The New Priest in Conception Bay

Boston: Phillips, Sampson & Co. 1858. 2 vols. 12mo.

THE southeastern portion of the island of Newfoundland, as may be seen by a glance at the map, may be well described by that expressive epithet of “nook-shotten,” which in Shakspeare is applied to the mother-island of which it is a dependent. The land is indented by bays and estuaries, so that it bears the same relation to the water that the parted fingers of an outstretched hand do to the spaces of air that are between them. One of these inlets bears the name of Conception Bay; and it is around the shores of this bay that the scene of this novel is laid. Everything in it suffers a sea-change; everything is set to the music of the winds and the waves. We find ourselves among a people with whom the sea is all, and the land only an appendage to the sea,-a place to dry fish, and mend nets, and haul up boats, and caulk ships. But though the view everywhere, morally and physically, is bounded by the sea, and though one of the finest of the characters is a fisherman, yet the moving springs of the story are found in elements only accidentally connected with the sea, and by no means new to novel-writers or playwrights. The plot of the novel is taken from, or founded upon, the peculiar relations existing between the Roman Catholic priesthood and the female sex; and, with only a change in costume and scenery, the events might have taken place in Maryland, Louisiana, or France.

The novel is one of a peculiar class. To borrow a convenient phraseology recently introduced into the language, its interest is more subjective than objective,- or, in other words, is derived more from marked and careful delineations of individual character than from the march of events or brilliant procession of incidents. With a single exception,-the abduction of the fisherman’s daughter,-the occurrences narrated are such as might happen any day in any small community living near the sea. Novels constructed on this plan are less likely to be popular than those in which the interest is derived from a skilfully-contrived plot and a rapid and stirring succession of moving events. To what extent the work before us may be popular we will not undertake even to guess; for we have had too frequent experience of the capriciousness of public taste to hazard any prediction as to the reception a particular book may meet with, especially if it rely exclusively upon its own merits, and be not helped by the previous reputation of the writer. But we certainly can and will say that to readers of a certain cast it will present strong attractions, and that no candid critic can read it without pronouncing it to be a remarkable work and the production of an original mind. The author we should judge to be a man who had lived a good deal in solitude, or at least removed from his intellectual peers,-who had been through much spiritual struggle in the course of his life,-who had been more accustomed to think than to write, at least for the press,-and whose own observation had revealed to him some of the darker aspects of the Roman Catholic faith and practice.

There is very little skill in the construction of the plot. Most of the events stand to each other in the relation of accidental and not of necessary succession, and might he transposed without doing any harm. Many pages are written simply as illustrations of character; and a fair proportion of the novel might be called with strict propriety a series of sketches connected by a slight thread of narrative. But it would be unreasonable to deal sharply with an author for this defect; for the faculty of making a well-constructed story, in which every event shall come in naturally, and yet each bring us one step nearer to the journey’s end, is now one of the lost arts of earth. But this is not all. A considerable portion of it must be pronounced decidedly slow. We use the word not in its slang application, but in the sense in which Goldsmith used it in the first line of “The Traveller,” or rather, as Johnson told him he used it, when he said to him,-“You do not mean tardiness of locomotion; you mean that sluggishness of mind which comes upon a man in solitude.” But the slowness of which novel-readers will complain is not mere commonplace, least of all is it dulness. It is the leisurely movement of a contemplative mind full of rich thought and stored with varied learning. Such a writer could not have any sympathy with the mercurial, vivacious, light-of-foot story-tellers of the French school. The author of “ The New Priest in Conception Bay,” we surmise, has not been in the habit of packing up his thoughts for the market, by either writing for the press, or conversing with clever and nimble-witted men and women, and thus does not always distinguish between cargo and dunnage. The current of the story often flows with a very languid movement. It happens, rather unluckily, that this is particularly true of the first seventy pages of the first volume. We fear that many professional novel-readers may break down in the course of these pages; and we confess ourselves to have been a little discouraged. But after the ninth chapter, and the touching account which Skipper George gives of the death of his boys,- a story which the most indifferent cannot peruse without emotion,-the reader may be safely left in the author’s hands. They will go on together to the end, after this, on good terms. And the prospect brightens, and the horses are whipped up, as we advance. The second volume is much more interesting, in the common sense of the word,-more stirring, more rapid, more animated, than the first.

