The simplest account of the origin of The Princess Casamassima is, I think, that this fiction proceeded quite directly, during the first year of a long residence in London, from the habit and the interest of walking the streets. I walked a great deal – for exercise, for amusement, for acquisition, and above all I always walked home at the evening’s end, when the evening had been spent elsewhere, as happened more often than not; and as to do this was to receive many impressions, so the impressions worked and sought an issue, so the book after a time was born. It is a fact that, as I look back, the attentive exploration of London, the assault directly made by the great city upon an imagination quick to react, fully explains a large part of it. There is a minor element that refers itself to another source, of which I shall presently speak; but the prime idea was unmistakeably the ripe round fruit of perambulation. One walked of course with one’s eyes greatly open, and I hasten to declare that such a practice, carried on for a long time and over a considerable space, positively provokes, all round, a mystic solicitation, the urgent appeal, on the part of everything, to be interpreted and, so far as may be, reproduced. ‘Subjects’ and situations, character and history, the tragedy and comedy of life, are things of which the common air, in such conditions, seems pungently to taste; and to a mind curious, before the human scene, of meanings and revelations the great grey Babylon easily becomes, on its face, a garden bristling with an immense illustrative flora. Possible stories, presentable figures, rise from the thick jungle as the observer moves, fluttering up like startled game, and before he knows it indeed he has fairly to guard himself against the brush of importunate wings. He goes on as with his head in a cloud of humming presences – especially during the younger, the initiatory time, the fresh, the sharply-apprehensive months or years, more or less numerous. We use our material up, we use up even the thick tribute of the London streets – if perception and attention but sufficiently light our steps. But I think of them as lasting, for myself, quite sufficiently long; I think of them as even still – dreadfully changed for the worse in respect to any romantic idea as I find them – breaking out on occasion into eloquence, throwing out deep notes from their vast vague murmur.

There was a moment at any rate when they offered me no image more vivid than that of some individual sensitive nature or fine mind, some small obscure intelligent creature whose education should have been almost wholly derived from them, capable of profiting by all the civilisation, all the accumulations to which they testify, yet condemned to see these things only from outside – in mere quickened consideration, mere wistfulness and envy and despair. It seemed to me I had only to imagine such a spirit intent enough and troubled enough, and to place it in presence of the comings and goings, the great gregarious company, of the more fortunate than himself – all on the scale on which London could show them – to get possession of an interesting theme. I arrived so at the history of little Hyacinth Robinson – he sprang up for me out of the London pavement. To find his possible adventure interesting I had only to conceive his watching the same public show, the same innumerable appearances, I had watched myself, and of his watching very much as I had watched; save indeed for one little difference. This difference would be that so far as all the swarming facts should speak of freedom and ease, knowledge and power, money, opportunity and satiety, he should be able to revolve round them but at the most respectful of distances and with every door of approach shut in his face. For one’s self, all conveniently, there had been doors that opened – opened into light and warmth and cheer, into good and charming relations; and if the place as a whole lay heavy on one’s consciousness there was yet always for relief this implication of one’s own lucky share of the freedom and ease, lucky acquaintance with the number of lurking springs at light pressure of which particular vistas would begin to recede, great lighted, furnished, peopled galleries, sending forth gusts of agreeable sound.

That main happy sense of the picture was always there and that retreat from the general grimness never forbidden; whereby one’s own relation to the mere formidable mass and weight of things was eased oft and adjusted. One learned from an early period what it might be to know London in such a way as that – an immense and interesting discipline, an education on terms mostly convenient and delightful. But what would be the effect of the other way, of having so many precious things perpetually in one’s eyes, yet of missing them all for any closer knowledge, and of the confinement of closer knowledge entirely to matters with which a connexion, however intimate, could n’t possibly pass for a privilege? Truly, of course, there are London mysteries (dense categories of dark arcana) for every spectator, and it ’s in a degree an exclusion and a state of weakness to be without experience of the meaner conditions, the lower manners and types, the general sordid struggle, the weight of the burden of labour, the ignorance, the misery and the vice. With such matters as those my tormented young man would have had contact – they would have formed, fundamentally, from the first, his natural and immediate London. But the reward of a romantic curiosity would be the question of what the total assault, that of the world of his work-a-day life and the world of his divination and his envy together, would have made of him, and what in especial he would have made of them. As tormented, I say, I thought of him, and that would be the point – if one could only see him feel enough to be interesting without his feeling so much as not to be natural.

