Debonair. By G. B. Stern. New York: A. A. Knopf. $2.50.
A Girl Adoring. By Viola Meynell. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.50.
Daisy and Daphne. By Rose Macaulay. New York; Boni and Liveright. $2.50.
The Hotel. By Elizabeth Bowen. New York: Lincoln MacVeagh. $2.50.
Though it is nothing new for women to gossip about one another, this old conversational stock-in-trade seems more and more to be available material for novel making. While some use this better than others, by and large the results are amusing, interesting, and readable when women turn tell-tale on their own sex. Time was when a woman writing about women probably had a feminist axe to grind against the harsh wheel of masculine prejudice; but now, with those militant days behind her, though she may metaphorically have her tongue in her cheek as she sets about the exposition of her kind, three times out of four, I think, she is gossiping.
Certainly G. B. Stern was sitting over an imaginative cup of tea when she planned her “Debonair.” It is a frivolous five o’clock recounting of the adventures and misadventures of one Loveday Trevelyan. Much of the writing is the agile patter of the day. Loveday, the scapegrace heroine, is made to lead a half innocent demimonde existence and to achieve a hectic and satisfactory success. We are surprised to hear her picaresque story from the brilliant author of “The Matriarch” and “Thunderstorm”; we see the sign of an ulterior motive in Miss Stern’s having turned out this “pot-boiler”—but perhaps she deemed it expeditious. The great regret is to find “Debonair” so blatantly derivative in its style. It is a pastiche of Compton Mackenzie without having the grace of his “Vanity Girl,” and the early Stephen McKenna without having the truth which made his “Sonia” such a treat. “Debonair” lacks pattern as it lacks integrity. For reasons of her own, Miss Stern has, with this book, temporarily stepped from the ranks where she belongs to make a quite unnecessary bid for “best-seller-dom.” “Debonair” is a spicy enough story-book, but it has no significance for its author’s well-earned reputation as a novelist.
Viola Meynell, whose talent with the written word is more or less a family affair, has her woman’s tale to tell. “A Girl Adoring” is a creditable novel, chatting pleasantly about a nice English girl with her sense of duty overgrown and her emotional self not yet in full flower. The varied relationships of the four women, Claire, Gilda, her sophisticated sister, the repressed and adorable Laura, and the cool calculating interloper, Louise, are woven together with an intuitive knowledge of the feminine reaction to the feminine. Women are like that! Morley, who is at once Claire’s beloved brother and Laura’s unsatisfactory husband, is explained once and for all by one piercing bit of characterization.
“Where did you go? Whom did you see? What were they like?” And all in vain.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” Morley would say, with a slight touch of disappointment in his voice that lent conviction to his report. Laura had wanted the flash of another life brought into the room. With merely a little participation or consent from him she could have peopled the room with such a charming tribe of the people Morley had met that day. But as it was she was reduced to such hopeless questions as: “Dark or fair?”—to which moreover Morley would almost certainly reply: “Medium, I should say.”
For a man of not much enterprise in his vocabulary Morley had certainly managed to collect together a surprising number of words of a noncommittal character with which to rebuke and disappoint the agreeable expectations people formed in asking for an account of his doings.
Hague is less well delineated though Miss Meynell does not fail to give a few hints of his attraction for Claire, for Laura, and for Louise, and leaves one to wonder what Gilda has in store for him. “A Girl Adoring” is a book of some beauty, great sincerity, and is made even more acceptable by its simplicity.
Rose Macaulay offers a real heroine. After “Potterism” and her other books we expect just about what we have here—”Daisy and Daphne” is deft in its execution, interesting in its conception, and knowing in its material. There is a humanness about Daisy and about Daphne too that strikes home ably. The flavor of the book is solidly, tangibly English with that tinge of satire that is so characteristic of its author. Miss Macaulay’s satire is a gusty, laughing thing founded upon the real; her gift is to tickle rather than to flay—all in all, it is a telling technique too:
Daisy too despised the English for not knowing French. But all the same, she wondered why it was considered by her, by the French, and by many English., more contemptible and laughable of English persons to speak French badly than of French persons to speak English badly. . ., Was it more ignoble not to know French than not to know English? Daisy felt sure that somehow it was, but did not know why.
