An Appreciation of the Novels of Mrs. Henry Wood
By Dr. Alexander Japp
(a friend of Wood, and therefore a positive view of her books)
There are fashions in books as there are fashions in dress. We are sometimes inclined to wonder nowadays at the tastes and the patience of our ancestors, who would pore with delight over the somewhat tedious epistolary pages of Richardson, or even over the more concentrated passages of Jane Austen, to which her keen knowledge of character and motive within a widened range imparted new accesses of interest. Yet it is not too much to say that probably the readers of the end of next century will wonder as much at some of our predilections.
The truth is that, just as the sciences oscillate, so do tastes and appetites, even in the refined sphere of literature of the fictitious kind. One school overdoes its speciality, and people get sated and demand an indulgence in the very opposite. And so the pendulum swings. Sometimes all the rage is for realism, and the realists out-Herod Herod; and then once more comes in fantasy, extravagance, and all manner of caprices and eccentricities.
We owe something to the writers who manage to unite the two tendencies, and as it were stand on the happy mean, and secure permanence, combining realistic and faithful portraiture with invention and incident, mystery, surprise, and sensation; imparting new interests to everyday affairs; and who, while catching hold of the sublime, ethical principles that penetrate all life, manage to invent as well as to represent, and so reveal to us the very spirit and secret meaning of the life amid which we move.
These are the writers who have most chance to live. Mr. Anthony Trollope was a great photographer, but he sometimes lacked invention as he lacked Ethos, and it told upon his books, as it is likely to tell upon their permanent hold. Mr. Charles Reade sometimes overdid the Ethos, and was besides too egotistical and too little dramatic, however dramatic he was in style and form; and he is likely to lose considerably with the future on this score. George Eliot was a very great artist, but she too was over-reflective, and despised a little what is ordinarily called action or movement.
Mrs. Henry Wood combined in a remarkable degree these two powers or qualities - realistic portraitures of men and women, with invention, construction, and surprises. She successfully used sensational elements for moral ends, and so at the most fitting moment met a great need and corrected a vicious tendency, hardly otherwise corrigible. It is because we believe her remarkable merits and services in this regard have hardly yet had full recognition - her invention, as seen in some of her less successful works, having been dwelt on too much to the exclusion of those in which both elements were happily united - that we would endeavour to justify the position we would thus claim for her as a novelist, the best of whose work has not only been a source of delight and elevation to the present generation, but is likely to hold its place for many generations to come.
It is one of the highest proofs of creative power that the artist can afford to wait - to let the characters develop themselves. 'Raw haste, half-sister to delay,' is just as ruinous here as in matters of practical conduct.
So much is this a sine qua non in fiction that a 'retarding element' is often introduced, and indeed sought for and desiderated by the critics, which is, at the best, simply a kind of artificial expedient to supply the place of the other - an attempt to make mere trick of artificial construction do the work of insight into life and its morale.
One of the true tests of success is the sense of sympathy and toleration - the power of impressing the reader with a complete belief in the reality of the characters on the author's part, as though they had been lived with, observed, patiently 'put-up-with,' and had sometimes amused, and sometimes vexed and irritated.
The result is that they affect you precisely as the author feels that they affected her. This implies a close attention to the smallest details of conduct, habit, and idiosyncrasy. This gave the sense of reality to Jane Austen and Miss Ferrier: it also gives force and attraction to the stories of Mrs. Henry Wood.
But in her case you also find a new order of agencies brought into play.
She is apt at incident, situation, and sensational surprise. Her plots are completely thought out - very seldom do loose threads appear; and yet in the most successful and popular of her novels there is no sense of inharmoniousness. The characters are caught up, involved in the most unexpected circumstances of mystery and crime; but each retains the dominant characteristic, only modified, it may be, as to its energy and the manner of expression.
In Lady Adelaide, for instance, we see all this; and the effects of the burden of a secret on the human heart, with no pretence of casuistry, is revealed. So too in The Red Court Farm, and The Master of Greylands, where evil traffic persisted it leaves effects not only on those innocently involved in its coils, but also on those who, having once committed themselves to an unworthy course of action, found to their cost that the ends they had purposed were defeated by the very means taken secretly to secure them.
And yet, in the midst of all this, we have a group of persons as truly real as those we meet with every day.
In The Master of Greylands we have the querulous, exacting mistress, the tomboy Flora, who sets the house by the ears, and Ethel Reeve, so sweet, patient, and confiding, and Mr. North whose courtship of Ethel is the most natural conceivable - not to mention the worthy pair, so well contrasted in temper and ways, Mr. And Mrs. Bent, at the inn.
