Sorting the Seeds
A SURVEY OF RECENT FICTION
WHEN Psyche was commanded by a cruel taskmistress to separate all kinds of seeds,—wheat, barley, millet, beans, and lentils,—and was told that all of the same kind were to be put in a parcel by themselves, it is recorded that she sat stupid and silent, until a kindly god sent ants to take compassion on her. To be young and bewildered is but natural, and Psyche was only sharing the common lot; but to be in possession of the years that should mean wisdom and discernment, and yet to feel bewildered, in the presence of the piled-up novels of the last six months, with the task of discovering the trend of things, is harder fate, and no friendly ants are forthcoming to help in the matter of classification.
It is difficult to discover, in form or in matter, decided tendencies in this recent fiction. There is no assured new style, but a free use, and often a mixture, of various shades of manner of earlier days, while themes range all the way from those wherein the novel made its debut down to the most recent philanthropic plea. Psychological analyses of character abound, as usual; the tendency to discuss social problems is always with us nowadays, — so far, but little further, one may play the part of discerning ant. For the rest, one wonders whether the impulse to write concerning patent medicines is to be as lasting and as irresistible as is the impulse to glorify the motor car in fiction.
With Araminta1 one steps into “ The Artificial Comedy of the Last Century.” It brings a sense of momentary relief, if also a sense of loss, to leave the world where the modern novelist is pondering heavily on many things, — as Mr. Snaith himself does at times, — and to enter a world innocent of thought, destitute of problems. It would be impossible to imagine a type of fiction lighter than Araminta; undoubtedly amusing, it arouses now a shout of laughter, and again a quiet chuckle. Here we have, in prose narrative, the comedy of manners, with its juxtaposition of contrasting types, and its constant effort, in situation and in grouping, to bring out shades of social difference. The wicked old lady; her worldly-wise friend, Lord Cheriton; the sentimental companion; the awe-inspiring butler; and, above all, the rustic maiden who goes up to London and takes the town by storm, — we have met them all, in type at least, in comedy, and in novel, Mr. Snaith manages this wellknown art with practiced skill, and there is freshness in his character-presentation. To make the descendant of Harriet Byron and of Evelina six feet tall, and to draw attention constantly from her sensibility to her appetite, shows daring that none has equaled; to make her at the same time charming is a triumph. Araminta with her flapping hat, her pet ferret, Tobias, her lack of mind, her engaging frankness, is a refreshing young person to encounter.
The book reminds one of Thackeray, the announcements say. Mas, most novels of society remind one of Thackeray by way of contrast! This, in the figure of the worldly old lady and her cherished counsellor, comes nearer than is usually the case; and the repartee between the two shows Mr. Snaith’s jibing audacities of thought at their best; but the resemblance to Thackeray is not deep. The remarks of Thackeray’s ancient, wicked folk are always a play and sparkle of light on the surface of a deep and sympathetic study of human life; here these critical comments represent the profoundest element in the book, and give us the impression of two smart old people discussing the farce as it goes on.
One sees often upon the stage a play that would be better in story form; here we have the reverse, and the story, in its situations and in its character-treatment, continually begs for a stage. The humor is, for the most part, stage humor; the incidents, the funny sayings, are, many of them, of the kind repeated in farcecomedy to extract the ultimate shout from the gallery. There is at times, if the expression may be permitted, something labored about Mr. Snaith’s spontaneity. Engaging as the heroine is, her properties are overdone; the cream bun appears all too often, the epithet “ goose ” becomes unnecessary, and huge Araminta, bouncing into the centre of the stage again and again, at last comes to seem a kind of puppet, worked by an all-tooapparent cord. Mr. Snaith here, as in Lady Barbarity, does not always know when he has given us enough, and his undoubted skill in working out a humorous situation would have shown to far better advantage if Araminta’s adventures had been half as long.
Another comedy type, not so well executed, appears in The Post Girl,2 the work of a new author. Here we encounter, not emphasis on accent, clothes, manners, and laughter at incongruities, but the good old-fashioned adventures, and the good old-fashioned emotions of the romantic stage, not without the use of machinery, as ancient as Greek romance itself, in the disguised maiden of gentle birth, growing up among peasant-folk. As is always expected, her finer instincts show in her untutored years, and win her the love of a man of her own rank. Chloe in this case carries the mail; Daphnis is an unspeakably gifted musician. Of course one partaking more or less of the nature of a villain interposes between them; the white face, black coat, and convulsive passions of the village schoolmaster work what havoc they may; but not schoolmasters, nor raging tides, nor earlier engagements on the part of the hero, can keep asunder those whom the public insist on seeing united.
