Heroines Of Fiction – William Dean Howells
The numerous class of novel readers who for a lifetime have wandered through the fields of fiction, not premeditatedly seeking mental or moral improvement, but with a mind chiefly on “pleasure bent,” have a treat in store in ‘Heroines of Fiction.’ Mr. Howells does not write of his own heroines of fiction – it is the creations of the English and American novelists of times long ago who have filled an imaginative world with a galaxy of feminine loveliness and charm that he considers. The dear old friends of fiction who have become as real to us, in name and appearance, as if we and they had lived side by side in the passing years. Mr. Howells presents them to us again, recalling many endearing traits and captivating graces-looking at them also from the literary standpoint and their special relation to the story to which they belong. Mr. Howells has his favorites among novel writers, and he frankly avows his likings. Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James he places on a high pedestal far above their contemporaries. Second only to these is the place he awards to Thomas Hardy and Mrs. Humphry Ward. Beginning with Richardson’s “Clarissa Harlowe,” he gives us loving and graceful sketches often set in a dramatic scene from the novel under discussion of the heroines of Dickens, Scott, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Reade, and many others.
Heroines Of Fiction.
Excerpt from the text:
THE author and the heroine of “Evelina” can never be quite separable in the fancy of the reader who studies the characters of both in the stories of their lives, though their lives themselves were so very different; and the happiness that came to the heroine so dramatically and so decisively was so long a time on its way to the author.
“Evelina” was published in 1788 and made its instant success; a few years later, her sister – heroine ” Cecilia ” appeared in the novel of that name, and yet a few years later the brilliant young author was tempted from her charming home, the fond circle of her friends such as Johnson, Burke and Reynolds, the public that idolized her, to become the waiting-woman of the commonplace queen of George III. It was an error so cruel that it hurts one yet to think of it; one rages against it as if it were still actual, and is not consoled by the fact that the victim never thoroughly realized her suffering as wrong to literature. It spoiled her career, and broke her health, but she seems to have thought to the last that her slavery was an honor; and she was prouder of the kindness which her devotion had inspired even in the heart of royalty, than of anything else in her history. When after five years she left the grudging queen’s service, her father, who had urged her to enter it, could never understand why she wished to leave it. He indeed welcomed her back to her home and her broken literary life, and many years later she began to write novels again; but the simplicity, the girlish spirit, the young grace was gone from her work, and ” Camilla ” and “The Wanderer” are conscious, academic poses of a talent once so spontaneous. It was a talent once so spontaneous, so vivid, so unaffected, that when Fanny Burney first had before her the task of depicting the nature and behavior of “A Young Lady on her Entrance in the World,” she looked in her glass for her model, and wrought with the naivete of the true artist, especially the true artist who is also young.
It is not to be supposed that she purposely drew herself in Evelina Anville. That is not the way of good art, though the end, the effect is self-portraiture. It is essential to the charm of a fictitious character that he or she who makes it in his or her image should not be aware of doing so; and no doubt Miss Burney kept well within her illusions. If she had perfectly known what she was doing, there would have been touches of self-defense, of self-flattery in Evelina which would have spoiled our pleasure in her; but probably there were people who knew who Evelina was at the time, if Miss Burney did not, and had not to wait nearly fifty years for the “Diary and Letters of Mine. D’Arblay” to let them into the open secret. The great Dr. Johnson knew it, and if he did not declare it, he came little short of it in his recognition of her admirable and endearing qualities. The great Mr. Burke must have known it, and all that famous and friendly company which resorted to her father’s house when the timid and gentle girl suddenly astonished them by proving herself a novelist hitherto unrivalled in a certain charm and truth.
Before “The Vicar of Wakefield” there had been no English fiction in which the loveliness of family life had made itself felt; before Evelina the heart of girlhood had never been so fully opened in literature. There had been girls and girls, but none in whom the traits and actions of the girls familiar to their fathers, brothers and lovers were so fully recognized; and the contemporaneity instantly felt in Evelina has lasted to this day. The changes since her entrance into the world have been so tremendous that we might almost as well be living in another planet, for all that is left of the world she so trembled at and rejoiced in. But whoever opens the book of her adventures, finds himself in that vanished society with her, because she is herself so living that she makes everything about her alive.
She is of course imagined upon terms of the romantic singularity which we no longer require in letting a nice girl have our hearts. Her father is of a species so very hard-hearted as to be extinct now, even in the theatre. He denies his marriage with her mother, and destroys the proof of it for no very apparent motive (he seems to have been very much in love with his wife), except to equip his daughter with a mystery and an unnatural parent for purposes of fiction. He retires into the background of the story before Evelina is born, and does not emerge from it until he is needed to be forgiven at the end, when he bestows her hand upon the hero with proper authority. In the meantime she has been brought up in great seclusion by the Rev. Arthur Villars, a friend of her mother’s father, who has devoted himself to her education, and has cherished her as if she were his own child. It is solely to him that her fondest thoughts and affections turn when at the age of seventeen she leaves Berry Hill with his approval and launches upon the gay world of London in the care of certain friends of his.
