23 FEBRUARY 1884, Page 20


Veetigia nulla retrorsum would be a good remark to begin a criticism of this book, for it is beyond doubt that in the art of novel-writing the authoress has advanced, not receded. This is the best book she has written. From the first, however, this lady's writing has possessed one element of genius,—it is essen- tially genuine personal work, based upon the writer's own experience of "men, women, and things in general." Her first essay in fiction, A Nile Novel, left us all wanting to go to Egypt; her second accomplished the feat of making a Syrian trip interesting, without resort to what Mark Twain describes as "the revolver in one hand and the pocket-handkerchief in the other" style of travel; and the third novel gave a picture of Italian life as true as it was vivid. It must now be three or four years since this last-mentioned book, the Head of Medusa, first appeared, and it has been only just followed by the work of which we are about to write. Vestigia, so the book is called, is a story of life in an Italian sea- port (Leghorn), and brings us into contact not with rich American and English tourists, but with the class of poor clerks, political refugees, and fishermen. There is only one well-off person in the story, and he is a dissolute young noble, who serves as a sort of dens as maelaina to its development. The story is a simple one, scarcely consist- ing of more than a single episode, the characters are few, the canvas upon which the whole is placed is small and unpretentious. Nevertheless, this book marks an advance in the writer's powers of very considerable extent; and to begin with, it is absolutely free from all trace of effort; its characters are persons, not types, its scenery falls into its due place, and never tempts us to fancy that the book exists for the sake of introducing a mountain, a lake, or a sunset. Mirage and A Nile Novel were really in essentials, books of travel written by a clever, well-read woman, who possessed exceptionally keen powers of observation, both for character and the natural world. They pleased by their freshness, truth, and a certain abundance of life and emotion, which coloured all the descriptions and the conver- sations with a glow as of an autumn sunset. But their love-stories were of an ordinary type enough, and were only tolerable from the fresh local colour with which the writer managed to endow them. Both the heroines were evidently reflections of the writer's feeling and personality, both the heroes were the usual cross between the languid Apollo and the blase Frenchman. In each work alike the minor characters were good, gracefully and vividly sketched in, and full of individuality. The third novel, the Head of Medusa, was essentially a great advance upon these, though, from the fact of its treating of more hackneyed ground, and partly, perhaps, from a certain unpleasantness in the story, it was less noticed by the general public. It showed, however, that its authoress possessed a power of read- ing character and tracing its development under adverse and favourable influences, such as is given to few ; and to those who know the Roman scenes in which it was laid, it possessed the charm of recalling in almost every line some memory of the most delightful city of the world. But even in this third book the union between George Fleming's sympathy with scenery and flowers, and effects of light and shade, and all the myriad changes of nature, and her intellectual grasp of character and analysis of motive, was not quite complete. The pleasure gained from beauty of sight and sound, and the pleasure and interest given by perception and analysis, lay, as it were, side by side. It is in this aspect that this lady's latest work is so great an advance upon its predecessors. In it the fusion is complete; there is no wandering away from the subject to take a smell at the daisies, or a glance at the olive trees ; the story is not brought to a halt before an orange sunset with an emerald streak in it. This may be, perhaps, thought to be a small advance; it is we think, a very great one. It gives to the work that perfect balance which is so vitally necessary to a work of art; it pre- vents us tracing in all kinds of various phenomena, social, natural, and personal, the presence of the same guiding hand, —it, so to speak, oils the machinery, and prevents it from creak- ing. It will, perhaps, be asked by our readers whether it be worth while to analyse so curiously the method of a little Italian love story such as the one we are reviewing here. Our answer would be that it is well worth while in the present case, since this story is written with an amount of power and unconventionality that is at least rare. Moreover, an amount of pains has been • Vesfigia. By George Fleming. London: Macmillan and 0o.

taken with the workmanship of the book which should receive due recognition. At the present time, when there is scarcely a living writer of fiction who does not habitually give his readers English of the most slipshod and colloquial kind, it is strangely pleasant to find a writer bestowing the most minute attention upon the phraseology even of the least important parts of her work, and not only not writing now eloquently, now earnestly, but keeping her whole book up to an uniform and high level of style,—a style where every word seems to have been poised, weighed, and then rejected, or put in its fitting place, with the utmost care.

Before saying anything as to the story of Vestigia, let us give our readers a specimen of what we refer to. it is a de- scription of a procession on a ffte-day from which we quote :— "A long, broken line of small human creatures in brightest holiday- dress, and each with its burning taper, following the great golden cross as it passed solemnly, borne on men's shoulders out of the gloomy aisles, out under the wreaths of spring blossom, and down the steps into the warm afternoon light. That was, perhaps, the prettiest sight of all, as the twinkling tapers grew dim in the sun- shine. And then came rows of young, white-robed choristers, and the impassive faces of the officiating priests ; the low sunlight burned like a Jewel upon the tinselled stoles, and the reds and purples of the vestments were vivid and deep, like the colour of garden flowers. The blue cloud of incense rose straight up, with scarcely a waver above the„bent heads of the kneeling crowd, as the Blessed Sacra- ment was slowly carried around the piazza. The afternoon was windless, and the people so hushed that even from the farther side of the square the priests' solemn chanting was distinctly audible, and the warning tinkle of the bell."

