Mr. Moore Talks to Mr. Gosse

GOSSE (unlocking the wicket) WE shall find a pleasant seat by the lake at the other end of the gardens.

MOORE

It will be delightful to sit discoursing by an evening lake, watching oars plying on a last voyage round the island, whilst other boats return to the boathouse, beguiled by thoughts of supper.

GOSSE

A thought that they will share with the crowd over yonder.

MOORE

But why was I never invited before to participate in the pleasure of this garden? At every moment it opens up into fairer aspects, and I shall be disappointed if the seat by the brimming lake is not overhung by an ilex.

GOSSE

In the beginning these gardens were reserved for the residents of Hanover Terrace; but the County Council has decreed that such exclusiveness is out of keeping with the age we live in, and a few months hence people will share our delight.

MOORE

We shall suffer and the people will not be happier, for nobody cares to go where all may go.

GOSSE

The individual withers and the world grows more and more.

But here is the seat, and though there be no ilex boughs above it, there’s a handsome beech, and you are not one of those who would transform England into Sicily.

MOORE

Ilexes are as common in England as in Sicily.

GOSSE

The ilex is not one of our indigenous trees; and if it were, I doubt if our pleasure would be increased. It might, indeed, be lessened, for the classical associations of the ilex would draw our thoughts away from ourselves. Man is man’s legitimate study, and perhaps in talk by this brimming lake we shall learn something that we did not know before of ourselves, and indirectly something we did not know of Theocritus. We have not had the pleasure of your company for more than a month, an absence that can be explained and atoned for by an account of the literary eggs you have been laying; some of the chicks within them must have broken their shells and are now running hither and thither pecking voraciously.

MOORE

Pecking in my soul’s garden till they have got wings to fly into other gardens — a hint of plagiarism.

GOSSE

A vindictive twist given to my thought, which was then brooding in a little jealousy, for I have read in the newspapers that you are engaged in a play with Saint Paul for a hero. And as we have always been literary confidants —

MOORE

Do not speak of this play, for it has come to naught; and, to put Theocritus and Landor behind us, I will drop into the language of Either Waters, saying that I broke down about fifty yards from home; but whether the breakdown occurred in the back sinews or in the suspensory ligament, I cannot tell.

GOSSE

Look upon me as your vet.; confide the circumstances. Was it on the near or the off?

MOORE

My dear Gosse, I cannot expatiate on the story of my breakdown; it is altogether too sad. How sad it is, you may judge when I tell you that tomorrow I shall send two telegrams to America withdrawing the play from publication and a possible performance.

GOSSE

This is indeed stern criticism; and has been acted upon without friendly consultation.

MOORE

It is true that I am always seeking opinions, but I only act on yours; and if I did n’t ask you about my play, it was because I was afraid of boring you.

GOSSE

Have I ever shown any signs of boredom when you consulted me? If you had, I should have advised you to put the manuscript away in a drawer. But you dictate and have no old-fashioned manuscript.

MOORE

I have withdrawn my play for the present, till I more fully realize Paul in the circumstances; for to some extent circumstances heighten or lower the man.

GOSSE

So Paul has been turned out to grass, and now you are at a loose end.

MOOSE

By no means. After a fow sighs, a groan, a lamentation on the sordidness of the human lot, I bade farewell to him who has influenced the Western world more than any man that ever lived. The influence of Napoleon—what is it? And all the English poets — what influence have they exercised comparable to Paul’s?

GOSSE

In the epic he was manageable, but in the drama he has proved unmanageable. And your thoughts have turned — whither?

MOORE

To the editing of the twenty-volume edition which is in preparation in America.

GOSSE

I hope you limit your literary activities to the editing of your old books. I shudder at the thought, lest you should alter a single word of your imaginary conversations with me.

MOORE

I am glad, Gosse, that you are satisfied with my interpretation of your ideas. But you can reassure yourself; I am thinking of adding and withdrawing nothing.

GOSSE

Additions trouble me less than omissions; but I am troubled. Now, of what new writer will you speak? Not of any of our contemporaries, I hope! So long as I do not express any opinions derogatory to — I need not mention names.

