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Reticence in Literature

Some Roundabout Remarks

DURING the past fifty years, as every one knows, the art of
fiction has been expanding in a manner exceedingly
remarkable, till it has grown to be the predominant branch of
imaginative literature. But the other day we were assured that
poetry only thrives in limited and exquisite editions ; that the
drama, here in England at least, has practically ceased to be litera-
ture at all. Each epoch instinctively chooses that literary vehicle
which is best adapted for the expression of its particular temper :
just as the drama flourished in the robust age of Shakespeare and
Ben Jonson ; just as that outburst of lyrical poetry, at the begin-
ning of the century in France, coincided with a period of extreme
emotional exaltation ; so the novel, facile and flexible in its con-
ventions, with its endless opportunities for accurate delineation of
reality, becomes supreme in a time of democracy and of science—
to note but these two salient characteristics.

And, if we pursue this light of thought, we find that, on all
sides, the novel is being approached in one especial spirit, that it
would seem to be striving, for the moment at any rate, to perfect
itself within certain definite limitations. To employ a hackeyed,


The Yellow Book—Vol. II. P

                        260 Reticence in Literature

and often quite unintelligent, catchword—the novel is becoming

Throughout the history of literature, the jealous worship of
beauty—which we term idealism—and the jealous worship of truth
—which we term realism—have alternately prevailed. Indeed, it is
within the compass of these alternations that lies the whole fun-
damental diversity of literary temper.

Still, the classification is a clumsy one, for no hard and fast line
can be drawn between the one spirit and the other. The so-called
idealist must take as his point of departure the facts of Nature ; the
so-called realist must be sensitive to some one or other of the
forms of beauty, if each would achieve the fineness of great art.
And the pendulum of production is continually swinging, from
degenerate idealism to degenerate realism, from effete vapidity to
slavish sordidity.

Either term, then, can only be employed in a purely limited
and relative sense. Completely idealistic art—art that has no point
of contact with the facts of the universe, as we know them—is, of
course, an impossible absurdity ; similarly, a complete reproduction
of Nature by means of words is an absurd impossibility. Neither
emphasization nor abstraction can be dispensed with : the one,
eliminating the details of no import ; the other, exaggerating those
which the artist has selected. And, even were such a thing
possible, it would not be Art. The invention of a highly perfected
system of coloured photography, for instance, or a skilful recording
by means of the phonograph of scenes in real life, would not sub-
tract one whit from the value of the painter’s or the playwright’s
interpretation. Art is not invested with the futile function of
perpetually striving after imitation or reproduction of Nature ; she
endeavours to produce, through the adaptation of a restricted number
of natural facts, an harmonious and satisfactory whole. Indeed, in


                        By Hubert Crackanthorpe 261

this very process of adaptation and blending together, lies the main
and greater task of the artist. And the novel, the short story,
even the impression of a mere incident, convey each of them, the
imprint of the temper in which their creator has achieved this
process of adaptation and blending together of his material. They
are inevitably stamped with the hall-mark of his personality. A
work of art can never be more than a corner of Nature, seen
through the temperament of a single man. Thus, all literature is,
must be, essentially subjective ; for style is but the power of
individual expression. The disparity which separates literature
from the reporter’s transcript is ineradicable. There is a quality
of ultimate suggestiveness to be achieved ; for the business of art
is, not to explain or to describe, but to suggest. That attitude of
objectivity, or of impersonality towards his subject, consciously or
unconsciously, assumed by the artist, and which nowadays provokes
so considerable an admiration, can be attained only in a limited
degree. Every piece of imaginative work must be a kind of
autobiography of its creator—significant, if not of the actual facts
of his existence, at least of the inner working of his soul. We are
each of us conscious, not of the whole world, but of our own
world ; not of naked reality, but of that aspect of reality which
our peculiar temperament enables us to appropriate. Thus, every
narrative of an external circumstance is never anything else than
the transcript of the impression produced upon ourselves by that
circumstance, and, invariably, a degree of individual interpretation
is insinuated into every picture, real or imaginary, however
objective it may be. So then, the disparity between the so-called
idealist and the so-called realist is a matter, not of aesthetic philo-
sophy, but of individual temperament. Each is at work, according
to the especial bent of his genius, within precisely the same limits.
Realism, as a creed, is as ridiculous as any other literary creed.


