[From Hall Caine:Man and Novelist, 1901]
IT was The Deemster that brought Hall Caine fame. It was written in a mood of dissatisfaction, of disappointment. He felt that he had it in him to write a novel that should be worthy of the world's respect, and though The Shadow of a Crime and A Son of Hagar were, in no sense, failures, yet they had not met with the success for which the young novelist was so ardently longing. This was to be his first book dealing with Manx life, customs and character, and he wrote it in the island with all the beautiful landscape and the glorious sea for an inspiration.
The plot of the book is founded on the story of the Prodigal Son. It teaches the doctrine of purification by suffering, though by no stretch of the imagination can it be called a " book with a purpose." Rather is it an imaginative picture of wonderful pathos, and the moral which it enforces is never hinted at; it is revealed in the very atmosphere of the book, in its childlike purity, in its passionate simplicity.
The Prodigal Son is Daniel, son of Gilchrist Mylrea, Bishop of Man. His mother died at his birth, and so during the early years of his young life his father acted as mother, nurse, teacher, playmate and friend. Here is a picture of father and son, with Mona and Ewan, Dan's cousins and housemates.
Meantime Bishop's Court was musical with children's voices, and with the patter of tiny feet that ferreted out every nook and cranny of the old place. There was Ewan, the Deemster's son, a slight, sensitive boy, who listened to you with head aslant, and with absent looks. There was wee Mona, Ewan's meek sister, with the big eyes and the quiet ways, who liked to be fondled, and would cry sometimes when no one knew why. And there was Daniel-Danny-Dan, the Bishop's boy, a braw little rogue, with a slice of the man in him, as broad as he was long, with tousled fair head and face usually smudged, laughing a good deal, and not crying over much, loving a good tug or a delightful bit of a fight, and always feeling high disdain at being kissed. And the Bishop, God bless him! was father and mother both to the motherless brood, though Kerry Quayle was kept as nurse. He would tell a story, or perhaps sing one, while Mona sat on his knee with her pretty head resting on his breast, and Ewan held on to his chair with his shy head hanging on his own shoulder, and his eyes looking out at the window, listening intently in his queer little absent way. And when Dan, in lordly contempt of such doings, would break in on song or story, and tear his way up the back of the chair to the back of the Bishop, Mona would be set on her feet, and the biggest baby of the four there present would slide down on to his hands and knees and creep along the floor with the great little man astride him, and whinny like a horse, or perhaps bark like a dog, and pretend to leap the four-bar gate of the baby's chair tumbled down on its side. And when Dan would slide from his saddle, and the restless horseman would turn coachman and tug the mane of his steed, and all the Bishop's long hair would tumble over his face, what shrieks of laughter, what rolling on the ground and tossing up of bare legs ! And then when supper-time came, and the porridge would be brought in, and little Mona would begin to whimper because she had to eat it, and Ewan to fret because it was barley porridge and not oaten cake, and Dan to devour his share with silent industry, and then bellow for more than was good for him, what schemes the good Bishop resorted to, what promises he made, what crafty tricks he learned, what an artful old pate his simple head suddenly became! And then, when Kerry came with the tub and the towels, and three little naked bodies had to be bathed, and the Bishop stole away to his unfinished sermon, and little Mona's wet hands clung to Kerry's dress, and Ewan, standing bolt upright in the three inches of water, blubbered while he rubbed the sponge over an inch and a half of one cheek, and Dan sat on his haunches in the bottom of the tub splashing the water on every side, and shrieking at every splash ; then the fearful commotion would bring the Bishop back from the dusky room upstairs, where the shaded lamp burned on a table that was littered with papers. And at last, when the day's big battle was done, and night's bigger battle begun; and three night-dresses were popped over three weary heads that dodged them when they could, the Bishop would carry three sleepless, squealing piggies to bed-Mona at his breast because she was little, Ewan at his back because he was big, and Dan across his shoulders because he could not get to any loftier perch. Presently there would be three little pairs of knees by the crib side, and then three little flaxen polls on the pillow, tumbling and tossing, and with the great dark head of the Bishop shaking gravely at them from over the counterpane, and then a hush broken by a question lisped drowsily, or a baby rhyme that ran a line or two and stopped, and at length the long deep quiet and the silence of sleep, and the Bishop going off on tiptoe to the dusky room with the shaded lamp, and to-morrow's sermon lying half-written beneath it.
