The Contributors' Club
THE French must be changing; that is, the Parisians, — for in matters of literature. and art Paris is France. London is by no means England, and New York not quite America; but Paris is France. A little while ago we had their Dosia, as mild a book as ever was written; and yet it had been “ crowned ” by the French Academy. Now we have L’Idée de Jean Tcterol, and are told that it has attained in Paris “ un succès eriormed ’ Yet there is in it nothing “ sensational,” nothing “ epigrammatic,” nothing “ wickedly witty,” nothing “out of the way,” although these terms have been considered the proper adjectives to apply to French novels from the earliest days of their yellow covers down to now; those covers which, by the way, have done so much to jaundice the minds and eyes of good people against them, — good people who cannot read French! Can it be, then, that the wicked Parisians are becoming simple and idyllic under our very eyes, while we, the Englishspeaking puritanic peoples (to use Robert Browning’s collective plural), with our Mallocks and our Ouidas, have not perceived it?
Jean Têterol is so unlike Cherbuliez’s last that one wonders if he wrote it as a contrast. The plot of Samuel Brohl et Cie was intricate, and, in my opinion, excellent,— the only plot (by a good writer) which has really taken me by surprise in ten years. I say “ by a good writer,” because many plots by inferior writers would surprise even Solomon himself, if he could come back to earth, and be induced to read them; of course, when no attention is paid to probability or even possibility, the range of surprises is unlimited. In Jean Têterol there is no plot; there is only the “ idea ” ! And even this is plainly stated in the very first chapter. A young assistant gardener, a slow, industrious fellow, at work trimming a pear-tree, is scolded unjustly and finally kicked, by his employer, a French baron, who happens to be out of temper, and finds the gardener impertinent. Jean leaves his work, goes off, cuts a stick, sits down, looks at it, thinks, and finally comes to the following decision : he will go away, and become rich, — richer than this Baron de Saligneux, who permits himself the pleasure of kicking. Then he will come back to the village, and have his revenge. And — people will see!
That is the whole book. He does it, and people do see!
He amasses a large fortune, and returns to his native hamlet. Unfortunately the old baron is dead, but he buys up all the land sold off by his son, the prodigal younger baron, builds a great white house that cuts off his view, and finally manages to get possession of all the claims against him, and present them in a lump. The baron, a spendthrift man of the world, is at his wits’ end; having tried all his methods of procuring money in vain, he goes to see the ex-gardener in his new mansion, preserving, however, throughout the interview his own grand air of the ancien régime. The exgardener meets him with an ultimatum: your daughter, Claire de Saligneux, aristocrat to the tips of her fingers, shall marry my son, Lionel Teterol. Voilà! The two fathers at last arrange it. Lionel Têterol, meanwhile, has had an excellent education, and has been brought up among gentlemen. He falls in love with Claire honestly; but when he discovers that she is, as it were, being sold to pay her father’s debts, he tears the. paper which binds the baron before his father’s astonished eyes, and, barely escaping being strangled by him, flees to Paris, where he begins to earn his living as a writer (how easily they do that in books!). Of course, the moment Claire (who has been very scornful all along) finds him really gone, she turns around and now begins to love him of her own accord. An uncle fortunately dies and leaves her his estate, so that the throttling money obligation is ended. And then the two young people come together again, and the idea is carried out. The old baron is supposed to turn in his grave when the bells ring to celebrate the marriage of his own granddaughter to the son of the man whom he had “ permitted ” himself to kick.
Now, what is there in this tale to interest us?— for it does interest. What holds the attention, when Lionel is a shadow, Claire not much more, and her father, the baron, a mere figure-head, brought on labeled, “ This is a nobleman and a spendthrift ”? It is the intensity of the character of the ex-gardener that is the whole, — the intensity and the simplicity. He works night and day, he toils immensely, first with his hands, then with his head, through thirty-seven long years; he cares nothing for Paris, nothing for his daily life, nothing for himself, nothing for his great fortune, save for his one object, namely, to return to his little native village and revenge himself on the man who had treated him unjustly when he was a boy. It is the type of the “ man of one idea,” carried out to its fullest extent, painted in the strongest colors. And it is this that holds us. For it touches a fact of which we have a vague consciousness, although we are not willing always to admit it, namely, that many of the remarkable men of the world have been men of one idea. Columbus had but one, Martin Luther had but one; Elias Howe had but one, John Brown had but one. Now, in real life, we are apt to call men of this sort “narrow-minded,” “enthusiasts,” “fanatics.” They wear us out with their one idea. But it is probable that in the beginning Luther wore out his friends, too; and without doubt many men thought Columbus a terrible bore. Although the power of one fixed idea is enormous, it is fortunately a gift granted to but few ; otherwise, what a world we should have!
