Stanley Weyman's 

General Preface Essay

  September 1911

 

"The Works of Stanley J. Weyman"

Volume 1 "The House of the Wolf"

Author's Complete Edition

First issued Smith, Elder & Co., October, 1911

Reprinted John Murray, September, 1922

 

Every work of fiction presents itself to the writer as an experiment.  In making his first essay he aims at a fixed standard of merit--it may be merely the degree needful to secure publication, it may be some higher mark set by his own mind.  But, that standard attained, his aim is henceforth not so much to vie with his fellows as to surpass himself.  His constant effort is to produce something higher and better, more imaginative or more realistic than his earlier work.  And in proportion as he advances upon himself does he feel that his labour is justified.

     Of necessity, therefore, he is continually trying, within the limits of his powers, new ways and new manners.  If he has told his stories in the first person, he will see if, by mastering the third person, he cannot effect a betterment.  If his scenes have been cast in France, he will break ground in England.  He may even, greatly daring, leave the historical for the modern field, or an artificial style for one of frank simplicity.  He will be content with everything except his earlier work, content to try everything except that which he has already tried.  To produce something better will be his morning and evening ambition.

     But as every work is an experiment, he will often, with all his efforts, produce something worse.  His readers will make the best of it--be sure of that--and he will try again.  But by and by, with youth and energy behind him, he will begin to discover that he has done his best.  He may possess greater skill--experience is a powerful helper--but the freshness of fancy is past, the well of imagination sinks low, the pen flags.  Then if he be wise, and necessity do not drive, he will own that the world belongs to the young--if not in years, in art--and he will withdraw from that rivalry with himself which can now have but one ending.

     It was reasoning such as this which led me to lay down the pen when I had told the full tale of twenty volumes.  It still holds good:  the passage of four years does but add cogency to it.  And though I do not propose, now or at any time, to frame a self-denying ordinance of which the chances of life or the changes of humour might lead me to repent, I see no ground to suppose that I shall return to the desk.

     Yet it is not lightly that any man, after marching with his fellows for a score of years, falls out of the ranks.  His mind is weary and rest is welcome; but his heart goes with his kind along the shadowy road, still halts with them at darkling inns, rides bravely forth on dewy mornings, woos dream-maidens, fears, and ventures--all in that mystic realm he shares with them, and will share, though he never touch paper again.

     Frankly, we are of those who never grow up.  All in childhood make believe, and find their surest pastime in games of the imagination.  They bury, marry, fight, are bears or Buonapartes; they tell endless tales to themselves and their dolls.  Later the most part forsake these sports; they turn to games of skill, and so prepare themselves for the rough and tumble of life.  But we prolong our childish fancies, we continue in the world of make-believe, and live and die in it.  Some--the less fanciful it may be--set upon paper the things we imagine.  Others hide the gift.  But it is there; and in their offices they hunt lions between contango and pay-day, or in Lancashire mills ride through captured cities to the music of the shuttles.

     I think--but perhaps I deceive myself--that those of us who twine our thin-spun fables round the facts of the past are more sensitive than the ordinary to the influence of places, to the atmosphere, vague and elusive, that hangs about the homes of ancient peace.  The graves of our heroes--the real heroes--move us; the doors through which the famous dead have passed are sacred to us.  In tall abbey churches we do not note the organ, though its swell is filling the nave; for the choir is thronged for us with trembling fugitives, the monkish procession is moving, the Host uplifted, to the west door; it opens, it lets in the murmur tramp of innumerable feet.  The victors of Tewkesbury press in, men with white faces and feverish eyes, men with bloodstained hands and broken mail--we see them pushing, shouldering in to sing their Te Deum to the Lord of Hosts!

     We see them, though dimly; this is our privilege.  And so with reverence beyond the ordinary we gaze on the storied glass, the pillars, the arches; for the tall king, the battered crests, the waving pennons, the hates, the fears, the triumph, all are gone.  Yet these very stones, these figured panes, looked down on them, as they look down to-day upon the stillness of the aisles.

