Recent Novels by Women

IN literature as in life, judgment is on wholes, and the reader who has followed a serial novel like In the Clouds through its successive parts is very likely, when the end is reached, to revise his judgment, and to precipitate a decision which has been held in suspense. The publication of this novel in book form1 gives a convenient opportunity for reviewing it rapidly, and for concentrating those general impressions which are often all that remain to one regarding a book read at monthly intervals. We suspect that the loose exceptions to Miss Murfree’s latest novel — those vague disappointments which find critical expression in general terms — are “ too much mountain ” and “ unsatisfactory ending.” It is worth while to consider these separate charges a moment, to see if they can be reduced to more exact terms.

Miss Murfree has chosen to place the scenes of her stories, thus far, almost exclusively in the mountain district of Tennessee. There live the men and women whose lives have interested her, and they are for the most part rude men and women. The seclusion in which they keep themselves and the tenacity of mountain traditions have conspired to give a certain isolation of history to the community, so that we who share a common name and common laws with them are able to look upon them as a distinct folk. It is the power to depict this individuality, to represent it consistently, and, when the more civil world is introduced, still to make the contact natural, that informs Miss Murfree’s art and makes her an imaginative writer of a high order. We do not recall any mistake which she has made when she introduces the gentry to the commonalty. The striking scene between Judge Gwinnan and Lethe Sayles is not marred by any bit of false romanticism, and when she ennobles her mountaineers she is only emphasizing their noble qualities within natural bounds. We regard this consistency of art as the surest note of Miss Murfree’s power. She sees each person in his or her real environment, when human society is regarded.

Is the same thing to be said concerning her treatment of humanity in its relation to external nature ? The mountains, among which her folk live, undoubtedly are more than the merely mechanical conditions of isolation and rudeness; in their power to influence higher, freer natures is to be read their power to affect minds under the trammels of ignorance and stunted growth; if they feed the spiritual nature of a Wordsworth with aspiring thought, they crowd the soul of a hind with superstitious fear, and make him acutely observant of forms and phases which are easily translated into shapes that threaten. If among her heroes and heroines Miss Murfree discovers the finer quality, as she may rightfully do, she is careful to make nature coöperate in the formation and in the development of character. One perceives that the Prophet and Lethe Sayles are at home in these august presences, and that their lives are heightened by the converse. She is equally truthful in her occasional interpretation of the fears and superstitions of the baser sort. In other words, she is consistent in her art here also.

But she is not content with this, and she forgets that her art is essentially dramatic. She resorts to wholly unnecessary spectacular effects, and constantly distracts the spectator’s attention from the persons in the drama to independent activity of the scenery itself. Many of the scenic pictures are thrust into the action in such a way as to interrupt the movement of the story without in the least intensifying the effect. The mountains, the clouds, the streams, are sometimes in the foreground, and the people in the background. It often occurs that where a single line is sufficient to give a vivid impression of an aspect of nature, a dozen are used, and the vividness is gone. It is all the more singular because Miss Murfree shows a remarkable economy in her portraitures of persons and her presentation of incidents ; she is wasteful of words just where words should be employed with the greatest care, in the representation of natural scenes. The accumulation of epithets adds nothing to the apparent size of mountains; and while Miss Murfree is often very delicate in her depicting of details of landscape effects, such details are not rests to the mind, nor have they any real relation to the thought of the persons in the scene. They are Miss Murfree’s thoughts, and she has not always succeeded in making them a real part of her work. The truth is, the mind is far more active in its comprehension of detail in human life than it is in seizing upon the details of a landscape. In fiction, where the mind is eager to get at people, it is impatient of anything but the broadest landscape effects; in poetry, especially in lyric poetry, where it lies open to suggestions, to subtle parallelisms of life and nature, it delights in detail, and is willing that the figure of the man or woman should be in the briefest outline.

The other charge, that In the Clouds ends unsatisfactorily, seems to us less well sustained. Whichever way one turns in speculation as to a different conclusion, the obstacles appear insuperable. To have made at last a union between Lethe and Mink would have been to give a merely hurried and conventional stage reward to Mink ; to have paid him, as it were, for all his trouble, without really assuring the reader of his essential worthiness. The fine impulse which gave occasion to his death was both strictly in accordance with his character, and had in it a redemptive force on his reputation. The glory with which it invested him in poor Lethe’s eyes is only stronger than that which is reflected upon the mind of the sympathetic reader. To have made a union, on the other hand, between Lethe and Gwinnan would have been to join two natures fundamentally at one, and yet so separated by social conditions that a longer educational process than the circumstances warranted would have been required to make them really congenial. The imaginary union constructed by the delightful Mrs. Purvine was a stroke of genius ; that would have been the flat blow of commonplace sentiment.