A quaintness of characterization in depicting Yorkshire peasant-folk, and the engaging priest, Father Mostyn, who shepherds his flock with many a mental crook of real philosophy; a power of dealing picturesquely with Yorkshire country, a freshness and zest in telling the old story again as it came to a girl of unspoiled charm and winsomeness, make the book an agreeable pastime for tired hours. The style, vigorous and spirited, is at times too intentionally vivacious, and it lends an air of over-great coquettishness to the young muse of Mr. Booth, busy in sketching backgrounds, or soliloquizing for the heroine, or ^working out the important dramatic scene, as the case may be. All the way through, the aforesaid muse is a bit loquacious, and too much inclined to strain wrord or phrase in modern fashion to produce more vivid effect. If she would but use fewer words, and at times be more fastidious in her choice, her distinction ’would be greater, as in the description of the heroine, where we encounter: “ The dispassionate, narrow nose, sprinkled about its bridge . . . with a pepper-castor helping of freckled candor; . . . the quick throbbing throat, and the burning lobes of red, like live cinders in her hair! ”
Nobility of theme, delicacy, and reserve in art are seen in Katrine,3 whose careful finish in plot, characterization, and setting bespeaks long hours of work. Yet, to those who delighted in Nancy Stair, Katrine brings a sense of loss, for the fire and spirit of the earlier book are not here; and Katrine, less individual in type than Nancy, never for a moment w’ears her convincing air of being alive. The wroman inteuded here is of higher type than Nancy, but she fails in reaching the verisimilitude of the latter, and nowhere do her struggle and her choice touch us with their pathos so deeply that we forget the humor of Nancy Stair. The plot, with its combination of unconfessed marriage difficulties, and missing bills of divorce, with the renouncement on the part of a woman of genius of all for love, has no new elements, nor does it combine the old in any guise of unusual interest. Valuable as Katrine is as a revelation of something fine and exquisite in the author’s nature, it will hardly rank as achievement with Nancy Stair, wherein a lighter type of fiction with historical setting was done perhaps as well as it can be done.
Those who in early days yearned for fuller accounts of the female ogre of the fairy story, and never had enough of Sally Brass or of Mrs. Pipchin, will experience unusual pleasure in reading that book of absurd title, Corrie Who ?4 Four hundred and eighty-three solid pages of ogress seem more than an answer to the prayers of childhood; the “ loose-jowled, dark and solemn ” face, with “ dull eyes, peering between thick and heavy lids,” the “ flabby lips that part with a gleam of teeth,” make the reader share the “ creepy, crawly feelings up and down Corrie’s spine; ” and it is enchanting to encounter a lady who “ grunts thickly, smacking her lips and chuckling softly and grinning to herself,” and whose cane continually thwacks the floor, “ thump, thump along the hallways, the ivory hook reaching out unexpectedly and seizing like a claw.” For all this, with the proper accompaniments, — imprisoned beautiful maiden of gentle birth, gallant hero, and the like, — to be set in modern New York, well within sight of glaring lights, and within hearing of electric cars and motors, gives the added pleasure of having the princess and monster brought up to date, with all modern improvements. The book is amazingly clever of its kind, with that rapid-speeding action that for some reason seems to have come into fiction along wiLh the motor car, constant if somewhat repeated and overprolonged incident, and with its unusual power of grotesque portraiture. One cannot claim that it rouses the finest kind of aesthetic pleasure, but there are moments, when, even in Boston, the finest kind of aesthetic pleasure palls, and to fill these, probably nothing more entertaining could be found than Corrie Who ?
The Three Brothers5 belongs to a welldefined type of fiction, and one distinctly modern. The background of Devon coast and moorland is constantly kept before you, in its beauty of color and its freedom of wide spaces open to the sky, with so deep a sense of the association of human beings with the life of rain and sun and wind, that you almost expect to see the characters in the book putting down roots, or spreading suddenly into gracious green foliage. If one might say that this belongs to the Vegetable School of fiction it would be with wholly pleasant meaning, and it is with genuine sense of relief that one escapes to these wide stretches of heather and of gorse, from tales full of psychological subtleties which are not so subtle after all, and from American novels where a thin layer of culture, record of correct demeanor on the part of all the characters, and constant automobile-suggestion bespeak our demand that we be recognized as people of importance and of wealth. There are no subtleties in The Three Brothers, nor is there any affectation of smartness of our modern world. It is a kindly picture of life in its physical aspects, and in certain ethical aspects as well, done with a large stroke, by means of a generous brush which is not sparing of color.
