Girl Novelists of the Time
WE cannot say that we have ever felt concerning the Rev. John Knox as Mrs. Blimber did with regard to Cicero, — that the one thing neeedful to complete the happiness of life would have been to know him in the flesh. We fancy, indeed, that the great Scotch divine can never have been what is technically called nice to know; but there is no denying that he was a man of great sagacity, and, in spite of himself, — for one can guess how indignantly he would have repelled the romantic imputation, — he was, we think, a bit of a seer. For is it not evident that, when he wrote his famous First Blast, he was influenced by something over and above a fierce personal distrust of the “ monstrous regiment ” of the ill-starred Mary ? It was the preponderance of woman in the abstract against which the old Puritan rebelled in advance. It was an unconscious exercise of second sight, we make no doubt, which revealed to him, afar off, the coming of a feminine era, and caused him to blow that crashing trumpet of his, as one who sounds alarm, and summons a scattered host to the defense of sacred rights in jeopardy.
It is but a trifle of three hundred years or so since that note of warning sounded, and it must be owned that, up to the present time, the forces of manly conservatism have made shift to hold the political fort right stoutly. They have been attacked, though not as yet invested, but who shall count the little places they have lost meanwhile in the outlying fields of literature ?
To drop the military figure, we have been freshly and very deeply impressed of late by the strong writing of very young women. There is only one thing more remarkable than the variety and gravity of the tasks which the fair aspirants now undertake, and that is the signal success, at least up to a certain point, which attends so many of these precocious efforts. Let us consider a few of them, in the line of popular fiction.
What would John Knox have said to Wuthering Heights, or to Love’s Martyr, or to The Story of an African Farm? Widely as these books differ in literary merit, they have in common an element of gloomy power, a strange, incalculable, unclassifiable energy. The motives which actuate their authors are stern, and seemingly quite impersonal. They deal resolutely, preferably, with broad vulgarities of scene, with painful situations, with harsh and sad combinations of influence and incident, with the darker and more sinister aspects, especially of masculine character. Easy lots, conventional virtues, natural pieties, and innocent delights, — these things appear immeasurably remote from the imaginations of the austere young dramatists, and rose-water, one feels, would threaten them with hydrophobia. Yet with every one of them the memories of the schoolroom must have been fresh when she began to write ; nor had one passed, when she achieved her chef d’œuvre, the heyday of a girl’s dancing years. Fancy John Knox ordering a squadron of these wide-eyed young Amazons of the pen to present distaffs !
There is more point than may at first sight appear in thus harping upon the names of the great Scotch censor and theological athlete. For those overshadowing spiritual verities, or possibilities, the iron key to which John Knox assumed to hold, and brandished in so redoubtable a fashion, are precisely the subjects which forever importune, and frequently quite absorb, the attention of the fresh and inquisitive minds in question. They have no patience, any of them, with the truces and compromises, the concessions and oblivions, whereby the great bulk of adult mankind is bound to live. They are enamored of the bottom of things. In their studies of human nature, they make straight for the central mysteries of life and faith, and the warp of the fabric into winch the grotesque and often terrible figures of their youthful fancy are woven is, in every instance, what may be broadly termed religious. Are there any Powers above, and, if so, who are they, and what are their intentions toward ourselves ? It is by way of uttermost protest against a type of religious teaching almost identical in essentials with that of John Knox, that Lyndall and Waldo, on their God-forsaken African farm, rush to the extremes, the one of active and defiant, the other of patient and passive, Nihilism. The burning question at the core of poor Emily Bronté’s volcanic essay is, whether or no a love like that of Catherine Earnshaw, fierce, organic, self-consuming, may be a fire of purification as well as of torment, and win the subject of it forgiveness, in the end, for her neglect of natural humanities and her scorn of written law. The question is in fact propounded, in so many piercing words, over the body of the dead Catherine; and the same is virtually repeated upon the tombstone which stands as frontispiece to the history of Catherine’s younger, more tender, more polished, but hardly more tamed or disciplined sister, Rosamund Merry.
