The Contributors' Club

MAY one who is a lover of art, although no connoisseur, record here some impressions gathered from a view of Mr. Watts’ paintings in the New York Museum, in hopes of drawing forth an expression of opinion as to the same from writers better qualified to judge of things aesthetic? Let me confess at once to a certain degree of disappointment in these remarkable pictures, the result in part, perhaps, of reading the descriptive comment accompanying the catalogue before instead of after looking at the works themselves. In some instances these descriptions suggested to my mind a larger, fuller meaning than I was able to find in the canvas, an experience I have had before when comparing Mr. Buskin’s glowing comment on certain masterpieces of Tintoretto with the original productions; although, on the other hand, without his aid I might have failed to discern much that is to be seen in those works of a mighty genius. But some other reason is necessary to account for my having failed to get from the Watts pictures all the delight I bad hoped for. Lack of cultivated taste will, of course, explain the fact easily ; yet I should like to state what, so far as I am able to see. appears to be at the bottom of my dissatisfaction. The conception of these paintings is in almost every instance so far removed from the commonplace realism of much of the art of to-day that, regarding the conception alone, we are abundantly impressed by them; yet two only — the Paolo and Francesca and the Love and Death — produced upon me, by actual sight, an effect equal to that which I had gained by simple reading of Mrs. Barrington’s catalogue descriptions. I had seen a cut of the Love and Death accompanying Mr. Gosse’s paper in the Century, and I do not know that the addition of color made the painting itself more impressive, but the scale of the same of course made all the difference possible. The figure of Death, it seems to me, must strike all who see it as nobly powerful, majestic in attitude, and draped with a severe, statuesque grace. The Time, Death, and Judgment is undeniably striking, and in the grand figure of Time the artist has reached to the height of his conception; yet, taking the picture as a whole, I did not feel that I was looking on a thoroughly successful work. One objection which I mentally made with respect to this and the Love and Death picture may appear very trivial, but I am giving my impressions for only what they are worth. To me, space seems wanting around and between the figures; the canvas is too crowded; we come too near to these symbolic shapes, which ought to be seen through something of the distance and atmosphere that poetry could give to them. In conception these pictures are poetic, and the question rises whether ideas such as Mr. Watts has treated are capable of being successfully dealt with by the painter. Painting. as compared with poetry proper, is a limited art; and to define for himself the limitations of his art ought, one would suppose, to be a first object with the artist; and yet some of the artists whom all agree to call great are those who have apparently striven most to break through those limitations, as with Turner in painting, and, in their different ways, Shelley and Browning in poetry. It is the attempt to transcend their appointed bounds which is one cause of the unreality and abstraction that we find in much of Shelley’s verse and Turner’s painting, and of the obscurity in Browning’s speculative poems. It may be that if Mr. Watts has not altogether sueceeded in realizing the ideals of his mind the fact is to be explained by certain defects of execution. Of his technical skill I of course may not judge. I can speak only to the fact of a considerable degree of disappointment felt where I was prepared to admire and enjoy. Those pictures whose subjects are taken from the Revelation were to me the least interesting, although I admired the power in the red-clothed figure on the black (?) horse, sweeping his resistless way through space. The figure of the bending goddess in the Kndymiou struck me, with its airy poise, as resembling the attendant nymph in Tintoretto’s Bacchus and Ariadne. That “a man s reach should exceed his grasp,” when that reach is toward the loftiest visible to the artist’s eye, is surely no fault to be deplored. With whatever qualification, the works mentioned deserve to be seen and enjoyed by all to whom the opportunity is offered, and the comment I have indulged in will not, I trust, be thought presumptuous when the sincere diffidence with which it is made is taken into account.

— Literary fashions are not accidental. They are based upon a sense of propriety ; and the heroines of the modern novel have undoubtedly kept pace with all that gives dignity, value, and variety to the world’s progress.

The first great change which I shall note is a physical one. As long as men were the principal novel-writers, beauty was an absolute necessity to heroines. Those of the eighteenth century are all perfectly lovely and amiable, but they are also stupid and tiresome. We yawn over their joys and sorrows alike, and are weary to death of their perpetual swooning; “ they must hae been gey ill to live wi’.”

