Three American Historical Romances
No single work of an American novelist is likely to present an adequate treatment of so large a theme as the war of the Revolution ; we have not yet produced a Victor Hugo or a Thackeray. Some phases, however, of our national experience in that essentially romantic period have been utilized to evident advantage for background and incident in recent fiction, and it is likely that this field will be industriously cultivated.
The story of Janice Meredith,1 by Mr. Paul Leicester Ford, opens quietly, like some staid novel of manners, disclosing the domestic life of a Tory household near Brunswick in the province of New Jersey, in the year of grace 1774. But the Sons of Liberty are soon in evidence ; and the protest against the tea-drinking habits of the Merediths, the midnight drilling of raw militia, particularly the rude introduction of Squire Meredith to the village stocks, — these lead naturally to the vigorous action of deep historic interest which follows.
Janice, the heroine, is a vivacious maid of fifteen at the time the story opens. Naturally unsophisticated, she is by no means artless. 舠 What a nice time we could have,” she confides to her discreet little Quaker intimate, Tibbie Drinker, 舠 if women were only as easy to manage as men ! ” Their interest in the grand passion, stimulated by a clandestine acquaintance with the Tragic History of Sir Watkins Stokes and Lady Betty Artless, along with a partial perusal of the Adventures of Alonzo and Amaryllis, is at first purely scientific, — and properly so, at fifteen.
“ ‘ ’T is a pity thee hast to go before Friend Penrhyn hath spoken,’ said Tibbie regretfully.
舠 ‘ Is n’t it ? ’ sighed Janice. ‘ I did so want to see how he ’d say it.’
“‘You may —perhaps Charles ’ — brokenly but suggestively remarked Tibbie.
“ ‘ Perhaps,’ responded Janice, ‘ but ’t will be very different. I know he ’ll — well, he ’ll be abrupt and — and excited, and will — his sentences will not be well thought out beforehand. Now Penrhyn would have spoken at length and feelingly. ’T would have been monstrously enjoyable.’ ”
And when, later, this suggested possibility is fast ripening into fact, the incoherent disclosures of the hero are indeed 舠 monstrously ” enjoyed by his listener. 舠 ’T is as good as a romance,” she mentally declares ; 舠 how I wish Tibbie was here! ”
Who can resist becoming interested in such a portraiture of frank and genuine girlhood as this ? Even the beguiling of this romantically inclined maiden by the despicable Lord Clowes, the spy, with its consummation in the elopement, is not inconsistent with the conditions; although the incident is a most unhappy escapade, it is well handled, and proves the wise and certain way of escape from the snare.
But Janice Meredith blossoms into womanhood, and here we feel that Mr. Ford deals in some sense unfairly by his heroine. The shock of actual conflict should have been the rough awakening from the conceits and vanities of youth. Amid the exigencies of her environment, we expect to find her irrepressibly vivacious ; we admire her absolute fearlessness and the filial devotion which never wavers ; we are even prepared to view with interest all the sudden twists and turns, the advances and retreats, which are the undoubted prerogative of a heroine in love. But her exploits are too promiscuous. Mistress Janice passes through the period of storm and stress, meeting the distinguished ones among the combatants of both the armies, achieving a tale of conquests that would have made the fame of any single regiment, colonial or British. Indeed, to the astonished reader it seems as if Mr. Ford’s sprightly heroine must have been the veritable storm centre, around which beat the heaviest gusts of the Revolutionary struggle. Is it not Janice who subdues British hearts at Philadelphia during that memorable winter of occupation, is it not she who is the life of the captives in Virginia, and does she not conquer both foe and friend in the very trenches of Yorktown ? Janice Meredith is indeed the centre and heart of this romantic narrative ; and if the later portraiture is less convincing and less attractive than the earlier, we must admit that the story of her varying fortunes is capitally told, and that the reader’s interest is thoroughly enlisted in seeing Janice through to the end of her troubles. Had she been wrought from that sterner stuff out of which the patriotic heroines of our early history were made, we might have sympathized more deeply in her conquests ; and yet we are by no means indifferent to the lady as she is.
Mr. Ford has proved himself a clever delineator of character in other types. The testy but brave and honest Tory squire, Lambert Meredith, is exceedingly well drawn ; so, too, in lesser degree, is his rival and foil, the time-serving, self-seeking, traitorous Squire Hennion. There is a deal of humor in the encounters of these two. John Brereton, the quondam 舠 redemptioner ” of Squire Meredith’s household, later officer in the Continental army and aid upon the staff of Washington, fills acceptably the rôle of romantic hero in the story. He performs deeds of incredible valor, appearing and disappearing with the puzzling facility common to his kind, acting more than a man’s part in both love and war. Out of his personal history the author develops the principal plot of his romance, and through the mystery of his birth and early connections ingeniously secures some degree of unity for his narrative that might otherwise be difficult to attain. We can but feel that the incident of the altered letter is a blemish in the characterization. Brereton is essentially a romantic hero, and if this be intended as a touch of realism, the act itself is inconsistent and unpardonable.
