Comparatively speaking, the making of Henri III was speedy: when the plot was once clearly set out in my mind, I took barely two months to complete the work.
I remember that in the interval between the shaping of the plot and the writing of the play, I went down to Villers-Cotterets for the shooting, I think. On my way back I walked on in front of the coach, and my young friends Saunier, Labarre, and Duez accompanied me as far as the village of Vauciennes. On the road I recited Henri III to them, from beginning to end: Henri III was made directly its plot was made.
And, in fact, whenever I am engaged upon a work which occupies all my thoughts, I feel the need of narrating it aloud; in narrating, I invent; and at the end of one or other of these recitals, I find some fine morning that the play is completed. But it often happens that this method of working that is to say, not beginning the piece until I have finished the plot is a very slow one. In this way I kept Mademoiselle de Belleisle for nearly five years in my head; and ever since 1832 I have had in my mind the outline of a .Juif Errant, to which I can devote myself at the first leisure moment I get, and which will be one of my best books. Indeed, I have only one fear, which is that I may die without having written it.
When Henri III was completed, I read it at Madame Waldor’s before an informal committee. The play produced a great effect, but the unanimous opinion was that I ought to get Christine produced before it: Henri III, they said, was too hazardous for a first venture. I need not say that dear old M. Villenave looked upon all these new attempts as monstrous, and pronounced them to be aberrations of the human intellect.
I had made the acquaintance of a young doctor, by name Thibaut.
Thibaut knew exactly all these things that I did not know, and he undertook the rough task of my education. We passed most of our evenings together in a little room in the Rue du Pelican, looking out over the Vero-Dodat passage. I was only a hundred yards from the Palais-Royal, so could easily slip round there to make up the letter-bag.
In the mornings I sometimes accompanied Thibaut to the Charite hospital, and did a little physiology and anatomy though I could never overcome my repugnance to operations and corpses. From these visits came a certain amount of medical or surgical knowledge, which has more than once been of use to me in my novels.
Thus, for example, in Amaury, in the case of Madeleine my heroine, I traced the phases of a lung disease….
In another direction, following the advice of Lassagne, I set myself to reading, and I began with Walter Scott. The first novel I read, signed by the `Scotch Bard’ so the phrase went at that time was Ivanhoe.
Then came Cooper, with his mighty forests, immense prairies, and boundless oceans his Pioneers, his Prairie, his Red Rover three masterpieces of description, in which the lack of substance is so well veiled by richness of form that you go right through the romance, treading, like the apostle, on ground always ready to open and engulf you, and yet you are upheld, not by faith, but by poetry, from the first page even to the last.
And then Byron Byron who died at Missolonghi, just when I was beginning to study at Paris as a dramatic and lyric poet.
The speculation was not a fortunate one for either of us, and so I laid to heart a piece of advice given me by a shrewd publisher, one M. Bossange:
`Make yourself a name, and I will print you.’
Ay, there was the whole question, Make yourself a name! That is the condition at one time set before every man who has made himself a name the condition of which, at the moment when it was imposed on him, he asked himself in despair, `How can I fulfill it?’ And yet he has fulfilled it. For my part, I am no believer in talent ignored or genius misunderstood.
So I set to work in earnest to make my name, in order that I might sell my books and have no more of the half-profit system. And indeed this name, small and modest as it was, was beginning to show through the ground….
So I counted for something in contemporary literature, since Vatout asked me for verses.
I had seen Hamlet, Romeo, Shylock, Othello, Richard III, Macbeth. I had read — nay, devoured not only the repertory of Shakspeare, but that of every foreign dramatic poet; and I had come to recognise that in the world of the theatre everything emanates from Shakespeare, as in the real world all emanates from the sun Shakespeare, to whom none other can be compared, and who, coming before all the others, still re-mains as tragical as Corneille, as comical as Moliere, as original as Calderon, as philosophic as Goethe, as impassioned as Schiller. I recognised that the works of this one man contained as many types as those of all the rest put together. I recognised, in fine, that he was the one who had created most next after God….
But, at the same time, I was under no delusion about the difficulties of the career to which I was devoting my life. I knew that, more than any other, it was a career which demanded special and profound study, and that, if you are to experiment with success upon living nature, you must first have long and carefully studied dead nature. I did not, therefore, content myself with a preliminary ‘survey. I took, one after the other, those men of genius whose names are Shakespeare, Moliere, Corneille, Calderon, Goethe, Schiller. I spread out their works, like corpses on the table of a dissecting room, and, scalpel in hand, whole nights through, I penetrated to the very heart to discover the sources of life and the secret of the blood’s circulation. And at last I gained an insight into that admirable mechanism which could set nerves and muscles in play that skill which could model teguments of flesh so various, and yet designed to cover bones essentially the same. For man does not invent. God has handed creation over to him, and it is for him to apply it to his needs. Progress is but the conquest through days, through months, through generations the conquest of matter by man. Each one of us comes in his turn and in his hour, enters upon the inheritance of the things discovered by his fathers, sets these to work by fresh combinations, then dies, after having added to the sum of human knowledge, which he bequeaths to his sons, some new fragment one star in the Milky Way!
And so it was not merely my special dramatic work, but my dramatic education, that I was bringing to a completion. Nay, I am wrong; the work is finished some day, the education never.