To begin at the beginning of this remarkable, not to say startling, series of tales, let us refresh a little more in detail our memories of Wuthering Heights. Painful, nay repulsive, as the story is, upon the whole, and many times more tragic than the rest, in that it was indeed the first and last articulate word of its author, the reader of to-day who has partially forgotten will find a reperusal of it worth his while. The reader of to-day, indeed, appreciates it far more truly than any reader of its own epoch did, or could have done, excepting always the great creature whose terse yet piteous epitaph on her greater sister forms the preface to the second edition of Wuthering Heights. The book was curiously and, so far as its author was concerned, distressingly in advance of its time. Looking for the date of its first appearance, we are amazed to see that it is actually forty years old ; that is to say, the book has already survived its author by a period nearly as long as her own life. The utmost which this grim tale found, for years, at the hands even of its most merciful critics was apology; then a generation arose for which it possessed a sort of fearful fascination ; and now, at last, it commands a cult, and is acknowledged to have founded a school. Thy fame has come late, poor fiery spirit, who passed so long ago, uttering an unintelligible cry, but it is fame. One would so gladly know whether it is regarded by thee at all, and, if so, whether with complacence, or sorrow, or scorn.
There is no need to dwell on the extraordinary and very morbid conditions of life under which the work of the Brontés is now understood to have been produced. The world knows only too much about it, and an unnecessary amount of capital has assuredly been made out of the sad secrets of that moorland parsonage. Nor is it of much use to try and test a book like Wuthering Heights by received literary standards and canons. The latest classification, which groups it with Rousseau’s Confessions and the Vita Nuova, is one which I can neither accept nor understand. The work of Charlotte Bronté, over and above its fine imaginative qualities, had symmetry and coherence, and just enough of the alloy of conventionalism to make it pass with coin of the realm. But Emily’s writing is absolutely original and absolutely lawless ; a mixture of transcendant merits and glaring defects. She is at the same time slavishly realistic and outrageously romantic. Rapid, nay precipitate, in action though her story be, it is in no true sense of the word dramatic. There is a certain vagueness, after all, about the portentous individuality of her stormy people. They are dark and threatening always, but they tower, and sink, and shift their semblance, as though touched with the instability of mountain mist. They all, except, perhaps, the barely vitalized being whom the first Catherine so strangely married, obey the same wild impulses, and talk the same prehistoric dialect. What folk they are to have been born in the brain of an unsophisticated girl! — utterly alien to all sane experience, morally hideous for the most part, yet asserting their right to their own primitive conditions of being with a voice there is no gainsaying. Some flaxen-haired daughter of the cave-men, the belle of her aboriginal tribe, reclining at twilight by the door of her murky dwelling, and making a confidence concerning her approaching nuptials with a neighboring chief, may have spoken much as Catherine here speaks to Nelly Dean : —
“ ‘ I don’t want your permission to marry Edgar. I shall marry him; and yet you have not told me whether I am right.’
“ ‘ Perfectly right, if people be right to marry only for the present. And now let us hear what you are unhappy about. Your brother will be pleased; the old lady and gentleman will not object, I think; you will escape from a disorderly, comfortless home into a wealthy, respectable one; and you love Edgar, and Edgar loves you. All seems smooth and easy ; where is the obstacle ? ’
“ ‘ Here ! and HERE ! ’ replied Catherine, striking one hand on her forehead, and the other on her breast. ‘ In whichever place the soul lives. In my soul and in my heart, I ’m convinced I ’m wrong.’
“ ‘ That ’a very strange. I cannot make it out.’ ”
Catherine offers to explain by relating a dream of hers, which the old servant rather gruffly refuses to hear, being, as she freely avows, superstitious about dreams, and fearing, from the dark expression of Catherine’s magnificent eyes, that she may hear something uncanny and funeste. But the girl is not to be so deterred.
“ ‘ If I were in heaven, Nelly,’ she said, ‘ I should be extremely miserable.’
“ ‘ Because you are not fit to go there,’ I answered. ‘ All sinners would be miserable in heaven.’
