Book Review by Sylvia D. First the Blade: A Comedy of Growth, a coming of age novel and an unresolved love story, was Clemence Dane’s second published novel. Its format for the first two chapters is unusual in that it takes the form of the narrator of the story discussing its main characters and how it might develop with another person called “Collaborator”. They discuss, for instance, whether the story should be written from the point of view of the main female character, Laura, or the main male character, Justin. The narrator’s preference for Laura wins out:
“I know the precedence is Justin’s: for Adam was first formed, then Eve. . . . Yet, Eve, bless her ingenuous, enterprising heart, is always so much more interesting than Adam. If Adam were not in the Bible, wouldn’t you call him ‘stodgy’? And don’t you think Eve, did, under her breath?’
Laura, born in 1894, first meets Justin when she is seven and he is sixteen. Her mother has died and she is living with her cantankerous Grandpapa Valentine and her snobby, spinster aunt, Adela, along with her much younger twin brothers. Her father is always absent and no-one has thought to tell her her mother is dead. She convinces herself that her mother has gone away to get well. They live in Kent and on a warm, sunny day Laura, who has been reading Pilgrim’s Progress, suddenly has a glimpse, from a hilltop, of the Crystal Palace, which she immediately assumes must be the Celestial City where her mother will be. Without telling anyone, she sets off to walk there but distances are deceptive and after four hours, it starts to rain. Justin Cloud comes across her as he is cycling home from school and lets slip her mother is dead. He takes Laura to his own home and Laura develops a relationship with Mrs Cloud, a rather faded widow who has lost two daughters and pines for her scandal-ridden, vanished older son.
The rest of the book charts the way Laura becomes a young woman and her growing love for Justin. Her education, for instance, is erratic. She hates the second-rate boarding school she is sent to and refuses to go back after one term. A string of governesses come and go. She learned to read and write and was given a paint box and left to the ministrations of Justin and of Grandpapa Valentine,
‘she was always aware that there were guiding hands to right and left of her if she chose to stretch out her own. Hands, indeed, that were inclined to tug in opposite directions, and so perhaps, held her the steadier between extreme and extreme; for an intelligent young man convinced that he understands everything, and a wise old one, still more sure that he knows nothing, are no bad teachers for an imaginative child, who worships the one and honours the other.’
Finishing school in Paris sees the development of her talent for painting and terminates in the offer of a place in an artist’s studio which she rejects in favour of the chance to travel to Italy with Justin and his mother. She justifies this to a male artist friend of Justin’s,
‘”Don’t you feel what the difference is? You – a man – a man has got to put himself into only one thing, painting or music or whatever it is. But a girl can put herself into whatever happens along. He has a gift for painting. She has just a gift. Oh, don’t you see? Isn’t it interesting? I never thought of it before. That’s the difference between men and women. You’re born craftsmen; but we – it’s not the craft we care about. It’s just something in us – the religion, as you say – that’s got to get out somewhere – anywhere. We could be just as religious over cooking a dinner.”’
It is Laura’s growing love for Justin that drives her choice. Justin’s attitude to Laura is different. He has grown used to her; he is complacent; he is accustomed to take things as they come, so much so that when she suggests, back in England, she might have to go away and become a teacher if her grandfather dies, he just wants things to go on as they are, ‘Look here, Laura! Would you care to stay on here – marry me? Then we needn’t have any upset.’ They become engaged but Justin keeps forgetting to buy a ring. They fix the date for their wedding but, obsessed with collecting birds’ eggs which Laura hates, he defers the wedding when the offer of a trip to Scotland with another collector arrives. Gradually Laura begins to realise that Justin doesn’t love her, that he feels no passion and blames herself for not teaching him how to love.
‘He knew nothing of love. . . . Yet he was so ignorant, so pitifully ignorant, that he intended to marry her, to live his life with her and his children, and his comforts and his collections: and he would never know, not even dimly in a dream, that something had died within him unborn . . . .’
Her response is to give him a shock, to hurt him to stop someone else from hurting him in the future. And she hurts him by smashing his bird egg collection. He rejects her.
After two years in the trenches of the Great War, Justin seems to return a changed man – subdued, thoughtful, tolerant, comprehending. They are on the point of renewing their relationship when Justin has to dash for his end of leave train and the story ends. But has Justin really changed? Will he survive the war? Will he come back to Laura? All the reader has is a clue from the narrator; ‘Yes, I believe, I cannot help believing, that in the fulness of time he will come back to her.’
The Collaborator feels cheated but the narrator is adamant, ‘But that is the story! It was to be a comedy of growth – not a drama of maturity. First the blade, then the ear – I never promised you the full corn.’ (See St Mark’s Gospel, iv. 28.)
This novel is a good read. The characters are well developed. Given Dane’s independence and successful writing career, Laura’s meekness and constant striving to please Justin and her failure to seize the opportunity offered to her is frustrating for the modern reader but has to be placed in the context of her upbringing and the age she was living in. I enjoyed Dane’s considerable use of literary references, the, at times, slightly sardonic and chatty, tone and the descriptions of the Kent countryside. I’m glad the narrator chose to write Laura’s story. Justin is indeed rather ‘stodgy’.