Margaret Irwin between the Wars. Part 2: Still She Wished for Company (1924)

[For me, August 2019 has been Margaret Irwin month. This is the second of three posts on her best-known works of the fantastic. The first can be found here. Enjoy!]

Margaret Irwin, 27 July 1939

Margaret Irwin achieved lasting popularity as a writer of historical novels, in particular for her work in recovering the lives of remarkable women, using her imagination to bridge the gap of years: Mary Queen of Scots, Mrs Oliver Cromwell, Elizabeth I. Her first novel, however – Still She Wished for Company (1924)[1]– considers the relationship between past and present in a different way, through a romance that impossibly spans more than a century. It tells of a young woman of the 1770s, Juliana, who lives in a country house called Chidleigh, and who is hypnotically coerced by her elder brother Lucian into using her considerable powers as a medium to establish a relationship across time between himself and another young woman he has seen in his dreams. The dream-object of his desire turns out to be Rose Janet, known as Jan, a woman of the twentieth century with a fascination for the past, as embodied in a ‘Gentleman Unknown’ she sees in dreams and visions, and who in turn resembles Lucian. Before the connection between Jan and Lucian can be fully established, however, Lucian murders a former medium of his – a French Duke – and becomes a hunted man. But he retains his hypnotic hold over Juliana even in his absence, as he hides from the forces of the law in far-off London. As a result, her visions of the 1920s grow more intense and more frequent, until she stands in danger of getting lost in the space between the past and the future, her soul wandering for ever in quest of Lucian’s twentieth-century ideal woman.  Lucian takes the decision to return home and release her from bondage to him, an act that gets him killed; and at the end of the book we learn that Juliana later got married to a sensible neighbour, drifting back to the dull but happy life she had been leading at the start of the story.

Juliana, then – the go-between in this transhistorical romance – is a woman who lives quite literally between two people, serving as a channel or conduit for their mutual obsession. As the novel goes on, her journeys into the future – which somehow enable meetings between her brother and Juliana’s twentieth-century counterpart (the link between Jan and Juliana is reflected in the similarity of their names)[2]– mean that she spends more and more of her time in a kind of dream state: a condition of suspended animation whereby her mind leaves her body and voyages through time, until her final, most lengthy psychic voyage plunges her into a coma, hovering between life and death like the Sleeping Beauty in the fairy tale, waiting for a Prince in the shape of her brother to set her free – though ironically it was this selfsame Prince who put her in the coma to begin with.

Jan, too, exists in a space between alternative states. She has had the advantage of a good education, which enabled her to get work and so to support her impoverished family. She has the freedom to choose a partner for herself instead of having one chosen for her (Juliana is not so free to choose, and spends part of the novel under threat of an arranged marriage to the French Duke). Jan can buy her own clothes, and gets letters from men in far-off places, Germany and India (pp. 23-4). On the other hand she loathes her job, and finds it so stressful that her fiancé is afraid it is making her ill. She cannot afford well-made shoes; she is restricted to moving around a few limited streets in London on an inadequate public transport system, despite her theoretical freedom of movement; and she feels that she is being pressurized into marrying a man she is not sure she loves. Her seeming liberty, in other words, is hemmed in on all sides by geographical, social and economic constraints, and she is caught between the limited opportunities of an eighteenth-century woman and the seemingly limitless possibilities available to twentieth-century middle-class men – making her an embodiment of the uncertain in-between status of women in the years before the universal franchise.

Lucian is also caught in a state of in-between-ness. Despised by his athletic younger brothers for not meeting their crude standards of masculinity; marked out as different by his appearance (he is slim, dark, and of moderate height, where the rest of the men in his family are pink-and-white giants); uninterested in the conversations and pastimes of his fellow aristocrats; he is nevertheless the male heir to the family title and estates with all the financial and social power that these bring with them. Foreign in appearance and by inclination (Paris is the only place that appeals to him in his own period), his name and birth ironically tie him to a family, place and time that he rejects. Like Jan and Juliana, then, he gets his chief pleasure from indulging in private fantasies, absenting himself in dreams and imaginings from a cultural context he finds inimical to his health, and yearning for a place and time he thinks will be more congenial, as embodied in Jan, the woman of the 1920s.

The in-between-ness of these three central characters is reflected in the novel’s plot. The bulk of the book is given over to a kind of lyrical mood music, wittily evoking the mundane details of family life in Chidleigh House while charting the steady growth of Lucian’s influence over Juliana and the concomitant doubling and redoubling of her visions of twentieth-century Chidleigh. Juliana’s visions of the 1920s show her everyday, commonplace events, the sorts of things that happen in between significant occasions such as marriages, births and funerals. Nothing spectacular happens in any of them, apart from the fact that they reinforce Juliana’s and Jan’s increasing certainty that they are being somehow granted access to each other’s lives in defiance of time. But a great deal is always on the verge of happening, so that Irwin’s novel could be said to exist on the brink of deeply disturbing, even diabolical events; the sorts of events that lurk in the background of ‘The Book’. At the same time the narrative occasionally conjures up a fairy tale atmosphere of total mutual contentment, as experienced by Juliana and Lucian when they are at their closest, by Jan and Lucian when they meet in dreams or through the mediating influence of Juliana’s transitions between periods, and by Jan and Juliana when they are most at ease with their earthly lovers – in Jan’s case a practical Scotsman called Donald, in Juliana’s her mature and protective neighbour, Mr Daintree. Both the diabolical and the fairytale elements in the book are in some sense timeless, familiar to successive generations through dreams and nightmares, or through poems, plays and well-known stories. By mixing together these different kinds of narrative – the brooding nocturnes of the Gothic, the pastoralism of the fairy story, the modern realistic romance in the Jan scenes, the novels of Jane Austen in the Juliana ones – Still She Wished for Company transforms itself into a kind of eclectic library of the kind we’ve already encountered in ‘The Book’; a library which both celebrates and warns against the transformative powers of the act of reading, and of the dreaming which it encourages and springs from.

