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Power in Novels

ISSUE:  Autumn 1927

Adam’s Breed. By Radclyffe Hall. Garden City: Double-day, Page, and Company. $2.50.

From Man to Man. By Olive Schreiner. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50.

The Immortal Marriage. By Gertrude Atherton. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.50.

The Malletts. By, e. H. Young. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company. $2.00.

Twilight Sleep. By Edith Wharton. New York: D. Appleton and Company. $2.50.


MATTHEW ARNOLD once angered Englishmen by telling them they loved machinery. His remark was outrageous, because, in the fight of their factories and steamboats and systems of religion, they knew he was right. That love of machinery has been passed on to us in our worship of power. To-day, instead of viewing power as a means to an end, we look at it as a form of perfection in itself. It is for us an ideal, rather than—as it should be—a way to make an ideal effective.

“Power” is a favorite word in the pseudo-critical vocabulary. Half the dust jackets (to use an inexact phrase) tell readers that novels have power. Such emphasis suggests two things: first, that novel readers must be bored and are ready to admire dynamite in their fiction; and, second, that power is an accepted goal for a successful novel.

Despite the fact, however, that violence and thrills and shocks do not define the value of a book, power is yet a word that can stand for a good quality in novels. In its right use, it suggests the power to move a reader by, the quality of the experience a novel holds and by the skill of an author in making his written experience an actual one for his reader. As a quality of fiction, and not as a goal, power can stand as a mark of success.

Power, so defined, is not synonymous with physical excitement. It does not become the material for a novel; it becomes the effect. Oniy as a writer hopes his story will be alive, and interesting through his skill, can power be, in any way, a goal. Need it be said that such true power-making the material of a novel touch our deep emotions-is more talked about than discoverable?


Two books in this list possess, for me, such power. They are “Adam’s Breed” and “From Man to Man.” They became experiences I had to share. To do this, I forgot to read consciously: it was something to be done, pages to be turned so that I could let the story life go on.

“Adam’s Breed,” recently a prize winner, has more to recommend it than sudden fame a year late. The power of the book shows itself in the increasing strength with which Gian-Luca’s need to find God is driven home. That need becomes a compulsion of the reader’s; there is no effort to make the fanatical search and improbable death of Gian-Luca real. That search and death are the reader’s own . . . the power reaches out and convicts.

“Adam’s Breed” is the life of an Italian waiter. He is frustrated in all desire for affection and finds God by a fanatical escape from everyday cruelties, only to discover before he dies that a gentle God can be found only in gentleness, in being true to life’s obligations rather than in running from them. God, for Gian-Luca, lies in his own loving inner person, which he did his best to deny. Gian-Luca, the waiter-mystic, starts life hated by his grandmother because he was born “in sin” to her daughter, who died in childbirth. Gian-Luca’s unknown father, the great poet, Dorio, gives his child self-pride, endurance, a mystic’s and a poet’s intense feeling, everything but a name to let the boy honor himself. The grandmother’s coldness, the discovery, that he has no father, the accident of birth in England to Italian life in Old Compton Street, the discovery of the mean and cruel things in people, the treachery of women— everything makes Gian-Luca harden himself in an ineffectual attempt to forget how he needs to be loved. His motto is “I have myself.” He trains himself to this with such persistence that love is impossible even when the beau-tifni Maddalena, his wife, offers it to his lonely spirit. That he cannot take until death teaches him, too late, how to use it.

This story, in these words, would be unreal, improbable on the face of it, were it not for the mind back of it that makes the story take meaning from the author’s serious purpose and her warm-hearted love of people, that Adam’s breed, from which the story takes its name. It is no allegory, yet it has an expression of faith in it.

