Chapters in our Social Story
Hall. 70. (id.)
THESE novels, either in their entirety or in their conclusions, are restless with varied impressions of contemporary society, some being plaintive about the unflinching egoism of up-to- date youth, the younger generation that comes, not "knocking at the door" like its Ibsenitish predecessor, but rushing past on its own new track where no portals are.
Declaration of Love, however, stands by itself. Its author is already acclaimed a master in those realms of spiritual terror immanent in every period of time. This is an epistolary duet between the son of "Mary Lee" and the fascinated creature who is evidently doomed to "go with him to Eternity." The two friends have been working in Coblenz in the diplomatic bureau concerned with " Occupation " ; but it is only Yorick Lee's extreme frankness, and his awareness of his conflicting "selves," that modernize his knot of base and noble qualities into something like a "case." It is really necessary to remember his descent ; Mary Lee, that swart lily grown from morbid soil of torment, could not but transmit some poison to her son. Yet those intolerable dark-flaming hours in the lonely hell of Melancholia, these mad solitudes in Eternity, do invest Yorick with the magnificence and sombre poesy which secure compassion for him even when, in smiting out a possible second-best for himself from the tender amorist who offers her all, with the cold perversity of neurasthenia he behaves like a cad indeed. He is no modern in his vision of a transcendental Love, touched once in a dream of God, glimpsed once in the eyes of a friend, so that he ever desires "The Lady of this Lord." It is a consuming reverie that binds him to the great lost tradition of Platonists, mediaeval lovers, poets and philosophers ; and all his references to it are delicate, original, and fierily sincere. In discussing the " comrade- marriage " he becomes brutal, icily egotistical, the calculating exponent of his "Fourteen Points," till, disarmed by sheer tenderness, he capitulates to the unequal duellist. But "In the high mad sense of heaven, I do not love you," he cries, candid to the last, even in his repentance. She is heroic enough to accept comradely affection, it seems. But she sounds mild as milk, after the vitriol and honey of his biting, burning style—a patient Griselda, for all her little modern "freedoms." Harsh, discordant, amazing, these bitter love- letters testify to the imperious reality of the human soul ; and Yoriek's cruel prose has its climaxes of suffering beauty.
Yorick Lee's heavenly Eros is a god in exile these days, but Friendship is a relation that brightens with some of the lost fire and force. For all its stern title, Miss Sheila Kaye Smith's Iron .and Smoke is like a sedative after Mr. Dennis's corrosive book. The "rape of Demeter," transitions of industrial phases, contrasts of English society in North and South, are themes that lie cloudily behind the quiet life of Herringdales Manor ; but the real spring of the story is hidden in the growing friendship between the wife of Sir Humphrey Mallard, a Sussex squire who dies before his heir is born, and the mistress of his youth, the wife of a neighbouring landowner. With a silken tact and a skilful grey weaving of every-day events, the opposed women are drawn naturally, easily together, till the mutual kindness is powerful enough in the end to abolish the last claim of Humphrey's faded ghost. There is much subtle and truthful observation of the small amenities that assuage sorrow, and console middle-age ; and the apple- scented ways of Sussex still retain their cordial welcome. The children of Jenny and Isabel are singularly graceless exponents
of the New Youth ; but the friendship compensates even for the cutting edges of their behaviour. It seems a pity that the two women , are kept so resolutely mediocre. Jenny seems consistently .silly and selfish, with no thoughts on the wing. Isabel, who begins better, becomes as conventional as she. They are not really versed in pain nor adequate to tragedy ; and the Humphrey episode fades gently enough, as they lap sweet comfort. But a kind of mellow tolerance in the attitude and style of their chronicler glows around their figures, and dowers these average women with a peaceful charm.
At the end Jenny sits bewildered by Blake's Jerusalem over the wireless in the suave tones of the Announcer. The Sleeping Sword takes its title from that much-misused poem, which should be forbidden to public quotation till it recovers its piercing power. Miss Barbara Goolden admits that the Sword is asleep ; and, since a note of irony refreshes her closing scene concerning the General Strike, I take it that she does not see it awake as a special constable's truncheon. Her book is young in its gay devices of style ; her characters are young, and jarred and vexed by the bewildered shape of life, though friendly and lovable creatures mostly. Elizabeth's non- chalant menage is funny and wistful. Elizabeth herself is delightful, but perhaps Juanita is the one person in a state of grace, for she has the secret of composure. It is a touching and amusing and gallant story, this, with brave promise for the future.
In The Unburied Dead Mr. Stephen McKenna seems to intend a stern analysis of moribund old families, who keep a grip on conditions they serve no more with brain or heart or income, by connivance at dishonourable bargains. For- tunately, he tells a lively story of London society instead. It has some charming episodes ; and the quiet Arthur Weston is an attractive hero. His gentle and chivalrous attitude to the wilful bright Betty, whose efforts to exploit the New Rich for the benefit of the impoverished Ashforcls are rather disas- trous in the end, is indicated with real tenderness. But surely his love, the passive Anita, could not be so lumpishly submissive to an unreasonable papa at this time of day. And, at this time of day too, would his romantic deliverance of that opaque young woman be punished by "social ostra- cism" and banishment to a palm-tree island ? Surely not. He was an American millionaire.
Mr. Cosmo Hamilton raises another problem in "social ostracism," in Caste. He sweeps us to Florence, Paris, New York, and London ; his companies are dazzling and varied ; chapter follows chapter with unflagging surprise and zest. I think that, as there is a degree of poverty at which the human soul goes out in sheer physical misery, so there is a degree of wealth at which keen emotional experience is atro- phied. But Mr. Hamilton makes his multi-millionaires and their children as responsive as may be. Like Warminster and the Duehesse de Bergy, I learn with surprise that in New York a daughter of Gentile wealth may not wed a son of Jewish wealth without extreme social discomfort ; and I should have thought that the determined Jean would have kept her Max, even though that distracted musician was poisoned with base suggestions and synthetic drinks at a Bohemian studio. (A. very interesting scene this, with a well-known young English dramatist singing cynically.) Better I like the sensitive and charming prelude to the story, where the fatuous millionaire abandons a gracious lady. But the whole book is full of colour and movement and relish.
RACHEL ANNAND TAYLOR.