Most of the action takes place in a single late eighteenth-century summer, its events largely unrecorded in the history books, featuring characters whose very names have been forgotten. Juliana’s whole family is said to have died out by 1800, and the novel opens with a wistful dedication by the author to Juliana herself, ‘since there is none now left to remember her’. But traces of the girl and her family survive, both in the pages of Juliana’s journal and in the narrator’s imaginative evocation of their personalities – largely based on the journal – as well as in the occasional ghostly presences detected at Chidleigh by the psychically sensitive in other epochs. One such sensitive soul is Jan, whose story frames the novel. Her mind is always drifting away from the drabness of the present in pursuit of congenial figures from the past: people in early modern paintings, such as the seventeenth-century portrait of the ‘Gentleman Unknown’; evasive ideal women in poems by Walter de la Mare and John Donne, or damned spirits and seductive demons in plays by Robert Greene and Christopher Marlowe; and gradually these imagined figures become more real to her until she finds it hard at times to concentrate on her living contemporaries. Juliana, too, is sensitive, her sensitivity being expressed in her acute awareness of geographical spaces overlooked by other people – most notably the avenue of splendid trees that leads from the highway to the house at Chidleigh, whose changing appearance often gives her the strongest clue that she has transitioned between historical epochs. And since many of the things that happen in the novel are explicitly stated not to have been mentioned in her source text, Juliana’s journal, the narrator clearly shares Jan and Juliana’s capacity for transitioning between periods. Meanwhile the narrative helps us, the readers, to become as sensitive as these three women, and its many allusions to other texts suggest that this sensitivity is exactly what literature is designed to engender – in contrast to history, which is strictly concerned with what can be deduced from the material evidence. Literature, in fact, is an in-between medium, throwing light on gaps and occlusions in the official account, and this can make it an unnerving, even a dangerous experience as well as an enlightening one, in this novel as much as in ‘The Book’.

Juliana’s story is sandwiched both between opening and closing chapters from Jan’s point of view and between the two most significant revolutions of the eighteenth century. The summer of Juliana’s experiences as a medium is the ‘dull year of grace 1779’, when ‘nothing pretty or romantic ever happened’. Yet major events took place before and after that dull year: the American War of Independence in 1776, the French Revolution of 1789. Juliana, then, lives very much ‘between the wars’, and her unromantic life exists on the cusp of what could be called the most romantic event of all: the outbreak of the Romantic movement in literature and art. Juliana’s family, however, seems wholly oblivious to the revolution that has just taken place across the Atlantic, and the girl herself is half convinced that things will always stay the same, finding herself torn at times between the desire for radical change and a nostalgic yearning for stability; the latter embodied in her boisterous but profoundly conservative brothers George and Vesey, the former in her radical oldest brother Lucian, who arrives home unexpectedly from Paris at the beginning of the summer to take over the reins of the family estate. Juliana’s split personality encapsulates a cultural split acknowledged in Jane Austen’s novels, especially Sense and Sensibility (1811), where the two sisters Elinor and Marianne stand respectively for the ‘good sense’ cherished by the Enlightenment and the romantic privileging of emotion which has begun to take the literary world by storm. Juliana resembles a milder, more easily manipulated version of Marianne, the romantic sister, and like her ends up married to a much older, more sensible, but attractively sensitive man. Irwin’s prose style in this novel is a pastiche of Austen’s, and Chidleigh House is a direct descendant of an Austenian country estate: Darcy’s Pemberley, Sir Thomas Bertram’s Mansfield Park, and most obviously Mr Knightley’s part-medieval, part-Augustan Donwell Abbey in Austen’s favourite novel, Emma (1815).

Medmenham Abbey, where the Hellfire Club met

Juliana’s divided mind, however, is confronted by far stranger and more sinister forces than is Austen’s Marianne. Her brother Lucian invokes the connotations of Marianne and Elinor’s family name of Dashwood, which was also the name of the founder of the notorious Hellfire Club, Sir Francis Dashwood. Sir Francis is said to have set up the club – also known as the ‘Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe’ – as a means for wealthy men to satisfy their illegal appetites and hedonistic impulses. Lucian, too, is rumoured to have been the ‘chief and head’ of the Hellfire Club (p. 50), and to have made acquaintances in Paris whose aristocratic background and taste for illicit sexual activities link them to an even more notorious figure of the period: the Marquis de Sade. Indeed Juliana’s name invokes (among other things) the protagonists of two of de Sade’s novels, Justine (1791) and Juliette (1797), both of which were being championed by the continental Surrealists at the time of writing. Lucian’s name, meanwhile, summons up de Sade’s atheism, since the second-century writer Lucian of Samosata was notorious among literary historians as an atheist as well as a writer of satires and early science fiction. It also invokes the diabolism of the Hellfire Club, since ‘Lucian’ echoes ‘Lucifer’, just as the young man himself resembles conventional representations of Satan, with his foppish elegance and satyr’s eyebrows. The Master of Chidleigh plans to marry off Juliana to his former medium, the Duc de Saint Aumerle, and to use her before and after the marriage as his own ‘instrument’, his ‘delicate plaything’ – phrases that suggest incestuous erotic manipulation, as well as his willingness to exploit her visionary gifts to bring about a sexual union between himself and Jan. De Sade indulged in fantasies of abusive incest, and Juliana’s physical attraction to Lucian is implied by the fact that her brother is repeatedly set up in the novel as a rival for her respectable suitor, Mr Daintree – most notably when he confesses his jealousy at her tendency to ‘wander’ in her affections between himself and the older man (p. 151). The rivalry invokes the semi-incestuous love affair between Catherine Earnshaw and her adoptive brother Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1847), though Lucian is a very different character from Heathcliff and the Berkshire landscape around Chidleigh has little in common with the Yorkshire Moors.

But Lucian is not represented solely as a demonic exploiter of his sister’s affection for him. His reciprocal liking for her makes him come to regret his use of her as a psychic plaything, and as the book goes on he considers her more and more instead as good company, an emotional and intellectual equal. ‘I think I am learning to prefer my sweet sister to any creature in the world’, he tells her at one point (p. 226), before spoiling the effect by reminding her that Jan is not ‘in the world’, since he has only ever seen her in his dreams. Lucian also stands in opposition to the dominant eighteenth-century models of masculinity, as embodied in his laddish brothers George and Vesey. Both men are constantly making misogynist remarks, drinking themselves stupid, sleeping around, and indulging in blood sports such as cockfighting and bull baiting. Their friend the local clergyman Dr Eden is of a similar stamp, interested only in self-gratification in the company of other men, while the brothers are mirror images of their father, who died of an apoplectic fit brought on by Lucian’s resistance to his will. Juliana’s suitor Mr Daintree, meanwhile, provides another contrast to the masculine norm – a gentler alternative to Lucian – in his genuine admiration for Juliana and his lack of interest in male companionship. At the same time he confesses to having developed an attraction to Juliana in her very early childhood, and his proposal to her when she is seventeen and he is in his thirties means that the distribution of power between them is heavily weighted in his favour. Moreover, his attraction to Juliana, like George and Vesey’s attraction to servant girls and lively noblewomen, is expressed in highly physical terms. He presents her with verses written by a notorious rake, Sir Charles Sedley, and alludes to the ‘exquisite […] pain’ given him by her smile as a six-year-old (p. 142). Lucian, by contrast, claims to see her as a ‘rebel and an adventuress’ (p. 80) as well as a beauty, and has a genuine psychological connection to her, which draws brother and sister together whenever they fix their attention on one another, no matter how far apart they happen to be at the time. Lucian may wish to take advantage of the power over Juliana that his position affords him, but he is also connected to her by their shared dreams, frustrated desires and mutual interests, and it is his awareness of this connection that drives him to free her from his power at the end of the novel.

