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Life In Inverted Commas Post by :jonataa3rsdo1n Category :Essays Author :Richard Le Gallienne Date :August 2011 Read :2708

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Life In Inverted Commas

As I waited for an omnibus at the corner of Fleet Street the other day, I was the spectator of a curious occurrence. Suddenly there was a scuffle hard by me, and, turning round, I saw a powerful gentlemanly man wrestling with two others in livery, who were evidently intent on arresting him. These men, I at once perceived, belonged to the detective force of the Incorporated Society of Authors, and were engaged in the capture of a notorious plagiarist. I knew the prisoner well. He had, in fact, pillaged from my own writings; but I was none the less sorry for his plight, to which, I would assure the reader, I was no party. Yet he was, I admit, an egregiously bad case, and my pity is doubtless misplaced sentiment. Like many another, he had begun his career as a quotation and ended as a plagiarism, daring even, in one instance, to imitate that shadow in the fairy-tale which rose up on a sudden one day and declared himself to be the substance and the substance his shadow. Indeed, he had so far succeeded as to make many people question whether or not he was the original and the other man the plagiarism. However, there was no longer to be any doubt of it, for his captors had him fast this time; and, presently, we saw him taken off in a hansom, well secured between strong inverted commas.

This curious circumstance set me reflecting, and, as we trundled along towards Charing Cross, my mind gave birth to sundry sententious reflections.

After all, I thought, that unlucky plagiarist is no worse than most of us: for is it not true that few of us live as conscientiously as we should within our inverted commas? We are far more inclined to live in that author, not ourselves, who makes for originality. It is, of course, difficult, even with the best intentions, to make proper acknowledgment of all our 'authorities'--to attach, so to say, the true _'del. et sculp.'_ to all our little bits of art. There is so much in our lives that we honestly don't know how we came by.

As I reflected in this wise, I was drawn to notice my companions in the omnibus, and lo! there was not an original person amongst us. Yet I looked in vain to see if they wore their inverted commas. Not one of them, believe me, had had the honesty to bring them. Each looked at me unblushingly, as though he were really original, and not a cheap German print of originals I had seen in books and pictures since I could read. I really think that they must have been unaware of their imposture. They could hardly have pretended so successfully.

There was the young dandy just let loose from his band-box, wearing exactly the same face, the same smile, the same neck-tie, holding his stick in exactly the same fashion, talking exactly the same words, with precisely the same accent, as his neighbour, another dandy, and as all the other dandies between the Bank and Hyde Park Corner. Yet he seemed persuaded of his own originality. He evidently felt that there was something individual about him, and apparently relied with confidence on his friend not addressing a third dandy by mistake for him. I hope he had his name safe in his hat.

Looking at these three examples of Nature's love of repeating herself, I said to myself: Somewhere in heaven stands a great stencil, and at each sweep of the cosmic brush a million dandies are born, each one alike as a box of collars. Indeed, I felt that this stencil process had been employed in the manufacture of every single person in that omnibus: two middle-aged matrons, each of whom seemed to think that having given birth to six children was an indisputable claim to originality; two elderly business men to correspond; a young miss carrying music and wearing eye-glasses; and a clergyman discussing stocks with one of the business men; I alone in my corner being, of course, the one occupant for whom Nature had been at the expense of casting a special mould, and at the extravagance of breaking it.

Presently a matron and a business man alighted, and two dainty young women, evidently of artistic tendencies, joined the Hammersmith pilgrims. One saw at a glance that they were very sure of their originality. There were no inverted commas around their pretty young heads, bless them! But then Queen Anne houses are as much on a pattern as more commonplace structures, and Bedford Parkians are already being manufactured by celestial stencil. What I specially noticed about them was their plagiarised voices--curious, yearning things, evidently intended to suggest depths of infinite passion, controlled by many a wild and weary past,


