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Ch. 15 - A Gossip on Romance

IN anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process
itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a
book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal,
our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images,
incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the
book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the
noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself
in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye. It was for this last
pleasure that we read so closely, and loved our books so dearly, in
the bright, troubled period of boyhood. Eloquence and thought,
character and conversation, were but obstacles to brush aside as we
dug blithely after a certain sort of incident, like a pig for
truffles. For my part, I liked a story to begin with an old
wayside inn where, "towards the close of the year 17-," several
gentlemen in three-cocked hats were playing bowls. A friend of
mine preferred the Malabar coast in a storm, with a ship beating to
windward, and a scowling fellow of Herculean proportions striding
along the beach; he, to be sure, was a pirate. This was further
afield than my home-keeping fancy loved to travel, and designed
altogether for a larger canvas than the tales that I affected.
Give me a highwayman and I was full to the brim; a Jacobite would
do, but the highwayman was my favourite dish. I can still hear
that merry clatter of the hoofs along the moonlit lane; night and
the coming of day are still related in my mind with the doings of
John Rann or Jerry Abershaw; and the words "post-chaise," the
"great North road," "ostler," and "nag" still sound in my ears like
poetry. One and all, at least, and each with his particular fancy,
we read story-books in childhood, not for eloquence or character or
thought, but for some quality of the brute incident. That quality
was not mere bloodshed or wonder. Although each of these was
welcome in its place, the charm for the sake of which we read
depended on something different from either. My elders used to
read novels aloud; and I can still remember four different passages
which I heard, before I was ten, with the same keen and lasting
pleasure. One I discovered long afterwards to be the admirable
opening of WHAT WILL HE DO WITH IT: it was no wonder I was pleased
with that. The other three still remain unidentified. One is a
little vague; it was about a dark, tall house at night, and people
groping on the stairs by the light that escaped from the open door
of a sickroom. In another, a lover left a ball, and went walking
in a cool, dewy park, whence he could watch the lighted windows and
the figures of the dancers as they moved. This was the most
sentimental impression I think I had yet received, for a child is
somewhat deaf to the sentimental. In the last, a poet, who had
been tragically wrangling with his wife, walked forth on the sea-
beach on a tempestuous night and witnessed the horrors of a wreck.
(8) Different as they are, all these early favourites have a
common note - they have all a touch of the romantic.

Drama is the poetry of conduct, romance the poetry of circumstance.
The pleasure that we take in life is of two sorts - the active and
the passive. Now we are conscious of a great command over our
destiny; anon we are lifted up by circumstance, as by a breaking
wave, and dashed we know not how into the future. Now we are
pleased by our conduct, anon merely pleased by our surroundings.
It would be hard to say which of these modes of satisfaction is the
more effective, but the latter is surely the more constant.
Conduct is three parts of life, they say; but I think they put it
high. There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not
immoral, but simply a-moral; which either does not regard the human
will at all, or deals with it in obvious and healthy relations;
where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do,
but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and
hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and
of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the
shock of arms or the diplomacy of life. With such material as this
it is impossible to build a play, for the serious theatre exists
solely on moral grounds, and is a standing proof of the
dissemination of the human conscience. But it is possible to
build, upon this ground, the most joyous of verses, and the most
lively, beautiful, and buoyant tales.

One thing in life calls for another; there is a fitness in events
and places. The sight of a pleasant arbour puts it in our mind to
sit there. One place suggests work, another idleness, a third
early rising and long rambles in the dew. The effect of night, of
any flowing water, of lighted cities, of the peep of day, of ships,
of the open ocean, calls up in the mind an army of anonymous
desires and pleasures. Something, we feel, should happen; we know
not what, yet we proceed in quest of it. And many of the happiest
hours of life fleet by us in this vain attendance on the genius of
the place and moment. It is thus that tracts of young fir, and low
rocks that reach into deep soundings, particularly torture and
delight me. Something must have happened in such places, and
perhaps ages back, to members of my race; and when I was a child I
tried in vain to invent appropriate games for them, as I still try,
just as vainly, to fit them with the proper story. Some places
speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder;
certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set
apart for shipwreck. Other spots again seem to abide their
destiny, suggestive and impenetrable, "miching mallecho." The inn
at Burford Bridge, with its arbours and green garden and silent,
eddying river - though it is known already as the place where Keats
wrote some of his ENDYMION and Nelson parted from his Emma - still
seems to wait the coming of the appropriate legend. Within these
ivied walls, behind these old green shutters, some further business
smoulders, waiting for its hour. The old Hawes Inn at the Queen's
Ferry makes a similar call upon my fancy. There it stands, apart
from the town, beside the pier, in a climate of its own, half
inland, half marine - in front