Arthur Rackham, illustration for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

The bond that links Lucian, Juliana and Jan is not so much a sexual one (though Lucian clearly has sexual designs on Jan) as the conviction that they were born at the wrong time. All three feel painfully aware that they are being suffocated by the conventions of the culture they inhabit; and all three are unusual in being able to gain first-hand experience of alternative cultures and personalities than the ones on offer in their lifetimes. This feeling of displacement, of exclusion from the life one should be living and of attraction to other possibilities, is beautifully invoked in the novel’s opening chapter, where groups of twentieth-century Londoners pause for a moment to gaze at a secluded ‘waterfall garden’ in Hyde Park, staring through railings at the ‘miniature lake just beyond their reach’ where ‘Pale yellow flags and rushes stood deep in the dark water, stirring very slightly now and then’ in response to a breeze (p. 1). Jan, too, stares at the inaccessible garden, but with the impression ‘that she was looking into a garden removed from her, not by a row of iron railings, but by an immeasurable distance. She wished that she were there’ (p. 2). The choice of Hyde Park for this inaccessible garden is surely no coincidence. J M Barrie’s Peter Pan spent his early years in Kensington Gardens, an enclosed space within the larger recreation ground, which makes Hyde Park the starting point for his famous rebellion against the tyranny of time. And Jan’s fancy about the garden’s ‘immeasurable distance’ from her has a fairy tale quality, like Peter’s adventures among the fairies of Kensington Gardens. Jan’s full name, for instance, chosen by her father ‘in a flight of fancy consequent on the reading of ballads’, is Rose Janet, which invokes the Border ballad of Tam Lin, whose heroine summons a fairy lover by plucking a rose and later rescues him from certain death at the hands of the Fairy Queen. (One of the stanzas in Burns’s version of the ballad goes ‘Why pu’s thou the rose, Janet, / Amang the groves sae green’; hence ‘Rose Janet’). For Jan, the world is full of glimpses of magical other worlds like the one afforded by the garden. A sudden downpour makes ‘fairy thimbles’ in the city streets, when ‘huge drops leap up from the pavements in a thousand tiny fountains’, prompting her to ask herself ‘Was this fairy rain?’ And as a child she was convinced that Blake’s famous poem ‘The Sick Rose’ was all about her (since she was then called Rose), and that whenever she fell ill an ‘invisible worm’ was winging its way through the darkness to wreak her destruction. These supernatural glimpses – sometimes ravishing, sometimes terrifying – stand in stark contrast to her drab but necessary day job, to the crowded bus she boards in the first chapter, which symbolically has no room for her, and to her practical lover, a Scottish architect called Donald. Her glimpses, like the secluded garden, exist in the spaces between officially productive zones: in breaks from work, in the city streets, on buses. And she finds echoes of them in the literature she is always quoting: a line from Donne (‘Tell me where all past times are’, as she misquotes it), a half-remembered set of phrases from Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Blake’s verses, two Border ballads, a recent poem by Walter de la Mare. She is familiar, too, with the work of Barrie, though she quotes (or rather Donald remembers her as quoting) from What Every Woman Knows, not Peter Pan (p. 11). What Every Woman Knows is a play about the unacknowledged influence of women on male success in public life, a concept which makes women themselves into in-between figures, overlooked yet secretly powerful fairy godmothers to many generations of male Cinderellas.

Juliana’s detachment from her time, meanwhile, is most often associated with another in-between space: the tree-lined avenue that leads to Chidleigh House. It’s her close attention to the details of this avenue and the parts of the house and grounds ignored by its other occupants (an ornamental bridge where she glimpses one of Chidleigh’s former owners, the boy king Edward VI; the arch which is all that remains from the days when the house was a medieval castle) that informs her whenever she makes a journey between epochs. Half way down the avenue of trees stands her former Nurse’s cottage, and whenever she travels to the twentieth century she finds that the cottage has disappeared and that the thoroughfare where it stood has become neglected. On one traumatic occasion she even learns that the modern owner of Chidleigh has begun to chop down the trees that line the avenue, having built a new driveway to the house and deeming the old approach redundant. For her, neglected and forgotten things emblematize her own neglected and forgotten status, and she longs to use her ability to move between times to preserve them and herself from oblivion.

Jan’s detachment from her time and place is fuelled by her fascination with books, a fascination which she shares with Juliana and Lucian. Lucian makes assignations with his sister in the Library at Chidleigh, where he puts her under hypnosis and sends her off through time and space in pursuit of Jan. When Jan first visits the Library in its twentieth-century form she recognizes it as a place she’s often visited in her dreams, where the schoolboy Lucian sat in resentful solitude and took revenge on his hostile brothers by conjuring up sadistic fantasies about them. All three young people in the book take delight in the same set of texts, and as we learn more about their reading habits it becomes clear that they are able to swap these texts with one another in defiance of logic, as if drawing them from the same set of timeless bookshelves. Jan’s misquotation of Donne’s poem ‘Go and Catch a Falling Star’ in the first chapter is later ‘explained’ by the fact that it comes from the version of the text best known to Lucian, ‘John Bell’s pocket edition of the Poets from Chaucer to Churchill’ (p. 163). Juliana, meanwhile, knows exactly who spoke the words which Jan half recalls from Robert Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1590)– ‘Time Is, Time Was, Time Has Been’ (Jan thinks they were written by Francis Bacon) – and which in turn provide the titles for the three parts of Irwin’s novel. And at a sumptuous water party on the Thames Juliana finds herself somehow ‘remembering’ the lines from a Walter de la Mare poem that were earlier quoted by Jan: ‘But beauty vanishes, beauty passes, / However rare – rare it be’ (p. 139). Jan recollects these lines again when she visits Juliana’s tomb in the final chapter, completing the stanza as she does so:

But beauty vanishes, beauty passes,
However rare – rare it be.
And when I crumble, who will remember
This lady of the West Country? (p. 305)

The answer, it would seem, is poets, novelists, playwrights, artists and lovers, whose words and visions echo back and forth across history in anachronistic interchange.  Imaginative sympathy between people in time past and time to come dissolves the boundaries between periods, establishing a trans-historical ‘company’ or fellowship of like-minded people whose mutual affection and common interests provide a kind of compensation for the isolation imposed on them by an uncongenial present.

