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Towards a Better Realism

ISSUE:  Summer 1929

The Village Doctor. By Sheila Kayc-Smith. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, Inc. $2.50. Joseph and His Brethren, By H. W. Freeman. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $2.50.

Taken together, Sheila Kaye-Smith’s “The Village Doctor” and H. W. Freeman’s “Joseph and His Brethren” offer, among other things, a fresh illustration of the sometimes obscured truth, that the complete objectivity of the realist has never had any actual existence outside the realm of theory. Like the romancer, the realist selects, he re-arranges, he interprets. The only difference is that he has, comparatively, an extremely narrow field in which to work. Both these books are Sussex novels. Both deal with rural life in England. Both are based on a thorough understanding of the problems involved. The ideals, the viewpoints of the two authors are not, one feels, in any, way fundamentally opposed. Yet the experience one gets from “The Village Doctor” is not, in any sense, the experience to be derived from “Joseph and His Brethren.”

The problem of the two books is indeed different. With Mr. Freeman, the farm is always the principal character. The people are of little account in comparison with it. Miss Kaye-Smith, on the other hand, keeps us in the village: we do not really get out into the fields. The background is much more than a decoration: it is a factor, and the author’s understanding of the rural point of view is quite as evident here as in the case of Mr. Freeman. Yet the name character, the doctor, is an outsider, and the girl he marries, countrified as her soul is, is trying desperately to shake off her heritage and become a fine lady. The love story makes the real interest of the book.

“Joseph and His Brethren” is a strong, honest picture of man in contact with nature and with some of the primal forces that seem at home in nature’s house, but it is not the work of genius that some extravagant reviews have proclaimed. For one thing, the title is forced: Joseph is not born until the book is half over, and he does not become the dominating factor until considerably later than that. This is a small matter but it may serve to indicate the book’s looseness of structure. The five Geaiter brothers, Nancy, Joseph, and Daisy—these are in turn the centre of interest. Daisy indeed does not enter the book until four short chapters before the close, yet in the new crisis at the very end, it is she who twice holds the fate of all the characters in her hands. “Joseph and His Brethren” is not a subtle book. Benjamin Geaiter first brings Nancy into the house as a housekeeper, then violates her, and finally, marries her to spite his sons. Upon his death, obviously, he must leave the farm to her and her child, while his sons who have given their lives to Crakenhill are glad to stay on as hired men, dependent on the woman’s pleasure. In time, of course, Nancy must marry again, a wastrel who turns the brothers out. From here it follows inevitably that the woman and the wastrel should run the farm into the ground, then sell it for debt, and that finally the patient Geaiter brothers should buy it back again. The wheel has come full circle.

The value of the book then lies not in its plot but in its picture of the five Geaiter brothers—by all means the best characterizations in the book. This aspect is by no means superficial or obvious. The five men are not sharply differentiated: their common experience precludes that, but their response to the various stimuli that come into their lives—Nancy, the little step-brother whom they come so passionately to love, the final challenge of Joseph’s own love-affair at the close of the book—all this is well worked out. At the outset, they seem stolid, uninteresting, but there is capacity for development in them, and the hard blows they receive from life do not crush them: they simply lead them to draw on hidden resources of sympathy which neither they nor the reader could previously have supposed them to possess. Nancy’s portrait suffers somewhat from too much simplification: her stolidness, her tendency to accept things as they come, is made to explain too much. Even so, there are some elements left unaccounted for. The girl who was ingenious enough to make a place for herself in the Geaiter household to begin with, the woman who was capable of such passionate devotion to a worthless man—she can hardly be the same who is so utterly crushed by misfortune that she unhesitatingly surrenders her first born to the very men she had hated. The same tendency to simplification appears an the extreme blackness of old Benjamin and of Ted Willett—neither one has a single redeeming quality. The story of Nancy’s initial conquest of the Geaiters, through good cooking and cowslip wine, is told somewhat in the spirit of popular fiction, and the village gossips of the book remind me of Miss Vivia Ogden and Miss Emily Fitzroy in Mr. D. W. Griffith’s motion picture interpretation of “Way Down East.” Indeed, Mrs. Pearman is quite in character when she dies a picture-poster death.

The general opinion regarding “The Village Doctor” seems to be that it is a somewhat slight thing when compared with the books upon which Sheila Kaye-Smith’s reputation is based. This is probably fair enough, but the book is still sufficiently distinguished by its fine and convincing character-drawing. It has been accused of sentimentality, but if the term is used in its objectionable sense, this is certainly unfair. Emotional warmth is not sentimentalism, nor is sympathy, nor a generous, loving attitude towards men. At no point does Miss Kaye-Smith’s sympathy betray, her into blinking the facts of life. The doctor, to be sure, is an ideal character, but surely his experience of life has been very narrow or his penetration not very profound who pretends to believe that there are none such left in the modern world, earnestly as moderns try to discourage their growth. And his wife Laura surely is treated realistically enough. It is such a portrait of a woman as only a woman can draw. Only in the single chapter where Laura sits like a doll behind her tea-table every afternoon waiting for the guests who do not arrive does she drop into caricature. The typhoid epidemic perhaps arrives a little opportunely, but it has been carefully, prepared for, and it is nonsense to be so afraid of “plots” that you forget that the only way the novelist can exhibit character is through circumstance.

In one way more these two good novels are alike, and splendidly different from too many specimens of “realism” that we have had during the last few years: they both sound the note of spiritual conquest. This is not from any dishonesty on the part of either writer in facing the facts of life: it simply means that both see a little deeper than those whose realism inheres in the mere transcript of sordidness. Miss Kaye-Smith meets the moderns on their own ground. Doctor Green’s marriage begins as hopelessly as ever a marriage began, yet it ends with the triumph of love as surely as any mediaeval romance and a good deal more convincingly than many. And Mr. Freeman, eschewing sentimentality altogether, yet shows us how in common men of the earth, humanity triumphs over prejudice, sympathy over stolid indifference, and love over jealousy and fear.


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