'Infinite passion, and the pain
Of finite souls that yearn'--


the kind of voice, you know, in which Socialist actresses yearn out passages from 'The Cenci,' feeling that they do a fearful thing. The voice began, I believe, with Miss Ellen Terry. With her, though, it is charming, for it is, we feel, the voice of real emotion. There are real tears in it. It is her own. But with these ladies, who were discussing the last 'Independent' play, it was so evidently a stop pulled out by affectation--the _vox inhumana_, one might say, for it is a voice unlike anything else to be found in the four elements. It has its counterpart in the imitators of Mr. Beerbohm Tree--young actors who likewise endeavour to make up for the lack of anything like dramatic passion by pretending to control it: the control being feigned by a set jaw or a hard, throaty, uncadenced voice of preternatural solemnity. These ladies, too, wore plagiarised gowns of the most 'original' style, plagiarised hats, glittering plagiarised smiles; and yet they so evidently looked down on every one else in the omnibus, whom, perhaps, after all, it had been kinder of me to describe as the hackneyed quotations of humanity, who had probably thought it unnecessary to wear their inverted commas, as they were so well known.

At last I grew impatient of them, and, leaving the omnibus, finished my journey home by the Underground. What was my surprise when I reached it to find our little house wearing inverted commas--two on the chimney, and two on the gate! My wife, too! and the words of endearing salutation with which I greeted her, why, they also to my diseased fancy seemed to leave my lips between quotation marks. There is nothing in which we fancy ourselves so original as in our terms of endearment, nothing in which we are so like all the world; for, alas! there is no euphuism of affection which lovers have not prattled together in springtides long before the Christian era. If you call your wife 'a chuck,' so did Othello; and, whatever dainty diminutive you may hit on, Catullus, with his warbling Latin, 'makes mouths at our speech.'

I grew so haunted with this oppressive thought, that my wife could not but notice my trouble. But how could I tell her of the spectral inverted commas that dodged every move of her dear head?--tell her that our own original firstborn, just beginning to talk as never baby talked, was an unblushing plagiarism of his great-great-great-grandfather, that our love was nothing but the expansion of a line of Keats, and that our whole life was one hideous mockery of originality? 'Woman,' I felt inclined to shriek, 'be yourself, and not your great-grandmother. A man may not marry his great-grandmother. For God's sake let us all be ourselves, and not ghastly mimicries of our ancestors, or our neighbours. Let us shake ourselves free from this evil dream of imitation. Merciful Heaven, it is killing me!' But surely that was a quotation too, and, accidentally catching sight of the back of my hand, suddenly the tears sprang to my eyes, for it was just so the big soft veins used to be on the hands of my father, when a little boy I prayed between his knees. He was gone, but here was his hand--_his_ hand, not mine!

Then an idea possessed me. There was but one way. I could die. There was a little phial of laudanum in the medicine-cupboard that always leered at me from among the other bottles like a serpent's eye. Thrice happy thought! Who would miss such a poor imitation? Even the mere soap-vending tradesmen bid us 'beware of imitations.' Dark wine of forgetfulness.... No, that was a quotation. However, here was the phial. I drew the cork, inhaled for a moment the hard dry odour of poppies, and prepared to drink. But just at that moment I seemed to hear a horrid little laugh coming out of the bottle, and a voice chuckled at my ear: 'You ass, do you call that original?' It was so absurd that I burst out into hysterical laughter. Here had I been about to do the most 'banal' thing of all. Was there anything in the world quite so commonplace as suicide?

And with the good spirits of laughter came peace. Nay, why worry to be 'original'? Why such haste to be unlike the rest of the world, when the best things of life were manifestly those which all men had in common? Was love less sweet because my next-door neighbour knew it as well? Would the same reason make death less bitter? And were not those tender diminutives all the more precious, because their vowels had been rounded for us by the sweet lips of lovers dead and gone?--sainted jewels, still warm from the beat of tragic bosoms, flowers which their kisses had freighted with immortal meanings.

And then I bethought me how the meadow-daisies were one as the other, and how, when the pearly shells of the dog rose settled on the hedge like a flight of butterflies, one was as the other; how the birds sang alike, how star was twin with star, and in peas is no distinction. My rhetoric stopped as I was about to say 'as wife is to wife'--for I thought I would first kiss her and see: and lo! I was once more perplexed, for as I looked down into her eyes, simple and blue and deep, as the sky is simple and blue and deep, I declared her to be the only woman in the world--which was obviously not exact. But it was true, for all that.


(The end)
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Life In Inverted Commas

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