THE TRAIL OF THE SERPENT.*
Miss BRADDON has just republished a tale called The Trail of the Serpent, which appeared, it would seem, originally in some penny illustrated paper. At least its author declares that " she can never again feel the exquisite emotion aroused by the sight of the first proof-sheet of that story as it was presented to her,—very badly printed on very bad paper, and embellished with an oblong smudge, which demanded no small effort of imagination on the part of the beholder to accept as an illustration." The story has been in part rewritten since then, but Miss Braddon is evi- dently still a little ashamed of it, for she admits that it is open to the charge of "sensationalism, pure and simple," but still pleads in extenuation that " as 'the word ' sensation' was not perverted to its present use until after The Trail of the Ser- pent had run its unpretentious course, she may reasonably de- mand forgiveness on the ground of having offended an- * The Nail of the Serpent. By Woe Bratlion. -Loudon: Want and Zsck. consciously against the canons of modern literary criticism." Now we should like to know very much what this de- fenee means. Does Miss Braddon intend to say that the canon -which condemns mere sensation on artistic grounds, -a canon SA old as the Greek stage, which forbade murder before the audience, is a new one, or that it has been of late nn reasonably pressed by critics ? As the first assertion is not tenable, we shall presume she intends the second, and, as among the principal offenders, we will just state what we believe the modern canon to be. Any writer who can keep himself within .certain limits- of decency is at liberty to invent as many harrow- ing or surprising, incidents as he likes, subject only to the limita- tion that if he is too absurd the public will not buy his produc- tion. But if the-said writer wishes to be treated as an artist of mark he must -keep within certain " canons " settled not hy .critics, but by the general consensus of reading mankind. Among these is the canon that to produce a "sensation" by inci- dents excessively violent, or unnatural, or crowded is not true art, any more than it is true art to paint the face of a man just hanging from the drop, or harrow an audi- ence in a theatre by an excessive repetition of scenes of horror, or physical suffering, or death. A leper asylum on the stage would doubtless thrill an audience, but where is the art in, putting it there ? It does not take a genius to multiply mur- ders, or.get the carpenters to build prison scenes, or invent start- ling incidents such as could by no possibility occur. Art must have some relation to nature or it is unnatural, and therefore -either useless or evil. The canonical objection to sensation stories is not that they-are full of violent incidents, for many an admirable novel is full of violent incident, as, for example, Rob Roy, but that, they are either unnaturally full, or full of unnatural incidents. 'Our own objection is further that the function of art is not merely to relate circumstances, but to explain them., that a sound artist will, if he relies on a chain of events for his interest, strive hard to link that chain till one event visibly arises out of another, or to make it at the very least sufficiently probable not to arouse the•balf repulsive interest caused by a mere sensation. Take, for example, .as an extreme instance, this first novel of Miss Braddon's. Its value certainly does not consist in its style, for though we wil- lingly allow that she writes well now, she had not then .got out of the imitative stage, and the story is tesselated with bits which read as if they had been copied from Dickens, Dumas, and others, producing the oddest effect. Here, for instance, is Dickens *lightly travestied:— "I don't suppose it rained harder in the,good-town of Slopperton-on- the-Sloshy than it rained anywhere else. But it did rain. There was scarcely an umbrella in Slopperton that could hold its own against the rain that came pouring down that November afternoon, between the hours of four and five. Every gutterin High Street, Slopperton ; every glitter in Broad Street (which was of course the narrowest street); in New Street (which by the same rule was the oldest street); in East Street, West Street, Blue Dragon Street, and Windmill Street ; every gutter in every one of these thoroughfares was a little Niagara, with a maelstrom at the corner, down which such small craft as bits of orange- peel, old boots and shoes, scraps of paper, and fragments of rag were absorbed—as better ships have been in the great Northern whirlpool. That dingy stream, the Sloshy, was swollen into a kind of dirty Mississippi, and the graceful coal barges which adorned its bosom were stripped of the clothes-lines and flattering linen which usually were to be seen on their decks. A bad, determined, black-minded November day. A day on which the fog shaped itself into a demon, and lurked behind men's shoulders, whispering into their ears, Cat your throat! —you know you've got a razor, and can't shave with it, because you've been drinking and your hand shakes ; one little gash under the left ear, said the business is done. It's the best thing you can do. It is, really.'"
And here Dumas
"'Monsieur,' she says, people rarely insult Valerie de Cevennes withImpunity. You shall hear from my uncle to-morrow morning ; for to-night—' she lays her hand upon the mother-of-pearl handle of a little bell—he stops her, saying, smilingly, 'Nay, madame, we are not play- ing a farce. You wish to show me the door? You would ring that bell, which no one can answer but Finette, your maid, since there is no one also in this charming little establishment. I shall not be afraid of Finette, even if you are so imprudent as to summon her ; and I shall not leave you'till you have done me the honour of granting me an inter- view. For the rest, I am not talking to Valerie de Cevennee, but to Valerie de Lancy; 'Valerie, the wife of Elvino ; Valerie, the lady of Don Giovanni.' De Lancy is the name of the fashionable tenor. This time the haughty girl's thin lips quiver, with a rapid, convulsive movement. What stings her proud soul is the contempt with which this man speaks of her husband. Is it such a disgrace, then, this marriage of -wealth, rank, and beauty, with genius and art?"
