The Novelist's Choice
FOR a number of years, in my desultory novel-reading, I have found myself occasionally dropping into a particular line of speculation. As I re-read The Mill on the Floss, for instance, I fall to wondering what kind of story it would have made if George Eliot had allowed Tom to tell it. He would have done it bluntly, honestly, without condoning his own faults and mistakes, we may be sure; but also, we may be equally sure, without condoning Maggie’s. We should probably have been left in the dark as to the motiving of her acts. Stephen Guest would have fared rather badly, Philip Wakem even worse, and Mrs. Tulliver and Sister Glegg and Sister Pullet would hardly have come in as characters at all, since Tom had none of the special sort of humorous sense to which they appeal. Very likely Tom would have failed as signally to do justice to his own character as to Maggie’s — his powers were not in the line of conscious self-portrayal.
The more I speculate about this, the more amused and interested I am. And when, after it, I come back to the real story, as it was actually written, I find myself keener to appreciate the things which I discover there — the embodied result of the novelist’s choice to tell her story as she did and not otherwise.
I have sometimes tried Henry Esmond in the same way. I fancy it told, for example, through the letters or the diary of Beatrix. What a stormy recital it would be! Fragmentary, capricious, concealing more than it revealed, for Beatrix would never have been what is called simply honest, even with herself. And yet, whatever she wrote, however she posed, whatever tricks of the spirit she perpetrated, I fancy we could have guessed at her story and her nature in spite of herself. The more one thinks of it, the more one longs for a chance to try, anyhow — to have at those letters or that diary. And then one remembers, — to be sure! there are no letters, there is no diary; we were only supposing. What a pity! Yet could we, for their sakes, give up the story as it is?
Or, again, imagine the story told in the modern, dramatic way: not by any character acting as narrator, not by the author as author, not by anybody self-confessed, but allowed to enact itself upon the pages of the book as upon a stage — a few stage-directions supplied in place of scenery and real action, each participant speaking in turn, and the reader left to orient himself as he can. Fancy the beginning: —
‘My name is Henry Esmond.’
‘His name is Henry Esmond, sure enough,’ said Mrs. Worksop.
‘So this is the little priest,’ said Lord Castlewood. ‘Welcome, kinsman.’
‘He is saying his prayers to Mamma!’ said little Beatrix.
But no, don’t fancy it! Let us stop right here, and go back to those leisurely and deliberate first chapters as they now stand. Already one feels a little ashamed of having allowed one’s self to lay such unhallowed hands upon the tale, and one determines to cease experimenting, at least upon Henry Esmond, and leave him to the undisputed possession of his grave, decorous and altogether delightful narrative. And yet, this habit of speculation once formed, one is tempted ever afresh to its indulgence — tempted often at the most unexpected point: as I read over the pretty drama of Romeo and Juliet, I am by some freak of the mind led to wonder what their story would sound like, told by Juliet’s nurse.
It seems curious that writers themselves have not experimented in this way with their own material. Browning, indeed, the king of experimenters, did it once. But, except The Ring and the Book, I do not think of anything of the kind. And The Ring and the Book is so much more than a study in storytelling that it is as well to leave it with this passing mention.
Obviously, it makes a difference, this choice of the novelist. It is, of course, only one of the things that go to determining what a novel will be like, but it is surely one. Thackeray is always Thackeray, whether he chooses to tell his tale through the mouth of one of his characters or to step forward in his own person and talk frankly about his people as they pass before him. He is still Thackeray, yet there is a vast difference between the atmosphere of Esmond, which gives us the peaceful and deliberate reminiscences of an old man, and the atmosphere of Vanity Fair, where the author is avowedly himself, like a showman with his puppets. Perhaps it was the choice of the novelist that produced the difference, perhaps it was something inherent in the two tales, as he regarded them, that led to the choice. At all events, the choice itself is worth thinking of.
The expedient of putting a story into the mouth of one of the actors in it — that is, the autobiographical method — has great antiquity, being at least as old as the Odyssey. Vernon Lee, in an interesting if whimsical essay of hers on ‘Literary Construction,’ maintains that it is essentially an expedient of immaturity. ‘ I have no doubt,’ she says, ‘that most of the stories which we have all written between the ages of fifteen and twenty were either in the autobiographical or the epistolary form . . . and altogether reproduced, in their immaturity, the forms of an immature period of novel-writing, just as Darwinism tells us that the feet and legs of babies reproduce the feet and legs of monkeys. For, difficult as it is to realize, the apparently simplest form of construction is by far the most difficult; and the straightforward narrative of men and women’s feelings and passions, of anything save their merest outward acts — the narrative which makes the thing pass naturally before the reader’s mind — is by far the most difficult, as it is the most perfect.’
