“The Season’s Novels”
The Forum, February 1939
One of the main American passions perhaps the most pervading one, is a passion for the past; given an able and accomplished writer, an almost sure-fire recipe for a best seller is to re-create some section or aspect of that past. To readers outside America the events and background of the Civil War have, of all American happenings, the most general interest: to such readers no novel about New England could make the appeal that has made. But inside America the New England characters and scene have, it would seem, the most perennial appeal. This may be due to a sense that the real psychic history of the country had its beginnings there. But, if writers feel this, they have done very little to make it understandable why or how these psychic beginnings were destined to penetrate the whole country, forming a sort of warp and woof for its spiritual life.
In Rachel Field’s engrossing best seller, , the most interesting and dramatic part of the narrative takes place in France, and the section with New England scenes and personages has a certain flatness. Practically all the characters in this novel have had a historical existence. Henriette Desportes, the principal, is governess in the family of the Duc de Praslin, and is suspected of having had some part in the Duchess’ murder, one of the most sensational of nineteenth-century French crimes. After being freed by the French courts she emigrates to America, becomes a French teacher in a New York girls’ school, and eventually marries a New England clergyman ten years her junior –Rachel Field’s own granduncle.
The story is truly amazing; the theme of the first two thirds of the novel, that of the friendless young girl who goes into a strange great house as governess and becomes involved in its tragedy and mystery, has, before this, shown its value in unadulterated fiction – it is the theme of . Governess to the nine de Praslin children and sympathetic friend of their father, Henriette’s relations with the Duchess are thwarted; they become inimical. The Duchess, jealous of Henriette’s influence over the children and over the Duc, brings about her dismissal, sending her away without the recommendations that are necessary to her as a governess. Then the Duchess is savagely murdered; the Duc is suspected of the murder; he is incarcerated in one prison, while Henriette, in some way a suspect, is in another. The Duc dies of poison that he has taken, and Henriette Desportes, after the ordeals of interrogation by the court and trial by the Paris newspapers, comes to America.
The whole of the European section is an absorbing narrative, a story arresting in itself and here presented by a distinguished writer who obviously has spared no labor in thoroughly studying the people and the period. In comparison, the American part is unlively and colorless; it has no narrative interest whatever, although it has much of memoir interest.
It may be said to suffer from the defect that all sequels suffer from, the fact that the great moment has been passed. But it also suffers from the dryness, that sobriety that, in books at any rate, seem to be inherent in New England households. The heroine, so absorbing in the beginning, becomes, in spite of a few outbreaks in dressing and entertaining, the uninteresting wife of a New England parson. Rachel Field does not let herself go on the humor of certain situations – for instance, the Frenchwoman’s dressing in her best décolletage to go to what she imagines will be a soiree but what turns out to be a session of prayer; or her visiting the sick in her husband’s parish of West Springfield and listening to them talk about their sins. The French mind working on such things could have been made into a comedy that would greatly relieve the sobriety and godliness of this part of the book.
A SOUTHERN POETIC NOVEL
Another book that comes out of the passion for giving America an inheritance, this time a folk inheritance and one that still actually exists, is Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ . It gives present-day Kentucky farm life in terms of a folk ballad.
Kentucky has folk songs and folk ballads of her own and versions from older countries. Like all people with such a tradition, Kentuckians are inclined to embody it in life; a people who can recite ballads and sing folk songs are likely to act like people in ballads, think like people in folk songs and love songs. This faculty and this inclination give a novel like Black Is My Truelove’s Hair a romantic and poetic interest that is nearly always absent from New England novels.
Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ novel has the pattern of a ballad. There is the girl who has met the strange and dangerous lover, the Love-talker who throws a spell over her and at the same time terrifies her. She leaves him and comes to love another, gentler man, one who will giver her a quiet life; but she cannot give herself to this latter lover until the spell of the former is broken. It is broken, and the girl, Dena, is left to live a happily married life.
