PEASANT LIFE IN THE NORTH.*
THIS is a book of rare interest and value, scarcely a work of genius, but showing in the writerlhat thorough sympathy with his subject which does the work of genius. And the subject is in a great degree new. The particular class of which it treats, that of "villagers and field labourers," it must be remembered, has found but very little literary expression in itself, and has not often been described, except superficially, from without. George Eliot, of whom one naturally thinks, deals, for the most part, with a class superior in the social scale, though she sometimes descends to lower regions, and that without any appreciable difference in her mastery of the subject. But, on the whole, of the inner life of the men and women who work in the fields; the lowest recognized class in our social organization, we know next to nothing; and this book is especially valuable, because it does not a little to fill up this gap in our knowledge. It consists of a few tales in which there is a marked avoidance of anything like plot or studiel drawing of character, which are wholly free from what we may call literary conscious- ness, and the general effect of which is to leave upon the mind of the reader a most unusual impression of genuineness and truth. They are not masterpieces of art, like Silas Marner ; the talk of the people is not of a typical kind, like those wonderful conversa- tions in which George Eliot contrives to wrap up, as it were, the * Peasant Life: being Sketches of the Villagers and Field Labourers in Glenaidie. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas. 1869.
very essence of rustic life, with its prejudices, its common-sense, its code of morals, and humour, but it is perfectly real talk, never- theless. If we may borrow an illustration from art, these pictures of life resemble not so much the portraits in which a really great painter contrives to gather up the whole of a man's expression, but rather skilful photographs which give this or that phase of him. But that they are skilful, that there is art in them, and that they have the truth, not only of correctness and freedom from falsity, but also of completeness, we have not the slightest doubt.
One of the first characteristics of the book to strike us, as might indeed be expected, after what we have said by way of preface, is its realism. Here is a specimen.from the first tale, " Muckle Jock," a piece of thoroughly Dutch painting in its way, certainly an old experience in love-making, but new in literature. Jock has found a happy end to a love which had long seemed hopeless to him "Ho drew her silently on his knee, and her arms were round his neck and her face on his breast. A few, only a few, little words were spoken by her, while the great silent man held her there in his abashed and speechless way. This was the consummation of Jock's love visions for two years past. But mark how alloyed are all earthly pleasures, and how material things will vindicate their supremacy over mental. While thus she sat with him in all lovingness. Jock found himself oppressed, and full of stupidity and uneasiness. The maiden was of ample size and heavy, and Jock was unaccustomed to nursing; and thus when the weight of love had crushed his limbs for a little, during which he was lost in delight, be awoke to a sense of numbness and embarrassment. He knew that it could he cured by shifting his position ; but the position was altogether so novel and so delightful, that in his stupid way he dared not shift it, and thus the numbness increased. Then, after a slight movement on the part of his lovely burden, came those tingling sensations, just on the borderland of pleasure and pain. Jock wished she would get up, not in words—he could not then have uttered as many words—but inwardly ; and he bore the tingling heroically for a time. But he suddenly succumbed. Almost frantically he shoved away Mary, wildly started up, to the alarm of the girls, almost tum- bled over Betty, and began to stamp about. It was some time before he explained that 'his leg was sleeping.'"
And here is another love-making picture of the same kind. Joe, a once rejected lover, has offered himself again to his old love, Maggie :—
" She held her breath in almost painful silence while he spoke, then she flung her arms round his neck, kissed him a few hungry kisses, and broke into hysterical sobs and laughter. Then Joe knew that she loved him with all that intense nature of hers, and was very happy, as be held her in this paroxysm. His sense of happiness made him entirely self- satisfied and cool, so that while her head lay jerking on his bosom, he winked hard at the plated dish-covers that adorned the kitchen wall, sole witnesses of his felicity."
