By Young E. Allison
There is, of course, but one sort of novel-reader who is of any importance. He is the man who began under the age of fourteen and is still sticking to it—at whatever age he may be—and full of a terrifying anxiety lest he may be called away in the midst of preliminary announcements of some pet author’s “next forthcoming.” For my own part I cannot conceive dying with resignation knowing that the publishers were binding up at the time anything of Henryk Sienckiewicz’s or Thomas Hardy’s. So it is important that a man begin early, because he will have to quit all too soon.
There are no women novel-readers. There are women who read novels, of course; but it is a far cry from reading novels to being a novel-reader. It is not in the nature of a woman. The crown of woman’s character is her devotion, which incarnate delicacy and tenderness exalt into perfect beauty of sacrifice. Those qualities could no more live amid the clashings of indiscriminate human passions than a butterfly wing could go between the mill rollers untorn. Women utterly refuse to go on with a book if the subject goes against their settled opinions. They despise a novel—howsoever fine and stirring it may be—if there is any taint of unhappiness to the favorite at the close. But the most flagrant of all their incapacities in respect to fiction is the inability to appreciate the admirable achievements of heroes, unless the achievements are solely in behalf of women. And even in that event they complacently consider them to be a matter of course, and attach no particular importance to the perils or the hardships undergone. “Why shouldn’t he?” they argue, with triumphant trust in ideals; “surely he loved her!”
There are many women who nibble at novels as they nibble at luncheon—there are also some hearty eaters; but 98 per cent of them detest Thackeray and refuse resolutely to open a second book of Robert Louis Stevenson. They scent an enemy of the sex in Thackeray, who never seems to be in earnest, and whose indignant sarcasm and melancholy truthfulness they shrink from. “It’s only a story, anyhow,” they argue again; “he might, at least write a pleasant one, instead of bringing in all sorts of disagreeable people—some of them positively disreputable.” As for Stevenson, whom men read with the thrill of boyhood rising new in their veins, I believe in my soul women would tear leaves out of his novels to tie over the tops of preserve jars, and never dream of the sacrilege.
Now I hold Thackeray and Stevenson to be the absolute test of capacity for earnest novel-reading. Neither cares a snap of his fingers for anybody’s prejudices, but goes the way of stern truth by the light of genius that shines within him.
If you could ever pin a woman down to tell you what she thought, instead of telling you what she thinks it is proper to tell you, or what she thinks will please you, you would find she has a religious conviction that Dot Perrybingle in “The Cricket of the Hearth,” and Ouida’s Lord Chandos were actually a materializable woman and a reasonable gentleman, either of whom might be met with anywhere in their proper circles. I would be willing to stand trial for perjury on the statement that I’ve known admirable women—far above the average, really showing signs of moral discrimination—who have sniveled pitifully over Nancy Sykes and sniffed scornfully at Mrs. Tess Durbeyfield Clare. It is due to their constitution and social heredity. Women do not strive and yearn and stalk abroad for the glorious pot of intellectual gold at the end of the rainbow; they pick and choose and, having chosen, sit down straightway and become content. And a state of contentment is an abomination in the sight of man. Contentment is to be sought for by great masculine minds only with the purpose of being sure never quite to find it.
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For all practical purposes, therefore—except perhaps as object lessons of “the incorrect method” in reading novels—women, as novel-readers, must be considered as not existing. And, of course, no offense is intended. But if there be any weak-kneed readers who prefer the gilt-wash of pretty politeness to the solid gold of truth, let them understand that I am not to be frightened away from plain facts by any charge of bad manners.
On the contrary, now that this disagreeable interruption has been forced upon me—certainly not through any seeking of mine—it may be better to speak out and settle the matter. Men who have the happiness of being in the married state know that nothing is to be gained by failing to settle instantly with women who contradict and oppose them. Who was that mellow philosopher in one of Trollope’s tiresomely clever novels who said: “My word for it, John, a husband ought not to take a cane to his wife too soon. He should fairly wait till they are half-way home from the church—but not longer, not longer.” Of course every man with a spark of intelligence and gallantry wishes that women COULD rise to real novel-reading Think what courtship would be! Every true man wishes to heaven there was nothing more to be said against women than that they are not novel-readers. But can mere forgetting remove the canker? Do not all of us know that the abstract good of the very existence of woman is itself open to grave doubt—with no immediate hope of clearing up? Woman has certainly been thrust upon us. Is there any scrap of record to show that Adam asked for her? He was doing very well, was happy, prosperous and healthy. There was no certainty that her creation was one of that unquestionably wonderful series that occupied the six great days. We cannot conceal that her creation caused a great pain in Adam’s side—undoubtedly the left side, in the region of the heart. She has been described by young and dauntless poets as “God’s best afterthought;” but, now, really—and I advance the suggestion with no intention to be brutal but solely as a conscientious duty to the ascertainment of truth—why is it, that--. But let me try to present the matter in the most unobjectionable manner possible.