the ferry bubbling with the tide and the guardship swinging to her
anchor; behind, the old garden with the trees. Americans seek it
already for the sake of Lovel and Oldbuck, who dined there at the
beginning of the ANTIQUARY. But you need not tell me - that is not
all; there is some story, unrecorded or not yet complete, which
must express the meaning of that inn more fully. So it is with
names and faces; so it is with incidents that are idle and
inconclusive in themselves, and yet seem like the beginning of some
quaint romance, which the all-careless author leaves untold. How
many of these romances have we not seen determine at their birth;
how many people have met us with a look of meaning in their eye,
and sunk at once into trivial acquaintances; to how many places
have we not drawn near, with express intimations - "here my destiny
awaits me" - and we have but dined there and passed on! I have
lived both at the Hawes and Burford in a perpetual flutter, on the
heels, as it seemed, of some adventure that should justify the
place; but though the feeling had me to bed at night and called me
again at morning in one unbroken round of pleasure and suspense,
nothing befell me in either worth remark. The man or the hour had
not yet come; but some day, I think, a boat shall put off from the
Queen's Ferry, fraught with a dear cargo, and some frosty night a
horseman, on a tragic errand, rattle with his whip upon the green
shutters of the inn at Burford. (9)

Now, this is one of the natural appetites with which any lively
literature has to count. The desire for knowledge, I had almost
added the desire for meat, is not more deeply seated than this
demand for fit and striking incident. The dullest of clowns tells,
or tries to tell, himself a story, as the feeblest of children uses
invention in his play; and even as the imaginative grown person,
joining in the game, at once enriches it with many delightful
circumstances, the great creative writer shows us the realisation
and the apotheosis of the day-dreams of common men. His stories
may be nourished with the realities of life, but their true mark is
to satisfy the nameless longings of the reader, and to obey the
ideal laws of the day-dream. The right kind of thing should fall
out in the right kind of place; the right kind of thing should
follow; and not only the characters talk aptly and think naturally,
but all the circumstances in a tale answer one to another like
notes in music. The threads of a story come from time to time
together and make a picture in the web; the characters fall from
time to time into some attitude to each other or to nature, which
stamps the story home like an illustration. Crusoe recoiling from
the footprint, Achilles shouting over against the Trojans, Ulysses
bending the great bow, Christian running with his fingers in his
ears, these are each culminating moments in the legend, and each
has been printed on the mind's eye for ever. Other things we may
forget; we may forget the words, although they are beautiful; we
may forget the author's comment, although perhaps it was ingenious
and true; but these epoch-making scenes, which put the last mark of
truth upon a story and fill up, at one blow, our capacity for
sympathetic pleasure, we so adopt into the very bosom of our mind
that neither time nor tide can efface or weaken the impression.
This, then, is the plastic part of literature: to embody character,
thought, or emotion in some act or attitude that shall be
remarkably striking to the mind's eye. This is the highest and
hardest thing to do in words; the thing which, once accomplished,
equally delights the schoolboy and the sage, and makes, in its own
right, the quality of epics. Compared with this, all other
purposes in literature, except the purely lyrical or the purely
philosophic, are bastard in nature, facile of execution, and feeble
in result. It is one thing to write about the inn at Burford, or
to describe scenery with the word-painters; it is quite another to
seize on the heart of the suggestion and make a country famous with
a legend. It is one thing to remark and to dissect, with the most
cutting logic, the complications of life, and of the human spirit;
it is quite another to give them body and blood in the story of
Ajax or of Hamlet. The first is literature, but the second is
something besides, for it is likewise art.

