[The following discussion of Diana Mulock Craik's life and works comes from an 1897 book, Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign: A Book of Appreciations, in which women writers discussed their predecessors. Numbers between brackets indicate page breaks in the orginal text, which comes from Project Gutenberg (see bibliography). I have added subtitles, changed the quotation marks around book titles to italics, set off some longer quoted passages, and removed the breaks between several paragraphs. — George P. Landow.]
n the small circle of women writers who shed literary lustre on the early years of her present Majesty's reign was Dinah Mulock, best known to the present novel-reading generation as the author of John Halifax, Gentleman. To appreciate fully the position that we claim for her, it will be necessary to turn back to the period when she began to write, and see who were her contemporaries. Pre-eminent among these stand out three names — names immortal on the roll of fame for so long as taste and critical judgment last; the books of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot must be regarded as masterpieces of fiction. We, their humble followers, bow before their genius which time, fashion, or progress cannot dim or take from; therefore, to have achieved success and to have made an abiding fame while such [219/220] luminaries were shining in the firmament was a distinction to be justly proud of — the result of talent, delicacy of handling, and grasp of character that were only a little below genius.
How vast the difference that one small step would have made it is not our purpose to show; our intention is rather to take a general view of the work of a writer who — now that close upon half a century has passed, since, in 1849, timidly and without giving her name, she launched on the world her first novel, "The Ogilvies" — has never lost her hold upon the reading public of Great Britain, the Colonies, America, or wherever the English tongue is spoken.
Dinah Mulock was born in 1826 at Stoke-upon-Trent in Staffordshire. Her disposition towards literature seems to have been inherited from her father, who was connected — but in no very prosperous way — with letters, and was known to Byron and to the poet Moore, whose fellow countryman he was. At the time of his daughter's birth, he was acting as spiritual minister to a small congregation who were followers of what were then generally thought to be his advanced and unorthodox opinions. Few who forsake the established road for their own peculiar rut find that prosperity bears them company, and the fortunes of [220/221] the Mulock family during the embryo authoress's early years were unsettled and unsatisfactory. We are all given to rebel against the clouds which overcast our youth, seldom realising that to this pinch of adverse circumstance we owe much of that power to depict the sorrows, joys, and perplexities of life in the setting forth of which Miss Mulock became so eminently successful.
Before she had reached the age of twenty, she left her home and came to London, "feeling conscious," we are told, "of a vocation for authorship." Now, in the present day, when novel writing has become an employment, profession, distraction, I might almost say a curse, there would be nothing remarkable in such a conviction; but in 1846 the mania of desiring to see their names in print had not seized upon our sex; therefore the divine afflatus must have been very strong which sent a timid attractive girl, hampered by all the prejudices of her day, to try the fortunes of her pen in London.
That she had not been deceived in her quality is shown by the success of The Ogilvies, which not only was popular with novel readers, but raised hopes that the writer possessed great dramatic power, to be more ably used when experience had corrected the crude faults of a first book. The story, based on passionate first love, is written with the enthusiasm and vigour which comes pleasantly from a [221/222] young hand, and makes us disposed to view leniently the superabundance of sentiment which, under other circumstances, we should censure. The death of the boy, Leigh Pennythorne, is rendered with a pathos which calls for admiration, and we are not surprised to see it ranked with the death of little Paul Dombey; while that of Katherine Lynedon, spoken of at the time as possessing great dramatic force, strikes us now as melodramatic and sensational.
Encouraged by having found favour with the public, Miss Mulock followed up her success with Olive (1850), "Agatha's Husband" (1852), Head of the Family (1854). Her literary reputation was now established; and, though her magnum opus, John Halifax, had yet to be written, it may be as well to consider some of the merits and weaknesses of her style, her treatment of her subjects, and her delineation of character.
