The Lost Viol by M. P. Shiel
Reviewed by C. W. Mason
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 27, 1905 p. 7
I have in my hand a jewel, to me, in possession, it seems rare and priceless. Yet I believe that if I were to go out in the market-place and hawk its virtues, connoisseurs would tell me that it was worthless, no known species; hucksters would call it imitation chalcedony, and offer five cents for the curiosity; and the lack-wit crowd, whose only right to existence is their readiness to buy everything called a jewel, would not take it as a gift.
This jewel - not of my own finding, as usual when it is really rare - is briefly M. P. Shiel's novel, "The Lost Viol" (New York, Edward J. Clode, $1.50). "The Lost Viol" is as "recherché" a literary hybrid as a cross between moonstone, opal and diamond would be in geology.
What the dickens!
I am really at a loss to know what to say of "The Lost Viol". It is awfully bad; it is indescribably good. I should think that both Henry James and George Meredith would greet its author as their vanquisher in psychological intricacies, and that David Belasco would pat Mr. Shiel on the back and tell him that his plot was too far-fetched even for successful melodramatic farce. I hardly suppose any woman could be so consistently criminal as the virtuous Kathleen, or so impossibly clever as the healthy animal, Hannah; and yet (I wonder if I dare?) I should say that between the two of them, the complexity of the creature woman is unraveled as it never was before.
For that reason, I am sure that no woman on earth will be found to indorse my praise. I may as well add, to give them their traditional weapon, that "The Lost Viol" is exceedingly improper. How could any woman have any feelings or impulses not consistent with a text book on the etiquette of good society? Impossible. How could anything in real life happen which would not be approved by the fiction committee of the Boston Public Library? It couldn't. Then Mr. Shiel must be all wrong from beginning to end, because his heroines have feelings and impulses which are not mentioned in manuals of etiquette, and things happen which no "lady" would care to allude to.
Hannah, a farmer's daughter - really Sir Peter's, but suppressed; Kathleen, a young woman of wealth and family, and Yvonne, a half-French cousin of Kathleen's, all fall in love with Chris Wilson, also a cousin of all three. Chris is a violinist and a man of genius.
Owing to Sir Peter's pressure, Chris marries Hannah; on the wedding day he discovers that he loves Yvonne, and runs away from Hannah, who hunts him across Europe in vain for two or three years. She catches up with him one day, when, in the height of fame, he stars at a concert in London. She follows him home; waits outside his door till 2 in the morning, when his boon companions leave him, they and he well intoxicated; she slips in; he does not recognize her; they both sip wine which has been drugged by a vindictive valet; waking late next day, Chris still sleeping, Hannah realizes what has happened. She resolves to disappear, because she would hate to have Chris think that he had recovered her after his desertion. On a sudden thought she steals one of Chris' violas (a musical instrument) with a few other trifles, as proof of the night in case of an event which would convict her of infidelity. The event happens; but the viol has been stolen from her. Meanwhile, susceptible Chris is again in love with Yvonne; he is persuaded to commit bigamy by marrying her in France and to invalidate this stigma, Hannah anticipates him by committing bigamy in England. But on the eve of the second wedding Yvonne is accidentally murdered. Hannah, robbed by her own premature heroism, tries a last resource; she writes the anonymous letters of a feminine admirer to the man of genius, and Chris is captured by the invisible writer. But when she is, after two years, about to reveal herself, some one - the same person who stole the viol from Hannah and accidentally murdered Yvonne - steals Hannah's child, and establishing the identity of the anonymous letters, declares herself to be the unknown woman who spent the night under hashish with the careless genius. Chris is disappointed, but convinced, for Hannah, summoned to submit her maternal claim to the instinct of the child, does not appear. Someone has informed against her and she has been summarily arrested for bigamy.
The amazing Jack-in-the-box intrigues are by no means exhausted yet; but I must hasten to the core: the spring of all these incredible malevolences is Kathleen, the wealthy, virtuous, sickly, sprightly little hunchback - the quaint "maid." She lived in a fervid atmosphere of theft, murder, forgery, eavesdropping and slander; she was incapable of crime, even of naughtiness; she acted on impulse, simply from love; and I leave it to women to say if women are capable of being a little - tortuous, shall we call it? - in winning out against more favored rivals in the pursuit of an incompetent man. Personally, I am sure Mr. Shiel has shamefully libeled the sex. And I notice that women haven't a good word to say for the book. They sniff.
Oh, woman, lovely woman! You are indeed -
Beg pardon; a slip of the tongue. You aren't, you couldn't be. But if I had time to be a man of genius I think I could forgive much to be loved with so much unscrupulousness. In any other line of business, however (so they tell me who have known the snare), it is a tremendous nuisance to be loved in any way. Blessed (I'm glad I'm bald) is the man who happens to be unattractive. I cannot say the same for woman. The more unattractive a woman is the more fascinating she is liable to become. I suppose no beautiful woman was ever loved the way millions of plain women have been and are being loved. The novelists have beautiful heroines; but Shakespeare - see Sonnet cxxx.
