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Edith Wharton on Soulbonding

From her autobiography, Backward Glance
Transcribed by Astraea^Gabriel

In June 2003, I typed out part of the "Secret Garden" chapter of Edith Wharton's book A Backward Glance for a friend. I thought it might be worth putting up here so you could see exactly why we always cite her as a shining example of Victorian soulbonding par excellence. Of course, she didn't call it soulbonding. No one did until a small internet anime fanfiction writers' group started using that word. People in the olden times might have said "my characters are real presences to me". It might be less confusing, when describing it to others, if you use a sentence like that, or refer to people in your system who are characters as "presences" rather than soulbonds or even muses.

This is from "Knee-High", chapter 2 of A Backward Glance, where Edith talks about the process of making-up.

Edith Wharton on Making Up:

The imagining of tales (about grown up people, "real people," I called them--children always seemed to me incompletely realized) had gone on in me since my first conscious moments; I cannot remember the time when I did not want to "make up" stories. But it was in Paris that I found the necessary formula. Oddly enough, I had no desire to write my stories down (even had I known how to write, and I couldn't yet form a letter); but from the first I had to have a book in my hand to "make up" with, and from the first it had to be a certain sort of book. The page had to be closely printed, with rather heavy black type, and not much margin. Certain densely printed novels in the early Tauchnitz editions, Harrison Ainsworth's for instance, would have been my richest sources of inspiration had I not hit one day on something even better: Washington Irving's "Alhambra." These shaggy volumes, printed in close black characters on rough-edged yellowish pages, and bound in coarse dark-blue covers (probably a production of the old Gaglignani Press in Paris) must have been a relic of our Spanish adventure. Washington Irving was an old friend of my family's, and his collected works, in comely type and handsome binding, adorned our library shelves at home. But these would not have been of much use to me as a source of inspiration. The rude companion of our travels was the book I needed; I had only to open it for the Pierian fount to flow. There was richness and mystery in the thick black type, a hint of bursting overflowing material in the serried lines and scant margin. To this day I am bored by the sight of widely spaced type, and a little islet of text in a sailless sea of white paper.

Well--the "Alhambra" once in hand, making up was ecstasy. At any moment the impulse might seize me; and then, if the book was in reach, I had only to walk the floor, turning the pages as I walked, to be swept off full sail on the sea of dreams. The fact that I could not read added to the completeness of the illusion, for from those mysterious blank pages I could evoke whatever my fancy chose. Parents and nurses, peeping at me through the cracks of doors (I always had to be alone to "make up"), noticed that I often held the book upside down, but that I never failed to turn the pages, and that I turned them at about the right pace for a person reading aloud as passionately and precipitately as was my habit.

There was something almost ritualistic in the performance. The call came regularly and imperiously; and though, when it caught me at inconvenient moments, I would struggle against it conscientiously--for I was beginning to be a very conscientious little girl--the struggle was always a losing one. I had to obey the furious Muse; and there are deplorable tales of my abandoning the "nice" playmates who had been invited to "spend the day," and rushing to my mother with the desperate cry: "Mamma, you must go and entertain that little girl for me. I'VE GOT TO MAKE UP."

My parents, distressed by my solitude (my two brothers being by this time grown up and away) were always trying to establish relations for me with "nice" children, and I was willing enough to play in the Champs Elysees with such specimens as were produced or (more reluctantly) to meet them at little parties or dancing classes; but I did not want them to intrude on my privacy, and there was not one I would not have renounced forever rather than have my "making up" interfered with. What I really preferred was to be alone with Washington Irving and my dream.


This next part is from "The Secret Garden," chapter 9 of A Backward Glance, where Edith talks about where she gets her stories. This is possibly the only good look we're going to get for a while at a gateway singlet.

She says a lot of authors struggle to find a subject or people to write about, and she is struggling to STOP them from pounding on her phone index so much. - Gabriel

Edith Wharton on Soulbonding:

What I mean to try for is the observation of that strange moment when the vaguely adumbrated characters whose adventures one is preparing to record are suddenly *there*, themselves, in the flesh, in possession of one, and in command of one's voice and hand. It is there that the central mystery lies, and perhaps it is as impossible to fix in words as that other mystery of what happens in the brain at the precise moment when one falls over the edge of consciousness into sleep. . . .

