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The Changing English Novel

ISSUE:  Winter 1928
To the Lighthouse. By Virginia Woolf. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. $2.50. Gallions Reach. By H. M. Tomlinson. New York: Harper & Brothers. $2.50. The Panther. By Gerald Bullett. New York: George H. Doran Company. $2.00. Meanwhile, By H. G. Wells. New York: George H. Doran, Company. $2.00. Right Off the Map. By C. E. Montague. Garden City. Doubleday, Page & Co. $2.50.

If mr. wells had not written in his Preface Dedicatory to “Meanwhile” that a lady sitting in a celebrated garden near Ventimiglia “became that remembered and reinforced personality mingled with my thoughts”—while the garden itself became “merely the inspiring point of departure for this fantasia of ideas,” one would have thought the whole work capable of being a product of his fertile imagination. It would have been much simpler for the reader, and certainly much less fatiguing to Mr. Wells, had he substituted Golder’s Green for Ventimiglia as a mis en scene for his teeming thoughts on the Coal Strike, the elan of the Scientific Age, the iniquities of the Fascist regime, Catholicism and Protestantism, Stoicism and Epicureanism, the new responsibilities of the British Ruling-Classes, the significance of marriage, and the art of landscape gardening.

How many of these subjects have passed through the Mediterraneanizing process that imposed upon Mr. Wells a garden by a southern sea, as a background for his animadversions is quite another matter. One may surmise that, as they passed in procession through Mr. Wells’s mind, before finding lodgment in “Meanwhile,” somehow the novelist vainly hoped that a formality extraneous to his experience, such as reigns in Italian gardens, might lend coherence to their unrelated detail. But Mr. Wells has definitely committed himself and there it stands in black and white, a card of admittance presented by the author to the reader for the gardens of Casa Terragena, a generous card which admits the reader, not as a mere tourist to poke among the botanical labels, but to enter likewise into the great house where an English hostess, with the aid of an English-speaking Italian major-domo presides over a house-party sprinkled with titles and thrilled by philosophical talk. This delectable scene is warmed by an olive fire in an Italianate fireplace and lit by red-shaded electric lights. The guests walk “over bare expanses of beeswaxed floor,” but they do make a concession to their native blood and eat Dundee marmalade for breakfast. They use a language which, in its varying richness and poverty, one recognizes as belonging to the English-speaking peoples, even when spoken by the major-domo and the Italian publicist. These two latter also speak another language which belongs likewise to the English-speaking peoples, but they are the only two characters in “Meanwhile” who have really mastered this tongue, in spite of the fact that the hyphenated American, Mr. PlantagenetBuchan had spent many a season in Italy in an attempt to do so.

The hero, Philip Rylands, although host in the third generation at Casa Terragena, has remained as untouched by the Latin conception of life, as he has remained immune to the Italian language. His reaction to the pusillanimity of Mr. Baldwin’s government during the Coal Strike, and to the journalistic raids of Mr. Churchill and his cohorts, his gentle tolerance of the striking miners simply because they are British, is as typically British as his desire to use force against the Fascists because “castor-oil cads” do not, after all, belong to the canon and tradition of his race. Perhaps, unconsciously, Mr. Wells has drawn in Rylands the well-known type of Englishman who uses Italy for the land of his vacation and remains forever what the Italians dub “superbo.” In his awakening to the new responsibilities of the British Ruling-Classes, Rylands makes one unconscious overture toward a Latin conception of life but, as the thought has been handed on to him through the English mind of his friend, a philosopher named Sempack, he would never recognize it as Latin in origin. On the contrary, the hero of the piece does not trouble any more than does Mr. Wells to remark on the binding similarities between Sempack’s vision of “World-Progress” and the French syndicalist Sorel’s radiant vision of the “World-Strike” before it failed to come off and was reduced to the “World-Strike-Myth.”

