My Favourite Novelist and His Best Book
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
My Favourite Novelist and His Best Book
MY FAVORITE NOVELIST AND HIS BEST BOOK *
BY A. CONAN DOYLE.
Dr. Conan Doyle finds something admirable in almost every school of fiction, but names as his special favorites the romances of Sir Walter Scott, and Charles Reade's great historical novel, "The Cloister and the Hearth."
If some fairy godmother were to lead me into the reading room of the British Museum, and to say to me, "Upon these walls you will find the works of all the great story tellers of the world. Look at them well, weigh one against the other, and when you have quite made up your mind which is the greatest, you will your self be endowed with that writer's virtues and failings," I should then, I think, approach the question with a keener sense of criticism and a more resolute effort to be clear in my own literary aims. But I know that the task would be a hard one, for I am catholic in my tastes, and every form of fiction — be it good of its kind — appeals to my admiration as freely as every flower in a garden. I have no sympathy for the petty critics who cannot enjoy Flaubert without belittling Scott, or relish a romance without sneering at the modern problem novel. They are all good — if they be but good of their kind — and there is room and to spare for all of them, if they serve to interest some section of the public.
The idea that the writing of a novel is a sort of exact science, only to be approached in certain ways and along certain lines, by realism or by romance, is the utmost pedantry and cant. Here is the writer and there is the audience. Let him seek his subject where he will. Let him treat it how he will. But let him hold that audience — and if he continue to hold it long enough to show that his power does not spring from any passing fashion, he has then a real vocation, whether he deal with the court of a medieval king or that of an East End slum.
But to recur to the stupendous offer of my fairy godmother, I can imagine my self seated in the midst of that enormous room, and gazing round at the books which line it, while I carefully consider which are those which I shall henceforth claim as my own. I review in my mind all those great writers whom I have admired and revered. I try to see their faults as well as their beauties. I turn to Tolstoy, and I am attracted by his earnestness and by his power of detail, but I am repelled by his looseness of construction and by his unreasonable and impracticable mysticism. I covet the literary but not the moral conscience of Zola. I long for the human humor of Dickens and the polished worldliness of Thackeray, but in each case deplore their want of form, their lack of that sense of construction which has been the weakest point of our English novelists. There are many great names left, but of them all there are three over which I should linger, if such a choice were mine — Scott, Dumas, Maupassant.
Maupassant, with all his faults of taste, was such a natural, instinctive story teller, so concise, so admirably balanced, with such a range of sympathies. Of the great masters of fiction none, perhaps, combined high imagination with actual knowledge of life so fully as he. Some of his tales are, I grant, indefensible, but a French writer is to be judged by the standard of his own country, and it may at least be said of him that he is never coarse for the sake of coarseness, and that the humor or the drama of the situation is its excuse, if not its justification.
And yet, as my good godmother waits impatiently for my choice, I pass my favorite of all short story writers regret fully by, and I turn to the full blooded, fiery Creole, the man of a hundred books and plays innumerable, the father of the Musketeers, and the grandfather of much of the fiction of today. Who can judge him impartially, for who is there who does not owe him a debt of gratitude ? His colossal imagination, his great sweep, the masterful way in which he molds history to his own uses, these give him a place apart. Boy or man, simpleton or philosopher, all can find what they want in his pages.
But if I am to choose between him and Scott, I must become advocatus diaboli, and seek for the flaws as well as the beauties of my Dumas. And it must be confessed that they abound. Amidst all this rattle of incident I catch but dim and uncertain glimpses of the world in which these people lived. I learn little — and that little I mistrust. These St. Vitus' dance conversations, too, which jerk and jump in little spasmodic sentences with unnecessary questions and gratuitous answers, do they not bear some relation to the daily column of some journal which had to be filled with its feuilleton ? And then again, when a character becomes superhuman — like Porthos, who dies pulling down a mountain and slaying a regiment — he becomes not impressive, but grotesque. No, I will pass the Norman Frenchman, and I will pass the shock headed Creole, and I will fix my aspirations upon the canny Scotch lawyer, the man with the lame leg and the peaked head, who, with the heartiest contempt for his own profession, hardly deigning to acknowledge his work after he had done it, found time between his dogs, his plantations, and his sheriff's court to write the series of novels which has made the name of Scott immortal.
For apart from the fact of his being the first — which, ceteris paribus, must give him an overwhelming share of the credit — how many points there are in which Scott was the master of Dumas, and how few in which he was his inferior. Let us grant that the Frenchman treated his women characters with more freedom, if with less reverence. Granted, also, that there is a certain touch and go quality about his story telling which is racial But beyond this everything is in Scott's favor — his sanity, his restraint, his accuracy to history, his dignity, his power of realizing and reproducing a historical character as he reproduced Louis XI, from the "Croniques" of Philippe de Comines, his exact knowledge, his humor. In the latter quality there can be no comparison between the two. Take the four comic servants of the musketeers, and compare them with Friar Tuck, with Dandie Dinmont, or, best of all, with Dugald Dalgetty, and you see the difference between a marionette and a human creature.
