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Craftsmanship in Some Modern Novels

ISSUE:  Summer 1927

The Happy Tree. By Rosalind Murray. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50.

The Old Countess. By Anne Douglas Sedgwick. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.50.

The Allinghams. By May Sinclair. New York: The Mac-millan Company. $2.50.

Love Is Enough. By Francis Brett Young. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $5.00.

Andy Brandt’s Ark. By Edna Bryner. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.50.

Half-Gods. By. Murray Sheehan. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.50.


Once, in the early days of the printing press, when penny editions of Shakespeare and penny Miltons were spread through an England that was new to the idea of popular printing of good books, the press was looked upon as the hope of the new industrial world. Everybody was going to read Shakespeare; everybody was going to know the best that has been written and thought in this world; and everybody was going to find his life filled with light. Now, in the face of magazine stands and tabloid newspapers and the obstinate perversities of the modern novel, it may be time to wonder. Craftsmanship lies back in those sunny days of the English novel when giants wrote, giants whose titanic script was even, full, and round, and whose world was beautiful, and whose words were fair.

Indeed, to put this whole question of craftsmanship upon a higher plane, and to forget for the moment, the puerilities of the magazines and the newspapers, the modern novel is seldom well written—to say nothing, for the time being, of other lacks like empty themes or dirty ones. It is hard to find books that have well turned sentences, undistorted vividness, or even common sense. Craftsmanship—even to the point of bad grammar—is poor. There were about eight thousand books printed in America last year. Is that the answer to poor craftsmanship?

But craftsmanship, despite all the bungling, is not quite gone from us. There come—perhaps one novel in every thirty—good books well written, in which the matter is sound and handled to a purpose, and in which the sentences and the shape of the words and the paragraphs are beautiful. They are—such books—the salt of the literary earth, and they give the hope that skill has not left our modern fingers. There is one book or one writer that nearly every reader holds in high regard and against which he places other books and other writers to their discredit. The sum of the favorites of many individuals makes the honor roll of the new fiction, a thing made up sometimes of the big names—like Cather and Galsworthy, and Conrad—and sometimes of the little ones, discovered by chance browsings in book stores and held all the dearer because of that.

The six novels for review this month all have, in some degree, this rare quality of craftsmanship. This does not mean that they are to be praised as “splendid achievements” or “the book of the month” as the booksellers chant. But they show that they are written by men and women who have good taste, an instinctive feeling for the power of words rightly used, and some capacity for picturing people or places without ineptness or immaturity.


“Love Is Enough” is, by virtue of size and consistent excellence, the most important book of the list. More than this, it has a scope so large and a field of accomplishment so difficult to do well that it has added reason for taking critical first place in any such list as this.

“Love Is Enough” was called in England, so I am told, “Portrait of Clare,” a title which in accuracy to its material and in its lack of sensationalism seems commendable. The book is a portrait of Clare, from the time she comes home to Pen House as a girl from boarding school to the time when she finds, at the close of life, a remnant of quiet happiness and an understanding of much more—the time when she looked into a window and saw “reflected in it the image of a small, neat, grey-haired woman with delicate hands, that clutched a bag of black watered silk and a blue tram-ticket, a gentle mouth, that had known sorrow, and happy eyes, which were still full of tears.”

It is a strange book to find stamped with the name of Francis Brett Young, one not wholly unexpected to those of us who have watched him grow out of “Woodsmoke” into “Cold Harbour” and who have seen him touch things like “The Dark Tower” as an experiment. But we have never seen a Young like this before, a Young cutting himself free from the Gothic moodiness and the exultant gloom of “Cold Harbour” and a Young who writes a story free of ships and storms and chases and tropical quarrelling. It is what the man wants to do—he says as much if you talk to him— but it is an unhappy thing for us to think about if we have enjoyed the heartening romance of his earlier themes. Of course, “Love Is Enough” is an advance in testing out the possibilities of Young’s own mind and experience, but by writing “Love Is Enough,” he is adding to a type—the old English family chronicle—that has many splendid examples, and he is withdrawing from a type that has little besides Conrad—romance that is not mere sword-slinging.

