Review of Lucile in
The English Woman's Journal (London) vol. 32:6 (1860), 131-137
XX.--NOTICES OF BOOKS.
Lucile. By Owen Meredith. Chapman and Hall.
IF it be necessary in these railroad days to apologize for reviewing a book which is already six months old or rather, let us say, to apologize for not having reviewed it before, a writer in this Journal might fitly allege that its province is not merely to review current literature as such,-- and that a thoughtful poem which it must indeed have taken many months to write, may well be allowed also many months in which to circulate, receiving its tribute of ordinary praise and criticism from the press, and its measure of discussion from the mouths of numerous readers, before those who study it with a special interest and curiosity like ours, ask what effect it is likely to produce:--
Lucile is a romance in verse ;-- a rapid passionate story, which ends far more seriously than it begins, a compromise between a French novel and Evangeline, or Aurora Leigh. This double element is most curious;-- the world of wealth and fashion and sentiment touching on what people are now wont to call "the problems of the age”;-- though we suspect they have been very much the problem of every age; only we in England in this nineteenth century are apt to consider that we possess a monoply of the "earnestness" of the last two thousand years; Owen Meredith touches whimsically enough on this very topic in the following lines; yet he hardly does himself and his aims justice; for he becomes very serious and even philanthropic in the latter half of his poem.
And the erudite ladies who take, now and then,
Tea and toast, with aesthetics, precisely at ten,
Have avouch'd that my song is not earnest because
Model schools, lodging-houses for paupers, poor laws,
The progress of woman, the great working classes,
All the age is concern’d in, unnoticed it passes.
And Miss Tilburina, who sings, and not badly
My earlier verses, sighs “Commonplace sadly!"
Tell them, tell them, my song is as old as 'tis new,
And aver that 'tis earnest because it is true.
Strip from Fashion the garment she wears: what remains
But the old human heart, with its joys and its pains?
Owen Meredith, in the latter half of his poem is, with or without his own consent, "brought to book” upon the serious and prosy questions he disclaims. How, indeed, shall he redeem his hero, in these latter days, without giving him a tinge of the philanthropic dye? And one of the finest and most forcible passages in the work is that wherein is described the many-acred and long-descended country gentleman plodding out the sunshiny months on wearisome parliamentary committees; uncheered by interest, for he takes none in their doing; untempted by ambition, for he desires no peerage; unstimulated by ambition, for his common sense assures him he has no genius for politics. Yet contentedly leaving his country sports, his simple home pleasures, his dignity of the great man of his district, to merge himself in a crowd where he counts only as “a vote,” simply because it is his duty to represent his country.
The plot of Lucile is laid in the highest realms of fashion. A duke, and a lord, and a countess are the prominent dramatis personae. The scene is laid firstly in the Pyreness, at the small town where idlers resort for the air and the water; secondly at Ems; thirdly, before Sebastopol. The story is painful in its insight, in its intensity, and in the continuous tension of the deepest feelings from first to last; fortunately for the actors it is spread over the space of some years. The reader is apt sometimes to gasp for air and sunlight and the common need of common days. Such life, such love, such grief would surely wear this mortal frame away, was what we thought in reading Lucile. We learn from a retrospective conversation that the young Comtesse de Nevers, half French and half East Indian by birth, had been betrothed when quite a girl to Lord Alfred Vargrave, the younger son of an English noble house. But she is too fond and he too fickle, and they part thus:--
Oh, the tale is soon spoken.
She bored me. I show'd it. She saw it. What next?
She reproach'd. I retorted. Of course she was vex'd.
I was vex'd that she was so. She sulk'd. So did I.
If I ask'd her to sing, she look'd ready to cry.
I was contrite, submissive. She soften'd. I harden'd.
At noon I was banish'd. At eve I was pardon'd.
She said I had no heart. I said she had no reason.
I swore she talk'd nonsense. She sobb'd I talk'd treason.
In short, my dear fellow, 'twas time, as you see,
Things should come to a crisis, and finish. 'Twas she
By whom to that crisis the matter was brought.
She released me. I linger'd. I linger'd, she thought,
With too sullen an aspect. This gave me, of course,
The occasion to fly in a rage, mount my horse,
And declare myself uncomprehended. And so
We parted. The rest of the story you know.
Well, we parted. Of course we could not
Continue to meet, as before, in one spot.
You conceive it was awkward? Even Don Ferdinando
Can do, you remember, no more than he can do.
I think that I acted exceedingly well,
Considering the time when this rupture befell,
For Paris was charming just then. It deranged
All my plans for the winter. I ask'd to be changed--
Wrote for Naples, then vacant -- obtain'd it -- and so
Join'd my new post at once; but scarce reach'd it, when lo!