In its scenes with sheep and geese, its festivals and merrymakings, its traditional songs and music, Black Is My Truelove’s Hair recalls one of Hardy’s less tragic and less forceful novels, such a novel as . Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ great merit as a contemporary American writer is in her profound poetic sense. But this sense with her is not always well disciplined. When she comes to a scene that has intrinsic poetry she is apt to play up the poetry and ignore the necessity for action of some moving and dramatic kind. The ballad pattern she has adopted becomes a frame for idyllic scenes; there is much description for description’s sake and a good deal of what seems to be a deliberate staging of interesting customs. But this writer is close to the earth in a way that few American writers are, and she can give a life to the tilled fields, to mulberry trees crowded with grackles, to cardinals looking after their nests, in a way that none of our present Northern or Western writers gives to their much advertised rural or farm novels.
The present reviewer is under a disadvantage in not knowing well Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ work. But from this book it seems fair to judge that she avoids the drama and tensions that inhere in her situations, that she underplays the tragic implications, that she is prone to be distracted from an emotional continuity by some pastoral happening, at that the idyllic is her main interest in writing.
AN OUTSTANDING ENGLISH NOVEL
There was hardly a season for a number of years in which there was not published an American novel that was finer than any English novel published – and this in spite of the superior literary training of the English writers. But by a long way the best novel of 1938, it seems to me, is Testament, by the young English novelist, R. C. Hutchinson.
This writer is remarkable for a variety of reasons: one is that he is able to give personages a whole civilization for an environment. With a versatility that would be a tour de force if it represented something less profound, he can give a distinct civilization in one book and another just as distinct in a second. In , the novel previous to Testament, he gave us French civilization, not superficially but integrally realized, as an environment for his characters. And in Testament he gives us Russian civilization, also, as far as we can see, integrally realized. No Western writer, if we except Conrad in , has succeeded in giving us an impression of being able to move through a Russian community and think through the Russian mind as R. C. Hutchinson does in this novel.
How can one define the kind of creative power that this writer displays in his novels, that was in Shining Scabbard and is in Testament? One can say that it is in Mr. Hutchinson’s power of realizing human beings in situations so tense that all their powers, spiritual and emotional, are involved and assessed. We are made feel as if we were brought to a judgment.
In Shining Scabbard and in Testament the character has to do something that is spiritually almost superhuman or else fail utterly. Colonel Severin, in Shining Scabbard, fails and runs away from the judgment. Count Anton Scheffler, in Testament, faces the judgment – in his case, the judgment of a Bolshevik court. He asserts his human truth, and is brutally executed, leaving behind him an unconquerable piece of himself, his testament.
Everything that is both terrible and heroic in the contemporary world is in this book. What account can the human soul give of itself in a world where the catastrophe of war, revolution, and downfall has given the brutal, the cunning, the incompetent the upper hand? The scene of Testament is the Russia of the end of war and the beginning of the revolution, a Russia of defeat, incompetence, militarism, fanaticism, destructiveness, destitution. In such a catastrophic world, what chance has that sort of human integrity which holds truth and justice to be supreme?
The question is worked out in the life and death of Anton Scheffler. As an officer he faces the questions whether he will or will not, on the command of his superiors, bring men unfit to be returned back to the battle line. He takes on himself the responsibility of refusing to do so, is court-martialed and sentenced to prison. Later, in the early days of the Bolshevik revolution he is released and made a hero; his name becomes a legend. Then, as an advocate, he defends a landowner who is accused of shooting the people’s representative. He shows himself to be dangerous to the new collectivist state because he believes in the individual conscience. It becomes necessary to discredit him before putting him out of the way – to destroy the legend around his name. His friend and his wife are kept in prison and tortured until they sign a testament that Anton Scheffler, to their knowledge, was bribed by the Czarist government to act as an undercover man, that his moves on behalf of the wounded were only to get into the confidence of the revolutionary soldiers. He himself is handed a confession with the promise that as soon as he signs it he will be smuggled out of Russia. His wife, at last realizing what he really stands for, appeals to him not to sign; after some fumbling, he refuses, and is executed – leaving to his friend, who is the narrator of the story, a letter which is his testament.
To delineate a character like Anton Scheffler was a most difficult piece of creation. Scheffler is fumbling, hesitating, shy, humorous, with phases of wonderful tenderness, kindness, dignity; he is never the inspired man conscious of a mission but is even an ordinary man; he gropes around and finds something in himself that he must be true to.
This long novel is not only about Anton Scheffler, his relation to people, his curious relation to his wife; almost equally important is the personage who is the narrator of the story, which his relations to his wife, who becomes demented, and to his crippled son. There are, in addition, as many characters as in Dostoevski novel.