“ ‘ But it is not for that. I dreamed once that I was there. . . . And I was only going to tell you that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing with joy. That will do to explain my secret as well as the other. I ’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliffe so low, I should not have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff e now, so he shall never know how I love him ; and that, not because he is handsome, Nelly, but because he is more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or as frost from fire.’ ”
These are winged words, if you will, but their flight is as blind as that of bats or birds, who dash their brains against the first transparent obstacle; while those which the monstrous object of Catherine’s passion employs to express his mode of returning it are barely quotable. It is not that the latter are indecent. They are too broad, and simple, and unashamed to convey any idea of the sort. But withdrawn from their connection they would seem intolerably brutal and blasphemous ; and it is impossible not to agree with Charlotte Bronté as to the futility of any such weak device as that of dashes between the initial and final letters for mitigating the effect of their profanity. Possibly such language would have appeared only the amiable expression of a natural sentiment, beside the cave’s mouth, ten thousand years ago. At present, it must be explained, as the vast majority of the senseless oaths men utter have to be explained, as a safety-valve for the superfluous and unmanageable nervous energy of the author.
Yet a certain tenderness of instinct goes along with all this coarseness. There is beauty amid the brutality. Emily Bronté seems to have had but three ideas, but these three were universal and essential: life, the life of nature and of man, in their deep kinship and possible ultimate identity ; love, the primeval instinct which draws man and woman together, to the end that life may be perpetuated ; and death, the inexorable arrest and seeming end, both of life and love. No slighter or more transitory thoughts than these can detain her for a moment. A short cut across the bleak, spiritual wilderness into which she was born has led her to the very sources of being, and into these she peers, helplessly, of course, but with what imperious inquisition, what virginal audacity ! With those final secular mysteries, which have baffled the stoutest inquiries of all ages, she wrestles such a fall as reminds one of the mythical duels of the maiden Brynhild.
The culminating scene of Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliffe forces his way into the presence of the dazed Catherine, and she dies under the shock communicated by his ruthless embraces, goes as far as human language can innocently go toward expressing the conventionally inexpressible. It is too long to be quoted entire, and I find I have neither the courage nor the heart to mutilate it. Moreover, it is already, doubtless, known by heart to all Emily Bronté’s conscious and unconscious imitators ; but it is one of those which make an era in a reader’s life, and which, by their negligent superiority to what is commonly called style, incline one, for a moment, to set a slight value on the utmost achievements of premeditated literary art.
Yet that feeling also is corrected when we come to see what a direct disciple of Emily Bronté — for so we must consider Miss Alma - Tadema — can do by way of treating a theme after her teacher’s own heart, with every appliance of earnest culture, and the most delicate and highly developed skill of the reverent and laborious writer. I am one of those who think it no discredit to a beginner in any art, but rather an honorable and hopeful symptom, to be willing to work frankly after somebody. It shows modesty, at least, and the priceless power of admiration; while such individuality as does assert itself under the self-imposed bonds of the imitative work is apt to be involuntary and irrepressible, and therefore rich in promise for the future. Of such “ promise and potentiality ” I think that Love’s Martyr contains plenty. Meanwhile, the finest quality fully revealed by the book itself is more a moral than an artistic one ; I mean the marvelous thoroughness of its workmanship. The scene is supposed to be laid in the early part of the present century, while the memories of the Reign of Terror are still recent; for the heroine, Rosamund, has been orphaned by the guillotine. There is no parade of historical accuracy. The French Revolution is almost the only great political event which is expressly mentioned ; nevertheless, the book is literally steeped in the spirit of its era. I can at this moment recall hardly a single detailed description, or deliberate array of properties ; yet the very rooms in which the action passes are always furnished, to the imagination, with the stiff meubles of the first imperial period ; the men wear its high-waisted surtouts, and the women its round hats and scant petticoats, and they make no lapses from its peculiar phraseology, simply, as it would seem, because they know no other. When one reflects on the amount of patient preparation for writing which all this implies, the untiring study of the time in all its aspects, the uncompromising ideal of truth, the singular selfrestraint, one feels an immense and, in some sort, humble respect for a young author who can thus begin ; but one is more than ever astonished at her choice of a theme, at the daring of one so preeminently docile, and at the intrinsic savagery of a tale which is related with all the refined art of ultra-civilization. Miss Alma-Tadema’s execution is so curiously even that it is difficult to select from her book a single passage for quotation. The following will perhaps illustrate, as well as any other, the qualities which I have endeavored to emphasize : —
“ I found her in Janet’s little parlor, sitting on the floor by the window, pressing her face against the window-pane ; she heard me, and, drawing her hand across her forehead, looked up next moment with a gentle smile. I knelt beside her. ‘ Sweet one,’ said I, ‘ is anything amiss ? — and she answered, “ No ; ’ but I had surprised a look of torment in her eyes that haunted me till evening.
