BROADLY speaking, the novels of the past autumn and winter are fewer in number than usual, and weaker in interest. They lack something of their wonted depth of color and intensity of flavor. With certain exceptions, at least one of which is extraordinarily significant, they are washed-out.
The reader asks himself why this is. It has no immediate relation to the great affairs that occupy the worldstage, for these books were in the publishers’ hands before Europe went to war. Is it a matter, then, of contrast ? Are they few compared to war extras, or pale beside the actualities of strife? This might be. What novelist can compete in dramatic interest with the World Builder dealing before our eyes with peoples and continents as a child deals with lead soldiers and puzzle-maps?
Nevertheless, on soberly comparing the publishers’ lists of this season with previous lists, and the quality of most of the season’s performances in fiction with previous achievements by the same authors, we shall see that the diminution in quantity and quality is a matter neither of contrast nor of imagination. It is both real and measurable.
Those more sensitive than we, more skilled in interpreting the auspices, might perhaps have apprehended the approach of new and great phenomena destined to shake all forms of art as they shook other, weightier human activities. Certainly, both art and life have shown strange, hysteric symptoms in the last few years. The art of painting, we know, took a spectacular plunge down a blind alley. ‘No Thoroughfare’ was written in huge letters over the road of the Cubists and Futurists, whom already we speak of as in the past!
It is easy to say now that quite three fifths of the International Exhibition of two years ago was, shriekingly, the kind of creation that precedes débâcle. A hundred years hence it will be one of the commonplaces of criticism that art went mad in the dozen years preceding 1914. Some sapient critic will affirm: ‘The sensitiveness of the art-worker to the motion of those subtler ethers charged with waves of thought, feeling, and perhaps prescience, was never more vividly exhibited than in the plight of Continental art for some years preceding the Great War. In it, as in a mirror, the increasing discord of Europe was reflected. The demonstration that discord makes for hideousness was complete. Certain cliques of painters affirmed that it was their affair to penetrate to the core of things painted and represent their souls; certain others claimed it their sole duty to transcribe in pigments the mental impression received from the visible objects dealt with. Among the former there were a scant two or three artists, truly great, who could indeed paint and model the souls of things, but the work of those who strove to render their own mental impressions only, was hysteria made visible. Such few survivals of the work of Picasso, Picabia, and their like, as exist, carry the effect of disintegration so far that it produces an actual nausea in the beholder. It is as if he saw solid matter refusing to cohere in accepted shapes, dizzily falling apart into its elements. The final suggestion involved is inevitably that of corruption and decay. Disintegration connotes these states as its ultimate. If the literature of that period shows itself in somewhat better case, it perhaps owes that fact to the dependence of authors on publisher. Whatever their other failings, the successful publishers of that age were not hysteric!’
We, who are nearer that literature, know that a few writers used futurist methods. Noteworthy also has been a violent ebullition of the flesh in fiction. The present critic confesses with regret to having minimized deliberately a perception that the main current of fiction a year ago ran turbid as the Mississippi in flood. ‘It is temporary, it is coincidence, that so very many Titans and Salamanders come together,’ one said to one’s self. ‘It is an accident not to be considered, a phenomenon unjust to dwell upon.’ And behold! It was, instead, the brown boiling-up that the spring gives before it runs scantily and perhaps ceases. Such things are signs of some disaster at the hidden source of springs. Marked as always by the violent, the outré, the utterly unreasonable and unspiritual, the end of an era was upon us and we knew it not. One wonders that, seeing what we saw, we saw no more.
When worlds are rocking, the consequent gyrations of art may seem of tertiary importance, yet are not really so. For if we ask ourselves what, then, is art, that its connection with the world of events is so intimate, sensitive, and apparently prescient, we come at once to the core of things; we open so great a question that it can be dealt with here only most humbly and hastily, by guesses and intimations.
Let us examine what some recognized authorities have lately said about art’s obvious decline. George Moore, when asked two years ago his opinion of modern painting as an investment, affirmed vehemently that there was money in it, because ‘in fifty years’ time there will be no more art in Europe.’ His explanation ran thus: ‘Art is an intellectual formula. We get the formula on one condition, and that is segregation. . . . Art is essentially nationality. ... It is now impossible to distinguish between the art of one country and that of another. Without segregation every one imitates another.
