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Novels and Novelists

First Novels

First Novels

A Child of the Alps — By Margaret Symonds
The Story of a New Zealand River. By Jane Mander

We question whether anyone who has not himself written the eighty thousand-odd words realizes to the full the grim importance of the fact that a novel is not written in a day. In the case of the short story it is possible to give orders that, unless the house is on fire—and even then, not until the front staircase is well alight—one must not be disturbed; but a novel is an affair of weeks, of months; time after time the author is forced to leave what he has written to-day exposed to what may happen before to-morrow. How can one measure the influence of the interruptions and distractions that come between? How can one be certain of the length of time that one's precious idea will wait for one? And then, suppose the emotional atmosphere is recaptured and the new link forged, there is always the chance that memory may play one false as to what is already written. The painter places his canvas on the easel; he steps away, he takes a long absorbed look, and it is all there before him from the first stroke to the last. But the author cannot page 218 go back to Chapter L and read again; he has no means of constantly renewing his knowledge of what he has actually written as opposed to what he has come to take for granted is there. And who shall say it is easy, in the final moment of relief and triumph, when the labourer's task is o'er and he knows all, to begin to be critical on such a point?

‘A Child of the Alps’ and ‘The Story of a New Zealand River’ are two first novels which convey the impression that their authors were by no means sensible to the idea that there might be danger in the leisurely style. Miss Margaret Symonds, in particular, writes with a strange confidence; she has the reader's attention caught and thrilled by her artless tale of the ‘strange child’ Linda. All flows along so gently, all happens so easily, that we almost feel that we are children lying in our little beds and submitting to the story that the kind grown-up is recounting. It is the story of a girl whose mother was English and whose father was Swiss, and of how her true self, which was Switzerland, fought with her false self, which was England, and of how her true self nearly succumbed, but was in the end the conqueror. Linda, the child of the Alps, is a real heroine; she is exceedingly beautiful, with black hair reaching to her knees, great sombre eyes and tiny hands, but in spite of all that Miss Symonds tells us of her external appearance and of the infinite number of her sense impressions she will not materialize. We admit her youthfulness; we realize it was her time of life to flit from flower to flower, from mood to mood, from sensation to sensation, but she is a shadow without a girl. How beautiful is Switzerland in the winter, in the spring! How divinely lovely is Italy! Sweet sights and pleasant smells, charming pictures of peasant life abound, until we find ourselves in the strange position of skipping the story for the sake of the scenery. England, according to Miss Symonds, is life in the dining-room window of a suburban villa with the coal-cart passing outside, and Italy and Switzerland are two heavens. page 219 But this excessive simplification does not make a novel, nor should the fact that the novel is not written in a day make the author less conscious of the deserts of vast eternity that lie before us. It is, we repeat, as though we listened to this gentle, well-bred book, rather than read it, and we close it with the feeling that the unknown plants and flowers are far more real to us than the unknown people.

The case of Miss Jane Mander is very different. Her ‘Story of a New Zealand River,’ which takes four hundred and thirty-two pages of small type to tell, has none of Miss Symonds' sophistication, or European atmosphere. The scene is laid in the back blocks of New Zealand, and, as is almost invariably the case with novels that have a colonial setting, in spite of the fact that there is frequent allusion to the magnificent scenery, it profiteth us nothing. ‘Stiff laurel-like puriris stood beside the drooping lace fringe of the lacy rimu; hard blackish kahikateas brooded over the oak-like ti-toki with its lovely scarlet berry.’ What picture can that possibly convey to an English reader? What emotion can it produce? But that brings us to the fact that Miss Jane Mander is immensely hampered in her writing by her adherence to the old unnecessary technical devices—they are no more—with which she imagines it necessary to support her story. If one has the patience to persevere with her novel, there is, under all the false wrappings, the root of something very fresh and sturdy. She lacks confidence and the courage of her opinions; like the wavering, fearful heroine, she leans too hard on England. There are moments when we catch a bewilderingly vivid glimpse of what she really felt and knew about the small settlement of people in the lumber-camp, but we suspect that these are moments when she is off her guard. Then her real talent flashes out; her characters move quickly, almost violently; we are suddenly conscious what an agony, what an anguish it was to Bruce when he felt one of his drunken fits coming on; or The Boss reveals his extraordinary simplicity when page 220 he tells his wife he thought she'd been unfaithful to him for years.

But these serve nothing but to increase our impatience with Miss Mander. Why is her book not half as long, twice as honest? What right has she to bore her readers if she is capable of interesting them? It would be easy to toss ‘The Story of a New Zealand River’ aside and to treat it as another unsuccessful novel, but we have been seeking for pearls in such a prodigious number of new books that we are forced to the conclusion that it is useless to dismiss any that contain something that might one day turn into a pearl. What is extremely impressive to the novel reviewer is the modesty of the writers—their diffidence in declaring themselves what they are—their almost painful belief that they must model themselves on somebody. We turn over page after page wondering numbly why this unknown he or she should go through the labour of writing all this down. They cannot all of them imagine that this book is going to bring them fame and fortune. And then—no, not always, but a great deal more often than the cultivated public would believe—there is a sentence, there is a paragraph, a whole page or two, which starts in the mind of the reviewer the thrilling thought that this book was written because the author wanted to write. How is this timidity to be explained, then? One would imagine that round the corner there was a little band of jeering, sneering, superior persons ready to leap up and laugh if the cut of the new-comer's jacket is not of the strangeness they consider admissible. In the name of the new novel, the new sketch, the new story, if they are really there, let us defy them.

(July 9, 1920.)