Chris, however, never came near loving Kathleen, and when he was reluctantly convinced that she was the mother of his beautiful child (a delightful, but - h!m, h!m chapter), and the author of the charming anonymous letters, he became quite ill and hurried off to Europe as soon as his "French honor" had exacted a proposal of marriage. Hannah, the healthy, steadfast, resolute yet womanly creature, was the creature he wanted all the time, and fortunately she knew it when he didn't, so she won out.
You will see that there is quite too much riskiness in this freakish novel to be suitable for the young person. And, of course, you will say that, being risky, I have no right to allude to it at all, and you will get me hauled over the coals for it, as usual. Can't help it. You know by this time that when I think a novel very clever, I have got to crack it up or die in the attempt. I think "The Lost Viol" marvelously clever and as before said, marvelously bad. If, however, one were to set to work to define the flaws - the scraps of diary, the jerky, hurried style, etc. - each and all might turn out to be artistic.
I cannot conceive how Mr. Shiel came to write this book. That it is a study of known women is obviously incredible; that it is a transposition of self-analysis is likewise unimaginable; the femininity is not the femininity of the male genius, which has its proper analysis in Chris. The idea must have grown, not been made. As without chart, the author began to wade into the inconsistencies of the female character, he gradually found them accumulating until they presented a specter of abnormal distortions. Finally, he said to himself: "I will take an abnormal and physically distorted woman and make her the incarnation of all the faults, while I make a normal and well developed woman the incarnation of all the virtues peculiar to women under the stimulus of love." In each, as an individual character, he runs away into grotesque caricature; I neither believe that any highly cultured woman could deliberately attempt murder twice and theft three times (to say nothing of the lies) than I believe that any well made and athletic woman could become a "savante", linguist, pianist and violin virtuoso in a couple of years. Yet it would be easy to defend Mr. Shiel even in these extremes. He, however, knows the difference between the adaptability of women and the culture which exacts the admiration of the connoisseur.
In short, defying the convention that preserves a shocked silence over noctes ambrosianae, I am going to say that I am not less grateful to the critic who revealed to me "The Lost Viol" than I once was to the critic who revealed to me Meredith's "Egoist". They were, as it happens, one and the same. And I pass the revelation on.
Hold: here I am back again. I have said nothing about Chris. If a woman, you will perhaps have no trouble in perceiving at once that Chris was the sort of man who is loved. But if a man, you will much, at first, resent it that the three nicest women in the place should promptly fall head over skirts in love with a long-haired lackadaisical musician. I should resent it, even with my bald head and No. 12 feet. But by this time I think Chris the most lovable lunatic I have ever met. I think that as a portrait, he is unique in fiction. I cannot refrain from quoting the picture of him at the happy finale - and anyhow you want a specimen of Shiel:
"And here it came into Chris' head (he was then the most famous living violinist) to give himself to Barc-la -Foret (a village fair) that one day in Time, and plays. He had not handled a fiddle for days, and the spirit came upon him. He caught his Bergonzi from Grimani (his valet) and struck in with the other fiddlers on the green, nor was it long before he alone was playing. Never was the ear of Barc-la-Foret tickled by the gospel of such mirth; every one forsook all else, and crowded to jig around the frivolous seraph dropped down among them; wondering that out of that staid monsieur such riches of fun should gush; there he stood - stout, respectable - in his frock coat and top-hat; the top-hat, however, was rather cocked back, one leg cocked forward, and, if one looked closely, there was a certain butting and instigation of his brow which was in the very spirit of revel and godless company. They all came and jigged. Hannah jigged with Rowland-Jones till he was out of breath, then with the village lads, then with Rowland-Jones again, letting slip side glances at Chris, her legs (ahem! they're always in evidence) plying in a stubbornness of glee, answering still to the unrelenting spur of his joy, while still the brook of his improvisation flowed on, and the dancing grew ever larger and crazier round the giggle of his G and the skittishness of his tittering chanterelle. It was near 5 o'clock when he tossed the fiddle to Grimani, smiled with Hannah, and said to Rowland-Jones, "I am hungry, my friend."
I am too familiar by practice with the knack of imitation, even of assimilation, to be misled by style in these days. Bits like "that staid monsieur, "a certain butting and instigation of his brows," "the giggle of his G," are often laboriously improvised by tentative poets. Here each and all are hallmarks. From beginning to end the book is instinct with spontaneous originality.
Transcribed by Victor A. Berch
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