The Return of the Native, and Other Novels
THE greatest novel of the year is none the less interesting and impressive because the incessantly laborious process whereby the author draws near to his severe ideal is everywhere apparent to the thoughtful reader. Nobody who has read Hardy’s Return of the Native 1 can doubt that this is the book meant, and most of those who admire his previous books will, we think, share our opinion that the latest, in its own singular and sombre fashion, is nearer perfect than any other of them. Like Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd, it is a tale confined to the obscurest level of society. But it is perfectly sustained in the low key where it is pitched, which the Madding Crowd is not: along the edges of the narrow life portrayed there are frequent glimpses of infinite horizons; the cumulative tragedy into whose forecast shadow we so strongly and naturally shrink from entering is all simple, circumstantial, inevit-
able, never once, not even on the black night of the suicide, breaking down into melodrama; and at the last we are led into the twilight of better days, with a touch gentle as that of time itself, so that we look back as over an experience, and recognize with admiration the exquisite fitness of the wistful motto from Keats which Mr. Hardy has chosen for his title-page_ —
And thought to leave her far away behind ;
But cheerly, cheerly, she loves me dearly,
She is so constant to me and so kind !
I thought to deceive her, and so leave her,
But ah, she is so constant and so kind !”
It has become rather a commonplace to call Mr. Hardy Shakespearean, and we once heard a witty commentator suggest the reason, — because his characters talk like nobody either in life or in books except the clowns in Shakespeare. To us he seems not so much to have borrowed as to have evolved out of one of his own quaint theories that racy and antiquated mode of speech which is so amusing in the mouths of his country-folk; but he has this other quality in common with Shakespeare and all the veritable immortals, that his work leaves one in an exalted frame of mind, disposed either to dreamy reflection or to vague and fervid eulogy. Such mental exercises, however, being neither here nor there in the way of critical appreciation, let us try soberly to learn something of the manner in which he produces his remarkable effects.
We note first his peculiar but masterly treatment of scenery. Most novelists, since Scott first invited his readers out-of-doors, have more or less affected landscape; but they have either sketched it in around their characters, or set it up as a reflector of their emotions, or themselves sought it as a refuge in the intervals when the languid creatures of their brains positively declined to act. Hardy only, and conspicuously in his last book, elaborates his landscape first, in its utmost breadth, down to its minutest features, and then sets his people in it in their true physical proportions, — sparse, feeble, and insignificant, as human beings are, by comparison with mountain and moorland, sea and sky. It is a method undreamed of in what are called pagan times, but of which the effect is pagan and pantheistic to the last degree. The delineation of Egdon Heath, with which the Native opens, is so solemn and scrupulous that it seems levity to call it picturesque. It is simply one of the most tremendous pieces of verbal realization in the language. It is too long to quote entire, and extracts cannot illustrate the grand and massive plainness of Mr. Hardy’s descriptive style.
There follow some very subtle reflections about the way in which the world seems gradually to be outgrowing its taste for mere external beauty, as children outgrow a taste for sweet things. It is one of the author’s favorite fancies. We are ceasing, he says, to require beauty and symmetry in landscape. We have already ceased to require it in the persons of men. We may some day cease to require it in the persons of women. Is this the self-same dreary consummation toward which the unhappy Mr.
Swinburne is looking in those strange lines of his concerning
The thing transformed which was the Cythe-
But to return to Egdon. “ The most thorough-going ascetic could feel that he had a right to wander there. He was keeping within the line of legitimate indulgence when he laid himself open to influences such as these. Colors and beauties so far subdued were at least the birthright of all. Only in summer days of highest feather did its mood touch the level of gayety. Intensity was more usually reached by way of the solemn than by way of the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was often arrived at during winter darkness, tempests, and mists.”
“ Then Egdon was aroused to reciprocity. The storm was its lover; the wind was its friend. Then it became the lair of strange phantoms; it was found to be the hitherto unrecognized original of those wild regions of obscurity which are vaguely felt to be compassing us about in midnight dreams of flight and disaster, and are never thought of after the dream till revived by scenes like these.”
