Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of George Balcombe,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. IX: Literary Criticism - part 02 (1902), pp. 243-265


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[page 243, continued:]

GEORGE BALCOMBE. A NOVEL. NEW YORK: HARPER AND BROTHERS.

[Southern Literary Messenger, January, 1837.]

THE scene of this novel is laid partly in Missouri, and partly in Virginia. The hero proper of the book that is to say, the object of the narration is a Mr. William Napier of Craiganet, in the Old Dominion — George Balcombe, although the most important of the [page 244:] dramatis personæ, being merely what, in critical parlance, is termed the machinery.

The mother of our hero, then, was one of two daughters, the only children of Mr. Raby, a man of great wealth. This wealth, however, consisted principally of property entailed on the possessor’s male descendants, with remainder to a distant English relative. There proved to be no male issue — the wife dying in giving birth to her second daughter, the mother of our hero — and the widower refusing to marry again. Moreover, through scruples of conscience, he declined taking measures for docking the entail, and even when the revolution rendered it invalid, declared his children should not profit by such invalidation. “He accordingly executed a will devising the entailed property to the remainder-man; and this will, properly attested, he transmitted to him in England.” Thus matters stood until the two daughters married, and the birth, in 1799, of a grandson, our hero, excited an interest in the heart of the old gentleman. He claimed the child from its mother, and informed the father that a new will had been made, devising the whole property to be divided into two equal parts — one part for the grandson, the other to be again divided between the two daughters. This will, he added, was in the hands of a confidential friend. The name of the friend was not mentioned, and delicacy forbade inquiry.

It appears that Edward Montague, an orphan protégé of Mr. Raby’s, was the depositary of this instrument. Upon the death of the old gentleman he was applied to. At first he disclaimed any knowledge of the paper; being on oath, how ever, hie owned having once seen it, but denied that he knew what had become [page 245:] of it. In the meantime the devisee under the former testament brought it forward, and, none other appearing, established it. The elder Mr. Napier took no active measures to recover the lost will, and, having inherited nothing from Mr. Raby, all of whose non-entailed property was involved, died just before the ruin of his family became manifest. Upon our hero’s coming of are, therefore, he finds himself penniless. The action of the novel grows out of his search for the missing will.

In the opening of the narrative we are introduced to Napier in a prairie of Missouri. He is in pursuit of Montague, with the vague hope of extorting from him, either by force or guile, some information respecting the document in question. As this beginning evinces the hand of a master, we quote it. The abruptness here is not without object. The attention is attracted at once and rivetted with skill.

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This rencontre is of essential advantage to our hero. The stranger proves to be George Balcombe, also a protege of old Mr. Raby’s. Mr. N. accompanies him home, and discovers that he is well versed in the family affairs of the Rabys and Napiers; that he is acquainted with the matter of the will; that, with Montague, he was a witness to the instrument; and that Montague reside in the neighborhood. Balcombe believes that M. was the depositary spoken of by old Mr. Raby. Circumstances, also, induce him to think that the paper is still in existence, and in the possession of M. The train of events which have led to this conclusion — a train laid by Balcombe himself — serves admirably to develop his character.

Montague, it seems, was always, even when an open [page 246:] reprobate, superstitious; and, though a great liar, would at no time have sworn to a literal lie. In the interval between the death of Mr. Raby and the establishment of the first will, he became gloomy and serious, and joined the church. Balcombe, who knew his character, could thus easily conceive how the villain might have deemed “ the form of religion and literal truth a sufficient salvo for wronging the dead and plundering the living by moral perjury.” It was probable, he thought, that some plan had been devised, by means of which Montague had spoken the literal truth when he swore in court that “ he knew not what had become of the will.” The document had been handed to him by Mr. Raby in the presence of Balcombe, and a letter received by the latter from the old gentleman, and written just before his decease, a letter full of affection for his grandson, was sufficient assurance that the testament had never been revoked. At the probate of the will found, Balcombe did not appear — being absent from the country and not hearing of the death of Mr. Raby. Upon Montague’s coming, however, to live near him in Missouri, and coming in evidently improved circumstances, with plenty of money, and only affecting to practise law, he immediately suspected the truth, and set on foot a system of observation. One day, having need of eastern funds, he applied to a merchant for the purpose of purchasing a bill on New York. The merchant furnished one drawn by Montague on a house there, for the desired amount, one thousand dollars, and, in the course of conversation, mentioned that M. drew regularly, at the same time every year, on the same house, for the same sum. Here then was an annuity, and the question was — unde derivatiur? [page 247:]

The bill was bought and sent to a correspondent in New York, with instructions to get English funds in payment. This was done, and a draft obtained upon a Liverpool house, accompanied by a letter of advice. The Liverpool correspondent was instructed in like manner to take a draft on Northumberland — this being the shire where resided the remainder-man. This latter draft was also obtained, with a letter of advice, duplicates being furnished in each instance. These several letters ran thus.