To try to understand the perplexities that life brings to ordinary men and women is a finer thing—and a harder— than to write from the purple moment of a romantic imagination. The former requires more keen observation, more knowing, more subtlety, more love of what life means, more “illumination” of experience—to use one of Mr. Young’s own good words. That is the task he sets himself; to illuminate experience so that the essence of it is made clear and beautiful by the book. That is a step beyond “The Dark Tower” and “Sea Horses”—for the man who writes. It is a stage up in a writer’s development—even the wanting to do that. But it is sometimes a loss to readers, for a man’s innate talent may express itself better in one form than another. That is one overtone I get from reading “Love Is Enough” —a feeling that despite its clear purpose, fine idea, and felicitous phrasing, Mr. Young is not wholly at his ease, as he is in his stories of almost unreal adventure in Africa. Perhaps it is only the meticulousness of the work in “Love Is Enough” that shadows it with the shape of the study lamp, but the flash of sudden brightness and the swift sure suggestion give way, in “Love Is Enough” to an elaboration that sometimes does not reach the same happy effect. This does not imply that the craftsmanship of the book is to be assailed or even questioned; it merely questions the ease of Mr. Young in this very fine and well conceived book of his.

The reality of the book is undebatable, despite whatever might be said about its meticulousness or heavy movement, If the reality is not of the suggestive sort of the romances, it is, at any rate, in the book in good measure. And the reality, as I look back upon it, is more a reality of place than of person. The great, quiet stretches of the English land on the Welsh border, that country, that floods “The Dark Tower” with poetry, fills the new book, free from its connotations of gloomy supernaturalism or Gothic mystery. It fills the pages of “Love Is Enough” with its green hills and forests and country houses. It does more than this. It reveals to us the change in people’s lives, by its sudden jagged intrusions of manufacturing towns with smoke and dingy streets and factories that burn the sweetness out of English nights. The poetry in Mr. Young takes fire from his love of English land. Someone said if you want to write, you must sink your roots deep into some place; it does not make a great deal of difference where. But the roots must be there, even beyond and before a knowledge of people or the eccentricities of human behavior.

This is sometimes hard to see, but it is, I feel sure, something that is true. People do not exist as spiritual units unfixed in space, unfixed in background. They, take shape and meaning as we know their country, their houses, their possessions. This is more than a matter of “local color” or “setting.” It is philosophically deeper than such things. It is the perception of human experience by means of the place in which it happens and by which it is determined. It is a recognition of the spiritual capacities of the trees a man sees; it is a knowledge of the deep moodiness places can give, the moodiness that changes to character.

This is the reality that pervades “Love Is Enough.” We forget the improbabilities of character, things like seeing one man only as a shy fellow who always settles everything with a check book and things like the acid caricature of Lady Hingston. The people often shadow only their types, and we do not care. The devices are often too easy, and we do not mind. The reality of people is there because they are essentially sound in conception and because they live against a background of Pen House, Uffdown, Alvaston, Stourford, and Mawne Hall.

Here is the way Clare discovers Uffdown after she is married to Ralph and first moves in.

And as the weeks went by, it seemed to her as if the spirit of the house had actually taken her in hand, and set about moulding her to the shape of its sober dignity. She had thought of it, at first, as her creation. In a little while she began to wonder if her new self were not created by it, so gracious and well proportioned, so foreign to all her old ideas, was the influence that it shed on her. At times she would actually see it as a personality, setting its spiritual seal upon the living things that had grown up about it, the cedars, the beeches, the humble lawns and flowerbeds, no less than on its inhabitants. In this anthropomorphic reverence she would treat its unspoken judgments as oracles, anxiously waiting on its mute approvals and disapprovals, applying them as a touchstone to matters of everyday life.

So it goes. Aunt Cathie is an emanation of Pen House; Pen House is the expression of the same spirituality as the Doctor’s; Stourford Castle expresses, in part, Lady Hingston; Tudor House says Wilburn. Places dominate the moods, good and bad, throughout the book.

What does it matter, in the face of such craftsmanship, such illumination of the very stuff of life, whether the characters are real in detail and whether they have the roundness and the vital actions of reality? The reality of living is in the book, and it permeates every sentence. More than all this, the sentences have not so much of a load of passion or turbulence that they do not take form as good sentences. Francis Brett Young tells us in his lectures that a novel should be beautiful; it needs to be an illumination of experience. This he has done as few books in each year’s thousands ever do.

