W. L. (William Leonard) Courtney.

The feminine note in fiction online

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effort to win his fantastic bride, he carries her in his
arms across a certain threshold, and finds her body
surprisingly heavy, He puts before her fruit and
wine and fresh bread, begging her to eat, and
her refusal or inability to do this marks the failure
of the experiment. But the eerie qualities tend to
disappear under treatment like this. We do not feel
reconciled to the bread-and-wine regimen. It is in
some sense spoiling our dream. The ideal Agnes
Rivers is a creation of a brooding mind, engendered,
we know not how, by all sorts of hereditary cerebral
aptitudes, and the scene of the untasted banquet
reminds one of the companions of Hamlet offering
to strike the kingly vision with a partisan, thus doing
material dishonour to an immaterial monarch. Of
course, it is quite true, that, according to the Psychical


The Feminine Note in Fiction

Society and other sapient bodies, the phantasms of
the dead, poised halfway between two worlds, have
features derived from both, but for artistic purposes
the fact that Laurence Rivers failed because Agnes


could not eat bread, and that her beautiful existence
had to fade away because the room which she haunted
was burnt down in an inopportune fire, replaces in
somewhat startling fashion imaginative romance by
brutal reality. The dream does not remain intact;
it comes over the borders into our waking hours,
and is shattered by the first touch of that triumphant
Virginia from the West.

" Hawthorne," said Emerson, " rides well his horse
of the night " a remark as true as it is suggestive.
There are writers who have by nature a midnight
mood, a crepuscular habit of mind. There are others
who put it on as a sort of artistic exercise. The
success is often not less in the latter case, but the
art work is not so sure. Mrs. Oliphant wrote a very
remarkable story in " The Beleaguered City," but it
was a conscious piece of artifice. But when Haw-
thorne writes his romances the very texture of his
mind is supernatural. He will not let his readers say,
"This is a dream," because there is nothing to remind
one of the waking state. It is a question of atmo-
sphere, after all, and there is nothing which more
strikingly distinguishes artists and writers than this
possession of a circumambient air. Think of the
atmosphere of Mr. William Morris 1 "Earthly Paradise,"
the heavy sensuous air of some island of the sirens,
where reigns the indolent and delicious passivity of

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Lucas Malet

the lotus-eater. Think of the eager and nipping air
which surrounds much of the work of Carlyle, too
hard and bracing, biting so sharply that it can only
be inhaled in gasps. Or there is the quiet, summer-
like, peaceful atmosphere which Emerson distils, when
we feel that it is good to have been born, and that
to breathe is happiness. More akin to our purpose
is the peculiar atmosphere of Hawthorne a chilly
and spectral air, with flying gleams of moonlight,
when ordinary flesh and blood have lost their colour
and all the shadows have gathered to themselves an
added intensity. The touch of the artist here is
incommunicable and indescribable, the unique pos-
session of his singular genius. It is perhaps in this
respect that Lucas Malet's " Gateless Barrier " some-
what fails. It is not given to every one to write of
the supernatural as though it were supremely and
inevitably natural. But for the rest, the novel is an
admirable piece of work skilful in manipulation,
interesting as a story, with a fascination of its own
from which one only escapes when the last page is


It strikes a distinctive note in the romantic litera-
ture of 1901 that the novels which left the most
lasting effects on the popular imagination were
written by women. And first amongst these stands
Lucas Malet, for if there is one novel which domi-
nated all the literary product of the year, it was the


The Feminine Note in Fiction

much-discussed, the fiercely criticized, the inordinately
praised " Sir Richard Calmady." Objections exist,
no doubt, to this reign of the feminine spirit in the
literary sphere. There is a partiality of vision, an
intense pre-occupation with certain aspects to the
exclusion of others, something still left of that angry
scream with which women leapt on the platform in
defence of their undoubted rights. But the historian
must take the world as he finds it, and he is bound
to chronicle, with regard to 1901, that the remarkable
element, the most obvious and noticeable feature,
is the resolute handling of some of the less comely
facts of life by the acute and penetrating intellect of
women writers.