     Or we are at Fotheringhay, lying under the chestnut tree, beside the rush-bordered river.  It is summer, the village street is empty.  The church in which the forbears of the hapless Mary lie under their falcon and fetterlock--emblems that once roused all English folk to joy or madness--quivers in the heat, the pasture at its foot is brown and baked.  Pitilessly the sunshine falls on the bare mound, the few thorn trees, the one block of masonry that stands for the splendours of the castle.  Another views it, yawns:  "It was here, was it?  But there is nothing--nothing to see."

     We see, not all, not clearly, but something.  To us the hamlet among the quiet Northamptonshire pastures is poignant in its very stillness and remoteness, is a wonder, is a tragedy.  We turn our eyes from the pitiful central figure, and wonder idly what were the thoughts of the two earls who were there to see it done, when they awoke that cold winter morning and remembered what was before them.  And her servants, who had to dress her, to be with her, who had to meet her eyes, and who were subject as we are to the same passions of grief and horror and dreadful looking-forward!  And her dog, the little dog that was found hiding in her clothes, and that had to be dragged away and washed from her blood!  They were taking off her garters when they found it.  Miserere, Domine!  Perhaps it is well that scarcely one stone is left upon another. 

     Such are we, and such is perhaps our only privilege--to be one-eyed where others are blind.  In effect it lays upon us a corresponding duty:  to touch the past, to brush the fringe of history only where something of enthusiasm, of affection or dislike, of lively feeling moves us.  In order to draw the great of the past so that they shall live, and shall have for our readers also being and reality, we must love them or hate them.  And even so, we shrink, the smaller of us, from the greater scenes, from the tragedies that tear the heart.  Here is ground on which we do not enter even in reverence.

     To descend upon a lower and more personal note.  The reasons which led me to venture on a modest essay in historical romance were mainly three.  First, the failure of a story of modern life, written in imitation of Anthony Trollope--then and now a favourite with me--which I was encouraged to undertake by the kindness of Mr. James Payn.  Secondly, the reflection that while the romance of adventure was popular, efforts to cast it in the historical mould were rare at the time.  I can recall only Stevenson's Black Arrow, and Conan Doyle's White Company.  Lastly, the interest which White's History of the Massacre of St Bartholomew, taken up by chance and read at a club, aroused in me.  Conscious that I was a beginner, I planned my work on a small scale, aimed deliberately at simplicity and directness, and did my utmost to eschew padding.  The result was The House of the Wolf, the source of which--of its plot at any rate--will be found detailed in a note at the end of the volume.  In common with all my earlier books, it was written in the first person, a method which has the advantage of selecting automatically, so to speak, the parts of the story to be told; for it goes without saying that in every story there is much which is passed over in silence.  The House of the Wolf was published as a serial by Messrs. Macmillan and Co. in 1889, in the English Illustrated Magazine, then edited by Mr. Comyns Carr, to who I make my grateful bow, as I do also to the Saturday Review for the separate and kindly, though short, notice which they gave to an unknown writer.  For a time the little romance found no one venturesome enough to publish it between covers; and it was more than a year later that Messrs. Longman and Co.--all honour to their courage--stepped into the breach and issued it.  I fear that, even so, its debut was made in a pale lavender dress decked, not very appropriately, with chrysanthemums; but it has since toured the bookstalls in many shapes and many colours.  Beyond doubt a first book has for its author a charm of its own.  I smile now at the meticulous care with which I read the proof-sheets, and at my agony of mind when, in spite of all my care--and doubtless through the direct intervention of the devil--there glared on the first page an appalling misprint!  I have never read it since; indeed, devoted lover of fiction as I am, I have never given way to the temptation to read my own books.