“ It was at present [late on a November afternoon] an environment perfectly accordant with man’s nature,—a scene neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly, neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame, but, like man, slighted, enduring, and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with some persons who have lived long apart, solitude seemed to look out of its countenance. It had a lonely face suggesting tragical possibilities.”
Anywhere else we might be tempted to condemn as clap-trap a device like that of the map or plan of the heath, with its natural features and scattered dwellings, prefixed as a frontispiece to the volume ; but at Mr. Hardy’s hands we accept it respectfully, and find it a great practical help to the thorough understanding of a mysterious and momentous thing. Once fairly apprehended, this mighty vision of waste country, scorned of civilization and unchanged by history, becomes a permanent fact of the imagination. The heath precedes everything, determines everything, outlasts everything. The transit of the intensest human life modifies it no more than that of a cloud modifies the ether. We perceive it to be quite natural and necessary that primeval customs and idioms and superstitions should flourish undecayed in this isolated spot; that there should be no conventional division, even for women, between night and day; that Clement Yeobright, the hero who was born here, should have been drawn backward, by its stern fascination, from the world’s gayest centre, to sacrifice himself for its half-heathen people; and that Eustacia Vye, the heroine par excellence, when forcibly imprisoned within its melancholy limits, should have fought blindly against, its alien spell, until she found in it her doom. The book ought by all means to have been named Egdon Heath. Hardy is apt to be far fetched and infelicitous in his titles, but this one is so decidedly below the dignity of the book that it has the air of having been suggested by a bookseller.
Over and above this tyranny of place under which Mr. Hardy’s people labor, there is a crushing tyranny of circumstance. The most trivial accidents are fraught with the grimmest consequences, like the infamous-looking yet comparatively innocent mistake whereby Mrs. Yeobright was turned away from her son’s house, and the chance by which Eustacia failed to receive her husband’s conciliatory letter. A sense of the omnipotence of accident is no uncommon mode of modern fatalism. There are places even in George Eliot’s writings where it seems to nullify, for the time, her fiercest protestations of faith in moral responsibility. In Mr. Hardy’s case, added to his superhuman ingenuity in devising unheard-of incidents and wild and memorable scenes, it leaves us with but a feeble suspicion of the freedom and accountability of his people. We are so impressed by them as the strenuously developed logical result of their circumstances that is only by an after-thought that we consider them as either good or bad. Eustacia and her lover Wildeve, in the Native, are alike vain, selfish, and lawless, yet our instinctive sympathies are allowed to go with Eustacia under the burst of her blameless husband’s terrific wrath, and we are inclined to give Wildeve credit, at the last, for behaving uncommonly well, under the circumstances, and for him. Yeobright, on the contrary, is a great soul with a disinterested purpose, who stands nobly the test of terrible tribulations, and we are glad, after his happiness is slain, to have him become an itinerant preacher, if he thought it his vocation, but we find it utterly impossible to imagine what gospel he can have preached. Far-looking philosophical results and cosmic consolations, like those which the author, in his own person, frequently suggests in eloquent asides, were surely not relevant to the heath-dwellers. However, if Mr. Hardy teaches us nothing, it should be admitted that nobody less than he assumes to teach. The self-denying toil whose traces are so palpable in every page he writes is vowed to art purely, and, artistically, his last performance is almost without a flaw.
William Black is hardly more didactic than Hardy, and he is certainly not more so than usual in the wild tale of Macleod of Dare,2 yet he makes a very different sort of appeal to his readers. He is as full of passionate prejudice and exclusive individual sympathy as Hardy of sad generalities and pantheistic prepossessions. He is boldly romantic where Hardy is sternly realistic, hot and headlong where Hardy is deliberate and analytical. Black always identifies himself with his favorite characters ; Hardy seems to keep remote from all of his. Black also is a noble painter of one kind of landscape, and gives us some of his most finished work in Macleod, but human beings are first with him, and the most impressive and importunate landscape still accessory ; while with Hardy, as has been said, the people are depressed almost into features of the natural scene. These two writers seem curiously to divide between themselves the proverbial functions of tragedy. Hardy “ purifies,” if at all, by wholesome " terror; " Black, by a slightly morbid “ pity.”
