April Hopes – William Dean Howells
Mr. Howells shows a light and exquisite touch in “April Hopes,” a novel, it is safe to say, in which all his finer qualities are seen at their best. The sweetness of it is perhaps a trifle cloying now and then to robust palates, but the story is for all the world like a spring day where showers and sunshine grace fully intermingle. Story, we say, while in reality there is no story at all, in accordance with Mr. Howells’ views of the lack of stories in “real” life. Only an account of how two young things fell in love with one another and quarreled and made up, and quarreled again, and made up again, and broke off the engagement once more, and finally made up for good and got married. But how charmingly the affair is put before us-all the foolish, silly, entrancing details are there, and never does the author exceed the limits of probability or the canons of good taste. It is like a pretty play, for the narrative in the book is a poor pennyworth of bread to an infinite deal of sack in shape of bright and sparkling dialogue. We sit and watch Dan and Alice at their love meetings and their love quarrels, hear them exchange their bits of romantic nonsense, see them go through their little deceits and flights of tragedy and playings at broken hearts, and listen while they utter protestations of undying affection and vows of unwavering faith. It is all very pretty very dainty, very touching, and everyone who assists at the performance must feel that here at any rate is a bit of reality-softened, indeed, and modified somewhat by the essentially idealistic temperament of the author, who finds it hard not to give a Watteau-like grace to all his fond imaginings- yet sufficiently “real” to chime in with the actual or fancied experiences common to the majority of commonplace humanity. The doctrine of elective affinities has no place in the world of ‘April Hopes.’ “Girlhood”, in the author’s view, “is often a turmoil of wild impulses, ignorant exaltations, mistaken ideals, which really represent no intelligent purpose, and come from disordered nerves, ill-advised reading, and the erroneous perspective of inexperience.” When two creatures thus constituted indulge in the frantic effort of trying to reconcile their ideals the comedy and tragedy of courtship begin, for as Mr. Howells says once more, “the difficulty in life is to bring experience to the level of expectation, to match our real emotions in view of any great occasion with the ideal emotions which we have taught ourselves that we ought to feel.”
Excerpt from the text:
From his place on the floor of the Hemenway Gymnasium Mr. Elbridge G. Mavering looked on at the Class Day gaiety with the advantage which his stature, gave him over most people there. Hundreds of these were pretty girls, in a great variety of charming costumes, such as the eclecticism of modern fashion permits, and all sorts of ingenious compromises between walking dress and ball dress. It struck him that the young men on whose arms they hung, in promenading around the long oval within the crowd of stationary spectators, were very much younger than students used to be, whether they wore the dress-coats of the Seniors or the cut-away of the Juniors and Sophomores; and the young girls themselves did not look so old as he remembered them in his day. There was a band playing somewhere, and the galleries were well filled with spectators seated at their ease, and intent on the party-coloured turmoil of the floor, where from time to time the younger promenaders broke away from the ranks into a waltz, and after some turns drifted back, smiling and controlling their quick breath, and resumed their promenade. The place was intensely light, in the candour of a summer day which had no reserves; and the brilliancy was not broken by the simple decorations. Ropes of wild laurel twisted up the pine posts of the aisles, and swung in festoons overhead; masses of tropical plants in pots were set along between the posts on one side of the room; and on the other were the lunch tables, where a great many people were standing about, eating chicken and salmon salads, or strawberries and ice-cream, and drinking claret-cup. From the whole rose that blended odour of viands, of flowers, of stuff’s, of toilet perfumes, which is the characteristic expression of, all social festivities, and which exhilarates or depresses—according as one is new or old to it.
Elbridge Mavering kept looking at the faces of the young men as if he expected to see a certain one; then he turned his eyes patiently upon. the faces around him. He had been introduced to a good many persons, but he had come to that time of life when an introduction; unless charged with some special interest, only adds the pain of doubt to the wearisome encounter of unfamiliar people; and he had unconsciously put on the severity of a man who finds himself without acquaintance where others are meeting friends, when a small man, with a neatly trimmed reddish-grey beard and prominent eyes, stepped in front of him, and saluted him with the “Hello, Mavering!” of a contemporary.
