The Jewett Journal
THE ART OF MISS JEWETT
CHARLES MINER THOMPSON
THE DIFFICULTY in reviewing a book is that one is really reviewing the writer. So true is it that the book expresses the author that, like the gentleman in the play, the man who writes one leaves his character behind him. So, reviewing in the hands of people of sufficient insight and ill-nature might easily become as malicious as any gossip that ever delighted the Candours, the Sneerwells, and the Backbites of this world. Is it not true that when the critic declares the style of a writer to be slovenly, his thought confused, and his tone that of shallow cynicism, he utters, if right in his judgment, the unpalatable truth that the author is a sloven, an undisciplined thinker, and a shallow cynic? And yet wonder is felt at the sensitiveness of authors! For my part, I am more inclined to wonder that critics so seldom seem to shrink from an undertaking so personal; for, in this view of the matter, criticism becomes so intimate a probing of the heart of its victim that it appears a little impertinent. When the reviewer comes fully to realize that the challenge of the author is not "What kind of book have I written?" but "What manner of man am I?" -- then he may well feel inclined to change the embarrassing subject. Still, it is, after all, the author who raises the question, and, moreover, since he is a candidate for the important position of entertainer and instructor of the public, he is not the only one interested in the answer: the world has a right to the best and frankest opinion which it can obtain on his qualifications. If we have it on high authority that it is as well almost to kill a man as to kill a good book, is it not common sense to draw the obvious inference that it is as well (in this case I omit the "almost") to save a malefactor from the gallows as to save a bad book from its just fate? However, this is not an essay on the ethics of reviewing; these few trite words are said only because, my subject being a woman, my task seemed unusually delicate, and I wished, before plunging into it, to indicate, however roughly, on what grounds it might be justified. But if any one thinks from this preface that terrible things are about to be said, I must dispel the expectation, no matter how delightful. There is to be nothing unpleasant: no one could better sustain the search for the author within the book than Miss Sarah Orne Jewett.
She was born in 1849 in South Berwick, Maine, the daughter of Dr. Theodore H. Jewett, a country practitioner. There she spent her childhood, and there, at the South Berwick Academy, she received all her formal schooling. As a woman she has traveled widely, not only in her own country and Canada, but in Europe; and, while holding fast to her home in Berwick as a summer residence, has spent the winters in Boston among friends who are of the intellectually elect. Her literary life she began at the age of nineteen as a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, and she has ever since been engaged in steady but admirably unhurried production. Deephaven,her first published work, appeared in 1877. For six years thereafter volumes came every second year: Old Friends and New in 1879; Country By-Ways in 1881; The Mate of the Daylight in 1883. The next seven years, the period of her greatest literary activity, each saw a book completed: A Country Doctor in 1884; A Marsh Island in 1885; A White Heron in 1886; The Story of the Normans in 1887; The King of Folly Island in 1888; Betty Leicester in 1889; Strangers and Wayfarers in 1890. Then for two years she rested, but in the four years following she again wrote an annual volume: A Native o f Winby in 1893; Betty Leicester's Christmas in 1894; The Life o f Nancy in 1895; The Country of the Pointed Firs in 1896. The Queen's Twin was published in 1899, and in 1901 came The Tory Lover. These seventeen volumes complete for the present the list of her published works.
If it is true that nothing can come from a writer except, first, the knowledge derived from his experience of life and from his studies, and, second, an expression of his character as formed thereby, these meagre facts, amplified where possible, will repay somewhat close examination.
