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Title: On the art of writing fiction

Contributor: S. Baring-Gould

Alfred John Church

Sir Robert K. Douglas

Lanoe Falconer

Maxwell Gray

Katharine S. Macquoid

L. T. Meade

Mrs. Molesworth

W. E. Norris

Louisa Parr

Lucy Bethia Walford

Release date: February 9, 2024 [eBook #72910]

Language: English

Original publication: London: Wells Gardner, Darton & co, 1894

Credits: Bob Taylor, Aaron Adrignola and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at (This book was produced from images made available by the HathiTrust Digital Library.)






[Pg v]


I. W. E. Norris
Style in Fiction Page 1
II. Mrs. Parr
A Story to Tell 16
III. L. B. Walford
The Novel of Manners 22
IV. S. Baring-Gould
Colour in Composition 35
V. Katharine S. Macquoid
On Vision in Literature 46
VI. Maxwell Gray
On the Development of Character in Fiction 60
VII. The Author of “Mademoiselle Ixe”
[Pg vi]The Short Story 75
VIII. Mrs. Molesworth
On the Art of Writing Fiction for Children 84
IX. Professor A. J. Church
The Historical Novel 98
X. Professor Robert K. Douglas
The Ethical Novel 109
XI. L. T. Meade
From the Editor’s Standpoint 124

[Pg 1]

On the Art of Writing Fiction


W. E. Norris

The main thing

The art of writing fiction has of late years been made the subject of innumerable articles by persons most, if not quite all, of whom are doubtless competent and well-informed; and it seems to be pretty generally agreed upon between them, as a nice, definite sort of dogma to start with, that “the main thing is to have a story to tell.” Possibly that may be the main thing: possibly also the main thing—if, indeed, there be one where several things are indispensable—may be, not that the writer should have a story to tell, but that he should be able to tell it. To tell it, that is, after a fashion which shall move, interest or amuse the great novel-reading public, which, patient and tolerant though it may be—patient and tolerant as some of us must needs acknowledge, with a due sense of contrite gratitude, though it is—nevertheless demands something[Pg 2] more than a bald narration of supposed events.

The beginner

The beginner, therefore (for it is only to beginners that the present dogmatiser has the effrontery to address himself), will do well to bear in mind that it is not enough to be equipped with an admirable plot, nor even to have clearly realised in his or her inner consciousness the circumstances and personages involved therein: both have to be made real to the reader; both, moreover, have to be so treated of as, in one way or another, to tickle the reader’s mental palate. This is much the same as saying that the beginner, in order to be a successful beginner, has to acquire a style. Not necessarily, it must be owned, a correct style; still at least a distinctive one. Otherwise he cannot hope to make his audience see people and things as he sees them.

Acquiring a style

But why talk about “acquiring” a style? Does not every human being already possess a style?—dormant, no doubt, yet plainly perceptible in his accustomed turns of speech and methods of expressing himself. And can he do better than utilise this when he sits down with pen and paper to[Pg 3] write his story? Perhaps he might do rather better; but there is no need to raise the point at the outset, because the beginner who essays, without preparation or apprenticeship, to tell his story in his own way will very soon discover that that is precisely what he cannot do. The words, somehow, will not come; or, if they do, they come in a manner palpably and grotesquely inadequate; the sentences are clumsy, tautological, badly rounded and jar upon the ear; the effect produced is very far from being the effect contemplated. The tyro, in short, finds out to his sorrow that writing is not in the least the same thing as talking, and that even so modest an achievement as the production of a novel is, after all, an art, the inexorable requirements of which do not greatly differ from those claimed by other arts.

Writing an Art to be learnt

And, indeed, why should they? Nobody would ever dream that they did, were it not that the literary art has no schools, colleges, paid professors, no system of salutary checks to intervene between the student and his public. To one who is conscious of ability it seems so simple to seize a pen and go ahead! In a certain[Pg 4] country-house there was a Scotch cook whose scones were beyond all praise. Implored by a Southern lady to reveal the secret of her unvarying success, she replied, after long consideration, “Aweel, mem, ye just take your girdle, ye see, and—and make a scone.” Quite so: you just take pen and paper and—and write a novel. No directions could be more beautifully succinct; but, unfortunately, it is almost as difficult for a writer who has reached a point of moderate proficiency in his calling to say how this is to be done as it was for the cook to explain how scones ought to be made. He may, however, be bold enough to affirm that the thing cannot be done off-hand—that the knack of manipulating language has to be mastered, just as that of swimming, riding, shooting and playing cricket has to be mastered, and that preliminary failures are more or less a matter of course. Swimming is very easy; yet if you take a boy by the scruff of his neck and fling him into deep water, nothing can be more certain than that he will flounder, struggle desperately for a few seconds and then sink like a stone. Probably there are but a very few people who cannot learn to swim; there are many who cannot learn to shoot or ride; it seems[Pg 5] doubtful whether an equal number cannot—if only they will condescend to take the necessary pains—learn how to write.

But the trouble is that plenty of men and women who cannot really do these things nevertheless do them after a fashion. Have not the lives of most of us been placed in jeopardy through the erratic performances of some worthy gentleman who is fond of shooting, but who is obviously unfit to be trusted with a gun? Is there an M.F.H. in England whose soul is not vexed every year by the hopeless, good-humoured, dangerous incapacity of certain members of the hunt? Every now and again one sees a steeplechase won by a horse who has carried off the victory in spite of his well-meaning rider; and in like manner it would be an easy, though an ungracious, task to name authors whose books have commanded a prodigious sale without being, in the true sense of the word, books at all.

Pleasing the public

Well, the neophyte may say, it does not particularly matter to me whether you are pleased to call my book a book or not; so long as I can please the public, and thereby make sure of receiving a handsome[Pg 6] cheque from the publishers, I shall be satisfied. To such a reply no rejoinder can be made, save a warning that successes of the kind alluded to have been achieved under heavy handicap penalties. They prove no more than that, as a good horse will occasionally win a race, although he be badly ridden, so a large section of the novel-reading public will tolerate inartistic work and slipshod English for the sake of a good story. And, since you are supposed to be beginning, why should you wish to carry extra weight, or imagine that you are able to do so? It is not given to everybody—alas! it is by no means given to everybody—to conceive a really good and original plot; yet some among us, whose pretensions to excel in that direction are as scanty as need be, may contrive to give pleasure, may to a certain extent please ourselves with our handling of the vocation for which we believe that we are best fitted, may even pocket the cheques which we have earned without feeling that we have robbed anybody.

Infinite variety of the Novel

In other words, novels do not give pleasure or meet with acceptance simply and solely by virtue of their subject-matter. The novel, at least so far as England, which is the great novel-producing country, is concerned,[Pg 7] may be regarded as a sort of literary omnibus—a vehicle adapted for the carrying of all manner of incongruous freights, heavy and light. Descriptions of every grade of contemporary society have their places in it; descriptions of scenery and very little else have a right of entry; history is not excluded: its springs are even strong enough to bear the weight of amateur theology and psychical research. Perhaps, strictly speaking, this ought not to be so; but it is so, and if, after so many years of laxity, we were to go in for strict rules and principles, we should be all the poorer for our pedantic exactitude. According to Tennyson, England is a desirable land in which to reside, because it is

“The land where, girt by friends or foes,
A man may speak the thing he will;”

and so the English novel affords a fine, broad field for a man to stretch his limbs in, the sole condition of admittance into it being that he should do so with some approach to grace and symmetry.

The average Reader

It shall not be asserted or pretended that the average reader consciously exacts these things, that he is conscious of having them when he has secured them, or of[Pg 8] resenting their absence when he has been defrauded of them. But when he tosses a book across the room, with his accustomed cruelly concise criticism that it is “bosh” or “rot,” the above-mentioned species of resentment is, in most cases, what he unconsciously feels. We ourselves, from the moment that we cease to be average writers, become average readers, and are no whit less unmerciful than the rest of the would. We are not going to be bored by anybody, if we can help it. Possibly, from being in the trade, we may know a little better than those who are not in the trade why we are bored; but that does not soften our hearts, nor are we likely to purchase a second work by an author who has bored us once. Therefore it is worth while to conciliate us, and to consider how this may best be done.

The value of Style

Doubtless, as has been admitted all along, there are more methods than one of capturing and retaining the public ear; but this brief paper professes to deal only with one—that of style. The beginner, we will take it for granted, wants to have a style of his own, wants to make the most that he can of his mother-tongue, wants to clothe his thoughts in readable language,[Pg 9] wants above all to send them forth with the stamp of his individuality upon them. And he is confronted at starting by the annoying discovery that he is unable to do this. How is he to do it?

“My dear,” said an experienced chaperon to a young débutante, “study to be natural.” Whereupon everybody who heard her laughed. Yet the old lady knew what she was talking about and had not really been guilty of a contradiction in terms. Under artificial social conditions it is not possible to be natural until the rules of the game have been learnt. Situations are continually cropping up in which Nature, unassisted by Art, will play you the shabby trick of turning her back upon you and leaving you to demean yourself in a ludicrously unnatural manner. No débutante, however great may be her inborn grace and ease of deportment, would venture to be presented at Court without having gone through some preliminary rehearsal; scarcely would she face a first ball or a first dinner-party unless a few previous hints and instructions had been conveyed to her. But, fortified by an exact knowledge of what is the right thing to do, she sails forth confidently, she dares to be herself, and she makes, let us hope, the[Pg 10] desired impression in quarters where it is desirable that an impression should be made.

Study how to please

Not dissimilar is the case of the budding novelist; although there is no denying that it is easier to show a young lady how to carry herself than to show a would-be prose-writer how to please. His apprenticeship must needs be a longer and a less definite one. Rules, indeed, there are for him—cut and dried rules, relating to accuracy of grammar and punctuation, avoidance of involved sentences, neologisms, catch phrases and the like; but these will not take him quite the length that he wishes to go. They will not take him quite that length; yet they will help him on his way, and he must condescend to study them. Furthermore, he should study slowly and carefully the works of those who have attained renown chiefly by reason of their style. Addison, Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle, Ruskin, Sterne—to select at random half a dozen names out of the throng which at once presents itself—he ought not only to be familiar with the writings of all these and other masters of English prose, but to scrutinise closely their several methods, so that he may come by degrees to understand[Pg 11] what the capabilities of the language are and what admirable, though widely divergent, results have been arrived at by those who have vanquished its difficulties.

With that language it is true that some of the writers just cited have taken liberties: one, in particular, has allowed himself enormous and audacious liberties. But that is only because he had made the language so completely his servant that he was in a certain sense entitled to do as he pleased with it. The student is not recommended to imitate Carlyle; for the matter of that, he is not recommended to imitate anybody, direct, deliberate imitation being as surely foredoomed to failure in literature as in all other arts. But he may be advised to dissect, to analyse, to search patiently for the secrets of proportion, of balance, of rhythmical, harmonious diction. Haply he will discover these; in any event he will reap the benefit of having mixed with good company, just as, in playing no matter what game, we all insensibly improve when we are associated with or pitted against our superiors. And the stricter the rules by which he determines to bind himself down the better it will be for him in the long run. In musical composition many things are[Pg 12] said to be “forbidden”—so many that the bewildered student of harmony and counterpoint, knowing how frequently great composers have transgressed the limits within which he is cramped, is apt to exclaim in despair, “But you won’t let me do anything! Why may I not do what Bach has done?” The only answer that can be returned is, “Because you are not Bach.” Ultimate ease and liberty are the outcome, as dexterity is the outcome, of early discipline; it may be that they are never truly or certainly acquired by any other means.

The necessity of “infinite pains”

It is, in short, the old story of “infinite pains.” Whether “the capacity for taking infinite pains” is or is not satisfactory as a definition of genius is another question; but we may at least be sure that infinite pains are never wasted. Not that we have any right to expect an immediate and abundant harvest. It is the slow, but sure, education of the taste and the ear that has to be aimed at, and this will only come to us by imperceptible degrees. Gustave Flaubert, than whom no more painstaking writer ever lived, was so persuaded of the artistic compulsion that lay upon him to use the right word or the right phrase, so convinced[Pg 13] that for every idea there is but one absolutely fitting word or phrase, that he would spend hours in tormenting himself over a single sentence. Often at the end of all he remained dissatisfied—could not but be dissatisfied. In one of his letters he draws a pathetic parallel between himself and a violinist who plays false, being well aware that he is playing false, yet lacking the power to correct his faulty execution. The tears roll down the unhappy fiddler’s cheeks, the bow falls from his hand....

Writers too lenient with themselves

Ah, well! we cannot all be artists like Flaubert. We are mediocrities at best, most of us; we know that we are mediocrities, and we are not going to cry about it. But let us acknowledge, with the humility which beseems us, how immeasurably he was our superior, not in genius alone, but in industry, in conscientiousness, in self-sacrifice. We mediocre folks, who have acquired a certain facility of expression, are apt to be only too lenient with ourselves. The exact word that we want, the precise phrase suitable to our purpose, are not forthcoming; but others are ready and will serve well enough. We take the others, hoping that nobody will notice their ineptitude. The beginner also will, in process[Pg 14] of time, arrive at this fatal facility, and it is not in the least likely that he will have strength to resist a temptation to which ninety-nine authors out of a hundred succumb. All the more important, therefore, is it that he should adopt and observe the strictest rules at starting; so that he may form a style of which, once formed, he will never be able to divest himself. We made a comparison just now between the arts of literature and equitation. They have not a great deal in common; but they are so far alike that early training has the first and last word in each. There are men who are almost in the front rank amongst riders, but who have never reached, and never will quite reach, that rank, because of the errors of those who instructed them in their youth. Heavy-handed they are, and heavy-handed they will remain till the end of the chapter. So it is, not only with mediocre writers, but even with some who belong to the first class. These have taken up tricks and mannerisms, pretty enough and pleasing enough while the charm of novelty still hung about them, but provoking and perilous from the moment that they have lost that charm, that they have ceased to be servants and have become masters. Macaulay, for example,[Pg 15] had an admirable style; yet after a time one grows irritated with it, knowing so well in what manner he will deal with any given subject under the sun. At the opening of some sonorous, well-balanced paragraph the reader is prone to say to himself, with a sigh, “Ah, I see you coming with your distressing antitheses!” And there, sure enough, they are, neat, polished, brilliant, turned out to order—wearisome. But if, during his lifetime, some reader of his had had the impudence to point this out to him, and if, with the modesty which is a part of true greatness, he had admitted that the criticism was not unjust, could he, do you think, have written otherwise than as he did?

Success attained

Therefore, let the tyro put away from him all insidious temptations to be brilliant or original; let him think chiefly, if not solely, of being lucid; let him store up for himself a vocabulary from which all ambiguous terms shall be rigorously excluded. So, having studied, he will be able, like the débutante, to be natural, and will have gained possession of a style which will, at any rate, be correct and his own. So, too, he may perhaps be able to look back not discontentedly upon a measure of[Pg 16] good, solid work accomplished, when the time shall come to hang up the fiddle and the bow, to lay aside the worn-out old pen and make his final bow to a public by whom he may anticipate with some confidence that he will be speedily and mercifully forgotten.


Louisa Parr

The first essential

To feel that you have a story to tell, seems to me a primary essential for a novice in the art of novel-writing, especially with beginners young in years and experience. I know that there are masters in fiction, who tell us that their method is to create one or several characters, and round them build up a story; but I doubt if this applies to first efforts, unless those efforts are not made until the writers have gained that insight into men and things, which only comes with years of life and observation.

