Page images

nor, again, to those instances in which some special information, buried in the bosom of the dead, has been imparted, in sleep, to the living. * In maintaining the affirmative side of the vexed question concerning supernatural experiences, Mrs. Crowe occupies a foremost place among modern agitators.

Nor can she be accused, as many of the latter, not always unjustly, are, of deficiency in shrewdness, sagacity, and hard common sense. These qualities are as characteristic of her style of mind as is a love for the marvellous.

Her acute faculty of observation, and cool-headed tact in eliminating a mystery through devious mazes, are seen in her frequent and favourite tales of circumstantial evidence. Give her a case of that kind, as one of her reviewers has said, and she will draw out every scrap of it so cunningly that, during the progress of the story, you will fix the guilt on half a dozen individuals in succession ; nor is it always, apparently, quite clear to Mrs. Crowe herself who is the real delinquent, until she is compelled to decide the question towards the close of the third volume.t There is, nevertheless, room in her constructions for an ingenuity of design and arrangement which shall be more artful, or rather artistic, and less artificial, and which shall have the ars celare artem.

About a dozen years since, a great "hit" was made at the circulating libraries by the production of “ Susan Hopley," with the fascinating alias of “ Circumstantial Evidence.” On a work so widely read, there is little for us to remark, at this time of day. Undoubtedly it was read and commended up to the pitch of its deserts, and perhaps a little beyond. It was just the book for ordinary habitués of the Temple of Novel-ty-not å whit beyond their comprehension or reflective powersdemanding no pause on their part to mark as well as read, or inwardly digest as well as swallow; and at the same time cramming them with incident, scheming and cross-scheming, ravelling and unravelling, plot and counterplot, to the very top of their bent. A huge favourite was Susan with provincial matrons, who daily scan the lights and shadows of human nature in its avatars at the police-courts and assizes. Her adventures were as good as a twelve-columned murder case, with the speeches by Bodkin and Ballantyne, and the cross-examination by Serjeant Wilkins into the bargain. The imbroglio of confusion worse confounded, yet so sure to be agreeably dispersed and cleared up, was delightful matter for those whom it concerned. The perplexity was not, however, managed with consummate art; for too much light was cast upon the process—the wires of the machinery were slightly hid, and creaked in undue tell-tale fashion ; you were not kept in suspense as to the issue ; you felt, in a degree calculated to injure a work of fiction, that when things were getting to be at the worst, they would inevitably mend, and that it was a law of the work that the darkest hour should be the immediate precursor of sunrise. Mrs. Crowe's next story,

* Southey writes: “I never fear to avow my belief that warnings from the other world are sometimes communicated to us in this ; and that, absurd as the stories of apparitions generally are, they are not always false, but that the spirits of the dead have sometimes been permitted to appear.” He adds, to his correspondent: "Perhaps you will not despise this as a mere superstition when I say that Kant, the profoundest thinker of modern ages, came, by the severest reasoning, to the same conclusion.”

Westminster Review.

2 G

6 Men

and Women ; or, Manorial Rights,” showed a similar wealth of invention in melodramatic action, and a similar defect of skill in the apparatus for the evolution of its plot. Circumstantial evidence was again the pivot of its progress; but that Groves, the Courvoisier of the tale, should never have been suspected, while so many respectable people were, puzzled such readers as saw from the first “how the land lay"

“Lilly Dawson” belongs to the same "excitement" school. In construction, it showed no advance of tact upon its predecessors. But its tone was, on the whole, more healthy, its observation of life more keen and probing, and its array of characters more true to both nature and art. Nowhere, probably, has Mrs. Crowe wrought up scenes of terror with more grisly effect than in this romance -for example, Lilly's unobserved presence amid the smugglers who bring home the corpse and its repetition in the case of the murder of Charlotte Littenhaus by her brother Luke. But then, again, she has nowhere, probably, evidenced such care and mastery in the development of character and the by-ways of the human heart. The gradational transition of Lilly from a state of dense, crass, impenetrable obtuseness, and the adjustment of the means necessary to this revolution, are effected with remarkable talent, and testify to the author's acquaintance with psychology, and, we may add, to her ability to sustain a loftier part than has usually been her choice in fiction-even had we not the instance of her neglected, but meritorious play, “ Aristodemus,” to give confirmatory witness on this point. How Lilly's heart awoke her intellect-how a few days of sunshine swelled the bud that had been nipped by bitter east windshow kindness made her begin to feel, and feeling induced thought-how a sudden impulse of affection unfolded to her some faint ideas of what human life was, or should be, and of how the world was held together--and how the vibration of a chord thus struck, by exciting her love, awakened dormant faculties of keen vitality and large compass--this educational process is ably portrayed. There is consistent reality, too, about the character of May Elliott, kindly yet selfish, imposing and dashing—"a riddle far beyond Lilly's guessing, who is too happy in being permitted to adore May, and in believing nobody to be so clever, and wise, and good, and handsome—so great is the effect of her fashionable dress and fine ladyism. Old Abel White, again, interests us, with his fond memory of his dead and gone Matty, and his ready love for the humblest of God's creatures. Winny and Shorty manage the low comedy with tolerable success-Luke and Jacob Littenhaus are still better in the tragic business--and of the other actors, Philip Ryland and his mother, Giles and Martha Lintock, Colonel Adams, and Master Freddy, not one is a mere lay figure, or even marionette, but they all tread the stage with appropriate demeanour, and contribute to the nexus of the drama.

