For Better, for Worse

by W. B. Maxwell. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company. 1920. 12mo, 440 pp. $2.00.
HERE is a realistic novel that has in an eminent degree an anything but eminent quality — namely, competence. In a sense important to the artist, and intelligible to any qualified judge of fiction, the most significant thing to say about it is that it was written by the author of The Devil’s Garden. In that novel of a decade ago — has it ever, by the way, received its meed of public acknowledgment from the chroniclers of recent achievement in imaginative literature? — occurred an absolute masterpiece of form. Search the whole range of both true and merely alleged realism in English, from Jack Wilton down to the items of the newest fall lists, and you will find nothing to compare with The Devil’s Garden as a display of sheer form, — form in the most severely technical sense known, — so stamped upon and branded into the subject-matter as to make it transcend the whole cult of realism, to which it owes nominal allegiance. That earlier novel is among the few creative efforts, of whatever school or period or measure of timeliness and ‘vitality,’ which achieve undyingness by force of their solid beauty of design. For fit objects of comparison, one has to resort to the best short stories in French and English, or to productions such as The Red Badge of Courage and The Nigger of the Narcissus, — which, properly speaking, arc not novels. — or perhaps to certain consummate odds and ends of drama or of architecture. Perhaps not two such miracles are to l>e expected from any one pen. It is ruthless criticism which measures For Better, fur Worse by any such criterion; but it is also shabbily evasive criticism which adopts any lesser standard than the author’s own highest. We have here, certainly, no second Devil’s Garden.
What we do have is an exhibition of sterling competence and faithful verity in treatment of the current — and everlasting — candidate-fortruth motif. All avowedly realistic novels nowadays biographize the young and sensitive idealist as he tries to come to terms with life, with society. When he fails to achieve workable terms, the implication runs, it is so much the worse for life, for society — there being in his idealism, even though it materially fail, something more inalienably right and acceptable to the sense of justice than can be found in the sum of the massed forces which defeat him. This well-known story Mr. Maxwell tells again, with a young Englishwoman for his protagonist. She struggles valiantly on to defeat at the hands of a trinity of forces which represent and crystallize the will of society: first, her family, which is not a little like Mr. Galsworthy’s clan of Forsythe; second, her marriage, which is a crime against whatsoever things are lovely and of good report, though every sanction of reputable society attends it; third, tier talked attempt to win a divorce, in connection with which we find stressed once more the absurdity of the law’s determination to keep two persons together in wedlock unless it he proved that one of them is likely to suffer disastrously from a separation. The combination of circumstances of which Mr. Maxwell is here the historian forces his heroine into outright revolt and an illicit relationship. To this extent his novel is a trenchant criticism of life; and it leaves with us the sense that, inexplicably and tragically, it is indeed life which is at fault, and not the sensitive idealist.
H. T. F.