A Diversity of Creatures
Sarah Gay. By Mary Borden. (Heinemann. 7s. 6d.)
Wanton Ways. By Norah C. James. (Duckworth. 7s. 6d.) WHEN so many excellent novels are being written, it is more than ever difficult for the reviewer to maintain a standard of comparison which will be intelligible to his readers. To call the novels excellent, though a happy, a compelled duty, is not enough. Now and then one comes along which may prove important in the development of the novel, such as Mr. Faulkner's a month ago, or Mrs. Woolf's last week : but even that qualification is not very helpful to readers, who are concerned to know what a book is about, and whether they are likely to enjoy it. Unless a reviewer has some special label for those novels which in his view overtop the mass of excellent novels, he will be left with nothing to say about then when they come. Borrowing a phrase from the old Try-Your- Strength machines which still adorn provincial railway stations, I would say that whereas a great many novels succeed in " ringing the bell," a very few (for me) " return the penny." There have been two this season : Mr. Faullaier's Sanctuary, in which magnificent technical use was made of unpleasant material : and Mr. O'Connor's Guests of the Nation, short Stories of tragic significance, the best of which will stand a comparison with any written in their time. This week, a third book returns the penny : Mr. Sherriff's The Fortnight In September.
Mr. Stevens was a clerk. He lived in Dulwich, in a house with a garden cut short by the railway line. With him lived his wife, his grown-up daughter Mary, his nearly grown-up son Dick, and his schoolboy son Ernie. They kept a cat, and a canary. Every September the family went for a fortnight's holiday to.Bognor. They stayed always in the same lodgings. Mr. Sherriff takes us there with them, lets us stay the fortnight, and see them off at the end of it.
Here is a subject which could have been treated satirically, cleverly, patronizingly, sentimentally, how you please. Mr. Sherriff comes to it fresh, and makes it universal. There is more simple human goodness and understanding in this book than in anything I have read for years. It is so beautiful, and the sympathy with which each character is seen is so perfect, that even its pettiest details can bring a lump into one's throat. There is a welcome for this book in thousands of homes : it expresses the genius of a people. Once more, the author of Journey's End has enriched our lives.
George Howick, who besides being a Viscount had a dis- tinguished Army record, fell in love with and married Sarah Pardon, the youngest daughter of a country vicar. It was a brilliant marriage for her, and she did her best : but, unfor- tunately, she did not love this handsome, careful, wealthy man, twenty years older than herself. The War, which entrapped him, set her free. She nursed in a French hospital. She met one Johnny Gay. Howick blundered, and was relieved of his command. Sarah met him in Paris, and knew, almost as soon as she saw him, that their married life was over. Then the telephone bell rang. Johnny, whom, in duty bound, she had dismissed, had been wounded—perhaps fatally. She went to him at once. The General would not divorce her. When she went back to see one of her children who was ill, he refused to meet her. Johnny could not be faithful, even to Sarah. And so on.
The significance of the book, apart from its vivid detail, lies in Mrs. Borden's insistence that a love story, in the fullest sense of the word, can live in an irregular and temporary affair such as that of Sarah and Johnny. She proves her point, even though Sarah's jealousy was little to her credit—especially after her treatment of George : but then, we are not invited to admire it. Mrs. Borden has her material at her fingers' ends, and knows just how to use it. A cool, balanced, professional performance.
Mr. Macpherson writes a sound first novel. Old Allan Grant lived in Dalarn, a sheep farm on the eastern slopes of the Grampians, with his wife and his son John. They loved the land, and fought the old losing fight that is fought on the land everywhere : a fight made bitter by loneliness, the country, and the dour passion of their own natures. Mr. Macpherson shows us the rhythm of these isolated lives, the slow disintegra- tion of Allan, the slow growth of John. The scene in the byre, when father and son quarrel over the cow ,has real power.
Mr. Bertram revives the house-party formula—and most acceptably. For centuries, Burgklastein had stood proudly, the home of the Klasteins, renowned for its noble hospitality, and filled with guests. The present Graf and Griffin still enter- tain—but with a difference. Austria stands not where she did : the guests pay. As you may imagine, filling the castle with Babbages and Oppenheimers and Mr. Candys and Miss Reids and Major Faithfuls gives Mr. Bertram abundant scope ; especially as the old Graf was led to believe that the guests
Sere genuine guests. Mr. Bertram is witty and wise. He not only dislikes what is ugly : he likes what is beautiful—
whether in manners, scenery, or thought.
" I'd back the Countess to make a saint of Spencer before she would of me—or Babbage. He's weak, and weak people will take a good impression as easily as a bad one."
Mr. Bertram has his own way of telling the truth, and it is uncommonly persuasive.
In my innocence, I had always associated with the word " wanton " a certain amount of real, if misguided, pleasure. Miss James, unless she has succumbed to mere alliteration, disagrees. Her characters drink and are promiscuous not because they want to, but because they find the ideals of sobriety and true love for some mysterious reason unattainable. Wanton Ways is very well written. Miss James is a stern
moralist. In her pages sin has no drama ; its wages are not
death, but a bilious headache. L. A. G. STRONG.