The doing of “The Decoration of Houses” amused me very much, but can hardly be regarded as a part of my literary career. That began with the publishing, in “Scribner’s Magazine,” of two or three short stories. The first was called “Mrs. Manstey’s View,” the second “The Fullness of Life.” Both attracted attention, and gave me the pleasant flutter incidental to first seeing one’s self in print; but they brought me no nearer to other workers in the same field. I continued to live my old life, for my husband was as fond of society as ever, and I knew of no other existence, except in our annual escapes to Italy. I had as yet no real personality of my own, and was not to acquire one till my first volume of short stories was published — and that was not until 1899. This volume, called “The Greater Inclination,” contained none of my earlier tales, all of which I had rejected as not worth reprinting. I had gone on working hard at the nouvelle form, and the stories making up my first volume were chosen after protracted consultations with Walter Berry, the friend who had shown me how to put “The Decoration of Houses” into shape. From that day until his death, twenty-seven years later, through all his busy professional life, he followed each of my literary steps with the same patient interest, and I doubt if a beginner in the art ever had a sterner yet more stimulating guide.
And now the incredible had happened! Out of the Pelion and Ossa of slowly accumulating manuscripts, plays, novels and dramas, had blossomed a little volume of stories — stories which editors had wanted for their magazines, and a publisher now actually wanted for a volume! I had been astonished enough to see the stories in print, but the idea that they might in the course of time be collected in a book never occurred to me till Mr. Brownell transmitted the Scribner proposal.
I had written short stories that were thought worthy of preservation! Was it the same insignificant I that I had always known? Any one walking along the streets might go into any bookshop, and say: “Please give me Edith Wharton’s book,” and the clerk, without bursting into incredulous laughter, would produce it, and be paid for it, and the purchaser would walk home with it and read it, and talk of it, and pass it on to other people to read! The whole business seemed too unreal to be anything but a practical joke played on me by some occult humourist; and my friends could not have been more astonished and incredulous than I was. I opened the first notices of the book with trembling hands and a suffocated heart. What I had done was actually thought important enough to be not only printed but reviewed! With a sense of mingled guilt and self-satisfaction I glanced at one article after another. They were unbelievably kind, but for the most part their praise only humbled me; and often I found it bewildering. But at length I came on a notice which suddenly stiffened my limp spine. “When Mrs. Wharton,” the condescending critic wrote, “has learned the rudiments of her art, she will know that a short story should always begin with dialogue.”
“ALWAYS”? I rubbed my eyes. Here was a professional critic who seemed to think that works of art should be produced by rule of thumb, that there could be a fixed formula for the design of every short story ever written or to be written! Even I already knew that this was ridiculous. I had never consciously formulated the principles of my craft, but during my years of experimenting I had pondered on them deeply, and this egregious commentary did me the immense service of giving my ponderings an axiomatic form. Every short story, I now saw, like every other work of art, contains within itself the germ of its own particular form and dimensions, and ab ovo is the artist’s only rule. In an instant I was free forever from the bogey of the omniscient reviewer, and though I was always interested in what was said of my books, and sometimes (though rarely) helped by the comments of the professional critics, never did they influence me against my judgment, or deflect me by a hair’s-breadth from what I knew to be “the real right” way.
In this I was much helped by Walter Berry. No critic was ever severer, but none had more respect for the artist’s liberty. He taught me never to be satisfied with my own work, but never to let my inward conviction as to the rightness of anything I had done be affected by outside opinion. I remember, after writing the first chapters of “The Valley of Decision,” which I had begun in a burst of lyric rapture and didn’t know how to go on with, confessing to him my difficulty and my discouragement. He looked through what I had written, handed it back, and said simply: “Don’t worry about how you’re to go on. Just write down everything you feel like telling.” The advice freed me once for all from the incubus of an artificially pre-designed plan, and sent me rushing ahead with my tale, letting each incident create the next, and keeping in sight only the novelist’s essential sign-post; the inner significance of the “case” selected. Yet when the novel was done, I remember how meticulously he studied it from the point of view of language, marking down faulty syntax and false metaphors, smiling away over-emphasis and unnecessary repetitions, helping me patiently through the beginner’s verbal perplexities, yet never laying hands on what he considered sacred: the SOUL of the novel, which is (or should be) the writer’s own soul.
I suppose there is one friend in the life of each of us who seems not a separate person, however dear and beloved, but an expansion, an interpretation, of one’s self, the very meaning of one’s soul. Such a friend I found in Walter Berry, and though the chances of life then separated us, and later his successful professional career, first in Washington, afterward as one of the Judges of the International Tribunal in Cairo, for long years put frequent intervals between our meetings, yet whenever we did meet the same deep understanding drew us together. That understanding lasted as long as my friend lived; and no words can say, because such things are unsayable, how the influence of his thought, his character, his deepest personality, were interwoven with mine.
