Eleanor Marx 1890-91

Literature Notes

Source: Time, August 1890, pp. 892-895, September 1890, 1,007-1,008, December 1890, pp. 1342-1344, January 1891, pp. 95-96 February 1891, p. 191;
Public Domain: this work is not subject to copyright restriction;
Transcriber: Ted Crawford.

Belfort Bax bought the cultural monthly magazine Time at the end of 1889 and started it with a clean sheet in January 1890. He did not want to turn it into a Socialist journal, but rather into a broader and progressive cultural paper. He apparently closed it down in December 1891 (See Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx, Vol. 2, pp.442.) The only issues which appear to survive are those for 1890 and the first two months of 1891 in Cambridge University Library. It had regular comments on the Theatre, Literature and Music, and Eleanor Marx and her partner Edward Aveling (his pseudonym was Alec Nelson), both helped to write the Literature and Dramatic notes, the latter regularly, the former occasionally.

August 1890

THE TRAGIC MUSE. By Henry James. (Macmillan and Co.) – Mr. Henry James’s new novel is supremely irritating. It is so very clever – and such a complete failure. It is full of admirable passages, of keenly observed “situations,” of real documents humains – and yet – and yet – there is nothing in it that lives. Mr. James seems to have been trying to combine Balzac and Zola – both, of course, toned down to the dull decorousness needful for a sale at Mudie’s – with Henry James, the result being that all the cleverness, all the wit, all the epigrams, and all the shrewdness go for nothing. There is no life in it. As Mr. James would say, ça ne va pas. There are any number of people. Some, the actress, the “tragic muse,” Miriam, e.g., admirably (still to speak like Mr. James) posée – yet despite all the brilliant analysis, a sad failure. The gods have breathed no life into Mr. James’s statue. And so with most of the other characters. If only the book were just a little worse! If it were not so good it would not be so bad.

And why does Mr. James constantly write as if he were translating from the French? That the girl who has grown up abroad (the actress who, despite her foreign education, speaks with a faultless English accent) should occasionally translate a French phrase literally, is right enough; it is even permissible in the Secretary of the English Embassy who has lived long in Paris. But why should all the Britishers speak this curious idiom, and why should Mr. James himself translate from French rather than write English – or even American?

Mr. James is so clever, one is disappointed to see him fail – but failure il y a.

LORD BYRON. By the Hon. Roden Noel. Great Writer Series. (Walter Scott.) – In the Hon. Roden Noel’s “Byron,” we are not haunted – as one so often is in these “Series” editions – by the feeling that the volume has been written to order, and that its writer is prepared to turn out any number of like volumes at so much per dozen or per hundred. Indeed, taken all in all, the little book is a very welcome addition to our Byron literature.

Mr. Noel has one invaluable quality for writing about Byron. He has not merely an honest and enthusiastic admiration for all that was great, noble, beautiful in his hero. He has a rare understanding of his hero’s small and unlovely sides – and this understanding is due, in at least one instance, to the understanding born of sympathy. Thus while Mr. Noel denounces in good set terms the undoubted snobbishness of “His Lordship” on more than one occasion, he shows, with the most charming naiveté, that he is something of a snob himself. And so, even when denouncing this smallest, meanest side of Byron, Mr. Noel speaks understandingly. And we are always less likely to be unjust where we consciously or unconsciously sympathize.