In reading over that marvelous account of creation I find frequent explicit declaration that God pronounced everything good after he had created it—except heaven and woman. I have maintained sometimes to stern, elderly ladies that this might have been an error of omission by early copyists, perpetuated and so become fixed in our translations. To other ladies, of other age and condition, to whom such propositions of scholarship might appear to be dull pedantry, I have ventured the gentlemanlike explanation that, as woman was the only living thing created that was good beyond doubt, perhaps God had paid her the special compliment of leaving the approval unspoken, as being in a sense supererogatory. At best, either of these dispositions of the matter is, of course, far-fetched, maybe even frivolous. The fact still remains by the record. And it is beyond doubt awkward and embarrassing, because ill-natured men can refer to it in moments of hatefulness—moments unfortunately too frequent.
Is it possible that this last creation was a mistake of Infinite Charity and Eternal Truth? That Charity forbore to acknowledge that it was a mistake and that Truth, in the very nature of its eternal essence, could not say it was good? It is so grave a matter that one wonders Helvetius did not betray it, as he did that other secret about which the philosophers had agreed to keep mum, so that Herr Schopenhauer could write about it as he did about that other. Herr Schopenhauer certainly had the courage to speak with philosophical asperity of the gentle sex. It may be because he was never married. And then his mother wrote novels! I have been surprised that he was not accused of prejudice.
But if all these everyday obstacles were absent there would yet remain insurmountable reasons why women can never be novel-readers in the sense that men are. Your wife, for instance, or the impenetrable mystery of womanhood that you contemplate making your wife some day—can you, honestly, now, as a self-respecting husband of either de facto or in futuro, quite agree to the spectacle of that adored lady sitting over across the hearth from you in the snug room, evening after evening, with her feet—however small and well-shaped—cocked up on the other end of the mantel and one of your own big colorado maduros between her teeth! We men, and particularly novel-readers, are liberal even generous, in our views; but it is not in human nature to stand that!
Now, if a woman can not put her feet up and smoke, how in the name of heaven, can she seriously read novels? Certainly not sitting bolt upright, in order to prevent the back of her new gown from rubbing the chair; certainly not reclining upon a couch or in a hammock. A boy, yet too young to smoke may properly lie on his stomach on the floor and read novels, but the mature veteran will fight for his end of the mantel as for his wife and children. It is physiological necessity, inasmuch as the blood that would naturally go to the lower extremities, is thus measurably lessened in quantity and goes instead to the head, where a state of gentle congestion ensues, exciting the brain cells, setting free the imagination to roam hand in hand with intelligence under the spell of the wizard. There may be novel-readers who do not smoke at the game, but surely they cannot be quite earnest or honest—you had better put in writing all business agreements with this sort.
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No boy can ever hope to become a really great or celebrated novel-reader who does not begin his apprenticeship under the age of fourteen, and, as I said before, stick to it as long as he lives. He must learn to scorn those frivolous, vacillating and purposeless ones who, after beginning properly, turn aside and whiling away their time on mere history, or science, or philosophy. In a sense these departments of literature are useful enough. They enable you often to perceive the most cunning and profoundly interesting touches in fiction. Then I have no doubt that, merely as mental exercise, they do some good in keeping the mind in training for the serious work of novel-reading. I have always been grateful to Carlyle’s “French Revolution,” if for nothing more than that its criss-cross, confusing and impressive dullness enabled me to find more pleasure in “A Tale of Two Cities” than was to be extracted from any merit or interest in that unreal novel.
