Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  One wonders why they didn’t become real lovers. It may be that Emily’s upbringing caused her to look upon adultery as an unforgivable sin, or it may be that the idea of sexual intercourse between the sexes filled her with disgust. I believe both the sisters were highly sexed. Charlotte was plain, with a sallow skin and a large nose on one side of her face. She had proposals of marriage when she was obscure and penniless, and at that period a man expected his wife to bring a portion with her. But beauty is not the only thing that makes a woman attractive; indeed, great beauty is often somewhat chilling: you admire, but are not moved. If young men fell in love with Charlotte, a captious and critical young woman, it can surely have only been because they found her sexually attractive, which means that they felt obscurely that she was highly sexed. She was not in love with Mr. Nicholls when she married him; she thought him narrow, dogmatic, sullen and far from intelligent. It is clear from her letters that after she married him she felt very differently towards him; for her they are positively skittish. She fell in love with him, and his defects ceased to matter. The most probable explanation is that those sexual desires of hers were at last satisfied. There is no reason to suppose that Emily was less highly sexed than Charlotte.

  (5)

  The genesis of a novel is a very curious affair. In a novelist’s first novel, and Emily, so far as we know, wrote but one, it is not unlikely that there will be something of wish-fulfilment and something of imagined autobiography. It is conceivable that Wuthering Heights is the product of pure fantasy. Who can tell what erotic reveries Emily had during the long watches of her sleepless nights, or when she lay all summer day among the flowering heather? Everybody must have noticed how strong the family likeness is between Charlotte’s Rochester and Emily’s Heathcliff. Heathcliff might be a by-blow, the bastard a younger son in the Rochester family might have had by an Irish biddy met in Liverpool. Both men are swarthy, violent, hard-featured, fierce, passionate and mysterious. They differ only as differed the natures of the two sisters who constructed them to satisfy their urgent, thwarted desires for sexual satisfaction. But Rochester is the dream of the woman of normal instincts who hankers to give herself to the domineering, ruthless male; Emily gave Heathcliff her own masculinity, her violence and her savage temper. But the primary model on which the sisters created these two uncouth, difficult men was, I surmise, their father, the Rev. Patrick Brontë.

  But though, as I have said, it is conceivable that Emily constructed Wuthering Heights entirely out of her own fantasies, I do not believe it. I should have thought that it was only very rarely that the fruitful idea which will give rise to a fiction comes to an author, like a falling star, out of the blue; for the most part, it comes to him from an experience, generally emotional, of his own, or, if it is told him by another, emotionally appealing; and then his imagination in travail, character and incidents little by little grow out of it, until at length the finished work comes into being. Few people, however, know how small a hint, how trivial to all appearances an occurrence, may be that will serve to set the spark that will kindle the author’s invention, when you look at the cyclamen with its heart-shaped leaves surrounding a profusion of flowers, their careless petals wearing a wilful look as thought they grew at haphazard, it seems incredible that this luscious beauty, this rich colour, should have come from a seed hardly larger than a pin’s head. So it may be with the productive seed that will give rise to an immortal book.

  It seems to me that one only has to read Emily Brontë’s poems to guess what the emotional experience was that led her to seek release from cruel pain by writing Wuthering Heights. She wrote a good deal of verse. It is uneven; some of it is commonplace, some of it moving, some of it lovely. She seems to have been most at home with the metres of the hymns which she sang of a Sunday in the parish church at Haworth, but the commonplace metres she used do not veil the intense emotion beneath. Many of the poems belong to the Gondal Chronicles, that long history of an imaginary island with which she and Anne amused themselves when they were children, and which Emily continued to write when she was a grown woman. It may be that she found this a convenient way to deliver her tortured heart of emotions which, with her natural secretiveness, she could not have borne to set out in any other way. Other poems seem to be the direct expression of feeling. In 1845, three years before her death, she wrote a poem called The Prisoner. So far as is known, she had never read the works of any of the mystics, yet in these verses she so describes the mystical experience that it is impossible to believe that they do not tell of what she knew from personal acquaintance. She uses almost the very words that the mystics use when they describe the anguish felt of the return from union with the Infinite:

  ‘Oh dreadful is the check – intense the agony –

  When the ear begins to hear, the eye begins to see;

  When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;

  The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.’

