From Modern English Essays Volume Four (J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. London 1922)
There are few of our modern writers who have the art of the short story so much at their finger-ends as Miss Mary E. Wilkins. To talk of the technique of a particular author or authoress always strikes one with a chilling sense of pedantry. Nevertheless, there is no other way of describing Miss Wilkins's mastery over her materials than to say that she has, consciously or unconsciously, elaborated a perfect technique. Unconsciously probably, or almost certainly. For questions of technique, like questions of grammar, only arise after the good work of literature has been done. This is what makes the position of the grammarian or the critic useful, it may be, but hardly dignified. Neither one nor the other can lay down in advance the ideal types or forms which a living language or art is bound inevitably to assume. The artist does his work first, inventing his own technique as he goes along, and then, longo intervallo, comes the precise and analytic critic to point out the rules which underlie the new species, to dissect the structure, not in its breathing and living grace, but as one might put a pin through a butterfly in order to study its wings. The critic has to wait on the movements of genius, and is only whipper-in to the lame dogs of literature.
Miss Wilkins's stories illustrate very different kinds of excellence in their respective styles. A great many people, apparently, have not discovered how different in their essence are a short story and a novel. There must be always something pictorial in the short story. Its art is bound to be some variety of impressionism. Think of the conditions. Within thirty, forty, or fifty pages you have to convey to the reader a perfectly distinct and self-centred narrative, idea, or impression. You may do it by the suggestiveness which sets the reader's mind thinking, so that he can carry out and complete for himself the thing which you have hinted as a silhouette. Or else the author possesses one clear, masterful, and obvious idea, and sacrifices all the ordinary complexity of human nature in order to give it adequate illustration. In the first instance, you have what is in reality concentrated and essential history. In the second, you have a fragment of character, a specific trait or quality of human nature, the illumination of a temperament. Take, for instance, in Miss Wilkins's volume, Silence, a story which she calls “A New England Prophet.” She is describing how a certain community in the Far West was suddenly seized and shaken by the not unfamiliar form of religious mania which believes that the world is at once coming to an end. In the Lennox farmhouse there is a collection of men and women transported out of their ordinary selves, mainly because Soloman Lennox seems to them an inspired seer, and Alonso Lennox, his son, fourteen years old, and deaf and dumb from his birth, draws wonderful pictures of flying angels on his slate. Here are materials out of which could be made a characteristic study of New England superstition done in the form of an essay, or a detailed history of a peculiar phase of civilisation elaborated in a novel. But for Miss Wilkins's purposes the treatment must be different. As a short story it must be confined to one issue, the temporary madness of a New England prophet — just one phase of a gloomy and superstitious character. Soloman Lennox, with his denunciations and his parrot-cries of repentance, and his faith in the inspiration of his half-idiot son, is the centre of the picture. For the sake of contrast, there are grouped round him his easily persuaded wife, his half-shrinking daughter, Melissa, and an ironical and sceptical brother, Simeon Lennox, to serve as the vindication of common sense. Infatuated men and women make for themselves white flying garments to ascend into the air. They meet on the appointed evening on a neighbouring hill, and come back, wretched, bedraggled, disillusioned, in the morning. But Soloman Lennox, with his one over-mastering idea, gives the key-note of the whole, so that the last thing we see and remember is his shrunken figure “sitting sadly within himself, a prophet brooding over the ashes of his own prophetic fire.”
Take another example of the manipulation of the short story, where the great point is not to illustrate a phase of character, but to describe, with vivid and poignant touches, a scene. The first tale, “Silence,” is a wonderful bit of impressionist art, where literature is so used as to become akin to painting, giving all the effect of colour and light and shade. Silence Hoit is the heroine, with a deep passionate love for David Walcott. Miss Wilkins never misleads us as to what she is trying to do. It is not the enduring love of maid and man with which she is occupying herself. That is only the excuse for the narrative. From the outset we are transported into a tense, nervous, electrical atmosphere, in the midst of which the village of Deerfield is feverishly expecting a mid-night attack by the Indians and the French. “‘Oh, David! what is that on your cloak? What is it?’ David looked curiously at his cloak. ‘I see naught on my cloak save old weather-stains,’ said he. ‘What mean you, Silence?’ Silence quieted down suddenly. ‘It is gone now,’ said she, in a subdued voice. ‘What did you see, Silence?’ Silence turned towards him; her face quivered convulsively. ‘I saw a blotch of blood,’ she cried; ‘I have been seeing them everywhere all day. I have seen them on the snow as I came along.’” There it is, on the second page of the story, a vague, thrilling impression of coming disaster, of which Silence is the mouthpiece. We know what to expect — all the terror of the mid-night attack, the women who lose their reason and babble of green fields, the unmarried girl who frantically nourishes a dead baby, the storm of bloodshed and rapine which sweeps over the doomed village, the wives who are rigid and cold upstairs, the men with their grimy and blood-besprinkled faces firing madly into the dark. Silence is herself swept along the resistless current of fate. Her lover is torn away from her as a prisoner, and only after many days returns to her arms. But nothing matters, nothing concerns us, save this lurid picture of a frontier village, smiling in peace and prosperity one day and a ruined mass of smouldering beams and horribly mutilated corpses the next morning.
