Why, then, are we to add "in prose"? THE ODYSSEY appears to me the best of romances; THE LADY OF THE LAKE to stand high in the second order; and Chaucer's tales and prologues to contain more of the matter and art of the modern English novel than the whole treasury of Mr. Mudie. Whether a narrative be written in blank verse or the Spenserian stanza, in the long period of Gibbon or the chipped phrase of Charles Reade, the principles of the art of narrative must be equally observed. The choice of a noble and swelling style in prose affects the problem of narration in the same way, if not to the same degree, as the choice of measured verse; for both imply a closer synthesis of events, a higher key of dialogue, and a more picked and stately strain of words. If you are to refuse DON JUAN, it is hard to see why you should include ZANONI or (to bracket works of very different value) THE SCARLET LETTER; and by what discrimination are you to open your doors TO THE PILGRIM'S PROGRESS and close them on THE FAERY QUEEN? To bring things closer home, I will here propound to Mr. Besant a conundrum. A narrative called PARADISE LOST was written in English verse by one John Milton; what was it then? It was next translated by Chateaubriand into French prose; and what was it then? Lastly, the French translation was, by some inspired compatriot of George Gilfillan (and of mine) turned bodily into an English novel; and, in the name of clearness, what was it then?

But, once more, why should we add "fictitious"? The reason why is obvious. The reason why not, if something more recondite, does not want for weight. The art of narrative, in fact, is the same, whether it is applied to the selection and illustration of a real series of events or of an imaginary series. Boswell's LIFE OF JOHNSON (a work of cunning and inimitable art) owes its success to the same technical manoeuvres as (let us say) TOM JONES: the clear conception of certain characters of man, the choice and presentation of certain incidents out of a great number that offered, and the invention (yes, invention) and preservation of a certain key in dialogue. In which these things are done with the more art - in which with the greater air of nature - readers will differently judge. Boswell's is, indeed, a very special case, and almost a generic; but it is not only in Boswell, it is in every biography with any salt of life, it is in every history where events and men, rather than ideas, are presented - in Tacitus, in Carlyle, in Michelet, in Macaulay - that the novelist will find many of his own methods most conspicuously and adroitly handled. He will find besides that he, who is free - who has the right to invent or steal a missing incident, who has the right, more precious still, of wholesale omission - is frequently defeated, and, with all his advantages, leaves a less strong impression of reality and passion. Mr. James utters his mind with a becoming fervour on the sanctity of truth to the novelist; on a more careful examination truth will seem a word of very debateable propriety, not only for the labours of the novelist, but for those of the historian. No art - to use the daring phrase of Mr. James - can successfully "compete with life"; and the art that seeks to do so is condemned to perish MONTIBUS AVIIS. Life goes before us, infinite in complication; attended by the most various and surprising meteors; appealing at once to the eye, to the ear, to the mind - the seat of wonder, to the touch - so thrillingly delicate, and to the belly - so imperious when starved. It combines and employs in its manifestation the method and material, not of one art only, but of all the arts, Music is but an arbitrary trifling with a few of life's majestic chords; painting is but a shadow of its pageantry of light and colour; literature does but drily indicate that wealth of incident, of moral obligation, of virtue, vice, action, rapture and agony, with which it teems. To "compete with life," whose sun we cannot look upon, whose passions and diseases waste and slay us - to compete with the flavour of wine, the beauty of the dawn, the scorching of fire, the bitterness of death and separation - here is, indeed, a projected escalade of heaven; here are, indeed, labours for a Hercules in a dress coat, armed with a pen and a dictionary to depict the passions, armed with a tube of superior flake-white to paint the portrait of the insufferable sun.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

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