Text: Unknown, [ed. J. A. Harrison], “Review of Merceds of Castile,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. X: Literary Criticism - part 03 (1902), pp. 96-99


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[page 96, continued:]

MERCEDES OF CASTILE, A ROMANCE, BY J. FENIMORE COOPER. TWO VOLUMES. LEA AND BLANCHARD, 1840.

[Text: Graham’s Magazine, January, 1840.]

AS a history this work is invaluable; as a novel, it is well nigh worthless. The author deserves credit for presenting to the public, in a readable form, so much historical information with which, otherwise, the great mass of the community would have never become acquainted; and he ought, also, to receive proper commendation for having woven that information, in any way whatever, into the narrative of a novel; but at the same time, if called upon to speak of his work as a romance, and not a history, we can neither disguise from ourselves, nor from our readers, that it is, if possible, the worst novel ever penned by Mr. Cooper. A hasty sketch of the plot will fully sustain our assertion.

The work opens with the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, after which a hiatus occurs of more than twenty-two years. This, in the first place, is a grand error in the novelist. Had he [page 97:] commenced his narrative at the siege of Granada at once, we should have been spared an ungainly excrescence on the very front of the story. We shall, therefore, consider the novel as beginning properly at an ensuing chapter.

The scene opens on a day when the city of Granada is taken possession of by the Moors; and when Columbus, as a suitor for vessels to carry on his contemplated discoveries, is almost worn out with seven years of delay and disappointment. A young Spanish grandee, called Luis Bobadilla, wild, adventurous, and fond of roving at sea, happening to be introduced to him in the crowd, is half persuaded to embark with the navigator on his dangerous voyage — an inclination which is strengthened to a firm resolve by his mistress, who, forbidden by Queen Isabella to marry so roving a nobleman, and thinking that such a voyage would be taken as a sort of expiation by her sovereign, advises, nay ! commands him to embark with Columbus. The difficulties, the hopes, the final disappointment, and solitary departure of Columbus are then faithfully described, as well as his sudden recall by order of the queen, and her determination to fit out the expedition from her own purse. This, however, we pass over, only remarking in passing that the fiery pursuit of the young grandee through the Vega after the departing Columbus, and the scene where he overtakes the dejected navigator, are worthy of the best passages of “The Pioneers,” “The Water-Witch,” or “The Last of the Mohicans.”

The young nobleman, consequently, disguised as a sailor, sails with Columbus out into the, as then thought, shoreless Atlantic. To describe this voyage was manifestly the sole object of the author in writing the work. [page 98:] Availing himself of the journal of the admiral, and

mingling just enough of fiction with the incidents recorded there, to make it generally readable, Mr. Cooper has succeeded in producing the most popular, detailed readable history of that voyage which has yet seen the light; and for this, we again repeat, he deserves much credit. But the very preponderance given to the narration of this part of the story injures the work, as a novel, irremediably, It makes it, in short, “neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red-herring.”

There is, indeed, an attempt to redeem the interest of the story by the introduction of an Indian princess, who, of course, falls in love with Bobabilla, and whom, of course, he does not marry. She, however, accompanies Luis home to Spain, and is the cause of much jealousy on the part of his mistress, of much anger on the part of the queen, and of just sufficient clap-trap in the last few chapters to satisfy the conscience of your inveterate novel readers, — a class who think no novel is good unless it has a pretty strong dose of jealousy, reconcilement, and marriage, as a finale, much as Tony Lumpkin thought “that the inside of a letter was the cream of the correspondence.”

In one thing we are disappointed in this novel. We did not look for character in it, for that is not Cooper’s forte; nor did we expect that his heroine would be aught better than the inanimate thing she is; but we did expect that he would give us another of those magnificent sea-pictures for which, in all their sternness and sublimity, he is so justly celebrated. We were mistaken. Excepting a storm which overtakes the Nina, we have nothing even approaching to the grandeur of the “Pilot” and the “Red Rover.” If Columbus did not figure in the romance, — and what, after [page 99:] all, has he to do personally with the dénouement? — “Mercedes of Castile” would be the most tame of romances. Cut out the historical account of the voyage to San Salvador, by merely stating in one, instead of a score of chapters, that the hero performed his penance, and we stake our gray goose-quill against the copyright on it, that not two out of every dozen who read the novel will pronounce it even interesting.

It is but justice to the author to say that the necessity of adhering closely to fact in his romance is the true secret of its want of interest; for how could any hero, no matter whom, awaken our sympathy strongly, so long as Columbus figured in the same narrative ? Besides the voyage which the hero undertakes to win his mistress being a matter of history, we are from the first without any curiosity as to its result — we want, indeed, all that exciting suspense, without which a novel is worthless. Our author appears to have been aware of this, and therefore introduces Omenea, and makes Mercedes jealous, and the queen suspicious, in order to create this suspense. For all the purposes of a love-story, therefore, the novel might as well have begun toward the close of the second volume, an introductory chapter merely being affixed, narrating rapidly the events which, in the present work, are diluted into a volume and a half. The interest of a romance should continue, let it be remembered, throughout the whole story; but in “Mercedes of Castile” it does not begin until we are about to close the book.

 


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Notes:

Although Harrision collected the present review as being by Poe, that attribution is generally dismissed today. T. O. Mabbott considered it too early to be by Poe.

 

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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 Merceds of Castile)