What I had lately and most particularly to say of The Coxon fund is no less true of The Middle Years, first published in Scribner’s magazine (1893) – that recollection mainly and most promptly associates with it the number of times I had to do it over to make sure of it. To get it right was to squeeze my subject into the five or six thousand words I had been invited to make it consist of – it consists, in fact should the curious care to know, of some 5550 – and I scarce perhaps recall another case, with the exception I shall presently name, in which my struggle to keep compression rich, if not better still, to keep accretions compressed, betrayed for me such community with the anxious effort of some warden of the insane engaged at a critical moment in making fast a victim’s straitjacket. The form of The middle years is not that of the nouvelle, but that of the concise anecdote; whereas the subject treated would perhaps seem one comparatively demanding ‘developments’ – if indeed, amid these mysteries, distinctions were so absolute. (There is of course neither close nor fixed measure of the reach of a development, which in some connexions seems almost superfluous and then in others to represent the whole sense of the matter; and we should doubtless speak more thoroughly by book had we some secret for exactly tracing deflexions and returns.) However this may be, it was as an anecdote, an anecdote only, that I was determined my little situation here should figure; to which end my effort was of course to follow it as much as possible from its outer edge in, rather than from its centre outward. That fond formula, I had alas already discovered, may set as many traps in the garden as its opposite may set in the wood; so that after boilings and reboilings of the contents of my small cauldron, after added pounds of salutary sugar, as numerous as those prescribed in the choicest recipe for the thickest jam, I well remember finding the whole process and act (which, to the exclusion of everything else, dragged itself out for a month) one of the most expensive of its sort in which I had ever engaged.

But I recall, by good luck, no less vividly how much finer a sweetness than any mere spooned-out saccharine dwelt in the fascination of the questions involved. Treating a theme that ‘gave’ much in a form that, at the best, would give little, might indeed represent a peck of troubles; yet who, none the less, beforehand, was to pronounce with authority such and such an idea anecdotic and such and such another developmental? One had, for the vanity of a priori wisdom here, only to be so constituted that to see any form of beauty, for a particular application, proscribed or even questioned, was forthwith to covet that form more than any other and to desire the benefit of it exactly there. One had only to be reminded that for the effect of quick roundness the small smooth situation, though as intense as one will, is prudently indicated, and that for a fine complicated entangled air nothing will serve that does n’t naturally swell and bristle – one had only, I say, to be so warned off or warned on, to see forthwith no beauty for the simple thing that should n’t, and even to perversity, enrich it, and none for the other, the comparatively intricate, that should n’t press it out as a mosaic. After which fashion the careful craftsman would have prepared himself the special inviting treat of scarce being able to say, at his highest infatuation, before any series, which might be the light thing weighted and which the dense thing clarified. The very attempt so to discriminate leaves him in fact at moments even a little ashamed; whereby let him shirk here frankly certain of the issues presented by the remainder of our company – there being, independently of these mystic matters, other remarks to make. Blankness overtakes me, I confess, in connexion with the brief but concentrated Greville Fanethat emerges, how concentrated I tried to make it – which must have appeared in a London weekly journal at the beginning of the ‘nineties’; but as to which I further retain only a dim warm pleasantness as of old Kensington summer hours. I re-read, ever so kindly, to the promotion of a mild aftertaste – that of a certain feverish pressure, in a cool north room resorted to in heavy London Augusts, with stray, rare echoes of the town, beyond near roofs and chimneys, making harmless detonations, and with the perception, over my page, as I felt poor Greville grow, that her scant record, to be anything at all, would have to be a minor miracle of foreshortening. For here is exactly an illustrative case: the subject, in this little composition, is ‘developmental’ enough, while the form has to make the anecdotic concession; and yet who shall say that for the right effect of a small harmony the fusion has failed? We desire doubtless a more detailed notation of the behaviour of the son and daughter, and yet had I believed the right effect missed Greville Fane would n’t have figured here.

