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An essay by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

Mrs. Margaret L. Woods

Title:     Mrs. Margaret L. Woods
Author: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch [More Titles by Quiller-Couch]

Nov. 28, 1891. "Esther Vanhomrigh."

Among considerable novelists who have handled historical subjects--that is to say, who have brought into their story men and women who really lived and events which have really taken place--you will find one rule strictly observed, and no single infringement of it that has been followed by success. This rule is that the historical characters and events should be mingled with poetical characters and events, and _made subservient to them_. And it holds of books as widely dissimilar as _La Vicomte de Bragelonne_ and _La Guerre et la Paix_; _The Abbot_ and _John Inglesant_. In history Louis XIV. and Napoleon are the most salient men of their time: in fiction they fall back and give prominence to D'Artagnan and the Prince André. They may be admirably painted, but unless they take a subordinate place in the composition, the artist scores a failure.

A Disability of "Historical Fiction."

The reason of this is, of course, very simple. If an artist is to have full power over his characters, to know their hearts, to govern their emotions and sway them at his will, they must be his own creatures and the life in them derived from him. He must have an entirely free hand with them. But the personages of history have an independent life of their own, and with them his hand is tied. Thackeray has a freehold on the soul of Beatrix Esmond, but he takes the soul of Marlborough furnished, on a short lease, and has to render an account to the Muse of History. He is lord of one and mere occupier of the other. Nor will it do to say that an artist by sympathetic and intelligent study can master the motives of any group of historical characters sufficiently for his purpose. For, since they have anticipated him and lived their lives without his help, they leave him but a choice between two poor courses. If he narrate their lives and adventures as they really befel, he is writing history. If, on the other hand, he disregard historical accuracy, he might just as well have used another set of characters or have given his characters other names. Indeed, it would be much better. For if Alcibiades went as a matter of fact to Sparta and as a matter of fiction you make him stay at home, you merely advertise to the world that there was something in Alcibiades you don't understand. And if you are writing about an Alcibiades whom you don't quite understand, you will save your readers some risk of confusion by calling him Charicles.

Now Jonathan Swift and Esther Johnson and Esther Vanhomrigh really lived; and by living, became historical. But Mrs. Woods sets forth to translate them back into fiction, not as subordinate characters, but as protagonists. She has chosen to work within the difficult limits I have indicated. But there are others which might easily have cramped her hand even more closely.

A Tale of Passion to be told in Terms of Reason.

The story of Swift and Esther Vanhomrigh is a story of passion, and runs on the confines of madness. But it happened in the Age of Reason. Doubtless men and women felt madness and passion in that age: doubtless, too, they spoke of madness and passion, but not in their literature. And now that the lips are dust and the fiery conversations lost, Mrs. Woods has only their written prose to turn to for help. To satisfy the pedant she must tell her story of passion in terms of reason. In one respect Thackeray had a more difficult task in _Esmond_; for he aimed to make his book a reflection, in every page and line, of the days of Queen Anne. Not only had he, like Mrs. Woods, to make his characters and their talk consistent with that age; but every word of the story is supposed to be told by a gentleman of that age, whereas Mrs. Woods in her narrative prose may use the language of her own century. On the other hand, the story of _Esmond_ deals with comparatively temperate emotions. There is nothing in Thackeray's masterpiece to strain the prose of the Age of Reason. It is pitched in the key of those times, and the prose of those times is sufficient and exactly sufficient for it. That it should be so is all the more to Thackeray's honor, for the artist is to be praised in the conception as duly as in the execution of his work. But, the conception being granted, I think _Esther Vanhomrigh_ must have been a harder book than _Esmond_ to write.

For even the prose of Swift himself is inadequate to Swift. He was a great and glaring anomaly who never fell into perspective with his age while he lived, and can hardly be pulled into perspective now with the drawing materials which are left to us. Men of like abundant genius are rarely measurable in language used by their contemporaries; and this is perhaps the reason why they disquiet their contemporaries so confoundedly. Where in the books written by tye-bewigged gentlemen, or in the letters written by Swift himself, can you find words to explain that turbulent and potent man? He bursts the capacity of Addison's phrase and Pope's couplet. He was too big for a bishop's chair, and now, if a novelist attempt to clothe him in the garments of his time, he splits them down the back.

It is in meeting this difficulty that Mrs. Woods seems to me to display the courage and intelligence of a true artist. She is bound to be praised by many for her erudition; but perhaps she will let me thank her for having trodden upon her erudition. In the first volume it threatened to overload and sink her. But no sooner does she begin to catch the wind of her subject than she tosses all this superfluous cargo overboard. From the point where passion creeps into the story this learning is carried lightly and seems to be worn unconsciously. Instead of cataloguing the age, she comprehends it.