                        262 Reticence in Literature

Now, it would have been exceedingly curious if this recent
specialisation of the art of fiction, this passion for draining from the
life, as it were, born, in due season, of the general spirit of the
latter half of the nineteenth century, had not provoked a considerable
amount of opposition—opposition of just that kind which every
new evolution in art inevitably encounters. Between the vanguard
and the main body there is perpetual friction.

But time flits quickly in this hurried age of ours, and the
opposition to the renascence of fiction as a conscientious interpre-
tation of life is not what it was ; its opponents are not the men
they were. It is not so long since a publisher was sent to prison
for issuing English translations of celebrated specimens of French
realism ; yet, only the other day, we vied with each other in doing
honour to the chief figure-head of that tendency across the Channel,
and there was heard but the belated protest of a few worthy indi-
viduals, inadequately equipped with the jaunty courage of ignorance,
or the insufferable confidence of second-hand knowledge.

And during the past year things have been moving very rapidly.
The position of the literary artist towards Nature, his great
inspirer, has become more definite, more secure. A sound, organ-
ised opinion of men of letters is being acquired ; and in the little
bouts with the bourgeois—if I may be pardoned the use of that
wearisome word—no one has to fight single-handed. Heroism is
at a discount ; Mrs. Grundy is becoming mythological ; a crowd
of unsuspected supporters collect from all sides, and the deadly
conflict of which we had been warned becomes but an interesting
skirmish. Books are published, stories are printed, in old-established
reviews, which would never have been tolerated a few years ago.
On all sides, deference to the tendency of the time is spreading.
The truth must be admitted : the roar of unthinking prejudice is
dying away.


                        By Hubert Crackanthorpe 263

All this is exceedingly comforting : and yet, perhaps, it is not a
matter for absolute congratulation. For, if the enemy are not
dying as gamely as we had expected, if they are, as I am afraid,
losing heart, and in danger of sinking into a condition of passive
indifference, it should be to us a matter of not inconsiderable
apprehension. If this new evolution in the art of fiction—this
general return of the literary artist towards Nature, on the brink
of which we are to-day hesitating—is to achieve any definite,
ultimate fineness of expression, it will benefit enormously by the
continued presence of a healthy, vigorous, if not wholly intelligent,
body of opponents. Directly or indirectly, they will knock a lot
of nonsense out of us, will these opponents ;—why should we be
ashamed to admit it ? They will enable us to find our level, they
will spur us on to bring out the best—and only the best—that is
within us.

Take, for instance, the gentleman who objects to realistic fiction
on moral grounds. If he does not stand the most conspicuous
to-day, at least he was pre-eminent the day before yesterday. He is
a hard case, and it is on his especial behalf that I would appeal. For
he has been dislodged from the hill top, he has become a target for all
manner of unkind chaff, from the ribald youth of Fleet Street and
Chelsea. He has been labelled a Philistine : he has been twitted
with his middle-age ; he has been reported to have compromised
himself with that indecent old person, Mrs. Grundy. It is confi-
dently asserted that he comes from Putney, or from Sheffield, and
that, when he is not busy abolishing the art of English literature,
he is employed in safeguarding the interests of the grocery or
tallow-chandler’s trade. Strange and cruel tales of him have been
printed in the monthly reviews ; how, but for him, certain well-
known popular writers would have written masterpieces ; how,
like the ogre in the fairy tale, he consumes every morning at break-


                        264 Reticence in Literature

fast a hundred pot-boiled young geniuses. For the most part they
have been excellently well told, these tales of this moral ogre of
ours ; but why start to shatter brutally their dainty charm by a
soulless process of investigation ? No, let us be shamed rather into
a more charitable spirit, into making generous amends, into reha-
bilitating the greatness of our moral ogre.

He is the backbone of our nation ; the guardian of our medio-
crity ; the very foil of our intelligence. Once, you fancied that
you could argue with him, that you could dispute his dictum.
Ah ! how we cherished that day-dream of our extreme youth.
But it was not to be. He is still immense ; for he is unassail-
able ; he is flawless, for he is complete within himself; his
lucidity is yet unimpaired ; his impartiality is yet supreme.
Who amongst us could judge with a like impartiality the
productions of Scandinavia and Charpentier, Walt Whitman,
and the Independent Theatre ? Let us remember that he
has never professed to understand Art, and the deep debt of
gratitude that every artist in the land should consequently owe to
him ; let us remember that he is above us, for he belongs to the
great middle classes ; let us remember that he commands votes,
that he is candidate for the County Council ; let us remember that
he is delightful, because he is intelligible.

