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The Home Monthly

by Helen Delay. [Willa Cather]

From The Home Monthly, 7 (October 1897):  14.

Old Books and New.

" 'Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town The golden broom should blow; The hawthorne, sprinkled up and down, Should charge the land with snow. "Spring will not wait the loiterer's time Who keeps so long away; So others wear the broom and climb The hedgerows caped with May. "O, tarnish late on Wenlock edge, Gold that I never see; Lie long, high snowdrifts on the hedge That will not shower on me."

Pretty verses, are they not? I found them in a little volume entitled, "A Shropshire Lad," by A. E. Housman. Who Mr. Housman may be I know not, save that he is an Englishman and that he has written some of the most musical lyrics that have been done in England for many a long day. They are mostly quiet, unpretentious things like the one I have quoted, and very few of them even have titles. So simple are they that he who runs may read, and so shadowed by a gentle melancholy that the swiftest reader may not outrun the saddest of them. There is something which makes Mr. Housman different from the poets of the time and sets him quite apart; I should say that is largely because he is simply a singer, and for the most part poets have become philosophers. Like Heine, he has "done nothing but be a poet." and like Heine, there is a touch of quiet, grim despair about him which sometimes quite makes you fancy that you are hearing again that voice of bitter melody from the Rue d'Amsterdam, where for so many years the sweetest of German singers lay stricken with a mortal malady.

*   *   *

I see that Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel, "A Lady of Quality," is to be put on the stage this fall, and that Julia Arthur, a gifted young actress, who has hitherto been more appreciated in England than in her own country, is to play Mistress Clorinda. I sincerely hope, for Miss Arthur's sake, that the play will prove more satisfactory than the novel, which, to my mind, was one of the most unsatisfactory attempts I ever read. I have never been able to form a just opinion of Mrs. Burnett. She is widely known as the author of several of the sweetest and purest juvenile books, and she is also the author of "A Lady of Quality," a book frankly immoral and unpardonably faulty in style and construction. Even the younger Dumas, in his boldest moods, would not dare to present such a creation as Mistress Clorinda. I do not quarrel with Clorinda because she was once so very bad, nor yet because she was afterward so very good, but because she could not have been both, because a girl who is thoroughly coarse cannot grow into a woman who is thoroughly fine. The faults of Clorinda's youth were numerous enough, but I am not speaking now of any one of them in particular, but of the nature which made such faults possible. I do not believe that a cruel woman ever becomes a kind one, or a selfish one generous. Nor do I believe that we can ever really outlive our past. Our past becomes a part of us, it is in our blood. Yet Mistress Clorinda, whose cruelty and vanity darkened the lives of her poor, pale sisters, whose reckless living alarmed even her dissipated old father, is made become a devoted and selfish wife and the benefactor of hundreds. It is very possible, indeed, that such a woman could love, but her love would be like herself—cruel, rapacious, wilful, more of a curse to any man than a blessing. Such a character sins against every law of art and ethics. Indeed, a book which defies ethical laws is usually at fault artistically, for after all ethics are only God's art laws.

*   *   *

The time in which Mrs. Burnett's novel is placed and the language in which it is written necessarily invites comparison with the greatest of all English novels, "Henry Esmond." Now, to invite comparison with Thackeray is almost as dangerous as to invite comparison with Shakespeare, for are they not the two imperial Williams, joint kings of English letters? Thackeray is not always faultless. He is often too much of a satirist to be a perfect novelist; he goes out of his way to say harsh things and he sometimes seems to despise his heroes for their virtues quite as much as he does his villains for their vices. But in "Esmond" he rises to the full measure of his power, and then who in all the kingdom of letters is like unto him? What I wish to say is that Beatrix Esmond is wonderfully like Mrs. Burnett's Clorinda; only one character is handled weakly and the other by the sure hand of a master. Thackeray was wise enough to know that grapes do not grow on thistles, and he was artist enough to know that the laws of nature are not to be trifled with. Beatrix Esmond, young and beautiful, with the world of London at her feet; Beatrix Esmond, old and wrinkled, with her cards, her merciless wit and her hateful memories, is the same Beatrix who as a child put on her red stockings to charm little Harry Esmond, and who would rather call her father "My Lord" than "papa." Do not tell me that she never loved Henry Esmond, do not tell me that she did not always love him and that many a night she did not long with all her proud heart to follow him to the Virginia wilderness. But alas! like so many of us, she was what she must be and not what she wished to be, and the necessities of her nature were stronger than her own wishes. She could no more be lost to the world than certain priceless diamonds, which, though hidden in the earth and buried in the sea, always turn up again and travel from hand to hand, bringing hatred and murder with them, always bought with the price of blood. She could no more have contented herself by any man's hearth than Napoleon could have contented himself raising potatoes in Corsica for the sake of some Corsican girl.