To me the warmth and pathos she packs into her eighteenth-century conversation, without modernizing it thereby, is something amazing. For this alone the book would be notable; and it can be proved to come of divination, simply because nothing exists from which she could have copied it. More obvious, though not more wonderful, is her feminine gift of rendering a scene vivid for us by describing it, not as it is, but as it excites her own intelligence or feelings. Let me explain myself: for it is the sorry fate of a book so interesting and suggestive as _Esther Vanhomrigh_ to divert the critic from praise of the writer to consider a dozen problems which the writer raises.

Women and "le don pittoresque."

Well, then, M. Jules Lemaître has said somewhere--and with considerable truth--that women when they write have not _le don pittoresque_. By this he means that they do not strive to depict a scene exactly as it strikes upon their senses, but as they perceive it after testing its effect upon their emotions and experience. Suppose now we have to describe a moonlit night in May. Mrs. Woods begins as a man might begin, thus--

"The few and twinkling lights disappeared from the roadside cottages. The full white moon was high in the cloudless deep of heaven, and the sounds of the warm summer night were all about their path; the splash of leaping fish, the sleepy chirrup of birds disturbed by some night-wandering creature; the song of the reed-warbler, the persistent churring of the night jar, and the occasional hoot of the owl, far off on some ancestral tree."

Now all this, except, perhaps, the "ancestral" tree, is a direct picture, and with it some men might stop. But no woman could stop here, and Mrs. Woods does not. She goes on--

"It was such an exquisite May night, full of the mystery and beauty of moonlight and the scent of hawthorn, as makes the earth an Eden in which none but lovers should walk--happy lovers or young poets, whose large eyes, so blind in the daylight world of men, can see God walking in the Garden." ...

You see it is sensation no longer, but reflection and emotion.

Now I am only saying that women cannot avoid this. I am not condemning it. On the contrary, it is beautiful in Mrs. Woods's hand, and sometimes luminously true. Take this, for instance, of the interior of a city church:--

"It had none of the dim impressiveness of a mediæval church, that seems reared with a view to Heaven rather than Earth, and whose arches, massive or soaring, neither gain nor lose by the accidental presence of ephemeral human creatures below them. No, the building seemed to cry out for a congregation, and the mind's eye involuntarily peopled it with its Sunday complement of substantial citizens and their families."

This is not a picturesque but a reflective description. Yet how it illuminates! If we had never thought of it before we know now, once and for all, the essential difference between a Gothic church and one of Wren's building. And further, since Mrs. Woods is writing of an age that slighted Gothic for the architecture of Wren and his followers, we get a brilliant side-flash to help our comprehension. It is a hint only, but it assures us as we read that we are in the eighteenth century, when men and women were of more account than soaring aspirations.

And the conclusion is that if Mrs. Woods could not conquer the difficulties which beset any attempt to make protagonists of two historical characters, if she was obliged to follow the facts to the detriment of composition, she has vitalized and recreated a dead age in a fashion to make us all wonder. _Esther Vanhomrigh_ is a great feat, and its authoress is one of the few of whom almost anything may be expected.

* * * * *

Jan. 26, 1895. "The Vagabonds."

In her latest book,[A] Mrs. Woods returns to that class of life--so far as life may be classified--which she handled so memorably in _A Village Tragedy_. There are differences, though. As the titles indicate, the life in the earlier story was stationary: in the latter it is nomadic--the characters are artistes in a travelling show. This at once suggests comparison with M. Edmond de Goncourt's _Les Frères Zemganno_; or rather a contrast: for the two stories, conceived in very similar surroundings, differ in at least two vital respects.

Compared with "Les Frères Zemganno."

For what, in short, is the story of _Les Frères Zemganno_? Two brothers, Gianni and Nello, tumblers in a show that travels round the village fairs and small country towns of France, are seized with an ambition to excel in their calling. They make their way to England, where they spend some years clowning in various circuses. Then they return to make their _debut_ in Paris. Gianni has invented at length a trick act, a feat that will make the brothers famous. They are performing it for the first time in public, when a circus girl, who has a spite against Nello, causes him to fall and break both his legs. He can perform no more: and henceforward, as he watches his brother performing, a strange jealousy awakes and grows in him, causing him agony whenever Gianni touches a trapèze. Gianni discovers this and renounces his art.

