My life and loves Vol. 4
HOW I BEGAN TO WRITE
It was the conflict with my committee in Hackney over Parnell and his treatment by Gladstone that brought me to the parting of the ways. The Venezuela affair, the Damien incident, and my dislike of a lazy, aimless life, however luxurious, helped to decide me. Was I to continue to fool about London and waste myself on little committees, or should I give up my candidature for the House of Commons in Hackney and go abroad and try to become a writer? A long spell of bad weather in November, unceasing fog and rain, determined me. I packed up and went off to the Riviera. In a week I was installed at the Hotel of Cap d'Antibes with Mr. Sella as host, who gave me two excellent rooms on the first floor. I found that Grant Allen and his wife were staying in the hotel. I had known him for some time, but now I met him more intimately and soon confided to him that I had made a new start and was going to try to write some short stories.
Every night he and his wife came up to my sitting-room after dinner and I told them the stories before I wrote them. I told them the story of The Sheriff and His Partner, of Monies, the Matador and A Modern Idyll on three successive nights. They praised them all enthusiastically, and when they went away I sat down to write out the stories, one story each night. When I had finished all three I sent them off to the Fortnightly Review to be set up, and asked for proofs to be returned to me at once. I remember I spent two nights on the Modern Idyll, and afterwards worked on the proofs, while Mantes came perfectly on the first attempt. I was so excited with hope and fear that I went to Monte Carlo to while away the time till I could hope to get my stories back in print.
In a week or so I returned and went to my room and read the three stories. I saw that the story of The Sheriff and His Partner was spoilt by letting the facts dominate; real life is seldom artistic; I thought Monies, the Matador very much the better. I remember saying to myself that I had done what I intended, given the Spaniard his real place as an heroic man of action. I confess I thought it was better than the Carmen of Prosper Merimee, which, up to that time, I had regarded as the best Spanish story. But I preferred A Modem Idyll to either of the other two. There was in it a Sophoclean irony that appealed to me intensely. When the Deacon insisted on paying in order to keep the clergyman who was his wife's lover in the same town, I was hugely delighted: I felt sure it was good work.
I gave the three stories to Grant Allen and he agreed with me that Monies, the Matador and A Modern Idyll were much better than The Sheriff and His Partner. I began to work on other short stories. A fortnight later Grant Allen came and told me that he had a letter from Meredith about my stories. He had sent Monies and A Modern Idyll to him and asked his opinion on them.
We both regarded Meredith as the highest literary judge in England at that time. Meredith did not care so much for A Modern Idyll: "The story was too subacid," he thought, but he praised Mantes to the skies. To my delight, he said it was better than Carmen in every way; I had given even the bulls individuality, he said, whereas Merimee had dismissed them as brutes and had been content to give life to the one woman. Meredith ended his criticism with the words, "If there is any hand in England can do better than Mantes, I don't know it."
I have always thought of that letter as my knighting. And I really cared nothing afterwards for anyone's opinion of my work. Curiously enough, when I sat down to write a longer story, Elder Conklin, I found it very difficult, and the worst of it was that I didn't seem able to judge it properly. I suddenly remembered that Horace tells us that he couldn't judge his poetry for nine years-novem annas, and I found later, when a book of my stories was printed, that I could not judge them even to my own satisfaction till five or six years had elapsed after they were written. Really, an author is like a mother: her latest baby seems to her the most perfect, just as his latest story or play seems to the author the best he has done.
I sent out my first stories to three or four English magazines; although I was the editor of the Fortnightly Review, they were every one returned to me with thanks: only one editor even asked me to send him some other work, telling me that he didn't think that the English public cared for stories about bull-fighting. This amused me, so I turned A Modern Idyll and Monies, the Matador into my best French and sent them off to the Revue des Deux Mondes in Paris. Ferdinand Brunetiere, at that time editor of the Revue, was called "The Door of the French Academy." He wrote me immediately a charming letter, saying that it was the first time that he had ever received two masterpieces in one letter, but he went on to tell me that my French was faulty and that he hoped I would let him correct the worst passages. I was only too delighted. As soon as the stories appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes, they were praised in the English press, and at once the same editors who had rejected them wrote, asking me for some more stories. In this way I was brought to realize how low is the standard of criticism in England. The English editors always regarded me as an American, and had pleasure in trying to put me in what they thought was my place.
Talking one day to Meredith of the low standard of English literary criticism, he turned on me and said, "It is so true: I have never once been criticized in England at all fairly."