From The Atlantic Monthly (May 1899)
On any walk or drive in rural New England, in the springtime, one is sure to find on some abandoned farm an unkempt old apple orchard. The gnarled and twisted trees uphold on their rotting trunks more dead than living branches, and bear, if at all, only a few scattered and ghostly blossoms. And in that group of pitiable trees, dying there in the warm sunshine, there will be nothing to suggest life and joyousness except the golden woodpeckers with their flickering flight, and the bluebirds with their musical, low warble. If, indeed, the orchard stands upon a sloping hillside, one can glance away and see in the valley prosperous villages, smiling, fertile farms, and other orchards, well kept, healthy, and looking from their wealth of blossoms like white clouds stranded. But if one be of a pessimistic complexion, he can shut his eyes to that pleasanter prospect, gaze only at the old orchard, and think of it as typical of New England. So, in fact, in its limited degree, it is; but almost to the ultimate degree of exactness is it typical of the New England village which Miss Wilkins delights to draw. In place of the worn-out trees there are gnarled and twisted men and women. There are, of course, the young people, with their brief, happy time of courtship, to take the place in it of the birds; but her village, like the orchard, is a desolate and saddening spectacle. In that community of Pembroke which she has celebrated, what twisted characters! Barney Thayer refuses to marry Charlotte Barnard because, as the result of a quarrel with her father, Cephas, he hastily vows never to enter the house again. Not the anger of his mother, not the suffering of his sweetheart, not even jealousy of handsome Thomas Paine, — who, seeing her forsaken, makes bold to woo, — has power to move him from his stubborn stand. The selfish pride of Cephas is so great that he lets his daughter's happiness be destroyed rather than admit himself wrong, or take the smallest step to reconcile him with her lover. Barney Thayer inherits his self-will from his mother, a woman of indomitable will, who rules her family with an iron hand. When she hears that Barney has refused to marry Charlotte, she forbids him ever to step within her door again; when her youngest son, Ephraim, who has a weak heart and whom the doctor has forbidden her to whip, disobeys her, she whips him, and he dies; when her daughter Rebecca falls in love with William Berry, she forbids the marriage for a trivial cause, and when Rebecca, denied the legitimate path of love, steps aside into the other way, she disowns and casts her out. She loses all her children rather than yield to them the least shadow of her authority. Charlotte Barnard's cousin, Sylvia Crane, leaving her own house on the Sunday night of Charlotte's quarrel with Barney to comfort her, misses the weekly call of Richard Alger, her lover. His nature, compounded of habit and pride and stubbornness, does not let him come again, once his pride has been offended, once his habit has been broken. Silas Berry — William Berry's father — is determined to sell his cherries for an exorbitant price. When the young people refuse to buy, he tells William and Rose, his children, to invite them to a picnic and cherry-picking. When the guests are departing, he waylays them to demand payment for his cherries. He outrages common decency with his mean trickery, but he has his way. Nearly every character in the book is a monstrous example of stubbornness, — of that will which enforces its ends, however trivial, even to self-destruction. The people are not normal; they are hardly sane. Such is Miss Wilkins's village, and it is a true picture; but it wholly represents New England life no more than the dying apple orchard wholly represents New England scenery.
But the purpose of this comparison is to set forth a truth comforting to those who wish to believe that a race full of good qualities has not yet run its full course, and not to pick a quarrel with the author. The realist makes it his boast that he tells the truth, but he exercises as rigid a selection in incidents and characters as the most arrant romancer, and, as this novel of Pembroke aptly illustrates, tells a story often as far away from average truth. As a matter of fact, there is small meaning in the terms “realism” and “romanticism.” The logical application of the principles of either would lead to the production of the unreadable. That wise Frenchman who said that style is the man said everything. Art is the expression of personality. A certain definite character, with a gift for expression, more or less great, is acted upon by a certain environment and reacts upon it, with certain literary results. A striking novel like Pembroke is a miracle no more than a thunderstorm, but is the result of natural causes working in accordance with natural laws. If Pembroke gives a picture of New England life which is more fairly to be called incomplete than inaccurate, the reason lies in the personality of the writer and the nature of her environment, the two factors of her limitations. And so the real task is, not to find fault with her for not going outside the circle of her talent, but to measure the length of its radius, and to guess, if possible, what determined it.
