Contemporary Reviews of Riddell’s Novels
Compiled by Michael Flowers ©2005-2006
The Ruling Passion
The Athenaeum, 19 December 1857 (Reviewed by Geraldine Jewsbury)
There is a good deal of talent shown in this novel, but it is not well amalgamated; and the incidents are arbitrary and depend too evidently on the author’s will; the characters are less human beings than fancy portraits. The result does not give the reader the impression of reality, and the effect is on the whole more fatiguing than pleasant. The story is clogged by long-winded reflections and observations too obvious to need extension. The situations of some of them are very good, and the character of Reginald Ireby, the younger brother, is well conceived…His sisters are touchingly drawn, in their helplessness and confiding trust in this very broken reed…The author has not the skill to regulate the power which he unquestionably possesses. He draws without models, and has not sufficient knowledge of human nature to dispense with them. ‘The Ruling Passion’ is not a pleasant novel, but the author has more ability than he has brought to the present work.
Saturday Review, 16 January 1858
The story turns on the disinheritance of an heir who has been brought up to expect a property – but who, when he grew up, did not seem to his father likely to be sufficiently saving to preserve it intact – and on the heir’s long and frantic efforts to regain it. So perfectly does the idea of regaining it take possession of his mind, that he never turns from it even to fall in love; so that we have here a novel absolutely without any love-story in which the hero is concerned…The plot is a long and complicated one; and one of the authoress’s great merits is shown in the way in which she deals with its intricacies, and avoids the tediousness which generally belongs to a complicated plot…
The Moors and the Fens
Saturday Review, 10 April 1858
This novel stands out much in the same way that Jane Eyre did among the crows of wretched ephemerals incessantly streaming from the Minerva press. It fails in very much in what far more contemptible performances succeed. The style is that of an undergraduate writing for some Oxford Magazine; the plot is involved, eccentric, improbable; but the characters are evidently drawn by a mind which can realize fictitious characters with the same kind of minute intensity with which Professor Stanley can realize some bygone scene of history…
Westminster Review, January 1864
A new edition of “The Moors and the Fens” condenses into one closely-printed volume a story which, though not wanting in power, yet deals so much with the gloomy and repulsive that the general effect is dark and painful, in spite of the attractive colours in which the heroine, Mina Frazer, is painted, and the occasional gleams brighter light that fall upon her. The story is made dismal and oppressive by the shadow of the gloomy place in the Lincolnshire fens where lives an old miser, Sir Ernest Ivraine, with his horribly miserly sister, indulging his greed for gold, and making his sons as unhappy as possible. Such a character has always been a favourite in fiction. And the author has treated it in the usual manner, including the unexpected will and the host of disappointed relations; but there is a touch of originality in the closing scene between the miserable old man and his lawyer, after the will has been duly attested, and he lies back waiting for the last stern creditor, Death.
Too Much Alone
Cover of 1869 reprint of Too Much Alone. Note no author’s name on spine of book.
Photo © 2005 Richard Cook.
The Athenaeum, 17 March 1860 (Reviewed by Geraldine Jewsbury)
We can cordially recommend ‘Too Much Alone’ to any reader in quest of a thoroughly good novel, and we only wish them as much pleasure as we have derived from the perusal of it ourselves. It is a well conceived, well-wrought out story, which has an air of human truth and reality about it which novels do not often possess; but we regard it less of a present success than the commencement of a successful career, which we trust the author will have the needful industry and patience to work out…The story falls into an artistic shape, and is trimmed to a legitimate beginning, middle and end, with a symmetry that does not often occur in actual life, still it has an air of veracity which is pleasant and homely; we might compare it to a pebble polished by a skilful lapidary, who has brought out delicate shades and veins which were not visible when it lay on the coarse roadside. We have purposely abstained from indicating the details of the story; but we can assure all whom it may concern that they will find ‘Too Much Alone’ very pleasant to read.
The Spectator, (Quoted in publicity for the 5s reprint, Saturday Review, 30/11/61)
‘Too Much Alone’ is an exceedingly suggestive phrase, and what it portends is admirably realized in the novel of which it is the title. It is a thoroughly good novel, both in conception and execution, and ought at once to secure for its author an honourable popularity. Among the rare combination of qualities which distinguish it, is a downright reality, which yet does not preclude an infusion of ideal grace into a story of domestic life.
City and Suburb
Saturday Review, 5 October 1861
Any story that contains a fairly original character, drawn with truth and consistency, deserves to be singled out from its companions of the season. City and Suburb has this merit. Ruby, the beauty, will stand out as a distinct personage in the reader’s memory when the dramatis personae of half-a-dozen intervening novels have melted into chaos…The merit of City and Suburb lies in its calmer domestic scenes, but, owing to the failure in its higher attempts, its interest is perhaps not equal to the power and cleverness of which it undoubtedly gives evidence.
The Athenaeum, 25 May 1861 (Reviewed by Geraldine Jewsbury)
‘City and Suburb’ is a novel that is worth reading, for it will repay perusal with interest, but it is not equal to the last work written by the same author, ‘Too Much Alone.’ The style has become more mannered, not only in the writing but in the management of incidents…The book is decidedly interesting; but it would have been more so had the writer told her story in a straightforward and natural manner.
London Review, (Quoted in publicity for the 5s reprint, Saturday Review, 30/11/61)
This is a first-class work, and cannot fail to attract universal attention. It is one of the most interesting and instructive novels we have ever read.
Press, (Quoted in publicity for the 5s reprint, Saturday Review, 30/11/61)
In pathos, sentiment and vigour, the author is almost equally at home, and we do not hesitate to say that he will be carried to a high status amongst the romance writers of the day.
Spectator, (Quoted in publicity for the 5s reprint, Saturday Review, 30/11/61)
Sustains the author’s right to hold a very high position among contemporary novelists.
Literary Gazette, (Quoted in publicity for the 5s reprint, Saturday Review, 30/11/61)
We feel assured that the author is destined to hold a high place in the ranks of English novelists.
Globe, (Quoted in publicity for the 5s reprint, Saturday Review, 30/11/61)
Opens with great effect. Ruby reminds us of Thackeray’s most successful female character – Trix.
Observer, (Quoted in publicity for the 5s reprint, Saturday Review, 30/11/61)
Has more than common interest attached to it.
Critic, (Quoted in publicity for the 5s reprint, Saturday Review, 30/11/61)
We can unhesitatingly recommend the novel to all dwellers in ‘City and Suburb.’
Morning Chronicle, (Quoted in publicity for 5s reprint, Saturday Review, 30/11/61)
The author has given us a really pleasing novel. The story is replete with interest.
Morning Post, (Quoted in publicity for the 5s reprint, Saturday Review, 30/11/61)
The announcement of a new work from the author’s pen cannot fail to excite curiosity, and arouse expectation of that which is so dear to a novel reader, a really genuine good novel. In the present instance that expectation is fulfilled: ‘City and Suburb’ is more than equal in ability and finish to the author’s preceding works.
The World in the Church
The Athenaeum, 22 November 1862 (Reviewed by Geraldine Jewsbury)
The first portion of this novel gives every promise of a charming story; there is strength in the writing and the spirit in the dialogue, and there is the looming of a mystery in the background dark enough to forebode a terrible explosion in due time… All this is well-prepared ground for a first-rate novel; but just as the reader is expecting the story to go on, and to develop the dim foreshadowings which have excited and beguiled him to the middle of the second volume, the author goes off – into what? – into SERMONS…The sermons are so much out of place, and out of proportion in their length, that the novel is completely ruined, and the author’s grasp over his characters is entirely lost. It is the most provoking work of fiction we have read for a long time. The author has power of thought and eloquence of style; a faculty for indicating character, for writing detached scenes very powerfully, but no faculty for linking them together. The story becomes like a rope of sand when the author attempts to give a reasonable account of the events that lead to the situations he details so well…As a novel, nothing can be worse than ‘The Church in the World’ [sic]; but it contains thoughts, observations and passages of eloquence and a power which makes us wish that the author would either study his art as a writer of fiction, or else abandon the line altogether.