It is but putting our criticism into another form to say that the novel is too long, and, as a mere story, might with advantage be compressed into at least two-thirds of its present bulk. There are, especially, two departments or points to which this remark is applicable. In the first place, the conversations are too numerous, too protracted, and run too much into trivialities and details. In the second place, the descriptions of scenery are too frequently introduced, and pushed to a wearisome enumeration of particulars and minute delineation of details. In this peculiarity the author is kept in countenance by most respectable literary associates. This sort of PreRaphaelite style of scenery-painting in words is a characteristic of most recent American novels, especially such as are written by women Every rock, every clump of trees, every strip of sea-shore, every sloping hillside, sits for its portrait, and is reproduced with a tender conscientiousness of touch wholly disproportioned to the importance of the subject. When human hearts and human passions are animating or darkening the scene, we do not want to be detained by a botanist's description of plants or a geologist’s sketch of rocks. The broad, free sweeps of Scott’s brush in “The Pirate” are more effective than the delicate needle-point lines of the writer before us.

We think, too, that too much use is made of those strange and uncouth dialects which have to be represented to the eye by bad spelling. We have the familiar Yankee type in Mr. Bangs, and a new form of phraseology in the speech of the Newfoundland fishermen. A little of this is well enough, but it should not be pushed to an extreme. The author’s style, in general, is vigorous and expressive; it is the garb of an original mind, and often takes striking forms; but in grace and simplicity there is room for improvement, and we doubt not that improvement will come with practice.

There are many passages which we should like to quote as specimens of the imaginative power, forcible description, and apt illustration which are shown in this work. Whether the author has ever written verse or not, he is a poet in the best sense of that much-abused word. To him Nature in all its forms is animated; it sympathizes with all his moods, and takes on the hues of his thought There are very few of these paragraphs that are easily separable; they are fixed in the page, and cannot be understood apart from it. Besides, many of these beauties are minute,-a gleaming word here and there, -but making the track of the story glow like the phosphorescent waters of the tropics.

We give a few paragraphs at random:—

“Does the sea hold the secret?

“Along the wharves, along the little beaches, around the circuit of the little coves, along the smooth or broken face of rock, the sea, which cannot rest, is busy. These little waves and this long swell, that now are here at work, have been ere now at home in the great inland sea of Europe, breathed on by soft, warm winds from fruit-groves, vineyards, and wide fields of flowers,-have sparkled in the manycolored lights, and felt the trivial oars and dallying fingers of the loiterers, on the long canals of Venice,-have quenched the ashes of the Dutchman’s pipe, thrown overboard from his dull, laboring treckschuyt,-have wrought their patient tasks in the dim caverns of the Indian Archipelago,-have yielded to the little builders under water means and implements to rear their towering altar, dwelling, monument.

“These little waves have crossed the ocean, tumbling like porpoises at play, and, taking on a savage nature in the Great Wilderness, have thundered in close ranks and countless numbers against man’s floating fortress,-have stormed the breach and climbed up over the walls in the ship’s riven side,-have followed, howling and hungry as mad wolves, the crowded raft,-have leaped upon it, snatching off, one by one, the weary, worn-out men and women,-have taken up and borne aloft, as if on hands and shoulders, the one chance human body that is brought in to land, and the long spar, from which man’s dangling cordage wastes by degrees, and yields its place to long, green streamers, much like those that clung to this tall, taper tree when it stood in the Northern forest.

“'These waves have rolled their breasts about amid the wrecks and weeds of the hot stream that comes up many thousands of miles out of the Gulf of Mexico, as the great Mississippi goes down into it, and by-and-by these waves will move, all numb and chilled, among the mighty icebergs and ice-fields that must be brought down from the poles.”

“She asked, ‘Have you given up being a priest, Mr. Urston?’

“‘Yes!’ he answered, in a single word, looking before him, as it were along his coming life, like a quoit-caster, to see how far the uttered word would strike; then, turning to her, and in a lower voice, added, ‘I've left that, once and forever.’”

“He stood still with his grief; and, as Mr. Wellon pressed his honest, hard hand, he lifted to his pastor one of those childlike looks that only come out on the face of the true man, that has grown, as oaks grow, ring around ring, adding each after-age to the childhood that has never been lost, but has been kept innermost. This fisherman seemed like one of those that plied their trade, and were the Lord's disciples, at the Sea of Galilee, eighteen hundred years ago. The very flesh and blood inclosing such a nature keep a long youth through life. Witness the genius, (who is only the more thorough man,) poet, painter, sculptor, finder-out, or whatever; how fresh and fair such an one looks out from under his old age! Let him be Christian, too, and he shall look as if-shedding this outward-the inward being would walk forth a glorified one.”