Miss Castlemaine, too, who becomes head of the Grey Sisters, and at the last refuses the weak-kneed fellow who allowed her father to separate them and to choose a wife for him, and this though he had now become a baronet - Sir William Blake-Gordon, and a most tempting parti. But you feel that Mary Ursula is exactly the woman who, having once chosen such a work, would stick to it - having put her hand to the plough, would not turn back.
Not seldom the very absence of all conscious artistic elaboration aids the effects of reality and truth, which it is the business of the novelist to secure; and the immense and lasting success of Mrs. Henry Wood's novels demonstrates this in face of the superfine and captious criticism of which she had occasionally been the subject.
In opposition to a very great deal of this, we have found, as a result of the elements we have hinted at, and in some of her novels in its very highest form - notably in Lord Oakburn's Daughters, George Canterbury's Will, The Red Court Farm, Mildred Arkell, and St. Martin's Eve one of the most rare and at the same time one of the most unmistakable evidences of the true power in creative art; and that is the quality of inevitableness in the development of the characters.
You can foresee in a general way how the thing will necessarily end, and this only whets the desire to know how it will end.
Take Lord Oakburn's Daughters. The characters of the four sisters are admirably contrasted and sustained. Lady Jane, so serious and self-respecting, so submissive to tradition and legitimate authority, so considerate of others and yet so ready to defy what she regarded as unjust or really inconsiderate towards herself, there is no likelihood that she should compromise herself, or act in any headstrong manner. Lady Laura is headstrong, vain - a flirt from the first moment that we see her - sure almost to fall into some pit dug for her by any one who is designing enough and cool enough to carry out the deception in a polished manner. As for that dead sister, it is evident that she was independent in character, and too self-reliant, without the check of insight and experience, and also rushed on her fate through other defects than her sprightlier and more foolhardy sister. The picture of Lady Jane, when her father, to her surprise, brought back the governess as his wife, is one in which mastery of situation and faithful character-drawing are alike conspicuous. And then the youngest, we see in her precisely the influence we should expect from Lady Jane, sufficient to steady and to guide.
We find the same power in George Canterbury's Will.
The leading characters are all life-like, real - what is more, their character is their fate. Caroline, who rejects the honest, frank and manly Thomas Kage, for the sake of George Canterbury's money, and who, when the time comes, fancies she has only to throw herself at Thomas Kage to be accepted, we see her fate prefigured in the very capability for so acting. She rejected the gold for the tinsel when the gold was at her feet, and finds herself the slave and victim of the tinsel at the last, when, in reaction, she weds the designing, unscrupulous scoundrel, Captain Dawkes.
'A knave is nothing but a fool with a circumbendibus' was hardly ever better illustrated.
And Captain Dawkes, too, we see his fate prefigured in the very first glimpse we have of him. But Mrs. Wood manages to sustain the needful interest in the contemptible creature by the play of a fine humour. Some of the scenes in which he figures with his sister Keziah are very powerful; and the relations in which the two place themselves to the old, crusty, good-hearted, penetrating, half-deaf Mrs. Garston, with her stick and its significant rap-rap when she has anything emphatic to say, may take rank with the studies of the earlier masters for truth, realism, and incisive portraiture.
And Mrs. Henry Wood has the genius to act on Charles Reade's motto without affecting it.
The characters unfold themselves by word, by action; she does not describe, or describes but little. For faithfulness of outline, for force of penetration, few studies in character of recent years have been better than old Mrs. Garston. Millicent Canterbury and Keziah (given up, with all a weak woman's fondness, to the hopeless task of reforming a rake, or at least of catering for him when she can) are fine contrasts; as are Thomas Kage and Barnaby Dawkes. Nor do we forget Lady Kage and her peculiarities, nor poor Belle Annesley and her fate, which imparts a pathetic colour to the latter part of the story. Here, less than in some other of Mrs. Wood's stories, there is no strain in the plot; the conception is simple, natural; and the characters in working out their destiny create, as it were, the action and the complexity of circumstances. The story has very great elements of interest.
In Roland Yorke, too, you see the same tokens of power. The various characters forecast themselves; poor Hamish Channing, too sensitive, delicate, tremulous, with fine genius unrealised or undeveloped; Gerald Yorke, with his lacquer polish, pretension, low cunning, jealousy, and mean revenge; and Roland Yorke, incapable of finesse as incapable of suspicion, though his instincts about Gerald hold him right. That scene where Roland is summoned to the bedside of his relative, the baronet, whom he is to succeed, and cannot be made to realise it possible that he can be successor to the wealth and title, in its own way excellent.
