19 NOVEMBER 1881, Page 15


DEMOCRACY: AN AMERICAN NOVEL.* Tuts is a very brilliant little book, of the authorship of which we have no knowledge whatever. Its chief object is, of course, to attack the corruptions of American democracy, but there is truly marvellous skill in the literary form which, without in-

• Democracy : an American Novel. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

eluding anything even verging on a political dissertation, without even a tendency to injure the lightness and bril- liancy of a novelette, yet contrives to produce, in a very much more telling shape than any political dissertation could supply, the impression of the leaden monotony, the deadly inertia, the vulgar self-interest, the sodden com-

plexity of the moral influences which, according to the author, determine all the secondary agencies in the legisla- tive and administrative policy of the great Republic. We do not for a moment mean to say that the picture thus given us produces a just impression. Indeed, it is obvious enough that wherever any issue of the first magnitude is present to the mind of the country, these corrupt secondary influences are compelled to act within very closely circumscribed limits, and never dispose of the greater questions at all. But however un- true the general effect may be, what the anonymous author

meant to paint, he has painted with extraordinary force and vividness, and without for a moment dropping the interest of

his little story. Those who used to admire the late Lord Beaconsfield's success in grafting political interests on a romance, would find the same thing done with far greater skill and delicacy of touch in the present story, the author's object being to dismay his readers with the utter dreariness and vulgarity of the politics he intends to portray, while never for a moment relaxing his hold of their sympathies for the

heroine of his tale. So far as we can judge, the writer of this little tale has no latent sympathy with monarchy or aristo- cracy. Whenever he glances at either of these, it is with some- thing very like a sneer. But what he desires to depict in American democracy is the flagrant vulgarity and coarseness of the indivi- dual self-interests which battle with, and override, the interests of the whole community. He evidently holds that in the American democracy at least, there are no characters pre-eminent enough in nobility of purpose, popular influence, or political know- ledge, to command the respect of the whole people in de- feating the cunning conspiracies of the Party wire-pullers.

One would suppose that such a thesis would be irrelevant and tedious in a novelette. .On the contrary, the whole interest of the novelette is made to depend upon it, and is made all the keener for the coarse political by-play with which it is bound up.

Mrs. Lightfoot Lee is a young and restless widow, who, after

losing a husband and baby to whom she was devotedly at- tached, plunges first into philanthropy, and then into politics, in the hope of winning back some intellectual interest in life which may fairly fill up the void in her heart. She goes to Washington, to gain some insight, if she can, into the springs of popular power. " What she wished to see, she thought, was the clash of interests, the interests of forty millions of

people and a whole continent, centring at Washington ; guided, restrained, controlled, or unrestrained and uncontrollable by men of ordinary mould, the tremendous forces of government, and the machinery of society, at work." She had rejected the idea of Swift, that he who made two blades of grass grow where only one grew before, deserved better of mankind than

the whole race of politicians. "She could not find fault with the philosopher," she said, " had he required that the grass should be of an improved quality." But she remarked, " I cannot honestly pretend that I should be pleased to see two New York men, where I now see one ; the idea is too ridiculous ; more than one and a half would he fatal to me."

So to Washington Mrs. Lee goes, and there studies the problem of democracy in the particular form of the character of Mr. Silas P. Ratcliffe, the Senator for Illinois, otherwise called the " Peouia Giant," whose is the one master-mind of the Republican organisation, and who holds the key of all the party combinations of the capital. In her desire to see something of the sources of political power, she discovers a good deal of its hollowness. She hears the whole correspond-

ence between the wirepullers on one side, and the new Presi- dent on the other, "with Sam Grimes, of North Bend." At last, she reaches the inmost altar of the god of Democracy. Nothing is more spirited than the account of the amazement, and even terror, with which Mrs. Lee observes the first evening reception of the new President,—" Old Granite," as his friends

call him, " Old Granny," as he is nicknamed by his foes,—and anticipates that in this mechanical worship of Democracy, the new age will find its euthanasia :—

" Then, Madeleine found herself before two seemingly mechanical figures, which might be wood or wax, for any sign they showed of life. These two figures wore the President and his wife ; they stood, stiff and awkward, by the door, both their faces stripped of every sign of intelligence, while the right hands of both extended themselves to the column of visitors, with the mechanical action of toy dolls. Mrs. Lee for a moment began to laugh, but the laugh died on her lips. To the President and his wife, this was clearly no laughing matter. There they stood, automata, representatives of the society which streamed

past them What a strange and solemn spectacle it was ! and how the deadly fascination of it burned the image upon her mind ! What a horrid warning to ambition ! And in all that crowd, there was no one besides herself who felt the mockery of this ex- hibition She groaned in spirit. ' Yes, at last I have reached the end ! We shall grow to be wax images, and our talk will be like the squeaking of toy dolls. We shall all wander round and round the earth, and shake bands. No one will have any other object in this world, and there will be no other. It is worse than anything in the " Iuferno." What an awful vision of eternity !' "

Mrs. Lee further forms a friendship with Lord Skye, the British Minister, and discovers that " a certain secret jealousy of the British Minister is always lurking in the breast of every American Senator, if he is truly democratic ; for democracy, rightly understood, is the Government of the people, by the people, for the benefit of Senators, and there is always a danger that the British. Minister may not understand this political principle as he should."

