Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

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


 

THE WORLD OF BOOKS: A Note on Miss Amelie Rives*


 

Amelie Rives, A Brother to Dragons, and Other Tales (New York: Harper & Bros, 1885).

Amelie Rives, "The Quick or the Dead?" Lippincott’s Magazine 41), 431-522; rpt. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1889).

 

Under the unimpeachable sanction of Mr. Aldrich’s approval, the story so strikingly entitled, "A Brother to Dragons," appeared anonymously in the Atlantic Monthly. Public curiousity in regard to it had previously been whetted; and when at length the story came, it was found to justify all expectations. The most casual reader could see that here was something fresh—imaginative, fearless, warm-colored, novel in tone. It is generally pretty safe, we all know, to follow the lead of Mr. Aldrich; and a chorus of praises arose. The inevitable faults of inexperience were present in this story, but the great critics heeded them not, caring mainly to encourage a young writer who displayed such power and promise. Then was revealed the personality of the author—which by no means lessened the charm surrounding her work. Other stories followed, from the same pen, and were received as was the first. Meanwhile the great throng of the critickins, who had been making microscopic note of the blemishes which were easily to be found in all these stories, grew terribly excited. In the breast of the critickin still exists that sensitive jealousy which was once supposed to characterize the whole critic class. Volumes of bitterness, therefore, were being stored up against the time when Miss Rives should fall under the displeasure of some critical or journalistic magnate. At length, all unconscious of what awaited her, Miss Rives sent forth her first novel—a work in which her faults lay peculiarly on the surface, and took a peculiarly salient form, and in which many of the distinctive beauties were such as to exasperate the critickins. At this juncture, two or three of the authorities came to the conclusion that since Miss Rives had now fairly entered upon the field of serious fiction, it was time they treated her to a little serious critical discipline. Their attitude changed. They proceeded to call to her attention all those faults which in her former work they had so blandly ignored. Then the storm fell. Of course there was a certain amount of just praise, as well as of just blame, among the comments which were so promptly called forth by "The Quick or the Dead?" But the fair judgements have been practically swamped in the torrents of mingled nonsense, spleen, misrepresentation and sensational vulgarity which have been vented upon the work. Certain critiques have come under my notice which are beneath contempt, the writers have evidently been moved by prurient imaginations to read into an honestly - passionate love-story the pet matter of their own thoughts. Another kind of would-be criticism, that of mere ignorance, calls for comment only when it appears in some journal whose high standing lends it currency. Such is the case with an article in The Writer for May, entitled "The English of Miss Amelie Rives." The article is to be taken seriously, because it appears in The Writer; I can imagine no other reason. It reads, in many respects, like the production of someone who has suddenly been introduced to the rudimentary laws of rhetoric, and, in the new delight of his acquisition, concludes that he has grasped the touchstone to the art of letters. A writer who can quarrel with the use of the word "quick" in the title of Miss Rives’s story, on the ground that, in the sense it here bears, it is only found "in the prayer-book once, in Shakespeare four times, and, in the authorized version of the Bible eight times," betrays a melancholy ignorance of the usage of imaginative literature. He seems refreshingly unaware of the effects of allusion and indirect reference, of what constitutes archaism, and of the special requirements and privileges of titulary phrase. In the sequel he goes on to make us question whether he has read his rhetoric far enough to learn the processes by which language grows and enriches itself, or to realize the value of a picturesque and figurative diction. It is pitiful to think what would become, under Mr. Nelson’s criticism, of such writers as Shakespeare and Milton, Scott and Byron, Ruskin and Tennyson. As for Carlyle and Robert Browning, they would simply be erased. I must add, however, that, amid all his pretentious absurdities, Mr. Nelson has stumbled into two or three just criticisms. Like most writers who have dared to be picturesque and fresh in their diction, Miss Rives now and again makes a mistake. Perhaps Miss Rives might, if the choice were given to her, choose rather to make a mistake with Shakespeare and Browning than to be faultlessly correct with - I was going to say with Mr. C. K. Nelson, but my glance falls upon the following sentence in his article: "To have a full sense of the violations of English usage made by Miss Rives, it is necessary to give several of them." This speaks for itself.

