Editor’s note: This was originally published in Bledsoe’s Southern Review in 1867 and is presented here in honor of Augusta J. Evans’s birthday, May 8.
St. Elmo. A Novel. By Augusta J. Evans. Carleton, New York. 1867.
In the conscientious discharge of our duty as reviewers, we have read this novel from beginning to end, and as attentively as human frailty would allow. Following the author’s advice, we have also taken great pains ‘to inform ourselves;’ nor shrank from procuring and using the ponderous apparatus necessary for that purpose. Whether to advise our readers to do the same, or not, is a different matter. If they follow the author through all her wanderings, they will certainly be led into strange and distant lands; but things are not always precious that are brought from afar; and, while ships that come from Tarshish may bring ‘gold and ivory,’ they may possibly also bring ‘apes and peacocks.’
In the very opening of the book we are introduced to at least two old acquaintances under new names. Edna Earl, the heroine, is our old friend Beulah, with the difference that instead of fathoming the depths of philosophy and theology, she ransacks the domains of classic literature, archaeology and science. St. Elmo, the scoffer, the cynic, the misanthrope whose heart has been cankered and hardened by one treason, the restless wanderer upon the earth who has exhausted life at the age of thirty-four, on whose brow a constant scowl has stamped its trace, and whose ‘finely sculptured lips’ are writhed into a habitual sneer is no other than our good friend Manfred — also styled Lara, The Corsair, and Harold—, and very glad are we to meet him again, having supposed him long since deceased. There is this difference between them, however: Manfred talks a great deal of fine poetry, but is moderate in his use of classical allusions; St. Elmo on the contrary can hardly speak without a reference to some scrap of ancient lore or modern science, and even in his most passionate appeal to the heroine not to desert him, stops to give her the definition of a Latin word. We are not sure, however, that this was not a stroke of policy on his part; for if ever mortal was bitten by a classical tarantula, it is Edna Earl. Quotations, allusions, comparisons, she showers upon us at every instant, with less regard to their appropriateness than their unfamiliarity.
And yet she complains greatly of the charge of pedantry brought against her by the critics, and retorts that those who think her pedantic are themselves ignorant. Pedantry, dear Miss Earl, is not learning, but a display of learning in a wrong place. She desires to ‘elevate our thought and extend its range’; but many of her learned allusions are simply gratuitous, neither called for by the subject nor instructive to the reader. For instance: the Athenians to whom Paul preached, she calls ‘the scoffing sophists, who, replete with philhellenic lore, and within eight of the marvelous triglyphs and metopes of the Parthenon,’ &c. Why philhellenic, if they were Greeks? Why triglyphs and metopes? How did the sight of those architectural details peculiarly affect them? and wherein were they marvellous? Again: ‘she visited the parsonage library as assiduously as did Horace, Valgius, and Virgil the gardens on the Esquiline ‘:— that is, she visited it assiduously. The forest ‘glowed with a light redder than Phthiotan wine’—in other words, it glowed with red light. Sometimes a description is marred by the introduction of words which, to the learned reader, convey no new impression, while to the unlearned they are simply a putting-out of the light. ‘Here too were black rhyta from Chiusi and a cylix from Vulci,’ Why not say ‘antique drinkingcups’?
Among the various criticisms passed upon Miss Earl, the one which appears to her most preposterous, and at which she ‘laughs heartily,’ is, that her learning is ‘picked up from Encyclopedias.’ Now we think we can explain to the fair heroine how critics have been led to a conclusion which seems to her so ludicrous. A single instance will suffice. She informs St. Elmo (p. 156, after explaining to him about the Tenthredo) that ‘miserable, useless lives are sinful lives,’ and that the Greeks embodied this truth in ‘the myth of Tantalus.’ ‘You are a scholar, Mr. Murray; look back and analyse the derivation and significance of that fable. Tantalus, the son of Pluto, or Wealth, was, according to Pindar, “a wanderer from happiness,” and the name represents a man abounding in wealth, but whose appetite was so insatiable, even at the ambrosial feast of the gods, that it ultimately doomed him to eternal, unsatisfied thirst and hunger in Tartarus.’ Now if Miss Earl had referred to the passage in Pindar, (OL. I, 85-94) she would have seen that the poet’s moral is quite different, and that the expression…is merely a Pindaric euphemism for his punishment.
But if we turn, even at the risk of provoking still louder bursts of laughter, to one of these ‘Encyclopedias’—Anthon’s Classical Dictionary — under the head of Tantalus we find :— ‘Tantalus, a king of Lydia, son of Jupiter by a nymph called Pluto ( Wealth). * * * According to this poet [Pindar] Jupiter hung a vast rock in the air over the head of Tantalus, which, always menacing to descend and crush him, deprives him of all joy and makes him “a wanderer from happiness”***….Tantalus…represents the man who is flourishing and abounding in wealth, but whose desires are insatiable.’ Now we do not venture to question the sincerity of Miss Earl’s mirth, when the critics hinted at ‘Encyclopedias;’ but we would ask her if it is not a little—just a little — ungrateful.
But when our author descends from her learned cothurnus, she writes in good, plain, vigorous, and — with the exception of a few provincialisms, such as ‘he was partial to,’ for ‘ he preferred,’ ‘to contemplate,’ for ‘to intend’—pure English. Many passages, and especially the description of the death of Felix, are full of pathos and beauty. The moral tone and teachings of the story are unexceptionable, and we are convinced that if the author would but study simplicity of form and style, she might become not merely one of the most popular, but one of the best of living writers of fiction.