May it be many years before that intimate biography appears from which alone can be gathered the knowledge necessary to understand fully the causes of Miss Wilkins's qualities and limitations; but from the known circumstances of her life a few inferences may be drawn which will in a measure account for them. The known facts are meagre enough, and do not include the date of her birth in Randolph, Massachusetts. Her father, an architect and builder, a graduate of the building trades, and not of the technical schools, was a native of cosmopolitan Salem, and a descendant from Bray Wilkins, a prominent Puritan who played his part as judge in that New England inquisition before which the witches stood their lamentable trial. Her mother was of the Holbrooks of Holbrook, — “fine, ‘genteel’ people of the old sort.” Her formative years were passed in Brattleboro, Vermont, where her father kept a store, and her schooling was not in the contemporary sense extensive. Her most valuable education in all likelihood was derived in part from her own observation of life, and in part from her own independent reading, to the excellence of which as literature occasional references in her writings to such authors as Marvel and Herrick bear significant witness. On leaving Brattleboro she returned to Randolph, where she has lived ever since. The events of her quiet life have been the publication of her books. These appeared in the following order: A Humble Romance, stories, 1887; A New England Nun, stories, 1891; Jane Field, a novel, 1892; Young Lucretia, stories for children, 1892; Giles Corey, Yeoman, a play, 1893; Pembroke, a novel, 1894; Madelon, a novel, 1896; Jerome, a novel, 1897; and Silence, stories, 1898.
This biographical sketch, brief and imperfect as it is, will, if examined attentively, be found to contain much which explains the nature and the direction of the author's talent. It appears, for example, that her opportunities for the observation of life have been only those afforded by two country towns, — in the impressionable days of her girlhood, by one. Of Brattleboro, I know only that it is a prosperous village in the lovely Connecticut Valley, with the Green Mountains behind it, and the hills of New Hampshire before it. But many another Vermont town I know well, and I suppose myself safe in assuming that the current of life and progress has followed substantially the same course there as elsewhere in the state.
In general, the development of the Vermont village has been marked by three periods. The first is that of the founders. The pioneers came and builded it in the wilderness. Energy and hope were high, and faith in the ultimate good fortunes of the new community was complete. Of course no village in that stage of development now exists.
The second period begins when the faith and energy of the founders are passed away, and the village lives an isolated, humdrum life, unbroken by any incident more exciting than the arrival of the daily stage. If the village is built high and far away upon a hill, it probably survives in this second stage of development to this day. It has its general store, serving as a club for the men; its little square schoolhouse, where elementary instruction is given to the children; its church, to which a minister from some more prosperous community drives on an occasional Sunday and charitably holds service. It is inhabited mainly by old men and old women; for the young people have gone out into the world to seek their fortunes. In such a village as this will be found those rare beings, Yankees who talk the full Yankee dialect. They are, for the most part, simple and sane folk with a large fund of humor and shrewdness, who lead happy and healthful lives. They are drawn with a comprehension and sympathy the most complete, and with a touch infinitely loving, in the sweet and wholesome works of Mr. Rowland E. Robinson. Yet these people, who in Mr. Robinson's books live in a Yankee Arcadia upon which the sophisticated have every reason to turn envious glances, are the same as those who, interpreted by a different temperament, make Pembroke seem a town of battling lunatics. Both writers tell the truth. There is another side to the shield which shows so fair in Mr. Robinson's exhibiting hands. In these little remote communities can be found personalities which, if weak, have narrowed and deadened, or which, unchecked by any effective public opinion, have assumed forms of willful distortion. In them live people who, having no large matters upon which to exercise naturally active minds, give importance to trifles; who, lacking social life, grow morbid and wrong-headed. And among them it is easy to find such perverted strength of will as that shown by Barney Thayer, or such contemptible meanness as that of old Silas Berry. From such a village, and from the lonely farms about it, come the saddening inmates of the two insane asylums of Vermont, — Vermont, which has a smaller population than the city of Boston!
