Recent Novels

MR. HASSAUREK’S very praiseworthy Secret of the Andes 1 sets one thinking about the whole matter of historical fiction. Nobody, perhaps, disputes that in its higher or poetical form it includes most of the immortal work of the human imagination; and it might be thought superfluous to mention the Iliad and the Æneid, the Book of Job and the Niebelungen Lied, and the principal pieces of all the greatest dramatists. But even prose historical fiction, at its very best, must outrank the cleverest pictures of contemporary manners, for it bespeaks in the writer a more difficult exercise of a less common order of faculties. The fame of Walter Scott is only now beginning to emerge from those rising mists that are apt to cloud a great reputation during the first generation or two of its posthumous being; but even we, the children and grandchildren of those who watched open-mouthed for the Waverleys as they came, can shrewdly guess that his work will last in the very form which he gave it, as will not, for example, that of the well-beloved Anthony Trollope, so like Scott in the easy simplicity of his methods and the prevailing sweetness of his humor. Thackeray touches his highest level in Henry Esmond; Dickens in the serious portions of the Tale of Two Cities; Charles Kingsley in Hypatia and Amyas Leigh; while George Eliot’s Romola and Scheffel’s Ekkehard, over and above their æsthetic value, are monuments of the unflinching application to this branch of literary art of the sternest and most labor-exacting principles of modern historical research. The German, for a wonder, disguises his learning more gracefully than the English writer. It is rather with Scheffel, in his beautiful romance, as it ought always to be in such a case, the sunken, yet all the more impregnable foundation of a romantic superstructure but either of these memorable books is a better help to the comprehension of a bygone epoch than the blind and pompous histories of the eighteenth century; quite as much so as any of the preëminently picturesque histories of our own time, like Carlyle’s and Macaulay’s and Prescott’s; little less so than the massive and legitimately splendid work of any of the long list of socalled “ brilliant ” contemporary historians, Kinglake, Motley, Taine, Froude, and the rest. No one of these men would have deigned to apply for material to anything short of those “ original documents ” of which wo hear so much; but the moment they pass beyond mere transcription and compilation, the moment they begin to select and fuse and recast, the element of the historian’s personality enters in. and his work becomes, in a degree, one of the imagination. No two men can even read the same record any more than two can see the same picture. Take an instance fresh in the memory of us all: —

Mr; James Anthony Froude has written a book on the Life and Times of Thomas à Becket, and Mr. Edward Freeman has replied to that book in an essay of equally majestic dimensions; and both Mr. Froude and Mr. Freeman recall to our minds and, in fact, themselves respectfully refer to, a very learned and elaborate essay on the same subject, published twenty years ago or more in one of the British reviews, and written, if we are not mistaken, by Dean Stanley. Each of these names is of course a guarantee for literary ability, thorough research, and fine workmanship. All three quote constantly and copiously the records of the twelfth century, and profess to draw their deductions from these alone. All have apparently spent days and nights in Canterbury cathedral, in order to familiarize themselves and their readers with the scene of the final tragedy, so little altered in seven hundred years. And the result is that we have three distinct and incompatible Beckets, cach drawn in a masterly manner, and with very full and imposing accessories. One is the most illustrious hero of the church militant, an august martyr equally intrepid and holy; and another is a violent and treacherous prelate, an eternal disgrace to his sacred calling, whose vices and crimes are offset only by a doubtful modicum of physical courage; while the third is a compound of the two characters, or rather a compromise between them, quite as clearly individualized as either, whom, on general principles only, we conclude to be the most probable of the three. The original documents have told these three different stories to as many men, trained in the same methods of study, and of nearly the same intellectual calibre. The truth would seem to be that the author’s Individuality must needs color any narrative that has life, as the blood must color any organism that has life. Nay, is the personality of the author eliminated from the original documents themselves, — the monkish chronicles, the private letters, the reports of state trials, which last can hardly, in the nature of things, take place, unless partisanship is in full blast?

There is, then, no clear dividing line between romantic history — that is to say, any history which is sympathetically and dramatically written—and historical romance. They are not identical, but they melt into each other. The same order of faculties is required for both, and a very high one it is. Authentic success in either of these closely contiguous departments of literary effort is about enough to satisfy the most towering literary ambition.