He alone not only encouraged me to write, as others had already done, but had the patience and the intelligence to teach me how. Others praised, some flattered — he alone took the trouble to analyze and criticize. The instinct to write had always been there; it was he who drew it forth, shaped it and set it free. From my first volume of short stories to “Twilight Sleep,” the novel I published just before his death, nothing in my work escaped him, no detail was too trifling to be examined and discussed, gently ridiculed or quietly praised. He never overlooked a defect, and there were times when his silence had the weight of a page of censure; yet I never remember to have been disheartened by it, for he had so deep a respect for the artist’s liberty that he never sought to restrict my imagination or to check its flight. His invariable rule, though he prized above all things concision and austerity, was to encourage me to write as my own instinct impelled me; and it was only after the story or the book was done that we set out together on the “adjective hunts” from which we often brought back such heavy bags.
Once I had found my footing and had my material in hand, his criticisms became increasingly searching. With each book he exacted a higher standard in economy of expression, in purity of language, in the avoidance of the hackneyed and the precious. Sometimes I was not able to show him a novel before publication, and in that case he confined himself to friendly generalities, often helping me to avoid, in my next book, the faults he gently hinted at. When he could follow my work in manuscript he left no detail unnoticed; but though I sometimes caught a faint smile over a situation which he did not see from my angle, or a point of view he did not share, his only care was to help me do better whatever I had set out to do.
But perhaps our long, our ever-recurring talks about the masters of fiction, helped me even more than his advice. I had never known any one so instantly and unerringly moved by all that was finest in literature. His praise of great work was like a trumpet-call. I never heard it without discovering new beauties in the work he praised; he was one of those commentators who unseal one’s eyes. I remember his once saying to me, when I was very young: “It is easy to see superficial resemblances between things. It takes a first-rate mind to perceive the differences underneath.” Nothing has ever sharpened my own critical sense as much as that.
The comrade that he was to me in my work, he was also in the enjoyment of all things beautiful, stirring and exalting. He was tireless in his appreciation of beauty — beauty of architecture, of painting, of landscape. Whatever I saw with him, in the many lands we wandered through, I saw with a keenness doubled by his, and studied afterward with an ardour with which his always kept pace. To the end, through prolonged ill-health and the bitter consciousness of failing powers, his soul still struggled out to beauty; and I remember that, summoned to him at the first attack of his fatal illness, I found him lying speechless, motionless and barely able to look up, but yet able to whisper, as he recognized me: “Bamberg — in the hall.” After a moment’s bewilderment I guessed that he must be speaking of a new book — there was not a day when they did not pour in to his admirably chosen and ever-growing library; and going out into the hall I found a newly published quarto on the sculptures of Bamberg cathedral, which he had received only the day before. I brought it to him, and as I sat beside him with the open volume he whispered one by one the names of the most beautiful statues, and signed to me to hold the book up so that he could see them.
During his arduous professional life we had met only at long intervals; but when ill-health obliged him to resign from the International Tribunal of Cairo he came to live in Paris, and after that we were more often together. During all his working years, frequently interrupted by months of serious illness, he had managed to find time to read my manuscripts and send me long letters of criticism and encouragement; but from the time when he came to Paris, where I was then living, he was able to follow my work more closely, and his reading of each chapter as it was written and the listening to his comments as he read, gave fresh life to my writing.
Another joy was the discovering of the newest and most worthwhile books, and the talking them over together. He was a good linguist, and one of the most insatiable readers I have ever known; in science, history, biography, travels, archaeological explorations, and the newest books on art and letters, little of real value escaped him. But best of all (when he could be induced to do it) was his reading of poetry; a reading wholly different from Henry James’s, a thing apart, and unforgettable, more reticent, less emphatic, yet equally sensitive and moving.
I cannot picture what the life of the spirit would have been to me without him. He found time when my mind and soul were hungry and thirsty, and he fed them till our last hour together. It is such comradeships, made of seeing and dreaming, and thinking and laughing together, that make one feel that for those who have shared them there can be no parting.
But I must return to “The Greater Inclination,” and to my discovery of that soul of mine which the publication of my first volume called to life. At last I had groped my way through to my vocation, and thereafter I never questioned that story-telling was my job, though I doubted whether I should be able to cross the chasm which separated the nouvelle from the novel. Meanwhile I felt like some homeless waif who, after trying for years to take out naturalization papers, and being rejected by every country, has finally acquired a nationality. The Land of Letters was henceforth to be my country, and I gloried in my new citizenship.
