“I have spent more trouble on it than it is worth,” said Father Payne; “and that’s my point, that if I were only a great man, I should have learnt it all in childhood, and should not have to waste time over it at all. That’s the best of rank; it’s a device for saving trouble; it saves introduction and explanation and autobiography and elaborate civility, and makes people willing to be pleased by the smallest sign of affability. You may depend upon it that it was a very true instinct which made the Scotch minister pray that all might have honourable ancestors. It isn’t a sacred thing, rank, and it isn’t a magnificent thing—but it’s a pleasant human sort of thing in the right hands. What is more, in these democratic days, it tends to make people of rank additionally anxious not to parade the fact—and I doubt if there is anything on the whole happier than having advantages which you don’t want to parade—it gives a tranquil sort of contentment, and it removes all futile ambitions. To be, by descent, what a desperately industrious lawyer or a successful general feels himself amply rewarded for his toil by becoming, isn’t nothing. I’m always rather suspicious of the people who try to pretend that it is nothing at all. The rank is but the guinea stamp, of course. But after all the stamp is what makes it a guinea instead of an unnegotiable disc of metal!”
Father Payne used often to say that he was more interested in biography than in any other form of art, and believed that there was a greater future before it than before any other sort of literature. “Just think,” I remember his saying, “human portraiture—the most interesting thing in the world by far—what the novel tries to do and can’t do!”
“What exactly do you mean by ’can’t do’?” I said.
“Why, my boy,” said Father Payne, “because we are all so horrified at the idea of telling the truth or looking the truth in the face. The novel accommodates human nature, patches it up, varnishes it, puts it in a good light: it may be artistic and romantic and poetical—but it hasn’t got the beauty of truth. Life is much more interesting than any imaginative fricassee of it! These realistic fellows—they are moving towards biography, but they haven’t got much beyond the backgrounds yet.”
“But why shouldn’t it be done?” I said. “There’s Boswell’s Johnson—why does that stand almost alone?”
“Why, think of all the difficulties, my boy,” said Father Payne. “There’s nothing like Boswell’s Johnson, of course—but what a subject! There’s nothing that so proves Boswells genius—we mustn’t forget that—as the other wretched stuff written about Johnson. There’s a passage in Boswell, when he didn’t see Johnson for a long time, and stuck in a few stories collected from other friends. They are awfully flat and flabby—they have all been rolled about in some one’s mind, till they are as smooth as pebbles—some bits of the crudest rudeness, not worked up to—some knock-down schoolboy retorts which most civilised men would have had the decency to repress—and then we get back to the real Boswell again, and how fresh and lively it is!”