Although reviewers were divided in their opinion of the quality of Carey’s novels, they were more or less unanimous in their description of them as wholesome domestic romances, without any heavy philosophizing or much in the way of artistic pretensions, light in plot but strong in details of character and the minutiae of everyday life. “Natural, homely, pathetic, sweet, wholesome are the epithets reviewers use”, as the Academy reviewer of The Highway of Fate accurately observed – to which list, by then could
have been added “old-fashioned”. The novelists she was variously compared to, sometimes favourably, sometimes not, were Jane Austen, Mrs Oliphant, Charlotte M. Yonge, Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte – all of whom, incidentally, are mentioned with approval by her own characters along with Scott, Mrs Craik, Miss Thackeray and Miss Craven. Whether her work was appreciated or not, however, relates very much to the reviewer’s attitude to fiction of its type; one finds the very same characteristics being hailed as strengths in one review that are condemned as weaknesses in another. Interesting from a women’s-studies point of view is the extent to which comments on the novels centre on a perception of them as essentially gendered writing, that is, as having all the features of works written by a woman for a largely female readership. This is a perception that few modern readers would quarrel with; their dismissal on such grounds is another matter.
The reception of Carey’s first novel, Nellie’s Memories is typical of the negative estimates of her writing as no more than domestic, and hence trivial:
No designation could be more appropriate than that of “domestic” as applied to this book. The simple good faith with which the most minute incidents of family life are dwelt upon will no doubt be justified by the interest and sympathy of impressionable persons of the novel-reading sex. For the rest of us, affectionate demonstrations which would be offensive in reality are not interesting when they form the staple incidents of a voluminous work. (Pall Mall Gazette)
The Athenaeum reviewer, who “plodded through the eight hundred and fifty closely-printed pages of “Nellie’s” domestic experiences” reacted similarly:
Nobody can run the slightest risk of being contaminated by this morsel of light literature. “Nellie” is a good, homely, motherly eldest sister of a large assortment of brothers and sisters, whom she manages admirably; some of them die, some of them suffer from indisposition, some of them make acquaintance with life’s troubles, and some of them marry and are given in marriage.
Then, having quoted a somewhat maliciously chosen passage of conversation, the reviewer warns that conversation “unfortunately happens to be the staple of the book, and the only part of it that rivets attention favourably or unfavourably.”
Similar comments run through later reviews. For Lilias is “essentially much ado about very little … why should it take three volumes crammed with narrative and dialogue…?” (Academy – contrast the much more appreciative Athenaeum review, cited earlier); or under the significant heading “The Novel of Domesticity”, a snippet of social conversation from Rue with a Difference is followed by “The point is, not that the hostess should have so spoken, but that Miss Carey should have set the words down. The book is full of nothings – mild, inoffensive, inexpressibly tedious.”(Academy).
Even the label “wholesome” gets to be used cuttingly, as in the Literature reviewer’s summing up of Mollie’s Prince: “thoroughly wholesome, but so is oatmeal porridge, even without sugar or salt.”
However, it is one of the negative reviews that acknowledges the appeal such closely-observed accounts of domestic life could have:
It is not to be accounted a fault, under all the circumstances, that the novel contains too much talk, and reports in over-minute detail how everybody looks and what everybody wears. For these little matters, though faults in themselves, are the very things for which so many people thoroughly enjoy stories like “Queenie’s Whim”. Such novels are like good long gossips about one’s acquaintances among a set of good-natured and innocent-minded, if not very intellectual people, who find it refreshing to cry over the sorrows of their neighbours, and infinitely comforting to know for certain what their neighbours wore. (Graphic)
The many reviewers who responded more positively to the novels saw their strengths as being precisely in realistic observation of character and of the circumstances of everyday domestic life:
Few will read the work without feeling that the characters have been drawn from life – fortunately for us there are few homes which have not an Aunt Milly ever ready to cheer and to comfort … Miss Carey paints her characters with loving and natural fidelity, and around a simple story of north Country life weaves a web of the most intense interest.(Graphic, of Heriot’s Choice)
It is a refreshment of soul to turn to anything so bright and sweet as ‘Not Like Other Girls’… The story ranks with the best of its kind; and the kind is a very good one, that leaves would-be philosophy and pretentious theories quite out of sight, and gives us the home-life of gentle, high-hearted maidens… There is something curious in the difference in a story of this calibre … by an English hand and an American one. The latter is more ambitious, puts more ideas into it, intends to mean more; but the former rounds out and finishes by a host of details that make the picture more interesting as well as more beautiful. Some people may say the difference is in the life itself, but it is not yet proved that it is not for want of some special faculty, call it perhaps literary patience, that will gather a full store, and then spare no pains to use it all to the utmost advantage.(Nation)
As a rule, it is rather unfair, both to author and readers, to indicate the course of the story of a novel; but in Lover or Friend? the interest of the narrative is entirely subordinate to the finer and richer interest of artistic presentation and handling … (Spectator)
Similar praise can be found even towards the end of her writing career, when the datedness of her works and their suitability for girl readers was assuming prominence. Thus the Athenaeum review of Life’s Trivial Round:
It is harmless, and even commonplace in subject, but the technique is excellent throughout. None but a practised writer would show so true a sense of proportion, and would assign to details and accessories their proper perspective with the same sureness of hand.
Favourable and unfavourable reviewers alike, then, saw Carey’s defining characteristic as an emphasis on domestic detail, which marked her as a woman writing for other women. In this she fits very much within contemporary perceptions of a woman’s strengths – and limitations – as a novelist (see Showalter (1977) pp.4-6, 73-99). Interestingly, the distinction made by the reviewer of Not Like Other Girls between stories by English and American writers is identical to that usually made between a typically “feminine” novel of observation and a more “masculine” novel of ideas. That Carey saw herself as writing the former is clear not only from her description of her method of composition, as one of meditating long on her characters and of living “entirely in and with them” (Black p.154), but also from comments in her novels about women’s powers of observation and manner of story-telling. In Merle’s Crusade, for instance, the fact than Violet’s cheerfulness blinds her husband to the stress she is under prompts the comment:
but men are so dense . . . They take in vast vistas of landscape, and never see the little nettles that are choking up the fieldpath. Women would have noticed the nettles at once, and spied out the gap in the hedge besides. (RTS, n.d., p.99)