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The Last Fashionable Novel

The editor of a great American newspaper once offered the author of these lines a commission to explore a lost country, the seat of a fallen and forgotten civilisation. It was not in Yucatan, or Central Africa, or Thibet, or Kafiristan, this desolate region, once so popular, so gaudy, so much frequented and desired. It was only the fashionable novels of the Forties, say from 1835 to 1850, that I was requested to examine and report upon. But I shrank from the colossal task. I am no Mr. Stanley; and the length, the difficulties, the arduousness of the labour appalled me. Besides, I do not know where that land lies, the land of the old Fashionable Novel, the Kor of which Thackeray's Lady Fanny Flummery is the Ayesha. What were the names of the old novels, and who were the authors, and in the circulating library of what undiscoverable watering-place are they to be found? We have heard of Mrs. Gore, we have heard of Tremayne, and Emilia Wyndham, and the Bachelor of the Albany; and many of us have read Pelham, or know him out of Carlyle's art, and those great curses which he spoke. But who was the original, or who were the originals, that sat for the portrait of the "Fashionable Authoress," Lady Fanny Flummery? and of what work is Lords and Liveries a parody? The author is also credited with Dukes and Dejeuners, Marchionesses and Milliners, etc. Could, any candidate in a literary examination name the prototypes? "Let mantua-makers puff her, but not men," says Thackeray, speaking of Lady Fanny Flummery, "and the Fashionable Authoress is no more. Blessed, blessed thought! No more fiddle-faddle novels! When will you arrive, O happy Golden Age!"

Well, it has arrived, though we are none the happier for all that. The Fashionable Novel has ceased to exist, and the place of the fashionable authoress knows her no more. Thackeray plainly detested Lady Fanny. He writes about her, her books, her critics, her successes, with a certain bitterness. Can it be possible that a world which rather neglected Barry Lyndon was devoted to Marchionesses and Milliners? Lady Fanny is represented as having editors and reviewers at her feet; she sits among the flowers, like the Sirens, and around her are the bones of critics corrupt in death. She is puffed for the sake of her bouquets, her dinners, her affabilities and condescensions. She gives a reviewer a great garnet pin, adorned wherewith he paces the town. Her adorers compare her to "him who sleeps by Avon." In one of Mr. Black's novels there is a lady of this kind, who captivates the tribe of "Log Rollers," as Mr. Black calls them. This lady appears to myself to be a quite impossible She. One has never met her with her wiles, nor come across her track, even, and seen the bodies and the bones of those who perished in puffing her. Some persons of rank and fashion have a taste for the society of some men of letters, but nothing in the way of literary puffery seems to come of it. Of course many critics like to give their friends and acquaintances an applausive hand, and among their acquaintances may be ladies of fashion who write novels; but we read nowhere such extraordinary adulations as Augustus Timson bestowed on Lady Fanny. The fashionable authoress is nearly extinct, though some persons write well albeit they are fashionable. The fashionable novel is as dead as a door nail: Lothair was nearly the last of the species. There are novelists who write about "Society," to be sure, like Mr. Norris; but their tone is quite different. They do not speak as if Dukes and Earls were some strange superior kind of beings; their manner is that of men accustomed to and undazzled by Earls, writing for readers who do not care whether the hero is a lord or a commoner. They are "at ease," though not terribly "in Zion." Thackeray himself introduces plenty of the peerage, but it cannot be said that he is always at ease in their society. He remembers that they are lords, and is on his guard, very often, and suspicious and sarcastic, except, perhaps when he deals with a gentleman like Lord Kew. He examines them like curious wild animals in the Jardin des Plantes. He is an accomplished naturalist, and not afraid of the lion; but he remembers that the animal is royal, and has a title. Mr. Norris, for instance, shows nothing of this mood. Mr. Trollope was not afraid of his Dukes: he thought none the worse of a man because he was the high and puissant prince of Omnium. As for most novelists, they no longer paint fashionable society with enthusiasm. Mr. Henry James has remarked that young British peers favour the word "beastly,"--a point which does not always impress itself into other people so keenly as into Mr. Henry James. In reading him you do not forget that his Tufts are Tufts. But then Tufts are really strange animals to the denizens of the Great Republic. Perhaps the modern realism has made novelists desert the world where Dukes and Dowagers abound. Novelists do not know very much about it; they are not wont to haunt the gilded saloons, and they prefer to write about the manners which they know. A very good novel, in these strange ruinous times, might be written with a Duke for hero; but nobody writes it, and, if anybody did write it in the modern manner, it would not in the least resemble the old fashionable novel.