This union of virtue and insipidity is an old alliance in the male consciousness. It existed in the highest civilization of the ancient world, and it clings to the skirts of a generation still lingering in the high places of the literary and social world. Thackeray’s Amelia is Fielding’s Amelia in a nineteenth-century costume. Her adoration of that wretched fop, George Osborne, is neither better nor worse than that of Fielding s heroine weeping hysterically over her unworthy, utterly faithless Booth. Neither Fielding nor Thackeray painted these silly, flawless, insipid beauties because he was incapable of anything better. In Fielding’s Amelia, ’Miss Matthews has wit, courage, and high spirit, and Mrs. Bennet a large heart, culture, and intelligence; but both these interesting women are made immoral. No one needs to he reminded of Thackeray’s clever contrast to his Amelia,—the inimitable Becky Sharp. We almost resent the marriage of Dobbin to Amelia, and are sure that he must have been ready to hang himself a month afterwards. We would rather he had married Becky in her early life. She would have given him at least an interest in existence, and in all probability have made him a much happier man than the vapid, good-looking Amelia.

The estimate of women in the burlesque letters of Mr. Brown to a Young Man About Town was, in the main, Thackeray’s genuine estimate : " A set has been made against clever women from all time. Take all Shakespeare’s heroines : they all seem to me pretty much the same, — affectionate, motherly, tender, — that sort of thing. Take Scott’s ladies, and those of other writers : each man seems to draw from one model. An exquisite slave is what we want, — an humble, flattering, smiling, child-loving, tea-making, pianoforte-playing being.” This statement, as regards Shakespeare, is grossly untrue. Put Thackeray’s Amelia for Portia, and where would the play be ? Throughout Shakespeare’s dramas there is not one woman capable of winning our sympathy without the charm of intellect. Thackeray’s good heroines have these flattering, tea-making, pianoforte-playing accomplishments, but they are generally so uninteresting that we do not blame their lovers for lighting their cigars with their love-letters.

There are women of another sort in Scott, such as Diana Vernon, Rebecca, and Jennie Deans ; but the great novelist seldom allowed himself to do justice to the love heroines of his tales. The women who marry his heroes are often not the women who win the reader’s affection. .

Dickens’s good women are immensely stupid ; they are also all good from constitution and temperament, not from moral or religious motives. Like the old heroines, they are made perfect at the beginning, so that no improvement is possible. The power and beauty of spiritual growth through trial was little understood by Dickens ; he could not draw a woman with a suffering intellectual organism constantly growing clearer, and nobler, and purer.

But when women began to write novels the standard was changed. Women are not to he deceived by mere physical beauty in their own sex ; and they naturally despise the masculine weakness which is led captive by a pretty face, even though it be but on paper. They soon gave us heroines whose features were not “chiseled as finely as a Greek statue,” and whose forms were not as those of Juno or the nymphs. On the contrary, they were often pale and small, had irregular features, or red hair, or a slightly turned-up nose. But with fine eyes and a good heart and plenty of genius. they easily left the mere beauties behind, in the matrimonial race. Jane Eyre was the first triumphant success of this school, and she opened the door to a long train of imitators. She was small and pale, and dressed with Quaker-like severity, and yet Jane Eyre never wearies us.

There had, however, been a gradual preparation of the public mind for this change. During the first portion of this century the romantic novel had taken the place of Fielding’s vigorous but rude tales. Though it called a glass of water “a draught from the Falernian spring,” and a lady’s parlor “ the sacred asylum of innocence,” it had a long run of public favor. Our mothers found their favorite heroines in such books as The Children of the Abbey and The Scottish Chiefs.

Miss Austen’s bright - eyed, rosycheeked, sensible women rid us of the Amanda type ; and though Airs. Gore, the favorite novel-writer of half a century ago, was inclined to unite dullness with “ good sort of women,” and to associate domestic duties with much that is unamiable and ridiculous, still her heroines were in the main a faithful transcript of a slowly advancing social life.

