The New Saint Nicholas

[This is a poem I wrote for some Dutch friends, former neighbours in Glasgow who now live in Rhode Island. Our two families always celebrated the Dutch festival of Saint Nicholas together, and we still send each other poems every year. Saint Nicholas came from Turkey, though for some reason he always sails to the Netherlands via Spain. His day is 5 December, but his journey from Spain takes a week and you can follow its progress on Dutch TV.]

Saint Nicholas has far to go
Across the waves from Spain.
His little boat is powered by snow
And wind, and spray, and rain.

His little helpers, so they say,
Are blue, and green, and pink;
Saint Nicholas’s hair is grey;
His face is black as ink.

Saint Nicholas was once a girl,
But now his form is male.
He watched his silver beard unfurl
As slowly as a snail.

For centuries he watched it grow
And watered it with tears,
While sun, and rain, and wind, and snow
Marked out the passing years.

And now it flies behind him as
He skims across the waves
With piles of presents in his arms
For refugees and slaves.

And when he sees your waiting shoes
He’ll fill them full of dreams,
Where every shoe’s a bark canoe
And every street’s a stream.

And every stream runs dimpling down
Through hills, and heaths, and trees,
To join the green, red, yellow, brown,
Kaleidoscopic seas;

There where the boats dash to and fro
With Nicholas and his friends:
Whales from the lands of ice and snow,
Birds from the ocean’s ends;

And as the waters rise and rise
And as the skies grow dark,
Studded with little blinking eyes,
The boats will form an ark.

The ark will forge through froth and foam,
The birds and whales will hum,
And nudge the vessel gently home
In some strange time to come.

And where it lands its wooden sides
Will root themselves and grow,
And strange new creatures leap or glide
Into the evening glow.

And as they peer about in fear
Dreading another storm,
Saint Nicholas will reappear
In some bizarre new form.

He’ll try to make them understand
They’ve nothing left to lose;
And then he’ll sink down in the sand
And give them back their shoes.

And some of them will put them on
As hats, or masks, or shells,
While others jump aboard and sail
Them off like caravels.

And others still will walk away
With shoes on both their feet,
And build a little town of clay
With trees on every street.

And every house will be an inn
For folk from overseas,
With food and drink and clothes within
For slaves and refugees.

And every night they’ll lay their shoes
Outside the door with care,
So folk with nothing left to lose
Will know they’re welcome there.

And every morning they’ll look out
Through panes of coloured glass
And hum this little song about
The new Saint Nicholas.

The Surrealist Fantasy of Herbert Read, Part 2: The Green Child

Herbert Read, The Green Child, Grey Walls Press edition (1945)

Herbert Read’s novel The Green Child (1935) can be described as an exercise in political detachment, charting the journey of an emergent anarchist into revolutionary disengagement from political and religious systems of all kinds. This journey towards disengagement is embodied in the novel’s eccentric structure. Constructed as three novels in one, its narrative transports the reader from a kind of fantastic autobiography in the first part – many details of which derive from Read’s recollections of his childhood in rural Yorkshire, as given in his memoir The Innocent Eye (1933) – to a South American utopia in the second, to a surrealist underground dreamscape in the third. Each part, as has often been pointed out, closes in death: the apparent death by drowning that ends the first part, the faked assassination of President Olivero that ends the second, the death by petrifaction that ends the third. The novel also opens with a death. Its first sentence announces ‘The death of President Olivero’, and the rest of the narrative can therefore be read as an afterlife experience – an invocation of the experience of dying, the point at which a person’s life is said to flash in front of their eyes. Admittedly we’re told in the first paragraph that Olivero ‘arranged his own assassination’, but the phrase is ambiguous enough to suggest that he could either have faked his own death or committed what is in effect assisted suicide.

If, then, we can think of the book as an extended account of death and the process of dying, we can also read it as a critique of the various versions of the afterlife offered by world religions and philosophies. Instead of achieving spiritual enlightenment, its protagonist finally accomplishes the total abandonment of both body and spirit; a condition to which he progresses by way of an increasingly intense scrutiny of material things and a growing appreciation of simplicity in people, politics and aesthetics, cognate developments that help him recognize the basically geometric principles that underpin the structure of the universe. The materialist religion or philosophy he embraces in the end could be seen as articulating a political as well as a philosophical position: that only in freeing ourselves from the grand narratives of history, religion and authoritarian politics can we achieve a just society or personal contentment. The book also implies, however, that freeing ourselves in this way is an option unavailable to us – unless by some great good fortune we should find ourselves living among the Green Children, safely hidden in a sealed-off subterranean civilization which has in effect rejected narrative altogether.

All three parts of the novel seem designed to illustrate fantasy ‘in the abstract’ as described in English Prose Style. They are, for instance, emancipated from time in that they occur out of chronological order, shifting from one timeline in part one (beginning in 1861) to an earlier timeline in part two (beginning in 1830 or so) and back again to the first timeline in the third of its three unequal sections. This emancipation from time is further emphasized by the fact that the narrator admits at one point that he has falsified all the dates in it ‘for reasons which will be obvious when this narrative has been read’ (p. 21) – the chief of these being that the protagonist kills a man in the opening section. The three parts are emancipated, too, from place, in that they encompass much of the known world and beyond, drifting from England in the first part to Poland, Spain, Argentina and the invented republic of Roncador in the second, to a nameless underground country in the third. The narrative voice changes too, from third person to first person and back again to third. Like the chapter on fantasy, then, The Green Child is always unsettling our expectations, refusing to let us relax into a familiar genre or a consistent set of narrative conventions.

Still following the various aspects of fantasy as described in English Prose Style, the first and third parts of The Green Child are ‘arbitrary’ in the sense that impossible things happen in them: a stream runs backwards, a man turns to stone. The middle narrative is more conventional, as one might expect given that it describes a community rather than the adventures of an individual; but this section too is in some sense arbitrary in its imitation of the picaresque ramblings of adventure romance, full of disconnected incidents, improbable coincidences, unlikely achievements – not least of these being the easy establishment of a happy society within a few years, in defiance of the rest of human experience. Finally, all three parts of the book are ‘objective’ in that they are deeply concerned with practicalities of various kinds; above all, with working out in meticulous detail the logical implications of the miscellaneous impossibilities and unlikelihoods they contain (the reason why the stream is flowing backwards, the logistics of the utopia described, the supporting philosophy which justifies the man’s petrifaction). They are ‘objective’, too, in their resistance to a detailed account of the protagonist’s feelings; the book is about his actions and thoughts, not his emotions, even though the first and final parts describe his obsession with a woman. The book ends, indeed, with the total annihilation of emotion in the protagonist as he slowly turns to stone, ‘a consummation / Devoutly to be wished’ in Read’s fantastic universe. One gets the impression that the chief reason why turning to stone represents Read’s personal form of Nirvana is that it stands at the polar opposite of all spiritual systems; it can’t be aligned with any extant form of religion or philosophy, and so detaches the petrified protagonist once and for all from the encumbrances of nationalism, authoritarian internationalism and history that seemed to be embroiling most of humankind in the 1930s.

Sign showing the Green Children of Woolpit

The entire structure of the novel, with its repeated disruptions of continuity, could be said to spring from the presence in it of the Green Child who gives the book its title. In this it builds on the technique of the story Read identified as ‘the norm to which all types of Fantasy should conform’, the Green Children of Woolpit, whose narrative (as we’ve seen) grew or accrued organically and quasi-logically from the central event it documented, the discovery of the Green Children themselves. The ‘Green Child’ features in the first part of Read’s novel, while the second lays out some of the reasons why she had such a powerful impact on the protagonist when he first met her. The third part reveals the context that shaped her: the culture of the Green People whose influence takes the protagonist beyond his obsession with an isolated representative of their culture. The figure of the Green Child, I would suggest, embodies Read’s concept of fantasy: that is, ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ in the form of a concrete, dispassionately imagined object, here a person, which has been emancipated through circumstance ‘from the order of time and space’. And this reading of her seems to me to be supported by the frequent references to fantasy and the fantastic that punctuate the first section of the text in which she features.

These references are present from the book’s first page. At the beginning the protagonist, an Englishman known by the Spanish name of Olivero, finds himself drawn back to the village of his birth after long absence by what he calls ‘sentimental nostalgia’, an emotion that represents the place to him as ‘withdrawn [by time] to a fantastic distance, bright and exquisite and miniature, like a landscape seen through the wrong end of a telescope’ (p. 9, my emphasis). His home town, in fact, has acquired the quality of a fantasy, emancipated from space and time by the operations of space (that is, geographical distance) and time (that is, the lapse of years), though not yet freed from the emotional resonances that make him yearn to go back there. Later he describes the half-remembered village as ‘bright in its crystal setting’ (p. 10), anticipating the emphasis on crystals among the Green People in the third part of the novel, and notes how his yearning for it skews his sense of what is real, distracting him from the lands he travels through on his journey back from Roncador to England. Indeed, Olivero longs to emancipate himself from time altogether: ‘To escape from the sense of time, to live in the eternity of what he was accustomed to call “the divine essence of things” – that was his only desire’ (p. 10). Yet a return to the place where his ‘personality had first been liberated’ threatens to restore to its location in space and time a scene that has been detached from them by his thirty years’ absence. Fortunately, however, his arrival in the village instead brings him face to face with the fantastic in concrete form, first in the shape of a river which runs in the opposite direction from the river he remembers from his youth – runs, in fact, uphill – and then in the shape of the Green Child he comes across as he seeks to trace the river to its source. These two fantastic elements are linked, and Olivero’s obsession with both – he is as determined logically to explain to himself the phenomenon of the upward-flowing river as the mystery of the Green Child’s origins – identifies him as a man who runs against the stream of human history, and whose return to the place that shaped him will never rid him of his revolutionary tendencies.

Felix Kelly, the village from The Green Child (1945)

The Green Child, it turns out, is pitted in this novel against the violence of power, technological, colonial and economic. The stream leads Olivero first to the mill where he grew up, which has since stopped functioning, then to a more modern, larger mill nearby, which he suspects of having some agency in changing the direction of the stream. Possessed of the mill is a man called Kneeshaw, a name Read used in a poem early in his career to describe a conscript who is maimed in the First World War – a cog, so to speak, in the violent machinery of the twentieth century. In The Green Child, too, Kneeshaw is associated with both violence and machinery. As a child, Kneeshaw was a pupil of Olivero in the village school, whose wanton destruction of a clockwork engine was the direct cause of Olivero’s abandonment of the teaching profession and departure from the village. As an adult, the object of Kneeshaw’s violent attentions is the Green Child, the mysterious girl with green skin who appeared with her brother in the village soon after Olivero’s departure. Kneeshaw later married her, with her guardian’s blessing, receiving with her from that guardian the money needed both to care for her and to modernize his mill. Kneeshaw’s lifelong devotion to the Green Child, then, is for him bound up with his lifelong devotion to the running of his modernized mill, and just as the mill is driven by the stream, so is Kneeshaw’s obsession with the Green Child driven by his desire to humanize her and hence to make her wholly his – to make her his machine, so to speak, as well as his possession. Given the Green Child’s greenness, which implies an association with nature, this linkage of her with machinery – nature’s opposite – might be expected to culminate in an outbreak of violence.

The green girl, meanwhile, cultivates an instinctive detachment from Kneeshaw, which is exactly opposed to his apparent desire to make her like himself. She refuses to sleep with him, eat meat, or do productive work in his household. She also refuses to stop wandering around the countryside – not wantonly, like the original Green Child of Woolpit, but arbitrarily, without any perceptible purpose, mostly sticking to the banks of the similarly wandering and arbitrary stream. She is cold where Kneeshaw is hot, objective where he is subjective (her distaste for him is not personal, since she is equally detached from all other living creatures) and random in her behaviour where his behaviour is strictly functional. She is emancipated from time, in that she both ages much more slowly than an ordinary person and retains the childlike title by which she was known from the moment she wandered into the village. This sets her against the strictly time-bound schedule by which Kneeshaw’s business operates. It is hardly surprising, then, if as the marriage wears on Kneeshaw’s response to her intransigent strangeness becomes increasingly aggressive. He tries to lock her in an attic until she conforms, thinking that he will be able to force her to observe the timekeeping he lives by (instead she nearly dies, like a plant deprived of light and water). When Olivero comes across him he is attempting to force a cup of hot lamb’s blood between the Green Child’s lips, convinced that this is the only way to give her strength enough to be of use to him. Kneeshaw’s instinctive association of the Green Child with the proverbially innocent and sacrificial lamb predicts the likely end result of what Read calls his ‘tormenting’ of her in the latter stages of their marriage (p. 33).

Felix Kelly, the Mill from The Green Child (1945), showing Olivero and Kneeshaw

Along with all their other differences, the couple are separated by their different levels of complexity. Divided as Kneeshaw is between the industrial machinery that makes him prosperous, the hot blood that gives him strength and his frustrated sexual desire for the strange woman he has married, along with a perverse veneration for her, he is a highly complex figure. Read describes him as the victim of ‘primitive instincts’, but insists that this is not the same as calling him simple; he compares Kneeshaw’s conflicting loyalties and desires to the ‘complicated taboos of savage races’, savagery here being as much aligned through Kneeshaw with the complexities of industrial engineering at the heart of the British Empire as it is with any of that Empire’s colonized territories. Kneeshaw represents, in fact, the machinery of imperialism, its dehumanizing effect on its human instruments, and the violence with which it imposes conformity with the customs and contradictions that sustain it. The Green Child, on the other hand, could be taken to stand for everything that must be suppressed to let the Empire flourish. Above all, she stands for simplicity, and as the book goes on its preference for what is simple over what is complex becomes increasingly apparent.

One aspect of the Green Child’s simplicity is her resistance to being tied down to any conventional narrative. Her physical coldness connects her with the upward-flowing river, and she prefers above all else to spend her time in its water, so that ‘without shame or hesitation [she] would throw off her frock and float like a mermaid, almost invisible, in the watery element’ (p. 31). This association with mermaids follows on from Read’s description of her fleeing from Kneeshaw’s embraces ‘as from a hot-breathed fawn’, which associates her with the unwilling nymphs of classical legend who prefer metamorphosis into trees or reeds to the aggressive attentions of male deities. Mermaids or sirens are traditionally promiscuous, while fleeing nymphs are chaste, so the two connections could be said to cancel each other out. Later Read describes her as walking like a ‘fairy’ (p. 43), and later still as possessing a ‘green naiad figure’ (p. 45) and a face as ‘radiant as an angel’s’ (p. 46), aligning her with multiple myths or legends in quick succession while confining her to none. In the same way, Read’s novel resists generic classification, as if infected by the Green Child’s elusiveness. The book could be read as an adventure story or romance with Olivero as its globetrotting hero; but the Green Child’s refusal to behave like a conventional heroine effectively cuts it off from this literary model. As a ‘child’, even in her thirties, she preexists any cultural associations, prejudices or implied conditioning, and we never witness her reaching maturity and so settling into a consistent role or character. She never speaks, although we are told she is capable of speech; she may understand what Olivero says to her but he can never be certain (‘she turned an unmoved and perhaps uncomprehending face towards him’, p. 43). In the third and final section of the novel the couple confirm their resistance to generic containment by losing interest in one another altogether, in defiance of romance convention. All the Green Child’s personal traits, in fact, link her with the whimsicality Read sees as integral to fantasy, and suggest that Olivero’s yearning for her – and Kneeshaw’s too – is a hankering after the qualities Read associates with the fantastic in his criticism.

She also seems to bring out the fantastic in the behaviour of her male admirers – even those who are most resistant to fantasy. When Olivero first sets eyes on her, helpless in the clutches of her powerful husband as he seeks to force hot blood between her teeth, he rushes to the rescue with the impetuousness of a romance hero, but his rescue soon becomes absurd. To reach her he must scramble through a half-open window, and he gets stuck half way, with ‘the upper half of his body outside the window, his legs waving wildly inside the room’ (p. 19). ‘This mishap,’ Read informs us, ‘which in any normal circumstances would have been merely comic, gave a still further fantastic turn to the scene of horror inside the room’ (p. 19, my emphasis). Later, Kneeshaw reveals himself, too, to have been affected by the fantastic when he relates to Olivero, despite his usual taciturnity, the story of his marriage. This unwonted eloquence comes to him because ‘tragedy’, as Read tells us, ‘drives us beyond natural behaviour, on to a level where imagination and phantasy rule’ (p. 25, my emphasis) – and fantasy, the product of the imaginative faculty, is described in English Prose Style as a mode of rhetoric or eloquent speech. Olivero, on the other hand, has been a devotee of fantasy since his youth. As a schoolmaster his favoured teaching technique was to dispense with formal learning and encourage his pupils to ‘become absorbed in […] fantasy’ (p. 23, my emphasis) – that is, in ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ – through unsupervised play. This was his motivation in providing them with the clockwork train made by his father, just as Kneeshaw’s hostility to fantasy was expressed in his smashing of the toy engine. The two men’s attraction to the fantastic person of the Green Child stems, then, from opposite perspectives, one of which is determined to liberate fantasy from its entrapment in systems, the other committed to subjecting it to the systematic mode of operation it resists.

The clash between these two perspectives reaches its apex when Olivero leaves the mill, after freeing the Green Child from Kneeshaw’s clutches, and returns to his former occupation of studying the stream. Seeing a phenomenon he does not understand in the troubled water of the millpond – ‘a continual interweaving of irregular ribbons of water, gushing and spouting in every direction’, like an enactment of fantastic arbitrariness (p. 39) – he decides to deactivate the millwheel so as to study the phenomenon in an undisturbed state. Kneeshaw immediately notices that his mill has been reduced to an unproductive state and hurries to reconnect the wheel to its machinery. In the process he discovers that Olivero is still lurking on his property and attacks him in the hope of destroying him as he destroyed the toy engine thirty years before. Instead it’s Kneeshaw who is destroyed, drowned by Olivero with the help of his own reactivated millwheel (repurposed, in effect, as an inquisitorial instrument of torment) in a scene that recalls the linkage of technology and violence in the work of H G Wells: ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’, perhaps, in which a colonial subject electrocutes his overseer in an act of ritual sacrifice, or more fittingly ‘The Cone’, in which a jealous husband murders his wife’s lover by hurling him onto a red-hot piece of industrial machinery. The parallel with Wells’s ‘The Cone’ is reinforced by Kneeshaw’s stubborn refusal to die quickly; he resurfaces from the pond after his first dunking to stare with hatred at Olivero, his killer, just as the lover in Wells’s story continues to cling to the red-hot Cone like a bad conscience until his killer succeeds in knocking him off. Even the difference between the situations in the short story and the novel reinforces the link between them. Kneeshaw the industrialist is killed by his wife’s lover with the help of cold water, while Wells’s lover is killed by the industrialist husband using a rigid structure of hot steel. Symbolically, Kneeshaw’s killing completes the liberation of Olivero’s personality which began when the boy Kneeshaw smashed the toy engine, smashing along with it Olivero’s attempt to use the school system to liberate children’s imaginations from the rigid structures of conventional learning. The killing liberates, too, the Green Child from Kneeshaw’s efforts to make her conform; afterwards she is free to follow the stream again, this time in Olivero’s company. It is in fact the first in a series of liberating sacrifices that take place in each successive section of the novel, each designed to free one or more people from the constraints that bar them from the radical indulgence of ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’.

Frontispiece from Lost Endeavour, first edition

If the first part of The Green Child is modeled on Read’s favourite fairy tale, the second serves as a pastiche of the sort of colonialist adventure story he might have enjoyed in his adolescence. It recounts in the first person – as narrated to the Green Child after her liberation – Olivero’s adventures after abandoning his life as a village teacher. The trajectory he traces from teacher to adventurer recalls John Masefield’s adventure novel Lost Endeavour (1910), in which a schoolmaster called Little Theo becomes first a pirate, then the prophesied king of all the indigenous peoples of the Americas. According to the prophecy that identifies him as king, Theo is supposed to lead his subjects to freedom from European imperialism; but his project ends in failure, as the novel’s title indicates. Olivero’s accidental recruitment as a South American political leader is far more successful, ending not in political failure but triumph tempered by personal dissatisfaction; but like Little Theo’s adventures it involves the championing by an Englishman of the rights of indigenous people, and in this it sets itself in opposition to one of Read’s other literary influences, the South American romances of the Argentinian-American writer W. H. Hudson, most famously the author of Green Mansions (1904). Hudson’s novel involves the discovery of a girl with strangely-coloured skin, Rima, who is the last survivor of a mysterious civilization somewhere in the mountains of Venezuela. Rima speaks Spanish but can also communicate in bird-like whistles, leap through the branches of gigantic trees, and make friends with the birds and beasts of the rainforest, like a female Mowgli or Tarzan. She is eventually burned to death as a demon by the more aggressive indigenous people who live in the jungle she has made her home. Hudson had a deep affection for the descendants of Spanish colonists in Argentina, Venezuela and modern Uruguay, but expressed nothing but contempt for the indigenous people they displaced – with the sole exception of Rima’s imaginary people, who he represents as a race apart, like the lost relatives of She-who-must-be-obeyed in Rider Haggard’s She. Read’s Olivero, by contrast, embraces the cause of those same indigenous people, who endear themselves to him chiefly (it seems) because of their simplicity – their willingness, that is, to be content with simple pleasures, which makes them uniquely suitable for moulding into the citizens of an ideal state. Read’s decision to have his English protagonist first liberate these ‘simple’ people from dictatorship and then govern them for twenty-five years as a democratically-elected dictator is of course offensive in the extreme; but read as commentary on the political situation in 1930s Europe – like More’s original Utopia, which directly responds to the tyranny of the English monarch Henry VIII – its offensiveness can at least be contextualized, though hardly mitigated.

