Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 3

Madame Carolina held her soirée in her own private apartments, the Grand Duke himself appearing in the capacity of a visitor. The company was numerous and brilliant. His Royal Highness, surrounded by a select circle, dignified one corner of the saloon; Madame Carolina at the other end of the room, in the midst of poets, philosophers, and politicians, in turn decided upon the most interesting and important topics of poetry, philosophy, and politics. Boston, and Zwicken, and whist interested some, and puzzles and other ingenious games others. A few were above conversing, or gambling, or guessing; superior intelligences, who would neither be interested nor amused, among these Emilius von Aslingen was most prominent. He leant against a door in full uniform, with his vacant eyes fixed on no object. The others were only awkward copies of an easy original; and among these, stiff or stretching, lounging on a chaise-lounge, or posted against the wall, Vivian’s quick eye recognised more than one of the unhappy votaries of white hats lined with crimson.

When Vivian made his bow to the Grand Duke he was surprised by his Royal Highness coming forward a few steps from the surrounding circle and extending to him his hand. His Royal Highness continued conversing with him for upwards of a quarter of an hour; expressed the great pleasure he felt at seeing at his Court a gentleman of whose abilities he had the highest opinion; and, after a variety of agreeable compliments (compliments are doubly agreeable from crowned heads), the Grand Duke retired to a game of Boston with his royal visitors. Vivian’s reception made a sensation through the room. Various rumours were immediately afloat.

“Who can he be?”

“Don’t you know? Oh! most curious story. Killed a boar as big as a bonasus, which was ravaging half Reisenburg, and saved the lives of his Excellency the Grand Marshal and his whole suite.”

“What is that about the Grand Marshal and a boar as big as a bonasus? Quite wrong; natural son of Beckendorff; know it for a fact. Don’t you see he is being introduced to von Sohnspeer! brothers, you know, managed the whole business about the leagued Princes; not a son of Beckendorff, only a particular friend; the son of the late General — I forget his name exactly. Killed at Leipsic, you know; that famous general; what was his name? that very famous general; don’t you remember? Never mind; well! he is his son; father particular friend of Beckendorff; college friend; brought up the orphan; very handsome of him! They say he does handsome things sometimes.”

“Ah! well, I’ve heard so too; and so this young man is to be the new under-secretary! very much approved by the Countess von S—— .”

“No, it can’t be! your story is quite wrong. He is an Englishman.”

“An Englishman! no!”

“Yes he is. I had it from Madame; high rank incog.; going to Vienna; secret mission.”

“Something to do with Greece, of course; independence recognised?”

“Oh! certainly; pay a tribute to the Porte, and governed by a hospodar. Admirable arrangement! have to support their own government and a foreign one besides!”

It was with pleasure that Vivian at length observed Mr. Sievers enter the room, and extricating himself from the enlightened and enthusiastic crowd who were disserting round the tribunal of Madame, he hastened to his amusing friend.

“Ah! my dear sir, how glad I am to see you! I have, since we met last, been introduced to your fashionable ruler, and some of her most fashionable slaves. I have been honoured by a long conversation with his Royal Highness, and have listened to some of the most eloquent of the Carolina coterie. What a Babel! there all are, at the same time, talkers and listeners. To what a pitch of perfection may the ‘science’ of conversation be carried! My mind teems with original ideas, to which I can annex no definite meaning. What a variety of contradictory theories, which are all apparently sound! I begin to suspect that there is a great difference between reasoning and reason!”

“Your suspicion is well founded, my dear sir,” said Mr. Sievers; “and I know no circumstance which would sooner prove it than listening for a few minutes to this little man in a snuff-coloured coat near me. But I will save you from so terrible a demonstration. He has been endeavouring to catch my eye these last ten minutes, and I have as studiously avoided seeing him. Let us move.”

“Willingly; who may this fear-inspiring monster be?”

