by Mary Johnston. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1924. 8vo. vi+307 pp. $2.00.
A GREAT novel should have both soul and body, and this, it. seems to me, Miss Johnston’s latest production, The Slave Ship, possesses in abundance — would that more of our novels showed the same attributes!
The body of the story, so to speak, is its engrossing narrative, sweeping the hero on a swift current of events from the Tolbooth in Edinburgh out to Colonial Virginia, and thence into the dark adventure of the slave trade. There is no writer at present with Miss Johnston’s power of carrying the reader back into an historic past, and one may read and read of David Scott’s adventures, forgetful that the hours draw toward morning, and that this is the twentieth rather than the eighteenth century — all honor to the skill of her pen!
But a novel, like a sacrament, should have more than its outward and visible sign — it. should have an inward grace as well; its characters, setting forth some universal theme, should move against a tremendous background, giving the impression of a something more, a larger significance, impinging upon all the little moments of life which the author has chosen to portray. This feeling of something more Miss Johnston has conveyed with power and restraint. Her hero is himself, David Scott, a young man caught in the vicissitudes of his day; but he is much more—he is humanity enslaved; his struggles and questionings are the old universal hesitancies and inhibitions of the race, and his final release, in the climax of the book, is a way of escape for all mankind. The author goes below the surface of life, and strives to portray the Great Adventure. She has had a vision, and in The Slave Ship she has woven her vision and her art into an harmonious whole. With her sincerity, her power, and above all lier insight, she stands head and shoulders above the welter of cheap and clever writers — those who say nothing very dexterously, and who, immersed in their own smartness, are unaware that mere cleverness is almost the easiest form of writing which can be produced, that it draws from the shallowest of inspirations and in the end is about as valuable as the crackle of thorns under a pot — or a potboiler, perhaps one should say more truly.
Miss Johnston’s inspiration is never shallow, and in the present book she has achieved a success in that most difficult form of writing, wherein, with careful balance, the spirit infuses the narrative, without crippling the vision on the one hand, or sentimentalizing the story on the other. How difficult a medium this is the ‘dreadful little clever people’ are in no danger of discovering, for there is no fear of their ever being inspired to attempt it; but that Miss Johnston has been so inspired we may well be glad, and return thanks for the courage of her attempt, and for the good work she has done in The Slave Ship.
MARGARET PRESCOTT MONTAGUE