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Diseases of Small Authorship

Particular callings, it is known, encourage particular diseases. There
is a painter's colic: the Sheffield grinder falls a victim to the
inhalation of steel dust: clergymen so often have a certain kind of sore
throat that this otherwise secular ailment gets named after them. And
perhaps, if we were to inquire, we should find a similar relation
between certain moral ailments and these various occupations, though
here in the case of clergymen there would be specific differences: the
poor curate, equally with the rector, is liable to clergyman's sore
throat, but he would probably be found free from the chronic moral
ailments encouraged by the possession of glebe and those higher chances
of preferment which follow on having a good position already. On the
other hand, the poor curate might have severe attacks of calculating
expectancy concerning parishioners' turkeys, cheeses, and fat geese, or
of uneasy rivalry for the donations of clerical charities.

Authors are so miscellaneous a class that
their personified diseases, physical and moral,
might include the whole procession of human
disorders, led by dyspepsia and ending in
madness--the awful Dumb Show of a world-historic
tragedy. Take a large enough area
of human life and all comedy melts into
tragedy, like the Fool's part by the side of
Lear. The chief scenes get filled with erring
heroes, guileful usurpers, persecuted discoverers,
dying deliverers: everywhere the
protagonist has a part pregnant with doom.
The comedy sinks to an accessory, and if there
are loud laughs they seem a convulsive transition
from sobs; or if the comedy is touched
with a gentle lovingness, the panoramic scene
is one where

"Sadness is a kind of mirth
So mingled as if mirth did make us sad
And sadness merry."
[1]

[Footnote 1: Two Noble Kinsmen.]


But I did not set out on the wide survey that would carry me into
tragedy, and in fact had nothing more serious in my mind than certain
small chronic ailments that come of small authorship. I was thinking
principally of Vorticella, who flourished in my youth not only as a
portly lady walking in silk attire, but also as the authoress of a book
entitled 'The Channel Islands, with Notes and an Appendix.' I would by
no means make it a reproach to her that she wrote no more than one book;
on the contrary, her stopping there seems to me a laudable example. What
one would have wished, after experience, was that she had refrained from
producing even that single volume, and thus from giving her
self-importance a troublesome kind of double incorporation which became
oppressive to her acquaintances, and set up in herself one of those
slight chronic forms of disease to which I have just referred. She lived
in the considerable provincial town of Pumpiter, which had its own
newspaper press, with the usual divisions of political partisanship and
the usual varieties of literary criticism--the florid and allusive, the
_staccato_ and peremptory, the clairvoyant and prophetic, the safe and
pattern-phrased, or what one might call "the many-a-long-day style."

Vorticella being the wife of an important townsman had naturally the
satisfaction of seeing 'The Channel Islands' reviewed by all the organs
of Pumpiter opinion, and their articles or paragraphs held as naturally
the opening pages in the elegantly bound album prepared by her for the
reception of "critical opinions." This ornamental volume lay on a
special table in her drawing-room close to the still more gorgeously
bound work of which it was the significant effect, and every guest was
allowed the privilege of reading what had been said of the authoress and
her work in the 'Pumpiter Gazette and Literary Watchman,' the 'Pumpshire
Post,' the 'Church Clock,' the 'Independent Monitor,' and the lively but
judicious publication known as the 'Medley Pie;' to be followed up, if
he chose, by the instructive perusal of the strikingly confirmatory
judgments, sometimes concurrent in the very phrases, of journals from
the most distant counties; as the 'Latchgate Argus,' the Penllwy
Universe,' the 'Cockaleekie Advertiser,' the 'Goodwin Sands Opinion,'
and the 'Land's End Times.'

I had friends in Pumpiter and occasionally paid a long visit there. When
I called on Vorticella, who had a cousinship with my hosts, she had to
excuse herself because a message claimed her attention for eight or ten
minutes, and handing me the album of critical opinions said, with a
certain emphasis which, considering my youth, was highly complimentary,
that she would really like me to read what I should find there. This
seemed a permissive politeness which I could not feel to be an
oppression, and I ran my eyes over the dozen pages, each with a strip or
islet of newspaper in the centre, with that freedom of mind (in my case
meaning freedom to forget) which would be a perilous way of preparing
for examination. This _ad libitum_ perusal had its interest for me. The
private truth being that I had not read 'The Channel Islands,' I was
amazed at the variety of matter which the volume must contain to have
impressed these different judges with the writer's surpassing capacity
to handle almost all branches of inquiry and all forms of presentation.
In Jersey she had shown herself an historian, in Guernsey a poetess, in
Alderney a political economist, and in Sark a humorist: there were
sketches of character scattered through the pages which might put our
"fictionists" to the blush; the style was eloquent and racy, studded
with gems of felicitous remark; and the moral spirit throughout was so
superior that, said one, "the recording angel" (who is not supposed to
take account of literature as such) "would assuredly set down the work
as a deed of religion." The force of this eulogy on the part of several
reviewers was much heightened by the incidental evidence of their
fastidious and severe taste, which seemed to suffer considerably from
the imperfections of our chief writers, even the dead and canonised: one
afflicted them with the smell of oil, another lacked erudition and
attempted (though vainly) to dazzle them with trivial conceits, one
wanted to be more philosophical than nature had made him, another in
attempting to be comic produced the melancholy effect of a half-starved
Merry-Andrew; while one and all, from the author of the 'Areopagitica'
downwards, had faults of style which must have made an able hand in the
'Latchgate Argus' shake the many-glanced head belonging thereto with a
smile of compassionate disapproval. Not so the authoress of 'The Channel
Islands:' Vorticella and Shakspere were allowed to be faultless. I
gathered that no blemishes were observable in the work of this
accomplished writer, and the repeated information that she was "second
to none" seemed after this superfluous. Her thick octavo--notes,
appendix and all--was unflagging from beginning to end; and the 'Land's
End Times,' using a rather dangerous rhetorical figure, recommended you
not to take up the volume unless you had leisure to finish it at a
sitting. It had given one writer more pleasure than he had had for many
a long day--a sentence which had a melancholy resonance, suggesting a
life of studious languor such as all previous achievements of the human
mind failed to stimulate into enjoyment. I think the collection of
critical opinions wound up with this sentence, and I had turned back to
look at the lithographed sketch of the authoress which fronted the first
page of the album, when the fair original re-entered and I laid down the
volume on its appropriate table.

