"David Elginbrod" represents, in fact, too entirely the distinct divisions into which modern fiction has broken itself up. Now that the novel covers the ground occupied in former days by the sermon, the essay, the poem (we are not inquiring into the desirableness of the undoubted fact), it behoves a writer to select and retain his peculiar aim. In the case of the work before us, several very divergent tendencies seem to have been at work in the mind of the writer, some of them pointing, perhaps, altogether boyond the field of the novelist.
IT is a difficult matter to define the legitimate limits of the supernatural in fiction. In every individual instance, the instinct which leads us to decide that the particular suggestion is or is not happy, is remarkably unvarying. Pew people would deny, for instance (though Mr. Ruskin is, we believe, among the exceptions) that "Scott's "White Lady" is an inharmonious excrescence on the romance in which she takes a part, while the analogous agencies in the “Lay of the Last Minstrel” are a part of the whole thing; but the distinction is not easy to put into a formula.
It is somewhat unfortunate that the novel which has suggested this remark, and which fails, as we have implied, in the subtle and peculiar qualities needed for a work of this kind, inevitably suggests a rival, by which indeed it is no disgrace to be eclipsed. Mr. Macdonald has ventured on that twilight region, where we may, according to our temperament, see more or less of the supernatural, which Nathaniel Hawthorne has made peculiarly his own; and it is impossible to read "David Elginbrod" without remembering the "Blythedale Romance," and "Transformation." It does not stand the comparison in any single point; but it would be most unfair to form our judgment from this inferiority, for the work has many passages of a higher kind of merit than the wonderful dreamlike harmony, the presentment of this mero every-day life under such an aspect, that the supernatural seems in perfect keeping with it, which is the uniquo possession of its American rival. It must be said, however, that these passages are, for the most part, without any dramatic relevancy whatever, and the critic could find more unmixed commendation for the work if it came under his notice as a series of essays; the remarks put into that form would, in some cases, lose their only defect, of being entirely out of place in the characters who are supposed to give utterance to them.
"David Elginbrod" represents, in fact, too entirely the distinct divisions into which modern fiction has broken itself up. Now that the novel covers the ground occupied in former days by the sermon, the essay, the poem (we are not inquiring into the desirableness of the undoubted fact), it behoves a writer to select and retain his peculiar aim. In the case of the work before us, several very divergent tendencies seem to have been at work in the mind of the writer, some of them pointing, perhaps, altogether boyond the field of the novelist. In the first place—and we could overlook much heavier sins than any the book contains, for the sake of it—he has to present to us an exquisite little idyll, reminding us of the pictures of Frere or the lyrics of Burns, so full of a delicate fragrance and freshness that it is impossible not to feel we are in contact with something partaking of the nature of reminiscence. If this were the principal part of the book, as it is the only part of it that dwells in the memory, all blemishes would sink into insignificance — the fresh Highland airs would conquer the sickly vapours which hang over the rest. But, alas! it does not reach half through the first of the three volumes. David Elginbrod, the old Highland ploughman, whose one solid character among a set of shadows gives the book substance, disappears from the scene before any of the real action of the story — such as it is — begins. Yet, short as is the glimpse into the Scotch bothie, it is enough, we believe, to give a certain permanence to the work of which it forms so trifling a part. Secondly, Mr. Macdonald wishes, if we have rightly understood his meaning, to make of the facts of mesmerism — and of what is absurdly called spiritualism — the parable of man's struggle and temptation upon earth. The conception of a nervous and morbid girl fallen under the mysterious influence of a villain, and redeemed by the power of simple faith and love, is not new; but though the hysterical heroine, the villain, and the redeeming Margaret, are all alike colourless shadows, the intensity of the feeling which symbolises the human race in the poor mesmerised Euphra lends a certain interest — we cannot say force — to the whole. Nevertheless, this part of the story is a failure. It needs delicate perception of character, a healthy instinct for absurdity, and a capacity for distinguishing between what is possible in dreams and real life, which our author is entirely without. Wo give an instance which seems to exemplify all these defects. The villain has succeeded in possessing himself, through the agency of his unhappy patient, of a ring belonging to a Mr. Arnold, who is intended to represent tho dry common-sense English squire; and he, on the point of instituting inquiries on the subject, is checked by the warning of the principal personage in the story, that in that case a fact must be mentioned which will betray that the house is haunted! But the whole of this part of the book is such that this fragment does not stand forth in any very prominent absurdity. As everybody is oppressed by feverish dreams, we do not find one incoherent utterance more absurd than another. It is deeply disappointing to leave behind that dewy Highland air, and the sweet landscape which he paints with such delicate and loving touches, and find ourselves shut up, for therest of the book, in the close and stifling atmosphere of the darkened sickroom. Thirdly, the author seems to have found, in the reaction from Calvinism, a triumphant satisfaction in the belief of God's universal fatherhood, which demands expression from its very exuberance. Whether a novel was a proper form for this expression we do not attempt to decide. It may be said that the picture of human beings which left out this side of their nature would be an incomplete one, while the objections to the religious novel are obvious enough. We shall only say, we ore certain there is no real irreverence in the frequent use of sacred words which will offend the taste of many readers. The relation of father and child, beautifully exemplified in Margaret's feeling for her father, is the key-note of the whole, and lends a tone of childlike familiarity to the higher relation it typifies, or rather expresses. The friends of Mr. Maurice will not, we imagine, quarrel with the dramatic fault of introducing a long conversation on the subject of his teaching, in which it seems to us not unworthily interpreted. Could we have mado this book faithful to its title, and kept it chiefly occupied with "David Elginbrod," it would have possessed no common claim on the attention of our readers. As it is, that one small portion is enough to make it well worth reading.
DAVID ELGINBBOD. By George Macdonald. Hurst and Blackett. Three Vols., 8vo. 1863. 31a. 6d.
[“David Elginbrod”]. The Reader: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. London: “Published at 112, Fleet Street,” 1863. Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. 17 July 2016.
Last modified 23 March 2009