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A short defence of villains (1892) by Agnes Repplier


from Essays in miniature (1892)

by Agnes Repplier

AMID the universal grayness that has settled mistily down upon English fiction, amid the delicate drab-colored shadings and half-lights which require, we are told, so fine a skill in handling, the old-fashioned reader misses, now and then, the vivid coloring of his youth. He misses the slow unfolding of quite impossible plots, the thrilling incidents that were wont pleasantly to arouse his apprehension, and, most of all, two characters once deemed essential to every novel--the hero and the villain. The heroine is left us still, and her functions are far more complicated than in the simple days of yore, when little was required of her save to be beautiful as the stars. She faces now the most intricate problems of life; and she faces them with conscious self-importance, a dismal power of analysis, and a robust candor in discussing their equivocal aspects that would have sent her buried sister blushing to the wall. There was sometimes a lamentable lack of solid virtue in this fair dead sister, a pitiful human weakness that led to her undoing; but she never talked so glibly about sin. As for the hero, he owes his banishment to the riotous manner in which his masters handled him. Bulwer strained our endurance and our credulity to the utmost; Disraeli took a step further, and Lothair, the last of his race, perished amid the cruel laughter of mankind.

  But the villain! Remember what we owe to him in the past. Think how dear he has become to every rightly constituted mind. And now we are told, soberly and coldly, by the thin-blooded novelists of the day, that his absence is one of the crowning triumphs of modern genius, that we have all grown too discriminating to tolerate in fiction a character who we feel does not exist in life. Man, we are reminded, is complex, subtle, unfathomable, made up of good and evil so dexterously intermingled that no one element predominates coarsely over the rest. He is to be studied warily and with misgivings, not classified with brutal ease into the virtuous and bad. It is useless to explain to these analysts that the pleasure we take in meeting a character in a book does not always depend on our having known him in the family circle, or encountered him in our morning paper; though, judged even by this stringent law, the villain holds his own. Accept Balzac's rule, and exclude from fiction not only all which might not really happen, but all which has not really happened in truth, and we would still have studies enough in total depravity to darken all the novels in Christendom.

  What murder of romance was ever so wanton, so tragic, and so sombre as that which gave to the Edinburgh highway the name of Gabriel's Road? There, in the sweet summer afternoon, fresh with the breath of primroses and cowslips, the young tutor cut the throats of his two little pupils, in a mad, inexplicable revenge for their childish tale-bearing. Taken red-handed in the deed, he met with swift retribution from the furious populace; and the same hour which witnessed the crime saw his pinioned corpse dangling from the nearest tree, with the bloody knife hung in awful mockery around its neck. Thus the murder and its punishment conspired to make the lonely road a haunted path, ghost-ridden, terrible; where women shivered and hurried on, and little boys, creepy with fear, scampered by, breathless, in the dusk; seeing before them always, on the ragged turf, two small, piteous, blood-smeared bodies, and hearing ever, overhead, the rattle of the rusty knife against the felon's bones. The highway, with its unholy associations discreetly perpetuated in its name, became an education to the good people of Edinburgh, and taught them the value of emotions. They must have indistinctly felt what Mr. Louis Stevenson has so well described, the subtle harmony that unites an evil deed to its location. "Some places," he says, "speak distinctly Certain dark gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck. Other spots, again, seem to abide their destiny, suggestive and impenetrable." And is all this fine and delicate sentiment, all this skillful playing with horror and fear, to be lost to fiction, merely because, as De Quincey reluctantly admits, "the majority of murderers are incorrect characters"? May we not forgive their general incorrectness for the sake of their literary and artistic value? Shall Charles Lamb's testimony count for nothing, when we remember his comfortable allusion to "kind, light-hearted Wainwright"? And what shall we think of Edward Fitzgerald, the gentlest and least hurtful of Englishmen, abandoning himself, in the clear and genial weather, to the delights of Tacitus, "full of pleasant atrocity"?

  Repentant villains, I must confess, are not greatly to my mind. They sacrifice their artistic to their ethical value, and must be handled with consummate skill to escape a suspicious flavor of Sunday-school romance. The hardened criminal, disarmed and converted by the innocent attractions of childhood, is a favorite device of poets and story-writers who cater to the sentiments of maternity; but it is wiser to lay no stress upon the permanency of such conversions. That swift and sudden yielding to a gentle emotion or a noble aspiration, which is one of the undying traits of humanity, attracts us often by the very force of its evanescence, by the limitations which prove its truth. But the slow, stern process of regeneration is not an emotional matter, and cannot be convincingly portrayed with a few facile touches in the last chapter of a novel. Thackeray knew better than this, when he showed us Becky Sharp touched and softened by her good little sister-in-law; heartsick now and then of her own troublesome schemes, yet sinking inevitably lower and lower through the weight of overmastering instincts and desires. She can aspire intermittingly to a cleaner life, but she can never hope to reach it. The simple literature of the past is curiously rich in these pathetic transient glimpses into fallen nature's brighter side. Where can we see depicted with more tenderness and truth the fitful relenting of man's brutality, after it has wrought the ruin it devised, than in the fine old ballad of Edom O'Gordon? The young daughter of the house of Rodes is lowered from the walls of the burning castle, and the cruel Gordon spears transfix her as she falls. She lies dead, in her budding girlhood, at the feet of her father's foe, and his heart is strangely stirred and troubled when he looks at her childish face.

