6 SEPTEMBER 1890, Page 19


RECENT NOVELS.* THERE are, we should think, very few people who can boast that they have read every one of Mr. F. W. Robinson's novels ; but of those with which the present writer is acquainted, The Keeper of the Keys is undoubtedly the best. It is, in the first place, a thoroughly well laid-out story,—a story which testi- fies to conscientious painstaking, and this in contemporary fiction is much rarer than talent. The characters are numerous, and any one trying to give a brief abstract of the story would find that its narrative scheme is decidedly com- plicated ; but Mr. Robinson has his materials so well in hand, that there is never any sense of crowding or confusion ; and the only important defect of construction is the lack of pre- paration for the sudden concentration of interest in the con- cluding chapters upon Eugenie Vanderspur, from whom we have not been led to expect anything in the way of decisive action. The revelation that hers is the hand that has sent the poor weak Bernard Gair to his account is, indeed, effec- tive as a startling surprise ; but a mere surprise which has no imaginative raison d'etre is a cheap and vulgar effect, quite unworthy of a novelist like Mr. Robinson. It would, however, take graver mistakes than any which are made in The Keeper of the Keys to spoil a book containing two such characters as the grim, self-contained, short-tempered, yet not unheroic Rachel Wickerwill, and the repentant sinner, Carl Marney, the fraudulent merchant who, years after the commission of his crimes, returns from his exile to make restitution and atonement. In minute veracity of realistic portraiture, Rachel is perhaps the finer ; but Marney makes a much stronger impression on the imagination. He belongs to the family of some of the more winning of Victor Hugo's ideally conceived heroes—Jean Valjean, for example—and though it is hardly necessary to say that he lacks the sombrely imposing splendour of that wonderful creation, he is a very noble and pathetic figure, who lights up with a gleam of moral beauty a book which in his absence would seem mainly a painful though vigorous presentation of the seamy and sordid side of life.

Mr. Algernon Gissing—who, by-the-way, must not be con- founded with Mr. George Gissing, the author of Thyrza and Demos—contends justly enough, in one of the chapters of his third volume, that no truthful picture of rural English life can be merely pretty and idyllic. The simple, innocent, happy Giles of the stage is as unlike the real thing as was the well- mannered and sentimental Strephon of the old-fashioned pastoral; and a literary artist whose passion for veracity is stronger than his passion for beauty, is almost certain to be strongly tempted to vindicate veracity against the erring playwrights and poets by producing a picture in which all the shadows are unduly deepened, and the ugly outlines brought into unfair prominence. In writing his previous novel, Both of this Parish, Mr. Gissing certainly yielded to this temptation, for not only was the book unrelievedly dismal, but its dismalness was, on the face of it, exaggerated and gratuitous : the reader felt that the author was not simply an artist, but an advocate with a brief for the prosecution. A Village Hampden is a more truthful because a more cheerful book, Mr. Gissing having apparently come to see that light and shade are essential to truth as well as to pleasantness, and that a predominance of black is. as fatal to genuine realism as a predominance of rose- colour. Michael Wayfer, the ignorant, ill-conditioned, small tenant-farmer; Riley, the still more ignorant and ill-condi- tioned labourer ; and Clinkscales, the pot-house oracle, who sells his spurious wit and wisdom for plentiful supplies of beer, do indeed represent existing types of English village life ; but on Mr. Gissing's own showing, their surroundings are not favourable to them, and they are therefore doomed to perish in that struggle for existence which has for its result the survival of the &teat. The forces to which they must succumb are not less faithfully represented by Gabriel Bew- glass, the young agent, Ruth Sulby, the village schoolmistress, and old Master Radway, the stonebreaker whose weekly • (1.) The Keeper of the Keys. By F. W. Robinson. 3 vole. London : Hard and Blackett.—(2.) A Village Hampden. By Algernon Gissing. 3 vols. London : Hurst and Blackett.—(3.) Tote Man with a Secret. By Fergus Hame. 3 vole. London : F. V. White and Co.—(4.) For Value Received. By Thomas Cobb. London : Ward and Downey.—(5.) Jack Abbott's Log. By Robert Brown. 2 vole. London : Sampson Low and 0o.—(6.) The Rajah's Heir. S vole. London : Smith, Rider, and Co (7.) The Scudamores. By F. 0. Philips and Cl. J. Wills. 2 vols. London : Gardner and Co.

singing-class is the centre of humanising culture ; and, indeed, the main fault of the book, as a novel pure and simple, is that its central story is thrown somewhat into the shade by these interesting accessories and surroundings. Mr. Fergus Hume's previous stories, The Mystery of a Hansom-Cab and Madame Midas, made no claim to be regarded as literature : they were simply shilling shockers and nothing more,—things which fulfilled the purpose of their existence when they whiled away the tedium of a long railway-journey. The Man with a Secret is, both externally and internally, a much more ambitious affair. Instead of being a thin, closely printed book with a hideous picture on its garish paper cover, it is a. quite respectable-looking three-volume novel, and we have not read many pages before we discover that Mr. Hume has made an attempt to achieve a somewhat higher kind of interest than that excited by murder and mystery. There is no murder at all in the new book, and though the writer cannot yet bring himself to forego a complicated, and in parts rather absurd plot, he makes a praiseworthy effort to create characters which are not mere pieces on a chess- board, and to tell his story in a manner which shall have an attraction of its own. His success is perhaps not very striking : there is more of melodramatic convention, both in the general scheme and in the leading situations, than of recognisable likeness to real life ; but Rome was not built in a day, and Mr. Hume is to be congratulated on having turned his face in the right direction. Dr. Larcher, who never opens his mouth without indulging in a quotation from his favourite Horace, though a study in Dickens's most ex- aggerated manner, is really alive, and there is considerable inventive ingenuity in the portrait of the miserly old Squire, who has a fantastic theory of reincarnation, and has taken measures to make himself his own heir. The Man with a Secret is a very imperfect book, but it is a decided advance upon its gruesome predecessors ; and it is welcome as an indication that its writer is on the line of growth.

