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I recall with perfect ease the idea in which "The Awkward Age" had its
origin, but re-perusal gives me pause in respect to naming it. This
composition, as it stands, makes, to my vision--and will have made
perhaps still more to that of its readers--so considerable a mass beside
the germ sunk in it and still possibly distinguishable, that I am half-
moved to leave my small secret undivulged. I shall encounter, I think,
in the course of this copious commentary, no better example, and none on
behalf of which I shall venture to invite more interest, of the quite
incalculable tendency of a mere grain of subject-matter to expand and
develop and cover the ground when conditions happen to favour it. I say
all, surely, when I speak of the thing as planned, in perfect good
faith, for brevity, for levity, for simplicity, for jocosity, in fine,
and for an accommodating irony. I invoked, for my protection, the spirit
of the lightest comedy, but "The Awkward Age" was to belong, in the
event, to a group of productions, here re-introduced, which have in
common, to their author's eyes, the endearing sign that they asserted in
each case an unforeseen principle of growth. They were projected as
small things, yet had finally to be provided for as comparative
monsters. That is my own title for them, though I should perhaps resent
it if applied by another critic--above all in the case of the piece
before us, the careful measure of which I have just freshly taken. The
result of this consideration has been in the first place to render sharp
for me again the interest of the whole process thus illustrated, and in
the second quite to place me on unexpectedly good terms with the work
itself. As I scan my list I encounter none the "history" of which
embodies a greater number of curious truths--or of truths at least by
which I find contemplation more enlivened. The thing done and dismissed
has ever, at the best, for the ambitious workman, a trick of looking
dead, if not buried, so that he almost throbs with ecstasy when, on an
anxious review, the flush of life reappears. It is verily on recognising
that flush on a whole side of "The Awkward Age" that I brand it all, but
ever so tenderly, as monstrous--which is but my way of noting the
QUANTITY of finish it stows away. Since I speak so undauntedly, when
need is, of the value of composition, I shall not beat about the bush to
claim for these pages the maximum of that advantage. If such a feat be
possible in this field as really taking a lesson from one's own
adventure I feel I have now not failed of it--to so much more
demonstration of my profit than I can hope to carry through do I find
myself urged. Thus it is that, still with a remnant of self-respect, or
at least of sanity, one may turn to complacency, one may linger with
pride. Let my pride provoke a frown till I justify it; which--though
with more matters to be noted here than I have room for I shall
accordingly proceed to do.

Yet I must first make a brave face, no doubt, and present in its native
humility my scant but quite ponderable germ. The seed sprouted in that
vast nursery of sharp appeals and concrete images which calls itself,
for blest convenience, London; it fell even into the order of the minor
"social phenomena" with which, as fruit for the observer, that
mightiest of the trees of suggestion bristles. It was not, no doubt, a
fine purple peach, but it might pass for a round ripe plum, the note one
had inevitably had to take of the difference made in certain friendly
houses and for certain flourishing mothers by the sometimes dreaded,
often delayed, but never fully arrested coming to the forefront of some
vague slip of a daughter. For such mild revolutions as these not, to
one's imagination, to remain mild one had had, I dare say, to be
infinitely addicted to "noticing"; under the rule of that secret vice or
that unfair advantage, at any rate, the "sitting downstairs," from a
given date, of the merciless maiden previously perched aloft could
easily be felt as a crisis. This crisis, and the sense for it in those
whom it most concerns, has to confess itself courageously the prime
propulsive force of "The Awkward Age." Such a matter might well make a
scant show for a "thick book," and no thick book, but just a quite
charmingly thin one, was in fact originally dreamt of. For its proposed
scale the little idea seemed happy--happy, that is, above all in having
come very straight; but its proposed scale was the limit of a small
square canvas. One had been present again and again at the exhibition I
refer to--which is what I mean by the "coming straight" of this
particular London impression; yet one was (and through fallibilities
that after all had their sweetness, so that one would on the whole
rather have kept them than parted with them) still capable of so false a
measurement. When I think indeed of those of my many false measurements
that have resulted, after much anguish, in decent symmetries, I find the
whole case, I profess, a theme for the philosopher. The little ideas one
wouldn't have treated save for the design of keeping them small, the
developed situations that one would never with malice prepense have
undertaken, the long stories that had thoroughly meant to be short, the
short subjects that had underhandedly plotted to be long, the hypocrisy
of modest beginnings, the audacity of misplaced middles, the triumph of
intentions never entertained--with these patches, as I look about, I see
my experience paved: an experience to which nothing is wanting save, I
confess, some grasp of its final lesson.

