Agnes Surriage

READERS of that portly and muchannotated work, The Memorial History of Boston, will recall the pleasure with which they came upon certain graphic pictures of the town in its colonial and provincial periods, wherein the old thoroughfares and the structural aspect of the place were vividly described. The contributor, Mr. E. L. Bynner, had not, we think, been known as an antiquarian, but had won some literary reputation by one or two amusing, if slightly amateurish, novels; he had won it, however, only among those who take pains to know the authorship of anonymous works, for neither Nimport nor Damen’s Ghost was issued with his name. Now we have a book 1 from his pen in which the antiquarian and the novelist have each had a hand, and the right hand knows very well what the left hand does, though the reader sees only the ambidextrous touch.

It is worth noting that when Mr. Bynner described Sir Harry Frankland’s house on Garden-Court Street, in his chapter, Topography and Landmarks of the Provincial Period, in the Memorial History, it was the editor who supplied a foot-note outlining the romantic career of Frankland. If Mr. Bynner’s acquaintance with the story dates from that foot-note, we must add another to the debts of gratitude due to Mr. Winsor. However this may be, it is clear that Mr. Bynner has been more or less in training, unwittingly, for this latest book, and the book is so clever that we linger a moment thus over its origin. Its author had shown himself a bright sketcher of character, with an eye to the humorous side of life, but had contented himself with the invention of an odd lot of people, who were Dickens’s godchildren mainly, when he was called upon to use his imagination and his dexterity in reconstructing the bustling Boston of the middle of the eighteenth century. He made himself at home in the place and time, and in his wanderings through the town fell in with the royal collector. From Mr. Winsor he caught the hint which sent him to Mr. Nason and Dr. Holmes, and thence to the cabinet of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and finally to the living representatives of the Frankland family. If he had been an antiquarian only, he might have produced a monograph, ampler and more minute than Mr. Nason’s book ; if he had been a novelist only, he might have gone on inventing places as well as people ; but by happy fortune we have in him an antiquarian who has a constructive imagination, and a novelist who only needed a solid substance upon which to work.

The result is that Mr. Bynner has achieved the difficult and very acceptable task of producing an historical novel which is extremely interesting, and will stand, we think, the criticism of antiquaries. We say this last with reserve, for your local antiquary, when he screws his magnifying-glass into his eye, has an alarming way of making mountains out of mole-hills. But with no pretense at minute knowledge of the material from which Mr. Bynner has constructed his novel, we are struck with the firmness of his touch, and the ease with which he makes his way through the scenes he has to describe. He does not write like one who has crammed himself for his work, and is obliged to consult his authorities at every step, but like one who writes out of a full mind, who has familiarized himself with the period and places, and, above all, is in love with his work. It is only once or twice that he fails to work over into his own form the material which he finds at hand ; he would have done well, for instance, to have restated for himself the appearance of Hopkinton, instead of copying the report of another. This is a slight matter, however, and really illustrates the care which Mr. Bynner has taken to keep close to the facts.

The story, in truth, is but little more than a picturesque retelling of the life of Harry Frankland and Agnes Surriage ; the incidents in the life arrange themselves in so cumulative an order, and enjoy so striking a climax, that a novelist would be hard put to it to invent a more admirable plot, if he wished to give a picture of eighteenth-century morals and manners in New England, London, and Lisbon. To bring a handsome young Englishman from the clubs in London to the snug little town of Boston, with its compact body of English gentry and its restless, thrifty commonalty, and make him his majesty’s collector for New England; to take him on official business to Marblehead, and let him catch a glimpse of a rustic beauty, whose untrained voice gives promise of a future for her ; to make this handsome, generous fellow conceive the notion of becoming her patron and educating her, and then inevitably fall in love with her, but act as a titled Englishman of the time would be very likely to act with a fisher - maiden; to show an indignant Puritan community growl its disapproval in so threatening a fashion as to make it wise for the couple to seek the refuge of a country life ; to withdraw them to England, and bring the girl into accidental contact with the baronet’s aristocratic family; to carry them to Portugal, and have them in Lisbon on that fearful All Saints’ Day, when the sensual, pleasure-loving city was shaken by an unseen power, and Christendom, for a moment, dropped on its knees; to bury the baronet beneath the ruins and have his mistress rescue him, and then to have him make tardy atonement by a public marriage, — to do all this was to seize an opportunity not only for a tale of moving incidents, but for a representation of many phases of life. Mr. Bynner, as we have said, has followed carefully the outline given him by history, and he has introduced just enough of his own invention to round the story out in symmetrical fashion. That Agnes Surriage should have a lover of her own rank was inevitable; if the experience of life did not require it, the universal testimony of fiction would; and Mr. Bynner has used this sailor lover effectively by keeping him on hand all through the book for use at the critical hour in Lisbon. The widow Ruck is a less necessary character in the development of the story, but really more important as a humorous enrichment, and the cleverness which was shown in Nimport has been put here to capital use.

The local color with which the characters and incidents are set forth is one of the most admirable features of the book. It shows minute study, but does not weary the reader by detail. Especially good are the touches by which the topics of the day are deftly introduced, and the conversation, with its allusions to current literature and people, has a natural formality about it which seems to us singularly truthful and felicitous. It was a fine stroke to give the Voltairian chatter just on the eve of the Lisbon catastrophe. The landscape effects, moreover, as in the opening chapter, are the work of a genuine artist.

As regards the higher and more essential elements of the novel, the discrimination of motives and the development of character, Mr. Bynner’s work deserves sincere praise. He had a delicate task to perform in preserving the reader’s respect for Agnes, and yet not glossing the character of her relation to Frankland. He has accomplished it by the fine shades of drawing which he has used in depicting his heroine, and by making her her own severest judge. That she should have followed the course which she did, and not have become Frankland’s plaything, is made clear to the reader, and justified by the event. We think her vacillation is sometimes more obvious than the controlling, determining impulse which sends her to one side or the other, and perhaps the scenes which bring out her consciousness are a trifle too faint in their drawing ; but Mr. Bynner has avoided well the Scylla of treating the whole subject from an eighteenth-century point of view, and the Charybdis of the later virtue of the nineteenth century. He gives us facts as they were, but he enables us to see them from the inside as well as from the outside.

Altogether we may congratulate the author on a well-earned success, and the reader on the possession of a new and unusual pleasure. Our literature is not so rich in historical fiction that we can afford to neglect so good a book as this. The writer of such books has the advantage and disadvantage of knowing that his readers are reasonably well informed in their local history. Mr. Bynner appears to have neither ignored nor dreaded the special criticism his book would be likely to receive from experts. That such criticism could be given has apparently increased his caution, but it has not dulled his imaginative faculty, nor made him forget that the ordinary reader wants a story from beginning to end We trust that the familiarity which he has acquired with provincial Boston may make him willing to go a step further, and use the time and place as a background upon which to draw typical personages and scenes, whose special characteristics shall be of his own fertile invention.

  1. Agnes Surriage. By EDWIN LASSETER BYNNER. Boston : Ticknor & Co. 1887.