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Outlines of English and American Literature
Popular Romances
by Long, William J.


While the new realistic novel occupied the attention of critics the old romance had, as usual, an immensely larger number of readers. Moral romances with a happy ending have always been popular, and of these E. P. Roe furnished an abundance. His Barriers Burned Away, A Face Illumined, Opening of a Chestnut Burr and Nature's Serial Story depict American characters in an American landscape, and have a wholesome atmosphere of manliness and cleanness that makes them eminently "safe" reading. Unfortunately they are melodramatic and sentimental, and critics commonly sneer or jeer at them; but that is not a rational criticism. Romances that won instant welcome from a host of readers and that are still widely known after half a century have at least "the power to live"; and vitality, the quality that makes a character or a story endure, is always one of the marks of a good romance.

Another romancer untouched by the zeal for realism was Marion Crawford, who in a very interesting essay, The Novel, proclaimed with some show of reason that the novel was simply a "pocket theater," a convenient stage whereon the reader could enjoy by himself any comedy or tragedy that pleased him. That Crawford lived abroad the greater part of his life and was familiar with society in a dozen countries may explain the fact that his forty-odd novels are nearly all of the social kind. His Roman novels, Saracinesca, Sant' Ilario and a dozen others, are perhaps his best work. They are good stories; they take us among cultured foreign people and give us glimpses of a life that is hidden from most travelers; but they are superficial and leave the impression that the author was a man without much heart, that he missed the deeper meanings of life because he had little interest in them. His characters are as puppets that are sent through a play for our amusement and for no other reason. In this, however, he remained steadily true to his own ideal of fiction as a convenient substitute for the theater. Moreover, he was a good workman; his stories were for the most part well composed and very well written.

More popular even than the romances of Roe and Crawford are the stories with a background of Colonial or Revolutionary history, a type to which America has ever given hearty welcome. Ford's Janice Meredith, Mitchell's Hugh Wynne, Mary Johnston's To Have and to Hold, Maurice Thompson's Alice of Old Vincennes, Churchill's Richard Carvel,--the reader can add to the list of recent historical romances almost indefinitely; but no critic can now declare which shall be called great among them. To the same interesting group of writers belong Lew Wallace, whose enormously popular Ben Hur has obscured his better story, The Fair God, and Mary Hartwell Catherwood, whose Lady of Fort St. John and other stirring tales of the Northwest have the same savage wilderness background against which Parkman wrote his histories.

For other romances of the period we have no convenient term except to call them old-fashioned. Such, for instance, are Blanche Willis Howard's One Summer and Arthur Sherburne Hardy's Passe Rose and But Yet a Woman,--pleasant, leisurely, exquisitely finished romances, which belong to no particular time or place and which deserve the fine old name of romance, because they seem to grow young rather than old with the passing years.

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