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When I was younger, reading the popular novel used to make me sad. I find it vexes others also. I was talking to a bright young girl upon the subject not so very long ago.
"I just hate the girl in the novel," she confessed. "She makes me feel real bad. If I don't think of her I feel pleased with myself, and good; but when I read about her--well, I'm crazy. I would not mind her being smart, sometimes. We can all of us say the right thing, now and then. This girl says them straight away, all the time. She don't have to dig for them even; they come crowding out of her. There never happens a time when she stands there feeling like a fool and knowing that she looks it. As for her hair: 'pon my word, there are days when I believe it is a wig. I'd like to get behind her and give it just one pull. It curls of its own accord. She don't seem to have any trouble with it. Look at this mop of mine. I've been working at it for three-quarters of an hour this morning; and now I would not laugh, not if you were to tell me the funniest thing, you'd ever heard, for fear it would come down again. As for her clothes, they make me tired. She don't possess a frock that does not fit her to perfection; she doesn't have to think about them. You would imagine she went into the garden and picked them off a tree. She just slips it on and comes down, and then--my stars! All the other women in the room may just as well go to bed and get a good night's rest for all the chance they've got. It isn't that she's beautiful. From what they tell you about her, you might fancy her a freak. Looks don't appear to matter to her; she gets there anyhow. I tell you she just makes me boil."
Allowing for the difference between the masculine and feminine outlook, this is precisely how I used to feel when reading of the hero. He was not always good; sometimes he hit the villain harder than he had intended, and then he was sorry--when it was too late, blamed himself severely, and subscribed towards the wreath. Like the rest of us, he made mistakes; occasionally married the wrong girl. But how well he did everything!--does still for the matter of that, I believe. Take it that he condescends to play cricket! He never scores less than a hundred--does not know how to score less than a hundred, wonders how it could be done, supposing, for example, you had an appointment and wanted to catch an early train. I used to play cricket myself, but I could always stop at ten or twenty. There have been times when I have stopped at even less.
It is the same with everything he puts his hand to. Either he does not care for boating at all, or, as a matter of course, he pulls stroke in the University Boat-race; and then takes the train on to Henley and wins the Diamond Sculls so easily that it hardly seems worth while for the other fellow to have started. Were I living in Novel-land, and had I entered for the Diamond Sculls, I should put it to my opponent before the word was given to us to go.
"One minute!" I should have called out to him. "Are you the hero of this novel, or, like myself, only one of the minor characters? Because, if you are the hero you go on; don't you wait for me. I shall just pull as far as the boathouse and get myself a cup of tea."
Because it always seems to be his Day.
There is no sense of happy medium about the hero of the popular novel. He cannot get astride a horse without its going off and winning a steeplechase against the favourite. The crowd in Novel-land appears to have no power of observation. It worries itself about the odds, discusses records, reads the nonsense published by the sporting papers. Were I to find myself on a racecourse in Novel-land I should not trouble about the unessential; I should go up to the bookie who looked as if he had the most money, and should say to him:
"Don't shout so loud; you are making yourself hoarse. Just listen to me. Who's the hero of this novel? Oh, that's he, is it? The heavy-looking man on the little brown horse that keeps coughing and is suffering apparently from bone spavin? Well, what are the odds against his winning by ten lengths? A thousand to one! Very well! Have you got a bag?--Good. Here's twenty-seven pounds in gold and eighteen shillings in silver. Coat and waistcoat, say another ten shillings. Shirt and trousers--it's all right, I've got my pyjamas on underneath--say seven and six. Boots--we won't quarrel--make it five bob. That's twenty-nine pounds and sixpence, isn't it? In addition here's a mortgage on the family estate, which I've had made out in blank, an I O U for fourteen pounds which has been owing to me now for some time, and this bundle of securities which, strictly speaking, belong to my Aunt Jane. You keep that little lot till after the race, and we will call it in round figures, five hundred pounds."
That single afternoon would thus bring me in five hundred thousand pounds--provided the bookie did not blow his brains out.
Backers in Novel-land do not seem to me to know their way about. If the hero of the popular novel swims at all, it is not like an ordinary human being that he does it. You never meet him in a swimming-bath; he never pays ninepence, like the rest of us, for a machine. He goes out at uncanny hours, generally accompanied by a lady friend, with whom the while swimming he talks poetry and cracks jokes. Some of us, when we try to talk in the sea, fill ourselves up with salt water. This chap lies on his back and carols, and the wild waves, seeing him, go round the other way. At billiards he can give the average sharper forty in a hundred. He does not really want to play; he does it to teach these bad men a lesson. He has not handled a cue for years. He picked up the game when a young man in Australia, and it seems to have lingered with him.
He does not have to get up early and worry dumb-bells in his nightshirt; he just lies on a sofa in an elegant attitude and muscle comes to him. If his horse declines to jump a hedge, he slips down off the animal's back and throws the poor thing over; it saves argument. If he gets cross and puts his shoulder to the massive oaken door, we know there is going to be work next morning for the carpenter. Maybe he is a party belonging to the Middle Ages. Then when he reluctantly challenges the crack fencer of Europe to a duel, our instinct is to call out and warn his opponent.
