A Woman of Genius
“ WOMEN like her,” said Sainte-Beuve, speaking of Madame Roland, “ will always make themselves a place, but they will always be exceptional.”
I have sometimes thought that the whole truth about the hackneyed matter of the “ higher education,” the whole philosophy of what is unpleasantly called the woman question, is summed up in these words. Men of original intellectual force, creators, organizers, directors, whether of human thought or human affairs, are not common ; but women of this type are a great deal less common than men. It is worth while to make arrangements on a large scale for the careful and costly training of boys, which it would be foolish and extravagant to make for girls; because in the one case there is a probability that the proportion to the whole of those who are worthy of such training, though small, will be sufficient to repay the outlay, and in the other there is no such probability. The woman of genius, when she comes, must make her own place, and Sainte-Beuve tells us and experience shows us that she will. And when the lack of severe training is apparent in the productions of such a woman, we may partially console ourselves by reflecting that she, probably, of all gifted creatures, can best dispense with formal discipline. Heaven itself cannot hinder that her genius should be feminine,— that is to say, of the kind which appropriates unconsciously, which divines mysteriously, which combines and arranges with an instinctive but invincible sense of harmony and proportion. And it would sometimes seem as if the free flowering of such a genius were actually checked, and its finest results distorted, by a too assiduous external enrichment. Witness the infinite asides in Daniel Deronda.
It is proposed here to give some account of the life and works of one woman whose gift was undoubtedly of this distinguished order, but who was not very widely known while she lived, even in her own country, and who has remained for a generation almost entirely impersonal to the few who have had the discernment to delight in a part of her work, through the medium of an unusually awkward translation.
In the earliest years of the present century, a little girl named Henrietta Wach was passing an extraordinarily dreary childhood in a small and plain apartment in Berlin. Her father was a member of the military council, a man of good education and excellent judgment of affairs, but stern and domineering in his family, and deeply prejudiced, especially against anything which savored of “high notions,” or literary or social ambition on the part of children of the middle class, like his own. His wife was a gentle, pious, refined, and sensitive soul, who lived in patient subjugation to her Philistine lord ; and there were two children besides Henrietta, an elder girl and a boy.
Agreeably to the simple fashion of the times, they all lived and ate in one huge room with a long table in the centre. Her father had also a writing-table at one of the windows, and enforced silence in all the room while he was at work there. The mother, however, used to teach the little girls in whispers how to knit and sew, and also reading, spelling, writing, and the rudiments of geography and French, — a curriculum which Herr Wach considered quite adequate to their prospects, and commensurate with their powers. In the evening a single lamp was lighted at the end of the long table, and the domestic tyrant arranged his books and papers about it; while within the range of its longer and feebler rays came the quiet wife with her darning or knitting, and the one maidservant with her spinning-wheel, to the whirr of which the councilor of war had apparently accustomed himself.
But little Henrietta took a foot-stool into the darkest corner of the room, and turning her back upon the speechless group about the lamp told stories to herself the livelong evening hours, — built and furnished an imaginary world, and acted in high scenes of splendor, difficulty, and danger. After all, it was probably from the self-repressed as well as repressive father that she derived her powerful imagination ; for there were evenings when he deigned to suspend his own labors long enough to relate to the family, in simple but exceedingly grave and impressive language, stories of wonderful dreams, his own and those of others, and of their fulfillment.
The elder daughter, Caroline, married very young, and seems never to have risen above the grade of a notable German housewife ; but even the father’s despotic will was powerless to confine the other two within these humble and homely limits. The boy, William Wach, early showed a remarkable taste for drawing, which he was very reluctantly allowed to cultivate; and the crisis of Henrietta’s overshadowed childhood came when her brother opened a studio under their father’s roof. That studio became a place of perpetual refuse to our little girl, — a haven of dreamy delight. Here she too studied art, or at least imbibed it, and became familiar with the works and lives of the great masters; and the endless succession of rich, romantic pictures, which constitutes one great charm of her writings, the affluence and splendor of color, and perfect fitness in all her details of architecture, costume, and household decoration, show how strong must have been her own native artistic aptitudes.
And in the studio, as her brother began to be known, and to receive distinguished visitors and orders, the shy but watchful damsel obtained her first glimpses of that grand monde whose external forms were so much more to her taste than those amid which she had been reared. Here the kindly Princess William of Prussia saw her and discerned her rare quality, and became her patroness in such fashion as one may patronize so proud a creature, and her life-long and devoted friend. The great lady would have the girl taught music, especially harmony, and her beautiful voice cultivated, so that presently she was singing the lyrics that she loved best to airs of her own making, and of a singular sweetness and simplicity. It was now what the German writers call the “ Franzosenzeit.” French ideas and fashions were being diffused everywhere, at the very time that the land was collecting all its energies to resist the encroachments of the dread revolutionary power. It was one of those seasons of great mental quickening and a general exaltation of purpose and feeling, in which fictitious barriers are broken down and conventionalities lose their authority ; and the Princess William found it easier then than she ever could have done at any previous time to carry out her enthusiastic plans for the young girl in whom she had taken so strong an interest, — to furnish her with accomplishments, to bring her within reach of some of the pleasures proper to her age, and to form her manners by the frequent sight of elegant society. A sudden and marked improvement took place at this time in Henrietta’s very appearance. She had been a plain child, — overgrown and of a sickly complexion ; but now, on her recovery from a severe and for a time dangerous illness, her coloring became brilliantly fair, her tall figure assumed the dignity for which it was ever afterwards remarkable ; her long hands were exquisitely molded, and her sensitive and changeful features never lost in any phase their peculiar nobility of expression.
