THERE is little doubt that the success of a very small group of American novelists of the day is having its legitimate outcome in an access of novel-writing, and that our descendants will devote a chapter in their literary histories to the rise of the American school of fiction as surely as we now group the dissimilar poets who had their day in the middle of this century. It is worth while, therefore, to make an occasional survey of current novels that shall exclude the books of those writers who have won their spurs. We still have plenty of stories of the old conventional type, but we also have books that represent a more or less conscious departure from ancient models, — that have, we will say, a literary as well as a fictitious being; and it is these novels and romances which interest us most, whether they are better or worse than the books which we used to read.
Mr. Arlo Bates may object to being called a new novelist, since twice before, at least, he has appeared with a book ; but his recent novel, A Wheel of Fire,1 is a good starting point for his reputation. When Lear returns slowly to sane consciousness, under the gentle restorative of Cordelia’s presence, the distance between him with the overpowering sense of misery and her whose beauteous love he recognizes is the distance between hell and heaven.
Thou art a soul in bliss ; but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.”
In Mr. Bates’s novel the heroine is bound upon the wheel of fire, but it is the more terrible wheel of the anticipation of madness, culminating in the fatal attack. Miss Wainwright and her brother are the children of a mother who was incurably insane. At the opening of the story, the brother, escaping from mild confinement at a retreat, makes his way back to the homestead where his sister is living, is found by her in an exhausted condition outside of the house, is brought within, and lies for weeks in a state of fever, with outbreaks of delirium. He is under the constant care of a young physician from the retreat, but finally dies by his own hand in an unguarded moment.
Meanwhile Miss Wainwright’s cousin, Miss Elsie Dimmont, is visiting her, and a young lawyer, Sherlock Lincoln, who has partial charge of the Wainwright property, makes a fourth in the partie carrée of the novel. There are two or three subordinate characters, who are well distinguished, including among the number an admirably individualized dog, but the action of the story is carried forward by the four. These early divide into their natural pairings: the somewhat coarse-fibred but resolute doctor with the self-willed and flirting cousin, and the fine-tempered, chivalric lawyer with the heroine of unkind fate. From first to last the reader is never allowed to lose sight of the theme of the novel. The chapter headings, ingeniously taken like the title from Shakespeare, contain hints of the tragic course of events, and the absence of any incidents or episodes to withdraw the mind from the central action intensifies the feeling with which the reader moves through the tale, hardly daring to believe in the final escape of the heroine, yet occasionally buoyed with hope that the worst may not prove true.
We wish to say emphatically that in point of construction A Wheel of Fire is an uncommon piece of work. The men and women in it are real, without relying for their reality upon an indefinite number of minute touches ; they are clearly conceived in the author’s mind, and set before the reader with strong lines. The incidents are simple and unstrained. The few slight conventional scenes, like the breaking of the old glass, are not made to carry too much. The conversations, barring an occasional feeble smartness, are natural and bear the narrative along; and the main thread of the story, that is, the development of the heroine’s tendency to insanity, is skillfully and powerfully led. The reliefs, through the flirtation of Elsie Dimmont and the doctor, and the characters of Hannah and Peter, are just enough to heighten the effect of the central image, and the reader is filled with the pity for the victim which the author himself seems to feel.
Why is it, then, that with all this fine workmanship before him a healthy-minded reader recoils from the book as from something false, not merely as from something painful ? The turning point of the story is when Damaris Wainwright, who has wisely resolved within herself not to marry because of the taint of insanity in her blood, yields to the assaults made upon her resolution by her lover, and persuades herself that she may consult only her own intense longing for the consolation of love. Mr. Bates has not disguised the falsity of her position. “ She abandoned,” he says, “ all attempt to justify her change of mind. That was done with ; the matter was settled for once and all, and her elation was in no small degree due to the delightful sense of having reached a certainty. But woe to the woman who closes the court of conscience in a question, no matter how insignificant, pertaining to love. Practically there was no end to Damaris’ struggle with self, although she had for the moment won a joyous tranquillity. To accept as a condition of happiness a consciousness that the temple of justice in the heart is barred is with sensitive and upright natures to assume an impossibility, and poor Damaris, dazzled and won for the moment by Fenton’s smooth subtleties of speech, was never more pathetically pitiful than in this hour of insecure bliss.”
While, however, the moment of yielding is the critical moment in the life of the heroine, and so the turning point in the story, there is no real struggle and no victory. The will of Damaris makes after all only a feeble resistance from the beginning ; thenceforth it is swept along, and acquires such a momentum that the discovery of an outside confirmation of her own internal fear makes scarcely a perceptible difference in her intention. It is too late! she cries; she feels the destiny that awaits her, and simply moves unresistingly toward the catastrophe.