Macleod of Dare is much more like a great poem than a great novel. It begins like a modern tale, but it ends like an ancient ballad. We have noticed before that the two halves of some of Mr. Black’s best efforts do not entirely correspond. He seems to have a constitutional objection to ending on the common chord. In Macleod his theme is extremely, poetically, simple. There are really only two characters: the untamed and intrepid, yet gentle and chivalrous, Highland chief, with a chorus of wild retainers; and the fine London lady, the actress spoiled by flattery and feigning, with her natural entourage of relatives and friends in her own circle. The lover is impassioned, generous, constant.; the lady beautiful, of course, selfish through timidity, fickle, and shallow. Moreover, the lover is precisely five hundred rears behind the lady and his own time in all his modes of action and habits of thought. If Mr. Black had been content to rely upon the incompatibility of nature and the strange anachronism between these two, he would have had matter quite enough for pathos and even tragedy. He made a great artistic mistake in driving his hero mad, and especially when he allowed us to suspect a congenital taint in the high-souled creature, by revealing symptoms of insanity in him while all his prospects were yet fair. And has anybody, since Shakespeare’s day, ever succeeded in making madness artistically effective, — more interesting, that is to say, in a fictitious character than distressing? If so, it is not Black himself in the ease of Madcap Violet, nor Tennyson in that of the atrabilious lover of Maud, nor even Scott in that of Lucy Ashton. The fact is that there is not much romance about it. When the most devoted lover goes mad for love, we experience a revulsion of feeling. We cannot possibly help reflecting what an escape the beloved object has had of him or her. It is probably better to die at the hands of such unfortunates than to have them as life partners, but, in life or death, we must perforce extend our sympathies to the victim of one de-natured. If, therefore, poor Macleod had slain himself and his Gertrude in simple and likely fashion, we should still have pitied the cold-hearted little coquette more than she deserved; but murder under such aggravated and also aggravating circumstances as those which render chaotic the last pages of Macleod of Dare has a leaning toward the grotesque. It might very well have entered into the mediæval soul of Keith Macleod to try to kidnap an unwilling bride, but a creature so mindful of her own comfort and safety, so fond of her own dainty personality, and so generally clever and collected as Gertrude White would never, never have been kidnaped. She would by no means have gone awake and unattended on board his yacht, or if spirited thither by accident or craft she could not have failed of the solitary grain of courage and common sense needful for her escape. Still less is it conceivable that a whole ship’s crew, however loyal to a beloved master and wrathful for his wrongs, should calmly have furthered his maniacal purpose and made themselves accessory to a monstrous crime. Nay, we can hardly help feeling as if the author himself were somehow a guilty accomplice in what is done. He is so feverishly identified with his hero, and exults so fiendishly, the moment she is absolutely helpless, over the heroine, whom he has hated from the first, and, in short, es treibt so toll generally in the last twenty pages of the tale that we begin to be alarmed for the balance of Mr. Black’s own faculties; and we feel like recommending him to keep away from the North Sea, take bromide, and rest for a brief interval from production.
The pity is great, for Macleod of Dare is a book of a thousand for its unity and fire. It is eloquent, tender, and profoundly touching. It soars to a height of simple passion seldom attained in these sophisticated days, but it topples over at the very last, and misses the crown of ultimate symmetry.
