The Romantic Comedians

by Ellen Glasgow. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 12mo. vi+346 pp. $2.50.
IN The Romantic Comedians Miss Ellen Glasgow has written a very clever book whose title inevitably challenges a fleeting mental comparison with George Meredith’s older work. TheTragic Comedians. But in substance and treatment, in feeling for life, the two books are wholly unlike. In Meredith’s rich novel the heroine feared to grasp life’s thistle boldly enough, while the hero was too punctilious to snatch — hence timidity and pride made of them frustrate lovers. In Miss Glasgow’s novel the chief character mistakes life’s thistle for love’s rose, and pays the usual penalty for mistakes.
To those that take their fiction with all seriousness —like Henry James, for instance — fiction may be divided into two classes — the fiction of power, that of the heart; the fiction of knowledge, that of the head. Miss Glasgow’s present book, like Mrs. Wharton’s work in general, belongs to the latter category: its appeal is rather to the intellect. And if humor be ‘the smile in the eyes of wisdom,’ then Miss Glasgow’s wisdom lacks the smile. There is an edge to her wit; she does not wear it as Joan of Arc did her sword — sheathed. Her characters, admirably drawn and highly individual, are not ‘typical’ of any part of the country, though the scene of the story is laid in Queensborough, presumably Richmond. Her people are gentlefolk with the limitations and advantages of Anglo-Saxon traditions, social position, customs, and conventions, together with certain church affiliations, at several of which the author aims the shafts of her wit, leaving others exempt. The women are particularly interesting, especially Mrs. Upchurch, ‘too wise ever to be original, too tactful ever to argue,’ a flatterer of men by instinct and habit; and the amusing old emotional swashbuckler Edmonia, who declares that ‘ America is an anæmic nation, and the danger with national anæmia is that it runs to fanaticism in the brain,’ and who further avers that the ’honey’ of her attractions is due, not to her ‘actual virtues,’ but to her ‘legendary vices.’
After the somewhat staccato wit and much worldly-wiseness — for there is an exquisite subtilty, and the same is not wisdom — of this book, one can only ask the favor of Miss Glasgow that she will follow it with a sequel giving the fortunes of Annabel and Birdsong in their pursuit of the will-o’-the-wisp, happiness. For Annabel, belonging to no particular section of the country, typical of a certain kind of present-day young person alike devoid of any sense of responsibility toward God or man — Annabel is quite a memorable picture. She is, however, represented as ‘honest,’ with ‘an inchoate sense of justice.’ But in the outcome of her destiny she fails to live up to this presentation.
‘I won’t take a man from any woman,’ she declares, before paying her significant visit to Amanda. But would n’t it have been equally fair not to allow a woman to be taken from any man? Is n’t it a poor rule that won’t work both ways?
Miss Glasgow never fails to be interesting and suggestive, as she is here; but her earlier novels showed a kindlier feeling toward our common humanity.