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Four English Novels

ISSUE:  Spring 1933

Pocahontas. By David Garnett. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50, The Bulpington of Blnp. By H. G. Wells. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50. The Narrow Comer. By W. Somerset Maugham. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. Flowering Wilderness. By John Galsworthy. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50.

Conrad, Hardy, Bennett, Moore, and now Galsworthy are no longer living. Wells and Maugham remain of the men whose work represented the remarkable generation of English novelists which challenged the primacy of the great Victorians. The younger British writers of today have on the whole proved neither as sure artists nor as competent realists. Virginia Woolf is always an exception. Already the overblown popularity of men like Hutchinson, Michael Arlen, and Warwick Deeping has waned. The easy, optimistic adroitness of J. B. Priestley and the philosophically spiced sentiment of Charles Morgan do not promise to endure wind and weather. Hugh Walpole has joined the ranks of the historical romancers. Sheila Kaye-Smith and Clemence Dane, among others, are producing pleasant novels that are scarcely in the measure of their earlier promise. Of the younger writers, David Garnett has written as beautiful a book as any in his “Pocahontas.” If it has none of the phantastic originality of “Lady into Fox,” it is altogether a more ambitious design carried to completion with exquisite art. It is properly a novel, under the broad definition that the form has now won for itself, but it is also quite as much history as, say, Lytton Strachey’s “Elizabeth and Essex,” and probably more faithful history at that. The story of the Jamestown settlement forms more of the material of the book than the life of Pocahontas, but it is she that gives the theme and the pattern from beginning to end. Garnett contrives to hold the interest almost without the manufacture of plot by the sheer power and beauty of his narrative. Perhaps it will be reckoned that the best novel of early Virginia is written by an Englishman. “Pocahontas” is the one novel by a younger writer that compares in excellence with the current novels of Wells, Maugham, and Galsworthy. In each case, with these three, the new novel is certainly a characteristic work of the author, and, what is more remarkable, briskly holds the interest and the favor of the reading generation today. Neither in ideas nor in method have they been outmoded.

Out of the almost eighty books upon the title-pages of which H. G. Wells’ name has appeared since he began to publish books in 1895, forty are classified in the fore-pages of his latest book as novels. Wells has been the journalist as novelist in all these books, though they have been astonishingly varied in theme and method and very uneven in quality. He is always publicizing his ideas, whether he writes a novel, an “Outline of History,” or “A Modern Utopia.” Every Wells novel has a text, though it is not printed on the flyleaf. Yet, like Sinclair Lewis, he is in the Dickens tradition and knows that the business of a novel is character. His best novels have been those in which he is most prepossessed with character. Arnold Bennett said of himself once that he came “neither to scoff nor to patronize but to comprehend,” but Wells sets out to scoff when his aim is attack, and his reader has to take his propagandist meanings with his story, if he is to get what Wells intends to give him. As the novel in Wells’ hands is deliberately experimental, he is best studied by comparison with himself. In the case of “The Bulpington of Blup,” the novels that are most useful for elucidation are “Mr. Britling Sees It Through” and “Tono-Bungay.” “Mr. Britling” was a preview and “The Bulpington” a postview of the significance of the World War period. “Tono-Bungay” tells the life of a man who had it in him “to serve and do and make” who lives in “this strange disorder of existence” produced by a capitalistic feudalism. George Ponderevo, the hero, finds that the builder of bridges does not prosper but the maker of destroyers grows rich: that his Uncle Teddy fails as a useful druggist and becomes a millionaire through the promotion of a nostrum. Like Wells, this hero has “always been a Socialist—of sorts—in theory” and for him too scientific truth is “the one reality.” Ponderevo tells his own story in “Tono-Bungay” but at the end he says: “This is England —that is what I wanted to give in my book.”

“The Bulpington of Blup” is not told as an autobiography. It is a third-person novel, for here Wells reverses the method of “Tono-Bungay” and centers his satire on his hero instead of on the world around him.