Hardly less lamentable than the fiasco of Macleod is the disappointment reserved for those who read to the end, at one fascinated sitting, the dainty little volume which inaugurates the second series of No Name novels. The literary grace and refinement of Signor Monaldini’s Niece 3 are quite exceptional. The author is a new one, but she has had much practice in writing, and of a certainty she is not young. How can it be, then, that she is an American, as rumor says? Was a clever American woman ever yet known to wait for the ripeness of her powers and the high noon of her emotions before publishing? Were it for her retiring temper only, we are ready to be extremely proud of this new writer the moment she proves her nationality. Yet the fine workmanship of her book is the least of its attractions. The greatest and rarest is its fullness of feeling, — a sad, unfathomable flood, over whose high surface, made smooth and tranquil by the very repression of the waters, the tenderest love story since Doctor Antonio glides quietly, until it shocks us by its final plunge. The two principal characters seem almost purely ideal personages: the exquisite heroine, gentle, proud, and spotless, harassed and saddened, but never once moved from her serenity of soul by the suffocating espionage and insulting precautionary measures of her vulgar guardian; and the king of men who loves her from the height of his throne with so glorious an ardor, though, until the very last, may be, with such a magnanimous mindfulness of the barrier between them. Yet, though these two and their love are thus highly romantic, they are linked with admirable skill to the commonplace beings around them; the latter are depicted with the light and accurate touch almost of a French society novel, the intensest situations appear unforced, and we believe implicitly even where we read with most emotion. We do not cease to believe, perhaps, though we pine to remonstrate, when the simple and stately movement of the story is broken near its end by the unpleasant and irrelevant episode of Miss Conroy, and we would by no means anticipate the sensation of those who have not yet read the book by hinting what it is upon the final page which occasions a revulsion of feeling and a sort of indignation as though one had been cheated out of a.gem.
There is a certain kinship between this nameless writer’s talent and that of the exuberant author of Kismet, but there is a balance, a restraint and repose about the new writer to which Miss Fletcher has not yet attained; and while of her we still hope for many more and always better and better things, we are more than half inclined to regard Signor Monaldini’s Niece as the aloe flower of a self-centred and unambitious genius, which required many years for its maturing, and is not certain to be matched in as many more. The author is evidently a sincere Roman Catholic, yet sufficiently imbued with the independent spirit of young Italy to have no hesitation in making the one priest in her book, Father Paladino, a timid, timeserving, and unsatisfactory director.
Dr. Eggleston’s Roxy 4 is hardly an agreeable book. The situation and scenery are too carefully studied and sincerely represented. Were it possible for a man to have offered him the choice of his place and epoch in the world, it is not to be supposed that any sane person would select a town in Southern Indiana at the date of the Tippecanoe campaign. The beginnings of civilization, like the beginnings of life itself, are strange and shapeless everywhere, and the first stages of its struggle with barbarism are inevitably blind and brutish, painful for a highly organized individual to witness, and gloomy to remember. Yet such things Dr. Eggleston saw in his youth, and in such participated. We are no less sure, after reading his vigorous, humorous, and (the theme considered) marvelously picturesque narrative, that he met them like a man than that he afterward grasped them like a philosopher, and has now portrayed them like a genuine artist.
The book is appropriately named after the heroine, who is the centre of all its action, and on whom, as on his worthiest subject, the author has shed the strongest light and bestowed the most careful study. The remarkable character of Roxy Adams is not only clearly conceived, but thoroughly and admirably developed. She reminds one a little of Dinah Morris, but she is more human and adorable than the Methodist preacher. She is a veritable saint in unstinted good works and spiritual aspiration and self-mortification, but her courage is uncalculating and her temper quick and high, and under certain provocations terribly obstinate. She is capable of prostrate self-sacrifice, yet her personal pride is enormous, and there is that touch of the chivalrie in her scorn and defiance of all things base for which it would be extremely gratifying to find distinct authority in the New Testament. She stands between the two men, each of whom loves her as well as he can love, — her husband, Mark, with his strong passions, vulgar ambitions, and conceited carnal piety, and her clergyman, sincere, conscientious, courageous in his way, but effeminate, — and she dwarfs both by her grandeur, even in the act of serving them. A pair of quotations will suffice to show how under all circumstances we are made to feel the elevation and magnanimity of her nature. it is thus that the minister Whittaker finds her when he makes his first call at her father’s humble house:
“ Roxy looked like a figure out of an ancient picture, as she sat there, with the high lights brought out by the soft illumination of the candle, and with her background of visible obscurity. Hers was not what you would call a handsome face, in the physical sense. There was no sensuous beauty of red lips and softly rounded cheeks. But it was indeed a very extraordinary face, full of passionate ideality, and with high enthusiasms shining through it. I have seen an emblematic face in an illuminated title to the Gospel of Matthew that was full of a quiet, heavenly joy, as though there were good tidings within, ever waiting to be told. This pure gladness there was in Roxy, as she looked up now and then from her knitting. It was such a face as a master would have loved to paint, and would have worshiped after he had painted it. So it seemed to Whittaker, as he sat on one side of the table, trying to guess which it was of all the saints he had seen in old prints that she was like. His eye took in the mantel-piece and the old clock in the corner, almost lost in the shadow, and though he was not an artist the sentiment of the picture moved him deeply. Like most men who have lived bookish lives, Whittaker thought it needful to adapt his speech to the feminine understanding. He began talking to Roxy of her father, her garden, her chickens, her friends; but to all of his remarks or inquiries upon these subjects Roxy answered half absently. The minister was puzzled by this, and while he debated what course was best the conversation flagged, and an awkward silence ensued which was presently broken by Roxy asking him what he thought of the experience of President Edwards’s wife.”
