The Right of Way
In a book called 'The House of Harper', published in this year, 1912, there are two letters of mine, concerning 'The Right of Way', written to Henry M. Alden, editor of Harper's Magazine. To my mind those letters should never have been published. They were purely personal. They were intended for one man's eyes only, and he was not merely an editor but a beloved and admired personal friend. Only to him and to W. E. Henley, as editors, could I ever have emptied out my heart and brain; and, as may be seen by these two letters, one written from London and the other from a place near Southampton, I uncovered all my feelings, my hopes and my ambitions concerning The Right of Way. Had I been asked permission to publish them I should not have granted it. I may wear my heart upon my sleeve for my friend, but not for the universe.
The most scathing thing ever said in literature was said by Robert Buchanan on Dante Gabriel Rossetti's verses—"He has wheeled his nuptial bed into the street." Looking at these letters I have a great shrinking, for they were meant only for the eyes of an aged man for whom I cared enough to let him see behind the curtain. But since they have been printed, and without a "by your leave," I will use one or two passages in them to show in what mood, under what pressure of impulse, under what mental and, maybe, spiritual hypnotism it was written. I first planned it as a story of twenty-five thousand words, even as 'Valmond' was planned as a story of five thousand words, and 'A Ladder of Swords' as a story of twenty thousand words; but I had not written three chapters before I saw what the destiny of the tale was to be. I had gone to Quebec to start the thing in the atmosphere where Charley Steele belonged, and there it was borne in upon me that it must be a three-decker novel, not a novelette. I telegraphed to Harper & Brothers to ask them whether it would suit them just as well if I made it into a long novel. They telegraphed their assent at once; so I went on. At that time Mr. F. N. Doubleday was a sort of director of Harper's firm. To him I had told the tale in a railway train, and he had carried me off at once to Henry M. Alden, to whom I also told it, with the result that Harper's Magazine was wide open to it, and there in Quebec, soon after my interview with Mr. Alden and Mr. Doubleday, the book was begun.
The first of the letters published in The House of Harper, however, was apparently written immediately after my return to London when the novel was well on its way. Evidently the first paragraph of the letter was an apology for having suddenly announced the development of the book from a long short story to a long novel; for I used these words:
"Yet if you really take an interest in the working of the human mind in its relation to the vicissitudes of life, you will appreciate what I am going to tell you, and will recognise that there is only stability in evolution which the vulgar call chance.... Now, sir, perpend. Charley Steele is going to be a novel of one hundred thousand words or one hundred and twenty thousand—a real bang-up heartful of a novel."
Then there follows the confidence of a friend to a friend. As I look at the words I am not sorry that I wrote them. They were a part of me. They were the inveterate truth, but I would not willingly have uncovered my inner self to any except the man to whom the words were written. But here is what I wrote:
"I am a bit of a fool over this book. It catches me at every tender corner of my nature. It has aroused all the old ardent dreams of youth and springtime puissance. I cannot lay it down, and I cannot shorten it, for story, character, soul and reflection, imagination, observation are dragging me along after them.... This novel will make me or break me—prove me human and an artist, or an affected literary bore. If you want it you must take the risk. But, my dear Alden, you will be investing in a man's heart—which may be a fortune or a folly. Why, I ought to have seen—and far back in my brain I did see—that the character of Charley Steele was a type, an idiosyncrasy of modern life, a resultant of forces all round us, and that he would demand space in which to live and tell his story to the world.... And behold with what joy I follow him, not only lovingly but sternly and severely, noting him down as he really is, condoning naught, forgiving naught, but above all else, understanding him—his wilful mystification of the world, his shameless disdain of it, but the old law of interrogation, of sad yet eager inquiry and wonder and 'non possumus' with him to the end."
This letter was evidently written in December, 1899, and the other went to Mr. Alden on the 7th August, 1900; therefore, eight or nine months later. The work had gone well. Week after week, month after month it had unfolded itself with an almost unpardonable ease. Evidently, the very ease with which the book was written troubled me, because I find that in this letter of the 7th August, 1900, to Mr. Alden, I used these words:
"A kind of terror has seized me, and instead of sending a dozen more chapters to you as I proposed to do, I am setting to to break this love story anew under the stones of my most exacting criticism and troubled regard. I go to bury myself at a solitary little seaside place" (it was Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire), "there to live alone with Rosalie and Charley, and if I do not know them hereafter, never ask me to write for 'Harper's' again.... This book has been written out of something vital in me—I do not mean the religious part of it, I mean the humanity that becomes one's own and part of one's self, by observation, experience, and understanding got from dead years."
Anyhow that shows the spirit in which the book was written, and there must have been something in it that rang true, because not only did it have an enormous sale and therefore a multitude of readers, but I received hundreds of letters from people who in one way or another were deeply interested in the story.
