Five American Novels
Is it by chance only that of the five recent American novels which seem most worthy of notice, four have to do wholly, or in part, with foreign life ? Must Americans live in Rome, or St. Petersburg, or an English village, to catch the eye of an artist? Does Europe make the only true background for a picture of American life and character ? Are contrasts to be found only by looking back and forth across the Atlantic ? Has the Pacific no rights which an author is bound to respect ? Is there springing up a literature of two worlds, for which a special chapter of international law will be required ? We ask questions for other people to answer ; but before they answer let them read the books upon our list, and then tell us whether, after all, running to and fro and increasing of knowledge does not have its petty as well as its great side.
We are invited, to begin with, to a story of life By the Tiber.1 AV ell, Rome is by the Tiber, and one may conjure a whole world of antiquity and art and hoary ecclesiasticism by naming Rome to himself. Hawthorne gave a singular revelation of the spiritual contrasts inhering in the residence of Americans in Rome, and one catches in The Marble Faun the fine shadows cast by the Old World on the New ; there was a poem, moreover, involved in the whole frame-work of his tale. But what have we here ? We have the American colony in Rome, a glimpse of Italian life, high and low ; and the impression left upon the reader cannot be expressed more concisely than by the author herself, when she says that it was “ a society which has, perhaps, a lower tone than any other in the world.” There is scarcely a relief in the book to one wearying round of petty intrigue and ignoble jealousy. The story is of an American girl, a writer, who so far reveals her individuality as to remark, in passing, that her book, when it came back from America, had a pretty conceit of four-leaved clover on the cover, and whose life is rendered wretched by contact with prying, mean people, until finally, after incarceration in an insane asylum, she gets released only to go to heaven. We are warned not to take the book as a disclosure of personal experience, but almost its only excuse for being must be found in such a reason. If it is only fiction, then it is fiction with a very paltry motif. There are clever passages and sometimes episodes of beauty, but one reads half the book before he discovers any story, and the other half to find that it is not a story at all, but a miserable narrative. A fine power is squandered on a trivial theme, and the chief value of the book must be found in its tract character. It might be put into the hands of young people who are feverish for artist-life in Rome.
One may go farther and fare worse so far as writing goes, but better for his own comfort of mind. The Tsar’s Window 2 is one of the No Name Series, and may be taken by the reader, according to his taste, as a light-headed book of travel, or a faintly-instructive novel. In either case he will be likely to be more entertained by the amateurishness of the book than impressed by its skill. It records in the form of a journal, which forgets to be a journal, aided by a few letters, the experience in sightseeing and love of an American party residing or traveling in Russia. Both processes go on at once, so that no time is lost. The author pretends to be a little in doubt about the lovers in the book, but there is only the most amiable kind of misunderstanding, and the reader ambles along the pages with no fear of being thrown, and with plenty of time to examine the landscape, architecture, and groups of people passed on the road. We venture the safe guess that the author is a lively talker and letter writer, and we wish all her readers the good luck to take up this book after having read By the Tiber, and before coming to the next book on our list.
For A Lazy Man’s Work3 has not the potent charm of amateur work, while it shares with a good many American novels the demerit of being written by an untrained mind ; untrained, we mean, in the art of novel-writing. It often happens, as in this book, that there are pages of life-likeness and incidental situations of interest, while the backbone of the book is weak. This novel has characters and a plot; the people walk and dress and play with a certain accuracy, and behave themselves in the main with due regard to the habits of ladies and gentlemen ; but the author has conceived a plot turning upon a suspicion of poisoning, which is not evolved from the characters, nor natural to their mutual relations. It follows that there is a certain insanity of action and sanity of individual behavior which are grotesquely combined. The reader finds the sensational part of the book preposterous and out of keeping with the generally commonplace nature of the persons to whom he is introduced. It is as if the author had the characters, and felt rightly that she could not make their ordinary life interesting, so imported into their society a wholly foreign element. The result is a masquerade, and in choosing a title she happily hit upon one characteristic of the book. There is a lazy man in it, and he figures in the scenes ; but the story is not at all the product of his work, unless one accepts a very far-fetched interpretation.