This lesson would, if operative, surely provide some law for the
recognition, the determination in advance, of the just limits and the
just extent of the situation, ANY situation, that appeals, and that yet,
by the presumable, the helpful law of situations, must have its reserves
as well as its promises. The storyteller considers it because it
promises, and undertakes it, often, just because also making out, as he
believes, where the promise conveniently drops. The promise, for
instance, of the case I have just named, the case of the account to be
taken, in a circle of free talk, of a new and innocent, a wholly
unacclimatised presence, as to which such accommodations have never had
to come up, might well have appeared as limited as it was lively; and if
these pages were not before us to register my illusion I should never
have made a braver claim for it. They themselves admonish me, however,
in fifty interesting ways, and they especially emphasise that truth of
the vanity of the a priori test of what an idee-mere may have to give.
The truth is that what a happy thought has to give depends immensely on
the general turn of the mind capable of it, and on the fact that its
loyal entertainer, cultivating fondly its possible relations and
extensions, the bright efflorescence latent in it, but having to take
other things in their order too, is terribly at the mercy of his mind.
That organ has only to exhale, in its degree, a fostering tropic air in
order to produce complications almost beyond reckoning. The trap laid
for his superficial convenience resides in the fact that, though the
relations of a human figure or a social occurrence are what make such
objects interesting, they also make them, to the same tune, difficult to
isolate, to surround with the sharp black line, to frame in the square,
the circle, the charming oval, that helps any arrangement of objects to
become a picture. The storyteller has but to have been condemned by
nature to a liberally amused and beguiled, a richly sophisticated, view
of relations and a fine inquisitive speculative sense for them, to find
himself at moments flounder in a deep warm jungle. These are the moments
at which he recalls ruefully that the great merit of such and such a
small case, the merit for his particular advised use, had been precisely
in the smallness.

I may say at once that this had seemed to me, under the first flush of
recognition, the good mark for the pretty notion of the "free circle"
put about by having, of a sudden, an ingenuous mind and a pair of limpid
searching eyes to count with. Half the attraction was in the current
actuality of the thing: repeatedly, right and left, as I have said, one
had seen such a drama constituted, and always to the effect of proposing
to the interested view one of those questions that are of the essence of
drama: what will happen, who suffer, who not suffer, what turn be
determined, what crisis created, what issue found? There had of course
to be, as a basis, the free circle, but this was material of that
admirable order with which the good London never leaves its true lover
and believer long unprovided. One could count them on one's fingers (an
abundant allowance), the liberal firesides beyond the wide glow of
which, in a comparative dimness, female adolescence hovered and waited.
The wide glow was bright, was favourable to "real" talk, to play of
mind, to an explicit interest in life, a due demonstration of the
interest by persons I qualified to feel it: all of which meant
frankness and ease, the perfection, almost, as it were, of
intercourse, and a tone as far as possible removed from that of the
nursery and the schoolroom--as far as possible removed even, no doubt,
in its appealing "modernity," from that of supposedly privileged scenes
of conversation twenty years ago. The charm was, with a hundred other
things, in the freedom--the freedom menaced by the inevitable irruption
of the ingenuous mind; whereby, if the freedom should be sacrificed,
what would truly BECOME of the charm? The charm might be figured as dear
to members of the circle consciously contributing to it, but it was none
the less true that some sacrifice in some quarter would have to be made,
and what meditator worth his salt could fail to hold his breath while
waiting on the event? The ingenuous mind might, it was true, be
suppressed altogether, the general disconcertment averted either by some
master-stroke of diplomacy or some rude simplification; yet these were
ugly matters, and in the examples before one's eyes nothing ugly,
nothing harsh or crude, had flourished. A girl might be married off the
day after her irruption, or better still the day before it, to remove
her from the sphere of the play of mind; but these were exactly not
crudities, and even then, at the worst, an interval had to be bridged.
"The Awkward Age" is precisely a study of one of these curtailed or
extended periods of tension and apprehension, an account of the manner
in which the resented interference with ancient liberties came to be in
a particular instance dealt with.

