AN ENGLISH DISCIPLE OF ZOLA.*
WI= we say that this novel, both in matter and manner, reminds us very strongly of the work of M. Emile Zola, it is needless to add that it contains much that is unsavoury, and not a little that is positively revolting. Were this all that could be said of it, we should, of course, content ourselves with the very few words which would be necessary for a strong expression of distaste; but A 21Immeler's 117;fe has other qualities than simple unpleasantness, and in virtue of its vividness of presentation and real literary skill, it may be regarded as in some degree a representative example of the work of a literary school that has of late years attracted to itself a good deal of the notoriety which is a very useful substitute for fame. Its • A Mummer's Wife. By George Moore. London : Yizetelly and Co. 1884.
merits and its defects are both outcomes of that so-called "realism " which we are asked to admire as the bright consummate flower of contemporary imaginative art.
Though Mr. Moore's story abounds in what the language of the stage calls " business "—that is, in elaborated detail and quick movement—its main structural lines are simple enough, and it lends itself readily to a brief summary. We are introduced in the first chapter to Ralph and Kate Ede, a young married couple of the lower middle-class. Ede keeps a small draper's shop; and his wife, who has been a dressmaker, continues after her marriage to follow her calling, which can be profitably pursued in connection with her husband's business. Erie's health is delicate, for he is a sufferer from confirmed asthma—an attack of which is described with sickeningly realistic minuteness in this very chapter—and his frequent enforced absences from his place behind the counter have necessarily involved unfortunate pecuniary results. In spite of Kate Ede's industry, things are not very flourishing with herself and her husband ; and after considerable consultation they resolve to find a lodger for a little parlour and bedroom which they can manage to spare. An application for the rooms is made by a Mr. Dick Lennox, a prominent member of a theatrical company which is paying a brief visit to the town ; but Ralph's mother, Mrs. Ede senior, who lives with her son and daughter-in-law, and who has a religious horror of the stage and every one connected with it, makes an indignant protest against the reception of a godless playactor into a Christian household. Her son shares her feeling to some extent, but his resentment at what he considers his mother's dictation is so much stronger than his Puritan principles that he decides in favour of Mr. Lennox ; while Kate, to whom the stranger is a being from an altogether new world, looks forward to his appearance with a feeling of timid, wondering, and yet delightful expectancy. The actor accordingly takes possession of the rooms, and is waited upon by Kate, to whom he speedily begins to pay attentions, which half-frighten and half-fascinate her. The fear, however, quickly yields to the fascination ; every day the actor's advances have more of passion and less of propriety ; and when, at the end of its short engagement, his company travels on to another town, and he has to bid Kate farewell, neither intends that it shall be a final parting. Left thus to herself, the surrounding world of prosaic fact, which much reading of morbidly sentimental fiction has made distasteful to her, becomes more repellent than ever. She returns to the cheap romances which since her marriage she has abandoned, and constructs similar romances of her own, with herself for a heroine, and a hero who closely resembles the absent Dick. In a few months the company returns, and Dick Lennox comes back to his old rooms, bringing with him a little pair of diamond earrings, which Kate dare not wear, but which are a delightful proof that she has not been forgotten. It now becomes evident that her fate is sealed. She yields herself unreservedly to her lover's caresses, pays surreptitious visits to the theatre ; and at the last of these stolen meetings, which takes place the night before the departure of the company, she decides to go home no more, but to fly with Dick. The flight is accomplished ; and she travels about with the company until such time as she hears that Ralph Ede has got a divorce. She is now a free woman, and is about to become a mother, so Dick, who is not altogether devoid of principle, and who is, in his way, really fond of the woman who has forsaken her home for him, gives her the right to bear his name, and Kate becomes " a mummer's wife." But her self-respect has gone. She has no real repentance, hardly even remorse, but a feeling of miserable discomfort at the thought of having done " something wicked." Then, too, she is consumed by constantly recurring jealousies, for the most part baseless, as Dick, in spite of his sensual temperament, is not inconstant ; and in such surroundings as hers the artificial stimulus of drink has an irresistible fascination. The evil appetite quickly grows, and before her baby is born she has become completely enslaved. The child dies, killed by its mother's neglect, and from that day Kate's progress on the downward road becomes increasingly rapid. Her jealousy becomes more irrational and more ungovernable, her fits of violent intoxication more frequent; and Dick, whose life she attempts in a paroxysm of fury, is compelled to leave her, making her, however, an allowance sufficient for her real needs. As a matter of course, Kate sinks lower and lower, her constitution breaks down, and at last death finds her in a cheap London lodging, to which she has been driven as a final shelter.
