Comment on Recent Books of Fiction
THE notion of “ complete works ” used to bring up the vision of a solemn row of learned treatises ; now we have our fiction on dress parade, and so eager are we to have uniform and complete sets that hardly has a writer made a few successful ventures than he is set forth in purple and fine linen, and given all the outward show of a classic. Not only this, but his 'prentice work is diligently searched out, and if he is very complacent he addresses his readers from behind historical prefaces. One is easily persuaded, however, that the initiative in such matters is taken by the publisher rather than by the author. Here is Mr. Barrie, for example, whose Sentimental Tommy is still a very new book, and whose Auld Licht Idylls is not an old one, gathering his Novels, Tales, and Sketches into eight volumes almost to be called stately. (Scribners.) He has prefixed brief introductions which have a somewhat reluctant air, as if he found it rather difficult to treat his performances as matters of history ; but in them he does, in a half-covert way, take the reader a little into his confidence. These introductions, brief as they are, may yet be read to advantage as a group, since they make one somewhat acquainted, before he begins the tales, with the humor and point of view of the author. One discovers that one has to do with a personality which hides behind an open window. In one of his books, Margaret Ogilvy, Mr. Barrie makes a confession which throws a flood of light not only on his own writing, but on that of Scots generally.
“ It seems to be a law of nature,” he says, “ that we must show our true selves at some time; and as the Scot must do it at home, and squeeze a day into an hour, what follows is that he is self-revealing in the superlative degree, the feelings so long dammed up overflow, and thus a Scotch family are probably better acquainted with each other, and more ignorant of the life outside their circle, than any other family in the world. And as knowledge is sympathy, the affection existing between them is almost painful in its intensity ; they have not more to give than their neighbors, but it is bestowed upon a few instead of being distributed among many ; they are reputed niggardly, but for family affection, at least, they pay in gold. In this, I believe, we shall find the true explanation why Scotch literature, since long before the days of Burns, has been so often inspired by the domestic hearth, and has treated it with a passionate understanding.”
The book from which this passage is taken may be regarded as the most significant illustration of Mr. Barrie’s statement to be found in Scottish literature. It is a sketch of his mother by a son who never forgets that he is a novelist, — a novelist who is conscious in an intense sort of his sonship. It affects different temperaments differently, but when one comes back to it, after reading all the other writings of Mr. Barrie, one finds it less difficult to understand how the author could write it in the innocence of his heart and the ripe intelligence of his literary consciousness. For all the creations of his higher art are true to a single principle : the concentration of attention upon the details of a single community, and the interpretation, through the most concrete expression, of the deepest and the shallowest moments of the life there to be discovered.
It is nothing new for a novelist to be interested in persons, but it is rare for one to be so absolutely concerned with them as Mr. Barrie shows himself to be. In his portraitures of acknowledged men, as in his group An Edinburgh Eleven, he shows how cleverly he can hit off peculiarities, and how careless he is of any attempt at exact and rounded charactersketching. The novelist is always getting in his way and teasing him, not to make caricatures, but to draw pictures, like a schoolboy with his slate before him and sums to do. With the freedom of a story-teller when his figures are not already public characters, he makes the field which he has chosen for his own, the imaginary village of Thrums, instinct with actual life. Here are several tales and groups of sketches,— A Window in Thrums, The Little Minister, Auld Licht Idylls, and Sentimental Tommy ; and as Tommy, with his imagination, succeeds in persuading himself and his sister and their friends that London is but the penumbra of Thrums, so Mr. Barrie, by his genius, finds this little village all the world he needs for displaying the whole range of human nature. It is enough for him, because it is not the incidents of the village life, but the persons enacting the scenes, that he is engaged with.