Miss Braddon would not allege that she had attempted to develop character, and the merit of the tale, if it has any, must be in the incidents. Let us see what they are. A foundling of high parentage bred up by the workhouse, develops in that school into an usher, very handsome, very aristocratic, very
learned in modern languages, with a manner which enables him to pass as a French noble, and -a heart capable of every crime. After committing two murders, one for money on a man named Marwood, and the second on a sick child to conceal the first, Jabez North forges his employer's cheques, and then conveniently stumbles on a twin brother, so exactly like him as to deceive his betrothed, and this twin brother is conveniently dying. North carries the body to a heath, arranges it so as to represent a suicide, takes the brother's place 'for a few minutes, and then bolts, confident he has escaped detection. He goes to France, conveniently sees a note thrown to an actor by the wealthy and proud Valerie de Cevennes, follows her, drags from her waiting maid an admission of her secret marriage—secret marriages aro always popular in novels, not yielding babies there,-as they are apt to do in real life—conveniently finds a mimic who personates the actor, and says disrespectful -things of Valerie, supplies Valerie with poison, tempts her to kill 'her husband, and then, quite undaunted, marries 'her and her wealth. 'Ile goes to Spanish America, then to London, and 'finally sets up as a banker—•a thrilling instance of auccesiful clime. All this time, however, a deaf and dumb detective—quite an improvement on the regular article—has been collecting evidence against Jabez North, and describes his impressions on his fivers in this style For why ?' said the, angers, interrogatively, for why did I think as this 'ere gent was no good for this 'ore murder—for why did I tliiuk them chaps at Slopperton had got on the wrong soent ? Becauso ho was cheeky ? Lor bless your -precious eyes, miss' (by way of gallantry he addresses himself here to Isabel), ' not a bit of it ! When a oove good and cuts another cove's throat off-hand, it ain't likely he ain't prepared to cheek a police-officer. But -when I reokoa&l up this young gentle face, what was it I-see? Why, as plain as I see his nose and his mous- tachios—and he ain't bad off for neither of them,' said the fingers, parenthetically, ' I see that he hadn't done it. Now, a cove what's !screwed up to face a judge and juryonay be can face 'em, and never Change a line of his mug; but there isn't a cove as liven as oan stand that first tap of a detective's hand upon his shoulder as tells him, plain as words, "The game is up." The best of 'em, and the pluckiest of 'em, drops under that. If they keeps the colour in theirface—whieheome of 'em has got the power to do, and none as over tried it on can guess the pain—if they can do that 'ore, the perspiration breaks out wet and cold upon their for'eds, and that blows 'em. But this young gent—he was took aback, he was surprised, and he was riled, and used bad language, but his colour never changed.' "
One Marwood, nephew .of the murdered man, suspected 'Of the original niurder,lias gotont of an asylum vowingvengeance, a con- vivial club called the'Cheerful Cherokees pledge themselves 'to assist him, and 'after a series of incidents, or sensations, as we should call them, in the search for evidence, Jabez North 'is arrested. He takes that opportunity to -tell his wife's uncle that he is his own long forgotten son, the uncle takes that opportunity to say he does not care, -in speeches which Dames might have written, and then, after a sensational escape and rearrest,
" The last Slopperton saw of the Count do Marolles was a pale, hand- some face, a sardonic smile, and the delicate white hand which rested upon the door of the hackney coach. Next morning very early, men with grave faces congregated at street-corners, and talked together earnestly. Through Slopperton like wildfire spread the rumour of something, which had only been darkly hinted at the.gaol. The prisoner had destroyed himself ! Later in the afternoon it was known that he had bled himself to death by means of a lancet not bigger than a pin, which he had worn for years concealed in a chased gold ring of massive form and exquisite workmanship. The gaoler had found him, at six o'clook on the morning after his trial, seated, with his bloodless face lying on the little table of his cell, white, tranquil, and dead."
Prisoners condemned to death being usually taken from court in hackney coaches, and allowed to retain "chased gold rings of mas- sive form and exquisite workmanship." All this while Valerie's first husband, the actor, is alive, having only been stupefied by an opiate, conveniently hid himself for years, and then as conveniently reappeared to delight Valerie, who has found out North, but does not attempt to kill him also. Now besides being rubbish, is this plot sensational or not ? We con- tend that it is, that the events in it are not incidents, but im- probable situations, concocted solely to produce a momentary surprise, violent, improbable, and so numerous as to seem absurd. We dare say they would dramatize well for a suburban theatre, under the title of The Bloodstained Usher ; or, the Mysterious Murder of Marwood, but they bear no relation whatever to literary art. Any sharp school-boy familiar with the causes celebres could manufacture them by the ream, and would pro- bably bring them much closer within the range of possibility. That is no discredit to Miss Braddon, who has long since passed the intellectual point at whicli she must have compiled this farrago ; but it is a reason for not defending it, for not repub- lishing it, for abstaining from the assertion that the critics have unfairly made or pushed the canon which 'condemns stuff like
this. There is no harm in the book, not the least, and for aught we know it may please people who like to read in order to be kept awake ; but it is, as Miss Braddon admits, a specimen of sensationalism pure and simple, and therefore, as she does not admit, is bad.