Where Read’s novel differs from the stories of colonial adventure he’d have read as a boy is in the steadfast refusal of the central character, Olivero, to associate himself with the country of his birth. This reluctance to subscribe to the discourse of nationalism manifests itself first in his friendship with the employer he works for in London after leaving his village, a Polish Jew called Mr Klein. Read describes Klein in terms that invoke the anti-Semitic stereotypes that were becoming increasingly prevalent in the 1930s: ‘There was something like a snake in his appearance – a squat reptile, a tortoise’ (p. 48). But if the snake comparison evokes both personal deviousness and the tendency of the Christian church to blame the Jews for everything from Adam’s Fall to Christ’s crucifixion, Klein quickly frees himself from those particular racist clichés. For one thing, he is not much good with money, and employs Olivero to manage his financial affairs. For another he is a generous and trusting employer, and sends Olivero off on the next stage of his adventures by handing him a large amount of gold to take to his mother and sisters in Poland, along with plenty of extra cash to take Olivero wherever he wants to go after that. Klein’s trust, in fact, enlists Olivero as an honorary member of his family – an adoptive son – reinforcing Olivero’s sense of sympathy with his employer’s ‘simple commercial mind’ (p. 50). At the same time, like many sons Olivero also finds himself at odds with his father’s values. He loathes the ‘dull unimaginative work’ he must do to earn his keep, and instead harbours hidden ‘fancies’ for ‘those countries and cities where the longest human experience had left the richest deposits of beauty and wisdom’ (p. 51). The word ‘deposits’ makes beauty and wisdom sound like subterranean veins of precious ore laid down over aeons, and links them not so much to specific societies as to long-term human habitation in the same spot, a process that results in a kind of crystalline abstraction of the qualities Olivero cherishes most. It’s in quest of this alternative treasure that he sets out on his travels, enacting the apparent arbitrariness of fantasy as he moves from place to place in search of ‘beauty and wisdom’.

The journey marks the young man’s final break from Englishness, and with it from the narrative that has shaped his life so far, emancipating him, in effect, from space and time. On arrival in Spain he finds himself arrested on suspicion of harbouring revolutionary sympathies, based on the books he has in his position – mostly written by thinkers who inspired or were inspired by the French revolution (Voltaire, Rousseau, Volney). Ironically his spell in prison brings him into contact with the very revolutionaries he is supposed to be aligned with; he learns fluent Spanish from them as well as practical politics, and is transformed in the process from Oliver to Olivero, from a local schoolmaster-turned-accountant to a fully-fledged internationalist, convinced that the simple principles of liberty, equality and fraternity deserve to form the basis of all societies, not just France. On release from prison Olivero finds himself en route to Buenos Ayres, where by a series of improbable coincidences he is mistaken by a revolutionary society for an expert in politics, whose experience will help topple the dictator of a small country, Roncador, and replace its corrupt regime with a just government. This Olivero duly does, in the process transforming Roncador into a version of the ideal republic imagined by Plato. By this stage in Read’s narrative Olivero is in effect another embodiment of fantasy, and the republic he establishes is a fantasy too, distinguished by its strict adherence to the principles laid down in English Prose Style.

Felix Kelly, Roncador Cathedral, from The Green Child (1945)

Like the Green Child in the first part of Read’s novel, Roncador is particularly notable for its simplicity and objectivity. Its inhabitants are ‘simple-minded’ (p. 98), unconcerned with anything beyond tending the land to the best of their abilities in the interest of keeping themselves and their families in a state of health and modest prosperity. The country they inhabit, too, is simple in the extreme. Roncador is situated on a plateau connected to the world by just one trade route, a river. It contains just one small city – also called Roncador – whose design is described as ‘simplicity itself’ (p. 72). The needs of this city and its citizens are few, and can therefore be supplied by a ‘simple economy’ (p. 105). With these ingredients Olivero succeeds in establishing a society governed in the simplest way, by himself alone, which he sees as a work of art on the basis that ‘A sense of order is the principle of government as well as of art’. In it, ‘Not only inanimate things – money, equipment, goods of every kind – but even human beings, are so much plastic material for creative design’; and if this sounds a trifle sinister it needs to be remembered that Olivero is elected as the new dictator of Roncador by democratic means, that his government regularly issues invitations to further elections (though nobody chooses to stand against him), and that he has no wish to improve his material situation, leading a life as simple as that of his subjects, and ‘aided by subordinates who had no ambitions of their own, and who were pleased to exercise obediently and with understanding the authority I delegated to them’ (p. 108). Roncador’s stability and breach from history emancipates it from time; its economic, cultural and geographical independence from its neighbours emancipates it from space; and its equal division of its time between rationally organized work and various kinds of play affirms its simultaneous commitment to both the ‘cold logic’ of Read’s fantasy and the arbitrariness it celebrates.

Three elements in Read’s Roncador narrative attest to its neat division between logic and ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’. The first of these elements is the personality of the Roncadorian soldier, General Santos, who helps Olivero accomplish his revolution. A saintly representative of his people (as his name and title suggest), General Santos is as committed to his family and the tending of his farm as he is to the military discipline by which he protects them and his country from outside threats. General Santos is descended from the Spanish colonists, but has married an indigenous woman, so that he balances the concerns and qualities of both cultures. His farm is both meticulously organized and filled with life and energy; the General and his wife have no less than nine human children, as well as a large extended family of hummingbirds, the creatures that enliven the landscape of Roncador throughout its length:

He opened the cages and they flew out with shrill little cries, fluttering round the General, who had furnished himself with quills filled with syrup, into which the hovering birds dipped their tongues. Others flew about his ears, hovered round his mouth, buzzed and fluttered about his head and hands. When tired of playing with them, he put the quills away; and then he gently waved his hands in the midst of them, at which signal they all returned to their respective cages. (p. 76)

The colourful and seemingly random spectacle of the hummingbirds ‘fluttering round the General’, as disciplined in their behaviour as they are chaotic in their movements, confirms the man’s equal dedication to the arts of playfulness and social order, whimsicality and logic; a dedication which ensures that after the revolution he immediately forswears all civic or military authority and retires to the confines of his farm for the rest of his days.

The second element is the assassination of the dictator. This is a necessary act of brutality, Olivero thinks, if a just republic is to be established; but its logical necessity must be tempered with an element of fantasy – ‘the fantasy of a natural event’, as he puts it (p. 80) – so as to render it impersonal, transforming it into an apparently random yet symbolically eloquent occasion like the killing of Aeschylus by a turtle dropped on his head from an eagle’s claws, which was interpreted by the Greeks as a manifestation of the will of the gods. Olivero accomplishes the killing with the help of another soldier, ‘an Indian named Iturbide’, named after the real-life revolutionary who became Emperor Agustín I of Mexico. Planned to take place during a church festival, the assassination combines great skill with apparent arbitrariness. Iturbide agrees to take part in the ‘simple and innocent’ game (as Olivero calls it, p. 80) known as the sortija, which involves riding at full speed towards a ring suspended in a wooden frame and trying to pierce it with the point of a lance. His task is to miss the ring and pierce the Dictator, a seemingly random mishap which must be immediately followed by the imposition of order, as Major Santos leads his most trusted troops to arrest the Dictator’s officials and impose the laws of the new republic. Once again logic and reason mix with the arbitrariness of play to create a situation where free play is made available to all citizens by means of meticulous organization.

The third element that embodies the republic’s blend of rationality with caprice is the suppression of a band of violent marauders led by a man called General Vargas, four years after the revolution. Olivero treats the expedition against Vargas as an experiment to see how ‘men of imagination’ cope when the need for action arises; he theorizes that such men could do well because of their ability ‘to act as if death were a fantasy’ (p. 112). The most striking aspect of the expedition is its use of the river in the attack on Vargas’s forces; a gesture which combines the seeming logic of poetic justice – since the river is the most important commercial highway in Roncador, and Vargas represents a threat to its legitimate traffic – with the free-flowing, apparently arbitrary movement of water, which in the first part of the novel was specifically linked to the Green Child. Olivero’s forces position themselves with their guns in a pair of boats of the kind used for transporting goods; they then allow them to drift in the current, their clumsy ‘log-like’ movements concealing their carefully calculated purpose, until the guns come within range of the marauders’ camp. The attack is of course destructive, resulting in loss of life on both sides; yet it is also artistic, in that it is executed on a night of unusual beauty, and ends exactly as Olivero intended: ‘The forest behind us began to stir with life; a choir of birds filled the air with liquid or piercing notes; monkeys began to chatter in the overhanging branches’ (p. 113). It is presumably no coincidence that Olivero later arranges for his own assassination and departure from Roncador to take place on a similar night, using the river as his path to freedom and a light canoe as his mode of transport.

Each of these three elements or episodes is marked by the resistance of its key actors to any cult of personality; and here as elsewhere Read offers us a model of objectivity, of resistance to nationalist rhetoric and unrestrained emotion. General Santos refuses to profit personally from the revolution; he is not the hero who brings it about (that honour is Iturbide’s), and he plays only a temporary role in the new republican government. Iturbide, too, is content to remain anonymous despite the heroic nature of his actions at the Festival; as soon as he has killed the Dictator he gets concealed from view by the General’s troops, and he never afterwards claims any credit for changing the course of his country’s history. The suppression of Vargas’s marauders is described by Olivero as a ‘brief and insignificant episode’, but results in Olivero’s becoming ‘for the citizens of Roncador the embodiment of their national glory’ (p. 117). But he quickly recedes again into relative obscurity, since his ‘public works […] had no such epic value’. The ‘stability and happiness of our state’, as Olivero puts it (p. 118), admits of no tension, no narrative development, no long-range spatial movement or complex plans; it is, in fact, wholly emancipated from the orders of time and space. The Roncadorians spend their days ‘peacefully going about their work in the estancias, or […] walking in the gardens, sitting in the shade of the fountains, everywhere mirthful and contented’ (p. 119). To stir such people to a renewed concern with narrative would be, he feels, to unleash unwarranted ‘conflict, […] anguish and agitation’ on them, since these are the ingredients narrative thrives on.

Olivero himself, however, is still psychologically committed to narrative, and so not as exempt from the orders of space and time as he might wish. He equates the timelessness of the republic with an irksome ‘flaccidity, a fatness of living, an ease and a torpor’ (p. 119), and yearns to go home to England, thus completing the circle of his own story. He also wishes to find out more about the Green Children who arrived in his village in the very year of his departure from it: ‘I longed to know,’ he admits, ‘how that mystery had been solved, what had become of them in the course of the years’ (p. 120). At this point he thinks of the children, it seems, in terms of that most linear of narratives, a detective novel – which, as Todorov points out, cannot be read out of order without destroying the tension that precedes the solution of the central mystery. Only his encounter with the Green Child herself, as narrated in the book’s first part, reveals to him the fact that there’s no ‘mystery’ about her; that she is what she is, a fantastic phenomenon without a solution.

Olivero himself acknowledges that his mind is responsible for his dissatisfaction with his stable republic. His ideas seek an outlet in action. They respond to ‘tension in circumstances’, and without the continual flow of new ideas brought about by tension he quickly succumbs to crushing boredom. The third part of Read’s fantasy involves a final attempt to escape from the tension of narrative, which in turn involves an escape from the mind itself. To do this Read exploits and reverses a number of narratives that were widely familiar in contemporary culture. The first is Plato’s narrative of the cave from The Republic, which seeks to account for the nature of reality; but where in Plato’s dialogue the inhabitants of the cave are victims of illusion, and reality (in the shape of the Ideals) exists elsewhere, Read’s cave – that is, the underground caverns from which the Green Children wandered – are themselves the Ideal. The second narrative he reverses is the discourse of Freudian psychoanalysis, which seeks to account for the nature of the mind. Another novel published in the same year as The Green Child, Joseph O’Neill’s SF classic Land Under England (1935), deals with caves in a more conventional manner. Here the horrors encountered by the protagonist on an underground journey represent a confrontation with the Freudian recesses of his own unconscious, where the id takes the form of deadly monsters, brainwashed soldiers and a maniacal father figure, all of them associated with the fascistic tendencies of British imperialism. Read’s subterranean realm, by contrast, is the location of logical materialism and egalitarian order. Its materialism stems from the fact that the inhabitants spend their lives surrounded by rock, and so take rock as their ideal, yearning for the day when their bodies will be hardened into rocklike solidity after death in a ritualistic reenactment of the crystallizing process that produces stalactites. Read’s subterranean utopia, in fact, involves escape from the torments of emotion, and in it fantasy, the capricious impulse to generate works of art, is only an occupation to beguile the time on the way to perpetual stasis. The transformation of humans into crystal that occurs at the end of this third section is an escape into the abstract, where the abstract represents the simple principles that underlie the vast complexity of the universe. It’s the crystallised corpses of the Green People themselves that turn out to be the ‘richest deposits of beauty and wisdom’ Olivero went in quest of on his worldwide travels.

First Edition of A Crystal Age

As well as the well-known narratives of Plato and Freud, the final section also represents Read’s final engagement with W H Hudson, whose influence was so pronounced in the first two sections. If the Green Child and Roncador are responses to Hudson’s South American romances, with the former a version of the wild girl Rima and the latter a fusion of Argentina in The Purple Land and Venezuela in Green Mansions, the third and final part is Read’s response to Hudson’s utopia, A Crystal Age (1887). A Crystal Age concentrates on the repeated misunderstandings that arise between a Victorian man called Smith, who is somehow hurled into the future by a landslide, and the dwellers in an idealized House where he finds shelter. The people of the House are totally dedicated to telling the truth, to the extent that it shines through them, so to speak, as if they were images in a living stained glass window. Indeed, the House itself is as full of exquisite stained glass as any building decorated by Morris and Company, its transparent surfaces providing a metaphor for its total integration with the ecosystem of which it is part. Its occupants, too, have a crystalline coolness about them. They are totally free from emotion; none experiences passion of any kind or takes a sexual partner, and indeed all are effectively sexless, like drones in a beehive, with the sole exception of the so-called Father and Mother of the House, who between them conceive all the House’s inhabitants. Inevitably, Hudson’s Victorian visitor falls in love with a girl of the future, Yoletta, whose ‘crystal nature’ cannot at first comprehend the meaning of his exclusive devotion to her, since erotic desire has long been forgotten by most of her people (p. 161). Although Yoletta slowly learns to return his devotion, the time traveller is so tormented by his unfulfilled yearning for her body that he eventually drinks a potion which he hopes will cure him of passion and make him a drone, like the other men in the community. Unfortunately he has misread the label on the bottle. The potion is in fact a poison, and he dies – ironically enough, soon after learning that the Mother of the House had intended him and Yoletta to take on the role of sexually-active Father and Mother after her death. This final and most tragic misunderstanding stresses the vast gap of time and culture that separates Hudson’s period from the Crystal Age of perfect harmony with beasts and people, and the evolutionary changes that will be necessary before a Victorian man could survive in such a state.

Olivero, however, is made from sterner stuff than Hudson’s visitor. Trained by his adventures to adapt himself to new conditions, he quickly and wholeheartedly embraces the customs of the Green People. His first entry into the caverns where they live contains all the ingredients of a conventional romance; as she sinks into the pool that leads to her ancestral caverns, the Green Child holds out her hand to him as if in gratitude and affection, and Olivero responds with ‘a cry of happiness, as if a secret joy had suddenly been revealed to him’ (p. 46). But the culture to which he finds himself admitted is even more crystalline than Hudson’s House, not least in its resistance to the organic palpitations of emotion. The walls of its caves are ‘of a crystalline formation’ (p. 126), and each is hung with rods or wind chimes made from crystal, the largest of which are stalactites carefully grown in workshops to give out harmonies in conjunction with the smaller rods suspended alongside them. For the inhabitants of the underground crystal halls, sex is a childish occupation, not taken any more seriously than swimming or other kinds of play, and they freely exchange partners in their youth, much to Olivero’s disgust: ‘He was angry and jealous when he saw [the Green Child, now known as] Siloën walking arm in arm with one of the youths, and hid his convulsed face when he saw her making love with others’ (p. 136). But he quickly becomes ashamed of these ‘terrestrial sentiments’, and soon moves on to higher levels in the Green People’s culture, whose relative importance is represented literally by their situation on higher and higher platforms in the cave system. First come the workshops where crystals are fashioned into music chimes or abstract sculptures; then the level where the older men stroll endlessly together indulging in philosophical conversation – largely about rocks and crystals; and finally the level of solitary contemplation, where he spends his time in the company of a pet beetle – chosen, presumably, for its appearance as a being half organic, half inorganic, a kind of living mineral. Later still Olivero retires to a solitary cave, where he spends his time in meditation on the shape of some unusual crystals until death takes him. By this stage in the book conventional narrative, as marked by plot development, interaction between characters and dialogue, has been left behind, and Olivero has espoused wholeheartedly the Green People’s key philosophical principle: ‘Everything solidifies; that is the law of the universe’ (p. 144). His own eventual solidification – achieved by immersing his corpse in a mineral-rich pool or ‘petrifying-trough’ – also marks his final union with the Green Child, who dies at the exact same moment that he does and is immersed in the trough by his side. Instead of a sexual union the pair are unified as sculpture. The final sentences of the novel celebrate the couple’s conversion into art, as

these two who had been separated in life grew together in death, and became part of the same crystal harmony. The tresses of Siloën’s hair, floating in the liquid in which they were immersed, spread like a tracery of stone across Olivero’s breast, twined inextricably in the coral intricacy of his beard (p. 153).

Felix Kelly, the Caverns from The Green Child (1945), showing Siloën and Olivero

The conclusion of Read’s novel, then, represents one logical consequence of his definition of fantasy. Objectivity can be best achieved by becoming an object; so too can emancipation from the orders of space and time. Arbitrariness is present in this final section thanks to certain aspects of Olivero’s growth towards the selflessness of the contemplative hermit. The artificial crystals he studies in his lonely cave, for example, incorporate subtle deviations from the shapes of natural crystals, each deviation having been located in it by a master craftsman, in the half-serious interest of discovering some new order outside the order of nature. ‘Such orders outside nature did not really exist’, according to Siloën’s people, ‘but it amused men to imagine that they did’ (p. 145). To this end the Green People’s artists love to test the ‘liberty’ or emancipation of the mind from nature’s order by exploring alternative orders through the art of ‘crystal formation’, enjoying ‘at one extreme the baroque fantasy of the cubic system, at the other extreme the classic simplicity of the hexagonal system’ (p. 138). The disinterested playfulness of this artistic activity, wholly unconnected to figurative design and hence to human history, wholly materialist in that we are told it is never theorized (Siloën’s people have no words for abstract concepts), places the final section of The Green Child as far beyond the nationalist and racist narratives of fascism as anything else being written in the 1930s.

The inhabitants of Read’s underground utopia live in the depths of the earth, for ever exempt from ‘terrestrial sentiments’ of the kind experienced by Kneeshaw in his courtship of the Green Child. The violent relationship between that unhappily married couple illustrates what happens when such simple people come in contact with the complications of the flesh. In that first section of Read’s novel the Green Child came across as supremely fleshly, without a hint of the mineral rigidity to which she finally aspires. Her body, for instance, responds with subtle changes of pigment to her every change of mood. Anger is marked by a ‘clouding of the translucent flesh’, joy by ‘an increased radiance of the flesh’, sorrow by ‘blanching’ (p. 35), while after a period of imprisonment ‘her flesh had turned from its green translucent colour to a waxen yellow, the colour of ripe golden plums’ (p. 34)). Her translucence is the only aspect of her that resembles crystal, and Kneeshaw’s first encounter with this translucence makes her sound like a soft-tissue version of the stained glass in A Crystal Age:

The Green Child was standing against the light of the kitchen window, peeling potatoes, and the light shone through her bare arms and fingers and her delicate neck, and her flesh was like flesh seen in a hand that shelters a candle against the air, or the radiance seen when we look at the sun through the fine web of shut eyelids. (p. 30).

Read’s representation of her here is designed to stress her vulnerability as well as her difference, and recalls Hudson’s description of the girl of the House, Yoletta, as possessed of a ‘crystal nature’. Everything the Green Child feels and thinks is visible, so that she barely needs to make use of ‘vocal or facial expression’ (p. 35). Yoletta, however, lived in her native environment, while Siloën is stranded among the machines and passions of aggressive strangers. As an expression of the predicament of a thinking person in what Eric Hobsbawm calls the ‘age of extremes’ there couldn’t be a much more potent metaphor. And as a solution to that predicament, the end of Read’s book is quietly tragic. It’s only by becoming something other than human that the problems of being human can be resolved. It’s only by forgoing the state of being organic that the ‘heartache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to’ can be stilled. It’s only in a surrealist fantasy that utopia can be achieved. That’s what Read’s book implies, and what he may have found horribly confirmed by the events of the Spanish Civil War, which broke out only two short years after his book was published.