Stevenson, whose powers as a storyteller can hardly be called immature, yet averred that it was the easiest way. He writes to Edmund Gosse, ‘Yes, honestly, fiction is very difficult. . . . And the difficulty of according the narrative and the dialogue (in a work in the third person) is extreme. That is one reason out of half a dozen why I so often prefer the first.’
Evidently here he was thinking more of style than of construction, and one would like to know the rest of the halfdozen reasons why he preferred the first person for his stories. Perhaps we can guess at some of them. For the autobiographical form seems to settle a good many other matters besides this one of literary pitch. It prescribes in many ways the point of view. The general attitude of the actor-narrator toward the chain of events which he relates, is predetermined by his own part in those events.
But probably the strongest justification for the form is that it carries with it a certain air of genuineness. A man’s own story has a value as such, as the newspaper interview testifies every day. It imposes upon us, in spite of ourselves, a prepossession in favor of its truth. Now, whatever else the novelist may wish to do, he always, first of all, wishes to create in his readers this illusion of reality. He wants to have his story seem true. He knows, indeed, that it is not true. We know it is not true. He knows that we know. And yet, he will spend months in dull research for the sake of supplying his tale with certain small earmarks of veracity that may, perchance, trick the public into a moment of doubt. He will furnish forth his story with elaborate introductions and appendices, accounting for his own share, and the publisher’s share, in it, with the hope that he may be able to persuade us, at least for half an hour, that he, the author, is really and truly only the ‘interested friend’ to whom the papers were left; that he has really been only the recipient of a dying confession, only the discoverer of a long-hidden diary. And if he succeeds, what triumph! Is there any one who would be proof against the flattery implied in such inquiries as were aroused by Nancy Stair as to the real genealogy of the Stair family?
To this endeavor to make his story seem like the narrative of actual occurrences the novelist has been partly driven by the attitude of his readers. ' Convincing ’ is the critic’s word now —a novel must be ‘convincing.’ The word is modern, the attitude which it connotes is modern. Not that readers of old did not find pleasure in giving themselves up to the story-teller. But they gave themselves up more easily than readers do now. The old storyteller began his tale smoothly enough: ‘There was once a beautiful girl, who had a cruel step-mother and two wicked step-sisters.’ Very good. His listeners, with a habit of acquiescence, accepted at once the beauty of the heroine, the cruelty and wickedness of the others. For them the tale was sufficiently convincing. Even the fairy godmother passed unchallenged. Who knew that fairy godmothers might not exist somewhere?
But we have lost the habit of acquiescence. We are proving all things, and we hold fast to very little. We challenge, we scrutinize, we dissect. We have opinions about the limits of the possible, the probable, and the inevitable. And nothing really satisfies us but the inevitable.
To make his tale seem inevitable, then, is the author’s ambition, and he is aware that if he is to do this he cannot get to work in the old manner. If he begins, ‘ There was once a beautiful girl, with a cruel step-mother and two wicked—’ ‘Ah, wait!’ says his reader, ‘this will never do. Cruelty and wickedness are easy words to say, but the things themselves are not to be thus lightly denominated. One must discriminate. How about the step-mother’s point of view? In just what Way was she cruel? How did she become so? How do you know she existed at all? She does not seem to us a very real person. She is not convincing. I don’t think I care to finish this story.’
The modern story-teller cannot help being conscious of this attitude on the part of his readers. Probably he has it himself, to some extent, toward his own material. What wonder, then, if, aware of the effectiveness of the expedient, he passes his story over to one of his characters, and loads upon his shoulders the burden of making it ‘convincing.’
This seems, on the face of it, an easy way out. It shifts responsibility from the author to the hero, or whoever it is who is telling the story. ‘How do I know? I know because I was there. She was my step-mother.’ It is the old reply of Æneas to Dido: ‘Quorum pars magna fui.’
And not merely an easy way out, but often an excellent way. We have only to run over a few titles, to realize the possibilities of the autobiography as a literary form: Henry Esmond, Robinson Crusoe, Lorna Doone, Jane Eyre, Kidnapped, David Balfour, Peter Ibbetson, Harry Richmond, Joseph Vance, — good books, indeed!
