(Edward Montague) Compton Mackenzie

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Cuthbert Wright

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

"Sinister Street" is the second and final volume of that study in adolescence of which "Youth's Encounter" was the prologue…. The theme of the two stories, the author himself explains, is "the youth of a man who presumably will be a priest." If the presumption is correct, vocational training for that office has altered in startling fashion within our experience, for the hero, after some rather uncommon boyhood experiments in sensation, makes the most of his youth in the fastest college of dreaming Oxford. The Michael of St. Mary's and Cheyne Walk is not intagliated so perfectly as the schoolboy of Carlington Road, but one does not lose the sense that the slim, fair, picturesque youth is a vivid contribution to the literature of intuition. The Oxford episodes are charmingly wrought, with an effect as haunting and insubstantial as the unreal landscape pricked with visionary spires which forms their background….

Michael emerges from Oxford only to plunge voluntarily into the nethermost halls of London harlotry and black-guardism by way of reconciling classic with vital education. It is then that the somewhat cryptic connotation of the title begins to reveal itself. "Sinister Street" is simply the interval that occurs in certain temperaments, when there is a definite, imaginative hunger for the sordid and hideous possibilities which life holds out of the voyager in spiritual adventures. (p. 53)

The ostensible cause of Michael's demigration is the lost Lily, his vanished sweetheart, and through the highways and byways of vile London streets he seeks her with the intention of marriage, "to make an honest woman of her." Here we find the motivation a trifle thin, but the pages dealing with the love-marts and London pavements are among the best in the book, and there are at least half a dozen superb portraits—old Mrs. Gainborough, the ci-devant ballerina and mistress of a deceased general, in her cozy Victorian house at the end of Tinderbox Lane; Sylvia Scarlett like a romanticized page of Krafft-Ebing, for whom the Satyricon was the first of books "because it seems ignorant of goodness"; Henry Meats, ex-monk, murderer and pimp, and finally the three prostitutes. It will be seen that the author spares you nothing; all the vigor of a remarkable vocabulary and a genius for the steady accumulation of effects, whether lovely or repulsive, are brought to bear on the building up of that penultimate episode in the black little basement of the middle-aged strumpet, which in the light of many recent novels merits a certain admiration. (pp. 53-4)

Mr. Mackenzie is still a young man, but it is conceivable that he will never surpass the book which lies before us. It would not matter. It is something to have discovered in the dawn of twentieth-century England merely another battlefield of strange romance. It is worth while, in these days, to have created two beings—a girl and a boy—whose property is to compel love. (p. 54)

Cuthbert Wright, "Compton Mackenzie," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1915 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 2, No. 15, February 13, 1915, pp. 53-4.

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