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
Flaubert sacrificed propriety to truth, and Miss Braddon has sacrificed truth to propriety. . . . There is a school of English writers who seem to consider that the one fault their heroines may not commit is a breach of positive chastity. If these writers had to emendate the gospels, they would take especial care to inform us that the woman taken in adultery had been guilty of bigamy believing her just husband to be dead, and that the Magdalene had been seduced under the pretext of a fictitious marriage.
f Mrs. Henry Wood had done nothing else as a novelist, she would still be entitled to the credit of having proved that two qualities which used to be thought incompatible may be sometimes found in conjunction. She is at once amusing and prosy. It is never an impossibility to get through one of her books, but at the same time the reader always wishes he could throw overboard a good deal of unnecessary ballast. Unfortunately, the least attractive of the two characteristics seems, on the whole, to be increasing. With the exception of "Lord Oakburn's Daughters," which was relieved by the originality of its plot, nothing that she has written has been so good as her first novel; and, notwithstanding our recollections of "Verner's Pride," we are disposed to put "Oswald Cray" last in order of merit as well as in order of time. Mrs. Wood's successes and failures may, perhaps, be attributed to one and the same cause. She has an extraordinary affection for small details, and, up to a certain point, her attachment is perfectly well placed. When wisely used, they impart additional reality to a story, and give immense assistance to the reader in forming a clear conception of the people with which it is concerned. But then there must be some care displayed in the selection of them. All facts have not an equal value as illustrations of human character; and the fault we have to find with Mrs. Wood is that she persists in assuming that they have. Take, for example, her descriptions of women's dress. We quite agree with her in thinking that the insertion of them may add great life and vividness to the portrait of a heroine; but then they must aim at reproducing in the mind of the reader something of that general effect which exists in the mind of the writer. In other words, they must be real descriptions, not a mere inventory of the contents of the heroino's wardrobe. In Mrs. Wood's hands, however, they approach very closely to this latter type. Here are only a few of the instances which occur in "Oswald Cray:—-"Caroline's morning robe was of white muslin and blue ribbons." "Caroline wore the same rich dress that she had worn in the afternoon, but the high body had been exchanged for a low one, the custom for dinner at Dr. Davenal's." No doubt, if the reader were a young lady going to stay at the house for a day or two, and uncertain what gowns she should take with her, this last piece of information might be of some service, otherwise it is difficult to see what is the precise good it is to do him. So with the other heroine. "Sara is in evening dress, a black gauze with a little white net quilling on the low body and sleeves." Or, again, "Sara wears a black crape robe—a little edging of white only on its low body and sleeves." Details of this kind might, perhaps, be interesting to people who know the wearer of the garments in question, and had possibly seen her in them already; and they would, therefore, be quite appropriate in a letter from one young lady to another, of which the subject was the appearance, on a given occasion, of a common friend. In that case, the latter, on being informed that "dear Emily wore that sweet silk," would be able to combine the subject and the predicate, and thus obtain a distinct idea of the "dear Emily" in the "sweet silk." But the male, and therefore ignorant, reador needs to have his imagination assisted and some clearer notion conveyed to him of the effect of this happy combination.
An 1864 advertisement for the novel from The Reader in the company of others for works by Frances Power Cobbe, Sir Walter Scott, and Ernest Renan. Click on image to enlarge it.
Nor, again, is every incident which may occur in real life suitable for the purposes of fiction. The art of the novelist is especially shown in the work of selection and combination. Mrs. Wood, howevor, seems quite satisfied that, so long as she is reproducing facts, she is doing all that can be required of her. A great part of "Oswald Cray" is devoted to the treachery of Dr. Davenal's servant, and for some time we are constantly on the look-out for some disastrous consequence which is to flow from his unpleasant habits of reading letters, opening desks, secreting papers, and inventing false charges. But, in the end, nothing comes of it all. His villainy is simply purposeless, and the only reason Mrs. Wood can assign for giving so much space to the narration of it is that it "is but the simple truth—the recital of an episode in real life." She forgets that in fiction we look for something more satisfactory than the half-knowledge with which we are often obliged to put up when we aro dealing with actual events. We expect to see the connexion between actions and motives made plain, and the moral history of crime traced out. Without this, a novel would have no more interest than a report of a trial at the assizes, with the additional disadvantage of being only an invention after all. It is this newspaper style of writing which Mrs. Wood seems especially to aim at; and some parts of "Oswald Cray" might have been taken almost verbatim from the notebook of a penny-a-liner during the dull season. Thus, in describing a railway accident, she takes occasion to explain, with most unnecessary minuteness, how the news of its occurrence was delayed in its passage to the next station. And this is the fashion in which she does it:—
The telegraph clerk was a young man named James Eales. It was his duty to receive tho messages, and in due course he ought to have received the one from Hildon, signifying that the expected train (called in familiar terms at Hallingham the eleven o'clock train, though it came in five minutes sooner) had duly quitted Hildon. This message was due somewhere about twentythreo minutes to seven, and it came this evening as usual quite punctually. No sooner had it been received than James Eales, who wanted to absent himself for a short while on an errand to the town, asked one of the men to take his place. Other messages might be expected, relating to the trains, not to speak of private messages, always liable to come: and the man took the place accordingly. As Eales was going out, the man, whose name was Williams, called after him to know whether tho train was signalled. Eales thought he meant the down-tram, whose signal was nearly due, and replied, "No, not yet." But, in point of fact, Williams bad alluded to the up-train from Hildon, which had been signalled. That man was an accurate time-keeper; it wanted two or three minutes yet to the signalling of the downtrain, and he would not have been likely, from this very accuracy, to inquire whether that message had come, it not being due. Eales, who did not possess the like innate accuracy, and was besides in a hurry to depart, confused the question, and took it to allude to the down-train.