The influence of Dostoevski is felt all through Testament. To be able to reproduce some of the effects of Dostoevski, even to be able to imitate them, is to show oneself possessed of tremendous talent. R.C. Hutchinson is not, however, an imitator. He uses the same pattern as Dostoevski but he aims to making his people less Slav, more European. His novels, in which different civilizations are revealed to their depths, are not to be confused with the international novels in the writing of which Americans excel, in which they depict their denationalized countrymen in foreign surroundings: in Shining Scabbard, R.C. Hutchinson is a Frenchman writing about French people; in Testament, a Russian writing of Russians. Nothing of this kind has been done before, and I consider the author of Testament the most mature and the most accomplished of the English novelists, showing himself so not only in his superior talent and his profound sense of character but also in his knowledge of literature. He knows thoroughly what effects have already been produced in the novel and, knowing this, he is able to do something completely new in English.
THE DEATH OF THE HEART
Mysteriously enough, the sort of books that R.C. Hutchinson writes could be written only by a man; we cannot conceive of a woman’s writing them. While being convinced that high talent has no sex, I believe that there are some things in art that only a man can do, some things that only a woman can do. Elizabeth Bowen’s shows a talent of far less significance and range than Testament does, but it is at the same time a very distinguished novel and one that only a woman could have written.
The world, the flesh, and the devil mark the sections this story is divided into, but the world is the dominant theme in it. The world is where nothing is done except for an advantage, where time and memory are cut off.
The real point about the world in which the poor little heroine, Portia, moves is made by the clever, narcissistic young gentleman, named Eddie, with whom she is in love. The scene is a wood, and Portia want Eddie to kiss her. He says:
And that is the definition of the world that all the prophets have cried out against; in the full sense in which one must give oneself to somebody, to something, the people there don’t exist.
Well, into such a world comes the young, hotel-reared, sixteen year-old Portia; she has had a mother and father who have been ashamed of themselves from the moment of her adulterous begetting. She wants to give the whole of herself, but no one in the world, not even the companionable servant, Matchett, will give much of himself to her – not her half brother, Thomas; not Anna, Thomas’ wife; not Eddie. She feels betrayed. What we read is her tragedy and the tragedy of the clever people around her who cannot give the whole of themselves – it is the death of the heart.
Elizabeth Bowen knows the world, and she knows, too, the heart of a youngster. The sixteen year-old Portia comes to life in these pages as does one of the strange little girls in a Henry James novel – Pansy or Maisie. Portia out for the first time with a boy; Portia in the wood appealing for a kiss; Portia hearing from St. Quintin that Anna has read her diary; Portia in the humorous and pathetic scene where she proposes that poor, elderly Major Brutt should let her live with him and marry him (“We’d cheer each other up.”) are unforgettable episodes. Elizabeth Brown is indeed a very accomplished novelist: she is modern without making much fuss about the modern method; she has a clear and telling way of writing; she is constantly saying not clever things but wise and witty things; she is psychologically convincing.
In a flash, as it were, in a year or two, there are a couple of English novelists, not yet too widely known, who have surpassed the older well-known ones; and not only that – they have surpassed, too, the American novelists. They have surpassed them not only in technique, in artistry, at which the old world can always hold its own, but in vitality and in presenting what is really the life of our times. A man like R.C. Hutchinson and, in a lesser degree, a woman like Elizabeth Bowen, are really articulating in artistic form the problems of our time. They are not the superficial problems; they are chiefly the spiritual ones, and in our times these are the most challenging that have faced humanity in generations. In the effort to bring them into artistic form, the writers are able to achieve an elucidation of them. Elizabeth Bowen, subtly enough, reduces the problem in her book to a statement that can be put in a title – The Death of the Heart.
A PIONEER MODERNIST
It is twenty-three years since the first volume of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage was published. That volume was called , and it gave the first taste of that method of writing which was to transform the modern novel. She was the pioneer; she was before the of Joyce, if a little after appeared in France. Immediately she had a small, appreciative audience which followed the life and thoughts of Miriam Henderson with the most careful interest; they realized that something new was being done in the novel.