When Roxy went to her little chamber that night, she humbly recorded a “ refreshing conversation ” with the docile priest, and no better proof is needed that Dr. Eggleston has performed a rare feat of characterization than the fact that this scene and the very different one far on in the book, where Roxy, after the discovery of her husband’s disgraceful intrigue with Nancy, shakes the dust of his dwelling from her feet, seem equally natural and necessary to the woman.
“Mark rode into his own gate with dread. Martha Ann [a servant who had followed her mistress] had not felt obliged to close the doors, so that the place had the air of being inhabited yet. He threw the bridle-reins over the hitching-post in front of the house and alighted. He went across the porch into the hall, through the sitting-room, into the parlor. The horrible foreboding that he was too late to make the confession he should have made before gradually deepened into certainty. He hurried up-stairs, hoping that Roxy might be there. There was Roxy’s apparel as she had left it. He opened the drawers; there were all the things he had ever given her. Her dresses hung in the oldfashioned clothes - press. He did not doubt that she had gone. But she had gone — Roxy - like — not meanly, but proudly. . . . Not an unnecessary shoelatchet of his would she carry away. These things strewn about the room said plainly that, having loved her husband and not his possessions, she utterly rejected what was his when she cast him off. Mark cursed his own folly and wickedness. In his hour of desertion and loneliness he loved Roxy as he had never loved her before.”
Mark is almost as good a study as Roxy, though so much less agreeable a subject; in fact every character in the tale is well and clearly discriminated. Much of the action goes on among deeply vulgar people, but while the author himself is never vulgar, he bestows his pains on baser as well as better folk with a respectful impartiality, which again recalls the earlier and less labored manner of George Eliot. And while Roxy is inferior to the Scenes from Clerical Life in intellectual grasp, it has more spontaneity, and gives the reader no such sense of intellectual effort.
One fault this clever novel has, however, into which the author of Silas Marner never fell while the poise of her powers was perfect, nor is even now like to fall. The book continues after it is done. How strange is the vanity or the fatality whereby so many authors fail to cut short their performances at the proper point! The poems may be reckoned by the score which are spoiled by the last three stanzas; the novels by the hundred, which are stultified by the last three chapters. The fact is the more exasperating, because it is only works of unusual merit which come within three verses or chapters of being exactly right. There is momentum, and, of necessity, force, in all things which rush past their proper goal, spreading confusion and catastrophe like that which blunts what might have been the fine ending of Roxy. The story should have closed with the adoption of Mark’s illegitimate child by Roxy, and the reconciliation of husband and wife. Roxy’s illness and supposed death, Mark’s insanity, the steamboat explosion, are all superfluous and suicidal to the symmetry of the tale. They are the reintrusion of chaos into cosmos. " Let no man be called happy till his death,” and let no author be called happy till his inebriated imagination is safely chained up, and his work removed where his own last touches cannot ruin it.