Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

contrast suggested between them and persons like Lord Newhaven, Rachel West, and the bishop, who are bound together not by proximity but by a community of taste and ideas, in a word by culture-she is making her contribution to the novel of manners, setting down as she sees them certain contemporary types, fashions, and societies. What is secondary with Miss Cholmondeley is of primary importance in Miss Fowler's amazingly successful books. She has written three novels, and in each of them the same material does duty, a smartly written presentment of London fashionable life (as Miss Fowler conceives or knows it), and a contrast to this-not suggested but doubly underlinedwhich is afforded by life in a midland manufacturing town, called in the books Silverhampton, but fairly to be identified with Wolverhampton-of which place, as every one knows, Sir Henry Fowler is a distinguished citizen. And each book is held together by a single personalitythat of a clever, shrewish young woman who alternates between a quiet Dissenting household and the ballrooms and country houses of very fine folk indeed-importing into each environment a point of view derived from the other. Plot there is none, or such a tissue of absurdities as is worse than none. Isabel Carnaby is a fashionable young woman who loses her heart to Paul Seaton, the son of a Wesleyan minister. They meet at a country house where Paul is acting as tutor; they become engaged, and Isabel behaves so unbearably to her fiancé that he breaks off the engagement and devotes his whole energies to literature. Six months later appears a novel which enjoys the success of scandal that is only created by a book in which characters can be identified. The authorship is attributed to Paul, who admits it; the virtuous Wesleyan household is deeply grieved, but urges him to retrieve the error by a book as improving as the other had been demoralising, and he accepts the mission and becomes famous with a romance of lofty ideals. The only obstacle in his way is the black mark left against him by the first book; and at last Isabel, contrite and iniserable, explains to Paul's parents that she and not Paul had been the author of it, and so all ends happily. This is not a very credible story, but much more so than that of the 'Double * Thread,' its successor. In that a young soldier becomes acquainted with twin sisters, one a great heiress living luxuriously in London, the other a working gentlewoman on holiday in a country cottage. He makes love to the poor one, and the rich one makes love to him; every inducement

is used to make him shift his allegiance, including at the last a charge of theft; for the poor sister has given him a priceless pink diamond and the rich one has lost a similar stone. He is much too high and noble even to ask for an explanation, and at last is confounded beyond measure by the intelligence that the twin sisters are not two but one and the same. His behaviour when he learns this fact is not a little ridiculous. Miss Fowler's men are the most arbitrary inventions that we are acquainted with. In the latest of her books, The Farringdons,' there is a third edition of the same young lady, who finds herself the heiress of great ironworks only upon condition that the legitimate heir does not appear. Her lover is the manager of the works and her trustee. We are asked to believe that this gentleman-who knows himself to be the missing claimant, and who has every reason to believe that Elizabeth, his lifelong playmate, has a very great kindness for him-not merely suppresses his claim but actually lacks the spirit to ask the girl to marry him, though he is devoted to her with his whole soul. Let us admit that he might conceivably have refused to claim the inheritance; surely even a young lady might know that if a man desires a woman, and sees his way to a marriage settlement that would in all ways be ideal, he does, as a rule, at least try his luck, even though the lady may once have spoken shrewishly to him.

Nor is there, strictly speaking, any power of depicting character in these books. The heroine is alive undoubtedly, but her behaviour is unthinkable. A woman who cares for a man may hurt him to the heart in sheer wantonness, but if she does, she will always give him a chance for reconciliation. Isabel Carnaby, it is true, does so, but Elfrida-Ethel is frankly impossible, and Elizabeth Farringdon not to be believed. As for the minor characters they are lay figures, and not consistent lay figures at that. There is a wicked old uncle in 'The Double Thread' who begins as if he were an imitation of Lord Frederick Fane in Diana Tempest,' but before the book is over settles down into a philosophy and a vein of sentiment that would do credit to any Sunday school. In · Isabel Carnaby 'there is an agreeable description of the Seaton household, but when Isabel comes down to stay, Miss Fowler is so anxious to demonstrate that Methodists may be cultured persons with a sense of humour that she makes not only Paul, but his sister, say as smart things, and just the same sort of smart things, as the witty young woman from town.

There we come to the one quality which no one can deny Miss Fowler. She is really witty. Some one said of Voltaire that 'il a plus que tout le monde l'esprit que tout • le monde a.' It may be said of Miss Fowler that she has at least as much as any contemporary of the commonest wit. Apt comparisons, little quaintnesses of expression, come as readily to her as puns or verbal antithesis. If one compares her work with a book like 'The Cardinal's Snuff-box,' the advantage does not seem to a lover of literature to rest with the lady. Mr. Harland's wit may be overelaborate at times, but it has a grace, a charm of fancy, and above all an intellectual quality that mark it off as purely individual. Whereas when Miss Cholmondeley makes her heroine say of Captain Pratt that he is not a bounder, but

he is on the boundary line,' she hits upon a form of words that might also have occurred to Miss Fowler; and any bookseller will tell you that this is the wit that sells. Miss Fowler will give it you in any quantity; she will even explain it to those who are not 'gleg i' the uptak. For instance:

Mrs. Martin was an extremely amusing woman, but she herself had no idea of this; she imagined she was only dignified and edifying. She once said : “Although my husband is a rich man and a county magistrate, he has the fear of the Lord before his eyes.” And she had no idea that there was anything humorous in this use of the conjunction although."

