Short Stories

decorative initial 'T' he decade between 1840 and 1850 was a good one for beginning writers. As literacy spread, and improved machines made printing cheaper, there were more and more magazines to provide a market for short fiction. They did not all, however, compete for the same readers. A magazine's tone was set by the publisher's political and religious affiliations, by the editor's taste, and by the price, which determined who could afford to buy it. When Craik's early short fiction was reprinted in 1859, it was divided into two volumes called Domestic Stories and Romantic Tales. The difference between the two shows how, in meeting the requirements of the editors and the reading audience, Craik discovered what she could best do with her craft.

Chambers's Edinburgh Journal (established in 1832) was one of the first weekly magazines with a price set low enough to take advantage of working-class literacy. The object, William Chambers said, "was not merely to enlighten, by presenting information on matters of interest, and to harmlessly amuse, but to touch the heart, to purify the affections. . . " (Chambers, p. 216). The Chambers brothers wanted to reach the lower classes. Their two series of longer stories, Chambers's Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Tracts and Chambers's Papers for the People — which included several contributions by Craik — were designed for "parish, school, regimental, prison, and similar libraries" (p. 240). But Chambers's Edinburgh Journal was almost certainly read more often by artisans, tradespeople, and the middle class than by the working poor. The circulation was figured at 90,000 by the end of 1844, but almost half of the copies were sold as monthly parts, at a price too high for most of the working class. [19/20]

Chambers's was a level above the sensational penny weeklies like the London Journal and the Family Herald. Craik herself had read it when she was a child. Writing for it both suited and helped to form her literary style. Many short stories in Chambers's are extended anecdotes that illustrate a simple moral point; they are often indistinguishable from the chatty personal essays on practical and educational topics that were also featured in the magazine. The Chambers's voice has the tone of a good teacher in the classroom or a chaplain talking to a youth group: clear information, personal involvement, and lots of examples to sustain interest. Chambers's liked historical tales with an educational bias. It wanted characters and situations with which readers could identify. It printed many things by and about women; the reader with a fairly adequate education but a relatively small income was quite likely to be a governess or tradeswoman.

The stories that Craik wrote for Chambers's were primarily domestic; the few that would later be labeled "romantic" were short tales about the family life of a character from history. Craik's domestic stories are designed to reveal the worth of a central character who seems at first to be insignificant. The stories are generally a series of incidents — sometimes only one incident — without any strong plot. For example, "All for the Best" (29 May 1847, pp. 341-44) is narrated by a young man about his maiden aunt Milly, who is always cheerful and encourages others even when she has troubles of her own. After losing her small income, she goes to her widower cousin to be companion and chaperone for his daughters. He lives in a gloomy hall and the girls are unattractive and sullen — but after two years of Milly's influence, they are transformed into sweet beauties, and their father, Mr. Elphinstone, marries Milly. The domestic stories are almost all about some variety of love, though it is apt to be child love, family love, or unrequited love instead of love-and-marriage. The tales turn on the moral values of resignation, duty, self-sacrifice, and perseverance.

Monthly magazines offered more money and more prestige than the weeklies like Chambers's. As she gained skill and confidence, Craik began to place short stories with other editors. Douglas Jerrold's Shilling Magazine and Sharpe's London Magazine were probably intended for the lower-middle-class audience that Chambers's actually reached despite its working-class price. Bentley's Miscellany, Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country, and Dublin University Magazine, [20/21] however, were thoroughly middle-class monthly magazines of opinion with substantial general articles and reviews, priced at half a crown, and intended for relatively well-educated readers. Craik's first piece in Fraser's was published in July 1848, at the same time that Charles Kingsley's Yeast was being serialized. Other Fraser's contributors in 1848 included George Henry Lewes, Lady Eastlake, and Richard Hengist Home.

The middle-class magazines of the 1840s did not want the kind of simple realistic or moral tale that was printed in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal. They favored something more exotic; settings in past time and distant place for imaginative (rather than educational) effect, stories that illuminated a thought instead of a moral, romances that refined or suspended the rules of reality. For these magazines Craik wrote stories such as "Erotion," "The Rosecrucian," "Hyas the Athenian," "Cleomenes the Greek," "The Self-Seer," and "The Wife of King Tolv."

It is rather difficult to talk about the literary quality of this short fiction, in part because proofs were often edited or expanded by other hands in order to fit the required space. (Camilla Toulmin, visiting in Edinburgh, hastily added five pages worth of extra sentences and paragraphs to a story of Craik's for the Miscellany of Tracts.) The basic conceptions, however, were Craik's, and in writing constantly and rapidly she learned what she could do that would please both editors and herself.

