Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1717/Miss Muloch (Mrs. Craik)
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Volume 133, Issue 1717 : Miss Muloch (Mrs. Craik)
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The year 1826 gave us, among other things and persons, the now well-known novelist Miss Muloch. This lady's works are much read, which fact is corroborated by the testimony of certain articles in the shape of well-worn, well-soiled library volumes. Her readers are culled from a wide circle. Young people agree with her because her books tend to strengthen the idea that "there's nothing half so sweet in life as love's young dream;" but this thoughtful writer appeals not to youthful sympathies only; she does not throw all the poetry of life into its spring; she remembers those seven ages of man which drew forth the eloquence of Jacques in the forest of Arden. A paterfamilias, little addicted to novel-reading, has been known to grow earnest in praise of "John Halifax, Gentleman," and eyes dim with age have grown dimmer still behind their spectacles, while listening to passages from the same book.
It is evident that Miss Muloch early commenced studying a thing, small enough in its way, but one which has puzzled philosophers and moralists in all ages, viz.: the human heart; it is evident also that she made rapid progress in her acquaintance with this complex piece of machinery - that she soon learnt to play upon it, to command it, and to draw from it sweet sounds and solemn symphonies, as does a skilled performer from a musical instrument, otherwise she would not have written "Olive" before she was twenty-four years of age.
The publication of "John Halifax, Gentleman," in 1857, may be regarded as a landmark in the literary life of its author, who, on the occasion of her marriage in 1865, received a pleasant reminder of the popularity of this favorite novel: it took the form of a gold pen-holder, with the words "John Halifax" inscribed thereon, and expressed the appreciation of an anonymous admirer.
From a group of books published in 1866 "Christian's Mistake" stands rather prominently forward, and, among the still later products of this writer's pen, may be singled out for a few words of special notice, a little story, simple in style and charming in its simplicity, entitled "My Mother and I." It is not always given to us to see in imagination the actual scenes which have inspired our authors and which have seen them write; but just this once, reader, we can indulge in a play of fancy of the kind if you will.
In a western county of England is a certain beautiful village, Freshford by name. There the grass seems greener than elsewhere, the sky bluer, the water clearer. It is a quiet, quaint little spot, with an old-fashioned beauty quite its own; moreover it produces to perfection those specialities for which good villages are famous, viz.: the best butter and eggs, always, and the best violets, cowslips, and primroses in the season. Its air must be conducive to literary pursuits, since local embryo poets are tempted to put its beauties into print, since Sir William Napier honored it with his presence while he wrote the principal part of his "History of the Peninsular War," and since, under the influence of its freshening breezes, Miss Muloch produced the greater portion of "My Mother and I." The scene of this story is laid, partly in the village of Freshford, and partly in the classic city of Bath, close by, which, in point of fashion has, like many of its inhabitants, seen its best days. Those who have read the book and visited the places described therein, will be ready to admit that the delineations it contains are truthful as well as charming, and that the writer has been as observant as "Cap'en Cuttie" would have been under similar circumstances - that she has seen beauty and made "notes on't."
The writings of Miss Muloch, from the appearance of her first novel, "The Ogilvies," in 1849, to the publication of her last, about which reviewers have had something to say of late, present a goodly pile. They do not point to a pen, prolific as that of a Miss Braddon, for instance, but they betoken a well-filled literary life. Individually they differ in merit, as do the works of most authors; but en masse they are knit together by fibres of strength which render them powerful to repel the attacks of critics. In what consists the strength of these books? Not in intellect alone, although intellect is there - nor in a faultless manner of wielding the English language, which manner is not there - nor in any wonderful fertility of imagination, for the literary blossoms we are discussing, may rather be likened to the flowers of the seringa-tree, fair and delicately tinted, than to luscious, rich-hued exotics overweighted with their own luxuriance. Whence then comes their strength ? From a moral beauty which underlies and consolidates them from the exemplification of the writer's argument that "the heart is the key to the intellect." Miss Muloch has found the key whereof she speaks. A large-hearted charity and a sublime philosophy are to be found in her books, and are always guided by a calm, clear-sighted judgment. The philosophy is not one that stops to discuss, but which pierces the often nebulous atmosphere of human reasoning, and sees beyond shafts of light; which seizes them, as it were, with the needle-point of intellectual acumen, and places them before the reader's mind - shafts of truth so fine and subtle, that, were they subjected to the breath of disquisition, they would disappear from sight as do widening circles in the water.
