not as a photographic plate records it: and that
is where the personality of the artist comes in, and
where writers are handicapped, according as they have
or have not a personal charm. That is the unsolved
mystery of writing—the personal charm:
apart from that there is little in it. A man may
see a thing with hideous distinctness, but he may
not be able to invest it with charm: and the
danger of charm is that some people can invest very
shallow, muddled, and shabby thinking with a sort
of charm. It is like a cloak, if I may say so.
If I wear an old cloak, it looks shabby and disgraceful,
as it is. But if I lend it to a shapely and well-made
friend, it gets a beauty from the wearer. There
are men I know who can tell me a story as old as the
hills, and yet make it fresh and attractive.
Look at that delicious farrago of nonsense and absurdity,
Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera
. He crammed
in anything that came into his head—his
reminiscences, scraps out of old dreary books he had
read, paragraphs snipped out of the papers. There’s
no order, no sequence about it, and yet it is irresistible.
But then Ruskin had the charm, and managed to pour
it into all that he wrote. He is always there
that whimsical, generous, perverse, affectionate, afflicted,
pathetic creature, even in the smallest scrap of a
letter or the dreariest old tag of quotation.
But you and I can’t play tricks like that.
You are sometimes there, I confess, in what you write,
while I am never there in anything that I write.
What I want to teach you to do is to be really yourself
in all that you write.”
“But isn’t it apt to be very tiresome,”
said I, “if the writer is always obtruding himself?”
“Yes, if he obtrudes himself, of course he is
tiresome,” said Father Payne. “But
look at Ruskin again. I imagine, from all that
I read about him, that if he was present at a gathering,
he was the one person whom everyone wanted to hear.
If he was sulky or silent, it was everyone’s
concern to smoothe him down—if only
he would talk. What you must learn to do is to
give exactly as much of yourself as people want.
But it must be a transfusion of yourself, not a presentment,
I don’t imagine that Ruskin always talked about
himself—he talked about what interested
him, and because he saw five times as much as anyone
else saw in a picture, and about three times as much
as was ever there, it was fascinating: but the
primary charm was in Ruskin himself. Don’t
you know the curious delight of seeing a house once
inhabited by anyone whom one has much admired and
loved? However dull and commonplace it is, you
keep on saying to yourself, ’That was what his
eyes rested on, those were the books he handled; how
could he bear to have such curtains, how could he endure
that wallpaper?’ The most hideous things become
interesting, because he tolerated them. In writing,
all depends upon how much of what is interesting, original,
emphatic, charming in yourself you can communicate
to what you are writing. It has got to live;
that is the secret of the commonplace and even absurd
books which reviewers treat with contempt, and readers
buy in thousands. They have life!”