At the same time, seeking satisfaction in another period has its dangers. Lucian’s friends in Paris take as their role models Dr Faustus and Roger Bacon, both notorious magicians. Dr Faustus damned himself by dabbling in necromancy to summon up figures from the past, while Friar Bacon forged a brazen head capable of seeing into the future, thereby setting a precedent for Lucian’s exploitation of living people as his instruments or tools. The title of Irwin’s novel, too, invokes the deadly consequences of seeking companionship outside the realms of the living. The phrase ‘Still She Wished for Company’ comes from the chorus of another Border ballad, which tells of a lonely woman who sits spinning in her cottage and longs for fellowship so intensely that she summons up a sinister being from the beyond. Limb by limb, organ by organ the being assembles itself by the woman’s hearth until it is complete, whereupon it begins a conversation with its lonely summoner concerning the reasons for its appearance in her cottage. The ballad ends with the monster suddenly roaring at the woman it has come ‘FOR YOU’, presumably in a diabolical quest for her body and spirit. We don’t hear what happened next, but destruction of some sort is implied, just as it is for Juliana when she sinks into a coma under Lucian’s hypnotic influence. The novel as a whole, then, is presided over by the fear of perdition – damnation as well as loss and forgetting – though this is discreetly veiled by the comfortable-sounding phrase on its title page.

There is clear evidence in the narrative of the specific dangers of getting involved with Lucian in particular. His former medium, the Duc de Saint Aumerle, is a shell of a man, and there are strong indications that this is because of Lucian’s influence. As the young lord’s former ‘instrument’ in Paris – the clairvoyant whose powers he first sought to make use of to forge a link with Jan – the Duke’s behaviour and appearance suggest that he may also have been the Englishman’s lover, now cast off and diminished. Aumerle is yet further removed from eighteenth-century ideals of masculinity than Lucian: slighter, prettier, more garrulous, less active. He enjoys cards instead of blood sports, and spends most of the day tucked up in bed, humming tunelessly and working at his embroidery frame before dressing for dinner and coming downstairs to take over the household for the evening. His utter lack of interest in women is hinted at by Lucian’s insistence that his projected marriage to Juliana will be one of convenience, leaving her at ‘liberty’, as her brother puts it, to become an éminence grise at the French Court – and hence of great use to her manipulative sibling (p. 203). The Duke’s valet later confirms his master’s indifference to women. When Aumerle is killed, the Chidleigh household assumes he has been murdered in a quarrel over a girl, but the valet ‘refused to believe that his master would have taken the trouble to walk down to the summer-house for any girl on earth’ (p. 239, my emphasis). Meanwhile the Duke himself describes Lucian’s replacement of him with his sister as the substitution of a ‘young virgin, a pure child’ for a ‘dead instrument’ which has been ‘used till it withered’. The sexualized description of Juliana as a ‘virgin’ reinforces the impression one gets elsewhere in the text that she is in effect Lucian’s new lover, which in turn implies that the Duke was his old one. There may be another hint at this in the Duke’s title; Aumerle was one of the favourites of Shakespeare’s Richard II, a king often depicted in Irwin’s lifetime as a homosexual monarch who neglects his wife’s bed for affairs with men. As a gay man, Aumerle might be seen as another figure out of time, stranded in a world where homoerotic desire is criminalized and very conscious of himself as someone with interests and capabilities no one else is willing openly to share.

Joshua Reynolds, Cupid as a Link-Boy

(Lucian’s ambiguous sexuality, meanwhile, is hinted at by his attraction to Jan, with her gender-neutral name and appearance. When Juliana first describes Jan to Lucian he asks her ‘You are certain it was a girl?’ (p. 100), and Juliana acknowledges that ‘indeed she had an odd, boyish air’ (p. 101). And Lucian’s final glimpse of Jan from a London window represents her as a ‘slight, dark figure, not unlike that of a link-boy’ (p. 267). The Englishman’s transference of his erotic attention from the French Duke to this English gamine might be described as the substitution of an androgynous ‘pure child’ for a ‘withered instrument’.)

The Duke objectifies his sexual and social isolation in the cane he carries, which has a handle of his own design carved in the shape of a woman’s head. No one else, he claims, appreciates the artistry of this design of his, which will become fashionable, he predicts, in fifty years’ time. The sheer pettiness of this claim to genius – that he will be remembered after his death as the designer of a trendy walking stick – identifies the Duke as a marginal figure, drained of any claim to interest he may once have had except as a tool to be used for other people’s purposes. In fact, the offensiveness of the cane’s appearance – the woman’s head is said to be ‘Ethiopian’ – suggests that its inventor is behind the times, not ahead of them. The ‘Ethiopian’ motif embodies a perception of African people as commodities which was being challenged in the 1770s and 80s by abolitionists like Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano. And the Duke’s status as a French aristocrat identifies him with an entire class which is on the brink of extinction. His death – which occurs when he attacks Lucian in a bid to free himself and Juliana from the young man’s influence – anticipates the general massacre of the French aristocracy in the 1790s in the name of a ‘liberty’ far more wide-ranging than the kind Juliana’s marriage of convenience might have brought her; a calamitous historical event in which he never gets the chance to participate, and hence yet another sign of his diminution at the hands of his former lover.

The Duke, in fact, is himself an object, a pale counterpart of his Ethiopian cane. His face, we are told, resembles ‘a large white egg’ (p. 180), exquisitely shaped but perfectly blank, its porcelain surface confirming its inability to incubate new life. His presence at Chidleigh transforms the household (in Juliana’s eyes) into a collection of mindless automata, dancing mechanically to Lucian’s tunes like the puppets described by Wilde in some of his poems: ‘it occurred to her that all the figures in the great white and gold room were like dolls in some mechanical contrivance, that spoke and looked and bowed when moved by wires’ (p. 181).[3]And Jan and Juliana, too, stand in danger of absenting themselves into the blank anonymity of objects. When Jan’s fiancé sees her staring at the secluded garden in the first chapter he fears that her dreamy attraction to distant times and inaccessible places, which can mutate into ‘laughing disillusionment’ (p. 12), will leave her unable to form relationships with her contemporaries. Juliana’s coma very nearly cuts her off from life itself, confirming the worst forebodings of her fiancé Mr Daintree, who has grown increasingly anxious for her wellbeing as he keeps coming across her in a state of confusion or unconsciousness. Both women are seduced by the charms of Lucian, and risk being diminished or ‘withered’ by the force of his personality like Aumerle before them. At the same time, unlike Aumerle both women are also capable of enchanting Lucian in their turn, drawing him back from the verge of a suicidal rejection of the world he no longer finds delightful. And this capacity for reconnecting with life instead of rejecting or emptying it, of living intensely for the present moment despite their delight in other times and places, is what enables them finally to break the deadlock that threatens to trap them in limbo – either in the repetitive machinery of the everyday or in the void between past, present and future.