The first great departure was the introduction of the plain, clever girl as the model heroine. Miss Yonge followed Miss Bronte’s example ; all her heroines of this class get, as a rule, the nicest husbands. The Hetty of Adam Bede revealed to thoughtful women that the author of that book was a woman. No man could have painted Hetty with such cold scrutiny and total want of enthusiasm. Yet George Eliot does ample justice to the power of female beauty, Hetty is the only pretty fool in that wonderful gallery of portraits which includes Romola, Dorothea, Gwendoline, Dinah, etc. Beauty they all have, but they all have brains, also, and they use them like reasoning and reasonable brings, if anything were needed to show how great a change in the real position of woman has taken place, it is supplied by the contrast of the heroines in Fielding’s Amelia and George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

So, also, it has come to pass that we refuse an untried inherent moral perfection as decidedly as we refuse a brainless physical one. The woman is not the woman we admire. One with the common faults of her race, even somewhat willful and wayward, plays the part of the sensitive, amiable, swooning angel of the old novelists; such, for instance, as the charming Kitty of Mr. Black’s Shandon Bells, or the Elfrida of Mr. Hardy’s masterpiece, A Pair of Blue Eyes. Kitty is one of the most faithful, relentless, artistic pictures of the coquette ever given to the world ; and she illustrates in a powerful manner another distinct departure in the modern novel, — the transfer of fidelity and unselfishness from the heroine to the hero. In the old novel, it was the heroine who broke her heart over her lover’s infidelity, and who performed prodigies of self-denial in his behalf. Nowadays it is the woman who is represented as egotistical and fickle, and the more noble and enduring passion is on the side of the man. George Eliot is a noble teacher in this respect; for the underlying text in all her novels is that much of the unhappiness of this world comes from egotism. She shows Hetty and Gwendoline that the world was not made for them specially; by hard, often cruel, processes she teaches them their own unimportance, knocks the selfishness out of them, or .else punishes them for retaining it. Has there then been a new and closer study of the sexes? Have modern novelists discovered that fickleness and selfishness are distinctively feminine characteristics ? Or have women really changed in the wider and deeper life and liberty they have gained ?

“ too bright or good
For human nature’s daily f1ood ”

The old heroines were absurdly submissive to their husbands, obeying the doctrine of conjugal authority both in season and out of season. Later novelists have ceased to bind their heroines by this theory. In fact, the wife is now, usually, the husband’s mentor and saviour. If he has been wandering among false philosophies, it is her mission to cure his spiritual malady, and bring him to a sense of those religious truths which only women naturally discern. In business matters she is often the guardian of a husband who is inclined to court commercial ruin ; and either by her tact or her financial capacity, displayed at some critical moment, she saves him from the proper punishment of his Follies. Such characters as these never entered a man’s brain a century ago.

George Eliot’s best heroines are a kind of protest against this specimen ; all her finest women need a master and a rule of life. Dorothea, so sweet and clear and charitable, blunders along under the guidance of Casaubon or Ladislaw ; Romola needs Savonarola ; Gwendoline, Deronda; Esther, Felix; Janet, the strength of the clergyman who had spiritually saved her.

No writer has given us a gallery of more sensible, charming, every-day women than Trollope. The delicacy of his work is nowhere so masterly as in his descriptions of their love affairs and their small social diplomacies. George Eliot has sounded far greater depths than his calm respectabilities, yet Trollope’s heroines are our familiar friends ; we know them quite as well as we know the people who visit us. Trollope understood the English girl of this epoch. I might mention other distinct types, such as Kingsley’s healthy, good-natured girls, fond of out door sports, and specially touched by the religious element, or Hawthorne’s sad New England women, with their wonderful antithesis, represented by such creations as Daisy Miller, but it would only be an extended speculation on a condition evident to all, — that the change of character in the heroines of fiction reflects the changing position of woman in social life. The many-sided heroine of to-day is an evidence that woman has ceased to be a toy, or a drudge, or an angel endowed with impossible perfections. She has taken her place as the companion and equal of man, — the sharer of his foibles, his hopes, and his occupations. Yet it is very likely that fifty years hence our grandchildren may refuse to believe that such women as represent our ideals to-day were ever charming or lovable ; our Dorotheas and Kittys and Lily Dales will be voted tiresome, also. What will the heroine of that day he like? If some poet or novelist would reveal the wonderful being to us, we should be able to predicate from her something of the condition of the world fifty years hence.

