Mrs. Oliphant

WHEN the Autobiography of Anthony Trollope was published, a little more than a year ago, there was no part of that candid, good-humored, and engaging narrative which attracted more attention than the account given of the strict system of artificial industry which had enabled the lamented novelist to do such a mass of excellent work in the brief season of his manly prime. We all know now what a discouraging youth he had, how late his first success was won, and how lightly touched, either by the weakness or the dullness of age, his writing was, when the end came; insomuch that to those who specially relished Mr. Trollope’s easy and happy faculty for realistic story-telling that end seemed wofully premature, albeit he lacked but a few years, when suddenly summoned from labor, of his allotted threescore and ten. A great deal was said at that time, by professional and by amateur critics, both for and against the theory that the process of novel-making, like more material branches of manufacture, may be lightened and accelerated, without being too much vulgarized, by the invention of a species of labor-saving intellectual machinery. The votaries of inspiration and the victims of their own moods flouted the notion, of course, and maintained that work of the highest order never had been done in that mechanical fashion, and never would be. Others, again, conscious perhaps of the languid and wasteful employment even of inferior powers, and only too well aware that there could be no question in their own case of a divine afflatus, repeated the delusive apothegm that “ genius is patience ” (which Mr. Trollope himself has translated into the homely vernacular, “ It’s dogged as does it ”), and wondered if their own difficulty of production were not chiefly moral, after all.

Personally, we were, and are, of those who regard with very respectful admiration the faculty for steady labor and unflagging invention; the “ staying power ” in a novelist; what the French call the longue haleine. It seems to us to furnish the best possible proof of mental robustness ; and we find it admirable also for its exact suitableness, not to the taste only, but to the lighter literary requirements of a democratic and busy generation. It is a power tending less to the glory of its possessor, may be, than if the same amount were concentrated on a few ambitious and widely separated undertakings ; but capable, if conscientiously employed, of conveying far more of the proper pleasure and refreshment of romance to an enormously greater number of people. It is no more identical with artistic ability than patience is identical with genius ; yet it is a most desirable complement of the higher gift, like the alloy which makes practicable the circulation of the precious metals among the masses of mankind. It is the kind of power which one instinctively associates with a masculine physique, — with steadiness of nerve, and toughness of fibre, and insensibility to fatigue, both mental and physical; yet one of the most conspicuous illustrations of it in our own day, offering a singular parallel to Mr. Trollope’s case in some respects, and in others even more remarkable, is furnished by a woman, the very turn of whose genius is essentially feminine,— by Mrs. Oliphant, whose life-work, already long, but, happily, not yet complete, it is proposed briefly to review.

It is close upon forty years since this prolific writer,1 to whom an entire generation has been indebted for so much wholesome delight, began her literary career by the publication of sundry quiet but clever sketches of Scottish life and character. Some Passages in the Life of Mistress Margaret Maitland