Catholicism and Protestantism are pitchforked into argument without even giving point to the characters to which they are allotted for exposition; while Stoicism and Epicureanism are made to give perspective to argument and to attach the characters of “Meanwhile,” for one fleeting moment, to a Mediterranean background of thought. By his use of these two opposing philosophies, Mr. Wrells reveals himself as a creative artist disciplined sternly within his own field of tension, then surfeited by his own accomplishment, seeking nervous relief in the physical world. In this revelation of Mr. Wells’s creative processes, lies the sole significance of “Meanwhile,” if one excepts the mature conception of marriage enunciated by Sempack. In this latter instance one does find that the author’s Anglo-Saxon mind can be tempered by a south wind. Here one sees marriage as the age-worn legend of Penelope, the bed-rock institution of the classic world, which brought Ulysses home to her from his adventures and conquests in the world of outer darkness. It is the one sacrament in which body and spirit find both their expansion and discipline, the woman’s spirit disciplined, perhaps, more than the man’s, but both in the end subjected to its maintenance. As Sempack writes to Rylands’s wife: “While you stand over his life, you unbroken and resolute, no affair of this sort will ever wreck it. He will come back to you. You will be his fastness, his safe place.” No Catholic priest receiving the complaints of an obdurate wife against an erring husband can ever have spoken with more certainty in regard to the significance of marriage than Mr. Wells has done here. To borrow another of Mr. Wells’s thoughts and to fit it into the legend of Penelope, perhaps Ulysses came home in order that part of him might not die.

I who knew Circe have come back, To sink a furrow in the loam; Left twilights billowing and black For the soft glow of home To hear instead of a guttural sea The needles of Penelope.

Much is lacking in Mr. Wells’s composition of “Meanwhile.” He has thrown together ideas that do not co-exist, trusting in the magic of the gardens of Terragena to acclimatize them. But the gardens of Terragena lack the plastic proportions, the relationship of forms, into which the Latin conception of life fits and without which it lacks reality. It is a subtle demand of the spirit that has created the background of Latin life, a demand not felt by the Anglo-Saxon, an urbanity translated into planes and perspectives held to be artificial by Northern peoples. Yet to confuse the shapes of this background is to destroy the investiture of Southern life. To recreate it for the purpose of a novel, a writer must have passed through a far more complete Mediterraneanizing process than has Mr. Wells. It would have added much to the integrity of “Meanwhile” and would have diminished the confusion in the reader’s mind if Mr. Wells had confined himself for the mis en scene to a garden that the reader would not have to re-christen “The Laburnums.”

From the serpentine beds of heart’s-ease in Mr. Wells’s Italian garden, one turns to the semi-tropical habitat of Mr. Montague’s Muse of Irony with a spirit of unsatisfied adventure, and is not disappointed. In “Right Off the Map” Mr. Montague has met the requirement of all great stage-setters, namely, that an environment be created in which the volume of human life may reach the crest. One is careful not to write “does reach the crest” because a pitifully small trickle of the human tide ever does reach anything, but it is destiny and not decor that stems the tide. When the Muse of Irony is maitrcsse des scenes one can be perfectly sure that the tide will waste itself in dramatic attempts to climb and to plunge before its level is reached in lifeless streams that flow in their crystal ways unencumbered by fertility. Nevertheless, the decor in “Right Off the Map” does remain plastic both for visual and for dramatic purposes, while the maitrcsse des scenes busies herself in placing this character in a revealing light and in withering the bloom off that one, and yet, being an Englishman’s Muse of Irony, she does not work with complete abandon. She has her limitations. She may “make up” the Goddess of War with a middle-aged waist and down on her upper lip, Statecraft as “the Old Woman who lived in a Shoe,” but Courage remains the chaste Diana, while the Goddess of Love is Aphrodite rising from the waves, her lovely flesh reflecting the tints of a flawless dawn. So much for decor. In the goodly place of Goya comes the discovery of gold, the British talent for exploitation (the chance of tidying up a people careless of the advantages to be derived from the niceties of Western civilization), the dealing out of shibboleths according to their card index numbers — church, state, army, university and journalism. The result is war, defeat and deception on the one side, (or shall one say on both sides), with Courage, Gallantry and Love holding their own, everything else to the contrary notwithstanding. So much for action.

That the rhetorician Burnage, editor of The Voice and voice alike of war and peace, should be animated by the cynical Rose whose thorns pierce but cannot penetrate the i succulence which her perfume attracts, is unfortunately as true to the scheme of things as is its complement: cynicism, caught in the mating season by succulence and venting its fastidious ire on the latter ever afterwards.