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Here then Balcombe found his suspicions completely verified. Montague was in receipt of an annuity — an annuity grudgingly paid — and derived from the devisee under the primitive will. There could be little doubt that the money was granted as hush-money by the devisee, Montague still possessing the second testament, and holding it in terrorem. B. was about communicating with Mr. Napier upon this head, when accident threw them together in the prairie. Our hero now receives the benefit of Balcombe’s energy and sagacity in many varied attempts to get possession of the will. Keizer, an original vagabond, is also a most efficient diplomatist and ally. The adventures of the trio in pursuit of the missing document, eminently display, in the author of George Balcombe, that rarest of all qualities in American novelists, and that certainly most indispensable — invention. With permission, we will go through these adventures one by one — doing this with the less scruple, because we intend to do it so briefly as not to interfere with the main interest of the book itself, and because, with this object in view, we have purposely delayed our notice until the volumes had been some time is possession of the public. [page 248:]

In a conversation between Balcombe and Napier, occurring in the early part of the first volume, we learn some particulars in regard to Mary Scott, daughter of Mr. Raby’s overseer. Both Montague and Balcombe, we have already said, were proteges of the old gentleman, and resided atone period in his family. Both were enamored of Mary, who was “beautiful and intelligent — gay, sprightly and impassioned,” and imbued with the spirit of romance. She, however, loved only Montagne, and seeing the necessity of arming Balcombe against himself, frankly told him of her pre-engaged affections. The lover thus rejected, became the friend and confidant. At first, Montague would have been glad to have made Mary his wife; but as his circumstances improved, he discovered that Scott was even poorer than he had supposed, and his selfish heart grew chill at the supposition. A certain elderly maiden too, of wealth, was said to look kindly on him. His visits to Mary, therefore, grew less frequent. In one of them, Balcombe was witness to a circumstance which led him to suspect dishonorable intentions. Suspicion, unfortunately, was not all; it appears that the intentions were accomplished. Balcombe sought a private interview with the villain.

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Balcombe now sought Mary, and found her in tears. Still unsuspecting the whole truth, he revealed to her the deception practised upon her by Montague, and concluded with an offer of his own hand. Made sensible now of the value of Balcombe’s affection, and alive to all the villainy of Montague, she divulges, in the first moment of her despair, the secret of her seduction Balcomb’e reluctantly abandons her, and departs [page 249:] to the west. Scott did not long survive the ruin of his daughter’s peace, and Mary, with her mother and little brother, was obliged to seek another home. Here, after the lapse of some time, Montague was seen to renew the visits which had been discontinued since the period of his interview with Balcombe. No one else visited the house — but from being steeped in poverty, the little family seemed rising above pecuniary trouble. This mystery is explained in a subsequent part of the first volume, when, shortly after the rencontre in the prairie, James, the brother of Mary, brings a letter from her to Balcombe in Missouri.

She writes that, after the departure of B. and the death of old Mr. Scott, Montague sought to renew his visits — that she refused to see him, and urged her mother to order him from the house — that Mrs. Scott was overcome, however, by his protestations, and pressed her to meet him — that, without undeceiving Mrs. S., she was unable to carry her opposition farther, and that finally, she consented. In a private interview he stated that Balcombe had misunderstood him, in supposing him to speak of lands, as the property bequeathed, and that no explanation had been offered before because he (Montague) had been forbidden the house by her father. He came now, he said, to offer reparation and marriage. She rejected the offer with scorn — and he left her, after taking measures for the comfort of Mrs. Scott, and the education of little James.