His face, after a moment of question, relaxed into joyful recognition. “Why, John Munt! is that you?” he said, and he took into his large moist palm the dry little hand of his friend, while they both broke out into the incoherencies of people meeting after a long time. Mr. Mavering spoke in it voice soft yet firm, and with a certain thickness of tongue; which gave a boyish charm to his slow, utterance, and Mr. Munt used the sort of bronchial snuffle sometimes cultivated among us as a chest tone. But they were cut short in their intersecting questions and exclamations by the presence of the lady who detached herself from Mr. Munt’s arm as if to leave him the freer for his hand-shaking.
“Oh!” he said, suddenly recurring to her; “let me introduce you to Mrs. Pasmer, Mr. Mavering,” and the latter made a bow that creased his waistcoat at about the height of Mrs. Pasmer’s pretty little nose.
His waistcoat had the curve which waistcoats often describe at his age; and his heavy shoulders were thrown well back to balance this curve. His coat hung carelessly open; the Panama hat in his hand suggested a certain habitual informality of dress, but his smoothly shaven large handsome face, with its jaws slowly ruminant upon nothing, intimated the consequence of a man accustomed to supremacy in a subordinate place.
Mrs. Pasmer looked up to acknowledge the introduction with a sort of pseudo-respectfulness which it would be hard otherwise to describe. Whether she divined or not that she was in the presence of a magnate of some sort, she was rather superfluously demure in the first two or three things she said, and was all sympathy and interest in the meeting of these old friends. They declared that they had not seen each other for twenty years, or, at any rate, not since ’59. She listened while they disputed about the exact date, and looked from time to time at Mr. Munt, as if for some explanation of Mr. Mavering; but Munt himself, when she saw him last, had only just begun to commend himself to society, which had since so fully accepted him, and she had so suddenly, the moment before, found her self hand in glove with him that she might well have appealed to a third person for some explanation of Munt. But she was not a woman to be troubled much by this momentary mystification, and she was not embarrassed at all when Munt said, as if it had all been pre-arranged, “Well, now, Mrs. Pasmer, if you’ll let me leave you with Mr. Mavering a moment, I’ll go off and bring that unnatural child to you; no use dragging you round through this crowd longer.”
He made a gesture intended, in the American manner, to be at once polite and jocose, and was gone, leaving Mrs. Pasmer a little surprised, and Mr. Mavering in some misgiving, which he tried to overcome pressing his jaws together two or three times without speaking. She had no trouble in getting in the first remark. “Isn’t all this charming, Mr. Mavering?” She spoke in a deep low voice, with a caressing manner, and stood looking up, at Mr. Mavering with one shoulder shrugged and the other drooped, and a tasteful composition of her fan and hands and handkerchief at her waist.
“Yes, ma’am, it is,” said Mr. Mavering. He seemed to say ma’am to her with a public or official accent, which sent Mrs. Primer’s mind fluttering forth to poise briefly at such conjectures as, “Congressman from a country district? judge of the Common Pleas? bank president? railroad superintendent? leading physician in a large town?—no, Mr. Munt said Mister,” and then to return to her pretty blue eyes, and to centre there in that pseudo-respectful attention under the arch of her neat brows and her soberly crinkled grey-threaded brown hair and her very appropriate bonnet. A bonnet, she said, was much more than half the battle after forty, and it was now quite after forty with Mrs. Pasmer; but she was very well dressed otherwise. Mr. Mavering went on to say, with a deliberation that seemed an element of his unknown dignity, whatever it might be, “A number of the young fellows together can give a much finer spread, and make more of the day, in a place like this, than we used to do in our rooms.”
“Ah, then you’re a Harvard man too!” said Mrs. Primer to herself, with surprise, which she kept to herself, and she said to Mavering: “Oh yes, indeed! It’s altogether better. Aren’t they nice looking fellows?” she said, putting up her glass to look at the promenaders.