This in fact I have ever found rather terribly the point – that the figures in any picture, the agents in any drama, are interesting only in proportion as they feel their respective situations; since the consciousness, on their part, of the complication exhibited forms for us their link of connexion with it. But there are degrees of feeling – the muffled, the faint, the just sufficient, the barely intelligent, as we may say; and the acute, the intense, the complete, in a word – the power to be finely aware and richly responsible. It is those moved in this latter fashion who ‘get most’ out of all that happens to them and who in so doing enable us, as readers of their record, as participators by a fond attention, also to get most. Their being finely aware – as Hamlet and Lear, say, are finely aware – makes absolutely the intensity of their adventure, gives the maximum of sense to what befalls them. We care, our curiosity and our sympathy care, comparatively little for what happens to the stupid, the coarse and the blind; care for it, and for the effects of it, at the most as helping to precipitate what happens to the more deeply wondering, to the really sentient. Hamlet and Lear are surrounded, amid their complications, by the stupid and the blind, who minister in all sorts of ways to their recorded fate. Persons of markedly limited sense would, on such a principle as that, play a part in the career of my tormented youth; but he would n’t be of markedly limited sense himself – he would note as many things and vibrate to as many occasions as I might venture to make him.

There would n’t moreover simply be the question of his suffering – of which we might soon get enough; there would be the question of what, all beset and all perceptive, he should thus adventurously do, thus dream and hazard and attempt. The interest of the attitude and the act would be the actor’s imagination and vision of them, together with the nature and degree of their felt return upon him. So the intelligent creature would be required and so some picture of his intelligence involved. The picture of an intelligence appears for the most part, it is true, a dead weight for the reader of the English novel to carry, this reader having so often the wondrous property of caring for the displayed tangle of human relations without caring for its intelligibility. The teller of a story is primarily, none the less, the listener to it, the reader of it, too; and, having needed thus to make it out, distinctly, on the crabbed page of life, to disengage it from the rude human character and the more or less gothic text in which it has been packed away, the very essence of his affair has been the imputing of intelligence. The basis of his attention has been that such and such an imbroglio has got started – on the page of life – because of something that some one has felt and more or less understood.

I recognise at the same time, and in planning The Princess Casamassima felt it highly important to recognise, the danger of filling too full any supposed and above all any obviously limited vessel of consciousness. If persons either tragically or comically embroiled with life allow us the comic or tragic value of the embroilment in proportion as their struggle is a measured and directed one, it is strangely true, none the less, that beyond a certain point they are spoiled for us by this carrying of a due light. They may carry too much of it for our credence, for our compassion, for our derision. They may be shown as knowing too much and feeling too much – not certainly for their remaining remarkable, but for their remaining ‘natural’ and typical, for their having the needful communities with our own precious liability to fall into traps and be bewildered. It seems probable that if we were never bewildered there would never be a story to tell about us; we should partake of the superior nature of the all-knowing immortals whose annals are dreadfully dull so long as flurried humans are not, for the positive relief of bored Olympians, mixed up with them. Therefore it is that the wary reader for the most part warns the novelist against making his characters too interpretative of the muddle of fate, or in other words too divinely, too priggishly clever. ‘Give us plenty of bewilderment,’ this monitor seems to say, ‘so long as there is plenty of slashing out in the bewilderment too. But don’t, we beseech you, give us too much intelligence; for intelligence – well, endangers; endangers not perhaps the slasher himself, but the very slashing, the subject-matter of any self-respecting story. It opens up too many considerations, possibilities, issues; it may lead the slasher into dreary realms where slashing somehow fails and falls to the ground.’

