Some Recent Novels
RALPH VERNON,1 after breaking his engagement because his prospective father-in-law refuses to consent to the children of the marriage being brought up Roman Catholics, retires to a very earthly paradise, in convenient nearness to Monte Carlo, to search for his “ lost self.” A reckless abandonment to the distinctly sensuous charms of Southern scenery and climate, together with the solicitations of Burgundy al fresco in quaint old goblets, much distracts him from the pursuit ; still, the reader suspects that his failure to get on the track of his evanished personality is mainly due to its having no existence outside of his own rather heated fancy. At Monte Carlo, one afternoon, in company with some friends who are engaged in the pursuit of the pleasures there offered, he further relaxes his anxious mind by attentions to a Venus with a red fan, a charmer of the description abundant at these resorts. Her he soon deserts, however, for a goddess of a different style, the beautiful and high-bred Miss Walters, who appears to him a very Diana. She turns out to be the occupant of a delightful residence next his own, and in the course of a homeward drive with her their sympathetic and confidential discourse on the subjects of love and friendship results in a rapid ripening of acquaintance. That evening he resumes the search for his lost self by praying or confessing himself on paper, in a rather hysteric fashion and at great length, to a God in whom he seems to find extreme difficulty in believing. At the end of a day or two his relations with Miss Cynthia Walters have assumed a decidedly intimate character, after a morning meeting at the foot of her gar-
den, whither she has strayed in an elegant dishabille of a blue satin dressing gown and a fur-lined mantle. She carries a small Bible, in which she has been reading about “ my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled,” which names Vernon is not slow in applying to his beautiful friend ; the interview ends with a kiss less platonic than Vernon, on second thoughts, would have had it. The romance proceeds according to this beginning, with alternations of sentimental love-making which is but a spurious imitation of real love, and of “ religious ” speculation and conversation which are only the indulgence of a “ dreamy spiritual voluptuousness,” — to use words of the author’s own, which quite accurately describe the substance of these pages. Miss Walters speedily makes it known to Vernon that she bears a gnawing sorrow at her heart, which at length she confesses to be remorse. She reveals herself a sinner, fallen as low as woman can fall, but one who is willing to be drawn out of the mire, provided Vernon will undertake her salvation by giving her the entire devotion of his heart. He thinks of doing so, but finds two souls, his own and hers, too much to look after at a time. An ascetic Catholic, with whom Vernon occasionally communes, tells him that the “ denials of his intellect have gone far to paralyze the affirmations of the affections ; ” but the reason of his failure to accomplish his own or Miss Walters’s regeneration appears to be rather that he is a poor creature whose affections have nothing particular to affirm. A short season of religious love-making is usually followed by a period of repentance and self-contempt, during which he revolves all sides of the. question, and contemplates the expediency of “ having her for himself,” if he cannot “ win her for God.” Miss Walters herself is decidedly hopeless over her case. To Vernon’s protestations of his belief in her innate purity she replies that, though she thinks she was naturally white-souled, she is, unfortunately, at present as depraved as a woman can well be ; his exhortations to belief in God she answers by posing him with questions as to his own creed, remarking by the way, however, that she occasionally supplicates that mythical saint, St. Mary Magdalene ; and she declines the attempt to live decently without the support of Vernon’s devotion. But Vernon plays priest and lover with equal incapacity. He relieves his wretched mind in spasmodic soliloquies, but manages to sustain nature during this trying time by recherché repasts, — pâtés, champertin, etc., — to which he invites those friends of his who but for a trifle less of coarseness might have stepped out of one of the worst of Ouida’s novels. We say a trifle less of coarseness, but, indeed, there occurs on page 57 a bit of dialogue that must needs make Ouida tremble for her laurels. Clearly, Mr. Mallock has dipped his pen in that lady’s inkstand, and shown her that she no longer monopolizes her peculiar kind of vulgarity. The book ends with the death of Vernon, shot by the man he madly assails as the original tempter of Miss Walters’s virtue. He is buried with the leaves of his “ confessions ” placed upon his breast, and Miss Walters, dying of heart disease, is interred near him, with the inscription on her tombstone, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God, — an application which, considering that this erring woman has given no sign whatever of genuine penitence, is to the sense of the average non-sentimental person shocking.
