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Romance Returns

ISSUE:  Spring 1925

By John Masefield. New York: The Macmillan Co. $2.50.

The Green Hat. By Michael Arlen. New York: George H. Doran Co. $2.50.

Balisand. By Joseph Hergesheimer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50.

The Little French Girl. By Anne Douglas Sedgwick. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company. $2.00.

The White Monkey. By John Galsworthy. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.00.

The Spanish Farm. By R. H. Mottram. New York: The Dial Press. $2.50.

The Old Ladies. By Hugh Walpole. New York: The Macmillan Co. $2.00.

Arnold Waterlow: A Life. By May Sinclair. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50.

Straws and Prayer-Books. By James Branch Cabell. New York: Robert M. McBride and Company. $2.50.

Walter Pater in one fine phrase reconciled the seemingly hostile words of criticism, —classical and romantic. The legitimate contention of all schools of art alike must be “against the stupidity which is dead to the substance, and the vulgarity which is dead to form.” What I am saying is that romance and realism are in need of the reconciling discernment of a Pater. We think of them as irreconcilable. In the course of the history of fiction, now one, now the other, has seemed ascendent. In truth there are a romance and a realism of spirit and of method, no less than of material, and a mingling of these that produces a realistic romance and a romantic realism. So diverse have been the understandings of the terms that mere readers are content to take their novels as they find them and properly enjoy what is to their taste without precious quibbling about labels.

We were fairly content for some seasons to think the modern spirit a realistic one and to take as they were given us the uncooked meats of fiction, persuading ourselves that the whole stodgy diet was good because it was “life.” Perhaps we were awakened to the discomforts of indigestion or perhaps our confidence in realism was shaken by the emergence, after so many realistic successes of later years had been forgotten, of books like “Green Mansions” or “Henry Brocken” that had been published quietly twenty years ago. Whatever the cause there is obvious a renaissance of romance that intimates another turn of time’s whirligig; and this alike in the popular field of Sabatini, the semipopular one of the delicately artistic “Messer Marco Polo,” and the comparatively esoteric domain of the delightful Mr. de la Mare.

But the bright shawls of romance—including those woven by Mr. Hergesheimer— are worn with a difference. Perhaps here as elsewhere history never so surely repeats itself as by never exactly repeating itself. The mere tale of adventure, the costume novel conscious chiefly of its gay colors, have dropped into—or run up to, if you view it so,— the popular “best seller” class. The serious writer, the artist, works his romance out of realistic stuff or weaves a realistic truth into his romantic story. Even the confirmed realist is pilfering the much decried methods of his romantic brother—at need.

The poetic value is emerging in the play, the novel, sometimes even the essay. And why shouldn’t it when some of the best novels are being written by poets? Could the hand of a de la Mare, of Masefield, of James Stephens, of Elinor Wylie completely forget its cunning because it has turned from rhyme to cadenced fiction?

Mr. Masefield’s “Sard Harker” is a case in point. It has as little apparent relation to his earlier “Multitude and Solitude” as in his verse the strained but powerful frankness of “The Everlasting Mercy” had to the frail delicacies of “King Cole.” Yet of course the relation exists though it be one of reaction. His dedication to the realistic spirit in the verse “Consecration” was no more sincere than his recantation in the preface to his collected poems: when the war is ended, “in that new time” he hopes to tell more of “the images of what England and the English may become, or spiritually are.” He has the romantic gift as he had the realistic. “Sard Harker” begins as a fascinating tale of adventure with an atmosphere of beauty wrought about a ship in the offing and an old house in the tropics haunted by a dream of loveliness and strange fears. Few more vivid passages have been written in recent fiction than those which tell of Harker’s wanderings; and the description of that vast temple in the mountain where water flows in the color of blood over the handiwork of man who wrought in forgotten centuries is beautiful prose. But at the very end, after his Odysseus wins through, for me the interest and the beauty fail. I should prefer to say wane but fail is the word I must use. Whatever of epic quality has marked almost with grandeur the struggle up, up over the impassable mountains, crumbles into an agony of painful melodrama in the later chapters. A forced allegorical meaning clatters mechanically an accompaniment to the cheap opera bouffe effects of the last chapters.