With such a list before us, it may seem presumptuous to hint that the autobiographical form has its limitations and its drawbacks. Yet I believe it has. For, first, there is a danger in it arising from a fact inherent in human nature: the fact that heroes and minstrels are not usually made of the same stuff. One does things; the other tells about them. The person whom adventures befall is not necessarily the one who is best able to relate them. It is not always so, of course. There are rare beings who are born with the hero and the minstrel soul bound together within them — the Odysseus and the Æneas souls. For them it is very well. It was well for Odysseus, in the hall of the Phæacians, and for Æneas, in the court of Dido, to tell their adventures. They were doubly gifted, for action and for expression. But what if Achilles had tried to tell his story? Or Ajax his? Poor, inarticulate Ajax! There was plenty to tell, but what a botch he would have made of it! He is better off, he and Achilles too, in the hands of Homer.
The race of the inarticulate has not yet died out. It never will. But we would not wish to miss the telling of their stories because it must be done by other lips than theirs. The story of Quasimodo, the story of Tess, the story of Dorothea Brooke, the story of Clara Middleton, the story of Isabel Archer, these are all, for various reasons, stories which could never have come from the characters themselves. Some of them, perhaps, could have told, but never would have done so. Others would, perhaps, but never could. Most of them probably neither would nor could. And we are glad, when we think about them, that their authors did not force them to the confessional against their natures.
Authors are not always so considerate. I have read autobiographical novels where the pleasure of the story was continually clouded by a feeling of protest that it should have been told thus. David Balfour, in certain parts of it, gives me this feeling. When he is telling his adventures it is well enough, though even there I should sometimes be glad if the story could have been told quite directly and simply by the author. I should like to know how David looked now and then, as well as what he did. And, of course, David was not the kind of fellow who would ever know how he looked; still less could he ever have written it down as part of an account of his life. But when it comes to his love affairs,and I find him writing these down in some detail, I must protest, ‘Oh, David! You know you never would have told that!’ And then I find myself suddenly regarding David with suspicion. I long to step into the story and pull his hair and see if it is not, after all, only a wig — to pull his nose, and see if the mask does n’t come off, disclosing, not David at all, but David’s author, Stevenson.
Ah, there is the danger! The story must be told, the secrets must be laid bare — secrets guarded not by big keys and heavy boulders of rock, but by the walls of impenetrable reserve in our own human nature. If they are not told, we are baffled and disappointed. If they are told, we are critical. It is a dilemma.
Sometimes, indeed, the problem is successfully met. In Lorna Doone, for example, John Ridd, — plain John Ridd, — telling his own love story, manages to steer along the narrow channel between too much reserve and too little. He loves Lorna,— he is not ashamed to confess that to all the world, — but as to what he says to Lorna about it, or what she says to him, this is a matter which in his opinion is nobody’s business but his and hers. And one can almost see the shy, yet humorous, half-smile and heightened color with which he backs away from a love scene and cannily edges round it, to take up the narrative again further on. One could wish that David Balfour had learned a lesson of John.
Moreover, as I have already suggested in the case of David, the autobiographical form is unsatisfactory in another way. If, on the one hand, it gives us too much of the hero-autobiographer’s private soul, so that we pray for a little decent reserve, on the other hand, it often gives us too little of his public face, too little of the commonplace externals of his personality. And here again the trouble arises from certain universal facts of human experience. For we arc accustomed to get at people from the outside. We look at their faces, we watch them walk, we listen to their voices, we notice what clothes they wear and how they wear them, we regard them in their goingsout and their comings-in, and after a while we arrive, or think we arrive, at a certain intimacy with what we call their souls. We say we know them. Perhaps we do, and perhaps we don’t, but at any rate, such knowledge as we have is reached in this way. It is the way we are accustomed to; we know how to value and allow for its data, how to discount its deceptions — perhaps we even like its baffling reserves.
Now, in the autobiographical novel, all this is reversed: instead of approaching the hero from the outside, we approach him from the inside. Instead of looking into his eyes, we look out of them. In a sense, doubtless, we know him better than if we had approached him through the ordinary channels, but in another sense we do not know him so well. It is too much like the way we know — or rather the way we fail to know — ourselves. And so, in the autobiographical novel one sometimes grows a little tired of looking from within, out. One longs to stand off and get a good plain view of the hero’s nose, and his eyes. One wants to see him walk down the street, instead of walking down the street inside him.