MOORE

No contemporary writer is the subject of my additions. You will remember that in the original conversations I made but a brief allusion to Anne Brontë, attributing my awakening to her story, The Tenant of Wild fell Hall; or was it Shelley who awakened me in the cave of dreamy youth? There are, of course, almost as many mental awakenings as there are physical. In Confessions of a Young Man, a book you have never read, perhaps, I tell how, whilst driving in the family coach from Mayo to Galway, I heard my parents talking of Lady Audley’s Secret, and Lady Audley’s Secret led me to read other books by Miss Braddon. After Lady Audley’s Secret, I read a book called, I think, John Marchmont’s Towers, and then an adaptation of Madame Bovary a seeming vanity; but what would have happened to me if I had not read this vanity I cannot imagine, for the doctor’s wife read Byron and Shelley assiduously. I am afraid I have told the story before, but it is difficult to avoid telling it here, for my age could not have been more than ten or eleven when I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Sensitive Plant. Shelley I discovered in our library; The Tenant of Wildfell Hall belonged to my governess, and it was for the sake of the wonderful name of Wildfell that I borrowed the book from her. In our published conversations, Gosse, I confessed (if I did n’t, I should have confessed) that Anne’s story of a passionate love that came to naught sent me to Castle Carra a little scared lest I had been born into a world in which nobody transgressed. And it is with my boyish dread of a sinless world that Anne is associated, with pity for her early death, coming before any taste of life; for a virgin’s death is the very saddest thing that can befall. It was Anne who revealed this sadness to me, and I take this opportunity of paying my debt.

GOSSE

We have a vison of our own; Ah! why should we undo it?

are the words of a poet whose soul has passed into ours; and we should hearken to the wisdom that enjoins us not to return to Yarrow.

MOORE

It is long since I read the poem, and would ask you if the poet found Yarrow revisited merely dust and ashes.

GOSSE

How long is it since you read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall ?

MOORE

More than half a century; but soon after our published conversations I sent to the library and was rewarded by the discovery —

GOSSE

That Anne Brontë was a greater writer than Balzac or Turgenev?

MOORE

Despite the beauty of your prose, you fail to anticipate me. I did not think once of Balzac or Turgenev, and very often that, if Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer, she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen — perhaps even a higher place.

GOSSE

I think she died when she was sevenand-twenty, of consumption.

MOORE

Anne had all the qualities of Jane Austen, and other qualities; she could write with heat, one of the rarest qualities. Paul introduced heat into literature —

GOSSE

I would sooner hear you speak of Anne Brontë than Saint Paul.

MOORE

Well then, Gosse, since you insist on directing my conversation, I will say that a young farmer is in love with the tenant of Wildfell Hall, with a passion —

GOSSE

Forgive me for interrupting you again, but the last time I came to Ebury Street you read some lines from a paper you were writing about Miss Austen; and in speaking of Sense and Sensibility you say: ‘Marianne reveals the burning human heart in English prose narrative for the first and the last time.’

MOORE

Your visits are celestial, Gosse, few and far between; but it was since your last visit that I reread The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne broke down in the middle of her story, but her breakdown was not for lack of genius but of experience. An accident would have saved her; almost any man of letters would have laid his hand upon her arm and said: ‘You must not let your heroine give her diary to the young farmer, saying: “Here is my story; go home and read it.” ' Your heroine must tell the young farmer her story, and an entrancing scene you will make of the telling. Moreover, the presence of your heroine, her voice, her gestures, the questions that would arise and the answers that would be given to them, would preserve the atmosphere of a passionate and original love-story. The diary broke the story in halves.—As you haven’t read the book for a long time, Gosse, you will allow me to recall to your remembrance the theme.