In a short sketch, such as this, it is not possible to give a synopsis of the plots of the various books, or even, in most cases, extracts from them. We have to confine ourselves to the endeavour to realise the effect they produced at the time they were written — the estimation they were then held in, and to see what position they now command among the novels of the present day. [222/223]
Perhaps it will be only fair towards the faults we are about to find that we should recall the forward strides made by women in the past forty years. We who can recall the faulty teaching and the many prejudices of that date must often question if women now are sufficiently sensible of the advantages they possess.
A reviewer of Miss Mulock's novels, writing in 1866, says: "It is one of the chief misfortunes of almost every female novelist that her own education, as a woman, has been wretchedly defective;" and further on he adds: "the education of the majority of women leaves them not only without information, but without intelligent interest in any subject that does not immediately concern them." He then points out that it seems impossible for women to describe a man as he is — that they see him only from the outside. "They are ignorant of the machinery which sets the thing going, and the principle of the machinery; and so they discreetly tell you what kind of case it has, but nothing more."
Now, when the time has come that young men and maidens have other interests in common than those which spring out of flirtation and love-making, we may feel quite sure that each sex will get a better insight and have a juster knowledge of the other. The general taste for exercise, and the development of activity and health of [223/224] body, has killed sentimentality and the heroines of the Rosa Matilda school. Not that these were the heroines that Miss Mulock created. Her ideals are to a certain extent made of flesh and blood, although they are not always living figures. Even at the period when we are told that "In the world of letters few authors have so distinct and at the same time so eminent a position as this lady," her judicious admirers find fault with her overflow of feminine sentimentality, which never permitted her ideal sufferers to conquer their griefs so far that they could take a practical and healthy interest in the affairs of the living world. "They live only 'for others'" says one critic, "'the beautiful light' is always in their faces; their hands 'work spasmodically' at least once in every two or three chapters."
Regarding the cramping influence of the prejudices which hedged in women in Miss Mulock's day, is it not very possible that this flaw in the portraiture of her own sex may have been due to the narrowness of her training rather than to any deficiency in her talent? Nothing more plainly shows how warped her judgment had become than many of the passages in "A Woman's Thoughts about Women." This is a book with much sound argument in it, and full of the desire to rectify the feminine grievances to which she was not blind. But [224/225] when we come to a passage like the following, in which she asserts that all who "preach up lovely uselessness, fascinating frivolity, delicious helplessness, not only insult womanhood but her Creator," we ask how is this to be reconciled with the text which comes immediately after: "Equally blasphemous, and perhaps even more harmful, is the outcry about the equality of the sexes; the frantic attempt to force women, many of whom are either ignorant of, or unequal for, their own duties, into the position and duties of men. A pretty state of matters would ensue! Who that ever listened for two hours to the verbose confused inanities of a ladies' committee would immediately go and give his vote for a female House of Commons? or who, on receipt of a lady's letter of business — I speak of the average — would henceforth desire to have our courts of justice stocked with matronly lawyers and our colleges thronged by 'sweet girl graduates with their golden hair'? As for finance, if you pause to consider the extreme difficulty there always is in balancing Mrs. Smith's housekeeping book, or Miss Smith's quarterly allowance, I think, my dear Paternal Smith, you need not be much afraid lest this loud acclaim for women's rights should ever end in pushing you from your counting house, college, or elsewhere."
On this showing, such crass ignorance is to be accepted [225/226]226] in women, and is to be taken as a matter of course and as natural to them as cutting their teeth or having measles or chicken pox. It is of little use to advocate "Self Dependence," "Female Professions," "Female Handicrafts," for those who cannot write a business letter or do a simple sum. Miss Mulock may have had, indeed I fear had, much reason to cast these reproaches at her sex. But that she did not feel their shame, and urge her sister women to strive for an education more worthy of intelligent beings, proves to me how deeply her mental gifts suffered from the cramping influence of the time in which she lived. Could she have enjoyed some of the advantages which spring out of the greater freedom of thought and action permitted in the present day, how greatly it would have enlarged her mental vision! Her male creations would have been cast in a more vigorous man-like mould. Her feminine ideals would no longer be incarnations of sentiment but living vital creatures. Where the mind is stunted the mental insight must be limited; and strong as were Miss Mulock's talents, they were never able to burst the bonds which for generations had kept the greater number of women in intellectual imprisonment.
