I watched the little spurts of flame jet out from between the writhing
pages of my manuscript, watched the sheets coil up in their fiery
anguish and start one from another. I helped the fire to the very vitals
of the mass by poking the brittle heap, and at last the sacrifice was
over, the flames turned from pink to blue and died out, the red glow
gave place to black, little luminous red streaks coiled across the
charred sheets and vanished at the margins, and only the ashes of my
inspiration remained. The ink was a lustrous black on the dull blackness
of the burnt paper. I could still read this much of my indiscretion
remaining, "He smiled at them all and said nothing."
"Fool!" I said, and stirred the crackling mass into a featureless heap
of black scraps. Then with my chin on my fists and elbows on knees I
stared at the end of my labours.
I suppose, after all, there has been some profit out of the thing. Satan
finds some mischief still for idle hands to do, and one may well thank
Heaven it was only a novel. Still, it means many days out of my life,
and I would be glad to find some positive benefit accruing. Clearly, in
the first place, I have eased my mind of some execrable English. I am
cleaner now by some dozen faulty phrases that I committed and saw
afterwards in all the nakedness of typewriting. (Thank Heaven for
typewriting! Were it not for that, this thing had gone to the scoffing
of some publisher's reader, and another had known my shame.) And I shall
not write another pose novel.
I am inclined to think these pose novels the wild oats of authorship. We
sit down in the heyday of our youth to write the masterpiece.
Obviously, it must be a novel about a man and a woman, and something as
splendid as we can conceive of in that way. We look about us. We do not
go far for perfection. One of the brace holds the pen and the other is
inside his or her head; and so Off! to the willing pen. Only a few years
ago we went slashing among the poppies with a walking-stick, and were,
we said boldly and openly, Harolds and Hectors slaying our thousands.
Now of course we are grown up to self-respect, and must needs be a
little disingenuous about it. But as the story unfolds there is no
mistaking the likeness, in spite of the transfiguration. This bold,
decided man who performs such deeds of derring-do in the noisome slum,
knocks down the burly wife-beater, rescues an unmistakable Miss Clapton
from the knife of a Lascar, and is all the while cultivating a virtuous
consumption that stretches him on an edifying, pathetic, and altogether
beautiful deathbed in the last chapter----My dear Authorling, cry my
friends, we hear the squeak of that little voice of yours in every word
he utters. Is _that_ what you aspire to be, that twopence-coloured
edition of yourself? Heaven defend you from your desires!
Yet there was a singular fascination in writing the book; to be in
anticipation my own sympathetic historian, to joy with my joys yet to
come, and sorrow with my sorrows, to bear disaster like a man, and at
last to close my own dear eyes, and with a swelling heart write my own
epitaph. The pleasure remained with me until I reached the end. How
admirably I strutted in front of myself! And I and the better self of me
that was flourishing about in the book--we pretended not to know each
other for what we were. He was myself with a wig and a sham visiting
card, and I owed it to myself to respect my disguise. I made him with
very red hair--my hair is fairly dark--and shifted his university from
London to Cambridge. Clearly it could not be the same person, I argued.
But I endowed him with all the treasures of myself; I made him say all
the good things I might have said had I thought of them opportunely, and
all the noble thoughts that occurred to me afterwards occurred to him
at the time. He was myself--myself at a premium, myself without any
drawbacks, the quintessence and culmination of me. And yet somehow when
he came back from the typewriter he seemed a bit of an ass.
Probably every tadpole author writes a pose novel--at least I hope so
for the sake of my self-respect. Most, after my fashion, burn the thing,
or benevolent publishers lose it. It is an ill thing if by some accident
the tadpole tale survives the tadpole stage. The authoress does the
feminine equivalent, but I should judge either that she did it more
abundantly or else that she burned less. Has she never swept past you
with a scornful look, disdained you in all the pride of her beauty,
rippled laughter at you, or amazed you with her artless girlishness? And
even after the early stages some of the trick may survive, unless I read
books with malice instead of charity. I must confess, though, that I
have a weakness for finding mine author among his puppets. I conceive
him always taking the best parts, like an actor-manager or a little boy
playing with his sisters. I do not read many novels with sincere belief,
and I like to get such entertainment from them as I can. So that these
artless little self-revelations are very sweet and precious to me among
all the lay figures, tragedy and comedy. Since the deception is
transparent I make the most of the transparency, and love to see the
clumsy fingers on the strings of the marionettes. And this will be none
the less pleasant now that I have so narrowly escaped giving this
entertainment to others.
I suppose this stage is a necessary one. We begin with ignorance and the
imagination, the material of the pose novel. Later come self-knowledge,
disappointments and self-consciousness, and the prodigals of fiction
stay themselves upon the husks of epigram and cynicism, and in the place
of artless aspiration are indeed in plain black and white very desperate
characters. It is after all only another pose--the pose of not posing.
We, the common clay of the world of letters, must needs write in this
way, because we cannot forget our foolish little selves in our work.
But some few there are who sit as gods above their private universes,
and write without passion or vanity. At least, so I have been told.
These be the true artists of letters, the white windows upon the truth
of things. We by comparison are but stained glass in our own honour, and
do but obstruct the view with our halos and attitudes. Yet even
Shakespeare, the critics tell us--and they say they know--posed in the
character of Hamlet.
After all, the pose novel method has at times attained to the level of
literature. Charlotte Brontė might possibly have found no other topic
had she disdained the plain little woman with a shrewish tongue; and
where had Charles Kingsley been if the vision of a curate rampant had
not rejoiced his heart? Still, I am not sorry that this novel is burned.
Even now it was ridiculous, and the time might have come when this book,
full of high, if foolish aims, and the vain vast promise of well-meaning
youth, had been too keen a reproach to be endured. Three volumes of good
intentions! It is too much. There was more than a novel burning just
now. After this I shall be in a position to take a humorist's view of
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