We have tried to tell the story in such a manner as to veil its more offensive features, upon which, indeed, it would, in a journal appealing to general readers, be impossible to dwell but it will not be difficult to imagine the manner in which theabove outline is filled-in by a writer in whom the instinct of decent reticence is altogether dormant. Quotation of any of the passages which give to the book its special quality is, of course,. out of the question ; and we can only say that it consists of a series of studies of moral and physical disease, in which everysymptom is described with a fullness and realisableness of detail that is, in the most literal sense of the word, simply nauseating. There are some books which a healthy-minded critic feels almost compelled to ignore, because even his censure will probably have only the effect of exciting prurient curiosity; but A Mummer's Wife is calculated rather to upset the healthy stomach than to excite the unhealthy appetite. The books which" inflict the greatest amount of moral injury are those which, though devoid of quotable outrages against morality or decency, are surrounded by an atmosphere of suggestiveness ; but Mr. Moore's story is like a picture with no atmosphere, and he tells so much that little is left to be suggested. We can, indeed, imagine the author quoting in his own defence the well-known couplet,—
for assuredly vice in his pages is even loathsome in its hideousness, and he has not gone out of his way to invest with adventitious attractiveness the sins with which he deals. Roses and, raptures are not without a place in his record ; but there are plenty of thorns and torments; and assuredly if art, literary or pictorial, fulfils its true mission in photographic presentation of the details of sensuality and sottishness, it is well that such presentation should have the photographic veracity which allows no item of ugliness or foulness to escape.
But that such presentation is the true mission of art, or any part of that mission, is the very thing which we emphatically deny ; and we are content to let our judgment of such a book as A Mummer's Wife stand or fall with our success or failure in justifying such denial. Of course, if we are allowed to assumethe truth of the old axiom that the end of art is pleasure, our task is easy enough ; for as the objects portrayed by the new school of realists are admittedly unpleasant in themselves, a representation of them must needs be also unpleasant in proportion to its veracity and realiseabiness. We know as a psychological' fact that imagination can produce physical effects identical with those of actual sensation ; and if, for example, a writer be skilful enough to describe an offensive smell in such a manner as to impress vividly on the imagination the peculiar quality of its noisomeness, the description will produce in a sensitive organism just the same feeling of physical nausea which would be produced by the smell itself. Now, a book like A Mummer's Wife may be described—and that the description is not wholly figurative we could easily show were quotation possible—as a collection of offensive smells. Howsoever repellent it may be to the moral sense, it is even more emphatically repellent to the physical sense ; and with the greater part of the disgust which it excites morality has nothing to do. Unless it can be regarded as a pleasure to be compelled to witness the most revolting accessories of disease and debauchery, Mr. Moore's book stands condemned by the most universally accepted canon of art.
Probably, however, Mr. Moore does not accept the canon in question ; indeed, it is an amusing peculiarity of M. Zola and the members of his school that they profess to " scorn delights,. and live laborious days " as apostles of truth and morality. Signor de Amicis, a sympathetic critic of the work of Mr. Moore's master, says that the perusal of Zola's fictions is "like finding truth for the first time ;" and goes on to declare that the author of Nana is "one of the most moral novelists in France." Now, as Mr. Moore, in a really able manner, pays M. Zola the compliment of almost servile imitation, we may assume that he has identical aims—that his chief end is the teaching of morality, and that he endeavours to achieve this end by delinea; tions of unflinching and uncompromising veracity. Proceeding upon this assumption, the first remark that suggests itself is that in the matter of morality A Mummer's Wife is a book of great cry and little wool. In what may be called moral atmosphere• it is, of course, altogether deficient, for such an atmosphere is produced by the selective process, which is to the realists am offence against truth ; and the special " morals" which are tcs
be gathered from its pages are somewhat thin and unstimulating. It is doubtless true that an unhealthy exercise of the imagination conduces to moral flabbiness, that when a woman loses her self-respect she loses her chief safeguard, that drunkenness is a degrading vice, that jealousy is a formidable foe to love, and that evil communications corrupt good manners; but these truths, though doubtless important, are so elementary that sufficient justice seems to be done to them when they are made the subject of copy-book headings. It may, indeed, be urged—and there is much force in the plea—that just because these things have become commonplaces they have ceased to be vividly apprehended, and that when a work of art can restore such vivid apprehension it performs a real service. This is quite true ; but then it is necessary that this vitalisation of commonplace should not be gained by the sacrifice of something still more precious; and this something assuredly is sacrificed when, for the sake of enforcing a mere ethical proposition, the moral nature is exposed to contamination by prolonged imaginative companionship with the very evil against which the moral warning is directed. Familiarity breeds contempt of evil as well as of good ; and contempt for an enemy is apt to prove a dangerous emotion. We have always a certain safeguard against any special vice while it remains alien to us, not in practice alone, but in imaginative comprehension ; and a book which forces such comprehension upon us must of necessity do something to deaden the moral sensibilities. It is all very well to say that an elaborately-painted picture of vice is harmless if the vice be not made attractive; but as a matter of fact, vice is attractive, or no one would be vicious, and a " realist " of Mr. Moore's kind is bound to paint its attractions as well as its penalties. We have admitted that Mr. Moore does not go out of his way in search of these things ; but then they are in his way, and his realism must find a place for them. The boast of authors of his class is that they do not write for young girls. We should hope not. We presume, however, that they write for young men ; and we can only say that the moral miasma of the long-drawn story of Kate Ede's seduction, with its unctuous episodes of stolen embraces, will hardly be rendered harmless to such readers by any number of " moral lessons," howsoever vividly enforced. But we have said enough. A Mummer's Wife is a bad book ; and, as it is clever as well, would be a dangerous book, were it not for the physical nastiness which has, happily, no element of attraction.