Mr. Anthony Hope by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Essay

Oct. 27, 1894. “The God in the Car” and “The Indiscretion of the Duchess.”

As I set down the titles of these two new stories by Mr. Anthony Hope, it occurs to me that combined they would make an excellent title for a third story yet to be written. For Mr. Hope’s duchess, if by any chance she found herself travelling with a god in a car, would infallibly seize the occasion for a tour de force in charming indiscretion. That the car would travel for some part of the distance in that position of unstable equilibrium known to skaters as the “outside edge” may, I think, be taken for granted. But far be it from me to imagine bungling developments of the situation I here suggest to Mr. Hope’s singular and agreeable talents. Like Mr. Stevenson’s smatterer, who was asked, “What would be the result of putting a pound of potassium in a pot of porter?” I content myself with anticipating “that there would probably be a number of interesting bye-products.”

Be it understood that I suggest only a combination of the titles–not of the two stories as Mr. Hope has written them: for these move on levels altogether different. The constant reader of The Speaker’s “Causeries” will be familiar with the two propositions–not in the least contradictory–that a novel should be true to life, and that it is quite impossible for a novel to be true to life. He will also know how they are reconciled. A story, of whatever kind, must follow life at a certain remove. It is a good and consistent story if it keep at that remove from first till last. Let us have the old tag once more:

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“Servetur ad inum
Qualis ab incepto processerit, et sibi constet.”

A good story and real life are such that, being produced in either direction and to any extent, they never meet. The distance between the parallels does not count: or rather, it is just a matter for the author to choose. It is here that Mr. Howells makes his mistake, who speaks contemptuously of Romance as Puss in Boots. Puss in Boots is a masterpiece in its way, and in its way just as true to life–i.e., to its distance from life–as that very different masterpiece Silas Lapham. When Mr. Howells objects to the figure of Vautrin in Le Père Goriot, he criticizes well: Vautrin in that tale is out of drawing and therefore monstrous. But to bring a similar objection against Porthos in Le Vicomte de Bragelonne would be very bad criticism; for it would ignore all the postulates of the story. In real life Vautrin and Porthos would be equally monstrous: in the stories Vautrin is monstrous and Porthos is not.

But though the distance from real life at which an author conducts his tale is just a matter for his own choice, it usually happens to him after a while, either from taste or habit, to choose a particular distance and stick to it, or near it, henceforth in all his writings. Thus Scott has his own distance, and Jane Austen hers. Balzac, Hugo, Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, Tolstoi, Mr. Howells himself–all these have their favorite distances, and all are different and cannot be confused. But a young writer usually starts in some uncertainty on this point. He has to find his range, and will quite likely lead off with a miss or a ricochet, as Mr. Hardy led off with Desperate Remedies before finding the target with Under the Greenwood Tree. Now Mr. Hope–the application of these profound remarks is coming at last–being a young writer, hovers in choice between two ranges. He has found the target with both, and cannot make up his mind between them: and I for one hope he will keep up his practice at both: for his experiments are most interesting, and in the course of them he is giving us capital books. Of the two before me, The God in the Car belongs to the same class as his earliest work–his Father Stafford, for instance, a novel that did not win one-tenth of the notice it deserved. It is practice at short range. It moves very close to real life. Real people, of course, do not converse as briskly and wittily as do Mr. Hope’s characters: but these have nothing of the impossible in them, and even in the whole business of Omofaga there is nothing more fantastic than its delightful name. The book is genuinely tragic; but the tragedy lies rather in what the reader is left to imagine than in what actually occurs upon the stage. That it never comes to a more explicit and vulgar issue stands not so much to the credit of the heroine (as I suppose we must call Mrs. Dennison) as to the force of circumstances as manipulated in the tactful grasp of Mr. Hope. Nor is it to be imputed to him for a fault that the critical chapter xvii. reminds us in half a dozen oddly indirect ways of a certain chapter in Richard Feverel. The place, the situation, the reader’s suspense, are similar; but the actors, their emotions, their purposes are vastly different. It is a fine chapter, and the page with which it opens is the worst in the book–a solitary purple patch of “fine writing.” I observe without surprise that the reviewers–whose admiring attention is seldom caught but by something out of proportion–have been fastening upon it and quoting it ecstatically.

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The Indiscretion of the Duchess is the tale in Mr. Hope’s second manner–the manner of The Prisoner of Zenda. Story for story, it falls a trifle sort of The Prisoner of Zenda. As a set-off, the telling is firmer, surer, more accomplished. In each an aimless, superficially cynical, but naturally amiable English gentleman finds himself casually involved in circumstances which appeal first to his sportsmanlike love of adventure, and so by degrees to his chivalry, his sense of honor, and his passions. At first amused, then perplexed, then nettled, then involved heart and soul, he is left to fight his way through with the native weapons of his order–courage, tact, honesty, wit, strength of self-sacrifice, aptitude for affairs. The donnée of these tales, their spirit, their postulates, are nakedly romantic. In them the author deliberately lends enchantment to his view by withdrawing to a convenient distance from real life. But, once more, the enchantment is everything and the distance nothing. If I must find fault with the later of the stories, it will not be with its general extravagance–for extravagance is part of the secret of Romance–but with the sordid and very nasty Madame Delhasse. She would be repulsive enough in any case: but as Marie’s mother she is peculiarly repulsive and, let me add, improbable. Nobody looks for heredity in a tale of this sort: but even in the fairy tales it is always the heroine’s step-mother who ends very fitly with a roll downhill in a barrel full of spikes.

But great as are the differences between The God in the Car and The Indiscretion of the Duchess–and I ought to say that the former carries (as it ought) more weight of metal–they have their points of similarity. Both illustrate conspicuously Mr. Hope’s gift of advancing the action of his story by the sprightly conversation of his characters. There is a touch of Dumas in their talk, and more than a touch of Sterne–the Sterne of the Sentimental Journey.

“I beg your pardon, madame,” said I, with a whirl of my hat.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” said the lady, with an inclination of her head.

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“One is so careless in entering rooms hurriedly,” I observed.

“Oh, but it is stupid to stand just by the door!” insisted the lady.

To sum up, these are two most entertaining books by one of the writers for whose next book one searches eagerly in the publishers’ lists. If, however, he will not resent one small word of caution, it is that he should not let us find his name there too often. As far as we can see, he cannot write too much for us. But he may very easily write too much for his own health.

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