Now, to any beginning under conditions such as these, the few suggestions and remarks I shall offer will not apply. My object is to be of service to young beginners,[Pg 17] and to try and give them some little help and encouragement to surmount the difficulties which usually appear when we first venture to commit our fancies and ideas to paper. I feel somewhat timid in undertaking this task, because its success seems to me doubtful, for the reason that no hard and fast rules can be laid down for the fictionist, who, generally, leaves on each production the impress of individuality. Frequently it is individuality, when combined with originality, which is the charm of a new writer, and gives to a story which we have had repeated a dozen times, and to characters whom we have met again and again, the freshness of a new setting.

A story to tell

To start, then, we will suppose that you are the possessor of a story which for some time has dwelt in your mind, and has taken such a hold of you, that you are engrossed with the plot and the actors in it. These creatures of your brain become so familiar to you, that they stand out in your imagination like real persons. You give them names, you invest them with qualities, you decree that they shall be happy or miserable, and, having sealed their fate, you are seized with the desire to make others[Pg 18] acquainted with them. Then comes the eventful moment, when success is imperilled by over-anxiety and a distrust of your own powers.

Faults of beginners

Too frequently the young writer is not content to set down what is to be said with the straightforward simplicity that would be used if this story had to be told vivâ voce. There is a desire to explain, to digress, to elaborate. It is thought necessary to tell the reader that this person is very clever and witty, that that one is stupid and odious, much in the same way that a child draws some strange creature, under which it writes, “this is a cow—this is a horse.” We smile at its being necessary to inform us of what we ought to see for ourselves. Yet it is the same in fiction—the dramatis personæ of your tale should themselves discover to us their idiosyncrasies, and by their actions and conversation reveal to the reader their dispositions and characters. Young authors often write very good dialogue, there is a freshness, a crispness about it which more practised hands may seem to have lost. In this form the new ideas of the rising generation come pleasantly to us, which is seldom the case when they give way to digression, explanation, and the dissection of motives[Pg 19] and propensities. The novel of character—the able study of an inner life—is almost always the outcome of deep thought added to the gift of acute observation. This is not to be expected of a young beginner. Indeed, for my own part, were I to learn that one of these clever analytical studies was the work of an author young in years, I should be filled with regret. If you possess the capacity, the fitness of age will come all too soon, and, believe me, when it does come, you will not regret that you have not forestalled the proper time.

How to write

Thus you will see that my theory is that the young should write young. We all know the pleasure we derive from the fresh, natural, unaffected conversation of an unspoilt girl. Well, then, I want you to write as you talk, and remember this does not mean that you are to have no ambition; on the contrary, aim at the topmost point, or you will never rise. Neither do I mean the slipshod scribbling of ungrammatical nonsense which would offend the eye as much as it would the ear; but, starting with the supposition that you have well thought out your plot, have conceived your characters, and some of the situations[Pg 20] in which they are to be placed, my advice is that you endeavour to give a graphic relation of your story in words to a friend, so that you may hear how the arrangement of the incidents and events stand, and bear in mind while doing this that it is not done so much for your friend’s criticism as it is for your own. And while dealing with this part of the subject, let me say in parenthesis that I know of few exercises more useful to the would-be novel-writer than the telling of stories. Many writers of romance have been distinguished in the nursery and in the schoolroom as delightful story-tellers, and most of us can recall some dear long-lost magician who kept us spell-bound with romances for which we had petitioned. “Make it up as you go.” We need not tax your imagination to this extent, it will answer every purpose if you repeat a story that you have read, and you may gauge your success by the interest which your hearers show. But to return to our embryo novel; suppose that from circumstances connected with your surroundings or your temperament you are not able to carry out this suggestion, then I would say, write out your plot as a short story, and so have clearly before you what you mean to tell.[Pg 21] This done, try to divide it into chapters, and arrange your incidents and your dialogue; always bearing in mind the different dispositions and natures with which you invested your characters at starting, and endeavouring, as much as you possibly can, to let all they say and do push the story on to its climax.

The story completed

About the length of a novel it is best that you should not trouble. When you feel that you have told all you have to tell, the book should come to an end. New pens should know nothing of padding, which is distasteful to every good writer and reader. Later in your career the demands of a magazine or a circulating library may compel you to give a greater amount of copy than your story has strength to bear, but at starting you are not bound by any of these trammels, and, as a rule, young brains are very fertile and brimming over with incidents and plots, therefore you can afford to be generous. And now we may suppose that your story completed lies before you in manuscript, clearly and carefully written with the pains we bestow on a thing we value and feel is our very own. If you are a true author your creation will have become[Pg 22] very dear to you, and in launching it into the world you will suffer a hundred hopes and fears, and, perhaps, disappointments. Your friends may have judged your efforts with their hearts rather than their heads. Few beginners are good critics of their own work, and true talent and modesty generally go hand in hand. The clouds of distrust are certain to cast their shadows over you, but if you have the assurance that you have spared no pains, that you have given your best, do not fear that they will overwhelm you; there is a moral satisfaction in having done good work which no one can rob us of. A dozen other reasons than want of merit lead to a MS. being rejected. Have patience and courage, and some day, when perhaps it is least expected, the success I heartily wish for all earnest young authors will most surely come to you.


L. B. Walford

The fault of the age

Hurry and scamper, the result of a feverish desire to reap the fruits of every undertaking before the seed is well-nigh[Pg 23] sown, is one of the characteristics of the times in which we live. Few can endure to bestow upon their work a moment more of time, or a hair’s-breadth more of pains than will carry it through to the goal on which their ambition—often a very poor and low one—is set; while, as for the greater proportion of our present day aspirants to fame, if they ever pause to reflect upon the infinitude of loving care and anxiety lavished upon the products of bygone days, it is with a sensation of contempt and a pluming of themselves upon their superior smartness and activity.

A mischievous mistake

Now there is of course a great deal to be said in favour of energetic composition, and it cannot be denied that many of the best things ever done, or written, or painted, have been flashed off, as it were, red-hot from the brain. We cannot believe, for instance, that Mr. Rudyard Kipling is ever long over his burning sketches of human life, wherein every word tells; and we know that Lord Byron penned canto after canto of Childe Harold with scarce a correction or a hesitation; but it is a mistake so mischievous for beginners in the fields of literature to fall into (and it is, moreover, one that so many do fall into), that of imagining that they too[Pg 24] can dash down straightway their own crude thoughts—even when the thoughts themselves are good and original—and send them to the press, all unrevised and un-thought-out, that I am going to begin this brief paper addressed to young readers and would-be writers by the single word “Hold!” Pause. Consider what you want to do, and whether you have indeed strength and patience to do it.

An author’s experience

This is the sort of thing that often happens; that has happened in my experience scores of times. A boy, or girl—usually a girl—comes up with shy diffidence and much assumed modesty of demeanour to beg for just one word of encouragement—or discouragement—anent a roll of manuscript she holds in her timid hand. Is it any good at all? She knows it is very badly written; she is afraid she will only be laughed at; but still it would be so kind, so very kind, if I would just glance over it when I have a spare moment—oh, any moment will do; she is only ashamed of taking up my valuable time with her foolish attempts. All the time I can see she is on the tenterhooks of impatience, and that while half-alarmed by her own boldness, there is an underlying[Pg 25] sense of having rushed into the battle-field in which laurels are to be won, and wherein a special wreath awaits her own fair brow.

The vanity of young writers

Perhaps the manuscript is really full of promise. With some alterations and amendments, with an idea worked out here, and a digression omitted there, with, in short, a general revision and re-casting of the whole, it would be worth while offering to the public through the medium of an editor or publisher. But when I proceed to point out all that is to be done, and when, thinking to please and encourage, I suggest, “Now, after you have gone carefully through the whole, and written it out afresh, bring it back, and we will see what can be done to get it into print,” I am amazed to find my young littérateur on the verge of tears! She doesn’t want to go all through “the horrid thing” again. She is “sick of the sight of it.” She is sure I don’t think she will ever write, or I “would never have said what I did!” It is impossible to describe the disgust with which she eyes the poor MS. her hands have reluctantly received from mine. I can scarcely believe those orbs which regarded me so beseechingly a few hours before, can be the same which now brim with sullen moisture. Possibly I am[Pg 26] informed at this juncture that my young friend would never have thought of writing, and would never have supposed she could write, but for seeing what “rubbish” is accepted and put into print at the present time. She felt she could do at least as well as that, or that; and she is evidently surprised that I do not at once declare she could do a great deal better. Now, the awkward part of the business is, perchance, that I have seen—have fully recognised the fact that, could the ideal be raised, the effort would rise in proportion; but perceiving no desire on the part of my young writer to do better and worthier things than those she herself condemns, only to rival them and to attain their infinitesimal measure of success, I hardly know how to proceed. The case is hopeless. A hundred to one I never hear of any further literary aspirations from that quarter.

My young readers must of course understand that the above refers solely to a certain class of would-be writers, namely, to those who write in order to have written, in order to gratify secret vanity, and make contemporaries stare; neither from love of the thing for itself, nor because of the pressure of poverty—the two main causes of earnest literary effort.

[Pg 27]

The secret of success

Let me now, however, suppose that I have to deal with a young author in embryo of another sort, one who has real talent, combined with patience, perseverance, and modesty. George Eliot’s saying, that distinction in authorship is not to be won without “a patient renunciation of small desires”—(I quote from memory, but fancy those are the exact words)—has an acute meaning for those who have struggled in the contest. It is not enough to be possessed of the true yearning to give vent to the pent-up stores of imagination and observation within the breast; there must be a resolute turning aside from every hindrance, and a steadfast purpose to grudge neither time nor thought, nor strength nor opportunity, in perfecting the work which desire or necessity begot. This holds good of every species of authorship, but the warning is especially needed in the realms of fiction, because fiction (of a sort) is so easy to write; and it is most of all needed with the novel of “manners”—the novel which aims to depict our present generation, with all its habits, customs, whims, and foibles—because the novel of “manners” is the one apparently most within the reach of every ordinary writer.

[Pg 28]

And yet, if you will believe me, dear young girl, who might write and write well, if you would only take the pains, and not set your standard so terribly low, and not be thirsting to see your name in print, and hear what your companions have to say about it—if you will believe me, scamped work is absolutely fatal to the novel of “manners.”

Listen, and I will tell you why. When a messenger who has witnessed with his own eyes some terrible scene, dashes into the midst of an awe-struck circle, and pours forth the tale of woe with sobbing breath and bursting bombshells of words, who cares what those words are? Their meaning is enough. But at another time, when in cheerful, social intercourse, the same voice is raised to tell a quiet tale, or recount a simple reminiscence, the tone, the look by which the narration is accompanied, the phrases in which it is presented to the listening audience, are everything to its success. Thus, although a great scene in romance may be enormously heightened and accentuated by well-chosen language (as all famous romancists know), a novel which relies mainly for its interest on a well-constructed plot, or on a thrilling life of adventure, or on passionate inward contests (we have all of[Pg 29] these and many more varieties at the present day), will be better able to dispense with the careful finish and polished style than the novel of “manners,” to which they are absolutely indispensable.

The perfection of art

The novel of “manners” reaches its highest perfection in the products of Thackeray and Jane Austen. I may be laughed at for naming these two together, but I know who would not have laughed—Lord Macaulay would not have laughed, neither would Sir Walter Scott, nor some more of the greatest of our literary critics. What I mean is that neither Thackeray nor Miss Austen have plots—in the accepted sense of the word—at all. They alike take a page of human life and place it beneath the microscope. We perceive all the creatures, large and small, wriggling about. We have no breathless interest to learn whither they will ultimately wriggle: we are simply content to study their movements and requirements—yet it is a study of the most absorbing kind.

And although of course it was the marvellous knowledge of human nature displayed by these two writers which placed them on the summit of their sphere, the beauty of[Pg 30] Esmond, and the charm of Mansfield Park, are so heightened by the exquisitely picked phraseology in which even the most trifling episodes are conveyed, that after long lapses of time memory will often supply the very words, finding them incapable of alteration or of improvement. I doubt if any reader could supply half a dozen sentences on end from, we will say, Wilkie Collins, or Charles Reade, or R. D. Blackmore. Their admirable novels, full of spirit-stirring scenes, are not novels of “manners”; a precise and formal arrangement of words would be almost out of place in them, and would try the reader’s patience still more perhaps than the writer’s.

Distinguished Novelists

In penning the above do not let me be mistaken. Thackeray was not by any means a master of style—his style was often faulty; he often repeated himself; he seldom rounded off his sentences as Miss Austen did. But he was careful with a most minute and elaborate care to present every movement of his characters beneath the microscope so as to fasten upon them the attention of the “great, stupid public,” who, he averred, needed “catching by the ears to make it look!”

[Pg 31]

Of the present day no writer has more happily combined the delineation of “manners” with the narration of beautiful and pathetic stories than Mr. Thomas Hardy. One reads Far from the Madding Crowd first with hurried eagerness to learn its incidents and close, and again with delighted lingering over its homely by-waters, when rustics sit and chat. Mr. Barrie essays to follow in the same line, but in Mr. Barrie the gift of depicting rural “manners” far surpasses the gift of manipulating incident. Even The Little Minister is nothing but a string of characteristic scenes illustrative of the “manners” of the Scottish parish.

Americans succeed wonderfully with novels of “manners,” as witness Mr. Henry James and Mr. W. D. Howells. These distinguished novelists may almost be said to dispense altogether with incident, and to rest their claim on our sympathies entirely on the interest all thinking men and women take in the emotions, agitations, ambitions, and distractions of each other’s daily life.

One drawback to contend with

And at this point let me note one drawback which every delineator of “manners,” pure and simple, has to contend with. He, or she, is absolutely sure to be accused[Pg 32] of drawing scenes and characters from personal experience. The fidelity with which such a writer seeks to depict life as it presents itself in its homely, every-day aspect, raises the inevitable outcry, which, when once set a-going, can never be silenced; until such of us as labour in this special field are literally tripped up at every turn; and people we have never seen, and whose very names are unknown to us, are asserted with the most positive authority to be our prototypes for heroes and heroines!

To such an extent has this craze for fitting on caps been carried, that before the publication of some of my own novels in “Maga” I have been reasoned with by Mr. Blackwood, the courteous and thoughtful editor, on the question of satirising certain people whom he did not for a moment doubt were the originals of my leading characters. To his almost incredulous amazement I was unaware of the very existence of those so-called “originals”!

An idea may be caught or a long train of thought may be fired by the idiosyncrasy of some one present in person before the writer; but to say that the whole character when completely developed is drawn from life because of the hint, as it were, which[Pg 33] began it, is like saying that an animal is copied from life because a single bone has been placed in the hands of the artist, from which he has been enabled—as anatomists know can be done—to piece together the entire creature, and in his mind’s eye behold it.

Fame slow but lasting

The novel of “manners” rarely meets with sudden appreciation. Miss Burney’s Evelina, to be sure, was an exception; but then Evelina was so broadly humorous, so farcical, and, moreover, came out at a time when so few competitors were in the field, that it can hardly be reckoned with. Miss Ferrier, that delightful Scotchwoman, whose novels are all “manners” together, had only, and still has only, a limited if an enthusiastic clientèle; whereas Miss Austen was ridiculously overlooked until she was dead. Her quiet, keen, unerring insight into the hearts of men and women had to work itself by slow degrees into the abiding recognition wherewith it is at last crowned.