She took inspirations wherever she could get them: from people seen in the train or across the street, as in "Miss Letty's Experiences"; from an obvious moral, such as self-help in " 'Tis Useless Trying"; from the lives of painters that the Pre-Raphaelites were interested in; from printed or pictorial sources. "The Daughter of Heremon" was apparently written to order for an engraving thar the editor of Sharpe's wanted to use as an illustration. A footnote to "Cleomenes the Greek" acknowledges that the central scene was inspired by F. R. Pickersgill's painting "Christian Worship in the Catacombs." One incident in "The Cross on the Snow Mountain" was developed from a hint in Mary Howitt's History of Sweden; "The Rosecrucian" refers to a 1615 book by Michael Meyer and makes Meyer a character in the tale; "The Wife of King Tolv" is expanded from a traditional Danish ballad. In choosing historical periods for romantic tales, Craik favored eras when religious or political struggles erected barriers that would keep young lovers apart. [21/22]

When the stories were first collected in 1853 under the title Avillon and Other Tales — printed in three volumes for the library (i.e., middle-class) trade — one reviewer said that Craik was better at short romantic stories than sustained narratives of everyday life and compared her to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Hans Christian Andersen (Athenaeum, 19 Nov. 1853, p. 1380). The reviewer was surely reflecting the tastes of the intellectual literary establishment. It is hard for a modern reader to agree. Simple illustrative stories, perhaps, are more acceptable when they rest on practical moral points; Craik's "philosophical" ideas seem terribly obvious. "Hyas the Athenian" is based on a superficial Platonism: the young poet ignores schools and temples and looks within himself and nature to find the ideal. He becomes enormously successful until he loses contact with the ideal because of his selfish ambition. But he is restored to grace — and needs his abstract ideal no longer — when he wins the love of a pure woman, who is the source of all love, peace, strength, and gladness. "The Rosecrucian" must cut himself off from worldly desire in order to master the spiritual realm, and so he kills the woman he loves; we perceive the psychological allegory, of course, but the story is a choppy succession of emotional scenes without convincing character development. "The Self-Seer" is an episodic doppelganger story mixed up with the invention of printing; the central interest shifts from one character to a second midway through the story, and what the heroes generally discover in their out-of-the-body experiences is that the women they adore do not really love them. Craik apparently did not believe any of the mysticism; her contemporary ghostly tales always turn out to have been dreams.

In these stories Craik learned how to write effective confrontations between people, but she was not good at giving life to ideas. The intellectual content of the romantic tales was carried in pseudo-dialogue made up of long set speeches. The best of her romantic tales are the ones based on legend or historical fact. When the source supplied the key events so that Craik did not have to invent plot, she could use her imagination to create motives and personalities that gave life to the actors in the tale.

She also learned to manage the language. The earliest stories — particularly the ones written for more prestigious magazines — are overburdened with complicated diction and inverted sentence orders. She did better with the more oral language suitable for the personalized narrators in the Chambers's stories. [22/23]

Finally, even in these early stories we can see a core of incident, message, and emotion that was to run continuously through her fiction for the next forty years. There are a great many hard-working old maids — and a few old bachelors — among the narrators. In both "Antonio Melidori" and "The Italian's Daughter" (a story about adoption written in 1847) single women satisfy their emotional needs by becoming mothers.

The women are almost invariably more interesting characters than the men — one of the reasons, perhaps, that the romantic tales (which usually have a male as central character) are less convincing fictions. A few of the strong women in these stories are evil. The message is ambiguous in "Cleomenes the Greek" and "The Cross on the Snow Mountain"; the women are admired for their steadfast faith, even though they adhere to an old, non-Christian religion which causes them to do unacceptable things. The successful woman painter in "The Story of Elisabetta Sirani," however, is poisoned by a jealous female rival. This negative view of womanly strength did not persist except in the earliest of Craik's novels.

"The Last of the Rurhvens," a historical romance set in the days of James I, displays the essential features of what was to become Craik's typical love story: a kind of sexual equality exists in a friendly relationship between a practical woman and a man who needs care and protection. The woman's love for the man is a maternal, nurturing emotion which, as the story says, "crept in unwittingly, under the guise of pity." (Chamber's Papers for the People, vol. 5, p. 6).

In the early stories, as in the novels, a rather large number of characters — generally men, but sometimes women also — gain love because they are weak or ill. The very first to appear in print, "Minor Trials" (Chambers's, 1846), may reveal the childish roots of the fantasy. Katherine Thornton, who is tall, beautiful, strong, and the wife of a gentle English clergyman, feels shut out by her husband's mother and sisters. But after Katherine is thrown from her horse she overhears them talking about her and learns that they have come to care for her in her affliction.