The third period is that of most of the larger valley towns. To them, about 1850, came the railway and the telegraph, and by bringing them into touch with the great world gave them a renaissance into life and activity. Brattleboro is in that third stage. It should have been well begun, but still far from completely attained when Miss Wilkins lived there as a child. The older people then alive should have been relics of the narrower day. They should have been sprinkled through the population of the revived community like old wooden buildings in the midst of smart brick blocks in a growing town, — the subjects of many a story, their eccentricities the material of many a joke. Any one who has lived in such a village at a time not too far removed from its period of transition knows that the local store of anecdote — sometimes, in truth, a precious one — has been furnished by the queer doings of just such people. Generally these stories are told as humorous, but if one has the bent he may take them as pathetic; and there are other stories, too, which he may hear, if he have ears, that are grim and tragic enough.
What influence the accident of this environment had upon Miss Wilkins becomes plain when we consider that the best part of any story-teller's equipment lies in his store of vivid childhood memories. There is evidence that Miss Wilkins remembers the time when the electric cars did not slide, with griding trolley, through the streets of modern, prosperous Randolph. In no book of hers are there mountains such as those which stand behind and in front of Brattleboro, nor is there any broad and beautiful river perpetuating her memories of the Connecticut. The scenery — never in any case much dwelt upon — is that of a flat country, of eastern Massachusetts, of Randolph. And from Randolph, too, she got her knowledge of the trade of shoe-making as it was before the days of the factory. But the circumstance that her formative period was spent in Brattleboro, and the internal evidence of her work, otherwise than in the exceptions named, suggest, if they do not command, the conclusion that the larger part of her material was obtained there. The narrow field for the observation of life thus afforded her was still further restricted, of course, by the fact of her sex. Had she been a boy, she would have roamed the fields, gone fishing and hunting, had the privilege of sitting in the country store and listening to the talk of the men of evenings; she would have taken an interest in the local politics, and have learned to look at life as the men look at it, with the larger and more catholic view which is theirs not by virtue of greater insight, but by virtue of the undeniably larger, freer lives they are permitted to live. As she was a girl, her outlook was confined to the household; her sources of information were the tales of gossiping women, which would naturally relate mostly to the family quarrels and dissensions that are the great tragedies of their lives.
To the restriction of environment and of sex must also be added the restriction of temperament. Miss Wilkins has a keen and deep sense of humor, but it is never so keen and deep as her sense of the pathetic, and when a scene or a situation is in quarrel between them, her sense of humor is sure to come lamely off. The most distinctly humorous of her stories, and also one of her best and best known, is The Revolt of Mother. In this, a situation which in the hands of a writer more exclusively humorous would be laughable becomes in hers one over which it seems heartless to smile, so clearly is its underlying pathos revealed. Without burdening too much the weary back of heredity we may recall her witch-persecuting Puritan ancestors in Salem, and, remembering Hawthorne's similar ancestry, say to ourselves that she was probably a serious, imaginative child, with a faculty for brooding over questions of conduct, who could be expected to feel the pathos in the humorous stories, and deeply to relish the grim and tragic ones. She should have had a memory for detail even greater than that which children commonly possess, and because, as her biography shows, she was of the strain of New England gentle-folk and of a sensitive, imaginative disposition, the hardness and the narrowness of the lives which interested her must have seemed more painful than they ever did to those who lived them. For this is the fallacy of the sensitive: to attribute their own sensitiveness to those grown callous to hardship, and to pity them accordingly.
