My excuse for modifying the title of this book is, that A Drama in Muslin has long seemed to me to be the vulgar one among the titles of my many books. But to change the title of a book that has been in circulation, however precarious, for more than thirty years, is not permissible, and that is why I rejected the many titles that rose up in my mind while correcting the proofs of this new edition. In Neophytes, Débutantes, and The Baiting of Mrs. Barton, readers would have divined a new story, but the dropping out of the unimportant word drama will not deceive the most casual follower of literature. The single word muslin is enough. Mousseline would be more euphonious, a fuller, richer word; and Bal Blanc, besides being more picturesque, would convey my meaning; but a shade of meaning is not sufficient justification for the use of French titles or words, for they lessen the taste of our language; we dont get the smack, and Milords epigrams poisoned my memory of A Drama in Muslin. But they cannot be omitted without much re-writing, I said, and remembering my oath never to attempt the re-writing of an old book again, I fell back on the exclusion of A Drama in Muslin as the only way out of the dilemma. A wavering resolution was precipitated by recollection of some disgraceful pages, but a moment after I was thinking that the omission of the book would create a hiatus. A Drama in Muslin, I reflected, is a link between two styles; and a book that has achieved any notoriety cannot be omitted from a collected edition, so my publishers said, and they harped on this string, until one day I flung myself out of their office and rattled down the stairs muttering, What a smell of shop! But in the Strand near the Cecil Inn, the thought glided into my mind that the pages that seemed so disgraceful in memory might not seem so in print, and the only way to find out if this be so, the temptation continued, will be to ask the next policeman the way to Charing Cross Road. Another saw me over a dangerous crossing (London is the best policed city in Europe), a third recommended a shop over yonder: youve just passed it by, sir. Thank you, thank you, I cried back, and no sooner was I on the other side than, overcome by shyness, as always in these stores of dusty literature, I asked for the Drama in Muslin, pronouncing the title so timidly that the bookseller guessed me at once to be the author, and began telling of the books that were doing well in first editions. If I had any I wanted to get rid of? he mentioned several he would be glad to buy. Whereupon in turn I grew confidential and confided to him my present dilemma, failing, however, to dissuade him from his opinion that A Drama in Muslin ought to be included. Any corrections you make in the new edition will keep up the price of the old, he added as he wrapped up the brown paper parcel. You will like the book better than you think for. Thank you, thank you, I cried after me, and hopped into a taxi, unsuspicious that I carried a delightful evening under my arm. A comedy novel, written with sprightliness and wit, I said, as I turned to the twentieth page, and it needs hardly any editing. A mere re-tying of a few bows that the effluxion of time has untied, or were never tied by the author, who, if I remember right, used to be less careful of his literary appearance than his prefacer, neglecting to examine his sentences, and to scan them as often as one might expect from an admirer, not to say disciple, of Walter Pater.
An engaging young man rose out of the pages of his book, one that Walter Pater would admire (did admire), one that life, I added, seems to have affected through his senses violently, and who was (may we say therefore) a little over anxious to possess himself of a vocabulary which would suffer him to tell all he saw, heard, smelt and touched.
Upon this sudden sympathy the book, of which I had read but twenty pages, dropped on my knees, and I sat engulfed in a reverie of the charming article I should have written about this book if it had come to me for review. But it couldnt have come to me, I reflected, for myself and the young man that wrote it were not contemporaries. It would be true, however, to say that our lives overlapped; but when did the author of the Drama in Muslin disappear from literature? His next book was Confession of a Young Man. It was followed by Spring Days; he must have died in the last pages of that story, for we find no trace of him in Esther Waters! And my thoughts, dropping away from the books he had written, began to take pleasure in the ridiculous appearance that the author of A Drama in Muslin presented in the mirrors of Dublin Castle as he tripped down the staircases in early morning. And a smile played round my lips as I recalled his lank yellow hair (often standing on end), his sloping shoulders and his female hands — a strange appearance which a certain vivacity of mind sometimes rendered engaging.