Old Mr. Raby now died, and Mary saw nothing of Montague for two months. She heard from him, indeed, and, though he did not express himself distinctly, she inferred from what he wrote that he had [page 250:] not been disappointed in the will. At length he called to see her, accompanying the English devisee, and requested again a private interview. She remarked a great attraction in his manner, for it was about this time that he joined the church. He professed deep contrition for his wrong to Mary — again offered marriage — offered every service in his power, and, being rejected in all offers, wound up by requesting a favor. He placed in her hand a packet as large as a dozen newspapers, and well secured with twine and seals. This he asked her to keep, and she promised to do so. He begged her to promise farther that no eye should see the contents of the packet. She did so. He mused awhile, and then added, “It is of great importance to me that that packet should never see the light.” “Then why not destroy it?” said Mary. “I don’t wish to destroy it,” said he, “it may be of some importance hereafter. Put it away.” She took it to her room and looked it up. On her return, he rose to take leave, but paused at the door, and said, hesitatingly, “Perhaps you had better destroy that packet.” She replied, “I will do so.” He paused again, and said, “No! — maybe better not.” “As you please,” she returned, “which shall I do?” “I really do not know,” he said, after a thoughtful pause. “Do as you will with it. If it is in your way, throw it into the fire. If not, keep it until I call for it.” He now departed, and Mary, doubting him much, determined to preserve the packet. It will be seen that the conduct of Montague in this matter was such as Balcombe had suspected, and that it enabled the conscientious rogue to swear, when summoned upon the probate, that he “could not tell what had become of the will.” [page 251:]

Mary did not see him again for some months, and he then endeavored to get possession of the packet — first by asking for it as a matter of course — and, upon being refused, by force. He was foiled, however, in his attempt — and left the country with precipitation, after stopping the pension of Mrs. Scott. It was probable that he thought no new provocation could make matters worse. Mary proceeds, in her letter, to inform Balcombe, that thirteen years of seclusion having rendered her totally ignorant of what was going on in the world, and having no one to advise with, she had no means of conjecturing the nature of the mysterious packet. It was obvious to her, however, that its possession or destruction was an object eagerly sought by Montague, and, she doubted not, for some villainous end. Although willing to bear her own lot without murmuring, she felt it her duty to alleviate, if possible, the want she had entailed upon her mother and brother. This, her knowledge of Montague’s earnest desire for the packet, would enable her to accomplish — and she felt no scruple in using such means. We give her plan in her own words.

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Montague having called upon Colonel Robinson, Balcombe father-in-law, with the view of purchasing land, he is there encountered by our hero and Balcombe. In a conversation dexterously introduced and sustained by the latter, the rogue is led to betray himself so egregiously that no farther doubts of his guilt are entertained, or of the surety of the grounds upon which the two friends have to proceed. Keizer is engaged to prevent, by force, if necessary, his departure from the neighborhood — but this is not attempted, and Balcombe and James obtain another interview with him [page 252:] in the woods near a camp meeting. The letter from Mary is handed him by James. It states that she had put the packet out of the reach of his violence, and in the hands of a third person, who would deliver it only on presentation of a certain token, together with the name of the depositary of the packet, was contained in the parcel in James’ possession. Upon reading this letter Montague declares himself ready to do and submit to whatever might be required, upon the condition specified — the receipt of the parcel. Balcombe demands an advance of a thousand dollars, and ten bonds for three hundred each, payable to James Scott at the end of each of ten successive years, with good security to each bond. To this, Montague, having no alternatives, agrees — promising to deliver the money and bonds, and receive the parcel from the hands of James Scott, at the same spot, on the following Saturday evening. His real design, however, is somewhat different. Having decoyed Balcombe and James to the rendezvous, he purposes with the aid of some of his agents, to get possession of the parcel by force, before paying the money; and afterwards with a view of preventing discovery, to carry our friends across the Missouri, and leave them to perish in the wilderness. This design is easily anticipated by Balcombe, who converts it ingeniously to his own advantage. Had he possession of the token handed to James by Mary, it is clear that nothing further would be necessary in order to obtain the missing will. But James has been especially directed to deliver the parcel into no hands but those of Montague — and his scruples are not to be overcome. Neither can B. reconcile it with his conscience to pick James’ pockets while asleep. He determines, therefore, to let M. get possession of his object in the [page 253:] manner designed. This accomplished, he, Balcombe, will have acquired the right to retake it.

Keizer, the wily agent of Balcombe, is bound to that gentleman by many ties of gratitude. Of this Montague is unaware, and having frequently tampered with him in other cases wherein B. had no concern, does not hesitate to seek his assistance in the present scheme of villainy. This also B. has anticipated, and instructs Keizer not to refuse the rogue any service required — lest he might employ other agents.