But if the best historical fiction is so great a thing, it follows that a historical novel must be, in all respects, a profound and splendid performance, — must be super-excellent, in fact, in order to be of any account at all. And this brings us back to The Secret of the Andes. Mr. Hassaurek doubtless wept in his youth over Prescott’s Atahualpa, but, to his honor be it said, he did not stop there. Most of us wept and were done with it; he must resolutely have applied himself from that time forward to all the known sources of information about that strange and heart-piercing tragedy, the Spanish conquest of Peru. Nor did he even pause at the death of Atahualpa, as any one content with the mere passive gratification of a spectator at a drama would certainly have done. He patiently followed the fortunes of the suffering remnant of the native race under foreign rule, and grasped the most elusive traditions concerning the last shadowy representatives of the Incas. His appointment as minister to the neighboring republic of Ecuador afterwards enabled him to study on the spot the magnificent natural scenery surrounding those remote but memorable conflicts and convulsions; and this part of his work has been done so faithfully that he succeeds in evoking, even in his readers’ minds, a tolerably distinct vision of Quito and the mountain monsters that overshadow it from age to age. Then, selecting as the time of his romance a period about sixty years later than Pizarro’s conquest, and as its occasion the last combined revolt of the native Spanish Americans and the oppressed and virtually enslaved Peruvians against the officers of his most Christian majesty, Philip II., and the powerful tory party, an alliance which it was proposed romantically to consummate by the marriage of some distinguished young Spanish American to the granddaughter of the last Inca, he undertakes the no less than stupendous task of peopling this half-barbaric scene with imaginary characters, and of realizing to a modern mind the incidents of that sanguinary and desperate struggle. Aud his work is done well, — even strikingly well. His style is moderate and manly, yet capable upon occasion of a flush of color and a ring of pathos. His characters are firmly outlined and discriminated: the doubting Carrero; the daring Sanchez; Valverde; the cold and wily, yet superstitious, Dolores; the degraded, yet always dignified, Indian nobles; the singular and would-be supernatural, yet ever human and feminine, heiress of the Incas. The hardest problem of all in such an attempt, that of making people so alien and remote both in time and place talk with simplicity and animation, has been almost triumphantly solved. We listen without impatience, and upon the whole we believe. Then, too, the story interests, and its end is long kept doubtful. The action is tolerably rapid, and where the incidents are unavoidably ghastly they are reservedly and poetically treated.

From the very nature of Mr. Hassaurek’s subject, we are perpetually reminded of Amyas Leigh, and we almost take it for granted that the comparison must be disastrous to the later tale; but in the last two books of The Secret of the Andes, the author reveals rarer powers than he had let appear at first, — rarer, perhaps, than he knew that he possessed; and among them, the power of closely analyzing a complex and vacillating character, and of bringing forcibly home to the understanding of his readers, in his condensed history of a wretched marriage, the sort of unsuspected retribution for halting honor which is forever being wrought out, under cover often of external circumstances the smoothest and most splendid. To the sensitive victim of such a long-protracted punishment it is perfectly intelligible that the swift act of barbaric vengeance which finally closes the tale, and closes it in a highly dramatic and even thrilling manner, should have been almost joyfully welcome.

Yet another effort to “call spirits from the vasty deep ” of the past arrests our attention for a moment by its literary respectability and some other qualities.2 It would be hard to imagine anything more subduing in the way of a title-page than this: The Puritan and the Quaker : A Tale of Colonial Times. “ The cheerful sage, when solemn dictates fail, conceals the moral counsel in a tale.” That the sage who is impelled by a concern to revive and illustrate the sourest, if not the saddest, episode in our bleak early history should also be a “cheerful ” sage looks improbable; but we acknowledge, when we have read his book, that he has not described himself unfairly. His so-called “ moral counsel” is chiefly, as they say, “retroactive,” and consists mainly in an onslaught upon the character and administration of Governor Endicott, conducted, however, with much spirit and ability. There is some slight ingenuity in the plot of the story, a considerable variety in the characters, and an air of philosophic impartiality in the controversial parts, which does not, however, prevent all the author’s justice being assigned to his Puritans, and all his mercy to the Quakers. A Quaker he evidently is himself, at least by sympathy and descent; but let us say in passing that he makes a great mistake when he condescends tamely to grammaticize the talk of the peculiar people. A part of the extraordinary charm which the dialect of the Friends always possesses upon cultivated lips is due to the pleasing shock afforded by the tranquil violation of a primary law, to a sense of emancipation and exhilaration, — a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland buoyancy which one feels at finding one’s self in a beautifully ordered world, where a verb agrees with its objective case in number and person. The substitution of the biblical and heavy thou art for thee is makes the whole thing insipid.