That is well reasoned on the part of the reader, who can in spite of it never have an idea – or his earnest discriminations would come to him less easily – of the extreme difficulty, for the painter of the human mixture, of reproducing that mixture aright. ‘Give us in the persons represented, the subjects of the bewilderment (that bewilderment without which there would be no question of an issue or of the fact of suspense, prime implications in any story) as much experience as possible, but keep down the terms in which you report that experience, because we only understand the very simplest’: such in effect are the words in which the novelist constantly hears himself addressed, such the plea made him by the would-be victims of his spell on behalf of that sovereign principle the economy of interest, a principle as to which their instinct is justly strong. He listens anxiously to the charge – nothing can exceed his own solicitude for an economy of interest; but feels himself all in presence of an abyss of ambiguities, the mutual accommodations in which the reader wholly leaves to him. Experience, as I see it, is our apprehension and our measure of what happens to us as social creatures – any intelligent report of which has to be based on that apprehension. The picture of the exposed and entangled state is what is required, and there are certainly always plenty of grounds for keeping down the complexities of a picture. A picture it still has to be, however, and by that condition has to deal effectually with its subject, so that the simple device of more and more keeping down may well not see us quite to our end or even quite to our middle. One suggested way of keeping down, for instance, is not to attribute feeling, or feelings, to persons who would n’t in all probability have had any to speak of. The less space, within the frame of the picture, their feelings take up the more space is left for their doings – a fact that may at first seem to make for a refinement of economy.

All of which is charming – yet would be infinitely more so if here at once ambiguity did n’t yawn; the unreality of the sharp distinction, where the interest of observation is at stake, between doing and feeling. In the immediate field of life, for action, for application, for getting through a job, nothing may so much matter perhaps as the descent of a suspended weight on this, that or the other spot, with all its subjective concomitants quite secondary and irrelevant. But the affair of the painter is not the immediate, it is the reflected field of life, the realm not of application, but of appreciation – a truth that makes our measure of effect altogether different. My report of people’s experience – my report as a ‘story-teller’ – is essentially my appreciation of it, and there is no ‘interest’ for me in what my hero, my heroine or any one else does save through that admirable process. As soon as I begin to appreciate simplification is imperilled: the sharply distinguished parts of any adventure, any case of endurance and performance, melt together as an appeal. I then see their ‘doing’, that of the persons just mentioned, as, immensely, their feeling, their feeling as their doing; since I can have none of the conveyed sense and taste of their situation without becoming intimate with them. I can’t be intimate without that sense and taste, and I can’t appreciate save by intimacy, any more than I can report save by a projected light. Intimacy with a man’s specific behaviour, with his given case, is desperately certain to make us see it as a whole – in which event arbitrary limitations of our vision lose whatever beauty they may on occasion have pretended to. What a man thinks and what he feels are the history and the character of what he does; on all of which things the logic of intensity rests. Without intensity where is vividness, and without vividness where is presentability? If I have called the most general state of one’s most exposed and assaulted figures the state of bewilderment – the condition for instance on which Thackeray so much insists in the interest of his exhibited careers, the condition of a humble heart, a bowed head, a patient wonder, a suspended judgement, before the ‘awful will’ and the mysterious decrees of Providence – so it is rather witless to talk of merely getting rid of that displayed mode of reaction, one of the oft-encountered, one of the highly recommended, categories of feeling.

The whole thing comes to depend thus on the quality of bewilderment characteristic of one’s creature, the quality involved in the given case or supplied by one’s data. There are doubtless many such qualities, ranging from vague and crepuscular to sharpest and most critical; and we have but to imagine one of these latter to see how easily – from the moment it gets its head at all – it may insist on playing a part. There we have then at once a case of feeling, of ever so many possible feelings, stretched across the scene like an attached thread on which the pearls of interest are strung. There are threads shorter and less tense, and I am far from implying that the minor, the coarser and less fruitful forms and degrees of moral reaction, as we may conveniently call it, may not yield lively results. They have their subordinate, comparative, illustrative human value – that appeal of the witless which is often so penetrating. Verily even, I think, no ‘story’ is possible without its fools – as most of the fine painters of life, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Balzac, Fielding, Scott, Thackeray, Dickens, George Meredith, George Eliot, Jane Austen, have abundantly felt. At the same time I confess I never see the leading interest of any human hazard but in a consciousness (on the part of the moved and moving creature) subject to fine intensification and wide enlargement. It is as mirrored in that consciousness that the gross fools, the headlong fools, the fatal fools play their part for us – they have much less to show us in themselves. The troubled life mostly at the centre of our subject – whatever our subject, for the artistic hour, happens to be – embraces them and deals with them for its amusement and its anguish: they are apt largely indeed, on a near view, to be all the cause of its trouble. This means, exactly, that the person capable of feeling in the given case more than another of what is to be felt for it, and so serving in the highest degree to record it dramatically and objectively, is the only sort of person on whom we can count not to betray, to cheapen or, as we say, give away, the value and beauty of the thing. By so much as the affair matters for some such individual, by so much do we get the best there is of it, and by so much as it falls within the scope of a denser and duller, a more vulgar and more shallow capacity, do we get a picture dim and meagre.