Authors realize this, at least by flashes, and they try to gratify us, sometimes in very amusing ways. Here is Marcelle Tinayre, for example, in Hellé, which is the autobiography of a young girl. She is beautiful,—she manages to imply that without involving herself in any breach of decorum, —but she must in some way be described more fully. So the author makes her stand before a mirror in her ball-gown and set down what she sees there. The ruse is obvious. The action, which would have been natural — indeed inevitable —for a person like Marie Bashkirtseff, is for Hellé entirely out of character. But what would you have? The reader must be told what she looked like.
On the other hand, such an expedient is sometimes entirely successful. There is a scene in Jane Eyre, where Jane, in a frenzy of mingled jealousy and self-martyrdom, sets herself down before her mirror and paints with remorseless fidelity her own plain face, then paints from memory a portrait of the beautiful lady whom she imagines to be her rival in the affections of Rochester. The action is perfectly natural. I believe Jane was always looking in the glass, not because she admired herself, but because she did not. And this pricking consciousness of her own appearance pervades the whole narrative, so that one has in its perusal very little of this sense that I have been speaking of, of viewing the hero entirely from within.
This could be achieved in the fictitious autobiography of Jane, just as it was in the real autobiography of Marie Bashkirtseff; but there are types of women with whom it could not be done — women like Dorothea Brooke or Clara Middleton. Clara, struggling hopeless in the net of circumstance, yet flashing keen lights on the people about her, could never turn such light on herself. She was unaware of her own physical loveliness, — her walk, her hair as it curled about her ears and neck. Call such things trifling and external if you will, yet it is through such trifling externals that some of our deepest and most instinctive impressions arise.
But if self-portraiture is not natural to all women, still less is it so to most men. In Simon the Jester, for example, we find our hero writing thus: ‘I looked at him and smiled, perhaps a little wearily. One can always command one’s eyes, but one’s lips get somet imes out of control. He could not have noticed my lips, however.’ Instantly we detect the note of falseness here. Such a man would not have carefully written down the fact that he smiled wearily, and that his friend did not notice his lips. Oscar Wilde would have been aware of such a fact about himself, and when in Dorian Grey he makes his hero run to the mirror to catch his own expression before it fades, we do not challenge it, though we may perhaps question whether Dorian Grey was worth writing about at all. But we do not expect such things from Simon de Gex — we do not expect such things from most men. Of course the fact was, that the author of Simon wanted us to know that Simon’s smile was a weary one, and no way of making this clear occurred to him, except that of having Simon himself admit that he smiled wearily. This little passage is not a momentary slip. It is typical of the whole book, which might be used as an illustration of the way in which an unfortunate method of telling the story acts as a handicap from beginning to end. With a rather unusual and very interesting situation to set forth, the author has thrown away his chance of making it seem ‘inevitable’ by setting up at the start a postulate in which we can never acquiesce — the postulate of Simon de Gex writing himself up.
Clearly, description of the hero by himself is dangerous tactics. Yet, where it is not attempted, we miss it. The weakness of the latter part of De Morgan’s Joseph Vance is, I believe, due not entirely to the fact that his father died out of the story, but also, among other things, to the fact that Joseph himself, being grown-up, could no longer regard himself impersonally enough to make his personality vivid to us. And readers of the book, if they are at all like me, carry away from it a vivid picture of Joseph Vance the boy, but a very pale picture of Joseph Vance the man.
It is, perhaps, the endeavor to escape from some of these pitfalls that beset the autobiographical form, and yet to profit by its opportunities, which leads writers to try another expedient. — that is, to let the story be told, not by the hero, but by the hero’s friend. The Belovèd Vagabond is done in this way, and very cleverly done. Clearly, it could never have been told by the Vagabond himself. An outside view of him was indispensable. He could never, without stepping entirely out of his own character, have set forth, or even dimly suggested, the portrait of himself, of his whole whimsical, lovable personality, as it is set forth by his young friend and protégé, the street waif, little Asticot.
The objection to this method is, that the teller of the story, not having the hero’s decisive influence on the action, is apt to fade into a nonentity, a shadowy person, so that one scarcely remembers him. In The Belovèd Vagabond this is not true of the first part of the book. There, as in Joseph Vance, the narrator is looking back upon his own child-self. But as little Asticot grows up, and becomes the narrator of his patron’s story, he himself recedes, we have no clear picture of him.