I note once again that I had not escaped seeing it actually and
traceably dealt with--(I admit) a good deal of friendly suspense; also
with the nature and degree of the "sacrifice" left very much to one's
appreciation. In circles highly civilised the great things, the real
things, the hard, the cruel and even the tender things, the true
elements of any tension and true facts of any crisis, have ever, for the
outsider's, for the critic's use, to be translated into terms--terms in
the distinguished name of which, terms for the right employment of
which, more than one situation of the type I glance at had struck me as
all irresistibly appealing. There appeared in fact at moments no end to
the things they said, the suggestions into which they flowered; one of
these latter in especial arriving at the highest intensity. Putting
vividly before one the perfect system on which the awkward age is
handled in most other European societies, it threw again into relief the
inveterate English trick of the so morally well-meant and so
intellectually helpless compromise. We live notoriously, as I suppose
every age lives, in an "epoch of transition"; but it may still be said
of the French for instance, I assume, that their social scheme
absolutely provides against awkwardness. That is it would be, by this
scheme, so infinitely awkward, so awkward beyond any patching-up, for
the hovering female young to be conceived as present at "good" talk,
that their presence is, theoretically at least, not permitted till their
youth has been promptly corrected by marriage--in which case they have
ceased to be merely young. The better the talk prevailing in any circle,
accordingly, the more organised, the more complete, the element of
precaution and exclusion. Talk--giving the term a wide application--is
one thing, and a proper inexperience another; and it has never occurred
to a logical people that the interest of the greater, the general, need
be sacrificed to that of the less, the particular. Such sacrifices
strike them as gratuitous and barbarous, as cruel above all to the
social intelligence; also as perfectly preventable by wise arrangement.
Nothing comes home more, on the other hand, to the observer of English
manners than the very moderate degree in which wise arrangement, in the
French sense of a scientific economy, has ever been invoked; a fact
indeed largely explaining the great interest of their incoherence, their
heterogeneity, their wild abundance. The French, all analytically, have
conceived of fifty different proprieties, meeting fifty different cases,
whereas the English mind, less intensely at work, has never conceived
but of one--the grand propriety, for every case, it should in fairness
be said, of just being English. As practice, however, has always to be a
looser thing than theory, so no application of that rigour has been
possible in the London world without a thousand departures from the grim

The American theory, if I may "drag it in," would be, I think, that talk
should never become "better" than the female young, either actually or
constructively present, are minded to allow it. THAT system involves as
little compromise as the French; it has been absolutely simple, and the
beauty of its success shines out in every record of our conditions of
intercourse--premising always our "basic" assumption that the female
young read the newspapers. The English theory may be in itself almost as
simple, but different and much more complex forces have ruled the
application of it; so much does the goodness of talk depend on what
there may be to talk about. There are more things in London, I think,
than anywhere in the world; hence the charm of the dramatic struggle
reflected in my book, the struggle somehow to fit propriety into a
smooth general case which is really all the while bristling and
crumbling into fierce particular ones. The circle surrounding Mrs.
Brookenham, in my pages, is of course nothing if not a particular, even
a "peculiar" one--and its rather vain effort (the vanity, the real
inexpertness, being precisely part of my tale) is toward the courage of
that condition. It has cropped up in a social order where individual
appreciations of propriety have not been formally allowed for, in spite
of their having very often quite rudely and violently and insolently,
rather of course than insidiously, flourished; so that as the matter
stands, rightly or wrongly, Nanda's retarded, but eventually none the
less real, incorporation means virtually Nanda's exposure. It means
this, that is, and many things beside--means them for Nanda herself
and, with a various intensity, for the other participants in the action;
but what it particularly means, surely, is the failure of successful
arrangement and the very moral, sharply pointed, of the fruits of
compromise. It is compromise that has suffered her to be in question at
all, and that has condemned the freedom of the circle to be self-
conscious, compunctious, on the whole much more timid than brave--the
consequent muddle, if the term be not too gross, representing meanwhile
a great inconvenience for life, but, as I found myself feeling, an
immense promise, a much greater one than on the "foreign" showing, for
the painted picture of life. Beyond which let me add that here
immediately is a prime specimen of the way in which the obscurer, the
lurking relations of a motive apparently simple, always in wait for
their spring, may by seizing their chance for it send simplicity flying.
Poor Nanda's little case, and her mother's, and Mr. Longdon's and
Vanderbank's and Mitchy's, to say nothing of that of the others, has
only to catch a reflected light from over the Channel in order to double
at once its appeal to the imagination. (I am considering all these
matters, I need scarce say, only as they are concerned with that
faculty. With a relation NOT imaginative to his material the storyteller
has nothing whatever to do.)

