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Studies in Drabness—With a Flash of Scarlet

ISSUE:  Winter 1929

The Coming of the Lord. By Sarah Gertrude Millin. New York: Horace Liveright. $2.50. Things Were Different. By Elisabeth Fagan. New York: Lincoln McVeagh, The Dial Press. $2.50. The English Miss. By R. H. Mottram. New York: Lincoln McVeagh, The Dial Press. $2.50. Mrs. Condover. By John Metcalfe. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.50. Prelude to a Rope for Myer. By L. Steni. New York: Lincoln McVeagh, The Dial Press. $2.50. Scarlet Sister Mary. By Julia Peterkin. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. $2.50. Bright Metal. By T. S. Stribling. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. Scarlet Heels. By Edith M. Stern. New York: Horace Liveright. $2.50.

The group of books compulsorily associated here have as a common element the sad grey and brown mediocrity of lower-middle-class English and American life, illuminated by two exceptions, “Scarlet Heels” and “Scarlet Sister Mary,” The first exception is concerned with a tragic French aristocrat who is stubborn without being strong, and the second with Africa in South Carolina, which, on the plantations at least, is happily still too uncivilized to have attained the middle-class state that even Africa is reaching elsewhere. Of the English books “The Coming of the Lord,” by Sarah Gertrude Millin, is by far the most distinguished. Even Mrs. Millin, however, does not lift the heavy atmosphere of this group to the best of her high abilities, already, proved in “God’s Stepchildren,” “Mary Glenn” and “An Artist in the Family.” She has chosen for her subject the contrast between an Anglo-Saxon’s physical courage and steadfast refusal to comprehend alien breeds, here inclusive of Jews and Germans as well as the black men of Africa, and the impossibility for these alien breeds to adopt the single-minded attitude toward the black people necessary to success in this especial sort of struggle. Arnold Duerden, the Englishman, who has never been able to realize fully, since Armistice Day, the manhood in which he has never lost faith, finds his last opportunity in the organization of the Vigilants, to drive away the twenty-five hundred Kaffir “Levites,” camping on the heights above the little South African town of Gibeon, to await the Coming of the Lord. At least five persons are pursued throughout the book by a fatality which is inevitable from the first pages. Dr. Diethelm, the German physician, whose office in wartime was raided by a mob determined to punish him for being German a few days after his only son had been killed fighting the Germans; Old Nathan, whose only son was destroyed by the clashing forces in South Africa; Saul Nathan, whose Jewish inheritance prevents him from taking sides in the opposing forces which annihilate him; Arnold Duerden, the Englishman who has been a failure as a barrister and must seize each political crisis to justify himself in his own eyes and maintain his own pride; and Hermina, English wife of Duerden, who outside her own intention has given her body to him and her mind to Saul. But in spite of the vastness of the scene and the darkness in which all of the characters are compelled to move, the book, for this reviewer at least, lacks the living appeal which Mrs. Millin’s earlier work has always made.

“Mrs. Condover,” by John Metcalfe, laid in the dreariest of London suburbs, is dominated in macabre fashion by the figure of Mrs. Condover herself, a repulsive and terrible religious fanatic, whose hopeless love for an evangelist drives her to suicide. The love affair of her daughter, Vera, a beautiful, blind nymphomaniac, and young Kenneth Bly never escapes from her shadow, even after her death, and reaches an ending so disastrous as to form a completely, artistic conclusion to a story which in less competent hands might easily have been ruined in its final pages. It could, with advantage, have been more briefly told. No single paragraph lightens the dank gloom of its background and the men and women against it, nor alleviates the weariness resulting from an accurate picture of this especial sort of life, drawn without wit or humour.

The impression left with me by R. H. Mottram’s “The English Miss” is worth no more than a line or two. It is a dull story of a dull young woman in a commonplace situation. Such elements could have been made endurable only by the manner of their treatment. They have not been made endurable. Whether this is my fault or Mr. Mottram’s I do not know, but I am quite willing to believe that it is mine,

“Prelude to a Rope for Myer” (L. Steni), since it contains a great deal of superlatively bad writing, is not nearly so good as its incomparable title. This story, too, is an affair of unmitigated solemnity, which in connection with the others of this group leads me to suppose that the drabness of England is a degree drabber than the drabness of America. But the study, of a young Jewish owner of a London cinema theatre, a young Jew cheap and common in all of his qualities, with a mistress even more sordid than himself, has a quite real interest and an equally real suggestion of horror. The ending is badly managed, and the tale affords occasional amusement where I am certain no amusement was intended.

“Things Were Different” (Elisabeth Fagan) deals with mid-Victorian England, presenting a young girl born ahead of her time, through the eyes of another young girl completely of her time. The story moves quickly between England and India, between mirth and despair, and is a record of two entirely credible girls.

Remote as Tennessee from the suburbs of London is T. S. Stribling’s “Bright Metal” from these other books. Mr. Stribling brings a fairly sophisticated New York girl to the most unsophisticated of all the States through her marriage to John Calhoun Pomeroy, of the Tennessee hills. It is an entirely realistic but warmly vivid document of the people and events that meet her there, and the varying processes of her mind which result in her decision to accept her fate as she has found it in Tennessee, and to await her husband “with the tremulous, long-drawn patience of women.” The book is always interesting and occasionally brilliant, notably in its portrait of Congressman Alexander Hamilton Tweedy, better known as A. Ham Tweedy. Mr. Stribling understands his South, which luckily is not the whole South, with a thoroughness that makes his work valuable even to a reviewer with tastes so limited as to dislike reading about the hill country of America except when treated as Mr. Stribling treats it.

Julia Peterkin’s “Scarlet Sister Mary” is a slighter novel with a more limited scope than “Black April,” laid again at Blue Brook plantation in the South Carolina low country. It is, however, simpler in dialect and in form than either of her earlier books, and will, I think, be more widely received for that reason. Some of the characters of “Black April” reappear here, with several fresh additions. Mrs. Peterkin again has re-created the singing fields, the silent, slow rivers, the hot, quivering cabin life, and the gay, melancholy, passionate people that she knows best. Mary, who begins her career as a faithful and devoted wife, and because of her discovery and acceptance of masculine infidelity, becomes a “scarlet sister,” is the most impressive of Mrs. Peterkin’s studies in charcoal.

The “Scarlet Heels” of Edith M. Stern shares no attribute with the seven books already discussed, for it is the story of the unfulfilled desires of Henri Yves Grégoire, Vicomte de Grandbord. When a child in France he asked for a pair of scarlet heels, “like Louis Quatorze,” and was sharply reminded by his American mother that he was not Louis Quatorze. Throughout his life he longs for scarlet heels, which symbolize for him the dead glories of the kingdom of France. And at the end of the story, when his son is born, he knows that his child will never want a pair of scarlet heels and that even the aristocratic impulse is dead. The Vicomte’s passion for the past, amounting to an obsession, influences his entire life and nullifies itself by clouding his otherwise acute intelligence. Through a pathetically romantic plot to restore the Bourbons to the throne of France he is compelled, at eighteen, to leave France for America, his mother’s country but never his own. Mrs. Stern’s quoted line from “Something About Eve,” “I thirst for a dead time and its dead fervors to be reviving,” sets the key of the book. It is a comic tragedy, delicately, economically, and at times beautifully written, and for all its fantastic quality, never without interest.


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