Thursday, January 12, 2017

Novelists' common forms

When a conveyancer draws a deed, he begins by considering the special circumstances of the transaction, and after arranging and describing them to his satisfaction, he completes the draft by making his clerk fill up the blanks in a set of common forms applicable to all cases, and of which a store, duly labelled, is kept tied up in bundles to be used as occasion requires. This practice, with modifications, is adopted in most walks of life. The physician has his prescriptions, the clergyman has his common aces, and the speaker his perorations. It is, therefore, not only natural but inevitable that the novelist should have his peculiar methods of doing his work, and should repeat himself with variations. It is, however, undoubtedly true that a common-form novel excites feelings which are not excited by other common-form documents. If a man were to insure his life, for instance, he would not only not object to the policy on the ground that it was like all others, except in his name and in the amounts of the premium and of the sum assured, but he would feel suspicion an disquiet if it were not. Yet the same man will feel a certain sense of the ridiculous when, in reading a novel, he finds the secret which was betrayed by a turn of expression in the beginning of the first volume paraded as a tremendous disclosure towards the middle of the third; or when he is introduced to a gentleman with a stern countenance and flashing eyes, in circumstances precisely analogous to those under which he became acquainted only a week before with another gentleman with flashing eyes and a stern countenance. On the other hand, it is for the sake of the secret and the hero that he reads the story. Of all the dreary productions which the art of man can bring to light, none surely is more dreary than a strictly domestic tale with no story, no character, no anything except more or less skilful copies of every day life. A man who is afraid to be ridiculous, and cannot rise to being sublime, has no business to write novels. If the common forms in novels are at once ridiculous and indispensable, what is the true theory of them? The answer is, that the great bulk of the novels which are written are simply evils, and ought not to be written at all; and that even those which are worth writing contain an element of absurdity which ought to prevent both men and women from taking to that await, unless they belong to a class so small that its living members might at any given moment be counted on the fingers.

The fact that the common forms in question are ridiculous is proved chiefly by universal consent; the reason why they are ridiculous is another matter. In one point of view, they are not ridiculous at all. A man who fully and consciously admits to his own mind, and who shows by his way of treating his readers that he does admit, that he is engaged in a purely commercial transaction, ceases to be ridiculous. No one laughs at a clown for making absurd faces. It is his trade to do so, and it is just as serious a matter with him to get the corners of his mouth up to his eyes as it is with a surgeon to perform an operation. So when a man has once set up a manufuctory of novels, his Emmas and Julias are stock in trade, and the ridicule, if any there be, is transferred from him to his customers. No one laughs at a dressmaker for sup lying ladies with crinoline, and by the same rule no one ought to blame a man like Mr. G. P. R. James for the “two travellers” who “might have been perceived.” Of such books the authors might say, in the words of the old song:-
‘You may call them vulgar fairing,
Wives and mothers most despairing
       Call them lives of men.’
This, however, is a plea which the great mass of novelists would never put forward. They take a higher view of their performances, and consider them, not as articles of commerce made to order, but as works of art, produced, to some extent, because the author thinks that they ought to instruct and please mankind. To those who write stories in this temper, it is fair to use a different language. When a man selects a particular incident which has struck his fancy, and elaborates it into a three-volume novel, or even into a one-volume novelette be, it is fair to say to him, “You would never have taken all this trouble if you did not think, not merely that this kind of thing is saleable, but that it has that degree of grace and prettiness about it which makes it desirable that it should be saleable;” and thus the fact that it is really ridiculous, and not graceful, is relevant. The proof that particular common forms are bad consists, therefore, in showing that, whereas they must be presumed to have been selected from the great mass of occurrences which the writer had to choose from, because they more or less vaguely indicate some doctrine, or excite and gratify some sentiment, the doctrine or sentiment so indicated or excited is false or injurious. A novel, not being a mere article of commerce, can never be considered as a more matter of curiosity. It always either asserts or insinuates something or other, and the absurdity or otherwise of the common forms which novelists use depends upon the nature of the assertion or insinuation. A few particular instances will make this clear.

