Recent American Fiction
WE wonder if Mr. Crawford changed his mind when he came to write Sant’ Ilario.1 Certainly, we brought away from Saracinesca a pretty strong impression that he was clearing the ground for an historical novel, in which the house of Saracinesca was to play an important part in Italian politics and war; and we took up Sant’ Ilario with the expectation of finding something more than a faintly sketched background of national life, while a few figures carried on their domestic drama in the foreground. Possibly, this slight disappointment has tinged our judgment of the book which Mr. Crawford has written. At any rate, we have an uneasy feeling that the proportions in which he first sketched his series have shrunken, and that instead of large movements of men and women the somewhat smaller figures of the conventional inhabitants of the world of fiction are playing their petty drama.
True, the central theme of the book cannot be called a mean one. The estrangement of a noble woman from a husband consumed by a passionate and horrible distrust, followed by the reconciliation of the pair, is, or may be under certain treatment, a great theme ; and there are passages in this book which convince one that Mr. Crawford takes his hero and heroine very seriously. But the somewhat hard manner which characterizes Mr. Crawford’s portraiture of men and women is rendered even more mechanical than usual by the reliance which he places, in Sant’ Ilario, upon the machinery of fiction. In one of the first pages, the secondary hero of the story finds a small gold pin. He puts it in his pocket, but not more securely than the hardened novel-reader puts it away in his memory, in readiness for use at some future critical point in the narrative. This is but the first of a series of incidents on which the writer depends for building a plot against the happiness of Sant’ Ilario and Corona. The reader is notified, at every step, of the process of entanglement, and he knows, therefore, that there is absolutely no basis in the reality of things for Sant’ Ilario’s suspicion of his wife’s fidelity. If this were all, he might rest in cheerful confidence that the necessary disclosure would come at last, that some one of the carefully adjusted stones of this fancifully constructed prison of fate would fall out of place, and then that the whole ingenious fabric would come tumbling to the ground. This is what happens, and the novelist has his labor for his pains.
The essential weakness lies not so much in the flimsiness of the circumstantial web which enmeshes the characters as in the incredulity which possesses the reader regarding the power which these circumstances properly would have upon the mind of Sant’ Ilario. A previous book has been devoted to an explication of the characters of the hero and heroine. The reader has made their acquaintance, as he thinks, yet he is obliged now to admit the presence of an element in Sant’ Ilario’s nature which disintegrates the previous conception of his character. Jealousy has its noble side, and Shakespeare and Salvini between them have shown that it is a most potent element in the fearful transmutation of a savage nature; but Sant’ Ilario is no Othello, and, what is more to the point, there is no Iago in this book to arouse and inflame the sleeping intelligence. It becomes necessary to suppose this keen, fearless, and chivalrous Italian gentleman suddenly seized with a suspicion, on most trivial grounds, of a singularly high-bred, queenly, and Diana-like woman. It is a fatal artificiality of view, and the reader not only feels a cynical impatience with Sant’ Ilario; he resents the whole scheme of the story which compels him to take part in so unworthy a means of displaying the torture of a man and his wife. He cannot help thinking: All this is waste energy; Sant’ Ilario and Corona, in place of this miserable episode in their married life, might have been about some worthy business connected with the unification of Italy, and we could have had all the adventures of Gouache and Faustina and the futile machinations of Montevarchi to amuse us.
We are not finding fault with Mr. Crawford for using the good old-fashioned faculty of invention. It is one of the pleasures which he gives the reader that something constantly happens in his books, and one is not called on to watch a group of modern ladies and gentlemen merely fencing with words, turning all life into a modern Love’s Labor Lost ; and this book has plenty of action in it. We are merely asking that human nature shall have fair play, and a reasonable interpretation be given of the conduct of men and women, whose characters count for something. Indeed, while Mr. Crawford wrongs himself in doing violence to the hero of his book, he shows himself very clever in his rendering of some of the minor characters. San Giacinto, with his mixture of coarseness and sincerity, repelling one under ordinary circumstances, yet standing the test of a critical occasion, is capitally drawn ; and so also is Meschini, though we would willingly be spared the excessive anatomizing of his experience after the murder; a few strong passages would have been more effective than the wearisome and dry detail of the symptoms of his case. The facility which Mr. Crawford shows in the manipulation of incident ought to relieve him from the necessity of analyzing character ; that is the recourse of novelists who do not see their characters in action, and so are obliged to account for their behavior by a reference to their internal structure.