The fine power with which Miss Murfree has dealt with Judge Gwinnan, Harshaw, and Mrs. Purvine demonstrates the belief that her artistic capability is not limited by the rude material in which she has heretofore chiefly dealt. We are by no means tired of her rustic folk, and there are pictures of lowly life in the book which are consummate in their fidelity to nature, poetically and not prosaically conceived ; nor is she likely to exhaust this field; but we should be most heartily interested in any work she might undertake which had for its characters the men and women whose natures had wider intellectual and moral horizons, and (either therefore, or also, as she pleases) whose situation in life was less physically circumscribed. Suppose, for instance, she were to let the Mississippi River run through her story, instead of having the Tennessee Mountains surround it.

In Miss Woolson we have a novelist of another order. It is not merely that the material in which she works is different ; she is a casuist in her morality. Her latest novel1 is a study of interesting cases, and she expends a wealth of incident in conversation in setting the cases before the reader, so that there may be no element in the problem not fairly taken into account. Her anxiety to get in all the evidence, and to get it in dramatically, leads her, we think, into excess of invention. In this story of East Angels, two characters, for example, Middleton Moore and Manuel, are not only superfluous, they are in the way. Her conversations are needlessly repetitious ; we could get at the relations of people to each other without the endless variations upon these relations. It sometimes seems as if Miss Woolson had made careful studies of all the doings and sayings of her characters, and then could not bear to relinquish, this or that clever passage, and so had printed everything, instead of selecting those scenes which were typical, and making them tell the Story.

There are also certain artistic laws which she presses too hard. The law of contrast, for instance, so valuable in a sharp definition of character, is used by her to a somewhat exhausting extent. Garda’s husband dies apparently for no other reason than to give new opportunities for the contrast of Garda with Margaret, and Adolfo and Manuel are constantly bringing out each other’s colors. Everywhere is shown a lack of reserve power; the situations are stretched to their utmost capacity, and though there is a prodigality of interesting detail, the reader cannot help wishing that the author had spared herself somewhat, and not been so scrupulous in her art. We can almost imagine Miss Woolson throwing herself back in her chair, upon the completion of the task, and saying, I am nearly worn out, but not one of you can say I have neglected you.

And yet, when we come to the heart of the story, when we consider the relation which Evert Winthrop, Margaret, and Garda bear to each other, we cannot help feeling that Miss Woolson’s naturalness of manner and carefulness of art have failed in making us really believe in the situation. This Undine of a Garda is a little too incredible. We may not lay our finger upon any one weak spot in Miss Woolson’s construction of her, but she is too perfectly irresponsible to be altogether true. For one thing, we believe such a nature would have had a more distinct infusion of passion. Then the heroism of Margaret has a tension which impresses us painfully. We do not ask that she should be less noble and self-sacrificing, but that the reader should not be made quite so uncomfortable at sight of her. Nor do we think that Winthrop’s behavior toward her is any more the outcome of his nature than is hers toward him. She hides herself from him with a persistency which does not deceive the reader, and could not deceive Winthrop ; he rushes at her in a style which irritates the reader even more than it disturbs Margaret.

The real manliness which we have no doubt he possessed would have made him stop short of such petulance of passion as he betrays.

In brief, Miss Woolson in her overanxiety to elaborate her characters has missed, it seems to us, the more obvious laws of their being ; the result is a highly refined artificiality of sentiment, which scarcely consists with the admirable naturalness of those scenes in which no profound intention lurks. Little by little the book is built up; it is immensely clever in its separate passages ; the minor characters, who have no great moral exigency to serve, are delightfully truthful ; the negroes are hit off with great dexterity, and the crane becomes a real dramatis persona by virtue of his distinctness of character. It is only when one comes to regard the novel as a whole that one feels how ingenuity has been racked, and casuistry made to take the place of clear, honest, generous handling of human relationships. We are reluctant to believe that Miss Woolson is going to refine away her unquestionable power, and strain her art into forced service. Certainly we do not fear that she ever will fall into careless ways. She has secured great pliability of workmanship ; why can she not use this power in some swiftly accomplished tale, where the quickness of movement will save her from undue subtlety of motive ?

