Dr. Mitchell's Hugh Wynne

There is a peculiarly happy, mellow quality in Dr.S. Weir Mitch ell’s latest novel, Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker, a story of the American Revolution. It purports to be the memoirs of its chief character, written many years after the events he describes, and the sense of old age is admirably conveyed. Even in descriptions of the thick of the mêLée at Germantown, or of the charge over the redoubts at Yorktown, one is conscious of the flow of the tranquil pen of the narrator rather than of the waving sword of the actor. It is much as if the old Quaker virus, temporarily neutralized by the hot blood of youth, were once more in the ascendant ; and though we have endless incidents, duels, battles, captures, escapes, plots, and counterplots, there is never the sense of excitement, scarcely of suspense, that such a succession of incidents presupposes. And Dr. Mitchell’s style, perfected for this particular book by a choice of enough of the vernacular of the time, is so well suited to the task that it is difficult to realize that it is not the autobiography of the Free Quaker.

Another reason for this lack of intensity is undoubtedly a structural defect. Hugh Wynne, his cousin Arthur, and his dearest friend Jack all love the same girl, and the story is the usual one. In addition, the three lovers all fight in the Revolution, and we have much to do with the movements of Washington’s army and of the war in general. There is really no connection, however, between the love and the fighting, and page after page of description might be cut out without loss to the story as a story; not that these very pages are uninteresting, for they make delightful reading as glimpses of the war, whether military or social; but they are not germane, and try as the author has, he cannot make them knit into his work or seem a part of it.

The use of too many such incidents has led to many slips of fact, which, however unimportant, are regrettable because needless. It seems almost as if the author had gone out of his way to bring in the first Congress, in order that he might introduce as members men who were not elected to it. He makes the Conway cabal collapse because of Lee’s capture, which occurred a full year before the cabal was heard of; he puts Washington into uniform when there were no troops yet thought of ; and he embodies a military force in Pennsylvania before the battle of Lexington was fought. If these and many other errors and perversions were necessary, or even advantageous to the tale, no objection would be made to them, but they are as gratuitous and unessential as well could be. In short, in the endeavor to give a quality of truthfulness by the use of irrelevant minutiæ, the author has injured his story in a technical sense, without obtaining the “ atmosphere ” for which he strove. Probably Henry Esmond and The Virginians were the models, but Thackeray never made this mistake with his material.

There is a second distant resemblance to the novels of Thackeray, for in Hugh Wynne we have a voluntary resignation of English estates to a younger branch of the family, and an emigration to America of the elder one. Then we have the scoundrelly cadet — a deep intriguer who gains the hand of the heroine, the fortune of the father, and almost the life of the hero ; a most scoundrelly British villain, indeed, patriotically to contrast with his American cousins. Here, too, is a Damon and Pythias affection between Hugh Wynne and Jack that approximates to the relations between George and Harry, and Hugh tells the tale of both, much as George did. Finally, we have Washington, Lafayette, and the other like accessories, the former admirably drawn and far excelling in accuracy and humanness the portrait in The Virginians.

Neither Hugh nor Jack wins the reader very strongly. Yet it is not altogether easy to say why they do not, for both are meant to be sympathetic, and the contrast of character between the two is well done. The best character is Darthea, whose capricious liking of all men and resolute good faith to the worst man really make the story. Scarcely less good is the conception of Gainor Wynne, though we are required to revise our impressions of old-time views of spinsterhood before accepting her as a possibility of the last century. Nor is her liking for cards and all that they imply so much typical of the Whigs as of the Tories, the partisans of the Revolution for the most part disapproving of all frivolity.

It is as a picture that the book achieves its greatest success — an essay, as it were, on the old-time life that centred in the city of brotherly love, in the days when that desirable and Christian feeling was sadly embarrassed by party, religious, and personal rancor ; the breaking up of the old society, the disruption of families, the waning of old faiths, old ties, and old methods. Few spots were so shaken and torn by the stress of those years as the old Quaker city, and this fact is most admirably brought out.

Viewed as a novel, the story lacks structure. From the beginning to the end one is never in doubt that all is not to be as it should be: that Hugh is to win Darthea ; that Jack, the friend and lover, is to let his love fade into a proper emotion for his Damon’s wife ; and finally’, that Arthur Wynne, a most proper villain, is to receive a proper punishment at the proper moment. But as a picture of eighteenth-century life the book has at once value and charm.