WHICH SHALL IT BE?*
THERE i3 some power, and there may be much promise, in this novel, if it be a first effort, as the absence of any reference to other works on the title-page. would seem to suggest. We say there may be much promise,' for it is very far from generally true in the present day that an author who succeeds, or to a con- siderable extent succeeds, once in fiction will make any progress, and not rather fall back, in subsequent attempts. We could name many first novels of great ability which have had no successors worthy to be called such. One of the most artistic stories of this generation, A Lost Love, by Ashford Owen, has never, we believe, had a successor at all. The author of George Geith, again, seems, as far as we can see at present, to have nearly exhausted herself in her first attempt. Mrs. Marsh, who has written many very trashy novels and a few rather clever ones, has never yet reached again the level she attained in the best of the Two Old Men's Tales, the Admiral's Daughter. Mr. Savage never wrote anything so good as The Falcon Family, and certainly The House by the Churchyard is far away the cleverest of Mr. Le Fanu's eerie and strongly spiced tales. Still, if this be a first, or nearly a first effort, as seems probable, and if the talent of the author is of the kind that does not depend on personal experience for its impetus, but springs from the genuine creative instinct, as may very possibly be the case here, then the author of Which Shall It Be? undoubtedly shows traces of talent enough to raise considerable hopes for the future. There is an incomplete- ness and rawness about the execution which looks like young work. The story flags a good deal and almost stands still in parts, and without any sufficient charm or piquancy in the style to reconcile you to its standing still. It is crowded with characters imperfectly sketched, which seem to fill up the canvass without satisfying the eye, and there are instances not only of imperfect drawing, but of what seems to us false drawing. Still the principal character in the book, the heroine, is an original one, —the sort of heroine Shelley would have delighted in, f ull of sweetness and tenderness, with revolu- tionary instincts, a deep scepticism of the traditional authority of old social usages and an eager impulse at times to throw them off, —what, in short, Shelley's Cythna in The Revolt of Islam. might have been, if reduced from a myth to the scale of reality, and accommodated with the oppressive necessity of earning her own bread amidst a society of native-born and carefully bred English " Philistines." Madeline Digby is of half Irish blood, though she has never lived in Ireland or even known it, and she is partly edu- cated in France. The former circumstance is supposed to give her the nature which the latter helps to develop, and we have rarely met with a character better conceived, though at times the true out- line of it is lost in the details of ordinary heroinism. " Hers was the very type of mind," says the author, " that has in all ages pro- duced revolt, that is, reform—a pure, bright, yet subtle intelligence, a loving heart, a most dauntless spirit, ready by nature to question every assertion, not recklessly or irreverently, but by an irrepres- sible instinct bringing all things to the test of her judgment, and yet tenderly respecting persons." It was a good idea to plunge a character of this calibre into a mean and joyless world of money- worshipping English shopkeepers, " respectables " of the dreariest and in some cases of the most oppressive kind. If there is an imaginative fault in the conception of Madeline's character, it is that she has too much tact, too much of the spirit of concession for the sake of peace and prudence in her, to bring out fully the most original element of her character, her revolutionary audacity. She often falls into common-place from the abundance of tact and sense which neutralizes her disposition to question the authority of all received rules and principles. She has the revolu- tionary intellect without the revolutionary impulse of such a being as Shelley's Cythna. Indeed sometimes the prudence of the young lady so far predominates that her revolt against law seems little beyond the natural result of a childhood and youth spent with a weak and wandering father, and latterly among the Bohemians of theatrical life. We doubt if the author has really worked out the very original conception which she—(we infer it is a lady's work only from the great superiority of the literary work so far as it deals • illtich Shall It Be? ANovel. Iu 3 van London Bantle!: with women to that which deals with men)—had planned for her- self in her preliminary sketch of Madeline Digby. Still the idea is exceedingly good, and in parts finely executed. The struggle in her mind, when, wretched, homeless, and without love, her aristo- cratic lover asks her to become his mistress, openly avowing his ina- bility—(he means his want of will) to marry her, but promising her all the fidelity and love without the form of marriage, is boldly and we think on the whole truthfully drawn. The only doubt we feel about this scene is not the doubt whether a girl of Madeline's nature and education would not have questioned the alleged moral neces- sity of marriage to true feminine purity, but whether her devoted- ness of nature would not have rejected at once with scorn the false half-love of a man whose only excuse for not giving himself -wholly to her, was worldly prudence. If his scruple had been any other than this,—if he had been a theoretic enthusiast rebel- ling against the laws of man, we could have understood her hesita- tion. But Madeline, as she is drawn here, is all yearning for true tenderness, and must have felt the false note about the tenderness of one who thought more of his future station in life than of his pro- fessed devotion to herself. Yet this is not what actually withholds her from accepting his disgraceful offer of love ; indeed she is sit- ting down to accept it, when the thought of her dead father's last prayer for her safety overcomes her, and she writes in the very oppo- site strain to what she had intended when she took up her pen. Yet we are inclined to think that the sense of injustice and indignity offered to her love in the proposal of her lover, and the sense of indelicacy in giving so much in return for so little, would have had more influence over such a. character as hers is described to be, than the half articulate instinct which finally vetoes the yearning of her heart to assent. The revolutionary element in Madeline's character fades away too much towards the end. In the last scenes we have little more than a common heroine,—in the earlier ones a thoroughly original and fascinating one.
