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The Angel and the Author, and Others By Jerome K. Jerome Characters: 13676

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Literature and the Middle Classes.

I am sorry to be compelled to cast a slur upon the Literary profession, but observation shows me that it still contains within its ranks writers born and bred in, and moving amidst-if, without offence, one may put it bluntly-a purely middle-class environment: men and women to whom Park Lane will never be anything than the shortest route between Notting Hill and the Strand; to whom Debrett's Peerage-gilt-edged and bound in red, a tasteful-looking volume-ever has been and ever will remain a drawing-room ornament and not a social necessity. Now what is to become of these writers-of us, if for the moment I may be allowed to speak as representative of this rapidly-diminishing yet nevertheless still numerous section of the world of Art and Letters? Formerly, provided we were masters of style, possessed imagination and insight, understood human nature, had sympathy with and knowledge of life, and could express ourselves with humour and distinction, our pathway was, comparatively speaking, free from obstacle. We drew from the middle-class life around us, passed it through our own middle-class individuality, and presented it to a public composed of middle-class readers.

But the middle-class public, for purposes of Art, has practically disappeared. The social strata from which George Eliot and Dickens drew their characters no longer interests the great B. P. Hetty Sorrell, Little Em'ly, would be pronounced "provincial;" a Deronda or a Wilfer Family ignored as "suburban."

I confess that personally the terms "provincial" and "suburban," as epithets of reproach, have always puzzled me. I never met anyone more severe on what she termed the "suburban note" in literature than a thin lady who lived in a semi-detached villa in a by-street of Hammersmith. Is Art merely a question of geography, and if so what is the exact limit? Is it the four-mile cab radius from Charing Cross? Is the cheesemonger of Tottenham Court Road of necessity a man of taste, and the Oxford professor of necessity a Philistine? I want to understand this thing. I once hazarded the direct question to a critical friend:

"You say a book is suburban," I put it to him, "and there is an end to the matter. But what do you mean by suburban?"

"Well," he replied, "I mean it is the sort of book likely to appeal to the class that inhabits the suburbs." He lived himself in Chancery Lane.

May a man of intelligence live, say, in Surbiton?

"But there is Jones, the editor of The Evening Gentleman," I argued; "he lives at Surbiton. It is just twelve miles from Waterloo. He comes up every morning by the eight-fifteen and returns again by the five-ten. Would you say that a book is bound to be bad because it appeals to Jones? Then again, take Tomlinson: he lives, as you are well aware, at Forest Gate which is Epping way, and entertains you on Kakemonos whenever you call upon him. You know what I mean, of course. I think 'Kakemono' is right. They are long things; they look like coloured hieroglyphics printed on brown paper. He gets behind them and holds them up above his head on the end of a stick so that you can see the whole of them at once; and he tells you the name of the Japanese artist who painted them in the year 1500 B.C., and what it is all about. He shows them to you by the hour and forgets to give you dinner. There isn't an easy chair in the house. To put it vulgarly, what is wrong with Tomlinson from a high art point of view?

"There's a man I know who lives in Birmingham: you must have heard of him. He is the great collector of Eighteenth Century caricatures, the Rowlandson and Gilray school of things. I don't call them artistic myself; they make me ill to look at them; but people who understand Art rave about them. Why can't a man be artistic who has got a cottage in the country?"

"You don't understand me," retorted my critical friend, a little irritably, as I thought.

"I admit it," I returned. "It is what I am trying to do."

"Of course artistic people live in the suburbs," he admitted. "But they are not of the suburbs."

"Though they may dwell in Wimbledon or Hornsey," I suggested, "they sing with the Scotch bard: 'My heart is in the South-West postal district. My heart is not here.'"

"You can put it that way if you like," he growled.

"I will, if you have no objection," I agreed. "It makes life easier for those of us with limited incomes."

The modern novel takes care, however, to avoid all doubt upon the subject. Its personages, one and all, reside within the half-mile square lying between Bond Street and the Park-a neighbourhood that would appear to be somewhat densely populated. True, a year or two ago there appeared a fairly successful novel the heroine of which resided in Onslow Gardens. An eminent critic observed of it that: "It fell short only by a little way of being a serious contribution to English literature." Consultation with the keeper of the cabman's shelter at Hyde Park Corner suggested to me that the "little way" the critic had in mind measures exactly eleven hundred yards. When the nobility and gentry of the modern novel do leave London they do not go into the provinces: to do that would be vulgar. They make straight for "Barchester Towers," or what the Duke calls "his little place up north"-localities, one presumes, suspended somewhere in mid-air.

In every social circle exist great souls with yearnings towards higher things. Even among the labouring classes one meets with naturally refined natures, gentlemanly persons to whom the loom and the plough will always appear low, whose natural desire is towards the dignities and graces of the servants' hall. So in Grub Street we can always reckon upon the superior writer whose temperament will prompt him to make respectful study of his betters. A reasonable supply of high-class novels might always have been depended upon; the trouble is that the public now demands that all stories must be of the upper ten thousand. Auld Robin Grey must be Sir Robert Grey, South African millionaire; and Jamie, the youngest son of the old Earl, otherwise a cultured public can take no interest in the ballad. A modern nursery rhymester to succeed would have to write of Little Lord Jack and Lady Jill ascending one of the many beautiful eminences belonging to the ancestral estates of their parents, bearing between them, on a silver rod, an exquisitely painted Sèvres vase filled with ottar of roses.

