Godey's Lady's Book,
Available publicly via the Hathi Trust Digital Library
“The Wide, Wide World,”* is a work of much merit and interest. Written as it is for young people, the Christian spirit which prevails in it, the elevated Christian principles which it inculcates, cannot be too highly commended. The Narrative is easy and flowing; considerable analytic power and nice discrimination in the development of character are displayed, in which the conversations always assist. It is the history of a most interesting little girl, disciplined early by a pious mother, and then thrown upon the “wide world,” to wrestle with numerous trials and temptations.
There are not many books written for children that nowadays possess the power of drawing us on, from interest in the story, through so many pages. We read the whole of these two thick volumes, however, without scarcely a moment’s weariness; and, when we arrived at the end, felt sorry there was not more.
The author, Elizabeth Wetherell--for the name which appears upon the title-page is, we presume, a real one--is to us a new writer. Internal evidence proves her to be a Scotch woman, residing in our country. From this circumstances arise the prominent and grave defects of these volumes. The book appears as an American book, but it is utterly deficient in American spirit; and we should be wanting in duty to those of our young readers into whose whose hands it may fall, did we refrain from this comment. Children read with a blind, unquestioning faith, and mothers are often too careless of the influence which books exercise over the plastic minds of the young and imaginative. Many a sailor has been made by reading Robinson Crusoe; and many an earnest and devoted patriot has owed his loftiest aspirations to the germs sown in his mind in boyhood, as his imagination kindled over some legend of Wallace or Tell. “Let me write the songs of a people, I care not who writes their laws,” was the saying of a shrewd, far-seeing mind. Let me write the tales which are to satisfy the cravings of the youthful imagination, would have as much point and truth.
It is folly to say that the young are better without such food. God has implanted the imaginative faculty deeply in our nature, and in childhood it is often strongly developed. He never intended that we should crush out this faculty more than any other with which He has endowed us. We are to guide, nurture, or restrain it, as we do all other intellectual gifts which he has given us for our improvement and happiness. Children, in a greater or less degree, require this sort of mental food, and it is right that they should have it. In this branch of literature we are greatly deficient. Reprints we have in vast numbers, illustrating the history, deeds, and virtues of those other lands[.] But American boys and girls should learn to revere and admire what is noble and good in their own country--as do the children of every other nation who have an independent literature--before they have recourse to foreign sources for amusement and instruction.
Inestimable as the advantages are which we have derived from our Anglo-Saxon blood and tongue, as far as our nationality is concerned, we pay dearly for our birthright in the language of Shakespeare and Milton. No people on the globe read so universally as the Americans; and, of the time thus employed by most readers in our country, nine-tenths of it is spent in viewing the world through English minds and English prejudices. The evil is, in a measure, neutralized by the acknowledged foreign parentage of these works, and therefore we read understandingly. In the work before there us there is no such beacon; and it is for this reason that we feel bound, as conductor of a public journal, to point out its evil tendencies.
“The Wide, Wide World” appears as an American book, with an American copyright; but it is as English in its tone as if written by Mrs. Trollope herself. The heroine of the tale is the daughter of a Scotch woman married to an American. Captain Montgomery, her father, is depicted as a cold-hearted, selfish husband, and most neglectful parent. Now, we do not say that there have not been bad husbands and fathers among us; but, as a type of American fathers and husbands, the picture is eminently false. In these relations the men of America take a higher position than any in the world. As the necessities of fiction, however, require that great monsters should be created to bring about certain catastrophes, we should cheerfully overlook Captain Montgomery’s shortcomings, if we did not find the same spirit pervading the whole book. All the Americans introduced are vulgar, illiterate, and utterly disagreeable. The good, the estimable, and the refined are invariably foreigners. The Humphreys family, so worthy and lovable, are English. Kind Mr. Van Brumt [sic] is a Dutchman. Pious Mrs. Vawse--who , by the way, like a great many people in the world, is excellent at reforming naughty folks abroad and doing good to strangers, while her own inmate and grandchild remains a perfect imp--is a Swiss woman. That agreeable family, the Marshmans, are English people, with English habits and customs; and, we have no doubt, had the mysterious old gentleman who, in the beginning of the book, so remarkably befriends Ellen, again appeared, we should have discovered that he also has been born on the eastern side of the Atlantic.
Has our author never met with refined, educated, well-bred people in America? Or has her lot been cast in some border settlement, where the inhabitants are still struggling with the first elements of civilization, obliging her, if she wished to paint characters of an elevated stump, to selects them from foreign models?
Ellen’s Scottish relations, though wanting in vital religion, are not persons to call forth our contempt. They are estimable people, proud, certainly, and aristocratic, but refined, educated, and enlightened characters. They find fault with Ellen, to be sure, on the score of religion; not that they object to her being religious--people who belong to established churches consider a certain degree of religion as proper and respectable--they only persecuted her, in a small way, for having too much. She is, in their eyes, what our kinsfolk across the water call a “Methodist,” and that is not genteel.