. . . The question is, can we get a new formula?’ And to this he answers, No.
Victor Auburtin in Die Kunst Stirbt attacks the question from the Teutonic viewpoint. The German formula for life, which he accepts tacitly as that of the whole modern world, is, he finds, death to art. The gospel of utility, efficiency, comfort, leaves no room for mystery, splendor, passion; no room for illusion and naïveté. These things furnish the soil for art, and they have been improved out of existence. So, we have done with art. He suggests sadly that perhaps we can very well do without it. Good sewerage is necessary; good poetry is not. It may even be, he thinks, that art is some raving fever that has to be cured. At all events there is no place for it in that improved economic future which modern Kultur must bring to pass.
Thus England and Germany. As to America, Ralph Adams Cram, himself a great creator in the building art, looks forward hopefully. In The Ministry of Art he announces again and again that ’we approach one of those great movements of readjustment when much that has been, finishes, and much that was not, comes into being’; but he divines the approaching epoch as nobler than the last, as ‘again synthetic, creative, centripetal.’ Precisely because he himself is a creator, he knows what art’s self is. Concerning this matter the artist is usually inarticulate, while the more loquacious are less qualified to speak. Mr. Cram expresses the essential revelation in many ways, but most clearly, perhaps, in saying that art is ‘the only adequate expression in time and space of spiritual things.’
This may be said more concretely than Mr. Cram has chosen to do. Art is what the artist sees, hears, apprehends, when he steps aside into that Timeless World that all creators know. The actual things they bring back from it, — lyrics; sonatas; pictures; tales; little miracles of color, craft, design; structures of marble, brick, wood, fit to stand as houses of worship or shelters for human love, even as roofs for our great material activities, — all these things are scattered thoughts of the One. The creative art-worker gives them material form, putting them into shapes our ears can hear, our eyes see. To do this successfully, it must be done simply and directly, because — it was said in China long ago—‘in the domain of the One there may not be managing.’
Thus and not otherwise is art what Mr. Cram calls it, ‘the voicing of the Over-Soul,’ ‘the record and the revelation of man’s spiritual adventures,’ ‘the handmaid and exponent of religion.’ The word religion has here no conventional meaning. It covers all our relations to the One.
Well, this is very simple if you once admit the possibility, so vivid an actuality to every art-worker, of passing into the Timeless World. It explains, too, both Mr. Cram’s fine optimism and the pessimism of European critics.
The plain man also makes his journeys into the Timeless Country, bringing back — in the shape of moral impulse, ideals, right resolution — those perceptions of something beyond ourselves and more beautiful than we, which the art-worker receives as concrete beauty in varied shapes. It is, all of it, stuff of the Over-Soul. In older and more reverent words, it is the very graciousness of God.
Thus, art is the steam-gauge on the boiler of life. It marks the force of the spiritual pressure within. The amount of real relationship with the sustaining spirit beneath the show of things may, or may not, correspond with the more formal expressions of religion at any given time.
In periods and lands where this relationship, which is the real religion, fails, art may seem moribund. The critic who is not spiritually minded (and with all his perception George Moore is certainly not that) can thus imagine no future for art. The man living, as Auburtin, in a country whose thought is strongly rationalistic, a country moreover which has made Nietzsche its prophet, is bound to feel that art is swiftly dying, once for all. No other conception is possible in such an atmosphere.
No outsider should speak with authority concerning the interrelation of rationalism and militarism in Germany. Neither can any outsider say whether Nietzsche only gave voice to a philosophy native to autocratic Prussia, or whether he shaped the thought of the more militant section of united Germany. Nor can any outsider determine at this time what spirit actually preponderates in the German people — the practical and Christian spirit which we have all seen so often and loved so well in individual Germans, — mostly, however, in the women! — or the deathto-the-weaker spirit which Nietzsche so stridently proclaimed. But what one may surely affirm is that Germany, more wholly and devotedly than other nations, lives in and by and for ideas. Therefore wrong and vicious ideas do more damage there than elsewhere. They ‘take’ with tremendous virulence, if at all. They poison more people, and poison them more violently. Perhaps the true furor Teutonicus is the delirium caused by wrong thinking.
