In the dozy hours, and other papers/Dialogues
Dialogues have come back into fashion and favor. Editors of magazines look on them kindly, and readers of magazines accept them as philosophically as they accept any other form of instruction or entertainment which is provided in their monthly bills of fare. Perhaps Mr. Oscar Wilde is in some measure responsible for the revival; perhaps it may be traced more directly to the serious and stimulating author of "Baldwin," whose discussions are sufficiently subtle and relentless to gratify the keenest discontent. The restless reader who embarks on Vernon Lee's portly volume of conversations half wishes he knew people who could discourse in that fashion, and is half grateful that he doesn't. To converse for hours on "Doubts and Pessimism," or "The Value of the Ideal," is no trivial test of endurance, especially when one person does three-fourths of the talking. We hardly know which to admire most: Baldwin, who elucidates a text—and that text, evolution—for six pages at a breath, or Michael, who listens and "smiles." Even the occasional intermissions, when "Baldwin shook his head," or "they took a turn in silence," or "Carlo's voice trembled," or "Dorothy pointed to the moors," do little to relieve the general tension. It is no more possible to support conversation on this high and serious level than it is possible to nourish it on Mr. Wilde's brilliant and merciless epigrams. Those sparkling dialogues in which Cyril might be Vivian, and Vivian, Cyril; or Gilbert might be Ernest, and Ernest, Gilbert, because all alike are Mr. Wilde, and speak with his voice alone, dazzle us only to betray. They are admirable pieces of literary workmanship; they are more charming and witty than any contemporaneous essays. But if we will place by their side those few and simple pages in which Landor permits Montaigne and Joseph Scaliger to gossip together for a brief half hour at breakfast time, we will better understand the value of an element which Mr. Wilde excludes—humanity, with all its priceless sympathies and foibles.
Nevertheless, it is not Landor's influence, by any means, which is felt in the random dialogues of to-day. He is an author more praised than loved, more talked about than read, and his unapproachable delicacy and distinction are far removed from all efforts of facile imitation. Our modern "imaginary conversations," whether openly satiric, or gravely instructive, are fashioned on other models. They have a faint flavor of Lucian, a subdued and decent reflection of the "Noctes;" but they never approach the classic incisiveness and simplicity of Landor. There is a delightfully witty dialogue of Mr. Barrie's called "Brought Back from Elysium," in which the ghosts of Scott, Fielding, Smollett, Dickens, and Thackeray are interviewed by five living novelists, who kindly undertake to point out to them the superiority of modern fiction. In this admirable little satire, every stroke tells, every phantom and every novelist speaks in character, and the author, with dexterous art, fits his shafts of ridicule into the easy play of a possible conversation. Nothing can be finer than the way in which Scott's native modesty, of which not even Elysium and the Grove of Bay-trees have robbed him, struggles with his humorous perception of the situation. Fielding is disposed to be angry, Thackeray severe, and Dickens infinitely amused. But Sir Walter, dragged against his will into this unloved and alien atmosphere, is anxious only to give every man his due. "How busy you must have been, since my day," he observes with wistful politeness, when informed that the stories have all been told, and that intellectual men and women no longer care to prance with him after a band of archers, or follow the rude and barbarous fortunes of a tournament.
For such brief bits of satire the dialogue affords an admirable medium, if it can be handled with ease and force. For imparting opinions upon abstract subjects it is sure to be welcomed by coward souls who think that information broken up into little bits is somewhat easier of digestion. I am myself one of those weak-minded people, and the beguiling aspect of a conversation, which generally opens with a deceptive air of sprightliness, has lured me many times beyond my mental depths. Nor have I ever been able to understand why Mr. Ruskin's publishers should have entreated him, after the appearance of "Ethics of the Dust," to "write no more in dialogues." To my mind, that charming book owes its quality of readableness to the form in which it is cast, to the breathing-spells afforded by the innocent questions and comments of the children.
Mr. W. W. Story deals more gently with us than any other imaginary conversationalist. From the moment that "He and She" meet unexpectedly on the first page of "A Poet's Portfolio," until they say good-night upon the last, they talk comprehensively and agreeably upon topics in which it is easy to feel a healthy human interest. They drop into poetry and climb back into prose with a good deal of facility and grace. They gossip about dogs and spoiled children; they say clever and true things about modern criticism; they converse seriously, but not solemnly, about life and love and literature. They do not resolutely discuss a given subject, as do the Squire and Foster in Sir Edward Strachey's "Talk at a Country House;" but sway from text to text after the frivolous fashion of flesh and blood; a fashion with which Mr. Story has made us all familiar in his earlier volumes of conversations. He is a veteran master of his field; yet, nevertheless, the Squire and Foster are pleasant companions for a winter night. I like to feel how thoroughly I disagree with both, and how I long to make a discordant element in their friendly talk; and this is precisely the charm of dialogues as a medium for opinions and ideas. Whether the same form can be successfully applied to fiction is at least a matter of doubt. Laurence Alma Tadema has essayed to use it in "An Undivined Tragedy," and the result is hardly encouraging. The mother tells the tale in a simple and touching manner; and the daughter's ejaculations and comments are of no use save to disturb the narrative. It is hard enough to put a story into letters where the relator suffers no ill-timed interruptions; but to embody it in a dialogue—which is at the same time no play—is to provide a needless element of confusion, and to derange the boundary line which separates fiction from the drama.