Miss Ravenel's Conversion From Secession to Loyalty


By J. W. DE FORREST. New York : Harper and Brothers.
THE light, strong way in which our author goes forward in this story from the first, and does not leave difficulty to his readers, is pleasing to those accustomed to find an American novel a good deal like the now extinct American stage-coach,whose passengers not only walked over bad pieces of road, but carried fence-rails on their shoulders to pry the vehicle out of the sloughs and miry places. It was partly the fault of the imperfect roads, no doubt, and it may be that our social ways have only just now settled into such a state as makes smooth going for the novelist; nevertheless, the old stagecoach was hard to travel in, and what with drafts upon one’s good nature for assistance, it must be confessed that our novelists have been rather trying to their readers. It is well enough with us all while the road is good,—a study of individual character, a bit of landscape, a stretch of well-worn plot, gentle slopes of incident; but somewhere on the way the passengers are pretty sure to be asked to step out, — the ladies to walk on ahead, and the gentlemen to fetch fencerails.
Our author imagines a Southern loyalist and his daughter sojourning in New Boston, Barataria, during the first months of the war. Dr. Ravenel has escaped from New Orleans just before the Rebellion began, and has brought away with him the most sarcastic and humorous contempt and abhorrence of his late fellow-citizens, while his daughter, an ardent and charming little blonde Rebel, remembers Louisiana with longing and blind admiration. The Doctor, born in South Carolina, and living all his days among slaveholders and slavery, has not learned to love either ; but Lillie differs from him so widely as to scream with joy when she hears of Bull Run. Naturally she cannot fall in love with Mr. Colburne, the young New Boston lawyer, who goes into the war conscientiously for his country’s sake, and resolved for his own to make himself worthy and lovable in Lillie’s blue eyes by destroying and desolating all that she holds dear. It requires her marriage with Colonel Carter — a Virginia gentleman, a good-natured drunkard and roué and soldier of fortune on our side — to make her see Colburne’s worth, as it requires some comparative study of New Orleans and New Boston, on her return to her own city, to make her love the North. Bereft of her husband by his own wicked weakness, and then widowed, she can at last wisely love and marry Colburne ; and, cured of Secession by experiencing on her father’s account the treatment received by Unionists in New Orleans, her conversion to loyalty is a question of time duly settled before the story ends.
We sketch the plot without compunction, for these people of Mr. De Forrest’s are so unlike characters in novels as to be like people in life, and none will wish the less to see them because he knows the outline of their history. Not only is the plot good and very well managed, but there is scarcely a feebly painted character or scene in the book. As to the style, it is so praiseworthy that we will not specifically censure occasional defects, — for the most part, slight turgidities notable chiefly from their contrast to the prevailing simplicity of the narrative.
Our war has not only left us the burden of a tremendous national debt, but has laid upon our literature a charge under which it has hitherto staggered very lamely. Every author who deals in fiction feels it to be his duty to contribute towards the payment of the accumulated interest in the events of the war, by relating his work to them; and the heroes of young-lady writers in the magazines have been everywhere fighting the late campaigns over again, as young ladies would have fought them. We do not say that this is not well, but we suspect that Mr. De Forrest is the first to treat the war really and artistically. His campaigns do not try the reader’s constitution, his battles are not bores. His soldiers are the soldiers we actually know, — the green wood of the volunteers, the warped stuff of men torn from civilization and cast suddenly into the barbarism of camps, the hard, dry, tough, true fibre of the veterans that came out of the struggle. There could hardly be a better type of the conscientious and patriotic soldier than Captain Colburne; and if Colonel Carter must not stand as type of the officers of the old army, he must be acknowledged as true to the semi-civilization of the South. On the whole he is more entertaining than Colburne, as immoral people are apt to be to those who suffer nothing from them. “ His contrasts of slanginess and gentility, his mingled audacity and insouciance of character, and all the picturesque ins and outs of his moral architecture, so different from the severe plainness of the spiritual temples common in New Boston,” do take the eye of peace-bred Northerners, though never their sympathy. Throughout, we admire, as the author intends, Carter’s thorough and enthusiastic soldiership, and we perceive the ruins of a generous nature in his aristocratic Virginian pride, his Virginian profusion, his imperfect Virginian sense of honor. When he comes to be shot, fighting bravely at the head of his column, after having swindled his government, and half unwillingly clone his worst to break his wife’s heart, we feel that our side has lost a good soldier, but that the world is on the whole something better for our loss. The reader must go to the novel itself for a perfect conception of this character, and preferably to those dialogues in which Colonel Carter so freely takes part; for in his development of Carter, at least, Mr. De Forrest is mainly dramatic. Indeed, all the talk in the book is free and natural, and, even without the hard swearing which distinguishes the speech of some, it would be difficult to mistake one speaker for another, as often happens in novels.
The character of Dr. Ravenel, though so simple, is treated in a manner invariably delightful and engaging. His native purity, amiability, and generosity, which a life-long contact with slavery could not taint; his cordial scorn of Southern ideas ; his fine and flawless instinct of honor ; his warmhearted courtesy and gentleness, and his gayety and wit; his love of his daughter and of mineralogy; his courage, modesty, and humanity, — these are the traits which recur in the differing situations with constant pleasure to the reader.
Miss Lillie Ravenel is as charming as her adored papa, and is never less nor more than a bright, lovable, good, constant, inconsequent woman. It is to her that the book owes its few scenes of tenderness and sentiment; but she is by no means the most prominent character in the novel, as the infelicitous title would imply, and she serves chiefly to bring into stronger relief the traits of Colonel Carter and Doctor Ravcnel. The author seems not even to make so much study of her as of Mrs. Larue, a lady whose peculiar character is skilfully drawn, and who will be quite probable and explicable to any who have studied the traits of the noble Latin race, and a little puzzling to those acquainted only with people of Northern civilization. Yet in Mrs. Larue the author comes near making his failure. There is a little too much of her, — it is as if the wily enchantress had cast her glamour upon the author himself, — and there is too much anxiety that the nature of her intrigue with Carter shall not be misunderstood. Nevertheless, she bears that stamp of verity which marks all Mr. De Forrest’s creations, and which commends to our forbearance rather more of the highly colored and stronglyflavored parlance of the camps than could otherwise have demanded reproduction in literature. The bold strokes with which such an amusing and heroic reprobate as Van Zandt and such a pitiful poltroon as Gazaway are painted, are no less admirable than the nice touches which portray the Governor of Barataria, and some phases of the aristocratic, conscientious, truthful, angular, professorial society of New Boston, with its young college beaux and old college belles, and its life pure, colorless, and cold to the eye as celery, yet full of rich and wholesome juices. It is the goodness of New Boston, and of New England, which, however unbeautiful, has elevated and saved our whole national character; and in his book there is sufficient evidence of our author’s appreciation of this fact, as well as of sympathy only and always with what is brave and true in life.