Lucile in The Atlantic Monthly, volume XLVII (No. 282)
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1881 (January p136-137 and April, p577-578).
THE CONTRIBUTORS' CLUB.
— A few days ago I happened to pick up an old and well-nigh forgotten tale by George Sand, entitled Lavinia. It opened in a very spirited fashion, but had somehow a curiously familiar air. I could not rid myself of the impression that I had read it all before, and yet I was positive that the story under its present title had never come to my notice. I had not progressed far, however, before the mystery was solved: it was Owen Meredith's Lucile in French prose. The names, to be sure, had been metamorphosed, but the characters, whom they served as thin and ineffectual disguises, were essentially the same. Lord Alfred Vargrave in Lavinia is named Lionel, and his betrothed, whom he is just about to marry, Miss Margaret Ellis instead of Miss Darcey. The convenient cousin John is with George Sand the cousin of the heroine, and not of Lionel, but he is the same easy-going, devil-may-care fellow, though he is masked with the name of Henry. Even the situations are, with few exceptions, conscientiously copied and whole pages of the most animated epigrammatic dialogue are plagiarized, word for word, except where the exigencies of rhyme or metre require a deviation from the French original.
The first chapter in both books opens with a letter from the heroine, who has formerly been engaged to the hero, demanding that her letters be returned. In both cases ten years have elapsed since their last meeting, and it is needless to add that the result of the perilous rendezvous is the same. To convince the reader how daring the plagiarism is, I choose at random the scene in which Lord Alfred comes to fulfill Lucile's demand in regard to the old love-letters, and print side by side George Sand's French and Owen Meredith's English text: —
"Cette chambrette blanche et parfumée avait en vérité, et comme á son insu, un air des rendezvous; mais elle semblait aussi le sanctuaire d'un amour virginal et pur. Les bougies jetaient une clarté timide: les fleurs semblaient fermer modestement leur sein á la lumière; aucun vetament de femme aucun vestige de coquetterie ne s' était oublié à traîner sur à les meubles: seulement un bouquet de pensées flétries et un gant blanc décousu gisaient côte à côte sur la cheminée.
Lionel, poussé par un mouvement irrésistible, prit le gant et le froissa dans ses mains. C'était comme l'étreinte convulsive et froide d'un denier adieu. Il prit le bouquet sans parfum, le contempla un instant, fit une allusion amère aux fleurs qui le composaient, et le rejeta brusquement loin de lui. Lavinia avait elle posé la ce bouquet avec le dessein qu'il fut commenté par son ancien amant?"
Lionel s’approcha de la fenêtre, et écarta le rideau pour faire diversion, par le spectacle de la nature, à l’humeur qui le gagnait de plus en plus.
This white little fragrant apartment, 'tis true
Seemed unconsciously fashioned for some rendezvous;
But you felt by the sense of its beauty reposed,
'T was the shrine of a life chaste and calm. Half unclosed
In the light slept the flowers; all was pure and at rest;
All peaceful; all modest ; all seemed self-possessed,
And aware of the silence. No vestige nor trace
Of a young woman's coquetry troubled the place;
Not a scarf; not a shawl; On the mantel-piece merely
A nosegay of flowers, all withered, or nearly,
And a little white glove that was torn at the wrist.
Impelled by an impulse too strong to resist,
Lord Alfred caught, with a feverish grasp,
The torn glove, and flung it aside with a gasp;
It seemed like the thrill of a final farewell,
He took up the nose-gay, without bloom or smell,
And inaudibly, bitterly muttered or sighed
Some rebuke to the flowers ere he laid it aside.
Had Lucile by design left the dead flowers
There? The torn glove? I know nothing. I cannot declare.
He turned to the window.
A cloud passed the sun; The breeze lifted itself, etc.
I flattered myself that I had been the first to discover this unacknowledged relationship between Lucile and Lavinia ; and I was duly conscious of my importance at the thought that I held the fate of so exalted a personage as the late viceroy of India in my hands. A friend, however, who is crammed with bibliographical lore, relieved me of this dread responsibility by informing me that the discovery had already been made in England, several years ago, but had for some reason failed to make a sensation. The public and the press seemed rather anxious to hush up the affair; perhaps because it impeached the honor of a British peer, and thus reflected remotely upon the national character. At all events, I have ascertained that on this side of the ocean Lucile is yet generally admired as an original production. Among the many to whom I have communicated my discovery not one was aware that it had been previously made ; and some were even inclined to question the correctness of my conclusions, alleging that in all probability the resemblance; was only remote and accidental.
