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Source global Wall Street Journal     time 2022-01-14 21:29:34
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Vixi puellis nuper idoneus,

But my book, though it was right in its views on this subject — and wrong in none other as far as I know — was not a good book. I can recommend no one to read it now in order that he may be either instructed or amused — as I can do that on the West Indies. It served its purpose at the time, and was well received by the public and by the critics.

On my return home I received £400 from Messrs. Chapman & Hall for Doctor Thorne, and agreed to sell them The Bertrams for the same sum. This latter novel was written under very vagrant circumstances — at Alexandria, Malta, Gibraltar, Glasgow, then at sea, and at last finished in Jamaica. Of my journey to the West Indies I will say a few words presently, but I may as well speak of these two novels here. Doctor Thorne has, I believe, been the most popular book that I have written — if I may take the sale as a proof of comparative popularity. The Bertrams has had quite an opposite fortune. I do not know that I have ever heard it well spoken of even by my friends, and I cannot remember that there is any character in it that has dwelt in the minds of novel-readers. I myself think that they are of about equal merit, but that neither of them is good. They fall away very much from The Three Clerks, both in pathos and humour. There is no personage in either of them comparable to Chaffanbrass the lawyer. The plot of Doctor Thorne is good, and I am led therefore to suppose that a good plot — which, to my own feeling, is the most insignificant part of a tale — is that which will most raise it or most condemn it in the public judgment. The plots of Tom Jones and of Ivanhoe are almost perfect, and they are probably the most popular novels of the schools of the last and of this century; but to me the delicacy of Amelia, and the rugged strength of Burley and Meg Merrilies, say more for the power of those great novelists than the gift of construction shown in the two works I have named. A novel should give a picture of common life enlivened by humour and sweetened by pathos. To make that picture worthy of attention, the canvas should be crowded with real portraits, not of individuals known to the world or to the author, but of created personages impregnated with traits of character which are known. To my thinking, the plot is but the vehicle for all this; and when you have the vehicle without the passengers, a story of mystery in which the agents never spring to life, you have but a wooden show. There must, however, be a story. You must provide a vehicle of some sort. That of The Bertrams was more than ordinarily bad; and as the book was relieved by no special character, it failed. Its failure never surprised me; but I have been surprised by the success of Doctor Thorne.

October 9th, 1867.

And the dialogue, on which the modern novelist in consulting the taste of his probable readers must depend most, has to be constrained also by other rules. The writer may tell much of his story in conversations, but he may only do so by putting such words into the mouths of his personages as persons so situated would probably use. He is not allowed for the sake of his tale to make his characters give utterance to long speeches, such as are not customarily heard from men and women. The ordinary talk of ordinary people is carried on in short, sharp, expressive sentences, which very frequently are never completed — the language of which even among educated people is often incorrect. The novel-writer in constructing his dialogue must so steer between absolute accuracy of language — which would give to his conversation an air of pedantry, and the slovenly inaccuracy of ordinary talkers, which if closely followed would offend by an appearance of grimace — as to produce upon the ear of his readers a sense of reality. If he be quite real he will seem to attempt to be funny. If he be quite correct he will seem to be unreal. And above all, let the speeches be short. No character should utter much above a dozen words at a breath — unless the writer can justify to himself a longer flood of speech by the specialty of the occasion.

Caesar (Ancient Classics), 16 1870 0 0 0

Caesar (Ancient Classics), 16 1870 0 0 0

Early in 1858, while I was writing Doctor Thorne, I was asked by the great men at the General Post Office to go to Egypt to make a treaty with the Pasha for the conveyance of our mails through that country by railway. There was a treaty in existence, but that had reference to the carriage of bags and boxes by camels from Alexandria to Suez. Since its date the railway had grown, and was now nearly completed, and a new treaty was wanted. So I came over from Dublin to London, on my road, and again went to work among the publishers. The other novel was not finished; but I thought I had now progressed far enough to arrange a sale while the work was still on the stocks. I went to Mr. Bentley and demanded £400 — for the copyright. He acceded, but came to me the next morning at the General Post Office to say that it could not be. He had gone to work at his figures after I had left him, and had found that £300 would be the outside value of the novel. I was intent upon the larger sum; and in furious haste — for I had but an hour at my disposal — I rushed to Chapman & Hall in Piccadilly, and said what I had to say to Mr. Edward Chapman in a quick torrent of words. They were the first of a great many words which have since been spoken by me in that back-shop. Looking at me as he might have done at a highway robber who had stopped him on Hounslow Heath, he said that he supposed he might as well do as I desired. I considered this to be a sale, and it was a sale. I remember that he held the poker in his hand all the time that I was with him — but in truth, even though he had declined to buy the book, there would have been no danger.


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