The Enigma: a Leaf from the Archives of Wolchorley House (by an Old Chronicler, 1856).
We wish people would leave off writing novels about the origin of evil. Here is a book, evidently written by a lady, which in 301 small pages—beginning with three theological mottoes, and ending with nine stanzas of something which is neither a hymn nor a poem, three lines of asterisks, an extract from the Catechism, and a text of Scripture, printed in italics—sets forth something which may be a statement, or which may be meant for an explanation, of the difficulty. If it will make a dark subject any clearer, our readers are welcome to the explanation. Grace and Katherine sat together in a room of Wolchorley House. Katherine said she thought life an inextricable confusion. Grace looked at a print of the Madonna, and thought that “there seemed the solution of the mighty enigma.” Her cousin asked what she was thinking of, and she could not answer, because “the Infinite was stirring within her.” Grace was an only granddaughter, living with her grandfather, Sir Lionel Wolchorley, who used to say, “My fragile flower shall not be rudely plucked while I remain—and then—why then—“I hope she may be married, an ordinary man would have added, but Sir Lionel could never finish his sentence, because, said his old and trusty majordomo–“There never, could be no h'end to it, for h'eternally Sir Lionel was a thinking of 'er—'eaven bless 'er 'eart.” Of course, Grace was one of the heavenly girls in whose mouths butter never melts, and Kate one of the audacious beauties who are introduced into novels as a foil to them. Sir Lionel informs the young women that Mrs. Percy, her son, Horace Wolchorley, and his friend Mr. Blaghe, intend to visit them. In the third chapter, a handsome clergyman, Ernest Mowbraye, and his mother, are presented to the reader. Messrs. Horace Wolchorley and Blaghe ask the son to go out fishing, to which Mr. Mowbraye replies—“What the order might not interdict, per se, time would not ''always concede to the many avocations of a clergyman's life.” Then another clergyman comes in, who makes Grace an offer, and is refused. Afterwards, all the characters dine together. Mr. Horace Wolchorley, who had been brought to marry Grace, pays attentions to Katherine, Ernest Mowbraye meditates intensely over prints of the Cartoons. Mrs. Percy talks in a worldly-minded way to the old baronet, who is dreadfully shocked, and answers his granddaughter's question, “What is the matter?” by saying, “Human hearts, my love. Sin and wrong, and their long mourning train of sorrows—this, this is the bitterness of death.” The old gentleman gets better, and there is a school-feast, a mysterious Irish harper, an old Scotch crone, and a certain amount of lovemaking between Horace and Katherine. Then there is a night-scene between Grace and Katherine, in which we seem to get rather nearer the origin of evil, for there is a good deal of quotation of texts, interspersed with a certain amount of small capitals and italics. Next comes a pic-nic, and a discovery of a MS. poem by Grace, about the Resurrection. Horace makes Katherine an offer—she is in love with him—but it all comes to nothing. A little girl is forbidden to get into a pony-carriage; but she does so, and gets her arm broken, which suggests some conversation about the Fall and the origin of evil, which Katherine considers mysterious and afflicting. Thereupon the handsome clergyman with “deep melancholic eyes” sets to work to solve the enigma. We give the following specimen of his solution The italics are the author's:--
‘Has not natural religion its type and counterpart in the physical world, found in the great law of cohesion, whereby integral particles of a like nature are held together in a perfect whole. (sic.) And does not this represent to you man . . . . who, when he admitted the repulsory power of temptation, broke the parallel law of his perfect being.’
There is a good deal more of the same kind, which “came” upon Katherine “like the smite of the angel of old.” We do not think that the book makes any further advance towards the solution of the enigma; and we know not whether our readers will agree with us in thinking that, under the circumstances, it would have been just as well to let it alone altogether. It is hardly worth while to pursue the story further. It is an ordinary novel of the most commonplace kind. All the good people get into trouble first, and get out of it afterwards; and all the bad people do just the reverse. There are some deaths, and some curious discoveries. Mr. Blaghe, the sceptic, is first converted by the handsome clergyman, and finally married to the handsome young lady who knows her own mind; whilst the handsome clergyman himself marries the dreamy young woman in whom the Infinite stirs. Then twenty-five years elapse –there is a general tableau over certain graves—the children of the principal personages enter, and marry–and the story ends with the asterisks, texts, and bits of catechism specified above.
