Literary Notes

by Laurence Hutton

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 93 Issue 558 (November 1896)

The novel-reading world, particularly of our own side of the Atlantic, will remember the great interest excited, about three years ago, when it was announced, in the columns of this Magazine, that “Jane Field,” by Miss Mary E. Wilkins, was to be what is called A Continued Story. Its author had already achieved, at home and abroad, a very unusual reputation as the teller of short stories of great merit and originality; and her initial effort in the way of a novel of the traditional length was regarded with no little curiosity. “Jane Field” was an unqualified and an instant success. As a study of Yankee character it was pronounced equal to, if not better than, any of the briefer sketches which had preceded it from the same pen; and as a study of conscience, and as a study of soul, in the Yankee-land Miss Wilkins knows so well, it was justly considered a vivid and powerful piece of introspective observation and expression. It was followed, in the summer of 1894, by “Pembroke, a Novel,” which fulfilled all the promise of the earlier work. The present writer, in reviewing those books, defined “Jane Field” as a long short story, and “Pembroke” as three short stories in one. Madelon,1 Miss Wilkins's latest production, contains none of the short-story elements at all. It is a novel, pure and simple; a tragic tale of strong passions, quite out of the line of anything which its author hitherto has done. The scenes are laid in New England; the time is the present, but it is the New England of Dr. Holmes, of Mr. Aldrich, and of Mr. Howells, rather than the New England of the Young Lucretia or of the New England Nun.

Burr Gordon is loved by, and loves, two young women of widely differing character. The one is the minister's daughter, fair of face, weak in spirit, of gentle New England lineage, the descendant of generations of college-bred men, and of women who had held themselves with a fine dignity and with mild reserve in the village society. The other — the Madelon who gives her name to the book — is sprung from a mixed race, half French, half Iroquois, with more of the Indian than of the Gaul in her composition. And, so far as local surroundings are concerned, with the exception of occasional examples of Yankee dialect, they might as well have lived in one of the Middle States, or in one of the States of the West, as in New Hampshire or in Vermont.

“Madelon” is not what those who are familiar with Miss Wilkins's work will expect to find under her name. It is another new and unexpected departure; but it is a very powerful story; and it will disappoint no one. Particularly strong are the two scenes between the two girls, as described in Chapters VII. and XX. The four central figures are very well drawn, and while Lot Gordon, who is the hero of the tale, is anything but an attractive man, he deserves to rank with Sydney Carton in his unselfish, heroic willingness to give his own life in order to make happy the woman he loves, excelling the creation of Dickens in his devotion, because he makes his great sacrifice for the man he hates, not for the sake of the man who is his friend.

1 Madelon. A Novel. By Mary E. Wilkins. 16mo, Cloth, $1 25. New York: Harper and Brothers.