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Isn’t Life -

ISSUE:  Winter 1931

A Note in Music. By Rosamund Lehmann. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $2.50. Cakes and Ale. By W. Somerset Maugham. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.00. The Edivardians. By V. Sackvillc-West. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. Angel Pavement. By J. B. Priestley. New York: Harper and Brothers. $3.00. Miss Mole. By E. H. Young. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00. The Redlakes. By Francis Brett Young. New York: Harper and Brothers. $3.00. Shepherds in Sackcloth. By Sheila Kaye-Smith. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50.

“Isn’t it?” You recall, of course, that perfect conclusion of Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party.”

There is the essence of an adequate critique upon the story in the appropriately modulated voicing of the query and the reply. In truth, the implication may be vastly widened. Since the recognition of the novel in English as an art form, it has more and more frequently offered the demonstration that “life is—.”

There are many ways of phrasing the demand that we now make upon the novelist. Life, says Virginia Woolf, is “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown, uncircumscribed spirit whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?”

Aforetime this was expected only of the poet, save that the romanticist also was acknowledged to be something of a specialist in enhancements and haloes. After the facts had been patterned by, the truly serious novelist, he could silver them with intellection and personal emotion; but no one required him to prove that life itself is—a luminous envelope.

The more adventurous novelists of our generation have had open to them several roads leading Grailward. While the new psychology is yet new and the stream of consciousness yet flowing with a mazy motion, these questrists have reached bewilderments and kaleidoscoperies productive at least of the mood in which we know life a mystery. Fantasy has proved even more evocative of the desired mood. The great difficulty has been that these novelists have rather neglected what the transparencies should contain. After all, a halo is not worth much unless it surround something. The truly arresting percept is that this our present life is—

Doubtless it is some such reflection that has guided our more conservative novelists. To be sure, they have occasionally pushed effects of complexity in character to the point of incongruity; they have perhaps deliberately muddled certain of their narratives or ended them inconclusively; they have experimented with romance and its ever-merchantable haloes. They have, however, usually wrought as those aware that bewilderment and sense of the ineffable are not exactly the same thing, and that envelope and substance enveloped ought to be separable.

Among recent novels written in the gallant attempt to work miracles without too much ostentation is Rosamund Lehmann’s “A Note in Music.” I take it that the note is to be heard as a clear tone, but that even as it is sounded it is to blend into the composition of which it is part. This swift crossing of personalities is only one episode in the lives concerned, and these lives are but motes in the cosmic incomprehensibility. Life is what the last sentences of the book imply, foam on the sea, “ephemeral films of foam; white laces, ruffles of foam blown over a dark breast; blown over a swelling breast . . . a vanishing breast.”

The symbol of the mystery Miss Lehmann does not find, however, in nature or in the complexities of human relationship but in personality. Manifestly, her purpose in character portrayals is to avoid the bizarre yet to charge with something unexpectedly electric the serenity wherein we regard the deeper truths. It is a highly, worthy and difficult undertaking. Small wonder, then, that artificiality and something like sentimentality appear in such minor figures as Oliver of the secret, demoralizing sneer, and Pansy the immaculate prostitute.

Of the major persons, Grace Fairfax is rather a worri-ment. She is offered as a case of arrested development, a sort of barren Demeter living in a state of sinful laziness with a commonplace husband in some such place as Manchester. There is a suggestion that all would have been well if she had married a man from Oxford. Be that as it may, the first chapters of the novel leave the deeply, stamped impression of a very graceless Grace that will not away. If the series of brief mind-readings whereby we know her were augmented to permit thorough acquaintance, perhaps I could share the author’s notion of Grace and of the proper treatment of her lethargy. As things stand, she seems badly in need of someone to shout at her, “Fire the cook! Adopt a baby! Go in for university extension! Buy a Ford and see the world!” This is asking much of an Oxford accent.

But I overstress my difficulties with Grace. Other characters, notably Gerald MacKay and Nora his wife, are lamps that shine afar. In them and in their relationship is queerly twisted yet straight-going truth confirming our sense that there can be such a thing as bitter happiness. By, such revelations Rosamund Lehmann does much to brush away a disturbing film of unfamiliarity upon her material and bare the quiet poetry beneath.

There is a similar gesture in W. Somerset Maugham’s “Cakes and Ale.” It is made by the narrator, one William Ashenden; and it is not so much an unveiling of truth as it is a halo-toss. Ashenden being a disillusioned novelist of mature years and addicted to satire, the halo comes rather insecurely to rest upon the head of one who is more than a sister-under-the-skin to Sadie Thompson of “Rain.” But there it is. Rosie Driffield, the quondam and buxom barmaid, the loose and far from selective, the petticoat draggler and slattern, “was virginal like the dawn. She was like Hebe. She was like a white rose . . . like a clear deep pool in a forest glade . . . neither the less cool nor the less crystalline because a tramp and a gipsy and a game keeper had plunged into it before you. . . .” With the gentleness of a mother, she takes Ashenden to her arms, she being at the time thirty-five and he twenty; and he awakes in the morning refreshed and views her much charm as one views the nude in art. Ashenden laughs at himself for uttering the lyricism I have just quoted. Yet he will not recant; and when all is said, his valuation of Rosie is to be the reader’s.