Mr. Mallock’s book is an extraordinary one, as this brief account of the story as it runs sufficiently indicates. Those readers whom it does not demoralize will find it simply and literally disgusting. It is hard to conceive why it was written. If the author had wished to play into the hands of his adversaries, the scientific atheists whom he has heretofore fought with so much ability, he could not have served them more effectually than by sending forth this volume. After such miserable stuff, it would, by contrast, be positively refreshing to read Frederic Harrison or Kingdon Clifford : the life-thoughts of the free-thinkers, however hard and cold and blank, would appear as at least a wholesome and manly alternative to this sickly, lamp-lit, perfumed, sentimental, sensual emotionalism. Those who read the Dialogue on Human Happiness are not wholly unprepared for the appearance of this Romance : the latter is but an expansion of the former, but what might have seemed to possess small significance if it had remained a mere hint or sketch cannot so well be overlooked now that it calls attention to itself as a finished work. Yet if the book were not Mr. Mallock’s, if it were not the production of a writer who, in exposing the futility of some of the modern atheistic objections to Christian belief, has displayed much clearness of insight and keenness of argument, the book would not be worth even a passing notice. The weakness of his reasoning whenever he has attempted to set forth anything like a positive doctrine does not detract from the value of his work in maintaining the negative of his opponent’s position. But it is difficult to believe that an author can ever have proved himself capable of sound sense and acute thinking who is now content to offer the public a volume full of such wretched matter as the Romance of the Nineteenth Century contains.
A Gentleman of Leisure 2 is a good title for a novel, especially for one to be read in the dog-days. The book is a sort of showman’s account of that curious and changing panorama, New York society, or, more correctly, a description illustrated by pictures, like the lectures of some travelers. The author has very ingeniously chosen his illustrations from a series of festivities or entertainments exhibiting the manners, customs, and in some degree the morals, of the different circles which make up the polite social system, — circles which are not concentric, though many of them touch or intersect. We are introduced to these in company with the hero, Mr. Clinton Wainwright, who is visiting his native country as a stranger. He has lived for twenty years in England, where his mother made a second marriage, and he has been through school, university, and society in that country. After this long absence he comes to New York to take possession of an inheritance, not intending to remain in America above three months, and expecting “ to be a little amused and a great deal bored by the trip.” His notions about the modes of life as well as of other matters in New York are hazy : he expects, for instance, to find his rich countrymen dining at two P. M. Of course a succession of surprises await him, none of which could have been keener than the first, when, on going to dine with his banker, Mr. Bodenstein, at seven o’clock, “ one butler opened the door for him, another removed his wraps.” As in England at those “ patrician fire-sides where he had been received without a single fastidious murmur,” he could never have seen more than one such dignitary in occupation, this must have taken the edge off the effect even of “ the arras of crimson velvet.”
