A Letter to Mr. William De Morgan

IF it is true that no lady in Society would ever speak of her daughter as Miss Peggy, and if a previous knowledge of that fact entitles one to a position in the above-mentioned Body, I feel that at this moment I should be covered with confusion upon finding myself addressing in person a gentleman who has never been presented to me, and of whom I know nothing except his name and the fact, gleaned from an examination of covers, that he is classed in the Public Library as 823D, according to a system which I have been assured is simple, but which I have never been able to fathom. It is true that, in order to do so, I should be obliged to ask somebody about it, or even read a book about it. I prefer, however, to leave the subject wrapped in mystery, together with so many others connected with the great Public Library; as for instance, why they always say, ‘ Please leave your umbrella to be checked, and you say, ‘ I am only going in the shelves a moment,’ and they take the umbrella from you and say, ‘ No matter, it must be checked and when you come for it in, say, three minutes, just to show that you meant what you said, it is impossible to get the knot untied and the check must not be torn; or else you lose the check and have to send for the Librarian whose Aunt lives in the next street but one from you, and who would naturally be able to vouch for you.

But this has nothing to do with what I wanted to tell you, which is, that you have made me wish that I could offer a belated apology to a story that I read a long time ago. I remember writing one of my first College Essays on this book, and denouncing it because the Author would not remain in the background, but persisted in saying what he thought about this and that. A newly acquired thirst for UNITY (vide Thompson’s Aids to Literary Criticism) drove the members of the class to a most insulting attack on the book. This, it seemed, was filled with the Author’s Personality; and we were assured by Thompson that such Personalities were not desirable, as interfering with the Progress of the Plot. Upon looking back I can see that it was the fault of the Author’s Personality, or possibly my fault. Certainly not that of the book. If the Personality had been of the proper strain, all would have been well, in spite of Thompson.

What for instance should we do without your Personality? Not to say that your plots and characters are entirely unsatisfactory; but we like to hear what you have to say; we do not skip you. Which is the highest form of compliment. The most we say is that you are unconventional; but after reading some of the late works of Mr. Chesterton, we are rather in doubt as to whether or not you are not really conventional. For Mr. Chesterton, who is himself a most conventional person, tells us that Conventions are not the dead stiff things we used to think them. Not at all: they are alive and bristling, full of good red blood and ready to shed it all upon attack, at the same time retaining all of their good red blood in order to enable them to continue being re-blooded. This seems — But you will understand; it is really quite simple, and we have only to go on saying so very fast, and other things also, so as not to stop: such as, that Shaw is absurdly transparent; and that children should not be scorched to make them dread the fire, for fear that later on some injudicious parent may strangle its offspring in order to make it careful to avoid running risks which might terminate in fatal accidents.

You are not to think that I am running down Mr. Chesterton; I have a great admiration for him in his balanced moments, which are many, and more beautifully balanced than those of almost any other contemporary writer; so that, besides the inner meaning, we get the pleasure of that even sensation produced by seeing an Acrobat on a tight-rope; and when he (Mr. C.) does tip over the balance, he is usually brilliantly incomprehensible, and so it is all right and as it should be. And so let me get on to something else, which is some more about Public Libraries.

Of course, you know that they buy You and paste a strip of paper across the front cover saying ‘ Seven-Day Book,’and charge two cents a day overdues and no reduction made on account of Holidays as you should have allowed for that; and under no circumstances can it be renewed even on another ticket. This is sometimes a disadvantage, as you must know, dear Mr. De Morgan, that your books are occasionally long; in fact, I found written at the end of one of them in a flowing hand, ‘ A sweet story, a little long.’ ,