He was writing at that time A Mummers Wife in his bedroom at the Shelbourne Hotel, and I thought how different were the two visions, A Mummers Wife and A Drama in Muslin and how the choice of these two subjects revealed him to me. It was life that interested him rather than the envelope I said. He sought Alice Bartons heart as eagerly as Kate Edes; and my heart went out to the three policemen to whose assiduities I owed this pleasant evening, all alone with my cat and my immediate ancestor; and as I sat looking into the fire I fell to wondering how it was that the critics of the eighties could have been blind enough to dub him an imitator of Zola. A soul searcher, if ever there was one, I continued, whose desire to write well is apparent on every page, a headlong, eager, uncertain style (a young hound yelping at every trace of scent), but if we look beneath the style we catch sight of the young mans true self, a real interest in religious questions and a hatred as lively as Ibsens of the social conventions that drive women into the marriage market. It seems strange, I said, abandoning myself to recollection, that the critics of the eighties failed to notice that the theme of A Drama in Muslin is the same as that of the Dolls House; the very title should have pointed this put to them. But they were not interested in themes; but in morality, and how they might crush a play which, if it were uncrushed by them, would succeed in undermining the foundations of society — their favourite phrase at the time, it entered into every article written about the Dolls House — and, looking upon themselves as the saviours of society, these master-builders kept on staying and propping the damaged construction till at length they were joined by some dramatists and story-tellers who feared with them for the foundations of society, and these latter set themselves the task of devising new endings that would be likely to catch the popular taste and so mitigate the evil, the substitution of an educational motive for a carnal one. For Nora does not leave her husband for a lover, but to educate herself. The critics were used to lovers, and what we are used to is bearable, but a woman who leaves her husband and her children for school-books is unbearable, and much more immoral than the usual little wanton. So the critics thought in the eighties, and they thought truly, if it be true that morality and custom are interchangeable terms. The critics were right in a way; everybody is right in a way, for nothing is wholly right and nothing wholly wrong, a truth often served up by philosophers; but the public has ever eschewed it, and perhaps our argument will be better appreciated if we dilute this truth a little, saying instead that it is the telling that makes a story true or false, and that the dramatic critics of the eighties were not altogether as wrong as Mr. Archer imagined them to be, but failed to express themselves.
The public is without power of expression, and it felt that it was being fooled for some purpose not very apparent and perhaps anarchical. Nor is a sudden revelation very convincing in modern times. In the space of three minutes, Nora, who has been her husbands sensual toy, and has taken pleasure in being that, and only that, leaves her husband and her children, as has been said, for school-books. A more arbitrary piece of stage craft was never devised; but it was not the stage craft the critics were accustomed to, and the admirers of Ibsen did not dare to admit that he had devised Nora to cry aloud that a woman is more than a domestic animal. It would have been fatal for an apostle or even a disciple to admit the obvious fact that Ibsen was a dramatist of moral ideas rather than of sensuous emotions; and there was nobody in the eighties to explain the redemption of Ibsen by his dialogue, the strongest and most condensed ever written, yet coming off the reel like silk. A wonderful thread, that never tangles in his hands. Ibsen is a magical weaver, and so closely does he weave that we are drawn along in the net like fishes.
But it is with the subject of the Dolls House rather than with the art with which it is woven that we are concerned here. The subject of A Drama in Muslin is the same as that of A Dolls House, and for this choice of subject I take pride in my forerunner. It was a fine thing for a young man of thirty to choose the subject instinctively that Ibsen had chosen a few years before; it is a feather in his cap surely; and I remember with pleasure that he was half through his story when Dr. Aveling read him the first translation of A Dolls House, a poor thing, done by a woman, that withheld him from any appreciation of the play. The fact that he was writing the same subject from an entirely different point of view prejudiced him against Ibsen; and the making of a woman first in a sensual and afterward transferring her into an educational mould with a view to obtaining an instrument to thunder out a given theme could not be else than abhorrent to one whose art, however callow, was at least objective. In the Dolls House Ibsen had renounced all objectivity. It does not seem to me that further apologies are necessary for my predecessors remark to Dr. Aveling after the reading that he was engaged in moulding a woman in one of Natures moulds. A puritan, he said, I am writing of, but not a sexless puritan, and if women cannot win their freedom without leaving their sex behind they had better remain slaves, for a slave with his sex is better than a free eunuch; and he discoursed on the book he was writing, convinced that Alice Barton represented her sex better than the archetypal hieratic and clouded figure of Nora which Ibsen had dreamed so piously, allowing, he said, memories of Egyptian sculpture to mingle with his dreams.