Poor Roland - with his tons of frying-pans in Natal, a drug and a failure, which he cannot help referring to, in his frank, boyish way, to the constant discomfort, even disgust, of some of his friends - was a true gentleman at heart; the unconventional, Nature's gentleman; and as such Mrs. Wood meant him to be accepted, in contrast to the polish and veneer of that gentleman of the world Gerald Yorke. That there is no definite pointing of the contrast only makes the effect the more felt - the author leaves the contrasted pictures to point their own moral, just as in life itself.
In Dene Hollow, too - though here a great deal more of the mysterious is introduced and used effectively for the author's purposes - we have proof of the same power in the portraits of Tom Clanwaring and his cousin Geoffrey, in Maria Owen, and at least one other character.
In Verner's Pride, also, we note the presence of the same characteristics, associated more with plot, mystery, and surprise, which Mrs. Wood, in her happier conceptions, knew so well how to combine with fresh, natural studies of life.
Who that has read Verner's Pride can forget the trials of that honest gentleman Mr. Lionel Verner, so resolved to do right, yet acting fatally under impulse in submitting himself to the wiles of a designing siren, and rejecting a faithful lover, who, however, proved herself to be one of the truest stamp, and in the end found her reward; or Jan, that genuine, but awkward medical practitioner, despised by his family, who were, indeed, half-shamed of him, but who in a crisis could do the most self-denying things without any thought that they deserved any particular notice, and finally surprised them all by making such a marriage - 'poor, despised, ill-dressed Jan' - as brought honour to the house.
That is a true study, - close, careful, loving, direct from life, surely; we cannot fancy that any novelist would or could invent, such a character, and never have known, some time or other, just such a one, and understood and loved him as he deserved.
It is long since we came to the conclusion that no effort of invention can produce a true character; that all the most excellent work of the novelist is, after all, as Goethe said, re-presentation; that, in its highest aspects, fiction is a mirror of life and character - no more, no less.
What is merely spun out of the brain is like the cobweb spun out of the spider's inside; it may shine and glimmer in the sun, but the slightest wind blows it away, and leaves no more record or impression than if it had not been.
What an author has met, faithfully observed, and lovingly and patiently dwelt on, is that which pleases us - which holds us as with a sense of right. The fable may be and must be in so far invented; but that, with a true novelist, is only the string on which the jewels are strung. The art lies in preserving the sense of consistency in character and act, and making it minister to the fable or the movement.
In her best moods Mrs. Henry Wood does this, as George Eliot and Mrs. Gaskell did it. She tells us what she has known and felt; and every now and then we are pulled up with a sense of surprise, remarking to ourselves: 'That, at any rate, is a bit of autobiography, nothing less.' In The Channings, and yet more expressly in Mrs. Halliburton's Troubles, this is felt; and in Johnny Ludlow the peculiar way in which the author's experiences are involved with those of the young lad forms one of the main attractions in the book.
The reader may not always realise this; it was not the intention of the author that he should realise it, and the triumph of her art is here - that what she has seen and known is so faithfully translated to us through the medium of a young and forming mind - a mature mind speaking through the medium of a young mind without any sense of egotism or contradiction.
But all the time, while we believe in Johnny Ludlow, we know that Johnny Ludlow is himself a creation, in the sense of being indirectly represented, like any other character. The simpler the art in this kind - the less of consciously-created machinery used as a means to forward the author's plan - the more of dramatic genius in the higher sense we have, for it is much easier to spin a fable than to portray a character consistently and continuously on the mere planes of ordinary life and incident.
It was universally acknowledged, on the appearance of the first Johnny Ludlow papers, that they were masterpieces in their own line. The later ones, it may be, failed a little in the freshness, the clear outline, the natural atmosphere that marked the earlier. This was also unavoidable; but even they would have made a reputation if they had come first.
The dramatic atmosphere is so well maintained. It is the young lad who speaks from first to last - there is no lapse in this respect. Even if he becomes a little loose and garrulous, and inclined to dwell on less important points, it is still Johnny Ludlow to whom we listen. The pathos is natural and never forced; the humour is never hackneyed; all the world of that gruff, bluff, kindly old Worcestershire squire is painted for us with the simplest realism, seen through the double medium of the squire's experience and Johnny's inexperience or half-experience.
Mrs. Wood's rare knowledge of boy-nature, and her insight into it, of which we had many evidences in The Channings, Lady Grace, etc., comes out here in a very definite and attractive manner.
Johnny Ludlow was published with the utmost secrecy as to authorship at first; and yet, though the Argosy, Mrs. Wood's own magazine, was the medium, the secret was kept for a long time - in fact, the papers were issued in book form, and had been reviewed in all the leading critical journals, before the authorship was guessed at; and then it was divulged, not by a reviewer, as a result of insight, but by the author.