These notes, by the way, are very interesting to one who has frequented the P. L. for years. One gets so that one can tell from the passages marked what kind of party the reader has been. Impassioned passages (not to be found in your works), such as, ‘ Ethel, I adore the ground your tiny feet have trod,’ — this marked once with a pencil, lightly, indicates a spinster and some old sweet love-affair. Two heavy pencil-marks give away the secret of some lovesick Miss; while the gentleman so entangled never uses a pencil, but scores heavily with his thumb-nail, leaving marks all through the following thirty pages, to the bewilderment of the next reader. This thumb-nail method, by the way, is used by the best people, but never on Seven-Day Books: one finds their approval streaked along passages of Maeterlinck, — preferably passages containing an Uplift. Those of this class who use a pencil have something to say, often a clever comment ; one hopes the Librarian will not find it. But for such illuminating comments as ‘Sweet,’ ‘Just like R. H.,’ ‘How True,’ etc. — one must turn to the Seven-Day Books.

I have often thought that it is unfair to such a writer as the author of the Yellow Car or the Brass Bag to be placed upon the same shelf wit h You (the Capital letter not conveying a misleading sense of your importance, but seeming a respectful mode of address). Think of the down-lift (if up, why not down?) of Miss Gladys Mac Harrison, when she opens your book and reads about Pope and Chappell and the Appropriateness of—was it Jonah? (I have returned the book.) Not even the hint of a ghost-story will lure her a line further; naturally she bangs the book to, and shoves it back on the shelf between Pam Decides and The Secret Agent, and goes off for one of the good old regulars, old numbers of favorite authors that can be kept two weeks and renewed for Hilda to read. For all Seven-Day Books are not golden: and there is so much of Gladys Mae!

However, I must tell you that your books are very well thumbed, covers loose, and so on, which is very comfortable and gratifying. I fancy the fact that they are not marked is due to your genial method of diffusing your Humor in even quantities throughout your books; so that one huge nail-mark would be needed. Or it may be that we (Society and the Lower Classes alike) are most inclined to mark passages that appeal to our sentiment. We read aloud the funny ones, but put a little mark by the others. Do you remember what Sudermann’s Princess says of her ideal woman? — ‘ A quiet, peaceful woman who would treasure a secret little joy like the apple of her eye, who would know nothing of the world except what she wanted to know, and who would have the strength to make her own choice when it pleased her.’ I have marked that; and I haven’t marked any of your books. But it is a case of not Cæsar more, nor Rome more. As I said, you are all spread out, like Honey over a generous slice of bread, for fear that some one might get an unsweetened bite. And sometimes your ether is so fine an essence that all who read may not breathe. I am quite sure that there are some passages that my Cousin Sarah, who dotes upon your works, has n’t fathomed at all, — just skipped. It all depends upon one’s sense of the Inappropriate — the delicately Inappropriate. Not. Malapropisms: something far more delicate than that. And your funny things never snigger at themselves; which some very funny things of other Authors are unable to resist doing.

We like you very much, Mr. De Morgan; and we hope that you will not stop. We like your beery parties too; there are not many of them, by the way, that are not ‘ Somehow Good.’ When people are so bad as to be horrid, you refuse to be intimate with them. Take Lavinia Straker, for example. We are terribly afraid that she is Nohow Good; and you were afraid about her too. We could n’t get you to take us upstairs in her house; the farthest we could get was her drawing-room, and we felt that even that was musty. You as good as said that you did n’t care to investigate; the fine profile was enough; and, like Hans Andersen’s Elfin Maiden, poor Lavinia could n’t turn around, because she was hollow behind.

Somebody has told me that you lack form, meaning (upon pressure) a certain kind of hanging togetherness that we inherit from the Works of the Ancients, who wrote no novels. (This again seems— But no matter.) It is true that you often work havoc with Time,and skip us over relentlessly from one period of the Plot to another and then back, like little girls (boys can’t do it) who jump the rope and cry ' Easter,’ and call for Pepper, Salt, and Vinegar. Intervals of weeks are nothing to you, and we hate to think of the wellmeaning, conscientious persons whom you have mixed up: one saying, ‘Was this before his father died?’ and the other saying ‘ No, after,’ and both having to get out the book and look it up, and neither being satisfied that the other was right after all. But these readers are of the kind to be late for breakfast and say it was the fault of the clock, when they had never wound it at all and knew perfectly well that they had n’t; and you know that they never do hear the alarm anyway: in other words, incompetent and unreliable witnesses, and therefore subject to dismissal at pleasure.