Yet, while enjoying intensely the sudden widening of her life, she remained steadfastly and most tenderly faithful to her parents and her comparatively obscure home. The strongest sentiment of her nature, that which permeates every page which she afterwards wrote, and imparts a peculiar beauty to her delineation of all human relations, but especially those of sovereign and subject, is the ancient, let us pray, not antiquated, sentiment of loyalty. Add to this a deep-seated and, so to speak, religious reverence for the existing order of things, as expressing in general terms the will of the rightful Ruler of us all, and that especially firm conviction that the place of all women, save the very few, must necessarily be in the shadow, which made her almost afraid of her own fame when it came to her, and we see how it was that her heart was not hardened, nor her head turned, when the beckoning of a royal finger drew her a little way out of her natural sphere. She became more patient and punctilious than ever in the discharge of her many humble duties in the home household. “ Have I left anything undone ? ” she would say coaxingly to her father, when he fretted over her introduction to gay scenes and great people ; and the stern parent was fain to confess that hers was indeed the faithfulness in few things, which alone qualifies for the rulership over many.
When the war of 1813 broke out, the girl was quite carried away by patriotic enthusiasm. She urged her nearest and dearest into the field with all the unscrupulous fervor of her precocious eloquence. She pined for self-sacrifice. We are told that her first great shock and sorrow befell her in the early part of the war, and that the idol of her girlish heart was one of its first victims. We do not know his name, and Henrietta could hardly then have passed her seventeenth year ; but she was not like other girls, and it may be that certain possibilities of passion in her were actually spent forever in that high-wrought and fateful season, and that the subsequent marriage of convenience, which seems so incongruous with all else which we know about her, may have been rendered easier to her by that premature experience. It is certain that for the few years succeeding the epoch of the Holy Alliance she lived once more in great retirement, studying much, especially history, for which she had always an ardent interest and affection, and beginning to write, but only religious “meditations” as yet, or formless poems, — crude fragments, full of vague promise, one cannot doubt, but unworthy to live, and therefore most wisely destroyed.
She was apparently about twenty-four — for her solitary biographer withholds exact dates with a prim delicacy which we are half tempted to regret and half to admire — when she was married to Major Paalzow, an army officer, and went to live on a remote estate in Westphalia, completely sundered from her beloved family and all the more or less congenial Berlin circle. Of the man her husband we know almost nothing, except that his name sounds Slavic. Why did she marry him ? It was thought an eligible alliance; her great friends approved and her parents strongly desired the marriage, and to this grand but most womanly creature submission of judgment and the sacrifice of personal feeling were always fatally easy. “ I had had one heavy loss,” she used to say long afterward, “ and I thought that I had given up being happy myself, but that I might still make another so.”
It can hardly be necessary to say that she made a profound mistake. The world was never indulged with the story of her five or six succeeding years. It is even difficult to discern any reflection of that silent time in the finely objective romances which the woman afterwards produced, unless, indeed, it be in the brief, restrained, but none the less intense passages, where she depicted, twenty years later, the brutal tyranny of Jacob over Angela, and the sacred selfrespect which would not allow the wife to be wholly crushed thereby.
It is certain that when, at the age of thirty, Madame Paalzow returned to Berlin and took up her abode with her then widowed mother, the sad dignity of her bearing, her quiet unselfishness and resolute preference for a strictly retired life, soon silenced every slanderous whisper, and secured her not only the support and approbation of her personal friends, but the respect of the whole community. Madame Paalzow’s mother lived two years after her daughter’s return, and when her gentle eyes were closed forever the sister and the artist brother turned to each other, and realized that the time had come for the fulfillment of one of their childish dreams. They made themselves a small and modest but exquisite home together, which they adorned with the infallible taste for which both were remarkable, and where they received, in a quiet way, the best society of Berlin; and how good that society was in the days of William von Humboldt’s ministry — always, by the way, a warm friend of both the brother and sister — it is not needful here to explain.
“Not in struggle and bereavement, therefore,” says our lady’s stately and slightly sentimental biographer, “but in harmonious repose, was her poetic talent born.”
For now, first in her ripe age, Madame Paalzow began systematically, but still shyly and almost fearfully, to write. Her labor of love was presently interrupted by a terrible illness, requiring in the end a severe and doubtful surgical operation. She concealed her sufferings even from her most intimate friends to the last possible moment, and bore her great trial and slow convalescence with the most cheerful fortitude; and it was when she joined the family circle for the first time after her long confinement that she produced and diffidently proposed to read aloud for their amusement the manuscript of Godwie Castle.
