ON THE KIND OF FICTION CALLED MORBID
THIS is a poison-bad world for the romancer, this Anglo-
Saxon world,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson to Mr. Sidney
Colvin : and if a popular writer with an obvious style, after
his years of experience, came to this conclusion, we risk
little in asserting that the same conclusion has been reached
by many another writer whose style is not obvious, and
who is not so popular. Amongst these, the man who would be always intro-
ducing the thin presence of Death is, without doubt, the most reviled ; we will
have nothing of a fellow who comes to our feasts with a skull. And though
we all agree that Memento homo quia pulvis es is a fine and wise saying, yet,
i’ faith ! we are content to leave it at that ; and we clap the rogue who recalls
it in the stocks. Nay ! Ash Wednesday would have been long ago rubbed
out of the calendar, save that we are careful not to understand the full
significance of it ; just as we are careful not to understand the full significance
of Good Friday.
The smiling gentleman who hails us in the street does not like to think
that one day he must be dead ; archbishops are supposed not to like a dwell-
ing on that ; and a certain parson of easy life, whose business it is to preach
mortality, when invited by a plain writer to fall into a better acquaintance
with the cold guide who shall lead him to the Eternal Hills, flies into a
passion, calls my plain writer (of all things in the world !) immoral, and sits
down, raging, to write insolent letters to the papers. But (you will ask), do
not these people give a man the credit of his courage in facing what they dare
not face ? Well, no. For when a man has done the day’s appointed labour,
he stirs the fire, sinks into his armchair, and lo ! in a trice he spurns the
hearth and is off swinging the sword and aiding somewhat sulky damsels with
De Marsac ; or, if he is of a cold habit of body, he wanders in lanes where the
clover breathes, and John and Joan while away the white-winged hours
a-wooing. Or again, he hies to the ball, and watches the tenderness with
which my lord and the farmer’s daughter take the floor. If, then, to this man
168 THE SAVOY
a person of wry visage and hearse-like airs comes offering a sombre story—
why, up he leaps, grasps the intrusive fellow by the shoulders, and lands him
in the street. No ; it is certain that abnormal nerves are not understood or
thought proper in the suburban villa : and they are not tolerated by the Press,
which is almost the same thing. Even editors, those cocks that show how
the popular wind blows, if they have no kicks, have few ha’pence for the
writer of stories which are not sops to our pleasure. The thought of death is
not pleasant ! (folk may be imagined to exclaim) ; to escape that we laugh at
sorry farces and the works of Mr. Mark Twain ; and yet, here is a zany
with a hatful of dun thoughts formed to make one meditate on one’s tomb for
a week !
Still, for him, poor devil ! life is not all (as they say) beer and skittles.
With an impatience of facility, he sets to work sedulously on a branch of art
which he is pleased to consider difficult ; it cannot be pleasant work, since it
progresses with shudders and cold sweats ; it cannot be easy, since it is
acknowledged to be no easy thing to turn the blood from men’s faces. He is
even charmed by the fancy that he is driving his pen to a very high measure.
He may (by chance) be right ; he is possibly wrong ; but I am glad to say I
have yet to hear that Banquo’s ghost at the feast, and Cæsar’s ghost in the
tent, are deemed infamous, or (as the cant goes) immoral. And, talking of
Shakespeare, has it ever occurred to you how the critics would waggle their
heads at “Romeo and Juliet,” if it were presented to-day as a new piece by
William Shakespeare, Esq.?
“As in a vault, an ancient receptacle,
Where, for these many hundred years, the bones
Of all my buried ancestors are pack’d ;
Where bloody Tybalt, yet but green in earth,
Lies festering in his shroud ; where, as they say,
At some hours in the night spirits resort ;—
Alack ! alack ! is it not like, that I,
So early waking,—what with loathsome smells,
And shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth,
That living mortals, hearing them, run mad ;—
O, if I wake, shall I not be distraught,
Environed with all these hideous fears ?
And madly play with my forefathers’ joints ?
