Even the youngest of us can remember the dreary days when it was an accepted canon of English literature that a novel should deal wholly with character-painting, and should never be sullied with incident. All our cleverest writers wrote stories in which nothing ever happened, and we all agreed that this was true art. Nevertheless there is not the slightest doubt that we had a secret hankering for incident, and refrained from acknowledging it only because we had been taught that incident was ‘low,’ and that those nearly obsolete novelists, Fielding, and Marryat, and Cooper, indulged in incident merely because they were incapable of anything higher. When Mr Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, a story overflowing with incidents of the most exciting character, we enjoyed it immensely, but we excused the writer and ourselves on the ground that, after all, the book was only a boy’s book. But then came Dr. Conan Doyle with his Micah Clarke. Here was a novel whose bloody battles, hair-breadth escapes, and all sorts of wild and delicious adventures were strewn with amazing prodigality. No one could deny that it was a novel, for it followed the traditions of Waverley, Roy Roy, and Old Mortality, and even the warmest admirers of the novel in which nothing happened was compelled to admit that Scott was a novelist. Micah Clarke met with such immediate and wide approval that the oppressed novel-reading public mustered courage to rise in insurrection, and demand that henceforth its novels should be novels of incident. Since then the novel that confines itself to the analysis of character, or to the promulgation of religious and moral fads, has been relegated, on this side of the Atlantic at least, to women writers. Our masculine story-writers, Kipling, and Doyle, and Weyman, and Quiller-Couch, and the rest of them, can draw character as skilfully as the best of the men of the analytic school, but they can also invent incidents in limitless profusion; and when we sit down to read their books we know that our cheeks are to be fanned by the strong, fresh breeze of adventure, and not sallowed by the wearisome toil and profitless trouble of the spiritual dissecting room. To Dr. Doyle, more than to any other man, we owe this return to honest story-telling, and in future years, when we have rediscovered Marryat and cooper, and when even women have ceased to write bad theology and to discuss their more obscure emotions, the public will raise a monument to Conan Doyle as the reviver of the British novel.
Mr Stevenson has, consciously or unconsciously, produced a series of composite characters in his Ebb Tide. It is an extremely attenuated story as far as the plot is concerned. Three worthless vagabonds conspire to steal a schooner, and afterwards to steal a small cargo of pearls. One of them is shot in the course of the latter attempt, and thereupon the story ceases rather than ends, for strictly speaking it has neither beginning nor end. Mr Stevenson is said to have called it a ‘brutal’ story. It is certainly a powerful one, perhaps the most powerful story that Mr Stevenson has yet written, but its interest consists almost wholly in the four men, whose characters the author has painted so vividly. Of these, the captain of the schooner is simply ‘Captain Wicks,’ of the Wrecker, superimposed upon ‘Captain Nares’ of the same story , with the result that the outlines are a little blurred. Then again, the mate of the schooner is ‘Carthew,’ the mate of the Wrecker, softened and weakened, doubtless by the use of a different literary ‘developer.’ As for the pearl-fisher, the reader feels that Mr. Stevenson had not quite made up his mind as to the man’s true character, and he is, therefore, somewhat unsatisfactory. It is in the vicious, murderous little cockney, ‘Huish,’ that the author has made his greatest success. Nothing could be stronger, more subtle, and in every way finer than the portrait of this wretch. It may not be an agreeable subject of contemplation, which is probably what Mr. Stevenson had in mind when he said that the story was a brutal one, but of its wonderful power and truth there cannot be the slightest question. The Ebb Tide reads as if it were written before the Wrecker, and thrown aside because there was not enough in it to make a coherent and rounded story. After the success of the Wrecker, Mr Stevenson may have been tempted to finish The Ebb Tide, for which the public will certainly be grateful. In spite of its slightness of construction, I am inclined to think that it will live longer than the Wrecker. Certainly there is nothing in the Wrecker that will compare with the portrait of ‘Huish,’ and we shall remember the little wretch and his death scene long after those adventurous schooners, the ‘Currency Lass’ and the ‘North Creina,’ with their crews, have sailed over the edge of the world into oblivion.
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