by D. Appleton & Co. 1928. 12mo. 347 pp. $2.50.New York:
IN novels dealing primarily with situation, the reader asks first of all, and quite rightly expects, that the outcome, the solution, or perhaps only the conclusion, as the case may be, convey the unmistakable impression of inevitableness. Mrs.
Wharton. who years since admirably proved her mastership of such a novel, has especially in The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence. and Old New York established a reputation for excellence in this outstanding feature—a reputation which her more thoughtful readers hate to see marred. Laurence Selden at the bedside of the dead Lily Bart, Newland Archer gazing from the Place des invalides at the Countess Olenska’s drawn curtains, Ethan Frome coming into the shabby sitting room and into the querulous presence of Mattie Silver, now old — these closing chapters, satisfying, convincing, inevitable, are immortal in American letters. They mock the last pages of this new story, The Children, just as they mocked the chimerical complications of Twilight Sleep.
The Children is from beginning to end an unconvincing novel. How reluctant is one whom Mrs. Wharton has so profoundly stirred to write the words! And yet a second reading sheds no kinder light. The events so fraught with significance and tragedy only dawdle; they do not march on toward any inevitable close. One tries in vain to sympathize with the seven children, who illustrate in their incredibly mixed relationships and in their crass discussions of the liaisons of their various parents the cruelty of nonchalant divorce. They are not real like Margaret Kennedy’s consummate creations in The Constant Nymph, of which one discerns here not a little influence. Nor, with the exception of Judith, their mothering elder sister who is keeping them together at any cost, are they appealing. One cannot., of course, in the absence of reality expect appeal.
Martin Boyne, one feels, should be pitied. By force of circumstances and by virtue of his own kindliness he is drawn into the position of guardian and father confessor to the seven children on their journeyings and sojourns about Europe. In spite of his satisfaction with his engagement to a woman whom he has long loved, but who because of her own unhappy marriage has been virtuously unattainable, he finds himself overwhelmingly in love with Judith, thirty years his junior. A situation, surely, which should command our sympathy! But dutiful pity is a sad and sorry emotion, whether it be demanded by books or by life, and we cannot share Boyne’s loneliness on the closing page. If only, as in former days, Mrs. Wharton had compelled our pity instead of merely asking for it!
We miss, too, in this new novel, scenes which by reason of their own truth and strength might be stamped on our memories forever. We recall Lily Bart sewing spangles in Mademoiselle Regina’s millinery shop and seeing the distorted image of the New York world she knew in the mirror of the working girls’ minds; Newland Archer and the Countess Olenska gazing at each other across the red-covered table at Point Arley; Mat tie Silver at the breaking of the pickle dish in the farmhouse kitchen; the old maid at the marriage of her daughter. No one scene in any sense comparable to these strikes flame to run along the pages of The Children.
Mrs. Wharton, incapable as always of bad workmanship, writes easily and well. Her style, although for the most part undistinguished in this latest book, is never actually at fault. There are paragraphs of good description which in a measure atone for certain overdone figures. But we look in vain for unforgettable characters, for scenes which, lending experience and wisdom, make us wise and pitiful, and for a conclusion which is inevitable and hence satisfying.
MARY ELLEN CHASE