Some Recent Fiction

THE stories which Mrs. Margaret Deland has collected under the attractive title of Old Chester Tales are, for the most part, in her very best vein ; and two of them, Good for the Soul and Where the Laborers are Few, are not only highly dramatic in construction, but exceedingly impressive by reason of their moral and religious appeal. Mrs. Deland has always had two styles: one of them studied — and successfully studied— from Miss Austen and Mrs. Gaskell ; the other less classic, but more her own, — the fervent, insistent, argumentative style of a woman with deep convictions and an earnest, philanthropic purpose, who tells her story for the sake of its moral, and will cheerfully mar the proportions of the one, if, by so doing, she may the better drive the other home. In John Ward, Preacher, the book by which her fame was won, the two styles ran side by side without blending; and the clear stream, which reflected the quaint prejudices and tranquil conservatisms of the secluded old Pennsylvania town, was so much pleasanter to follow than the turbid torrent of the preacher’s theological agonies, that one felt tempted to beseech the author to abandon her higher purposes henceforth, and confine herself to the natural history of the American Cranford. That sleepy paradise dawned upon her pages, bathed in a delicious atmosphere of dignified indolence, full of mild local color, and animated by the oddities of no end of indigenous types whom Mrs. Deland knew root and branch, and portrayed with charming spirit and evident fidelity.

But the strong talent is bound to take its own course. In her succeeding stories, Mrs. Deland was still, by turns, the artist and the moralist, but the moralist rather more than the artist, and not seldom to the artist’s detriment. In her view of the irrepressible “ woman question,” for example, she often seemed to us distinctly morbid and mistaken ; but that her sympathies were constantly broadening, her insight into character and motive growing deeper and her mastery of her material more complete, we were also constrained to admit. And now, when, after a decade or so of successful authorship, she returns to the scenes of her childhood and the first themes of her muse, we can measure all the gain she has made ; and it is not small. What variety in superficial similarity, what humors both of speech and of situation, what passion under primness, what depths of human tragedy and heights of spiritual victory within the straggling limits of quiet Old Chester, whose wayward and somnolent streets Howard Pyle has drawn so delightfully, especially in their winter aspect ! Moreover, the different sketches compose into a single picture ; for all the action revolves about one venerable central figure, — that of the rector of Old Chester parish, Dr. Lavendar.

It is he who guides, counsels, upholds, reprimands, and absolves each member of his erring flock. There is a wonderful diversity of interest and charm in the figures that cluster around him, of those who live by his words and example : of Elizabeth Day, bearing humbly about with her the scar of her ancient and thrice-expiated fault; of delicate Miss Maria Wellwood ; of Rachel King, who is a mother by the grace of God, not by the will of man ; of the one-legged evangelist Paul Phillips, and of Jane Jay, with the heartbreak it would have unclassed her to confess; of the brothers Shields, who almost cast the brothers Cheeryble into the shade. But the aureoled rector, with his aging hands outspread in benediction, towers above them all, the pure ideal of the parish priest. We wonder if Mrs. Deland herself has ever perceived how exactly, in Dr. Lavendar, she has depicted the type of the sinless, selfless, nameless abbé of a remote French hamlet, or the Don Anselmo or Don Teodoro of some hunger - smitten Apennine district; how much more the rector’s quiet course resembles those lives hidden with God than the more active, conspicuous, and seemingly responsible career of the average English or American parson or French or Swiss pasteur. Dr. Lavendar’s memorial tablet should be set beside that of the vicar of the Deserted Village.

It is not far from Old Chester to that picturesque South of the days before the civil war, — sunny, peaceful, patriarchal, — which it has long been a labor of love with Mr. Thomas Nelson Page carefully to delineate. Thank God, the time has fully come, in hardly more than a generation, when readers all over our integral country can follow his thrilling Chronicle of Reconstruction with no swellings of partisan spite or rekindling of extinct hostilities, but with an equal pride in the author’s literary distinction and captivating manner as a story-teller.

Mr. Page has, indeed, a very unusual gift of graphic and convincing narrative. To lounge in an easy-chair and listen to his personal reminiscences would be, one is inclined to think, one of the greatest luxuries in life. The tale of the Red Rock Plantation, with its remarkable vicissitudes of ownership, is long, but it is never dull. It runs an exciting but seemingly inevitable course, and ends exactly as it ought. The many personages of the play include a large number both of Northern and of Southern types ; and Mr. Page gives proof of rare equanimity — using the word in its true and original sense — by the candid manner in which he places himself, successively, at points of view which were deeply antagonistic at the date of the story, and then, and for years afterward, believed to be irreconcilable.