Here a curious point arises. We have all studied the ingenious lady who calls herself Ouida. Now, is Ouida, or rather was Ouida in her early state sublime, the last of the old fashionable novelists, or did Thackeray unconsciously prophesy of her when he wrote his burlesque Lords and Liveries? Think of the young earl of Bagnigge, "who was never heard to admire anything except a coulis de dindonneau e la St. Menehould, . . . or the bouquet of a flask of Medoc, of Carbonnell's best quality, or a goutte of Marasquin, from the cellars of Briggs and Hobson." We have met such young patricians in Under Two Flags and Idalia. But then there is a difference: Ouida never tells us that her hero was "blest with a mother of excellent principles, who had imbued his young mind with that morality which is so superior to all the vain pomps of the world." But a hero of Ouida's might easily have had a father who "was struck down by the side of the gallant Collingwood in the Bay of Fundy." The heroes themselves may have "looked at the Pyramids without awe, at the Alps without reverence." They do say "Corpo di Bacco," and the Duca de Montepulciano does reply, "E' bellissima certamente." And their creator might conceivably remark "Non cuivis contigit." But Lady Fanny Flummery's ladies could not dress as Ouida's ladies do: they could not quote Petronius Arbiter; they had never heard of Suetonius. No age reproduces itself. There is much of our old fashionable authoress in Ouida's earlier tales; there is plenty of the Peerage, plenty of queer French in old novels and Latin yet more queer; but where is the elan which takes archaeology with a rush, which sticks at no adventure, however nobly incredible? where is the pathos, the simplicity, the purple splendour of Ouida's manner, or manners? No, the spirit of the world, mirroring itself in the minds of individuals, simpered, and that simper was Lady Fanny Flummery. But it did many things more portentous than simpering, when it reflected itself in Ouida.

Is it that we do no longer gape on the aristocracy admiringly, and write of them curiously, as if they were creatures in a Paradise? Is it that Thackeray has converted us? In part, surely, we are just as snobbish as ever, though the gods of our adoration totter to their fall, and "a hideous hum" from the mob outside thrills through the temples. In fiction, on the other hand, the world of fashion is "played out." Nobody cares to read or write about the dear duchess. If a peer comes into a novel he comes in, not as a coroneted curiosity, but as a man, just as if he were a dentist, or a stockbroker. His rank is an accident; it used to be the essence of his luminous apparition. I scarce remember a lord in all the many works of Mr. Besant, nor do they people the romances of Mr. Black. Mr. Kipling does not deal in them, nor Mr. George Meredith much; Mr. Haggard hardly gets beyond a baronet, and HE wears chain mail in Central Africa, and tools with an axe. Mrs. Oliphant has a Scotch peer, but he is less interesting and prominent than his family ghost. No, we have only Ouida left, and Mr. Norris--who writes about people of fashion, indeed, but who has nothing in him of the old fashionable novelist.

Is it to a Republic, to France, that we must look for our fashionable novels--to France and to America. Every third person in M. Guy de Maupassant's tales has a "de," and is a Marquis or a Vicomte. As for M. Paul Bourget, one really can be happy with him in the fearless old fashion. With him we meet Lord Henry Bohun, and M. De Casal (a Vicomte), and all the Marquises and Marquises; and all the pale blue boudoirs, and sentimental Duchesses, whose hearts are only too good, and who get into the most complicated amorous scrapes. That young Republican, M. Bourget, sincerely loves a blason, a pedigree, diamonds, lace, silver dressing cases, silver baths, essences, pomatums, le grand luxe. So does Gyp: apart from her wit, Gyp is delightful to read, introducing us to the very best of bad company. Even M. Fortune du Boisgobey likes a Vicomte, and is partial to the noblesse, while M. Georges Ohnet is accused of entering the golden world of rank, like a man without a wedding garment, and of being lost and at sea among his aristocrats. They order these things better in France: they still appeal to the fine old natural taste for rank and luxury, splendour and refinement. What is Gyp but a Lady Fanny Flummery reussie,--Lady Fanny with the trifling additional qualities of wit and daring? Observe her noble scorn of M. George Ohnet: it is a fashionable arrogance.