It exactly happened moreover that my own material here was to profit in
a particular way by that extension of view. My idea was to be treated
with light irony--it would be light and ironical or it would be nothing;
so that I asked myself, naturally, what might be the least solemn form
to give it, among recognised and familiar forms. The question thus at
once arose: What form so familiar, so recognised among alert readers, as
that in which the ingenious and inexhaustible, the charming philosophic
"Gyp" casts most of her social studies? Gyp had long struck me as
mistress, in her levity, of one of the happiest of forms--the only
objection to my use of which was a certain extraordinary benightedness
on the part of the Anglo-Saxon reader. One had noted this reader as
perverse and inconsequent in respect to the absorption of "dialogue"
--observed the "public for fiction" consume it, in certain connexions, on
the scale and with the smack of lips that mark the consumption of bread-
and-jam by a children's school-feast, consume it even at the theatre, so
far as our theatre ever vouchsafes it, and yet as flagrantly reject it
when served, so to speak, au naturel. One had seen good solid slices of
fiction, well endued, one might surely have thought, with this easiest
of lubrications, deplored by editor and publisher as positively not, for
the general gullet as known to THEM, made adequately "slick."
"'Dialogue,' always 'dialogue'!" I had seemed from far back to hear them
mostly cry: "We can't have too much of it, we can't have enough of it,
and no excess of it, in the form of no matter what savourless dilution,
or what boneless dispersion, ever began to injure a book so much as even
the very scantest claim put in for form and substance." This wisdom had
always been in one's ears; but it had at the same time been equally in
one's eyes that really constructive dialogue, dialogue organic and
dramatic, speaking for itself, representing and embodying substance and
form, is among us an uncanny and abhorrent thing, not to be dealt with
on any terms. A comedy or a tragedy may run for a thousand nights
without prompting twenty persons in London or in New York to desire that
view of its text which is so desired in Paris, as soon as a play begins
to loom at all large, that the number of copies of the printed piece in
circulation far exceeds at last the number of performances. But as with
the printed piece our own public, infatuated as it may be with the
theatre, refuses all commerce--though indeed this can't but be, without
cynicism, very much through the infirmity the piece, IF printed, would
reveal--so the same horror seems to attach to any typographic hint of
the proscribed playbook or any insidious plea for it. The immense oddity
resides in the almost exclusively typographic order of the offence. An
English, an American Gyp would typographically offend, and that would be
the end of her. THERE gloomed at me my warning, as well as shone at me
my provocation, in respect to the example of this delightful writer. I
might emulate her, since I presumptuously would, but dishonour would
await me if, proposing to treat the different faces of my subject in the
most completely instituted colloquial form, I should evoke the figure
and affirm the presence of participants by the repeated and prefixed
name rather than by the recurrent and affixed "said he" and "said she."
All I have space to go into here--much as the funny fact I refer to
might seem to invite us to dance hand in hand round it--is that I was at
any rate duly admonished, that I took my measures accordingly, and that
the manner in which I took them has lived again for me ever so
arrestingly, so amusingly, on re-examination of the book.

But that I did, positively and seriously--ah so seriously!--emulate the
levity of Gyp and, by the same token, of that hardiest of flowers
fostered in her school, M. Henri Lavedan, is a contribution to the
history of "The Awkward Age" that I shall obviously have had to brace
myself in order to make. Vivid enough to me the expression of face of
any kindest of critics, even, moved to declare that he would never in
the least have suspected it. Let me say at once, in extenuation of the
too respectful distance at which I may thus have appeared to follow my
model, that my first care HAD to be the covering of my tracks--lest I
truly should be caught in the act of arranging, of organising dialogue
to "speak for itself." What I now see to have happened is that I
organised and arranged but too well--too well, I mean, for any betrayal
of the Gyp taint, however faded and feeble. The trouble appears to have
been that while I on the one hand exorcised the baleful association, I
succeeded in rousing on nobody's part a sense of any other association
whatever, or of my having cast myself into any conceivable or calculable
form. My private inspiration had been in the Gyp plan (artfully
dissimulated, for dear life, and applied with the very subtlest
consistency, but none the less kept in secret view); yet I was to fail
to make out in the event that the book succeeded in producing the
impression of ANY plan on any person. No hint of that sort of success,
or of any critical perception at all in relation to the business, has
ever come my way; in spite of which when I speak, as just above, of what
was to "happen" under the law of my ingenious labour, I fairly lose
myself in the vision of a hundred bright phenomena. Some of these
incidents I must treat myself to naming, for they are among the best I
shall have on any occasion to retail. But I must first give the measure
of the degree in which they were mere matters of the study. This
composition had originally appeared in "Harper's Weekly" during the
autumn of 1898 and the first weeks of the winter, and the volume
containing it was published that spring. I had meanwhile been absent
from England, and it was not till my return, some time later, that I had
from my publisher any news of our venture. But the news then met at a
stroke all my curiosity: "I'm sorry to say the book has done nothing to
speak of; I've never in all my experience seen one treated with more
general and complete disrespect." There was thus to be nothing left me
for fond subsequent reference--of which I doubtless give even now so
adequate an illustration--save the rich reward of the singular interest
attaching to the very intimacies of the effort.