For Value Received is by no means a bad novel of its kind, but it is not a novel that can be reviewed otherwise than briefly, because it consists entirely of the working-out of a simple yet interesting plot ; and the reviewer who lets himself go is pretty certain to find himself unwittingly violating an unwritten but well-understood law, by telling what ought not to be told. To a certain extent, however, he is relieved from this obligation by Mr. Cobb himself, who has not yet acquired the knack of keeping his own secret until the time when it can be disclosed with due artistic effect. The most unsophisticated novel-reader is aware from the first, not merely of Arthur Edenbridge's innocence of the murder of his brother, but of the identity of the actual criminal, and he is wearied rather than excited by the elaborate and ineffectual contrivances for throwing him off the scent. Apart from this defect, which, it must be admitted, is in a novel of this kind a rather serious one, For Value Received is a very creditable and workmanlike performance, and the sub-story which provides the book with its title is conceived with real cleverness, for it is not likely that one reader in a thousand will anticipate the nature of the expedient by which Lily Armytage is honourably released from her enforced promise to save her lover by marrying the odious Mr. Smellie. In short, Mr. Cobb's novel, though susceptible of improvement, is as it stands a very readable book.

Jack Abbott's Log is not a novel of the ordinary kind, but an old-fashioned sea-yarn, bearing a strong general resem- blance to the saltwater stories with which Captain Matryat charmed and excited us in the days of our boyhood. It is written in an artless, chatty, confidential style, with occasional direct appeals to the " gentle reader," and there is plenty of sea-lingo, the genuineness of which every reader will be gentle enough to .accept confidingly, especially when he has passed the page where Mr. Brown pours a vial of good-natured but none the less withering contempt upon those pretenders who dare to write stories of life on shipboard in which they betray ignorance of such beggarly elements as the use of " man- ropes" and the locality of " weather-earings." There is a pretty but very slight love-story, which just serves to keep Mr. Brown's narrative materials together ; and the book is really a collection of episodes which have no vital connection with each other, but which are in themselves none the less

entertaining on that account. On one page the author admits with charming naiveté, that he has told the story of a certain

adventure " more for the sake of filling up the chapter than anything else ;" and one has a shrewd suspicion that this filling-up method is resorted to in various other places where no confession is made. It is not a method of ideal excellence, and devotees of high art will regard it with scorn ; but the ordinary reader, who cares less for methods than for results, will find Jack Abbott's Log a very pleasant book.

When the time and place of a great historical event like the French Revolution or the Indian Mutiny are chosen by any novelist other than a writer of strong creative genius, the luridly picturesque background of tragical fact is likely to overpower the fictitious drama which is played in front of it. To this general rule, The Rajah's Heir, which is a romance of the terrible year of 1857, is not an exception ; and though it is a well-written, vigorous, and interesting story, it is a story upon which it is by no means easy to base an estimate of the powers of the anonymous author in the realm of pure inven- tion. We incline to think he has written the book mainly to utilise in an attractive manner his personal knowledge of Indian affairs in general, and of the incidents of the Mutiny in particular; for the moving incidents and hair-breadth escapes of Tom Gregory and his friends during the weeks of deadly peril and sickening anxiety, are conceived much more vividly than the English portion of the novel, which is comparatively -conventional, and even a trifle dull. The semi-supernatural element in the story is introduced somewhat clumsily, and somewhat gratuitously as well; for when the writer has dragged it in, he does not seem to know what to do with it. Indeed, the construction is throughout loose and tentative ; but when we reach that part of the novel which provides it with its true raison d'être, the interest of the mere incidents is so intense, that little defects of workmanship are forgotten.

The Scudamores has not very much in it, but what there is in it is very bright and pleasant, and people who are devoted to symmetry in art ought to enjoy a book which, though it may have nothing else to distinguish it, is certainly the most symmetrical novel of the year. There are two elderly gentle. men, one a poor patrician and the other a rich plebeian, like . the contrasted fathers in Our Boys, who are bent on arranging the matrimonial affairs of their juniors ; and there are two pairs of the said juniors, who are bent on arranging their matrimonial affairs for themselves,—the interest being divided between the two old gentlemen and the two youthful couples with such exquisite precision of equality, that it is impossible to declare which old gentleman or which youthful couple has the advantage. It is needless to say that the elders are finally -vanquished, and the record of the campaign makes a lively novel, which, if not specially original as a whole, introduces us to one very fresh and pleasant figure,—that of Aurea Price, the bright Anglo American heiress, whose cool head, warm heart, and vivacious tongue make a very piquant and enjoy- able combination.