys across the Rocky Mountains on foot or on horseback ; her influence with men of mark in Washington ; her arrest for complicity in the secret treason which dogged and clogged every step of the government in the early days of secession ; her imprisonment in the Old Capitol, of which she has made a book ; her flash through London society, to which, no doubt, she was a more agreeable sort of lion than the Hon. James M. Mason ; her tragic and appropriate end,—sunk in a blockade runner off our coast, on her way back from England, — fit her story to every requirement of romance or melodrama. There are fewer specimens of that sort in this country, where democratic ideas and manners

Beat down men’s souls into pale unanimity,”

and plane off their characteristics and idiosyncrasies to a dead level, than in Europe, where distinctions of class, an older civilization, and a less stringent morality for the conduct of private life leave more elbow-room for individuality. Here more than one influence and condition favorable to romance has passed away, or is fading into oblivion. Puritanism had the unparalleled good fortune to be illustrated by Hawthorne; Mr. Cable has sketched the early creole life; but the story of our colonists, with their relations to the Old World on one hand and to the aborigines on the other, which produced such striking personages as the Indian Logan or the half-breed Katherine Montour and her descendants, has never been fitly treated, — peace to the manes of James Fenimore Cooper!—nor the dark romance of Southern life in slave-times. No doubt there is an indigenous species growing up in the wide, wild West, strange and unique, like everything which belongs to the really new part of our country. It has produced its new modes of travel and agriculture; I believe that in time it will give rise to a new school of painting ; it has given birth to a new type of man, a new fashion of life, which have scarcely yet taken definite shape; it must eventually create its own legend and fiction. Bret Harte has given us a few samples whittled off with a jack-knife, but there is need for a larger grasp and firmer, finer handling than his to develop it; besides which, the outlines of the subject are not yet distinct enough.

But the peculiar romance of America, whether in life or novels, will probably lie outside the lines of civilization ; while, if we look at Europe, how many interesting and impressive physiognomies have appeared on the stage of society in England alone within fifty years ! There can hardly be a stranger story than Lady Ellen borough’s. Among her ancestors were the famous Sir Kenelm Digby, and his wife the beautiful Venetia, whose portrait by Vandyke, painted in the first pale freshness of youthful death, is so startling to the beholder. Their beautiful descendant was married first to a cabinet minister and governor-general of India, from whom she was separated on account of a love affair with the Austrian ambassador, Prince S—, one of the most splendid scandals of high life half a century ago ; and after an extraordinarily erratic career she appeared in Athens as Ianthe, in which phase she was seen and described by Edmond About (La Grèce Contemporaine), afterwards disappearing into the desert as the wife of an Arab sheik. If the real life and adventures of Edward Trelawney should ever be published, they will make one of the most exciting and absorbing narratives ever written. He has left some record of them in his Adventures of a Younger Son, but as that book is in the form of an autobiographical novel it is

impossible to separate the truth from invention. Although the author Could not spell, and was ignorant of other rudiments of an English education, his style is vigorous, nervous, graphic, succinct, and spirited in the highest degree. If it were a pure work of fancy, like Robinson Crusoe, it would be a book of genius. Taken as in the main a personal narrative, it is one of those rare and remarkable productions which bear the stamp of the author’s personality in every line ; there are few poems, even, in our language so permeated with one predominant sentiment and desire, the irrepressible, irresistible, indomitable need of personal freedom. Fortunately, not many men are so naturally and unaffectedly eccentric, so indocile to all restraint, law, and authority. He made his earliest experiments in life cruising with the privateer, or rather the pirate, De Ruyter; he fought for the Greeks with Odysseus, their popular leader; he was one of the mournful group who built Shelley’s funeral pyre, — his friend Shelley, whose fair, ethereal form hovers like a spirit or a genius of the upper air above Trelawney’s dusky recollections ; he helped pay the last offices to Byron at Missolonghi, — a friend, too, but in a different sort. He had numerous wives, — an Arab maiden, a Greek lady, the sister of Odysseus, several Englishwomen at once, — not to count love affairs independent of matrimony ; yet he was not a dissolute man so much as a lawless one. A few people in this country remember him, a gigantic Cornishman, dark as an Oriental, handsome, deep-voiced, laconic, a natural outlaw. He died only a few months ago, at the ripe age of eighty-eight years, having escaped violent death in almost every form. There are many Englishmen whose lives are of the same complexion,— explorers who write no travels, soldiers of fortune under every flag where there is lighting to be had, dauntless hunters of fierce beasts, bold and desperate lovers who carry off favorites from harems.

