My Contemporaries In Fiction

       David Christie Murray / History & Fiction

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My Contemporaries In Fiction
Produced by David Widger


By David Christie Murray





















When these essays were originally printed (they appeared simultaneouslyin many newspapers), I expected to make some enemies. So far, I havebeen most agreeably disappointed in that regard; but I can affirm thatthey have made me many friends, and that I have had encouragementenough from fellow craftsmen, from professional critics, and from casualreaders at home, in the colonies, and the United States to bolster upthe courage of the most timorous man that ever held a pen. As a set-offagainst all this, I have received one very noble and dignified rebukefrom a Contemporary in Fiction, whom the world holds in high honour,who regrets that I am not engaged in creative work--in lieu of this--andpleads that 'authorship should be allowed the distinction of anexemption from rank and title.' With genuine respect I venture tourge that this is an impossible aspiration, and in spite of the loftysanction which the writer's name must lend to his opinion, I have beenunable to surrender the belief that the work done in these pages isalike honourable and useful. It is, as will be seen, in the nature ofa crusade against puffery and hysteria. It is not meant to instruct theinstructed, and it makes no pretence to be infallible, but it is issuedin its present form in the belief that it will (in some degree) aid theaverage reader in the formation of just opinions on contemporary art,and in the hope that it may (in some degree) impose a check on certaininterested or over-enthusiastic people.



The critics of to-day are suffering from a sort of epidemic of kindness.They have accustomed themselves to the administration of praise inunmeasured doses. They are not, taking them in the mass, critics anylonger, but merely professional admirers. They have ceased to be usefulto the public, and are becoming dangerous to the interests of letters.In their over-friendly eyes every painstaking apprentice in the art offiction is a master, and hysterical schoolgirls, who have spent theirbrief day in the acquisition of ignorance, are reviewed as if they wereso many Elizabeth Barrett Brownings or George Eliots. One of the mostcurious and instructive things in this regard is the use which themodern critic makes of Sir Walter Scott. Sir Walter is set up as a sortof first standard for the aspirant in the art of fiction to excel. Letthe question be asked, with as much gravity as is possible: What _is_the use of a critic who gravely assures us that Mr. S. R. Crockett 'hasrivalled, if not surpassed, Sir Walter'? The statement is, of course,most lamentably and ludicrously absurd, but it is made more than once,or twice, or thrice, and it is quoted and advertised. It is not Mr.Crockett's fault that he is set on this ridiculous eminence, andhis name is not cited here with any grain of malice. He has hisfellow-sufferers. Other gentlemen who have 'rivalled, if not surpassed,Sir Walter,' are Dr. Conan Doyle, Mr. J. M. Barrie, Mr. Ian Maclaren,and Mr. Stanley Weyman. No person whose judgment is worth a straw canread the writings of these accomplished workmen without respect andpleasure. But it is no more true that they rival Sir Walter than it istrue that they are twelve feet high, or that any one of them believes inhis own private mind the egregious announcement of the reviewer. The onegreat sufferer by this craze for setting men of middling stature sideby side with Scott is our beautiful and beloved Stevenson, who, unlessrescued by some judicious hand, is likely to be buried under foolish andunmeasured praises.

It would be easy to fill pages with verifications of the charge heremade. Books of the last half-dozen years or so, which have alreadyproved the ephemeral nature of their own claim, have been received withplaudits which would have been exaggerated if applied to some of ouracknowledged classics. The critical declaration that 'Eric Bright-eyes'could have been written by no other Englishman of the last six hundredyears than Mr. Rider Haggard may be allowed its own monumental place inthe desert of silly and hysteric judgments.

It is time, for the sake of mere common-sense, to get back to somethinglike a real standard of excellence. It is time to say plainly that ourliterature is in danger of degradation, and that the mass of readers issystematically misled.

Before I go further, I will offer one word in self-excuse. I have takenthis work upon my own shoulders, because I cannot see that anybody elsewill take it, and because it seems to me to be calling loudly to bedone. My one unwillingness to undertake it lies in the fact that I havedevoted my own life to the pursuit of that art the exercise of whichby my contemporaries I am now about to criticise. That has an evil andungenerous look. But, whatever the declaration may seem to be worth, Imake it with sincerity and truth. I have never tasted the gall of envyin my life. I have had my share, and my full share, of the criticalsugarplums. I have never, in the critics, apprehension, 'rivalledor surpassed Sir Walter,' but on many thousands of printed pages(of advertisement) it is recorded that I have 'more genius for thedelineation of rustic character than any half-dozen surviving novelistsput together.' I laugh when I read this, for I remember Thomas Hardy,who is my master far and far away. I am quite persuaded that my criticwas genuinely pleased with the book over which he thus 'pyrotechnicated'(as poor Artemus used to say), but I think my judgment the more saneand sober of the two. I have not the faintest desire to pull down othermen's flags and leave my own flag flying. And there is the first andlast intrusion of myself. I felt it necessary, and I will neither eraseit nor apologise for its presence.