The talk of those characters in this book who are not Quakers is often uncommonly good,— quaint, as befits the time, but forcible, and sometimes humorous. The author has, however, a queer habit of breaking short off in the midst of some of his most secular and successful scenes, and relapsing, in his proper person, into those “solemn dictates” which we were assured in the beginning had been found to fail him : into orders in council, procès verbal, and all the rawest of the raw material of history. The author of The Puritan and the Quaker withholds his name, but copyrights his own book, which somehow has always a disinterested and determined air; and he writes his native tongue with great purity and scholarly finish, and reveals in the exquisite captions to his chapters perfect familiarity with the rarest riches of old English poetry.

Singularly enough, but well for those who want to know all there is to be known of a very sorry subject, the appearance of this romance is almost precisely simultaneous with that of Mr. Pike’s interesting biographical sketch, The New Puritan, where we learn, on the soundest of evidence, that there was at least one Puritan in these dismal parts who had the courage and good sense lustily to protest against the senseless and brutal persecution of the Quakers, as afterwards against the deeper horrors of the Salem witchcraft.

Half-way between the historical novel and the novel of pure amusement comes the story of to-day, written with the serious intent to illustrate some phase of civilization, or promulgate some theory or doctrine; and of such, and one of the best of its class, is Falconberg.3 Its author, Professor Boyesen, is as truly Norse in nature as in name. He is tenderly loyal both to the romantic Norway of the Old World and the new Norway of our Western wilds, the “parvam Troiam simulataque magnis Pergama.” But he is likewise conscientiously and rather pathetically resolved to cherish in himself and his compatriots that shy and difficult grace, a sentiment of American citizenship. His novel, Falconberg, is intended to illustrate the birth and growth of that sentiment in a foreigner; the conversion, so to speak, and baptism in the Mississippi of the children of the fiord. The story is that of Einar Falconberg, a young Norwegian of fashion and family, the son of a bishop, who is wild and extravagant in college, as the sons even of bishops will sometimes be, incurs heavy debts, forges his reverend father’s name, and flies to America. A brother of his father has been living there, since Einar’s infancy, as pastor of the Norwegian settlement of Hardanger, and to this settlement the refugee makes his way, but takes the precaution to change his name, and does not reveal himself to his uncle. This is so bad a beginning for a young man’s story that it is a little hard to feel all the fond admiration for the handsome and polished exile winch the author evidently expects of us. Still he wins our regard in spite of his weakness, and his character is very consistently maintained. So are those of all the chief men in the book: the sagacious and stout-hearted father of the settlement, Norderud; the kindly, scientific recluse, Van Flint; and Einar’s pompous and pig-headed, but sanctimonious uncle. The women of the story are much less successfully drawn; perhaps a man of a preëminently chivalrous and romantic spirit is never apt at analyzing women’s characters. At all events, Professor Boyesen’s heroine, Helga Raven, is a kind of featureless goddess, tolerably distinct as to her golden hair, but otherwise impressively vague. Old Mrs. Raven, Helga’s mother, " the widow of a royal Norwegian government officer,” as she used invariably to describe herself, although a mere supernumerary, is much the most clearly individualized of them all. The philosophy of the book, the ethnic considerations, and the political reflections are sound, and often admirable. The love is gracefully delineated. Two girls fancy that they have lost their hearts to the scapegrace hero; two men are almost sure that they adore the semitranslucent heroine: but the two of these half dozen inamorati who are necessarily left out of the final matrimonial arrangements acquiesce in their fate with the most amiable alacrity, and seem to conclude, upon the whole, that things have fallen out better than they had planned them.

