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- The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe - 50/82 -
a rule of life to be thoroughly tested for the doctor by his slave- trading parishioners? Is he not to learn the bitter difference between intellectual acceptance of a creed and that true partaking of the sacrament of love and faith and sorrow that makes Christ the very life-blood of our being and doing? And has not James Marvyn also his lesson to be taught? We foresee him drawn gradually back by Mary from his recoil against Puritan formalism to a perception of how every creed is pliant and plastic to a beautiful nature, of how much charm there may be in an hereditary faith, even if it have become almost conventional.
"In the materials of character already present in the story, there is scope for Mrs. Stowe's humor, pathos, clear moral sense, and quick eye for the scenery of life. We do not believe that there is any one who, by birth, breeding, and natural capacity, has had the opportunity to know New England so well as she, or who has the peculiar genius so to profit by the knowledge. Already there have been scenes in 'The Minister's Wooing' that, in their lowness of tone and quiet truth, contrast as charmingly with the humid vagueness of the modern school of novel-writers as 'The Vicar of Wakefield' itself, and we are greatly mistaken if it do not prove to be the most characteristic of Mrs. Stowe's works, and therefore that on which her fame will chiefly rest with posterity."
"The Minister's Wooing" was not completed as a serial till December, 1859. Long before its completion Mrs. Stowe received letters from many interested readers, who were as much concerned for the future of her "spiritual children," as George Eliot would call them, as if they had been flesh and blood.
The following letter from Mr. Lowell is given as the most valuable received by Mrs. Stowe at this time:--
CAMBRIDGE, February 4, 1859.
MY DEAR MRS. STOWE,--I certainly did mean to write you about your story, but only to cry _bravissima!_ with the rest of the world. I intended no kind of criticism; deeming it wholly out of place, and in the nature of a wet-blanket, so long as a story is unfinished. When I got the first number in MS., I said to Mr. Phillips that I thought it would be the best thing you had done, and what followed has only confirmed my first judgment. From long habit, and from the tendency of my studies, I cannot help looking at things purely from an ęsthetic point of view, and what _I_ valued in "Uncle Tom" was the genius, and not the moral. That is saying a good deal, for I never use the word _genius_ at haphazard, and always (perhaps, too) sparingly. I am going to be as frank as I ought to be with one whom I value so highly. What especially charmed me in the new story was, that you had taken your stand on New England ground. You are one of the few persons lucky enough to be born with eyes in your head,--that is, with something behind the eyes which makes them of value. To most people the seeing apparatus is as useless as the great telescope at the observatory is to me,--something to stare through with no intelligent result. Nothing could be better than the conception of your plot (so far as I divine it), and the painting-in of your figures. As for "theology," it is as much a part of daily life in New England as in Scotland, and all I should have to say about it is this: let it crop out when it naturally comes to the surface, only don't dig down to it. A moral aim is a fine thing, but in making a story an artist is a traitor who does not sacrifice everything to art. Remember the lesson that Christ gave us twice over. First, he preferred the useless Mary to the dish-washing Martha, and next, when that exemplary moralist and friend of humanity, Judas, objected to the sinful waste of the Magdalen's ointment, the great Teacher would rather it should be wasted in an act of simple beauty than utilized for the benefit of the poor. Cleopatra was an artist when she dissolved her biggest pearl to captivate her Antony-public. May I, a critic by profession, say the whole truth to a woman of genius? Yes? And never be forgiven? I shall try, and try to be forgiven, too. In the first place, pay no regard to the advice of anybody. In the second place, pay a great deal to mine! A Kilkenny-cattish style of advice? Not at all. My advice is to follow your own instincts,--to stick to nature, and to avoid what people commonly call the "Ideal;" for that, and beauty, and pathos, and success, all lie in the simply natural. We all preach it, from Wordsworth down, and we all, from Wordsworth down, don't practice it. Don't I feel it every day in this weary editorial mill of mine, that there are ten thousand people who can write "ideal" things for one who can see, and feel, and reproduce nature and character? Ten thousand, did I say? Nay, ten million. What made Shakespeare so great? Nothing but eyes and--faith in them. The same is true of Thackeray. I see nowhere more often than in authors the truth that men love their opposites. Dickens insists on being tragic and makes shipwreck.
I always thought (forgive me) that the Hebrew parts of "Dred" were a mistake. Do not think me impertinent; I am only honestly anxious that what I consider a very remarkable genius should have faith in itself. Let your moral take care of itself, and remember that an author's writing-desk is something infinitely higher than a pulpit. What I call "care of itself" is shown in that noble passage in the February number about the ladder up to heaven. That is grand preaching and in the right way. I am sure that "The Minister's Wooing" is going to be the best of your products hitherto, and I am sure of it because you show so thorough a mastery of your material, so true a perception of realities, without which the ideality is impossible.