Mr. Noel feels, and will, I believe, make his readers feel, how much of good, of fine strength there was in Byron. Mr. Noel loves Byron and will, I think, make the readers of his Biography love him too. But all the same Mr. Noel is curiously borné, and is curiously guilty of what he so vigorously censures in others. He protests against the narrow folk who find it impossible to admire one poet without running down another, who cannot love Shelley, e.g., without professing a fine contempt for Byron, and find admiration of “Prometheus Unbound” altogether incompatible with admiration of “Don Juan.” Mr. Noel tries hard to be fair to both Shelley and Byron, and fails signally. Thus he is very indignant at the shameful calumnies, voiced by Mrs. Beecher Stowe, against Byron. He says, it seems to me very truly, that “Byron did once, and once only, love utterly and perfectly, and this love was for his sister;” and he asks, “What are all the prurient scandals of conventional propriety in the face of this certainty?” Yet, where Shelley is concerned, Mr. Noel seems rather on the side of the “prurient scandal” of the purity mongers. On pp.18-19, he describes the life of the Shelleys, Claire, and Byron in Switzerland. He distinctly tells us that when with Shelley, “Byron was at his best. That strange, volatile, yet ideal-loving and ethereal spirit touched the robuster and earthlier soul of his great brother to finer issues ... Indeed the influence of Shelley ... is to be felt in the subtler touches of the later Childe Harold.” And Mr. Noel goes on, “He was now falsely accused in England ... the lie being repeated by Southey, of living in promiscuous intercourse with two sisters, i.e., Mary Godwin and Jane Clairmont ... The same story was later told also about Shelley.” This is what Mr. Noel says on pp.18 to 19. Yet only six pages later, on p.26, he actually declares Byron “believed that she (Claire) and Mary Godwin were living in promiscuous intercourse with Shelley, and worse, that she and Shelley had placed their new-born child in a foundling hospital.” The story, Mr. Noel admits, was “spread by the malice” of some servants, but he assures us “Byron” (he is good enough to say, “unwarrantably”) “took it for gospel!” No, Byron with all his faults was incapable of this. He who had been “touched to finer issues” by his intercourse with Shelley and Mary, he who had looked into that holy of holies, the “heart of hearts,” he never, even at his worst, fell to this. The whole incident of the Hoppner letter (for which we still must be thankful – has it not given us that letter of Mary’s written with her heart’s blood?) was bad, but possibly less infamous than either Byron or Shelley worshippers respectively would have us think. Is it not possible that Byron never sent on that letter, less from design than carelessness? He had behaved badly; he loathed Claire; he put off his explanation, and the longer he put it oft the more difficult it became, and never having believed one word of the vile tale, he did not realise what it might mean to the others. And so nothing was done, and the letters remained in Lord Byron’s desk to testify for ever to his own (even taking the most lenient view) cruel and wicked indifference, and to the love of Shelley and Mary. But whatever view we take, surely anything is better – even to think Byron deliberately and for his own ends suppressed Mary’s letter – than to think for a single moment he believed that hideous lie – he who knew Shelley and Mary.

With all its faults, the Hon. Roden Noel’s “Life” should be useful both to those familiar, and not familiar with Byron Literature. Only, won’t Mr. Noel in future editions delete a few of the many and somewhat irritating notes of admiration he is so lavish of?


September 1890

HAWTHORNE. By Moncure D. Conway. (Great Writer Series) Walter Scott. – An artistic book, not unworthy of its subject. In his opening chapter Mr. Conway speaks of the “exceptionally competent biographers” of Hawthorne. They should have been competent, but surely no one can read with patience such a book as Julian Hawthorne’s “Life” of his Father and Mother; and Mr. James’ “Hawthorne” is dreariness itself. But in Mr. Conway, Hawthorne has found a really competent biographer, and we are half inclined to regret that he was restricted to the comparatively small volumes of this series. It is true he has managed to crowd an immense amount of purely biographical data, and detail, and of suggestive criticism into his 215 pages. But for once the reader is likely to ask for more.

Of that one sad and disgraceful blot upon Hawthorne’s otherwise noble life – his defence of, and sympathy with, slavery, and the ignoble bargain with Pierce, Mr. Conway speaks frankly and honestly, albeit not untenderly. And he has realised – as the other biographers have not – the full hideousness of the circumstances that forced Hawthorne into that bargain. One may well indeed reserve “all bitter reproaches” for a system “which had reduced such an author to the necessity of so bartering his brain for the support of his family,” and for a society in which “such stuff (the ‘Life’ of Pierce) brought Hawthorne more money than all his real works together.” Not, of course, that Hawthorne was the man to sell himself or his innermost convictions even to get bread for his children. But despite Hawthorne’s pro-slavery views, and even, or perhaps especially, after reading Mr. Conway’s attempted apology (it must have cost the “Underground railway” Virginian, some pain in the writing), who can doubt that but for his dire need Hawthorne would never have written the “Life,” in return for which he received the Liverpool consulate.

