25 JANUARY 1896, Page 33


IT is always with a sense of mental confusion and trepidation, not allayed by gleams of faint disturbing hope, that we open a new book by Mr. George Meredith. We have of late years been often assured—not only by irresponsible young critics, but by various men who speak with authority—that Mr. Meredith is a great novelist ; and from our consciousness of a personal con- viction that he is simply a novelist whose books contain a few isolated great things, is born two discordant temptations,—the temptation to shout in a voice of shrill dogmatism, or to whisper in accents of quavering self-distrust. Our only encouragement to rely upon our own instincts is provided by the fact that where we are to-day there were all the critics some ten years ago. Mr. Meredith's warmest eulogists will allow that the novels on which his claim to greatness must be based had been published prior to 1885, but up to that year no sus- picion of his supremacy had visited either the public or the critics. Indeed, the public, naturally but unwisely, ignored Mr. Meredith altogether, and his critics agreed that he was a writer of considerable intellectual grip, with very remarkable literary gifts, but that as a novelist he was so very unequal and at times so laboriously ineffective that it was all but impossible to place him. This is cer- tainly the view that is sugges ted by his recent performances, and especially by The Amazing Marriage. It is rich in shrewd observation, in wise reflection, in witty epigram—indeed Mr. Meredith's wit is his most distinctive endowment—and there are just a few scenes which have a certain dramatic flavour ; but in the qualities which make a great work of fiction recognisable as a creative organism, it is even conspicuously deficient. The story—if story it can be called—has just three landmarks, the marriage itself, which is "amazing " only in virtue of the fact that Lord Fleetwood deserts his wife almost immediately after the ceremony, the birth of a mysterious and unaccountable baby, and the final retirement of the incredible husband into a monastery. In the intervals a number of people pop in and out, or hold the stage for a time, with the apparent purpose of providing material for Mr. Meredith's Meredithisms of epigram or paradox ; for they are bodiless phantoms which give us no feeling of flesh and blood. Of course there are passages in the novel which • (1.) The Amazing Marriage. By George Meredith. 2 vols. London : A. Constable and Co.—(2.) The Shepherdess of Treva. By Paul Cushing. 3 vols. London : Ward and Downey.—(3.) Too Pair a Darn. By M. Brataston. 2 vols. London : Hurst and Blackett.—(4.) The Desire of the Moth. By Cape! Vane. 2 vols. London: B. Bentley and Son.—(5.) Lady Kilpatrick. By Robert Buchanan. London: Chatto and Windns.—(6.) A Commonplace Girl. By Blanche Atkinson. London : A. and 0. Black.--(7.) The Signora. By Percy Lowly's*. London : Soda. Elder. and Co. arrest and startle, which make the intellect tingle with a prickly tingling as of a galvanic current ; there are even passages which charm—witness that early chapter, "A Mountain Walk in Mist and Sunshine "—but the book as a whole is terribly hard reading for the natural man. Of course it will be haughtily said by the Meredithians that Mr. Meredith does not write for the natural man, that his caviare is not intended to appeal to the palate of " the general ;" but in this case, what of the claim to greatness P Homer, Dante, Shake- speare, and Cervantes appealed to a world, not to a coterie ; but the mention of such names as these is cruel to Mr. Meredith, so we will simply note the fact that his con- temporary, Thackeray—a novelist of genius if ever there was one—made himself heard with delight by the ratepayer in Suburbia, as well as by the lounger at the literary clubs. Mr. Meredith might have had a place beside Thackeray ; he has chosen a place beside Lyly, and only the intel- lectual vigour of much of his work will prevent the new Euphuism—a great literary nuisance it is !—from being as short-lived as the old.

There is a vigour, a vitality, and a certain gusto in the work of Mr. Paul Cushing, which makes it attractive and exhilarating, though we hardly think that any of his later books have quite fulfilled the promise of The Blacksmith cif Voe, a story which was not only strong, but much more closely knit than some of its successors. Mr. Cushing is always at his best when he is closest to Nature, and the freshest, most striking chapters in The Shepherdess of Treva are those early chapters in the first volume, which justify the title by their bold, spirited rendering of the free, open- air life of Bitha Treloare in those simple, unsophisticated days before her story had begun, and when the visit to Treva of the great painter Occamore had given the girl her first glimpse of a larger life. We know few more charmingly felt pastoral episodes than the adventure of Bitha and her fleecy friend, the ram, 'Peter,' whose frisky leap over the chasm might have been a contribution to tragedy rather than to comedy ; and, indeed, all these early pages are fresh and sharp with the savour of the heather and the brine of the sea. Mr. Cushing's novels never drag ; there is in them a fine impetus which carries the reader along ; but after Bitha, leaves Treva, in the dangerous companionship of Middlemass, to make her ill-fated sojourn in the moral lazar.house from which she escapes untainted but hardly unscathed, the course of the narrative is a little more conventional than is usual in the writer's books. In actual life we are not very familiar with the aspirant who after five years of study paints the picture of the season ; but in fiction he or she can be depended upon to put in an appearance at intervals of not longer than six months. Bitha plays once more the hackneyed rule; but it must be admitted that she plays it in a fresh unbackneyed way ; and though the competition of the dealers in Dane's back-parlour for the great work is quite incredible, it is really a stirring bit of invention. There are some good sturdy improbabilities in The Shepherdess of Treva, but Mr. Cushing's vitality seems to make them things of no account ; for improbability is like a nettle,—to finger it gingerly is disastrous, but to grasp boldly is safe. We have a more serious quarrel with the doleful conclusion of the story, which, though carefully led up to, is not inevitable, but strikes one as being a trouble-saving expedient. Still, it is easy to imagine Bitba living through her trial and being happy ever afterwards; and if we do this, there is nothing to mar the enjoyable quality of Mr. Cushing's novel.

