American Fiction by Women

IN our last review of current American fiction we found the three most noticeable books to have been written by men, and to have a certain common ground on which they met. It chances that the most noticeable novels which have since appeared are also three in number, but from the hands of women. It would not be hard to find points of comparison and contrast in the two sets of books. To begin with, these three women have devoted themselves to American themes, and not a foreigner, we believe, appears on the stage. Now — but we spare the reader the fine generalization which we were about to make. It is only reviewers who read books by pairs or threes, and it is more to the point to inquire into the individual characteristics of the novels in question.

Mrs. Foote enjoys the doubtful advantage of being able to present her characters both to the eye and to the mind. Her excellent reputation for figure drawing makes one take up The Led Horse Claim1 with some curiosity to know how far the persons described in the pictures correspond with the persons characterized in the text. Ordinarily the author and artist are different beings, and when the author invests his characters with great dignity or charm we cannot hold him responsible for the interpretation which the artist may put upon his words. Mrs. Foote, however, either repeats herself in the two forms of representation, or gives the reader a chance to test one form by the other. The handsomeness of Mr. Hilgard, in this story, is not given to the reader to take on faith. He may know from Mrs. Foote’s pictures just how Mr. Hilgard looked, even at the very critical moment when he was parting from Miss Conrath. Miss Conrath’s beauty, again, is placed under a high light in the frontispiece ; and as both the manly and the womanly beauty are important elements in the story, one must at least admire Mrs. Foote’s courage in furnishing the reader with cartes de visite, so to speak, of her principal characters.

It may be straining a point, but we cannot help thinking that Mrs. Foote’s success in her pictures prophesies the success in her writing. The best of her illustrations is the one entitled “ She doubted long,” and the best of her writing is in the characterization of the sentiment of this doubting girl. It is not the masculine scenes in the story which impress us most, but the fine yet strong lines of a woman to whom suffering has come at once with love. The story is a simple one. In a mining camp in California two mines are engaged in a struggle for victory. Mr. George Hilgard is the superintendent of the Led Horse mine, and when the story opens is in the midst of a legal warfare with the rival Shoshone, which adjoins it and is suspected to have encroached upon it. The superintendent of the Shoshone is a dissipated young fellow, Henry Conrath, whose sister Cecil has come to the camp from the East, to make her home with him. Cecil and Hilgard meet suddenly, and the story of Romeo and Juliet begins. In the progress of affairs a fight occurs in the mine, in which Hilgard kills Conrath, and the situation becomes at once tragic. The task of the novelist is to perfect the union of Cecil and Hilgard, notwithstanding this terrible cause of separation.

What we like in the treatment of the story is the dependence of the author upon the great movements of human nature, and her indifference to excessive refinement upon these movements. Her lovers love at first sight, and they love with an honest warmth, which the reader accepts without requiring a close analysis of their motives. They are kept apart by the feud between the two houses, but love surmounts the feud. They are separated again by the tragedy, but time reinforces love, and pity takes a part, and at length the two young hearts find their content. We repeat that it is a pleasure to find honest sentiment so victorious.

The trouble of the young girl is a genuine one, and it is allowed a full and sensible development. The doubting long, through which she went, was the action of a pure and honorable maiden; but the doubt in this healthy soul must needs give way before the certainty of love. We respect Mrs. Foote and her art, because she has not tortured us with imaginary and subtle difficulties in the case, but has told an entirely probable story as nature would have told it. There is in the handling of the novel a certain lack of confidence now and then, which betrays an unpracticed hand, and a disposition, we think, to rely a little upon second-hand information in some of the interior scenes, where the figures are men only. The whole circumstance of the story, however, at least in the larger part, is of rough Californian life, and we recognize the womanly hand which has touched it. The slight tendency to an excess of sentiment which characterizes Mrs. Foote’s work is well counteracted by the rudeness of the material in which she has here wrought.

We took up Miss Woolson’s little book 2 with special interest, from a desire to know what effect Anne had had upon her. The reaction of a novel upon its writer has not always sufficiently been considered, and we suspect that in her new and brief story Miss Woolson has written with some sense of relief from the entanglements of her long, three - jointed novel. She has at any rate chosen an entirely different theme, and one which allows her the greatest freedom from the task of describing a love adventure. Love — that is, the love of a young man and young woman — is scarcely considered in For the Major; it is indeed too slightly treated for the perfection of the story, since in real life the relations of Miss Carroll and Mr. Owen would have had a more important effect upon the development of events. Now that we have read the story through, and know that there is no more, we feel so slightly acquainted with the persons just mentioned that we have not felt at liberty to speak of them as Sara and Frederick.