My ancestor could not have understood the Dolls House while he was writing A Drama in Muslin, not even in Mr. Archers translation; he was too absorbed in his craft at that time, in observing and remembering life, to be interested in moral ideas. And his portrait of Alice Barton gives me much the same kind of pleasure as a good drawing. She keeps her place in the story, moving through it with quiet dignity, commanding our sympathy and respect always, and for her failure to excite our wonder like Nora we may say that the authors design was a comedy, and that in comedy the people are not and perhaps should not be above life size. But why apologize for what needs no apology? Alice Barton is a creature of conventions and prejudices, not her mothers but her own; so far she had freed herself, and it may well be that none obtains a wider liberty. She leaves her home with the dispensary doctor, who has bought a small practice in Notting Hill, and the end seems a fulfilment of the beginning. The author conducts her to the door of womanhood, and there he leaves her with the joys and troubles, no doubt, of her new estate; but with these he apparently does not consider himself to be concerned, though he seems to have meditated at this time a sort of small comédie humaine — small, for he must have known that he could not withstand the strain of Balzacs shifts of fourteen hours. We are glad he was able to conquer the temptation to imitate, yet we cannot forego a regret that he did not turn to Violet Scully that was and look into the married life of the Marchioness of Kilcarney — her grey intense eyes shining through a grey veil, and her delightful thinness — her epicene bosom and long thighs are the outward signs of a temper, constant perhaps, but not narrow. He would have been able to discover an intrigue of an engaging kind in her, and the thinking out of the predestined male would have been as agreeable a task as falls to the lot of a man of letters. And being a young man he would begin by considering the long series of poets, painters and musicians, he had read of in Balzacs novels, but as none of these would be within the harmony of Violets perverse humour, he would turn to life, and presently a vague shaggy shape would emerge from the back of his mind, but it would refuse to condense into any recognizable face; which is as well, perhaps, else I might be tempted to pick up this forgotten flower, though I am fain to write no more long stories.
But though we regret that the author of Muslin did not gather this Violet for his literary buttonhole, let no one suggest that the old man should return to his Springtime to do what the young man left undone. Our gathering-time is over, and we are henceforth prefacers. The Brook Cherith is our last. Some may hear this decision with sorrow, but we have written eighteen books, which is at least ten too many, and none shall persuade us to pick up the burden of another long story. We swear it and close our ears to our admirers, and to escape them we plunge into consideration of Violets soul and her aptitudes, saying, and saying well, that if polygamy thrives with Mohammedanism in the East, polyandry has settled down in the West with Christianity, and that since Nora slammed the door the practice of acquiring a share in a womans life, rather than insisting on the whole of it, has caught such firm root in our civilization that it is no exaggeration to say that every married woman to-day will admit she could manage two men better than her husband could manage two wives. If we inquire still further, we submit, and confidently, that every woman — saint or harlot, it matters not which — would confess she would prefer to live with two men rather than share her husband with another woman. All women are of one mind on this subject; it is the one thing on which they all agree irrespective of creed or class, so these remarks barely concern them; but should male eyes fall on this page, and if in the pride of his heart he should cry out, This is not so, I would have him make application to his wife or sister, and if he possess neither he may discover the truth in his own mind. Let him ask himself if it could be otherwise, since our usage and wont is that a woman shall prepare for the reception of visitors by adorning her rooms with flowers and dressing herself in fine linen and silk attire, and be to all men alike as they come and go. She must cover all with winning glances, and beguile all with seductive eyes and foot, and talk about love, though, perhaps she would prefer to think of one who is far away. Men do not live under such restraint. A man may reserve all his thoughts for his mistress, but the moment he leaves, his mistress must begin to cajole the new-comer, however indifferent he may be to her. The habit of her life is to cajole, to please, to inspire, if possible, and if she be not a born coquette she becomes one, and takes pleasure in her art, devoting her body and mind to it, reading only books about love and lovers, singing songs of love, and seeking always new scents and colours and modes of fascination. If lovers are away and none calls, she abandons herself to dreams, and her imagination furnishes quickly a new romance. Somebody she has half-forgotten rises up in her memory, and she thinks that she could like him if he were to come into her drawing-room now. It would be happiness indeed to walk forward into his arms and to call her soul into her eyes; or, if a letter were to come from him asking her to dinner, she would accept it; and, lying back among her silken cushions, she thinks she could spend many hours in his company without weariness. She creates his rooms and his person and his conversation, and when he is exhausted a new intrigue rises up in her mind, and then another and another. Some drop away and remain for ever unfulfilled, while others come into their own, as the saying is.