But if slowly won, such laurels never fade. Human nature being the same in every age, the student of human nature can never be really out of date; his or her production must always appeal to something[Pg 34] within the thoughtful reader’s breast, and awaken a response. The habits and customs of every generation may vary, but these are only like to the faces of the different timepieces made in different periods; the mainsprings are the same, the object of the timepiece is the same; wherefore, recognising our own passions, pursuits, and aims beneath the different exterior of our forefathers, we can never regard them with indifference.

Thus, the novel of “manners,” which caught the essence of its own times, must as a natural sequence amuse and instruct ours. Other kinds of fiction may catch people’s fancy more quickly at the outset; other and more brilliant varieties may outshine the sober tints and slender texture of its woof; but the tapestry pictures in the novel of “manners,” with every stitch complete, and every thread in its right place, will be found giving delight to new generations of readers, when many of the showy and striking works of fiction which now meet the eye at every turn are mouldering on the shelf, their very names forgotten.

[Pg 35]


S. Baring-Gould

Novels and novels

There are novels and novels. A society novel has its special type: there are the conventionalities of social life, the routine, the courtesies, the absence of startling events, a general smoothness. It requires no local colour. Society is the same throughout England. One town-house is much like another, one country-house may differ from another, in that one is Elizabethan and another Georgian, but social life is the same, eminently nineteenth century in all, and in all alike. It really matters nothing where the scene is laid, whether in Cumberland or in Cornwall, in Yorkshire or in Kent. The dramatis personæ talk the same conventionalities, dress alike, behave in a similar manner everywhere. Social life rubs down eccentricities, almost abolishes individuality. In an American social novel there is a certain American flavour, and in an English social novel a certain English flavour, that is all. A social novel does not need local colour, and local colour least of all enters into the composition of the characters.

The social novel

[Pg 36]

There are certain conventionalities in the social novel: the purse-proud new man, who drops his H’s: the haughty lady of rank, and so on; just as there is the conventional lawyer on the stage, who is a rogue. If we want to be bold and original, we vary or change our pieces, and make the nouveau riche all that is desirable, and the lady of rank all that is humble; but the range of alteration in this respect is not great, and the range of varieties in character is not great, and of local colours influencing the characters there can be none at all.

The novel of country life

It is quite another matter when we come to a lower phase of life, when we step down out of the social sphere into genuine country life. Then colour becomes an essential element in the composition. The ladies and gentlemen in the hall at one end of England are like the ladies and gentlemen in the hall at the other end of England; and it is the same with the sweet girls and the honest, frank boys of the rectory and vicarage—they are as fresh and delightful everywhere, in all parts of England, and all very much the same. But it is not so with the peasantry. They have their type in Northumberland,[Pg 37] which is not the type in Devon, and the type in Yorkshire is not the type of Sussex. The peasantry represent racial differences much more than those in a class above them. No racial differences are observable in the most cultured class. Then, again, surroundings have much to do with the formation of type; and so naturally has the occupation. Look, for instance, in Yorkshire at the mill-hand and at the agricultural labourer. They are different as different can be, and yet of the same stock. The manner of life, the variety of occupation, have differentiated them. And in appearance it is also true. The coal-miner, shuffling along with an habitual stoop, is a different man, not in gait only but in face, and different in habits as well, from the wool-picker or the foreman at the mill. It is the same with the girls. The factory-girl is distinct, as a specimen, from the farm-girl. They think differently, they comport themselves differently, they look different. Their complexions are not the same, their eyes have a different light in them, they move in a different manner.

An observant eye is necessary to note all this, and to draw distinctions.

[Pg 38]


Then, again, in writing a story dealing with life in the working-class, dialect has to be taken into consideration. In some parts of England there is hardly any dialect at all, the voices have a certain intonation in one county which is different from the intonation elsewhere, but there are not many linguistic peculiarities. In the Midlands, in Essex, in Middlesex, the dialect is vulgar; but it can hardly be said that it is so in Northumberland, in Yorkshire, in Cornwall, in Dorset. In Somerset it is unpleasant, but that is another thing from the vulgarity of the Cockney twang. It does not do to accentuate the brogue too much in a book that is for general readers. It puzzles, irritates them. What is needed is to hint the dialect rather than render it in full flavour. Such a hint is a necessary element in giving local colour.

Differences to be studied

In addition to dialect, it is well to get at the folk wisdom as revealed by common sayings, proverbs, and the like. This helps to measure the character of the people, their sense of humour, their appreciation of what is beautiful, their powers of observation, and their imaginative faculties. We generally find that there is more poetry among the peasantry—by this I mean a[Pg 39] picturesqueness and grace—a quality lending itself to fiction, where there is Celtic blood. This wonderfully effervescent, unpractical element is very lovable, very entertaining, where it is found. In my own county of Devon we have on one side of Dartmoor a people in which this volatile sparkling ichor exists to a good extent—in fact, the people are more than half Celts; on the other side of the moor the population is heavy, unimaginative, and prosaic—the dreadfully dull Saxon prevails there. A story of the people in the one district would be out of place if told of those in the other district. Then there are peculiarities of custom, all of which should be observed and noted; they help wonderfully to give reality to a tale. The houses the people inhabit are different in one county from another, differ in one district from those in another ten miles away. Here, where I write, the cottages are of stone; often in them may be found a granite carved doorway, sometimes with a date. Five miles off, all is different. The farms and cottages are of clay, kneaded with straw, and the windows and doors of oak. In Surrey, the cottages are of red brick and tiled; on the Essex coast of timber from broken-up ships.

[Pg 40]


It is not often now that we have a chance of coming on anything like costume, but we do sometimes. In Yorkshire, what else is the scarlet or pink kerchief round the mill-girl’s head, and the clean white pinafore in which she goes to the factory? The bright tin she swings in her hand that contains her dinner is not to be omitted. Every item helps to give realism, and every one is picturesque. When I was in the Essex marshes I saw women and boys in scarlet military coats. In fact, old soldier-uniforms were sold cheap when soiled at Colchester; and these were readily bought and worn. It was a characteristic feature. I seized on it at once in my Mehalah, and put an old woman into a soldier’s jacket. She gave me what I wanted—a bit of bright colour in the midst of a sombre picture.

Pictorial effect

In story-writing it is always well, I may almost say essential, to see your scenes in your mind’s eye, and to make of them pictures, so that your figures group and pose, artistically but naturally, and that there shall be colour introduced. The reader has thus a pleasant picture presented to his imagination. In one of my stories I sketched a girl in a white frock leaning[Pg 41] against a sunny garden wall, tossing guelder-roses. I had some burnished gold-green flies on the old wall, preening in the sun; so, to complete the scene, I put her on gold-green leather shoes, and made the girl’s eyes of much the same hue. Thus we had a picture where the colour was carried through, and, if painted, would have been artistic and satisfying. A red sash would have spoiled all, so I gave her one that was green. So we had the white dress, the guelder-rose balls greeny white, and through the ranges of green-gold were led up to her hair, which was red-gold.

I lay some stress on this formation of picture in tones of colour, because it pleases myself when writing, it satisfies my artistic sense. A thousand readers may not observe it; but those who have any art in them will at once receive therefrom a pleasant impression.

Character of scenery and people determine character of tale

With regard to the general tone of a story, my own feeling is that the character of the scenery and character of the people determine the character of the tale. A certain type is almost always found among the people that harmonises with the scenery. Nature never makes harsh contrasts.[Pg 42] Where, in a stone and slate district, a London architect builds a brick house and covers it with tiles, it looks incongruous. I was at one time in Yorkshire, near Thirsk. In the village all the farms and cottages were of brick and tiles; a London architect built a church of white stone, and covered it with blue slate. That church never would look as if it belonged to the people, it will never harmonise with the surroundings. So some architects transport Norman buildings into old English towns—the effect is hateful. In Nature everything tones together. In the Fens of Ely the people are in character very suitable to the fenland—silent, somewhat morose; on the moorland, wherever it is, they are independent, wayward, fresh, and hearty. In my judgment, then, the aspect of the country has much to do with determining the character of the story told concerning it. In writing a novel you are drawing a picture, and your background must harmonise with your figures in the forefront, the colours must not be incongruous. You would not paint a pirate under a maypole, nor put village dancers among rocks and caverns.

[Pg 43]


I do not like to appear egotistical, but in writing for young beginners, I think that nothing could more illustrate my meaning than to tell them how I have worked myself.

One day in Essex, a friend, a captain in the Coastguard, invited me to accompany him on a cruise among the creeks in the estuary of the Maldon river—the Blackwater. I went out, and we spent the day running among mud-flats and low holms, covered with coarse grass and wild lavender, and startling wild-fowl. We stopped at a ruined farm built on arches above this marsh to eat some lunch; no glass was in the windows, and the raw wind howled in and swept round us. That night I was laid up with a heavy cold. I tossed in bed, and was in the marshes in imagination, listening to the wind and the lap of the tide; and Mehalah naturally rose out of it all, a tragic, gloomy tale. But what else could it be in such desolation with nothing bright therein?

Contrast and harmony

Some little while ago I went to Cheshire, and visited the salt region. It vividly impressed my imagination—the subsidences of land, the dull monotony of brine-“wallers’” cottages, the barges on the Weaver, the blasted trees. Well, then, in contrast, hard[Pg 44] by was Delamere forest, with its sea of pines, its sandy soil and heathery openings, the Watling Street crossing it, the noble mansions and parks about it. The whole aspect of the salt district on one hand, and the wild forest on the other, seemed as if it could produce in my mind only one kind of story; and with the story, the characters came; but they came out of the salt factories on one side, out of the merry greenwood on the other, artificiality and some squalor on one side, freshness and simplicity on the other. It may not be with others as with myself, but with me it is always the scenery and surroundings that develop the plot and characters. Others may work from the opposite point, but then, it seems to me, they must find it hard to fit their landscape to their dramatis personæ and to their dénouement.

Its limits

Another point I may mention. Erckmann and Chatrien could never write a novel of Alsace and the Jura on the spot. After a visit to the scenes they were going to people with fictitious characters, they wrote, but wrote in Paris. They found that imagination failed when on the spot. I find very much the same, myself. I do not believe[Pg 45] I could write a novel of the valley in which I live, the house I occupy. I must lay my scene somewhere that I have been, but have left. When in Rome one winter, impatient at being confined within walls, weary of the basaltic pavement, my heart went out to the wilds of Dartmoor, and I wrote Urith. I breathed moor air, smelt the gorse, heard the rush of the torrents, scrambled the granite rocks in imagination, and forgot the surroundings of an Italian pension.

Its strength
The secret of doing well

I repeat, my experiences may not, and probably are not, those of others. When engaged on a novel, I live in that world about which I am writing. Whilst writing a Cheshire novel, I have tasted the salt crystallising on my lips, smelt the smoke from the chimneys, walked warily among the subsidences, and have had the factory before my eyes, for a while, and then dashed away to smell the pines, and lie in the heather and hear the bees hum. It has been so real to me, that if I wake for a moment at night I have found myself in Cheshire, my mind there. When I am at my meals, I am eating in Cheshire, though at the other end of England; when in conversation with friends, directly there is a pause, my mind reverts to Cheshire; and, alas! I am sorry to own it,[Pg 46] too often, in church, at my prayers—I find my mind drifting to Cheshire. This I believe to be a secret of doing a thing well—that is to say, as well as one’s poor abilities go—to lose oneself in one’s subject, or at all events in the surroundings.


Katharine S. Macquoid

Popular ideas concerning fiction

A popular opinion seems to exist that the art of writing Fiction can be acquired without any natural gift for the profession of Literature; the wish to become a writer is thought a sufficient proof of vocation, although such a wish, accompanied with fluency in pen and ink, is very apt to mislead those who can express their thoughts easily in writing. Diligent study and persevering labour will of course do much to further progress in any art, but it is unlikely that the art of writing fiction can be acquired in the same way that the mere mechanical knowledge of Music, or of Painting, or of Sculpture can be learned by a beginner.

Some experienced writers own that they find it difficult to give a definite account of[Pg 47] the processes by which they themselves have arrived at the production of their ideas; at the outset, I fancy, many of them worked without settled method, or distinct consciousness of their own processes, and this unconsciousness of the method followed, and of the way in which images reveal themselves to the writer, seems to indicate that a systematic plan, a set of rules to be implicitly followed, would be useless to most learners, and would defeat the desired end.

The principles of literature

It seems to me that the principles of Literature, or, to speak simply, the ways in which writing should be done, reveal themselves during its practice, and probably much of the originality which, whatever may be their shortcomings as novelists, distinguishes many English writers, is due in a measure to this personal, unaided way of groping after truth. Writers who possess a natural faculty often work for years with an intuitive rather than a conscious adherence to distinct principles; without these principles, whether possessed consciously or intuitively, it is, I think, impossible to write that which can be called Literature. It appears to me therefore that would-be writers, without a certain innate faculty, may read[Pg 48] and study and acquaint themselves with all the literary canons laid down by critics, and yet fail in producing literature, while others who have the true gift will be able to produce good and spontaneous bits of writing. I do not, however, think that mere natural faculty will enable persons to continue to write well without constant, self-denying study, and they must work up to their abilities, if they would attain success.

It would therefore seem wiser for beginners, instead of trying at the outset to learn how to write, to apply some test to their own powers of writing; let them, in fact, make sure that they have a real literary gift.

The power of vision

The power of Vision, the subject of my paper, is necessary for all Literature, but it is completely indispensable to a novelist. Many novels are undoubtedly written without it, but it may be asked for what purpose are they written? except it be to waste time; they pass into the limbo of useless and forgotten things; there is even a tradition that the Head of a great circulating library said he used these ineffectual novels for garden manure!

There are, however, many young writers very much in earnest, with too much reverence[Pg 49] for Literature to attempt novel-writing for mere pastime, and they are often tormented by doubts of their capacity for success; it is better to tell them frankly, that although such doubts may not be justly founded, they are very hard to lay, and they may possibly abide with the writers till long after the public has begun to listen to their utterances, may indeed remain till writers and their hopes and fears have come to the last chapter of life.

Certain tests

But earnest literary students may greatly help themselves at the outset by using certain tests in trying to make sure whether they have or have not any portion of the gift, without which perseverance will only lead to disappointment. It may not be possible to teach the art of writing novels, but one may try, as well as one can, to help beginners to find out for themselves whether they have or have not “natural faculty” for this calling.

It is said that exactness of proportion can only be proved by measurement, and it is perhaps only by the application of certain principles that beginners in the art of Fiction can learn whether they should persevere or whether they will not save themselves bitter[Pg 50] disappointment by wisely giving up a profession for which they have proved themselves unfitted. The effort required by any attempt at real Literature argues an absence of idle-mindedness in those who make it, and encourages a hope that beginners may be willing to apply test-principles to their methods and power of work. Of these principles, the power of Vision seems to be the most useful as a test of true vocation for the art of writing Fiction.

Imagination and realism

IT was said many years ago of a distinguished writer, who has since passed away, that she lacked imaginative power, that she only described that which she had seen and known. The accusation was refuted as an ignorant one, it was proved that the writer had not seen with her outward eyes all that she so vividly described; it is, however, evident that in making such a statement, the critic forgot the existence of the power of Vision, the power which enables a writer not only to see vividly and distinctly characters, actions, and scenes, but also enables him to see the especial features in these several images which will help to reproduce them with the greatest vigour and with perfect truth. The absence of this[Pg 51] power in its truest form makes some so-called realistic work wearisome, and even nauseous, because it contains such a superabundance of detail that breadth of treatment and truth of effect are lost, while tone is lowered by too much familiarity with the objects presented.