It is no wonder that Mr. Crawford avails himself of Italy in his stories, He is at home there, and, if his assertion is to be trusted, he knows the life and manners as other foreigners do not. Moreover, he intimates that the Italian character offers varieties which enlarge the scope of human mental and moral activity, as judged by the Anglo-Saxon. Mr. Astor, in his second novel,2 either increases or diminishes his difficulties, as the reader may decide, by laying the scenes not merely in Italy, but in the Italy of the opening of the sixteenth century. There are many persons, English and American, who can test the accuracy of Mr. Crawford’s pictures of life by a reference to their own experience in Italy ; but here they have little advantage over the untraveled reader, especially if he has a historical sense. When asked to walk about among doges of Venice, Milanese nobles, French kings and cavaliers, we expect to part with all but the rudimentary experience of human nature, and to see characters very much as if they were in a museum of curiosities. We suspect that Mr. Astor himself has been more or less affected by this consideration in conceiving the figures of his tale. He has taken a few historic and semi-historic characters, and arranged them in a series of tableaux vivants, and he has contrived to bring together for decorative purposes a good deal of Italian bricabrac. The excellence of the work is seen in the detached scenes, not in the continuous narrative. In this latter respect, the book indeed shows an advance on the author’s previous novel, Valentino; yet there is the same defect in both tales, by which the reader is left in doubt whether the author is trying to tell a story with an historic background, or is trying to place actual historic figures and scenes in such relation to each other that they shall disclose a drama of real life. The joints of the story are loose, and one passes from one scene or adventure to another without observing any real culmination. It is as if the author’s historical knowledge were always getting the better of his art as a novelist. He makes use of a somewhat conventional trick in supplying a heroine, unknown either to hero or reader, by having an attendant of Sforza go through the book as a fencer, when in reality the personage is a girl in the disguise of a man. The reader, upon being apprised of this fact, goes back in his reading, and discovers a few facts which are elucidated by this disclosure ; but they were not of much importance at the time, and after the girl is relieved of her masculine attire the author, who has thus cleverly avoided the bother of a heroine, apparently has very little use for her. He shuffles her and the hero out of the way, at the end of the book, with an amusingly faint and hurried pretense of passion and sentiment. If, as we have intimated, the reader will be content with isolated scenes, well set, he may extract a rational pleasure from the book; but he must be willing to have the several characters, as his interest is awakened in them, step aside, and reappear later without very close connection with their previous performances.
Of a somewhat other sort is a little historical romance,3 which moves among less mighty names and on less classic ground, but somehow comes closer to human interest. With Mr. Astor we find ourselves curious as to the movements of his characters. They all belong to another period, another clime ; they are playing for our entertainment, and we praise the skill with which their costumes are reproduced and the general accuracy of detail that is shown. With Mrs. Catherwood we witness an heroic deed set in the light of passionate love, and forget, while we are reading, to criticise or even to praise, for we live in the story. The distinction is one which goes to the bottom of things. It is not merely that in one case we have an intriguing Italian civilization, with the encounter of petty spirits, in the other a fresh, newworld experiment, with recourse to elemental activities of life; but the treatment in one case is superficial, in the other profound. In Sforza, the author has arranged scenes; in The Romance of Dollard, the author has imagined two or three persons, and they have wrought their drama. Mr. Astor, with his dexterous art, just pricks through the surface of things; Mrs. Catherwood, with her conception of what the human heart can do and can suffer, works from within outward, and her picture becomes vivid and full of color. But enough of this comparison, which is liable to be ungenerous. We wish only to emphasize our admiration for a writer who, when dealing with the past, is rather concerned with those eternal likenesses which abbreviate time than with the temporary dissimilarities which make us forget eternity. As Mrs. Catherwood says in her brief preface, “ the phase is mediæval, is clothed in the garb of religious chivalry; but the spirit is a part of the universal man.”