The book is not abstract spiritual parable, or it would fail. Its power comes from the way its abstractions are made flesh and blood desires by the Italians of Old Compton Street. The Italian simplicity and the Italian childlike delight in children and holidays and festivals pervade the book. I am inclined to suspect that much of the criticism of the sentimentality of “Adam’s Breed” comes from people who do not want to allow a picture of Italians its essential quality—sentiment. Even the death of Fabio is an Italian scene. Radclyffe Hall is thinking with her people, not about them. “But one day in October, the God of his lumbago drew nearer, became the God of his soul; and Fabio’s old knees gave under him, and his head fell forward and lay upon the table, and his cheek lay buried deep in the flour that his hands had failed to mix. . . . All foolish weakness he had been, that Fabio, and very often afraid. . . . He had little enough to tell of himself, now that he must face St. Peter at the Gate—but perhaps he said: t tried to make pasta—I did try very, hard to make pasta—’ ” That is death almost as Fabio himself would have told it, or as a kindlier wife than Teresa might have told how he died.

“Adam’s Breed” has power in what it knows, in what it sees, and in what it says, power to make reading only a means of living with the story, never a conscious literary occupation. This holds despite its faults: its ending that seems more like a dream than like an actual England; its over-sensitive Gian-Luca, who seems often to make life hard more because of mulish desire to be hurt rather than from spiritual necessity; its danger of making its people romantically perfect or romantically false and completely vulgar. If its view of life is naive, and its solution of diffi-cnities poetic, “Adam’s Breed” has, nevertheless, the power of its writer’s mind to make us forget all that, while we read, and to let us share completely its experience.

“From Man to Man” has a different power, and it is not romance. The book is intense in a different fashion; although nearer the truth of events, it is more unreal in the rigor of its realism than is “Adam’s Breed.” In “From Man to Man” no one can doubt the verity of what happens, but the intensity of what happens, the complication and culmination of single real disasters make a picture that is not reality as it is normally experienced. “Adam’s Breed,” on the other hand, unreal in events, at times, and romantic in its characterizations, is nevertheless nearer the temper of reality as most of us live it. This is no criticism of “From Man to Man,” for a thing may be real but rare, or even unknown in ordinary life. The point to be made is that in “From Man to Man” the intensity of the picture comes from the author, and in “Adam’s Breed,” the intensity seems to come from Gian-Luca, almost despite the author, and certainly with her disapproval. But Gian-Luca’s view in the one book is Olive Schreiner’s view in the other; what Gian-Luca discovers with surprise at life’s cruelty—as a character in a story — Olive Schreiner discovers as the author in the other. Consequently, the intensity in “From Man to Man” pervades the entire story, not only the life of one character, but it dominates the scenes which build up the tragedy of a world where, as the title suggests, “From man to man nothing matters but charity.” Every line has fire, every word expresses the author’s conviction. That is the book’s power. The author is never above her material or her people; she is always fighting through things with them. That, too, is the novel’s weakness, and accounts for its inchoate quality, its breathlessness, its interminable interpolated chapters of extravagant social philosophy that can interest no one but a friend of Olive Schreiner’s.

“From Man to Man” is romantic in this sense. It is intense, and unshapely, because of its intensity. The very characteristic which carries you along and moves you to tears in “The Child’s Day” and “How the Rain Rains in London” (notable chapters) tears the story apart at others. The book seems like a gigantic enthusiasm, with more of faith in it than headwork, despite the ethics and the history lessons. But of headwork of an artistic sort, to shape, to prune, to balance, to give it poise, there is little. It is romantic like “King Lear” in its intensity and turbulence, without the compression of romance at its highest. “From Man to Man” touches the reach of romance of the best sort; it also fails where romance usually falls down.

“From Man to Man” does not remain, for this reason, quite the realistic picture it seems to be. Its realism is faultless—in its treatment of its own material—the pictures of a noble wife and of a truly noble failure as a woman are the very truth of life. Rebekah and Bertie never become types, despite the grandeur of their conception. They are two women, good, both of them, who needed more love than a mean world had to give. Olive Schreiner’s pictures of the growth of Rebekah, the wife, and Bertie, the prostitute, have depth and truth and meaning. The reality of the women is there, for anybody to test for himself. Ten to one, it will be more convincing than his own day’s work. But after that, there is the romance of the entire conception, the over-coloring, the intensity that comes from a very, intense woman, who says with passion, “Here is what life gives and asks of women, simple ones and wise ones. Here is what a woman may endure. And there is not charity enough to give her help.”

