Four Novels

AN intimation is given at the close of Mr. Crawford’s Saracinesca1 that the novel is a prologue to a more eventful fictitious drama, founded upon the fortunes of a Roman family, active in the history of Italy during the last twenty years. Such an explanation is almost necessary to account for what otherwise might be judged a somewhat prodigal use of characters without action, and movement without critical situations. If Mr. Crawford has merely been getting his pieces into position, it is easy to see why he has been willing to expend so much energy in acquainting his readers with their qualities, and permitting his persons to disregard the opportunities given for dramatic action.

The scene of the story is laid in Rome, in 1865 and 1866, and the principal figures are members of great Roman families, or typical representatives of Roman society, that society which was conscious then of its coming changes. There is only incidental dealing with political events and principles, the chief interest resting in the relations of Prince Saracinesca to Corona d’Astrardente, who for half the book is wife to a superannuated dandy, and for the rest is a widow waiting for the conventional days of mourning to pass before she shall marry Saracinesca. There is something almost scornful in the indifference with which Mr. Crawford treats his opportunities for making an ordinary novel with risque situations. He brings together the material for a great bonfire of human passion, and when the reader looks to see the match applied and a blaze burst forth, it turns out that the author had no such ignoble intentions, but was thinking of building a house. There is intrigue of a petty sort, and there are small jealousies and trifling events, — a ball, a duel, a picnic, — but the interesting fact about the book, which differentiates it from chronicles of small beer, is that the author does not overvalue his incidents, nor work them as if he had procured them at great cost. He is interested in his persons, and he is anticipating a large use of their qualities. Meanwhile, the range of their activity is necessarily circumscribed, and he is forced to introduce them to the reader by means of unimportant external events and situations. One feels that opportunity only is wanting. Given that, and the men and women of the drawing-room would be heroes of the battle-field, leaders in political life, centres of the large social salon.

That Mr. Crawford manages to convey this impression is an evidence of the kind of interest which he takes in his work and supposes in his readers. It would be entirely possible to take Prince Saracinesca, and the Duchessa d’Astrardente, and Donna Tullia, and Del Ferici, and Astrardente, and the minor characters of this story, and by a minute characterization and subtle analysis of their relations to each other build upon the incidents of the tale an elaborate history, and yet leave the reader with a fatigued sense of an unnecessary intimacy of acquaintance. Instead, after reading Saracinesca, one feels sufficiently at home in the society introduced to look forward with animation to such further and fuller development of the characters as history may warrant. In a word, the world at large is not minutely analytic in its discrimination of persons, and it is doubtful if the writers of fiction are in their own persons as analytic as they find themselves when engaged in the clever process of refining upon the characters of their invention. A novelist, therefore, who is true to the broad exhibitions of nature, and contents himself with seeing in the persons of his drama what any person of high, but not diseased, intelligence can readily apprehend and follow, and then directs his attention to giving free play to his figures within normal lines of action, — such a novelist is pretty sure to win a hearty response from healthy-minded readers, who do not set an inordinate value on epigrams and those adroit wordy encounters which are commoner in carefully wrought fiction than in ordinary life.

As we have already intimated, there is an historic background to Saracinesca, and the reader has reason to feel some confidence in the accuracy of Mr. Crawford’s delineation. We should feel a more unhesitating confidence if we had not seen in An American Politician how a clever observer may catch at some half truths, and construct a social and political world which has length and breadth, but no depth; superficially lifelike, but destitute of any reality. Possibly a Roman of to-day might dissent from Mr. Crawford’s general view of the condition of affairs in Rome at the time of this story, but to one remotely acquainted with the Italy of twenty years ago there is a firmness of touch and an ease of movement among the figures of the past which generate confidence. Indeed, the opportunity for a successful piece of historical fiction is admirable. The time is not so distant that the writer must get up his history from books and documents, yet it is sufficiently far away to permit good perspective. Moreover, a revolution separates it from the present; and when there has been a break in apparent continuity, the reader can more easily detach the period treated from his own personal consciousness, and thus can see it more distinctly as a completed period. We congratulate Mr. Crawford on his choice of subject, and the book which follows Saracinesca ought to be even better, by reason of the larger movements in which its characters noil naturally be engaged. There is a certain absence of poetic imagination about this writer which prevents him from gaining a mastery over his readers ; but he has a constructive faculty, a power of manipulating his material, and an outside sense of artistic treatment which give his readers a delightful assurance that he will keep them interested to the end, and not betray them into any unworthy occupation of thought.

It is perhaps straining a point to speak of Mr. Runner’s The Story of a New York House 2 as a novel. It would be a little more accurate to call it a romance, but it is, after all, scarcely more than a series of dissolving views, in which a house in New York city, built some eighty years ago, is the central point, until it disappears in the last scene, a heap of bricks and mortar and dust. Slight as the book is, it disappoints one, not by its slightness, but by its incompleteness as a work of art. There is, properly speaking, no story, either of a house or of a household, although three generations flit in and out, and the successive families keep pace with the decay of the mansion. There is a mere suggestion of contrast in the opposing Van Ripers and Dolphs, and the indebtedness of one family to the other, which might have served to emphasize the alternations of fortune, is scarcely more than an undeveloped hint.