The great chroniclers have clearly always been aware of this; they have at least always either placed a mind of some sort – in the sense of a reflecting and colouring medium – in possession of the general adventure (when the latter has not been purely epic, as with Scott, say, as with old Dumas and with Zola); or else paid signally, as to the interest created, for their failure to do so. We may note moreover in passing that this failure is in almost no case intentional or part of a plan, but has sprung from their limited curiosity, their short conception of the particular sensibility projected. Edgar of Ravenswood for instance, visited by the tragic tempest of The bride of Lammermoor, has a black cloak and hat and feathers more than he has a mind; just as Hamlet, while equally sabled and draped and plumed, while at least equally romantic, has yet a mind still more than he has a costume. The situation represented is that Ravenswood loves Lucy Ashton through dire difficulty and danger, and that she in the same way loves him; but the relation so created between them is by this neglect of the ‘feeling’ question never shown us as primarily taking place. It is shown only in its secondary, its confused and disfigured aspects – where, however, luckily, it is presented with great romantic good faith. The thing has nevertheless paid for its deviation, as I say, by a sacrifice of intensity; the centre of the subject is empty and the development pushed off, all round, toward the frame – which is, so to speak, beautifully rich and curious. But I mention that relation to each other of the appearances in a particular work only as a striking negative case; there are in the connexion I have glanced at plenty of striking positive ones. It is very true that Fielding’s hero in Tom Jones is but as ‘finely’, that is but as intimately, bewildered as a young man of great health and spirits may be when he has n’t a grain of imagination: the point to be made is, at all events, that his sense of bewilderment obtains altogether on the comic, never on the tragic plane. He has so much ‘life’ that it amounts, for the effect of comedy and application of satire, almost to his having a mind, that is to his having reactions and a full consciousness; besides which his author – he handsomely possessed of a mind – has such an amplitude of reflexion for him and round him that we see him through the mellow air of Fielding’s fine old moralism, fine old humour and fine old style, which somehow really enlarge, make every one and every thing important.

All of which furthers my remarking how much I have been interested, on reading The Princess Casamassima over, to recognise my sense, sharp from far back, that clearness and concreteness constantly depend, for any pictorial whole, on some concentrated individual notation of them. That notation goes forward here in the mind of little Hyacinth, immensely quickened by the fact of its so mattering to his very life what he does make of things: which passion of intelligence is, as I have already hinted, precisely his highest value for our curiosity and our sympathy. Yet if his highest it is not at all his only one, since the truth for ‘a young man in a book’ by no means entirely resides in his being either exquisitely sensitive or shiningly clever. It resides in some such measure of these things as may consort with the fine measure of other things too – with that of the other faces of his situation and character. If he ’s too sensitive and too clever for them, if he knows more than is likely or natural – for him – it ’s as if he were n’t at all, as if he were false and impossible. Extreme and attaching always the difficulty of fixing at a hundred points the place where one’s impelled bonhomme may feel enough and ‘know’ enough – or be in the way of learning enough – for his maximum dramatic value without feeling and knowing too much for his minimum verisimilitude, his proper fusion with the fable. This is the charming, the tormenting, the eternal little matter to be made right, in all the weaving of silver threads and tapping on golden nails; and I should take perhaps too fantastic a comfort – I mean were not the comforts of the artist just of the raw essence of fantasy – in any glimpse of such achieved rightnesses, whether in my own work of that of others. In no work whatever, doubtless, are they the felicities the most frequent; but they have so inherent a price that even the traceable attempt at them, wherever met, sheds, I think, a fine influence about.