We do, however, feel very well acquainted with Mrs. Carroll and the Major, who are the chief personages of the book; and an acquaintance with Mrs. Carroll is, as Miss Woolson intended it to be, a cumulative one, and one which has distinct processes in it. A good deal of ingenuity has been expended upon Mrs. Carroll, for the obvious reason that she expended a good deal on herself. She was the stepmother of Sara Carroll, but when the story opens the two women had for several years seen little of each other: the daughter being absent for educational reasons; the mother devoting herself to Major Carroll, with whom she is living in a mountain village, presumably in North or South Carolina. The geographical boundaries of the story are not very clearly marked, and we feel, therefore, a stronger, perhaps unworthy, suspicion that the locality and its society are highly imaginary. It would almost seem as if Miss Woolson invented Far Edgerly and its neighborhood in order to make it fit the highly invented character of Mrs. Carroll. For to spoil the story for any reader who may chance now to take it up for the first time, Mrs. Carroll is a woman well on in years, who masquerades as a young and childlike wife. She is helped by her figure and general air, but more by the extreme attention which she has given to the subject. Her husband has been all along under a delusion with regard to her, and her stepdaughter and all her neighbors share it. He has built up an imaginary Mrs. Carroll, with most respectable antecedents; and as he has become enfeebled in mind, it is not very difficult for his wife to support the character, which she does with great adroitness.

The reader might imagine that her disguise was to be stripped from her finally, and that she was to be turned out of the story in her true character, whereas all the disillusionizing is done deliberately by Mrs. Carroll herself, and it is seen that the one cause for the deception is its justification ; for love was at the bottom of it: the love first of a woman grateful to the man who came forward to the relief of her and her child, and then the same love and gratitude taking the form of devotion to the failing husband. The deception, in which the daughter joins, is all for the Major, and when the Major dies the mask falls.

The story is a very ingenious one, and skillfully managed. The reader, at the critical moment when he would naturally turn impatiently away from this very artificial woman, is drawn to her by the revelation of her redeeming quality. In fact, the reader and the stepdaughter are in much the same category, only that the daughter is in the secret before the reader is. It is, however, the ingenuity of the story which makes the strongest impression upon the mind, and thus one is led to doubt if the whole conception be not too artificial to be thoroughly good art. We noticed in Anne something of the same tendency in Miss Woolson to make too much of the machinery of her stories, and we hope that it will not increase in her work. With a good story, built upon the large lines of nature, Miss Woolson would have more leisure to give to the realization of her characters, and the reality would be more enduring because more natural. Mrs. Foote has not Miss Woolson’s skill, and her story is not so original, but on the whole it seems better worth telling.

Mrs. Foote did not shrink from carrying her heroine into a miner’s camp in California, and by her own refinement and womanly sensibility invested that masculine field with a somewhat feminine property ; Miss Woolson is more faintly American in her scenes from a Carolinian no-man’s land, and is feminine chiefly in her elaborate construction of the principal character out of an excess of womanhood; but Mrs. Burnett, while more conspicuously a woman in her dealing with life than either of the others, has also taken a larger canvas and essayed a more serious piece of art. It is not possible to read her latest novel3 without being aware of the intensity of feeling and thought which have been given to it at times ; at times, we say, for there are passages so sluggish in movement that one is almost tempted to believe that the author was either uncertain in her intention, or possessed with the notion that it was necessary to produce a four years’ effect upon the reader by a deliberate slowing of the action of the story. As a matter of fact, the element of time is of very slight significance in the development of the plot of this novel, and indeed introduces a disturbance in the reader’s mind ; for he cannot help thinking that where passions are so intense as in the lives of Bertha and Tredennis it would be impossible to avoid an earlier éclaircissement. Again, the nobility and strength of Tredennis, when given four years’ trial, would inevitably find some solution of the problem of his life through work ; and his love for Bertha, which Mrs. Burnett uses as an indication of his strong character, is dangerously near being a sign of radical weakness. So long as the lapse of time is not emphasized by the writer, the reader is content to see the dramatis personœ of the tale only in their immediate and frequent relation to each other; but when he is repeatedly reminded that year after year is rolling round, he cannot help doubting if the tremendous pressure which each person in the story has on his or her neighbor would not in the course of nature be somewhat more relaxed. By keeping out of sight this troublesome element of time, the author would find it easier to persuade us that the very trifling incidents of the story, like the gift of a bunch of heliotropes, or the attitude in which people stand or sit, must needs recur to the memory of the characters from time to time. In so realistic a tale as this, these romantic incidents have a disproportionate value.

