Two Prose Fancies

Two Prose Fancies


Richard Le Gallienne

            I—Sleeping Beauty

"EVERY woman is a sleeping beauty," I said, sententiously.
"Only some need more waking than others ?" replied my
cynical friend.

"Yes, some will only awaken at the kiss of great love or great
genius, which are not far from the same thing," I replied.

"I see," said the gay editor with whom I was talking.

Our conversation was of certain authors of our acquaintance, and
how they managed their inspiration, of what manner were their
muses, and what the methods of their stimulus. Some, we had
noted, throve on constancy, to others inconstancy was the
lawless law of their being; and so accepted had become these
indispensable conditions of their literary activity that the wives
had long since ceased to be jealous of the other wives. To a
household dependent on poetry, constancy in many cases would
mean poverty, and certain good literary wives had been known to
rate their husbands with a lazy and unproductive faithfulness. The
editor sketched a tragic mènage known to him, where the husband,
a lyric poet of fame, had become so chronically devoted to his
despairing wife that destitution stared them in the face. It was


By Richard Le Gallienne 309

in vain that she implored him, with tears in her eyes, to fall in love
with some other woman. She, she alone, he said, must be his
inspiration ; but as the domesticated muse is too often a muse of
exquisite silence, too happy to sing its happiness, this lawful
passion, which might otherwise have been turned to account, was
unproductive too.

"And such a pretty woman," said the editor sympathetically.
Of another happier case of domestic hallucination, he made the
remark : "Says he owes it all to his wife ! and you never saw
such a plain woman in your life."

"How do you know she is plain ?" I asked; "mayn't it be that
the husband's sense of beauty is finer than yours ? Do you think
all beauty is for all men ? or that the beauty all can see is best
worth seeing ?"

And then we spoke the words of wisdom and wit which I have
written in ebony on the lintel of this little house of words. He
who would write to live must talk to write, and I confess that I
took up this point with my friend, and continued to stick to it,
no doubt to his surprise, because I had at the moment some star-
dust on the subject nebulously streaming and circling through my
mind, which I was anxious to shape into something of an ordered
world. So I talked not to hear myself speak, but to hear myself
think, always, I will anticipate the malicious reader in saying, an
operation of my mind of delightful unexpectedness.

"Why ! you're actually thinking," chuckles one's brain to itself,
"go on. Dance while the music's playing," and so the tongue
goes dancing with pretty partners of words, till suddenly one's
brain gives a sigh, the wheels begin to slow down, and music and
dancing stop together, till some chance influence, a sound, a face,
a flower, how or whence we know not, comes to wind it up


310 Two Prose Fancies

The more one ponders the mystery of beauty, the more one
realises that the profbundest word in the philosophy of aesthetics is
that of the simple-subtle old proverb : Beauty is in the eyes of the
beholder. Beauty, in fact, is a collaboration between the beholder
and the beheld. It has no abstract existence, and is visible or
invisible as one has eyes to see or not to see it, that is, as one
is endowed or not endowed with the sense of beauty, an
hieratic sense which, strangely enough, is assumed as common to
humanity. Particularly is this assumption made in regard to the
beauty of women. Every man, however beauty-blind he may
really be, considers himself a judge of women—though he might
hesitate to call himself a judge of horses. Far indeed from its
being true that the sense of beauty is universal, there can be little
doubt that the democracy is for the most part beauty-blind, and
that while it has a certain indifferent pleasure in the comeliness
that comes of health, and the prettiness that goes with ribbons, it
dislikes and fears that finer beauty which is seldom comely, never
pretty, and always strange.

National galleries of art are nothing against this truth. Once
in a while the nation may rejoice over the purchase of a bad
picture it can understand, but for the most part—what to it are all
these strange pictures, with their disquieting colours and haunted
faces ? What recks the nation at large of its Bellinis or its
Botticellis ? what even of its Tithns or its Tintorettos ? Was it
not the few who bought them, with the money of the many, for
the delight of the few ?

Well, as no one would dream of art-criticism by plébiscite, why
should universal conventions of the beauty of women find so large
an acceptance merely because they are universal ? There are
vast multitudes, no doubt, who deem the scented-soap beauties of
Bouguereau more beautiful than the strange ladies of Botticelli,


By Richard Le Gallienne 311

and, were you to inquire, you would discover that your housemaid
wonders to herself, as she dusts your pictures to the sound of music-
hall song, what you can see in the plain lean women of Burne-
Jones, or the repulsive ugliness of "The Blessed Damosel." She
thanks heaven that she was not born with such a face, as she
takes a reassuring glance in the mirror at her own regular prettiness,
and more marketable bloom. For, you see, this beauty is still
asleep for her—as but a few years ago it was asleep for all but the
artists who first kissed it awake.