From the beginning of their relationship Jan is capable of influencing Lucian’s imagination, which has been deformed by his father’s and brothers’ incessant bullying. Lucian takes refuge from their cruelty in erotic fantasies like de Sade’s: his lonely days of his childhood in Chidleigh Library are spent indulging ‘gorgeous and horrible fancies’ of himself sitting on a ‘throne of carved ivory and gold, watching the tortures’ of his enemies, his ignorant tutor and abusive family (pp. 223-4). Into these fantasies Jan intrudes as a healing presence, transforming his nightmares into playful collaborations and in the process showing him a better, more democratic way of living. Each time she visits him in his dreams, he says, ‘She treated me as an equal companion in an enchanting game, where I had been accustomed to reign as sole despot of my semi-infernal kingdom’ (p. 225, my emphasis). He associates her with harmless fictions: with the heroine Incognita in Congreve’s only novel, whose actual name is Juliana, or with the fairy tales into which she playfully morphs his morbid fancies. With her he explores the streets of future London and visits the railed-off garden in Hyde Park. She provides the substance for his ‘impossible desires’, most notably when he sees her in the street outside his London house after his flight from Chidleigh; and she offers him hope of a new narrative, an escape route from the dead ends towards which his disaffection with his time is taking him.

Couple walking, by Thomas Gainsborough

Juliana, meanwhile, enables Lucian to enjoy the present as no one else can. This ability manifests itself most clearly in the night scene where they walk together on the terraces of Chidleigh House, ignoring outside claims on their attention (Juliana’s mother calling for her, Lucian’s schemes for Juliana’s future) as they concentrate on one another for what becomes a timeless moment. ‘They walked past the tall box hedge again,’ Irwin tells us. ‘Shadows stole out on the milky ground, of a bent head, ribbon at neck, of a head, turned up to meet it, under a high-piled tower of hair’ (p. 127). When Lucian tells Juliana at this point that her companionable silence has taken her ‘far away’ she answers, ‘No […] I am here and with you’. And she later notes the moment as one of perfect harmony between them:

They laughed together. She was deliciously happy, not so much because of the French duke whose name she had forgotten to ask, as because Lucian had never been quite so charmingly easy and friendly with her. (p. 154)

Later still, when Lucian returns from London to free her from his hypnotic influence over her, he urges his sister to enjoy the present as she did that night, forgetting the experiences he has made her undergo and concentrating instead on those ‘who love you and not to hurt’ (p. 276). In the process the past is wiped out, his power over her laid aside, and the here-and-now is placed at Juliana’s disposal. As a result, Lucian extends his own present, despite his imminent death and erasure from history as a disgraced peer: ‘You will not quite forget me,’ he insists, ‘no matter what else you forget’ (p. 277). Escape from the blankness of anonymity depends for Irwin on a recognition of equality which could be described as discovering the wished-for ‘company’ of the title, in spite of the unequal distribution of social and political resources in any given epoch. Juliana presumably finds another model of such ‘company’ in her husband Mr Daintree, whose epitaph, as read by Jan in the final chapter, speaks of his reluctance to go on living after her death – her companionship having become for him a necessary condition of life itself.

In the final chapter, Jan too finds herself reconciled to the present as a time of opportunity as well as frustration. Like Lucian, she has till this point been obsessed with her ideal partner, a literary composite assembled ‘chiefly from her casual glimpses in the library […] of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, Congreve’s Valentine, Lovelace without his insatiable vanity; a man of easy ironic wit, assured composure impossible to ruffle, and yet of fancies as fantastic as her own’ (p. 19). Each of these literary influences is in some way damaging to women: La Rochefoucauld and Lord Chesterfield give cynical advice to naïve young people, Valentine from Love for Love and Lovelace from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa are rakes and libertines, while Lovelace is also a kidnapper and a rapist. Jan thinks to have found the embodiment of this ideal in Lucian, not least, perhaps, because she first sees him in a library, like the real-life model for the book-based lover of her dreams. But Lucian relinquishes his rakish designs on her when he releases Juliana from his power, and at this point Jan turns her attention to her living fiancé, the Scottish architect Donald Graeme. Donald is the ultimate modern man, both in his determination to promote himself through hard work and in his admiration for American architecture – qualities unlikely to endear him to a woman obsessed with the aristocracy, whose favourite building is Chidleigh House, a structure that ‘might have imprisoned a princess in a fairy tale’ (p. 287). In the final chapter, however, Donald reveals another side to his nature. When Jan tells him about her visions of the past he doesn’t dismiss them, instead accepting imagination as a necessary faculty which he shares with her thanks to his ambitious plans for the future: ‘Any servant girl who longs to be a duchess, anyone who has dreams of successful ambition, finds their chief happiness in something that doesn’t exist. All artists do. Perhaps most lovers do’ (p. 301). More importantly, he believes that what she saw in her dreams of Lucian was in some sense ‘real’, though it ‘doesn’t exist’ in the here and now. He has become convinced, he tells her, that she has second sight – the ability to see beyond the material present, a concept he knows about thanks to his Celtic roots (Jan awkwardly refers to him as ‘half highland’). This familiarity with the ‘impossible’ enables him to accept her fascination with ‘unreal people’, ‘nonsense’, ‘chimeras’, the ‘company of a dream’, as evidence of her affinity for the arts rather than madness. And this in turn invests Donald himself – despite his practicality – with the quality of a ‘shadow’ rather than a ‘living companion’ (p. 300), something that links him with Lucian, since the companionship between the Master of Chidleigh and his sister became associated with shadows during their walk on the Chidleigh terraces, when their images walked alongside them in a prefiguration of their future as dreams, ghosts, or characters in Irwin’s novel.

A woman with a ‘high-piled tower of hair’, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Donald, then, earns Jan’s affection by proving himself one of the select dream ‘company’ she has always been obsessed with; a suitable companion for herself, Juliana and Lucian, and more distantly for Mr Daintree, Juliana’s husband. Donald gets linked in particular with Lucian, becoming a kind of vessel for him, in much the same way as Juliana became a vessel for Jan. For much of the book the notion of one person being used by another, of becoming an involuntary vessel for someone else’s personality, is associated with the abuse of power – the kind of possession Irwin would later represent in Mr Corbett’s fascination with the Book. But in the last paragraph of the novel all four lovers are united in perfect equality, with Donald and Jan re-enacting the scene where Juliana walked with her brother on the terraces at Chidleigh:

They were walking by a box hedge as tall as themselves at the end of one of the grass terraces. Then they went slowly down the terrace, the moon behind them. Faint shadows stole out before them, and she, looking down at the milky ground, saw that they were the shadows of a hooped skirt and a sword, of a bent head, ribbon at neck, and a head upturned to meet it, under a high-piled tower of hair. (p. 307)

The scene is notable for the way it erases distinctions between the sexes – the man’s ribboned hair and sword perfectly balancing the woman’s skirt and tower of hair – while erasing the gaps between past and present, as the twentieth-century man and woman about to embark on the ultimate modern journey – from the Old World to the New – find themselves fused with their eighteenth-century precursors. In this way a novel about isolation and loneliness ends by asserting the possibility of a new community that dissolves all barriers by means of a rare and hard-won sympathy among its members.