"You silly fool," one feels one wants to say; "why, it is the hero of the novel! You take a friend's advice while you are still alive, and get out of it anyway--anyhow. Apologize--hire a horse and cart, do something. You're not going to fight a duel, you're going to commit suicide."
If the hero is a modern young man, and has not got a father, or has only something not worth calling a father, then he comes across a library--anybody's library does for him. He passes Sir Walter Scott and the "Arabian Nights," and makes a bee-line for Plato; it seems to be an instinct with him. By help of a dictionary he worries it out in the original Greek. This gives him a passion for Greek.
When he has romped through the Greek classics he plays about among the Latins. He spends most of his spare time in that library, and forgets to go to tea.
Because he always "gets there," without any trouble.
That is the sort of boy he is. How I used to hate him! If he has a proper sort of father, then he goes to college. He does no work: there is no need for him to work: everything seems to come to him. That was another grievance of mine against him. I always had to work a good deal, and very little came of it. He fools around doing things that other men would be sent down for; but in his case the professors love him for it all the more. He is the sort of man who can't do wrong. A fortnight before the examination he ties a wet towel round his head. That is all we hear about it. It seems to be the towel that does it. Maybe, if the towel is not quite up to its work, he will help things on by drinking gallons of strong tea. The tea and the towel combined are irresistible: the result is always the senior wranglership.
I used to believe in that wet towel and that strong tea. Lord! the things I used to believe when I was young. They would make an Encyclopaedia of Useless Knowledge. I wonder if the author of the popular novel has ever tried working with a wet towel round his or her head: I have. It is difficult enough to move a yard, balancing a dry towel. A heathen Turk may have it in his blood to do so: the ordinary Christian has not got the trick of it. To carry about a wet towel twisted round one's head needs a trained acrobat. Every few minutes the wretched thing works loose. In darkness and in misery, you struggle to get your head out of a clammy towel that clings to you almost with passion. Brain power is wasted in inventing names for that towel--names expressive of your feelings with regard to it. Further time is taken up before the glass, fixing the thing afresh.
You return to your books in the wrong temper, the water trickles down your nose, runs in rivulets down your back. Until you have finally flung the towel out of the window and rubbed yourself dry, work is impossible. The strong tea always gave me indigestion, and made me sleepy. Until I had got over the effects of the tea, attempts at study were useless.
Because he's so damned clever.
But the thing that still irritates me most against the hero of the popular novel is the ease with which he learns a modern foreign language. Were he a German waiter, a Swiss barber, or a Polish photographer, I would not envy him; these people do not have to learn a language. My idea is that they boil down a dictionary, and take two table-spoonsful each night before going to bed. By the time the bottle is finished they have the language well into their system. But he is not. He is just an ordinary Anglo-Saxon, and I don't believe in him. I walk about for years with dictionaries in my pocket. Weird-looking ladies and gentlemen gesticulate and rave at me for months. I hide myself in lonely places, repeating idioms to myself out loud, in the hope that by this means they will come readily to me if ever I want them, which I never do. And, after all this, I don't seem to know very much. This irritating ass, who has never left his native suburb, suddenly makes up his mind to travel on the Continent. I find him in the next chapter engaged in complicated psychological argument with French or German savants. It appears--the author had forgotten to mention it before--that one summer a French, or German, or Italian refugee, as the case may happen to be, came to live in the hero's street: thus it is that the hero is able to talk fluently in the native language of that unhappy refugee.
I remember a melodrama visiting a country town where I was staying. The heroine and child were sleeping peacefully in the customary attic. For some reason not quite clear to me, the villain had set fire to the house. He had been complaining through the three preceding acts of the heroine's coldness; maybe it was with some idea of warming her. Escape by way of the staircase was impossible. Each time the poor girl opened the door a flame came in and nearly burned her hair off. It seemed to have been waiting for her.
"Thank God!" said the lady, hastily wrapping the child in a sheet, "that I was brought up a wire walker."
Without a moment's hesitation she opened the attic window and took the nearest telegraph wire to the opposite side of the street.
In the same way, apparently, the hero of the popular novel, finding himself stranded in a foreign land, suddenly recollects that once upon a time he met a refugee, and at once begins to talk. I have met refugees myself. The only thing they have ever taught me is not to leave my brandy flask about.
And, finally, because I don't believe he's true.
I don't believe in these heroes and heroines that cannot keep quiet in a foreign language they have taught themselves in an old-world library. My fixed idea is that they muddle along like the rest of us, surprised that so few people understand them, begging everyone they meet not to talk so quickly. These brilliant conversations with foreign philosophers! These passionate interviews with foreign countesses! They fancy they have had them.
I crossed once with an English lady from Boulogne to Folkestone. At Folkestone a little French girl--anxious about her train--asked us a simple question. My companion replied to it with an ease that astonished herself. The little French girl vanished; my companion sighed.
"It's so odd," said my companion, "but I seem to know quite a lot of French the moment I get back to England."
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