It comes back to me, the whole "job," as wonderfully amusing and
delightfully difficult from the first; since amusement deeply abides, I
think, in any artistic attempt the basis and groundwork of which are
conscious of a particular firmness. On that hard fine floor the element
of execution feels it may more or less confidently DANCE; in which case
puzzling questions, sharp obstacles, dangers of detail, may come up for
it by the dozen without breaking its heart or shaking its nerve. It is
the difficulty produced by the loose foundation or the vague scheme that
breaks the heart--when a luckless fatuity has over-persuaded an author
of the "saving" virtue of treatment. Being "treated" is never, in a
workable idea, a mere passive condition, and I hold no subject ever
susceptible of help that isn't, like the embarrassed man of our
proverbial wisdom, first of all able to help itself. I was thus to have
here an envious glimpse, in carrying my design through, of that artistic
rage and that artistic felicity which I have ever supposed to be
intensest and highest, the confidence of the dramatist strong in the
sense of his postulate. The dramatist has verily to BUILD, is committed
to architecture, to construction at any cost; to driving in deep his
vertical supports and laying across and firmly fixing his horizontal,
his resting pieces--at the risk of no matter what vibration from the tap
of his master-hammer. This makes the active value of his basis immense,
enabling him, with his flanks protected, to advance undistractedly, even
if not at all carelessly, into the comparative fairy-land of the mere
minor anxiety. In other words his scheme HOLDS, and as he feels this in
spite of noted strains and under repeated tests, so he keeps his face to
the day. I rejoiced, by that same token, to feel MY scheme hold, and
even a little ruefully watched it give me much more than I had ventured
to hope. For I promptly found my conceived arrangement of my material
open the door wide to ingenuity. I remember that in sketching my project
for the conductors of the periodical I have named I drew on a sheet of
paper--and possibly with an effect of the cabalistic, it now comes over
me, that even anxious amplification may have but vainly attenuated--the
neat figure of a circle consisting of a number of small rounds disposed
at equal distance about a central object. The central object was my
situation, my subject in itself, to which the thing would owe its title,
and the small rounds represented so many distinct lamps, as I liked to
call them, the function of each of which would be to light with all due
intensity one of its aspects. I had divided it, didn't they see? into
aspects--uncanny as the little term might sound (though not for a moment
did I suggest we should use it for the public), and by that sign we
would conquer.

