A Group of Recent Novels
IT sometimes happens to a writer, not weighted with too great ambitions, to select his subject so happily and to treat it so simply and skillfully, guided by so sure an instinct for artistic truth, which is also, as Goethe says, the truth of nature, that he produces what is just as surely a masterpiece, in its modest Way, as the biggest work of the first of the immortals. It seems to us that this is precisely what Mr. Gilbert Parker has done in his very beautiful story The Battle of the Strong. From start to finish, the tale is right,—clear, temperate, symmetrical; awakening in the reader a keen personal sympathy with the author’s creations, moving smoothly and surely to an end not clearly foreseen from the beginning any more than the end of life is foreseen, but perceived after the fact to have been inevitable.
Mr. Parker, as readers of The Atlantic Monthly know, lays his scene in the Isle of Jersey, where he is entirely at home; he is far too deeply penetrated with the spirit of its life and lore to show any signs of that cheap process best known by the appropriately vulgar name of “reading up.” The sweet Jersey landscape is here as a background to the action, but never obtruded or overdrawn. The insular customs and quaint racial characteristics of the Jersiais are here, a little more pronounced than the modern traveler sees them, as they must needs have been at the date of the story. The delicious Jersey dialect is here, but so sparingly introduced that, even in these days of the flagrant abuse of dialect, — when one sickens at the sight of a page bespattered with bizarre spelling, — we actually long for more. It seems so limpid and spontaneous a form of human expression that we are conscious of a certain liability to drop into it, and nannin-gia springs unbidden to the lips, as the “ one entire and perfect ” form of mild yet energetic negation. It is as apt and as artless as the baby’s da-da or the overworked monosyllables of the anthropoid ape. What, for example, could excel the following in humor and charm ?
“ The ability to speak English — his own English — was the pride of Jean Touzel’s life. He babbled it all the way, and chiefly about a mythical Uncle Elias, who was the text for many a sermon. ' Times past,’ he said, as they neared Maître Ile, ' mon Onc’ ’Lias, he knows these Eeréhoscs better as all the peoples of the world — respé d’la compagnie ! Mon Onc’ 'Lias, he was a tine man. Once when there is a fight between de Henglish and de hopping Johnnies,’— he pointed toward France,—
‘ dere is seven French ship, dere is two Henglish ship — gentlemen-of-war dey are call. Eh ben, one of de Henglish ships, he is not a gentleman-of-war ; he is what you call go-on-your-own-hook, — privator. But it is all de same, trèsba, all right! What you think coum to pass ? De big Henglish ship, she is hit ver’ bad ; she is all break up, Efin, dat leetle privator he stan’ round on de fighting side of de gentleman-of-war, and take de fire by her loneliness. Say, then, wherever dere is troub’ mon Onc’ 'Lias he is there. He stan’ outside de troub’ an’ look on. Dat is his hobby ! You call it hombog ? Oh,nannin-gia! Suppose two peoples goes to fight, ah bah, somebody must pick up de pieces, — dat is mon Onc’ ’Lias ! He have his boat full of hoysters ; so he sit dere all alone and watch dat great fight, an’ heat de hoyster an’ drink de eider vine ! ’ 舡 For the rest, Mr. Parker’s characters are mainly noble, yet not too impossibly noble. They have many faults among them, but few weaknesses, and their démêlé is rightly named The Battle of the Strong. The souls of these gallant combatants may be sin-stained, as their bodies are war and weather stained ; but they fight fair ; the tale of their prowess is inspiriting, and, above all things, clean; and we are glad to see the great prize of the contest fall, in the end, to that repentant sinner over whom the angels are reported specially to rejoice.
If the novel fails at any point in artistic sobriety and perfect justesse, it is in unduly protracting the last agony of Philip. His touching testament seems rather too long and elaborate a document for a desperately hurt and rapidly sinking man to have written without aid.
Were Mr. Parker to go on and write another novel showing as marked an advance over this, in the mastery of his material, as does this over the clever but slightly turbid and confusing Seats of the Mighty, there is no saying to what he might not eventually attain. But it is enough, in a time of rough work and reckless haste, to have done one thing exactly as well as it can be done, and to have afforded the worried spirit of the would-be conscientious critic an hour of unexpected and most grateful repose.
