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Mrs. Margaret L. Woods
by [?]

But in bringing her Vagabonds into relation with ordinary English life, Mrs. Woods loses all, or nearly all, of that esoteric professional interest which, at first sight, would seem the chief reason for choosing circus people to write about. The story of Les Frères Zemganno has, as I have said, this esoteric professional interest. The story of The Vagabonds is the story of a husband and of a young wife who does not love him, but discovers that she loves another man–a story as old as the hills and common to every rank and every calling. Mrs. Woods has made the husband a middle-aged clown, the wife a girl with strict notions about respectability, and the lover, Fritz, a handsome young German gymnast. But there was no fundamental reason for this choice of professions. The tale might be every bit as true of a grocer, and a grocer’s wife, and a grocer’s assistant. Once or twice, indeed, in the earlier chapters we have promise of a more peculiar story when we read of Mrs. Morris’s objection to seeing her husband play the clown. “No woman,” she says, “that hadn’t been brought up to the business would like to see her husband look like that.” And of Joe Morris we read that he took an artistic pride in his clowning. But there follows no serious struggle between love and art–no such struggle, for instance, as Zola has worked out to tragic issues in his L’Œuvre. Mrs. Morris’s shame at her husband’s ridiculous appearance merely heightens the contrast in her eyes between him and the handsome young gymnast.

But though the circus-business is not essential, Mrs. Woods makes most effective use of it. I will select one notable illustration of this. When Mrs. Morris at length makes her confession–it is in the wagon, and at night–the unhappy husband wraps her up carefully in her bed and creeps away with his grief to the barn where Chang, a ferocious elephant amenable only to him, has been stabled:–

“He opened the door; the barn was pitch dark, but as he entered he could hear the noise of the chain which had been fastened to the elephant’s legs being suddenly dragged. He spoke to Chang, and the noise ceased. Then running up a short ladder which was close to the door, he threw himself down on the straw and stared up into the darkness, which to his aching eyes seemed spangled with many colours. Presently he was startled by something warm touching him on the face.

“‘Who’s there?’ he called out.

“There was no answer, but the soft thing, something like a hand, felt him cautiously and caressingly all over.

“‘Oh, it’s you, Chang, my boy, is it?’ said Joe. ‘What! are you glad to have me, old chappie? No humbug about yer, are yer sure? No lies?'”

The circus-business is employed again in the catastrophe: but, to my mind, far less happily. In spite of very admirable writing, there remains something ridiculous in the spectacle of an injured husband, armed with a Winchester rifle and mounted on a frantic elephant, pursuing his wife’s lover by moonlight across an English common and finally “treeing” him up a sign-post. Mrs. Woods, indeed, means it to be grotesque: but I think it is something more.

The problem of the story is the commonest in fiction. And when I add that the injured husband has been married before and that his first wife, honestly supposed to be dead, returns to threaten his happiness, you will see that Mrs. Woods sets forth upon a path trodden by many hundreds of thousands of incompetent feet. To start with such a situation almost suggests bravado. If it be bravado, it is entirely justified as the tale proceeds: for amid the crowd of failures Mrs. Woods’s solution wears the singular distinction of truth. That the book is written in restrained and beautiful English goes without saying: but the best tribute one can pay to the writing of it is to say that its style and its truthfulness are at one. If complaint must be made, it is the vulgar complaint against truth–that it leaves one a trifle cold. A less perfect story might have aroused more emotion. Yet I for one would not barter the pages that tell of Joe Morris’s final surrender of his wife–with their justness of imagination and sobriety of speech–for any amount of pity and terror.

A word on the few merely descriptive passages in the book. Mrs. Woods’s scene-painting has all a Frenchman’s accomplishment with the addition of that open-air feeling and intimate knowledge of the phenomena of “out-of-doors” which a Frenchman seldom or never attains to. Though not, perhaps, her strongest gift, it is the one by which she stands most conspicuously above her contemporaries. The more credit, then, that she uses it so temperately.


[A] The Vagabonds. By Margaret L. Woods. London: Smith, Elder & Co.