of Sunnyside was followed by Harry Muir, The Laird of Norlaw, Adam Graeme of Mossgray, and a few others, all redolent of the author’s ancestral soil, — for Mrs. Oliphant, though born in the north of England, is nothing if not Scotch, — and presenting with a good deal of skill and pathos, although with nothing like the power which she afterwards revealed, certain types of character with which her youth had been familiar A little later, but still before the days of George Eliot’s Scenes from Clerical Life, the readers of Blackwood detected a new hand at the serials of Maga, — a light, pleasing, gently individualized touch, which gratified the sensibilities even of those pampered epicures in fiction, and whose results that vigilant and faithful forager, Littell, lost no time in appropriating and presenting to American readers. Of this second group of tales, comprising The Athelings, The Quiet Heart, and others, and which intervened, roughly speaking, between the Scotch sketches and the famous Chronicles of Carlingford, the most memorable, perhaps, was Zaidee. It was a highly romantic and sufficiently improbable tale, but it fascinated the reader most of all by the unmistakable dawn of that peculiar humor of Mrs. Oliphant’s, of which hardly a gleam is discernible in the more serious early narratives. Here first she showed that charming power of half-sympathetic and wholly amiable raillery at the intellectual affectations of the passing day, which she has let play to such bright purpose since then over the extases of Ritualism, the ambitions of Dissent, and the conceits of Æstheticism in the Carlingford Chronicles, and, in He that Will Not when He May, over the sadder absurdity of certain socialistic chimæras. The period of Zaidee was that of Mr. Ruskin’s most sublime and solemn ascendency ; when his code of doctrine was still supposed to have the integrity and indivisibility of a divine creed; when the audacity of critical examination and selection had hardly been thought of, and the more puzzling and inconsequent his deliverances appeared the deeper was held to be their mystical significance. Great, therefore, if a little guilty, was the sense of relaxation afforded even to the devout by the account in Zaidee of the grand new house builded by simple Mr. Burtonshaw, which was supplied, in deference to a recent recommendation of Mr. Rusk in’s, with a species of richly sculptured spout, through which articles of food were “ shunted ” to the beggars, for whom comfortable seats had also been provided beneath the back porch, — a process which went on to the high satisfaction of all parties, until it was discovered that the family plate was rapidly disappearing by the same convenient channel. In Zaidee, which appeared in 1856, Mrs. Oliphant also entered fully into that singularly favorable field for the higher comedy afforded by contemporary society in England; and she speedily proved herself a mistress there. No one has shown a keener eye for the delicate lights and shadows of that picturesque social system than she, — a finer perception of its complicated personal relations, a more wistful respect for its traditions, or a clearer prevision of its perils. No novelwright of them all, we think, has discovered there, and depicted to the life, so extensive a variety of the nobler and more endearing types of character. Not that she is at all prone to making her heroes and heroines perfect. Her forte lies rather in the analysis of mixed motives and the admission of inevitable inconsistencies. She pleads earnestly, almost passionately, at times, for the culprits whom she herself has created, and is perpetually making appeal, by implication if not directly, to the sentiment of common humanity in her reader. Mrs. Oliphant, in the Chronicles of Carlingford, like Mr. Trollope in those of Barsetshire, annexed and made triumphantly her own a little province of English life, which she developed thoroughly and delightfully, in all its grades of rank and shades of opinion. Good and bad, élite and vulgar, clergy and laity, the denizens of the ideal provincial town of twenty years ago, and of the ideal county, are equally real to our imaginations, and considerably more so, we fancy, to those of us who attended their birth and watched their growth than the traces retained by memory of the phantasmagoria of indifferent men and women, who have passed in flesh and blood before our veritable eyes during the same period.

The parallel holds good again in this respect: that both writers attain, in their continued Chronicles, the full development of their power, find their happiest combination of character and circumstance, and produce work which can hardly fail, one would think, to be interesting for a considerable number of years to come. At the same time, the wonder is, in both cases, but especially in Mrs. Oliphant’s, that from the time of the Chronicles onward, a period of nearly twenty-five years, she can have gone on writing at the rate of three or four good-sized volumes in a year, — having published thirty-four novels within that time, beside a large number of literary and historical sketches, — and have fallen so seldom, and upon the whole so slightly, below her highest level. It is a question in our mind whether George Eliot herself, putting forth at intervals of several years those few deeply-studied, highly-finished — and in some cases, let us acknowledge, over-studied and overfinished — romances of hers, has afforded a more striking example of possible feminine capacity.

Let us consider for a little, in this place, Mrs. Oliphant’s studies of actual character. Her fame as a novelist has so far eclipsed, in the popular mind, her other claims to distinction as a writer that comparatively few of those who take their monthly installment of her unfailing novel with the same comfortable ingratitude with which they receive choice meals and good weather realize that she has also been signally successful in a graver, if not a higher, kind of literature. To be a good biographer is an exceedingly rare gift. To be a perfect biographer has been vouchsafed to not more than half a dozen individuals out of the entire human race. Mrs. Oliphant is not a perfect biographer, but in the midst of her other multifarious performances, which it is hardly possible to do more than catalogue in an article like this, she has told, with touching candor and discretion, the true story of two or three very memorable human lives. It is because her method as a biographer is so closely related to her method as a novelist, and throws so much light upon the latter, that we desire, before going more particularly into the merits of the great mass of readable fiction which she has produced, to dwell for a little upon her admirable memoirs of Edward Irving, St. Francis of Assisi, and Count Charles de Montalembert.