Here, then, was a powerful mind, fond of the dramatic, interested in the problem of the will, — as any child whose ancestors have debated predestination and freedom of the will time out of mind has a perfect right to be, — thrown into a community in which persons of broad culture and knowledge of the world are rare, and in which the more striking deviations from the commonplace are provided by personalities deformed by ungenerous circumstance. To her sensitiveness, the narrowness and poverty of many of the lives would seem notably pitiful; to her dramatic imagination and inborn taste for metaphysics, the strange tragedies of morbid conscientiousness and perverted will would appeal as problems of absorbing interest. With an outlook upon life restricted at best, and still further limited by the peculiarly serious quality of her mind, with few or no distractions, how could she do otherwise than observe and brood and wonder, until the special portion of the life about her which she saw clearly and which interested her most should be known to her in every detail of its physical accompaniments, in every one of its psychological nooks and crannies? However painfully and slowly she may have spelled out the A B C's of its lives and characters, she came at last to know the whole alphabet, to be its absolute and tyrannous mistress, able to write with it whatever story she might wish. Is it any wonder that such a mind, working on such material, should have produced as its first work such stories as compose the volume entitled A Humble Romance?
This book, which appeared in 1887, came with the force of a new revelation of New England to itself. The literary merit of the stories was remarkable. The short, terse sentences, written in the simplest, homeliest words, had a biting force. Its skillfully lavish use of homely detail, always accurate, always significant, gave it an astonishing reality. The paragraphs were as simple and direct as the sentences, and each advanced the story swiftly and easily upon its predestined course. There was no wavering from the direct line, there were no stumbling-blocks of impertinent description or incident, no superfluities even. There was no annoying striving after elegance of diction, no self-conscious attempt at cleverness of phrase or an artistic manner. Everywhere was the sharp definiteness of the writer who sees clearly. Everywhere was the unconsciousness of an absorbed artist, not preoccupied with theories of art, with personal vanities, with fear of the critics or anxiety to please the public, but dominated by the one idea of setting down accurately the definite vision which her imagination had conceived and matured, and which now of necessity must be born. The stories had, furthermore, a certain rare quality which always gives strength to fiction. It is the air on the part of the author of being exterior to his story and irresponsible for it, of seeming to say, “I do not explain, I do not justify, I find no fault, I neither laugh over them nor grieve; these events are not of my invention, — they happened. I report them, and allege nothing about them except that they are true.” It is this quality, as much as any, which gives a peculiar impressiveness to the tales of Guy de Maupassant. So far as method is concerned, his story called in its English version A Bit of String might have been written by Miss Wilkins.
A good literary style is always more or less of a miracle. It cannot be acquired by industry, it cannot be taught in the schools. Like any other aptitude of the mind it may be trained and perfected, but it is essentially a gift of nature. A gift of nature, then, we must call Miss Wilkins's style; but the especial form of its development may be accounted for in part by the fact that she served her apprenticeship as a writer of stories for children and young people, — a capital school in which to practice clearness and simplicity of phrase and directness of narrative. And as young people are avid of detail and great lovers of the realistic method, — for example may be cited their love of Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver's Travels, and Pilgrim's Progress, — writing for children could but strengthen any natural inclination to these qualities of style. But excellent as in many respects the style of this first book was, it yet had numerous and serious blemishes. Although direct references to bygone writers and now and then the use of a word in an obsolete sense showed Miss Wilkins to be acquainted with literature of a good sort, her style was deficient in grace, in music, as if written by one whose ear is untrained by any attentive listening to the rich harmonies of old prose. And it was deficient also in correctness and in elegance: it was to some degree an uneducated and uncultured style. She could be so tasteless as to speak of cottages as being “natty,” and of an attractive woman as being the “merry feature of the place;” she could stoop to use such a newspaperish phrase as “sacred edifice” instead of “church;” she did not avoid such colloquialisms as “the girl colored up,” “the air felt like snow,” as the use of “directly” in the sense of “at once,” of “quite” in the sense of “very,” of “smart” in the sense of “efficient;” she was ignorant enough to speak of “calm equanimity,” and to say that a girl looked into another person's eyes “directly with no circumlocution;” she was frequently ungrammatical, as when she said of one of her characters that he “chose the site of his buildings because they would be easily accessible to the railway;” she invariably split her infinitives; occasionally she even failed to be clear. This sentence is certainly puzzling: “Some might have questioned if her subtle fineness of strength was on a plane equal enough to admit of any struggle.” This criticism of detail only serves to make plain that, as the biographical sketch implies, Miss Wilkins, as a writer, belongs to the noble army of the self-made. These defects of form show how much, in the beginning, she was hampered by the lack of a liberal education in literature, just as the