THIS is Mary Ellen Chase’s finest novel. It is also the most uneven because the novelist has set herself the ambitious task of dealing with several groups of people through a long period of time. We see the passing of three generations of the Marston family. The scope in time — as in Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale — is in itself impressive emotionally, and would give the effect of tragedy were not the human qualities of the story so simple and so courageous.
The characterization is, for the most part, skillful. We have the story of Philip Marston and his arrogant and shallow wife; of John, his son, and his excellent wife Eileen; and finally of the two grandsons and the granddaughter, who bring the family chronicle down to the present time. Interwoven with these are other individual histories — of Jan and Anton, Czech immigrants who were befriended by old Philip Marston. Jan is with the family all through the novel, and his destiny is entwined with theirs. Then there are the witty and devout Mother Superior Radegund and her tragic niece, Adrienne; a group of natives of the State of Maine, most of them free from the besetting eccentricities of the ‘type’; and the snobbish old grandmother of the family. Most important, this devious yet believable modern saga of love and death is centred around the Maine homestead, ‘Windswept,’ on the wild coast, which is the focus — one might almost say the hero — of the novel.
Of deaths there are many and of love there is much. There are chances of sentimentality which sometimes scrape a bit but in general are withheld. Miss Chase has felt the sea as the messenger of time, and the smallest details she works with are set in perspective against the flowing or ebbing tides. Occasionally one is annoyed with a pedantic touch, as when John Marston thinks that the Greek language can hold ‘within itself a suggestion to which English never could attain.’ Swinburne, one of the greatest of Greek scholars, put an end to that airy superstition years ago. It is ungrateful of Miss Chase to revive it, since, in her fine prose, English has served her so well. Perhaps it is equally ungrateful on the part of the reviewer to cavil with this good American novel.
R. S. H.