Rationalism unbalanced by reasonableness is sheer madness. The advantage of not committing one’s self irrevocably to ideas is that thus one escapes the damnation of acting without reserve upon the wrong idea.
What has all this to do with current fiction ? It leads straight to a consideration of The Encounter,1 by Anne Douglas Sedgwick, a novel which incarnates the religion of Nietzsche and that of Christ, as well as the creed of the hedonist, and shows them fighting their battle out on the virgin field of a young girl’s heart and brain. This most penetrating and unusual book is the author’s finest achievement. One hardly sees how she can again equal, not to say outdo, such work as this. It shows distinction, subtlety, inevitableness, an absolute mastery of the tools of her art, a crystalline delineation of difficult, amorphous character. But deeper than its truth to actual life lies its truth to the underlying spirit of things. It is one of those rare works that emerge unbroken and unmarred, a perfect whole, from the Timeless World. And with all this it has that mysterious timeliness which seems too significant to be mere coincidence, since it records the utter rout of Nietzsche’s philosophy of ’the world for the strong’ before that nobler conception which the Christian world is slowly stumbling toward through long and bitter paths. And this demonstration comes at the precise moment when the whole earth is wondering if that philosophy is to replace, for an æon or two, the ideal of the Golden Rule.
Nietzsche’s self is made protagonist here in his person and habit as he lived. Ludwig Wehlitz frankly embodies the writer’s impression of that ‘ piteous and splendid’ figure. The contest of the story takes place between Persis Fennamy, a young American girl of beauty and great intelligence but unstirred, perhaps unstirrable, heart, and three vividly individualized Germans, each a philosopher after his fashion. Wehlitz’s philosophy, of course, is Nietzsche’s own, quite wonderfully interpreted; Graf von Lüdenstein is hedonist and materialist; Conrad Sachs, ugly, crippled, poor, despised, believes that the highest strength desires and chooses goodness. ’If only strength is good, it is still more true that only goodness is strong.’ To him, the breath of the spirit is the world’s great reality. Each of these men loves the girl after his nature. The swift interplay between their emotion and her dawning consciousness takes strange and dramatic forms, too complicated to rehearse. But even the casual reader need not fear the book’s philosophy, for it is concreted and made absolutely definite in personalities. The story, as a story, is as rapid and absorbing as it is subtle, but one despairs of setting it forth fully, just as one despairs of any adequate account of the marvelous Mrs. Fennamy, perhaps its most trenchant personality.
Probably no one with the instinct for character ever read Nietzsche without feeling that he did protest too much. The vehement champion of force is never strong. The delineation of the man himself as it is here,— acute, exalted, puerile, egotistic, ignoble, impotent, half-mad with visions that go far, yet not quite far enough, — accords unforgettably with the impression that his work imparts. Here was a brave coward whom the universe drove mad with fear. No prophet, this, for nations to build upon.
Wehlitz hates too much to be capable of love. He cannot woo, for philosophers may not sing the Song of Songs; yet had Persis loved him first, it might have freed him and have let him be the lover she so blindly but so righteously demanded. Von Lüdenstein asked merely to be allowed to teach her the intoxication of the flesh. In the end it emerges clear that only Sachs, standing aside in complete renunciation, has registered himself upon the girl’s soul. The thought of him is as necessary, as reviving, to her as his presence is to the furious and shattered Wehlitz. He only can bring peace. His is the strength of the selfless, and they all live in his strength. ‘ O Galiléen, tu as vainçu,’might well be written on the final page.
This is an inadequate account of an inimitable achievement. I confess that to me the book seems entirely perfect as art, philosophy, religion. No one who cares for either should let it pass unread.
A group of belated novels about modern woman might have seemed vital, even exciting, a year ago. But now — what are feminists, anyhow? Was there once a lecturer named — what is it? — Pankhurst? Did anybody but George Washington ever own a hatchet? The whole hectic aspect of womanagitation has disappeared by magic, as hysterical seizures disappear when the house takes fire. But its literary traces still remain.