In grouping these names together, despite the immense and rather incongruous variety of associations which they connote, one immediately perceives the element which they have in common,

and fixes upon it, rightly no doubt, as that which gave Mrs. Oliphant so intimate a comprehension of them all. That element is an ardent piety, more or less tinged with mysticism, intense appreciation of the unseen, and constant familiarity with it. The latest and not the least interesting phase of Mrs. Oliphant’s development as an imaginative writer — which we shall have occasion to remark later on — shows how prone she is to spiritualism in general ; how eagerly concerned, not with the life that now is only, but with that which is to come. That a man should live with the spiritual world always vividly present to his consciousness, in any farm, is enough to give her a sort of kinship with him, and afford her a clue to the intricacies of his nature ; for the sum and substance of her method, in divining a human soul, is imaginative sympathy. She must be able to place herself in the centre of her subject, and identify herself with it, before she can establish its integrity and consistency, and follow its unfolding as this really took place from within. We are ourselves inclined to believe that this is the only sure and legitimate way of portraying human character. Certainly, it is akin to the method of the greatest portrait-painters in portraying the human face and form. That which proceeds upon the cold, mechanic principle of mere external observation, even the keenest and most scientific, may produce a likeness, indeed, but only the petrified and brutalized sort of likeness of which photography is capable. Doubtless the sympathetic method has its dangers, too, — the danger of degenerating into mere partisanship and intemperate enthusiasm. But sympathy regulated by judgment, sympathy first and judgment afterwards, is as surely the golden rule for the divination and representation of human character as love transcends knowledge in the scale of our common faculties. Nay, we may even venture, without irreverence, to point out how high and sacred a sanction this interior method has for the Christian biographer, the central fact of whose belief is the assumption by Divinity itself of a lower nature, that the subject might never more doubt the sympathy of the sovereign, the creature that of his infinite Creator.

Such, at all events, has been the line followed by Mrs. Oliphant in tracing the history of three very eminent Christians ; of three men as diverse as possible in character, circumstances, and traditions, but equally devoted to the service of Christian truth as they apprehended it. She has identified herself successively with the visionary monk of Assisi, and the visionary Dissenter of Annandale, and the chivalrous and fervent Catholic layman, — the fils des croises, as the patrician Montalembert was proud to call himself, — and it would be difficult to say which of the three she has made most real to her readers. As a literary performance the life of St. Francis is inferior to the other two. It bears grievous marks of haste, like so much else which our indefatigable author has written; and it also bears marks, in parts, of a certain hesitation and constraint, inseparable, one would say, from the fact that she was writing the books for a Protestant Sunday library. But even here the steadily rising tide of her inexhaustible sympathy lifts her from her would-be rationalistic footing, and carries her high above the doctrinal difficulties of her undertaking ; and the small volume, with its careless construction and its clap-trap illustrations, remains almost unique for the tenderness and reverence of its delineation by a non-Catholic hand of the most ultraCatholic of all saintly lives.

In the case of Edward Irving, Mrs. Oliphant’s natural feeling for her subject was as different as possible from the mixture of involuntary awe and inconsequent love with which she regarded the great monastic founder. Herself