— Humanity outside of France — one might almost say outside of Paris — is a sealed book to the generality of Frenchmen. It is only a brief sail from Calais to Dover, but so far as French comprehension of England is concerned John Bull’s little island might as well be in the middle of the Baltic Sea. The " milord ” of the Boulevard theatres is not thought to be a caricature of the typical English gentleman, though there is nothing on earth nor in the waters under the earth that bears the slightest resemblance to a French playwright’s idea of a Briton. While claiming to be a citizen of the capital of the world, the Parisian is essentially provincial, not to say parochial. He is seldom a traveler, and more rarely a linguist. His understanding is bounded at the four points of the compass by the fortifications of Paris. Knowing little of his immediate neighbors, he does not surprise us by knowing comparatively nothing of his remoter fellow-creatures. It is therefore amusing rather than incredible that even so intelligent a person as M. Arvède Barine should write of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the following fashion. (I quote from a paper by M. Barine in a late number of the Revue Politique et Litrémire) : —

“ Nous avous déjà eu l’occasiou de parler ici du romancier americain Nathaniel Hawthorne. C’etait a propos de sa biographie, et nous avions expose aux yeux du lecteur le spectacle singulier, presque incroyable, d’un écrivain entreprenant de tirer des romans uniquement de lui-même, sans s’aider de l’étude de la nature et en inventant les états du coeur et de l’esprit qu’il pretait á ses personnages. Nous avions montré Hawthorne passant douze ans en feriné à clef dans une chambre à la porte de laquelle on déposait sa nourriture, sortant de cette retraite la tête saine, l‘humeur égale, le coeur frais, et se met taut à analyser la nature humaine, à décrire le monde et la vie duns des récits d’une justesse de vues admirable, mais où les idées vraies et profondes s’incarnent duns des êtres funtastiques, créés de toutes pièces par une imagination dont les roves n’avaient pas été contrôlés contact de la réalité.”

This picture of Hawthorne passing twelve years locked up in his chamber shows how easy it. is for an imaginative Frenchman to build a romantic castle out of a single brick. All he had to work with was the simple fact that when Hawthorne was engrossed in some literary task lie used frequently to have his dinner sent to his room !

— Will you permit a dweller “ In the Haunts of the Mocking-Bird ” to bear witness to the wonderful life-likeness of Maurice , Thompson’s charming paper in a recent number of The Atlantic?

I have known the mocking-bird in Gadsden County, Florida, and in and around Tallahassee. Many and many a nest have I peeped into; for there they always chouse low bushes, often not higher than a man’s head, and I have even known them to build in rosebushes. I have heard the " strange din” of their voices in the hedges of Cherokee roses, and I have two or three times witnessed the heart-breaking performance of the “ dropping song,” as Mr. Thompson names what my old 1,1 mammy ” used to call the mating song.

It is true that the mocking-bird’s song in captivity is not comparable to its song in the freedom of a Southern grove; but though I would not dispute Mr. Thompson’s statement that “ the best voiced mocking-birds, without doubt, are those bred in Middle Florida and Southern Alabama,” I must confess that in Sumter County and in Lee County, Alabama, I have heard this bird surpass any of its fellows along the coast in tireless, ecstatic, passionately plaintive song. Though they nest low, they often choose high places to pour forth their rapturous strain, returning day after day to the same lofty perch.

There are two facts concerning this bird which Mr. Thompson does not mention : (1) its dancing, which is a common enough performance, often irresistibly comic, and quite as ecstatic as the singing, which always accompanies the “jig;” (2) its maliciousness. I have been told by persons who have taken the young broods to rear that if the cage containing them is left where the parent birds can have access to it they will feed their offspring regularly for two or three days, and then, as if in despair, will poison them, giving them the berry of the black ash.

While writing the above paragraph, I received a copy of The Critic containing a note from Mr. J. A. Harrison, in which the poisoning of the caged young by the parent bird is stated as a “ wellauthenticated fact.”