The Plague of Novels

BOOKS NEW AND OLD

BY HARRIET WATERS PRESTON

A RECENT writer in the Fortnightly Review has lifted up his voice in strenuous protest against what he roundly calls “The Plague of Novels.”It is a dangerously attractive title to one suffering from the cutaneous irritation produced by compulsory contact with successive swarms of the ubiquitous pest in question. Merely to hear the ordinary twentieth-century romance characterized in terms which are usually reserved for the mosquito and the brown-tailed moth gives a fillip to the sunken spirits of the official reader, and calls up wild visions of some equivalent of the petroleum bath, which might make wholesale havoc with the germs of our torment, or a species of “smudge” potent enough to asphyxiate, at one skillful waft, a million or so of giddy and gauzy little books.

Not that Mr. Cuthbert Haddon — the English writer whom I have quoted — is in the least inclined to take a light or humorous view of the evil which he deprecates. On the contrary, he regards it as one of the worst symptoms in a generally bad situation, and he is nothing if not solemn and statistical. He goes into an elaborate calculation to show that the press of the United Kingdom now issues, upon an average, five new novels and a small fraction on every day of the calendar year—Sundays included; and the bulk of this output he does not hesitate to describe as “ distressingly and appallingly bad.” Many of these tales, he goes on to say, “are not even written in decent English. The plots are incoherent when they are not hackneyed; the characterization is limp and feeble, the dialogue is imbecile and superficial; — in short, the whole performance is not worth the ink and paper expended upon it.” Readers, reviewers, and booksellers, Mr. Haddon assures us, are alike sick of these abortions, and he inquires of men and angels why they are published. Calming himself to his fatal figures once more after this outburst, he presently arrives at the result that, of these eighteen hundred annual romances by known and unknown authors, only about one in fifteen pays the cost of publication. He accounts for the remainder on the theory that, in a large majority of cases, the publisher takes advantage of his petitioner’s financial innocence, and agrees to produce his book, if the latter will contribute toward the cost of the venture a specified sum, which, in reality, covers the said cost, leaving a small margin of profit to his astute sponsor. Eighty pounds sterling is named as the average amount required and received from an inexperienced writer.

I am inclined to think, by the way, that this kind of arrangement is much more common in England — where a good many comparatively affluent people write books, novels especially, because they have nothing better to do — than among ourselves, where the wealthy are for the most part naïvely absorbed in the pursuit of a “good time;” while the nameless candidate for literary honors is apt to be distinctly needy, and could no more stake four hundred dollars on the success of his first experiment in fiction than he could buy Lord Acton’s library and present it to Mr. John Morley, after the casual fashion of Mr. Andrew Carnegie. But the publisher, too, must live, and our present concern is neither with the amount nor the source of his mainly encouraging profits, but with the wares which he offers for our inspection.

Now I am afraid we must admit, at the outset, — and if we must, let us do it promptly and good-humoredly, — that all the hard things which Mr. Haddon says concerning contemporary fiction in England apply with added force to the American. Ours is quite equal in bulk to the transatlantic product, and, as a whole, it is distinctly inferior both in mechanical craftsmanship and in intrinsic interest. Why else is it that when seeking for an hour’s more or less idle diversion at railway bookstall or Tabard Inn, we always, other things being equal, choose an English tale, whether by a famous or an obscure author, in preference to an American one of similar notoriety? The unreflecting patriot will probably reply at random that we do not; and then go on to add, with better show of reason, that other things are not equal. English fiction of the very feeblest order has not, it may be presumed, inherent force enough to cross the Atlantic at all. An English name must have some shadow of prestige, an English work some fairly plausible presumption of merit, before even that disinterested being, the American publisher, will care to undertake its reprint. Consequently our worst is continually brought into comparison with their better, or, at all events, their less bad, on the fly-blown stall and in the public mart. But admitting so much, we must still, I think, yield the palm in this not very noble competition to our elder and more practiced kinsfolk.

Here, however, are the summer novels of both countries lying in heaps all about us, ripe and unripe, fair and speckled, — like the tumbled fruitage of a windblown orchard. Let us take a rapid survey of the crop as it lies, and see how our home harvest of this particular season will compare with that grown and gathered upon the ulterior shore.

There are fashions in fiction as in dress, and the prevailing modes will be much the same, at any given period, all over the civilized world. For the moment the historical novel, so called, is in general favor, and we get one specimen of this class from England of an unusually high if not the very highest order. The Queen’s Quair, by Mr. Maurice Hewlett, has all the literary qualities which have rendered his previous work notable, — terseness of narrative, unhesitating boldness of design, a rapid flow of simple, forceful, and yet perfectly natural dialogue, abundant information about the period he undertakes to portray, and a truly marvelous power of imparting to—one might almost say imposing on — the reader his own often eccentric and startling conception of persons and events in the past. Yet more characteristic of Mr. Hewlett’s bold method, and his defiant, almost exaggerated independence of judgment, is a certain calculated coarseness of stroke which often offends the reader’s taste or wounds his cherished partialities, but creates an ineffaceable impression, and adds enormously, in the end, to the effect, as seen from a little distance, of the artist’s dashing work.

