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Mrs. Margaret L. Woods
by [?]

“It had none of the dim impressiveness of a mediæval church, that seems reared with a view to Heaven rather than Earth, and whose arches, massive or soaring, neither gain nor lose by the accidental presence of ephemeral human creatures below them. No, the building seemed to cry out for a congregation, and the mind’s eye involuntarily peopled it with its Sunday complement of substantial citizens and their families.”

This is not a picturesque but a reflective description. Yet how it illuminates! If we had never thought of it before we know now, once and for all, the essential difference between a Gothic church and one of Wren’s building. And further, since Mrs. Woods is writing of an age that slighted Gothic for the architecture of Wren and his followers, we get a brilliant side-flash to help our comprehension. It is a hint only, but it assures us as we read that we are in the eighteenth century, when men and women were of more account than soaring aspirations.

And the conclusion is that if Mrs. Woods could not conquer the difficulties which beset any attempt to make protagonists of two historical characters, if she was obliged to follow the facts to the detriment of composition, she has vitalized and recreated a dead age in a fashion to make us all wonder. Esther Vanhomrigh is a great feat, and its authoress is one of the few of whom almost anything may be expected.

* * * * *

Jan. 26, 1895. “The Vagabonds.”

In her latest book,[A] Mrs. Woods returns to that class of life–so far as life may be classified–which she handled so memorably in A Village Tragedy. There are differences, though. As the titles indicate, the life in the earlier story was stationary: in the latter it is nomadic–the characters are artistes in a travelling show. This at once suggests comparison with M. Edmond de Goncourt’s Les Frères Zemganno; or rather a contrast: for the two stories, conceived in very similar surroundings, differ in at least two vital respects.

Compared with “Les Frères Zemganno.”

For what, in short, is the story of Les Frères Zemganno? Two brothers, Gianni and Nello, tumblers in a show that travels round the village fairs and small country towns of France, are seized with an ambition to excel in their calling. They make their way to England, where they spend some years clowning in various circuses. Then they return to make their debut in Paris. Gianni has invented at length a trick act, a feat that will make the brothers famous. They are performing it for the first time in public, when a circus girl, who has a spite against Nello, causes him to fall and break both his legs. He can perform no more: and henceforward, as he watches his brother performing, a strange jealousy awakes and grows in him, causing him agony whenever Gianni touches a trapèze. Gianni discovers this and renounces his art.

Now here in the first place it is to be noted that the whole story depends upon the circus profession, and the brothers’ love for it and desire to excel in it. The catastrophe; Nello’s jealousy; Gianni’s self-sacrifice; are inseparable from the atmosphere of the book. The catastrophe is a professional catastrophe; the jealousy a professional jealousy; the sacrifice a sacrifice of a profession. And in the second place we know, even if we had not his own word for it, that M. de Goncourt–contrary to his habit–deliberately etherealized the atmosphere of the circus-ring and idealized the surroundings. He calls his tale an essay in poetic realism, “Je me suis trouvé dans une de ces heures de la vie, vieillissantes, maladives, l�ches devant le travail poignant et angoisseux de mes autres livres, en un état de l’�me où la vérité trop vraie m’était antipathique à moi aussi!–et j’ai fait cette fois de l’imagination dans du rêve mêlé à du souvenir.” We know from the Goncourt Journals exactly what is meant by “du souvenir.” We know that M. Edmond de Goncourt is but translating into the language of the circus-ring and symbolizing in the story of Gianni and Nello the story of his own literary collaboration with his brother Jules–a collaboration of quite singular intimacy, that ceased only with Jules’s death in 1870. Possibly, as M. Zola once suggested, M. Edmond de Goncourt did at first intend to depict the circus-life, after his wont, in true “naturalistic” manner, softening and extenuating nothing: but “par une délicatesse qui s’explique, il a reculé devant le milieu brutal de cirques, devant certaines laideurs et certaines monstruosités des personnages qu’il choisis-sait.” The two facts remain that in Les Frères Zemganno M. de Goncourt (1) made professional life in a circus the very blood and tissue of his story; and (2) that he softened the details of that life, and to a certain degree idealized it.