I wrote this piece for a Festschrift for Peter Conrad. I’m sure he won’t mind me posting it here, with affectionate thanks for the inspiration he’s given me down the years.
I’d like to write a book of the kind Peter Conrad writes: nimble, quizzical, funny, learned, surprising, audacious, drawing together a vast range of heterogeneous material, brimming with passion for literature, and saying something clear and precise about the world from which literature emerges, the artefacts, arts and actions with which it intersects. I’m conscious, of course, that this wish of mine may well remain what it is – a beautiful fantasy – and that if the book ever comes into being it will hardly merit even one of the adjectives I’ve used to describe it. All the same, I’d like to give the dream some substance here at least, in connection with Peter, who has given life to so many strange dreams.
My book, then, will be called A Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century, and will take as its premise the notion that the best way of writing about the century just past is through its fantasies: the literature that turns its back on what really happened, or might have happened, and focuses instead on what certainly did not happen and never could, foregrounding the impossibility of what it represents, its flamboyant violation of the laws of physics, biology, history, reason, economics, or any known earthly culture. This is because during that century more writers than ever before discovered that the fantastic was the only mode by which they could frame an adequate response to the cataclysmic events and transformations they had experienced or encountered. The passage from my non-existent book that follows presents Hope Mirrlees’s novel Lud-in-the Mist (1926) as a prime example of how fantastic fiction can write the moment of its composition with uncanny accuracy. In it, Mirrlees discovers a strange new voice that perfectly articulates the mood of the unsettled decade that followed the First World War; and by reading it we can lift the veil that obscures that time, learn something new about what we have lost and gained as we move steadily away from its complications.
Lud-in-the-Mist flamboyantly repudiates its writer’s historical moment, locating itself in a non-existent country called Dorimare which has undergone no industrial revolution, suffered no Great War, but remained an improbably stable bourgeois republic – an anti-monarchist Merry England whose interregnum has endured for two or three hundred years – since the revolution that ousted its final monarch, the ‘laughing demon of destructiveness’ Duke Aubrey. Dorimarite culture is ‘baroque’, that is, closely related to the culture of seventeenth-century Europe, when Richard Corbet wrote his celebrated ballad ‘The Fairies’ Farewell’ in nostalgic recognition that a new age of science had come into being: an age in which the machinery of the world was understood in radical new terms, so that the world itself began to operate differently, as John Crowley has shown us in his haunting sequence of alternative historical novels, Aegypt. At that point in time, the Dorimarites too said farewell to their fairies. Duke Aubrey fled to Fairyland, which borders Dorimare, and since then all contact with the fairies has been cut off, their names reduced to imprecations and insults, their staple diet – the fairy fruit that got slathered over the heroines of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ – banned as an illegal substance because of its unsettling effects on its consumers. Fairy fruit intensifies emotion: eating it in excess has ‘tragic results’, leading to ‘madness, suicide, orgiastic dances, and wild doings under the moon’. Even the mention of the stuff causes acute embarrassment to the placid, pragmatic burghers of Lud-in-the-Mist, the country’s capital. By banning it they congratulate themselves on having banished tragedy too from among their ranks, along with the excesses and illusions of all other forms of art. Freed from fairies and the narcotic consumables they traffic, the bourgeoisie of Lud-in-the Mist settle down to a life of comfortable and slightly self-mocking respectability, very much like the middle classes of 1920s England.
Except that like the middle classes of England, the Dorimarites are living a fantasy. Fairy artefacts are everywhere in Dorimare, as an anonymous antiquarian has the temerity to point out in a potted history of the country, which is burned by the censors as soon as printed. Fairy fruit continues to be smuggled over the border, and can be obtained by anyone who wants it; and the law that forbids it is a tissue of fabrications, alluding to the fruit as contraband fabric, a kind of silk, as if to symbolize the veil that the Luddite burghers have chosen to draw across their own eyes, a voluntary intensification of the mist from which their city takes its name. The chief deception to which they subject themselves is the belief that things don’t change. They encapsulate each other’s characters in oblique little inside jokes that get trotted out on each social occasion, as if to preserve the citizens in verbal amber, safe against the ravages of time. They practise annual rituals, such as parties to welcome the famous Moongrass cheeses every April, as if to impart regularity to the wayward seasons and guarantee their own continued prosperity. And when they die they have themselves buried in the Fields of Grammary, a picturesque urban cemetery whose stones eulogize the careers of the graves’ tenants in amusing epitaphs, reducing their long lives to a few short rows of carven platitudes much like the jokes of the burghers in their complacently self-effacing tone.
