DR. AUSTIN'S GUESTS.*
THERE is a great fascination for us in all Mr. Gilbert's works, and in this certainly not the least. Indeed stories of monomania are curiously well suited to the nature of his singular genius. Just as Defoe never wrote anything quite so good as the Mysterious Appa- rition of Mrs. Veal, which is prefixed to that remarkably dull work called Drelincourt on Death, because the somewhat outré and pre- ternatural character of the event he was describing brought out in striking relief the business-like detail and method of his style, so Mr. Gilbert feels instinctively that the great command he has of the same style, the pleasure which he takes in inventing ficti- tious trivialities of daily life and registering them with an air of industrious accuracy and serious responsibility which produces the effect of artistic illusion on the reader's imagination though without of course deceiving him, is set off in high relief by the single spot of diseased and grotesque conception, which puts, as it were, a false sun and a corresponding host of false shadows into the monomaniac's otherwise real enough and often very prosaic world. Admirable as were the stories in Shirley Hall Asylum, Mr. Gilbert has advanced a step in his peculiar style of art in the book before us. He is as methodical, as business-like, as unconscious of literary effect as ever, but there is in several of these tales just a touch of an ideal element, either of beauty or horror, in the monomania, which raises them above the standard of wonderfully told bizarreries of fate, into something tragic and solemn. The Patent Mania of Mr. Cochrane is a story of a craze a shade too like that of the sup- posed narrator himself, as well as too unrelieved by any ideal touch, to be thoroughly impressive. (Why, by the way, did not Mr. Gilbert tell us instead, in his wonderfully telling and precise style, a story of currency monomania, one of the commonest and most exciting forms of diseased pseudo-scientific energy?) But all the other stories, except indeed the Old Maid's, which is a very well told tale merely of excessively nervous weak-mindedness, and the Singular Love Story, in which the exquisite grotesquerie of the delusion, like that in the former volume of the lady who be- lieved herself to be Xerxes, almost compensates for the absence of any deeper touch, have in them something of an ideal contrast to the minute and business-like method of the author's style. Where this is so, there is something singularly impressive in the effect produced by the great contrast with the minute and business- like record in which these touches are brought out. Literature is usually created by men who are thoroughly aware that their function is to delineate something, either incident, or scenery, or character, or feeling. Mr. Gilbert, like Defoe, writes as if he did not at all belong to the literary caste, as if his object were not to delineate, but to record, as a sailor records in his log or a surgeon in his diary. He appears not to be summoning figures or events before the eye, but anxiously setting down transactions to aid the memory. His eye is not apparently on the points which will make his picture graphic, but his memory is anxiously noting the • Dr. 41:Ain's Guests. By Willi= Gilbert. 2 vols. London: Straban. exact succession of events as they occurred, even though many of them may be superfluous to the story, and not necessary in order' to understand its issue. He tells the tale, like ordinary unliterary persons, not in its plan, outline, and intellectual bearings, but as he heard it, with all the little incidental odds and ends which cling about a tale in an ordinary memory, and seem to aid the recollec- tion, though they are entirely extraneous to its real course. Yet, these little odds and ends are the very things which give the peculiar force to his art, and carry with them the artistic illusion which is Mr. Gilbert's greatest strength. He does not paint character, but he tells you what a man has done, so that you cannot help painting it for yourself. He does not look round with literary instinct for those lighter touches which add to the general effect of a scene ; on the contrary, he seems to pace his. way soberly with downcast eyes along the straight course of his. narrative, recording step after step with methodical precision, and yet leading up by this slow and formal conscientiousness of manner to such characteristic intensities of effect, that you cannot choose but receive a stronger impression than a far more ap- parently artistic description would have given. If the maxim ars, est celare artem were as universally true as it is often false, Mr.. Gilbert would be at the head of the literary artists of the present day. He pretends to plod, and to some extent no doubt does plod in a literary sense, in his narrative ; but by that very heavy matter-of-factness of manner, and apparent indifference to any- thing but the solid bricks of circumstantial reality, with layer after layer of which he builds his story, he gives a force and im- pressiveness, and gains a vice-like grip on the reader's imagina- tion, which no rich and conscious literary imagination could command.
