Told by an Idiot
by Boni & Liveright. 1924. 12mo. xii+327 pp. $2.00.. New York:
THERE may be differences of opinion as to whether Rose Macaulay’s ‘sound and fury’ does in the whole signify nothing or much. It is obvious that in spite of her disarmingly quoted title, in spite of her ironic mood and repeated cry of ‘Vanity, vanity!’ she herself does feel that the idiot’s tale has a real importance, and in the main we agree with her. Yet we may question whether her comment on life does not lose its deepest significance by the very sophistication and polish of its satire. But let us not begin with the expression of a doubt. Miss Macaulay’s admirers who felt that Mystery at Geneva was a falling from grace may be reassured at once: the new novel is a return to the old manner, broadened and enhanced.
Told by an Idiot is the history of a family through three generations. The chronicle begins in 1879, when Mrs. Garden announces to her six children: ‘Well, my dears, I have to tell you something. Poor papa has lost his faith again.’ The setting for the beginning of the tale, the drawing-room furnished in a mixture of MidVictorian and Pre-Raphaelite taste, red plush and papier-mache, Morris chintz chairs and Liberty cretonnes, where Maurice, the eldest son, reads from the Observer about ‘these troubled times,’ and Vicky, the eldest daughter, announces that she is a New Girl and can do what she likes, shows admirably Miss Macaulay’s method of summary and characterization. She extracts the essence of an era as well as of a person. Indeed England — Victorian, fin-de-siecle, Edwardian, Georgian England — is probably the real heroine of the idiot’s tale. It is extraordinary how many strands are gathered and carried through this book to reappear in changing form from year to year: international relations, politics, theology, literature, fashion, women and the woman movement, manners and customs of the younger generation. Often Miss Macaulay achieves her summing up by a category: a list of things that Imogen — of the third generation of Gardens—at the age of eighteen loved and hated, from Yeats and meringues to drawing-room meetings and people who talked about clothes, not only gives us Imogen, but the whole vision of the Happy Young in 1905. Again, we have ‘Vicky dashing full-sail through her fifties,’ a happy middle-aged Georgian, characteristic of her day, yet a real individual.
The two most finished characterizations are of Rome and Imogen. Imogen is delightful, especially as a child. Through her eyes we view Jubilee Day, hear the ‘noise of loyalty,’see the procession with the stout little old lady, the Queen, and the grievously disappointing Prince of Wales. Imogen grows up to feel ‘the splendor and the joke and the dream,’ but even to her life is ‘a mess — a bitter, bemusing muddle.’ The portrait of Rome is even more authentic; Rome ‘fastidious, mondaine, urbane, sheltered, critical, amused, sceptical,’ whose one intense emotion ended in tragedy, leaving her to look at life with an irony and detachment that one suspects of being a reflection of Miss Macaulay’s own.
Papa, the clergyman of ever-changing faith, whose ‘ broad-mindedness amounted to a disease,’is, though amusing, at times a trifle too absurd for reality; but Mama is more subtly done, with her quality of delicate impenetrability, ‘too gentle to be called cynical, too shrewd to be deceived by life.’ Miss Macaulay is skillful in showing the children’s inheritance of the qualities of the parents, which may be called the psychological aspect of her second theme, ‘L’histoire, comme une idiote, mécaniquement se répète.'
Obviously, Miss Macaulay has attempted something very big in Told by an Idiot. Her undertaking is so large that she has not always been entirely successful, and the book is much better in its details than as a whole. Miss Macaulay, the satirist, impedes Miss Macaulay, the novelist, yet one has at times the feeling that she is writing the outline of a tremendous Tolstoyan novel to follow, laying out a gigantic skeleton to be later covered with living flesh.
KATHARINE SERGEANT ANGELL.