When I began to talk with novelists about the art of fiction I was amazed at the frequently repeated phrase: "I've been hunting about for months for a good subject!" Good heavens! I remember once, when an old friend of the pen made this rather wistful complaint, carelessly rejoining: "Subjects? But they swarm about me like mosquitoes! I'm sick of them; they stifle me. I wish I could get rid of them!" And only years afterward, when I had learned more from both life and letters, did I understand how presumptuous such an answer must have sounded. The truth is that I have never attached much importance to subject, partly because every incident, every situation, presents itself to me in the light of story-telling material, and partly from the conviction that the possibilities of a given subject are--whatever a given imagination can make of them. But by the time I had written three or four novels I had learned to keep silence on this point.

The analysis of the story-telling process may be divided into two parts: that which concerns the technique of fiction (in the widest sense), and that which tries to look into what, for want of a simpler term, one must call by the old bardic name of inspiration. On the subject of technique I have found only two novelists explicitly and deeply interested: Henry James and Paul Bourget. I have talked long and frequently with both, and profitably also, I hope, though on certain points we always disagreed. I have also, to the best of my ability, analyzed this process, as I understood it, in my book, "The Writing of Fiction"; and therefore I shall deal here not with any general theory of technique but simply with the question of how some of my own novels happened to me, how each little volcanic island shot up from the unknown depths, or each coral-atoll slowly built itself. But first I will try to capture the elusive moment of the arrival of the characters.

In the birth of fiction, it is sometimes the situation, the "case", which first presents itself, and sometimes the characters who appear, asking to be fitted into a situation. It is hard to say what conditions are likely to give the priority to one or the other, and I doubt if fiction can be usefully divided into novels of situation and of character, since a novel, if worth anything at all, is always both, in inextricable combination. In my own case a situation sometimes occurs to me first, and sometimes a single figure suddenly walks into my mind. If the situation takes the lead, I leave it lying about, as it were, in a quiet place, and wait till the characters creep stealthily up and wriggle themselves into it. All I seem to have done is to say, at the outset; "This thing happened - but to whom?" Then I wait, holding my breath, and one by one the people appear and take possession of the case. When it happens in the other way, I may be strolling about casually in my mind, and suddenly a character will start up, coming seemingly from nowhere. Again, but more breathlessly, I watch; and presently the character draws nearer, and seems to become aware of me, and to feel the shy but desperate need to become aware of me, and to feel the shy but desperate need to unfold his or her tale. I cannot say in which way a subject is most likely to present itself -- though perhaps in short stories the situation, in novels one of the characters, generally appears first.

But this is not the most interesting point of the adventure. Compared with what follows it is not interesting at all, though it has, in my case, one odd feature I have not heard of elsewhere -- that is, my characters always appear with their names. Sometimes these names seem to me affected, sometimes almost ridiculous; but I am obliged to own that they are never fundamentally unsuitable. And the proof that they are not, that they really belong to the people, is the difficulty I have in trying to substitute other names. For many years the attempt always ended fatally; any character I unchristened instantly died on my hands, as if it were some kind of sensitive crustacean, and the name it brought with it were its shell. Only gradually, and in very few cases, have I gained enough mastery over my creatures to be able to effect the change; and even now, when I do, I have to resort to hypodermics and oxygen, and not always successfully.

These names are hardly ever what I call "real names"; that is, the current patronymics one would find in an address-book or a telephone directory; and it is their excessive oddness which often makes me try to change them. When in a book by some one else I meet people called by current names I always say to myself; "Ah, those names were tied on afterward"; and I often find that the characters thus labelled are less living than the others. Yet there seems to be no general rules, for in the case of certain famous novelists whose characters have out-of-the-way names, many are tied on too. Balzac had to hunt the streets of Paris for names on shop-signs; and Thackeray and Trollope bent their genius to the invention of the most laboured and dreary pleasantries in the pointless attempt to characterize their people in advance. Yet Captain Deuceace and the Rev. Mr. Quiverful are alive enough, and I can only suppose that this odd fact of the prenamed characters is a peculiarity of my own mental makeup. But I often wonder how the novelist whose people arrive without names manages to establish relations with them!

