Ought Stories To Be True? by Jerome K Jerome

Story type: Essay

There was once upon a time a charming young lady, possessed of much taste, who was asked by her anxious parent, the years passing and family expenditure not decreasing, which of the numerous and eligible young men then paying court to her she liked the best. She replied, that was her difficulty; she could not make up her mind which she liked the best. They were all so nice. She could not possibly select one to the exclusion of all the others. What she would have liked would have been to marry the lot; but that, she presumed, was impracticable.

I feel I resemble that young lady, not so much in charm and beauty as in indecision of mind, when the question is that of my favourite author or my favourite book. It is as if one were asked one’s favourite food. There are times when one fancies an egg with one’s tea. On other occasions one dreams of a kipper. To-day one clamours for lobsters. To-morrow one feels one never wishes to see a lobster again. One determines to settle down, for a time, to a diet of bread and milk and rice pudding. Asked suddenly to say whether I preferred ices to soup, or beef-steak to caviare, I should be completely nonplussed.

There may be readers who care for only one literary diet. I am a person of gross appetites, requiring many authors to satisfy me. There are moods when the savage strength of the Bronte sisters is companionable to me. One rejoices in the unrelieved gloom of “Wuthering Heights,” as in the lowering skies of a stormy autumn. Perhaps part of the marvel of the book comes from the knowledge that the authoress was a slight, delicate young girl. One wonders what her future work would have been, had she lived to gain a wider experience of life; or was it well for her fame that nature took the pen so soon from her hand? Her suppressed vehemence may have been better suited to those tangled Yorkshire byways than to the more open, cultivated fields of life.

There is not much similarity between the two books, yet when recalling Emily Bronte my thoughts always run on to Olive Schreiner. Here, again, was a young girl with the voice of a strong man. Olive Schreiner, more fortunate, has lived; but I doubt if she will ever write a book that will remind us of her first. “The Story of an African Farm” is not a work to be repeated. We have advanced in literature of late. I can well remember the storm of indignation with which the “African Farm” was received by Mrs. Grundy and her then numerous, but now happily diminishing, school. It was a book that was to be kept from the hands of every young man and woman. But the hands of the young men and women stretched out and grasped it, to their help. It is a curious idea, this of Mrs. Grundy’s, that the young man and woman must never think–that all literature that does anything more than echo the conventions must be hidden away.

Then there are times when I love to gallop through history on Sir Walter’s broomstick. At other hours it is pleasant to sit in converse with wise George Eliot. From her garden terrace I look down on Loamshire and its commonplace people; while in her quiet, deep voice she tells me of the hidden hearts that beat and throb beneath these velveteen jackets and lace falls.

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Who can help loving Thackeray, wittiest, gentlest of men, in spite of the faint suspicion of snobbishness that clings to him? There is something pathetic in the good man’s horror of this snobbishness, to which he himself was a victim. May it not have been an affectation, born unconsciously of self-consciousness? His heroes and heroines must needs be all fine folk, fit company for lady and gentlemen readers. To him the livery was too often the man. Under his stuffed calves even Jeames de la Pluche himself stood upon the legs of a man, but Thackeray could never see deeper than the silk stockings. Thackeray lived and died in Clubland. One feels that the world was bounded for him by Temple Bar on the east and Park Lane on the west; but what there was good in Clubland he showed us, and for the sake of the great gentlemen and sweet ladies that his kindly eyes found in that narrow region, not too overpeopled with great gentlemen and sweet women, let us honour him.

“Tom Jones,” “Peregrine Pickle,” and “Tristram Shandy” are books a man is the better for reading, if he read them wisely. They teach him that literature, to be a living force, must deal with all sides of life, and that little help comes to us from that silly pretence of ours that we are perfect in all things, leading perfect lives, that only the villain of the story ever deviates from the path of rectitude.