The art of selection

True Vision sees vividly that which it describes, sees it in perfect proportion and perspective, and with this clear eyesight has a power of selecting from surrounding details the chief and most impressive points of its picture; it thereby enables its possessor—according to his power of utterance—to impress the picture he has called up with vigour and distinctness on his reader.

The power of Vision may and does exist with lack of ability to sing or to say, even faintly, that which it so plainly sees, but for all that it is a real gift, not a mere effort of memory, when it calls up a character or a scene. Memory of course helps it, for perhaps all we write or try to write, even that which seems to us newly evolved from our original consciousness, may only be a recreation of forgotten experiences.

The practical working of the power of Vision is apt to vary; the object or scene is sometimes not at once clearly discerned, a[Pg 52] fragment is perhaps first seen, but patient waiting is often rewarded by a distinct and vivid sight of all the other parts which have been simmering in the brain, at first but dimly apprehended, shapeless, lacking alike form and colour.

It may be said that the power of Selection in a writer is a distinct principle, and should of itself form the subject of a paper on creative work, instead of being classed with Vision; but the power of Selection appears to me to be inseparable from any one literary principle—it is an essential part of true Vision.

A natural not acquired gift

There are some parts of the whole which constitutes the power of novel-writing that seem as though they might be acquired by dint of hard study, without the possession of a natural gift for them. Style is one of these, another is the careful construction of a story; but unless the power of Vision be intuitive in a beginner, it is, as I have said, almost useless to attempt Fiction. For instance, it is useless to try to describe, unless the person or thing in question is as clearly seen by the mental eyes as the would-be writer’s face is seen by his physical eyes when he looks in the glass; even when the[Pg 53] image is distinct, power to present it may not exist in sufficient vigour to enable readers to see the picture as the writer does. This is, however, almost a matter of course. I am inclined to think that probably few writers, if any, have ever satisfied themselves in painting the pictures they have mentally created. To take the highest example, we cannot know how far keener the power of Vision was in the pictures seen by Shakespeare than in those which he has revealed to the world. It is this want of proportion between the power to see and the power to execute that has made the despair of artists of all time, whether painters or poets, sculptors or prose-writers, so dissatisfied must they ever be with their own productions compared with the creations they see so vividly.

Observation not sufficient

IT may be said that all this art-study is unnecessary, that it is sufficient carefully to observe life and scenery, and then to write down all that the eye has noted, woven into the form of a story. This is not easy work, our very faculty of observation is qualified by our power of true mental vision; without mental vision, and the selecting power that belongs to it, the[Pg 54] objects noted down, instead of forming a coherent and lifelike picture in the mind of a reader or listener, will produce a dry catalogue of persons and things, there will be a want of proportion and perspective, of efficient light and shade. “No one knows what he can do till he tries” is a very true saying which fits our case. Let persons without the literary faculty try to write off a description of the office or counting-house in which they work, of the room, whether it be study or drawing-room, in which they dwell, of the persons among whom they live, and they will see what the results of such attempts are from a literary standpoint.

Silas Marner

Many passages might be quoted to illustrate the vigour and distinctness with which this power of Vision manifests itself, and in a few words creates a picture which remains impressed on the mind of the reader, but I have not space for them. Here is one, however, which stands out by itself in intensity of distinctness and direct presentation.

Silas Marner, standing at his cottage door, has had a fit of unconsciousness, during which the child, little Eppie, has found her way into his hut.

[Pg 55]

“Turning towards the hearth, where the two logs had fallen apart, and sent forth only a red, uncertain glimmer, he seated himself in his fireside chair, and was stooping to push his logs together, when, to his blurred vision, it seemed as if there were gold on the floor in front of the hearth. Gold!—his own gold brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away! He felt his heart begin to beat violently, and for a few moments he was unable to stretch out his hand and grasp the restored treasure. The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze. He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft, warm curls. In utter amazement, Silas fell on his knees, and bent his head low to examine the marvel: it was a sleeping child—a round, fair thing, with soft yellow rings all over its head.”

Let the reader try to picture this scene to himself, and then consider the marvellous power with which it is here brought before him, the intense power of Vision, and of Selection evinced not only by the points chosen for representation, but in the omitted details which an ungifted writer would have[Pg 56] dragged into the foreground. The strange agitation of the lonely man is seen as vividly as the head of the little golden-haired intruder lying before the red, uncertain glimmer of the burning logs; this picture is more than an incident in the story, it is the key which lets us in and acquaints us with the unhappy weaver who till then had seemed outside our sympathies.

George Eliot

As we read her work, we know that unless this writer’s power of Vision had been of a high order, she could not have placed so many living pictures in our memories, pictures not of mere scenes, but bits of actual life, in which the rude passions, and also the gentler qualities of men and women, are set before us.

Mrs. Gaskell

I will mention yet another illustration of truth of Vision, rendered, because seen in a sudden flash, with so much vigour that it is difficult to believe it is not a record of human experience. The incident is too long to transcribe, but it occurs in the fourth chapter of the third volume of Sylvia’s Lovers, the scene in which Charlie Kinraid, Sylvia’s old lover, returns, and tells her that her husband has deceived her. There is a desperate[Pg 57] simplicity in the pathos of the poor girl’s words, “I thought yo’ were dead”; and the vivid image of the shuddering, conscience-stricken husband is more moving than any elaborate description could have made it. It is truth; one seems to know that it was all seen and heard distinctly by the writer before a word of it was set down.

Some masters of fiction

In Kidnapped, the defence of the cabin on board the privateer strongly evidences the power of Vision; still earlier in the book is a more sudden effect in the ghastly discovery the hero makes at the top of the steps up which his treacherous uncle had sent him. In The Black Arrow, by the same master-hand, the scene of the apparition of the supposed leper is a marvellous instance of this faculty.

I might quote many remarkable examples from Oliver Twist, from The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, from The Cloister and the Hearth, and other masterpieces, in illustration of my meaning. There is more than one wonderful instance in John Inglesant, notably the passage in which the reader is made to see Strafford almost without a description of his apparition.

These illustrations are more or less evidences of direct Vision, the pictures presented[Pg 58] seem to have been at once photographed on the mental sight; but many remarkable instances could be cited in which the effects are produced by a series of touches so exquisitely blended together, that the impression produced is that of a solid whole. In The Woodlanders there are examples of almost unrivalled truth of Vision, presented by a series of richly coloured touches. In the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice we have another feature of the power of Vision, the incisive presentation of character in the dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet; this so completely impresses both characters on the reader’s mind, that the concluding words of the chapter seem superfluous.

In A Foregone Conclusion, by Mr. Howells, we recognise an extremely subtle power of Vision; we can scarcely say how the persons have become familiar to us, yet we seem to know that they are alive, and that they were distinctly seen by the writer; there is the same power in Silas Lapham. It may be said that I have only given examples from the Masters of Fiction. I could have given many others from the books of far less popular writers, but I believe in a high ideal, for one can never reach one’s aim,[Pg 59] and it is well always to be striving upwards.

Essential qualities for writing fiction

The outcome of the question, then, seems to be that beginners in the art of novel-writing are able to test themselves as to their power of Vision with regard to Fiction; they will soon discover whether they can master the difficulty of creating a forcible and distinct picture in their minds of the subject they propose to treat; they must see it distinctly, and it must be lasting; they must see not only the outer forms of characters, but their inner feelings; they must think their thoughts, they must try to hear their words.

It is possible that the picture may not all be seen at once; the earnest student may have to wait days before he sees anything, weeks before he vividly and truthfully sees the whole. I can only say, let him wait with patience and hope, and above all let him firmly believe that novel-writing is not easy; possibly, in spite of earnestness and diligence, the beginner has made a mistake, and has not the necessary gifts for success in Fiction. Well then, if after many trials he cannot call up a picture which is at the same time distinct and true to Nature, he had[Pg 60] better bring himself to believe that his attempt is not a creation of the imagination, it is at best but a passing fancy, not worth the trouble of writing down. One more counsel. There are three qualities as essential to success in novel-writing as the power of Vision: they are Patience, Perseverance, and an untiring habit of taking pains.


Maxwell Gray

The climax of art

This is the climax, the finest flowering of the fictive art. It is the crux, whereby may be determined the vital reality of the beings presented to the reader by the novelist. Growth is the first condition of life; only the character that develops with the course of the story is really alive; if it be stationary, then it is dead. Many an interesting and amusing writer is without this power of creating and developing character, the rarest and the highest given to mortal man. It is the lack of this singular gift that fills the every-day story-teller’s pages with puppets and labelled bundles of qualities in[Pg 61] place of human beings. It is possible to tell a very good story without creating or developing character, but it is scarcely possible to create and develop character without telling a good story. For it is story—that is, linked incident, changing circumstance—that moulds the plastic yet unchangeable character of man.

“Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille,
Ein Karacter sich in dem Sturm der Welt.”

There is nothing so constant, and in one sense so unchanging, as human character: every baby born into the world receives certain characteristics, due in part to heredity, in part to climate and physical conditions, in part, possibly, to pre-natal mental surroundings, which characteristics remain with him to the day of his death. A rose-tree may be trained and developed in different ways, it may become a bush, a tree or a creeper, but it can never become a peach—St. Peter is always Peter, and St. Paul, Saul, though the fisher has become a saint and martyr, and the strict and fierce Pharisee the Apostle of the Gentiles.

Incident affects character

Though in fiction, as in life, character creates incident, still it is incident,[Pg 62] which is dramatic circumstance, or circumstance, which may be called stationary incident, that chiefly carves and shapes character, calls out latent and often unsuspected vice, and evokes equally unlooked-for virtue. Incident, or dramatic situation, may be called the touchstone of character. Many an excellently written and clever novel fails to enchain because the people in it do exactly what they could not possibly do in real life. They develop wrongly because they are not alive, not living organisms, and some secret instinct in the reader is revolted by a feeling of unreality, he has a secret anger at being cheated into temporary belief in a made-up figure, in whose nostrils the breath of life is not.

Maggie Tulliver

Many critics, but I fancy chiefly males, and therefore incapable of weighing female character, think this the weak point in The Mill on the Floss. Maggie Tulliver, they say, high-minded Maggie, would never have wasted her treasure of noble passion on such a barber’s block as Stephen Guest. Yet that to my mind is one of the finest points in that very fine novel. It is artistically as well as naturally inevitable that the impulsive, imaginative, warm-hearted Maggie, who ran away to live with the gipsies, so greatly[Pg 63] admired little Lucy’s doll-face and trim curls, who idealised everything she saw and lived in a constant transition from heaven to hell, never abiding in one stay on the firm level earth in her stormy childhood, should see an Apollo in the first comely and well-conducted youth she met, and that her imagination should invest him with a blinding glamour, which in turn kindled so strong a passion as swept her off her feet. Her passionate and exaggerated repentance, too, though as exasperating to the reader as it would be in real life, is equally true, the natural sequence of all that went before. Still, Maggie ought not to have been drowned, she was but beginning to develop; Stephen Guest should have been but an incident in the Sturm-und-Drang-Periode inevitable to a nature so turbulent and so complex as hers. Maggie’s death, which is an accident and a climax to nothing, must be regarded as an artistic murder, for the wanton slaying of a personage whose death is not artistically necessary in a fiction, is more than a blunder, it is a capital crime. But the charm and interest of The Mill on the Floss are not in the development of Maggie so much as in that of her father and mother and those matchless aunts and uncles of hers.

[Pg 64]

Power to create character

If the power to create and develop character is great, it is also rare, and discoverable only in fiction of the highest order. It is this that makes Hawthorne so incomparably grand; this that gives his chief, though not his whole, magic to that master of English fiction, Thackeray, and his peer, George Eliot; that impresses in Manzoni’s splendid romance, I Promessi Sposi; that enchains in Jane Austen, though she does but brush the surface of character, leaving the depths unplumbed; that fascinates in Charlotte Brontë and in Mrs. Gaskell, that powerful, wholesome, and but half-appreciated writer; and the lack of which sends so marvellous a genius as Dickens, in spite of all his witchery of fancy and fun and youthful mastery of language, lost later in affectation, to the second rank. It was Dickens’ inability to recognise his own limitation in this respect which chiefly contributed, with his outrageous vanity, to wreck his later works; for he always aimed at developing character, probably because it was the only thing he could not do. Because the gods, as a sort of make-weight, with their gifts of genius and talent, always throw in a perverse blindness to the nature and limits of those endowments.

[Pg 65]

Characters should develop

Michael Angelo, at first sight of it, said to Donatello’s statue of St. George, “March!” and the young figure always seems, in its breathing vitality, to be on the point of obeying the order. So it is with the finest creations in fiction: they march, they develop, they achieve an immortal existence, like the lovers in Keats’ Grecian Urn

“For ever shalt thou love, and she be fair.”

We expect them to go on living; we look out for Colonel Newcome’s noble and pathetic face among the pensioners in the chapel, and expect to see that delightful old sinner, Major Pendennis, ogle us from his club-window as we pass. How sadly do the characters of Amelia Sedley’s kind and easy-going parents develop under the stress of ill-fortune, and yet how truly! The indulgent and affectionate merchant, and his comfortable, commonplace spouse, who caress and fondle Amelia’s girlhood, pass with saddest ease into the selfish and querulous tyrants of her widowed maturity; the harshness of their soured and unlovely old age is but the other side of natures to which ease and material comfort are the first conditions of existence. And poor dear[Pg 66] Amelia, how naturally she glides through the bitter trials and keen sorrows of her womanhood, losing the self-complacency and regardlessness of others, fostered by her caressed and guarded girlhood, and emerging mellowed and sweetened from the flame! People run Amelia down. I love her; I should like to have known her. Don’t we all know and love, and feel the better for knowing and loving, some Amelia? My heart aches now as if from a fresh stab whenever I read the immortal sentence which describes the falling of night on battle-field and city, on the town without, and Emmy’s desolate chamber within, where she “was praying for George, who was lying on his face dead, with a bullet through his heart.” Of course we all adore that good-for-nothing Becky Sharpe, whose complex and subtle nature is so terribly warped and contorted by the wrongs of her youth. How delightful is the unexpected tenderness developed in that great, clumsy, big-hearted blackguard, Rawdon Crawley, by his dainty, clever little witch of a wife and his neglected child. This Rawdon is essentially virile all the way through. It was not only a fine brain, but a great and generous and very tender heart that conceived and developed all these intensely[Pg 67] human creatures in Thackeray’s great romance.

Living examples in fiction

What fine development there is in Lucia and Renzo, those very commonplace and unromantic young country-folk in the first chapters of I Promessi Sposi. Yet Lucia does not surprise us when, under stress of the terrible events which tear their tranquil lives apart, she comports herself with such signal heroism, and overawes and disarms the lawless brigands who have carried her off, by the dignity of her gentle yet strong rectitude. Nor are we astonished when the honest and simple-minded Renzo, by his single-hearted loyalty and devotion to plain duty, becomes a hero in his turn. It is a matchless stroke of Manzoni’s genius thus from such every-day and unromantic material to evolve stuff so heroic and full of romantic interest as in the characters of these Promessi Sposi, who were not even romantically in love, but were merely going to marry because they were at marrying age and thought each other suitable.

This subtle and inevitable development which follows from the creation of a living character in fiction, as from the birth of a living organism in nature, gives a distinct[Pg 68] charm to Malory’s version of Arthurian legend, the one centre of interest around which the whole body of the romance Morte d’Arthur plays, being the development of Sir Lancelot, that very live and captivating man, whom once to know is always to love. Chaucer, fettered and cramped though he was, yet in the narrow limits his art imposed gives subtle suggestions of spiritual growth, while the immortal people painted in the Prologue, though of necessity debarred from movement, are like Donatello’s St. George, we involuntarily tell them to march, they are so alert and so much alive. And even in the Nibelungen Lied, which would at first seem but a poetic welding together of myth, tradition and romance, the main point of the story and the hinge upon which the whole tragedy plays, is the terrible direction taken by Chriemhild’s naturally sweet and noble nature under the warping influence of deadly wrong.