Whether expressly didactic or not, Craik's short stories espouse basic middle-class moral values: hard work, family love, the spiritual influence exercised by good women. "The Two Homes" contrasts the quiet comfort of a middle-class family to the quarrels and coldness in a wealthy home. Spinster heroines explicitly demonstrate that self-dependence is a virtue as essential to women as to men. [23/24] Several stories — including "Avillon" and "The Only Son" — make a point of showing why a man should let a woman know that he loves her even if obstacles prevent him from proposing marriage. A man who protects a woman by "leaving her free," Craik insists, also denies her the information that she needs to make mature choices and leaves her in a state of childish insecurity.

The most common emotional effect is an aching sadness, the feeling that arises from unrequited love or unappreciated self-sacrifice. Even when recognition or happiness comes at the end of the tale, it often seems too little and too late to overcome the prevailing mood. The value of self-sacrifice is sometimes dubious; "A Bride's Tragedy," for example, a tale about a husband who goes mad on his wedding day, reminds us of the horror stories girls tell each other after midnight at summer camp or slumber parties. And, in fact, the sadness and the quiet, unnoticed suffering that suffuses both the romantic and the domestic stories is an emotion familiar to adolescence. It is also common in popular fiction — particularly women's fiction — in the twentieth century as well as the nineteenth.

Longer Tales

Short stories in the 1840s did not necessarily have a limited focus and a single dramatic effect; many tales by Craik and by the other authors who published in the same magazines recount — very sketchily — the events of a whole life instead of painting a single event or a significant moment. On the other hand, the influence of libraries and the economics of the publishing business meant that most novels were required to fill three volumes; even considering the wide margins and excessive spacing used by some publishers, the typical Victorian novel is a work of substantial length and often, therefore, of multiple plots. During the years that Craik began to write novels, she also published two one-volume books that should probably be considered long stories. Both have governess narrators. They explore two different ways of making an extended narrative from the experiences of a central character who is not herself involved in startling adventures or romantic crises.

The Half-Caste was printed as Volume 12 of Chambers's Papers for the People in 1851. The governess is essentially an onlooker. She is hired to teach two daughters of the family and, therefore, is accidentally involved in the Cinderella story of a half-Indian cousin who [24/25] is treated as a servant and generally thought to be illegitimate, but who is actually an heiress. The racist relatives believe that her intellect is necessarily small because of her mixed blood, and they hope that by keeping her grateful but untaught they will be able to trick her out of her inheritance when she comes of age.

The story is an exercise in plotting, with suspense — and clues — throughout, and with all the paraphernalia of a gloomy Yorkshire estate, attempted elopements, intercepted letters, and dark secrets. The narrator functions usefully as a controlling voice because her own naive half-understanding of the events she sees adds a pleasurable irony. Furthermore, she inserts small interjections that reveal the private feelings suppressed by her role as governess. When Mr. Sutherland, she writes, "took me down to dinner, I accidentally caught sight of our two figures in the large pier-glass. Age tells so differently on man and woman: I remembered the time when he was a grown man and I a mere girl; now he looked a stately gentleman in the prime of life, and I a middle-aged, old-maidish woman." ("The Half-Caste: An Old Governess's Tale", Chambers's Papers for the People, vol. 12, p. 26.)

The governess never tells the reader that she was in love with Mr. Sutherland — because, in fact, she never really admits it to herself. The story ends with the governess still single, living in the house of Mr. Sutherland and the half-caste (whom he has married) and looking after their two children — a happy solution to the plot events, yet a curiously mixed substitute maternity for a single woman looking on at life.

Bread upon the Waters was published in 1852 by the Governess's Benevolent Institution, an organization that provided temporary relief for governesses who were too ill to work and small emergency pensions for those who became destitute in their old age. Craik's purpose — to raise money for the Institution and enlist sympathy for its cause — partly determined the story's tone and shaped its events.

In form, the story is the journal kept by a young woman, Felicia Lyne, who is twenty when her father remarries. Because her stepmother is unkind to her two young brothers, Felicia leaves home with the boys and maintains them by working as a daily governess. Her journal is filled with ordinary, trivial difficulties: the energy it takes to make her pupil learn, the new skills needed to teach even if one has an adequate education, the exhaustion that comes simply from talking all day, the worry about housekeeping expenses and about leaving the boys alone in lodgings while she works, the [25/26] occasional embarrassments of walking alone through the street. However, by constant effort, Felicia manages. After several years she again meets the young man she had once been fond of — now Sir Godfrey Redwood — and realizes that the years and the work have made her dream of love impossible; her Looks and her character have changed so that she could no longer be the "doll" that once pleased Redwood. She settles into her middle years, content with independence, self-sufficiency, and the lack of turmoil in her physical and emotional life.

The direct and personal language of the journal reflects the transformation from intense adolescence to mature womanhood. The remainder of the book, imposed by its purpose, is not so believable. Felicia is crippled in an accident so that she can no longer earn her living as a governess. However, she has a happy ending as beloved maiden aunt to her brother's children. For the purposes of the Governess's Benevolent Institution, this solution is possible because Felicia has someone to fall back on when she is unable to work. Her brother repays her for the care she gave him when he was a child. Clearly, any person who ever had a governess should do the same by contributing to the cause.