The novel has more plot than is apparent, or than the author at first seems willing to admit, though in a way it reminds one of something which is said eoneernmg the Chinese drama, that its basic idea of unity is the family, all incidents connected with any member of it being considered germane to the subject. Somewhat overgrown by vegetation, somewhat obscured by rustic discussions of matters profound and otherwise, and by the account of picturesque old customs, such as the Saint George play, lies the tale of Humphrey Baskerville, an elderly misanthrope, who is won by tragic suffering, partly the result of his own blunder, to insight into the real meaning of things. By uttering cruel truths to his son’s betrothed, he helps break the engagement between them, and the son commits suicide. Grief nourishes in the heart of the cynic seeds of mercy which had never sprouted, and the way in which he atones for the sins of his brother Nathan, whose secret marriage and whose speculations constitute the mystery of the plot, and for the human shortcomings of the other brother, make up a story of genuine, if not absorbing interest. The gnarled and crabbed character of Uncle Humphrey, with his rustic keenness, his sense of the deep realities of life, and the grim, if mistaken heroism which makes him dare to end, a few hours earlier than nature would have done, his brother Vivian’s suffering in his last illness, is very real, and the touch of human sweetness which comes to him at last reminds one of the springtime blossoming of an aged apple tree.
The Vegetable School,—surely the name fits the way in which the characters are done, the very fashion in which the people are introduced reminding one of the differentiation of species in a nursery-man’s catalogue. The first phrase that meets the eye upon the casual opening of such a catalogue to verify this remark proves an all-too-appropriate statement of the case. “ Hardy Herbaceous Perennials Continued,” leaves little to be said, if a mere pun may suggest the name of this author’s master in the art of fiction. Mr. Phillpotts, while presenting life, as Hardy does, primarily in its physical aspects, has not the older author’s skill, nor his knowledge of human passion. Beyond certain simple limits of observation, most of the personages in The Three Brothers are not characterized. You get, indeed, an idea of certain types whose counterparts you might meet any day in the next meadow or on the nearest roadside, and you see no reason why these should not go on flourishing as long as the soil of Devonshire remains fertile. One could wish for Mr. Phillpotts a keener humor and a deeper insight into ironic contradictions of life, which rustic folk themselves usually possess in greater degree than do any of the people who are writing about them.
Tono-Bungay6 is Mr. H. G. Wells’s first venture into fiction out of the realm of fantastic adventure. Following the fortunes of a youth from childhood to mature years, he presents a serious study of the growth of a soul, trying to develop in a world where the old order is changing, and nothing solid has, so far, appeared in the new. From the beginning of a hard struggle for existence, full of intellectual and spiritual endeavor,GeorgePonderero is suddenly carried into business competition, and shares the success of an uncle who makes a fortune out of a patent medicine, presenting the familiar spectacle of the idealist inextricably involved in the system which he despises but finds necessary. Among the various adventures and misadventures of the hero’s lot, marriage proves not the least of his misfortunes, and love brings more loss than gain. Though the best that is offered him in the matter of thought and belief has to do with undirigible balloons and worthless remedies, which he sells without believing in them, he preserves a certain fineness, whether he is victim or deceiver, and we leave him at the end of the story with a sense that actual inner attainment has been won in spite of all obstacles.
It is impossible to conceive an art larger, more loose in ideas of structure, than that shown in this prose epic, Tono-Bungay. Swinging, as it does, in point of view, between huge deeds of physical adventure and psychological processes, it admits, not only everything that could happen to the hero, but also everything that the author could think about him. This picaresque novel of the soul is done with a De Morgan freedom, if not quite with a De Morgan length. The announcements say that Mr. Wells has been writing the book at intervals during the past years, and, in a way, it suggests those desk-drawers where treasures of thought accumulate in scraps as time goes on. All the garnered bits of wisdom of the years of mental adventure, brought back in his kit from strange flights of fancy on wings or otherwise, Air. Wells embodies here. This species of novel seems, in certain ways, less an art than an industry.
Puck, turned philosopher, has, as might be expected, many wise things to say. The spectacle of Air. Wells pursuing British respectabilities and British and American disrespectabilities with ironic laughter recalls more than once the merry wanderer of the night who asserted his programme of reform in: “I will lead them up and down!” In comment, in character-study, and in incident, we find many shrewd turns of thought, and sudden gleams of insight. The most vivid character in the book is Uncle George, with his questionable business methods, his mysticism, his applied poetry, his power of convincing even himself by his lying advertisements. His plea for the working of faith, suggesting in satiric fashion the comic side of the quack spirituality astray in the materialism of our age, is delightful.
