Four-Part Setting

by Ann Bridge
[Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $2.50]
FOR her new novel, Four-Part Setting, Ann Bridge has chosen again the Chinese background that she paints with such vividness and such evident and lingering relish. For the central figure in her drama she has created another of her charming, imperfect women, unsparingly yet sympathetically portrayed. This is Rose Pelham, whose marriage has gone on the rocks; whose consuming passion of grief over the death of her baby has cost her the devotion, and later the fidelity, of her husband; and who is postponing in travel any decision regarding her future. This delightful young person the author confronts, at so critical a moment in her life, with Captain Henry Hargreaves, an agreeable but purposeful hedonist, not severely hampered by obstructive principles in his pursuit of pleasure; yet in many respects a good sort, and capable — as he ultimately proves — of being an excellent loser.
To my thinking, this uncomplicated creature shows at his most disarming on his visit to the Trappist Monastery — whither he goes with the hope of finding out in man-to-man confidence, ‘how many of the speechless old fish there went batty.’ There is no doubt that the author herself has a certain weakness for the captain, who ‘had formed the very practical and soldierly view that the heads of masculine institutions of any sort were nearly always sensible men — otherwise they would not be the heads; and sensible men . . . generally gave you a drink — otherwise they would not be sensible men.’ Ann Bridge has great dexterity at convicting her creations out of their own mouths.
The two persons who influence Rose during the passionate yet somehow faintly vacuous interlude that follows hard upon her meeting with the captain are her cousin Antony Lydiard, a man of steadiness and depth, who buttresses her spirit with a staunch friendship unshaken by the fact that he is beginning to be in love with her; and the magnificent old patrician. Lady Harriet Downham, fastidious and incisive, yet tolerant, and above all possessed of the poise of spirit that to Rose has come to seem a treasure lost forever.
The musical moments in a novel by Ann Bridge always have uncommon vividness and charm, and linger curiously long in the memory. I believe that no passage in this book was written with greater zest than the scene in which Antony Lydiard inducts Rose and the affably obliging Captain Hargreaves into the technique of part singing, as it should be, and opens Rose’s eyes to the peculiar magic of the descant. This scene is more than a slight episode, alive with the special gusto that comes into writing when a personal enthusiasm of the writer is given rein; it is a prelude to an emotional harmony that is to come into being, in the course of time.
In this novel not even the secondary figures remain static. Roy Hillier, for instance, described as being that most irritating type, ‘an ardent debunker . . . without ever having given any serious thought as to what things should be debunked and why,’learns some humility and some tolerance. As for Rose Pelham, she emerges, and quite credibly, from bitter revolt to an acceptance that is not a mere matter of resignation but involves a formidable enterprise.