“ My hosts were dressed and ready to receive their guests before I came into the desolate ballroom ; but they soon left me to the dreary companionship of chairs and candles. I was feeling much depressed, when my dear girl joined me, and at sight of her I stood dumb with admiration. She was dressed from head to foot in white: her gown was of some fine Indian stuff, embroidered half-way up the short, narrow skirt, as well as over the small bodice and shoulder sleeves. I remember the dress well, although she never wore it again.
“ ‘ Rosamund ! ’ I cried, ‘ why are you so beautiful ? You make me long to shut you in a room and keep you from stranger eyes. Oh, my girl, how beautiful you are ! ’
“ ‘ I did it,’ she replied softly, ‘ because of what you said. Uncle — he always liked me best in white.’ ”
It seems to me that Love’s Martyr is very much the sort of book which Charlotte Bronté had in mind when she described, sadly but with assumed stoicism, the work which Emily might have done, had she been otherwise placed in life, and not so untimely snatched away:
“ Doubtless, had her lot been cast in a town, her writings, if she had written at all, would have possessed a different character. . . . Had she but lived, her mind would, of itself, have grown like a strong tree, straighter, wider-spreading, and its matured fruit would have attained a mellower ripeness and a summer bloom.” Perhaps ; but, meanwhile, and setting their very dissimilar literary merits quite aside, the fierce, poetic rusticity of the one and the studiously modulated urbanity of the other, what can we make of the motif, either of the original tale or the variant, but a plea, wondering, pitying, and, so far as the pleader is concerned, quite guileless, for the animal instinct against the artificial decree? Were the voices less fresh and candid that utter this revolutionary protest, we might turn away and decline to listen. As it is, they arrest and overcome us with a feeling that borders upon awe. “Lord, have mercy upon us!” is all that Rosamund’s magnanimous husband dares order carved above her last sleeping-place. And what says the faithful old serving-woman of Catherine beside the beautiful corpse of her wayward mistress? “It asserted its own tranquillity, which seemed a pledge of equal quiet to its former inhabitant. ‘ Do you believe such people are happy in the other world ? I would give a great deal to know! Retracing the course of Catherine Linton, I fear we have no right to think she is, but we ’ll leave her with her Maker.’ ”
The moral sense is assuredly not sleeping in those whom, from generation to generation, such questions assail. It is rather intensely, not to say feverishly, alive. They are no atheists, for they feel in every spiritual nerve the touch of the unknown divinity. But they dwell in intellectual chaos, and a great darkness broods over the face of the deep they have rashly essayed to sound.