“ We mint faith, George,” said my uncle one day. “ That’s what we do. And by Jove, we’ve got to keep on minting! We’ve been making human confidence ever since I drove the first cork of Tono-Bungay! ”
The aunt, whose mood of ironic detachment does not seem to belong to her class, if one may make an essentially English remark, is always amusing with her attractions, her repulsions, her study of life “ with the little quizzical wrinkle of the brow.” One cannot help feeling that a mind so acute deserved a better vocabulary, and wishing that some of the subtleties of American slang could be substituted for the dull British equivalent.
The style of Tono-Bungay is more or less journalistic, and sometimes a bit slipshod, like Uncle George’s mouth. The trail of the story of startling adventures is over this, which aims at something higher. Perhaps one should not be surprised if, in the matter of gait, Puck fails to have a stride all his own; if he sobers at times to Air. De Morgan’s pace; if his nimble, impish footing in circles about Uncle George suggests Meredith’s dance of intellectual delight around Richmond Roy; if sometimes, as in the story of the unhappy married life, the measured tread reminds one of Aliss Alay Sinclair’s relentless little step.
In spite of a lack of distinction in manner, Tono-Bungay the book is wholesome, whatever the tonic may have been; and it is, as one might expect of Puck, a good philosophy, which is worked out through the hit-or-miss happenings of the story; a belief, surviving even the crash of aeroplanes, of gigantic business enterprises, of social distinctions, even faith in the beloved; surviving even base success,—a belief in the worth of the chase. A philosophy of the zest of long pursuit, characteristic alike of Hegel and of Puck, is deliberately voiced : —
“ All my life has been at bottom, seeking, disbelieving always, dissatisfied always, with the thing seen and the thing believed.”
“ We are all things that make and pass, striving upon a hidden mission out to the open sea.”
Of far finer art and deeper, if less consoling thought, is Air. John Galsworthy’s Fraternity.7 Here we are introduced to a number of people grouped about the Human Predicament, as in the old-fashioned British story and picture they used to be grouped about the social tea-table; there is grave difference between the smiling faces at the latter, and the grim questioning of the faces here. The book at first seems to be merely a study of the relation of class to class, but further reading discloses a profound irony. The author of The Country House possesses too deep insight to belong among those thinkers who trace all human tragedy to social conditions. In Fraternity, the inability to reach a compassionate hand from socalled upper to so-called lower class without doing more harm than good, is but one phase of the tragic isolation of the individual soul. It is hard to recall anywhere else a more poignant expression of the loneliness at the heart of the closest relationships of life; you do not feel the full sting of the title until you reach the end and find each character, high and low alike, withdrawn into himself in utter isolation, facing his problem alone, and greatly the loser, not the gainer, because of his contact with humankind.
Fraternity has a compact, closely worked-out plot, wherein the artist’s power of concentration is shown in the presentation of the central situation, and the artist’s sense of economy in the choice and the relation of incidents. Greater skill appears here than in some of Mr. Galsworthy’s earlier work in introducing his characters and sketching preceding events. Carefully planned incidents lead from the opening to the final dilemma of the book, with, for the most part, true causal relationship worthy of dramatic art, and with little of the unessential. One might quarrel now and then perhaps with the retarded movement, for at times a tendency to finish and elaborate separate scenes interferes with the progress of the action, and gives the effect of stationary study of conditions rather than of story. The intrusion of the little model into the artistic home of Hilary Dallison and Bianca Ids wife, who are already beginning to travel apart; Hilary’s philanthropic desire to help the friendless girl, which gets tangled in wholly human fashion with the little that is left in him of elemental manhood, and so brings about the tragi-comedy of the tale, — all this is presented in crisp and logical incident, on to the catastrophe, which is all the more dismaying because nothing very dreadful happens.
