Griffith Gaunt; Or, Jealousy

By CHARLES READE. With Illustrations. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.
IN discussing the qualities of this remarkable novel before the readers of “The Atlantic Monthly,” we shall have an advantage not always enjoyed by criticism ; for we shall speak to an audience perfectly familiar with every detail of the story, and shall not be troubled to résumer its events and characters. There has been much doubt among many worthy people concerning Mr. Reade’s management of the moralities and the proprieties, but no question at all, we think, as to the wonderful power he has shown, and the interest he lias awakened. Even those who have blamed him have followed him eagerly, — without doubt to see what crowning insult he would put upon decency, and to be confirmed in their virtuous abhorrence of his work. It is to be hoped that these have been disappointed, for it must be confessed that, in the dénouement of the novel, others who totally differed from them in purpose and opinion have been brought to some confusion.
It is not as a moralist that we have primarily to find fault with Mr. Reade, but as an artist, for his moral would have been good if his art had been true. The work, up to the conclusion of Catharine Gaunt’s trial, is in all respects too fine and high to provoke any reproach from us ; after that, we can only admire it as a piece of literary gallantry and desperate resolution. “C’est magnifique ; mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” It is courageous, but it is not art. It is because of the splendid clan in all Mr. Reade writes, that in his failure he does not fall flat upon the compassion of his reader, as Mr. Dickens does with his “Golden Dustman.” But it is a failure, nevertheless ; and it must become a serious question in æsthetics how far the spellbound reader may be tortured with an interest which the power awakening it is not adequate to gratify. Is it generous, is it just in a novelist, to lift us up to a pitch of tragic frenzy, and then drop us down into the last scene of a comic opera ? We refuse to be comforted by the fact that the novelist does not, perhaps, consciously mock our expectation.
Let us take the moral of “ Griffith Gaunt,” — so poignant and effective for the most part, — and see how lamentably it suffers from the defective art of the dénouement. In brief: up to the end of Mrs, Gaunt’s trial we are presented with a terrible image of the evils that jealousy, anger, and lies bring upon their guilty and innocent victims. Griffith Gaunt is made to suffer — as men in life suffer—a dreadful remorse and anguish for the crimes he has committed and the falsehoods to which they have committed him. A man with a heart at first tender and true becomes a son of perdition, utterly incapable of tenderness and truth, — consciously held away from them by ever-cumulative force. The spectacle is not new. — it is old as sin itself; but it is here revealed with the freshest and most authentic power, and with a repelling efficacy which we have seldom seen equalled in literature. Mrs. Gaunt justly endures the trouble brought upon her by pride and unbridled bad temper, and unavoidably endures the consequences of another’s wrong. Mercy Vint is a guiltless and lovely sacrifice to both almost equally.
What is the end ? Mercy Vint is given in marriage to the honestest and faithfulest gentleman in the book, whose heroism we admire without envying. But in any case so good a woman would have achieved peace for herself, and it is at some cost to our regard for her entirety that we consent to see her rewarded by being made a nobleman’s wife and the mother of nine children. In this character she lives a life less perfect and consequent than she might have led in a station less exalted, but distant from the circles in which she could not appear at the same time with the man who had infamously wronged her without exciting whispers painful to herself and embarrassing to her husband. Indeed, there seems to be rather more of vicarious expiation in her fate than the interests of population and of “young women who have been betrayed ” have any right to demand.
Mrs. Gaunt fully expiates her error before her trial ends. But how of her husband ? Mr. Reade seems to like his Griffith Gaunt, who is not to our mind, and who is never less worthy of happiness than at the moment when his wife forgives him. It is not that he is a bigamist and betrayer of innocence that his redemption seems impossible through the means employed ; but how can Catharine Gaunt love a coward and sneak, even in the wisdom which a court of justice has taught her? This furious and stupid traitor is afraid to appear and save his wife lest he be branded in the hand ; and we arc to pardon him because, at no risk to himself, he gives the worthless blood of his veins to rescue her from death. If the fable teaches anything in Griffith Gaunt’s case, it is this : Betray two noble women, and after some difficulty you shall get rid of one, be forgiven by the other, come into a handsome property, and have a large and interesting family. If the reader will take the fate of Griffith Gaunt and contrast it with that of Tito Melema, in “ Romola,” he shall see all the difference that passes between an artificial and an artistic solution of a moral problem.