The majority of them were inquisitive letters. A great many of them said that the writer had shared in controversy as to what the relations of Charley and Rosalie were, and asked me to set for ever queries and controversies at rest by declaring either that the relations of these two were what, in the way of life's stern conventions, they ought not to be, or that Rosalie passed unscathed through the fire. I had foreseen all this, though I could not have foreseen the passionately intense interest which my readers would take in the life-story of these unhappy yet happy people. I had, however, only one reply. It was that all I had meant to say concerning Charley and Rosalie had been said in the book, to the last word. All I had meant not to say would not be said after the book was written. I asked them to take exactly the same view of Charley and Rosalie as they would in real life regarding two human beings with whom they were acquainted, and concerning whom, to their minds, there was sufficient evidence, or not sufficient evidence, to come to a conclusion as to what their relations were. I added that, as in real life we used our judgment upon such things with a reasonable amount of accuracy, I asked them to apply that judgment to Charley Steele and Rosalie Evanturel. They and their story were there for eyes to see and read, and when I had ended my manuscript in the year 1900 I had said the last word I ever meant to say as to their history. The controversy therefore continues, for the book still makes its appeal to an ever increasing congregation of new readers.
But another kind of letter came to me—the letter of some man who had just such a struggle as Charley Steele, or whose father or brother or friend had had such a struggle. Letters came from clergymen who had preached concerning the book; from men who told me in brief their own life problems and tragedies. These letters I prize; most of them had the real thing in them, the human truth.
That the book drew wide attention to the Dominion of Canada, particularly to French Canada, and crystallised something of the life of that dear Province, was a deep pleasure to me; and I was glad that I had been able to culminate my efforts to portray the life of the French-Canadian as I saw it, by a book which arrested the attention of so comprehensive a public.
I have seen many statements as to the original of Charley Steele, but I have never seen a story which was true. Many people have told me that they had seen the original of Charley Steele in an American lawyer. They knew he was the original, because he himself had said so. The gentleman was mistaken; I have never seen him. As with the purple cow, I never hope to see him. Whoever he is or whatever he is, the original Charley was an abler and a more striking man. I knew him as a boy, and he died while I was yet a boy, taking with him, save in the memory of a few, a rare and wonderful, if not wholly lovable personality. For over twenty years I had carried him in my mind, wondering whether, and when, I should-make use of him. Again and again I was tempted, but was never convinced that his time had come; yet through all the years he was gaining strength, securing possession of my mind, and gathering to him, magnet-like, the thousand observations which my experience sent in his direction. In my mind his life-story ended with his death at the Cote Dorion. For years and years I saw his ending there. Yet it all seemed to me so futile, despite the wonder of his personality, that I could make nothing of him, and though always fascinated by his character I was held back from exploiting it, because of the hopelessness of it all. It led nowhere. It was the 'quid refert' of the philosopher, and I could not bring myself to get any further than an interrogation mark at the end of a life which was all scepticism, mind and matter, and nothing more.
There came a day, however, when that all ended, when the doors were flung wide to a new conception of the man, and of what he might have become. I was going to America, and I paid an angry and reluctant visit to my London tailor thirty-six hours before I was to start. A suit of clothes had been sent home which, after an effective trying-on, was a monstrosity. I went straight to my tailor, put on the clothes and bade him look at them. He was a great tailor-he saw exactly what I saw, and what I saw was bad; and when a tailor will do that, you may be quite sure he is a good and a great man. He said the clothes were as bad as they could be, but he added: "You shall have them before you sail, and they shall be exactly as you want them. I'll have the foreman down." He rang a bell. Presently the door swung open and in stepped a man with an eyeglass in his eye. There, with a look at once reflective and penetrating, with a figure at once slovenly and alert, was a caricature of Charley Steele as I had known him, and of all his characteristics. There was such a resemblance as an ugly child in a family may have to his handsome brother. It was Charley Steele with a twist—gone to seed. Looking at him in blank amazement, I burst out: "Good heavens, so you didn't die, Charley Steele! You became a tailor!"
All at once the whole new landscape of my story as it eventually became, spread out before me. I was justified in waiting all the years. My discontent with the futile end of the tale as I originally knew it and saw it was justified. Charley Steele, brilliant, enigmatic and epigrammatic, did not die at the Cote Dorion, but lived in that far valley by Dalgrothe Mountain, and became a tailor! So far as I am concerned he became much more. He was the beginning of a new epoch in my literary life. I had got into subtler methods, reached more intimate understandings, had come to a place where analysis of character had shaken itself free—but certainly not quite free—from a natural yet rather dangerous eloquence.
As a play The Right of Way, skilfully and sympathetically dramatised by Mr. Eugene Presbery, has had a career extending over several years, and still continues to make its appearance.