James, Crawford, and Howells

WE have long been used to the spectacle of English novelists turning out their work with all the regularity and punctuality of a machine in good running order. Anthony Trollope and Mrs. Oliphant occur at once to one as authors whose fiction could be counted on every season, year after year ; and there was something agreeable in the reflection that one would get his minor canon or small lord, with now and then a bishop and a premier, as promptly and as surely as he got his tax-bill. It is only now, however, that one may count with equal confidence upon the home supply, and through the agency of the monthly magazine one may have his James, or his Crawford, or his Howells, year in and year out. We name these three because they are at present the most distinctly professional novelists in America, and add their books to the annual sum of fiction with a delightful regard for the public eye and ear. Surely, it is no small mercy that, in these days of wearisome readjustment of all earthly affairs, three estimable gentlemen devote themselves with incredible industry and cheerfulness to the task of entertaining their countrymen. They are knights of labor who never seem dissatisfied with their lot, never work less than twenty-four hours a day, — it is impossible that they can accomplish all they do in loss time, — and never seem to be engaged on any strike or boycotting lark.

Perhaps it is an equal cause for selfcongratulation that they so rarely ask us to listen to their opinion on any of the topics which we go to them to escape. An eminent lawyer, in the good old days when antislavery agitation was running huge cracks through church and state, expressed his devout thankfulness that there was one church in Boston to which he could go without fear of having his conscience disturbed. We feel a somewhat similar confidence when we open a new book by one of these three authors. To be sure, Mr. Crawford suffered a temporary aberration when a few months’ residence in this country sufficed to qualify him to produce that droll variation of an English political novel, — The American Politician. Mr. Howells, too, came alarmingly near giving us views upon the divorce question, but was restrained by his artistic conscience, and gave us instead the reflection of an American surface, without his own reflections upon the reflection. But, barring these cases, the authors in question have provided us with a cool and shady retreat from the din and heat of modern discussion.

It might be supposed, at first glance, that Mr. James in his latest novel1 was not going to let us off, but intended to drag us with him into the labyrinth of the woman question. Nothing could be more unjust. Mr. James, with the quick instinct of an artist, saw his opportunity in the strange contrasts presented by a phase of Boston life which is usually taken too seriously for purposes of fiction. We do not remember any more striking illustration of Mr. James’s general self-expatriation. He comes back, as it were, to scenes once familiar to him, bringing with him habits of thought and observation which make him seize upon just those features of life which would arrest the attention of an Englishman or Frenchman. The subtle distinctions between the Laphams and Coreys are nothing to him, but he is caught by the queer variety of humanitarianism which with many people outside of Boston is the peculiar attribute of that much suffering city. He remembers, we will suppose, the older form, the abolition sentiment which prevailed in his youth, and now is curious about the later development, which he takes to be a medley of woman’s rights, spiritualism, inspirationism, and the mind cure. He notices a disposition on the part of what a clever wit called Boston Proper to break away from its orbit and get entangled in this nebulous mass, and so he takes for his main figure a woman who is young and old by turns, according to the need of the novelist, a Bostonian of the straiter sect, who has yet, by the very force of her inherited rigidity of conscience, martyred herself, and cast in her lot with a set of reformers who are much the worse for wear. Olive Chancellor’s high-bred disdain of her seedy associates is mingled with lofty devotion to the cause which they misrepresent, and the composition in character is extremely truthful and skillfully shown. What renders it even more fine as a personal portrait is the admixture of passionate, womanly appropriation of the girl whom she looks upon as the young priestess of the new church of womanhood; and the manner in which the woman is always getting the better of the doctrinaire strikes us as showing more completely than anything else in the book how thoroughly Mr. James has possessed himself of this character.

