4 MARCH 1905, Page 23

As time goes on Mr. Eden Phillpotts seems more and

more resolutely to have renounced all traffic with comedy, and concentrated his energies exclusively on the delineation of life in its gloomier and more tragic aspects. It is true that in the volume before us, as in some of its predecessors, there is a certain amount of humorous relief in the talk of ale-house philosophers—racy comments where mother-wit takes the place of book-learning--but these welcome inter- ludes have shrunk to insignificant dimensions, and the pre- vailing atmosphere of the story is almost leaden in its oppressive gloom. We regret the change,—for though Mr. Phillpotts's vein of comedy was apt to be occasionally disfigured by facetiousness, The Human Boy proved him to be a genuine humourist ; but we cannot doubt the sincerity of the conversion. Mr. Phillpotts is so tremendously in earnest that he inspires respect even when he does not carry convic- tion. His love of Dartmoor is no affectation, but a deep and abiding sentiment, and he is perfectly justified in seeking to establish a harmony between the sombre genius of the place and the lives and characters of those brought up under its spell. In the company of so devout a Nature-worshipper it is good to get away from the chatter of "smart" society and all the conventions of what may be called the " week-end " novel. Life as envisaged and delineated by Mr. Phillpotts in his later manner is a struggle carried on under conditions where there is no room for sophisticated emotions, but where the driving. power is mainly supplied by the elemental passions of love, greed, and jealousy. That is a perfectly intelligible and defensible attitude for a novelist to assume. Our complaint against Mr. Phillpotts is solely on the score of his treatment, and may perhaps be expressed in a musical metaphor. His themes are simple, but they are far too heavily orchestrated. Thus his style, though marked by fine descriptive passages, threatens to become laboured and ornate, and is occasionally disfigured by recondite epithets and literary preciosities. We have no sympathy with those writers who endeavour to repro- duce conversation with the realism of a phonograph ; but Mr. Phillpotts goes to the opposite extreme by crediting his farmers and labourers with an eloquence almost Adelphian in its copiousness and range of vocabulary. Lastly, he seems to us to err by the artificial and deliberate invention of incidents designed to enhance the tragic quality of the narrative, by a piling up of the agony which defeats its own aim, and suggests the element of gratuitousness where all should march inevitably to the crowning catastrophe.

The outlines of the plot are simple enough. Anthony Redvers, a handsome, easygoing farmer of forty, married for twenty years to an austere, blameless, and exceedingly strenuous wife, and the father of two grown-up sons, has been carrying on an intrigue with Salome Westaway, a neighbour's daughter, with whom his own elder son is innocently and devotedly in love. The discovery strikes his wife as with a thunderbolt, and, frenzied by jealousy, she pushes him down a well. The two sons witness the crime; but while the elder urges her to confess her guilt, the younger and stronger threatens to take his own life if she does. Accordingly the secret is kept, and a verdict of accidental death is brought in. But Anne Redvers, though she has convincing proof of her husband's infidelity, never knew who his paramour was —an ignorance which will strike some readers as only rendered possible by violating the canons of probability— and remains ignorant till Jesse Redvers, her elder son, in a moment of rash confidence, tells Salome, whom he is still courting, of his mother's guilt. Salome, who cares nothing for the boy, and has been heart-broken by the death of the elder Redvers, at once reveals her relations with him to his widow,

* The Secret Woman. By Eden Phillpotta. London : Methuen and Co. [69.1

upbraiding her furiously for her cruelty. To round off the tragedy it only remains for the wretched son, on learning that Salome was his father's "secret woman," to commit suicide; and for his mother, after forgiving Salome, to expiate her crime by giving herself up to justice and undergo a long term of imprisonment.

This rough outline may serve to give readers some idea and warning of what they may expect, though it is only right to add that Mr. Phillpotts deals with his strong and painful theme without unduly emphasising its repulsive details. We cannot, however, admit that he has succeeded in realising his obvious and sincere intention of investing his characters with the true heroic quality, or in imparting the " cathartic " tone to his tragedy. We have spoken of the improbability of Anne Redvers's remaining entirely ignorant for so long as to the identity of the "secret woman." A much more serious flaw, to our way of thinking, is that the murder of her husband is the result of a complete misunderstanding. On discovering his guilt, which he never seeks to palliate, she tells him that if he will solemnly swear to give up the girl she will forgive him ; but he never hears her words—a storm is conveniently raging at the time—and though his previous conversation clearly points to his acquiescence in such a bargain, she never even repeats the question, interprets his silence as refusal, and revenges herself in the manner described. Now this secret is only known to the author and reader ; none of the dramatis personae have the faintest notion of the misunderstanding. Mr. Phillpotts may possibly be able to adduce classical precedent in his support ; but, speaking for ourselves, we cannot but consider the employ- ment of so obvious and trivial an artifice to precipitate the tragic climax of the story as both inartistic and irritating.