The Author of "John Halifax, Gentleman"

Title

The Author of "John Halifax, Gentleman"

Description

A biography of Dinah Craik, including Craik's views on the progress of women and on novel writing.

Creator

Sharp, Elizabeth A.

Date

January 1888

Type

biography

Coverage

pp. 110–114

Text

“And when I lie in the green kirkyard,
With the mould upon my breast,
Say not that she did well— or ill,
Only, ‘She did her best.’

This verse, written by the author of "John Halifax, Gentleman," reads now like an appeal to us to judge her work by the integrity of her purpose, rather than to weigh her writings in the balance with those of her contemporary novelists in order to ascertain their relative value. These four words, “She did her best," are the keynote of the whole tenor of the public and private life of Mrs. Craik. She did not work in order to court fame, but to do what she could to put straight the crooked places she saw in so many people's lives. Her desire was to win her way into the affections and lives of her readers, rather than to take a foremost place in the annals of literature. She gained her wish. Her books have had, and still have, a very large circulation, not only wherever the English language is spoken, but also in France, Germany, Greece, Russia, and Italy, into whose several languages they were translated. An Italian friend of Mrs. Craik recently told me that in the Government schools in Italy, of which she is one of the inspectors, Mrs. Craik's books are in constant demand, and are greatly appreciated as prizes. In Italy there is, as my informant remarked, a dearth of books suitable to the wants of young girls, and the works of Mrs. Craik, more than those of any other writer, supply this important need.

To those who had not the pleasure and honour of Mrs. Craik’s acquaintance, a slight description of her as the woman may be of interest, before brief consideration of her as an author. The personal record must needs be meagre, for Mrs. Craik always expressed herself as very averse from the publication of the private details of the life of any well-known person—man or woman. "Say of me only that I am sixty years old, and have been writing novels for forty," she wrote a year ago to an inquisitive correspondent. A few particulars, however, can be given to enable some of her innumerable readers better to realise what manner of woman was she whose fortunate lot it was to solace and brighten the lives of so many of her fellow-beings.

Dinah Maria Mulock was bom at Stoke-up on-Trent in 1826, and was of partial Irish descent. She was twenty-three when she published her first novel. Previously to this one or two magazine articles and stories had appeared, among others " Hyas the Athenian," and "Avillion," which were brought out in book form in 1833, under the title of "Avillion and other Tales.” It is the opinion of one of our leading critics that these two tales attain a higher level of poetic insight and imaginative conception than any of her later prose writings. During the composition of her best-known book she resided at Camden Town. A portion of the novel was written at Tewkesbury, in the old gabled inn overlooking the burial-ground that surrounds the ancient abbey; and the room that Miss Mulock occupied is still pointed out with pride to casual visitors.

In 1865 Miss Mulock married Mr. George Lillie Craik, one of the partners of the publishing firm of Messrs. Macmillan and Co., and son of George Lillie Craik, the historian and critic. She realised fully on this occasion how genuine and widespread were the respect and appreciation of her readers, from the numerous presents and congratulatory letters she received from unknown donors. One anonymous present in particular delighted her—a gold penholder, whereon was engraved the inscription: "John Halifax." In 1864 she had been granted a Civil List pension of £60 a year, in consideration of her services to literature. One of the most gratifying circumstances to her in her career as an author was her interview with the Queen at Windsor Castle. Her Majesty thanked her, in the name of her subjects, for the incalculable pleasure and benefit her writings had been to them. Since 1869 Mr. and Mrs. Craik resided at The Corner House, Shortlands, Kent This much-loved home was designed for the authoress by Mr. William Morris, and built practically from the proceeds of "John Halifax, Gentleman." There she died on the 12th of October last, in her sixty-first year. In accordance with her frequently-expressed wish, she was laid to rest in the not far-distant picturesque burial-ground of Keston Parish Church. Her death was due to failure of the action of the heart, a death she had always foreseen for herself, and one which she has allotted to special personages in her novels — Catherine Ogilvie, John Halifax, and the Mrs. Trevena of her latest novel, "King Arthur." The latter was published in 1886, and there is a curious similarity between her own death and that of Mrs. Trevena, a coincidence which suggests that she may have had a definite foreboding of what was to happen. Mrs. Trevena succumbs to a subtle form of heart complaint shortly before her adopted son's marriage, and Mrs. Craik's death took place four weeks from the date fixed for the marriage of her adopted daughter. Her last words were, "Oh, if I could live four weeks longer! But no matter, no matter."