The most admirable figure in the book, that of the grave, wise, clairvoyant, Dr. Cary, who foresaw without flinching the sad end of the Confederate struggle from its gallant beginning, is hardly more tenderly drawn than that of the equally estimable New Englander, Major Welch. The Northern maiden and the Southern, Ruth and Blair, are equally sweet, high-spirited, and deliciously unreasonable. Mr. Page’s Jacquelin Grays and Stephen Allens are made no more “chivalrous ” than his Lawrence Middletons. In his polite exactitude, he will not, even give them finer names ! We can all enjoy the humor with which he paints the character and rehearses the experience of Mrs. Welch, the convinced and high-minded Northern abolitionist: so perfectly sure she was right before she ever saw the South ; so flabbergasted — if the word may be allowed — when she found herself face to face with the actual situation. We know that Mr. Page’s negroes are drawn from the life ; we bless him for using their “black babble ” so sparingly in his text, and we are diverted alike by their whimsical fidelities to their former owners and by their childish contumacies toward their new employers. And above all, — for here we come to the pith of a story which has, of necessity, its very painful side, — we find no words of execration too bitter, and hardly any organized vendetta too merciless, for the vulgar tyrannies of the Northern “ Carpetbagger ” as represented by Jonadab Leech, or the spite of the treacherous overseer and permitted enormities of the sensual fanatic as exemplified in the foul deeds of Hiram Still and the negro Moses.

The best parts of Red Rock, from a purely literary point of view, are the graceful dedicatory preface and what may be called the prologue, in which are simply and briefly rehearsed the causes and course of the war of secession, the going out of the devoted Southern heroes and their coming home. By way of illustrating the breadth of Mr. Page’s sympathies and the sincerity of his larger patriotism, let us quote a short scene. It is that in which Dr. Cary addresses the convention which voted the secession of his state.

“ He broke the silence with a calm voice that went everywhere. Without appearing to be strong, his voice was one of those strange instruments that filled every building with its finest tone, and reached over every crowd to its farthest limit. With a gesture that, as men said afterward, seemed to sweep the horizon, he began : —

“ ‘ The time has passed for talking. Go home and prepare for war. For it is on us.’

“ ‘ Oh, there’s not going to be any war ! ’ cried some one, and a part of the crowd cheered. Dr. Cary turned on them —

“ ‘No war ? We are at war now — with the greatest power on earth : the power of universal progress. It is not the North that we shall have to fight, but the World. Go home and make ready. If we have talked like fools, we shall at least fight like men,’ ”

One word remains to be added. We have reason to blush, as Americans, for the fact that the contemptible persecution of the vanquished, which went on, under the name of Reconstruction, in many parts of the South during the years immediately succeeding the war, should have received in some sort the sanction of the central government at Washington. But it should not be forgotten, in any résumé of the case, that those persecutions, and the wholly unmerited suffering which they often involved, were a direct and inevitable consequence of the senseless, needless theatrical crime which stained the last hours of the Confederacy. If Abraham Lincoln had lived, the Carpetbagger would have had no career.

Nothing could possibly be more purely sectional, or more scrupulously exact in the way the flat tints of its pallid local color are laid on, than Miss Eliza Orne White’s dainty little New England romance, A Lover of Truth. There are several able pens busily engaged just now in depicting the more sordid and depressing phases of provincial life in the Northern States. But Miss White’s is a nice story about very nice people ; and the glimmer of demure and well-disciplined humor which plays over its pages relieves it of all suspicion of tedium. No one familiar with the environment of the tale can fail to admire the fidelity of her representation. The cubical colonial mansion; the densely shaded street; the Chippendale chairs, fine hall clock, and bad family portraits; the overbearing clang of church bells on a sweet Sunday morning in summer ; the ominous creak of “ runners ” upon solidly packed snow in dark winter dawns, — we see and hear all these things as we turn the decorous pages. Miss White is very successful, also, with her human specimens ; and if, for the most part, these are rather prim and colorless, it is not her fault. Of all the aristocracies ever founded upon merit,—and all aristocracies are founded upon merit of some kind, military, commercial, or other, — that of the New England country town in the lusty days of the all but extinct nineteenth century was the most blameless and the most borné. It was unconscious, or at least wholly unobservant of anything outside its annually whitewashed pale. Its ideal of caste was a lofty and severe abstraction ; having little to show for itself outwardly, but strong in the testimony of the spirit and the record kept on the blank leaves of the family Bible. It was a very religious class, but not anxiously or ostentatiously so. If orthodox, it knew that its own soul was saved. If heretical, it had an equally cheering conviction that no salvation was necessary. For sheer cleanliness of life, and a mild monotony of virtue, refinement, good manners, and good grammar, the like of it was never seen on earth before, and will not, it is to be feared, be very soon seen again.