     The success of The House of the Wolf, though moderate at the time, encouraged me to plan a story on more generous lines.  I chose a period in French history, later by some fifteen years, and wove my tale round the picturesque figure of Henry of Navarre--the earlier Henry of the light heart and the threadbare coat, and the camp-bed under the stars, not the later Henry, spoiled by fortune and made cynical by experience.  The book owed a little, I think, to my freshness and enthusiasm, something to a wander-year--or half-year--of which I had spent many weeks wandering on foot in Bearn and the north of Spain; much in style, in matter, and thought, to the source from which I drew my facts.  This was an English edition of Sully's Memoirs, translated from the French by Charlotte Lennox, and dedicated in the year 1755 to the Duke of Newcastle, then Prime Minister.  My copy, which consisted of six small volumes in dingy marbled calf, with bright red back-labels, was for twelve months rarely beyond the reach of my hand.  The notes in particular, though jejune, were a joy; they formed a kind of Almanach de Gotha of the French nobility of that day; and of the whole work I cannot think without gratitude.  From it sprang into being A Gentleman of France, the story of a courtier, middle-aged, shabby and neglected, whose adventures were strung on no very strong thread, but being narrated in a leisurely and stately fashion, conveyed something of the atmosphere and colour of the time and of its manner of looking at men and things.  Henry the Third, and Sully himself, prudent and magnanimous, moved among the characters.

     The book met with a warm welcome both in this country and in the United States.  It was received by none more generously than by those who had won the foremost place in the same field.  On Stevenson's behalf, Mrs. Lloyd Osbourne wrote from Samoa, and enclosed some lines with which he had greeted her return from a journey.  After nearly twenty years I venture to publish them.  I believe they have seen the light before, but not through me.

    "Whether you come back glad and gay,

       Or come with streaming eyes and hair,

     Here is the gate of the Golden Way,

        Here is the cure for all your care.

     And be your sorrows great or small,

        Here breathe this quantum of romance;

     Be sure you will forget them all

        With this dear Gentleman of France! "

     The reception of the book surprised no one more than its author, and pleased no one more than James Payn, who with a kindly enthusiasm all his own, did much to make it known.  Among other good things I owned to him my first meeting with the author of The Sowers, and the privilege of a friendship which I regard as among the chief happinesses of my life.  Seton Merriman's talent, remarkable as it was, and, as I believe, still immature at the time of his death, was among the least of his qualities. 

     Out of the same quarry--Sully's Memoirs--I hewed at a later date material for a series of stories, The Memoirs of a Minister of France.  They presented themselves as the more bizarre experiences of the great man who, absolute save where his plans collided with the whims of "The King, my master," was slowly and painfully imposing law and order on a country still heaving with civil war.  Round him revolved nuns and astrologers, maids of honour and innkeepers, mayors and farmers of the taxes, with a king, a queen, a royal mistress, and many led - captains.  There was much variety--for the stories ranged from farce to tragedy--and some vraisemblance.  The style of the Gentleman of France  was in these stories carried to an extreme; the prolix sentences were meant to convey the stately leisure of one who, whether he dictated letters from the Arsenal of France, or lay beleaguered, by a sudden emeute, in some village inn, never forgot that his nod was life, and his word was ruin.  But the public, I fear, found something to criticise in the prolixity; and it is possible that, presented in a simpler form, the stories might have been more popular.

     Of the other novels which make up this edition, I propose to refer at length to four only.  The first of these, Under the Red Robe, was written in a happy mood in response to a request for a short serial which an editor needed for early publication.  The plot was sketched in my mind, and the leading characters outlined within an hour of the receipt of the letter; the story itself was written in a little more than three months, spent, for the most part, on board a house-boat in the quieter reaches of the Upper Thames.  The chapter headings, The House in the Wood and The Green Pillar, recall not only the brawling streams and beech groves of Lower Bearn, but the hanging woods about Basildon, and Wittenham Clump against an evening sky.