The dinner at the Bodensteins’ was followed not long afterwards by a ball at the same house. Mr. Bodenstein is a German Jew, of unattractive appearance, who, with the aid of an influential foreign capitalist, has contrived to make the biggest fortune, marry the prettiest, richest, best born and bred young lady of her season, have the handsomest house and most elegant entertainments, and keep the best company in New York. There is likewise a kettledrum in the over-furnished drawing-room of Mrs. Townsend Spring, the handsome wife of a flashy, tipsy stock-broker, a rich man one day, a bankrupt the next, or vice versa, — vicissitudes which do not affect his speculations or his wife’s expenditure. There is a ball at the Grosvenors’ dull, cold, aristocratic family mansion, which everybody is anxious to attend ; there is another at Mrs. Doughty’s, to which an acquaintance of the hostess’s can take an acquaintance of his own without invitation or permission, and where the gentlemen wear embroidered shirts and silk or satin neck-ties. There is a reception at Mrs. Lucretia Bateson Bangs’s, the mistress of the house being a lady who writes woman with a capital W., and whose guests are all geniuses ; and there is a little dinner at the Metropolitan Club. It is at this resort, frequented chiefly by Anglomaniacs, that some characteristics of New York society are revealed, and that Wainwright comes to a better understanding of himself and of one class of his compatriots. These young gentlemen wear clothes made only in London, affect English airs, and express themselves with the accent of Belgravia after the following fashion : —
“ I saw Binghamton firing away at you, and I knew that no fellow had a chance to talk while he was doing that sort of thing. But he ’s confoundedly clever, is Binghamton. Upon my word, now, he knows a fearful lot. By the way, did you bring any traps over with you ? I suppose not, eh ? I ’ve just had a jolly drag sent across. It ’s going to beat anything in the coaching club, I fancy. We’ve a coaching club here, you know. Nothing so swell as yours, of course.”
This is peculiarly disgusting to Mr. Wainwright, who, in spite of having passed his life in England and with English people “ who belonged distinctly to the aristocracy,” is still so good an American that he says, “ Your sister seems to have considerable male society about her,” and uses many phrases not to be acquired at Oxford.
His English education, however, while it had not corrupted his speech, had left him in complete ignorance of his native country, which “ began by amazing him, and ended by interesting him sharply. He was not sure yet [this was at an early stage] whether he liked it or not.” One cause of complaint was the over-civilization of some forms of life in New York. He found fault with the Bodensteins’ ball for being too magnificent, for “ smelling of royalty, of imperialism, of anything that is not republican,” and preached a little sermon on this text then and there. But he is enchanted with the beauty, grace, and charm of the women whom, he meets in every circle to which he is introduced, and he soon finds himself strongly attracted by Miss Ruth Cheever. She is the sister of the fast and foolish Mrs. Townsend Spring, but her superiority to the latter is no secret to the reticent, sensitive, dignified girl. On her first meeting with Wainwright, at her sister’s house, which has been her home since her mother’s death, two years before, she tells him that she has come from “ a simple Massachusetts town, not far from Boston, — just near enough to be civilized ; ” hence her high principles, her fine manners, her modulated voice, “ full of silvery refinement.” She also tells him that she dislikes her present home, and begs him to go away, as her sister “ is in one of her unpleasant moods ” that evening. Before they have seen each other half a dozen times Ruth takes Wainwright further into her confidence, and tells him more of her sister’s ill - temper, extravagance, and worldliness, of her brother-in-law’s bad habits and dishonest practices, and of her own unhappiness at her sister’s determination to force her into a mercenary marriage.
The thin thread of story is spun from the varying fortunes of the Townsend Springs, and the sole incident of any importance concerns Mrs. Spring, Mr. Wainwright, and a dress-maker. This is cleverly devised, but it does not seem to strike Mrs. Spring, her husband, the hero, the heroine, the dress-maker, or the author that Wainwright’s generosity was horribly compromising to Mrs. Spring’s reputation. The introduction of the gold room on Black Friday is excellent, and if better handled might have been extremely powerful. The truth is that throughout the book one more often sees what the author means to do than sees him do it. The description of Townsend Spring is good : “ treating life like a roulette board ; smoking it up sensuously like a quick-consumed cigar ; drinking it down, day after day, like a series of fiery potions ; missing all its fine flavors in his greedy, voluptuous haste to gain them ; and cutting, as he stumbled through his precarious career, a figure little less than socially ribald.” But the man himself produces no such distinct impression. Neither do Gansevoort, Binghamton, Mrs. Vanderhoff, nor Mrs. Spring, although the last is more life-like than the rest. We see the mark, but we see that Mr. Fawcett does not hit it ; to measure how far he misses it, one need but compare the club talk in one of Trollope’s novels, The Duke’s Children, for instance, with that in the Gentleman of Leisure. The insipidity and improbability of all the conversations are more noticeable from the cleverness with which the manner of a single person is hit off, Gansevoort and Mrs. Vanderhoff, in particular ; it is like mimicry.
