Miss Burton Harrison
( Originally Published 1901 )
ANYONE who has visited Virginia, and is at all intimate with its country life, can easily understand how the mind of a highly imaginative child would there be stimulated to the creation of fairy stories, by reasons as natural and instinctive as those which foster that early love for dolls of wood, of paper, or of plaster. Such was the beginning of Mrs. Burton Harrison's literary career, and these childish efforts were but the nucleus of other stories yet to come : stories which were to treat of more worldly individuals than fairies, but were to retain the freshness and charm of those earlier attempts, which would make them ever pleasing to a large and enthusiastic audience of well-cultivated but critical Americans. The many beautiful and always gracious heroines of colonial Virginian life who are, at the present time, absorbing so much authorial ink, have, in-deed, a twentieth-century prototype in Mrs. Burton Harrison. An aristocrat in every instance, of temperament as romantic as one could wish, yet not, as is usually the case, with an accompanying overbalance of unpracticality ; with self-possession worthy of another century, when graciousness of manner was more fully cultivated than now, she possesses a combination of characteristics which are well divided against them-selves, and which permeate her work with a peculiar flavor of artistic excellence. She is of medium height and of well-rounded figure. Her hair, of auburn, just escaping red, is tinged with gray. Her eyes are grayish blue, and not remarkable. Her features, though fairly regular, have no particular claim to beauty. In fact, so little distinction is there in her personal appearance that the passer-by would not look a second time at the middle-aged woman in the simple attire, yet such is her mingled grace and charm of manner that to see and know is but to admire with ever-increasing appreciation.
As Constance Cary of Virginia she came of historic Anglo-Saxon blood, and passed her childhood in that distinctly romantic atmosphere of semi-feudalism which was typical of Virginian life before the war. Her colonial ancestor upon her father's side, Colonel Miles Cary, was a scion of the Carys of Devonshire, England, whose tombs are yet to be seen at the church at Clovelly, and whose present head is the Viscount Falkland. Emigrating to America, he settled in Virginia about the middle of the seventeenth century, and later became a man of considerable prominence, for during the vigorous rule of Sir William Berkeley he was a member of the king's council. Her father was Archibald Cary, of Carysbrook, in Virginia, and the son of Virginia Randolph, the ward and pupil of Thomas Jefferson, and sister of his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph. Visitors to Monticello are still shown the spot where Jefferson stood in giving his ward in marriage to his own nephew. Her mother was the youngest daughter of Thomas Fairfax, Baron of Cameron in the Scottish peerage, who resided upon a large plantation at Vaucluse, in Fairfax, Virginia, and there lived a retired and gentlemanly life. From her grandmother upon the father's side, Mrs. Wilson Jefferson Cary, a well-known and popular writer in her day, she may be said to have inherited her literary talent, although the Fairfax family was noted for its appreciation of good literature. As a writer her father possessed considerable originality and force, and the influence of his great-uncle, Thomas Jefferson, the founder of American Democracy, is distinctly discernible in his political essays. Unfortunately he died while comparatively a young man, and his wife and small children lived in the seclusion of the family estate, not far from Arlington, where Constance Cary spent a happy childhood and youth, educated by her loving mother and a French governess, and delving with great constancy into the full stocked family library of old, but well-chosen books.
When she was seventeen, her first story — a love story, of course — was sent to the Atlantic Monthly. It was lurid and melancholy, and was returned in due course of time with, " This is far better than the aver-age, and should be read through," written in very bright ink, and with a very large hand, across the first page. From this she inferred that only the first page had been read, and, strange as it may seem, even that gave her encouragement. Her next attempt was a highly-colored and sensational novel called " Skirmishing," which was destroyed in a fire, an event for which she has since had every reason to feel grateful.
The Civil War now temporarily ended her literary career, for the family left Vau-cluse at the approach of the hostile armies, and passed through the Confederate lines at Manassas to friends and acquaintances upon the Southern side. Shortly afterwards their hospitable home was destroyed by the government engineers, during the construction of the chain of fortifications around Washington City, which were thrown up under the direction of General McClellan. The effect of this loss of home, coupled with the other misfortunes which crowded upon Constance Cary at this period of her life, left a deep impression upon her sensitive nature. A shade of bitterness fostered by these events may be traced in some of her writings, most noticeably, perhaps, in " Flower de Hundred " and " Crow's Nest." But a long trip abroad with her widowed mother, and several years spent in European travel, not only made her forget in part the sorrows of the past, but furthered an education which was already of unusual completeness.
Soon after her return, Miss Cary was married to Burton Harrison, Esq., a prominent member of the New York bar, and, like his wife, also of an ancient and well-known Virginian family. The ceremony was performed at the picturesque St. Anne's Church, in Westchester County, New York, and the wedding breakfast was at " Old Morrisana," the country home of her uncle, Gouverneur Morris.