A veritable bonne bouche for epicures in supernaturalism is the “Nightside of Nature; or, Ghosts and Ghost-seers." Its bill of fare contains many a dainty dish to set before the king of terrors himself. Highly spiced entremets abound, and certain formidable and, to some constitutions, indigestible pièces de résistance. Spectres, wraiths, doubles, presentiments, and mesmerism in all its phases of faith, are served up ungrudgingly, and never under-done ; for the purveyor is au fuit in the mysteries of her art. Committing ourselves to her guidance, we enter darkling a region of

Substance and shadow, light and darkness, all
Commingled, making up a canopy.
Of shapes, and forms, and tendencies to shape,
That shift and vanish, change and interchange .
Strange co gation! yet not slow to meet

Eyes that perceive through minds that can inspire.*
Even if we hold that she makes too much of her materials, and that, like
Racine's Hebrew queen,

D'un vain songe peut-être elle fait trop de compte, there is yet no gainsaying the vraisemblance of her narrative art, or the contagious influence which it engenders. She almost compels you to feel, if not own, the strange awe of

spiritual presentiments, And such refraction of events

As often rises ere they rise.f She has been said to be enamoured of her revenants and restants, because they convey to her soul the dear assurance of a world to come -the purpose of this book being the conveyance of that grand conviction to other minds : she is eager for the investigation of any new facts, in how questionable a guise soever they may come, which may, perhaps, let in some more light upon the darkness which encompasses the mystery of life. Famous company would she have been for John Leyden, who, when he got upon this topic, used to rivet the attention of Scott and other beaux esprits, by “maintaining powerfully,” and “ with great learning,” the effete traditions of ghost-seeing, and the “exploded doctrines of demonology," and sometimes “affect to confirm the strange tales with which his memory abounded, by reference to the ghostly experiences of his childhood.” In him she would have hailed an M.D. "who, in spite of his diploma, would claim exemption from the stern-strictures she passes on scientific “critics and colleges” en masse, as systematically and most ignorantly putting down" every new discovery--mesmerism and clairvoyance, for instance—which

opposes the textus receptus of their inspired rule of faith, or which 6 promises to be troublesome from requiring new thought to render it intelligible.” Against these doctors throughout all the world Mrs. Crowe uplifts a ringing, protestant cry, as stiff-necked and dull-pated partisans, who, having declared against any new theory or discovery in the outset, find it "important to their petty interests that the thing shall not be true ; and they determine that it shall not if they can help it.” Her principle is--as expounded in another of her works--that on subjects connected with the invisible world, all à priori reasoning is perfectly worthless ; the possibility of the reappearance of the dead, for instancethat is, of their rendering their presence sensible to us, who are yet in the flesh, and whose gross organs are only calculated and designed to take cognisance of material objects--is a question that can be argued only by experience ; while this very experience, in all ages and countries, is, she contends, in favour of the fact ; and although allowing herself ignorant of the peculiar conditions under which “preternatural” recognitions take place, whether depending on the state of the seer or the seen, or the mutual rapport of both, she states her perfect satisfaction that such

* Wordsworth: “ Prelude.”

| Tennyson: “In Memoriam.”

occurrences are more frequent than is commonly imagined, and valiantly protests against that "human pride and scepticism, and a reaction from the

superstitions of a preceding age,” which caused them to be concealed or denied, or explained away. In her polemics in favour of mesmerism, she scarcely does her spiriting gently.

The collection of stories published under the name of " Light and Darkness," comprises specimens of Mrs. Crowe's manner in its all and sundry” varieties. There is more darkness, indeed, than light; more of grave than

gay; less of lively than severe. The book is beloved of those who relish a supper-full of horrors, and who find special entertainment in the simultaneous experience of the chimes of two in the morning (“not a mouse stirring," look you!), and the death-throes of a flickering lamp, and the alarms of a ghost-tale--all contributing to a shivering crisis of excitement, which sends the reader, with the perturbed gesture and dilated eyeball and stealthy tread of Queen Macbeth, “to bed—to bed —to bed!". Thus, "The Monk's Story” relates with dreary” circumstantiality the uncomfortable mania of a somnambule for roying about o'nights, and sticking decent people in their first sleep; “The Surgeon's Adventure” pleasantly sets forth the unpleasantries of Italian banditti, with their pastoral inns, and ragouts of the flesh stipulated for in Shylock's bond; “ The Lycanthropist,” or wolf-inan,

