The Story of a Woman’s Life. London: Macmillan & Co. 8vo. pp. 381.
THE author of this book is like an awkward angler, who fails to take a trout himself, and spoils the water for the move skilful man who may follow him. Its object is the illustration of that subject which has been called “the greatest of our social evils,” and which, in its present aspect, is certainly one of the saddest that the statesman or the moralist is called upon to contemplate, and yet one the duration of which seems to be inevitably coexistent with every form of civilized society yet known to the world. The author has sought his end by means of a fictitious autobiography. This was of course. No unusual faculty in the selection of methods was necessary to the choice; for only in the autobiographical form could the inner life of a courtesan be so revealed as to present a truthful and living picture of her soul’s experience. A fine novel of this kind would be a great book, and one productive of much good ; not, indeed, directly to the wretched class that would furnish studies for it. but to society at large, and so indirectly to the class in question, by providing a subject of this kind which could be studied and talked about. Dumas fils' “Dame aux Camelias ” is a great melodramatic story ; but it is so exceptional in its incidents and episodical in its character, that its heroine is quite worthless as a specimen for examination and analysis ; and it is, beside, so very French as to be almost valueless in this regard, for that reason alone. What it would be well to have written is the story of an abandoned woman, told simply and without any reserve, except that of decency, and purely from a woman’s point of view. But, except by a woman, and at the cost of the experience to be recounted, this is manifestly possible only to genius. The author of “Out of the Depths” has not attained the desideratum; but has yet approached so near it, that we fear the right man, or, possibly, woman, may be deterred from the attempt to do better. If so, there is a good subject — good for the making of a grand psychological, physiological, and dramatic study —lost.
The subject of this professed autobiography, Mary Smith, is the daughter of a gardener on a large English estate. Her family is much noticed and favored by the ladies of the mansion, and she, who is handsome and intellectual, soon acquires tastes and an education above her position ; and as she is vain and selfish and of a voluptuous temperament, the consequence seems inevitable. Her first fault, however, is committed with her betrothed husband, a young gentleman destined for the Church, by whose sudden death, at a time when his life was more than ever essential to her happiness, she is left an outcast, a creature to be spurned from the door of those upon whose tender care Nature and themselves had given her unextinguishable claims. She finds shelter and kind treatment with two girls who belong, though not ostensibly, to the class into which she is about to fall, and soon she appears as the mistress of a foolish young nobleman, for whom she has not the least affection. At last he wearies of and parts with her, and she finds a second companion and protector in an eminent barrister, who takes pleasure in cultivating her literary tastes. Her unfaithfulness to him results in a separation, and she passes into the hands of a third keeper, who abandons her on occasion of his approaching marriage. Infuriated at his desertion, she intrudes upon him at a social party at his private chambers, and behaves so outrageously that she is handed over to the police, and her name appears in public as that of an infamous and disorderly woman. From this point she rapidly descends to the lowest rank of her unfortunate class. On her way, a strong hand is put out to save her. It is that of a gigantic young clergyman, who allows her to think that she has decoyed him to her room, but who really goes there to endeavor to turn her from her course of life, She scorns his exhortations, and attempts to browbeat him; but she finds him ready for a row upon the spot. He offers to fight her crowd of bullies single-handed, and when she locks the door upon him, twists the lock off, hasp and all, with a turn of his wrist. Although they part,— he none the worse, she none the better, for the interview,— it is not without fruits ; for he leaves her his address, and when, after being reduced to the lowest depths of degradation and brought to the last endurable pinch of suffering, she determines, at the death-bed of a repentant companion, to reform at any cost, and does set her face upward, and is beaten back and trodden under foot by the righteously uncharitable of her own sex, she thinks of her big clergyman, seeks him out, and by his instrumentality is taken into the country, and made the mistress of a school in his parish. Here the friends of her youth find her, forgive her, and cherish her; and she receives a proposal of marriage from an estimable and wealthy farmer, who persists in his suit, even after she has told him of her former life, and after the small-pox, caught on a ministration of mercy, has harrowed all the beauty from her face. But rapid consumption supervenes, and relieves the author from the embarrassing position into which he had brought himself.
