An Artist in the Family

by Sarah Gertrude Millin. New York: Boni & Liveright. 1928. 12mo. vi+255 pp. $2.50.
THIS is a study in artistic temperament, from the point of view of the artist’s family. Set in a South African environment of sun and blue distances and smouldering racial animosities, the story rises above continental boundaries to the level of general significance. Theo Bissaker is an impulsive romantic, who in his charming way insists on living his own life no matter how much he prevents those about him from living theirs; who delights in the thrill of generous actions and never counts the cost because he always leaves the payment to others. Sent to England at his father’s expense in order to study law at Cambridge, he has deceived his family, roamed over Europe as a vagabond artist, and after two and a half years has come home penniless, with an ignorant, uncongenial wife, and her illegitimate child by a former lover.
Theo’s parents have a not very profitable citrus farm in the Transvaal. The trees are of mediocre quality; too often the oranges arrive in England soft and spotty; the South African market is all but glutted; the family resources have already been strained to support the prodigal, while Tom, the older son, has had less than his share of assistance. But Theo has a supreme contempt for these shabby details, and settles himself down to paint some more bad pictures. Enthusiasm follows enthusiasm, failure succeeds failure, until at last the romantic temperament, shorn of all pretense to the immunity of the artist, outdoes itself in an empty gesture of stupid and futile self-sacrifice. Indomitable egotism peers through the thin veil of a temporary martyrdom.
Mrs. Millin has written a moving novel, with an economy of effort that baffles analysis. It is an austere, unobtrusive, and beautiful art that she has mastered. She has employed it to create a leading character as paradoxical as life — who at one and the same time arouses disgust by his callous irresponsibility and pity by his childlike helplessness. She has given voice to the frequently misunderstood and misjudged middle-class family in one of its most difficult situations. All of this, and more, she has accomplished. And yet one reader, at least, confesses to a certain disappointment as he compares this book with others by the same author. The earlier distinction is not quite attained. The details are not fully integrated. At times interests foreign to the theme pull and tug at each other confusingly. Again, the theme itself is not brought out to best advantage. Presumably there are people like Theo. But the case against the type would have been stronger had the indictment of the individual been weaker. Finally, the background fails to constitute an essential part of the story. The incidents might have occurred anywhere. Even the arousing of racial antipathies by Theo’s ill-advised attempt to glorify his African brethren through the medium of his art is a situation that might have developed wherever different races mingle. The magnificent fusion of background and action so successfully achieved in God’s Stepchildren is here absent.
In spite of these drawbacks, An Artist in the Family is a readable and significant piece of work. But Mrs. Millin can do better. She has done it.