By E. B. C. JONES Great Laughter. By Fannie Hurst. (Cape. 8s. 6d.) Oleander River. By G. B. Stern. (Cassell. 7s. 6d.) Intimate Strangers. By Katherine Susannah Pritchard. (Cape. 7s. 6d.) Phulmat of the Hills. By Verrier Elwin. (Murray. 7s. 6d.) King John of Jingalo. By Laurence,Housman. (Cape. 7s. 6d.)
IT has become apparent lately that the American mother- fixation long exploited in song is really a grandmother-fixation. Broadminded and amused old ladies, sometimes bawdy and always wise, are accumulating ; the latest is Miss Hurst's Gregrannie Campbell. A weaver's wife and daughter out of Scotland, she is eighty-five when Great Laughter begins in 192o, and she lives to be a hundred. She dominates, partly supports, and shelters in her New York house, not only a sweet, silly, tearful, widowed daughter but also a varying number of her ten grandchildren and/or their spouses, and ten great- grandchildren. Fortunately for them, she is a financial genius and has amassed a fortune whose extent is only guessed ; fortunately for us, Miss Hurst supplies a genealogical table. But Gregrannie dispenses more than life and support. When her long-lost son, who had tortured animals in childhood and later disappeared, returns to inform her that he is a murderer, she sensibly encourages him to commit suicide ; and when her young grandson Louis, a teacher, confesses to her that he is homosexual, she puts him on to sorting and editing the countless reams of manuscript—life-history, philosophy and what-not—which she has written in the last half-century. Miss Hurst, in fact, not only states that Gregrannie is a woman of brains and resource, she provides occasion for her to display these gifts. We are also shown the separate lives and private thoughts of most of her offspring and of their husbands, wives and (in one important case) widow ; and these are made interesting. That is why, for all its marked faults of style and repetition, Great Laughter is a book which one goes on reading far into the night, and even looks forward to continuing next day.
The chief faults of this very long book are that Miss Hurst cannot eschew juiciness in writing about juicy characters, and that the dialogue (luckily there is very little) is absurd. Carmella, widow of a grandson, is a southern belle, universally beloved and, by most of the Neale sons, sexually cOveted. Miss Hurst revels in her, not as a living woman (it is typical that Carmella in her thirties, and in the nineteen-twenties, is described as wearing not a jersey or a blouse like ordinary women, but a bodice) but as an infinitely succulent feminine symbol : " sun-drenched with her own brightness. Warm with it. Lovelier than love with it." Over the deformed Cassie and the child Lorna the same unreality hangs. But with the men of the family, and with Josie, mistress to her rich employer, Miss Hurst is more detached and nearer to reality. The largest share of the scanty dialogue is given to Gregrannie, who thus temporarily ceases to be a convincing figure. Arguing with a grandson who wishes to become a farmer, and has asked for a loan, she is made to say : " You need to have kinship with it [the soil] that will enable you to taste it, like it, sleep with it under your finger nails and live days thil. are the colour of the brown, close earth." Such imprecise, fanciful diction is quite unlike the hard-headed, sincere old warhorse. These extracts were not chosen, however, to put off intending readers. Improbable dialogue and a bad style are serious flaws ; but they occur here in a book not only long, but large in conception—not a work of art by any means, but an able weaving together of interesting stories, interlocking situations and diverse characters. As long as she is not talking, one believes in Gregrannie, as in the political arriviste Chauncey, in John, the successful baritone, May the beauty specialist, and Abbey, the unwilling virgin who takes refuge in Russia.
Great Laughter would not seem at all out of place as a serial in an American magazine, and it would hold one's attention from one instalment to the next. Oleander River would not seem out of place in an English woman's weekly paper ; it has the bright air of up-to-dateness combined with a strong element of wish-fulfilment which marks such serials. Whereas Miss Hurst is a weaver-bird, carefully working her diverse ingredients into a fairly-solid whole, Miss Stern is-a humming-bird, darting with obvious enjoyment from theme to theme, person to person. She purports to show up shams, to expose busybodies and self-deceivers of both sexes ; but the fundamental unreality of her book keeps the world cosy for day-dreamers. What is the explanation of a novelist so acute and talented, but using her talent to flatter and bemuse and soothe her reader ? She is funny here at the expense of a " dope-peddling " writer whose novels are " provocative yet fragrant " ; and this phrase would describe Oleander River, provided that one added that Miss Stern has a sense of humour of an unsubtle kind. In a well- described Provencal setting, we are shown a young girl in love with a middle-aged, rich, fascinating patron of the arts, round whom legends have gathered because of a mystery in his past. It is only fair to say that his hair is not grey on the temples. Does Miss Stem know that she too is peddling dope, or does she believe that, because she exposes the histrionic attitudes of the youth Piers, she has written a realistic novel ?
Intimate Strangers is about people in Australia. Greg, an ordinary young clerk who dabbles in the arts, has been ten years married to Elodie, whom maternity has .reft from a musical career. He flirts ; she is tolerant but tired. At a seaside resort mutual passion springs up between her and a handsome sea-captain called Jerry. After long heart-searchings, she agrees to fly with him. When she retracts, it is not clear whether it is because of her discovery that Greg is ruined and contemplates suicide, or because a recent affair of Jerry's is suddenly revealed by the death from abortion of a local girl, of whose pregnancy he was ignorant. This confusion of thought in the author is characteristic of a highminded but unconvincing book. Miss Pritchard attempts to relate the unsatisfactory state of her characters' lives and loves to the decay of capitalism, but no such connexion exists. Her desire to emphasise Elodie's sensibility causes her sometimes to write affectedly about landscape, but on the whole Intimate Strangers, slow and concerned with uninteresting people, is at least sincere.
Phulmat of the Hills describes an Indian jungle village ; there is not a single white character. Tribal laws, such as that a man must not cohabit with a member of the same totem, do not seriously hamper the conduct of highly promiscuous love affairs, for absolution can usually be obtained by giving a feast. The story chiefly concerns one family whose head, an old leper, has passed on the disease to his young wife. From her, it is caught by his daughter-in-law, the lovely and delightful Phulrnat. The young husband, enamoured of a visitor to the village, makes Phulmat's contraction of leprosy an excuse for driving her out. In spite of this grim subject, the total impression of the book is one of charm ; for even the old leper enjoys himself, and everything—gossip, adultery, sacred rites, free fights—are entered into with gusto by young and old. The author obviously knows what he is writing about. There is a little too much legend and folk-lore in proportion to the action, but the brief opening description of the Serpent Dance is brilliant.
King John of Jingalo, first published in 1912, has been re- issued because of its bearing on a recent crisis. The King of the title, owing to a fall on his head and the influence of his republican heir, begins late in life to resist the wishes of his Cabinet. They, led by a determined Prime Minister, are intent on undermining democracy. An impasse is reached, and the King abdicates ; but, since his abdication would defeat the Cabinet's aims, it is prevented by a bogus bomb- outrage. Meanwhile the Crown Prince has fallen in love with a commoner. His marriage, to which he obtains his father's consent, is prevented by the girl's discovery that he has had a mistress. As she is a lay Sister of Mercy, working in the slums, this piece of narrow-mindedness comes as a shock to the reader. The book has some entertaining passages about monarchy, prophetically and oddly appropriate to /937 but it is long-winded, largely because Prince Max is allowed to make long speeches to his father—avowed quotations from the work on Government which he is writing--and Max is a bore. He is also a prig : his definition of being in love is " An intense personal desire to endow a certain woman with 'motherhood."