The first story, called Mr. Gurdon's Plight, though not depending for its impression on any touch so ideal and striking as some of the others, is told with very great power. The great effect of the tale is the exhibition of a man of hard character, of cynical temper, of the profoundest self-confidence in his own sang-froid, and also veryacute in weighing the value of the slightest traces of moral evidence, suddenly shaken to his centre by indisputable proof of a nervous weakness in himself of which at the moment he had been uncon- scious, but of which he had left the clearest1Vidence in the palpable marks of his fingers on his niece's wrist at the place where he had been holding her during a few minutes of peril on a steam- boat, under one of the arches of old Blackfriars' Bridge. The way in which this proof of his own weakness shatters Mr. Gurdon's vanity of self-reliance, and burns a sore spot into his memory which, connecting itself closely with the locality where he had thus broken down in his own esteem, settles into a physical panic of further- danger to him to happen in the same place, and the way in which this panic again is indefinitely heightened and stimulated into nervous disease by the violent and reiterated spurring on of his own recoil- ing will to encounter and surmount it, is all brought out with ten- fold force, because the narrative, completely evading the psycho- logical rationale of Mr. Gurdon's disease, plods steadily on with the external details of its development, never even hinting a single general observation on its moral origin, or on the bad policy of the hand-to-hand struggle in which Mr. Gurdon's prideled him toengage with the morbid weakness of his own character. The peculiarforce of the story lies in the complete and absolute silence it observes as to the psychology of Mr. Gurdon's break-down, and yet the minuteness of the petty incidents in which every stage of that break-down is bas-relieved, as it were, for us, and so bas-relieved that we cannot avoid forming our own conclusion as to his character. You see the morbid spot growing and spreading in his mind, and yet you are told little or nothing of his feelings or sensations, but only what. he did from hour to hour,—how his attention was distracted in court from his professional alertness by watching the prisoners' hands to see if they were grasping anything with the nervous tension which his own fingers had shown on the steamboat,—how his knees trembled under him as he passed again over the arch under which his self-possession had first given way,—and so forth. The story is a most curiously sculptured literary gurgoyle, as it were, — the outward and visible expression of a great mental collapse,— the collapse of that hardness which seems strength, and often con- ceals so much weakness.
The monomania of the man who believed himself to have been born at seventy-three years of age and to have been growing younger ever since, so as to be approaching in- fancy while the lady of his choice was approaching age, is only remarkable for the admirable air of melancholy matter-of-fact with which Mr. Gilbert makes him tell it. It is scarcely possible to bring any example of gravely suppressed humour to excel that in the following passages of the monomaniac's history :—
"The attachment which a young couple form for each other, if a for- tunate one, remains nearly of the -same description for the duration of their lives, while my love has experienced many changes. It com- menced with such an attachment as an old man bears to an interesting little girl—such, indeed, as a grandfather may feel to the youthful bequest left by a much loved daughter. As years passed on, the feeling changed to each as a fond father would entertain towards a fragile, delicate young woman—his darling child. As I got younger, and as she became older, it changed again to that calm, considerate affection, that combination of love and prudence, with which a middle-aged man may- be -supposed to regard a woman about his own age, fitted in every respect to become his wife. But as years rolled on, and I got still younger, she in the same ratio becoming older, my love changed to the more enthusiastic and less selfish-passion of the youthful admirer whose- ardency can overlook difference of age. Now, although I have not seen her for some time, and am aware that she is advancing in years, my love for her is greater than ever, and I am convinced it will continue to increase in intensity as long as I live. So you see that, although I have had but one attachment, my experience in love matters has, neverthe- less, been far greater and more perfect than that of thousands of others who have fluttered from beauty to beauty, persuading themselves they were in love, though hardly alive to the meaning of the term.' . . . . 'I reflected on the extraordinary love I bore for Mrs. Wiggins, and how completely my happiness was bound up in her, and the misery I should have to endure if I were separated from her. After I had thought over- the whole subject, I drew a clear description of my own position. I remembered the anecdote of the Archbishop of Toledo mentioned by fli143but,-4iow, as he grew older, and his wits feebler, he considered that his power of preaching improved, and his-insane and foolish anger at having his real state pointed out to him. I was determined not to shut my eyes to my increasing youth and inexperience. I then reflected that if it were not a duty-I owed to myself to guard against committing such a folly, I at least owed something to Mrs. Wiggins. Although I was still old enough to make a union with the widow possible, I could not overlook the fact that in a short time the case would become different. Instead of my being a companion to her, and cherishing her in-my bosom, -she might be employed in packing my boxes and sending me to school. And, worse still, in a few more years she would, need a stay and protector in her advancing age, and she would then have to bestow on me the-care and solicitude due to tender infancy. No, I was xesolved.I -would never subject her to such a duty. That she would perform.it with tenderness and affection I was persuaded ; but it would be tmjust on my part, through selfishness, to put a task likaahis-upon her. No nothing should shake my resolution: I would go with the doctor. I did go, and here-I trust I shall remain for the rest of my life, looking forward to the certainty that in s few short years we shall each go off at the extremities of life, she in old age, and I in infancy, and that we shall meet in heaven. Till that time arrives .1 --will bear my misery with all the fortjpade in my power.' Here he covered his face with his bands and.wept bitterly."