The second lady of this drama is Verena Tarrant, who was constructed for the purposes of the story, and is, we may say, a purely imaginary being. Mr. James may have had an indefinite image of the Priscilla of Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance floating in his mind when he built this impossible Verena. Impossible, we say, because, while Hawthorne manages to invest Priscilla with a delicacy of nature in spite of her surroundings, Mr. James, in his analysis of Verena, makes her refined, beautiful, spiritual in her power, and in a hundred ways, when he is not analyzing her, succeeds in betraying a cheap imitation of spiritual beauty. That Olive Chancellor, with a cataract over her inner eye, should fail to perceive the innate vulgarity of the girl is not surprising, but it is too much to ask of us that we should make Basil Ransom stone blind also.

Basil Ransom, however, is in certain ways equally remote from the life which he is supposed to represent. It was a clever notion to bring the antipathetic element from the South, and in a few features this hero of the story has a little likeness to an actual Mississippian ; but we cannot resist the conviction that Mr. James has never been in Mississippi, as the phrase goes, and trusts to luck that his readers have not been there, either. We have not much quarrel with him on this ground, however. Perhaps we ought to be thankful, since an intimacy with Ransom’s native surroundings might have produced another book of the story, in which the hero should have been built up as patiently and minutely as was the case with the Bostonians themselves. Suffice it to say that the fact of an extreme Southern birth and breeding count for a great deal in orienting this important character.

We have intimated that the book is not in the least a contribution to the study of the woman question, so called. It is rather a study of the particular woman question in this book. Instead of the old, familiar predicament of one heroine and two heroes, one of whom must get and one lose the prize, the two heroes are a man and woman, but the struggle is of the same general character. Who is to have Verena? Shall it be Olive or Basil? That is the question which is asked with great particularity and at great length. The novel is divided into three books : in the first, Basil is barely introduced, but Olive and Verena are built up like a coral reef; in the second, the contesting parties manœuvre for position ; in the third, the conflict takes place, with what may be called a tussle at the end. We hope we may be pardoned for a slight “ derangement of epitaphs ” and for a possibly flippant manner in stating the argument of the book. The astounding array of particulars invites one to pause and see if he cannot abstract the generals. Indeed, one stands in amazement before the delicacy of workmanship, especially in the first few chapters. The minute touches with which the portraits of Olive Chancellor and Miss Birdseye are elaborated, and the quick, firm strokes that depict Mrs. Farrinder and the Tarrants, have never been excelled by Mr. James. There is a page given to Mrs. Farrinder which is simply a masterpiece in its way ; its compactness intensifies its brilliancy, and the wit of its quiet sentences is as keen as it is easy.

The character, however, on which Mr. James has plainly expended the most careful and, we are tempted to say, loving descriptive art is that of Miss Birdseye. At first one fears that the author does not appreciate her, but one ends by seeing that Mr. James knew the pathetic nobility of the figure, and admired it, even while he was apparently amusing himself and his readers. It is not art alone that can do this, — something of personal tenderness must go into the process; and this character is the one redeeming feature of the book, if one is considering the humane aspects. The other persons are either ignoble, like the Tarrants and Mrs. Luna, or they are repellent for other reasons ; but Miss Birdseye one falls in love with, quite to the exclusion of the proper heroine.

When we say that most of the characters are repellent, we are simply recording the effect which they produce upon the reader by reason of the attitude which the author of their being takes toward them. He does not love them. Why should he ask more of us ? But since he is extremely interested in them, and seems never wearied of setting them in every possible light, we also accede to this interest, and if we have time enough strike up an extraordinary intimacy with all parties. It is when this interest leads Mr. James to push his characters too near the brink of nature that we step back and decline to follow. For instance, the details of the first interview between Olive and Verena in Olive’s house carry these young women to dangerous lengths, and we hesitate about accepting the relation between them as either natural or reasonable. So far does this go that in the author’s exhaustive reflections upon the subject directly afterward we feel as if another step only were needed to introduce a caricature by Mr. James upon himself. All this is still more apparent in the final scene of the book, which ought to have been the climax; instead of which, by its noise and confusion, and its almost indecent exposure of Miss Chancellor’s mind, this scene allows the story just to tumble down at the end.

