In last month’s post on Graham Greene’s “The Century Library” series, I noted that George Orwell was unsuccessful in his attempt to have Leonard Merrick’s novel, The Position of Peggy Harper, included in the series. Patrick Murtha commented that, “The collected ‘Works of Leonard Merrick’ were issued in a 15 volume set with introductions by some very big names (such as J.M. Barrie).” Now, however, “Merrick doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry; someone ought to remedy that [Someone has! A short entry was tossed one up right after this post appeared.--Ed.]. He is the very model of The Neglected Novelist.”
William Baker and Jeannettes Robert Shumaker, authors of the 2009 biography, Leonard Merrick: A Forgotten Novelist’s Novelist, would certainly agree. As would William Dean Howells, who as early as 1907 wrote enthusiastically, in The North American Review, “I can think of no recent fictionist of his nation who can quite match with Mr. Merrick in that excellence [of "shapeliness" or form in the novel]. This will seem great praise, possibly too great, to the few who have a sense of such excellence; but it will probably be without real meaning to most, though our public might well enjoy form if it could once be made to imagine it.”
Several leading English and American publishers shared this high regard, which led to the release of a 15-volume series, “The Works of Leonard Merrick,” in both the U. S. and the U. K. between 1918 and 1922. Each title in the series was selected by one of a number of well-known writers, including H. G. Wells, James M. Barrie, G. K. Chesterton, and Howells, as well as now less-recognized names such as Maurice Hewlett and Sir Arthur Pinero, and featured a preface written by them.
Writing in Publisher’s Weekly in 1920, as “The Works of Leonard Merrick” series was in the midst of being released, Frederick Taber Copper noted the double-edged effect of Merrick’s typical choice of subject. When J. M. Barrie “assures us, as quite rightly, that ‘Mr. Merrick’s fellow writers are agreed that he is one of the flowers of their calling,’ and has long been ‘the novelist’s novelist,’ he has inadvertently drawn attention to the fact that the distinctive atmosphere of Mr. Merrick’s books is that of the literary, artistic and dramatic circles of London–and, other things being equal, the literary and journalistic setting is a recognized handicap.” Still, he acknowledged that, “one of the most delicate artists of his age, one of the most finished and resourceful craftsmen of his art, a past master of the elusive and the unexpected is at last coming tardily into what is so justly his own.” Yet even this series did not succeed in fixing Merrick’s place in the canon of the English novel. Less than ten years after the first volumes of “The Works of Leonard Merrick” appeared, another writer noted that though Merrick’s work “… [P]ossesses artistry, charm, gaiety, humor, power, narrative inventiveness and fluency…”, “still his position is not what its merits deserve to make it.”
I decided to give one of Merrick’s novels a try. Having experimented with a number of eReaders in the last few months, I also wanted to try out my current choice, the Barnes & Noble Nook wifi. I’m not much interested in B&N’s eBook offerings but wanted to start tapping into the ever-growing library of free books available online, particularly through the Internet Archive. All volumes of “The Works of Leonard Merrick” are available in a variety of formats, including PDF, HTML, ASCII text, Kindle, and EPUB, although, as seems to characterize Google’s haphazard book-scanning, the titles and other metadata are entered inconsistently and defy easy searching. This search link–“The Works of Leonard Merrick” in the Internet Archive–brings up about three different entries for each volume, but it’s a starting point.
I chose, for no particular reason, One Man’s View, first published in 1897, and this edition from the New York Public Library because their standard of scanning and entry seems a little higher and more consistent than others. The EPUB version of the file was relatively free of OCR errors and read easily on the Nook.
The story of One Man’s View would have been controversial at the time Merrick was writing. George Heriot, a rising solicitor, younger brother to Sir Francis Heriot, fantasizes about a pretty young woman he sees on the promenade in Eastbourne. By coincidence, she turns out to be the daughter of a long-lost friend, Dick Cheriton. Cheriton had been a promising artist, but he burned his canvases and took off to America to seek his fortune. His fortune proved to be running a hotel in Duluth, Minnesota, and he has returned to England to foster his daughter Mamie’s aspirations for a career on the stage.
