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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Margaret L. Woods (1856–1945)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE “OBSCURE cry of human suffering” is the motive of Mrs. Woods’s first book, ‘A Village Tragedy.’ The story is simple, the incidents meager; but so admirable is its construction, with such sureness is the ethical problem presented, if not solved, so great is the author’s power to create illusion by the statement of uncolored facts, that the somber, hopeless tale at once takes hold of the reader, who follows its conclusion with gloomy satisfaction. In its quiet, unemotional pages a terrible and inevitable tragedy is presented; illustrating Taine’s doctrine that virtue and vice are products no less than sugar and wine, and that a man’s character is formed by his blood and nerves. The humor of the book, bitter and grim, is contrasted with a pathos reduced to its lowest terms in point of language, only made intense by a look or a gesture. The luxury of grief, the cries and moans, are not there; the facts of a perfectly supposable case are set before the reader in simple narrative. ‘A Village Tragedy’ is real with something of the reality of Defoe’s ‘Plague of London.’  1
  Small as is the canvas of ‘A Village Tragedy,’ we are subtly aware that the author selected it from choice, and can draw with a free hand and large conception. Her next book, ‘Esther Vanhomrigh,’ is painted out of doors with unlimited space. In construction alone is there evidence that these novels are the work of the same hand. The painstaking veracity and the truthfulness to detail so manifest in her first book, are lost in the rapid action of Vanessa’s story,—a modern theme thrown into a past century, creating an atmosphere, reconstructing a period. The background is filled with vigorous portraits, with the life of London, the talk of the tavern and the town; historical and imaginary characters walk across the stage bold and unafraid; and the sense of proportion, of values, that makes a picture,—that constructive ability shown in the earlier work,—fixes each part in its proper relation to the whole. No incident, no minor character subordinates the central figures where the light is focused. Swift is a historical Swift brought to life again; Stella is a fine cut, cameo-like portrait. Esther is a study of the passion of love; not delicate or ethereal love, but the passion of a rich, full nature, painted as some great marine painters paint the sea, blown upon by the wind. The surge of emotion, the tumult of jealousy, the intricacies of wounded feeling, the coming and going of despair and hope, the final and desperate appeal,—all these motions of the mind toss and froth before us like the surface of a strong sea.  2
  ‘The Vagabonds’ is a return in form to the earlier manner of ‘A Village Tragedy,’ but enlivened by an undercurrent of quiet humor, and broadened by a philosophy which teaches that the inequalities of fortune are generally external, and that things adjust themselves in the practical and patient life. As ‘A Village Tragedy’ reproduces the country town, ‘The Vagabonds’ carries us, open-eyed and eager, behind the scenes of a traveling circus: we do not say how good this is; the sense of local color is wanting because it is part of the atmosphere, and no more to be set apart to look at or comment on than is one ingredient of a loaf of bread to be separated from the rest. The commonplace people in their conventional distresses are interesting because they are human. Not situation but character is dramatically presented,—its niceties shaded like the blush on a peach, from pale to red. Such minute observation, such discriminating insight, tempt the reader to wonder whether Fritz in ‘The Vagabonds’ and Aunt Pontin in ‘A Village Tragedy,’ both minor but most entertaining characters, are portraits or original conceptions. Whatever they are, the author has succeeded in seizing and fixing on her canvas what in other hands would be fugitive impressions or mere puppets of illusion.  3
  There are many well-established modes of writing fiction; but not to the familiar philo-natural school, as M. Brunetière calls it, nor to the psychological, nor to that of the symbolists, does Mrs. Woods belong. Nor are her books panoramas of manners and life in an extended sense, although a high estimate may be set on her fine imaginative power to reconstruct the past. Her métier is to paint human nature, and to show the universality of human experience. To no external condition belong honor, generosity, pride, cruelty, faith, or self-sacrifice. Acrobats and clowns, peasants, scholars, ladies of fashion, men of the world, are moved by the same emotions, the same sorrows. Under the canvas walls of the circus tent, in the sordid country village, in the London of Swift and Vanessa, the human heart beats to the same music.  4
  In her creed, environment is destiny. Even such dramatic climaxes as the death of Esther Vanhomrigh, the finding of the body of Annie in ‘A Village Tragedy,’ and Joe in ‘The Vagabonds’ saving the life of his rival whom he hates, are evolved from a chain of events. Her people, drawn on broad lines, but with infinite discrimination, and ability to recognize and reproduce subtle distinctions, work out their own salvation with results as certain as a problem in mathematics.  5
  In the matter of style, Mrs. Woods has accepted Boileau’s dictum that as the mind of man teems with confused ideas, he “likes nothing better than to have one of these ideas well elucidated and clearly presented to him.” And for her reward she has helped to make English literature human.  6
  Margaret L. Woods was born in London, the daughter of Dean Bradley of Westminster. Early in life she married Dr. Woods, the president of Trinity College, Oxford. She has published ‘A Village Tragedy’ (London, 1888), ‘Esther Vanhomrigh’ (1891), ‘The Vagabonds’ (1894), ‘Wild Justice’ (1896), ‘Sons of the Sword’ (1901), ‘The King’s Revoke’ (1905), and ‘Pastels under the Sounthern Cross’ (1911). Her Collected Poems were issued in 1914, and her stirring ballad ‘The First Battle of Ypres’ in 1916.  7
 
 
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