A year ago we found a pleasant task in calling attention to Miss McClelland’s novel Oblivion, and we took up her new book, Princess,2 with a reasonable hope of finding it an advance upon her previous work. Oblivion made use of an extremely exceptional incident upon which to construct a plot, but it reproduced very cleverly scenes of Southern local life. In Princess, the author still wisely lays her scenes in localities with which she may be supposed to be familiar, but she makes use of a plot which is hackneyed to the last degree, and the weakness of her story seems to impair even the simpler and easier portions of her work. The scene is laid in eastern Virginia. A Northern family, of generally good quality, though inferior by subtle degrees to the neighboring Virginians, has bought a plantation, and thus has been brought into social connection with the Masons, who represent the native aristocracy so completely that the daughter of the house is the latest of a long series of Pocahontases. She has exchanged her name in common parlance for the easier, more graceful title of Princess, which she bears also by virtue of her inherent nobility of nature. A visitor at the house of the Northern family is a certain chevalier, a Mr. Thorne, who is a martyr to the degenerate society which, in an uneasy consciousness, we are persuaded is characteristic only of Northern life. His wife has led him a dog’s life, and they are now separated, but not legally divorced. Miss McClelland tries hard to make us believe in Mr. Thorne’s dignified unhappiness. He bears his cross so silently that Pocahontas Mason has no idea he is married, and learns easily to love the man, having already thrown aside an honest Virginian who has only rough virtues.

She is undeceived, after there has been a tacit mutual understanding, by the wicked interference of the eldest daughter of the Northern family, who has been lying in wait for Thorne for a long while. Meanwhile Thorne, who has determined to obtain a divorce, is anticipated by his wife, who is even more eager to get rid of him, since she also is in love with somebody else. Externally, the way seems clear enough. The only difficulty is the obstinacy of Princess, who has high and lofty views of the marriage relation, — views which are not only Virginian in their strength, but personally intense. Here, then, is the situation. Thorne is madly in love with Princess, and is legally free. Princess is deeply, sorrowfully, in love with Thorne, but her principles bind her. Her old lover, who has been acquiring strength of character and a little money, heaves in sight. And then — what then ? Why, Thorne grows thin and miserable, and the burden is thrown upon Princess.

“ What should she do ? How should she decide ? She was torn and swayed by the conflict of emotions within her; the old fight was renewed with added fierceness. Her heart yearned over Thorne ; her love rose up and upbraided her for hardness. He was so changed ; he had suffered, and his hair was growing gray; hard lines were deepening about his mouth, and to his eyes had come an expression that wrung her heart, — a cynical hopelessness, a sullen gloom. Was this her work ? Was she shutting out hope from a life, thus making a screen of a scruple to keep sunlight from a soul? ”

Well, is this the first time a woman was ever torn and swayed, — the first time that a selfish man insisted that his misery was due to the woman who would not give him what he wanted, but to which he had no right ? Certainly the situation is not novel, but what is Miss McClelland’s solution of the problem ? Simply to make the woman yield, and to have the pair go off to the sound of faint, sad music, as it were. That is no solution. Anybody can answer the question in that way, if merely desirous of momentary ease. But true art, when dealing with ethical questions, does not permit a heroine thus weakly to succumb. A genuine work of art would not leave the story at this point; it would recognize the fact that by yielding the woman had either entered upon a new and more terrible conflict, or that a Nemesis was at her side from that time forth.

We have been treating this novel simply as a work of art, and we may add that the weak conception of what a work of art is has left its impress throughout the book. The subsidiary scenes are by no means so well executed as in Oblivion. But looked at as a piece of ethics the book is without excuse. We have no patience with a writer who takes up so grave, so momentous, a subject as marriage and divorce, and covers up a bad smell with a bottle of Lubin’s extract. We beg Miss McClelland to forget, if she can, this piece of sentimentality, and make us forget it by giving a thoroughly good picture of Virginian life, with a robust morality at its base, and a good honest plot to carry it. Let her put her strength even into life-like tableaux, and leave the plot to take care of itself; that would be more satisfactory than so artificial a product as Princess. We are quite sure she can do the real thing.

It is a pleasure to pass to a book which has the ring of genuine metal. We have not read any of the previous stories of the author who calls herself Charlotte Dunning, but we shall read the next one, for A Step Aside3 has raised high hopes in us that here is a writer who has a sincere respect for her work, and is capable of growth. It is not often that we fall in with a book which implies so much reserved power. The story in its main lines is readily told, and the reader is not wronged by being forewarned of the plot. A Frenchman, teacher of drawing in a girls’ school in New York, has a motherless daughter, Pauline Valrey, who has grown into a subordinate position in the same school as teacher of French. The two are living a restricted, quiet life in a cheap boarding - house, to which comes by chance a young man, the son of a country clergyman, and occupying the position of clerk in a small corporation. The meeting under the roof of a boardinghouse leads by the most natural steps to the coming together of Pauline Valrey and Hugh Langmuir; they love simply and faithfully, and the old gentleman is well pleased with the betrothal which follows.