a loyal Scot in race and a born Presbyterian, she knew by instinct, without even the trouble of imagination, the sources of that strange spirit, and all the conditions, both heroic and pathetic, of the bleak Lowland life into which it was born. The early struggles of Edward Irving; his piety and his ambition; the terrible test of his sudden and unparalleled London popularity, and that other test, no less terrible, of its sudden decline ; the grotesque fanaticism which invaded his originally healthful mind, and disgraced him irremediably with the world polite; the tragedy of his expulsion from the fold of his fathers, and of his early death in uttermost humiliation and sadness, — into all these experiences his biographer could enter with scarce an effort; and, laying hold of the golden thread of sincerity which, though wofully overlaid at times, did undoubtedly run straight through all these racking spiritual vicissitudes, she burst, as one may say, into tears of indignant pity, and constituted herself the impassioned apologist of Edward Irving. Never, apparently, were the perils which attend the method of sympathy better exemplified ; and yet the last result of this almost wrathful partisanship has certainly been to disengage and fix firmly in the mind of the generation which has succeeded to his own the innermost truth about the eccentric founder of the so-called Catholic Apostolic Church. Forgotten, or well-nigh forgotten, for a time, amid the rush of subsequent events, Irving’s early intimacy with Thomas and Jane Carlyle has caused the revival of his name and story, wherever have penetrated — and where have they not ? — the memoirs of that remarkable pair. And there can be no doubt about it: now that the mist of controversy which involved the man’s footsteps while he lived is cleared away, we know that the charitable conclusions of Mrs. Oliphant are more just than the cynical summary of that other woman, who, in her youth, had loved and been loved by him, but who, among all her brilliant endowments, had certainly not the gift of sympathy. “ If Irving had married me, there would have been no ‘ tongues.’ ” But no haze of distance and unreality, or suffusion of too partial and personal a feeling, arises to blur the masterly outline which Mrs. Oliphant has drawn for us of the career of that great contemporary, who was neither a coreligionist nor a compatriot of her own, — Charles de Montalembert. She had become familiar with the man and his milieu while making her translation of his monumental work on the Monks of the West. Her own powers were completely ripe at the moment when he passed away, and she brought to the estimation of his rare character and conspicuous course a thorough knowledge of the questions and the conflicts with which his name is identified, and an exquisite poise of judgment. Nothing is more puzzling in its nature and more baffling in its results, to the ordinary Protestant reader, than that last movement towards liberalism inside the Roman Catholic Church. How the three men whose names are associated with that short-lived publication which they so proudly called The Future, — how Lammenais, Lacordaire, and Montalembert could have been all that they were, and no more, — all so revolutionary, and two so reactionary ; how, from the same point, and seemingly by the selfsame impulse, the two younger men should have been moved to a prostrate submission to the spiritual powers that he the elder to incorrigible revolt; how the pair who yielded their convictions, and seemed to sacrifice their careers, should have held a certain place forever after as champions of freedom, while the one who risked all to maintain his own soul’s independence lost his power and prestige from that moment, and sank swiftly into darkness, like a falling star,—all these curious and difficult questions, involving so much that is obscure to the intelligence of an outsider in race and religion, and foreign to his prepossessions, are patiently and respectfully investigated by Mrs. Oliphant, are luminously discussed and virtually decided. The key to the puzzle is in her hands, the solution ready for her readers. Study must have gone for much, in the formation of the instructive and disinterested conclusions at which she arrives, but sympathy went for more. Let us quote, as illustrating her truly extraordinary power of putting herself in the place of one whose conclusions are erroneous to her, and whose action she more than half deplores, her account of the way in which Lacordaire received the rebuff of the Holy See, when the three associates in the publication of L’Avenir had gone with so simple a confidence to seek the papal sanction for their generous undertaking : —

“ The steady, long-persistent purpose (of the Church) seized hold of his imagination, — he was overawed by it. After all, what were his own hot and sudden theories of a day, that he should come to vex with them the ear of this great Mother, intent to hear, over all the world, the marching of her sacred armies and the blessed footsteps of those who carry over mountain and desert the glad tidings of peace? He felt himself like a fretful child, thrusting its frivolous pains and troubles upon the mother, who is a queen, and whose mind is occupied with the affairs of a great kingdom. To such a child it is enough if the royal mother turns to him for a moment, lays her soothing hand upon his head, and passes on, without time to consider his plaints, to her own majestic business. he was half ashamed, half grieved, to have made his petty appeal, vexing her in the midst of her lofty cares. Before she had said a word in reply he had shrunk back, feeling his prayer out of place and untimely. To convert the world, to save souls, to promote holiness and obedience to the love of God, — these were the real matters that filled her mind. Even an earthly mother, more nobly occupied, could not be expected to pronounce if this toy were good or not, if this game was or was not to be pursued. And what were all these varying affairs of the world, the poor illusions of political life, the excitements of the moment, but toys and games, in comparison with that vast and wise supervision of interests so much greater, to which day and night, through all vicissitudes of time, through revolution and quiet, through peace and war, she gave her high attention ? Some such lofty ideal conception as this seized upon the mind of Lacordaire. When we consider that it was he who suggested the pilgrimage, it is easy to conceive what his rapid conviction of its inappropriateness must have cost him. He was startled, touched, awed, by his discovery. A mother, in such circumstances, may not always be guarded in her expressions, — may send the importunate child away hurriedly and even harshly, in her preoccupation : but that preoccupation is more than an excuse ; it is a sublime and overwhelming answer to all possibilities of objection.”

The same qualities which are so finely exemplified here give animation and interest to Mrs. Oliphant’s Historical Sketches of the Reign of George II., and of the literati of a century ago in England. They are inevitably present also in the little book on the Makers of Florence, Dante, Giotto, Savonarola, although the latter was much too hurriedly prepared, and is, upon the whole, the least accurate and satisfactory of her historical essays.

