Rebecca

BOOKS NEW AND OLD.

IN Rebecca of Sunny brook Farm,1 Mrs. Riggs introduces to us an engaging little person instinct with that genial life which has commended Penelope and the vociferous Ruggleses to so many readers. If one may venture to define by an airy distinction the cleavage of the multitude as well as the alternation of moods in the mind of the elect reader, Rebecca is likely to have the suffrages both of readers of sensibility and of readers of perception. The person of sensibility — and who of us would rebut so soft an impeachment — will find the story provocative of the most pleasurable emotions, while the person of perception will discover in its workmanship ground for interesting and instructive comment.

Rebecca Rowena Randall is one of the seven children of Aurelia Randall and Lorenzo de Medici Randall, deceased. After some years of vicarious motherhood, such as befalls a child with many younger brothers and sisters, she is sent to live with two maiden aunts in their “ brick house,” and it is with the story of the vicissitudes of her life here that the book has to do.

This narrative of the making of Rebecca is made to engage the reader’s sympathy by the faithful portrayal of the April weather of which that young lady’s life consisted. One is given to understand early in the story that from Lorenzo de Medici Randall, Rebecca inherited an artistic temperament of the intensest sort, while in the course of her “ making ” in the brick house, we see how its attendant irresponsibilities are one by one put by. The portrait is other than that of the typical imaginative child, for from her tenderest years Rebecca is something of a poet, and she is visited by fantasy and dream. Yet there is nothing of the prig about her, and her personality is compact of wholesome affections. We know her perfectly when we discover that she seems but a plain child when scolded in brown calico, yet quite beautiful when praised in pink gingham. A person troubled with hypertrophy of the perception might urge that when a little girl of this temperament is made to tell the story of a shrewd unhappiness with no tinge of exaggeration, the character is out of drawing. But the idealization is pleasing, nevertheless, and the person of sensibility will like it better so. In other respects the character is as convincing as it is vivid.

There are many points in Mrs. Riggs’s handling of the story which lure one to comparison of her method with that of the masters in fiction. No point, perhaps, is more striking than the excellent comic treatment of the names of the characters. Lorenzo de Medici Randall as the name of the inglorious Milton of a Maine village may savor of the broader effect of farce, but when we come to consider it in relation to his forbears and his descendants, it comes to have a harmonious appropriateness in which the farcical element is perfectly fused in the comedy. There are many similar touches of curious propriety which recall the art in that kind of Dickens and, yet more precisely and oddly, of Smollett. Indeed, memories of Smollett and the quality of his art will occur more than once to the attentive reader of Mrs. Riggs’s book. There is one notable passage where the honors are little short of even. Smollett’s death of Commodore Trunnion is undeniably one of the great death-bed scenes of literature. Yet when Rebecca comes to the bedside of her aunt Miranda lying in extremis there ensues a scene which is as grimly and tragically humorous : —

“ There came a morning when she asked for Rebecca. The door was opened into the dim sickroom, and Rebecca stood there with the sunlight behind her, her hands full of sweet peas. Miranda’s pale, sharp face, framed in its nightcap, looked haggard on the pillow, and her body was pitifully still under the counterpane.

“‘Come in,’ she said; ‘I ain’t dead yet. Don’t mess up the bed with them flowers, will ye ? ’

“ ‘ Oh, no! They ’re going in a glass pitcher,’ said Rebecca, turning to the washstand as she tried to control her voice and stop the tears that sprang to her eyes.

“ ‘ Let me look at ye ; come closer. What dress are ye wearin’ ? ’ said the old aunt in her cracked weak voice.

“ ‘ My blue calico.’

“ ‘ Is your cashmere holdin’ its color ? ’

“ ‘ Yes, aunt Miranda.’

“ ‘ Do you keep it in a dark closet hung on the wrong side, as I told ye ? ’

“ ‘ Always.’

“ ‘ Has your mother made her jelly ? ’

“ ‘ She has n’t said.’

“ ‘ She always had the knack o’ writin’ letters with nothin’ in ’em. What’s Mark broke sence I ’ve been sick ? ’

“ ‘ Nothing at all, aunt Miranda.’

“ ‘ Why, what’s the matter with him ? Gittin’ lazy, ain’t he ? How’s John turnin’ out ? ’

“ ‘ He’s going to be the best of us all.’

“ ‘ I hope you don’t slight things in the kitchen because I ain’t there. Do you scald the coffee-pot and turn it upside down on the winder-sill ? ’

“ ‘ Yes, aunt Miranda.’

“ ‘ It’s always “ yes ” with you, and “yes” with Jane,’ groaned Miranda, trying to move her stiffened body; ‘ but all the time I lay here knowin’ there’s things done the way I don’t like ’em.’”

If this has not quite the reassuring amplitude of movement which in the greatest death-bed scenes in literature makes us see life steadily and whole, it is, none the less, true and fine art, and it is notably free from the overwrought pathos and uneasy sentimentalism by which such scenes may so easily be spoiled. The impressive realism of this passage is of a piece with the texture of the book. It is obviously not the realism of the critical, and, as it were, scientific observer, which is now so much with us. It is, rather, the realism of Dickens, of the creative sentimentalist; — be it said without dispraise ! Yet how real it is ! Rebecca’s remarks to Mr. Cobb, the stage-driver, when she returns to the inside of the stage, — to take the most casual of examples, — have the genuine accent of life.

“ I forgot — mother put me inside, and maybe she ’d want me to be there when I got to aunt Mirandy’s. Maybe I ’d be more genteel inside, and then I would n’t have to be jumped down and my clothes fly up, but could open the door and step down like a lady passenger. Would you please stop a minute, Mr. Cobb, and let me change ? ”

The informed in such matters will recognize that this is the way little girls do talk ; and any one who has lived in a house with a child addicted to lisping in numbers will know that this is the way they versify: —

“ This house is dark and dull and dreer
No light doth shine from far or near
It’s like the tomb.
“ And those of us who live herein
Are most as dead as serrafim
Though not as good.
“ My guardian angel is asleep
At least he doth no vigil keep
Ah! woe is me!
“ Then give me back my lonely farm
Where none alive did wish me harm
Dear home of youth ! ”

Still endeavoring to see the book through the eyes of our reader of perception, we will notice the skillful balance of character, which, provided it be done not too artificially, is a prime source of delight to readers of both our classes. We have, for example, a suggestive contrast between the two maiden aunts, — the one the typical sour and overweening spinster, and the other the gentle maidenlady, with a shrine in her heart, and between the thoughtful Rebecca and her bosom friend and confidante, Emma Jane, who, as Rebecca writes to her mother, “ can add and subtract in her head like a streek of lightning and knows the speling book right through but has no thoughts of any kind.”

Thus the reader of perception might go on, pointing out this or that evidence of clever construction and imaginative felicity, but concerning a book of this sort in the end it is the voice of the reader of sensibility that prevails, and he — we say “he” without irony — will be perennially grateful for the creation of so charming a character, for the reassurance that even in bleak New England la verginella è simile alla rosa ; and he will solicitously await further news of her.

  1. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. By KATE DOUGLAS WIGGIN. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1903.