Of these two marked specimens of maiden prowess, however, the rank of the one has been so many times adjudged of late that it would hardly have been needful to recur to it but for the powerful influence which it still continues to exert; and the proved and positive merit of the other is still the merit of an exquisite translation from a savage into a lettered tongue. The case is different with the remaining book upon our list. Wuthering Heights was indeed, as has been said, “ moorish and wild and knotty as a root of heath.” But Roman ways and walls have traversed the English moors, and generations of approximately civilized men lie buried beneath their elastic sod. The ostrich-farms of South Africa are virgin soil, if we may be allowed to say so, with a vengeance. There the soul, if it thinks at all, —and to some it appears to think vigorously, agonizingly, — encounters no trammels of custom or barriers of authority ; finds no veil of tradition between itself and the inscrutable Power above, whom it approaches and interrogates with so defiant a freedom. Circumspection, proportion, propriety, — no such trivialities as these have ever yet existed in the land of the Boers. All men and women are equal in the pity of their limitations, at least, and the terror of their doom, to that resolute student of the life she sees who signs herself by the rude masculine appellation of “ Ralph Iron.” Curious, nevertheless, to observe the instinct which impelled her, as it had first impelled Emily Bronté, to take shelter under a manly alias, and equally curious the fact that in each case the ruse was for a long time completely successful with the public. Miss Schreyner, indeed (Ralph Iron), though so marvelously conversant with the motives, the language, and the activities of uncultured men, was perceived après coup — that is, after her identity was declared — to understand the untutored woman of genius even more profoundly. She is painfully preoccupied, though still in a strictly intellectual fashion, with the problem of the true relations of the sexes. She is by far the greatest dramatist of the three, though here Miss Alma-Tadema may some day rival her. She is a humorist also, albeit of a somewhat cynical type. The strange, elementary, often disgustingly vulgar beings who tread her dreary stage are drawn — one feels it — to the ugly life. They make no mistakes, and never by any possibility do they exchange rôles, like those of Emily Bronté. The hueless, treeless, monotonous landscape of the ostrich-farm is indicated by a few masterly lines. Two or three unhappy beings, of a finer physical and spiritual type than the rest, Lyndall, Waldo, Waldo’s father, and in a lesser degree Gregory and poor little Em, disinherited of civilization, and entangled by divers cruel chances in the meshes of this dull, animal existence, flap their wings wildly under the net for a time, and then die, despairing, exhausted, or indomitably rebellious and scornful, as the case may be. When we read the brief, strong words, the untaught but most telling phrases in which their doom is related, we are led to reflect once more on the treasures of unworked force that yet lie in the old English vocables for those who can apply new methods to the inexhaustible ore. The Story of an African Farm has never been as well known, even in England, as it deserves to be. In America, we suspect, it is barely known at all. It is for this reason that we crave space for two or three quotations of unusual length. The reader who turns from these to the memorable novel in question will not find himself disappointed in the quality of any part of it, whatever he may think of its crudity. And first for the old Boer woman’s theory of her sex’s proper sphere : —
“ A different life showed itself in the front of the house, where Tant’ Sannie’s cart stood ready inspanned, and the Boer woman herself sat in the front room drinking coffee. She had come to visit her step-daughter, probably for the last time, as she now weighed two hundred and sixty pounds, and was not easily able to move. In a chair sat her mild young husband, nursing the baby, — a pudding-faced, weak-eyed child.
“ ‘ You take it, and get into the cart with it,’ said Tant’ Sannie. ‘ What do you want here, listening to our woman’s talk ? ’
“ The young man arose, and meekly went out with the baby.
“ ‘ I’m very glad you are going to be married, my child,’ said Tant’ Sannie, as she drained the last drop from her coffee-cup. ‘ I would n’t say so while that boy was here; it would make him too conceited; but marriage is the finest thing in the world. I ’ve been at it three times, and if it pleased God to take this husband from me I should have another. There ’s nothing like it, my child, — nothing.’
“ ‘ Perhaps it might not suit all people, at all times, so well as it suits you, Tant’ Sannie,’ said Em. There was a little shade of weariness in the voice.
“ ‘ Not suit every one ! ’ said Tant’ Sannie. ‘ If the beloved Redeemer didn’t mean men to have wives, what did he make women for ? That’s what I say. If a woman’s old enough to marry, and does n’t, she’s sinning against the Lord ; it’s wanting to know better than him. What, does she think the Lord took all that trouble in making her for nothing ? ’ ”
Let there be set over against this, which is assuredly unique in its way, the lucid last thoughts of the dying Lyndall, who, in her mad revolt from the sordid conditions of her life, has bartered her honor for a richer experience, and now, deserted and denuded of a woman’s all, has turned her face toward home, and is fighting the last enemy, inch by inch, along the weary road. Note, in passing, the simple, sculpturesque beauty of the picture suggested by the opening lines. Ilaria Giunigi herself, as she lies upon her carven tomb, wreathed with the magic of a half - forgotten art, and embosomed in the immemorial sanctities of the dim old Lucca cathedral, is hardly a fairer figure in the memory of those who have seen her there than this of Lyndall’s to the imagination; but oh, the difference between the guarded and saintly wife of olden time and this poor little outcast in the wilderness of a carnal world !
