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Women Interpret Women

ISSUE:  Winter 1943

Grand Canyon. By V. Sackville-West. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50. Primer for Combat. By Kay Boyle. Simon, and Schuster. $2.50. The Prodigal Women. By Nancy Hale. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.00. The Robber Bridegroom. By Eudora Welty. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.00. Treveryan. By Angela du Maurier. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50.

“I NEVER could understand why reviews were insti-tuted; works of merit do not require to be reviewed, they can speak for themselves, and require no praising; works of no merit at all will die of themselves, they require no killing.” Yet in the same chapter of “Lavengro” Borrow confesses that his was at that period “an ill-regulated mind.” The man who offered such stout opinions of Defoe, Scott, Byron, and Wordsworth as he did must have recognized, sooner or later, that critical commentaries serve the cause of literature and that writings about writings cannot be spared.

“Grand Canyon” by V. Sackville-West and “Primer for Combat” by Kay Boyle are war novels, but the former is concerned with a supposititious war which opens in 1945 between an undefeated Germany and an America which, having beaten Japan, accepts Germany’s assurances in 1943 that the subjugation of the Old World has satisfied Nazi war aims and that a reasonably co-operative North America would no longer be considered even a potential enemy. The consequences of the ensuing “peace” or indeed of any peace that would permit the survival of a heavily militarized and militant Germany are conjectured in this cautionary tale, although the author is careful to disclaim the gift of prophecy and declares that her dramatic story (the first after eight years) “bears no relation at all to my own views as to the outcome of the present war.”

This novel and Eudora Welty’s “The Robber Bridegroom” are the most capably written of the five here considered. The author of “The Edwardians” and of “Pepita” mixes grace with power and imagination with brains. Her several descriptions of day or night aspects of the Grand Canyon, seen from above or below, are the work of a poet and her characterizations of both main and minor people are admirably effective. Especially is this true of Helen Temple and Lester Dale, two finely civilized persons, whose conversations, whose very thoughts, the invisible auditor is permitted to overhear with a modern Landorian delight. “Man had shown himself ingenious in his inventions. . . . He had found out the composition of the atom and had formulated certain theories about thermodynamics. . . . All those were very difficult things to find out. The one thing he had never found out for himself was how to deal with himself or with others of his kind.” The Hermit, Madame de Retz, Loraine Driscoll, and Louis, the Fighting French airman, arc among the middle-range figures, and the first and last of these have exceptional things to say.

“Primer for Combat” is a rather amorphous novel, yet not without its own kind of virtue. Miss Boyle seeks to interpret the soul of France as seared by betrayal and conquest, embittered by German occupation, and torn by internal dissension. She is well equipped for the task, for she married a Frenchman, lived in Europe for nineteen years, and knows her adopted country well. The story sprawls, but loose continuity and a semblance of structure are provided through the rise and decline of a romance between the diarist-narrator Phyl (an American woman, formerly a Frenchman’s wife, then a widow, and now married to her fellow-countryman Benchley, an historian) and Wolfgang, an Austrian instructor in winter sports, whose wife Corinne is a Frenchwoman. This tangle or quadrangle is more or less happily resolved by the slow disillusionment of Phyl, who at last becomes “sober and dispassionate and wise.” The long intimate talk between Phyl and her friend Lucia concerning the problem is the most notable passage in the book, but the objective scenes and incidents are also well handled, save that too many are crowded upon the canvas and that not all are offered as authentic. Indeed, at one point the author refers to “my collection of legends, and legend in the sense we use it does not mean a story that is true or untrue, but a story (whether true or untrue) that one hears over and over in every town to which one goes.” There are also some casual philosophizings that are hardly intended, perhaps, to strike very deep. From time to time, however, the complex French soul does emerge in these pages and moves us as always when it speaks directly through Tissot, a peasant; Mathilde, a local aristocrat; La-fond, a coal-merchant; and many another. The diary continues from June 20th, 1940, (three days after the Franco-German armistice) to October 2nd of the same year.

