The Spanish Farm; Sixty-Four, Ninety-Four!; The Crime at Vanderlynden's

by Ralph Hale Mottram. New York: The Dial Press. 1924— 1926. 12mo. xiv+273+363+263 pp. 3 vols. $2,50 each.
TAKEN together, as they should be, Mr. Mottram’s three stories of the war behind the British front form a trilogy — beautifully written. From a purely literary standpoint they mark perhaps the finest treatment of a war-time motif yet achieved in English fiction. As a trilogy the form is peculiar: instead of following along one upon the other, the three books are superposed in time and place, the later two turning back to the starting-point and going over the ground from the beginning. The author’s purpose in this, as explained to us, is to deal with the subject from the different standpoints of his three observer-characters, taking each one as a representative type. Actually, the first book is a novel complete in itself, its central characters and its setting so strongly established that they determine the standpoint once for all and dominate wholly the other two — which are rambling chronicles interesting chiefly as supplementary postscripts to the first.
The Spanish Farm lay on a much-traveled main road just behind the British front in French Flanders — a zone overrun by British troops, but with its peasant cultivators still holding grimly to the soil. The farmhouse was a solid structure three centuries old, with occupants to correspond: M. Jerome Vanderlynden, cultivateur, and his daughter Madeleine — a peasant family deeply rooted in the soil, who with stolid heroic imperturbability ploughed and planted and garnered in their crops in spite of the war almost at their gates. The daughter is the mainstay of the house: she carries on her housewife’s duties fills the place in the fields of her two brothers called off to war, and, on top of all, ministers to the wants of ever-passing British battalions, billeted as they come and go within the precincts of the Spanish Farm, Dutifully, competently, and with unfailing dignity of spirit she carries on these many burdens the war has placed upon her, and in every way one feels that Madeleine has bien mérité de la patrie.
But Madeleine is the French heroine of an English novelist, and over her hangs a peril more relentless than even the dangers of the war. No less unflinchingly she endures it: in addition to one lover, a real one of pre-war days, she submits bravely and with unmoved dignity to the literary necessity of two other liaisons, each of them inexplicable and impossible emotionally, and wholly false to type and character. Mr. Galsworthy implies in his preface that he would have dealt with her in no less ruthless fashion, and we may admit that it is only through her passing romance with a British officer that Mr. Mottrum’s main character is woven into his general background of life behind the British front. Having performed this task, and lost her real lover in the war, Madeleine returns straightway to the Spanish Farm, puts on her apron, and goes back to work. One of the 1918 offensives brings the war to her very dooryard, and the Spanish Farm becomes a strong point, crisscrossed with trenches and wire and ploughed up with German shell —but Madeleine still holds on. After so much courage and devotion, it seems ungrateful on the author’s part to turn her at the end into a political lay figure, and make her a symbol of France clamoring for Reparations — ‘a woman widowed and childless, wrestling with fate for the uttermost sou of compensation due her.’
Both as a literary achievement and as a human creature, Madeleine is an extraordinary character: so forceful and compelling that she surmounts, by sheer force of vitality, the artistic injuries inflicted by her creator.
In Sixty-four, Ninety-four! Lieutenant Skene, the momentary British lover, becomes the central but rather insubstantial figure in this retold tale; while The Crime, at Vanderlynden’s presents a still more shadowy Lieutenant Dormer, who in the rather futile and inept performance of his duties is led repeatedly to the Spanish Farm. In these two later books much more space is devoted to the war itself and to characters and happenings in the British Army. Types and scenes are noted in swift and accurate strokes, but the effort to string them into a single narrative weakens the freshness of impression; the incessant comings and goings and changes of scene leave the reader confused, and there is evident repetition of the same sources in the author’s notebook. Despite the vividness of these notations, the war and the fighting soldier form the background of Mr. Mottram’s canvas rather than the matter immediately in hand. His military characters move and have their being up and down a vague area just behind the front, and there succumb to a curious atmosphere of drab monotony and depression. This atmosphere, as well as the note of protest against what seems a hopeless, meaningless effort, is no doubt truly characteristic of certain types and times and moods, but for all that it is slightly morbid; and the constant reiteration of the same note benumbs the reader.
Mr. Mottram’s most convincing and most appealing characters are French rather than English, and the subject which has given him his real inspiration is the crushing, grinding pressure of the war on the life of the French countryside. His own countrymen pass out of his narrative and disappear, but the French stay put, and fix themselves in the memory as people to be counted with; even their most trifling affairs are things which really matter. All these currents of rather tragic life are gathered dramatically around the Spanish Farm: not only the peasant occupants but. all the types of French character that come within the sweep of the narrative are set down with the same quick keenness of perception, always with sympathetic understanding, but with no touch of false sentiment. Madeleine, dauntless under so great a stress of war; her father, who drives off in his ancient vehicle straight into the teeth of a German offensive in order to rescue his crop of potatoes; their landlord the Baron, whose futile existence resists no less doggedly every threat of enemy invasion; the schoolmaster notary and various other functionaries and officials — all form a gallery of most substantial character-portraits. Only Mr. Stephen Gwynn, among present-day writers, has the deft touch capable of dealing with this variety of French types of everyday life, and with them Mr. Mottram achieves a still deeper and more poignant grasp of character.
T. H. THOMAS