Cherbuliez’s quick words have generally been so eager to bring out the stirring story they had to tell that they have taken no time to tell the public whether they had “ a charming style” in reserve, or not. But in Jean Têterol they have taken the time. What can be nicer than this? When Têterol comes back to his native village, carrying in his hand the very same stick with which he set out (he had preserved it carefully for the purpose), he is annoyed to find that there have been changes. Some new houses have been built, and he does not recognize the faces of the girls washing linen at the public basin. “ Ce qui le consola, c’est que des vaches vinrent è passer et qu’il put croire que c’étaient les mêmes qu’il avait rencontrees jadis dans cet endroit. Toutes les vaches se ressemblent; elles portent toutes dans leurs yeux quelquechose de fixe et d’éternel, un rêve silencieux d’herbe fraiche.” Then, again, when, after the baron’s promise that Claire shall marry Lionel, the ex-gardener, accompanied by his son, pays his first formal visit at the chêteau, as soon as he arrives, after the first formal words have been exchanged, he seeks the spot where once stood the peartree upon which he was at work when the old baron administered his famous kick, and, standing there, solemnly relates to his son and the young baron the story of the occurrence in exactest detail. It is the great and triumphant moment of his life, the culmination of his idea. There stands the nobleman’s son, and there stands the peasant; and the daughter of one is to marry the son of the other! He concludes as follows, in a triumphant voice, his hands on his hips, his eyes sparkling: —
“Monsieur le baron, qu’aurait pensé monsieur votre père, si, au moment Où il m’administrait cette petite correction, quelqu’un lui avait prédit qu’un jour j’aurais un fils qui épouserait sa petitefille ? ”
To which the elegant nobleman replies, with an enchanting smile, “Monsieur Têterol, si mon père avait prévu qu’un coup de pied adroitement donné put avoir un jour pour sa famille de si heureuses conséquences, il aurait sûrement doublé la dose pour être plus certain de son effet.”
— I have a question to ask. Tt is frivolous, I admit; yet it has been, in a small way (like a wasp in the room), a harassing presence in my mind for some time. The question is as follows: Do the English have beefsteak?
First, on the pro side. It has been a belief of mine, from my earliest babyhood, that if there was any one substance with which the strong white teeth of the English were familiar, it was beefsteak. And I have often found the same belief in French stories, where the Englishman, with his ill-humor and his “biftek,” is a common figure. In addition, although I cannot take time to go through the authorities and quote exactly, I am haunted by the belief that I have seen allusions to beefsteaks in English books also. For instance, does not Crosby, in The Small House at Allington, order at an inn “some dinner, — with a beefsteak in it? ” And in a recent sketch by Julian Hawthorne, describing a pedestrian tour to Canterbury, he, amid a careful use of such purely English terms as “ tubbing,” for instance, several times mentions ordering and eating beefsteak, after his thirty miles a day.
And now, con. An American family, with whom I am well acquainted, kept house last year in England; or rather they had lodgings, but attended to their marketing themselves. They were in a well-known country town; something of a resort, too. They tell me that beefsteak was unknown there ; and that the butchers did not know what they meant when they asked for it. There was beef in abundance, but no steak; that is, nothing resembling our beefsteak. I was greatly surprised; so much so that I asked another friend, who has also been often in England, what he knew on the subject. I thought the absence of beefsteak might possibly have been local in the particular part of England where my other friends were. He reflected. “ In London you can of course get anything,” he said. “But — yes, they are right. There is no beefsteak in England like ours. They don’t have it.”
— I have moved into a neighborhood where there is a perambulating Boy. He spends a large portion of his time simply sauntering up and down the street. Such a boy is an advantage to any neighborhood. If land agents only knew it, a boy of this sort might be well set forth in prospectuses. He is a feature. He is an inducement to persons whose sense of humor needs to be fed; he is worth more dollars a month than a subscription to Punch.
We call this boy “ the thirteen-hat boy.” I saw him one day swinging his hat recklessly along the top of a picket fence.
“ You ’ll spoil your hat! ” I cried out.