One grave element of weakness there was in this vanishing social order : it tended to early sterility. Men were restive under it, and ran away from it; and with the lapse of each decade it became more intensely and exclusively feminine. Miss White herself takes quiet note of this tendency, and has depicted, both in Theodora, the heroine of a former book, and in Jean, in A Lover of Truth, different varieties of the one-sided and more or Jess unsatisfied woman, who will be sure to grow up in an over-booked and under - manned world. Rueful, perhaps, for Theodora’s obduracy, the author permits Jean, the other ice maiden, to melt near the end of the present romance; and, to our distinct Philistine satisfaction, all the other surviving personages of the little drama are left about as happy as their dignified circumstances will permit.

The prominent position which Mr. Theodore Watts-Dunton has long occupied in the literary and artistic circles of London, and his power, as chief critic of the Athenæum, to make or mar the reputations of other men, have invested his own recent publications with a special and rather awe-struck interest. Not many months ago, his elaborate poem The Coming of Love was receiving the respectful attention of the more serious English critics, who, however they might differ upon minor points, were agreed in praising its marked originality of subject and treatment. The scene of the poem was laid chiefly among the gypsies ; and to them Mr. Watts-Dunton returns in the most interesting portions of his long-promised novel of Aylwin. Like George Borrow and Charles Leland, he has lived among these strange people, mastered their primitive language, and assimilated much of their weird legendary lore. His treatment of gypsy life is more romantic in some ways even than Borrow’s, and the finest of his gypsy characters, the magnanimous but terrible maiden Sinfi Lovell, is drawn of heroic size, and painted with a bizarre and violent splendor of color which recalls the early work upon canvas of Rossetti and Millais. The hero of the book, Henry Aylwin, had a grandmother who was a full-blooded gypsy, while his father was a moonstruck mediæval mystic, and his mother an entirely commonplace woman of the London world ; the working in the youth’s mind, and the influence upon his fate, of these conflicting elements are analyzed with great skill, though with a strong bias toward the unconventional, on the part of Aylwin’s biographer.

In the earlier part of the story, the hero professes and probably believes himself to be a rationalist, a Darwinian rather than an “ Aylwinian,” a disciple of science and a survivor of faith. But never, surely, did reason make a feebler fight against superstition than in his person, and his conversion to the most fantastic form of supernaturalism is from the first a foregone conclusion. Wildly impossible as the story is, the simple, temperate language and cultivated manner of the narrator give it a certain persuasiveness, and the plot is ingenious enough to keep the interest of the least critical reader alive to the very end.

To readers of another class, the chief attraction of this visionary chronicle will be found in its personal reminiscences of those knights-errant of the pictorial art who are now almost all gone, but with whom Mr. Watts-Dunton, in his youth, lived upon terms of the closest intimacy, — the leaders of the so-called preraphaelite movement. There may be differences of opinion among the knowing as to the originals of Wilderspin, De Castro, and Cyril Aylwin, but D’Arcy is, beyond question, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The personal appearance, the private menagerie in the Chelsea garden, the beautiful old manor house (afterward the property of William Morris), the solemn scorn of a large class of social conventions, and the exalted mysticism are all Rossetti’s. Borrowed, also, or at least imbibed from him, are the peculiar forms of symbolism affected by Mr. Watts-Dunton, his manner of brooding over and subjectively interpreting the common sights and sounds and odors of external nature : “ On the loneliest coast, in the dunnest night, a sense of companionship comes with the smell of seaweed.” If this would scan, it might well be a fragment of the haunting lyric which begins : —

“ I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell.”

Aylwin is a very long book for a novel of to-day, —four hundred and fifty closely printed pages. It is the leisurely and loving work of a lettered old age, and should by all means be read slowly, sympathetically, and in a spirit of docile submission to the writer’s ethereal spell. So read, with reminiscences of Zanoni and the Strange Story, Lavengro and the Romany Rye, rising like tinted exhalations in the mind of the reader, and deepening the atmosphere of the later tale, it will be found very fascinating; the naïf love story which is its main theme is full of a gentle but strongly individual charm.

It is strange indeed to turn from this dreamy performance to the brisk and brilliant pages flashing with the concentrated vitality of one who has much to say, and whose time is short, — of Harold Frederic’s Gloria Mundi. It is also hard, in view of the peculiarly heartsickening tragedy of the author’s untimely end, to judge the book dispassionately and upon its actual merits. Of all the younger novelists of the day, save one, he seemed to give the most virile and splendid promise. His was the most varied and precocious knowledge of life, the broadest range of sympathy, the most striking power of synthesis. There were masterly touches even in the earliest and crudest of his efforts; in The Copperhead, for example. There was the gathered and controlled power which compels attention even to its least pleasing manifestations, in the strong and singular tale which we like so much better to call Illumination than by its rather brutal American title, The Damnation of Theron Ware. But the author’s own thought had clarified wonderfully between that book and the one which was in course of publication when he died. We were confident that this clearing process would go on ; that Gloria Mundi also would prove but a provisional effort, marking one stage more in an indefinite development. Already, in Illumination, Frederic saw life with surprising steadiness. He seemed to be on the sure way to see it “ whole.”

