When Mrs. Wharton's stories first appeared, in that early period which, as we have now learned, was merely a period of apprenticeship, everybody said, "How clever!" "How wonderfully clever!" and the criticism—to adopt a generic term for indiscriminate adjectives—was apt, for the most conspicuous trait in the stories was cleverness. They were astonishingly clever; and their cleverness, as an ostensible quality will, caught and held the attention. And yet, though undoubtedly correct, the term owes its correctness, in part at least, to its ready-to-wear quality, to its negative merit of vague amplitude, behind which the most diverse gifts and capacities may lie concealed. No readers of Mrs. Wharton, after the first shock of bewildered admiration, rest content with it, but grope about to lift the cloaking surtout of cleverness and to see as best they may how and by what methods her preternaturally nimble wits are playing their game,—for it is a game that Mrs. Wharton plays, pitting herself against a situation to see how much she can score.
To most people the point she plays most brilliantly is the episode, which in the novel is merely one of the links in the concatenation of the plot, but in the short story is the form and substance, the very thing itself; and so to be mistress of the art of the episode almost seems to leave any other species of mastery irrelevant and superfluous. In Mrs. Wharton this aptitude is not single, but a combination. It includes the sense of proportion, and markedly that elementary proportion of allotting the proper space for the introduction of the story,—so much to bring the dramatis personae into the ring, so much for the preliminary bouts, so much for the climax, and, finally, the proper length for the recessional. It includes the subordination of one character to another, of one picture to another, the arrangement of details in proper hierarchy to produce the desired effect.
"The Dilettante," for instance, is a good example of craft in introducing a situation. The story is very short, the episode a mere dialogue; and, as the nature of the dialogue forbids an explanation of the situation through the mouths of the speakers, a neat prologue, in half-livery as it were, opens the door and takes your name, then the dialogue, in full livery, immediately shows you upstairs into the inner privacy of the episode, where the climax awaits you. You are met at each step by the forethought of a somewhat anxious hostess; and there is throughout a well-bred economy of effort which one expects to pass into grace, but which for some reason deflects and slips back into cleverness.
Some readers deem the dialogue the strongest point of Mrs. Wharton's game, it is so pithy and witty. Others, again, among the various excellences, prefer the author's own observations and comments. Still others like best the epigrams or the dramatic interest of the incident itself.
If the reader, after he has gone over these various points in the game, attempts to sum up his impressions, to his astonishment and dismay he finds himself again face to face with his old adjective clever. At first he surmises that this is a trick of his own indolence, which, lazily yielding to habit, offers him this serviceable word; but upon reflection he perceives that the adjective has a positive merit. It is a word of limitation; it fences in its own domain and excludes other regions beyond. Mrs. Wharton's stories are not original like Miss Wilkins's, not poetic like George Eliot's, not romantic like Bret Harte's, not rippling with muscular energy like Kipling's, nor smooth with the dogmatic determinism of Maupassant. To none of those story-tellers would one apply the word clever; and though Mrs. Wharton cannot very well monopolize the adjective, by her high level of skill, by her ready command over her own resources, by her tact, by her courage,—no situation daunts her,—and especially by her limitations, she wholly justifies the public in crying out, "Oh, clever Mrs. Wharton!"
Cleverness not only limits its own domain, but stamps a special character upon it. In the novel proper there is one fundamental rule: that the characters, once introduced, must act with the large liberty of life, and work out their own fortunes. For novelists believe that, though other arts are all artificial and do not hold up the mirror to nature, yet their art is life indeed, their business is to leave the reader uncertain whether he is really in or out of the book. Let that be so. Novels proper are not everything. There are other fields of fiction in which the author is an absolute tyrant, and need make no pretense of giving his characters any free will whatever. To these regions the short story as a rule belongs. There is no room for liberty. The characters must complete their episode in scanty pages, and they must do the most artificial things in order to make the scene effective. Mrs. Wharton makes a most excellent tyrant, and gives her subjects vastly more vivacity than they would have if left to themselves. The dialogues are far too good for life, the episodes too well modeled, the motives too well calculated, the actions too complete, to admit of any doubt concerning the immediate presence of the autocrat. Everywhere the emphasis is the emphasis of art, not of life. This literary art is, of course, not only wholly legitimate, but some people might contend that it is the only art worth having. Artificial fiction makes no pretense that it is a reflection of life; it does not profess to make a real man and a real woman living in a real house, and really talking over real toast and tea. It sets itself up as an independent art, with its own rules, its own proprieties, its own standard of success. It is akin to artificial comedy, as Sheridan, for instance, handled it. No one judges The Rivals as a bit of real life. The business of Mrs. Wharton's dramatis personae is to portray an effective episode; and it is a business which requires cleverness, as distinguished from originality, poetic feeling, humour, insight, romance, energy, or power.
Going a step farther, the most casual investigator becomes acquainted with Mrs. Wharton's propriety, tact, nicety of craftsmanship, and that special possession which in creative art is of the first importance,—human personality. Those people who advocate the suppression of all traces of the creator in his creations are too ascetic, too marmoreal, too super- or infra-human. Our generation, not yet wholly purged of the lingering effects left by the old Romantic individualism, cannot but feel that the more fiction is interpenetrated by the author's personality the more interesting it is.