Harlequin and Columbine

by Booth Tarkington. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1922. 12vo, 188 pp. $1.50
WORDS have one strange superiority to pictures, coupled with immunity from the characteristic penalties attaching to pictorial illustration. The costumes of even a slightly archaic period, when rendered in line, or in line and color, strike the present as purely absurd. The more faithful and literal the rendition, the more patent the absurdity. Yet the same costumes, described in printed words, become invested with almost magical decorativeness. That which is not in the least picturesque in a picture becomes so as soon as it is transferred to language — a paradox which might almost serve as the text for a new Laocoön.
These reflections are a product of the fact that Mr. Booth Tarkington’s publishers, after ten years, have happily put Harlequin and Columbine between permanent covers, at the same time most unhappily including a frontispiece, either drawn very recently, or else revised to conform to recent modes in dress. The historical mind is irritated by a skirt palpably of 1921 on a woman whose life is lived in a story of the New York stage written ten years ago, and about theatrical conditions which, the author’s dedication asserts, were even then ‘faded and passing.’ Yet the skirt of ten years ago would look absurd in its place, and would be equally irritating to any other than the historical mind. What, in this dilemma, is a publisher to do? Well, he might reflect that the feminine costume of the present frontispiece is going to look no less preposterous a few years hence — at a time when Mr. Tarkington’s story will still be as fresh as at this moment — than Blendon Campbell’s illustrations of The Beautiful Lady (McClure, Phillips & Co., 1905) look now. And, so reflecting, he might very well and wisely omit the frontispiece altogether.
As a fact, one of the first effects of reading Harlequin and Columbine is to send one to the Tarkington shelf for another look at The Beautiful Lady and Monsieur Beaucaire. For here is a later addition to that genre which probably had its American beginning in Daisy Miller, and to which the author of Harlequin and Columbine has contributed as richly as anybody living. The essence of this genre is high comedy edged on one side with a suspicion of farce and on the other with a whimsical sentiment that goes demure and safe along the slippery way between sentimentality and caricature. There is just room for a laugh, a smile, several chuckles, a sigh — and then the end. Briefly, here we have again what, a decade ago, when no one thought of this author as even an intending realist, any connoisseur would have pronounced ‘a Tarkington.’