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CHARLOTTE BRONTË

A STUDr OF PASSION

CHARLOTTE BRONTË

A

STUDY OF PASSION

A. - HER REALISM

I

“THERE are three principal influences," says the biographer of Rénan, “which go to shape human character: that of heredity, that of locality, and that of every-day association.” And the character may be studied with approximations to truth only after all possible evidence relating to such influences is in hand. If time be the corrector and adjuster, any approach to finality in criticism may be despaired of until the image shall have passed into a more or less fixed atmosphere, -into an atmosphere which has ceased to pulsate with the passions and the prejudices, the friendships and the hatreds of the present hour.

As a pathetic illustration of this essential inability to seize with a full sense of ownership the finished idea of a life whose activities have but just ceased, the memorial paper of Mr. Henry James upon Lowell is worthy of note. “ It is his [the critic's] function,” says Mr. James, "to speak with assurance when once his impression has become final; and it is in noting this circumstance that I perceive how slenderly prompted I am to deliver myself on such an occasion as a critic. It is not that due conviction is ab

sent; it is only that the function is a cold one. It is not that the final impression is dim; it is only that it is made on a softer part of the spirit than the critical sense. The process is more mystical, the deposited image is insistently personal, the generalizing principle is that of loyalty."

But if the poet had been an offender in the eyes of the critic, and if the critic had lived in a less acutely fair-minded age than the present; if instead of having the latter-day Mr. James as his friendly reviewer, the poet had died far enough back in the century to have fallen under the finger of Gifford, this difficulty of correct judgment would have been all the more urgent. The vast majority of men and women seem to be but the net product of ancestry and environment; and an original man used to be regarded with peculiar suspicion as one whose purpose was not explained by his environment, and whose lack of ancestry had to be accounted for by a kind of spontaneous generation or special creation, which, like all biological departures, is a little disquieting. Indeed, this nervous attitude is even yet a common one.

We are fond of talking about the Republic of Letters, and the capitals have a fine rhetorical look on the printed page. But too many of those immortals who have finally won a free citizenship there would seem to have had their fortunes at first cast among the numbing rigors of an oligarchy, — their radicalism grouped for the while into a forlorn third party, such was that questioning challenge of all new modes of thought and action which was esteemed to be a safeguard of our conservation.

And yet in course of time the true values come to the surface. If there is enough vital excellence in

a man's work to buoy up what is not vital in it, that work will be found afloat in after generations. The best books are not the rare books. Every wise writer is, sooner or later, a read writer. However slow the critics may be in differentiating the vitalities from the non-vitalities, the life in them is at last discovered, somehow as tears are discovered in the presence of grief, or a fever in the blood at a tale of wrong.

It is not so very surprising, then, that the reception of 'Jane Eyre’ in certain critical quarters was a glaringly mistaken one, and that its appreciation was challenged step by step with refusals to accept its message because of the misunderstandings of its spiritual simplicity. Yet in six months' time the novel was in its third edition. Sales are not the finest test, of course, for Queechy,' and 'An Original Belle' are still sold. But it is not only the commonplace which is popular: there is another kind of popularity which is but the acknowledgment that a great chord has been struck true; and this instinctive recognition of a pure, sane genius lasts in an abiding personal interest unattached to the other class of “popular" writers. How many who read, last year, — well, any of the “best-selling books" of that season, can tell even the name of its author? On the other hand, who does not know that Keats lies buried in Rome; and what literary sojourner in the Eternal City does not linger for awhile in that old cemetery near the pyramid of Gaius Cestius? Finally, is there any popular living

1 'The Life of Charlotte Brontë,' by Mrs. Gaskell, with an Introduction and Notes by Clement K. Shorter. New York and London, Harper & Bros., 1900, p. 363, note. All references to Mrs. Gaskell's work in this study are made from this, the latest and most authorita. tive edition of her biography.

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