Essays in Miniature/Conversation in Novels


A GREAT many years ago, when I was a little girl, I used to know a dear, placid, sunny-tempered old lady who was stone-deaf and an insatiable novel-reader. She always came to our house bearing a black bag which held her jointed ear-trumpet, and she always left it with a borrowed novel under her arm. As she had reached that comfortable period of life when a book is as easily forgotten as read, our slender library supplied all her demands, on the same principle of timely reappearance which makes an imposing stage army out of two dozen elusive supernumeraries. She had a theory of selection all her own, and to which she implicitly trusted. She glanced over a story very rapidly, and if it had too many solid, page-long paragraphs—reflections, descriptions, etc.—she put it sadly but steadfastly aside. If, on the contrary, it was well broken up into conversations, which always impart an air of sprightliness to a book, she said she was sure she would like it, and carried it off in triumph.

Those were not days, be it remembered, when people wrote fiction for the sake of introducing discussions. There still lingered in the novelist's mind the time-worn heresy that he had a story to tell, and that his people must act as well as talk. The plot—delightful and obsolete word!—was then in good repute, and conversation was mainly useful in helping on the tale, in providing copious love scenes, and, with really good novelists, in illustrating and developing character. Thomas Love Peacock's inimitable dialogues had indeed been long given to the world; but quiet people of restricted cultivation knew nothing of them, and would have found it difficult to realize their loss. I can hardly fancy our dear old friend reading and enjoying the delicious war of words in Crotchet Castle, and I should be grieved to think of her suddenly confronted with those scraps of sententious wisdom, in which its author took a truly impish and reprehensible delight. Such a sentiment as "Men have been found very easily permutable into ites and onians, avians and arians," might have sorely puzzled her benign and tranquil soul.

Yet no one can accuse Peacock of writing his novels in order to express his own personal convictions. The fact is that, after reading them, we are often very much in the dark as to what his convictions were. We know he loved old things better than new ones, and wine better than water; and that is about as far as we can follow him with security. "The intimate friends of Mr. Peacock may have understood his political sentiments," says Lord Houghton disconsolately, "but it is extremely difficult to discover them from his work." His people simply talk in character, sometimes tiresomely, sometimes with unapproachable keenness and humor, and the scope of his stories hardly permits any near approach to the fine gradations, the endless variety, of life. Mr. Chainmail never opens his lips save in praise of feudalism. Mr. Mac Quedy discusses political economy only. Even the witty Dr. Folliott, "a fellow of infinite jest," seldom gets beyond the dual delights of Greek and dining. It is all vastly piquant and entertaining, but it is leagues away from the casual conversation, the little leisurely, veracious gossip in which Jane Austen reveals to us with merciless distinctness the secret springs that move a human heart. She has scant need to describe her characters, and she seldom takes that trouble. They betray themselves at every word, and stand convicted on their own evidence. We are not warned in advance against Isabella Thorpe. We meet her precisely as Catherine meets her in the Pump-room at Bath, where the young lady speedily opens her lips, and acquaints us in the most vivacious manner with her own callous folly and selfishness. Every syllable uttered by Mrs. Norris is a new and luminous revelation; we know her just that much better than we did before she spoke. Even Sense and Sensibility, by no means the best of Miss Austen's novels, starts with that admirable discussion between Mr. John Dashwood and his wife on the subject of his mother's and sisters' maintenance. It is a short chapter, the second in the book, and at its close we are masters of the whole situation. We have sounded the feeble egotism of Mr. Dashwood, and the adroit meanness of his spouse. We know precisely what degree of assistance Elinor and Marianne are likely to receive from them. We foresee the relation these characters will bear to each other during the progress of the story, and we have been shown with delicious humor how easy and pleasant is the task of self-deception. That a girl of nineteen should have been capable of such keenly artistic work is simply one of the miracles of literature; and the more we think about it, the more miraculous it grows. The best we can do is to bow our heads, and pay unqualified homage at its shrine.