Delia Blanchflower2 is Mrs. Humphry Ward’s account of some phases of the English militant movement. It is sane, comprehensive, and forcible. Generalizing quite frankly from the particular cases here presented, one may say that frantic militancy seems to arise from some repression or divagation of the sex-instinct. Mrs. Ward’s militants are women embittered by events in their individual lives rather than martyrs to a holy cause. In them the natural attraction of woman to man is turned to an insane and bitter hate. Like all forms of hate, it leads direct to some form of hell. There is no escaping this. Even though you admit fully the injustice of the English law toward women, the fury of militancy remains as before, a malign and evil mood, most destructive to those who develop it. The only unconvincing thing in Delia Blanchflower is the love story. It reads as if the author continued to believe in love stories with her head, but had lost interest in them with her heart.
Her Wings3 just flutters the edge of the problem tentatively, since the heroine, solemnly dedicated to useful celibacy by her mother, is so obviously designed by Nature for other ends that her struggle against manifest destiny can have but one end. Faces in the Dawn 4is a pleasing and poetic account of a German pastor’s browbeaten wife (she had reasons for rebellion, if you like!) who was given new ideals by Gudrun, the baron’s daughter. Gudrun returns from Colorado engaged to a good American who knows how women should be treated. Between them all, they almost made Pastor Adam Samuels see that men might be ’as brave, noble, and happy a company where the wives were considered intellectually and spiritually their equals, as in countries where they were sentimentally idealized but actually regarded as inferiors.’ The objection to this excellent story as propaganda is that no Pastor Adam will read it.
If Esperanza, Pastor Adam’s wife, is the woman of yesterday, Bambi is a chortling, joyous specimen of the girl of day-after-to-morrow.5 Bambi’s historian is bright, vivacious, and obviously so young as to be unhampered by any real knowledge of people, so she artlessly presents, in a series of motion pictures, her idea of a really fine girl. Bambi, aged nineteen, relentlessly marries Mr. Jarvis Jocelyn, would-be dramatist, because she sees in him the makings of a success and wishes a hand in the work. She has to catch him when he is so stupefied with creative writing that he does n’t know what he is doing — otherwise he would refuse to be married; but little does Bambi care for that! She keeps him in a room in her father’s house, working at his drama. Presumably father pays the bills while Bambi earns enough money by story-writing to send Jarvis to New York to market the play. She gets him the job of dramatizing her own anonymous novel, makes him fall in love with the unknown author, and reveals the secret only on the highly successful ‘first night.’ In brief, she drags him about by one arm, head bobbing in the dust, as a child drags a Teddy-bear. And these are the dearest dreams of the Newest Girl! Her doctrine would seem to be this: it is Man’s turn to be a toy; let him take his medicine!
Even the cowed and shrinking Esperanza is a more pleasing spectacle than Bambi. If you are down-trodden and submissive, you are at least saved from the disgrace of flagrant egotism. But there are two or three women in the new novels who approximate a happier state than either. I admit a violent attachment for Hilda Maneley, the little lady of The Nightingale.6 She is so deliciously unreasonable, such a happiness-giver, so humanly gay and comforting! We all know some one she reminds us of: some woman who, without achievements or talent save the highly developed talent of taking an interest in other people, succeeds in warming a corner of the world for us whenever our thoughts turn that way.
Hilda’s personality is heart-filling, and it really ‘ gets across.’ One humbly submits to militant ladies the opinion that here is Woman-at-her-Best.
Little Eve Edgarton is a rebellious mite who has been dragged from sea to sea ever since she was born.7 Said her mother who died, ‘Any foolish woman can keep house, but the woman who travels with your father has got to be able to keep the whole wide world for him. It’s nations that you’ll have to put to bed. And suns and moons and stars that you have to keep scoured and bright. But with the whole green earth for your carpet and shining heaven for your roof-tree and God for your landlord, now would n’t you be a fool if you weren’t quite satisfied?’ ‘But all the same,’ said little Eve, ‘I’d rather have a house! ’ It is refreshing to meet such a perfectly normal young person, even if she does make a fuss about it.
