The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 107/Reviews and Literary Notices
REVIEWS AND LITERARY NOTICES.
Except for the fact that there is nothing at all automatic in his inventions, there seems to be no good reason why Mr. Collins should not make a perpetual motion. He has a surprising mechanical faculty, and great patience and skill in passing the figures he contrives through the programme arranged for them. Having read one of his novels, you feel as if you had been amused with a puppet-show of rare merit, and you would like to have the ingenious mechanician before the curtain. So much cleverness, however, seems to be thrown away on the entertainment of a single evening, and you sigh for its application to some work of more lasting usefulness; and the perpetual motion occurs to you as the thing worthiest such powers. Let it be a perpetual literary motion, if the public please. Given a remarkable dream and a beautiful bad woman to fulfil it; you have but to amplify the vision sufficiently, and your beautiful bad woman goes on fulfilling it forever in tens of thousands of volumes. As the brother of De Quincey said, when proposing to stand on the ceiling, head downwards, and be spun there like a whip-top, thus overcoming the attraction of gravitation by the mere rapidity of revolution, "If you can keep it up for an instant, you can keep it up all day." Alas! it is just at this point that the fatal defect of Mr. Collins's mechanism appears. But for the artisan's hand, the complicated work would not start at all, and we perceive that, if he lifted it for a moment from the crank, the painfully contrived dream would drop to pieces, and the beautiful bad woman would come to a jerky stand-still in the midst of her most atrocious development. A perpetual literary motion is therefore out of the question, so far as Mr. Collins is concerned; and we can merely examine his defective machinery, with many a regret that a plan so ingenious, and devices so labored and costly, should be of no better effect.
We think, indeed, that all his stories are constructed upon a principle as false to art as it is false to life. In this world, we have first men and women, with certain well-known good and evil passions, and these passions are the causes of all the events that happen in the world. We doubt if it has occurred to any of our readers to see a set of circumstances, even of the most relentless and malignant description, grouping themselves about any human being without the agency of his own love or hate. Yet this is what happens very frequently in Mr. Collins's novels, impoverishing and enfeebling his characters in a surprising degree, and reducing them to the condition of juiceless puppets without proper will or motion. It is not that they are all wanting in verisimilitude. Even the entirely wicked Miss Gwilt is a conceivable character; but, being destined merely to fulfil Armadale's dream, she loses all freedom of action, and, we must say, takes most clumsy and hopeless and long-roundabout methods of accomplishing crimes, to which one would have thought a lady of her imputed sagacity would have found much shorter cuts. It is amazing and inartistic, however, that after all her awkwardness she should fail. Given a blockhead like Armadale, and a dreamer like Midwinter, there is no reason in nature, and no reason in art, why a lady of Miss Gwilt's advantages should not marry both of them; and the author's overruling on this point is more creditable to his heart than to his head. These three people are the chief persons of the story, and their hands are tied from first to last They are not to act out their characters: they are to act out the plot; and the author's designs are accomplished in defiance of their several natures. Some of the minor persons are not so ruthlessly treated. The Pedgifts, father and son, are free agents, and they are admirably true to their instincts of upright, astute lawyers, who love best to employ their legal shrewdness in a good cause. Their joint triumph over Miss Gwilt is probable and natural, and would be a successful point in the book, if it were conceivable that she should expose herself to such a defeat by so much needless plotting with Mrs. Oldershaw. But to fill so large a stage, an immense deal of by-play was necessary, and great numbers of people are visibly dragged upon the scene. Some of these accomplish nothing in the drama. To what end have we so much of Mr. Brock? Others elaborately presented only contribute to the result in the most intricate and tedious way; and in Major Milroy's family there is no means of discovering that Miss Gwilt is an adventuress, but for Mrs. Milroy to become jealous of her and to open her letters.
It cannot, of course, be denied that Mr. Collins's stories are interesting; for an infinite number of persons read them through. But it is the bare plot that interests, and the disposition of mankind to listen to story-telling is such that the idlest conteur can entertain. We must demand of literary art, however, that it shall interest in people's fortunes by first interesting in people. Can any one of all Mr. Collins's readers declare that he sympathizes with the loves of Armadale and Neelie Milroy, or actually cares a straw what becomes of either of those insipid young persons? Neither is Midwinter one to take hold on like or dislike; and Miss Gwilt is interesting only as the capable but helpless spider out of which the plot of the story is spun. Pathos there is not in the book, and the humor is altogether too serious to laugh at.