This was in 1835, and the story was inevitably of the high romantic type, — of the school of Scott and Miss Porter and the author of the Inheritance, but differing from the works of these familiar writers by an unmistakable flavor of Teutonic sentiment. It abounded in elaborate descriptions, remarkable incidents, and the most sublimated moral sentiments. It entered and took possession of an old historic epoch in a land alien to the author, and of the names and characters of famous sovereigns and statesmen, with a cheerful assurance, an innocent absorption in the merely picturesque and artistic value of these names and scenes, most amazing to one in whom has been to any degree cultivated the anxious, not to say fussy, historical conscience of the present day. Yet there is a great deal to be said for the old-fashioned historical novel, preposterous as it seems when judged by the standards of modem criticism. Its broad and simple outlines were in the main truthful, just as popular traditions are and will always be, and they left a distinct impression on the mind; while the heated and infinite pleadings on this side and on that, and the labored realism in trivial things now in vogue, either make us partisans about the past, or deprive us of all historic views whatsoever. Moreover, the slightly conventionalized figures of old kings and queens and ministers, in the gay and grand trappings about which there can be no mistake, have, so to speak, a decorative effect in literature which the anatomical studies of Kingsley and George Eliot, valuable as these may be for scientific purposes, will never attain. Those great writers in Hypatia, Amyas Leigh, and Romola, and Tennyson in the Idyls, have thoroughly informed certain figures of the past with the intellectual and spiritual life of the present, — the strife and confusion, the passion and pathos, of to-day. They have given us studies of transcendent power and beauty, and such as are naturally very touching to readers of this generation. The work of the old-fashioned historical novelist is infinitely easier than theirs, and has, by comparison, as has been hinted, a certain Japanese freedom and simplicity; but it is still a question whether the writers of the new school teach us more of actual history than those of the old.
To return to Godwie Castle. The verisimilitude of the tale is especially impaired to English readers by the fact that the scene of it is laid wholly in England, and the author makes those rather droll mistakes, in little things, about English manners and customs which are like foreign idioms in conversation. The very name of Godwie Castle is of course impossible, and it is to be feared that the castle itself is so, sumptuous and fairylike though its aspect be. Madame Paalzow will insist upon scattering broadcast the title of count, and bestowing that of countess upon every daughter of a noble family, and linking a baronet’s title with a surname, — Sir Ramsey and Sir Grafton. England, she often said, was her favorite dream-land ; everything English was invested with a romantic charm to her, and there is a little something of the grotesqueness and inconsequence of dreams in all her English delineations.
Yet when every allowance and abatement have been made, we must concede even to our author’s first effort a singular and persistent charm. The book has fervor and “ go,” strength and consistency of plot, and a never-failing aptness and affluence of incident. It shows also in a few of its personages, in the spirited scenes which introduce James I. and Buckingham, and in the characters of Lady Mary and the younger duchess, a slight but quite sufficient indication of that power of profound and subtle characterization which distinguishes her greatest work, Thomas Thyrnau. But of the delightful humor which irradiates the whole texture of the last-named tale, like a gold thread inwoven with a heavy fabric, there is hardly a gleam in Godwie Castle. Madame Paalzow’s manner in this first book is uniformly and at times rather distressingly stately. She must have fancied at that period that a witticism would be a breach of literary etiquette.
But in what our author’s biographer justly describes as the then ebb-tide of imaginative literature, the book made in Berlin and at the Prussian court a great sensation. Naturally, the friends to whom it was confided during that happy time of convalescence demanded that it should be given to the world, and the author yielded to an anonymous publication with an amount of prudish reluctance and solemn coyness as evidently sincere as it seems mysterious in these days of perpetual print.
It was a great relief to her to be ordered to Cologne for the more complete restoration of her health, and to hide from the eyes of her inquisitive Berliners during that first agitating year. Thither rumor pursued, and there discovery lighted on her. Her old patroness, the Princess William, now the senior princess of that title, was overjoyed at the exploit of her protégée, reveled in the book herself, and petted its favorable critics and snubbed those who were unfavorable, like a true friend and a grand lady, as she was. The novel was read aloud in the palace. The crownprince deigned to find in it a genealogical error or two (he need not, by the way, have been divinely illuminated in the history of the Stuarts to do that), and the good princess graciously sent to Madame Paalzow in Cologne both her own and the court preacher Strauss’s theory concerning the Grund-idee of the romance. Her own was deliciously royal and deliciously German, as follows : —
“ Your idea probably was to consider under two aspects the conventions of distinguished society : first, as the natural form and embodiment of the noblest Christian life ; but then, on the other hand, as the very instruments of divine chastisement, as capable of ruining a whole life where they oppose themselves to the fulfillment of any duty, as in this book, to that of openness in love. The form must be subordinate to the duty. Courtesy, in the true meaning of the word, is an expression of honorable relations. It must be such if it would mirror the being. Outward forms are but laws which remind us how it should be within. . . . [You wanted to illustrate] the mistakes to which women are most liable in distinguished relations, and that men sin by despising conventionalities, and women by rating them above duty. Was not this your thought? ”
Thus advised, Madame Paalzow, in her reply, continues the development of her Grund-idee, in a manner altogether ingenious and creditable, when we consider that, in the beginning, she very possibly had none. “ A woman and a dilettante,” she says very justly, “ must write in her own character. It is at once her strength and her limitation. I had scruples about my very wish to make myself known in writing. I dreaded to fathom all the conditions of life. I had experienced much that was sad, but nothing common or ignoble. . . . The noblest and best of men commit little errors, accumulate trifling offenses, and never suspect how life itself is leading their mistakes to those developments which we call misfortunes. This was my ruling idea. A failure in trust and openness I considered the greatest and gravest of all errors. The younger Duchess of Nottingham illustrates this principle. In the elder duchess, I preserved for myself and my brother and sister the memory of our mother. It did not disturb me,” she adds, with true dignity, 44 that my character was a princess. Her manners were such as are necessary to all noble human beings. I never saw anything else in either of my parents, and it was from my brother that I first learned that the higher classes regard such ways as peculiarly their own.”