To begin at the beginning, it meant more, perhaps, to be born in South Berwick than in other New England villages of its size, for the place has not only a pleasant historical atmosphere, but, since its origin is neither Pilgrim nor Puritan, a rich tradition of generous and elegant living. For confirmation of this, the suspicious reader, if he distrusts the account of Berwick in The Tory Lover because it appears in a novel, even historical, can refer either to the charming essay "River Driftwood" which opens Country By-Ways, or, if that may be considered sentimental, to an historical paper on the town which Miss Jewett contributed some years ago to the New England Magazine. As for the historical associations, aside from those clustering about the name of Sullivan, the one which has the greatest popular appeal is that here John Paul Jones, "a little wasp of a fellow with a temper like a blaze of the gunpowder whose smoke he loved," gathered the ship's company for that wasp's nest, the Ranger. There were, of course, also provincial celebrities, men who had two cloaks and everything handsome about them, whose fame it is not worth while to try to revive here, but whom it is useful to mention in aid of the impression which I desire to convey, that the neighborhood was one inhabited by the "quality." It seems that it possessed rather more, perhaps, than its share of those great houses full of handsome furniture, old silver, and beautiful women in French silks, which were, one suspects, not nearly so general in Colonial fact as they have since become in Colonial fiction. There has been, by the way, an odd change in our historical stories from praise of "sturdy yeomanry," "homespun heroes," and "embattled farmers" to celebration of fine ladies and gentlemen moving in the minuet, which reflects a growing niceness of the public taste in ancestors, but which, perhaps, swerves from the truth of our democratic history. However that may be, the mansions of historical romance were actually built in aristocratic Berwick. "There were many fine houses," says Miss Jewett, "in this region in old times." Of the one still remaining she gives a description from which we may form an idea of the others. The Hamilton House "seems to me," she writes, "unrivaled for the beauty of its situation, and for a certain grand air which I have found it hard to match in any house I have ever seen. It is square and gray, with four great chimneys, and many dormer windows in its high peaked roof; it stands on a point below which the river is at its widest. The rows of poplars and its terraced garden have fallen and been spoiled by time, but a company of great elms stand guard over it, and the sunset reddens its windows:… Inside there are great halls and square rooms with carved woodwork, and arched windows and mahogany window seats, and fireplaces that are wide enough almost for a seat in the chimney corner." This quotation from "River Driftwood" makes it easy to guess what sort of people lived in such houses; or, if it is not, the reader may stimulate his imagination with The Tory Lover, or, turning to Deephaven, with the chapter entitled "Miss Chauncey." Certainly, after reading these, no one will be surprised that Miss Jewett has heard "many a tradition of the way" Hamilton house "was kept; of the fine ladies and gentlemen, and the great dinner-parties, and the guests who used to come up the river from Portsmouth, and go home late in the moonlight evening at the turn of the tide." These gayeties are of small enough consequence now: the use I wish to make of them -- since the tradition of race is no small part of character -- is to indicate the kind of tradition which the village supplied. In this tradition Miss Jewett is entitled to share by birth. Witnesses to the truth of the statement may be called from frankly autobiographical passages in her early work. Thus, from references in "River Driftwood," it appears that one of her grandmothers, being of those gay moonlight parties, inspired a romantic attachment in the heart of one of the French prisoners at Portsmouth. It appears, also, that the grandfather who ultimately became the husband of this fascinating lady was then at sea, as was the custom in those days of young fellows of good family who expected to take up mercantile pursuits. In "A Mournful Villager," in the same volume, she gives her childish recollections of another grandmother, "a proud and solemn woman," who was obviously a delightful exemplar of old-time gentility. And somewhere -- unfortunately I cannot now find the passage -- she refers to an ancestor who was a minister. That is quite as it should be, for the ministers were the custodians of scholarship in the early days, and wholly to account for this author we need to add to the strain of gentility that of ancient scholarship. For thus she falls unquestionably into Dr. Holmes's Brahmin class. I have mentioned the sketch of Miss Chauncey: those who remember the first chapter of Elsie Venner will perhaps recall the Chaunceys as one of the families referred to by the author to illustrate his meaning, and perhaps they will not need to be reminded that Mr. Bernard Langdon, his typical Brahmin, came -- Dr. Holmes declines to be explicit -- either from Portland, or Newburyport, or Portsmouth. Now, Portsmouth is very near Berwick.
A recent writer on American literature seems to have aroused more or less ill feeling by somewhat closely defining the social position of our principal writers: this man was, that man was not, a gentleman. I cannot see that there is any cause for serious complaint. If there is any truth in the remarks with which this paper opens, a complete understanding of the work of an author cannot be reached without considering the question of his birth and breeding. It seems plain that a gentleman, whether by position or by character, will write differently from one to whom the title cannot be given. To make a comparison between authors safely remote from the present, it seems enlightening to say that Montaigne was a gentleman and that Rousseau was not.
At any rate, I have insisted upon Miss Jewett's being a gentlewoman because it seems to me to explain much about her work. To it I believe are due both her evident delight in her gentlefolk and the sympathy, grace, and delicate precision with which she draws them. They are far more abundant in her work than the general reader, who associates her with sketches of rustic, not to say bucolic life, begins to realize. Miss Lancaster and Miss Denis in Deephavenare aristocratic in every thought and feeling; A Country Doctor, A Marsh Island, and, still more, The Tory Lover are dominated by gentlefolk; many short stories both early and late -- "Lady Ferry,'' "The Dulham Ladies," "The Two Browns," "The Landscape Chamber," "A Village Shop" -- are given almost exclusively to them. Two delightful stories of the South, "The Mistress of Sydenham Plantation" and "A War Debt," could have been written only by one made clairvoyant by as perfect a gentility as any in the proud South. And, finally, there is no more undoubted little lady in children's literature than Betty Leicester. Indeed, New England gentlefolk are presented in her work as skillfully and almost, if not quite, as fully as farmer and fisher folk.
