HOW MY MOTHER GOT HER SOFT FACE
On the day I was born we bought six hair-bottomed chairs, and in our little house it was an event, the first great victory in a woman’s long campaign; how they had been laboured for, the pound-note and the thirty threepenny-bits they cost, what anxiety there was about the purchase, the show they made in possession of the west room, my father’s unnatural coolness when he brought them in (but his face was white) — I so often heard the tale afterwards, and shared as boy and man in so many similar triumphs, that the coming of the chairs seems to be something I remember, as if I had jumped out of bed on that first day, and run ben to see how they looked. I am sure my mother’s feet were ettling to be ben long before they could be trusted, and that the moment after she was left alone with me she was discovered barefooted in the west room, doctoring a scar (which she had been the first to detect) on one of the chairs, or sitting on them regally, or withdrawing and re-opening the door suddenly to take the six by surprise. And then, I think, a shawl was flung over her (it is strange to me to think it was not I who ran after her with the shawl), and she was escorted sternly back to bed and reminded that she had promised not to budge, to which her reply was probably that she had been gone but an instant, and the implication that therefore she had not been gone at all. Thus was one little bit of her revealed to me at once: I wonder if I took note of it. Neighbours came in to see the boy and the chairs. I wonder if she deceived me when she affected to think that there were others like us, or whether I saw through her from the first, she was so easily seen through. When she seemed to agree with them that it would be impossible to give me a college education, was I so easily taken in, or did I know already what ambitions burned behind that dear face? when they spoke of the chairs as the goal quickly reached, was I such a newcomer that her timid lips must say ‘They are but a beginning’ before I heard the words? And when we were left together, did I laugh at the great things that were in her mind, or had she to whisper them to me first, and then did I put my arm round her and tell her that I would help? Thus it was for such a long time: it is strange to me to feel that it was not so from the beginning.
It is all guess-work for six years, and she whom I see in them is the woman who came suddenly into view when they were at an end. Her timid lips I have said, but they were not timid then, and when I knew her the timid lips had come. The soft face — they say the face was not so soft then. The shawl that was flung over her — we had not begun to hunt her with a shawl, nor to make our bodies a screen between her and the draughts, nor to creep into her room a score of times in the night to stand looking at her as she slept. We did not see her becoming little then, nor sharply turn our heads when she said wonderingly how small her arms had grown. In her happiest moments — and never was a happier woman — her mouth did not of a sudden begin to twitch, and tears to lie on the mute blue eyes in which I have read all I know and would ever care to write. For when you looked into my mother’s eyes you knew, as if He had told you, why God sent her into the world — it was to open the minds of all who looked to beautiful thoughts. And that is the beginning and end of literature. Those eyes that I cannot see until I was six years old have guided me through life, and I pray God they may remain my only earthly judge to the last. They were never more my guide than when I helped to put her to earth, not whimpering because my mother had been taken away after seventy-six glorious years of life, but exulting in her even at the grave.
She had a son who was far away at school. I remember very little about him, only that he was a merry-faced boy who ran like a squirrel up a tree and shook the cherries into my lap. When he was thirteen and I was half his age the terrible news came, and I have been told the face of my mother was awful in its calmness as she set off to get between Death and her boy. We trooped with her down the brae to the wooden station, and I think I was envying her the journey in the mysterious wagons; I know we played around her, proud of our right to be there, but I do not recall it, I only speak from hearsay. Her ticket was taken, she had bidden us good-bye with that fighting face which I cannot see, and then my father came out of the telegraph-office and said huskily, ‘He’s gone!’ Then we turned very quietly and went home again up the little brae. But I speak from hearsay no longer; I knew my mother for ever now.
That is how she got her soft face and her pathetic ways and her large charity, and why other mothers ran to her when they had lost a child. ‘Dinna greet, poor Janet,’ she would say to them; and they would answer, ‘Ah, Margaret, but you’re greeting yoursel.’ Margaret Ogilvy had been her maiden name, and after the Scotch custom she was still Margaret Ogilvy to her old friends. Margaret Ogilvy I loved to name her. Often when I was a boy, ‘Margaret Ogilvy, are you there?’ I would call up the stair.
She was always delicate from that hour, and for many months she was very ill. I have heard that the first thing she expressed a wish to see was the christening robe, and she looked long at it and then turned her face to the wall. That was what made me as a boy think of it always as the robe in which he was christened, but I knew later that we had all been christened in it, from the oldest of the family to the youngest, between whom stood twenty years. Hundreds of other children were christened in it also, such robes being then a rare possession, and the lending of ours among my mother’s glories. It was carried carefully from house to house, as if it were itself a child; my mother made much of it, smoothed it out, petted it, smiled to it before putting it into the arms of those to whom it was being lent; she was in our pew to see it borne magnificently (something inside it now) down the aisle to the pulpit-side, when a stir of expectancy went through the church and we kicked each other’s feet beneath the book-board but were reverent in the face; and however the child might behave, laughing brazenly or skirling to its mother’s shame, and whatever the father as he held it up might do, look doited probably and bow at the wrong time, the christening robe of long experience helped them through. And when it was brought back to her she took it in her arms as softly as if it might be asleep, and unconsciously pressed it to her breast: there was never anything in the house that spoke to her quite so eloquently as that little white robe; it was the one of her children that always remained a baby. And she had not made it herself, which was the most wonderful thing about it to me, for she seemed to have made all other things. All the clothes in the house were of her making, and you don’t know her in the least if you think they were out of the fashion; she turned them and made them new again, she beat them and made them new again, and then she coaxed them into being new again just for the last time, she let them out and took them in and put on new braid, and added a piece up the back, and thus they passed from one member of the family to another until they reached the youngest, and even when we were done with them they reappeared as something else. In the fashion! I must come back to this. Never was a woman with such an eye for it. She had no fashion-plates; she did not need them. The minister’s wife (a cloak), the banker’s daughters (the new sleeve) — they had but to pass our window once, and the scalp, so to speak, was in my mother’s hands. Observe her rushing, scissors in hand, thread in mouth, to the drawers where her daughters’ Sabbath clothes were kept. Or go to church next Sunday, and watch a certain family filing in, the boy lifting his legs high to show off his new boots, but all the others demure, especially the timid, unobservant-looking little woman in the rear of them. If you were the minister’s wife that day or the banker’s daughters you would have got a shock. But she bought the christening robe, and when I used to ask why, she would beam and look conscious, and say she wanted to be extravagant once. And she told me, still smiling, that the more a woman was given to stitching and making things for herself, the greater was her passionate desire now and again to rush to the shops and ‘be foolish.’ The christening robe with its pathetic frills is over half a century old now, and has begun to droop a little, like a daisy whose time is past; but it is as fondly kept together as ever: I saw it in use again only the other day.