     The passage which furnished the leading idea of this story might be called in evidence to prove how superior, even in the picturesque, is fact to fiction.  Richelieu dispatching Gil de Berard to effect the capture by stratagem of the Sierre de Cocheforet, had for his prototype Henry the Fourth, who, discovering that D'Auvergne, the brother of his favourite Mme. de Verneuil, was intriguing with Spain, invited him to Court.  D'Auvergne, warned by the fate of Marshal Biron, declined to come, and Henry shrank from the attempt to seize him among the rugged fastnesses of Auvergne.  To effect the King's object, Sully enlisted Murat, an official of the Treasury, whose business carried him at stated times into the province, and whose appearance would not put D'Auvergne on his guard.  Murat opened communications with his quarry, but the latter was so wary that he never lay two nights in the same place.  He lived, indeed, in continual panic.  "He was afraid," Sully says, "to stay in his house, yet dared not trust himself at any considerable distance from it; he was never seen in any of the neighbouring towns; he had left off visiting his friends, nor durst even confide in his mistress.  He no longer visited her at her house, but when he chose to see her, they met in a obscure village, or in the midst of the fields, always in the night, and never twice together in the same place.  His servants, whom he posted on eminences in the neighbouring places, were ordered to give him notice, when they saw anyone appear, by blowing a horn; and sometimes he made use of dogs for his guard."  In the teeth, however, of suspicions thus vividly described, Murat gained his confidence, and in the end persuaded him to attend a review of a regiment of horse of which he was the honorary colonel.  D'Auvergne did so, but on a fleet horse, on which he flattered himself he could defy pursuit, were treachery intended.  But Murat had disguised four stout soldiers in the livery of serving-men, and these approaching D'Auvergne, as if to do him honour, seized his reins and feet, and unhorsed him so suddenly that he had neither time to lay his hand upon his pistol nor draw his sword, and still less to fly.  So much for the truth:  to substitute for Murat a man of ambiguous past but chivalrous feeling, forced by circumstances to play the traitor's part--and to emphasise the baseness of the office by the introduction of women devoted to the victim of the treachery--these were changes in the direction of the commonplace of romance, perhaps, but such as fitted the story for dramatic treatment.  Begun abruptly and with verve, the tale ran quickly.  Advantage was taken of the contrast between the noisome streets of Paris and the southern woodland, between the hero's past and present; and, both in book-form and on the stage, where it had the powerful support of Miss Winifred Emery and Mr. Cyril Maude, it gained the favour of the public.  Its dramatic form it owed to the late Mr. Edward Rose.

     Shrewsbury was my first venture into the field of English history, and it was probably also my least successful work.  It owed its origin to an admiration of the character of William the Third, with which Macaulay had early inoculated me; and where the king moved through its pages, little seemed amiss.  But only the great masters can reconcile their readers to a hero who is either rogue or fool; only the very greatest can, with success, fit a coward into the position.  I was not so presumptuous as to dream of the attempt; but I fell into the mistake of telling my story by the mouth of a poor-spirited craven; and the Duke of Shrewsbury, whom I proposed for hero, lacked, I fear, vital force--as I drew him.  The result was that the public insisted on investing the narrator with the role, disliked him heartily, and in a degree extended the feeling to the book.  The plot has passed from my memory; but the early part, I remember, took the bit between its teeth and went off in the direction of Defoe.  I suspect that the story lacked light and air, and presented, perhaps, too many scoundrels.  If so, it was a not unfaithful portrait of a time when the honour of the best left something to be desired, and the worst were incredibly base.

     Passing over the Castle Inn and Sophia, stories of the eighteenth century which rested upon the letters of Horace Walpole, I come to The Long Night.  Of the novels having any claim to be called historical which I have written, this alone dealt with an episode new to nine out of ten of its readers, and to that extent it transgressed the canon often laid down, that historical fiction should concern itself with events and figures known to the ordinary person.  The truth is, that where the writer has not only to tell the story, but to develop at length the historical surroundings, he is apt to let the latter clog the flow of the former.  I think that The Long Night succeeded in surmounting the difficulty; in part because the episode on which it was based--the treacherous night attack of Roman Catholic Savoy on the Protestant Free City of Geneva--was as simple as it was picturesque; in part because there ran through the old story of man and maid the darker thread of superstition.  The attempt made to portray the position of a woman, lonely and helpless, exposed in her own person, or in the person of one she loved, to a charge of witchcraft, was not novel, nor was it carried to the point of tragedy; for then the story would have been wholly painful.  But it held within it the elements of strength; and in particular it compelled such contrasts of light and shade, of filial devotion and manly courage, that the treatment must have been poor indeed--as doubtless it was inadequate--to forfeit all claim to attention.  In this connection I desire to acknowledge, with gratitude, the kindly welcome which was accorded to the story in Geneva, and not least by members of the University and others who, deeply versed in the history of their city, must have detected many errors and anachronisms in a work written by a stranger who had never visited the canton.

