Empire Novels

A TWENTIETH-CENTURY variation on the ancient theme of ‘Love will find out the way,’ J. B. Priestley’s They Walk in the City (Harpers, $2.50) is a story of the utmost simplicity. Rose Salter and Edward Fielding, decent, likable youngsters, meet, are separated by untoward circumstance, find each other, are separated again, and are reunited. Children of the lower middle class and of post-depression England, they turn out to be just what boys and girls like them and in love have always been — idealistic, romantic, fumbling at life, but saved in their ignorance by their love. These young ’lovers in the stone forest,’ as the subtitle calls them, inherit sobriety and courage from provincial ancestors, — for they were both born in the Yorkshire city of Haliford, — seek their fortune in London, and live surrounded by danger because of their credulity and ignorance. But their soundness of heart and fidelity to each other save them from every peril and they are no doubt married in the end and live happily ever after.
It all sounds very old-fashioned in outline, but Mr. Priestley is insistent that Rose and Edward are true products of our age. Two old men, both once music-hall magicians, discuss the matter in Chapter Nil. ‘ Look at these two — if you don’t mind me being personal,’says Alf. ‘What’s wrong with ’em? What’s wrong with all of ’em? Nothing, except they’re twenty and we ’re sixty, that ’s all. I can remember — so can you, Fred — when the old folks—they were all chapel-goers, then, and strict — thought music-halls were samples of hell. Now you’re talking like them, except that where they said chapels, you say music-halls, and where they said music-halls, you say picture theatres. . . . And you know, Fred, just forget the good times — everybody’ll have good times whenever they live — and remember some of the others. Lots of dirt about, all kinds, too much booze, too much bullying, all sorts of nastiness. These two would n’t stand for it.’
That seems to be the point of the simple idyll: the youngsters of to-day shock the oldsters; but then, the youngsters always did. Nevertheless they always learn J to live in a time that always seems to the older generation out of joint.
There is a good deal to warm the heart in this story of sentiment. Rose is a lovable girl and Edward a youth of pleasing simplicity and honesty, and the people they meet as they walk in the city are picturesque and amusing. The scenes in Haliford, especially those depicting the harum-scarum Salter family, are a joy. But the novel somehow grows less and less real as it goes on, until quite abruptly it turns into melodrama. Rose shoulders a crime which she has not committed, is compelled to change her name and hide from the police, is caught and confined by a procuress, is saved by a murder, and is reunited to her lover as they view a strange corpse in a deserted house. Of course, quite truly, anything can happen in London, and the final scenes are exciting enough, but—well, the author’s talents seem best engaged in portraying queer characters and odd places, and in dwelling upon the sights, sounds, and smells of a London which he can still view with something of the romanticism of a Dickens.
If you have n’t read Mazode la Roche’s Whiteoak Harvest (Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $2.50), I hasten to assure you that you’d better. If you have long since found the hard-headed, stiff-necked clan amusing, you will find that they have not lost their gusto; if you have n’t, it is certainly time that you became acquainted with them. They are still living their unimaginative, extrovert lives, saying what they think, loving their dogs, horses, children, Jalna, and even, in their sheepish, noncommittal way, one another; never doubting for an instant that their opinions are the correct opinions and their ways the right ways; and always puzzled by opinions and ways that are different from their own. This for the older generation — Nicholas, Ernest, Meg, Renny, and Piers. But the younger generation, — Finch, Wakefield, Mooey, Nooky, — in whom the blood of old Adeline is running thin, are taking to strange opinions and ways, all except young Adeline, in whom her great-grandmother is reincarnated.
Young Adeline (who, you may remember, is Renny’s daughter) is a terrible and adorable child of six, quite capable of starting a whole new series of six more novels for the future as old Adeline did in the past. Finch is suffering from a nervous breakdown, Wakefield enters a monastery, and Mooey (almost, worst of all) is afraid of horses. You can imagine what these things mean to the clan. And poor Renny, now the Master of Jalna, not only has all these excitements and cares to shoulder, but has a jealous wife on his hands besides. In the end, with almost incredible generosity, Miss de la Roche leaves everybody happy: Renny and Alayne reunited, Ernest married, Finch freed from Sarah and hysteria, and Wakefield cured of his religiosity. On the last page Renny goes to the portrait of his grandmother and looks at it reflectively. ‘Then he stepped on the rung of a chair so that his face was on a level with hers. He pressed his lips to the lips in the picture and said: “ It ’s all right, old lady. Everything’s going fine.”’
I for one hope that this does n’t mean that the saga is ended. I should miss the scenes round the table with everybody talking at cross-purposes, the walks to church and the family in church, the horsiness and dogginess, the alarums and excursions every time that the Jalna mortgage is in danger. I want to hear more of Meg the sentimental, Piers the matter-of-fact, Renny the virile; selfish but delightful old Nicholas and Ernest, Finch the sensitive, and the histrionic Wakefield. I know of no writer of to-day who can give us finer comedy than the scene at the dinner table when Wakefield announces his intention of becoming a monk, or than the ‘Day of Adeline,’ when that adorable brat shows her young cousins how a Court manages ponies. The fact is that these people, with the possible exception of Alayne (I have always been dubious about Alayne), have never seemed the creatures of a book. Their reality is startling. And I doubt if our contemporary literature can show anywhere else so sustained an example of pure comedy as do these six novels.