All this, of course, raises the question why a woman of such strongly aristocratic sympathies should have made the principal work of her life the portraiture of homely and humble people. In order to answer it, we may turn again to the biographical sketch, and there pick out two items.
One of these is Berwick itself, but in the different aspect of a simple country village. In such places, although there used to be (and perhaps still is) a clearly defined aristocratic group, there was also, within certain limits, the most democratic freedom of intercourse. If, for example, one belonged to the aristocratic circle, he knew many people not sharing the distinction, who, although they never expected to be invited to his table, yet claimed and exercised the right to call him by his given name. This situation did not seem anomalous to those to the manner born, and it is plain that, by not separating classes, it offered a favorable opportunity for reciprocal sympathy and understanding.
So, simply by living in such a community, Miss Jewett would infallibly learn much about people of a social grade lower than her own. This was, of course, the common portion of every child born in such surroundings, -- and incidentally a reason for our wide enjoyment of rural tales; -- but in Miss Jewett's case it was enriched far beyond the ordinary measure by various contributory circumstances. Important among them was an inborn love of nature. "First cousin to the caterpillar if they called me to come in," she describes herself, and "own sister to a giddy-minded bobolink when I ran across the fields as I used to do very often." Important, also, was her delicate health; for it led her parents to encourage to the utmost her taste for out-of-door pursuits. These probably included many not ordinarily enjoyed by young ladies. There is, for example, a paragraph in "A Dunnet Shepherdess" in which she shows herself a good fisherman. Of course a girl much out of doors would have a better chance than one confined at home to make democratic acquaintances.
But the advantage in this regard of her freedom of life is small by comparison with that of the second item, -- a real miracle of good luck for one with her mission, -- the fact, namely, that her father was a country doctor. Miss Jewett has recorded her debt to him in the dedication of her third book, Country By-Ways. "To T. H. J.," the inscription runs, "my dear father; my dear friend; the best and wisest man I ever knew; who taught me many lessons and showed me many things as we went together along the country by-ways." What lessons he taught and what things he showed may, I think, be easily guessed from what we know of him. He was, for example, learned in ornithology, a study second to none in training the powers of observation, and in instilling a love and knowledge of nature; and, as I never knew an ornithologist who did not also know something of animals and flowers, I think I may infer, without fear of mistake, that the delicate little girl, riding in the carriage beside the doctor, was not allowed to miss whatever instruction there might be in any of the pleasant sights along the way, whether bird or beast, flower or tree. In these constant drives throughout the changing seasons into the country or along the tidal rivers to the sea she also learned by heart all the varying aspects of the Maine country, which she has described with such affectionate accuracy and fullness. Instances of the minuteness of her observation abound in all of her stories in which nature plays a part: I will give but one, a reference to a raw spring day, which has long clung in my memory as containing one peculiarly eloquent detail. It was a day, she says, when "now and then a scurry of snow came flying through the air in tiny round flakes that hardly gathered fast enough to mark the wheelruts." What New Englander does not know those days when the snow only marks the wheelruts, or requires any further detail to identify them? The astonishing knowledge of herbs and simples, moreover, which makes possible such a portrait as that of delectable Mrs. Todd in The Country of the Pointed Firs may also be safely counted as among the results of these drives in a doctor's buggy. The finest and deepest lessons, however, must have dealt with human beings. For Dr. Jewett was one to appreciate them. The skillful but anonymous Introduction to a selection of Miss Jewett's more characteristic stories in the Riverside School Library, which may, I suppose, be regarded as official, says that he was "a country doctor in the best sense of those words, which may mean so much or so little. With him they meant that his patients were very real and human people, whose thoughts he knew as well as he knew their ailments, whose farms and gardens were always passing before his observant eyes, whose very lives, for joy or sorrow, were a part of his own life." The talk of such a man as this, kindly and humane, with a memory full of country histories grave or gay, must have been much of his patients, and must have tended to awaken in his daughter curiosity and its nobler offspring, understanding and sympathy. While he saw his patient, whether farmer or fisherman, she doubtless "visited," as country people say, with the well members of the family, and thus learned in the most easy and direct manner not only the trick of their speech, but the characteristic tone of their thought and feeling. Father and daughter, when they drove away, doubtless spoke of the family they had left, its sorrows and perplexities if the case were severe, its humors if the case were only little Johnny with a trivial attack of mumps. In other words, the people were interpreted to the young author, and her young powers of observation, feeling, and reflection were helped and guided by a man of the widest and most intimate experience of his people, and of great humanity.