A still more spectral element in my creative life is the sudden appearance of names without characters. Several times, in this way, a name to which I can attach no known association of ideas has forced itself upon me in a furtive shadowy way, not succeeding in making its bearer visible, yet hanging about obstinately for years in the background of my thoughts. The Princess Estradina was such a name. I knew nothing of its origin, and still less of the invisible character to whom it presumably belonged. Who was she, what were her nationality, her history, her claims on my attention? She must have been there, lurking and haunting me, for years before she walked into "The Custom of the Country", in high-coloured flesh and blood, cool, dominant and thoroughly at home. Another such character haunts me today. Her name is still odder; Laura Testvalley. How I should like to change that name! But it has been attached for some time now to a strongly outlined material form, the form of a character figuring largely in an adventure I know all about, and have long wanted to relate. Several times I have tried to give Miss Testvalley another name, since the one she bears, should it appear ever in print, will be even more troublesome to my readers than to me. But she is strong-willed, and even obstinate, and turns sulky and unmanageable whenever I hint at the advantages of a change; and I foresee that she will eventually force her way into my tale burdened with her impossible patronymic.

But this is a mere parenthesis; what I want to try to capture is an impression of the elusive moment when these people who haunt my brain actually begin to speak within me with their own voices. The situating of my tale, and its descriptive and narrative portions, I am conscious of conducting, though often unaware of how the story first came to me, pleading to be told; but as soon as the dialogue begins, I become merely a recording instrument, and my hand never hesitates because my mind has not to choose, but only to set down what these stupid or intelligent, lethargic or passionate, people say to each other in a language, and with arguments, that appear to be all their own. It is because of this that I attach such importance to dialogue, and yet regard it as an effect to be sparingly used. By dialogue I do not mean the pages of "Yes" and "no", of platitudes and repetitions, of which most actual talk is composed, and which any writer with a photographic mind and a good memory can set down by the yard (and does, in most modern fiction). The vital dialogue is that exchanged by characters whom their creator has really vitalized, and his instinct will be to record only the significant passages of their talk, in high relief against the narrative, and not uselessly embedded in it.

These moments of high tension, when the creature lives and its creator listens to it, have nothing in common with the "walking away with the subject," the "settling it in their own way", with which some novelists so oddly charge their characters. It is always a necessity to me that the note of inevitableness should be sounded at the very opening of my tale, and that my characters should go forward to their ineluctable doom like the "murdered man" in "The Pot of Basil". From the first I know exactly what is going to happen to every one of them; their fate is settled beyond rescue, and I have but to watch and record. When I read that great novelists like Dickens and Trollope "killed off" a character, or changed the conclusion of a tale, in response to the request or the criticism of a reader, I am dumbfounded. What then was their own relation to their subject? But to show how mysterious and incalculable the whole business is, one has only to remember that Trollope "went home and killed" Mrs. Proudie because he overheard some fool at his club complaining that she had lived long enough; and yet that the death scene thus arbitrarily brought about is one of the greatest pages he ever wrote, and places him momentarily on a level with Balzac and Tolstoy!

But these people of mine, whose ultimate destiny I know so well, walk to it by ways unrevealed to me beforehand. Not only their speech, but what I might call their subsidiary action, seems to be their very own, and I am sometimes startled at the dramatic effect of a word or gesture which would never have occurred to me if I had been pondering over an abstract "situation", as yet uninhabited by its "characters".

I do not think I can get any nearer than this to the sources of my story-telling; I can only say that the process, though it takes place in some secret region on the sheer edge of consciousness, is always illuminated by the full light of my critical attention. What happens there is as real and tangible as my encounters with my friends and neighbours, often more so, though on an entirely different plane. It produces in me a great emotional excitement, quite unrelated to the joy or sorrow caused by real happenings, but as intense, and with as great an appearance or reality; and my two lives, divided between these equally real yet totally unrelated worlds, have gone on thus, side by side, equally absorbing, but wholly isolated from each other, ever since in my infancy I "read stories" aloud to myself out of Washington Irving's "Alhambra", which I generally held upside down. . . .

Read Edith's complete autobiography

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Robert E. Howard on Soulbonding

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pavilion @ karitas. net
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