  These lines surely reflect a felt, a deeply felt, experience. Why should one suppose that Emily Brontë’s love poems were no more than a literary exercise? I should have thought they pointed very clearly to her having fallen in love, to her love having been repulsed, and then to her having been bitterly hurt. She wrote these particular poems when she was teaching at a girls’ school at Law Hill, near Halifax. She was nineteen. There was little chance of her meeting men there (and we know how she fled from men), and so, from what we surmise of her disposition, it is likely enough that she fell in love with one or other of the mistresses, or with one of the girls. It was the only love of her life. It may well be that the unhappiness it caused her sufficed to implant the seed in the fruitful soil of her tortured sensibility which enabled her to create the strange book we know. I can think of no other novel in which the pain, the ecstasy, the ruthlessness of love have been so powerfully set forth. Wuthering Heights has great faults, but they do not matter; they matter as little as the fallen tree-trunks, the strewn rocks, the snow-drifts which impede, but do not stem, the alpine torrent in its tumultuous course down the mountain-side. You cannot liken Wuthering Heights to any other book. You can liken it only to one of those great pictures of El Greco in which in a sombre, arid landscape, under clouds heavy with thunder, long, emaciated figures in contorted attitudes, spell-bound by an unearthly emotion, hold their breath. A streak of lightning, flitting across the leaden sky, gives a mysterious terror to the scene.

  10

  Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov

  (1)

  Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in 1821. His father, a surgeon at the Hospital of St. Mary in Moscow, was a member of the nobility, a fact to which Dostoevsky seems to have attached importance, since he was distressed when on his condemnation his rank, such as it was, was taken away from him; and on his release from prison he pressed influential friends to have it restored. But nobility in Russia was different from what it was in other European countries; it could be acquired, for instance, by reaching a certain modest rank in the government service, and appears to have had little more significance than to set you apart from the peasant and the tradesman, and allow you to look upon yourself as a gentleman. In point of fact, Dostoevsky’s family belonged to the white-collar class of poor professional men. His father was a stern man. He deprived himself not only of luxury, but even of comfort, in order to give his seven children a good education; and from their earliest years taught them that they must accustom themselves to hardship and misfortune to prepare themselves for the duties and obligations of life. They lived crowded together in the two or three rooms at the hospital which were the doctor’s quarters. They were never allowed to go out alone, they were given no pocket money, they had no friends. The doctor had some private practice besides his hospital salary and, in course of time, acquired a small property some hundred miles from Moscow, and there, from then on, mother and children spent the summer. It was their first taste of freedom.

  When Dostoevsky was sixteen, his moth
er died, and the doctor took his two elder sons, Michael and Fyodor, to St. Petersburg to put them to school at the Military Engineering Academy. Michael, the elder, was rejected on account of his poor physique, and Fyodor was thus parted from the only person he cared for. He was lonely and unhappy. His father either would not, or could not, send him money, and he was unable to buy such necessities as books and boots, or even to pay the regular charges of the institution. The doctor, having settled his elder sons, and parked three other children with an aunt in Moscow, gave up his practice and retired with his two youngest daughters to his property in the country. he took to drink. He had been severe with his children, he was brutal with his serfs, and one day they murdered him.

  Fyodor was then eighteen. He worked well, though without enthusiasm, and, having completed his term at the Academy, was appointed to the Engineering Department of the ministry of War. What with his share of his father’s estate and his salary, he had then five thousand roubles a year. That, at the time, in English money would have been a little more than three hundred pounds. He rented an apartment, conceived an expensive passion for billiards, flung money away right and left, and when a year later he resigned his commission, because he found service in the Engineering Department ‘as dull as potatoes’, he was deeply in debt. He remained in debt till the last years of his life. He was a hopeless spendthrift, and though his thriftlessness drove him to despair, he never acquired the strength of mind to resist his caprices. It has been suggested by one of his biographers that his want of self-confidence was to an extent responsible for his habit of squandering money, since it gave him a passing sense of power and so gratified his exorbitant vanity. It will be seen later to what mortifying straits this unhappy failing reduced him.

