Young Felix/Vindication

by Frank Swinnerton. New York: George H. Doran Company. 192312 mo. viii+431 pp. $2.00.
by Stephen McKenna. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 1924, 12mo. x+390 pp. $2.00.
BOTH of these novels show the singleness of purpose, objectivity, and economy of means — in short, the technical excellence—which we have come to expect in the best present-day fiction; but in other respects they are about as different as two novels can be.
Young Felix is the story of Felix Hunter, whose name is an allegory of his nature. He is described as a contemplative, intelligent young man of some artistic ability, whose early life is one long series of disasters, but who is temperamentally unable to succumb to them. I say ‘unable,’ because Mr. Swinnerton makes it perfectly clear that Felix was born happy. ‘The character of Felix,’ he explains, ‘is his fate. . . . There must be something in his character which naturally’ produces disaster. There must be something in the grinning welcome which he gives to misfortune. She drops in to tea with Felix whenever she has been having a thin time elsewhere.’ But the author leaves us in no doubt that it is Felix’s grin that is important, rather than any visitation of misfortune.
Although Young Felix might be described as a pill to purge melancholy, an antidote to novels of the school of gloom, it is far from being a specimen of what is known nowadays as ‘facile optimism. There is nothing of Little Dorrit or the Cheeryhle brothers in it. Felix takes no credit for his cheerfulness. Toward the end of the book he fears that his manner is becoming ‘hearty,’ and adopts measures to correct it. He is too intelligent to be proud of his fortitude, which, he knows full well, he owes chiefly to his mother. ‘He expected disaster, and disaster came. Then he went on to something else.’ This going on seems to me his great originality among the heroes of recent fiction, who are much more disposed to drink their cup to the dregs and then to die lingeringly of the poison.
Young Felix may be called a good ' bracer ‘ to read after finishing Vindication; for the latter, though admirably written, is not pleasant. It is a scientifically unimpassioned study of people who either have not yet socially ‘arrived’ or have arrived long since and are now slipping from their social foothold. The collision of the two types has been accentuated, I suppose, by the war; and yet neither type is essentially different from those that appear in Vanity Fair.
Indeed, Vindication is a somewhat slender delineation of Vanity Fair in the twentieth century, and Gloria Britten, though no Becky Sharp, is an adventuress who, like Becky, has determined to marry land or money. Daughter of a gambler and libertine, she seeks to climb out of the class into which she has been born, and is in a sense successful. Her ‘vindication’ of her social rights is, however, ironically set. askew by the passionate blood which she has inherited from her Spanish mother and her profligate father and by the interference in her plans of a rather unconvincing young Don Juan named Freddie Kendaile, who first seduces her and then persuades her to marry him, although she is already engaged to an upright young aristocrat, who owns vast though heavily mortgaged estates.
The people portrayed have all the cynicism, petty ambitions, short views, immorality or unmorality, glitter, brass, and stupidity that Thackeray found in Vanity Fair; but Mr. McKenna’s manner of portraying them marks the change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. He never moralizes, never appears before the curtain, never remarks — much less rages — about his characters, never exaggerates, never by a word suggests to his reader what his attitude is toward them.
The consequence is that many an unthinking reader will pronounce his book sordid and heartless. The author has, however, adopted as his only Victorian echo, the use of poetic mottoes for his chapters; and they furnish an easily understood chorus of comment upon his story.
Perhaps the main criticism to pass upon Vindication— supposing one is willing to grant that such a picture is justified at all — is that it somehow lacks emphasis, the very quality in which Young Felix is strong. But the episodic plan of the latter novel lends itself well to dramatic emphasis, because it presents only those scenes which clarify the theme. In Vindication one is puzzled by the tortuous psychology of the characters and is not certain whither the plot is leading or — in the end — where it has arrived. A second reading adds greatly to the clarification of the action, but few readers will care to extend so far their acquaintance with Mr. McKenna’s personages.
There is a sentence in Carlyle which I shall venture to quote, though he is not much quoted nowadays. It suggests, I think, one truth about fiction. ‘Wouldst thou plant for Eternity,’ it runs, ‘then plant into the deep infinite faculties of man, his Fantasy and Heart; wouldst thou plant for Year and Day, then plant into his shallow superficial faculties, his Self-love and Arithmetical Understanding, what will grow there.’ The difference between Young Felix and Vindication is the difference, perhaps, between heart and head. The latter is intellectualized, sophisticated, and not quite real; the former is simple, direct, engaging, and true.
R. M. GAY.