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This is a spring day, and I am writing in a flood of sunlight in front of a brown French inn. Above my head there is the dusty branch of a tree stuck out of a window, the ancient sign that gave point to the proverb, 'Good wine needs no bush.' Good books, I suppose, need no prefaces. But honest authors realise that their books are never as good as they had planned them. A preface, put on last and worn in front, to show what they would have liked their books to be, is the pleasantest of their privileges. And I am not inclined to do without it.
A book that calls itself a history of a subject with as many byeways and blind alleys as exist in the history of story-telling, is precisely the kind of book that one would wish one's enemy to have written. Everybody who reads it grumbles because something or other is left out that, if they had had the writing of it, would have been put in. And yet in the case of this particular book (how many authors have thought the same!) criticism
of omissions is like quarrelling with a guinea-pig because it has not got a tail. It is not the guinea-pig's business to have a tail, and it is not the business of this book to be a chronicle, full of facts, and admirable for reference. That place is already filled by Dunlop's History of Fiction, and, in a very delightful manner, by Professor Raleigh's English Novel. The word history can be used in a different sense. The French say that such an one makes a history of a thing when he makes a great deal of talk about it. That is what I set out to do. My business was not to be noting down dates and facts—this book was published in such a year and this in the year preceding. I was to write with a livelier imp astride my pen. The schoolmaster was to be sent to steal apples in the orchard. I was to write of story-telling as a man might write of painting or jewellery or any other art he loved. I was to take here a book and there a book, and notice the development of technique, the conquests of new material, the gradual perfecting of form. I would talk of old masters and modern ones, and string my chapters like beads, a space between each, along the history of the art.
Well, I have fait une histoire, suggested mainly by the masterpieces that I love, and without too much regard for those that happen to be loved by
other people. And now that it is done, I think of it sadly enough. It should have been so beautiful. When I see an old church, like the priory church at Cartmel, standing grey and solemn in the mist above the houses, or hear an old song, like 'Summer is icumen in,' or see a browned old picture, like Poussin's 'Bergers d'Arcadie,' I feel that these things have meant more to man than battles. These are his dreams and his ideals, resting from age to age, long after the din of fighting has died and been forgotten, recorded each in its own way, in stone, in melody, in colour, and in the tales also that, changing continually, have 'held children from play and old men from the chimney-corner,' the dreams lie hid. What a tapestry they should have made. For the story of this art, or indeed of any art, is the story of man. Looking back through the years, as I sit here and close my eyes against the sunlight, I see the hard men and fierce women of the Sagas living out their lives in the cold and vigorous north—Pippin, the grandfather of Charlemagne, sticking his sword indifferently through the devil, Beaumains and his scornful lady riding through the green wood. In the dungeon of the tower sits Aucassin sorrowing for Nicolete his so sweet friend. Among the orange-trees on the Italian
slope the gold-haired Fiammetta watches for her lover. With battered armour and ascetic face Don Quixote, upright in his saddle, rides on the bare roads of Spain, dreaming of Dulcinea del Toboso. Gil Blas swindles his way through life and comes out top as an honest rascal will. Clarissa sits in her chamber blotting with tears her interminable correspondence. Tom Jones draws blood from many meaner noses. My Uncle Toby looks, not in the white, for the mote in the Widow Wadman's eye. Mrs. Bennet begs her husband, to 'come and make Lizzy marry Mr. Collins.' Old Goriot pawns his plate and moves to cheaper and yet cheaper rooms to keep his daughters in their luxury. Raphael, nearing death, watches the relentless shrinking of the morsel of shagreen. There falls the House of Usher. There floats the white face of Marie Roget down the waters of the Seine. Quasimodo leers through the rosace; Mateo Falcone feels the earth with the butt of his gun and finds it not too hard for the digging of a child's grave; Clarimonde throws her passionate regard across the cathedral to the young novice about to take his vows; and, with a clatter of hoofs, the musketeers ride off for the reputation of the Queen of France.
A tapestry indeed.
I turn over my chapters, torn rags of colour loosely patched together, and then look back to my dream, that gorgeous thing that for these five years past has glittered and swung before me. I look from one to the other and back again, and am almost ready to tear up the book in order to regain the delightful possession of the dream. It was a task to be taken up reverently and with love; and indeed these are the only qualifications I can honestly claim. But it needed far more. Now that I have done my best, I look at the result and am afraid. I hate, like I hate the tourists in Notre Dame, impertinent little books on splendid subjects. With my heart in my mouth I ask myself if I have made one.
Impertinent or no, my book is very vulnerable, and since it is my own I must defend it, so far as that is possible, by defining my intentions. The chapters are, as I meant them be, threaded like beads along the history of the art, and it is very easy to quarrel not only with the beads, but also with the spaces between them. There is no one who reads the book who will not find somewhere a space where he would have had a gleaming bead, a bead, where he would have had a contemptuous space. I could not put everything in; but have
left material for many complementary volumes. It would perhaps be possible, writing only of authors I have not considered, to produce a history of story-telling no more incomplete than this. But it will be found, and the fact is perhaps my justification, that few of my omissions have been made by accident. In order to have the satisfaction of coming to an end at all, I had to seek the closest limits, and those limits, once chosen, barred, to my own surprise, more than one great story-teller from any detailed discussion.
My object not being an expanded bibliography of story-telling, but rather a series of chapters that would trace the development of the art, many admirable writers, who were content with the moulds that were ready made to their hands, fell outside my range, however noble, however human was the material they poured into the ancient matrices. Dickens and Thackeray, for example, pouring their energy and feeling and wit and humour into the moulds designed by the eighteenth century, had, economically, to be passed over, since across the channel and in America men were writing stories, not necessarily greater, nor of wider appeal to mankind, but of more vital interest to their fellow artists. Throughout the book we hunt, my readers and I,
with the hare. Always we discuss the art in those examples that seem the most advanced of their time. Just as with the Romantic movement I pass over from England to France, though the book contains no survey of French fiction, so when Cervantes is the leading story-teller, the artist nearest our own time, I shall be in Spain, though Spanish literature does not make a continuous thread in the history. I shall think more of the art than of my own country, or indeed of any country, and shall neglect all literatures in turn when they are producing nothing that is memorable in the progress of the technique of story-telling, however freely they may be contributing great or brilliant tales to the world's resources of amusement.
Then too, it will be noticed that I neglect my opportunities. What a semblance of erudition I might have made by discussing, among the origins of story-telling, the Greek and Latin specimens of narrative. But it seemed desirable, since it was possible, to trace the development of the art entirely in the literatures of our own civilisation. French and English, the two greatest European literatures, contain, grafted on their national stocks, every flower of the art that was cultivated by Greece or Rome. I have used for discussion only the books known and made by our own
ancestors, and when, at the Renaissance, they lifted forms out of Antiquity and filled them with imitations of classical matter, I have considered the imitations rather than the originals, if only because any further influence they may have had on the development of the art was exerted not by the classical writers but by the Englishmen, Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Italians who made their manners and materials their own.
The book represents many years of reading, and two of writing where it should have taken ten. It has travelled about with me piecemeal, and, if I dated my chapters from the places where I wrote them, they would trace a very various itinerary. In France, in England, and in Scotland it has shared my adventures, and indeed it is a wilful, rambling thing, more than a little reminiscent of its infancy. Do not expect it to be too consistent. There is, I fear, no need for me to ask you not to read it all at once.