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Four Distinguished Novels

ISSUE:  Summer 1925

Barren Ground.
By Ellen Glasgow. New York: Doubleday, Page and Co. $2.50.

The Mother’s Recompense. By Edith Wharton. New York: D. Appleton and Company. $2.00.

The Rector of Wyck. By May Sinclair. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50.

The George and the Crown. By Sheila Kaye-Smith. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $2.00.

A reviewer’s task becomes a delight when it deals with four such able authors as the four distinguished women mentioned here. Net only is each one singly a force to be faced but the contrasts of environment and its reactions on temperaments furnish a fertile theme for consideration.

Looking at a first edition of Ellen Glasgow’s entrance into the novelist’s field I find it was published in 1907, since when she has grown steadily in wisdom and power, with such outstanding achievements here and there as “The Deliverance” and “Virginia,” until her gift has flowered in this really great novel, “Barren Ground.” It is a book that will reward careful consideration and first of all one is impressed with its permanence and solidity. It is a book that will live, by its truth to life, its choice of lasting themes, its keen psychology, (especially its analysis of woman’s nature), and its faithful delineation of character. But these are mere items in the make-up of a great novel. Ellen Glasgow has done here what was done also in “The Return of the Native.” She makes the soil itself live and become one of the chief actors in the book. Just as Egdon Heath permeates with its atmosphere, its changing moods, the whole life of its people, so Queen Elizabeth County (is it Louisa County?) in “Barren Ground” permeates its inhabitants, becomes an inherent part of the characters, inspires and thwarts the human efforts, determines the type.

Ellen Glasgow has that brooding familiarity with the land, the impassioned attentiveness to detail which leave in the memory clearly defined scenes, so that one knows just where certain trees grew, in her novels; how the landscape changed character and colour under sun or cloud and the effect upon mood and thought of wide stretches of barren country, or the different response to the same scene at midnight or in the morning.

Foremost in the book stands Dorinda, the one indomitable character, with the orange-coloured shawl about her, looking at the snow on the deserted road and then:

“Bare, starved, desolate the country closed in about her. . . . From the bleak horizon, where the flatness created an illusion of immensity, the broomsedge was spreading in a smothered fire over the melancholy brown of the landscape. Under the falling snow, which melted as soon as it touched the earth, the colour was veiled and dim; but when the sky changed the broomsedge changed with it. On clear mornings the waste places were cinnamon-red in the sunshine. Beneath scudding clouds the plumes of the bent grasses faded to ivory. During the long spring rains, a film of yellow-green stole over the burned ground. At autumn sunsets, when the red light searched the country the broomsedge caught fire from the after-glow and blazed out in a splendour of colour. Then the meeting of earth and sky dissolved in the flaming mist of the horizon.” Here stand the two protagonists, the strong woman and the sullen earth, introduced in the very first page of the book and the thoughtful will at once be aware of the theme. Dorinda stood there “without moving but her attitude, in its stillness, gave an impression of arrested flight, as if she were running toward life.” What will she make of the barren soil about her, how will she cope with the obstacles and handicaps of life, and when life trips her and she falls, will she submit to failure, or will she rise, strengthened to new effort? This is indeed the theme, but how richly embroidered. The canvas is a large and full one. Each figure is faithfully studied and portrayed, urged into life and speech and action,—primitive darkies, men sodden and inarticulate with dull, monotonous labour, young rash, hopeful people snatching at forbidden joy and reaping the whirlwind, women bearing through their toilsome, drab days, the ghosts of dead dreams, and children drawing health from the earth for future adventure; old and young, brave and cowardly; the efficient and the failures, and over and above and in and through them all works the barren, parsimonious soil, giving as little as it can to harmonize and beautify these lives, blossoming and enriching only when it falls under the tireless will of Dorinda.

Yes; Ellen Glasgow is a born interpreter of skies and fields. Her glance is as penetrating as a painter’s and like a painter she finds nature the point of reconciliation for those to whom human ties have proven unstable and unsatisfying.