My purpose in the present note is to attempt an unprejudiced estimate of the genius of Miss Rives. As for her short stories, it seems they have deserved the eulogy which has been so lavishly bestowed on them. When we consider the age of the author - she is not yet 25 - it must be conceded that they are nothing less then wonderful. But it was cruel and misleading to treat them as mature productions. The "Brother to Dragons" and "The Farrier Lass o’ Piping Pebworth" possess the fundamental merits of fire, vigor, fulness of life and affluence. Their faults, on the other hand, are temporary; they are those of detail. They are never the faults of poverty. They spring either from impulse not fully disciplined to the restraints of technique, or from unripe scholarship. They are such as, by the very nature of her genius, which is self-conscious and self-questioning, Miss Rives would inevitably soon put behind her. The faults arising from poverty of genius may be disguised but never corrected; those of its profusion, besides being in themselves of happiest augury, when joined to the artistic impulse which is the obvious possession of Miss Rives, work directly toward their own rectification. The stories named have their scenes in the England of Elizabeth, and with an admirable insight and dramatic sympathy they reproduce the life of that England. In matters of detail unquestionably there are plenty of slips. There are anachronisms of an unobtrusive type, such as only a specialist is likely to ferret out. There are words and phrases used as no Elizabethan would have used them. These are blemishes which ought to be removed; but any pedant could remove them and they affect not the creation as a whole. The great matter is, that the atmosphere and mood of the period are brought before us, and we feel that the author has lived in them. Nothing short of genius will accomplish this - and genius of a most imaginative order. At the same time it is incumbent upon such genius to rectify and inconsistencies in characterization, like those we find now and again in the humbler personages of these tales. For the most part drawn to the life are these tales. For the most part drawn to the life are these characters, but in more than one instance Miss Rives has spirited away the personage with whom we had grown acquainted, and herself has taken his place behind the mask. This is a graver literary sin than any slip in Elizabethan usage; but the repentance, nevertheless, is easy.

The "Story of Arnon" calls for a separate reference. In common with the tales just considered, and with all Miss Rives’s work, it shows an eager impatience against the dilettante an pseudo-realistic methods of the day. (It is pseudo-realism, this of the present, which takes no account of the heroic, and fritters away its observant industry upon the commonplace). This story becomes melo-dramatic more than once; but this is compensated for by its largeness of conception, by the heat and color which suffuse it, and by its unflagging poetry. It is a splendid instance of its author’s power to create, out of scantiest material; and it contains a wonderful love-chant, professedly modeled on the Song of Solomon, which is the best thing of the sort I know of.

When Miss Rives undertook a novel, she found herself at work under new conditions. In very many respects, "The Quick or the Dead" is an advance on previous work. It shows growth, unquestionably. But among novels it can claim by no means so high a place as does the "Farrier Lass", for instance, among short stories. This novel, indeed, is a novel in name only. In fact, it is a short story expanded to the dimensions of a novel. There is little perspective, none of that gradual evolution which we look for in a work of sustained fiction. The whole story seems but one swift episode, displayed in a single blaze of intense light. It has been accused of lack of unity, - than which no accusation could be more absurd. Unity and perfect fusion are among the most prominent characteristics of the work. Its faults of execution are obtrusive, but they appear almost exclusively in those passages where the heroine is in one of her extreme moods of excitement. In such cases, I think, Miss Rives fails in artistic restraint. The heroine is a morbid, almost hysterical, self-absorbed, and very fascinating woman, who is painted with a most loving regard for her physical beauty, but at the same time, with pitiless penetration into her weaknesses. It is faithful to nature that such a women should display, at times, hysterical emotion, at times, crude thought. The reverse would be unnatural. But fidelity to nature does not require, and obedience to Art forbids, that these more extravagant manifestations of the heroine’s character should be so minutely portrayed to the reader. A mere touch would often be sufficient to reveal the truth to us; which Miss Rives, led astray by the fulness and completeness of her dramatic perception, puts down every detail of speech and thought. For the comprehension of the plot it is necessary for us to know of the heroine’s lack of self-discipline, but it is not necessary that we should watch the process of each of her fits of extravagance. Miss Rives might, it seems to me, remove these defects very easily. Some affectations of phrase might be remedied with like readiness; and the story would be entirely admirable. No law of art can require that the heroine should be always agreeable. She is to be accepted as a magnificent and soul-subduing woman, utterly a creature of impulse, selfish because it has never occurred to her to be otherwise, passionate but clean-hearted, sensuous but the very reverse of sensual. No one could find her disagreeable, save when compelled to witness her under most unpropitious circumstances. The hero, who is such a one as few dare now to make their heroes, is a bold and consistent creation.

When all deductions have been made, all strictures indulged, the story remains a remarkable and significant piece of work. It is militant, it assaults the finical methods of our present fiction. It is a chapter torn out of an exceptional and erratically vigorous life. It applies the processes of the realists to conceptions of the romanticists. It has drawn upon itself the wrath which awaits what is strikingly unconventional.

In conclusion, to me it does not seem to admit of doubt that this work manifests the essential excellences of genius, originality, imagination, power, and insight, together with an exquisite sense for color and cadence. The style is swift, throbbing, lyrical, - and at times calls for the curb. The descriptions are alive - they cut into one’s memory; and the sympathy they evince for wild nature is subtle and close. The merits, in a word, are those which, if not supplied by nature, are in no way to be acquired. The defects are those of accident and of the surface. I know of no other American writer who, at the age of Miss Rives, has shown quite such splendid promise—or, indeed, quite such admirable achievement.

 


"The World of Books: A Note on Miss Amelie Rives," Progress 1:4 (Saint John, N.B.), 26 May 1888, 6 [back]