Sir George Tressady

IT is a good instance of the tyranny of the novel-form in modern literature that a writer like Mrs. Ward should accept it as her proper mode of expression. She is not a novelist by nature and scarcely one by grace, but she goes on her brilliant way, adding one person after another to her world of imaginary beings, bringing them into existence not so much by a creative fiat as by the exercise of an intellectual industry which works after good patterns. Why is it that the more perfectly a wax figure simulates life the more objectionable it becomes, the farthest removed from genuine life ? What is there in art, literary or plastic, which requires the making anew before we resign ourselves to entire satisfaction in what reflects our common humanity ? And why is it that the cleverer the mere imitation of humanity, the more dissatisfied we are in the end, even though we have been truly interested as we have come under the influence of the imitator ?

These are questions which tease us as we lay down Sir George Tressady.1 What greater intellectual pleasure of an easy sort can one have than the society through two volumes of a group of cultivated people busy over the game of politics, and disclosing meanwhile not only earnestness of purpose, but the inevitable breaking through the crust of politics into real life itself ? To be sure, a mere pleasure-seeker comes to be rather weary of the iteration of Letty’s pettiness and Lady Tressady’s ghastly vanity, and even the watcher of the game begins to suspect he has not quite technical knowledge enough to grasp at once the full meaning of all the moves. But after all is over, especially after he has been constrained to listen to the tickings of Sir George Tressady’s life in a damp and dark underground passage, the reader who looks at books as works of art turns back upon this highly intellectual and rational performance, and, with a puzzled sense of having been almost deceived, comes nevertheless to the conviction that he has been at a most ingenious and interesting show, a species of museum of humanity, the objects being chiefly English men and women of the upper order, with a few specimens of the peasant class for effective contrast.

This is not to say that Mrs. Ward lost the thread of her story or had no distinct design. It is very clear that she had a somewhat novel and complicated problem of character to work out. As in her former morality, Marcella, she set herself the task of defining the development of a raw English girl with a headlong zeal for social reform into a woman of rank with social and political power, so here she attacks, not indeed the obverse problem, but one curiously involved in the social and moral order which offers the field for her speculation. Sir George Tressady is a young fellow of parts, who has made the acquaintance of the British Empire by travel, and comes home to plunge at once into political life. Partly through friendship with a strong-willed leader of the opposition, partly from intellectual conviction, and partly again because of a temperament which makes him rather a spectator of life than an eager participant, he finds himself ranged with a party opposed to that led by Lord Maxwell, Marcella’s husband. Maxwell’s party is in power, and stands for very specific control of industrial conditions in the interest of the workingmen ; the party in opposition, led by Lord Fontenoy, stands roughly for a laissez-faire policy, a class government, and an imperial ambition. The story opens with Sir George Tressady’s success at the polls by which he is returned to Parliament, and the success which counts for rather more with him, the winning the hand of Letty Sewell, a selfish little toy of a girl, who plays her cards well in securing his affection. Letty’s character, by the way, is so transparent to the reader from her first appearance that he is a little impatient at the ease with which this man of the world is entrapped. It is part of the author’s plan, however, in the creation of her hero, that he shall have at the outset but a superficial investiture of feeling, and easy contentment with an ordinary ideal.

It is not long before Sir George catches up with the reader in his apprehension of Letty’s shallowness, and at the same time comes under the spell of Marcella Maxwell’s earnest devotion to the cause for which she and her husband stand. One who is familiar with Marcella through her earlier history is not surprised at the attitude which she now takes. She is entirely loyal to her husband, but she has both consciously and unconsciously wedded herself also to the social reform which follows from the principles they hold, and in her absorption in this interest throws herself passionately into the plans of the government party. She is beautiful, she is in dead earnest, and her position gives her every opportunity for taking part in the political game. It is anything but a game to her ; nevertheless, she is almost an automaton in it; that is to say, her part is to influence Tressady and win him over to the government; and though no one, except the foolish Letty, charges her silently or openly with fascinating the young member of Parliament, the fact remains that her personal appeal to him, made in various ways of which she is scarcely conscious, does effect the desired change, and at the critical moment Sir George goes over to the government and saves it from defeat.

The result is a spiritual new birth of the persons most intimately concerned. Sir George Tressady, facing the fact that he has surrendered himself out of love to a married woman, also discovers the nobility of her nature, and passes out of contentment with meaner ideals into a condition which, though full of restlessness, prophesies a growth of purpose in him ; he conquers even his aversion from his wife. Letty has a spark of the higher life implanted in her thin nature, and though it has to be fanned very cautiously, one who has faith say as large as a kernel of corn may believe that she will be developed into a woman worth living with. Marcella, awakened to a sense of what she has done, is covered with a remorse which characteristically leads her into acts of great self-abnegation, and she labors to atone for the mischief, by reconciling wife and husband and drawing both within the salutary influence of her own large nature ; more especially she discovers the wrong she has done her husband, not by disloyalty to him, but by a subtle subordination of him to the cause in which they are engaged.

It is this last moral which, lightly accented, is yet likely to remain most surely with the reader. For in spite of the prominence given to Sir George Tressady, the book is substantially a sequel to Marcella. The author has lavished most pains upon her, and the ethical problem involved in her career is plainly the one which concerns her most deeply. Mrs. Ward is a victim of the Zeitgeist, that scourge or that stimulant of literature, as one may choose to take it. Social reform, woman, politics, the relation of man and woman in the apparent readjustment of society, here is double, double, toil and trouble, and Mrs. Ward puts her fagots on the fire and watches the caldron bubble. Fiction is the prevailing form of literature, and she accepts it as the inevitable; and yet by a curious reversion in the end to her natural expression, after a violent dramatic pose in the crushing out of Sir George Tressady’s life in a mine whither he has gone to rescue his men, she goes on and on with a sort of review of her hero’s nature. For her interest is not primarily in the men and women whom she creates ; it is in the people of the actual world in which she lives, and whom she tries to transfer to her novel. In doing this she is all the while preoccupied with the circumstances and the inner life of the prototypes of her fictitious characters so that when finally she takes leave of her hero, it occurs to her to sit down and look at him in his deathstruggles and try to explain him to herself and her friends. What artist who had gone out of herself through six or seven hundred pages in the disclosure of her hero would find it necessary at the end to bring in a sort of heavenly candle and go searching round in the poor man’s heart and brain ?

There is a humorous parable by Mr. James, entitled The Real Thing, where an artist designing to illustrate a novel of contemporaneous polite society, thinks himself at first very fortunate in having a real lady and a real gentleman to act as models, but discovers before long that they may be real enough in actual life, yet are inferior models, and he has recourse finally to a professional model. Mrs. Ward has not yet, we suspect, made the artist’s discovery, but she is so brilliant a writer, she knows so well the world she aims to reproduce, and she is so good a pathologist in social health and disease, that one reads her novel with great pleasure. One has overheard clever people talk, he has become fairly well acquainted with a few persons who stand for a society which is full of interest, and he has even been drawn into a consideration of some very subtle movements below the surface. That ought to satisfy him, in these days when the world is turning itself inside out for readers of books ; yet with the unreasonableness of one who has caught a glimpse of what art in fiction may be, he sighs for a world made anew by a great literary creator.

  1. Sir George Tressady. By MRS. HUMPHRY WARD. In two volumes. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1896.