That our author can create character is evident. Come forward, nurse Elspie - you who are so instinct with individuality and nationality - come forth from your place among humble heroines of fiction, and testify to this. To the same effect on this subject speaks Elizabeth Hand, another servant; so, from the infant world, does the blind child Muriel; and so do Hilary, Olive, and other excellent specimens of young womanhood, scattered throughout Miss Muloch's books.
This writer is most at home when depicting humanity under its favorable aspects. Her heroines are often heroic, self-sacrificing beings, who glide about doing good, and from their virtues seem half angelic; yet we feel that they are human - that they have been drawn from life. But not always equally successful are her unamiable personages who appear now and then. One of these is Miss Gascoigne, in "Christian's Mistake." This person performs the part of disagreeable relative. Not, therefore, is she untrue to life; far from it. But she is untrue on this account, that, being represented a lady of birth and breeding, she taunts her sister-in-law after the manner of a housemaid.
The world of fiction could not get on without its men, any more than could the world around us. The machinery of both spheres would be stopped at once if deprived of the masculine element therein. The novels we are commenting on form no exception to the rule of novels in this respect; they amply represent the genus man, and do it very favorably moreover. Miss Muloch's young heroes are much as other young men; but her heroes par excellence are not. In fact, these are not usually young men at all, but middle-aged ones, who seem to have trampled life's faults under their feet, and its follies also, except that of falling in love, which last they are prone to indulge in at a period when the interesting operation is oftener over than otherwise; in a word, they are too good, for they are generally endowed with the combined virtues of men and women, which is hardly fair, considering that we find them not so endowed in reality, or at any rate not often so. These heroes seem to gaze upon us with mild, placid eyes - to loom upon us from pedestals, like the demigods of old, and are more suggestive of the golden ages of the world, of a far-oft Arcadia, than this very wicked nineteenth century of ours.
Sentiment plays the most prominent part in the writings of Miss Muloch, who seems to have made the theme her lifelong study. The result is a minute analysis of almost every feeling that is ours from the cradle to the grave. These feelings are spread before us in a kind of network, delicate and dexterous as the web of a spider. Start not, reader; the simile is not ignoble, for a spider's web is a beautiful thing, particularly when seen with tender prismatic tints playing upon it. And as the sun's rays play upon the spider's web, so do the reflections of a very poetical mind color the web of human sentiment, which Miss Muloch weaves for the delectation of her readers. It is a tribute to this writer's power that she knows how to deal thus minutely with sentiment, to strain certain fibres of feeling until they nearly snap under the analytical tension to which they are subjected, and yet to preserve her muscular energy of style and thought. Only occasionally does she near the boundary line which divides sentiment from sentimentality seldom does she cross it; but when she does do so, the result is not invigorating, and bears out our previous comparison between her writings and the blossoms of the seringa-tree, which blossoms, be it remembered, sometimes burden the breath of June with an odor sweet but faint and rather oppressive withal.
It has been hinted above that the author of "John Halifax, Gentleman," is not perfect in her management of our mother tongue. Nor is she. Her style, graceful and charming as it is, too often displays a disregard of the mechanism of language. The words seem to come as they choose, leaving the sentences to take care of and shape themselves as they can: thus, the construction of these is frequently faulty and the meaning dubious. But the flaws to which we are drawing attention, dwindle to mere specks when laid to the charge of a writer who has given us, so much to be grateful for as the subject of this sketch.
Miss Muloch conduces to the moral elevation, as well as to the deli ht of her readers, and has therefore succeeded in what should be the highest aim of the novelist; she has done good, and deserves to share the criticism once passed upon the writings of Felicia Hemans, which says that these writings are the reflections of a beautiful mind; also, she might come under the mantle of that eulogy passed by Dean Stanley over the grave of Dickens, to the effect that he, the author of "Pickwick," had never written a line, which might not with impunity be read by a little child.