Little Eve would be twice as effective were she italicized only half as much! But, with whatever abatement, she is a much more useful and desirable citizen than To-day’s Daughter, as depicted by Mrs. Bacon.8 The author gives us a number of searching, acute studies of modern American women. She asks, in effect, what Nature demands of them, and shows how they meet that demand. In particular she inquires, how does unnecessary money-making effort, outside the home, work out with reference to the home itself? She distinguishes clearly between the woman who must work in the world and the woman who insists upon her right to do so, with respectful consideration for the undoubted genius and for the woman who is willing to earn if she can do it under her own roof. The author carefully avoids all moral judgments, all viewpoints save those of Nature when Nature is keeping her sharp eyes on the race. Says Mrs. Fitch to Mrs. Fettauer, when the latter proposes to throw over husband and children in order that she may go on with her career of organizing prison-reform, ‘Wrong? Who said anything about wrong? Or right? When I see a woman throwing away a string of pearls for a string of buttons, do I call her wrong? I call her blind, that’s all!’
The tenacity with which Mrs. Bacon adheres to the evolutionary and utilitarian standpoint serves only to bring out more vividly the fact that Nature as interpreted to-day and Duty as interpreted yesterday are identical and make the same demands on women. She might have pushed her logic a little further and mentioned that To-day’s Daughter, if she persists in such woodenness and rigidity as Lucia Stanchon displays through her married life, has inevitably decreed her own extermination. Nature, who, as Lucia’s wise father points out, irrevocably decrees that men must first of all be brave and honest, and women kind and chaste, has not yet put it into the hearts of men to desire mates as hard as cigarstore Indians. There is one strong similarity between the highly cultivated group of New York women drawn by Mrs. Bacon and the joint heroines of Perch of the Devil,9 Mrs. Atherton’s equally expert if less agreeable delineation of two women of Butte. Both groups have this quality of steeliness, which apparently results from extensive self-consideration unmitigated by much regard for any one else. Ida Compton and Mrs. Mark Blake are thoroughly up-to-date in their limitless individualism; the latter is the finerfibred, with an inherited taste for the things of the mind, but in the contest between them the commoner woman is victor. She purposes at least to keep her hold on her own husband, and in this, being on Nature’s side, she wins. Other than this blind instinct, neither of the two women has a principle to bless herself with. If Mrs. Atherton and Mrs. Bacon are right, modern woman is deteriorating with spectacular rapidity, whether in Montana or Manhattan. The pictures they present are undeniably terrifying.
For a totally different effect, one may turn to The Rise of Jennie Cushing.10This heroine is born in the gutter and reared in the reform school, but by virtue of something within herself speaking with an authority to which she always yields obedience, she pursues her own path uncorrupted by the dark experiences through which she passes. Jennie Cushing is wonderful, but alas! she is not typical. Her exceptional selflessness offers no argument for woman in general, though it confirms the doctrine of Conrad Sachs that ‘only goodness is strong.’
Does any one still care for the nineteenth century, with its restraints, its elegancies, its exquisite, painstaking art, its careful superstructures on foundations of solidity? Here are three books whose authors had popular success in the eighties. Diane and her Friends,11 by Arthur Sherburne Hardy, is a volume of adorable short stories. Recalling his early work across the years, one finds here no loss of grace or deftness, but only an added definition and clarity. In the old days he was at times too vague. The quality which gave him good audience then was poignancy. He had the power to express ‘the sense of tears in things,’ and it remains wholly undiminished. No one writes short stories like these nowadays,— each one like a carved gem. Evidently art was not dead when Mr. Hardy learned to write. — The action of Gideon’s Band,12 by George W. Cable, takes place on a Mississippi River steamboat in 1852, during a trip from New Orleans to St. Louis. Cholera breaks out, invading the cabins from the lower deck; two brothers, who are worse than hot-headed, attempt to develop a feud, but most of the evil consequences of the trying situation are met and averted by two young people, boy and girl, one in each camp of the opposed factions. The situations are dramatic and unusual, and they put in play before us the life of a vanished time. The book, indeed, suggests dramatization more strongly than do many novels of which successful plays have already been made. — Perhaps Charles Egbert Craddock is the only living follower of Scott. At all events, she reproduces closely some of his merits while avoding most of his defects. The Story of Duciehurst13 is an absorbing tale, which deals with a stranded steamer, river-pirates, hidden treasure, usurped estates, a broken levee, and an engulfed plantation. Plenty of elements of interest here, and they are built into a carefully composed whole in which the development of personality is kept the strongest point. Each chapter advances the whole plot in a definite and enduring way. The construction is a pleasure to reflect upon, and if the language is a little too dignified for to-day, so much the better for the reader. The book is as interesting as any of the shockers, and it is not jerry-built.