May Sinclair suffers from too much ability as a craftsman; she seems to write with so much ease that her stories are thin and empty, mere facile outlines of what could he a good novel if she forgot facility and tried to do something that demands more skill and more understanding than she can offer it. She seems sometimes to write without ambition or eagerness; she seems to write well without half trying. It is too bad, in some ways, to like May Sinclair, for she is always disappointing you; she never lives up to the promise which she made in “The Divine Fire” to write superlative fiction. Perhaps books like “Mary Olivier” get near to the passion of writing the serious things that are so hard to say, but few of the rest get near it, and none can touch “The Divine Fire.” Think of the ease of “The Rector of Wyck,” “Far End,” and others. Then come to “The Allinghams” and expect no more. The book fails mainly because it suggests so much more that a writer of such gifts might have done. For a less skilful writer “The Ailing-hams” would be a distinctive achievement.

“The Allinghams” has in it not much idea. It is a smoothly written tale of a moneyed English family in which the children appear when young as charming as only May Sinclair’s children can; and when they reach maturity they vary from superficially portrayed genius to dullness and insanity. The reason for the book is hard to find: what is the point in the story; what is the meaning of telling about the Allinghams; why recount the ordinary charms of an assemblage of handsome children? True, there are struggles between the children and their parents over marriage and careers. There are quarrels over dances and engagements; there are the necessary, adolescent love-affairs and the seduction and sex obsession that mark these latter day Sinclair novels. But there is not much point. Psychological studies of children and grown-ups have been done before. May Sinclair has done enough to satisfy any of her most devout readers. She says nothing new or very vivid.

Much the same facility at words and at picturing the words of real people and the appearances of real people and the places in which men and women live appears in Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s “The Old Countess.” The author has always been noted for an ability at smooth writing, for prose that is clear, subtle, and polished. That ability makes itself apparent in this novel. The places in France where the old countess lives, the eyes and hands of Graham and Jill and Marthe, all of them are skillfully painted in sentences that never falter. That is an ability, as is Miss Sinclair’s, that is, as I have said, rare. It is one great part of writing a good novel.

But beyond this comes the need of saying something that it is valuable to have communicated, and the idea in the book is, to my mind, negligible. Anne Douglas Sedgwick is still busy telling us that there is a difference between a Frenchman and an American, and to do this, she builds stories in which the subtleties of the French combat the straightforwardness and decision of the Anglo-Saxons with insinuations that are both lovely and wicked. In “The Little French Girl” there was the unhappy mother of Alix, a mother damned by a sweet face and an alluring body, in whom nobility and weakness were mixed, and in whom weakness took on the flavor of perverted courage, perverted, at any rate, to our heavier English consciences.

In “The Old Countess” the same mix-up of racial and national ideas prevails, with the same doctrines of noble and freely flung passion warring with the duties of husbands and wives. It does not quite come off successfully.

As opposed to the facility without much depth as we find it in “The Allinghams” and “The Old Countess,” the deep feeling and the fine writing of Rosalind Murray’s “The Happy Tree” stand out even beyond their natural excellence. “The Happy Tree” is of the same high quality as “Love Is Enough,” and it has, to my mind, a power of characterization that Mr. Young himself does not quite reach. Perhaps the method does it: the book is short and touches only the high spots of a woman’s experience, where “Love Is Enough” writes out much more, but the reality of the places and the men and women in “The Happy Tree” is seldom found in any new books.

The story is simple but not stodgy, and the effect is not gained by background alone; the people are as individual as the places. As the woman in whose person the story is told says at the very end:

And this is all that has happened. It does not seem very much. It does not seem worth writing about. I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and someone I loved dearly was killed in the war . . . that is all. And all those things must be true of thousands of people.

Well, they are true of thousands of people, but most women of forty cannot sit down and see how life has taken them and shaped their plans into others and ignored their hopes for beautiful things that never happen. And most women cannot see the splendor of a happy childhood, and of having friends, and of knowing people and of understanding what sorrow tastes like when your best friends die. Most women, too, the thousands who might have written this story, cannot take disappointment and ugly houses and imperfect husbands and change such elements of life into a spiritual experience that is beautiful, and something that is not a sordid string of complaints. Clarity and proportion, rare words to apply to the new fiction. “The Happy Tree” stands almost alone.

“Andy Brandt’s Ark” is of the same breed as James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” It has a good idea, one not often seen in new fiction. It is the idea that a family one has known as a child is like a painted Noah’s ark in which little wooden figures rattle around without much meaning. They are, however, this family, not only wooden figures, but men and women who have grown in kindliness or in understanding or in unpleasantness. And when Andy Brandt, emancipated member of her family, goes back to help a younger sister through a tangle of family and love affairs, Andy finds them different from the figures she once knew: her father wrings her heart, and she was ready to despise him; her mother loses the sentimental glory with which Andy had covered her and reveals mean streaks and nastiness; her brothers shape up better and worse.

