Discussion of Meredith's plagiarism in
American Notes and Queries, (August 10, 1889, p170-173)
IS OWEN MEREDITH'S “LUCILE" ENTIRELY ORIGINAL, AND WHO FIRST CLAIMED IT WAS NOT?
After examining all the testimony which has been accumulated in reference to this most interesting subject, one is almost unable to decide definitely whether to regard "Lucile" as a plagiarism or a translation.
In January of 1881, a member of the Contributors' Club wrote to the Atlantic Monthly, detailing the discovery of a remarkable likeness which had been found to exist between Owen Meredith's “Lucile" and George Sand's novelette “Lavinia, an Old Tale," published about 1853. The writer proceeded with some care to direct attention to the most noticeable points of resemblance between the French prose and the English verse. And, indeed, the most unobservant reader could not fail to be struck by the similarity.
The names of the chief personages have undergone a transformation, but their past and present circumstances are almost identical. Lavinia Buenafè, some ten years before the story opens, had been engaged to Sir Lionel Bridgemont, the hero of the tale. She was a Portuguese and a Jewess, ardently devoted to her English lover, but in a violent fashion that had caused the fickle young nobleman to become weary of his too easy conquest, and willing to accept her dismissal, which had followed a lover's quarrel.
During the years that have elapsed since that rupture Lavinia has married an old lord, and is now a rich widow -- Lady Blake. When the story opens, Lionel, who has been traveling through France, is staying at Bigorre, where are also his betrothed, Miss Margaret Ellis, her mother, and his friend, Henry, who plays the same cousinly róle of mentor and companion as that assumed by “my lord's Cousin John" in the poem. In this tale, however, he is a relative of Lavinia, and the prudent but sympathetic champion of her cause.
The first chapter discovers the hero much perplexed by the arrival of a letter from LavinIa, who, established in a chateau at Saint Sauveur, has heard of his arrival in the neighboring town of Bigorre, and writes to ask that he will return her letters in accordance with the promise made when they parted long years before. His embarrassment arises from her added request that he will deliver the packet in person, the fulfilment of which is rendered peculiarly difficult by reason of a projected excursion to Luchon with Miss Ellis and her friends, from which he knows not how to excuse himself.
Cousin Henry comes gallantly to the rescue; and, under the pretense of an illness which confines him to his room, Lionel and his faithful friend depart secretly for Saint Sauveur, the former chafing at the necessity for the journey, while the jovial Henry indulges in good natured raillery at his companion's expense. The incidents which immediately follow are familiar to all readers of “Lucile."
The travelers refresh themselves at an inn; and while waiting for the hour of rendezvous, saunter in at a public ball, then in progress at one of the fashionable resorts. There they hear the crowd talking of the beautiful Lady Blake, who is regarded as the belle of the season, and who is, at that moment, dancing with the Comte de Morangy, her devoted attendant and supposed suitor. Lionel withdraws from the scene, weary of listening to her praises, and without having seen her. When the proper moment arrives, he presents himself at her door which is opened by an old negress whom he recognizes as the nurse Pepa, who had been with Lavinia during the days of their former intimacy.
It is this scene which has been selected by the correspondent of the Atlantic to be rendered in parallel columns with the corresponding passage in "Lucile." For the sake of extending the illustration I will choose other portions of the work for similar treatment, not taken in regular succession.
On est simplement logé aux eaux des Pyrénées, mais, grâce aux avalanches et aux torrents qui, chaque hiver, dévastent les habitations, à chaque printemps on voit renouveler ou rajeunir les ornements et Ie mobilier.
One lodges but simply at Serchon, yet, thanks
To the season, that changes forever the bank of the blossoming mountains,
And the torrent that falls faintly heard from afar,
One sees with each month of the many-faced year
A thousand sweet changes of beauty appear.
La maisonnette que Lavinia avait louée était toute lambuisée en bois résineux à l'intérieur.
The chalet where dwelt the Comtesse de Nevers,
Rested half up the base of a mountain of firs,
And the walls, and the roofs were built of resinous woods.
Lavinia entre tandis que Lionel était plongé dans cette contemplation. Elle se rappelait Ie temps où il lui aurait semblé impossible de revoir Sir Lionel sans tomber morte de colère et de douIeur. Et maintenant elIe était Ià, douce 'calme, indifférente peut être.
Just then Lucile entered the room undiscemed
By Lord Alfred, whose face to the window was turn'd
In a strange revery. The time was when Lucile,
In beholding that man, could not help but reveal
The rapture, the fear, which wrench'd out every nerve
In the heart of the girl from the woman's reserve.
And now -- she gazed at him, calm, smiling,-- perchance
Unmindful of the flight of time, Lionel, after the first surprise, finds himself renewing the impressions of his youth. Their interview is interrupted by the arrival of the Comte de Morangy; Lavinia begs Lionel to retire, and he withdraws to a balcony, where he becomes the unwilling listener of a declaration of love. When the visitor has gone, Lionel returns to Lavinia, betrays his own re-awakened interest in her by inquiries as to the answer she means to give to the Comte's offer, and, after exchanging their letters, he takes his leave.
The next day, instead of returning to Miss Ellis, he follows Lavinia into the country whither she has ridden with a party of friends. The: are overtaken by a terrific storm, during which Lionel manages to find a place at her side. All his old passion has returned, and be forgets his plighted word to another, in the joy of being near her. She calls his attention to the magnificence of the lightning.