Similarly in The Newcomes, the narrator-friend keeps himself so entirely in the background that I fancy many of us have not realized at all that the story is actually told by one of the characters, and not by Thackeray himself. And I think we may all admit that Pendennis, considered simply as the narrator of the Newcomes’ history, is very close to a nonentity.
But if a nonentity, why there at all? If the actor-narrator pales to a mere literary convention, what is there to gain by keeping him?
Very little to gain, and something to lose. For, whether hero or hero’s friend, the teller of the story, once committed to his task of accounting for himself, and for his possession of all the facts of the narrative, cannot lay it down. He must keep on accounting for himself. Every time he narrates an event of which he was not himself an eye-witness, he must explain how he found out about it. If he fails to do this satisfactorily, the entire fabric of probability so carefully built up by the author topples and falls. How does little Asticot know that the English lady is his master’s old love? How does he know there was an old love at all? He must account for it. — and does. He saw some old letters, some verses — he put two and two together. We are satisfied this time, but the question may arise again, and we shall need to be satisfied again.
Pendennis, conscious of this necessity of accounting for his information, was not so inclined to meet it in this way. He was aware that he could never follow the rules of the game if he interpreted them too strictly, and so made a sort of general confession, a blanket apology, which is worth quoting at length because it so clearly sets forth the difficulties which beset the actor-narrator: -
‘In the present volumes, where dialogues are written down which the reporter could by no possibility have heard, and where motives are detected which the persons actuated by them certainly never confided to the writer, the public must, once for all, be warned that the author’s individual fancy very likely supplies much of the narrative; and that he forms it as best he may, out of stray papers, conversations reported to him, and his knowledge, right or wrong, of the characters of the persons engaged. And, as is the case with the most orthodox histories, the writer’s own guesses or conjectures are printed in exactly the same type as the most, ascertained patent facts. I fancy, for my part, that the speeches attributed to Clive, the Colonel, and the rest are as authentic as the orations in Sallust or Livy, and only implore the truth-loving public to believe that incidents here told, and which passed very probably without witnesses, were either confided to me subsequently as compiler of this biography, or are of such a nature that they must have happened from what we know happened after. For example, when you read such words as que Romanus on a battered Roman stone, your profound antiquarian knowledge enables you to assert that Senatus Populus was also inscribed there at some time or other. . . . You tell your tales as you can, and state the facts as you think they must have been. In this manner Mr. James, Titus Livius, Sheriff Alison, Robinson Crusoe, and all historians proceeded. Blunders there must be in the best of these narratives, and more asserted than they can possibly know or vouch for.’
There are very few heroes, or hero’s friends, who have taken such liberties, but then few have told so good a story as The Newcomes. I fancy we are ready to grant Mr. Pendennis all the privileges he demands, yet I cannot help feeling that Thackeray set him rather too hard a task—a task which, indeed, he might better have assumed himself. In fact, I have this feeling about many of the novels cast in the autobiographical form. They may be good stories as they are, but they might, I suspect, have been just a little better if the author had not limited his own powers by bundling himself up in the clothes and the mask and the wig of one of The characters. I do not feel this about all such novels. Some of them seem to me just right as they are, and after any number of experiments with them — fancying them re-written in this way and that — I come back to the author’s choice as the best. This is the case with Lorna Doone and Henry Esmond and Jane Eyre and Kidnapped and Treasure Island and Joseph Vance.
It seems like a curious company of books to be named in one sentence. Yet, after all, they are of only two kinds: stories of inner experience, told by an introspective hero; and stories of adventure, told by a hero of naïve temperament with a clear grip on the practical in life. That is, in each case, the hero is fitted to his task. John Ridd could not have written Esmond’s story nor Esmond John Ridd’s, but John Ridd was perfectly capable of writing his own, and Esmond his. Jane Eyre’s story, told by any one but herself, would lose something of its value. Told by herself, it is wonderfully impressive as a human document. The life she portrays could not, perhaps, have been what she saw it, but this is how she actually did see it. There never was a man like Mr. Rochester, perhaps. But nobody cares about that. What we are concerned with is her idea of Mr. Rochester. And we are convinced that there was a woman who felt about a man what she felt about Mr. Rochester. The whole book is, in fact, lyric. It is the record of a temperament buffeted about by the impact of people and circumstance, which are viewed only as they affect this temperament. Whether you like that kind of temperament or not is another matter. Given the subject, the book rings true, and the lyric form was undoubtedly the best for it.
