Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone




Among the almost innumerable novels which crowd the reviewerís desk, it is rare to find one which calls for more than passing notice. So ephemeral are they, as a rule, that almost before the ink is dry on the review their day is sped. But here and there appears a work which seems to contain an element of permanency—some inherent virtue of force, of insight, or of pure beauty, which may prevail to keep it from the dust of the upper shelves. Two such works are those which I have before me. Utterly unlike in almost all respects, they have this in common, that they are books to be taken seriously. They cannot be ignored.

The Truth About Tristrem Varick has been the subject of hot discussion, and has been treated to much of a certain kind of censure, which must have greatly assisted its sales. With a wise regard to that human weakness which makes forbidden fruit ever attractive, the published have taken care that their advertisements of this novel should suggest the spice of naughtiness which it contains, and, acting on the hint, the critics have saved themselves much trouble by devoting their notice mainly to this feature. I cannot but think that in this respect the book must have disappointed many purchasers. Those who were looking for realistic descriptions after the painful style of M. Zola, and those who thought to find such senuous imaginings as those of M. Maupassant or Theophile Gautier, alike must have regretted their half dollar. The story is of another type than these; and though the plot turns on a hideous crime, the crime itself is not brought under the analystís microscope, nor is there much inducement offered to any emulation of the crime. Pessimistic the author intends that his work shall be, but in spite of himself it is not wholly so. The hero is disillusioned, if ever a man was, but the reader does not find himself of necessity in a like case. The purity, the sincerity, the singleness of purpose of the hero furnish an antidote to the horrors of the climax, and against the surroundings which Mr. Saltus paints for us the one villainy stands out as a monstrous and almost unbelievable exception. As a piece of art the story demands unstinted commendation. The construction of the plot is altogether admirable, for unity, for ingenuity, for compactness. As for the style, it is exquisite. Mr. Saltus has a love of absolute beauty for its own sake which gives his prose an enduring fascination. He has a singular freshness in his epithets, and his rhythms are new and charming. To match the beauty of English in his paraphrase from Flaubert—the dialogue between the Sphinx and the Chimaera—one would have to search far indeed. These two or three pages have a loveliness which I do not think it rash to call imperishable.

Mrs. Delandís book is important because it voices a feeling which occupies at the present many hearts. The plot is the reverse of elaborate, though many may regard it as improbable. The whole story hinges on the question of eternal condemnation. John Ward, preacher to the straightest sect of the Presbyterians, is character of extreme nobility, much narrowness, and inexorable logic. He takes to himself a wife who is all that a woman should be or could be. This wife fails to reconcile the omnipotence and omniscience of a benevolent Deity with an eternity of agony for those dying in their sins. Hence follows—what I would advise my readers to find out for themselves as soon as possible. The heroine, John Wardís wife, speaks for a vast constituency, and she speaks with burning earnestness and unimpeachable sincerity. Herein lies the power and interest of the work.


"The World of Books: Two New Novels," Progress 1:15 (Saint John, N.B.), 11 August 1888, 6 [back]