Molly Elliot Seawell
( Originally Published 1901 )
WHEN Rudyard Kipling issued a story with strange characters before it, people wondered. They wondered still more when they discovered that in ".007", the reportorial hand of the master exhibited a knowledge of steam engines that was as technically correct as that of the man who designed them. When seamen read the sea tales of Molly Elliot Seawell, they were in the same mental condition as the engineer who read the article with the hieroglyphic heading they marvelled.
It was not the technical knowledge of vessels and the navy alone that made Miss Seawell's stories so fascinating. With that they combined a delicate and romantic touch that was unusual, for, with the every-day story of the sea, there is often a certain roughness that destroys the pleasure of a sensitive reader. For this reason one prominent American author has few admirers among the gentler sex.
An uncle of Molly Elliot Seawell had been in the United States Navy before the Civil War. After the commencement of hostilities he had resigned to follow the Confederate arms, and had served with distinction throughout the four years of open hostilities. From him she heard in child-hood true and glowing accounts of what is known as the romantic period of the Amer. ican Navy, the period when ships still car• ried a great spread of canvas, when cruises meant long absences of years from home, and a naval officer was called upon to meet tremendous emergencies now provided for by the cable and the telegraph. This is what stimulated her to write of Decatur and Somers, of Paul Jones, of midshipman Paulding, of Quarter-deck and Fo'c'sle, and of Little Jarvis; and the technical knowledge she displayed, like everything she has done, was the result of hard and conscientious mental labor.
In 1890 the Youth's Companion, which periodically gives some stimulus to good writing, held out a prize of five hundred dollars for the best written story for boys. Miss Seawell's "Little Jarvis" won the place of honor. It was the story of our navy and of our midshipmen, which has the same patriotic wholesomeness that is possessed by Edward Everett Hale's "Man Without a Country," and, as it has nearly as large a circulation to-day as when first published in book form, there is no doubt that it will have as long and prosperous a career.
Miss Seawell's literary life is a curious example of the results of environment. Born in a quaint and long-established Virginian community— Gloucester County — she was brought up in a distinct atmosphere of books and of good literature. Her father was a lawyer of note, and in the great rambling house — "The Shelter" —was a fine old-fashioned library. It included a collection of the English classics and many translations of eighteenth century books of French philosophy, which Thomas Jefferson when minister to France, had selected for her great-grandfather, Judge Tyler, one of the first Federal judges appointed under the present system, and for three terms governor of his State. He was a great reader and his love for books was transmitted to his descendants.
As a child she went to school most irregularly, and had a short term at a fashionable boarding school, where she declares she learned nothing but folly and irreverence. At home the morning hours which other children spent with arithmetic, geography, or science, she passed in making the intimate acquaintance of the library books. Here she met with Shakespeare, an ancient edition of his works with all of Johnson's, Steevens', and Malone's notes, which had been read by several generations of Seawells and showed it; and here also with Volney, with Jean Jacques Rousseau and other philosophers, whom she approached when in her teens and could not well understand. Her father and mother forbade her to read novels, —for fear of her getting notions in-to her head, —but, while they were strongly denying her such wild delights as Rhoda Broughton and Ouida might furnish, she was imbibing Byron and Shelley with the highest relish. By the time she was fifteen she knew all they could teach about the emotions, and when novels were allowed her, found them decidedly tame beside her already acquired knowledge of what they were all about.
Her mother was devoted to reading from the beginning to the end of her life, and absorbed Shakespeare with a thoroughness that is seldom met with. Every two or three years she would begin deliberately at the first pages of " The Tempest" and read through to the last page of Titus Andronicus," and in the same way would read " Hume's History of England," Scott's novels, and many other standard works. She was also a systematic peruser of newspapers, and had better knowledge of public affairs than most people in public life. It thus can easily be seen how honestly the daughter came by her love of writing. She was unconsciously, but naturally, fitted for it as is the fisherman with many generations of sea-men behind him, and a home in Gloucester.
Miss Seawell is herself an omniverous reader. Thackeray, Macaulay, and Jane Austen have been her roast-beef and potatoes of artistic creation, although she is passionately fond of biographies. So fond indeed of Boswell's " Johnson" that one literary acquaintance declares it to be the only book she had really read, because no matter what is the subject of conversation, she is certain to bring in a remark about the celebrated author.
Her home is with her sister in a charming house near Dupont Circle, or "Millionaires' Circle," in Washington, and overlooking the gardens of the Spanish legation. It is here that she does her literary work, and in very systematic fashion; for she is of the opinion that the mind can be made to work automatically as well as the body, and we can command our powers more than we can believe. Every morning, at half past nine, she retires to her own room and, while there, writes steadily until the luncheon hour. Books and ideas of books are now discarded until the following day. This work is discontinued from the middle of June until the first of October, when she retires from home—as far away as she can get—and there imbibes fresh ideas for forthcoming romances, while taking a complete rest from literary endeavor. In spite of this habit of yearly travel abroad, she is a thoroughly patriotic American, and has frequently remarked that nothing would induce her to leave her native country without a ticket for the return voyage.
