It has seemed to us that value as well as interest would attach to critical estimates of and biographical notes upon, these representative Novelists, supplied by living mistresses of the craft; and we are glad to have been able to secure for the purpose, the services of the contributors to this volume, all of whom may claim to discourse with some authority upon the art they cultivate. [From the introduction to Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign]
In Barbara's History, in Lord Brackenbury, and in other stories by Miss [Amelia B] Edwards, there are beautiful and graphic descriptions of foreign scenery, and we meet plenty of foreign people; but we feel that the latter are described by an Englishwoman who has taken an immense amount of pains to make herself acquainted with their ways and their speech - they somewhat lack spontaneity. In the two novels named there are chapters so full of local history and association that one thinks it might be well to have the books for companions when visiting the places described; they are full of talent - in some places near akin to genius.
Barbara's History contains a great deal of genuine humour. It is a most interesting and exciting story, though in parts stagey; the opening chapters, indeed the whole of Barbara's stay at her great-aunt's farm of Stoneycroft, are so excellent that one cannot wonder the book was a great success. Now and again passages and characters remind one of Dickens; the great-aunt, Mrs. Sandyshaft, is a thorough Dickens woman, with a touch of the great master's exaggeration; Barbara's father is another Dickens character. There are power and passion as well as humour in this book, but in spite of its interest it becomes fatiguing when Barbara leaves her aunt and the hundred pigs.
There is remarkable truth of characterisation in some of this writer's novels. Hugh Farquhar is sometimes an eccentric bore, but he is real. Barbara Churchill at times is wearyingly pedantic; then, again, she is just as delightfully original - her first meeting with Mrs. Sandyshaft is so inimitable that I must transcribe a part of it.
A rich old aunt has invited Barbara Churchill, a neglected child of ten years old, to stay with her in Suffolk. Barbara is the youngest of Mr. Churchill's three girls, and she is not loved by either her widowed father or her sisters, though an old servant named Goody dotes on the child. Barbara is sent by stage-coach from London to Ipswich:
"Dashing on between the straggling cottages, and up a hill so closely shaded by thick trees that the dusk seems to thicken suddenly tonight, we draw up all at once before a great open gate, leading to a house of which I can only see the gabled outline and the lighted windows.
"The guard jumps down; the door is thrown open; and two persons, a man and a woman, come hurrying down the path.
"'One little girl and one box, as per book,' says the guard, lifting me out and setting me down in the road, as if I were but another box, to be delivered as directed.
"'From London?' asks the woman sharply.
"'From London,' replies the guard, already scrambling back to his seat; 'All right, ain't it?'
"Whereupon the coach plunges on again into the dusk; the man shoulders my box as though it were a feather; and the woman who looks strangely gaunt and grey by this uncertain light, seizes me by the wrist and strides away towards the house at a pace that my cramped and weary limbs can scarcely accomplish.
"Sick and bewildered, I am hurried into a cheerful room where the table is spread as if for tea and supper, and a delicious perfume of coffee and fresh flowers fills the air; and--and, all at once even in the moment when I am first observing them, these sights and scents grow all confused and sink away together, and I remember nothing... when I recover, I find myself laid upon a sofa, with my cloak and bonnet off, my eyes and mouth full of Eau de Cologne, and my hands smarting under a volley of slaps, administered by a ruddy young woman on one side, and by the same gaunt person who brought me in from the coach on the other. Seeing me look up, they both desist; and the latter, drawing back a step or two, as if to observe me to greater advantage, puts on an immense pair of heavy gold spectacles, stares steadily for some seconds, and and at length says:
"'What did you mean by that now?'
"Unprepared for so abrupt a question, I lie as if fascinated by her bright grey eyes, and cannot utter a syllable.
"'Are you better?'
"Still silent, I bow my head feebly, and keep looking at her.
"'Hey now. Am I a basilisk? Are you dumb, child?'
"Wondering why she speaks to me thus, and being, moreover, so very weak and tired, what can I do, but try in vain to answer, and failing in the effort, burst into tears again? Hereupon she frowns, pulls off her glasses, shakes her head angrily, and, saying: 'That's done to aggravate me, I know it is,' stalks away to the window, and stands there grimly, looking out upon the night. The younger woman, with a world of kindness in her rosy face... whispers me not to cry.
"'That child's hungry,' says the other coming suddenly back. 'That's what's the matter with her. She's hungry, I know she is, and I won't be contradicted. Do you hear me, Jane? - I won't be contradicted.'