These last words were in accordance with the spirit of her life and of her teachings, which, essentially Christian and optimistic, may be summed up in her own conviction and often-repeated assertion, that "We most of us have, more or less, to accept the will of Heaven, instead of our own will, and to go on our way resignedly—nay, cheerfully—knowing that, whether we see it or not, all is well." In accordance with this belief she conscientiously arranged the conduct of her life.

The routine of her life was regulated with the utmost circumspection. Method, order, punctuality, she held to be the only means towards a tnie economy of time; and against dilatoriness, procrastination, and "the deleterious habit of weakly hesitation from helpless indecision" she preached a constant crusade. "The gift of being able to know exactly what one wants, and the strength to use all lawful methods to get it, is one of the greatest blessings that can fall to the lot of a human being." She arranged her day in set portions, so that domestic matters, literary work, and social duties were carefully attended to in proportion to what she considered their importance.

In addition to The Corner House, Mrs. Craik had a pleasant residence at Dover, in the permanent charge of a housekeeper. When not using it herself she lent it to friends, to enable them, when seeking rest from arduous duties and renewal of health in the fresh sea air, to enjoy the additional luxury of home comforts. She was never tired of doing kind actions. Heart and hand were ever open to all in need, whether rich or poor, whom she considered to be deserving of help or advice; but in all cases where she believed no good would result from assistance she refused to give it. Possibly she may have been mistaken (there is none infallible in this respect) in determining that certain evils could not be cured, but she wisely recognised the extent of her capabilities of curing and helping others, and, wherever her sympathies were enlisted, assistance was insured.

Mrs. Craik's tastes were many-sided. She may, perhaps, be described as a woman of wide, rather than of deep, culture. She had a genuine love of art, and had herself a certain faculty of portraiture. Her familiar face will be missed at the fashionable spring "private views," especially at Burlington House and at the Grosvenor Gallery. Dr. Westland Marston, one of her oldest friends, has in his possession (I may mention here) a very good portrait of one of his daughters drawn by Mrs. Craik. She was much interested in the development of the drama in this country, and counted among her friends Mr. Irving, Mr. Wilson Barrett, Miss Mary Anderson, and other well-known actors and actresses. But among the fine arts her predilection was for music. She took special interest in the success of Mr. Campbell's efforts with his pupils at the Blind Normal School at Norwood, instituted mainly through the exertions of the blind head master himself. I am told also that in her youth she was no mean performer on the piano (that long-suffering instrument, whose tortures under the hand of weary, reluctant pupils are so pithily described in one of her essays); also that she sang with taste and even true dramatic expression, and I well remember hearing her sing "Rothesay Bay” with tender sweetness and pathos. The Irish melodies were among her favourite songs, and one in particular beginning, “Drink, drink to her who long has waked the poet's sigh."

In appearance Mrs. Craik was of medium height, with soft grey hair, benign grey eyes, a small mouth with a kindly, placid expression. By nature she was active and cheerful, not lacking in humour, courteous and kindly to all; an interesting conversationalist, possessing the somewhat rarely accompanying quality of being a good listener; a woman instinctively to be trusted; to the end young at heart and the confidant of young people. To her fictitious "Miss Tommy" she has unconsciously given many of the qualities which were markedly her own; so that in reading the description of Miss Tomasina Trotter we find a faithful picture of at least one side of the author's nature. All classes of society were of interest to her; and, in a limited sense, she was democratic in feeling. She welcomed every earnest endeavour wherever she encountered it, and at all times preached the honourableness of all true work. She did what lay in her power to break down ordinary class prejudices, though at the same time she had no desire to upset the existing order of things. She always expressed herself strongly against women "trenching on men's careers," with the one exception of the profession of medicine. But she set her face steadily against the party of progress who advocated "Women's Rights," expressing a strong antipathy to women speaking from platforms in order to advocate their own views; for she considered the position too public for the sex whose natural sphere she believed to be within the limits of the home. In this she was curiously out of touch with the great majority of her present audience, and perhaps it is to this more than to any other cause that is due the relaxation of her influence upon thoughtful readers of her own sex. Girls, however, should be taught, she wisely wrote, to fit other states than that of matrimony; they should learn to rely on themselves, and be trained to be thorough business women, for, adds the essayist, "the only women's right which it is advisable to impress on our girls is the right of independence." It is obvious that the teacher did not wholly realise that the doctrine of independence fully accepted must in many cases lead the pupil to adopt a course of thought or action much opposed to the teacher's principles. Set a stone rolling and it would be rash to predict the exact spot upon which it shall ultimately rest.

Mrs. Craik's writings are the expression of her life's experience—a life ordered in all simplicity and sincerity, gentle, and patient. The same spirit pervades her books. She did not, as she has written of certain authors, present the cream of herself to her public, and reserve only the skim milk for her private life. Her numerous friends can testify how rich and unstinted was the cream of her private life.