How does the world look from this angle of
vision ? It is, above all, a world of suffering, for
which, in many cases, the male is responsible. The
problem of evil is one which has piqued the curiosity
and defied the intelligence of a great many philo-
sophical minds since the world began. But of one
thing we may be sure, that if ever any reasonable
explanation is to be attained, any ultimate harmony
discovered in the jarring contradictions of everyday
things, the secret will not be communicated to women.
For to them the isolated facts, the immediate data
are of such supreme and overmastering importance,
they feel so acutely the actual pain and misery of
each day as it comes, that the far-away, divine event,
the final synthesis, the patient waiting for the eluci-
dation of a possible plan, are apparently for ever
denied. Not only is the feminine intelligence more

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Lucas Malet

responsive to the actual insistent pain, but it has a
theory which may or may not be wholly right
which is certainly right within given limits that all
human suffering ultimately falls on the woman. Take
the case of Sir Richard Calmady. Upon whom falls
the pain of his misery and his wrong-doing ? Who
is in reality the victim of the unkind fate which made
Lucas Malet's hero a dwarfed, rebellious, sinful
apostate? It is the mother, first and before all
the sweet, patient, beautiful Katherine Calmady, to
whom this misshapen creature was the ironical gift
of Heaven, and on whose heart fell every blow that
his reckless wrong-doing inflicted. And, in the next
place, it was Honoria St. Quentin, who takes up the
task from the mother's hands, who receives as her
supreme duty in life the nursing back into sanity of
this monstrous sport of irrational fate. All suffering
eventually falls on the woman such is the lesson.
And, for those who embrace this doctrine with sensi-
tive, petulant ardour, the tragedy of this inexplicable
world becomes something almost too difficult to bear.
Observe, further, that in the angry discontent
naturally inspired by such a theory as this, a writer
claims with fierce audacity any and every subject as
her theme. The criticisms which have been passed
on " Sir Richard Calmady " have proved, amongst
other things, that we shall have seriously to recon-
sider our canons of literary judgment. To some
minds the abnormal is not a proper subject of artistic
delineation. To others the book appears unhealthy,
because it treats absolutely without any reserve the


The Feminine Note in Fiction

coarser sides of human character. But a writer
claims to be judged, not in accordance with canons
educed by much experience out of the past, but in
virtue of his or her own specific performance. The
fundamental question is not whether we can explain
such or such a work according to principles acknow-
ledged by grammarians and scholastics, but whether
the total result of the work is big enough to establish
its own precedent. Over and over again in the
history of criticism, a thing has been deemed impos-
sible until it is done, and then the rules have to be
altered to suit the new conditions. What is it that
Lucas Malet asks of us ? You must give me, she
would say, my theme, at all events provisionally,
until you see what I can make of it. You may dis-
like the theme. You may call it unpleasant, shock-
ing, immoral ; but I ask you to reserve your judgment
until, when the last page has been read, you can see
whether my creation does not find its proper place
in the scheme of things, and perhaps in some negative
fashion make for artistic beauty. What is Lucas
Malet's theme ? It is the moral effect of deformity
upon the deformed. And what is the total result
of her novel? It can be nothing less than this
that even so terrible a handicap leaves the victim
at the last, with all the sufferings he has himself
endured and caused to others, in the first place, a
redeemer of his own race for he removes the curse
which had hitherto rested on the family of Calmady ;
and, in the second place, a salient and helpful example
to humanity at large of how evil can be overcome by


Lucas Malet

good. The way in which this effect is secured is an
example of Lucas Malet's skill, and the proof of her
predominant position in the ranks of English novelists.
I do not know whether ultimately "The Wages of
Sin " will not be considered a finer book than " Sir
Richard Calmady," for the last quarter of the earlier
novel seems to me to reach a higher level of crafts-
manship. But of the present work this much at least
must be said, that we have to go back a good many
years, back to the best work of George Eliot, or even of
Thackeray, to find its equal. That indomitable desire
of the Kingsley blood to claim freedom and oppor-
tunity of expansion has been seen in many forms,
not only in Charles and Henry, but in Mary Kingsley
the explorer, as well as in Lucas Malet. In the
present case, audacity of treatment and fearlessness
in the choice of incident are both tempered by an
acute perception, first of the beauty of Nature, next
of the beauty of character. No finer bits of scenery
have been drawn than meet us here and there in
Lucas Malet's pages. Rarely, too, has a more
exquisite character been portrayed than that of
Katherine Calmady. For here woman is shown at
her best, from the woman's standpoint woman as
the consoler, woman as the patient recipient of all
griefs, woman as the inspirer, woman as the healer
of discords, woman as the eternal mother. Nor is
Katherine in any sense less the heroine of the book
than the poor, mutilated Richard is the hero. If we
hate and repudiate the one, let us at least do justice
to the other.