The background to Mr. Ford’s romance is admirable. There seems to be no dissenting voice in the general commendation of the novelist’s use of history. His acquaintance with the facts and the spirit of Revolutionary days is so well known that it hardly calls for reassertion here. Those who enjoy the appearance of historical characters in fiction will find pleasure in the sketches of Washington, Howe, Cornwallis, André, and the rest, although no close study of character has been attempted in any case. The introduction of Washington is fairly justified in the serious treatment of the great leader, although there may be, perhaps, a protest against the apparent oversoftening of traditional austerity in intercourse with Janice. A fine dramatic entrance is provided in the tavern scene, — one of the most happily constructed scenes in the novel, and well adapted to stage use.
The special merit of the author’s work lies in the extremely probable reproduction of the troubled spirit of those trying days. In such books as Janice Meredith, rather than in the ordinary texts of history, will young readers, and older ones as well, realize the uncertainties and discouragements which were enough to appall even the bravest in that day. “ These are times that test loyalty to the full, and there has been many a waverer in the land,” are the words which the novelist puts into the mouth of Washington. No small commendation is deserved by an author who reproduces in narrative, interesting, impartial, wholesome, the spirit and atmosphere of that historic time, and lends to sober details the vivid impressiveness and nearer realities of human motives and passions.
The quality of Mr. Ford’s novel is distinctly feminine ; a decided masculinity pervades the work of Mr. Winston Churchill. As its name implies, it is the story of a hero, not that of a heroine ; and Richard Carvel,2 as to the manner born, takes his place at once among the distinguished gentlemen of romance. All that Mr. Ford has done for the more northern colony Mr. Churchill has not attempted to do for the scene of his narrative, but he has given us a very illuminating although a partial glimpse of society in the Maryland province at the time when trouble was brewing in the fifties and sixties, just before the war of the Revolution.
The story opens somewhat heavily : perhaps the effort is more conspicuous in the early movement than later ; perhaps the author dwells overmuch upon the sentiment suggested in the motive of his work. However that may be, the quiet, painstaking preparation of the first twelve or thirteen chapters is amply justified in the perfect consistency and brilliant action of the subsequent events. The device of autobiographical narrative in fiction is not without its disadvantages. The obvious difficulty of sustaining in vocabulary and general diction a natural and unstrained style, while attempting to reproduce the vernacular of the contemporary time, is intelligently met by Mr. Churchill; his style has just sufficient flavor of the old to suggest the age agreeably, without dropping into the fantastic phrasing and distorted archaisms which not infrequently pass current as the proper speech of a generation gone. But there is another difficulty in this method of narration, — the difficulty of presenting one’s hero, who is compelled by the necessities of this device to herald his own achievements and make record of his own fine qualities of mind and heart, as endowed with the very desirable grace of modesty, a quality insisted upon in modern conceptions of the hero as a type. Now this is not always easy to accomplish. Of course, in the relation of some adventure or in recounting some deed of physical force or daring, the problem is comparatively simple ; but when the matter takes a subtler turn, and we have to deal with the higher emotions and experiences of the soul, the task is far more delicate. Even Henry Esmond becomes priggish on occasion, and in spite of frequent protestation Richard Carvel is often forced into the same rôle. “ Modesty, my dears, does not permit me to picture the enthusiasm of these good gentlemen.” Never mind, Richard, we do not see how we could have known had you not hinted it.
Mr. Churchill’s familiarity with the early history of Maryland is sufficient to give historical value to his scenes ; the pictures of life at Carvel Hall and of colonial society in Annapolis are bright and interesting. Lionel Carvel, the hero’s grandfather, is an especially attractive figure, — a free - hearted, open - handed gentleman of the old aristocracy, with his calm and dignified demeanor, and the spirit of noblesse oblige strong in him. “ An oath is an oath, sir, and we have yet to be false to ours. And the King, say I, should, next to God, be loved and loyally served by his subjects ! ” It is a well-finished portraiture, rounded out by touches that go with the highest art. There is the wit that dares an epigram in the presence of the great Dean Swift. “ ‘ Tell me,’ remarked the Dean contemptuously, ‘ is genius honored among you?’ ‘Faith, it is honored, your Reverence,’ said my grandfather, ‘ but never encouraged.’ ” The whimsical sentiment that never forgave Addison the death of Sir Roger is delightful. The loving tenderness of the old man for his favorite son’s son, and the pathos of his humiliation in the end, — here is a character indeed, one whom it is a privilege to know and a pleasure to recall.