In his search for the ‘inevitable,’ then, the writer has, after all, nothing to gain by resorting to the expedient of the actor-narrator, unless this actornarrator is himself inevitable, — unless his part as teller of the story fits him so perfectly as to require no apology. This will hardly be the case except with a very limited class of adventure stories, and with a larger class of stories which are the records of an introspective nature. With these exceptions, he usually does better if he works with free hands, — if, taking as his own the apology of Pendennis, he quietly supplies the missing words of the inscription, tells his tales as he can, and states the facts as he thinks they must have been. And if his understanding of life be deep enough, he will create in us the illusion of reality just as surely as if he had sought to establish it by letters and diaries.
Even when freed from a certain kind of accountability, he need not necessarily take any more liberties with his characters than the hero would have done. Pride and Prejudice, for example, is told almost as Elizabeth would have told it herself if she had written it. Hardly any information is given but what she knew, and Darcy’s character is not fully cleared up until it is cleared in her eyes. In the Three Musketeers the story is told as D’Artagnan might have told it. What is a mystery to him remains a mystery to the reader. His estimate of the other characters dominates the story. Yet, not being told by him, but by an irresponsible author, the tale is carried on with a lightness and freedom that D’Artagnan himself, writing in character, could hardly have achieved. Howells, in The Rise of Silas Lapham, tells the story from the standpoint of Mr. Lapham, or, now and then, from that of Mrs. Lapham. We are allowed to follow, to some extent, the workings of their minds, but their two daughters are treated externally. As we follow their fortunes and try to predict the outcome, we have little more to go upon than their parents had. This is Howells’s usual method, and it is the method of much modern writing.
Mr. James, in The Other House, carries the external point of view to such an extreme that at the end of the book, when the evidence is all in, there is still room for question, among intelligent people, as to what really happened; and even more room for disagreement as to what the motives of the characters were. Mr. James also furnishes us the best example I can think of, of the other extreme, where the treatment is exclusively internal. In a curious piece of writing, In the Cage, which I cannot help thinking was a bit of pure experimenting, he attempts to set forth the spiritual states of a girl telegrapher — states of which she herself was only dimly aware, impulses which never reached consciousness, feelings which she never more than half confessed, even to herself.
Between these two extremes most of the best story-telling is done. Authors do not often openly assume omniscience: they treat their material from the standpoint of an impartial witness. Yet, when omniscience is needed to explain character and interpret motive, —
And finger failed to plumb, —
it is assumed without apology, and the reader grants it without demur. If we think of parts of Vanity Fair and Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, of Richard Feverel and The Portrait of a Lady, of Somehow Good and Tess, and many others, we realize what we should be giving up if writers had tied themselves down to the autobiographical form. The more one thinks of it, the more one feels sure that, tempting as it is, its restrictions outweigh its opportunities.
And yet — one comes back to Esmond, and one remembers Joseph V ance, and one cannot be satisfied to end the matter in a hard judgment like that. For there is a certain quality in these stories which endears them to us in a peculiar way, and which, I believe, is specially fostered by the autobiographical form in which they are cast. There is a certain type of story with this quality potentially inherent in it, which no other manner of telling could so well bring out. It is a story like Henry Esmond, the story of a long life, told as by one who has lived it, while he rests, near its end, and looks back.
The love of reminiscence is deeprooted in us. We do not need to have length of years in order to possess it. All we need to have is a consciousness of the past as past. Some years ago, a little friend of mine, then four years old, attained a new phrase: ‘Don’t you remember?’ I say ‘ attained,’ because it was evident that she had not only enlarged her field of expression by a new word, but that she had enlarged her field of experience by a new sensation, — the sensation of reminiscence. For the phrase, ‘Don’t you remember?’ always ushered in a story out of her small past, some event of the preceding winter or summer, some glimpse of history in which she had been actor or witness. It was always uttered with shining eyes and a flush of delight, which deepened if I was able to catch her reminiscence and recognize and enjoy it with her. Yet the things remembered were very simple, —a drive, a walk, a kitten, a child watering his garden or falling down. The pleasure came, clearly, not from the original quality of the experience, but from the very act of remembering. She was tasting the pure pleasure of reminiscence. Watching her, I fell to wandering what was the precious quality of this pleasure whose flavor she was beginning to taste.