We should be sorry to imagine any limits to the powers of a woman of genius, especially after what we know George Eliot has done; but we may venture to conjecture, and the subject is inter- esting, as the title-page is wholly silent as to authorship, that these scenes must have been writteu by a man. In the same manner, but on a very different subject, is this : — 'One stormy winter night I was passing through the lobby of my house, when I heard a tapping at the house char. I opened it, and saw a tiny figure in the rain and darkness, and I said, 'Come in.' A little child-girl stood before me, and breathlessly gave utterance to her mission. 'Ma [either has the fevar and is deem'; an' mither sant me for an auld sark and a nicht-cap tae strike him wi'. His ain's a' tore.'"
This introduces to what is certainly the most striking tale in the book, "Kate Rose and her Bairns." The dying man's father was Kate's father, a queer little man, "whose soul was larger than its earthly tabernacle," nicknamed by the village boys "wee Manuie Mousie." Kate herself was one of the queerest of creatures. Here is her picture, She was about 4 ft. Gin, in height, while her width was quite as much. Her face was square, her cheeks heavy, her eyes and expression vague. A jacket or bedgown of worsted stuff, secured by a straw band round her immense waist, and a petticoat of winsey, constituted her dress." But she was a woman of wonderful independence and energy, with a vast wealth of love for the little brother and sister, whom she returns from service at a distance to find orphaned and destitute. The story of how she tended these little ones and worked for them, cutting rushes, "stubbing up" roots to make pine splinters, harvesting, in fact, doing all a man's work with all a man's energy and strength, is told with a pathetic simplicity to which it is impossible to do justice by extracts. There are many little touches and scenes in the story, humorous and pathetic, which are really very good, as when the strong-armed Kate seizes a worthless lover of her sister's round the thighs, lifts him bodily up, and tumbles him down in the street on his back ; or when Bella herself dismisses another lover, whose lengthy wooing diminishes their small stock of peats with, "It's a' nonsense luvemakin' at this hour o' the nicht, Geordie. Yer havers wunna warm air hairts or taes ; an' it's hard on our wee stack o' peata ; an' I wish ye wud fash us less ;" or when the faithful creature, whose ungainly form offends the eyes of Bella's mistress, watches near the house till late into the night for a glimpse of her darling. But their good- ness seems to evaporate in the process of separation, and we get no idea of their collective effect. Thorough and manifest truthfulness is the main impression left on the mind by the whole. The writer is evidently possessed with the idea of telling the truth, and the whole truth. There could not be a better instance of this than we find in the tale of which we have spoken. Kate is quite a heroine in her unselfish devotion, but when a ludicrous side of her character has to be presented it is given with the most uncompromising fidelity, as when she falls in love with the doctor who has attended her through an illness, crying out, "The bonny doctor ! the braw doctor ! I love him ; an' ye see he's courtin' o' me. He says I lute a braw leg, and I ken I hae," and has to be cured of her fancy with a week's doses of pills and black draught. Or take, again, the last tale, "The Red-Tiled Cottage," where the charm- ing picture of happy wedded life, than which there is nothing more gracefully touched in the volume, is most ruthlessly broken up by a catastrophe which we feel the writer introduces from a stern sense of duty, because it really did happen. The same character- istics are to be found in all the tales ; they are indeed "simple annals of the poor," defying description as a chronicle defies it, rarely giving, and then always without any sign of intention in the writer, anything that is especially striking, not centering the interest in artistic fashion in one character, but touching many with a cer- tain graphic and vivacious power, on the whole, making one feel that one has a glimpse of real life. A sad life it is, on the whole, and the book is a somewhat sad one, though there are tales, "Kate Rose," for instance, and "The Bourtree," which those who set their faces against sad books may read without fear ; but it is on a higher level, we fancy, than much of the peasant life in our own country. Boys of the poorest class, "remaining at school till ten or twelve years of age," and men possessing an interest in any subject not material, even though it be the history of a narrow and bitter Calvinism, are, we fear, phenomena very seldom to be seen in our own Wiltshire and Dorsetshire. However this may be, we have no doubt about the value of the book. We have seldom seen one which we could more unreservedly recommend to our readers.