Some Fiction, Mainly Serious

BOOKS NEW AND OLD.

THE present commentator had been looking forward to this moment with some confidence ; it seemed to him that he had for once a straight road before him. He was going to say things that nobody could consider either ill-tempered or pessimistic ; he was going to express pleasure and nothing more, to make of his small round of criticism, in Mr. Dowden’s phrase, a record of delight. He had, in fact, just come upon several story-books which seemed fresh and original and satisfying, not great perhaps, but surely not petty ; books which other story-lovers might like to know about.

In taking a summary and complacent view of them, however, as, perused and sequestered, they stand for the moment in the place of honor upon his shelves, the reviewer becomes disconcertingly aware that most of them are not the kind of thing story-readers as a class can be counted on to enjoy. They do not turn out right; either the people do not marry at all, or they do not marry and live happy ever after. Books in which such a condition of things is permitted cannot very well appeal to people who demand “ something light and pleasant.” The demand comes not only from the vast number of over-buoyant (let us not say silly) persons who read nothing except fiction, but from a considerable number of the over-sorry, who expect it of fiction now and then to divert them from the sadness and complexity of actual life by the soothing purr of the romantic ideal. Probably nobody, not even the writer of “ realistic ” fiction, fails to see the value of romance in performing this office. Not even the romancer would restrict the art of fiction to the manipulation of romantic properties. If The Three Musketeers and A Tale of Two Cities are triumphs, so are The Scarlet Letter and The Rise of Silas Lapham. It is a good thing to be amused, and it is also a good thing to be set thinking and feeling. There is no reason why anybody should read either kind of fiction if he does not care for it, but there is something to regret if he does not care for both kinds.

I.

But, we ask ourselves at this point, why should not serious fiction be encouraged to turn out right ? Is it not more wholesome, as well as more comfortable, to cherish the conviction that virtue is rather in the way of being handsomely rewarded for its trouble in the end ? Why, in order to be serious, is it necessary to be pessimistic and morbid ?

It is true that most of the stories which we have in mind are based upon a sober view of life. In some instances it is even a sombre view ; and in one book, at least, we come upon traces of that diseased sensibility which we call morbidness. But the book as a whole is not morbid, it is not sickly or untrue, it will not (unless the reader is a little morbid himself) leave a bad taste in the mouth.

The sobriety of Mr. Henry James never quite amounts to sombreness, perhaps ; his method is a little too calmly intellectual for that. On the other hand, it does not mean much to call him “ cynical ” and “ pessimistic,” as the verdict of the afternoon tea has often put the case against him. Even his air of aimlessness is misleading. His detached manner of toying subtly and deliberately with situations which appear to call for emotion may easily be taken for indifference, though it is really due to his abnormal preoccupation with secondary motives and events. Several of the stories in his latest collection,1 while they are not altogether pretty or agreeable, must quite escape the charge of either cynicism or aimlessness. The opening story is especially straightforward and distinct; there is even some promising marrying done, or implied. The narrative has to do with two persons who have had a young success in art, and have been kept apart by a common sense of unworthiness until, meeting once more in middle life, they make the discovery that there has been no such success on either side as to have made it necessary for them to deny themselves the human happiness of failing together. The situation could occur only in the atmosphere of “ the better sort,” but there is nothing super-subtle in its development.

In sophistication, in subtlety, in sedulous avoidance of the obvious, the Jacobean method has been approached in several interesting novels of the past season. In The Modern Obstacle 2 the difficulty proves to consist in that familiar obstacle to marriage, comparative poverty on the part of the wooer. The theme is not treated in a commonplace way. The case of the person who by training and circumstance is led instinctively to insist upon the possession of wealth, or of “ what wealth brings,” is illustrated with essential simplicity. There is no officious moralizing on the part of the author; but at the very moment when wealth and indifference to wealth have at once come to the woman’s hand and mind, the man dies ; and it is left for us to surmise how far the woman’s grief is likely to be embittered by the harassing indirectness of her responsibility for the catastrophe. Such a sorrow would be part an irony and part a judgment; and the question remaining is whether the woman’s love has become pure and strong enough to make her suffer as she ought –and as we hope she will not.

