The End of the House of Alard

by Sheila KayeSmith. New York: E. P. Dutton. 1923. 12mo. vi+353. pp. $2.00.
THE soil of England, at the present time, is producing more women novelists of distinguished rank than either the Continental countries or the United States. It would be interesting to know just why; perhaps it is the combination of a long tradition of the novel, which gives their art something rich and sure to grow in with a more solid personal freedom of a social and feminist sort than is found in other lands. At all events, in a world where the Jane Austen sort of restriction no longer carries its artistic or human reward because, in theory at least, all barriers are down, English women writers seem on the whole less inhibited, more squarely on their feet than the Americans, without any effort to be so. Miss Sheila Kaye-Smith is one of the younger half-dozen to whose latest book one has learned to look forward. Perhaps she is more ‘English’ than any of the rest. Certainly she is less touched by European traditions than Katherine Mansfield: those exquisite perfections and subtleties of technique and observation are not hers. She tries no revolutionary experiments in method and style, like Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf. She is not soaked in the newer continental psychology, like Rebecca West, and the beauty she conveys is less stylistic. Up to now she has seemed to be developing rather along the sturdy and epic Hardy tradition.
The End of the House of Alard is a novel of Sussex, but, though it still contains the agricultural and the religious motives which one has come to listen for in Miss Kaye-Smith’s every composition, the attack is unexpectedly conventional. In the earlier books the yeoman farmers and fighting Methodists of the land, their characters, human problems, and local background have been the author’s preoccupation. Now it is the gentry, the decaying squires on their mortgaged and tax-burdened estates, the futile vicars on their hereditary livings. The hero of this novel is not a person but a thesis.
According to the thesis, the land no longer belongs rightfully to the gentleman squire, or the vicarage to the country parson: they must yield to small landholders on the one hand and, on the other, to a more democratic and religious clergy, closer to the needs of land and flock. At present the squires are marrying out of their clan, in a last effort to hold their place. That is what the heir of the house of Alard tries, abandoning his Stella, — his doctor’s daughter, — for a rich Jewess, in a futile endeavor to keep the farms he loves. Ineffectiveness is the rule in this numerous family, suffering mentally from arteriosclerosis, eating miserable food off heavy plate, waited on by clumsy minions in livery, and screened by hothouse flowers from financial obligation. Only Peter, the heir, carries ineffectiveness to the point of suicide; but the rest fall by the wayside in a less spectacular manner — all save the two who break with tradition by renouncing it: Jenny, who marries a farmer, and Gervase, the religious younger son, who joins a Catholic brotherhood and sells the estates.
In any large-scale Sussex epic the country aristocracy has its place, and we should not quarrel with Miss Kaye-Smith’s moral if it were drawn from the vitals of her Alards. But the truth is that after the powerfully created Joanna Godden, with her domineering charm, her strongly wrought purposes and fallible achievement, Peter and his relatives are thin and cold as algebraic symbols. Does the author know them too well or too little to feel their tragedy? It seems that she feels only that of the land which needs to discard them.