My first news from Paris informs me Lucile's ill, and in danger.
Conceive what I feel. I fly back. I find her recover'd, but yet
Looking pale. I am seized with a contrite regret;
I ask to renew the engagement.
Reflects, but declines. We part, swearing to be
Friends ever, friends only. All that sort of thing!
We each keep our letters . . . a portrait . . . a ring . . .
With a pledge to return them whenever the one
Or the other shall call for them back.
Ten years later, Lord Alfred is on the verge of marriage with Matilda Darcy when Lucile hearing of his engagement by chance, desires to restore to him these letters, and to receive from him a similar packet. He rides over to the village w ere she is staying, and finds that what he once despised has become the most charming and delightful of unattainable treasures. The passionate undisciplined girl, who loved him too much to retain him, has become the self-possessed and fascinating woman, who 1oves him still. So much he discovers ere they part; and he offers to throw over Miss Darcy, and to fling himself once more at the feet of Lucile; but, to his amazement, she rejects him, and bids him fulfil his engagement. Yet, we are led to suppose he would have persevered and won her, but for the machinations of the bad duke, a disappointed lover of Lucile's. Lord Alfred is separated from Lucile by a look. It is curious that this is the second novel of this year in which the plot hinges on a look. In Hawthorne's "Transformation," the murder on the Tarpeian Rock is represented as born in Miriam's eyes ere it is realized by her lover Donatello's hands. Let human feeling only be sufficiently acute to perceive, and it is no fiction that one glance may turn the current of a life.
We give a long extract describing Lucile at the moment when Lord Alfred renews the intercourse between them. She is supposed to be nearer thirty than twenty years of age. The bitter trial of her youth has left her what the poet thus paints in vigorous and beautiful verse:--
Lucile de Nevers (if her riddle I read)
Was a woman of genius: whose genius, indeed,
In the abstract, nor yet in the abstract mere woman:
But THE WOMAN OF GENIUS, essentially human,
Yet for ever at war with her own human nature.
The genius, now fused in the woman gave stature
And strength to her sex; now the woman, at war
Wiith the genius, impeded its flight to the star.
As it is with all genius, the essence and soul
Of her nature was truth. When she sought to control,
Or to stifle, or palter in aught with that truth,
“Twas when life seem’d to grant it no issues.
One occasion had known, when, if fused in another,
That tumult of soul, which she now sought to smother,
Finding scope within man’s larger life, and conroll’d
By man’s clearer judgment perchance might have roll’d
Into channels enriching the troubled existence
Which it now only vex’d with an inward resistance.
But that chance fell too soon, when the crude sense of power
Which had been to her nature so fatal a dower,
Was too fierce and unfashion’d to fuse itself yet
In the life of another, and served but to fret
And to startle the man it yet haunted and thrall’d;
And that moment, once lost, had never been recall’d.
But it left her heart sore; and to shelter her heart
From approach, she then sought, in that delicate art
Of concealment, those thousand adroit strategies
Of feminine wit, which repel while they please,
A weapon, at once, and a shield, to conceal
And defend all that woman can earnestly feel.
Thus, striving her instincts to hide and repress,
She felt frighten'd at times by her very success:
She pined for the hill-tops, the clouds, and the stars:
Golden wires may annoy us as much as steel bars
If they keep us behind prison-windows: impassion'd
Her heart rose and burst the light cage she had fashion'd
Out of glittering trifles around it.
Wings of desolate flight, and soar’d up from the world.
In this dual identity possibly lay
The secret and charm of her singular sway
Over men of the world. ‘Twas the genius, all warm
With the woman, that gave to the woman a charm
Indescribably strange; there appear’d in her life
A puzzle, a mystery – something at strife
With such men, which yet thrall’d and enchain’d them in part,
And, perplexing the fancy, still haunted the heart.
That intensity, earnestness, depth, or veracity,
Which starward impell’d her with such pertinacity
As turns to the loadstar the needle, reflected
Itself upon others: she therefore affected
Unconsciously, those amongst whom she was thrown,
As the magnet the metals it neighbors.
To herself, all her instincts, without hesitation,
Embraced the idea of self-immolation.
Unlike man’s stern intellect, which, while it stands
Aloof from the minds that it sways and commands
By a power wrench’d from labor, sublimely compels
All around and beneath the high sphere where it dwells
To its fix’d and imperial purpose; in her
The soft spirit of woman that seeks to confer
Its sweet self on the loved, had her life but been blended
With some man’s whose heart had her own comprehended,
All its wealth at his feet would have lavishly thrown.