Mrs. Wood apparently had a purpose by thus acting. It had become the habit of criticism to treat her as though she were merely a spinner of plot, - a dealer in murder, mysteries, surprises, and moving accidents of all kinds. She took the best means of disproving these allegations, and at the same time had the very best sort of victory over the reviewers that it is possible for an author to have. The self-same elements that were so highly praised in the first Johnny Ludlow volumes were the very qualities that had so long and persistently been denied to her.
And the victory of the author over the reviewers did not end here. For this reason: that a careful and acute critic, had he read with close attention and impartial eye the earlier novels of Mrs. Henry Wood, could scarcely have escaped finding that her treatment of boy-nature, from the beginning, was just such to lead to expectation of such a work as Johnny Ludlow.
We look in vain elsewhere for such renderings. Other authors, like Mrs. Hodgson Burnett, have made admirable little panel pictures, if we may call them so, with a single figure set forward marked by unmistakable grace and sentiment, as in Little Lord Fauntleroy; but there is a sense of exceptional and over-refined delicacy about this work as about others of its class; a remoteness from real boy nature; a something so wistfully select and uncommon that it strictly belongs to a class by itself. It stands to Mrs. Wood's Johnny Ludlow papers, and the sketches of boy-life in the earlier novels, precisely as a painting of the Watteau type does to the realistic delineations of the French peasant-painter, Millet. In Mrs. Henry Wood you have the English boy set before you precisely as he is, with all his frank honesty, with all his ingenuousness, with all his unconscious rudeness, his insouciance, his trickiness, and his queer mixture of unaffected affectation and capacity for cruelty, in certain directions. No lady-writer, in this respect, has ever approached her.
We recall here, as a feeble justification of what we have said, a little passage from Lady Grace - a novel that has some of the weakness as well as much of the strength of the author - in which two half-brothers are set before us - Cyrus and Charley Baumgarten; very fine boy-studies indeed. The two are at College School in a Cathedral City, and there is a chronic feud between the boys of that school and the boys of a Charity School near by. One day Charley - the younger - gets set upon by a posse of these boys, and his big brother reaches him just in time to beat them off. He then leads Charley, whom, on his own account, he constantly bullies and sits upon, into the cloisters and soothes him; and the dialogue which follows stands almost alone, at once, for truth, humour, and pathetic touches.
In A Life's Secret we have some very remarkable work in the way of character-study - the more that we know that Mrs. Wood had never come into any personal relation with the class she there so effectively paints.
The life of the workmen at Hunter & Hunter's, the contractors, in their very contrasted types, are exhibited with fidelity, force, and the finest sense of dramatic effect. All the life of Daffodil's Delight, both in its brighter and shadier aspects, the low-cunning and self-serving, fox-like pertinacity of some, the generous self-denial and unconscious heroism of others towards neighbours in misfortune or in sickness; the squalor, sly, drunkenness, and vice on the part of some, and the patient well-doing and unpretending honesty and faithfulness of others - all is pictured with the clearness and decision which one could have fancied only possible to close familiarity and daily observation.
The finest work, in this respect, is in the exhibition of what are the most unpleasant types in themselves - another proof of power.
Sam Shuck in his own way is unique; the pattern of all the low, cunning strike-leaders that have been, or are to be, who, themselves inefficient and incompetent in work, or incurably lazy, would sacrifice the peace and happiness of neighbours for the sake of indulging, as long as they may, their love of fine clothes and good dinners, and posing as persons having influence and authority, whose 'gift of the gab' and low cunning are their capital.
We wish we had space to give the picture of the first meeting of the workmen, with Sam Shuck's irresistible speeches, or the episode of Sam Shuck's defeat, when, disguised, he forms one of a party to maltreat the men who had gone back to work, and which in Austen Clay - a natural and consistent piece of portraiture from first to last - shows himself the better man.
The whole thing is relieved by the sketches of the Quales, the Baxendales, and a few others; and the pathetic touches associated with Mary Baxendale and her mother are made the more effective from their unexpectedness, and the force of contrast with what is around and prevailing. Mary Baxendale is indeed a fine character, sketched in a spirit of large sympathy; and that episode of self-denial in the pawning of her one little bit of 'fine art' is indeed touching. And Mrs. Dunn - the eager supporter of Shuck in his first efforts, and his unyielding enemy in the end - is also good. 'Ain't nine hours a day enough for the men to be at work?' she urges. 'I can tell the Baxendales what - when we've got the nine hours all straight and sure, we shall demand eight - 'Tain't freeborn Englishers as is going to be put upon. It'll be glorious times, girls, won't it?'
Text: Charles. W. Wood, Memorials of Mrs. Henry Wood, London: Bentley, 1894.