There are other varieties of the short story which are not nearly so successful as these two. You can have a condensed history, like that which is called “The Buckley Lady,” where a poor, patient little girl, endowed with a beautiful face, is educated to expect a lordly lover who never comes, and after many years is run away with by a man of her own choice. Or, again, “Evelina's Garden,” dealing with two generations of Evelinas, the second representative of the name reproducing not only the features, but also the fate of the first, though with a difference. The condensed history never makes quite so good a short tale as the impressionist variety. Or, again, you may have a mere passing fancy like “Lydia Hersey of East Bridgewater,” who makes the discovery that for a woman really to love a man she must first be dominated by him. Or, once again, belonging to the same genre, an imaginative fantasy, with something symbolic in it, like “The Little Maid at the Door,” in which the poor, piteous figure of the deserted child of parents charged with witchcraft stands for I know not what of humanity and mercy and loving-kindness at death-grips with the stern cruelty of religious persecution. The last is, of course, a common form with many writers. Maeterlinck affords an obvious example in those little dramatic sketches where each phase and action is nothing in itself, but exists as a symbol of imaginative mysticism. D'Annunzio, too, has tried the same effect in his Sogno d'un Mattino di Primavera, the little drama acted by Eleonora Duse, in which the heroine, with her wits shattered by a horrible scene of bloodshed, learns a new sense of mystical communion and sympathy with Nature's operations — the rise of the sap in the tree, the growth of leaves, the bursting of buds. But, if I am not mistaken, the real progenitor of Miss Wilkins is Nathaniel Hawthorne. If there ever was a man who understood the conditions of the short story it was the author of Mosses from an Old Manse, possessing in far greater measure than Miss Wilkins, but using, in much the same spirit, the singular power of suggesting a great deal more than he says. Some day Miss Wilkins may be able to write stories like “The Birthmark,” “Young Goodman Brown,” and “Rappacini's Daughter.” She has not done so yet, but she is inspired by the same ideals and appears to be capable of similarly delicate and exquisite workmanship.
Miss Mary Wilkins may paint on a small canvas, but she is undoubtedly a true artist. From the simple and quiet truthfulness of A New England Nun we advance to the firm psychological drawing in Pembroke, and thence to the dramatic strength and vigour of Madelon. Miss Wilkins does not disturb the reader with many concurrent threads of narrative, nor does she crowd her scenes with subordinate characters; everything in her novel is dominated by the central conception of the heroine whose fate we watch with all the more interest because our attention is not distracted by the accessaries of the drama. Indeed, it may be said that the whole of her story is Madelon and nothing else — with a picturesque background formed by a New England winter, which accords with her stormy character far better than that burst of spring tenderness and summer warmth with which the authoress closes her narrative. Madelon is so strong, so passionate, so wild an animal that she seems only to touch the fringes of the world of human social life, and in her case domestic felicity and the ordinary joys and sorrows of wifehood and motherhood appear utterly out of place.
There is much in her ancestry which explains Miss Wilkins's heroine. Madelon Hautville, together with her father and her four brothers, belongs to a wholly different order of life from that which is usually found among the Puritans of New England. The Hautvilles were said to have French and Indian blood in their veins — although it was far back in history, since the first Hautville, who, report said, was of a noble French family, had espoused an Iroquois Indian girl.
