English Novels

IT is fashionable nowadays for young critics in New York and London to take pot shots at each other over the water. The American critic says the Briton is patronizing to American letters — and rat-tat-tat goes an article in counter attack. In a recent London Letter Hugh Walpole remarks good-naturedly that this is ‘an old cry.’ ‘Someone.’ he continues. ’ — no fool, either, — has just told me that in his opinion there are two younger novelists who are in a separate world both of ability and performance from all other younger novelists, whether English or American: Julian Green and Ernest Hemingway. With this opinion I am at one. These are both American born. We have no novelists under forty in England to touch them.’
This is high praise, and though some may think to qualify it (Hemingway, remember, is usually banned in Boston!) no one could ever call it patronizing. It may be interesting to turn from this to the appraisal Marshall Best, an American critic, gives to some recent English novels.
‘WHETHER we approach the Englishman through his summer holiday or through his inheritance of literature,’Edmund Blunden wrote recently, ‘we find him Nature’s man.’ He is no less Nature’s man whether we approach him in peace or in war. The best passages in each of the three books reviewed here are in praise of the seasons or in loving enjoyment of landscapes and outdoor life; two of the books, indeed, would be undistinguished were it not for these charmed pages.
One of the two is The Hawbucks (Macmillan, $2..50), John Masefield’s Victorian romance, which can only be regarded as a slight anachronism. It contains the material for a narrative poem such as he has written so well in Reynard the Fox and Right Royal. But as a novel it has neither the impact of present truth nor the glamour of a past period imaginatively re-created. Its story is that of the squire’s fair daughter and her ten or more suitors; and of her half sister by a ‘left-handed union,’ who possesses most of the heroines beauty and more than her brains, thus offering solace to one of the two most serious contenders when his rival and brother walks off with the heroine’s hand. Its shabbiness as a story is tempered, however, by two or three first-rate scenes — a splendid fox hunt, a lively point-to-point race, and a night ride by the hero through the season s most memorable blizzard. The Chaucerian characterizing and the narrative directness that distinguish Masefield’s story-poems are utilized here too, but the economy which was their virtue in the verse gives an oddly foreshortened effect in the novel.
A very different England appears in The Good Companions, by J. B. Priestley (Harper, $3.00). These ‘Good (’ompanions’ are a wandering vaudeville troupe, or concert party,’as they seem to he called in England, who move back and forth and up and down across the shapeless and toneless territory known as the Midlands, offering their show to its dingy towns and thriving industrial centres, now venturing north into Yorkshire, now east or west to the waters that bound the island. They are a very human crew, with all the charms and oddities that make actors favorites everywhere; through their eyes the land takes on shape and tone for us until it burns with the beauty of a landscape long lived in; and through their contacts with landladies, captious audiences, strolling showmen, railway officials, shopkeepers, and humbler people, we come to be at home with the everyday faces and manners of provincial England’s masses. These are the country counterpart of Dickens’s Londoners, but they are Dickens in modern dress and without the underscoring.
As a solvent to this group without caste or place, come three refugees from different fixed strata of English life: Miss Trant, a gentlewoman fleeing from spinsterhood; Inigo Jollifant, a university man, who escapes capriciously and by night from the restraints of a boys’ school where he has been teaching; and Jesiah Oakroyd, a laboring Yorkshireman, out of a job, tormented by his family, and keen for the philosophic comforts of the road. These three are brought together just in time to save the little band of actors from collapse. Jess lends a hand with scenery and things and soon becomes indispensable; Miss Trant’s money and enterprise set the machinery in motion again; and Inigo’s skill as pianist, composer, and impresario brings in delighted audiences and sends the party off on a riot of success. The success is sufficiently fretted with failures and other mishaps, it is true, to give their progress a healthy uncertainty and to keep the reader anxious over every move they make. But this is a story for those who wave the handkerchief for Tinker Bell, who know that dreams do not always come true but are ready to believe that they will, so it is only fair that Jerry should marry an heiress and Elsie a hotel keeper; that Susie should become a London star, Inigo an extravagantly successful writer of song hits; that even Miss Trant should live out the happy dream of a not-quite-old maid; and that Oakroyd should find his way at last to his loving daughter in Canada, with only a wistful backward glance at the England which they all love.
Too friendly a word can scarcely be spoken for this leisurely, good-natured idyll. Its (540 close pages — the length of the old three-decker — make it probably the longest light novel in the language, unless we except Tristram Shandy, which it shares with in more things than length. It is a novel of sentiment written by a man of intelligence and wit, with abundant feeling for nature and human nature; and it taps vast stores of quiet mirth. Incidentally, it is about the most ‘proper’ novel that a young modern writer has dared to produce.
As far as those two books are concerned, the war might never have occurred. The Wet Flanders Plain (Dutton, $2.50) records a nine-day walking tour, in 1928, by a veteran, Henry W illiamson, who remembers well. He wanders with a comrade among the fertile meadows and machine-made Reconstruction villages that now disguise the British war zone in Flanders; he visits an English cemetery, admires the Canadian memorial near St. Julien, observes the changing as well as the changeless ways of French peasantry; walks thoughtfully along roads where he passed once before under enemy bombardment; inspects the remnants of Hill 60 and other famous batt le scenes; and pays his respects to the great black waste known as the Labyrinthe, where the German dead lie buried. The film of time has been allowed to overlay the scenes of the war. Bitterness has not altogether faded, but there is no longer the heat of battle to burn away all other thoughts, anil reflection now has its way. Here is an opportunity for tempered irony, for the nostalgia of reminiscence, and a solemn word against war. But the book is not well organized, being little better than a scattering of entries from a diary, lacking in emphasis and differentiation. The known qualities of this sensitive writer of English prose come out only in his loving observations of nature, heightened, if ever so little, by the contrasting scenes of war. He remains a naturalist in his best moments: when he hears larks singing at Vimy, sees the bulging eyes of bullfrogs in an old moat at Ypres, recalls an unwary hen promenading on a trench parapet. It is the thought of Devonshire cliffs and his small son romping on the sands that gives point to his rebuke against war and injects one of the moments of most genuine emotion into a somewhat haphazard series of reminiscences.