On the continent of Europe, originality assumes more civilized forms. There are women lit to be named with the heroines of the Ligue and the Fronde. The most conspicuous of our day is the late Princess Cristine Belgioioso, daughter of the Marquis di Trivulzio, one of the oldest and noblest names in Milan. She married at sixteen a young man of her own rank and of great wealth, who possessed also a remarkably handsome person, and an enchanting tenor voice. They left Italy on account of their political sympathies, and lived in Paris for many years, where her beauty, intellect, and peculiar tastes drew about her a curious assemblage of people, from the most frivolous to the most grave and learned. Victor Cousin, Mignet, aud Thierry were among her most assiduous guests, mingling with poets, musicians, painters, sculptors, diplomatists of the highest eminence, theologians, and men and women of fashion. The princess was the idol of this crowd, a tall, pale, slender figure, with classic features, hair and eyes as dark as night, and a strange, inscrutable expression. Her ways were equally inscrutable : one day startling society by an escapade, on the morrow by the publication of a treatise on Catholic Dogma, or Reflections on the Present and Future of Italy. In 1848 she raised a battalion at her own expense to fight for the liberty of her country, and it is said that she wore the uniform and went into battle with it herself. The success of the Austrian arms forced her to fly, and her property was confiscated. She resumed her place in the great world, published sketches of travel, essays on history, several novels, and a history of the House of Savoy. She was believed to be the original of the Duchesse de San Severino in Stendahl’s novel, La Chartreuse de Parme, aud there is certainly a suggestion of her, though so differently presented, in Theodora, the heroine of Disraeli’s Lothair. The course of public events at length allowed her to return to Milan, where her estates were restored to her, and where she died ten years ago. In two or three generations those who find her name in the verses of the poets and on the titlepages of the composers of this century may feel a curiosity to know more of this lady, with her high-sounding name ; when they learn her lineage, rank, talent, beauty, and patriotism, she will seem to belong to the sisterhood of Adelaide de Saluzzo, Beatrice de Montferrat, and the other loves of the troubadours, even more than to that of the fair Longueville and Chevreuse. By way of contrast to her there is Amélie Lasaulx, “ Sister Augustine, an Old Catholic,” a worthy successor of the Mere Angélique and the holy heroines of Port Royal.

Madame Sand, partly from a vein of honesty and homeliness of thought which runs through her disposition and writings, partly from her self-sufficiency and lack of humor, is seen in a crude, coarse light by us who stand so near her. But we may be sure that posterity will look with different eyes on this woman of genius, whose grand, sphinxlike countenance remains in marble and on canvas in witness of the long enigma she offered to every man of genius who crossed her path ; whose memory would live in the lives of Chopin, Liszt, Musset, Mérimée, Delacroix, Lamennais, Michel de Bourges, even if she had not left works which will outlast some of theirs. Liszt himself, in his various apparitions as Magyar, monk, Don Juan, courtier, abbé, author, virtuoso, composer, is a very picturesque masquerader; but in all his rôles there is too much sense that he is playing a part; he is a theatrical rather than a romantic personage. The same may be said of several other famous composers and musicians, and of various people of European as distinguished from English celebrity. But this has often been said of Byron, who was a thorough Englishman. Perhaps the contemporaries of Stradella and David Rizzio perceived the same personal vanity and histrionic tendency in them.

There is a sort of self-conscious pseudo-romance allied to the poetic and æsthetic antics of the hour which is hit off by Du Maurier in Punch. Mrs. Cimabue Brown and her set would spell the word romaunce, although their stage properties are not guitars, masks, and poniards, but cracked china, spindleshanked furniture, sunflowers, and limp petticoats. This affectation will die a natural death, although it has no natural life, and its devotees, if remembered at all, will be to future times as the Cornelias and Gracchi of the French directory are to us.

These random reflections were not propounded with a theorem, yet they seem to demonstrate some truths and to involve certain conclusions. If, as I think cannot be denied, the material of romance is as abundant to-day as ever, it is a mistake to ignore it in fiction; to demand that readers shall concentrate that iuterest, or more strictly speaking that sympathy and attention, on humdrum people, and events as dull and trivial as ordering dinner or balancing a ledger. Such persons and things are not what most of us find interesting in every-day life. Granted that the modern novel must be the transcript of modern existence, let us at least have the elements which give it color and relief. It is untrue to nature to show only the flat, gray side of character and circumstance. A favorite term of praise for a story of to-day is that it is like a photograph ; it might be a term of condemnation, for, unfortunately, there is too often exactly the exaggeration and undue prominence of minor details, the loss of perspective and proportion, which are among the defects of photography. But there are a great many photographs which are less tame and pale than some of the cleverest novels at present; after a few years they will be equally blank and void of suggestion. Let novelists make their padding with ordinary men and women, but let them provide at least the hero or heroine with a temperament and destiny tinged with the romance which is to be found in real life everywhere.