A Small Boy and others, by Henry James

23

We were still being but vaguely “formed,” yet it was a vagueness preferred apparently by our parents to the only definiteness in any degree open to us, that of the English school away from home (the London private school near home they would absolutely none of;) which they saw as a fearful and wonderful, though seemingly effective, preparation of the young for English life and an English career, but related to that situation only, so little related in fact to any other as to make it, in a differing case, an educational cul-desac, the worst of economies. They had doubtless heard claimed for it just that no other method for boys was so splendidly general, but they had, I judge, their own sense of the matter — which would have been that it all depended on what was meant by this. The truth was, above all, that to them the formative forces most closely bearing on us were not in the least vague, but very definite by their measure and intention; there were “advantages,” generally much belauded, that appealed to them scantly, and other matters, conceptions of character and opportunity, ideals, values, importances, enjoying no great common credit but for which it was their belief that they, under whatever difficulties, more or less provided. In respect of which I further remind myself of the blest fewness, as yet, of our years; and I come back to my own sense, benighted though it may have been, of a highly-coloured and remarkably active life. I recognise our immediate, our practical ferment even in our decent perambulations, our discussions, W. J.‘s and mine, of whether we had in a given case best apply for a renewal of our “artists’ materials” to Messrs. Rowney or to Messrs. Windsor and Newton, and in our pious resort, on these determinations, to Rathbone Place, more beset by our steps, probably, than any other single corner of the town, and the short but charged vista of which lives for me again in the tempered light of those old winter afternoons. Of scarce less moment than these were our frequent visits, in the same general connection, to the old Pantheon of Oxford Street, now fallen from its high estate, but during that age a place of fine rococo traditions, a bazaar, an exhibition, an opportunity, at the end of long walks, for the consumption of buns and ginger-beer, and above all a monument to the genius of that wonderful painter B. R. Haydon. We must at one time quite have haunted the Pantheon, where we doubtless could better than elsewhere sink to contemplative, to ruminative rest: Haydon’s huge canvases covered the walls — I wonder what has become now of The Banishment of Aristides, attended to the city gate by his wife and babe, every attitude and figure in which, especially that of the foreshortened boy picking up stones to shy at the all-too-just, stares out at me still. We found in these works remarkable interest and beauty, the reason of which was partly, no doubt, that we hung, to fascination, at home, over the three volumes of the hapless artist’s Autobiography, then a new book, which our father, indulgent to our preoccupation, had provided us with; but I blush to risk the further surmise that the grand manner, the heroic and the classic, in Haydon, came home to us more warmly and humanly than in the masters commended as “old,” who, at the National Gallery, seemed to meet us so little half-way, to hold out the hand of fellowship or suggest something that we could do, or could at least want to. The beauty of Haydon was just that he was new, shiningly new, and if he hinted that we might perhaps in some happy future emulate his big bravery there was nothing so impossible about it. If we adored daubing we preferred it fresh, and the genius of the Pantheon was fresh, whereas, strange to say, Rubens and Titian were not. Even the charm of the Pantheon yielded, however, to that of the English collection, the Vernon bequest to the nation, then arrayed at Marlborough House and to which the great plumed and draped and dusty funeral car of the Duke of Wellington formed an attractive adjunct. The ground-floor chambers there, none of them at that time royally inhabited, come back to me as altogether bleak and bare and as owing their only dignity to Maclise, Mulready and Landseer, to David Wilkie and Charles Leslie. They were, by some deep-seated English mystery, the real unattainable, just as they were none the less the directly inspiring and the endlessly delightful. I could never have enough of Maclise’s Play-scene in Hamlet, which I supposed the finest composition in the world (though Ophelia did look a little as if cut in silhouette out of white paper and pasted on;) while as I gazed, and gazed again, at Leslie’s Sancho Panza and his Duchess I pushed through the great hall of romance to the central or private apartments. Trafalgar Square had its straight message for us only in the May-time exhibition, the Royal Academy of those days having, without a home of its own, to borrow space from the National Gallery — space partly occupied, in the summer of 1856, by the first fresh fruits of the Pre–Raphaelite efflorescence, among which I distinguish Millais’s Vale of Rest, his Autumn Leaves and, if I am not mistaken, his prodigious Blind Girl. The very word Pre–Raphaelite wore for us that intensity of meaning, not less than of mystery, that thrills us in its perfection but for one season, the prime hour of first initiations, and I may perhaps somewhat mix the order of our great little passages of perception. Momentous to us again was to be the Academy show of 1858, where there were, from the same wide source, still other challenges to wonder, Holman Hunt’s Scapegoat most of all, which I remember finding so charged with the awful that I was glad I saw it in company —it in company and I the same: I believed, or tried to believe, I should have feared to face it all alone in a room. By that time moreover — I mean by 1858 — we had been more fully indoctrinated, or such was the case at least with W. J., for whom, in Paris, during the winter of 1857, instruction at the atelier of M. Léon Coigniet, of a limited order and adapted to his years, had been candidly provided — that M. Léon Coigniet whose Marius meditating among the Ruins of Carthage impressed us the more, at the Luxembourg (even more haunted by us in due course than the Pantheon had been,) in consequence of this family connection.

