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The Challenge of Mark Rutherford

Review in TLS, 8th June, 1956.

IRVIN STOCK: William Hale White (Mark Rutherford). A Critical Study. Foreword by Lionel Trilling. Allen and Unwin. 25s.

Three books on William Hale White have appeared in the past twelve or fifteen months. In spite of some inevitable overlapping, each supplements and is complementary to the other two. Dr. Catherine Maclean’s provided the biographical minutiae; Dr. Wilfred Stone’s a wealth of scholarship and what might loosely be called a rational (in places, too rational) assessment of Hale White’s achievement; and now Dr. Stock brings to his subject the illumination of a temperament which is probably more akin to Hale White’s than Dr. Stone’s. “It is not by criticism but by admiration that we live,“ he quotes Hale White as saying; and his book is rich in the insights and intuitions which flower from patient sympathy and understanding and reverence.

For Hale White, however necessary “destructive analysis“ might often be, the chief business of the human mind was to add to what we can believe, what we can affirm, what gives us courage and confidence and hope. “We ought to struggle earnestly to increase our beliefs,“ he wrote in Last Pages. “Every addition to them is an extension of life, both in breadth and depth.“

Dr Stock adds to our understanding of Hale White and thereby to our capacity for affirmation and more abundant living. It has often been suggested, for instance, that White in his novels lacked all sense of construction. Stock ably (and one thinks finally) refutes this:

When a reader is surprised by what happens or by how it is told, there is at least a possibility that his interpretation is at fault, that he is being challenged to deepen or alter it until the discrepancy is explained. Such challenging surprises are, indeed, the special pleasure of reading the work of an original and penetrating mind, and it is a rather self-defeating confidence to insist at once, when we are puzzled by a writer entitled to our respect, that the fault is his and not our own. In the main, as I say, Hale White's “flaws“ are just of this kind: they are the procedure of an original artist frankly slighting, not truth, nor logic of development, nor real novelistic tact, but conventions irrelevant to his purpose. When that purpose is grasped, the “flaws“ disappear. Or, if any remain, they are of no importance.

And in the pages which follow Dr. Stock shows how The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane has its own unity if we see it as a history of the decline and decay of the Puritan tradition; how integral to Catherine Furze is the manuscript (usually dismissed as a pointless interruption) which Mr. Cardew gives to Catherine; and how in Clara Hopgood, if we read the story perceptively, Clara is indeed the central character and not (as several critics have asserted) her sister Madge.

Dr. Stock’s unique contribution to the subject of Hale White, however, is his comparison of White with Gide. This is at once stimulating and baffling: we are convinced – and yet not convinced. The “startling affinity“ is undoubtedly there: both men were rooted in the Protestant tradition; both had proved on their pulses the clash of external authority with the promptings of the “inner voice“; both had learnt that truth is not an objective reality but a subjective experience; both were constantly aware of “the rivalry between the real world and the representation we make of it to ourselves“; both lived in a continual recognition of the claims of different points of view“; and both, as Mr. Lionel Trilling says in his foreword, manifested the impulse “to canvass the possibilities of salvation.“ The comparison of White with Gide is valid enough, but one cannot resist the feeling that Dr. Stock has pressed too far the degree of their actual “affinity.“ Gide himself noted in his Journal in 1915 that “the exquisite qualities of Hale White's style are the very ones I would like to have,“ and more than twenty years later he reverted to the subject:

The very style of William Hale White is exquisitely transparent, scintillatingly pure. He develops to perfection qualities that I wish were mine. His art is the renunciation of all false riches.

Gide may have had the greater potentiality, but he never achieved that simplicity and serenity in suffering which is a characteristic of every page of Hale White's work.

Nevertheless it is a sign of health that Dr. Stock should have had the courage to compare Gide, with his cosmopolitan reputation, with Hale White who is forgotten. It speaks of a reversal of current values – a repudiation of reason as the measure of value – which may help to mould the future in a way more potent ultimately than anything dreamt of in the philosophies of policymakers and peacemakers. Dr. Stock describes Hale White as “one of those who rise periodically to enlighten the provincialism of modernity,“ and no phrase could be more apt, more pregnant, more profound. But the “provincialism of modernity“ cannot be enlightened wholly through the admirable work of writers such as Dr. Stock, Dr. Maclean and Dr. Stone. Hale White's own work needs to be read first and to be read about second. At the moment, only one or two books of his are still in print; and it is devoutly to be wished that the publication of three books on White within a year will prompt some enterprising publisher to make available forthwith not only the work hitherto published but the several notebooks and manuscripts and the many letters which have never yet seen the light of day.

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