All beauty was once asleep like that, even the very beauty your
housemaid understands and perhaps exemplifies. It lay asleep
awaiting the eye of the beholder, it lay asleep awaiting the kiss of
genius ; and, just as one day nothing at all seemed beautiful, so
some day all things will come to seem so, if the revelation be not
already complete.

For indeed much beauty that was asleep fifty years ago has
been passionately awakened and given a sceptre and a kingdom
since then : the beauty of lonely neglected faces that no man
loved, or loved only by stealth, for fear of the mockery of the
blind, the beauty of unconventional contours and unpopular
colouring, the beauty of pallor, of the red-haired, and the fausse
maigre. The fair and the fat are no longer paramount, and the
beauty of forty has her day.

Nor have the discoveries of beauty been confined to the faces
and forms of women. In Nature too the waste places where no
man sketched or golfed have been reclaimed for the kingdom of
beauty. The little hills had not really rejoiced us till Wordsworth
came, but we had learnt his lesson so well that the beauty of the
plain slept for us all the longer, till with Tennyson and Millet, it
awakened at last—the beauty of desolate levels, solitary moorlands,
and the rich melancholy of the fens.


312 Two Prose Fancies

Wherever we turn our eyes, we find the beauty of character
supplanting the beauty of form, or if not supplanting, asserting
its claim to a place beside the haughty sister who would fain
keep Cinderella, red-headed and retroussée, in the background—
yes ! and for many even supplanting ! It is only when regularity
of form and personal idiosyncrasy and intensity of character are
united in a face, that the so-called classical beauty is secure of
holding its own with those whose fealty most matters—and that
union to any triumphant degree is exceedingly rare. Even when
that union has come about there are those, in this war of the
classicism and romanticism of faces, who would still choose the
face dependent on pure effect for its charm ; no mask of
unchanging beauty, but a beauty whose very life is change, and
whose magic, so to say, is a miraculous accident, elusive and

Miraculous and unaccountable ! In a sense all beauty is that,
but in the case of the regular, so to say, authorised beauty,
it seems considerably less so. For in such faces, the old
beauty-masters will tell you, the brow is of such a breadth and
shape, the nose so long, the mouth shaped in this way, and the
eyes set and coloured in that ; and thus, of this happy marriage of
proportions, beauty has been born. This they will say in spite of
the everyday fact of thousands of faces being thus proportioned
and coloured without the miracle taking place, ivory lamps in
which no light of beauty burns. And it is this fact that proves
the truth of the newer beauty we are considering. Form is thus
seen to be dependent on expression, though expression, the new
beauty-masters would contend, is independent of form. For the
new beauty there are no such rules ; it is, so to say, a prose beauty,
for which there is no formulated prosody, entirely free and
individual in its rhythms, and personal in its effects. Sculpture is


By Richard Le Gallienne 313

no longer its chosen voice among the arts, but rather music with
its myriad meanings, and its infinitely responsive inflections.

You will hear it said of such beauty—that it is striking,
individual, charming, fascinating and so on, but not exactly
beautiful. This, if you are an initiate of the new beauty, you will
resist, and permit no other description but beauty—the only word
which accurately expresses the effect made upon you. That such
effect is not produced upon others need not depress you ; for
similarly you might say of the beauty that others applaud that for
you it seems attractive, handsome, pretty, dainty and so on, but
not exactly beautiful ; or admitting its beauty, that it is but one of
many types of beauty, the majority of which are neither straight-
lined nor regular.

For when it is said that certain faces are not exactly beautiful,
what is meant is that they fail to conform to one or other of the
straight-lined types ; but by what authority has it been settled
once and for all that beauty cannot exist outside the straight line
and the chubby curve ? It matters not what authority one were
to bring, for vision is the only authority in this matter, and the
more ancient the authority the less is it final, for it has thus been
unable to take account of all the types that have come into
existence since its day, types spiritual, intellectual and artistic,
born of the complex experience of the modern world.

And yet it has not been the modern world alone that has
awakened that beauty independent of, and perhaps greater
than, the beauty of form and colour ; rather it may be said
to have reawakened it by study of certain subtle old masters of
the Renaissance; and the great beauties who have made the
tragedies and love-stories of the world, so far as their faces have
been preserved to us, were seldom "beautiful," as the populace
would understand beauty. For perhaps the highest beauty is


314 Two Prose Fancies

visible only to genius, or that great love which, we have said, is
a form of genius. It was only, it will be remembered, at the kiss
of a prince that Sleeping Beauty might open her wonderful eyes.