The tenant of Wildfell Hall is a young and handsome woman, who has rented the Hall and lives in almost complete seclusion, making no acquaintances; she is rarely seen except when she goes forth to paint. The lonely figure painting woods and fields becomes a subject of gossip; and it is not long before the imaginations of the people discover in her the heroine of a sinful story — a discovery which helps, I take it, to plunge the young farmer headlong into that torment of passion which men rarely, if ever, have the power, I will not say of feeling, but of transferring to paper. Paul had it and was the first to translate the heart’s

heat without loss. The Lord Jesus was Saint Paul’s inspiration, and the Lord Jesus was also Saint Teresa’s inspiration; in her we find the same heat that we do in the Epistles. Héloïse’s letters to Abélard shrivel up, so intense is the heat of her passion. I must not be afraid of repeating the word heat; it is essential that I should repeat it, for what I am thinking of is heat, and not violence, rhetoric, or vehemence.

You were good enough to remind me a few moments ago that I read you some lines from a paper I was writing about Miss Austen, and you complimented me even to the extent of remembering my very words, that we find the burning human heart in English prose narrative for the first and the last time. When I read you those few lines, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a dim memory going back more than fifty years — a child’s appreciation of a book he got from his governess. But on reading it again, I said: The farmer goes to the Hall consumed by the same almost animal emotion that consumed Marianne when she went up to London in search of Willoughby.

GOSSE

But surely there are more than traces of the heat you speak of in her sisters’ works?

MOORE

Wuthering Heights is written with vehemence, with eloquence, but there’s very little heal in it, if any. The quality of heat I don’t put forward as a very high literary quality; it does n’t exist in Shakespeare, in Dante, in Homer; but it’s the rarest of literary qualities.

GOSSE

An emotion enkindled by spiritual or physical love. I think you exaggerate its rarity, and that were an adequate search made for it in the works of religious reformers, you would have to add to your list. I am not sure you would not have to add Saint Augustine. In your story, The Lake, you give some stanzas from an Irish poem. A peasant, I believe you say the author was, a native of County Cork, who wandered demented about the country and expressed his sorrow in at least one beautiful poem, if I may judge by the extract.

MOORE

A very beautiful poem indeed it must be, if we may judge it by T. W. Rolleston’s beautiful translation.

GOSSE

But Saint Augustine — what have you to say about the passage where he and his mother stand by a window overlooking the river — the Tiber, I think? Or was it. when he visited his mother in Milan? If so, it was the Olona.

MOORE

I remember the passage as you do, vaguely. I think the scene you speak of occurred at Ostia, where his mother died. But may we not leave the question of heat in literature to be decided another day, and return to Anne Brontë, whose weaving of the narrative in the first hundred and fifty pages of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall reveals a born tale-teller, just as the knotted and tangled threads in Wuthering Heights reveal the desperate efforts of a lyrical poet to construct a prose narrative. I heard you once say that outside of his special gift a man is often a poor creature. The remark was instigated by Swinburne’s attempts to write prose tales; and a story is told of Beethoven, who, after a quarrel, said: ‘Whosoever can write a symphony can cook a dinner.’ His friends did not think so, nor do I think that Emily, whose poems are above Anne’s as the stars are above the earth, was intended by Nature to write prose narratives; and for different reasons Charlotte failed, too; she wrote well, — all three wrote

well, — but good writing did not help her, for she was afflicted with much congenital commonplace. The true artist is neither esoteric nor commonplace; he captures the world with broad human sympathies, and wooes and wins his fellows with his craft. Mrs. Gaskell, the most commonplace of all English writers —

GOSSE

That seems rather hard.

MOORE

I only read one book of hers, a story called Phyllis, a very lack-lustre story indeed; out of the pages rises the image of a meek-voiced, almost witless widow sitting by her fireplace, a kettle singing on the hob.

GOSSE

As I think I have told you before, you very often have something to say that’s worth saying; but you are apt to spoil it by exaggeration. I agree with you that the diary was a mistake, and that it would have been better if the heroine had told her story herself; but I think Anne would have answered the literary friend who laid his hand on her arm that, if she had allowed her heroine to tell her story, it would not have filled more than a couple of pages; and for Anne to get her book published, she had to fill at least two hundred more.

MOORE

Whosoever is possessed of the gift of narrative can fashion a story as it pleases him; and I have no faintest doubt that Anne would have discovered new matter for the required length. I prefer to think that she fell into one of those pitfalls — I know them well — with which tale-telling is beset. But you may be right.