"'Indeed, ma'am, I think she is hungry, and tired too, poor little thing.'
"'Tired and hungry!... Mercy alive, then why don't she eat? Here's food enough for a dozen people. Child, what will you have? Ham, cold chicken pie, bread, butter, cheese, tea, coffee, ale?'
" ...Everything tastes delicious; and not even the sight of the gaunt housekeeper... has power to spoil my enjoyment.
"For she is the housekeeper, beyond a doubt. Those heavy gold spectacles, that sad-coloured gown, that cap with its plain close bordering can belong to no one but a housekeeper. Wondering within myself that she should be so disagreeable; then where my aunt herself can be; why she has not yet come to welcome me; how she will receive me when she does come; and whether I shall have presence of mind enough to remember all the curtseys I have been drilled to make, and all the speeches I have been taught to say, I find myself eating as though nothing at all had been the matter with me, and even staring now and then quite confidently at my opposite neighbour... Left alone now with the sleeping dogs and the housekeeper - who looks as if she never slept in her life - I find the evening wearisome. Observing too that she continues to look at me in the same grim imperturbable way, and seeing no books anywhere about, it occurs to me that a little conversation would perhaps be acceptable, and that, as I am her mistress's niece, it is my place to speak first.
"'If you please, ma'am,' I begin after a long hesitation.
"Somewhat disconcerted by the sharpness and suddenness of this interruption, I pause, and take some moments to recover myself.
"'If you please, ma'am, when am I to see my aunt?'
"'Hey? What? Who?'
"'My aunt, if you please, ma'am?'
"'Mercy alive! and pray who do you suppose I am?'
"'You, ma'am,' I falter, with a vague uneasiness impossible to describe; 'are you not the housekeeper?'
"To say that she glares vacantly at me from behind her spectacles, loses her very power of speech, and grows all at once quite stiff and rigid in her chair, is to convey but a faint picture of the amazement with which she receives this observation.
"'I,' she gasps at length, 'I! Gracious me, child, I am your aunt.' I feel my countenance become an utter blank. I am conscious of turning red and white, hot and cold, all in one moment. My ears tingle; my heart sinks within me; I can neither speak nor think. A dreadful silence follows, and in the midst of this silence my aunt, without any kind of warning, bursts into a grim laugh, and says:
"'Barbara, come and kiss me.'
"I could have kissed a kangaroo just then, in the intensity of my relief; and so getting up quite readily, touch her gaunt cheek with my childish lips, and look the gratitude I dare not speak. To my surprise she draws me closer to her knee, passes one hand idly through my hair, looks not unkindly, into my wondering eyes, and murmurs more to herself than me, the name of 'Barbara.'
"This gentle mood is, however, soon dismissed, and as if ashamed of having indulged it, she pushes me away, frowns, shakes her head, and says quite angrily:
"'Nonsense, child, nonsense. It's time you went to bed.'"
[Next morning at breakfast.]
"'Your name,' said my aunt, with a little off-hand nod, 'is Bab. Remember that.'" ... [Mrs. Sandyshaft asks her great niece why she took her for the housekeeper; the child hesitates, and at last owns that it was because of her dress.]
"'N-no, ma'am, not shabby; but...'
"'But what? You must learn to speak out, Bab. I hate people who hesitate.'
"'But Papa said you were so rich, and...'
"'Ah! He said I was rich did he? Rich! Oho! And what more, Bab? What more? Rich indeed! Come, you must tell me. What else did he say when he told you I was rich?'
"'N--nothing more, ma'am,' I replied, startled and confused by her sudden vehemence. 'Indeed nothing more.'
"'Bab!' said my aunt bringing her hand down so heavily upon the table that the cups and saucers rang again, 'Bab, that's false. If he told you I was rich, he told you how to get my money by-and-by. He told you to cringe and fawn, and worm yourself into my favour, to profit by my death, to be a liar, a flatterer, and a beggar, and why? Because I am rich. Oh yes, because I am rich.'
"I sat as if stricken into stone, but half comprehending what she meant, and unable to answer a syllable.
"'Rich indeed!' she went on, excited more and more by her own words and stalking to and fro between the window and the table, like one possessed. 'Aha! we shall see, we shall see. Listen to me, child. I shall leave you nothing - not a farthing. Never expect it - never hope for it. If you are good and true, and I like you, I shall be a friend to you while I live; but if you are mean and false, and tell me lies, I shall despise you. Do you hear? I shall despise you, send you home, never speak to you, or look at you again. Either way, you will get nothing by my death. Nothing - nothing!'
