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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 Black (1841–1898)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IN view of Mr. Black’s accurate and picturesque descriptions of natural phenomena, it is interesting to know that of his varied youthful studies, botany most attracted him, and that he followed it up as an art pupil in the government schools. But his bent was rather for journalism than for art or science. Before he was twenty-one he had written critical essays for a local newspaper on Ruskin, Carlyle, and Kingsley; and shortly afterward he wrote a series of sketches, after Christopher North, that at this early age gave evidence of his peculiar talent, the artistic use of natural effects in the development of character, the pathos of the gray morning or the melancholy of the evening mist when woven in with tender episode or tragic occurrence.  1
  William Black was born in Glasgow, Scotland, November 6th, 1841, and received his early education there. He settled in London in 1864, and was a special correspondent of the Morning Star in the Franco-Prussian war, but after about ten years of the life of a newspaper man, during which he was an editor of the London News, he abandoned journalism for novel-writing in 1875. In the intervals of his work he traveled much, and devoted himself with enthusiasm to out-door sports, of which he writes with a knowledge that inspires a certain confidence in the reader. A Scotch skipper once told him he need never starve, because he could make a living as pilot in the western Highlands; and the fidelity of his descriptions of northern Scotland have met with the questionable reward of converting a poet’s haunt into a tourist’s camp. Not that Mr. Black’s is a gamekeeper’s catalogue of the phenomena of forest or stream, or the poetic way of depicting nature by similes. The fascination of his writing lies in our conviction that it is the result of minute observation, with a certain atmospheric quality that makes the picture alive. More, one is conscious of a sensitive, pathetic thrill in his writing; these sights and sounds, when they are unobtrusively chronicled, are penetrated by a subtle human sympathy, as if the writer bent close to the earth and heard the whispers of the flowers and stones, as well as the murmur of the forest and the roar of the sea.  2
  He is eminently a popular writer, a vivacious delineator of life and manners, even when he exhibits his versatility at the cost of some of his most attractive characteristics. In ‘Sunrise’ we have a combination of romance and politics, its motive supplied by the intrigues of a widespread communistic society. ‘Kilmeny’ is the story of a painter, ‘Shandon Bells’ of a literary man, ‘The Monarch of Mincing Lane’ tells of the London streets, the heroine of ‘The Handsome Humes’ is an actress, the scenes in ‘Briseis’ are played in Athens, Scotland, and England. All these novels have tragic and exceptional episodes, the humor is broad, as the humor of a pessimist always is, and the reader finds himself laughing at a practical joke on the heels of a catastrophe. Mr. Black knows his London, especially the drawing-room aspect of it, and his latest novel is sure to have the latest touch of fad and fashion, although white heather does not cease to grow nor deer to be stalked, nor flies to be cast in Highland waters. We cannot admit that he is exceptionally fortunate in the heroines of these novels, however, for they are perfectly beautiful and perfectly good, and nature protests against perfection as a hurt to vanity. Our real favorites are the dark-eyed Queen Titania, the small imperious person who drives in state in ‘Strange Adventures of a Phaeton,’ and sails with such high courage in ‘White Wings,’ and the half-sentimental, half-practical, wholly self-seeking siren Bonny Leslie in ‘Kilmeny,’ who develops into something a little more than coquettish in the Kitty of ‘Shandon Bells.’  3
  These and half a dozen other novels by Mr. Black entitle him to his place as a popular novelist; they are alternately gay and sad, they are spirited and entertaining; certain characters, like the heroine of ‘Sunrise,’ cast a bright effulgence over the dark plots of intrigue. But Mr. Black is at his best as the creator of the special school of fiction that has Highland scenery and Highland character for its field. He has many followers and many imitators, but he remains master on his own ground. The scenes of his most successful stories, ‘The Princess of Thule,’ ‘A Daughter of Heth,’ ‘In Far Lochaber,’ ‘Macleod of Dare,’ and ‘Madcap Violet,’ are laid for the most part in remote rural districts, amid lake and moorland and mountain wilds of northern Scotland, whose unsophisticated atmosphere is invaded by airs from the outer world only during the brief season of hunting and fishing.  4
  But the visit of the worldling is long enough to furnish incident both poetic and tragic; and when he enters the innocent and primitive life of the native, as Lavender entered that of the proud and beautiful Princess of Thule sailing her boat in the far-off waters of Skye, or the cruel Gertrude in the grim castle of Dare, he finds all the potencies of passion and emotion.  5