In both of these long tales, as in many of the early short stories, Craik's plotting is abrupt and obtrusive. She is convincing and effective when, in the persona of the governess narrator, she is able to adapt her own experiences as a single working woman, to use details she knows, and to tell about a life of hard work, independence, and minor pleasure.

Early Novels

The most important new writers of the late 1840s were outsiders, women whose isolation from the literary establishment gave them original voices: Elizabeth Gaskell looking sympathetically at the Manchester industrial poor, the Brontes making their own worlds in Haworth. Craik did nor come to writing from quite the same creative imperative. Given her financial need, her knowledge of the literary trade, and her experience with editors and readers, it is not surprising that Craik's first novels provide a sampling of the kinds of books that were, at the time, most popular with readers.

The Ogilvies

The Ogilvies (1849) begins with sixteen-year-old Katharine Ogilvie descending the stairs to come out at her first [26/27] adult party. We know at once that the novel will be about love; the first scene introduces three girl cousins and the obvious question is "Who will they marry?" Technically, three cousins supply enough plot business to keep the question alive for three volumes. Thematically, their stories provide contrasting images of love and marriage.

The orphaned Eleanor Ogilvie is attached to Philip Wychnor. Theirs is a true and constant love because it has grown slowly and they respect one another. They are kept apart by family displeasure, poverty, and some rather unlikely misunderstandings, but at last their faith is rewarded. Isabella Worsley, at the other extreme, is a husband-hunting miss whose mother is eager to see her marry someone — anyone — so that she will have a secure social position and a means of support. Isabella gets the shallow mate she deserves and fades from sight.

Katharine's story is more complicated and less conventional. At sixteen she is a shy, socially inept adolescent, who has just begun to be troubled by a feeling that Craik describes as a vague longing for some companionship. Katharine has satisfied it, so far, by dwelling on imaginary heroes created from daydream and literature. At her first party she is curiously attracted to Paul Lynedon, a good-looking young man who is insecure enough that he is eager to make everyone like him. In some way Lynedon's shape fills up the half-blank outlines of Katharine's ideal. She fastens her imagination on the few words he has spoken and hopes that he loves her.

When Katharine learns that her dream was pure illusion — that Lynedon was simply being kind to her in the ways that a man is kind to a child — she does as her parents have always expected and marries her pleasant young cousin Hugh. But Katharine is not content; she does not love Hugh; she uses her power as the beloved to rule the marriage; she becomes a social and very attractive woman. Lynedon reappears and is fascinated by her. Hugh dies suddenly — offstage and hardly noticed — and Katharine, shockingly, marries Lynedon almost at once. The last scenes are emotionally intense. Katharine knows that she is doing wrong; she knows that she should never have loved Lynedon, that she should not, loving him, have married Hugh, that she should not marry immediately after her husband's death. Yet the emotion is real; she is in its grip and cannot control it. Katharine dies of heart failure immediately after the wedding. [27/28]

Although The Ogilvies was a contemporary novel, the topics, characters, and structures hark back to the books that were popular when the adolescent Dinah Mulock went on her lending-library binge in the late 1830s. Marriage-making was the central subject of the fashionable, or silver-fork, novels written by Mrs. Catherine Gore and her contemporaries. These books had aristocratic characters and detailed descriptions of manners, clothing, and interior decoration. They often put real people into the story under very thin disguises. Although the moral might criticize superficiality and matchmaking mothers, a silver-fork novel let readers savor the comfort, the independence, and the romantic freedom that a financially secure woman could afford. In The Ogilvies Craik wrote about the gentry rather than the working middle-class people found in her later books. She used, for the only time in her career, material drawn straight from her own experience of literary London. She introduced a hack-journalist literary patron, who made vast promises of work and influence but produced nothing; one reviewer suggested that he was modeled — vindictively — on a real person. She also, like the silver-fork novelists, dropped in French phrases, which she was not to do in any later work.

The appeal of The Ogilvies comes from its emotional intensity. Craik shows — despite what convention might say about women and love — how emotional attraction arises one-sidedly on a woman's part and how it continues to exist regardless of the actions or even the worth of the man on whom it is fastened. Katharine falls in love with Lynedon because he seems familiar from her dreams. Even when she does see him clearly — and sees his faults — she continues to love him because she has created her understanding of the emotion "love" around him. The conception is wholly innocent yet in some ways more convincing than what later ages would identify as sexual attraction because it explains why one man becomes an object of love and another, equally suitable, does not.