“Lor’,” said he, “I spoil thirteen every year; takes thirteen to carry me through.”
“No!” I exclaimed, “is that possible?”
“ Fact,” said he. “ You can ask my mother.”
After this he used to inform us every few weeks how far along he was in the numeration table of his hats.
“ This is the third,” he would sing out, as he passed our door. “ This is the fourth,” and so on. One day he called out, “Well, this is about seven and a half,” taking off the hat, and eying the frayed brim critically. “ About half wore out, I guess: just about seven and a half; next one ’ll make eight.”
This boy has a readiness, a facility of adaptation to the needs of the moment, which will stand him well in hand all through life. He gave a striking instance of this the other day in the school which he attends. It is a small private school; once a week a young lady goes to teach all the children drawing. Our boy is not fond of drawing; in fact, he cannot draw, will not draw, does not draw. One day, not long ago, his ingenuity in evading the drawing exercise reached its climax as follows: —
“I can’t draw to-day; my throat’s too sore. It hurts it.” Seeing in the teacher’s face some incredulity as to this incapacity, he continued. “ Besides, I don’t feel like drawing; and my mother said I need n’t ever draw, if I did n’t feel like it.”
“ Are you sure your mother said that? ” asked the teacher.
“ Yes,” he said stoutly, “ she did. She said I wasn’t to draw when I did n't feel like it, and I don’t feel like it now; my throat ’s too sore.”
“ Very well,” replied the teacher, “ I shall go and see your mother. It won’t do to have one pupil left out of the class, this way. When the rest of the children draw, you must draw. I shall go and speak to your mother about it.”
This was a contingency the boy had not reckoned on. But he rose to the occasion. Quick as a flash, he replied, “ Well, if I was you, I would n’t take the trouble to go and see her; because, you see, it was way back when we was livin’ in Wisconsin that she said that, and as like as not she’s forgot all about it by this time.”
— The strong wind which for many years has been blowing against all forms of cant has dissipated a good many absurd notions about the literary profession, but some appear still to flourish in all their pristine vigor. One of these I find thus stated by a very popular author : “ The majority of those who write,” he says, “ are sensitive to a high degree. . . . They have published a book, in which they have incorporated the results of a life of labor and thought and suffering, with the hope of doing good, and of adding something to the literary wealth of their country.” In consequence of this, their literary productions arc to be treated with a tenderness and reverence which no one would think of employing in the case of a defective plea or the bad law of a lawyer, however famous he might be for purity of morals and dignity of character.
Now, all this seems to me the most undiluted nonsense. It is the goodness of a good man, and nothing else, which makes him worthy of respect. Printed words, like spoken ones, are evidence of some value as to a man’s character; but they are not very trustworthy evidence, and they are not proof at all. Industry, again, is an admirable quality, but no more admirable in a historian than in a carpenter. People who love art think its study more ennobling than is the study of physics, but few would say that, other things being equal, an artist is a better man than a physicist. In the same way, a person who writes with a moral purpose may, on non-literary grounds, have a stronger claim upon our respect than one whose highest aim in writing is to satisfy a cultivated literary sense; still, the writings of neither are to be cited as evidence. Mr. Freeman, for instance, hates, with a deadly hatred, what he calls lies; and Mr. Carlyle, with equal strength, what he calls unveracities and sham. Shams and lies are very bad things, and whoever abates them does the world a service; but the abaters, as such, are no more deserving of its gratitude than is a renowned artist or sculptor. For the benefit the world gets is indirect and unintended, like the advantage accruing to the working and trading classes by luxurious living and lavish expenditure. Nobody will deny that while the motives of people who write are mixed, the all-predominant causes are need of money, and the hope of some sort of personal advancement; and for neither of these can any credit be taken. But let us suppose that Mr. Carlyle, or Mr. Freeman, or Mr. Ruskin, or Mr. Arnold, writes without being moved thereto by either of these considerations, and let us also assume that their writings do good service; are they to be honored on that account, except in the sense that any man who does his work well is to be honored ? I think not. The minds of these writers are bent in a particular way, which prescribes the kind of intellectual enjoyment each can best enjoy. In hunting down a sham, or a historical error, or an artistic humbug, or Philistinism, they are not performing a moral duty, but essentially amusing themselves. Every author, be he poet or be he metaphysician, loves some things and hates others. Most flatter themselves that the world would be better if it adopted their ideas; but the non-material cause of their writing is solely the desire for sympathy, or, in other phrase, the love of propagandism.