I remember once saying that I was a failure in Boston (where we used to go to stay with my husband’s family) because they thought I was too fashionable to be intelligent, and a failure in New York because they were afraid I was too intelligent to be fashionable. An amusing instance of this point of view happened not long after my first book had come out, at a moment, that is, when I probably seemed to my New York friends at once more formidable and less “smart” than before I had appeared in print. I met a girlfriend, herself the epitome of all “smartness,” who told me that one of New York’s most fashionable hostesses had, rather apologetically, invited her to dine “with a few people who write.” “It will be rather Bohemian, I’m afraid,” the inviter added, “but they say one ought to see something of those people. I hope you won’t mind coming to help me out?” My young friend, who knew something of Paris and London society, was delighted at an innovation which promised to take us out of the New York rut, and so was I, for it chanced that I had been invited for the same evening. “Oh, what fun! Who do you suppose they’ll be?” I exulted, racking my brains to guess how our hostess, who was my cousin, could have made the acquaintance of the very people I was still vainly longing to know. The evening came, we assembled in the ornate drawing-room (one of those from which “The Decoration of Houses” had not cleared a single gewgaw!) and I discovered that the Bohemians were my old friend Eliot Gregory, most popular of New York diners-out (but who had the audacity to write an occasional article in a review or daily paper), George Smalley, the New York correspondent of the London “Times” — and myself! To emphasize our common peculiarity we were seated together, slightly below the salt, while up and down the rest of the long table the tiara-ed heads and bulging white waistcoats of the most accredited millionaires glittered between gold plate and orchids. Such was Fifth Avenue’s first glimpse of Bohemia, as personified by myself and two old friends!
I have often wondered, in looking back at the slow stammering beginnings of my literary life, whether or not it is a good thing for the creative artist to grow up in an atmosphere where the arts are simply non-existent. Violent opposition might be a stimulus — but was it helpful or the reverse to have every aspiration ignored, or looked at askance? I have thought over this many times, as I have over most problems of creative art, in the fascinating but probably idle attempt to discover HOW IT IS ALL DONE, and exactly what happens at that “fine point of the soul” where the creative act, like the mystic’s union with the Unknowable, really seems to take place. And as I have grown older my point of view has necessarily changed, since I have seen more and more would-be creators, whether in painting, music or letters, whose way has been made smooth from the cradle, geniuses whose families were prostrate before them before they had written a line or composed a measure, and who, in middle age, still sat in ineffectual ecstasy before the blank page or the empty canvas; while, on the other hand, more and more of the baffled, the derided or the ignored have fought their way to achievement. The conclusion is that I am no believer in pampered vocations, and that Schopenhauer’s “Was Einer ist” seems to me the gist of the matter. But as regards a case like my own, where a development no doubt naturally slow was certainly retarded by the indifference of every one about me, it is hard to say whether or no I was really hindered. I am inclined to think the drawbacks were outweighed by the advantages; chief among these being the fact that I escaped all premature flattery, all local celebrity, that I had to fight my way to expression through a thick fog of indifference, if not of tacit disapproval, and that when at last I met one or two kindred minds their criticisms were to me as sharp and searching as if they had been professionals in the exercise of their calling. Fortunately the fact that they were personal friends did not affect their judgment, and my craft was held in such small account in the only world I knew that I was always able to take the severest criticism without undue sensitiveness, and not unusually to profit by it. The criticism I have in mind is that given in the course of private talk, and not imparted by the reviews. I have no quarrel with the professional critics, who have often praised me beyond my merits; but the man who has to review fifty books a week, often on a great variety of subjects, can hardly deal as satisfactorily with any one of them as the friend talking over a book with a friend, and I have always found this kind of comment the most helpful.
The publishing of “The Greater Inclination” broke the chains which had held me so long in a kind of torpor. For nearly twelve years I had tried to adjust myself to the life I had led since my marriage; but now I was overmastered by the longing to meet people who shared my interests. I had found two delightful friends, who had helped to educate me and to widen my interests; but one was a busy lawyer who did not live in New York, and who, as his practice grew, had less and less leisure; while the other, a man many years older than myself, and of very worldly tastes, could not understand my longing to break away from the world of fashion and be with my own spiritual kin. What I wanted above all was to get to know other writers, to be welcomed among people who lived for the things I had always secretly lived for. I knew only one novelist, Paul Bourget, one of the most stimulating and cultivated intelligences I have ever met, and perhaps the most brilliant talker I have known; but we saw each other for only two or three weeks in the year, and he too was always rebuking me for my apathy in continuing a life of wearisome frivolity, and telling me that at the formative stage of my career I ought to be with people who were thinking and creating. Egerton Winthrop was too generous not to come round also to this view, and in the end it was he who urged my husband to go to London with me for a few weeks every year, so that I might at least meet a few men of letters, and have a taste of an old society in which the various elements had been fused for generations.