Nothing, by the same stroke, could well have been condemned to struggle more for that harmony than The abasement of the Northmores and The tree of knowledge: the idea in these examples (1900) being developmental with a vengeance and the need of an apparent ease and a general congruity having to enforce none the less – as on behalf of some victim of the income-tax who would minimise his ‘return’ – an almost heroic dissimulation of capital. These things, especially the former, are novels intensely compressed, and with that character in them yet keeping at bay, under stress of their failing else to be good short stories, any air of mutilation. They had had to be good short stories in order to earn, however precariously, their possible wage and ‘appear’ – so certain was it that there would be no appearance, and consequently no wage, for them as frank and brave nouvelles. They could but conceal the fact that they were ‘nouvelles’; they could but masquerade as little anecdotes. I include them here by reason of that successful, that achieved and consummate – as it strikes me – duplicity: which, however, I may add, was in the event to avail them little – since they were to find nowhere, the unfortunates, hospitality and the reward of their effort. It is to The tree of knowledge I referred just above, I may further mention, as the production that had cost me, for keeping it ‘down’, even a greater number of full revolutions of the merciless screw than The middle years. On behalf also of this member of the group, as well as for The author of ‘Beltraffio’, I recover exceptionally the sense of the grain of suggestion, the tiny air-blown particle. In presence of a small interesting example of a young artist long dead, and whom I had yet briefly seen and was to remember with kindness, a friend had made, thanks to a still greater personal knowledge of him and of his quasi-conspicuous father, likewise an artist, one of those brief remarks that the dramatist feels as fertilising. “And then,” the lady I quote had said in allusion to certain troubled first steps of the young man’s career, to complications of consciousness that had made his early death perhaps less strange and less lamentable, even though superficially more tragic; “and then he had found his father out, artistically: having grown up in so happy a personal relation with him only to feel, at last, quite awfully, that he did n’t and could n’t believe in him.” That fell on one’s ear of course only to prompt the inward cry: “How can there possibly not be all sorts of good things in it?” Just so for The author of ‘Beltraffio’ – long before this and some time before the first appearance of the tale in The English illustrated magazine (1884): it had been said to me of an eminent author, these several years dead and on some of the embarrassments of whose life and character a common friend was enlarging: “Add to them all, moreover, that his wife objects intensely to what he writes. She can’t bear it (as you can for that matter rather easily conceive) and that naturally creates a tension—!” There had come the air-blown grain which, lodged in a handful of kindly earth, was to produce the story of Mark Ambient.

Elliptic, I allow, and much of a skipping of stages, so bare an account of such performances; yet with the constitutive process for each idea quite sufficiently noted by my having had, always, only to say to myself sharply enough: “Dramatise it, dramatise it!” That answered, in the connexion, always, all my questions – that provided for all my ‘fun’. The two tales I have named but represent therefore their respective grains of seed dramatically handled. In the case of Broken wings (1900), however, I but see to-day the produced result – I fail to disinter again the buried germ. Little matters it, no doubt, that I recall as operative here the brush of no winged word; for when had I been, as a fellow scribbler, closed to the general admonition of such adventures as poor Mrs Harvey’s, the elegant representative of literature at Mundham? – to such predicaments as Stuart Straith’s, gallant victim of the same hospitality and with the same confirmed ache beneath his white waistcoat? The appeal of mature purveyors obliged, in the very interest of their presumed, their marketable, freshness, to dissimulate the grim realities of shrunken ‘custom’, the felt chill of a lower professional temperature – any old note-book would show that laid away as a tragic ‘value’ not much less tenderly than some small plucked flower of association left between the leaves for pressing. What had happened here, visibly, was that the value had had to wait long to become active. “Dramatise, dramatise, dramatise!” had been just there more of an easy admonition than of a ready feat; the case for dramatisation was somehow not whole. Under some forgotten touch, however, at its right hour, it was to round itself. What the single situation lacked the pair of situations would supply – there was drama enough, with economy, from the moment sad companions, looking each other, with their identities of pluck and despair, a little hard in the face, should confess each to the other, relievingly, what they kept from every one else. With the right encounter and the right surprise, that is with the right persons, postulated, the relief, if in the right degree exquisite, might be the drama – and the right persons, in fine, to make it exquisite, were Stuart Straith and Mrs Harvey. There remains The great good place (1900) – to the spirit of which, however, it strikes me, any gloss or comment would be a tactless challenge. It embodies a calculated effect, and to plunge into it, I find, even for a beguiled glance – a course I indeed recommend – is to have left all else outside. There then my indications must wait.