“A philosopher,” said Mr. Sievers, “as most of us call ourselves here; that is to say, his profession is to observe the course of Nature; and if by chance he can discover any slight deviation of the good dame from the path which our ignorance has marked out as her only track, he claps his hands, cries [Greek: euraeka]! and is dubbed ‘illustrious’ on the spot. Such is the world’s reward for a great discovery, which generally, in a twelvemonth’s time, is found out to be a blunder of the philosopher, and not an eccentricity of Nature. I am not underrating those great men who, by deep study, or rather by some mysterious inspiration, have produced combinations and effected results which have materially assisted the progress of civilisation and the security of our happiness. No, no! to them be due adoration. Would that the reverence of posterity could be some consolation to these great spirits for neglect and persecution when they lived! I have invariably observed of great natural philosophers, that if they lived in former ages they were persecuted as magicians, and in periods which profess to be more enlightened they have always been ridiculed as quacks. The succeeding century the real quack arises. He adopts and develops the suppressed, and despised, and forgotten discovery of his unfortunate predecessor! and Fame trumpets this resurrection-man of science with as loud a blast of rapture as if, instead of being merely the accidental animator of the corpse, he were the cunning artist himself who had devised and executed the miraculous machinery which the other had only wound up.”

“But in this country,” said Vivian, “surely you have no reason to complain of the want of moral philosophers, or of the respect paid to them. The country of Kant — of —— ”

“Yes, yes! we have plenty of metaphysicians, if you mean them. Watch that lively-looking gentleman, who is stuffing kalte schale so voraciously in the corner. The leader of the Idealists, a pupil of the celebrated Fichte! To gain an idea of his character, know that he out-Herods his master; and Fichte is to Kant what Kant is to the unenlightened vulgar. You can now form a slight conception of the spiritual nature of our friend who is stuffing kalte schale. The first principle of his school is to reject all expressions which incline in the slightest degree to substantiality. Existence is, in his opinion, a word too absolute. Being, principle, essence, are terms scarcely sufficiently ethereal even to indicate the subtile shadowings of his opinions. Some say that he dreads the contact of all real things, and that he makes it the study of his life to avoid them. Matter is his great enemy. When you converse with him you lose all consciousness of this world. My dear sir,” continued Mr. Sievers, “observe how exquisitely Nature revenges herself upon these capricious and fantastic children. Believe me, Nature is the most brilliant of wits; and that no repartees that were ever inspired by hate, or wine, or beauty, ever equalled the calm effects of her indomitable power upon those who are rejecting her authority. You understand me? Methinks that the best answer to the idealism of M. Fichte is to see his pupil devouring kalte schale!”

“And this is really one of your great lights?”

“Verily! His works are the most famous and the most unreadable in all Germany. Surely you have heard of his ‘Treatise on Man?’ A treatise on a subject in which everyone is interested, written in a style which no one can understand.”

“You think, then,” said Vivian, “that posterity may rank the German metaphysicians with the later Platonists?”

“I hardly know; they are a body of men not less acute, but I doubt whether they will be as celebrated. In this age of print, notoriety is more attainable than in the age of manuscript; but lasting fame certainly is not. That tall thin man in black that just bowed to me is the editor of one of our great Reisenburg reviews. The journal he edits is one of the most successful periodical publications ever set afloat. Among its contributors, may assuredly be classed many men of eminent talents; yet to their abilities the surprising success and influence of this work is scarcely to be ascribed. It is the result rather of the consistent spirit which has always inspired its masterly critiques. One principle has ever regulated its management; it is a simple rule, but an effective one: every author is reviewed by his personal enemy. You may imagine the point of the critique; but you would hardly credit, if I were to inform you, the circulation of the review. You will tell me that you are not surprised, and talk of the natural appetite of our species for malice and slander. Be not too quick. The rival of this review, both in influence and in sale, is conducted on as simple a principle, but not a similar one. In this journal every author is reviewed by his personal friend; of course, perfect panegyric. Each number is flattering as a lover’s tale; every article an eloge. What say you to this? These are the influential literary and political journals of Reisenburg. There was yet another; it was edited by an eloquent scholar; all its contributors were, at the same time, brilliant and profound. It numbered among its writers some of the most celebrated names in Germany; its critiques and articles were as impartial as they were able, as sincere as they were sound; it never paid the expense of the first number. As philanthropists and admirers of our species, my dear sir, these are gratifying results; they satisfactorily demonstrate that mankind have no innate desire for scandal, calumny, and backbiting; it only proves that they have an innate desire to be gulled and deceived.”

“And who is that?” said Vivian.

“That is von Chronicle, our great historical novelist. When I first came to Reisenburg, now eight years ago, the popular writer of fiction was a man, the most probable of whose numerous romances was one in which the hero sold his shadow to a demon over the dice-box; then married an unknown woman in a churchyard; afterwards wedded a river nymph; and, having committed bigamy, finally stabbed himself, to enable his first wife to marry his own father. He and his works are quite obsolete; and the star of his genius, with those of many others, has paled before the superior brilliancy of that literary comet, Mr. von Chronicle. According to von Chronicle, we have all, for a long time, been under a mistake. We have ever considered that the first point to be studied in novel writing is character: miserable error! It is costume. Variety of incident, novelty, and nice discrimination of character; interest of story, and all those points which we have hitherto looked upon as necessary qualities of a fine novel, vanish before the superior attractions of variety of dresses, exquisite descriptions of the cloak of a signer, or the trunk-hose of a serving man.