“Yes,” Mr. Mavering assented. “I suppose,” he added, out of the consciousness of his own relation to the affair—“I suppose you’ve a son somewhere here?”
“Oh dear, no!” cried Mrs. Primer, with a mingling, superhuman, but for her of ironical deprecation and derision. “Only a daughter, Mr. Mavering.”
At this feat of Mrs. Pasmer’s, Mr. Mavering looked at her with question as to her precise intention, and ended by repeating, hopelessly, “Only a daughter?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Pasmer, with a sigh of the same irony, “only a poor, despised young girl, Mr. Mavering.”
“You speak,” said Mr. Mavering, beginning to catch on a little, “as if it were a misfortune,” and his, dignity broke up into a smile that had its queer fascination.
“Why, isn’t it?” asked Mrs. Pasmer.
“Well, I shouldn’t have thought so.”
“Then you don’t believe that all that old-fashioned chivalry and devotion have gone out? You don’t think the young men are all spoiled nowadays, and expect the young ladies to offer them attentions?”
“No,” said Mr. Mavering slowly, as if recovering from the shock of the novel ideas. “Do you?”
“Oh, I’m such a stranger in Boston—I’ve lived abroad so long—that I don’t know. One hears all kinds of things. But I’m so glad you’re not one of those—pessimists!”
“Well,” said Mr. Mavering, still thoughtfully, “I don’t know that I can speak by the card exactly. I can’t say how it is now. I haven’t been at a Class Day spread since my own Class Day; I haven’t even been at Commencement more than once or twice. But in my time here we didn’t expect the young ladies to show us attentions; at any rate, we didn’t wait for them to do it. We were very glad, to be asked to meet them, and we thought it an honour if the young ladies would let us talk or dance with them, or take them to picnics. I don’t think that any of them could complain of want of attention.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Pasmer, “that’s what I preached, that’s what I prophesied, when I brought my daughter home from Europe. I told her that a girl’s life in America was one long triumph; but they say now that girls have more attention in London even than in Cambridge. One hears such dreadful things!”
“Like what?” asked Mr. Mavering, with the unserious interest which Mrs. Primer made most people feel in her talk.
“Oh; it’s too vast a subject. But they tell you about charming girls moping the whole evening through at Boston parties, with no young men to talk with, and sitting from the beginning to the end of an assembly and not going on the floor once. They say that unless a girl fairly throws herself at the young men’s heads she isn’t noticed. It’s this terrible disproportion of the sexes that’s at the root of it, I suppose; it reverses everything. There aren’t enough young men to go half round, and they know it, and take advantage of it. I suppose it began in the war.”
He laughed, and, “I should think,” he said, laying hold of a single idea out of several which she had presented, “that there would always be enough young men in Cambridge to go round.”
Mrs. Pasmer gave a little cry. “In Cambridge!”
“Yes; when I was in college our superiority was entirely numerical.”
“But that’s all passed long ago, from what I hear,” retorted Mrs. Pasmer. “I know very well that it used to be thought a great advantage for a girl to be brought up in Cambridge, because it gave her independence and ease of manner to have so many young men attentive to her. But they say the students all go into Boston now, and if the Cambridge girls want to meet them, they have to go there too. Oh, I assure you that, from what I hear, they’ve changed all that since our time, Mr. Mavering.”
Mrs. Pasmer was certainly letting herself go a little more than she would have approved of in another. The result was apparent in the jocosity of this heavy Mr. Mavering’s reply.
“Well, then, I’m glad that I was of our time, and not of this wicked generation. But I presume that unnatural supremacy of the young men is brought low, so to speak, after marriage?”
Mrs. Primer let herself go a little further. “Oh, give us an equal chance,” she laughed, “and we can always take care of ourselves, and something more. They say,” she added, “that the young married women now have all the attention that girls could wish.”
“H’m!” said Mr. Mavering, frowning. “I think I should be tempted to box my boy’s ears if I saw him paying another man’s wife attention.”