It’s important to note, however, that this final fusion is not presented as another ideal. Lucian’s association with rakes and orgies, with devil worship and mesmerism, makes him a highly problematic ideal for either Jan or Juliana; while Jan’s fascination with fairy tale princesses waiting passively to be carried off by a lustful prince, or with aristocracy and the rigid class system on which it depends, or with literary rapists, abusers and misogynists, connects her fantasies with the worst tyrannies of the past. Irwin’s past is no better than her present, and her present is almost as problematic for women as the past, so that her characters have to cobble together a better world for themselves out of imaginative fusions of both. Meanwhile Donald’s respect for Jan, Lucian’s affection for Juliana, have to be won with difficulty from both men’s obsession with what they imagine to be better futures; futures which are shown by the end to have distracted them from the present as completely as the women were distracted from the here and now by their imaginative lives. Lucian’s distractions prove in the end as destructive to him as Mr Corbett’s did, while Juliana escapes annihilation as narrowly as did Mr Corbett’s young daughter.  The need for assembling a congenial company of men and women by travelling between periods suggests that such a company doesn’t yet exist, and Still She Wished for Company suggests that the emergence of the place and time for women isn’t yet in sight, either.

Notes

[1]All quotations are from Margaret Irwin, Still She Wished for Company (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935).

[2]Their names are linked through fiction too. Juliana shares her name with the heroine of William Congreve’s seventeenth-century novel Incognita, while Lucian takes to calling Jan ‘Incognita’ (p. 261), which is Juliana’s pseudonym in Congreve’s text.

[3]Compare Wilde’s ‘The Harlot’s House’: ‘Like wire-pulled automatons, / Slim silhouetted skeletons / Went sidling through the slow quadrille’ etc.

 

Margaret Irwin between the Wars. Part 1: ‘The Book’ (1930)

[For me, August 2019 has been Margaret Irwin month. Not much is known, it seems, about this popular historical novelist, but she’s a wonderful writer of fantasy and horror, and over the next few days I’ll be devoting three substantial posts to her best-known works of the fantastic. Enjoy!]

Margaret Irwin started to write books in the 1920s, a remarkable decade for women’s fantasy. Other authors who made a name for themselves in that decade included Stella Benson, Hope Mirrlees, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Elinor Wylie, all of whom wrote fantastic novels – Living Alone (1919), Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), Lolly Willowes (1926) and The Venetian Glass Nephew (1925) – while May Sinclair published a collection of modernist ghost stories in 1923, and Virginia Woolf her most lushly fantastic experiment in prose, Orlando, in 1928. Even male writers took to representing women fantastically in the 1920s, from Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) to David Garnett in his wildly successful novella Lady into Fox (1922), David Lindsay in The Haunted Woman (1922), and Walter de la Mare in his celebrated faux-autobiography Memoirs of a Midget (1921), as well as his finest short story, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ (1922). The centrality of women to post-war fiction is hardly surprising, given both their unusual visibility during the conflict and the extension of the vote to women in 1918 and 1928 (though I should stress that most of the texts I’ve listed are more concerned with female invisibility than with the belated entrance of women into full citizenship). But why did so many writers choose to represent women’s experiences in fantastic fiction? Margaret Irwin’s first two novels were fantasies, and at the end of the decade she wrote the most anthologized of her short stories, a supernatural horror called ‘The Book’ (1930). These three texts might be said to provide a kind of answer to my question, and one that throws light on the other women’s fantasies I’ve listed.

The 1920s and 1930s have together come to be known as between the wars, as if they were defined by the cataclysmic acts of violence that hem them in, making them a no-man’s land without an identity or direction of its own. The dominant mode of Irwin’s fantasies is in-betweenness. Each story conveys a similar sense of waiting in a state of uneasy suspension to see if something that has just ended will complete its transformation into something else. The transformation hasn’t been fully accomplished by the end of the narrative, and the feeling you’re left with after reading is one of uncertainty, with the protagonist and hence the reader poised or held in prolonged suspension between alternative genres or modes of existence – different philosophies – without any clear sense of which of these, or which combination of these, might best be embraced in order to make sense of the time to come. This mood of suspension pervades all the most prominent female fantasies of the decade. Lolly Willowes ends with its protagonist uncertain about her future, despite her initiation into the powers and demonic connections of being a witch. Living Alone finishes with its desultory heroine wandering off to the United States, uncertain what she will do next. Lud-in-the-Mist leaves many of its female characters either dead or marginalized, despite the transformation of their country through a magical revolution; Orlando’s hero becomes a heroine half way through his unexpectedly extended lifespan, but her happiness at the end of the book is associated with her lifelong association with a quiet and prosperous country estate, out of the political and cultural limelight. Each of these books brings its women into direct contact with potent magical forces, but each also leaves them waiting, half hopeful but with a bass note of well-founded scepticism, for those energies to manifest themselves in genuine social change. And the sense of infinite promise mixed with doubt and even fear pervades the marvellous early narratives of Margaret Irwin.

The best known of Irwin’s fantasies is ‘The Book’, which I first came across in Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s fine anthology The Weird (2011). The protagonist of the story is a man, but his in-between-ness, like that of the women in the books I’ve listed, is never in question. He is a modestly prosperous middle-class gentleman, with a reliable job, a wife, three children and a dog, and a house in which they all live in close and reasonably democratic proximity. The children in his house all have a voice, and the man’s ‘favourite’ is the youngest, eight-year-old Jean. The egalitarian tendencies of this family are embodied in its solitary set of bookshelves, which promiscuously mingles ancient and modern, male and female, adult’s and children’s texts in cheerful disorder:

The dining-room bookcase was the only considerable one in the house and held a careless unselected collection to suit all the tastes of the household, together with a few dull and obscure old theological books that had been left over from the sale of a learned uncle’s library. Cheap red novels, bought on railway stalls by Mrs Corbett, who thought a journey the only time to read, were thrust in like pert, undersized intruders among the respectable nineteenth-century works of culture, chastely bound in dark blue or green, which Mr Corbett had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days; beside these there swaggered the children’s large gaily bound story-books and collections of Fairy Tales in every colour.