In Olive, the novel which immediately followed The Ogilvies, Miss Mulock ventured on a very fresh [226/227] and interesting subject. Olive, the heroine of the story, is a deformed girl, "a puir bit crippled lassie" with a crooked spine. To make this centre-character attractive and all-absorbing was a worthy effort on the part of an author, and we take up the book and settle ourselves to see how it will be done. Unfortunately, before long, the courage which conceived the personal blemish gives way, and, succumbing to the difficulties of making mind triumph over beauty, Miss Mulock commits the artistic error of trying to impress upon you that, notwithstanding the pages of lamentations over this deformity and the attack made on your sympathy, the disfigurement was so slight that no person could possibly have noticed it. Naturally this puts the heroine in a more commonplace position; and as several minor plots are introduced which Olive only serves to string together, much of the interest in her with which we started is frittered away.
Finally, Olive marries and restores the faith of a religious sceptic. And here it is curious to read the objections raised at the time against bringing into fiction "subjects most vital to the human soul." One critic, after describing the hero he is willing to accept — and, much to our regret, space prevents us showing this terrible model that we have escaped — says: "But a hero whose intellectual crotchets, or delusions, or blindness, are to be entrusted for repairs [227/228] to a fascinating heroine — a mental perplexity which is to be solved in fiction — a deep-rooted scepticism which is to lose its vis vitæ according to the artistic demands of a tale of the fancy, this we cannot away with. Sceptics are not plastic and obliging. Would to Heaven scepticism could be cured by bright eyes, dulcet tones, and a novelist's art of love!"
Criticisms in this tone make more plain to us the difficulties which novelists in the fifties had to grapple with. So many subjects were tabooed, so many natural impulses restrained, while the bogey Propriety was flaunted to scare the most innocent actions, so that nothing short of genius could ride safely over such narrow-minded bigotry. That an extreme licence should follow before the happy mean could be arrived at, was a safe prediction; but many of the writers in that day must have had a hard task while trying to clip the wings of their soaring imaginations, so that they might not rise above the level marked out by Mrs. Grundy.
Now, all these social dogmas must have had an immense influence on the receptive mind of Dinah Mulock, and readers must not lose sight of this fact should they be inclined to call some of her books didactic, formal, or old-fashioned. She never posed as a brilliant, impassioned writer of stories which tell of wrongs, or crimes, or great [228/229] mental conflicts. In her novels there is no dissection of character, no probing into the moral struggles of the human creature. Her teaching holds high the standard of duty, patience, and the unquestioning belief that all that God wills is well.
John Halifax, Gentleman
The enormous hold which, ever since its first appearance in 1857, John Halifax has had on a great portion of the English-speaking public, is due to the lofty elevation of its tone, its unsullied purity and goodness, combined with a great freshness, which appeals to the young and seems to put them and the book in touch with each other. Those who read the story years ago still recollect the charm it had for them; and, in a degree, the same fascination exists for youthful readers at the present time. The theme is noble, setting forth the high moral truth of "the nobility of man as man," and into its development the author threw all her powers.
From the opening sentence, where you are at once introduced to the ragged, muddy boy and the sickly helpless lad, you feel that these two will prove to be the leading actors in the story — probably made contrasts of, and perhaps played one against the other. This idea, however, is speedily dispelled. Possibly from a dread of failing where it is thought so many women do fail — in the [229/230] portrayal of the unseen sides of character and the infinite subtleties it gives rise to — Miss Mulock, wisely we think, decided to place her story in the autobiographic form; and the gentle refined invalid, Phineas Fletcher, is made the deus ex machinâ to unravel to the reader not only the romance of his friend John Halifax's history, but also the working of his noble chivalrous nature. Few situations are more pathetically drawn than the attitude of these two lads, with its exchange of dependence and hero-worship on the one side, and of tender, helpful compassion on the other. A true David and Jonathan we see them, full of the trust, confidence, and sincerity young unsullied natures are capable of. And the story of the friendship, as it grows towards maturity, is equally well told.