My mother lay in bed with the christening robe beside her, and I peeped in many times at the door and then went to the stair and sat on it and sobbed. I know not if it was that first day, or many days afterwards, that there came to me, my sister, the daughter my mother loved the best; yes, more I am sure even than she loved me, whose great glory she has been since I was six years old. This sister, who was then passing out of her ‘teens, came to me with a very anxious face and wringing her hands, and she told me to go ben to my mother and say to her that she still had another boy. I went ben excitedly, but the room was dark, and when I heard the door shut and no sound come from the bed I was afraid, and I stood still. I suppose I was breathing hard, or perhaps I was crying, for after a time I heard a listless voice that had never been listless before say, ‘Is that you?’ I think the tone hurt me, for I made no answer, and then the voice said more anxiously ‘Is that you?’ again. I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to, and I said in a little lonely voice, ‘No, it’s no him, it’s just me.’ Then I heard a cry, and my mother turned in bed, and though it was dark I knew that she was holding out her arms.
After that I sat a great deal in her bed trying to make her forget him, which was my crafty way of playing physician, and if I saw any one out of doors do something that made the others laugh I immediately hastened to that dark room and did it before her. I suppose I was an odd little figure; I have been told that my anxiety to brighten her gave my face a strained look and put a tremor into the joke (I would stand on my head in the bed, my feet against the wall, and then cry excitedly, ‘Are you laughing, mother?’) — and perhaps what made her laugh was something I was unconscious of, but she did laugh suddenly now and then, whereupon I screamed exultantly to that dear sister, who was ever in waiting, to come and see the sight, but by the time she came the soft face was wet again. Thus I was deprived of some of my glory, and I remember once only making her laugh before witnesses. I kept a record of her laughs on a piece of paper, a stroke for each, and it was my custom to show this proudly to the doctor every morning. There were five strokes the first time I slipped it into his hand, and when their meaning was explained to him he laughed so boisterously, that I cried, ‘I wish that was one of hers!’ Then he was sympathetic, and asked me if my mother had seen the paper yet, and when I shook my head he said that if I showed it to her now and told her that these were her five laughs he thought I might win another. I had less confidence, but he was the mysterious man whom you ran for in the dead of night (you flung sand at his window to waken him, and if it was only toothache he extracted the tooth through the open window, but when it was something sterner he was with you in the dark square at once, like a man who slept in his topcoat), so I did as he bade me, and not only did she laugh then but again when I put the laugh down, so that though it was really one laugh with a tear in the middle I counted it as two.
It was doubtless that same sister who told me not to sulk when my mother lay thinking of him, but to try instead to get her to talk about him. I did not see how this could make her the merry mother she used to be, but I was told that if I could not do it nobody could, and this made me eager to begin. At first, they say, I was often jealous, stopping her fond memories with the cry, ‘Do you mind nothing about me?’ but that did not last; its place was taken by an intense desire (again, I think, my sister must have breathed it into life) to become so like him that even my mother should not see the difference, and many and artful were the questions I put to that end. Then I practised in secret, but after a whole week had passed I was still rather like myself. He had such a cheery way of whistling, she had told me, it had always brightened her at her work to hear him whistling, and when he whistled he stood with his legs apart, and his hands in the pockets of his knickerbockers. I decided to trust to this, so one day after I had learned his whistle (every boy of enterprise invents a whistle of his own) from boys who had been his comrades, I secretly put on a suit of his clothes, dark grey they were, with little spots, and they fitted me many years afterwards, and thus disguised I slipped, unknown to the others, into my mother’s room. Quaking, I doubt not, yet so pleased, I stood still until she saw me, and then — how it must have hurt her! ‘Listen!’ I cried in a glow of triumph, and I stretched my legs wide apart and plunged my hands into the pockets of my knickerbockers, and began to whistle.
She lived twenty-nine years after his death, such active years until toward the end, that you never knew where she was unless you took hold of her, and though she was frail henceforth and ever growing frailer, her housekeeping again became famous, so that brides called as a matter of course to watch her ca’ming and sanding and stitching: there are old people still, one or two, to tell with wonder in their eyes how she could bake twenty-four bannocks in the hour, and not a chip in one of them. And how many she gave away, how much she gave away of all she had, and what pretty ways she had of giving it! Her face beamed and rippled with mirth as before, and her laugh that I had tried so hard to force came running home again. I have heard no such laugh as hers save from merry children; the laughter of most of us ages, and wears out with the body, but hers remained gleeful to the last, as if it were born afresh every morning. There was always something of the child in her, and her laugh was its voice, as eloquent of the past to me as was the christening robe to her. But I had not made her forget the bit of her that was dead; in those nine-and-twenty years he was not removed one day farther from her. Many a time she fell asleep speaking to him, and even while she slept her lips moved and she smiled as if he had come back to her, and when she woke he might vanish so suddenly that she started up bewildered and looked about her, and then said slowly, ‘My David’s dead!’ or perhaps he remained long enough to whisper why he must leave her now, and then she lay silent with filmy eyes. When I became a man and he was still a boy of thirteen, I wrote a little paper called ‘Dead this Twenty Years,’ which was about a similar tragedy in another woman’s life, and it is the only thing I have written that she never spoke about, not even to that daughter she loved the best. No one ever spoke of it to her, or asked her if she had read it: one does not ask a mother if she knows that there is a little coffin in the house. She read many times the book in which it is printed, but when she came to that chapter she would put her hands to her heart or even over her ears.
By J.M.Barrie 1890.
SCENE.- The Library of a Piccadilly club for high thinking and bad dinners. Time midnight. Four eminent novelists of the day regarding each other self -consciously They are (1) a Realist,(2) a Romancist , (3) an Elsmerian, (4) a Stylist . The clock strikes thirteen, and they all start.
REALIST (staring at the door and drawing back from it. ‘I thought I heard-something?
STYLIST -I-the--(pauses to reflect on the best way of saying it was only the clock).
(A step is heard on the stair.)
ELSMERIAN.-Hark! It must be him and them. (Stylist shudders). I knew he would not fail us.
RoMANCIST (nervously ).-It may only be some member of the club.
ELSMERIAN The hall-porter said we would be safe from intrusion in the library.
REALIST I hear nothing now. (His hand comes in contact with a bookcase). How cold and clammy to the touch these books are. A. strange place, gentlemen, for an eerie interview. ( To Elsmerian). You really think they will come? You have no religious doubts about the existence of Elysian Fields ?
ELSMERJAN. I do not believe in Elysium, but I believe in him.
REALIST Still if--
(The door is shaken and the handle falls off.)