George Geith of Fen Court
Morning Post, 30 December 1864 (Quoted in publicity in The Athenaeum, 21/1/65
This fine story, so rich in pathos, is not poor in humour. Its sadness does not tend to monotone, but is diversified by sketches of ‘fine City ladies,’ and notable of City sociabilities, which are keenly witty and genuinely entertaining. It is a rare pleasure to read such a novel as ‘George Geith of Fen Court’ – a pleasure for whose recurrence it is vain to look, except towards its author.
Spectator, (Quoted in publicity in The Athenaeum, 21/1/65
Beryl Molozane, the witty laughing girl of sense, who can mimic, and act, and jeer, and govern a family, and smash pretence, and love devotedly, would have made but for the ending of the fortune of ‘George Geith’[sic]. We do not know when we have been so charmed as with that strange figure, so composite yet so real, or when we have read anything more touching than her relationship to her husband, whom Mr. Trafford, true to his theory of life, makes in his hour of victory a sick bankrupt.
Bell’s Messenger, (Quoted in publicity in The Athenaeum, 21/1/65
Highly as we have spoken of this novel, we have only slightly touched its artistic merits. To ascertain what those merits really are, the novel itself must be read; then it will be admitted, we are sure, on all hands, that, after all, successful as the author’s effort has proved, her best assurance thereof will be the conviction of her own mind that she has done something definite to raise the tone of modern fiction, and to check the mistaken and perverse propensity, now so rife – French in its origin, no less than in its purpose – to paint immorality in such seductive colours, as imperceptibly to sap the strongholds of virtue, and undermine the fortress of religious principles, would speedily become depraved, whilst – the last and worst result – our wives and daughters would cease to be the world’s model of purity and innocence.
The Athenaeum, 18 February 1865 (Reviewed by Geraldine Jewsbury)
We like this novel better than any of the author’s previous ones; the story is more clearly told, and the interest sustained without needlessly teasing the reader. The secret is well kept up to the right point; and although we are sorry that the author should have selected so hackneyed an incident as bigamy for the main hinge on which the story turns, still the tale is well told, and the other secret, which complicates the plot, is very cleverly managed. Why are novelists so fond of bigamy? And why do they always treat is as a misfortune, and never, or very seldom indeed, as – a crime? They recognise is as an offence against the statute law, but the hardship of being found out is the only moral elicited. ‘George Geith’ is, however, an excellent novel, powerfully and carefully written…When he is struck down, he endures like a man. Few heroes of novels win the respect of the reader like George Geith. The other characters are well drawn. Mr. Molozane, the proud gentleman ruined by mining speculations, is excellent. Beryll [sic], the young daughter, is a charming creature. The incidental sketches of character are all good; as are also the descriptions of the city, of the country, both in summer and winter. We abstain from telling the plot because we recommend our readers to get the book for themselves.
The Times, 4 February 1865.
Rarely have we seen an abler work than this, or one which more vigorously interests us in the principal characters of its most fascinating story. At the outset we have the picture of George Geith practising in Fen-court as an accountant, under the name of the retiring partner, Grant, bravely and sternly toiling to redeem himself from a position of much embarrassment, arising from a folly which he had committed in his earlier years in marrying a woman of depraved character, and from whom he is now separated. The influences such a position would have upon such a character are recounted with a perspicuous distinctness and minuteness which rivet our attention on the analysis of this man’s prospects and perplexities, until there came to him a day, as he conceives, of release from the cloud of his youth by the receipt of apparently authentic intelligence of the death of his tormentor. George Geith is then a free man, and he takes some rest from his long toil at the house of a client of whom he becomes the friend, and to whom he is as indispensable as the best possible adviser in his embarrassments. This client is a Mr. Molozane, the father of three daughters, of whom one is to be married to a wealthy relative, of whom another, an incipient poetess, is to die prematurely, and of whom the third, Beryl, is destined to fascinate and become the wife of George Geith. Their love story is charmingly told, and for some time after their marriage their happiness is represented in the most glowing colours, until a thunderbolt descends on their heads in the discovery that George Geith’s first wife, assumed to be dead, is alive and vigilant to persecute him still.
George Geith has to stand his trial for bigamy, but though he is acquitted, there remains no hope of his obtaining a divorce from his first wife, and for some time he abstains from even visiting his second…
Though this tale, recounted with such exquisite pathos, reaches its melancholy close and leaves an unwelcome impression on the minds of all who peruse it, there can be no question as to the tasteful tenderness with which every sentiment is evolved appropriate to such characters, and top the calamity which befalls them.
Saturday Review, 11 March 1865.
From first to last Beryl Molozane stands out from among the crowd of characters with which the novel-reader is daily making acquaintance as a clear and definite creation, whose features will remain long in the memory long after her story has been forgotten. She is always consistent, and always charming, and the only fault we have to find with her is that she is utterly destitute of principle. She is governed simply by impulse; and though her impulses are generally good, still virtues which have no better foundation than this can hardly be taken out of the category of happy accidents…
The great artistic defect in George Geith is the extreme and untempered gloom which pervades the whole story. The hero’s temperament would not have been a cheerful one even under favourable conditions, and in those in which he actually finds himself good spirits would have been unattainable by the foremost member of a school of laughing philosophers.
Fortnightly Review, May 1865 (Reviewed by John Dennis).
This is not a pleasant novel, but it is intensely interesting. The author never suffers the attention to flag, and carries the reader with her from the first page to the last. There is no wit nor humour in the story, nor even the lively badinage that makes so many tales sparkling and effective; but there is eloquence and passion, exquisite pathos, and great strength of expression. We know almost from the commencement of the novel that it will terminate in gloom. We have intimations here and the amidst the liveliest scenes, which tell us that the fresh, joyous life portrayed in them will be, ere long, crushed by sorrow; but we go on hoping against hope, fascinated with the story, until the curtain falls at last leaving the hero of the tale heart-broken and the reader dissatisfied. True tragedy elevates while it saddens the mind; the pain it causes is always allied to pleasure. In “George Geith” the pain is almost unalloyed, and we feel it all the more because the story is so terribly real, touching at one point or another the life of each of us. George Geith had indeed a skeleton in his house which, thank heaven, is not likely to trouble ours; but setting this aside, and the fact of an estate being, by female cunning, filched from the rightful heirs, the tale deals with the actions and feelings or ordinary life though not or ordinary people. The two leading incidents of the story are no doubt “sensational.” They are part of a novelist’s trade stock, and have been used with effect in a score of modern tales.
George Geith, the hero, is at the opening of the tale a London accountant, working for dear life, and to gain deliverance from a frightful burden. We like the man on the first introduction; he is strong of heart, manly, and self-reliant, one of those natures which “prove the truth of the old fable, in which it was not the strong north wind that beat down the traveller, but rather the beams of a genial sun.” One day, after years of toil, he receives a letter which removes his anxiety. George Geith believes that he is once more a free man. He renews his intercourse with his relatives, and especially with his cousin, Sir Mark Geith, the owner of Snareham Castle and a fine estate – a careless, good-natured idle dog, accomplished in all the arts by which money may be lost.
One of George’s clients is a Mr. Molozane, who had let the estate of his ancestors, Molozane Park, and now lived in the Dower House, which overlooked it. His affairs are greatly involved, and the accountant is called down to investigate them. The spot is a rural paradise, upon which the writer has expended much admirable description; to George Geith it proved a very heaven, for Mr. Molozane had three daughters, and one of them, Beryl Molozane, is the heroine of the tale. And of all the girls we can call to mind in recent novels we scarcely know one that pleases us like Beryl. She is so fresh, so bright, so tender-hearted, so charming even for her faults, that we fall in love with her almost at first sight, and wonder how George Geith, who felt as we do, could so long have restrained the avowal of his affection.
We need not dwell upon the details of the story nor describe the subordinate characters. They are sketched with great felicity, and considerable skill is displayed in the construction of the plot. We like, too, the thoughts, pithily and eloquently expressed, which are scattered throughout the volumes. Sometimes indeed, the author falls into the sin of fine writing, but this fault is not conspicuous, and scarcely affects the current of the story. Almost all of the interest of the novel centres upon the heroine. We care little for the sorrow of Lady Geith or the troubles of Sir Mark; while the calamity that falls upon Mr. Molozane, and even the death of his poet-daughter Louey, affect us chiefly from the suffering they caused to Beryl. These trials proved the harbingers of bitterer sorrows. Long before the stroke comes we see the sword that is impending over her, and cannot help wishing that the author had not dealt with her so ruthlessly. If the story closed happily – and it might have closed so without any injury to the moral – we should like it better than we do now. There can be but one opinion of the talent displayed in it.
