In transcribing the following material from The Reader, an interesting, unfortunately short-lived intellectual magazine of the 1860s, I have used the Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. The full-text version is generally accurate, and the most common OCR error here takes the form of turning the letter “e” as “o.” I corrected the scanning errors, and for ease of reading I have added a few paragraph breaks. If you come upon any errors I have missed, please do not hesitate to let the editors of this site know. — George P. Landow
ere are the last labours of two novelists of note — one holding a high rank among writers of fiction, and enjoying during the greater portion of his life an extensive popularity. Of late years we had not seen much of Mr. James in print, and his official position in a foreign country withdrew him personally from the fields of literature. Twenty or thirty years ago ho was a conspicuous man, and, in a bird's-eye view of fictitious edifices, his works "stood out" like St. Paul's Cathedral or the Palace of Westminster in a representation of London. But times changed, and men changed with them, and novelists changed more than most men. For the last fifteen years or so a novel of Mr. James's must have felt — if novels could feel — like Rip van Winkle coming out of the mountain. It would not recognise its former readers, and its former readers would scarcely recogniso it. Some were dead; some had grown too old for the former charm; some, without waiting for the influence of time, had wilfuUy changed their tastes. Who could fancy that middle-aged gentleman, addicted to political economy, and lightening his leisure only with an occasional magazine, to be the hot youth who used to devour our author in earlier days and fire his imagination with tales of knights and castles and tournaments and hard-fought fields — of heroic deeds and lovely ladies to reward them? Who could recognise, in the agreeably middle-aged person whom you took down to dinner last night, and who so charmed you with her estimate of Kingsley, the delightfully dreamy young thing of seventeen, who, in the year 1840, used to get the same novels by stealth, and blush to find them interesting? And, while Mr. James's old generation was falling off, he had no new one to supply its place. The coming men and women would have nothing to do with the old conventional school of fiction. A kind of Naturalism — a Pre-Raphaelitism of fiction — became the order of the day; and this has of late been succeeded by the "sensation" school, which will engross public attention by its glare until it burns itself out. So it is that our author's fame has for many years been fed chiefly by those of his former admirers who have happened neither to die nor to change their minds: by the general public he has been somewhat neglected. Yet there is a great deal to be said for Mr. James, and we confess to having read his last work with far greater pleasure than we read many more pretentious and more popular performances. A well-known purveying firm advertises of its pickles that, although not so brilliant in colour as those of some other makers, they possess compensating advantages in not subjecting the consumer to a process of slow poisoning. This is precisely the merit that may be claimed for Mr. James's novels; and the absence of brilliancy, it should be remembered, detracts not at all from the taste. Even for the sheer amusement of the thing we would rather read "Bernard Marsh" — though it is one of the weakest efforts of the author, and, perhaps, the least effective of his works — than struggle through an ordinary novel of tho "sensation" school. Not that there can be the smallest objection to "sensation" in itself. To invest a work with strong interest is, at least, a fault on the right side; and an age must be very hypocritical which could condemn any class of fiction on account of its forcible effects. The sin is in the sacrifice of truth and nature to those effects, and making them out of such monstrous materials as to place them beyond the pale of sane reading. For Mr. James it must be said that he wrote like a gentleman and a scholar, abounded in picturesque description, was altogether an admirable narrator, and that the majority of his works have at least one quality which a novel should have — that of keenly interesting the reader. And these effects are, moreover, produced without any departure from such dull things as high principle, good feeling, and sound sense.
The scene of "Bernard Marsh" varies between France and England; the time is a favourite one of the author — the Civil War. Some English exiles resident in France co-operate with the hero — who is, in reality, a certain nobleman, called in the novel the Earl of Dartmoor — in the final struggle at Worcester. The adventures of the party — which includes several ladies, of course — give occasion for a great deal of vigorous description; and the reader is quite enough impressed with the reality of the characters to be very glad when they all get out of their difficulties. Bernard Marsh himself — a sketch from history — is admirably drawn; and the author is candid enough to tell us that he took some pains to produce the result.