THE CONTRIBUTORS' CLUB
April, p577-578 .
There is at least one person in America besides the January contributor who has long known of Owen Meredith's literary thefts. More than twelve years ago I wrote an article called Owen Meredith as a Plagiarist, and sent it to a British quarterly review, as that public is more in need than ours of enlightenment on questions of general literature. (I may say, incidentally, that they have improved immensely in that respect within the past decade, thanks, in great measure, to Mr. Matthew Arnold and the Comédie Française.) It was not published, and perhaps never reached its destination, as I never saw it again, although it was accompanied by the due number of postage-stamps for its return ; but English people were not entirely ignorant of the charges which it contained. The authoress of A Week in a French Country-House 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. On the appearance of his volume containing a poem entitled Gyges and Candaulus, there came out an article in the North British Review which spoke of the close resemblance of certain passages to some of the finest in Keats's St. Agnes' Eve ; verses from other English poets were cited, too, which had been adapted to his own use, with very little change. The author of the article, with an urbanity rare from Scotch reviewers to British bards, alluded to this tendency of Owen Meredith's as "the unconscious sympathy of the mocking-bird." I had not felt called upon to direct attention to his unceremonious borrowing from his countrymen, although a very pretty paper might be written on that, as it would contain some of the most charming fragments of modern British poetry. I had confined myself to his liberties with French and German poets, especially Alfred de Musset and Heinrich Heine. In Owen Meredith's first volume of poems, published in 1858, and in Lucile, there was grand and petty larceny from them both, of which the two following instances will suffice. Compare Lucile, Part I. canto vi.,"Tho' divine Aphrodite should open her arms
To our longing, and lull us to sleep on her charms,
Tho' the world its full sense of enjoyment insure us,
Tho' Horace, Lucretius, and old Epicurus
Sit beside us and swear we are happy, what then ?
Whence the answer within us which cries to these men,
' Let it be ! You say well ; but the world is too old To rekindle within it the ages of gold ;
A vast hope has traversed the earth, and our eyes
In despite of ourselves we must lift to the skies,' "
with Alfred de Musset's Espoir en Dieu : —
Que la blonde Astarté, qu'idolâtrait la Grèce,
De ses îles d'azur sorte en m'ouvrant les bras ;
Quand Horace, Lucrèce, et le vieil Epicure,
Assis? mes côtes, m'appelleraient heureux,
Je leur dirais à tous: 'Quoi que nous puissions
faire Je souffre, il est trop tard; le monde s'est fait vieux. Une immense espérance a traversé la terre ;
Malgré noua vers le ciel il faut lever les yeux.' "
For Heine, compare his poem called Ein Weib, which begins
"Sie batten sich Beide so herzlich lieb,
Spitzbübin war sie, er war ein Dieb,"
with Owen Meredith's See-Saw : —"She was a harlot, and I was a thief;
But we loved each other beyond belief."
To multiply quotations would be to make myself the bore of the Club. Those who like such researches can look further for themselves ; they will be rewarded in more ways than one. There is a very curious complicated bit of dishonesty, however, which they might not find out for themselves, as I discovered it by mere accident. A good many years ago, Owen Meredith, after a brief diplomatic sojourn in one of the Danubian principalities, published a collection of verses, which he was pleased to entitle Serbski Pesme. A critic acquainted with the language of Servia said at the time that the poet evidently knew nothing about it at all, but had simply asked the word for Servian and the word for poems in the original, and joined them together, without further formality. The preface to Prosper Mérimée's Chroniques de Charles IX. will throw more light on the way in which these so-called Servian poems were produced ; it is well worth reading, as a sample of Mérimée's diamantine style, and an account of one of the most ingenious and impudent literary mystifications ever perpetrated.
The most striking incident in Owen Meredith's prose novel, The Ring of Amasia, is taken from the German, from one of Paul Heyse's short stories, if I remember right. But à tout seigneur tout honneur, which is a civil form of a simple English proverb. Owen Meredith deserves the credit, which he is too modest to claim, of a familiarity with modern foreign writers unusual in an Englishman, and a very graceful gift of translation.
[Remainder of article, which moves on to other topics, omitted].
Last revised: 24 August 2010