The subject of Pilgrimage is of the same nature as the subject to Proust’s : it is the effort to find behind the world of flowing things that timeless world that gives the rest to the heart. Dorothy Richardson’s is very much more the method of Proust than that of Joyce; she narrates all that is happening in the life of one person through a series of mediations and impression. Like Proust, she interpolates essays on music, art, and all the experiences that come up in the life of the heroine. This heroine, Miriam, is a musician: like Joyce and Proust, Dorothy Richardson gives the impression of trying to rejuvenate literature through the flowing form of music. She does not try to reproduce the sounds of music, as Joyce does in his later work; she orchestrates and has a leitmotiv going through the whole of her work.
But only in a very small degree has Miss Richardson the creative force of the men innovators; she has nothing at all of their lonely intensity. Her character faces no real dilemma, has no devastating emotions, passes through no profound crises; she goes on being a spirited, happy-natured, whimsical, intelligent young woman through four fifths as many pages as tell of the radical transformations of Proust’s great gallery of characters. Yet in her resolve to find the possibility of “being in communion with something always there,” Miriam might be young, innocent cousin of the hero of Remembrance of Things Past. And, besides the awareness of a timeless element in the flow of experience, Marcel Proust and Dorothy Richardson have another link: they have both seized on something in Walter Pater, the Walter Pater of – the method of evoking the essence of a place or a personage as one might evoke the essence of a work of art.
The bulk of the readers of the twelve volumes of Pilgrimage (now published in four books) are likely to be women, intelligent and cultivated, with a sensitive response to life and to art; it is they who will be most interested in the development of the somewhat humdrum heroine of the earlier books to the rich and more outreaching personality of [/tippy title='Oberland']1927[/tippy], , , in the recent volume. And in no history of the novel of our time can Dorothy Richardson’s role be a minor one. She was the first contemporary in English to make a significant breach in the wall that is between those experiences in life which have their roots in the unconscious and the expression of them in literature.
BEFORE THE WAR
The type of writing represented by Remembrance of Things Past, Ulysses, and Pilgrimage had some of its origins in the great autobiographies and memoirs; the chief personage in all three can be identified with the author. Now the wheel has made its circle, and the autobiography is beginning to take from the modern novel, in which the past is evoked.
In , Madeleine Boyd takes the materials of her life and makes what might be called a romanced or dramatized autobiography. She boldly states that all the characters are drawn from life, though some of the names are altered. Her memory is excellent; most things she encountered in life made a deep impression on her, and she responded warmly to them. The total effect makes for far greater accuracy than is achieved in the usual autobiography. An even freer use of her method might have enabled her to do more memorable characterizations.
Madeleine Boyd is a Frenchwoman who, when she was young and impressionable, left France and went to Ireland to teach French. Later she came to America as the wife of a well-known Irishman, and so she may be said to have three countries. Her life in all of them has been interesting, sometimes exciting. The first quarter of Life Makes Advances is about her childhood in France; the scene of the rest is Ireland and America up to the first years of the war.
In Dublin, where the author arrived during the heyday of the literary revival, when the city was the dwelling place of so many famous men, Madeleine Boyd, with her love of poetry and literature, was at home in the friendly life of the city. The young writers and artists met every evening of the week at one another’s houses or at the house of an older writer or a professor from one of the two universities, to talk of life and art and the forms of art.
Nothing interfered with these evenings, neither birth, marriage, nor death. Madeleine Boyd was a literal account of an evening in the house of the well-known composer, Arnold (now Sir Arnold) Bax, who was also the storyteller and poet, Dermott O’Byrne, when the present writer had to take the part of the hostess, who found suddenly that she could not appear because she was upstairs having a baby. The announcement that the baby was born stopped – but only for a second – a discussion as to whether the right test to apply to literature was that it should represent a desirable life.
The serious intellectual life of the city, the glamorous exhibitions of paintings, the romantic Abbey Theatre, the divine Sarah coming from Paris and playing Phèdre, the large, old-fashioned houses with their youthful parties – it cannot be that it is entirely distance with lends the enchantment to these things as they are recalled in Life Makes Advances! It all stopped, as so many other glamorous things stopped in Europe, not really with the war but in the year before the war. Perhaps some seer will soon show us that the war started because an interesting and happy life all over Europe had come to a close.