She permits herself to be a little amused that some one of her critics, perhaps the court preacher, should have thought that she wrote her book to advocate a certain theory of female education, but confesses that she had had many thoughts about the proper value in society of the beauty of women: 44 how men might tell them of it in such a way as to make them innocently and sacredly conscious of it,” and 44 how a false denial and vain attempt at unconsciousness often lead the soul to its first lie.”
Madame Paalzow’s marked and almost exclusive preference for the delineation of high life, and indeed the highest, exposed her, now and then, as long as she wrote, to especially ill-natured criticism. She was, in fact, what so many of the finest and truest women are, an aristocrat independently of her birth, but she had always the same simple and conclusive defense against insinuations of snobbishness. The presence of a pride like hers excludes petty vanity. It was her gentle but firm self-respect which enabled her to bend gracefully before the somewhat unreasonable compliments which her book received, even after it had become the fashion in high places to compliment her, and Alexander von Humboldt himself had said to her, as she owns to her publisher, 44 more good things than I could possibly repeat to you,” — to bend, but instantly to recover her upright poise. She even felt satisfied, for a little while after the publication of Godwie Castle, that she should write no more.
“ Meanwhile,” she says, still to her publisher, Joseph Max, between whom and herself the relation seems always to have been most honorable and friendly, 44 not the slightest desire stirs within me to give anything more to the world. I feel precisely as quiet and solitary as I did before, and wait for what may come, and fear only one thing, namely, that I should become too anxious and critical about myself. You may imagine how often I am asked what I am now writing; and always and to everybody I return the same answer, 4I am not a professional writer; ’ I have not the gushing talent [sprudelende Talent, — charming phrase !] which demands constant expression, and I could never, by any possibility, sit me down and say, 4 Now I will write a book.’ This one book had to be written ; but now I will wait and see whether in my declining years [she was then about forty] I experience any new impulse to production. I have, be sure, neither will nor power in the matter, and God preserve me from the blindness of wanting to produce more because I seem once to have succeeded ! ”
It is only genius which can be thus tranquil and docile. Mere talent wearies itself with effort, and is careful and troubled about many things. There was no reason to fear, in Madame Paalzow’s case, that the first impulse to production, even though it came so late, — even less, perhaps, because it came so late, — would be the last. Her next attempt was a drama and not entirely successful; that is to say, it was never acted, but consigned to a fine mausoleum in the shape of one of the gilded “ annuals,” then so much in fashion. But the enthusiasm for Maria Theresa and her epoch, which had suggested the time and circumstances of this little play of Maria Nadasti, found fuller scope four years later in Thomas Thyrnau. In the intervening period she wrote and published Sainte-Roche.
Alexander von Humboldt, while earnestly advising Madame Paalzow to write another romance, had said, with a smile : “ Of course it will not be as good as the first. You must make up your mind to that, and then the fact will not distress you.” It was a friendly remark, and showed a fine understanding of the lady’s character. But Sainte-Roche is unquestionably a greater book than Godwie Castle, and a much more entertaining one. It has the intense, intangible, and almost preternatural fascination which belongs to the best books of the technically romantic school, — to the five or six of the Waverley Novels which everybody still loves and knows by heart, to George Sand’s Snow-Man, and with some slight difference to the Magic Ring of Fouqué. Madame Paalzow’s extraordinary power of grasping political situations and following the intricate windings of diplomacy is finely exemplified in her pictures of the court of Louis XIV., where, as a native of the European continent, she was really so much more at home than in that of James I. Her peculiar picturesqueness, too, that quality which belonged to her as a born artist, and by virtue of which all her scenes, and particularly her interiors, became so original, so distinct, so rich and full and exquisitely fit, shines brightly here.