The element of irony is much greater in The Joyous Heart,3 and the element of judgment, one thinks at first, is hardly present at all. Good fortune and bad are for the just and the unjust as the whim of fate may determine. Things happen and persons are as it may chance. Some things are to be desired and some persons admired; and, for the rest, there is not much to be said. Such, at the outset, seems to be the point of view from which the tale is told. “ The joyous heart ” is a charming Southern woman, whose life, begun under a hereditary cloud, is a succession of unpleasantnesses varied here and there by actual misfortune. In the end she dies under the shock of a fancied wrong at the hands of the only person who has ever given her much to be joyous about. It is hard to forgive the author this final stroke; there seems to be something a little wanton in this sudden malicious blighting of a flower which has stood firm and fair in all weathers.

It seems the product of a pessimism which is perilously near morbidness and decadence. One’s resentment itself confesses the vitality and charm with which this central figure has been endowed. Vella Carruthers has one of those elemental natures which defy the anatomist. How much of her personality is temperament, how much character ? It really does not matter, she is extraordinarily real and human. And if one can bear to consider the things that happen for the sake of the person to whom they happen, there is a chance that the things themselves may in time take on meaning. Such a process has taken place in the mind of Vella’s creator, and passionate as her sympathy is for the ill-starred possessor of “ the joyous heart,” she does not fail in the end dimly to surmise the significance of her life : " When Vella vanished forever out of the world, she left behind her, even among the remote and the indifferent, a compunction that they had not loved her more. . . . Her disfigured outward history, touched with horror, smirched by the faithlessness of others, at crucial turns warped into ugliness, could never reveal her to those who had not known her; but those who had, even acquaintances of the outer circle, when she was dead, awoke to a mysteriously quickened comprehension of her light, dauntless courage, and utter genuineness, and boundless kindness ; and the things that had made against her in her lifetime, her unconscious moments of brutal frankness, the caprices born of her unquenchable spontaneity, her failure to seek any suffrages in her will-o’-thewisp course, –all were seen for a time (as long as thought of her lasted) as virtues, or the shadow of virtues. . . . When the story of that last hour crept about, there was something in it, in that crushed and beaten woman’s complete acceptance of the order of things, in her inarticulate, matter-of-course faith in the incomprehensible good of it all, that moved even those whose very religion biased them against such faith ; and here and there were hearts who lived their lives out, a little stronger, possessing something more of sorely needed fortitude and cheer, because of the blithe harmony of the most ill-fated soul they had ever known.”

As these sentences indicate, the style of the book is not simple, but its consistency convinces one that it is unaffected, if not always spontaneous. One further distinction the story has : the scene is laid in the South during the civil war time, yet there is nothing said of campaigns and generals ; and it dawns blessedly upon one that, even then, there must have been multitudes of human lives not altogether untouched by, but altogether unmerged in, the public issue.

II.

Life’s Common Way 4 is a story of less complexity in theme and in manner. The uncommon and tragic events which make up the tale of The Joyous Heart have no parallel in this narrative of modern town life. The reader simply meets a group of persons, becomes intimate with them, and is gradually led to perceive the meaning of their lives. It is given to none of them, as it happens, to know radiant happiness. Indeed, the moral of the book, if we are to use the word moral, appears to be that the best of what one may be confident of meeting in the common way is not utter joy, but the delicate compromise between will and circumstance which we call peace. The great familiar truth, sadly in danger of growing tiresome as an abstraction, we may well wish to see often embodied in literature, in the hope that there, at least, we may discover it to be something more than a theory of pessimism or a religious platitude. Ursula, the central figure, has ruined her chances of joy by a hopelessly wrong marriage, and there remains for her only the victory of self-renunciation. “ I have found out that it is not important for me to be happy, you know,” she says simply; and after that discovery, peace becomes possible: “ One by one things took their places in the scheme of her existence . . . assumed their proportion in relation to what she was convinced was best in life.”