This, it seems to us, is a very remarkable piece of writing ; scarcely a single word of it can be displaced or altered without injury ; its accuracy and its absolute simplicity of description could not be surpassed, and many of the phrases have a mingled poetry of meaning and music of sound pleasant to mind and ear. We dwell upon this, as it is rare at the present day to find, in ordinary fiction, writing which is at once full of true observation, and instinct with true feeling. And where we do find such a combination, we almost invariably find that its possessor is led away by his emotions, and expresses them in terms which are high-flown, even if they are not hysterical. But our quotation is as remarkable in its reticence as in its speech ; there is not a superfluous, as there is not a mistaken word, and the one phrase which would, perhaps, possibly strike a careless reader as unusual, if not exaggerated, "the reds and purples of the vestments were vivid and deep, like the colours of garden flowers," is the one which shows the keenest observation, as those who know the difference between wild and garden flowers will be the first to recognise ; the two epithets, "vivid and deep," precisely expressing the writer's meaning and the actual fact.

And now a word as to the story. It is, as we have said, one ef life in Leghorn, life amongst the lower middle-classes at the present day. The motive of the book is a very simple one. Dino de Rossi, the son of a weak-minded but enthusiastic patriot, joins, in a fit of enthusiasm, a secret society, of whose special objects he knows nothing, and is chosen forthwith to kill King Humbert, on the occasion of his approaching coronation. With this situation the book opens, and the whole of the story consists in the struggles of Dino between the desire to keep his vow and the temptation to break it, caused by his devotion to a little fishing-girl, to whom he is just about to be betrothed when he is entrusted with this assassination. There is a little by-plot, on which we need not dwell, nor shall we tell our readers the sequel of the story, which, by the way, is probably its weakest part ; but the inter- est of the book is in its painting of the struggle in the mind of the hero, and in the drawing of the characters of his sweetheart, her father, and himself. It is, in fact, a cabinet picture of Italian life amongst the poor, with a touch of tragedy amidst its sunshine ; and the worth of the book is less as a story, than as a medium for the study of character and national characteristics.

But it is not, after all, this study of character and social life which is the main secret of George Fleming's writing, which gives her books a quality apart, and renders them different in kind to those which surround them. It is not so much the view of the world and its doings which she shows us, as the point of view from whence it is taken. As George Eliot's favourite theme was a "certain spiritual grandeur, ill matched with the meanness of opportunity," so in the books of our pre- sent authoress, the favourite theme, the feeling which under- lies everything is the old Greek one of worth and delight in mere life itself, in the throbbing of the pulses and the

flickering of the leaves, in the sunshine and the shadow, in swift motion and quiet rest, in joy, excitement, tran- quillity, and tamost in sorrow, at all events in sorrow in so far as it is opposed to the negation of feeling. A

book more simply Greek in its atmosphere than this of Vestigia, we have rarely, if ever, seen. It has the un- affectedness, the freedom from apology or restriction, the suffi- ciency of old Greek life and art. It is so utterly nu-English and nnparochial in this, that it will probably give offence to timid

and conventional readers, who will ask sternly why it has not a moral tacked to its tail, and will resent being interested in the lot of Livornese fishermen and maidens, who, apparently, do not by any means feel themselves in need of instruc- tion, social or religions, or patronage of any kind. A book which treats of the poor, and neither upholds them as pictur- esque examples of - primitive virtue, nor as deserving objects for a discriminating and not too free-handed charity, is a book which will sorely puzzle most English readers. For the con- ception that a man is estimable in proportion to his wealth, and miserable in proportion to his poverty, is almost exclusively an English product, and such a character as Sor Drea, the fisher- man, in this book, who has absolutely nothing but his boat and his nets, and yet is quite jovial and contented, not from reli- gion or morality, but simply because his life is untrammelled and his wants few, would be impossible in England. Many people may find fault with the description of the state of mind into which Dino, the hero of the book, falls, after he has been chosen by the secret society of which he is a member to execute one of their death-warrants :—

"The first great shock of the surprise was over ; his nature had already readjusted itself to these new conditions with the supple strength of youth. And in this fixed interval of quiet, this interval which seemed all the longer by very reason of its being fixed, all the light, joy-loving instincts of his age were alert within him, making music in his heart like the rapturous song of birds between two storms. The habit of life, its careless young incredulity of the end, had never been more strong upon him. He bad never felt more irre- sponsible, had never looked, perhaps had never been, more like his father, than on that morning, as he turned down from the broad, sunny Passeggiata towards old Drea's house on the quay."

Such moral as is to be found in the book in relation to the feeling with which the crime he has undertaken is regarded both by Dino and by his betrothed, occurs in the words of Dino's sweetheart, spoken to him in reply to his one expression of doubt whether he would surrender his oath, in order to stay with her :—

"'Forgive me, my Dino ! I ought to be stronger I I meant to be stronger ! I meant to help you, sot to make hard things harder for you to bear ! Forgive me ! I will not do it any more !' She drew herself gently away from him, and he made no effort to detain her. Her voice grew steadier as she went on speaking. 'You could not do that ! You could not be a traitor, not even for us to be happy to- gether! And it would not be happiness, Dino ; there would always be a black cloud between us and happiness ! It is not as if we didn't know the difference between faith and falsehood, Dino! We do know !' "

This is a striking moral in its way, especially if it is, as we suppose, a faithful picture of Italian life. It shows how com- pletely people living under false conditions of life may learn to ignore the guilt of a political assassination,—guilt which, in the case of Humbert, would not even have been attenuated by that strong popular resentment which is justly felt against the author of great political injuries.