" HAT is the essential factor in that strange
product of modern civilization the American ?
It will not be the fault of Mrs. Gertrude Atherton if
we have any further difficulty in answering this
question. One of the objects which she sets before
herself in her novel, " Patience Sparhawk and her
Times " a novel, be it remarked, of portentous
length, in which the verbosity of the ordinary woman
struggles with the dramatic instincts of the artist is
to describe for us, with scientific precision, this essen-
tial quality of the American, or, as she calls it, " The
United Statesian,"to analyze the nature of that brilliant
and petulant phenomenon, to diagnose its maladies,
to exalt to the seventh heaven its excellences. In a
preface addressed to M. Paul Bourget, she dedicates
her work to this French psychologist before all
others, because he has been able to gauge at its full
significance " the motive power, the cohering force,
the ultimate religion of that strange composite known
as the American." He is, we are told, the expression
of individual will. Each characteristic individuality
on the other side of the Atlantic has learnt apparently
to depend on himself or herself, finding in such an

115 I 2

The Feminine Note in Fiction

object of devotion the total sum of faith, ethics,
culture, religion. Two things can result. You may
have, on the one hand, intellectual anarchy ; you
may have, on the other, a race of harder fibre and
larger faculties than any that has yet been realized in
the history of mankind. Most readers, I fear, after
reading Mrs. Gertrude Atherton's novel, would be
inclined to " stake their bottom dollar " on the first of
these alternatives. That, however, may be due to an
obliquity of vision on our part when face to face with
the ideals of the West. To the grandmotherly habits
of a European civilization, the idiosnycrasies of the
American are apt to suggest either the Zoological
Gardens or Bedlam. But, no doubt, as compared
with the vitalizing air of the " United Statesian," we
live and move and have our being in a Boeotian

Patience Sparhawk is obviously intended to serve
as a representative model of a young American
woman. Mrs. Atherton is not very kind to her
heroine, or perhaps we ought to say she is dis-
passionately just. The primitive and archetypal
force which moves her is, indeed, individual will
not in the large sense in which it serves as the pattern
of a cosmic energy, but in the much more familiar
signification of wayward petulance. Patience is not
a nice girl, and it must have been through some irony
of fate that she was christened with so unfortunate a
name. She never sits " like patience on a monument,
smiling at grief," nor is her damask cheek destroyed
by the ravages either of concealment or of self-


Gertrude Atherton

repression. From her tenderest years she was, to say
the least, headstrong, for she attempted to kill her
mother, and was ultimately sent to trial on the charge
of having murdered her husband. Between these
two extreme points in her career her history is one
of ceaseless vacillation a " tangential " life, full of
the most appalling zigzags, the most audacious
inconsistencies. Transferred from the wilds of Cali-
fornia to the State of New York, she marries a man
for reasons it is impossible to divine a passionate,
sensual, unintellectual emotionalist, whom she learns
to hate with uncompromising swiftness. It is this
man, Beverly Peele, whom she is supposed to have
murdered in the sequel, after experiences replete with
matrimonial storms.

The fact is that Patience Sparhawk, despite the
pre-eminent qualities of her individual will, can
neither decide whom she ought to love, nor what life
she ought to lead. She is a bit of a vagabond and
gipsy, when first we make her acquaintance ; then,
after marriage with Beverly Peele, she is what is
called a smart lady, always well-dressed, perennially
bewitching, and with the most unfortunate propensity
of inducing every man she meets to forget himself in
the intensity of his emotional ardour. Meanwhile, in
her own mind, she thinks she ought to become a
newspaper woman, and her eloquent paragraphs in a
society journal are, as a matter of course, a con-
spicuous success. Some of her more staid friends
try to convert her, if not to religion, at all events to
the temperance cause ; but they can make nothing of


