How to write a Fashionable Novel

[Scene.—Chambers in Lincoln’s Inn. Arthur Ansard at a briefless table, tête-à-tête with his wig on a block. A. casts a disconsolate look upon his companion, and soliloquises.]

003-a-bYes, there you stand, “partner of my toils, my feelings, and my fame.” We do not suit, for we never gained a suit together. Well, what with reporting for the bar, writing for the Annuals and the Pocket-books, I shall be able to meet all demands, except those of my tailor; and, as his bill is most characteristically long, I think I shall be able to make it stretch over till next term, by which time I hope to fulfil my engagements with Mr C., who has given me an order for a fashionable novel, written by a “nobleman.” But how I, who was never inside of an aristocratical mansion in my life, whose whole idea of Court is comprised in the Court of King’s Bench, am to complete my engagement, I know no more than my companion opposite, who looks so placidly stupid under my venerable wig. As far as the street door, the footman and carriage, and the porter, are concerned, I can manage well enough; but as to what occurs within doors, I am quite abroad. I shall never get through the first chapter; yet that tailor’s bill must be paid. (Knocking outside.) Come in, I pray.

Enter Barnstaple.

B. Merry Christmas to you, Arthur.

A. Sit down, my dear fellow; but don’t mock me with merry Christmas. He emigrated long ago. Answer me seriously: do you think it possible for a man to describe what he never saw?

B. (putting his stick up to his chin.) Why, ’tis possible; but I would not answer for the description being quite correct.

A. But suppose the parties who read it have never seen the thing described?

B. Why then it won’t signify whether the description be correct or not.

A. You have taken a load off my mind; but still I am not quite at ease. I have engaged to furnish C. with a fashionable novel.

B. What do you mean to imply by a fashionable novel?

A. I really can hardly tell. His stipulations were, that it was to be a “fashionable novel in three volumes, each volume not less than three hundred pages.”

B. That is to say, that you are to assist him in imposing on the public.

A. Something very like it, I’m afraid; as it is further agreed that it is to be puffed as coming from a highly talented nobleman.

B. You should not do it, Ansard.

A. So conscience tells me, but my tailor’s bill says Yes; and that is a thing out of all conscience. Only look here.

[Displays a long bill.

B. Why, I must acknowledge, Ansard, that there is some excuse. One needs must, when the devil drives; but you are capable of better things.

A. I certainly don’t feel great capability in this instance. But what can I do? The man will have nothing else—he says the public will read nothing else.

B. That is to say, that because one talented author astonished the public by style and merits peculiarly his own, and established, as it were, a school for neophites, his popularity is to be injured by contemptible imitators. It is sufficient to drive a man mad, to find that the tinsel of others, if to be purchased more cheaply, is to be pawned upon the public instead of his gold; and more annoying still, that the majority of the public cannot appreciate the difference between the metal and the alloy. Do you know, Ansard, that by getting up this work, you really injure the popularity of a man of great talent?

A. Will he pay my tailor’s bill?

B. No; I daresay he has enough to do to pay his own. What does your tailor say?

A. He is a staunch reformer, and on March the 1st he declares that he will have the bill, the whole bill, and nothing but the bill—carried to my credit. Mr C., on the 10th of February, also expects the novel, the whole novel, and nothing but the novel, and that must be a fashionable novel. Look here, Barnstaple. (Shows his tailor’s bill.)

B. I see how it is. He “pays your poverty, and not your will.”

A. And, by your leave, I thus must pay my bill (bowing.)

B. Well, well, I can help you: nothing more difficult than to write a good novel, and nothing more easy than to write a bad one. If I were not above the temptation, I could pen you a dozen of the latter every ordinary year, and thirteen, perhaps, in the bissextile. So banish that Christmas cloud from your brow; leave off nibbling your pen at the wrong end, and clap a fresh nib to the right one. I have an hour to spare.

A. I thank you: that spare hour of yours may save me many a spare day. I’m all attention—proceed.

B. The first point to be considered is the tempus, or time; the next the locus, or place; and lastly, the dramatis personæ; and thus, chapter upon chapter, will you build a novel.