Now this interior method in the study of human character, this process of sympathetic divination, which has made Mrs. Oliphant at once so interesting and so just a biographer, is one of the two main elements of her success as a novelist. The other is an inexhaustible sense of humor, — and humor, too, of a rare and delightful quality; never trite, still less rollicking, but fine and dry and debonair, — the humor which tickles quietly, curling the lip of the reader with an unconscious smile of gratification, while rarely moving him to positive laughter. Mrs. Oliphant is not exactly witty ; and her personages never talk epigrams, — that is to say, her clever personages never do. Her fools, who are only less numerous and precious than Miss Austen’s own, are involuntarily epigrammatic sometimes, as when Miss Dora Wentworth, the youngest and softest of the three oldmaid sisters, who played so important a part in the fortunes of that distinguished family, learned, with pale dismay, that her strong-minded and overbearing elder had succumbed, for the first time within the memory of man, to the pitiful weakness of a nervous headache.

‘I should n’t wonder if it were the Wentworth complaint,’ said Miss Dora, with a sob of fright, to the increased indignation of the squire.

“ ‘I have already told you that the Wentworth complaint never attacks females,’ Mr. Wentworth said, emphatically, glad to employ what sounded like a contemptuous title for the inferior sex.

“‘Yes, oh yes!’ said Miss Dora, from whom an emergency so unexpected had taken all her little wits; ‘ but then Leonora is — not — exactly what you would call a — female.’ ”

There is, in fact, a strong family likeness between Mrs. Oliphant’s humor and Miss Austen’s. They get the same sort of mildly malicious amusement out of the more obvious incongruities of life and character, have the same quick eye for the manifold humors of situation. There is nothing in Pride and Prejudice, or in Emma, more intrinsically delicious than the conception of the exuberant self-devotion of Lucilla Marjoribanks, the “ object of whose life ” it was “ to be a comfort to her dear papa,”while that matter-of-fact gentleman dreaded above all things else, and stoutly resisted to the last gasp, her invasion of the comfortable and irresponsible bachelor existence into which he had lapsed during his widowerhood. Or than Phœbe Junior,— that type of the modern young person who has enjoyed “advantages,” too broadly cultured and perfectly self-poised ever to be ashamed of her grandfather the butterman, — calmly and critically surveying in the mirror her own blooming cheeks, and studying to contrive an evening costume which should “ throw her up and tone her down.” Or than the consternation created in that same inimitable family circle of the Wentworths, when the insouciant reprobate Jack, after playing for some days, with great gusto, the part of repentant prodigal, delivered a graceful farewell address to the assembled conclave ; informing them that, after the opportunity he had enjoyed of observing the checks and disappointments and general severity of discipline which they seemed to think profitable for the saints of the family, he had decided that his own best chance of enjoying any of their good things was to get back to his evil courses as fast as possible,— which, accordingly, he proposed to do.

Best of all, perhaps, is the scene in the Perpetual Curate, where an understanding is finally established between those two awkward and self-conscious elderly lovers, — the Fellow of All Souls and the helpless fine lady, — who had been drawn together, at first by a common sense of shame at their inferiority, in a desperate emergency, to the collected and efficient young scions of a more practical generation. We take space to quote the entire scene, which is brief and quite unique in its charm, amid the voluminous annals of courtship. The shy old lover had begun warily, by suggesting that he thought he might be able to get on very well in his new parish, — if only he could have the lady there to help him.

“ ‘ You have just said that I could not manage,’ said the mild woman, not without a little vigor of her own, ‘ and how then could I help you, Mr. Proctor? Lucy knows a great deal more about parish work than I do,’ she went on, in a lower tone; and for one half second there awoke in the mind of the elder sister a kind of wistful envy of Lucy, who was young and knew how to manage, — a feeling which died in unspeakable remorse and compunction as soon as it had birth.

“' But Lucy would not have me,’ said the late rector, 1 and indeed I should not know what to do with Iter, if she would have me; but you, — it’s a small parish, but it is a good living, — I should do all I could to make you comfortable. At least, we might try,” said Mr. Proctor. in his most insinuating tone. ‘ Don’t you think we might try ? At least, it would do ’ — he was going to say ‘ no barm,’ but on second thoughts rejected that form of expression. “At least, I should be very glad if you would,’ said the excellent man, with renewed confusion. ‘ It’s a nice little rectory, with a pretty garden, and all that sort of thing ; and — and T dare say there would be room for Lucy — Don’t you think you would try ? ’

“ As for Miss Wadehouse, she sat and listened to him until he began to falter, and then her composure gave way all at once. ‘ As for trying,’ she gasped, in broken mouthfuls of speech, — ‘ that would never, never do, Mr. Proctor! It has to be done for good and all — if — if it is done at all,’ sobbed the poor lady.