The Athenaeum, 18 February 1865 (Reviewed by Geraldine Jewsbury)
In ‘Maxwell Drewitt’ the author has broken up fresh ground; the scene of the story is laid, not in London city, but among the wild Connemara mountains. The author evinces the same facility in giving a life-like vraisemblance to Irish country life that in ‘George Geith’ was shown in the scenes of commercial life…The story of ‘Maxwell Drewitt’ is extremely well told; the incidents are clear, natural and distinctly narrated; in this respect ‘Maxwell Drewitt’ is an improvement on its predecessors. It is a sombre tale, and deals with very ugly phases of human nature, which are worked out steadily to their natural end, without faltering or relenting for the sake of poetical appearances. Revenge is the key-note of the story – an Irish family feud of recent date…What that revenge is, and what comes of it, we shall not tell; the reader must go to the book to learn. The characters of Brian and Maxwell are drawn with a firm and skilful hand. The story is interesting. One protest however, we must make: the author interrupts the narrative by introducing herself upon the scene as a sort of Chorus, making remarks and moral reflections at a great and sometimes at a wearisome length. No story, however good or strong, can carry so much additional weight.
Westminster Review, January 1866.
Mrs. Trafford shares the rare power of humour [with George Eliot]. But here all resemblance ends. She has none of George Eliot’s wide cultivation, breadth of thought, and spiritual and philosophical insight. As far as she goes, Mrs. Trafford is excellent. Her new novel, however, hardly sustains her reputation. It is decidedly inferior to “George Geith.” There is, though, the same power of fixing the attention, the same humour as in the election scene in the first volume, and the same happiness of expression, as when she says “he married a nobody and a Roman Catholic” (vol i. p. 25); and when she describes the coast of Galway, as “a succession of front doors facing America” (vol i. p. 66). But the book is evidently written in a hurry, and if we may so speak, adulterated with an immense deal of fine writing.
If, however, any contrast was wanted, Captain White most certainly supplies it. The scenes of his stories, like those in “Maxwell Drewitt,” are laid in Ireland. But he has none of Mrs. Trafford’s power of description; his best is not equal to her worst…
Fortnightly Review, November 1866.
There is a certain gloomy earnestness in the writing and a rhetorical power which carry you unwearied, though not unoffended, through the volumes. There is moreover, a certain distinctiveness in the mode of treatment, and in the selection of the subjects…The suggestions of the novel are interesting. The obvious effort of the writer to depict the improvidence and ignorance of the Irish and the ready means by which the land may be may be immensely improved, gives it a more serious aim that if it were a mere love story, or story of incident.
The Contemporary Review,
“Phemie Keller” is a very remarkable novel, and all we say of it must be taken with the tacit qualification that it is far above the average; but all through, in every number, there is the inevitable dab of sensational colour which the reader of the shilling magazines has been taught to consider part of his money’s worth…The beauties of the book are many and great: some of the scenes are quite idyllic. The beautiful and delicate village maiden of well-born parents, but brought up in humble circumstances, with her white complexion shot with roseate tints, and her marvellous pale gold hair shining like floss silk in the spring sunlight, - this Phemie, hardly seventeen, about whom our authoress sometimes raves like a collegian in love – led to the village church by the polished and elderly Colonel Standon on the fatal and resplendent spring morning of her wedding-day – is painted with the hand of a most loving artist.
The Race for Wealth
1890s Hutchinson reprint of The Race for Wealth.
Photo ©2005 Richard Cook
Saturday Review, 8 September 1866
The Race for Wealth in part surpasses, and in part falls short of Mrs. Riddell’s previous works. It has the same gentle philosophy and undaunted questioning, the same strength of situation and purity of treatment, so noticeable in its predecessors; but it has also more of their faults and weaknesses, and, if mellowed by the riper experience of the author, and manipulated with greater technical cunning, has also less of the fervid flavour of her earlier productions. It is more matured work, certainly; but it must be remembered that ripe fruits are sometimes woolly, and that certain flowers, luscious in the bud, lose their fragrance when full-blown…Perhaps some of the defects in The Race for Wealth are due to overhaste in production. It is not many months since Phemie Keller was published; can Mrs. Riddell really mature her plot, organize her characters, and write her three volumes creditably at the rate of two or three a year, whether publishing in parts or in a whole? Surely the inexorable demand for “copy,” kept up so steadily and for so long, must tell on the power of any author; and to this and this alone we trust we are owing. The defects in The Race for Wealth, which is far too good a story, too cleverly told, and too subtle in its psychology, to be blemished as it is with certain faults – one of which faults, we regret to say, is vulgarity.
Westminster Review, October 1866
Mrs. Riddell has also taken to parodying herself – her previous work – as we remarked at the time – was weak and thin, and the same may be said of the present. This is much to be regretted, for Mrs. Riddell has shown how well she can delineate both scenery and character. She stands out from the herds of novelists by her poetic feeling and dramatic power. In the former she is alone surpassed by “George Eliot.” “The Race for Wealth” does not do her justice. The reason, however, is not difficult to find; novels cannot be produced, like a hundred watch-springs, from a pennyworth of material. One sermon a week is thought too much for a clergyman, and certainly two novels in twelve months are too much for any author. The results of over-writing are seen in every chapter, - long descriptions instead of dramatic power, and platitudes in the place of epigrams. And yet Mrs. Riddell’s “padding” is better than the writing of ninety novelists out of a hundred. She is artist enough to make her plot interesting; whilst she possesses sufficient knowledge of the world to give colouring to her scenes. But this is very poor praise to bestow on the author of “George Geith.”
Far Above Rubies
1890s Yellowback reprint of Far Above Rubies
by Hutchinson's. Photo © 2006 courtesy of Miles Stribling.
The Athenaeum, 29 June 1867 (Reviewed by Geraldine Jewsbury)
The present novel is far superior to ‘The Race for Wealth,’ which was Mrs. Riddell’s last work. The story is more clearly told; it is less overlaid with words, and much better put together. The author has in good measure corrected her old fault of using prophetic words to shadow forth coming sorrows. The tale is interesting and there is no falling off in interest until the end, when in the chapter called ‘The Bitterness of Death,’ Heather has to go through an most unnecessary and overstrained sensation scene, which, like a blaze of red light, swallows up all the gentler interests; indeed, after such an explosion of misery, the reader cannot see clearly; so that the end is abrupt and unsatisfactory – huddled together, in fact. Heather, the wife of Arthur Dudley, is a lovely character. She it is who gives the title, ‘Far Above Rubies,’ to the book, and she deserves the praise the wise monarch gave to a good woman…Mrs. Riddell has been taught to hate limited liability, and she repeats her lesson with hearty good will. Her novel amusingly illustrates the perils that environ the man who plays with shares, not being to the manner born; commerce is always fatal to an amateur… The reader’s sympathy and interest, however, all centre in Heather and her trials. There are some touching and pathetic chapters. The life and death of “lally” is beautiful; the child becomes almost as dear to the reader as she was to Heather…The last two chapters bear traces of haste and fatigue; they are slovenly, and not worthy of the rest of the story.
Far Above Rubies is a book which shows a great deal of power, a delicate appreciation of character and, especially, a considerable command over the sympathies of her readers. No one can read it without admitting that a strong frequent criticism will be that the appeal is made a little too often, and with too much monotony. The main situation is a good one and forcibly described, and it is one of which we meet only too frequent illustrations in real life; but somehow we come to be anxious for a little relief to the melancholy it excites before we reach the end of the third volume. Mrs. Riddell is not without humour, which is sometimes gracefully employed; but we do not consider it her strong point, and she is too fond of introducing some of those conventional bits of facetiousness which are far more dreary than the intentional melancholy…
reprint of Austin Friars.
Photo © 2005 Richard Cook
The Athenaeum, 28 May 1870 (Reviewed by Robert Collyer).
