Walter Pater developed a strange, oblique form of fiction he called the “imaginary portrait.” Writing about Marius the Epicurean (1885), Pater’s only attempt at a novel-length “portrait,” I wrote that he had no gift for character or story. His “portraits” are fictions merged with essays, so their pleasures are closer to those of criticism. In fact, much of his criticism – a startling amount, I thought – consists of imaginary portraits created from life, or literature, Leonardo da Vinci or the Hippolytus of Euripides turned into the subjects of not short stories, exactly, and not biographies, but “portraits.” Whatever those are.
I am honestly not sure that I quite know how to read them yet.
“The Child in the House” (1878) is Pater’s most plainly autobiographical example. The narrator describes a man remembering, in various ways, his early childhood in a particular house, and how a range of sensory experiences formed his aesthetic and ethical sense.
Sensibility – the desire of physical beauty – a strange biblical awe, which made any reference to the unseen act on him like solemn music – these qualities the child took away with him, when, at about the age of twelve years, he left the old house, and was taken to live in another place.
Anyone who ever wonders what Pater means, or what I mean, by the link between ethics and aesthetics, “The Child in the House” is not a bad place to go. Sometimes the idea is as simple as the character learning about kindness or dignified death from this pets – “the white angora, with a dark tail like an ermine's, and a face like a flower, who fell into a lingering sickness, and became quite delicately human in its valetudinarianism, and came to have a hundred different expressions of voice” – and sometimes something more complex, like the discovery of the sublime, when “this desire of physical beauty mingled itself early the fear of death – the fear of death intensified by the desire of beauty.”
Much of the child’s aesthetic development is attached to specific sensory impressions, as he is “played upon by them like a musical instrument.” The light on the snow, an illustration of Jacob wrestling the angel, an encounter with the open grave of a child, “this pressure upon him of the sensible world.”
If this sounds like something out of Proust, yes; “The Child in the House” is the most Proustian bit of pre-Proustian prose I have ever seen, most blatant in the child’s encounter with a “a great red hawthorn in full flower,” a clear reference to Marcel’s tearful embrace of his beloved hawthorn in Swann’s Way (1913), the most pathetic scene in literature.
… the beauty of the thing struck home to him feverishly; and in dreams all night he loitered along a magic roadway of crimson flowers, which seemed to open ruddily in thick, fresh masses about his feet, and fill softly all the little hollows in the banks on either side. Always afterwards, summer by summer, as the flowers came on, the blossom of the red hawthorn still seemed to him absolutely the reddest of all things; and the goodly crimson, still alive in the works of old Venetian masters or old Flemish tapestries, called out always from afar the recollection of the flame in those perishing little petals, as it pulsed gradually out of them, kept long in the drawers of an old cabinet.
It is as if Pater is tracing his career, his affinity for Renaissance art, to the color of childhood hawthorn petals.