“As he mentioned his fruitless visits, a startling, most repulsive leer just showed itself in Ladford’s face; but it disappeared as suddenly and wholly as a monster that has come up, horrid and hideous, to the surface of the sea, and then has sunk again, bodily, into the dark deep, and is gone, as if it had never come, except for the fear and loathing that it leaves behind. This face, after that look, had nothing repulsive in it, but was only the more subdued and sad.”

The author’s mind so teems with images, that he does not always discriminate between the good and the bad. Occasionally we find some that are manifestly faulty and overstrained.

“It is one on which the tenderness of the deep heart of the Common Mother breaks itself; over which the broad, dark, silent wings of a dread mystery are stretched."

“Her voice had in it that tender touch which lays itself, warm and loving, on the heart."

“And then her voice began to drop down, as it were, from step to step,-and the steps seemed cold and damp, as it went down them lingeringly:-‘or for trial,-disappointment,- whatever comes!’-and at the last, it seemed to have gone down into a sepulchral vault."

We do not admire anyone of the above, -least of all the last, in which the human voice is embodied as a sexton going down the steps of a tomb. Why, too, as a matter of verbal criticism, should the author use such words as “tragedist,” “exhibitress,” and “cheaty ?”

In the delineation of character the author shows uncommon power and is entitled to high praise. His portraits are animated, life-like, and individual. Father Terence is drawn with a firm and skilful touch. The task which the author prescribed to himself-to present an ecclesiastic without learning, without intellectual power, without enthusiasm, and with the easy habits of a careless and enjoyable temperament, and yet who should be respectable, and even venerable, by reason of the soundness of his instincts and his thorough right-heartedness-was not an easy one; but in the execution he has been entirely successful. We cannot but surmise that he has met sometime and somewhere a living man with some of the characteristic traits of Father Terence. Father Ignatius, the conventional type of the dark, wily, and dangerous ecclesiastical intriguer, is an easier subject, but not so well done. He is a little too melodramatic ; and we apply with peculiar force to him a criticism to which all the characters are more or less obnoxious, that he is too constantly and uniformly manifesting the peculiar traits by which the author distinguishes him from others. Father Debree and Mrs. Barré are drawn with powerful and discriminating touch, and we recognize the skill of the writer in the fact that we had read a considerable portion of the novel before we had any suspicion of the former relations between them. We may here say that we think that the women who may read this work will want to know, a little more fully and distinctly than the author has seen fit to tell, what were the causes and influences which led to the severing of those relations. We cannot state our meaning more clearly, without doing what we think should never be done in the review of a new novel, and that is, telling the story, and thus removing half the impulse to read it. Skipper George and his household, and the smuggler Ladford, are very well drawn,-not distinctly original, and yet with distinctive individual traits, which sharp observation must, to some extent, have furnished the author with.

But to our commendation of the characters we must make one exception: we humbly and respectfully submit that Mr. Bangs is a portentous bore, and we heartily wish that he had been drowned before he ever set his foot upon the shores of Newfoundland. It is possible, however, that in this case we are not impartial judges; for we confess, that, for our own private reading, we are heartily weary of the Yankee,-we mean as a literary creation,-of the eternal repetition of the character of which Sam Slick is the prototype,-which is for the most part a caricature, and no more to be found upon the solid earth than a griffin or a centaur. And in our judgment the theological discussions between this worthy and Father Terence are not in good taste. The author surely would not have us suppose that the wretched, skimble-skamble stuff which the latter is made to talk is any fair representative of the arguments by which the Church of Rome maintains its dogmas and vindicates its claims. A considerable amount of literary skill and a quick perception of the ludicrous are shown in the ridiculous aspect which the good Father’s statements and reasonings are made to assume in passing through Mr. Bangs’s mind ; but we doubt whether such exhibitions are profitable to the cause of good religion, and whether the advantage thereby secured to Protestantism is not purchased at the price of some danger to Christianity. It is not well to teach men the art of making mysteries ridiculous.

But we take leave of our author and his book with high respect for his powers, -we do not know but that we may say his genius,-and with no small admiration for this particular expression of them. The very minuteness of our criticism involves a compliment. It has been truly said, that many men never write a book at all, but that very few write only one. We think that the author of “The New Priest in Conception Bay” must and will write more. A mind so fruitful and inventive, a spiritual nature so high and earnest, and an observation so keen and correct, cannot fail to accumulate materials for future use. We predict that his next novel will be better than this,-that it will have all its substantial and essential merits, and will show more constructive skill and a more practised hand in literary artisanship. His gold will be more neatly wrought, and not less pure and abundant.