Mr. James himself is, we fear, somewhat contaminated by the people whom he has been associating with in this study. His book begins, as we have said, with a remarkable piece of writing, but by and by he falls into a manner which could only have been caught from the Tarrants. His own manner has a trick of being almost too familiar, with its elisions and its easy-going phrases; but his constant resort to the initial well in conversation, and his habit of reporting the mind as well as the conversation of his baser characters in a sort of third personal evasion of elegance, add to the general effect of slouchiness which much of the book produces.

We have been drawn by the spirit of the book into a more minute criticism than we had intended, but after chasing with Mr. James so long, it is difficult not to go on chasing him a little. It is when we stop and take the book as a whole that we forget how fine the web is spun, and remember only the strong conception which underlies the book; the freshness of the material used ; the amazing cleverness of separate passages ; the consummate success shown in so dangerous a scene as the death of Miss Birdseye, where the reticence of art is splendidly displayed ; and, in fine, the prodigal wealth scattered through all the pages. There is sorry waste, and one’s last thought about the work is a somewhat melancholy one, but we all have a lurking affection for prodigals.

It would be hard to find a stronger contrast of methods than that which is exhibited by The Bostonians and A Tale of a Lonely Parish.2 With two cities to draw from, Mr. James gave us really only four or five people, but they were types. Mr. Crawford takes us to a quiet English village, and introduces us to all the best people in it, — four or five, also. They are not types, — at least, they do not represent principles, or vagaries, or tendencies, or anything of that sort; but they are characters in a drama which vibrates between the tragic and the comic. There have been novelists who have said, Come to this little retired spot, and look into the apparently uneventful lives of the people ; look long enough and deep enough, and you will see what will move you to tears or laughter, — the real conflict which goes on in human souls. But this is not just what Mr. Crawford intends. He sketches a lonely parish, and draws in a mild-mannered vicar and his wife, a young candidate for honors at the university, an unmarried English squire of middle age, and a refined Englishwoman and her child, who come to the village from no one knows where except the vicar and his wife. For nearly half the volume the reader is lightly entertained with the chronicle of the matter-of-fact converse of these people; there is no attempt at discovering their spiritual anatomy, and except for the distant rumble of an approaching catastrophe the reader might think it scarcely worth while to attend very closely to such a harmless society. Nevertheless, he does attend, for he knows that Mr. Crawford, with all his ease of manner and apparent innocence of intention, is too clever a novelist to invite him to so meagre a tale as the ordinary development of the relations between the persons of the story would suggest. There is no subtlety of character-drawing to suggest that one is to be entertained by a conflict of souls ; there is no humor to suggest that the whole tale is a piece of playfulness. One is aware, instead, in the earlier part of the tale, that the author is setting his stage. The figures are placed leisurely, but firmly; the scenery is sketched broadly, and one watches the sluggish current of the narrative with entire confidence that a quick, exciting denouement is in waiting.

We think Mr. Crawford has managed all the earlier portion of his tale with capital reference to what is to come. He gives the veteran novel-reader a perfectly open secret to keep; for in the entrance of a young mother and daughter there clearly is supposed some kind of a husband and father concealed in the background, and it requires no great penetration to imagine just the person who does finally appear upon the stage to create the disturbance which sets all the characters into animated activity. For a little while, indeed, one anticipates a double mystery, and is given to suspect Mr. Juxon, the squire, as keeping a secret somewhere about his person ; but if Mr. Crawford intended this for a blind, as we think likely, he makes but little of it.

This art of preparation is well understood by our novelist. He employs it with great success, not only in leading the reader through the earlier pages up to the point where the movement suddenly quickens, but twice at least in more special instances. The immediate preparation for the advent of Goddard and that for the attack on Mr. Juxon are both excellently managed. There is no cheap use of premonitory signals, but the reader experiences an emotion which may be likened to the sensation one feels in the sultriness which precedes a thunder-storm, or in that breathless condition of the air that makes one look uneasily for a squall.