“A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure,” says Bacon, and the slight suspicion of treachery about the conduct of the heroine of ‘Austin Friars’ together with the slight misrepresentation of the ninety-and-nine virtuous sheep of the parable implied in it, combine to give the requisite gilding to what would otherwise be a dullish story of commonplace rascality…The book is a powerful one, and there are several strong characters in it, notably Mr. Collis, an upright and caustic man of business, and Mr. Turner, a good sketch of a modern City type, while the transformation of Luke Ross, the suburban Cymon, is an interesting psychological process; but the mercantile transactions involved are almost too technically related, while the moral, if it may so be called, appears to hinge on the mistaken notion that there is too much decency in the world at present, or at least that being strait-laced is the crying evil of the age.
Saturday Review, 4 June 1870.
The prevailing characteristic of this book is weariness. It is written as if the author had been phycially as well as mentally tired throughout; and as if her main object, therefore, had been to get over an unwelcome task as quickly and with as little exertion as was possible…
Like most of Mrs. Riddell’s books, Austin Friars turns on City life, and parts of it must be all but unintelligible to the ordinary reader. The facility with which she handles commercial slang is remarkable in a lady; and we have no doubt that it is all correct, and that business is carried on to all appearance somewhat in the manner she describes…
We are sorry we cannot congratulate Mrs. Riddell and ourselves on the production of a work of sterling merit in the place of this trashy, dull, and doubtful book. But if our authors will work with empty brains and tired ones, they cannot expect to bring forth anything worth reading; and the better the name attached to their failures the deeper the fall they have made, and the more disastrous the fiasco. We have but one word of advice to the whole band of “popular authors” of which Mrs. Riddell is a member, and that is strict silence, absolute cessation from novel-writing for some time; when perhaps, by giving their powers fair play by rest, they may do really good work, and enrich the world which now they only weary and clog.
A Life’s Assize
Athenaeum, 31 December 1870 (Reviewed by Robert Collyer).
‘A Life’s Assize’ is a philosophical novel, and tinged throughout with the gloom on nineteenth-century philosophy. Our novelists, and poets, various in character as they are on minor points, seem to be all agreed in this, that if they aim at anything at all higher than the most commonplace reproduction of ordinary life, they must either, “the idle singers of an empty day,” abandon their age and country or purely imaginary regions, and so emancipate themselves from the influences of the time, or else occupy themselves with a subtle analysis of characters of extreme complexity, which rarely contain any element of sufficient strength to render the process remunerative. Here we have three volumes of considerable length, written throughout with some skill, and in some places with more than average ability, all devoted to laying bare the minutest ramifactions of the motives and reflections of a morbidly self-conscious gentleman, whose self-respect, however, to say nothing of consideration for others, fails to preserve him for a life of voluntary deceit, unnecessary from first to last, and fatal to the happiness of himself and all around him. Driven by a most disastrous complication of circumstances to strike a fatal blow in self-defence, he shrinks alike from a bold avowal of the truth, which must have saved him, and from taking the consequences of a chain of circumstantial evidence which appears to connect him with the homicide. The immediate result of his course of action is his escape from the extreme penalty of the law by the middle verdict of Not Proven, so much admired by Scottish jurists; on which, by the way, as well as on the specific differences between northern and southern jurymen, Mrs. Riddell discourses learnedly and well.
Saturday Review, 21 January 1871.
A Life’s Assize is an excellent idea for a sensational novel; and had the workmanship been equal to the intention we should have had a book of real merit. The moral cowardice of an amiable man who has unintentionally committed murder – scarcely murder, however, rather manslaughter – and who does not at any time dare to face the reailty of his position, but frantically tries to shuffle out of the net which his own act has cast round him, only to draw the cords tighter with each lieu and each evasion, was as good a theme, for both incident and psychology, as the picture of Tito’s selfish weakness leading by slow degradation into guilt.
The Athenaeum, 1874
The mere superficial knowledge of the ordinary critic cannot...pretend to follow Mrs. Riddell through the consequences of the Bankruptcy Act, or attempt to decide how far she has reason on her side in what appears to be the didactic object of her last novel, namely, to show what a mistake it is for a person who fails in his business to “go into liquidation.”
The Saturday Review, 10/10/1874
It is scarcely fair to the ordinary reviewer to publish such a book as Mortomley’s Estate. Familiar though he is with all the singular crimes, and hand in glove though he has been kept through a long course of reading with the worst criminals, he still does not profess to have any exact knowledge of the working of the Bankruptcy Act of 1869…We had never seen...till we came upon the volumes now before us, a novel in which the author was so carried away by hatred of the law as to forget altogether that the reader might like to be amused.
Home, Sweet Home
Mrs. Riddell’s story, which is not unhappily conceived or executed, as times go, consists of the autobiography of a girl, who, on the death of an affectionate and somewhat Puritanic grandmother, with whom her early years have been spent, is transplanted from her native soil, a stratum of small dissenting tradespeople in a provincial neighbourhood, to the somewhat different region of musical and theatrical bohemia. Annie, who has been early left an orphan, inherits from her father a strongly artistic bias, and possesses likewise the endowment of a glorious voice. When good Mrs. Motfield has departed to join the respectable series of her forefathers, Annie has a great struggle between her own inclination for the career of a singer (with which she has been inspired by hearing a great prima donna in a provincial town) and pious doubts as to the possible views on the subject which might have been entertained by the deceased. The conflict of feeling is decided mainly by the insidious influence of a German musician, who is acquainted with some friends of hers in the country, and has had the sagacity to foresee in Annie’s voice a possible source of emolument to himself. The character of this wily Herr Droigel, with his effusive demonstrativeness and sentiment, his calculating regard for the main chance, his amazing candour, his unchivalrous diplomacy, is the best part of the book. The adventures of Annie under his roof, her zest for her art, her distaste for its profession when her eyes are opened to the knowledge of certain hard facts of the life she has to lead, constitute the substance of three fairly readable volumes.
Her Mother’s Darling
The Athenaeum, 5 May 1977.
Honoria Legerton, “her mother’s darling,” is as pleasant a character as Mrs. Riddell has ever introduced to the public. Left fatherless and poor at an early age, and soon afterwards losing her invalid mother, she makes use of her talent as a singer to support herself, which she does very bravely and honourably, though, owing to the unscrupulousness of some of her companions, she does not escape slander. Her adventures in the strange world to which Miss Rodwell introduces her, the contrast between her own high-minded and womanly nature and the coarser clay of such as Archer and the Rodwell, her stay at the house of some rich “vulgarian” relations, and the final happy resolution of all her difficulties, make up in their relation a very readable novel.
The Mystery in Palace Gardens
A yellowback reprint from the 1890's of
The Mystery in Palace Gardens.:
The Athenaeum, 4 December 1880.
The astute servant of the equally astute Miss Bankes was right in adopting “the mystery in Palace Gardens” as the best phrase for popular use in reference to the events related in Mrs. Riddell’s novel, and for skilful application as a lever for extorting money. Like most modern “mysteries,” at least of those known to the newspaper press under that name, a vulgar sin is at the bottom of the secret… Altogether, in spite of the unpromising subject, the interest of the story is considerable, and increases as the reader proceeds.
The story is as simple and straightforward as possible, and can be read through from beginning to end with little mental exertion, and without any occasion for tiresome references to what has gone before…The descriptive passages are, on the whole, however, vigorous and well sustained. Mrs. Riddell evidently knows the city by heart; and a true Cockney will trace with interest Roger Barentyne’s daily walk from Banner Square to the works at Bromley-by-Bow…
The Senior Partner
1889 Sampson, Low cheap reprint of The Senior Partner.
Photo © 2006 courtesy of Miles Stribling.
In ‘The Senior Partner’ Mrs. Riddell has written as good a story as ever came from her pen.
We have read it with considerable interest, and we rank it much above the ordinary run of productions of Mrs. Riddell’s sister novelists. Certainly in it she has far surpassed her own average work. Its merits raise it so much above her last story, The Mystery in Palace Gardens, that, were it not the case that some of the worst faults are common to both books, it would not be easy to believe that the two novels are written by the same author…Mrs. Riddell writes of business with a familiarity to which we can make no pretence; and she talks of bills, paper,” and discount in a way which, for all we can see, would not discredit the City editors of the Times. In fact we scarcely know whether, as a general rule, her novels should be reviewed in the columns that are set apart for literature, or whether they would more fitly receive a notice side by side with works on foreign exchanges or the currency.