“The sturdy males of the family had handed down the name and the characteristics of the races through years of intermarriage with the English settlers. All the Hautvilles — the father, the four sons, and the daughter — were tall and dark, and straight as arrows, and they all had wondrous grace of manner, which abashed and half offended, while it charmed, the stiff village people. Not a young man in the village, no matter how finely attired in city-made clothing, had the courtly air of these Hautville sons in their rude half-woodland garb. Not a girl, not even Dorothy Fair, could wear a gown of brocade with the grace, inherited from a far-away French grandmother, with which Madelon wore indigo cotton.”
Let us add that the whole family were as musical as a band of troubadours, which made them at once popular and despised. David Hautville, the father, played the bass viol, Louis was a master of the violin, Eugène sang a sonorous tenor, Abner and the youngest son, Richard, contributed bass and treble respectively; while Madelon stood in the midst of her relations with her marvellous soprano voice dominating the entire harmony. The picture of this strange family is drawn with no little vigour and skill. Strangers and foreigners they remained in a land which half feared them, equipped as they were with abnormal qualities so alien to the commonplace nature of their surroundings.
No one could imagine that Madelon's life was likely under such circumstances to run through smooth channels. At the outset of the tale there are two men who love her, two cousins, Burr Gordon and Lot Gordon, essentially dissimilar in character, just as they differed also in natural strength and beauty. Lot Gordon is more or less of an invalid, with a subtle concentrated nature of his own, incapable of inspiring affection, but for that very reason, perhaps, bountifully endowed with a wonderful power of loving. Burr Gordon is the lighter hearted, more athletic, more inconstant swain, easily led away to flirt with the prim little Puritan girl, Dorothy Fair, while it is only Madelon who can touch the deeper fibres of his being. There is no particular cordiality, of course, between the cousins — all the more because Lot has the money and Burr the good looks, because the former loves and the latter is loved. But Madelon is not one who can deviate from her appointed path through any chance vacillations of sentiment or feeling; her devotion admits of no change or abatement, and when Burr Gordon, at a village ball, dances with Dorothy Fair rather than with herself, all the wilder characteristics derived from her Indian ancestors burst into acute and energetic life. And now comes the crisis of the story. Leaving the ballroom with mad pulses beating in her veins, she meets in the darkness of her homeward path a man, whom she supposes to be her faithless lover, but who is in reality Lot Gordon, and in a sudden burst of frenzy stabs him in the side. Burr Gordon comes up at the moment, and, in order to screen her from the consequences of the crime, sends her home, while he himself remains by the body of his wounded rival. The notorious jealousy of the cousins affords an easy explanation to the villages of the real meaning of the tragedy, and while Lot Gordon is taken to his house to recover slowly and painfully of his wound, Burr is hurried to prison in order to stand his trial for an attempted murder. It is from this point that the ceaseless energy and devotion of Madelon begins to assert itself with overwhelming force. She will not allow herself to suppose that the man in prison loves her as she loves him, but nothing must be left undone to rescue him from his undeserved fate, and being the proper punishment on her own head. From Lot Gordon she can obtain no single word which will help her; he lies in his bed and refuses to speak, lest the true explanation of the case should bring harm on Madelon. But there are other things to be done to set things straight. Madelon hurries to her rival, Dorothy Fair, and drags her, with or without her consent, to see Burr Gordon in prison, under the hope that he may at least confess to the Puritan girl that he was guiltless of the deed. When this, too, fails — for the captive knows how to keep his secret — Madelon walks ten miles in the midst of a terrible frost to one of the guests at the ball, who, she hopes, can help her in explaining her sole responsibility for the crime. This walk of ten miles is a marvel of descriptive force — one of the passages which stamps Miss Wilkins as an accomplished delineator of New England nature.
“The pasture lands were hummocked with ice-coated rocks and hooped with frozen bines; they seemed to flow down in glittering waves, like glaciers, over the hillsides. The woods stood white and petrified, as woods might have done in a glacial era. There was no sound in them, except now and then the crack of a bough under the weight of ice and slow, painful responses, like the twangs of musty harp-strings to the harder gusts of wind. The cold was so intense that the ice did not melt in the noonday sun, and there were no soft droppings and gurglings to modify this white rigour of light and sound. Occasionally a rabbit crossed Madelon's path, silent as a little grey scudding shadow, and so swiftly that he did not reach one's consciousness until he was out of sight.”