His energy and his indomitable faith in himself make a prosperous man of the penniless boy. We follow him on from driving the skin cart to being master of the tan-yard; and throughout all his temptations, struggles, success, he maintains the same honest, fearless spirit.
It seems natural that when to such an exalted nature love comes it should come encircled with romance, and the wooing of Ursula March, as told by sensitive, affectionate Phineas Fletcher, is very prettily described.
For the reason that Ursula is an heiress with a host of aristocratic relations, John believes his love for her to be [230/231] hopeless. He struggles against this overwhelming passion for some time, until the continuous strain throws him into a fever of which his friend fears he will die. In this agonising strait Phineas is inspired with the idea of confessing the truth to Ursula; and, after a touching scene in which this is most delicately done, she determines to go to the man who is dying of love for her. In the interview, which is too long to be given in its entirety and too good to be curtailed, John tells her that owing to a great sorrow that has come to him he must leave Norton Bury and go to America. She begs to be told the reason, and without an actual avowal he lets her see his secret.
"It was but a low, faint cry, like that of a little bird. But he heard it — felt it. In the silence of the dark she crept up to him, like a young bird to its mate, and he took her into the shelter of his love for evermore. At once all was made clear between them, for whatever the world might say they were in the sight of heaven equal, and she received as much as she gave."
When lights are brought into the room John takes Ursula's hand and leads her to where old Abel Fletcher is sitting.
"His head was erect, his eyes shining, his whole aspect that of a man who declares before all the world, 'This is [231/232] my own." 'Eh?' said my father, gazing at them from over his spectacles.
"John spoke brokenly, 'We have no parents, neither she nor I. Bless her — for she has promised to be my wife.'
"And the old man blessed her with tears."
Abel Fletcher, grave, stern, uncompromising — as members of the Society of Friends in that day were wont to be — is a clever study. He will not yield readily to the influence of John, and when he does give way it is by slow degrees. Yet one of the most winning traits in this somewhat over-perfect young man, given at times to impress his moral obligations rather brusquely, is the deference he pays to his former master and the filial affection he keeps for him; and the author manages in these scenes to put the two into excellent touch with each other — so that, through John's attitude to him, the hard close-fisted old tanner is transfigured into a patriarch who fitly gives his blessing to the bride, and later on, in a scene of great pathos, bestows his last benediction on her blind baby daughter.
It was said at the time of its publication, and it is still said, that in John Halifax Miss Mulock reached the summit of her power. That she felt this herself seems to be shown by her adopting the title of "Author [232/233] of John Halifax." Its publication was in many ways a new departure. It was the first of that numerous series of books brought out by her (after) life-long friend, Mr. Blackett. Those were not the days when "twenty thousand copies were exhausted before a word of this novel was written;" yet the book had a remarkable and legitimate success. Of its merits a notable critic said, "If we could erase half a dozen sentences from this book it would stand as one of the most beautiful stories in the English language, conveying one of the highest moral truths." And that these few sentences, while in no way affecting the actual beauty of the story, are a blot and an "artistic and intellectual blunder — " the more to be deplored in a book whose moral teaching throughout is so excellent — we must confess.
The ragged boy, with his open, honest face, as he asks the respectable Quaker for work, is no beggar; the lad who drives the cart of dangling skins is not inferior to Phineas Fletcher, who watches for him from his father's windows and longs for his companionship; and the tanner — the honest and good man who marries Ursula March, a lady born — is her equal. Having shown that men in the sight of God are equal and that therefore all good men must be equal upon earth, what need that John should have in his keeping a little Greek Testament which he views as a most precious [223/234] possession because in it is written 'Guy Halifax, Gentleman'? Are we to conclude that all his moral excellence and intellectual worth were derived from ladies and gentlemen who had been his remote ancestors, but with whom he had never been in personal contact at all, since at twelve years old he was a ragged orphan, unable to read and write?
