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The novel of incident (1892) by Agnes Repplier


from Essays in miniature (1892)

by Agnes Repplier

A GREAT deal of generous scorn has been expended of late years upon those old-fashioned novels in which the characters were given plenty to do, and did it with a supreme energy and passion, only possible, perhaps, within the enchanted precincts of fiction. Such stories, we are told, are false to life, which is monotonous, uneventful, and made up day by day of minute and tedious detail, small pleasures which are hardly recognizable as such, and grim vexations which can never be persuaded to assume noble or heroic proportions. The truthful representation of life being the only worthy object of a novelist's skill, it follows that his tale should be destitute of any incidents save those with which we are all familiar in the narrow routine of existence. We should be able to verify them by experience--to prove them, as children prove their examples at school.

  To meet these current severities of realism, the advocates of a livelier fiction unite in saying a great many sarcastic and amusing things about the deadly dulness of their opponents; about the hero and heroine who, in the course of three volumes, "agree not to become engaged," and about the lady's subtle reasons for dropping her handkerchief, or passing a cruet at table. It may be hard work to build up a novel out of nothing, they admit, but we can only echo Dr. Johnson's words, and wish it were impossible. Where is the gain in this perpetual unfolding of the obvious? What is the advantage of wasting genuine ability upon a task the difficulties of which constitute its sole claim to distinction?

  But is the so-called novel of character more difficult to write than the novel of romance? This question can be answered satisfactorily only by an author who has done both kinds of work sufficiently well to make his opinion valuable; and, so far, no such versatile genius has appeared in the field of letters. If we may judge by results, we should say that artistic labor is as rare in one school of fiction as in the other, and apparently as far out of the reach of the ordinary champion in the arena. It is easy enough to be analytic; but it is extremely hard to be luminous, or interpretative, or to know when analysis counts. It is easy to stuff a book full of incidents; but it is hard to make those incidents living pages in literature. After De Foe had led the way with Robinson Crusoe, a whole army of imitators wrote similar tales of adventure; but Robinson Crusoe is to-day the only shipwrecked mariner whose every action awakens interest and delight. Mr. Stevenson in The Black Arrow, and Mr. Rider Haggard in Nada the Lily, have given us stories rich in horrors which do not horrify, and excitements which do not excite. Mr. Stevenson's tale is one bewildering succession of murders, plots, hairbreadth escapes, bloody skirmishes, and perils by field and flood; yet a gentle indifference as to which side wins is the only distinct sentiment with which we follow the windings of his narrative. Sir Daniel is a perjured villain; but it is with no stern sense of just retribution that we see him fall under the fatal arrow. Master Dick is a stout young soldier; but where is the breathless attention with which we pursue every step of another young soldier, equally brave and quick-witted, Quentin Durward of Glen-houlakin? Even Joan in her doublet and hose--a device dear to the heart of the romanticist--is almost as uninteresting as Joan in her petticoats; though perhaps the most striking scene in the book is that in which Dick endeavors with hearty good will to administer a little well-deserved chastisement to the supposed boy, and finds himself withheld by some subtle apprehension of a secret he is far from suspecting. To compare The Black Arrow with Ivanhoe or Quentin Durward is manifestly unjust. It is no shame to any man to be surpassed by Scott. But when we remember the admirable and satisfying events in Treasure Island, or the well-sustained interest of Kidnapped it seems incredible that Mr. Stevenson, of all novelists, should have succeeded in telling a lifeless story of adventure.