Can you not see them ?-the four innocent children playing their games as though they were the whole world. But their happiness was soon cut short. Thorkell Mylrea, the Deemster and the father of Ewan and Mona, and the evil genius of the book, calls at Bishop's Court, and takes his children away. " Let a father treat his children as the world will treat them when they have nothing but the world for their father," he says, and henceforth the children's joy is taken away. But Dan lives on with his father, the Bishop, laughing, playing his pranks, and making of the Court one huge nursery. The years pass, and a friendship like that of David and Jonathan springs up between Dan and Ewan. But Dan is headstrong, wilful and impetuous. He runs almost wild, and his great strength and love of sport lead him into the companionship of good-for-noughts. He quarrels with Ewan, and, in a scene of great beauty and tenderness, a reconciliation is effected. But again they quarrel, and Dan strikes Ewan a terrible blow which has farreaching consequences. Dan is covered with shame, and feels abased in his very soul. And then, assailed by the most subtle temptation, Dan commits forgery, and Ewan, by now a priest, tells a lie to save him. And so Dan, the noble-hearted, pureminded soul, sinks deeper and deeper into petty sins. He wastes his substance, idles, drinks-does all that a tortured weak soul will do when it has begun to step on the downward path. The end of it all is that in fair fight Dan kills his cousin, and goes to Mona to tell her of his sin.
" Yes, yes, our Ewan is dead," he repeated in a murmur that came up from his heart. "The truest friend, the fondest brother, the whitest soul, the dearest, bravest, purest, noblest-O God! O God! dead, dead! Worse, a hundredfold worse-Mona, he is murdered."
At that she raised herself up, and a bewildered look was in her eyes.
° Murdered? No, that is not possible. He was beloved by all. There is no one who would kill himthere is no one alive with a heart so black."
"Yes, Mona, but there is," he said; " there is one man with a heart so black."
"Who is he?"
"Who! He is the foulest creature on God's earth.
Oh, God in heaven ! Why was he born ? " "Who is he?"
He bowed his head where he stood before her, and beads of sweat started from his brow.
"Cursed be the hour when that man was born!" he said in an awful whisper.
Then Mona's despair came upon her like a torrent and she wept long. In the bitterness of her heart she cried,
" Cursed indeed, cursed for ever ! Dan, Dan, you must kill him-you must kill that man. . . ."
Then Dan said in a heartrending voice,
" Mona, he did not mean to kill Ewan-they foughtit was all in the heat of blood."
Once more he tried to avoid her gaze, and once more, pale and immovable, she watched his face.
" Who is he?" she asked, with an awful calmness.
" Mona, turn your face away from me, and I will tell you," he said.
Then everything swam about her, and her pale lips grew ashy.
"Don't you know?" he asked in a whisper.
She did not turn her face, and he was compelled to look at her now. His glaring eyes were fixed upon her.
" Don't you know?" he whispered again, and then in a scarcely audible voice he said, " It was I, Mona."
The restrained power of this passage is typical of Hall Caine-not one word too much, and yet the man and woman live and breathe before our very eyes.
Mona confesses her love, and Dan leaves her to give himself up to justice. But temptation and hindrances are put in his way. It seems to be fated that his crime shall go unpunished, unatoned for. At length, overcoming all his weakness, and with a mighty resolve to suffer the penalty of his guilt, Dan gives himself up at the Ramsey courthouse. Then follow weary months of waiting until his trial. Finally he receives his punishment on Tynwald Hillthe ancient mound where, once in each year, the laws of the island are proclaimed to the assembled people. He is sentenced by his own father to lifelong solitude. " Men and women of Man," cries the Bishop, " the sentence of the court of the barony of the island is, that this man shall be cut off from his people. Henceforth let him have no name among us, nor family, nor kin. From now for ever let no flesh touch his flesh. Let no tongue speak to him. Let no eye look on him. If he should be an-hungered, let none give him meat. When he shall be sick, let none minister to him. When his death shall come, let no man bury him. Alone let him live, alone let him die, and among the beasts of the field let him hide his unburied bones." And then follows a tearcompelling document written by Dan in his exile, wherein it is shown how he works out his own redemption, and regains his manhood. Eventually he becomes the saviour of his people and dies in Mona's arms.
