The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Anne C. Lynch/Fredrika Bremer
When it was announced, a few months since, that Fredrika Bremer had landed upon our shores, the intelligence was received by the thousands who have read her works, with an interest that admiration of literary talent or genius alone could never have inspired. More than almost any other writer, Miss Bremer seems to have become a personal friend to every reader, and the cause of this is to be found in a far deeper source than mere admiration for the novelty and vividness of her narratives, her quiet pictures of domestic life, or her strong delineations of the workings of human passion. Her large and sympathetic heart is attuned to such harmony with humanity, or rather she so expresses this beautiful harmony of her own soul with God, with nature, and with humanity, that the human heart that has suffered or enjoyed, vibrates and responds like a harp-string to the master-hand. She has somewhere said, “Hereafter, when I no more belong to earth, I should love to return to it as a spirit, and impart to man the deepest of that which I have suffered and enjoyed, lived and loved. And no one need fear me;—should I come in the midnight hour to a striving and unquiet spirit, it would be only to make it more quiet, its night-lamp burn more brightly, and myself its friend and sister.” Although she still belongs to earth, this aspiration has been satisfied. Even here, without having crossed the mysterious bourn, she has revealed to us great depths of suffering and joy, of life and love, and to many troubled hearts she has come in their midnight hours, a friend, a sister, a consoler. It is no wonder, then, that homes and hearts have opened to her, and that welcome and gratitude await her in every town and village of our country.
When Miss Bremer’s works were first introduced to us a few years ago, the brilliant narrations of Scott had been succeeded by the passionate and romantic creations of Bulwer, and our literature was flooded with inundations from the voluptuous and sensational school of France, which deposited its débris and diffused its malaria wherever its impure waters subsided. At this period the writings of Fredrika Bremer came upon us, suddenly and beautiful as summer comes in her northern clime, as pure and sparkling as its mountain streams, as fresh and invigorating as its mountain air.
As works of art, or in a literary point of view, these novels have doubtless their faults. But those who have been elevated by their ennobling spirit, who have drunk at their clear, cool fountains, and felt their strengthening and life-giving influence, who have dwelt with her lovely characters in their happy homes, and participated in their joys and sorrows, would find it as impossible to turn upon them the cold eye of the critic, as to analyze the sunshine and the landscape that delight the eye, or to judge the features of a beloved friend by the strictest rules of beauty or of art. The office of the critic has come to be in literature what that of the surgeon is in the actual world. With perfect development, beauty, and harmony, he has nothing to do. He has eyes only for deformities and faults, and wherever they are to be found, he applies his merciless scalpel, with a firm hand and an unrelenting heart. But the critic who judges by rules of art alone, does not give us the highest truth any more than the chemist, who, while he shows us how to analyze the diamond and to resolve it to its original elements, forgets to place it before us flashing in the sunlight; or the botanist who, in dissecting the flower, leaves its beauty to pass unnoticed, and its perfume to escape. Mere criticism is the judgment of the intellect alone; but the highest and truest judgment is that where the heart also has a voice, and an object seen through the one or the other medium, intellect or heart, is like those transparencies which in one light represent the dreary desolation of a winter landscape, and in the other, all the luxuriance and beauty of summer.
The age in which we live is one of scepticism, of analysis, and of transition. Religion, government, society, are all in turn investigated by its indomitable spirit of inquiry. All great questions relating to humanity, its reform, its progress, and its final destiny, are agitated to a degree not known before at any period of the world’s history. The conservative and destructive principles are at war, and there are moments when those of the firmest faith seem to doubt what the final issue of the contest may be. The literature, as could not fail to be the case, takes its tone from the spirit of the age, and no department of literature has more direct bearing upon the popular mind than that of fiction. He who writes the songs and romances of a people may well leave to others to make their laws. Not, indeed, those lighter romances, intended only to interest or amuse the fancy, but those which embody some deep sentiment, or some vital principle of society or of religion. Truths and principles thus inculcated or diffused, have their most direct influence upon the youthful mind, and, like the impressions made upon the rock in its transition state, they harden and remain.
As an instance of the extent of this influence of fiction, we may refer to the writings of that woman, who, possessing the most extraordinary combination of masculine and feminine qualities under the name of George Sand, for the last few years has taken the first rank among the writers of her native language, and from that eminence has exercised such incalculable influence, not only over her own but all other countries. George Sand and Fredrika Bremer stand at the head of two widely different classes of fictitious writing, each having other and higher objects than to amuse. Through the writings of both there is a deep and powerful undercurrent, to which the story is but the sparkle on the surface. Both discuss great questions of social reform, the laws of marriage, and the nature of love. Both enter the temple of humanity—but the one to overthrow its altars, and to shatter its cherished images—the other to render them more firm and steadfast—to burn incense on the shrines, and adorn them with garlands of immortal flowers. The genius of the one is the flaming torch of the incendiary, that carries destruction and desolation in its course—that of the other is the fragrant lamp, that illumines the darkness, and dispels, by its steady and benignant beams, the gathering and mysterious gloom. The course of the one has been like that of the furious tempest of the tropical regions, that uproots the old landmarks, floods the gentle streams till they overflow their channels, and sweep away banks, bridges, and barriers that oppose their course; that of the other, like the evening dews and the summer showers, that sink softly into the bosom of the earth, refreshing, gladdening, and fertilizing.
