Gilbert Vivian Seldes (essay date 1917)
SOURCE: "Rediscovery and Romance," in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. LXIII, July 19, 1917, pp. 65-7.
[In the following essay, Seldes offers a favorable assessment of Limehouse Nights and Nights in Town.]
The two substantial books of tales and sketches of London which Mr. Thomas Burke has collected and published since the war began are of a stuff which the world may find outmoded in the unhappy years to come. They are books which might have become only items in the "new literature" of the century's second decade had the revolution of war not prevented, for Mr. Burke is not only one of those who rediscovered romance; he is also of those who taste to the full the romance of their own rediscovery.
Some fifteen tales of Limehouse, the Chinese quarter of London in "the thunderous shadows of the great Dock," and some twenty sketches of London complete Mr. Burke's present contribution. To write about Chinatown is a reporter's holiday; to write about London, giving yourself no limitations but that of the mystic city itself, and to write with love and care and beauty, is a hard and bitter labor, no matter what talents you may have. Mr. Burke's passing repute comes from the tales of terror which the libraries were compelled to bar from their shelves; but to those who have some respect for the English tongue and for whom Walter Pater has not lived in vain, Mr. Burke will always possess an attraction because he has written well his slight sketches of London life. In both of these books one hears the cry of a great joy. At the age often the author was taken with the flaring beauty of a fried-fish shop, throwing a warm light and a glamour over the dusky pavement of a London slum; and since then he has been passing from discovery to discovery, rejoicing that these things, these common and tawdry things, are still in existence for him to discover again. He knows well that they were revealed long since, but he makes fresh starts and everything is new and beautiful to him.
Because everything is strange to him, Mr. Burke never quite succeeds in his tales of Chinatown. He writes of Limehouse as Pierre Loti writes of Annam and of Iceland, with the heart of a wanderer who will not be consoled for his separation from home. Lust and wildness, cruelty, perversion and madness, things unclean to the white man's heart, make up the themes of his stories. He has continually to drive his plots with little daggers of exaggeration because he is always impressed with the uncommonness of the people of whom he writes. Will it be the story of a burglar's wife who tries to betray her husband to the police so that she may be free to love his accomplice, or the story of a girl who loses caste by going with a Chinaman in order to pay her mother's funeral expenses? The reality of his events does not satisfy the author; he must try to be convincing by a turn of the plot, so that we get the ten-cent magazine type of sudden and perverse denouement. It is not the husband but the lover who is killed by the police; the girl gets her revenge by a neat trick, revealed in the last line of the story.
These Limehouse Nights appeared in three of the most interesting periodicals of England: The English Review, Colour, and The New Witness, and I can hardly imagine the editor of any one of them insisting that Mr. Burke get more punch or pep into his work. I am afraid he is really to blame for his shortcomings.
He is certainly to be credited with his good things, because he seems a writer with no derivations. Ambrose Bierce might have written some of these tales, but you cannot trace Burke to Bierce, because you are in the presence of a singularly powerful inspiration with which literary affinities have very little to do. Mr. Arthur Machen, the unknown master of the artistic tale of terror, probably returns Mr. Burke's evident admiration. One suggests these names to convey a bit more clearly the quality of Mr. Burke's stories; that is all.
Strange and terrible stories, one hesitates to retell them, not because it would be unjust, for these are good stories and the outline of a good tale will always bear repetition. But they are about things we are none of us too anxious to name, and which Mr. Burke makes tolerable only by the flooding beauty of his telling and the human kindness of his spirit. He knows at least that one must not call down the gods of terror without praying softly to the gods of pity. I take one tale, an artist's story of those famous Sidney Street murders in which the world was once absorbed, those murderers for whose capture the soldiery of England was called out, against whom a street became a barricade and a funeral pyre. Mr. Burke calls it "Beryl, the Croucher and the Rest of England." He...
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