Let me not, however, nip the present thread of our æsthetic evolution without a glance at that comparatively spare but deeply appreciated experience of the London theatric privilege which, so far as occasion favoured us, also pressed the easy spring. The New York familiarities had to drop; going to the play presented itself in London as a serious, ponderous business: a procession of two throbbing and heaving cabs over vast foggy tracts of the town, after much arrangement in advance and with a renewal of far peregrination, through twisting passages and catacombs, even after crossing the magic threshold. We sat in strange places, with still stranger ones behind or beside; we felt walls and partitions, in our rear, getting so hot that we wondered if the house was to burst into flame; I recall in especial our being arrayed, to the number of nine persons, all of our contingent, in a sort of rustic balcony or verandah which, simulating the outer gallery of a Swiss cottage framed in creepers, formed a feature of Mr. Albert Smith’s once-famous representation of the Tour of Mont Blanc. Big, bearded, rattling, chattering, mimicking Albert Smith again charms my senses, though subject to the reflection that his type and presence, superficially so important, so ample, were somehow at odds with such ingratiations, with the reckless levity of his performance — a performance one of the great effects of which was, as I remember it, the very brief stop and redeparture of the train at Épernay, with the ringing of bells, the bawling of guards, the cries of travellers, the slamming of doors and the tremendous pop as of a colossal champagne-cork, made all simultaneous and vivid by Mr. Smith’s mere personal resources and graces. But it is the publicity of our situation as a happy family that I best remember, and how, to our embarrassment, we seemed put forward in our illustrative châlet as part of the boisterous show and of what had been paid for by the house. Two other great evenings stand out for me as not less collectively enjoyed, one of these at the Princess’s, then under the management of Charles Kean, the unprecedented (as he was held) Shakespearean revivalist, the other at the Olympic, where Alfred Wigan, the extraordinary and too short-lived Robson and the shrewd and handsome Mrs. Stirling were the high attraction. Our enjoyment of Charles Kean’s presentation of Henry the Eighth figures to me as a momentous date in our lives: we did nothing for weeks afterwards but try to reproduce in water-colours Queen Katharine’s dream-vision of the beckoning, consoling angels, a radiant group let down from the skies by machinery then thought marvellous — when indeed we were not parading across our schoolroom stage as the portentous Cardinal and impressively alternating his last speech to Cromwell with Buckingham’s, that is with Mr. Ryder’s, address on the way to the scaffold. The spectacle had seemed to us prodigious — as it was doubtless at its time the last word of costly scenic science; though as I look back from the high ground of an age that has mastered tone and fusion I seem to see it as comparatively garish and violent, after the manner of the complacently approved stained-glass church-windows of the same period. I was to have my impression of Charles Kean renewed later on — ten years later, in America — without a rag of scenic reinforcement; when I was struck with the fact that no actor so little graced by nature probably ever went so far toward repairing it by a kind of cold rage of endeavour. Were he and his wife really not coercively interesting on that Boston night of Macbeth in particular, hadn’t their art a distinction that triumphed over battered age and sorry harshness, or was I but too easily beguiled by the old association? I have enjoyed and forgotten numberless rich hours of spectatorship, but somehow still find hooked to the wall of memory the picture of this hushed couple in the castle court, with the knocking at the gate, with Macbeth’s stare of pitiful horror at his unused daggers and with the grand manner, up to the height of the argument, of Mrs. Kean’s coldly portentous snatch of them. What I especially owe that lady is my sense of what she had in common, as a queer hooped and hook-nosed figure, of large circumference and archaic attire, strange tasteless toggery, with those performers of the past who are preserved for us on the small canvases of Hogarth and Zoffany; she helped one back at that time of her life to a vision of the Mrs. Cibbers and the Mrs. Pritchards — so affecting may often be such recovered links.

