At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: May 14, 1892


Sir Roger—What have we here?
Giles—There is everything under the sun set down with some show of reason; they run atilt at the world, and treat men and manners as familiar as an old hat.
Sir Roger—Think you they protest too much? I like a matter disposed bravely, but—
Giles—Methinks they have a genial tongue. Will you hear them?
Sir Roger—Well, an’ it be not too long I’ll have some sack, and you read on.

— Old Play.

       It is not often that the consideration of tariffs and their accompanying problems troubles a literary man, but they unfortunately force themselves upon his attention occasionally in a rather disagreeable way. When he finds that he has to pay his retail dealer 35 cents on the shilling for every book he imports, the retail dealer and the whole system of tariffs and profits and liable to a searching criticism, expressed in rude and figurative language. But the trade suffers as well, although the wrathy purchaser is hardly likely to think of the trade. Just now the English book trade is feeling the effect of the McKinley tariff, which levied upon English books a duty of 25 per cent. and admitted free of duty all books printed in foreign languages. The result of this provision has been that the flow of French and German books to the United States has naturally advanced the sale of American books to those countries. In Canada we have to pay too much for our books; to a person of limited means the collection of a library is a slow and irritating work. There are so many things he wants which are just beyond his reach, and he has no second-hand book stores to visit where he could once in a while land a copy of some longed-for book “as good as new.”

       Mr. Thomas Hardy is conceded by the best authorities to be the leading writer of fiction, with one exception, in England to-day. Some of Mr. Hardy’s most characteristic works have first appeared as serials in the great American monthlies. “The Return of the Native,” one of his strongest achievements, came out first in Harper’s Magazine, as have his later. “Wessex Folk,” and “Two on a Tower,” first saw the light in The Atlantic Monthly. His most popular work when in book form is undoubtedly “Far from the Madding Crowd,” a strong and tragic pastoral of English life. But it remains for Mr. Hardy’s latest book, “Tess,” to give him a prominence still more commanding than he has hitherto attained. This book has attracted unusual attention in literary circles on both sides of the Atlantic, and is regarded by the great English and American critical authorities to be one of the most remarkable works of fiction of the day. In these high quarters the book has been treated with the respect and consideration it has deserved, both because of its subject and treatment. But certain petty critics of less fame but more captiousness have attempted to pronounce it immoral and as unfit to be read because of its evil tendency. In answer I would say that a critic in The New York Independent, a famous religious and literary journal, says in a long review of the book that any person who goes to this book to satisfy a morbid craving for the improper will be sadly disappointed. The book is a dramatic picture of one of the most tragic subjects to be dealt with in our humanity, a subject that society cannot afford with impunity to ignore, the sacred relationship of man to woman, and the inevitable tragedy that is so closely connected with it under certain conditions. He who in a spirit of pharisaism would denounce such a book as immoral in its tendency would not only be going against the judgment of the greatest literary tribunals of our time, but would also be guilty of false witness of the most contemptible kind. No man of normal moral caliber could get evil in such a work. The whole story is intensely sad, and pathetic in its intensity. All that Mr. Hardy approaches is treated with the sincerity and dignity characteristic of his work. And no man with any claims to true literary insight would dare to insinuate otherwise. One of the purest literary minds was that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the famous New England writer. Of equal nobleness of character was George Eliot, the most remarkable literary woman of modern times. No one I am sure would impugn the motives and ideals of the immortal Sir Walter Scott, and yet the most widely recognized of the greatest works of these three famous and standard writers were “The Scarlet Letter,” “Adam Bede,” and “The Heart of Midlothian.” Mr. Gladstone, who is as orthodox in morals and religion as any famous man of these times, says that these three books just mentioned are the three greatest books of fiction in the language, and yet these have for their subjects the same though in the slightly different phases as that dealt with by Mr. Hardy.
       These books are great in their beauty and pathos, and of this class in its degree “Tess, the History of a Pure Woman,” by Thomas Hardy. To the evil all things are evil, but true men and women, who admit practically as well as by mere lip-confession that there is a dark side as well as a light side to our humanity, are growing to realise more and more the importance of studying our inner natures, and so arriving at the real secret springs of the imperfections that the world long ago acknowledged to exist in our being. The highest morality is not to be found in ignoring the sacred and most important relationships of humanity, but by a brave study of the situation as it is, not as some of us might wish to imagine it to be; and such a study, terrible in its realism, is that which Mr. Hardy has placed before us.