“ The night was grown very old when from a long, peaceful sleep Lyndall awoke. The candle burnt at her head, the dog lay on her feet; but he shivered, as though his resting-place was growing cold. She lay with folded hands, looking upwards ; and she heard the oxen chewing, and she saw the two mosquitoes buzzing drearily round and round, and her thoughts — her thoughts ran far back into the past.
“ In her mind, through those months of anguish, a mist had rested ; it was rolled together now, and the old clear intellect rose from its long torpor. It looked back into the past; it saw the present; there was no future now. The old strong soul gathered itself together for the last time; it knew where it stood.
“ Slowly raising herself on her elbow, she took from the sail a glass that hung pinned there. The fingers were already cold and stiff. She put the pillow on her breast, and stood the glass against it. Then the white face on its pillow looked into the white face in the glass. They had looked at each other so often before. It had been a child’s face, once, looking out above its blue pinafore ; it had been a woman’s face, with a dim shadow in the eyes, and a deep assurance. ‘ We are not afraid, you and I; we will fight the world, and conquer.’ Now to-night it had come to this. The dying eyes on the pillow looked into the dying eyes in the glass ; they knew that their hour was come. She raised one hand, and pressed the stiff fingers against the glass. They were growing very stiff ; she tried to speak to it, but she would never speak again. Only the wonderful yearning light was in the eyes still. The body was dead now, but the soul, clear and unclouded, looked forth.
“ Then slowly, without a sound, the beautiful eyes closed. The dead face that the glass reflected was a thing of marvelous beauty and tranquillity. The Gray Dawn crept in over it, and saw it lying there.
“ Had she found what she sought for, — something to worship ? Had she ceased from being ? Who shall tell us ? There is a veil of terrible mist over the face of the Hereafter.”
Again, the pages are as if stained with heart’s blood, which tell how Lyndall was mourned in the desert where she had dwelt before her fall, by the poor, fettered soul who had loved her honorably in her bright first youth, and who loved her without change until the hour of his own release. In vain he questions all the few books he has known, all the jejune creeds of which he has heard, for hope concerning her. The pitiless answer of the old-fashioned Bible Christian revolts him ; the flowery and feeble answer of the craven latterday Christian sickens him; and here is the transcendentalist’s answer to his cry : —
“ What have you to do with flesh, the gross and miserable garment in which the spirit hides itself ? You shall see her again. But the hand, the foot, the forehead, you loved, you shall see no more. The loves, the fears, the frailties, that are born with the flesh, with the flesh they shall die. Let them die. There is that in man that cannot die, — a seed, a germ, an embryo, a spiritual essence. Higher than she was on earth, as the tree is higher than the seed, the man than the embryo, so shall you behold her, — changed, glorified ! ”
High words, ringing well; but they are the offering of the jewels to the hungry, of gold to the man who dies for bread. Bread is corruptible, gold is incorruptible ; bread is light, gold is heavy ; bread is common, gold is rare; but the hungry man will barter all your mines for one morsel of bread. Around God’s throne there may be choirs and companions of angels, cherubim and seraphim, rising tier above tier, but not for one of them all does the soul cry aloud. Only perhaps for a little human woman, full of sin, that it once loved.
“ ‘ Change is death, change is death ! ’ he cried. ‘ I want no angel, only she, no holier and no better, with all her sins upon her; so give me her, or give me nothing ! ’
“ And, truly, does not the heart love its own with the strongest passion for their very frailties ? Heaven might keep its angels, if men were but left to men.”