limitations of substance show how much she is hampered by the lack of a liberal education in life. Imagination is a quality the manifestations of which are various. There have been persons of restricted lives who have written, and written well, of kinds of life which they had never seen; but I think they have not done so whose dependence lay upon the mastery of homely detail. For such, the immediate vision of their eyes, or, better yet, the vivid memories of the life which lay about them in childhood, are the only source of effective writing. The romancer, the poet, the philosopher, may live and die in his own library and yet write well, but the novelist who reports men in their habit as they lived must write of the life he knows. And as Miss Wilkins is such a writer, the limitations of her environment determine the scope of her work, and they are unfortunately great. If we keep them in mind, the fact is not surprising that of the twenty-eight stories in A Humble Romance every one is told from the point of view of some woman, — and that there are very few which do not deal with one of those family or neighborhood quarrels which have been referred to as the staple of the women's gossip in small country towns. The book is, in fact, a collection of twenty-eight special cases of unhappiness among a peculiarly isolated and small-minded class of countrywomen. Their mental attitude is caught with astonishing precision, but by this very success the stories gain an atmosphere at once narrow and mean. They are saved from being unpleasant by their undeniable pathos, and by being so thoroughly human, if petty, as readily to excite sympathy. As the author may not be asked to spoil her effect by labeling her incidents special cases, it becomes easy to see how distorted and untruthful an impression of New England life — an impression all the more untruthful in the general because so accurate in the particular — she would succeed unconsciously in conveying. By the path of this analysis we come in sight once more of the dying apple orchard of the opening simile. Continuing along this path a little farther, we find ourselves standing fairly in the midst of the gnarled and twisted trunks; for observe, at least seventeen of the stories are tales of happiness postponed, or misery caused by an unbending will, which, abnormally developed, has become the master of its possessor instead of the servant of his intellect. They are stories of people who won't simply and solely because they won't.
I confess that in considering Miss Wilkins's work I ask myself again and again, with a never failing and perhaps impertinent curiosity, what circumstances in her life could so have revealed to her and impressed upon her imagination the awful power for evil of a perverted will. But her favorable environment and Puritan ancestry make it easy to understand how the problem of the will, once it had attracted her attention, should appeal with extraordinary force to one of her analytic, brooding, somewhat sombre temperament, and how it should seem to be laid upon her, as with a heavy hand, to embody her impressions in dramatic form. The dramatic value of unreasonable stubbornness is her own personal discovery, the particular thing which gives her work psychological interest and distinction. I know of no writer who has treated it so persistently, so variously, who has seemed so infatuated with it. In no study of New England character — in the form either of history or of fiction — has the native strength of will been made so prominent. Consciously or unconsciously, she has seized upon it and set it forth as the keystone of New England character. It is not the exclusive possession of New England people, of course; but that it is in a marked degree characteristic no one can doubt. The stubborn Puritan came to no relaxing land, but to one from which only dogged perseverance could wring a living, and so it is not strange if his descendants have acquired a character which may be described as granitic. Psychologists and pathologists have found a study of abnormal conditions to be most profitable; Miss Wilkins has followed in their footsteps, and has studied the will in its perversities. But as from disease we may learn what health is, so from her abnormal people we may learn what is the normal New England character. Notable for its significance in the case of such poverty-stricken people as those whom Miss Wilkins describes is the fact that their contests of will, their long-drawn battles of stubbornness, are seldom fought for sordid ends. I spoke just now of the atmosphere of A Humble Romance as being “mean:” it is so on account of the family bickerings of which it is full; but these bickerings have their fine aspect in that they are almost always upon some question of personal dignity, or freedom, or point of ethical opinion. These people are nonconformists to their backbones. They are fanatics or martyrs according to the point of view. Were the theatre upon which they moved larger, or their own natures more generously cultivated, so that their rebellions should be upon really vital points, their tragedy would have beauty, and perhaps grandeur. The old Puritans exercised their stubbornness upon a great issue; these country descendants, living in narrow ways and thinking narrow thoughts, exercise their stubbornness upon petty issues. That is the only difference. And these perverted and abnormal wills — baleful forces in characters diseased — attest the real strength of New England character. It is easy to understand the success of a book which reproduces with a great wealth of accurate and homely detail a life which is still close to the richest and most cultivated of us, and which is of the very fibre of our thought and character, — a book which, in a land where women are the larger portion of the reading public, is written exclusively from the feminine point of view; but I choose to think that it was mainly the insistence upon a fine basic quality of New England character which made A Humble Romance come with all the force of a new revelation of New England to itself.