As for the “limitations” of Hawthorne, and his odd indifference to the sufferings of the negroes, while he sympathised so intensely with the misery of the European slaves, such limitations and contradictions are not unusual. Did not Mr. Conway, who not merely sympathised with the rising of John Brown (why, though, does he say Brown was mad?), but actively helped to bring about the American Civil War, did not he himself side in the French Civil War with the Versaillese and not with the Paris Proletariat?

THE OLD ORDER AND THE NEW, By J. Morrison Davidson (Wm. Reeves, Fleet Street). A very useful little volume, and one that should prove a most valuable book of reference. It is perhaps a little too suggestive of the newspaper article, and it is a thousand pities that for want of space Mr. Davidson has had to treat matters of deepest import superficially, and that he has been forced into dismissing in half-a-dozen lines what requires pages of exposition.

Mr. Davidson deals with the five “Doms of Human Development Savagedom, Slavedom, Serfdom, Wagedom, Freedom. Freedom apparently (but for the necessary “Dom,” I fancy Mr. Davidson would have chosen a less abused term) is for him synonymous with Socialism. Christ, Mr. Davidson considers the “Prince of Socialism,” and indeed does not seem to distinguish very clearly between Utopian and Scientific Socialism. But in spite of shortcomings unavoidable in a book of only 180 small pages, dealing, so to say, with the whole history of Sociology, the work is a very welcome addition to our very limited popular English library on the subject. But, why, oh, why, Mr. Davidson, prefer the Americanism “swag,” to the term “surplus-value?”


December 1890

ANTI-SLAVERY AND REFORM PAPERS. H.D. THOREAU. Edited by H.S. Salt. (Sonnenschein & Co.) We owe Mr. Salt a debt of gratitude for republishing these “Papers,” and for his admirable “Introductory Note.” Surely these must for ever do away with the ordinary idea of Thoreau as “morose” and “cynical,” standing apart from all men, cold and indifferent. In these “Papers” we feel the heart-throb of the man – and truer, nobler heart never beat. All the “Papers” are interesting and valuable, but the two that interest most – both because of the subject-matter, and because they most fully reveal “our Henry,” are the “Plea for Captain John Brown,” and the “Last days of John Brown.” To read these unmoved is impossible. There are passages in them of glorious passion. It is curious that to this day Thoreau should be so little understood – he who spoke the first public words in defence of Brown, he who after Brown’s death “was surprised” at the “routine of the natural world surviving still.” Assuredly nothing finer has been said of John Brown than the concluding words of Thoreau’s essay: “On the day of his translation, I heard, to be sure, that he was hung, but I did not know what that meant ... not for a day or two did I even hear that he was dead, and not after any number of days shall I believe it. Of all the men who were said to be my contemporaries, it seemed to me that John Brown was the only one who has not died ...I meet him at every turn. He is more alive than ever he was. He has earned immortality.”

A WARD OF THE GOLDEN GATE. BRET HARTE. (Chatto S, Windus.) – It is impossible to read Bret Harte without pleasure, but this last volume is a little disappointing. Probably we are disappointed because, on the strength of Mr. Harte’s promise, we had hoped that the “Ward” would be our “Waif of the Plains;” and that we should again meet Clarence, and Susy, and the inimitable Jim. If we could only forget these we should be quite happy with Yerba and Colonel Pendleton and George, but this we cannot do, and so not even the Colonel and George can content us.

If the volume, as a whole, falls short of “A Waif of the Plains,” there are passages that show us Bret Harte at his very best. Kate Howard may rank with the “Duchess” of the “Outcasts,” as a picture equally true and equally tender, while Colonel Pendleton and George are worthy of a place beside Tennessee’s “Partner.” The story told in the “Ward” is ingenious if somewhat improbable. But one always cares less for Bret Harte’.s stories than for his men and women. What has he done, by the way, that he should be punished with such “illustrators?” The “Waif” was bad, but the illustrations” of A Ward of the Golden Gate” are too awful for words. Surely Messrs. Chatto & Windus would do better to get these delightful volumes illustrated well, or to issue them without the abortions that now disfigure their pages.