Indeed, the note that jars makes more evident the source of Mr. Barrie’s real power. In The Little Minister he has introduced as a principal figure the halfgypsy creature, Babbie, and has married her to Mr. Dishart. The introduction and treatment are a tour de force, and we observe that he lets the girl discreetly alone, once she is married ; in the other books, although Mr. Dishart comes and goes, Mrs. Dishart is the merest shadow. She is more distinctly an invention, as we suspect the Painted Lady of being ; the other characters are true imaginative portraits, derived from sympathetic study of life. The sureness of the touch is discoverable in multitudinous passages, phrases, words, in the wit and humor, and above all in the freedom with which hard, unlovely qualities are drawn without a particle of sentimentality or cynicism. We should place the element of truthfulness as the very highest trait in Mr. Barrie’s work.
The value of these Scottish stories is all the more noticeable because of the experimental and amateurish character of other of his writings which he has thought best to include in this series. It is the sketch which shows Mr. Barrie at his best ; his latest long story, Sentimental Tommy, is a prolonged, delightful sketch, full of ingenuity and broken lines, genuinely analytic without having the corrosiveness of much modern analysis. The explanation lies in the fact that the author delights in what Tommy does, and that his analysis of a character dominated by the imaginative force is nothing more or less than a curious tracing of the embryonic activity of a nature which shows itself in fuller life capable of possessing and dramatizing the men, women, and children of Thrums. It is indeed a singularly comprehensive and simple personality which is reflected by this series of writings, deriving its quickening power from a mother, and shadowing forth its fullness of art in the varied play of a boy’s mind.
Though Mr. Barrie dubs his latest hero “ sentimental,” the name is a little misleading unless to Scotch ears. “ Imaginative ” comes nearer the mark, and Mr. Barrie’s work is strongly characterized by the healthy absence of sentimentalism. Mr. Watson, Ian Maclaren, comes perilously near wearing the title. His sketches, with all their humor, have been rather close to the rainy weather region. His first novel, Kate Carnegie (Dodd, Mead & Co.), is not, properly speaking, a novel at all, but is a series of sketches of life in Drumtochty, especially of its ministers and their clerical brethren in the neighborhood, connected by a slight thread of story, telling of the loves of the heroine and John Carmichael, of which the interest is correspondingly weak. Indeed, the young Free Church minister and the General’s daughter would have been more convincing if their love had never got beyond the region of fancy, and they had each married in their own world, as the least sophisticated reader knows they would have done except for the author’s will. But setting this aside, the book is very pleasant reading, and in certain of its chapters shows Mr. Watson at his best. It abounds in admirable bits of characterdrawing, and is illumined everywhere by the writer’s very real gift of humor, — a humor unforced, quickly perceptive, and as far removed from cynicism as from any tinge of vulgarity. Nowhere has the Kirk, its ministers, its forms and customs, — those enormously important factors in Scottish life, — been more sympathetically dealt with. The book is a study of the humors of a rural parish ; its rare touches of pathos are poignant rather than tearful. Its strongest and also its finest character-sketch is that of the Rev. Jeremiah Saunderson, minister of the Free Church of Kilbogie, the profundity of whose learning is equaled only by his inability to put it to any practical use, and whose tenderness and guilelessness in no way modify an unwavering belief in the extremest tenets of Calvinism, which compels him to denounce to the Presbytery (quite harmlessly) the heresy of the young man he loves as a son. In contrast is Dr. Davidson, parish minister of Drumtochty, — a Moderate, suave, courtly, ruling his little domain with a wise, gentle, but very firm hand, and keeping peace in his time. These studies, with the delightfully humorous yet unexaggerated sketch of John, the beadle, who advised or encouraged trembling probationers, and “ carried the books” before the Doctor in a stately procession of two, and was in himself an embodiment of the dignity of the Auld Kirk, would alone give the book an abundant reason for being, the more because in Drumtochty, as elsewhere, the old order changeth. The Scots are having it much their own way. It was tolerably certain that Mr. Crockett would sooner or later take the Ayrshire Tragedy for the subject of one of his historical, or, as they might be called, chronicle tales ; for these loosely woven narratives, with their crowd of characters, small and great, in form resemble more closely old family or county