To my mind, I confess, the decay of the British fashionable novel seems one of the most threatening signs of the times. Even in France institutions are much more permanent than here. In France they have fashionable novels, and very good novels too: no man of sense will deny that they are far better than our dilettantism of the slums, or our religious and social tracts in the disguise of romance. If there is no new tale of treasure and bandits and fights and lions handy, may I have a fashionable novel in French to fall back upon! Even Count Tolstoi does not disdain the genre. There is some uncommonly high life in Anna Karenine. He adds a great deal of psychology, to be sure; so does M. Paul Bourget. But he takes you among smart people, who have everything handsome about them--titles, and lands, and rents. Is it not a hard thing that an honest British snob, if he wants to move in the highest circles of fiction, must turn to French novelists, or Russian, or American? As to the American novels of the elite and the beau monde, their elegance is obscured to English eyes, because that which makes one New Yorker better than another, that which creates the Upper Ten Thousand (dear phrase!) of New York, is so inconspicuous. For example, the scientific inquirer may venture himself among the novels of two young American authors. Few English students make this voyage of exploration. But the romances of these ingenious writers are really, or really try to be, a kind of fashionable novels. It is a queer domain of fashion, to be sure, peopled by the strangest aborigines, who talk and are talked about in a language most interesting to the philologist. Here poor Lady Fanny Flummery would have been sadly to seek, for her characters, though noble, were moral, and her pen was wielded on the side of Church and State. But these western fashionables have morals and a lingo of their own, made in equal parts of the American idioms and of expressions transferred from the jargon of Decadence and the Parnassiculet Contemporain. As one peruses these novels one thinks of a new tale to be told--The Last of the Fashionables, who died away, like the buffalo and the grisly bear, in some canon or forest of the Wild West. I think this distinguished being, Ultimus hominum venustiorum, will find the last remnants of the Gentlemanly Party in some Indian tribe, Apaches or Sioux. I see him raised to the rank of chief, and leading the red-skinned and painted cavaliers on the war-path against the Vulgarians of the ultimate Democracy. To depict this dandy chief would require the art at once of a Cooper and a Ouida. Let me attempt--


By this time the Sioux were flying in all directions, mowed down by the fire of Gatling and Maxim guns. The scrub of Little Big Horn Creek was strewn with the bodies of writhing braves. On the livid and volcanic heights of Mount Buncombe, the painted tents were blazing merrily. But on a mound above the creek, an ancient fortress of some long-forgotten people, a small group of Indian horsemen, might be observed, steady as rocks in the refluent tide of war. The fire from their Winchester repeaters blazed out like the streamers of the Northern Lights. Again and again the flower of the United States army had charged up the mound, only to recoil in flight, or to line the cliff with their corpses. The First Irish Cuirassiers had been annihilated: Parnell's own, alas! in the heat of the combat had turned their fratricidal black-thorns on M'Carthy's brigade, and these two gallant squadrons were mixed and broken, falling beneath the blows of brothers estranged.

But at last the fire from the Redmen on the bluff slackened and grew silent. The ammunition was exhausted. There was a movement in the group of braves. Crazy Horse and Bald Coyote turned to Four Hair- Brushes, who sat his steed Atalanta, last winner of the last Grand National, with all the old careless elegance of the Row.

"Four Hair-Brushes," said Crazy Horse (and a tear rolled down his painted cheek), "nought is left but flight."

"Then fly," said Four Hair-Brushes, languidly, lighting a cigarette, which he took from a diamond-studded gold etui, the gift of the Kaiser in old days.

"Nay, not without the White Chief," said Bald Coyote; and he seized the reins of Four Hair-Brushes, to lead him from that stricken field.

"Vous etes trop vieux jeu, mon ami," murmured Four Hair-Brushes, "je ne suis ni Edouard II., ni Charles Edouard e Culloden. Quatre- brosses meurt, mais il ne se rend pas."

The Indian released his hold, baffled by the erudition and the calm courage of his captain.

"I make tracks," he said; and, swinging round so that his horse concealed his body, he galloped down the bluff, and through the American cavalry, scattering death from the arrows which he loosed under his horse's neck.

Four Hair-Brushes was alone.

Unarmed, as ever, he sat, save for the hunting-whip in his right hand.

"Scalp him!" yelled the Friendly Crows.

"Nay, take him alive: a seemlier knight never backed steed!" cried the gallant Americans.

From their midst rode a courteous cavalier, Captain John Barry, the scholar, the hero of sword and pen.

"Yield thee, Sir Knight!" he said, doffing his kepi in martial courtesy.

Four Hair-Brushes replied to his salute, and was opening his curved and delicate lips to speak, when a chance bullet struck him full in the breast. He threw up his arms, reeled, and fell. The gallant American, leaping from saddle to ground, rushed to raise his head.

Through the war-paint he recognised him.

"Great Heaven!" he cried, "it is--"

"Hush!" whispered Four Hair-Brushes, with a weary smile: "let Annesley de Vere of the Blues die unnamed. Tell them that I fell in harness."

He did, indeed. Under his feathered and painted cloak Barry found that Annesley, ever careful of his figure, ever loyal in love, the last of the Dandies, yet wore the corset of Madame de Telliere. It was wet with his life-blood.

"So dies," said Barry, "the last English gentleman."

Andrew Lang

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