"My heart swelled within me - I shook from head to foot. I tried to speak and the words seemed to choke me.
"'I don't want it,' I cried passionately. 'I - I am not mean. I have told no lies - not one.'
"My aunt stopped short, and looked sternly down upon me, as if she would read my very soul.
"'Bab,' said she, 'do you mean to tell me that your father said nothing to you about why I may have asked you here, or what might come of it? Nothing? Not a word?'
"'He said it might be for my good - he told Miss Whymper to make me curtsey and walk better, and come into a room properly; he said he wished me to please you. That was all. He never spoke of money, or of dying, or of telling lies - never.'
"'Well then,' retorted my aunt, sharply, 'he meant it.'
"Flushed and trembling in my childish anger, I sprang from my chair and stood before her, face to face.
"'He did not mean it,' I cried. 'How dare you speak so of Papa? How dare....'
"I could say no more, but, terrified at my own impetuosity, faltered, covered my face with both hands, and burst into an agony of sobs.
"'Bab,' said my aunt, in an altered voice, 'little Bab,' and took me all at once in her two arms, and kissed me on the forehead.
"My anger was gone in a moment. Something in her tone, in her kiss, in my own heart, called up a quick response; and nestling close in her embrace, I wept passionately. Then she sat down, drew me on her knee, smoothed my hair with her hand, and comforted me as if I had been a little baby.
"'So brave,' said she, 'so proud, so honest. Come, little Bab, you and I must be friends.'
"And we were friends from that minute; for from that minute a mutual confidence and love sprang up between us. Too deeply moved to answer her in words, I only clung the closer, and tried to still my sobs. She understood me.
"'Come,' said she, after a few seconds of silence, 'let's go and see the pigs.'"
The sketch of Hilda Churchill is very good, and so is that of the Grand Duke of Zollenstrasse. Taken as a whole, if we leave out the concluding chapters, Barbara's History is a stirring, original, and very amusing book, full of historical and topographical information, written in terse and excellent English, and very rich in colour - the people in it are so wonderfully alive.
* * *
Lord Brackenbury is very clever and full of pictures, but it lacks the brightness and the originality of Barbara's History. Amelia B. Edwards wrote several other novels - Half a Million of Money, Miss Carew, Debenham's Vow, &c. &c. She also published a collection of short tales - Monsieur Maurice, etc. - and a book of ballads. Born in 1831, she began to write at a time when sensational stories were in fashion, and produced a number of exciting stories - "The Four-fifteen Express," "The Tragedy in the Bardello Palace," "The Patagonian Brothers" - all extremely popular; though, when we read them now, they seem wanting in the insight into human nature so remarkably shown in some of her novels.
She was a distinguished Egyptologist, and the foundation in 1883 of the Egypt Exploration Fund was largely due to her efforts; she became one of the secretaries to this enterprise, and wrote a good deal on Egyptian subjects for European and American periodicals. She wrote and illustrated some interesting travel books, especially her delightful A Thousand Miles up the Nile, and an account of her travels in 1872 among the - at that time - rarely visited Dolomites. The latter is called Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys: it is interesting, but not so bright as the Nile book.
When one considers that a large part of her output involved constant and laborious research - that for the purposes of many of the books she had to take long and fatiguing journeys - the amount of good work she accomplished is very remarkable; the more so, because she was not only a writer, but an active promoter of some of the public movements of her time. She was a member of the Biblical Archæological Society - a member, too, of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Literature. Then she entered into the woman's question, not so popular in those days as it is in these, and was vice-president of a Society for promoting Women's Suffrage.
It is difficult to understand how in so busy and varied a life she could have found sufficient leisure for writing fiction; but she had a very large mental grasp, and probably as large a power of concentration. Remembering that she was an omnivorous reader, a careful student, possessed too of an excellent memory, we need not wonder at the fulness and richness of her books.
From Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign: A Book of Appreciations (Ballantyne, Hanson & Co: London, 1897).
Amelia B. Edwards (1831 - 1892) is currently being celebrated by the Egypt Exploration Society in advance of her official English Heritage blue plaque being revealed. Learn more here.
Katharine S. Macquoid (1824 - 1917) was, like Ms Edwards, a travel writer and novelist, and author of over sixty books.