But the most odious of all comparisons are those between two people whom you admire, and I should never have ventured upon so ungracious a task had I not been forced to justify myself for choosing the one, rather than the other, as my ideal. Let me speak rather of Scott's own virtues, without reference to any rival.
First, as to his beautiful reverence for woman : is there in the whole list of his books one single scene which verges upon coarseness, or is there one precept to be gathered from them which is not gallant and manly ? I acknowledge that it is not the primary duty of a novel to teach ethics; but granting that it fulfils all other conditions of a good novel, then it would be absurd to say that this is not an added merit.
And then there is the fullness and accuracy of his knowledge. He knows the peculiarities of every class and of every trade. His fowlers speak like fowlers, his soldiers like soldiers, his physicians like the leeches of the period. He had a unique power of concentrating all his wide reading so as to build up a single definite picture. Take the work of his old age, "Count Robert of Paris." Who has ever realized the old Greek empire, grotesque, bloodstained, and yet venerable, as he has done in this book, which is usually quoted as the least successful of his writings ? A student who had spent his whole life in studying the subject confessed that he had never realized it until this tired old giant came along and made the whole thing clear by a single flash of his imagination.
It is worthy of note that Scott never wrote a line of fiction until after he was forty — in which he resembled many of the greatest novelists, for this art is the latest of all to mature. To describe life one must know it. Having once begun, he wrote with great rapidity, in spite of many distractions. The wise critics who are so ready to accuse modern writers of over production should remember that Scott turned out as many as three novels a year, each of them exceeding in length the average book of today. If the modern cannot justify his books by their merit, he can at least quote the aphorism of Dr. Johnson, who said that if a tree only produced crab apples, the tree which produced many of them was better than the one which produced few. On the whole, then, whether I take his quantity or his quality, his literary merit or his clean and noble moral influence, I should from all ages and all races place the author of "Ivanhoe" and of "Quentin Durward" at the highest pinnacle of his profession. But before choosing my favorite novelist I should have, as I have shown, to hesitate and to weigh one against the other. This would not be so in the case of my favorite novel. There my mind is entirely made up. It is a book by none of the great men whom I have mentioned, but it is one which, if the author could always have kept to that high level, would have placed him higher than them all. It is Charles Reade's "Cloister and the Hearth." Some books are great on account of the intellect which is shown in them, and some on account of the heart, but I do not know where I can find a book in which the highest qualities of head and of heart go together as they do in this one. From that noble and sonorous opening paragraph :
There is a musty Chronicle written in tolerable Latin, and in it a chapter where every sentence holds a fact. Here is told with harsh brevity the strange history of a pair who lived untrumpeted and died unsung four hundred years ago, and lie now as unpitied on that stern page as fossils in a rock. Thus, living or dead, Fate is still unjust to them. For if I can but show you what lies below that dry Chronicler’s words, me thinks you will correct the indifference of centuries, and give those two sore tried souls a place in your heart for a day—
down to the last ringing sentence:
The words of a genius so high as his are not born to die; their immediate work upon man kind fulfilled, they may seem to lie torpid ; but at each fresh shower of intelligence Time pours upon their students they prove their immortal race; they revive, they spring from the dust of great libraries, they bud, they flower, they fruit, they seed, from generation to generation and from age to age—
I have never found so much accurate knowledge and ripe wisdom and passionate human emotion within the covers of any single book.
The story is to be told in a few sentences, and sounds bald enough, as all stories do when reduced to pure statement. A young Dutchman, Gerard, the son of Ali, somewhere about the year 1450 marries a girl, Margaret — sweetest of all heroines of fiction — and has a child, known in after years as the great Erasmus. Persecuted at home, he journeys across Europe to Rome, to earn some money by his ornamental manuscripts, which are rapidly being ousted by the printing press. While at Rome a false report of the death of Margaret reaches his ears, and, in his agony, he joins the priest hood and becomes a preaching friar. As such he visits Holland and finds the poor, faithful Margaret still waiting for him. His vows stand between her and him, so they live as friends and die as the novelist tells us. There lies the whole of the story, and it is from the struggle between the church and human love, the life of the home and that of the cloister, that the book takes its title. Such an indictment against celibacy of the clergy has never yet been penned.
But the wonder of the book is the extraordinary clearness and power with which the middle ages, in many countries and from many points of view, are laid before us. As Mr. Hornung has picturesquely remarked, it is a searchlight thrown across medieval Europe. And it is a human medievalism, neither stiff nor conventional nor unnatural, but palpitating with rude life and with primitive emotions. We are convinced, as we read, that even such the people must have been, and so they must have thought and lived. The atmosphere is so perfect and so consistent that we drift back into that dreadful life, and wake at the end of a chapter with a start and a sigh of relief to feel that we are living in a cleaner, fresher world, where force has been tempered by law and bigotry by reason.
We see the castle of the brutal and ignorant noble which dominates the road. We see also the monastery, where a little spark of learning and humanity still glimmers amid that widespread darkness. We realize the inns, their discomforts and their dangers, the great woods swarming with robbers, the incessant wars, the grossness and superstition of the people, and yet the picture is lightened, as life is lightened, by the traits of kindliness and mobility which in all ages, and under every condition, will break out in human nature; the self sacrifice which springs from love, the loyalty of friends, the kindliness of women, and the devotion of the poorer clergy.