These arguments prevailed, and we went to London the year that “The Greater Inclination” appeared. Shortly after our arrival a friend gave me the address of James Bain, the well-known bookseller, and one day I dropped in at his shop to ask what interesting new books there were. In reply Mr. Bain handed me my own little volume, with the remark: “This is what everybody in London is talking about just now.” As Mr. Bain had no idea who I was, his astonishment on learning my identity was as great as mine when he tried to sell me my own first-born as the book of the day! I should have enjoyed intensely following up this first glimpse of success; but my husband was bored in London, where he would have been amused only among the sporting set, while I wanted to know the writers. It is always depressing to live with the dissatisfied, and my powers of enjoyment are so varied that when I was young I did not find it hard to adapt myself to the preferences of any one I was fond of. The people about me were so indifferent to everything I really cared for that complying with the tastes of others had become a habit, and it was only some years later, when I had written several books, that I finally rebelled, and pleaded for the right to something better. Meanwhile we soon left London to take up again the Italian wanderings which we both enjoyed, and out of which, in 1904, “The Valley of Decision” was to grow.
Before this happened, another change had come. We sold our Newport house, and built one near Lenox, in the hills of western Massachusetts, and at last I escaped from watering-place trivialities to the real country. If I could have made the change sooner I dare say I should never have given a thought to the literary delights of Paris or London; for life in the country is the only state which has always completely satisfied me, and I had never been allowed to gratify it, even for a few weeks at a time. Now I was to know the joys of six or seven months a year among fields and woods of my own, and the childish ecstasy of that first spring outing at Mamaroneck swept away all restlessness in the deep joy of communion with the earth. On a slope overlooking the dark waters and densely wooded shores of Laurel Lake we built a spacious and dignified house, to which we gave the name of my great-grandfather’s place, the Mount. There was a big kitchen-garden with a grape pergola, a little farm, and a flower-garden outspread below the wide terrace overlooking the lake. There for over ten years I lived and gardened and wrote contentedly, and should doubtless have ended my days there had not a grave change in my husband’s health made the burden of the property too heavy. But meanwhile the Mount was to give me country cares and joys, long happy rides and drives through the wooded lanes of that loveliest region, the companionship of a few dear friends, and the freedom from trivial obligations which was necessary if I was to go on with my writing. The Mount was my first real home, and though it is nearly twenty years since I last saw it (for I was too happy there ever to want to revisit it as a stranger) its blessed influence still lives in me.
The country quiet stimulated my creative zeal; and since the publication of “The Greater Inclination” I was naturally in the first fever of authorship. A year later, in 1900, I brought out my earliest attempt at a novel — a long tale, rather — and the year after, a second collection of short stories, under the title of “Crucial Instances.” The long tale, which was called “The Touchstone” — a quiet title carefully chosen for one of the quietest of my stories — had little success in America. John Lane bought the English rights, and thinking the title too colourless he renamed the book (naturally taking care not to consult me!) “A Gift from the Grave.” This seductive but misleading label must have been exactly to the taste of the sentimental novel-reader of the day, for to my mingled wrath and amusement the book sold rapidly in England, and I have often chuckled to think how defrauded the purchasers must have felt themselves after reading the first few pages.
My short stories had attracted the attention denied to “the Touchstone,” and I think it was in reference to a tale in “Crucial Instances” that I received what is surely one of the tersest and most vigorous letters ever penned by an amateur critic. “Dear Madam,” my unknown correspondent wrote, “have you never known a respectable woman? If you have, in the name of decency write about her!” It seems a long way from that comminatory cry to the point of view of the critic who, referring the other day to the republication (in an anthology of ghost stories) of one of my tales, “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” scathingly said it was hard to believe that a ghost created by so refined a writer as Mrs. Wharton would do anything so gross as to ring a bell! My career began in the days when Thomas Hardy, in order to bring out “Jude the Obscure” in a leading New York periodical, was compelled to turn the children of Jude and Sue into adopted orphans; when the most popular young people’s magazine in America excluded all stories containing any reference to “religion, love, politics, alcohol or fairies” (this is textual); the days when a well-known New York editor, offering me a large sum for the serial rights of a projected novel, stipulated only that no reference to “an unlawful attachment” should figure in it; when Theodore Roosevelt gently rebuked me for not having caused the reigning Duke of Pianura (in “The Valley of Decision”) to make an honest woman of the humble bookseller’s daughter who loved him; and when the translator of Dante, my beloved friend, Professor Charles Eliot Norton, hearing (after the appearance of “The House of Mirth”) that I was preparing another “society” novel, wrote in alarm imploring me to remember that “no great work of the imagination has ever been based on illicit passion!”