In Mr. Boyesen’s romances all is moderate, gentle, genuine; the occasional wit quiet; the style invariably limpid, and frequently suffused with a soft and dreamy grace. The sole inaccuracy of construction which we have detected is that he occasionally lets slip that shibboleth of the sentimentalist, the use of the adverb so without a correlative clause: “ All was so hushed, so solemn, so gently subdued.” (Full stop.) On the contrary, one would have to look far for a more precise and felicitous use of words than may be found in the following passages: “There the doctor, clad in a linen coat of immaculate whiteness, was squatting among his flowers, his countenance distorted by an intense grin of earnest preoccupation. . . . The slim crescent of the moon floated along the eastern horizon, pouring forth no profusion of light, but still remotely pervading the atmosphere with its softly luminous presence. The larger planets shone with a misty halo, while the unseen myriads of the heavens were but indistinctly defined through the gauzy woof of cloud which radiated from the zenith downward, like avast aerial cobweb. The fields, already nipped by the autumn frost, showed a long, bleak stretch of neutral brown, shading where a rising hillock caught the misty moon rays into a ghostly, bloodless green.”

The examination in serious fiction being over, we have space to remark upon a couple of mere divertissements, The First Violin 4 and Airy Fairy Lilian.5 The former — one of the better of those books which are agreeable to read, chiefly because they have evidently pleased the author so thoroughly in the writing — is a musical novel, but not as deeply, darkly, and distressingly musical as some. It seems to have been written rather out of yearning love than exhaustive knowledge of the divine art, and one who has attended the Harvard Concerts with but moderate assiduity ought to be able perfectly to understand its phraseology and allusions. It is perhaps a little affected to employ a phrase of Bach or a strain of Chopin for the caption to a chapter, but not very much more so than to use the refrain of a Spanish ballad or a bit out of a Greek play. Like most books of its class, this one is false to fact, and so far pernicious, in that it represents the artist heroine as passing at a bound, and while she is yet, we believe, in her teens, from student exiguity and obscurity to an unqualified public success, and so to fame and wealth; and any enthusiastic girl, with a clear voice, who feels her ambition kindled by the vision of this triumph, would do well slowly to re-read the stern and weighty chapter in Daniel Deronda in which Klesmer advises Gwendolen about her projected career. But the heroine of The First Violin is, happily, no more sealed to art than was Gwendolen, and her love story is romantic and more than fairly interesting. As in Falconberg, the plot of the tale turns upon a forgery, which, in this case, the hero did not really commit, but only suffered vicariously for an inferior being who did; and if the philosophic author of Faleonberg seems, in the abundance of his charity, to treat his hero’s transgression of the law rather too leniently, the equilibrium of our moral sense ought certainly to be restored by the terrors of that civil and social death to which Eugen is calmly abandoned by his strenuous family. It is the crime of Von Francius and Adelaide to which the author of The First Violin appears inclined to be almost more than merciful. But the character of Von Franeius is subtly drawn, and even the prostrate adoration of his biographer does not divest Eugen of his rather sorrowful but entirely manly fascination.

Airy Fairy Lilian is the foolish title of a triumphantly foolish book. The young person of that name whom Tennyson celebrated in one of his younger and greener lyrics was not, if we remember rightly, a very marked or sterling character, but she was weighty and, as the author of Avis would say, “poised” compared with the heroine of this profitless tale. Yet, as a wouldbe wise man, at a party, will shamefacedly excuse himself to Juno and Minerva, and find his account for the evening in a long and beaming interview with the slightest and sauciest débutante present, provided only she have a je ne sais quoi of grace and archness and mignonnettelike prettiuess, so we must confess to a sneaking fondness for Lilian and her light-minded but evidently veracious historian. The witchery of a naughty little belle — a very naughty, and not at all clever, and not particularly refined little belle — is rarely more effectively reproduced than in this gossamer chronicle ; and when, in the short waits between the acts of the farce, we again catch an echo of the words of George Eliot, they sound like the tolling of nothing less heavy than a minster-bell: “ What, in the midst of this mighty drama, are girls and their blind visions? They are the yea and nay of that good for which men are enduring and fighting. In these delicate vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affection.”