For him she had then been ambitious alone:
For him had aspired; in him had transfused
All the gladness and grace of her nature; and used
For him only the spells of its delicate power:
Like the ministering fairy that brings from her bower
To some mage all the treasures, whose use the fond elf,
More enrich’d by her love, disregards for herself.
But standing apart, as she ever had done,
And her genius, which needed a vent, finding none
In the broad fields of action thrown wide to man’s power,
She unconsciously made it her bulwark and tower,
And built in it her refuge, whence lightly she hurl’d
Her contempt at the fashions and forms of the world.
And indeed, her chief fault was this unconscious scorn
Of the world, to whose usages woman is born,
Not the WORLD, where that word implies all human nature,
The creator’s great gift to the needs of the creature:
That large heart, with its sorrow to solace, its care
To assuage, and its grant aspirations to share:
But the world, with encroachments that chafe and perplex,
With its men against man, and its sex against sex.
“Ah, what will the world say?” with her was a query
Never uttered, or uttered alone with a dreary
Rejection in thought of the answer before
It was heard: hence the thing which she sought to ignore
And escape from in thought, she encounter’d in act
By the blindness with which she opposed it.
Had Lucile found in life that communion which links
All that woman but dreams, feels, conceives of, and thinks,
With what man acts and is,-- concentrating the strength
Of her genius within her affections, at length
Finding woman’s full use through man’s life, by man’s skill
Readapted to forms fix’d for life, the strong will
And high heart which the world’s creeds now recklessly braved,
From the world’s crimes the man of the world would have saved;
Reconciled, as it were, the divine with the human,
And, exalting the man, have completed the woman.
But the permanent cause why she now miss'd and fail'd
That firm hold upon life she so keenly assail'd,
Was, in all those diurnal occasions that place
The world and the woman opposed face to face,
Where the woman must yield, she, refusing to stir,
Offended the world, which in turn wounded her.
For the world is a nettle; disturb it, it stings:
Grasp it firmly, it stings not. On one of two things,
If you would not be stung, it behoves you to settle:
Avoid it, or crush it. She crush'd not the nettle;
For she could not; nor would she avoid it: she tried
With the weak hand of woman to thrust it aside,
And it stung her. A woman is too slight a thing
To trample the world without feeling its sting.
Such is the woman whose life is a second time made desolate. She returns to India, “once more to the palm and the fountain,” and there lingers for three years, at the end of which time the scene of the romance again unfolds at Ems, where all the actors are gathered upon the scene. Lord Alfred is there with his beautiful English wife.
Love, roaming, shall meet
But rare a nature more sound or more sweet,
Eyes brighter, brows whiter, a figure more fair,
Or lovelier lengths of more radiant hair,
Than thine, Lady Alfred!
Yet she does not satisfy the needs of his heart.
Lord Alfred missed something he sought; for indeed,
The more that he missed it, the greater the need:
Till it seemed to himself he could willingly spare
All the charms that he found for the one charm not there.
And so it comes to pass, that he yearns more and more to Lucile, whom he meets at roulette.
Ah, well that pale woman a phantom might seem,
Who appeared to herself but the dream of a dream!
* * * *
The brief morn of beauty was passing away,
And the chill of the twilight fell, silent and grey,
O’er that deep, self-perceived isolation of soul,
And now, as all round her the dim evening stole
With its weird desolations, she inward grieved
For the want of that tender assurance received
From the warmth of a whisper, the glance of an eye,
Which should say, or should look, ‘Fear thou nought – I am by.’”
All this while the "bad duke,'" bitterly smarting from his rejection by Lucile three years before, revenges himself on Lord Alfred by flirting with Matilda. We have thus an entanglement growing thicker and. thicker every day, till it is cut through by the sweet and noble decision of Lucile, who takes advantage of her power to unite the husband and wife, and to convert the bad duke; disappearing herself into a mysterious obscurity, whence she emerges before Sebastopol in the garb of a Sister of Charity.
The poem is written in light lively verse, which often rises into the sublime. There is an ease and vigor about it which reminds one often of Byron. Owen Meredith sports with his language, and constrains it to do his bidding. Yet hear his confession; English is not his favorite tongue:
But the language of languages dearest to me
Is that in which once, O ma toute chérie,
When, together, we bent o'er your nosegay for hours,
You explained what was silently said by the flowers,
And, selecting the sweetest of all, sent a flame
Through my heart, as, in laughing, you murmur’d je t'aime.
* * * * * * *
But, by Belus and Babel! I never have heard,
And I never shall hear (I well know it), one word
Of that delicate idiom of Paris without
Feeling morally sure, beyond question or doubt,
By the wild way in which my heart inwardly flutter'd,
That my heart’s native tongue to my heart had been utter'd.”
Last revised: 20 August 2010