Perhaps the most complete sketch in the book is that of IVIadeline's old French aunt, the Comtesse de Fontarce (née Blake de Ballyshanahan). The majestic, imperious, refined, high-toned, hard-grained selfishness of this intriguing old Irish-French coun- tess, with her Voltairian indifference to all belief and her desire to have the reputation of orthodoxy, is admirably sketched, and gives us a higher idea of the artistic powers of this anonymous writer than anything else in the novel. Madeline writes to her from her vulgar English school to solicit her aid in getting a French education to help her in her career as a governess, and con- fides to her privately the misery which she suffers from the petty tyranny and miserly economy of her English grandmother, the 4' respectable Redman " (as Madame de Fontarce always calls her), on whom she is then absolutely dependent for her means of living and education. The private reply to Madeline and the subsequent political letter to Mrs. Redman herself are in finely .drawn contrast. We quote first the reply to Madeline :— "Although the time seemed long, yet the reply came quickly; it was -curious in its wording, yet satisfied her to whom it was addressed :— Madeline Digby,' it began, time has not yet so chilled my blood that I cannot feel for you ; yet, understand me, I am a poor widow—poorer than you, than any one knows. If, therefore, you have hopes from the Redman grandmother, do not throw them away, you will get nothing - in exchange. If however, you really have but your own exertions to look to, I may be able to serve you for a year or two, but beyond that build no hopes. Gracious powers! your father ought not to have left you in such a position. How did it come about ? Let me know how I -shall proceed, let us not offend the Redman ; give me the carte de pays, and remember the most powerful talisman in life is—money. I confide this letter to your honour—the honour of a Digby.—Your friend, MADELINE DE FONTARCE, née BLARE DE BALLYSHANAHAN "
Now for the State letter intended to persuade Mrs. Redman to give sip her niece to Madame de Fontarce's care :-
" So Miss Foster went and got out a large desk, and from it took a large envelope of thin paper, sealed with a monstrous seal, bearing the impress of a deeply cut coat-of-arms, surmounted by a coronet ; the paper had been carefully cut from round this dignified appendage, in order to leave it unbroken; then Miss Foster drew forth a sheet of thin pale grey paper, perfumed, written over with violet ink, and having a eoronet in violet at the top of the first page. Then Miss Foster cleared her throat ; Mrs. Redman interlaced her fingers, and rested her hands on her abdominal region ; uncle John turned to face Miss Foster, threw his arm over the back of his chair, prepared to pass judgment, however intricate the case ; and Madeline clasped her hands and tried to sit still. 4 Ahem !' said Miss Foster :- "' To THE HONOURABLE MRS. REDMAN.