This long examination of A Humble Romance would be disproportionate were not this first book, and its succeeding sister volume, A New England Nun, in a way a brief memorandum of Miss Wilkins's entire message to the world, which her later work, for the most part, only serves to amplify and make clear. When one begins to read the novels, the short stories assume almost the aspect of preliminary sketches of their scenes and episodes, for they are similar not only in substance, but in method. Those cogent reasons which publishers urge, reinforced by the ambition which every writer of fiction feels to try his hand in the most important form of his art, made it inevitable that, sooner or later, Miss Wilkins should write novels. But, natural as it was, it is none the less regrettable. For years she studied the shorter form and wrote in it, — years which necessarily left their indelible impress upon her talent. Some acute person once said that every author learns to think in the length in which he is accustomed to write, — the paragrapher in the length of paragraphs, the editorial writer in the length of editorial articles, the historian in the length of the monograph or full-bodied history. Miss Wilkins, whose earliest and longest training has been in the short story, thinks in the length of the short story. Her novels, with the apparent exception of Jane Field, which is simply a short story of unusual extent, have the air of a chronological series of short stories about the same people. She has never been able to see the larger proportions of the novel in their proper perspective. Moreover, in writing short stories she taught herself, with a thoroughness the results of which she will never be able wholly to overcome, a genuine mastery of the short, terse sentence. To its telling force as used by her in A Humble Romance tribute has been paid. The value of that tribute is not diminished by the suspicion that the sentences were short so invariably because the author at that time lacked the ability to combine clauses and subclauses into a compact, forcible whole, or by the admission that, effective as they are in the short stories, they grow monotonous when page of them follows page throughout a long book. Their lack of variety can be seen, their monotony can be guessed, from these typical quotations from A Conquest of Humility, in A Humble Romance: —
“The young girl trembled and caught hold of her mother's dress; her eyes grew big and wild. Hiram Caldwell drove up the road. He met the gaze of the people with solemn embarrassment. But he was not so important as he had been. There was a large, white-headed old man who drew the larger share of attention. He got lumberingly out of the buggy when Hiram drew rein at the gate. Then he proceeded up the gravel walk to the house. The people stood back and stared. No one dared speak to him except Mrs. Erastus Thayer. She darted before him in the path; her brown silk skirts swished.”
“Her features were strong and fine. She would have been handsome if her complexion had been better. Her skin was thick and dull.”
Mastery in the methods of the short story, and a fixed habit of writing in short sentences, are not the most useful qualifications to bring to the task of writing novels. Many lessons of technique have to be laboriously unlearned by the writer thus trained when he attempts the new and ampler form. That Miss Wilkins has succeeded in overcoming the results of her earliest training in any measure is due, no doubt, to the artistic restlessness which is one of her most marked characteristics. She has written for children; she has written society verses; she wrote little prose poems in the day, fortunately brief, when they were popular under the absurd name of “etchings” or “pastels in prose;” she has tried her hand more than once at the drama, as Giles Corey, Yeoman, remains to witness; she has written a detective story; she has tried historical fiction; and she has composed romances not only of the kind in which passionate love is the theme, but also of the kind in which, as in Hawthorne, idealistic beauty is the end. Some of these experiments have been so obviously outside the range of her abilities that those who have watched her progress with a loving solicitude — and these are not a few — have trembled for her future. But whether partial failures or full successes, they showed artistic health, a talent curious about itself and ambitious to miss no possible development, a commendable desire to find out for itself its own strength and its own limitations. And these experiments have served their useful purpose in developing both her talent and her style.