"Well, what do you think of them?" said Vorticella, with an emphasis
which had some significance unperceived by me. "I know you are a great
student. Give me _your_ opinion of these opinions."

"They must be very gratifying to you," I answered with a little
confusion, for I perceived that I might easily mistake my footing, and I
began to have a presentiment of an examination for which I was by no
means crammed.

"On the whole--yes," said Vorticella, in a tone of concession. "A few of
the notices are written with some pains, but not one of them has really
grappled with the chief idea in the appendix. I don't know whether you
have studied political economy, but you saw what I said on page 398
about the Jersey fisheries?"

I bowed--I confess it--with the mean hope that this movement in the nape
of my neck would be taken as sufficient proof that I had read, marked,
and learned. I do not forgive myself for this pantomimic falsehood, but
I was young and morally timorous, and Vorticella's personality had an
effect on me something like that of a powerful mesmeriser when he
directs all his ten fingers towards your eyes, as unpleasantly visible
ducts for the invisible stream. I felt a great power of contempt in her,
if I did not come up to her expectations.

"Well," she resumed, "you observe that not one of them has taken up that
argument. But I hope I convinced you about the drag-nets?"

Here was a judgment on me. Orientally speaking, I had lifted up my foot
on the steep descent of falsity and was compelled to set it down on a
lower level. "I should think you must be right," said I, inwardly
resolving that on the next topic I would tell the truth.

"I _know_ that I am right," said Vorticella. "The fact is that no critic
in this town is fit to meddle with such subjects, unless it be Volvox,
and he, with all his command of language, is very superficial. It is
Volvox who writes in the 'Monitor,' I hope you noticed how he
contradicts himself?"

My resolution, helped by the equivalence of dangers, stoutly prevailed,
and I said, "No."

"No! I am surprised. He is the only one who finds fault with me. He is
a Dissenter, you know. The 'Monitor' is the Dissenters' organ, but my
husband has been so useful to them in municipal affairs that they would
not venture to run my book down; they feel obliged to tell the truth
about me. Still Volvox betrays himself. After praising me for my
penetration and accuracy, he presently says I have allowed myself to be
imposed upon and have let my active imagination run away with me. That
is like his dissenting impertinence. Active my imagination may be, but I
have it under control. Little Vibrio, who writes the playful notice in
the 'Medley Pie,' has a clever hit at Volvox in that passage about the
steeplechase of imagination, where the loser wants to make it appear
that the winner was only run away with. But if you did not notice
Volvox's self-contradiction you would not see the point," added
Vorticella, with rather a chilling intonation. "Or perhaps you did not
read the 'Medley Pie' notice? That is a pity. Do take up the book again.
Vibrio is a poor little tippling creature, but, as Mr Carlyle would say,
he has an eye, and he is always lively."

I did take up the book again, and read as demanded.

"It is very ingenious," said I, really appreciating the difficulty of
being lively in this connection: it seemed even more wonderful than that
a Vibrio should have an eye.

"You are probably surprised to see no notices from the London press,"
said Vorticella. "I have one--a very remarkable one. But I reserve it
until the others have spoken, and then I shall introduce it to wind up.
I shall have them reprinted, of course, and inserted in future copies.
This from the 'Candelabrum' is only eight lines in length, but full of
venom. It calls my style dull and pompous. I think that will tell its
own tale, placed after the other critiques."

"People's impressions are so different," said I. "Some persons find 'Don
Quixote' dull."

"Yes," said Vorticella, in emphatic chest tones, "dulness is a matter of
opinion; but pompous! That I never was and never could be. Perhaps he
means that my matter is too important for his taste; and I have no
objection to _that_. I did not intend to be trivial. I should just like
to read you that passage about the drag-nets, because I could make it
clearer to you."