“ The chief personages of the tale,” says Mr. Parkman, in his corroborative preface, — “ except always the heroine, — were actual men and women two and a quarter centuries ago, and Adam Dollard was no whit less a hero than he is represented by the writer; though it is true that as regards his position, his past career, and, above all, his love affairs, romance supplies some information which history denies us. The brave Huron Annahotaha also is historical. Even Jouaneaux, the servant of the hospital nuns, was once a living man, whose curious story is faithfully set forth ; and Sisters Brésoles, Maçé, and Maillet were genuine Sisters of the old Hôtel-Dieu at Montreal, with traits much like those assigned to them in the story.”
The story revolves about the exploit of Adam Dollard, who with a small band of companions, reinforced by a few Hurons, took up a position at the foot of the rapids of the Long Saut, and withstood the great body of Iroquois who were moving down with the intent to sweep New France out of existence. The brave men lost their lives, but they saved New France, and for a long while after 1660 the little colony had no fear of savage raids. The exploit itself is matter of history, and is kept alive in the minds of Canadians. Time has scarcely dimmed the glory of the heroic deed, but it remained for our artist to add just that touch of human love which makes the man and his deed swim in an atmosphere of beauty.
The heroine, Claire Laval, is a woman of the French noblesse, who has come to Quebec with a hidden passion for Dollard. Neither the hero nor the reader is admitted to the secret of this act until, in the crisis of the great sacrifice of the Saut, the confession can be made without loss of maidenly dignity. The author has chosen this point with unerring rightness, but no emphasis is laid on it, for it is only one of the many significant features of this lovely romance. The reader feels from the outset the sweet passion of the heroine’s nature, but the revelation of her strength of will and intensity of purpose is gradually made. At the risk of raising an incredulous smile, we assert that there is something Shakespearean in this figure of Claire Laval, and when we have said this we have told the reader that the portraiture is the work of a poet rather than of a novelist. This exquisite creation, with the old-world art and the new-world nature, has a delightful counterpoise in the Indian maiden Massawippa, in whom the pride of a savage is so refined by the love of a daughter that we see the two figures stepping side by side without for a moment confusing them, yet perceiving their profound community. Each, too, complements the other, to the heightening of the general effect. The scene in the chapel, where the two women lie side by side at the foot of the altar, has a stillness of power which creates for the reader an entire circumstance. We mean that he is drawn to look at this dark and at this fair woman so steadily that the very objects about them gradually become more visible to him in the quiet night.
It may be said of the whole book that the concentration of interest in the chief figures and their drama, which moves forward with an acceleration of strength, indicates a fine power in the writer. She is so dominated by her theme that every little incident falls into its place with a prevision of the final event, so that once he has embarked upon the narrative the reader is borne along the current with an undefined sense of something very noble in the air. The reserve of the book is remarkable, and scarcely less so the freedom of the minute touches by which the action is humanized and brought close to a homely feeling without arousing any sense of mere triviality. We are not absolutely sure that the singular and striking Abbé de Granville is essential to the story, but the incident created through the character certainly enriches the tale by adding the relief of a slight grotesqueness ; but every other figure, even the most subordinate, breathes the breath of this pure and lofty romance. That Mrs. Catherwood has studied minutely the substratum of historical and scenic fact is clear; indeed, we could have spared her foot - notes, which are modestly impertinent; but after all, her success is due to her power of conceiving human life, her fidelity to the truth of that inner fact which is independent of time, place, and circumstance, yet becomes real to us when it is clothed by the imagination with its fitting exterior form.
Mr. Parkman touches a responsive chord when he concludes : “ The realism of our time has its place and function ; but an eternal analysis of the familiar and commonplace is cloying after a while, and one turns with relief and refreshment to such fare as that set before us in Mrs. Catherwood’s animated story.” We do not quote this as reflecting upon the art employed by Miss Woolson, for this writer, though closely occupied with the experience of men and women of her own day, has distinctly an adventurous spirit, and follows her heroes and heroines through the mazes of their minds only as some succession of incidents gives reason for such a pursuit. We have followed her writing with interest and pleasure heretofore, and our observations upon her art have been directed chiefly to what we may regard as due to an excess of literary conscience. Her latest book,4 however, is a somewhat disturbing one. We do not find the best of Miss Woolson in it except in the portraiture of the minor characters and in one strong theme, which is indeed the central theme of the book, but so confused with other issues as to be less effective, we think, than if it had been allowed a simpler expression.
