As one begins to read Anna Strunsky Walling’s fascinating and delicately phrased epitome of a woman’s life—'Violette of Père Lachaise' — one is inevitably reminded of Walter Pater’s 'The Child in the House.' There is in Walling’s story the same completeness of escape from the commonplace as in Pater’s, and there is something of the same effect of haunting strangeness. Walling, too, has chosen, as Pater so often did, the form of an unsubstantial narrative — a narrative personal in its interest, but tenuous in that it subordinates detail to subjective truth. Really, the resemblance goes deeper; because Walling’s theme is the same as that about which Pater invariably wrote under whatever guise — the theme of life and death.
We are alive, and we know that we must die! In view of this incomprehensible situation what should be our attitude? Philosophy and religion have given their general answers; but in the last analysis the personal answer alone strikes to the root of faith. The intimations, the instinctive choices which really determine one ’s philosophy, cannot be reduced to a formula without a loss of conviction; they need to be clothed with personality and with feeling. Such is the motive, doubtless, that influenced the author of Violette. Walling conducts her search for the true, indestructible romance of life through a personality; and if she proves little she persuades much, for she shows us an inner life wholly natural and lovely both in its joy and its distress - a life, moreover, that is self-consistent, inwardly whole, despite the keen realization of death that is so persistent an element of it.
Violette lives with her grandfather in a house near the cemetery of Pére Lachaise in Paris. Pere Lachaise is her playground and her teacher. She learns from it not to fear death and to estimate life as a thing of value and meaning. The story tells, with psychological truth, of her childhood, her early introduction to “ social faith,” her experience of friendship, the meaning that art held for her, her first love, her final finding of herself. To one of Violette’s type finding oneself is no easy process. It means the attainment of some sort of satisfaction in the search for larger life and for the assurance of personal worth. Such satisfaction may be attained in despite of the dread of annihilation. The consciousness of life as something larger than personality may triumph over the consciousness of death. Just how this may be it is not easy to explain. The story of Violette shows with poignant clearness that it is so.
Actually, there is a radical difference of spirit between Walling ’s work and that of the epicurean Pater. Violette, unlike Marius, has a soul, and not merely the adumbration of one. Her story is warm with life and not with the semblance of it. Violette, to be sure, feels that life is precious because of its fragility. But the thought breeds only that wholesome sadness at the thought of death which all must feel - the house of mourning is better than the house of mirth. It does not induce the chill melancholy of pessimism. The meaning of life is service; if then death follows, ending all, nevertheless one may attain here on earth to something not wholly earthy.
Violette, too, can attach meaning to beauty without making beauty in itself the end to be sought. “ When another autumn came she watched the fall of leaves—-the crimson whirl in the air, the brilliant maples grouped about the white birch trees which were being stripped before her eyes by the breeze. . . . Why could not all dying be beautiful like this? When her time came, she, too, could deck herself out marvellously! She could summon more thoughts from out the recesses of her mind, memories that should be more than memories, charged with a vital force to persist, to act; she could array herself at the end in the full flowering of all that had ever begun in her . . . she would surrender all, let them be carried out by gentle winds to impregnable regions while she herself sank to the ground a symbol, a token, a pledge of love and life, like each brilliant leaf then descending.”
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