Some Recent Novels
ZACHARIAH the Congressman1 does not deal with the political career of the late Mr. Z. Chandler, but with that of a much humbler person from some vague place in one of the Middle States. Before leaving his rustic home, he becomes engaged to a young woman, Peggy by name, who had been adopted by Zach’s parents, apparently to save the expense of a “ hired girl.” In Washington, however, Zach finds it impossible to resist the charms of the beautiful, but as false as beautiful, Miss Marmaluke, — an apt name for her, by the way, — and he breaks off his home-made engagement, although Peggy had been weaning herself from the use of slang and the habit of singing popular melodies, and had tried to improve her mind by reading Mill’s Political Economy, at Zach’s recommendation. Possibly, it was his interest in this book that threw him into disgrace. If he had only cast the weight of his authority on the side of “ our own ” Mr. Carey, he would not have been dragged before the investigating committee. To be sure, he was finally acquitted, and once more met the jilted Peggy, who had risen so high as an artist as to be “ commissioned by the government, and thus made famous.” Zachariah married her, and the pair went to live on a farm, having had enough of politics. The novel, if it can be called a novel, is written in as simple a way as if it were meant for children; but it shows a dim capacity on the part of the author for something like real work. The book has about as much literary merit as a Sundayschool story, and bears the same relation to genuine literature that the work of the jig-saw does to artistic carving.
Her Ladyship2 is not much better. It is full of movement, certainly, and there is shown some power of constructing a story out of abundant incidents. The scene is laid in the Shenandoah Valley, and the time is that of the late war, so that incidents were to be had for very little trouble; but as for the people, the less said the better. The heroine, who is meant to represent all the archness of the female sex, is like a giggling school-girl in a horse-car.She had fallen in love with a youth from Ohio when she was at school in New York, without knowing his name, or speaking a word to him, or more than exchanging simpers with him when they met in the street. Still, if the author is not more than seventeen years old, there are hopes for her; for besides the vulgarity of the book, there is some faint humor in it. If the writer will go through a course of, say, Mrs. Oliphant, she will perhaps see the difference between her flimsy little story and good work; but this is asking an amount of toil that is repulsive to the independence of genius.
Young people who like to talk to their parents in the fashion quoted below will probably get much delight from D. A. Moore’s How She Won Him.3 Others may decide for themselves about the value of the book. Here is the passage: —
“ Dear mother, I am not loath to trust your judgment, or to accept your conclusions. My feelings, for the present, I cannot control. I feel the weight of a crushing blow upon my spirits. The very air seems thick and heavy. The summons to leave forever our dear home, with all its pleasant and sacred associations, seems to me almost like a message from the court of death.”
Certainly, the newly-invented naturalism has not yet tainted D. A. Moore.
Mr. W. O. Stoddard is a man of a very different sort. He has comparatively much to say, and he expresses it often commendably well. His novel, The Heart of It,4 is by no means a great book, — and doubtless the author knows this perfectly well, — but it is readable, and, as a first production, it is not without promise. There are picturesque things in the book, especially in some of the scenes laid in the West, where the lonely explorer finds a wonderful mine and escapes from the Apaches, and there are various bits about certain corners of city life ; but in general the closer we come to civilization the more conventional does the treatment become. As to the abundant marriages that close the volume, there is not one on which it is possible to offer very sincere congratulations : for Mrs. Boyce, so far as she is a living person, is but a sly and cat-like woman, who exults in defrauding her first husband’s creditors; one of the girls marries a man who has been a tramp as well as an opium-eater ; and the other girl has served part of her time on Blackwell’s Island for drunkenness, being the victim of an insane thirst for strong liquors. To be sure, it is not to be expected that everybody shall marry a faultless person, but this is a profuse supply of objectionable qualities. The author will probably find in time that the novelist has better employment for his pen than inculcating wholesale matrimony, and by careful writing and more thorough study of character he will make novels that are more than a congeries of incidents and accidents.
How a large number of characters can be managed by a clever novelist may be seen in the late Miss Keary’s A Doubting Heart.5 This novel, which did not receive the author’s final revision, is too long, and at the end a little clumsy in construction, but in other respects it is deserving of all praise, — so life-like are the people brought into it, so natural are most of the conditions in which they are placed, so exact is the record of their conversations. One perceives from such novels as this, especially in comparison with those already mentioned above, how superior is the general supply of English novels to the run of those written in this country. After the pallid imitations of life that are to be found in the stories just spoken of, this Doubting Heart reads like a work of genius. But it is not that, by any means; it is only a story, carefully thought out, by a woman who knows the world well, and is not above taking great pains. There are as poor novels written in England as anywhere, but the number of good ones is most convincing testimony to the intelligence and care of a number of writers.
