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One enormous obstacle stands in the way of its actuality.
The men who write it, and the men who read it, are men of the middle
classes or the upper classes; at least, of those who are loosely termed
the educated classes. Hence, the fact that it is the life as the refined
man sees it proves that it cannot be the life as the unrefined man
lives it. Rich men write stories about poor men, and describe
them as speaking with a coarse, or heavy, or husky enunciation.
But if poor men wrote novels about you or me they would describe us
as speaking with some absurd shrill and affected voice, such as we
only hear from a duchess in a three-act farce. The slum novelist gains
his whole effect by the fact that some detail is strange to the reader;
but that detail by the nature of the case cannot be strange in itself.
It cannot be strange to the soul which he is professing to study.
The slum novelist gains his effects by describing the same grey mist
as draping the dingy factory and the dingy tavern. But to the man
he is supposed to be studying there must be exactly the same difference
between the factory and the tavern that there is to a middle-class
man between a late night at the office and a supper at Pagani's. The
slum novelist is content with pointing out that to the eye of his
particular class a pickaxe looks dirty and a pewter pot looks dirty.
But the man he is supposed to be studying sees the difference between
them exactly as a clerk sees the difference between a ledger and an
edition de luxe. The chiaroscuro of the life is inevitably lost;
for to us the high lights and the shadows are a light grey.
But the high lights and the shadows are not a light grey in that life
any more than in any other. The kind of man who could really
express the pleasures of the poor would be also the kind of man
who could share them. In short, these books are not a record
of the psychology of poverty. They are a record of the psychology
of wealth and culture when brought in contact with poverty.
They are not a description of the state of the slums. They are only
a very dark and dreadful description of the state of the slummers.
One might give innumerable examples of the essentially
unsympathetic and unpopular quality of these realistic writers.
But perhaps the simplest and most obvious example with which we
could conclude is the mere fact that these writers are realistic.
The poor have many other vices, but, at least, they are never realistic.
The poor are melodramatic and romantic in grain; the poor all believe
in high moral platitudes and copy-book maxims; probably this is
the ultimate meaning of the great saying, "Blessed are the poor."
Blessed are the poor, for they are always making life, or trying
to make life like an Adelphi play. Some innocent educationalists
and philanthropists (for even philanthropists can be innocent)
have expressed a grave astonishment that the masses prefer shilling
shockers to scientific treatises and melodramas to problem plays.
The reason is very simple. The realistic story is certainly
more artistic than the melodramatic story. If what you desire is
deft handling, delicate proportions, a unit of artistic atmosphere,
the realistic story has a full advantage over the melodrama.
In everything that is light and bright and ornamental the realistic
story has a full advantage over the melodrama. But, at least,
the melodrama has one indisputable advantage over the realistic story.
The melodrama is much more like life. It is much more like man,
and especially the poor man. It is very banal and very inartistic when a
poor woman at the Adelphi says, "Do you think I will sell my own child?"
But poor women in the Battersea High Road do say, "Do you think I
will sell my own child?" They say it on every available occasion;
you can hear a sort of murmur or babble of it all the way down
the street. It is very stale and weak dramatic art (if that is all)
when the workman confronts his master and says, "I'm a man."
But a workman does say "I'm a man" two or three times every day.
In fact, it is tedious, possibly, to hear poor men being
melodramatic behind the footlights; but that is because one can
always hear them being melodramatic in the street outside.
In short, melodrama, if it is dull, is dull because it is too accurate.
Somewhat the same problem exists in the case of stories about schoolboys.
Mr. Kipling's "Stalky and Co." is much more amusing (if you are
talking about amusement) than the late Dean Farrar's "Eric; or,
Little by Little." But "Eric" is immeasurably more like real
school-life. For real school-life, real boyhood, is full of the things
of which Eric is full--priggishness, a crude piety, a silly sin,
a weak but continual attempt at the heroic, in a word, melodrama.
And if we wish to lay a firm basis for any efforts to help the poor,
we must not become realistic and see them from the outside.
We must become melodramatic, and see them from the inside.
The novelist must not take out his notebook and say, "I am
an expert." No; he must imitate the workman in the Adelphi play.
He must slap himself on the chest and say, "I am a man."