The objection which we make to the book as a piece of art is that the author, having set before us two human beings of educated conscience, fine sense of honor, and strong will, having given them eyes to see the fatal consequences of their act, permits them to be overcome by the very destiny they have feared, — a destiny which is involved not in some external force, but in physical conditions of their own nature. Now, great art does not make this mistake. Lear goes mad ; his madness lay always coiled in his self-willed passion, ready to spring out on occasion, but Shakespeare gave him occasion enough. It was the blow struck at his pride by outrageous daughters that let loose the demon, and it was the power of love in Cordelia that tamed the wild beast and dispossessed the old man of his devil. Shakespeare would never have let physical weakness so surmount spiritual sense, and crowned necessity instead of free will. It may be said that Mr. Bates’s conception is that of the Greeks ; but the Greek Necessity was a recognized divinity which was absolute and apart from man, — acting, indeed, through him, but permitting no moral choice in the man himself.
No; it is all wrong. It might have been a commonplace story which Mr. Bates would have told, if he had gifted Damaris W ainwright with the persistent power of self-denial and restraint, and had made Sherlock Lincoln chivalrously regardful of the woman, despite his own loss, but that would have involved no degradation of love. This story does involve it, and the painful scene at the close is repulsive, not merely because we see a beautiful woman transformed into a maniac, but because of the underlying thought of the story, which tells us, Thus must it have been. We cry out against that “ must.” We refuse to accept a logic which is based solely on physical processes. And so we say that the fine workmanship of the story is wasted work. Inevitable insanity forms no foundation for a work of art, for it is not the final word of nature. Reason, not unreason, lies at the core of life, and a picture of life which denies this is false.
The realistic treatment in fiction is pretty sure to provoke some extremist on the romantic side to see what he can do with thaumaturgic methods. By putting his story into the mouth of a Jewish musician, the author of As it was Written2 has gone far to set free the probabilities. Almost any flight of fancy becomes credible when the flyer is a musician, and a Jew to boot, for one instantly is able to take advantage of the supernatural element as a part of the ordinary furniture of the mind. So far, then, the author does well, and we begin to follow the Jewish musician into the world of improbability with a cheerful abandonment of the mere understanding,— the meanest faculty, as De Quincey contemptuously says, in the human mind. This musician, Ernest Neuman, while taking the air one May evening at the eastern extremity of Fifty-First Street in New York, hears Gounod’s Ave Maria sung by a soprano voice somewhere in the neighborhood. Entranced by the beauty of the voice and the passion of the air, he suddenly is aware of the presence at his side of a pale lady, whose pallor is not that of ill health, but of a luminous white soul.
“ I knew at once,” he says, “ by the sudden pain that pierced it, that my heart had been waiting for this lady all its life. I did not stop to reflect and determine. The words flew to my tongue, and were spoken as soon as thought. ‘ Oh, how beautiful, how beautiful ! ’ I exclaimed, meaning her. ‘ Very beautiful,’ I heard her voice, clear and soft, respond. ‘ It is almost a pain, the feeling such intense beauty gives,’ — meaning the scene before us.”
The precision with which the Jewish musician expláins his own remark is more than equaled by the precision which he uses in clearing Veronika Pathzuol of any perception of the force of his impassioned words. Nature, he remarks to the reader, had introduced them, and we may add that, as Veronika’s uncle, Mr. Tikulski, was in attendance, Nature was guiltless of any offense against conventionality. The introduction is followed by an invitation to the lodgings of the pair. They are all musicians and all Jews, and now the reader perceives that anything may happen. Happen everything does. The two young people become almost instantly engaged, the love-making being a sort of musical rhapsody on the part of the lover, and the plans for the marriage and for wedded life are quickly formed. This part of the story is hurried over, because the narrator has something of more importance to tell. He is to explain how and why Ernest Neuman without knowing it killed Veronika Pathzuol, before they were married, and how he came to find out long afterward the whole course of events in two or three generations which had culminated in this involuntary act of his. The title of the story refers to the method of disclosure. The hero is beset by a musical theme which insists upon being written down ; he writes the score at last with a sort of possessed fury, and discovers, when his task is completed, that his music has run into downright script, and that what he supposed to be one of the movements is nothing more nor less than a perfectly intelligible account of his very methodical madness.
We have not thought it necessary — perhaps it would not be fair — to put the reader in possession of the whole course of the story, as given in this book. It is enough to say that the author proposes to reveal, by a somewhat unique device, the causes of what may be termed a hypnotic homicide. Ingenuity is at the bottom of everything, and in his admiration for this one piece of novelistic property which he has invented the author sacrifices everything else. He had in the scheme of a musician writing sense, when he thought he was writing musical nonsense, a device which a man of fantastic imagination, like Poe, for example, might have employed very dexterously, giving it a culminating place, and making all else really lead to it ; his fault is in bungling over it and making his whole book such a thin tissue of improbabilities that the reader is never swayed by the story-teller’s emotion, but is simply curious to see how the story will turn out. Neuman dwells at length upon Ids own emotions, and goes through his experiences with sufficient cloudiness of behavior to justify the notion that he is somewhat irresponsible ; but there is a lack in the book of that deft joining of all the parts which leaves no opening for skepticism. One has a right, when surrendering himself to a confessedly supernatural treatment, to be protected against his own inherent incredulity, and this can be done only by a writer who has so mastered his theme that he has conceived a certain consistency of improbability. As it was Written reads to us like a story dashed off at white heat by a writer who was only eager to reach the ingenious device; everything having been invented for the sake of that.