John Masefield is a great poet—I use the adjective deliberately—and the greater part of his novel bears upon its exquisite phrasing the stamp of his poetic imagination. There is an elusive quality achieved that gives it the atmosphere of a mysterious dream. This enveloping sense of dream psychology may hint—in quite a different way from de la Mare’s “Memoirs of a Midget”—at a new development in romance. For Masefield’s story objectively moves with all the life of a simple tale of adventure. The haunting dream quality is sustained throughout most of the story merely by a delicate suggestiveness. All the more then comes the reeling sense of disappointment when at the very close an almost physical brutality turns the story into a melodramatic morality. None the less “Sard Harker” is a book one does not forget nor wish to have left unread.

If Mr. Masefield has failed in giving a new turn to the uses of romance, Mr. Michael Arlen in “The Green Hat” has been successful. But the failure has splendid passages of poetic beauty, the success at its best smacks of cleverness and artistry. Masefield’s climax is a calamity. In Poe’s phrase, he is unsuccessful in mingling the obstinate water and oil of truth and beauty. Arlen uses a sort of theme idea, an easily strung cord from which his story flies straight to his mark. Once our attention is on the arrow we forget to question the validity of the bow that launched it. The plot goes with the speed of its heroine’s car with the flying stork. The author not content with his own wit makes the conversation of his puppets coruscate. The first impact of “The Green Hat” is more pleasurable than the developed impression it leaves. It is an uneven book as though greater pains were taken with some than other parts of it. The climax scene in which Iris March holds her own in a tremendous battle of temperaments is managed with triumphant skill—but one feels that it “is managed.” It is an amusing book if one takes one’s reading lightly: as perfectly constructed to please a public’s taste as Mr. Hutchinson’s seasonal success. As literature it lacks sincerity; its art dwindles to artistry. Not only is it derivative; one feels it to be so. Mr. Arlen,—Dikran Kouyoumdjian, I am told is his name—whatever his nativity, is an Englishman by Portia’s word: “I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany and his behaviour everywhere,”—especially the behaviour.

“The Green Hat” is of course the sheerest romance. It has no actuality, it leaves no sense of reality. The tricks, the material sometimes, of the realist serve Mr. Arlen’s ends. His people talk with dictophonic accuracy to the clever patter he reports. His plot moves through incidents of the sort that make up the conventional unconventionality of the familiar “life novel.” Even the over-conspicuous hole in his heroine’s stocking suggests that he dresses his people in the torn rags of the realistic method. It may all be bad art but it is one more interesting mingling of romance and realism. But the blend is mainly illusion: neither the smell of cigarette and petrol on a woman’s fingers, nor a hole above the heel of a shoe, not even two or three suicides, can turn the author-matic material of this entertaining puppet show into the stuff of which realism is made.

“Balisand” is romance. It is of small moment whether one reader thinks it equal to the best that Joseph Herge-sheimer has done. It may be in its favor that upon one mind it has left the impression of an atmosphere aromatically flavored. Mr. Hergesheimer is always an artist. The echoes of rich negro voices floating across the river, the early scenes of a solitary moody drinker, the duel; these are like memories of events once experienced. Pure romance yet with a difference. Jefferson’s days in Virginia are given with an effort not so much at factual as at intellectual truth, as though the aim were to be realistic to the thought, the spiritual struggles of the time. Perhaps the weakness of the book for some may be found to spring from the iteration of this effort. The politics of a hundred and fifty years ago was no doubt exciting— a hundred and fifty years ago. Let us grant that, if we please: “Balisand” remains a beautiful piece of writing. I have said that “Balisand” is romance. It is: because the best romance has ever been an interpretation of reality through events the terms of which are fixed by the narrator’s imagination. “Balisand” is a novel of Virginia, and yet in no way is it of the type, or even in the tradition, of the familiar historical romances,—of “Mohun,” of “Prisoners of Hope,” of “Red Rock.” There is a setting redolent of old Virginia names and traditions; and a story of patterned beauty of how Richard Bale loved and lost and married, and met his foe. All these matters belong to the familiar historical romance, but not, as Mr. Herge-sheimer has used them. His hero is a haunted man,— haunted by the voices, the memories, the hatreds, the dreams of the past. He is an idealist whose ideals are those of another, a past, day. So the beautiful Lavinia possesses him more completely in death than Lucia, his so human and living wife. Thus the seductive, the haunting beauty of the book gains a universality of meaning. And if one would give to its poetic suggestiveness a specific interpretation, there is an application apposite enough at hand. For here is the very spirit of the old aristocratic Virginia, listening always to a siren voice of departed loveliness; ready to die but not to surrender. The romantic novel of to-day can afford to be judged by the fresh charm of “Balisand.”

