Two Novels From England

EXCEPT in its brilliance and its beautiful craftsmanship, Rebecca West’s new novel, The Thinking Reed (Viking Press, $2.50), is as unlike anything the author has done before as each of her earlier novels is unlike the others. The setting is a superlatively wealthy, brainless, and amoral section of society in post-war and predepression Europe, compactly characterized as ‘the lay brotherhood that had taken vows of wealth, unchastity, and disobedience to all standards.’ ‘ Life sometimes forces us into surroundings that are not sufficiently unlike a drain,’ observes the simple-hearted but shrewd Marc Sallafranque in a moment of connubial philosophizing. In this setting that whiffs somewhat frequently of the drain is recounted with subtlety and wit, and with moments of beauty, the evolution of a fantastic marriage, impulsively entered into by a woman not usually impulsive, with the single motive of rescuing her pride. It is through the rather cold eyes and the ‘competent, steely mind ’ of the young American widow Isabelle Tarry that the reader looks. The novel traces with intimacy her emotional metamorphosis in her marriage with the man whom at first she regarrls as a generous simpleton with an alarming touch of the saltimbanque.
Where the wit cuts most cleanly, one often suspects the author of serving up iu disguise some ancient antipathy of her own: as in Alan Fielding’s portrait of his grandmother, obviously a tyrannical and sadistic brute full of good works among the helpless; or in the appalling women of the Lauriston family. Not to be forgotten is the scene in which the three Lauriston ladies, sitting withdrawn together at their own party, with their broad fiat black satin shoes on the fender, strive, with absorption, to define the Lauriston charm, and glorify the Lauriston achievements. ‘If the art of painting followed more ambitious ends than Clare’s water colors,’ says the author, ‘it had forgotten its place.’
Rebecca West’s gift of visual imagination, her almost incomparable skill with metaphor and simile, are established past any excuse for quoting. I choose at random the compact characterization of Isabelle’s exasperated, almost frenzied struggle to end her affair with the vehement and unperceptive André de Verviers: ‘a nightmare vexation as of clearing up the litter of a picnic party in a high wind.’
South Riding, by the late Winifred Holtby
(Macmillan, $2.50), is a very long novel with an immense array of characters. Tt has unity nevertheless; for it is built around the proceedings of the county council in a fictitious part of Yorkshire. If this summary sounds uninviting, it misleads. The proceedings of the council are very much alive. For the author, civicallyminded in a high degree, wrote from a sensitiveness and a depth of sympathy that do not invariably accompany the civic mind. The main strength of her novel is its compassion.
Miss Holtby’s achievement in bringing a coherent pattern out of her mass of material is astonishing. Her principal characters are three: Robert Carne, the hunting farmer; Sarah Burton, new headmistress of the High School for girls; and Alderman Mrs. Beddows. Carne, the husband of an insane wife, is a sombre, aloof, magnetic creature. The red-headed Sarah Burton is a youngish woman, very decisive and cocksure. Of the three, the warm-hearted, capable Mrs. Beddows is drawn with the greatest liking and gusto. The persistent secret belief of the mature woman that she is still a girl is strong in Mrs. Beddows; but she remains on the hither side of farce. Into her mouth the author puts the bit of philosophy that is perhaps the temperate gist of the novel: ‘Quite a few of us have to go through life without too good an opinion of ourselves, and yet we manage.’
More living, on the whole, are the emotions of the lesser actors: the misery of the brilliant but dowdy and clumsy science mistress persecuted by a primitively ingenious league of her pupils; the longing of the rough little drudge Lydia Holly to be a great dancer; the panic of the lay preacher Mr. Huggins, who has permitted himself an amorous indiscretion; the despair of the heroic Lily Sawdon when she finds that physical agony can outwear fortitude and alter character. Lily’s piteous ’Tom . . . don’t hate me too much when I’m hateful’ has twenty times more eloquence than anything said by Mrs. Beddows or Sarah Burton in the scene in which they both tear their innermost reserves to pieces in a conflict of generosity. In the large background of minor characters is best shown, to my thinking, the author’s power to create.
Her passion for natural beauty, and her power of rendering it in a flash, are proved by one or two passages, such as this: ‘The wide Dutch landscape, haunted by larks and seabirds, roofed by immense pavilions of windy clouds.’
But the rarity of such passages proves that she also possessed the stern power of exclusion. In this novel her concern was not beauty but humanity.