 

In all this scheming, however, Balcombe is somewhat overreached. Montague discovers, by accident, the league between Keizer and B. — affects to have perfect confidence in the former and appoints as the spot of rendezvous where Balcombe is to be entrapped, a spot at some distance from the true scene of action. By these means Keizer is placed out of the way, and his interference in Balcombe’s favor prevented. It must be understood that (as expected) Montague, before his suspicions of Keizer were aroused, had engaged his services with those of a couple of his Indian friends, for the robbery and abduction of Scott and B., and Balcombe’s plan was to turn the villain’s false allies against himself. Coming, however, with James to the rendezvous, in full assurance that Keizer and the Indians were to be the agents employed against him, B. finds himself in the power of Montague and three unknown desperadoes. Montague, getting possession of the parcel, retires, while the rest of the party hurry off our two friends in the direction of the Missouri.

In the meantime, Keizer, with his Indians, having waited an undue time at the false rendezvous appointed him by Montague, comes at length to a suspicion of the true state of affairs, starts immediately in pursuit, [page 254:] and overtakes the enemy — in good season for a rescue. Two of the villains escape — the third, one Ramsay, is shot dead by an Indian and his body thrown by Keizer into the river.

The time having arrived for the return of Balcombe and Scott, Napier becomes uneasy, and disclosing the matter to Colonel Robinson, they proceed together to Montague’s residence — thinking there to meet with some clue for further proceedings. As they approach, the door opens, and in the darkness they can just see Montague enter. Watching him through a window they perceive him opening the identical parcel of which so much has been said. It contained a casket, and this again a broken ring and a scrap of paper. Napier taps familiarly at the door, and Montague opens it, after being seen to throw the casket hastily in a drawer. Napier approaches the drawer at once, and obtains possession of the treasure. The villain is entirely taken by surprise, and in his terror indicates the route of his agents, professing at the same time his innocence of all designs to commit murder. Taking him with them, the Colonel and Napier proceed to the river, and finding blood, with other similar traces, return home in despair, supposing Balcombe to have perished, when they are agreeably disappointed by his presence, with that of Scott and Keizer and the Indians — not forgetting Montague

The content of the casket are found to be a fragment of a gold ring, and a slip of paper with the words “Mammy Amy, the old housekeeper at Raby Hall.” Montague is dismissed with an injunction from Balcombe to be, forthcoming on the Monday ensuing — an injunction which it was supposed he would be unwilling, under the circumstances, to disobey. Here, however, Balcombe reckons without his host. Although Montague [page 255:] has not the broken ring, yet he has read the slip of paper, and may easily persuade Mammy Amy to deliver him the will. This idea now forces itself upon Balcombe — but too late — for the arch-rogue is already far on his way to Virginia. Lest Balcombe should pursue him, he has managed, by an ingeniously laid trail of circumstances, to bring about his arrest, with that of Scott and Keizer, on a charge of murdering Ramsay. This man it will be remembered, after being shot by one of the Indians, was thrown into the river by Keizer.

The accused party, however, after much difficulty, are admitted to bail, and Keizer starts for St. Louis in pursuit of the runaway — followed the next day by Napier. About half way between St. Charles and St. Louis, our hero encounters K. on his return, attended by a party of men, and with his feet tied together under the belly of his horse. Montague finding his steps dogged by K. in St. Louis, had obtained his arrest as a party to the murder. Napier enters into conversation with one of the company, who proves to be an attorney retained especially by Montague in support of the prosecution. The statement of N. puts this gentleman in possession of the true state of the case, and as Keizer had already been arrested and discharged on bail, he is set free, by means of a habeas corpus, at St. Charles. Montague, however, has effected his escape, and is fairly on his way to Virginia. Nothing is now left but to write to Mary Scott, and trust to the chance of the letter’s reaching her before his arrival.

In the meantime the trial comes on. This is the most interesting, portion of the book — and very different is it indeed from the caricature of judicial proceeding to be met with occasionally in the novels of the day. [page 256:] Fiction, thus admirably managed, has all the force and essential value of truth. And here we cannot bring ourselves to mar the vivid and most ingenious details by any attempt at a digest or paraphrase. Balcombe’s defence is beyond measure acute, and in every respect characteristic — the party are acquitted, however, mainly through the agency of Keizer, who, taking advantage of his bail, crosses the Missouri, and, travelling night and day in search of a material witness, arrives with him just in time for the decision.

