Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


 

THE WORLD OF BOOKS: Important New Novels*


 

Eden. By Edgar Saltus. [1888] New York and Chicago: Belford, Clark & Co.

The Black Arrow. By Robert Louis Stevenson. [1888] New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Looking Backward. By Edward Bellamy. Boston: [1888] Ticknor & Co.

 

These are a part of the cream of recent fiction, and the selection of them for notice means that they are eminently noteworthy. Eden is another of those brief but almost flawless studies from New York life which Mr. Saltus has taught us to expect from his pen. As was the case with Tristrem Varick, the literary workmanship is something which the critic can only hold up as an example to the host of fiction- producers. Mr. Saltus is an artist in words. This story contains no piece of prose of such loveliness as the paraphrase from Flaubert in Tristrem Varick, but every page is a tissue of scintillations. The story is slight in plot, and rigidly condensed. It can be read at a sitting,—and is likely to be, as it has no convenient place to pause at. The conclusion is in striking contrast with that of Tristrem Varick, in that it is altogether satisfactory and non-pessimistic. It is not in all respects such a work as one would recommend for a Sunday school library, and nevertheless I think it is a thoroughly wholesome book for adult readers. Its central figure is a very beautiful creation, a woman whose purity and perfect refinement are as native to her as her breath,—a woman who is able to maintain her chivalrous ideals, and who sees the triumph of them, in the midst of a pessimistically cynical and worldly-wise society. The work is a realistic study of a phase of New York life, and shows the good and evil alike,—but the good much predominating, and in every way the more attractive and effectual. The pen portraits from New York society have a biting definiteness of outline which will keep them forever recognizable. Every stroke tells, and no stroke superfluous. It would be interesting to know whom Mr. Saltus intends by his portrait of "Mrs. Smithwick, the bride of a month, fairer than that queen whose face was worth the world to kiss, and who the previous winter had written a novel of such impropriety that when it was published her mother forbade her to read it." The delineation is one much to be regretted at the present time, when it is liable to be grossly misapplied. The most important blemish of the book, it seems to me, is to be found in the interview between Eden and her father, when Eden, in a fit of causeless jealousy, has left her husband. Mr. Menemon makes an admission to his daughter which may mean much and may mean little. Ambiguity is often a potent factor, but in this case it seems to me a distinct weakness. The point to which I take exception will be at once apparent to readers of the work

Mr. Stevenson is a master of style, with the finish of Mr. Saltus and a vastly wider variety, both of theme and treatment. The Black Arrow is a book that old and young alike should read. Boys might educate themselves upon it, as upon Robinson Crusoe. It is a story of adventure, set amid the Wars of the Roses, and overflows with excitement and incident and life. A bit of a love story, contrary to Mr. Stevenson’s custom, runs through the tale, greatly to the satisfaction of us poor mortals, who cannot forget how large apart of life is love. The love story is wholesome, tender, unsentimental, and, duly or unduly, subordinated to everything else! I believe Mr. Stevenson would have left it out altogether, if he could; but it was essential as an inspiration to some of the doughty deeds he so loves to depict. It seems superfluous to praise Mr. Stevenson, who makes a new departure with every new work, and finds no rival but himself. I can only say of The Black Arrow, that whoever has not read it yet is fortunate. He has an attainable delight before him.

Mr. Bellamy’s book seems somewhat out of place among those of Mr. Saltus and Mr. Stevenson. It is a "novel with a purpose;" and the novel disappears beneath the purpose. In fact, I think it is a virtuous fraud to call the work a novel. The delusive title may mislead many an unsuspecting reader into an acquaintance with noble and humane ideas which he would have otherwise been able to avoid. They are such ideas as many of us strenuously desire to avoid, lest an insufficiently toughened conscience should find their contact painful. Mr. Bellamy, like Plato and Sir Thomas More, and some others who were not without consideration in their day, does not regard the accepted social order as a creation sprung perfect from the brain of God. In fact, he is one of those daring innovators who think that human happiness might be more evenly and fairly distributed than it is at present. Yet Mr. Bellamy is not in sympathy with Herr Most! The book is written with great practicality and deep earnestness. The thread of the story, though slight, ingeniously interesting, so that it is a mind of very small calibre that could find the work unreadable. Thoughtful men and women, who are concerned with the social problems of the day—as who are not—can afford to think long over this novel.

 


"The World of Books: Important New Novels," Progress 1:21 (Saint John, N.B.), 22 September 1888, 6 [back]