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Byways in Fiction

ISSUE:  Summer 1929

The Pathway. By Henry Williamson. New York: IS.P. Dutton and Company. $2.50. The Burning Fountain. By Eleanor Carroll Chilton. New York: The John Day Company. $2.50. The Innocent Voyage. By Richard Hughes. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50.

Although twentieth century novelists, as a group, seem incapable of that singular focus on character which produced the great work of the nineteenth century, they have already shown that the novel offers an extraordinarily tractable medium for the poet, the essayist, the fabricator of dreams, the idea-monger—in short, everyone who has some thought or aspiration which he feels the world should share. So involved have become the ramifications of the novel, both in its structure and its function, that the classifying critic finds himself in a maze of contradictions for which the current terminology is inadequate and a new one not yet developed. For example, the word “realism” is still of generally unquestioned potency in the critic’s vocabulary; yet an attempt to define it, as applied to the modern novel, would almost certainly arouse as much adverse criticism as the publication of a new “realistic” novel. The fine novels of today derive from too many sources, have their roots in too variously fertilized a soil, to submit to so easy a classification. Consider, among very recent novels, such diverse works as those of Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, and Julia Peterkin; the critical matrix has not yet been devised which will hold such varied metal. And here under consideration are three more novels, the work of comparatively young authors, which defy the categories as successfully as they achieve distinction in their own right. Each of these novels is notable for the fact that its author makes use of some of the weapons traditionally assigned to the realistic writer—the quick eye for detail, the ear for dialogue, the shrewd analysis of motive and desire—yet each author turns their use to purposes dictated by his own peculiar problem and outlook, so that the effect achieved is neither realistic or unrealistic, but, simply, individual.

In the case of Henry Williamson’s “The Pathway,” the effect achieved is one of sustained and genuine lyricism. Mr. Williamson has already become recognized for his accurate and sympathetic studies of animal life. In “The Pathway” this familiar world of beast and bird and flower is used as the background for a human tragedy whose hero, Maddison, is a lyrical reflection of the author’s own belief that all life is Christlike in its potentiality and its aspiration. “The Pathway” is the story of Maddison’s hope, his despair, his triumphs, his defeats; and it is also Mr. Williamson’s own paean of faith, his confession of defeat, and his prophecy of eventual victory.

“The Pathway” is, then, essentially a poem executed as a novel; and to its fashioning Mr. Williamson has brought gifts both poetic and prosaic. Chief among these is his sympathetic familiarity with the Devon countryside and the old manor house which form the background for the story. The first thirty pages of the book are completely evocative of the feeling of winter in the country: the glacial pouring of the wind around the eaves of the house, the warmth of the hearth, the rat gnawing the wainscot, the chill of the store-room, the icy glitter of the winter stars. Thereafter, through Spring, Summer, and Autumn, the drama of nature parallels and mixes with that of the human protagonists; lark and swallow set the tempo for Spring, the panting of dogs on the parched lawn makes Summer vivid, and the yellow and grey of the Autumn fields usher in Maddison’s death. Mr. Williamson’s feeling for nature is not that of Wordsworth, and certainly not that of Hardy; for him it is not a cloistered retreat from the world, for the purposes of high contemplation, and still less is it the blind unthinking force that it appears to be in Wessex. He describes it lovingly in every detail, but he is far from idealizing it; it is simply the place where body, and spirit attain their fullest growth, where bird and flower are the most perfect types of freedom and beauty, where man can find the bodily companionship of trees and stones.

The sympathy which Mr. Williamson extends to his hero and his earthy creatures does not end there; it goes out also to all the human participants in the story. We are made to feel that Maddison’s tragedy is not one of human devising, but is the innate tragedy of the striver after perfection. All the characters are filled with a gentleness which might appear mawkish in a less genuine or less beautifully written book. Mary Ogilvie, whose love for Maddison forms the core of the story, breathes with a naive tenderness for all life. Mrs. Ogilvie, who does not wish her daughter to throw herself away for a vagabond dreamer, is yet a kind-hearted woman, anxious to help Maddison in every, “decent” way. Even Uncle Suff, whose only pleasure is the hunting of the birds and beasts which Maddison loves, betrays at times an unguarded gentleness. And the younger children, who worship Maddison, and the older girls, Diana and Jean, who succumb eventually to his Shelleyan charm, complete a group from which the element of human malevolence is totally lacking. Maddison’s struggle is not with them so much as with his inability to teach men their own divinity. He wages his war against ideas—organized religion, organized patriotism, and all the other shackles placed upon the free development of the spirit—and he finds his defeat not in human wickedness but in human blindness.

Complete appreciation of “The Pathway” will probably be confined to those who are sympathetic with the operations of the mystic mind, and with the cadence of fine prose, although simply as a picture of county life in England the book has enduring charm. Certainly it shows a high degree of emotional coordination; the various threads of careful description, convincing dialogue, and character analysis are carefully woven into a pattern which is everywhere expressive of the author’s purpose.