The Feminine Note in Fiction

this irreverent and spasmodic heroine, who is for
ever attempting to construct her own ethics, and
vacillating between the crudest materialism and a
worship of refined ideals. For a long time it seems
that she is utterly incapable of loving any man,
although quite inclined to persuade herself, from
time to time, that she has fallen in love. She has
a serious and practical flirtation with a newspaper
editor, and then, in a moment of illumination, both
discover that they are making fools of themselves.
At last the fated man arrives on the scene, and he
is an Irishman. Perhaps this is a moral which has
often been suggested to the Eastern intelligence by
some of the most accomplished Transatlantic critics.
The best specimens of American women are often,
we are told, in the habit of preferring men of
European birth to their own kith and kin.

It is little wonder that it should be so, if we may
accept the guidance of Mrs. Atherton. The authoress
does not like New York young men, and is at no
pains to disguise the fact. Youths of fashion in that
centre of modernity are hardly attractive specimens
of the human race, being " high of shoulder, slow of
speech, large of epiglottis, vacuous of expression."
At their worst they have a peculiarly repulsive
familiarity and coarseness ; at their best they are so
intensely wide awake, so hideously practical and
businesslike, that they appear to have reduced the
whole of existence to a rule-of-three sum. The
newspaper editor, to whom allusion has already been
made, belongs to this last variety, and he got rid of


Gertrude Atherton

his illusions at the age of eighteen. No young man
of intelligence has respect for anybody or anything.
He believes in no woman's virtue and no man's
honesty ; his kindness is half cynical ; his outlook
upon life is that he must live fast and far before the
age of thirty ; and then dry-rot or suicide. The
present age is a young man's epoch in New York, in
which brilliance belongs to the early twenties and
inexorable decay sets in at forty.

" I heard a man say the other day of another man,
who is only twenty-six, and supposed to be ambitious :
'Well, he'd better hump himself; he's no chicken!'
A man feels a failure nowadays if he hasn't dis-
tinguished himself before thirty."

Thus Patience Sparhawk, being herself an erup-
tive and volcanic person, naturally finds it no easy
task either to carve out her destiny or to meet a man
after her heart. There is much to teach her that
the only philosophy is cynicism ; everything to
persuade her that existence is like a comet's career,
to be lived through at high pressure and ended by
internal combustion. She is for ever playing on the
surface of things, despite her cleverness, and her
individual will consists mainly in desiring to be
everything by turns and nothing long. It actually
requires a murder trial, in which she is the accused
at the bar, to shake her out of her artificiality and
falseness to prove to her that, despite all the
brilliant Jin de sihle smartness of New York, the only
solid things are self-sacrifice and love. The advocate
who defends her, an Irishman called Bourke, moves


The Feminine Note in Fiction

heaven and earth to prove her innocence, and gets
his reward by awakening the dormant womanliness
which had been, though she knew it not, sleeping
within her for thirty years. And it was very nearly
too late, after all ; for Patience Sparhawk, accom-
plished mondaine, newspaper woman, well-dressed,
heartless doll, philosopher and pessimist, with all her
rare and curious experiences of unsatisfying forms of
life, had been strapped down into the fatal chair at
Sing Sing, to be executed by electricity, according to
the humane methods of Western civilization, when
Bourke brings her pardon. Perhaps we may doubt
whether such a feverish and impulsive heart could
find ultimate rest even in the arms of her eloquent
advocate ; but, at all events, she is saved as by fire.
Desperate passions, as Romeo and Juliet proved,
"have desperate ends," and an existence lived
throughout at fever-point requires remedies as heroic
as electrocution chairs.

Viewed simply as a novel, Mrs. Atherton's
" Patience Sparhawk " is weakened by its prolixity
and redeemed by its dramatic close. If many readers
are inclined to give up a task to which they feel
themselves unequal after the two-hundredth page,
the fault does not lie so much with them as it does
with the authoress. Nevertheless, let them take
courage, for the last hundred pages are worth waiting
for. Nor is it right to blame Mrs. Atherton for the
voluminous character of her novel, except on grounds
of artistic effect. She is very serious, very analytic*
exceedingly painstaking. She wants to delineate all


