Atlantic Monthly - Miss Wilkins's Madelon

From Atlantic Monthly Vol. LXXVIII No. CCCCLXVI (August, 1896)

Four New Novels

It has sometimes been lamented, half whimsically, that there is no training-school for novelists, as there is for painters and sculptors; yet if the novelist has to master his art by untutored practice, he may have this resort, at least, that the writing of short stories offers a species of apprenticeship in the craft. Not that the short story may not be a worthy end in itself; sometimes the artist in this form reaches perfection here, and needs no larger canvas. But if one has it in him to draw his figures life-size, the short story may well serve for preliminary studies. Miss Wilkins has shown indisputably that her power in delineating life comes largely from the faculty of holding in a firm grasp the secret of a mastering impulse or principle. She has illustrated this in a large number of sharply defined personalities, drawn, so to speak, as individual figures, or in small groups occupied with quick incidents. With the growth of power the same kind of handling is apparent when she essays more considerable pieces, and carries the action over a longer time under a greater range of circumstances. She still has the unfaltering grasp impelled by clear insight, and the steady movement along direct lines. The concentration of power in her short stories is very great; it is even more noticeable in her longer tales. We had occasion to express our respect for her art when Pembroke appeared, and our admiration is not lessened by the new illustration of her artistic force in Madelon.

The heroine, Madelon herself, displays just this tenacious grip of an idea that we have recognized as the central fact in Miss Wilkins's art; so does Lot Gordon, the hero; so does Burr in a somewhat less degree; so does Burr's mother; and the same set, to use an expressive word, is what gives backbone to the otherwise invertebrate Dorothy Fair. Minor characters, like Richard, display a similar disposition, and at the close of the book the whole community is in peril of being swept into a Niagara of wrong-headedness. We think the culmination of Madelon is genuinely in the mere hint that is given of an impending disaster arrested by the suicide of the hero.

The book is, in fact, a most artistic portrayal of the idée fixe of the psychologist. We have no wish to enter the domain of the pathologist, yet we would point out to the reader how much of Miss Wilkins's skill seems to lie in stopping just short of insanity in her characters. A little more, and every mother's son and daughter of them would be in the madhouse. Well, is not that the logical outcome of what is characteristic in New England country life, and is it not a tribute to Miss Wilkins's genius that she should have caught this temper and transferred it in all its fascination to the pages of her books? Heretofore, the type illustrated has been the New Englander of purest strain, such as may be seen in several instances in this tale; but in creating the Hautvilles Miss Wilkins has shown a not unfamiliar type, the English crossed by the French and Indian, and she has been unerring in her rendering of the rich, vibrant nature thus produced. But these, too, must have the dominant passion, and thus, though the author of their being takes a new clay in her hands, she fashions it again after her own image.

In the working out of her tragedy — for tragedy it certainly is — Miss Wilkins has shown dexterity in avoiding the grotesque while coming pretty near it at times, and there are fewer of those sudden gleams of beauty which gave relief in Pembroke. We suspect the explanation may lie in the somewhat artificial character of the central moment of the drama. The stab which she gives Lot Gordon when she mistakes him for Burr comes upon the reader almost before he is ready, and at once the whole story is pitched in a high key. There is scarcely a lowering of that key to the last. It is as if the author did not dare once relax, lest the note should not be recovered. The intensity thus is in the author almost more than it is in the tragedy itself, and for this reason the reader may take a somewhat more curious and less absorbing interest in the acting than might otherwise be the case. Yet if he comes upon few passages of clear beauty such as he had learned to hope for in this writer after reading Pembroke, he is impressed again by the extraordinary concentration of language of which Miss Wilkins is capable, and gives the highest praise to an art which makes language have the cold splendor of a winter sunset.