"O bonnie, bonnie was hir mouth,
  And cherry were hir cheiks,
And clear, clear was hir yellow hair,
  Whereon the reid bluid dreips.

"Then wi' his spear he turned hir owre,
  O gin hir face was wan!
He sayd, 'You are the first that eir
  I wisht alive again.'

He turned hir owre and owre again,
  O gin hir skin was whyte!
'I might hae spared that bonnie face
  To hae been sum man's delyte.'"

It is pleasant to know that the ruthless butcher was promptly pursued and slain for his crime, but it is finer still to realize that brief moment of bitterness and shame. I have sometimes thought that Rossetti's Sister Helen would have gained in artistic beauty if, after those three days of awful watching were over, after the glowing fragment of wax had melted in the flames, and her lover's soul had passed her, sighing on the wind, there had come to the stricken girl a pang of supreme regret, an impulse of mad desire to undo the horror she had wrought. The conscience of a sinner, to use a striking phrase of Mr. Brownell's, "is doubtless readjusted rather than repudiated altogether," and there is an absolute truthfulness in these sudden relapses into grace.

  For this reason, doubtless, I find Mr. Blackmore's villains, with all their fascination and power, a shade too heavily, or at least too monotonously darkened. Parson Chowne is a veritable devil, and it is only his occasional humor--manifested grimly in deeds, not words --which enables us to bear the weight of his insupportable wickedness. The introduction of the naked savages as an outrage to village propriety; the summons to church, when he has a mind to fire the ricks of his parishioners, --these are the life-giving touches which mellow down this overwrought figure, this black and scowling thunderbolt of humanity. Perhaps, also, Mr. Blackmore, in his laudable desire for picturesqueness, lays too much stress on the malignant aspect, the appropriate physical condition of his sinners. From Parson Chowne's "wondrous unfathomable face," which chills every heart with terror, to the "red glare" in Donovan Bulrag's eyes, there is always something exceptional about these worthies, to indicate to all beholders what manner of men they are. One is reminded of Charles II. protesting, not unnaturally, against the perpetual swarthiness of stage villains. "We never see a rogue in a play but we clap on him a black periwig," complained the dark-skinned monarch, with a sense of personal grievance in this forced association between complexion and crime. It was the same subtle inspiration which prompted Kean to play Shylock in a red wig that suggested to Wilkie Collins Count Fosco's admirable size. The passion for embroidered waistcoats and fruit tarts, the petted white mice, the sympathetic gift of pastry to the organ-grinder's monkey, all the little touches which go to build up this colossal, tender-hearted, remorseless, irresistible scoundrel are of interest and value to the portrait, but his fat is as essential as his knavery. It is one of those master strokes of genius which breaks away from all accepted traditions to build up a new type, perfect and unapproachable. We can no more imagine a thin Fosco than a melancholy Dick Swiveller, or a light-hearted Ravenswood.