In Sainte-Roche our author essays the development of an extremely intricate plot, and, for the first time, the delineation of complex and exceptional types of character, — the weakness, which is worse in its results than downright wickedness, of Leonin, the blending of infantile softness with a truly sublime courage and constancy in Fennimore. In all this she is wonderfully successful ; nevertheless, Sainte-Roche has an enormous fault of construction, which greatly mars its effect as a work of art. A thoroughly Greek conception of a tragic and mysterious family doom seems to have possessed, and to a degree overpowered and confused, Madame Paalzow’s imagination. She begins one story, and by the time we are fairly absorbed in the fortunes of its heroine, that is to say, in the middle of the first of the inevitable three little quartos, she suddenly retires into the previous century, and introduces us to the bewitching grandmother of this girl. The strange history of the race in all its ramifications is faithfully and minutely traced from this point through the remainder of the first volume, the whole of the second, and the first half of the third, down to the era of the original heroine, whom we have well-nigh forgotten at the time of her second entrance. The fascinating and inscrutable old château of Sainte-Roche is always the centre of paramount interest, and rescues for the reader one, at least, of the insulted unities from ruthless destruction. But the average human mind will certainly recoil baffled before the genealogical problems presented it for solution, and some of the revenanfs whom we encounter in the long saloons and shadowy passages of Sainte-Roche have too decidedly the advantage of us. Yet the story enthralls the reader from page to page, even where it seems most improbable ; and how careless, how more than royally munificent, is the expenditure of material in this book ! Six modern sensational novels could be fully furnished out of the pages of Sainte-Roche, and I know not how many of that equally acceptable kind, where the people pose and talk, but never do, and seldom suffer.
The pleasant trickle of compliment with which Madame Paalzow was refreshed when her influential friends began to identify her as the author of Godwie Castle had swollen to a rushing stream when Sainte-Roche appeared in 1838. The whole royal family of Prussia, both the Humboldts, the brilliant young Duchess of Orleans from Paris, the grave historian Neander, and scores beside vied with one another in offering their felicitations. The learned folk of Göttingen also discussed the tale in solemn conclave.
For adverse criticism, when offered in a friendly spirit, Madame Paalzow was at all times profoundly grateful; and the burst of notoriety and public praise had come too late to disturb the poise of her spirit. She heard it curiously, as if it had had no connection with herself. At times it almost wearied her. “ I think,” she wrote, “ of the time when I shall be somewhat forgotten with the sort of longing which one has to get out of a great assembly into one’s own cool and quiet room, where one can rest the head and luxuriate in the peaceful sense of being alone. Just now, people come a little too near me. My sacred privacy seems disturbed. I feel that I shall never get a new inspiration (don’t be shocked at the word !) in this way. I do so long to know whether God will yet give me grace to write something more. This power, while I have it, is worth more to me than all earthly honor, or any of the accidents of life. When people entreat me to write more, and are determined never to see or think of me otherwise than with a pen in my hand, and still refuse to believe in my reluctance to class myself with the guild of registered and privileged authors who can, or at least do, say, Now I will, — all this hinders my real productivity, which can be fostered only by a long season of quiet and retirement, and above all things never arrogates to itself any individual rights.”
Her biographer says of her at this time, “ The drawing-rooms of the great world were all open to her, and every species of honor awaited her in them; and there, while always preserving her individuality, she met with much that was stimulating, and which broadened her experience.” . . . She seldom entertained many people at a time, but her companies were always well assorted and particularly lively and stimulating. There was never any lack of artists, poets, and learned men in her circle. Her home life with her brother and her few intimate friends and her hours of labor were paramount to everything else with her. Yet she never so surrendered herself to these delights as to be annoyed by interruptions ; nor would she ever allow the most weariful visitor to be turned away, even though her morning had been a series of distractions. She belonged to those who were with her for the time being, and threw herself at once into their interests, no matter how narrow these might chance to be.”
“ When she was at work on Thomas Thyrnau [which appeared in 1840], I often expressed my amazement at the extraordinary facility with which she wrote. ‘ It is not hard work,’ she used to answer, whenever I made a remark of this kind. ‘ They all stand around and dictate to me, so that often I cannot set it down fast enough.’ She had but the lightest outline of the whole in her mind, and allowed the rest to evolve itself under her pen. Entire scenes and situations sprang into life thus, to her own surprise, making her positively curious as to what would come next. Hence the freshness and spontaneity of her writings, and the interest, unflagging to the end, of the author in her own work. She never allowed her mood to withhold her from writing, but had in this respect such self-control that even her growing invalidism did not disqualify her. The need of harmony and moderation was so great in her that she had accustomed herself to assign to all her experiences their true relative importance, to rid herself of excesses of feeling which were foreign to her nature. She thus turned her time to infinite profit, and the simplicity and regularity of her life were the true expression of her soul.”
“ To watch her at her work was a rare pleasure. The noble, pale countenance, the deep-set eyes which followed the rapid motion of the transcribing hand, the black dress which she always wore, and which suited her dignified person so well, the tranquillity, the beauty, and all the signs of culture which surrounded her, made a picture which it was well worth while to have received into the memory.” 1
Concerning Thomas Thyrnau, translated and considerably condensed by Mary Howitt, and published in England under the title of The Citizen of Prague, about five years after its original appearance, the present writer has, at sundry times and in divers places, said, or essayed to say, so much that she experiences a slight embarrassment in recurring to the subject. The book has been, as Mr. Micawber said of David Copperfield’s friendship, “ the joy of my youth and the consolation of my riper years.” Most people have experienced this sort of grande passion for some one or other work of the imagination, and they are indeed enviable who are doomed to no dire revulsion of feeling about their early literary love, but who find their judgment sustaining with increasing strength the choice of their virgin affections. And I can truly say that whatever the great masters of modern fiction have taught me concerning the dignity and difficulty of the novelist’s art has but served to increase my admiration of a work which, with all its grasp of mind and depth of plot and refinement of characterization, is, in a certain sense, conspicuously artless, — “ without finish and without fault,” as Mr. Swinburne so beautifully said of the Earthly Paradise.
