Azarian: An Episode

By HARRIET E. PRESCOTT, Author of “ The Amber Gods,” etc. Boston : Ticknor & Fields.
IF one opened the costly album of some rare colorist, and became bewildered amid successive wreaths of pictured flowers, with hues that seemed to burn, and freshness that seemed fragrant, one could hardly quarrel with a few stray splashes of purple or carmine spilt heedlessly on the pages. Such a book is “ Azarian ” ; and if few are so lavish and reckless with their pigments as Harriet Prescott, it is because few have access to such wealth. If one proceeds from the theory that all life in New England is to be pictured as bare and pallid, it must seem very wrong in her to use tints so daring ; but if one believes that life here, as elsewhere, may be passionate as Petrarch and deep as Beethoven, there appears no reason why all descriptive art should he Quaker-colored.
Nature and cultivation gave to this writer a rare inventive skill, an astonishing subtilty in the delineation of character, and a style perhaps unequalled among contemporaries in a certain Keats-like affluence. Yet her plots have usually been melodramatic, her characters morbid, and her descriptions overdone. These are undoubtedly great offences, and have grievously checked her growing fame. But the American public, so ready to flatter early merit, has itself to thank, if that flattery prove a pernicious atmosphere. That fatal cheapness of immediate reputation which stunts most of our young writers, making the rudiments of fame so easy to acquire, and fame itself so difficult, — which dwarfs our female writers so especially that not one of them, save Margaret Fuller, has ever yet taken the pains to train herself for first-class literary work,— has no doubt had a transient influence on Harriet Prescott. Add to this, perhaps, the common and fatal necessity of authorship which pushes even second-best wares into the market. It is evident, that, with all the instinct of a student and an artist, she has been a sensation-writer against her will. The whole structure of “Azarian,” which is evidently a work of art and of love, indicates these higher aspirations, and shows that she is resolved to nourish them, not by abandoning her own peculiar ground, but by training her gifts and gradually exorcising her temptations. Like her “Amber Gods,” the book rests its strength on its descriptive and analytic power, not on its events; but, unlike that extraordinary story, it is healthful in its development and hopeful in its ending. The name of “An Episode” seems to be given to it, not in affectation, but in humility. It is simply a minute study of character, in the French style, though with a freshness and sweetness which no Frenchman ever yet succeeded in transferring into language, and which here leave none of that bad taste in the mouth of which Charlotte Bronte complained. The main situation is one not new in fiction, being simply unequal love and broken troth, but it is one never to he portrayed too often or too tenderly, and it is not desecrated, but ennobled by the handling. It is refreshing to be able to say for Miss Prescott that she absolutely reaches the end of the book without a suicide or a murder, although the heroine for a moment meditates the one and goes to the theatre to behold the other. The dialogue, usually a weak point with this writer, is here far better managed than usual, having her customary piquancy, with less of disfigurement from flippancy and bad puns. The plot shows none of those alarming pieces of incongruity and bathos which have marred some of her stories. And one may fancy that it is not far to seek for the originals of Azarian, Charmian, and Madame Sarator.
It is the style of the book, however, to which one must revert with admiration, not unmingled with criticism, and, it may be, a trifle of just indignation. There are not ten living writers in America of whom it can be said that their style is in itself a charm, — that it has the range, the flexibility, the delicacy, the ease, the strength, which constitute permanent power, — that it is so saturated with life, with literary allusion, with the symbolism of Nature, as to make us dwell on the mere sentences with delight, apart from all thought of argument or theme. This it is to be a literary artist; and as Miss Prescott may justly claim to rank among these favored ones, she must he tried by the code which befits her station. There is not, perhaps, another individual among us who could have written the delicious descriptions of external Nature which this book contains, — not one of the multitude of young artists, now devoting their happy hours to flower-painting, who can depict color by color as she depicts it by words. We hold in our hands an illuminated missal, some Gospel of Nature according to June or October, as the case may be. The price she pays for this astonishing gift is to be often overmastered by it, to he often betrayed into exuberant and fantastic phrases, and wanderings Into the realm of words unborn. One fancies the dismay of the accomplished corrector of the University Press, as his indignant pencil hung over “incanting” and “reversing” and “cose.” Yet closer examination always shows that she, too, has studied grammar and dictionary, algebra and the Greek alphabet; and her most daring verbal feats are never vague or wayward, for there is always an eager and accurate brain behind them. She dares too much to escape blunders, yet, after all, commits fewer in proportion than those who dare less. The basis of all good writing is truth in details; and her lavish wealth of description would be a gaudy profanation, were it not based on a fidelity of observation which is Thoreau-like, so far as it goes. “ Sabbatia sprays, those rosy ghosts that haunt the Plymouth ponds, —“the cardinal, with the very glitter of the stream it loves meshed like a silver mist behind its scarlet sheen,” — “ the wide rhodora marshes, where some fleece of burning mist seemed to be fallen and caught and tangled in countless filaments upon the bare twigs,” — such traits as these are not to be found in the newspapers nor in the botanies. With all her seeming lavishness, she rarely wastes a word. Though she may sometimes heap upon a frail hepatica some greater accumulation of fine-spun fancies than its slender head will bear, she yet can so characterize a flower with a touch that any one of its lovers would know it without the name. If she hints at “those slipshod little anemones that cannot stop to count their petals, hut take one from their neighbor or leave another behind them,” it is because she knows how peculiarly this fantastic variableness belongs to the rue-leaved species, so unlike the staid precision of its cousin, the wind-flower, from which not one pedestrian in a hundred can yet distinguish it. If she simply says, “ great armfuls of blue lupines,” she has said enough, because this is almost the only wild-flower whose size, shape, and abundance naturally tempt one to gather it thus : imagine her speaking of armfuls of violets or wild roses ! From this basis of accurate fact her fancy can safely unfold its utmost wings, as in her fancied illustrations for the Garden-Song in “Maud,” or in the wonderful descriptions of Azarian’s lonely nights on the water. “ He leaned over his boat-side, miles away from any shore, a star looked down from far above, a star looked up from far below, the glint passed as instantly, and left him the sole spirit between immense concaves of void and fulness, shut in like the flaw in a diamond.” How the subscribers to the Circulating Library of the enterprising Mr. Loring must catch their breaths in amazement, when that courteous gentleman hands them for the last new novel— sandwiched between “ Pique ” and “ Woodburn ” — thoughts of such a compass as that!
There are sometimes fictitious writers who sweep across the land in a great wave of popularity and then pass away, — as Frederika Bremer twenty years ago, — and leave no visible impression behind. But Harriet Prescott’s fame rests on a foundation of sure superiorities, so far as she possesses it; and no one has impaired or can impair it, except herself. If it has not grown as was at first anticipated, it has been her own doing, and “Azarian ” has come none too soon to give a better augury for the future. There is no literary laurel too high for her to grasp, if her own will, and favoring circumstances, shall enable her to choose only noble and innocent themes, and to use canvas firm and pure enough for the rare colors she employs.