Defective art is noticeable in the minor as well as the principal features of the dénouement of Griffith Gaunt. There is the case of the unhappy little baby of Mercy. It is plain that the infant is a stumblingblock in its mother’s path to Neville Cross ; but we have scarcely begun to lament its presence, when it is swiftly put to death by a special despatch from the obliging destiny of the dénouement. The event is a coincidence, to say the least, and is scarcely less an operation than the transfusion of blood by which Griffith Gaunt and his wife are preserved to a long life of happiness. But this part of the work is full of wonders. The cruel enchantments are all dissolved by more potent preternatural agencies, and a superhuman prosperity dwells alike with the just and the unjust, — Mrs. Ryder excepted, who will probably go to the Devil as some slight compensation for the loss of Griffith Gaunt.
But if the conclusion of the fiction is weak, how great it is in every other part ! The management of the plot was so masterly, that the story proceeded without a pause or an improbability until the long fast of a month falling between the feasts of its publication became almost insupportable. It was a plot that grew naturally out of the characters, for humanity is prolific of events, and these characters are all human beings. They are not in the least anachronistic. They act and speak a great deal in the coarse fashion of the good old times. Griffith Gaunt is half tipsy when Kate plights her troth to him ; and he is drunk upon an occasion not less solemn and interesting. They are of an age that was very gallant and brutal, that wore goldlace upon its coat, and ever so much profanity upon its speech ; and Mr. Reade has treated them with undeniable frankness and sincerity. Mercy Vint alone seems to belong to a better time ; but then goodness and purity are the contemporaries of every generation, and, besides, Mercy Vint’s puritan character is an exceptional phase of the life of the time. It is admirable to see in this fiction, as we often see in the world, how wise and refined religion makes an ignorant and lowly-bred person. As a retrospective study, Griffith Gaunt cannot be placed below Henry Esmond. As a study of passions and principles that do not change with civilizations, it is even more excellent. Griffith Gaunt himself is the most perfect figure in the book, because the plot does not at any period interfere with his growth. We start with a knowledge of the frankness and generosity native to a somewhat coarse texture of mind, and we readily perceive why a nature so prone to love and wrath should fall a helpless prey to jealousy, which is a thing altogether different from the suspicion of ungenerous spirits. It is jealousy which drives Griffith to deceive Mercy Vint, for even his desolation and his need of her consoling care cannot bring him to it, and it is only when his triumphing rival appears that this frank and kindly soul consents to enact a cruel lie. The crime committed, there is no longer virtue or courage in the man, and we see without surprise his cowardly reluctance to do the one brave and noble thing possible to him, lest he be arrested for bigamy. The letter, so weak and so boisterous, which he gives Mercy Vint to prove him alive before the court, is in keeping with the development of his character ; and it is not unnatural that he should think the literal gift of his blood to his wife a sort of compensation and penance for his sins against her. The wonder is that; the author should fall into the same error, as he: seems to do.
The character of Kate Gaunt is treated in the dénouement with a violence which almost destroys its identity, but throughout the whole previous progress of the story it is a most artistic and consistent creation. From the beautiful girl, so virginal and dreamy and insecure of her destiny in the world, with her high aspirations and her high temper, there is a certain lapse to the handsome matron united with a man beneath her in mind and spirit, and assured of the commonplace fact that in her love and duty to him is her happiness ; but as Love must often mate men and women unequally, it is perfectly natural that Love in her case should strive to keep his eyes shut when no longer blind. Great exigencies afterwards develop her character, and it gains in dignity and beauty from her misfortunes, and we do not again think compassionately of her till she is reunited with Griffith. In spite of all her faults, she is wonderfully charming. The reader himself falls in love with her, and perhaps a subtile sense of jealousy and personal loss mingles with his dissatisfaction in seeing her given up again to her unworthy husband. She should have been left a lovely and stately widow, to whom we could all have paid our court, without suffering too poignantly when Sir George Neville finally won her.