The hero and heroine, as is often the case, are the poorest figures. Ruth’s asserted delicacy and decision are contradicted by her every word and action. Wainwright’s inconsistencies are still more puzzling : why, since he was brought up like an Englishman, is he so little like them ? If it is because of his being an American, why is he so little like us ? He is true to the description given of him at first, as mildly satirical ; his ironical remarks are often quoted, and they are so very mild that the author always feels obliged to call the sarcastic intention to the reader’s notice. But Wainwright is really a fine fellow : he resolves to give up the girl he loves, and who he believes loves him, because the connection with the Springs is one of those things from which every self-respecting man must protect himself ; but when Townsend makes a lucky stroke on ’change and gets out of trouble, and Ruth openly breaks with her sister, he docs not hesitate for a moment to ask her to be his wife. He is so delighted with what he has seen of his native country, the Bodensteins, Gansevoorts, Bangses, and board of brokers, that he determines to give up Europe, to live in America forever, and to run for Congress.
This is another instance of the international novel, the view of America seen through eyes not alien, yet adjusted to a focus and perspective different from our own. The author intimates this distinctly, and the oppositeness of its aim and intent from those of some other stories of similar construction ; yet not only is the main idea, the position of the hero, borrowed, but there are peculiarities of expression betraying an influence which Mr. Fawcett would no doubt repudiate. One cannot mistake the model of such sentences as these : “ He had been from the hour of his landing an admirable subject for impressions ; ” “ ' Because I must have taxed you so by asking you to do me that little favor,’ Mrs. Vanderhoff returned, it deepening her handsome smile.” This is not the best style of English or American writing, but it is better than many passages in the book, the meaning of which is difficult to arrive at, such as, “ His hotel was situated . . . amid that region of residences which lack the gallant thrift of others lying beyond them, yet wear a time-touched gravity rare in a city so roughly subversive of all memorial charm. He observed this trait of variation as he walked along.” “ He had not yet discovered that the advertising impulse, in our special form of civilization, may sometimes reach hysterical points of assertiveness.” It may be this difficulty in defining his impressions which causes Mr. Fawcett’s pictures of New York society, although sufficiently like what they represent, to convey an idea that the artist is unfamiliar with his subject, or that he is inexact in his treatment of it. This short-coming is chiefly to be observed in minor details ; there are no slips so unlucky as speaking of English people being “ down from the country ” in London. But when a book deals exclusively with details, even slight inaccuracies in minutiæ impeach its authority. Some New Yorkers will probably take advantage of them to assert that the picture is drawn by an outsider ; the fact will remain, nevertheless, that to an outsider it has a strong air of resemblance.