Miss Mulock could not have meant this, and yet she lays herself open to the charge, a kind of echo of which is heard in the adding to her good plain title of John Halifax the unnecessary tag, "Gentleman."
Her literary career being now fully established, Miss Mulock decided on taking up her permanent residence in London; and, about this time, she went to live at Wildwood, a cottage at North End, Hampstead. The now ubiquitous interviewer — that benefactor of those who want to know — had not then been called into being, so there is no record at hand to tell how the rooms were furnished, what the mistress wore, her likes, dislikes, and the various idiosyncrasies she displayed in half an hour's conversation. Such being the case we must be content with the simple fact that, charming by the candid sincerity of her disposition, and the many personal attractions that when young she possessed, Miss Mulock speedily drew around her a [234/235] circle of friends whom, with rare fidelity, she ever after kept.
A Life for a Life
John Halifax was followed in 1859 by A Life for a Life, a novel which, although it never obtained the same popularity, fully maintains the position won by its precursor. In it Miss Mulock breaks new ground both as to plot and the manner in which she relates the story, which is told by the hero and heroine in the form of a journal kept by each, so that we have alternate chapters of his story and her story. This form of construction is peculiar and occasionally presents to the reader some difficulties, but as a medium to convey opinions and convictions which the author desires to demonstrate it is happily conceived. The motive of the book is tragedy, the keynote murder — that is murder according to the exigencies of the story-teller. Max Urquhart, the hero — who at the time the tale opens is a staid, serious man of forty — is the perpetrator of this crime, committed at the age of nineteen in a fit of intoxication on a man named Johnston. Journeying from London to join a brother who is dying of consumption at Pau, Urquhart, through a mistake, finds that instead of being at Southampton he is at Salisbury. On the way he has made the acquaintance of the pseudo-driver of the coach, a flashy, dissipated [235/236] fellow, who by a tissue of lies induces the raw Scotch lad to remain for some hours at the inn and then be driven on by him to where they will overtake the right coach. By this man young Urquhart is made drunk, and when as a butt he no longer amuses the sottish company they brutally turn him into the street. Later on he is aroused by the cut of a whip. It is his coach companion who pacifies him with the assurance that if he gets into the gig he will be speedily taken by him to Southampton. The lad consents, he is helped up and soon falls fast asleep to be awakened in the middle of Salisbury plain by his savage tormentor, who pushes him out and tells him to take up his lodging at Stonehenge. The poor youth, with just sufficient sense left in him to feel that he is being kept from his dying brother, implores the ruffian to take him on his way. "To the devil with your brother," is the answer, and in spite of all entreaties, Johnston whips up his horse, and is on the point of starting, when Urquhart, maddened by rage, catches him unawares, drags him from the gig, and, flings him violently on the ground, where his head strikes against one of the great stones, and he is killed.
How Urquhart manages to reach Southampton, and to get to Pau, he never knows; but when he does arrive at his destination, it is to find his brother dead and buried, [236/237] and the fit of mania which follows is set down to the shock this gives him. At the end of a year, hearing that Johnston's death is attributed to accident, and being under the conviction that if the truth were told he would be hanged, he resolves to lock the secret in his own breast until the hour of his death draws near, and, in the meanwhile, to expiate his offence by living for others, and for the good he can do to them. He becomes an army doctor, goes through the Crimean War, and, when we are introduced to him, is doing duty at Aldershot, near where, at a ball, he meets the inevitable she, Theodora Johnston. If the hero is drawn dark, thin, with a spare, wiry figure, and a formal, serious air, the portrait of the heroine, with her undeniably ordinary figure, and a face neither pretty nor young, forms a fitting pendant to it. These two are irresistibly drawn towards each other, and, notwithstanding that the lady bears the fatal name of Johnston, they soon become engaged. Dr. Urquhart's tender conscience then demands that the tragic misdeed of his life shall be confessed to the woman he is about to make his wife, and, in a letter, he confides to her the sad history, adding, as postscript, some few days later: "I have found his grave at last." Here follows the inscription, which proves the dead man to have been the son of Theodora's father, [237/238] her own half-brother, Henry Johnston. "Farewell, Theodora!"
