Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

From "Marginal Notes"

(July 30, 1898)*


 

It is curious that there should be a coincidence of theme in two writers so different as Mrs. Humphrey Ward and Mr. George Moore. Yet it happens that Helbeck of Bannisdale and Evelyn Innes are both mainly concerned with the spiritual struggle in a woman's life and the impressive authority of Catholicism. Both belong to the psychological school of fiction; each is more than probable, and neither, it must be confessed, is a radiant or hearty tale. In both cases the wayward individual will, driven by its own promptings, is brought to unhappiness, and then confronted with the cold, unbending authority of instituted religion. In neither case is there a solution of the problem. Mrs. Ward begs the question by allowing the girl to do away with herself; Mr. Moore frankly shirks his responsibility by leaving his heroine's final conduct in doubt.

You might call either story a study in rebellion, or a soul's tragedy, so completely are they absorbed in tracing the inner life, with all its phases of triumph and despair; and I have no doubt many persons will find them deeply interesting. But I must admit they are a good deal too tepid for my taste. Not to put too fine an edge on the Queen's English, here are two fool women, Evelyn Innes a brainless wanton, and Laura Fountain, a heartless prig; I confess I am at a loss to decide which is the more obnoxious; but you may take your choice, and if you care to follow her fortunes for a few stormy years of complication, misgivings and unhappiness you will find them set forth with much insight, cleverness and elaboration. Mrs. Ward is not too clever, but Mr. Moore very often is; his novel might almost pass for a treatise on music, so heavily has he freighted it with learned disquisitions on early and modern composers. Possibly this is churlish criticism, however, and one ought rather to praise his wonderful knowledge of music and his keenly sympathetic interpretations of various musical creations. To musicians Evelyn Innes must prove very rich in suggestion; the girl's whole life is interwoven with the subtle influences of oratorio, chant and opera. I find the two books lacking in atmosphere and complete illusion; though in this respect Mr. Moore's story is the less sympathetic of the two, while he excels in searching philosophic analysis and intricate tracing of purpose. One thing you may as well know beforehand, the only admirable character in the two novels is Helbeck himself, and he was a bloodless. He was thoroughly a gentleman, however; that is no small favor to be thankful for in these days of vulgarization. And if his narrowness was insufferable, his manliness was fine.

Helbeck of Bannisdale is an English Catholic of old family and historic traditions, a devotee to his faith, a blameless ascetic, self-denying, unvindictive, generous, thoughtful, full of charitable acts, deeply read, narrow, fanatical, unflagging in zeal, logical, inflexible and intolerant; a born aristocrat, a Jesuit by training, and with his commanding figure a fair sample of the sort of hard nobility of character which that particular caste of religion engenders. To the ancestral home of this silent bachelor his widowed sister returns with her stepdaughter, Laura Fountion, the only child of a father who had been an extreme radical and freethinker. The girl, of course, is a blank heathen to Helbeck, with her self-will, her wild nature, her violent agnosticism, and her unyielding loyalty to her father's teaching. And, quite as much of course, they fall in love with each other, in spite of his uncompromising orthodoxy and her arrant skepticism. All that is most precious to him of conviction she despises with every fibre of her being, while the very foundations of her spiritual life are the unpardonable sin in his eyes. His calm faith and reliance on his faith rankle in her mind, while he grieves for her stubborn, wilful independence. The truth is she is jealous of his religion, and he is torn by the struggle between his natural love for her and his settled habit allegiance to an ideal. In such a character as his, and at such a time of life, there can be only one solution of that puzzle; his life-long observance of repression is too strong for the affluent promptings of the primitive heart. The girl must take a second place in his affections, or none at all. He does not see this, perhaps, but she feels it; and at last in desperation she breaks away from his kindly hospitality, leaves the invalid stepmother, and takes temporary shelter with friends in Cambridge. But without her nursing Mrs. Foundation grows dangerously worse, and Laura must return for her sake. At last, in the presence of suffering and death, it seems her headstrong spirit is overcome by the implacable authority and imperturbable serenity of the Church of Rome, and she is reconciled to Helbeck in a tumult of contrition. It is only a brief and self-deceiving conversion, however. Her farther's training and her loyalty to his ideals reassert themselves. And in this hopeless dilemma of soul she slips over a cliff into the brawling river at flood leaving a note for her old Cambridge friends, so that they alone know her death was not accidental. Her lover is left with his memories to pursue his way to the Jesuit novitiate.