These marks of a novelist’s power are very agreeable, and betoken a good grip of the story and a self-confidence which gives the reader a sense of security and a belief that he is not going to be trifled with. In this respect Mr. Crawford shows a positive advance on his previous work. He shows also a good understanding of the limitations of his story. Even the inconsequential character of John Short’s infatuation for Mrs. Goddard, which at first seems like a feeble diversion in the tale, comes to have a fit enough place, and certainly is not overworked or allowed too much importance. The simplicity of modeling accords with the whole plan of the story. The characters all have a reality ; but this is reached not by any attempt at building up carefully conceived individualities, but by a vivid and ready use of conventional persons with whom the reader is already acquainted. No one needs a special introduction to any of the people in the book ; if formally introduced, one is ready to say, Your face is so familiar to me that I am very glad to have the pleasure of calling you by name.

No, the attraction of the book lies in its really being a tale, and a clever one. The situations follow each other, when the action finally is accelerated, with a quickness and naturalness which do not suffer the interest to flag. One is in no great doubt as to the termination, but one is quite curious to know the successive turns ; and this, we take it, is a tribute to the skill of the narrator. Is not this the proper function of the tale, that it should interest the hearer not so much in the issue as in the unwinding, and that the hearer should be just enough intent upon the immediate situation to be ready to leave it as soon as it opens into the next? At any rate, we pay Mr. Crawford his dues when we say that his tale interests one up to the end, and leaves nothing but a general satisfaction at the turn everything has taken. As we have intimated, the novelist’s aim is very different from that of a writer who has taken up his quarters for the time within the consciousness of his characters, and is busily engaged in exploring his temporary establishment.

Do we come back to a novelist of this order when we inquire into the nature of Mr. Howells’s latest novel ? 3 A careless classification includes Mr. James and Mr. Howells, but we fancy we are doing them both justice by wedging Mr. Crawford in between them. They arc really scarcely more like each other than each is like their younger companion. Their common ground is simply that they occupy themselves with similar material, — namely, the men and women whom their readers are likely to meet, — and that they work from individuals to the general, rather than, as in Mr. Crawford’s case, accept readymade individuals out of the general lot. The use which they make of their material is very different, even as their purpose is different. Mr. James is bound to find out all he can about his characters, and he performs a vast number of experiments with them, extremely ingenious and very satisfactory to the scientific mind. Mr. Howells is not a vivisectionist; he is a naturalist, who makes use of the microscope occasionally, but ordinarily depends upon his own highly developed organ of sight, for a study of the habits and variation of a few species which have come to interest him. He widens his range of observation and then contracts it, but his mode of operation remains the same. What his characters will do when left to themselves, that is his interest, and he watches them with unflagging attention. The difficulty with him, as with many another naturalist, is that he is too much of a specialist, and that his specialty limits the range of his sympathy. Sparrows, orioles, wrens, are all engaging little creatures, and one may observe them with great delight; but after all, an ornithologist may make a mistake who looks with all his might and main at some chattering English sparrows, when likely as not there is a flight overhead of some strong-winged wild geese sweeping northward after a southern hibernation, or possibly even some hawks poising in upper air for a downward swoop.