Whether or no the Mary Stuart of the Queen’s Quair is more like the real woman than any of the widely various portraits which have been drawn of her in the pages of serious history, she has this signal advantage over almost all of them, — that she is consistent with herself. Her temperament enfolds the germ of her deeds; her heritage is clearly seen to imply, at once, the evasive witchery of her person, the lambent brightness of her intelligence, and the strangely arrested development — coexisting as it did with an ardent and heroic form of piety — of her moral sense.

It is a well-known fact, much discussed, as all that pertains to her exciting story has been, that hardly two, even of the painted likenesses of Mary, tell the same tale concerning her personal appearance. We meet her in halls and galleries and private shrines, and each time she seems to wear a new integument, not of serge or velvet merely, but of flesh and blood. The preternaturally white skin is, to the best of my remembrance, always there; but in one frame the young queen is darkhaired and looks haughtily down on us from under her jeweled cap, out of gray or violet eyes; and in another she has glowing, yet languishing brown orbs, and a rust-colored chevelure. Here we find her with the rather short face and sweetly balanced features of the Greek ideal; and there with the elongated oval countenance, and acutely refined lineaments which we know to have been those of so many of her race, and which there seems every antecedent reason to suppose were transmitted to herself as well. But while we continue to doubt concerning the outward semblance of one who confused the brains of men while she stole their hearts away, comes Mr. Maurice Hewlett, and throws his piercing lime-light upon the svelte figure of the widow of nineteen, as beheld by her uncle, the Cardinal, when he had forced an entrance into her chambre de deuil at Orléans; and something within us involuntarily exclaims that this picture is authentic: —

“A tall slim girl, petted and pettish, pale (yet not unwholesome), chestnuthaired, she looked like a flower of the heat, — lax and delicate. Her skin, but more, the very flesh of her seemed transparent, with colour that warmed it from within, faintly, with a glow of fine rose. They said that when she drank you could see the red wine run like a fire down her throat, and it may partly be believed. . . . The Cardinal, who was no rhapsodist of the sort, admitted her clear skin, admitted her patent royalty, but denied that she was a beautiful girl, even for a queen. Her nose, he judged, was too long, her lips too thin, her eyes too narrow. He detested her trick of the sidelong look. Her lower lids were nearly straight, her upper rather heavy: between them they gave her a sleepy appearance, sometimes a sly appearance when, slowly lifting, they revealed the glimmering hazel of the eyes themselves. Hazel I say, if hazel they were, which sometimes seemed to be yellow and sometimes showed all black. . . . Beautiful she may not have been, though M. de Brantôme would never allow it, but fine, fine she was, all over — sharply, exquisitely cut and modelled; her sweet, smooth chin, her amorous lips, bright red where all else was pale as a tinged rose; her sensitive nose, her broad, high brows, her neck which two hands could hold, her small shoulders and bosom of a child.”

There is an equally convincing portrait of Darnley, — too minutely elaborated for reproduction here; and it is thus that Mr. Hewlett allows his flashbeam to waver for a moment over the ominous figure of Bothwell as he first appeared, at Nancy, to the queen and her Maries: —

“She [Mary Livingstone] said that he had a saucy eye — which was not denied — and was too masterful: ‘You can tell it by the hateful growth of hair he hath,’ she cried. ‘When he lifts up his head to laugh, — and he would laugh, mind you, at the crucified Saviour! — you can see the climbing of his red beard, like rooted ivy on an old wall.’”

But it is not merely the detached figures in this dark drama that live again under the spell of Mr. Hewlett’s virile imagination. He has achieved a masterly composition as well.

The whole stormy and ferocious mob of mainly evil men who surrounded the royal exile in bleak Scotland is beheld, for one moment, in exact focus through the glass with which he provides us. Knox, Moray, and Ruthven, Lethington and Riccio, no less than Bothwell and the despicable but hapless Henry Darnley, men about whose names such controversies have raged, group themselves here with seeming ease, both in due subordination to the tragic central figure and in inevitable relation to one another. Our author’s reading of the long-standing Marian riddle is a painful one, but it is awfully plausible. He answers the central question, over which the queen’s devotees and her detractors have been wrangling for centuries, and will doubtless wrangle on, as it must already have been answered, one would think, in the secret depths of most human hearts, — whether coldly hostile to the soul upon its trial, or keenly compassionate. Was Mary guilty of Darnley’s murder? She knew that Bothwell would compass it. Even so the indictment is a terrible one, against a brilliant, lovesome, and unhappy being whom one would fain adore. But it need not, and should not, be forgotten that the whole period covered by the Queen’s Quair constitutes only a brief, early episode in a life that ended before forty; and that the years of Lochleven and the supreme days of Fotheringay afforded ample time and incomparable opportunity for the sinner to expiate and the saint to grow.