The poor novelists who were my contemporaries (in English-speaking countries) had to fight hard for the right to turn the wooden dolls about which they were expected to make believe into struggling suffering human beings; but we have been avenged, and more than avenged, not only by life but by the novelists, and I hope the latter will see before long that it is as hard to get dramatic interest out of a mob of irresponsible criminals as out of the Puritan marionettes who formed our stock-in-trade. Authentic human nature lies somewhere between the two, and is always there for a new great novelist to rediscover.
The amusing thing about this turn of the wheel is that we who fought the good fight are now jeered at as the prigs and prudes who barred the way to complete expression — as perhaps we should have tried to do, had we known it was to cause creative art to be abandoned for pathology! But I must return to the reigning Duke of Pianura, who about this time was more real to me than most of the people I talked and walked with in my daily life.
I have often been asked whether the writing of “The Valley of Decision” was not preceded by months of hard study. I had never studied hard in my life, and it was far too late to learn how when I began to write “The Valley of Decision”; but whenever I make this reply it is received with polite incredulity. The truth is that I have always found it hard to explain that gradual absorption into my pores of a myriad details — details of landscape, architecture, old furniture and eighteenth century portraits, the gossip of contemporary diarists and travellers, all vivified by repeated spring wanderings guided by Goethe and the Chevalier de Brosses, by Goldoni and Gozzi, Arthur Young, Dr. Burney and Ippolito Nievo, out of which the tale grew. I did not travel and look and read with the writing of the book in mind; but my years of intimacy with the Italian eighteenth century gradually and imperceptibly fashioned the tale and compelled me to write it; and whatever its faults — and they are many — it is saturated with the atmosphere I had so long lived in.
Professor Norton, who had by this time become one of my great friends, followed the development of the tale with interest, and helped it on by one of the most graceful gestes ever made by a distinguished scholar to a beginner. I happened to tell him that, though I had been picking up second-hand books on eighteenth century Italy whenever I could find them (hardly any of the classics of the period being then reprinted), there were a few that I had been unable to buy, and one or two that even the public libraries could not supply. Among these were the original (French) version of Goldoni’s memoirs, and the memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, published in Boston (of all places!) about 1824. A few weeks later there came to the Mount a box containing these unattainable treasures, and many other books, almost as rare, from the great library of travels at Shady Hill. For a whole summer these extremely valuable books, some quite irreplaceable, were left at the disposal of a young scribbler who was just starting on her first novel — and to Charles Norton it seemed perfectly natural, and almost an obligation, to hold out such help to a beginner.
The year after the publication of “The Valley of Decision” the “Century Magazine” asked me, to my great delight, to write the text for a series of water-colours of Italian villas by Mr. Maxfield Parrish. The suggestion had originated in the unexpected popularity of “The Decoration of Houses,” and also of “The Valley of Decision,” which was now rewarding me for the long months of toil and perplexity I had undergone in writing it. I was only beginning to be known as a novelist, but on Italian seventeenth and eighteenth century architecture, about which so little had been written, I was thought to be fairly competent.
Armed with this commission I set out with my husband for Rome in the winter of 1903, and began my work in all seriousness.
Before telling the story of “Italian Villas” I must speak of the friend whose kindness made its writing possible. Several years earlier, on starting on our annual pilgrimage to Italy, I had taken with me a letter from Paul Bourget to Vernon Lee (Miss Violet Paget), the author of “Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy,” “Belcaro” and “Euphorion,” three of my best-loved companions of the road. Bourget warned me that, though Miss Paget was an old friend of his, he could not promise that his introduction would be of any use, as her time was so much taken up by her invalid half-brother, Eugene Lee–Hamilton, who lived with her, that she saw very few people, and those only among her intimates. It was therefore with little hope of success that I drove out from Florence to Il Palmerino, the long low villa on the hillside of San Domenico where Miss Paget has so long made her home. I left Bourget’s letter, took a yearning look at the primrose-yellow house-front and the homely box-scented garden, and drove away with no expectation of ever seeing them again. But the next day Miss Paget wrote that, though her brother’s illness prevented her receiving visitors, yet if I chanced to be the Edith Wharton who had written a certain sonnet (I forget its name) which had attracted his attention in “Scribner’s Magazine,” she begged me to come as soon as possible, as he wished to make my acquaintance. Luckily I WAS the author of the sonnet, and I hastened back to Il Palmerino, where I was affectionately welcomed by its mistress, and led to the darkened room where her brother lay on the mattress that seemed so likely to be a grave.
