From The Bookman of December 1916
Rodmoor, by John Cowper Powys. New York: G. Arnold Shaw.
Slaves of Freedom, By Coningsby Dawson. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Rodmoor, like Wuthering heights, is a place of ill omen, with a malign power over human character and conduct. Here Mr. Powys places a number of extraordinary persons and compels them to work out their luckless fates.
There are the Renshaws — the mother, with her mysteriously tragic past and plaintive present; the girl Philippa, with her morbid epicene charm; Brand, the towering male, who gloomily and irresistibly takes what he finds in life to want. Then there are the half-sisters and their obsessed companion, who leave London as if for the purpose of putting themselves under the spell of Rodmoor.
The elder woman compasses her strange revenge upon the past; the sisters fall victims in one way or another to the Renshaw curse. For Adrian Sorio, Nance’s lover, is lured away from her by the abnormal Philippa, and Linda, the younger, becomes the natural prey of Brand.
There is no abiding happiness, no comfort of mind or soul, for anybody in anything here, and the narrative ends upon a note of self-destruction and despair. “A Romance,” reads the subtitle! — such a romance as might have been compounded by a Bronte and a Russian, and supplemented or decorated with the jovial speculative humour of a Peacock.
Traherne, the grotesque parson with his good heart, his pet rat, and his unfailing thirst; Dr. Fingal Raughty, who makes a ritual of bathing, hunts specimens and harmlessly sentimentalises over youth and beauty; and Baltazar Stork, the self-worshiper and connoisseur of morbidness: these and their whimsical symposia, in which all sorts of themes for speculation are inconclusively dealt with, are almost purely Peacockian.
I recall noticing this flavour in the writer’s earlier “romance,” Wood and Stone. That was a better story. It was whimsical enough, far-fetched enough in parts, but it seemed to mean something, to stand at least for some sort of law of desert and consequence. There is nothing of the kind to be found here, and if, as one may almost suspect, it stands merely for a sort of gruesome jest on the part of a brilliant but eccentric performer, one does not warm to it the more for that suspicion. There is a taint about the thing, whether of unwholesome eroticism or unwholesome mockery.
Readers who liked Mr. Dawson’s The Garden Without Walls will probably like Slaves Of Freedom. They have the same atmosphere of emotional, almost hysterical strain, of passion both insistent and sterile. They suggest the helpless and hapless visions of an anchorite.
One need not doubt the respectable intentions of the author, in order to deplore his preoccupation with the physical aspects of sex. We are always invoking the spirit here, but we never take our eye off the flesh for an instant. However, the book undoubtedly means to be a wholesome protest against an increasingly common type. The gist of the whole thing is contained in a speech by one of the victimised males of the story:
There are women who never take a holiday from themselves. They are too timid — too selfish. They are afraid of marrying; they distrust men. They are afraid of having children; they worship their own bodies. They loathe the disfigurement of childbearing. All their standards are awry. They regard the sacredness of birth as defilement — think it drags them down to the level of the animals. They make love seem ugly. They have got a morbid streak that makes them fear everything that is blustering and genuine. Their fear lest they should lose their liberty keeps them captives. They are slaves of freedom, starving their souls and living for externals. Because they are women, their nature cries out for men; but the moment they have dragged the soul out of a man their weak passion is satisfied. They have the morals of nuns and the lure of courtesans. They are suffocating and unhealthy as tropic flowers.
This is good sturdy doctrine, and the speaker presently justifies his manhood by turning his back on his own special enslaver. The other men in the story are, it must be owned, a pretty flabby lot. After all, the kind of hero who fawns and blubbers over his womenkind is a tiresome person to a good many of us.
This Teddy, who is a lover primarily and a genius on the side, does not impress us with the depth of his feeling for his beautiful Desire. He wants her as a female and is in torment because he cannot have her, but there is nothing to feel very sorry about in the fact that he does not get her. With all his poetising about her she is too clearly a paltry object to impartial eyes.
Even Teddy, it is plain, has no delusions about her possibility as a true mate.