histories than compactly constructed novels. The Gray Man (Harpers), dealing with what the law — uniformly set at naught by the dramatis persoœ — accurately termed “ the heathenish and accursed practice of Deadly Feud, ” is of course a tale of continuous fighting, inglorious neighborhood or family brawls marked by much reckless bravery, a good deal of bloodshed, and the natural accompaniments of brutality and treachery. The author describes these conflicts with an immense deal of spirit and fervor, and a rather unusually good reproduction of the temper of the time in more points than one, and he imparts some of his excitement even to unimpressionable readers. Launcelot Kennedy, the narrator, has a fair measure of vitality, but the youth’s conceit might have been more subtly indicated, while his hoidenish sweetheart is of a type that is already familiar to Mr. Crockett’s readers. The events which lead to the murder of Sir Thomas Kennedy of Culzean (which Sir Walter phonetically spelled “ Cullayne,” to the advantage of the non-Scottish public) by John Mure of Auchendrayne, and thereafter to the apprehension and execution of that consummate villain and his son, are set forth with reasonable fidelity to facts, often forcibly, and occasionally with a genuine dramatic touch. The mystery, however, which in the beginning is supposed to attend the appearances of John Mure as the Gray Man, really comes to little, the narrative growing notably more direct and graphic as it goes on. It is quite strong enough, after its kind, to have spared Sawny Bean’s cave and its unhuman inmates ; the tale has sufficient barbarism without that final horror. The author seems at times deliberately to have sought merely sensational effects, always to the weakening of his work artistically as well as realistically.
The popular favor which has been bestowed on Mrs. Steel’s latest book will prove grateful to those who have followed her work with ever growing interest, — an interest first roused by certain unsigned magazine sketches, differing as widely as might be from the earlier stories of Kipling that had preceded them, but to be placed second to no lesser studies than his. On the Face of the Waters (Macmillan) is emphatically the best tale of the Mutiny yet written, though its readers may recall others, from the pens of men who lived through that time of terror, that in their treatment of one or another aspect of the great tragedy might rival it; but which of them has the comprehensiveness, the insight, and the strength of this ? In regard to the truth of the picture, the author says : 舠 I have not allowed fiction to interfere with fact in the slightest degree. . . . Every incident bearing in the remotest degree on the Mutiny, or on the part which real men took in it, is scrupulously exact, even to the date, the hour, the scene, the very weather.” When it is remembered how large a license the great historical novelists have taken in these things, Mrs. Steel’s fear lest her book, in attempting to be at once a story and a history, should fail in either aim, is not uncalled for, nor, it must be owned, without justification, in so far as the occasional and quite natural refusal of the two elements to intermingle is concerned.
The interest of the story is centred upon the fortunes of two men and two women, but they are in the foreground of a very crowded scene, every part of which is full of vivid life, — Anglo-Indians, civilian and military of all degrees, the sham court at Delhi with its doting representative of the Great Moguls and his evil wife, Sepoys, devotees, jugglers, women of the bazaar ; vigorously realistic portraits many of these, the color surrounding them, the atmosphere they breathe, becoming evident to the reader, and this without too visible effort on the writer’s part. She has assimilated India, so to speak, and does not dwell on things new or strange as one to whom the scene is foreign. The four characters we have spoken of — Jim Douglas, keen, alert, capable, his career ruined because of an act of generous boyish folly ; Major Erlton, slow-witted, sensual, without even the conventional honor of a gentleman, and who yet dies bravely, as does the light woman, Alice Gissing ; and last, Mrs. Erlton, in saving whom Douglas loses the chance which comes to him of retrieving the past, and yet works out his own salvation thereby — are all sketched with admirable skill, but it must be said with most notable success in the case of the undeserving pair. The author’s greatest shortcoming, her occasional want of lucidity,—the more trying because she shows so often that she can write with as much clearness as force, — is to be found in this book as well as in its predecessors. Perhaps the West can never really understand the East, but Mrs. Steel is one of the few writers who can give it some measure of comprehension ; so it is the greater pity when the results of her wealth of knowledge, her delicate and sympathetic insight, are obscured by a mist of her own creating.