Daisies and Buttercups
The Athenaeum, 1882
It is a pity that Mrs. Riddell cannot forget for a time that she once wrote an excellent novel called ‘George Geith.’ She would do well to remember what Mr. James Payn gratefully acknowledged in his ‘Private Views,’ that the readers of fiction are a faithful public. They would not desert her if she tried something new, though, on the other hand, they are likely to be grateful for whatever she writes. But if she had any desire to increase her reputation, she might forsake the middle-aged hero, toiling, friendless and unsociable, a mystery, somewhere in the City. It is true that in ‘Daisies and Buttercups’ the real hero lives in New Inn, which is certainly a few hundred yards west of the site of Temple Bar; and it is also true that he is possibly not the hero. By way of compensation, however, the orthodox hero, who tells the story and marries happily at the end, had been a City clerk, and the third prominent character had an office near Cheapside. If ‘George Geith’ had never been written ‘Daisies and Buttercups’ would have been a more striking book, but it must count as one of the author’s many successes. It is, unfortunately, dull at the beginning. Striving, perhaps, for an effective contrast, Mrs. Riddell has run the risk of wearing out her readers’ patience. The first volume is too placid. The scene is principally laid on the Surrey side of the Thames, somewhere near Chertsey, and the country is prettily described. But the narrator is very wearisome about himself and his friends and his office and the legacy which enabled him to give it up. It is only at the end of the volume that the action begins. When it does begin it is lively enough, and there is plenty of mystery and surprise. The book contains no considerable study of female character; it is, indeed, a novel without a heroine. That a woman should succeed in writing such a story is sufficient proof, if, indeed, any fresh proof were wanted, of Mrs. Riddell’s accomplished skill as a novelist.
The Prince of Wales’s Garden Party
The Athenaeum, 1882
‘The Prince of Wales’s Garden-Party’ is one of seven stories. Some of them are well told, but they are not altogether equal to what is to be expected from Mrs. Riddell. Read one after another, they appear wearisome. A volume of short tales ought to be a collection of gems, instead of being, as it too often is with our novelists, merely a contrivance for putting again into the market inferior scraps hastily written. ‘The Prince of Wales’s Garden-Party’ is certainly a case in point. It is nearly all padding. A long description of a dull seaside place has no bearing upon the story, and the garden-party at Chiswick only serves as a picturesque scene for the meeting of two lovers. Their tale is told in a couple of pages, where the hand of the able writer is discernible. It is, of course, also discernible in a different sense in the ingenuity with which small incidents and plots without originality are made to serve the author’s purpose. When one sees how slight are the materials, one cannot but admire the writer’s skill. But Mrs. Riddell does not need to show that she can make bricks without straw. ‘Mrs. Donald,’ a clever sketch of a silly woman, is perhaps the best of the stories.
A Struggle For Fame
‘A Struggle for Fame’ is the story of a lady who wrote novels. She won fame twice. After her first great success she fell into the hands of an unscrupulous publisher, who somehow – it is not very clear how – contrived to ruin her style and make people believe that she had written herself out. In about seven years not only the public, but editors and publishers were tired of her, and the very names of her best books were forgotten. Subsequently she was taken up by a good editor, under whose care she achieved fame once more. At the moment of her first success her father died; when fame had come to her the second time her husband died. The lady’s story is not cheerful; but if it serves to deter persons of no aptitude from writing novels it will have done good. But it is to be hoped that Mrs. Riddell takes too gloomy a view of her craft. At all events, ‘George Geith,’ which was written a great many years ago, is not forgotten. ‘A Struggle for Fame’ cannot fairly be classed amongst her best works. It has no plot, and it is not even a complete story of an interesting episode in one person’s life. It is merely a story about novel-writing. The mysteries of printing, publishing, and writing books and reviewing them are gone into with considerable minuteness; the general effect is not pleasant and not very true to life. But the most conspicuous fault in the book is that many characters and incidents are introduced that have no bearing on what ought to have been the main thread of the narrative. The reader constantly finds himself led, as it were, up a blind alley. Even the heroine is inconsistently described. She is Irish and her great failing is said to be the national want of application. Later on her chief characteristic is stated to be dogged perseverance. Mrs Riddell has an unfortunate trick of letting out what is going to happen, and so of destroying the interest which might have been found in subsequent events. The story contains so many deaths that the reader might have been spared the necessity of being harrowed by them long before they occur. Mrs Riddell’s way of breaking her bad news is most depressing. Some readers may fairly ask whether ‘A Struggle for Fame’ is a novel at all. Mrs. Riddell gives her views about the sort of thing which the public like and about what really constitutes a good novel. It is useless to attempt a definition. One cannot get very far in such an attempt; but the practice of great novelists, at all events, has settled that a novel is a love story, and there is no love story in ‘A Struggle for Fame.’
reprint of Susan Drummond.
Photo © 2005 Richard Cook
The Athenaeum, 2 February 1884.
‘Susan Drummond’ contains one of the best characters Mrs. Riddell has ever drawn. Certainly the disreputable spendthrift baronet is not exactly a person to admire. But Mrs. Riddell has been clever enough to make the reader disposed to like him in spite of his faults, and with uncommon skill she has contrived to give him the indescribable air of a gentleman, though he hardly does an action that a gentleman ought not to be ashamed of. Mrs. Riddell has never been very strong in heroines. Unlike most women who write novels, she has generally succeeded better in drawing men. The heroine of her new book is charmingly sketched at first, but as the portrait is filled in it hardly comes up to one’s expectations, and, indeed, it is obvious that the writer’s interest has been first with her good-for-nothing baronet and secondly with the other important man in the story, the heroine only taking the third place. The plot is not all that could be desired. It is well begun and well concealed; but the reader’s curiosity is baffled really because there is so little to be concealed. The first half of the book, at all events, is excellent.
The Athenaeum, 12 December 1885.
‘Mitre Court’ is a very good specimen of Mrs. Riddell’s work. It is brighter than some of her other novels have been, and the interest of the story is maintained without the help of any ghastly incidents. It is rather too long, but this defect is balanced by the fact that the second volume is, in contrast to custom, the best of the three. The scene is, of course, laid in the City, and the chief picturesque interest is centred about an old house in Botolph Lane, Aldgate, the Mitre Court which gives its name to the book not being that by the Temple, and, in fact, not having any special importance in the story. The old house, supposed to have been Wren’s, is described in Mrs. Riddell’s charming manner, and a whole chapter is devoted to a lament over the destruction which is rapidly removing everything venerable in the City. She may be pardoned for the digression, especially as after delivering herself of her angry sorrow she does not again interrupt the course of her story. She has introduced many varieties of character, and has described them all well. Although there is little but praise to be spoken of what she has done, it is possible to regret that the story never takes the reader out into the open country which she can draw so well, and which she has at times – and notably, of course, in ‘George Geith’ – used so effectively as a contrast to her pictures of City courts and alleys.
Saturday Review, 16 January 1886
The faults which were noticeable in Mrs Riddell’s earlier and powerful novels have increased with years till they threaten to obscure her many excellences. In proportion has her defects grow larger, the interest and originality of her stories weaken and her grasp of them becomes less, till in Mitre Court we have not a novel, but descriptions of many households with very little connecting link between them. We are sorry to have to say these things, for we have always liked and admired much of Mrs Riddell’s work…Be the type of humanity what it may, Ruby Ruthven, George Geith, or the middle-aged and incomparable rake in Susan Drummond, Mrs. Riddell sees down straight into their hearts, and draws them with a firmness and an accuracy which few modern novelists can equal. In Mitre Court her art is as good as ever in this respect, her characters are many-sided; the story only lacks one quality, but unluckily that is the one thing needful in such books as Mrs Riddell’s – a plot… In Lady Adela Fulmer, Mrs Riddell has indicated with infinitely greater skill the maddening inconsequence of a fashionable lady without a mind, and one of the best scenes in the whole book is that in which her practical and businesslike son proves his capacity of dealing with her. It is impossible for so clever a woman as Mrs Riddell to write a novel that does not abound in diverting sketches and thoughtful studies; but we sigh in vain for a little more concentration and a little less moralizing.