The origin of Paste is rather more expressible, since it was to consist but of the ingenious thought of transposing the terms of one of Guy de Maupassant’s admirable contes. In La parure a poor young woman, under ‘social’ stress, the need of making an appearance on an important occasion, borrows from an old school friend, now much richer than herself, a pearl necklace which she has the appalling misfortune to lose by some mischance never afterwards cleared up. Her life and her pride, as well as her husband’s with them, become subject, from the hour of the awful accident, to the redemption of their debt; which, effort by effort, sacrifice by sacrifice, franc by franc, with specious pretexts, excuses, a rage of desperate explanation of their failure to restore the missing object, they finally obliterate – all to find that their whole consciousness and life have been convulsed and deformed in vain, that the pearls were but highly artful ‘imitation’ and that their passionate penance has ruined them for nothing. It seemed harmless sport simply to turn that situation round – to shift, in other words, the ground of the horrid mistake, making this a matter not of a false treasure supposed to be true and precious, but of a real treasure supposed to be false and hollow: though a new little ‘drama’, a new setting for my pearls – and as different as possible from the other – had of course withal to be found.

Europe, which is of 1899, when it appeared in Scribner’s magazine, conspicuously fails, on the other hand, to disown its parentage; so distinct has its ‘genesis’ remained to me. I had preserved for long years an impression of an early time, a visit, in a sedate American city – for there were such cities then – to an ancient lady whose talk, whose allusions and relics and spoils and mementoes and credentials, so to call them, bore upon a triumphant sojourn in Europe, long years before, in the hey-day of the high scholarly reputation of her husband, a dim displaced superseded celebrity at the time of my own observation. They had been ‘much made of ’, he and she, at various foreign centres of polite learning, and above all in the England of early Victorian days; and my hostess had lived ever since on the name and fame of it; a treasure of legend and anecdote laid up against the comparatively lean half-century, or whatever, that was to follow. For myself even, after this, a good slice of such a period had elapsed; yet with my continuing to believe that fond memory would still somehow be justified of this scrap too, along with so many others: the unextinguished sense of the temperature of the January morning on which the little Sunday breakfast-party, at half-past nine across the snow, had met to the music of a chilly ghostly kindly tinkle; that of the roomful of cherished echoes and of framed and glazed, presented and autographed and thumb-marked mementoes – the wealth of which was somehow explained (this was part of the legend) by the ancient, the at last almost prehistoric, glory of like matutinal hours, type and model of the emulous shrunken actual.

The justification I awaited, however, only came much later, on my catching some tender mention of certain admirable ladies, sisters and spinsters under the maternal roof, for whom the century was ebbing without remedy brought to their eminent misfortune (such a ground of sympathy always in the ‘good old’ American days when the touching case was still possible) of not having ‘been to Europe’. Exceptionally prepared by culture for going, they yet could n’t leave their immemorial mother, the headspring, precisely, of that grace in them, who on the occasion of each proposed start announced her approaching end – only to postpone it again after the plan was dished and the flight relinquished. So the century ebbed, and so Europe altered – for the worse – and so perhaps even a little did the sisters who sat in bondage; only so did n’t at all the immemorial, the inextinguishable, the eternal mother. Striking to the last degree, I thought, that obscure, or at least that muffled, tragedy, which had the further interest of giving me on the spot a setting for my own so long uninserted gem and of enabling me to bring out with maximum confidence my inveterate ‘Dramatise!’ “Make this one with such projection as you are free to permit yourself of the brooding parent in the other case,” I duly remarked, “and the whole thing falls together; the paradise the good sisters are apparently never to attain becoming by this conversion just the social cake on which they have always been fed and that has so notoriously opened their appetite.” Or something of that sort. I recognise that I so but express here the ‘plot’ of my tale as it stands; except for so far as my formula, ‘something of that sort’, was to make the case bristle with as many vivid values, with as thick and yet as clear a little complexity of interest, as possible. The merit of the thing is in the feat, once more, of the transfusion; the receptacle (of form) being so exiguous, the brevity imposed so great. I undertook the brevity, so often undertaken on a like scale before, and again arrived at it by the innumerable repeated chemical reductions and condensations that tend to make of the very short story, as I risk again noting, one of the costliest, even if, like the hard, shining sonnet, one of the most indestructible, forms of composition in general use. I accepted the rigour of its having, all sternly, in this case, to treat so many of its most appealing values as waste; and I now seek my comfort perforce in the mere exhibited result, the union of whatever fulness with whatever clearness.

end of the preface to volume 16

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