— Your contributor who discusses Mr. Brooks Adams’s article on Oppressive Taxation of the Poor makes his workingman speak as if he had acted upon the “idea so enthusiastically preached that it was an immense advantage to a workingman to own his own house.”
But he did not act upon that idea, — there is a bad fallacy here. He paid for one third of his house, and gave a mortgage on the rest. That is, he really owned only one third of his house; and that was the most insecure third, for if the property depreciated one third, he would have lost his portion, while the mortgagee would still be secure. The mistake — and it is a fatal one — consists in thinking that you own a thing for which you are in debt. The workingman alluded to should have bought a fifteenhundred-dollar house if he had but fifteen hundred dollars, and not have run at all into debt, or into a mortgage, which is another name for the same thing. Then he would have escaped his excessive taxation and most of his miseries. Debt is a luxury which only the rich can afford; if workingmen indulge in it they must pay the cost, as they must of other luxuries; a financial stoppage is generally the result. If people could only be convinced that owning and owing for the same thing are incompatible, no matter what the law says, there would be much less complaint about taxes; and life would be easier, and business more honest.
— Mr. Crocker, in his careful article in The Atlantic for December, has so directly opposed received economic principles as hardly to fail in exciting adverse criticism. Mr. Mill so entirely covered the ground in the question as to whether the poor are benefited by the unproductive expenditure of the rich that there is little room left for further argument on this part of the subject: but there is a point which Mr. Crocker seems to have overlooked. His assertion that it is the duty of the rich, as members of the community, to spend, because by so doing they will supposedly add to the wealth of society, is really a concession of the whole question to socialism. The supposition that by so doing they may add to their own wealth by no means alters the case, for the socialists do not deny at all individual exertion or reward. They only claim that, as things are now, wealth is not distributed fairly, in that labor does not receive its proper dividend from production; and therefore they call for a new social organization, in which the results shall be differently apportioned. Of course, the basis of the entire scheme is the assertion that wealth belongs to society, to be used for its good; and this is really what Mr. Crocker in effect asserts. Not only is the principle the same in both ideas, but the direct working must be alike. If Mr. Crocker’s rich man increases his expenditure, it can only benefit the poor one — unless there is an increase of population — by giving him a larger share of existing wealth or capital than he now possesses. If there is an increase of population, no one is permanently benefited, except to the extent of the pleasure the rich man has received from his prodigality. But in any event the real complaint is that wealth is in few hands, when justice would demand its being in many, and that therefore part should be consumed by the few that a part of the many may thereby get back some of what belongs to them.
— In a contemporary story, one of the characters pronounces modern rural life in our land “ the most arid and joyless existence under the sun. ” He calls attention to the desuetude of ball-rooms and academies, and even to “ the decay of the religious sentiment, so that the church is no longer a social centre,” and to the dreary gloom of the infrequent rustic assemblies, and ends his tirade by grimly remarking: “ Upon the whole, I wonder our country people don’t all go mad. They do go mad, a great many of them, and manage to get a little glimpse of society in the insane asylums.”
Now this seems to me horribly true and ominous. It is not denied that in many a country town (this is notably true of Vermont within my knowledge) there is an element of vivid interest in nature, in classic and current literature, and even in art which permeates the entire community; so that chance city visitors find themselves, not infrequently, in the attitude of humble-pie eaters, as they hear some low-voiced woman on a hillside farm, or village dress-maker, or wayside smith, or the eager crowd about the post-office when “the train is in,” discoursing of these high themes.
Existence in a community so learned could not be “joyless” except to a hopelessly dull soul, yet I fancy that even here an infusion of gayety might be most wholesome, while to the average American settlement it would be life to the dead. There is no doubt that with all our “ faculty ” we Americans are singularly dense as yet in regard to amusement. It is still a crime in many localities for any mortal who has outlived his sixth year to do anything for mere enjoyment. There is a shame - faced, apologetic air about most of our rural assemblies which is in itself a damper. The people gather, not from love of their kind and a desire to brighten themselves and others by friendly friction, but “ to aid ” the Five Pointers, or the Good Templars, or whatever the most plausible plea may be just then and there.