  As for Nada the Lily, its incidents are too monotonously painful to do more than distress the reader. I am inclined to think that a greater number of people die in the course of this tale than in all the rest of English fiction, exclusive of Mr. Haggard's other novels. They die singly, in pairs, in groups, in armies, in whole tribes. They die in battle, by fire, by torture, by starvation, at the hands of pitiless slaughterers, and under the fangs of ghost wolves. They die for every imaginable cause, and under every conceivable circumstance. To keep the death-rate of such a story would be like keeping the death-rate of the Deluge. There is the same comprehensive and all-embracing destruction. This may be true to Zulu history--in fact, Mr. Haggard tells us as much in his preface to "Nada," and few people are in a position to dispute the point; but it is radically false to art, and impairs the natural vigor of the tale. While one tragedy may be sombre and impressive, a dozen are apt to be fatiguing, and half a hundred border closely on the burlesque. Chaka, "a Napoleon and Tiberius in one," reminds the irreverent reader irresistibly of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, who is all the time saying, "Off with his head!" and ordering everybody to execution; the only difference being that the Queen's victims turn up blandly in the next chapter, and Chaka's never reappear. He it is who slays Unandi his mother, Baleka his wife, all his children save one, all his enemies, and most of his friends. Then his turn comes--and none too soon--to be murdered, and Dingaan his brother, "who had the fierce heart of Chaka without its greatness," sets to work systematically to kill everybody who chances to be left. By the time he, too, is flung over the cliff to die, Mopo and Umslopogaas alone survive; the first because he has to tell the tale--after which he promptly expires--and the second because he has already been slain in battle during the progress of another story. The most curious thing about this wholesale devastation is that Mr. Haggard apparently deplores it as much as the rest of us. "It would have been desirable to introduce some gayer and more happy incidents," he admits in his preface, "but it has not been possible." Why has it not been possible, we wonder? It is the privilege of a novelist to select or discard material according to his good judgment. He is not writing a history; he is telling a story. He is not chronicling events; he is weaving a romance. He is an artist, not a recorder; and in the choice as well as in the use of material lies the test of unblemished art.

  What, then, is the vital charm which makes the novel of incident true literature--the charm possessed by Dumas, and Fielding, and Sir Walter Scott? Mr. Birrell, who is always in love with plain definitions, says that if a book be full of "inns, atmosphere, and motion," then it is a good book, and he asks no more. Mr. Lang, who shares this hearty sympathy for action, acknowledges that the best results are often obtained by the simplest machinery. "Dumas," he declares, "requires no more than a room in an inn, where people meet in riding-cloaks, to move the heart with the last degree of pity and terror." Scott handles incident with the matchless skill of a great story-teller. He shows the same instinctive art in his situations that a great painter like Rembrandt shows in his grouping. Every figure falls so inevitably into his right place that it is impossible for us to imagine him in any other. Henry Bertram's return to Ellengowan is one of the most artistic and charming scenes in fiction, though it is described with such careless simplicity. Perplexed and fascinated by the childish memories tugging at his heartstrings, the young laird gazes at his ancestral home, and listens with rapture--which we share--to the fragment of a long-forgotten yet familiar song:

"Are these the Links of Forth," she said,
  "Or are they the crooks of Dee,
Or the bonnie woods of Warroch-head,
  That I so fain would see?"

  There may be people who are in no way moved by this home-coming, and who feel no joy when Queen Mary's boat glides over the dark waters of Lochleven, and no horror at that ill-omened churchyard gossip which ushers in the dreadful wedding of Lammermoor. I do not envy them their composure; but what of King Louis's visit to the Duke of Burgundy in Quentin Durward, a situation so tense with passion that the least imaginative reader may well tremble at the possibilities of every minute? What of the sacking of Liege, the siege of Front de Boeuf's castle, the trial of Rebecca, the battle of Bothwell Bridge? He who could carry a chilly indifference through such narratives as these would not care if Shylock gained his suit, or King Harry lost the field of Agincourt. I doubt if he would really care whether Hector or Achilles won the fight.

  The casual incidents of life, the trivial possibilities of every day, are treated by Dickens with extraordinary humor and skill; witness David Copperfield's journey to Dover, and Oliver Twist's first introduction to Fagin's den. But his great situations are apt to be theatrical rather than dramatic. It is not often that he reaches the sombre strength and passion of that memorable scene where the convict reveals to Pip the secret of his mysterious wealth. I do not know whether a great many people read Bulwer's novels nowadays. They belong to a past generation, which perhaps was luckier than the present. But I do know that the rescue of Glaucus from the arena was an epoch in my childhood, and the cry of joy that rings from Nydia's lips rang in my heart for years. I have an inexpressible tenderness now for The Last Days of Pompeii, because of the passionate suspense with which I read it when I was a little girl, and the supreme gasp of relief with which I hailed the arrival of Sallust and Calenus, while the lion crouches trembling in his cage. It is not easy to criticise a book linked with such vivid memories, and perhaps it is the association with early pleasures which gilds for many of us the beguiling pages of romance. "We are all homesick, in the dark days and black towns, for the land of blue skies and brave adventures in forests, and in lonely inns, on the battle-field, in the prison, on the desert isle." It is useless, and worse than useless, to dispute over the respective schools of fiction, instead of gladly enjoying that which we like best; and there are different kinds of enjoyment for different kinds of work. For my part, the good novel of character is the novel I can always pick up; but the good novel of incident is the novel I can never lay down.