My dear Theo,
Sincerest thanks for your letter, and the enclosure was most welcome; it really does help me.1 I begin by telling you that it’s a great relief to me that the past of the woman you write about is entirely different from what I first instinctively thought. Namely that she has known not only misery and straitened circumstances, but also other things, so I believe that she’ll appreciate you fully, also as regards civilization and broader views, much more so than a woman who has been hurt by misery from an early age and knows no better than to think that normal. From what you say about reading, for example, I can see that she has a feeling that many other women certainly do not have. Social standing and her vicissitudes help to shape her character and, it seems to me, make her suitable for you. Yes, if she gets better, you’ll be doubly happy. And I wish from my heart that she becomes your wife, for a woman makes life so completely different. And a woman like her — what is she without a man who values and understands her? A distressing sight — yes, as you said, like a spirit or a ghost.
Look, if you were gone I fear that is what she’d relapse into (even if her circumstances and even her health were otherwise).
And with you, I believe, an unending inner happiness for both her and you would lie within reach, stemming from the very awareness of no longer being alone.
For us men, too, being alone is sometimes terribly hard.
Yet: the poetry of Israëls without anyone who understands it — see, that is something so very awful that it’s almost beyond one’s comprehension, and one can’t grasp the concept.
That wandering and drifting alone — —
What Michelet says is profound, Why is there a woman alone on earth?2 You once said, or rather wrote, seriousness is better than the cleverest raillery.3 Now isn’t it just the same here? Shouldn’t one take such a figure seriously?
I mean, the life of we men is so dependent on our relations with women, and of course the same is true the other way around, that it seems to me one shouldn’t make fun of women or think lightly of them. If one reads carefully, Balzac’s petty vexations of married life are very, very serious and good, honestly meant, not to divide but to unite, but not everyone sees that in it.4 I think you’ll also find her in the work of Ary Scheffer.
When I read your letter it immediately struck me that you’re dealing with a person here who will be able, for example, to transport herself to the past with you, who will learn to see what you see in art, and that’s worth a great deal. I congratulate you, old chap, that judging by your description she’s the sort of woman to whom the words of Michelet apply: ‘A lady is a lady’.5 As for reading, the work of Michelet seems to me to be something that would give her spirit and tone.
And Victor Hugo equally.
And the reading MICHELET himself regards as desirable for a woman is L’imitation de Jésus Christ by Thomas a Kempis6 — the original version, of course, not the botched one that the clergy distorted.
But you probably know more about French literature than I do. The book by Thomas a Kempis is as beautiful as, for example, Ary Scheffer’s Consolator;7 it’s something one can’t compare to anything else. But I’ve seen editions of it that were wholly and deliberately distorted and altered by having a horrible sort of explanation added to each chapter. I still have one myself that I was once tricked into buying. And do you know what I think would be excellent, especially when a patient must breathe in fresh air from a book? It’s La nature chez elle by BODMER with the text by Théophile Gautier. The old series, available from L’Illustration or Monde Illustré. But recently I saw a Nat. chez elle that was far more meagre and less fresh than the first series, and in which the text wasn’t by T. G., as I remember. Probably done by Bodmer later when he had lost some of his early gusto.8
Old chap, I’ve had so much pleasure drawing fishermen’s heads with that sou’wester,9 which had fish scales still stuck to it when I got it.
The feeling that you’ll have had on your walk to the hospital or clinic the day you visited her after she’d undergone the operation — isn’t that one of those things one can hardly speak of, so strong are the emotions? — at any rate when you wrote to me about the operation I thought back to last summer when I visited the woman the day she gave birth.10
You wrote lately about a certain Laurens who generally made large drawings or paintings. Now I didn’t know who he was (unless he was the one who did oriental landscapes &c.),11 but today I saw an etching by Courtry after a painting by Jean Paul Laurens, a scene from the Revolutionary age, and found it very beautiful, especially some types and heads.12 But I think it quite likely that his paintings don’t look as beautiful as the etching. Is the work of Jules Goupil still beautiful? One is prompted to ask this when one sees men like Emile Wauters and Hoeterickx, for instance, exchanging their powerful snatches from reality for things that are, yes, refined and finely felt too, yet don’t match the boldness of their early work, and betray a certain timidity almost. And when things go like that, it’s a pity.
To stay bold — like Israëls, say — how few there are who bring it off.
Lately I saw a new edition of the illustrated books by R. Caldecott and bought two of them, illustrations to Washington Irving’s Sketchbook, the 2 together now costing only 1 shilling. It’s a description of Christmas in a village at the beginning of this century.13 Those small drawings are as pithy as those by Jacque, say, or Menzel.
When you come, you must see the woodcuts again. There are fellows, like Caldecott now, for instance, who are highly individual and extraordinarily interesting. How I wish we could be together more in the evenings or on Sundays. So that we could look through ‘those things’ that many pass by.14
I’m reading Eliot, Middlemarch. Eliot analyzes like Balzac or Zola, but English situations and with an English feeling.15 Adieu, old chap, best wishes with everything, and many thanks again.