The historical novel subtends a wide arc when it takes in the English conquest of India and the Christian conquest of Rome. In Quo Vadis, a Narrative of Rome at theTime of Nero (Little, Brown & Co.), the Polish giant, Henryk Sienkiewicz, takes his turn at wrestling, for a fall, with the most difficult as well as the most importunate of historical problems : how it was, practically, that the empire of Christ came to replace, in its own seat, the empire of the Roman Cæsars. He brings to the adventure some great qualifications, — a thorough acquaintance with the records of the time, a virile and prolific imagination, the elemental force and unspent passion of the Slav, along with his natural proclivity to mysticism, — and all these fused by the ardor of an apparently recent conversion to the ideas of what the French call Néo-Christianisme.
Happily, there is no question of bringing upon the stage in person the Author of the most radical of all revolutions. But the plain testimony of the Apostles Peter and Paul to the facts of their own experience with regard to the Christ is represented as finding ready credence with open-minded Romans, who attach no supernatural significance whatever to the circumstances ; and one of these Romans makes a statement, in a private letter, of the questions at issue between the old world and the new, which, is even startling in its clearness :—
“ I know not how the Christians order their own lives, but I know that where their religion begins Roman rule ends ; our mode of life ends ; the distinction between conquered and conqueror, rich and poor, master and slave, ends ; government ends ; Cæsar ends ; law and all the order of the world ends : and in place of these appears Christ, with a certain mercy not existent hitherto, and a kindness opposed to human and our Roman instincts.”
The Neo-Christian, or the Christian socialist, — for they are essentially one, whatever shade of doctrinal difference may lie between them, — would say much the same concerning the powers in present possession of the world. For him, the day, more than three hundred years later than Nero’s time, when Christianity became the state religion, and fashionable among the great, was a day of arrested development rather than of victory achieved. The true revivals of that faith he discerns there only where its beginnings had been, in deserts and in dungeons. The foremost apostle of the new Christianity, the Slavic Tolstoi, has embraced poverty as ardently and unreservedly as did the saint of Assisi, or those “ men of the Spirit ” who fled in his wake from the tyranny of a ruthless ecclesiasticism to the snowy solitudes of the winter Apennines. From this point of view, so powerful a writer as Sienkiewicz could hardly fail to present an impressive picture of the first great Christian persecution, and the truth is that he has succeeded in restoring that dreadful period after a somewhat new and altogether masterly fashion. He lays hold of its horrors with a simple and unshrinking directness which reminds one most of all of the Russian painter, Vasili Verestchagin. He designs with the same strange mixture of poetic breadth and precise realism. Surely the might of these men is to some extent a matter of unworn race ! No writer, whether of history or of fiction, whom we remember, has drawn so living and speaking a likeness of the Emperor Nero as has this Polish novelist. No one else has made that curious moral monster so consistent in his inconsistencies, so inevitable both in his fatuities and in his enormities, so clear to the mind’s eye in the uncanny and repulsive peculiarities of his person. There is a description in chapter vii. of an imperial banquet, at which the Christian maiden Lygia was forced to appear, which illumines one of the most hackneyed of subjects, and seizes the imagination with irresistible power. The midnight services of the proscribed, the incidents of the great fire, and the scenes in the amphitheatre, for those who have the nerve to dwell on their details, are made equally vivid and convincing. Yet there is no display of erudition. All the preliminary labor is hidden, subdued, absorbed, as it ought to be ; telling only in the astonishing solidity of the representation. The English of the translation is very bad, in parts ; obscure and evidently inadequate to the author’s meaning, and very little assisted by what would appear to have been the incessant references of the translator to a French version which he understood hardly better than the original Polish. Certain puerile mistakes — like rendering sang-froid by cool blood, and confusing the Campagna of modern Rome with the territory of Campania — occur over and over again. Yet all these minor imperfections are overborne by the rush of the narrative and the energy of the author’s purpose. Occasionally, indeed, the very uncouthness of the diction seems to give a peculiar and touching force to the utterances of unlettered confessor and stammering slave. Sometimes, on the other hand, the translator stumbles, as it were, on an expression of singular beauty ; as where he says that, to the watchers in the early dawn outside the Mamertine prison, the whole structure began to “ sound like a harp ” with the matin hymn of the prisoners ; or where he tells yet once again, in bald and broken but most poignant phrases, the always overpowering story of the martyrs’ constancy under torture.
