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XXXI. men's novels and women's novels.

It is a curious fact that Paris, to which the works of Jane Austen were lately as unknown as if she were an English painter, has just discovered her existence. Moreover, it has announced that she, and she only, is the founder of that realistic school which is construed to include authors so remote from each other as the French Zola and the American Howells. The most decorous of maiden ladies is thus made to originate the extreme of indecorum; and the good loyal English-woman, devoted to Church and King, is made sponsor for the most democratic recognition of persons whom she would have loathed as vulgar. There is something extremely grotesque in the situation; and yet there is much truth in the theory. It certainly looked at one tine as if Miss Austen had thoroughly established the claim of her sex to the minute delineation of character and manners, leaving to men the bolder school of narrative romance. She herself spoke of her exquisitely wrought novels as her “little bit of ivory, two inches wide, on which,” she said, “I work with a brush so fine [157] as to produce little effect after much labor.” Yet in the opinion of Sir Walter Scott and all succeeding critics, the result was quite worth the effort, Scott saying that he himself did the “big bow-wow style as well as anybody,” but that all the minuter excellences were peculiarly her province. As a result, she has far surpassed in fame her immediate contemporaries of her own sex. Madame D'Arblay (Fanny Burney), Miss Porter, Mrs. Opic, and even Miss Edgeworth, are now little read, while Miss Austen's novels seem as if they were written yesterday.

But the curious thing is that of the leading novelists in the English tongue to-day it is the men, not the women, who have taken up Miss Austen's work, while the women show more inclination, if not to the “big bow-wow style” of Scott, at least to the novel of plot and narrative. Anthony Trollope among the lately dead, James and Howells among the living, are the lineal successors of Miss Austen. Perhaps it is an old-fashioned taste which leads me to think that neither of these does his work quite so well as she ; but they all belong to the same photographic school; each sets up his apparatus and takes what my little nephew called a “flannelly group” of a household, or a few households, leaving the great world of adventure untouched. But what plots and enterprises we obtain in these days, on the other hand, from women novelists-ranging [158] up from the Braddons and Ouidas to the best novel written by a woman since George Eliot died, as it seems to me-Mrs. Jackson's “Ramona.” What action is there! what motion! how entrainant it is! It carries us along as if mounted on a swift horse's back from beginning to end; and it is only when we return for a second reading that we can appreciate the fine handling of the characters, and especially the Spanish mother, drawn with a stroke as keen and firm as that which portrayed George Eliot's Dorothea. In such a book we see that the really great novel includes the creation of character, and does not stop there; for after all one asks, What is the use of the finest delineation of persons if they do nothing worth doing after they are created? The trouble with James and Howells seems to be that they expend all their strength in the masterly construction of marionettes; and after these little personages are so real that they seem as good as alive they are made to do nothing more than throw their arms and legs about a while, as very inferior puppets might do. Is it worth while to have almost the very breath of life breathed into these little people in order that, as a result, they may arrive at the top of an elevator, or build a new house on the Back Bay? However, it is not my object to show that the novel of adventure, if well done, really includes the novel of character, but to [159] point out that, just at present at least, the two sexes have temporarily changed hands as to the work they are doing in fiction.

Will the new distribution of parts be permanent Very likely not. It is extremely probable that this, like many other things attributed to sex, is really a matter of individuality alone, or of temporary fashion. What confirms this is the fact that still earlier women novelists wrote the novel of adventure, as their successors are again doing. There lies before me one of the vast folio romances of Mlle. Scuderi, published, like most of hers, under her brother's name, and translated into English by Henry Cogan in 1674. It is in four parts, each divided into five books, and each book as long as half the novels of these degenerate days. The most “lonely and athletic student,” to adopt Emerson's phrase as to the readers of Swedenborg, could now hardly get through two successive books of it; yet such colossal romances were read with delight by our ancestors and ancestresses, even on this side of the water, though doubtless somewhat surreptitiously in the Puritan households. The plot flows as languidly as a Dutch river, and is as much distributed and subdivided by artificial dams and placid inundations; yet it is a woman's book; and the plots of Mlle. Scuderi's stories were sufficiently exciting, at any rate, to cause the arrest and imprisonment of the lady and [160] her brother, after they had discussed too heedlessly at an inn the question whether they should slay the Prince Mazare by poison or the sword. And what high-sounding moralities! what heroic platitudes! “For if the difficulties be great, according to Vincentio's opinion, your courage is yet greater. Let us grant him that the enterprise is dangerous and difficult; in what history, ancient or modern, hath it been found that the way which conducteth to glory is covered wit flowers, and that an illustrious action hath been executed without pain?”

A hundred years later women touched the novel of plot and adventure with a bolder grasp, and Mrs. Radcliffe's romances seemed the joint offspring of “big bow — wow” and nightmare parentage. But they too moved with sweep and power; she was strong in description and invention ; she bridged the interval between the medieval and modern novel, and painted landscape so well that even Byron sometimes borrowed from her. The minute study of character she left, unattempted, for Jane Austen to take up. It is plain that women novelists, like men, incline sometimes to one branch of the art, sometimes to another; and that the accident of personal preference or the fashion of the period has more to do with the decision than any tendency growing out of sex.

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