26 JANUARY 1945, Page 20


Soon Bright Day. By Mary Baird Aitken. (Mac!ellan. 9s. 6d.) Amabel and Mary Verena. By Mrs. Hicks Beach. (Faber and Faber. 10s. 6d.)

Fire-Weed. 'By Naomi Royde Smith (Macmillan. 10s. 6d.) Soviet Short Stories, 1944. (Pilot Press. 5s.)

EDINBURGH, its social and political manners and customs during "the times that try men's souls," makes a lively and fascinating scene for Miss Mary Baird Aitken's novel Soon Bright Day. In the autumn of 1797 an evening party is given in the New Town ; among the guests are Mr. Cosmo Scott Elliot, an elderly failure, and Miss Nicholas Stuart, young, beautiful and gifted. These two meeting for the first time find they have much in common; both are unorthodox and unusual. They become dose friends, since the young lady cultivates her acquaintance with charm and diligence. A few years before, public dinners had been given in Edinburgh to celebrate the fall of the Bastille, but the period of transition was long, and soon reaction set in. During the Reign of Terror in France' Scotland endured a terror of her own under the hanging judge, the coarse vicious and bawdy Lord Braxfield, who presided over the great sedition trials with domineering ferocity. It is this unjust judge, a jackal of Mr. Secretary Dundas, who tries the hero of Miss Baird Aitken's novel. Summoned to Edinburgh through the malevolence of his landlord, the half-crazy simpleton Sir Alexander Semple, Walter Wilson determines to defend himself, though he has been offered the help of two clever young legal men. Miss Stuart and Mr. Scott Elliott visit him at the inn,-hoping they may make him change his mind. The young woman, throwing her- self heart and soul into a cause in which she believes, soon finds she has fallen in love with the unfortunate Wilson and he with her. The whole town is astir with gossip and intrigue about the accused man and his few friends, most of whom are forced into ignominious or dangerous positions. The result of the trial is a foregone con- clusion; the animosity of the prosecution is such that poor Miss Nicholas is forced to appear as a witness for the Crown. She faces the ordeal with skill and wit, though her efforts are vain against the rancour of Wilson's enemies. He is sentenced to transportation. Miss Baird Aitken is overfond of the very short paragraph, her tech- nique is at times rather cumbersome ; but her writing is vigorous and imaginative, her book vivid and unusual.

Charlotte Mary Yonge, that idol of the Victorians, has been dead forty-four years, but her celebrated novel, The Heir of Redclyffe, so much admired by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, will have its hundredth birthday in 1953. And now Mrs. Hicks Beach, in a labour of love, but without being a too slavish imitator of the prolific Victorian, tells what happened to Amy, the tascinating heroine, so early widowed, and her infant daughter. Miss Yonge's novels are still read, and when I tried to obtain her most famous novel from the library in order to refurbish memories of a child- hood idol, I was informed that the book was "out." So I brought away one of the final novels in the hope of discovering why the popularity of this once so esteemed writer has declined (for Mrs. Hicks Beach in Amabel and Mary Verena fails to give me the clue). The popularity point was quickly apparent: here is the right touch of worldliness, reverence for tradition, birth, breeding, position, rank and wealth ; for while standards of living have greatly changed, material values are still highly admired, as the_ success of Mrs. Miniver and Mrs. Thirkell prove. Plodding patiently, at last I came to the conclusion that the sanctimonious tone with which Miss Yonge's style is imbued must account for her decline into the un- fashionable—the limbo which awaits the bulk of the best-sellers. Mrs. Hicks Beach opens her sequel with the arrival of Lord Edward More as Dean of Tarchester in i868; she gives the requisite touches of esteem for Ritualism, but her tone throughout is bright, brisk and business like. Here are 'all the sudden calamities, the births, marriages and deaths. Amabel goes up in the world ; her daughter, less charming in every sense of the word, marries. The book closes in 1877 with the menace of a brave new century clouding a break- fast table.

Miss Naomi Royde Smith in Fire-Weed chronicles the fame And fortune of a well-born artist, a genius, from i885 to 1943. His family and connexions, many and various, come in for a fa r share of the painter's progress. As always, Miss Royde Smith writes with grace and charm, but somehow her gifted hero never quite comes alive. His struggles and triumphs are too easy • they fail, since more than careful documentation is needed for the reader to be convinced. And the love of his life, who might have worked the necessary miracle, is never anything but an arty romantic poppet.

Soviet Short Stories is the third _volume in a series edited by Ivor Montagu and Herbert Marshall. After their brief foreword comes a long essay, The Soviet Writer, by Nikolai Tikhonov, which contains, a great deal of lively information about contemporarv writings and the aims of Russian authors: "The writer is a great influence in our country. His voice accompanies men in batte and spurs them on the field and at the bench. In order that a writer may make wide use of literary forms he must have a high level of culture and a developed class consciousness ; he must be untiringly devoted to the great ideals of our times. As he works with the inspiration of today, the writer of the present gains new insight into our country's past." The most interesting of the thirteen stories completing the volume is In the Dark, by Fedor Knorre, which flowers with its poetic tender passages, amid themes of horror, cruelty, hatred and bravery.