Now here in the first place it is to be noted that the whole story depends upon the circus profession, and the brothers' love for it and desire to excel in it. The catastrophe; Nello's jealousy; Gianni's self-sacrifice; are inseparable from the atmosphere of the book. The catastrophe is a professional catastrophe; the jealousy a professional jealousy; the sacrifice a sacrifice of a profession. And in the second place we know, even if we had not his own word for it, that M. de Goncourt--contrary to his habit--deliberately etherealized the atmosphere of the circus-ring and idealized the surroundings. He calls his tale an essay in poetic realism, "Je me suis trouvé dans une de ces heures de la vie, vieillissantes, maladives, lâches devant le travail poignant et angoisseux de mes autres livres, en un état de l'âme où la vérité trop vraie m'était antipathique à moi aussi!--et j'ai fait cette fois de l'imagination dans du rêve mêlé à du souvenir." We know from the Goncourt Journals exactly what is meant by "du souvenir." We know that M. Edmond de Goncourt is but translating into the language of the circus-ring and symbolizing in the story of Gianni and Nello the story of his own literary collaboration with his brother Jules--a collaboration of quite singular intimacy, that ceased only with Jules's death in 1870. Possibly, as M. Zola once suggested, M. Edmond de Goncourt did at first intend to depict the circus-life, after his wont, in true "naturalistic" manner, softening and extenuating nothing: but "par une délicatesse qui s'explique, il a reculé devant le milieu brutal de cirques, devant certaines laideurs et certaines monstruosités des personnages qu'il choisis-sait." The two facts remain that in _Les Frères Zemganno_ M. de Goncourt (1) made professional life in a circus the very blood and tissue of his story; and (2) that he softened the details of that life, and to a certain degree idealized it.

Turning to Mrs. Woods's book and taking these two points in reverse order, we find to begin with that she idealizes nothing and softens next to nothing. Where she does soften, she softens only for literary effect--to give a word its due force, or a picture its proper values. She does not, for instance, accurately report the oaths and blasphemies:--

"The tents and booths of the show were disappearing rapidly like stage scenery. The red-faced Manager, Joe, and several others in authority, ran hither and thither shouting their orders to a crowd of workmen in jackets and fustian trousers, who were piling rolls of canvas, and heavy chests, and mountains of planks and long vibrating poles, on the great waggons. Others were harnessing the big powerful horses to the carts, horses that were mostly white, and wore large red collars. The scene was so busy, so full of movement, that it would have been exhilarating had not the fresh morning air been full of senseless blasphemies and other deformities of speech, uttered casually and constantly, without any apparent consciousness on the part of the speakers that they were using strong language. Probably the lady who dropped toads and vipers from her lips whenever she opened them came in process of time to consider them the usual accompaniments of conversation."

There are a great many reasons against copious profanity of speech. Here you have the artistic reason, and, by implication, that which forbids its use in literature--namely, its ineffectiveness. But though she selects, Mrs. Woods does not refine. She exhibits the life of the travelling show in its habitual squalor as well as in its occasional brightness. How she has managed it passes my understanding: but her book leaves the impression of confident familiarity with this kind of life, of knowledge not merely accumulated, but assimilated. Knowing as we do that Mrs. Woods was not brought up in a circus, we infer that she must have spent much labor in research: but, taken by itself, her book permits no such inference. The truth is that in the case of a genuine artist no line can be drawn between knowledge and imagination. Probably--almost certainly--Mrs. Woods has to a remarkable degree that gift which Mr. Henry James describes as "the faculty which when you give it an inch takes an ell, and which for an artist is a much greater source of strength than any accident of residence or of place in the social scale ... the power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern; the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing a particular corner of it." Be this as it may, Mrs. Woods has written a novel which, for mastery of an unfamiliar _milieu_, is almost fit to stand beside _Esther Waters_. I say "almost": for, although Mrs. Woods's mastery is easier and less conscious than Mr. Moore's, it neither goes so deep to the springs of action nor bears so intimately on the conduct of the story. But of this later.

If one thing more than another convinces me that Mrs. Woods has thoroughly realized these queer characters of hers, it is that she makes them so much like other people. Whatever our profession may be, we are generally silent upon the instincts that led us to adopt it--unless, indeed, we happen to be writers and make a living out of self-analysis. So these strollers are silent upon the attractiveness of their calling. But they crave as openly as any of us for distinction, and they worship "respectability" as heartily and outspokenly as any of the country-folk for whose amusement they tumble and pull faces. It is no small merit in this book that it reveals how much and yet how very little divides the performers in the ring from the audience in the sixpenny seats. I wish I had space to quote a particularly fine passage--you will find it on pp. 72-74--in which Mrs. Woods describes the progress of these motley characters through Midland lanes on a fresh spring morning; the shambling white horses with their red collars, the painted vans, the cages "where bears paced uneasily and strange birds thrust uncouth heads out into the sunshine," the two elephants and the camel padding through the dust and brushing the dew off English hedges, the hermetically sealed omnibus in which the artistes bumped and dozed, while the wardrobe-woman, Mrs. Thompson, held forth undeterred on "those advantages of birth, house-rent, and furniture, which made her discomforts of real importance, whatever those of the other ladies in the show might be."