The writer of As it was Written laid the scenes of that novel in New York, but gained nothing by opposing the matter-of-fact city life to the ghostly drama enacted there. Mr. Brander Matthews, in his story The Last Meeting,3 attempts a realistic picture of New York life, or rather of that section of city life which is represented by club men, for the sake of the setting which it gives to a single mysterious incident. When realism takes hold of club life, it is apt to make a very earthly piece of business of it, and Mr. Matthews’s young men and his old men of thirty-five do not give one an intense longing to be voted into their club. There is nothing low or vulgar about them, but they are dreadfully uninteresting companions, with their heavywitted talk and their mock-airiness of sentiment. They have the lightness of eighteenth-century comedy-folk, probably the most dreary set of people, except their nineteenth-century descendants, that ever cut pigeon wings.
It is one of this number, an artist of easy habits of despondency, who blunders through a quarrel with the girl whom he loves, and is last seen — that is, before he turns up again at the end of the story — sitting at a table in a friend’s house, engaged upon a letter. His friend stoops to mend the fire, turns, and misses Fred Olyphant, whom he had just left sealing his letter. The room in which they are is a windowless room, which separates larger rooms at the front and back, — a common arrangement in deep city houses. There are three modes of egress, by doors leading into these larger rooms, and by a concealed door, opening through the book-shelves into the passage way which passes all three rooms. In order to make the situation perfectly clear, Mr. Matthews gives a rude ground plan. Olyphant could not have passed into the larger rooms without coming upon other members of the dining club who were there. Hence, the reader as well as the more stupid of the club is driven to the irresistible conclusion that he went out by the book-shelf door. His hat is gone, though his coat remains.
The real mystery is after all why he left the house and where he went, for all the clues which are followed fail to lead to him,—all but one, which connects with his mysterious absence a certain Greek miscreant who had arrived from Europe the same day, and who was a bitter enemy of Olyphant. The reader has already been given a glimpse of the fellow dogging Olyphant in the earlier part of the story, and waits patiently for the dénouement. It comes finally, and accounts in somewhat melodramatic fashion for the disappearance and long obscuration of the artist.
Mr. Matthews has properly called his book a story. It is, in fact, what paradoxically may be called a long short story. It has all the properties of a short story except the dimension of length, and it is the length which destroys the element of wit and surprise so essential to the successful short story. By dwelling on the several critical passages in his story, Mr. Matthews gives his readers the fatal privilege of thinking about the crises, and they solve the difficulties without his assistance. Had he carried them swiftly from one point to another, he might have diverted their attention from the weak links in his chain, whereas now he invites their notice. Look closely, he seems to say, by his reiterated discussion of the mystery : do you see any flaw? And the reader looks closely, and says at once, Yes, I do. Whatever merit such a story possesses must lie not in its delineation of persons, — and these people are discriminated only by a few obvious marks, — but in the cleverness with which the reader is kept in suspense, the perplexity of the situation, the sense that one is face to face with a blank wall, when suddenly a chink of light shows a crevice, and a new turn lets one out of the confinement. Such stories are never left behind by any refinement of the novelist’s arts ; they are scarcely improved by greater delicacy of personal characterization ; but they must, to justify themselves, leave behind in the reader’s mind the satisfaction of a secret well kept and finally well disclosed. Invention of this sort is well worth the study of a bright story-teller, and the excellence of our short stories indicates that the art is a latent possibility. There seems to be no reason why fiction in America should not be strongly reinforced on this side. Certainly it would be a relief to many readers if they could again get stories in place of attenuated novels ; but then they do not want wire-drawn stories.
The pleasure which the reader may derive from Mr. Sullivan’s Roses of Shadow 4 is not the result of any novelty of plot. The story is a familiar one : she puts up with an inferior love ; he tries to console himself with an unworthy substitute; the friend thinks himself wronged by the man whom he has befriended. Nor are the characters strongly individualized or drawn with skill. The one on whom the author has apparently spent, most labor, Denise Gérard, a moderately equipped Becky Sharp, never renders the reader very uncomfortable ; her intrigues and cool calculations are rather faintly impressed upon her character. Captain Bromfield is more cleverly sketched, and Bruni is somewhat distinct, though the scenes between him and his wife are scarcely as humorous in execution as in intention. The expression of determining character is even less successful. Why should Helena Brumfield ever have loved Maitland Ambrose ? No reason in circumstance is given, and every reason in character and tendency is as much against the engagement as it is against the marriage. There are missing links in the narrative. Perhaps it was not necessary to account for Mr. Musgrave’s acquaintance with Miss Gérard, though the author seems to hide the fact only for the sake of surprising the reader ; but no explanation is given of Denise’s relations with the family which justifies the mildly melodramatic interruption of her interview with Marvin in the Granary burial-ground. Mr. Sullivan evidently relies upon his situations to give interest and piquancy to his novel. His people behave in no extraordinary fashion, and they talk simply enough; but the intriguing woman and the honorable lover meet under the walls of the Athenæum, and the fatal word is arrested by the sudden appearance of one of the library girls with a photograph ; the adventuress — if so harsh an epithet can be applied to Denise — is swept over Niagara Falls, after a deliberate preparation for this ending of her career on the part of the author, which robs the scene of any power to thrill ; Mr. Musgrave has an attack of apoplexy at a most opportune moment; and to crown all, Miss Bromfield is hid behind a curtain in the artist’s studio while her lover and the artist discuss her. In this final situation Mr. Sullivan appears quite to have lost his wits, and to have been afraid of the tableau which he created.