Caleb West. Master Diver, the able and original romance by Mr. F. Hopkinson Smith, which also first appeared in these pages, is both vigorous and pleasing. The Author has a manly enthusiasm for vast and daring mechanical enterprises, rising at times, as does Mr. Kipling’s in the Bridge-Builders, fairly to poetic power. He is also moved by a generous desire to sing in fitting strains the dumb heroism of the New England mariners, the hardest tried and least remunerated, whether by prizes or praises, of all the obscure toilers of this world. Mr. Smith has thrown himself into the life of these men with special ardor ; but his range is wide, and he shows much insight into the workings of many minds, and delineates with great spirit and humor other strongly marked national types, as that of Major Slocomb, the expansive and mercurial Marylander. Certain qualities of the pictorial artist are conspicuous in scattered bits of vivid description; and this makes one regret the more that the actual illustrations to the story should fall on a lower plane, emphasizing one of the author’s own dangers by oversentimentalizing the situation.
Captain Joe—an heroic old acquaintance of the readers of Mr. Smith’s short stories, who here gives us an opportunity for knowing him more intimately— and Caleb West are two as real men as have got themselves into the pages of a novel for a long time. Rough but not coarse, weather-beaten, of the heroic temper, with characters shaped more by their calling as builders of submarine structures than by any social influences or human associations (for they are men who might have lived at any time), they are a type of the product of our Northern seashore and seafaring life, — a life that has been strangely neglected both in history and in fiction. Whatever else Mr. Smith has done or may do, he has in these men presented characters of permanent human interest. They walk through the book and come into the reader’s attention with a reality that not only justifies their existence, but that gives the story a proper place at the head of Mr. Smith’s fiction ; for it marks an advance on all his previous work.
A striking feature of the story is the wide range of Sanford’s sympathies ; his alternate and almost equally balanced passion for luxury on the one hand, and for hardship and peril on the other. He is, however, quite consistent in his versatility, and as fully alive as any of the other specimens of that undeniably charming type which recent changes in the aspect of the world’s affairs have brought into high repute, both in life and in fiction,—the generous dreamer who waits only opportunity to become the generous doer, the man of fashion under whose urbane exterior are latent the most stirring potentialities of the man of action. Incidentally, too, in the strong sketch of Carleton, the superintendent of the lighthouse work, we have an illustration, which has much point in this year of grace, of the power carelessly lodged in the government overseer to repress the noble rage and thwart the unselfish endeavor of the knights-errant of true progress.
The genteel comedy which is made to run alongside this brave narrative of a struggle with elemental forces and unformulated laws suggests the conventional ; yet a word of hearty praise must be given to the discreet and delicate treatment of a dubious situation in the relations between Sanford and Mrs. Leroy. The smothered love story of these two, with its blameless course and quiet end of unspoken renunciation, is a great deal more true to the nature of honorable folk, betrayed by circumstance into a hopelessly false position, than your two-penny cynic likes to admit.
It must be that we read books of travel far more for the sake of the traveler’s idiosyncrasies than for solid information about the lands which he or she may elect to visit; else how should we be ready and eager to accompany a dozen successive adventurers to the North Pole or the heart of Africa, scores to Russia, India, and Egypt, hundreds to Athens, and thousands to Rome ? No reader can reasonably have expected that the beguiling heroine of Penelope’s English Experiences would have anything new to tell him about the " land o’ Cakes and brither Scots ” in the tartan-clad volume with the alliterative title of Penelope’s Progress. But who, after having sojourned in London and “ Belvern ” with Penelope, would hesitate about accompanying her anywhere ? She is at her very best in Scotland, with her bright audacity, her invincible good temper, and, above all, her frank and infectious laughter at herself. Her gift of unforced but unflagging high spirits is one that is becoming ominously rare in this world ; and once we have yielded a minor point of old-fashioned etiquette, and conceded that one’s experiences of private hospitality may properly be served over as side dishes at a public banquet, we shall find few entrées more daintily and spicily concocted than Penelope’s. It would hardly be possible to win a social victory more adroitly, or to describe it less offensively, than does our witty countrywoman that of her first Edinburgh dinner party : —
“ I think my neighbor found me thoroughly delightful, after he discovered my point of view. He was an earl; and it always takes an earl a certain length of time to understand me. I Scarcely know why, for I certainly should not think it courteous to interpose any real barriers between the nobility and that portion of the ‘masses’ represented in my humble person. . . . The earl took the greatest interest in ray new ancestors, and approved thoroughly of my choice. He thinks I must have been named for Lady Penelope Belhaven, who lived in Leven Lodge, one of the country villas of the Earls of Leven, from whom he himself is descended.
' Does that make us relatives ? ’ I asked. ' Relatives, most assuredly,’ he replied, ‘ but not too near to destroy the charm of friendship.’
