The Critic - Pembroke

From The Critic Vol. 22 No. 648 (Jul 21, 1894)

Miss Wilkins has achieved a distinct success — one that carries her farther in her literary career than anything she has heretofore accomplished. While the book, as a novel, in no way approaches the harmonious splendor and fulness of Nathaniel Hawthorne's art, it gives us in its own kind the same wonderful pictures of New England life — pictures that are at once a revelation of the depth and steadfastness of human nature and the capacity for dogged, passionless suffering born and bred in the Puritan temperament. It is a suffering that strikes one dumb with the chill of death, that freezes and kills expression instead of softening and opening one's nature to beauty and tenderness — it is the suffering of repression and insanity — the useless suffering that seems wicked to the sane mind, because it is imposed by earth, and not by Heaven. Wonderful in concentrated intensity, tremendous in power, this record of the heart tragedies of a dozen men and women of the village of Pembroke is not surpassed in our literature for its beauty of style, the delicacy of its character-delineation and the enthralling interest of its narration. That a man like Barney Thayer should refuse, when his house was nearly built, to marry the girl of his choice, because he and her father had a dispute in which the latter ordered him to leave his house, and that, in spite of the most tender loyalty on his bethrothed's part and a consuming love on his own, he should persist in this course for ten years, is inconceivable to anyone unfamiliar with the terrible power of will developed in that bitter Calvinistic atmosphere. It shows a hardness of heart and purpose that throws a spell over the reader, as it unmistakably has done over the writer — a spell to shake off whose benumbing influence one rushes out into the sunny summer air, or reaches out to touch some beloved familiar object.

The story of Barnabas and Charlotte is duplicated in another situation, where, after twenty years of courtship, it is only the sight of the faded and broken woman being taken to the poor-house that stirred the man's heart to any sense of obligation and protection. In fact, to review the characters of the book — mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, — is to summon before one a community where each tender nature seems to be yoked with one whose flint-like hardness can most cruelly wound it, and where each harsh and domineering one is in a position peculiarly adapted to wreck the lives of every one about it, and yet, where, in spite of it all, a rugged self-respect keeps the one from being crushed and the other from a wanton abuse of power. And through it all there is a stern rectitude and integrity that make one wish never to see unvarnished truth again. In “The Mill on the Floss” and “Adam Bede” George Eliot has given us pictures of communities of narrow, straight-laced folk; in “The House of the Seven Gables” and “The Scarlet Letter” Hawthorne has illuminated the Puritan character: but in each instance these authors have touched the wells of sympathy in their readers — and one feels, at least, that their people, though erring, are human. But there is something uncanny about the hardness of the characters in “Pembroke.” And when Barnabas Thayer, because he sees Charlotte likely to be made a subject of disgrace and church discipline for having nursed him through a dangerous illness, conquers his old resentment enough to go to her father's house to reclaim her as his bride, we wonder whether, after all, miracles of the spirit can be performed any more than those of the body, and whether Charlotte, in marrying Barnabas, has not united herself to a nature as irretrievably warped and diseased in spirit as his body is bent and broken by work and rheumatism.