A bad tendency

Macbeth, aweary of the sun, is another man than the gallant Scottish chief who consults the witches; and what a change passes over the warm-hearted and devoted wife, who is so eager for her husband’s advancement. Hamlet and Faust (especially Hamlet), being not so much a Danish prince and[Pg 69] a German philosopher as representatives of the human race, are the first and finest instances of character-development in fiction. Yet the same Goethe, who, by the spontaneous play of his great genius, created the living Faust, also composed that nauseous study of morbid anatomy, Wahlverwandtschaften, in which there is no true development upwards or downwards, but a sort of stagnant and hopeless decay, and by the composition of which he became the father of a great and gruesome school of fiction, the noxious influence of which is spreading everywhere like a leprous growth over the fair face of fictive art, especially in France, where the novel has been reduced to a study of the gutter and the city sewer, and poetry to the open worship of decay, and where a great artist like Zola devotes marvellous powers of observation and description and analysis of character through the whole of the celebrated Assommoir to impressing upon the reader that dirty linen is dirty, which Falstaff knew by sad experience, but did not dwell upon, long ago. There is much morbid anatomy of stagnant character in L’Assommoir but no development; the characters do not even degenerate, they simply rot as if from some mysterious, irresistible corruption.

[Pg 70]


A great, perhaps the greatest, living English novelist is, like his lesser brothers, touched by this mysterious blight. Hence Tess has an artistically impossible climax. Mr. Hardy’s fine genius created a noble character in Tess, but his Paganism (for the blight has its origin in Paganism) blinded him to the full grandeur of his own creation. He sees clearly how the tragedy of Tess’s girlhood, the horrible cruelty of which she is the innocent victim, moulds her nature, first stunning her to a degradation from which she quickly revolts, and ultimately leading her through suffering and knowledge of good and evil to a higher purity than that of ignorant innocence, but he cannot see, perhaps because he does not believe in, the impossibility of the final actions he imputes to her, in a nature that had grown to such a height. Vainly is the ivory parasol flourished in the face of the reader, who rejects it as an unreality. But I speak under correction.


Whatever Paganism may be to art—and the late Mr. J. A. Symonds thinks it is very good for it—there is no doubt that it is absolutely fatal to creative literature. The pure Pagan, the denying spirit, can have no ideal; it is not that he asserts there is no God, but that he says there is no good; he[Pg 71] knows no inward vivifying spirit to produce moral progress; therefore for him character cannot grow, it can only decay, like geraniums touched by frost. This denying spirit, this Paganism, which acknowledges matter because itself is material, and which denies soul and the supernatural, sees in man a mere organism, bound in an eternal ring of sense, a being whose deepest emotions are but animal instincts, variously developed, and whose subtlest thoughts are but emanations from an organ resembling curds; therefore it has only the human animal for its subject in art and literature, and can depict nothing in moral life but its decay. It has no clue to the growth of the living organism, acknowledging not life but only death. Human character is to this Paganism as the rapidly decomposing corpse under the knife and microscope. It is this which in politics produces Nihilism, Socialism, Anarchy, in literature what is known as Zolaism, though Zola is but one of its products, and in France the poetry of the decadence, the acknowledged idolatry of corruption; and it is this which fills European fiction with unsavoury studies in morbid anatomy in place of wholesome, vivifying pictures of living and growing[Pg 72] character. One can trace this sterilising influence in Goethe’s life as well as in his works; one sees it beginning in George Eliot, and continuing in the most ambitious English writers of the day; but not in Mr. Hall Caine, whose work, with all its shortcomings, is a protest against it, and who resolutely proclaims the soul of man and his power to rise above his passions and make a stepping-stone of his dead self to something nobler.

The art of developing character

But how acquire the art of developing character in fiction? We may as well try to acquire blue eyes and straight noses, nature having endowed us with aquiline features and black orbs. It is, like the gifts of poetry and cookery, born with us or unattainable, though, like those sources of so much solace to mankind, it may and must be cultivated when present. The means whereto are study and observation of life, and of great literary masterpieces.

That pleasant and light-hearted writer, Mr. James Payn, probably beguiled by the whisper of some tricksy demon, once, to his subsequent acknowledged sorrow, sat down and airily indited an essay in a leading[Pg 73] periodical on fiction as a profession, in which he asserted in that gentle and joyous fashion of his that, like any other craft, that of novel-writing can be acquired by study and practice. With a thoughtlessness that Christian charity would fain assume to be devoid of guile, he even expressed an innocent wonder that a profession so easy and inexpensive to acquire, and so delightful as well as lucrative to exercise, was not more sought after by the parents of British youth, who, worthy folk, to do them strict justice, have never been backward in repressing the vice of scribbling in their offspring. It would be unkind to dwell upon the error of Mr. Payn’s ways. Nemesis, in the shape of letters during the next few days from half the parents in the three kingdoms, demanding instant instruction for sons (especially those who had failed in most other things) in the elements of novel-writing, overtook that poor man, and he did fit penance in a subsequent number of the periodical, appearing there in all the humiliation of white sheet, ashes, and taper, and duly confessing, if not his sins, at least his sorrow for their results.

[Pg 74]

Those who should write

The art of novel-writing is not to be picked up along the primrose path, even when the gift is present; nor is literature, especially in its higher walks, a lucrative profession; it is, as of old, a crutch, but not a staff. It is doubtless comparatively easy, a certain knack being inborn and skill having been acquired, to reel off story after story at the same dead level of mediocrity, but no writer has produced many good novels, or ever will. The world is flooded with fiction, chiefly worthless, but able by sheer volume to swamp the few good novels that appear from time to time. People should never write a novel or indite a poem of malice prepense. The only justification for doing either is being unable to help it. Those novel-writers who can create characters will develop them and thank heaven; those who cannot will not, and let us hope they will thank heaven too.

[Pg 75]


Lanoe Falconer

The art of writing a short story

The art of writing a short story is like the art of managing a small allowance. It requires the same care, self-restraint, and ingenuity, and, like the small allowance, it affords excellent practice for the beginner, as by the very limitations it imposes on her ambition, it preserves her from errors of judgment and tastes into which she might be hurried by fancy or fashion.

What to avoid

There are many things lawful, if not expedient, in the three-volume novel that in the short story are forbidden—moralising, for instance, or comments of any kind, personal confidences or confessions. These can indeed be made so entrancing that the narrative itself may be willingly foregone. The wit of a Thackeray, the wisdom of a George Eliot, has done as much: but these gifts are rare, so rare that the beginner will do well to assume that she has them not, and to stick fast to her story, especially if it be a short one; since on that tiny stage where there is hardly room for the puppets[Pg 76] and their manœuvres, there is plainly no space for the wire-puller.


Even more cheerfully may be renounced those dreary addenda called explanations. Nowhere in a story can they possibly be welcome. At the end they would be preposterous; at the beginning they scare away the reader; in the middle they exasperate him. Who does not know the chill of disappointment with which, having finished one lively and promising chapter, one reads at the beginning of the next, “And now we must retrace our steps a little to explain,” or words to the same depressing effect? Explain what?—the situation? That should have explained itself. Or the relation of the actors? A word or two in the dialogue might do as much. More I, as the reader, do not wish to learn. I am fully interested, I am caught in the current of the tale, I am burning to know if the hero recovered, if the heroine forgave, if the parents at last consented: I am in no mood to listen to a précis—for it is never more—of the past events that prepared this dilemma, or of the legal, financial, or genealogical complications by which it is prolonged. With these dry details the author may do well to be acquainted, for the due direction and confirmation[Pg 77] of his plot; but the reader has nothing to do with them, and in a work of art they are as needless and as unsightly as the scaffolding round a completed building, or the tacking threads in a piece of finished needlework.


Equally incompatible with the short story is that fertile source of tedium, redundancy. “The secret of being wearisome,” says the French proverb, “is to tell everything.” What then is the end of those who tell not merely everything, but—if an Irish turn of expression may be permitted—a great deal more? It is to encourage the practice of skipping in the general reader, and—much to the detriment of more parsimonious writers—in the reviewers as well. A large number of novels picturesquely described as weak and washy, might be converted into very readable stories by the simple process of leaving out about two volumes and a half of entirely superfluous and unentertaining matter.

“Phillup Bosch.”

On the staff of an amateur magazine to which in early youth the writer contributed, there was one most obliging and useful member whose business it was to provide “copy” for the odd corners and inevitable spaces between the more important papers.[Pg 78] He wrote, you will observe, not because he had anything in the world to say or tell, but because a certain amount of space must at all costs be covered; and the effusions thus inspired he signed with the modest and appropriate pseudonym of “Phillup Bosch.” How often in fiction of a certain class may even now be recognised the handiwork of this industrious writer, always unsigned, indeed, at least by the old familiar name. The sparkle of his early touch is gone, but his unmistakable purpose is the same. The glamour of “auld lang syne” may to his old friends endear these interpolations, but from a literary point of view it is much to be desired that he would lay aside his pen for ever. And yet it must be acknowledged that without his aid there are three-volume novels that could never have been written. Fortunately, the short story is independent of him.


The disadvantages of the short story become more distinct when we consider its possible theme. The crowded stage and wide perspective of the novel proper; all transformations of character and circumstance in which length of time is an essential element; even the intricately[Pg 79] tangled plot, deliberately and knot by knot unfolded—these are beyond its reach. The design of the short story must itself be short—and simple. A single, not too complicated, incident is best; in short, the one entire and perfect action, that Aristotle—I quote from Buckley’s translation—considered the best subject of fable or poem. To the writer might well be repeated the stage-manager’s advice to aspiring dramatists, quoted by Coppée in his Contes en Prose:

“If they come to me with their plays when I am at breakfast, I say—‘Look here, can you tell me the plot in the time it takes me to eat this boiled egg? If not—away with it—it is useless.’” The author of a short story submitted to the same kind of test would have to be even more expeditious.

The art of omission

It may be observed that all these suggestions are of a negative order, and concerned with “the tact of omission.” It is indeed of the first importance in the composition of the short story. As a famous etcher once said to the writer while she stood entranced before a study of river, trees, and cattle, that his magic touch had converted into a very poem, an exquisite picture of[Pg 80] pastoral repose—“The great thing is to know what to leave out.” It is part of that economy already insisted upon, “to express only the characteristic traits of succeeding actions,” and, as Mr. Besant exhorts us, to suppress “all descriptions which hinder instead of helping the action, all episodes of whatever kind, all conversation which does not either advance the story or illustrate the characters.”

Grasp of point
Dramatic instinct

How this “essential and characteristic” is to be distinguished from all around it is another matter. It is a work that a great French master of the art described as a travail acharné. But it is also very often made easy by native instinct, like that which directs these born story-tellers—their name is legion—of both sexes and all conditions, who never put pen to paper, but who in hall or cottage, drawing-room or kitchen, nursery or smoking-room, whenever they unfold a tale, hold all their audience attentive and engrossed. Their method when analysed appears to chiefly depend, first on their firm grasp of the main point and purport of their story, next on their liberal use of dialogue in the telling of it. At least thus do the listeners to one enchanting story-teller endeavour to explain the dramatic flavour[Pg 81] she imparted to the commonest incidents of domestic life. For instance, this is what she would have made of a theme so ungrateful as the fact that, the butcher having sent too large a joint, she had returned it to him. For the benefit of inexperienced housekeepers, it is perhaps as well to explain that a fair average weight for a leg of mutton is declared by experts to be nine pounds.

“Directly I went into the larder, I said, ‘Jane, what on earth is that?’

“‘Why, ma’am,’ she said, ‘it is the leg of mutton you ordered.’

“‘What!’ I said, ‘the small leg of mutton? Where is the ticket?’

“‘Please, ma’am, the butcher’s boy has not brought it.’

“I said, ‘Tell him to come into the kitchen.’

“When he came I made her weigh that leg of mutton before him. It weighed eleven pounds four ounces!

“I said, ‘Take that back to your master, and ask him from me if he calls that a small leg of mutton?’”

The expression, the intonation, and the, at times, almost tragic emphasis, it is, unfortunately, impossible to reproduce; but even in this colourless record we may[Pg 82] admire the terseness and vigour, the masterly beginning that at once arouses curiosity, and the truly artistic reserve that does not by outcry or comment detract from the force of the climax! Consider, too, how in some hands this simple tale might have been embroidered and interrupted: by description of the scenery outside the kitchen-window; by a minute account of the lady’s family and connections, or of the previous history of the cook; by a dissertation on joints in general and the story-teller’s favourite dishes in particular, with other digressions too numerous to mention; and by comparison you may divine what constitutes “the characteristic” of a story.

Points to aim at

If now, seriously speaking, you review the tablets of your memory and mark the scenes imprinted there, you will see that whereas some figures, incidents, speeches, and even details of the background are vivid as ever, others have vanished away. Again, you will find that a conversation may be often best reported, in fidelity to the spirit rather than the word, by suppressing all the repetitions and superfluous phrases that encumbered the actual dialogue. Lastly, if you attentively consider the character[Pg 83] of some one you know and understand, you may discover that it is revealed and epitomised in certain particular words and actions, and that by repeating these you might present a much more striking portrait of the original than by a lengthy memoir of all that he, or she, did and said in common with other people. Thus from your own experience you may gather useful hints as to the kind of condensation desirable for the short story. Others may, and ought to, be acquired by the study of the best literature; but in this, as in every form of creative work, the artist, in the beginning as at the end, must draw his chief inspiration from life itself.

Literary capabilities

There is one thing that the shortest story does not exclude, and that is the highest artistic ambition. That the length of any work can be no measure of its importance or effect is best illustrated by such masterpieces as the minor poems of Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, or Tennyson. The literary capabilities of the short story, still in its infancy, have yet to be discovered, probably by the very generation of those to whom this paper is especially addressed. Therefore one must the more earnestly[Pg 84] entreat them to cherish the highest aims in their writing, to lavish on it the greatest care. Nowhere can “signs of weariness, of haste, in fact of scamping,” be so inexcusable as on the miniature canvas, or ivory, of the short story. Rather it deserves the finish of the finest cameo, of the most highly polished gem.

Finally, with that uncomfortable feeling that is apt to overtake one after preaching, the writer is obliged to confess that all this advice is easier to give than to follow, and concludes with the wish that her young readers may

“Better reck the rede
Than ever did the adviser.”


Mrs. Molesworth

No royal road

There is, we are told, no royal road to learning. Is there a royal road to any good thing? Are not hard work, more or less drudgery, perseverance, self-control, and self-restraint the unavoidable travelling companions, the only trustworthy couriers[Pg 85] through the journey to the country of success? I think so.

But the way is not always the same. None of the paths are “royal,” in the sense of being smooth and flower-bestrewn; but beyond this, similarity no longer necessarily holds good. To literary success, even in its humbler departments, there are many and varying roads. Were it not so indeed, the thing itself would be infinitely less worthy of achievement. For if literary work is to be in any sense admirable, it must be individual and characteristic; it is not of the nature of manufactured goods; its essence must be of the author’s personality.

