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The Home Monthly

by Helen Delay. [Willa Cather]

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

Old Books and New.

"The winds out of the West land blow, My friends have breathed them there; Warm with the blood of lads I know Comes last the sighing air. It fanned their temples, filled their lungs, Scattered their forelocks free; My friend made words of it with tongues That talk no more to me." —A. E. Housman

I have not a great deal of faith in women in literature. As a rule, if I see the anouncement of a new book by a woman, I—well, I take one by a man instead. This may be a very narrow prejudice; I do not defend it. It is merely a personal feeling. I have noticed that the great masters of letters are men, and I prefer to take no chances when I read. There are, however, two great exceptions to this in English letters: Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. There have been other women who have done wonderfully clever things in fiction, but these two alone were unquestionably masters of their craft, pre-eminently great.

I know that "Daniel Deronda" is considered George Eliot's best novel, and that "Middlemarch" ranks next in the judgment of the critics. The critics may say what they please—that is their privilege, but a book is precious to me for what it means to me, not for what it means to cleverer persons than I. And of all George Eliot's masterpieces give me that one in which she touched the hearts of the people, "The Mill on the Floss." I think that, like Copperfield, is one of the books we love. There may be other books which we admire vastly more, but this is one of the things which we take into our hearts, which becomes associated with all that is best in our lives and as dear to us as the places and memories of our childhood. It is the novel of the family. No other piece of fiction ever treated of family life so truly, so justly, so beautifully. The whole family relationship is there and it is there in living flesh and blood reality, even to Maggie's aunts and uncles. Any one who has ever known the blessing of having uncles who gave them pocket money, the sorrow of having aunts whose eagle eyes saw all the tangles in their small niece's hair, and all the wrinkles in her stockings and all the spots on her pinafore, feels like a child again in reading those pages. There was Aunt Glegg, who was always reproving Mrs. Tulliver for the extravagance of her table and the manners of her children; and Aunt Pullet who was always buying new bonnets and taking medicine and talking about going into a decline and giving detailed descriptions of all her neighbors' diseases and symptoms. Haven't we all had aunts just like that? And haven't we all had pretty prim little cousins like Lucy Deane, whose hair curled naturally, and who were always neat when we were dirty, and mannerly when we were rude, who never tore their frocks nor dropped their fork at the table and whose China blue eyes grew wide with astonishment at our tomboyish proceedings? And haven't we all just ached to push these immaculate cherubs into the mud—just as Maggie did? And haven't we all felt bitterly that our mothers secretly suffered from our plain brown faces and stubby noses and wished we were pretty like other children? "These bitter sorrows of childhood! When sorrow is all new and strange, when hope has not yet got wings to fly beyond the days and weeks, and when the space from summer to summer seems measureless."

*   *   *

But the two wonderful figures in this book, the two figures which have never been surpassed in English fiction, are Tom and Maggie Tulliver. I wonder why it is that no one else has ever been so successful in painting that strongest and most satisfactory relation of human life, the love that sometimes exists between a brother and sister, a boy and a girl who have laughed and sorrowed and learned the world together from the first, who have entered into each other's lives and minds more completely than ever man or woman can again. I say the love that sometimes exists, for perfect love of this kind is as rare as any other perfection. It is more than a tie of blood; much more. There must be two fine and ardent souls to start with, and fine natures are not often thrown together from the first in this world. The highest affection between two of one blood is by no means commonplace. It must spring from other things than the tie of kinship. But when it does exist, what other thing in life can be compared to it? We spend our lives, most of us, in loving and unloving. We give out the precious things of our heart like water, and sell cheap that which is most dear, and when we have been vexed and torn by the thankless love of life, this is the one that we come back to rest our weary hearts on. We search for happiness in far and difficult places and bruise our feet looking for the love that shall give us rest. Only to come back and find that the one has lain unnoticed by our own hearthstone all the while, and that the other is shining for us still in the eyes that laughed into ours when we were children together.

*   *   *

There are some scenes in the "Mill on the Floss" which I can never read often enough. One of them is the quarrel about the rabbits that Maggie had neglected and let die while Tom was off at school. Tom couldn't understand how Maggie could love him just as much, if she had forgotten the rabbits. The details of life were all important to Tom; he could only judge of intentions by results. He hadn't much spiritual insight, this ame sturdy Thomas, and, as usual, it was Maggie who was hurt by the quarrel, and, as always, it was Maggie who had to ask his pardon for hurting her. It was just so in the more bitter misunderstandings of their after life. And then there is that clear morning when they went fishing together. "It was one of their happy mornings. They trotted along and sat down together with no thought that life would ever change for them: they would only get bigger and not go to school, and it would be always holidays; they would always live together and be fond of each other." Ah, truly, "we could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, if it were not the same earth where the same flowers come up every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known, and loved because it is known?" When you have travelled the wide earth over and seen the beauties of all lands and seas, what spot is it that your heart cries out for with unassuaged longing but the spot, no matter where, no matter how desolate, where you have been good and happy and a child!

*   *   *

Well, you know how life did change for Tom and Maggie: how they fought the world together for a time, and how another love came between them and set them apart. The girl's nature outran the boy's, and that seemed unfit to him. She was reckless, and he hardened his heart and would not forgive. Of all the blows struck at her when she came back to St. Ogg's, that went home the deepest. She lived her life as God made her, and he could not understand. He never understood until that last dreadful night when the Floss overflowed, bringing death in its tracks, and she went for him through all the darkness and danger of the night, gave her life to him just as singly as she had given him the prettiest toys and the biggest tarts in their childhood. Then, as he sat in the boat and saw her face in the pale light of the coming day, then he understood, and the sting of it was much harder to bear than the death that came so soon. He called her by the old pet name, you remember, and they sprang together just as in the old days when they were little and life had not darkened love. And so they went down in the river they had played beside; "living through again in one supreme moment the days when they had clasped their little hands in love and roamed the daisied fields together."