A common form has prevailed for a considerable time amongst novelists which was used with considerable effect by Mr. Dickens in David Copperfield, and which has been worked very hard since that time by many other writers. The hero is introduced hesitating between two mistresses, like an ass between two bundles of hay. He marries the inferior mistress of the two, all external beauty and accomplishment, and the other silently retreats into good works, and nourishes a hopeless passion for him. After a time, the first wife dies—in her confinement very often, which prevents the embarrassment of a family; and the hero, flying for consolation in a purely fraternal spirit to the lady with the hopeless passion, marries her after a more or less decent interval. The artistic advantages of this arrangement are obvious. You get an affecting deathbed, two courtships-one gay and the other grave—wounded affection, and probably a confidential female friendship chastened by mysterious reticences, all by the help of a process which enables the hero to have his can and eat his cake. And what, it may be asked, is the harm? Why not tell people this pretty little tale if they like to hear it? What is the false assertion or improper insinuation which, as you must say, such a plot conveys? The answer is, that indirectly, and all the more effectively on that account, it gives a lesson of intense and oven hateful selfishness. It is quite true that the writer does not in so many words praise his hero, or teach people to look forward to a second marriage as a sort of not unpleasant remedy for the possible misfortunes of the first, but that is the substance of it. By putting the man who goes through such an experience in an interesting attitude, and showing how he not only had the satisfaction of living with a pretty and attractive woman for a certain time, but how, when he had got tired of her, or had found out her weak side, she was happily removed, and a better supplied in her place, the writer whispers, in a subtle, indirect, ambiguous way, that a wife and a horse stand on the same sort of footing—that you may indulge your fancy by buying a showy mare, that very likely she will break down, and then you can get a more serviceable animal. The author is, and must be, a sort of deputy Providence for his characters; and when he shows his readers what a pleasant thing it is for the man whom he delights to honour to have two wives, one after the other, he is giving them a coarse and selfish lesson, however delicate may be the envelope in which it is enclosed.

A recent writer on America mentions another illustration of the same thing, far less offensive, but eminently characteristic. Mr. Dicey informs us that all the popular novels in the United States have the same plot. A governess from the North goes into the house of a rich Southern planter, probably a widower. In due time the planter is converted from his belief in slavery, and elopes with the governess to the North, where, after more or less adventure, he lives happily ever after. Of course a good deal of this is purely local and artistic, but the sentiment running through it is obvious enough. Here you behold virtue rewarded, for what can be so virtuous as a Northern governess, or what such a reward to her as marriage with a converted Southerner? As, according to the old riddle, a salmon in the water is the thin most like a salmon out of the water, an unconverted Southerner must bear, especially for matrimonial purposes, a close resemblance to a converted one; and thus the moral of such stories would be, that the most blessed lot on earth is to be a victorious lecture-monger, raised by the recognition of her virtues to the position of a rich lady. This can hardly be considered as a successful exposition of the sacred maxim that godliness is great gain, and has the promise of this life as well as that which is to come.

The technical common forms of novelists constitute a separate and a curious subject. They are adopted probably because they are found to answer. Why they should answer is a curious question, but there is little hope of solving it. Why should brown trousers be commoner than grey, or vice versa? These forms may, however, be regarded by the outside and untechnical world with an excusable curiosity. Is it, for instance, really true that when men make offers of marriage they always say, “Take my hand, it is the hand of a gentleman"? Mr. Trollope, if any one, ought to know, and many passages from his works might be noted in support of the proposition. In one of his recent works there are some five or six offers of marriage, and each of them contains this clause, or something like it. Such forms as these are perfectly harmless. It is, indeed, a pity that technical names should not he invented for them, so that their peculiarities might be announced in the advertisements. It would not be a hard matter to produce formulas by which any number of such books as Guy Livingstone, for instance, might be written by any one who could hit off the particular trick of style. Take a giant with knotted muscles, and some women for him to love or flirt with—alternate between inchoate adultery and inchoate seduction, flavoured with scowls, reticence, and the affectation of being unaffected—and you have only got to change the names and vary the Greek quotations in order to make as many novels as the public will buy. It must be a strange sensation for the author to bring on the stage his fourth or fifth giant with knotted muscles, and to tell the reader for the tenth time, in a sort of confidential aside, that he does not hold him up as a model of virtue, with his hard face and evil smile. Such a giant must in time become a sort of Frankenstein. “Master,” he might say, “I have held a man out at arm’s length and choked him. I have swung out my mighty fist from my left hip and felled to the ground a man bigger than myself. I have crumpled up a silver cup between my fingers in the agony of death, and what on earth am I to do new?" If his master would or could have the kindness to tell him to go to his own place and stay there, it would be a satisfaction to his readers and himself.

Saturday Review, June 13, 1863.

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