Why is it, then, that we have spoken as if the reader would derive pleasure from this somewhat ineffective piece of art ? The answer is simple enough. A piece of amateur acting or an amateur water-color may easily produce an agreeable sensation, despite the absence of professional skill and confidence. There is a quality of refinement about such work, the outcome of good breeding and good taste, which one accepts with satisfaction as a genuinely good thing. This is what makes Mr. Sullivan’s timid novel with its faint strokes a book better worth reading than some which can more surely stand the test of criticism. The quality of refinement which pervades it is an agreeable quality. Even the club scenes take on a harmless impropriety ; there is no swagger about them, and one feels that a man of the world does not necessarily smell of brandy. More than this, there is a disposition to depend for interest upon real sentiment. One is honestly asked to care for a man who has been disappointed in love, and to be glad that a woman has escaped an unfortunate marriage. We do not know that any great thing is to be expected from this writer, but if he will develop from a decorative into a constructive artist and retain all his fineness of tone, one has reason to hope for fiction of a quiet sort that may be genuinely good and interesting.
It is a delight to come upon naturalness in a story, and this is the charm which awaits the reader of Within the Capes.5 Mr. Howard Pyle has made a good reputation as designer of illustrations which reproduce the costumes and manners of late colonial and early federal days. He has been more successful here than in reconstructing the early colonialism, but in his best work he has indicated a capital mastery of character, and a vivid rather than an idealizing imagination. All this appears in the story before us, which deals with the fortunes of a young sailor on the Delaware shore, who loves a Quaker maiden and wins her love, but is somewhat distrusted by her prudent father. The old Friend bids the sailor come back at the end of the year with seven hundred and fifty dollars, and he shall have his daughter. Off goes the young fellow, Tom Granger, a little in a dudgeon, and makes for Philadelphia as the nearest shipping port. It is in the days of the war with England, in the early spring of 1813, and the coast has just been under a blockade from British ships. The only maritime ventures of any promise are those undertaken by privateersmen, and Tom, under the influence of the Friends’ principles, is averse from taking to this halfpiratical life. He is finally persuaded, however, and ships as second mate on the Nancy Hazlewood. To his dismay, they are ordered to sea before the vessel is at all ready, in order that they may take advantage of a lift in the blockade. They have a terrible time of it: the captain proves to be a madman, and the consequence is that the Nancy founders in a storm ; a heavily laden boat puts off, and finally is swamped on a sandy island; the boat is a total wreck, and no lives are saved except those of our hero and the first mate, Jack Baldwin. Here for a year and a half the two men live in a dull, despairing way, until a terrible cyclone tears up the beach and uncovers some coin washed ashore from an old wreck. Their time is now occupied in hoarding the silver which fortune has sent them, and they are finally picked up by a vessel, which has become aware of their fate by means of an ingenious advertisement of their whereabouts which Tom had devised.
Tom gets back to his native village to learn that, having given him up for dead, the girl he left behind had at last been persuaded to marry a staid old Friend whom Tom had outrun in the earlier course of his love-chase. Tom meets this potential bridegroom, has high words with him, pounds him vigorously, but is saved from actually killing him in a frenzy. The next day, he is just bidding good-by to his family when the sheriff comes to arrest him for the murder of Isaac Naylor, his thrashed rival. Tom knows he has not killed him, but he goes to jail, and there manages his own case so far as to give his friend the lawyer the necessary lines upon which to work, demonstrative of his own innocence and the guilt of a man who would be better off for Naylor’s death, and who really had dispatched him.
