Miss Gilbert's Career
An American Story. By J. G. HOLLAND. New York: Charles Scribner.
THERE is scarcely a more hazardous experiment for any novelist than “ a novel with a purpose.” If the moral does not run away with the story, it is in most eases only because the author's lucky star has made the moral too feeble, in spite of his efforts, to do that or anything else, —in other words, because his book has fortunately defeated its own object. That any clever girl will be kept from the perilous paths of authorship by the warnings, however strongly inculcated, of any novel whatever, we are not prepared to assert: we venture to say no one will be deterred by the history of Miss Fanny Gilbert. If a woman’s happiness is to be found in love, and not in fame, the question nevertheless recurs,— What is she to do before the love comes ? Our author only shows that his heroine’s restless unhappiness was owing to her having to wait for her heart to be awakened: to prove what he desires to prove, he should demonstrate that it was owing to her having adopted authorship during the time of her waiting. During that time, Miss Fanny Gilbert wrote novels, and was unhappy : would she have been happy, if, in the interval, she had chronicled small beer ? And even admitting that her authorship caused her unhappiness, we can scarcely believe Dr. Holland prepared to say, after having allowed his heroine a real talent, as one condition of the problem, that she ought to have concealed that talent in the decorous napkin of silence.
What the moral loses the story gains. Our author has lost nothing of that genuine love of Nature, of that quick perception of the comic element in men and things, of that delightful freshness and liveliness, which threw such a charm about the former writings of Timothy Titcomb. No story can be pronounced a failure which has vivacity and interest; and the volume before us adds to vivacity and interest vigorous sketches of character and scenery, droll conversation and incidents, a frequent and kindly humor, and, underlying all, a true, earnest purpose, which claims not only approval for the author, but respect for the man.
Dr. Holland describes admirably whatever he has himself seen. Unfortunately, he has not seen his hero or his heroine. About Arthur Blague there is nothing real or distinctive. There is a life and reality in many scenes of his experience ; but the central figure of the group stands conventional and inanimate, — the ordinary walking gentleman of the stage, — the stereotyped hero of the novel,—hero only by virtue of his finally marrying the heroine. The one merit of the delineation — that it is a portrait of a delicate Christian gentleman — is sadly marred by the vulgar smartness of Arthur’s repartees with the scampish New-Yorker. A victory in such a contest was by no means necessary to vindicate the hero’s superiority; and if he so far forgot himself as to engage at all in the degrading warfare, a defeat would have been more creditable. His retorts are undeniably smart; but “ smartness ” is the attribute of a “fellow,” not of a “ gentleman.”
Miss Fanny Gilbert is a warm-hearted, high-spirited girl, clever and ambitious, and disposed at first to look contemptuously on poor Arthur, whose humble labors appear in most dingy and sordid colors, when contrasted with the fair Fanny’s gorgeous dreams. She is not a very fascinating nor a very real heroine ; but she is better than most of our heroines, and some of her experiences are very pleasantly told.
Arthur’s miserly employer is very good, and his shrewd friend Check is capitally drawn. It was a peculiarly happy thought to make Cheek into a railroad-conductor, and finally into a “ gentlemanly and efficient” superintendent. Nothing else would have suited his character half so well. The business-like religionists, Moustache and Breastpin, are not so good as the author meant to have them. The young bookseller is very well done, and Dr. Gilbert very natural and lifelike. The story of the Doctor’s awakened interest in his daughter’s success, and of his journey to New York, is very well told. We like especially the lesson which the triumphant authoress, in the full glory of her fame, receives, on finding that her father sets a higher value on his son’s least achievement than on his daughter’s highest success,— that, however a woman may deserve a man’s place, the world will never award it to her. It would have been more effective, however, if Dr. Holland had not been quite so anxious that no one should fail to perceive the moral,—if he had had a little more confidence in his readers. But we can give unqualified praise to the scene between Miss Gilbert and the little crippled boy, which is one of the most beautiful and touching pictures ever yet presented.
It is a real satisfaction to find a book which one may venture to criticize fearlessly, knowing that it will bear the test, — especially at present, when one needs be as chary of trying any book fairly as Don Quixote was of proving his unlucky helmet. And an additional satisfaction is caused by the fact, that the book, not only in origin, but in essence, is American from cover to cover.