The Contributors' Club
THE name of Worth is a familiar household word within the latitudes of fashion in all civilized countries ; why then do we hear so much less of his neighbor and coadjutor, Madame Virot ? For many years the two have worked in unison, the masterpieces of the former being incomplete without a finishing touch from the latter, in the shape of one of her exquisite articles of headgear. In Paris, at least, she is no less a celebrity than he.
Virot began her career as an assistant to the milliner Laure, who was long at the head of her craft in Europe. It was while in this position that she attracted the attention of her future husband, a person almost as deserving of notice as herself. Monsieur Virot was the son of a Parisian locksmith, but chose sculpture as his own profession. He and Carrier-Belleuse were fellowstudents, and afterward worked together upon a bust of the Republic, — the first order that Carrier received from the French government of 1848, and which he owed to the influence of his brother-in-law M. Arago, who was then in the ministry. M. Virot, however, gave up the pursuit of art for that of bricabrac in its widest signification. This took place some years after his marriage. The fair assistant of Madame Laure accepted him on the condition that she should be allowed to continue her occupation of bonnet-making. She moved into a small lodging in one of the side-streets of Paris, and set up business for herself. The story runs that her fortune was made by the Empress Eugénie’s espying a bonnet in Virot’s which struck her unerring eye for “ a good bit ” of finery, and which she immediately purchased. At all events, the milliner’s fame grew apace, owing to her extraordinary native taste and skill; she exchanged her modest abode for an expensive one in the Rue de la Paix, the headquarters of elegant extravagance, close to Worth’s establishment; and there, in an incredibly short time, she became a millionaire.
It is not only as an inventor of picturesque hats and killing capotes that Madame Virot is known in Paris ; her knowledge of all that pertains to the Renaissance is deep and varied, and her artistic instinct in collecting antiquities and curiosities has long been recognized by the best judges of those subjects. In this pursuit she was seconded, or rather trained, by her husband, who when he abandoned sculpture gave himself up entirely to his vocation of a collector. He passed his life in the shops of second-hand dealers, and among old, historic edifices which were being demolished, comparing his observations with the opinions of the authorities in household art. His object was to offer his wife a home in the style of the eighteenth century, which should be genuine, accurate, and artistic, and he set himself to study the subject in detail. Meanwhile he was picking up, as luck happened to favor him, bronzes, chimney-pieces, doors, mirrors, carved woodwork, and even bits of furniture, china, glass, stuff, and ornaments of all kinds belonging to that epoch. So it may he said that the house was made for its contents, rather than that the contents were made for the house.
When M. Virot had collected sufficient material to furnish his hotel, he confided the erection of it to M. Charles Duval. This distinguished architect found great difficulty in satisfying his client; they spent months in visiting together the finest buildings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries : the palaces of Versailles and the Great and Little Trianons, the Hôtel Lambert, — a jewel of taste in design and decoration, now the property of Prince Ladislas Czartoryski, husband of the Princess Marguérite d’Orleans, — in short, all the fine châteaux and mansions of that period in or out of Paris were laid under contribution to furnish models for the smallest details, even to cornices, window-sashes, and door-knobs. From the Palais Royale they copied the dormer-windows and the beautiful balustrade that surrounds the roof. Among other charming relics which M. Virot discovered were a ceiling painted by Coypel, representing Apollo and the Muses, and he employed it to adorn a boudoir in which the goddess Pompadour herself might have displayed her graces. Besides this, there were portraits, cabinet pictures, and painted wallpanels by the eighteenth century masters, a large and valuable collection of proof engravings from Lawrence, Baudouin, and Moreau, and rare clocks and tapestries of the same date. These are some of the treasures which M. Virot gathered together, and finally placed in a small hotel which he built at the corner of the Boulevard Malesherbes and the Boulevard de Courcelles, probably the most correct specimen of the style of Louis XVI. to be found in Paris. While he was engaged in his researches, in which the fine taste of his wife was his surest guide, she continued to fabricate those wonderful Gainsborough hats with long plumes, and the coquettish little bonnets so dear to the fair sex, which have made their way over two hemispheres, thus the united artistic intelligence, knowledge, and taste of the pair erected their monument, with the help of American dollars, English pounds sterling, German marks, Russian roubles, and a few French louis d’or.
But when the nest was finished, the bird disappeared ; M. Virot died, and his house in the Boulevard Malesherbes was lately sold to M. Hottinguer the banker for half a million francs, or $100,000. The collections went to auction, and the proceeds of the first day’s sale alone were $30,000. These enormous sums represent the experience and taste of a man and woman who began life, he as a locksmith, she as a milliner’s apprentice. Such results can hardly be found anywhere in the world except in Paris, where the native artistic feeling of the working-classes, cultivated by the encouragement of the government, produces an incontestable superiority in the fineness and delicacy of their handiwork. There are frequent exhibitions of the Fine Arts applied to Industry, collections of furniture, wall-paper, carpets, stuffs, and ornaments, classified and arranged with a sure eye to effect and strict chronological accuracy, which create an art-atmosphere for the Parisian “ ouvrier,” refining his taste, educating his talent, and often making of the simple artisan a real artist.