In other ways — and perhaps even in the very sureness with which it handles adolescent emotions — the book is clearly a beginner's work. The plotting is artificial: improbable obstacles keep Philip and Eleanor apart; several characters fall conveniently ill so that people may rush to their sides and reveal their real feelings. Philip's adventures in literary London have regrettably little to do with the story though they supply some of its most vivid passages. The set pieces about a literary soiree, the British Museum reading room, [28/29] and the magazine editor's pretenses are simply incidents from personal experience thrown in to make up the length, although they are observed in detail and are therefore more convincing than the country-house scenes.

Reviewers generally called the novel immature. Their reactions to its central matter were, however, divided. A good many of them found Katharine's love wholly improbable, although they praised the novelist for trying to tell the truth about love instead of simply following convention. But moralists — even though they admired the emotional intensity of the book's key scenes — warned the young writer to stay away from possibly dangerous subjects. The only truth a woman ought to tell about love was, apparently, the truth of its innocence and purity.


In Olive (1850) Craik avoided the diffuseness that weakened The Ogilvies by adopting the form made popular by Jane Eyre (1847) and telling the life story of a young woman with whom both the author and the reader can identify. The book begins with Olive Rothesay's birth, which brings grief instead of joy because the infant is deformed by a slight curvature of the spine. Olive is rejected by her pretty, girlish mother, who feels inadequate because she has given birth to an imperfect child. Mrs. Rothesay is too ashamed to write the truth to her husband, who is in Jamaica. When Captain Rothesay returns several years later he also rejects Olive; as we might suspect from what we know of his wife, Captain Rothesay values the female sex only for its beauty. Furthermore, he no longer respects Mrs. Rothesay because she had not been honest in her letters about the child. Olive grows up thin, pale, undersized, and lonely. Her craving for a friend is satisfied briefly by a neighbor, Sara Derwent, but at her first evening party Olive overhears cruel remarks, sees herself beside Sara in a mirror, and fully realizes her own difference. She achingly resigns herself to the loneliness of an existence in which relationships will be maintained only by pity on the other side.

This emotional independence marks the beginning of Olive's adult life. Captain Rothesay — who has been drinking and speculating — dies, and Olive has to look after her mother. They move to London and lodge with an artist, Michael Vanbrugh, and his sister Meliora. Olive discovers that her mother is going blind and that her father left unpaid debts. She hopes to earn money by painting, but Vanbrugh roughly tells her that she would be wasting her time: no woman has the genius or dedication to be an artist. However, she [29/30] makes herself useful in the studio, exercises gentle persistence, and earns moderate success in the art world.

Now an independent and self-sufficient woman, Olive takes her mother to the country. There she meets Harold Gwynne, a clergyman, a widower, a man who is bitter, distant, and cold. His wife had been Sara, Olive's childhood friend, and Gwynne's discovery that Sara concealed a previous attachment when she married him has made him a misogynist. He is also desperately unhappy in his calling; he took holy orders so that he could support his widowed mother, but he could not accept all of his church's doctrines, and the knowledge of his own hypocrisy has curdled his faith.

Olive becomes more lonely and desolate. Her mother dies. Reading papers left by her father, Olive discovers that Christal Manners, an orphan she has been helping, is her father's bastard. Olive yearns to call her "sister" but knows that Christal would be crushed by learning that she is illegitimate. The memories of her father and of her childhood friend Sara, which had given Olive some emotional sustenance, are both dishonored. And worst of all, she feels "... the horrible sense of self-degradation which smites a woman when she knows that, unsought, she has dared to love" (chap. 35).

Olive's own analytical intellect — reinforced by Craik's direct address to the reader — conquers the self-hatred. Olive was drawn to Harold Gwynne because she respected the sense of honor that made him endure in his duty even though he was tormented by his own faults. Olive accepts the legitimacy of her feelings; she may have to conceal her love but she does not need to be ashamed or afraid of it. A series of catastrophes — including Gwynne's nearly fatal illness after rescuing Olive from a burning house — cuts through the barriers and resolves the problems. Christal retires to a convent, Gwynne abandons his masculine search for an intellectual doctrine and absorbs Olive's simple loving faith, Olive and Gwynne disclose their love, and they inherit enough money to get married.

The emotional power of Olive is the power of Jane Eyre twisted one degree tighter. Jane Eyre is small and plain; Olive is small, plain, and deformed. Jane is rejected by her relatives; Olive is rejected by her father and mother. Jane loves unsought a man who has at least amorous potential; Olive's love is fixed on a man that she believes is incapable of loving a woman ever again. The book works on the reader's emotions because it gives voice to the universal feelings of rejection and difference, to the hurt of being left out, to [30/31] everywoman's sense that her body is imperfect, to the buried infantile memories that make it impossible ever to be loved enough.