The reason why, with all its power, Quo Vadis fails as a Christian or even a Neo-Christian tract — for as such, after all, it does fail — is that, in spite of his own evident intention to the contrary, Sienkiewicz makes his pagans, man for man, so much more real and individual than his Christians. We simply do not believe in the conversion of Vinicius. We wonder how he could ever have imposed upon the Apostles, and especially upon Paul. It was the mere might of his very human passion for Lygia which carried the young patrician through all that he endured. No doubt that passion is magnificently portrayed. But it finds its fitting consummation and reward, — exactly where the just instinct of the author has placed them ; not in victorious martyrdom and the trance of a blessed immortality, but in the melodramatic deliverance from the arena, and the conventional “ happy ever after ” of the safe retreat in Sicily. It is that gracious and polished heathen, Petronius Arbiter, who is the true hero of the book. There is an exquisite point of irony in his amiable letter to the married and settled lovers, wherein he declines their earnest invitation to join them in Sicily, on the plea of his own implicit engagement to die at Rome ; and then reminds them, with a suave apology, that he does not need to learn of them — or of any Christian — how to do that. And the scene of the suicide of Petronius and Eunice, in its chastened splendor and grave decorum, is, upon the whole, the greatest and most memorable in the book.
We naturally compare Quo Vadis not only with the Fabiolas and Calistas of the Catholic revival in England, but with that later work which so far surpasses them all, even Cardinal Newman’s Tale of the Catacombs, in delicate research and literary distinction, the Marius of the late Walter Pater. To go back to Marius after Quo Vadis is to assuage the fierce thirst of fever with a cooling and healing draught. It is not a little singular that the Neo-pagan should leave upon the mind of his reader so much more winning and persuasive an impression than does the Neo-Christian of the balm, the brightness, the divine serenity and refreshment, brought into the diseased and moribund society of Rome by the coming of Christ in Judæa. It is the Good Shepherd of the earliest Ravanese mosaics, youthful, gentle, and debonair, who looks wistfully at us out of the concluding pages of Marius the Epicurean. It is true that Marius lived a century later than Vinicius ; not under Nero, but under the all but saintly Marcus Aurelius, during that “ minor peace of the Church ” of which the early knell was to ring at Lyons, before the blameless though still benighted Emperor died without hope. The epoch of Mr. Pater’s beautiful study is admirably chosen ; that was a part of Mr. Pater’s art. No modern writer of them all has shed so mild and full a light as he on the evolution of Christian ritual. None has depicted more tenderly the noiseless widening of the new dawn ; the natural flowering of Christian precept in civic obedience and domestic order, stainless love and happy hope ; the penetrative and transforming power of Christian example over many who never bore the Christian name. The childlike simplicity with which the young Epicurean lays down his life for his friend ; the uncalculated, unappreciated, almost unconscious sacrifice of the anima naturaliter Christiana, speaks to the heart, or at all events to certain hearts, almost more intimately and irresistibly than the hecatombs of the amphitheatre.