One regrets the insistence upon the personality of Olive Schreiner in the editing of the book. No one can doubt the worth of her spirit or the wisdom of her mind, but few of us are concerned with the intimate facts of her artistic career and the facts of her life. The novel needs editing as a novel alone, not as a personal document. Its worth will rest upon one judgment alone. For this reason, the fist of Olive Schreiner’s own references to her novel and its people is a bit presumptuous; it implies a general interest in her as an individual, an interest which is certainly not wide spread. Her novel is to be judged by itself. The opinions of the author and the facts of her death are critically irrelevant. It matters not at all that a bird in the story was one Olive Schreiner liked. The footnote, “(Kok-kewiet: The bush-shrike, a very handsome bird with resonant call notes of great beauty — a prime favorite of Olive’s.)”, is an uncalled-for intrusion, one scarcely in good taste for so promiscuous a thing as an edition of a book for public sale. The book needed some editing, to be sure, in order to make its unfinished ending in some way complete, hut over-editing makes a book a production for a cult. This is to be avoided in so wise a book as “From Man to Man.”

Gertrude Atherton, in her “The Immortal Marriage,” paints a restrained and unsensational picture of the married life of Aspasia. She steps into line with the present school of revivers of the classics, but she does not modernize nor does she become witty. She writes an old-fashioned historical romance; she tries to paint exactly, and she respects her material. She takes a great period and paints a large picture in fine strokes; little detail is omitted and few great Athenians of the Age of Pericles escape mention. The book is nearly a social register of the best families of the Acropolis; and it recounts events national and intimate.

“The Immortal Marriage,” despite this completeness and honest purpose, remained, for me, tepid. The story lacked life, elasticity of mind and style. It was too consciously archaeological, too full of reconstructed scenes and ceremonies and too short in vitalized characters. Aspasia is a slightly priggish beauty, almost a prophet of the later blue-stockings. She is pert, and learned, and tiresome. She debates abstractly at the drop of a hat. “Which is the greater, truth or beauty?” is near the temper of her conversation. Her love affairs resemble those of an elderly school teacher. The difficulty is that she is always looked back upon in this novel as a Greek who once lived in a city that once existed; she never is recreated first hand, as the people in Naomi Mitchison’s “Cloud Cuckoo Land” are allowed to live. Aspasia and Pericles exist only in this past time of a past Greece; they are never let alone. The author regularly interprets the difference between past and present, as in sentences like these: “It was hallowed ground, and a proper frame for the most ambitious woman intellectually in all that little world of the Fifth Century, B. C.” and “Like all people of her time she saw no beauty in ruins—a decadent taste reserved for the Christian era—” Instead of getting back to Aspasia’s world and living with her, we see her only, upon the stage of the Fifth Century. We look as spectators only. We ought not to comment upon her from our modern day; we ought to be in ancient Greece with her. This tone of separation, of the essayist’s observations, of the historian’s abstractions persists. It keeps the story from becoming first-hand experience.

To some one else must the judgment of the fidelity of the picture to Greek life be left. I have seen comment that praised the book’s fidelity to the truth of civilization in the Age of Pericles. That is an accomplishment, such truth, but something more is needed to make it fiction, a revitalizing of historic figures so that they live and move and have their being. The essay quality of “The Immortal Marriage” detracts from its power as an experience of living Greeks.

As in her brilliant book, “William,” E. H. Young takes for her background in “The Malletts” the same seaside towns and country and the same leisured and conventional living as she used before, but for a different purpose. “William” was the story of a family seen through the amused eyes of its head. “The Malletts” is a story of a family seen—as the title suggests—through the eyes of all of them, but chiefly, through Rose and Henrietta. It is the story of four women in one house, all Malletts and all with wills of their own and ideas of family pride, a pride in aristocratic righteousness, on the one hand, and in aristocratic wild oats, on the other. It is a light story, well told, with feminism as the source of its comedy and the point of view of the author as well. Forgetting that the author is either man or woman, we can say still that the view is that of a woman who looks at the range of woman’s life, and not without amusement.