Passion and suffering are the heritage of humanity and man’s reactions to them are the main theme of all literature. For Dorinda one passion was enough. Having seen it debased and betrayed she turned to the soil and out of it she wrung, by effort and self sacrifice, a so-called success; the results and rewards of labor and courage. So when the autumn winds of life seemed to be sweeping her too into the grave, where father and mother, lover and husband had preceded her, it was “not a thwarted love she mourned, but the love that had never been, the futility of passion, the emptiness of our fragmentary dreams of life.” At the end of thirty years of labor and production, she lay at night thinking of the youth she had never had, of the past, not as it had been but as she had imagined it and “Time was nothing. Reality was nothing. Success, achievement, victory over fate, all these things were nothing beside the imperishable illusion,” and the chill of despair enveloped her. But in the morning, the hag-ridden dreams of the night disappeared and she went out, and again the spirit of the land, of the soil that stays by us and is our reminder of eternity, rose and “flowed into her and her own spirit strengthened and refreshed, was flowing out again toward life. This was the permanent self, she knew. This was what remained to her after the years had taken her bloom. She would find happiness again. Not the happiness for which she had once longed, but the serenity of mind which is above the conflict of frustrated desires.”

If i am willing to speak of Ellen Glasgow’s book, as not only the finest product of her genius, but—one says it so charily always—as a great and abiding record of life, it is because of its splendid sincerity and truth, and because it is an indigenous growth; its roots are deep in the soil of our native land. It is like one of our great, gaunt pines, bare and stark at bottom, but spreading and beautiful at the top; the plant that has grown stalwart and strong not because of favoring circumstance or flattering conditions but despite devastating winds and barren soil. Yes; this is a great novel that will live while men take interest in human life and the struggle of the human soul with environment and circumstance, with nature and with other wills.

To turn from “Barren Ground” to “The Mother’s Recompense” is like turning from a forest to a hot-house, from wild flowers to tube-roses, from an American farm house to an European hotel full of unattached old ladies, of American and English extraction, with no cares or responsibilities or ties, who are pathetically trying to build a life out of a struggle for comfort and diversion. The book is Mrs.

Wharton’s finest since “The House of Mirth” and is even more enthralling than that one. The theme is one that constantly appears in French literature, indeed de Maupassant uses it in “Fort comme la Mort,” but it is a French theme handled with all the reticence of an American woman, with all Mrs. Wharton’s innate delicacy. In short, a mother, Kate Clephan, unhappy in her married life, cramped by conventions and traditions, runs away with a man who has “the soul of a club steward,” leaving a three year old daughter behind, as her sole regret. The affair with the club steward type is short-lived and so far as anyone knows she has since lived a life of penance, punishment and respectability. As a matter-of-fact she had, at the dangerous age, another liaison with a man twelve years younger than she. But that love too was pitched in the key of transiency; she told him she “wanted to remain with him only like the memory of a flowering branch brushed by at night, so that he would never quite know if it was lilac or laburnum.” Her real life begins when the daughter, having gained her majority and lost her father and grandmother, cables her “I want you to come home at once. I want you to come and live with me. Your daughter, Anne.” For eighteen years she had neither seen nor heard from her child despite her efforts to do so and suddenly real life is spread before her, the life of the heart and habit and home. All the foreign environment of drifting, unattached creatures is swept away, all the life that is merely the daily renewal of the effort to escape reality, to do so many things that one forgets who and where one is,—and the great stable, permanent things are hers again for the asking. The daughter, the home, the “new-indulgence” in people’s outlook, all these welcome her and it seems that the past is to be obliterated until her lover reappears as the affianced husband of her daughter, Anne. One trembles to think what a wallow of pathological obscenity such a theme would become in the hands of a writer like D. H. Lawrence. One is eager to turn again to the French novels that have portrayed mother and daughter as rivals and note the contrast in Mrs. Wharton’s envisagement of the dilemma. Such a theme allows for much study of the Latin and Anglo-Saxon type of mind and morality. To the French such a situation is viewed with casual appreciation; to the Anglo-Saxon it is an abomination. If there is a flaw in this book it is that it is almost impossible to attach the moral lapse to so exquisite a creature as Kate Cle-phan. It seems to belong to her no more than it would to Shaw’s Lesbia, so proud, so self sufficient, so restrained she is. Perhaps only the stark loneliness of such a life could invite the disaster.