Side by side with the exaggerated admiration with which our professionalcensors greet the crowd of new-comers, it is instructive to note thecontempt into which some of our old gods have fallen. The SuperiorPerson we have always with us. He is, in his essence, a Prig; but when,as occasionally happens, his heart and intelligence ripen, he loses thecharacteristics which once made him a superior person. Whilst he holdshis native status his special art is not to admire anything which commonpeople find admirable. A year or two ago it became the shibboleth of hisclass that they couldn't read Dickens. We met suddenly a host of peoplewho really couldn't stand Dickens. Most of them (of course) were 'thepeople of whom crowds are made,' owning no sort of mental furnitureworth exchange or purchase. They killed the fashion of despising Dickens_as_ a fashion, and the Superior Person, finding that his sorrowfulinability was no longer an exclusive thing, ceased to brag about it.When a fashion in dress is popular on Hampstead Heath on Bank Holidayfestivals, the people who originally set the fashion discard it, and setanother. In half a generation some of our superiors, for the mere sakeof originality in judgment, will be going back to the pages of thatimmortal master-immortal as men count literary immortality--and willbegin to tell us that after all there was really something in him.

It was Mr. W. D. Howells, an American writer of distinguished ability,as times go, who set afloat the phrase that since the death of Thackerayand Dickens fiction has become a finer art. If Mr. Howells had meantwhat many people supposed him to mean, the saying would have been merelyimpudent He used the word 'finer' in its literal sense, and meant onlythat a fashion of minuteness in investigation and in style had come uponus. There is a sense in which the dissector who makes a reticulation ofthe muscular and nervous systems of a little finger is a 'finer' surgeonthan the giant of the hospitals whose diagnosis is an inspiration, andwhose knife carves unerringly to the root of disease. There is a sensein which a sculptor, carving on cherrystones likenesses of commonplacepeople, would be a 'finer' artist than Michael Angelo, whose custom itwas to handle forms of splendour on an heroic scale of size. In thatsense, and in the hands of some of its practitioners, fiction for ayear or two became a finer art than it had ever been before. But themicroscopist was never popular, and could never hope to be. He is deadnow, and the younger men are giving us vigorous copies of Dumas, andScott, and Edgar Allan Poe, and some of them are fusing the methods ofDickens with those of later and earlier writers. We are in for an era ofbroad effect again.

But a great many people, and, amongst them, some who ought to have knownbetter, adopted the saying of Mr. Howells in a wider sense than he everintended it to carry, and, partly as a result of this, we have arrivedat a certain tacit depreciation of the greatest emotional master offiction. There are other and more cogent reasons for the temporaryobscuration of that brilliant light. It may aid our present purpose todiscover what they are.

Every age has its fashions in literature as it has in dress. All thebeautiful fashions in literature, at least, have been thought worthy ofrevival and imitation, but there has come to each in turn a moment whenit has begun to pall upon the fancy. Every school before its deathis fated to inspire satiety and weariness. The more overwhelming itssuccess has been, the more complete and sweeping is the welcomed change.We know how the world thrilled and wept over Pamela and Clarissa, andwe know how their particular form of pathos sated the world and died.We know what a turn enchanted castles had, and how their spell witheredinto nothing. We know what a triumphal progress the Sentimental Sufferermade through the world, and what a bore he came to be. It is successwhich kills. Success breeds imitation, and the imitators are aweariness. And it is not the genius who dies. It is only the schoolwhich arose to mimic him. Richardson is alive for everybody but thedull and stupid. Now that the world of fiction is no longer crowded withenchanted castles, we can go to live in one occasionally for a change,and enjoy ourselves. Werther is our friend again, though the school hefounded was probably the most tiresome the world has seen.

