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In A Literary Household


In A Literary Household

In the literary household of fiction and the drama, things are usually
in a distressing enough condition. The husband, as you know, has a
hacking cough, and the wife a dying baby, and they write in the
intervals of these cares among the litter of the breakfast things.
Occasionally a comic, but sympathetic, servant brings in an
armful--"heaped up and brimming over"--of rejected MSS., for, in the
dramatic life, it never rains but it pours. Instead of talking about
editors in a bright and vigorous fashion, as the recipients of
rejections are wont, the husband groans and covers his face with his
hands, and the wife, leaving the touching little story she is
writing--she posts this about 9 p.m., and it brings in a publisher and
�100 or so before 10.30--comforts him by flopping suddenly over his
shoulder. "Courage," she says, stroking his hyacinthine locks (whereas
all real literary men are more or less grey or bald). Sometimes, as in
_Our Flat_, comic tradesmen interrupt the course of true literature with
their ignoble desire for cash payment, and sometimes, as in _Our Boys_,
uncles come and weep at the infinite pathos of a bad breakfast egg. But
it's always a very sordid, dusty, lump-in-your-throaty affair, and no
doubt it conduces to mortality by deterring the young and impressionable
from literary vices. As for its truth, that is another matter

Yet it must not be really imagined that a literary household is just
like any other. There is the brass paper-fastener, for instance. I have
sometimes thought that Euphemia married me with an eye to these
conveniences. She has two in her grey gloves, and one (with the head
inked) in her boot in the place of a button. Others I suspect her of.
Then she fastened the lamp shade together with them, and tried one day
to introduce them instead of pearl buttons as efficient anchorage for
cuffs and collars. And she made a new handle for the little drawer under
the inkstand with one. Indeed, the literary household is held together,
so to speak, by paper-fasteners, and how other people get along without
them we are at a loss to imagine.

And another point, almost equally important, is that the husband is
generally messing about at home. That is, indeed, to a superficial
observer, one of the most remarkable characteristics of the literary
household. Other husbands are cast out in the morning to raven for
income and return to a home that is swept and garnished towards the end
of the day; but the literary husband is ever in possession. His work
must not be disturbed even when he is merely thinking. The study is
consequently a kind of domestic cordite factory, and you are never
certain when it may explode. The concussion of a dust-pan and brush may
set it going, the sweeping of a carpet in the room upstairs. Then behold
a haggard, brain-weary man, fierce and dishevelled, and full of
shattered masterpiece--expostulating. Other houses have their day of
cleaning out this room, and their day for cleaning out that; but in the
literary household there is one uniform date for all such functions, and
that is "to-morrow." So that Mrs. Mergles makes her purifying raids with
her heart in her mouth, and has acquired a way of leaving the pail and
brush, or whatever artillery she has with her, in a manner that
unavoidably engages the infuriated brute's attention and so covers her

It is a problem that has never been probably solved, this discord of
order and orderly literary work. Possibly it might be done by making the
literary person live elsewhere or preventing literary persons from
having households. However it might be done, it is not done. This is a
thing innocent girls exposed to the surreptitious proposals of literary
men do not understand. They think it will be very fine to have
photographs of themselves and their "cosy nooks" published in magazines,
to illustrate the man's interviews, and the full horror of having this
feral creature always about the house, and scarcely ever being able to
do any little thing without his knowing it, is not brought properly home
to them until escape is impossible.

And then there is the taint of "copy" everywhere. That is really the
fundamental distinction. It is the misfortune of literary people, that
they have to write about something. There is no reason, of course, why
they should, but the thing is so. Consequently, they are always looking
about them for something to write about. They cannot take a pure-minded
interest in anything in earth or heaven. Their servant is no servant,
but a character; their cat is a possible reservoir of humorous
observation; they look out of window and see men as columns walking.
Even the sanctity of their own hearts, their self-respect, their most
private emotions are disregarded. The wife is infected with the taint.
Her private opinion of her husband she makes into a short story--forgets
its origin and shows it him with pride--while the husband decants his
heart-beats into occasional verse and minor poetry. It is amazing what a
lot of latter-day literature consists of such breaches of confidence.
And not simply latter-day literature.

The visitor is fortunate who leaves no marketable impression behind. The
literary entertainers eye you over, as if they were dealers in a slave
mart, and speculate on your uses. They try to think how you would do as
a scoundrel, and mark your little turns of phrase and kinks of thought
to that end. The innocent visitor bites his cake and talks about
theatres, while the meditative person in the arm-chair may be in
imagination stabbing him, or starving him on a desert island, or
even--horrible to tell!--flinging him headlong into the arms of the
young lady to the right and "covering her face with a thousand
passionate kisses." A manuscript in the rough of Euphemia's, that I
recently suppressed, was an absolutely scandalous example of this method
of utilising one's acquaintances. Mrs. Harborough, who was indeed
Euphemia's most confidential friend for six weeks and more, she had
made to elope with Scrimgeour--as steady and honourable a man as we
know, though unpleasant to Euphemia on account of his manner of holding
his teacup. I believe there really was something--quite harmless, of
course--between Mrs. Harborough and Scrimgeour, and that, imparted in
confidence, had been touched up with vivid colour here and there and
utilised freely. Scrimgeour is represented as always holding teacups in
his peculiar way, so that anyone would recognise him at once. Euphemia
calls that character. Then Harborough, who is really on excellent terms
with his wife, and, in spite of his quiet manner, a very generous and
courageous fellow, is turned aside from his headlong pursuit of the
fugitives across Wimbledon Common--they elope, by the bye, on
Scrimgeour's tandem bicycle--by the fear of being hit by a golf ball. I
pointed out to Euphemia that these things were calculated to lose us
friends, and she promises to destroy the likeness; but I have no
confidence in her promise. She will probably clap a violent auburn wig
on Mrs. Harborough and make Scrimgeour squint and give Harborough a big
beard. The point that she won't grasp is, that with that fatal facility
for detail, which is one of the most indisputable proofs of woman's
intellectual inferiority, she has reproduced endless remarks and
mannerisms of these excellent people with more than photographic
fidelity. But this is really a private trouble, though it illustrates
very well the shameless way in which those who have the literary taint
will bring to market their most intimate affairs.