Many critics have levelled at Mr Caine a charge of unnecessary sadness in thus allowing his hero to die just at the moment when his regeneration is complete, but to my mind that is the only possible ending. Read in the right spirit the book is not sad; pervading its pages is 'seen a glorious optimism which not only gives one new faith in humanity, but makes one feel that life itself is a grander and nobler thing than one had ever before imagined. If Dan had had his punishment cancelled, and had married Mona-what a painful piece of bathos it would have been ! And yet that is precisely what many critics desired. They seem to imagine that the temporal life is of far more importance than the spiritual. Dan's life was crowned and his death glorified by his spiritual triumph. During those years of awful loneliness he not only purified his own nature, but exalted his very soul. The
Deemster is no melodramatic piece of stagework; it is a direct human document, a spiritual drama. It is the first work of Hall Caine's which has indubitably written on every page the word "genius."
It was published in 1888, and immediately created a sensation. Critics welcomed it on all hands. It was recognised as a powerful and original piece of work, and the new setting for the story added not a little to its attractiveness; for, fully in sympathy with Manxland, its laws, customs and society, Mr Caine had painted a picture of great charm and attraction. Old Kerry, Quilleash, and Hommy-beg were accepted as true portraits of Manx character, with their ingrained superstition, their vanity and their generosity. But the book did not impress the critics only ; it was read far and wide by the public, and within a few months the circulation had become enormous. The Deemster was one of the successes of the year, and from the date of its publication the popularity of Hall Caine began.
I am permitted to give here, by the courtesy of Mr A. P. Watt, Mr Wilkie Collins's literary executor, a letter addressed to Mr Caine by the late novelist. It is only one out of many hundreds received by Hall Caine from all parts of the world, congratulating him on his success, and offering him tributes of thanks.
" 90 GLOUCESTER PLACE,
" PORTMAN SQUARE, W., "LONDON, March 15, 1888.
"DEAR HALL CAINE,-(Let us drop the formality of ' Mr'-and let me set the example because I am the oldest).
" I have waited to thank you for The Deemster, until I could command time enough to read the book without interruptions. Let me add that the chair in which I have enjoyed this pleasure is not the chair of the critic. What I am now writing conveys the impressions of a brother in the art.
" You have written a remarkable work of fiction-a great advance on The Shadow of a Crime (to my mind)-a powerful and pathetic story-the characters vividly conceived, and set in action with a master hand. Within the limits of a letter, I cannot quote a tenth part of the passages which have seized on my interest and admiration. As one example, among many others which I should like to quote, let me mention the chapters that describe the fishermen taking the dead body out to sea in the hope of concealing the murder. The motives assigned to the men and the manner in which they express themselves show a knowledge of human nature which place you among the masters of our craft, and a superiority to temptations to conventional treatment that no words of mine can praise too highly. For a long time past, I have read nothing in contemporary fiction that approaches what you have done here. I have read the chapters twice, and, if I know anything of our art, I am sure of what I say.
" Now let me think of the next book that you will write, and let me own frankly where I see room for improvement in what the painters call, 'treatment of the subject.'
"When you next take up your pen, will you consider a little whether your tendency to dwell on what is grotesque and violent in human character does not require some discipline ? Look again at ' The Deemster' and at some of the qualities and modes of thought attributed to ' Dan.'
" Again-your power as a writer sometimes misleads you, as I think, into forgetting the value of contrast. The grand picture which your story presents of terror and grief wants relief. Individually and collectively, there is variety in the human lot. We are no more continuously wretched than we are continuously happy. Next time, I want more humour, which breaks out so delightfully in old ' Quilleash.' More breaks of sunshine in your splendid cloudy sky will be a truer picture of nature-and will certainly enlarge the number of your admiring readers. Look at two of the greatest tragic stories-Hamlet and The Bride of Lammermoor, and see how Shakespeare and Scott take every opportunity of presenting contrasts, and brightening the picture at the right place.