Nothing can quell Madelon's fiery vigour, even when this painful journey fails to bring her the evidence she requires. Without stint or stay, she still works hard for the incarcerated man — albeit that she says to herself that he loves not her, but Dorothy Fair. At last she makes Lot Gordon speak, by that sheer impetuosity of hers which can take no denial; but he will only consent, on the condition that Madelon marries him, to assert that his own hand had struck the blow. At all events, this confession will save Burr Gordon, and that is all that Madelon cares about. Other things may take their course if only he be saved.
Up to this point we have a firm and consistent portraiture; but it is difficult to imagine how Miss Wilkins could have brought herself to suppose that either poetic justice or psychology required a happy ending for this imbroglio. Madelon, the wild creature of the woods, was, of course, only half civilised, and she would have been better placed in the older time, when her forefathers hunted through the snow, or broke the ice on the river for fish. The staid and primitive order of a New England village weighed too heavily on her spirits; she could not tune her character to the commonplace melodies which sufficed for Puritan girls like Dorothy Fair. But for this very reason Nature and life were bound to be hard on her; we cannot fancy her either as a wife or mother. Nevertheless the authoress makes, in the long run, everything come right, to the wonted sound of marriage bells. When the moment arrives for the performance of her promise, Lot Gordon releases Madelon from her word, Dorothy Fair suddenly shows a partiality for Eugène Hautville and relinquishes Burr for her rival; and even when Lot Gordon's wound threatens to burst out afresh, and so imperil the dawning happiness of Madelon, the wounded man chooses to turn his own hands against his life, and thus leave no doubt behind him as to how he died. All this patching of frayed and broken threads, this healing of discords and difficulties with more or less commonplace expedients, serve only to dim and darken the original portrait of Madelon. Pictured as she was, she could never have gained the trivial and normal happiness of the girls and boys around her. She belonged to another stock, and bore within her a different destiny. Perhaps Miss Wilkins's design is to bring out the character of Lot Gordon, and to prove that in his case the essence of a perfected love is self-sacrifice. Certainly his character grows in strength and intensity as the novel progresses, but in the same proportion Madelon's seems to grow weaker. She is only at her best and truest when, maddened with despair and without one thought for herself, she is daring every expedient to save the man in prison, to prove to an unbelieving world that she is a willful murderess, and to release from unjust constraint Burr Gordon — not that he might wed her, but be united with Dorothy Fair. This is the original Madelon, with her fiery unregulated instincts, her passionate love, her unwavering strength and devotion; and even if she had died in all her ancestral savagery, the reader might have felt more content than to see her at the end of the tale linking her life with a man in every sense unworthy of her, and transferring the crown of self-sacrifice from her own brows to those of the suicide, Lot Gordon.
We have already said that Miss Mary Wilkins is an artist. But it still remains to specify the kind and quality of the work which she can do so well, the limits within which her powers are exercised, the particular range of her capacity. The Portion of Labour — which, with all respect to the great American public, we prefer to spell in our insular way — is very significant in this regard, for it is one of the longest, in some respects one of the finest, in other respects one of the least satisfactory of all the novels she has written. It is exceedingly long, not so much in the mere matter of pages, although these count up to as many as 563, but because of the irritating slowness of the development. Many of the chapters are little works of art in themselves, each occupied with a specific incident elaborated with consummate care. But the total result is disappointing, because at the end it seems like a collection of small stories, an amalgamation of carefully written episodes. The sense of proportion, which is one of the instinctive gifts of the artist, is wanting here; the reader cannot get hold of the main incidents, because every incident seems to occupy a front place in the picture. It is the old difficulty that you cannot realise the pattern because of the finely finished detail, that you cannot see the wood for the trees. Miss Wilkins is a great artist, but she is not an artist of the big canvas. Her skill is that of a Meissonier, and no amount of little Meissoniers can resemble a decorative tableau by Puvis de Chavannes.
In what sense, then, is The Portion of Labour one of the finest of her works? Primarily, no doubt, because it is inspired by a serious purpose, or, to speak more accurately, it is occupied with a sombre, gigantic, impressive theme. Here and there the authoress lets us see what is in her mind in all these five hundred odd pages. We have it indicated in the very last page. The world is a working world, the man who does no work has no place, no right to exist. More than that, labour is not an end in itself, nor can we easily reckon its value by putting down to its credit the various magnificent successes it has been able to accomplish. Doubtless labour accomplishes the tasks of the world, just as from another and a lower standpoint it helps to accumulate the silver and gold, which, in their turn, provide fresh opportunities for labour. So, too, work adds to the sum of human happiness and love; but that, again, is an extraneous, an alien end. The real justification for a world in which labour is the principal element is the development of character. No man can touch work and be unaltered. He becomes better or worse, higher or lower, according to the temperament that is in him. Nor from this point of view can we make any distinction between different kinds of work. All labour has a dignity of its own, dependent not upon itself, but upon its reactions on the mind of the labourer. The material element counts for nothing; it is the spirit that quickeneth.
