The Elder Sister

by Frank Swinnerton. New York: George H. Doran Company. 1925. 12mo. vi + 343 pp. $2.00.
MR. SWINNERTON’S new novel may be best described in the language of the movies, as a close-up of three people in love. So intimate is our approach that we burrow with the author in the consciousness of Vera and probe the temperament of Mortimer. Only toward Anne do we keep a certain reticence, observing her chiefly through the jaundiced eyes of her younger sister and the perverted, unwilling scrutiny of her husband. Yet we know her as well as we know the other two, and she is the only one worth knowing. She moves through the overheated pages of the book with dignity, with charm, and, even in the midst of her heartbreak, with sanity.
If it were not for Anne we might think that the author laid the blame of his tragedy upon the mean streets, the stuffy lower-middle-class household, the vulgar commercial offices, and the blighting weather, in which Mortimer and Vera stifle and writhe. But these conditions weigh as grievously upon Anne. Mr. Swinnerton is not generalizing as to the effect of environment upon character, and the depressed reader suspects that Vera’s helpless, greedy passion would have rushed on disaster whatever the surroundings; and that economic ease would have widened the scope of Mortimer’s callous self-indulgence.
Base is the dreadful adjective not to be avoided in describing Mortimer; so young and so base — over and over one repeats it, turning the unhappy pages. Vera is helpless, against herself, against her lover; but Mortimer is deliberate. Vera’s affection for Anne, drowned in the flood of her passion, yet floats up now and then, stirring a brief remorse. But Mortimer is remorseless. ‘Voluptuously he hated Anne.’ Without restraint he gives himself up to the satisfaction of his ill-regulated desires, blasting the lives of both sisters because, as he acknowledges, ' I don’t know what I want myself. I’m only sick of the deadly weariness of the life I have to lead.’ When Nemesis overtakes the lovers it is Vera, ‘clutching at happiness,’ who yet has the grace to cry, ‘“What cowards we are, and how cruel!” Mortimer did not answer. His face was averted.’
The realism of the book is unquestionable. The wretched young people live before us, their hearts all bare. The art of the book is subtle, for while it presents the actions and thoughts of Anne, Vera, and Mortimer almost without comment, and quite without preaching, it yet conveys the author’s unspoken sympathy with Anne. And throughout all its dreary preoccupation with illicit passion it never allows the reader to forget that the passion is illicit — a Victorian touch too often missed in the twentieth century.