Carl Van Doren (1885–1950). The American Novel. 1921.Chapter 9. The Eighties and Their Kin
Section 2. Francis Marion Crawford
In half a dozen years Crawford had written ten novels of a remarkable variety, and the remainder of his life but continued this brilliant beginning. Having returned to Italy in 1883, he thereafter spent most of his life at Sorrento in a quiet activity almost never disturbed. As no biography has been published, the published facts of his career are not numerous. It is generally known, however, that he continued to travel widely, married, grew wealthy from the sale of his novels, became a Roman Catholic, and died in 1909.
Except that toward the end of his life Crawford partly turned from fiction to sober—and not remarkably spirited—history, he can hardly be said to have changed his methods from his earliest novel to his last. Improvisation was his knack and forte; he wrote rapidly and much—sometimes an entire novel in a month. He once said that, at least in his mature years, his imagination was constantly peopled with a swarming mass of human figures, of whom a group would now and then suddenly come together in a set of relationships and compel him to record them in a novel. His settings he took down, for the most part, from personal observation in the many localities he knew at first hand; his characters, too, are frequently studied from actual persons. In his plots, commonly held his peculiar merit, Crawford cannot be called really original; he employs all the ancient and honorable paraphernalia of melodrama—lost or hidden wills, forgeries, great persons in disguise, sudden legacies, physical violence. Moreover, it is almost a formula with him to carry a story by natural motives until about the last third, when melodrama enters to perplex the narrative and to keep up suspense until the triumphant and satisfying dénouement. And yet so fresh, strong, and veracious is the movement that it nearly obscures these conventional elements. Movement, indeed, not plot in any stricter sense, is Crawford’s primary excellence. He could not tell a story badly, but flowed on without breaking or faltering, managing his material and disposing his characters and scenes without a symptom of effort, in a style always clear and bright. This lightness of movement is accompanied, perhaps accounted for, by a general absence of profound ideas or of much of that rich color of life which comes only—as in Scott, Balzac, Tolstoy—when fiction is deeply rooted in some particular soil. As to his ideas, Crawford seems to have had few that were unusual, and he disliked the employment of unusual ideas in fiction, about the aims and uses of which he is very explicit in The Novel: What It Is (1893). Anglo-Saxons had recently been learning—through the critical pens of Stevenson and Howells and Henry James, to name no others—that fiction has an art which may be discussed; that a novel is not merely a novel, as a pudding is a pudding, to be boiled and swallowed and nothing more done about it. In answer to all these serious critics Crawford declared that novelists are “public amusers,” who must always write largely about love and in Anglo-Saxon countries must write under the eyes of the ubiquitous young girl. They might therefore, he concluded, as well be reconciled to the exigencies of their business, and by thinking not too highly of it spare themselves the agony that goes with the more apocalyptic arts. For his own part he thought problem novels odious, cared nothing for dialect and local color, believed it a mistake to make a novel too minute a picture of one generation lest another should think it old-fashioned, and preferred to regard the novel as a sort of pocket theater—with ideals, it must be added, much like those of the British and American stage in the decades just before Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw came to add something of intellectual distinction to the entertainment.
Thus far Crawford was carried by his cosmopolitan training and ideals: he believed that human beings are the same everywhere and can be made intelligible if reported lucidly and discreetly. Reading his books is like conversing with a remarkably humane, sharp-eyed traveler who appears—at least at first glance—to have seen every nook and corner of the globe and to have talked naturally to all the natives in their own languages. How many other novelists have known, as Crawford did, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Russian, Turkish, Portugese, the ancient tongues taught ordinarily in universities, and Sanskrit? Crawford ranges, too, with apparent case though with no great antiquarian knowledge, through large areas of recorded time, from the days of Belshazzar to the modern United States. Of his later novels, Khaled (1891) is a vivid and lovely tale of Arabia with something of the color of The Thousand and One Nights, and Via Crucis (1898) moves from England to the East during the crusading twelfth century; The Witch of Prague (1891) localizes a wildly supernatural legend in Bohemia; Greifenstein (1889) is a study of German military pride against the background of the Black Forest, and The Cigarette-Maker’s Romance (1890), rapid, exciting, moving, transacts its charming drama among the artisans of Munich; In the Palace of the King (1900) is a chapter from the romantic history of Don John of Austria; Fair Margaret (1905) and its sequels The Primadonna (1908) and The Diva’s Ruby (1908) all concern themselves with European—chiefly English—musical life; Marion Darche (1893), Katherine Lauderdale (1894), and its sequel The Ralstons (1895) have their scenes laid, though not always convincingly, in and about New York.
