Sheila Intervenes

by Stephen McKenna. New York: George H. Doran Company. 12mo, 308 pp. 1920. $1.75.
FOR everyone except ‘the ineffable company of pure Eesthetes, ’ the novels of Mr. Stephen McKenna are notably good reading. One says ‘good reading’ advisedly: it is as reading matter, and distinctly not as novels, that they excel. Mr. McKenna is the sort of contemporary ‘realist’ who carefully avoids the appearance, if not the actuality, of creating anything. He takes it as his province to exploit his own experience and observation of the part of life with which he seems personally most familiar. Since the nucleus of that part is modern London, especially the political and journalistic society of London, it is impossible for him to write uninterestingly. Once you have given him up as a possible writer of fiction and accepted him as the social historian he is, you are sure of your reward, which is very like that of reading lively memoirs or hearing political gossip about important affairs from a good raconteur who has actually played his part behind the scenes, yet preserves some capacity for detachment.
This writer’s detachment is that of the intellectual Anglo-Irishman. His hero in Sheila Intervenes is Denys Playfair, a complex example of one not uncommon type of Anglo-Irish liberal. Playfair is by streaks cynical and idealistic, ascetic and luxurious, an insanely ardent worker and a physical and nervous wreck. The same contradiction runs deep into his character. Torn between a political career in London and a career in scholarship at Oxford, he finally seizes an opportunity to project himself into politics, ostensibly by using his gifts as a writer to help the effete Tory party of 1913 catch Labor votes. His real design, it transpires, is to gain a position of vantage and then use it to foment something amounting to revolution. The motive behind this sinister enterprise of the young Irishman is to avenge his grandfather, who had been hanged for killing a scoundrel in a political duel, and his father, who had died fighting against England in the Boer War. This fantastic project of securing vengeance by ‘boring from within ’ collapses when Playfair falls in love with Sheila Farling. For Sheila is the madcap granddaughter of Denys’s political patron, a fine and shrewd old Tory of the sort called ‘crusted,’ who takes it as his mission to regenerate his party by an infusion of young blood and constructive ideas.
Mr. McKenna resumed Sonia’s history in Sonia Married; and it is to be hoped that he will similarly carry Playfair’s history from 1913 into the years of the war. H. T. F.
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