I have for example a weakness of sympathy with that constant effort of George Eliot’s which plays through Adam Bede and Felix Holt and Tito Melema, through Daniel Deronda and through Lydgate in Middlemarch, through Maggie Tulliver, through Romola, through Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolen Harleth; the effort to show their adventures and their history – the author’s subject-matter all – as determined by their feelings and the nature of their minds. Their emotions, their stirred intelligence, their moral consciousness, become thus, by sufficiently charmed perusal, our own very adventure. The creator of Deronda and of Romola is charged, I know, with having on occasion – as in dealing with those very celebrities themselves – left the figure, the concrete man and woman, too abstract by reason of the quantity of soul employed; but such mischances, where imagination and humour still keep them company, often have an interest that is wanting to agitations of the mere surface or to those that may be only taken for granted. I should even like to give myself the pleasure of retracing from one of my own productions to another the play of a like instinctive disposition, of catching in the fact, at one point after another, from Roderick Hudson to The golden bowl, that provision for interest which consists in placing advantageously, placing right in the middle of the light, the most polished of possible mirrors of the subject. Rowland Mallet, in Roderick Hudson, is exactly such a mirror, not a bit autobiographic or formally ‘first person’ though he be, and I might exemplify the case through a long list, through the nature of such a ‘mind’ even as the all-objective Newman in The American, through the thickly-peopled imagination of Isabel Archer in The portrait of a lady (her imagination positively the deepest depth of her imbroglio) down to such unmistakeable examples as that of Merton Densher in The wings of the dove, that of Lambert Strether in The ambassadors (he a mirror verily of miraculous silver and quite pre-eminent, I think, for the connexion) and that of the Prince in the first half and that of the Princess in the second half of The golden bowl. I should note the extent to which these persons are, so far as their other passions permit, intense perceivers, all, of their respective predicaments, and I should go on from them to fifty other examples; even to the divided Vanderbank of The awkward age, the extreme pinch of whose romance is the vivacity in him, to his positive sorrow and loss, of the state of being aware; even to scanted Fleda Vetch in The spoils of Poynton, through whose own delicate vision of everything so little of the human value of her situation is wasted for us; even to the small recording governess confronted with the horrors of The turn of the screw and to the innocent child patching together all ineffectually those of What Maisie knew; even in short, since I may name so few cases, to the disaffected guardian of an overgrown legend in The birthplace, to the luckless fine artist of The next time, trying to despoil himself, for a ‘hit’ and bread and butter, of his fatal fineness, to blunt the tips of his intellectual fingers, and to the hapless butler Brooksmith, ruined by good talk, disqualified for common domestic service by the beautiful growth of his habit of quiet attention, his faculty of appreciation. But though this demonstration of a rooted vice – since a vice it would appear mainly accounted – might yield amusement, the examples referred to must await their turn.

I had had for a long time well before me, at any rate, my small obscure but ardent observer of the ‘London world’, saw him roam and wonder and yearn, saw all the unanswered questions and baffled passions that might ferment in him – once he should be made both sufficiently thoughtful and sufficiently ‘disinherited’; but this image, however interesting, was of course not by itself a progression, an action, did n’t by itself make a drama. I got my action however – failing which one has nothing – under the prompt sense that the state of feeling I was concerned with might develop and beget another state, might return at a given moment, and with the greatest vivacity, on itself. To see this was really to feel one’s subject swim into one’s ken, especially after a certain other ingenious connexion had been made for it. I find myself again recalling, and with the possible ‘fun’ of it reviving too, how I recognised, as revealed and prescribed, the particular complexion, profession and other conditions of my little presumptuous adventurer, with his combination of intrinsic fineness and fortuitous adversity, his small cluster of ‘dingy’ London associations and the swelling spirit in him which was to be the field of his strange experience. Accessible through his imagination, as I have hinted, to a thousand provocations and intimations, he would become most acquainted with destiny in the form of a lively inward revolution. His being jealous of all the ease of life of which he tastes so little, and, bitten, under this exasperation, with an aggressive, vindictive, destructive social faith, his turning to ‘treasons, stratagems and spoils’ might be as vivid a picture as one chose, but would move to pity and terror only by the aid of some deeper complication, some imposed and formidable issue.

The complication most interesting then would be that he should fall in love with the beauty of the world, actual order and all, at the moment of his most feeling and most hating the famous ‘iniquity of its social arrangements’; so that his position as an irreconcileable pledged enemy to it, thus rendered false by something more personal than his opinions and his vows, becomes the sharpest of his torments. To make it a torment that really matters, however, he must have got practically involved, specifically committed to the stand he has, under the pressure of more knowledge, found impossible; out of which has come for him the deep dilemma of the disillusioned and repentant conspirator. He has thrown himself into the more than ‘shady’ underworld of militant socialism, he has undertaken to play a part – a part that with the drop of his exasperation and the growth, simply expressed, of his taste, is out of all tune with his passion, at any cost, for life itself, the life, whatever it be, that surrounds him. Dabbling deeply in revolutionary politics of a hole-and-corner sort, he would be ‘in’ up to his neck, and with that precarious part of him particularly involved, so that his tergiversation is the climax of his adventure. What was essential with this was that he should have a social – not less than a socialist – connexion, find a door somehow open to him into the appeased and civilised state, into that warmer glow of things he is precisely to help to undermine. To look for this necessary connexion was for me to meet it suddenly in the form of that extremely disponible figure of Christina Light whom I had ten years before found left on my hands at the conclusion of Roderick Hudson. She had for so long, in the vague limbo of those ghosts we have conjured but not exorcised, been looking for a situation, awaiting a niche and a function.