It is impossible here to give more than this crude outline of the plot of a book in which, far beyond the story she means to tell, the author has her own individual opinions and convictions to impress on us. The temptation to earnest writers to try, through their writings, to make converts of their readers, is often very strong, and in this instance Miss Mulock undoubtedly gave way to it. She had not only a vehement abhorrence of capital punishment, but, to quote from her book, she maintained "that any sin, however great, being repented of and forsaken, is, by God, and ought to be by man, altogether pardoned, blotted out, and done away."
As was at the time said, "Her argument demands a stronger case than she has dared to put;" but so ably are the incidents strung together, so touchingly are the relative positions of these suffering souls described, that their sorrows, affection, and fidelity become convincing; and, full of the pathetic tragedy of the situation, we are oblivious of the fact that what is called a crime is nothing greater than an accident, a misfortune, and that for murder we must substitute manslaughter.
From the date of the appearance of "John Halifax," [238/239] Miss Mulock's pen was never long idle. Composition was not a labour to her; and friends who knew her at that time, describe her as walking about the room, or bending over on a low stool, rapidly setting down her thoughts in that small delicate writing which gave no trouble to read. She had beautiful hands; a tall, slim, graceful figure; and, with the exception of her mouth, which was too small, and not well shaped, delicate and regular features. These attractions, heightened by a charming frankness of manner, made her very popular. Her poetic vein was strong. She published several volumes of poems, and many of her verses, when set to music, became much admired as songs.
Following A Life for a Life, came, in somewhat quick succession, Studies from Life, Mistress and Maid, Christian's Mistake, A Noble Life, Two Marriages. These in a period of ten years. As may be supposed, they are not all of equal merit; neither does any one of them touch the higher level of the author's earlier books. Still, there is good honest work in each, and the same exalted purity of tone, while much of the sentimentality complained of before is wholly omitted or greatly toned down.
Mistress and Maid
Mistress and Maid is one of those good, quiet stories, full of homely truths and pleasant teaching, in [239/240] which is shown the writer's quick sympathy with the working class. The maid, Elizabeth, is as full of character and of refined feelings as is Hilary Leaf, the mistress, and her one romance of love, although not so fortunate, has quite as much interest. The opening scenes, in which these two first meet, are excellent, giving us, all through their early association, touches of humour — a quality which, in Miss Mulock's writings, is very rare.
The picture of the rather tall, awkward, strongly built girl of fifteen, hanging behind her anxious-eyed, sad-voiced mother, who pushes her into notice with "I've brought my daughter, ma'am, as you sent word you'd take on trial. 'Tis her first place, and her'll be awk'ard like at first. Hold up your head, Elizabeth," is drawn with that graphic fidelity which gives interest to the most commonplace things in life. The awkward girl proves to be a rough diamond, capable of much polish, and by the kindly teaching of Hilary Leaf she is turned into an admirable, praiseworthy woman. One has to resist the temptation to say more about Hilary Leaf, an energetic, intelligent girl who, when she cannot make a living for herself and her sister by school-keeping, tries, and succeeds, by shop-keeping. The description of the struggles of these two poor ladies to pay their way, and keep up a respectable appearance, comes sympathetically from the [240/241]2 pen of a woman whose heart was ever open to similar distresses in real life. To her praise be it remembered that to any tale of true suffering Dinah Mulock never closed her ears or her hand.
Christian's Mistake and A Noble Life
Her next two novels, Christian's Mistake and A Noble Life, in our opinion, fall far short of any of her previous efforts. Yet they were both received with much popular favour, particularly the former, which called forth warm praise from reviewers.
