Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man/the Pathway

by Siegfried Sassoon. New York: CowardMeCann Co. 1929. 12mo. viii-376 pp. $2.50.
by Henry Williamson.. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. 1929. 12mo. x+397 pp. $2.50.
Two English novels by writers who draw their inspiration peculiarly from the English countryside and from the experiences of the war invite consideration together.
Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is the first novel by Mr. Sassoon, who was made known to us by his war poems and the deeply impressive readings in which he delivered them in America the year following the war. His prose shows that he has freed himself from the intense revulsion that possessed him directly after the Armistice; it is evidence of a more cool, dispassionate contemplation than is to be seen in his Satirical Poems of 1926.
It is a peculiarly English story that, he gives us, dealing as it does with fox-hunting, county cricket, steeplechasing, and London tailors — those adjuncts to living, peculiarly delightful to the English, which are here made to appear — not in irony as if they were the very essence of life itself. The subject of the Memoirs is ‘an active young man who asks nothing more of life than £1200 a, year and four days a week with the Packlestone [hounds],’ who spends ten years preparing himself for such an ideal existence, and who is then caught up by the war, the horrors of which he occasionally escapes by commandeering an old black mare and riding out on imaginary hunts a few miles behind the lines. And the war, though it opens no future, does afford him a perspective down which he can gaze at his past.
It is a bachelor book (a maiden aunt is the only feminine presence), a book of few memorable characters, a book whose scant humor and great reserve often result in calm monotony, a book which in its own borders may conceivably be appreciated for more than its face value. — appreciated, that is, for its sincere and faithful detail. — but which otherwheres may be regarded as a picture of a self-contained Englishman whose devotion to horses and pursuit of the fox seem curiously out of focus in a trying world.
If Henry Williamson has come slowly into our focus it is our fault, and American readers will be the poorer if they do not make amends. Mr. Galsworthy remarked his genius three years ago. In 1928 Williamson’s novel, Tarku the Otter, His Joyful Waterlife and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers, was awarded the Hawthornden Prize, and this year The Pathway, a novel on which he has been engaged for four years, seems destined to receive the hearing that has long been owing him.
The Pathway is laid in Devon, the country where, since tlie Armistice, Williamson has dwelt in a hermit’s stronghold — a single-room cottage on the edge of the moors. That at least was where his mail was delivered; according to rumor, he passed both days and nights on the, I Devon coast and moorlands in intimacy with the oldest of English inhabitants. His knowledge of birds and beasts, of trees and stars and flowers, might have been inherited from W. H. Hudson: not only is it sensitive and acute, but—as The Pathway bears ample evidence,— it can be fluently expressed.
The story has to do with a modern Shelley and his influence upon each member of a large country family. The Shelley — his name is Maddison and he can be suspected of having much in common with the author — is ‘a creature of light,’ a mystic, erratic and profound in his approach to the business of life. And, like Shelley, his contradiction of the established order brings suffering to himself and those who love him, though the memory of his freedom and eloquence may endure. It is the tragic story of the prophet without honor in his own country.
Such faults as there are — a tendency to overwrite his descriptions, a carelessness in defining the character relations, a little too much insistence on idealizing, — these are far more than counterbalanced by the fine modeling of the individuals, the breadth and tenderness of his creature-lore, and by the beauty of a vocabulary derived, like the huntsman’s, from the earth, but so much more varied and sensitive.