GOSSE

I hope I am not right, for yours is the nobler explanation. But do you find sufficient support in the first half of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to justify you in saying that Anne’s genius exceeded her sisters’ genius; and that, if she had lived for ten years more, we should all be speaking of her as a rival to Jane Austen?

MOORE

No, indeed. If Anne had written nothing but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I should not have been able to predict the high place she would have taken in English letters. All I should have been able to say is: An inspiration that passed away like the wind. But, in my opinion, her first story, Agnes Greg, is the most perfect prose narrative in English literature.

GOSSE

The most perfect prose narrative in English literature, and overlooked for fifty-odd years!

MOORE

The blindness of criticism should not surprise one so well acquainted with the history of literature as you are. You have noticed, no doubt, that I avoid whenever I can the word fiction; for the word has become degraded by association with circulating libraries, and has come to mean novels that sell for six months and are never heard of afterward. Agnes Greg is a prose narrative, simple and beautiful as a muslin dress. I need not remind you, Gosse, that it ’s more difficult to write a simple story than a complicated one. The arrival of Agnes at the house of her employer (she is the new governess) opens the story, and the first sentences, the eating of a beefsteak is among the first, convince us that we are with a quick, witty mind, capable of appreciating all she hears and sees; and when Agnes begins to tell us of her charges and their vulgar parents, we know that we are reading a masterpiece. Nothing short of genius could have set them before us so plainly and yet with restraint. — even the incident of the little boy who tears a bird’s nest out of some bushes, and fixes fish-hooks into the beaks of the young birds, so that he may drag them about the stable-yard. Agnes’s reprimands, too, are low in tone, yet sufficient to bring her into conflict with the little boy’s mother, who thinks that her son’s amusement should not be interfered with. The story was written probably when Anne Brontë was but twoor three-andtwenty, and it is the one story in English literature in which style, characters, and subject are in perfect keeping. In writing it Anne’s eyes were always upon the story itself, and not upon her readers; a thought does not seem to have come into her mind that a reader would like a little more drama, a little more comedy; that a picnic or a ball would provide entertainment. Whilst writing about Agnes Grey’s first set of pupils, she had in mind Agnes’s second set, and was careful that the first situation should lead up to the second. Agnes is not dismissed, nor does she even, as well as I remember, leave for any definite reason. The house has become disagreeable to her, and she leaves, rests for a while at home, and hearing of a situation in which she would have the charge of two growing girls, she accepts it, and the reader is relieved to find Agnes, whom he has begun to appreciate, among less harsh surroundings. One of her pupils is about to pass out of the schoolroom into the world, the other is a sort of tomboy who likes kittens and puppies, and the society of the stable-yard and harness-room, better than that of the drawing-room, her hour not having yet come. At the end of the first term, a term of six months or a year, Agnes Grey goes home, and after a short holiday she returns to her pupils, very tired, for the journey has been a long one. But whilst Agnes has been resting at home, Miss Murray has been to her first ball, and Agnes must really come to the schoolroom at once to hear all about it. And so absorbed is Miss Murray in herself, in her dress, in her partners, in the flowers that were given to her, in the words that were spoken to her during the dances and the sittingout in quiet corners, that she fails to perceive how inappropriate the occasion is for the telling of her successes. Agnes Grey gives all the attention she can give to her pupil, but is too tired to respond, and Miss Murray, feeling, no doubt, that Agnes thinks she is exaggerating her successes, insists still further: ‘As for me, Miss Grey— I ’m so sorry you did n’t see me! I was charming— was n’t I, Matilda?’ And the younger sister, who has not been to the ball, answers:‘Middling.’ — The word lights up the narrative like a ray of light cast by Ruysdael into the middle of a landscape.

GOSSE

I am afraid you writers of prose narratives appreciate other people’s narratives only when you find your own qualities in them.

MOORE

What you say is most unjust. You have read a great deal of poetry, but your appreciations of poetry are not limited to the exact qualities you possess yourself. Why, therefore, should you think that I cannot appreciate anything that is not part of my own possession ?

