Tommy and Grizel
It is a little doubtful if Sentimental Tommy is not to be called a prelude to Tommy and Grizel,1 rather than Tommy and Grizel to be called a sequel to Sentimental Tommy. This newer tale, though for a more perfect understanding of the characters one needs to have read the earlier, is so large an undertaking that the former book gets a good deal of its value as an interpretation of it. For Tommy and Grizel is no less an undertaking than a penetrative study of the soul of an artist in relation to his art and his life. The parable is homely enough, — it is the nature of parables to be homely. A Scottish youth who has won fame as an analyst of the human soul, in terms either of fiction or of the essay, is called upon to settle his own case in actual life, to put to the test all his noble sentiments. And the girl who is the touchstone is a daughter born out of wedlock, and herself conscious of a terrible tendency to follow in her mother’s steps.
These two characters, who had been boy and girl together in the earlier book, come once more into each other’s ken when they have reached maturity, and the field of their experience is the same Scottish village of Thrums, which Grizel had never left, and to which Tommy, now Mr. T. Sandys, returns, full of honor and with unsated thirst for applause. The other figures, admirably subordinated, are Tommy’s sister Elspeth and her lover, the old village gossips, and a certain Lady Pippinworth, who comes upon the scene with an apparent air of being a supernumerary, and remains hardly materialized to the reader, but a malignant force in the development of Tommy’s drama.
The stage upon which the play is set is a small one. The scenes shift from London to Thrums, and back to London, and for a brief space to a Continental watering place. The incidents, moreover, are, with two exceptions, of the most trivial character, — mere meetings of the dramatis personæ under ordinary village conditions; and yet even before the fourth act of the tragedy — for tragedy it is, of a very powerful sort — the reader is aware of some impending disaster. Beneath the extraordinarily light movement of the story one perceives a repressed power gathering for some sort of outburst. One holds one’s breath, and feels at times really feverish in his apprehension of he knows not what. Indeed, the more open manifestation of disaster in the scenes attending Grizel’s adventure at St. Gian, where she is a witness to the intolerable meeting of Tommy and Lady Pippinworth, does not move the reader so subtly. There is something conventional about the situation, and Mr. Barrie lingers over Grizel’s misery in a way that makes one impatient. He forces the note, and one discovers how ineffectual a novelist he might be if he contented himself with fiction of this sort; but the ultimate catastrophe is told with a swiftness which makes it the horror that it is, and flashes it on the unsuspecting reader in a way to light up the whole horizon of the story.
Mr. Barrie’s art in laying bare the souls of his two chief characters, without wearying the reader with interminable analysis and speculation, is of a very high order. As one skips lightly over the surface of the story he is not shown any yawning abysses; yet the whole underworld is volcanic, and, as we have intimated, the more attentive observer is aware of a commotion which disturbs him at the most innocent moment. To be sure, now and then Mr. Barrie, in an aside, which seems like a breathing hole for the stifling author, whispers a note of warning; but so bright is the air, so sparkling the scene, that one scarcely heeds it. He is watching, it may be, some fence of words between Tommy and Grizel, in which the foils flash and cross each other with lightning-like rapidity, and his whole mind is intent on seeing the effect of the wordy contest. Or again, he is momentarily puzzled by Mr. Barrie’s air. Is he mocking ? Are those tears in his eyes ? Does he really know what his hero and heroine are to do with each other and themselves ? Yet, if he re-reads the book under the light flaming up from the conclusion, he discovers how relentless the author is, how like Fate is the movement throughout; not the Fate which stalks terribly over the stage, but the resistless force which sucks the swimmer who thinks he is playing with the waves into the maelstrom toward which he is always floating.
For Tommy in love with his creations of art, who takes on the forms and hues of these creations with Protean celerity and completeness, is miserably caught in the toils of his real selfishness and hypocrisy. The real Tommy, whom Grizel mournfully and Latta scornfully sees, struggles fitfully to rid himself of the garment of beautiful curses which he has wrapped about him. This fictitious hero, whose death itself is made to enhance his fictitious heroism, might deceive the very elect, one would say, if the very elect were not the other leading character, the patient Grizel, of the story. The antithesis of this noble creature is the answer to any complaint which a superficial reader might make that Mr. Barrie was sneering at his hero. Her infinite charity attendant on her openeyed knowledge has a world of pathos in it, which is nowhere more clearly seen than in the passage after Tommy’s death. He who made Tommy made Grizel, and his art in the one case as in the other is firm-footed. If he is relentless with Tommy, he is like an encouraging Great-heart with Grizel.
The old contention of the relation of art to morality, which is more or less academic in character, always fades in the light of a real masterpiece. Is there art in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican ? Who shall deny it ? Is there morality in this tale ? Assuredly. At times, as in the conversation between the old doctor and Grizel, the morality is a trifle bald, though certainly delicate in its presentment, but for the most part it is sunken as the substructure of a beautiful building. That Grizel should have entered the kingdom, and Tommy have been thrust out, is the unerring conclusion of a great artist; but Grizel’s entrance sees her stripped of all she wanted, and Tommy is expelled when he has had his apple. For is it not the pippinworth that he is after ?
This disease of a nature dominated by an artistic faculty is so insidious that, though one recognizes it readily in some of its minor apparitions, there needed a great pathologist in art, like Mr. Barrie, to follow it in all its turnings and windings, till he should track it to its final lair in the very pulsations of the heart. The corrosion which goes on in Tommy, even when the outside is fairest, is terrible, and it is consummate art that does not shrink from disclosing it. No conscientious artist in any field of endeavor can read the book without being stirred by the possibilities it opens to view in his own nature. We wonder, indeed, if the author of Margaret Ogilvy did not, as he wrote or read Tommy and Grizel, see a shadow thrown across the page by that book.
There is a question which this publication raises that might be raised by other contemporaneous fiction, though not perhaps so strongly. Why should it be thought necessary to accompany a great work of art in literature with a contemptible work of art in delineation ? Is it possible that the artistic nature existent in a recipient form in every appreciative reader is so feeble that it cannot visualize the scenes, and must call in the aid of some one who uses the brush, and not the pen ? It would seem so from the almost universal recourse by publishers to draughtsmen to illustrate new works of fiction. When the novelist is himself a mere artisan, one may accept the pictures which he suggests to some other artisan. But when the novelist is a great artist, as Mr. Barrie certainly is, to interpose between his page and the reader’s eye such cheap and feeble, in some instances such ridiculous pictures as Tommy and Grizel contains is to insult the reader.
- Tommy and Grizel. By JAMES M. BARBIE. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1900.↩