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The Home Monthly

by Helen Delay. [Willa Cather]

From The Home Monthly, 7 (January 1898):  12.

Old Books and New.

I made myself the cross whose weight Was later laid on me. This thought is torture as I toil Up life's steep Calvary. To think mine own hands drove the nails! I sang a merry song. And chose the heaviest wood I had To build it firm and strong. If I had guessed—if I had dreamed Its weight was meant for me. I should have made a lighter cross To bear up Calvary! ANNIE REEVE ALDRICH.

Within the last six months two novels have been published on early life in Pennsylvania, one very good one and one very poor one. I will speak first of the good one, Dr S. Wier Mitchell's "Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker."

The plot of Dr. Mitchell's story of life in Old Philadelphia is already well known. The hero, Hugh Wynne, is the son of a Philadelphia Quaker, and I believe that this is the first time that a serious study of the old Quaker life has been made in American fiction. The best part of the novel is that which deals with the family life in Hugh Wynne's home. A grave, gray picture it is, with that stern, upright father, and the grave, silent men who frequent his house. The austerity of John Wynne's household is relieved by that poor, gay little French woman, Hugh's mother, who by some strange trick had laughed herself into the stern old Quaker's heart. She led rather a starved life of it, poor little woman, stealing off by herself to murmur gay little phrases in her own dear frivolous tongue which John Wynne never loved to hear spoken; lavishing on her son and her garden flowers the exhuberant tenderness her husband had no room for in his cold life. This charming woman, with a face like a child's and a voice like a bird's, who wondered "whether after all a gray virtue were any better than a scarlet one," is the best character Dr. Mitchell has drawn in his book. Certainly a much finer woman than the blushing Dorothea whom the young hero goes daft over and finally marries. But then, I wonder are men's sweethearts ever so good as their mothers? One of the strongest scenes in the book is that in which young Hugh becomes intoxicated and falls into a tavern brawl and his mother goes to fetch him home. When that little gray-gowned woman entered the noisy bar-room every ribald tongue was hushed, and when one British officer insulted her the shame of it brought even poor drunken Hugh to his senses and he rose and struck the officer in the mouth. Then he went out with his mother, speechless and miserable, just like a bad little boy who had been caught doing something wrong. And after that he was never drunk again. Even when the affair got abroad and he was read out of meeting, and filled with raging bitterness against his father's church, the recollection of that fearful night kept him from going back to his old ways.

For vivid character painting, next to Hugh's mother I should place his reckless old Aunt Gainor, who read with avidity all the novels published in England and France, and drank a great deal of claret, and could lose at cards until four o'clock in the morning without flinching. Not an admirable character by any means, but a clear cut one and thoroughly alive. And it seems to me that an author's first and foremost duty is to breathe into his characters the breath of life. Until he can do that, he is no novelist at all. Then Miss Gainor represents an element of society that existed then, an old world society transplanted into the new, where it did not thrive long.

*   *   *

As to Hugh Wynne himself, I am afraid I do not altogether admire him. The book is written in the first person, thus giving the young hero a great opportunity to talk about himself, which be does with a vengeance. He is forever telling how brave and how strong and how handsome he is, all of which had much better be left to the imagination. I do not like the man Hugh Wynne as well as I like the boy who took the schoolmaster's flogging so bravely and was so tender with his mother.

When the Revolution broke out, Hugh joined Andree's command, was taken prisoner at the battle of Germantown and lay for months in a British prison. In the description of Hugh's campaign Dr. Mitchell introduces many of the great men of the time; among them, Washington. Lafavette, Franklin and Benedict Arnold. And it is in these portraits that Dr. Mitchell falls short of the mark. He has not succeeded in making them sufficiently vigorous and lifelike.

*   *   *

The other book I spoke of is "The Latimers," by Henry Christopher McCook. The theme of the story is the Whiskey Insurrection of 1794; the scene is laid in and about Pittsburg. The historical part of the novel seems to have been carefully worked up, but as a story it has been a long time since I have read anything more tedious.

