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Of Units and Unities

ISSUE:  Winter 1932

The Waves. By Virginia Woolf. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. All Passion Spent. By V. Sackville-West. Garden City: Double-day, Doran and Company. $2.50. Maid in Waiting. By John Galsworthy. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50. The Colonel’s Daughter. By Richard Aldington. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran, and Company. $2.50. Albert Grope. By F. 0. Mann. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. Judith Paris. By Hugh Walpole. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. Susan Spray. By Sheila Kaye-Smith. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50.

We shall never know to what extent Mill’s housemaid served Carlyle well when she bundled into the fire the first version of “The French Revolution.” Nor shall we ever know how many novelists have regretted that no pawing slavey had laid hands upon this or the other of their works before it could be set to type. Certainly, if the pads of the wolf were not heard so often at the portals of the worthy, or if it were not necessary to keep names alive against a day of more than nominal vital- . ity, many a work might be put aside for careful and mature reconsideration.

There would be fewer novels, then, too timely for even a partial timelessness, or too full of good things to be a great thing. The novel is constantly endangered by. its virtues, by its unique ability to justify its name and convey that which is enthralling news, by its vast capacity for “he said (brilliantly)” and “she thought (more brilliantly)” and “on the counterpane there was a splash of red like a clown’s triangular simper.” Fortunately many contemporary novelists are aware that the closer unity is not a matter of fastening this to that by cause and effect and over all a coat of style; there must be interpenetrations and cumulative conditionings. The desired effect is often attained by tapping the stream of consciousness into retrospective molds. Thereby a coldly, written, loosely unioned novel is sometimes given the appearance of fusion; but there is no reason why the new method should not itself be hotly used.

We can applaud attempts to use it properly, but we need not overpraise or lose satisfaction in the old-fashioned fitting together of parts in such a manner that they remain discernible as parts. After all it is not debasing to enjoy the good things in what is not entirely a signal greatness.

In Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” there is commendable experimentation, the unconscious made conscious and combined with that which is at times most immediate to consciousness, the whole being given the cast of retrospection. The book consists entirely of quoted passages identified by “said Neville” and “said Susan,” passages suggesting the aside, the soliloquy, the conversation, and the moment of silent self-communion. Some are the product of solitude; some are not. The, let us say, soliloquizer, is never the Neville or the Susan of ordinary converse, but a sublimated alter-ego, an inner self that speaks with the tongue of a rather apocalyptic angel waking from a dream of modern life. In this manner six characters reveal themselves and give some account of a seventh who does not even soliloquize. The various stages of their lives are prefaced by runs of italicized description that carry from dawn to dark a certain day wherein is a seaside house known to the six in childhood.

In this manner, Mrs. Woolf is again seeking to display the bright aura which for her is the only significant manifestation of life. Personalities exist in “The Waves,” but hazily. All think the same thoughts in the same diction and to the same tempo. Who marries whom and who dies how is of no moment save that it be available for use in the “saids.” Even the half-denied substantialities of “Mrs. Dalloway” are not tolerated here. The dilemma of Clarissa’s life, however, is reconstructed in “The Waves,” for the appalling fact of the soul’s isolation is declared in the same breath with the awesome fact of our attachment to others and to all that surrounds us. There is present also the dazing sense of the ego’s complexity that was set forth in “Orlando.” And “The Waves” treats of only the more elusive implications of the three truths.

Truly, Mrs. Woolf has here taken upon herself the mystery of things and has produced a series of very modern reflective poems upon recondite aspects of life. They should be printed as verse, the better exhibiting their discontinuity and prosodic compression.

In this form, the book might well be read in moments of high receptivity; and so perusing it, one might altogether avoid the impatient reflection of Dr. Johnson that it is easy to “hover over the abyss of unideal vacancy.” Leaves of waves turn and marmoreal shadows sever like damascened knives. Sad-faced as a bloodhound, one spatters diamond-flecked clay. Yet incomprehensibility should unite us; and dust did still mouths of the revelatory stone and unmanned emptiness surround the processional rock . . .