*   *   *

It is this same strange Beatrix Esmond that makes "The Virginians" almost as delightful reading as "Henry Esmond." This same Beatrix, now old and yellow, but still blazing with jewels, still seeking for the heart that all her life she has never found. Is there anything more pathetic than that miserable old woman in her delirious dreams storming at the lackeys to admit her to the apartments of the Prince who tired of her half a century ago? Or her muttering to Henry Esmond, dead so long, that she is not good enough for him, turning to his grandson who sat by her bed and "always laboring under the same delusion—that I was the Henry of past times, who had loved her and been forsaken by her, whose bones were lying far away by the banks of the Potomac."

*   *   *

This is about the time of year when fishing is over and the creeks are too cold for swimming and children are beginning to look about for something to read. If there is anywhere a boy or girl who has reached the age of twelve without having read about "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," or her experiences "Through a Looking Glass," I profoundly pity that same child. If I knew of any country as fair and genial as that Wonderland I visited so long ago, I would go there and take up my abode forever. Indeed, I sometimes open the red covers of the book and go back there now, but I travel through it by a tie-pass now in most humiliating manner, whereas once I went in a private coach and considered my chances of becoming a queen exceedingly good. I think we all have our favorite passages in "Alice," just as we have in Shakespeare. I think mine is the part where Alice, with maidenly compassion, picked up the Duchess' poor, abused baby, and, while, she was carrying it off, it turned to a pig. Dear me! how many of us have taken up projects—and people, for that matter—tenderly to our hearts and seen them turn to pigs in our arms. I am not sure but most things turn to pigs with us after awhile. I have sometimes thought that "Alice" could be worked out into almost as complete an allegory as "Pilgrim's Progress," if one should take the time to do it, and I am afraid that all the wonderful people that Alice met are just the same old people we meet every day with Wonderland costumes on. I know that I have known cooks just as peppery as the one who threw dishes at the Duchess, and people who vanish suddenly leaving their smile behind, like the Cheshire cat, and poor ladies who were all over pins and who sometimes got the brush lost in their hair, like the dowdy White Queen, and when I have been invited out to tea I have met many a sleepy Dormouse, only I never thought of pinching them or pouring hot tea on their noses. Then there is the Lay of the Jabberwock. I once knew a clever fellow who set it to music and sang it, and it sounded quite like a stormy tenor solo from an Italian opera—only a good deal more intelligible. But on the whole I should give the palm to that charming lyric, "The Walrus and the Carpenter," which quite reminds me of Browning. The Mock Turtle was a good hand at verses, too, but like most people who habitually recite poetry, he was too melancholy and tearful to be very cheerful company.

*   *   *

The author of Alice is a very learned man, one of the foremost mathematicians of England, and he has written some very profound mathematical works. But the world needs to laugh more than to think, and it needs Alice more than treatises on indeterminate values. That wise gentleman will live in Wonderland long after he is forgotten at Oxford and he will be remembered by his Alice, just as Boccaccio, the wisest scholar of his age, is remembered by a book of jolly stories written to beguile a princess' leisure hours. I envy all the children who this winter will make their first excursion into Wonderland, and I wish I could go with them. But alas! though I might drink ever so deeply of the mysterious bottle labeled "Drink me," I should not be small enough to enter the little door, and I fear me that I have lost the golden key to it forever.