This household, then, embodies the inter-war epoch which saw the vote finally extended to all British citizens of suitable age. Its bookshelves are available to all its members and represent many aspects of European culture, both elite and popular, from fairy tales and Latin poetry to railway novels and detective fiction (Mr Corbett was reading a detective novel in the story’s opening sentence, despite the fact that the ‘pert, undersized intruders’ of popular fiction are associated in the list with his less educated wife). The house is not excessively democratic, however; it is not revolutionary, like Soviet Russia. We learn a few pages later that the servants are assumed by their employers to be uninterested in reading: ‘The maid never touched the books’ Mr Corbett thinks (p. 184). And the books themselves speak to moments of ambition in Mr Corbett’s past. They contain a number of nineteenth-century volumes he ‘had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days’ and the theological tomes whose only function (since they are never read) must be to inform the world that Mr Corbett’s uncle was a Dean, a figure of some stature in the Church of England. It is one of these ancient books that gives Irwin’s text its title, apparently infecting Mr Corbett’s mind with a miasma of self-interest, intensifying those early ambitions into an all-consuming obsession with financial and intellectual self-advancement at the expense of everyone around him. I say ‘apparently’ here because his passion for self-promotion is hinted at, as we’ve seen, in the books he owns, and Irwin carefully refrains from allowing us to conclude with any certainty that the effects of the titular Book are supernatural. Here is another form of in-between-ness the narrative contains: the gradual corruption of Mr Corbett’s mind by ‘The Book’ can be as easily ascribed to his own character and upbringing as to supernatural causes, and the tale is a perfect example of Tzvetan Todorov’s ‘hesitation’ between supernatural and natural explanations of seemingly impossible occurrences – a hesitation which suggests that the world itself is somehow suspended between irreconcilable philosophical perspectives, materialist and spiritual, supposedly committed to the former while being unable to shake off the residual influence of the latter, even if only as a means of disclaiming responsibility for its own worst actions.

The Book itself is an in-between object. Its presence on the bookshelves can at first only be deduced from an absence: an unexplained gap between the usually densely-packed volumes, which acquires for Mr Corbett an ‘unnatural importance’ and begins to prey on his mind until it develops an unsettling resemblance to ‘a gap between the two front teeth of some grinning monster’. For Chaucer and his medieval contemporaries a gap between the two front teeth was a sign of lechery, and there’s no mistaking the association between Mr Corbett’s obsession with the Book and erotic desire – in particular pornography. Censorship has ensured that pornography constitutes an absence in many libraries. It has also ensured that obscene passages in nineteenth-century texts were sometimes printed in Latin, barring access to uneducated readers on the dubious assumption that only the well-schooled are disciplined enough to read such passages without succumbing to temptation. The Book, when Mr Corbett stumbles across it, turns out to be in Latin, and he is at first drawn to the illustrations rather than the text, since his linguistic skills are not the best. These illustrations invoke both sexual temptation and its possible consequence, childbirth: ‘an ugly woodcut of Adam and Eve with figures like bolsters and hair like dahlias, or a map of the Cosmos with Hell-mouth in the corner, belching forth demons’ (p. 186). When at last Mr Corbett decides to decipher the Latin with the help of his young son’s dictionary, he ‘steals’ into the schoolroom like a thief in the night ‘With a secret and guilty air which would have looked absurd to anyone who knew his harmless purpose’. The part of the book he reads with most attention is a passage that describes (as he thinks) ‘some horrible rite practised by a savage tribe of devil-worshippers’ – though he reflects extensively on it afterwards, ‘committing each detail to memory’ as if to preserve it for his own uses. And the guilt that accompanies his clandestine reading of the Book soon begins to extend itself to Mr Corbett’s dealings with his family. He begins to think they suspect him of some unspecified misconduct and becomes infuriated at their ‘low and bestial suspicions and heavy dullness of mind’. The second time he borrows the dictionary from his son he ‘thought the boy looked oddly at him and he cursed him in his heart for a suspicious young devil, though of what he should be suspicious he could not say’ (p. 187). By this stage in the story his family has become a ‘savage tribe’ with devilish suspicions or superstitions, whose language he no longer speaks and whose culture is a closed book to him. Mr Corbett has become a colonial intruder into his own household, and anyone familiar with the habits of colonists will have begun to expect the worst from his bids to penetrate the secret spaces of its other inhabitants.

Mr Corbett’s inability to say what his family might suspect him of can be taken as another significant gap in the narrative, a deliberate exclusion from it of something in him which Mr Corbett himself refuses to acknowledge. The nature of that unsaid something may be hinted at in the phrase ‘low and bestial suspicions’, sexual desire being often associated with wild animals as against civilized men. The same refusal to acknowledge his own half-suppressed desires is implied by his assumption that the outrageous passage he translates so carefully refers to some ritual performed by savages, as against the actions of a self-disciplined Englishman like himself.  Yet Mr Corbett has been having what are obliquely identified as sexual fantasies before ever he lays hands on the Book. The story begins with him falling into the habit of reading familiar books in perverse new ways, all of which can be seen as eroticized or sexual. Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop – its title suggesting the secrets that might be hidden in broad daylight in a packed emporium – becomes for him an index to its author’s sado-masochistic leanings: ‘Beneath the author’s sentimental pity for the weak and helpless, he could discern a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering’. When he turns instead to the classical fiction of Walter Pater he concludes that ‘there is something evil in the austere worship of beauty for its own sake’ (p. 184). Later he identifies Robert Louis Stevenson as another sadist, Treasure Island exhibiting ‘an invalid’s sickly attraction to brutality’ (p. 185). Perverse readings like these can also be readily practised, it turns out, on the books that formed the bedrock of Mr Corbett’s education. In his nightmares after reading Pater ‘the gods and heroes of classic fable acted deeds whose naked crime and shame [he] had never appreciated in Latin and Greek Unseens’, and he wakes ‘in a cold sweat from the spectacle of the ravished Philomel’s torn and bleeding tongue’ (p. 184). Latin itself, the mark of a high-class schooling eminently suitable for boys who are destined by birth to become leaders of men, has been contaminated by association with rape and other ‘naked crimes’ well before Mr Corbett first glances into the manuscript pages of the mysterious tome of the story’s title.

Meanwhile, Mr Corbett entertains the same suspicions of other family members as he suspects them of entertaining about him. When his son in turn suddenly becomes disgusted by a book he used to enjoy (‘Filthy stuff’, he calls it), Mr Corbett’s first assumption is that the boy has been reading a pornographic publication passed on to him by servants or other boys: ‘Mr Corbett was disturbed. Unpleasant housemaids and bad schoolfriends passed through his head, as he gravely asked his son how he had got hold of that book’. His suspicions prove groundless, however. The book the boy finds ‘filthy’ is an expurgated edition of Gulliver’s Travels, with all the obscene bits taken out – though of course in the original Swift’s misanthropic ‘cynicism’, as Mr Corbett calls it, is expressed in graphically corporeal terms. Before long Mr Corbett himself is echoing the boy’s reaction to Swift (and the irony of Swift having been another Dean is surely intentional). By this stage, for him all authors have become ‘filthy-minded’, from the sexually repressed Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte to William Wordsworth with his unwholesome nature fetish, and all of them use literature to articulate ‘what they dared not express in their lives’. Literature itself points to a gap in public life, the gap from which the articulation of erotic arousal has been erased, and it is this gap that the Book of the story’s title comes exclusively to fill in Mr Corbett’s own existence.