“ He thought it a great deal nicer to select one’s own forbears than to allow them all the responsibility, and said it would save a world of trouble if the plan could be universally adopted. He added that he should be glad to part with a good many of his, but doubted whether I would accept them, as they were ' rather a scratch lot.’ I use his own language, which I thought delightfully easy for a belted earl.”
There is a great deal else in the book which is quite as amusing as this ; and some few graver passages, like the discussion of the typical Scotch sermon and long improvised public prayer, which show both sympathy and acute penetration.
In its freshness, lightness, and candor, and in absolute lack of pretension to be other than it is, Penelope’s Progress is a delightful book.
Miss Ellen Glasgow’s Phases of an Inferior Planet suggests the aspects of life from the window of a New York elevated car. The clatter and roar of city sounds form the dreary undertone of this entire story of two unhappy lives. That a girl with a passion for music and a genius for sensation of every keen variety should have met and married a man of extraordinary development, almost wholly mental, was sufficient to bring tragedy to each of them. Their union has given Miss Glasgow the opportunity of drawing not only the life they both lived, but also a vivid picture of the Bohemian New York in which they found themselves and each other. They and their fellow occupants of a cheap apartment house, the whole sordid background for the tragic birth and death of their child, and their own bitter separation are depicted with convincing skill in the first Phase of the narrative. The exceptional success of the detached husband as the rector of a church with a name impossible for an Anglican parish contributes to the second Phase of the story something less of reality ; for it is difficult to conceive that the reverend father could have wrought such clerical wonders with a head so little aided by his heart. But in this Phase the reunion of man and wife is the real thing, and it is vigorously brought about by the author. That its final outward achievement is frustrated by the woman’s dying and the man’s becoming a suicide, by intention if not in act, may be regarded merely as a bit of the general evidence that destiny is too much both for Miss Glasgow and for her creations. The book, if you will, is a morbid anatomy of the spirit, — an anatomy of the morbid spirit may define it more truly, — and those who care not for such undertakings may well abstain from it. Yet it possesses the distinction of dealingbravely with actual life, although in unlovely manifestations, and therefore of affecting the reader very much as such life might move the observer to sympathy or repulsion. The story, moreover, in spite of a tendency at times to sacrifice too much to the sententious and epigrammatic, is excellently told, without too many traces of the influence of " favorite authors.舡 It bears out the promise of the writer’s first attempt in The Descendant, and it makes promises of its own for further interpretations of the modern.
Unhappily, it is impossible to look forward to anything more from the pen of Mrs. Maria Louise Pool. Her latest story, A Golden Sorrow, has many qualities which go to make the reminder,nil nisi bonum, superfluous. It turns upon the unwilling marriage of a pleasureseeking Northern girl in Florida to a Spanish grandee, who, aided by the girl’s ambitious mother, forces her to desert the man she truly loves, and to attempt a married life in which the gold is found to weigh as nothing in comparison with the sorrow. The tale begins lightly, and when the premonitory note of tragedy is struck, the whole affair, as the author well says, seems to the young man like a scene in a burlesque opera, and he wonders when the chorus will begin singing something comic. To his own sorrow, he soon learns that for him and the woman he loves both chorus and solos, from that time forth, are pitched in the most tragic of keys. If fault is to be found with the narrative, it lies in the trumping up at the last moment of the comic-opera device of a forgotten mock marriage, which is proved to have had sufficient reality to permit the heroine to escape from her galling bonds, and to lend herself to a “ happy ending.” It is in the unhappy portion of the story that the writer has revealed uncommon directness and energy in her treatment of a tragic theme. The latter portion of the titlepage of Joanna Baillie’s Series of Plays, “ in which it is attempted to delineate the Stronger Passions of the mind,” defines with accuracy the attempt which Mrs. Pool has made, and it must be said that her attempt has been rewarded with a large measure of success.
The task which Mr. Julian Ralph has set himself in his story An Angel in a Web presents difficulties even greater than those of blending tragedy and comedy ; for here he has assayed the almost impossible fusion of the natural and the supernatural. The natural has to do with a dying rich man, his will and a missing heir, and the story composed of these elements is a reasonably interesting creation of the rather improbable sort. The supernatural is provided by the intervention of the spirits of the rich man’s dead relatives, “ Etherians,” on behalf of everybody concerned in the property. The total result is an inevitable flavor of unreality, which exists neither in life nor in the unadulterated productions of specialists in psychical research. Many of these would doubtless approve the theory of blending the psychic and the actual, but they could hardly defend its practice in art which does not contrive to carry conviction to the reader.