And pluck the mangled Tybalt from his shroud ?
And, in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone,
As with a club, dash out my desperate brains ?”
Methinks I see the words : “exotic,” “morbid,” “unhealthy,” ready-
made for that ! Ah ! how, then, can my modern writer expect to be suffered,
ON THE KIND OF FICTION CALLED MORBID; 169
any more than we suffer an undertaker to send out cards setting forth the
excellence of his wares. When he takes to the road, he must know that he is
in for a weary and footsore journey : comely persons, in beautiful garments,
with eyes full of invitation look down from bordering windows and jeer at his
sober parade ; he sees cool, shaded by-lanes which are never for him ; others
pass him on the road singing blithe, gamesome songs, and he is left to loiter.
And be sure he travels in glum company : the stiff-featured dead, with their
thin hands and strange smile, fall into step with him and tell him their dream-
like tales. The poor dead, whom we all forget so soon on this sunny earth !
I think they tell him that they have a kindness for those who perform the
last offices for them : the dead villager for the barber and the crone, the dead
peer for the undertakers who come by night to Belgrave Square. Perhaps it
is from fear of the ghosts who attend the march, that the writers of aweful
stories are few and far between, up and down the world. And when we meet
with such a one, whose head is humming like a top from the gray talk of his
fellow-passengers, should we not thank (rather than stone) him for his sense of
the decency of things, which prevents him from going tearing mad and
holding the highway with a gun ? I will wager that the recognition of this is
all he asks of reward from the “poison-bad world for the romancer,” for
sticking with iron courage to the graveside, and refusing to engage in work
less resolute, and more easy.
Yes, more easy ; for it is more easy—if more degrading—to write a
certain kind of novel. To take a fanciful instance, it is more easy to write the
history of Miss Perfect : how, upon the death of her parents, she comes to
reside in the village, and lives there mildly and sedately ; and how one day,
in the course of her walk abroad, she is noticed by the squire’s lady, who
straightway transports her to the Hall. And, of course, she soon becomes
mighty well with the family, and the squire’s son becomes enamoured of her.
Then the clouds must gather : and a villain lord comes on the scene to
bombard her virtue with clumsy artillery. Finding after months that her
virtue dwells in an impregnable citadel, he turns to, and jibes and goads the
young squire to the fighting point. And, presto ! there they are, hard at it
with bare steel, on the Norman beach, of a drizzling morning ; and the squire
is just pressing hot upon my lord, when—it’s hey ! for the old love, and ho !
for the new—out rushes my Miss Perfect to our great amazement, and falls
between the swords down on the stinging sands, in the sight of the toiling sea.
Now I maintain, that a novel woven of these meagre threads, and set out in
three volumes and a brave binding, would put up a good front at Mudie’s ;
170 THE SAVOY
would become, it too, after a while, morality packed in a box. For nowa-
days we seem to nourish our morals with the thinnest milk and water, with a
good dose of sugar added, and not a suspicion of lemon at all.
You will note that the letter- writer says, the “Anglo-Saxon world”—
Great Britain, say ! and the United States ; and it is well to keep in mind
this distinction. In France, for example, people appear eager to watch how
art triumphs over any matter. “Charles Baudelaire,” says Hamerton, “had
the poetical organization with all its worst inconveniences ;” but one incon-
venience he had not—the inconvenience of a timid public not interested in
form, and with a profound hatred of the unusual : a public from which
Edgar Poe, Beddoes, and Francis Saltus (to name but three) suffered—how
poignantly ! Let us cling by all means to our George Meredith, our Henry
James—our Miss Rhoda Broughton, if you will ; but then let us try, if we
cannot be towards others, unlike these, if not encouraging, at the least not
actively hostile and harassing, when they go out in the black night to follow
their own sullen will-o’-the-wisps.
O’Sullivan, Vincent. “On The Kind of Fiction Called Morbid.” The Savoy, vol. 2 April 1896, pp. 167-170. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv2-osullivan-fiction/