A Few More Words about Miss Rives

A Few More Words about Miss Rives  (1888) 
by Edgar Fawcett

Extracted from Lippincott magazine, Vol 42 1888, pp. 390-394. Accompanying illustrations may be omitted.


IN literature, as in life, the candor of innocence is sometimes mistaken for that of intentional impurity. But our deception with regard to it is apt to be very short-lived, and is usually resultant from our own blunt or languid vision. I confess that a second reading of Miss Rives's remarkable story "The Quick or the Dead?" has made it evident to me just where the cause of the whole misunderstanding has lain; for there seems to be no doubt that in this work she has offended the tastes of readers whom her "Farrier Lass o' Piping Pebworth" and other tales of a like beauty and freshness had forcibly charmed. Miss Rives has steeped a love-story in realism, acted on by some peculiar force of her time, without stopping to consider what dangers, with a writer of her strongly romantic trend, must surround any such literary exploit, unless a good deal of discriminative caution be made to accompany it. But caution of this kind does not usually consort with authors of youth and inexperience. Had Miss Rives been commencing her career as a novelist about a half-century ago, she would have painted the episodes between Barbara and her lover in hues that no one would have found too glaring. But being inevitably a child of the period, she has told a modern story in the modern manner. Now, as it chanced, she had an extremely difficult story for a young writer to tell. It was one which George Sand would have delighted to deal with in French; it involved the question as to just how far human love is a physical magnetism and just how far it is an attraction of that finer and subtler sort which even materialists, for want of a better descriptive term, must call "spiritual." This whole donnée is one of surpassing dramatic interest, and worthy to be treated by the greatest writers of fiction. Still, the appeal is constantly being made to Barbara through those fleshly qualities possessed by the man who so marvellously resembles her adored dead husband. Early in the work it is said of the heroine, on her first meeting with this extraordinary counterfeit presentment, "She began to think that she was in a dream,—the figure, the step, the pose, were so identically her husband's; but the greatest shock of all was when he spoke." In the very next line we learn that when he did speak "the voice was Val's voice." This living likeness of Barbara's husband is his cousin, and claims promptly a cousin's intimate privileges. They two are incessantly alone together in a great old Virginian homestead. He is filled with youthful vigor and fire, and almost hourly finds himself growing more and more in love with his kinsman's widow. She is a woman whose temperament has an almost tropical ardor, and whom we can imagine performing scarcely a single act in life without giving it the florid hues of her own rather theatric personality. Miss Rives means her for a very emotional being, and so she is; but her mentality is limited in an unfortunate degree, considering the numerous tempting opportunities with which she is presented by her creator for behaving in a silly fashion and which she constantly embraces.

Apart, however, from Barbara's intelligence or lack of it, she has been prostrated by a fierce bereavement only to discover in John Bering's love a possible consolation for the treasured companionship that she has lost. Later alone in the tale she becomes convinced that his bodily resemblance to Valentine Pomfret will not serve; it is a broken reed on which to lean the weight of her own bruised existence. But in Barbara's gradual realization of this melancholy truth do we trace both the circumference and diameter of a most unique achievement. Here lies the entire little history; and an infusion of the realistic method into those elements whose character I have sought to define was likely, unless directed by the hand of an adept, to produce highly inflammatory consequences. Indeed, "The Quick or the Dead?" would be, just as it stands, a valuable weapon in the hands of all confirmed antirealists. "Here," they might cry, "is what comes of giving the reader too many minute details. When the subject is ordinary life, they become paltry; when it is sexual passion they become salacious." Surely realism, to preserve consistency with its own tenets, never should shrink from details, no matter what chosen theme. Between it and the naturalism of Zola there is no difference whatever except one of degree. Our American realists either fastidiously draw a line at "objectionable" disclosures or else restrain the excursional tendencies of their pens because the market which purchases their literary wares will refuse them if too careless a frankness be cultivated. It is in my memory that more than once an American writer of repute has said to me, "I would like to write fearlessly and with no gingerly concealments about my fiction; I regret being compelled not to call a spade a spade; I feel the cry of 'immorality' waiting for me, and hence I must repress an instinct to treat life as I see it and judge it, for the reason that if I do so I will meet a frowning publisher and perchance a still more frowning public." It has been the present essayist's good fortune to meet not a few writers of fiction in this country whose names are more or less distinguished as experts in their charming craft, and he can scarcely recall a single instance among these makers of novels and plays where the earnest craving was not evident for greater latitude in the discussion of matters which are often far too avidly gloated over by the French, but which assert, notwithstanding, a distinct claim to be treated rationally by more temperate chroniclers.