" I believe you have not-even yet-written your best work. And here you have the proof of my sincerity. Always truly yours, WILKIE COLLINS."
The criticism contained in this letter is both sound and just, and though Mr Collins declares that in penning it he was not sitting in the chair of the critic, but in that of the novelist, yet the advice afforded is such as only the most competent critic who united the qualities of the imaginative writer could possibly have given.
Where Mr Caine particularly shows his strength in this novel, to my mind, is in the last part of all - the document written by Dan just before his death. The situation offers so many temptations to write in a falsely pathetic style that one cannot offer too much praise for the admirably firm and manly way in which Mr Caine has written this part of his novel.
I have before me as I write two letters written in October 1886. One is from Mr Hall Caine to the late Thomas Edward Brown (of Fo'c'stle Yarns fame), re the plot and raise-en-scëne of what afterwards became The Deemster; and the other is Mr Brown's reply, The letters are too long to reproduce exactly as they stand, but I give here sufficiently important extracts to show the reader what enormous and seemingly insuperable difficulties Mr Caine had to overcome before even beginning the actual writing of the book that brought him fame. Mr Caine's letter is dated 3rd October 1886, from Aberleigh Lodge, Bexley Heath, London.
"DEAR MR BROWN.... You must have guessed that I have been constantly prompted by a selfish desire to consult you about my new novel. I am still undecided as to where the scene should be. The difficulty of determining the period is no less serious. . . . I wish to write a romance in the strict sense of the word and to be as nearly as possible untrammelled by facts of history and the like. Your opinion as to the feasibility Of the Isle of Man must have been final with me when I had briefly explained my scheme. I remember that your brother Hugh did something to dissuade me from tackling Manxland in any sort of work. He did not think the readers of novels would find the island at all interesting, and he was sure that the local atmosphere was not such as would attract them. I thought over this a good deal, and decided, I must say, against your brother's judgment. . . . In the first place, the island has excellent atmosphere. It has the sea, a fine coast on the west, fine moorland above; it has traditions, folk-talk, folk-lore, a ballad literature, and no end of superstition,- and all these are very much its own. Such were its attractions for any romance writer, and for me it had the further fascination of being in some sort one's native place, with types of character that had been familiar to me since my earliest years. Moreover, it was unlike the scene in which I had already worked the dales of Cumberland-and gave me above all one great and new element-the sea. So I decided that even Mudie and his thousands of young ladies might find Manxland an attractive background for a story.
. . . The difficulty is whether the Isle of Man is a possible scene for a real epic. You will judge when I sketch very roughly my plot, which is still in a nebulous condition.
" I wish to open with a picture of an island governed mainly by a depraved nobility, or something equivalent to a privileged class. The great man (the Dooney Mooar, is it?) of that class shall be old, anxious (like King Lear) to give up his share in the government, yet kept to his post by restless energy. He shall have lands and be a Hebrew patriarch as to flocks and herds. His wife is long dead, and the memory of her is the one vein of tenderness in a nature that seems to be as hard as granite. He has two sons and a daughter, the former arrived at man's estate, the latter just budding into womanhood. Long ago he had a brother who died at war with him, leaving a widow and an infant son. The lad is now five-and-twenty, a reckless scapegrace, beloved by all children and all dogs, the athlete of the island, physically a magnificent creature, but constantly under the ban of the great man, his kinsman. The young man is poor, his father having been impoverished. This young fellow should be the central personage of the novel. His youth is sketched; his scrapes, his disgraces, his dubious triumphs come in quick succession. At length he is a man and only less than an outlaw. He and his mother are neglected by the old nobleman(?) and his sons, but the daughter does not repudiate the kinship. The relations of the cousins must be delicately handled. On his side the affection is cousinly. On her side it is imperceptibly deepening into love. . . . The daughter of the great man is a noble creature, educated, too, and great, of soul. . . .