In the volume entitled The Roman Road,5 the first two stories are really sombre in tone. The third is one of those sporadic incursions into the field of fiction “ for the young ” which few modern story-tellers seem able to resist. The titular story is varied, but hardly enlivened, by certain touches of that chill educated humor which Mr. James and Mr. Howells have taught us to believe that we enjoy. Here, for example, is a characterization in small compass which has to be smiled at without being quite relished :–

“ The Bevans, people of no extraction but much wealth, –which latter, if report spoke the truth, had been smoked in some fashion out of bloaters, –had lately bought Blaize. Their coming had put Miss Skiffington, a stickler for birth, into a cup and ball of two minds whether to call on them or no ; but moved perhaps by the thought that a bloater once in the form of herring swam in the sea, and thus established an indirect claim upon her hospitality, Miss Skiffington had ordered out the yellow barouche and driven Miss Maria over to Blaize. From this point any less far-seeing than Providence might well have expected things to work smoothly; but the Bevans were out, and when on making inquiries they found that the Miss Skiffingtons were poor, middle-aged, and did not entertain, they failed to return their visit, contenting themselves with sending a footman round to the Miss Skiffingtons’ back door with a card. Such conduct might well leave an indelible mark on any woman’s mind, but human nature, Groot observed over its beer, has fences that the Almighty could n’t cross, and while the elder Miss Skiffington had been constituted so that she could not forget a slight, Miss Maria had so been fashioned that she could not remember one. For her sister’s sake she honestly tried, but never could recollect whether the Bevans had or had not returned the call, and always ended by recollecting wrong. Miss Maria’s question had bare time to settle acidly down in her sister’s stomach before the yellow - wheeled barouche drew up at the lych-gate, and Miss Skiffington, gathering her skirts together, stepped out to make her weekly call upon the Almighty.”

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that this sort of cool analysis is the only thing to be found in Zack’s stories; though it would be fair to say that, as a whole, they reveal, rather than articulate truth. In the second story, the hero is physically in love with a woman who is more of a man than he: —

“ A sudden revulsion of feeling swept over Richard, and with it a sense of his utter helplessness and a longing to seek aid from some one stronger than himself.

“ ‘ I am a drunkard,’ he said hoarsely,

' and out there is drink.’

“ No sooner had he asked for help than his humiliation swallowed up his need of help, and straightening himself, he turned and gazed sullenly into the fire. The woman went on with her knitting, the lines of her face iron-cast in rigidity.

“ Richard wanted to humiliate her also; to drag her down into the dung where he himself was; he would have liked to have torn to rags her self-respect, and thrust her dignity and reserve to the door. He waited for her to speak, but not a word did she utter.

‘You were young once,’ he exclaimed.

‘ What did you feel like then ? ’

“ The woman’s still lips worked, as if words came seldom and with difficulty from them. “ ‘ I have never thought over what I felt,’ she answered. ' The doing o’ such has not been given to me.’

“ Richard laughed. ‘ What,’ he said, ' has life given you ? ’

“ ‘ It gave me my man ; and it gaVe me my lad.’

“ ‘ Your husband,’ Richard asked harshly, ' what of him ? ’

“ The woman was silent. She looked as if the Book of Life were open before her and she were reading it page by page.

“ ' Well,’ exclaimed Richard, ‘ what of him ? ’

“ £ I ain’t got the gift of the teller,’ she answered at last. ' But he was a plain man and good to his stockings.’

“ The woman shamed Richard, and not Richard the woman ; and he felt a cleaner man for having been thus put to shame by her.”