But to continue: it was Unity of Form, I believe, that I was told you were lacking in. For the purposes of argument, we are willing to admit the skin of the offense; but a deeper consideration will discover nothing wrong. You have, it seems, scorned to be palpably consecutive; and in this we discern conformity with a higher ideal of Unity. Discarding curls, patches, high heels, and gewgaws in general, — discarding even a limb or so and no end of fingers and toes if necessary, — you infuse us at once into the circulation of the Corpus Humanum, so that we may pass through the Heart, and feel how healthily it throbs, and testify to the fact that the Liver is living too high and the Lights are dull. For the Corpus Humanum is not in good working condition; oh dear, no! But the Heart is there, and things will probably mend, and at any rate we are right there and can see for ourselves. This stripping process resolves itself into a sort of innocent nudity suggestive of Ancient Art (I am glad that we managed to reach back to the Ancients somehow; they do lend respectability) and makes for a Unity of its own. Simplici myrto nihil allabores; throw away the rosecrowns and let us look at these things quietly and sanely. And sedulous you are, too, in your own wayand with your own materials; even if seeming to flout Old Father Time and a few other indispensable things, none of which matter in the least.

A Letter to a Dead Author is considered no offense (I add wisely, in intention; we all admire Cæsar and he is none the worse),and the pardon of a Living Author should be freely granted to one who tries to approach him on his own ground: keeping by necessity strictly to the edges, and approaching only in so far as may be done by substituting periods where semi-colons are looked for, and semi-colons for periods; by avoiding any too precise balance of phrase or too pedantic cast of thought; and by not trying to frighten away average readers. It is not out of place to put it to you frankly: would you rather be written to and told that you had a high ethical sense of the underlying good in humanity; or would you not? And do you think that the Editor would favor such a treatment? (This is an important question.) It seems so much more natural to speak to you in terms of yourself.

Pardon being granted, I conclude without more ado that I may be so personal as to tell you that your books are a strong justification of fiction. For unless one is a Great Mathematical Genius, or a Student of Old French, or a Biblical Critic, or something else extremely wonderful in some particular Line that wipes out all others (a Line being granted for this special case the unusual property of wiping out) — unless one is something unspeakably Superior, one ought not to do without fiction. I have seen people of more than average culture who went in for serious reading, — as if anything could be more serious than a Problem Novel! — and who ended by drying up. Perhaps they would have dried up at any rate; but I am convinced that a little wellchosen fiction would have renewed their sap and made them Human — which is something we are all supposed to be, but are not. I will go further than saying that your books arc full of wisdom, and say (may I drop the trick, being in earnest?) that you yourself must be very wise. You have fared through the first stage of existence, which refuses to be crushed by the knowledge of Death; and are bravely on in the last, which will not be overpowered by the knowledge of Life. You have looked for honey, and have found it in the carcass of the lion: and after long gazing upon Death, the rose has seemed of a more tender pink.

All of this I infer in you: and you have put it into Fiction and made it a part of History. For Fiction is indeed History, not of fact, but of the imagination. It relates and shows not only what has happened, but what may at any time happen; and is the mirror wherein each man may see reflected his countenance, his manners, and often his moral life. Fortunate is the nation that possesses a fiction in which this last is portrayed. Civilization beholds itself at arm’s length, and may judge of the justice and the wretchedness of its virtues. Here may our vices wear other men’s garments, and preach to us in the inner region where we secretly admit them after having indignantly denied them in public. In this private council alone are we willing to be censured for past errors, and to pledge our manhood to renewed efforts. Such is the power of the literature of the imagination. The dilettante may forever smear his canvas with leering rakes and smirking virgins: one figure lovingly outlined by the master’s hand speaks eternally to the world.