The charm of memory lies, I think, in the quality which it gives things, at once of intimacy and remoteness. The fascination to us of recalling our past selves, our former surroundings, lies in our sense that they are absolutely known to us, yet absolutely out of our reach. We can recall places, houses, rooms, until every detail lives again. We can turn from one thing to another and, as we look at each, lo, it is there! It has a reality more poignant than the hand that we touch or the flower that we smell. Sometimes, it is true, present experiences, even as they occur, have something of this quality. They do not need to recede into the past to gain this glamour. Certain places have it: cathedrals sometimes, and still lakes. Certain things foster it: firelight, and silence, and the steady fall of rain. Certain moments give birth to it: the luminous pause between sundown and dusk, afternoon with its slant of light through deep grass or across a quiet river. This, I fancy, was what Tennyson was thinking of when he called the lotus land the land ‘wherein it seemed always afternoon.’ In that land these magic moments were prolonged, and thus it became the land of reminiscence.
My little friend was a thought too young, perhaps, to have entered into this land. It is a place where we do not expect to meet many children. Girls in their twenties sometimes slip in, when they have time, and boys in their teens, and then again, — well, perhaps, boys in their fifties. Indeed the forties and fifties are the usual time for a first real sojourn in these pleasant meadows. One looks over the hedge, or slips through a gap, half by accident, and finding it fair within, one comes back. And again one comes back, and each time one stays longer and wanders farther. And as one growls to know it better, one discovers that there is more than a meadow beyond the hedge. There are many meadows, and great woods and rivers and cities. And the delight of it is, that everything there is like something one has seen before, only lovelier. For, just as still water interprets and recreates the life it reflects, so in the land of memory life is rendered again with a tenderness that is a most precious kind of truth.
It is not to every one, nor to any one at all times, that the mood of reminiscence comes in its perfection. Often its rarer pleasures are obscured by a pain that is no necessary part of its quality, oftener they are never given the chance to reveal themselves. They require for their enjoyment a contemplative spirit, a soul at leisure, that the waters of memory may be still and clear, mirroring the images of things now plainly, line for line, now blurred and softened by light winds of oblivion that make the vision all the more lovely.
But this is not a contemplative age, nor is leisure of spirit its chief characteristic. There is little encouragement given to the reminiscent mood, either in literature or in life. Literary endeavor is in the direction of conciseness and swiftness. Its motto is Stevenson’s: ‘War to the adjective! Death to the optic nerve!’
This is very good. But there is another kind of thing that is good, too: the kind of thing that comes with the brooding vision, with the remoteness that permits a broader focus and a greater deliberateness of treatment, that finds expression in abundance of delicately-wrought detail. This it is which, for lack of a better name, I am calling the reminiscent manner. One meets it in some poetry, and now and then in such prose as Richard Jefferies’s. Its most complete and exquisite embodiment is surely in that rare and perfect prose lyric, Walter Pater’s Child in the House. One might expect to find it most of all in the real autobiography, since this is the avowed form of reminiscence. But they are disappointing, these genuine autobiographers. For one thing, they are hampered by their facts. Stevenson was quite right when he said that a finished biography was ‘not nearly so finished as quite a rotten novel’; and not only in finish but in other ways it is at a disadvantage compared with fiction. Sometimes its writers may have mistaken notions of their obligation to suppress their own personalities; they must always have instincts of reserve which we cannot fail to understand. At all events, they do not wander in the fields of reminiscence with the free step and the joyous abandon that we could desire. Yet, even so, the rule holds that we have noticed with regard to novels: the chapters dealing with their ‘early years’ often possess a charm that is lacking in the rest of the narrative. For there is a power in the long backward look that inevitably transfigures.
And so it is often to the make-believe autobiographies that we turn for something that is in its essence not makebelieve at all, but a reality of experience. The satisfaction that they give is not of a kind to be justified or made clear by reading sample passages. It is born of the writer’s attitude, which through intimacy with him we come to share. Merely to think of Henry Esmond is often enough to throw one into a mood of contemplative reminiscence. A lover of Joseph V ance has but to open the book anywhere for a moment and the color of his thought is changed — he is captured by this charm of the long backward look and the brooding vision. And if through the magic of the mood we are floated a little aside from the remorseless current of immediate living, yet the realities which we thus come to feel are indeed realities, whose recognition we deeply crave, and to whose expression in literature we give eager and loving welcome.