I shall not pretend to trace the steps and stages by which the imputability of a future to that young woman – which was like the act of clothing her chilled and patient nakedness – had for its prime effect to plant her in my little bookbinder’s path. Nothing would doubtless beckon us on further, with a large leisure, than such a chance to study the obscure law under which certain of a novelist’s characters, more or less honourably buried, revive for him by a force or a whim of their own and ‘walk’ round his house of art like haunting ghosts, feeling for the old doors they knew, fumbling at stiff latches and pressing their pale faces, in the outer dark, to lighted windows. I mistrust them, I confess, in general; my sense of a really expressed character is that it shall have originally so tasted of the ordeal of service as to feel no disposition to yield again to the strain. Why should the Princess of the climax of Roderick Hudson still have made her desire felt, unless in fact to testify that she had not been – for what she was – completely recorded? To continue in evidence, that had struck me from far back as her natural passion; in evidence at any price, not consenting to be laid away with folded hands in the pasteboard tomb, the doll’s box, to which we usually relegate the spent puppet after the fashion of a recumbent worthy on the slab of a sepulchral monument. I was to see this, after all, in the event, as the fruit of a restless vanity: Christina had felt herself, known herself, striking, in the earlier connexion, and could n’t resign herself not to strike again. Her pressure then was not to be resisted – sharply as the question might come up of why she should pretend to strike just there. I shall not attempt to answer it with reasons (one can never tell everything); it was enough that I could recognise her claim to have travelled far – far from where I had last left her: that, one felt, was in character – that was what she naturally would have done. Her prime note had been an aversion to the banal, and nothing could be of an effect less banal, I judged, than her intervention in the life of a dingy little London bookbinder whose sensibility, whose flow of opinions on ‘public questions’ in especial, should have been poisoned at the source.

She would be world-weary – that was another of her notes; and the extravagance of her attitude in these new relations would have its root and its apparent logic in her need to feel freshly about something or other – it might scarce matter what. She can, or she believes she can, feel freshly about the ‘people’ and their wrongs and their sorrows and their perpetual smothered ferment; for these things are furthest removed from those others among which she has hitherto tried to make her life. That was to a certainty where I was to have looked for her – quite off and away (once granted the wisdom of listening to her anew at all): therefore Hyacinth’s encounter with her could pass for natural, and it was fortunately to be noted that she was to serve for his experience in quite another and a more ‘leading’ sense than any in which he was to serve for hers. I confess I was not averse – such are the possible weaknesses of the artist in face of high difficulties – to feeling that if his appearance of consistency were obtained I might at least try to remain comparatively at my ease about hers. I may add moreover that the resuscitation of Christina (and, on the minor scale, of the Prince and of Madame Grandoni) put in a strong light for me the whole question, for the romancer, of ‘going on with a character’: as Balzac first of all systematically went on, as Thackeray, as Trollope, as Zola all more or less ingeniously went on. I was to find no small savour in the reflexions so precipitated; though I may treat myself here only to this remark about them – that the revivalist impulse on the fond writer’s part strikes me as one thing, a charmingly conceivable thing, but the effect of a free indulgence in it (effect, that is, on the nerves of the reader) as, for twenty rather ineffable reasons, quite another.