This is a point that needs to be considered by both the makers and the buyers of stories. If literature is to be regarded solely as the amusement of an idle hour, then the less relationship it has to life the better. Looking into a truthful mirror of nature we are compelled to think; and when thought comes in at the window self- satisfaction goes out by the door. Should a novel or play call us to ponder upon the problems of existence, or lure us from the dusty high road of the world, for a while, into the pleasant meadows of dreamland? If only the latter, then let our heroes and our heroines be not what men and women are, but what they should be. Let Angelina be always spotless and Edwin always true. Let virtue ever triumph over villainy in the last chapter; and let us assume that the marriage service answers all the questions of the Sphinx.

Very pleasant are these fairy tales where the prince is always brave and handsome; where the princess is always the best and most beautiful princess that ever lived; where one knows the wicked people at a glance by their ugliness and ill-temper, mistakes being thus rendered impossible; where the good fairies are, by nature, more powerful than the bad; where gloomy paths lead ever to fair palaces; where the dragon is ever vanquished; and where well-behaved husbands and wives can rely upon living happily ever afterwards. “The world is too much with us, late and soon.” It is wise to slip away from it at times to fairyland. But, alas, we cannot live in fairyland, and knowledge of its geography is of little help to us on our return to the rugged country of reality.

Are not both branches of literature needful? By all means let us dream, on midsummer nights, of fond lovers led through devious paths to happiness by Puck; of virtuous dukes–one finds such in fairyland; of fate subdued by faith and gentleness. But may we not also, in our more serious humours, find satisfaction in thinking with Hamlet or Coriolanus? May not both Dickens and Zola have their booths in Vanity Fair? If literature is to be a help to us, as well as a pastime, it must deal with the ugly as well as with the beautiful; it must show us ourselves, not as we wish to appear, but as we know ourselves to be. Man has been described as a animal with aspirations reaching up to Heaven and instincts rooted–elsewhere. Is literature to flatter him, or reveal him to himself?

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Of living writers it is not safe, I suppose, to speak except, perhaps, of those who have been with us so long that we have come to forget they are not of the past. Has justice ever been done to Ouida’s undoubted genius by our shallow school of criticism, always very clever in discovering faults as obvious as pimples on a fine face? Her guardsmen “toy” with their food. Her horses win the Derby three years running. Her wicked women throw guinea peaches from the windows of the Star and Garter into the Thames at Richmond. The distance being about three hundred and fifty yards, it is a good throw. Well, well, books are not made worth reading by the absence of absurdities. Ouida possesses strength, tenderness, truth, passion; and these be qualities in a writer capable of carrying many more faults than Ouida is burdened with. But that is the method of our little criticism. It views an artist as Gulliver saw the Brobdingnag ladies. It is too small to see them in their entirety: a mole or a wart absorbs all its vision.

Why was not George Gissing more widely read? If faithfulness to life were the key to literary success, Gissing’s sales would have been counted by the million instead of by the hundred.

Have Mark Twain’s literary qualities, apart altogether from his humour, been recognised in literary circles as they ought to have been? “Huck Finn” would be a great work were there not a laugh in it from cover to cover. Among the Indians and some other savage tribes the fact that a member of the community has lost one of his senses makes greatly to his advantage; he is then regarded as a superior person. So among a school of Anglo-Saxon readers, it is necessary to a man, if he would gain literary credit, that he should lack the sense of humour. One or two curious modern examples occur to me of literary success secured chiefly by this failing.

All these authors are my favourites; but such catholic taste is held nowadays to be no taste. One is told that if one loves Shakespeare, one must of necessity hate Ibsen; that one cannot appreciate Wagner and tolerate Beethoven; that if we admit any merit in Dore, we are incapable of understanding Whistler. How can I say which is my favourite novel? I can only ask myself which lives clearest in my memory, which is the book I run to more often than to another in that pleasant half hour before the dinner-bell, when, with all apologies to good Mr. Smiles, it is useless to think of work.