Lilian is an egg shell at the very best, but a deplorably pretty effect is produced by pairing her with her twin cousin and perfect likeness, the Guardsman; and if you had chanced to overhear the following dialogue between two beautiful youth of nineteen, a boy and a girl. you would have giggled with weak gratification, and you do no less when, with abundant self-scorn, you peruse it in print.

“ Look here, Lil, don’t you have anything to do with that man. He is n’t up to the mark, by any means. He is too dark, and there is something queer about his eyes. I saw a man once who had cut the throats of his mother, his grandmother, and all his nearest relations, and his eyes were just like Chesney’s. Don’t marry him, whatever you do.”

“ I won’t,” laughing. “ I should hate to have my throat cut.”

“ There’s Chetwode, now,” says Taffy, who begins to think that he is a very deep and delicate diplomatist. “ He ’s a very decent fellow, all round, if you like.”

“ I do like, certainly. It is quite a comfort to know Sir Guy is not indecent.”

“ Oh, you know what I mean, well enough. There’s nothing underhand about Chetwode. By the way, what have you been doing to him? He’s awfully down on his luck all day.”

“ I? ” coldly. “ What should I do to Sir Guy? ”

“ I don’t know, I ’m sure; but girls have a horrid way of teasing a fellow while pretending to be perfectly civil to him all the time. It’s my private opinion,” says Mr. Musgrave mysteriously, “ and I flatter myself I ’m seldom wrong — that your guardian is dead spoons on you. ”

“ Really, Taffy ” —begins Lilian, angrily.

“ Yes, he is. You take my word for it. I ’m rather a judge in such matters. Bet you a fiver,” says Mr. Musgrave, “ he proposes to you before the year is out.”

“ I wonder, Taffy, how you can be so vulgar!” says Lilian, with crimson cheeks and a fine show of superior breeding. “ I never bet. I forbid you to speak to me on this subject again. Sir Guy, I assure you, has as much intention of proposing to me as I have of accepting him, should he do so.”

“ More fool you!” says Taffy, unabashed. “I’m sure he ’s much nicer than that melancholy Chesney. If I were a girt I ’d marry him straight off.”

“ Perhaps he would not marry you,” replied Lilian, cuttingly.

“ Wouldn’t he? He would, like a shot, if I were like Lilian Chesney,” says Taffy positively.

“ Like a shot? What does that mean ?" says Miss Chesney, with withering sarcasm. “ It is a pity you cannot forget your school-boy slang, and try to be a gentleman. I don’t think you ever hear that decent fellow, Sir Guy, or even that cut-throat, Archibald, use it,” etc., etc.

This may not have been worth doing, but it is done precisely as well as possible, and the Lilian and Taffy of the present treatise are no more like the Molly and Teddy of the author’s last than one school-girl and one freshman are, seemingly, like another.

Of Mrs. Hodgson Burnett’s earlier stories,6 reprinted since the great and richly merited success of That Lass o’ Lowrie’s, not much need be said. They are curiously devoid of merit, or even of what is usually called the promise of merit. They are hackneyed in plot, cheap and sickly in sentiment, and lavish of millinery. When one thinks of the strong and highly-wrought, yet simple, symmetrical, and peculiarly noble romance which has lately made this author famous, one wonders how or why she should so resolutely, one might almost say perversely, have reserved the power that was in her. These effortless and frequently silly tales are not merely immeasurably inferior, but totally unlike in character, to her serious work. It is all very well for the author of Airy Fairy Lilian to give the whole of his mind to the study of a peacock’s feather, — and peacocks’feathers, as we know too well, constitute, just now, a distinct and rather extensive branch of art, — but Mrs. Burnett has shown herself capable of the more difficult achievement of drawing to the life an eagle upon the wing.

When the versatile author who calls herself Henri Gréville first became popularly known among us by her gay little story of Dosia, some slight surprise was felt that the possessor of a talent which, however fascinating and amusing, appeared, to judge by that book only, extremely light should have won a prize from the august and difficult French Academy. Yet even in Dosia it was impossible to mistake the graceful and dexterous handling of the proficient, and here and there that intangible, indefinable something which we call the sign of reserved power.

