Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 4

Vivian duly kept his appointment with Madame Carolina. The chamberlain ushered him into a library, where Madame Carolina was seated at a large table covered with books and manuscripts. Her costume and her countenance were equally engaging. Fascination was alike in her smile, and her sash, her bow, and her buckle. What a delightful pupil to perfect in English pronunciation! Madame pointed, with a pride pleasing to Vivian’s feelings as an Englishman, to her shelves, graced with the most eminent of English writers. Madame Carolina was not like one of those admirers of English literature whom you often meet on the Continent: people who think that Beattie’s Minstrel is our most modern and fashionable poem; that the Night Thoughts is the masterpiece of our literature; and that Richardson is our only novelist. Oh, no! Madame Carolina would not have disgraced May Fair. She knew Childe Harold by rote, and had even peeped into Don Juan. Her admiration of the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews was great and similar. To a Continental liberal, indeed, even the Toryism of the Quarterly is philosophy; and not an Under–Secretary ever yet massacred a radical innovator without giving loose to some sentiments and sentences which are considered rank treason in the meridian of Vienna.

After some conversation, in which Madame evinced eagerness to gain details about the persons and manners of our most eminent literary characters, she naturally began to speak of the literary productions of other countries; and in short, ere an hour was passed, Vivian Grey, instead of giving a lesson in English pronunciation to the Consort of the Grand Duke of Reisenburg, found himself listening, in an easy-chair, and with folded arms, to a long treatise by that lady de l’Esprit de Conversation. It was a most brilliant dissertation. Her kindness in reading it to him was most particular; nevertheless, for unexpected blessings we are not always sufficiently grateful.

Another hour was consumed by the treatise. How she refined! what unexpected distinctions! what exquisite discrimination of national character! what skilful eulogium of her own! Nothing could be more splendid than her elaborate character of a repartee; it would have sufficed for an epic poem. At length Madame Carolina ceased de l’Esprit de Conversation, and Vivian was successful in concealing his weariness and in testifying his admiration. “The evil is over,” thought he; “I may as well gain credit for my good taste.” The lesson in English pronunciation, however, was not yet terminated. Madame was charmed with our hero’s uncommon discrimination and extraordinary talents. He was the most skilful and the most agreeable critic with whom she had ever been acquainted. How invaluable must the opinion of such a person be to her on her great work! No one had yet seen a line of it; but there are moments when we are irresistibly impelled to seek a confidant; that confidant was before her. The morocco case was unlocked, and the manuscript of Haroun Al Raschid revealed to the enraptured eye of Vivian Grey.

“I flatter myself,” said Madame Carolina, “that this work will create a great sensation; not only in Germany. It abounds, I think, with interesting story, engaging incidents, and animated and effective descriptions. I have not, of course, been able to obtain any new matter respecting his Sublimity the Caliph. Between ourselves, I do not think this very important. So far as I have observed, we have matter enough in this world on every possible subject already. It is manner in which the literature of all nations is deficient. It appears to me that the great point for persons of genius now to direct their attention to is the expansion of matter. This I conceive to be the great secret; and this must be effected by the art of picturesque writing. For instance, my dear Mr. Grey, I will open the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, merely for an exemplification, at the one hundred and eighty-fifth night; good! Let us attend to the following passage:—

“‘In the reign of the Caliph Haroun Al Raschid, there was at Bagdad a druggist, called Alboussan Ebn Thaher, a very rich, handsome man. He had more wit and politeness than people of his profession ordinarily have. His integrity, sincerity, and jovial humour made him beloved and sought after by all sorts of people. The Caliph, who knew his merit, had entire confidence in him. He had so great an esteem for him that he entrusted him with the care to provide his favourite ladies with all the things they stood in need of. He chose for them their clothes, furniture, and jewels, with admirable taste. His good qualities and the favour of the Caliph made the sons of Emirs and other officers of the first rank be always about him. His house was the rendezvous of all the nobility of the Court.’

“What capabilities lurk in this dry passage!” exclaimed Madame Carolina; “I touch it with my pen, and transform it into a chapter. It shall be one of those that I will read to you. The description of Alboussan alone demands ten pages. There is no doubt that his countenance was oriental. The tale says that he was handsome: I paint him with his eastern eye, his thin arched brow, his fragrant beard, his graceful mustachio. The tale says he was rich: I have authorities for the costume of men of his dignity in contemporary writers. In my history he appears in an upper garment of green velvet, and loose trousers of pink satin; a jewelled dagger lies in his golden girdle; his slippers are of the richest embroidery; and he never omits the bath of roses daily. On this system, which in my opinion elicits truth, for by it you are enabled to form a conception of the manners, of the age; on this system I proceed throughout the paragraph. Conceive my account of his house being the ‘rendezvous of all the nobility of the Court.’ What a brilliant scene! what variety of dress and character! what splendour! what luxury! what magnificence! Imagine the detail of the banquet; which, by the bye, gives me an opportunity of inserting, after the manner of your own Gibbon, ‘a dissertation on sherbet.’ What think you of the art of picturesque writing?”

“Admirable!” said Vivian; “von Chronicle himself — ”

“How can you mention the name of that odious man!” almost shrieked Madame Carolina, forgetting the dignity of her semi-regal character in the jealous feelings of the author. “How can you mention him! A scribbler without a spark, not only of genius, but even of common invention. A miserable fellow, who seems to do nothing but clothe and amplify, in his own fantastic style, the details of a parcel of old chronicles!”

Madame’s indignation reminded Vivian of a true but rather vulgar proverb of his own country; and he extricated himself from his very awkward situation with a dexterity worthy of his former years.

“Von Chronicle himself,” said Vivian; “von Chronicle himself, as I was going to observe, will be the most mortified of all on the appearance of your work. He cannot be so blinded by self-conceit as to fail to observe that your history is a thousand times more interesting than his fiction. Ah! Madame, if you can thus spread enchantment over the hitherto weary page of history, what must be your work of imagination!”

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