It is sometimes difficult to believe, in reading this book, that it is not the production of Major Gahagan of the Ahmednuggar Irregulars, or Mr. Barry Lyndon of Castle Lyndon. Being merely a record of personal adventure, it does not suggest itself as part of the history of our late war, and, but for the recurrence of the familiar names of American persons and places, it might pass for the narrative of either of the distinguished characters mentioned.
In dealing with events creditable to his own courage and gallantry, Colonel Gilmore has the unsparing frankness of Major Gahagan, and it must be allowed that there is a remarkable likeness in all the adventures of these remarkable men. It is true that Colonel Gilmore does not fire upon a file of twenty elephants so as to cut away all their trunks by a single shot; but he does kill eleven Yankees by the discharge of a cannon which he touches off with a live coal held between his thumb and finger. Being made prisoner, he is quite as defiant and outrageous as the Guj-puti under similar circumstances: at one time he can scarcely restrain himself from throwing into the sea the insolent captain of a Federal gunboat; at another time, when handcuffed by order of General Sheridan, he spends an hour in cursing his captors. The red-hair of the Lord of the White Elephants waved his followers to victory; Colonel Gilmore's "hat, with the long black plume upon it," is the signal of triumph to his marauders. Both, finally, are loved by the ladies, and are alike extravagant in their devotion to the sex. Colonel Gilmore, indeed, withholds no touch that can go to make him the hero of a dime novel; and there is not a more picturesque and dashing character in literature outside of the adventures of Claude Duval. Everywhere we behold him waving his steel (as he calls his sword); he wheels before our dazzled eyes like a meteor; he charges, and the foe fly like sheep before him. And no sooner is he come into town from killing a score or two of Yankees, than the ladies—who are all good Union women and have just taken the oath of allegiance—crowd to kiss and caress him; or, as he puts it in his own vivid language, he receives "a kiss from more than one pair of ruby lips, and gives many a hearty hug and kiss in return." In his wild way, he takes a pleasure in evoking the tender solicitude of the ladies for his safety,—eats a dish of strawberries in a house upon which the Yankees are charging to capture him, and remains for some minutes after the strawberries are eaten, while the ladies, proffering him his arms, are "dancing about, and positively screaming with excitement." At another time, when the bullets of the enemy are hissing about his ears, he puts on a pretty girl's slipper for her. "Such," he remarks, with a pensive air, "are some of the few happy scenes that brighten a soldier's life."
Colonel Gilmore, who has the diffidence of Major Gahagan, has also the engaging artlessness which lends so great a charm to the personal narrative of Mr. Barry Lyndon. He does not reserve from the reader's knowledge such of his exploits as stealing the chaplain's whiskey, and drinking the peach-brandy of the simple old woman who supposed she was offering it to General Lee. "Place him where you may," says Colonel Gilmore, "and under no matter what adverse circumstances, you can always distinguish a gentleman." He has a great deal of fine feeling, and can scarcely restrain his tears at the burning of Chambersburg, after setting it on fire. Desiring a memento of a brother officer, he takes a small piece of the dead man's skull. It has been supposed that civilized soldiers, however brave and resolute, scarcely exulted in the remembrance of the lives they had taken; and it is thought to be one of the merciful features of modern warfare, that in the vast majority of cases the slayer and the slain are unknown to each other. Colonel Gilmore has none of the false tenderness which shrinks from a knowledge of homicide. On the contrary, he is careful to know when he has killed a man; and he recounts, with an exactness revolting to feebler nerves, the circumstances and the methods by which he put this or that enemy to death.
We think we could hardly admire Colonel Gilmore if he had been of our side during the war, and had done to the Rebels the things he professes to have done to us. As it is, we trust he will forgive us, if we confess that we have not read his narrative with a tranquil stomach, and that we think it will impress his Northern readers as the history of a brigand who had the good luck to be also a traitor.