Heriot agrees to help Mamie as much as he can, lacking any acquaintances in the theatre world. For the next year, Mamie makes the rounds of agencies and stage doors, hoping first for a speaking role, then anything–even an extra’s part–that would get her on stage. Merrick–writing from personal experience–is coldly realistic about the possibility of breaking into the theatre at the time:
The Stage is generally supposed to be the easiest of all callings to enter. The girl who is unhappy at home, the boy who has been plucked for the army, the woman whose husband has failed on the Stock Exchange, all speak of ” going on the stage ” as calmly as if it were only necessary to take a stroll to get there. As a matter of fact, unless an extra-ordinary piece of fortune befall her, it is almost as difficult for a girl without influence, or a good deal of money, to become an actress as it is for her to marry a duke. She may be in earnest, but there are thousands who are in earnest ; she may be pretty, but there are hundreds of pretty actresses struggling and unrecognised ; she may be a genius, but she has no opportunity to display her gift until the engagement is obtained…. To succeed on the stage requires indomitable energy, callousness to rebuffs, tact, luck, talent, and facilities for living six or nine months out of the year without earning a shilling. To get on to the stage requires valuable introductions or considerable means. If a woman has neither, the chances are in favour of her seeking a commencement vainly all her life. And as to a young man so situated who seeks it, he is endeavouring to pass through a brick wall.
When Mamie’s stamina finally wears down and she decides to return to Duluth, Heriot confesses his love and begs her to marry him. Mamie agrees–not out of love but merely in hope of finding a more palatable future than life in Duluth or with her aunt in equally dreary Wandsworth. The first few years pass amicably, but eventually Mamie meets and falls madly in love with a rising young playwright, Lucas Field. She leaves Heriot and the two take off for Paris, where passions quickly cool. This is no Anna Karenina, though. Merrick is unashamedly terse about the affair: “If a woman sins, and the chronicler of her sin desires to excuse the woman, her throes and her struggles, her pangs and her prayers always occupy at least three chapters. If one does not
seek to excuse her, the fact of her fall may as well be stated in the fewest possible words.” He’s also coldly realistic about their long-term prospects. “Romance,” he writes, “does not wear any better because the Marriage Service is omitted. A lover is no less liable to be common-place than a husband when the laundress knocks the buttons off his shirts.”
Fields sneaks back to London, where he contracts a fever and dies before having to admit that he has abandoned Mamie. Heriot obtains a divorce and seeks to put it into the past. Mamie seeks refuge with her aunt, insisting only that they move to Balham to avoid confronting any acquaintances, and she resigns herself to a life of quiet desparation: “She lived in Balham; she saw the curate, and she heard about the range in the neighbour’s kitchen. One year merged into another; and if she lived for forty more, the neighbour and the curate would be her All.”
Some years later, having risen to the post of Solicitor General, Heriot decides it would be fit to take a wife again. He convinces himself that his best prospect is the step-daughter of an American billionaire, and he follows her to New York City, trying to decide to propose. In the end, he lacks the motivation and sails back to England. By coincidence–once again–he encounters Mamie, returning from her father’s funeral, and the two end up remarrying.
Overall, the mood of One Man’s View is that of one utterly familiar with the ways of the world high and low, skeptical of miracles, wise to shams, yet still capable of a certain amount of empathy, compassion, and hope. The world, in Merrick’s view, will not give you a break, but a helping hand can be found on occasion.
I think C. Lewis Hinds provides an accurate assessment of Merrick’s work in his 1921 book, Authors and I: “I have read all the prefaces, such capering, delightful Merrick idolatry, and I have read six of the volumes. It was no hard task; each story was a grave pleasure. Leonard Merrick is an artist, not a great artist like Turgenev, not a master of insight like Meredith. He works in the temperate zone; he is never wrong but he never soars. His subtlety is equable; his finesse is exquisite, but I find it difficult to remember the plots and characters of the six Merricks I have just read.”
Subtlety and finesse may be the qualities Howells was trying to capture in writing of Merrick’s excellence in “shapeliness.” He is, without a doubt, a grown-up writer. He holds himself no better or worse than his characters or his readers, and in that regard, he continues to be a rare creature among novelists. There is little of the mustiness of much of the prose found in novels of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and I found his writing splendidly accessible. I plan on reading and posting on other of his works.
Find a copy
- Find it at Amazon.com: One Man’s View
- Find it at Amazon.co.uk: One Man’s View
- Find it at AddAll.com: One Man’s View
- Find it in WorldCat: Cynthia
- Find it at the Internet Archive: One Man’s View