Here is incident enough, and, considering the very slight erotic element, one would not go far out of the way who should pronounce the book one for boys. It is, without doubt, a breezy book of adventure, acceptable to those who like a good story, tinged with the marvelous, well told, and brought to a triumphant conclusion. The art of the tale is no mean factor in its success. We question the entire reasonableness of making the old sailor who tells the story use the third person, interchanged with the first; there is a little too much affectation in this, but the reader is not especially annoyed, and perhaps the characterization of Tom Granger is helped by the halfwithdrawal of the first person. Aside from this doubtful expedient, all the characters and scenes are managed with a rough spirit very proper to the supposed story-teller. No strength is wasted on mere refinements of form ; the several incidents are sketched with a firm, bold hand, and are perfectly clear to the reader’s mind. The scene of the boat wreck, for instance, and of Tom’s scramble for life through the breakers is capitally described. Nor is the near remoteness of the whole story lost sight of. Without troubling himself about petty details, Mr. Pyle has contrived to keep the reader easily aware of the actual time of the story, and to invest the tale with a true atmosphere. It is such stories, hearty, objective, picturesque, full of life and vigor, which reveal to one who has been dwelling upon the refinements of modern fiction the capabilities of our American historical field. The war of 1812 is far enough away to be out of reach of our memory, and within that of our fathers and grandfathers, and thus affords a capital chance for the story-teller who has the art to catch at the salient features of life then, and the sympathy which enables him to enjoy a retrospective experience.
If the pleasure which one takes in Mr. Pyle’s story is due to its naturalness, the disappointment which overtakes him when reading A Mission Flower 6 is owing to the artificial gloss of that novel. A more distinctly literary air pervades it, and we admit at once that the author has expended conscientious labor on it, has shown refinement in his use of words, and has carefully wrought at a conception which was by no means commonplace. In his contrast of persons and scenes he has, indeed, shown an excellent sense of what constitutes the foundation of a finished work of art. To place a young English girl, with proclivities toward a conventual life, cheek by jowl with an American girl who had been early deposited for safe-keeping in a mission convent school; to make the Mexican murderer of the American girl’s father in love with her, while the English girl is in love with the Mexican, and her brother in love with the little réligieuse ; to carry on the scenes in a Western State, say Kansas, where the crude social life of the border is led just outside the inclosure of a Roman Catholic mission, presided over by a venerable French pair, Father Caron and Madam Clement, who have transplanted into this wilderness a patch of hoary piety, — to conceive of all this was to show himself no mean artist, so far as regards perception of harmonies and contrasts. Nor is the design altogether feeble. True, the reader is too early aware of the probable guilt of Manuel Silva, but the exact conclusion is not foreseen, and the wavering mind of Dona Solace serves to keep one in doubt as to the final disposition of persons. The events follow in orderly and reasonable succession, and serve to develop the plot. Nothing seems to be wanting which a careful study of the plan of the novel could suggest.
Yet the very care with which the author has worked may be accounted as the reason why he has missed the higher value which his scheme rendered possible. We are led to suspect that he never really saw the mission or mingled in the society about it. He has mauaged to set before the reader a sort of Noman’s land, carefully bounded, and provided with necessary land-marks, but still answering by no genuine reflex of nature to any real spot in the Western States. We are not complaining that he has so described the scene of his story as to throw the reader off a scent for some particular locality, but that he has failed to make it correspond with the general features of the life which it is supposed to represent. There is not the least inherent improbability in an English baronet holding a large estate hard by an old mission, nor in his permitting two young people, his son and daughter, to go out to see it, and for a time to occupy the premises. There is nothing actually impossible in the sort of life they lead there, yet Mr. Picard has thrown an air of unlikelihood over the whole proceeding by failing to give a touch of genuine Kansan life, shall we say ? and by constructing a social system out of the odds and ends of conventional society in any locality, the slight frontier flavor being scarcely perceptible.
It is, however, in the characters themselves that we perceive the art which has not concealed art. Curiously enough, the best portrait in the group confirms our criticism by its excellence. Father Caron may be excepted as a satisfactory likeness. And why ? Simply because the subtle old Jesuit, whose every movement is studied, is so finely artificial in the very grain of his nature that one is not offended by the nicely artificial touch with which Mr. Picard has painted him. But the other characters, at least Dona and Manuel, call for broad treatment and for a free, generous expression which they do not get. The young English people, ordinary in their personality, are individualized by trifling tricks of conversation and behavior, and fail to live in any genuine fashion.
In the brief space at our disposal, we are in danger of saying our say with too little reserve, and we should be sorry to leave upon the reader’s mind the notion that Mr. Picard’s novel was a conventional, metallic sort of work. We wish rather to intimate that it is a book out of the ordinary course, but that it suffers from what, for want of a better term, we must call literary lacquer. It recalls to one the pictures, more familiar once than now, of what was known as the Dusseldorf school, highly finished, painfully glazed, correct in all that the schools could teach in the way of manipulation, but interposing a perfectly perceptible medium between the person who looked and the bit of nature he was asked to look at.
By chance, the novels which we have so far been considering have all been by men, and reflect Northern culture. Mr. Pyle’s, perhaps, may be excepted, as occupying a species of border State position, and thrown by its subject and time out of the current of fashions in fiction ; but the others give us a view of civilization as it presents itself to the eye of the dweller in cities. The next three happen to be by Southern women, and two of them are distinctly Southern in theme. The third, Miss Baylor’s On Both Sides,7 may answer as a connecting link, since it is very cosmopolitan in its plan, and from internal evidence alone gives little sign of Southern origin. The book is confessedly a somewhat composite affair. It consists of two stories: the scenes of the one are laid in England, of the other in America, while some of the characters in the former are carried forward in the latter. There is a suspicion of an after-thought in this continuation of the beginning. It is as if the author wrote her first story, The Perfect Treasure, to sketch English social life as it appeared to a small party of Americans who were domiciled at Cheltenham, and afterward had the happy thought of bringing the English characters to America, with a roving commission to discover phases of American social life, and incidentally to exhibit their own colors in stronger light than it was possible to do at home. Many of the same persons appear in The Perfect Treasure and On this Side, and to all intents and purposes the two stories may answer as one continuous book.
