by[Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $2.50]
THIS is likely to prove a popular novel. The place is Tidewater Virginia, round 1730, before the founding of Richmond, and most of the incidents take place in the city of Williamsburg. This was the period of the dominance and arrogance of the great planters, when the failure of Bacon’s Rebellion and the tyranny of Governor Berkeley had given them a false feeling of security. For ‘security is mortals’ chiefest enemy.’ The system on which their prosperity was based was already crumbling; the migration to the West was beginning; and the small planters, unable to compete with the great ones, were about to give up the unequal conflict, abandon their holdings, and follow the exodus from the Tidewater. For the time being, the cleavage between the two classes was more marked than even in England.
The drama is provided by the attempted revolt of the small planters, partly precipitated by a resurvey of the Tidewater plantations. The hero, Christopher Ballard, is a surveyor, employed by Sidney Frane, a self-made, unprincipled man of vast wealth, whose plantation gives its name to the book.
The novel carefully avoids the sentimentalpicturesque in its descriptions of the old South. Although the Negroes outnumbered the whites in the Tidewater, they play no part in the story. The luxury of the rich is not presented as entirely charming, nor are the small planters and the slaves seen through any rose-mist of romance. The author has tried to treat history as if it were contemporary. And yet his plot is highly romantic. Christopher Ballard is in the he-man tradition, and his love affair is conceived according to ancient formulas of romantic fiction. Too many pages are spent on his love affair with Evelyn Frane, which, after all, is really irrelevant.
Ballard is an upright man caught in a mesh of others’ ambitions and hostilities and himself afflicted by divided loyalties. His personal drama, complicated by love for his employer’s wife, is played against the hopeless struggle of ‘the Have-nots against the Haves.’ In these larger issues the novel is a parable of a perennial conflict between destitution and greed. Its lesson is that there was plenty for all in the Tidewater, if the rich had been content with enough and the poor had been intelligently alive to their danger of extinction in time to avert it.
The real villain of the plot is tobacco—too much grown, too many foolish laws governing its marketing, too many opportunities for unjust discrimination and malign practices. Instructive parallels with the present will occur to the reader. Christopher Ballard’s situation as the dupe of his employer, his gradual realization that he has been used, his mounting disgust with the superficially beautiful but basically unsound life of the city, and his futile attempts to right the wrongs of the poor, are all well conceived. The account of the tobacco burning and of the events which follow is exciting. Altogether it is a good story, opening up new territory and certain to make many a reader revise his notions of the South in the old days.
R. M. GAY