Yes, he is intelligible ; and of how many of us can that be said ?
His is no complex programme, no subtly exacting demand. A
plain moral lesson is all that he asks, and his voice is as of one
crying in the ever fertile wilderness of Smith and of Mudie.

And he is right, after all—if he only knew it. The business
of art is to create for us fine interests, to make of our human
nature a more complete thing : and thus, all great art is moral in
the wider and the truer sense of the word. It is precisely on this
point of the meaning of the word “moral” that we and our ogre


                        By Hubert Crackanthorpe 265

part company. To him, morality is concerned only with the
established relations between the sexes and with fair dealing between
man and man : to him the subtle, indirect morality of Art is

Theoretically, Art is non-moral. She is not interested in any
ethical code of any age or any nation, except in so far as the
breach or observance of that code may furnish her with material
on which to work. But, unfortunately, in this complex world of
ours, we cannot satisfactorily pursue one interest—no, not even the
interest of Art, at the expense of all others—let us look that fact in
the face, doggedly, whatever pangs it may cost us pleading mag-
nanimously for the survival of our moral ogre, for there will be
danger to our cause when his voice is no more heard.

If imitation be the sincerest form of flattery, then our moral
ogre must indeed have experienced a proud moment, when a
follower came to him from the camp of the lovers of Art, and the
artistic objector to realistic fiction started on his timid career. I
use the word timid in no disparaging sense, but because our
artistic objector, had he ventured a little farther from the vicinity
of the coat-tails of his powerful protector, might have secured a
more adequate recognition of his performances. For he is by no
means devoid of adroitness. He can patter to us glibly of the
“gospel of ugliness” ; of the “cheerlessness of modern literature” ;
he can even juggle with that honourable property-piece, the maxim
of Art for Art’s sake. But there have been moments when even
this feat has proved ineffective, and some one has started scoffing
at his pretended “delight in pure rhythm or music of the phrase,”
and flippantly assured him that he is talking nonsense, and that
style is a mere matter of psychological suggestion. You fancy
our performer nonplussed, or at least boldly bracing himself to
brazen the matter out. No, he passes dexterously to his curtain


                        266 Reticence in Literature

effect—a fervid denunciation of express trains, evening news-
papers, Parisian novels, or the first number of THE YELLOW
BOOK. Verily, he is a versatile person.

Sometimes, to listen to him you would imagine that pessimism
and regular meals were incompatible ; that the world is only
ameliorated by those whom it completely satisfies, that good pre-
dominates over evil, that the problem of our destiny had been
solved long ago. You begin to doubt whether any good thing
can come out of this miserable, inadequate age of ours, unless it
be a doctored survival of the vocabulary of a past century. The
language of the coster and cadger resound in our midst, and,
though Velasquez tried to paint like Whistler, Rudyard Kipling
cannot write like Pope. And a weird word has been invented to
explain the whole business. Decadence, decadence : you are all
decadent nowadays. Ibsen, Degas, and the New English Art
Club ; Zola, Oscar Wilde, and the Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
Mr. Richard Le Gallienne is hoist with his own petard ; even the
British playwright has not escaped the taint. Ah, what a hideous
spectacle. All whirling along towards one common end. And
the elegant voice of the artistic objector floating behind : “Après
vous le dèluge.” A wholesale abusing of the tendencies of the age
has ever proved, for the superior mind, an inexhaustible source
of relief. Few things breed such inward comfort as the con-
templation of one’s own pessimism—few things produce such
discomfort as the remembrance of our neighbour’s optimism.

And yet, pessimists though we may be dubbed, some of us, on
this point at least, how can we compete with the hopelessness
enjoyed by our artistic objector, when the spectacle of his despond-
ency makes us insufferably replete with hope and confidence, so
that while he is loftily bewailing or prettily denouncing the com-
pleteness of our degradation, we continue to delight in the evil of


                        By Hubert Crackanthorpe 267

our ways ? Oh, if we could only be sure that he would persevere
in reprimanding this persistent study of the pitiable aspects of life,
how our hearts would go out towards him ? For the man who
said that joy is essentially, regrettably inartistic, admitted in the
same breath that misery lends itself to artistic treatment twice as
easily as joy, and resumed the whole question in a single phrase.
Let our artistic objector but weary the world sufficiently with his
despair concerning the permanence of the cheerlessness of modern
realism, and some day a man will arise who will give us a study of
human happiness, as fine, as vital as anything we owe to Guy de
Maupassant or to Ibsen. That man will have accomplished the
infinitely difficult, and in admiration and in awe shall we bow
down our heads before him.