Mrs. Woolf, I am convinced, did not write “The Waves” with insincerity or levity. None the less, even tranced automatic writing may be part mediumistic gibberish and part seraphic dictation. To make the distinction, a slow piecemeal reading is necessary. It will reveal on any page of “The Waves” something stimulative. There are vividnesses, disturbing collations, mandatory thoughts; words move with strange . . . Hold hard!

I flee to the safer ground of “All Passion Spent,” by V. Sackville-West. Here is no hypnosis but an engaging blend of humor, anti-Victorianism, sentiment, and sentimentality; and withal a straightforward account of how the aged Lady Slane, upon the death of her most superior husband, finds aslyum in Hampstead and awaits the end.

Retrospectively she puts before us her long fife; and rather sentimentally the author would have us take deeply to heart Lady Slane’s regret that her adolescent dream of becoming an artist had no fulfilment. I suspect that even Lord Slane overrated her devotion to art when, just before their marriage, he suggested that she might make pretty sketches of their travels. It would seem that she never laid pencil to sketch-pad, though Lord Slane’s colonial services took them from intriguing Dan to picturesque Beersheba. She led a Narrow, Repressed, Secluded Existence without Adequate Expression.

It is manifestly true, however, that she could not be happy as Indian Vicereine or Prime Minister’s wife, however much she graced each position. She should have married someone like the eccentric yet discerning Mr. Bucktrout, who would have allowed her to drift about a beautiful, sequestered country estate and be altogether lovely and feminine and miladylike.

Doubtless he could have contrived to give her fewer and better children than the sorry lot with which Lord Slane afflicted her. That, at the end of her days, she should be totally indifferent to this graceless crew is both proper poetic justice and a rather tolerable attack upon the Convention of Maternal Affection.

The distinctive tone of “All Passion Spent” is that of satire compounded with whimsy and sentiment, Lady Slane would make any book charming. The old men who gather about her at Hampstead are amusing humors, particularly Mr. Gosheren of the for ward-tilting bowler, the archetype of handy-man, who climaxes by demonstrating himself an efficient undertaker.

Over all lies an Indian summer bloom, a mildness of retrospection. One can not easily find a more authentic bit of sentiment than the last episode of Lady Slane’s life, in which she dreamily confuses herself with her great-grand-daughter, the mind slowing, passion long foregone; delicate melancholy, a falling cadence, yes, “Tired eyelids upon tired eyes.” After all Lady Slane was a Victorian, nor did she die of it.

In Mr. Galsworthy’s “Maid in Waiting,” the title is the surest indication of what he relies upon to hold the book together—just the altogether charming Dinny Cherrell. She is indispensable in two otherwise slightly connected stories, Hubert Cherrell’s salvation from a shameful death and the account of Adrian Cherrell’s love for Diana Ferse and of Captain Ferse’s suicidal insanity.

If you are intent on significances, you may say that Dinny and her sister-in-law Jean represent the emancipated but no longer frantic British younger generation; but that theme is no more impressive than others in the novel, such as a contrast of English and American traits and a demonstration of the self-sacrifice with which the British aristocracy have manned the services of the nation and the empire. In truth, there are so many ingredients in “Maid in Waiting,” theme story, elevated thriller, urbane comedy of manners, that I wonder whether there may not be a double meaning in the title. Mr, Galsworthy has said enough about the Forsytes (unless he begin working backward from his starting point). Perhaps a large project of similar import will shape itself soon. Meanwhile . . .

His two stories are excellently told; with sympathy and discretion he renders the plight of a man who knows himself going insane; his skill is most happily displayed in all the character portrayals, the virtue whereof resides in the dialogue.