A. Build!

B. Yes, build; you have had your dimensions given, the interior is left to your own decoration. First, as to the opening. Suppose we introduce the hero in his dressing-room. We have something of the kind in Pelham; and if we can’t copy his merits, we must his peculiarities. Besides, it always is effective: a dressing-room or boudoir 182] of supposed great people, is admitting the vulgar into the arcana, which they delight in.

A. Nothing can be better.

B. Then, as to time; as the hero is still in bed, suppose we say four o’clock in the afternoon?

A. In the morning, you mean.

B. No; the afternoon. I grant you that fashionable young men in real life get up much about the same time as other people; but in a fashionable novel your real exclusive never rises early. The very idea makes the tradesman’s wife lift up her eyes. So begin. “It was about thirty-three minutes after four, post meridian——”

A. Minute—to a minute!

B. “That the Honourable Augustus Bouverie’s finely chiselled——”

A. Chiselled!

B. Yes; great people are always chiselled; common people are only cast.—”Finely chiselled head was still recumbent upon his silk-encased pillow. His luxuriant and Antinous-like curls were now confined in papillotes of the finest satin paper, and the tout ensemble of his head——”

A. Tout ensemble!

B. Yes; go on.—”Was gently compressed by a caul of the finest net-work, composed of the threads spun from the beauteous production of the Italian worm.”

A. Ah! now I perceive—a silk nightcap. But why can’t I say at once a silk nightcap?

B. Because you are writing a fashionable novel.—”With the forefinger of his gloved left hand——”

A. But he’s not coming in from a walk—he’s not yet out of bed.

B. You don’t understand it.—”Gloved left hand he applied a gentle friction to the portal of his right eye, which unclosing at the silent summons, enabled him to perceive a repeater studded with brilliants, and ascertain the exact minute of time, which we have already made known to the reader, and at which our history opens.”

A. A very grand opening indeed!

B. Not more than it ought to be for a fashionable novel.—”At the sound of a silver clochette, his faithful Swiss valet Coridon, who had for some time been unperceived at the door, waiting for some notice of his master, having thrown off the empire of Somnus, in his light pumps, covered with beaver, moved with noiseless step up to the bedside, like the advance of eve stealing over the face of nature.”

A. Rather an incongruous simile.

B. Not for a fashionable novel.—”There he stood, like Taciturnity bowing at the feet of proud Authority.”

A. Indeed, Barnstaple, that is too outré.

B. Not a whit: I am in the true “Cambysis’ vein.”—”Coridon having softly withdrawn the rose-coloured gros de Naples bed-curtains, which by some might have been thought to have been rather too extravagantly fringed with the finest Mechlin lace, exclaimed with a tone of tremulous deference and affection, ‘Monsieur a bien dormi?’ ‘Coridon,’ said the Honourable Augustus Bouverie, raising himself on his elbow in that eminently graceful attitude, for which he was so remarkable when reclining on the ottomans at Almack’s——”

A. Are you sure they have ottamans there?

B. No; but your readers can’t disprove it.—”‘Coridon,’ said he, surveying his attendant from head to foot, and ultimately assuming a severity of countenance, ‘Coridon, you are becoming gross, if not positively what the people call fat.’ The Swiss attendant fell back in graceful astonishment three steps, and arching his eyebrows, extending his inverted palms forward, and raising his shoulders above the apex of his head, exclaimed, ‘Pardon, mi lor, j’en aurois un horreur parfait.’ ‘I tell you,’ replied our gracefully recumbent hero, ‘that it is so, Coridon; and I ascribe it to your partiality for that detestable wine called Port. Confine yourself to Hock and Moselle, sirrah: I fear me, you have a base hankering after mutton and beef. Restrict yourself to salads, and do not sin even with an omelette more than once a week. Coridon must be visionary and diaphanous, or he is no Coridon for me. Remove my night-gloves, and assist me to rise: it is past four o’clock, and the sun must have, by this time, sufficiently aired this terrestrial globe.'”

