Lucile Reviewed in The Athenaeum, 1860
Athenaeum 1695 (May 21, 1860) (London), p537-538.
Lucile. By Owen Meredith. (Chapman & Hall.)
'Lucile' is nearly as long as 'Aurora Leigh.' Like Mrs. Browning's striking production, it is a modern novel in verse; but Mr. Owen Meredith's verse is rhymed, and his metre one little favourable for either sentimental or sustained composition. The three opening lines will be felt as a shock by others besides ourselves:
I hear from Bigorre you are there. I am told
You are going to marry Miss Darcy. Of old,
So long since you may have forgotten it now, &c.
-- We may frankly say that such a free and easy commencement by no means disposed us favourably to the tale to be entered on, nor to the writer's manner of telling it. --There is a hardihood which savours not so much of power as of self-disrespect, and this, we fancied, we were meeting on the threshold, and recoiled accordingly. Let us go on to say, no less frankly, that though the author of 'Clytemnestra' cannot be said to have made out his case so as to content us with the form selected, he has done more to reconcile us to it than we could have dreamed possible. --He has a real and musical command over versification, which enables him frequently to avoid pitfalls and press through perilous straits. There is much elegance in some of his descriptive passages; in his great scenes (of which more anon) a reality of emotion, under the spell of which the temerity of having chosen so familiar and frivolous a manner of utterance is forgotten. The tale will enchain those who take it up; if even they conceive that it might have been as well told in prose as in verse; and if even they object, so strongly as ourselves, to the lighter portions, on the same principle as made us regret the colloquialisms of Mrs. Browning's novel.
Surely (to illustrate this point for a moment) every art is not equally adaptable to every subject; though experimentalists now-a-days attempt to prove the contrary. Music cannot unthread the ins and outs of metaphysical discussion. One rope-dancer, in a century, like Hebe Caristi or Madame Saqui, can present the 'Siege of Saragossa' in mute action (or let as say, offer to the public what public sympathy accepts as such presentment); but such an example does not prove that the tight-rope is the arena for tragedy and thrilling emotion. It would give us no pleasure to see a Watteau party al fresco , painted in Fresco , with figures heroic size;-- nor to wear the roof of the Sistine Chapel in a ring, even supposing that some of the Hindustani miniature-painters, whose minuteness is indeed magical, could reduce that marvellous composition within the circumference of a split pea. Thus, to come to what has revived this train of thought, such a page as the following seems a blot in a book of poetry, however fluent and dashing it might be found in a Strand burlesque:
COUSIN JOHN. You received my last letter?
LORD ALFRED. ----------------------------- I think so. If not, What then?
COUSIN JOHN. You have acted upon it?
LORD ALFRED. ------------------------- On what?
COUSIN JOHN. The advice that I gave you--
LORD ALFRED. --------------------------Advice? --let me see?
You always are giving advice, Jack, to me.
About Parliament was it?
COUSIN JOHN. Hang Parliament! no,
The Bank, the Bank, Alfred!
LORD ALFRED. -----------What Bank?
COUSIN JOHN. ------------------------Heavens! I know
You are careless;-- but surely you have not forgotten,
Or neglected.... I warn'd you the whole thing was rotten.
You have drawn those deposits at least?
We may now turn to what is more pleasant than the most nicely-discriminating expression of critical blame.--"Lucile" was a woman whose hope was wrecked, though her life was not spoiled, betwixt two men -- an English and a French suitor; and who, by her misunderstandings with both, not extravagantly imagined, found herself lone -- stranded at a time of life when other more fortunately-circumstanced and less-gifted women have got around them requited love, protection, family endearment. She is produced as follows:--
As pale as an evening in autumn -- with hair
Neither black, nor yet brown, but that tinge which the air
Takes at eve in September, when night lingers lone
Through a vineyard, from beams of a slow-setting sun.
We will not give the portraits of the English Romeo and the French Paris, who contend for this Juliet. Enough to say, that Romeo's position has been complicated by his love for a Rosalind, to whom (as three foregoing lines of extract may have apprized the reader) he is betrothed. But the two men can be here grouped as accidentally brought into contact among the Pyrenees . The picture is by many a tint brighter, by many a touch clearer, than the best prose riding-scene done by that indefatigable painter of riding-scenes, Mr. G. P. R. James:--
----------------------Musingly on, side by side,
In the moonlight, the two men continued to ride
Down the dim mountain pathway. But each, for the rest
Of their journey, altho' they still rode on abreast,
Continued to follow in silence the train
Of the different feelings that haunted his brain;
And each, as though roused from a deep reverie,
Almost shouted, descending the mountain, to see
Burst at once on the moonlight the silvery Baths,
The long lime-tree alley, the dark gleaming paths,
With the lamps twinkling through them -- the quaint wooden roofs --
The little white houses.
----------------------- The clatter of hoofs,
And the music of wandering bands, up the walls
Of the steep hanging hill, at remote intervals
Reach'd them, cross'd by the sound of the clacking of whips,
And here and there, faintly, through serpentine slips
Of verdant rose-gardens, dew-shelter'd with screens
Of airy acacias and dark evergreens,
They could mark the white dresses, and catch the light songs,
Of the lovely Parisians that wander'd in throngs
Led by laughter and Love through the cool eventide,
Down the dream-haunted valley, or up the hill-side.