The character-study is full of thoughtful analysis, and the carefully varied types in Fraternity are skillfully grouped in a way to bring out fine shades of likeness and of difference. In a wTorld where men and women have lost their way among their finer instincts and ideals, two characters serve as foils, bringing out admirably the exact degree of unreality in each thinker and dreamer, — the little model, with the appealing touch of common life about her; and Martin, the severe young socialist, who preaches a drastic gospel of action. For the rest, we have a study of Hamlet and his family, — his next of kin, not his relatives by marriage, —though Hilary Dallison is perhaps characterized more by uncertainty of mood than by uncertainty of thought, and has not the excuse of the royal Dane of possessing a mind too large for immediate decisions. In depicting him, his brother, a bit like yet more unlike him, and Bianca, “ never willing to yield either to her spirit or her senses,” Mr. Galsworthy shows keen insight, though there is nowdiere quite so fine and so sympathetic rendering of human experience as in the portrait of Mrs. Pendyce in The Country House. About this group of people drifts the ironic figure of Mr. Stone, the aged, futile prophet of universal brotherhood, whose sayings sometimes envelop the atmosphere as in a fog, sometimes startle one into a region beyond the reach of mere thought.
Fraternity is finely wrought in thought and in art, and one is always aware of a certain finish in the style, in descriptive touch, in plot, in character-study, yet it is in certain ways an overthoughtful, self-conscious art. The people here are dressed too much in costume for anytiling except the stage, and too much of tableau-effect comes in their presentation, the curtain rising again and again on groups varied a bit in attitude, without change of expression. All through the book — and this is surprising in the work of a master of stinging realism, whose acute thought is ably seconded by a power of vivid concrete presentation — there is too great an effort to enforce psychological processes by external effects. Mr. Stone’s smoke-gray suit appears too often; and the little moonlight-colored dog, trained to act as symbol throughout the story, to suggest, by its over-refined instincts, its wavering, appealing paw, the character of its master, becomes a bit too insistent, as did the spaniel John in an earlier story. It has been whispered that women sometimes own dogs to match their hair or gowns, but not as yet that men own them to match their souls. When the realist borrows the symbol from the symbolist he is prone to overuse it, to demonstrate, prove with it, and thus deprive it of its only real power, that of suggesting. Here, too, one might protest the too-obviously allegorical names. Mrs. Tallents Makepeace; Dallison, the modern Hamlet; Thyme, his daughter; Creed, the ex-butler, who stands for ancient respectabilities; Worsted Skeynes, in The Country House, — these devices seem crude and unworthy of the author’s real skill. Comparing this latest book with some of his earlier work, one is tempted to ask whether Mr. Galsworthy is nearing the danger line where realism, through a too shrewd selection of details all of one kind, fades into allegory, convincing perhaps as abstract idea, but never as art, because one feels that the many-sided facts have not been fairly used, and that endeavor to prove a certain point has led to one-sided selection, with consequent loss of fairness.
Mr. Galsworthy has undoubted power, and is an author to be reckoned with. His sympathy with human suffering and animal suffering is deep and poignant; his irony is keen and pungent. One cannot help hoping that the thought which cuts so far into human experience may in time cut farther still, with discovery of still more vital truth. In Fraternity we miss the larger view, the changing mood, the wholeness of presentation of life, with its encouragements, its fluctuations, its despairs of earlier writers. It commits the blunder, the essentially modern blunder, of seeing all of human life in one mood, relentlessly narrowing all to a single sad conception. It is significant that no moment of happiness is recorded for any character in this story of dull suffering, nor any moment of pain deep enough to tell the worth of it all.
It is perhaps hardly fair to keep on reading Meredith while looking over the fiction of the last six months, but doing so gives one food for thought. Are we past the days when the artist was permitted to hold the mirror up to nature, selecting, but selecting from the manifold, and presenting in his work a rounded view ? It would seem that the artist who commits himself to dramatic form is in honor bound to give something of the complexity, the lights and shades that inevitably accompany the course of real events. To look at the great pageant and choose only the facts that are of one color is hardly fair, and the old fashion of confining the expression of single moments of feeling or of thought to the brief form of the lyric or of the short essay is one that we could wish were not outgrown.
For the rest, as one turns over the novels of the last six months, one cannot fail to notice, as perhaps the most decided trend of all, the way in which major and minor writers dwell on the purely physical aspects of human passion. This makes up the warp and woof of David Bran; surprises one with a sense of sudden shock, unconnected with all that has gone before, in Thyrza; is never absent from the author’s consciousness in Arminel of the IVest; and it is only this side of human love which appears in Fraternity.