First Edition of Titus Groan

I promised in my last post to discuss how Mervyn Peake might be read as in some sense a follower of Herbert Read. There isn’t space to do that properly here. For now, it’s enough to point out that Peake found escape from his wartime predicament by turning to a place outside the orders of space and time – that immemorial castle, Gormenghast – whose residents are slowly merging with the stones they live among, and whose dedication to ‘fanciful invention’ is much more pronounced than Olivero’s. Those residents are materialists, like the Green People. Their religion is bound up with the walls that enclose them, they resist emotion, and their lives are recounted in a narrative which is barely at times a narrative at all, but everywhere ‘encumbered with odd inconsequential but startlingly vivid and concrete details’. Among these residents is a young woman called Fuchsia, who is startlingly different from all the rest. She is passionate, devoted to the family and friends she loves, frustrated at her confinement in a house of rituals, besotted with storytelling, art and drama. She shows her emotions in every gesture, without recourse to words, which she finds difficult. And she is finally unable to reconcile these radical differences of hers with the largely indifferent, chilly and ritualistic building she inhabits, with its tendency to erupt in sudden violence, banishing rebels and revolutionaries from the shelter of its massive walls.

But Peake wrote that book in the Second World War, and needed much more space than Read to exorcise the radical strangeness of that context…

Mervyn Peake, sketch for the cover of Shapes and Sounds (1942)

Book List

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (London: Michael Joseph, 1994)

W. H. Hudson, A Crystal Age, Fourth Impression (London: Duckworth, 1919), Preface (from 1906)

W. H. Hudson, South American Romances (The Purple Lane, Green Mansions, El Ombú and Other Stories) (London: Duckworth, 1930)

John Masefield, Lost Endeavour (London etc.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1910)

Joseph O’Neill, Land Under England (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987)

Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992)

Herbert Read, English Prose Style, 7th Impression (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1942)

Herbert Read, The Green Child, introd. Graham Greene (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1969)

Herbert Read, The Green Child, illus. Felix Kelly (London: The Grey Walls Press, 1945)

The Surrealist Fantasy of Herbert Read, Part 1: Theorizing Fantasy

Herbert Read

Perhaps the most celebrated theoretical account of fantasy was given by J R R Tolkien many decades before the genre became an established presence on the shelves of bookshops. The first version of Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ was delivered as the Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of Saint Andrews in 1938; it was later expanded and published in 1947, and published again with minor changes in 1964. A decade before Tolkien gave his lecture, however, another essay on fantasy was published by an academic with very different convictions and interests. Herbert Read was an art critic, literary commentator, socialist and thinker who (among many other things) provided a critical framework for the importation of surrealism from France to England in the early ’30s. Read’s essay on fantasy makes up one of the chapters in his book English Prose Style (1928), which was highly regarded by (among many others) Graham Greene – the editor who helped Mervyn Peake publish his first novel, Titus Groan, at the end of the Second World War. English Prose Style was reprinted many times; the edition I’ve read is the seventh impression, dated 1942, and has been changed quite a bit from the 1928 version. I’d like to suggest here that Herbert Read’s essay, together with Read’s only novel, The Green Child (1935) – which is based on a ‘fairy story’ that takes a central place in his chapter on fantasy – gives us a context in which to understand Mervyn Peake’s place in the development of the genre.

Ithell Colquhoun, Gouffres Amers (1937)

I shall suggest, too, that Read’s essay gestures towards a thread or current of fantasy that runs somewhat counter to Tolkien’s version: an experimental, materialist fantasy which has less to do with tradition, historical scholarship and religious faith than with finding a means of articulating the sheer strangeness of the twentieth century. This post represents a first attempt to sketch out what such a fantasy might have consisted of if writers had chosen to follow Read’s version of the genre rather than Tolkien’s. And it will end by considering whether it might be helpful to think of Peake as in some sense a follower of Read’s. I haven’t any evidence that he was one, or that he even knew Read’s work – though it seems very unlikely he did not. Peake did know the surrealist painter Leslie Hurry, after all, and in 1939 drew a sketch of the surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun, who was admired by Walter de la Mare, another friend of Peake’s who wrote quasi-surrealist prose and whose verse was published alongside the poetry of Herbert Read, as well as the poetry of a third friend of Peake’s, Dylan Thomas – also connected with surrealism. Read’s novel The Green Child, meanwhile, was reprinted in 1945 by Grey Walls Press, which later published The Drawings of Mervyn Peake, and reprinted again in 1947 by Eyre and Spottiswood, the publishers of the Gormenghast sequence, with an introduction by Peake’s friend and editor Graham Greene. It is tempting, then, to see in Read’s essay on fantasy, and in The Green Child, forerunners of Peake’s Titus novels, at least on certain levels. And that’s how, by way of thought experiment, I propose to think of them here.

Roland Penrose, Night and Day (1937)

Read’s book on prose style is concerned less with what he calls the ‘interest’ of literature – its contents, that is – than the formal techniques by which it achieves its effects. It is divided into two parts: ‘composition’ and ‘rhetoric’. Composition is concerned with the ‘objective use of language’: the building blocks of prose, so to speak, including words, sentences, metaphors and paragraphs as well as its overall arrangement (‘disposition’, in the terms of early modern rhetorical theorists). Rhetoric is concerned with persuasive techniques, of which fantasy is one. The part of the book that deals with rhetoric begins with chapters on ‘exposition’, which might be glossed as explaining or expressing oneself in an apparently logical manner, and ‘narrative’, which describes rather than explains, and deals with either events or objects, making it ‘either active or passive in character’ (p. 104). Fantasy is assigned to the third chapter of the second part of English Prose Style, the part of the book that deals with rhetoric. For Read, it is a persuasive technique that has not yet been given much attention, and is more closely allied with exposition than with narrative. It is, in other words, a way of writing that gives the appearance of being logical and detached, not emotionally charged as narrative is. This is unexpected, to say the least, because of the definition of fantasy that opens the chapter, which suggests that it is very far from logical.

Marion Adnams, The Distraught Infanta (1944)

The opening paragraph separates fantasy from the mental quality of phantasy, which means the imagination – the faculty of ‘forming mental images of things not actually present’, as Tolkien calls it (p. 46), following the Oxford English Dictionary. Fantasy, by contrast, is ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ – the process of making things up. It is not, however, a random or passing whim or caprice; it involves sustained invention, Read insists; and this, being the place in which he diverges from dictionary definitions, would seem to lie at the heart of his conception of fantasy. He thinks of the imagination or phantasy as being driven by ‘sensibility’ – emotion or affect – whereas fantasy is more closely akin to rational thought; it is ‘cold and logical’ in the way it develops its initial whims or caprices, whereas the imagination is ‘sensuous and instinctive’. In saying this, Read claims to be building on the famous distinction between imagination and fancy in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. This means that Coleridge’s book is mentioned both in Tolkien’s essay on Fairy Stories and in Read’s chapter – though Tolkien is more concerned with the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, which he wishes to replace with a different concept, ‘secondary belief’, involving a more complete mental commitment to an invented world than Coleridge’s phrase implies. For Read, by contrast, Coleridge’s definition of fancy exactly describes what Read thinks of as fantasy.

The main difference between Read and Coleridge is that Read is far more interested in fancy than imagination, whereas imagination is the faculty Coleridge favours, as Read himself points out (pp. 150-1). Fancy, Coleridge says, is concerned with ‘fixities and definites’, which Read takes to mean it is in some sense ‘objective’, dealing not with ‘vague entities’ but with ‘things which are concrete, clearly perceptible, visibly defined’. For me this implies that works of fancy or fantasy are less concerned with the creepy feelings aroused by half-seen ghosts, gods or monsters than with unexpected objects: the tea set on the table of the Mad Hatter, Mr Tumnus’s umbrella and parcels, Bilbo’s Ring. What makes these objects fantastic or fanciful is that they are evoked, in Coleridge’s terms, through an act of memory – everyone remembers having seen a tea set, an umbrella, a plain gold ring – but memory ‘emancipated from the order of time and space’. Carroll’s tea set is fanciful because the Mad Hatter’s tea party is continuous, not governed by the conventional schedule, and because the tea never seems to run out. Mr Tumnus’s umbrella is a thing of fantasy because it’s being used to ward off the everlasting snow of Narnia and is owned by a classical faun, half man half goat. Bilbo’s Ring removes him from sight and therefore to some degree from space, extends his lifetime artificially, and shortens the distance between himself and Sauron’s terrible Eye. Fantasy, then, Read tells us, is unlike exposition or narrative in that it ‘deliberately avoids the logic and consistency of these types of rhetoric and creates a new and arbitrary order of events’ (p. 138). This statement seems directly to contradict his earlier statement that fantasy is ‘cold and logical’ (p. 137); but it’s worth noting that in his earlier account of exposition Read explains that he does not use the term ‘logical’ ‘in any precise scientific sense’ (p. 92). Instead he affirms that logical exposition is ‘the art of expressing oneself clearly, logic being implied in the structure of the sentences employed’ (p. 92, Read’s emphasis). The logic of fantasy, then, is ‘implied’ rather than actual, a function of grammar rather than of rigorous syllogisms. Meanwhile its emancipation from the order of time and space – in other words, from those particular ordering principles that underpin the world we live in – frees it from the values we have been conditioned to accept. And this emancipation is an act of will rather than the involuntary detachment from coherence that takes place in a dream or hallucination. Admittedly, the will too is conditioned or given direction, Read accepts, by ‘our mental and physical environment’ (p. 138). In other words, it’s not entirely under our control. Even apparently arbitrary sentences will be driven by what Coleridge calls the ‘law of association’, that is, by the way our culture and our individual experiences have conditioned us to position things in relation to one another. But the fact remains, Read insists, that sentences in a work of fantasy or fancy ‘do sometimes present [an] arbitrary appearance’, and that this apparent arbitrariness is brought about through the ‘conscious choice’ or will of the writer or speaker.

Ithell Colquhoun, Scylla (1939)

For Read, the emancipation of a narrative from the order of time and space is often achieved, ironically enough, through the operations of time and space. The only form of literature he sees as perfectly exemplifying fantasy or fancy is the fairy tale, a form of collective verbal property that has gradually lost its links with any particular time and place by being handed down from one generation to the next, and by being transferred from one location to another, changing as it goes as if in a game of Chinese whispers. The theme of each tale remains constant, he affirms, ‘but there is a gradual accretion of subsidiary details’, and a gradual loss of emotional investment – of sensibility, that is, or affect – so that the ballad or folk tale eventually becomes ‘a clear objective narrative’ which is ‘encumbered with odd inconsequential but startlingly vivid and concrete details’ (p. 139). The claim that fairy tales accrue concrete details as they get passed down seems to me a little odd; could one not just as easily argue that certain details get lost over time, and that this gradual loss of details is what makes any given tale seem arbitrary? Tolkien too claims that new ingredients are always being added to what he calls the ‘soup’ of story – the communal source of imaginative nourishment for succeeding generations – but he doesn’t suggest that the new ingredients add up to a steady accretion. The best-known fairy tales, after all, aren’t overburdened with details, as they surely would be if accretion were continually in process. The oddness of Read’s claim is compounded when he offers as an exemplary fairy tale a narrative that has little in common with the fairy tales of Andrew Lang, or Joseph Jacobs, or any of the major collectors who helped to naturalize the term in the English language. It’s the story of the two Green Children, and it provided Read with part of the plot of his only novel.

The story concerns two young children who were found in a specific, extant place – St Mary’s of the Wolf-pits in Suffolk, now known as Woolpit – near one of the pits that gave the place its name. The children had green skin, and were taken for questioning to a local dignitary, Sir Richard de Caine, who lived at nearby Wickes. The children did not speak English, so at the time of their discovery nothing much could be learned about them except from their actions. At first they would eat only beans, a detail described in Read’s account with great specificity: when the beans were placed before them the children ‘opened only the stalks instead of the pods, thinking the beans were in the hollow of them; but not finding them there, they began to weep anew’ (p. 139). The little boy died soon afterwards, but the girl lived on as one of the knight’s servants, gradually becoming used to ordinary food and losing her green appearance. She was ‘rather loose and wanton in her conduct’, the narrator tells us. Interrogated about her birthplace, the girl insisted that everyone there was green and that the sun did not shine there; instead the land existed in a state of perpetual twilight. While minding sheep, she said, she and the boy had wandered into a cavern filled with the ‘delightful sound of bells’, and got lost in an underground warren of caves and passages. Emerging at last into the open air, they found the sunlight so dazzling and warm that they lost their senses. They were woken by the noise of their approaching captors and tried to flee, but were caught before they could find the entrance to the cavern.

Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943)

So the story ends, without a trace of the ‘eucatastrophe’ or uplifting ending (conventionally signalled by the formula ‘and they lived happily ever after’) which was for Tolkien one of the defining elements of the fairy tale tradition. The story has no perceptible moral purpose, and much of its narrative seems to build on the one seemingly impossible detail it contains: the fact that the children had green skin. Their diet of green vegetables ‘explains’ the greenness of their appearance, and this greenness in turn ‘explains’ the girl’s wanton behaviour (the colour green being often associated with sexual promiscuity in medieval and early modern culture; leeks, for instance, were emblematic of randy old people, because they had white heads and green tails). Greenness also suggests pastoralism, as represented in the children’s work as shepherds, and a plant-like link with the earth, which explains the children’s discovery in a pit and their connection with underground caves. The story, then, gives every impression of having a logical structure, even if the logic is founded on something that seems unreasonable or at least unprecedented: the existence of green children. It perfectly exemplifies, then, Read’s description of fantasy as coldly objective (think of the way the boy child dies without being mourned, even by his sister) and seemingly logical (though of course there is no real logic in any of the spurious ‘explanations’ I’ve just suggested). It is some way, though, from exemplifying a conventional fairy tale.

One reason for this is the fact that it does not seem to be wholly detached from the order of space. It’s carefully located in an actual parish in Suffolk, and has the name of a knight – perhaps a real one – attached to it, a man who lives in a neighbouring parish and whose identity could therefore be traced, in theory at least, with the help of old records. The possibility for such research promises to pin the story down in time as well as space. At the same time, there are unexpected gaps or absences in the narrative. The story gestures towards the presence in the world of the people known as fairies, without going so far as to name them. The green children could easily have been explicitly identified with those people if the narrator had wished; after all, fairies famously live under the hills of Ireland and Scotland, they are associated with the colour green, and their well-known predilection for strange food – such as green beans contained in the stalk of the plant instead of the pod – makes it dangerous for mortals to eat from their tables. The term ‘fairy’, however, is never used in Read’s version of the story, and this renders the experience of reading it much stranger than it would have been otherwise. The narrative, then, is both attached to a specific place and time and detached from a traditional folkloric tradition. And its structure is not quite story-like, either. To say that it has ‘no moral’ is to say that it doesn’t really have an ending; one of the children dies, the other becomes ordinary, and we never hear what became of her after her naturalization as a human being. In choosing this not very fairy-tale like story as an example of fairy tale, then, Read seems deliberately to be detaching it from any familiar frame of reference. It hovers between fiction and history, between common ingredients of folklore and a set of circumstances that are wholly unaccountable by any known frame of reference – circumstances rendered stranger still by arbitrary details, like the implied existence of unusual beans or the ‘delightful sound of bells’ in the cavern.

Lee Miller, Portrait of Space Near Siwa, Egypt (1937)

Read goes on to assert that ‘a story such as this is the norm to which all types of Fantasy should conform’, including fairy tales which are ‘literary inventions’ where the ‘will or intention of the writer has to take the part of the age long and impersonal forces of folk tradition’. His example of such a literary invention is Robert Southey’s story of the Three Bears, whose heroine is now a little girl called Goldilocks, though in the original version she was a nameless wicked old woman. The story doesn’t have much in common with the story of the Green Children, however; it involves intelligent bears who live in a house and eat porridge, it does not locate itself anywhere specific, and it has a conventional story structure, with the heavy stress on patterns of three (three bears, three bowls of porridge, three chairs, three beds, three trials for the wicked old woman) which is omnipresent in the oral tradition. What attracts Read to Southey’s tale is its lack of moral intention or indeed any identifiable purpose, which sets it in contrast to Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, which has a clear didactic purpose, or rather several. Read also admires its ‘objectivity’ or lack of sentimental bias – we’re not expected to sympathize too deeply with either the woman or the bears – and its arbitrariness: the central premise concerning bears that live in houses, eat porridge and own household furniture has been randomly plucked, as it were, from thin air. The instructive purpose of The Water Babies, by contrast, attaches it too securely to the culture of its author to make it a perfect fantasy, and the same is true, as far as Read is concerned, of Alice in Wonderland, which is not so much moralistic as cultured; ‘the intelligence active therein is too sophisticated, too “clever”’ (p. 144). Read doesn’t explain what he means by this, but he may be referring to the knowing parodies it contains of familiar poems – ‘How doth the little crocodile’, ‘You are old, father William’ (the latter based on a poem by Southey) – or to the conventional Victorian manners which are constantly being violated by the people Alice meets, or their use of sophistry or chop logic, a form of discourse that depends for its comic effect on a recognition of its playful violation of conventional reasoning processes. Alice is anchored to its time and place by its sophistication and allusiveness, just as Kingsley is anchored to his time and place by his didacticism, which puts him into direct dialogue with the educators, legislators and churchmen of his period.

What becomes clear about Read’s examples of fantasy in this chapter is that they are so diverse as not to have anything much in common at all, apart from the capriciousness with which they introduce manifest impossibilities into their narratives (although one example, a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses, doesn’t even contain these). Utopias like W. H. Hudson’s The Crystal Age are for Read too satirical and moral in their aims – too specifically directed at targets in their own time, as Hudson himself acknowledged in his preface to a late edition of his first book – to be ‘pure’ fantasies. H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine is very nearly fantastic, but too enamoured of the conventional rationalizing discourse of science to be fully so (and Tolkien thinks the same thing; what stops it being fantasy for Tolkien is the presence in it of the pseudo-scientific device of the time machine itself). A text Read does identify as a perfect literary fairy tale – an extract from a story by the Russian writer Aleksei Mikhailovich Remizov, translated by the great fantasy novelist Hope Mirrlees and her partner Jane Harrison – is to my eyes decidedly sentimental, and hence hardly ‘objective’, which is one of the features of fantasy Read insisted on earlier. Its sentiment is extended to a fallen star, however, so perhaps he sees it as an exemplary fantasy because of its emancipation from familiar assumptions about the difference between people and objects: ‘The poor little star was dozing by the hare’s form, and the thaw of a little tear rolled down her star cheek and then froze again’ (p. 145). The Thousand and One Nights is the ideal fantasy epic, the text Read would most like to have seen emulated in English – though not in the manner of William Beckford’s Vathek, which for Read adheres too closely to the original to be easily distinguished from it, and was in any case written in French. Read’s list of examples ends with a passage from one of Philippe Soupault’s surrealist short stories, ‘The Death of Nick Carter’, which is ‘still too allusive’ to be a pure fantasy, too enmeshed in details that root it in a particular time and place. By the end of the list of fantasy passages – a list that was greatly extended between the first edition of English Prose Style and the one I’m citing – one could be forgiven for having lost all sense of there being a ‘norm to which all types of Fantasy should conform’, which Read tells us is exemplified in the story of the Green Children.

Dorothea Tanning, Children’s Games (1942)

It seems clear that this is entirely deliberate on Read’s part. Read’s conception of fantasy as having the appearance of arbitrariness and being emancipated from the orders of time and space would surely be undermined by a list of examples that were similar in subject or technique, or that fell into a consistent narrative form, involving for instance multiple repetition of the pattern of threes that structures Southey’s story of the three bears. His examples, whether of ‘perfect’ fantasy or of imperfect near-fantastic passages, are constantly flinging the unwary reader in new directions, which emphasizes the seeming arbitrariness of each new set of inventions. Their variety tends even to obscure the set of criteria by which he sets out to limit the fantastic; almost the only thing they have in common is their arbitrariness. Read himself admits that very few of the passages can be described as wholly emancipated from time and place, while it’s hard to see some of them as displaying anything like cold logic or objectivity. Fantasy emerges as a rhetorical strategy that refuses stability and conformity and embraces innovation as vigorously as it can without rendering itself incomprehensible.

There’s a gap, then, between the theory of fantasy Read advances in the first half of the chapter and his examples of it in the second. The gap is anticipated in the introduction to English Prose Style when Read makes a distinction between the titular terms prose and style ‘in the abstract’ and any examples one might offer of each (p. ix). ‘In the abstract’, Read tells us, means ‘a priori, without the prejudice of particular examples, and as a preliminary to a more minute analysis’. This makes ‘in the abstract’ sound like a reference to one of Plato’s Ideals, the original things or concepts of which everything in the world is merely an imperfect shadow or copy. Fantasy, too, as it is explained by Read with the help of Coleridge’s fancy, is given to us ‘in the abstract’ at the start of the chapter he dedicates to it; it’s an a priori ideal rather than a concept that can be arrived at by considering examples of it, which will only serve to ‘prejudice’ those who examine them. Where Tolkien’s fairy story is a kind of narrative that emerges out of the past, in other words, Read’s fantasy is a kind that may not yet exist; already-extant instances of it will invariably fall short; perfect examples of fantasy as Read conceives it are yet to come, and need to be traced from imperfect past examples into the literature of the future rather than from the present into the annals of history and the shadows of prehistory, as is the case with Tolkien’s fairy stories. Read was already beginning to be famous, at the time when he first wrote the introduction, for his facility in tracing future directions of art and literature in the work being produced at the time of writing; and in the 1930s he wrote some of the most celebrated essays on abstract art of what we now call the Modernist period. The examples he supplies of fantasy deliberately move through time from the deep past of the Thousand and One Nights to the fourteenth century, when the story of the Green Children was first recorded, to the recent experimental prose of Joyce, Remizov and Soupault (published in English in 1922, 1926 and 1927 respectively). For Read the most perfect examples of fantasy, as of modern art, came from overseas – the Thousand and One Nights is the standard to which he urges English-language writers to aspire – and the best English passages are provided only as evidence that such an achievement might be possible in his native language, not as rivals for the Persian or Arabic epic. His chapter, then, is a call to artistic action as much as an analysis; a work of rhetorical exhortation as much as of scholarship.