Fully two-thirds of the novel is conversation; and, save for that of a manifestly foreign-made American, not a phrase seems off key. If any does ring a bit flat, Mr. Galsworthy is at hand to set matters right with assured, wit-tipped phrases of his own. He is equally successful with the lovable Dinny, with Aunt Em’s incoherence and her attempts to catch the trick of modern speech, and with Hilary and Adrian, brothers so alike that only the Galsworthy finesse can keep them separate.

Without belittling the serious aspects of the book I commend chiefly its element of high comedy. Here is an abundance of talk such as few of us are able to sustain. These people are exactly self-revealing and cogently commentative on men and manners. They are moderns appraising modernity wisely and wittily, tempering criticism with the amenities of good breeding. “We are to be old-fashioned yet modern,” prophesies Aunt Em of the next social stage — appropriate words for the quality of “Maid in Waiting.”

Richard Aldington leaves no doubt concerning the purpose of “The Colonel’s Daughter.” He is gunning for the “huntin, sportin” British regular officer; he is going to annihilate gossiping British village life; and he is going to pop at any smaller game that he can start. He makes a busy three-hundred-odd pages of it.

No doubt much that he purposes needs doing, but the method of doing it I find seriously at fault. At worst “The Colonel’s Daughter” savors of D. H. Lawrence’s coyotish yapping; at best it is the Aldous Huxley, sublimated wisecrack delivered with a heavy grouch, the good old military grouch that we learned of the drill sergeants.

Most irritating is the way in which Mr. Aldington treats the daughter of the colonel. He demonstrates that she is sex-starved, unable to capture a husband, mentally stunted by poverty and an education both Victorian and “sportin.” Why then should she be leered at and sneered at when she submits to a bit of heavy petting? What is the justification for a satiric and semi-smoking-room account of her subsequent and certainly normal aversions and indecisions?

Near the end of the novel Mr. Aldington does accord his victim some respect, but by that time he has done his book irreparable harm. He has shown himself merely exasperated and amused by what might have moved him deeply.

The only saving grace of “The Colonel’s Daughter” is that most of the minor persons tied to the stake need excoriation while jokes are cracked at their expense. They are organisms incapable of much suffering. Such, for example, is that happy band of radical young things with the faggoting of whom Mr. Aldington lights up his attack on important positions. He may be callous and wrong-headed, but he can induce the superior smile, the surprised chuckle, the masculine guffaw, all excellent things when well employed.

F. O. Mann’s “Albert Grope” is not a book of much structural precision, but it contains good stuff. It is a sort of superior comic strip which may be said to end whenever it presents an episode of some finality in itself. It is crammed with so many diverting characters that they cannot easily be marshalled along any road, emotive or intellectual. Indeed, an opportunity to make some expository headway in characterization is lost in the portrayal of the narrator Albert. The author seems oblivious of the problem in Albert, namely, the difficulty of combining in one person a keen advertising agent, a Dickensian commentator upon life, and a feeble Cockney nonenity. I fear I shall remember of him only a depressing lack of anything to remember except that he does snivel abominably in his most ennobling moments.

In fact, he can be dismissed as little more than a needless device for many deft portraitures, in which there is an unusual abundance of details seen, heard, and even smelled, details well chosen and heightened with warmly humorous phrasing. Dialogue is broadly used to make us accept personages otherwise incredible. Of course, their counterparts doubtless exist in London, or that part of it which, I am convinced, Dickens brought to being, and which he generously left thriving for all such as De Morgan, Priestley, and Mann.

The “Judith Paris” of Hugh Walpole is less crowded than “Albert Grope”; but it has bulk, many characters, and the covering of much time. Mr. Walpole, however, knows exactly what he is about. The book is Judith Paris first, then the rest of the Herries family, then England from about 1775 to 1825. Except for a sojourn of Judith in Paris, the historical material is not self-justifying but contributes chiefly to a more important effect, the Englishness of England; and so there is produced an English novel of the past and not an historical novel. Possibly the Herries family is not so impressively one family as Mr. Walpole desires, and perhaps the malignancy of the otherwise genial Walter Herries appears a bit trumped up for the final episode; but in general the minor persons are definitely and creatively done—and properly minor.

