by Clemence Dane. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1920. l2mo, vi+ 199pp. $1.60.
FOUR lines from Spenser’s Faerie Queene so aptly epitomize Clemence Dane’s novel, that the temptation to quote is irresistible.
So every good to bad he doth abuse:
And eke the verse of famous poets’ wit
He does backbite, and spiteful poison spues
From leprous mouth on all that ever writ.
For Legend is a study of envy, a relentless and harrowing analysis of the malice and jealousies of little minds.
We sometimes accuse our latest literary generation of clouding moral issues: but there is no clouding of the moral issue in this book: every line breathes condemnation; the deadly sin is thrust upon our shrinking gaze uncloaked and unmistakable, The picture is a night-piece, fog without and dim hearth-fire within, and a little group of minor literary lights discussing their friend, the novelist and the woman, who has just died.
‘ Jealousy black and bitter — jealousy that had stolen upon us as the fog had done, obscuring, soiling, stifling friend and enemy alike — jealousy of a gift and a great name, of a dead woman and a living man and their year of happiness — jealousy beyond reason, beyond pity — jealousy insatiable’ — this is the warp of her legend, as the dead woman’s friends weave it.
But is it true that envy is the besetting sin of writers? The inference is plain; and yet, Spenser and Clemence Dane to the contrary notwithstanding, one thinks of Shelley’s tribute to Keats, of Matthew Arnold’s to Clough, of Mackail’s Life of William Morris, of all the generous, eager, honest books that celebrate the friendships of literary folk. Outspoken hatred betwixt authors there has been; quarrels too many, incompatibility, disapproval; but of the sin that secretly belittles and besmirches and undermines, how much do we find? That the people in Legend are the small fry, the second-rate, does not make the inference less unfair to the craft.
A repellent theme, and yet with a lure in it that keeps us reading to the end; a sophisticated and self-conscious art, sometimes over-reaching itself, as in the literary device whereby the storyteller remembers not only long conversations but even, word for word, the letter read aloud once
and immediately destroyed — and yet for the sake of the pretty letter we forgive the artifice; not as perfectly wrought as that other study of night thoughts and deeds, the Nocturne of Frank Swinnerton, not as well sustained — but an arresting book; and they lived happily ever after.
F. C.