Here is another local description; touched with colour, character and elegance:
One lodges but simply at Serchon; yet, thanks
To the season that changes for ever the banks
Of the blossoming mountains, and shifts the light cloud
O'er the valley, and hushes or rouses the loud
Wind that wails in the pines, or creeps murmuring down
The dark evergreen slopes to the slumbering town,
And the torrent that falls, faintly heard from afar,
And the blue-bells that purple the dapple-grey scaur,
One sees with each month of the many-faced year
A thousand sweet changes of beauty appear.
The châlet where dwelt the Comtesse de Nevers
Rested half up the base of a mountain of firs,
In a garden of roses, reveal'd to the road,
Yet withdrawn from its noise: 'twas a peaceful abode.
And the walls, and the roofs, with their gables like hoods
Which the monks wear, were built of sweet resinous woods.
The sunlight of noon, as Lord Alfred ascended
The steep garden paths, every odour had blended
Of the ardent carnations, and faint heliotropes,
With the balms floated down from the dark wooded slopes;
Alight breeze at the windows was playing about,
And the white curtains floated, now in, and now out.
The house was all hush'd when be rang at the door,
Which was open'd to him in a moment or more
By an old nodding negress, whose sable head shined
In the sun like a cocoa-nut polish'd in Ind,
‘Neath the snowy foularde which about it was wound.
A sketch of the heroine, after a stormy interview with one of her suitors (not excluding a strong remonstrance against the no-meaning of the phrase marked by us in italics) shall come next:
And Lucile was alone. And the men of the world
were gone back to the world. And the world's self was furl'd
Far away from the heart of the woman. Her hand
Droop'd, and from it, unloosed from their frail silken band,
Fell those early love-letters, strewn, scatter'd, and shed
At her feet -- life's lost blossoms! Dejected, her head
On her bosom was bow'd. Her gaze vaguely stray'd o'er
Those strewn records of passionate moments no more.
From each page to her sight leapt some word that belied
The composure with which she that day had denied
Every claim on her heart to those poor perish'd years.
They avenged themselves now, and she burst into tears.
Here is a tempest -- not of the heart:--
After noontide, the clouds, which had traversed the east
Half the day, gather'd closer, and rose and increased.
The air changed and chill'd. As though out of the ground,
There ran up the trees a confused hissing sound,
And the wind rose. The guides sniff'd, like chamois, the air,
And look'd at each other, and halted, and there
Unbuckled the cloaks from the saddles. The white
Aspens rustled, and turn'd up their frail leaves in fright.
All announced the approach of the tempest.
-------------------------------------------- Ere long,
Thick darkness descended the mountains among;
And a vivid, vindictive, and serpentine flash
Gored the darkness, and shore it across with a gash.
The rain fell in large heavy drops. And anon
Broke the thunder.
------------------- The horses took fright, every one.
The Duke's in a moment was far out of sight.
The guides shouted. The band was obliged to alight;
And, dispersed up the perilous pathway, walk'd blind
To the darkness before from the darkness behind.
And the Storm is abroad in the mountains!
------------------------------------------- He fills
The crouch'd hollows and all the oracular hills
with dread voices of power. A roused million or more
Of wild echoes reluctantly rise from their hoar
Immemorial ambush, and roll in the wake
Of the cloud, whose reflection leaves livid the lake.
And the wind, that wild robber, for plunder descends
From invisible lands, o'er those black mountain ends;
He howls as he hounds down his prey; and his lash
Tears the hair of the timorous wild mountain ash,
That clings to the rocks, with her garments all torn,
Like a woman in fear; then he blows his hoarse horn,
And is off, the fierce guide of destruction and terror,
Up the desolate heights, 'mid an intricate error
Of mountain and mist.
----------------------- There is war in the skies!
Lo! the black-winged legions of tempest arise
O'er those sharp splinter 'd rocks that are gleaming below
In the soft light, so fair and so fatal, as though
Some seraph burned through them, the thunderbolt searching
Which the black cloud unbosom'd just now. Lo! The lurching
And shivering pine-trees, like phantoms, that seem
To waver above, in the dark: and yon stream,
How it hurries and roars, on its way to the white
And paralysed lake there, appall'd at the sight
Of the things seen in heaven!
Lastly, let yet one more storm-picture be offered; this time having reference to the Pari of the love-duel:
The sharpest that ever was edged like a sword,
Could have pierced to his heart with such keen accusation
As the silence, the sudden profound isolation
In which he remain'd.
---------------------- "O return; I repent!"
He exclaim'd; but no sound through the stillness was sent,
Save the roar of the water, in answer to him,
And the beetle that, sleeping, yet humm'd her night-hymn
An indistinct anthem, that troubled the air
With a searching, and wistful, and questioning prayer,
"Return," sung the wandering insect. The roar
Of the waters replied, "Nevermore! nevermore!"