" It was not until my return to America," she has said, " that I was bold enough to take up my pen. I wrote a little article, which I called ' A Little Centennial Lady.' It was published in Scribner's Magazine, and had so favorable a reception that I was encouraged to write ' Golden Rod,' a story of Mount Desert, which appeared in Harper's Magazine." These were quite widely read, and were soon followed by other efforts. Two spheres of life she felt well qualified to represent, and these only she has touched upon with success, although her latest novel has been of a distinctly different type. The South of her girlhood, which she knew so intimately, she has depicted with the true sympathy of the Southern born, while the whims and fallacies of that metropolitan society where Mammon worship is paramount, and mad scramble after place and leadership is all-absorbing, she has shown with a delicate appreciation that is unequalled. Of her own work, she has said : " My books I have enjoyed most, if a writer may enjoy her own work, have not been those dealing with New York social life, but my tales of the South. Charles A. Dana, of the New York Sun, was unconsciously responsible for my ' Old Dominion.' He gave me the agreeable task of editing the ' Monticello Letters,' and from them I gleaned a story which outlined my ' Old Dominion.' But the editors cry for stories of New York social life, to gratify the popular demand." And is it not human nature that the public should thus raise its voice? What interests the dweller in the tenth small cottage to the left of the grocery store in the New England village more than what the dweller in the second house to the right of that same grocery is doing ? Stories of a swell club, women's teas, and love's broken lances among the million-dollar endowed, serve but to satisfy the curiosity of those who live upon a higher social (not necessarily moral) plane than that of the country town. They cry for news of each other, and Mrs. Harrison has ably satisfied this want. " Her muse is not a winged Pegasus. It is a park cob," a clever New York reviewer has said, but Mrs. Harrison would have us think other-wise. I am sorry I am so identified with society in the minds of readers. I would like to be thought of as a student of human, rather than of society, nature. It is circumstances that have made my outlook upon life what it is. I have an intense sympathy for the joys and sorrows of humanity, and the older I grow the more sorrows appeal to me. I see them in the lives of my friends and write about them. The friends happen to be in society, so I am known as the society novelist or satirist."
There are two homes which are graced by the presence of this successful novelist, who is as competent a housekeeper as she is a brilliant member of society. The Harrison's winter house is a charming but unpretentious mansion on East Twenty-Ninth street, New York, the city of many more palatial, but few more attractive residences.
Sea Urchins " their summer cottage is at Bar Harbor, and is most picturesquely situated upon a high bit of ground near the sea. This, perhaps, is her favorite working place, and although she is a great traveller, and has been to nearly all the noted places in foreign lands, and to many which are seldom visited by the casual and unliterary tourist, yet she has confessed that her happiest hours are spent in the bracing atmosphere which surrounds this northern dwelling.
Her first story of New York life, " Helen Troy," in 1881, was a tale of the society of her native town, and of the Berkshire Hills.
The Old-Fashioned Fairy Book," published in 1884, and " Brie-a-Brae Stories," one year later, gave her an enviable reputation as a writer for children, for they are as much read to-day as when first produced.
" Short Comedies for American Players," a translation and adaptation of several excellent plays of French authorship, was a departure from her usual field, but a successful one. Under her personal direction these plays were produced in both Lenox and New York, and netted an aggregate of about twenty thousand dollars for the different charities in whose behalf they were given. Next followed a number of historical papers upon colonial America. " The Fairfaxes in America," an article read be-fore the New York Historical Society, June 2, 1888, was a truthful and vigorous historical essay of unusual attraction, on account of the grace of its artistic workmanship. A sketch of the life of " Colonel William Byrd of Westover," appeared some two years later and was equally well received.
In 1889, "The Anglomaniacs," caused a great stir in society. " It did not cause any personal stirring," she has said, " for all agreed that the Anglo-worshippers were not overdrawn. People criticized, but they never caught themselves in the act of Anglo-worshipping. They say their neighbors pay homage to the fetich and said, ' I believe these foolish people inspired Mrs. Harrison's work.' Oh, yes, I am quite safe and quite comfortable, I assure you.
My feet are planted on that basic rule of human nature, ' Discover the beam in your neighbor's eye, and don't look for the mote in your own.' Had that rule been re-versed, I might have had some unhappy luncheon, tea, or reception memories, but after a quarter of a century of writing about society people and seeing that they will not discover themselves, I feel secure and impregnable in my fortress of criticism. My characters were taken from life, yes, indeed, but they are copied of types rather than individuals. That may be one of the reasons that I have not been persecuted by an angry original. Types, after all, are composites."
" Flower de Hundred," her next work, was set in Southern surroundings and was successful, although not to such an extent as the one preceding. " A Daughter of the South," which next appeared, was a collection of her short stories, some of which had been published in magazine form. " Sweet Bells out of Tune," was followed by " A Bachelor Maid," which was condensed for Russian readers ,in a leading Russian magazine. " An Errant Wooing" was an interesting love story, and in this her knowledge of foreign life was well utilized. The Merry Maid of Arcady," was followed by "Crow's Nest," which has brought the author more letters from all parts of the country, than any of her books, One was from a Western ranch-man, and said : " Your book has gone the rounds, but it has always come back, and I have threatened to put a bullet in the hide of the man who does not return it." With this letter the author was greatly pleased.
The Circle of a Century " and " A Princess of the Hills" axe two of her later books which have received very favorable comment, although the latter is a complete departure from her ordinary scenes of action, and is a story of Italian life, and of a foreign environment which she has good reason to know with accuracy. Such a long list of publications bears full witness to the energy which has characterized her life. " I was made for action," she has said, " I cannot relax as so many do. I haven't the temperament and besides, there is so much to do. I would be unable to write did I not thoroughly believe in my characters. I am always living and observing a dozen lives. There is much satisfaction in doing work correctly. I am in love with mine, and am a hard worker. I would like to write some-thing that every one would read, something powerful." Perhaps she may, such persistence and patient toil are worthy of accomplishing the desired end.