A MARRIAGE DE CONVENANCE. By C. F. Keary. (Fisher Unwin, Novel Series.) – A very strong, a very remarkable book. Not the less remarkable that Mr. Keary has chosen the most difficult of all forms for telling his story – i.e., by letters. But so skilfully are these written that we never stop to think of their improbability and artificiality. Assuredly it is long since a new writer has done anything to be compared with the studies of character, with the psychological truth of this very wonderful book. Its weakest point is its title.

THE LIFE OF HENRIK IBSEN. By Henrik Jaeger, Translated by Clara Bell. (Heinemann.) – Henrik Ibsen is so much with us just now, and as his work becomes better known will be so much more with us, that a biography of him is very welcome. Not that Henrik Jaeger’s “Life” is a good one. On the contrary it is decidedly inadequate. But it is the best we have, and so Mr. Heinemann has done well to include it in his valuable “Series.” No doubt it is sad to read masterpieces in translations that at best are usually bad. Yet we cannot all read all languages, and therefore such a “Series” as Mr. Heinemann’s “meets” a decided “want.”

As to the translation of Jaeger’s “Life,” I may be doing Mrs. Clara Bell an injustice, but unless I am very much mistaken her book is a translation of a translation, i.e., a translation not of Jaeger but of the German translation of Jaeger. Now, a translation is always a poor substitute for an original, but the translation of a translation is an abomination.

Mrs. Clara Bell’s English is often ungrammatical (a trivial fault) and often an incorrect rendering (a serious fault). To take one or two passages selected absolutely at random. “He (Ibsen) at once gave up all notion of devoting himself to study.” As a matter of fact Ibsen “studied” – in the English sense – harder than ever. He only gave up the idea of a University career. “He was losing it (absolute independence) under the influence of literary study.” Here again the word study is used in a sense quite misleading to the English reader. “As manager of a theatre Ibsen had more than his share of unpleasantness.” Jager means and says that Ibsen had to put up with a good deal of unpleasantness – not that he was unpleasant. As to the grammar – not to speak of “from whences” and “averse tos,” read this: “This faithful and self-sacrificing friendship has linked Schulerud’s name with Ibsen’s ... and the poet has commemorated his gratitude in a handsome tribute in the preface to the second edition of Catilina. He does not seem to have been in any other way remarkable,” etc. The he here clearly refers to Schulerud, yet Mrs. Bell has it that “the poet” was not remarkable.

So much for the prose. The numerous quotations from Ibsen’s poems and poetical plays “have been specially translated by Mr. Gosse for this edition, with scrupulous attention to the form and substance alike of the original, and in almost every instance” – at least so the preface says – “they may be taken as reproducing the exact external appearance of the passages they imitate.” By this time I have no doubt Mr. Gosse feels penitent. The translator of prose has a difficult task that requires talent. The translator of poetry, if he is to reproduce the soul of the work as well as its “exact external appearance,” must be a genius. Mr. Gosse is doing such very good and useful work that it makes it all the more a pity he did not translate some of these exquisite lines literally, word for word, into good plain prose. Truly the music of the verses would be lost, but not so utterly as in these “externally” literal renderings.


January 1891

ENGLISH FAIRY TALES. By JOSEPH JACOBS. (D. Nutt.) – Assuredly one of the most delightful collections of Fairy Tales that we possess in English, and one that is of especial value since the Tales are not merely translations. The word “English,” however, is somewhat misleading – so many of the tales are Scotch. It would be of interest also to know the actual source of the Tales which Mr. Jacobs heard in Australia. Many of the Tales are, of course, familiar to all students of folk-lore in English forms, and I am not sure that Mr. Jacobs’ versions are always the best. Occasionally, too, one seems to miss the genuine ring not of the folk-tale, but of the folk-telling, and there are certain omissions that – unless Mr. Jacobs is, as I hope, contemplating a. second volume – are difficult to account for. But, despite small faults of commission and omission, faults one only notices because the work is so good, the volume is most welcome. Only one protest. “Tom Tit Tot,” Mr. Jacobs declares, is “superior to any of the Continental variants” with which he is acquainted. It may be that I am prejudiced, and that therefore the German variant, which delighted me as a child, still seems to me the best. Be this as it may, to me, at least, “Rumpelstilzchen” seems more graceful, more humorous and more dramatic than “Tom Tit Tot.”