As a result of her practice in so many varieties of composition, she has advanced much in her understanding of the form of the novel; but it has had its chief effect, naturally enough, upon her style. In the art of constructing sentences she has made really remarkable gain. Those who are interested in style simply as style will find much to reward their curiosity in tracing her progress from the direct bald statements of her earliest manner through the florid sentences of Madelon and the long loose ones of Jerome to the really excellent prose style which she at last attains in Evelina's Garden, a story in her latest work, Silence. But the point here is that the practice which gave her talent its direction was not of the kind to fit her for the writing of novels. She made herself a specialist in the beginning, and, like all specialists, made her irretrievable sacrifice of possibilities of development.
In the novels, as in the short stories, the will is still the theme. Willfulness, of a good or bad kind, is still the predominating characteristic of the people, from stern Jane Field, whose sense of justice and whose self-confident determination to judge moral questions for herself lead her stubbornly to pursue the path of crime, to haughty Jerome, ready to sacrifice everything good and sweet in life upon the altar of his own inordinate, willful pride. But Pembroke — her first real novel, and to my mind unquestionably the best — contains the most complete summary of her observations upon the stubbornness of the New England character. Its plot, which has already been roughly outlined, shows clearly enough why it should be, in an artistic sense, her most successful novel. The scene and the characters are those which she knows in every detail of their interior and exterior life; its psychological problems are those which have most interested her, and upon which she has thought most deeply and persistently. The novel is great by its fidelity to life, by its dignity of theme, and by its social significance. On the other hand, it has the expected and unavoidable defects. The first impulse of the reader is to dispute the assumption that such a community as Pembroke ever existed; but on reflection he will admit that although it may not actually exist, it could be easily assembled, and that the exaggeration of which it is indubitably guilty is due to a legitimate selection, for the purpose of artistic emphasis, of circumstances unusual in combination, but in themselves and separately usual enough. Then, being the study of an entire community, it lacks any broad central current of interest. The reader is lost in a multitude of details, episodes, and characters, out of which he emerges rather with a sense of the undesirableness of an uncontrollable will than with any definite idea of one or two supremely interesting characters or of a connected chain of events. The sense of confusion inevitable in a study of a community is increased by the writer's inability, already noted, not to deal with separate episodes as if they were short stories. It is owing to this lack of homogeneity, partly necessary, partly due to want of skill, that what one remembers about the novel are particular pages and passages of great beauty and strength. Many people would refer to Pembroke, I think, as the novel which contained — let us say for example — that capital description of the boy Ephraim's solitary, joyous coasting, pages remarkable for their rich blending of humor and pathos.
In two important technical respects Jerome is a better novel than Pembroke; for it has a strong central interest in the personality of its hero which binds its many short-story-like episodes together, and its style, in Miss Wilkins's later acquired manner of flowing sentences pleasantly varied in cadence and in length, makes it much more easily readable. Jerome himself, however, is a most unsympathetic person. The reader cannot help feeling a growing impatience with this wrong-headed young man, who, in a way repugnant to all common sense, insists upon taking the very roughest and hardest road to the success for which his strength of character plainly destines him. Besides, the plot, slight and weak at best, shocks one's sense of average probabilities. But worse than all, Miss Wilkins departs from that fine impartiality of the disinterested observer, which gives such force to her short stories and to Pembroke, and becomes a preacher and a sentimentalist. The book is written to insinuate an accusation against the present social system. Now, a story must by its nature be an appeal to the emotions, and to a logical person any attempt to influence him upon matters of fact and reason by a story touched with emotion, and made up of selected, even if true incidents, must and always will be annoying. It is fighting in ambush, and no novel with a purpose should ever be written which does not proclaim itself such on its title-page. Those who wish to hear a song will not turn out to hear a sermon. This particular offender is redeemed, however, by many excellent pages of narrative, description, and character drawing, in which Miss Wilkins reaches as high levels of artistic achievement as she has ever attained. Although not the strongest of her novels, it is easily the most readable.
