The Park Wall

Review of The Park Wall, by Elinor Mordaunt.

From The Times Literary Supplement, August 31, 1916

EDITOR'S NOTE: Virginia Woolf uses this unsigned book review to comment again on the moderns, on their originality, on their break with the Victorians. The unimportance of the "story," for example, is a modernist trait. And the Bloomsbury hotel scene in which the spirit of a family is expressed "in scarcely articulate cries and curses" emphasizes the sound/feeling of the words themselves, rather than the words themselves. Woolf's own modernist work will also stress wordless communication between characters. I have highlighted sections (in green) in which Woolf explores the "modern" traits of the book.
   "The Park Wall" confirms us in our belief that Elinor Mordaunt takes a very high place among living novelists and also a very honourable one. The book, indeed, is good enough to make us cast our eyes back to the old novels of great reputation, not merely to make the old comparisons and declare that here at last we have a writer worthy, &c., &c.; but to see how far we have travelled and in what respects we differ. Mrs. Mordaunt's books appear to us sufficiently original and therefore emphatic to serve as a landmark. She writes in her way, and they in theirs; and one writer may be more richly gifted than another: but that sometimes seems to be of less importance than to have, as only true artists have, a world of one's own; and we begin to think that, whether big or small, Mrs. Mordaunt's world is certainly her own.

    "The Park Wall" is a wall of solid bricks, for Alice Ingpen, the heroine, lives in a substantial country house, but it is also a wall of tough though immaterial prejudice. Although she is by nature very slow and diffident, Alice soon finds herself amazingly further outside her park wall than most young women of her station. In the first place, her marriage takes her to live at Terracine, an island which lies "a species of blister on the hot face of the Indian Ocean"; and then her husband turns out to be "a common low cad," a speculator, a gambler, and, naturally, a completely unfaithful husband. By means of a stratagem he sends her back to England on the same ship with a man to whom she has no tie save that of friendship; and directly they land he proceeds to divorce her. Her family shut their park gates against her. A child is born to her, and she goes to live in the South of London, where eventually she finds work in a factory for making cheap dresses. We may add that the story, after many more complications than we have described, ends happily; but the story is not the important thing.

   If it were the important thing there would be faults to find with it--the husband's stratagem, to begin with, is not a very convincing one; nor can we believe that a respectable family of country gentlefolk would bring themselves to desert their daughter, as the Ingpens deserted Alice. But does it very much matter? So long as the writer moves from point to point as one who follows the lead of his mind fearlessly, it does not seem to matter at all. Mrs. Mordaunt's mind is an extremely honest one, and where it points, she follows. She takes us with her, therefore, our intelligence on the alert, uncertain what is to happen, but with an increasing consciousness that all that happens is part of a genuine design. The writer is sufficiently mistress of her art to hold this out firmly before us, without any of those sudden immersions in this character or that incident which overcome the ill-equipped writer and destroy his composition. Her mastery of her subject allows her to enrich it with reflections of real profundity:

In the romance of young lovers there is the bud; in marriage there is the real fruit, sweet or bitter, as the case may be. Those who have their teeth in the rind may be slow to discover its flavour, for there is a sort of shock of the taste which for a while conceals taste. But while they are still uncertain the onlookers know all about it; wait, with some interest, for the inevitable grimace, and then go away. The man or woman who thinks to keep them amused by going on grimacing is mistaken.
This ability to withdraw slightly and see the picture as a whole and reflect upon it is very rare; it generally implies, as we think it does in the case of Mrs. Mordaunt, a power to strike out characters with solid bodies and clear-cut features. Her men (unless we are merely hypnotized to think so by a woman's name on the title page) are less good than her women; but even they fill their spaces in the design satisfactorily, and Alice herself is extraordinarily successful. We feel ourselves thinking so closely with her that, as in the case of a living person, we almost anticipate her words. Mrs. Mordaunt treats her without any of the self-consciousness and the random boldness which mark her portraits of men, and makes us wonder whether the most successful work in fiction is not done almost instinctively. Again, we find ourselves glancing back at the classics. But if anyone seeks proof that the moderns are attempting and achieving something different from the great dead, let him read the scene in the Bloomsbury hotel, when the family spirit utters itself in scarcely articulate cries and curses, with a curious effect as of angry parrots fluttering in a cage round some mute dove with folded wings. Surely Mrs. Mordaunt is here attempting something that the Victorians never thought of, feeling and finding expression for an emotion that escaped them entirely. But whether this is so or not, the fact remains that "The Park Wall" is separate and individual enough to be studied for itself.