Eugene Lee–Hamilton, who was then a middle-aged man. Had been one of Lord Lyons’s secretaries of Embassy in Paris during the Franco–Prussian war. The long period of over-strain and over-work, followed by the privations and horrors of the siege of Paris, had brought about a bad nervous breakdown, of a kind which the doctors of that day had not learned to deal with. Lee–Hamilton, his career cut short, lapsed into what seemed hopeless invalidism, and for years had lain motionless on the mattress on which I first saw him. By that time he had grown so weak that he could see only an occasional visitor, and for a very few moments. He was one of the most amusing talkers and raconteurs I have ever known, and a great lover of letters, and especially of poetry; but when I first met him he could neither read nor write, and was in such a state of weakness that his sister could only read a few lines to him at a time. These brief readings were usually chosen among the poets, and his literary curiosity had remained so alert that, in addition to the classics, he kept up with the new poets, even with those who had figured only in the reviews. It was in the course of these explorations that he happened on the sonnet which did me the great good turn of bringing me into contact with two of the most brilliant minds I have ever met.
His long years of suffering and helplessness had made Eugene Lee–Hamilton himself into a poet, and I have never understood why the poignant verse written during his illness, and published in a volume called “Sonnets of the Wingless Hours,” is not more widely known. I was proud to have any verse of mine praised by a poet of such quality, and I look back gratefully to the moments spent at his bedside, talking of the things of the spirit.
To lighten the gloom of the picture I must add that a few years later he rose miraculously from his mattress, learned again to walk, to write, and finally to ride a bicycle, and not long afterward came to America, where he paid us a visit to Land’s End, rejoicing in his recovered vigour, and keeping us and our guests in shouts of laughter by his high spirits and inimitable stories. I have often wished that the after-death resurrection, if it comes to us, might resemble the recovery of lost youth which made Lee–Hamilton’s return to life so exhilarating to all about him.
Thanks to him, my acquaintance with his sister had grown into a friendship which has never flagged, though we are so seldom together. Hitherto all my intellectual friendships had been with men, and Vernon Lee was the first highly cultivated and brilliant woman I had ever known. I stood a little in awe of her, as I always did in the presence of intellectual superiority, and liked best to sit silent and listen to a conversation which I still think almost the best of its day. I have been fortunate in knowing intimately some great talkers among men, but I have met only three women who had the real gift. They were Vernon Lee, Matilde Serao, the Neapolitan journalist and novelist, and the French poetess, the Comtesse de Noailles. It is hard to establish any comparison between beings so unlike in race, traditions and culture — but one might suggest the difference by saying that Matilde Serao’s talk was like the noonday glow of her own Mediterranean, while Vernon Lee’s has the opalescent play of a northerly sky, and Madame de Noailles’ resembled the most expensive fireworks.
No one welcomed “The Valley of Decision” more warmly than Vernon Lee, and it was a great encouragement to be praised by a writer whom I so much admired, and who was so unquestioned an authority on the country and the period I had dealt with. A year or two later the editor of the “Nuova Antologia,” then the leading Italian literary review, proposed to me to bring out an Italian translation of my novel, and Vernon Lee at once offered to write the introduction. For a reason I was never able to fathom (probably owing to a change in the administration of the review), the translation never appeared; but Vernon Lee’s admirable preface is in my possession, and I still hope it may serve to introduce Italian readers to my book.
These years were perhaps the happiest I was to know as regards literary hopes and achievements. My long experimenting had resulted in two or three books which brought me more encouragement than I had ever dreamed of obtaining, and were the means of my making some of the happiest friendships of my life. The reception of my books gave me the self-confidence I had so long lacked, and in the company of people who shared my tastes, and treated me as their equal, I ceased to suffer from the agonizing shyness which used to rob such encounters of all pleasure. It was in this mood that I arrived in Italy in 1903, and turned to Vernon Lee for help in preparing my new book.
Always generous to younger writers, she was doubly so to me because of my friendship with her brother, and of her interest in the task I had undertaken. At that time little had been written on Italian villa and garden architecture, and only the most famous country-seats, mostly royal or princely, had been photographed and studied. As, in “The Decoration of Houses,” Ogden Codman and I had purposely excluded palaces and royal chateaux from our list, and directed the attention of our readers to the study of small and simple houses, so I wished that my new book should make known the simpler and less familiar type of villa. At Frascati, for instance, I passed hurriedly over the familiar splendours of Falconieri and Mondragone in order to give more space to the lovely Muti gardens, which at that time were almost unknown; and wherever I went I followed the same plan. At first I found it difficult to get helpful information from Italians, even from those living on the spot; a “garden” to them still meant a humpy lawn with oval beds of cannas encircling a banana-plant, and I wasted a good deal of time before learning that I must ask for “giardini tagliati,” and not be discouraged by the usual reply: “Oh, you mean the old-fashioned garden with clipped shrubs? Well, we believe there IS one at the Villa So-and-so — but what can you find in that to interest you?”