He walk'd to the window. The spray on his brow
Was flung cold from the whirlpools of water below;
The frail wooden balcony shook in the sound
Of the torrent. The mountains gloom'd sullenly round.
A candle one ray from a closed casement flung
O'er the dim balustrade all bewilder'd he hung,
Vaguely watching the broken and simmering blink
Of the stars on the veering and vitreous brink
Of that snake-like prone column of water; and listing
Aloof o'er the languors of air the persisting
Sharp horn of the grey gnat. Before he relinquish'd
His unconscious employment, that light was extinguish'd.
Wheels, at last, from the inn-door aroused him. He ran
Down the stairs, reached the entrance. An old stableman
Was lighting his pipe in the doorway alone.
Down the mountain; that moment a carriage was gone.
He could hear it, already too distant to see.
He turn'd to the groom there--
----------------------------- "Madame est partie."
He sprang from the doorstep; he rush'd on; but whither
He knew not -- on into the dark cloudy weather --
The midnight-- the mountains -- on, over the shelf
Of the precipice -- on, still-away from himself!
Till, exhausted, he sank 'mid the dead leaves and moss
At the mouth of the forest. A glimmering cross
Of grey stone stood for prayer by the woodside. He sank
Prayerless, powerless, clown at its base, 'mid the dank
Weeds and grasses; his face hid amongst them. He knew
That the night had divided his whole life in two.
* * * * *
So he lay there, like Lucifer, fresh from the sight
Of a heaven scaled and lost; in the wide arms of night
O'er the howling abysses of nothingness! There
As he lay, Nature's deep voice was teaching him prayer;
But what had he to pray to?
---------------------------- The winds in the woods,
The voices abroad o'er those vast solitudes,
Were in commune all round with the invisible Power
That walk'd the dim world by Himself at that hour.
But their language he had not yet learn'd -- in despite
Of the much he had learn'd -- or forgotten it quite,
With its once native accents. Alas! what had he
To add to that deep-toned sublime symphony
Of thanksgiving?... A fiery finger was still
Scorching into his heart some dread sentence. His will,
Like a wind that is put to no purpose, was wild
At its work of destruction within him. The child
Of an infidel age, he had been his own god,
His own devil.
--------------- He sat on the clamp mountain sod,
And stared sullenly up at the dark sky. The clouds
Had heap'd themselves over the bare west in crowds
Of misshapen, incongruous portents. A green
Streak of dreary, cold luminous ether, between
The base of their black barricades, and the ridge
Of the grim world gleam'd ghastly, as under some bridge,
Cyclop-sized, in a city of ruins o'erthrown
By sieges forgotten, some river, unknown
And unnamed, widens on into desolate lands.
While he gazed that cloud-city invisible hands
Dismantled and rent; and reveal'd through a loop
In the breach'd dark, the blemmish'd and half-broken hoop
Of the moon, which soon silently sank; and anon
The whole supernatural pageant was gone.
The wide night, discomforted, conscious of loss,
Darken'd round him. One object alone -- that grey cross
Glimmer'd faint on the dark. Gazing up, he descried
Through the void air, its desolate arms outstretch'd wide,
As though to embrace him.
---------------------------- He turned from the sight,
Set his face to the darkness, and fled.
Even from the hints and indications of the texture of the story, which alone we find it prudent or possible to offer,-- the reader has divined that only sorrow and distemperature, and long years of heart-ache could come for the two men (the one marrying in pique, the other growing middle-aged betwixt vengeance and cynicism) and for the woman who was the object of a passion in both something fitful. So far as outward appearances go, the woman (alas that this should be so frequent) "went to the wall."-- The men ruffled through life, each asserting himself.-- They were again and again brought into collision, and again and again protected from each other by the lonely Lucile. After a lapse of time the Englishman lost his fortune (owing to having invested his money in a bank, kept by a sanctimonious banker). The Frenchman took to family pride and military glory. The son of the Englishman and the daughter of the Frenchman fell in love. They were separated -- prohibited from thinking of each other. The boy took service in the Crimea , and when like to die, was tended by a nursing nun. This had been Lucile, later called Sister Seraphine. She learned his secret; and by the might of the persuasion of one so suffering and religious, so purified by her grievous heart-sorrow,-- the old rivalry and animosity were subdued.-- The children of her two adorers were united; and she vanished into the shadow of her own self-sacrificing life, followed by their blessings. There are portions of the latter part of this novel hardly to be read without tears, even by those whose conviction of the eccentricity of its style is as resolute as our own.
It remains to be seen whether this revival of poetical novels will spread; for merely revival it is. That absurd, yet gifted and somewhat prescient woman, Anna Seward, was first in the field some sixty years since with her 'Louisa.' And what are Crabbe's Tales but novels in rhyme? Those, however, who mean to pourtray the follies as they fly of modern times, and to set down the people whom we met at church last Sunday, or at market the day before, or the Lady Waldemars who go “to blue parties" throughout the season, might study with serious and lasting profit ‘The Frank Courtship,' 'The Patron,' ‘The Sisters' -- not merely in regard to neatness of marking character, but to sincerity in pathos and unaffected finish of language.
Last revised: 18 August 2010