This is the more easily granted, since neither in the first nor in the second story is there any great concern shown for the development of a well-constructed novel. The “ perfect treasure” is an English butler, who takes service in the American family, and who, in the opening scenes, promises to be the hero of the tale, but is so repeatedly forgotten by the author of his being that at the very end of the story he is hustled to the front as a thief, with scarcely the least warning to the reader, and with no after explanation. The fact is that Miss Baylor became so much more interested in the fortunes of Job Ketchum, a highly efflorescent Westerner, who makes an irruption into the calm English society of Cheltenham, that she quite forgot what she had called her story, and apparently what she had set out to develop.
In the second part, as we have said, several of the English characters reappear on this side of the water, and their experiences in New York, Baltimore, Washington, Niagara, Michigan, California, and Virginia afford an opportunity for contrasting national peculiarities of manner and temperament. The reader sees from the above enumeration how varied may be the American life which is presented. Miss Baylor displays an astonishing facility not so much in sketching representative persons in these places as in hitting off social characteristics, and in reproducing something of the indigenous life. The English are always and everywhere the same, the Americans differ according to localities; and part of the fun is in the changes of view which one gets of the English character by this diversity of contrast.
So far as the book is a novel, it is a very indifferent one. Miss Baylor is quite inattentive to her characters in their parts. The lovers love in a haphazard, accidental sort of fashion; their relations to each other are never kept long in mind. The author seems to catch herself up now and then, to remember that she has some affairs of these people to settle, and then goes about it with dispatch. Such carelessness is amusing in a book like this, but it would be likely to stand very much in the author’s way if she were writing a deliberate novel. As it is, On Both Sides has something of the gay lawlessness which makes the Pickwick Papers so diverting. There is an exuberance of goodhumor which keeps the reader entertained without any severe demand on his judgment, and it is long since we have had such clever caricature as is shown in Job Ketchum on the American side, and Sir Robert Heathcote and Mrs. Sykes on the English. Much is forgiven to one who makes us laugh honestly, and if on cooler reflection we think that Miss Baylor has sometimes laid the color on rather thickly, — that she has brought together in Job Ketchum, for instance, too many incongruous virtues and linguistic felicities, — we are not prevented from asking our friends right and left to amuse themselves with a book so bright as to create a sort of despair, as in the presence of literary prodigality. If this author would attend to character and its incident with more care, and keep her exuberance within bounds, she would be a positive addition to our literary force. The little picture of the interior of a decayed Virginian household,dashed off almost at random, one may say, is so admirable that one cannot help wishing for the same kind of work carried out with sustained skill and the sort of structural ability which is essential to thoroughly good work in fiction.
What Miss Baylor lacks in composition, Mrs. Tiernan, another Southern writer, has in a well-developed degree. Suzette 8 is a Richmond story, of the antebellum days, and the reader is introduced to the society of two or three families who may be taken to represent the noblesse of that highly self-respecting city. The heroine is a volatile creole from New Orleans, who drops, half by chance, into a family consisting of a gentle old lady and her disagreeable, domineering, and patrician son. This last character will be recognized early in his career by astute novel-readers. He is the unpleasant person who at once excites extreme antagonism in the heroine, but by occasional revelations of character makes it clear that if you scratch the brute a little you will find the passionate lover. It is of little consequence that in this case the hero is already engaged to a line lady. Such a fact only affords a convenient cover for the growth of relations between the hero and the real heroine, and the novel is finished when the underground stream of love, scarcely seen at any time, rises at last into the light.
The hardened novel-reader foresees the end from the beginning, but it would be a mistake to suppose that he therefore reads on as if it were a foregone conclusion. One has really told nothing about such a novel as Suzette when one has said that opposite poles become magnetized. Indeed, the very use of a spiritual plot so familiar as this gives an opportunity to the novelist to show of what stuff she is made. Just as the fine employment of every-day material is one test of an artist’s power, so the translation into fresh terms of a wellknown spiritual law is another. Mrs. Tiernan has brought together two welldefined characters, and has shown their influence upon each other through a series of incidents which are delightfully unhackneyed. She has used a society which she evidently knows by heart, and it is one which has not figured much in the higher order of American fiction. There have been stories enough and to spare of Southern social life, but heretofore such stories have almost inevitably had a partisan character; they have in one form or another reflected the author’s attitude toward slavery, and have taken sides in the great ethical conflict. What we like in Suzette is the fresh delineation of life at Richmond among the well born and bred, with the slave playing his own part, and the system of slavery inextricably entangled with society. Mrs. Tiernan well says : —
“ Edmund’s public of that day, indeed Edmund himself, then honestly believed slavery to be the palladium of freedom. To touch or even to breathe upon the institution was like touching the sacred person of Spanish royalty, which done even accidentally is treason. Thus much must be said in order to explain why people began to turn at least a cool shoulder toward Gaskell. He was so unfortunate as to have incurred the suspicion of not only defrauding his neighbor, but of attacking the foundations of society.”