If this be a true analysis of a womans life — and who will say it is not? — the dreams of the Marchioness of Kilcarney would begin in her easy-chair about the second spring after her marriage, the shaggy shape that haunts the back of my mind would hear her dreams, and the wooing that began with the daffodils would continue always, for she is a woman that could keep a lover till the end of time. At her death husband and lover would visit her grave together and talk of her perfections in the winter evenings. But if Violet did not die another vagrant male would steal through the ilex-trees, a hunter in pursuit of game, or else it might be a fisher, seated among the rocks waiting, for tunny-fish. Either might take Violets fancy. The author of Muslin seems to have entertained a thought of some such pastoral frolic in the Shelbourne Hotel — the opposition of husband and lover to the newcomer, Harding, whom it had occurred to Mrs. Barton to invite to Brookfield, and whom she would have invited had it not been for her great matrimonial projects; my forerunner, who was an artist, saw that any deflection of Mrs. Bartons thoughts would jeopardize his composition, and he allowed Mrs. Barton to remain a chaperon. He was right in this, but Violet should have been the impulse and nucleus of a new story. ... I began to think suddenly of the blight that would fall on the twain if Violets lover were to die, and to figure them sitting in the evenings meditating on the admirable qualities of the deceased till in their loneliness he would come to seem to them as a being more than human, touching almost on the Divine. Their ears would retain the sound of his voice, and the familiar furniture would provoke remembrances of him. Ashamed of their weakness, their eyes would seek the chair he used to sit in: it is away in a far corner, lest a casual visitor should draw it forward and defile it with his presence — a thing that happened once (the unhappy twain remember how they lacked moral courage to beg him to choose another chair). The table, laid for two, was too painful to behold, and they never enjoyed a meal, hardly could they eat, till at last it was decided that his place should be laid for him as if he had gone away on a journey, and might appear in the doorway and sit down with them and share the repast as of yore — a pretty deception the folly of which they were alive to (a little) but would not willingly be without.
My forerunner, the author of Muslin, should have written the story sketched here with a failing hand, his young wit would have allowed him to tell how the marriage that had wilted sadly after the death of Uncle Toby now renewed its youth, opening its leaves to the light again, shaking itself in the gay breezes floating by. He would have been able in this story to present three exemplars of the domestic virtues, telling how they went away to the seaside together, and returned together to their castle among tall trees in October compelling the admiration of the entire countryside. He would have shown us the Marchioness entertaining visitors while the two men talked by the fireplace, delighting in each others company, and he would not have forgotten to put them before us in their afternoon walks, sharing between them Violets knick-knacks, her wraps, her scarf, her fan, her parasol, her cushion. His last chapter would probably be in a ball-room, husband and lover standing by the door watching the Marchioness swinging round the room on the arm of a young subaltern. Other women are younger than she, Kilcarney, but who is as graceful? Have you ever seen a woman hold herself like Violet? One of the daughters (for there have been children by this second, or shall we say by this third, marriage) comes up breathless after the dance. Darling Uncle Hughie, wont you take me for an ice? and he gives her his arm affectionately, but as they pass away to the buffet Sir Hugh hears Kilcarney speaking of Lily as his daughter. Sir Hughs face clouds suddenly, but he remembers that, after all, Kilcarney is a guardian of his wifes honour. A very ingenious story, no doubt, and if, as the young mans ascendant — the critics of 1915 are pleased to speak of me as ascendant from the author of Muslin — I may be permitted to remark upon it, I would urge the very grave improbability that three people ever lived contemporaneously who were wise enough to prefer, and so consistently, happiness to the conventions.
There are still May Gould and Olive to consider, but this preface has been prolonged unduly, and it may be well to leave the reader to imagine a future for these girls, and to decide the interests that will fill Mrs. Bartons life when Lord Dungorys relations with this world have ceased.