Wonderfully reproduced, also, is that atmosphere of wonder and of adventure which pervaded the world in a time when there always hung a mirage over the horizon. A man knew the city in which he was born — perhaps also a little of the country around it ; but over the river, or beyond the mountains, it was all a land of mystery, a place where anything might befall him. If he traveled, it was along villainous, deeply rutted roads, with danger like a hedge upon either side of them, and the chances of an ambuscade at every defile. Printing was coming, the Reformation was coming, the revival of learning was just at hand, but the greater part of Europe still lay in that blackest night which precedes the dawn.
I do not know that Charles Reade has anywhere left it upon record how many books went to the making of this one, but it is evident that only very wide reading could give him the store of knowledge from which he draws so freely. And it is necessary not only to collect such knowledge, but to digest and to assimilate it, before it can be used in a natural fashion, without any savor of pedantry. Sir Walter Besant, who is himself an authority upon this epoch, mentions Erasmus, Froissart, Deschamps, Esquillart, Gringoire, Villon, and Luther among the roots from which this great book has sprung.
Consider the many sides of life which are treated here — all of them with the greatest minuteness of detail. We begin with the well ordered routine of provincial Holland, the thrifty, spotless, tile lined house of the burgher, with a passing glance into the palace of the Duke of Burgundy. We learn many things, incidentally and allusively, as such things should be learned in a novel, of the house keeping of these people, of their dress, of their lives, of the Dutch school of painters, of the mystery plays, of their hunting, their archery, their views of existence. Then you start upon that wonderfully vivid journey from Holland to Rome. You pass into medieval Germany, you visit the slovenly inns, the dirty, drunken, good hearted people, the sluggish but honest traders. You are introduced to the old world soldier, and to that more deadly man, the old world physician. At Düsseldorf you strike the Rhine, the broad green highway which binds southern and northern Europe. You visit good abbeys and bad ones, consort with saints and sinners, take your chances with amorous hostesses and murderous hosts, learn incidentally the methods of scientific warefare in the middle ages, and the more complex methods of scientific beg ging, and so pass on through Burgundy and down to the sea.
And then there is the Roman section, with its sketch of the renaissance, its dilettante cardinals who stand for the new dispensation, and its fanatical preaching friars who represent the old ; its artists, its collectors, its debauched society, its hired assassins,"and its very human and tolerant pope. Finally there is the somber and elaborate finale, which draws the life of the cloister and the life of the cell, and the moving study of that poor saint whose troubles arose from never having heard that pithy Western maxim, "One world at a time." When you look back on all this wide field of information you feel that it is not a mere book, but the distillation of a whole library, which you have been reading.
So much for the head, but it is the qualities of heart which seem to me to be the greater of the two. With what tenderness the piteous story is told ! How warm and true is Reade's sympathy with all that is human and good ! The great heart of the man sets the whole book throbbing. From the first meeting of Gerard and Margaret, when he plucks the straws to suck the soup, until he is laid in his coffin and stern old Brother Jerome lays the auburn tress upon his body, no such love story, so natural, so beautiful, and so tender, has been told in our time. You feel that the author has fulfilled that first essential for deeply moving others — he has been deeply moved himself. Sad as it is, it is not maudlin or forced, but the solemn and tender sadness of life which has something sweet forever mixed with its bitterness. I know no scene in fiction which affects me so powerfully as the death of Margaret. The man who can read that chapter with dry eyes is a man whom I do not wish to know.
There is no work of man which is not open to adverse criticism. Perfection never has and never will be attained. In Reade's case the imperfections, the irritating and superficial tricks of manner, are so obtrusive that they catch the eye to the exclusion, sometimes, of the rare qualities which lie beneath them. That a man of his judgment and discernment should try to emphasize a point by using large type, like a sensational daily paper, is a psychological curiosity. His style can be sonorous and beautiful, as in the open ing and closing passages which I have quoted, but it can also be abrupt, jerky, and incoherent to an exasperating extent. But at least it was his own — "his skin and not his shirt," as Carlyle expressed it — and that is something in these days, when "style" is usually a short word for affectation.
Bad also are Charles Reade's familiarities with his reader and with his characters, his trick of nicknaming them, his occasionally clumsy playfulness, his eternal asides, his habit of destroying the illusion by alluding to modern matters in what purports to be an ancient chronicle. But when all this has been most freely discounted, there still remains enough virtue in this novel to make it, in my eyes, the wisest and the most beautiful I have ever read.
A. Conan Doyle.
(*) Under this title Munsey's Magazine is printing a series of articles in which the leading literary men of the day discuss a question interesting to all readers of novels. Papers by William D. Howells, Brander Matthews, Frank R. Stockton, Mrs. Burton Harrison, S. R. Crockett, Paul Bourget, Bret Harte, W. Clark Russell, and Anthony Hope have already appeared, and forthcoming numbers will contain the opinions of Ian Maclaren, Jerome K. Jerome, and others.