The story is a good story, and the trait is really illustrative. Yet surely Miss Fowler might have left us to find out when to laugh, and why. But she knows her public, and her public no more resents the explanation of a joke than it rebels against the sloppy repetition of the sloppy phrase 'had no idea.' Here is a more extended example of that brilliancy in dialogue upon which Miss Fowler's reputation is established.

"“I always wonder how the women with pretty noses carry on their advertising department. Of course when we have good eyes we call attention to the same by making use of eye-service as menpleasers, so to speak; and when we have good teeth we smile as often as is compatible with the reputation for sanity, and we frequently complain of the toothache.”

Oh, is that your plan of campaign? I have often wondered how teeth as white as yours are can ache as much as you say they do; but now I understand it is only a ruse.”

"“You misjudge me there, Aunt Caroline. I know my teeth are pretty, but they are merely little devils disguised as angels of light, for I have inherited an estate of fine and extensive achers. But you VOL. CXCII. NO, CCCXCIII.

Q

haven't yet informed me how the well-nosed women call attention to their stock-in-trade.”

"“My dear, when the thing is as plain as the nose on your face it does not require any advertisement, according to proverbial philosophy."

«« It is not when it is plain that the necessity arises,” continued Isabel; “but only when it is pretty."

That is undeniably witty, but also it is undeniably vulgar; and this continuous crackle of petty verbal smartnesses wearies beyond expression. In “The Farringdons' there are conversations-one in particular, which passes between a crowd of people on Lady Silverhampton's houseboat—that really have a strong resemblance to the sort of nonsense that is talked by witty people talking nonsense. But the thing for which the personal charm of voice and manner gains a ready welcome shrinks sadly when it comes to be written down; the atmosphere it bloomed in has departed and leaves it in a chilly world. Talk is naturally loose in form, and requires to be braced up and to undergo a severe process of selection and arrangement before it will bear the cold light of print. So at least it seems to us, and Miss Fowler has no sense of literary form. In addition to that, she makes her characters mouthpieces for ex cathedra utterances upon art, literature, morals, religion, and theology. The utterances are well meant; Miss Fowler is only too conscious of her responsibilities as a teacher; but they evince a lamentable crudeness of intelligence. In the beginning of 'The Farringdons' we are particularly occupied with Elizabeth's research into the basis of revealed religion under the guidance of an agreeable young sceptic. It is to be hoped that faith will never encounter a more formidable adversary. One may skip all this, but it is impossible not to be annoyed by the touch of false tragedy when we read how this same amateur inquirer finds himself converted to a faith in immortality by the death of his little son and the longing it breeds, yet unable to convert again the foolish little wife whom (in default of Elizabeth) he has married and perverted.

Perhaps all this criticism amounts merely to an assertion that Miss Fowler is young and not very fully educated (she is capable, for instance, of writing euphony' when she means 'euphemism ). But we are considering her as an artist, and as an artist she is liable to the reproach of ignoring her own limitations. And her wit is a snare to her. Dear friend, let us never try to be funny,' remarks a character

in ‘The Farringdong.' Miss Fowler should write up over her work-table, 'Dear friend, let us never try to be too funny.' The Silverhampton picnic is an awful example. Also the desire for antithesis natural to a wit betrays her into sad faults of taste. A lady at Silverhampton' went to sleep one night

in a land whose stones are of iron, and awoke next morning 'in a country whose pavements are of gold.' That is bad enough. But when Elizabeth has found out through her lover's all but mortal illness the act of self-abnegation to which she has owed her wealth, there is a worse lapse. She comes to his bedside to tell him that she loves him and has always loved him.

""How did you find it out, my dearest ?” he asked at last.

““ Through finding out that you loved me. It seems to me that my love was always lying in the bank at your account; but until you gave a cheque for it you couldn't get at it. And the cheque was my knowing that you cared for me.

No doubt he is her trustee, and the association of ideas may be held to have suggested the metaphor; but a young lady who could be so ingenious at such a moment would surely be a strange animal.

Success which overshadows the merit of other and finer writers naturally prejudices a lover of literature against the successful one, and we may be unfair to Miss Fowler. We cannot take her picture of society seriously; she knows not enough of life or of the world. But she is witty, she is shrewd, and she may live to be more discriminating in her selection of epigrams; and if she is wise she will return to the genuine sources of her talent. By far the best thing in her books is the study of Martha, the old servant in the Seaton household-a character who gives her creator fair claim to rank not merely as a wit, but as a humourist. It is a depressing circumstance that Miss Fowler's books have certainly not improved as they went on--in this respect or in any other. In The Double Thread'a very dull old gardener afforded comic relief with Malapropisms; in 'The

Farringdons' a couple of old women made a chorus of little attraction. However, Miss Fowler is assured of a huge popularity, probably for the term of her literary life. To compare her with a genuine artist like Miss Broughton would be an injustice to both ladies, but Miss I'owler has the immediate vogue that goes to the chronicler of momentary phases.

As to Miss Cholmondeley it is more difficult to forecast the future. Her work has a fine intellectual distinction,

« ForrigeFortsett »