This is almost the only passage in the book in which the author steps aside from her story to make an explanation, and just as it is it serves to emphasize her artistic view of her work. She is telling a story; she is working in certain material which has a historic interest, and she does not feel called upon to enforce any special view of the ethical bearings of the material in which she is working. One may guess at her sympathies from the manner in which she treats the charming girl Innis and the incident of her giving freedom to her bird; but after all, this incident was a constituent and very cleverly conceived part of the design of the story.
It is a satisfaction to welcome into our literature so admirable a representative of a very honest class of fiction. The writer takes rank with authors more common in England than with us, who are concerned with the fortunes of a few well-discriminated men and women ; who write with clear touch of a social life which is not foreign from their personal knowledge, and have the art to choose scenes and incidents which are thoroughly interesting. They have no great mission to accomplish, but they succeed excellently in pleasing their readers, and in this case, at least, one is introduced to a field of American life which is fairly new to literature.
Miss McClelland’s novel 9 of Southern life carries one into a region which is only not absolutely new because it has been brought vividly into notice of late by Miss Murfree’s powerful tales. The scene is laid chiefly in the mountain region of North Carolina, bordering on Tennessee. In a terrible freshet a young and beautiful mother and child have been rescued by a sturdy mountaineer; but the child is already dead, and the mother has suffered a severe blow. The child is buried, and the mother is tenderly brought back to life by the rude mountain folk. There is no trace whatever of her antecedents, and by a physical process not unknown to the medical profession, and not entirely strange in fiction, she returns to consciousness with a great blur in her memory where there should have been clear perception of recent facts. She is wholly bereft of any recollection except the faint remembrance of childhood. She speaks French, which was the language of her childhood, and is delightfully ingenuous.
By a simple series of accidents not at all improbable, the friends of Lady, as she is called by the people who harbor her, have no doubt of her death. They even visit, as they think, her grave and that of her child, and thus she is left entirely to strangers. For three years her life goes on in seclusion. She acquires English speech, but it is in some subtle way good English as contrasted with the dialect of the mountains. She also — and this is the main thing — inspires her deliverer with profound love. He loves her with a strange, protecting, adoring passion, which she accepts, returning a child’s instinctive trust. This relation of the two is delicately outlined, and goes far toward reconciling the reader to the situation.
It happens that before they are married, as they purpose to be, two young men, traveling in the mountains, come upon the lady at a rustic wedding feast of a neighbor, and are greatly impressed by her beauty and by her strange unlikeness to her surroundings. They get her story from others in a curiously distorted form, and go hack with it and with sketches to Washington. The family of Lady hear their narrative, told as a singular romance of mountain life, and are variously affected by it. They do not, however, perceive clearly the full meaning; their suspicions are not aroused, since they have had indubitable evidence of the death of the young mother.
But the presence of these strangers out of her old familiar world has an influence upon Lady, who is at the time gradually recovering the use of her dormant memory. Before her own weddingday comes, she wanders away under stress of thought, falls asleep from exhaustion, is brought back, and lies in a delirium, out of which she is again delivered by the mountaineer. This second shock has restored her old consciousness. Like the man who was wondrous wise, she has now back both her eyes. The three years just passed are a blank to her. She does not know the people about her, though she recognizes their devotion, and she is impatient to get back to her husband, whom she had left sick. The mountaineer, Dick Corbyn, attends her to Washington, and delivers her over to her family.
Such, in rude outline, is a story which so far will seem to many simply an attempt at availing one’s self of a motif in fiction lately made popular. It is a great deal more. Miss McClelland writes a brief note to the effect that she had not read Called Back when she wrote Oblivion. It could scarcely have mattered if she had. Called Back was not the first book to use the scheme common to both, but Called Back was merely a clever piece of invention ; Oblivion uses a forced situation to disclose certain line qualities of character and to sketch scenes of mountain life. The pictures of nature and humanity in the rough country are not charged with the fine imaginative power which we admire in Miss Murfree’s stories, but they strike one as accurate and taken at first hand, — a little toned down, perhaps, and relieved of ugliness, but, like Miss Murfree’s, instinct with human interest.