Such was the experience of life which gave the young gentlewoman her exceptionally accurate and minute knowledge of country scenes and country manners; but before we can understand the motive which led her to use it as literary material we must know something of the personal character which was to give force and direction to her literary gift. Here, also, I suspect Dr. Jewett of having had a powerful influence. For he was more even than a wise and kindly country practitioner. He was eminent enough in his profession to be a professor in the Medical Department of Bowdoin College. Moreover, as the Introduction reminds us in a hint which I think is as good as a statement, he sat for the portrait of Dr. Leslie in A Country Doctor. Dr. Leslie is represented as a religious man, as one not only learned in medicine and having a natural gift for healing, but as "a scholar and thinker in other than medical philosophies."
Under the training of such a man, Miss Jewett, as any one may guess, would grow into a serious and thoughtful woman. Although at the age of twenty she could let her keen sense of humor play over solemn matters, as when she speaks either of a countryman's immaculate best room as suggesting "an invisible funeral," or of being in doubt "whether if the Bible had been written wholly in inland countries, it would have been much valued in Deephaven," she could also declare -- alas, with a split infinitive! -- that "to heartily enjoy the every-day life one must care to study life and character, and must find pleasure in thought and observation of simple things, and have an instinctive delicious interest in what to other eyes is unflavored dullness." The seriousness of this sentiment -- unusual in a young girl -- sorts finely with the religious cast of her nature. That deserves emphasis. Doctors have a reputation for skepticism, but apparently Dr. Jewett did not share this characteristic, if it be one. At any rate, his daughter grew up with deep religious feeling, -- present everywhere in her work as an invisible force, and in her earliest writing often frankly, sometimes inartistically, expressed, but always with a winning simplicity and lack of pose. It finds this open expression in one or two passages in Deephaven,but it is at its frankest in her second book, Old Friends and New. I call attention to it partly because it colors her view of life, but mainly because it would give the attitude of a child toward rough country people, of her superiority to whom she would soon become conscious, an especial grace and seriousness. She would wish, that is to say, to do them good.
The creative impulse which was to have such thoughtful guidance was of course a gift of the gods: it is acquired in no other way. But for certain Gallic qualities of her art, its neatness, clearness, and measure, those who believe in heredity may find a partial explanation in the fact, not as yet mentioned, that her New England blood is touched with that of clever, artistic France. However explanatory that may be, it is certain that she began to exercise her admirable gift while still a very young girl. In a preface to a holiday edition of Deephaven published in 1893 she speaks of the first chapters of Mrs. Stowe's The Pearl of Orr's Island as having opened her eyes to the literary value of the country folk she knew so well. This work appeared in 1862, when Miss Jewett was thirteen years old. It does not follow, of course, that she resolved upon using the abundant material at this tender age, but she could not have been older by many years, since she began to write for the Atlantic Monthly when only nineteen. I for one should be glad to know how this girl came to possess a literary style so simple and correct and a diction so pure. So far as technical excellence goes, it seems to have been born perfected: I can see little difference in it from the day of Deephaven to the day of The Tory Lover. It has an informality which is admirable for her purpose, -- the periodic sentence is extremely rare, -- and which, if it has a certain monotony of cadence when read in long stretches, has in her shorter stories the agreeable ease and grace which one associates with the best letters of cultivated women. An occasional error like the confusion, common with her, of "aggravating" with "provoking" simply disarms that dislike which we have of the literary Aristides as of others. The clue to the secret probably lies in part in native gift; in part in the special quality of her education. That, in the formal sense, was scanty. What there was of it was obtained at the South Berwick Academy, but the ill-health which has been referred to as keeping her out of doors also kept her out of school, so that, as the Introduction says, her "reading and study received most of its direction at home." Although what she studied is hid from us, what she read is revealed, -- at any rate in part. There is evidence enough in her writings, not only that she early had access to literature of a solid and sustaining kind, -- a man like her father was certain to have not much of any other in his library, -- but also that she early learned to love it. On this point, the list of books which Miss Lancaster and Miss Denis read at Deephaven is instructive: it includes works by Thackeray, Sir Thomas Browne, Fénelon, Thomas Fuller, Addison, and Emerson. And these young women were not terrified by old-fashioned stories and essays, or even by old sermons, and -- behold the true book-lover! - they used to read them "with more pleasure because they had such quaint old brown leather bindings."