RoMANCIST Ah! Even I have never imagined anything so weird as this. See, the door opens!
(Enter an American novelist.)
OMNES 0nly you!
AMERICAN (looking around him self-consciously).- I had always suspected that there was a library, though I have only been a member for a few months. Why do you look at me so strangely ?
ELSMERIAN (after whispering with the others).-We are agreed that since you have found your way here you should be permitted to stay; on the understanding, of course, that we still disapprove of your methods as profoundly as we despise each other.
AMERICAN But what are you doing here, when you might be asleep downstairs?
ELSMERIAN (impressively) -Have you never wished to hold converse with the mighty dead ?
AMERICAN I don't know them.
ELSMERIAN.-I admit that the adjective was ill-chosen, but listen: the ghosts of Scott and some other novelists will join us presently. We are to talk with them about their work.
REALIST And ours.
ELSMERIAN And ours. They are being brought from the Grove of Bay-trees in the Elysian Fields.
AMERICAN But they are antiquated, played out and, besides, they will not come.
RoMANCIST You don't understand. Stanley has gone for them.
ELSMERIAN It was a chance not to be missed. (Looks at his watch). They should have been here by this time; but on these occasions he is sometimes a little late.
( Their mouths open as a voice rings through the club crying, "I cannot stop to argue with you; I'll find the way myself.")
REALIST It is he, but he may be alone. Perhaps they declined to accompany him?
ELSMERIAN (with conviction) He would bring them whether they wanted to come or not.
(Enter Mr. Stanley with five Ghosts.)
Mr. STANLEY Here they are. I hope the row below did not alarm you. The hall-porter wanted to know if I was a member, so I shot him.Waken me when you are ready to send them back.
(Sits down and sleeps immediately.)
FIRST GHOST. I am Walter Scott.
SECOND GHOST I am Henry Fielding.
THIRD GHOST My name is Smollett.
FOURTH GHOST Mine is Dickens.
FIFTH GHOST They used to call me Thack.
ALL THE GHOSTS (looking at the sleeper).-And we are a little out of breath.
AMERICAN (to himself).-There is too much plot in this for me.
ELSMERIAN (to the visitors).-Quite so. Now will you be so good as to stand in a row against that bookcase. (They do so.) Perhaps you have been wondering why we troubled to send for you ?
Sir WALTER We--
ELSMERIAN -You need not answer me, for it really doesn't matter. Since your days a great change has come over fiction-a kind of literature at which you all tried your hands-and it struck us that you might care to know how we moderns regard you.
REALIST And ourselves.
ELSMERIAN And ourselves. We had better begin with ourselves, as the night is already far advanced. You will be surprised to hear that fiction has become an art.
FIELDING I am glad we came, though the gentleman (looking at the sleeper) was perhaps a little peremptory. You are all novelists?
ROMANCIST No, I am a Romancist, this gentleman is a Realist, that one is a Stylist, and--
ELSMERIAN We had better explain to you that the word novelist has gone out of fashion in our circles. We have left it behind us--
Sir WALTER I was always content with story-teller myself.
AMERICAN Story-teller! All the stories have been told.
Sir WALTER (wistfully). How busy you must have been since my day.
ROMANCIST.-We have, indeed, and not merely in writing stories to use the language of the nursery. Now that fiction is an art, the work of its followers consists less in writing mere stories (to repeat a word that you will understand more readily than we) than in classifying ourselves and (when we have time for it) classifying you.
THACKERAY But the term novelist satisfied us.
ELSMERIAN There is a difference, I hope, between then and now. I cannot avoid speaking plainly, though I allow that you are the seed from which the tree has grown. May I ask what was your first step toward becoming novelists.
SMOLLETT (with foolish promptitude) We wrote a novel.
THACKERAY ( humbly) I am afraid I began by wanting to write a good story, and then wrote it to the best of my ability. Is there any other way?
STYLIST But how did you laboriously acquire your style?
THACKERAY I thought little about style. I suppose, such as it was, it came naturally.
STYLIST Pooh! Then there is no art in it.
ELSMERIAN And what was your aim?
THACKERAY Well, I had reason to believe that I would get something for it.
ELSMERIAN Alas! to you the world was not a sea of drowning souls, nor the novel a stone to fling to them, that they might float on it to a quiet haven. You had no aims, no methods, no religious doubts, and you neither analysed your characters nor classified yourselves.
AMERICAN And you reflected so little about your art that you wrote story after story without realising that all the stories had been told.
Sir WALTER But if all the stories are told, how can you write novels?
A.MERICAN The story in a novel is of as little importance as the stone in a cherry. I have written three volumes about a lady and a gentleman who met on a car.
Sir WALTER Yes, what happened to them?
A.MERICAN Nothing happened. That is the point of the story.
STYLIST Style is everything. The true novelist does nothing but think:, think, think about his style, and then write, write, write about it. I daresay I am one of the most perfect stylists living. Oh, but the hours: the days, the years of introspection I have spent in acquiring my style!
THACKERAY (sadly). -If I had 011ly thought more of style! May I ask how many books you have written ?
STYLIST Only one-and that I have withdrawn from circulation. Ah, sir, I am such a stylist that I dare not write anything. Yet I meditate a work.
Sir WALTER A.story?
STYLIST No, an essay on style. I shall devote four years to it.
Sir WALTER And I wrote two novels in four months!
STYLIST Yes, that is still remembered against you. Well, you paid the penalty, for your books are still popular.
DICKENS But is not popularity nowadays a sign of merit?
STYLIST To be popular is to be damned.
Sir WALTER. I can see from what you tell me that I was only a child. I thought little about how novels should be written. I only tried to write them, and as for style, I am afraid I merely used the words that came most readily. ( Stylist groans.) I had such an interest in my characters (American groans), such a love for them (Realist groans), that they were like living beings to me. Action seemed to come naturally to them, and all I had to do was to run after them with my pen.
RoMANCIST In the dark days you had not a cheap press, nor scores of magazines and reviews. Ah, we have many opportunities that were denied to you.
FIELDING We printed our stories in books.
RoMANCIST I was not thinking of the mere stories. It is not our stories that we spend much time over, but the essays, and discussions and interviews about our art. Why, there is not a living man in this room, except the sleeper, who has not written as many articles and essays about how novels should be written as would stock a library.
SMOLLETT But we thought that the best way of showing how they should be written was to write them.
REALIST ( bitingly ) And as a result, you cannot say at this moment whether you are a Realist, a Romancist, an American Analyst., a Stylist, or an Elsmerian! Your labours have been fruitless.
SMOLLETT What am I ?
RoMANCIST -I refuse to include you among novelists at all, for your artistic views (which we have discovered for you) are different from mine. You are a Realist. Therefore I blot you out.