The institution of marriage, the root from which society springs, the groundwork upon which it stands, George Sand, with all the force of her genius and eloquence, seeks to degrade and to destroy; while Fredrika Bremer would ennoble, not the institution of marriage only, but she would exalt it into that deeper and holier spiritual union, of which the actual marriage is but the symbol. Love, that most divine of all our sentiments, the bloom and perfume of the tree of Life, the sun that lights and gladdens the night of existence, the one presents to us as burning with all the voluptuous ardour of the senses, the other, as glowing with the sacred fire of the impassioned soul.
It seems to be a law of Providence, that good and evil should ever co-exist, both in the outer and inner world; that wherever poisons abound, the antidotes are also to be found; and the contemporaneous appearance of the two leading minds we have been contrasting, is an instance of the verification of this law in the intellectual or moral world. Some one has truly said, that “where nothing great is to be done, the existence of great men is impossible.” Goodness is only one form of greatness, and in opposing the influence of the materializing and disorganizing school of French romances, there was a great good to be attained; and by Miss Bremer, and the class of writers of which she stands at the head, it has been in a measure accomplished; for there is another law of Providence which secures the final triumph of good over evil, and renders the contest not doubtful in the end, although it may be of long duration.
Besides the French school of romance writers, there is another, to which the works of Miss Bremer offer an equally salutary antidote. We refer to those who, with contempt in their hearts, and bitterness and sarcasm on their lips, go through the world like Mephistopheles, only to sneer at the weaknesses of humanity, to magnify its errors, and to question or despise its virtues, and who, like certain birds of prey, seem to be attracted only by that which is in its nature offensive. The mischief of such works is, that they lower the standard of human excellence, they unsettle our faith in human nature, and they engender a sceptical and contemptuous spirit, that as fatally extinguishes the higher virtues and aspirations, as fire-damp extinguishes the miner’s lamp. Goethe has somewhere said that if we would make men better, we must treat them as if they were better than they are; if we take them at their actual level we make them worse; much more then do we render them worse when we put them below their actual level, preserving, though caricaturing the likeness.
The characters Miss Bremer has drawn, while they are free from this charge, do not on the other hand fall into the opposite error of being too favourably depicted. They represent human nature as it often is, as it is always capable of being, refined, elevated, and noble. The home affections that she so vividly portrays, though originating in the domestic circle, radiate from that centre until they encompass all that live and suffer, genial as the sun, and embracing as the atmosphere; and, like the sun and air in the outward world, they call forth the verdure and bloom of the inner life in all those whom they thus enfold.
It may be objected that we assign too great an influence, too prominent a position, to these creations of the imagination, presented to us on the pages of fiction. But fiction, in its action on the mind, has all the effect of history; it has even an advantage over history. Since the one gives but the outward and apparent life, while the other enters the secret recesses of the heart, unveils the hidden springs of motive and of action, and lays open to our view, what no history and no confessions ever do, the secret workings of the human soul, that most mysterious and complicated of all the works of God. Into these “beings of the mind,” the writer of fiction, like the sculptor of old, breathes life, thought, and immortality, and they become to us positive existences. Lear and Cordelia, Othello and Desdemona, Ivanhoe and Kebecca, are as much realities as if they had dwelt upon the earth, and their lives had come down to us beside those of the heroes and heroines of history. So it is with the characters Miss Bremer has drawn. We are as familiar with Bear and his little wife, as if we had dwelt with them at their cottage-home of Rosenvik. We shrink before the iron will and the imperious commands of Ma chère mère, and shudder to encounter the dark form and the lowering glance of the fierce Bruno.
If, then, fiction in its effects is to be regarded as possessing equal power with history, it becomes a more important feature, not only in literature, but in morals, and should occupy a higher place than has been assigned to it, and those who people the world with these airy yet actual beings, and present to us in them ideals to contem plate and to imitate, should be regarded as the benefactors of men. And so, indeed, it has been with her who is the subject of this brief sketch. Her works have gone abroad on their message of peace and love over the civilized world, and her fame has resounded far and wide, till its echo returned to her native land. Fame, as it is generally understood, however, is but a poor expression of the relation that exists between Miss Bremer and her world of readers; it is but the outward fact of the deep, spiritual relation she bears to them all; for each one receives from her some direct rays, as the wavelets of the lake, lying in the light of the moon, receive each some beam of her silver light.
As to Miss Bremer’s future, we do not consider her course by any means as ended. We know that in her works, as in her life, she aspires to that ascending metamorphosis, without which the normal development of life is not accomplished. We know that she aspires to put the romance of individual life in closer connexion with the great romance of humanity, and that her present visit to the New World is connected with this view. We know that through the impressions here received, she hopes to realize and to give expression to ardent hopes and long-cherished visions. We know that “the light of her life’s day, like that of the morning, will be an ascending one, and that whether its beam shine through mist or through clear air, that the day will increase—the life will brighten.”