They "saw," all genially and generously--for I must add that I had made,
to the best of my recollection, no morbid scruple of not blabbing about
Gyp and her strange incitement. I the more boldly held my tongue over
this that the more I, by my intelligence, lived in my arrangement and
moved about in it, the more I sank into satisfaction. It was clearly to
work to a charm and, during this process--by calling at every step for
an exquisite management--"to haunt, to startle and waylay." Each of my
"lamps" would be the light of a single "social occasion" in the history
and intercourse of the characters concerned, and would bring out to the
full the latent colour of the scene in question and cause it to
illustrate, to the last drop, its bearing on my theme. I revelled in
this notion of the Occasion as a thing by itself, really and completely
a scenic thing, and could scarce name it, while crouching amid the thick
arcana of my plan, with a large enough O. The beauty of the conception
was in this approximation of the respective divisions of my form to the
successive Acts of a Play--as to which it was more than ever a case for
charmed capitals. The divine distinction of the act of a play--and a
greater than any other it easily succeeds in arriving at--was, I
reasoned, in its special, its guarded objectivity. This objectivity,
in turn, when achieving its ideal, came from the imposed absence of that
"going behind," to compass explanations and amplifications, to drag out
odds and ends from the "mere" storyteller's great property-shop of aids
to illusion: a resource under denial of which it was equally perplexing
and delightful, for a change, to proceed. Everything, for that matter,
becomes interesting from the moment it has closely to consider, for full
effect positively to bestride, the law of its kind. "Kinds" are the very
life of literature, and truth and strength come from the complete
recognition of them, from abounding to the utmost in their respective
senses and sinking deep into their consistency. I myself have scarcely
to plead the cause of "going behind," which is right and beautiful and
fruitful in its place and order; but as the confusion of kinds is the
inelegance of letters and the stultification of values, so to renounce
that line utterly and do something quite different instead may become in
another connexion the true course and the vehicle of effect. Something
in the very nature, in the fine rigour, of this special sacrifice (which
is capable of affecting the form-lover, I think, as really more of a
projected form than any other) lends it moreover a coercive charm; a
charm that grows in proportion as the appeal to it tests and stretches
and strains it, puts it powerfully to the touch. To make the presented
occasion tell all its story itself, remain shut up in its own presence
and yet on that patch of staked-out ground become thoroughly interesting
and remain thoroughly clear, is a process not remarkable, no doubt, so
long as a very light weight is laid on it, but difficult enough to
challenge and inspire great adroitness so soon as the elements to be
dealt with begin at all to "size up."

The disdainers of the contemporary drama deny, obviously, with all
promptness, that the matter to be expressed by its means--richly and
successfully expressed that is--CAN loom with any largeness; since from
the moment it does one of the conditions breaks down. The process simply
collapses under pressure, they contend, proves its weakness as quickly
as the office laid on it ceases to be simple. "Remember," they say to
the dramatist, "that you have to be, supremely, three things: you have
to be true to your form, you have to be interesting, you have to be
clear. You have in other words to prove yourself adequate to taking a
heavy weight. But we defy you really to conform to your conditions with
any but a light one. Make the thing you have to convey, make the picture
you have to paint, at all rich and complex, and you cease to be clear.
Remain clear--and with the clearness required by the infantine
intelligence of any public consenting to see a play--and what becomes
of the 'importance' of your subject? If it's important by any other
critical measure than the little foot-rule the 'produced' piece has to
conform to, it is predestined to be a muddle. When it has escaped being
a muddle the note it has succeeded in striking at the furthest will be
recognised as one of those that are called high but by the courtesy, by
the intellectual provinciality, of theatrical criticism, which, as we
can see for ourselves any morning, is--well, an abyss even deeper than
the theatre itself. Don't attempt to crush us with Dumas and Ibsen, for
such values are from any informed and enlightened point of view, that is
measured by other high values, literary, critical, philosophic, of the
most moderate order. Ibsen and Dumas are precisely cases of men, men in
their degree, in their poor theatrical straight-jacket, speculative, who
have HAD to renounce the finer thing for the coarser, the thick, in
short, for the thin and the curious for the self-evident. What earthly
intellectual distinction, what 'prestige' of achievement, would have
attached to the substance of such things as 'Denise,' as 'Monsieur
Alphonse,' as 'Francillon' (and we take the Dumas of the supposedly
subtler period) in any other form? What virtues of the same order would
have attached to 'The Pillars of Society,' to 'An Enemy of the People,'
to 'Ghosts,' to 'Rosmersholm' (or taking also Ibsen's 'subtler period')
to 'John Gabriel Borkmann,' to 'The Master-Builder'? Ibsen is in fact
wonderfully a case in point, since from the moment he's clear, from the
moment he's 'amusing,' it's on the footing of a thesis as simple and
superficial as that of 'A Doll's House'--while from the moment he's by
apparent intention comprehensive and searching it's on the footing of an
effect as confused and obscure as 'The Wild Duck.' From which you easily
see ALL the conditions can't be met. The dramatist has to choose but
those he's most capable of, and by that choice he's known."

