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From the NS archive: A tale for posterity

12 April 1913: Therefore, he would put it to himself whether he had not fallen in love again.

By JC Squire

In this piece from 1913 the writer JC Squire reflects on love. Squire details the symptoms of a man in love – he may find himself “despoiled” of sleep, or he may go silent in the presence of the woman he admires “in fear she might find him awkward or painful”. A man in love is self-conscious, fearful that he might reveal he has “neither the courage nor, as he thought it, the ungentlemanliness to speak”. Yet a man in love is not insecure or modest. He thinks himself “a conglomerate of Hector, Hamlet, Sophocles and Lancelot” – something other people can detect “by intuition or from some ethereal glint in his eyes”. Most importantly, however, while a man in love may be concerned with his feelings, he does not examine or attempt to imagine those of the woman he loves.

There was a man in my day who fell in love. He was a young man, and not out of the common in genius or virtue. His passion was certainly violent in that, although it did not make him assume the mien and gait of an invalid dog, or wait behind a door to stab a supposed rival, it despoiled him of sleep, which had hitherto been his constant possession. Lust, or, as a tactful contemporary of mine has termed it, the emphatic wish to be an ancestor, may have been the rock on which his glowing dream castle was built; if so, he was unaware of it, and, after the most scrutinous analysis of his own feelings, honestly declared to himself that it was not so.

It was some time before he spoke of what was in his heart to the woman with whom he was in love. He found a delight in her presence and in her conversation, which was sensible, humorous and sympathetic; he thought she shared his pleasure, and he saw clearly that she was interested in his nature and his opinions and preferences; but he shrank from opening his heart to her. This was partly owing to his pride, which made him unwilling to display himself to a woman of whom he was not sure, and who he feared might pity him; it was also in part born of a fastidiousness which made him perceive something indecent and discourteous in suddenly thrusting another person into a situation which she might possibly find awkward and possibly even painful. Consequently, though occasionally in her presence he could not help being silent, or wholly resist the assumption of a moodily-sorrowful air and the wish that something about him might convey to her the message that he had neither the courage nor, as he thought it, the ungentlemanliness to speak, he kept his secret for months.

Whether or not it was likely that he should find favour in this woman’s eyes he did not, curiously enough, speculate. In his own heart he was not by any means modest. He thought himself – as we all think ourselves – a person of vast powers, unlimited capabilities, and a sensibility that marked him off from the mass of men. He knew that he had never given material and visible proof of these great qualities, and he could not in reason expect, though he sometimes half hoped, that other people would detect them by intuition or from some ethereal glint in his eyes. Granted, as he was inclined to grant to himself, that he was a conglomerate of Hector, Hamlet, Sophocles and Lancelot, he suspected that neither in his behaviour, which was of wont timid and hesitating, nor in his speech, from which he habitually excluded both rhetoric about the constitution of the world and intimate expression of his own deeper feelings and most cherished ambitions, had he allowed his inner nature to be revealed.

Sometimes it occurred to him that he told her nothing of his gorgeous imaginations, or of the powers of which, given the incentive to effort, he was capable in the world of action – in war, in politics, and even in commerce. He had not, unfortunately, been taught music, but magnificent symphonies and orchestral odes were always ringing in his head; he had half a mind to learn his notes and write his compositions down. Of painting a similar thing was true; pictures were done by purblind people who could not see things either as decorations or as syllables of the spirit; they had over himself the sole, wretched advantage that they had been schooled in the manual craft of the business. He it was, potentially and therefore really, who wrote the poems of the age; who nailed his flag to the mast, and went down splendidly singing; who rallied a scattered people and swept mis-government from its seat; who filled a thousand ports with his grains and cloths and spices; who drove tunnels through the loftiest and most adamantine mountain chains.

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But he had no desire to boast or to expose himself to anybody. Persons of penetration, shrewd judges of character, could see things for themselves, and she was, of course, such a one. But in reality he did not ask himself whether or not she knew anything of all this. He examined his own feelings, but he did not examine or attempt to imagine hers; he merely wished mutely and very strongly that she did not think him a fool, and especially that she would not think him a fool and want to laugh when he told her that he loved her.

What finally provoked him to speech was this. It was intolerable to think that she might at any time contract herself by hazard, in a moment of abstraction as it were, to some man for whom she did not care and whom she might live to detest. He had it in his power perhaps not only to save himself from mental torture, but to save her from a desolate or miserable life. So he decided that he must take the irretrievable step, although the thought of it made him quake and shiver.