GOSSE

I don’t think it ’s quite the same thing. But tell me what becomes of the governess.

MOORE

She makes the acquaintance of a curate and visits the almshouses with him; and here Anne rises to greater heights in patter than Jane Austen; for

Jane’s patter is drawing-room patter, whilst Anne’s patter is in Yorkshire jargon. I don’t know if you will acquiesce in my belief that the language of the fields is more beautiful than that of the town, and that the cottage supplies better stuff for art than the drawing-room.

GOSSE

Not better than the palace. Shakespeare —

MOORE

Would n’t it be just as well to leave Shakespeare out of this argument?

GOSSE

You have n’t told me yet what becomes of Agnes Grey.

MOORE

She leaves her situation and goes, I think, to recover her health by the sea; and meeting on the esplanade the parson with whom she visited the almshouses — he has gone there for his vacation —

GOSSE

The end of the walk is an engagement!

MOORE

And why should n’t it be? The simple is never commonplace.

GOSSE

The commonplace is yesterday’s artifices, and I will admit that I have often wondered why criticism should have depreciated Anne so flagrantly, exalting Charlotte and Emily into princesses of literature and looking on Anne as a sort of Cinderella; and stranger still is your quarrel with critical blindness, since it has cast you for the part of the fairy godmother.

MOORE

Critics follow a scent like hounds, and I am not certain that it was n’t Charlotte who first started them on their depreciation of Anne. I cannot give chapter and verse here, but in one of her introductions she certainly apologizes for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I am not certain that moral reasons are not put forward, and I feel sure that extenuating circumstances are pleaded: Anne’s youth, her sickness, her inexperience of life. Three phthisis-stricken sisters living on a Yorkshire moor, and all three writing novels, was first-rate copy, and Charlotte’s little depreciations were a great help; for three sisters of equal genius might strain the credulity of the readers of the evening newspapers. Such insight as would enable the journalist to pick out the right one would be asking too much.

GOSSE

Could you have picked the right?

MOORE

Not at the time of the publication of Anne’s books; but fifty years is a long while to wait. My case against Charlotte does not end with an implicit defamation of her sister, for in her novel Villette she is guilty of the most barefaced plagiarism that I know of. Like her sister, Charlotte wrote well, but she lacked imagination; she could describe only what she had seen; and the first volume of Villette, being no more than a relation of scenes she herself had lived through, is excellent. But the moment the story called on her to supply characters and events, it began to droop and wither, and to revive it, she found herself obliged to borrow from her sister’s novel — a thing she could do without anybody crying out: ‘Stop thief!’ for none had read Agnes Grey.

GOSSE

Love is said to be blind; but if all that you say is true, criticism is even blinder; for though many charges have been brought against Charlotte, plagiarism is not one of them.

MOORE

The critics of the Brontës were interested more in Charlotte’s flirtation with the schoolmaster in Belgium, which, if it were true, mattered very little, and if it were n’t, did n’t matter at all. But a literary critic like yourself, Gosse, should not have allowed Charlotte to climb the wall by means of somebody else’s ladder and then to kick it shamelessly away.

GOSSE

As I have not read Agnes Grey, I must take your remarks on trust, but I will read the story.

MOORE

I wish you would, and write an article about Anne, for then the truth would become known.

GOSSE

Why not write it yourself? The story is true to you, and to me it is only a partial truth.

MOORE

Were I to write it, it would be looked upon as one of my paradoxes, or a desire to tread upon somebody’s corns. But as soon as you begin to read, the story will possess you, and you will long to reveal the true Charlotte and her patrons, the dinner at the publishers and the dinner at Thackeray’s, a dozen pompous men standing before the fire, their coat-tails lifted, their eyes fixed on the timid girl who had discovered bigamy and written it out all by herself. The nostrils of the twentieth century like not the smell of these broken victuals, and yet —

GOSSE

And yet the lake darkens and the loiterers along the waterside have disappeared; probably gone home to supper, every one. I ’ll let you out at the farther gate.