I, Libertine. By Frederick R. Ewing. (Michael Joseph, 10s. 6d.)
AMONG the brightest and best of the novelists to make their first appearance in the year after the war was Francis King. This is not the time or the place to attempt an assessment of his ceuvre, but it is the time and a very good place for this reviewer to say that To the Dark Tower, published in 1946, has survived all the shelf-clearances he has been compelled to make, and that in spite of urgent claims upon his time he has just re-read it with keen enjoyment, not to mention some self-satisfaction. Further, that The Widow, Francis King's sixth novel, is, in his opinion, as good as any to appear, so far, in this year of 1957. That may not be saying much, and what it does say may be arguable, but it is said with con- viction based on knowledge.
Christine Cornell is the widow in the case. Her husband dies on his way to India, where an important post awaits him, and she is left to bring up a schoolboy son and an eighteen-year-old lumpish daughter on an inadequate pension. Ineffectual, exasperating because she worries so and lets it be seen, pathetic in her despair, endearing in her ability to recover her balance, she is the victim of her own incorruptible good
nature, born to be exploited. This is as much the story of her exploiters as of herself. By pinching and scraping she manages to keep her son at his public school; responsibility for her daughter is relieved by a doctor's wife with Lesbian inclina- tions. But, even when grown up and fending for themselves in the world of today, her children are never off her hands; they protest that she has never understood them while she realises that they have understood her only too well. She is not the absolute type of whom adult children so often say, 'Well, you know what mother is,' but there is enough of universality in her to make her unique in fiction. Her exploiters—better call them willing accepters of her unasked-for sacri- fices—are a surprisingly varied set of lifelike odd characters presented with understanding, sympathy and humour. Repeat humour: nothing of the too drab or dreary ever threatens this very fine, unsentimental, unsatirical novel, which, if it does nothing else, proves that a gifted writer can still use 'life as it is.
In Outbreak of Love Martin Boyd continues his chronicle of the Langton family. Is he attempting an Australian Whiteoak.s• sequence? The fear can probably be dismissed out of hand, though he is careful to leave us wondering what happened to the couples Josie and John and Russell Lockwood and Miss Rockingham, to say nothing of the twins Cynthia and Anthea. They are all members of the circle round Government House at Melbourne immediately before the 1914-18 war—a society unashamedly deriving its culture and manners from Europe. Good con- versation and descriptions of private parties and official functions are the making of this 'period' entertainment. An unexplained '1' narrator in an otherwise omniscent novel pops up every now and then and, it is fairly safe to assume, will appear in the next instalment of the Langton saga.
From one point of view Bernard Martin's The Obscure Way is an old-fashioned novel. It goes steadily ahead with its determination to record the experiences of Basil Fanshaw in the world of commerce. Basil, son of a parson, had been intended for the Church, but on his return to civilian life in 1919 felt that he had no 'vocation.' He was troubled too by the knowledge that he had not fairly earned the Military Cross which had been awarded him; it had not 'come up with the rations' but had been awarded for a specific action. One man knew the truth and used it to Basil's disadvantage at a critical stage in his commercial career. A strangely interesting career—in a paint manufacturing company. The postwar world of the 1920s, full of job- seeking ex-officers and financial chicanery, has seldom been more truthfully depicted. Perhaps the author is a little hard on patent agents, and perhaps he is taking advantage of an innocent reader in his references to a slidge with an expanding flange (what is a slidge?), but he is successful, against all probability, in keeping concern active on behalf of his too-scrupulous hero. In the present postwar world a Basil, if we judge by fiction, is simply inconceivable.
Some obscure publicity joke lurks behind I, Libertine. Its blurb reads: 'All America has been speculating on the identity of Frederick Ewing, author of 1, Libertine, the full-blooded (and how full-bloodied.!, We nearly said full- bodied) historical romance which sold 180,000 copies in New York immediately on publication.' A further note, for the accuracy of which the publishers do not vouch, tells us, among other things, that the author, an Oxford graduate, 'was known prior to World War II for his many scholarly contributions to British publications and for his well-remembered series of broadcasts for the BBC on Erotica of the 18th Century.' All this charivari is to announce an absurd re'chauffe of the Elizabeth Chudleigh scandal which could excite none but gawping admirers of Forever Amber. The author, whoever he may be, can do better than this, and he probably will.