They were outdoors one fine still evening (the moon was shining, but that was an accident and might not have happened), and he said what he had meant to say on several previous occasions. Her face was pale and composed, and, in an unthinking pose which struck him – he rarely took notice of such things – as unusually beautiful, she was looking, chin on hand, out over the level country with its sparse trees and its strips of water silver to the moon. He explained himself quite suddenly in a couple of jerky sentences, worded casually and spoken in a tone of detached, almost scientific, impersonality. She did laugh, and she did call him a fool; but he found that there are divers ways of doing this.

In the more intimate relationship of confessed lovers they were extremely happy. Nevertheless, he did not lose his judgment or his mental balance. He had no illusions about his lady; he quite coldly admitted to himself that she had certain faults, and that such-and-such other women excelled her in this or that respect; although, when all things were taken into account, she was superior to any woman of his acquaintance. Occasionally as time went on, so calculating and self-controlled was he, he asked himself whether he was really in love with her any longer. This did not happen when he had been away from her for any considerable period, or when his eyes were catching hers in sympathy or in amusement. At such times as those he was certain; but at other times he often wondered whether his continued fidelity was not due perhaps to sluggardly habit or cowardly romanticism rather than to any permanent strength of feeling. Were not the plashes and tinklings he heard in his breast but the echoes of the old flowing of a fountain that had ceased to flow? If they were, he desired to know it; for he was interested in the truth about himself, and more especially in the truth about men.

Frequently, therefore, he would put it to himself whether he had not fallen in love again with some other person. Compunctions about such inquiry he considered to pertain rather to the kingdom of sentimental fiction than to that of reality; and he had no desire to tell himself any lies. He quite appreciated the social advantages that might attach to general lifelong monogamy, and he was not unsusceptible to the poetic glamour which centuries had cast over the idea of that condition. He even admitted that, under some circumstance, in this regard as in others, it might be desirable, it might even be an imperative duty, that a man should resist the gratification of his own inclinations. But even at that, failing the extreme case, he would have had – for his blood, like the blood of all of us, was mingled cold and warm – difficulty in pursuing his inclination when he had ascertained them.

He admitted that it was conceivable that the woman might retain her love (for, respecting a milder affection, he had no doubt that it would endure for life on both sides) for him after he had lost his for her. A similar change might have taken place the other way round.

But he had (so he told me, and I respected him for it) a theory which made him ready to meet such emergencies. He held that jealousy was the worst of crimes. He was not hypocrite enough to pretend to be entirely immune from it. At the time of his first falling in love he had felt jealousy towards some persons unknown, and he had never been able to stifle a gentle pang when his lady told him of the girlish attractions she had felt for other men – a terrible lot of fools, that was the worst of it – before he, the glowing and irresistible planet, had swum into her ken. Had she at any subsequent time left him for another, such feelings must again have affected him; but (and in this he appeared quite sincere) he would have fought them as unreasonable and ungenerous, and, above all, as witnesses of a desire to make encroachment on the liberty of another. This attitude, to his thinking, should be shared, and he held that he was right in acting on the assumption that it was shared.

And so he often asked himself whether he was not in love with one of his other woman friends. But (said he) the irritating thing was that he never obtained a satisfactory answer to his question. Cynthia had straight, unshrinking eyes, calm hands, and a profound insight into life and beauty. He never tired of her presence, but he drew back from the thought of touching her lips or her hair; it would have seemed, he knew not why, a profanation. Merope he loved as a man loves a man; for Lesbia, a dark-flushed beauty, most candid and generous, he experienced a physical attraction which he believed could only persist as long as it had no indulgence; it was like a faint, shining bubble that will break and vanish at the first touch. Here he saw no possibility of fulness, there of stability; here the spirit was unmoved, there the body lethargic and dumb.

Yet, whenever he had to answer his questionings with a “no,” he experienced (so he confided in me) doubts as to the accuracy of his answer. Had he not perhaps, he would muse, faced the inquiry not squarely but with the furtive glance of one in sick haste to escape? Had he not allowed his judgment to be prejudiced beforehand by a timorous flinching from a breach with convention, a weak tendency not to fling a rude stone into the tranquil stream of his companion’s existence, a craven and constitutional aversion from conclusions which must induce decisive and irrevocable action? Thus he would thresh his brain, beating about in blind and bewildered manner like a frightened bat in a cave. Sometimes, in the hope of arriving at clarity of mind and a well-tempered resolution, he would go out into a solitary place where he would commune with the placid afternoon skies, sitting with firm-shut lips and eyes remotely fixed. The end of such communion was always doubt and a sigh.

When I last met him, four or five years ago, he had arrived at no conclusion.

And if, my dear descendants, it is your open boast, or even your secret pride, that you have attained a muddled complexity of feeling and hesitancy of belief not previously known, you are making a boast or nursing a pride which is much older than yourselves, and much older than myself.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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