My Heart and My Flesh

by Elizabeth Madox Roberts. New York: The Viking Press. 1927. 12mo, viii+300 pp. $2.50.
ONE is frankly puzzled, in fact besieged by questions, in attempting an estimate of Elizabeth Madox Roberts’s new book. Is there any relation whatever between the long Prologue and the story itself? Should one expect a relation? Has the author any singleness of purpose in the conception and execution of her story, and, if she has, has not the reader a right to expect some outward and visible sign of it? Are the frequent inclusions of a very ugly naturalism as intrusive and uncontributory as they seem, even upon a second reading? Must the voices which speak to Theodosia Bell, as she lies in bed from illness and starvation, own James Joyce as a father? Does the story as a whole somewhat sadly reflect the work and the points of view of contemporary writers rather than Miss Roberts’s own attitude and her well-proved ability? Does the most dramatic scene in the story, the scene at the cabin of Theodosia’s half sisters, the negresses Americy and Lethe, lose its art and its significance by a lack of motivation and an overdose of high tension? Is the conclusion, which is somewhat reminiscent of Sylvia Townsend Warner, credible in view of the preceding chapters? And, if credible, is it as unsatisfying as one is inclined to believe? And finally, ought all these queries to be shoved aside as upstarts in the face of much gracious writing and of flashes of beauty not unexcelled in The Time of Man?
Aye, there’s the rub — the mention of that earlier and lovelier book! Comparisons, odious as they are, are inevitable. The epic quality of The Time of Man, which lent to that story the exciting illusion that the book marched on in spite of its author, is entirely lacking in this new novel, which is episodic in the extreme. The circumstances, welcome or untoward, which at once dictated and made the life of Ellen Chesser and of her fellow wayfarers, had about them a simple inevitableness in contrast to which the succession of cataclysmic disasters in this new story seems quite alien and impossible even to Fate in its worst mood. The touches of so-called realism of the earlier story were natural and incidental, never disagreeable or unpleasing, whereas at times, in the later, one looks back upon Smollett with tolerance.
Yet one remembers, too, and vividly, the ’widely spread glow’ of the morning at the Singleton farm, the rhythm of the trees, the bright altar cloth of the Queen Anne’s lace, and the swift passage of images through the child Theodosia’s mind as she tries to answer her uncle’s question, ‘What’s the best thing in the world?’ Anthony Bell with his Shelley, and Tom Singleton with his love of his own grave on the summit of the grain-swept hill — these atone in a measure for what seems a host of ugly or, at all events, unnoteworthy people, just as the clear-cut pictures of Theodosia’s childhood excuse, up to a point, the obscurities of the passages which chronicle her twenties.
It may be that the book is remarkable. But the reviewer cannot free her mind from questions that won’t be downed.