On one level, then, the novel is pure emotional indulgence. Olive's career, however, provides a quite different set of rational messages. In a society where women — like Olive's mother and Christal's mother — are valued for their beauty alone, the defect that prevents Olive from being "a woman" allows her to be a person:

That personal deformity which she thought excluded her from a woman's natural destiny, gave her freedom in her own. Brought into contact with the world, she scarce felt like a young and timid girl, but as a being — isolated, yet strong in her isolation; who mingles, and must mingle, among men, not as a woman, but as one who, like themselves, pursues her own calling, has her own spirit's aims; and can therefore step aside for no vain fear, nor sink beneath any idle shame. [chap. 21]

Olive paints her way to financial independence, she talks forthrightly to people who try to treat her with superficial conventionality, she moves to London without knowing a person there, she walks alone, at all hours, in town and country, she pays her father's debts and looks after her father's bastard, she nurtures her mother, she refuses two proposals. And finally, she exercises spiritual authority. Religious doubt had become a topic for novels in the 1840s. Geraldine Jewsbury's overheated Zoe was published in 1845 and James Anthony Froude's more serious The Nemesis of Faith in 1849. Olive was among the first to introduce a theme that later became conventional: the heroine's womanly influence leads a man back to religious faith.

Because of its unified conception, its analytical thought, and its careful focus on the development of a mature personality, Olive is a great advance over The Ogilvies, It is also — still — a novel that offers the woman reader an intense and highly personal emotional involvement, although some standards of critical taste have interpreted that quality as a defect rather than a strength.

The Head of the Family

The Head of the Family (1852) is a novel of a type that was just coming into vogue, the large-cast family story. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who was always at the forefront of popular taste, treated middle-class domestic life in The Caxtons (1848-49) and Frederika Bremer's Swedish family chronicles were translated by Mary Howitt in the middle 1840s.

Ninian Graeme, a hard-working, thirty-year-old Edinburgh lawyer, becomes head of his family of brothers and sisters when Professor [31/32] Graeme dies. The cast is bewilderingly large: Ninian, his older sister Lindsay, six more Graemes in their teens and twenties, Ninian's ward Hope Ansted, and several other significant people, including Rachel Armstrong (a woman of mystery who becomes an actress), a tormented evangelical preacher, a professor of astronomy who is losing his sight, and a wealthy gentleman known as Mr. Ulverston. The action is virtually impossible to summarize, since the many characters supply a wealth of incidents large and small — weddings, picnics, christenings, careers, deaths, wild oats, boating accidents, fevers, and local-color tours of the Scottish countryside.

In addition, the novel is Craik's first to have a plot in the common mid-Victorian sense of the word: a secret intrigue exposed through a carefully structured sequence of dramatic revelations. Rachel Armstrong had been secretly married to a man she knew as Geoffrey Sabine. The marriage was irregular — conducted without clergy or witnesses — but, under Scots law, valid. However, Sabine deserts and since Rachel does not have any proof of the marriage, she appears to be a woman seduced by deception. She goes temporarily insane, recovers, and becomes an actress. Several men propose; she turns them down without revealing her secret. Her one aim in life is to recover her husband. Later in the book Hope Ansted marries the wealthy Mr. Ulverston. The marriage is not happy, but Hope has a baby that she adores. Rachel discovers that Sabine and Ulverston are the same man, and furthermore finds the Bible with an inscription that gives legal evidence of her marriage. She realizes that Ulverston no longer wants her, but is determined to get revenge by proving their marriage in court and thus stripping him of his wife, child, and social position. Hope, rather than Rachel, becomes the "fallen woman"; because Ulverston was not free to marry, Hope's baby is a bastard. Ninian takes Hope back to Edinburgh for refuge, Ulverston drowns, Rachel goes incurably mad, Hope's baby (the embarrassing evidence of her sexual life) dies, and Hope and Ninian marry.

Revealed piecemeal amid the incidents of family life, these events are not quite so melodramatic as they sound in summary. The dramatic irony works rather well; the reader generally guesses more of the truth than the characters know but can still be surprised by details. The secret marriage plot is, of course, a commonplace of English popular fiction, and the drama of irregular Scots marriage was used by many novelists of the period. However, by doubling [32/33] the figure — by showing two women deluded by the same man — Craik creates some effective contrasts.

Hope Ansted is a pure, passive, victimized child-woman. She does almost nothing in the entire course of the novel; the only indication of firm character is her tendency to resist quietly, as (for example) when she avoids wearing jewels because she knows that her father is spending money he does not have. Hope's devotion to her infant can be seen as simply one more expression of her habitual self-effacement. And yet motherhood turns devotion to others into a virtue that gives Hope strength to survive with her sanity intact.

