A Cure of Souls

by May Sinclair. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1924. 12mo. vi+320 pp. $2.50.
DEFORMED personalities apparently fascinate Miss Sinclair. Certainly it is a notable company of mental and moral cripples that limp through the pages of her novels, from the Tysons and their associates to the Oliviers, the Fieldings, John Conway, Mr. Waddington — the names might almost constitute a list of patients in a psychopathic ward. Canon Chamberlain, in A Cure of Souls, is a new ‘case’ to add to the lot; the book that tells about him is a study in abnormal self-indulgence.
The Canon is not a wicked man, as one ordinarily conceives wickedness. He is well disposed toward everybody. He would like everyone to be happy. But most of all he would like to be happy himself. So about his quiet Rectory in Queningford he builds high walls to shut out the harshness and shrillness of life. Fastidiously, not grossly, he titillates his senses with delights: the golden warmth of the flagged walks in his garden; the air languorous with the perfume of lavender and roses; the comfort of deep-cushioned armchairs; the enchanting peace of an August afternoon as honeyed hour follows honeyed hour; the cool luxury of sleep. Annoyances, however, creep into this paradise. Disregarded duties leave unpleasant little stings. Plain-spoken associates invade the Rector’s ease. Troublesome curates, sickly parishioners, discordant townsmen, disturb his days. Thus the terms of the situation are defined, the ‘case’ is set forth, until, through a series of incidents, the elucidation is complete.
Perhaps what most impresses the reader, in an age that is conventionally called lax, is the prominence of the ethical implications. No violent catastrophe, it is true, betokens the judgment passed upon the indolent clergyman, but the judgment is unmistakable. One thinks of the Victorians — Dickens, George Eliot—most of all, George Eliot. Then one realizes that not even George Eliot so stripped her theme of nonessentials, so concentrated upon the relation of conduct to character. It is rather in the morality plays of the Middle Ages that one may find a like simplification of life shaped by a like purpose. Miss Sinclair’s artistry, moreover, is astonishingly like the artistry of the moralities. The characters are so vigorously pared that they are little more than personifications: Sloth, Doubt, Luxury, and their fellows. They act their parts in a structure so symmetrically angular as to delight the heart of a diagram-loving schoolteacher. With the method thus severely geometrical, the marvel is that the fundamental humanity of the story is so largely preserved.
In its way A Cure of Souls undoubtedly exhibits adroit and skillful workmanship. Its range, however, is limited. Its men and women are misleadingly static and obvious. Simplicity is gained only by ignoring complexities inherent in human nature. It is the sort of sketch that should be merely a preliminary to the novel of amplitude and richness that the author can do so well.