Mr. Aldrich's Fiction
MR. ALDRICH’S first essay in fiction, or the first that he has thought worth the remembrance of his readers, was strictly romantic in substance. It was that little story, which with difficulty keeps itself from rhyming, called Père Antoine’s Date Palm, printed nearly twenty years ago in these pages. Hawthorne was then living, and he took the pains to find out the author, and then gave himself the pleasure of writing to the young poet in recognition of its charm. Its tragedy is of an airier sort than his own; it is rather allied to the pathos of Mr. Curtis in his Prue and I sketches; but the master of romance felt its exquisite art with sympathetic satisfaction. In fact, there are few passages in it which the critic now reperusing it would wish to change. Even these he might change for the worse.
When it appeared, Mr. Aldrich had already the reputation of a poet, whose verse was jeweled and tinted in the taste which we, who were younger then, all remember. A great many could do something like it; at its worst, it was very much like something better. But in due time it became evident that the substance which Mr. Aldrich was so painfully encrusting with colored pastes was real gold, of a fineness now incontestable ; that he was himself better than what he had tried to do. His native grace, his feeling for form, his love of artistic purity, came to express themselves in a manner of his own, which characterizes certain lyrics destined to please while there is a responsive sense of these things.
His Père Antoine’s Date Palm remained his sole attempt in fiction till he wrote, seven or eight years later, The Story of a Bad Boy. This again was an excursion in dreamland, for boyhood, realized with whatever conscientiousness, is in the region of romance. We do not suppose that Mr. Aldrich intended, even in the most autobiographical particulars, to study his own boyhood very minutely, and this left it everybody’s boyhood. Even its extravagances and excesses added to its universal verisimilitude : we all fell into its humor, and knew that those were the things which we would have liked to have happen to us when we were boys.
In his unique romance of Marjorie Daw he invented a new pleasure: a surprise so fine that it must remain unmatched, and contrived with such consummate skill that every reader, upon discovering that there never was any Marjorie Daw, felt a pang which qualified his sense of being hoaxed with a soft personal regret for the charming creation thus resolved into nothingness. It is not easy to trace to its source the charm of any piece of art, and to say confidently that it lies here or there ; but we suspect that the charm of Marjorie Daw is largely in the comedy-like frame-work, the letters and telegrams in which the Story is told performing the effect of dialogue ; in the realism of certain particular touches within the general unreality. From the first we lend ourselves to its influence as to that of a play; we delight even in little conventionalities ; people do not throw books at servants’ heads, nowadays, but we like to have John Flemming do it.
The reader need not be reminded of Miss Mehetabel’s Son and Mademoiselle Olympe Zabriskie, as other essays in this sort. They preceded, with some sketches and studies, Mr. Aldrich’s first novel. Prudence Palfrey, whose merits and defects were those easily predicable of a novel by the author of those admirable short stories; it excelled in particular passages, which were so good that the general plan suffered in contrast. It was the old-fashioned scheme of a novel, — the novel of incident, in which inferior writers seem to succeed best. As often as he has adopted this scheme it seems to us that Mr. Aldrich has made a mistake; it is for him to deal with motive and character, and it does not matter if these be a little or even quite fantastic. After Marjorie Daw he has drawn no other girlish figure so good as that of the heroine in The Queen of Sheba. That story is more poetically imagined than any other that he has done, and it is the most shapely and best wrought. Nothing that is not acceptably painful is felt in her temporary hallucination, and all that is bizarre and amusingly tricksy and whimsical in it is enjoyed. The elfishness which casts its spell upon the young man is made a fascination for the reader; but it is wisely managed that when the hero meets her again, and falls in love with her anew, there should be no trace of this wildness in her, but only a sweet and natural girlishness. Here, once more, is the poet’s, the romancer’s, effect, rather than the novelist’s; it is produced from conscientiously ascertained fact, and is accompanied by studies of life full of humorous reality ; hut the lasting impression from the story is the poetic interest of a man’s heart attaching itself to that from which a return of love is impossible, and the transformation of the alien creature to human consciousness. It is a conception which gains from the realistic setting, and from the humor that plays through it and naturalizes its fanciful spirit to our own world.