One very skilful touch among the early pictures of Mrs. Lee's life in Washington, is the discovery quickly made by her that the most cultivated Americans in Washington feel the same sort of delicacy in talking freely of the democratic principle, which culti- vated Englishmen so often feel in talking freely of the religious principle. Mr. Gore, a historian, and candidate for the post of American Minister to Madrid, is one of the first to encourage Mrs. Lee to believe in the Illinois Senator—to whom, indeed, he looks for support in his candidature—but when challenged as to how far he accepts that fundamental principle of demo- cracy of which Mr. Ratcliffe is the most effective representative, he replies, "These are matters about which I rarely talk in society ; they are like the doctrines of a personal God, of a future life, of revealed religion ; subjects which one naturally reserves for private reflection." And as that is the attitude of the acuter and more refined minds towards democracy,— which they regard as a " universal postulate," too awful, deep, and far-reaching for ordinary discussion, — of course its consequences, or what are supposed to be its conse- quences, are accepted with a sort of fatalist resignation, even when they are wholly pernicious and corrupting. Mrs. Lee falls under the spell of Mr. Silas P. Ratcliffe, the powerful, coarse, unscrupulous Senator from Illinois, and is very near being drawn by him into the muddy whirlpool of Washington politics, and turned, against her will, into one of the chief social springs of the lobbying in Washington. The story of this danger is made the main thread of the novel, and most admirably is the interest kept up, so as neither to merge the novel in political life, ror to lose sight for a moment of the social aspect of Washington politics. The interest of the struggle for Mrs- Lee is very powerful, and the side-portraits are all so skilful, from Sibyl, the pretty and practical sister of Mrs. Lee, and Mr. Carrington, the dejected Virginian barrister, who is Mr. Ratcliffe's chief rival, down to Miss Victoria Dare, who affects a little stammer when she is saying anything more than usually impudent, the Voltairian minister from Bulgaria, and the miser- able President and his wife, that the story grows quite dramatic. Mrs. Lee becomes the pet detestation of the new President's wife, who cannot endure a refined woman who knows what dress means ; and so soon as it is rumoured that Mr. Silas P. Ratcliffe,—the great Peonia Giant,—is bent on making her his wife, all the political eddies of Washington seem to be intent on sucking her into the maelstrom. Victoria Dare retails to Mrs. Lee the choicest bits of gossip about her. " Your cousin, Mrs. Clinton, says you are a ca-ca-cat, Mrs. Lee."—" I don't believe it,Victoria. Mrs. Clinton never said anything of the sort." —" Mrs. Marston says it is because you have caught a ra-ra- rat, and Senator Clinton was only a m-m-mouse." Carrington, who has some knowledge of the disreputable political intrigues in which Mr. Silas P. Ratcliffe has been involved, and who is him- self in love with Mrs. Lee, does all in his power to open her eyes to the true character of Mr. Silas P. Ratcliffe, and the kind of ambition to which she will surrender herself, if, in her passion for self-sacrifice, she chooses to be absorbed into his political career. Long the struggle remains doubtful, and the author with great subtlety uses the various vicissitudes of the battle to give one picture after another of the political intrigues of democratic life. At length the crisis comes, in a grand ball given by the British Minister to a Royal princess of his Sovereign's own family, who, with her husband, the Grand Duke of Saxe-Baden- Hombonrg, comes on a tour of pleasure. The scene of this ball, in which there is a dais for the President and his wife, and' another dais for the Grand Duke and Duchess, while Mrs. Lee is used by the Grand Duchess—who is dressed, by the way, in an ill- fitting black silk, with false lace and jet ornaments, and makes her- self extremely unpleasant—as a sort of amulet with which to keep, off the approaches of the President's wife, for whom she has con- ceived the most deadly disgust, is admirably painted, and is painted too with that exactlybalanced disgust for Royalty and Democracy which seems to indicate the universal political pessimism of the author. After the departure of the Princess, Mr. Silas P. Ratcliffe seizes his opportunity to make a bid for the great prize at which he has so long been aiming. And in the story of how he is foiled, the author strikes his final blow at the cor- ruption of Democracy. We will not attempt to diminish the interest of the reader by giving extracts from the tale—which is so short that it may be read in two or three hours without losing any of its points. But this we will say, that blank and pessimist as its political doctrine appears to be, the literary skill with which it is executed suggests the touch of a master-hand. Whose that master-hand is, the present writer has no guess, but not often has he read a political novel" in which the political significance has been more perfectly blended with literary interest, so as to create a lively and' harmonious whole.