That is one of the main topics of the book before us, not obtrusively set forth, but only to be gathered in retrospect when we have waded through all the sixty-one chapters. And there is no better illustration of it than the scene when the little heroine, Ellen Brewster, who has the opportunity of going to college and educating herself, decides, for the sake of her father and her home, that she will become a humble operative in a shoe factory. The passage is wrought as carefully as is all Miss Wilkins's work.
“Ellen laughed. ‘I'm not scared,’ said she. Then they entered the factory, humming with machinery, and a sensation which she had not anticipated was over her. Scared she was not; she was fairly exultant. All at once she entered a vast room in which eager men were already at the machines with frantic zeal, as if they were driving Labour herself. When she felt the vibration of the floor under her feet, when she saw people spring to their stations of toil, as if springing to guns in a battle, she realised the might and grandeur of it all. Suddenly it seemed to her that the greatest thing in the whole world was work, and that this was one of the greatest forms of work — to cover the feet of progress of the traveller of the earth from the cradle to the grave. She saw that these great factories, and the strength of this army of the sons and daughters of toil, made possible the advance of civilisation itself, which cannot go barefoot. She realised all at once and for ever the dignity of labour, this girl of the people with a brain which enabled her to overlook the heads of the rank and file of which she herself formed a part. She never again, whatever her regret might have been for another life for which she was better fitted, which her taste preferred, had any sense of ignominy in this. She never again felt that she was too good for her labour, for labour had revealed itself to her like a goddess behind a sordid veil. Abby and Maria looked at her wonderingly; no other girl had ever entered Lloyd's with such a look on her face.”
The heroine herself is one of the most elaborate pieces of portraiture in these pages. The character is built up with an infinity of little touches. We see her first in her New England home, a sensitive, dreamy child, who runs away because she felt that she was an incumbrance rather than a help to her parents. For some days she remained in the house of Cynthia Lennox, who loved her with a fierce maternal instinct, a thwarted love to which Destiny had denied any natural outlet. Even after Ellen Brewster has run away once more to her own house, Cynthia remains her constant friend, and it is she who is anxious to send the girl to college, where there might be some scope for her ability. But Ellen lives amid very humble surroundings. Her father, Andrew, gets more and more incapable of work as the years go on; her mother and her aunt represent lower, more sordid types than that which belonged to herself; the thousand worries and agonies of a life passed in debt and poverty crowd upon the girl's intelligence, and yet help to educate her and bring out all that is noble and self-denying in her nature. Then love comes in her way, first the boyish love of Granville Joy, afterwards the more mature affection of Robert Lloyd, considerably above Ellen's station in life — one, in fact, of the proprietors who manage the big factory of the town. Meanwhile Ellen, working at her manual toil, seeing before her every day the hard, fierce grind of the labourer, his ceaseless toil, his scanty rewards, enlists herself heart and soul on the side of the operative against his employer. Here is an added difficulty in her path, for although her heart goes out in innocent affectionateness to Robert Lloyd, her instincts and her intellectual sympathies are wholly with the class amongst which she lives. It all comes right in the end, but only after much tribulation and anguish of spirit. Both Robert Lloyd and Ellen Brewster learn a great deal of the worth and honesty of their respective attitudes towards modern industrial problems. There is no solution suggested of the everlasting quarrel between capital and labour, except so far as a quick sympathy and instinctive helpfulness serve to smooth all such antagonisms. It is something for Ellen to learn the responsibilities of the employer; it is much more for Robert to appreciate the dignity and self-respect of the worker.
