The Old Countess

by Anne Douglas Sedgwick. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1927. 12mo. x+372 pp. $2.50.
LIKE The Little French Girl, Mrs. de Sélincourt’s new novel is an interracial drama, and it shows the same skillful differentiation of Gallic and Anglo-Saxon psychology. The story, with its few characters and its expert economy of detail, is more compact, and moves more swiftly. It gathers headway like the river that pervades it - a boding presence, swelling toward the catastrophe. If one had to name the quality most essentially characteristic of Mrs. de Sélincourt’s art, one would probably choose its harmoniousness; and, with the possible exception of two or three short stories in Christmas Roses, this quality has never been more marked than in The Old Countess. This novel is like grave music, brightened here and there by delicately gay passages, but sweeping steadily to a tragic close. Without being actually symbolic, the setting is in perfect tune with the action; from the ‘ menacing ’ sky that the young artist is painting in the beginning, and the still power of the Dordogne as it slips between its cliffs, to the flood and the breaking of the dike, it parallels the threat and the resistless mounting of passion in the tale.
In the drawing of her characters Mrs. de Sélincourt has shown her accustomed power. There is the Old Countess, that feeble yet malignant figure, with her rather grisly infatuation for the handsome painter, younger by two generations — an infatuation that causes her a brief ecstasy of gratified vanity, and then a vindictiveness of jealousy that the reader is half pitying for its impotence at the very moment when it flashes out and topples down ruin. There is young Marthe Ludérac, tragic, solitary, repressed, pouring out her angelic tenderness upon her animals. There is Graham, the moody, morose, essentially hardhearted painter, dependent upon the sane love of his wife, devoted to her, yet helplessly swept away on the torrent of his passion, half mystical, half sensual, for the young Frenchwoman. And there is Jill, candid and loyal;full of a ‘fundamental trust in life’; entirely wholesome, yet without stupidity; entirely inartistic, from her husband’s point of view, yet endowed with that deep love for the softer beauties of the earth that Mrs. de Sélincourt, because it is her own, can convey as few novelists can do it.
The style, like that of the earlier books, is like nothing so much as an Indian-summer afternoon, but has point and thrust as well as mellowness. Not only touches of beauty linger in the mind, but felicities of phrase: not only the ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ as Marthe plays it on her harp, — ‘gliding fields of asphodel . . . white mists and slowly flowing silver streams,’—but the ‘low, blissful grumbling’ of the lame old dog, as, rendered self-conscious by the bandying of his name, he seeks the haven of his mistress’s nearness; or the quality of Graham’s laugh — ‘It did not take you into his confidence; it excluded you, rather, from all participation with the sources of his mirth’; or the ‘far, shrill cry’ to which is likened Jill’s first faint premonition that her happiness is in peril.
The quiet Epilogue, ironical, wistful, reconciled, is the very height of art.