A. I have it now; I feel I could go on for an hour.

B. Longer than that, before you get him out of his dressing-room. You must make at least five chapters before he is apparelled, or how can you write a fashionable novel, in which you cannot afford more than two incidents in the three volumes? Two are absolutely necessary for the editor of the —— Gazette to extract as specimens, before he winds up an eulogy. Do you think that you can proceed now for a week, without my assistance?

A. I think so, if you will first give me some general ideas. In the first place, am I always to continue in this style?

B. No; I thought you knew better. You must throw in patches of philosophy every now and then.

A. Philosophy in a fashionable novel?

B. Most assuredly, or it would be complained of as trifling; but a piece, now and then, of philosophy, as unintelligible as possible, stamps it with deep thought. In the dressing-room, or boudoir, it must be occasionally Epicurean; elsewhere, especially in the open air, more Stoical.

A. I’m afraid that I shall not manage that without a specimen to copy from. Now I think of it, Eugene Aram says something very beautiful on a starry night.

B. He does: it is one of the most splendid pieces of writing in our language. But I will have no profanation, Arthur;—to your pen again, and write. We’ll suppose our hero to have retired from the crowded festivities of a ball-room at some lordly mansion in the country, and to have wandered into a churchyard, damp and dreary with a thick London fog. In the light dress of fashion, he throws himself on a tombstone. “Ye dead!” exclaims the hero, “where are ye? Do your disembodied spirits now float around me, and, shrouded in this horrible veil of nature, glare unseen upon vitality? Float ye upon this intolerable mist, in yourselves still more misty and intolerable? Hold ye high jubilee to-night? or do ye crouch behind these monitorial stones, gibbering and chattering at one who dares thus to invade your precincts? Here may I hold communion with my soul, and, in the invisible presence of those who could, but dare not to reveal. Away! it must not be.”

A. What mustn’t be?

B. That is the mystery which gives the point to his soliloquy. Leave it to the reader’s imagination.

A. I understand. But still the Honourable Augustus cannot lie in bed much longer, and I really shall not be able to get him out without your assistance. I do not comprehend how a man can get out of bed gracefully; he must show his bare legs, and the alteration of position is in itself awkward.

B. Not half so awkward as you are. Do you not feel that he must not be got out of bed at all—that is, by description.

A. How then?

B. By saying nothing about it. Re-commence as follows:—”‘I should like the bath at seventy-six and a half, Coridon,’ observed the Honourable Augustus Bouverie, as he wrapped his embroidered dressing-gown round his elegant form, and sank into a chaise longue, wheeled by his faithful attendant to the fire.” There, you observe, he is out of bed, and nothing said about it.

A. Go on, I pray thee.

B. “‘How is the bath perfumed?’ ‘Eau de mille fleurs.’ ‘Eau de mille fleurs! Did not I tell you last week that I was tired of that villanous compound? It has been adulterated till nothing remains but its name. Get me another bath immediately au violet; and, Coridon, you may use that other scent, if there is any left, for the poodle; but observe, only when you take him an airing, not when he goes with me.'”

A. Excellent! I now feel the real merits of an exclusive; but you said something about dressing-room, or in-door philosophy.

B. I did; and now is a good opportunity to introduce it. Coridon goes into the ante-chamber to renew the bath, and of course your hero has met with a disappointment in not having the bath to his immediate pleasure. He must press his hands to his forehead. By-the-bye, recollect that his forehead, when you describe it, must be high and white as snow: all aristocratical foreheads are—at least, are in a fashionable novel.

A. What! the women’s and all?

B. The heroine’s must be; the others you may lower as a contrast. But to resume with the philosophy. He strikes his forehead, lifts his eyes slowly up to the ceiling, and drops his right arm as slowly down by the side of the chaise longue; and then in a voice so low that it might have been considered a whisper, were it not for its clear and brilliant intonation, he exclaims——

A. Exclaims in a whisper!

B. To be sure; you exclaim mentally,—why should you not in a whisper?

A. I perceive—your argument is unanswerable.

B. Stop a moment; it will run better thus:—”The Honourable Augustus Bouverie no sooner perceived himself alone, than he felt the dark shades of melancholy ascending and brooding over his mind, and enveloping his throbbing heart in their—their adamantine chains. Yielding to the overwhelming force, he thus exclaimed, ‘Such is life—we require but one flower, and we are offered noisome thousands—refused that we wish, we live in loathing of that not worthy to be received—mourners from our cradle to our grave, we utter the shrill cry at our birth, and we sink in oblivion with the faint wail of terror. Why should we, then, ever commit the folly to be happy?'”

