But recognition by one’s equals and betters in one’s own craft is a reward of which a man may be unashamedly proud—as proud as I am of the honour that comes to me to-night from your hands. For I know with whom you have seen fit to brigade me in the ranks of Literature. The fiction that I am worthy of that honour be upon your heads!
Yet, at least, the art that I follow is not an unworthy one. For Fiction is Truth’s elder sister. Obviously. No one in the world knew what truth was till someone had told a story. So it is the oldest of the arts, the mother of history, biography, philosophy dogmatic (or doubtful, Lord Balfour), and, of course, of politics.
Fiction began when some man invented a story about another man. It developed when another man told tales about a woman. This strenuous epoch begat the first school of destructive criticism, as well as the First Critic, who spent his short but vivid life in trying to explain that a man need not be a hen to judge the merits of an omelette. He died; but the question he raised is still at issue. It was inherited by the earliest writers from their unlettered ancestors, who also bequeathed to them the entire stock of primeval plots and situations—those fifty ultimate comedies and tragedies to which the Gods mercifully limit human action and suffering.
This changeless aggregate of material workers in fiction through the ages have run into fresh moulds, adorned and adapted to suit the facts and the fancies of their own generation. The Elizabethans, for instance, stood on the edge of a new and wonderful world filled with happy possibilities. Their descendants, 350 years later, have been shot into a world as new and as wonderful, but not quite as happy. And in both ages you can see writers raking the dumps of the English language for words that shall range farther, hit harder, and explode over a wider area than the service-pattern words in common use.
This merciless search, trial, and scrapping of material is one with the continuity of life which, we all know, is as a tale that is told, and which writers feel should be well told. All men are interested in the reflection of themselves and their surroundings, whether in the pure heart of a crystal or in a muddy pool; and nearly every writer who supplies a reflection secretly desires a share of immortality for the pains he has been at in holding up the mirror—which also reflects himself. He may win his desire. Quite a dozen writers have achieved immortality in the past 2500 years. From a bookmaker’s—a real bookmaker’s—point of view the odds are not attractive, but Fiction is built on fiction. That is where it differs from the other Arts.
Most of the Arts admit the truth that it is not expedient to tell everyone everything. Fiction recognises no such bar. There is no human emotion or mood which it is forbidden to assault—there is no canon of reserve or pity that need be respected—in fiction. Why should there be? The man, after all, is not telling the truth. He is only writing fiction. While he writes it, his world will extract from it just so much of truth or pleasure as it requires for the moment. In time a little more, or much less, of the residue may be carried forward to the general account, and there, perhaps, diverted to ends of which the writer never dreamed.
Take a well-known instance. A man of overwhelming intellect and power goes scourged through life between the dread of insanity and the wrath of his own soul warring with a brutal age. He exhausts mind, heart, and brain in that battle: he consumes himself, and perishes in utter desolation. Out of all his agony remains one little book, his dreadful testament against his fellow-kind, which to-day serves as a pleasant tale for the young under the title of Gulliver’s Travels. That, and a faint recollection of some baby-talk in some love-letters, is as much as the world has chosen to retain of Jonathan Swift, Master of Irony. Think of it! It is like tuning-down the glare of a volcano to light a child to bed!
The true nature and intention, then, of a writer’s work does not lie within his own knowledge. And we know that the world makes little allowance for any glory of workmanship which a writer spends on material that does not interest. So it would seem that Fiction is one of the few “unsheltered” occupations, in that there is equal victimisation on both sides, and no connection between the writer’s standard of life, his output, or his wages.
Under these conditions has grown up in England a literature lavish in all aspects—lavish with the inveterate unthrift of the English, who are never happy unless they are throwing things away. By virtue of that same weakness, or strength, it overlaps so sumptuously that one could abstract and bestow from the mere wastage of any literary age since Chaucer’s enough of abundance and enjoyment to quicken half a world. Those who study in the treasure-houses of its past know what unregarded perfection of workmanship and what serene independence of design often went to fabricate the least among those treasures. And they know, also, the insolence of the greatest Masters, who were too pressed to wait on perfection in their haste to reveal to us some supreme jewel scarcely cleansed from the matrix. Our English literature, I think, has always been the expression of a race more anxious to deliver what was laid upon it than to measure the means and methods of delivery.
And this immense and profligate range of experience, invention, and passion is our incommunicable inheritance, which is drawn upon at every need, for multitudes who, largely, neither know nor care whence their need is met.
In every age some men gain temporary favour because they happen to have met a temporary need of their age. Yet, as regards their future, they stand on a perfect equality with their fellow-craftsmen. It is not permitted to any generation to know what, or how much, of its effort will be carried forward to the honour and grace of our literature. The utmost a writer can hope is that there may survive of his work a fraction good enough to be drawn upon later, to uphold or to embellish some ancient truth restated, or some old delight reborn.
Admitting this, a man may, by the exercise of a little imagination, persuade himself that he has acquired merit in his lifetime. Or, if imagination be lacking, he may be led to that comfortable conclusion by the magic of his own art heard as we have heard it from Lord Balfour to-night, on, the lips of a man wise in life, and a Master not ignorant of the power of words.