Two of the best novels of the year to my taste are Galsworthy’s “The White Monkey” and “The Little French Girl” by Anne Douglas Sedgwick. I take them together for they seem to me to represent a peculiar blending of similar qualities of literature and life. What the little French girl rescued from the wreckage that her mother all unwillingly was making of her life was just exactly the “something” that the white monkey could never get at because he didn’t know what it was. Anne Sedgwick in this book has grown out of the preciosity of say “The Third Window.” This is stronger, more broadly human, though delicacy is still its distinguishing trait. It is more poignant than passionate. The incidents of the story, the characters, the setting, as in Galsworthy’s book, are created with fidelity to the realistic method. Life is here as the authors find it. The selection and arrangement, on the other hand, one feels are ordered and ordered as the author would have them to illustrate a philosophy, even a feeling. Fleur and Mont in “The White Monkey,” the little French girl and Giles, escape life by embracing life: there is a human equation, which no philosophy can analyse, no science destroy, that gives validity to life. The monkey squeezes the orange to pulp and skin, but the aura, the taste, the color that give immortality to the essence of the orange endure in a million million oranges. That constitutes the romantic note: we are to believe these people found the something that the monkey didn’t know was there;—and lived happily ever after.

Though “The White Monkey” continues the story of the Forsytes, it is a pendant rather than a sequel to ‘The Forsyte Saga.” “The Forsyte Saga” is one of the great novels of England. Compared to the richer fabric of Galsworthy’s masterpiece, “The White Monkey” may seem thin: yet compared with the work of almost any other living English novelist, “The White Monkey” is masterful art. It makes a point and a strong one, both for and against the younger generation: there is satire for its follies and recognition of its unvoiced faith. The story of Fleur has its power and significance, quite apart from all the entanglements of Forsyte family history, and scarcely needing the reinforcement of the balloon-seller and the model. Their story, however, helps make Mr. Galsworthy’s point, and pays its own tribute of Australian “blue butterflies” to romance. It says rather loudly, too, that Galsworthy does not think Victorian sentiment nearly so dead as the critics would kill it.

“The Spanish Farm” might be taken in its details as a pure type of realism—even continental realism. It is fallacy, outside of mathematics, to suppose that the whole equals the sum of its parts. It is much more in this case. The poetic value here approaches symbolism: the symbolism that typifies a universal by a particular, the truth of classes or nations by its representation through a person. The girl of the Spanish Farm may not be a symbol but she shadows forth symbolically the French borderland. Her French lover is dead, her English lover means nothing to her nor she to him when the war that married their physical lives is ended. Her life now is her farm, her land. A political treatise would not give so clear an exposition of international psychology.