A. Hang me, but that’s a poser!

B. Nonsense! hold your tongue; it is only preparatory to the end. “Conviction astonishes and torments—destiny prescribes and falsifies—attraction drives us away—humiliation supports our energies. Thus do we recede into the present, and shudder at the Elysium of posterity.”

A. I have written all that down, Barnstaple; but I cannot understand it, upon my soul!

B. If you had understood one particle, that particle I would have erased. This is your true philosophy of a fashionable novel, the extreme interest of which consists in its being unintelligible. People have such an opinion of their own abilities, that if they understood you, they would despise you; but a dose like this strikes them with veneration for your talents.

A. Your argument is unanswerable; but you said that I must describe the dressing-room.

B. Nothing more easy; as a simile, compare it to the shrine of some favoured saint in a richly-endowed Catholic church. Three tables at least, full of materials in methodised confusion—all tending to the beautification of the human form divine. Tinted perfumes in every variety of cut crystal receivers, gold and silver. If at a loss, call at Bayley’s and Blew’s, or Smith’s in Bond Street. Take an accurate survey of all you see, and introduce your whole catalogue. You cannot be too minute. But, Arthur, you must not expect me to write the whole book for you.

A. Indeed I am not so exorbitant in my demands upon your good-nature; but observe, I may get up four or five chapters already with the hints you have given me, but I do not know how to move such a creation of the brain—so ethereal, that I fear he will melt away; and so fragile, that I am in terror lest he fall to pieces. Now only get him into the breakfast-room for me, and then I ask no more for the present. Only dress him, and bring him down stairs.

B. There again you prove your incapability. Bring him down stairs! Your hero of a fashionable novel never ascends to the first floor. Bed-room, dressing-room, breakfast-room, library, and boudoir, all are upon a level. As for his dressing, you must only describe it as perfect when finished; but not enter into a regular detail, except 188] that, in conversation with his valet, he occasionally asks for something unheard-of, or fastidious to a degree. You must not walk him from one chamber to another, but manage it as follows:—

“It was not until the beautiful airs of the French clock that decorated the mantel-piece had been thrice played, with all their variations, that the Honourable Augustus Bouverie entered his library, where he found his assiduous Coridon burning an aromatic pastile to disperse the compound of villanous exhalations arising from the condensed metropolitan atmosphere. Once more in a state of repose, to the repeated and almost affecting solicitations of his faithful attendant, who alternately presented to him the hyson of Pekoe, the bohea of Twankay, the fragrant berry from the Asiatic shore, and the frothing and perfumed decoction of the Indian nut, our hero shook his head in denial, until he at last was prevailed upon to sip a small liqueur glass of eau sucrée.” The fact is, Arthur, he is in love—don’t you perceive? Now introduce a friend, who rallies him—then a resolution to think no more of the heroine—a billet on a golden salver—a counter resolution—a debate which equipage to order—a decision at last—hat, gloves, and furred great-coat—and by that time you will have arrived to the middle of the first volume.

A. I perceive; but I shall certainly stick there without your assistance.

B. You shall have it, my dear fellow. In a week I will call again, and see how you get on. Then we’ll introduce the heroine; that, I can tell you, requires some tact—au revoir.

A. Thanks, many thanks, my dear Barnstaple. Fare you well.

[Exit Barnstaple.

A. (Looking over his memoranda.)—It will do! (Hopping and dancing about the room.) Hurrah! my tailor’s bill will be paid after all!

Metropolitan Magazine, 1833.

Author: Frederick Marryat

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