Then comes the time when the great man intends to lay aside his state. His sons shall succeed to him. . . . At this juncture the eldest brother begins to suspect the relations of his sister and cousin. The men meet, quarrel and resolve to fight. . . . It is an unequal match; it is murder; the brother is backed to the cliff edge and . . . tumbles into the sea. . . . Then in an instant the soul of the athlete awakes. He realises what he is, and whither down to that moment his life has tended. In that moment of awakening there is only one thing he can think of doing. He will go to his cousin, the nobleman's daughter. She is his good angel, etc. He goes, and sees her alone at night. He tells her that he has killed her brother-murdered him-extenuates nothing, etc. . . . the woman will be hard to do. What is the part? . . . I hardly know.
I think she should drive him from her. But she is his confessor and will not betray him, nevertheless. . . . The man gives himself up to the law. He is tried on his own confession and condemned to death. The death is to be by hanging, but no man has ever suffered death for crime in that island within memory or record. There is a superstitious dread of hanging. It must not be begun, or where will it end, etc. . . . The criminal is brought out, and . . . the curse is pronounced: that no man shall speak to him, that none shall look his way, that none shall give him food, that if he is sick none shall minister to him, that when he dies no man shall bury him. . . . Then comes a rupture in the state. The people try to cast off the rule of the privileged classes. Bit by bit the outlaw works out his redemption, his slow regeneration, his gradual renewing of the man within. One after one he does the people great services, accepting meantime all his punishment. . . . At length the regeneration is complete, and the outlaw becomes the saviour of his people, and is received in triumph on the scene of his former disgrace. Love is justified, the cousins are united, the broken old man dies, as is most fit.
"Now, dear Mr Brown, all this is very vague; but I shall be curious to hear how far it would be possible to work some such scheme into the (romantic) history of the Isle of Man. The House of Keys was, I think, a self-elected body down to recent years. If I could get it into the present century even by any ordinary liberties I should be delighted."
The foregoing is noteworthy not only because it is the first skeleton of The Deemster, but because (as will be seen from Mr Brown's reply), there were many difficulties opposing the idea of making the Isle of Man the anise-en-scene for the plot, and because these difficulties were most skilfully overcome. These two letters are one of the most convincing proofs with what extraordinary care and patience Mr Caine works. The following is Mr Brown's reply. "
CLIFTON, October 14, 1886.
" My DEAR SIR,-Thanks for this admission to the secrets of your workshop. The story is most interesting. . . . It could not possibly be placed in the Isle of Man, nor timed in the nineteenth century.
"The Isle of Man does not give you the remoteness of the place which you want. Norway might, Kamtschatka might! but the Isle of Man-no.
" Then as to time
"The history of the Isle of Man since the Revestment (1765 !) is not legendary, nor has it been otherwise than very clearly defined since the Reformation. It is an eventless history, but quite ascertained, and rigid within its narrow compass. Its constitution has been singularly unbroken; there is not the faintest hint of any such revolution as you postulate. The House of Keys was cooptative in my own time, and the change to the popular method of election was the merest emigration 'from the blue bed to the brown.' The stage is inadequate for your romance; and, moreover, it is quite occupied by the most obstinate fixtures. Your Dooiney (sic) Mooar is less than a fable. Where can you get him in? He is not, I suppose, the Earl of Derby, or the Duke of Athol; but, if he is not, he ought to be, for these gentlemen hold the field, and you can't get rid of them. It is impossible to conceive the privileged class, or nobles, of whom you speak. The fact is, you would take the Isle of Man as the merest physical basis, and constand upon it a whole system of manners, institutions, a social system, in short, which it never knew. It can't be done at the distance; it can't be done at all.
" Now, why not cut away from your socao-politico-revolutionary setting altogether, and rely, as you no doubt desire to do, on the sheer humanities? The Dooiney Mooar need not be a Lear, but he might be an old Manx gentleman; and, instead of resigning a seigniory, he might resign his landed estate. Such a person, and grouped around him nearly all the rest of your story, you could place about the year 1800. The Duke of Athol held a sort of court in those days : he brought over with him to the island a choice assortment of shwash-bucklers, led captains and miscellaneous blackguards. There are some fierce stories about these fellows. Duelling was in vogue.