The characterization of Richard Carvel, frankly romantic as it is, is unmistakably one of the very best of its type in the fiction of recent years. The incident of the abduction, with the consequent experience on the slaveship ending in the rescue of the hero by Captain John Paul, seems to strain the unities in some degree; but it introduces us to what, in our mind, is not only the most interesting part of the narrative, but the part of greatest value in the book: we refer to the descriptions of London at the period, as presented in chapters xxii. to xlii. One would hardly have looked in an American novel for so complete and picturesque a panorama: the sponging house, with its pathetic mingling of comedy and tears; the wild extravagance of wit and folly at Brooks’s ; the formal splendors of the drum major at Lady Tankerville’s ; the hideous shadows of vice and shame in the purlieus of Drury Lane by night ; the social call on Garrick in the greenroom of his theatre; an all-night session of the lower house under the spell of Burke and Fox ; Hyde Park ; Vauxhall, with the duel in the darkness. These vivid scenes lend themselves easily to the current of the story, and are something more than background in the reader’s thought. Amid these surroundings Carvel bears himself to admiration. In some of the polite vices of the age he shares as a gentleman would, and practices some virtues which many of his contemporaries eschew. He is somewhat lacking in the sense of humor, but he possesses a very pretty wit, and his repartees are notable. He is inclined to rely overmuch upon the impressiveness of his person, but his rank is obvious, and he is peer among the best.
The characters of this story are too numerous to be commented upon in detail. The heroine, Dorothy Manners, is a coquette. (Is it inevitable that the heroine of historical romance should be a lady of this type ?) She has an excellent foil in the person of Patty Swain, and there is no finer scene in the book than that in which Richard offers her his hand, and Patty reads his heart. Grafton Carvel, the far from reverend Bennett Allen, and the infamous Duke of Chartersea form a disagreeable trio, any one of whom might be relied upon to supply adequately the meed of villainy essential to a romance. Hearty, reckless, amiable young Lord Comyn is a pleasant relief, and Captain Clapsaddle, although too strictly subordinated to be impressive, is so attractive that we wish his part were more conspicuous than it is. The glimpses of Lord Baltimore, of David Garrick and Horace Walpole, are brief, but effective. Two others, evidently, besides Richard Carvel, hold high place in the author’s imagination, — Charles James Fox and Captain John Paul Jones. The latter plays the more prominent rôle in the romance, but we think that the portraiture of Fox is the more convincing of the two.
The great climax of the narrative, the victory of the Bon Homme Richard over the Serapis, is splendidly described ; and the superb achievement of Mr. Churchill’s gallant hero is most impressively reported in this account.
Miss Mary Johnston’s latest work, To Have and to Hold,3 finds its setting in a period of American history more remote than that of the Revolution. Its scene is the Jamestown settlement, and the hero, Ralph Percy, who is now in the prime of life, has been a comrade of the redoubtable Captain John Smith, and a close friend of John Rolfe, who also appears, although only a lay figure, in the narrative.
This work is no mere “ study: ” it is a story, with all the delightful possibilities which that word suggests. Its predecessor, Prisoners of Hope, while weakened by some natural defects of a first essay, was so clearly characterized by sympathetic insight and unusual imaginative power, combined with a notable grasp of historical detail, that readers of that story were even more impressed with its promise than with its performance. That earlier promise is now abundantly realized.
To Have and to Hold is interesting throughout. Miss Johnston already commands a style so full of dignity and grace, so picturesque in descriptive power, that it is worth more than passing comment. Note the opening paragraph of chapter i.:
“ The work of the day being over, I sat down upon my doorstep, pipe in hand, to rest awhile in the cool of the evening. Death is not more still than is this Virginian land in the hour when the sun has sunk away, and it is black beneath the trees, and the stars brighten slowly and softly, one by one. The birds that sing all day have hushed, and the horned owls, the monster frogs, and that strange and ominous fowl (if fowl it be, and not, as some assert, a spirit damned) which we English call the whippoorwill, are yet silent. Later the wolf will howl, and the panther scream, but now there is no sound. The winds are laid, and the restless leaves droop and are quiet. The low lap of the water among the reeds is like the breathing of one who sleeps in his watch beside the dead.”
This is no sentimental “ fine writing,” no straining for effect; it is the casual — not careless —expression of a poet who interprets nature in impressive terms, and is an element to be welcomed in the work of American novelists, where it has been but feebly in evidence of late. From beginning to end this vigorous tone is evenly maintained. Compare the last paragraph in the book with the first, just quoted. Have we said too much ?