The Government Official
Saturday Review, 27 August 1887
The sordid lives of utterly commonplace people are traced with exasperating care. We do not want horrors in our novels, but before we have finished the first volume and arrived nowhere, we begin to wish that some of these personages would cut each other’s throats – or their own, it really would not matter – anything for a change an approach to some sort of interest. We never met a duller group than the characters in The Government Official, and yet it seems strange even such dull people as these can talk so tediously and do nothing with such persistence.
1887 Ward & Downey
reprint of Miss Gascoigne.
Photo © 2005 Richard Cook
The Athenaeum, 3 September 1887.
Mrs. Riddell’s novel is chiefly noticeable for the delicacy which she has shown in handling a peculiar and rather unpromising theme. The love of a woman no longer in her first youth for a boy of twenty is not often made the central episode of a work of fiction, requiring as it does greater skill and sympathy than the generality of writers can bring to bear upon it. ‘Miss Gascoigne’ is a work of a good deal of negative merit in which neutral tints predominate. Greater prominence might have been given with good results to the sprightly Miss Hume, of whom far too little is seen. On the other hand, readers in general and university men in particular will certainly resent the introduction of Mr. Horford, in whom elegant scholarship is combined with odious boorishness. His long-delayed discomfiture is one of the most welcome episodes in the story.
The Nun’s Curse
The Athenaeum, 17 December 1887.
Exactly one-half of ‘The Nun’s Curse’ is excellent, and hardly anybody but Mrs. Riddell could have made so lively a story out of the materials; but the other half is so commonplace and so ineffective that one might not unreasonably suggest that it had been filled in by an assistant, and that Mrs. Riddell had only added a few bits of Irish life and some touches of scenery in Donegal. In the good half the author deals with business in her best style, and succeeds in making it not merely interesting, but exciting. The hero is a young Irish men [sic] left with a large estate, but without a penny to spend on it, and embarrassed by debts incurred on the strength of his expectations. Mrs. Riddell treats of lawyers and money-lenders with first-rate ability, and sketches the characters of a selfish saint and her shrewd guardian so as to lead to great hopes; but at a fatal moment she contrived a too easy end to the difficulty with the money-lender, and in paying him off brings the interest of the story to an end, and starts afresh. Then her skill fails her, and her knowledge of law goes no further. She introduces a Nora Creina, and tells a hackneyed tale of seduction and ill-assorted marriage, with the usual trial of the wrong man for murder. Hardly a question put to a witness would have been allowed, and when he is found guilty, with a recommendation to mercy, the judge passes a sentence of penal servitude, which every newspaper reader knows is impossible. Mrs. Riddell rashly goes into the Irish question, and urges in her vigorous and convinced manner that the cure for Ireland’s troubles would be found in railways. The story itself is not made to illustrate or suggest the advantages that would accrue, and such arguments thrust into a novel are barren.
Saturday Review, 10 August 1888.
The short stories in Mrs. Riddell’s two volumes are all written in the crisp, forthright, effective style that makes reading pleasurable. Princess Sunshine is the longest and best of the three. The sketch of the dismal suburban household for which the conscientious Gregory Gifford toils from morn to dewy eve is a capital example of Mrs. Riddell’s graphic art. The supercilious younger brother, the three maiden sisters, with their insufferable airs of pretence, and discontent, and the sweet-hearted ward of Gregory, the “Princess Sunshine,” who warms the dreary home by her unselfish nature, are all vigorously characterized. Then poor, plodding Gregory eventually gains a great literary triumph, and, better still, is wedded to Joan, the “Princess,” we are overwhelmed with a genuine rush of “gallery” sentiment, so complete and surprising are the triumph and the retribution, and this, as all novel-readers will admit, is a sensation rarely experienced. “A Terrible Vengeance” treats of ghostly phenomena that troubles a murderer’s conscience, and, in part at least, recall the late Lord Lytton’s Haunted and the Haunters, only in this instance the footprints follow, and do not precede, the object of ghostly attendance. They are the wet foot-prints of the drowned victim. They appear round the murderer’s bedside on the carpet the morning after the deed, they follow him into the railway-carriage to the exceeding fright of his servant, up to the church aisle they go when he is married to the ghost’s rival, and before long they work his death. For he dies suddenly with “a rushing sound as of many waters” in his ears, and the ground about him “was wet, and trampled as though by hundreds of little feet.” The grimness of the story is rather mitigated by the humours of the valet, who, on purely interested grounds, not through psychical enthusiasm, attempts to blackmail his master, and elicits certain promises that were never fulfilled. “If Mr. Murray had been a gentleman,” he was wont to plead, “he’d have seen me righted.”
Athenaeum, 27 July 1889
A pretty, domestic, “middle-class” tale is ‘Princess Sunshine.’ But the best part of it, perhaps, is the description of the old-fashioned house in the suburbs of London twenty-five years ago, in which Gregory Gifford, author and pressman, labours to support the ungrateful gentility of his commonplace sisters, and the airs and graces of his would-be fashionable young brother. For nooks and corners of the London which is disappearing Mrs. Riddell has the sympathy which is essential to good description. Of the characters, Gregory is a marvellous example of unobtrusive sacrifice of self for family loyalty and ties of honour, such as is uncommon, but fortunately not unknown, in daily life. Sunshine, as becomes her, rewards her patient hero at last, in spite of the faded “ladies” who oppose her, and the insolent Percy, who fancies himself so much more of a man than his brother. ‘A Terrible Vengeance’ is a legend of a ghostly character. Here the scene is laid on the banks of the Thames, about Shepperton and Chertsey. A poor girl, whose vanity and good looks have led her wrong, is drowned in circumstances we can only guess at, and the gentlemanly murderer is haunted through his honeymoon to his grave by the patter and the traces of little wet feet. One Davis, the business-like butler, who tries to trade on his master’s mystery, is the only character. ‘Why Dr. Cray left Southam’ is a rather cynical story of an attempted murder and the fate of the doctor who averted it.
Spectator, 31 August 1889
Mrs. Riddell is, as all the world knows, a capable and attractive writer, but her persistently indulged preference for the minor key is at times somewhat irritating. A tale entitled “Princess Sunshine” ought really to have something of gaiety and brightness, and in these pages gaiety and brightness are conspicuous by their absence. The story is not so acutely doleful as some of its predecessors, but it is chronically depressing, and though, as the common phrase has it, it “ends happily,” the satisfactory nature of the goal hardly compensates us for the dreariness of the path by which we have reached it. We are evidently intended to regard Gregory Gifford, the hard-working man of letters who sacrifices himself for the sake of his unspeakably selfish sisters and his thoroughly unscrupulous brother, as a very heroic person, while most sensible readers will agree with the outspoken Lady Hester in thinking him weakly and even culpably wrong-headed. Still, there is a vein of weakness in many of us which disposes us to look with a measure of sympathy upon the wrong-headedness of so gentle and kindly a soul as Gregory, and there are pretty and pathetic touches in the story which are very charming; but we must say that we prefer to “Princess Sunshine” the two shorter stories with which the thin volumes are padded out. “Why Dr. Cray Left Southam” is slight enough, certainly; but it is brisk and vivacious – if these epithets are not appropriate to a tale about poisoning – and “A Terrible Vengeance” is certainly one of the creepiest of recent ghost-stories. It may be a perverted taste, but we would rather have our blood curdled than our spirits depressed.
My First Love
Saturday Review, 3 May 1890
It does not seem to follow that a shilling story in a paper cover will be materially better written by an experienced novelist than by any one else. Mrs. Riddell writes My First Love with the pen of an elderly, married, distinguished, and successful barrister. This great man tells how, in the comparatively happy days of youth, he dearly loved and was dearly loved by a girl who had been his neighbour in the country, and with who he had carried on a prolonged flirtation in boyhood’s irresponsible hour. They were engaged, subject to a promise exacted by unsympathetic parents that the engagement should be only provisional for a given period. The period elapsed, but misfortune complicated with treachery deferred their meeting for three weeks after the end of the period; and, when Edwin flew to Angelina, it was only to find her signing the register in the parish church on the occasion of her marriage with Another. Dark hints strewn freely through the story give us to understand that Edwin – whose name, by the way was Tom – resembled the gentleman in Fly-Leaves who asked “a swallow, or a swift, or some bird,” to acquaint his “earliest love” that “Never, never – although three times married – Have I cared a jot for aught but her.” It is a nice pathetic subject.