Upon every subject upon which she writes, she reads as much as possible, following the example of Thackeray, who said that " The Virginians" was the resultant of a thousand books; and in her long journeys of investigation to places far from home she but imitates the method of the great Macaulay, who would sometimes travel a hundred miles to write a single line of description. The scenes of "The House of Egremont," which has recently appeared, were laid in France, and, in order to obtain the proper material, a special visit was necessary to the country in which the events were laid. The quaint palace of St. Germains, with its terraces and broad gar-dens, was well studied by the author, who spent days in rambling about, and in absorbing a thorough knowledge of the neighbor-hood. Like other authors, she has found that to saturate the mind with a certain period is a powerful assistance to the imagination; and for this reason she oftentimes has read three or four entire volumes in order to write a story of five thousand words.
In 1895 the New York Herald offered four prizes : one of ten thousand dollars for the best novel, one of three thousand dollars for the best novelette, one of two thousand dollars for the best short story, and one of one thousand dollars for the best epic poem on a subject of American history. The first and third prizes were respectively won by Mr. Julian Hawthorne and Mr. Edgar Fawcett, while Miss Seawell received the money for the best novelette, " The Sprightly Romance of Marsac," — and over the heads of two thousand competitors. When the news that she had received a three-thousand-dollar prize reached the old family negroes in Gloucester County, the darkies magnified the amount ten hundred-fold, and went about with natural awe and astonishment, while solemnly proclaiming: "Mars' John Seawell's daughter done taken three million dollars for one book."
The story she considers one of her best productions, and it is her best known work with the exception of " Little Jarvis "; but she has a long list of novels and juveniles to her credit, and one play, the manuscript of which she was the author, "Maid Marian," an amusing and witty satire on the Knickerbocker element in New York society, was originally written as a short novel, and was subsequently dramatized by Miss Seawell for Rosina Vokes, who made it a great success.
Lippincott's Magazine had the honor of receiving her first literary venture, and it was her first literary success, for it was accepted. The editor who appreciated its merit has, however, never had the satisfaction of knowing his own keenness and literary foresight, for it was signed under an assumed name. In fact, under a variety of pseudonyms, a great number of her earlier stories, sketches, and articles of all sorts were published in magazines and newspapers. Where these immature productions are to be found she has never revealed and says she never will, and for this reason reckons herself more fortunate than most writers, for the criticism which might justly be severe upon this ' prentice work has had no chance to be expended.
Curiously enough, to literature may be ascribed the influence that changed her earlier religious faith. When a small girl, an aunt, who had the reputation of being the best-read woman in the State of Virginia, warned her that her grandmother, who had died many years before her birth, had been in youth much unsettled in her religious beliefs by reading the very books to which her descendant was becoming so firmly attached, and with which she was spending so much time in the well-fitted library of "" The Shelter." The grand-mother in question was undoubtedly a woman of uncommon capacity and of rest-less inquiry, and probably a very pronounced agnostic at one time in her life; but sorrow and age and physical suffering, brought about a change. Miss Seawell's extremely pious aunt always declared that wider experience and a deeper knowledge of life and of books had changed her mother into a devout Christian in middle life. Unlike the experience of her grandmother, the result of this reading was to turn Miss Seawell's thoughts towards religious inquiry instead of in the opposite direction — indeed a daring thing for a young girl in a community like that of Gloucester County, where the Episcopal Church had been established for nearly three hundred years, and where there was a strong survival of the old English idea of church and state. In her own circle of friends and relatives, the young girls were confirmed, usually, at sixteen or seventeen, and their brothers, although not frequently particularly pious, were expected to be graduated into vestry-men and strict churchmen, as their ancestors had been before them. In the midst of her reading of Mr. Jefferson's selections of French philosophers, she came suddenly across Macaulay's Essays. In his review of Ranke's " History of the Popes," and in speaking of the Catholic Church, occurs this passage:
"She may still exist in undiminished vigor when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's."
This impressed her immensely, and for the first time she realized the existence of that tremendous community which prefers the moral case of the great Roman church. The severe blows which Macaulay frequently levels at the Established Church of England in his essay on Hallam's " Constitutional History," as well as the admiration which Thackeray expressed in nearly all his stories for the Catholic religion, made a deep impression upon the sensitive mind of such a young girl. Macaulay or Thackeray never dreamed of making a convert to the church of which neither was a member, but such indeed was the case.
A list of some of her more important novels includes : The Berkeleys and Their Neighbors," Throckmorton," " Children of Destiny," " Maid Marian,"
The History of Lady Betty Stair," and " The Loves of Arabella." For several years she has been running away from the reputation she made in her juveniles, because it interferes with her reputation for more serious work. It is for this reason that we have had no further stories of Little Jarvis and his fellow midshipmen.
A magazine article which Miss Seawell once wrote, and which was called " The Absence of the Creative Faculty in Woman," had considerable ephemeral fame. It was praised, attacked and criticized by writers all over the United States and in many European countries. Certain masculine critics, as Mr. Andrew Lang, who wisely declined to take sides with Miss Seawell, declared that her essay had disproved her own case.
" Papa Bouchard," which the Messrs. Scribner, Miss Seawell's publishers, claim will duplicate the success of " The Sprightly Romance of Marsac," will be published October the first, 1901. Besides this, she has a long novel in preparation, to be finished early in 1902, and which will probably appear under the name of " Franceska Capello."