If in “The Pathway” there can be no doubt as to Mr. Williamson’s passionate sincerity, Eleanor Carroll Chilton appears, by comparison, to have written “The Burning Fountain” from an oddly detached point of view. It seems (at least at first reading) almost an exercise in fantasy—not the less successful, however, for having been conceived in coolness and elaborated with precision. Actually, a great part of the charm and vitality of the book derives from the fact that it consists of fantasy accepted and developed along the straight lines of sober reality.

The story, briefly is of Lynneth, a dryad—not a dryad from classic mythology, but a veritable oak spirit, imbued with all the imperturbable assurance and thoughtless logic of trees—raised in a family of reasonably normal and very modern Americans, and of the havoc she creates among their very human relationships. Emphatically it should not be thought that this is another venture into “Peter Pantheism”; Miss Chilton is serious, and having brought her dryad into the world of mortals, she unfolds her story with vivid appreciation for the tragedy involved, both for the dryad and her human kin. In fact, so artfully is the tale devised that Lynneth’s true nature, though it becomes increasingly evident as the story proceeds, is not definitely revealed until the final chapter, where short-story technique brings the novel to a compelling climax.

Miss Chilton’s power is in her ability to develop fantasy on the lines of reality. Lynneth’s worldly contemporaries are typical Americans in that they are acutely conscious of their souls, although rather un-American in that they possess the leisure and desire to study their souls. Their conversation, their cocktail drinking, is undoubtedly modern. Their characters are drawn with a weather eye to modern psychology; in particular, Claire, who transferred her affections from her father who remarried to the father of the boy who loves her, is from the case-books of psycho-analysis, and could find a place in almost any contemporary novelistic expose of the Oedipus complex. And yet Miss Chilton has given her moderns real existence in a novel which is, in the last analysis, interpretable only in terms of imaginative understanding.

“The Innocent Voyage,” by, Richard Hughes, presents almost no similarities either to “The Pathway” or “The Burning Fountain,” but it does serve as another illustration of the crafty patterning of the most disparate material into a unified whole. Here is melodrama, shrewd observation, old-fashioned romance, irony and paradox, emotional insight—all knitted into a tale that moves with incredible ease to an ordered and purposeful conclusion. Mr. Hughes is good enough to state his purpose for us, on page 223:

Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact); but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child at least in a partial degree. . . .

And he proceeds to show us how the mind of a child works, not by a survey of child life on the East Side or Way Down East, but by a pleasantly unbelievable tale which begins in Jamaica jungles and moves by easy steps through sea life and pirate capture to a court room in London. And the result is—for this reviewer at least—that Emily Bas-Thornton is one of the few really alive children in fiction.

It is probable that many will disagree with this opinion of Mr. Hughes’ success in portraying childhood; many will say that he is a heartless traducer of the young. Certainly his ideas make short shrift of the traditional adult notions. In fact, if “The Innocent Voyage” were accepted in all its implications, the world might conceivably see a notable decline in the birth rate; for he sees children as forming an alien and hostile world to that of their parents, with a code of life utterly at odds with adult morals and jurisprudence—and all children are partners in a conspiracy to keep their code secret and intact.

It is easy to see why Mr. Hugnes has devised so exotic and adventurous a tale for his children: it permits him, in the course of a very short novel, to isolate them completely from their natural protectors, to expose them to almost the whole gamut of adult fortune and misfortune, and to observe their reactions. The group of children around whom the action centers come in contact with earthquake and hurricane, voyage by water, capture by pirates, murder and sudden death, rape and rescue, and nearly every degree of human antipathy and affection. Against the florid savagery of the Jamaica jungle their barbarism stands out; aboard the pirate vessel they make the relatively decent pirates Gilbertian figures; the crimes they see committed are either accepted as natural phenomena or are metamorphosed within their minds beyond adult recognition. And yet for Emily, the central character, the death of her cat is a nightmare of vast significance; there is monstrous indecency in the captain’s remark that they will get holes in their drawers if they slide on the deck; and the discovery that her legs really belong to her is a major crisis in her life.

There is strange gusto in the reading of this book. Mr. Hughes leads you joyfully through pages of felicity to confront you with sheer physical horror; his suave logic steps from harmless premises to overwhelming conclusions, There is a rich unexpectedness in nearly every page. At one moment he will dwell charmingly on some triviality; at the next he will describe death as curtly as a scientist might describe the movements of electrons. But it must be remembered that the author has stated that “by an effort of will and imagination” one can enter into the mind of a child, and when he does this his observations naturally seem fantastic—even inhuman—to adults!

Certainly these three excellent novels give hope in a world of callow photography. Heterogeneous as the modern novel must be, considering what modern life and thought are, they show that craft still has a way with the most disparate material. True, each of them deals with a rather small segment of life; yet no one of them is guilty of treating it as a segment, and each achieves a certain mastery over chaos. It remains to be seen whether there is a super-craftsman who can duplicate their success with the whole warp and woof of present-day complexity.


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