Writing for the young

I wish thus to preface the little I have to say of possible service to others on that branch of writing as to which I am credited with some experience—fiction for the young, more especially for children—because, underlying any information or advice I can give, is the very strongest belief in every writer taking his or her own path, trusting to his or her own intuitions. Yet these intuitions, if I may be forgiven an apparent paradox, must be those of a cultivated taste, a thoughtful intellect, an imagination all the more luxuriant from having been[Pg 86] well pruned. Therefore before beginning to write, even for childish minds, I would urge upon young authors to see well to their own mental possessions. You cannot “give” out of nothing, and if you would give of the best, with the best must you be furnished. Read the best books, study the best models, till in a sense they become your own. “Originality,” if originality you have, will never be crushed by real study; and if the result of your self-training should be to prove to you, by comparison with its undoubted owners, that this incommunicable gift is not yours, the sooner, for yourself and for others, that you make the discovery the better, though you will have been far from a loser in the process of making it.

There is nothing “original” in this advice, I well know. But it seems to be not uncalled for in the present instance, because so many young writers, too modest to aspire very high, think they can “write for children.” And often this is a mistake. Writing for children calls for a peculiar gift. It is not so much a question of taking up one’s stand on the lower rungs of the literary ladder, as of standing on another ladder altogether—one which has its own steps, its higher and lower positions of excellence.

[Pg 87]

Special gifts demanded

It is very difficult to define this gift. It is more than the love of children. Many people love children dearly who could not write for, or about them even, at all. It is to some extent the power of clothing your own personality with theirs, of seeing as they see, feeling as they feel, realising the intensity of their hopes and fears, their unutterably pathetic sorrows, their sometimes even more pathetic joys, and yet—not becoming one of them: remaining yourself, in full possession of your matured judgment, your wider and deeper views. Never for one instant forgetting the exquisite delicacy of the instruments you are playing upon, the marvellous impressionableness of the little hearts and minds; never, in commonplace words, losing sight of what is in the best sense good for them. Yet all this so skilfully, so unobtrusively, that the presence of the teacher is never suspected. Not perhaps till your readers are parents and guardians themselves—possibly writers!—need they, nor should they, suspect how in every line, far more than their passing entertainment or amusement was considered, how scrupulous was the loving care with which, like a fairy gardener, you banished from the playground which you were preparing for their enjoyment,[Pg 88] all things unsightly, or terrifying, or in any sense hurtful—all false or exaggerated sentiment in any form.

And yet you must be true to nature. Save in an occasional flight to fairyland (and is true fairyland unreal after all?) children’s stories should be real—true, that is to say, to what may be or are actual experiences in this always chequered, often sorrowful, world of ours. It would be very false love for children—it would be repellent to their own true instincts—to represent life to them as a garden of roses without thorns, a song with no jarring notes. But underlying the sad things, and the wrong things, and the perplexing things which must be touched upon in the little dramas, however simple, there must be belief in the brighter side—in goodness, happiness, and beauty—as the real background after all. And any one who does not feel down in the bottom of their hearts that this “optimism” is well-founded, had better leave writing for children alone.

Childhood and youth

It is not always those who are nearest childhood who are the best fitted to deal with it. There is a phase of melancholy and hopelessness which youth often has to pass through, and though much mingled with[Pg 89] false sentimentality, it is a real enough thing while it lasts. It is those who have outgrown this, who while not closing their eyes to the dark and sad side of things, yet have faith in the sunlight behind and beyond, who, to my mind, are the best story-tellers for the little ones, whose own experience of life is all to come.

A point to consider

Before passing on to a few questions of practical detail, I should like to dwell a little on a point which it seems to me is too often disregarded or confused. It is this—writing about children is by no means the same thing as writing for them. So much the contrary is it indeed, that I could instance several storybooks almost entirely about children which are far less advisable reading for them than others of which the characters are not children at all. This distinction is constantly overlooked and forgotten, and yet it is surely based on common sense? The very last thing a wise mother would allow would be the children’s presence at any necessary consultation with doctor or teacher about their health, physical or mental. And the interest of many of the charming and delightful stories about children, which in our days have almost come to constitute a new department in literature, depends very greatly[Pg 90] on the depicting and description of childish peculiarities and idiosyncrasies which it would not be wholesome for their compeers to discuss or realise. The questions too of judicious or injudicious management of little people on the part of their elders, of over-care or more culpable neglect, of misunderstanding of their complex and often strangely reserved and perplexing characters, must come much to the fore in this class of fiction. And though it would not be right, because it would not be sincere, to make of our stories for children a fool’s paradise, where all the big people are perfect, and only the boys and girls in fault, still the obtruding or emphasising parental mistakes and failings should surely be avoided when writing for the tender little ones, whose lovely belief in “mother” is the very breath and sunshine of their lives—and the greatest possible incentive to mother herself to be in some faint degree worthy of this exquisite trust.

Unsuitable subjects

Nor is this faith a false one. It is God-given, as a shelter and support to the infant character till the day comes when the man or woman must stand alone and see things with full-grown vision. And when that day comes, and the gradual discovery is realised that neither father nor mother, best of[Pg 91] teachers or dearest of friends, is infallible, something else comes too; a still deeper faith, which draws the bonds of the old childish love and trust yet closer, by the addition of that of understanding sympathy.


As to questions of “style” in writing for children, general rules hold good, with the addition of a few special ones. Your language should of course be the very best you can use. Good English, terse and clear, with perhaps a little more repetition, a little more making sure you are understood than is allowable in ordinary fiction. Keep to the rule of never using a long word where a short one will express your meaning as well; but do not be too slavishly afraid of using a long word—a word even which, but for the context, your young readers would fail to take in the meaning of. In such a case you can often skilfully lead up to the meaning, and children must learn new words. It does them no harm now and then to have to exercise their minds as to what the long or strange word can mean, and at worst they can always apply to some older friend for an explanation, and the effort will impress the new acquisition on their memory.

[Pg 92]

Training in style

To help you to the acquirement of a good style in this branch of writing, as in others, I would like to repeat the advice I have often given privately. Drill yourself well by translating. It is capital training. You know what you have to say, and there is not for the moment the strain of inventing upon you. The facts and ideas are there ready cut and dry; your business is to clothe them fittingly and gracefully, and to this you can give your whole attention. Young writers are usually so full of what they want to say, that they give too little care to how they say it—ideas come tumbling over each other till the way is blocked, and precision and elegance are thrown to the winds. Translation is voted dull work by some—they want to see their own creations in form—but do believe me, unless you are willing to go through some dull work, some drudgery, the chances are small that you will succeed. It may seem to you that some writers you know have reached the position they occupy by sheer genius; but, not to repeat the well-known definition of what genius really is, if you could retrace the whole steps trodden by these apparently exceptional beings, you would find, I think, that the “taking pains”[Pg 93] has been there. They have been perhaps peculiarly well-drilled, accustomed to much brooding over the very best authors, but their present perfection of style has not come all of itself, you may be sure, however dazzling the brilliance that undoubted genius throws over the materials supplied by long and careful cultivation.

It is a simple but valuable test of your writing to read it aloud when finished, even if you have no audience but yourself! In writing for children the criticism, which you may be pretty sure will not be too flattering, of a group of intelligent boys and girls is invaluable.

Method of composition

And now as to the subject-matter itself. What is the best way of composing a story for children? “Should we think it all out first, and sketch it out, and jot down the heads, and the chapters, and—and—?” a hundred more “ands.” “Should one wait till something strikes one, or should one draw from one’s own experience, or—or—?” “or’s” to match the “and’s.”

My dear young friends, I am afraid I cannot tell you. Everybody, it seems to me, has his or her own way, and as I said[Pg 94] at the beginning of this little paper, I think it must be best so.

But if you care to listen I will tell you my own way—or ways, though by no means with any idea that you would do well to follow my example.

A good rule

To me it seems, as a rule, that in writing stories for either old or young, the great thing is to make the acquaintance of your characters, and get to know them as well and intimately as you possibly can. Some of course take much more knowing than others; some are quickly read through; some are interesting because they are meant apparently not to be thoroughly known, and in this light you truthfully depict them, though this last class is hardly the type of character to be introduced into a story for children. I dare say you will think me very childish myself, when I tell you that I generally begin by finding names for all my personages. I marshal them before me and call the roll, to which each answers in turn, and then I feel I have my “troupe” complete, and I proceed to take them more in detail. I live with them as much as I can, often for weeks, before I have done more than write down their names. I listen to what they talk about to each other and in[Pg 95] their own homes, not with the intention of writing it down, but by way of, as I said, getting to know them well. And by degrees I feel them becoming very real. I can say to myself sometimes, when sitting idly doing nothing in particular, “Now whom shall I go to see for a little—the So-and-so’s, or little somebody?”—whatever the names may be that I have given; and so day by day I seem to be more in their lives, more able to tell how, in certain circumstances, my characters would comport themselves. And by degrees these circumstances stretch themselves out and take vague shape, which like the at first far-off and dimly perceived heights above one in climbing a mountain, grow distinct and defined as one approaches them more nearly. I seldom care to look very far ahead, though at the same time a certain grasp of the whole situation is, and has been, I think, there from the first. It never seems to me that my characters come into existence, like phantoms, merely for the time I want them. Rather do I feel that I am selecting certain incidents out of real lives. And this, especially in writing of children, seems to me to give substantiality and actuality to the little actors in the drama. I always feel as if somewhere the children I[Pg 96] have learnt to love are living, growing into men and women like my own real sons and daughters. I always feel as if there were ever so much more to hear about them and to tell about them if I liked to tell, and my readers to hear.

Unexpected suggestions

This general rule, however, of first getting to know your characters is not without exceptions. There are instances in which the most trivial incident or impression suggests a whole story—a glance at a picture, the words of a song, a picturesque name, the wind in an old chimney—anything or nothing will sometimes “start” the whole, and then the characters you need have to be sought for and thought about, and in some sense chosen for their parts. And these often entirely unexpected suggestions of a story are very valuable, and should decidedly, when they occur, be “made a note of.”

Remembrances of one’s own childhood, not merely of surroundings and events, but of one’s own inner childish life, one’s ways of looking at things, one’s queer perplexities and little suspected intensities of feeling, it is well to recall and dwell much upon. Not altogether or principally for the sake of[Pg 97] recording them directly, for a literal autobiography of oneself even up to the age of twelve would be much fitter reading for a child-loving adult than for children themselves (the “best” and most amusing anecdotes about children are seldom such as it would be wise to relate to their compeers); but because these memories revive and quicken the sympathy, which as time goes on, and we grow away from our childselves, cannot but to some extent be lost; such reminiscences put us “in touch” again with child-world. And constant, daily, unconstrained intercourse with children, even if the innocently egotistical inquiry, “Are you going to make a story about us?” may be honestly answered in the negative, is indirectly a great help and source of “inspiration.”

But if you have any serious intention of making stories for children a part of your life-work, beware of “waiting for inspiration,” as it is called. You must go at it steadily, nay, even plod at it, if you want to do good and consistent work, always remembering that your audience will be of the most critical, though all the better worth satisfying on that account. And rarely, if[Pg 98] ever, does work carefully and lovingly done meet with a sweeter reward than comes to the writer of children’s books when fresh young voices exclaim how interested they have been in perhaps the very story which had often filled its author with discouragement. For this “flattering unction” we may lay to our souls—neither Nellie nor Tom—assuredly not Tom—will say so if he and she do not really mean it!


Prof. A. J. Church

The historical novel

I must confess to having experienced a certain feeling of astonishment, not unmixed with alarm, when I was asked to write a paper on the “Historical Novel,” for the series “On the Art of Writing Fiction.” The phrase had an impressive sound. It reminded me of Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward, of Hypatia and Westward Ho! It seemed idle to think of such humble ventures as I had launched upon the world, in connection with the masterpieces of Scott and Kingsley. However, I comforted myself by reflecting that the[Pg 99] very humility and limitation of my experiences might make them useful to beginners.

I will try to be practical, but I am afraid that I shall have to be, at the same time, somewhat egotistic. If I can give any useful lessons, these must be drawn from my own practice.

Some business considerations

To begin at the beginning—what is the best size for the historical novel?—or, as we had better perhaps call it, historical tale? All my own have been of the one-volume kind, varying from fifty thousand to eighty thousand words, to employ the prosaic but useful measurement now in vogue among editors and publishers. And now, as my readers desire, I suppose, to earn their bread, or at least their butter, by writing, some business considerations may profitably come in. The demand for books in this country comes either from the circulating libraries or from private purchasers. It is the first of these only that, as a rule, buy the three or two volumed novel. There are a few exceptions, as, for example, Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere. Hence novels are commonly published at a fictitious price—a price, I mean, that bears no practical[Pg 100] relation to the cost of production, but is adapted to the circumstances of a temporary and limited demand. Some two score of writers, not of the first rank, have a public of readers sufficiently large to make such a demand on the libraries, that, at the fictitious price above described, a remunerative sale is obtained. A certain number of novels just pay their way. Many cost their authors sums more or less considerable. Now for the private purchaser. In the matter of buying books, the average Englishman, and still more the average Englishwoman, is parsimonious in the extreme. His or her purchases in this direction are commonly limited to a Bible, a Prayer-book, a book of devotion, possibly a volume of some popular author whom it is fashionable to have on one’s drawing-room table. Still, the average Englishman is not a stingy creature. He is generous in giving. Hence the books which he would not think of buying for himself, he will buy to give to others. Hence the institution of “Christmas Books.” After all, there is no present so easy, so convenient, so harmless, and so cheap as a book. Five shillings, and less, a sum for which one could not buy the cheapest of cheap jewellery, will purchase a quite respectable-looking[Pg 101] volume. And as Christmas is the time for giving presents, so Christmas is the time for selling books. It is a fact which any publisher dealing in this kind of ware will confirm, that books of precisely the same character and merit, published in May and October (for the Christmas book has to be finished in July, or even earlier, to be published in October), have a very different sale. And a book, to be sold in any numbers, must be a single volume. Of course publishers have overstocked the market. The supply of late years has enormously increased, and now surpasses any possible demand. Still the fact remains, that the most hopeful prospect for a young writer is to produce a one-volumed tale that will take its chance among the crowd of “Christmas books.” And here, I think, the “historical tale” has a somewhat better chance of success than most of its competitors. The father, the mother, the uncle, the aunt, who is choosing a present of this kind, will often give a preference to a book that behind its first and obvious purpose of amusing, has, or is supposed to have, another more or less latent purpose of instructing. There is also a very important demand for school prizes, and the “historical[Pg 102] tale” has a manifest fitness for supplying this.

Choice of subject

The dimensions of the book, then, being settled, the next question is, what shall be the subject? Greek and Roman history supply a large choice. And they have this advantage, that the authorities which have to be consulted are limited in number and extent. If I am writing a tale of the Athenian expedition against Syracuse, for instance, I know that the contemporary writers are few, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristophanes, two or three early Orators, while Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, and Cornelius Nepos may also be consulted as secondary authorities. Acquainted with these, one cannot be confronted with any neglected authors. Similarly, for a tale of the days of Nero, we have Seneca and the elder Pliny contemporary, and Tacitus nearly so, Suetonius and Plutarch a generation further off, and Dio Cassius more remote, but one who had access to good sources of information. Here again the limits are narrow. Still I could not recommend any one not well provided with classical scholarship to choose such a theme. There are numberless[Pg 103] pitfalls. Even authors of ability and repute are apt to fall into some of them. I have seldom, for instance, read a story of Roman life in which the names were not all confusion.