Sir WALTER (anxiously). I suppose I am a Romancist?
REALIST Yes, and therefore I cannot acknowledge you. Your work has to go.
AMERICAN It has gone. I never read it. Indeed, I can't stand any of you. In short, I am an American Analyst.
DICKENS (dreamily).-One of the most remarkable men in that country .
AMERICAN Yes, sir, I am one of its leading writers of fiction without a story-along with Silas K. Weekes, Thomas John Hillocks, William P. Crinkle, and many others whose fame must have reached the Grove of Bay-trees. We write even more essays about ourselves than they do in this old country.
ELSMERIAN Nevertheless, Romanticism, Realism, and Analysis are mere words, as empty as a drum. Religious doubt is the only subject for the novelist nowadays; and if he is such a poor creature as to have no religious doubts, he should leave fiction alone.
STYLIST Style is everything. I can scarcely sleep at nights for thinking of my style.
FIELDING This, of course, is very interesting to us who know so little, yet, except that it enables you to label yourselves, it does not seem to tell you much. After all, does it make a man a better novelist to know that other novelists pursue the wrong methods? 'You seem to despise each other cordially, while Smollett and I, for instance, can enjoy Sir Walter. We are content to judge him by results, and to consider him a great novelist because he wrote great novels.
ELSMERIAN You will never be able to reach our standpoint if you cannot put the mere novels themselves out of the question. The novelist should be considered quite apart from his stories.
REALIST It is nothing to me that I am a novelist, but I am proud of being a Realist. That is the great thing.
ROMANCIST Consider, Mr. Smollett, if you had thought and written about yourself as much as I have done about myself you might never have produced one of the works by which you are now known. That would be something to be proud of. You might have written romances, like mine and Sir Walter's.
ELSMERIAN Or have had religious doubts.
STYLIST Or have become a Stylist, and written nothing at all.
REALIST And you, Sir Walter, might have become one of us.
THACKERAY But why should we not have written simply in the manner that suited us best ? If the result is good, who cares for the label?
ROMANCIST (eyeing Sir Walter severely) No one has any right to be a Romancist unconsciously. Romance should be written with an effort -as I write it. I question, sir, if you ever defined romance?
Sir WALTER (weakly) I had a general idea of it, and I thought that perhaps my books might be allowed to speak for me.
ROMANCIST We have got beyond that stage. Romance (that is to say, fiction) has been defined by one of its followers as "not nature, it is not character, it is not imagined history; it is fallacy, poetic fallacy; a lie, if you like, a beautiful lie, a lie that is at once false and true-false to fact, true to faith."
(The Ghosts look at each other apprehensively).
Sir WALTER Would you mind repeating that? (Romancist repeats it) And all my novels all that? To think of their being that, and I never knew! I give you my word, sir; that when I wrote '' Ivanhoe," for example, I merely wanted to tell a story.
REALIST Still, in your treatment of the Templar, you boldly cast off the chains of Romanticism and rise to Realism.
ELSMERIAN. To do you justice, the Templar seems to have religious doubts.
STYLIST I once wrote a little paper on your probable reasons for using the word ''wand" in circumstances that would perhaps have justified the use of ''reed." I have not published it.
Sir WALTER This would be more gratifying to me if I thought that I deserved it.
AMERICAN I remember reading '' Ivanhoe" before I knew any better; but even then I thought it poor stuff. There is no analysis in it worthy of the name. Why did Rowena drop her handkerchief? Instead of telling us that, you prance off after a band of archers. Do you really believe that intellectual men and women are interested in tournaments?
Sir WALTER You have grown so old since my day. Besides, I have admitted that the Waverley novels were written simply to entertain the public.
ELSMERIAN No one, I hope, reads my stories for entertainment. We have become serious now.
A.MERICAN I have thought at times that I could have made some thing of "Ivanhoe." Yes, sir, if the theme had been left to me I would have worked it out in a manner quite different from yours. In my mind's eye I can see myself developing the character of' the hero. I would have made him more like ourselves. The Rebecca, too, I would have reduced in size. Of course the plot would have had to go overboard, with Robin Hood and Richard, and we would have had no fighting. Yes, it might be done. I would call it, let me see, I would call it, ''Wilfrid: a Study."
THACKERAY ( timidly).- Have you found out what I am ?
AMERICAN You are intolerably prosy.
STYLIST Some people called Philistines maintain that you are a Stylist; but evidently you forgot yourself too frequently for that.
ROMANCIST You were a cynic, which kills romanticism.
REALIST And men allow their wives to read you, so you don't belong to us.
AMERICAN (testily ) No, sir, you need not turn to me. You and I have nothing in common.
DICKENS I am a--?
REALIST It is true that you wrote about the poor; but how did you treat them? Are they all women of the street and brawling ruffians? Instead of dwelling for ever on their sodden misery, and gloating over their immorality, you positively regard them from a genial standpoint. I regret to have to say it, but you are a Romancist.
ROMANCIST No, no, Mr. Dickens, do not cross to me. You wrote with a purpose, sir. Remember Dotheboys Hall.
ELSMERIAN A novel without a purpose is as a helmless ship.
DICKENS (aghast) Then I am an Elsmerian?
ELSMERIAN Alas! you had no other purpose than to add to the material comforts of the people. Not one of your characters was troubled with religious doubts. Where does Mr. Pivkwick pause to ask himself why he should not be an atheist ? You cannot answer. In these days of earnest self-communion we find Mr. Pickwick painfully wanting. How can readers rise from his pages in distress of mind? You never give them a chance.
THACKERAY No, there is nothing sickly about Pickwick.
ELSMERIAN Absolutely nothing. He is of a different world (I am forced to say this) from that in which my heroes move. Not, indeed, that they do move much. Give me a chair and a man with doubts, and I will give you a novel. He has only to sit on that chair--
STYLIST As I sit on mine, thinking, thinking, thinking about my style.
DICKENS Young people in love are out of fashion in novels nowadays, I suppose?
ELSMERIAN Two souls in doubt may meet and pule as one.
THACKERAY As a novelist I had no loftier belief than this-that high art is high morality, and that the better the literature the more ennobling it must be.
REALIST And this man claimed to be one of us!
DICKENS I wrote for a wide public (Stylist sighs), whom I loved (Realist sighs) . I loved my characters, too (American sighs), they seemed so real to me ( Romancist sighs), and so I liked to leave them happy. I believe I wanted to see the whole world happy (Elsmerian sighs).
Sir WALTER I also had that ambition.
THACKERAY. Do you even find Mr. Pickwick's humour offensive nowadays?
ROMANCIST To treat a character with humour is to lift him from his pedestal to the earth.