In her delineation of the historic epoch of Maria Theresa, and of the characters of the empress and her famous minister, Kaunitz, Madame Paalzow is more entirely at her ease than even in her French historical studies; and she succeeds in making that epoch exceeding real. No doubt the portraits are slightly idealized, and all the political portions of the story are suffused by the glow of that dream of civic freedom and the elevation of the masses which beset so many generous European minds in the day of Madame Paalzow’s fame, and which was so rudely and sadly dissipated a few years later, in ’48. It is hard to believe that one of the three sovereigns who partitioned Poland could ever have been beguiled by any eloquence into the slightest sympathy or charity for reformatory and philanthropic schemes like those of Thomas Thyrnau and his enthusiastic friends. Yet history shows conclusively that the resolute sovereign who made good her title to her throne against all Europe when she had scarcely passed the years of girlhood, although strenuous, haughty, and choleric, as this romance also depicts her, was subject to strangely magnanimous impulses, and a very woman in the way in which she allowed personal influences to shape her policy.
One fault, which has been heretofore mentioned as disfiguring both of Madame Paalzow’s earlier books, and which recurs lamentably in her last, she entirely avoids in Thomas Thyrnau. She condenses the animated action of the story into a very few years. She cannot avoid repeated retrospects, in which she unfolds her own interesting, but somewhat tyrannous, theories about ancestral influences on character; and these it is altogether safe for the impatient modern reader to skip if he chooses; but she makes her dissertations mere asides, and strictly subordinate to the main story.
The chief glory and charm, however, of this book lies in the transcendent and ever memorable character of the hero, the advocate Thyrnau, who is no less than seventy years old when he is first introduced to us. I know not where in romance to look for another figure at once so original, so consistent, and so majestic as this. He is a man whom to have known early must of necessity have modified all one’s human standards; so richly endowed and experienced, so great in courage and candor and tenderness and wit, so triumphant over obstacles of birth and misfortune, personal enmity, and even the ravages of years, that there might well happen to one of his admirers the fate of Lord Douglass’s wayward mistress, and “ all men beside” seem evermore “like shadows ” in comparison with him. I shall make room for two quotations from Thomas Thyrnau. The first will help to illustrate the singular mixture of worldly wisdom and intrepid idealism which gives unfailing point and unflagging interest to our hero’s abundant discourse, at the same time that it affords a glimpse of Madame Paalzow’s own subtlety as a moralist. A guest of the old gentleman had been fired upon and wounded while riding through the park of his host, and the matter is being discussed by the advocate, another guest of rank, and an old priest domesticated in the family.
“ The whole affair is remarkable,” said Thyrnau, when they had all seated themselves with the impatient Father Hieronymous at the dinner-table. “ The attack appears so entirely personal in its character. But one shot was fired, and the way the count sank forward showed that he was wounded, and we were molested no farther. A robbery of seven men could have been attempted only by a larger number. And at noonday ! so near the house! What madness if they thought of plunder ! But nothing happened which looked in the least like that.”
“It may be, however,” answered the prince ; “ and perhaps we might better have inquired into the young man’s private relations a little before we made the thing public.”
“ He is not fit to talk,” said Hieronymous. “ He is exhausted by loss of blood, and his wound is painful.”
“ All the same,” said Thyrnau, “ I detest this sparing of improper connections. If he have any of a nature to occasion so violent an attempt, he must endure seeing them brought to light. Believe me, nothing thrusts youth so deep into destruction as this shielding and sparing of its thoughtless lapses. If young men had promptly to suffer what they have deserved, they would find the dissipations in which they indulge less fascinating. But the vanity of parents and guardians, who will not own to themselves that they have reared a ne’er-do-weel, — this it is which is forever averting and reassuring, and giving levity courage to pursue every senseless lust which allures it.”
The prince smiled, and nodded assent to the fiery old man, who continued with animation, “ People are very ready to allow that they have erred, and even that they have a darling sin or two ; but in Heaven’s name, let them not rebaptize their darlings, to protect them from our reproaches. I have all my life remarked that the lies with which we cheat ourselves are far more numerous than those by which we impose upon other people.”
“ At least,” said the prince, “ we reproach ourselves for the falsehoods which we speak to others, while we have no compunction about those which we tell ourselves. And yet, compunction, repentance, is the true regeneration. It cuts us loose from the past, and strengthens us to begin our lives anew.”