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I find, on examination, that my “David Copperfield” is more dilapidated than any other novel upon my shelves. As I turn its dog- eared pages, reading the familiar headlines “Mr. Micawber in difficulties,” “Mr. Micawber in prison,” “I fall in love with Dora,” “Mr. Barkis goes out with the tide,” “My child wife,” “Traddles in a nest of roses”–pages of my own life recur to me; so many of my sorrows, so many of my joys are woven in my mind with this chapter or the other. That day–how well I remember it when I read of “David’s” wooing, but Dora’s death I was careful to skip. Poor, pretty little Mrs. Copperfield at the gate, holding up her baby in her arms, is always associated in my memory with a child’s cry, long listened for. I found the book, face downwards on a chair, weeks afterwards, not moved from where I had hastily laid it.

Old friends, all of you, how many times have I not slipped away from my worries into your pleasant company! Peggotty, you dear soul, the sight of your kind eyes is so good to me. Our mutual friend, Mr. Charles Dickens, is prone, we know, just ever so slightly to gush. Good fellow that he is, he can see no flaw in those he loves, but you, dear lady, if you will permit me to call you by a name much abused, he has drawn in true colours. I know you well, with your big heart, your quick temper, your homely, human ways of thought. You yourself will never guess your worth–how much the world is better for such as you! You think of yourself as of a commonplace person, useful only for the making of pastry, the darning of stockings, and if a man–not a young man, with only dim half-opened eyes, but a man whom life had made keen to see the beauty that lies hidden beneath plain faces–were to kneel and kiss your red, coarse hand, you would be much astonished. But he would be a wise man, Peggotty, knowing what things a man should take carelessly, and for what things he should thank God, who has fashioned fairness in many forms.

Mr. Wilkins Micawber, and you, most excellent of faithful wives, Mrs. Emma Micawber, to you I also raise my hat. How often has the example of your philosophy saved me, when I, likewise, have suffered under the temporary pressure of pecuniary liabilities; when the sun of my prosperity, too, has sunk beneath the dark horizon of the world–in short, when I, also, have found myself in a tight corner. I have asked myself what would the Micawbers have done in my place. And I have answered myself. They would have sat down to a dish of lamb’s fry, cooked and breaded by the deft hands of Emma, followed by a brew of punch, concocted by the beaming Wilkins, and have forgotten all their troubles, for the time being. Whereupon, seeing first that sufficient small change was in my pocket, I have entered the nearest restaurant, and have treated myself to a repast of such sumptuousness as the aforesaid small change would command, emerging from that restaurant stronger and more fit for battle. And lo! the sun of my prosperity has peeped at me from over the clouds with a sly wink, as if to say “Cheer up; I am only round the corner.”

Cheery, elastic Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, how would half the world face their fate but by the help of a kindly, shallow nature such as yours? I love to think that your sorrows can be drowned in nothing more harmful than a bowl of punch. Here’s to you, Emma, and to you, Wilkins, and to the twins!

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May you and such childlike folk trip lightly over the stones upon your path! May something ever turn up for you, my dears! May the rain of life ever fall as April showers upon your simple bald head, Micawber!

And you, sweet Dora, let me confess I love you, though sensible friends deem you foolish. Ah, silly Dora, fashioned by wise Mother Nature who knows that weakness and helplessness are as a talisman calling forth strength and tenderness in man, trouble yourself not unduly about the oysters and the underdone mutton, little woman. Good plain cooks at twenty pounds a year will see to these things for us. Your work is to teach us gentleness and kindness. Lay your foolish curls just here, child. It is from such as you we learn wisdom. Foolish wise folk sneer at you. Foolish wise folk would pull up the laughing lilies, the needless roses from the garden, would plant in their places only useful, wholesome cabbage. But the gardener, knowing better, plants the silly, short-lived flowers, foolish wise folk asking for what purpose.

Gallant Traddles, of the strong heart and the unruly hair; Sophy, dearest of girls; Betsy Trotwood, with your gentlemanly manners and your woman’s heart, you have come to me in shabby rooms, making the dismal place seem bright. In dark hours your kindly faces have looked out at me from the shadows, your kindly voices have cheered me.