It duly appears that, besides the exceptionally ruthless father who will have nothing to do with her, Evelina has a very terrible grandmother, who was an English servant when her beauty caught the young fancy of Evelina’s grandfather. He expiates his passion by many years of marriage with her in France, and after his death she returns in a second widowhood to London, just at the moment Evelina is entering the fashionable world there, and becomes the low comedy and low tragedy of the story. She is not only very awful herself, with a French bourgeois vulgarity thickly overlaying her English servile vulgarity, but she is surrounded by Evelina’s city cousins, who have a cockney vulgarity all their own, and for whom she claims the girl’s affection, together with her duty to herself. They complicate the poor child’s relations with the finer world to which she belongs by instinct and breeding, in all sorts of ways; and if anything could prevent her predestined union with the exemplary Lord Orville, their behavior would do it. She is horribly ashamed of them, but she does nothing cruel to escape them, and she submits to her grandmother not only because she must, but because she will. In short, at the moment when snobbery was first coming to its consciousness in literature Evelina was not a snob. She otherwise shows herself a thoroughly good girl, and she does it charmingly, though she has to do it without seeming to do so, in the long letters which she writes relating her adventures and which, with those of her correspondents, form the old-fashioned vehicle of the story.
Her letters are mostly addressed to the admirable, the almost too admirable, Mr. Villars, who replies to her abounding confidences with sympathy and wisdom from his seclusion at Berry Hill. In an age of unfeeling fathers his tenderness is more than paternal, but except that the story would have had to stop if he had done so, there seem times when he might have usefully given her a little more paternal protection. He has armed her against fate merely with a variety of high principles, and Evelina herself has to own that she is never in trouble when she is true to them. She learns very early the difference between meaning to behave always in perfect conformity to them and really doing so, for at her very first ball she refuses to dance with a fop she does not like, and, forgetting she has told him she is not dancing at all, she dances with Lord Orville, whom she does like from the moment she sees him. Worse than this, she cannot help laughing at the beau’s grotesque indignation with her innocent perfidy; and at the very next ball she has profited so little by her experience that she again falls a prey to her own rather ingenuous duplicity. Lord Orville did not come to ask her for the first dance, as she hoped he might; but ” a very fashionable, gay-looking man, who seemed about thirty years of age, . . . begged the honor.” Her chaperon, from whom she had become separated, had told her “it was highly improper for a young woman to dance with strangers at any public assembly,” and not wishing to risk the sort of offence she had given at her first ball, she answers this gentleman that she is engaged already. “I meant,” she writes to Mr. Villars, and she owns that she blushes to write it, ” to keep myself at liberty to dance or not, as matters should fall out. . . . He looked at me as if incredulous . . . asked me a thousand questions, and at last he said: ‘ Is it really possible a man whom you have honored with your acceptance can fail to be on hand? You are missing the most delightful dance in the world. . . . Will you give me leave to seek him? . . . Pray, what coat has he on? . . . My indignation is so great that I long to kick the fellow round the room.'” In vain she tries to escape her lively tormentor; to her shame and confusion he attaches himself to her and leads the way through the rooms, entreating her to let him find her recreant partner. “‘Is that he?’ pointing to an old man who was lame, ‘or that?’ And in this manner he asked me of whoever was old or ugly in the room.” She frankly tells him at last that he has spoiled all her happiness for the whole evening, but he will not leave amusing himself with her distress till she feigns at sight of Lord Orville that it is he whom she was to dance with. She does no more than glance at his lordship, but that is quite enough for her persecutor. ” His eyes instantly followed mine. ‘Why, is that the gentleman?’ … At this instant Mrs. Mirvan, followed by Lord Orville, walked up to us, . . . when this strange man, destined to be the scourge of my artifice, exclaimed, ‘Ha, my Lord Orville!—I protest I did not know your lordship. What can I say for my usurpation? Yet, faith, my Lord, such a prize should not be neglected!’ My shame and confusion were unspeakable. Who could have supposed or foreseen that this man knew Lord Orville? But falsehood is not more unjustifiable than unsafe! Lord Orville—well he might—looked all amazement. ‘ The philosophic coldness of your lordship,’ continued this odious creature, ‘every man is not endowed with.’ . . . He suddenly seized my hand, saying, ‘ Think, my Lord, what must be my reluctance to resign this fair hand to your lordship!’ In the same instant Lord Orville took it of him. . . .To compel him then to dance I could not endure, and eagerly called out, ‘ By no means—not for the world! I must beg—’ ‘Will you honor me with your commands, madam?’ cried my tormentor. . . . ‘But do you dance or not? You see his lord-hip waits!’ . . . ‘For Heaven’s sake, my dear’, cried Mrs. Mirvan, who could no longer contain her surprise, ‘what does all this mean? Were you pre-engaged? Had Lord Orville—’ ‘No, madam,’ cried L only—only I did not know this gentleman—and so I thought—I intended—I—’ … I had not strength to make my mortifying explanation; my spirits quite failed me, and I burst into tears. They all seemed shocked and amazed. . . . ‘What have I done? exclaimed my evil genius, and ran officiously for a glass of water. However, a hint was sufficient for Lord Orville, who comprehended all I would have explained. He immediately led me to a seat, and said to me in a very low voice, ‘Be not distressed, I beseech you; I shall ever think my name honored by your making use of it. ‘ “