Baby Rue 3 is another American story, but as far removed from the preceding as the east is from the west. It is what the French call a pièe de tendance, and the tendency may be known from the following extracts : “ The vacillation of the government in its Indian affairs was then, [1842-45] as now, the curse of the savage as well as the frontiersman.” “ The Anglo-Saxon found the red man of North America hospitable, honest, brave, generous, and sober ; if after three centuries of Christian contact and example he is wily, treacherous, cruel, a thief, and a drunkard, whose is the fault ? To prove it is not altogether his, we will go on with this history.” If a novel may be permitted to have a moral purpose, this is surely a noble one ; but the writer should have the burning words, the lips touched with the coal of prophetic fire, by which the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin kindled a flame of righteous wrath throughout the civilized world. No statement can be too precise, no expressions too strong, to carry home a national sin to the national conscience. Unfortunately, the book before us is ill-planned and worse executed. There are long historical accounts of our broken treaties, perfidious captures, and unjust wars. This is matter which overfreights a story disastrously. The Indian is treated in the romantic manner, and that has never been successful except in the hands of Campbell and Cooper. How faithful the portraits of Coacooche, Lo-loch-tohoo-la, and Alaya-chayra may be, only one who has some personal knowledge of Indian character can judge ; but anybody may be permitted to doubt that chiefs on the war-path stop to discuss their private injuries and the wrongs of their people in figurative language with white soldiers and scouts. There are occasional vigor, and strength of style, and there is abundant incident, but it is generally overstrained ; we are constantly on the border of the marvelous, sometimes over it. Perhaps it is unfair to consider the book as a novel, but a tale, a story, it professes to be, and it does not fulfill the implied conditions. There is no plot ; it is a rambling narrative, sustained by the episode of the theft of a white child by an Indian chief, and her final restoration to her parents. The pursuit is so involved with the previous history of some of the characters, with the external and internal policy and wars of several tribes, with the motives and mistakes of United States officers, with varieties of life on the plains, with the rudimentary love affairs of some of the personages, that it is doubtful whether one reader in a hundred will keep the thread clear ; it is not only intricate, it is entangled. This confusion and an inevitable want of sympathy with the stolen child are the great defects of the book, for they lessen the interest of the most important portion. Baby Rue, who is not three years old when the story ends, besides being an infant prodigy in the way of intelligence and philological acquirement (as her language is intelligible to Indians of different tribes), is one of those strong-willed children now so numerous in this country as to be no longer remarkable. Her mother, a lady of will too, has given up trying to manage her. She is undaunted by a fight in which all her playmates and protectors are killed, and this demeanor wins the heart of a savage warrior, who saves and steals her, — the only white who escapes alive. She immediately becomes his tyrant, and that of a hostile tribe to whose care he confides her. Naturally, after her recovery, she was entirely spoiled by her parents, so it is to be feared that Baby Rue came to no good. The child lacks individuality, and so do the grown people, of every class and color ; there is not even a well-marked type except Pike, the frontiersman, and Bob Stearns, the soldier, and few persons will share the weakness for the “ winsomely dear drunkard,” which we think betrays the author’s sex.
The descriptions of scenery and adventure on the plains are often very real and spirited. There are expressions and images which make the flesh creep with their weird power and picturesqueness, like the surprise of a camp at daybreak, and the bewilderment of the teamsters and herdsmen at the stampede of their horses by the invisible Indians, as they lay along the off-side of their own ponies, shooting from under their bellies : “ An occasional arrow struck and stung to death some hapless herder, as he gazed in astonishment at the strange spectacle of his own horses driven by riderless steeds that swept by him in the dim light.” Contrasted with this, and with condensed and forcible sentences like the first one quoted, there is so much religiosity and poor “ fine writing ” that we almost doubt whether the book is the work of but one person. There is a remarkable apostrophe to readers at the end of a love scene which closes chapter xxvii. : “ Ah, madame ! ah, monsieur ! not for them, not for them, need even the angels fear ! Where purity and honesty meet, love may come ; but — the serpent lies dead at their feet.” This is followed by some pages of beautiful description, and a concise, terse account of the removal of a body of Seminoles from their reservation to the Sierras. Amid the rudest encounters and the fiercest scenes the profanity of both officers and soldiers is frequently apologized for, once in particular with delightful punctiliousness : “ ‘ Here come Beall and Leczinsky,’ says Colonel Kearny, ‘ riding as though all hell had broken loose.’ ” To which there is a foot-note : “ Paradise Lost, Book IV., line 918.” It is impossible to decide whether the author wishes to clear her (or him) self or Colonel Kearny from the blame of such an expression.
In fine, for a piece of special pleading, the fiction hampers the argument, and for a tale of adventure it lacks completeness, compactness, continuity, and many other necessary qualities, and there are too many diatribes and digressions. It is the more to be regretted as there is material for an interesting, even an exciting, short story, which might have served the writer’s good purpose better than the present volume can ever do.