“Je ne vois rien ici que vous Lavinia, lui dit-il avec force -- je n’ai d'émotion qu'à vous sentir près de moi."
“Lucile! I hear, I see, naught but yourself. I can feel
Nothing here but your presence."
Flinging honor to the winds, he now beseeches her to forget the past; to allow him to atone for the wrong he has done her. To this she makes reply:
“Lionel, vous m'avez fait des offres dont je sens tout le prix. Je n'y peux rémondre sans y avoir mûrement refléchi” “O Dieu! C'est Ia meme réponse qu’â M. de Morangy!”
“Si vous m'aimez vraiment, Lionel, vous allez mejurer de m'obéir.”
"You have made to me, Alfred, an offer I know
All the worth of, believe me.
I can not reply without time for reflection!”
“Alas! 'tis the very same answer you made to the Duc de Luvois."
“If you love me, obey me."
The reply comes, and with it Lavinia's last farewell, and after a short season of lamentation, Lionel returns to the inevitable -- and Miss ElIis.
Here the story of Lavinia ends. The hero's subsequent marriage to the fair English girl, his after encounter with his former love, his reformation, his courtship of his wife, and the final happy dénoûment in tbe Crimean hospital -- are all the work of the English poet.
The writer who thought he had been the first to discover the true origin of “Lucile,” says that his bosom swelled with importance as he contemplated the thought that he was the custodian of a secret which would affect the reputation of so exalted a personage as the late Viceroy of India! Before publishing his discovery, however, he learned from a friend that the claimed “plagiarism” had been recognized in England, but “for some reason failed to make a sensation." The press and the public seemed desirous of hushing up the matter; "perhaps because it impeached the honor of a British peer, and thus reflected upon the national character.” This completed the first installment in the Atlantic. In the course of a few months another article appeared, from the pen of one who claimed to have been long cognizant of Owen Meredith's literary thefts. The writer goes on to state: “More than twelve years ago I wrote an article, called ‘Owen Meredith as a Plagiarist,' and sent it to a British quarterly review -- it was not published -- and I never saw it again -- but English people were not ignorant of the charges which it contained. The authoress of ‘A Week in a French Country House' [Miss Thackeray] told me that she had seen an article in one of their periodicals, in which pages from ‘Lucile' and ‘Lavinia' were printed in parallel columns, yet I saw the gentleman who bears the pseudonym of 'Owen Meredith' dining unabashed at her table."
All this is, of course, very shocking, and displays a frightful moral depravity on the part of “the late Viceroy of India."
A few years ago, a Mr. Page McCarthy, of Richmond, Virginia (whether identical with either of the writers quoted above I know not), published (Carlton & Co., N. Y.) an English translation, under the title of “The Love Letters of Lady Blake," and on the title-page stated that it was the work upon which Lytton had based “Lucile;" It would seem as if Owen Meredith must have quailed under such a fire as that, directed upon him at long range, from the shores of the Atlantic! But, no, we hear that even his appetite was not impaired! He dined like any Christian whose soul is free from guilt!
The truth is, there is good reason to suppose that his conscience had been relieved by honest confession, many years before the belligerent Americans fulminated their judgment against him. In a cheap edition of "Lucile," published by Hurst, 122 Nassau street, N. Y., I find, following the usual Dedication to his father, an Introduction from the author, in which he states very distinctly that, having been accused of plagiarism, he begs to call attention to the fact that he acknowledged his indebtedness to George Sand's prose romance of “Lavinia," in his Introduction to the first edition of “Lucile.” (Candor compels me to admit that a careful examination of a copy of this first edition fails to reveal a trace of any such Introduction, but I would rather regard the omission as a singular defect of that copy than a reflection upon Owen Meredith's honesty.)
In this he says he had related the whole truth. He had borrowed -- so had Chaucer and Shakespeare. In his case, his only regret was that he had not taken more. The source was so worthy of reproduction.
It is true that this edition of Hurst's is quite devoid of date -- always a suspicious circumstance -- and it is, undoubtedly a "pirated" reprint of an English edition. Nevertheless, it would be too preposterous to suppose he had invented the confession signed by Owen Meredith; and, if the statement therein contained be a fact, may we not answer the query with which we started by saying that "Lucile" is not entirely original, but that the fact of its having been deduced from the work of another writer was admitted on the occasion of its first appearance by the author himself. Surely no charge of plagiarism could have antedated this first Introduction.
As for the American claimants to the honor of having been first to detect the "theft,” they were anticipated not only in England but in France. I am informed by a friend (a Frenchman), who was then a resident of Paris, and in regular attendance upon the “conferences" at the Sorbonne, that shortly after the appearance of “Lucile," at a lecture there delivered by Taine, he heard the latter expatiate upon the likeness between the new English poem and "Lavinia," and that at the time both he and his fellow-students had supposed the assertion of this resemblance was quite original with Taine.
It must be acknowledged that Owen Meredith has borrowed widely and unsparingly. But is not his silence as the source of all these thoughts in a measure flattering to his readers? May we not accept this tendency of his as but “the unconscious sympathy of the mocking-bird," and without straining our conscience in the case of “Lavinia,” feel, with the “Philistine,” grateful to Owen Meredith for having “transformed: it into “Lucile”?
Last revised: 25 August 2010