  While still at the Academy, Dostoevsky had begun a novel and now, having decided to earn his living as a writer, he finished it. It was called Poor Folk. He knew no one in the literary world; but an acquaintance, Grigorovich by name, was familiar with a man, Nekrasov, who was proposing to start a review, and offered to show him the story. One day Dostoevsky came back to his lodging late. He had spent the evening reading his novel to a friend and discussing it with him. At four in the morning he walked home. He did not go to sleep, but opened the window and sat by it. He was startled by a ring. Grigorovich and Nekrasov rushed into the room in transports and almost in tears, and embraced him again and again. They had begun to read the book, taking it in turns to read aloud, and when they had finished, late though it was, decided to seek Dostoevsky out. ‘Never mind if he is asleep,’ they said to one another, ‘let us wake him. This thing transcends sleep.’ Nekrasov took the manuscript next day to Belinsky, the most important critic of the time, and he was as enthusiastic as had been the other two. The novel was published, and Dostoevsky found himself famous.

  He did not take success well. A certain Madame Panaev-Golovachev has described the impression he made when he was brought to see her: ‘At first glance one could perceive that the newcomer was a young man of an extremely nervous and impressionable temperament. Short and thin, he had fair hair, an unhealthy complexion, small grey eyes which wandered uneasily from object to object, and pale lips which maintained a restless twitching. Almost everyone present was known to him, yet he seemed bashful and took no part in the general conversation, even though successive members of the party, to banish his reserve and to make him feel that he was a member of our circle, tried to draw him out. After that evening, however, he came frequently to see us, and his restraint began to wear off: he even took to … engaging in disputes in which sheer contradictoriness seemed to impel him to give everyone the lie. The truth was that his youthfulness combined with his nervous temperament to deprive him of all self-control, and to lead him to over-parade his presumption and conceit as a writer. That is to say, dazed with his sudden and brilliant entry into the literary arena, and overwhelmed with the praises of the great ones in the world of letters, he, like most impressionable spirits, could not conceal his triumph over young writers whose entry had been of a more modest order … through his captiousness and his tone of overweening pride he showed that he considered himself to be immeasurably superior to his companions … Particularly did Dostoevsky suspect all and sundry of attempting to pooh-pooh his talent; and since he discerned in every guileless word a desire to belittle his work, and to affront him personally, it was in a mood of scathing resentment which yearned to pick a quarrel, to vent upon his fancied detractors the whole measure of spleen that was choking his breast, that he used to visit our house.’

  On the strength of his success, Dostoevsky signed contracts to write a novel and a number of stories. With the advances he received, he proceeded to lead so dissipated a life that his friends, for his own good, took him to task. He quarrelled with them, even with Belinsky, who had done so much for him, because he was not convinced of ‘the purity of his admiration’; for he had persuaded himself that he was a genius, and the greatest of Russian writers. His debts increased, and he was obliged to work with haste. He had long suffered from an obscure nervous disorder, and now, falling ill, feared he was going mad, or falling into a consumption. The stories written in these circumstances were failures, and the novel proved unreadable. The people who had so extravagantly praised him now violently attacked him, and the opinion was general that he was written out.

  (2)

  Early one morning, on the 29th of April, 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested and taken to the fortress of Peter-Paul. He had joined a group of young men, imbued with the socialistic notions then current in Western Europe, who were bent on certain measures of reform, especially on the emancipation of the serfs and the abolition of censorship, and who met once a week to discuss their ideas. They set up a printing-press for the purpose of circulating, in secret, articles written by members of the group. The police had for some time had them under surveillance, and all were arrested on the same day. After some months in prison, they were tried, and fifteen of them, among them Dostoevsky, were condemned to death. One winter morning, they were taken to the place of execution, but as the soldiers prepared to carry out the sentence, a messenger arrived to say that the penalty was commuted to penal servitude in Siberia. Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment at Omsk, after which he was to serve as a common soldier. When he was taken back to the fortress of Peter-Paul, he wrote the following letter to his brother Michael.