— Who ever heard Old Age, — old age, with its long and tender memory — speak slightingly of the sorrows of childhood ? This is reserved for preoccupied and callous Middle Age to do. From the indifference which many grown people exhibit toward the griefs of the very young, it might be inferred that their own childhood had become an indistinct vision, or at least that it no longer possessed aught of interest for them. The little troubles of children ? But all trouble is relative, and great and small, in this respect, are movable terms. Sorrow itself grows old; even the sacred vehemence of grief felt for the lately dead suffers a mellowing change as the years lapse. How do we know but that in another life the most considerable tribulations endured in this take rank with the “ little troubles of children ” ?
If grief may be estimated negatively, by the lack within itself of remedial expedients, then a child’s grief, contrary to the belief of many, fills no shallow measure. It is true the child may soon be diverted and soothed, but his trouble, while it lasts, is unmingled. We in our dismal day are able to command what the child cannot, the consolations of philosophy ; often, also, there is present an exalting consciousness of martyrdom, or we detect in the situation a dramatic element that gives a certain zest to our bitter cup. Consider a child’s view of time : how long are the day and the night in his measurement of them ; he has not yet learned that the old scytheman takes the cockles and the tares, as well as the corn, in his swath. I very well remember my first dim perception of the fact that time is on the side of the griever. It was at the close of a day that for me had been filled with disappointment and heart-ache, and I gave myself to drown misery in tears; all attempts of friends to soothe my distress were fruitless ; only one thing promised relief, and for that I cried with foolish sobbing iteration, “ I want it to be tomorrow ! ” until I dropped asleep, and so took the cross-cut to my desire. After this, none of my childish griefs was quite so inconsolable, for in some vague way I reasoned that what to-morrow would cure could not to-day be past endurance. In the mere thought of tomorrow there is something counteractive, something that steals the fire from the present’s feverish feeling, whether the feeling be of excessive joy or excessive sorrow. Why should I be averse to owning that I have always drawn largely from this exchequer of comfort? In any mob of chagrins and miseries, at least, I shall not be prevented from counting on the coolness and indifference that come with the morrow. Certain it is that
— Following the example of Horace (Ode xx., Book II.), a bard addresses his Mæcenas : —
Up through the liquid air I spring,
Leave earth, and malice blind,
And critics far behind.
Such worth shall die, Mæcenas dear;
The Styx’s dingy flow
I shall not undergo.
Upon my arms and shoulders steal ;
Now, now, my wings I loose,
I soar, — a very goose.”
— I have been thinking with some wonder and disappointment, growing out of a visit to Wordsworth’s cottage at Grasmere, of the limitations which beset even the most enthusiastic, when trying to sustain the thrill of great memories for any length of time. When I entered Dove Cottage a little more than a week ago, and saw the rooms in which Wordsworth, De Quincey, and Hartley Coleridge successively lived, and which with the garden adjoining remain substantially as De Quincey describes them in his Recollections, I was overwhelmed with feeling. Below is the little parlor, about sixteen by twelve ; “ very prettily wainscoted from the floor to the ceiling with dark polished oak, slightly embellished with carving.” Above, reached by the same little staircase where De Quincey first descried Mary and Dorothy Wordsworth, is the little library-sittingtea-room ; in one corner the place where stood Wordsworth’s couple of hundred ragged, uncared-for books, the beams overhead only seven feet from the floor, and the little fire-grate still unchanged. Close by is the guest room, low, small, cosey, where Southey and Lamb and Coleridge and De Quincey have slept; opposite this is William and Mary Wordsworth’s room, about ten by twelve, and near by is the tiny box where Dorothy nursed her high poetical spirit. The whole cottage, once, as you remember, a village inn bearing the name of the Dove and Olive Bough, is just such a nook as one would expect to find devoted to “ plain living and high thinking,” Wordsworth’s own phrase coined in that little parlor. One fine touch remains that I must not overlook. In the Wordsworths’ sleeping-room is a plain deal shelf three or four feet from the floor, on which their wash-basin and pitcher used to stand ; beneath, another shelf for their boots and shoes. These are so rude that the present occupants of the cottage have desired to remove them in favor of a “ smart ” toilet stand, a wish which the owner has with good sense steadily refused. Ten guineas were offered a few days ago for one of those boards, but were declined.