The Untilled Field 6 is the work of a man whose heart is heavy with the sense of human, and more particularly racial, mischance, and apathetic to the compromise of peace ; an unhopeful endurance is the only quietus he can offer to the anguish of comparative failure. In these striking Irish stories one finds very little hope for Ireland. The author has no dream of a Celtic revival. On the other hand, he refuses to be embittered by the failure of a type; and even refuses to see failure where most of the world may be expected to see it: —

“ A soft south wind was blowing, and an instinct as soft and gentle filled my heart, and I went towards some trees. The new leaves were beginning in the branches; and sitting where sparrows were building their nests, I soon began to see further into life than I had seen before. ‘We’re here,’ I said, ‘for the purpose of learning what life is, and the blind beggar has taught me a great deal, something that I could not have learnt out of a book, a deeper truth than any book contains. . . . And then I ceased to think, for thinking is folly when a soft south wind is blowing, and an instinct as soft and as gentle fills the heart.”

III If these books are really among the best examples of current fiction, the fact remains that they are of a sort which will fail to attract a large audience. This would not be true of several books which one wishes to speak of here, and which may be guaranteed to provide entertainment mainly, if not merely. Even in these tales there are some passages which may yield a very pretty immunity to the too gay or too serious persons who insist on having things “ turn out right.”

ill.

In The Under Dog 7 Mr. Smith is deliberately speaking for the unpleasant class of persons who do not succeed, and who have the bad taste to be down-trodden. In several of these stories he even drops his palette and emerges from the white umbrella which is the familiar sigil of his literary adventures. He speaks out, he says uncivil things about judges, jailors, and the law, and it is rather a relief to find him back under the umbrella, and giving agreeable expression to the variety of studio and café sentiment which he has helped make so popular. Mr. Smith is by instinct an entertainer, and, for better or worse, people do not need to be persuaded to admire his books.

Of greater force, on the whole, and of not less attractiveness, is Mrs. Steel’s recent collection of tales.8 We are relieved to find that the Anglo-Indian vein, so long abandoned by the prospector who first struck it, is still yielding pay ore. Mrs. Steel deals here with the very materials of which the Plain Tales from the Hills were built: the Anglo-Indian official and soldier, their wives, their ayahs (not to speak of their punkahs), their blue-eyed children who have to be sent “ Home ” to school, and the condescended-to native. Yet the book is not at all of the warmedover sort; there is not, as the vaudeville posters say, “ a dull turn in it; ” and the most amusing story of all (which is, it must be said, the most like Kipling) is called The Most Nailing Bad Shot in Creation.

Cap’n Simeon’s Store 9 is the first book of a writer who possesses an unusual talent. Of late, there has been some sort of reaction against dialect stories, due to the abuse of dialect by half-informed writers. Dialect, one realizes, is not an affair of information at all, and less of imagination, but an affair of expression. One must have learned to think in dialect before he has the least right to attempt to make literary use of it. Everybody remembers how flatly, with all his cleverness, Kipling failed to get the flavor of Gloucester speech. Nobody, on the other hand, can read Mr. Wasson’s tales without being sure that the author thinks as readily in the dialect of his Maine fishermen as in what is called “ standard English.” It is not enough to say that he is familiar with his subject: he is his subject. While he speaks, he is in point of view and in speech a Killick Cove mariner, “ found ” with the mental and lingual habit of his kind. The result of this peculiar intimacy of the writer with his theme is one of the best collections of dialect stories ever written.

H. W. Boynton.

  1. The Better Sort. By HENRY JAMES. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1903.
  2. The Modern Obstacle. By ALICE DUER MILLER. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1903.
  3. The Joyous Heart. By VIOLA ROSEBORO’. New York : McClure, Phillips & Co. 1903.
  4. Life’s Common Way. By ANNIE ELIOT TRUMBULL. New York : A. S. Barnes & Co. 1903.
  5. The Roman Road. By ZACK. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1903.
  6. The Untilled Field. By GEORGE MOORE. Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott Co. 1903.
  7. The Under Dog. By F. HOPXINSON SMITH. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1903.
  8. In the Guardianship of God. By FLORA AXNIE STEEL. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1903.
  9. Cap’n Simeon’s Store. By GEORGES. WASSON. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.