     To pass on to Chippinge, a story which dealt with the events attending the passage of the great Reform Bill in 1832, and so may claim to be political rather than historical, and, for the writer, a breaking of new ground.  It was written, indeed, in a kind of St. Martin's summer of energy, the novelty of the subject arousing in the writer as much enthusiasm as he was still capable of feeling.  The diaries of that period, Croker's, Creevey's, Greville's, the many able biographies--of Campbell, of Lord John, of Brougham, in particular of Peel by the late Mr. Stuart Parker--with such histories as Roebuck's and the late Sir Spencer Walpole's, opened, as it were, a window and revealed a period, old-fashioned rather than old, which memory had resigned, but reading had not wholly occupied.  I trusted that, as the events of that stirring year had novelty for me, they might be new to my contemporaries; and I made an earnest effort to convey to my pages some of the aroma of the days which saw the first frock-coat, the first railway, and the first Reformed Member.  In describing the opening movement in that transfer of power from the few to the many, of which we are witnessing the completion in our day, I tried to depict the attitude of mind towards it of different classes--the despair of those who looked back, the hopes of those who looked forward, the ardour of the young, the doubts of the old, homes of ancient peace silent if not content under personal rule, and seething cities striving turbulently for a voice in their own government.

     The plot was based upon a tradition of Holland House, while the story ran its course sometimes in an old borough, nearly resembling Malmesbury, sometimes at Westminster, finally at Bristol, a city chosen that the famous riots might give a fillip to the closing scenes and supply that movement without which I doubted my power to sustain the interest.

     But having to do three things at once, to tell the story, to sketch the conditions of the age, and to trace in some detail the political developments, it is probable that I failed to preserve a due balance, and that the whole suffered thereby.  For though the book was not ill received, though it won indeed a modest place on the shelves of men versed in affairs, whose approval was flattering to me, its welcome at the hands of the general public was not warmer than that which had greeted its forerunners.  It was not that step in advance which I had hoped it might prove to be; and a plan which I had partially formed to treat the Chartist crisis on the same lines was laid aside.

     One or two last words before the curtain falls.  The stories which follow were written over a period of more than twenty years, at first with ease and a light heart, later with the confidence which practice and success inspire, at the last with some anxiety--but always with pleasure.  Creation even of the imperfect implies pleasure.   They were written with no end in view other or higher than that of entertainment:  and it may seem a serious thing to admit that so large a part of a life with its best energies has been devoted to no loftier task.  But the novel with a purpose sometimes sounds its trumpet and the walls do not fall; while virtue in orange blossoms and vice in mourning have their lesson for all.  I am content for my part if the pleasant fables I have told have here and there opened a window in a dull life or in a mean street, have lightened the pain of the bedridden or the tedium of the anxious, and for the many have whiled away hours that might have been spent to worse purpose.

     Finally I would express my gratitude to all concerned in such success as these books have won; a success raised by time and accident above their deserts, and filched as to part, I fear, from the portion of men more able but less fortunate.  I am grateful to the reviewers for recognition in the first place and later for indulgence.  I cannot call to mind one unfair stricture on the part of the press, and I have learned much from its comments.

     I am grateful to my publishers for treatment always just and on occasion generous:  to my agent, Mr. A. P. Watt, not for his skill and tact only, but for the friendly offices and unflagging zeal of a quarter of a century.  Above all I am grateful to my readers, to those who with me have ridden on phantom quests and wooed phantom brides, the band, faithful and generous, that, undeterred by disappointments and undiminished--in this country at least--by time, has remained with me to the end.

September, 1911                                                                          S. J. W.