YEARS ago, I discovered in an old magazine a symposium of brief articles by well-known story-writers called 'How I Write.' This author and that explained his enormous gestations, the questions and difficulties that beset him, the nature and the presumed origin of his inspiration. The first idea was always something 'given'by God, one gatheredand, exhaustingly, the writer had to labour at interpreting it. The last and shortest statement on the subject came from W. W. Jacobs. 'I first of all,' he said, 'assemble a few sheets of paper, a bottle of ink, some pens, and a blotting-pad.' He added that he would stare at this 'unresponsive material' for some time, and then, if nothing further happened, he would wearily rack his brains until he had managed to squeeze a story out of them. This was his usual method; occasionally, however, a story would suddenly step forward and seem to write itself. 'I then re-write it,' he concluded.
Hence, I think, the precision and economy and, within its limits, the perfection of his art. There is no maundering, no display, no self-indulgence; his stories are executed in a cool and practical way. A complete plot, with a reversal of fortune, a victory or a defeat in it: he is not content with less than this. His kind of story is something no longer attempted, and if he had imitators none of them have survived. Atmosphere, the characteristic of the present-day short story, he was at no pains to create; yet his name calls up at once an atmosphere wholly his own, and given off by his four or five distinct and clear-cut scenes: the Sailors' lodging-houses in London; the wharves; the small neat homes of widow-women and re-
tired sea-captains in harbour villages; the pub at Claybury. His characters and scenes do not range widely, but the variety and ingenuity of his plots are always surprising. In no sense does he go, as a rule, far from the shore; and it must be added that of the sea itself he knew very little; he is said to have disliked going on it, and it is noticeable that he thinks a knot is a distance.
Jacobs's stories have frequently been turned into other things, and there is even an opera on the subject of The Boatswain's Mate. The results of these transformations are never entirely pleasing, for, if you have a taste for his stories at all, you have also an acute sense of their setting and of the inflections of their concise, excellent dialogue, which you do not want interfered with or coarsened. For Jacobs is among the most elegant and refined of comic writers, and, in view of his subjects, this means that he is artificial. His sailors, longshoremen and villagers are rarely literate; yet they command a preposterous gift for turning a sentence: The langwidge 'e see fit to use was a'most as much as I could answer.' They live in slums which in life have an unexampled squalor; meanness, cunning, infidelity and avarice are their commonest habits: yet all these things Jacobs makes us unquestioningly laugh at. And because of a complete absence of social or moral implication his work remains fresh.
He never goes deeply into anything. I can imagine his mystification at Mr. V. S. Pritchett's stories, though to a contemporary reader Mr. Pritchett so obviously re-calls him. At the same time Jacobs has one curious gift: he does observe very closely people's gestures and facial expressions, the meaning of their pauses, their oblique understated asperities. But he doesn't put these things into his books because he ought to, or because he is in-
terested in what people do in real life; he is interested only in what he can make them do in a story, the possible variations in the harlequinade.
Dialstone Lane is probably the best of his half-dozen long stories. The most, after all, that Jacobs could do with a novel, and yet retain his characteristic manner, was to interweave several short stories and pack them tightly and neatly inside yet another one. He does this with amazing precision and liveliness, and the shifts from one group of people to another are perfectly timed. The unostentation of his methods does something to disguise his remarkable achievement in creating fourteen characters cleanly and distinctly within the space of a short novel. He has created them all before, of coursebut of what novelist can one not say that by the time he has reached his tenth book? And if you like his short stories it is delightful to be able to dwell longer with their best characters. A Master of Craft is a more ambitious novel than Dialstone Lane; it has a brilliant plot, and the inevitable widows' tea-party is of Jacobs's best. Furthermore, its light evocations of scene and its more or less serious love story are things we do not find elsewhere in Jacobs. But, like his macabre stories, they are things which his contemporaries could do equally well, and in Dialstone Lane there is nothing that is not Jacobs's own. In A Master of Craft an odd streak of realism intrudes: the fight on the road is not a pleasant one; the Wheeler family and the villainous old country couple, though accurately drawn, sophisticate the taste of the rest of the story; and Jacobs avoids such scenes in his later novels. Dialstone Lane preserves intact its author's special gifts; At Sunwich Port, Salthaven and The Castaways do not improve on it.
It is Jacobs at his best, and it is therefore enchant-
ingly amusing to re-read. I have said that the characters are his stock types; but they have, so to speak, their very best clothes on. And since there are so many of them, fresh collisions are devised which produce new and larger sparks: the scenes between Selina Vickers and Captain Bowers, for example, or the astonishing introduction of Captain Brisket into the darks' drawing-room. The Clarks and the Scobells are in their separate ways, lower down in conjugal disenchantment than any married couples in Jacobs before them. ("'Yes,' said Mr. Clark, in a burst of unwonted frankness, 'but it ain't quite the same thing. I've got a wife, and Mrs. Scobell has got a husbandthat's the difference.'") The episode at the tea-table is a small masterpiece of dialogue; so is the later scene where the two wives lament the presumed deaths of their husbands. The Beatrice and Benedick scenes are not disproportionate to the rest. The relations between Jacobs's young men and women are always the same: they spend the whole time scoring each other offit is the one thing in which Jacobs sometimes makes us conscious of repetition from book to book. Yet the scenes are extremely well done in themselves: the passage about the two-pound bet in chapter three is brilliant. Above all, Dialstone Lane shows Jacobs in complete mastery of two things which are essential if a comedy is to ripple fluently and amusingly along: he knows how to make the end of one piece of confusion slyly contain the beginnings of another; and he knows how to allot to a character a remark or an act which the reader can anticipate, and then how to cap it with something absolutely unexpected. The book has the placid mellowness of a wine which two wars have failed to disturb.