ELSMERIAN We have no patience with humour. In these days of anxious thought humour seems a trivial thing. The world has grown sadder since your time, and we novelists of today begin where you left off. Were I to write a continuation of ''The Pickwick Papers," I could not treat the subject as Mr. Dickens did; I really could not.
STYLIST Humonr is vulgar.
AMERICAN Humour, sir, has been refined and chastened since the infancy of fiction, and I am certain that were my humorous characters to meet yours mine would be made quite uncomfortable. Mr. Pickwick could not possibly be received in the drawing-room of Sara H. Finney, and Sam Weller would be turned out of her kitchen. I believe I am not overstating the case when I say that one can positively laugh at your humour .
DICKENS They used to laugh.
AMERICAN Ah, they never laugh at mine.
DrcKENS But if I am not a Realist, nor a Romancist, nor an Elsmerian,, nor a St--
AMERICAN Oh, we have placed you. In Boston we could not live without placing everybod y, and you are ticketed a caricaturist.
DICKENS (sighing ) I liked the old way best, of being simply a novelist.
AMERICAN That was too barbarous for Boston . We have analysed your methods, and found them puerile. You have no subtle insight into character. You could not have written a novel about a lady's reasons for passing the cruet. Nay, more, we find that yon never drew either a lady or a gentleman. Your subsidiary characters alone would rule you out of court. To us it is hard work to put all we have to say about a lady and gentleman who agree not to become engaged into three volumes. But you never send your hero twelve miles in a coach without adding another half -dozen characters to your list. There is no such lack of artistic barrenness in our school.
SMOLLETT (enthusiastically) What novels you who think so much about the art must write nowadays! You will let us take away a few samples?
(The live novelists cough.)
REALIST (huskily) You-you have heard of our work in the Grove of Bay-trees?
Sir WALTER (apologetically). You see we are not in the way of hearing-(politely). But we look forward to meeting you there some day.
THACKERAY And resuming this conversation. None of you happens to be the gentleman who is rewriting Shakespeare and Homer, I suppose? It is of no consequence; I only thought that if he had been here I would have liked to look at him. That is all.
FIELDING (looking at the sleeper ) He said he would take us back.
(The novelists shake Mr. Stanley timidly, but he sleeps on.)
STYLIST (with a happy inspiration).- Emin--
Mr. STANLEY (starting to his feet ). -You are ready ? Fall in behind me. Quick mar--
Sir WALTER You won't mind carrying these books for us ?
(Gives Stanley samples of Realism, Elsmerism, &c.)
Mr. ST.ANLEY. Right. I shall give them to the first man we meet in Piccadilly to carry.
ROMANCIST (foolishly). He may refuse.
Mr. STANLEY (grimly ) I think not. Now then--
ELSMERIAN (good-naturedly) A moment, sir. We have shown these gentlemen how the art of fiction has developed since their day, and now if they care to offer us a last word of advice.
Sir WALTER We could not presume.
THACKERAY As old-fashioned novelists of some repute at one time, we might say this: that perhaps if you thought and wrote less about your styles and methods and the aim of fiction, and, in short, forgot yourselves now and again in your stories, you might get on better with your work. Think it over.
Mr. STANLEY Quick march.
(The novelists are left looking at each other self -consciously.)
October 25th 1930
The Entrancing Life
I was uplifted – how could it be otherwise? – when I found that my Alma Mater wanted me to come back for another course. But now that the lightnings are upon me I am riven with misgivings. What have I dared. Oh, why left I the eyry of a solitary to go wandering in the great unquiet places. This college of renown – for wherever I find myself today I feel that I am in the old College ; these walls dissolve, it is more like Masson’s lecture room, Campbell-Fraser raises his beard again, I hear Blackie singing – what has my old College been about in remembering me, she who was once so noted for her choice of pilots? All I can say to you in my defence is, yours the wite for having me.
My anxious desire is to follow, very humbly as needs must, in the ways of my illustrious predecessor Lord Balfour. That word has a tang to it that is sweet to the Scottish ear. I once had an argument, across the waters that lie between us and Samoa, with Robert Louis Stevenson about which was the finest-sounding Scottish name. He voted for one who was a kinsman of his, Ramsay Traquair. But I thought, and still think, that Balfour is better. How like our great Chancellor to have the name as well as all the rest. I first saw him here, I mean in the old College, in my student days. He was addressing one of the University Societies on Philosophical Doubt; I cannot now recall with certainly which society, but it was the one I tried to become a member of, and they would not have me. However, I did contrive an entry that night, and the abiding memory is the dazzling presence of him, his charm; though, as Dr. Johnson never said, is there any Scotsman without charm? Lord Balfour’s charm has been talked of by some as if it was the man himself; but oh no, it was only his seductive introduction to us, playing around him, perhaps to guard against our ever getting nearer to ‘the man himself.’ It still played around him when he faced the blasts in his country’s cause. It loved the great adventure. Did you ever notice how much ground he covered with his easy stride? It was so also with the stride of his mind. So many offices did he adorn. I was once speaking to him about some past event, and he said, ‘Yes, I remember that – I was Prime Minister at the time – or was I? – at any rate, I was something of that kind.’
So light apparently his knapsack. I have seen him, towards the end, writing the memoirs of his early days that have just been published. It was in one of the loveliest of English gardens, and he was reclining, under a great tulip tree, on a long chair, swallows sailing round, jotting it down as if the life and times of Arthur Balfour were only another swallow flight. As for myself, I vowed, as the alarming day of the august ceremony drew near, to model my installation address on his: and on sitting down to read it, I found he had never made on. Instead, I see him today smiling charmingly at my predicament.
The University is not now as it was when I matriculated. Even on that day the old College, which perhaps never wore an alluring beam of welcome on her face, seemed so formidable that a famous Edinburgh divine, Dr. Alexander Whyte, had to accompany me to her awful portals and thrust me in. For some time I hoped he would do this every day. I learn from the University of Edinburgh Journal, itself a notable growth, that since ten years after they got rid of me (they did not put it in that way) seventeen new chairs have been added. Many vast academic departments have arisen. The methods of lecturing, of examinations, have been overhauled. This magnificent Hall has sprung up, and all the avenues leading to graduation in it have been made appropriately stiffer and steeper. Unions and Hostels such as, alas, were not in my time, now give Edinburgh students that social atmosphere which seemed in the old days to be the one thing lacking; the absence of them maimed some of us for life. The number of students has increased by over a thousand. Perhaps greatest change of all, Women – yes. ‘Female forms whose gestures beam with mind.’ What a glory to our land has this University been since the first acorn, when one man – but what a man – Principal Rollock, did all its work single-handed near by the site of the Kirk of Field. No wonder that we in gratitude have erected a monument to him and called a chair after him. Or have we? I learn now, for history sleepeth not, that the Kirk of Field is famous for a marital rumbling close by, in which the aim of a husband was to blow up Mary Queen of Scots. That is the new theory. A more fitting one for us would be that some fearful Scot, himself on fire for a degree, made that explosion to clear the ground for a University.
