From The Critic Vol. 25 No. 744 (May 23, 1896)
For purposes of tragic art, the New England conscience, as it is depicted by Miss Wilkins, is fully as effective as the dire An Dan (Destiny) of the Gael. Before its silent tribunal the author brings most of her characters, sooner or later, to hear their inexorable sentence in the beating of their own hearts. This method of arraignment leaves no room for the clumsier makeshifts of handcuffs, court and scaffold, so lavishly manufactured by the ordinary novelist. All these she leaves for the villains who never “feel their honor grip,” or for those whose courage is less strong than their love of life. But her own culprits are of the Eugene Aram-Ancient Mariner and Arthur Dimmesdale order. So much of outward grace and virtue do they possess, that blind and limping justice would never catch them, did not a stern sense of justice within them bid them loiter to be caught. In her short stories, as in her long ones, the guilty are forever handing themselves over to law. The village singer, inly bidden, makes her atonement; the two sisters who have worn the same silk dress confess, at last, their dreadful duplicity; and in “Jane Field,” the conscience-lashed victim takes her confession, “I ain't Esther Maxwell,” canvasses it from house to house, and finally repeats it to the urchins and dogs in the street.
In the opening chapter of “Madelon,” we miss the Wilkinsese touch, which is so evident from the first paragraphs of her short sketches. Perhaps this is the natural effect of the long story; yet it is less noticeable in “Jane Field.” But the characters in “Madelon,” and the descriptive passages, seem to work themselves clear like good New England root-beer, after the yeast has settled. And marvellous characters they are, after they have worked clear. The much be-gushed Pete — the one redeeming character of “The Manxman” — is not more finely drawn than Lot Gordon, the ex-scamp, poet, philosopher, hero and martyr of this tale. The gradual elimination of self from his love is nobly planned and executed. But when all the problems that are solved by the novelist's rule of two are ended, when the last stab is given and a curtain of discreet silence is drawn over the crimson scene, we find ourselves harrassed by skeptical doubts. Was it the strength of Lot's love, or the weakness of his lungs — bringing the “dread thought of what comes after,” — that changed his passion from a common habeas-corpus affection to the high and holy devotion of a martyr? It would be comforting to believe such things possible of those in the ruddy glow of health, as well as in those “sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.” However we may answer the question, we part from Lot with tender reluctance. Still, we may avail ourselves of the grim consolation offered to a lady who was lamenting the untimely taking off of Sarah Grand's tenor: — “After all, there was nothing else to be done with him.”
Some of the most pathetic and tender scenes in the book are between Madelon and her brother Richard. The novelist is generally so occupied with what is termed the grande passion, that the fraternal relation has received but scant attention, and the brother and sister in romance — as in life — have been considered de trop. There are many other distinctly original departures in this book, but one cannot treat them adequately in a short review. Suffice it to say that miss Wilkins has created a group of exceptionally fine characters in “Madelon,” thereby proving that an author may “go on striking twelve or even thirteen,” the critics to the contrary notwithstanding.