GOTTHELF'S LAST NOVEL.'
MODERN German literature has produced few more remarkable works of fiction than those of the Swiss pastor, Albert Bitzius, better known as Jeremiah Gotthelf. Bitzius, who died some years ago, was in himself a curious compound of radicalism and ultra-conservatism, and this stamp he put on all his writings, which bear, besides, the mark of the highest originality. Born at the famous village of Morat, near Freiburg, in 1797, Albert Bitzius began to study theology at the early age of sixteen, commencing his academical career at the high school of Berne, and finishing it at the University of Gottingen. In 1820, when not quite twenty-three, the young theologian got appointed, in his native canton, to what English clergymen call a "living," but which in his case was scarcely such, as it kept him barely above want, and at any rate never led to "preferment." To eke out his small stipend, Pastor Bitzius took to writing, and the very first book he produced, although bearing all the traces of an inexperienced pen, and published, more- over, by a little country printer in the lonely, out-of-the-way hamlet of Burgdorf, met with an extraordinary success. The book, called the Bauern-Spiegel, described the life and labours, joys and sorrows, of a poor villager, Jeremiah Gotthelf, in such a graphic manner, and with such wonderful truthfulness of detail, as to attract at once the attention of German critics, with the con- sequence of a sudden popularity to the author, who henceforth adopted the name of his village hero as his nom de plume. His suc- cess established, a number of works similar to the Bauern-Spiegel, full of minute delineations of Swiss country life, particularly as existing in the Canton of Berne, came from the parsonage of pastor Bitzius, each meeting with increased popularity, not so much in Switzerland as in Germany. What was, perhaps, the chief cause of this extraordinary popularity, was the fact that Gotthelf's books offered an entirely new kind of food to exhausted novel-readers, on whom French sensational romances, long in vogue over the whole of the Continent, began to pall, and who felt the breath of a purer air, not less stirring than that of murders and seductions, coming in upon them in the graphic accounts of the home life of Swiss Bauern. But there was another, deeper source of interest to many readers in the political element of these Bauern novels. An earnest and almost vehement republican, Albert Bitzius yet condemned modern democracy in terms which delighted oven Hanoverian advocates of the divine-right school. The all but unmeasured abuse which the Swiss pastor showered upon " levellers " was the more characteristic, as showing itself in shrill contrast with the high praise bestowed upon the republican institutions of the Canton of Berne, where democracy, as is well known, has been developed to the extent that all are equal who have got money in their pocket, and those only are pariahs who can call nothing their own in the struggle for existence but brains and muscle. The number of friends and favourers of this somewhat ancient form of republicanism is said to be yearly increasing over the continent of • Wealth and Welfare. By Jeremiah Gotthelf. 2 vole. London and New York A. Strahan, 1566.
Europe—the continent of America, we need not say, has its long- ings likewise—and the admirers of his books pretend that many new proselytes have been gained through the powerful pen of Jeremiah Gotthelf.
Leaving aside the ,political tendency of the Swiss pastor's writings, in which English novel-readers will probably take bat a very faint interest, there remains much that is highly attraetive in Gotthelfs Bauern stories. The last of them, just published in an English dress, under the dreadfully heavy title of Wealth and Welfare, is a very good specimen of the class, though not by any means the best of the author's works. The plot is of the simplest, so simple, indeed, that readers trained by Wilkie Collins or Miss Braddon must stand aghast at the very idea of making a story out of the ingredients. There is not a single murder or assassination ; no suicide, adultery, or seduction ; no ghost, fatal nightmare, mesmerism, spiritualism, or any other "ism ;" in fact, there is an absolute void of stirring inci- dents, and the greatest amount of human wickedness exhibited is where a young man knocks down another in a bit of a broil by a thump with a fire-hook. The heroes and heroines are altogether six in number, made up of two farmers and their families. In the foreground stands Christian, a rich Bauer, owner of the estate of Liebewyl, with his wife, Annie, two sons, Christy and Andrew, and one daughter, Lizzie; further in the background is another -wealthy Bauer, proprietor of Dorngriit, with one daughter, called Mary Anne. The whole plot, whatever there is of it, hinges on -the mutual affection of Andrew and Mary Anne, whose course of true love is slightly interrupted at times, owing to the moral contrast between the owners of Liebewyl and of Dorngriit, the Erst of whom is the model of a kind husband and father, while the second shines as his counterpart. All this must seem terribly prosaic in plan, and perhaps would be so in reality, but for the masterly way in which the simple subject is treated. Having taken his characters from life, the author places them on the stage life-like, so that all the want of incident is forgotten in the won- derful sharpness of outline and surprising truthfulness of detail with which the figures are brought before the reader's imagination. The art is the more admirable, as it has to cover many great and serious faults, accompanying nearly all the works of Jeremiah Gotthelf. The Bernese pastor is prolix to tediousness, and, what is worse, he quotes his own sermons to an extent enough to frighten the staunchest admirers of Swiss evangelic theology. That works of fiction should prove interesting with these enormous drawbacks, is, perhaps, the best proof of the intrinsic worth of Gotthelfs writing*. There is, probably, not another instance in modern literature of success, vast and enduring, having been achieved by novels thickly stuffed with sermons.