I see the evening at the Olympic as really itself partaking of that antiquity, even though Still Waters Run Deep, then in its flourishing freshness and as to which I remember my fine old friend Fanny Kemble’s mentioning to me in the distant after-time that she had directed Tom Taylor to Charles de Bernard’s novel of Un Gendre for the subject of it, passed at the moment for a highly modern “social study.” It is perhaps in particular through the memory of our dismal approach to the theatre, the squalid slum of Wych Street, then incredibly brutal and barbarous as an avenue to joy, an avenue even sometimes for the muffled coach of Royalty, that the episode affects me as antedating some of the conditions of the mid-Victorian age; the general credit of which, I should add, was highly reestablished for us by the consummately quiet and natural art, as we expertly pronounced it, of Alfred Wigan’s John Mildmay and the breadth and sincerity of the representative of the rash mother-inlaw whom he so imperturbably puts in her place. This was an exhibition supposed in its day to leave its spectators little to envy in the highest finish reached by the French theatre. At a remarkable height, in a different direction, moved the strange and vivid little genius of Robson, a master of fantastic intensity, unforgettable for us, we felt that night, in Planché‘s extravaganza of The Discreet Princess, a Christmas production preluding to the immemorial harlequinade. I still see Robson slide across the stage, in one sidelong wriggle, as the small black sinister Prince Richcraft of the fairy-tale, everything he did at once very dreadful and very droll, thoroughly true and yet none the less macabre, the great point of it all its parody of Charles Kean in The Corsican Brothers; a vision filled out a couple of years further on by his Daddy Hardacre in a two-acts version of a Parisian piece thriftily and coarsely extracted from Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet. This occasion must have given the real and the finer measure of his highly original talent; so present to me, despite the interval, is the distinctiveness of his little concentrated rustic miser whose daughter helps herself from his money-box so that her cousin and lover shall save a desperate father, her paternal uncle, from bankruptcy; and the prodigious effect of Robson’s appalled descent, from an upper floor, his literal headlong tumble and rattle of dismay down a steep staircase occupying the centre of the stage, on his discovery of the rifling of his chest. Long was I to have in my ears the repeated shriek of his alarm, followed by a panting babble of wonder and rage as his impetus hurled him, a prostrate scrap of despair (he was a tiny figure, yet “so held the stage” that in his company you could see nobody else) half way across the room. I associate a little uncertainly with the same night the sight of Charles Matthews in Sheridan’s Critic and in a comedy botched from the French, like everything else in those days that was not either Sheridan or Shakespeare, called Married for Money; an example above all, this association, of the heaped measure of the old bills — vast and various enumerations as they were, of the size of but slightly reduced placards and with a strange and delightful greasy feel and redolence of printer’s ink, intensely theatrical ink somehow, in their big black lettering. Charles Matthews must have been then in his mid-career, and him too, wasted and aged, infinitely “marked,” I was to see again, ever so long after, in America; an impression reminding me, as I recover it, of how one took his talent so thoroughly for granted that he seemed somehow to get but half the credit of it: this at least in all save parts of mere farce and “patter,” which were on a footing, and no very interesting one, of their own. The other effect, that of a naturalness so easy and immediate, so friendly and intimate, that one’s relation with the artist lost itself in one’s relation with the character, the artist thereby somehow positively suffering while the character gained, or at least while the spectator did — this comes back to me quite as a part even of my earlier experience and as attesting on behalf of the actor a remarkable genius; since there are no more charming artistic cases than those of the frank result, when it is frank enough, and the dissimulated process, when the dissimulation has been deep. To drop, or appear to drop, machinery and yet keep, or at least gain, intensity, the interesting intensity separated by a gulf from a mere unbought coincidence of aspect or organ, is really to do something. In spite of which, at the same time, what I perhaps most retain, by the light of the present, of the sense of that big and rather dusky night of Drury Lane is not so much the felt degree of anyone’s talent as the fact that personality and artistry, with their intensity, could work their spell in such a material desert, in conditions intrinsically so charmless, so bleak and bare. The conditions gave nothing of what we regard today as most indispensable — since our present fine conception is but to reduce and fill in the material desert, to people and carpet and curtain it. We may be right, so far as that goes, but our predecessors were, with their eye on the essence, not wrong; thanks to which they wear the crown of our now thinking of them — if we do think of them — as in their way giants and heroes. What their successors were to become is another question; very much better dressed, beyond all doubt.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38