Only at the very last did a certain drowsy calm creep over the tired spirit of this hopeless mourner. “ When the day comes that you sit down broken, without one human creature to whom you cling, with your loves, the dead and the living-dead ; when the very thirst for knowledge, through long-continued thwarting, has grown dull; when in the present there is no craving, and in the future no hope, — then, oh, with a beneficent tenderness, Nature enfolds you ! Then the large white snowflakes, as they flutter down softly, one by one, whisper soothingly, ‘ Rest, poor heart, rest! ’ It is as though our mother smoothed our hair, and we are comforted. And the yellow-haired bee, as he hums, makes a dreamy lyric, and the light on the brown stone wall is a work of art, and the light through the leaves makes the pulses beat.”
Such is the sweet narcotic which Nature, the great healer, is supposed to administer, before quenching forever the conscious identity of her patients, and resolving and reappropriating to other uses the elements which have made them men. Such, at least, is the conclusion of one unshrinking inquirer, or so she would have us believe.
The main question concerning all great precocities is ever the same, — What can their future be ? There are those in all departments of effort who seem, from the very outset of their swift careers, to dispense with instruction, to discard approved methods, to forestall experience, to distance all competition except with one another, and to overleap at a bound the ordinary grades of progress. For such, and for those whom we have been considering, what remains ? Beginning so far in advance of the rest of us, will these rarely endowed writers go on to unimagined accomplishment, or will the plant exhaust itself in its first superabundant blossoming? Or yet again, does the case of these daughters of the new day, who know what they have never learned, and so artlessly assume to declare the unutterable, resemble that of the Pythoness of old; and do they merely deliver the message of a god, when they receive it, without option or premeditation of their own ? Death has intervened to suppress, if not to satisfy, our doubts concerning Emily Bronté ; and in the case of Miss Schreyner, the marked inferiority to the African Farm of what she has since produced would seem to favor the theory of premature exhaustion. But the other is yet on her promotion; and her future career will be watched by one observer, at least, with sympathetic interest.
One of the very silliest novels of the year has been written by a man who is not in the least silly, and who has usually, upon former occasions, contrived to be amusing. We refer to James Payn’s Heir of the Ages. The Heir is a young woman, a prize - scholar and a crack governess, who, after misplacing her affections on the slightest possible provocation, applies herself to literary composition as the obvious balm of a wounded heart. By the first light flourishes of her maiden pen she wins not merely a succès d’estime, — that we have seen to be abundantly natural and probable, — but a very considerable sum of money ; enough, in fact, not merely to place the writer at once in affluent circumstances, but to relieve the necessities of all her poor relations. But her overworked brain plays her false in the very first twelvemonth of her victorious career, and the fiat of medical science is that for a very long time, at least, she must write no more. Luckily, however, the Heir has early invested some of her superfluous earnings in the purchase, on purely sentimental grounds, of a British barrow, which barrow, being opened, proves to contain such a noble supply of barbaric gems and gold as to place the clever lady herself beyond all necessity for sordid toil, besides permanently providing for the needy family aforesaid. It is at this point that Mr. Payn’s little joke becomes apparent. He never meant, as we fondly imagined at first, to represent his Elizabeth as heir to the developed intellectual acumen and hoarded wisdom of the ancients, but merely to their buried gold. In the former character, she was intended, from the first, ignominiously to break down. In the latter, she shines with a steady and peaceful lustre, as Boadicea’s residuary legatee. In short, the tale of Elizabeth’s fortuitous inheritance is nothing more nor less than the mellifluously disguised First Blast of merry and kindly Mr. Payn.
His conclusions appear discouraging, but we do not think that any young woman who aspires to literary honor, and feels or suspects within herself the stirrings of a new and strong inspiration, need be deterred from a trial of her powers by the parable of the Heir’s factitious triumph and her premature decline. I judge by the extracts which Mr. Payn somewhat rashly makes out of those marvelously lucrative magazine articles of his heroine, which electrified all the reading-world of London while her name was yet unknown. They appear to have been so inferior in every respect to those which the “ girl graduates ” of the period do actually produce and publish that truth in their case may well be found both stranger and more satisfactory than fiction.