PREMIE KELLER.* To a French reader Phemie Keller would probably
appear unin- telligible. The subject-matter of the novel is that which forms the staple of most romances in his own country, the attachment. of a married woman for a man who is not her husband, but here the analogy ends. The lady never succumbs to her passion, parts from her lover before the nuptial contract has been infringed by anything worse than a stolen kiss, and passes the remainder of her life in repenting of the sin she did not commit. In an artistic point of view this want of proportion between the supposed
• Phemie Keller. By F. G. Trafford, Author of " George Geith," Loadm 'Lesley Brothers.
delinquenciee of Phemie Keller and the expiation she undergoes on account of them, is the cardinal defect of, a novel that we should otherwise be disposed to 'rate very highly. Judged by a moral standard Mrs. Trafford is undoubtedly right in preserving the good fame of her heroine, not that we are disposed to ask why, if she felt it necessary to make virtue triumph, she has attempted
a delineation of passions which lie out of the domain of virtue. The force of our criticism, which applies not only to Phemie Keller, but to the whole class of English passion-novels to which it belongs, will be better understood by a brief outline of the story. At the commencement, then, of the tale we find Phemie Keller
a village beauty, living at her uncle's farm in an out-of-the-way nook, buried in the mountains of Cumberland. There she is dis- covered by a wealthy elderly gentleman, Captain Stondon, who after a long life passed out of England has lately succeeded to a large property in Norfolk. The Captain sprains his ankle in walking over the moors, gets nursed at Tordale Farm, where Phemie dwells, and falls head over ears in love with the rustic maiden. Phemie is not, and never pretends to be, in love with a gentleman old enough to be her grandfather, and somewhat dull into the bargain, but she is tempted by his wealth and station, and his superiority in breeding and education to the people amongst whom her lot is thrown, and accepts his hand. The successful suitor carries off his bride, and takes her abroad in order to complete her education. Phemie takes kindly to her altered rank, picks up easily enough the manners of high society, and comes back to England after a lapse of five years a highly accom-
plished lady to take her place amidst the Norfolk county families as mistress of Marshlands. Here, at the close of the first volume,
the real story may be said to begin. The village girl has become hardened by contact with the world :-
" She had forgotten her dreams ; she had almost forgotten her past ; she had a kind and devoted husband ; she had never repented her marriage; she had done well ; she had made a very good and a very happy thing of life, and she was travelling down to Marshlands to take her proper place in society, with no breath of sorrow dimming the bright cold mirror of her existence. Her sympathies had fallen to sleep with five years' want of exercise ; her feelings had grown dull for very lack of sorrow ; her intellect was expanded, her heart narrowed. Scenery itself was not to her now what it had once been; she looked on it as something which God had created for the benefit and amusement of the rich; she did not understand people being tempted ; she did not comprehend people going wrong."
She was still in the very prime of her beauty, a woman little over twenty, married to an old man, for whom she had never enter- tained much more than a daughter's affection, childless, and with- out hope of children, and with a capacity for love that had never yet been exercised.
Such being the state of Phemie's moral nature, her husband commits the folly of more or less adopting a distant relative, a certain Basil Stondon, who in default of Mrs. Stondon's having children was the heir to the entailed property of Marshlands. It is thus that he is described, with that facility of sketching out a character in a few words which Mrs. Trafford possesses to so re- markable a degree :— "He was five-and-twenty—a man with eyes dark, dreamy, and sadly tender—a man whom women raved concerning—a desperate flirt—and a dangerous flirt, because while the fit was.on him he really did care for the person who had excited his admiration. He danced like an -a'ngel—so the ladies said. There were few games either of chance or skill at which he had not tried his hand. He could hunt over the worst country if his friends would only give him a mount. If his horse could take the leaps, Basil could sit his horse. It did not matter to him if an animal were quiet or the reverse. Find him a strong bit, and let the girths be tight, and the young man would fight the question of -temper out at his leisure. He was a good oarsman, a good swimmer, a capital fellow at a picnic. He had quite a genius for making salads and mixing sherry cobbler. He knew very little about literature, but the number of his acquaintances was something to stare at. He had for- gotten the little he ever learnt at school and college ; but he could talk about the opera and the theatres, about the new prima donna and the favourite danseuse, with an intimate fluency that moved his listeners oftentimes to admiration. Farther, he was not conceited; he did not vaunt his talents. He was not boastful, he was not a bore ; he was amiable, he was pitiful, he was generous, he was swift to forgive and repentant for having erred ; but he was weak and he was self-indulgent ; he was weak as water, as uncertain as the weather, as changeable as an April day ; a vacillating creature whose purposes ebbed and flowed like the sea, who had no fixed principles, whether bad or good, and who came and went and went and came wheresover his impulses carried him."