So the objector concludes, and never surely without great profit from
his having been "drawn." His apparent triumph--if it be even apparent--
still leaves, it will be noted, convenient cover for retort in the
riddled face of the opposite stronghold. The last word in these cases is
for nobody who can't pretend to an ABSOLUTE test. The terms here used,
obviously, are matters of appreciation, and there is no short cut to
proof (luckily for us all round) either that "Monsieur Alphonse"
develops itself on the highest plane of irony or that "Ghosts"
simplifies almost to excruciation. If "John Gabriel Borkmann" is but a
pennyworth of effect as to a character we can imagine much more amply
presented, and if "Hedda Gabler" makes an appeal enfeebled by remarkable
vagueness, there is by the nature of the case no catching the convinced,
or call him the deluded, spectator or reader in the act of a mistake. He
is to be caught at the worst in the act of attention, of the very
greatest attention, and that is all, as a precious preliminary at least,
that the playwright asks of him, besides being all the very divinest
poet can get. I remember rejoicing as much to remark this, after getting
launched in "The Awkward Age," as if I were in fact constructing a play
--just as I may doubtless appear now not less anxious to keep the
philosophy of the dramatist's course before me than if I belonged to his
order. I felt, certainly, the support he feels, I participated in his
technical amusement, I tasted to the full the bitter-sweetness of his
draught--the beauty and the difficulty (to harp again on that string) of
escaping poverty EVEN THOUGH the references in one's action can only be,
with intensity, to each other, to things exactly on the same plane of
exhibition with themselves. Exhibition may mean in a "story" twenty
different ways, fifty excursions, alternatives, excrescences, and the
novel, as largely practised in English, is the perfect paradise of the
loose end. The play consents to the logic of but one way, mathematically
right, and with the loose end as gross an impertinence on its surface,
and as grave a dishonour, as the dangle of a snippet of silk or wool on
the right side of a tapestry. We are shut up wholly to cross-relations,
relations all within the action itself; no part of which is related to
anything but some other part--save of course by the relation of the
total to life. And, after invoking the protection of Gyp, I saw the
point of my game all in the problem of keeping these conditioned
relations crystalline at the same time that I should, in emulation of
life, consent to their being numerous and fine and characteristic of the
London world (as the London world was in this quarter and that to be
deciphered). All of which was to make in the event for complications.

I see now of course how far, with my complications, I got away from Gyp;
but I see to-day so much else too that this particular deflexion from
simplicity makes scarce a figure among the others after having once
served its purpose, I mean, of lighting my original imitative innocence.
For I recognise in especial, with a waking vibration of that interest in
which, as I say, the plan of the book is embalmed for me, that my
subject was probably condemned in advance to appreciable, or more
exactly perhaps to almost preposterously appreciative, over-treatment.
It places itself for me thus in a group of small productions exhibiting
this perversity, representations of conceived cases in which my process
has been to pump the case gaspingly dry, dry not only of superfluous
moisture, but absolutely (for I have encountered the charge) of
breathable air. I may note, in fine, that coming back to the pages
before us with a strong impression of their recording, to my shame, that
disaster, even to the extent of its disqualifying them for decent
reappearance, I have found the adventure taking, to my relief, quite
another turn, and have lost myself in the wonder of what "over-
treatment" may, in the detail of its desperate ingenuity, consist of.
The revived interest I speak of has been therefore that of following
critically, from page to page, even as the red Indian tracks in the
forest the pale-face, the footsteps of the systematic loyalty I was able
to achieve. The amusement of this constatation is, as I have hinted, in
the detail of the matter, and the detail is so dense, the texture of the
figured and smoothed tapestry so loose, that the genius of Gyp herself,
muse of general looseness, would certainly, once warned, have uttered
the first disavowal of my homage. But what has occurred meanwhile is
that this high consistency has itself, so to speak, constituted an
exhibition, and that an important artistic truth has seemed to me
thereby lighted. We brushed against that truth just now in our glance at
the denial of expansibility to any idea the mould of the "stage-play"
may hope to express without cracking and bursting--and we bear in mind
at the same time that the picture of Nanda Brookenham's situation,
though perhaps seeming to a careless eye so to wander and sprawl, yet
presents itself on absolutely scenic lines, and that each of these
scenes in itself, and each as related to each and to all of its
companions, abides without a moment's deflexion by the principle of the
stage-play. In doing this then it does more--it helps us ever so happily
to see the grave distinction between substance and form in a really
wrought work of art signally break down. I hold it impossible to say,
before "The Awkward Age," where one of these elements ends and the other
begins: I have been unable at least myself, on re-examination, to mark
any such joint or seam, to see the two DISCHARGED offices as separate.
They are separate before the fact, but the sacrament of execution
indissolubly marries them, and the marriage, like any other marriage,
has only to be a "true" one for the scandal of a breach not to show. The
thing "done," artistically, is a fusion, or it has not BEEN done--in
which case of course the artist may be, and all deservedly, pelted with
any fragment of his botch the critic shall choose to pick up. But his
ground once conquered, in this particular field, he knows nothing of
fragments and may say in all security: "Detach one if you can. You can
analyse in YOUR way, oh yes--to relate, to report, to explain; but you
can't disintegrate my synthesis; you can't resolve the elements of my
whole into different responsible agents or find your way at all (for
your own fell purpose). My mixture has only to be perfect literally to
bewilder you--you are lost in the tangle of the forest. Prove this
value, this effect, in the air of the whole result, to be of my subject,
and that other value, other effect, to be of my treatment, prove that I
haven't so shaken them together as the conjurer I profess to be MUST
consummately shake, and I consent but to parade as before a booth at the
fair." The exemplary closeness of "The Awkward Age" even affects me, on
re-perusal, I confess, as treasure quite instinctively and foreseeingly
laid up against my present opportunity for these remarks. I have been
positively struck by the quantity of meaning and the number of
intentions, the extent of GROUND FOR INTEREST, as I may call it, that I
have succeeded in working scenically, yet without loss of sharpness,
clearness or "atmosphere," into each of my illuminating occasions--
where, at certain junctures, the due preservation of all these values
took, in the familiar phrase, a good deal of doing.

