- Juliana Ewing & "the Law of Reticence"
IT'S "SELLING AT THE RATE OF 500 a day, 19,000 have been ordered already, and the printers can't get them out fast enough," Juliana Ewing wrote in an 1883 Christmas letter. With less than two years left to live, Ewing (1841–1885) had lucked out. Her Jackanapes, first serialized in 1879, had now suddenly become a late-Victorian bestseller.
This good fortune might have seemed all the more surprising to the author given that her religious convictions about human dignity seemed to be falling out of fashion. The current vogue, at least according to her friends' book recommendations, highlighted animal-like representations of humanity—depraved Darwinian creatures driven only by biological urges. That was Ewing's aggrieved impression after reading, to her disgust, Sabine Baring-Gould's Mehalah (1880) and Anthony Hope's Sophy of Kravonia (1880).
Henry James deemed Jackanapes to be "a genuine masterpiece," an assessment that apparently peaked William B. Dillingham's curiosity about Ewing's overall achievement. Inspiration for a reevaluation likewise came from Rudyard Kipling's acknowledgment of his literary indebtedness to Ewing's Six to Sixteen. As a youngster, Kipling had read this novel in serial form in a bound volume of the 1872 issues of Aunt Judy's Magazine, a popular children's periodical. "I owe more in [End Page 478] circuitous ways to that tale than I can tell," Kipling confessed late in life, "I knew it, as I know it still, almost by heart."
Dillingham suggests that Kipling benefited from Ewing's "art of the actual," specifically the inclusion of small facts that authenticate narrators as truthful, authoritative, and reliable. Kipling also shared Ewing's emphasis on sharp characterization, story ideation, and right values.
Values mattered to this devout Christian daughter of an Anglican clergyman, especially the biblical command to love one's neighbor. Mary's Meadow (serialized 1883–1884), for example, teaches that "unselfishness is the cornerstone of all virtues," according to Dillingham. He finds this message in Ewing's celebration of garden beauty. In Mary's Meadow gardening leads to a better life because the love of flowers results in beauty, which can be shared with others and hence express love for one's neighbors.
As this novel reveals, Ewing eschewed overt preaching. She preferred to convey her moral messaging indirectly, often through humor and irony. She referred to this literary method as "the law of reticence." Dillingham admires Ewing's rule, particularly her expertise in concision and "condensing by omission," but the phrase "law of reticence" proves a bit too reticent for him. Her technique involved more, especially for the adults who read these works to children. Her "work is often multilayered with metaphors serving double duty to produce not just a child's story or poem but a work of literature that is brilliantly complex."
A look at "Madame Liberality" (1873), for instance, reveals a semi-autobiographical short story that possibly becomes a cautionary tale directed at the author. The love-thy-neighbor message emerges, as expected, but the protagonist remains peculiarly problematic. She fails to know herself, fails to realize how her obsession with generosity towards others obliterates her very identity and riddles her life with disappointments. This story invites misreading, Dillingham concludes, because "its camouflage of sympathy is so cleverly articulated that it skillfully disguises what is under it as a sugar coating covers a bitter pill."
Dillingham presents his thoughtful reassessment as a series of introductions to handy reprints of several writings by Ewing. These works include Monsieur the Viscount's Friends: a Tale in Three Chapters, [End Page 479] "Christmas Crackers: A Fantasia," "Madame Liberality," Jackanapes, Mary's Meadow, and five poems (most notably "Convalescence"). [End Page 480]