Lee Miller, Bathing Feature (1941)

The sense one gets, in fact, from Read’s discussion of fantasy is that he’s less concerned with establishing its properties and formal techniques than with the political possibilities it embodies. If rhetoric is about persuasion, fantasy for him is specifically about persuading the reader to imagine liberty, and hence must give the appearance or air of being liberated in terms of its form and content. The key to this concern with politics is his stress on the highly political term ‘emancipated’ in Coleridge’s definition of fancy. Emancipation from the order of time and place is hardly a lucid statement of stylistic technique, but it can certainly be read as a statement of a political position; or rather, not a position so much as a strategy. Read’s own politics, while remaining strongly attached to the Left, were changing constantly in terms of his affiliation with different movements. In his youth during the Great War, for instance, he was attracted to the anarchism of Kropotkin, but he later flirted with Marxist Communism, Trotskyism and Guild Socialism, and even spoke in 1934 of welcoming the notion of a ‘totalitarian state, whether in its Fascist or Communist form’ (though he was thinking of totalitarianism here as an ‘economic machine to facilitate the complex business of living in a community’). Read eventually returned to anarchism in response to the Spanish Civil War of 1937. Common to all these shifts of ground, however, was a refusal to be pinned down to a singular position, a formulaic narrative – and in particular the refusal to submit himself to authority, whether of an individual or a party (apart from his half-flippant comment about totalitarianism). Read was always in quest of the ideal society, the ideal way to live in a community as an enfranchised or liberated subject, and embraced anarchism in the end as a means of continuing that quest indefinitely instead of being bound to a party line by the dictates of some unaccountable central government. The same quest or impulse propels the narrative in his only novel, The Green Child, which can be read as the ultimate example of the ideas on fantasy expressed in the continually changing pages of English Prose Style.

The Green Child shall therefore be the subject of my next blog post.

Ithell Colquhoun, Gorgon (1946)

Book List

W. H. Hudson, A Crystal Age, Fourth Impression (London: Duckworth, 1919), Preface (from 1906)

Herbert Read, English Prose Style, 7th Impression (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1942)

Herbert Read, The Green Child, introd. Graham Greene (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1969)

Herbert Read, The Green Child, illus. Felix Kelly (London: The Grey Walls Press, 1945)

J R R Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 3-81.

Shakespeare’s Merry England, Part 3: Falstaff’s Wholesomeness

Ralph Richardson as Falstaff, Laurence Olivier as Shallow

Time catches up with Falstaff in the end.  2 Henry IV resonates with the ticking of clocks – ‘we are time’s subjects’, says one of the elderly rebels as the insurrection gets under way (1.3.110) – and clocks are Falstaff’s enemy, bringing him always closer to humiliation and death.  It is full, too, of fragile and broken friendships, of which Falstaff has his share.  Justice Shallow masquerades as his lifelong bosom buddy despite the fact that they both know Shallow’s account of their wild youth together to be fraudulent, a crude and hasty fabrication designed to screen their mercenary desire to profit by one another.  ‘I do remember him at Clement’s Inn’, says Falstaff, ‘like a man made after supper of a cheese-paring.  When a was naked, he was for all the world like a forked radish, with a head fantastically carved upon it with a knife’ (3.2.303-7); and he later adds that he could make a dozen Shallows from the superabundant material of his own body (5.1.62-4).  Shallow clearly hopes that Falstaff will ‘make’ him in another sense by making his fortune, and this is the shallow foundation of their friendship.  The casting off of Falstaff is the moment when his accumulated debts catch up with him, as the newly-crowned Hal reminds him of what he said in Part One – that ‘thou owest God a death’ (1 Henry IV, 5.1.126) – and forestalls any ‘fool-born jest’ he might invent to inveigle his way out of due payment (2 Henry IV, 5.5.55).  Shallow at once calls in his loans (‘let me have five hundred of my thousand’ (5.5.84-5)) and Falstaff is clapped into prison to atone for his misdeeds, financial and moral.   The fat knight’s promised reappearance in Henry V, which is flagged in the epilogue, never materializes except in the account given by the hostess of his death (Henry V, 2.3.9-25) – as if he has managed one last time to escape shot-free from his creditors, in this case the theatre audience which is responsible for his success, and which clamoured for a sight of his curtain call.  Falstaff’s reign ends with Hal’s betrayal, and the ancient moral and social hierarchies of England are both reinstated at once, their restoration ushered in with tired old moral commonplaces such as ‘How ill white hairs become a fool and jester’ (5.5.48).

Shallow and Silence, by J. Coghlan (c. 1820)

But this is not the whole story; because Hal’s crowning coincides with the figurative crowning of Falstaff, and it is on the body of Falstaff, as it were, that Hal erects his kingdom.  Falstaff is the presiding spirit of the unhistorical ‘merry’ or comic England over which Hal plans to reign; the England where lions recognize the true prince ‘by instinct’ and where Shallow’s glowing account of his youth is true.  ‘Merry England’ is created in 2 Henry IV by the sheer force of Falstaff’s laughter.  ‘The brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man,’ he tells us, ‘is not able to invent anything that intends to laughter more than I invent, or is invented on me; I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men’ (1.2.7-10).  And he triumphantly bears out this claim in the rest of the action.  His arraignment by the Lord Chief Justice is transformed at his hands into a jest; Shallow’s falsifying of the past furnishes him with comic material to ‘keep Prince Harry in continual laughter the wearing out of six fashions’ (5.1.77-81); and even the grim Prince John, despite the fact that ‘a man cannot make him laugh’ (4.3.87-8), prompts one of his most brilliant flights of fantasy, the disquisition on sack.  The fat knight’s disease-ridden body, then, grown cold with age and huge with self-indulgence, generates wholesome hilarity, the healthiest of moods, which spreads from him like a benign virus until near the end of the play it erupts in the cheeriest party in theatrical history.  The party takes place in an orchard on the eve of Hal’s coronation, and in it a man called Silence bursts into song, a male servant is commended for being a good ‘husband’ to his master (5.3.10-11) – meaning both a good steward and a good marriage partner; Falstaff’s red-nosed retainer Bardolph is told he speaks like a king (5.3.68), a young page finds himself welcomed with the same enthusiasm as his old employer (‘Welcome, my little tiny thief and welcome indeed, too!’ (5.3.56-7)), and the company in general is urged to ‘Lack nothing’ (5.3.68), to discard the years of penury they have suffered and to feast instead on the fruits with which Shallow’s orchard, and England in general, is stocked.  The contrast with the orchard scene where the starving Jack Cade was killed in the midst of plenty could not be more pronounced.  And the party ends with a promise that this genial atmosphere will soon extend itself throughout the nation, as Falstaff hears the news of Henry’s death and declares that ‘the laws of England are at my commandment’ (5.3.136-7), while his comrade Pistol salutes a happy future: ‘welcome these pleasant days’ (5.3.141).

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V

Of course the casting-off of Falstaff puts a dampener on these celebrations.  The authority of a monarch could not tolerate a rival of Falstaff’s size and energy, and although we are assured that Hal’s former friends ‘Shall all be very well provided for’ (5.5.100), the fact that it is the odious Prince John who tells us so – and that such sensible provisions seem so much less glorious than the comic vision we glimpsed in Shallow’s orchard – detracts from the pleasure we might otherwise derive from these reassurances.  If Prince John delights in Hal’s transformation, we as an audience have good reason to distrust it.  And sure enough, there are plenty of Prince John moments in the career of Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Henry’s humour is as calculated as Hal’s, and recalls at times the cruelty of Prince John’s coldly jocular betrayal of the rebels.  We have already mentioned his witty exposure of the treachery of his friends Cambridge and Scroop, whom he mocks for having ‘lightly conspired’ against his throne (Henry V, 2.2.89); but far more disturbing is the gigantic jest that is the invasion of France.  It is one of a series of dazzling diversions designed to draw attention away from the problematic aspects of Henry’s inheritance.  If his claim to the throne of England is poor, he must stress his claim to the throne of France, obedient to his father’s advice to busy the ‘giddy minds’ of his subjects with foreign quarrels (2 Henry IV, 4.5.213-4).  If he is the aggressor in a war let him transfer the blame to his enemies, telling the besieged citizens of Harfleur that ‘you yourselves are cause, / If your pure maidens fall into the hand / Of hot and forcing violation’ (Henry V, 3.3.19-21) (he sounds here as if he is recalling a lesson from the laughing conquest of Asia by Marlowe’s Tamburlaine).  If military action is in his interest he must make sure it is represented as God’s war, divine punishment on any English criminals who die in battle.  It is the very lightness of touch, the comic sleight of hand involved in all these post-Falstavian evasions that makes them chilling.  Hal’s lies are not gross as a mountain, as Falstaff’s were, but breezy and scarcely visible.  And their breeziness kills people, like the jovial folksiness of a modern warmonger.

Felix Aylmer, Laurence Olivier and Robert Helpmann in the opening scene of Henry V

The link between laughter and slaughter in Henry’s reign is at its strongest in Act One, when the Archbishop of Canterbury – eager to divert Henry’s attention from his plans to tax the church by sending him to France – describes England’s former French campaigns as a grotesque spectator sport, in which the Black Prince’s father ‘Stood smiling to behold his lion’s whelp / Forage in blood of French nobility’ (1.2.109-10), while half the English army stood ‘laughing’ next to him, ‘All out of work and cold for action’ (1.2.113-4).  Henry at once catches the Archbishop’s tone, and seizes the pretext of the Dauphin’s mocking gift of tennis balls to represent his own French campaign as a still bloodier joke than the wars waged by his ancestors:

        …tell the pleasant Prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gun-stones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down…
His jest shall savour but of shallow wit
When thousands weep more than did laugh at it. (1.2.282-97)

Henry’s campaign is designed to show that the English King is wittier than the French Prince, that all debts to him will be repaid with interest, and that all insults aimed at him will produce an instant and devastating retaliation.  Henry, in fact, must be the undisputed master of ceremonies in the play that bears his name.

Laurence Olivier as Henry V

But Falstaff leaves Hal with another legacy besides the ability to forge brilliant ripostes and improbable evasions.  The fat knight acted as a bridge between the Prince and the common people, whose language Hal learned in Falstaff’s company.  As Hal puts it in Part One, ‘I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life’, and ‘when I am King of England I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap’ (2.4.13-19); and the heir apparent even goes so far as to disguise himself as a tapster in Part Two.  This familiarity with the people and their language provides Henry with his most brilliant evasive stratagem: that of avoiding the issue of his shaky claim to the throne by rhetorically ennobling the entire population of his nation.  In Henry’s language, though not in his policies, the hopes of Falstaff and his gang to be elevated to the aristocracy are abundantly borne out.  As he storms the breach at Harfleur Henry urges all his men, not just the aristocracy, to remember their ancestry with pride: ‘On, on, you noblest English’, he cries, and describes their fathers as ‘so many Alexanders’ (3.1.17-19).  Later the Welsh captain Fluellen attests to the success of this stratagem when he compares Henry to Alexander partly on the strength of the resemblance between Monmouth in Wales and Alexander’s Macedonia (4.7.11-52).  Henry has clearly succeeded in giving his subjects – even his non-English subjects – a sense of ownership, of full participation in his triumphs.  ‘There is none of you so mean and base,’ he tells them, ‘That hath not noble lustre in your eyes’ (3.1.29-30), and in saying so he draws their attention away from the less than royal lustre of his own coat of arms.  The Prince John aspect of Henry’s humour prompts him to trick one of his common soldiers, Michael Williams, into being falsely accused of high treason (4.8.9ff.) – though he pardons his victim at the last minute and compensates him for his terror.  The Sir John aspect of his personality, by contrast, permits him to demystify the role of King (‘his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man’ (4.1.104-5)), and to address his followers as ‘brothers, friends, and countrymen’ (4.0.34).[1]  When he imparts to both his ‘mean and gentle’ soldiers ‘A little touch of Harry in the night’ (4.0.45-7), he transforms them into aspects or clones of himself, thus strengthening his power to the extent that it can never be undermined.  The skill with which he achieves this he owes to the ‘tutor and… feeder of his riots’, Falstaff (2 Henry IV, 5.5.62).

Henry is no egalitarian.  All his rhetoric is designed to strengthen his position as undisputed monarch of England and France, not to establish a new English commonwealth based on fairer principles than the old.  But his reign involves due recognition of the central role played by the common people in the changing fortunes of England; and from this time forth their status as major players in history is confirmed.  Henry dies young, and his predictions of the future, like Falstaff’s, prove over-optimistic from his own point of view.  He never fathers a son who is capable of leading a crusade to Constantinople or of forging a lasting peace between the French and English peoples – or even between rival factions in the English aristocracy.  But the common people he figuratively ennobled, and whose power he understood, live on, and comprise the audience of Shakespeare’s Henry V, a play that reminds them repeatedly of their capacity to make a difference in affairs of state.  It is the common people, the play seems to say, who make or break monarchs, just as the collective power of the people’s imagination can recreate a Henry on the Elizabethan stage.  Without the precedent of Falstaff’s outrageous imaginings this Shakespearean revelation could never have acquired the force it has.

Falstaff in the laundry basket, by Eduard von Grützner

And Falstaff’s imaginative construction of ‘merry England’ has another outlet besides the career of Henry V.  The merry-making in Shallow’s orchard is recalled in the title of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the only Shakespearean comedy set in England; and the play provides a kind of escape from the nightmare of history.  There is just one mention in it of the grand narrative of the Second Tetralogy, when we are told that the impoverished aristocrat Fenton was once a companion of ‘the wild Prince and Poins’ (3.2.65-6); but this merely disqualifies him, in the minds of the middle-class married couples who dominate the play, as a suitable match for their daughter (3.4.4-10).  In the same way, the middle classes are carefully excluded from the Tetralogy, paying their way out of military service and thus avoiding the slaughters, betrayals and machinations that are the province of their nominal rulers.  The events of chronicle histories are irrelevant to these people’s lives; and this play narrates the histories of ordinary men and women, history as it is purveyed in the jest-books, whose pranks and japes are faithfully reproduced in the farcical situations with which it is filled.

The titular merry wives occupy an egalitarian rural space where nearly everyone can participate with equal enthusiasm in plots to make, break, prevent or preserve each other’s marriages.[2]  It is a space where women rule the roost, hatching stratagems designed to show, as Mistress Page insists, that ‘Wives may be merry and yet honest too’ (4.2.100), in contrast to the dishonest merriment of aristocrats and hereditary knights like Sir John.  And it is a space where jests do no harm, as all the characters repeatedly assure us.  The host’s deception of the doctor, Caius, and Hugh Evans the parson, is devised not to hurt them but to prevent them from doing each other damage in a duel; the wives’ deception of Falstaff aims to prevent him hurting their husbands by committing adultery; Fenton’s tricking of Anne Page’s parents proves that he has laid aside his aristocratic wildness and committed himself to the stability of middle-class matrimony.  As Parson Evans puts it, the play is driven by ‘admirable pleasures and ferry honest knaveries’ (4.4.79-80), and Master Page piously confirms his view: ‘God prosper our sport.  No man means evil but the devil, and we shall know him by his horns’ (5.2.12-13).  The authoritarian anti-theatrical lobby, then, is as irrelevant here as the iron hand of the law, or civil war, or bloody revenge; and so rigorously are these oppressive considerations excluded from the action that it would be fair to describe this as Shakespeare’s only pure comedy, the only play in his oeuvre that is unshadowed by the threat of death or the intimidating presence of rulers.29

Falstaff as Herne the Hunter, by Robert Smirke

The egalitarianism of the play asserts itself in the fact that nearly everyone in it has at least one prank played on them.  Falstaff is tricked more often than anyone else, and subjected to more painful physical abuse: half-drowned in a deep ditch, beaten in women’s clothes, pinched black and blue by children disguised as fairies.  But he is never isolated in his comic sufferings, as he so often seemed to be in Henry IV; his humiliation is shared by the bulk of the Windsor community.  Master Ford, Mr and Mrs Page, Slender, Shallow, Doctor Caius, the Host of the Garter and Parson Evans, are all conned as comprehensively as he is, and he himself notes the multiplicity of quarries there are for the play’s pranksters: ‘When night-dogs run, all sorts of deer are chased’ (5.5.232).  So if Falstaff is toppled from his position of supreme comic pre-eminence in this play, as many commentators have remarked, his former absolutist monarchy is supplanted by a commonwealth of merriment, the model for a new anti-authoritarian England.  In place of the crown of power and influence he hoped for in the Henriad, the fat knight is given a crown composed of the antlers of a Windsor stag, ‘the fattest, I think, i’the forest’ (5.5.12-13).  And while the stag is the most lordly of wild beasts, it is also the principal ingredient of the ‘hot venison pasty’ Master Page serves to his guests in the first scene of the play, in token of the amity between them (1.1.181).  In the play’s last scene, then, Falstaff has become a wholly wholesome dish, his predatory sexual desires transmuted into a harmless fairy-tale, his bulk made the centre of an inclusive social circle.  He has been defused, in other words, but not deflated, and the genial metamorphosis is completed at the end of the scene when Mistress Page invites him to ‘laugh this sport o’er by a country fire’ and enjoy, with his friends, ‘many, many merry days’ (5.5.234-7).  In The Merry Wives of Windsor merriness is vindicated, laughter liberated from slaughter, and the shadow of civil war dispersed from a land where everyone enjoys warmth and enough to eat.  It is not the land where the Elizabethans lived, but thanks to Falstaff and his friends they could go home from the performance nurturing the hope that one day it might be.

Falstaff, by Mihály Zichy

NOTES

[1] He again makes his followers his brothers – thus ennobling them – in the famous St Crispin’s Day speech (Henry V, 4.3.56-67).

[2] Leah S. Marcus argues that the version of the play printed in the First Quarto of 1602 is more egalitarian in its drift than the version in the Folio: ‘Levelling Shakespeare: Local Customs and Local Texts’, Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991), pp. 168-78.  For the relationship between the two texts see The Norton Shakespeare, pp. 1231-3.

[3] Apart, of course, from the ruler who may have been watching the play’s first performance.  For the theory that the play was written at the command of Elizabeth I for performance in her presence at the Garter Feast of 1597, see Peter Erickson, ‘The Order of the Garter, the Cult of Elizabeth, and Class-Gender Tension in The Merry Wives of Windsor’, Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor (New York, 1987), pp. 116-45.  It should be noted, though, that the one direct reference to Elizabeth in the play – as a future owner of Windsor Castle who is blessed by Mistress Quickly in her capacity as Fairy Queen – stresses her absence from the play’s world; the castle is blessed while it is seemingly empty (5.5.55-74).

 

 

 

Shakespeare’s Merry England, Part 2: The Fatness of Falstaff

Richard II, boy king

Besides being rooted in his nation’s present, Jack Cade’s campaign is also embroiled in its past: his insurrection could never have got under way if he had not claimed descent from the ‘legitimate’ successor to the deposed King Richard II.  The emaciated Cade, then, owes his rise and fall to the same conditions that permit the rise and fall of that ‘gross fat man’ Jack Falstaff: the disorder that followed Richard’s deposition from the throne of England.  But Falstaff’s body is far more intimately involved with the physical condition of his country than Cade’s is.   From the beginning of Richard II, when England succumbs to the social sickness that will plague it throughout the civil wars of the fifteenth century, the body forms the focus of Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy – the epic series of plays comprising Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V.  And the mountain of flesh Falstaff, who dominates the two central plays of the series, is living, breathing proof both of England’s diseased condition and of its irrepressible vitality, its lively hope, like that of a pregnant mother, of better times to come.[1]

Falstaff is no commoner: he is a hereditary knight who has fallen on hard times but lives in expectation of rejoining the ranks of the nobility once Hal comes into his inheritance.[2]  But Falstaff’s body has been swollen by the attentions of commoners, especially brewers and barmen; it holds sway in the streets and taverns of the city where commoners throng; and it consumes the cheap luxury commodities that enrich the commoners’ leisure hours.  He links the material preoccupations of the commoners to the airy obsessions of the ruling classes as no-one else does in Shakespeare; and he does so through the miracle of his corporal vastness, which is as much a product of his exuberant language as it is of his physical presence on the stage of English history.

Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt

In Richard II, a king’s self-indulgent playfulness, his arrogant assumption that his royal powers are absolute and that he may therefore ignore the contracts that bind him to his subjects, unleash a sequence of consequences that are described in metaphors of physical debility.  Richard’s arbitrariness first manifests itself when he banishes two of his nobles in the opening act, with devastating effects on their bodies.  The pair, who are initially in perfect health (Bolingbroke describes himself as ‘lusty, young, and cheerly drawing breath’ (1.3.66)), abruptly find their limbs out of control, bereft of their former agility.  As the other exile, Mowbray, tells the King, by sending him to a foreign land ‘Within my mouth you have engaol’d my tongue, / Doubly portcullis’d with my teeth and lips’ (1.3.166-7), while Bolingbroke compares the severing of their flesh from English soil to the parting of soul from body (1.3.194-7).  Meanwhile Bolingbroke’s father, the dying John of Gaunt whose spirit is literally about to leave his body, accuses the King of damaging his own constitution as well as those of his nobles and his kingdom.  The fashionable monarch ‘limps after’ the trendy customs of Italy (2.1.23), ‘tires’, ‘chokes’ and ‘consumes’ himself with a ‘rash, fierce blaze of riot’ (2.1.33-9), and binds up that ‘teeming womb of royal kings’ England in crushing legal restraints to pay for his own excesses (2.1.51ff.).  John of Gaunt’s body, as emaciated as his name suggests, is for him the emblem of England’s decay, bled dry by the King’s frivolous rapacity (2.1.73-83).  But it also illustrates the accelerated decrepitude that Richard is bringing on himself as he commits his ‘anointed body’ to the care of ‘those physicians that first wounded thee,’ his reckless favourites (2.1.98-9).  And once old Gaunt is dead, Richard’s diseases multiply apace.  His Queen quickly detects ‘Some unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune’s womb’ about to fall on his head instead of the son he has failed to father (2.2.10); and when Bolingbroke reappears on the scene, proclaiming his intention to reclaim the ancestral property Richard stole from him during his exile, the Queen recognizes the ambitious young man as her ‘sorrow’s dismal heir’ (2.2.63) – metaphorically designating him both as a substitute prince of the royal blood and as an embodiment of his kingdom’s future misery.  In the same scene, the Duke of York compares Bolingbroke to an illness invading the nation’s bloodstream in response to the King’s lifestyle: ‘Now comes the sick hour that [Richard’s] surfeit made’ (2.2.84).  From this time forth, Richard with his ‘ruin’d ears’  (3.3.34) and eyes blinded with tears is marked as subject to a more powerful monarch, Death, who occupies the ‘court’ of the King’s living corpse, ‘grinning at his pomp’ with fleshless jaws (3.2.155-70).  Richard begets his own death, in other words, like a parodic heir apparent, a grotesque alternative dynasty to replace the dynasty that he never succeeds in founding.  At the end of his life he is still fathering imaginary, abortive heirs: ‘A generation of still-breeding thoughts’ that plague him in prison after his abdication (5.5.8), content with nothing till they are finally made nothing by Richard’s death.

But for Bolingbroke, too, as Richard’s heir, the prognosis is none too good.  If he is Richard’s and England’s sickness, the time will inevitably come when the disease will grow to a crisis, when ‘foul sin gathering head / Shall break into corruption’, as Richard puts it (5.1.58-9).  Richard predicts that this crisis will be brought about by Bolingbroke’s friend and ally, the Earl of Northumberland: and his prediction is remembered eight years later by the ailing Bolingbroke – now Henry IV of England – in the third act of 2 Henry IV (3.1.76-7).  The two parts of Henry IV chart the progress of England’s infection, and Falstaff is at once its most visible symptom, its most eloquent diagnostician and (perhaps) its comic cure.[3]

Tom Hiddleston as Hal, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff

Every detail of the environment he inhabits was predicted in Richard II.  Richard’s addiction to laughter forms the model for Hal’s tavern-haunting, as Henry IV points out (‘For all the world / As thou art to this hour was Richard then’ (1 Henry IV 3.2.93-4)), and Hal’s drinking-bouts with Jack recall Richard’s rowdy exploits with his boon companions Bushy, Bagot and Green.  Bolingbroke’s rise to power in Richard II, sustained by the commoners who love him, is described by Richard’s Queen as a process whereby ‘triumph is become an alehouse guest’ (5.1.15), and spurs Hal to nurture a still greater intimacy with the residents of alehouses.  Falstaff’s commentary on affairs of state, too, has a precedent in Richard II, in the commentary of an egalitarian gardener on the state of England in Act Three (3.4.24ff.).  More unsettlingly, the brittle and temporary nature of the friendship between Falstaff and Hal – a brittleness that is repeatedly emphasized by the Prince – resembles the superficial friendships cultivated by Bolingbroke in his rise to power.  ‘I count myself in nothing else so happy,’ Bolingbroke tells Northumberland as he returns from exile, ‘As in a soul rememb’ring my good friends’ (Richard II, 2.3.46-7); but it is the breakdown of friendship between Bolingbroke and Northumberland that precipitates rebellion when Bolingbroke is King.  In his relationship with Falstaff Hal comically recreates the history of the monarchs who preceded him, scrutinizing the conditions that led first Richard and then Henry to lose control over the course of events, as they presented their subjects with every opportunity to reinvent them at will, to trespass on the royal prerogative of self-definition.  Through Falstaff Hal acquires the art both of reinventing himself and of evading definition by others: a comic skill, but the art of the wit rather than the fool, of the acknowledged master of delightful improvization rather than the helpless butt of collective laughter.  With Falstaff, too, Hal learns the art of controlling others – even the most uncontrollable people of all, the clever clowns.  Or at least, so Hal presumes; how far he succeeds has always been a matter of debate.

The splitting of the reign of Henry IV into two plays corresponds to the splitting of his kingdom into factions – another symptom of the disease of state contracted first by Richard and then by Henry.  It structurally reinforces, too, the astonishing multiplication of would-be kings and heirs that emerge as a direct result of Henry’s illegal seizure of power from the legitimate monarch.  Both plays are full, not so much of pretenders to the throne as of competing versions of the King himself and the Prince his son.  The First Part opens with Henry wishing it could be proved that his son Hal had been substituted at birth for the young war-hero Hotspur, who seems so much more princely in his conduct than the prince (1.1.77-90).  Later, Henry tells Hal how his younger brother Prince John has acted as Hal’s substitute in the Privy Council (3.2.32-3); and this is what stings Hal to predict the moment when he will substitute himself for his rival Hotspur, making him ‘exchange / His glorious deeds for my indignities’ in a deadly encounter on the battlefield (3.2.145-6).  Hal, then, is regularly ‘performed’ both by his subjects and in his father’s imagination; and Henry IV finds himself performed yet more often by those beneath him.  The rebel lords see him as their creation (he enjoys ‘that same greatness… which our own hands / Have holp to make so portly’ (1.3.12-13)), and take it on themselves to read his thoughts, assuming that he ‘studies day and night’ to pay his debt to them with their deaths (1.3.182) – an assumption that is directly responsible for their insurrection.  In Act Two, Hal and Falstaff take it in turns to play the King in an impromptu comedy performed in an Eastcheap tavern (2.4.368ff.).  In Act Four it is Hotspur’s turn to be christened by Douglas ‘the king of honour’ (4.1.10) (Hal has earlier dubbed himself ‘the king of courtesy’ (2.4.10)).  And in the battle of Shrewsbury there are dozens of men playing the King, ‘marching in his coats’ as decoys for the rebels’ blades (5.3.25).  As a result, the battlefield seems to be comically thronged with Henries, a host of visored monarchs whose outsides give no clue to their inward identity, so that the frustrated Douglas finds he must ‘murder’ all the royal wardrobe ‘piece by piece’ before he can reach the King (5.3.27).  This giddying multiplication of Henries slows down in 2 Henry IV, but even here Falstaff and the Lord Chief Justice contend with Henry for the position of father to the Prince of Wales.  Henry IV, then, is not two parts but many, as if his expert performance of the previously restricted role of king has inspired all ambitious men to think they can emulate his acting skills with impunity.  As with Macbeth, the leap of imagination he took in usurping the monarchy unleashes the power of his subjects’ imaginations, so that nothing is unthinkable – no act of treason, courage or ambition – for as long as he retains the throne of England.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

But the two parts of Henry IV also indicate a split within Henry himself, a deadly separation of his vital components that is one physical consequence of his failure to commit himself, in Richard II, on the subject of whether he was or was not a legitimate contender for the crown.  According to early modern medical theory, derived from the teachings of the Roman physician Galen, the human body is composed of four elements or humours, the microcosmic equivalents of the four elements that make up the world: earth, air, fire and water.[4]  A healthy body has its four humours in perfect harmony, holding each other in a precarious equilibrium, whereas in an ailing person one or more of these humours dominate, reducing the others to a secondary role and enfeebling the whole constitution as a result.  The two parts of Henry IV suggest through metaphor that the humours in the body of the English nation have been radically destabilized.  In the first part, the elements of fire and air hold sway; the emphasis is on the self-destructive energies of youth, on the dangerous love of sheer speed that is one of youth’s characteristics, and on the violent rivalries between young men that had such damaging effects in Romeo’s Verona.  In the second part, earth and water prevail over fire and air, old age supplants youth as the presiding genius of the time, a chill settles on the language of the contesting English factions, and everyone seems to stir themselves reluctantly into sluggish action, forcing their bodies to move – whether in rebellion or counter-rebellion – with pain and difficulty, and desisting from motion with obvious relief.  In Part One, the heat of the times engenders warm friendships between men and loving exchanges between husbands and wives.  Hal’s affectionate farewell to Falstaff when he thinks him dead is the high point of their relationship (5.4.101-9), and the exchanges between Harry Hotspur and Kate his wife evoke an atmosphere of marital closeness, strong desires and cheerful bickering that endears them to the play’s spectators.  In the second part, relationships are at best cooler, at worst shattered by rejection and betrayal.   Family members are distant from one another: Hotspur’s wife Kate, who has survived her husband’s death at the end of Part One, urges her father-in-law Northumberland to break his word to his fellow rebels for no better reason than that he has already broken his word to Hotspur his son, the man she loved (2.3.9ff.); while the mood of the play is incapsulated in Henry IV’s despairing cry to his own sons – from whose number at this moment Hal is conspicuously absent – ‘O me! Come near me, now I am much ill’ (4.3.111).  The contrast between the two parts may best be summarized by the climactic encounters between the rebels and the forces of the crown in each play.  The first culminates in a duel between two young men, fuelled by hot words and ending with the gushing of youthful blood.  The second culminates in an act of treachery, where a rebel force headed by old men are tricked into disbanding with a promise of mercy, then massacred by the army of the cold-blooded Prince John.  Heat and cold, youth and old age, and the elements associated with these conditions, seem to have undergone an agonizing divorce in Henry’s reign, and the instability of a state has never been more brilliantly realized in artistic form than it is in this astonishing diptych.

Orson Welles as Falstaff

Falstaff provides a satirical running commentary on the divorce between the humours and their associated elements that afflicts the plays.  In Part One he absurdly masquerades as a man of Hal’s and Hotspur’s generation, bellowing ‘young men must live’ as he robs the travellers at Gadshill (2.2.90) and melting his fat in streams of perspiration as he flees from the scene of the crime (2.2.107-8), in grotesque imitation of the ‘beads of sweat’ shed by the sleeping Hotspur as he dreams of battles to come (2.3.56-9).  The tavern scenes over which Falstaff presides are lit by fires – the ‘everlasting bonfire-light’ of his retainer Bardolph’s inflamed nose (3.3.41), and the infernal conflagrations conjured up by repeated references to devils and hell (Jack himself is ‘a devil… in the likeness of an old fat man’ (2.4.441-2)).  In the second part the fat knight’s pretensions to youth are exploded early on by the Lord Chief Justice, and for the rest of the action Falstaff is acutely conscious of his age, reminded of it repeatedly by the nostalgic ramblings of Justice Shallow and the tendency of the whore Doll and others to ‘speak like a death’s head’ by bidding him ‘remember mine end’ (2.4.34-5).  If Falstaff’s constitution is never quite cold in the Second Part – unlike that of other old men, such as Northumberland, the Archbishop of York, and the King  – it is because his blood has been artificially heated by alcohol, as he explains in his famous speech on the inflammatory qualities of a ‘good sherris-sack’ (4.4.85-124).  Nevertheless, this speech ties in with the many allusions to water and other chilling liquids that fill the play; and a look at these ties will help to show how the Falstavian comic ‘subplot’ operates with relation to the political ‘main plots’ in the two Parts.

In Part Two, water metaphors dominate the language of the rebels, who associate their insurrection with one of the sudden deluges that brought periodic devastation to the English countryside.  In the first scene, Northumberland declares that the death of his son Hotspur has unleashed a flood of grief in him that will overwhelm the nation.  ‘Now let not Nature’s hand / Keep the wild flood confin’d’, he cries (1.1.153-4), and later the Archbishop of York takes up the theme, telling the King’s representative that he and his colleagues were ‘enforc’d from our most quiet… / By the rough torrent of occasion’ (4.1.71-2), and promising that if their demands are met ‘We come within our aweful banks again’ (4.1.176).[5]  Henry IV’s followers, too, associate water with insurrection and impending anarchy.  As the king lies dying his younger sons speak of the omens that announce his imminent death, and the chaos that will follow once his wild son Hal assumes the crown: ‘The river hath thrice flow’d, no ebb between’, says Clarence, ‘And the old folk… Say it did so a little time before / That our great-grandsire Edward sick’d and died’ (4.4.125-8).  Hal responds, when he inherits the throne, by proclaiming the return of moderation to the ‘tide’ of his blood:

          The tide of blood in me
Hath proudly flow’d in vanity till now.
Now doth it turn, and ebb back to the sea,
Where it shall mingle with the state of floods,
And flow henceforth in formal majesty. (5.2.129-33)

Falstaff’s speech on sack, then – the fortified Spanish wine that stirs up the forces of ‘this little kingdom, man’ (4.3.108), and has made Hal ‘very hot and valiant’ (4.3.121) – contributes to the many references to liquid that distinguish this play from its fire-filled predecessor.  And although the liquid Falstaff mentions is a fiery one, counteracting with its warming properties the ‘cold blood’ he says the Prince inherited from his father (4.3.117), its effects are only temporary, and its after-effects as cooling as those of any other inundation.  We have good reason to be aware of this when Falstaff delivers his eulogy, because in the previous scene we have seen Hal’s brother Prince John drinking with the rebels in token of the settlement reached between them and the King; and this loving cup turns out to be a poisoned one.  ‘Let’s drink together friendly and embrace,’ Prince John proposes to the gullible insurgents, ‘That all… eyes may bear those tokens home / Of our restored love and amity’ (4.2.63-5); but as soon as the drink has been taken and the rebel army disbanded he has his new ‘friends’ arrested and carted off to ‘Treason’s true bed’ (4.2.123) – the executioner’s block – like drunks carried home after a night of over-indulgence.  Drink makes men sick, as Falstaff himself informs us at the beginning of the play when he complains of the gout it has given him (1.3.244-5).  And Falstaff’s celebration of Hal’s drink-induced warmth, too, turns cold when Hal freezes him out in the final act, rejecting him as irrelevant to his new kingly role.  The old man’s sickness and death, so touchingly reported in Henry V, follow on naturally from the fact that Hal no longer needs either him or sack – or indeed ‘small beer’, the poor man’s tipple that Hal recalls with fondness early in Part Two (2.2.5-11) – to counteract the natural coldness of his dead father.

Carlos Àlvarez in Verdi’s Falstaff

If Falstaff’s encomium of sack meshes with the metaphorical fabric of Part Two, his equally celebrated speech or ‘catechism’ on honour occupies a similar place in the figurative design of Part One (5.1.127-41).  Honour is the preferred currency of the hot-blooded aristocrats who lead the rebellion in this part, and as Falstaff suggests, it is entirely constructed from air.  At the beginning of the play Hotspur declares his intention of lifting his favoured claimant to the throne, Lord Mortimer, ‘As high in the air as this unthankful King’ (1.3.134); and the phrase makes insurrection sound like a kind of trapeze artistry, a dangerous and futile exercise in acrobatics.  When he later boasts of the ease with which he might ‘pluck bright honour from the pale-fac’d moon’ (1.3.200) his uncle Worcester notes the emptiness of his rhetoric: ‘He apprehends a world of figures here, / But not the form of what he should attend’ (1.3.207-8).  His speeches are glowing castles in the air, constructed and dismantled at a moment’s notice.  The anonymous letter he receives warning him of the ‘lightness’ of his plot (2.3.12) triggers a lengthy speech from Hotspur dismissing the writer’s objections, which ends by blowing away the young man’s own anxieties in a trice and rendering itself superfluous: ‘Hang him, let him tell the King, we are prepared’ (2.3.33-4).  Similarly, his lengthy speech detailing the rebels’ grievances in Act Four is retracted as soon as uttered: when Blunt asks, ‘Shall I return this answer to the King?’ the young man replies, ‘Not so, Sir Walter.  We’ll withdraw awhile’ (4.3.106-7).  Hotspur’s nightmares, which so worry his wife, are insubstantial visions, and made more so by Hotspur’s airy dismissal of Lady Percy’s worries.  And the rebel is equally quick to dismiss his co-conspirator Glendower’s claims to supernatural powers as so much wind.  The portents that occurred at the Welshman’s birth were for Hotspur merely a ‘kind of colic’ suffered by the earth (3.1.26), while Glendower himself is no more than a windbag: ‘I had rather live / With cheese and garlic, in a windmill, far, / Than feed on cates and have him talk to me / In any summer house in Christendom’ (3.1.155-8).[6]   The insubstantial airiness of Hotspur and his confederates has been well established, then, by the time Falstaff composes his catechism on honour, and the speech is the pin that finally bursts the rebels’ balloon.  The word honour, he says – the groundwork of their action – is nothing but a sign without a referent, an empty cipher: ‘What is honour?  A word.  What is in that word honour?  What is that honour?  Air.  A trim reckoning!’ (5.1.133-5).  The last phrase sums up the fat knight’s attitude: honour will not pay any bills (reckonings), and its thinness makes it Falstaff’s meagre opposite, reduced to non-existence by comparison with his massive girth.  Its lightness betrays the lightness of the insurgents, who aspire or mount upwards to power like the fire and wind that dominate the play’s imagery, and who crack jokes – something Hotspur does in the midst of his most serious business as enthusiastically as Hal or Jack – while leading their followers to a futile and unnecessary death.  If Falstaff is disgraceful in his willingness to lie, bluster, con and steal his way through life, he is of infinitely greater substance or weight – as Cade was, despite his thinness – than the aristocratic men of honour he mocks, who (as Henry IV points out) justify their rebellion with washed out ‘water-colours’ (5.1.80) instead of sound political argument.

But the importance of Falstaff’s role as commentator stems not so much from his sensitivity to the governing metaphors of his time – after all, every character shares this sensitivity to some degree – as from his mastery of the arts of comedy.  He is the greatest improviser in Shakespeare’s work, the greatest springer of outrageous verbal surprises and inventor of fire-new phrases; and these abilities come into their own in the age of Henry IV, when uneasy laughter reigns supreme in England.  This is Shakespeare’s astounding contribution to the legend of Henry V as purveyed in the Famous Victories.  Where the earlier play gives young Prince Harry a virtual monopoly on laughter – a monopoly that is reinforced, not undermined by the admiring mimicry of the clown Derrick – in the Second Tetralogy nearly every major political player has his own peculiar brand of humour, and Falstaff has unrivalled access to them all.  It is this all-embracing comic vision to which Hal gains access by seeking Falstaff’s company; and in acquiring it he gains directorial control over the spectacular theatrical performance that is kingship, outmanoeuvring all his rivals with his carefully cultivated wit.[7]

Joe Armstrong as Hotspur

For Hal’s father Henry IV, the dominance of the comic in England began in the reign of Richard, the ‘skipping King’ who ‘ambled up and down, / With shallow jesters, and rash bavin wits’ until his subjects got sick of his constant playing and got rid of him (1 Henry IV, 3.2.60-1).  But his death did not rid the land of his jesting spirit: Hotspur is one of its inheritors, and the most noteworthy thing about his rebellion, like that of Jack Cade, is how funny it is – and how relentlessly its humour directs itself against the King.  On his first appearance, Hotspur transforms the King’s messenger into a contemptible fop, a ‘popinjay’ whose misplaced arrogance clearly reflects on the master he serves: ‘he made me mad / To see him shine so brisk, and smell so sweet, / And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman / Of guns, and drums, and wounds, God save the mark!’ (1.3.49-55).[8]  By implication, the King who sent him is equally alien to military action, equally willing to belittle the military achievements of his victorious generals – and equally funny.  The morose Henry IV seems an unlikely candidate for comic status, but Hotspur assures his fellow conspirators that he is a ‘king of smiles’ (1.3.243) whose ‘jeering and disdain’d contempt’ has ‘fool’d, discarded’ and shaken them off (1.3.176-81).  And in saying so Hotspur lays the grounds for treachery and rebellion.  Reducing the King to the stature of a clown makes his overthrow seem easy, a matter of training a starling to shriek ‘Mortimer’ constantly in the monarch’s ear (1.3.221-3), of finding a ‘noble plot’ (1.3.273) – it hardly seems to matter which one – and of hurling yourself bodily into the bloody ‘sport’ of the battlefield (1.3.296).  The Hotspur rebellion is an elaborate joke – a joke that turns sour at the end of the play – and this is what Falstaff’s commentary on it graphically demonstrates.