  The temperament of the Highlander is a melancholy one. The narrow life, with its isolation and its hardships, makes him pessimistic and brooding, though endowed with the keen instinct and peculiar humor of those who are far removed from the artificialities of life. But Mr. Black ascribes this temperament, not to race or hardship or isolation, but to the strange sights and sounds of the sea and land on which he dwells, to the wild nights and fierce sunsets, to the dark ocean plains that brood over the secrets that lie in their depths.  6
  Under his treatment nature is subjective, and plays the part of fate. Natural scenery is as the orchestra to a Wagnerian opera. The shifting of the clouds, the voice of the sea, the scent of the woods, are made the most important factors in the formation of character. He whose home is in mountain fastnesses knows the solemn glory of sunrise and sunset, and has for his heritage the high brave temper of the warrior, with the melancholy of the poet. The dweller on tawny sands, where the waves beat lazily on summer afternoons and where wild winds howl in storm, is of like necessity capricious and melancholy. The minor key, in which Poe thought all true poetry is written, is struck in these his earlier novels. Let the day be ever so beautiful, the air ever so clear, the shadows give back a sensitive, luminous darkness that reveals tragedies within itself.  7
  Not that the sentient background, as he has painted it, is to be confounded with the “sympathy of nature with character” of the older school, in which hysterical emotion is accentuated by wild wind storms, and the happiness of lovers by a sunshiny day. But character, as depicted by him in these early novels, is so far subordinate to nature that nature assumes moral responsibility. When Macleod of Dare commits murder and then suicide, we accept it as the result of climatic influences; and the tranquil-conscienced Hamish, the would-be homicide, but obeys the call of the winds. Especially in the delightful romances of Skye, Mr. Black reproduces the actual speech and manners of the people.  8
  And as romance of motive clothes barren rocks in rich hues and waste bogland in golden gorse, it does like loving service for homely characters. The dialect these people talk, without editorial comment, delights and amuses from its strangeness, and also from the conviction that it is as real as the landscape. They tell wonderful tales of moor and fen as they tramp the woods or sail on moonlit waters, and sitting by a peat fire of a stormy night, discuss, between deep pulls of Scotch whisky, the Erastianism that vitiates modern theology. We must look in the pages of Scott for a more charming picture of the relation of clansman to chief.  9
  But Mr. Black is his own most formidable rival. He who painted the sympathetic landscapes of northern Scotland has taught the reader the subtle distinction between these delicate scenes and those in which nature’s moods are obtrusively chronicled. There are novels by Mr. Black in reading which we exclaim, with the exhausted young lady at the end of her week’s sight-seeing, “What! another sunset!” And he set himself a difficult task when he attempted to draw another character so human and so lovable as the Princess of Thule, although the reader were ungracious indeed did he not welcome the beautiful young lady with the kind heart and the proud, hurt smile, whom he became familiar with through frequent encounters in the author’s other novels. And if Earlscope, who has a dim sort of kinship with the more vigorous hero of ‘Jane Eyre,’ has been succeeded by well-bred young gentlemen who never smoke in the presence of their female relatives, though they are master hands at sailing a boat and knocking down obtrusive foreigners, Mr. Black has not since ‘A Daughter of Heth’ done so dramatic a piece of writing as the story of the Earl’s death and Coquette’s flight. The “Daughter of Heth,” with her friendly simplicity and innocent wiles, and Madcap Violet, the laughter-loving, deserve perhaps a kinder fate than a broken heart and an early grave.  10
  But what the novelist Gogol said of himself and his audience fifty years ago is as true as ever: “Thankless is the task of whoever ventures to show what passes every moment before his eyes.” When he is heart-breaking, and therefore exceptional, Mr. Black is most interesting. A sad ending is not necessarily depressing to the reader. “There is something,” says La Rochefoucauld, “in the misfortunes of our best friends that doth not displease us.”  11
  In Mr. Black’s later novels, the burden of tradition has been too heavy for him, and he has ended them all happily, as if they were fairy tales. He chose a more artistic as well as a more faithful part when they were in keeping with life.  12
  His last novel, ‘Wild Eelin,’ was published not long before his death, which occurred at Brighton, England, December 10th, 1898. He was devotedly fond of his native land, and has left behind him many find pen pictures of its scenery.  13
 
 
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