Wholly actual is Mr. Will Payne’s story of The Money Captain. It belongs to the family of The Honorable Peter Stirling and The Federal Judge, and is a straightforward attempt to put into fiction one of the less alluring phases of contemporary American life. The relations between a capitalist, here a “ gas duke,”and a corrupt city government, here Chicago, the exposure of these relations by a journalist of integrity and almost brutal daring, — these, with the subordinate element of a love story, are the writer’s raw materials. The structure into which he moulds them, by a process somewhat lacking in ease, but often and increasingly vigorous, insists upon being taken with a certain seriousness. As a mere narrative it is by no means without power, and as an illustrative comment upon current American affairs it has a positive value.
A corresponding historic value is to be found in A Herald of the West, an American Story of 1811—1815, by Mr. Joseph A. Altsheler. Its hero is a young Kentuckian, connected with the government at Washington before the war of 1812, and serving in the army throughout the conflict. The descriptions of the British attack upon Washington and of the battle of New Orleans give the story a specific interest for students of history. But perhaps its best service is rendered by its delineation of the national temper before and during the war, which is made to appear even more responsible than the Revolution for the old-time feeling of hostility toward England. In such a story it is not unnatural to feel that the historical transcends the human interest. The book, as a work of fiction, commands more respect than enthusiasm.
It is a far cry from America, present or historic, to the scenes, events, and characters of Mr. S. R. Crockett’s tale The Red Axe. As the title suggests, it is a story of “ heads off all round,舡 in which a red slayer exercises no self-deception whatever in thinking that he slays. All that one asks of such a narrative of love and bloody adventure in mediæval times is that the incidents shall be abundant and unhackneyed ; that the possibilities, if not the probabilities, shall be regarded ; and that the writer shall show himself to be familiar not only with essential human nature, but also with the art of writing. These demands are agreeably satisfied by the author of The Red Axe. When Mr. Crockett becomes thoroughly warmed to his work, as in the last third of the volume, he provides so exciting a narrative of its sort that none but the most hardened reader could fail to be stirred by it.
To the same emotions touched by this book Mr. H. B. Marriott Watson appeals, by somewhat different means, in his story The Adventurers. What a few modern French painters have tried to do with sacred subjects he has attempted in this tale of treasure-trove concealed and defended in an ancient castle, fully equipped with moat, portcullis, and dungeon keep ; for the participants in the galloping series of mediæval adventures which form the substance of the book are for the most part thoroughly modern Englishmen, such as any of us might encounter in or out of their native country. Except for a race of two hansom cabs in London, the futile intervention of contemporary law, and the catastrophe supplied by the running down of a smack by a transatlantic liner in the Severn, the entire machinery of the tale is mediæval, and the spectacle of its handling by a little company of men easily within the limits of our personal acquaintance imparts to the narrative a refreshing element of novelty. According to a reader’s taste, it is for or against the story that no element of love appears in all its three hundred pages. If the common belief is founded upon reason, it will therefore appeal more strongly to men than to women. The judicious of both sexes will probably unite in wishing the story shorter ; for, in spite of fertility of invention and agility of manner, there is such a thing as a surfeit of adventure, and Mr. Watson might well have been a little more cautious.
Restraint would have added also to the value of another tale conspicuous for masculinity, — Mr. Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle. Bob is the industrious apprentice of shepherd dogs in the region at the north of England where the scene of the story is laid. In contrast and ceaseless conflict with him stands Red Wull, a great ill-begotten tyke, with a horrid way of hurling himself with a crash against a door closing on a retreating human figure. The enmity between Bob and Red Wull is paralleled by the enmity between their masters, models respectively of everything good and evil. Even the philosopher whose regard for dogs increased with his knowledge of men would have found it hard to choose between Adam M’Adam and his hideous Wull; but he who would know more about the ways of shepherds and shepherd dogs, their rivalries of sagacity, vengeance, and faithfulness, will find that much light is thrown upon these subjects by the pages written out of the fullness of Mr. Ollivant’s sympathy and knowledge. There are those, moreover, who run to dog-fights as willingly as to fires, and for them the book will have the special value of removing the necessity for undignified physical exercise.