I have lingered over the Queen’s Quair because of its paramount excellence as a work of art. There is no other, even among the English books of the season, that can well bear comparison with it. Olive Latham — the new story by Mrs. Voynich — has power of course, and breathes the same spirit of burning pessimism, social and political, which rendered The Gadfly and its successor such dismally memorable reading. It is a temper of mind which may well have been induced by the dire experiences in Petersburg and Siberia of Mrs. Voynich and her husband; and it is perhaps not without a certain moral value in the way of providing the comfortable and self-indulgent reader with a gauge of the possibilities of human suffering under demonstrably existing conditions in Russia.

I have often thought that the great Russian writers of the now departing generation — Tolstoï, Dostöievsky, and the rest, in whose stern school Mrs. Voynich has been so apt a pupil — had fulfilled some part of their mission by supplying the modern mind and conscience with a practical substitute for the fast fading theological conception of hell. Man’s inhumanity to man is a no less real horror than it was in Cowper’s day; and the dark places of earth are as full as ever of the “habitations of cruelty.” But it seems just at this moment as though the judgment of Russia, at least, were actually begun, and we had but to look on in awed silence at the accomplishment of the vengeance inevitably exacted by the knout and the bagne.

Relaxation of the most complete from the grim tension to which Mrs. Voynich subjects her readers may be found in the mild pages of The Challoners, a society novel of a rather goody-goody cast, and a distinctly lachrymose dénouement ; by whom of all people, but the seemingly ranged and repentant author of Dodo ? It is really hardly fair in Mr. Benson thus to betray our confidence that he will at least amuse us, but it would be a monstrous thing, of course, to deprecate his conversion. A far better and brighter story of the blameless order is Lychgate Hall, by the unpretending but agreeably known author of Fiander’s Widow and The Manor Farm. It is a tale of the ever picturesque last century but one, in England, full of neat characterization and spirited adventure, evolving smoothly and naturally, and ending as it should. It is a specimen of the kind of book which almost writes itself in a country of definite and time-honored social forms and long - inherited literary aptitudes, — a kind which will not be possible among us — fast as we move or rather tear onward toward perfection — for a good many years to come. And it is just here, I think, and by no means in the duller native wit or even the clumsier manipulation of our home writers, that the reason lies for that general inferiority of American fiction which I have rashly undertaken the ungrateful task of illustrating. Goethe once told his countrymen, with the superb candor peculiar to that great autocrat in the things of the mind, that the reason why they had no such thing as a first-rate German comedy was because there was nowhere to be found in all the Fatherland a highly organized and finished society. It is much the same with ourselves. The results of our dramatic experiments are shapeless and perishable because the stuff out of which they are made is unseasoned. One of the most thoughtful and penetrating writers we have has undertaken to preach this very truth in a parable; and the novel by which Judge Grant will be longest remembered was so peculiarly effective, that its crude heroine was instantly and widely recognized — in some quarters indeed fiercely resented — as a type; and the inspired name of Selma has already been adopted into our language as a common noun. Yet even of Unleavened Bread, for all its grave purpose and unflinching veracity, it may be said without disparagement, as SainteBeuve said of the great Augustine’s Civitas Dei, that the title is more than the book.

The truth is that it is hardly possible to notice otherwise than summarily and collectively, or even to distinguish one from another, the countless more or less unpromising experiments in every branch of popular fiction which issue in an unbroken stream from over-teeming presses. We have them this year, literally by the dozen, in every one of the lines of which I have cited an English example; and “Passing Away” is the motto stamped upon the coquettish covers of the very best of them, while the worst bring unbidden to our remembrance that forlorn - est of epitaphs upon the infant of a day:—

“ Since so soon I was to be done for
I wonder what I was begun for.”

Our light literature corresponds only too exactly with the ephemeral cities which we build for the housing of our World’s Fairs. It is a matter of lath and plaster, of excessive and often utterly unmeaning decoration, of improvised lagoons, imported gondolas and lavish electric illumination. Our so-called “ society ” novel is, perhaps, the worst variety we have. Always vapid, it seldom escapes being vulgar as well. Our “hig-lif ” — to adopt the delightful French locution — presents a gorgeous and imposing spectacle, but it is too conscious of its own resolved elegance, too constrained as yet in its fine, imported clothes, to sit easily and gracefully for its portrait. Even a born raconteur like Mr. Marion Crawford, who can build a very palace of delights upon a block of Etruscan masonry with a few bits of green bronze, oxidized glass, and Roman mosaic, becomes trivial and tawdry the moment he plants his foot and sets up his camera in Newport or New York. On the other hand, our pamphletnovel— or novel of tendency — grapples lightly with commercial and political problems so complex, and involving so many as yet imperfectly understood elements, that it is hardly possible even to state its conditions intelligibly — not to speak of solving them.