Thus we discover a second reason why The Portion of Labour is a fine piece of work. It is so because of the scrupulous care spent over the development of the characters. The book is a gallery of portraits, each of them with those distinctive marks which make them real and vital. Apart from Ellen and Robert, there is the Brewster household — Andrew, the patient, loving, inefficient father; Fanny, the mother; Eva, the aunt, with the tragedy of her life history; and the cold, rigid upright grandmother, appropriately called Mrs. Zelotes Brewster. Cynthia Lennox has been already mentioned, but there are also Norman Lloyd and his wife, and Lyman Risley — an incisive little sketch of a peculiar type — to represent the capitalist class; while on the other side we have a series of vignettes of factory hands too numerous to mention, boys and girls, men and women, violent, eager, animated personalities, each with a distinctive rôle in the evolution of the story. Miss Mary Wilkins is not niggardly in her portraiture. She pours before us all the rich stores of her experience and her imagination. Indeed, as has already been suggested, there is too much wealth; we should have valued it more if there had not been such a profusion of gold and silver and copper in her medallions.
Only in the last place need the style be referred to — full of a quiet beauty, never existing for its own sake, strictly subordinate to the purposes of the narrative. Here and there we have little gems of description, carelessly strewn before us with a regally profuse hand. “Ellen stroked her father's thin grey hair with exactly the same tender touch with which he had so often stroked her golden locks. It was an inheritance of love, reverting to its original source.” Or take this: “After all, friendship and good comradeship are a steadier force than love, if not as overwhelming, and it may be that tortoise of the emotions which outruns the hare.” Or once more, dealing with the effect of woman's beauty on man's devotion: “‘Jim don't act as if he thought so much of me, an' I dunno as I wonder,’ she told her sister. Fanny looked at her critically. ‘You mean you ain't so good looking as you used to be,’ said she. Eva nodded. ‘Well, if that is all men care for us,’ said Fanny. ‘It ain't,’ said Eva, ‘only it's the key to it. It's like losing the key and not bein' able to get in the door in consequence.’” The book is full of things like these, so full that they are apt to be overlooked in the mass of material. Nevertheless, from a purely artistic standpoint, if we look solely at the best mode of expression of which the authoress is capable, the verdict must be that Miss Wilkins's supreme gift is the pastel, not the historical canvas.
When we come to her stories of the supernatural, it must be owned that they are strangely disappointing. It is not, of course, given to every one to interest, to absorb — to make us feel that the unnatural is natural, to give us that delightful shudder which is the essence of the true ghost-story. But, so far as The Wind in the Rose-Bush is concerned, such gifts clearly do not belong to Miss Wilkins, and it seems a pity that she ever consented to publish the book. She is so good a narrator of the simple, the elemental, the prettily pathetic; she draws with so sympathetic a pencil the figures of a New England world which move in response to easily discernible motives, and are occupied with objects and interest of a wide and familiar appeal, that, except from the point of view of increasing her range and scope as a novelist, it is difficult to see why she should have attempted to exercise her industry in new fields. Once, and once only, in the volume does Miss Wilkins attain her customary level, and then it is because she has hit upon a theme which is akin to her own instincts and predilections. In the last of her tales of the supernatural she tells the story of the ghost of a little child who had been abandoned and starved to death by an unfeeling mother — a pretty little pathetic figure of suffering with no language but the cry, “I cannot find my mother.” It was a useful little ghost, assuredly, for if any one in the house which it haunted left wraps or cloaks about, or any strenuous housewife desired to have plates washed and dried, the little child-ghost at once found an opportunity for helpful service. Moreover, its patience was fully rewarded in the sequel, for one of the two women who lived in the house, a childless widow, understood, by some process of maternal comprehension, the forlorn little wastrel, and on her somewhat sudden death was seen taking the quite contented and happy child away with her in her arms. Here are just the elements of sentimental pathos which Miss Wilkins can manage, and the story is consequently quite an amiable piece of unartificial supernaturalism.