Now, there is nothing impossible here, but only a Russian could do what the all too sophisticated Mr. Maugham wants done. Ashenden’s rather cynical sentimentalism leaves me uneasy lest Mr. Maugham has not squarely “faced the facts,” no single one of which would have bothered a Russian. I cannot rid myself of the lingering suspicion that “the white rose” shared her husband’s admitted disinclination to the bath, pools and pools to the contrary notwithstanding.

However, there is no denying that Rosie is a vigorous personage, a generous-hearted, serenely frank strumpet and capable of walking with Doll Tearsheet and the Wife of Bath. As the wife of a novelist who has been “made” into a classic, she is delightfully helpful, when Mr. Maugham goes about the true business of “Cakes and Ale.” Here he is clever and crisply persuasive. All the heretical doubts of my youth return upon me; I am for the moment bravely convinced that greatness in any writer is but a gleaming of excellences through rifts in what is no more than good. Whether or no Mr. Maugham is satirizing Hardy and Hugh Walpole, as appears to be more than a possibility, the portrayals are neatly malicious—Driffield, who in old age contemplates his made self with amusement; Alroy Kear whose ingenuous astuteness bids fair to have him the doyenship when he shall have ceased to compete with younger men. Equally, well struck is the other side of the medal, Mrs. Barton Trafford, novelist-maker, who has from her works all the joys of fictional creation. She abandoned an unsuccessful attempt “with infinite gentleness . . . ; she dropped him with so much tact, with such sensibility, that Jasper Gibbons hardly knew he was dropped.”

“Cakes and Ale” suggests that satire and haloes should not come too closely together. Perhaps this is true only of the more personal satire and the more hand-made haloes. Perhaps a less sharply aimed satire may blend with crystalline envelopments that are, like the satire, an emanation from facts. At any rate some such fusion is accomplished in V. Sackville-West’s “The Edwardians.” It is an imperturbable, unsparing, but seemingly unbiased record of English high society in the day of Edward VII. Truth effects satire; the inanity, the slavery to convention are amusing, appalling, indeed, almost boring. These titled fools in satin and ermine (or should it be miniver?) had no vitality even in their sins. The only saving grace about them is their anachronism; a delicately naive mist of legend, as it were of vague fantasy, rises with and above the satire.

That is how the book lingers with me. There are definite-nesses here and there—the coronation of George V, and the depiction of Chevron, lovely, memory-thronged, and still feudal seat of the Dukes of I-Have-Forgotten-What. But truly the coronation was a fantasy; Chevron is a fading dream; and Sebastian, the Young Duke, is in part Cinderella’s prince done full length and naughty, in part a companion spirit to Mrs. Woolf’s Orlando. As for the silly, pretty Edwardian ladies, they were what the end of an epoch made them, “Dear dead women, with such hair, too.” May V. Sackville-West never feel impelled to assert grimly that they are still alive and to relate that Chevron has come on the real estate market.

“The Edwardians” charms but it does not strike deeply or heavily. There is much more weight about J. B. Priestley’s “Angel Pavement.” Yet it too reveals life through an envelopment, a palpable and robustious one, a great gusto for the individuality, the ridiculous individuality of things, places, people.

Though “Angel Pavement” is obviously, shaped to plan from Prologue to Epilogue, it is a quotable, extract-yielding volume. I see its reader now and again slamming the book down affectionately upon a knee and springing up to find someone who simply must hear this or that—as: “. . . looked with horror at her plate. There was something small, dark, squashed. There were legs.” Why attempt to show how happily this has rendered the unhappiness of its moment? I fear I shall do nothing but set forth a Compendium of Priestley’s Wit and Humor.

Much of it would be, as Mr. Priestley has so aptly said of a certain mustache, “with something rhetorical, even theatrical, about it”; much of it would be satisfying to quiet and retired enjoyment. Mr. Priestley’s humor has modulations. It can be copious but it is never larded on. It is a seasoning that brings out true savors. In fact, to the sedate regard, the aura of “Angel Pavement” is not that of funni-ness but of revealings and interpretations. And the ingenuity and the verve of explication are amazing. (It is here that I should have mentioned Dickens.) A very modern symphony, for example, gave “an impression of thinness, boniness, scragginess, and scratchiness. It was like having thin wires pushed into your ears. . . . Very, tall thin people sat about drinking quinine and sneering at one another, and in the middle of them, on the cold floor, was an idiot child that ran its finger-nail up and down a slate.”