But the humour in one or two of thesastories, great as it is, is not by any means their finest characteristic. Now.and then, indeed, the author's power of conceiving the wildest monomanias, and gravely embodying them in the history of a man otherwise sane, misleads him, we think, into moral improbability,—and there may be moral improbability even -in a monomania. Mr. Ponsonby's monomania, for instance, we take to be exceedingly unlike the monomania . of a mathematician. He is represented as having been a mathematical tutor in the University, and suddenly in- herited a fortune, the effect of which was to shake the balance of Ida mind. In this state his mind dwells on that postulate of Euclid that a straight line may be extended to any length, and that a circle of any radius may be drawn from a given centre.
Ponsonby interprets these postulates of Euclid as certainly, no mathematical scholar, even with a mind off its balance, would be likely to interpret- them. He argues thatif a line can be extended to any lengthrhoweverlong, it can be "concentrated" inany length, however short, and even in .a point, which is no length at all,—and no that if a circle can be drawn with any diameter, however wide, it can be concentrated till it has any diameter, however small, or even to the point which is its centre. And he -argues that if this can be -done with a line and a circle, it could be done with time, which is a kind of endless line, and founds thereupon-a very glorious scheme, which Mr. Gilbert makes him describe with inimitable gravity, for ." the concentrationef Eternity." We cannot believe, however, that even monomania in a mathematician would absolutely eradicate the rudiments of mathematical ideas. Monomania rarely touches the elearest, simplest, and least morbid elements of a man's intellectual .nature unless it destroys it altogether, and of course every mathe- matician -knows that Euclid never meant for a moment to assume the power of extending or contracting a line, but only of extending the visible mark or external symbol of a line. You can no more extend or contract a line than you can extend or contract a direc- tion, which every line is. And if Mr. Ponsonby were not talking ef a line, but of linear magnitude, he must have known, unless Ins intellect had entirely gone, that an inchis an inch, and esnnot be contracted to half an inch, though it can be halved, nor expanded to two inches, though it can be doubled. To found a mathematician's monomania on the notion of " concentrating " linear magnitude seems to us a very high moralimprobability, as, while reason lasted-at all, it would tell him that no definite mag- nitude of any kind is capable either of increase or diminution,— the very idea of expansion and concentration being a physical, and not a mathematical idea. The dream of concentrating eternity by a certain circular arrangement of clocks all keeping time together, with a chronometer at the centre, humorous as it is, should surely not have been attributed to a mathematician of substantial attainments. Mr. Gilbert is wise enough to attribute the two physico-philosophical raonomanias he chronicles to enter- prising amateurs, with little or no real grasp of the principlesnf their science, and so he would have done well to attribute his mathematical monomania to some man whohad never mastered the principles of his science.
Perhaps the finest tales in the book are the three oalled L'Amour Midecin, Banquo's Ghost, and The Imprisoned Demon. The power of the first consists in the extreme subtlety of the, conception,—its heroine losing her sight and becoming totally blind from mental causes alone, or perhaps it would be truer tosay from some influence, whether wholly mental or partly physical, the duration of which depends solely on the heroine's loss of joy in life, and which vanishes away when her happiness returns. The curious realism with which this subtle conception is worked out, and the true beauty of character with which Mr. Gilbert manages to endow his heroine, without a word of sentiment or panegyric, is beyond all praise. The story called Ban- quo's Ghost is perhaps the most lurid in the book, and yet, like all the others, it is matter-of-fact in every touch. It is a story of suicidal monomania, in which, however, the nature of the mono- mania is hidden even from the monomaniac himself until its very last stage. The hero is a bad solicitor who has made a large fortune out of the poor, the fatherless, and the widows, without ever transgressing the letter of the law. After retiring from business and losing the only human being he loved, he begins to dream every night the same dream,—in which a very beautiful child, quite unknown -to him in life, always 'appears with some small object in her hand, the nature of Which he cannot at first discern. Later on he is able to distinguish it in his dream, but never to remember it after he has awakened. The dream fills him with horror, both from its absolutely certain recurrence and from this mystery about it, and at last one day in a cutler's shop he sees lying on the table a razor wrapped in brown paper, and identifies it as the object which the child holds always In her hand. The ideal touch which heightens immeasurably the horror of this tale, is theheauty of the unknown childvrho appears in-his dream to offer him-the instrument of self-destruction. None of Mr. Gilbert's stories produce aanore powerful impression than -this one. The -situation in the last- tale called The imprisoned Demon is equally finely imagined, and' the way in which it is knitted into the monomania of the supposed narrator of all these cases of monomania,- and made the cause of his leaving the asylum, is exceedingly skilful-and-artistic. We should be sorry, however, to spoil the interest of the tale by quoting from it.
Mr. Gilbert's greatest power is that of producing a thrill of really tragic feeling out of materials apparently so essen- tially common-place and trivial, so secular and earthy, so ap- parently unimaginatively conceived, and so prosaically narrated, that they seem to forbid all -possibility of -ideal interest. His literary coinage appears at first -the copper or brass coinage in which you can scarcely receive anything of real value, but the image with which he stamps it is often so powerfully impressed and so full of expression, that you would be loath to exchange-it for the silver and gold of imaginative literature.