If Mr. Pater’s unfinished romance, Gaston de Latour (Macmillan), had ever been completed, it would have been a parallel study of character to Marius, “ the scene shifted to another age of transition, when the old fabric of belief was breaking up, and when the problem of man’s destiny and his relations to the unseen was undergoing a new solution. The interest would have centred round the spiritual development of a refined and cultivated mind, capable of keen enjoyment in the pleasures of the senses and of the intellect, but destined to find its complete satisfaction in that which transcends both.” So Mr. Charles L. Shad well describes the author’s purpose in beginning a work destined to remain a fragment, but a fragment so exquisite that its readers will feed grateful to the editor who has, we suspect with some reluctance, reproduced it in its present form.
Mr. Pater’s style is here at its very best, the perfect art concealing the careful elaboration, and from the outset he casts his spell upon the reader, who gladly follows wheresoever he leads. What a series of pictures are to be found in the opening chapters : the Château of Deux-manoirs in the pleasant plain of La Beauce ; the parish church where the young Gaston kneels to be “ made a clerk ; ” the chamber where Gabrielle de Latour had died of joy ; above all, the glowing presentment of Notre Dame de Chartres, of whose life the boy is a part. And here it may be well to say that the reader in search of a historical romance of any accepted fashion will hardly find it in these studies of certain moods of the spirit in the men of the French Renaissance. To be sure, the terrible reality of the St. Bartholomew comes into the history, and Gaston’s wife is one of its victims, but the husband is far away, and his connection therewith has none of the vividness of his visit to Ronsard, the young clerk full of the “ modern ” spirit, intoxicated with the wine of the new verse, pitying the men of the classic past for not being aboveground to read it ; or that memorable sojourn with Montaigne when in discourse with the youthful disciple the quintessence of the essays is given us. As for the Huguenots, they are rather outside the writer’s consciousness, having a shadowy and, it must be added, exceedingly conventional existence in his pages. At the last, if we may use that word, the book seems to be resolving into a series of essays, Gaston’s relation to the study of Bruno being of the slightest. The editor may be right in thinking it not impossible that the author was dissatisfied with the work which he had begun, and so deliberately abandoned it. However that may be, we are thankful for the visionary beauty of these glimpses of the young Gaston and of his world, without and within ; and while we must regret that no later volume can come to us from a writer whose style, in its fascination and subtle grace, was a thing apart, full acquiescence must be accorded to the decision of those in charge of his papers that no work of his shall appear in a form less complete than he would himself have approved. In our haste we might say that they also stand apart among literary executors.
It is a pleasure to see a second book show a distinct gain over the first, and this pleasure Mrs. Helen Choate Prince has given us in A Transatlantic Chatelaine. (Houghton.) The gain is in the direction of concentration and of singleness of purpose. Christine Rochefort had qualities of cleverness and seriousness; but there was a suspicion that the author helped herself to current movements in the industrial world without making any contribution to their solution by penetrative interpretation, and with the effect of weakening the emphasis upon the characters involved in the disturbances. In this second book historic scenes serve as backgrounds ; but Mrs. Prince’s real business, and the business of the reader, is with the heroine and her foils. Not for a moment is the interest withdrawn from the young American girl who has to fight her way through life ; the struggle is made more dramatic from the fact that she has wealth and beauty on her side. The other characters fall admirably into place, and each is succinctly, clearly projected : the devoted maid, Justine ; the well-bred, selfish, and affectionate adventuress, Mrs. Lee Blair ; the noble and pathetic figure, Madame de la Roche. The men who enter the heroine’s life are more sketchily drawn, but again the art of the novel is true in the fullness with which the character of Philippe is studied, and the comparatively fainter lines given to the sketch of the two Regniers. The unfolding of Sylvia’s character from its self-contained intellectualism to a generous womanhood is clearly disclosed through the succession of shocks which she receives. We shall look with interest for further work from a writer who has shown herself thus capable of imagining characters. We suspect, as she gets a firmer hold on the instrument of her art, there may be a less strenuous tone, a greater freedom in the play of life, possibly even a warmer humor. With this mellowness of a riper power, there ought to be a product well worth waiting for.