Such a plot affords a very neat problem, psychical diagnosis and character painting for Mrs. Ward's sympathetic yet relentless analytical faculty. And while Helbeck, with his strict limitations, is the only character that wins us, I should think there could not easily be a more impartial presentation of the power of Catholicism over the human intellect. Catholics, I dare say, will find all the logic of the tale making toward their own set of conclusions. And yet one must doubt whether Mrs. Ward meant her argument to be read in quite that way. It might be nearer the truth to say that her aim was to be quite impartial toward her puppets and their fate, and it was her business merely to give as faithfully as possible a sense of the two opposing forces at war in the girl's nature-rationalism and belief (as it is called.) It is a study of unhappy destiny in two lives. "What a fate!-that brought them across each other, that has left him nothing but these memories, and led her, step by step, to this last bitter resource-this awful spending of her young life-this blind witness to august things!"

It is not a radiant story. The sombre shadow of tragedy hangs over every page. There are characteristics in the heroine, too, that exasperate one with her. Her heartless, ill-bred, trifling flirtation with her country cousin, Hubert Mason, while she was still a guest at Bannisdale, marks her worse than a shallow-pate. And I find myself wondering, at the end of the story, if a girl so flippant and selfish would be capable of committing suicide for a reason so purely mental. With this possible discrepancy, Helbeck of Bannisdale is an admirable piece of character delineation, a half convincing but not a stirring novel. I confess it seems to me very pale and thin, compared to the robust, humane masters of English fiction. Even in comparison with Marcella it suffers a little for want of vitality and charm. And while it is just criticism of Catholic ideas, it may not be unfair to say that it lacks the enthusiasm of greatness.

In Evelyn Innes we have a very different creature, under very different circumstances, but she too feels the potent spell of the Catholic Church. In her case it is the utterly weak vacillating character with no mind of its own, longing for some shelter in the rough weather of events. It does not ask for reason or conviction; it has no desire for truth, no capacity for self-reliance; it only asks to be delivered from the horror of it own indecision. As a problem, Mr. Moore's situation is less interesting than Mr. Ward's, because his heroine does not appreciate the tragedy in which she moves, to which she contributes. She is a slack, putty-natured, sentimental drab of a thing, "a rag and a bone and a hank of hair," with the gift of a marvelous singing voice. There are some women who are, as Arnold says,

                "Things that live and move,
Mined by the fever of the soul-
They seek to find in those they love
    Stern strength and promise of control

.      .      .

They ask a soul which never sways
    To the blind gusts that shake their own."

Evelyn Innes was one of that kind, and, once having passed the bounds of conventional conduct, she became the sport of her own irrational and shallow caprice. The revulsion of feeling against its own waywardness is inevitable in such a nature. Without resource in herself, she must shift the burden of discontent on to shoulders stronger than her own. It is for just such incapables that the Catholic Church proves a heavenly boon. It was natural enough that Evelyn should seek peace through confession; many women would have done that. But she was something inferior to the average woman: she was not content with confession to a priest; she must babble of her vagaries in the worst possible taste. If she were a man you would call her an unspeakable cad.

I suppose the book will meet with the usual brutalities of criticism for its theme. And Mr. George Moore is certainly not one of those who pretend that the cosmos is regulated by a Sunday school teacher. Still, I do not see how his Evelyn Innes can take a place among the books that ladies berate volubly over their teacups and read with avidity in secret. It is a dreary record, just another bit of the sad old history of the tired old world; but then so, is Helbeck of Bannisdale.


Untitled "Marginal Notes" column, Commercial Advertiser, July 30, 1898 [back]