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Mrs. Margaret L. Woods
by [?]

Turning to Mrs. Woods’s book and taking these two points in reverse order, we find to begin with that she idealizes nothing and softens next to nothing. Where she does soften, she softens only for literary effect–to give a word its due force, or a picture its proper values. She does not, for instance, accurately report the oaths and blasphemies:–

“The tents and booths of the show were disappearing rapidly like stage scenery. The red-faced Manager, Joe, and several others in authority, ran hither and thither shouting their orders to a crowd of workmen in jackets and fustian trousers, who were piling rolls of canvas, and heavy chests, and mountains of planks and long vibrating poles, on the great waggons. Others were harnessing the big powerful horses to the carts, horses that were mostly white, and wore large red collars. The scene was so busy, so full of movement, that it would have been exhilarating had not the fresh morning air been full of senseless blasphemies and other deformities of speech, uttered casually and constantly, without any apparent consciousness on the part of the speakers that they were using strong language. Probably the lady who dropped toads and vipers from her lips whenever she opened them came in process of time to consider them the usual accompaniments of conversation.”

There are a great many reasons against copious profanity of speech. Here you have the artistic reason, and, by implication, that which forbids its use in literature–namely, its ineffectiveness. But though she selects, Mrs. Woods does not refine. She exhibits the life of the travelling show in its habitual squalor as well as in its occasional brightness. How she has managed it passes my understanding: but her book leaves the impression of confident familiarity with this kind of life, of knowledge not merely accumulated, but assimilated. Knowing as we do that Mrs. Woods was not brought up in a circus, we infer that she must have spent much labor in research: but, taken by itself, her book permits no such inference. The truth is that in the case of a genuine artist no line can be drawn between knowledge and imagination. Probably–almost certainly–Mrs. Woods has to a remarkable degree that gift which Mr. Henry James describes as “the faculty which when you give it an inch takes an ell, and which for an artist is a much greater source of strength than any accident of residence or of place in the social scale … the power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern; the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing a particular corner of it.” Be this as it may, Mrs. Woods has written a novel which, for mastery of an unfamiliar milieu, is almost fit to stand beside Esther Waters. I say “almost”: for, although Mrs. Woods’s mastery is easier and less conscious than Mr. Moore’s, it neither goes so deep to the springs of action nor bears so intimately on the conduct of the story. But of this later.

If one thing more than another convinces me that Mrs. Woods has thoroughly realized these queer characters of hers, it is that she makes them so much like other people. Whatever our profession may be, we are generally silent upon the instincts that led us to adopt it–unless, indeed, we happen to be writers and make a living out of self-analysis. So these strollers are silent upon the attractiveness of their calling. But they crave as openly as any of us for distinction, and they worship “respectability” as heartily and outspokenly as any of the country-folk for whose amusement they tumble and pull faces. It is no small merit in this book that it reveals how much and yet how very little divides the performers in the ring from the audience in the sixpenny seats. I wish I had space to quote a particularly fine passage–you will find it on pp. 72-74–in which Mrs. Woods describes the progress of these motley characters through Midland lanes on a fresh spring morning; the shambling white horses with their red collars, the painted vans, the cages “where bears paced uneasily and strange birds thrust uncouth heads out into the sunshine,” the two elephants and the camel padding through the dust and brushing the dew off English hedges, the hermetically sealed omnibus in which the artistes bumped and dozed, while the wardrobe-woman, Mrs. Thompson, held forth undeterred on “those advantages of birth, house-rent, and furniture, which made her discomforts of real importance, whatever those of the other ladies in the show might be.”