“The Prodigal Women” by Nancy Hale recounts the life-histories of three women—their thoughts, their loves, their fears, their follies, and their sins. In “The Golden Age,” Kenneth Grahame has an amusing sketch of early childhood called “What They Talked About,” the ‘they’ being Selina and her friends the Vicarage girls. “If they’ve anything really sensible to talk about,” says Selina’s scornful brother Edward, “how is it nobody knows what it is? And if they haven’t—and we know they can’t have, naturally—why don’t they shut up their jaw?” Miss Hale’s reports would silence and perhaps confound Edward, covering as they do childish, adolescent, and maturer years. Another writer, because of differences in endowment and because of her different qualities and interests, might record other impressions. The chief merit of “The Prodigal Women” lies in the intense definition of each of the many characters. The disconcerting demerit is the emphasis placed upon physical passion, an emphasis that tends to distort the true spirit of love, which, as most of our greater poets and philosophers have found, lies in imaginative sympathy, for which indeed romantic love seems merely another name. The three women—Maizie, Betsy, and Leda—all suffer from neuroses, particularly the third, who is talented, ruthless, and egocentric, a Becky Sharp of the twentieth century. One prefers the kindly, sensible Amelialike Nicola Kruger. Although the backgrounds are chiefly Boston and New York and the time the decade between 1925 and 1935, which is described as “an unbalanced era,” it is difficult to accept the author’s focussing as accurate.

Much of “The Prodigal Women” takes monologue or dialogue form and a morbid introversion seems to dominate both. Within certain limits the novel is knowledgeable, but it has no important intellectual contribution to make. The style is fluent and vigorous, and the characters, including the men—most of whom are at least as objectionable as the women—are forced into the frames prescribed by the author’s purpose; yet within these frames they live and move dramatically or melodramatically enough.

In Miss Welty’s “The Robber Bridegroom” we have a compound of the Robin Hood stories, Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm brothers, “Peter Pan,” “The Wind in the Willows,” and the Mississippi-to-be of Mark Twain. All this is Miss Welty’s inheritance and ours, but she has invested her full share to such imaginative effect as to bring in rich returns. Jamie Lockhart of the yellow hair is a most satisfactory bandit and Rosamond Musgrove as heroine makes no attempt to resist his fatal charm, despite the wicked plots of her cruel stepmother, Salome. Clement Musgrove, Rosamond’s father, is a thoughtful innocent, and Mike Fink, Goat, Big Harp, and Little Harp, with Jamie’s’underlings, round out the cast. Miss Welty, whose earlier book—”A Curtain of Green”—contains a group of short stories, has a. quick and rare perception in evoking auras and atmospheres —a phrase, a line, and the thing is there. “The smell of night had not yet returned to the woods; and there was a star shining in the daylight.” “A foam of gold leaves filled the willow trees.” “The yellow lightning gave a flash like swords duelling over the rooftop.” The book is not a “juvenile,” any more than “Alice in Wonderland” or “Peter Pan.” It is already a little classic in its own right.

Although Miss Angela du Maurier is the youngest member of a family widely known for its cultivation of the arts, “Treveryan” is her fourth book. It is the tale of a Cornish family—two sisters and a brother—in whose blood hereditary madness lurks, and of the tragic shadows that fall across their lives as they become aware of the curse and strive or fail to strive to adjust themselves to the limitations it imposes. The brother, Veryan Treveryan, though he travels and goes soldiering, is the weakest of the three and the only one who dares to marry. The plot involves the single love affair of each of the two girls, Bethel and Lerryn, their devotion to their home, and their temporary estrangement. Bethel at length is turned out of Treveryan, slays her brother, and is tried for her life. A strange disclosure is made, the sisters are separated, Veryan’s wife—a rather shadowy Canadian— returns to Ottawa, and the old family home is broken up. “Treveryan” has some kinship with Daphne du Maimer’s “Rebecca,” but lacks the sinews, the coherence of that story » and uses an idiom that is neither Victorian nor Georgian. The writer has some sense of organization, but does not adequately control either her intention or her material. She is on her way, yet still has far to go.


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