In all its pages, there are none which are more pleasant than those which deal with Squire Merritt's family, and with his three friends, Eliphalet Means, John Jennings, and Colonel Lamson. In all that has been said heretofore about Miss Wilkins's work, the idea has been conveyed that she knows no other side of New England life than that typified by the dying apple orchard. As a matter of fact, not only the Merritts and their friends, but handsome Thomas Paine in Pembroke, and the Gordons and Parson Fair in Madelon, are witnesses to her understanding of the old-time New England gentry, — charming people, charmingly drawn, whom it is a great pleasure to meet in her generally graceless world, and her success with whom leads to the hope that there may yet come from her some more comprehensive and generally truthful picture of New England life. Perhaps it is because she knows how gracious and beautiful New England life can be at its best that Miss Wilkins has cried out so sharply over its deformities, as is the wont of sensitive natures knowing the good and seeing the evil. A plausible argument could indeed be made to show that the best realists are idealists at heart, whose very sensitiveness has made them more ready than the average person to perceive ugly realities, and who have consciously or unconsciously tried to rouse sluggish humanity to endeavor by unsparing pictures of the petty and the mean and the ignoble in human life. Were such an argument to be made Miss Wilkins would furnish a telling example; for back of all her work is the idea, the sense of the mystery of human life, the question, “Why is this?” and she gently pushes selected incidents and characters before you, as if filled with the desire to learn, from any one who knows, the meaning of these problems, — clues doubtless, each one in its degree, to the answer to the Great Problem. Her preoccupation with the mystery of life shows itself in little ways, — in the sense which some persons have of the unreality of her people; in her indifference to scenery, which she may well consider as of small moment in comparison with human beings; in her indifference to accuracy in antiquarian detail as compared with artistic truth. Behind all her work one feels that he encounters the questioning eyes of an idealist. Although she is ranked in the popular judgment as a realist, there is in her work the purest vein of romance and ideality, and even a certain touch of mysticism and allegory, which allies her, however distantly, to the literary family of Hawthorne. These qualities may be noticed even in her early short stories, and in Pembroke their presence, in spite of their bungling and mechanical expression here, is to be perceived in the physical deformity which seems to accompany Barney Thayer's deformity of character. They show themselves most conspicuously, if not most agreeably, however, in Madelon. Like her other volumes in describing the fortunes of people of various kinds and degrees of stubbornness, it is unlike them in having romantic love for its theme, and in presenting as one of its principal characters, Lot Gordon, a man in whom mysticism and ideality are unexpectedly the most notable qualities. They show themselves most charmingly in Evelina's Garden, a little tale which is a gem of its kind, and which shows that Miss Wilkins can command at least a hesitating comparison to the author of the most beautiful American romances. It is to be hoped that she will cast aside in favor of this kind of work the tales of antiquarian interest, such as Silence itself, which ought to be moving but is not, and The Little Maid at the Door. She does not breathe freely in the musty atmosphere of colonial history. Her Puritans, with their stilted speech, are uncommonly tiresome.
How is such a writer to be classified? I think she cannot be classified at all. A modest and conscientious artist, unfortunately limited by an imperfect education in books, and by an equally imperfect experience of life; who has cultivated her great natural gift for expression to the best of her opportunities and ability, and used it to set forth as vividly as possible such few of the multitudinous aspects of life as her temperament and environment have permitted her to see, — that is Miss Wilkins. Only writers of mediocre ability — natural imitators — can be put in a class and accurately labeled. A really original writer, like Miss Wilkins, no matter how limited, is sui generis. She can be described, she cannot be classified. But if she must have her tag, the most nearly satisfactory will be that which declares her an idealist masquerading in the soiled and ragged cloak of realism.
Charles Miner Thompson.