Technical knowledge necessary

Something of the same kind of technical knowledge would be wanted for a tale of Egyptian or Assyrian life. In these cases the interest is remote, and the preliminary knowledge required in the reader rare. Where nine people know something about Miltiades, or Pericles, or Alexander, Julius Cæsar, or Trajan, or Belisarius, scarcely one has ever heard of Rameses II., or Amenophis III., or Queen Hatasu.

Jewish history has a fascination; but the risk of falling below the standard of dignity required is vast.

Modern history

I suppose the general impulse will be to take some subject from modern, preferably from English history; nor do I doubt that on the whole this will be the best course for most of those for whom I am writing. The authorities are accessible, and with proper industry can be mastered. Besides industry, however, there must be facility of access. Private libraries do not contain the necessary books. And I must[Pg 104] warn my readers that to make sure of adequate acquaintance with any period of English history a very large amount of reading is needed. And if the acquaintance is not adequate, there are plenty of experts—and experts are commonly impatient of such frivolities as tales—ready to point out the fact.

Epochs of special interest, as, e.g., the War of the Roses, the struggle between Charles I. and his Parliament, the Revolution of 1688, the Jacobite rebellion, the Napoleonic wars, offer special attractions. As a rule, the more recent the time the easier it is to give an air of reality to the story.


It will often be found a good plan to take some locality with which the writer may happen to be well acquainted, to make this the scene of the story, and to group the characters and incidents about some distinguished person connected with the place. The story of Wyclif, for instance, in his latter days, might have the scene laid at Lutterworth.


Here comes in the question, How far is the distinguished person to take a part in the story? The answer will depend a good[Pg 105] deal upon who he is. A great soldier can be clearly introduced much more freely than a great poet. The speech of the man of action need not have anything very remarkable about it. It will suffice if it be concise and vigorous. A poet, on the contrary, must not be allowed to talk commonplaces. As a matter of fact, poets often do so talk—non semper arcum—but they must not do so in a tale-writer’s pages. If I were to write a story of Stratford-on-Avon, I should not venture to do more than let Shakespeare be seen in his garden.

Method of telling

This suggests the question, Should the story be told in the first person or the third? The first person is the more difficult to manage. Heroines, for instance, who tell their own stories are often, I have observed, sadly self-conscious and affected. They commonly begin by depreciating their own good looks, and then go on to tell us of the conquests which their plain faces make. Young heroes find it equally difficult to speak of themselves without either bragging or “’umbleness.” On the other hand, the first person, if tolerably well managed, allows greater freedom. I may be permitted to illustrate this by an experience of my[Pg 106] own. I once wrote a tale of which the hero is a young Royalist gentleman who fought for Charles I. This book being sent for review to one of the critical journals, came by some ill chance into the hands of an historical expert, who has a strong leaning to the Parliamentary side. The expert was pleased to say that I did not understand the nature of the struggle between Charles and his Parliament. He may have been right, but there was nothing in the book to show that I did not understand, for I had purposely made the young Cavalier tell his own story. A serene omniscient person writing in his study at Oxford doubtless knows all about it, about the belli causas et vitia et modos; but a hot-headed young man, who is supposed to give the impressions of the moment, fresh from exchanging blows with some equally hot-headed young Roundhead, being neither serene nor omniscient, is likely to know very little. The real mistake would have been to make him far-seeing and philosophical. The author will not escape the critics, at least if these are of the purblind expert sort, but he will have a good answer to them. And he will be able also to give a peculiar liveliness and a spirit to his narrative.[Pg 107] I remember a story, by the author of the Schönberg Cotta Family, unless my memory deceives me, in which the tale is told in letters by two persons alternately, these belonging to the factions opposing. But letters are not a happy vehicle for fiction, though they have been employed by more than one great master.


From the matter it is an easy transition to the question of style. In style it is impossible to be consistent or logical. If I write a tale of the first Jacobite Rebellion, I naturally make my characters talk as people talked in the early years of the eighteenth century. For this there are models in abundance, a few of the best kind. The Spectator papers, for instance, give a writer exactly what he wants in this respect. And if he wishes to see how admirably they can be imitated, let him study Thackeray’s Esmond, one of the very finest masterpieces of style that is to be found in English literature. Go a century back, and the task, if not quite so easy, is not difficult. The Authorised Version of the Bible is at hand for serious writing, and there are pamphlets and plays for what is lighter. A century more alters the case. Sir Thomas More’s[Pg 108] Utopia is available, but to model your style strictly on the Utopia would be to make it too archaic. This is, of course, even more true of time still earlier. The characters in a tale of Wat Tyler’s rebellion would be half unintelligible if they talked in the English of their day, supposing that English could be reproduced, in itself no easy matter. One has to take a standard that is really arbitrary, but still practically keeps the mean between the modern and the archaic. For pure dignified English it is impossible to have a better model than the Authorised Version, and it may be used even for times earlier than the seventeenth century.

The notion of a “whitewashing” some well-known historical character is attractive to a writer, but it commonly makes a book somewhat tiresome. Writing up this or that theological or ecclesiastical view is still more to be avoided. This, however, will not prevent the employment of dramatic presentation of partisan views.


You cannot be too careful about accessories, even of the most trifling character. I remember making the deplorable blunder of introducing forks among the[Pg 109] belongings of an Oxford student of the fifteenth century. They were not used till long after that time. With this eminently practical caution I will conclude my advice.


Prof. Robert K. Douglas

Romance ancient and modern

The ethical novel is a natural product of modern times. In the days when the world was young, men gave vent to their fancies in poetical romances, in which the deeds of gods, goddesses, and heroes formed the staple themes. Homer’s inspired verses and Eastern romances, in which gods in the intervals of their amours battle with demons for the possession of mankind, exist to remind us of the kind of heroic pageants which interested and entranced the warlike Greek and the swarthy warriors of Asia. As civilisation advanced, doubts crept in as to the very existence of the heroes in which earlier generations had delighted, and minstrels and writers descended from the clouds, and tuned their harps and guided their pens to record the doughty deeds of[Pg 110] their leaders on the hard-fought fields of their nations’ records. At such a time men desired rather to be startled and thrilled than to be taught to reflect and discriminate, and the old blood-and-thunder novel exactly suited their taste.


The history of painting runs a nearly parallel course with that of literature. Like fiction, the painter’s art received its first glowing inspirations from the current legends of celestial beings, and passed through successive stages until the comparatively modern phase was reached in which striking effects and startling situations became the principal stocks-in-trade. As in literature, this intermediate condition gave way to the expression of ideas rather than of physical force, and artists, like novelists, were led to aim at representing carefully drawn characters and suggestive surroundings. In the novels of the last century we see a gradual development of this stage of the novelist’s art. Any one who takes the trouble to compare Richardson’s Pamela with Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle, will recognise the advance which took its rise when Queen Anne sat on the throne, and which[Pg 111] has continued in obedience to the law of progress unchecked to the present day.

Early writers of ethical romance

A wide gulf, however, separates these writers from the novelists of the beginning of the nineteenth century. The whole method of Miss Edgeworth and Jane Austen, for example, is different from that employed by the earlier generation of authors. Instead of exciting interest by indelicacies and maintaining it by ribaldry, they sought to win attention by careful delineation of character and genuine humour. It was this new development of romance which made the ethical novel possible. Amid the hurly-burly of strife and the warlike deeds of gods and men, there was no room for philosophical musings or ethical teachings. But when the scenes were changed to ladies’ drawing-rooms, the parsonage-house, and the course of daily life, it became easy to point a moral while adorning a tale. Miss Edgeworth may claim to be the first writer of ethical romance, and in her quiet and humorous pages she succeeds in levelling many a home-thrust against the evils which beset her time. In her Castle Rackrent she lays bare the mischief of Irish extravagance and absenteeism, while in her Tales from Fashionable Life she holds up[Pg 112] to ridicule and scorn the empty frivolities and the manifest absurdities which pervaded the higher ranks of society. Jane Austen in a less obtrusive way succeeds in adding equally effective morals to her delightful stories. The bitter consequences which follow evil doings are plainly set out in her pages, and the needless misery inflicted by the indulgence of the mean passions is portrayed with singular felicity. It is, however, impossible not to recognise that both Miss Austen’s and Miss Edgeworth’s novels suffer, as works of art, by the prominent motives which guided the pens of their authors. It is not every one who is able so to subordinate the intended moral to the due working out of the story as in no way to interfere with the plot. The greatest novelists have unquestionably been those who set themselves directly to describe men and women as nature has made them, without any undue regard to the goal to which the instincts and actions of the characters may lead them. Sir Walter Scott is an instance in point. No one will deny the extent of the influence which he has exercised in all four continents of the world, and yet it is difficult to point to a single passage in his works in which he expressed any direct ethical teaching[Pg 113] Only once, so far as we recollect, he chose to tack a moral on to one of his novels, and that was when at the end of The Heart of Midlothian he addressed these words to the reader. “This tale will not be told in vain, if it shall be found to illustrate the great truth, that guilt, though it may attain temporal splendour can never confer real happiness; that the evil consequences of our crimes long survive their commission, and, like the ghosts of the murdered, forever haunt the steps of the malefactor; and that the paths of virtue, though seldom those of worldly greatness are always those of pleasantness and peace.”


It perhaps may be advanced in opposition to what has been said that Dickens, one of the greatest novelists of the century, wrote several of his novels with an ethical intention. But he was one of a happy few who wrote fiction, as Hogarth painted and drew moral lessons on his canvas, with a skill which excites the admiration of all those who rightly understand the difficulty of the task. Many artists have attempted to follow in Hogarth’s steps, and have failed ignominiously, just as writers without end have attempted to imitate the methods of[Pg 114] Dickens and have fallen lamentably short of their great exemplar. Who but Dickens could have drawn the pathetic picture of Oliver Twist, and the bumptious and ignorant tyranny of Bumble and the guardians without losing the perspective of the story which is so well maintained throughout. After all, however, his best novels are those which are written without any distinctly ethical motive. Pickwick Papers and Martin Chuzzlewit are unquestionably his masterpieces; and though Nicholas Nickleby dealt an effective blow at Yorkshire schools, and Bleak House pilloried the evils of the Court of Chancery, and Hard Times showed up the fallacies of the Manchester School, they all, as literary works of art, pay the penalty of the good that is in them.


Like his great contemporary, though in a very different style, Thackeray throughout his writings strove to enforce a sound ethical teaching as Mr. Leslie Stephen writes of him:—“In short his writings mean if they mean anything, that the love of a wife and child and friend is the one sacred element in our nature, of infinitely higher price than anything that[Pg 115] can come into competition with it; and that “Vanity Fair” is what it is precisely because it stimulates the pursuit of objects frivolous and unsatisfying just so far as they imply indifference to these emotions.

As every reader of Thackeray knows his pages are full of moralisings on the failings and faults of mankind. But only in one passage does he treat his subject in a directly ethical way. At the close of a long conversation between Warrington and Arthur, the latter is convicted of being an apostle of general scepticism and sneering acquiescence in the world as it is. “And to what does this easy and sceptical life lead a man?” adds the novelist. “Friend Arthur was a Sadducee, and the Baptist might be in the wilderness shouting to the poor, who were listening with all their might and faith to the preacher’s awful accents and denunciation of wrath or woe or salvation; and our friend the Sadducee would turn his sleek mule with a shrug and a smile from the crowd and go home to the shade of his terrace, and muse over preacher and audience, and turn to his roll of Plato or his pleasant Greek song-book babbling of honey and Hybla, and nymphs and fountains and love. To what we say does this scepticism lead? It leads a man[Pg 116] to a shameful loneliness and selfishness, so to speak—the more shameful because it is so good-humoured and conscienceless and serene. Conscience! What is Conscience? Why accept remorse? What is public or private faith? Mythuses alike enveloped in enormous tradition. If seeing and acknowledging the lives of the world, Arthur, as see them you can, with only too fatal a clearness, you submit to them without any protest farther than a laugh: if plunged yourself in easy sensuality, you allow the wretched world to pass groaning by you unmoved: if the fight for the truth is taking place, and all men of honour are on the ground armed on the one side or the other, and you alone are to lie on your balcony and smoke your pipe out of the noise and the danger, you had better have died, or never have been at all, than such a sensual coward.”

But for the most part Thackeray rather allows his ethical teachings to be implied than directly enforced. For every kind of meanness he has nothing but words of scathing scorn and all wrong doers and wrong doings he castigates with merciless indignation. He exposes all that is untrue with quiet and bitter sarcasm, and in the inimitable pictures which he draws of life[Pg 117] and character, indicates an honest and wholesome moral for all of those who care to discover it.

Charles Kingsley

Of a very different temper and disposition was that great ethical novelist Charles Kingsley. A devoted apostle of humanity he preached and spoke and wrote incessantly on the wrongs which he saw being inflicted on the weakest and least helpful of his fellow-men. The sight of contractors and manufacturers sweating their employés, and of starving their vital force by crowding them into unwholesome and insufficient rooms; of farmers beating their labourers down to the very lowest wages and of housing them in insanitary and in indecent cottages, roused his indignation to the full. In burning eloquence whether in the pulpit or on the platform or at his study table he denounced the oppression of the weak and the wrongs which were being inflicted on those who were least able to help themselves. His novels were, as his sermons, mainly directed to this great object. In them he tried to impress upon landlords and employers that their dependants were men and brothers, and with exquisite tenderness and sympathy he described over and[Pg 118] over again the horrors of those slums of which we hear so much now; of the evils of those door-posts which stand sentry over those squalid alleys, the gin palace and the pawnbroker’s shop.

Kingsley’s creed

But he had another lesson to teach, and there he sympathised with Thackeray. The sanctity of family life was to him a leading feature in his religion. As he writes in his dedicatory preface in Hypatia “family and national life are the two divine roots of the church, severed from which she is sure to wither away into that most godless and cruel of spectres, a religious world.” The neo-Platonism with which he was so strongly imbued introduced many strange mystic ideas into his religious and social creeds. That the human relations of husband and wife, and parent and child were eternal implied to his mind that they had existed from all time and would extend to the end of all things. They were therefore in his faith spiritual, sacramental, divine, eternal. The influence which his writings exercised on high and low, on rich and poor was great and far-reaching. He achieved, therefore, the one object he sought when he wrote Alton Locke and his other masterpieces. But it must be admitted that in the eagerness with which he[Pg 119] preached he forgot at times the novelist’s art, and though some of the passages in which he points his morals read almost as though they were inspired, there is not one of his novels which does not suffer from his ecstatic moods.

The novel of Reform

To men and women of sympathetic temperaments and ready pens, the temptation to sermonise on the evils and wrongs of the world around them must be well nigh irresistible, and what more easy and telling way can there possibly be than by haranguing their fellow-men in fiction! To seriously minded novelists, the unbelief which they see spreading like a flood about them, suggests at once an object-lesson romance, in which the heretical young curate who has strayed into the paths of Buddhism or wandered with the lost sheep into the by-ways of Deism or Dissent shall be restored to the true fold by arguments which are urged with the full energy of conviction and are combated with weak and halting rejoinders. The unprejudiced reader may consider the method faulty, and that art has been sacrificed to exposition, but the author and his friends insist on the public swallowing the dose with all the severity of Mrs. Squeers. The[Pg 120] English public are not altogether averse to the presence of a modicum of moral teaching, but they like to have the powder well concealed or only half revealed in the preserve of plot and interest, and have reason to complain if that which was meant to be the less proves to be equal to the whole.