The book is finely constructed, opening and closing on the same note, in an hotel on the Riviera. The foreign life and the American colony are as sharply and delicately depicted as the New York of today to which Kate Clephan returns, where everything is taken for granted and overlooked, and where a new kindliness toward the multitudes who break the rules of the game is everywhere noticeable. Throughout flash keen bits of observation as: “Since Americans have ceased to have dyspepsia they have lost the only thing that gave them character.” And again, blessing the anonymity of age, which gave her the opportunity to look on and observe, Kate scrutinized her former friends.

Landers says to her:

“You look at me as if you’d never seen me before. Is it because my tie’s crooked?”

“No, your tie is absolutely straight. So is everything else about you. That is the reason I was looking at you that way. I can’t get used to it.”

He reddened a little as if unaccustomed to such insistent scrutiny. “Used to what?”

“The universal straightness. You’re all so young—and so regular! I feel as if I were in a gallery of marble masterpieces.”

And Kate’s thoughts wander to the shabby faces that had peopled her foreign life and she realized that they at any rate, were worn down by emotions and passions, however selfish, however sordid, and not merely by ice water and dyspepsia.

And of a young American man she observes: “his face was as inexpressive as a football; he might have been made by a manufacturer of sporting goods.” In fact the masculine youth of America, who look f o uniform and so exactly like the advertisements of the arrow collars and the new tooth pastes are evidently a source of delight and conjecture to Mrs. Wharton whose eye is accustomed to the Latin variety. They seem to her “curiously undifferentiated and immature, as if they had been kept too long in a pure and enlightened school, eternally preparing for a life into which their parents and professors could never decide to let them plunge.”

In the end, Kate Clephan is defeated, of course. She never has the courage to confess the awful thing to the perfect daughter, who has her will and innocently marries the cad who was her mother’s lover; and Kate in a kind of Henry Jamesian moral scruple refuses to accept for herself the love and protection of her old and staunch friend, and by way of punishment dooms herself once more to finish life drifting from hotel to hotel, from one American colony to the next in the South of Europe. Her refusal, her self inflicted punishment seems to be the one thing that gives her life dignity.

And then we come to May Sinclair; May Sinclair doing here, as I think, an act of penance for having drawn in “The Cure of Souls” a clergyman who is quite the most despicable character that ever emerged from the imagination of man, a character without redeeming quality, and she evidently felt forced to say: “but all clergymen are not like him.” In “The Rector of Wyck” she does penance for the past. She draws another clergyman who, not unscrupulous and self-indulgent like his predecessor, lives one of those humble, obscure, self-forgetting lives that make for the peace and content and betterment of all the lives about them, and through them the kindness and helpfulness is handed on to others. John Crawford finds a wife to match himself, a woman as charitable and as true as he. By some odd freak of fate they have a well-behaved daughter who is both heartless and soulless, and a son, who with a good heart, is weak and a drunkard and the dull lives of father and mother make the human record. The book is readable and does not bore one, for May Sinclair is a fine crafts-woman and knows how to put vitality into whatever she writes, but the book is not one of her highlights. Like all industrious writers she does books of slight vitality between her robust productions. At her best she gives us “The Divine Fire,” (still an exquisite love-story and as living in all its detail today as when it was written some twenty years ago), “The Three Sisters” (inspired by her profound study of the Brontes), “The Life and Death of Harriet Frean,” (a little masterpiece despite its warped morality), and perhaps finest of all “Mary Olivier” (which has the convincing power of a sincere and honest autobiography). Except in one instance, her prose in this book does not rest upon that echo of a coterie, fussily conscious of its own cleverness, which has marred many of her books, though the discussion of modern art, at Phillip Attwater’s, which is the one instance of that note in this book, would furnish many striving art enthusiasts with telling phrases; would and doubtless will. The religious discussions are a little below the level of the average parlour talk on the evidences of Christianity.