Theodore Bulpington is an exceedingly likeable lad at the beginning who sees himself doing glorious things as a romanticized Viking in a dream world, more or less of his father’s creating. The War forces him into realities from which he flees, and only the kindly realism of a physician saves him from the fate of a deserter. After the War he reconstructs for himself as Captain Blup-Bulpington a career of heroic proportions and entertains admiring old ladies with his stories of how he won the war for England and himself captured the Kaiser. Wells gayly pays his respects to the “middle-aged muck-abouts” and rich old women who pose as the young and publish little magazines in Paris, to the escapists who find their refuge in the dream world of old religions, and to the faddists who take up anything unorthodox from Fascism and Spenglerism to Mr. Middleton Murry’s philosophical discoveries, Scientific truth remains “the one reality” for H. G. Wells. “The Bulpington of Blup” is written with entertaining gusto, though it has none of the fervor of “Tono-Bungay” which sometimes sweeps upward into impassioned poetry. The closing scenes of “The Bulpington,” which stage the mock-hero as the lion of the little dinner party, have an element of the grotesque but they achieve satiric humor.

W. Somerset Maugham is some eight years the junior of Mr. Wells, but he belongs sufficiently to the same generation for his “The Narrow Corner” to be used for another bit of evidence that the older authors are writing England’s best novels. Maugham is a master craftsman, and “The Narrow Corner” is a triumph of technical skill. The plot, organized around an eccentric, opium-smoking English doctor, is such a one as Joseph Conrad might have used, of Malaysia, the sea and its islands, a young man fleeing from life and the consequences of an act, a conscienceless skipper, and a young girl “whom men loved to their destruction.” Maugham relates it, except for one device, as if he were demonstrating how Conrad would not have written it. Objective, swift-moving, light, crisply patterned, it is consistently entertaining and satisfying, and when it has been read the story, the scenes, the characters remain clear and realized in the memory. It may be that this novel will come to represent Maugham the romanticist at his best, as “Of Human Bondage” does Maugham the realist, but no two novels could be more unlike. “The Moon and Sixpence,” or even “Cakes and Ale,” has more in common with “The Narrow Corner,” but the latter has none of the superficial cleverness of either of those popular successes. It is altogether a surer and finer novel, richer in the expression and more original in conception. The twist of narrative by which, at the very end, the narrowness of the corner in which man dwells is demonstrated, through the recapture of the captain by his deserted wife, is one of the most delicious episodes in the book: also in a measure it judges it. In one of Conrad’s tales, it would have seemed trivial, and in “Of Human Bondage,” untrue.

John Galsworthy was born a year later than H. G. Wells, began his work as a novelist much later, and has ended it earlier. Before he published his first typical novel, “The Man of Property,” in 1906, Wells had twenty-some titles to his list. No work of Mr. Wells has gone as far and entered so fully into the life of its generation as “The Forsyte Saga” has done. “Flowering Wilderness” is no more another “Saga” than “The Bulpington of Blup” or “The Narrow Corner” is a “Tono-Bungay” or an “Of Human Bondage.” It is an urbane and beautiful book, vivid in incident, delicate in characterization, exquisite in expression; it is a novel of social criticism by implication more than by insistence, and it bends sympathy and justice for its creatures to the point of just escaping sentimentality. That is to say, it is a Galsworthy novel and a representative one. It is more entertaining and more unified in structure and effect than “Maid in Waiting,” to which it is an immediate sequel, and comes to a more satisfying close, though it has the trinity flavor in leaving one looking forward to another volume to complete Dinny Charwell’s story. Galsworthy has not surrendered any of the values he has stressed in his earlier writings; courage, toleration, decency, kindness, are still cardinal virtues. He writes his later novels, however, in terms of today and not yesterday. But it is significant that his theme in “Flowering Wilderness” is that the English gentleman who doesn’t “act up to British tradition” is damned. And Galsworthy for once, though he keeps you sympathetic with him, does not line up on the side of the underdog.

There is a diversity of method among these novelists that is characteristic of the changing novel of the twentieth century. Garnett constructs his book by centering his historical narrative around his interpretation of Pocahontas and gives to it the element of “return” by having her recall with illumined vision the red-winged blackbird fluttering above the brave young warrior whom she had seen exalted by torture in her childhood. Wells’ episodic, biographical method is, to quote himself, “something of an agglomeration.” Maugham works like an artist, filling in with color and detail a carefully plotted design. Galsworthy sets a situation and develops it through the complex plot of contending interests; the outcome of the story blossoms like organic life from what has been involved in its elements from its beginning.


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