After Dosia, a dozen or so of Madame Gréville’s earlier and later romances were given us in breathless succession. Their very multitude confused their effect and made an impression of overproduction, and of that reckless affluence which almost always means waste and early exhaustion. Nor can any one of these crowded publications be said to have gone a great way toward fulfilling the promise which we vaguely felt to have been offered us in Dosia, although they all, in a rather remarkable variety of tones, repeated it. It is otherwise with the latest, Markof,7 which to our thinking sets its author in the very front rank of contemporary novelists.

Markof is a story of Russian home and artist life: simple, and still dramatic; deeply discerning, yet unfailingly delicate, a little sad, and not a little droll; a scrupulously fair and faithful, yet friendly and hopeful study. Of course, as the complement of this eminently courteous and sympathetic picture of life in what we have come to regard as the native country of the monstrous and mysterious, we see always the relentlessly sombre showing of the overmastering Tourgénieff. The echo of that joyless voice, drily denouncing judgment, is always in our ears when there is talk of Russia; but somehow, the stiller, smaller voice which speaks in Markof is so well modulated and sane and clear that it carries more of conviction than the prophet’s thunders.

The light in which Madame Gréville sets her scene is a deal more like the sweet, diffused light of heaven and common day than the lurid atmosphere of the cynical master. It is true that along with a large and very tenderly assorted variety of fine and generous types of character, some of Tourgénieff’s more sinister ones appear, — and notably that of the ruthless siren who has gradually become to our minds the complete epitome of all that is most fiendish in womanhood. In Tourgénieff, as we know too well, she is wont to have her own malignant way. She is the mechanical goddess of the nether world, who appears to restore and confirm the kingdom of chaos, where a feeble order had striven to assert itself. But in Markof, though the egotistical and super-impressible nature of the artist hero might have been expected to render him an easy prey, the bad goddess, though she triumphs for a space, is foiled and humiliated in the end. Two honest loves, in fervid alliance, fight gallantly for the soul in danger, and effect its rescue: the touching, self-annihilating love of the artist’s hunchback brother; the more sorrowing and discerning, but ever pure and purifying, passion of the gentle but admirably highspirited Hélène. We grumble, when the fight is won, that Hélène is too good for Démiane; but the author’s skill has sufficed to show us in the latter just one of those men who will be good themselves under the influence of a better woman, and no otherwise. And it is to be observed that, in real life, such unions appear to be, of all others, those in which a woman is most sure to be humbly and profoundly happy, — whereby aliens are certainly cheated of their right to complain.

Markof is full of what we receive unqnestioningly as " local color ; ” that is to say, of strange half tints, which assuredly never rested on any sea other than the Caspian, or any land save that of the Czar. Almost all the minor characters are interesting, and one is entrancing, and we see him far too little, — an archimandrite (whatever that is) of the Greek Church, in whom there is a divine mingling of modesty and majesty; as full of human sympathies as of angelic aspirations; of the utmost punctilio of the man of honor side by side with the utmost self-surrender of the devotee.

The Colonel’s Opera Cloak 8 is irresistibly suggestive of a shawl-strap, a luncheon basket and an umbrella, and the agonizing cross-lights of a parlor-car. Hardly a half day can be wiled away in its perusal, but that fraction of time will go agreeably rather than otherwise. The book is laughable, and reads like a professed humorist’s deliberately exaggerated, but not particularly ill-natured, narrative of facts. The manner is like Miss Alcott’s, and it therefore goes without saying that, along with an abundance of unfastidious fun, there are good feeling and common sense, very life-like and often lively talk of average people, and some love-making of a plain, wholesome, innocent and quotidian sort.

  1. The Secret of the Andes. A Romance. By F. HASSAUREK. Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co. 1879.
  2. The Puritan and the Quaker. New York : G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1879.
  3. Falconberg. By HJALMAR H. BOYESEN. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1879.
  4. The First Violin. By JESSIE FOTHERGILL. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1879. Leisure Hour Series.
  5. Airy Fairy Lilian. A Novel. By the Author of Molly Bawn. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1879.
  6. Kathleen Mavourneen. Theo. Pretty Polly Pemberton. Philadelphia ; J. B. Lippiucott. 1879.
  7. Markof, the Russian Violinist. By HENRI GREVILLE. Philadelphia T. B. Peterson and Brothers.
  8. The Colonel’s Opera Cloak. Second No Name Series. Boston : Roberts Brothers. 1879.