This much however, may be said of history, that it is looking up in these days as a result of studying the spirit of the novel. It was not many years ago that the ponderous gentlemen who write criticisms (chiefly because it has been forgotten how to stop that ancient waste of paper and ink) could find nothing more biting to say of Macaulay’s “England” than that it was “a splendid work of imagination,” of Froude’s “Caesar” that it was “magnificent political fiction,” and of Taine’s “France” that “it was so fine it should have been history instead of fiction.” And ever since then the world has read only these three writers upon these three epochs—and many other men have been writing history upon the same model. No good novel-reader need be ashamed to read them, in fact. They are so like the real thing we find in the greatest novels, instead of being the usual pompous official lies of old-time history, that there are flesh, blood and warmth in them.
In 1877, after the railway riots, legislative halls heard the French Revolution rehearsed from all points of view. In one capital, where I was reporting the debate, Old Oracle, with every fact at hand from “In the beginning” to the exact popular vote in 1876, talked two hours of accurate historical data from all the French histories, after which a young lawyer replied in fifteen minutes with a vivid picture of the popular conditions, the revolt and the result. Will it be allowable, in the interest of conveying exact impression, to say that Old Oracle was “swiped” off the earth? No other word will relieve my conscience. After it was all over I asked the young lawyer where he got his French history.
“From Dumas,” he answered, “and from critical reviews of his novels. He’s short on dates and documents, but he’s long on the general facts.”
Why not? Are not novels history?
Book for book, is not a novel by a competent conscientious novelist just as truthful a record of typical men, manners and motives as formal history is of official men, events and motives?
There are persons created out of the dreams of genius so real, so actual, so burnt into the heart and mind of the world that they have become historical. Do they not show you, in the old Ursuline Convent at New Orleans, the cell where poor Manon Lescaut sat alone in tears? And do they not show you her very grave on the banks of the lake? Have I not stood by the simple grave at Richmond, Virginia, where never lay the body of Pocahontas and listened to the story of her burial there? One of the loveliest women I ever knew admits that every time she visits relatives at Salem she goes out to look at the mound over the broken heart of Hester Prynne, that dream daughter of genius who never actually lived or died, but who was and is and ever will be. Her grave can be easily pointed out, but where is that of Alexander, of Themistocles, of Aristotle, even of the first figure of history—Adam? Mark Twain found it for a joke. Dr. Hale was finally forced to write a preface to “The Man Without a Country” to declare that his hero was pure fiction and that the pathetic punishment so marvelously described was not only imaginary, but legally and actually impossible. It was because Philip Nolan had passed into history. I myself have met old men who knew sea captains that had met this melancholy prisoner at sea and looked upon him, had even spoken to him upon subjects not prohibited. And these old men did not hesitate to declare that Dr. Hale had lied in his denial and had repudiated the facts through cowardice or under compulsion from the War Department.
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Indeed, so flexible, adaptable and penetrable is the style, and so admirably has the use and proper direction of the imagination been developed by the school of fiction, that every branch of literature has gained from it power, beauty and clearness. Nothing has aided more in the spread of liberal Christianity than the remarkable series of “Lives of Christ,” from Straus to Farrar, not omitting particular mention of the singularly beautiful treatment of the subject by Renan. In all of these conscientious imagination has been used, as it is used in the highest works of fiction, to give to known facts the atmosphere and vividness of truth in order that the spirit and personality of the surroundings of the Savior of Mankind might be newly understood by and made fresh to modern perception.
Of all books it is to be said—of novels as well—that none is great that is not true, and that cannot be true which does not carry inherence of truth. Now every book is true to some reader. The “Arabian Nights” tales do not seem impossible to a little child, the only delight him. The novels of “The Duchess” seem true to a certain class of readers, if only because they treat of a society to which those readers are entirely unaccustomed. “Robinson Crusoe” is a gospel to the world, and yet it is the most palpably and innocently impossible of books. It is so plausible because the author has ingeniously or accidentally set aside the usual earmarks of plausibility. When an author plainly and easily knows what the reader does not know and enough more to continue the chain of seeming reality of truth a little further, he convinces the reader of his truth and ability. Those men, therefore, who have been endowed with the genius almost unconsciously to absorb, classify, combine, arrange and dispense vast knowledge in a bold, striking or noble manner, are the recognized greatest men of genius for the simple reason that the readers of the world who know most recognize all they know in these writers, together with that spirit of sublime imagination that suggests still greater realms of truth and beauty. What Shakespeare was to the intellectual leaders of his day, “The Duchess” was to countless immature young folks of her day who were looking for “something to read.”
All truth is history, but all history is not truth. Written history is notoriously no well-cleaner.