The Academy, 31 May 1890 (Reviewed by James Ashcroft Noble).
Mrs. Riddell’s new story, My First Love, can be bought for a shilling; but it no other connexion with the shilling shocker. There is not, indeed, a single shock to be found in its 142 pages, which are devoted to the record of a youthful love affair of the middle-aged barrister who tells the tale, and who is a great deal more gushing and sentimental than middle aged barristers are at all apt to be. There is rather too little story, and there are rather too many sentences beginning with “Oh!” – “Oh, happy past!” “Oh, happy banks, woods, and hedgerows!” “Oh, dear, true heart!” and the like – to say nothing of Mrs. Riddell’s old and now apparently incurable habit of indulging in eloquent but commonplace moralising on the slightest possible provocation. My First Love is not stimulating; but, as an opiate, it might be found effective.
A Mad Tour
A Mad Tour; or, a Journey Undertaken in an Insane Moment through Central Europe on Foot, is the full title of a rather bulky volume by Mrs. Riddell. It seems to be intended to gratify the taste for humorous records of unconventional journeys – journeys in which there are no disillusions, because nobody sets out with any grand expectations, and in which enthusiasms of all sorts are as much out of place as would be the idea of wasting such an excellent opportunity of writing a book. Mrs. Riddell has drawn to perfection a “mad tour,” which was evidently doomed to fail beforehand to be a failure. At any rate, this trip through a part of the Black Forest, and on to Constance, is described as a failure from beginning to end. There is scarcely a page in which some indication of discomfort and disappointment does not make its appearance, and though much of this may due to the particular vein out of which the author has chosen to extract her fun for the reader’s amusement, it has in the aggregate a somewhat depressing effect. Mrs. Riddell is always worth reading, and there are many picturesque and entertaining passages in the volume before us. But the title must be taken in full seriousness, and there is no more to be said.
The Head of the Firm
1899 Heinemann reprint of
The Head of the Firm.
Photo © 2005 Richard Cook
The Athenaeum, 1 October 1892.
To extract romance out of modern City life seems still to be Mrs. Riddell’s special aim; but it may be objected that Aileen Fermoy, in spite of some early associations with a state of society more refined than her own, is an almost impossibly gentle character to have been evolved from the rough and vicious circle of low life by which she is surrounded by the mature age of twenty-two. Yet it is true “the straitest of earth’s narrow places is wide enough to contain a lovely spirit,” and the author does her best to account for a product so unusual. The other characters commend themselves as more probable. The affectionate, self-sacrificing Thomas Desborne, who works so hard for the benefit of the ancestral firm of which his nephew is the “head,” is well compared in his honourable poverty with his amiable, free-handed, unstable kinsman, whose gradual moral declension, as he strives, by foul means as well as fair, to avert the ruin he foresees as the consequence of the extravagance of an insatiable woman whom he loves, is powerfully and pathetically traced.
The Academy, 15 October 1892.
Mrs. Riddell in the course of a long and honourable career, has proved herself possessed of too much invention and literary capability to allow of her writing an uninteresting novel. Certainly The Head of the Firm cannot be so described; but it is both less interesting and less attractive in other ways than the majority of its predecessors. Mrs. Riddell won her reputation partly by her command of strong pathetic situations, and partly by the skill with which she converted into good narrative material some of the most technical details of London business life – details of which she has always displayed a most remarkable knowledge…It is probable, indeed certain, that The Head of the Firm, like some scores of other novels, would have gained greatly by compression, for many of the subsidiary persons stand outside the main action without possessing sufficient interest of their own. If the book is regarded as a whole, it certainly cannot be numbered among its author’s conspicuous successes; and yet it contains, as it was sure to contain, plenty of good things. Notable among them are the Battersea chapters, at the beginning of the book, the portraits of the heroine and the deformed young artist, and the powerful trial-scene at the close of the third volume, which proves that Mrs. Riddell’s hand has not lost its cunning.
Saturday Review, 15 October 1892.
Mrs. J. H. Riddell is always best when writing about the City, and when the movement of her story allows her to bring in descriptions of ancient City monuments and street scenery. We do not say she is always best when writing about business; but her thorough belief and interest in all that pertains physically to old London, the genuineness of her own appreciation, give to her City stories, or to some of them, the air and life of reality. The Head of the Firm is not one of Mrs. Riddell’s very best novels; nor is it by any means one of the worst amongst so many. It is distinctly interesting, though less so in the main motive than in one or two of the side issues. Mr. Edward Desborne, the “head” of his eminent business firm, men of such long-established and honourable position as to rank practically amongst the aristocracy of the nation, is one of those unfortunates who slide into debt, into speculation, into insane plunging, into final ruin, and all without a thought of wrong doing. The wrong is done doubtless, but it was never meant. The sketch is not new in conception nor in treatment. More interest is awakened by the girl Aileen Fermoy, the “coster” girl, who bears her early troubles so well, and is knocked over by the fortune of a hundred and thirty thousand pounds which arrives one day like a thunderclap. Mrs. Riddell has had the courage to treat Aileen with the utmost truth. Good she always was and true; but something of the coster way of thinking hangs round her to the last. Her way of handing fortunes round to her friends is the way of a woman who has nor learned by experience the value or meaning of large sums. Excellent also is the sketch of the elder Desborne, with his antiquarian learning and passion for old churches. Mrs. Riddell knows City clerks as Charlotte Bronte knew curates. Mr. Reginald Tripsdale, who is one of them, supplies the comic element in the story, and we like him better when so employed than when sentimentalizing with his brother Gus. By the way, it seems not quite a clear point of law that money left to Mr. Timothy Fermoy should pass exclusively to his daughter, his second wife and widow being alive.
Spectator, 3 December 1892.
Perhaps the most striking feature in The Head of the Firm is the contrast between male weakness and female strength afforded by the two chief personages. One is a kindly, philanthropic gentleman, never meaning to do wrong, yet doing it from sheer feebleness of character, who sinks gradually from integrity and honour to fraud and disgrace; who, having been tempted by debt to betray a client’s confidence and appropriate title-deeds to his own use, goes on making good one’s security by pledging another, and speculating with other people’s money, until the inevitable crash of detection comes at last; and who, through it all, is so amiable and lovable than he excites a pity rather than the stern reprehension rightly due to such misconduct, and retains the unfaltering loyalty of the greatest victim of his dishonesty even to the end. And side by side with him is seen “a daughter of the people,” who meets vicissitudes of fortune with absolute fortitude and equanimity, and has strength of mind to bear alike the loss or recovery of a lover, or the sudden alteration from the position of a female costermonger to that of the owner of £6,000 a year, without losing her head or changing her nature, - which nature, by-the-bye, is as kindly, true and simple as his. Both studies are interesting, and contain good and careful workmanship; and the book is pleasant, notwithstanding a certain pervading tendency to sadness (more or less present in all Mrs. Riddell’s works), which makes it verge on, without actually attaining to tragedy, and casts over it a shade of melancholy that is nowhere deep enough to become depressing, but is yet perceptible. The writer’s realistic power is exhibited especially in a graphic sketch of a family belonging to the lower classes, living in an atmosphere of squalor, drunkenness, and quarrels, who afford the sort of subject to attract the brush of Zola. But there is a wide difference between her manner of treatment and his; for her reality is ugly, yet not positively hideous, and though repulsive, stops short of what is offensive to good taste.
A Silent Tragedy
The Academy, 27 May 1893 (Reviewed by G. Barnett Smith).