The story of Jupiter Lights is briefly as follows : Cicely Abercrombie, a little devil of a Southern girl, married John Bruce, a Northern soldier. He was madly in love with the girl, and carried her by storm after a brief siege. They had a child, and then Bruce died. In a few months the widow herself fell madly in love with a handsome, gay Southerner, Ferdinand Morrison, and married him with a willful perversity which was not in the least weakened when it turned out that Ferdie, as everybody in the book feels bound to call him, had an hereditary tendency to a mixture of insanity and delirium tremens. In one of his moments of aberration Ferdie struck Cicely, and slung little Jack out of his crib, breaking his arm. He then disappeared to the convenient remoteness of Valparaiso, to wait till the novelist wanted him for dark and dreadful purposes.
Not long after Ferdie had gone to South America, Eve Bruce, the sister of Ferdie’s predecessor, arrived at Romney, the dilapidated home of the Abercrombies, on the coast of Georgia, with the intent of taking possession of Jack. She knew nothing of his early adventures with his step-father. She did not even know that he had a step-father, much less that Ferdie had gone, temporarily, out of sight. She was a willful young woman in her own right, who looked upon herself as ill used by this Southern girl who had stolen her brother, and she was drawn to Romney only by the hope of getting control of little Jack. She could not understand Cicely, — nobody can,—and found her sister-in-law even more of an enigma when she learned for the first time of Ferdie’s behavior, and discovered that it seemed to intensify the wife’s admiration and love.
It was now time, in the development of the novel, for Ferdie to reappear. He came. He was as handsome as he could be. but Eve, forewarned, discovered certain marks about the corners of his mouth which confirmed Cicely’s tale. All went well for a time, but suddenly Cicely presented herself to Eve in the night, and advised her that the crisis had come. They dressed Jack and fled, the crazy Ferdie in full pursuit. Cicely with Jack succeeded in reaching a boat ; Eve was behind, and Ferdie between her and his victims. She had a pistol, which she fired, and saw the man fall. Cicely, meanwhile, had fainted in the bottom of the boat, and Eve, with the strength which terror imparts both in fiction and in real life, shoved the boat off, and rowed to a neighboring island. The fugitives made their way to Savannah, always with the fear of seeing Ferdie behind them, and thence fled to the shores of Lake Superior, to seek the protection of Paul Tennant, the half-brother and whole admirer of the reprobate Ferdie.
The moment Paul appears, the sagacious reader foresees that destiny has provided him for Eve. But Eve herself did not at first discover this, nor did Paul. Meanwhile, letters and dispatches kept the party informed regarding Ferdie’s condition. He had been shot — so the word came — by two negroes, who had escaped, but his wound was healing. He grew better ; then suddenly he died, and the whole party, without Paul, returned to Romney. Paul followed shortly after, insisting upon marrying Eve, who fled to avoid him. She took refuge finally in a religious house, and was about to take the veil, when Paul reached her with important information, broke through all the barriers which separated him from his love, “ and took Eve in his arms.”
This is, of course, but the dead shell of the story ; the living animal is quite another matter. The real theme of the book may be stated succinctly as an aphorism : Woman’s love is absolute abandonment of self. The illustration in Cicely’s case is clear. She loved Ferdie with such blind devotion that though he were to slay her, yet would she trust him ; it was only her other love for Jack and his little life that forbade her to be a sacrifice. The real torture is for Eve. It must he premised that the reader is not informed at the time that Eve shot Ferdie. He may surmise it, but for the purposes of the story it was necessary that for a long while Eve alone should know it. Until she reached Paul she did not know whether she had killed Ferdie or not. Then he began to recover, and her own spirits rose. When he died she was madly in love with Paul; in fact, she began to discover what Cicely’s love for Ferdie meant. At last she told Paul of her act, as before she had told Cicely, and then fled. As we have seen, Paul pursued her. He loved her in spite of the fact that she had killed his brother. But Eve, with a woman’s wit, divined surely that in time, if he married her, he would come to loathe her. She would not make him miserable, and so she left him again. The important news which Paul finally brought to her was that she did not kill Ferdie, after all. He recovered from the slight wound she had inflicted, and died from the effects of a debauch. She was therefore free to love and be loved.