“ Yes, it may do so,” answered Thomas Thyrnau, “ and I think just as highly as you do of true repentance; but I scrutinize very sharply what usually goes by that name. I have something like an aversion for it. Those who have been readiest to acknowledge and bewail their faults have never gotten rid of them. Either they have met with fools, who were ready to assure them that they had not been so bad after all, and that their modest acknowledgment was a wonderful exhibition of virtue, or they have laid this flattering unction to their own souls, consoled themselves for their brief abasement by a corresponding self-congratulation, and then made an end of the matter. They cherished their faults as a needful stage for the exhibition of their repentance, and at last acquired such skill at it that they could repent and confess as easily as we doff the hat to an acquaintance. I have frequently embarrassed such coquettish penitents by pretending to believe all with which they charged themselves. At first they would start, and fancy that I had not heard them aright. Then they would repeat and extravagantly exaggerate their lamentations. But when they could only excite my amazement at the depravity of human nature, and my approbation of their remorse, they would presently begin themselves to offer the excuses which they had expected from me, and in time they washed themselves so white that nothing remained of their crimes but some little amiable weakness. But be who feels bitterly and profoundly the fallibility of his nature, who would fain become conqueror through God, he feels the old by-gone sin like a burning wound in his breast, and in the certainty that One alone can cure him of it he will carry his anguish and his regret to that Being. There he will find help to strike his balance and begin a new life. Such a one, my friend, will rarely proclaim himself penitent before men. A sacred shame for his sincerely realized fault will permit no confession of the tongue, but his downcast eye and flushing brow move me far more than the other’s howling.”
Before the story ends the old advocate has himself to face the late consequences of some of his own youthful errors. He is tried upon an antiquated charge of treason, and cannot be entirely vindicated. He is therefore sent as a prisoner, accompanied by his charming granddaughter, to the famous old fortress of Karlstein, in Bohemia, where a garrison of high born fanatics lead a strange, monotonous life, encumbered with a ceremonial half monkish and half masonic, and cherish with pious reverence the traditions of the Emperor Charles IV., the founder of their order. The solemn pomposity of manners prevailing here under the headship of his excellency General von Podiebrad, and the sacred horror with which that doughty hero and mediæval enthusiast regarded the thought of receiving into Karlstein a prisoner without a title and accompanied by a woman, are described with delightful glee.
I had marked for quotation a long passage depicting the preposterous ceremonial maintained inside these dismantled and defenseless towers, but it is too long; and I must content myself with one more extract, and that a briefer one, which will illustrate the livelier manner of our author, — I had almost said my author, as Sainte-Beuve used to say “ my Ronsard.” The scene is in Vienna, in the private boudoir of the empress, where a gay young cousin of the illustrious lady, just returned from France, has been drawing so glowing a picture of life and affairs in Paris as quite to fascinate her great auditor. Kaunitz has observed the scene with extreme satisfaction, being just now desirous of promoting by any and every means a friendly understanding between the French and Austrian courts.
“ Austria will some day thank you for this, and Kaunitz will consider himself only too poor in power and influence if the Princess Therese has ever a wish to prefer! ” exclaimed the statesman, enchanted. And the princess, reviewing him with an ironical smile, perceived that this was a prime minister’s declaration of love.
“ I am losing my shoe-buckle ! ” she cried, and set her beautiful foot upon the footstool of the empress so firmly as to start its very filling. Kaunitz bent his straight, proud back and buckled the shoe, and when he rose again she laughed and said, “ You are not to pay me homage in your way, Sir Minister, but in the way which pleases me ! What are you dreaming about ? Do you suppose I could exist in your tiresome Germany without the memory of my beloved France ? I have been talking for my own pleasure. That I happened to say just what you wished me to say does not signify ! You have not half finesse enough to compass a French alliance, and I intend to have nothing to do with it.”
“ Your highness will never make me believe that,” said Kaunitz. “You will have something to do with it, and you will take much pains to bring it about, were it only to avenge yourself on Monsieur Bernis. This time you must go along with me, whether you will or no, and I hope we have already traversed the worst part of the way. If,” he added, smiling, but eying her keenly, “ we are not again baffled by a certain conspiracy.”
“You had better not speak slightingly of that conspiracy, as though it were a mere fantasy in the brain of a lovesick girl! Take care ! I am afraid it will yet vex you sorely.”
“ Of course it would,” smiled Kaunitz, “ if it were able to disturb in the slightest degree the peace of the fairest of princesses, or even that of one of her adorers.”
“ Bah ! ” said the princess, “ the peace of my adorers has not yet become an object of my concern or sympathy. I give them up to your tender mercies.”
“ Poor Kaunitz ! ” said the minister, laughing. “ I perceive that love becomes me here just as ill as it did in France.”
“ The reason of that,” said the princess, “ is that love is becoming only to those who yield to it for its own sake. Your love is only one out of your hundred thousand methods of attaining your ends. Your diplomacy may delude all the world beside, but a woman would find you out, even were she a novice just cured of her first passion.”
“ And of how many more ? ” inquired Kaunitz. But the princess spoiled his triumph in this malicious rejoinder, for she was gone.
I have preferred to make my own translation of the passages which I have quoted from Madame Paalzow’s writings, and am constrained to add that my last eight or ten perusals of Mary Howitt’s Citizen of Prague, especially the latest of all, which has been made with the original at hand, have confirmed me in the opinion that the tale might be much better translated, and of course that it is worthy of the best of all translations. I have mentioned that Mrs. Howitt has considerably condensed the later portions of the story, and undoubtedly, like every German novel of note which I have yet seen, the original is too long. But Mrs. Howitt has dropped incidents and omitted whole scenes and conversations, while one would rather like to see what might be done by a general and constant condensation of style — say, by the sort of work which Mrs. Wister has done so admirably for the Marlitt novels.