Gertrude Atherton

the inner workings of an American woman's mind,
and that is no easy or simple problem. But she will
in time, perhaps, learn that the portrayal of cha-
racter does not always depend on a multiplicity of
touches, and that the decisive lines of a great artist
reveal more than the most ingenious and assiduous
" stippling " of the amateur, Still, the book is one of
rare promise and power ; the thought has not yet
become clarified, but it is there in exuberant and
abounding fulness. Mrs. Atherton knows her subject
thoroughly, but she has not learnt to stand apart
from her creations and view them with that cool
impartiality, in the absence of which they will neither
attract us nor convince. She is too much a part of
all she has seen and heard ; and the intensity of her
interest makes her forget that the rest of the world
has too many distractions to be wholly immersed in
her chosen topics. When, however, all the necessary
deductions have been made, " Patience Sparhawk "
remains a novel to be read, or, perhaps, rather a
document to be studied, a brilliant, analytic inquiry
into the baffling and scintillating paradoxes of
American character.


The story of two girls and one man has often
been told. We know quite well what will happen
when the two devotedly attached schoolgirls grow
older, especially when one is pretty and the other
is plain. Helena Belmont and Magdalena Yorba


The Feminine Note in Fiction

are all-in-all to each other up to a certain point, but
that point is reached when the bewitching Helena
robs the less attractive Magdalena of Mr. Trennahan.
It is a drawback to "The Californians " that the
story from the beginning is so obvious that it
should travel so much in a familiar track and present
us with mental and moral crises of so habitual a
stamp. But it is necessary to remember that the
essence of Mrs. Atherton's tales is not the story
they unfold, but the characters and the scenery they
depict. From " Patience Sparhawk " onwards, she
has given us types of considerable novelty, drawn
from the inexhaustible sources of that continent
across the Atlantic which is the microcosm of
different nationalities and races an amalgam of
contradictory temperaments and tendencies. It is
to say nothing to tell us that once more in the odd
tragedies of life girl-friendships have competed with
masculine loves ; it is a great deal to draw for us an
American like Helena Belmont and a Spanish half-
breed like Magdalena Yorba. In such cases the
background is as important as the personages, nor
would the story be what it is but for the Californian
viise-en-sdne, where the perfervid civilization of San
Francisco stands out in relief against the luxurious
vegetation of an America which was originally
Spanish. It is in this local colour that Mrs. Gertrude
Atherton especially excels, although she treats it
with the rapid and incisive style of a journalist rather
than of an interested historian. Here is a character-
istic passage, as clever as it is petulant, as inadequate


Gertrude Atherton

as it is picturesque : " California is the Princess Royal
of her country, and at her will all the good fairies
came and gave her of every gift in the stores of the
Immortals. Then a wicked fairy came, and turned
the skeleton of her beautiful body to gold, and lo !
the Princess who had been fashioned to bless man-
kind carried, hidden from sight by her innocent and
beneficent charms, a terrible curse. Men came to
kiss, and stayed to tear away her flesh with their
teeth." Or here is a more gracious passage : " There
is nothing in all the world so beautiful as California,
San Francisco included, in spite of whirlwinds of
dust and wooden houses and cobblestone streets and
wooden side-walks. One can always live on a hill,
and then you don't see the ugly things below. For
instance, from here you see nothing but that dark-
blue bay, with the dark-blue sky above it, and
opposite the pink mountains, with the patches of
light blue, and on that side the hills of Sausalito,
covered with willows, and the breakers down below.
And the ferry-boats are like great white swans with
long, soft throats, bending backwards."

Whatever may be the inner conditions or external
form of the country, three men, at all events, Hiram
Polk, Don Roberto Yorba, and Colonel Jack Belmont,
managed to make a good thing out of it. They were
all wealthy, although only two of them were blessed
with offspring. But and that is a thing to be
noticed they were all three miserable, with the
misery of men who had spent the best years of their
life in money-making, had taxed themselves to the


The Feminine Note in Fiction

utmost degree in the all-absorbing game of financial
speculation and enterprise, and had combined their
hard work, more often than once, with an indulgence
in sensual gratifications. They all come to a bad
end, moreover, which shows Mrs. Atherton's sense
of poetic justice ; Hiram Polk and Colonel Belmont

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Online LibraryW. L. (William Leonard) CourtneyThe feminine note in fiction → online text (page 9 of 18)