The sureness of Miss Macaulay’s characterization is constant whether it is Daisy’s mother, Mrs. Arthur, who
was a tall plump fair woman of forty-nine, and looked happy, even when she had not just been, as now, to the pictures. She had a kind of gallant and cheerful idleness, which sent her out on pleasure bound, whatever duties there might be that she ought to have fulfilled. Too neat in her personal habits to be a slattern, too capable to be an incompetent housewife, she only sailed, owing to her zest for life, just this side of both.
or Mrs. Folyot and Mr. Struther who,
were both in their fifties, and both wrote leaflets, as was suitable to their years, for people are even as trees, and it is in the autumn of their lives that leaflets shower from them, as from trees in the October gales, more leaflets and yet more, until at last in winter they stand bare and bereft. But it would not for long years be winter with Mrs. Folyot and Mr. Struther.
Miss Macaulay is never guilty of foisting a pretend person upon her reader . . . throughout she makes her Daisy and her Daphne palpable and sentient. The conversation, that magic leaven to the printed page, is good too, but better still are the comments aside that strike a note of personal revelation that is at once both amusing and interesting. Miss Macaulay confesses herself to you often and never better than when she describes Christmas Day:
A strange, gay, isolated day, more like a dream than a day, emptied of responsibilities, cut loose from those little understandings with time and with humanity which moor most days to the world at large. Christmas Day resembles an island such as Delos, that rocks unattached in an open sea, unanchored to that floor which holds most islands firmly in their places. On the Feast of St. Stephen, however, lines begin to be thrown out once more to the mainland.
Miss Macaulay’s writing is fine, her perceptions quick; to read her is good for the spirit! It is like having a satisfactory talk with a first-rate conversationalist. It makes one envious of those who are privileged to receive her clever, self-explaining letters. She talks right to you and is not secret of her own particular reactions to life. She dwells upon the little things that make life shine for the moment, that make one eager to go on with it, yet she is not biased. Humanly enough she makes the rather drab love motif of her book the maturing thing that an inconclusive affair of the heart can so well be. Generously she endows her heroine with the hopelessnesses that are everyone’s despair, the resolves that are everyone’s escape, and then makes her lapse into the expediencies that are everyone’s daily bread. “Daisy, and Daphne” is a good story told consummately by a woman whose wit has kept its angles, and whose personality has color and, yes—charm!
Now into this brilliant circle of women who have chosen to write about other women steps Elizabeth Bowen—a real asset to the sisterhood of talent. Her first novel is a piece of literary manna. Miss Bowen (Mrs. Alan Cameron) is Irish by birth. Her family still live at Bowen’s Court, County Cork, while she lives in Oxford, the sanctum of writers, where Mr. Cameron has an academic appointment. Miss Bowen’s literary past is with the short story, for she has published two volumes “Encounters,” 1924, and “Ann Lee’s,” 1926, and has another volume ready for publication at present. “The Hotel” is a memorable piece of work without pretence but with real claims to merit. The writing is brilliant in the extreme, though one might feel easier if the writer had let her natively simple style prevail throughout. The feeling is that we are full of admiration for one who, though obviously a pupil of the great master, Henry. James, has still been able to preserve originality of expression; then in the full flush of this admiring come little sections in which Jamesisms, so fatally easy to acquire, creep in and one regrets that Miss Bowen has been too unconscious of the tendency to correct it. Except for this minor defect the novel is consummately done. Just as they would in “real life,” her women are ruling an English pension-hotel, so typical of the Riviera. The men are less important to us though all important to the story. Mrs. Kerr, “the drawing-room set,” the Lawrence girls, and Sydney Warren are so intuitively feminine in their characterization that only a woman, a clever woman, could have done them. The little inner wars so indigenous to such an idle place are campaigned sharply by Miss Bowen. The bigger emotional struggle that goes on between the sinisterly sweet Mrs. Kerr and her almost neurotic protegee Sydney Warren is developed with candor and clarity. It has its sad moments, its frightening moments, and is throughout the narrative rising toward a real emotional crisis. Miss Bowen chooses to tell much of her story by conversation. Sometimes it is by grave electric exchanges as when Mrs. Kerr talks to John Milton about his fiancee Sidney, or again by the little whispers behind a handkerchief—important conversations that would suddenly cease or miraculously merge into a discussion of the newest design for petit-point when the subject came near. It is a tense situation with which Miss Bowen is concerned, but she never allows it to become hysterical. “The Hotel” is a book to treasure, a book to reread because of the fine understanding of human motive that is shown in its pages. The production of such a “first novel” definitely establishes Miss Bowen as being possessed of more than the usually heralded “potentialities”—already she has full strength of observation, great vigor of execution, and unusual depth of humanity.
Undoubtedly women have a native bent toward discussing each other—be it practically or theoretically. The best of such discussions seem to demand not so much the traditional feminine malice as to demand understanding— and understanding of their own kind is usually an endowment with the truly sensitive woman.