The arrival of a shipload of honest English maids, by the good offices of Sir Edwin Sandys beguiled into taking the western voyage in confident expectancy of good homes and endurable husbands in the new country, is a golden opportunity to a prospector in the region of romance. It is an odd freak of fancy that leads the sturdy, hard-sensed soldier of fortune, now landowner and strong arm of the settlement, to cast his future on the throw of the dice, but in perfect harmony with the spirit of romance that rules his life. It is in keeping, too, with this that there should be a great lady, of much renown and very fair, among these ninety errant maids, and that these twain should encounter, and within the hour be made one.
In the construction of her plot the author is happier than in the earlier novel. She pays more reasonable regard to the probabilities; her exuberant invention is under steadier discipline. Like Stevenson, the lady is fertile in incident and in the excitement of sustained suspense. There is an abundance of action, and that dramatic; but the story is stronger for the absence of those impossible achievements of endurance and those exhausting draughts on the reader’s sympathy as well as his credulity, which lessened measurably the effect in Prisoners of Hope. To be sure, the privateering cruise to the Indies — naming it by the gentlest possible term — is an audacious episode, and the least convincing portion of the book. We are not assured that in this way only lay relief and rescue for the shipwrecked wayfarers. It is distinctly incongruous to find Captain Percy in such a situation, and it looks as though a sneaking inclination to go a-pirating were alone responsible for the exploit.
Captain Percy himself is a hero of flesh and blood, endowed with all the qualities that endear a hero to the reader’s heart. He is witty, chivalrous, wise, and brave. He is so human that there are evident limitations to his abilities; there are times when he is actually faint from the stress of exertion ; there are occasions upon -which he is baffled, and once he is outrageously tricked by a device so transparent that it could hardly have deceived—a reader. But these streakings of the common clay do not detract one whit from his attractiveness as a romantic creation: it is a fine portraiture that Miss Johnston has given us in her hero, — an adventurous, resourceful, finely tempered gentleman, courteous, gallant, and genuine to the core.
The Lady Jocelyn Leigh, later Mistress Percy, is by far the most interesting of these idealized heroines of the past. The manner of her advent is pathetic rather than grotesque; her deportment and her spirit are unexceptionable. She is no Katharine to be tamed, nor a Lynette to be shamed into reasonableness. Her acceptance of the situation is heroic, and she displays not one of the foibles which might easily have made the scene ridiculous. She is an imperial beauty, insistent on her rights ; her high mettle and pure mind are never cowed by force nor soiled by vice; yet her proud spirit bends graciously and not too quickly to respect and love. The author’s handling of her heroine is beyond praise. Janice Meredith is never other than a frivolous girl by the side of Jocelyn ; Dorothy Manners is a vain coquette.
The villainous Lord Carnal, the minion of the king and type of the viciousness of the court, is well drawn, and there is a poetic justice in his fate which is more satisfactory than personal vengeance could possibly have been. His disposal of himself is a striking touch. Jeremy Sparrow is a most happy achievement. Sometime play actor, companion of Burbage and Shakespeare, adventurer turned parson, lamenting his powerful frame which incases a spirit too humble to be served thereby, the heart within his giant body as tender and as loyal as a woman’s, Master Jeremy works his good-natured way straight to the reader’s affections.
The historical motive in her plot Miss Johnston takes from the Indian uprising under Opechancanough, and her portrayal of Indian character is interesting. It is the idealization of romance, and it is well-nigh an impossible task to make such portraiture impressive in the fiction of to-day. Nantauquas belongs to that shadowy type born from the romance of the forest which Cooper gave us long ago. The author’s rare descriptive power does not fail her here : the picture of the wily Opechancanough, his body sleek with oil, glistening all over in the sunshine with powdered antimony, speaking fair words with a smiling face, while the inner devil looks through his cold snake eyes, — this is very fine.
The unity of motive, which operates in the development of a unity of interest on the reader’s part, is more evident in Miss Johnston’s work than in Mr. Ford’s ; she has done wisely as a storyteller to limit her territory by the natural bounds. Her sense of humor has asserted itself. He who separates the comedy of history from its tragedy greatly errs. Not only do we need the relief of humor amid the sombreness of the tragic strain, but without it we miss the true completeness of that romance of history which is after all but the romance of life. The lack of this saving sense of humor is as fatal as lack of imagination itself ; indeed, the imagination that ignores its existence conceives images which are almost sure to be grotesque. In the creation of romantic characters this instinctive perception of the appropriate relations of things is, if anything, more indispensable than in the field of realism. Miss Johnston’s work shows a notable improvement in this particular. Her further contributions to this or other departments of literature will be awaited with lively in terest.
William E. Simonds.