       April and May are the months of wood flowers; June the season of blossoming in the inner recesses of the forest; August the time of perfume and color in meadow and field. He who journeys homeward from the woods on one of these quiet, murmurous April evenings, when the light sill lingers in the clear, greenish west, bears with him a handful of the tenderest and most delicate of all our flowers. Here are the hepatica, white, violet-blue or tenderest pink, plucked with the last year’s rusted leaves; the adder-tongue, drawn cool out of the moist earth, with purple-spotted leaf-blades and white, slender root stem, curling joyously back its yellow petals under the noonday sun; the little striped blossom of the frail spring beauty; the dicentia or squirrel corn, with its pink-stemmed wreaths of tremulous creamy drops, springing from the midst of an abundance of delicate and intricate leafage; most exquisite of all, the bloodroot’s clear waxen bloom, set between its half-opened irregular grey leaves. He will have also perhaps a bud or two, just beginning to open, of the splendid white-winged trillium, or some of the blue cohosh, that mystic-looking plant with its strange and dusky but very beautiful blossoms. By the way, I should think that this last plant would be an inexhaustible treasure to the decorative artist. I know of no plant in bloom which has so peculiar and mysterious a hue and shape. When June comes we shall get the rare and beautiful lady’s slippers out of the deep wet woods, and many another surprising blossom far hidden and seldom sought; but for the present let us be content with the brave little first-comers, the happy denizens of the less secluded wilderness. These, as with the race of poets, are indeed the fairest and freshest of all.

       MY DEAR ALEXIS,—I am glad you have written to me for advice; not that I like to give it, and not that I think it will be of any particular value to you when given, but shows that I am still occasionally in your thoughts, and of all the pleasant things in the world the most pleasant is to be remembered by one’s friends. I fancy that you have really decided the question for yourself; in fact I think you did so before you wrote to me. You ask me whether you should publish the poem entitled, “Afterthoughts,” which has just been accepted by the editor of the ——— Magazine, with a nom de plume or with the name give you by your godfather and godmother at your baptism. I answer emphatically, with the latter. I know you consider your name unfortunate, but, although it is sometimes the only grudge a man has against his parents, I think it the wisest provision in the world that our names are chose for us while we are in a state of unconsciousness. Sometimes an unfortunate name will get into a family and go sliding down the generations like an hereditary disease, making life hideous. “Peasley” is in itself an inoffensive name, but when the name “Green” happens to be in the same family and one boy in each generation is called “Green Peasley” it becomes a question whether the trouble should not be stopped by act of Parliament. Yet if we had the terrible responsibility of choosing our own names all our honest “Johns” would be “Algernons” and our “Marys” would have I know not what sentimental cognomens hunted out of the romances. Your name may in some sort be a slight torture to you as you see it tacked below your poem, but any other that you select would grow to be quite unbearable to you, and you would long for that decent, useful name with which you endorse notes and furnish other unlimited kindnesses to your friends. Yes, put it down in full, “Alexis Johnson Greenhill,” and if you are really a genius posterity will find something strangely poetical in it and “Greenhill” will fill their ears with a distinctive pleasure, just as ours are filled by “Keats” and “Shelley.” My pleasure runs before the fact, and by anticipation I have a thrill from seeing it upon the chaste cover of that popular monthly.

       Certainly the world of English letters—if any kind of journalism may be included in that term—has never seen a more singular or more noticeable figure than that of Mr. W.T. Stead, formerly of the Pall Mall Gazette, now editor and inventor of The Review of Reviews. For some years past we have heard a great deal about Mr. Stead and his indefatigable activities in many curious quarters. His character sketches in The Review of Reviews are a feature of strong interest to the readers of that useful journal; the judicious reader, however, finds himself always under the necessity of toning down the colors and making allowances for the sallies of a too roseate imagination, remembering—always remembering—that the writer is a journalist of the journalists, bent upon making his article entrancingly interesting and full of picturesque hits. These sketches are a thoroughly modern product, and their chief interest arises from the somewhat reportorial qualities which Mr. Stead is able to give to them, owing to his extraordinarily wide and intimate personal acquaintance with both men and affairs. He appears to have chatted with everybody from Mr. Gladstone down to the rudest striker on the street, and to have been mixed up in every political or social movement of the time. He gives the impression of an interesting and curious mixture of journalistic intelligence, quixotic enthusiasm and amiable egoism—with just a slight touch of the charlatan; and in this age, brought up and developed in the atmosphere which has always surrounded him, a touch of the charlatan is perhaps scarcely avoidable.