“Amuse yourself while you are at Reisenburg by turning over some volumes which every one is reading; von Chronicle’s last great historical novel. The subject is a magnificent one, Rienzi; yet it is strange that the hero only appears in the first and the last scenes. You look astonished. Ah! I see you are not a great historical novelist. You forget the effect which is produced by the contrast of the costume of Master Nicholas, the notary in the quarter of the Jews, and that of Rienzi, the tribune, in his robe of purple, at his coronation in the Capitol. Conceive the effect, the contrast. With that coronation von Chronicle’s novel terminates; for, as he well observes, after that, what is there in the career of Rienzi which would afford matter for the novelist? Nothing! All that afterwards occurs is a mere contest of passions and a development of character; but where is a procession, a triumph, or a marriage?

“One of von Chronicle’s great characters in this novel is a Cardinal. It was only last night that I was fortunate enough to have the beauties of the work pointed out to me by the author himself. He entreated, and gained my permission to read to me what he himself considered ‘the great scene.’ I settled myself in my chair, took out my handkerchief, and prepared my mind for the worst. While I was anticipating the terrors of a heroine he introduced me to his Cardinal. Thirty pages were devoted to the description of the prelate’s costume. Although clothed in purple, still, by a skilful adjustment of the drapery, von Chronicle managed to bring in six other petticoats. I thought this beginning would never finish, but to my surprise, when he had got to the seventh petticoat, he shut his book, and leaning over the table, asked me what I thought of his ‘great scene.’ ‘My friend,’ said I, ‘you are not only the greatest historical novelist that ever lived, but that ever will live.’”

“I shall certainly get Rienzi,” said Vivian; “it seems to me to be an original work.”

“Von Chronicle tells me that he looks upon it as his masterpiece, and that it may be considered as the highest point of perfection to which his system of novel-writing can be carried. Not a single name is given in the work, down even to the rabble, for which he has not contemporary authority; but what he is particularly proud of are his oaths. Nothing, he tells me, has cost him more trouble than the management of the swearing: and the Romans, you know, are a most profane nation. The great difficulty to be avoided was using the ejaculations of two different ages. The ‘sblood’ of the sixteenth century must not be confounded with the ‘zounds’ of the seventeenth. Enough of von Chronicle! The most amusing thing,” continued Mr. Sievers, “is to contrast this mode of writing works of fiction with the prevalent and fashionable method of writing works of history. Contrast the ‘Rienzi’ of von Chronicle with the ‘Haroun Al Raschid’ of Madame Carolina. Here we write novels like history, and history like novels: all our facts are fancy, and all our imagination reality.” So saying, Mr. Sievers rose, and, wishing Vivian good night, quitted the room. He was one of those prudent geniuses who always leave off with a point.

Mr. Sievers had not left Vivian more than a minute when the little Prince Maximilian came up and bowed to him in a condescending manner. Our hero, who had not yet had an opportunity of speaking with him, thanked him cordially for his handsome present, and asked him how he liked the Court.

“Oh, delightful! I pass all my time with the Grand Duke and Madame:” and here the young apostate settled his military stock and arranged the girdle of his sword. “Madame Carolina,” continued he, “has commanded me to inform you that she desires the pleasure of your attendance.”

The summons was immediately obeyed, and Vivian had the honour of a long conversation with the interesting Consort of the Grand Duke. He was, for a considerable time, complimented by her enthusiastic panegyric of England, her original ideas of the character and genius of Lord Byron, her veneration for Sir Humphry Davy, and her admiration of Sir Walter Scott. Not remiss was Vivian in paying, in his happiest manner, due compliments to the fair and royal authoress of the Court of Charlemagne. While she spoke his native tongue, he admired her accurate English; and while she professed to have derived her imperfect knowledge of his perfect language from a study of its best authors, she avowed her belief of the impossibility of ever speaking it correctly without the assistance of a native. Conversation became more interesting.

When Vivian left the palace he was not unmindful of an engagement to return there the next day, to give a first lesson in English pronunciation to Madame Carolina.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19