Of course Basil falls in love with Mrs. Stondon, then in the height of her loveliness, and gradually, without knowing it till too late, Phemie discovers that her heart has been stolen from her. 'Then there is an interval of short-lived happiness, when each of them finds sufficient pleasure in the mere fact of being close to each other, and then Phemie is awakened from her day-dream to the knowledge that she is loved with a guilty love, and loves in return. But throughout the trial the lady never contemplates the possi- bility of breaking her marriage vow, and when her lover becomes importunate she resolves to force him to go abroad. At the last interview allowed to him before his departure, Captain Stondon overhears his wife's conversation with his rival, and learns the truth.
Basil goes abroad, and is reported to be killed in the Indian Mutiny. Captain Stondon never tells his wife of the discovery he has made, and dies brokenhearted. Meanwhile Phemie has come into an unexpected fortune from a distant relative of her father's, and is now a wealthy widow, somewhat faded in beauty, but still a woman whom men love for her own sake. Then sud- denly she learns that Basil is not dead after all, dreams that he is coming home to renew the love now no longer sinful, and finds that he, not knowing of her widowhood, has married also. Here we think the story ought rightly to end, but there is yet another volume. Basil's marriage turns out a wretched one, and Mrs. Stondon devotes herself to rescuing him from ruin and to recon- ciling him with his wife. Yet she has outlived her love ; and indeed she ends by falling in love with the memory of the dead husband for whom when living she had not cared. For his sake she refuses every offer of marriage, and lives single to the end of the novel.
Now we are not altogether clear whether the moral of this story is quite as excellent as the authoress obviously believes it to be. The burden of the story is conveyed in the text, quoted time after time, that " the wages of sin are death." But yet we are all along left in doubt as to what was the real magnitude of Phemie's iniquities. If the climax had been what it would have been in a French novel, we could make excuses for the heroine ; but a woman who goes to the very verge of sin, and yet is always collected and high-principled enough to resist all attempts to lead her across the narrow line which separates sin and virtue, cannot command either our respect or our compas- sion. The impression left upon the reader is that Phemie was a very selfish and cold-hearted woman, perfectly able to take care of herself under any circumstances ; and yet this is an impression that Mrs. Trafford does not intend to convey.
The truth is that, like many other English writers, like Mrs. Gaskell in Ruth, or Miss Braddon in The Doctor's Wife, she has
attempted to depict passions which she is unwilling to follow out to their natural development ; and so she has produced an im- perfect work. The whole point of the Bible story of " The Woman taken in Adultery" would be sacrificed if the commen- tator had carefully explained that the woman, however sinful her intentions, had still been true to her husband. Yet this is exactly what our English passion-novelists are always doing. We doubt whether illicit passion is a fit subject for fiction, and we are cer- tain the English public is far better for this class of subjects being virtually tabooed. But if we are to have them treated of at all in novels, we are not sure that morality gains by the Platonic character given to their development.
We feel bound to make this criticism upon Phemie Keller, because it explains the radical defect of the whole story. But if we could lose sight of this,—as we do while actually reading the work,
—we should rank this latest novel amongst the ablest of Mrs. Trafford's works. The same minute power of delineation which produced a portrait of George Geith that lives in the reader's memory has been expended upon Phemie Keller. From the day when we greet her singing in the Lake country, " blue- eyed and auburn-haired," to that when we leave her at the end, "still beautiful, and still a widow," she is to us a living per- sonag e—a woman of flesh and blood ; and though the plot is too disjointed for the novel to be at all a model of construction, the want of sustained interest is redeemed by the extraordinary beauty of passages scattered throughout the volume. Still the
authoress of George Geith and Phemie Keller may produce works more perfect than either of them, more worthy of her remark- able talent.