In the first place, the book contains over five hundred and ninety pages. Books of such length were all very well in the slow, easy days of the world when men travelled in a stage coach and it took a month to cross the Atlantic. But we travel by steam now, and we portion out our time by minutes, and if a man expects us to read six hundred pages, he must have a great deal that is new to tell us. That is just what Mr. McCook has not. He has written a very conventional, wooden story, padded out with a great deal of irrelevant matter about the flora and fauna and weather conditions of Western Pennsylvania. When you have said that it is a poor imitation of Cooper you have said about all the good you can of it.

*   *   *

So Anthony Hope has succumbed to the temptation of money and has written a sequel to "The Prisoner of Zenda," the first installment of which appeared in the December "McClure's." It starts out very well indeed; if I had not read "The Prisoner of Zenda" I should say the sequel was a downwright good story, but having read the "Prisoner" I can only say that I greatly fear Mr. Hawkins will spoil a better story than he makes. In any case a sequel to that particular story must be had—a serious blunder both of art and common sense. The "Prisoner of Zenda" is not a great book, only a wondrously charming and clever one. The chiefest charm of it was the ending, that inimitable last chapter. It had long been a tradition among novel writers that a book must end by everybody getting just what they wanted, or, if the conventional "happy ending" was impossible, there must be a tragedy in which one or both of the leading characters should die. Now it happens that is real life very few of us get what we want and our tragedies do not kill us, but we go on living them down year after year, carrying them always with us like the scar of an old wound. Mr. Hawkins had noted this fact, and he had the courage to end his novel so. It was that quiet, hopeless ending, that sacrifice to duty that made the book go to people's hearts and gave it its wonderful success. That last chapter came to one's mind again and again like the final high, despairing note of some old song that seems to tremble in the air like a lost hope. A sequel will simply mar the one master touch of the story, will make it false and commonplace like a thousand other novels. I don't see how the man could find it in his heart to mar a dream so perfect. A sequel to Trilby or to Romeo and Juliet would be scarcely less grotesque.

*   *   *

New books come and go, have their little day and are forgotten. They have a brilliant career of six months and are heard of no more. Who would think of reading "Ships that Pass in the Night," now, or "The Heavenly Twins?" There seem to be the time of ephemeral literature. If there were not a few of the old masterpieces left to shine like fixed stars above the rush lights, what would become of us and where would the frivolity of letters stop? Among these old masterpieces there is one too little read of late, but which will hold its place as long as the language stands. I speak of Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre." That is a book of other times and other manners; the sentiment and even the style of it are out of date, and yet one never opens its pages without feeling afresh the first charm of it. Dear me! how many changes and revolutions in thought and life that book has outlived, though it is not so very old. There are, I know, several opinions about the more sensational portion of the book, and I must confess that those midnight mysteries at Thornfield do not thrill me as they once did. The maniac's laughter now jars painfully on my sensibilities and the grand and gloomy Mr. Rochester semes to me a consciously theatrical personage and not very much of a gentleman. How either Miss Bronte or Jane could think him much of a hero I fail to see. But the part of the book which will never grow old is the first part treating of Jane's life at Mr. Brocklehurst's gloomy school. That is the part of the novel that is said to be autobiographical and to relate Miss Bronte's own experiences at the Cowan Bridge school for clergymen's daughters. That is the part of the picture that time cannot dim, for it was painted with heart's blood. I can see them all now as clearly as when I first read the book years ago; those cowed, half-starved girls trooping to church through the cold, as draggled as the sparrows on the hedges, their bare hands bitten by the frost. I can see the hard, harsh little woman, Miss Scatcherd, and the kindly Miss Temple who had Jane and Helen Burns to tea in her room that evening after Jane's disgrace. Poor Helen Burns, brilliant, erratic and patient, always dreaming over her Rassales in his Happy Valley, who herself was called to pass through the dark valley so soon; she will remain one of the saddest characters is fiction.