A Group of Recent Novels

Expiation, by Elizabeth, might be called a minor masterpiece in mischief, It is a complete exposure of petty hypocrisy, a rade meeum of respectability, a farcical handbook of pharisaism; and no doubt, under the surface, is very bitter. But on the surface it is as light-handed, witty, and laughingly cynical as one could wish. Milly, the heroine, is as soft and fluffy as a white rabbit; indeed, she is once described as looking like a white rabbit that has been caught in the rain. Her husband, Ernest Bott, dying, left a thousand pounds to Milly and ninety-nine thousand to found a Home for Fallen Women, adding to his will the ominous sentence. ’My wife will know why.’ Milly did know why, because for years she had been ‘living in sin with Arthur, a lymphatic college don, who usually had a cold in his head. It will he seen that there was little obvious romance in Milly’s levity. But behind Milly and Ernest stood the family of Bott. ‘The room was black with Botts,’in the last chapter, when Milly was at last received again into its bosom. The novel is really a kind of burlesque saga, in which the difference of tone is indicated by the difference in the family names.
Just who or what is expiated, and why and how, appears to make little difference. Humorless people will be shocked, and yet even I hey can hardly maintain that Elizabeth makes adultery attractive; although she does suggest that such delinquency as Milly’s is much to be preferred to the virtue of her sisters-in-law. In at least one incident the story rises to impressive pathos — that in which Milly meets her sister Agatha in a London boarding house. The rest is written with incessant coruscations.
In These Are My Jewels, by L. B. Campbell. a parable of ‘mother love,’the story is stripped to the bone. It is a study of a modern mother who ruins the lives of three of her four children by ‘preparing them for life.’ The fact is that her modernness is significant only so far as it affords her an outlet for her sentimental egoism. She is an exasperating creature at best, without humor or imagination, but her type is easily recognized. Mrs. Campbell is almost savage in her portrayal. She evidently endured Mrs Masterson in real life as long as she could and finally boiled over on paper. It is a bitter little book, written at a white heat, and as a first novel is remarkable.
‘ How these ladies love one another, I said, as I read Expiation and These Are My Jewels.The True Heart, by Syvia Townsend Warner, affords almost as many chuckles as Expiation, and perhaps has as much mischief at bottom; but on the surface it is tender and serene. It is a pastel in pale blue and pale green. The theme is that of Comus, but its heroine, Sukey, is a little Kate Greenaway Victorian, so innocent that she passes unharmed through all dangers because she does not know they are dangers. A fairy tale for adults, her story suggests wide areas of truth not commonly discussed nowadays. Sukey’s visit to the Queen stretched fantasy to the breaking point, and one might object to Mrs. Seaborn as melodramatic; and yet The True Heart shows something very like genius. The style in its freshness and transluceney is a delight. Although Miss Warner may write novels of a larger and deeper experience, she is not likely to write one of more charm.
There are certain novels which a man is congenitally incapable of judging at their full worth, because they deal with a range of emotion and instinct that lies outside his experience. He is likely to be puzzled where a woman is most at home. DarKHester, by Anne Douglas Sedgwick, is such a novel. It is the story of two women, a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law. Monica, a fine type of middle-aged woman, begins by hating Hester (a young theorist who is trying valiantly to be modern-minded) for no reason except that Hester has married her son; but both women have courage and honesty, and their mutual hostility is softened by circumstance, first to mutual respect and finally to affection. The machinery by means of which the change is brought about could be improved, — it is, in fact, clumsy, — but I he analysis of motives and feelings is subtle, indeed masterly. It is the motives and feelings themselves which seem to a male reader not so much inexplicable as futile.
At this late date it is superfluous to say of a novel by Mrs. de Selincourt that it is written with admirable strength, skill, and economy, or to mention its insight into dark crannies of character. Dark Hester has all these qualities. Its greatest weakness seems to me to be the portraits of the two men, who to a man are intolerable; though that they are so is owing rather to the terms in which they are described than to any lack of verisimilitude in them as types. But one might write an essay on how women and men describe men and women, and might conceivably prove that the methods of one sex can never be entirely satisfactory to the other.
After all of these studies in the subtleties of feminine character, it is refreshing to turn to the barbaric simplicity of This Side of Jordan. by Roark Bradford. There is a woman here. too, and she has her African complexities: but Dige (short for Digitalis) is as transparent as a puppy. She is one of a community of three hundred negroes living in isolation by a bayou in Mississippi, and what story there is concerns her love affairs, her religions experiences, and her relations with Aunt Crippled Lou. a witch-wife. Preacher Wes, Daddy Jack, and other prominent members of the plantation population.
It is, however, as a revelation of negro customs and philosophy that the book is most interesting. The author has been afraid of nothing in his desire to present the people as they are, and no word is too frank, no detail too sordid, for his recording. The reader nevertheless ends by feeling a warm affection for these children of nature: they are so full of instinctive hopes and fears, so suspicions and so trusting, so naive and so shrewd, and, above all, so unconsciously funny. And yet the book is by no means merely a funny book: it is full of the natural poetry of savage beliefs mingled with half-understood Christian tradition, and in the background are always the mysterious bayou and the ominous Mississippi. I cannot judge of the accuracy of Mr. Bradford’s transcriptions, but they certainly seem real; and I fell that Ids book was very rich, not only in negro folklore and folk ways, but in human nature in general.
Without indulging in any comparisons with Sinclair Lewis’s other novels. — for such comparisons are always somehow invidious, — one can say that Dodsworth is very interesting and in some ways remarkable. Here is the familiar realism, achieved by the multiplication of trivial detail, and the familiar absorption in the question of what is the matter with America. The realism may he illustrated by a single incident in which two American woman-tourists, seated in a café in Paris, are overheard discussing the relative prices of Ivory Soap and Palmolive Soap. It is so homely, so ordinary, but so actual. And this novel in whole chapters is hardly distinguishable from a tourist handbook.
Nevertheless the author is thinking hard, as usual, about the average American psychology, Sam Dodsworth represent s a numerous American type, drawn without spleen or ridicule; pathetic in his searching for beauty, truth, and goodness: a puzzled man. He has made money and is nowready to achieve culture. His wife, Fran, is satisfied with the veneer, but he is not. Nothing but the real thing can fool him for long. Though ignorant and blundering, he is a fine fellow at heart, and his creator makes him very lovable.
It is rather too bad that a hovel which really has a worthy theme in Sam’s spiritual search should lose much of its force by the identification of this issue with his-marital-difficulties. I suppose that the estrangement of Sam and Fran is advaneed as symbolical of the main theme, but it necessitates much repetition of incident and a sometimes tiresome bickering between them that divert from the main question. Perhaps this is why minor episodes, like that of Sam and Matey, admirably narrated, seem to take an undue prominence. And the final chapters concerning Sam’s discovery of an elective affinity in Edith Cortright is a very bad anticlimax, chiefly because Ediths somewhat autumnal preciosities are far more irritating than Fran’s silliness.
R. M GAY
Expiation, by Elizabeth, author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran & Co. $2.50.
These Are My Jewels. by L. B, Campbell. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc. $2.00.
The True Heart, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. New York: Viking Press. $2.50.
Dark Hester, by Anne Douglas Sedgwick. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. $2,50.
This Side of Jordan, by Roark Bradford. New York: Harper & Bros. $2.50.
Dodsworth, by Sinclair Lewis. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. $2.50.