The descriptive background has tone and authenticity. The Lake Country is strikingly rendered, and that without suggestion of Wordsworth. Indeed Mr. Walpole’s storms, cloud turmoils, sunrays slashing across distant hills, agitations of color and light on moor and lake, compel me to regret that Wordsworth could depict this land with only the tools available to a man just emerging from the age of descriptive generalization.

None the less, “Judith Paris” is Judith Paris, “An odd mixture of fiery temper and great patience, of humor, of seriousness . . . half lady, half anything but lady. . . .” She is accounted for by her Herries-Gipsy parentage, and perhaps by all that Mr. Walpole has long felt about the district to which she belongs. “Her fierceness of intensity” are akin to the rigors and vividnesses of Mr. Walpole’s Lake Country. She exults in Cumbrian peasant life and recharges her spirit with the beauties of her land. She expends her energy (with a fieriness almost too much for the ordinarily lazy reader) in rages, loves, motherings and man-agings of the weak, and exultant combat with her peers. (If you do not like her, you are probably, of the sort whom she would protect and dominate.)

Diminutive though Judith be, one book cannot contain . her. I am sure that we shall see her in the promised third of the Herries sequence doing epic battle for the supremacy of the family; for by the end of the present volume she has but taken up position. Age may whiten her flaming hair but it will never wither her. She will die with her small boots on, gallantly resisting the onslaught of Herries Victorianism.

With even more completeness Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Susan Spray dominates the book to which she gives name. She too has antithetical traits, but her creator acknowledges the resultant difficulty rather less frankly than does Judith’s. Both characters are an arresting word upon the complexity of human nature, but Susan is also an impressive comment upon one of our most perennial interests, religion. Susan will remain, I think, the more significant of the two and the more baffling.

In large part her progress from occasional exhorter to determined pulpiteer will bear out her second husband’s enraged accusation: “You’ve only one God—your wretched, vain, immoral, obstinate, heartless self.” She proclaims visions that she never had; she preaches a terrifying faith containing neither pity nor love; she covets power and the center of public regard; she abandons her religion for an unworthy love.

On the other hand, she does have moments of ecstatic vision, rapt consecration; at times “her preaching came from the depths of her heart, rather than from the surfaces of vanity and irritation”; she answers profoundly to the quieter beauties of nature, and she loves her Sussex and its ways; her sermons are instinct with biblical poetry; she can love as well as hate; though capable of passion, she is not lascivious.

Perhaps the most distinctive quality of Susan is that she persistently seems sincere even when she is insincere. To account analytically for this phenomenon might endanger its finer value; Sheila Kaye-Smith avoids even the implication of a problem and contrives to give us a Susan who never appears out of character. For those who have read the book, however, I suggest that Susan’s prevailing sincerity has to do with artistry rather than with what we prefer to call religion. She is an untutored poet and actor whose imagination has been shaped entirely by the Old Testament and the Book of Revelations. Her communing with nature and her beatific visions are a valid poesis. Her acting, her preaching, is artistically valid too, but it ministers to her pride and love of power; and it enables her to play the part of sibyl when the poetic inspiration fails, or when it cannot be made to serve unworthy ends. She is, in a sense, right when she declares that certain of her visions “may not have happened, but they’re true.” Histrionically they were. Only by shock could she be made aware that she was a religious charlatan; and when she was again capable of poetic visions, she returned to the pulpit and to full faith in her calling. Thereafter, though no less artistically convinced and competent when on her stage, she could more easily drop her role and fall to managerial plannings.

From any point of view Susan is the whole of “Susan Spray.” Even the deep Kaye-Smith enjoyment of the Sussex scene is here chiefly a demonstration of Susan’s finer nature and an insistence that she is no mere hypothesis but an actual product of Sussex soil. Above all, here is said much of altars and gods, and of acolytes and pontiffs from time immemorial; here is a unity specific yet most ample.


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