One of the most pathetic spectacles I remember to have seen was the persistent effort of one woman, during a long country winter (and I saw only one of a dozen similar seasons on her part), to breast the tide of traditional unsocialness. Born and nurtured in Paris, she found herself, by one of the myriad freaks of chance, a wife and mother (perfect in both relations) in this remote Western village, — one of the most brilliant women I ever knew, rarely accomplished, and with that sturdy good sense which we, in our ludicrous narrowness, claim as of New England growth alone. She being such a woman, and finding herself at home for life in such a place, spent not one breath in bemoaning the lost glories of Paris, but set herself instantly to brighten life around her. Her courage was indomitable, her spirits miraculous to one born American, but, alas, her success was hardly commensurate with even my tempered hopes. “Ah, but you have not the conception how difficult it is made for me! ” cried she, after an attempt to introduce some mild sports (cards and dancing were of course tabooed at the outset) into a local temperance organization (shades of Burgundy, what a sacrifice was there!), which her brave “ enthusiasm of humanity ” had carried her into. “The men will not come to the women, and the women do not know nor care to bring them; and they amuse themselves as if it were sin, and not a pleasant sin!” Here is indicated, perhaps, one great secret of the dullness of rural assemblies, — the notion of impropriety in the social intercourse of the sexes, particularly the married of both sexes. Only in an unclean novel are there such loathsome uncharitablenesses of opinion in regard to the impossibility of friendly reciprocity between men and women as run riot in some of our most respectable Puritan parishes; and society cannot even begin to be, fairly, until what a beloved old clergyman used to call “horizontal fractures,” that is, the dissociation of the young from the middle-aged and old, and of the one sex from the other, be recognized as at the best hazardous. The second step will “count” also, being too long and high to be easily taken by our stiff sinews; the conviction must somehow be extirpated from our souls that gravity, no matter “whence it come or where’s its home,” is virtue, and vice versa. One of your Club has elsewhere told the story of a budding polemic who, coming from church, met a playmate who confessed that he had failed to put in an appearance there. “ But, you see, I got to reading the Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, and forgot it was church time.” “ The Life of Napoleon, on Sunday!” cried the horrified little saint. “ Well, I— I don’t care,” whimpered the sinner, “ it made me feel most as bad as it does to read the Bible.”
— As I perceive the “aching void” in our language that a common-gender pronoun should fill, the thought comes to me, “ Why not make it correct to say, If Mr. or Mrs. Smith will come out on the train, I will meet them,”—meaning one of the two, parsing them as singular number, common gender?
My argument is this: We use you in both singular and plural, and our pupils understand by the context which number is meant. A scholar parsing " Mary, study your lesson,” says that your is singular because it refers to a singular antecedent; that in “ Boys, study your lessons,” your is plural because it refers to a plural antecedent. Then why not they, used of course with a plural verb, in the singular, common gender?
Then to our declensions of personal pronouns would be added: —
Third person, common gender, singular number.
Poss. Their or theirs,
It would be easy to adopt this idiom, for we are continually struggling against its use, and how delightful it would be for once to make wrong right!
— I read Avis, and gave thanks. Its feverish intensity and occasionally vicious rhetoric did not escape me, but the brave, clear intent of the book was so all-engrossing to me, as to the author, that I was utterly bewildered by the hue and cry of the critics. Dare I confess it? Even yet I am not quite convinced that this book (of which I had said in my crass ignorance, “ If ever I know a young man and maid, worth saving, to be betrothed, I will present each of them with Avis, that they may see how sacred a thing is holy matrimony; ‘ not to be by any enterprised nor taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly,’ as the English service has it”) bristles with hatred of marriage per se, disdain of homely duties, and all the other ugly appurtenances of a presumedly “woman’s rights ” creation — not quite convinced, I say, that these discoveries in Miss Phelps’s book are not wholly evolved from the minds of the critics.
So, in regard to Mr. Henry James’s Daisy Miller, I am shocked to find that what I gratefully accepted as an exquisitely loyal service to American girlhood abroad is regarded by some critical experts as “ servilely snobbish ” and “ brutally unpatriotic.”
Nevertheless, whenever Mr. James has occasion for a monument, which, however, I devoutly hope may not be while my reading-lamp holds out to burn, I will contribute my humble share towards perpetuating the memory of this valiant champion (faithful among the faithless found) of the young American What-is-it, whose beauty and whose vagaries are the eighth wonder of the other hemisphere.
