Joanna Godden Married and Other Stories

by Sheila Kaye-Smith. New York: Harper & Bros. 1926. 12mo. viii+462 pp, $2.00.
UPON the publication of Sussex Gorse in 1916, Sheila Kaye-Smith assured herself a public, discriminating and expectant. Careless readers, subsisting upon situation and incident, soon wearied of the slow, saga-like story of Reuben Backfield and his sons, of his relentless, cruel struggle for the land of his fathers; but those to whom this book, written by a woman barely thirty, was an event recall with delightful remembrance the gorse waving like black plumes on the summit of the unconquered hill, the still Sussex, fields and marshes as young Robert Backfield, walking there with his sweetheart, discovered them in early evening, the sight of Pete Backfield, the last to escape from his father, journeying in his black suit across the ploughed land to join the Methodists. They recall, too, the pains and care evidenced in every chapter, the perfect unity of the whole, the sense of leisure wanting in so much good work. Some enthusiasts asserted that Hardy himself had done nothing better; and all waited with confidence and eagerness for the next book.
Nothing comparable to Sussex Gorse came until 1921, when Joanna Godden was published. But in that the high promises of the former were fulfilled. The splendid use of detail, the consistency in a characterization essentially contradictory, the reflection at once of the realism and romance in the life of the Sussex marsh farmer, the fine handling of dramatic situations, difficult because of their very naturalness, the perfection of dialogue, and finally the inevitableness of the conclusion in which Joanna refuses to marry the father of her unborn child for the sufficient but seldom considered reason that her love for him is dead — all these made a memorable novel and nurtured more hopes.
And now, after two less admirable books, The End of the House of Alard and The George and Crown, comes Joanna Godden Married, which the publishers unhesitatingly term a sequel. One may question whether Joanna Godden permitted a sequel, whether Joanna’s big and gallant decision did not finely and fairly complete her characterization. Recalling the perfect satisfaction with which one reread the last chapter, the assured sense that all had ended well, one is tempted to suggest that a sequel to such a close comes dangerously near to the sequelizing of katharsis! Yet here is the sequel, to be judged, not according to its expediency, but according to its worth.
In it unquestionably is the same Joanna, pretentious, imaginative, simple, crude, overbearing, energetic, passionate, uncompromisingly honest as regards herself. Here are her black dress and feathers, her silver teapot, the roses and Nottingham lace, once at Ansdore, now at Crown Dips. Here is her furious, jealous love for her little sister Ellen. Here, too, is the same good workmanship, though the length of the story allows less opportunity for the greater artistic detail of the first book.
One questions, also, whether in this sequel there is, as a matter of fact, ‘further development’ in Joanna. The sequel seems rather to solve her problem in settling her happily with Jim Carpenter, a nicely drawn sailor whom she nurses after an accident and who has energy to match her own. And for those who felt an undeniably bigger and spiritual solution in the close of the first book there is at least an artistic disappointment in spite of the minor satisfaction and relief in the happy ending.
There are, in addition to ‘Joanna Godden Married,’ eight short stories, the best of which are contemporary with the first Joanna. One will not soon forget the tragic simplicity of ‘ Mrs. Adis,’ with its brilliant handling of point of view, so satisfying to the short-story technician, or the charm of the Reginald Dalrymples, wayfarers, in ‘The Mockbeggar,’ or the lovely humanity of the little chicken girls in ‘Good Wits Jump.’ But where is ‘Old Gadgett,’ the dusty Sussex shepherd, who, with his set of sheep’s teeth and his ‘dunnamany a year.’ intrigued us all five years ago in Harper’s? In his place are other stories far less worthy—two ‘Christian Fairy Tales’ which one wishes were less Christian and more fairy, and three others much less impressive than those cited.
To those for whom the alleviation of Joanna’s tragedy will be a source of comfort and relief the book will be most welcome; to those who like to keep within easy reach the best of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s short stories it will be a valued possession.
MARY ELLEN CHASE