The defect of the book is unfortunately a central one. A character like that of Dick Corbyn would never have taken the step of marrying Lady, under the conditions of the tale. Not that the man would have been deterred by any such prudential considerations as a possible husband still living, and the absolute lack of knowledge respecting Lady’s antecedents : the simple mountaineers had a plausible theory which accounted for all this. But one so finely organized in emotional nature as Dick would have instinctively shrunk from the indefinite advantage which he was taking of Lady. He sees well enough that she does not love him as other women whom he knows love, but his passion is supposed to blind him. It might blind him to all ordinary consequences, but it would not have stilled the deeper voice of his nature which ought to cry out against the unnatural alliance. This mistake is vital, yet it is of such a nature that, while it prevents the book from taking a high rank as a work of art, it does not prevent us from recognizing in this author a capital gift, and we may reasonably hope that we have in her a new writer who will at any rate give us valuable pictures of life at the South. She has a firm hold of her pencil and a knack at hitting off telling sketches. Every fresh worker in the field of Southern life, who has the genuine home-bred quality, is a distinct gain, and we heartily hope that Miss McClelland will show us what she can do without the aid of an adventitious plot, which is likely to obscure the really excellent qualities of her work.
At the last moment, as we complete our survey of the most notable of the newer works of fiction, comes a novel different in kind and temper from any which we have been considering. We leave to others the duty of trying Mr. Astor’s novel of Valentino10 by the standards of history, and content ourselves with calling attention to it as a contribution to fiction. Mr. Astor has busied himself with the political and amorous intrigues of Cesare Borgia, and has made that somewhat unsavory gentleman the central figure in his narrative. We say central, and yet in the series of tableaux of which the book consists Borgia is not always present and not always conspicuous. As a composition the book has this defect, that the reader’s interest is not riveted upon any one figure long enough at a time to insure his interest in the continuous development of the fortunes of that figure. Cesare Borgia is, as we have said, the hero; at any rate, he is the principal character, and gives the name to the story ; but although the other characters have more or less to do with him throughout the book, and are in a sense subordinate characters, the reader’s interest is asked for each in turn, quite independently of their relation to Cesare. It was so in real life, but this is not real life ; it is a novel, and we have a right to demand a certain concentration of interest, a culmination of movement, resulting from a constant direction of the mind toward this chief personage.
The details of workmanship are excellent. Mr. Astor writes apparently out of a full mind and a thorough interest in his subject. There is none of that excessive explanation and historical comment which is apt to depress historical romances, nor is there such a collection of bricabrac as to make the book seem like a museum of curiosities. The people are fairly well discriminated, and they speak good English. Mr. Astor might have made his characters speak an English of the sixteenth century, which would not have been a wholly inappropriate rendering of an Italian effect, but he contents himself with an occasional “ prithee,” and now and then a little formality of structure, while for the most part he gives the conversations in dignified, unaffected style.
There is, moreover, a certain straightforwardness of language in the descriptive portions which is very grateful to the mind. One can forgive much to the writer of a historical romance who does not attitudinize, and the simplicity and good taste which rule in this book are first-rate notes in any form of literature. Nevertheless, this coolness of temper, this (so to speak) impartiality of the author toward his subject, is likely to affect people by making them rather indifferent toward the fortunes of the characters. One’s pulse hardly beats quicker in the passages which record some trifling bit of stiletto practice or some dropping of a fatal fluid into the glass of wine, — and the Borgias seemed to live with an arsenal on one side and an apothecary’s shop on the other. There is a curiosity to see how adventures will turn out, but it is an impassive curiosity.
In fine, we cannot see why all that Mr. Astor tells might not better have been told in the form of a historical narrative. He has gained nothing by adopting the novelist’s methods. He may have secured a few more readers, but not any more intelligent readers, and he has by no means demonstrated that he is a novelist or has the making of a novelist in him. Indeed, if he has proved anything, he has proved the contrary, for what makes the book good as history makes it lacking as a piece of romantic fiction.
On the whole, we think the outlook for novels is by no means a depressing one. There are signs that more attention is being paid to the art of novelwriting, and that it is going to be harder for a writer to gain attention who deals with the crude materials of fiction and is careless about to the form. There are signs also of freshness in the novelwriting mind. We have a great advantage in America in the stability of our political, the fluidity of our social life, and writers of fiction are beginning to discover how inexhaustible are the combinations which can therefore be formed.
- A Wheel of Fire. By ARLO BATES. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1885.↩
- As it was Written. A Jewish Musician’s Story. By SIDNEY LUSKA. New York : Cassell & Co. 1885.↩
- The Last Meeting. A Story. By BRANDER MATTHEWS. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1885.↩
- Roses of Shadow. A Novel. By T. R. SULLIVAN. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1885.↩
- Within the Capes. By HOWARD PYLE. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1885.↩
- A Mission Flower. An American Novel. By GEORGE H. PICARD. New York : White, Stokes & Allen. 1885.↩
- On Both Sides. A Novel. By FRANCES COURTENAY BAYLOR. Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott Company. 1886 .↩
- Suzelte. A Novel. By MARY SPEAR TIERNAN. New York : Henry Holt & Co. 1885.↩
- Oblivion. An Episode. By M. G. MCCLELLAND. New York : Henry Holt & Co. 1885.↩
- Valentino. An Historical Romance of the Sixteenth Century in Italy. By WILLIAM WALDORF ASTOR. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1885.↩