The distinctive feature of the Enigma is the extraordinary absurdity of the language. As if the subject were not hopeless enough in itself, the writer thinks it necessary to make it harder still by the most extraordinary phraseology that we ever remember to have seen. Many of the sentences are only to be paralleled in the examples by which Martinus Scriblerus illustrated his essay on the Bathos. This is how we learn that certain school children wetted their hair:--"All having clean pinafores and well-brushed hair sleeked down after the fashion of their race on such occasions, with the supererogatory application from the fountain.”
Here is a lamentation over a woman who was married for her money, and bullied by her husband. We preserve the italics:
‘Poor aching heart! . . . . When, in progress of time, the time allotted for the attire of feeling—
In shallow mould of “sad news” and “surprise”—
While yet upon life's sands the footprint lies
thou wast wed (for lucre's sake of thy worldly portion) to this one (whose heart was worn to little more than an anatomical fact through the constant “drop” of labour for the “bread that perisheth”), thy meek patience now casting its bread upon those chill waters shall find it again—“sown in tears,” it is true, but “reaped in joy;” when as [a favourite word of the author's] thine own spirit, purified from its human dross, hath set on earth and risen in heaven, &c. &c.’
There is some sense, after all, in calling a book written on these principles, the Enigma. We have all heard of Asher's “abiding in his breaches,” but is not the following rather a strange way of saying that nothing particular happened?—“Months passed, and the lonely heart at the glebe neither hasted nor tarried in its ‘breach.’” Nor is this quite a commonplace description of the announcement of a death in the newspaper:—
‘And she? What raises her face, waning with unearthly pallor, as she sits, having in her hand the public intelligencer of the day? Had she indeed felt the cruel fiat of that morning's post in his sad gaze? Not so; for when utterance came to her tremulous parted lips, it was “Little Ada! Oh! grandfather;” and one large tear, as it plashed on the page in her hand through the dead silence which followed, blurred the record line of sorrow to which her eye again instinctively turned. It was but a moment's impulse and deed on the part of Katherine to snatch the news letter from Grace, and dashing the index tear off the obituary, to pause on the unobtrusive paragraph, which, in another moment, with compressed lip, she read aloud, &c.’
There is no particular harm in the Enigma. It is in no respect an offensive book, but we have hardly ever seen one in which the powers of the writer were so completely and ludicrously misconceived. We have noticed it principally because it affords a curious example of a very common mistake. There never was an age in which there was so much novel writing, and so much theological speculation, as there is in our own. As soon as any one has gone through any religious experience which leaves an impression on his mind, he—or more frequently she-makes it into a novel, on the principle that it cannot be uninteresting to others to read about anything which it was so deeply interesting to feel. The first requisite to a good novel is that the author should fully understand, and be master of the matter on which he is going to write; and this can never be the case with religious experiences. The principles upon which they depend are so deep, so mysterious, so connected with considerations of all kinds, that very few persons indeed, however deeply they may feel them, can write about them without exposing themselves. “He is in heaven, and thou art on earth, therefore let thy words be few,”—this is no less true as a canon of criticism than in its original application. This is more particularly true for female novelists. Quick, minute observation and representation of the ordinary affairs of life, is their forte—the inculcation of broad principles is apt to be their foible. So long as Miss Bronte, Mrs. Gaskell, Miss Yonge, or Miss Edgeworth confine themselves to describing what they have seen, they are amongst our very greatest writers; but when they come to draw or to insinuate conclusions as to broad general principles, we always regret that they should have left their proper sphere. Ruth, for example, and Mary Barton, are exquisite novels, but they prove nothing at all, though we think their authoress intended that they should. Jane Eyre and Shirley are works of genius, but we think that they suffer, both artistically and morally, from some of the discussions introduced into them. Miss Austen has always seemed to us far the greatest of female novel writers, precisely because there is nothing at all in the nature of a principle, or a speculation, or a moral, from one end of her books to the other. They are all pure representations of the life with which she was familiar—all the principles are assumed, and the reader is not annoyed by their elaboration or illustration. There is no indication, however, in the Enigma of powers which would place the authoress in the class of writers to which we have referred. The novel, as a novel, is poor—as a theological tract it is bad.
Saturday Review, August 30, 1856.