Among the books of the two girls some volume by Hawthorne ought, perhaps, also to appear. The Scarlet Letter was published as early as 1850, and in Miss Jewett's writings are many traces of his influence. It may be fanciful to detect a resemblance to Hawthorne in Miss Chauncey in Deephaven or in Lady Ferry in Old Friends and New, but the likeness is plain in such stories as "The Gray Man" and "The Landscape Chamber." This accusation (I should like to say in parenthesis) of undergoing the influence of Hawthorne is made against almost every New England writer of gloomy stories, and I sometimes wonder if it is entirely just. I have thought that the similarities on which it is founded may rather be evidence of the representative character of Hawthorne's mind; that other stories resemble his, not because they are written with a borrowed inspiration, but because they are written by men of the same gloomy stock. Although Miss Jewett, so far as I know, is not Puritan, her imagination, her seriousness, and her religious nature, taken with her close observation of a people in whom Calvinism had strangely wrought, may be held enough to account for an uncanny bit of symbolism, or story of pursuing fate. However it may be with her, I am ready in general to believe that we should have stories of the sort which we are accustomed to call Hawthornesque had Hawthorne never existed. But I can return from this long digression by averring with some confidence that this writer of exquisite English had a share in showing Miss Jewett how to write. And the moral of it all seems to be the old one that the reading of good books is the best preparation for the writing of them.
If the technique of her style is good, its moral qualities reflect the character which I have been trying to describe, and are no less remarkable in a girl not yet quite out of her teens. It has restraint: there is a conspicuous absence alike of girlish smartness and of girlish gush. It is kind: the humor has no youthful blend of cruelty. It has simplicity: there is no studied phrase-making or fine writing. It shows education in the best sense, and a culture that is real and considerable, if still susceptible of increment in her later years. The tone of it all, indeed, is valuable testimony to the mature poise of her mind, to the strength of her character, to the refinement of her taste, and to the wisdom and skill of her father's training. The whole point which I am trying to make is that, behind such a gift for graceful writing as is possessed by many empty-headed and empty-hearted people, there was in Miss Jewett's case a very real and valuable force, -- that of a strong and generous character and a cultivated mind.
If the point has been made successfully, the time has come to speak of the motive which led the young gentlewoman to put to literary use her knowledge of her humble neighbors. I do not believe that one less sordid or more charming ever prompted an author. In the early seventies the summer boarder, so soon to develop into the summer cottager, was born, and with him a new audience for any writer who could describe the scenes in which he found so great a pleasure. Miss Jewett seized the opportunity, but the rough analysis which has been made of her character has failed abjectly if any one is surprised to hear that it was not her head, but her heart, which saw its profit in the obvious chance. In a recent preface to Deephavenshe records with a characteristic touch of gentle humor her early terror lest her beloved country-folk be misunderstood. "It seemed not altogether reasonable," she writes, "when timid ladies mistook a selectman for a tramp, because he happened to be crossing a field in his shirt-sleeves." And so, in obedience to that serious and generous side of her character which I have been at pains to note, she set herself to the benevolent task of clearing up all such misapprehensions as this. In a larger view, she undertook to interpret what is best in the countryman to what is best in his city brother. The task presented itself to her as a public duty, and in that spirit she has carried it out. "There is a noble saying of Plato," she writes in the preface already mentioned, "that the best thing that can be done for the people of a state is to make them acquainted with one another." That is high ground for a girl to take. I hope I am not cynical in thinking that, in the majority of cases, the first use to which a clever boy or girl, born in the country of the more favored classes, would put literary talent would be smartly to recount the ludicrous aspects of rural character. If I am right, we can judge by what unusual thoughtfulness and kindness of heart Miss Jewett displayed.
This motive reflected her goodness: a secondary one reflects her scholarly instincts. It is the motive of the Chronicler. She hoped her careful observations of rural speech and customs might have historical value. "Le paysan est donc," she quotes George Sand, "si l'on peut ainsi dire, le seul historien qui nous reste des temps antehistoriques." The historical point of view is not only attractive but familiar to her, for she has herself played the historian. The Story of the Normans -- a subject perhaps made especially alluring to her by that interest in the French which her kinship would cause, and which scattered references throughout her stories make very evident -- shows how strong is the historical bent of her mind.
Prompted by these motives, she began her first published book, Deephaven. This work, although for some reason it did not appear in book form until 1877, when she was twenty-eight years old, was written when she was "just past her twentieth birthday." It is an interesting and complete illustration of all that has been said about her here. Two charming girls, aristocratic to their finger-tips, -- "types," as Miss Jewett herself calls them, "of those pioneers who were already on the eager quest for rural pleasures," -- go to spend their summer in a fine old country house which belongs to the family of one of them, and which stands in rural grandeur in a sleepy, decaying seaport village on the northern New England coast. There they make the acquaintance of all the village characters, and are unaffectedly surprised and charmed to find them, in their way, such delightful people. The histories of these racy and individual folk: form the real stuff of the book. The reader will perceive that Miss Jewett's experience of life as an aristocrat in close touch with humbler country-folk, her personal character, and her literary purpose are all given, by a book of this plan, perfect expression. Her art, as is natural, does not do itself so thorough justice. Still, her character-drawing, although it shows like a faint pencil sketch beside the deep color of her maturer portraiture, has remarkable shrewdness and justice, and has all the distinguishing qualities of her richer work. The book still has vitality; but, as it is immature in thought and feeling, its chief charm, at least for the seasoned reader, now lies in the sweet spirit of refined girlhood which breathes between all its lines. This slight, modest, girlish, charming piece of writing, although a promise rather than an achievement, was successful with the public: the edition which I have is dated 1896, and is marked as the twenty-third.