In The Stillwater Tragedy Mr. Aldrich writes a novel which is not at all a romance. It is the story of a strike in a New England manufacturing town, of a murder, of circumstantial evidence, of love and marriage. The reader knows it, and need not he reminded of the plot, which is unfolded from the end rather than the beginning,— a method which has its advantages and its disadvantages. Tourguenief has among recent writers used it with peculiar force in SpringFloods, and Air. Aldrich has managed it with such characteristic finesse that we venture to say no reader was in possession of any secret of it till the author chose to impart it. We confess to have been ourselves entirely surprised when it was Durgin, and not Torrini, who turned out to be the murderer; and we read the story from month to month with unflagging interest, and with a pleasure in certain passages which others must have shared with us. There are few finer effects of comedy than that scene in which Richard Shackford, going magnanimously to reconcile himself to his cousin Lemuel, comes away smacking his fists in the ecstasy of his unfulfilled desire to knock his kinsman down. In fact, the comedy is what strikes one most in this tragedy, which need not be the less a tragedy on that account. The whimsical discomfitures distributed with an impartial hand, to Richard when his eloquence has precipitated the dramatic opening of the strike, and to the detective when he fails to fix the murder upon Richard, and all the chorusing (if we may so call it) of the action by the village magnates in one room and the operatives in another, at Snelling’s tavern, are very amusingly and freshly conceived. The description of the strike is a contribution to our knowledge of such matters : it is a vivid spectacle left to its own forcibleness for its impression. But in his presentation of the village life Mr. Aldrich does not escape the conventionality which we have before noted in similar work of his. Outside of Slocum’s Yard — where all is new and real — it is the New England village and its interests and its characters which we know from literature. Like that other delightful writer whom we have named, Mr. Curtis, Mr. Aldrich seems to have a preference for looking at life through literature, and forgiving not so much the likeness of what he might see if he rejected this medium as the likeness of something that has pleased him in books. He cannot deny himself the suggestion of traits endeared by literary association, as he cannot deny himself the pleasure of making witty and humorous remarks upon his action and people. This is English usage, sanctioned by all the great novelists, and yet we cannot help thinking it a vice. We are not sure that a novelist does not weaken his work by every good thing that he says in his own person; and Mr. Aldrich, unhappily, has his head full of good things ! He must say them ; we are charmed, instructed, amused, but the illusion suffers. In a romance, the author’s position is different. There the illusion exists by the explicit and continual assent of the reader, who says, “ All this could never have happened ; but let us say that it did.” So long as the author is true to the motive and the characters, nothing can be amiss; he may be as directly witty and wise as he likes, and as literary as he will.
We find ourselves making much the same strictures upon The Stillwater Tragedy that we made upon Prudence Palfrey, to which it is allied in method and material. It is a more interesting story, and the plot is less vulnerable ; it is in fact a very good plot, of strong and close texture, through which the author’s intention does not escape till he chooses. But both books are in the field of the novel, while Mr. Aldrich’s other work is rather in the region of romance. They have in common a certain consciousness in the development of character, and that vice, if it is a vice, of confidential comment. The persons are characterized by the author rather than by themselves ; but in compensation we have innumerable flashes of humorous description, of droll observation, which break irrepressibly from him, and which we should be stupid if we refused to enjoy. When Mr. Aldrich tells us that his Chinese laundry-man had no more facial expression than an orange, the stroke is as deliciously true as if some person of the story had said it; only, it would have been better for some person of the story to say it.
Mr. Aldrich, in fine, works in the novel with the instinct of the romancer. He is essentially a poet, of that order of imagination, gay and bright, which is even rarer than the gloomier cast, and we can fancy him occupied with some theme of pure romance, in which his poetic art would have free play, and which would remain a perfect delight. The novelist’s trade, — that any one may learn, more or less well; but romance requires gift, and he is of the few who have gift. In Pere Antoine’s Date Palm, Marjorie Daw, and The Queen of Sheba, he has developed a species of romance in which we shall hope to see his hand again, — that kind which bases fanciful superstructure upon a solid foundation of realism. Poe does this in some of his dismal tales ; but it remained for Mr. Aldrich to show us that the same principle could lend itself even more effectively to a cheerful purpose and a more delicate
intention. He has accomplished this so lightly, so easily, that he has made the kind his own, and has become our debtor in a more considerable experiment than he has yet made, — an experiment which we would prefer in thoroughly modern material; but if not, then in something out of our American past. There is the life of the old Creole New Orleans, of his feeling for which he has given us hints ; or there are matters in New England annals not wholly sombre. In the Scarlet Letter, the fearfulness of the Puritan conscience is embodied, once for all; but the later life which sprang up from the very heart of Puritanism, and rebelled against it, still waits to be portrayed in romance. We think it waits for Mr, Aldrich.