Guy and Pauline by Compton Mackenzie (1915)

Review by Val H:

In 1915, when he published Guy and Pauline (Plashers Mead in the USA), Compton Mackenzie was near the beginning of his long career and fame.  He was to try his hand at comedy, drama, history and much else.  In Guy and Pauline, he did high romance in a rich rural setting.  His previous novel, Sinister Street, was well received by many (e.g. Henry James and John Betjeman), and it might have been irresistible to continue the story and perhaps the flattering attention.

Guy Hazlewood is an Oxford friend of Michael Fane, the protagonist of Sinister Street and two later novels, The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett (1918) and Sylvia and Michael (1919).  Guy has intellectual pretensions and wants to be a poet so after graduation he moves to a small village where he can work on his writing.

Like Sinister Street, Guy and Pauline is a ‘coming of age’ novel.  In this case, our hero grows older and a little wiser through an affair with Pauline, the youngest daughter of the local vicar.  (As does Pauline, of course, but the focus is always on Guy.)  The couple meet on Guy’s first night in the village of Wychford.  Their courtship is slow and they face difficulties on the way: local sensibilities; Pauline’s dithering parents and sometimes suspicious sisters; the hostility of Guy’s straight-laced father; and, most importantly, their lack of money on which to marry and their religious differences.

Despite the title, Guy always takes the lead in the relationship – and in the author’s mind.  He is the more experienced and sophisticated of the pair, and so Pauline is quickly infatuated with him.  His dominance is to be expected from the period, of course, as is Pauline’s willingness to be dominated. But all this is a problem to the modern reader, and perhaps even to the reader in 1915.  Pauline’s innocence and sweetness exasperate – all the more so because they are all we get of her.  Her first appearance sets the tone: “[she] jumped up with an ‘oh’ that floated away from her as lightly as a moth upon the moonshine” (p.23).  The reader rarely learns what she thinks, until late in the day, when Guy dismisses her faith, but her thoughts are telling:

 “Pauline tried to search in the past of their love for the occasion of the divergence. It must be her own fault.  It was she who had often behaved foolishly and impetuously…who had been to Guy all through their engagement utterly useless…who had most easily and weakly surrendered, so that it was natural for him to treat her faith as something more conventional than real” (p.385).

Guy’s thoughts and feelings, on the other hand, are explained throughout and reveal a man who is pretentious and superior.

Compton Mackenzie surrounds his lovers with examples from whom lessons can be drawn. We see: Pauline’s sisters, one unsure of her love for a conventional engineer and the other who may have a vocation; Miss Verney, the spinster who keeps cats;  Guy’s dried-up widower father; and Pauline’s parents who seem content but lack shared interests. Like Pauline, however, all these are at best two-dimensional.

Guy’s and Pauline’s courtship is punctuated with relentless and laboured description of the countryside and comic interludes.  For example:

 “The blackbirds sang to her…these sombre-suited heralds who had never before seemed to proclaim so audaciously masterful Spring…Every day too there were flowery tokens of hope and in sheltered corners of the garden the primroses came out one by one, an imperceptible assemblage like the birth of stars in the luminous green West.” (p.304)

And:

 “…now what if there wasn’t no such thing as a Pope any more than there’s women with fish-tails and all this rubbish…in books. If you ask my opinion of books, Mr Hazlewood, I tell you that I think books is as bad for some people as wireworms is for carnations. They seem to regular eat into them.” (p.14)

(The one comic scene which does work is Guy’s interview with a publisher who cares more for profit and appearance than literary merit, and it’s hard not to see an in-joke here.)

Ninety-nine years after its publication, Guy and Pauline has not fared well, with its dated attitudes, lush prose and superficial characterisation.  It is instructive to look at the only contemporary review I’ve been able to discover in the Columbia Daily Spectator (Vol LIX, No 64, 14 December 1915):

“…Apart from the love interest, the best part of the novel is contained in the descriptions of the English countryside…In the depiction of characters the author is not so fortunate. Guy…leaves us cold…As for Pauline, his love, we never really know her, not that her character is too complex, but because she does not live in the book…For one who cares for that sort of thing this “idyllic” love story in a “charming” setting will make a very acceptable Christmas gift, but not very much more.”

So close is this to my own thoughts that it would be good to hear of other reviews, to see if they are along the same lines or are more generous.

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2 thoughts on “Guy and Pauline by Compton Mackenzie (1915)

  1. Compton Mackenzie originally had the idea of these linked novels, Sinister Street, Sylvia Scarlett, Guy and Pauline and others as a “Cavalcade of Youth” I think he referred to it. Sinister Street is semi-autobiographical and so therefore are the characters in the linked novels drawn from real ones.

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