We suspect that Mr. Bunner has been captivated by the poetic possibilities in the fortunes of a building amid the fast following waves of New York life, but has not sufficiently considered the necessity either of giving the building itself a distinct personality, or of making the changes of life within it graphic and vital. As it is, one carries away from the book rather a succession of faint fashion-plates of life. All the author’s force has been spent on nuances, and there is no unity of structure. One has to guess at the substance from the shadows cast; and while this is an agreeable task in a lyric or an episode, one feels that an insufficient basis has been offered for a piece of continuous prose fiction. If, with all the little graces of this book, there had been the added charm of a story involving some true interplay of the double streams of New York society, the old family, that is, and the nouveau riche ; or if the house had been so vigorously projected as to be itself an actor in the rapidly shifting scenes of metropolitan activity, we should have felt that Mr. Bunner had made a distinct effort in a field of literature very tempting to a man of poetic sensibilities.

What possibilities lay in the subject will at once appear when one realizes that this New York house was built in 1807, presumably in the neighborhood of Washington Square, and was then far out of town, in country fields, and apparently beyond the reach of the city’s stony feet; that when it was torn down, less than fourscore years afterward, it had sunk to the degradation of a tenement house in a squalid neighborhood, while the city stretched for miles beyond it. Thus the lifetime of an octogenarian had been enough for a building in New York to pass through all the changes of fortune and decay. How rapidly must life flow in a great city when a house is too old to live at eighty ; and what a panorama of swiftly moving scenes from its windows could be seen, what interior transitions of society could be noted ! We are more than ever disappointed that Mr. Bunner should have neglected a capital opportunity. He seems only to have trifled with his art, and published some studies for a picture,

Sidney Luska, in his novel The Yoke of the Thorah,3 has set himself a serious task, and has conceived the situation admirably. We wish his execution were worthier of the conception. A young Jew, an artist by profession, falls in love with a Christian girl. He has been brought up in strict conformity to Jewish rules by his uncle, a rabbi, but, like many Christians in regard to their creed, his acceptance of the Jewish system has been simply an acquiescence in a traditional belief; it has never been held as a matter of personal, conscious faith. Hence, when love takes possession of him, the knowledge that his religion forbids the union of a Jew with a Christian interposes no real barrier to his purpose ; it is simply thrust into the background by the power which holds him. Nevertheless, this knowledge has an outward representative in the person of the orthodox uncle, and the young Jew, accordingly, by an instinct of selfpreservation. refrains from informing the rabbi of his intention until the evening before the time set for the wedding, and takes the added precaution of providing for an immediate voyage to Europe with his bride.

When at last he is obliged to make his purpose known the rabbi is outraged, but instantly falls back upon his creed, calmly announces that God will in some way prevent the marriage from takingplace, and from that time for the next twenty-four hours is in waiting by his nephew, ready to be at his hand when the blow shall fall. The young man has no power of resistance equal to his uncle’s unswerving confidence in the immediate interposition of the Almighty, and grows more and more nervous, until his condition culminates, at the very moment of the marriage ceremony, in an epileptic fit, which both he and his uncle take for a divine visitation.

The marriage is not only interrupted, it is broken off; for Elias, under conviction that his destiny has been sealed, abandons the girl, and subsides into a condition of mental and spiritual coma. His uncle, well satisfied with the result of the divine interposition, desires to clinch matters, and urges the young man into Judaic society, with the consequence, finally, of a marriage with a Jewish maiden. After a while Elias emerges from the stupor in which he has been living, and the whole meaning of his acts dawns upon him. He wakes to a recognition of the misery which he has caused Christine, the girl whom he threw overboard, and to the falsity of his present position. His old passion returns, but he is forbidden to gratify it, and he crushes his sentiment, leading a double life, — an outward one of conformity to the situation, an inner tempestuous one of baffled love and poignant remorse. The tide of feeling rises until he can bear it no longer. Under pretense of a journey, he leaves his home and takes quarters in the city, not far from the home of the girl whom he longs to see, if only to obtain her forgiveness and tell her the truth. The hope ot he scarcely knows what buoys him, when suddenly, in a casual fashion he learns that she is to be married on the morrow. In a confused, halfcrazy state he writes her a letter, begging her to meet him at a certain trystingplace, known to them both, in Central Park. He goes there to keep the appointment he has made, and is found dead on the ground by some children, a few hours later.

It will be seen that this writer, who has made Jewish life his special field, has taken a strong theme, and treated it in an unconventional fashion. Whether or no the psychological condition of Elias Bacharach, after his epileptic fit, would receive the certificate of a doctor we do not know, — novelists nowadays ought to have a medical education, as formerly they needed a legal one, — but there seems nothing unreasonable about it, though extremely unpleasant. Granting its fidelity to abnormal nature, the reader is hurried along by the somewhat audacious originality of the story and a force which is effective though assumed. We dislike these excursions into the realm of epilepsy ; we think the novelist’s art suffers too much from monstrosities and the use of objectionable material, but we are bound to say that Sidney Luska has kept clear of mistakes which a less hardy novelist might have made. He did wisely in suppressing all the intermediate life of Christine, for example, and especially he did well in not patching up the wrecked Elias at the end. The tragic conclusion was the only rational one. The letter, also, which Elias writes to Christine is a masterpiece of incoherence, and the old rabbi is as skinny to the imagination as it was possible to make him.