" It was a very corrupt society, and no doubt greatly demoralised the native population. . . . Bishop Wilson (1710) was an 'epoch-making' personage. The Church and State question was then prominent. He was a complicated man, or at anyrate, a composite one. Never was man more beloved, never was there a serener saint, never a more brutal tyrant. But why seek this sort of person in the Isle of Man? Think of Laud and his tre mendous stage. Has anyone ever 'done' him, and the robin coming into his study, and all to that'? But yours is a romance? not an unconditional romance though, I suppose ? . . .
"But your fiction is splendid; the incidents are quite magnificent, and, from what I can see, the possibilities of character are highly promising. . . . It must not be thrown away; it is strong and vital; but the Isle of Man sinks beneath it. And besides the inadequacy of the stage there is the fact of its being preoccupied with social and historical furniture that will in no way fit with your invented properties.
"For my part, I think the interest attaching to the 'transition period' idea is adscititious, and rather vapid. And as for an epic-just write the words, ' A Manx Epic and behold the totally impossible at once !
" If you cling to this form, however, take it out to the red men, and let the scene be the Alleghanies, temp. circiter 1730. I hope I have made my meaning clear. The story is good, but its setting is impossible. Drop the latter, but stick to the former. If you do, you can retain the Isle of Man as the scene of your action. . . .
Most truly yours, T. E. BROWN."
He hopes he " has made his meaning clear." Only too terribly clear! Almost every point necessary to the proper development of the plot was promptly knocked on the head ; the vital links in the chain were broken, the structural backbone of the romance was destroyed. Ninety-nine men out of a hundred would have given up the idea in despair; but not Hall Caine. He seized on the hint of Bishop Wilson-the " epoch - making " personage ; he altered this part of the plot, and developed that ; he substituted one character for another, and introduced new dramatis personæ, ; - in a word, he not only recast the plot, but made it historically convincing, and this in the very face of the warnings and obstacles raised by one of the most erudite scholars the Isle of Man has yet produced. This, of course, involved immense labour, but it was done, and done successfully. Even Mr Brown himself had to acknowledge this. As Mr Caine has written me: "When the book was written there was no such sympathetic reader as T. E. B."
Another eminent writer who generously acknowledged the power and beauty of The Deemster was the late R. D. Blackmore, who wrote the following letter immediately after reading Mr Caine's book.
" TEDDINGTON, April 3, 1880.
My DEAR MR CAINE,-I thank you heartily for your kind and friendly letter, which was a comfort to me. It has always seemed to me that your turn of mind and power of creation are especially dramatic; and that you will write (if once you take to that form) a very grand and moving play. There is no one who can do that now, so far at least as I can judge; and I shall be proud if I live long enough to see you achieve it.
"For novel-writing you have not yet (according to my small judgment) the sense of proportion and of variety which are needful for pleasant work. I have read with great care your Deemster, and have admired and been stirred by it. But to my mind (which is not at all a critical one) there is not the sliding, and the quiet shifting, and the sense of pause, which are perhaps only the mechanical parts of great work, but help to lift it. I cannot exactly express my meaning, and I have no science to second it; and I know that I cannot do the thing myself, and never attempt it consciously. But it will come to you, with time, and give grace to your excelling power.
"As for myself, of which you ask, there is little to say except that all the spirit is taken out of it. I care for nothing that I do ; nor whether I do anything-which for a man who has not been lazy is: a dreary change of mood; my shame at such a state of mind is useless to improve it, and I wonder how long it will last. But this, I hope, you will never understand, except as I did-before it came to pass.
" If you care to come down to so dull a place, you will be always welcome, but a line beforehand will help it. Tuesdays are my absent days, and Saturdays rather 'throng' with work.-Believe me, ever truly yours, " R. D. BLACKMORE.
" ' Luncheon'-dinner it is to me,-at 2 o'clock daily. Try to come in time for that, and a look-round afterwards."
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
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