“ ‘ Then it shall be for good and all! ’ cried Mr. Proctor, with a sudden impulse of energy.”

Here we have Mrs. Oliphant’s humor at what may be called, for the lack of a nicer term, its broadest; but she is, if possible, even more delicately successful in portraying that strange mixture of tragedy and comedy which attends so many of the complications of actual life, — griefs which have their absurd side, a mocking, tantalizing success, an ominous prosperity; that everlasting incongruity between individuals and their accidents, at which one is always uncertain alike, for one’s self and for others, whether to laugh or cry. We have the contrast between the knightly soul and the sordid surroundings of the proud young minister of Salem Chapel. We have poor little Mrs. Vincent, meek, mild, and fragile, but of indomitable spirit; full of pious and tender frauds ; trying in vain to screen with her tremulous old hands, from the prying eyes of a coarse “ connection,” the grim tragedy in which the fates of her innocent children had become involved; excusing the dark and dreadful preoccupation of her son on the ground that he had inherited her own bad temper ! We have set over against the majestic and mortal sadness with which Gerald Wentworth abjured his faith and renounced his active career the futile flurry of his wife’s inconsequent and silly lamentations. We have the hungry and bewildered eyes of Valentine’s gypsy mother turning from one to the other of her twin offspring, — so intimately united, yet so immeasurably sundered,—from the lawless tramp upon the country roads to the curled darling of fortune and exultant captain of the Eton crew. We have the grand heroics of Paul Markham’s theoretical communism in connection with the unguessed fate which is about to strip his young life of all the high privileges and beauteous refinements which he affects to despise. We have the nervous and forlorn amenities of the miserable wife in the Ladies Lindores (the brutal domestic tyrant is the only type of villain whom Mrs. Oliphant draws with real gusto) ; her irresponsible, yet in some sort shameless, transport of gratitude at the stroke which frees her from her husband’s merciless tyranny.

All these are strange and poignant situations, presenting no end of curious and touching aspects ; impossible to be apprehended, even, still less invented, save by an exceedingly penetrating intelligence, a soul full of the keenest and most catholic compassion. If Mrs. Oliphant’s constructive art were equal to her analytic power, she might rank with the few great dramatists of the world. As it is, the fabric of fact and incident, which she is so wonderfully competent to people with life and inform with varied emotion, is often of an extremely loose and shaky description. Her people spring into being by multitudes, — into breathing, beaming, suffering being. Her own ado is to find some plausible occasion for all their joy and sorrow, their growth and transformation and decline ; in short, to make something adequate happen to her creatures. Now and then, as in the case of Zaidee, May, The Greatest Heiress in England, and that charming recent story In Trust, she contrives a tolerably compact little plot; but for the most part she is easily and blandly indifferent to any such obligation. Nothing could be more absurd than the slight apology for an intrigue afforded us both in the Perpetual Curate and in Miss Marjoribanks. We are not so much as told what became of Rosa Elsworthy, whose name was so preposterously connected with that of the irreproachable young clergyman ; while we are flatly informed, at the very outset, what is to be the upshot of the disinterested career of that great usurper and most amiable of social reformers, Lucilla. And yet, none of all Mrs. Oliphant’s novels, and very few, indeed, of the novels of recent times, will bear rereading like these two. We speak from ample experience; for the hasty yet altogether delightful re-perusal, for which we have but now so gladly found excuse, must be at least our fourth, and we are beginning to feel qualified to speak for posterity. Again we are reminded of Anthony Trollope, and the singular manner in which Mrs. Oliphant’s achievement corresponds with his, and furnishes a sort of complement to it. The former will live, for a time at least, because he has left behind him so truthful a picture of the outer life of his generation, — its manners and customs and fashions of speech and attire ; the latter, because she has delineated no less accurately its perplexed and difficult interior life. Once more, their faults of style are alike. Both have the diffuseness which comes of hurry, — Mrs. Oliphant, too often the extreme wordiness which comes of distracting hurry. The prolific are almost inevitably prolix. A true epigram takes almost as long in making as a true crystal, and the veriest beginner in composition soon gets a glimpse of the paradox that he who would be brief must take a great deal of time about it. The writer who is essentially an artist will take that time, and be mindful of his own possible glory. The writer who has other and warmer and perhaps wider ends in view does not vex his righteous soul concerning “form,” but far more probably attains his end. It is he, at all events, who has the ear and the heart of the present public.