A second (less ornamental) copy was at her elbow and was already opened,
when to my great relief another guest was announced, and I was able to
take my leave without seeming to run away from 'The Channel Islands,'
though not without being compelled to carry with me the loan of "the
marked copy," which I was to find advantageous in a re-perusal of the
appendix, and was only requested to return before my departure from
Pumpiter. Looking into the volume now with some curiosity, I found it a
very ordinary combination of the commonplace and ambitious, one of those
books which one might imagine to have been written under the old Grub
Street coercion of hunger and thirst, if they were not known beforehand
to be the gratuitous productions of ladies and gentlemen whose
circumstances might be called altogether easy, but for an uneasy vanity
that happened to have been directed towards authorship. Its importance
was that of a polypus, tumour, fungus, or other erratic outgrowth,
noxious and disfiguring in its effect on the individual organism which
nourishes it. Poor Vorticella might not have been more wearisome on a
visit than the majority of her neighbours, but for this disease of
magnified self-importance belonging to small authorship. I understand
that the chronic complaint of 'The Channel Islands' never left her. As
the years went on and the publication tended to vanish in the distance
for her neighbours' memory, she was still bent on dragging it to the
foreground, and her chief interest in new acquaintances was the
possibility of lending them her book, entering into all details
concerning it, and requesting them to read her album of "critical
opinions." This really made her more tiresome than Gregarina, whose
distinction was that she had had cholera, and who did not feel herself
in her true position with strangers until they knew it.

My experience with Vorticella led me for a time into the false
supposition that this sort of fungous disfiguration, which makes Self
disagreeably larger, was most common to the female sex; but I presently
found that here too the male could assert his superiority and show a
more vigorous boredom. I have known a man with a single pamphlet
containing an assurance that somebody else was wrong, together with a
few approved quotations, produce a more powerful effect of shuddering at
his approach than ever Vorticella did with her varied octavo volume,
including notes and appendix. Males of more than one nation recur to my
memory who produced from their pocket on the slightest encouragement a
small pink or buff duodecimo pamphlet, wrapped in silver paper, as a
present held ready for an intelligent reader. "A mode of propagandism,"
you remark in excuse; "they wished to spread some useful corrective
doctrine." Not necessarily: the indoctrination aimed at was perhaps to
convince you of their own talents by the sample of an "Ode on
Shakspere's Birthday," or a translation from Horace.

Vorticella may pair off with Monas, who had also written his one
book--'Here and There; or, a Trip from Truro to Transylvania'--and not
only carried it in his portmanteau when he went on visits, but took the
earliest opportunity of depositing it in the drawing-room, and
afterwards would enter to look for it, as if under pressure of a need
for reference, begging the lady of the house to tell him whether she,
had seen "a small volume bound in red." One hostess at last ordered it
to be carried into his bedroom to save his time; but it presently
reappeared in his hands, and was again left with inserted slips of paper
on the drawing-room table.

Depend upon it, vanity is human, native alike to men and women; only in
the male it is of denser texture, less volatile, so that it less
immediately informs you of its presence, but is more massive and capable
of knocking you down if you come into collision with it; while in women
vanity lays by its small revenges as in a needle-case always at hand.
The difference is in muscle and finger-tips, in traditional habits and
mental perspective, rather than in the original appetite of vanity. It
is an approved method now to explain ourselves by a reference to the
races as little like us as possible, which leads me to observe that in
Fiji the men use the most elaborate hair-dressing, and that wherever
tattooing is in vogue the male expects to carry off the prize of
admiration for pattern and workmanship. Arguing analogically, and
looking for this tendency of the Fijian or Hawaian male in the eminent
European, we must suppose that it exhibits itself under the forms of
civilised apparel; and it would be a great mistake to estimate
passionate effort by the effect it produces on our perception or
understanding. It is conceivable that a man may have concentrated no
less will and expectation on his wristbands, gaiters, and the shape of
his hat-brim, or an appearance which impresses you as that of the modern
"swell," than the Ojibbeway on an ornamentation which seems to us much
more elaborate. In what concerns the search for admiration at least, it
is not true that the effect is equal to the cause and resembles it. The
cause of a flat curl on the masculine forehead, such as might be seen
when George the Fourth was king, must have been widely different in
quality and intensity from the impression made by that small scroll of
hair on the organ of the beholder. Merely to maintain an attitude and
gait which I notice in certain club men, and especially an inflation of
the chest accompanying very small remarks, there goes, I am convinced,
an expenditure of psychical energy little appreciated by the
multitude--a mental vision of Self and deeply impressed beholders which
is quite without antitype in what we call the effect produced by that
hidden process.

No! there is no need to admit that women would carry away the prize of
vanity in a competition where differences of custom were fairly
considered. A man cannot show his vanity in a tight skirt which forces
him to walk sideways down the staircase; but let the match be between
the respective vanities of largest beard and tightest skirt, and here
too the battle would be to the strong.


George Eliot