To the English reader of Gotthelf's works, the most striking characteristic will be the wide contrast between the mode of existence of rich peasant proprietors in Switzerland, as sketched from reality, and the life of similar classes in our own country. The lord of Liebewyl, in Wealth and Welfare, described as absolute proprietor of a lauded estate embracing more than a thousand acres, worth a hundred thousand pounds, is seen taking part in the daily agricultural work with all his labourers, differing from them in no perceptible manner, eating and drinking with them on the commonboard, and even little distinguished above them by education and superior manners. The heir to the estate, youngest son of ,Christian (the custom of gavelkind rules in the Canton of Berne), works as hard as his father, and much harder than the paid labourers, although extremely conscious of ranking far \above them, and of counting among the aristocracy of the land. He has interviews with his sweetheart, daughter of the wealthy master of Dorngriit, at a common public-house, and the courtship of 'heir and-heiress is carried on in a manaer which would be deemed offensively vulgar even among agricultural labourers in Dorset- shire. Here is the first meeting of the lovers, at a roadside inn frequented by servants, where dancing takes place on Sundays :- U Andrew felt as though he could not bear to unwind his arm from his partner's waist, as if once he let her go she would vanish, and he should see her no more. At last, however, they moved towards the table, though the young girl maintained that it was really too much, and that she was determined to pay her share. She had not come there to gormandize; but her father having some business on hand and she nothing to do, she thought she would just look on at the dancers to divert herself. As to the fiddlers, she would say nothing ; but she was resolved to pay her share of the bill. If he was so free of his money, that was no reason why others should not be equally so. Andrew meanwhile kept wonder- ing who his partner was, and she who he might be ; and both kept beating about the bush, but each wanted to know the other's name before giving up the incognito. However, neither succeeded. Andrew was much struck with one difference between this girl and others • Having asked what business her father had on hand, and been told it was a purchase of wood, his next question was whether their home was too small, and this afforded the young girl a fine opportunity of relating how many acres of land they had, how many sheaves they made up, and how many bundles of hay she gave to the cows every year ; but not a word of the kind did she say."
The strange materialism of Swiss lovers stands, out very conspicu- ous in this sketch ; but still more in the following extract, a speech of Andrew's sister, Lizzie, commenting upon his love affair. This is how the daughter of a rich landed proprietor openly expresses herself about " la grande passion :"— " I can hardly wait to see the girl, and keep wondering what she can be like so to have bewitched Andrew. I am not one of the ugliest going; but let me do what I will, I have never carried anybody so com- pletely off their legs as she has him. Those -to whom I give a rebuff don't go and hang themselves, and those who ask what portion my father means to give me, and to whom I say, I flatter myself a good prolific ewe, and a set of new shift-sleeves,' go off with themselves and look after me no longer, let me smile ever so sweetly, and open tmy eyes to their utmost. Neither have I been tempted to hang myself for any of them, nor would I have taken the pains to run a mile after them ; I should have grudged shoe leather. So I can't help wondering what this love is ; whether people only fancy they feel it or whether God has really made some hearts quite different from others, so that they take fire and set on fire in this odd way."
When Lizzie at last has had the wish of her heart fulfilled, and seen Mary Anne, on a visit to Liebewyl farm, her comments run as follows :—
" I cannot make out what on earth Andrew can see in her: he who is generally so very particular, and could find no one to his taste. To be sure, she is pretty enough, but there are plenty of others nearer home as pretty as she is. Bat she has no idea of talking. I tried every possible subject, shooting matches and markets, young men and young girls, but nothing could I get from her but a dry 'Yea' and No.' And then what a proud puss she is ! Not a friendly word did she speak to any of the maids, and you should have seen the faces they made at her. And as to her manners, I think nothing of them. I saw, her put a bit of meat on her fork with her fingers; and what a pocket-handkerchief she had, so small and thin ! I should have been ashamed to carry such a thing about. I daresay she never uses one at home."
These pictures of life in Switzerland are, it will be seen, not made to raise great respect for rich Bauern, nor for that power of the purse, as opposed to the influence of birth and education, which rules absolute in small republican States such as the Canton of Berne. Nevertheless, the pictures are wonderfully attractive, not only because of the fine talent of the author-artist, who caught life as he found it before him, and sketched it admirably, but as giving the by far best account of the people of a country very much explored, yet very little known by Englishmen. The romantic scenery of the Alps has been so often painted, that it becomes a not uninteresting diversion to look at the photographs of Jeremiah Gotthelf, and have a face-to-face view of Alpine peasants, strong and sturdy, but most unromantic people upon earth.