In the case of Miss Rives, however, I am reluctant to state that she has written with any deliberated observance of this or that school. She had doubtless read a large number of modern novels and was influenced by that prevailing force majeure which few of them have escaped. When a story-teller of her clime and tongue intentionally tries to shock the community, he is apt to reveal a hardness, a pert abandonment, a kind of saucy laxity which kills interests in his readers as surely as if he had committed some overt act of vulgar revolt against the decencies. In "The Quick or the Dead?" this premeditated spirit of mischief everywhere seems curiously absent. At times there are both extravagance and crudity in the narration, but these traits, regrettable though they must be declared, are manifested with a naïveté that often provokes a smile at their freedom from all operated, self-conscious effect and their positive childishnesses in the way of record and delivery. When for example, after her absurdly particularized tussle with the hero to retain a locket which she has snatched from him, it is related of Barbara that while kneeling near her late contestant on the rug in front of the fireplace she felt her own "breath returned upon her face from Dering's trousers," we smile at the really juvenile simplicity which could present such a bit of spontaneous bathos instead of the winsome artistic touch we might have expected. For Miss Rives has already shown us that she can surprise and charm by the deft use of phrase and simile; she has shown it only a page or so further back in her story, where the rape of the locket is about to occur:

"It was on a bitterly cold, gray afternoon in November that these two comrades, as they now called themselves, were engaged in a game of 'graces' in the large central hall at Rosemary. The earlier day had been tempestuous and clattering with wind-whirled sleet, but a tawny cloud, that in streaming wildness resembled, perhaps, the flying mane of one of the Prophet's fiery steeds when in mid-heaven, now streaked all the upper sky and sent a cold-red light glowing in at the hall-windows. There were eight of these tail, shrouded shapes, like uncanny mummies, and where the faces should have been, that furnace-like radiance shone through folds of sheer muslin. … The figures of Barbara and Dering were revealed, as they swooped among the shadows here and there, which glittered as with mica. Now the rathe arm and throat of Barbara came into relief against the dusky formlessness, now it was Bering's gay crest of curls and straining shoulders. The orange-ribboned hoops circled above, like two haloes uncertain as to which of those handsome heads they were to saint."

This may not be very accurate or painstaking writing, but it is certainly very excellent "impressionism." It leaves a picture which would probably not stay in our recollection as long as it is fated to do were the workmanship less fervid, tumultuous, and heartfelt. And so again and again throughput the book, we come upon passages betraying the same immaturity and yet an equal fascination. There is humor too, and of a pungent quality. Nothing can be better in its way than the despair of the lovers over Mr. Buzzy's quaint and maddening garrulity as he is driven in their company to the station. They want to whisper sweet nothings in one another's ears—to sit with clasped hands—to be left unmolested there in the back of the lumbering vehicle during those few moments of intercourse which remain for them. But Mr. Buzzy, impervious as regards all hints, rambles on, to the semi-distraction of his hearers. Afterward, in the station itself, when this implacable fellow-passenger continues his tortures, Dering suddenly jumps up with frenzy and cries, "I have something of importance to say to Mrs. Pomfret, and I have now only thirteen minutes in which to say it. Could you be so very kind as to leave us together?" But, as the author remarks, if Dering had thought to freeze Buzzy by this frigid and biting address, he was vastly mistaken. The grinning, illiterate, boorish, but indestructibly good-natured creature at once consents to leave the waiting-room of the station, but not before he has responded, "Cert'n'y,—cerfn'y. … Why didn't you tip me the wink? I'd er twigged. Reckon I'll go and git a snack." And then at last he goes.

"Buzzy is apparently a triumph in the way of type-sketching. I am not prepared to state this positively however, being unfamiliar with the region which he seems a product. But he is most probably drawn with great correctness for the whole key-note of the book is realism of a most unswerving fidelity.