A comparatively new writer, A. S. M. Hutchinson, goes back to Dickens for his inspiration. The Clean Heart14 is the story of a self-centred novelist, temporarily unbalanced, who wins to health first, then sanity, and finally selflessness, through tramping the by-ways of England with a hard-drinking vagabond, Puddlebox, who might have been lifted bodily from Dickens. I am not denying that there may be virtue enough in open air and the English landscape to make a gentleman and a philanthropist of a Puddlebox, and he is as certain of popularity as Mr. Locke’s Beloved Vagabond, a somewhat similar character, who is developed with fewer direct assaults upon the reader’s emotions. Locke’s performance is the more artful of the two, and the less ethical. It remains to be seen which readers want most.
Breathless books on a high level are The Clarion15 and The Charmed Life of Miss Austin.16 The former is a capital story, moving with the speed of an express train and doing all that the advertisements claim for it in the way of exposing newspaper venality in connection with the patent-medicine trade. But it does more than this, or Literature could not smile at Mr. Adams so amiably as she now has grounds for doing. Dr. Surtaine, his quack, who begins life as a wandering faker and evolves into a multi-millionaire with an enormous and beneficently run dope-factory, is an unusually human and lovable creation. The hero, his son, who wars with him, the heroine, and everybody else in the book are feeble indeed compared to this genial, sincere old scoundrel, who is no novelist’s dummy, but a life-sized human creature with all the tragic inconsistencies and comic imperfections that make human beings the endlessly absorbing creatures that they are. The Charmed Life of Miss Austin, with its Oriental background, like carved lacquer, against which stand out the naïve outlines of a nice girl from the United States, is distinctly clever. It is a very bad book for girl-travelers in the Orient to read: it gives the impression that, no matter how self-willed they may be in their adventure-seeking, Providence in the shape of a Man from Home will surely intervene. There could be no more fatal delusion for a nice girl on the China Coast. But. the stories are good stories, for Mr. Merwin knows what components go to the making of a good story. His recipe is almost infallible.
The only ingredient one could wish added to them is the sincerity one feels in the work of Lincoln Colcord, that other student of the China Coast. The Game of Life and Death17 is one of the best short stories of recent years. Though no other in the volume to which it gives title is of such dramatic intensity, all are absorbing with that reality found only in the work of a man who sees through the vivid appearances of things to their final reality.
Follow a few books that are simply agreeable reading. Snaith’s new novel, Anne Feversham,18 is a pleasant presentation of a quite possible Will Shakespeare taking a benign interest in young love at great personal risk. This author, never twice the same, is never negligible. The Street of the Seven Stars19 is the good old story of a poor young music-student abroad, retold for this generation by Mrs. Rinehart. It will probably be as deservedly popular as was The First Violin some forty years ago — for romance is not yet dead. Personality Plus20 details the preliminary business experiences of Jock McChesney, son of Emma McChesney, that dauntless and sparkling traveling-woman. Jock is not so good a man as his mother, but one is always interested in the sons of old friends. Phyllis21 is a gay little story of a Northern girl in a Southern town, and The Hon. Percival22 details the amusing encounter of the conventional Englishman with a Montana damsel. Both books have the essential joyousness that seems to come from the nearer South. The stories of Mrs. Bosher, Miss Daviess, and Alice Hegan Rice are what one may call sweet-dispositioned books. Like certain bubbling Southern girls, they are ‘nice to have around.’