Besides the two motives which I have already mentioned as prompting Miss Jewett to write, there was a third: she wished, that is, to interpret town to country. "At the same time," she says, continuing her example of the city women, she "was sensible of grave wrong and misunderstanding when these same timid ladies were regarded with suspicion, and their kindnesses were believed to come from pride and patronage."
In her effort to do away with this species of misunderstanding, I fear she has not been so successful. In the first place, art of a less delicate sort than hers is needed to reach wide popular appreciation, and in the second, her aristocratic point of view is here an undoubted disadvantage. In all the stories dealing in part with gentlefolk, this point of view has of course its direct representative in whose always friendly eyes we see the countryfolk reflected. Then, too, even in the stories the action of which employs only uncultivated folk, Miss Jewett, as in The Country of the Pointed Firs, generally introduces herself as a spectator and herself supplies the aristocratic attitude. Even when she seems to be absent herself wholly she is palpable. We often speak of detecting an author behind his characters. Miss Jewett never attempts to conceal herself, but is always in front of hers, describing, explaining, most visibly acting as their interpreter. And a very attractive picture it is too, I digress to say, which she thus quite unconsciously draws of herself, -- a dignified and sympathetic Lady Bountiful whose intercourse with her humble friends is marked by exquisite tact and unaffected respect for them as men and women. As Lady Bountiful is an aristocratic English conception, the comparison is, on second thought, more significant than I guessed when it occurred to me. For Miss Jewett says somewhere that the social conditions of New England, as she knew them when a child, were recognizably English, and it is certain that her own attitude toward country people is so. If one thinks a moment, he will perceive that her closest literary analogue is Miss Jane Barlow, who, although Irish, is as good for the present purpose as an Englishwoman. Miss Barlow's attitude is distinctly that of a lady writing of a beloved peasantry. It is a charming attitude, against which I do not share the resentment that I once heard a self-educated Irish peasant express, and Miss Jewett's is strikingly similar. For example, a passage which might have come straight from an English story is her description of John Grant, an honest farmer, who appears in "A Village Shop." He had, it seems, "great respect for the Grants, and looked upon them as people who never need be ashamed of themselves or their forefathers in any company, being people who paid their debts and did their duty in the place to which it had pleased God to call them." And it is worth noticing also that John Grant, of whom Miss Jewett thoroughly approves, orders himself to the Jaffreys [Jeffries], the gentlefolk of the story, although they have fallen on evil days, as lowly and reverently as to all his betters. However much one may wish that the beautiful spirit instilled by the most aristocratic of churches were more prevalent in these rebellious days, the teaching must be admitted to be that of an aristocracy. Another evidence of conservative feeling is the fact that, although Miss Jewett is full of pity for individual hardship, her work may be searched in vain for any expression of discontent with the social order. It all indicates, I think, that she would address a rural audience with less acceptance than a more democratic author who could speak of rich and cultivated people from the popular point of view.
However that may be, I think that no one can read her book and remain unaware that the audience which she seeks, quite naturally and unconsciously, is made of the people of her own social and intellectual class. I have a theory that a study of an author's metaphors, similes, and illustrative instances, since their use, when they are not mere decoration, is to make a meaning vividly plain, will surely reveal what people he is especially addressing. I have noted two in The Tory Lover. In describing Major Tilly Haggens she says that he had "a tall, heavily made person, clumsily built, but not without a certain elegance like an old bottle of Burgundy." In describing the minister, she speaks of the buckles which fastened his stock behind, of the buckles on his tight knee-breeches, and of other buckles large and flat on his square-toed shoes, and declares with great aptness that he looked like "a serious book with clasps." If it is objected that these examples are from a story frankly addressed to the class in question, take two others from stories to which the objection does not apply. In "A Native of Winby" Miss Jewett describes the pupils of a country school. "Only one or two of them," she says, "had an awakened human look in their eyes, such as Matthew Arnold delighted himself in finding so often in the school-children of France." In "An Only Son" she says humorously of the selectmen of Dalton that for dignity they would not have "looked out of place in that stately company which Carpaccio has painted in the Reception to the English Ambassadors." I am doubtless wrong, but I think that neither of these allusions would be wholly clear to some people who would resent being classed as uncultivated. In urging this argument, I do not forget that her stories abound in illustrations like that, for example, which declares it as useless to expect that some persons will be thrifty as to expect that a black-and-white cat will be a good mouser. Not to mention that the reason which so limits the powers of a black-and-white cat is carefully explained in the text (which need not be done for the rural reader), the appeal in this as in other such cases is made to the love of the quaint in sophisticated people. But the audience chosen by Miss Jewett may be determined, better than by this perhaps doubtful test, by the whole tenor of her work (which, however, is not so easy of citation), in which the attitude is always felt to be that of an observer de haut en bas. No attentive reader, I think, can escape the conclusion that she has always written as a "summer visitor" for "summer people." Besides providing a great deal of entertainment she has undoubtedly done in that particular field no small amount of good.