The teller of short stories obviously runs fewer risks of over-elaboration than the writer of longer narratives, but there are pitfalls even in the shortest courses. A book which well illustrates the results both of avoiding and of falling into them is The Man who Worked for Collister, by Miss Mary Tracy Earle. When there is a failure to set out with a definite, adequate end in view, the result is likely to be as vague as the impression made by a fellow creature whose personality keeps him constantly in the “ middle distance.” Against this vagueness even a graceful, sympathetic manner cannot always successfully contend. But when such a manner as the writer of these tales has at her command is brought to the service of a clearly conceived story of life that has a sufficient intrinsic interest, one need make no complaint of the resulting product. A story of this order is that, which gives the volume its title ; another is The Fig-Trees of Old Jourdé ; still another, Mr. Willie’s Wedding-Veil. The best of the writer’s descriptions of Creole scenes are notably good.
That it is not enough, however, to display a mastery of a strange dialect is suggested by the presence not only in Miss Earle’s book, but also in Mr. Maurice Thompson’s Stories of the Cherokee Hills, of tales which produce upon the reader no effect of a quality other than temporary. Indeed, excepting for the picture of the old master and slave, Ben and Judas, these tales by Mr. Thompson produce, and perhaps aim to produce, less the effect of fiction pure and simple than that of the writings loosely and generally defined as “ side lights on history.” Mr. Thompson’s chief object has been to depict the state of society and the curious race conditions existing in northern Georgia in the bewildering days of reconstruction. If the writer has confessedly elected to achieve this end by the means of fiction, it is of less consequence that the fiction should be wholly remarkable as such than that its end should be achieved so successfully as it is.
Mrs. Annie Trumbull Slosson’s Dumb Foxglove and Other Stories brings the reader to the intangible things of New England. Her stories are eminently those of a woman, and have to do usually with a strange personification of New England character, touched equally with something of the poetic and of the “ queer.” A deformed child who invents Biblical dishes as extravagant as Lear’s " gosky patties,” an old man who explains and justifies everything in the terms of apples, an old woman who figures by mistake as the chief mourner at the funeral of a person quite unknown to her, and is changed for life by the experience, — these are typical creations of Mrs. Slosson’s fancy. Her tales are not echoes of Miss Jewett’s or Miss Wilkins’s, but have a separate, half-mystical quality of their own. They are sometimes overburdened with detail, like the spoken narrations of many New England women, yet they carry with them much that is quaint, suggestive, and rememberable.
Very different are the qualities of mysticism and of method which characterize The Shape of Fear and Other Ghostly Tales, by Mrs. Elia W. Peattie. Apart from any contrast with diffuseness, these really short stories are to an uncommon degree incisive and to the point. The supernatural element, instead of taking on the religions tinge of Mrs. Slosson’s mysticism, is of the purely ghostly order, and the communing is frequently with evil rather than good spirits. Of the mundane relations described in one of her stories Mrs. Peattie says : “ Fate was annoyed at this perfect friendship. It did n’t give her enough to do, and fate is a restless thing, with a horrible appetite for variety.” It is usually to aid the gratification of this appetite that the unseen influences play their part in these tales. That they possess a certain distinction is due to the author’s variety of imagination, and to an effective directness of telling which amounts to a positive quality of style. It would be unfair to leave the impression that the writer’s skill is concerned wholly with gruesome materials, for there is abundant pathos in the stories of Their Dear Little Ghost and From the Loom of the Dead ; and in A Grammatical Ghost a refreshing leavening of humor is apparent. It will be interesting to observe what larger and more ambitious work will come from this same author, who has now put forth three books of short stories.
Shorter than the shortest of Mrs. Peattie’s stories, and quite distinct from all the other writings noticed here, are the observations of Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War. They stand alone, because the volume which contains them must be seriously considered as a claimant for a place among the real contributions to American humor. Such contributions may or may not endure ; but just as Major Jack Downing, Hosea Biglow, and that genial showman Artemus Ward figured as typical spokesmen for something in the American body politic and social at the times of their appearance, so Martin Dooley, saloon-keeper of Chicago, speaks truly as a living man of living things. The explanation of its success is not far to seek. The Chicago journalist, Mr. F. P. Dunne, who is known in open secret as its author, has dealt with such topics of the Spanish war and the years of peace immediately preceding it as have come under the daily notice of everybody. Into the mouth of the philosophic Dooley, familiar with ward politics, laboring men, and the police, he has put the shrewdest of comments upon all these topics. The dialect is an exact reproduction of the unconsciously droll speech of Dooleys known to us all, and the humor of this particular sage, and of the sharers in his walk and conversation, is often as subtle as his common sense is sound. To test the effect of his words not only in sound, but in significance, every person with any linguistic gift may be advised to make the experiment of reading Dooley aloud ; for whether the hearers enjoy it or not, the reader surely will.