For us not one of the characters has a spark of vitality. Christian is not even the shadow of a young girl made of flesh and blood. Her forbearance and self-abnegation are maddening. Her husband, the "Master of St. Bede's,'" twenty-five years her senior and a widower, is nothing but a lay figure, meant to represent a good man, but utterly devoid of intellect and, one would think, of feeling, since he permits his young bride, possessed of all the seraphic virtues, to be snubbed and brow-beaten by two vulgar shrewish sisters-in-law. There is no interest of plot or depicting of character, and the children are as unreal and offensive as their grown up relations. In "A Noble Life," also, there is nothing which stirs our sympathies. Even the personal deformities of the unfortunate little earl fail to touch us, and, when grown up and invested with every [241/242] meritorious attribute, he is more like the "example" of a moral tale than a being of human nature.
The Woman's Kingdom
As has been said, the portrayal of men is not this author's strong point. "Her sympathy with a good man is complete on the moral, but defective on the intellectual side" — a serious deficiency in one who has to create beings in whom we are asked to take a sustained interest. That she could rise superior to this defect is shown in The Woman's Kingdom. In this story Miss Mulock displays all her old charm of simplicity and directness, and is strong in her treatment of domestic life. At the outset she announces that it will be a thorough love story, and takes as her text that "love is the very heart of life, the pivot upon which its whole machinery turns, without which no human existence can be complete, and with which, however broken and worn in part, it can still go on working somehow, and working to a comparatively useful and cheerful end." This question we shall not stop to argue, but proceed with — we cannot say the plot, for of plot there is none; it is just an every-day version of the old, old story, given with admirable force and sweetness. It is said to appeal principally to young women, and it is possible that this is true, as the writer can recall the intense pleasure reading it gave to her nearly thirty years ago. [242/243]
The book opens with the description of some seaside lodgings, in which we find twin sisters as opposite in character as in appearance. Edna is an epitome of all the virtues in a very plain binding. Letty, vain, spoilt, but loving her sister dearly, is a beauty. "Such women Nature makes rarely, very rarely; queens of beauty who instinctively take their places in the tournament of life, and rain influence upon weak mortals, especially men mortals." Two of the latter kind arrive as lodgers at the same house, brothers, also most dissimilar — Julius Stedman, impulsive, erratic and undisciplined; William, his elder brother, a grave, hard-working doctor, just starting practice. The four speedily become acquaintances — friends — and when they part are secretly lovers. Letty, by reason of what she calls "her unfortunate appearance," never doubts but that she has conquered both brothers; but happily it is to Edna that the young doctor has given his heart; and when in time Letty hears the news,
and remembers that she had been placing herself and Dr. Stedman in the position of the Irish ballad couplet,
Did ye ever hear of Captain Baxter,
Whom Miss Biddy refused afore he axed her?
her vanity was too innocent and her nature too easy to bear offence long." [243/244]
"But to think that after all the offers I have had you should be the first to get married, or anyhow, engaged! Who would ever have expected such a thing?" "Who would, indeed?" said Edna, in all simplicity, and with a sense almost of contrition for the fact. "Well, never mind," answered Letty consolingly, "I am sure I hope you will be very happy; and as for me" — she paused and sighed — "I should not wonder if I were left an old maid after all, in spite of my appearance."
But to be left an old maid is not to be Letty's fate. Julius, already bewitched by her beauty through being much more thrown into her society, falls passionately in love with her, and for lack of any one else, and because his ardour flatters and amuses her, Letty encourages him, permits an engagement, and promises to join him in India. But on the voyage out she meets a rich Mr. Vanderdecken, with whom she lands at the Cape, and whom she marries. This is the tragic note in the happy story, the one drop of gall in the Stedmans' cup of felicity. Edna and her husband are patterns of domestic well-being. The joys and cares of every-day life have mellowed all that was good in them, and the account given of their home and their family is one we dwell upon lovingly.