Whoever was responsible, a Queen or a Prince, or Andrew Souter M.A., a fire was lit that will last even longer than the controversy. Since that small beginning, Edinburgh of a daughter, the University has risen nobly to the grapple; she has searched the world for the best everywhere, to incorporate it in her own. How parochial if she had done otherwise. And now so much has been accomplished that one may ask what remains to do. It is easier to cry ‘onward’ than to say whither. We might go onward till we got clean out of Scotland. Many of our students are from across the Border, they come from every civilised land; and it is our proudest compliment, for it means that they think they get something here which is not to be got elsewhere. They are all welcome so long as we can contain them, and so long as they are satisfied that what is best for us is also best for them. But our universities must remain what our forebears conceived with such great travail, men of our smiddies and the plough, the loom and the bothies, as well as scholars, they must remain, first and foremost something to supply the needs of the genius of the Scottish people.
Those needs are that every child born into this country shall as far as possible have an equal chance. The words ‘as far as possible’ tarnish the splendid hope, and they were not in the original dream. Some day we may be able to cast them out. It is by Education, though not merely in the smaller commoner meaning of the word, that the chance is to be got. Since the war various nations have wakened to its being the one way out; they know its value so well that perhaps the only safe boast left to us is that we knew it first. They seem, however, to be setting about the work with ultimate objects that are not ours. Their student from his earliest age is being brought up to absorb the ideas of his political rulers. That is the all of his education, not merely in his academic studies but in all his social life, all his mind, all his relaxations; they are in control from his birth, and he is to emerge into citizenship with rigid convictions which it is trusted will last his lifetime. The systems vary in different lands, but that seems to be their trend, and I tell you they are being carried out with thoroughness. Nothing can depart more from the Scottish idea, which I take to be to educate our men and women primarily not for their country’s good but for their own, not so much to teach them what to think as how to think, not preparing them to give as little trouble as possible in the future but sending them into it in the hope that they will give trouble. There is a small group of the Intelligensia very much afraid of any such creed, because its members are so despondent about their fellow-creatures. They are not little minds, they contain some of the finest brains in the country, but they are as gloomy as if this were their moulting season. They think their land may endure a little longer if they new generations are plied with soporifics. All they ask of us, especially of youth, is a little all-round despair. No more talk about hitching your waggon to that star. Few of us have waggons and there are no stars.
How do you like it, you new graduates? Are those the resilient notions you are carrying away with you in your wallets? Is it Lochaber no more for you? I don’t believe it. The flavour cannot have gone out of the peat. The haggis can still charge uphill. I’ll tell you a secret. Have you an unwonted delicious feeling on the tops of your heads at this moment, as if an angel’s wing had brushed them half an hour or so ago? It did – I speak from memory; and it carried with it a message from your University; ‘All hopelessness abandon, ye who have entered here.’ She trusts your wallets contain, as her parting gift to you ‘those instruments with which high spirits call the future from its cradle.’
She hopes that you are also graduating in the Virtues, in which, being an old hand at granting academic honours she knows better than to expect more than a pass degree. It is quite possible that your time here has done you not good but harm. If it has made you vain, for instance, of your accomplishments, too solemnly serious about their magnitude. I have seen Lord Haldane sitting with his head in his hands because he knew so little. Mr. Einstein has a merry face; he looks at us almost mischievously, and no wonder. Has your learning taught you that Envy is the most corroding of vices and also the greatest power in any land? Are you a little more temperate in mind? Have you more charity? Do you follow a little better, say about as much as the rest of us, the dictates of kindness and truth? You may be very clever, destined for the laurel, and have smiled at the unfortunates who fought for bursaries or to pass in, failed, and had to give up their dear ambitions; but if their failures taught them those lessons, they may have found for themselves a better education than yours.
You may discover in the end that your life is not unlike a play in three acts with the second act omitted. In the neatly constructed play of the stage each act moves smoothly to the next, they explain each other; but it may not be so with yours, it is not so with many of us. In less time than I hope you now think possible, for I would have you gay on your graduation morning, you will be far advanced in the final act. There has been a second, your longest one, but how little record you have probably kept of it. All you know may just be that this man or woman you have become is not what you set out to be in the days of the Firth of Forth. That may not even damp you much, if prosperity has made you gross to some old aspirations. You may not know how or when the thief came in the night, nor that it was you who opened the door to him. But something bad got into you in the middle act, and lay very still in you till it was your familiar. Slowly, furtively it pushed, never stopped pushing slowly, for it never tires, until it had you out and took your place. You may sometimes roam round the earthly tenement that once contained you, trying to get back. Perhaps you will get back. That sometimes happens. We may hope, however, that by the grace of God what entered was something good. All I can assure you is that in the second act, now about to begin, something will get in which is either to make or to destroy you. It has got in already if an uphill road dismays you. Would you care to know my guess at what is the entrancing life? It sums up most of what I have been trying to say today for your guidance. Carlyle held that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. I don’t know about genius, but the entrancing life, I think, must be an infinite love of taking pains. You try it.
One word more. The ‘Great War’ has not ended. Don’t think that you have had the luck to miss it. It is for each one of you the war that goes on within ourselves for self-mastery. Those robes you wear today are your Khaki for that war. Your graduation day is your first stripe. Go out and fight. Don’t come back dishonoured as in many ways I do.
Are we not all conscious, fitfully, of a white light that hovers for a moment before our lives? It comes back for us from time to time to the very gasp of our days. Come back for us – to take us where? So quickly fades, as if unequal to its undertaking, like an escaped part of ourselves. Are stars souls? The inaccessible star. If any one of ours has reached his star, it was our Lister. The inaccessible friendly star. If we could follow the white light.
How I have been preaching. It is not usual to me. It is against the ‘stomach of my sense,’ I feel that it has gone to my head. I look around for others to preach to. My eyes fall on the honorary graduates. I refrain with difficulty. For the present it is goodbye. I wish I was a little less unworthy of this gown. I will do my best.