Napier now departs for Virginia, accompanied by Balcombe and Keizer. At Cape Girardeau, the whole are arrested. This is done at Montague’s instance. The affidavit being shown, it proves to be a copy of that by means of which Keizer was arrested in a similar manner at St. Louis. Balcombe, however, having taken care to get a duly authenticated record of his acquittal, the villain’s efforts to delay the party are defeated, and they proceed. Just after leaving Wheeling, they are again subjected to danger through the machinations of their arch-enemy, who, on his way home, it appears, has bribed some ostlers, connected with the line of stages, to attack the one carrying our hero.

At length, reaching Craiganet in safety, Balcombe there finds a letter from Mary Scott, detailing events at home since the date of her former communication. The rapidity of Montague’s journey, it appears, defeated his own object. Suspicions were entertained of him on account of James’ non-appearance, and the silence of Balcombe. A few days after the former’s departure for Missouri, old Mrs. Scott died of a paralytic stroke; and, about the same time, Mammy Amy, the housekeeper, was taken ill at Raby Hall. Mary became her nurse, and also (at the request of [page 257:] Major Swann, the steward of the English Mr. Raby) assumed her duties as housekeeper. In this new vocation she continued, the old woman never recovering her activity. Matters were thus situated when Montague made his appearance at the Hall, and entering the old woman’s room, endeavored to obtain from her the packet. Mary suddenly presenting herself, however, the villain is betrayed by his confusion, and fails altogether in his design. He calls again the next day, and again the next, using every artifice to get the packet, and closing with an offer of marriage. Calling in Major Swann, as witness to this offer, Mary desires the hypocrite to repeat it in his presence. With this request, fairly caught, he complies — and having done so, is rejected with disdain. The advantage hereby derived to Mary is of much importance to herself. It entitles her to full credence in the history of her wrongs; and having given this history in full to her kind friends, the Major and his wife, she is received and cherished by them with more than parental affection. The next day Montague again appears, and with a bold face, demanding, in the name of the law, his property of Major Swann, and speaking of a search-warrant. To this the Major replies, that he himself, being a justice of the peace, will furnish him with the necessary authority, upon his calling in the morning. Montague takes the hint, and disappears. In the meantime, Mary receives the letter from Balcombe, and is put au fait in regard to the nature of the packet, and Montague’s anxiety respecting it. She, at first, thought to hand the letter and packet to Major Swann; but it occurred to her that, by so doing, she might place him in a delicate situation, between his duty to his employer, and his duty as a man. She resolved, therefore, to [page 258:] let things talk their course, but at the same time to use effectual measures to keep the packet from falling into Montague’s hands. We here quote a passage of much interest. Mary, it will be remembered, is writing to Balcombe.

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Here Montague’s over-eagerness has again thwarted him. The only result of throwing the packet in the fire is, that the seals and other external marks of identification, sworn to in the affidavit, are melted and burned off. The Major offers, however, to deliver it up upon M’s. identifying the contents. This, of course, the rogue declines, and the packet remains in the Major’s possession, who declares his intention of resigning it, unopened, to the first person who shall show a just claim to it. The scene ends by Montague’s being ordered to quit the premises. Shortly afterwards he attempts to fire the house, but fails, and in escaping, receives a shot through the shoulder.

But the difficulties touching the will are not yet altogether ended. The case is laid before an attorney. As there was no doubt of the result, if the papers could be secured, he determined to take such a course as would at once put them safely into the custody of the law. A bill is drafted, to which Mr. Edward Raby in England is made defendant, setting forth the whole transaction. Major Swann is also made defendant, charged with the possession of the will, and called on to produce it. As anticipated, he disclaims the possession of any such paper, and files the packet with his answer. It is necessary that the papers shall reach the court (at Fredericksburg) without having ever been in possession of Mr. Napier and they are accordingly [page 259:] given in charge of James. Mr. Napier, Balcombe, and Keiser accompany him. On the road, a short distance from Fredericksburg, the party are attacked by Montague, with some of his agents, and in the struggle which ensues, M. is killed by the hand of James, who, having accidentally discovered the secret of his sister’s wrong, has been long burning for revenge. In conclusion — through the instrumentatilty of Keizer, our friends are saved a world of legal trouble, and Mr. Napier’s claims to a large inheritance are finally established.