The naturalistic school

Drunkenness and vice are often common themes of the ethical novelist. An older generation of writers devoted their energies to gibbeting the inequalities and maladministration of the laws; and to picturing the evils and cruelties of game preserving. Dickens, as we have seen, denounced in his novels the administration of the workhouse and the delays of the Courts of Chancery; and Charles Reade inveighed through the mouths of his characters against the Prison system and the Lunacy enactments. These motives are too abstract for the present-day novelist. He, or more commonly she, delights to descend from the general to the particular, and to follow the drunkard into the gin palace, and the most abandoned profligates into the lowest haunts of vice. These are unquestionable evils and should on all accounts be rather indicated than described[Pg 121] in detail. What good can it do to analyse and dwell upon every disgusting feature in a drunken debauch, and every prurient phase in the downward course of sin? The naturalistic school has much to answer for in this regard. Zola and his followers, especially his followers, have brought into fashion a style of novel which has become a plague spot in our civilisation, and through their instrumentality young girls and boys are, under the guise of moral teaching, made acquainted with forms of vice of which, but for their ethical teachers, they would be entirely ignorant. Subjects are now discussed in ladies’ drawing-rooms and at dinner-tables, which were never so much as hinted at a couple of decades ago. Blasphemous views of religion, theories of creation and evolution, analyses of the passions, and strange doctrines concerning the sexual instinct, are all discussed with a freedom which leaves little to the imagination. It is true that the authors bring the unholy subjects on the stage with the professed purpose of annihilating them one after the other; but as in the process sometimes followed by vivisectionists of introducing poisons into the system of the animals experimented on, for the purpose of proving[Pg 122] the effects of antidotes, it sometimes happens that the views of evil suggested in the sort of novel we are speaking of resist the counterbalancing influences of the moral strictures of the authors. In a recent number of the Nineteenth Century Mr. Frederick Greenwood describes a novel up to date which an authoress has been induced much against her will to write, and in which she appears in the frontispiece covering her face with her hands for very shame, and on the last page is represented kneeling at her infant’s bed praying for forgiveness. If all who wrote on the unsavoury subjects indicated by Mr. Greenwood observed the attitude of his authoress we should see little of the features of a good many ladies who are at present evidently quite unconscious of any desire to veil their countenances. Such writers are bad enough, but a lower level is reached by those who deliberately write on more than risky matters because they pay. It is difficult to exchange compliments with such mercenary providers of social garbage, and they are best left to the rebukes of such consciences as they possess.

[Pg 123]

Evils of modern fiction

Naturalism and irreverence are unquestionably the crying evils of modern fiction. And it by no means follows that they are essential to the construction of the ethical novel. Mr. Leslie Stephen has said that to be a good writer a man must be a preacher; and surely there are enough subjects to preach about without touching on unsavoury topics. Are not men and women prone to faults of character, besides those of unlawful passion and open rebellion against God; and are there not social wrongs and inequalities to be inveighed against. It is not every one who can hope to see a palace arise in response to a discourse on the evils which beset all sorts and conditions of men, but every novelist worthy of his fame can do something to warn his fellow-men of the faults and failings which lead to the downward paths of sin and misery, and to throw a light on the way of those who are fighting manfully for all that is true, honest, and of good report.

[Pg 124]


L. T. Meade

A practical point

I feel a particular pleasure in writing this paper. In the articles which have preceded mine, valuable hints have been given for the guidance of the fictionist. Broad rules have been laid down, and some of that personal experience, far more valuable than mere empty rules, has been related for the benefit of the student. I have written stories of all sorts, and can endorse the excellence of the suggestions given. But in this paper I want to touch on a very practical point indeed, namely, how best the fiction writer, when he has produced his work, can dispose of it.

To effect this most desirable end, he has got to please either a publisher or an editor. I have had a great deal to do with publishers, and find them most kind and encouraging when they are approached in a proper business spirit. But as I am not a publisher, and have been an editor, I can perhaps best help my readers by telling them a few of my own experiences during several years.

[Pg 125]

Writing for magazines

Articles of all sorts, written by all classes of people, are offered to magazines. A comparatively small number are accepted, for the simple reason that a magazine can only hold a certain amount of letter-press; and not all the cramming and pushing and squeezing in the world will allow an extra line to be printed, if the pages of the magazine are already full.

This patent fact is quite forgotten by would-be contributors, who feel themselves aggrieved when this most truthful reason is given for the return of their articles. In exceptional cases of striking brilliancy room of course is made for the article, but brilliant articles, like brilliant people, interfere but seldom with the ordinary routine. Magazines, however, are so numerous that the chances of average work being accepted become greater day by day, and as there is no better opening for a young writer than to become a contributor to a good magazine, he ought to leave no stone unturned to effect this desirable end. By so doing, he has the opportunity of having his work immediately presented to an assured public. A book, however clever, has to find its own public, and this—except in a few cases—is a slow and laborious process. It is a mistaken[Pg 126] idea that books are sold in thousands. This is only the case with authors who have made a very wide reputation. The magazine is, therefore, the best opening for the young writer, and the sooner he knows the right way to set to work to get his articles taken, the better.

Pitfalls to avoid

Primarily, of course, he must have the necessary talent, or, at least, the knack of gauging popular taste, but, granted that he possesses this important gift, it is well for him to know certain pitfalls into which he may stumble.

To quote from my own Editorial experience may be the best method of showing some of these.

Rejected contributions

A contribution like the following was not accepted, although the author had a great deal of learning, and other valuable qualifications to recommend him. An epic poem to run as a serial through six months of the magazine—to occupy six pages monthly, printed double column; the subject to be devoted to a description of Indian life. For quite different reasons the following proposal was also rejected—a series of six papers on “Rogues,” in which every type of wickedness was elaborately discussed. Neither of these subjects[Pg 127] was in the least suitable for the magazine to which they were offered, and the writers who sent them made the grand mistake of knowing nothing of the periodical to which they offered their contributions. Their work, however excellent it may have been, was useless to us, and a glance at our magazine would have told them this, for themselves.

Different classes of contributors

Another class of would-be contributor is the utterly silly person who thinks that it would be great fun to have something in print, and imagines that this desirable result can be attained with no labour or previous study. On a certain summer’s afternoon, my co-editor and I were startled by hearing violent giggles outside the office door. Presently two blushing, rosy-faced girls entered. The spokeswoman said she didn’t know our magazine at all—she had never written anything before in her life, but she and her friend thought they would like to make an attempt, if we would give them something to do. We were to suggest a subject, they did not mind in the least what they wrote about. I need scarcely say that the services of these accomplished ladies were not secured.

The obtuse

The obtuse, though earnest-minded aspirant[Pg 128] is also a hopeless example. Her utter lack of perception as to what is necessary for periodical literature makes it useless to argue with her, and hopeless to advise her. I recall a case in point. I was asked to give advice on the desirability of the applicant’s resigning a good post as resident governess with a large salary, in favour of literature.

I inquired if she had had much experience as a writer, and if she had been encouraged by the success of her books.

The lady in question stared at me with round eyes.

“I have never printed a word in my life,” she said; “but I am tired of teaching, and should like to take up literature. I have brought a little article with me, which you may care to see. The subject I am sure ought to interest—it is on Hamlet.”

I gently begged my would-be contributor not to throw up the certainty of earning a comfortable living as a governess until she had tested her powers a little further. I promised to read her expositions on Hamlet, and she withdrew. I need scarcely say what the result of my perusal was.

An amateur’s treatment of Hamlet was scarcely likely to possess anything fresh to recommend it. I was obliged to return the[Pg 129] Paper with the mildest of hints that this subject was rather used up. Why must beginners in the great Art of Literature try to give their puny ideas on those giant problems over which the greatest minds have thought and puzzled, and thought and puzzled in vain? Nobody wants their poor little ideas, which are after all only feeble reflections of the thoughts of greater minds. Such papers are only suited for Amateur Essay Societies.

Three requisites

Equally silly are the writers who choose hackneyed topics that have been discussed and worn threadbare years ago. Such is the writer who offers a series of twelve Papers on the Higher Education of Women, or Woman’s Suffrage, or the Poetry of Wordsworth. The Papers that find favour with Editors must first be fresh as regards Subject, second, be fresh as regards Style, third, fresh as regards Idea. The writer who possesses this triple gift, requires no further hints to tell him how and where to succeed. Success with him is a certainty.

What not to do

Perhaps the best way to emphasise the above remarks is to tell my readers what to do and what not to do.

Do not send an article to a magazine until[Pg 130] you have first looked through at least one of its numbers; carefully observe its tone, try to gather for yourself what its motive is, and to what sort of public it appeals. If after a short or a long perusal you discover that you and it are not in touch—that its scope is too wide for you, or your thoughts are too big for its limits, leave it alone, and try your luck somewhere else.

When you write, don’t fly too high. Get a subject into your head and feel that, small as this subject may be, you have something either useful or amusing to say about it.

Do not write a poem on April, and send it for insertion in the April number of a magazine on the day that number issues from the press. This has been a constant experience in my Editorial life. Try to remember, if you know it already, and try to learn the fact if you do not, that magazines take a certain number of days to print, and that, as a rule, the number is practically made up weeks, and sometimes months before publication.

False humility

When you offer a contribution to sin Editor, do not have resource to a sort of false humility, which some writers are fond of adopting. For instance, I have[Pg 131] received letters with offers of verses which the writer deprecates as “unworthy of publication, and only fit for the waste-paper basket,” nevertheless, I am expected to read them, and give a critical opinion, because the friends of the writer in question have urged him or her as the case may be, to forward them. This false humility is always prejudicial to the would-be contributor.

Be business-like

In offering contributions be as terse and business-like as possible. Editors have hearts, and sometimes these hearts are made to ache pretty considerably. But first and foremost an Editor, if he is a good one, must be business-like. He has to place the interests of the magazine before your private wants, however pressing and painful they may be to yourself. I feel that I am saying cruel things when I write like this, but they are true, and if I would really help you, you must know the truth.

There would be no magazines worth reading if MSS. were accepted on such pleas, and yet they are constantly being urged.

Try to think of yourself as a merchant who has something of value for sale. The Editor represents the public, who want to[Pg 132] buy. He will quickly appreciate you if he sees that you can give him what his readers want, and, believe me, he will never care for you, as a writer, on any other grounds, whatever.

“My dear,” an old lady and a very celebrated author said to me many years ago, “please bear one fact in mind. Your Publisher or your Editor may love you as well as himself, but he will never love you better.”

Now the Editor or Publisher who takes unsuitable work from a mere sense of pity, inevitably courts financial disaster, and he can scarcely be expected to love the would-be contributor to that extent.


I should like to say a word here with regard to Introductions. Many people who wish to write have an idea that an introduction from a successful author is “Open Sesame!” to the world of literature. This is a vast mistake. You stand or fall on your own merits, and on those only. The utmost your influential friends can do for you is to get your MS. looked at. If it is silly or unsuitable, back it goes just as surely as if it had not been supported by any great name. This is a fact which is worth knowing.

[Pg 133]

I am afraid I must mention one more don’t.

One last don’t

Don’t send a MS. to a very busy Editor, with the remark that you know it is unsuitable, but you would be so much obliged if he would read it carefully, and give you his candid opinion as to whether you have got the literary faculty or not. Editors are usually kind-hearted, and don’t like to refuse requests of this sort. But do the people who worry them with ill-written, bulky and all but illegible MSS., realise what a large demand they are making upon valuable time, and by what right they demand a professional opinion from, in many cases, a total stranger? The same people would be much shocked if they were told that they expected advice from their doctor or lawyer for nothing, and yet the Author or Editor who has amassed his knowledge through years of patient toil, must give it away to any one who has the impertinence to ask for it. I feel strongly on this point, for in very truth it is, as a rule, casting pearls before swine, as those who could be really helped with advantage are generally far too modest to ask for such assistance.

[Pg 134]

The short story

I should recommend all those fiction-writers who are anxious to obtain magazine work, to turn their attention to the short complete story, and to avoid for many a day all attempts at Serial fiction. A Short Story, if good, is likely to find a market somewhere—but then it must be good—by this I mean terse and full of plot, without a single unnecessary word, and with the whole range of subject clearly mapped out in the author’s mind before a word is written. The short story can be a character sketch, although this is very often intensely stupid, and has a by-way of clever air about it, which quickly vanishes as you approach it, or it can be a good exciting incident with plenty of movement.

The “pretty-pretty” school

For Heaven’s sake don’t let your friends say of your short story, “How pretty!” The “goody-goody” school has had its day, and is laughed out of fashion, but the “pretty-pretty” still flourishes in full vigour, though in its own way it is quite as objectionable. Avoid mere prettiness as you do all those things which lead to destruction. The merely pretty writer gets weaker and weaker the older he grows, until at last he is sheer inanity. It is a good plan to be in a certain[Pg 135] sense a specialist, and to take up a line which has not already been done to death. Whatever you are, be true; write about things you know of; don’t sit in your drawing-room and invent an impossible scene in a London garret. If you want to talk of hunger and cold and the depths of sordid privation, go at least and see them, if you cannot feel them. Don’t write high-flown sentiments. It would be far more interesting to the world if you told quite simply what you really know. Tell of the life that you have lived—let others see it from your point of view. Each one who has the power to write has also a lesson to deliver. However small that lesson may be tell it with simplicity. If it rings true, you have done your part well.

It is a good plan to avoid morbid writing. This is a failing often to be seen in the works of the very young. Be as cheerful as you can; we want all the sunshine we can get.

Fiction as a profession

If you want to take up fiction as a profession, write a little bit every day, whether you are in the mood or not. Put your story into a frame—by this I mean make up your mind in advance what length it[Pg 136] shall be, and stick to that length, whether you feel inclined to go farther or not. This is very good practice.

Methods of work

Try, if possible, to see the end of your story before you begin to write it. This is a good plan, for it keeps the motive clear and unwavering. It is also the surest way of exciting a strong interest. Avoid long descriptive bits, more particularly descriptions of scenery. You need to be a Richard Jeffries to do your scenery descriptions so that other people shall see them, shall feel the breezes blowing, and hear the singing of the birds. To write in this style is a special gift, given to very few.

Character drawing

I have always found in writing my own stories, that there came a certain point when the characters ceased to be machines, and began to live. They were flesh and blood, creations as real as those I lived with. I hated some of them, and loved others. All those characters that remained merely puppets I eliminated from the story; they were useless to its progress, they took from its effect. When your characters become alive to you, as they will to all those who have even the slightest touch of inspiration in writing, you will find a strange thing[Pg 137] happen. They will begin to dominate you, not you them. They will grow in spite of you, and take a certain direction and fulfil their destinies just as surely as if they really lived. You may wish to make a villain of a certain character, but in spite of you he may turn out a saint or vice-versâ. This is a mystery which I cannot pretend to account for, but I think all fiction writers have felt it more or less. And what is more, the better and stronger the story grows, the more will the characters dominate their author, and turn him whither they will.

Daily practice

Inspiration is the grandest of all gifts for the fiction writer, but he must not suppose that it comes daily, and if he never writes except when he thinks it has visited him, he will seldom or never write at all. Again I repeat that daily practice in writing is the best of all training. It is wonderful how this daily practice overcomes difficulties, one by one. How supple the mind becomes, how easy is the flow of language, how completely the writer masters the difficult problem of concentration of thought.

But I could go on talking indefinitely and, after all, although a few broad rules are[Pg 138] necessary and useful, each man must be his own teacher—each life must inculcate its own lessons, and bring forth its own fruit.

“The end crowns all”

If to ability is added courage, and to courage perseverance, you will succeed; and I hope to shake hands with you in spirit over the good work you have accomplished.


Printed by Ballantyne, Hanson & Co.
London & Edinburgh.

Transcriber’s Notes