That a magnet of shibboleth (again Burnage) should hold in permanent peonage the soldier of fortune who has been his fag at school is certainly according to the code of cricket and until a better code has been devised, it may well serve for the stuff of which dreams are made, to even so sophisticated a writer as the author of “Disenchantment.” The reward to the soldier of fortune of the love of a noble girl is not omitted—a love of mystic quality vouchsafed at the hour of physical death which no urbanity of authorship could dim.

Mr. Montague draws his characters not only with trenchant imagination, but with skill from a subtle observance of types. They are not mere lay figures dressed up to play their parts, but rather human beings carrying their own limitations within them, meeting destiny unprotected by their author. Herein lies the essence of Mr. Montague’s sense of irony. The drama remains an inner conflict in spite of and often in contrast with the stir of events. So few can tell a story now. Neither sophistication of point of view nor polish of style can obscure the boy in Mr. Montague, who lives a great adventure.

In “Gallions Reach” Mr. Tomlinson also lives a boy’s adventure. Unlike Mr. Montague his sense of irony is not sufficiently keen to achieve the effect which he desires to create, for he is more often facetious than ironical. The adventure is symbolized in the hero’s meeting with the seductive Helen at the Gridiron, when an immunity protects him from experience. This same immunity envelopes him even after he murders his employer and stays with him throughout all perils, including shipwreck and the jungle. It is only in the last paragraph that the reader learns that Colet has been pursued by ghosts which beckon him back to London to face a charge of murder.

In his choice of words Mr. Tomlinson is the youngest writer of the group under review. Red and green are still ruby and emerald to his imagination; the blue of the sea can only be described as sapphire, drops of water as “globules of cold silver,” and storm clouds as “the colour of calamity.” This poverty of style is occasionally more than balanced by fine descriptions, such as one of nightfall in the jungle or the scene in the Gridiron restaurant. More distinguished still is the passage in which he describes the fevered terror of the hero when lost in a jungle storm. One wonders why a novelist who can produce so fine a passage as this one, cannot have made more of the material of shipwreck. One remembers two recent descriptions of shipwreck that one supposes would be labelled by a novelist as casual: they are Lady Rhondda’s account of the sinking of the Lusitania and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu’s account of the sinking of the Persia. Described from entirely different angles, both of these simple narratives leave the reader with the illusion of having passed through the experience of shipwreck, an experience which is at the same time physical and spiritual. Somehow, in “Gallions Reach,” there exists, with the few exceptions one has already noted, a hiatus between the experience of the characters and the reader’s response. To the admirers of Mr. Tomlinson both the hiatus and the lack of response will be promptly allocated to the reviewer’s mind instead.

M. Paul Geraldy’s “Si tu m’aimais, si je t’aimais, comme je t’aimeraisl” has become in Mr. Bullett’s words, ” ‘My life is over’ said Garth, but he said it to himself.” The lovers in “The Panther,” like the lovers in “Toi et Moi,” alternately seek the substance behind illusion and turn to illusion as a refuge from emotion. In the Englishman’s work, perhaps, illusion has become the actor seeking out human beings, animating them, leading them on to ecstasy and suffering, and suddenly withdrawing from them to leave them without joy or understanding. It depends upon the intrinsic qualities of each character as to what qualities illusion reveals. Mr. Bullett has held the resulting dualism in finely balanced scales. Never does a character in “The Panther” rise above its own qualities and never does it succeed in descending into the depths of suffering from which it can draw no experience.

The main characters in “The Panther” are four — one married couple and one companionate couple. To these may be added the one significant character, Tony, aged five, illusion’s darling, the talented child, who dies while his elders are nursing their wounded amours propres or courting the return of illusion. In addition to the four adventurers in emotion are two women who have left the enigmas of love to be solved by youth, while they have solved their own problems in the following manner: The one, whose son has been killed in France, has by a mental trick reduced life to stale splendour; the other, through a dogged acceptance of things as they are, lives it as a “profound platitude.” |

Mr, Bullett uses the prose of a lyric poet filled with starry bloom. There are passages of sheer delight across fields of enchantment, along moonlit roads, by the twilit sea, that reveal the deathless quality of man’s spiritual quest, deathless because it can neither be encompassed nor abandoned. It is with a poet’s sense of ultimate values that Mr. Bullett views the shortcomings of human character, even its tenacious egotism in the face of a revelation of the Infinite.