On the whole, however, the Italian novels are best of all, though several of them which Crawford wrote toward the end of his life add little to the total sum. The Children of the King (1892), recounting the fatal love of a common sailor for a lady, glows with the romantic ardor which temporarily satisfies all but the sternest realistic dispositions. Pietro Ghisleri (1893), as lifelike and vigorous a book as any Crawford wrote, seems to derive some power from its connection with the Saracinesca group. Saracinesca (1887), Sant’ Ilario (1889), Don Orsino (1892), and Corleone (1896) have all helped one another to reputation by the fact that they make up a cycle dealing generally with the same persons and centered about the fortunes of one great patriarchal house. In the first of the series Giovanni Saracinesca, only son of the old Prince of that name, loves and wins Corona d’Astrardente, whom the Roman world holds to be unquestionably the most superb woman in Europe. In Sant’ Ilario, Giovanni, who is also Prince of Sant’ Ilario, becomes mistakenly jealous of his wife and both suffer deeply. Their eldest son, Orsino, in Don Orsino gets involved in the building craze which swept over Rome in 1887. Corleone concerns Orsino and his brother Ippolito, the priest, taking the two of them to Sicily where they fall foul of bandits. The series is held together by the dominating figure of the magnificent old Prince Saracinesca, father of Don Giovanni. Of almost equal importance are San Giacinto, the giant cousin of the Saracinesca, Spicca, the melancholy but infallible duelist who dies in Don Orsino, Anastase Gouache, the French painter of whom Giovanni is jealous, and the villain Del Ferice. There are admirable melodramatic episodes: Giovanni’s duel with Del Ferice; the plot of old Montevarchi to prove that Prince Leone Saracinesca is not really head of his house; the sacrifice of Maria Consuelo d’Aranjuez, who marries Del Ferice to save Orsino whom she loves but who faces ruin by Del Ferice; the trick of Tebaldo Corleone who confesses a murder to Ippolito in order to bind the priest to secrecy and then accuses Ippolito of the murder.
Without question, the peculiarly absorbing form of the four novels comes from the large admixture of melodrama. Without question, too, the characters are enlarged decidedly above verisimilitude by valiant deeds and lofty sentiments and eloquent speech. And yet neither melodrama nor heroic dimensions constitute the final impression of the Saracinesca cycle. That impression is rather of an admirable section of modern life admirably portrayed. Crawford understood the generous simplicity of the Italian character; he studied it here under the most attractive conditions, in a society which still retained many of its feudal elements until after the taking of Rome in 1870. Although the career of Giovanni in 1865–1867 offers many contrasts to that of Orsino in 1887, the family character remains much the same—the same simple integrity which has no baser element than pride. While there have naturally been controversies as to Crawford’s accuracy of representation, the most serious charge against him is a partiality for the old order. Among Anglo-Saxon novelists, however, he is incomparable as an historian of Italy. And even where the charges against him hold, he still deserves the credit of adding a remarkable province to the world of the Anglo-Saxon imagination. Among American novelists he takes his rank as the most cosmopolitan of them all and as on the whole the best story-teller. That he occupies, however, as compared with the greatest novelists, distinctly a lower rank, is a natural consequence of his method. No man can range so widely and still go deep. Crawford’s success with the Roman novels only confirms this dogma. Although he always called himself an American, he knew Rome better than any other quarter of the globe; and where his knowledge was greatest he went deepest. In such a tour de force as Khaled or in such a romantic melodrama as The Cigarette-Maker’s Romance he went far on the wings of an excited imagination, but not as far as profounder observations took him in Pietro Ghisleri or Saracinesca. Realism, like charity, must begin somewhere near home.