But in bringing her Vagabonds into relation with ordinary English life, Mrs. Woods loses all, or nearly all, of that esoteric professional interest which, at first sight, would seem the chief reason for choosing circus people to write about. The story of _Les Frères Zemganno_ has, as I have said, this esoteric professional interest. The story of _The Vagabonds_ is the story of a husband and of a young wife who does not love him, but discovers that she loves another man--a story as old as the hills and common to every rank and every calling. Mrs. Woods has made the husband a middle-aged clown, the wife a girl with strict notions about respectability, and the lover, Fritz, a handsome young German gymnast. But there was no fundamental reason for this choice of professions. The tale might be every bit as true of a grocer, and a grocer's wife, and a grocer's assistant. Once or twice, indeed, in the earlier chapters we have promise of a more peculiar story when we read of Mrs. Morris's objection to seeing her husband play the clown. "No woman," she says, "that hadn't been brought up to the business would like to see her husband look like that." And of Joe Morris we read that he took an artistic pride in his clowning. But there follows no serious struggle between love and art--no such struggle, for instance, as Zola has worked out to tragic issues in his _L'Œuvre_. Mrs. Morris's shame at her husband's ridiculous appearance merely heightens the contrast in her eyes between him and the handsome young gymnast.

But though the circus-business is not essential, Mrs. Woods makes most effective use of it. I will select one notable illustration of this. When Mrs. Morris at length makes her confession--it is in the wagon, and at night--the unhappy husband wraps her up carefully in her bed and creeps away with his grief to the barn where Chang, a ferocious elephant amenable only to him, has been stabled:--

"He opened the door; the barn was pitch dark, but as he entered he could hear the noise of the chain which had been fastened to the elephant's legs being suddenly dragged. He spoke to Chang, and the noise ceased. Then running up a short ladder which was close to the door, he threw himself down on the straw and stared up into the darkness, which to his aching eyes seemed spangled with many colours. Presently he was startled by something warm touching him on the face.

"'Who's there?' he called out.

"There was no answer, but the soft thing, something like a hand, felt him cautiously and caressingly all over.

"'Oh, it's you, Chang, my boy, is it?' said Joe. 'What! are you glad to have me, old chappie? No humbug about yer, are yer sure? No lies?'"

The circus-business is employed again in the catastrophe: but, to my mind, far less happily. In spite of very admirable writing, there remains something ridiculous in the spectacle of an injured husband, armed with a Winchester rifle and mounted on a frantic elephant, pursuing his wife's lover by moonlight across an English common and finally "treeing" him up a sign-post. Mrs. Woods, indeed, means it to be grotesque: but I think it is something more.

The problem of the story is the commonest in fiction. And when I add that the injured husband has been married before and that his first wife, honestly supposed to be dead, returns to threaten his happiness, you will see that Mrs. Woods sets forth upon a path trodden by many hundreds of thousands of incompetent feet. To start with such a situation almost suggests bravado. If it be bravado, it is entirely justified as the tale proceeds: for amid the crowd of failures Mrs. Woods's solution wears the singular distinction of truth. That the book is written in restrained and beautiful English goes without saying: but the best tribute one can pay to the writing of it is to say that its style and its truthfulness are at one. If complaint must be made, it is the vulgar complaint against truth--that it leaves one a trifle cold. A less perfect story might have aroused more emotion. Yet I for one would not barter the pages that tell of Joe Morris's final surrender of his wife--with their justness of imagination and sobriety of speech--for any amount of pity and terror.

A word on the few merely descriptive passages in the book. Mrs. Woods's scene-painting has all a Frenchman's accomplishment with the addition of that open-air feeling and intimate knowledge of the phenomena of "out-of-doors" which a Frenchman seldom or never attains to. Though not, perhaps, her strongest gift, it is the one by which she stands most conspicuously above her contemporaries. The more credit, then, that she uses it so temperately.


[A] _The Vagabonds_. By Margaret L. Woods. London: Smith, Elder & Co.

[The end]
Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's essay: Mrs. Margaret L. Woods