On taking up Friends1 after either of the above books, one glides instantly
into deeper, smoother water. The tone of thought and way of writing are so peculiarly the author’s that nobody who has already read one of her books lias any excuse for feeling impatient with this. As usual, it is a prolonged analysis of a psychical condition and situation, ordinary enough in its external aspect. It is simply the story of a beautiful, tender, true-hearted young woman, who loses a husband whom she loves with her whole nature, and who, after a long widowhood, marries his most intimate friend, a life-long acquaintance of her own, too, who is brought near her in her bereavement by being her trustee. The conclusion Is foreseen from the first chapter, when Nordliall brings Reliance the news of her husband’s sudden death ; the interest of the book is in the way in which the end is reached. It is a study of “ the patient renewals of life, the slow gathering of wasted forces, the gradual restoration of landmarks and symptoms of content, the gravely rebuilt fire-sides, by which forever ears must listen for the footsteps of the flood.” These are traced with much delicacy in the woman’s case, and the growth and development of love with much truth to nature in the man’s, granting Nordhall to be a natural man. From the moment when he thinks that to he the comforter of a dead friend’s widow is the most thankless position in the world, and wishes “ honestly enough that John were there to do his own consoling,” until the last sentence, — “ It was heaven on earth at least to him. If to her it was earth after heaven, what cared he ? ”— the sequence of emotions and events is perfectly logical. There is no plot or action ; there are instead merely successive phases of feeling as various and infallible as the phenomena of stars or tides. The mutual sentiments with which the pair set out are simple enough, — pity and the manly desire to protect on one side, gratitude and dependence on the other ; only the common although unequal grief which brings them together quickens the man’s sensibility toward the woman, while it deadens hers towards him. At first she is indifferent to him ; then gradually come trust, thankfulness, the sense of support, the desire for companionship, the habit of intimacy, ending in necessity. On his part there is the simple process of falling in love with a lovely woman, complicated by the knowledge that her heart is in her husband’s grave, and that she will accord no other man any affection except friendship, with rigidly defined and immutable boundaries. The birth of self-consciousness, the growth of constraint, the chill of gossip, the erection of constancy into an idol, with their separate results on the mutual relation ; the reactions, revulsions, fresh starts, new departures, are all carefully noted and registered. Miss Phelps understands these subjects : she knows to a throb when and how the blooming of the lilacs, the cutting of the hay, the dropping of the nuts, the crackling of the frost, will work upon the sense of “ the days that are no more.” But if Miss Phelps wishes to prove that friendship between a man and a woman is impossible where love is possible, she has made an error in choosing as her heroine a woman who, her beauty apart, was not made to inspire friendship, and a hero who was incapable of friendship for a woman. Very few men indeed are capable of it ; the majority of men take no interest in a woman with whom they are not or have not been in love. A good many women, although a minority no doubt, are capable of being the devoted friend of one man while in love with another, or even without being in love at all. But Reliance and Nordhall both belong to the majority. If her husband had lived, the friendship would never have existed ; she would never have had a man friend, nor he a woman friend. It is hard to believe that such was Miss Phelps’s meaning, but whether it were this or the opposite she has not chosen good examples to make it plain. Reliance has not the fibre of friendship. She has no women friends. The only person of her own sex with whom she has any intimacy is the shallow and shadowy Myrtle. She is a perfect sample of a large class of women, a being who can love but one person at a time, and that a man.