Last month I said my piece (or did my pieces) about restoring the reputation of Samuel Rutherford Crockett. Another month, another contemporary whose reputation is in serious need of a restoration project. James Matthew Barrie. Like Crockett he came from humble origins, in Barrie’s case the son of a Kirriemuir weaver, but unlike Crockett he lived long and prospered. Barrie became inconceivably rich during his lifetime on account of his tremendous skill at writing work that crossed the barrier (or blurred the boundaries) between literary and popular. He started off as a journalist in Nottingham and ended up as a dramatist taking the London stage by storm time and again. He became Sir J.M.Barrie Bart. He was a well known philanthropist of his day – and still the only may I know who has managed to ‘control’ and re-write copyright law – he gave the rights to Peter Pan in perpetuity to the Great Ormond Street Hospital. This has caused some ‘issues’ over the years and is an example of how difficult the whole copyright thing is. Barrie was undoubtedly offering a philanthropic gesture, quite in keeping with his many other financial gifts both to individuals and to families. It doubtless seemed like a good idea at the time. But what we do in life is impossible to control after our death and the fearful combination of copyright and commercialisation has caused many a problem for Barrie.
Perhaps more of a worry though, is that (as I’ve written about elsewhere) he was pretty much hoist with his own petard. Peter Pan is now the only thing that many people know about him. Well, there’s one more thing – a still circulating and ill-founded rumour that he was a paedophile. People believe the strangest things, but to my mind it’s the sign of a sickness in society that it cannot accept the spirit and nature of a man who gave so generously that it has to find not just fault but to completely destroy a man’s reputation because it does not understand the nature of his nature.
It’s time to bring Barrie out of the shadows. Crockett (and Barrie to a lesser extent) were damned by the ill-fitting Kailyard soubriquet, even in their lifetimes, though both ‘outgrew’ it if you actually read their writing. (Again, read my earlier pieces for a more prolonged comment on Kailyard). Crockett died and was condemned to obscurity. Barrie lived - but after he died he was subject to the even more damning indictment, bred from nothing of substance, of being shall we say ‘inappropriate.’
Now one thing that you could say about Barrie is that yes, he was often inappropriate. In actuality it’s a hallmark of his writing. But the inappropriateness of his writing is simply that of a man who refused to conform to the standards and was experimental beyond the comprehension of many of his contemporaries (and most since!) This in turn created its own jealousies and the wee man with the big dog was given the worst of names. Stuck in the eternal return of lies, lies and damned falsehoods simply because he stood apart and was in most cases streets ahead of many of his contemporary writers, we have lost sight of everything to do with him except his character Peter Pan. How right I was last month when I suggested that the higher they climb the further they fall.
Now don’t get me wrong. The character of Peter Pan is every bit as complex as the character of J.M.Barrie himself, and the story (and character) which developed over many years of writing, are fascinating on many, many levels both narrative and dramatic. But this is not what most people think of when they think of Peter Pan. They think Disney. They take the soundbites ‘to die will be an awfully big adventure’ and ‘the boy who wouldn’t grow up’ and never look any further. Or if they look further they attempt some cod psychology which never quite stacks up to any proper interrogation.
This is a massive shame. Barrie’s work defies categorisation – and that stands for both his prose and his dramatic works. They are quite unique in the pantheon of late 19th century/ early 20th century writing. They give an insight into questions of identity, flexibility of narrative, they play with dramatic form, and yet the writing is spare, comic and easy to read. You can engage with Barrie on many, many levels but you never quite come to an understanding – either of the man or his work – through the endeavour.
Barrie plays God in his writing and plays with the reader – consciously. Maybe this is part of why he got such a bad press? Because he dared to go that little bit further than most writers ever dare. He was beyond honest – he didn’t just stare reality in the face, he dug into it, explored it and in exploring it uncovered much of what it is to be human – warts and all. That’s both a difficult and a dangerous thing for a writer to do.
But you won’t know any of this unless you read some Barrie. And where do you start when everything is hidden behind Peter Pan? This is the conundrum the recently formed J.M.Barrie Literary Society (of which I am a founder member) seeks to address. The goal is to spread the word both digitally and in ‘reality’ by hosting reading and reviewing of Barrie texts as well as by encouraging members and the wider world to engage and form opinions based on what they read rather than on what they believe.
Barrie was a chameleon of form (narrative and dramatic) and in setting up the website the aim is to try and, if not copy him, then take his innovation as an inspiration to try new ways and forms of communicating creatively. How will it develop? That all depends on the membership. A community literally is the sum of its members and the growing J.M.Barrie Literary Society as Community hopefully wil create a place for open discussion and the sharing of knowledge and opinion in a way that I’ve not seen elsewhere. It’s something beyond Goodreads and online book groups – or at least it may be.
The Society launched at Kirriemuir, where Barrie was born, on the 9th May – his 157th anniversary – at the Barrie Pavilion. The building was gifted by Barrie to the town on the occasion of him being granted freedom of Kirriemuir in 1930. Being Barrie there is much more to the building (now ably run by the Kirriemur Regeneration Group) than the outside suggests. It is part cricket pavilion, part camera obscura. It remains as an important legacy of the fact that Barrie left much more than copyright and money – he thought carefully about the needs of the community and tied them with his own interests. He was passionate about cricket, setting up the first celebrity cricket team which became known as the Allahakbarries. And he thought (rightly) that a camera obscura is exactly the sort of thing that would entertain a huge range of people whether they liked cricket or not.
If you get the chance to go to Kirriemuir, you should definitely visit the Pavilion, his Birthplace (managed by National Trust for Scotland) and the Gateway to the Glens museum which houses many Barrie artefacts including the ‘freedom casket’ (run by AngusAlive)as well as the graveyard where Barrie and his family are buried. There are spectacular views to be found all round, but the camera obscura on a clear day is both achingly beautiful and mind-blowingly clever.
Lest this seems to read too much like a travelogue, I shall point out that reading Barrie will surpass even the delights of Kirriemuir, if you give yourself up to it and forget everything you think you know about him. Whether you read the Thrums stories, or the Tommy novels, or whether you explore Barrie through his full length dramas or the shorter dramatic form, there is plenty to amaze and excite you and most of all to make you think, and re-think your previous knowledge (and prejudices?) To find out more about Barrie’s work you should definitely check out the Literary Society www.jmbarriesociety.co.uk where you can be sure of a warm welcome.
At the launch event we were given a speech which paid tribute to Barrie and exhorted us to read and talk about Barrie’s work. We were reminded that reading is not just for children and that the range and depth of our adult reading and debating on literary issues is reflective of and indeed a part of our very creative nature as well as the a significant factor in the development of our society. I often worry that we are in danger of losing all our critical faculties and most of all our pleasure in reading these days. Barrie is a writer who can pick you up, give you a slap round the face, and remind you why you used to find reading such a necessary part of life. Do us all a favour and give him a go. If you want a quick ‘entry’ you can read the short story in this month’s Gateway HERE. If that takes your fancy, why not head over to McStorytellers where more of An Edinburgh Eleven is being serialised. You can also check out ‘Better Dead’ an early Barrie work which gives quite an insight into his youthful mind and modus operandi. It’s not the finished article by any means, but that’s what is so good about Barrie, he never ‘finished’ he is always open to interpretation and discussion. And if all of that isn’t enough, M’Connachie’s Talking shop is in the throes of opening at the Literary Society website – where you can find other free texts and suggestions of what to read – and the opportunity, once you’ve done so, to add your own thoughts. So what are you waiting for…?