            II—A Literary Omnibus

THERE were ten of us travelling life's journey together from
Oxford Circus to the Bank, one to fall away early at
Tottenham Court Road, leaving his place unfilled till we steamed
into Holborn at Mudie's, where, looking up to make room for a
new arrival, I perceived, with an unaccustomed sense of being at
home in the world, that no less than four of us were reading. It
became immediately evident that in the new arrival our reading
party had made an acquisition, for he carried three books in a
strap, and to the fourth, a dainty blue cloth volume with rough
edges, he presently applied a paper-knife with that eager tender-
ness which there is no mistaking. The man was no mere lending
library reader. He was an aristocrat, a poet among readers, a
bookman pur sang. We were all more or less of the upper crust
ourselves, with the exception of a dry and dingy old gentleman in
the remote corner who, so far as I could determine, was deep in a
digest of statutes. His interest in the new-comer was merely an
automatic raising of the head as the bus stopped, and an automatic
sinking of it back again as we once more rumbled on. The rest
of us, however, were not so poorly satisfied. This fifth reader to
our coach had suddenly made us conscious of our freemasonry, and
henceforward there was no peace for us till we had, by the politest
stratagems of observation, made out the titles of the books from
which as from beakers our eyes were silently and strenuously
drinking such different thoughts and dreams.


By Richard Le Gallienne 315

The lady third from the door on the side facing me was reading
a book which gave me no little trouble to identify, for she kept it
pressed on her lap with tantalising persistence, and the headlines,
which I was able to spell out with eyes grown telescopic from
curiosity, proved those tiresome headlines which refer to the contents
of chapter or page instead of considerately repeating the title of the
book. It was not a novel. I could tell that, for there wasn't a
scrap of conversation, and it wasn't novelist's type. I watched like
a lynx to catch a look at the binding. Suddenly she liftedit up,
I cannot help thinking out of sheer kindness, and it proved to be
a stately unfamiliar edition of a book I should have known well
enough, simply The French Revolution. Why will people tease
one by reading Carlyle in any other edition but the thin little
octavos, with the sticky brown and black bindings of old ?

The pretty dark-haired girl next but one on my own side,
what was she reading ? No ! . . . But she was, really !

Need I say that my eyes beat a hasty retreat to my little
neighbour, the new-comer, who sat facing me next to the door,
one of whose books in the strap I had instantly recognised as
Weir of Hermiston. Of the other two, one was provokingly
turned with the edges only showing, and of the edges I couldn't
be quite sure, though I was almost certain they belonged to an
interesting new volume of poems I knew of. The third had the
look of a German dictionary. But, of course, it was the book he
was reading that was the chief attraction, and I rather like to
think that probably I was the only one of his fellow travellers
who succeeded in detecting the honey-pot from which he was
delicately feeding. It took me some little time, though the
book, with its ribbed blue cover gravely lined with gold and its
crisp rose-yellow paper, struck me with instant familiarity.
"Preface to Second Edition," deciphered backwards, was all I


316 Two Prose Fancies

was able to make out at first, for the paper-knife loitered dreamily
among the opening pages, till at last with the turning of a page,
the prose suddenly gave place to a page prettily broken up with
lines and half-lines of italics, followed by a verse or two—and
"Of course," I exclaimed to myself, with a curious involuntary
gratitude, "it is Dr. Wharton's Sappho."

And so it was. That penny bus was thus carelessly carrying
along the most priceless of written words. We were journeying
in the same conveyance with

    "Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
    A-top on the topmost twig—which the pluckers forgot somehow—
    Forgot it net, nay, but got it not, for none could get it till now."


            "I loved thee, Atthis, long ago."


"The moon has set, and the Pleiades ; it is midnight, the time is going
by, and I sleep alone."

Yes, it was no less a presence than Sappho's that had stepped in
amongst us at the corner of New Oxford Street. Visibly it had
been a little black-bearded bookman, rather French in appearance,
possibly a hard-worked teacher of languages—but actually it had
been Sappho. So strange are the contrasts of the modern world,
so strange the fate of beautiful words. Two thousand five
hundred years ! So far away from us was the voice that had
suddenly called to us, a lovely apparition of sound, as we trundled
dustily from Oxford Circus to the Bank.

"The moon has set, and the Pleiades ; it is midnight, the time
is going by, and I sleep alone," I murmured, as the conductor
dropped me at Chancery Lane.

MLA citation: Le Gallienne, Richard. "Two Prose Fancies." The Yellow Book 13 (April 1897): 308-316. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University. Web. [Date of access].