Geraldine Maynard has some characteristics in common with Bernard Marsh; but it is far less finished; and the death of the author, indeed, occurred before he could properly revise the sheets for the press. The story is little more than a series of pictures — very sketchy and tinted in bright transparent colours, so that the effect of the whole is about as real as that of a painted-glass window. The book is rather a short one for a three-volume novel; but there is no want of action, which goes at railroad pace, and yet allows time for portraits of most of the great personages of the day. The story is simple enough — consisting mainly of the attempts of that unpleasant historical individual Lord Rich to obtain possession of Geraldine, a most charming young lady who is supposed to be a miller's daughter, but who proves to be the niece of the Earl of Desmond, but on bad terms with the family; so that, when she escapes to Ireland and falls into his power, her relationship is no protection against the vow which he has made to spare nobody who is even half English. She is accordingly condemned, with two companions, to be beheaded; and the story would doubtless have had a very distressing termination but for the arrival of the renowned Kelly of Moriarty, who burns down the castle and takes off the head of Desmond, his determined enemy. It is recorded in history that Kelly sent the head as an acceptable present to Queen Elizabeth, but we are indebted to Captain Curling for the information that the interesting relic was brought over by his heroino and her two friends — one a persecuted Eoman Catholic, and the other a pirate who has seen hotter days. The central figure in the work is no less a person than William Shakespeare. He protects Geraldine throughout, and always turns up when he is most wanted, like Mr. Fechter in The Duke's Motto. So little is known of the original that there is, of course, plenty of room left for the imagination in the filling-up of the character. We are not at all surprised, therefore, to find the poet such an "admirable Crichton" as he is represented. Nobody, in fact, can beat him at anything. When Geraldine is attacked in a house where she has sought refuge, by the myrmidons of Lord Rich, the poet takes measures of defence such as you might expect from an engineer officer of remarkable professional ability. And, when he has drawn the besiegers into an assailable place, he kills three of them off his own weapon, and scares the rest to flight. Whatever he does it is with the same result. He is a first-rate horseman as well as a first-rate shot; he baffles all his enemies in intrigue; and he has still leisure for writing poetry which he and the other characters are always quoting, besides leaving scraps of it about which are duly produced in the book. He is, moreover, a most brilliant converser; and we have a glowing account of' one of his nights at the "Mermaid," which would have been more complete, however, if we had been told what he said. He writes the Merry Wives of Windsor in the course of the work, and makes the original cast in the reader's presence. We have admission, too, to the first representation, and the advantage of knowing what the Queen thought of it. The Queen, it may be here added, makes a prominent appearance in these pages. Her love-makings and her jealousies are plainly pictured, albeit without much suggestion of scandal; her vanity and imperiousness are conscientiously rendered; and we have plenty of graphic touches relatingto such matters as her red wigs and her toothache. We are kindly taken by her Majesty to consult Dr. Dee respecting this malady; and Dr. Dee is met with upon other occasions, as, indeed, are nearly all the people of note who had anything to do with the period. Burleigh, Leicestor, Sidney, Walsingham, Raleigh, and the rest are all there; and they talk as familiarly in our hearing as if they had known us all their lives. We are witnesses to the breaking-off of the engagement between Sir Philip and Lady Penelope Devereux; and, in a quarrel with Lord Bieh upon the subject, Shakespeare interferes most opportunely on behalf of his brother poet. The illustrations of the time, indeed, are endless, are dashed in with very creditable courage, and render the book decidedly readable, notwithstanding occasional extravagances, and the steady determination of the writer not to pander to probabilities. Captain Curling was the author of several of effective works; and his admirers will, doubtless, find the present performance acceptable, apart from the peculiar intorest attaching to it. Tho book is certainly not a dull one, and through so rapid a succession of scenes the most impatient reader may follow without fatigue. S. L. B.
Curling, Captain. Geraldine Maynard; or, the Abduction. A Tale of the Days of Shakspeare. 3 vols. London: Skeet, 1864.
James, G. P. R. Bernard Marsh. A Novel. 2 vols. London: Bentley, 1864.
S. L. B. “Last Labours.” The Reader: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. (2 July 1864): 6-7. London: “Published at 112, Fleet Street.” Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. 27 July 2016.
Last modified 28 July 2016