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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Edward Norris (1847–1925)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
WILLIAM E. NORRIS’S first novel, ‘Heaps of Money’ (London, 1877), was published in the Cornhill Magazine as a serial, when he was not quite thirty-one years of age. He was born in London in 1847, the son of Sir W. Norris, chief justice of Ceylon, was educated at Eton, went on the Continent to study foreign languages as a preparation for diplomatic science, changed his plans, and in 1874 came to the bar, but never practiced, having already tasted the success of his first book. Since that time Mr. Norris devoted himself to the profession of literature. His home is at Torquay, alternating during the winter between Algiers and the Riviera. Since 1877 he has written steadily and maintained his place among popular favorites. Among his many novels some of the best known are ‘Matrimony’ (1881), ‘My Friend Jim’ (1886), ‘The Widower’ (1898), ‘Nature’s Comedian’ (1904), and ‘Pauline’ (1908).   1
  Mr. Norris seems to have come into the world like Minerva, full armed. ‘Heaps of Money’ has the maturity of view, the simplicity of diction, the quiet humor, and the minuteness of observation of a veteran in novel-writing. Its author showed that he had not only the power to reflect on life in its hypocrisies and petty social strivings, but he had the half-cynical air of a man of the world defending in tolerant fashion its sins and its shams. Instead of posing as preacher or reformer, the author took the more adroit way of seeming to sneer at himself and his craft, and in ironical self-assertion cleverly disarmed criticism.  2
  He had seen perhaps that the time had gone by for sweeping indictments, and that not the Juvenalian scourge but the Horatian flick drove men to righteousness. Another characteristic of this first book was the air of calm leisure that pervaded its quiet sentences; but the reader, suspecting platitudes, soon found that the irony infused gave them a delicious flavor. Lord Keswick, pressed by his father to marry and extricate himself from his debts, urges plaintively that he is not a domestic man. “Am I a domestic man?” retorts his father. And to tell the truth, he certainly was not. The hypocrisy of Mr. Howard, the heroine’s father, is amiably excused. “Some people, knowingly or unknowingly, are perpetually playing parts, from their cradle to their death-bed. Very likely they can’t help themselves, and ought only to be pitied for having an exaggerated idea of the fitness of things.”  3
  ‘Heaps of Money’ was followed in 1880 by ‘Mademoiselle de Mersac,’ a story played in Algiers, in which the author created two of the most finished portraits in modern fiction: St. Luc, the blasé cynical man of the world, who falls in love with the fresh young girl Jeanne de Mersac, and serves her with a devotion half paternal, half passionate, and wholly incomprehensible to her; and Jeanne herself, the incarnation of high-minded obstinacy and fierce maidenhood. The plot of ‘Mademoiselle de Mersac’ is not new; but “the exquisite touch which renders ordinary characters and commonplace things interesting,” to quote Scott of Miss Austen, of whom Norris may well claim literary descent, is not denied him.  4
  ‘Matrimony,’ which was published the next year, abounds in delicate characterizations and in “character parts,” as they are called on the stage: the sage bore Mr. Flemyng, Admiral Bagshawe, and General Blair. Nothing is easier than to moralize in a certain fashion, and truisms about life commend themselves to the ordinary mind. Mr. Flemyng bristles with undisputed facts, retailed in conversations in which the reader is sufficiently disinterested to be an amused listener. Mr. Gervis in the same novel, if not as striking is as finely drawn a portrait as St. Luc,—a cultured cynic who poses as doing his kind deeds to spare himself the trouble of refusing.  5
  In the long list of novels that succeed ‘Matrimony,’ Norris presents characters that are seldom planned on a higher scale than ourselves; and yet at his will they stimulate our imagination and our affection. As has been said of Thackeray’s heroes, they have an ideal of human conduct, and an aspiration, which though far from conventional is yet noble and elevating. Women owe him a debt for his championship of maidenhood. His young girl is as wild and as free, to borrow Mr. Andrew Lang’s simile, as Horace’s “latis equa trima campis.” He does not take for granted that a fresh young creature, loving her parents and her brothers and sisters with all her heart, will at her first dance fall headlong in love with the first man who admires her. He endows her, on the contrary, with a girlish perversity, a high-spirited resistance to the intruding element, as her lover appears to her; and the plot often turns on the obstacles she persists in erecting between herself and the man she loves.  6
  We travel with Mr. Norris on level roads: his gentlemen are gentlemen, even when they are villains; his heroes thoroughly good fellows, with a talent for epigram; his heroines sweet English roses, set about with little prickly thorns—till unexpectedly we come upon a scene instinct with tragedy and pathos. The latter he uses sparingly and with judgment. There is no attempt to touch the feelings when Margaret Stanniforth, most charming of women though neither young nor beautiful, dies; and the short death scene in ‘Mademoiselle de Mersac’ is pathetic by the contrast between death and the abundant strength and youth of Jeanne. One is as much affected, perhaps, when M. de Fontvieille consigns Jeanne to Mr. Ashley, whose comic agony lest the Frenchman embrace him heightens the sadness of the simple old man’s leave-taking; and again in a less-known novel, ‘My Friend Jim,’ when the old worldling the Marquis of Staines revisits the Eton playing-fields, and spends the summer day in recollections of his boyhood.  7
  In these scenes the effect is so spontaneous, so easily brought about, that a lesser artist would use his gift oftener. But Mr. Norris exercises a wise restraint on this dangerous ground. And if he is conservative in his emotions, of all his generation he is the most conservative in his traditions. His novels, as far as they portray the ideas of the end of the nineteenth century, might have been written a hundred years ago. The New Woman does not appear between the covers of his books; social and economic problems are ignored. Money and the want of it, caste and striving for it, occupy his characters. His sympathies are apparently entirely with Mrs. Rawdon Crawley when she exclaimed pathetically, “How good I could be on £5,000 a year!”  8
  But the lover of Norris is not inclined to find fault with the company he keeps. For very variety, he enjoys the society of Norris’s gentlepeople as a contrast to the sordid, the diseased, the poverty-stricken, that crowd the pages of contemporary novelists. With something of cynicism and something of pathos, Norris combines a healthy good-humor and a distaste for the withered side of life. His vigorous character Mrs. Winnington in ‘No New Thing’ knew the world, and was not so simple as to believe that any sincere and conscientious people except herself lived in it; but Kenyon’s devotion to Margaret Stanniforth, and Margaret’s love for and fidelity to her dead husband, refute all her evil thinking. Virtue rewarded, scapegraces apologized for, human nature regarded with tenderness and pity, are characteristics of Norris’s predecessors rather than of writers of his own time; and for a pure, refined, and scholarly style unaffected sentiment, and quiet humor such as his, we must go back to his master, Thackeray.  9
 
 
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