But of the others, what are we to say? They are almost grotesque in their suggestion of wholly trivial and unnecessary incidents; they have no power of translating us into another atmosphere; they fail in the elementary condition of inspiring a pleasant terror. A woman discovers that a rose-bush can be violently agitated without any wind, and thereby is instructed that a niece of hers has been done to death. A brother has a dispute with another brother which ends fatally; he is therefore haunted by a shadow on the wall, and when in despair he does away with himself there are two shadows on the wall. A girl called Luella Miller, indolent, selfish, and fascinating, is apparently possessed of the diabolical power of slowly killing every one who is brought into contact with her. Perhaps she has the evil eye; perhaps she distils around her a subtle kind of poison. But whether she asserts her power consciously, or whether she is herself the victim of an unkind fate, we do not know, and we do not much care. To be told that at the last she is seen coming out of her house with all the ghosts of those whom she has done away with hanging on to her arms, and forming an uncanny retinue, might produce the requisite shiver if the writer had chosen to describe the scene with picturesque subtlety; but as the matter stands, Luella, whether agent of mischief or herself patiently expiating a curse, is wholly uninteresting. The case is the same with two other stories — “The South-West Chamber” and “The Vacant Lot.” A fierce old aunt haunts the south-west chamber and plays stupid tricks, changing the counterpane on the bed and the hangings of the room, putting her own clothes back into the cupboard instead of the clothes of the visitor, and finally peering out of the looking-glass in which her niece only expected to find her own commonplace face. Or else, as in “The Vacant Lot,” we have a troop of miserable-looking people in long gowns who occupy themselves with hanging up their own washing, or expressing mute indignation at an old signboard which had been made part of the panelling, and which in some dim way revived the memory of a long-forgotten crime. These are not the details which move and arrest the reader; they do not make him shudder; they only make him laugh.
There would be no point in criticising a book like this unless it suggested certain considerations on the proper use and management of the supernatural in fiction. Take the recognised literary successes in this department — the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, or some of the studies of Nathaniel Hawthorne, or those of Bulwer Lytton, or the weird suggestiveness of Wuthering Heights, or a book like Uncle Silas, by le Fanu. The list could, of course, be prolonged indefinitely, for there are one or two tales of Mr. Henry James, of George Eliot, and of Mrs. Oliphant essentially worthy of notice in this reference. Under what conditions and by the exercise of what powers do writers like these manage to hold us enthralled? You may be as grotesque as you like, so long as you appeal to dominant feelings and passions in mankind. You may be quite arbitrary in the management of your plot, so long as you make the unnatural appear the necessary and the inevitable. You may deliberately take the moonlight as Hawthorne did — “moonlight in a familiar room falling white upon the carpet” — as the best medium for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests. Or you may deal merely with the ordinary aspects of existence as Poe sometimes did, and yet make them instinct with some hidden and mysterious influences, bursting with a life alien from, and greater than their own. You may tell the reader from the very beginning that you are going to make his flesh creep, or you may take him by the hand in his ordinary habit as he lives, and, by a sudden whisk of the magician's rod, cause the solid things around him to disappear and the ordinary sunlight to change itself into some awful and glimmering gloom. But one indispensable condition throughout is that the writer of the ghost tale must be extremely careful and accurate in his detail in order to produce the illusion of verisimilitude. Not any kind of detail will suffice, however — Miss Wilkins uses a lot of detail — but it must be appropriate, suggestive, illuminative detail. It is of no use thinking that the change in a chintz from peacocks on a blue ground to red roses on a yellow ground, as in Miss Wilkins's “The South-West Chamber,” causes us any thrill. We want rather that sudden shock which a detective officer might feel when some little point in the room he is exploring, or some bit of jewellery or adornment in the person suspected, suddenly confirms his anticipation or his theory — the kind of detail which Poe gives us in “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Gold Bug.” Indeed, it is in the choice of the appropriate accessaries that a writer of supernatural romance shows his power.
But this is not all. A good ghost story must be really dramatic, and therefore involve a careful study and contrast of personalities. So far as can be seen, Miss Mary Wilkins is wholly devoid of the dramatic instinct; at all events, in her Stories of the Supernatural the personages are dull, characterless, lay figures. We want a real plot, which the dramatis personæ are to carry out for the most part unconsciously and unwillingly, a real struggle in their minds between what they would like to do and what they are forced to do, between free volition and tyrannical fate. It does not much matter whether we quite understand the intention of the author or not. Take, for instance, Hawthorne's stories, “The Wedding Knell,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Roger Malvin's Burial.” In these the meaning is certainly somewhat intricate and remote. But there must be a real study of character and situations, as, for instance, in Hawthorne's “Rappacini's Daughter” — a wonderful short story, which could easily have been expanded, had the author thought fit, into an elaborate romance. To live in other people's lives, to understand them better than they do themselves, to learn some secret about them of which they are for the most part unaware, to prove the inevitableness of fate, and the relative impotence of human activity — these things are the nerve and tissue of ghost stories, without which they may be, like Miss Wilkins's, pretty and graceful, or even like some of the stories of Mr. Hichens, curious and interesting, but cannot possess us with a sense of their reality, cannot grip and enchain us, like the best work of Hawthorne and Poe.