PROFESSOR CAMPBELL FRASER.
Not long ago I was back in the Old University — how well I remember pointing it out as the jail to a stranger, who had asked me to show him round. I was in one of the library ante-rooms, when some one knocked, and I looked up, to see Campbell Fraser framed in the doorway. I had not looked on that venerable figure for half a dozen years. I had forgotten all my metaphysics. Yet it all came back with a rush. I was on my feet, wondering if I existed strictly so called.
Calderwood and Fraser had both their followings. The moral philosophers wore an air of certainty, for they knew that if they stuck to Calderwood he would pull them through. You cannot lose yourself in the back garden. But the metaphysicians had their doubts. Fraser led them into strange places, and said he would meet them there again next day. They wandered to their lodgings, and got into difficulties with their landlady for saying that she was only an aggregate of sense phenomena. Fraser was rather a hazardous cure for weak intellects. Young men whose anchor had been certainty of themselves went into that class floating buoyantly on the sea of facts, and came out all adrift — on the sea of theory — in an open boat — rudderless — one oar — the boat scuttled. How could they think there was any chance for them, when the professor was not even sure of himself? I see him rising in a daze from his chair and putting his hands through his hair. “Do I exist,” he said, thoughtfully, “strictly so called?”
The students (if it was the beginning of the session) looked a little startled. This was a matter that had not previously disturbed them. Still, if the professor was in doubt, there must be something in it. He began to argue it out, and an uncomfortable silence held the room in awe. If he did not exist, the chances were that they did not exist either. It was thus a personal question. The professor glanced round slowly for an illustration.
“Am I a table?” A pained look travelled over the class. Was it just possible that they were all tables? It is no wonder that the students who do not go to the bottom during their first month of metaphysics begin to give themselves airs strictly so called. In the privacy of their room at the top of the house, they pinch themselves to see if they are still there.
He would, I think, be a sorry creature who did not find something to admire in Campbell Fraser. Metaphysics may not trouble you, as it troubles him, but you do not sit under the man without seeing his transparent honesty and feeling that he is genuine. In appearance and in habit of thought he is an ideal philosopher, and his communings with himself have lifted him to a level of serenity that is worth struggling for. Of all the arts professors in Edinburgh, he is probably the most difficult to understand, and students in a hurry have called his lectures childish. If so, it may be all the better for them. For the first half of the hour, they say, he tells you what he is going to do, and for the second half he revises. Certainly he is vastly explanatory, but then he is not so young as they are, and so he has his doubts. They are so cock-sure that they wonder to see him hesitate. Often there is a mist on the mountain when it is all clear in the valley.
Fraser’s great work is his edition of Berkeley, a labour of love that should live after him. He has two Berkeleys, the large one and the little one, and, to do him justice, it was the little one he advised us to consult. I never read the large one myself, which is in a number of monster tomes, but I often had a look at it in the library, and I was proud to think that an Edinburgh professor was the editor. When Glasgow men came through to talk of their professors, we showed them the big Berkeley, and after that they were reasonable. There was one man in my year who really began the large Berkeley, but after a time he was missing, and it is believed that some day he will be found flattened between the pages of the first volume.
The “Selections” was the text-book we used in the class. It is sufficient to prove that Berkeley wrote beautiful English. I am not sure that any one has written such English since. We have our own “stylists,” but how self-conscious they are after Berkeley! It is seven years since I opened my “Selections,” but I see that I was once more of a metaphysician than I have been giving myself credit for. The book is scribbled over with posers in my handwriting about dualism and primary realities. Some of the comments are in short-hand, which I must at one time have been able to read, but all are equally unintelligible now. Here is one of my puzzlers: “Does B here mean impercipient and unperceived subject or conscious and percipient subject?” Observe the friendly B. I dare say further on I shall find myself referring to the professor as F. I wonder if I ever discovered what B meant. I could not now tell what I meant, myself.
As many persons are aware, the “Selections” consist of Berkeley’s text with the professor’s notes thereon. The notes are explanatory of the text, and the student must find them an immense help. Here, for instance, is a note: “Phenomenal or sense dependent existence can be substantiated and caused only by a self-conscious spirit, for otherwise there could be no propositions about it expressive of what is conceivable; on the other hand, to affirm that phenomenal or sense dependent existence, which alone we know, and which alone is conceivable, is, or even represents, an inconceivable non- phenomenal or abstract existence, would be to affirm a contradiction in terms.” There we have it.
As a metaphysician I was something of a disappointment. I began well, standing, if I recollect aright, in the three examinations, first, seventeenth, and seventy-seventh. A man who sat beside me — man was the word we used — gazed at me reverently when I came out first, and I could see by his eye that he was not sure whether I existed properly so called. By the second exam his doubts had gone, and by the third he was surer of me than of himself. He came out fifty-seventh, this being the grand triumph of his college course. He was the same whose key translated cras donaberis hædo “To-morrow you will be presented with a kid,” but who, thinking that a little vulgar, refined it down to “To-morrow you will be presented with a small child.”
In the metaphysics class I was like the fountains in the quadrangle, which ran dry toward the middle of the session. While things were still looking hopeful for me, I had an invitation to breakfast with the professor. If the fates had been so propitious as to forward me that invitation, it is possible that I might be a metaphysician to this day, but I had changed my lodgings, and, when I heard of the affair, all was over. The professor asked me to stay behind one day after the lecture, and told me that he had got his note back with “Left: no address” on it. “However,” he said, “you may keep this,” presenting me with the invitation for the Saturday previously. I mention this to show that even professors have hearts. That letter is preserved with the autographs of three editors, none of which anybody can read.
There was once a medical student who came up to my rooms early in the session, and I proved to him in half an hour that he did not exist. He got quite frightened, and I can still see his white face as he sat staring at me in the gloaming. This shows what metaphysics can do. He has recovered, however, and is sheep-farming now, his examiners never having asked him the right questions.
The last time Fraser ever addressed me was when I was capped. He said, “I congratulate you, Mr. Smith,” and one of the other professors said, “I congratulate you, Mr. Fisher.” My name is neither Smith nor Fisher, but no doubt the thing was kindly meant. It was then, however, that the professor of metaphysics had his revenge on me. I had once spelt Fraser with a “z.”
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