The characters are attractive, however, and sympathetic : the woman is very natural, the man very noble; the predominating quality in her is sweetness, in him loyalty. There is something very fine in his determination not to rob her of her comfort and her friend by being her lover. “ I will never love her ! ” he says to himself, after much temptation. “ I will befriend her — for her sake.” That he fails is Miss Phelps’s fault for putting him in such a position. In speaking of the characters, only the Friends of the duet are meant ; the half dozen others who people the background are not viable, although old Madam Strong, Reliance’s mother-inlaw, is a good outline, sharply touched up here and there. The descriptions of the outer world, with its patent inner meaning, are as vivid as ever, and as usual one cannot but feel that they are sometimes strained beyond their real significance. The garden is pretty, with its hollyhocks, “ rose and gold and silver white,” but one grows so tired of the wine-colored one which is taller than the rest that one wishes to cut its head off ; it is exasperating to see it come into flower again next year. Both those who admire Miss Phelps’s style and those who do not will find the familiar sources of like and dislike in plenty. In the dialogue the principal force of what is said is given by italicizing, or repeating words already spoken, as if to convey to the mental ear the uttered emphasis. Miss Phelps should recollect that the use of italics has been called an insult to the reader’s understanding. It would be better, on the whole, even for the admirers, if there were fewer sentences like this : “ The hall was dark. But the light of the lily was on her ; ” and more like this : “ The fine air spurred her on ” (an errand of charity) “ like the approval of a friend.”
Accustomed as most of us are to meet Russians and their notions and customs in M. Tourguéneff’s books, there is always something unsatisfactory in finding the same topics touched by a less sure and delicate hand. The Nihilist Princess is a very interesting book,4 one of the rare books which the reader is loath to laydown unfinished ; but the interest lies entirely in the story, nor is it easy to say how much of it is due merely to the subject. Nihilism is so terrible and tremendous a fact in these days, its name possesses the imagination so powerfully, that with such a basis a novel of any talent can hardly fail of its effect. The one in question follows the movements of Nihilism in Russia during the year 1878 ; Vera Zassouliteli, General Trepoff, General Menzentzoff, and the late Czar are brought in. The action rushes on without pause or slackening ; imaginary personages and events keep pace with actual ones side by side. The book might be called an historical novel of present times. No detail is wanting which belongs to the progress and manifestations of Nihilism as far as can be known, — and everything is known about it ; it is an open secret, which is why it is so well kept and so baffling to discovery. The sympathy of the army, the apathy of the clergy, the influence of Poland, the relations with Switzerland, the secret press, the official correspondence, the participation of the nobles, are all made use of by M. Gagneur. The infection, the frenzy, is so wide-spread that the wonder is who is left on the other side. It calls to mind the saying that there are more mad than sane people in the world, and that the reason they do not have it all their way is because they cannot act in concert. There must be radical divergence of aspiration and aim among this nation of conspirators that the country is not in their hands. The temper of M. Gagneur’s personages affords a clew to their want of success. The heroine, Princess Wanda Kryloff, is a spoiled, selfwilled, passionate young creature, more likely to go wrong than right, with the national love of mystery and a turn of her own for mock heroics. Her generous impulses incline her towards the oppressed, but need of excitement has its share in her first steps. Later, hatred of and opposition to her father (the only well-drawn character in the book), affection and pity for her mother, a hopeless passion for a man she cannot marry, combine to drive her on in the path she has chosen, until the descent towards doom is so rapid that she cannot stop or draw back. One of the principal male characters, Prince Litzanoff, has some of the same incentives and temptations : the needs of a nature which has exhausted the usual sources of excitement without expending the fire of youth, personal animosity, a hopeless love, Michael Federoff, whom the translator thinks meant for Hartmann, but who is a loftier sort of man, has been a serf, and has wrongs which St. Stephen himself could hardly have forgiven. And so on through the whole list. The only disinterested conspirator is Raymond Chabert, a real philanthropist, a true knight, a willing marytr, and he is a Frenchman. It may be remarked in passing that the only absolute villain is Count Stackelberg, a gentleman of German extraction.
There is no fine delineation of character ; the leading personages are marked solely by their parts. It is like a breathless melodrama, in which the boards are crowded with actors chiefly distinguished by their costumes, and in which the scenery, the stage business, the tableaux, the spectacle, serve instead of the play. It is a prolonged crisis, but the curtain does not fall at the right moment, when the crisis is over. The audience is engrossed, however, because it is the overwhelming public tragedy of our own day. The translation is so good that, except in the longer conversations, when one is conscious of the easy French dialogue stiffening in the process of transmutation, the reader seldom remembers that the book was not written in English.