Even the dark shadows of the apartments in which Hugh Walpole’s three old ladies lived are lit by a cheerful romantic light that comes through cracks that the author is careful to make in his dingy old dwelling-place. It is a book of creative originality. It has vividness, beauty, and reality in workmanship. Yet “The Old Ladies” is a slighter bit of work than Walpole is used to give as a novel. They themselves, the old ladies, are real enough; and gloomily realistic the pettinesses that make tragedies of their lives, pettinesses of bits of red amber and little fears and jealousies that gather at last the force of criminal passion. All this is executed with finesse and power: one knows the old ladies and lives in the atmosphere of their lives. And then Mr. Walpole plays a romantic’s winning trick. He has shown you in the beginning the picture of a loving son somewhere in America; you see the author stick the card up his sleeve. With the triumphal flourish of the magician he produces that card in the last chapter and wins his game with life. A pleasant end to the game; but not by the rules according to the realist.

I mustn’t press my point too hard; it may break. But— do I mistake in thinking I see even that hardy privateer, Miss May Sinclair, dipping colors to the romantic ensign?

“Arnold Waterlow” is pure realism in its psychology,—as May Sinclair sees the human mind. Surely though, the ordering of external circumstances to suit the heart’s desire is of the essence of romance. Waterlow is impervious to the cautious conventions of his mother and sister, and the reckless sensualism of his father and brother. He flees with disgust from the allurements of the mere lusts of the flesh. But when he has married the woman he loves, knowing she may leave him for the man she loves better; when after she has left him and he in turn finds another passion that is richer than the old one, only to be called back by loyalty to a pledge given his wife when she, deserted, returns to him; is it life’s method or romance’s to clear the way for the tidy readjustment of household matters? On the formal side there is a hint here, too, of the compelling last-chapter logic of the Victorian romantic.

Mr. Cabell’s “Straws and Prayer-Books” its author calls an epilogue. I use it for mine: for it is both romance and sparkling defense of romance: A delightful book to read, it is stimulating to discuss. It may not only point a moral; it is itself an adorned tale. Having read Mr. Cabell’s stories for over twenty years, I might have counted myself as the original “Cabell man;” only I enjoyed him more as a neglected writer of brilliant individuality than as a canonized classic. I cannot think of him as wearing a halo even in his grandmother’s Heaven; for Mr. Cabell has humor, since he can find it amusing to compare the author of “Jur-gen” with the author of “The Ingle’s Shadow.” The contrast he finds in the young and middle-aged romantics is itself a study in the changing ideals of romance. “Straws and Prayer-Books” is a set of sardonic essays with the author as chief character: and the hero is always a romantic whether he is playing the ape to beautiful dreams, writing beautifully about beautiful happenings or amusing himself in constructing colorfully a whimsical parody of man’s illusions. He has written wittily, he has written artistically— and artfully, he has written with sharp epigram and sometimes with eloquence, in “Straws and Prayer-Books.” If he is moved very occasionally to bad taste and bad puns—both at once—by Mr. Sumner and Dr. Pattee, he cancels the debt elsewhere in full measure with a bountifulness of true wit. It is a keener-edged book than its predecessor, “Beyond Life,” if less “big in circumference,” but no man could like one without capacity for enjoying the other. Cabell is for the man who can be amused at a clever caricature of himself; who laughs with the mind as readily as with the mouth. That after so many years among the “great unread” he should so few years ago have awaked to find himself famous may be as much a symptom of the changing literary taste as the result of his matured craftsmanship. Not since Swift has the machinery of romance been so skillfully turned to the uses of satire. But for all his gibes at realism, surely it is a philosophy of realism that Mr. Cabell has distilled into his sardonic romance of disillusionment. Quite true he presents an overt philosophy of dreams: man “plays the ape to fairer and yet fairer dreams,” but when man is conscious that his dreams are dreams he is no longer dreaming; he is just “kidding himself.” But one mustn’t take Mr. Cabell too seriously if one takes anything else seriously,— except as a maker of literature: as an artist he is always important, and serious enough even when he is playing. I am reminded of the saying of John Randolph, “Men talk to me of serious matters and I see only children blowing bubbles.” Cabell is like that, only he takes a golden pipe and blows more rainbow bubbles than them all. He has the gift of “the word,” he is an artist, he has ideas, he has originality. Yet like Randolph and the “white monkey” there is something he can never get at because he doesn’t know that it is there.


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