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A Fine and Private Place

ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

Not by Strange Gods. By Elizabeth Madox Roberts. The Viking Press. $2.50.

It is surprising to consider that Elizabeth Madox Roberts is dead, for the six stories in her last volume, “Not by Strange Gods,” have good fiction’s quality of endlessness. They are characteristic stories, briefer glimpses of the world Miss Roberts saw in “My Heart and My Flesh” and other long narratives. All of them are marked by a sure sense of life. Rhody in “The Betrothed” looked at her lover “quickly and away, making thus her reply. He was a romantic lover. He liked to hum or to sing a line from a song. In summer he was ruddy from the sun, but in winter he was only browned by the winds. Sometimes he would kiss her fingers when she gave him a cup of water. She was dark, looking up at him slyly, her brown hair blowing dark in the wind.” Details of thought and feeling ring the characters around with a certainty of being. This remains even when speech is fully heightened to poetry, or when action is intentionally formalized as at the close of “I Love My Bonny Bride.”

Always expected but not always found in Miss Roberts’s work is purity of form. Yet the reader feels a sense of direction in the stories of this book even when he cannot follow where the narrative leads. In “The Haunted Palace” a woman with a gift of words tells stories that bewilder and enrage her friend Jess, who lives always in frightened lack of understanding. The reader sometimes feels a little as Jess does: slowly angry that he cannot see the form that may be beautiful. There is reason for his expectation, because in such tales as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Holy Morning,” the design is real and complete. Perhaps Moss Beavers in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” explains a part of the darkness that falls in other stories: “When the adventures of the book came to an end he felt as if he had suddenly run off at the end of the world, as if he had run through goodness and come to some mixed and uncertain being such as had habitually made up himself.”

The stories are written in a firm rich-surfaced prose. The rhythm of the sentences is seldom merely formal. Usually it seems a living movement suited to the patterns that Miss Roberts found in life, intricate patterns sometimes dim to the reader, but, to judge by what he can see of them, designs of truth.


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