Rachel Armstrong is self-sufficient, active, strong-willed, highly intelligent. However, the only driving force of her life is to gain recognition from the man she loves. She had educated herself to deserve him, formed her character to please him, and governed herself entirely to fulfill his desires. She cannot value herself unless she is loved and validated by the man. Throughout the book she is seen as at least half mad. The author criticizes Rachel's selfishness and single-mindedness. But because Rachel is outcast and mad she has powers forbidden to conventional women. She can demonstrate how Ulverston-Sabine — and, by implication, men in general — control reality by putting the evidence in their pockets, changing the rules, and changing their very names. Because she is an actress, men pursue her — and because she is a successful actress she can speak to them with brutal honesty about the defects in their characters and the stink of their cigars. She deliberately arranges scenes that humiliate men in front of other men. Although society, Ninian, and even the author tremble and use words like "hatred," "revenge," and "awful heights of evil," Rachel really wants only simple justice — she wants her husband to be made to obey the law.

The ambiguous quality of madness — which may give a woman freedom to speak truth — is a striking feature of mid-Victorian women's fiction. Craik's attitude toward her own characters is clouded by the same ambiguity. She rewards passive Hope Ansted by allowing her to live happily ever after. Rachel the strong is hopelessly mad. Her mania, however, is mild and even pleasant. She inherits Ulverston's wealth and is well taken care of. Her mind returns to the past; she relives, day after day, the brief period of requited love. Is madness that gives pleasure a happy ending to reward Rachel? Or was her intense love, her creation of herself in the image desired by a man, itself a kind of madness? [33/34]

One contemporary reviewer commented that the plot of The Head of the Family gave "no idea of the peculiar merits and qualities of the work as a work of art" ("Nine Novels", p. 489). Despite the successful arrangement of the melodrama, the real strength of the book lies in the development of Ninian Graeme's character. At first he seems little more than a type: the father-figure, slow, steady, hard-working, unimaginative, a consciousness through whose viewpoint coherence might be maintained and more interesting stories and personalities transmitted. When Hope joins the family he considers her one of the children; she is small and timid and, although old enough to have finished school, shares the lessons that Ninian sets for his youngest sister. After some time he realizes that he loves Hope but forces himself to remain silent. He is constrained by the psychological effect of the father-child roles they have played, and he is too poor to marry and set up a separate household. He knows that Hope would love him if she were encouraged, but he rigorously represses his feelings so that she can remain emotionally free and marry more suitably. The latter part of the book provides a powerful and complex awareness of the emotional pain concealed beneath the steady behavior of an apparently uninteresting man. Although The Head of the Family proved that Craik could create a sensational plot, it also showed that readers were drawn to her books because she could make ordinary men and women both interesting and heroic.

Agatha's Husband

Agatha's Husband (1853) was Craik's fourth full-length novel in five years. Reviewers thought she was writing too quickly. The book is shorter and less richly detailed than its predecessors. However, the pared-down story of a single crisis in a woman's life explores one more variety of narrative.

Agatha Bowen, an orphaned heiress, marries Nathanael Harper, the younger brother of her trustee. After the marriage Nathanael discovers that his brother Frederick has dishonestly speculated away Agatha's fortune. He also believes — on the basis of some foolish gossip — that Agatha is secretly attached to Frederick. Nathanael wraps himself in the silence of jealousy and family pride. Every action has a double meaning: he suffers whenever Agatha makes a casual remark about Frederick; she can't understand why Nathanael insists on working as a steward and why he won't let her rent a house for them to live in or give her own money to charity. Nathanael's punctiliously correct public manner drives Agatha nearly frantic. Her behavior grows increasingly erratic and finally she accuses [34/35] Nathanael of marrying her only to get his hands on her money. The truth comes out through a series of accidental revelations. Agatha's frankness removes Nathanael's doubts so that they can at last begin to know, trust, and love each other.

Many of the novel's events seem awkwardly contrived. However, they project a psychological truth. Craik invented admittedly improbable situations which gave external form to the internal barriers that keep men and women from revealing themselves to one another and make the first days of marriage uncomfortable and strange. Nathanael's character is explicable: he is a youngest child who always knew his brother was loved best; he has little experience in social behavior because he spent his adolescence and young manhood in the wilds of Canada with an embittered uncle. But Craik wrote much less explanation and introspection than she had in previous novels. She tried instead to show the actions that grow from internal conflicts. Both Nathanael and Agatha behave unreasonably because the desire to seek love and beg for explanations and reassurance coexists with distrust, self-distrust, and hurt pride. Agatha hopes for Nathanael's affection and is frantically gay with other men. She walks home resolving to draw closer to him and then inexplicably runs away and races through the dark streets. She is simply unable to behave in the way that she wants to behave.

A second story comments on the first by showing the twenty years' suffering that grew, in an earlier generation, from a similar combination of pride, distrust, and silence. Uncle Brian Harper took his bitterness to Canada; Anne Valery became a calm, resolute, and respected single woman. The years of suppressed emotion are now killing her of heart trouble at the age of forty. Anne is held up as a model. She lectures to Agatha and the reader on true love and advises Agatha to trust and obey her husband without question.