At each stage of the play the scenes dominated by Falstaff parody the actions of the rebels.  Falstaff’s absurd self-inflation – his claims to heroism at Gadshill and the battle of Shrewsbury, his accusation of Mistress Quickly for stealing valuables he never possessed, even his baseless insults of the Prince in Part Two – exposes the self-inflation of the rebels, whose claims to honour and condemnation of Henry rest on an equally insubstantial basis.  Falstaff is the master of the ‘incomprehensible lie’ or preposterous fib (1.2.181-2), which is, like his body, ‘gross as a mountain, open, palpable’ (2.5.222), but which he can defend or disown with the agility of a master fencer; and the palpable grossness of his lies alerts us to the equal grossness of the rebels’ fabrication of their case against their monarch.  Besides these general resemblances, there are specific echoes of the rebels’ plot in Falstaff’s, some of which we have already noted.  In the second scene, Falstaff asks Hal to change the designation of highway robbers when he is king; instead of thieves, he says, they should be rechristened ‘Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon’ (1.2.25-6); and his efforts to mythologize their lawlessness are no more absurd than the rebels’ efforts to dignify their cause with resonant titles.  Later in the same scene, Falstaff looks forward to seeing the ‘true prince… prove a false thief’ when Hal takes part in the robbery at Gadshill (1.2.151-2); and in doing so he anticipates the following scene, where the rebels effectively accuse Henry of stealing the crown like a common criminal (1.3.138-57).  Later still, Hal and Poins betray Falstaff after the robbery at Gadshill, robbing him of his ill-gotten booty in the interest of producing ‘laughter for a month, and a good jest for ever’ (2.2.94-5).  Immediately afterwards Hotspur enters reading a letter from an unnamed friend, which tells him that ‘The purpose you undertake is dangerous, the friends you have named uncertain, the time itself unsorted, and your whole plot too light, for the counterpoise of so great an opposition’ (2.4.9-12).  Hal’s plot against Falstaff, designed to deflate his monstrous pretensions, is no lighter than Hotspur’s light plot against his monarch, which aims to immortalize the names of its perpetrators through blood.  And Hal’s betrayal of Falstaff – in Part One, at least – is a harmless one, a source of perpetual merriment to be commemorated in successive generations of jest-books and farces; where Hotspur’s betrayal of his former friend the King, and his later betrayal by his own allies (Glendower, Mortimer and his own father Northumberland fail to join him at the decisive battle of Shrewsbury) have dreadful consequences for his followers as well as for himself.  Hotspur’s lightness, then, is exposed by Falstaff and Hal as a deplorable lapse in comic taste.  And the nastiness of this lapse becomes more obvious as the play goes on: when Hal describes Hotspur telling his wife that killing ‘six or seven dozen of Scots at breakfast’ is ‘a trifle’ (2.4.101-7), for instance, or when Falstaff leads his company of ‘ragamuffins’ to be slaughtered on Shrewsbury field (5.3.35-8).  By Part Two, insurrection is no longer comic – or if it is, the humour it produces is of the grimmest kind, like the horrible joke played on the insurgents by Prince John, who tells them as he sends them to the block, ‘Most shallowly did you these arms commence, / Fondly brought here, and foolishly sent hence’ (4.2.118-9).  At this stage in the Tetralogy, nobody is inclined to laugh at the disastrous shallowness and folly of the ruling classes.

Prince Hal at the Boar’s Head, artist unknown

Like Hotspur’s humour, Hal’s is closely connected to betrayal.  Shakespeare’s contemporary John Donne saw all humour as a form of betrayal: a betrayal of the expectations of its audience, who are surprised or shocked into laughter by its spontaneous reversals of their settled assumptions about what is to come.  Of all humorists in the Second Tetralogy it is Hal who is most concerned to overthrow the expectations of his audience.  His carefully-planned career constitutes an elaborate prank whose punch-line he sets up at the beginning of Part One: in the end, he says, he will ‘falsify men’s hopes’ with his abrupt reformation (1.2.206) and display himself as he is, like the sun breaking through ‘base contagious clouds’ in order to intensify the glory of his half-forgotten form (1.2.193).  That Hal sees this as a joke is confirmed by his description of this future moment as a ‘playing holiday’ (1.2.199) – a break from, rather than a continuation of, the apparent holiday he has enjoyed in Falstaff’s company.  As many commentators have noted, there is something cruel about this well-laid comic plot; and indeed Hal’s laughter at Falstaff’s expense often smacks of cruelty, even in the genial Part One.  He is always insulting, needling or threatening him – most famously when Falstaff tells him that to banish ‘plump Jack’ would be to banish all the world, and Hal replies, ‘I do, I will’ (2.4.473-4).  In response Falstaff is always threatening half-seriously to break off relations between them, like a lover conscious that his relationship is hurtful to his own health and may eventually end his life.  Hal’s father fears that his relationship with Falstaff will do him moral harm, and this conventional view – that the young are always corrupted by the old, never vice versa – is reiterated by Falstaff himself when he plays the role of the King in an impromptu play: ‘pitch (as ancient writers do report) doth defile[.]  So doth the company thou keepest’ (2.4.408-10).  But the Prince proves wholly impervious to Falstaff’s gracelessness, and it is Falstaff who is always the loser by their connection.  ‘Thou hast done much harm upon me, Hal,’ he says in their very first scene together, ‘God forgive thee for it’ (1.2.90-1); and the element of pain in their relationship is later summed up in a phrase of Hal’s: ‘Were’t not for laughing, I should pity him’ (2.2.109).  The power is always on Hal’s side, and it is in teaching him how to take advantage of this power that Falstaff proves most useful to the heir apparent.

Hal’s humour, then, is a calculated matter, and as such it is the obverse of Falstaff’s.  The Prince lays down careful comic plots: the robbery of Falstaff at Gadshill, the plan to expose the fat knight’s hypocrisy by eavesdropping on him disguised as a tapster in Part Two (2.2.163-70) – whereas Falstaff specializes in fashioning spontaneous responses to other people’s machinations.  Jack’s only long-term plan is to get power and influence when Hal inherits the crown, and from the beginning it seems inevitable that Hal will overthrow this plan with a counter-plot of his own, prepared and executed with almost bureaucratic precision.  The Prince displays the same cold, bureaucratic sense of humour when he exposes a conspiracy against him in Henry V by presenting the traitors – his former friends – with scrolls detailing their treason at the point when they least expect it (2.2.13ff.).  In a treacherous world, Hal is the master traitor; though oddly enough, his treason consists in keeping his word rather than breaking it, since honesty is the last thing anyone expects from a ruling class riddled with oath-breakers.

The contrast between Hal’s and Falstaff’s comic styles is at its sharpest in their differing attitudes to time and money.  The rebellion in Part One is sparked off by the rebels’ awareness that the King is irrecoverably indebted to them for supporting him in his rise to power: ‘The King,’ says Worcester, ‘will always think him in our debt, / And think we think ourselves unsatisfy’d, / Till he hath found a time to pay us home’ (1.3.280-2), and the insurgents therefore think themselves obliged to deny him this valuable time, to forestall his attack on them with a speedy attack of their own.  Hal’s aim, then, is to avoid debts as far as he can, to put others in his debt as much as possible, and to pay off any debts he owes instantly, before they can accumulate interest.  At Shrewsbury he tells the rebel Douglas that ‘It is the Prince of Wales that threatens thee, / Who never promiseth but he means to pay’ (5.4.41-2); and sure enough, Hal is always dispensing funds to defray expenses, from the bills Falstaff owes at the Boar’s Head to the money stolen at Gadshill.  This is one source of his power over Falstaff; and it is also a source of his power over Hotspur, who is in Hal’s debt for the advantages he gains by occupying Hal’s rightful position as apparent heir to the kingdom.  The Prince describes Hotspur as his ‘factor’ or financial manager, employed to ‘engross up glorious deeds on my behalf’ until such time as Hal ‘will call him to… account’, when Hotspur will ‘render every glory up, / Yea, even the slightest worship of his time, / Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart’ (3.2.147-52).  For Hal, then, time is money, and even his seeming period of idleness with Falstaff is productive, since his investment in Hotspur accumulates interest in the Prince’s absence.  He has an instinctive grasp of the principles of emergent capitalism that marks him out as a member of a new generation, as Hotspur, with his adherence to a redundant code of chivalry, or Henry, with his abiding conviction of the inherent sanctity of kingship, are not.

Orson Welles as Falstaff, Keith Baxter as Hal

Falstaff, meanwhile, is an inveterate evader of taxes, an accumulator of debts he never means to repay, a shameless sponger.  Time for him is to be stretched and distorted at will, beguiled with amateur dramatics, lost in an alcoholic haze, falsified as he falsifies his age.  ‘What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?’ Hal asks him on his first appearance (1.2.6), and in doing so introduces us to a world that is governed by different priorities than those of Henry IV, who in the previous scene was urgently seeking ‘a time for frighted peace to pant’ (1.1.2), but whose efforts to free himself from the tyranny of time are repeatedly frustrated in the course of the two central plays of the Tetralogy.  Falstaff and his tavern, then, are a place of retreat for Hal, an escape from the pressures of the official calendar and a breathing-space in which to draw up a calendar of his own; and both these functions vindicate comedy from the common Elizabethan charge of being a waste of time – the charge Richard II memorably invoked when he said, in the scene of his death, ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me’ (5.5.49).  The tavern is also a location in which the nature of capital can be contemplated at leisure.  For Falstaff, money like time is subject to the imagination: insubstantial, governed by no fixed rules, and therefore incapable of getting any kind of hold on him – just as he is unable to get any hold on it.  The credit with which he pays for his drink – credit he derives from his friendship with Hal, whose financial prospects are theoretically boundless – is wholly imaginary, like the money he claims was stolen from him as he slept.  He obtains money by imaginative improvisation: taking advantage of his command of a company in the civil wars to garner cash from prosperous men who are too scared to fulfil their feudal duty of fighting for the crown (4.2.11-47); or collecting from Hotspur the debt he owes to Hal (it is for his non-existent part in killing Hotspur in Part One that he climbs to social pre-eminence in Part Two).  Falstaff matches Hal’s ability to collect debts from other people with a seemingly boundless capacity for escaping ‘shot-free’ (1 Henry IV, 5.3.30) – a skill that helps him to avoid injury from gun-shots in battle as easily as he avoids paying bills in peacetime.  This capacity for transferring one’s obligations, debts and guilt to other people is another thing Hal will find invaluable when he inherits the kingdom, at which point Hal begins to exert all his imaginative faculties, in Falstavian fashion, to offload the obligations, debts and guilt he inherited with it.  But the price Hal pays for acquiring Falstaff’s skills of comic evasion is his casting-off of Falstaff; a deed for which audiences have found it hard to forgive him, despite the seeming success of his efforts to obtain forgiveness for his deeds from heaven.

Adolf Schrödter, Falstaff and Page

NOTES

[1] Valerie Traub compares Falstaff’s body to that of a pregnant woman in Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (London, 1992), pp. 56-61.

[2] For Falstaff’s class see Paul N. Siegel, The Gathering Storm: Shakespeare’s English and Roman History Plays: a Marxist Analysis (London, 1992), ch. 6.

[3] For the health-giving properties of laughter, attested to by Hippocrates, as well as its ill effects on the body, see Laurent Joubert, Treatise on Laughter, especially Book 3, chs. 14, 15 and 16, pp. 126-33.  The English physician Andrew Borde, who studied like Joubert at the University of Montpellier, thought that mirth could be both therapeutic and dangerous: ‘there be many… myrthes and consolacions, some being good and laudable, and some vytuperable… myrth is when a man lyveth out of det, and may have meate and drinke and cloth, although he have never a peny in his purse; but nowe a dayes, he is merye that hath golde and sylver,, and ryches with lechery; and all is not worth a blewe poynte.’  Elsewhere Boorde opines: ‘A mery herte and mynde, the whiche is in reste and quyetnes,, without adversyte and to moche worldly busyness, causeth a man to lyve longe, and to loke yongly, although he be agyd.  Care and sorowe bryngeth in age and deth, wherefore let every man be mery; and yf he can not, let hym resorte to mery company to breke of his perplexatyves.’  Andrew Boorde’s Introduction and Dyetary, ed. F. J. Furnivall, Early English Text Society (London, 1870), pp. 88 and 300.

[4] For an account of the humours see F. David Hoeniger, Medicine and Shakespeare in the English Renaissance  (Newark, London and Toronto, 1992), ch.5, esp. pp. 102-7.  The chapter culminates in an analysis of Falstaff’s defence of sherris-sack.  The centrality of the humours to the Second Tetralogy is hinted at in the title of the 1600 quarto of 2 Henry IV: The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, Continuing to his Death, and Coronation of Henry the Fifth.  With the Humours of Sir John Falstaff, and Swaggering Pistol.  For metaphors of the body in early modern England see Leonard Barkan, Nature’s Work of Art: The Human Body as Image of the World (New Haven, 1975).

[5] Northumberland uses the same metaphor when he decides to betray his fellow rebels: ‘’Tis with my mind / As with the tide swell’d up unto his height, / That makes a still-stand, running neither way’ (2 Henry IV, 2.3.62-4).

[6] Before the battle of Shrewsbury, too, Hal notes that ‘The southern wind / Doth play the trumpet to his purposes, / And by his hollow whistling in the leaves / Foretells a tempest’ (1 Henry IV, 5.1.3-6) – a bad omen for the rebels who have been associated with air and wind.

[7] Leonard Tennenhouse gives an account of what Hal learns from Falstaff in ‘Strategies of State and Political Plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VIII’, Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, second edition (Manchester, 1994), pp. 109-28.  For another perspective see Graham Holderness, Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama (New York etc., 1992), ch. 6.

[8] In this speech, too, air dominates the elements: Hotspur is ‘breathless’ from his  exertions during the battle, and the ‘perfumed’ courtier is offended by the smell of a corpse that comes ‘Betwixt the wind and his nobility’ (I Henry IV, 1.3.31-44).

 

 

Shakespeare’s Merry England, Part 1: The Emaciation of Jack Cade

[Here is the first part of a chapter cut out of my book Shakespeare and Comedy; a lost chapter, then, rather than a lost book. If you like it, print it out and put it between the last chapter of the book and the conclusion!]

For the Elizabethans, the past was populated with laughter-mongers.  Jest-books disinterred the buried careers of the great clowns of English history: Scoggin and Will Summers, John Skelton and Long Meg of Westminster, Dobson, Hobson and the magician Roger Bacon.[1]  These were clever, tough commoners whose brushes with authority made them all too familiar with the insides of prisons and the danger of death, but the political impact of whose escapades was softened by the cushion of intervening generations.  The jest-book gave birth to the historical novel of the 1590s, in which the cheerful Clothier Jack of Newbury has run-ins with Cardinal Wolsey, or the page Jack Wilton finds himself whirling through early sixteenth-century Europe, getting caught up in the wars of the Reformation and fleeing from outbreaks of the Plague.[2]  On the stage, too, non-Shakespearean English history plays were often dominated by wayward comedians, who were either commoners or fraternizers with the commonalty: the Robin Hood figure George a Green, who beats up treacherous lords but remains fiercely loyal to the English throne;[3] Robin Hood himself, who teamed up with George a Green in the 1580s and starred in two tragicomedies of his own in the late 1590s, skirmishing with the despicable Prince John;[4] the parson-highwayman Sir John of Wrotham, who gave Henry V a taste of his own medicine by robbing him on the king’s own highway in Sir John Oldcastle Part 1;[5] and young Prince Harry of England himself, who with his drinking companions bears a striking resemblance to Robin Hood and his merry men in the anonymous Famous Victories of Henry V.  If chronicle histories narrated England’s past as a series of solemn encounters between kings, nobles, and powerful churchmen, the prose and drama of the late sixteenth century put certain lords on intimate terms with their humblest subjects, and thrust clowns ‘by head and shoulders’, as Sidney put it, into the affairs of state that formed the English nation.[6]

Shakespeare’s Falstaff is the prodigal heir to this rich tradition of historical clowning.[7]  As a boy he fought with Scoggin at the Inns of Court (so Justice Shallow tells us) and broke his head; and his fake death at the battle of Shrewsbury is a feat he borrows from Scoggin’s Jests.[8]  He mimics the exploits of Robin Hood on the king’s highway at Gadshill, and clashes with authority, as represented by the Lord Chief Justice, in parodic imitation of the clashes between Skelton or Jack of Newbury and the upstart Lord Chancellor of England, Cardinal Wolsey.[9]  He takes on himself the wilder aspects of Prince Harry’s conduct in the Famous Victories, and shares with Jack Wilton both a skill in impersonating aristocracy and a perception of history as a sustained assault on the human body, bloating, starving, infecting or dealing wounds on its victims in an unholy alliance with succeeding generations of powerful men.[10]

Above all, like these jest-book heroes and theatrical wise-crackers he demonstrates the extent to which laughter permeates history, and the centrality of those things to which laughter is addicted (improvisations, quixotic quests for material gain, hunger, alcohol, sexual voracity, the cutting down to size of misplaced arrogance) to the past and present of Elizabethan England.   Falstaff’s bulky presence – its sheer size a testimony to the awe-inspiring effects of excessive laughter on the human frame [11] – threatens to reshape our perceptions of the ruling classes who dominate the chronicles, confirming for us the absurdity of their priorities, the appalling destructiveness of their swollen ambitions.  If actors are, as Hamlet says, ‘the abstract and brief chronicles of the time’ (2.2.525), Falstaff makes these chronicles look both more substantial and more true to life than other forms of history, written as these are at the behest of monarchs. At the same time, the comic lessons Falstaff imparts to his protégé Prince Hal help to shape him into a powerful and popular monarch, Henry V.  His comic performance instructs the young prince in the art of wittily rewriting the past, an accomplishment that permits him to consolidate his position as king by a deft deployment of the power of comedy.  For Shakespeare as for Marlowe, the humour that transcends class boundaries is a potent political tool, capable of making and destroying kings; and it is in the series of plays known as the Second Tetralogy [Richard II, 1 Henry IV2 Henry IVHenry V], with Falstaff in the middle of them, that he explores this notion most intensively.

Falstaff carries with him strong echoes of Shakespeare’s most disturbing earlier representation of the clown in English history: the rebel Jack Cade from the First Tetralogy (1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VIRichard III), a ferociously anarchic revision of George a Green, who refuses to offer any consistent rationale for the massacres he perpetrates among the ruling classes.  The popular hero George a Green kills nobles who betray their king;[12] Jack Cade betrays his king by killing nobles.  More disturbingly, Jack is a king, in his own imagination and that of his followers, and so confirms the fear of Stephen Gosson that comedy could simulate and perhaps even stimulate insurrection.  He is the clown as king, just as in the Famous Victories young Prince Harry is the king as clown.  Cade’s proximity to this early version of Henry V, written by an anonymous playwright before 1588, is one of the many disturbing elements in his spectacular career, and helps to link him with the Shakespearean Hal’s ambiguous companion Falstaff.

In the Famous Victories, young Prince Harry leads a troupe of riotous knights round the taverns of London and shares with them a radical vision for his future kingdom that anticipates Cade’s plans for it in more ways than one.[13]  Harry and his friends intend to share power equally (‘we would be all kings’ (1.79-80)); to abolish ‘prisoning’, hanging and whipping – at least, for courageous highwaymen, who will instead get royal pensions for their courage (5.10-12); and to turn the prisons into fencing-schools, where Harry will fight a decisive ‘bout’ with the Lord Chief Justice (5.20-2). Later Harry undergoes a conversion to orthodoxy like his Shakespearean counterpart Hal; but the Henry V of the 1580s never forgets his experience as a tavern-haunting prankster.  When the Dauphin of France sends him tennis balls, ‘meaning that you are more fitter for a tennis-court than a field, and more fitter for a carpet than the camp’ (9.112-3), this Harry responds with the jocular bravado made famous by Hal (‘tell him that instead of balls of leather we will toss him balls of brass and iron’ (9.114-6)); but unlike Shakespeare’s hero he repeats the joke throughout his French campaign.  On hearing that the Dauphin will not fight at Agincourt Harry says he is disappointed to have lost the chance to thrash him at tennis (12.24-33); and when a French herald asks him to set the terms of his ransom Harry replies that he will give ‘not so much as one poor tennis-ball’ to free himself in the event of his capture (14.41).  His humorous courtship of the French king’s daughter forms part of an unbroken continuum of aggressive wit that stretches from his tavern days in London to the successful completion of his continental campaign.  Continuity is emphasized by the fact that his actions are periodically echoed by a bevy of insubordinate commoners led by Derick – originally played by the great Dick Tarlton [14]– who starts out as a carrier robbed by one of Harry’s wild companions and ends as the most timorous soldier at the battle of Agincourt.

The Harry of the Famous Victories, then, represents a wish-fulfilment fantasy for regulars at the London taverns.  If he does not fulfil his promise to turn prisons into fencing-schools, he retains his keen appetite for sports, and never loses the sense of humour so essential for a good night on the town.  But he is also a wish-fulfilment fantasy for his father, effortlessly reconciling this role with his reputation as a fun-loving criminal.  Before his death Henry IV foretells the prince’s smooth transition from bold, bad youth to world-class conqueror, predicting that ‘he will prove as valiant and victorious a king as ever reigned in England’ (8.4-5), as if Harry’s adolescent exploits are a form of training for his role as a military leader.  In this early play, laughter is the secret weapon of the English monarchy, binding subjects to the king’s service with ties stronger than those of feudal duty, and forming a powerful element in the rhetorical arsenal with which England differentiates itself from, and seeks to assert its superiority to, its continental neighbours.

In Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI, by contrast, royalty has signally failed to differentiate itself from the ambitious subjects who seek to acquire it, just as England’s foreign battles have failed either to unite its warring factions at home or to establish its supremacy in Europe.  Jack Cade is the product of a domestic tiff among the English aristocracy that culminates in civil war, and his antics, much more than Derick’s, amount to a devastating critique of the ruling class.  In this, perhaps the first of Shakespeare’s history plays – scholars have argued that 1 Henry VI was written later [15] – the health of the nation can be gauged by the state of relations between the classes, and by the time Cade’s insurrection takes place these relations have effectively collapsed.  Warring nobles articulate their hatred for one another by contemptuous references to poverty or low birth.  York describes the supporters of the King as ‘Pirates’ (1.1.220), the Queen thinks her arch-rival the Duchess of Gloucester a ‘Contemptuous base-born callet’ (1.3.84), and at the point when Cade’s rebellion breaks out Suffolk and Warwick are trading insults concerning one another’s connection to the peasantry (Warwick’s mother, says Suffolk, ‘took into her blameful bed / Some stern untutored churl’, while Warwick childishly retorts that ‘it was thy mother that thou meant’st’ (3.2.211-23)).  The one noble who is loved by the common people – the good Duke Humphrey of Gloucester – is held in contempt for his ‘base and humble mind’ by his own ambitious wife (1.2.62), and eventually murdered by his aristocratic colleagues.  Meanwhile ordinary subjects have their petitions to the King torn up by his unfaithful Queen (‘Away, base cullions!’ (1.3.41)), are reduced to conning one another ‘for pure need’ (2.1.149), and find themselves reluctantly embroiled in the squabbles among the nobles, taking justice into their own hands for want of adequate legal representation in the courts.  An apprentice accuses his master of high treason for saying that the Duke of York has a better claim to the throne than King Henry, and afterwards kills him in a parodic trial-by-combat (2.3.47ff.); and later Suffolk finds himself put on trial at sea by a crew of real pirates, who sentence him to death for crimes against the ‘good Duke Humphrey’, Henry VI, the house of York, and the state (4.1.70-103).  Suffolk is amazed and horrified that such lowly subjects should have power to kill him.  He calls the pirate captain an ‘Obscure and lousy swain’ (4.1.50), leader of a gang of ‘paltry, servile, abject drudges’ (4.1.105), and insists ‘it is impossible that I should die / By such a lowly vassal as thyself’ (4.1.110-1).  But die he does, and his death marks the temporary transference of power in the play from the aristocracy to the commoners: the kind of hierarchic inversion that would have horrified theatre-haters such as Stephen Gosson, John Rankins and Philip Stubbes.[16]  The arrival of the commoners at the heart of history is signaled by the arrival of full-blooded comedy – the theatrical mode associated with commoners – in Act 4 scene 2.  And the mock-king who presides over the play’s comic climax is the cloth-worker Jack Cade.

Cade’s ferocious directness comes as a welcome relief after the stifling spectacle to which we have been subjected before his appearance, in which aristocrats barely conceal their loathing for one another beneath a brittle veneer of courtesy.  Cade never pretends, as they do, to be honourable or consistent. He readily admits, for instance, what the audience already knows, that it was the Duke of York who encouraged him to assert his claim to the throne, and that he invented the details of his royal pedigree for himself.  As he explains this pedigree to his followers, his friends Dick the Butcher and Smith the Weaver undermine it with a running commentary: his father was ‘an honest man and a good bricklayer’ (4.2.37-8), his mother a midwife, his valour is attested by his open practice of illegal beggary, his endurance by his experience of being frequently whipped (presumably as a vagrant; we are later told that he has no home to go to).  But there is something exhilarating about the repeated deflation of Cade’s pretensions. The arrogant nobles who have dominated the play are equally inconsistent in their claims and counter-claims, and much less amusing in their inconsistency.  Cade’s birth and background, matters by which the nobility set so much store and over which they have wrangled since the opening scene of the play, clearly do not matter very much to Cade or his men, and his real claim to deserve a stake in England’s government derives from a much sounder principle: that ‘Adam was a gardener’ (4.2.126), so that all pedigrees in the end are equally ancient, and anyone has an equal right to join the competition to seize the crown.  Besides, Cade’s programme for reforming the kingdom – or refurbishing its garments, as his followers put it, in honour of his trade (4.2.4-6) – is full of disarming details.  Seven halfpenny loaves are to be sold for a penny, there will be a ban on weak beer, all land will be held in common and the monetary system abandoned, everyone will eat and drink at the king’s expense and wear the same clothes so that ‘they may agree like brothers’ (4.2.70-1), the aristocracy and gentry will be wiped out, and in the first year of his reign one of the London fountains shall ‘run nothing but claret wine’ (4.6.3-4).  No noble in the play has a vision to match these.  Indeed, not one of them seems to have imagined instituting any kind of programme for social reform – a failure that Cade’s programme helps to expose, despite its absurdity.  For much of Shakespeare’s audience one suspects the laughter that accompanied Cade’s campaign would have been more delighted than derisory.

At the same time, there is a frightening aspect to Jack Cade.  He is prone to outbreaks of Tamburlainian violence, either sudden – as in the hanging of the Clerk of Chatham and the impromptu killing of a soldier who calls him by the wrong name – or calculated, as in his proposal that ‘there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they have it’ (4.7.114-6).  And his sense of humour is as aggressive as that of the aristocracy he aims to supplant.  After decapitating Lord Say and his son-in-law he has their heads put on poles and gives the order that they be made to ‘kiss’ at every street corner, in token of their supposed conspiracy to surrender England’s possessions in France (4.7.123-9).  Most disturbing of all, perhaps, is the reasoning that underpins his most extreme acts of violence: his rooted antagonism to learning in all its manifestations.  The Clerk of Chatham is executed because he can write his name, while Lord Say condemns himself to death by the very skill with which he begs for mercy: ‘He shall die,’ Cade decides, ‘an it be but for pleading so well for his life’ (4.7.100-1).  Surely, we may think, Shakespeare is here working to undermine any sympathy we might have conceived for the rebels.  As an educated man he could hardly have disagreed with Lord Say’s view that ‘ignorance is the curse of God’ and ‘Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven’ (4.7.68-9), and Cade himself confesses he feels ‘remorse’ for his determination to execute the apparently deserving noble (4.7.99).  At such times Cade’s behaviour seems to set him on the high road to hell, to which Anthony Iden consigns him at the end of Act Four (4.10.76-8), as if in vindication of the beliefs of the educated middle class (the class that included Erasmus, Luther, Marlowe, Gosson, Jonson and Shakespeare himself) who saw education as the road to personal success, if not to a more widespread social redemption, and ignorance as a vice akin to idleness.

Yet our discomfort with Cade’s aggression is based on shaky premises.  Above all, it relies on the too-easy assumption that everyone in a given historical epoch shares a consistent set of values, with learning, reason and benevolence near the top of the moral hierarchy and rape, murder and betrayal near the bottom.  In 2 Henry VI this assumption has been exploded long before Cade’s arrival by the behaviour of the English nobles, who blithely arrange for the assassination of the innocent Lord Protector, and whose predatory sexual behaviour belies their stated respect for uncontaminated bloodlines.  Cade’s most outrageous actions, in fact, merely parody those of his social superiors.  His announcement that he will have the right to sleep with all virgins in the realm before their marriage revives an old feudal privilege claimed by local lords, as well as further undermining an aristocratic system of heredity that has already been seriously compromised by the aristocrats themselves.[17]  And his contempt for learning echoes his former master York’s contempt for the ‘bookish’ Henry VI (1.1.257).  Cade, however, has far better reason than York for his hostility to letters, since learning has very different connotations for the powerful than for the powerless.  As applied by lawyers, learning makes possible the atrocious situation that ‘parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man’ (4.2.75-6); that judges are able ‘to call poor men before them, about matters they [are] not able to answer’ (4.7.38-9); and that the setting of a seal on a written contract may sign away a person’s freedom (‘I did but seal once to a thing,’ claims Cade, ‘and I was never my own man since’ (4.2.77-8)).  As a remedy for these abuses Cade proposes to kill all lawyers, burn all written records and distribute justice orally: ‘My mouth,’ he says, ‘shall be the parliament of England’ (4.7.12-13).  His oral form of government is no more arbitrary than the regime it replaces; and in proposing it he strikes a blow in the ongoing struggle between the social classes in early modern Europe, exposing the complacency of the intellectual assumptions on which the polemics of the theatre-haters – and indeed the whole humanist educational enterprise on which they drew for their arguments – depended.

Cade’s career is a short one, but even its ending reveals the moral vacuum at the heart of the English hegemony. Lord Clifford seduces his followers to turn against him by invoking the name of the dead national hero Henry V: a warlord whose popularity rested on his appeal to English xenophobia rather than his birthright (from one point of view, his claim to the throne was not much better than Cade’s).  As we have seen, young Henry’s plans for England in the Famous Victories and Cade’s plans for a new commonwealth in 2 Henry VI have much in common – except that Harry renounces his plans when he gets the crown, whereas Cade never ceases to urge his followers to ‘recover your ancient freedom’ (4.8.26-7).  Lord Clifford invokes Henry’s name in a spurious promise to channel the commoners’ aggression into a new assault against their old enemies the French, whose recent successes against the English form part of the general resentment against the current administration.  ‘Will [Cade] conduct you through the heart of France,’ Clifford asks, ‘And make the meanest of you earls and dukes?’ (4.8.36-7).  As the Elizabethan audience knew full well, Clifford has no intention of doing any such thing: the only wars in prospect for the English are civil ones.  The empty call to arms that closes his speech, and to which Cade’s followers respond so enthusiastically (‘To France!  To France!  And get what you have lost!’ (4.8.49)), perfectly demonstrates the lack of a shared set of values or a trustworthy system of communication between the rulers and the ruled in England.  The land is fundamentally split, Henry V and his heroic deeds are dead and buried, and Cade’s efforts to reinvent England on a new model are founded on an accurate perception of its irreversibly damaged current state.

Cade is a home-grown threat, rooted in English soil as firmly as any noble.  Yet he is able to mimic England’s foreign enemies with the same skill he displays in mimicking the aristocracy.  He looks exactly like Lord Mortimer, heir to Richard II, York tells us (3.1.371-2); yet during England’s war with Ireland Cade has often spied on the Irish disguised as a ‘shag-haired crafty kern […] And, undiscovered, come to me again / And given me notice of their villainies’ (3.1.366-9).  England’s most despised antagonists overseas and her most privileged native sons have become indistinguishable in the current climate; and this loss of distinction is underscored when York invades England at the head of an Irish army while announcing himself as ‘England’s lawful king’ (5.1.4).  Clearly England under Henry VI nurtures the seeds of its own destruction.  At the same time, its abundantly fruitful soil is incapable of sustaining all the English equally under the current regime; a fact we are apprised of by the death of Cade.  In a final gesture of defiance the starving rebel confronts a prosperous landowner, Anthony Iden, in his orchard: and the comparison that follows between the landowner’s sturdy body and Cade’s emaciated corpse offers an animated picture of the commoners’ grievances against the wealthy.  ‘Thy hand is but a finger to my fist,’ Iden points out (4.10.47-8), ‘Thy leg a stick compared with this truncheon’ (meaning his own swelling thigh and calf).  The garden of England is only Eden to those like Iden with the means and the name to take advantage of it; everyone else is an enemy of the nation, regardless of nationality.  The rights of men as the common descendants of Adam have no place there, and ‘ancient freedom’ has been replaced with backbreaking ‘slavery to the nobility’ (4.8.28).  If nothing else, the comic mock-history of Jack Cade graphically illustrates the amount of mental and physical ‘labour’ that will be necessary before ‘the public good’ takes precedence over private interest in this divided country.[18]  And after its suppression, the claims of the nobility to be working in the interests of the people of England look thinner and more self-deluding than their comic shadow Cade did at his death.

Cade’s history displays the extent to which the commoner’s medium – laughter – may both comment on and affect the course of public events, despite the claims of the ruling classes to have a monopoly over national politics.  The Famous Victories showed this too, of course, but in 2 Henry VI laughter undermines the monarchy instead of sustaining it.  Cade proves the power of comic fooling both to subvert ‘legitimate’ claims to power and to forge outrageous new ones; and the lesson is taken up after Cade’s death by the funniest and most alarming of Shakespeare’s monarchs, Richard III, who effectively laughs the heads off his rivals as he jests his way to power.  Richard fails, however, to harness popular support as Cade does, so that his reign gets increasingly humourless as it staggers towards its end, unable to sustain the tide of anxious mirth that swept this despot to power with the horrified approval of the playhouse audience.  It remains for Prince Hal to learn the trick of popularity from Cade’s successor Falstaff, whose ample body gives weight and lasting sustenance to Hal’s serio-comic campaign for the crown, as Cade’s skeletal corpse and Richard’s twisted frame were unable to do for theirs.

NOTES

[1] Will Summers – jester to Henry VIII – was celebrated in A Pleasant History of the Life and Death of Will Summers(1637).  The heroic Long Meg, who also lived in Henry’s time, starred in The Life of Long Meg of Westminster (1620).  Dobson the early Elizabethan chorister-cum-practical-joker held court in Dobson’s Dry Bobs (1607), while his contemporary the haberdasher Hobson was commemorated by Richard Johnson in The Pleasant Conceits of Old Hobson the Merry Londoner (1607).  Roger Bacon’s career was recorded in The Famous History of Friar Bacon (1625).  Some of these texts were published in Elizabethan times, although the early editions have been lost; the Famous History, for instance, was the likely source of Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1592).

[2] See Thomas Deloney, Jack of Newbury (1597), and Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), both reprinted in Paul Salzman (ed.), An Anthology of Elizabethan Prose Fiction (Oxford and New York, 1987).

[3] Star of the anonymous play George a Green, The Pinner of Wakefield (c. 1590).

[4] The tragicomedies are Anthony Munday, The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (1598).  Robin Hood fights with George a Green in lines 1049-1106 of the anonymous play: see Joseph Quincy Adams (ed.), Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas (London, Calcutta and Sydney, n.d.), p. 708.

[5] See Sir John Oldcastle, Part 1, in The Oldcastle Controversy: Sir John Oldcastle, Part 1; The Famous Victories of Henry V, ed. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge, The Revels Plays Companion Library (Manchester and New York, 1991), sc. 10.

[6] The phrase ‘by head and shoulders’ comes from Philip Sidney’s discussion of Elizabethan clowning, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd, revised R. W. Maslen (Manchester, 2002), p. 112, line 3.

[7] The classic account of Falstaff in the context of Shakespearean comedy is C. L. Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Rellattion to Social Custom (Princeton, 1959), especially ch. 8.

[8] See W. Carew Hazlitt (ed.), Shakespeare Jest-Books, 3 vols. (London, 1864), vol. 2, p. 155: ‘Scogin seeing that he had lost the favour of  the King and Queene, hee mused how he might be pardoned of the King and of the Queene.  Hee heard say that the King would ride a progress, and at a convenient place, Scogin said to his servant: cast a coverlet over me, and say that I am dead, and say that, at my departure, I desired thee to pray to the King and Queen to forgive me.   When the King and Queene did come by, Scogin lying under the coverlet by the high way, his servant said: here doth lye Scogin dead, and when hee departed, hee prayed both your Graces to forgive him.  Now (said the King and Queen) God forgive him, and wee do.  Scogin start up, and sayd: I do thank both your Graces, and hereafter I will no more displease you: for I see it is more harder to keepe a friend, then to get one.’

[9] For Skelton’s clashes with Cardinal Wolsey see Shakespeare Jest-Books, ed. Hazlitt, vol. 2, pp. 18 and 34.  For Jack of Newbury’s run-ins with the cardinal see An Anthology of Elizabethan Prose Fiction, ed. Paul Salzman (Oxford, 1987), pp. 346-7 and 364-6.

[10] For a comparison of Nashe’s Jack Wilton and Falstaff see Neil Rhodes, Elizabethan Grotesque (London, Boston and Henley, 1980), Part 2: ‘Shakespearean Grotesque: The Falstaff Plays’.

[11] For the notion, derived from the Greek physician Hippocrates, that laughter makes you fat, see Laurent Joubert, Treatise on Laughter, translated and annotated by Gregory David de Rocher (University, Alabama, 1980), Book 3, ch. 13, pp. 124-6.

[12] George kills the traitor Sir Gilbert Armstrong at lines 693-781 of Adams’s edition.

[13] All references are to the edition of The Famous Victories in The Oldcastle Controversy, ed. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge.

[14] On Tarlton’s performance in Famous Victories see The Oldcastle Controversy, ed. Corbin and Sedge, pp. 25-8.

[15] For a detailed account of the dates and sequence of the Henry VI plays see King Henry VI Part 2, ed. Ronald Knowles, The Arden Shakespeare (Walton-on-Thames, 1999), pp. 111-21.  See also Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor et al., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford, 1987), pp. 111-3.

[16] For Cade’s relationship to the real fears of the Elizabethan authorities see Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford, 1989), ch. 2.

[17] See The Norton Shakespeare, The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (2 Henry VI), 4.7.112n.

[18] Salisbury and Warwick promise to ‘labour’ for the ‘common profit’ of the land at 1.1.180-204.

Mervyn Peake, ‘September 1939’

The beginning of this month marked the 80th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany, which took place at 11 am on Sunday 3 September 1939. Eleven years ago I published for the first time, in my edition of Mervyn Peake’s Collected Poems, a poem called ‘September 1939’.[1] The poem is short and not particularly distinguished, but it’s attached to the story of a remarkable coincidence – one of several that took place while I was editing the collection. And the coincidence provides an insight into the artistic and political milieu inhabited by Peake in the 1930s. Here, then, is a post about September 1939, the month and the poem, along with a meditation on how a tiny seed of information can begin to effloresce into a full-grown theory about a writer-artist’s friendships, influences and political sympathies.

When I first came across the poem ‘September 1939’ it was in a battered old exercise book full of poems, many of which had never seen print, stowed in a battered old suitcase in the London flat of Peake’s eldest son, Sebastian. The suitcase, as I remember it, was crammed to bursting with manuscripts and typescripts, mostly drafts of Mervyn’s poems, plays and prose of all descriptions. When Sebastian laid it on the table in his living room and opened it up I felt like a pirate suddenly faced with a heap of treasure: tongue-tied, goggle-eyed, caught between the lust of a child confronted by the treasures of a toyshop, with birthday money clutched in its grubby fist, and the astonishment of an adult who has stopped hoping that the world holds surprises like this, yet finds himself in attendance at the fulfilment of a lifelong fantasy. I still feel something of that extraordinary sensation twelve or thirteen years after Sebastian shut the suitcase again and put it away.

I haven’t experienced anything quite like that before or since. Except once, when the internet worked a little magic for me.

Not long after finishing my edition of the Collected Poems and sending it off to Carcanet, at a loss for anything to do with my hands and mind after the white hot excitement of the editorial process, I found myself idly typing a few words from the poem ‘September 1939’ into the search engine of my computer.

I wasn’t really thinking as I did so. I have no idea what made me do it, in fact. The poem from which the words came had never been published before, so there could be no expectation at all of getting a hit. Except that I got one.

The line came up word for word as I had typed it.

Leslie Hurry, ‘September 1939’

I can’t now recall which line it was from the poem, but there it stood, the opening entry in the short list of results for my search terms. And when I clicked on the link I found that the whole poem had somehow been transcribed and put online. I may be remembering this wrong; it may have been only the first few lines of the poem that had been transcribed, while the rest could be read with some difficulty in a low-definition PDF on the webpage I had stumbled across. But the fact remains: there was the poem, and there was I, and once again the impossible had come to pass and the shape of the world had been subtly changed by an unexpected encounter.

Leslie Hurry, This Extraordinary Year, 1945

The webpage on which I found the poem belonged to an online auctioneer, and the creator of the page had ascribed the poem to a man called Leslie Hurry – quite reasonably, since Hurry had incorporated the poem into a painting of his which had recently been sold. A quick search for Hurry’s name revealed that he was a painter and illustrator of considerable promise in the 1930s who later moved into theatre design at the instigation of the director, dancer and actor Robert Helpmann – most famous now as the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. At that time there were not many paintings of Hurry’s to be seen online – partly, it seems, because of a dispute over copyright; but in 2019, as I type these words, you can find a great many paintings, drawings and set designs by Hurry scattered across a range of different websites. One of his best-known paintings is ‘This Extraordinary Year, 1945’, which is on show in Tate Britain. It’s a picture that owes a lot to Blake, and that celebrates the end of World War Two and the election of a Labour Government. The painting I found with the poem in it was also concerned with a significant year, this time less auspicious: 1939. The two paintings, then, stand at the opening and closing moments of World War II, and the one I had just found online provided a kind of gateway or portal onto the dreadful time to come.

Leslie Hurry, ‘Self-Portrait 1944’

In fact, a gate or portal features in the painting. In the middle of what seems to be an ocean stand two white pillars side by side, which rise into blue plantlike growths gradually curving towards each other until they meet overhead to form a lintel. Each pillar has a door and two windows in it, giving it the appearance of a lighthouse or the turret of a medieval castle. Two long staircases approach each door, changing direction twice before they reach it. Between the pillars, through the gateway they form, you can see another ocean with a rock or island in it. There is something small and pale in front of the island-rock but I can’t make out what it is; it could be a boat, a whale, or another rock. The island-rock seems to have another tower on it – possibly two – but they are sketched in pen rather than fully painted.

Behind each of the two towers or pillars in the foreground there is what seems to be an upright, reddish rock, whose curve undergoes a very different metamorphosis from that of the pillars. The pillars grow upwards into cool blue plants or flowers. The rocks instead get extended below the gateway into a pair of clashing scimitar blades, which form another lintel under the doorway, this time painted red. The sea we are looking at through the doorway – or alternatively in a mirror, since the two lintels, above and below, could form the frame of a painting or looking glass – seems itself, as I said at the beginning, to be in the depths of another ocean, whose surface appears at the top of the painting, with the gateway underneath, as if immersed.

