(Edward Montague) Compton Mackenzie

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Stewart F. Sanderson

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 812

Complex in design and teeming with ideas, [The Four Winds of Love] is perhaps [Sir Compton Mackenzie's] greatest achievement as a novelist, and certainly the most likely to stand the test of time in company with Sinister Street…. This chronicle of John Pendarves Ogilvie's life as he grows from youth to manhood and maturity in the first forty years of our century is clearly a masterpiece…. The immediacy with which the changing social, artistic and political scene is presented; the way in which all this is interwoven with the story of John Ogilvie, his family and his friends; and the whole organization of the scale and sweep of the novel, represent a triumph of the craft of fiction. (p. 7)

[The] novel is concerned with much more than … elegant variations on the theme of human love. To borrow a metaphor from yet another theme which runs throughout all four volumes—the meaning of musical experience—The Four Winds of Love is a large-scale symphonic work and richly orchestrated. (p. 12)

[Sir Compton's] novelistic method is complex. Mainly he relies on a post-Jamesian technique of dramatizing the material, but other techniques are also brought into play. The evolving story is unfolded not in a succession of more or less standard chapter divisions but for the most part in a series of dramatic scenes of various lengths. Throughout the novel the action is matched to the characters, very much as they reveal themselves in their talk, reflections and correspondence, all of which devices are used within the framework of the novel's construction.

Furthermore, the principal personae are interested in ideas. Much of their time is spent in argument and discussion—a device which allows the author to present in dramatic form greatly enlarged areas and varieties of human response to social, political, emotional, intellectual and religious problems. As a foil to the tone of these dialogues he also presents a large gallery of minor characters of all ages, sexes and nationalities, whose dialogue encompasses every mood from tragedy and the pathetic to broad comedy. (pp. 12-13)

One of his solutions to the technical problem of projecting this large vision within the form of the novel is extraordinarily bold. Real events are introduced as well as fictional events; but so also are real persons—de Valera and Cunninghame Graham among them—while other characters (e.g. Daniel Rayner and his wife Hildegarde=the Lawrences) are no more than partially fictionalized. This solution not only allows the author to enlarge once more the range of the ideas he presents but also to reinforce the verisimilitude of his fiction…. But like yet another leit-motif one finds that the major themes of his symphonic novel are all related in that the intellect is exercised ultimately for the disciplining of emotion.

Take for example the theme of religious belief, adumbrated at the outset in the religious persuasions of the Fitzgerald and the Stern families and in the exemption of Fitz and Emil from morning prayers at St. James's school. The empty conventionality of so much organized religion; the questing after the meaning of religious experience; problems of doubt and faith; the arguments of believers and non-believers—all these are presented with such vivid force that Jew and Gentile, Christian and atheist, recognize their own responses in the author's pages. But in the summing-up, it is the mindlessness and the muddle-headedness of emotionally-persuaded religionists that fails: John Ogilvie's eventual conversion to the Catholic church must be recognized as essentially an act of intellectual affirmation. (pp. 13-14)

If The Four Winds of Love is in its essentials an intellectual novel, however, it is anything but an arid one. On the contrary, its texture is in fact extraordinarily rich and sensuous while the quality of the writing remains deceptively simple.

How well, for instance, Sir Compton conveys the sense of period and place, so that we smell again the sharp herb-tang of the Aegean islands and feel the fierce sun on our skins…. (p. 14)

Accumulation of incident and a vast amount of discussion there certainly are in this massive novel; but the variety of the characters and the scenes, the beautifully plotted construction, the author's fertile invention and vital imagination, to one reader at least seem to sustain the whole edifice successfully. Each re-reading yields so much more; and that is surely a reliable test of enduring quality. Written at the very height of his powers, Sir Compton Mackenzie's novel is not only an affirmation of life but, rare enough, an affirmation of reason. In the perspectives of literary history, one might hazard a guess that this comprehensive panorama of an era of radical social change seems likely to come more and more into its own as that era recedes. (p. 15)

Stewart F. Sanderson, "'The Four Winds of Love'," in Ariel (© A. Norman Jeffares and the University of Calgary, 1971), Vol. 2, No. 3, July, 1971, pp. 7-15.

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