This is all the story that Mary Smith has to tell; and it will be seen, that, so far as the incidents are concerned, it is commonplace enough. It is not distinguished by one novel incident, or one fresh character, except, perhaps, the muscular divine. Even in the grouping and narration of its old incidents it exhibits no dramatic power, and little skill of characterization in the portraiture of its personages. And not only does a matter-of-tact air pervade the narrative, but the tale is told with such reticence of fact as well as of feeling, that it reveals but little of the real life of a London courtesan, and leaves the reader almost as ignorant as he was when he took up the book of what it is that makes the horror of such existence; all of which might have been imparted without any violation of the decorum proper to such a book, and which, therefore, should not have been withheld. The book, too, is much too goody-goody. There is too much preaching throughout it, and in certain parts a suddenness in the kneeling down to pray that is quite startling. This stupid sort of goodness helps much to defeat the purpose of the work. Even the strong minister, although his is not the old-fashioned way, seems to have more beef on his bones than brains in his head, or he would not answer to a desperate exclamation of Mary Smith,— “Don’t say that. God only knows what is best for us all; even you, and all like you, may begin to live for the good of society, without being its bane.” This is very true,—as true as Justice Shallow’s original observation, that “ we must all die.” But the idea of attempting to impress a degraded woman of the town by telling her that she, and all like her, might be brought to live for the good of society!
But in spite of these faults, the book has one great merit, which is not too common ; it seems to be the truthful story of a real life. This impression is partly the result of a peculiarity of style which is very difficult to express otherwise than by saying that the use of language seems to indicate that the writer is of the condition of Life in which Mary Smith professes to have been born, and has acquired a knowledge of language and literature in the manner in which she relates that she acquired hers. There is no vulgarity, but a certain air of constrained propriety, and an absence of any elegance, or grace, or indications of a slow and unconsciously acquired acquaintance with the phraseology of cultivated society. If this be really assumed, the author has exhibited a delicate refinement in the art of writing not surpassed in any work of imagination known to us. Another ground for the seeming actuality of the story, to those who have any knowledge of the class to which its heroine belongs, is the cause to which she attributes her fall. This was not seduction ; for she confesses, what hardly one in a thousand of her sisters in shame will fail to confess, if they speak the truth, that she was not seduced; — and neither was it poverty ; for her father was well-todo, and she the petted attendant, almost the friend, of a young lady of wealth and station;—but it was her vanity and her unrestrained passion. She is represented, in the first place, as regarding a good match, a rich husband, as the great object of life ; and to such a woman chastity is not a sentiment, but a dictate of prudence; just as to a man whose great purpose is the getting of money, honesty is but the best policy. After she has met the man who brings her fate with him, (it might as well have been any other of his class,) she writes,— " The one great pleasing and wretched hope of my mind was that I should see him again; for it is so pleasant to believe that any man in a higher station should take an interest in me.” And again she speaks of “ exultation at the prospect which opened before me of being raised out of the station in life from which I sprang by birth”; and again, of her “desire of being a lady.” This vanity it is, this desire to dress and live like the women above them, and have intercourse with the men above them, which leads the greater number of our fallen women to their ruin, or, rather, sends them to it with their eyes open ; and for the rest, when Mary Smith, living in her own fine house, the petted mistress of the wealthy Mr. Plowden, was unfaithful to him, it was not for love of fine clothes or fine society. It is not long since our whole country was shocked by the dire results of a similar abandonment to vanity and wantonness, about which the usual amount of commonplace and cant was uttered. It is time that the very truth was told about this matter, in sad earnestness and singleness of purpose. We hoped to find the whole truth in “ Out of the Depths ”; but, finding only a part of it, we can greet it only with a partial welcome.