May Sinclair’s is a great talent but what is it that exasperates one so often in her books? There is a great difference between types modern and universal, between types temporary and permanent. Shakespeare’s women, Hardy’s, George Meredith’s, one or two of George Eliot’s and Ellen Glasgow’s are universal and permanent and May Sinclair’s (even when she really loves and puts her heart into them) are modern and temporary. I have no doubt that students of history and manners reading some of her books, a hundred years hence will be able to say at once, “Oh, yes, this is undoubtedly the early twentieth century. Wasn’t there a man named Freud then with peculiar theories of self-expansion through doing whatever you pleased, and a great deal of popular misconception of abnormal psychology?” Yes, these books are so modern that they date exactly. May Sinclair has a special faculty for picking up the latest phrase, the newest slang, the thought of the moment while the great permanent and universal laws and prohibitions roll past her unnoticed. These flaws of false reasoning are less noticeable here than in most of her books but somehow she could not turn her whole power of concentration swiftly enough into the new channel and where she has gained in vision she has lost in vitality. The same thing is true of her use of English. “She writes,” said a very cock-sure young university student to me, “the new English.” But language is like morality, it is a slow growth. There is not any English, James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, Gertrude Stein and all the rest of them to the contrary, that grows up and becomes a universal symbol in fifteen years. A language is not created by a coterie of bored people trying to be clever. It is a natural development and blessed and successful is he who is wise in his innovations. Ellen Glasgow uses English that comes to her in direct descent from Addison through Matthew Arnold; and Edith Wharton writes English that is of the school of Lyly filtered through Pater and taking final stamp in Henry James; they worshipped true gods and May Sinclair ran off at a tangent and admired the new little sensationalists. Yet with it all she is a notable creative power living in and through her creations, always giving them enough of herself to make them alive and compelling and interesting. She is older and wiser than she was ten years ago and with enough life yet to give us her greatest work from the depths of a disciplined soul married to robust vitality.

“The George and the Crown” by Sheila Kaye-Smith is a novel in which the setting counts for more than the little human drama it contains. It plays between the Ouse Valley in Sussex and Sark, Apart from the lovely, lyric quality of the natural descriptions, the Sussex part of the novel is dull. Not Belle, who is intended to be a beautiful syren, and is a handsome virago, nor Ernie who is an ordinary ne’er-do-well, nor even the kindly, good peasant Daniel are of any compelling interest. It is not until the story moves to the island of Sark and Daniel’s year of married life that the book rises to a high level. This part is a complete and lovely idyll and might almost have been written by Pierre Loti himself. One cannot help thinking what a beautiful little book it would have made, had this episode stood by itself, with all the first and last parts of the book sketched in an introductory paragraph or so. The Island part of the novel covers only about one hundred pages but in it the author has packed all her real rapture of observation, her best descriptions of characters and scenes. The truth is, that Daniel, industrious but not gifted, affectionate and dutiful, but not emotional or sensitive is not of heroic build. He would be a pleasant, reliable creature to live near, but he cannot hold one’s attention through a long novel. He was a kind and devoted son and father, a faithful husband, a loyal friend and what could be better? But he was not interesting. He was the sort of person who realised—and how important it is too!—that “you can’t get shut of a marriage by just walking out of the door. It’s all mixed up with everything else in your life.” He sums himself up very neatly when he says: “I could love any good woman that was my wife. I’m sorry, Belle, I know it does not sound very good, but it’s the way I’m made. It means that I’ll always be happier than you, but not so interesting.”

No; he was not interesting; nor was Belle, nor Ernie. Little Rose, of the island of Sark was interesting in her innocence and despair and she redeemed one entire part of the book. However true to the English peasant the book may be, Sheila Kaye-Smith is much more enthralling in the milieu of “The End of the House of Allard.”


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