Lilian Bell (Mrs. Bogue)
( Originally Published 1901 )
LILIAN BELL (Mrs. Arthur Hoyt Bogue) may justly take pride in her originality and her enthusiasm. She is one of the most forceful figures in American literature. What she writes is as far from conventionality, as the sun is distant from the earth. She is young, anti, like every other original and enthusiastic person, she has her faults — faults technical as well as temperamental. But we must credit her with the purpose of living to learn, and though, as in her best work, " The Expatriates," there is some dross mingled with the gold, the dross will all be smelted out some day. Then she will move a round higher on the ladder.
Her writings largely reflect her own experiences and her own opinions. For instance, two years ago, in Boston, speaking of the United States army, she said :
The men are splendidly brave, intelligent and efficient so far as the little force goes ; but the minute an army officer gets away from the barracks he puts on civilian's dress, and that, to my mind, is entirely wrong. There ought to be a rule compel-ling officers and men in our army to wear their uniforms at all times. This would keep the army in the people's minds, and make them realize that it is a real thing and a part of the nation that they can be proud of. You never see army officers on the streets or in public places in uniform; they act as if they were ashamed of it. I am proud of our army and I think we ought to make more of it than we do. If I were a man there 'd be no other career on earth for me. My brother is an officer, and it is the delight of my heart that he is permanently in the service, and employed in the defence of my beautiful America, and that he will live his whole life under the shadow of the flag." (Her brother, to whom, by the way, her latest story, " Sir John and the American Girl," is dedicated, is a lieutenant in the 17th Infantry, U. S. A., now stationed in the Philippines.)
Rose Hollenden expresses virtually the same sentiments in The Expatriates." Indeed, in that singularly interesting and strangely abused novel you will find many traces of the author's experiences and opinions. You may remember the episode at the reception given by the American ambassador to France, Mr. Sharp :
"But suddenly Rose saw the tall, bent figure of the American ambassador approaching. As he neared the Marquise d'Auteil, she turned from Prince Orloff, and, mistaking Mr. Sharp for a servant, she said, in a distinct tone which everybody heard:
" Garçon, call the carriage of the Mar-quise d'Auteil ! "
The incident took us back to what Lilian Bell had said in an interview, long be-fore the publication of the book, — when she was at work on it, no doubt, —that "our ambassadors ought to have a uniform or some sort of dress to distinguish them from the common herd." Superficially the sentiment is not democratic ; but it was the author's sense of dignity that spoke. She related how she attended an important ball at the French capital. The ambassadors from other nations appeared in splendid uniforms. They looked like somebodies. Even little Portugal, and Brazil, and Peru, and Mexico, were represented by men who kept up the dignity and the importance of their states ; while the ambassador of the United States could not be told from the waiters, except that they were better dressed. It is outrageous. No wonder they despise us abroad."
Times have changed, and European tempers, too, we may be permitted to remark. But a comparison of Mrs. Bogue's writings and sayings is forced upon the critic who would do justice to her work, inasmuch as it generally shows her to be consistent. We sincerely believe that she is a woman who practices what she preaches. She is not frivolous and imaginative ; she is decidedly serious and intellectual.
She inherits her lively patriotism. Her father, Maj. William W. Bell, served his country gallantly during the Civil War, and so did her grandfather, Gen. Joseph Warren Bell, who, though a Southerner, sold and freed his slaves before the war, brought his family North, and organized the 13th Illinois Cavalry. Among the Virginian patriots at the time of the Revolution was her great - great - grandfather, Captain Thomas Bell.
Lilian Bell was born in Chicago in 1867, but she was brought up in Atlanta. At an early age she took pleasure in writing. She once said :
"I wrote my first story at the age of eight. Later, when I was in school, there was a certain girl whom I loved, and still love, devotedly. She so detested writing essays that she would let her general average drop twenty per cent., for she always got zero for being unprepared. She was older than I by two years, but a little mite of a thing, and I worshiped her so much that I used to write the essays for her. Usually I 'd ask her, about two hours before they had to be handed in, ' Written your essay?'
No, she couldn 't write it. ' What's your subject?' Then I would write it for her; and I used to take the keenest enjoyment in writing it as she would have written it, in looking at it from her point of view, and making the thing sound like her. It used to be a source of great glee to me that I could get her a hundred every time, though I couldn't always get that much for myself; they marked according to supposed ability. Later I wrote various novels of interminably long chapters, and read them to four or five wondering girls who used to come to my house Fridays to stay over Sunday. No, those were never published. My mother burned them, together with a voluminous diary I thought I was keeping. She 's been ever so good to me in heaps of ways 1 Still later I began writing for a newspaper. I was getting the magnificent sum of eight dollars a column, and wasn't spending a cent of it — just saving it to look at. One day an old friend said to me : ' Are you writing much now ? ' I said : ' Yes, and every line I write gets printed.' 'That's too bad,' said he ; ' I 'm very sorry.' ' Why, what do you mean? ' said I. ' If everything you write gets printed, it shows you 're not advancing.' That was startling. I stopped writing entirely after that, and read — oh, how I devoured books and magazines, trying to see how people that could write did things, trying to get hold of the elements of style, trying, in short, to master English.