It remains to say a word concerning the latest and not the least poetic development of the vigorous and manysided talent under discussion. Since 1879 Mrs. Oliphant has published, along with other things in her accustomed vein, some half dozen tales and sketches which may be described, collectively, as studies of the Unseen. The first of these, entitled The Beleaguered City, is altogether the most symmetrical and remarkable. It purports to be the attested narrative of the maire and sundry citizens of the town of Semur, in Haute Bretagne, of a singular series of events which at one time took place in that municipality. These amounted to no less than the invasion of the town by the innumerable souls of all its departed citizens, and the expulsion in a body of the living, who remained encamped without the walls while the supernatural visitation continued. The event, which occurred at midsummer, was accompanied by a sudden diminution of warmth and sunshine, and a shortening of the daylight hours to less than their midwinter duration. To the awe-stricken watchers without the walls the city appeared enveloped in a dense cloud or fog, such as M. le Maire has understood occasionally smothers the entire city of London. Nothing can surpass the verisimilitude with which this strange and powerful conception is wrought out. The energy of its first inspiration never flags. There is not an inconsistent occurrence and hardly a superfluous word in all the thrilling narrative. The French instinct in matters religious, so tender and genuine, though so alien to our own, and the French turn of thought as well as expression, are faultlessly preserved. The subdued and breathless story has just enough, and never too much, of telling and touching detail. Here, for once, the very style is perfect, in its directness and simplicity. It is Mrs. Oliphant’s highest literary achievement ; so high, indeed, that only in retrospect is it possible to regard it critically. It is a sacred poem in prose, and shakes the soul, at the first perusal, with almost the force of an actual revelation.

Either our author was unexpectedly stimulated by the strong sensation of surprise and admiration created by the Beleaguered City, or the powerful private impulse which produced that impressive sketch is not yet exhausted; for she has proceeded, since then, to make other studies in the same weird line, all of them apparently serious, and some exceedingly striking. She would seem to have been seized with overpowering force by the conviction which, in one form or another, is persistently haunting so many of the more sensitive and visionary spirits of the day, that we are near some new revelation of that Unseen, which, if it exist at all, must needs exist at this present moment of time, just as truly as the visible system of material things which is about us, and must needs have, moreover, some perfectly definite, though as yet undiscovered, connection with and relation to that system.

What is the clue to this connection, the master-word of this solemn and importunate enigma?

If our loved and lost are living, what are they to one another and to us ? Needless to say that Mrs. Oliphant has not solved this piercing question, but she has the air of having made certain definite and, to her own mind, satisfactory steps toward such a solution. These are clearly enough expressed in the words of M. Lecamus, the only citizen of the Beleaguered City who remained inside among the dead, when the great body of the living evacuated it: “If you will take my word for it, they know pain as well as joy, M. le Maire, — Those, who are in Semur. They are not as gods, perfect and sufficing to themselves ; nor are they all-knowing and all-wise, like the good God. They hope, like us, and desire, and are mistaken, but do no wrong. This is my opinion. I am no more than other men, that you should accept it without support, but I have lived among them, and this is what I think.”

A further persuasion that the efforts of the dead to communicate with the living are made upon their own responsibility, without any commission, though without prohibition, from the higher powers, is foreshadowed in the farewell sigh of one of the last lingering shades, when the army of souls finally decamps from Semur : “ We have failed ! Must not all fail who are not sent of the Father ? ”

This notion, again, is further developed in the pathetic story of Old Lady Mary, whose agonized desire to return to earth and remedy a wrong done in mere heedlessness and vanity is granted, indeed, but to no purpose. She finds no effectual way of impressing her message upon the living, not even upon the one dear survivor most loyally devoted to her memory, and goes sadly and submissively back to heaven.

In the Little Pilgrim, on the other hand, an attempt is made to realize the adventures of a happy spirit, unvisited by any yearning to repass the barriers which have suddenly divided her from the land of the living. The reader is carried on for a little way, but the conception is overwrought. From an ecstasy of faith it becomes a mere excursion of fancy, and is the least successful, upon the whole, of the supernatural studies.

