by Mary Ellen Chase. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1927. 12mo. vi+192 pp. $2.00. (An Atlantic Monthly Press Publication.)
THIS book, if the reviewer mistakes not, springs from the author’s affection for beautiful words, for sentences turned with a rhythmic fineness in which each syllable is a conscious and intended element. It is a work of beauty, or it is nothing, and it is beauty of expression which seems to have been foremost in the author’s mind as she wrote.
But style must have its appropriate material, and Miss Chase’s material is peculiarly inseparable from her stylistic predilection. One suspects that she would be somewhat at a loss to exercise her faculty for beautiful language if she had not nature to describe, that at times her characters are chiefly valuable to her as excuses to record the blossoming of the wild plum or the heat of the August suns on the berry bushes of the Maine hills. The majority of the English poets are perhaps not far removed from her in this respect; and if prepossession with nature is a less popular characteristic of novels at the present time, many readers will still welcome a volume in which this imperishable source of pleasure is freely and beautifully exploited. And as always when the beauty of nature is genuinely rendered, a quality of the ideal and the poignant pervades Miss Chase’s book, pervades its expression, its story, and is enhanced by its humor.
Miss Chase’s story is of the simplest, its elements familiar and universal — first love; the earth, in its duality as the type of fullness, of life immeasurable and rich, and as the actual land, crushing the farmer beneath a weight of poverty, repression, and toil; the search for escape from a narrow and parching environment; birth and death. Of such material Miss Chase has constructed her tale. The fullness and the abundance of life, the days of a spring and a summer peculiarly flawless and symbolic of the transient and unearthly happiness of Martha and Jarvis, Miss Chase gives us to feel in overflowing measure. The bitterness of the farmer’s lot we rather acknowledge as a proposition to which assent is necessary than feel in its original force. The external beauty of the Maine landscape to her own eye is much more Miss Chase’s concern than the actuality of the farmer’s hardship to his. The book is open, indeed, to the complaint that its pretended setting of Maine is scarcely distinguishable from the land of faery, into which the impressionable young Colin, whose susceptibility to both love and the charms of the priesthood is so rudely distracting, introduces the wondering Martha. In the same way the rusticity of Miss Chase’s characters is considerably softened. Touched by her willing and tolerant humor, it never obtrudes its cruder phases. It again is present rather as a proposition agreed to than as an immediate datum felt and seen in its native substance.
Yet Miss Chase’s insight, into the bitter emotional repression which settles over thwarted and isolated lives is preserved in pages of great skill. And sometimes, also, at her most ideal Miss Chase is most actual. Moments are preserved in her words which could only have been produced by an unusual skill both in beauty of style and in the reality alike of their external detail and the emotional perception with which it is united. Such a moment is that which finds Jarvis bending over Martha in the berry patch in the first days of their enchantment. ‘Her pink dress, which was at last succumbing to wear and sun, was torn at the neck, and as she leaned forward showed the white soft skin below the tan of her throat and chest. He saw the fine down upon it, its rise and fall with her breathing, the tiny drops that clung to it. He saw, too, the eager, fearless poise of her head, the hair in curling wisps about her face, the light in her dark eyes that seemed to see something close to him.’ Is it not precisely at instants as unconscious, as unprotected as this that the premonitions of fatality and change which are aroused in Jarvis do occur?