Some portion of Jane Austen's ability for portraying character in conversation is discernible in at least one of her too numerous successors in the craft. The authoress of Madamoiselle Ixe and of Cecilia de Noël has already proven to the world how deft and skilful is her manipulation of that difficult medium, drawing-room gossip. It would be unjust and absurd to compare her stories, slight and unsubstantial as pencil sketches, with the finished masterpieces of English fiction; but there are touches in these modern tales which convince even a casual reader of splendid possibilities ahead. The setting of Mademoiselle Ixe is so fine, the lightly drawn English people who surround the mysterious governess and her still more mysterious victim are so real, that we cease to ask ourselves obtrusive questions concerning the purpose and utility of the crime. Better still are some of the scenes in Cecilia de Noël, where Lady Atherley's serene and imperturbable good sense tempers the atmosphere, and gives exactly the proper effect to her husband's rather long-winded eloquence, to Mrs. Mostyn's amiable and cruel evangelism, and to Mrs. Molyneux's amusing eccentricities. All these characters have individuality of their own, and all reveal themselves through the intricacies of conversation, while occasionally there is a felicitous touch worthy of Jane Austen's hand; as when Lady Atherley listens tranquilly to Mrs. Mostyn's tirade against the ritualistic curate, and evolves from it the one judicious conclusion that he is evidently an Austyn of Temple Leigh, and that it would be desirable to ask him to dinner.

The real drawback to Lanoe Falconer's art is, not the brevity of her work, but the fact that her people cannot develop on purely natural lines, because they are hampered by the terrible necessity of illustrating a moral; and even in their most unguarded moments the task assigned them is never wholly laid aside. It is seldom that a good tract is a good story too, and all the novelist's skill is powerless to impart a vivid semblance of truth to characters who have to "talk up" to a given subject, and teach a given lesson. The inartistic treatment of material results, curiously enough, in weakening our sense of reality; yet if the authoress of Cecilia de Noël would consent, for a few short years, to abandon social and spiritual problems, to concern herself as little with nihilism as with eternal punishment, but to be content, as Jane Austen was content, with telling a story, perhaps that story might be no unworthy successor of those matchless tales which are our refuge and solace in these dark days of ethical and unorthodox fiction.

There is a great deal of charming conversation, which is not as well known as it should be, in the best novels of Anthony Trollope. He gives his characters plenty of time and opportunity to talk, without forcing them into arbitrary channels; and occasionally, as with Mrs. Proudie and Archdeacon Grantly, and Lady Glencora, he persuades them to let us know exactly what kind of people they are. Above all, there is such an air of veracity about his causeries that the most skeptical reader listens to them without a shadow of doubt. Who can ever forget Bertie Stanhope intimating to Bishop Proudie that he had once thought of being a prelate himself, or Lady Glencora's midnight confidences to Alice, or that crucial contest between Dr. Tempest and Mrs. Proudie! What pleasant wrangling goes on in Mrs. Dobbs Broughton's room over the memorable picture of Jael, when Dalrymple desires his model to lean forward, throwing her weight on the nail, and Miss Van Siever not unnaturally suggests that such an action would probably have awakened Sisera before the murder was done! It all seems idle enough—this careless, lively talk—but is by no means purposeless. Life is built up of such moments, and if we are to live with the people in books, it must be through little confidences on their parts and sympathy on ours; it must be through unconscious confidences on their parts and unrestricted sympathy on ours.

Now, if a novelist permits his characters to talk at us, the charm of unconsciousness is gone. If we feel for a moment they are uttering his sentiments for our approval or conversion, we cease to sympathize because we cease to believe. There is a clever and suspiciously opportune conversation in David Grieve between that sorely tried hero and an intelligent workingwoman in the Champs Elysées upon the relative merits of l'Union Légale and l'Union Libre. It is, of course, a highly dispassionate discussion, intended as an appeal to reason and not to conscience; therefore the old-fashioned arguments of right and wrong, God and the Church, are carefully omitted. It fits in neatly with David's experiences, and places the whole matter in a singularly lucid light before the reader's eyes. Its one serious drawback is that we can never persuade ourselves to believe that it ever took place. The Frenchwoman is brought so suddenly up to the mark; she says so plainly that which Mrs. Humphry Ward thinks she ought to say; she is so charmingly unprejudiced and convincing, that we lose all faith in her before she has spoken a dozen words. The correctness of her views counts for nothing. "When we leave out what we don't like, we can demonstrate most things," says the late Rector of Lincoln; and it is at least doubtful whether men and women ever live virtuous lives on the strength of an argument. Lady Bertram, of Mansfield Park, remarking placidly from her sofa, "Do not act anything improper, my dears; Sir Thomas would not like it," may not exert a powerful influence for good; but who has any shadow of doubt that those are her very words? They are spoken—as they should be—to her daughters, and not to us. They are spoken—as they should be—by Lady Bertram, and not by Jane Austen. Therefore we listen with content, and take comfort in the thought that, whatever severities may be inflicted on us by the novelists of the future, it is not in the power of progress to deprive us of the past.