Thus is given — and given very scantily — only the general thread of the narrative — which is really crowded with incident. We have spoken of no love adventures of our hero — but it must not be supposed that he is therefore without them. They are omitted because altogether episodical — yet they form some of the most truly interesting portions of the book, and certainly the most original. In lieu of speaking farther on this head we copy a passage of rare beauty and full of a rich and meaning philosophy. Napier loves his cousin Ann, with whom his days of childhood and boyhood were spent in unreserved communion. He has reason to think himself beloved — but friends have their own plans to arrange, and a misunderstanding of each other’s true feeling, arises between the lovers. Ann thus allows herself to be plighted to another, thinking the heart of her cousin pre-occupied. Things thus situated, N. as the protector and friend of Ann, speaks to her of her contemplated marriage. The passage we cite occurs in a conversation between Balcombe and Napier. The latter is confided to B. the secret of his love.

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The misunderstanding is finally rectified, through [page 260:] the agency of Balcombe, and the cousins are married. Besides this love affair, there are no passages of an episodical nature — unless we choose to speak of Balcombe’s account of a skirmish with Indians — a duel scene between Balcombe and Howard, Ann’s rejected lover — an anecdote relating to Colonel Boon, the backwoodsman — and a vividly drawn picture of a camp-meeting. This later we will be pardoned for giving entire.

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Of the dramatis personæ we will speak in brief. Elizabeth, the shrinking and matronly wife of Balcombe, rising suddenly into the heroine in the hour of her husband’s peril, (we have not mentioned her in our outline) as a painting, is admirable — as a portrait, appears to want individuality. She is an exquisite specimen of her class, but her class is somewhat hacknied. Of Jane, Napier’s sister, (neither have we yet alluded to her) it is sufficient now to say that she is true to herself. Upon attentively considering the character of Mary Scott, who holds the most prominent female part in the drama, it will be perceived that, although deeply interesting, it cannot be regarded as in any degree original, and that she owes her influence upon the mind of the reader mainly to the incidents with which she is enveloped. There are some most effective touches, however, in her delineation. Of Ann we have already spoken. She is our favorite, and we doubt not the favorite of the author. Her nature is barely sketched; but the sketch betrays in the artist a creative vigor of no ordinary kind. Upon the whole, no American novelist has succeeded, we think, in female character, even nearly so well as the writer of George Balcombe. [page 261:]

Napier himself is, as usual with most professed heroes, a mere non-entity. James is sufficiently natural. Major Swann, although only done in outline, gives a fine idea of a decayed Virginia gentleman. Charles, a negro, old Amy’s son, is drawn roughly, but to the life. Balcombe, frank, ardent, philosophical, chivalrous, sagacions — and, above all, glorying in the exercise of his sagacity — is a conception which might possibly have been entertained, but certainly could not have been executed, by a mind many degrees dissimilar from that of Balcombe himself, as depicted. Of Keizer, a character evidently much dwelt upon, and greatly labored out by the author, we have but one observation to make. It will strike every reader, not at first, but upon reflection, that George Balcombe, in John Keizer’s circumstances, would have been precisely John Keizer. We find the same traits modified throughout — yet the worldly difference forms a distinction sufficiently marked for the purposes of the novelist. Lastly, Montague, with his low cunning, his arch-hypocrisy, his malignancy, his quibbling superstition, his moral courage and physical pusillanimity, is a character to be met with every day, and to be recognized at a glance. Nothing was ever more minutely, more forcibly, or more thoroughly painted. He is not original of course; nor must we forget that were he so, he would, necessarily, be untrue, in some measure, to nature. But we mean to say that the merit here is solely that of observation and fidelity. Original characters, so called, can only be critically praised as such, either when presenting qualities known in real life, but never before depicted, (a combination nearly impossible) or when presenting qualities (moral, or physical, or both) which, although unknown, or even [page 262:] known to be hypothetical, are so skilfully adapted to the circumstances which surround them, that our sense of fitness is not offended, and we find ourselves seeking a reason why those things might not have been, which we are still satisfied are not. The latter species of originality appertains to the loftier regions of the Ideal.