Ellen’s patriotism, which the necessities of the tale and positive justice both require should be elicited by her enforced residence in a foreign land, is but dimly shadowed out. It is exhibited solely in her defence of the Americans in their Revolutionary struggle, and in an eulogium upon Washington--two incontrovertible points, upon which all civilized people are now agreed. In her discussions with her uncle, many excellent reasons, obvious to the mind of a child, might have been given for defending and clinging to our country. A sensible girl of fourteen, such as Ellen is described, needed but to look from the windows of her Edinburgh home, and think upon its starving, miserable poor, and upon those in every other capital city in Europe, and then turn in thought to her own happy land, where the weary and heavy laden from every clime find an asylum; where no man, woman, or child need want a meal; where the road to independence and distinction is open to all; and where all alike are free to cultivate their talents, without seeking farther for an argument. Some such tribute as this would have been peculiarly appropriate and graceful in a work coming, as we presume it does, from the pen of one who has voluntarily adopted our country as her own.
One of the best and most carefully drawn characters in the book is the young clergyman, John Humphreys. In his last interview with Ellen, before leaving Scotland, he enjoins upon her--not to read novels! This species of disingenuousness, be it said, is a common thing with novel-writers. Is it not an affectation of humility? Or does each novel-writer, who condemns that sort of work, consider his or her novel an exception to the rule? Such writers forget entirely the homely but wise injunction, to “honor the bridge that carries us in safety.” “The Wide, Wide World” is essentially a novel; the author perhaps thinks, because there are no professed love scenes in it, that it may escape this title. Both love and matrimony are insinuated in the concluding pages; and it does not require much knowledge of the mechanism of fiction to detect in John, from the beginning, the embryo husband of Ellen, notwithstanding their dubbing each other brother and sister; this, after all, is but an old and hackneyed trick of the sentimental school, which we do not at all approve. The relation of brother and sister is too delicate in its sacredness to be thus made the cover of a more ardent affection. But to return from our digression. This pious, excellent, and really delightful young man requires Ellen, when she is between fifteen and sixteen years old, not to read novels! He does not say--read Scott, and Miss Edgeworth, and Miss Austen; they will enlarge your mind, inspire your heart, and improve your manners. No!--he says read none at all[.] Yet this evangelical young clergyman has already placed in her hands, when she was only ten or twelve years old, the “Life of Nelson!” We should, in preference, have submitted to the pure mind of a little girl one of Miss Austen’s novels, and laid “Lord Nelson” upon the shelf, till her experience was more mature and her judgment riper, seeing (through our American spectacles) but little in his character or life that was conformable to the Christian standard or laudable in the eyes of woman.
Our author very properly makes Alice Humphreys correct Ellen’s vulgarisms of speech. In many instances, she is right; in others, she loses sight of the fact that what are Americanisms, so called, of the present day, are Anglo-Saxonisms of a century or two ago. There will come a time when in these matters we shall cease to follow the lead of England. Why not begin at once to read and speak the language of our forefathers as it came down to us? “Fix” is a very ugly word, and very inappropriately used in our country--almost as much so as the word “nice” is by the English. Let any one who chooses war against “fix;” we owe it a grudge ourselves, for it forces itself so insidiously upon us on all occasions that we look upon it as an enemy in the camp--or rather as a shabby, good-natured friend who helps us at a pinch, though we are ashamed of him. It is amusing to find that our author has caught the contagion, and uses herself this ugly word, which she condemns so strongly. Mason, the Scotch maid, who is innocent of having crossed the Atlantic, uses the word “fix” a l’ Americaine twice in the same breath. Our author lays great stress upon Ellen’s speaking pure English. The reader will be surprised to find that there are numerous deviations from grammatical correctness in the book.
Before closing our remarks, we must comment upon one error in conduct which these volumes contain. Mrs. Montgomery, represented as a lady of high family in Scotland, suffers her young daughter to accept a dress and other articles of apparel from a stranger, on her first interview with him. She continues to accept from the same anonymous old gentleman, who soon disappears from the book, repeated presents. This is not American good breeding! No lady, properly brought up, accepts presents from strangers. She does not receive anonymous presents at all!
We have now found fault enough. If there are any who think we have found too much, to these we will say--”We should never have taken the trouble to blame at all, had we not found in the work so much to praise.”
*Lately issued by Mr. Putnam, New York.
Reviews Archive: Jill Kirsten Anderson
Transcriptions: Jill Kirsten Anderson, Gabrielle Borders, and Elizabeth Korinke
The Wide, Wide World Digital Edition by Jessica DeSpain, Jennifer Brady, Melissa White, and Jill Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.