It would not matter that H. G. Wells is the most incorrigibly wrong-headed novelist we have, if he were not also incorrigibly interesting. As things are, his wrong-headedness adds to his interest. It grows exciting to see him take shot after shot at life and human nature, without ever hitting the bull’s-eye. He can punctuate a pattern all around it with neatness and dispatch, but the gold itself he never scores. It is hard to explain why a man with such a rich mentality never by any chance penetrates to the core of things. Of course, he is urban — and Truth lives out of town; also, he relies on his reason, and Truth values instinct more. Still, would n’t you think that sometimes by accident he might stumble upon an eternal verity? As a matter of fact, in Mr. Polly and again in Marriage he came close to it. His newest novel, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman,23 is a book of divers delights. The first hundred pages or so are phrased with such felicity and subtlety that there are half a dozen distinct pleasures on each page. When the author gets fully into the swing of his story, he forgets to polish every separate sentence so brilliantly, and the elated response of one’s brain-cells to his adjectives is noticeably less frequent. Had he kept it up at the same pace, I fear one might have forgotten to be critical, even about the eternal verities! Critics also have their price.
Another pleasure is the careful, fulllength portrait of Ellen, Lady Harman, who is preëminently the kind of woman worth this trouble. Wells has never elsewhere drawn a woman so painstakingly and accurately. In this respect, also, the book marks a great advance. The reader’s disappointment inheres, as usual, in the underlying satiric foundation of a pleasing superstructure. Those who know their Wells will recall that Stratton, hero of The Passionate Friends, devotes his life to ‘the destruction of jealousy, and the forms and shelters and instruments of jealousy, both in my own self and in the thoughts and laws and usages of the world.’ The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman may best be described as a bit of Stratton’s special pleading. Its sole purpose is to show masculine jealousy as supremely brutal, and supremely ridiculous.
Sir Isaac Harman, a rich baker, marries at forty a beautiful, reasonable, and intelligent young girl whose life he makes a burden by interference, domineering, and jealousy. He will not let her be, in the least degree, an ‘autonomous’ individual. For some years she accepts this quietly, but as her character develops she begins to want, not freedom from any duty or responsibility, but merely a little pocket-money, a few friends, and the right to think a bit occasionally. She finally obtains these simple requirements by getting a month in jail for militant window-breaking. Sir Isaac, dying, makes her fortune dependent upon her refusal to marry again. This she has no disposition to do. Nothing she has seen of marriage has yet shown it a desirable estate. So she refuses Mr. Brumley, a harmless novelist who has been her friend, admirer, even adviser, for some difficult years, asking him to remain exactly what he has been to her, and no more. He finds this hard, promises it at first, then raves and rages jealously against Sir Isaac, finally bursting into loud boo-hoos and running from her wildly to hide his sobs. The book ends on this blatantly comic note, which jars like the blare of penny whistles at carnival-time. There never was a hero more banged about, maligned, jeered at, than Mr. Brumley! It is positively low to create a character and treat it thus. There are certain decencies due from creator to created which Wells observes not at all.
What the author wants you to understand is that Mr. Brumley’s unaffected, blubbering jealousy of the dead husband and his desire to touch once only his lady’s lips, are as outrageous manifestations of jealousy in their way as Sir Isaac’s domineering in a more masculine and brutal way. What the reader says to the author is, ’Kind sir, I fear you are Reason’s Fool! No strong passion, not even this apparently most unlovely one, but plays its great rôle in the shaping of man’s soul, and is a basal element in all that civilization holds dearest. And if you want light as to what jealousy really is, pray read Pierre Vinton !24 The author is as clever, as felicitous as yourself — and he goes to the heart of things, as you refuse to do.’
Pierre Vinton is, indeed, a quite wonderful book. So expert is it, so full of charm as well as insight, that it is hard to believe it the first book of a new writer. One would say there are not more than four American authors capable of such work. Vinton, who tells his story in the first person, is a ‘superfluous husband ’ whose wife has given him a ‘refined divorce’ because she is tired of him. He is not at all tired of her, but supposes it the part of a gentleman to let her follow her will. To her he is ‘an emptied tea-cup on the Tray of Things.’ We see him. philosophizing unsteadily upon his plight, moving from friend to friend, listening to condolence and counsel, with a spirit seeking but unconvinced. In the course of time he is told suddenly that his wife contemplates remarriage. He falls into the hands of horror at the words. In a delirium of primordial emotion he conceives the world as the kennel of a raving pack ‘ driven wild with appetites whose causes, purposes, even satisfactions, they are ignorant of.’ Standing on a New York street corner in the night, he visualizes the world as a ‘vast plain in a dim light, with the black, uncouth shapes rising and falling.’ Despair of life grips him. ‘In such chaos, what hope was there save in the sharpest tooth?’ —The delirium and the vision presently pass. He touches the stones of a building, listens to footfalls. The perceptions of reality come back. Broadway is real; his vision, delirium. But it has not always been so. Once his vision was the reality and Broadway less than a dim vision in the brain of brutes! The one has evolved from the other, and jealousy has been the strongest factor in that evolution. For the moment, Broadway looked to him like Paradise!