  ‘To-day the 22nd of December, we were all taken to Semenovsky Square. There the death sentence was read to us, we were given the Cross to kiss, the dagger was broken over our heads, and our funeral toilet (white shirts) was made. Then three of us were put standing before the palisades for the execution of the death sentence. I was sixth in the row; we were called up by groups of three, and so I was in the second group, and had not more than a moment to live. I thought of you, my brother, and of yours; in that last moment you alone were in my mind; then first I learnt how much I love you, my beloved brother! I had time to embrace Plestchiev and Durov, who stood near me, and to take my leave of them. Finally, retreat was sounded, those who were bound to the palisades were brought back, and it was read to us that His Imperial Majesty granted us our lives. Then the final sentences were recited …’

  In The House of the Dead Dostoevsky has described the horrors of his life in prison. One point is worthy of remark. He notes that, within two hours of arriving, a newcomer would find himself at home with the other convicts and live on familiar terms with them. ‘But with a gentleman, a nobleman, things were different. No matter how unassuming and good-tempered and intelligent he might be, he would to the end remain a person unanimously hated and despised, and never understood and, still more, never trusted. No one would ever come to look upon him as a friend or a comrade, and though, as the years went on, he might at least attain the point of ceasing to serve as a butt for insult, he would still be powerless to live his own life, or to get rid of the torturing thought that he was lonely and a stranger.’

  Now, Dostoevsky was not such
a great gentleman as all that; his origins were as modest as his life and, but for a brief period of glory, he had been poverty-stricken. Durov, his friend and fellow-prisoner, was loved by all. It looks very much as though Dostoevsky’s loneliness, and the suffering it caused him, were in part at least occasioned by his own defects of character, his conceit, his egoism, his suspiciousness and his irritability. But his loneliness, amid two hundred companions, drove him back on himself: ‘Through this spiritual isolation,’ he writes, ‘I gained an opportunity of reviewing my past life, of dissecting it down to the pettiest detail, of probing my heretofore existence, and of judging myself strictly and inexorably.’ The New Testament was the only book he was allowed to possess, and he read it incessantly. Its influence on him was great. From then on, he practised humility and the necessity of suppressing the human desires of normal men. ‘Before all things humble yourself,’ he wrote, ‘consider what your past life has been, consider what you may be able to effect in the future, consider how great a mass of meanness and pettiness and turpitude lies lurking at the bottom of your soul.’ Prison, for the time at least, cowed his overweening, imperious spirit. He left it a revolutionary no longer, but a firm upholder of the authority of the Crown and the established order. He left it also an epileptic.

  When his term of imprisonment came to an end, he was sent to complete his sentence as a private in a small garrison town in Siberia. It was a hard life, but he accepted its pains as part of the punishment he merited for his crime, for he had come to the conclusion that his activities for reform were sinful; and he wrote to his brother: ‘I do not complain; this is my cross and I have deserved it.’ In 1856, through the intercession of an old schoolfellow, he was raised from the ranks, and his life became more tolerable. He made friends and he fell in love. The object of his affections was a certain Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, wife of a political deportee who was dying of drink and consumption, and mother of a young son; she is described as a rather pretty blonde of middle height, very thin, passionate and exaltée. Little seems to be known of her, except that she was of a nature as suspicious, as jealous and as self-tormenting as Dostoevsky himself. He became her lover. But after some time Isaev, her husband, was moved from the village in which Dostoevsky was stationed to another frontier post some four hundred miles away, and there died. Dostoevsky wrote and proposed marriage. The widow hesitated, partly because they were both destitute and partly because she had lost her heart to a ‘high-minded and sympathetic’ young teacher, called Vergunov, and had become his mistress. Dostoevsky, deeply in love, was frantic with jealousy, but with his passion for lacerating himself, and perhaps with his novelist’s proneness to see himself as a character of fiction, he did a characteristic thing. Declaring Vergunov to be dearer to him than a brother, he besought one of his friends to send him money so as to make it possible for Maria Isaeva to marry her lover.

 
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