Mademoiselle de Mersac 6 is another story which, it is much to be feared, will not be so well known as it deserves. The author is a comparatively obscure person, but he has written one of the best novels that has appeared for some time. The heroine is a French girl, living, at the time the novel opens, in Algiers, and her lovers are two : one a French officer, a man no longer young, who has no very savory reputation, to be sure, but is yet a man of the kindest heart and most tender nature ; while the other is a young Englishman, with certain attractive qualities, that by no means outweigh his odious selfishness, conceit, and arrogance. The very skill with which the different characters are drawn acts adversely to the general popularity of the book ; for the reader who is accustomed to poorer work and to a dishonest huddling aside of the hero’s faults will find it hard to judge of people whose merits and defects are intermingled as they are in real life. Cynics may have observed that all the engagements they hear about are those of faultlessly beautiful young women to perfect young men, and those are the people about whom novels are generally written. Here, however, we have very careful studies of character, and of the complications that depend for their existence on the nature of the persons whose fate is described. Yet the problem is not complicated by a dead weight of ethical considerations, as in George Eliot’s later novels, over which morality hangs like a heavy pall ; but the question simply is how these two men strike this simple, good, but somewhat cold and self-absorbed girl. The reader cannot avoid the suspicion that the author meant her to be more attractive than she actually is, but that may be a mistake ; at any rate, though she is not exceedingly attractive, she is yet very interesting, and no one can avoid curiosity about her fate. The termination of the story is disappointing, but it is, perhaps, the only one possible; and is it not, after all, less sad than either of the other alternative endings? Why a novel of the importance and excellence of this one should be less popular than White Wings — a commonplace novel diluted with salt water — it is not easy to say. In Mademoiselle do Mersac we find an admirable choice of opposite characters and a capital study of living people.
Yet there are novels and novels, and anything more fictitious, more remote from the observations of life, than Hal, the Story of a Clodhopper,7 it would be hard to find. The scene is laid in New England, but the story is as inexact as would be a picture of that part of the country representing a volcano in active eruption, with pirates capturing the inhabitants who were setting out to sea in gondolas. This effect is the more singular because the author has tried to bring verisimilitude into his book by descriptions of living persons, who can hardly feel flattered at being written about as some people are written about in so-called society journals ; but even this device fails to make a pleasant impression on the reader. The clodhopper is first introduced to us when engaged in the congenial occupation of hoeing; but in the course of two hundred pages, after seven years at Heidelberg, he became a great man, “ and found his level with the best men of the country.”
“ Whatever this man says and does has God in it. . . , He stands with one foot planted on revealed religion and the other on advanced science, and so standing defies devils, no matter in what form they come. He writes books; he delivers addresses ; he gives courses of lectures. . . . His theology wears a Phrygian cap.” One of his lectures “ to truth-seekers ” is on The Mystery of Love. No one who has read the Boston Daily Advertiser on Wednesday mornings for tho last few years can have much doubt about who the clodhopper becomes ; and another character, Boynton Ellis, turns into another wellknown gentleman, under the magic of this author’s pen. As to the taste of these liberties with individuals, opinions may differ, although, on the other hand, they may not differ.
A Wayward Woman 8 is not a novel of the highest kind, — far from it, — but it is certainly entertaining, as novels go; there is plenty of incident, and at times the talk of the people is clever and amusing. The heroine possesses every charm, and her general attractiveness is enlivened by a sort of innocent fastness; she has a long train of lovers, but the chosen one is an exceedingly accomplished, impossible painter, who is like the hero of a good many women’s novels. The perturbations of his courtship and the incidents of their married life make up the book, which has no serious merit, but will serve admirably to kill time.
Miss Woolson’s volume of short stories about Southern life9 is an interesting proof of the abundance of unused material in our unwieldy country, that is simply awaiting the novelist to put it into shape and give it standing. Florida and South Carolina are the regions that have inspired this author, and the local coloring is well given. At times, however, some of the people who are introduced give the reader quite as much an impression of strangeness as does any wonder of semi-tropical vegetation ; and this we must regret, for the writer of fiction should above everything set people before us whom we can at least understand. The cantrips of Miss Gardis Duke, for instance, which are only matched by the scornful airs of Miss Bettina Ward, the minx-like heroine of Rodman the Keeper, read like what one finds oftener in poor novels than in real life. This young person, Miss Duke, is a little chit, who, in extreme poverty, imitates the splendors of her former opulence, and gives the rough edge of her saucy tongue to two of her lovers, Union officers, who just after the late war are stationed near her house. She invites them to dinner, and then, when they are gone, she burns up the shabby finery in which she had received them. " ‘ So perish also the enemies of my country ! ’ she said to herself.” Certainly, this little cut is not a very impressive person, and it is not easy to interest one’s self in such a lump of affectation ; but Miss Woolson seems to take her at her own pompous valuation, and to see heroism in her imitation of tawdry novels. Finally, she steps down from her pinnacle of conceit, and marries one of the officers, and we have no doubt that by this time she has satisfactorily taken vengeance for everything that happened during the war.
Sister St. Luke, after a tornado has swamped the boat in which were two young men, sees them clinging to a distant reef. As ignorant of the art of navigation as of the game of baccarat, she wades through water waist-deep, gets into a little boat, and sails out to them in a terrible wind. This she does although morbidly timid. In fact, she could more easily have thrown a hawser a mile or two and have hauled them in to shore.