It seems as if our novelists of recent years must feel that no novel can justify its existence, or can succeed, without this element, and so introduce it by force, if necessary, whether or not it is an integral part of the theme, often regardless of dramatic values. Fashions set in France are, perhaps, followed too blindly by English-speaking folk, whether they have to do with the canons of art or with the cut of sleeves; and there is oiten a lack of intelligence, or of skill, in the way in which this special French mode is copied. In French fiction the outspoken treatment of this side of human experience means, usually, steady adherence to a single point of view, with study of causes and effects; and something of perspective, of remoteness, is gained by the fact that the material wins to art form. While we are gaining in the matter of being outspoken, we are hardly making corresponding advance in art, and our English treatment of these subjects too often resolves itself into a bald record of apparently meaningless facts, or with too protracted lingering over moments of sense-experience. It is perhaps doubtful wisdom to single out one human impulse, and dwell on it too exclusively; in earlier novels, even in Fielding, we find it offset to some extent by mental processes, and by free exercise of brawn and muscle.
It used to be admitted that a man might possess soul and body too; in modern work — these are days of specialization — he usually has to choose, and too often he chooses the latter. It is a curious fact, evident as one recalls the fiction of recent years, that there is a tendency to treat the things of the mind, so far as they are treated at all, by themselves, the things of sense by themselves, with consequent lack of grasp of both. May we not hope that, in time, the author’s mind, and not his senses, may predominate in his discussions of these matters, and that the present too-frequent suggestions of decadence may disappear from our fiction ? One thinks wistfully of Richard Fcverel, wishing that something of the nobility of treatment here could creep into the more modern presentations of sex-problems, and that we might once more have genuine study of development, setting forth a large and vital philosophy of life. TV ould it be too much to ask of some of our writers of to-day, that they leave out discussion of these matters until they can handle them better ?
In attempting to suggest the danger, both to art and to ethics, of condoning too far the tendency to linger overlong in regions of mere sense, one might instance David Bran,8 whose plea seems a bit obscure so long as our social standard remains monogamous. The huge figure of the hero, swaying between the woman of the home and the woman of the headlands, remains, as to significance, something of a puzzle. Purporting to be a study of fisher-folk on the English coast, the tale narrows to a long-drawn-out dwelling on the physical aspects of passion, scenery and characters serving as a thin veil or disguise. David does little fishing, and his heroic strength is more a thing of statement than of proof. One feels throughout the book a lack of sincerity, and of direct observation, and the impression is strengthened by a false pseudo-poetic quality in the diction. It has commonly been supposed that the vears of experience in novel-writing have brought clearer and clearer study of life, and keener sense of artistic truth. In the late sixteentli century, when Lodge wrote his Rosalyndc, he made the shepherdess Phoebe speak thus: “ Love, sir, is chary in his laws, and whatsoever he sets down for justice, the sentence cannot be reversed. ... I know Montanus is wise, and women’s ears are greatly delighted with wit, as hardly escaping the charm of a pleasant tongue as Ulysses the melody of the sirens. . . . Montanus is wealthy . . . Danae was won with a golden shower when she could not be gotten with all the entreaties of Jupiter.” We smile at the fantastic folly of the speech, in our modern knowledge that the phrase must be fitted to the person; yet are the following remarks of David Bran nearer than Phoebe’s to the actual speech and thought of peasant folk ?
“ 4 I’ve given up Lou,’ he said. ‘ I’ve given her up! ’ The tears ran down his face as he spoke. . . .
“ * No, by God, I have n’t, and I never will! She’s been mine these many years, and if she’d had a child doubtless she would have married me. . . .
44 4 She’s my dear, the first I ever loved, and though Kate ’s got me, she can’t put Lou aside. Kate’s sweet — oh, so sweet, there’s none like her. ’T is a maid out of the sea, out o’ the moon, and her hair’s all gold, and her eyes are blue and make me mad; but the brown arms of Lou are always about my neck, and she’s the sweetest voice, and I ’ve never heard Kate say things to make me dream. Kate will give me children, and I’ll love her dear, and fight for her and the unborn ones, but I’ll never give up Lou.’ ”
Oh, for one moment of the pen or the tongue of Dr. Samuel Johnson to express one’s sense of both the import and the manner of this!
Turning to Miss Alice Brown’s Thyrza, from that delightful comedy, touched with melodrama, Rose MacLeod, wherein deft characterization, abundant humor, and sound philosophy more than atoned for too sudden movements in the machinery of the plot, — turning to Thyrza, one pauses in disappointment. The book has a great theme, but a great theme alone does not make a great novel, and this is presented in so fragmentary a fashion that it fails to convince. The intellectual old lady whose wickedness constitutes the chief charm of Rose MacLeod, was brilliantly and consistently portrayed, and was decidedly original; the intellectual young girl, Thyrza, is a studied and inconsistent sketch of a type often done before and better done, whether we think of her as Jane Eyre or Maggie Tuliiver or Rebecca. The dark-haired child with elf-locks and an imagination, set off against her placid, smooth-faced blond sister or friend, needs something fresh and original in her rendering if she is to continue to appeal, and the newr elements added by Miss Brown only detract from the spell that she has long exercised.
