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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Henry Shorthouse (1834–1903)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
NINETEENTH-CENTURY mysticism is the dominant quality in the novels of John Henry Shorthouse. The spirit which informed the Tractarian movement, which produced ‘The Blessed Damozel’ in poetry and ‘Dante’s Dream’ in painting, produced in fiction ‘John Inglesant’ and ‘The Countess Eve.’ It is a spirit not wholly free from artificiality, because it is alien to the temper of the times; yet it possesses fascination for those who prefer the twilight passes of the world, leading perchance to the stars, above the electric-lighted highway leading direct to a city. It combines sensuousness with spirituality, day-dreams with keen knowledge, the Christianity of the ‘Divine Comedy’ with a kind of pagan delight in the offerings of earth.  1
  ‘John Inglesant’ is the best known of Mr. Shorthouse’s novels: it is also the most perfect embodiment of this spirit of mysticism in fiction. The hero, whose name gives the title to the book, is a cavalier in the court of King Charles the First. There is an exquisite aroma about his character: he is a gentleman and a saint, a courtier with the soul of an anchorite. He adheres with scrupulous fidelity to the requirements of his order, yet he is haunted with visions of the Divine life: he is a mystic and a man of the world. It is the character of Inglesant which perhaps explains the fascination of this novel for a certain class of modern readers. The present generation are pre-eminently children of the world. Science has made it well-nigh ridiculous for men to do anything but turn to the best advantage what is here and now. So they nurse their desire of the impossible in secret; but they love its embodiment in fiction. John Inglesant is a thoroughly modern creation. His environment of Renaissance Italy and Cavalier England is due to the tact of the author, who perceived that the setting of the nineteenth century for one who sees visions would be as incongruous in fiction as it is in actual life. The Rossettis and the Cardinal Newmans must be placed in long-ago beautiful years, if they would seem wholly natural.  2
  It is in John Inglesant that the temper of the author is most fully expressed; and not of the author only, but of the poets, painters, and others of his ilk. There is the sensitiveness to the loveliness of nature; not the Wordsworthian spirit of philosophic detachment from it, but a kind of sensuous union with it, making it partaker both with the holy and unholy aspirations of men. When John Inglesant kneels to receive the sacrament at the church of Little Gidding, he is conscious of the “misty autumn sunlight and the sweeping autumn wind,” as part of the gracious influence surrounding him. When he is tempted to ruin himself and another, he sees his evil passion reflected in nature:—
          “He gazed another moment over the illumined forest, which seemed transfigured in the moonlight and the stillness into an unreal landscape of the dead. The poisonous mists crept over the tops of the cork-trees, and flitted across the long vistas in spectral forms, cowled and shrouded for the grave. Beneath the gloom, indistinct figures seemed to glide,—the personation of the miasma that made the place so fatal to human life.
  “He turned to enter the room; but even as he turned, a sudden change came over the scene. The deadly glamour of the moonlight faded suddenly; a calm, pale solemn light settled over the forest; the distant line of hills shone out distinct and clear; the evil mystery of the place departed whence it came; a fresh and cooling breeze sprang up and passed through the rustling wood, breathing pureness and life. The dayspring was at hand in the Eastern sky.”
  3
  In his other novels, ‘Sir Percival,’ ‘The Countess Eve,’ ‘Little Schoolmaster Mark,’ ‘Blanche, Lady Falaise,’ Mr. Shorthouse makes similar use of nature. It is always the outward and visible sign of man’s inward and spiritual state. There is the same mystical conception of human dwelling-places, as in a sense the houses of the soul. The beautiful ducal house in ‘Sir Percival,’ the Renaissance palace of the Duke of Umbria in ‘John Inglesant,’ is each expressive of the temperament of those who have dwelt therein. Architecture, to the mystic, is perhaps the most significant of all the arts. Shorthouse makes use of it, as much as of nature, to embody the mental moods of men. For music and musicians he has keen sympathy. ‘The Countess Eve’ is built out of music; the keen, wild sobbing music of the violin, its tremulous passion, its unutterable aspiration. ‘The Master of the Violin’ is another story of the same order. Music is constantly heard in ‘John Inglesant’ and in ‘Sir Percival.’ Shorthouse understands the value of music as Wagner understood it,—as all mystics understand it. It is the embodiment of all the senses; it is the embodiment of the soul.  4
  As might be expected of a novelist who dwells in the half-seen world, the characters of Mr. Shorthouse are less like human beings than abstractions. John Inglesant is more of an ideal than of a man. Constance in ‘Sir Percival’ is a Giotto woman,—a pale prayer only half clothed with humanity. The Countess Eve is delicate and unreal; and no force of passion can give life to her. Yet to be with these creations is to be in noble company. The idealism of their author is inspiring and regenerating. It is all the more so because it is clothed in very beautiful literary form. The style of ‘John Inglesant’ is exquisitely fitted to the thought of the book. Its passionate mysticism, its sense of the Unseen, its obedience to the Vision, make of it a work which could ill be spared to an age productive of Zola.  5
  Mr. Shorthouse was born in Birmingham, England, in 1834. His death occurred in England, March 4, 1903.  6
 
 
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