Now, even if this mistake of the clerk's had really caused the accident, this would be an absurdly verbose way of telling the story. But, as it happens, it has simply no connexion with it, and the whole of this wonderful paragraph is apparently introduced solely for the sake of the moral lesson with which it concludes.
It is through these mistakes, which are caused half by carelessness, half by what may be almost called unavoidable misapprehension, that accidents occur. It did not lead to the accident in this case [the italics, to borrow Mrs. Wood's newspaper style, are our own], but it has led to many a one. Williams ought to havo said, "Is the up-train signalled?" Saying what he did say, "Is the train signalled?" Eales should have answered, "The up-train is signalled, not the down."
Mrs. Wood does not content herself, however, with giving extracts from imaginary newspapers: she turns to good account hor cuttings from real ones, and actually introduces the death of the Prince Consort into her narrative of the fatal illness of one of her heroines. As thus:—
"Is there any fresh news, sir?"
"Yes, and it is not good," he replied. "Report says that a telegram has been received from Windsor stating that there is no hope; that the Prince is rapidly sinking."
His voice was low, his manner subdued, and raised his hat with unconscious reverence while he gave the answer. Walton lost her breath.
"It may not be true, sir! It may not be true!"
"I trust, indeed, it is not."
"But, sir, was there not hope this afternoon?"
"According to the report that reached us there was. Could the Prince only bear up this one night all would be well."
More than ten pages in all are devoted to this subject. If the object were to fill up space, we should call this sort of writing book-making of the lowest order; but, as each of the three volumes is considerably beyond the customary length, we are forced to suppose that the author imagines that her work is thereby invested with the dignity of an historical romance.
We should not speak thus severely of "Oswald Cray" if Mrs. Wood had not already shown herself capable of something very different. But it would be doing a real unkindness to the author of "East Lynne" to allow her to waste her undoubted talents in the way she has done in the present work without at least making an effort to arrest her downward progress. For the faults we have pointed out are not in this instance redeemed by any counterbalancing merits. It is impossible to take any interest in the characters of the story, except perhaps in Sara Davenal,—and in her only because we are told that she has the marvellous gift of being able to take her seat in a crowded omnibus "with quiet self-possession;" while, for Oswald Cray himself, every reader must feel a dislike approaching closely to detestation. He suspects a man of the highest character, whom he has known all his life, of committing a cold-blooded murder; and he breaks off his engagement with Miss Davenal, not for any fault of her own, but simply because he cherishes this groundless distrust of her father. It is true that at length he discovers his mistake, as, by a very little trouble, he might have done at the beginning, and graciously takes the young lady back into his affections; but even then he is only sorry that he should have been mistaken, not in the least penitent for having acted basely. And yet, notwithstanding all this, we are constantly hearing of his noble pride, his grand self-reliance, his scorn of everything mean or dishonourable; so that our natural dislike is immeasurably increased by finding that he is presented to us as a hero.
In some of her other works Mrs. Wood has been decidedly happy in the humorous characters; but this element is almost entirely wanting in "Oswald Cray." Perhaps it was considered undesirable that a story which originally appeared in a semireligious periodical should have too large an infusion of the comic element. We regret the omission, because Mrs. Benn, the housekeeper at Oswald Cray's chambers, shows considerable capacity of being amusing, if we were allowed to become more intimate with her. In one respect, we are bound to admit, Mrs. Wood shows signs of improvement: she writes less stilted English. She still occasionally makes her heroes and heroines say "deem," when the rest of the world would say "think,"' but this is now only the exception, instead of being, as formerly, the rule. Perhaps, after a time, she may even learn that, in speaking of a clergyman, it is not customary to call him the "Reverend Mr. Stephenson."
Wood, Mrs. Henry. Oswald Cray. Edinburgh: A. C. Black, 1864.
“Oswald Cray.” The Reader: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. (December 1864): 762-63. London: “Published at 112, Fleet Street.” Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. 25 July 2016.
Last modified 25 July 2016