There is an essential incongruity in the way in which tragedy comes to her; it might indeed have come, but never in that guise. Miss Brown’s heroine at this crucial moment is dropped many degrees lower in the scale of being than she has been up to this point; a girl of her instincts, and one, moreover, educated in that finest of all schools for girls, friendship with a high-minded man, would have been incapable of the step she took. Surely Thyrza’s fate could have come to her only through her deepest affections; to have it come through mere momentary intrigue is revolting; it breaks the chain of Thyrza’s development, and interferes with the dramatic causality of the tale. Lacking consistency and continuity, this study of a woman’s development fails to satisfy. Miss Brown is more successful in setting forth intellectual dilemmas than emotional, and the theme of Thyrza demands a deeper knowledge of human passion than is shown here.
In different fashion the prevailing tendency mars the art of another recent novel, Arminel of the West.9 Not interrupting in isolated incident, but subtle, pervading and tainting the ’whole, it perceptibly lessens the real charm of the tale. Cross-currents of love and of family pride in the attachment of Brian Challacome, of an ancient Devon family, to a moorsman’s daughter make up an appealing story wherein you follow with rather unusual interest the fashion in which obstacles are piled high in the path of true love. The aforesaid obstacles help create a resourceful charm in the low-born heroine, who is nevertheless a lady, and her struggles and her triumph rouse increasing interest and sympathy until the final page is reached. Arminel captivates the reader as she did her husband’s grim relatives, though that reader is forced to confess that there is a break somewhere in the character-presentation, and that the heroine of the latter part of the book is a distinctly different person from the girl who bears her name in the earlier pages.
It is a relief, after the many tales in w’hicli the appeal of Devon is rendered with a bit too much apple-blossom and clotted cream, to find a semi-realistic treatment of this corner of England and its inhabitants. Mr. Trevena has a graphic touch in presenting both, and the charm of country-side and country-folk gains by reason of his truthfulness. Real beauty and genuine idyllic charm appear at moments.
The pity is that an author, keen in perceiving, undoubtedly clever in plotting situations, does not approach in a somewhat different manner the situations he has created. One objects, not to that which happens in the tale, but to the author’s way of telling wThat happens. A wrong note, a suggestion now and then of flippancy in dealing wdth sex-questions, a relish in recording the practices and the moral lapses of both the peasantry and their betters, interfere with full enjoyment of the book. We have a right to demand dignity of treatment where we no longer demand reserve. It decreases, too, in lamentable fashion, the power of the satirical underplot, wherein are set forth the sins of a clergyman, whose gospel of selfcontrol, never once applied to his own life, brings to his daughter an absolutely logical but most cruel fate; worst of all, it lessens the appeal of the story of the rector’s wife, wherein the everlasting dilemma of sex reaches grimmest tragedy.
Many kinds of instant relief are experienced in coining to Septimus;10 the half year’s output of fiction would be depressing indeed but for this homely figure, God’s fool. Mr. Locke, perhaps the kindliest spirit in English letters since Lamb, has a way of carrying you into a region above your noblest convictions and your most insistent ideals, a very good world to which to be taken. Here simple goodness, in the form of absolute unselfishness, not only exists, but is unconscious of itself; and Mr. Locke achieves the impossible, here, as in The Beloved Vagaborul, in making such goodness seem real. A few hours with him are always a summer vacation for the soul; better a few grains of this ripened wisdom than harvests of pungent criticism, or systems, invincible on paper, of social regeneration. After all, what achievement is finer than such fine understanding of humanity’s best?
The plot of Septimus is, as might be expected, simplicity itself. The magnificent heroine, Zora, going out into the great world to search for its hidden treasure, finds it, but does not wholly recognize it in Septimus; the story of his great service to her through the rescue of the sister she loves, and of the way in wThich Septimus quite unexpectedly comes to his own is for the author to tell. The delicacy and reserve of Mr. Locke’s manner in dealing with a situation full of possibilities in the way of unpleasant suggestion is something for which to give thanks in comparing him with those of his contemporaries who love to say or to hint that which is better left unsaid. The ending of the tale has his own stamp, humanly if not romantically satisfying. There are no complications, no subtleties in structure, and few surprises, yet the tale is fully told, and the charity which believeth all things, hopeth all things, becomes, in incident and in creation of character, visible, tangible, credible.