— Mr. James calls his short tale, Daisy Miller, recently published in the Cornhill and the Living Age, a study. His longer story of The Europeans is a collection of portraits of character carefully studied. It is perfect work of its kind, and delightful reading to those whom such study interests. There is great satisfaction in seeing a thing well done, and both in the substance and in the style of his books Mr. James always offers an intellectual treat to appreciative readers; of course it is obvious that he writes only for the cultivated minority. But among his admirers are many who complain of him as a disappointing author, — one who charms their interest from the first, and keeps it alive to the end, but who, at the end, is apt to leave them somewhat dissatisfied. The conclusions of his novels and tales, they say, seem to them a breaking off rather than a true finishing of the lives and fortunes of the personages he has made them acquainted with. He gives reality and vitality to his characters only to make the reader close the book, asking, Is that all about them ? It is not enough, or not the end they should come to. This is a reproach, it seems to me, applicable to many weaker authors, less skilled in their art, but not to Mr. James. In his case the apparent failure to come to anything particular is foreseen by the author himself, because it is inherent in the nature of the theme chosen. It is certainly evident that the author of Roderick Hudson and The American has not the genuine storytelling gift, the power of inventing a story interesting for its Own sake. His talent lies in another field, that of keen observation and fine discrimination of character, which he portrays with a subtle and delicate touch. It is unreasonable, I think, to complain of a writer for not being something else than he is, as it would be to find fault with a figure painter that he was not a landscape artist. When we have once recognized the quality of a man’s talent, why not take what he can give, and not ask for something different? Let us do without a story in Mr. James’s novels, and enjoy instead something certainly as admirable in its way. Observing the refined skill with which the contrast of typical characters is presented in The Europeans, I, for one, was not disposed to demand a more exciting dénoûment, the interest of each page as I read it being pleasure sufficient.
— Notwithstanding all that is said about the absurdity of Macleod of Dare, it seems to me that Mr. Black deserves great credit for his self-restraint. The temptation must have been almost irresistible to bring Miss White on the deck of the Umpire at the moment when the yacht took its final plunge, just to show her, white and blue, in a red light, for an instant, and the lunatic, in kilts, darting upon her with a wild “ Ha! ha! ” That would have wakened the Dutchman, and called Ulva, and got up a conversation with Fladda, and we might have expected a terrible remark from Lunga and wild laughter from Colonsay. It was too much to expect that the playful Hamish and the rest of that genial crew should tie up the madman when his purpose of murder became evident; that would have broken with all the traditions of the noble tribe. I do not complain of that; but what seems to me inexcusable in an artistic point of view — and I may say this after acknowledging the author’s powerful self-control already mentioned— is this: the reader’s amusement in the last scenes needs to be toned down by something, and a perfect artist, who knows Gaelic, would have introduced the bagpipe. The absence of Donald and his pibroch at the only time in the story when his efforts would have been in keeping with the general effect must be an oversight. And, besides, it would have enabled the author to bring in, by way of variety, the echoes of Colonsay, Dubh-Artach, Staffa, Fladda, Lunga, Mull, and the rest, and sobbing Ulva answering to the wail of the pipes with a prolonged howl of Ool-a-va.
And the bagpipe, which Miss White unreasonably hated, would have added a just element of retribution in the murder.
— Why is it we do not hear more about Thomas Hardy? We discuss Tourguéneff, in translations too, until he is threadbare; we dabble in Cherbuliez, likewise in translations for the most part; but this original Englishman we leave alone. Yet it seems to me that he is well worth attention, and a stronger writer in many respects than either Blak or Blackmore. Have n't we all read his five stories? Or what is the trouble?
