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An essay by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

Mr. Hall Caine

Title:     Mr. Hall Caine
Author: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch [More Titles by Quiller-Couch]

August 11, 1894. "The Manxman."

Mr. Hall Caine's new novel _The Manxman_ (London: William Heinemann) is a big piece of work altogether. But, on finishing the tale, I turned back to the beginning and read the first 125 pages over again, and then came to a stop. I wish that portion of the book could be dealt with separately. It cannot: for it but sets the problem in human passion and conduct which the remaining 300 pages have to solve. Nevertheless the temptation is too much for me.

As one who thought he knew how good Mr. Hall Caine can be at his best, I must confess to a shock of delight, or rather a growing sense of delighted amazement, while reading those 125 pages. Yet the story is a very simple one--a story of two friends and a woman. The two friends are Philip Christian and Pete Quilliam: Philip talented, accomplished, ambitious, of good family, and eager to win back the social position which his father had lost by an imprudent marriage; Pete a nameless boy--the bastard son of Philip's uncle and a gawky country-girl--ignorant, brave, simple-minded, and incurably generous. The boys have grown up together, and in love are almost more than brothers when the time comes for them to part for a while--Philip leaving home for school, while Pete goes as mill-boy to one Cæsar Cregeen, who combined the occupations of miller and landlord of "The Manx Fairy" public-house. And now enters the woman--a happy child when first we make her acquaintance--in the shape of Katherine Cregeen, the daughter of Pete's employer. With her poor simple Pete falls over head and ears in love. Philip, too, when home for his holidays, is drawn by the same dark eyes; but stands aside for his friend. Naturally, the miller will not hear of Pete, a landless, moneyless, nameless, lad, as a suitor for his daughter; and so Pete sails for Kimberley to make his fortune, confiding Kitty to Philip's care.

It seems that the task undertaken by Philip--that of watching over his friend's sweetheart--is a familiar one in the Isle of Man, and he who discharges it is known by a familiar name.

"They call him the _Dooiney Molla_--literally, the 'man-praiser'; and his primary function is that of an informal, unmercenary, purely friendly and philanthropic match-maker, introduced by the young man to persuade the parents of the young woman that he is a splendid fellow, with substantial possessions or magnificent prospects, and entirely fit to marry her. But he has a secondary function, less frequent, though scarcely less familiar; and it is that of a lover by proxy, or intended husband by deputy, with duties of moral guardianship over the girl while the man himself is off 'at the herrings,' or away 'at the mackerel,' or abroad on wider voyages."

And now, of course, begins Philip Christian's ordeal: for Kitty discovers that she loves him and not Pete, and he that he loves Kitty madly. On the other hand there is the imperative duty to keep faith with his absent friend; and more than this. His future is full of high hope; the eyes of his countrymen and of the Governor himself are beginning to fasten on him as the most promising youth in the island; it is even likely that he will be made Deemster, and so win back all the position that his father threw away. But to marry Kitty--even if he can bring himself to break faith with Pete--will be to marry beneath him, to repeat his father's disaster, and estrange the favor of all the high "society" of the island. Therefore, even when the first line of resistance is broken down by a report that Pete is dead, Philip determines to cut himself free from the temptation. But the girl, who feels that he is slipping away from her, now takes fate into her own hands. It is the day of harvest-home--the "Melliah"--on her father's farm. Philip has come to put an end to her hopes, and she knows it. The "Melliah" is cut and the usual frolic begins:

"Then the young fellows went racing over the field, vaulting the stooks, stretching a straw rope for the girls to jump over, heightening and tightening it to trip them up, and slackening it and twirling it to make them skip. And the girls were falling with a laugh, and, leaping up again and flying off like the dust, tearing their frocks and dropping their sun-bonnets as if the barley-grains they had been reaping had got into their blood.

"In the midst of this maddening frolic, while Cæsar and the others were kneeling by the barley-stack, Kate snatched Philip's hat from his head and shot like a gleam into the depths of the glen.

"Philip dragged up his coat by one of its arms and fled after her."

Here, then, in Sulby Glen, the girl stakes her last throw--the last throw of every woman--and wins. It is the woman--a truly Celtic touch--who wooes the man, and secures her love and, in the end, her shame.

"When a good woman falls from honour, is it merely that she is the victim of a momentary intoxication, of stress of passion, of the fever of instinct? No. It is mainly that she is the slave of the sweetest, tenderest, most spiritual, and pathetic of all human fallacies--the fallacy that by giving herself to the man she loves she attaches him to herself for ever. This is the real betrayer of nearly all good women that are betrayed. It lies at the root of tens of thousands of the cases that make up the merciless story of man's sin and woman's weakness. Alas! it is only the woman who clings the closer. The impulse of the man is to draw apart. He must conquer it, or she is lost. Such is the old cruel difference and inequality of man and woman as Nature made them--the old trick, the old tragedy."

