The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 6, 1936
The Spirit Of The British
It Survived At Waterloo,
And It Is Strong Now;
A Fine Novel Full of Fine Reading.
FAIR COMPANY. By Doris Leslie.
Macmillan, New York. 489 pp. $2.50.
W. J. CASH
Along back in the early 1920's when I was a college lad, one thing the solemn manuals on what is called Creative Writing all agreed on was this: that the young man or the young woman who yearned to get a novel into print should avoid the "diary and letter form" as he or she would have avoided the very devil. Richardson had used it, certainly. But then you were not Richardson. And anyhow, who read Richardson anymore? And besides the 19th century had so thoroughly run the thing in the ground as to leave a permanent and quite incurable nausea behind. It was as definitely out as Queen Victoria's hats.
All of which merely goes to show the idiocy of laying down general dictums about what form an author may or may not use--and the futility of solemn manuals on Creative Writing. For the last four or five years has seen the form made use of by half a dozen writers. Made use of judicially, to be sure. Nobody nowadays asks us to read through a whole volume or 24 whole volumes (the original size of "Charles Grandison") cast in the form. Rather it is used only occasionally, as documents might be used in a biography.
The Spirit.of a Nation
So used, it turns out to be an immensely effective form for certain purposes at least--as the novel with which we are concerned here amply demonstrates. What Miss Leslie is trying to do is, in the words of the protagonist through whose mouth she speaks: "to imprison in these pages something of this period of the nation (England) that has survived a world catastrophe and the weight of a world's penalties. The spirit that survived a Waterloo, and lives on unchanged, although perhaps enfeebled: and which will survive today as in the past, and maybe in the future, whatever yet may threaten to destroy it." To that end she tells the stories of four women whose combined life spans extend over the years from 1796 to 1936--over the years of the Napoleonic wars, the struggle for reform in England, the ascendancy of science and materialistic philosophy, the World War and its aftermath, and the appearance in the world of the militant madness of fascism.
And for the sketching in of the background, the rendering of the tone and feeling of years that have vanished, as well as for the catching of the particular accent of the hearts and minds of her creatures, nothing could be more admirably contrived than Miss Leslie's use of letters and diaries. It is almost impossible to know, indeed, how she could have managed to compress the great mass of material with which she deals into less than 500 pages if she had not had resort to this device.
Lion and Bulldog
As for the spirit about which Miss Leslie is talking, it is the spirit of course that has given the English the name of John Bull, which has made the lion and the bulldog the symbols of the land throughout the earth: the spirit which is able to endure in the face of adversity, the capacity, as we say in these forthright states, "to take it." And all her women have it save only Gillian Rose, called "Jill"--old Sabrina born in 1796, married at 17, widowed by the French butcher at 19; Clare, the smug and egoistic, born in 1822 and dead in 1904; and Charlotte, born in 1858 and still on the scene in 1936. Everyone of these women sees all joy and sweetness snatched from her life, finds a dream somehow defeated and destroyed, and everyone of them finds within herself the strength somehow to meet it, to go on living. And old Sabrina and Charlotte at least even find it in them to go on to grow into more or less large and rich natures.
The War Generation
But Jill--Jill, born in 1890, is the epitome of the fatal Great War generation. In her all the forces of materialism and rampant individualism and the thing that was called Prosperity come to focus. Soft, faithless, and anarchic, she folds up when her lover is slain in France, takes refuge in the two great mass neuroses of the post-war epoch: the cocktail party and sexual promiscuity. And it is a mercy when the aeroplane comes down in flames in 1934 and ends her story.
Yet for Miss Leslie--as for old John Galsworthy in his last days--Jill is not, after all, the end. For here after her come Laurencina and her fiance, Robin. Born to disaster, these young things "take it in their stride." They drink, yes, but supremely casually and not febrilely. Their sex code is realistic--and free of promiscuity. They are aware of other people than themselves. Their eyes are cool and steady upon the ominous future--calm before the knowledge that tomorrow they may be torn apart by war. And in their hearts they carry a curious kind of hope whose motto is "Quand Meme."
An Assertion of Faith
Miss Leslie's novel is an assertion of patriotic faith. But there is no chauvinism in it. And nowhere does she subordinate the story to ulterior purposes. Moreover, her faith in her country is, I believe--and I speak as one who ordinarily is no Anglophile--on the whole justifiable. There has been a great deal of talk about the degeneracy of England--often from Britishers themselves. And undoubtedly the old lion is not what he has been. Nevertheless, he is not dead yet. And Signor Mussolini, dreaming in his tin-pot glory over establishing the empire of the Caesars on the ruins of Britain, would still do well to remember that for twenty years the greatest captain of the ages steadily whipped this people--only in the end to die a pathetic exile on St. Helena.
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