English people of the present day (10) are apt, I know not why, to
look somewhat down on incident, and reserve their admiration for
the clink of teaspoons and the accents of the curate. It is
thought clever to write a novel with no story at all, or at least
with a very dull one. Reduced even to the lowest terms, a certain
interest can be communicated by the art of narrative; a sense of
human kinship stirred; and a kind of monotonous fitness, comparable
to the words and air of SANDY'S MULL, preserved among the
infinitesimal occurrences recorded. Some people work, in this
manner, with even a strong touch. Mr. Trollope's inimitable
clergymen naturally arise to the mind in this connection. But even
Mr. Trollope does not confine himself to chronicling small beer.
Mr. Crawley's collision with the Bishop's wife, Mr. Melnotte
dallying in the deserted banquet-room, are typical incidents,
epically conceived, fitly embodying a crisis. Or again look at
Thackeray. If Rawdon Crawley's blow were not delivered, VANITY
FAIR would cease to be a work of art. That scene is the chief
ganglion of the tale; and the discharge of energy from Rawdon's
fist is the reward and consolation of the reader. The end of
ESMOND is a yet wider excursion from the author's customary fields;
the scene at Castlewood is pure Dumas; the great and wily English
borrower has here borrowed from the great, unblushing French thief;
as usual, he has borrowed admirably well, and the breaking of the
sword rounds off the best of all his books with a manly, martial
note. But perhaps nothing can more strongly illustrate the
necessity for marking incident than to compare the living fame of
is a book of a far more startling import, worked out, on a great
canvas, with inimitable courage and unflagging art. It contains
wit, character, passion, plot, conversations full of spirit and
insight, letters sparkling with unstrained humanity; and if the
death of the heroine be somewhat frigid and artificial, the last
days of the hero strike the only note of what we now call Byronism,
between the Elizabethans and Byron himself. And yet a little story
of a shipwrecked sailor, with not a tenth part of the style nor a
thousandth part of the wisdom, exploring none of the arcana of
humanity and deprived of the perennial interest of love, goes on
from edition to edition, ever young, while CLARISSA lies upon the
shelves unread. A friend of mine, a Welsh blacksmith, was twenty-
five years old and could neither read nor write, when he heard a
chapter of ROBINSON read aloud in a farm kitchen. Up to that
moment he had sat content, huddled in his ignorance, but he left
that farm another man. There were day-dreams, it appeared, divine
day-dreams, written and printed and bound, and to be bought for
money and enjoyed at pleasure. Down he sat that day, painfully
learned to read Welsh, and returned to borrow the book. It had
been lost, nor could he find another copy but one that was in
English. Down he sat once more, learned English, and at length,
and with entire delight, read ROBINSON. It is like the story of a
love-chase. If he had heard a letter from CLARISSA, would he have
been fired with the same chivalrous ardour? I wonder. Yet
CLARISSA has every quality that can be shown in prose, one alone
excepted - pictorial or picture-making romance. While ROBINSON
depends, for the most part and with the overwhelming majority of
its readers, on the charm of circumstance.

In the highest achievements of the art of words, the dramatic and
the pictorial, the moral and romantic interest, rise and fall
together by a common and organic law. Situation is animated with
passion, passion clothed upon with situation. Neither exists for
itself, but each inheres indissolubly with the other. This is high
art; and not only the highest art possible in words, but the
highest art of all, since it combines the greatest mass and
diversity of the elements of truth and pleasure. Such are epics,
and the few prose tales that have the epic weight. But as from a
school of works, aping the creative, incident and romance are
ruthlessly discarded, so may character and drama be omitted or
subordinated to romance. There is one book, for example, more
generally loved than Shakespeare, that captivates in childhood, and
still delights in age - I mean the ARABIAN NIGHTS - where you shall
look in vain for moral or for intellectual interest. No human face
or voice greets us among that wooden crowd of kings and genies,
sorcerers and beggarmen. Adventure, on the most naked terms,
furnishes forth the entertainment and is found enough. Dumas
approaches perhaps nearest of any modern to these Arabian authors
in the purely material charm of some of his romances. The early
part of MONTE CRISTO, down to the finding of the treasure, is a
piece of perfect story-telling; the man never breathed who shared
these moving incidents without a tremor; and yet Faria is a thing
of packthread and Dantes little more than a name. The sequel is
one long-drawn error, gloomy, bloody, unnatural and dull; but as
for these early chapters, I do not believe there is another volume
extant where you can breathe the same unmingled atmosphere of
romance. It is very thin and light to be sure, as on a high
mountain; but it is brisk and clear and sunny in proportion. I saw
the other day, with envy, an old and a very clever lady setting
forth on a second or third voyage into MONTE CRISTO. Here are
stories which powerfully affect the reader, which can he reperused
at any age, and where the characters are no more than puppets. The
bony fist of the showman visibly propels them; their springs are an
open secret; their faces are of wood, their bellies filled with
bran; and yet we thrillingly partake of their adventures. And the
point may be illustrated still further. The last interview between
Lucy and Richard Feveril is pure drama; more than that, it is the
strongest scene, since Shakespeare, in the English tongue. Their
first meeting by the river, on the other hand, is pure romance; it
has nothing to do with character; it might happen to any other boy
or maiden, and be none the less delightful for the change. And yet
I think he would be a bold man who should choose between these
passages. Thus, in the same book, we may have two scenes, each
capital in its order: in the one, human passion, deep calling unto
deep, shall utter its genuine voice; in the second, according
circumstances, like instruments in tune, shall build up a trivial
but desirable incident, such as we love to prefigure for ourselves;
and in the end, in spite of the critics, we may hesitate to give
the preference to either. The one may ask more genius - I do not
say it does; but at least the other dwells as clearly in the