Vernon Lee’s long familiarity with the Italian country-side, and the wide circle of her Italian friendships, made it easy for her to guide me to the right places, and put me in relation with people who could enable me to visit them. She herself took me to nearly all the villas I wished to visit near Florence, and it was thanks to her recommendation that wherever I went, from the Lakes to the Roman Campagna, I found open doors and a helpful hospitality.
Among the friendships then made I should like to record with particular gratitude that of the Countess Papafava of Padua, from whom I first heard of the fantastic Castle of Cattajo, and through whose kindness the intricately lovely gardens of Val San Zibio were opened to me; of Don Guido Cagnola of Varese, an authority on Italian villa architecture, and himself the owner of La Gazzada, the beautiful villa near Varese of which there is a painting by Canaletto in the Brera; of the Countess Rasponi, who lived in the noble villa of Font’allerta, above Florence, and supplemented Vernon Lee in guiding me among the Florentine and Sienese villas; of the great Enrico Boito, whose powerful protection opened the doors of some little-known villas of the Brianza and the Naviglio; and lastly of Countess Rasponi’s sister, my old friend the Countess Maria Pasolini of Rome and Ravenna, great lover of seventeenth and eighteenth century architecture, and an indefatigable guide in such a search as I was making. I have named them all here, because, although with the exception of the Countess Rasponi and Boito they are still alive, and I now and then have the pleasure of seeing them, I feel that I have never properly expressed my appreciation of their helpfulness. Their intelligent collaboration gave “Italian Villas” its chief value, and I like to recall the joy I had in making the book by naming the friends who helped me.
The day of the motor was not yet, and in addition to the difficulty of discovering the type of villa I was in search of there remained the problem of how to get to it when found. I never enjoyed any work more than the preparing of that book, but neither do I remember any task so associated with physical fatigue. Most of the places I wished to visit were far from the principal railway lines, and could be reached only by a combination of slow trains and broken-down horse conveyances, and we seemed to be always either rushing through the villas in order not to miss our train, or else, the villas exhaustively inspected, kicking our heels for hours in some musty railway-station. I remember that once, after a particularly fatiguing day, we were waiting at the Pavia station to catch a crowded express back to Milan. We had taken the tea-basket, but there was no time for tea till we reached the station. There, feeling on the verge of inanition, I started to brew it, in spite of my husband’s protests; but just as I filled our cups the express roared into the station, and we had to leap on board and force our way into a crowded compartment carrying the basket, the plates and the brimming cups! How we accomplished this I cannot imagine; but we did, to the astonishment and indignation of our fellow travellers.
I have said there were no motors in 1903; but as a toy of the rich they were beginning to appear, and my old friend George Meyer, then American Ambassador in Rome, was the owner of a magnificent specimen. Knowing that I wished to visit the Villa Caprarola, now familiar to every sight-seer, but then visible only to the privileged, he suggested taking me there in his car. I had never been in a motor before, and could hardly believe that we were to do the run to Caprarola and back (fifty miles each way) in an afternoon, and still have time to inspect the villa and gardens; but we did — we did with a vengeance! The car was probably the most luxurious, and certainly one of the fastest, then procurable; but that meant only a sort of high-perched phaeton without hood or screen, or any protection from the wind. My husband was put behind with the chauffeur, while I had the high seat like a coachman’s box beside the Ambassador. In a thin spring dress, a sailor hat balanced on my chignon, and a two-inch tulle veil over my nose, I climbed proudly to my perch, and off we tore across the Campagna, over humps and bumps, through ditches and across gutters, wind-swept, dust-enveloped, I clinging to my sailor-hat, and George Meyer (luckily) to the wheel. We did the run in an hour, and I was able to see the villa and gardens fairly well before we tore back to Rome, in time for a big dinner to which he and we happened to be going. It was great fun doing the Witch of Atlas, and blissful not to have to worry about tired horses or inconvenient trains; but when I reached the dinner my voice was entirely gone, and I spent the next days in bed, fighting an acute laryngitis. In spite of this I swore then and there that as soon as I could make money enough I would buy a motor; and so I did — and having a delicate throat, scoured the country in the hottest weather swaddled in a stifling hood with a mica window, till some benefactor of the race invented the wind-screen and made motoring an unmixed joy.
Meanwhile my first article had appeared in the “Century,” illustrated by a number of photographs, and by one of Maxfield Parrish’s brilliant idealisations of the Italian scene. Thanks to the latter, the article attracted much attention, but a note of warning soon came to me in the form of a distracted letter from the editor of the “Century,” Richard Watson Gilder, an old friend and a country neighbour in the Berkshires. It appeared that in the editorial offices of the “Century” Mr. Parrish’s fairy-tale pictures were justly admired, but it was agreed that the accompanying text was too dry and technical. Would I not, Mr. Gilder pleaded, introduce into the next number a few anecdotes, and a touch of human interest?