A Lazy Man’s Work, though found in a series which, with one other exception, is devoted to reprints, does not travel beyond the country ; the company which it keeps reminds us how much more workman-like the average English novel is apt to be than the average American. We come back in A Fair Barbarian 4 to another of the crosses in literature. Mrs. Burnett is English born and bred, we believe, having personal acquaintance with social life on both sides of the Atlantic. She is also American by willing adoption, and in this story somewhat aggressively American in her choice of subject and treatment. The fair barbarian is the daughter of a bonanza king, who suddenly lights in a slow, old-fashioned English village, modeled apparently as much upon Cranford as upon actual places, and astonishes the natives by her graceful audacity. Mrs. Burnett would have us believe that the fair Octavia, with her free Western ideas, was also a consummate little lady, not only well dressed and graceful, but exquisitely refined in all the habits of her mind. It is pleasant to believe all this. It is delightful to know that Octavia with her lightsomeness exposes the crass, insular English gentry ; that out of the feverish life of a Western mining town is sent forth a delicate image of self-reliant innocence to put to shame the careful selections of an old civilization. Have we not our little revenge ? Have we not a triumphant answer to the social sneer, Who knows an American lady ?
It is scarcely worth while to analyze very closely a half-idle story like this, but we may just venture the doubt if Octavia’s biographer is not also her attorney, and under no obligation to disclose all of her client’s character. Certainly, as we read, the suspicion steals over us that in actual life a flower growing from so thin a soil as that furnished by Miss Bassett’s surroundings may have but a short life and a quickly exhausted fragrance. A pure, refined womanhood is not, thank Heaven, confined to old and formal society ; it may blossom in the most unexpected field; yet, as a typical product, it is found most perfect beside the still waters and in the green pastures.
The slightness of Mrs. Burnett’s book, which has been tossed off, apparently, in a pretty, defiant way, will be missed by the reader who takes up the last book on our list, A Nameless Nobleman.1 If we have seemed to set little value on the American literary discovery of Europe, let us make some amends by recognizing the honest intention of this book, which makes a more solid use of the two continents. The Nameless Nobleman is a French baron, whom fortune has cast upon these shores after he had been estranged from his native country by the faithlessness of a young girl, who had fallen into the snare of court life when he was ready to offer her a pure, unselfish love. Chance brings him in a bruised condition to the door of a Falmouth cottage, and he is nursed in secrecy by the daughter of the house, whom he learns to love and contrives to marry by the aid of his companion, a French abbé. They are separated immediately, and meet only after some years, when he claims his bride and carries her off to Boston. On the way he halts at Plymouth, where as a surgeon he had lately been of service, and he is invited by the grave townsmen to remain as country doctor. He accepts, and the rest of his days are spent there. His old life is never revealed to his wife, who calls him by the name she had overheard from the abbe of Le Baron, and that name he accepts for his own.
The contrasts involved in the persons and situations are strong and capable of an artistic expression which has not been missed. There is besides an added element in the restless movements of the abbé, who comes and goes in various disguises, but always in an intriguing spirit of devotion to mother church ; in the passion of the first love which flames up now and then ; and in the complications caused by the opposition of religious faiths. The actual historical basis of this romance is slight. There was an unknown Frenchman who took the name of Le Baron and married a Mary Wilder and settled in Plymouth at the time of this story, — that is, near the close of the seventeenth century; but the author has found her materials where all romance is found. In the interest of her plot, indeed, she draws a little too much upon the credulity of her readers when she builds a most secret mission of the Romish church in some back street in Boston, but her use of the circumstance and character of the time does not generally overpass historic fact, except as there is imparted a warmer glow to the life than historians would have us perceive. We suspect that a self-restraint has been imposed by the very severity of the materials used in composition, and the result is all the more agreeable. Once in a while there is a fluttering about the flame of a passionate intrigue, but only to shoot a dash of red into the gray texture. The work is careful, well proportioned, and sincere. We wish readers for the book ; it will be a pity if this excursion into the field of American historical romance should serve only to discourage writers from undertaking what at its best is very good literature.
- By the Tiber. By the Author of Signor Monaldini’s Niece. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1881.↩
- The Tsar’s Window. Boston; Roberts Brothers 1881.↩
- A Lazy Man’s Work. By FRANCES CAMPBELL SPARHAWK. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1881. [Leisure Hour Series, No. 122.]↩
- A Fair Barbarian. By FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT. Boston : James R. Osgood & Co. 1881.↩
- Nameless Nobleman. [Round Robin Series.] Boston: James R. Osgood & Co. 1881.↩