True romantic art, again, makes a romance of all things. It
reaches into the highest abstraction of the ideal; it does not
refuse the most pedestrian realism. ROBINSON CRUSOE is as
realistic as it is romantic; both qualities are pushed to an
extreme, and neither suffers. Nor does romance depend upon the
material importance of the incidents. To deal with strong and
deadly elements, banditti, pirates, war and murder, is to conjure
with great names, and, in the event of failure, to double the
disgrace. The arrival of Haydn and Consuelo at the Canon's villa
is a very trifling incident; yet we may read a dozen boisterous
stories from beginning to end, and not receive so fresh and
stirring an impression of adventure. It was the scene of Crusoe at
the wreck, if I remember rightly, that so bewitched my blacksmith.
Nor is the fact surprising. Every single article the castaway
recovers from the hulk is "a joy for ever" to the man who reads of
them. They are the things that should be found, and the bare
enumeration stirs the blood. I found a glimmer of the same
interest the other day in a new book, THE SAILOR'S SWEETHEART, by
Mr. Clark Russell. The whole business of the brig MORNING STAR is
very rightly felt and spiritedly written; but the clothes, the
books and the money satisfy the reader's mind like things to eat.
We are dealing here with the old cut-and-dry, legitimate interest
of treasure trove. But even treasure trove can be made dull.
There are few people who have not groaned under the plethora of
goods that fell to the lot of the SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, that
dreary family. They found article after article, creature after
creature, from milk kine to pieces of ordnance, a whole
consignment; but no informing taste had presided over the
selection, there was no smack or relish in the invoice; and these
riches left the fancy cold. The box of goods in Verne's MYSTERIOUS
ISLAND is another case in point: there was no gusto and no glamour
about that; it might have come from a shop. But the two hundred
and seventy-eight Australian sovereigns on board the MORNING STAR
fell upon me like a surprise that I had expected; whole vistas of
secondary stories, besides the one in hand, radiated forth from
that discovery, as they radiate from a striking particular in life;
and I was made for the moment as happy as a reader has the right to

To come at all at the nature of this quality of romance, we must
bear in mind the peculiarity of our attitude to any art. No art
produces illusion; in the theatre we never forget that we are in
the theatre; and while we read a story, we sit wavering between two
minds, now merely clapping our hands at the merit of the
performance, now condescending to take an active part in fancy with
the characters. This last is the triumph of romantic story-
telling: when the reader consciously plays at being the hero, the
scene is a good scene. Now in character-studies the pleasure that
we take is critical; we watch, we approve, we smile at
incongruities, we are moved to sudden heats of sympathy with
courage, suffering or virtue. But the characters are still
themselves, they are not us; the more clearly they are depicted,
the more widely do they stand away from us, the more imperiously do
they thrust us back into our place as a spectator. I cannot
identify myself with Rawdon Crawley or with Eugene de Rastignac,
for I have scarce a hope or fear in common with them. It is not
character but incident that woos us out of our reserve. Something
happens as we desire to have it happen to ourselves; some
situation, that we have long dallied with in fancy, is realised in
the story with enticing and appropriate details. Then we forget
the characters; then we push the hero aside; then we plunge into
the tale in our own person and bathe in fresh experience; and then,
and then only, do we say we have been reading a romance. It is not
only pleasurable things that we imagine in our day-dreams; there
are lights in which we are willing to contemplate even the idea of
our own death; ways in which it seems as if it would amuse us to be
cheated, wounded or calumniated. It is thus possible to construct
a story, even of tragic import, in which every incident, detail and
trick of circumstance shall be welcome to the reader's thoughts.
Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there
that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life; and when the
game so chimes with his fancy that he can join in it with all his
heart, when it pleases him with every turn, when he loves to recall
it and dwells upon its recollection with entire delight, fiction is
called romance.