If Godwie Castle and Sainte-Roche had been warmly received by the social and literary magnates of Berlin, Thomas Thyrnau was received rapturously. The author’s brother, William Wach, was deluged with orders for pictures illustrating scenes in the novel, — the Dohlen Nest, the Castle of Tein, and the fascinating fortress of Thyrnau’s imprisonment. The most fantastic tribute was paid the novelist, who laughs heartily, in her frank letters to her publisher, over the excesses of what she calls the “ Thyrnau mania.” Yet one cannot help liking all those fine folk the better for their capacity to be carried away by types of character so highly and nobly ideal as many of those in Thomas Thyrnau, and especially by a narrative so colored by the most generous political dreams of the day.
This was the culmination of our friend’s honors and success. The brilliant afternoon sunshine of her life was brief in its shining, and abruptly clouded, nor did it ever break forth again before the setting of the orb.
Painful and dangerous disease fastened upon her frame once more, and for two years absolutely incapacitated her for effort. With the first beginning of improvement, the active intellect and heroic will essayed a new task, and under manifold disadvantages Madame Paalzow wrote her last book, Jacob van der Nees. She seems to have wanted to show her admiring critics that she was no mere idealist in human nature, and that she could depict a low and evil type of character as truthfully as she had done a regal one in the case of Thomas Thyrnau. And she has, perhaps, never produced anything more original and powerful than the first third of this romance,— the whole story of Angela’s childhood and youth in the house of the miser. But it was the final flash of her genius. The rest of the novel shows a constant decline of ability. The author’s way ward imagination strayed back to England, and she seems more than ever bewildered by an “ environment ” which she never fully mastered. Her Montrose is unpardonably sentimental; her Henrietta Maria feeble and conventional. Moreover, by the time this tale was given to the world, in 1844, our author’s little day was over, and it was coldly and critically received. The Roman Catholic party, who had not much relished the liberal tone of religious opinion manifested in her earlier and more popular works, accused her of a gross misrepresentation of the spirit and policy of the Roman church in this. Only a few of Madame Paalzow’s oldest friends came to the defense of the really great portions of her last and least symmetrical tale.
Hostile criticism could never have discouraged the truly modest and flexile spirit whose equanimity had not been disturbed by exaggerated flattery, but the time for profiting, in practice, by hostile criticism was over for her. Almost immediately after the publication of Jacob van der Nees, Madame Paalzow sustained the most terrible bereavement which could befall her : she lost her idolized brother William by sudden illness, and from that time forward she could only hide her widowed existence from the eyes of the world, and strive patiently to acquiesce in the desolation of her life and her own increasing infirmities of body. After some months have passed she writes to Herr Max : —
“ All my life long there has been one thing which I have regarded as the most signal grace of God. I never could complain, and I cannot now. He has made me in by-gone times abundantly and exceedingly rich in Him. He sees now that I am poorer and more helpless than one who dies by the wayside, and for Him I wait. He must succor me, — either here by lending me strength to bear, or there. When I think of you, I remember my talent as a dream of long ago. That, too, is in his keeping. I can still endure, but I cannot undertake any more. God’s will be done.”
“ As a dream when one awaketh ” were soon to dissolve and vanish away all the pains and efforts, the triumphs and vicissitudes, of her earthly career. The struggle lasted for a little longer. Once she even says to Herr Max, “ I am actually writing again.” Then came months of entire silence. She had gone to stay with her sister, Frau Friebe, and amid the homely, kindly, bourgeois surroundings familiar to her infancy, on the 30th of October, 1847, she passed away.
The announcement of the woman’s death, whose irrepressible genius had won her a place among the foremost figures of her land and time, whom kings had vied in praising, was made in the prim phrase of one whose heart was heavy with grief, indeed, but to whom, apparently, the use of the pen was rare and by no means easy : —
“My poor, dear sister, honored sir, endured very, very much. The last four weeks of her noble, beautiful life were an unbroken chain of heavy sufferings, accompanied for the last week by such high fever that she saw fantastic pictures about her all the time, and in particular our dear brother seemed to be always by her side. Sometimes she would make a strong effort to tear herself free from these delusions, and entreat me only to keep talking to her, because else her mind would go astray. Poor I, with pain and deep anguish in my heart, tried my best to disperse her fancies ; but I did not succeed very well, and her brave spirit sank back into delirium. But it would be hard indeed to find a sick-bed which so moved and exalted all who approached it as that of our dear one. Her soul was full of courage, patience, and resignation ; not a trace of petulance to those who waited on her; it was, in one word, the deathbed of a truly saint-like woman.
“Respectfully your humble servant,
“ CAROLINE FRIEBE, née WACH.
“BERLIN, November 9, 1847.”
Harriet W. Preston.
- Die Verfasserin von Godwie-Castle. Eine Biographische Skizze. Pages 18-20.↩