Of the few people whose fortunes make up the story, the magnificent heroine herself, Zora, is the least real, a man’s woman, whose creator appreciates her spectacular effect better than her inner nature. The effort to make her produce upon the reader the effect she produces upon Septimus is not entirely successful. Next comes Clem Sypher, “ friend of humanity; ” surely no one but Mr. Locke would have thought of so extreme an expression of faith in humanity as making the inventor and promoter of a patent medicine believe in it himself! Naturally the character-study of the book centres in the insignificant Septimus, ’with the touch of the grotesque in his appearance, and his flawless soul. If the book misses something of the golden glow which attends the footsteps of the Beloved Vagabond, the witchery of strange paths through southern lands and through human souls, it gains in subtlety of character interpretation. Here we have less broad laughter, less broad pathos, something a bit less obvious, to be discovered by search.
Mr. Locke, inheritor of more than one tradition of the English novel, does not scorn its ancient function of teaching, though none of his predecessors have succeeded in concealing so definite a doctrine behind so whimsical a smile. The ■way the touch and shock of experience act upon all the characters, the purifying processes even of sin itself, make up a creed of belief in life, refreshing in a world full of questioning and doubt.
Mr. Locke’s manner of writing is different alike from the analytical and the anecdotal styles of his contemporaries. It is a dainty, whimsical art, full of delicate suggestions and significant omissions and eloquent silences, and it owes much to Laurence Sterne.
“ ‘ Septimus,’ said Sypher, * is one of the children of God.’
“ ‘ But lie’s a little bit incoherent on earth,’ she rejoined with a smile.’ ”...
Those whom God had joined together ’ . , .
“ ‘ He did n’t,’ snapped Cousin Jane. * They were joined together by a scrubby man in a registry office.’
“This is a wild and unjust way in which women talk. For aught Cousin Jane knew, the Chelsea Registrar might have been an Antinous for beauty.” . . ,
“ 4 Bah, mon vieux,’ said Hegisippe, 4 what are you talking about? You owe me nothing.’
‘ I owe you three lives,’ said Septimus.”
The last marks Mr. Locke’s way of announcing the advent of Bebe. That power of the single thrust, of the word that speaks volumes, is almost equal to Sterne’s own. To Sterne’s manner also can be traced those odd tangents of thought, representing a kind of pun in idea, not mere word. So rare in our modern prose is the power of imaginative suggestion, that one gives a double welcome to Mr. Locke’s art. Ideas nowadays are carved out as with a sharp knife in very definite outlines, and set down before you with a thud, so limited, definite, and tangible that you often get no further than the outlines; hence the great relief in finding an artist whose touch sets your imagination at work, and starts your mind in quest of subtler ideas and images than those written down.
It must be confessed that the late output of American fiction is distinctly inferior to the English, in imaginative power, depth of feeling, and, though this is perhaps the greatest blow of all to our pride, in quality of humor. When the British mind detaches itself sufficiently from the solid mass of the race to realize significances and to play, we get a humor that is rich and sweet, and more profound than our own. Their novelists have been doing better work than ours, though they have done nothing 44 choicely good;” and nothing comparable to Miss Sinclair’s Divine Fire has been produced lately. So thin in quality, so lacking in depth and in richness, is most of the fiction recently produced on this side of the water, that one begins to wonder if there is something in our climate or our soil that prevents this species from taking deep root. The Atlantic would not suggest as news the self-evident fact that the great American novel has not appeared in the last six months, though this assertion would seem to convict the publishers of misunderstanding. The great English novels of earlier days stay unchallenged on their shelves, unless, indeed, we take them down and plunge into them for pure relief.
- Araminta. By J. G. SNAITH. New York: Moffat, Yard & Co.↩
- The Post Girl. By EDWARD C, BOOTH. New York : Harper and Bros.↩
- Katrine. By ELINOR MACARTNEY LANE. New York : The Century Company.↩
- Corrie Who? By MAXIMILIAN FOSTEK. Small, Maynard & Co.↩
- The Three Brothers. By EDEN PHILLPOTTS. Tlie Macmillan Co.↩
- Tono-Bungay. By H. G. WELLS. New York : Duffield & Co.↩
- Fraternity. By JOHN GALSWORTHY. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.↩
- David Bran. By MOBLEY ROBERTS. Boston : L. C. Page Co.↩
- Thyrza. By ALICE BROWN. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1909.↩
- Arminel of the West. By JOHN TREVENA. New York : Moffat, Yard A Co.↩
- Septimus. By W. J. LOCKE. New York: John Lane Company.↩