Just outside is the little garden, filled with shrubs which, as in Wordsworth’s time, blossom in succession from spring to autumn. The two yew trees spoken of by De Quincey still stand near the gate, the “ Rocky Well ” mentioned by Wordsworth is unchanged, and many of the flowers propagate themselves from year to year, from seed originally planted by the poet’s hand. It is really a fascinating spot. The great tourist throngs troop by, because the street side of Dove Cottage is squat, unadorned, and even repulsive, so many ordinary buildings having been erected of late years which quite extinguish it. But take the trouble to go to the true front, which is in fact on the back side, and it is the most fascinating and poetical gem of a cottage that I have ever seen. And it is to be seen ; for unlike Rydal Mount, it is not sealed up against the world, but is quite freely open to all who desire to see the place to which Wordsworth brought his wife, and where he wrote what Sara Coleridge always considered his finest poems. Here for instance were composed his incomparable
his lines beginning
A rainbow in the sky,”
and ending with
Bound each to each by natural piety.”
Here, too, was written what all agree is his greatest poem, The Intimations of Immortality.
Now when I first saw this place, as a true Wordsworthian I was filled with a holy awe, and forthwith was not content (since the house is occasionally open to lodgers) without securing rooms in it for a week. In this I have been successful; and for this week all the rooms which are to me most sacred are quite as free as if I owned them. But the wonder is that I do not find, with all the delight of this possession, with all the charm of reading and rereading Wordsworth on this ground, that I am capable of living over what came to me at the first glance. And I learn the lesson, one which it is very good to learn, and very useful to impart, that travelers who under a similar high and venerating regard, wish to tarry and it may be to possess the places where they cherish this emotion would probably be disappointed as I have been. We cannot twice live over what we feel when for the first time a great and precious memory becomes a living thing, — at least I cannot, and I think I utter a universal experience.
— The late Professor Lanier, in an essay on Moral Purpose in Art, remarks concerning the common objection to Daniel Deronda as an intolerable prig, that “ examination of what is precisely meant reveals that he is a person whose goodness is so downright, uncompromising, and radical that it makes the mass of us uncomfortable.”
It seems to me that this comes near to hitting the true explanation of the fact, while yet it goes a little wide of the centre. I should hardly say of Deronda that it is his goodness, too straightforward to be overlooked, too downright to be denied, that makes him disagreeable to more easy-going mortals; I should rather say that his character in its whole conception is too ideal for comprehension by the average man and woman.
What is Deronda’s attitude toward the other personages of the tale ? He is not found assuming the office of Mentor to any one ; Gwendolen Harleth, touched by some silent influence of his presence, appeals to him, throws herself upon him ; he does not seek but only accepts the responsibility of leading and upholding her in her moral struggle. And if the case were the reverse, if it were Deronda who first approached Gwendolen with counsel and direction for the moral life, this alone would not put him beyond the pale of the general reader’s understanding or sympathy. The mingled dislike and contempt which such reader feels for Deronda is all on account of that absurd scheme of his for devoting himself to the redemption of the Jews. It may or may not be that George Eliot had the condition of the Jewish race at heart, —it does not matter; neither does it matter, so far as her artistic purpose is concerned, whether or not we share Deronda’s enthusiasm for his people, and approve of his projects for their elevation ; it is enough that we recognize the pure unselfishness of his devotion, the nobility of a life dedicated to a large disinterested aim. But the consecration of a man’s being to such lofty impersonal end inevitably removes him from the comprehension and the sympathy of the majority of his fellows. Witness Mazzini, compassionated, ridiculed, despised, by men unable to appreciate the intellectual greatness of his political ideas, or the moral greatness of his self-abnegating life. Professor Lanier observes that the “ direct moral teaching in Adam Bede is far more prominent than in Daniel Deronda, yet persons who lauded the former found the latter intolerable.”
This is always the case ; people will bear the direct enforcement of plain moral duties, but not the setting up of a standard of devotion to high, ideal aims. The champion who comes forward to overthrow some social wrong, which the moral sense of the people acknowledges to be an iniquity, though their indifference has allowed it to stand, will meet with approval, even applause, and in time, if he persist, with support. But let a man or a set of men attempt to erect a purer ideal of political action than at present is followed, to introduce into business relations and social intercourse a higher sense of honor and a truer conception of the ends of living, and where are those who will listen or tolerate for a moment such interference with the smooth running of the social wheels on the broad road ? The ordinary man feels that it would be impossible for him to live such a life of strenuous devotion to pure ideals as is proposed to him; the best way for him to dispose of the question, and set himself at ease again, is to pronounce such ideals futile abstractions, such a mode of life impossible for human beings. We have heard of the unfortunate who exclaimed, “ I said the world was mad, and the world said I was mad,—and alas ! the world outvoted me.” The world as yet outvotes the idealists; but labor on, brother ; the world will come round one day to your side.