Yet with all this freshness and vividness of conception there is a depressing element in the book, which we can only characterize in general terms as lack of good taste. The opening scenes, presenting Christine and her father, make such an impression on the reader that before matters have come to a crisis with the lovers he begins to suspect, in his wicked imagination, that old Redwood is, to use a slang phrase, laying for Elias, and that Christine will turn out to be a lure. The author manages to cheapen almost every person in the book. In his pictures of Jewish life he may be faithful to a single phase, but he never once suggests to the reader that there is any other than a vulgar one. His hero shrinks into a very poor piece of humanity, and the heroine, as we intimated, strikes the reader as a piece of spoiled goods. But does not all this come naturally from the integral conception of the book ? Instead of dealing with the profound subject of intermarriage between races and religions, and bringing out the nobility of struggle, the writer has chosen to swamp the whole matter in a treatment based on physiological excesses. Is it strange that the men and women of his book should be educated animals ?

Miss Baylor appears to deprecate criticism of her book by calling it on the title-page “ a homely narrative.”4 A novel it is not, any more than her delightful On Both Sides was a novel, and possibly she may never learn to produce a fully developed story; but she is so liberally equipped on a side where novelists are often lame that we are eager to see her win that large prize which seems just within her grasp. In this book she has chosen to depict life in the mountains of Virginia, and has confined herself to people who are very near the soil. There is a hero, whose narrative is told, and it is easy to believe that the circumstances of his career are copied faithfully from life. He is a mountaineer who has a touch of poetry in his nature, poetry which expresses itself in the love of music and of beauty in every form, and with a tendency to vagabondage, so naturally indicative of the artistic temperament on a lower scale. He marries a lovely girl, and his marriage might be looked upon as the preservative force ; but his wife dies, leaving an infant boy, and John Shore, in a moment of passionate regret, leaves his home and wanders no one knows whither. Suddenly he reappears just as the war opens, to find his son grown and his neighbors vaguely stirred over the affairs of Virginia. He helps to form a company, and is off again.

On his return with his comrades, he finds bis boy Alfred, who is a dumb-witted fellow, married to a shrew, and, oppressed by the unlovely surroundings of his old home, he instinctively makes over the house to his son, shakes off the dust from his feet, and bids another everlasting farewell to his mountain home. A score of years passes, during which he travels far and wide over the country, gathering no moss, but getting a good deal of friction, and at last, in a fit of weary homesickness, draws near his old home. A few miles away he falls in with a monster picnic, in which all his old companions are engaged, and joins the party. A railway accident on the return carries off one of poor John Shore’s legs, and he is stranded, a miserable cripple, at his son’s door.

Now begins the narrative proper, for heretofore the author has been getting her characters and scenery in place. The reader, who has been thoroughly interested, has his appetite whetted for a story, but as he nears the end of the volume he finds that he is to have no story. It would be a very unemotional reader, however, who would cast away the book at any point after he had made such a discovery, for the figure of John Shore attaches itself to one’s affection in a remarkable degree, — so much so, in fact, that at the very close one dreads to read the final pages, for fear the author is to be needlessly cruel in her logic. For there is presented the person of this luckless but lovable man wearing out his days in a feeble conflict with fate, who has a merciless ally in the wife of Alfred Shore. On the side of John, however, is a most winsome figure in the shape of Willy boy, an urchin who grows up under John’s protecting affection. These two, the old man and the little orphan, limp through the rest of the book in a manner to touch the heart of anybody less callous than Mrs. Alfred Shore, and the appeal is made not by any mawkish sentimentality, but by a combination of pathos and humor, rare indeed.

We are disposed to quarrel with Miss Baylor, as we have intimated, for the unnecessarily painful termination, and we think the incident of Matilda’s fright might have been used to better advantage. Why not kill her instead of poor John Shore ? The ineffective close indicates a general artistic defect in the writer ; but when all such exceptions are taken, there remains a book of such exuberant, genuine humor, such delightful portraiture, such fresh disclosure of wayward, lovable humanity, that we can only ask of Miss Baylor, whether she can write novels or not, to continue to introduce us to the world which her genius has revealed to her.

  1. Saracinesca. By F. MARION CRAWFORD. New York: Macmillan & Co. 1887.
  2. The Story of a New York House. By H. C. BUNNER. Illustrated by A. B. FROST. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1887.
  3. The Yoke of the Thorah. By SIDNEY LUSKA. New York: Cassell & Co.
  4. Behind the Blue Ridge. A Homely Narrative. By FRANCES COURTENAY BAYLOR. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company. 1887.