Little Visits with Great Americans
by Orison Swett Marden
Mrs. Burton Harrison, Novelist of High Life
Mrs. Burton Harrison, the gifted American authoress, is a charming woman socially. She is unaffected in manner, and easy and graceful in conversation. When I called, I was ushered into her library and study, and was entertained in the same delightful way in which her books are written. Indeed, she told me that she writes without effort, and endeavors to do so naturally.
It was a pretty story she told me of her childhood days in Old Virginia, where she spent the greater part of her time in reading standard works, and in dreaming of an almost unformed ambition. "Even in my youngest years," she said, "I used to make up fairy tales. Later, I put my thoughts on paper."
"And what was your first experience in a literary way ?" I asked.
"When I was about seventeen years old, I sent a love story to the 'Atlantic Monthly.' It was lurid and melancholy," she said, with a smile. "It was returned in due course of time, and across its face was written, in very bright ink. This is far better than the average, and ought to be read through,' from which I inferred that only the first page had been read. But I was encouraged even by that."
HER FIRST NOVEL.
"My next attempt was a novel, which I called 'Skirmishing.' It was destroyed in a fire, for which I have ever since felt grateful."
Miss Constance Gary (her maiden name), next went abroad with her widowed mother, and spent some years in traveling and in completing her education.
"It was not until after I returned to America," she said, "and was married to Mr. Harrison, that I was again bold enough to take up my pen. I wrote a little article, which I called 'A Little Centennial Lady.' It was published in 'Scribner's Magazine,' and had so favorable a reception that I was encouraged to write 'Golden Rod,' a story of Mount Desert, which appeared later in 'Harper's Magazine.' "
BOOKS SHE ENJOYED.
"My books that I have enjoyed most, if a writer may enjoy her own work, have not been those dealing with New York social life, but my tales of the south. Charles A. Dana, of the New York 'Sun,' was unconsciously responsible for my 'Old Dominion.' He gave me the agreeable task of editing the 'Monticello Letters,' and from them I gleaned a story which outlined my 'Old Dominion.' But the editors cry for stories of New York social life, to gratify the popular demand."
Mrs. Harrison's books are so well known that it is unnecessary to dwell on their acknowledged merit, vividness, and truthfulness to life. To the general public, there is something fascinating about a New York social story, dealing with the millionaire's club life, woman's teas, and love's broken lances. Besides the general desire for a good social novel, there is a morbid, unsatiated desire to pry into the doings, customs and manners of the rich. It is with agreeable expectations that one picks up one of Mrs. Harrison's books; it is almost with the knowledge that you will be entertained.
HER CHARACTERS ARE FROM LIFE.
On a former call, she told me that her New York stories are built on her observations, and that the characters are so changed as not to antagonize her friends, for she enters the best society through her family ties and her well-earned prestige.
"It is very peculiar," she continued, "how, in writing a story, the characters govern me, not I the characters. I may have the outline and ending of a book in my mind, but the characters take everything into their hands, and walk independently through the pages. I have always found it best to obey. The ending of 'Anglomaniacs,' which caused so much adverse criticism, was not as I had planned. I was helpless under the caprices of the characters. At first, I was displeased at the ending; but now, looking back upon it, I am well satisfied,"
"Then the characters to you become real, and you are entirely under their spell, merely chronicling what to you appears real?"
IN LOVE WITH HER WORK.
"Yes, if I did not believe in them, I would be unable to write; for the time being, I am living and observing a dozen lives. There is much satisfaction in doing so correctly. I am in love with my work, and am a hard worker."
For the past few months, Mrs. Harrison has been idle, by the advice of her physicians, and has spent the season abroad, traveling over the continent.
"But all the time, I am turning little romances over in my mind, and when I can no longer keep my pen from paper, I suppose I shall sit down and write," she said. ''Last winter, I was under a pretty heavy strain, and my overworked condition compelled me to rest for awhile."
Many amusing little instances touching upon her work have come to her attention.
"One morning," said Mrs. Harrison, "after my husband had successfully defended a client, the man grasped his hand very warmly, and, to my husband's amazement, said, 'Well, Mr. Harrison, I want to tell you what we think of your wife. She's the finest writer in the English language, that's what my daughter says. She says there are no books like hers.'
"Which one does she like most?" asked my husband, immensely pleased.
"Well,"he replied, "I can't just answer that, but I think it's 'Your Eyre.' "
"Once I received a rather startling letter from a western ranchman. It said, 'Your book has been going the rounds, but it always comes back, and I have threatened to put a bullet in the hide of the man who does not return it.' I was greatly pleased with that letter.
"The most gratifying letter I ever received was from a man in a prison. He begged to be supplied with all I had written.
"Perhaps he was a man who had been in society, and there is a little story connected with his imprisonment."
SHE IS A GENTLE, FORCEFUL WOMAN.
Mrs. Harrison has made many close friends through her books. Once she was with a party of friends in a Madrid gallery. Her name was mentioned, and a Spanish lady came forward, and introduced herself, at the same time expressing her admiration for her.
"She is now one of my dearest friends," concluded Mrs. Harrison."
Just then, a colored man appeared in her library, bearing a tray, —for afternoon tea, —so I arose, although she asked me to have a cup of tea, fearing that I might be intruding, and expressed my wish that she would soon be at her desk again.
"I suppose I shall," she said, "for it is irksome being idle."
Such is Mrs. Harrison's disposition. Indeed, it is hard to imagine her idle. Orders are pouring in upon her, which through her present weak health, she is forced to decline.
But what is my impression about her? She is a gentle, forceful woman, whose energy and painstaking have placed her in the front rank of American writers. Without the latter attributes, her talent would have fallen to the ground.