We are afraid that the reader will find Mrs. Riddell’s little sketch, A Silent Tragedy, somewhat repulsive. The hero, the Rev. Walter Pernon, takes the chaplaincy of a leper hospital, making a forced declaration that he is himself a leper. To his horror he develops leprosy, and ultimately dies of it. This incident by no means exhausts the interest of the story; but it is the most important one, and necessarily creates an unpleasant feeling.
The Banshee’s Warning, and Other Tales
The Athenaeum, 1894.
Mrs. Riddell does not at all understand the art of writing short stories: she writes too much at large, in a gossipy and trivial way, about uninteresting matters. She should practise conciseness of method and clear definition of purpose in order to mend the faults which are apparent in this book. ‘A Vagrant Digestion,’ for example, is not a story at all; it has no ending, and one only reads through its trivialities in the hope of a catastrophe which never occurs. An exception to the general condemnation may, however, be made for the story called ‘Mr. Mabbot’s Fright’; it chiefly consists of the description of a pursuit at breakneck pace in a chaise and four, and there is enough humorous motive for it to keep the reader’s interest amused throughout.
The Academy, 19 January 1894 (Reviewed by John Barrow Allen).
Half a dozen magazine stories now published in book form display Mrs. J.H. Riddell’s well-known versatility. “The Banshee’s Warning” which gives its name to the volume, deals, of course with the supernatural; “A Vagrant Digestion” is humorous; and “So Near; or, the Pity of it,” a touchingly pathetic little tale. The rest of the book is all well worth reading.
Saturday Review, 17 November 1894
If The Banshee’s Warning; and Other Tales will not, in the sacred phrase, “add greatly to their author’s reputation,” they are yet a very good sort of tales, for all that; and Mrs. J.H. Riddell’s reputation is not an ordinary one. Each of the six which make up her latest volume has some apparent merit of its own, whether of conception, or of character or of presentment; if they had been submitted to the editing of some friendly and safe foolometer, they might have been very good indeed. As it is they are choked (more or less) in the exuberance of their own verbosity, which has a trick of arresting the plot to let the author discharge her very obvious reflections upon the characters and upon things in general. A self-respecting foolometer would not have stood it for a moment; and his client, and her readers, would have been the gainers. Still, “The Banshee’s Warning” is a thrilling and a powerful yarn; “Bertie Evering’s Experience” – whereof only the name is “Tractarian” – an amusing and a moral story; and “So Near; or the Pity of It,” a really moving and notable bit of work. It was ill manners to this last to print it in company with such a poor thing as “A Vagrant Digestion,” which records the sorrows of a dyspeptic parson at intolerable length, and with much forced fun. Uncle Hippias, in Richard Feverel, some people think wearisome enough. He was at least original, and, compared with the Reverend Desmond Urwick, he was vastly entertaining. One relinquishes the volume in the belief that Mrs. Riddell needs editing. That wise cry of approbation which one hears sometimes at cricket, “Well left alone, sir!” is one which she should diligently seek after. We wish we could shout out “Well left alone, ma’am!” to Mrs. Riddell; but, so far, we cannot. Still, we are obliged to her for her stories.
Did he Deserve it?
Morally Mr. Mouncell was not a great character, but he was very clever and
enormously energetic, with admirable manners. He was a good father, and the
only really discreditable thing that can be laid to his charge, is that he wrote
a scathing review of a book that he admired, which had been written by a young
man who had been his guest, and who trusted in his friendship. Why, precisely,
Mr. Mouncell did this we do not quite know. He was not the man to indulge in
spite for self-satisfaction alone. But as his action could in no way further
his plans for his own good, we may assume that on this occasion Mr. Mouncell did
a low thing to retaliate on a youth who had deeply disappointed him. Mrs.
Riddell tells her story pleasantly and brightly, and in Paul, Mr. Mouncell’s
youngest son nicknamed the “Apostle” because of his unholy language, she has
made a distinct success. Altogether it is a particularly agreeable story, and
the reader is not much perplexed as to whether Mr. Mouncell deserved his
ultimate good fortune or not.
A Rich Man’s Daughter
The Athenaeum, 31 July 1897
Singular alternations of vigour and dullness characterize several of Mrs. Riddell’s numerous novels, and no one of them more strongly than ‘A Rich Man’s Daughter.’ Though her latest story is not equal to her best and best-known one (first published in 1864), we regard it as being among her more noteworthy efforts. It is practically a story of to-day, and the two main characters are represented by Amabel Osberton [sic], the daughter of a rich City man, and Dr. Claud Dagley, a medical practitioner in London. He is depicted as clever and unscrupulous, and the key-note of the story may be given in the writer’s own words:-
“More than happily she received and answered the love letters of a man
who never really cared for her, but thought as she was fond of him he
would seize the chance which offered.”
These two characters are clearly defined, and give the reader considerable interest whenever they are dealt with. But it is difficult to speak as confidently of numerous subsidiary parts in the drama. Several of them suggest artificial and uninteresting qualities, and it requires an effort to keep the attention on their sayings and doings. Nevertheless, the plot as a whole is simple and good. It is eminently moral, inasmuch as the heroine pays severely for a clandestine marriage, while the man dies of cholera in India. Happily her mistake is not irretrievable, and she is ultimately blessed with a less selfish lover. There is not a word in the book that renders it unsuitable to the most fastidious taste.
Academy, 7 August 1997
Most women have no sense of humour. Mrs Riddell has one, and it is a little too restive. Her way is to bring in a character in circumstances tragic or depressing. We attune out feelings accordingly – accord our respectful sympathy, or pursue with genuine interest. Of a sudden she whisks of the mask, and whom we took for hero is revealed for low-comedy man…Mrs. Riddell does not mix her colours well. In the story, as a whole, there is a good deal of crudity. The main figure is a doctor, who is “only waiting for a capitalist in order to show mankind a better order of physician.” He is a cad and an egotist, and his efforts to find a short cut to Harley-street are, I fear, not so enlivening as they are unscrupulous. The wheels of the narrative drag somewhat, for Mrs. Riddell keeps all her sensation for the last two chapters.
Handsome Phil, and Other Stories
The Athenaeum, 1899.
Of Mrs. Riddell’s Handsome Phil, and Other Stories, mostly laid in the north of Ireland, we like the first the least. The groom who marries his master’s daughter, and who leaves his second wife with a blow when he migrates to America to enjoy the fortune which comes to him after all, is too sordid a scamp, though his mean characteristics are those of the worst sort of Irishman. ‘Diarmid Chittock’s Story’ is pleasanter, though there is a murder in it. ‘Out in the Cold,’ the story of a brave and gentle little author, is very pathetic. ‘Mr. Polzoy’s Little Katey’ describes the fatuity of the type of parent who regards his offspring as a pet monkey or performing dog, and its repulsive effect upon third persons. ‘In Deadly Peril’ is a stirring tale of courage and decision in the days of leaguers and boycotters. ‘Conn Kilrea’ deals with the effect of a family apparition upon a gallant young soldier. The volume here takes a different trend, and ‘Dr. Varvill’s Prescription,’ an ingenious relation of the discovery and discomfiture of an intending poisoner, reprinted from the Chemist and Druggist, leads up naturally to the author’s graphic account of her experiences of influenza. This is a volume of uneven merit, but on the whole, not an unfavourable sample of Mrs. Riddell’s workmanship.
The Footfall of Fate
The Athenaeum, 23 June 1900.
It is difficult to regard ‘The Footfall of Fate’ as the best of the numerous works of fiction by the author of ‘George Geith of Fen Court.’ Indeed, it ought to be classified with even the more mediocre of them. It must have been hard to construct a story at all with the materials selected for the purposes. The every-day life of a London suburb near the river bank is depicted as being disturbed by the advent of a rich widow of amiable manners. She does many good works, but is unfortunately tried and convicted of murder, though she dies before execution or commutation of sentence. The story is disappointing and unsatisfactory. Two or three passages suggest comment. Speaking of the riverside suburb and its inhabitants, the writer says, “They were none of them on the edge of a note,” and the meaning is unintelligible. It was not wise to quote from Proverbs vii. 13 in a volume meant for general reading. There is a curious reference at p.227 to a Dublin ballad-writer of forty or fifty years ago. His name is not given; but it may be conjectured at that of Zozimus. We regret to be unable to speak more favourably of Mrs. Riddell’s latest volume.
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