with success fully equal to his merits, the part of the vampire; “ The Bride's Journey," with its strange series of contretemps and narrow escapes ; and “The Priest of St. Quentin,” a romantic police report after the own heart of police report students. “ The Poisoners” furnish similar matter, calculated to be highly welcome to “The Society of Connoisseurs in Murder," who, as their natural history and unnatural tastes are expounded in the English Opium-eater's memorable Lecture, * profess to be curious in homicide ; amateurs and dilettanti in the various modes of bloodshed; and, in short, murder-fanciers, and who, whenever the police annals of Europe bring up a fresh atrocity of that class, meet and criticise it as they would a picture, statue, or other work of art. Then, again, Mrs. Crowe's knack in getting up a case of circumstantial evidence, and tangling a web of mystery, is displayed in such narratives as “The Accusation,” “Beggar and Burgomaster,” and “ The Tile-burner and his Family." Her revelations of social life are represented in "The Money-seekers,” and her comic vein, not very broad, or deep, or richly flowing, is traceable in the head-gear afflictions of “ The Two Miss Smiths." On the whole, the contents of these volumes read better in their original fugitive form, as magazine papers, than in the more imposing guise of guinea-and-a-half glorification. And, speaking for ourselves, we must own that these tales of terror did not cast over us such a spell as to elicit an unconditional assent and consent to their assumed right of reappearance in another form of revisiting thus the glimpses of the moon, in the hope of making night hideous, and a second edition pay.


* This Lecture is one of the cleverest and most characteristic of Mr. de Quincey's writings — replete with humorous irony, ingenious illustration, erudite gossip, and philosophic burlesque. The sustained gravity of the lecturer, and his keen zest in explaining a recondite beauty, are inimitably fine. To readers of this generation, lamentably unread in the periodical literature of five lustra since, we may be permitted to explain, that the jeu d'esprit in question expounds thé æsthetics of Murder-methodically ranging from Cain to Mr. Thurtell—from barbarian ages, when the art was little understood, and distressing bungling disgraced the profession, to the present age, when masterpieces of excellence have been executed, and when, to quote the Lecturer himself, “ people begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife-a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen,design,” continues this earnest and eloquent professor, “grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature. Mr. Williams has exalted the idea of Murder to all of us. Like Æschylus or Milton in poetry, like Michael Angelo in painting, he has carried his art to a point of colossal sublimity; and, as Mr. Wordsworth observes, has in a manner created the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.'” The “as Mr. Wordsworth observes,” is here delicious, all things considered, and must almost have ravished a smile from the poet himself. But to Wordsworth a sense of the ludicrous was as absolutely wanting, as the sense of smell.

Nor are we over well-affected towards Mrs. Crowe's last venture, “ The Adventures of a Beauty." If the invention of a labyrinthine plot is allin-all

, this novel is a triumph of high art; and as there are readers who decide in the affirmative, and who postpone all other qualities to that of intricately-woven story, it is sure of its section of the myriad-minded public. But if characterisation is of importance-if deep searchings of heart are in request-if the anatomising art of Hawthorne is desired, or Currer Bell's sounding of the soul's dark and heaving waters, or Thackeray's ironic cautery of conventional life,—then is this history of Agnes Grosvenor null and void. In this respect, it is a decline from Lilly Dawson.”

L'originalité des caractères a disparu, et c'est elle qui seule peut rendre une fiction vivante.” To this axiom, however, not all subscribers to circulating libraries will ex animo subscribe; some even have a notion, uttered or unexpressed, that the less une fiction has of philosophic character-delineation, the more vivante it necessarily is. 6. The Adventures of a Beauty" we have seen aptly compared to one of those puzzles in which you discover a number of rings shut up one within another; you cannot for the life of you tell how they got there, and are still more bewildered to know how they are to be got out again; but to Mrs. Crowe all this is perfectly easy. In her hands, “ the perplexities of a plot through which the tangled threads of circumstances overlay the humanity, and render moral truths subordinate to a machinery of intricate incidents, may not only be endured with complacency, but enjoyed as one enjoys the feats of a conjurer who can make a card fly out of the pack into a gentleman's pocket or a lady's reticule, and restore it into its proper place with a wave of his wand.” | Yet one is scarcely resigned to a result which classes the author of “ Aristodemus” with professors of the legerdemain of romance—though the seat assigned her be shared by the Houdins and Döblers of their craft. The Wizard of the North-we mean Scott, not “Professor Anderson"-would never have attained to that title of facile princeps, had he confined his orbit to going round about the caldron of magic such as this.

* Madame de Staël.

Westminster Review, April, 1852.

« PreviousContinue »