But, whatever the grown-up folk may say, the little folk will be of only one opinion concerning these “Tales,” – they will receive them with a chorus of delight. And after all are not children the best, as they are also the most honest of critics? The admirable illustrations by J. D. Batten are worthy of the Tales. No well-regulated nursery should be without these old, old stories in their charming new dress.

FAMILIAR LETTERS OF JAMES HOWELL. Edited by W. H. Bennett. (Stott Library. Stott,) But for the fact that one I have always believed to be well-read in English literature, has just confessed to me that he had never seen Howell’s Letters, I should have been inclined to dispute Mr. Bennett’s statement that they are “almost entirely unknown to any save frequenters of one of the least trodden of the bye-paths of English literature.” If this is so, and Howell really is a stranger to most people, the more reason that we should give this stranger welcome. If everyone interested in English literature – even its “bye-paths” – will want to have the large edition of Howell recently published by Nutt on the shelves of his library, he will want to carry these dainty little volumes about with him in his pocket. Perchance he, too, will then find Howell “a dear old friend,” and learn to love his “artless prattle,” even as Thackeray did.

Mr. Bennett’s Introduction is interesting and careful; his Notes, so far as I have been able to verify them, correct and reliable; his Bibliography and Index of Persons referred to in the Letters valuable. It is only to be regretted that the Index was not enlarged, and made to include events as well as persons.

And how is it that so thoughtful an editor as Mr. Bennett has not called attention to the fact that Howell, the intimate friend of Jonson (the “Father Ben” of the Letters) never once, so far as I remember, refers to any of Jonson’s dramatic fellows – not even to Shakspere?

The “Stott Library” is a charming series, and the volumes, albeit tiny enough to go into any pocket, are printed in a peculiarly clear and pleasant type.

THE HENRY IRVING SHAKSPERE. (Blackie). – Thanks to the personal kindliness of Henry Irving, we have received the complete set of the volumes of this work. To deal even imperfectly with such a subject, treated in such a way, by such men as the late Frank Marshall and his friend, means an article – not a mere review paragraph or two. The pleasure of writing this we are promising ourselves. In the meantime, let it be noted that no library – of the largest or smallest order – can be held complete without these eight volumes.


February 1891

PSEUDONYM LIBRARY (Fisher Unwin). – If this sort of thing is to go on we shall have to strike. Many of the “Series” editions are as charming as they are useful. But what can be said for this “Pseudonym Library?” The third volume of the “Series” has been sent us, and I have earnestly tried to read it. I did read – I can’t help being a little proud of the feat – the first of “Von Degen’s” stories. I tried the second. But flesh and spirit were both too weak. I know, therefore, that I speak with a very limited knowledge of the “Series.” I have read only one “story” out of the many published in the three volumes thus far issued. And so I can only ask Mr. Unwin a question. Why is he issuing this “Series?” Simply because it is pseudonymous? In that case, while the value of really pseudonymous works is small, assuredly something better than “Von Degen” might be forthcoming. Or because he thinks his reprinted books good in themselves? I cannot do Mr. Unwin such an injustice as to believe this. I am always, be it repeated, speaking only of Vol. 3 of the “Series.” Such rubbish as “Von Degen’s” should be suppressed, not republished.

Then one word as to the outward form of the “Series.” It resembles only one thing – a cash-book. Those of us – a very few – who have cash-books don’t need such reminders. Those, most of us, who have no cash-books can hardly enjoy being reminded of what they have not. And, finally, the volumes will fit neither into a travelling-bag, a pocket, nor a book-case.