Miss Jewett's character, and her purpose, which, of course, is an expression of her character, may be reasonably regarded as having also influenced, more perhaps than she knows, her choice of material. A woman of refined tastes, she naturally feels strongly the usual feminine distaste for crude tragedy and sordid detail. A writer anxious to win respect and liking for a special class in the community, she naturally chooses for emphasis the scenes in which it appears to the best advantage. There must, of course, be shade as well as light in the picture, but the reader is made to feel that if any of her people are hardhearted and selfish, -- they are seldom worse than that, -- they are to be pitied as victims of hard conditions rather than blamed. The king of Folly Island, for example, does not know that he is selfish. Accordingly, what she oftenest shows us is thrift, neighborly kindness, cheeriness, and shrewd humor in the face of joyless surroundings, patient endurance, and unselfish abnegation. Yet she knows, of course, that there is another side. In her novel, A Country Doctor, she makes Dr. Ferris declare: "I tell you, Leslie, that for intense, self-centred, smouldering volcanoes of humanity, New England cannot be matched the world over. It's like the regions in Iceland that are full of geysers." Yet A Country Doctor is a striking example of her tendency to shun the geyser in action. It begins where most novels would end. There is a whole novel, and to most minds a highly interesting one, in the tragedy which left the child, who becomes the heroine of the story, to be adopted by Dr. Leslie. But what the reader is actually given is the simple, idyllic chronicle of the life of a little girl who chooses to become a physician rather than a wife. A less obvious, but still a good example is supplied in Miss Jewett's second novel, A Marsh Island. Slight in plot, sentimental in atmosphere, it concerns a young artist who nearly falls in love with a farmer's daughter. Plainly, the least push would send this situation across its neat boundaries into the region of poignant tragedy; but Miss Jewett is careful to stay her hand. The story remains merely pretty, if with a charming Dresden-china-like prettiness.
A long idyl, unfortunately, defeats its own ends by becoming cloying, at least to those who are past their youthful love of sweets. Miss Jewett seems to have realized that the novel was not the form in which to present the good and beautiful things of which alone she cared to tell her readers, since not for nearly twenty years did she attempt another long tale. This -- it may as well be treated here -- was The Tory Lover. In it she reverts to a figure which, as I have already noted, had long ago touched and quickened her imagination, "the waspish little man" John Paul Jones. Reverting also to those traditions of aristocratic Berwick which are so dear to her, she writes, as is natural, with enthusiasm. The book has admirable passages and pictures. I have a vivid memory of the description of Berwick, of the account of Miss Hamilton's voyage to England, of the admirable sketch of Franklin in France. It has a scholar's accuracy in the historical portions, and a continuous charm of style of which the catch-penny purveyor of so-called historical fiction has no clear conception. But the title, The Tory Lover, aroused in our well-tutored public the hope of a swashing romance of the cloak and sword. Readers avid of melodrama missed the rush of incident and the recurrent shock of surprise peculiar to such compositions, and would not be put off with mere honest writing. Had it been remembered that authors, after years of work in a certain form, cannot change their literary methods in a day, and had the book been read with the reasonable expectation of finding it written, not by Dumas, but by Miss Jewett, there would have been much more pleasure taken in this somewhat slowly moving, scholarly romance.