  Mr. Andrew Lang, who enjoys upon all occasions the courage of his convictions, has, in one of those pleasant papers, "At the Sign of the Ship," given utterance to a sentiment so shockingly at variance with the prevalent theory of fiction, that the reader is divided between admiration for his boldness and a vague surprise that a man should speak such words and live. There is a cheerfulness, too, about Mr. Lang's heterodoxy, a smiling ignorance of his own transgression, that warms our hearts and weakens our upbraiding. "The old simple scheme," he says, "in which you had a real unmitigated villain, a heroine as pure as snow or flame, and a crowd of good ordinary people, gave us more agreeable reading, and reading not, I think, more remote from truth, than is to be found in Dr. Ibsen's Ghosts or in his Pillars of Society." Now to support such a statement would be unscrupulous; to condemn it, dispiriting; but I wonder if the "real unmitigated villain" is quite so simple a product as Mr. Lang appears to imagine. May not his absence from literature be owing as much to the limitations as to the disregard of modern realists? Is he, in truth, so easily drawn as to be unworthy of their subtle and discriminating pens? Is Sir Giles Overreach a mere child's toy in comparison with Consul Bernick, and is Brian de Bois-Guilbert unworthy to rank with Johann Tönnesen and Oswald Alving? A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development. Mrs. Pennell has told us the story of some old Venetian witches, who were converted from their dark ways, and taught the charms of peace and godliness; but who would desire or credit the conversion of a witch? The potency of evil lies within her to the end; and when, by a few muttered words, she can raise a hell storm on the ocean; when her eye's dim fire can wither the strength of her enemy; or when, with a lock of hair and a bit of wax, she can consume him with torturing pain, who will welcome her neighborly advances? The proper and artistic end of a witch is at the stake--blue flames curling up to heaven, and a handful of gray ashes scattered to the wind; or, by the working of a stronger spell, she may be stiffened into stone, and doomed to stand forever on some desolate moor, where, underneath starless skies, her evil feet have strayed; or perhaps that huge black cat, her sinister attendant, has completed his ninth year of servitude to nine successive witches, and, by virtue of the power granted him at their expiration, he may whisk her off bodily on St. John's Eve, to offer her a living holocaust to Satan. These are possibilities in strict sympathy with her character and history, if not with her inclinations; the last is in especial accordance with sound Italian tradition, and all reveal what Heine calls "the melancholy pleasurable awe, the dark sweet horror, of Mediæval ghost fancies." But a converted witch, walking demurely to vesper service, gossiping with good, garrulous old women on the doorstep, or holding an innocent child within her withered arms--the very thought repels us instinctively, and fires us with a sharp mistrust. Have a care, you foolish young mother, and snatch your baby to your breast; for even now he waxes paler and paler, as those cold, malignant heart-throbs chill his breath, and wear his little life away.

  The final disposition of a mere earthly villain should likewise be a matter of artistic necessity, not a harsh trampling of arrogant virtue upon prostrate vice. There is no mistake so fatal as that of injustice to the evil element of a novel or a play. We all know how, when Portia pushes her triumphant casuistry a step too far, our sympathies veer obstinately around to Shylock's side, and refuse to be re-adjusted before the curtain falls. Perhaps Shakespeare intended this,--who knows?--and t hrew in Gratiano's last jeers to madden, not the usurer, but the audience. Or perhaps in Elizabeth's day, as in King John's, people had not grown so finical about the feelings of a Jew, and it is only the chilly tolerance of our enlightened age which prevents our enjoying as we should the devout prejudices of our ancestors. But when, in a modern novel, guiltless of all this picturesque superstition, we see the sinner treated with a narrow, nagging sort of severity, our unregenerate nature rebels stoutly against such a manifest lack of balance. Not long ago, I chanced to read a story which actually dared to have a villain for a hero, and I promised myself much pleasure from so original and venturesome a step. But how did the very popular authoress treat her own creation? In the first place, when rescued from a truly feminine haze of hints, and dark whispers, and unsubstantiated innuendoes, the hapless man is proven guilty of but three offences: he takes opium, he ejects his tenants, and he tries, not very successfully, to mesmerize his wife. Now, opium-eating is a vice, the punishment for which is borne by the offender, and which merits as much pity as contempt; rack-renting is an unpardonable, but not at all a thrilling misdemeanor; and, in these days of psychological research, there are many excellent men who would not shrink from making hypnotic experiments on their grandmothers. In consequence, however, of such feeble atrocities, the hero-villain is subjected to a species of outlawry at the hands of all the good people in the book. His virtuous cousin makes open and highly honorable love to his virtuous wife, who responds with hearty alacrity. His virtuous cousin's still more virtuous brother comes within an ace of murdering him in cold blood, through motives of the purest philanthropy. Finally, one of these virtuous young men lets loose on him his family ghost, deliberately unsealing the spectral abiding-place; and, while the virtuous wife clings around the virtuous cousin's neck, and forbids him tenderly to go to the rescue, the accommodating spirit--who seems to have no sort of loyalty to the connection--slays the villain at his own doorstep, and leaves the coast free for a second marriage service. Practically, the device is an admirable one, because, when the ghost retires once more to his seclusion, nobody can well be convicted of manslaughter, and a great deal of scandal is saved. But, artistically, there is something repellent in this open and shameless persecution; in three persons and a hobgoblin conspiring against one poor man. Our sentiment is diverted from its proper channel, our emotions are manifestly incorrect.

  "How are you to get up the sympathies of the audience in a legitimate manner," asks Mr. Vincent Crummles, "if there is n't a little man contending against a big one?--unless there's at least five to one, and we have n't hands enough for that business in our company." What would the noble-hearted Mr. Crummles have thought of reversing this natural order of things, and declaring victory for the multitude? How would human nature, in the provinces, have supported so novel and hazardous an innovation? Why should human nature, out of the provinces, be assumed to have outgrown its simple, chivalrous instincts? A good, strong, designing, despicable villain, or even villainess, a fair start, a stout fight, an artistic overthrow, and triumphant Virtue smiling modestly beneath her orange blossoms--shall we ever be too old and world-worn to love these old and world-worn things?