Agnes Repplier (essay date 1892)
SOURCE: “A By-Way in Fiction,” in Essays in Miniature, Charles L. Webster & Co., 1892, pp. 87-103.
[In the following mixed review of The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani, Repplier regards the novel as “a series of detached episodes” that “rambles backward and forward in such a bewildering fashion that the chapters might be all rearranged without materially disturbing its slender thread of continuity.”]
Now and then the wearied and worn novel-reader, sick unto death of books about people's beliefs and disbeliefs, their conscientious scruples and prejudices, their unique aspirations and misgivings, their cumbersome vices and virtues, is recompensed for much suffering by an hour of placid but genuine enjoyment. He picks up rather dubiously a little, unknown volume, and, behold! the writer thereof takes him gently by the hand, and leads him straightway into a fair country, where the sun is shining, and men and women smile kindly on him, and nobody talks unorthodox theology, and everybody seems disposed to allow everybody else the privilege of being happy in his own way. When to these admirable qualities are added humor and an atmosphere of appreciative cultivation, the novel-reader feels indeed that his lines have been cast in pleasant places, and he is disposed to linger along in a very contented and uncritical frame of mind.
There has come to us recently a new and beautiful edition of such a little book, published in America, but born of Italian soil and sunshine. It has for a title The Chevalier of Pensicri-Vani, together with Frequent Allusions to the Prorege of Arcopia, which is rather an unmerciful string of words to describe so gay and easy-going a narrative. It is the first full-fledged literary venture of its author, Mr. Henry Fuller, also known as Stanton Page, whose New England grandfather was a cousin of Margaret Fuller's. The story, which is not really a story at all, but a series of detached episodes, rambles backward and forward in such a bewildering fashion that the chapters might be all rearranged without materially disturbing its slender thread of continuity. It is equally guiltless of plot or purpose, of dramatic incidents or realistic details. The Chevalier may be found now in Pisa, now in Venice, now in Ostia or Ravenna, never driven by the vulgar spur of necessity, always wandering of his own free and idle will. He is accompanied sometimes by his friend Hors-Concours, an Italianized Frenchman from Savoy, and sometimes by the Prorege of Arcopia, the delightful Prorege, who gives to the book its best and most distinctive flavor. At once dignified and urbane, conscious of his exalted position, and convinced that he fills it with equal grace and correctness, this superb official moves through the tale in an atmosphere of autocratic reserve, tempered with the most delicate courtesy. His ministerial views are as unalterable as the rocks, and as sound; but he listens to the democratic ravings of his young American protégé, Occident, with the good-humored indulgence one accords to a beloved and precocious child. It must be confessed that Occident fails to make his arguments very convincing, or to impress his own personality with any degree of clearness upon the reader's mind. He is at best only a convenient listener to the Prorege's delicious theories; he is of real value only because the Prorege condescends to talk to him. When he ventures upon a truly American remark about trying “to find the time” for something, his august friend reminds him, with dignity, that “the only man to be envied was the man whose time was in some degree his own, and the most pitiable object that civilization could offer was the rich man a slave to his chronometer. Too much had been said about the dignity of labor, and not enough about the preciousness of leisure. Civilization in its last outcome was heavily in the debt of leisure, and the success of any society worth considering was to be estimated largely by the use to which its fortunati had put their spare moments. He wrung from Occident the confession that, in the great land of which Shelby County may be called the centre, activity, considered of itself and quite apart from its objects and its results, was regarded as a very meritorious thing; and he learned that the bare figure of leisure, when exposed to the public gaze, was expected to be decorously draped in the garment of strenuous endeavor. People were supposed to appear busy, even if they were not. This gave the Prorege a text for a little disquisition on the difference between leisure and idleness.”
In fact, a beautiful, cultivated, polished, unmarred, well-spent inactivity is the keynote of this serene little book; and to understand its charm and meaning we have but to follow the Chevalier, in the second chapter, to Pisa—to Pisa the restful, where “life is not strongly accentuated by positive happenings, where incident is unusual, and drama quite unknown.” The Chevalier's windows, we are told, faced the north, and he sat and looked out of them rather more than active persons would deem pleasant or profitable. It even happened that the Prorege remarked this comfortable habit, and demanded of his friend what it was he looked at, inasmuch as there seemed to be no appreciable change from day to day. To which the Chevalier, in whom “Quietism was pretty successfully secularized; who knew how to sit still, and occasionally enjoyed doing so,” replied with great acumen that what had gone on was quite as interesting to him as what was going on, and that nothing was more gratifying, from his point of view, than that very absence of change which had taken his Excellency's attention—since any change would be a change for the worse.
He is destined, as it chances, to prove the truth of his own theories, for it is in Pisa, of all places, that he is tempted to throw aside for once his rôle of contemplative philosopher, and to assume that of an active philanthropist, with very disastrous results. There is an admirable satire in the description of the two friends, Pensieri-Vani and Hors-Concours, gravely plotting to insure the success of an operatic débutante, to bring her out in the sunshine of their generous patronage, and with the direct approval of the Prorege himself, who kindly consents to sit in the front of a middle box, and to wear a round half-dozen of his most esteemed decorations. Unhappily, an Italian audience does not like to have its enthusiasm expressed for it, even by such noble and consummate critics. As each well-arranged device of flowers or love-birds in a gilded cage is handed decorously forward, the house grows colder and more quizzical, until the débutante sees herself on the extreme verge of failure, and, putting forth all her powers in one appealing effort, she triumphs by dint of sheer pluck and ability over the fatal kindness of her friends. The poor Chevalier, who has in the meantime left the theatre with many bitter self-communings, receives his lesson in a spirit of touching humility, recognizing at once his manifest limitations. “He perceived that he was less fitted to play the part of special providence than he had previously...
(The entire section is 2961 words.)