The author of Too Fair a Dawn has given to his or her book —we incline to the " her "—a by-no-means appropriate title. We think we are about to read a story of the gradual or sudden overclouding of bright prospects ; but as a matter of fact the meteorological indications are from the out- set most unpromising, and no one but a novice in the art of forecasting fiction would anticipate anything but trouble of some kind from such a marriage as that of Dynevor Dagenham, who has the gambling instinct in his blood, and the feather-brained girl, Crystal Rowhuret, who was in exceptional need of a strong, wise, dominant protector. The trouble, when it comes, however, is not of the kind which we naturally expect, and we cannot think that the author is consistent with her original conception in tracing the development of character in the husband and wife. Dagenham has good impulses, but in the early chapters be

has none of the stout moral fibre which he afterwards exhibits ; and, on the other hand, we feel that Crystal, in spite of her want of principle, has far too little resource and courage to carry out such a crime as the theft of Mrs. Brake- speare's diamonds. Dynevor's plain, capable, helpful sister, Audrey, is much more lifelike ; but somehow the book as a whole lacks grip and convincingness.

We like it better, however, than we can bring ourselves to like The Desire of the Moth,—a purposelessly dreary story which, though devoid of any aggressive defects in the mere writing, has no literary charm that suffices to atone for its drearines. Luigia Daubigny is the daughter of an Italian mother whose faithlessness to her devoted and trusting husband has soured and ruined his life. The lady who calls herself " Capel Vane "—here there can be no doubt whatso- ever about the author's sex—does not expound any theory of heredity, and for this abstinence from " modernity " readers will be properly thankful ; but it seems to be quietly assumed from the first that Luigia's career must be a duplicate of her mother's, and when, without any adequate prompting, she marries a loyal, kindly gentleman who is three times her own age, we know so well what is coming, that it is hardly necessary to read the rest of the book. The portion of the story which comes between this opening and the foreseen catastrophe is mere padding, which serves no purpose but to fill the two volumes; and the catastrophe itself, in the bringing about of which Luigia, rather than Lord Egan, is the seducer, is treated in a mawkishly sentimental and conventional manner, which adds to its unsavouriness. A theme of this kind may be made tragically impressive if treated with freshness and power, but there is no trace of either in the merely distasteful pages of The Desire of the Moth.

Mr. Robert Buchanan seems to be settling down into the well-worn rut of good old-fashioned melodrama, like that which used, a generation ago, to delight the readers of the London Journal and the playgoers of the Surrey theatres. Indeed, we incline to think that even nowadays, an adapta- tion of Lady Kilpatrick—and really very little in the way of adaptation would be needed—might achieve a really respectable success on the Adelphi stage. There are three most admirable and unrelenting villains ; there is a fourth villain, equally admirable, but less unrelenting, probably because he is always under the influence of whisky; there is the regulation Scotch servant to provide the comic relief ; and the scene in which the hero rescues his mother from the mill which has been set on fire by the villains, would bring down the house. As Desmond Macartney is such a delight- ful young man, and as Lord Kilpatrick's nephew and heir is so much the reverse of delightful, we know that Desmond will finally fall upon his feet ; and all the laws of melodrama decree that the sham-priest who celebrated the marriage of Lord Kilpatrick and Desmond's peasant mother, should, after all, turn out to be not a sham but the genuine article. Of course the book is full of absurdities, and it is a pity to see a man of Mr. Buchanan's powers descending to such a very cheap kind of pot-boiling ; but Lady Kilpatrick will serve to while away the time spent in a railway journey between, say, London and Brighton.

Miss Blanche Atkinson in A Commonplace Girl has done ex- tremely well something which most of our younger feminine novelists find it very difficult to do at all—she has written a refined, graceful, quiet story which, if not thrilling, is interesting from first to last without even a single recourse to those crude condiments of theme and treatment which are rapidly ruining the palates of the younger generation. " It's a poor thing," said Mrs. Poyser, " when the flavour of the dinner is in the cruets;" but the flavour of the simple little meal prepared by Miss Atkinson is in the dish itself, and though it may have little of what is nowadays called piquancy, it has a good deal of what in all days is known as pleasantness. The book is a simple chronicle of life in a North-country English village, and the writer steers admirably between the Scylla of sensationalism and the Charybdis of flatness. From the latter she is saved by her quick eye for character and her unpretentious skill in rendering what she sees. Judith Mordaunt, the " commonplace girl," is not, we think, individualised with quite snffioient sharpness; but Stillman, the nouveau riche, the good Broad Church parson Dale, the clever, up-to-date Tyson girls, and the warm. hearted. deformed little Methodist dressmaker, Miss Owth- waite, make a really lifelike group of portraits. Miss Atkinson's work is unpretentious, and perhaps not specially striking, but it is good with a very agreeable kind of goodness.

That The Signora is not without merit may be frankly allowed, but such merit as it has does not prevent it from being a disappointing book. Mr. Andreae in his first venture may be said to have struck twelve all at once, for Stanhope of Chester was that extremely rare thing, an originally conceived ghost-story, and both in construction and narration it was nothing less than excellent. Curiously enough, it is in con- struction and narration that The Signora most conspicuously fails. The story lacks form and organism ; one of the few prominent characters, Margaret Welby, is really a superfluity, and the altogether unexpected denouement is about as inartistic as anything of the kind that we can at the moment remember. The solution of the narrative problem, which is given in the final chapter, piles up the improbable to the height of the impossible, and utterly defies that imaginative credence which it is the work of even the most romantic fiction to compel. It is nothing less than astounding that the author of Stanhope of Chester should have made such a fiasco as he has made in the identity muddle which is the central secret of The Signora. Mr. Andreae must, as the little moral song says, "Try, try, try again ! "