And meanwhile Pete is not dead; but recovered, and coming home.

Here, on p. 125, ends the second act of the drama: and the telling has been quite masterly. The passage quoted above has hitherto been the author's solitary comment. Everything has been presented in that fine objective manner which is the triumph of story-telling. As I read, I began to say to myself, "This is good"; and in a little while, "Ah, but this is very good"; and at length, "But this is amazing. If he can only keep this up, he will have written one of the finest novels of his time." The whole story was laid out so easily; with such humor, such apparent carelessness, such an instinct for the right stroke in the right place, and no more than the right stroke; the big scenes--Pete's love-making in the dawn and Kate's victory in Sulby Glen--were so poetically conceived (I use the adverb in its strictest sense) and so beautifully written; above all, the story remained so true to the soil on which it was constructed. A sworn admirer of Mr. Brown's _Betsy Lee_ and _The Doctor_ has no doubt great advantage over other people in approaching _The Manxman_. Who, that has read his _Fo'c's'le Yarns_ worthily, can fail to feel kindly towards the little island and its shy, home-loving folk? And--by what means I do not know--Mr. Hall Caine has managed from time to time to catch Mr. Brown's very humor and set it to shine on his page. The secret, I suppose, is their common possession as Manxmen: and, like all the best art, theirs is true to its country and its material.

Pete comes home, suspecting no harm; still childish of heart and loud of voice--a trifle too loud, by the way; his shouts begin to irritate the reader, and the reader begins to feel how sorely they must have irritated his wife: for the unhappy Kate is forced, after all, into marrying Pete. And so the tragedy begins.

I wish, with my heart, I could congratulate Mr. Hall Caine as warmly upon the remainder of the book as upon its first two parts. He is too sure an artist to miss the solution--the only adequate solution--of the problem. The purification of Philip Christian and Kitty must come, if at all, "as by fire"; and Mr. Hall Caine is not afraid to take us through the deepest fire. No suffering daunts him--neither the anguish of Kitty, writhing against her marriage with Pete, nor the desperate pathos of Pete after his wife has run away, pretending to the neighbors that she has only gone to Liverpool for her health, and actually writing letters and addressing parcels to himself and posting them from out-of-the-way towns to deceive the local postman; nor the moral ruination of Philip, with whom Kitty is living in hiding; nor his final redemption by the ordeal of a public confession before the great company assembled to see him reach the height of worldly ambition and be appointed governor of his native island.

And yet--I have a suspicion that Mr. Hall Caine, who deals by preference with the elemental emotions, would rejoice in the epithet "Æschylean" applied to his work. The epithet would not be unwarranted: but it is precisely when most consciously Æschylean that Mr. Hall Caine, in my poor judgment, comes to grief. This is but to say that he possesses the defects of his qualities. There is altogether too much of the "Go to: let me be Titanic" about the book. Æschylus has grown a trifle too well aware of his reputation, has taken to underscoring his points, and tends to prolixity in consequence. Mr. Hall Caine has not a little of Hugo's audacity, but, with it, not a little of Hugo's diffuseness. Standing, like Destiny, with scourge lifted over the naked backs of his two poor sinners, he spares them no single stroke--not so much as a little one. Every detail that can possibly heighten their suffering is brought out in its place, until we feel that Life, after all, is more careless, and tell ourselves that Fate does not measure out her revenge with an inch rule. We see the machinery of pathos at work: and we are rather made incredulous than moved when the machinery works so accurately that Philip is made to betray Pete on the very night when Pete goes out to beat a big drum in Philip's honor. Nor is this by any means the only harrowing coincidence of the kind. Worse than this--for its effect upon us as a work of art--our emotions are so flogged and out-tired by detail after detail that they cannot rise at the last big fence, and so the scene of Philip's confession in the Courthouse misses half its effect. It is a fine scene. I am no bigoted admirer of Hawthorne--a very cold one, indeed--and should be the last to say that the famous scene in _The Scarlet Letter_ cannot be improved upon. Nor do I make any doubt that, as originally conceived by Mr. Hall Caine, the story had its duly effective climax here. But still less do I doubt that the climax, and therefore the whole story, would have been twice as impressive had the book, from p. 125 onwards, contained just half its present number of words. But whether this opinion be right or wrong, the book remains a big book, and its story a beautiful story.

[The end]
Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's essay: Mr. Hall Caine