They Stooped to Polly: A Comedy of Morals. By Ellen Glasgow. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50.
Miss Glasgow’s “Comedy of Morals” is circumscribed ostensibly by Queenborough, Virginia, where three women have “stooped to folly.” Aunt Agatha atones by withering alone, “a ruin,” until the War summons her to make pyjamas and to recapture a hint of life in a passion for banana sundaes and the movies. Amy Dalrymple finds in her later years no life except what she can capture in weary gropings for a new love affair. Milly Burden, a product of the present century, makes the shibboleth, “the right to be happy,” her ideal, modifying it when happiness is denied by substituting pleasure for happiness and finally deserting it altogether to seek “something worth loving.” Unlike the others she refuses to see herself as “fallen” and never admits that the biological fact in any way conditions her individual future. In theory all that matters is that her life is hers still; in practice she finds no balm more sovereign than Aunt Agatha’s love for sweets, except in her final flight to what she fancies will be “freedom” in New York.
“When lovely woman stoops to folly” the traditional questions are “What charm can soothe her melancholy? What art can wash her guilt away?” Miss Glasgow does not answer, if, indeed she even asks. Given the situation a moralist or propagandist might load the dice. A little tampering might exalt the Victorian standard which makes Aunt Agatha what she is or might disguise Milly’s half-fledged search for a philosophy, as allegiance to a gospel. But Miss Glasgow, as comic ironist, is proof against temptations to lapse into a sociological study, content to light up the facets of the situation in the cool rays of her wit. Thus treated the stuff she works in, worn as it is by much use, offers bountiful resources for comedy. There is the contrast between Aunt Agatha’s point of view and Milly’s. There is the clash between the conduct of the two ladies who stooped and felt that stooping was a fall, and the conduct of one who refused to admit that she had even stooped. There is the sharp interplay of light and shade in the attitude of the Southern gentleman (who gets his full share of satire) and that of his wife, or sister, or daughter, facing the same set of facts. There are other characters to represent differing outlooks on the tangle, and each is made a peg to which is tied one of the interlaced threads of comedy.
Above all there is Virginius Littlepage, Southern gentleman, lawyer, idealist, bewildered by changing moral standards, by his own abortive yearnings toward lawless love, and most of all by his own mind, more advanced than his tongue, more drastic in its conclusions than his code should, he feels, permit. He, Milly, his wife, Victoria, and Mary Victoria, their daughter, who marries Milly’s erstwhile lover in order to save him from himself, are the chief characters of the novel. There is, too, Louisa Goddard, loved vainly, for years by the rebellious artist, Marmaduke, Virginius’s brother, and all the time secretly loving Virginius herself, masking her secret under a most efficient exterior and a precise knowledge of the social history of ancient civilizations.
Most of the book is simply the record of Mr. Littlepage’s response to the situation. He wavers in his opinions. He has both respect and affection for Milly. He loves his daughter but distrusts her motives in capturing another woman’s lover, even though those motives are externally displayed in the colors of nobility. He advances toward Mrs Dalrymple only to flee nervously on the eve of lawless delights, quite contentedly taking refuge at his own fireside, He is a figure of fullness and color. At times, to be sure, he seems to contain in himself too much. It is natural that there should be two or three men at war within him, but now and then he seems to achieve a detachment which brands him as for the moment merely the mouth-piece of Miss Glasgow. With him, we are told, “sophistication had never filtered through the interwoven wires of prejudice,” but sometimes fundamental sophistication speaks in his voice without the slightest vibration of those wires. Then he sparkles but loses the hue of life.
The other characters seem less successful. They are usually sketched by a trait, a turn of mind, an experience, but do not desert the flat world of types. Each is set up less as a character in the full sense than as a beacon to mark a critical angle in the situation. Mrs. Dalrymple, though her physical charm is sharply presented, .seldom comes out of the pages enough to stand alone. Mrs. Littlepage and Louisa are certainly thoroughly painted, but perhaps because theirs is the burden of being the protagonists of Queensborough’s virtue, they seem often to be abstractions, embodiments of patterns of life, and slip all too easily into the lifelessness which Victoria’s husband in his most discerning moments half recognized in her. They are too mildly tempered by baser motives to be credible; they rarely betray concretely the secret of their influence on Virginias and the others.
Mary Victoria, again, is but a sketch, though quite vivid enough to explain the reactions upon her husband. And, finally, Milly, upon a realization of whom the story depends for poignancy, is too faintly outlined. She has physical attractiveness, apparently; she is courageous and pathetic in her confidence in her rights in a world where, so far as this novel is concerned, neither she nor anyone else seems to be able to keep them; she is admirably incisive in her rejection of some stupidities and half-truths, but she remains remote. She loved Martin, but how? Why? It is difficult to catch her thinking. She is hard to believe in because she seems to put on ideas ready-made. Yet, if she was what we are told she was, she must have thought, and back of her courage there must have been some drama worth seeing.
If the book had no character but Mr. Littlepage, however, and if he were less well drawn than he is, it would still shine simply because of Miss Glasgow’s mind and her artistry in words. The style, in its restraint and quick responsiveness to every phase of the theme, once more proves her quality. The epigrams tread upon each other’s heels, and even though most of them are on subjects long ago worn bare by epigrammatists, they flash as brightly, as though their themes were as new as the day. The wit, malicious, ironic, mocking, is of the sort that only the most fortunate artists can maintain. In it, not in any distinction of plot or characterization, lies the merit of the novel. “Poor Aunt Agatha had been a carefully guarded ruin, and Victoria was aware that Southern gentlemen of the great tradition visited such ruins only by moonlight.” “To reduce behaviour to a formula, however wanton, appeared miraculously to invest it with the dignity of an intellectual habitation and a name.” Perhaps the feast is even too bountiful, and sometimes the wit falls too regularly into one or two forms. Curie Littlepage is “as safe as a Liberty Bond and almost as uninteresting.” “Intemperate virtue is almost as disastrous in marriage as temperate vice.” “His respect for her was as unenterprising as his respect for the Ten Commandments. . . . Her firm brown skin . . . looked not so much youthful in texture as impervious to age. . . . Her features wore an expression of faint surprise, as if the mysteries of Babylon had left her in a state of perpetual astonishment.” The mould is too uniform, but no one would break it if to do so might spill its contents.
Superficially, Queensborough and its people, no doubt, might appear as a finished product of a skilful cabinetmaker, like a fine old inlaid table top. Miss Glasgow has found the joint beneath the veneer, and has gently sliced it off. Into every weak spot in the inlay she has slipped her knife, until all that is left at last is a pile of neatly excised bits. Out of them curiously comes beauty. They reflect prismatically, as a flat surface could not. The clear flame of her wit kindles them to an incandescence which glows far into the world of men and women and glitters on the ironic complications of their dealings with life.