To my mind, Far from the Madding Crowd is as fine a piece of work as anything in fiction we have had from England in ten or fifteen years,— I make no exceptions; A Pair of Blue Eyes is an especially sweet little love story; Under the Greenwood Tree, a lesser sketch, is a rural picture so realistic that we know all the characters as neighbors, when we have finished it; and, as an offset, Desperate Remedies and The Hand of Ethelberta are failures. The best one, Far from the Madding Crowd, is a sheep story. The few characters, Bathsheba and her lovers and the little knot of farming people, move in a circle of meek sheep-faces from beginning to end. It opens with a vigil among lambs, followed by the tragedy of the ewes, where the young dog, who in his mistaken zeal has chased two hundred of the gentle creatures over the precipice to their death, is discovered standing alone, surveying his work, on the brow of the cliff, “ against the sky, dark and motionless as Napoleon at St. Helena.” Of the three lovers, one is a shepherd by profession, and conies on and off the scene either with lambs dangling from his shoulders, or grinding shearing - tools, or shearing sheep, or washing them, or something of the kind, from first to last. The second, although not a shepherd, is even more sheep-surrounded, poor fellow! The first time he tries to speak to the dark-eyed Bathsheba (a sheep-like name that too, and not unconnected with the ancient story of “ one little ewe lamb,” as told
by Nathan the prophet), she is busy with the flock. He offers himself to her at a “ sheep-washing,” continues his suit at a “sheep-shearing,” makes his second offer at a “ shearing-supper,” and, after she is left a widow, renews his addresses at a “ sheep-fair.” Times and seasons in this book are stated as follows: “ It was now early spring, the time of going to grass with the sheep ; ” or, “ It was the first of June, when the sheep-shearing season culminates.” All through the story the mild woolly creatures accompany us. But what a strong tale it is that is set in these pastoral surroundings! The moment Troy, the soldier, steps on the scene, his scarlet coat contrasting with the green fields, we know how it is to be. Here is a man at last who has nothing to do with sheep; but rather “sword exercise,” as when he spits the wandering caterpillar, that has crawled by chance across the front of Bathsheba’s boddice, on the point of his flying circling sword, or severs a lock of her hair unfelt, with its swift and radiant edge. He tells her openly how beautiful she is! The others have not dared to say it; but Troy dares everything. This handsome soldier, to whom “ the past was a yesterday; the future, to-morrow; never, the day after,” one who, “ perfectly truthful towards men,” lies “like a Cretan toward women,” wins Bathsheba, of course, from her slow, sheep-entangled suitors. He marries her, and — tires of her. Such men are always tired of their wives up to the age of forty or forty-five, when, if the wife has been patient meanwhile, they come back to her like schoolboys, and are good forever after. But Bathsheba is not patient. Tragedy now appears in the episode of Fanny. It seems to me that the chapter called On Casterbridge Highway, describing the inch-by-inch progress on foot of the dying girl, trying to drag herself over the three long miles to the poorhouse, her attempt with the crutches, her encounter with the homeless dog, and especially her woman’s invention of pretending that the end of her journey was but five fenceposts distant, and then, having dragged herself past the five by means of this self-beguilement, pretending it was but five posts more, and so on, is powerfully pathetic. And powerfully dramatic, too, the chapter where, all her sufferings over and in her poorliouse coffin, she comes back to conquer her splendid rival at last, and win again her recreant lover, by achieving “ the one feat alone — that of dying” —which could make her powerful.
Hardy’s descriptions of secnery are like no others with which I am acquainted, unless Thoreau’s; I do not maintain that they are better than others, but they are certainly his own. They are not in the least poetic; nothing could be farther from what is known as “ beautiful writing.” Here are no “pearly,” “opaline,” “amethyst” tints at all. He selects generally rather sober times and scenes, and then describes them so that we actually see them. His landscapes have no moral meanings, for one thing. His sunsets and his thunder have no suggestions to offer respecting oblivion, remorse, or the infinite; his storm is simply an atmospheric disturbance, his fog a wet cloud. Here are some Thoreau-like bits. “ A list of the gradual changes on a moor betokening the approach and arrival of winter. The retreat of the snakes. The transformation of the ferns. The filling of the pools. A rising of fogs. The embrowning by frost. The collapse of the fungi. An obliteration by snow.” And this of the hue of very young tree-leaves: “a yellow beside a green, and a green beside a yellow.” Of early morning: “ It was so early that the shady places still smelt like night-time.” Of nightfall: “ He lingered till there was no difference between the eastern and western expanse of sky.” The fog described in the Madding Crowd makes your own trees drip outside the window. And when this severely plain style rises at all, it is to such fine sentences as these: " To persons standing alone on a hilltop during a clear midnight, the roll of the earth eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars, or by the wind, or by the solitude; but whatever be its origin, the impression of riding along is vivid and abiding.”