Although the main theme of the book can be stated as above, the endless variations on the theme bring the reader to the point of distraction. What Cicely thinks of Eve when Cicely is in her senses and when she has brain fever; how the relations of the two women are affected by Eve’s saving Jack from drowning ; how Eve feels before she tells her crime, — her crime consisting in shooting a man who was dead sure to kill his wife and her child; how she feels after she has told it to Cicely and before she has told Paul; how she wavers between a fear of Cicely’s telling Paul and a resolve to tell him herself, — all these and many other complications make up a network of emotional torture which may be exact enough for psychological purposes, but is very confusing to the reader of a piece of fiction. One is under the harrow from beginning to end, and the final sensation, when the author lets him know that all the heaped-up trouble has no actual basis of fact, is not so much relief that Eve can now have what she wants as irritation that characters and reader alike have all been suffering needless agony.
Miss Woolson’s ingenuity does not fail her in this book, but it is put, we must think, to extreme tests. There is such a succession of narrow escapes, so many dreary attacks upon the comfort of all concerned, so constant a conspiracy against a sane, wholesome experience of life, that a sensitive mind awakes at last out of a sort of nightmare aggravated by mosquito bites. The relief is gained by the undeniable humor expended on the characters of Judge Abercrombie, Hollis, the several darkies, and above all on Mrs. Mile, the nurse, who is a genuine success. We fear that Miss Woolson’s interest in casuistry and her ingenuity of invention are leading her farther and farther away from large pictures of human life into the windings and turnings of fictitious pathology. We may add that there are many passages in the book which read as if they were random notes jotted down by the novelist, and one comes to have a feeling that the author as well as the reader is exhausted from time to time with the effort to keep up with the half-crazy heroines.
The fashion of fiction changes, and there is a point in the transition when that which was accepted is now out of date, but not yet quaint. There are books, also, whose virtues are not always accepted at the time in their just proportions. We suspect that both the author and his readers regarded The New Priest,5 when it appeared, as a contribution to semi-religious fiction; yet now. when we are just recovering from a pretty severe attack of literature of this order, the theological aspect of the book, earnest as it is, appeals to us less emphatically than the very artistic quality of certain features in it. A poet wrote this story, and the material most fit to his hand was the Newfoundland character, both as seen in nature and in men and women. The simple religious nature of the people, joined to a rugged, homely grasp of the soil, is presented with great force and beauty. There is a genuineness about this element in the book which remains as an impression in the reader’s mind long after he has forgotten the discussions upon church questions or the rather tenuous plot. Yet when he thinks either of plot or of discussion, he remembers at once the piquant figure of Elnathan Bangs, surely one of the most skillfully drawn Yankee characters in our literature, and plainly belonging to the same family as his cousin, Hosea Biglow. The scene at the close of the book, when Mr. Bangs carries out his notion of a public meeting, resolutions and all, with the astonished Newfoundlanders unwittingly abetting him, is quite inimitable. The book is full of delightful touches, and there is a rare pleasure in store for one who has read it through conscientiously, — that of reading it again without a conscience.
- Sant’ Ilario. By F. MARION CRAWFORD. London and New York: Macmillan & Co. 1889.↩
- Sforza: a Story of Milan. By WILLIAM WALDORF ASTOR. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1889.↩
- The Romance of Dollard. By MARY HARTWELL CATHERWOOD. NOW York: The Century Company. [1889.]↩
- Jupiter Lights. By CONSTANCE FENIMORE WOOLSON. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1889.↩
- The New Priest in Conception Bay. By ROBERT LOWELL. Boston : Roberts Brothers. 1889.↩