People still go on comparing Thackeray and Dickens, quite cheerfully. But the fashion of comparing Maltby and Braxton went out so long ago as 1795. No, I am wrong. But anything that happened in the bland old days before the war does seem to be a hundred more years ago than actually it is. The year I mean is the one in whose spring-time we all went bicycling (O thrill!) in Battersea Park, and ladies wore sleeves that billowed enormously out from their shoulders, and Lord Rosebery was Prime Minister.
In that Park, in that spring-time, in that sea of sleeves, there was almost as much talk about the respective merits of Braxton and Maltby as there was about those of Rudge and Humber. For the benefit of my younger readers, and perhaps, so feeble is human memory, for the benefit of their elders too, let me state that Rudge and Humber were rival makers of bicycles, that Hilary Maltby was the author of `Ariel in Mayfair,’ and Stephen Braxton of `A Faun on the Cotswolds.’
`Which do you think is REALLY the best–”Ariel” or “A Faun”?’ Ladies were always asking one that question. `Oh, well, you know, the two are so different. It’s really very hard to compare them.’ One was always giving that answer. One was not very brilliant perhaps.
The vogue of the two novels lasted throughout the summer. As both were `firstlings,’ and Great Britain had therefore nothing else of Braxton’s or Maltby’s to fall back on, the horizon was much scanned for what Maltby, and what Braxton, would give us next. In the autumn Braxton gave us his secondling. It was an instantaneous failure. No more was he compared with Maltby. In the spring of ‘96 came Maltby’s secondling. Its failure was instantaneous. Maltby might once more have been compared with Braxton. But Braxton was now forgotten. So was Maltby.
This was not kind. This was not just. Maltby’s first novel, and Braxton’s, had brought delight into many thousands of homes. People should have paused to say of Braxton “Perhaps his third novel will be better than his second,” and to say as much for Maltby. I blame people for having given no sign of wanting a third from either; and I blame them with the more zest because neither `A Faun on the Cotswolds’ nor `Ariel in Mayfair’ was a merely popular book: each, I maintain, was a good book. I don’t go so far as to say that the one had `more of natural magic, more of British woodland glamour, more of the sheer joy of life in it than anything since “As You Like It,”‘ though Higsby went so far as this in the Daily Chronicle; nor can I allow the claim made for the other by Grigsby in the Globe that `for pungency of satire there has been nothing like it since Swift laid down his pen, and for sheer sweetness and tenderness of feeling–ex forti dulcedo–nothing to be mentioned in the same breath with it since the lute fell from the tired hand of Theocritus.’ These were foolish exaggerations. But one must not condemn a thing because it has been over-praised. Maltby’s `Ariel’ was a delicate, brilliant work; and Braxton’s `Faun,’ crude though it was in many ways, had yet a genuine power and beauty. This is not a mere impression remembered from early youth. It is the reasoned and seasoned judgment of middle age. Both books have been out of print for many years; but I secured a second-hand copy of each not long ago, and found them well worth reading again.
From the time of Nathaniel Hawthorne to the outbreak of the war, current literature did not suffer from any lack of fauns. But when Braxton’s first book appeared fauns had still an air of novelty about them. We had not yet tired of them and their hoofs and their slanting eyes and their way of coming suddenly out of woods to wean quiet English villages from respectability. We did tire later. But Braxton’s faun, even now, seems to me an admirable specimen of his class–wild and weird, earthy, goat-like, almost convincing. And I find myself convinced altogether by Braxton’s rustics. I admit that I do not know much about rustics, except from novels. But I plead that the little I do know about them by personal observation does not confirm much of what the many novelists have taught me. I plead also that Braxton may well have been right about the rustics of Gloucestershire because he was (as so many interviewers recorded of him in his brief heyday) the son of a yeoman farmer at Far Oakridge, and his boyhood had been divided between that village and the Grammar School at Stroud. Not long ago I happened to be staying in the neighbourhood, and came across several villagers who might, I assure you, have stepped straight out of Braxton’s pages. For that matter, Braxton himself, whom I met often in the spring of ‘95, might have stepped straight out of his own pages.