I am afraid my answer was curt. I had prepared for my task conscientiously; I knew that, at least in English, there was no serious work on Italian villa and garden architecture, and I meant, as far as I was able, to fill the want. I wrote back that if the “Century” wanted a series of sentimental and anecdotic commentaries on Mr. Parrish’s illustrations, I was surprised that one of the authors of “The Decoration of Houses” should have been commissioned to write them. But I added that if, on reflection, my articles were thought unsuitable to the illustrations (as they certainly were!) I was quite willing to annul my contract. This was not accepted, and the articles continued to appear, my only punishment being that the Century Company refused (when the volume came out) to publish the plans of certain little-known but important gardens, such as those of the Villas Muti at Frascati and Gori at Siena, which I had taken great pains to procure, because, according to the publishers, the public “did not care for plans.” I mention this because, when “Italian Villas” became, as it soon did, a working manual for architectural students and landscape gardeners, I was often reproached for not having provided the book with plans. In a sense, of course, the editors of the “Century” were right. My articles were quite out of keeping with the Parrish pictures, which should have been used to illustrate some fanciful tale of Lamotte–Fouque, Or Andersen’s “Improvisatore”; but I knew that, even had I had an architectural draughtsman as illustrator, the editorial scruples would not have been allayed, for what really roused them was not the lack of harmony between text and pictures but the fear their readers would be bored by the serious technical treatment of a subject associated with moonlight and nightingales. Therefore, having been given the opportunity to do a book that needed doing, I resolutely took it; and I hope the success of “Italian Villas,” which still has a steady sale, has made the publishers forgive me.
Again and again in my literary life I have encountered the same kind of editorial timidity. I think it was Edwin Godkin, then the masterly editor of the New York “Evening Post,” who said that the choice of articles published in American magazines was entirely determined by the fear of scandalizing a non-existent clergyman in the Mississippi Valley; and I made up my mind from the first that I would never sacrifice my literary conscience to this ghostly censor. Not being obliged to live solely by my pen I thought I owed it to less lucky colleagues to fight for the independence they might not always be in a position to assert. A higher standard of taste in letters can be achieved only if authors will refuse to write down to the particular Mississippi Valley level of the day (for there is always a censorship of the same sort, though it is now at the other end of the moral register), and the greatest service a writer can render to letters is to follow his conscience.
In the intervals of my work on “Italian Villas” I had published a number of short articles which I collected and brought out in 1905 in a volume called “Italian Backgrounds.” I do not intend to burden these pages with an account of every book I have written and I speak of “Italian Backgrounds” only because it is a convenient peg on which to hang an interesting discussion. In the ‘seventies and ‘eighties there had appeared a series of agreeable volumes of travel and art-criticism of the cultured dilettante type, which had found thousands of eager readers. From Pater’s “Renaissance,” and Symonds’ “Sketches in Italy and Greece,” to the deliciously desultory volumes of Vernon Lee, and Bourget’s delicate “Sensations d’Italie,” though ranging through varying degrees of erudition, they all represented a high but unspecialized standard of culture; all were in a sense the work of amateurs, and based on the assumption that it is mainly to the cultured amateur that the creative artist must look for appreciation, and that such appreciation ought to be, and often is, worth recording.
But while the cultivated reader continued to enjoy these books, and to ask for more, the voice of the trained scholar was sounding a note of resistance. Literary “appreciations” of works of art were being smiled away by experts trained in Bertillon–Morelli methods, and my deep contempt for picturesque books about architecture naturally made me side with those who wished to banish sentiment from the study of painting and sculpture. Then, with the publication of Berenson’s first volumes on Italian painting, lovers of Italy learned that aesthetic sensibility may be combined with the sternest scientific accuracy, and I began to feel almost guilty for having read Pater and even Symonds with such zest, and ashamed of having added my own facile vibrations to the chorus. The application of scholarly standards to the judgment of works of art certainly helped to clear away the sentimental undergrowth which had sprung up in the wake of the gifted amateur; but nowadays, as was almost certain to happen, the very critics who did the necessary clearing have come to recognize that, their task once done, there remains the imponderable something, the very soul of the work contemplated, and that this something may be felt and registered by certain cultivated sensibilities, whether or not they have been disciplined by technical training. There remains a field of observation wherein the mere lover of beauty can open the eyes and sharpen the hearing of the receptive traveller, as Pater, Symonds and Vernon Lee had done to readers of my generation. The combination of gifts required is seldom found, and the volumes which guided my early wanderings were succeeded by minor dithyrambs to which I never again felt tempted to add my own pipe of ecstasy; but there is certainly room for the gifted amateur in the field of artistic impressions — if only he is sufficiently gifted.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02