Our most healthful and hopeful species of native romance is (I think) the chronicle of rustic sport and rude adventure; representing what is sometimes rather affectedly called a return to Nature, — tales of Western cowboys, Gloucester fishermen, Penobscot logmen. These are breezy and stirring as a rule, and distinctly restful reading after the novel of (bad) manners; but they are sorely handicapped in the race for literary honors by the fact that their characters, beginning with the doughty hero, are all compelled to converse in one form or another of what is erroneously supposed to be dialect.

It would be unfair, however, to confound with the common run of idle tales, or to mention otherwise than with sincere respect, so conscientious and in many ways able a performance as The Crossing of Mr. Winston Churchill. But how long and toilsome a crossing it is, and, except for a few striking episodes, — like the battle in Charlestown harbor, — how wearisome! Every step of the pioneer through the wilderness counts; every Indian scalp is named and numbered; every tree registered as it falls by the axe of the indefatigable settler! But here, too, as it seems to me, the trouble lies less with Mr. Churchill, who has elsewhere shown himself an animated and sometimes even thrilling narrator, than with the impracticable character of his theme. The historic vista is too short; the background of hideous and squalid savagery too near, as yet, for the purposes of art. There are elements of genuine romance in the early history of the great Southwest; in Daniel Boone’s dash for the wild, and Aaron Burr’s audacious dream of a Texan empire, and the transient ascendency of such born leaders of men as Clark and Sevier. But a hundred or two more years must elapse before they are ripe for the novelist’s purpose. Even then, I fear, the North American Indian, treated realistically as Mr. Churchill treats him, will prove a difficult subject for fiction. He is a singularly monotonous being; as uninteresting intrinsically to any but the ethnologist as the long rows of grotesque totems and gray flint implements that represent his elementary handiwork in miles of chill museum.

There is another among the summer books which deals with the same theme as The Crossing, — the hardships and heroisms of the early settlers of Tennessee and Kentucky. It is a collection of short stories entitled The Frontiersmen, from the powerful pen of the lady who writes under the pseudonym of Charles Egbert Craddock. But she cunningly evades the tough problem of the Peau Rouge by substituting for the veritable savage that mainly ideal being who sprang full-moccasined, once upon a time, from the brain of James Fenimore Cooper. The notes at the end of The Frontiersmen are by far the best part of the book. They show industrious research among the archives of the central states, and bring to light many new and striking facts in their obscure early history.

At the opposite pole from these dutiful but still arid annals of our aborigines — if aborigines they were! — we find a few calm studies in the customs and ethics of the American rich, from the finely pointed pen of Mrs. Edith Wharton. The Descent of Man, from which the book takes its name, is an ingenious bit of satire, — so ingenious indeed and far-fetched, as to border upon burlesque. I find this witty lady most admirable when she approaches, in the light, detached, undemonstrative, but imperturbably gentle manner peculiar to her, with never a suspicion of soil upon her own dainty fingers, some such anomalous and rather sickening social situation as we find discreetly suggested in The Other Two and The Reckoning. Mrs. Wharton has done much to redeem the American society novel from the reproach of utter commonness, but yet, once again, are not her subtle method and refined analysis almost thrown away upon so flimsy a subject ?

Upon the whole, I can think of no better remedy for the excessive consumption of crude fiction by our people than the simple and inexpensive one of not writing the books. It is so easy, as some sententious person has, I think, observed before me, not to write a novel! Stint the childlike public for a season of its beloved green apples. Resist the temptation prematurely to photograph the flux of human atoms amid which we live, and the fatuous impulse will in time flee from you. I speak with a certain assurance here, having myself made, long years ago, an earnest attempt or two at writing a domestic novel. These efforts were signally, and, as I now think, very properly unsuccessful, and I call the Dii indigetes to witness that I have not repeated the experiment. I have been well content to wait, as I counsel my fellow countrymen and women—unless positively overpowered by vocation — to do, for the event that will disconcert all prophecy, when it arrives, and belie all theory; — for that surely appointed hour in the near or remote future when there shall come spontaneously, without observation, and from the quarter whence it is least expected, some such glorious outburst of the radio-activity of true genius as gave us the Scarlet Letter out of a back street in Salem, Massachusetts,more than fifty years ago.