By WILLIAM PLOMER
Mary Lavelle. By Kate O'Brien. (Heinemann. 7s. Gd.) Eggs and Baker : or, The Days of Trial. By John Masefleld. (Heinemann. 7s. 6(1.1 Honourable Estate : A Novel of Transition. By Vera Brittain. (Gollancz. 8s. 6(1.) No Letters for the Dead. By Gale Wilhelm. (Peter Davies. 6s.) Lights are Bright. By Anna D. Whyte. (Hogarth Press. 7s. Gd.) EVERYONE of a more or less impressionable nature must know or can imagine what it means to stay some time in a foreign country, to strike emotional roots there, and then to have to snake a desperate choice between tearing • them up or allowing them to go deeper. This is the chief theme of Miss Kate O'Brien's new novel. Mary Livelle, a -young woman sprung from that Irish Catholic- middle class which this -author knows so well, goes out to Spain: as a governess and although engaged to a worthy young man at home becomes entangled in " the mighty lie of romantic passion." There seems to exist between Ireland and Spain a natural sympathy not derived merely from a common religion, and this feeling, as experienced by Mary Lavelle, Miss O'Brien is well qualified to explore. Readers-Of her earlier novels will know in any case that she is a write who flatters their intelligence and invites them to exercise their imaginations, and in writing of the Spanish people she4succeeds'in giVing form to conceptions only vaguely held by' most of us, and spreads understanding-by engaging bur
The period of the story is 1922, and Miss O'Brien has such a gift for seizing on essentials and presenting them vividly that she .helpilus to follow some of the. national tendencies of character which are linportant in the present troubles. In the behaviour and beliefs of the Areavaga family, to which Mary Lavelle is attached as governess, these tendencies are plainly indicated. The late Don Juan was "convinced to the last drop of his blood of the absolute dominion of personality over system.",. son;' ,Don Pablo, Mary's employer, belonged to the generation of Unamuno, Azorin, and Benavente, and was " in faCt an anarchist—with a difference " :
" So am I, of course," said his son Juanito. " It's the only possible thing for an intelligent person to be. But unless you can have perfect anarchy, father would say, I think, that it's better to (lodge organisation as much as possible—even at a terrible price."
Miss O'Brien's castles in Spain are not built out of facile generalisations : it was an " unlooked-for Spain " in which Mary Lavelle found herself :
" Busy, rich, common and progressive on the one hand—on the other, grave and pitiful. Where were the castanets and the flowers in the hair 1 "
This author sees the Spaniards as " a hopelessly aristocratic people, and doomed, therefore, in a world which has out- stripped the aristocratic principle." But let it not be thought that this is a didactic novel: it is an enriching one, to which little justice can be done in a short review, for there is much in it worth drawing attention to. I cannot see that Miss O'Brien has failed in any of the essentials that go to snake a good and highly civilised novel. To the graceful ways of the Areavagas, their son and three daughters, to the sensitiveness of Mhry Lavelle herSelf, a chorus of gos- sipping Irish governesses provide comic, vulgar, and rather forlorn relief :
" She found the crudity of the misses' intercourse surprising ; their rudeness to each other, their use of surnames tout court, t heir interest in the male sex, their prudery, their vindictive attitude towards their employers, and non-intelligent insolence towards the life that went on about them, their obvious poverty 'and social isolation, their distorted self-respect, their backhanded decency and esprit de corps—these distinctions made up a sad but novel picture."
The landscape and atmosphere are '; beautifully suggeited, each individual is related to his background,- and one never loses the certainty that Miss O'Brien is aware that life runs to extremes—like the bullfight, which is " as symbolical and suggestive and heartrending as the greatest poetry, and is also as brutal and shameless as the lowest human impulse," and which was " more vivid with beauty and all beauty's anguish, more full of news of life's possible pain and sense- lessness and quixotry and barbarism and glory than anything ', ever before encountered " by Mary Lavelle. As for that " mighty lie of romantic passion," it proves to be a lie worth
believing, even though it can only be believed once. No doubt scores of books about Spain are now being written : it Will be surprising if many of them are more perceptive than this.
Readers of Odtaa and Sard Harker need not be reminded that the Laureate is a very gifted writer of narrative prose.
In his new novel they will find that he is keeping up with the times, for although the tale is set in the 'seventies it is largely occupied with social questions that are regarded as urgent today, such as the need for proper housing, the corrupting influence of the 'power conveyed by the .possession of money, and so on. Some of these questions are perhaps over-simplified, as in the portrait of the wicked country capitalist, Sir Hassle Classic,
with his " hard, pale eyes of a sort of steel colour, a face almost colourless, a mouth- like a slit, which had certainly never kissed or laughed, though it often sneered and sometimes snorted." The story tells of a baker, a radical and an idealist who neglects his business in the interests of social justice ; it tells also of his faithful wife and enterprising son. It tells how a Keeper was murdered and how blame was largely fixed on a half-wit, and the climax comes when the baker throws an egg at the judge during the trial, which takeS place in a somewhat macabre atmosphere. Not the least value of the book is the way in which it shows how people shy, or used to shy, at facts. After the baker 'has- scattered– broadcist an eloquent leaflet that he has composed 'while the 'case is' sub judice, setting forth the iniserable conditions which his've -led to the commission of the crime, people complain of his coarse- ness, but "why," he asks, " have they been shocked by the language and not shocked by the fact ? " It is plain that the baker's humanity and even..tenderness towards his least for- tunate fellow-beings derive from hiS creator, and Miss -Vera Brittain is another writer ardently concerned with the progress. of social justice. In her new story, which begins in the 'nineties, she attempts to trace the progress made by " the world's women and the world's workers " in their struggle for more freedom and more advantages. How earnest she is in her intentions and what trouble she has taken to document herself may be gathered from her pursuit of " books, maps, visits, and advice relating to Staffordshire," her allusions to " a useful interview on the politics and economics of the Potteries," her enquiries into " the Russian famine," her use of the Record Room of the Suffragette Fellowship, her tour of the Lanarkshire colliery district, and so on. This novel belongs to the same class as the late Winifred Holtby's South Riding and the writings
of Miss Storm Jameson and Miss Phyllis Bentley three of whom make a brief appearance at a literary luncheon described in its pages) and it may be recommended to their admirers, as well as to those readers who appreciated Miss Brittain's Testament of Youth.
Iwas surprised to learn from the foreword toilonourableEstate of the existence of " a school of literary criticism which seeks to limit the novelist's ' legitimate ' topics to personal rela- tionships." Personal relationships,Miss Brittain tells us,-" have no more significance than the instinctive associations of the sub-human world when those who conduct them are devoid of ideas." It all depends on the definition of an idea, but I cannot feel that the characters in No Letters for the Dead, which is entirely about personal relationships, are less human than Miss Brittain's social pioneers, though they do not carry any banners bearing that strange device, Excelsior. Miss Wilhelm tells us with unusual economy of means about a woman in love who is separated from her lover by his unfortunately seeming to have been implicated in his wife's suicide. She tries to earn her living as a pianist, fails, and takes to the streets, where her experiences are less disagreeable than they might have been. While awaiting her lover's release from prison she becomes a rich man's mistress. A -sad little book, somewhat sentimental nt times, but Inore–full of feeling than some mammoth novels. Miss Whyte is also devoted, except when observing the landscape, to-the study of personal relationships. She tells of a voyage, less quiet than it appears, to the Antipodes, an her story, diversified by a hurricane at Suva and an earth- quake in New Zealand, is neat, humorous, and furnished with Satisfaetory–ending -for the' chief players.