The publishers' requirement that a novel fill up three volumes may account for some of the book's faults. The story that Craik conceived is necessarily short. Its subject is the lack of communication between husband and wife; most of its action takes place in scenes of dialogue among the Harper family, who are habitually reticent people. The central action appropriately concludes with a simple, honest conversation between Agatha and her husband. But after the resolution there are three more chapters, containing a series of harrowing emotional scenes — a fire at sea, Agatha's frantic search for Nathanael, Anne Valery's death. [35/36]

The exaggerated secrets and disasters are nightmare versions of the tensions between women and men. As Agatha rightly says in one moment of anger that she later regrets, Nathanael treats her like a child. Explanations are withheld from the reader not only to maintain dramatic suspense but also because important events in the Harper family are conducted by men behind closed doors. When women have only half of the information, they have only half of the language; it is inevitable that men will misunderstand what they say. As in the case of Rachel in The Head of the Family, Craik's message is somewhat ambiguous. The saintly Anne Valery constantly advises Agatha to wait and trust. We are told, more than once, that Agatha craves to be guided and ruled. Yet the resolution comes about through her own actions. Once she understands that Frederick has embezzled her fortune she has enough sympathy and perception to figure out why Nathanael has kept the secret. She asks the intelligent, honest questions that force the men in the novel to stop talking in codes and misunderstanding one another.

Reviewers did not think very highly of the book. They generally admired the self-denying, suffering Anne Valery, found Nathanael's reticence absurd, and criticized Craik on moral grounds because she failed to arrange any punishment for the dishonest Frederick Harper. Craik had tried to write about sympathetic characters who were more irrational and less consistent to their own moral absolutes than convention would have them. Even when Agatha knows what she should do and wants to do it she discovers herself inexplicably doing something else. Craik was unable, however, to express her psychological insights in a novel with enough surface realism to be acceptable to reviewers.

Public Response

In the first eight years of her professional career Craik published four novels, two long tales, five children's books, and over two dozen short stories. Some of the more favorable reviews were no doubt puffery; Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, which printed many of her stories, was naturally kind to her novels, and friends like Frank Smedley and Mrs. S. C. Hall supplied instructive encouragement in Sharpe's London Magazine. The sheer volume of Craik's publication, however, indicates that her work found a ready market. The novels were reprinted in cheap editions and were quickly published in the [36/37] United States. (Emily Dickinson read both Olive and The Head of the Family.) By 1853 Craik's reputation was worth enough for Smith and Elder to collect the early magazine pieces in a three-volume edition to sell to libraries.

The close interchange with editors and readers supplied by magazine fiction helped Craik learn how to write what readers wanted. The early reviews, which reveal as much about contemporary tastes as about Craik's fiction, gave her another indication of the path to public reward. She tried a variety of narrative strategies in the first four novels. She was not good at plotting in the accepted sense of the word; when she tried to create incidents that would arouse suspense and dovetail into a final significant unraveling she depended, critics said, too much on simple misunderstandings and unnatural silences. She was strongest when she presented a succession of events that showed the growth of character. Yet it is a curious indication of early Victorian critical taste that the same reviewers who praised her characterization criticized her for devoting too much space to people's feelings and for dwelling on the details of severe mental strain.

The reviewers insisted that fiction written by women should always be unquestionably pure in tone. They criticized Craik for making Harold Gwynne admirable in Olive, for not arranging poetic justice so as to punish Frederick Harper in Agatha's Husband, for allowing sentiment and passion to lead women characters into "situations perilous to virtue" ("A Flight of Lady-Birds", Dublin University Magazine, 36, 1850, p. 81). In these ways the reviewers discouraged Craik from following the direction in which she might have been led by her own sense of psychological reality. They were made uncomfortable by her emphasis on women's love. One reviewer found Agatha's Husband marred by a "want of judgment" because it tried to explain how love grows; love, he said, should remain one of the "mysteries in human nature." ("Agatha's Husband and Basil", Colburn's, 97, 1853, p. 57.)

The novel readers who made Craik so popular might not have agreed with the reviewers that she spent too much time talking about love. They did, however, almost certainly respond to what the critics identified as Craik's most significant strength: her ability to give dignity and interest to ordinary men and women of middling rank. Colburn's called it a painting of the "heroic beneath the broadcloth of contemporary life" ("The Author of'Olive'", p. 399). Craik found her audience among the working-middle-class readers of Chambers's, among the urban subscribers to the guinea-a-year lending libraries, among the people for [37/38] whom her books were reviewed in the monthly magazines instead of the more intellectual quarterlies. The character most praised in Craik's early work was the respectable, conventional, hard-working head of the family, Ninian Graeme. Middle-class readers had found a novelist who would make them the heroes and heroines of their stories.

Last modified 16 August 2007