But this is a digression: the point to be made is that the novel is not the form for one who has neither love of action for its own sake, nor any enjoyment even dramatic in the sharp, bitter struggles of life. For the exhibitor of modest and retiring virtue, "what to other eyes is unflavored dullness," the short story -- alas, simply because it is short -- is distinctly preferable. A single note must not be sounded long. Moreover, since modest virtue is a matter of character, the sketch is preferable to the short story for its display. Incident, if of an elaborate sort, not only occupies the space required to draw character properly, but, in the case of quiet country life, introduces an element of improbability. Had Miss Jewett employed strong incident with any lavishness, her account of sturdy, commonplace, virtuous New England, although it might well have been correct in detail, would, in the mass, have taken a distorted aspect of strenuous liveliness which it is far from possessing. A proper proportion of stories of the two sorts would have produced the true picture. Conscious or unconscious perception of her limitations led Miss Jewett, I think, so generally either to cast her writings in the form of the sketch, or at least to reduce incident to a minimum of importance. It certainly was not lack of ability to write the story of plot. Those trig social comedies, "Tom's Husband" and "Mr. Bruce," "A Business Man" and "The Two Browns" show sufficiently that, had she cared to have it so, short stories of a French perfection of form might have flowed continuously from her pen. But the story of construction, not being pertinent to her mission as a writer, is scarce. On the other hand, the rural sketch, being exactly suited to her talents and her purpose, is plentiful.
It was not, however, until 1886, when she was thirty-seven years old, that a book appeared which showed unmistakably that she had reached full artistic maturity. The volumes which appeared between 1877, the date of Deephaven, and 1886, the date of A White Heron, all reveal some uncertainty of touch. Though all are readable, though all have charm and value, some, like Deephaven itself, are immature, some, like A Country Doctor and AMarsh Island, are experiments, and some of the volumes of short stories sound, if one listens carefully, as if the author were striking this note or that with the timidity of a performer not quite sure either of herself or of what tone she likes the best. These were the years in which she tested herself, thought out her problem, matured in mind and character, became master of a ripened art. Proof of how thoroughly this was accomplished lies in A White Heron, for the book contains two masterpieces, -- I use the word both in its old sense and in its new, -- the title story, namely, and "The Dulham Ladies." I do not know what bird this white heron may be which comes so far north, and does not nest with others of its kind in a heronry, but neither do I care; it may be a fact or a fancy, an ideal or a symbol, anything or nothing as you please; for this is one of those exquisitely simple stories into which we are tempted to read all manner of elusive meanings, so prone are we to believe that neither fiction nor poetry can be meant to be as simple as it sounds. It is a haunting thing which becomes a part of your mind and heart, and which, chameleon-like, takes on the color of your mood. And "The Dulham Ladies" -- what is that? -- an account of two old women going to buy false hair! Yet the humor and pathos of decaying gentility were never more tenderly or more unerringly revealed. After eighteen years, the humor is as delicately refreshing as ever, the pathos quite as profound; and it seems impossible that the story should ever lose its savor. In each of the books that came thereafter, there is one story, or perhaps there are more, which, although they were perhaps less remarked because more expected, reached the same high level. "Miss Tempy's Watchers," "Going to Shrewsbury," "A Native of Winby," "The Flight of Betsy Lane," "The Passing of Sister Barsett," "The Hiltons' Holiday," "The Courting of Sister Wisby," "Law Lane," -- these are to me peculiarly delightful memories. And Miss Jewett crowned the list with a book perfect in its kind, a masterpiece made up of masterpieces, the wholly satisfying Country of the Pointed Firs. It cannot, I think, fail to become a classic: it certainly marks the floodtide of her achievement. Unfortunately, the work overflows its covers, and the first and second stories of her next volume, "The Queen's Twin," -- the title story, and "A Dunnet Shepherdess," stories which I hope I am not alone in liking best of all her writings, -- are integral parts of the preceding volume and should be included in it. In these later volumes, Miss Jewett has incidentally completed her picture of the New England of her acquaintance with stories which, like "Little French Mary" and "The Luck of the Bogans," add to the familiar Yankee the hardly less familiar Irishman and French Canadian.
So far as she goes, she tells the absolute truth about New England. There are sides of New England life from which, as a gentlewoman, she shrinks, and which, as an advocate, she finds no pleasure in relating. As an interpreter of the best in New England country character she leaves in shadow and unemphasized certain aspects of the life which she does describe. Hers is an idyllic picture, such as a good woman is apt to find life reflecting to her. Almost all of her characters would merit the Montyon prize for virtue, had we such a thing in America. I always think of her as of one who, hearing New England accused of being a bleak land without beauty, passes confidently over the snow, and by the gray rock, and past the dark fir tree, to a southern bank, and there, brushing away the decayed leaves, triumphantly shows to the fault-finder a spray of the trailing arbutus. And I should like, for my own part, to add this: that the fragrant, retiring, exquisite flower, which I think she should say is the symbol of New England virtue, is the symbol of her own modest and delightful art.
Reprinted from Atlantic Monthly, 94 (October 1904), 485-497. It was reprinted in Richard Cary, Appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett (1973).
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.
The Jewett Journal