But if the descriptions of scenery are good, those of the English farm-laborers are better; they seem to me the best we have had yet. For the dialect here is not simply an uncouth tongue, relying for its effect, upon barbarous mispronunciations, but a quaint use of familiar, old-fashioned words and idioms, which seems to be taken bodily from actual life. Note the following: “ There, ’t is a happy providence that I be no worse, so to speak it, and I feel my few poor gratitudes.” And this: “ I knowed the boy’s grandfather, a truly nervous man even to genteel refinement. ’T was blush, blush with him almost as much as ’t is with me — not but that it ’s a fault in me.” “ Not at all, Master Poorgrass,” said Coggan. “ ’T is a very noble qualify in ye.” They discuss church and chapel. “ Chapel-folk be more hand-and-glove with them above than we be,” said Joseph, thoughtfully. “ Yes,” said Coggan. “ If anybody goes to heaven, they will; they ’ve worked for it. I ’m not such a fool as to pretend that we who stick to the church have the same chance; but I hate a feller who ’ll change his ancient doctrine for the sake of getting to heaven! No, I'll stick to my side, and fall with the fallen.” When the old master’s age is doubted, they soothe the ancient man as follows: “ Ye be a very old aged person, master; and ye must have a wonderful talented constitution to be able to live so long.” The earl’s wife dies, and after several hours have passed, they remark musingly, “ She must know by this time whether she’s to go up or down, poor creature! ” And here is an unapproachable bit: “ Gabriel Oak is coming it quite the dand! When I see people strut enough to be cut up into bantam-cocks, I stand dormant with wonder, and says no more.” The men discuss whether or not their mistress is in love, and one says, “ But last Sunday, when we were in the tenth commandment, says she, ‘ Incline our hearts to keep this law,’ says she, when ’t was ‘ laws in our hearts we beseech Thee ’ all the church through! Her eye was upon him, and she was quite lost, no more than a mere sliadder at that tenth, a mere shudder! ”
If Far from the Madding Crowd is a sheep story, A Pair of Blue Eyes is a tale of tombs. It is too bad to make sport of one of the sweetest little lovestories of the day, but there certainly is an omnipresence of “Jethway’s tomb ” which is gravely comic. There are three live lovers; and Jethway’s tomb. The latter has an unpleasant way of shining “ with singular weirdness.’’ The first lover woos Elfride in the churchyard, while sitting on this tomb. The second lover, also with her in the churchyard, observes the tomb, and, after a while, finds out something of the truth. He questions her and she attempts to prevaricate by murmuring that the lover is dead; but, as she has already confessed to the love-making, he not unnaturally wishes to know “how in the name of Heaven a man can sit upon his own tomb!” Upon being informed at last, and falteringly, that there were two, he remarks with gloom that he hardly thinks he could have accepted the attentions of a new lover “ while sitting upon the poor remains of the old one.” He goes alone for an evening walk, again selecting “ the churchyard; ” he sits and regards “ the white tomb.” Meanwhile Jethway’s mother having appropriately selected that day and spot to come by and be killed, lover number two is the one to discover the body, of course, and end the chapter sepulchrally. When poor discarded number one returns from India, it is in this churchyard again that Elfride promises to meet him. She does not come; but, has he not the companionship of Jethway? At last, when he meets her with number two, and is informed in so many words of their betrothal, the scene this time is a family vault into which by chance they have all descended. There are two fine breezy descriptions of churchyards in the book, with the merits and demerits of the style of graves in each; and there is a quaint account of masons at work in a vault among ancient coffins, which, in unlettered prose, rivals Hamlet. Last of all, when the two lovers, after long absence and alienation from Elfride, find out their errors, and after attempting to deceive each other by an affectation of utter indifference, meet at the railroad station in the early dawn, each hastening to her on the wings of the wind, they notice a singular dark car attached to their train; and it accompanies them all day. Once, by some mistake, it is detached, and they have to wait for it. “ What a confounded nuisance these stoppages are!” one says, fretfully. When they reach the end of their journey, the dark van stops too; it turns out to be a funeral car, and from it is borne a coffin, —the coffin of Elfride. Struck dumb, they follow in silence, two miserable men, each, however, sure in his heart that she loved him to the last; sure! She was such a sweet, loving little creature! And then they learn that it is a countess who is being borne on before them, and that Elfride has been for five months the wife of the earl! The story ends in a vault, — her vault now; they visit it together the day after the funeral, only to find there the earl, who is number three, and before them both, and who loved her better than they all.
Hardy always has one woman and three or four lovers; it is his idea of a story. In Desperate Remedies and The Hand of Ethelberta he has ventured off his ground and into the field where Wilkie Collins’ banner, inscribed with the motto, “ Plots, not People,” floats supreme; and of course he has been slaughtered.
In all his writings he quotes, as far as I can discover, but two American authors, namely, Hawthorne and Walt Whitman.