Finally, Mrs. Oliphant has made yet another experiment in the same ghostly direction, of late, in her extraordinary novel of The Wizard’s Son, — a book which, in our opinion, comes so near to positive greatness that the sudden and amazing falling-off in the final chapters moves one to a species of exasperation. A very commonplace young Englishman falling heir to an ancient and ghost-encumbered inheritance in the Highlands of Scotland afforded a matchless opportunity for the calm and candid consideration of the relations between the canny and the uncanny, between the comforts of modern civilization and the venerable phenomena of second-sight. The story is accordingly conceived in a quaint spirit of equal hospitality to the two sets of influences ; and it is most skillfully sustained up to the very last, being made to move smoothly and, so to speak, naturally along the narrow line between the plainly possible and the theoretically impossible. The human characters are as distinct as need be, — altogether such as ourselves, and visited only from time to time by the “ blank misgivings of a creature moving about in worlds not realized ; ” the revenant is entirely comme il faut All goes weirdly and well up to the moment of the final catastrophe, which it would have been so easy, one would think, to manage with the same fine and faultless ambiguity. If only the haunted tower had been made to crumble without warning of its own inevitable decay, putting forever beyond the reach of investigation the mysteries which had pervaded it, the conclusion would have been perfectly consistent and credible, and the reaction in the reader’s mind would probably have been toward wonder and faith. The lovers might still have been buried beneath the ruin, and then exhumed alive, if their merciful author absolutely would. But the antiquated and tawdry machinery of the secret chamber, the mystic lamp, the winking portrait, and the alchemist " properties ” generally test our credulity too severely, and make us more than half ashamed of the sincerity of our interest. Loch Houran tower is reduced once for all to the rank of the Castle of Udolpho.

It would be unfair, however, to close with a captious complaint this tolerably long and yet imperfect survey of the work of one of the ablest female writers of this or any time. The very fact that Mrs. Oliphant has shown herself capable, in mature age, of taking an entirely fresh departure, and starting anew the discussion of a question so intensely and everlastingly interesting to all her readers that her views must needs be met by every variety of opposition as well as every degree of assent, is proof in itself that the resources of her mental vitality are greater than even her most faithful admirers have imagined. Long may we continue, not merely to be entertained by the lighter exercises, but stimulated by the graver speculations, of this open, vigorous, and brilliant mind.

Harriet Waters Preston.

  1. Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland (1849); Mirkland, a Tale of Scottish Life; Caleb Field, a Tale of the Puritans (1851); Memoirs and Resolutions of Adam Graeme (1852); Harry Muir; Katie Stewart (1853); Magdalene Hepburn, a Story of the Reformation (1854); Lilliesleaf (1855); Zaidee, a Romance (1856); The Days of My Life ; The Athelings (1857); Sundays ; The Laird of Norlaw; Orphans (1858); Agnes Hopetoun’s Schools and Holidays (1859); Lucy Crofton (1860); The House on the Moor (1861); The Last of the Mortimers; The Life of Edward Irving (1862); The Chronicles of Carlingford; Salem Chapel; Miss Marjoribanks; The Rector and Doctor’s Family; The Perpetual Curate; Heart and Cross (1863); Agnes (1866); Madonna Mary (1867); The Brownlows (1868); Historical Sketches of the Reign of George II.; The Minister’s Wife (1869); John, a Love Story; Three Brothers (1870); Squire Arden; Francis of Assisi (1871); At his Gates; Ombra; Memoir of Count Charles de Montalembert (1872); Innocent; May (1873); A Rose in June; For Love and Life (1874): The Story of Valentine and his Brother; Whiteladies (1875); The Curate in Charge; The Makers of Florence; Phœbe Junior (1876) ; A Son of the Soil; Young Musgrave; Capita; Mrs. Arthur (1877); Dress (one of the Art at Home series); The Primrose Path; A Chapter in the Annals of Fife (1878); Within the Precincts: Be that Will Not when He May (1879); A Beleaguered City ; Dante, Moliere, Cervantes (3 vols. of the Series of Foreign Classics for English Readers) ; The Greatest Heiress in England (1880); Harry Joscelya (1881); In Trust; The Literary History of England at the End of the 18th and Beginning of the 19th Century; A Little Pilgrim in the Unseen (1882); Sheridan (in the English Men of Letters series); Hester; It was a Lover and his Lass (1883); The Ladies Lindores; Old Lady Mary; The Wizard’s Son; Sir Tom (1884); Madam (1885).