I remember at any rate feeling myself all in possession of little Hyacinth’s consistency, as I have called it, down at Dover during certain weeks that were none too remotely precedent to the autumn of 1885 and the appearance, in The Atlantic monthly again, of the first chapters of the story. There were certain sunny, breezy balconied rooms at the quieter end of the Esplanade of that cheerful castle-crested little town – now infinitely perturbed by gigantic ‘harbour works’, but then only faded and over-soldiered and all pleasantly and humbly submissive to the law that snubs in due course the presumption of flourishing resorts – to which I had already more than once had recourse in hours of quickened industry and which, though much else has been swept away, still archaically exist. To have lately noted this again from the old benched and asphalted walk by the sea, the twinkling Channel beyond which on occasion the opposite coast of France used to gleam as an incident of the charming tendency of the whole prospect (immediate picture and fond design alike) amusingly to shine, was somehow to taste afresh, and with a certain surprise, the odd quality of that original confidence that the parts of my plan would somehow hang together. I may wonder at my confidence now – given the extreme, the very particular truth and ‘authority’ required at so many points; but to wonder is to live back gratefully into the finer reasons of things, with all the detail of harsh application and friction (that there must have been) quite happily blurred and dim. The finest of reasons – I mean for the sublime confidence I speak of – was that I felt in full personal possession of my matter; this really seemed the fruit of direct experience. My scheme called for the suggested nearness (to all our apparently ordered life) of some sinister anarchic underworld, heaving in its pain, its power and its hate; a presentation not of sharp particulars, but of loose appearances, vague motions and sounds and symptoms, just perceptible presences and general looming possibilities. To have adopted the scheme was to have had to meet the question of one’s ‘notes’, over the whole ground, the question of what, in such directions, one had ‘gone into’ and how far one had gone; and to have answered that question – to one’s own satisfaction at least – was truly to see one’s way.

My notes then, on the much-mixed world of my hero’s both overt and covert consciousness, were exactly my gathered impressions and stirred perceptions, the deposit in my working imagination of all my visual and all my constructive sense of London. The very plan of my book had in fact directly confronted me with the rich principle of the Note, and was to do much to clear up, once for all, my practical view of it. If one was to undertake to tell tales and to report with truth on the human scene, it could be but because ‘notes’ had been from the cradle the ineluctable consequence of one’s greatest inward energy: to take them was as natural as to look, to think, to feel, to recognise, to remember, as to perform any act of understanding. The play of the energy had been continuous and could n’t change; what changed was only the objects and situations pressing the spring of it. Notes had been in other words the things one could n’t not take, and the prime result of all fresh experience was to remind one of that. I have endeavoured to characterise the peremptory fashion in which my fresh experience of London – the London of the habitual observer, the preoccupied painter, the pedestrian prowler – reminded me; an admonition that represented, I think, the sum of my investigations. I recall pulling no wires, knocking at no closed doors, applying for no ‘authentic’ information; but I recall also on the other hand the practice of never missing an opportunity to add a drop, however small, to the bucket of my impressions or to renew my sense of being able to dip into it. To haunt the great city and by this habit to penetrate it, imaginatively, in as many places as possible – that was to be informed, that was to pull wires, that was to open doors, that positively was to groan at times under the weight of one’s accumulations.

Face to face with the idea of Hyacinth’s subterraneous politics and occult affiliations, I recollect perfectly feeling, in short, that I might well be ashamed if, with my advantages – and there was n’t a street, a corner, an hour, of London that was not an advantage – I should n’t be able to piece together a proper semblance of those things, as indeed a proper semblance of all the odd parts of his life. There was always of course the chance that the propriety might be challenged – challenged by readers of a knowledge greater than mine. Yet knowledge, after all, of what? My vision of the aspects I more or less fortunately rendered was, exactly, my knowledge. If I made my appearances live, what was this but the utmost one could do with them? Let me at the same time not deny that, in answer to probable ironic reflexions on the full license for sketchiness and vagueness and dimness taken indeed by my picture, I had to bethink myself in advance of a defence of my ‘artistic position’. Should n’t I find it in the happy contention that the value I wished most to render and the effect I wished most to produce were precisely those of our not knowing, of society’s not knowing, but only guessing and suspecting and trying to ignore, what ‘goes on’ irreconcileably, subversively, beneath the vast smug surface? I could n’t deal with that positive quantity for itself – my subject had another too exacting side; but I might perhaps show the social ear as on occasion applied to the ground, or catch some gust of the hot breath that I had at many an hour seemed to see escape and hover. What it all came back to was, no doubt, something like this wisdom – that if you have n’t, for fiction, the root of the matter in you, have n’t the sense of life and the penetrating imagination, you are a fool in the very presence of the revealed and assured; but that if you are so armed you are not really helpless, not without your resource, even before mysteries abysmal.

end of the preface to volume 5

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