“The Ogilvies," Miss Mulock's first novel, was published in 1849, in which year also appeared "Shirley," by Charlotte Bronte, and "Household Education," by Harriet Martineau. It may be of interest to note that Eleanor Ogilvie and her lover Philip were modelled upon Dr. Westland Marston, the well-known dramatist, and his wife. It may here be added that Dr. Marston's son, the late Philip Bourke Marston, " the blind poet," was Mrs. Craik's godson, and that it was for him she wrote the well-known lovely lyric, "Philip my King." The former instance was one of the few in which her fictitious personages were modelled from life. Seven years elapsed after the appearance of "The Ogilvies" before her reputation was immutably established by the appearance of "John Halifax, Gentleman." This book was published in 1857, a year memorable to women for the appearance of "The Professor," by Charlotte Bronte," "Amos Barton," by George Eliot, and "The Life of Charlotte Bronte," by Mrs. Gaskell; "Aurora Leigh," by Mrs. Barrett Browning, having appeared the previous year. "John Halifax, Gentleman," still continues to be the most read of all the author's novels. It was not, however, her favourite novel; she ranked "A Life for a Life" as her finest achievement in fiction. Yet above any of her work in prose she valued what she had accomplished in verse. Her poetry, as I have heard her say, gave her a truer and more permanent pleasure than anything else she wrote or had written. Not improbably most of her readers would disagree with this opinion, yet perhaps as long as any of her novels will such lyrics as "Rothesay Bay" endure. One great charm of all that has proceeded from this writer's pen is the purity of her language and the simple grace of her style. She never used a long word if a short one would express her meaning, nor a foreign phrase if she could find its equivalent in English. She follows in the wake of Maria Edgeworth and of Jane Austen in the delineation of realistic scenes of domestic comedy and tragedy. Jane Austen was more objective in the treatment of her characters, and did not point a moral in her tales. Mrs. Craik's method is also realistic, but tinged with sentimentality, and fettered by her perpetual desire to inculcate some direct teaching. The time had not yet come—when she began to write—for widespread inquiry as to the real scope and value of all the so-called duties of women, or as to the injustice and import of the restricted spheres of action commonly allotted to them.

It may be interesting to relate some of Mrs. Craik's opinions concerning the construction of the novel. She complained bitterly of the mania which prevails of in- discriminate novel-writing. "From the law of cookery up—or down—to the law of divorce, anybody who thinks he has anything to say, says it in three volumes, mashed up, like hard potatoes, in the milk and butter of fiction." She was of opinion that "we should never write at all unless we have something to say." The following extract, taken from her collection of essays entitled “Plain Speaking," gives her own method in detail:— "What other novelists do, I know not, but this has been my way—ab ovo. For, I contend, all stories that are meant to live must contain the germ of life, the egg, the vital principle. A novel ‘with a purpose' may be intolerable, but a novel without a purpose is more intolerable still; as feeble and flaccid as a man without a backbone. Therefore the first thing is to fix on a central idea, like the spine of a human being or the trunk of a tree. Yet, as nature never leaves either bare, but clothes them with muscle and flesh, branches and foliage, so this leading idea of his book will be by the true author so successfully disguised as not to obtrude itself objectionably; indeed, the ordinary reader ought not even to suspect its existence. Yet from it, this one principal idea, proceed all after-growths; the kind of plot which shall best develop it, the characters which must work it out, the incidents which will express these characters, even to the conversations which evolve and describe these incidents, all are sequences, following one another in natural order; even as from the seed-germ result successively the trunk, limbs, branches, twigs, and leafage of a tree."

"This, if I have put my meaning clearly, shows that a conscientiously written novel is by no means a piece of impulsive, accidental scribbling, but a deliberate work of art; that though in one sense it is also a work of nature, since every part ought to result from and be kept subservient to the whole; still, in another sense it is the last thing that ought to be allowed to say of itself, like Topsy, ‘ ‘Spects I growed.' If an author's personages are strongly and clearly defined to his own mind, he knows that in whatever situations he places them they must think, act, and speak in a certain way. Events develop character—but character also moulds action and events. Viewed thus, a really good novel in one sense writes itself."

It is a pathetic coincidence that among the latest articles upon which Mrs. Craik was engaged, was one entitled "Nearing the End," in which she gave her views on the subject of old age, and the way in which she considered the gradual departure of youth and strength and the inevitable approach of death should be regarded. She also wrote two articles for The Woman's World, one on the tendency of the modern stage, which appeared in the number for December last, and another, unfortunately unfinished, entitled "Between Schooldays and Marriage."