There is not the success here, however, that there was in “William.” It is unfair to suggest that the story of a man has more chance of success than that of women, for that is not so. Yet, it is unfortunate that a foot-note cannot be placed after each book of Jane Austen’s: “Do not imitate.” Stuffiness appears in “The Malletts” and a sense of triviality; stuffiness was far from “William,” That is about all that can be said on the subject.

“The Malletts” suffers, too, from melodrama; it has its dark charmer, Sales, whose moodiness two of the ladies love. It has an accident that renders an unwanted wife helpless so that the unrealized love of Rose Mallett and Sales can be fought for and against; and it has a girl heroine, Henrietta, who almost becomes the sacrifice to a nearly frustrated, though years old, romance.

The book wants point: even comedy needs center — or rather, even light romance, for the story is not all comedy. But it does remain colorless where “William” had color. It lacks vitality, as do its people. Caroline becomes little more than a caricature of a daring old lady and Sophie merely maunders. Henrietta, despite the early picture of her, lacks charm because she has an opinion for every occasion, a smugness even in her romance, and an obviousness in every remark. At a dance, she says,

“It is a very good band.”

“It’s profane,” Charles said wearily. “Music—they call it music.”

She is always ready to call everything a very good band or a very bad band. As a heroine, she is short on charm. Rose is perhaps the best drawn portrait in the book; Charles Batty is good, too, if you can forget the stock traits of genius. But, despite all this, the book is easy to read, and it may be preparation for another “William.”

Edith Wharton, in “Twilight Sleep” lets her story, suffer from the burden of its satire. It never resembles reality; it pictures only the conglomerate ills of reality through people who represent modern types. The essential modernity of the story and its probable sophistication is carried by the implication of the title, which in its sex suggestions and its larger connotation of a painless drowsing through reality, is to satirize this present age. To think of “Twilight Sleep” as a real picture is to see a world so mad and so full of utterly miserable men and women that it ought to be stopped from revolving at once. There is not, in the whole story, one person untouched by corruption: Mrs. Manford, herself, who tries to think nobly and live an ideal life by the help of Hindoo quacks is herself divorced for grounds that represent no seriousness; her husband, who occasionally longs for the quiet that his country house hints at, ends his part of the story in an almost sordid affair with his daughter-in-law; and Nona, the oniy semi-clean person in the picture, regrets, chiefly, that she had not the courage to run off with another woman’s husband. In her own words, “I do believe I know most of the ways of being rotten; I only wish I was sure I knew the best new way of being decent. . . .”

No, this picture of the life of the Manford family, present, past, and divorced, can be understood only as satire. The trouble is that it forgets itself every once in awhile and turns serious, in the old Wharton fashion. The two strains do not blend. You cannot care seriously about a woman whose calendar for the day mixes “mental uplift, breakfast, psycho-analysis, silent meditation, eurythmics, and birth control committees.” Neither can you believe in the truth of a portrait of a woman who delivers speeches for or against birth control to the wrong audiences. Sometimes the book asks for your sympathy with the people, as though they were real, and you have none to give.

In criticising an Edith Wharton book, it now behooves the reviewer to accept without question the fact that she is an author of facility. Everything she writes is vivid, rhetorically, and makes a live and polished story. It is proper only to comment, then, upon what she cares to write about, and perhaps that is not proper, since we ought to allow writers that privilege. But I cannot consider this novel good as satire or as reality, despite the fact that it is good writing. It is moral propaganda, perhaps, or a smart picture of a smart world—many will read it and applaud because of its sophistication, because it pictures worlds of which they want to share the gossip. But the book glitters too much; it represents a desire to interpret every modern experience, to be social critic for the century. Perhaps what is needed is more sympathy with the modern world, and more sense of its real people as well as of its abstract social traits. “Twilight Sleep” represents at best only a satiric picture of a pitifully limited and unimportant class of people. The great world of common joy and sorrow goes on steadily beyond the silk hung door-ways of Mrs. Wharton’s idle and unmoral rich.


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