Walter Scott is out and away the king of the romantics. THE LADY
OF THE LAKE has no indisputable claim to be a poem beyond the
inherent fitness and desirability of the tale. It is just such a
story as a man would make up for himself, walking, in the best
health and temper, through just such scenes as it is laid in.
Hence it is that a charm dwells undefinable among these slovenly
verses, as the unseen cuckoo fills the mountains with his note;
hence, even after we have flung the book aside, the scenery and
adventures remain present to the mind, a new and green possession,
not unworthy of that beautiful name, THE LADY OF THE LAKE, or that
direct, romantic opening - one of the most spirited and poetical in
literature - "The stag at eve had drunk his fill." The same
strength and the same weaknesses adorn and disfigure the novels.
In that ill-written, ragged book, THE PIRATE, the figure of
Cleveland - cast up by the sea on the resounding foreland of
Dunrossness - moving, with the blood on his hands and the Spanish
words on his tongue, among the simple islanders - singing a
serenade under the window of his Shetland mistress - is conceived
in the very highest manner of romantic invention. The words of his
song, "Through groves of palm," sung in such a scene and by such a
lover, clench, as in a nutshell, the emphatic contrast upon which
the tale is built. IN GUY MANNERING, again, every incident is
delightful to the imagination; and the scene when Harry Bertram
lands at Ellangowan is a model instance of romantic method.

"I remember the tune well," he says, "though I cannot guess what
should at present so strongly recall it to my memory." He took his
flageolet from his pocket and played a simple melody. Apparently
the tune awoke the corresponding associations of a damsel. She
immediately took up the song -

" 'Are these the links of Forth, she said;
Or are they the crooks of Dee,
Or the bonny woods of Warroch Head
That I so fain would see?'

" 'By heaven!' said Bertram, 'it is the very ballad.'"

On this quotation two remarks fall to be made. First, as an
instance of modern feeling for romance, this famous touch of the
flageolet and the old song is selected by Miss Braddon for
omission. Miss Braddon's idea of a story, like Mrs. Todgers's idea
of a wooden leg, were something strange to have expounded. As a
matter of personal experience, Meg's appearance to old Mr. Bertram
on the road, the ruins of Derncleugh, the scene of the flageolet,
and the Dominie's recognition of Harry, are the four strong notes
that continue to ring in the mind after the book is laid aside.
The second point is still more curious. The, reader will observe a
mark of excision in the passage as quoted by me. Well, here is how
it runs in the original: "a damsel, who, close behind a fine spring
about half-way down the descent, and which had once supplied the
castle with water, was engaged in bleaching linen." A man who gave
in such copy would be discharged from the staff of a daily paper.
Scott has forgotten to prepare the reader for the presence of the
"damsel"; he has forgotten to mention the spring and its relation
to the ruin; and now, face to face with his omission, instead of
trying back and starting fair, crams all this matter, tail
foremost, into a single shambling sentence. It is not merely bad
English, or bad style; it is abominably bad narrative besides.

Certainly the contrast is remarkable; and it is one that throws a
strong light upon the subject of this paper. For here we have a
man of the finest creative instinct touching with perfect certainty
and charm the romantic junctures of his story; and we find him
utterly careless, almost, it would seem, incapable, in the
technical matter of style, and not only frequently weak, but
frequently wrong in points of drama. In character parts, indeed,
and particularly in the Scotch, he was delicate, strong and
truthful; but the trite, obliterated features of too many of his
heroes have already wearied two generations of readers. At times
his characters will speak with something far beyond propriety with
a true heroic note; but on the next page they will he wading
wearily forward with an ungrammatical and undramatic rigmarole of
words. The man who could conceive and write the character of
Elspeth of the Craigburnfoot, as Scott has conceived and written
it, had not only splendid romantic, but splendid tragic gifts. How
comes it, then, that he could so often fob us off with languid,
inarticulate twaddle?

It seems to me that the explanation is to be found in the very
quality of his surprising merits. As his books are play to the
reader, so were they play to him. He conjured up the romantic with
delight, but he had hardly patience to describe it. He was a great
day-dreamer, a seer of fit and beautiful and humorous visions, but
hardly a great artist; hardly, in the manful sense, an artist at
all. He pleased himself, and so he pleases us. Of the pleasures
of his art he tasted fully; but of its toils and vigils and
distresses never man knew less. A great romantic - an idle child.

Robert Louis Stevenson