Would that as much could be said for the beautiful little Norwegian tale, Synnöve Solbakken.5 That it is not spoiled by the translation is the strongest proof of its charm. The meaning is often obscured and the flow of the recital obstructed by the impossibility which the translator finds either of rendering the original clearly, or of shaking himself free from the letter of the text, and of giving its substance and spirit. Besides which, vulgarisms, such as “ right down ” for below or beneath, “ clear down ” for the whole way down, “ back of ” for behind, are not infrequent. It is astonishing, since Professor Anderson can write very well when left to himself, as one may see by the interesting sketch of Björnson which precedes the story.
The taste for and interest in Scandinavian literature and legend have been of gradual growth with us, slow at first, of late more rapid. Thirty years ago Howitt’s Literature of Northern Europe, the German version of the Niebelungen Lied, Miss Martineau’s Feats on the Fiord, and some of Fouqué’s stories, Sintram, Thiodolf the Icelander, and Aslauga’s Knight, were nearly all that was within reach of readers not prepared for research. The traditions, the lore, the poetry, the inhabitants, the customs, the scenery, of that ancient
land, which was the first stage in the migration of our early progenitors, were less known to most well-informed people than the history of the Egyptian dynasties. It would be curious to trace the causes which have made their study a favorite pastime. Perhaps the enthusiasm excited by Ole Bull and Jenny Lind created a desire to know something of the countries whence they came, bringing their strange native melodies. About the same time Mbs Bremer and her novels became known to us. Then Hans Andersen won the hearts of hundreds of thousands of children and parents, telling about the stork, and the Neckan, and Kronburg. From those days to these, when Prior’s and Morris’s translations have made the Norse epic as accessible as the Iliad, our acquaintance with Scandinavia has been growing wider and closer. The fjords and fjelds, the Sæters and forces, of Sweden and Norway are drawing many travelers away from the glaciers and passes of Switzerland. Multitudes who will never gaze on the midnight sun got a realizing glimpse of the life that goes on beneath it at the Centennial Exhibition. Stories of unfamiliar races told by one of themselves have peculiar zest and freshness, and Synnöve Solbakken is a purely Norwegian story. It is a new tale told in a new way ; there is not a familiar or hackneyed personage or incident from beginning to end. It is an uncommon proof of power in so young a man — the author was but twenty-five when it was written, in 1857—to lay hold on the scenes and figures under his hand, and write his first novel about them, with a keen recognition of their characteristics, instead of seeking his subject and background in less known fields. The result in this case is that, while the men and women are unmistakably true to life, they have the charm for us of complete novelty, and a distinctive coloring and atmosphere of their own. Their existence has a simplicity and serenity which diffuse a summer-like Sabbath calm over the tale, in spite of occasional fighting matches and drunken bouts and outbursts of blind Berserker fury. It has the ingenuousness, humor, and sentiment of a homely German story, without the alternate mawkishness and matter-of-fact which damage all German romance except a few creations of pure fancy, like Undine. The characters are drawn in a clear outline, like Retzch’s etchings, but with reality and consistency ; the silent, sunny maiden Synnöve is a new and lovely type of heroine, and contrasts lucently with the darker and more turbulent form of her lover. The suggestive beauty of certain passages, such as the description of the peasants’ Sunday and its influence on their mind and habits, will be likely to send readers to try to master them in the original.
- A Romance of the Nineteenth Century. By W. H. MALLOCK. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1881.↩
- A Gentleman of Leisure. By EDGAR FAWCETT. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1881.↩
- Baby Rue. (No Name Series.) Boston : Roberts Brothers. 1881.↩
- Friends: A Duet. By ELIZABETH STUART PHELPS. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1881.↩
- A Nihilist Princess. From the French of M. L. GAGNEUR. Chicago : Jansen, MoClurg & Co.↩
- Synnöve Solbakken. By BJÖRNSTJERNE BJÖRNSON. Translated from the Norse by RASMUS B. ANDERSON. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1881.↩