I should have liked just here to re-examine with the reader some of the
positively most artful passages I have in mind--such as the hour of Mr.
Longdon's beautiful and, as it were, mystic attempt at a compact with
Vanderbank, late at night, in the billiard-room of the country-house at
which they are staying; such as the other nocturnal passage, under Mr.
Longdon's roof, between Vanderbank and Mitchy, where the conduct of so
much fine meaning, so many flares of the exhibitory torch through the
labyrinth of mere immediate appearances, mere familiar allusions, is
successfully and safely effected; such as the whole array of the terms
of presentation that are made to serve, all systematically, yet without
a gap anywhere, for the presentation, throughout, of a Mitchy "subtle"
no less than concrete and concrete no less than deprived of that
officious explanation which we know as "going behind"; such as, briefly,
the general service of co-ordination and vivification rendered, on lines
of ferocious, of really quite heroic compression, by the picture of the
assembled group at Mrs. Grendon's, where the "cross-references" of the
action are as thick as the green leaves of a garden, but none the less,
as they have scenically to be, counted and disposed, weighted with
responsibility. Were I minded to use in this connexion a "loud" word--
and the critic in general hates loud words as a man of taste may hate
loud colours--I should speak of the composition of the chapters entitled
"Tishy Grendon," with all the pieces of the game on the table together
and each unconfusedly and contributively placed, as triumphantly
scientific. I must properly remind myself, rather, that the better
lesson of my retrospect would seem to be really a supreme revision of
the question of what it may be for a subject to suffer, to call it
suffering, by over-treatment. Bowed down so long by the inference that
its product had in this case proved such a betrayal, my artistic
conscience meets the relief of having to recognise truly here no traces
of suffering. The thing carries itself to my maturer and gratified sense
as with every symptom of soundness, an insolence of health and joy. And
from this precisely I deduce my moral; which is to the effect that,
since our only way, in general, of knowing that we have had too much of
anything is by FEELING that too much: so, by the same token, when we
don't feel the excess (and I am contending, mind, that in "The Awkward
Age" the multiplicity yields to the order) how do we know that the
measure not recorded, the notch not reached, does represent adequacy or
satiety? The mere feeling helps us for certain degrees of congestion,
but for exact science, that is for the criticism of "fine" art, we want
the notation. The notation, however, is what we lack, and the verdict of
the mere feeling is liable to fluctuate. In other words an imputed
defect is never, at the worst, disengageable, or other than matter for
appreciation--to come back to my claim for that felicity of the
dramatist's case that his synthetic "whole" IS his form, the only one we
have to do with. I like to profit in his company by the fact that if our
art has certainly, for the impression it produces, to defer to the rise
and fall, in the critical temperature, of the telltale mercury, it still
hasn't to reckon with the engraved thermometer-face.


Henry James

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