Iron and Smoke
by E. P. Dutton & Co. 1928. 12mo. viii+ 306 pp, $2.50.. New York:
SHEILA KAYE-SMITH has written more powerful novels than this, and novels breathing a more passionate love of her Sussex countryside.Iron and Smoke lacks, perhaps, both the poetry and the humor of Sussex dorse and Joanna Godden, as well as the mystical intensity of parts of Green Apple Harrest. It is, nevertheless, a finely and firmly written novel on a theme as original as any she has treated.
Every critic has spoken of the ‘masculine detachment’ or ‘stern virility’ of her art, which once made some suspect that she was really a man writing under a pseudonym. There is little of this here, except in the theme, which really does not emerge until the end, although the entire story is then seen to have been an exemplification of an idea. It is the story of two women for whom friendship is more important than love, and women who have every reason to succumb to the temptations of envy and jealousy. They both love the same man, one having been his mistress and the other becoming his wife, and they are, moreover, because of their children, thrown again and again into relations that cause temporary hostility and alienation, But they need each other, and every incident of their lives serves only to cement their friendship the more closely.
Near the end, when one last great quarrel has been narrowly averted, Isabel says to Jenny: ‘Anything is better than that you and I should quarrel. . . . Oh, my dear, it. is n’t worth it. Why should you and I work against, each other, and strive and envy, and all for the sake of a love that’s dead and done with, and, even while it was alive, was n’t so well worth having as our friendship. . . . These past twenty years have proved it. During them you have been my sister, my friend, my comfort, in a way that no man has ever been. . . . No lover has ever given me the help and joy and interest that you have, so why should I risk losing you? ' And Jenny acquiesces. This, I think, is an original subject, for I do not remember another novel in which the idea is advanced that friendship between women may transcend all other relationships and may prove more unalloyed and lasting.
It will be seen that the title, whatever symbolical significance it may have, is misleading, because it suggests a story of mining or industry. A running contrast, it is true, is drawn between the passions engendered by the Tape of Demeter’ in the mining of the earth for iron and coal and the serenity of the older life of agriculture and the affections — as in Hardy’s poem, ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations’"; and the latter half of the novel is thrown against the background of the war. But the story is the story of the development of Jenny from a romantic and sentimental girl to a poised and cultured woman, under the influence of Isabel. And both learn much from their children.
Of the other characters, Jenny’s father is strongly though briefly characterized, as is Isabel’s daughter, Wing. The book, as are all of the author’s books, is free from sensationalism and line writing. One powerful scene dwells in the mind above all the others: the death of Humphrey, Jenny’s husband. It is a variation of the story of Tristram and the two lseults, but here Iseult of the White Hands, in order to content her dying husband, impersonates Iseult of Ireland.
R. M. GAY