But the fantasies by which they live have a way of exposing what they are designed to conceal. The names and oaths of the Luddites – so the anonymous antiquarian assures them – derive from fairy originals; and if this embarrassing etymology may be suppressed by destroying the antiquarian’s potted history, the names remain: Pugwalker, Pyepowders, Mumchance, Gibberty, Leer; funny, suggestive, embarrassing to their owners, and highlighting for the twentieth-century reader the fictionality of what she’s reading, its silliness, its kinship to the realm of childish fantasy from which serious modern adults, like the Luddites, are so keen to divorce their activities. And although the ancient oaths of Dorimare may be controlled by a strict adherence to the conventions of good manners (although one of the commonest oaths in the book turns out to be a fairy password, opening doors to illegal secrets concealed behind hidden doors and old silk arrases); and if books can be burned by the hangman (although Mirrlees’ book contains its own etymological clue to the target of its satire in its title – King Lud was the founder of London, says Geoffrey of Monmouth – so that the resources available to the unknown antiquarian are clearly available to Mirrlees’s readers as well as the Luddites); there nevertheless remain the wordless languages spoken by the Silent People which figure so largely throughout the text, and which expose the relentless changes that suffuse the Luddites’ apparently stable universe – its interwovenness with death, desire, disease and the pervasive dread of some unidentifiable disaster – in ways that can never be suppressed.
The Silent People come in many guises. Fairies are the Silent People, and their banishment has made them yet more silent. But the dead too are the Silent People, and they refuse to be kept down or rendered dumb, whether by cosy epitaphs or other respectable methods of cleaning up history. They come back as decrepit labourers who can only speak in riddles, or as visions of the dead Duke Aubrey brought on by fairy fruit. A murdered farmer speaks by way of a pair of embroidered slippers, a set of old lawcourt records, a printed herbal and a herm; and his murder is exposed by a former Mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist who has been declared ‘officially dead’ – the means by which the city corporation passes a motion of no confidence in its highest elected official – thus becoming one of the Silent People himself. And there are other kinds of Silent People too. Houses, for instance, which hide and yield so many family secrets. The working classes, who maintain an imaginative bond with the fairies long after the bourgeoisie have severed all ties with them, but whose insights into fairy business are never heard in official circles. Children, too, who must be seen and not heard, and who are therefore Silent People, at least in theory. Yet children keep bursting out with obscene or nonsensical exclamations throughout the novel; and they also keep bursting out of the bonds by which Luddite society seeks to restrain them. After eating fairy fruit, the pupils of Miss Crabapple’s Academy dance away to Fairyland, which for the Luddites is tantamount to dancing themselves to death. Young Ranulph Chanticleer evades the attentions of the chaperone set to guard him during a convalescent sojourn in the countryside, where the boy has been sent to recover from the effects of his own consumption of fairy fruit. He too runs away to Fairyland and death. And in both cases – those of the runaway girls and the convalescent boy – the loss of the children is regarded by the bulk of the Luddites as an embarrassment more than a catastrophe, an exacerbation of the young ones’ habitual rudeness in saying what should be left unsaid, and in changing persistently, unfazed by their elders’ commitment to perpetual stasis. Tragedy, after all, was banished along with the fairies, to be replaced by more mundane reactions to a loved one’s death, such as queasiness (one mother vomits repeatedly after her daughter’s departure) or blushing (the families of the Crabapple girls seem more disconcerted by the shameful cause of their disappearance than by the disappearance itself). To respond to the children’s elopement as one would to a tragedy would merely aggravate the disgrace they have brought on their families, not cathartically exclude it.
But if children can be ignored, the countryside cannot, and neither can those little patches of countryside the Luddites tend within the city limits, their formal gardens. Both are filled with Silent People in the form of vegetation, whose seasonal cycles provide, with the changing moon, the favourite subject-matter of the vanished fairy artificers whose products survive throughout Dorimare in attics and forgotten corners. And the language of vegetation speaks out on every page of Mirrlees’s novel about the things the Luddite burghers wish to deny: change, desire, disgrace, betrayal, self-deception, approaching death. Trees, for example, remain silent or ‘dumb’ except for two great explosions of chromatic articulacy in spring and autumn, when the leaves come out (‘those of the birch are like a swarm of green bees, and those of the lime so transparent that they are stained black with the shadow of those above and beneath them’) and later decay. And in the early morning when flowers first emerge from the darkness, they announce the ubiquity of transience and illusion, stained as they are with ‘a yellow like that of primroses, a blue like that of certain wild periwinkles, colours so elusive that one suspects them to be due to some passing accident of light, and that, were one to pick the flower, it would prove to be pure white’. No wonder if after watching the slow revelation of these evasive plants – and noting that ‘a star was quenched with every flower that reappeared on earth’ – the adolescent Ranulph is seized with a sudden passion and runs off to Fairyland, where such things as transience, illusion and passion are, he thinks, unheard of. He wants to escape from ‘things happening,’ he tells his father, such as ‘summer and winter, and days and nights’. His wish to escape from these things by going to Fairyland, however, seems misguided; its people may be silent but they dedicate themselves to making things happen in the present and exposing the happenings of the past. The proof is in the Fairy Fruit, whose consumption is what made him aware of the seasonal mutability that surrounds him.