It happens in the course of their very natural lives that the three find themselves on a vacation together in the Catskills ; and while they are rusticating at a farm-house, Mr. Prosper, Hugh’s employer, turns up at the neighboring hotel. He is quite unused to enjoying himself, and is having a dreary time, but the ennui is lifted by an excursion which he takes with the young people, and there comes into his life a new element in the person of this fresh, animated, and pretty young girl. Upon the resumption of life in the city, it chances by a series of very likely incidents that Pauline becomes connected with Miss Berryan, a halfsister of Mr. Prosper, and is often at her house, especially after the death of M. Valrey. The characters having thus been fairly started, the development of the plot is in the gradual separation of Hugh and Pauline by the intervention of the rich Miss Berryan and the well-to-do Mr. Prosper. Miss Berryan is selfish, and wants Pauline to herself. Mr. Prosper persuades himself that he can make Pauline a better husband than her drudge of a lover. Pauline yields a little to the subtle charm of the luxury in which she feels at home, and Hugh, desperate with jealousy as he sees Pauline slipping away from him, and incensed at the hard fortune which seems to lie in wait for him, seeks in a feverish haste to make money by speculation and in doing so wrongs his employer. The crisis comes at last. Pauline wakes to a keen sense of what she is drifting into. Hugh, half crazed by his conscience, comes near meeting death recklessly, and is spared only for a bitter recovery from illness. Then the real love of the two is supreme, and the estrangement is over, yet the sense of guilt on both sides remains.

“ They tried each to cheer the other, but the shadows hung over them and weighed them down. Their faces showed what they had gone through, and often, when they were alone, they sat, hand in hand, silent, not daring to speak out the bitter regrets that filled both their hearts. It was not enough that Pauline had given Prosper the money [her own savings] Hugh had taken, for the shame of the theft remained. No sophistry could do away with the fact of his dishonesty. and no promises that Pauline might make could do away with the fact of her disloyalty in the past. They thought of these things, not of what the future might bring in the way of happiness.” They are quietly married in the old boarding-house. “ The expressman had already taken the trunks to the station ; there was no carriage waiting outside, and after the last farewells had been spoken Hugh drew his wife’s hand through his arm, and they walked away slowly.”

Now that we have given this brief outline and taste of the story, we begin to regret our act, for we are sensitive lest we should have suggested an impression of monotony in the book. It is true that the novel is mainly in one tone ; there are not many dashes of color in it, and possibly the author might have introduced these with just effect. At the same time, the air of naturalness in the scenes is not impaired by any strain after striking situations. People of native refinement, who work for their living and are forced to live in cheap boardinghouses, are not exactly the subjects for fine writing. The step aside which each of the principal characters takes is not a wild plunge, but just what the title indicates, a deflection from a perfectly straight course, a human error; and it is just such steps that make up most of the minor disappointments in life. Yet so finely has the author delineated the career of her hero and heroine that when they leave the book we are conscious of no incongruity when the image rises to our minds of Adam and Eve, after their one sin, going out into the world of mingled sorrow and happiness.

It is no light thing to have done what this author has done with so firm, a hand. To depict nice shades of character and action without quibbling ; to present the commonplaces of life without dwelling unnecessarily upon ignoble details; to be natural without being loose, and real without using H H H pencil; to disclose the foundations of character without eternally fumbling at the roots of life; to be sturdily moral without being goody-goody; to draw people who are perfectly distinct without exaggeration of their characteristics, — to do all this is to do what belongs to a strong artist working in severely plain materials : and this Miss Dunning has accomplished with a success which excites our admiration, and leads us to praise, with scarcely a reservation, a book which is through and through an honest piece of work.

We are not disposed to generalize over woman’s work in fiction upon so slight a series of particulars, but we think enough has been written to show that women differ among themselves in ethical judgment, and that twelve women on a jury would probably be just as likely to be wrong as twelve men.

  1. In the Clouds. By CHARLES EGBERT CRADDOCK. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1887.
  2. East Angels. By CONSTANCE FENIMORE WOOLSON. New York; Harper & Brothers. 1886.
  3. Princess. By M. G. MCCLELLAND. New York : Henry Holt & Co. 1886.
  4. A Step Aside. By CHARLOTTE DUNNING. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1886.