Women in Fiction
LAST month Mary Ross called our attention to the predominantly masculine trails in some recent novels. Now, as the spring advances and ‘a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,’ it seems appropriate to analyze the leading fiction of the fairer sex.
WHEN I read the title of Theodore Dreiser’s A Gallery of If omen (Horace Liveright, 2 vols., $5.00) t here flashed through my mind the suggestion of a row of portraits, differing, naturally, in color and treatment, but each framed and an entity in itself. The ‘gallery’ which his fifteen stories actually suggest is far less definite — a hallway, perhaps, in some public place, where for a moment you glimpse the passer-by, catching rather than analyzing the story implied in a gesture, or the intonation of a chance word, and then merely wonder, if you think at all, as to what lies for her beyond the revolving door.
‘Lost ladies?’ I thought, speculating on a more revealing title. But ‘ladies’ again implies a frame, and the essence of the vivid personalities whom Mr. Dreiser has created is that they regarded conventional patterns so little. Old and young, beautiful and plain, actresses, writers, painters, a nurse, fortune teller, farm woman, apostle of communism, adventuress, a wealthy wife — what was the haunting quality they had in common? Social instability — yes, that was it, and beneath this outward drift a deeper insecurity. Gifted beyond the ordinary run of women in beauty or brains, sensibility, and often wealth, these fifteen for the most part were free to move as occasion offered, yet no sustained current of life seemed to direct their course. Except for Esther Norn, none, I think, had found an inner equilibrium. It is no accident that only one —and she a hopeless spinster — wanted children. To the four women who had them, children were irrelevant. Here is a far turn from the traditional creativeness of women, and, if we may judge from these fifteen, not a happy one. They have broken the old, too narrow synthesis of womankind; they are mistresses of their tate in temporal things, but in that fate there is somehow the restlessness of ineompletion. No new synthesis has yet evolved to reconcile with new freedoms the need to give and conserve life. These tangible stories from the fringe of experience appraise the courage of contemporary women who have been able to shed old compromises and easy securities, but not yet to face or make peace with still deeper needs.
A very different brand of neuroticism is the subject of Cornelia James Cannon’s second novel, Heirs (Little, Brown and Atlantic Monthly Press, $2.50). Outwardly it isthe new conquest of New England — the possession of its mills and farms by the foreign-speaking out - landers who cut down the elms, plough up the dooryards, and desecrate gracious parlors with whining phonographs. yet bring life-saving vitality back to the neglected fields. Inwardly it is the development of Puritanism, which touches with tragedy the love of Seth Walton and Mar ilia Lamprey. To the little Poianders in a New Hampshire schoolhouse, Marilla brought that maternity of a woman whose own need for love was unrealized. Behind her lay an unhappy, conscientious girlhood, deprived of its natural gayety by poverty, the care of her sick father, and her own repression. Love came in marriage with Seth, the owner of the woolen mill in the village. Both had passed first youth, and as the hope of a child dwindled Marilla shut herself into unhappiness, mocked by the careless fecundity of the Polish women, whose fair-haired boys and girls she had taught. Love without children became meaningless, a little gross. Only by the accident of Seth’s crippling illness could she again be free and happy — then for her he became more child than husband. In this clear, quiet story, contrasting the old New England and the new, Mrs. Cannon shows some of the fears and limitations of a conventional woman, no less hampered and incomplete than the casual girls of Mr. Dreiser’s sketches.
War is the villain of the piece in Mary Agnes Hamilton’s Three Against Fate(Houghton Mifflin, $2.50) — war, like a huge Röntgen ray. showing humankind au naturel and ashamed, working in and through people to disintegrate what was fine and personal. There are many effective scenes in this story of Jean and Harold Claviger, and of Stephen, their disillusioned pacifist friend, whom Harold shot because he thought (mistakenly) that he had been Jean’s lover. Yet, though I myself protested the war passionately, I cannot help feeling that the author here uses it as deus ex machina, finding in it too general an explanation for all that befalls her characters. Here are interest ing people, places, and times — grim Rluehills in Lancashire and the whirl of war-time London — and a story with sustained suspense; but the whole does not grow together with that inevitability that must have marked many war tragedies behind the lines — perhaps because the book’s primary preoccupation is with ideas rather than people.
The scene of F. Tennyson Jesse’s The Lacquer Lady (Macmillan, $2.50) is laid in upper Burma, the Kingdom of Ava, shortly before the British occupation of 1885. The lacquer lady herself was Fanny Bagshaw. nee Moroni, in whom Italian, English, and Burmese blood mingled to make a charming adventuress. In the best tradition of adventuresses, it was Fanny’s one passionate love that washer undoing. Ambition, a native if shallow shrewdness, and an easy-going adaptability guided her through the mazes of intrigue which surrounded a maid of honor in the gay court of Queen Supaya-lat. Fanny loved its vermilion and gold, its games and glittering finery; she could close her eyes, when need be, to the wholesale murder that ran amuck when the iron-willed little queen feared enemies. But when Bonvoisiu, the young Frenchman, spurned her love, Fanny threw ambition and prudence to the winds, and to avenge herself on him pulled down the whole of the fantastic Court and let the British in. Here in glowing and convincing colors is a remote corner of recent history, of whose authenticity we are assured. What is remarkable is that the book gives not only a bright picture of strange and enchanting times and places, but also a sense of the reality of the characters who enacted the closing scene of that little country, overlaid and betrayed by the influence of women.
From the diminutive people and palaces of Burma, the white elephants with tinkling bells, it is a long leap to the wide stretches of Elizabeth Madox Roberts’s The Great Meadow (Viking Press, $2.50). Here the long rhythmic cadences of Miss Roberts’s beautiful prose sing the epic of the pioneers’ march to Kentucky, ‘the great meadow,’ when the cannon of the Revolution made only a distant rumble in the serenity of far Virginia. The rivers to be forded, the mountains up which they toiled wearily, the agony of suspense when the tribes were on the warpath, the long winters in Boone’s and Harrod’s forts — all these Miss Roberts has woven into a high story of adventure, hardship, love, and death. In it are mingled the gallant traditions of tidewater Virginia, and, behind that, English aristocracy, with the simpler strains of Quaker and Methodist faith on the frontier.
Its central figure is Diony, in whom all these are joined; Diony, who knew that her name had once been that of a Greek goddess; who carried in her mind fragments from her father’s favorite philosopher, Berkeley; who saw a woman lie scalped at her side, and wove cloth out of buffalo wool. Diony, who could love and be loved, and for Berk give up all else that she had known in life to go into the wilderness, never again to know what happened in the home behind her; who, believing Berk dead, could marry again for love, to be faced with the cruel choice of choosing between the fathers of her two children when Berk returned after three years’ captivity among the Indians. In Diony Miss Roberts has created not only a person but a heroic symbol of what we should like to believe a woman capable of — beauty, love, courage, steadfastness, fortitude, forbearance, generosity. These qualities must have been born or bred in women who survived the wilderness, when weaker, more vacillating spirits must have perished. In this stirring narrative, — more poem than prose, — we have the antithesis of Mr. Dreiser’s wanderers. Before those women of a century and a half ago there lay a simple, if hard, path of faith and necessity. In our more intricate days the ways are many and often crossed and confusing.