Nathaniel Chanticleer, Ranulph’s father, shares the boy’s susceptibility to sudden passions. In his own adolescence he heard a Note accidentally struck on a fairy instrument, like Arthur Sullivan’s Lost Chord, and ever since has lived in a state of intense anxiety about the prospect of imminent change. It has generated in him, in fact, ‘a wistful yearning after the prosaic things he already possessed… as if he thought he had already lost what he was actually holding in his hands’. Nathaniel suffers, in fact, from what fantasy is often accused of over-indulging in its readers: continuous nostalgia, against which he braces himself by frequent visits to the cemetery, where he reads about the lives of dead citizens who have succeeded in evading catastrophe (if their epitaphs are to be believed) and now rest in peace. But Nathaniel cannot be comforted by false visions of the past; it’s nostalgia for the present that infects him. His nostalgia is in fact an acute form of realism, a consciousness that catastrophes have happened – the famine that killed the family of the labourer Diggory Carp, for instance, and drove him to suicide, or the murder of Farmer Gibberty – and may happen again. It’s this awareness that ensures he is well prepared for the great catastrophe of losing his son, and does not merely accept it, as the other Luddites accept the loss of their daughters. Instead he chases after the boy into Fairyland, another Orpheus chasing his Eurydice into the land of the dead.
When he gets there, he is confronted by two alternative visions of death. The first is the image of an eternal, changeless Dorimare, whose vegetation is frozen in enamelled perfection, like a painting of the way the burghers of Lud would like their land to be: a place where everything ‘had the serenity and stability of trees, the unchanging peace of pictures’. The second is a ‘black abyss’, a nothingness into which his son has plunged, and into which the father throws himself in a desperate bid to save him. In doing so he throws himself out of the text, as it were: that abyss exists in the reader’s world just as surely as it does in Dorimare. There have been few more convincing depictions in English fiction of a heroic resistance to fantasy, a refusal to immerse oneself in the narcotic dream to which the bourgeoisie have collectively capitulated. And it’s nostalgia, the sense of imminent loss, that gives Nathaniel the courage to stage that resistance, to confront the abyss, and to snatch something from it against all the odds: a child of his to grow to maturity and take his place when he faces death for the final time.
It’s also Nathaniel’s peculiar brand of nostalgia that enables him to stage a second revolution at the end of the novel, when he rides back from Fairyland in triumph with his rescued son, having previously liberated the Crabapple girls too from their captivity among the dead. The fairies march into Dorimare beside him, as does Duke Aubrey, triumphantly reclaiming the land that expelled them – although there are hints that the new regime may take a more democratic form than the old ones (fairy fruit, for instance, will be available to all; in the Dukes’ time it was food for the elite, and illegal in the time of the republic). Is this a reactionary revolution, a peculiarly English inversion of the events that took place in Russia less than a decade before the book’s publication? Hardly. The historical Luddites attacked the new mechanized looms that threatened their livelihoods, and it seems harsh to accuse them of conservatism. Mirrlees’s Luddites, on the other hand, the fat and prosperous citizens of Lud – she calls them Ludites as if to emphasize the ludic wit of the comparison – seek to destroy the hand-crafted tapestry of their own past in the interest of permanent prosperity (for themselves, that is, not the working classes they despise). Nathaniel’s revolution forces on them the recognition that the past is always with us, physically, emotionally, breaking through the flimsy screens and veils by which we strive to obscure it – just as the blood of a murdered man was once believed to burst out of his corpse when the murderer passes. And the humiliation of the bourgeoisie that this recognition entails opens the way for open dialogue between themselves and the Silent People they have tried to ignore: intermarriage with vagrants and workers, exchange of cultural artefacts such as songs, the legalization of narcotics, embracing the dead. Open dialogue of this kind seems a radical concept even now, so many decades after Mirrlees was writing.
We cannot repress our tragedies, our desires, our bouts of lunacy without doing ourselves serious harm – so Freud assures us. And even when we seek escape in literary fantasy, the sort of charming, whimsical fantasy this book embodies, we cannot long rid ourselves of the consciousness that we live at the edge of the abyss; especially when the fantasy ends with a quasi-Brechtian warning: ‘the Written Word is a Fairy […] speaking lying words to us in a feigned voice’. This Cretan paradox sweeps away the land of Dorimare in an instant, returning us to the moment when the book was written, less than ten years after the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Flu. No middle-class urban idyll, no matter how charming, could bury those historical maelstroms in genteel silence, or restore the world that followed it to pastoral stability. Lud-in-the-Mist is startling because of the directness with which it discloses these discomfiting facts to its reluctant readers, while seducing them with passages of unparalleled loveliness and subjecting them to occasional peals of derisory laughter. That’s why I shall choose it as the cornerstone of my fantastic history.