Not always does Mr. Priestley make his points comically. His effects are broad in more senses of the word than one. He has few characters that seem merely funny or merely anything else. Even in the feeblest of youths Mr. Priestley can disclose a most believable capacity for murderous rage and suicidal despair. At either end of that short pavement on which nothing angelic has ever set foot are the streaming and the roaring of darkest central London. The torment of unsatisfied longing, the hopeless bondage of the desk, and the lifelong fear of destitution are there with the soot. “Angel Pavement” may well be called comedy, but it is comedy with very serious relief.

In a slighter, neater, more feminine way, the same quality appears in E. H. Young’s “Miss Mole.” The book is Hannah Mole viewing life, manipulating it somewhat, and being viewed. Were it not for Hannah’s fascinating presence, we might get from “Miss Mole” chiefly the distressing sense that, for pilose who must be companions (save the mark!) and keepers of others’ houses, staying alive and not too wretched is a bitter business. Hannah, like Grace Fairfax, is country-born and condemned to city life; like Grace, she is not young or beautiful. Unlike Grace, she does not stodge and stagnate; neither does she have to prove herself in the least a goddess. She has merely to embody all the more delightful clevernesses, whimsies, variabilities, asperities, and faults of feminity. And she does, middle-aged, “satirical nosed” though she be.

It is a flawless characterization; but I do regret the author’s attempt to persuade me that Hannah has had a bit of a past and that she is brought low of love for one Mr. Blenkin-sop. The first idea I reject as needless; the second I modify according to my own desire: I see Hannah, fondly amused, appropriating the Blenkinsop and giggling over her change of name. Likewise I should have relished the more complete subjugation of Hannah’s employer, the Reverend Robert Carder; but doubtless she has sufficiently goaded him to show himself all that the most selective satirist could wish in a “flock leader.” “Miss Mole” should go on the shelf with the Austens.

In Francis Brett Young’s “The Redlakes,” there is a Jim through whom an enveloping effect might have been attained but that the young man’s varied experiences are a bit too much for him; Mr. Young has to help him out. And so there is, above the facts and attendant upon them in “The Redlakes,” Mr. Young’s competent workmanship, his zeal-ousness that there be not a single unmastered detail in all his six hundred pages. It is a closely, though by no means a laboriously, wrought book. Not an object, not a figure, not a moment escapes without yielding essence. Rural England, wild Wales, London; high society and low; the comic type, the personage for satire, the personality for love; nature, music, object of art; the fox hunt, the idyl, battle in East Africa, the sctne a faire—all of the much attempted in “The Redlakes,” Mr. Young treats to the admiration of readers who like maturity that is still alert and supple.

Among other matters of note is the disregard of what is timely in fiction. Mr. Young has revived the biographical novel, if not the three-decker; he has asserted that knightli-ness was displayed here and there in the Great War; he has unclothed or seduced no woman of any consequence; he has explained and simplified his characters, some of the minor ones being Dickensian formulae; he has employed the altered will; he has concluded with the daunting of the unworthy and the happy marriage of the hero enriched by an unexpected legacy from the uncle, no, cousin in the colonies. I regret that he did not write a prologue and an epilogue in the first person,

“The Redlakes” may, waver a bit among social history, epic, penetrative biography, and love story; but it has something of the virtue in each of these literary types. Above all, it is instinct with love for English soil and all that draws life from it, a love not lessened by a romantic flair for Africa or by the adventure of the East African campaign with its strange blend of desperate safari and staff-ordered warfare; and page by page “The Redlakes” is a well written novel.

Sheila Kaye-Smith’s “Shepherds in Sackcloth” also reveals the practiced hand. Nevertheless I feel almost apologetic about calling attention to the skilled control of things emotive, the fusing of two stories in such manner that the more intense is subordinated to the quieter and more potent. It is done without hint of manipulations or of any ulterior purpose beyond establishing the truism that priests, however ordained, are limited in their ministry by, the desires and irritancies of the flesh. Nor is there any worry about what may, be circumambient to daily existence.

The author’s strength, here as always in Sheila Kaye-Smith’s books, is used for unadulterate realism. “Shepherds in Sackcloth” has an authenticity like that of vivid memories; and, even more than in the exercise of memory, is one lifted above actuality yet sensitized to it sharply. The reader is made ready to feel about all of life what he feels about these shepherds and those close to them—about the mating of George and Theresa in the sunlight of a fog-bound hilltop; about old Mr. Bennet’s devoutness and his pottering with the symbols of his faith; about his helplessness when he loses his wife, the girl-like Lucy; about his “eagle rage,” which at last delivers him from this earth and all its bishops; about his death with the vision of Lucy in his mind and the pregnant and final word “dream” upon his lips. Life is—like this, petty, poignant, mystic, noble. And that, I suspect, is all we know or need to know from our better realists.


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