As for "orthodoxy," be at ease. Whatever is well done the world finds orthodox at last, in spite of all the Fakir journals, whose only notion of orthodoxy seems to be the power of standing in one position till you lose all the use of your limbs. If, with your heart and brain, _you_ are not orthodox, in Heaven's name who is? If you mean "Calvinistic," no woman could ever be such, for Calvinism is logic, and no woman worth the name could ever live by syllogisms. Woman charms a higher faculty in us than reason, God be praised, and nothing has delighted me more in your new story than the happy instinct with which you develop this incapacity of the lovers' logic in your female characters. Go on just as you have begun, and make it appear in as many ways as you like,--that, whatever creed may be true, it is _not_ true and never will be that man can be saved by machinery. I can speak with some chance of being right, for I confess a strong sympathy with many parts of Calvinistic theology, and, for one thing, believe in hell with all my might, and in the goodness of God for all that.
I have not said anything. What could I say? One might almost as well advise a mother about the child she still bears under her heart, and say, give it these and those qualities, as an author about a work yet in the brain.
Only this I will say, that I am honestly delighted with "The Minister's Wooing;" that reading it has been one of my few editorial pleasures; that no one appreciates your genius more highly than I, or hopes more fervently that you will let yourself go without regard to this, that, or t'other. Don't read any criticisms on your story: believe that you know better than any of us, and be sure that everybody likes it. That I know. There is not, and never was, anybody so competent to write a true New England poem as yourself, and have no doubt that you are doing it. The native sod sends up the best inspiration to the brain, and you are as sure of immortality as we all are of dying,--if you only go on with entire faith in yourself.
Faithfully and admiringly yours,
J. K. LOWELL.
After the book was published in England, Mr. Buskin wrote to Mrs. Stowe:--
"Well, I have read the book now, and I think nothing can be nobler than the noble parts of it (Mary's great speech to Colonel Burr, for instance), nothing wiser than the wise parts of it (the author's parenthetical and under-breath remarks), nothing more delightful than the delightful parts (all that Virginie says and does), nothing more edged than the edged parts (Candace's sayings and doings, to wit); but I do not like the plan of the whole, because the simplicity of the minister seems to diminish the probability of Mary's reverence for him. I cannot fancy even so good a girl who would not have laughed at him. Nor can I fancy a man of real intellect reaching such a period of life without understanding his own feelings better, or penetrating those of another more quickly.
"Then I am provoked at nothing happening to Mrs. Scudder, whom I think as entirely unendurable a creature as ever defied poetical justice at the end of a novel meant to irritate people. And finally, I think you are too disdainful of what ordinary readers seek in a novel, under the name of 'interest,'--that gradually developing wonder, expectation, and curiosity which makes people who have no self-command sit up till three in the morning to get to the crisis, and people who have self- command lay the book down with a resolute sigh, and think of it all the next day through till the time comes for taking it up again. Still, I know well that in many respects it was impossible for you to treat this story merely as a work of literary art. There must have been many facts which you could not dwell upon, and which no one may judge by common rules.
"It is also true, as you say once or twice in the course of the work, that we have not among us here the peculiar religious earnestness you have mainly to describe.
"We have little earnest formalism, and our formalists are for the most part hollow, feeble, uninteresting, mere stumbling-blocks. We have the Simeon Brown species, indeed; and among readers even of his kind the book may do some good, and more among the weaker, truer people, whom it will shake like mattresses,--making the dust fly, and perhaps with it some of the sticks and quill-ends, which often make that kind of person an objectionable mattress. I write too lightly of the book,-- far too lightly,--but your letter made me gay, and I have been lighter-hearted ever since; only I kept this after beginning it, because I was ashamed to send it without a line to Mrs. Browning as well. I do not understand why you should apprehend (or rather anticipate without apprehension) any absurd criticism on it. It is sure to be a popular book,--not as 'Uncle Tom' was, for that owed part of its popularity to its dramatic effect (the flight on the ice, etc.), which I did not like; but as a true picture of human life is always popular. Nor, I should think, would any critics venture at all to carp at it.
"The Candace and Virginie bits appear to me, as far as I have yet seen, the best. I am very glad there is this nice French lady in it: the French are the least appreciated in general, of all nations, by other nations. . . . My father says the book is worth its weight in gold, and he knows good work."
When we turn from these criticisms and commendations to the inner history of this period, we find that the work was done in deep sadness of heart, and the undertone of pathos that forms the dark background of the brightest and most humorous parts of "The Minister's Wooing" was the unconscious revelation of one of sorrowful spirit, who, weary of life, would have been glad to lie down with her arms "round the wayside cross, and sleep away into a brighter scene."
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