In mentioning "Buzzy" I am reminded that his vernacular is never in the least fatiguing; there is just enough of it to make us want a little more and in our age of dialectic surfeit that is surely a laudatory admission. Indeed, I think Miss Rives deserves the warm thanks of numberless readers who have had page after page of dissolute colloquial syntax thrust upon them by other Southern writers, and by not a few Western writers also, during the past decade, I am loath to believe that such novels create any save a lukewarm local interest. Negro and 'hoosier" dialects have filled our magazines until there no longer seems to be common-sense in believing that weariness has not followed them. There is a kind of novel produced nowadays in which it would appear as if everything were fine except the English of the characters. Nature so far transcends human nature in what one might almost call a patrician excellence of deportment that we read on the one hand of delicate mists curling ethereally along mountain-sides, of prismatic sunsets, of valleys empurpled by twilight, and on the other hand encounter the whole English grammar in about as unpleasant a state of corruption as possible. We are reminded of the hymn-book with its description of enchanting scenes in which "only man is vile;" our compassion and sense of justice alike are stirred by seeing the meadows and hills and trees and birds all getting along so beautifully, while such disastrous things are forever happening to the verb "to be." Happily, Miss Rives rids us of all anxiety on this latest point. I am afraid few of us realise just how exceptional it is to come across a Virginia novel that does not teem with negro-jargon from the first chapter to the last.

Dialect Miss Rives has employed in some of her shorter stories, however, though it is there far from being of the tiresome order. "The Farrier Lass o' Piping Pebworth," an excessively romantic tale of Queen Elisabeth's time, strikes a few false notes amid a general scheme of harmonious consistency. These are in giving the narrator, Humfrey Lemon, unnaturally elaborated expressions and sentiments, considering his unlettered condition. To make such a person say, for example, "He had eyes like pools o' water under a night heaven, wherein two stars have drowned themselves, as 'twere, and brows as black and straight as a sweep o' cloud across an evening sky," may be thoroughly poetic, but is misplaced as an utterance supposed to issue from uneducated lips. For like reasons a sentence delivered by the same Humfrey Lemon will not assimilate with the prevailing tone of his homespun rustic monologue: "Also a red came into her shadowy cheeks, like as though a scarlet flower tossed into a clear brown stream should rise slowly upward beneath the limpid surface and shine a-through." For a tippling peasant to address an ale-house companion in these terms cannot but place such portions of Miss Rives's prose on a level with Ouida's worst errors in the line of overdrawing and hyperbole. They prepare the reader but ill for bits as good as, "She was that brown, a bun looked pale i' th' comparison when she did lift it to her mouth to eat it;" or for, "'An thou tell it, the more fool thou,' saith she; and a draws up her red lips into a circle as though a'd had a draw-string in 'em, and a stands and looks at him as a used to stand and look at her dam when she chid her for a romp." The attempted wooing of the "farrier lass" by Sir Dagonet Balfour, with Keren's haughty rejection of this high-born gallant because of a previous unconquered attachment, has in it almost the airy, happy-go-lucky prettiness of old folk-lore. Yet it suits the Elizabethan atmosphere which encompasses the incidents, and is altogether as different from the realistic modernity of "The Quick or the Dead?" as an ivy-grown, mullion-paned window is different from a plate-glass one of to-day. Miss Rives's turn for the telling of archaic tales is an impulse to be commended. It is easy to pick flaws in the exactitude of her archæology, but, after all, she is plainly equipped as regards this form of flexible and practicable scholarship beyond the suggested powers of her most industrious detractors.

It has been my privilege to examine some of the advance-sheets of "Herod and Mariamne," and I find it a tragedy of uneven yet often astonishing vigor. Like almost everything which its gifted creator has thus far accomplished, it exhibits, I should say, more of fecund promise than of sterling accomplishment. Its gloom is unrelieved by any play of humor,—a criticism which can by no means be passed on such other work of here as I have thus far seen. The character of Herod is too unrelievedly ferocious and lurid. Mariamne is more successful; Miss Rives can always draw women more firmly and satisfactorily than she can draw men,—an evidence, I think, that she "looks into her heart and writes," and that longer life and ampler observation will fortify her distinct literary aptitudes. I should call "Herod and Mariamne" the dramatic effort of a beginner; but it contains lines which insist on being recollected, and it bespeaks, throughout the whole richly-passionate scope of its composition that same inherent vitality of organism which has already set her so high among our younger competitors for secure distinction in the noble art of letters.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.