The finest thing in Gloria Mundi is, undoubtedly, the character of the hero, Christian Tower. It is very original, exquisitely conceived, and perfectly consistent from first to last. He is not in the least English, this fair and candid youth, with his English name, his frugal Continental traditions, his attitude reverent as that of the young Cavour toward all things English when seen from afar, — who, by a singular but perfectly possible chain of circumstances, becomes the heir apparent to an English dukedom. His is a Latin type, and one of the sweetest and most distinguished,— such a type as George Meredith drew in the young Italian patriots of his inspired early novel, Vittoria; and no one who has not known and loved that type in some living person can understand how faithfully Harold Frederic has portrayed it here.

To the simple, disinterested, affectionate soul, with its ingrain gentilezza, its visionary remoteness from all sordid or snobbish considerations, its quaint mixture of the childlike and the astute, of docility and the most intrepid independence, the special glories of the great world of aristocratic England appeal otherwise than they can ever do to one of our more material race. They move, but they do not dazzle or unman him. He sees the very best side of the free and sumptuous existence of the English great, in the home of Julius and Emanuel Tower. He is all but converted to the generous but highly artificial “system” whereby those two philanthropists are seeking to promote the well-being of their less privileged compatriots, and atone for the long tyranny of their ancient race. Already, in Theron Ware, we had been made to see how powerfully what may be called the feudal or mediæval theory of the higher life — the theory espoused and so eloquently advocated by Ruskin, Carlyle, and William Morris—appealed at one time both to the imagination and to the reason of Frederic. In Gloria Mundi, the picturesque aspects of that alluring scheme, and its claims upon the heart and conscience of mankind, are once again reviewed, only to be reluctantly but definitively rejected. After six months of the most flattering experience, Christian Tower suddenly discovers that he is surfeited with the rich cream of English civilization.

“ ‘ I do not like it,’ Christian replied, enforcing his words with eager hands. Lingfield had cautioned him against this gesticulatory tendency, but the very consciousness that he was in rebellion brought his hands upward into the conversation. ‘It is not what I care for. I came into it too late, no doubt, to understand — appreciate it properly. . . . The country-gentleman idea which you make so much of in England — it does not appeal to me. It is too idle, too purposeless. Of course, my cousin Emanuel — he makes a terrible toil of it, and does some wonderful things, beyond doubt. But, after all, — what does it come to ? He helps people to be extremely fine, who without him would be only tolerably fine. But I have the feeling that one should help those who are not fine at all,—who have never had the chance to be fine, who do not know what it means. Emanuel’s wife — oh, a very lovely character ! — she said to me that they disliked coming up to town, the sight of the London poor distressed them so much. Well, that is the point, — if I am to help anybody at all, it is the London poor that I should try to help. Emanuel’s plan is to give extra bones and teach new tricks to dogs already very comfortable. My heart warms to the dogs without collars,

—the homeless and hungry devils who look for bones in the gutters.’

“ ‘ Oh, you ’re going in for settlements and that sort of thing,’ commented Dicky.

‘ I hear that is rather disappointing work. If you don’t take the sporting - papers at the reading-room, they say the men won’t come at all. Slingsby Chetwynd was awfully keen on the thing. He went down to stop a whole week at Shoreditch, or Houndsditch, or the Isle of Dogs, or somewhere like that,—and a woman smashed his hat in, and he fell into a cellar, and he was jolly glad to get back again the same night.’

“ But Christian was pursuing thoughts of his own.”

The dialogue is all as natural as this, even when the deepest and most difficult problems of sociology are broached, as in some of the conversations between Christian and Emanuel and Kathleen, Emanuel’s wife. When Christian’s hour of revolt arrived, his first naïf thought had been that he could even evade the ducal inheritance lying ready to his hand, and dependent only upon the demise of a paralytic and barely animate old man. This he discovered that he could not do; and there is no more powerful page in modern fiction than the description of the old duke’s funeral, with all the grim irony of its feudal pomp, and the crushing sense of inevitable responsibility which descended upon the restive soul of the heir as the gloomy pageant went forward. What he would have done with his unwelcome inheritance, how administered the affairs of his alien realm, we shall never know. Much, doubtless, would have depended upon the bride he chose, in flat defiance of the traditions of his class, — a good and brave woman, but one

of the newest, who commands the respect rather than wins the admiration of the reader. The impeccable typewriter, Frances, is assuredly a far nobler creature than Celia, the tawdry temptress in Illumination. But will not Frances, also, be one day outgrown ? The question is idle. The vivid little drama remains a fragment, like the ominous words upon its title-page, and all is said when we have completed the wistful proverb, “Sic transit Gloria Mundi.”