We forget that we are talking about a story which the reader may chance not to have read. It is the story, in its main lines, of a young woman entering Washington society just as a young officer in the army — who if he had stayed longer in Washington would doubtless have won the young woman — left for the frontier. After eight years, Colonel Tredennis returns to Washington, to find Bertha Herrick the wife of a light-minded, selfish fellow, who is drifting about. She has apparently thrown herself into society from a love of power and a pursuit of happiness, but the return of the friend of her youth is the occasion for a better knowledge of her. She has secretly retained her love of him, which has grown more intense with the decline of her respect for her husband. Through one administration we are allowed to see the torture of this unhappy woman. Outwardly she is the brightest, gayest, of mortals, and little by little these arts and charms are made use of by her husband to accomplish political and corrupt ends. Colonel Tredennis looks on in anguish. He refuses to abandon his faith in her, but that faith must rest upon recollection and occasional glimpses of her real nature ; the sight which is offered him is of a heartless, restless woman. But this is the mask which she wears to conceal from him her fatal love. She seems bent on destroying his faith in her, in order to protect herself from herself.

This incessant conflict between the real and the assumed woman is, in our judgment, a violation of nature. We do not deny that Mrs. Burnett has constructed this dualism with great subtlety and skill, but the very means which she has taken tends to create skepticism ; for the reader is compelled to follow a bewildering succession of dresses, attitudes, looks, and half-uttered words in order to realize to himself this protean shape. The brilliant conversations which are intended to illustrate her position are so dazzling as to confuse the image; and if it were not for the recurrence now and again to the real tragedy which is going on, the reader would become weary of this highly wrought woman and unable to give her the dole of pity to which she is entitled. Moreover, the subtlety with which Mrs. Burnett treats this character involves her in a singular inconsistency. Mrs. Amory is represented as a woman of great penetration. She certainly has read her husband thoroughly ; yet after an indefinitely long and very familiar acquaintance with the Westoria business, this subtle woman is overpowered by a revelation of the central fact. It seems impossible that she should not have known of her husband’s real connection with the fraud.

There are two other characters, who act somewhat as foils to the principal ones : Arbuthnot, an extremely refined and sensitive man, who hovers near the tragedy, and Agnes Sylvestre, a woman who has suffered like Bertha, but has found a philosophic repose. The details of each character are drawn with scrupulous care and much nicety, and the scene of their betrothal is admirably managed. Nevertheless, clever as Arbuthnot is, we venture to think that Mrs. Burnett deliberately changed her mind about him when her story was half done. She tries in the latter half to persuade us that Arbuthnot was misunderstood by everybody, and that he was really a fine, unselfish, and honorable fellow. For all that, she is accountable for the misunderstanding. She has furnished certain touchstones of character in Professor Herrick and Colonel Tredennis, and gives us to understand, in the former half of the book, that these men profoundly distrust Arbuthnot, not from anything which he says or does, but from what he is. That is the way with touchstones. Yet all this distrust vanishes, and not through any new revelation of his character. He has all the make-up of a subtle villain, and the reader accepts him in that quality, only to discover after a while that the author of his being has decided to make his subtlety a subtlety of virtue.

It is, indeed, the excess of this finespun web of character which weakens the value of Mrs. Burnett’s work. The reader is required to follow the pattern of the spiritual plot too closely. The incidental plot is not perplexing. That is seen clearly enough ; but the difficulty arises from an insistence of the author that we shall know her characters too intimately, and it is her own fault that, in keeping us constantly at work finding them out, she retards the progress of her story, and creates a sense of weariness. Could we not have known Mrs. Amory just as well through fewer interviews ? Must we be introduced to her afresh whenever she puts on a new gown? Even her physical disabilities come to fatigue us. She is constantly on the verge of greater ills than befall her, and we come to think of her as living in a condition of arrested faintness. This physical statement goes too far. We object to having mysterious operations of her organization hinted at, with an aside by the author that women will understand what she means.

There is, however, a finer womanly power which excites our admiration. No man could have written the dramatic scene where Mrs. Amory triumphs over her adversaries at the ball, when her social doom seemed already pronounced; and the reader for once is really excited by the fear that she will not have the physical strength to go through with it. He watches the color in her cheek with real concern. There are passages, also, which refuse to admit of reference to sex, as that admirable one when Tredennis confronts Amory and wrings his true character from him. It is plain that Washington society has given Mrs. Burnett much food for reflection, and the lives of the men and women who draw their bread from official patronage are depicted with power and earnestness. There is much that is in protest against corruption, and there are glimpses of political life as seen from the interior ; but after all, the author’s interest is in her characters and their effect upon each other. We think that if she had allowed this interaction of the characters to take place more positively through the incidents of such society, and had depended less upon their perpetual comment upon each other, her book would have been a stronger one. It is strong in patches ; it lacks the cumulative force of a great tragedy, because, while the plot is cumulative, the crisis of the characters is never really reached ; at any rate, there is no coincidence between that crisis and the crisis of the plot. The book, when all is said, is a brilliant book. It might have been a great one.

  1. The Led Horse Claim. A Romance of a Mining Camp. By MARY HALLOCK FOOTE. Illustrated by the Author. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co. 1883.
  2. For the Major. By CONSTANCE FENIMORE WOOLSON. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1883.
  3. Through One Administration. By FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT. Boston : James R. Osgood & Co. 1883.