King David, on the other hand, is a life-like account of the sufferings of a Yankee school-master among the freedmen, whom he in vain tries to educate. In this sketch there is no exaggeration; no inclination toward the use of melodramatic devices, such as are only too apt to make their appearance in the other stories. Miss Woolson certainly deserves credit for her perception of the picturesque contrasts that the South affords. She has at least pointed out a region where much can be done, and where she can herself do good work if she will keep “ closer to the record.”
The translation of Théophile Gautier’s Captain Fracasse 10 is something for which readers of novels should be profoundly grateful, for it is as readable a romance as one can lay one’s hand on ; and in these days, when writers of novels so often take photography for their model, it is agreeable to read the work of a man who has a really artistic pleasure in describing the adventures, as well as the surroundings of men and women. The time of the story is set in the reign of Louis XIII., and the scene is laid in France. The wanderings of a company of errant actors, their love-making and quarreling, their successes and failures, their carousing and starving, form the incidents, and they are all described with most loving care and very attractive enthusiasm. The book is one that it is best to rend in French, for Gautier is so careful a writer that it is impossible that some of his charm should not be lost in the rendering. Yet the translator has succeeded admirably in her work, and deserves warm praise for her care and accuracy.
Mr. James’s Confidence 11 is really not a novel, but a study of an ingeniously devised situation, that is analyzed and described with the utmost skill. To take the work too seriously, as a profound treatise on life, would be a lamentable mistake; It is a sketch of the mutual relations of half a dozen people, whom we get to understand better than we do most of our acquaintances. They are a set of life-like figures, whose positions in regard to one another are distinctly drawn, and watching their movements is like looking at a well-played game of chess. And as in this but little attention could be given to the observer who should complain that, while the castle moved in straight lines and the bishop on the diagonals, the knight was to be condemned for his irregular gait, so in speaking of the book one feels that it is one’s duty to take it for what it pretends to be, and not to demand, as some have done, that, this light and graceful structure should be overburdened with moral teaching or social ethics. One might as well lament that it throws no light on Mr. James’s views concerning the third term.
As a bit of what may be called social imagination, the story is deserving of high praise. From very slender materials Mr. James has woven a complicated plot about the distinctly defined heroes and heroines, and the ins and outs of the game form as entertaining a book as one can care to read. The main hero, Bernard Longueville, is the thoughtful, clever fellow, the observer, who is not uncommonly found in Mr. James’s stories; and we have, too, a new specimen of the large class of chattering American girls, one Blanche Evers, whose artless prattle is capitally given. The other heroine is of sterner stuff, a really serious character, and her mother is the well-known American matron, who when well on in years does her hair in as complicated involutions as if she were a girl in her teens. The relations in which these people stand to one another are sufficiently intricate, and their social skirmishing does them credit. The chief heroine, Angela, plays her part with especial skill; her swift comprehension of the position in which she is placed in regard to the two men — which should serve as a warning against those unhealthy alliances—and her handling of the tangled threads at the end of the book are certainly entertaining reading. More than this, the change in Bernard from the position of willful observation to that of a partaker in the game is distinctly well drawn.
In execution, the story is of course most admirable ; it runs on brightly, and he will be a hardened reader of fiction who does not feel something like breathless interest in the story. The donnée of the book is a light one, to be sure, and we are no less grateful for the amusement to be got from it when, under the inspiration of the miasmatic conscience of New England, we ask that Mr. James should not confine himself to those simply entertaining, though exceedingly entertaining, novels, but that, with his generous equipment for the task, he give us novels of a higher flight.
- Zachariah the Congressman. A Tale of American Society. By GILBERT A. PIERCE. Chicago: Donnelley, Gassette, and Loyd. 1880.↩
- Her Ladyship. Cincinnati: Peter G. Thomson. 1880.↩
- How She Won Him ; or, The Bride of Charming Valley. By D. A. MOORE. Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson, and Brothers.↩
- The Heart of It. By W. 0STODDARD. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1880.↩
- A Doubting Heart. A Novel. By ANNE KEARY. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1880.↩
- Mademoiselle de Mersac. A Novel. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1880.↩
- Hal: The Story of a Clodhopper. By M. 51. F. ROUND. Author of Child Marian Abroad, Achsah, etc. Boston: Lee and Shepard. 1880.↩
- A Wayward Woman. A Novel. By ARTHUR GRIFFITHS, Author of Lola, etc. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1880.↩
- Rodman the Keeper. Southern Sketches. By CONSTANCE FENIMORE WOOLSON, Author of Castle Nowhere, Two Women, etc. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1880.↩
- Captain Fracasse. From the French of THÉOPHILE GAUTIER. By M. M. RIPLEY. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1880.↩
- Confidence. By HENIIY JAMES, JR. Boston : Houghton, Osgood & Co. 1880.↩