" I began to write things and sent them out, and they always came back promptly. I didn't care ; I sent them out again and kept on writing. . . . One day an idea for a story occurred to me, and I wrote ' The Heart of Brier Rose' and sent it to the Harpers, who accepted it and asked for more. Soon after that I wrote ' The Love Affairs,' and sent that to them. They accepted it, and since then everything I 've written has been en-gaged beforehand. But don't imagine I work by contract. I never could and never will engage to do a certain piece of work in a given time. There 's merely an under-standing that if I write a story and send it along they'll take it."
Zola himself could not desire a more flattering arrangement.
Mrs. Bogue was twenty-six when, in 1893, " The Love Affairs of an Old Maid" was published. Her wit was green then, but her uncommon sense of humor was ripe. She is too serious, too objective, to be a first-water humorist; nor has she ever had a desire to be one, we understand.
A Chicago writer has given us a story illustrating Lilian Bell's characteristic sense of humor. It seems that soon after her graduation from Dearborn Seminary, Chicago, she was invited to read an essay on " Literary Women of Germany in the Middle Ages" at an alumnae entertainment. Lilian discovered a scarcity of material, and she so reported.
Very well, Miss Bell, I see you do not care to accommodate me," said the principal, " I shall have to disappoint our guests." " No, no," protested the young graduate. "If you insist upon it I will do the best I can." The story goes on:
So Miss Bell wrote a most remarkable account of the literary women of Germany in the Middle Ages. There was a score of them, all of surprising brilliancy. They guided not only the culture of the country, but the politics, and the social life of the court. Nothing of importance happened without their participation. The most renowned of the group, after passing through all sorts of adventures, jumped through an open window, four stories up, attempting to descend safely by using her umbrella as a parachute. The parachute failed to work. She was dashed to bits, and the miserable prince whose attentions had driven her to the fatal step, went away to war, threw him-self in the forefront of the battle and was killed. At judicious intervals in her essay Miss Bell inserted the names and meagre history of three literary women who had really existed. The composition was a great success. All the cultured guests, many of them members of Chicago's literary set, commended its erudition and its dramatic interest.
I knew you could give us something good if you only tried, my dear," said the lady principal, all smiles. Miss Bell then coolly announced that she had been trying her hand at romance, in the absence of facts."
Every book, that is, every real book," says Mrs. Bogue, " has in it something which the writer could not have helped putting into it, and which no one else could have put into it by main strength. One of the things I have cared about particularly is to be an individual, not a member of a group or of a class. I think it is more worth while if your work is a thing of its own kind - if, in it, you are yourself, instead of being merely a woman who has done good work in common with others, along a certain line. I 'd rather elude classification ; I should hate to be pigeon-holed."
Yet some critics have had the poor judgment to classify her as a writer of light fiction " and of " summer literature."
The reader will find an excellent sample of her vehement satire in the description in " The Expatriates " of the concert aboard the St. Louis. There is a moral as well as fun in the discomfiture of the Americans that could not sing " The Star Spangled Banner."
It is queer," remarks the novelist, in discussing her work, " how differently books write themselves. The first chapter of ' The Love Affairs' is exactly like the first draft. It suited me. The first chap-ter of ' A Little Sister to the Wilderness,' was written thirty-two times. That is the only one of my books that has been written from the outside, and it was the hardest to write. For other good reasons, I'll never write another book except from the inside. Nobody has ever yet found out what I wrote ' The Under Side of Things' for, not even a single critic. I don't believe anybody ever will, either. Probably I did not make it plain enough."
In regard to her daily work Mrs. Bogue writes us : " I work every morning and generally manage to read one book a day — biographies and books of philosophy, which I often reread if they throw particular light on characters. In my writing I am not so rapid. I sometimes rewrite a paragraph or chapter twenty or more times." She spent two years on " The Expatriates," her most noteworthy book, visiting Europe twice during that time and reviewing her work with men and women of trustworthy judgment. " The ' white heat' I am accused of," she says, "was sober morning judgment and the purest of motives, to instruct an American public distinguished by its ignorance of the subjects of which I wrote."
In May, 1900, Lilian Bell's marriage to Mr. Arthur Hoyt Bogue of Chicago, gave rise to many a joke. The jokers were especially delighted to quote the blistering witticisms in " From a Girl's Point of View." Here is a specimen of the comments that went the rounds of the press :
" In 'From a Girl's Point of View' Miss Bell deplores and ridicules the man under thirty-five. She calls him raw, crude, unformed, untrained, egotistical, and other uncomplimentary names. The fact that Mr. Bogue is several years under thirty-five, gives her views added piquancy."
A short time ago Mr. and Mrs. Bogue moved to New York.
From one who has met her we get this glimpse of the author : " She is a tall, fine-looking woman, with a superb carriage, though not a strong physique ; and she dresses stunningly, though a mere man would discover only that she was perfectly gowned." And she is said to have glorious eyes.
Lilian Bell's readings have been enjoyed West and East, North and South ; and, as she wrote of Rose Hollenden, so we may write of her, that she knows "her own country from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Seattle to Tampa."