It is by such decorous figurativeness that we hint at our slowly hardening disappointment over the limitations which Mr. Howells chooses to set himself. What we continue to admire is the fidelity with which he portrays the life which does interest him, and the unfailing charm which lies in his lightness of touch. He has chosen for his theme in Indian Summer a very elusive yet sure human experience, for he has attempted to fix that consciousness of loss of youth which afflicts many men at the uncertain period when a slight sluggishness of one’s nature is discovered, — the sumach period that comes at different ages in different persons. He has not intimated that women have such a period, but he concentrates his attention upon the hero of his story, who is admirably conceived. The grace with which he has managed to betray Colville’s self-discovery without torturing the reader, to keep his hero heroic while he smiles at him, is the best thing in the book. As usual, the incidents of the story are insignificant; we are told rather how the several people behave than what they do. In one instance, however, there is a very clever turn to a situation, which is so quietly done as possibly to escape the attention of some. At the critical moment of the story, if the story can be said really to have a crisis, the hero, who could be happy with one, if t’other fair charmer were away, betrays instinctively his choice when, as he runs to the side of the carriage about to be overthrown, he cries, “Jump, Mrs. Bowen! Jump, Effie! Imogene”— Imogene understands that order of his thoughts very well, and prefers to be pulled out of the other side of the carriage by Mr. Morton ; but it is characteristic of Mr. Howells that he should let his crisis take care of itself, as it were. So essentially undramatic is he that if he were engaged in setting forth the life and career of Julius Cæsar, the Rubicon would appear in all the diminutiveness of its actual nature, and not broadened or deepened by its historical overflow. He would doubtless say, in justification of himself, that the crossing of the Rubicon was not momentous in itself; that it merely represented one step in a series, every one of which was significant if you chose to consider it so ; that a person is rarely consciously dramatic, and that it is a mistake to treat him as if he were. We are not offering to discuss at length Mr. Howells’s philosophy of novel-writing, but wish to indicate something of the practice into which it leads him,— a practice, we contend, that lessens the meaning of every selected act by making no one of them especially significant. Mr. Howells may wish to persuade us, by keeping our eyes intent upon the near roadside, that we are not climbing much of a hill, but the objection to his course is that when we get to the top of the hill we are not suddenly made aware of our progress by being shown the prospect before or behind.

As for the other characters of his story, there are two that win the reader’s affectionate interest : the clergyman, who is enjoying a veritable summer after the frost had set in, and Effie Bowen, a delightfully drawn child. It is in the depicting of this little figure that Mr. Howells’s art is seen at its best. We do not remember that he has before drawn the portrait of a child, but it is easy to see why he should do it well. His sympathy finds genuine expression, his liking for caprice can be indulged without exaggeration, and the very limitations of a child’s nature accord with the limitations of Mr. Howells’s art; for he sees people, as it were, here and there, and that is just the way we see a child. No large conception is required, no long-sustained sight following a figure through devious ways, but mainly a sympathetic, penetrating vision of a miniature nature which discloses itself by little signs. Imogene seems to us scarcely a successful portrait. The literary conversation, indeed, is inimitable, and is a first-rate piece of character-drawing; but the basis of the character, in the idealizing of Colville’s early love affair, appears too weak to sustain the whole structure. Mrs. Bowen is better, yet neither of the two ladies is quite new enough, as a variety, to warrant us in regarding her as a distinct addition to Mr. Howells’s Gallery of Nervous Women.

It is one of the subtle perils of the reviewer that he should mistake his own entertainment for the performance of critical duty. It may be counted, then, either as a return to a sharp sense of his responsibility, or as a wish to range himself with the persons whom he has been considering, when he reminds the reader of what he said at the outset, — that these three authors have a fair claim on public gratitude. We may turn their books upside down or inside out, but, after all, are not the books positive additions to the sum of pleasure in this tumultuous, sadly knocked-about world ? More than that, we may well put our criticism behind us, or in the fire, if you will, and join in an honest self-gratulation that James, Crawford, and Howells are telling their stories year in and year out.

  1. The Bostonians. By HENRY JAMES. London and New York: Macmillan & Co. 1886.
  2. A Tale of a Lonely Parish. By F. MARION CRAWFORD. London and New York : Macmillan & Co. 1886.
  3. Indian Summer. By WILLIAM D. HOWELLS. Boston: Ticknor & Co. 1886.