(Edward Montague) Compton Mackenzie Critical Essays

Introduction

Mackenzie, (Edward Montague) Compton 1882–1972

Mackenzie was a prolific English novelist, memoirist, essayist, and writer of books and stories for children. He began his career as a serious novelist whose work won praise from Henry James. Soon after, however, he began writing lighter entertainment novels. His chef d'oeuvre in fiction, The Four Winds of Love, is a fictional chronicle of an upper-middle class Scotsman in the first forty years of this century. Mackenzie was knighted in 1952. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; obituary, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

[In Carnival Mr. Compton Mackenzie] is bent on telling us everything about the life of a dancing girl [Jenny Raeburn]—its hardships, amenities, and temptations—and, as he does not understand or believe in the art of omission, the record is full enough to satisfy the most exacting curiosity. It is not a book for squeamish palates, or for young persons, or for readers who are in search of innocent refreshment or food for mirth. It is not the allurement but the corruption of the theatrical atmosphere on which he insists, and the impression created on the present reader is one in which pity is largely swallowed up in disgust. It is the old duel of sex, but the dice are always loaded on the side of the man. Jenny's life is one long struggle with male enemies in various forms, mostly of the type of satyr…. The last scenes are laid in Cornwall, where Trewhella—the farmer—develops insane jealousy, as well as religious mania, and, after employing his farm hands to spy on his wife, shoots her at the very moment that she is repelling the renewed overtures of her faithless lover.

We have reviewed Mr. Mackenzie's novel at length not because it has given us any pleasure to read or because we can recommend it without reserves. But it deserves notice for its unquestioned if undisciplined talent and occasional brilliancy of presentation, for its frank disregard of the conventional canons of taste, and for the curious hostility towards the male sex betrayed by the author. There is only one of the prominent male characters in whom there is a spark of chivalry or who inspires the reader with any respect in his relations with womankind, and his interventions are wholly ineffectual. For the rest the motto is homo feminae lupus. Mr. Mackenzie evidently writes with a considerable first-hand knowledge of theatrical life and its parasites. To that extent his book may serve as a warning to those who are drawn by the lure of the footlights. But we should be very sorry to accept his picture as a faithful study of humanity seen steadily and whole. (pp. 278-79)

"Novels: 'Carnival'," in The Spectator (© 1912 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 108, No. 4364, February 17, 1912, pp. 278-79.

A certain subtle beauty pervades this novel of stage life. The story itself is not very distinctive, and it has not the recommendation of a happy ending. But what entitles "Carnival" to high rating is its unerring estimate of human character—an estimate which raises the incidents above the commonplace. One cannot skim such a book…. There is much to ponder, much to analyze, much to remember. Page after page of Mr. Mackenzie's book is enriched by word painting that fits in precisely with the tone and temperament of the story….

[Without] making it too apparent, the author pictures in that girl an innate refinement, an exquisite sentiment, a never-failing honesty, which is her eventual salvation. Jenny is not a bad girl in the sociological sense…. She is simply a girl out for fun, with a certain feminine intuition to protect her. And through it all, her refinement grows and her sentiment increases, until in the end she stands a woman rich in a certain untutored understanding.

It is not too much to claim for Mr. Mackenzie that his delineation is as minute and as thorough as anything to be found, let us say, in Mrs. Wharton's "Ethan Fromme." "Carnival" should be carefully examined because of its artistic construction and its artistic wording….

Each chapter is thorough, complete, whole. Mr. Mackenzie leaves nothing untouched, and his touch adds color and value to the picture. The account of Jenny's birth is a bit of psychology hardly to be surpassed, unless by the details of Jenny's dawning recognition of things. The description of Jenny's pious aunts, who are higher up in the world and who are consumed with the religious spirit, is worthy of Dickens…. We find in these initial chapters certain exquisite pastel effects which are gained by the particular use of words and similes. And, let it be noted, that the author makes use of the art of repetition which the present reviewer remembers to have seen skillfully used also in Frank Norris's "The Octopus."…

Mr. Mackenzie's power seems to be in making one feel the importance of the soul's attitude among events. He has no false excuses for Jenny; he simply states in concrete terms what Jenny herself felt in inexpressed ways.

But this high vision of the author does not keep him from picturing life in very real terms; his characters are nearly all coarse and common, and he makes you feel their coarseness and commonness….

Mr. Mackenzie is a writer who sees infinitely and well, who says fearlessly what he believes and relates it to life about him.

"A Good Novel," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1912 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 28, 1912, p. 256.