0,4 " MADAM:St—Confiding in the courtesy which always distingaishes persons of a generous nature, I address myself to you on a subject of interest to us both—I mean our young relative, Madeline Digby, who informs. me of your benevolence in clothing, maintaining, and educating her. She also informs me that she is desirous of perfecting herself in the language of this country by a residence in Paris, and requests my assistance towards this end, acknowledging, however, that you have the first right to control her movements. I beg to submit to your approval what I propose to do. I am willing to maintain and educate Madeline Digby for the next two years, if you, madame, will of your bounty supply a small annual sum, say twenty-five pounds, toward; her neces- sary apparel, and provide her travelling expenses to Paris, and from Paris to London, should you desire to see her. After this period, should she prove a girl of graceful manners and creditable deportment, I am further willing to introduce her to my society, and endeavour to find a fitting parti for her, difficult as it is to obtain one for a girl without fortune. Should she not be of a calibre calculated to succeed, I shall no doubt be enabled to place her in some family of distinction, where she can respectably earn her own bread—you, respected madame, in either case assisting in the matter of outfit. I append this slight stipulation, knowing the noble pride of an Englishwoman, who would not devolve all the natural responsibilities on another. Ultimately it must depend on the conduct of the young stranger herself how I may dispose of the few worldly goods which must remain when I quit this scone of trial. No doubt mine is but a paltry portion compared to the colossal fortunes to which you merchant princes of England are accustomed. Nevertheless, my late husband, Monsieur le Comte de Fontarce, has left his widow better off than the generality of soldiers' widows—even those of the sol- diers of his great general and friend,—' That was the Emperor Napoleon,' ejaculated Mrs. Redman, in a tone of some awe.—' Therefore,' continued Miss Foster reading, whenever you decide upon sending the young lady to me, give me a week's notice, and I shall be ready to receive her. Accept, madame, the assurance of my most profound esteem.—MADELisu DE FONTARCE, neer BLARE DE BALLYSHANAHAN."
"Rue de , Numero 27.
And the whole sketch of the needy French countess is in strict keeping with this first shadowing forth of her character. The next best sketch (as regards completeness of execution) in the book is that of Lady Templemore, the strong-minded, just, worldly, adminis- trative woman, without sentiment, without feeling, but still not repellent, only cold and solid. She is admirably drawn throughout, and with that freedom from all exaggeration which marks the best artistic power. The "respectable Redman" is not so good. She is a hateful old woman, whose delight is in tyranny, who really hates her niece, and who yet is supposed to be immediately con- verted to like her by her access of fortune at the close. This is not natural. A spiteful old woman like the ' respectable Redman' would have cared even more to indulge her resentment against Madeline for the independence she had always shown, than to curry favour with a granddaughter merely because she was rich. The only really perfect sketch among the vulgar people is that of Mr. Arthur Downing, the pushing engineer. He is capital, and also the only telling sketch of a masculine character in the book. Mr. Elliott, the successful lover, is one of the muscular heroes of whom we are tired ; Lord Hexhani is a fascinating and selfish shadow ; even Mr. John Redman is only half visible, though the flavour we do seem to imbibe of him is real and humorous. On the other hand, all the sketches of women, however slight, are as far as they go, good, though the " respectable Redman's " worship of money is exaggerated. Miss Foster is the very ideal of a weak, kindly, sub- missive spinster, with truly lady-like heart ; Lady Rawson's bold, strong, hearty, and yet not vulgar manners are drawn with real vigour, and admirably indicate the coarse struggle of her early life for success ; and even the Miss Joneses and Jessie Moorcroft have something real and well defined about them, slightly as they enter into the story. We can scarcely resist the impression that the author is capable of much higher things than even this decidedly clever novel. There is ease and variety in it, as well as truth. It has, however, been very carelessly edited. Misprints abound, " venial " for " venal," " expending" for " expanding," and errors of that kind in every ninth or tenth page, and in one place a girl (Jessie Moorcroft), who has been already married and has written a letter under her marriage name, is put back again for half a chapter into the spinster state, and has her honeymoon again, quite unconscious of the impropriety of having been living in lodg- ings with her husband at Liverpool in the previous chapter. This sort of carelessness seems to imply that the work has not passed through any final revision by the author, and had it done so, no doubt many of its present imperfections might have been removed. The author of Which Shall It Be? should be able, we think, to write something which may live. This story has plenty of promise, but will certainly not live : it is unfinished, heavy in plot, and very unequal in its ability, which is often great.