It is a good idea and a story full of warmth and life and kindliness, not smart, not flippant, and full of people who sound surprisingly like members of your own family or like people who might be members if you were more unfortunate than you are. But the “Ulysses” flavor makes the good craftsmanship of the idea dimly perceptible. The abuse of sentences, the mulish obstinacy of the word order, and the villainy of the diction are startling without effect. They blind, but they do not make you see angels after the radiance passes. They only wear out eyesight and temper. Here, for example, is Edna Bryner’s way of saying that Andy Brandt got from her sister a letter that made Andy get mixed up with the family again.

Slowly, from the round childish characters, line after line, on page after page of narrow-ruled letter paper, inundation arose, lapping higher and higher around the woman compact in her rush bottomed chair to the task of her eye, submerging her at last in scrawling waves.

And here is the way Andy Brandt’s mind asks her how she became what she was:

Familiar challenged her to an accounting, impudent, colloquial, “How did you get this way?”

The style is breathless, inverted, and hard to see through in many instances when the confusion is not necessary; the communication would be more understandable, more sure without the twisted sentences. One wonders sometimes why people who determine to be uselessly abstruse bother to write. A writer ought to give the most help he can to the reader; it is bad enough to be complex when the idea or the situation demands it. But why omit “the’s” and other particles of speech? Why turn sentences around; why use archaic verbs; why pick ugly sounding words and awkward adverbs?

Edna Bryner can tell a straightforward story in a straightforward style when she wants. Later on, the book strikes a good stride. Things are clearly, said, and people talk like human beings. The author does, too. But in certain spots, when there is abstract explaining to be done, one feels the devilish hand of the crazy god, Joyce, tearing transitive verbs out of their natural order and making but a half adjective sprout where a whole one grew before.

“Half-Gods” by Murray Sheehan is an amusing tale of a centaur who comes to second birth on a Missouri farm. It is the story of the centaur’s gradual loss of his clouds of glory that trailed with him from ancient Greece to be muddied and dissipated by a Missouri small town. The centaur learns to chew gum, spit, talk bad English, forget his Greek, and find as his life’s ambition his great desire to be accepted as “one of the fellows at the corner store.”

Sinclair Lewis could have taken lessons from Murray Sheehan on the way to get along with Main Street. Murray Sheehan looks at it and at the inanities of our so-called democratic colleges with the same warm-hearted amusement. He is no sneerer; he is amused, as he has a right to be, at the silly, enthusiasms and idealisms of a small town. He does not scold or grow prophetic or look down from Sinclair Lewis’s self-imagined intellectual superiority at the world of stupid men. He merely laughs at the Durnan’s idea of education and religion and their consternation at the birth of a centaur. He is amused by the way people in Missouri give directions to strangers (read that chapter, by all means), and he has a good time going to faculty meetings, where “one’s jaws ache with the continual exertion of the social smile” and the little bit of talk that one is expected to offer up before the luminaries.

Murray Sheehan, in a day of heavy thinking, flat-footed books, has written an amusing one that has wit without smartness, an idea that is poetic and tender (witness the centaur’s recital of Homer to Daniel on a summer night on the farm). “Half-Gods” knows a great deal about provinciality, a great deal about good but stupid farmers, a great deal about aesthetes and growing boys, and still more about the yokel culture that passes as breeding in some university society.

There are passages in the book to be recommended almost by page. Read the story of the faculty reception; read how the centaur remembers his ancient Greece and the dryads that whisper to him from the Missouri forest land; read the conversation between Daniel and the centaur. Then read the meeting of the Kiwanis and the Rotary; read the debate between Dewitt and Durnan over the price for renting the centaur as a show piece; read Dewitt’s epic conversation when he tries to get directions from a Missouri farmer. Then read the centaur’s first speech to Doctor Cribble, when the Greek professor and he speak poetry at the side show. Read the second speech when the centaur has almost forgot his heritage through living in a small town. The pathos of it is in no sense destroyed by the satire, and the unconventionality of a centaur in Missouri is almost unnoticed after you have read the first few pages. This is a story full of wisdom and patience, full of comedy that is not bitter, although all the materials for a bitter satire assert themselves and are urbanely handled. What if the story sometimes forgets the centaur and romps off to take a slap at country preachers or poor church poetry? What if it swings away towards burlesque of Rotarians and educators? It swings back again to the centaur, and it brings you something fresh and gay and witty in a passing hour of gloomy novels.


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