As he gets to know the Book better he notices that it is unfinished. There are blank pages at the end, a gap where the perpetual process of learning to which the text pays verbal tribute has been cut short by the author’s death. As Mr Corbett painstakingly deciphers the Book’s contents he sees that these blank pages are being gradually filled with lines of new writing: instructions which permit him to satisfy his clandestine desires in the world beyond the text. At first these lines give him tips on good investments, glutting his appetite for wealth and status. Later, however, they move on to more obviously damaging suggestions, instructing him to kill the family dog and thus pandering to the sadistic pleasure in cruelty which he detected in Stevenson and Dickens. Inevitably the mysterious instructions that appear on the blank pages, which so conveniently chime in with Mr Corbett’s unspoken wishes, imply that he has started to write these wishes into the manuscript, embellishing his work of translation with unwholesome fantasies of his own. His belief that he must obey the lines’ instructions to the letter (if not, he is convinced that something dreadful will happen to him) invokes his respect for authority, as exemplified in his decision to keep his uncle’s books in the first place; and here we come to perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story – its gender politics.

I suggested earlier that the Corbett household has a quasi-democratic air about it, as attested by its bookshelves, or by the fact that Mr Corbett and his wife share the same tastes in lowbrow reading. What Mr Corbett’s new reading habits exemplify, by contrast, is his frustrated wish for power. His perverse analyses of Dickens, Stevenson and the Book make him feel superior – first to his younger self, who he thinks did not read with the penetration he has acquired in his maturity; then to his wife and children, who strike him as dull and narrow-minded by comparison; and finally to his friends and professional colleagues, whose inability to profit from the Book’s financial tips makes him think of them as incompetent. Inevitably, perhaps, his sense of superiority has a gendered aspect. In the 1920s Latin formed an integral part of a middle-class boy’s education – and there is no indication in the story that the girls in his family have access to it. It’s the ancient language of the law, and Mr Corbett gives as his excuse for borrowing the dictionary his need to translate an old law case for professional purposes. And it’s the language of theology, associated with the late Dean’s library. Law and theology, like Latin, have traditionally been the exclusive province of men; in Irwin’s day this was only slowly changing. And in medieval times, when the Book was written, Latin was the language of the Bible, and of the male priests who had sole access to its contents. Indeed, the title of the short story could well be read as referring to the Good Book, and the mysterious Book itself with its pictures of Adam and Eve and the mouth of Hell could well be taken for an annotated copy of the Scriptures. In turning from detective fiction to what he thinks of as theology Mr Corbett is embracing authority, just as he is when he casts aside the demotic Dickens for the more socially elevated Pater.

Mr Corbett’s recourse to the Dean’s volumes, in other words, immerses him in a world where men’s activities are carefully segregated from those of women; a world from which the twentieth century was only just beginning to emerge in the two decades between the wars. The unhealthy miasma he detects in the vicinity of the bookshelves – exuded by the Dean’s library, and perhaps by the Book in particular – could be construed as the stink of the patriarchal past, when women were men’s chattels and it was the absolute prerogative of men to dispose of their offspring as they saw fit. The association of the Dean’s library with pornography points up the various abuses to which patriarchy gives rise – through its tendency to represent women and children as objects, through its privileging of individual male desires over the collective needs of the community, through its restriction of the arcane secrets of sexual knowledge to male eyes and hands. There’s a ghastly inevitability, then, about the fact that Mr Corbett’s perverse reading culminates in an assault on Jean, a female child. Philomela, after all, whose severed tongue Mr Corbett dreams of, was raped by a patriarch – her father, Tereus – and Mr Corbett’s final attack on his own daughter can be read as the consequence of an education designed to reinforce the historical linkage of patriarchal power with sexual violence.

The build-up to the attack is framed precisely in terms of the protection of privileged authority. By this point the Book has become for Mr Corbett ‘the source of ancient and secret power’, and the nightmares his daughter has begun to have about it suggest that she has somehow ‘acquired dangerous knowledge’ herself – perhaps by reading it, which would make her in his eyes a kind of heretic against his own divine status. She has teamed up with the family dog, he thinks absurdly, to conspire against his plans for universal domination; and the thought leads him to quote a line from the Good Book: ‘“All that are not with me are against me,” he repeated softly’. The words are derived from a sentence uttered by the divine son of a patriarchal God (‘He that is not with me is against me’, Matthew 12:30), and Mr Corbett’s easy appropriation of it for his own ends echoes, in effect, many generations of scriptural exegesis on behalf of male supremacy. In a similar spirit he decides to kill the child with a dose of rat poison no one knows he has – a particularly deadly form of secret knowledge, playing on the notion that his mind (like that of Dorian Gray) has been metaphorically ‘poisoned’ by a Book; his murder will be committed, like an act of God, by the unseen hand of a ‘secret power’. In these final paragraphs of the story Mr Corbett has become an activist on behalf of religion itself, which has acted since classical times in the service of male oppression.

In fact, to his credit, Mr Corbett withstands this last temptation. He doesn’t kill his daughter, but dies himself in her place, destroyed either by the shocking revelation that all his recent investments have collapsed (as some people believe) or by the pressure of a hand upon his windpipe (as the coroner’s report suggests). Was he killed by the Book’s disembodied servant, the demonic hand about which his daughter has been having so many nightmares? Or did he kill himself by his own hand, as the lawyers assert, somehow throttling himself to death to prevent himself becoming a similar servant of oppression? The notion that the hand that killed him might have been his own would seem far-fetched, if it weren’t for the fact that his hand has been associated throughout the story both with his reading of the Latin book and his carrying out of its instructions: ‘with his finger he traced out the words that had been written’; ‘He held onto the door handle [of his daughter’s bedroom], but his fingers seemed to have grown numb, for he could not turn it’ (p. 191). The story’s end, then, falls into a gap between two alternative theories of Mr Corbett’s death, and in doing so it defines the interwar period as a time in suspension between the immaterial preoccupations of the past and the material obsessions of the present; or else between the total dominance of the patriarchy, supported by an intensely patriarchal religion firmly rooted in the scriptures, and the ushering in of a new, egalitarian age in the wake of the universal franchise. It’s presumably up to the reader (as it was to Mr Corbett) to determine which.

Lynd Ward, illustration for William F. Harvey, ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’