Perhaps it is but natural that in our later reading we should note some small discrepancies that had formerly [244/245] escaped us. We regret that the sisters had drifted so widely apart, and that each should seem to be so unconcerned at the distance which divides them. It is as if happiness can make us callous as well as luxury. And although it was true that Letty's desertion suddenly wrecked the hopes of her lover, it seems hardly probable that such an unstable being as Julius would have taken her falseness so seriously. A wiser man might have foreseen the possibility. Still, when this and more is said, our liking for the story remains as strong as ever. We know of few books which give a better picture of healthful domestic happiness and pure family life.
Although we have hitherto called, and shall continue to call, our authoress by her maiden name, she had in 1864 changed it by marrying Mr. G. Lillie Craik, a partner in the house of Macmillan & Co., and shortly after she removed to Shortlands, near Bromley, in Kent. This change in her state does not appear to have interfered with her occupation, and for many years volume followed volume in quick succession.
Unwisely, we think, for her literary reputation, she was led, through her strong sympathy, to advocate marriage with a deceased wife's sister in a novel, published in 1871, called Hannah. [245/246] The novel with a purpose is almost certain to fall into the error of giving the argument on one side only. Its author has rarely any toleration for the ethical aspect of the other side of the question, and it is to be doubted if such books ever advance the cause they desire to advocate. In Hannah we are perfectly surfeited by those who wish to marry within the forbidden degree, and we feel as little toleration for the placid Bernard Rivers — one of those men who never believe in the pinch of a shoe until they want to put it on their own feet — as for Jim Dixon, who, after evading the law, speedily grows tired of the deceased wife's sister, and avails himself of his legal advantage to take another wife.
The objections we feel to novels of this class are well stated by a writer in the Edinburgh Review, No. clxxxix.We object," he says,
on principle to stories written with the purpose of illustrating an opinion, or establishing a doctrine. We consider this an illegitimate use of fiction. Fiction may be rightfully employed to impress upon the public mind an acknowledged truth, or to revive a forgotten woe — never to prove a disputed one. Its appropriate aims are the delineation of life, the exhibition and analysis of character, the portraiture of passion, the description of nature."
Writings for children
In most of these aims Miss Mulock had proved herself [246/247] an expert. In addition to her numerous novels and volumes of poems, she wrote a large number of tales for children, many of which, I am told, are exceedingly charming. One cannot read her books without being struck by the intense affection she felt for children. She had none of her own, but she adopted a daughter to whom she gave a mother's love and care. From time to time there appeared from her pen volumes of short stories, studies, and essays; but it is not by these that her name and fame will be kept green. Neither will her reputation rest on her later novels. This she must have realised herself when writing, "Brains, even if the strongest, will only last a certain time and do a certain quantity of work — really good work." Miss Mulock had begun to work the rich vein of her imagination at an early age. She took few holidays, and gave herself but little rest.
She was by no means what is termed a literary woman. She was not a great reader; and although much praise is due to the efforts she made to improve herself, judged by the present standard, her education remained very defective. That she lacked the fire of genius is true, but it is no less true that she was gifted with great imaginative ability and the power of depicting ordinary men and women leading upright, often noble lives The vast public that such books as hers appeal to is [247/248] shown in the large circulation of some of her works, the sale of John Halifax, Gentleman amounting to 250,000 copies, 80,000 of which — the sixpenny edition — have been sold within the last few months. This shows that her popularity is not confined to any one class. The gospel she wrote was for all humanity.
As a woman, she was loved best by those who knew her best. "Dinah was far more clever than her books," said an old friend who had been recalling pleasant memories to repeat to me. She died suddenly on the 12th of October 1887, from failure of the heart's action — the death she had described in the cases of Catherine Ogilvie, of John Halifax, and of Ursula, his wife — the death she had always foreseen for herself.
Around her grave in Keston churchyard stood a crowd of mourners — rich, poor, old and young — sorrowing for the good loyal friend who had gone from them, whose face they should see no more.
Last modified 10 July 2014