Some Literary Straws
By far the most popular novel of the London season of 1894 was “The Manxman,” by Mr. Hall Caine. Its sale is said to have reached a fabulous number of thousands of copies, and the testimony of the public press and the circulating library is unanimous as to the supremacy of its vogue. In the United States the favourite book of the year was Mr. George Du Maurier’s “Trilby.” To the practical and prosaic evidence of the eager purchase of half a million copies we have to add the more romantic homage of the new Western towns (Trilbyville!) and patent bug exterminators named after the heroine. It may, possibly, be worth while examining the predominant qualities of the two books with a view to ascertain what light their similarities and differences may throw upon the respective literary tastes of the Englishman and the American.
There has, I believe, been no important critical denial of the right of “The Manxman” to rank as a “strong” book. The plot is drawn with consummate skill—not in the sense of a Gaborian-like unravelment of mystery, but in its organic, natural, inevitable development, and in the abiding interest of its evolution. The details are worked in with the most scrupulous care. Rarely, in modern fiction, have certain elemental features of the human being been displayed with more determination and pathos.
The central motif of the story—the corrosion of a predominantly righteous soul by a repented but hidden sin culminating in an overwhelming necessity of confession—is so powerfully presented to us that we forget all question of originality until our memory of the fascinating pages has cooled down. Then we may recall the resemblance of theme in the recent novel entitled “The Silence of Dean Maitland,” while we find the prototype of both these books in “The Scarlet Letter” of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who has handled the problem with a subtlety and haunting weirdness to which neither of the English works can lay any claim. As our first interest in the story farther cools, it may occur to us that the very perfection of plot in “The Manxman” gives it the effect of a “set piece;” its association with Mr. Wilson Barrett and the boards seems foreordained. It may seem to us that there is a little forcing of the pathos, that a certain artificiality pervades the scene. In a word, we may set down “The Manxman” as melodrama—melodrama at its best, but still melodrama. Its effects are vivid, positive, sensational; its analysis of character is keen, but hardly subtle; it appeals to the British public’s love of the obvious, the full-blooded, the thorough-going; it runs on well-tried lines; it is admirable, but it is not new.