In one radical respect the art of fiction is not in the same
position as the other arts. They—music, poetry, painting, sculp-
ture, and the drama—possess a magnificent fabric of accumu-
lated tradition. The great traditions of the art of fiction have
yet to be made. Ours is a young art, struggling desperately to reach
expression, with no great past to guide it. Thus, it should be a
matter for wonder, not that we stumble into certain pitfalls, but
that we do not fall headlong into a hundred more.

But, if we have no great past, we have the present and the
future—the one abundant in facilities, the other abundant in pos-
sibilities. Young men of to-day have enormous chances : we are
working under exceedingly favourable conditions. Possibly we
stand on the threshold of a very great period. I know, of course,
that the literary artist is shamefully ill-paid, and that the man who
merely caters for the public taste, amasses a rapid and respectable
fortune. But how is it that such an arrangement seems other
than entirely equitable? The essential conditions of the two cases
are entirely distinct. The one man is free to give untrammelled


                        268 Reticence in Literature

expression to his own soul, free to fan to the full the flame that
burns in his heart : the other is a seller of wares, a unit in national
commerce. To the one is allotted liberty and a living wage ; to
the other, captivity and a consolation in Consols. Let us whine,
then, no more concerning the prejudice and the persecution of the
Philistine, when even that misanthrope, Mr. Robert Buchanan,
admits that there is no power in England to prevent a man writing
exactly as he pleases. Before long the battle for literary freedom
will be won. A new public has been created—appreciative, eager
and determined ; a public which, as Mr. Gosse puts it, in one of
those admirable essays of his, “has eaten of the apple of know-
ledge, and will not be satisfied with mere marionnettes. Whatever
comes next,” Mr. Gosse continues, “we cannot return, in serious
novels, to the inanities and impossibilites of the old well-made
plot, to the children changed at nurse, to the madonna-heroine and
the god-like hero, to the impossible virtues and melodramatic
vices. In future, even those who sneer at realism and misrepre-
sent it most wilfully, will be obliged to put their productions more
in accordance with veritable experience. There will still be
novel-writers who address the gallery, and who will keep up the
gaudy old convention, and the clumsy Family Herald evolution,
but they will no longer be distinguished men of genius. They
will no longer sign themselves George Sand or Charles Dickens.”

Fiction has taken her place amongst the arts. The theory that
writing resembles the blacking of boots, the more boots you black,
the better you do it, is busy evaporating. The excessive admira-
tion for the mere idea of a book or a story is dwindling ; so is the
comparative indifference to slovenly treatment. True is it that
the society lady, dazzled by the brilliancy of her own conversation,
and the serious-minded spinster, bitten by some sociological theory,
still decide in the old jaunty spirit, that fiction is the obvious


                        By Hubert Crackanthorpe 269

medium through which to astonish or improve the world. Let us
beware of the despotism of the intelligent amateur, and cease our
toying with that quaint and winsome bogey of ours, the British
Philistine, whilst the intelligent amateur, the deadliest of Art’s
enemies, is creeping up in our midst.

For the familiarity of the man in the street with the material
employed by the artist in fiction, will ever militate against the
acquisition of a sound, fine, and genuine standard of workmanship.
Unlike the musician, the painter, the sculptor, the architect, the
artist in fiction enjoys no monopoly in his medium. The word
and the phrase are, of necessity, the common property of everybody ;
the ordinary use of them demands no special training. Hence the
popular mind, while willingly acknowledging that there are
technical difficulties to be surmounted in the creation of the
sonata, the landscape, the statue, the building, in the case of the
short story, or of the longer novel, declines to believe even in their
existence, persuaded that in order to produce good fiction, an
ingenious idea, or “plot,” as it is termed, is the one thing needed.
The rest is a mere matter of handwriting.

The truth is, and, despite Mr. Waugh, we are near recognition
of it, that nowadays there is but scanty merit in the mere
selection of any particular subject, however ingenious or daring it
may appear at first sight ; that a man is not an artist, simply
because he writes about heredity or the demi-monde that to call a
spade a spade requires no extraordinary literary gift, and that the
essential is contained in the frank, fearless acceptance by every
man of his entire artistic temperament, with its qualities and its

MLA citation:

Crackanthorpe, Hubert. “Reticence in Literature: Some Roundabout Remarks.” The Yellow Book, vol. 2, July 1894, pp. 259-269. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.