Of that particular phase of man’s quest, the seeking of man for woman and of woman for man, Mr. Bullett has, perhaps, found no new dictum. One falls back upon Byron’s:

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart; ‘Tis woman’s whole existence.

But in the surface reflections of love’s illusion, Mr. Bullett has found many nuances that for want of perspective one calls modern—nuances which he has reproduced with great skill and touched by a spiritualizing force that is probably due to the liberation by science of the weight of the materialistic conception of life. Not even to the vulgarian Pend-rook, who is also a philanderer, does Mr. Bullett, the modern chronicler, deny the fundamental desire of a man to journey into the realm of beauty by means of his amorous instincts. Pendrook, shut out from this one access into a world greater than himself, is so to be despised that one is relieved when illusion again catches him up and sweeps him onward. And so, in a different form, does illusion lend rapture to each one of Mr. Bullett’s characters according to its capacities. Thus has Mr. Bullett translated into a new medium the essential dualism of life, the significance of eternal change and recurrence.

What is our life but a shadow, But of what is it a shadow? A tree, or a post that standeth Or of a bird that flieth? For the bird flies on

And then there is neither bird nor shadow.

This query is only posed anew by Mr. Bullett in “The Panther” and the quality of his work lies not in the characters he has depicted for this purpose, but in the poetic envelope with which he has surrounded them. Each psychological change has become a change in the writer’s mood, inextricably bound up with his exquisite form of expression. Like M. Geraldy, he has mastered the art of shifting an emotional focus in order to include a segment (often a humorous one) that has remained in shadow. It is an extremely delicate art and one follows Mr. Bullett’s sensitive technique with admiration.

Leaving Mr. Bullett’s world of illusion behind, one mounts into another and more highly evolved world where symbolical outlines have transcended the real ones, “and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself like a beak of brass, barren and bare.” This is the theme of “To the Lighthouse” developed by Virginia Woolf into a Mere-dithian novel in three parts—”The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse.” It is Meredithian because of the esthctique of the two writers rather than because of a similarity of rhythm or fecundity of style. The chosen quotation might have served for “Diana of the Cross ways” as well as for Mrs. Woolf’s novel, simply in that the proportions and purposes of her world are interchangeable with Meredith’s.

Mrs. Woolf has not tried to create a new Diana, aged fifty, the mother of eight children. Instead, she has composed a picture of life fruitful in its essence and various i in its attributes: life that reaches its perfection in a woman seen as “a rosy-flowered fruit-tree, laid with leaves and dancing boughs, into which the beak of brass, the arid scimitar” of the egotistical man, plunges and smites, demanding sympathy when his own creative rhythm has ebbed away; a world which trembles between dissolution and continuity and is finally recreated by new relationships demanding new forms.

Of the tiny particles that compose Mrs. Woolf’s world, all have passed through her hand and have been distinguished by her touch. Furthermore, she has made an attempt to rend the veil and to see life as a perfect whole, a symbol of the Infinite. In this method it is obvious that the contrast between the desire of the writer to produce harmony and to depict disintegration has supplied the needed thrust and counter-thrust of her style, as well as the raison d’etre of her theme. One cannot pretend that Mrs. Woolf has attained a uniformity of perfection in this novel for, in spite of several scenes in “The Window” in which she has achieved greatness, the effect is often forced, while in “The Lighthouse” the values are too new to have lost self-consciousness. But one wonders whether any English writer in the future will have the temerity to describe the drama of a deserted home after reading “Time Passes.” In less than thirty pages Mrs. Woolf has said in words, brooded over by loveliness, all that can possibly be suggested in regard to the struggle of the spirit to reassert itself against the odds of destruction. That she has used material objects to touch with decay and set atremble with new life, has heightened her effect and given to “Time Passes” a poignancy and significance unexcelled in modern prose.


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