He feels that he must account to himself for the horror that fell on him at the thought of this marriage. He cannot get rid of that obsession of emotion by calling it jealousy and throwing it aside. Jealousy is only a name; it explains nothing. As he walks on up the street, in the light of his own previous behavior he acquits himself of the fury of balked appetite. This feeling was, somehow, quite different, of a higher nature, of a vastly greater power. Slowly insight comes. In this emotion ’I had somehow become an instrument of that Law which stretched from Broadway to the beasts and incalculably further. I was in my horror an infinitesimal means to its vast mysterious purpose.’
This is the part of the book one prayerfully desires Wells to read. It is written with the unquestionable authority of real experience, real insight. There is no mistaking that note. Mr. Brumley’s emotions are pale indeed beside those of Pierre Vinton’s crucial hour, while Brumley’s creator, compared with Vinton’s, stands convicted of bungling insufficiency when he puts fingers on the soul of man. Where there is no vision the people perish. Why could not the gods, who gave Wells so many gifts, have given him just one more?
Pierre Vinton’s story closes in a lighter vein than this account would indicate. His other discovery — that if love, and love only, validates marriage, divorce cannot invalidate it so long as love is left on either side — is cheerfully recommended to advanced propagandists in this field. Who says A must say B. No one seems ever to have thought of this before, but its logic is inescapable.
- The Encounter. By ANNE DOUGLAS SEDGWICK. New York: The Century Co.↩
- Delia Blanchflower. By MRS. HUMPHRY WARD. New York: Hearst’s International Library Co.↩
- Her Wings. By FRANCES NEWTON SYMMES ALLEN. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.↩
- Faces in the Dawn. By HERMAN HAGEDORN. New York: The Macmillan Co.↩
- Bambi. By MARJORIE BENTON COOKE. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.↩
- The Nightingale. By ELLENOR STOOTHOFF. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.↩
- Little Eve Edgarton. By ELEANOR HALLOWELL ABBOTT. New York: The Century Co.↩
- To-Day’s Daughter. By JOSEPHINE DASKAM BACON. New York: D. Appleton & Co.↩
- Perch of the Devil. By GERTRUDE ATHERTON. New York: F. A. Stokes Co.↩
- The Rise of Jennie Cushing. By MARY S. WATTS. New York: The Macmillan Co.↩
- Diane and Her Friends. By ARTHUR SHERBURNE HARDY. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.↩
- Gideon’s Band. By George W. Cable. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.↩
- The Story of Duciehurst. By CHARLES EGBERT CRADDOCK. New York: The Macmillan Co.↩
- The Clean Heart. By A. S. M. HUTCHINSON. Boston: Little Brown & Co.↩
- The Clarion. By SAMUEL HOPKINS ADAMS. Boston & New New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.↩
- The Charmed Life of Miss Austin. By SAMUEL MERWIN. New York: The Century Co.↩
- The Game of Life and Death. By LINCOLN COLCORD. New York: The Macmillan Co.↩
- Anne Feversham. By J. C. SNAITH. New York: D. Appleton & Co.↩
- The Street of the Seven Stars. By MARY ROBERTS RINEHART. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.↩
- Personality Plus. By EDNA FERBER. New York: F. A. Stokes Co.↩
- Phyllis. By MARIA THOMPSON DAVIESS. New York: The Century Co.↩
- The Hon. Percival. By ALICE HEGAN RICE. New York: The Century Co.↩
- The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman. By H. G. WELLS. New York: The Macmillan Co.↩
- Pierre Vinton. By EDWARD C. VENABLE. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.↩