Three Competent Women

‘READING a book’—I am quoting again from Professor Rogers — ‘is like dropping chemicals into a test tube. It is dropping ideas into a brain. There should be a reaction, some kind of explosion. No explosion, no brain. The book may be at fault, but ten to one it is the brain which is inert. Every book contains at least one point where an idea touches your personality and your life is of immediate interest to you.’ Three contrasting volumes by three such able novelists as Ruth Suckow, Rebecca West, and Edith Wharton can be trusted to touch other readers as they have touched the Atlantic reviewer Ethel Wallace Hawkins.


IN her new novel, Cora (Alfred A. Knopf, $2.50). Ruth Suckow shows again how a style that lacks beauty and distinction may be carried off by vigor of narrative, fidelity of psychology, and intense reality. One need not be a purist to be irritated by Miss Suckow’s ineptitudes of syntax; but neither need one have grown up in a kitchen that teems and resounds with the neighbors’ children, or have wakened with a sickening drop of the heart to the fact that one’s husband sees no special reason for paying his bills, to feel the uncommonly living quality of this writer’s scenes.
Cora Schwietert is an entirely consistent creation. The independent, competent little girl, already in revolt against the slipshod ways of the household, grows logically into the driving, hard-headed young woman wholly dedicated to her battle for the material betterment of the Schwietert family. This singleness of purpose, however, is hampered by an accident of temperament; for Cora is a highly-sexed young person, and a somewhat susceptible one.
A passionate interlude gives the element of contrast, as its Yosemite background gives a sense of magiccarpet escape from the sound of office and street car and unsatisfying home life. And even at its most drab the story is intensely alive as it moves to its inevitable conclusion of disappointment and compromise.
Reside this unplaned, sturdy structure, Rebecca west’s brilliant fantasy, Harriet Hume (Doubleday, Doran, $2.50), is like a mirage palace. Yet this dream stuff is shrewdly and sharply wrought, and glittering. Every page of the novel has its flash of wit, its stinging stroke of satire, its bold or delicate ribaldry. There should be a law against those who would take it upon themselves to interpret fantasy. As for this story of that fascinating minx, the lovely and loving Harriet Hume, and the pompous, ambitious, and unscrupulous Arthur Condorex, who would be a mighty statesman, the innermost core of its meaning will indubitably be ‘this to me and that to thee.’
Harriet loved Condorex so well that her bright eyes looked at him with second sight. ‘She had come between him and every human being’s right not to know quite what he was doing.’ So naturally he came to hate her. ’All of Arthur Condorex’s advancement had been earned by his talent for negotiation, and with none could he negotiate more successfully than with himself.’ Miss West accomplishes the dissection oi his soul with a delicately diabolical touch, and, sometimes, with pity.
The exceedingly mannered style is sustained with great skill. It serves its pointed purpose well; whether in such bits of vividness as ‘She had flipped at three joyous notes in the treble before she ran to open for him’ and ‘A very low kind of dog, a fox terrier such as seems to be wearing a cloth cup,’or whether in the innumerable flashes of annihilating irony or of strange beauty.
In the powerful last section of the book. Miss West has dared to attempt the almost impossible, and has achieved it. She has modulated grimness, and a curious stress touched with horror, into coolness and clarity and peace. It is as if one passed into some fourth-dimensional region and found all strange yet somehow wellknown and reassuring.
One must go as far back in Mrs. Wharton’s work as to The Age of Innocence to match the depth and the breadth of Hudson River Bracketed (Appleton, $2.50), and its blending of irony and tacit pity. This novel depicts the making of an artist out of an ignorant and crude but sensitive youth from ‘Euphoria,’ Illinois. Vance Weston’s father is an energetic real-estate man, and the boy’s early years have been passed in an atmosphere of Pep and Progress, and in a steady crescendo of removals from house to bigger and more ingenious house. When, at nineteen, he comes to New York with the ambition of being a writer, he naturally brings with him an immense scorn for any object or any idea more than a few years old. His whole universe sloughs away from him at one magic touch when he falls precipitately under the spell of ’The Willows, a strange, oldish house on the Hudson, veiled in the sweeping shimmer of weeping-willow branches, and holding an almost palpable sense of the past. But it æthetically the boy’s soul is virgin soil for the sowing, emotionally it is not quite that: it has had the preliminary harrowing of a brief amorous experience that turned suddenly from a starry idyll into loathsomeness. So he has in him that which is ready to he said, and vehemently.
The word ‘authority’ has been used again and again in comment on Mrs. Wharton’s art; but how is it possible not to use it once more for this study of a growing talent of its travail, its despairs, its bewilderment and disgust at the commerecial and diplomatic necessity, its hours of mastery and glory?
Mrs. Wharton’s scorn of the spurious in all its guises comes out in the essential pettiness of Lewis Tarrant the editor, with his ‘ravenous vanity,’his panic anxiety to seem assured, his secret distrust of his own judgments; in the vacuous fluency of Grandma Serimser in her campaign for ’coaxing folks back to Jesus’; in the publicity lingo of Bunty Hayes, manager of ‘Storecraft.’ There is a page upon which Mrs. Wharton’s irony takes for once, rather startlingly, the form of contemporary personal allusion. This sudden sweep of the scimitar makes one reflect a little awesomely what bloody coxcombs there would have been had Mrs. Wharton chosen to write ‘prefaces’ instead of novels. On the other hand, the book has in a marked degree the ‘veined humanity’ that often underlies this writer’s hardness. But perhaps the most Whartonesque element of this novel, the thing that gives it its richness and depth, is that sense of the author’s fastidious passion for the highest beauty that brushes by now and then like a beating of wings.