I take up my fourpenny-halfpenny magazine. The heroine is a youthful Duchess; her husband gambles with thousand-pound notes, with the result that they are reduced to living on the first floor of the Carlton Hotel. The villain is a Russian Prince. The Baronet of a simpler age has been unable, poor fellow, to keep pace with the times. What self-respe

cting heroine would abandon her husband and children for sin and a paltry five thousand a year? To the heroine of the past-to the clergyman's daughter or the lady artist-he was dangerous. The modern heroine misbehaves herself with nothing below Cabinet rank.

I turn to something less pretentious, a weekly periodical that my wife tells me is the best authority she has come across on blouses. I find in it what once upon a time would have been called a farce. It is now a "drawing-room comedietta. All rights reserved." The dramatis person? consist of the Earl of Danbury, the Marquis of Rottenborough (with a past), and an American heiress-a character that nowadays takes with lovers of the simple the place formerly occupied by "Rose, the miller's daughter."

I sometimes wonder, is it such teaching as that of Carlyle and Tennyson that is responsible for this present tendency of literature? Carlyle impressed upon us that the only history worth consideration was the life of great men and women, and Tennyson that we "needs must love the highest." So literature, striving ever upward, ignores plain Romola for the Lady Ponsonby de Tompkins; the provincialisms of a Charlotte Bront? for what a certain critic, born before his time, would have called the "doin's of the hupper succles."

The British Drama has advanced by even greater bounds. It takes place now exclusively within castle walls, and-what Messrs. Lumley & Co.'s circular would describe as-"desirable town mansions, suitable for gentlemen of means." A living dramatist, who should know, tells us that drama does not occur in the back parlour. Dramatists have, it has been argued, occasionally found it there, but such may have been dramatists with eyes capable of seeing through clothes.

I once wrote a play which I read to a distinguished Manager. He said it was a most interesting play: they always say that. I waited, wondering to what other manager he would recommend me to take it. To my surprise he told me he would like it for himself-but with alterations.

"The whole thing wants lifting up," was his opinion. "Your hero is a barrister: my public take no interest in plain barristers. Make him the Solicitor General."

"But he's got to be amusing," I argued. "A Solicitor General is never amusing."

My Manager pondered for a moment. "Let him be Solicitor General for Ireland," he suggested.

I made a note of it.

"Your heroine," he continued, "is the daughter of a seaside lodging-house keeper. My public do not recognize seaside lodgings. Why not the daughter of an hotel proprietor? Even that will be risky, but we might venture it." An inspiration came to him. "Or better still, let the old man be the Managing Director of an hotel Trust: that would account for her clothes."

Unfortunately I put the thing aside for a few months, and when I was ready again the public taste had still further advanced. The doors of the British Drama were closed for the time being on all but members of the aristocracy, and I did not see my comic old man as a Marquis, which was the lowest title that just then one dared to offer to a low comedian.

Now how are we middle-class novelists and dramatists to continue to live? I am aware of the obvious retort, but to us it absolutely is necessary. We know only parlours: we call them drawing-rooms. At the bottom of our middle-class hearts we regard them fondly: the folding-doors thrown back, they make rather a fine apartment. The only drama that we know takes place in such rooms: the hero sitting in the gentleman's easy chair, of green repp: the heroine in the lady's ditto, without arms-the chair, I mean. The scornful glances, the bitter words of our middle-class world are hurled across these three-legged loo-tables, the wedding-cake ornament under its glass case playing the part of white ghost.

In these days, when "Imperial cement" is at a premium, who would dare suggest that the emotions of a parlour can by any possibility be the same as those exhibited in a salon furnished in the style of Louis Quatorze; that the tears of Bayswater can possibly be compared for saltness with the lachrymal fluid distilled from South Audley Street glands; that the laughter of Clapham can be as catching as the cultured cackle of Curzon Street? But we, whose best clothes are exhibited only in parlours, what are we to do? How can we lay bare the souls of Duchesses, explain the heart-throbs of peers of the realm? Some of my friends who, being Conservative, attend Primrose "tourneys" (or is it "Courts of love"? I speak as an outsider. Something medi?val, I know it is) do, it is true, occasionally converse with titled ladies. But the period for conversation is always limited owing to the impatience of the man behind; and I doubt if the interview is ever of much practical use to them, as conveying knowledge of the workings of the aristocratic mind. Those of us who are not Primrose Knights miss even this poor glimpse into the world above us. We know nothing, simply nothing, concerning the deeper feelings of the upper ten. Personally, I once received a letter from an Earl, but that was in connection with a dairy company of which his lordship was chairman, and spoke only of his lordship's views concerning milk and the advantages of the cash system. Of what I really wished to know-his lordship's passions, yearnings and general attitude to life-the circular said nothing.

Year by year I find myself more and more in a minority. One by one my literary friends enter into this charmed aristocratic circle; after which one hears no more from them regarding the middle-classes. At once they set to work to describe the mental sufferings of Grooms of the Bed-chamber, the hidden emotions of Ladies in their own right, the religious doubts of Marquises. I want to know how they do it-"how the devil they get there." They refuse to tell me.

Meanwhile, I see nothing before me but the workhouse. Year by year the public grows more impatient of literature dealing merely with the middle-classes. I know nothing about any other class. What am I to do?

Commonplace people-friends of mine without conscience, counsel me in flippant phrase to "have a shot at it."

"I expect, old fellow, you know just as much about it as these other Johnnies do." (I am not defending their conversation either as regards style or matter: I am merely quoting.) "And even if you don't, what does it matter? The average reader knows less. How is he to find you out?"

But, as I explain to them, it is the law of literature never to write except about what you really know. I want to mix with the aristocracy, study them, understand them; so that I may earn my living in the only way a literary man nowadays can earn his living, namely, by writing about the upper circles.

I want to know how to get there.

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