Now, with the solitary exception of Sir Walter Scott, it is probablethat no man ever inspired such a host of imitators as Charles Dickens.There is not a writer of fiction at this hour, in any land where fictionis a recognised trade or art, who is not, whether he knows it and ownsit, or no, largely influenced by Dickens. His method has got into theatmosphere of fiction, as that of all really great writers must do,and we might as well swear to unmix our oxygen and hydrogen as to standclear of his influences. To stand clear of those influences you muststand apart from all modern thought and sentiment. You must have readnothing that has been written in the last sixty years, and you must havebeen bred on a desert island. Dickens has a living part in the life ofthe whole wide world. He is on a hundred thousand magisterial benchesevery day. There is not a hospital patient in any country who has notat this minute a right to thank God that Dickens lived. What his blessedand bountiful hand has done for the poor and oppressed, and themthat had no helper, no man knows. He made charity and good feeling areligion. Millions and millions of money have flowed from the coffers ofthe rich for the benefit of the poor because of his books. A great partof our daily life, and a good deal of the best of it, is of his making.

No single man ever made such opportunities for himself. No single manwas ever so widely and permanently useful. No single man ever sowedgentleness and mercy with so broad a sweep.

This is all true, and very far from new, but it has not been the fashionto say it lately. It is not the whole of the truth. Noble rivers havetheir own natural defects of swamp and mudbank. Sometimes his tides ransluggishly, as in 'The Battle of Life,' for example, which has alwaysseemed to me, at least, a most mawkish and unreal book. The pure streamof 'The Carol,' which washes the heart of a man, runs thin in 'TheChimes,' runs thinner in 'The Haunted Man,' and in 'The Battle of Life'is lees and mud. 'Nickleby,' again, is a young man's book, and as fullof blemishes as of genius. But when all is said and done, it killed theYorkshire schools.

The chief fault the superficial modern critic has to find with Dickensis a sort of rumbustious boisterousness in the expression of emotion.But let one thing be pointed out, and let me point it out in my ownfashion. Tom Hood, who was a true poet, and the best of our Englishwits, and probably as good a judge of good work as any person now alive,went home after meeting with Dickens, and in a playful enthusiasm toldhis wife to cut off his hand and bottle it, because it had shaken handswith Boz. Lord Jeffrey, who was cold as a critic, cried over littleNell. So did Sydney Smith, who was very far from being a blubberingsentimentalist. To judge rightly of any kind of dish you must bringan appetite to it. Here is the famous Dickens pie, when first served,pronounced inimitable, not by a class or a clique, but by all men inall lands. But you get it served hot, and you get it served cold, it isrehashed in every literary restaurant, you detect its flavour in yourmorning leader and your weekly review. The pie gravy finds its way intothe prose and the verse of a whole young generation. It has a strikingflavour, an individual flavour, It gets into everything. We are wearyof the ceaseless resurrections of that once so toothsome dish. Take itaway.

The original pie is no worse and no better, but thousands of cooks havehad the recipe for it, and have tried to make it. Appetite may havevanished, but the pie was a good pie.

No simile runs on all fours, and this parable in a pie-dish is a poortraveller.

But this principle of judgment applies of necessity to all great workin art. It does not apply to merely good work, for that is nearly alwaysimitative, and therefore not much provocative of imitation. It happenssometimes that an imitator, to the undiscerning reader, may evenseem better than the man he mimics, because he has a modern touch. Butremember, in his time the master also was a modern.

The new man says of Dickens that his sentiment rings false. This is amistake. It rings old-fashioned. No false note ever moved a world, andthe world combined to love his very name. There were tears in thousandsof households when he died, and they were as sincere and as real as ifthey had arisen at the loss of a personal friend.

We, who in spite of fashion remain true to our allegiance to themagician of our youth, who can never worship or love another as we lovedand worshipped him, are quite contented in the slight inevitable dimmingof his fame. He is still in the hearts of the people, and there he hasonly one rival.

No attempt at a review of modern fiction can be made without a mentionof the men who were greatest when the art was great When we have donewith the giants we will come down to the big fellows, and by that timewe shall have an eye for the proportions of the rest. But before wepart for the time being, let me offer the uncritical reader one valuabletouchstone. Let him recall the stories he has read, say, five years ago.If he can find a live man or woman anywhere amongst his memories, whois still as a friend or an enemy to him, he has, fifty to one, read asterling book. Dickens' people stand this test with all readers, whetherthey admire him or no. Even when they are grotesque they are alive. Theylive in the memory even of the careless like real people. And this isthe one unfailing trial by which great fiction may be known.

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