Little Em’ly and Agnes, it may be my bad taste, but I cannot share my friend Dickens’ enthusiasm for them. Dickens’ good women are all too good for human nature’s daily food. Esther Summerson, Florence Dombey, Little Nell–you have no faults to love you by.

Scott’s women were likewise mere illuminated texts. Scott only drew one live heroine–Catherine Seton. His other women were merely the prizes the hero had to win in the end, like the sucking pig or the leg of mutton for which the yokel climbs the greasy pole. That Dickens could draw a woman to some likeness he proved by Bella Wilfer, and Estella in “Great Expectations.” But real women have never been popular in fiction. Men readers prefer the false, and women readers object to the truth.

From an artistic point of view, “David Copperfield” is undoubtedly Dickens’ best work. Its humour is less boisterous; its pathos less highly coloured.

One of Leech’s pictures represents a cab-man calmly sleeping in the gutter.

“Oh, poor dear, he’s ill,” says a tender-hearted lady in the crowd. “Ill!” retorts a male bystander indignantly, “Ill! ‘E’s ‘ad too much of what I ain’t ‘ad enough of.”

Dickens suffered from too little of what some of us have too much of- -criticism. His work met with too little resistance to call forth his powers. Too often his pathos sinks to bathos, and this not from want of skill, but from want of care. It is difficult to believe that the popular writer who allowed his sentimentality–or rather the public’s sentimentality–to run away with him in such scenes as the death of Paul Dombey and Little Nell was the artist who painted the death of Sidney Carton and of Barkis, the willing. The death of Barkis, next to the passing of Colonel Newcome, is, to my thinking, one of the most perfect pieces of pathos in English literature. No very deep emotion is concerned. He is a commonplace old man, clinging foolishly to a commonplace box. His simple wife and the old boatmen stand by, waiting calmly for the end. There is no straining after effect. One feels death enter, dignifying all things; and touched by that hand, foolish old Barkis grows great.

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In Uriah Heap and Mrs. Gummidge, Dickens draws types rather than characters. Pecksniff, Podsnap, Dolly Varden, Mr. Bumble, Mrs. Gamp, Mark Tapley, Turveydrop, Mrs. Jellyby–these are not characters; they are human characteristics personified.

We have to go back to Shakespeare to find a writer who, through fiction, has so enriched the thought of the people. Admit all Dickens’ faults twice over, we still have one of the greatest writers of modern times. Such people as these creations of Dickens never lived, says your little critic. Nor was Prometheus, type of the spirit of man, nor was Niobe, mother of all mothers, a truthful picture of the citizen one was likely to meet often during a morning’s stroll through Athens. Nor grew there ever a wood like to the Forest of Arden, though every Rosalind and Orlando knows the path to glades having much resemblance thereto.

Steerforth, upon whom Dickens evidently prided himself, I must confess, never laid hold of me. He is a melodramatic young man. The worst I could have wished him would have been that he should marry Rose Dartle and live with his mother. It would have served him right for being so attractive. Old Peggotty and Ham are, of course, impossible. One must accept them also as types. These Brothers Cheeryble, these Kits, Joe Gargeries, Boffins, Garlands, John Peerybingles, we will accept as types of the goodness that is in men- -though in real life the amount of virtue that Dickens often wastes upon a single individual would by more economically minded nature, be made to serve for fifty.

To sum up, “David Copperfield” is a plain tale, simply told; and such are all books that live. Eccentricities of style, artistic trickery, may please the critic of a day, but literature is a story that interests us, boys and girls, men and women. It is a sad book; and that, again, gives it an added charm in these sad later days. Humanity is nearing its old age, and we have come to love sadness, as the friend who has been longest with us. In the young days of our vigour we were merry. With Ulysses’ boatmen, we took alike the sunshine and the thunder with frolic welcome. The red blood flowed in our veins, and we laughed, and our tales were of strength and hope. Now we sit like old men, watching faces in the fire; and the stories that we love are sad stories–like the stories we ourselves have lived.

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