Very few objections can be urged to the style of George Balcombe. The general manner is that of a scholar and gentleman in the best sense of both terms — bold, vigorous, and rich — abrupt rather than diffuse and not over scrupulous in the use of energetic vulgarisms. With the mere English, some occasional and trivial faults may be found. Perhaps it would have been better to avoid such pure technicalities as “anastomozing.” Of faulty construction, we might, without trouble, pick out a few instances. For example. “Returning, to dinner, a note was handed to the old gentleman, which he read and gave to Balcombe.” Here it is the note which returns to dinner. “Upon his return to dinner,” or something of that kind, would have rendered the sentence less equivocal. Again — “My situation is any thing but pleasant, and so impatient of it am I that I trust I do not break faith with my client when I hint to you that Mr. Balcombe will have more need of the aid of counsel than he is aware of.” The meaning here is, “I am so impatient of my situation that I even warn you of Balcombe’s great danger, and advise you to seek counsel for him. In so doing I trust I am not breaking faith with my client.” The original sentence implies, however, that the consequence of the speaker’s impatience was the speaker’s trusting that lie would not break faith — whereas the advice was the consequence. The trust [page 263:] cannot in any manner be embodied with the sentence, and must be placed in a separate one, as we have placed it.

For the occasional philosophy of Balcombe himself, we must not, of course, hold the author responsible. It might now and then be more exact. For example. “I am not sure that we do not purchase all our good qualities by the exercise of their opposites. How else does experience of danger make men brave? If they were not scared at first, then they were brave at first.

If they were scared, then the effect of fear upon the mind has been to engender courage.” As much, perhaps, as the effect of truth is to engender error, or of black paint to render a canvass white. All our good qualities purchased by the exercise of their opposites! Generalize this dogma, and we have, at once, Virtue derivable from vice. In the particular instance here urged — that courage is engendered by fear — the quibble lies in shifting the question from “danger’” to “fear,” and using the two ideas as identical. But “danger” is no more “fear,” than age is wisdom, than a turnip-seed is a turnip, or than any other cause is its own usual effect. In proportion, we grant, to the frequency of our “experience of danger,” is our callousness to its usual effect, which is fear. But when, following Mr. Balcombe to the finale of his argument, we say that the effect of the frequent “experience of fear,” upon the mind is to engender courage, we are merely uttering the silly paradox that we fear less in proportion as we fear more.

And again. “Value depends on demand and supply. So say the political economists, and I suppose they are right in all things but one. When truth and honor abound, they are most prized. They depreciate [page 264:] as they become rare.” Now truth and honor form no exceptions to the rule of economy, that value depends upon demand and supply. The simple meaning of this rule is, that when the demand for a commodity is great, and the supply small, the value of the commodity is heightened, and the converse. Apply this to truth and honor. Let them be in demand — in esteem — and let the supply be small — that is, let there be few men true and honest; then truth and honor, as cotton and tobacco, rise in value — and, vice-versa, they fall. Mr. Balcombe’s error is based upon the pre-supposition, (although this pre-supposition does not appear upon the face of his statement) that all who esteem truth and honor, are necessarily true and honest. To sustain the parallel, then, he should be prepared to admit the absurdity that the demanders of cotton and tobacco are necessarily stocked with cotton and tobacco. Let, however, the full extent of the question be seen. Truth and honor, it is asserted, are most prized when they most abound. They would be prized most of all then were no contrary qualities existing. But it is clear that were all men true and honest, then truth and honor, beyond their intrinsic, would hold no higher value, than would wine in a Paradise where all the rivers were Johannisberger, and all the duck-ponds Vin de Margaux.

We have thus spoken at length of George Balcombe, because we are induced to regard it, upon the whole, as the best American novel. There have, been few books of its peculiar kind, we think, written in any country, much its superior. Its interest is intense from beginning to end. Talent of a lofty order is evinced in every page of it. Its most distinguishing features are invention, vigor, almost audacity, of thought — great [page 265:] variety of what the German critics term intrigue, and exceeding ingenuity and finish in the adaptation of its component parts. Nothing is wanting to a complete whole, and nothing is out of place, or out of time. Without being chargeable in the least degree with imitation, the novel bears a strong family resemblance to the Caleb Williams of Godwin. Thinking thus highly of George Balcombe, we still do not wish to be understood as rating it with the more brilliant fictions of some of the living novelists of Great Britain.

In regard to the authorship of the book, some little conversation has occurred, and the matter is still considered a secret. But why so? — or rather, how so? The mind of the chief personage of the story, is the transcript of a mind familiar to us — an unintentional transcript, let us grant; but still one not to be mistaken. George Balcombe thinks, speaks, and acts, as no person, we are convinced, but Judge Beverly Tucker, ever precisely thought, spoke, or acted before.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of George Balcombe)