In April 2015 my book group read The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, by Owen Wister. One of the fun things about this novel is that the school teacher in the story, Molly Wood, gives books to the Virginian to read. When he returns a book to her, he gives his spirited observations about it. His remarks about Fathers and Sons and Kenilworth are so intriguing that my group added those books to our list for 2016. Some of his comments—such as those about Emma, by Jane Austen—are about books we have already read. One of his observations is about The Mill on the Floss, a George Eliot novel the group hasn’t read yet. I wanted so much to add the Virginian’s comment about The Mill on the Floss to this post that I read it on my own.
I’ll warn you right now; the Virginian’s observation about The Mill on the Floss contains a significant spoiler, so you may want to skip down a few lines to Fathers and Sons. If you’re like me, however, you may prefer to avoid tragic surprises in a book and are more likely to read it if you get a warning, so here it is:
“That other book talks too much.”
Molly was scandalized, and she told him it was a great work.
“Oh, yes, yes. A fine book. But it will keep up its talkin’. Don’t let you alone.”
“Didn’t you feel sorry for poor Maggie Tulliver?”
“Hmp. Yes. Sorry for her, and for Tawmmy, too. But the man did right to drownd ’em both.”
“It wasn’t a man. A woman wrote that.”
“A woman did! Well, then, o’ course she talks too much.”
“I’ll not go riding with you!” shrieked Molly.Chapter 12
Molly does relent and go on a horseback ride with the Virginian. She then sends him on his way with Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev. Come to think of it, the Virginian’s comment about Fathers and Sons also contains a spoiler. The difference here is that the person who dies isn’t named and the cause of death isn’t mentioned.
It was almost April when he brought it back to her—and a heavy sleet storm lost them their ride. So he spent his time indoors with her, not speaking a syllable of love. When he came to take his departure, he asked her for some other book by this same Russian. But she had no more.
“I wish you had,” he said. “I’ve never saw a book could tell the truth like that one does.”
“Why, what do you like about it?” she exclaimed. To her it had been distasteful.
“Everything,” he answered. “That young come-outer, and his fam’ly that can’t understand him—for he is broad gauge, yu’ see, and they are narro’ gauge.” The Virginian looked at Molly a moment almost shyly. “Do you know,” he said, and a blush spread over his face, “I pretty near cried when that young come-outer was dyin’, and said about himself, ‘I was a giant.’ Life made him broad gauge, yu’ see, and then took his chance away.”
Molly liked the Virginian for his blush. It made him very handsome. But she thought that it came from his confession about “pretty near crying.” The deeper cause she failed to divine,—that he, like the dying hero in the novel, felt himself to be a giant whom life had made “broad gauge,” and denied opportunity. Fecund nature begets and squanders thousands of these rich seeds in the wilderness of life.
He took away with him a volume of Shakespeare. “I’ve saw good plays of his,” he remarked.Chapter 12
When I read this comment for the first time, I didn’t understand what the Virginian meant by “broad gauge” and “narrow gauge,” so I looked up the terms. They refer to the size of railroad tracks and whether they are for local or cross-country use.
In Chapter 13, the Virginian gives his opinion of Queen Elizabeth I to his traveling companion, gleaned from Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott:
We trundled down the flopping, heavy-eddied Missouri to Plattsmouth, and there they backed us on to a siding, the Christian Endeavor being expected to pass that way. And while the equality absorbed themselves in a deep but harmless game of poker by the side of the railway line, the Virginian and I sat on the top of a car, contemplating the sandy shallows of the Platte.
“I should think you’d take a hand,” said I.
“Poker? With them kittens?” One flash of the inner man lightened in his eyes and died away, and he finished with his gentle drawl, “When I play, I want it to be interestin’.” He took out Sir Walter’s Kenilworth once more, and turned the volume over and over slowly, without opening it. You cannot tell if in spirit he wandered on Bear Creek with the girl whose book it was. The spirit will go one road, and the thought another, and the body its own way sometimes. “Queen Elizabeth would have played a mighty pow’ful game,” was his next remark.
“Poker?” said I.
“Yes, seh. Do you expaict Europe has got any queen equal to her at present?”
I doubted it.
“Victoria’d get pretty nigh slain sliding chips out agaynst Elizabeth. Only mos’ prob’ly Victoria she’d insist on a half-cent limit. You have read this hyeh Kenilworth? Well, deal Elizabeth ace high, an’ she could scare Robert Dudley with a full house plumb out o’ the bettin’.”
I said that I believed she unquestionably could.
“And,” said the Virginian, “if Essex’s play got next her too near, I reckon she’d have stacked the cyards.Chapter 13
Finally, in Chapter 27, Molly begins reading Emma, by Jane Austen, to the Virginian while he’s convalescing:
“Why, this is the best show you’ll ever get to give me education. Won’t yu’ please try that EMMA book now, ma’am? Listening to you will be different.” This was said with softness and humility.
Uncertain—as his gravity often left her—precisely what he meant by what he said, Molly proceeded with EMMA, slackly at first, but soon with the enthusiasm that Miss Austen invariably gave her. She held the volume and read away at it, commenting briefly, and then, finishing a chapter of the sprightly classic, found her pupil slumbering peacefully. There was no uncertainty about that.
“You couldn’t be doing a healthier thing for him, deary,” said Mrs. Taylor. “If it gets to make him wakeful, try something harder.” This was the lady’s scarcely sympathetic view.
But it turned out to be not obscurity in which Miss Austen sinned.
When Molly next appeared at the Virginian’s threshold, he said plaintively, “I reckon I am a dunce.” And he sued for pardon. “When I waked up,” he said, “I was ashamed of myself for a plumb half-hour.” Nor could she doubt this day that he meant what he said. His mood was again serene and gentle, and without referring to his singular words that had distressed her, he made her feel his contrition, even in his silence.
“I am right glad you have come,” he said. And as he saw her going to the bookshelf, he continued, with diffidence: “As regyards that EMMA book, yu’ see—yu’ see, the doin’s and sayin’s of folks like them are above me. But I think” (he spoke most diffidently), “if yu’ could read me something that was ABOUT something, I—I’d be liable to keep awake.” And he smiled with a certain shyness.
“Something ABOUT something?” queried Molly, at a loss.
The Virginian suggests something by Shakespeare. Molly decides to try poetry by Robert Browning, and that not only keeps the Virginian awake but spurs a lively discussion between the two.
The Virginian is a man with many talents, interests, and ambitions, and his observations about literature, therefore, don’t take up too much of the novel. When they do appear, they’re never boring. Who knows? If you decide to delve into The Virginian yourself, you may find something else to read in its pages!
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