We’re looking into the depths, in other words, and the doorway or mirror we are looking through is threatening us. While the blue plants are thrusting upwards towards the lightest part of the sky, the blades are sweeping out towards the viewer. It looks as though they could cut us if we weren’t careful.

There is another island in the sea at the top of the painting, and in the lowering sky above the island Hurry has included what look like technical diagrams drawn in pen: a radio mast on the left, a flying machine above it whose wings recall the pages of an open book, a gun sight in the middle, a web of cables. The ocean at the top of the picture could represent the present, when such diagrams are widespread; or it could represent the consciousness. The portal, with its old-looking towers, could represent the past, or alternatively the subconscious, since it’s immersed in the depths. One thing is certain, though: the portal itself enacts two movements, one upwards towards new growth, the other downwards and outwards towards destruction. It’s a Janus-faced painting, even if the date it refers to is September rather than January. And the aggressive outward gesture of the blades suggests that theirs is the direction the world has chosen to take on this side of the picture – the side the viewer stands on.

As for the poem, as I’ve said, in the exercise book it was titled ‘September 1939’, and that’s the title I gave it in my edition. The painting, however, doesn’t give it a title at all. The lines are laid out differently, too, from the way they were in the exercise book:

This is the year of our Lord;
One thousand
And nine hundred years
And thirty-nine
Once the blood was wine
And the flesh was broken
Like bread.

The men of the equal tread
Have come into their own
And the bayonets shine.

This is the year of our Lord;
One thousand
And nine hundred years
And thirty-nine.

It might be better, I think, if there were a break between ‘thirty-nine’ and ‘Once the blood was wine’, which would make the poem into a mirror image like the mirror image implied by the painting, with two stanzas of four lines framing two stanzas of three lines just as the portal frames the painting’s interior sea. The word ‘Once’ in this version doesn’t quite make sense, at least to me; the exercise book has ‘Since’ in its place. I love, though, the way the poem (and the picture) draws the eye to the three central lines: ‘The men of the equal tread / Have come into their own / And the bayonets shine’. In the exercise book version this is slightly different: ‘And the men of the equal tread / Have come into their own / And their bayonets shine’; but the extra repetition of ‘the’ in Hurry’s version (‘the bayonets’) makes the soldiers more impersonal, conjuring up the familiar newsreels of the 1930s showing lines of Nazi soldiers marching in mechanical triumph through Berlin and Poland. And these three lines represent the mid-point in what seems an inexorable movement throughout history, from the moment of Christ’s birth (‘the year of our Lord’) to his death (‘Once […] the flesh was broken’) and on to the present, when the ‘men of the equal tread / Have come into their own’, with bayonets as sharp as Hurry’s scimitars. Having read it, one can also see something bladelike about the metal-blue plants into which the towers have grown, something sinister about the conjunction of defensive towers, radar, flying machine and gun sight at the top of the painting. Hurry’s picture may indicate two alternative directions, one leading to peace and one to war, but with the declaration of war in September 1939 both directions might be seen as always having pointed to the same destination. The breaking of Christ’s flesh and the spilling of his blood pointed the way to the breaking of flesh and the spilling of blood at the mid point of the twentieth century. This was the only possible fruit, one might imagine, that could be produced by that particular sacrificial tree.

Hurry may well have decided that Peake’s poem resembles a set of double doors, which fits into the frame provided by Hurry’s illustration. The repeated four lines at the beginning and end form a verbal counterpart to the painting’s doorframe, while the two sets of three lines form a door each – the door relating to Christ and the door relating to the rise of Nazism. But another way of looking at the poem is as the representation of a fulcrum, the point on which a bar or seesaw balances. The fulcrum lies in the space between the lines ‘Like bread’ and ‘The men of the equal tread’, with Christ’s sacrifice occurring on one side of it, the Nazis on the other; what the poem says is that the world of 1939 has tipped towards the Nazis. Peake’s mind was much preoccupied with fulcrums in the late 1930s. A number of poems from the exercise book – which I’ve dated to 1939 at latest, since it contains sketches of Peake’s mother on her deathbed in October of that year, and no pictures at all of Sebastian, who was born in January 1940[2] – a number of poems in it speak of a sense of precarious balance, or more accurately of having reached a tipping point, beyond which lies an unknown and troubling future.

Three of these poems are short enough to quote in full. The first is ‘Balance’:

In crazy balance at the edge of Time
Our spent days turn to cloud behind today –
And all tomorrow is a prophet’s dream –
This moment only rages endlessly
And prime
Is always the long moment of decay.[3]

This poem insists on the illusory nature of past and future, the turbulent present being the only moment that exists. Hurry’s painting could be read as a response to this sentiment too, with the clouds at the top representing either the ‘spent days’ of the past or the ‘prophet’s dream’ of the future, while the double door-posts – the two ambiguous towers divided between growth and destruction – symbolize the moment of ‘prime’, always engaged in the acts of furious self-destruction which make decay inevitable. A second poem speaks of Peake’s acute sense that it is his own life in particular that is in danger of ending just as it reaches the ‘prime’ of maturity:

O heart-beats – you are rattling dice –
My rattling dice
Proclaim the edge of precipice
At whose hid boulders stands a soundless sea –
These dice
Endanger me,
And spice
My days with hazards of futurity.[4]

The landscape of this poem clearly resembles the rocky, sea-bound islands of the painting, while the diagrammatic drawings in Hurry’s painted sky might be seen as summoning up the ‘hazards of futurity’ in the blueprints they offer for flying machines and gun sights which might so easily be appropriated for military uses. The third poem commemorates another ominous moment in the ticking time-bomb which was the approach to the Second World War. Exactly one year before ‘September 1939’ Peake wrote a poem to mark the September Crisis of 1938, when the appeasers of Europe granted the Nazis free access to the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia:

Au Moulin Joyeux

September Crisis, 1938

Here with the bread
We tasted anguish; here
The wine was grief,
While dynasties
Swung from a thread.
Yet, while we stared
Blind at a shifting fulcrum,
While our loves
Loaded the bleedy scales
And when to laugh
Were mockery,
Here with their burning flags
Of pride unfurled,
All women raised bright goblets to the world.[5]

The poem opens with the image of bread and wine which recurs in ‘September 1938’. Here the eucharistic sacrifice doesn’t mark a long-past historic event but a process that has only just taken place, in a present which is no longer endlessly raging but rather grief-stricken at the betrayal that has just been perpetrated by the appeasers. The moment of crisis occurred, it seems, while the world was at a party, so that the party food – bread and wine – became suddenly and incongruously symbolic, the partygoers’ ‘loves’ – romantic or erotic – helped to weigh down the scales on the side that denotes war, while their laughter replicated the mockery of the onlookers at Christ’s crucifixion. But the poem ends in the present, not the past; a present in which the women at the party collectively raise a toast to the world which is about to be bathed in bloodshed, while their own ‘burning flags / Of pride’ fly in bright opposition to the military flags which have been raised as opposing standards by Europe’s armies. The women’s gesture of defiance insists on the unity of the world at the point when it is about to be divided; it insists, in fact, on the continuance of hope when all the men in the room are frozen into helplessness.

There is no equivalent of the defiant women in Hurry’s picture, but the unfurling blue vegetation at the top of the doorway could be seen as raising defiant flags of hope at the point when desolation threatens. Each poem I’ve just quoted, then, represents the world in the late 1930s as precariously poised on the brink of ‘precipice’, as ‘O Heart-beats’ puts it, caught at the point of plunging into the oceanic depths of a dark future. And Hurry’s islands, seas and rocky islands – held in a state of precarious calm before the stormy outbreak threatened by the gathering darkness overhead – show a remarkable consonance with Peake’s concerns in the late 1930s and the images he used repeatedly to express them . The rocky islands in particular speak to the recurring island imagery in Peake’s work, stimulated in part by his boyhood obsession with Treasure Island and reinforced by his lifelong fascination with the island of Sark, where he spent two years or so as a member of an artist’s colony in the early 30s, and to which he returned as often as he could in the years that followed.[6]

One more poem of 1939 points the way towards Peake’s future artistic direction, as represented by the Gormenghast novels. Peake’s wife, Maeve Gilmore, tells us that this poem too was written to mark the outbreak of war;[7] and its repetition of a word from the poem ‘Au Moulin Joyeux’ invites us to consider that word’s significance as an expression of what war meant to Peake.

We Are the Haunted People

We are the haunted people.
We, who guess blindly at the seed
That flowers
Into the crimson caption,
Hazarding
The birth of that inflamed
Portentous placard that will lose its flavour
Within an hour,
The while the dark deeds move that gave the words
A bastard birth
And hour by hour
Bursts a new gentian flower
Of bitter savour.
We have no power… no power…
We are the haunted people,
We…
The last loose tasselated fringe that flies
Into the dark of aeons from a dark
Dynastic gown.[8]

This poem represents the present not as a tipping-point but as an act of erasure, whereby the out-of-control if short-lived ‘gentian flower’ of propaganda – the ‘crimson caption’ and the ‘portentous placard’ – overwhelms the senses of the ‘haunted people’, leaving them unable to guess at the real ‘dark deeds’ that may underlie this sudden proliferation of false news. The adjective ‘haunted’ suggests the ‘haunted people’s’ attachment to the past, whose traces are being submerged beneath the militant outbreak of vegetation. A haunting implies the intrusion of the past on the present; but the past in question is a nebulous, fragmentary, frail affair – possessing the sort of evanescence or fragmentariness that is also evoked by the unfinished line ‘We have no power… no power…’

Mervyn Peake, ‘Steerpike’

It’s the last three lines of the poem, however, that point the way to Peake’s later project, Gormenghast. In this conclusion the ‘haunted people’ themselves become apparitions, loosely attached like the tasselated fringe of an ancient gown to a sombre, aeon-long history, which is rapidly disappearing into obscurity just as an ancient building might disappear under the weight of ivy, bindweed or Virginia creeper. Hurry’s twin white towers are undergoing a similar transformation, though in their case the stone is becoming vegetation instead of being overwhelmed by it. In both cases, something enduring and dynastic – the towers, after all, look like castle turrets – is being replaced by something temporary; and the colour of the turret-plants is the same bright blue as the most common varieties of ‘gentian flower’.  The idea of propaganda as a ‘bastard birth’ underlines the break with the past, since dynasties depend on continuity as enshrined in legitimate genealogies. Steerpike comes to mind: that interloper of uncertain origin who inveigles his way (through increasingly hazardous throws of the dice) into a position of power in the dark dynastic castle, assuming the gown of the Master of Ritual in the process, while dispensing his ideas in the form of what might be called ‘crimson captions’. The confrontation between past and present, figured as a collision between the dark, old and ritualistic and the callous, young, and functional, is exactly the clash worked out in the first two books of the Gormenghast sequence. Gormenghast, too, is described on several occasions – most notably in the flood that breaks out in the second novel of the sequence – as a stony island, its contours closely resembling the contours of Sark; so closely, indeed, that parts of the castle are even named after well-known features of the Channel Island. The doors and towers of Hurry’s painting, surrounded by sea and darkness, point the way towards Gormenghast with as much prescience as ‘We Are the Haunted People’, and both works of art – all the works of art I’ve discussed in detail here – identify the Gormenghast books as products of the war that broke out in September 1939, grotesque offshoots from that year’s bitter seed.

Peake saw drawing itself as a dynastic activity – even the drawings of rebels and iconoclasts, which define themselves as revolutionary by virtue of their opposition to established authorities and orthodox lines. He sketched out his conception of the dynasty or genealogy of drawing in the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949):

We expect authority in a drawing. The authority which is doubly alive, firstly through its overtones and echoes which show it to be born rapidly or languorously along one of the deep streams that wind back through time to a cave in Spain. The authority, as it were, of a chorus of voices; or of a prince, who with a line of kings for lineage can make no gesture that does not recall some royal ancestor. The repercussions of the dead disturb the page: an aeon of ghosts float by with charcoal in their hands. For tradition is the line that joins together the giant crests of a mountain range – that links the great rebels, while in the morasses of the valleys in between, the countless apes stare backwards as they squat like tired armies in the shade. But we expect, also, the authority of the single, isolated voice. That the body of a work is common heritage in no way drowns out the individual note. To work with pen and paper is in itself a common denominator from the outset. But it is the individual twist that haunts us.[9]

The passage suggests we might read the ‘haunted people’ as artists, who are still conscious of the ‘dark of aeons’ which lies behind each mark they make on a page; a darkness that lends each mark resonance by waking comparisons with the ‘aeon’ of artistic ghosts who have made marks on paper before. In The Drawings of Mervyn Peake this very consciousness of their dynasty is what identifies certain artists as rebels, lifting themselves above the massed armies of ‘countless apes’ – the ‘men of the equal tread’, perhaps – to take command of the ‘giant crests’ of artistic and literary endeavour. And the quality that lifts them, Peake tells us, is a sense of balance:

Those threadbare terms ‘classic’, ‘romantic’, have little meaning when the finest examples of any master’s work are contemplated, for the first thing one finds is that they have that most magisterial of qualities, ‘equipoise’. They are compelling because they are not ‘classic’ and because they are not ‘romantic’. They are both and they are neither. They are balanced upon a razor’s edge between the passion and the intellect, between the compulsive and the architectonic. Out of this fusion there erupts that thing called ‘style’. […] The finest painters express themselves through their styles. It is as though they paint, draw, write, or compose with their own blood. Most artists work with other people’s blood. But sooner or later aesthetic theft shows its anaemic head.[10]

Mervyn Peake, ‘Reclining Figure by Hitler’

From these remarks we get a sense of what the outbreak of war might have meant to an artist of the kind Peake admired. If the world has been taken over by the ‘men of the equal tread’ – armies with a determination not to mimic the past but to erase it altogether – then the possibility of making art itself stands in danger of being lost, as history is shunted aside in favour of propagandistic placards and fatuous catchphrases. A balance has been upset, not just between the dynastic past and a troubled future but between passion and intellect, the compulsive and the architectonic. Given the mechanistic equality of the armies’ tread one must presume it’s the intellect that has won out over the passions; that the artist-apes who work with other people’s blood have taken the place of the ‘masters’ who work with their own. Peake’s understanding of the outbreak of war as a struggle over the artist’s soul is perhaps most vividly represented in the series of propagandistic drawings he produced in 1940 to demonstrate his potential as a war artist – or perhaps as a designer of ‘portentous placards’ on behalf of the allies against Hitler. The series poses as a catalogue for ‘An Exhibition by the Artist, Adolf Hitler’, and its title is ‘The New Order’.[11] Each picture in the catalogue has an academic title – awaking echoes of past pictures with similar titles – such as ‘Study of a Young Girl’, ‘Landscape with Figures’, ‘Dutch Interior’ and ‘Reclining Figure’; but each picture shows an atrocity perpetrated by Nazi forces in Europe: the young girl has been shot in the chest, the landscape is full of ruins and refugees, the Dutch Interior shows a young woman in the aftermath of a rape, and so on. The titles of the pictures, by invoking the art of peacetime, intensify the shock of the brutal images to which they have been attached. The visceral reactions viewers will have to these images make them romantic, in that they appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect; they clearly mimic the great series of etchings by Goya called ‘The Disasters of War’ (1810-1820). Classical thinking may underlie the orderly ranks of troops marching through Amsterdam and Paris in the year of this imaginary exhibition, but the extremes of horror their actions generate point up the radical detachment of classical from romantic values that has been engineered by Hitler’s New Order.

Puvis de Chavannes, ‘La Fantaisie’

Going back to Leslie Hurry’s painting of September 1939, it’s clear from everything I’ve said so far that the artist had an intimate awareness of Peake’s imaginative vision, and that the picture he produced is a carefully executed reflection of the emotions and thoughts that underlay the poem it illustrates. The painting, then, shines light on a friendship, one which lasted for most of Peake’s life as a writer-artist. At the time it was painted, both artists were based in London, though Hurry moved to Thaxted in Essex later that year. Both artists became involved in the theatre at a formative moment in their careers; Peake designed costumes for a 1932 production of The Insect Play by the Capek brothers, and went on to write his own plays in the 1950s, while Hurry designed his first theatre set two years after painting the picture, in 1942, and went on to become a celebrated designer for the stage. Both men had a passion for Blake; ‘The Wonderful Year’ invokes one of Blake’s most celebrated pictures, ‘Glad Day’ (now known as ‘Albion Rose’), while Peake wrote a poem about the engraver-poet around the same time he wrote ‘September 1939’.[12] And both artists have often been associated with the neo-romantic movement of the 1930s and 40s. The term ‘romantic’ is used of Hurry on the Tate’s website, while Peake refers to himself as a kind of romantic in a 1932 letter to his friend Gordon Smith: ‘I’ve decided to “be” a Romanticist in Painting, but am going to combine the guts of a Van Gogh with the design of a Puvis de Chavannes, and yet keep the suaveness of a Raphael running through stacks of corn that are yellower than yellower in the sunlight’ (pp. 47-8). Interestingly, Peake’s account of his brand of Romanticism is a fusion of Van Gogh’s passion, Puvis de Chavannes’s classical tendencies and the classically-inspired vibrancy of Raphael, one of the ‘royal ancestors’ of latter-day artist-princes. Balance between passion and intellect is clearly something he was aiming for even at this early stage of his artistic development.

Lee Miller, ‘Portrait of Leslie Hurry in a Teapot’

But if Leslie Hurry was inspired by Romanticism, he was also strongly influenced by surrealism, the movement that found its way from France to Britain in the early 1930s and spawned the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, in London.[13] Surrealism as a movement was notable for its refusal to be doctrinaire; its resistance to logical structures meant that giving a rationale for its activities was anathema to many of its practitioners, although the British art critic Herbert Read saw it as having affinities with revolutionary Romanticism. Read liked to call the movement ‘superrealism’ rather than surrealism, arguing that traditional realism was unable to take account of the vast proportion of human life which is devoted to dreams and unconscious impulses and that true realism must imitate dream images rather than the contours of the everyday. Surrealists sought to gain access to the unconscious by practising automatic drawing, and Hurry produced two books of automatic drawings in 1940-41 which earned him the title of ‘the ultra-surrealist’, despite his apparent non-involvement in the collective activities of the movement. The surrealist photographer Lee Miller made a portrait of him in 1943, his face reflected in a teapot alongside Miller herself and ‘an unknown man’. Surrealism was closely associated with the modernism of Miró and Picasso, the Apocalyptic Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s, and the neo-romanticism of Paul Nash and David Jones – the latter of whom Peake drew in 1939, possibly as one of a series of portraits of famous people for the London Mercury. The painting, then, forges a link between Peake and all these movements, and helps bring out the surrealist overtones of some of Peake’s images – most notably the one on the dustjacket of his first book of poems, Shapes and Sounds (1941), which represents a bizarre conch in the foreground, incorporating a human eye and ear, with a figure in the background walking off into an ‘architectonic’ space like a younger version of the Ancient Mariner in Peake’s illustrations for that poem.

Peake’s association with Hurry continued after the war in their joint connection with Grey Walls Press. A book of Hurry’s Paintings and Drawings was published by the Press in 1950, one year after the Grey Walls Press edition of The Drawings of Mervyn Peake. Grey Walls Press was closely associated with the anarchist poets Alex Comfort and Henry Treece, as James Gifford has pointed out, and Peake’s introduction to his Drawings, with its celebration of rebellious individualism, can easily be read as having a strongly anarchist slant.[14]

One of the things the friendship hints at, in fact, is that Peake may not have been as a-political as he’s often taken to be. Surrealism was closely allied with anarchism, as was neo-romanticism, and both anarchists and surrealists were actively involved in the struggles against fascism and Nazism in Spain and Germany. In his strangely hostile biography of Peake, My Eyes Mint Gold, Malcolm Yorke insists that Peake and his wife, Maeve Gilmore, paid little attention to contemporary political events in their travels through Europe in 1937, despite the fact that their journey took them through Hitler’s Germany and brought them to Paris at the time when Picasso’s Guernica was on display there.[15] The existence of Peake’s poems on the September Crisis of 1938 and the declaration of war in September 1939 shows that by that stage in his life, at least, he was concerned with contemporary politics; and Hurry’s illustration to the latter indicates that he was happy for a Leftist to provide the imagery to go with his decidedly political text. Hurry’s own political position is suggested by his celebration of the Labour victory in 1945, and by the fact that Paintings and Drawings by Leslie Hurry was published with an introduction by the Marxist poet Jack Lindsay. It may be that Peake was Hurry’s political fellow traveller, on some level at least, between 1939 and 1949.

And despite what Malcolm Yorke contends, Peake did pay attention to the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The bombing of Guernica took place on 26 April, when the German air force laid waste to a Basque town, with heavy loss of civilian life, at the behest of the nationalist general Francisco Franco.  In May of that year – a month or so after it was reported in Britain, most famously in The Times – Peake wrote the first of a number of poems about planes, its date being confirmed by the fact that he mentions Wales in the second line (he visited his mother’s homeland over the Whitsun period, which in 1937 fell on 15 and 16 May).[16] The plane he describes is pregnant with menace:

The Metal Bird

Job’s eagle skids the thin sky still,
Her shadow swarms the cold Welsh hill.
The hawk hangs like an unloos’d bomb
And fills the circular sky with doom.
To-day across the meadow
There runs another shadow
Cast by a grizzlier bird that swings
Her body like a scythe, nor beats her wings,
A bloodless bird, whose mother was a man;
A painted bird of steel – a skeleton
That sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone,
And bears her sexless beauty to the town.
O hawk with naked eyes!
O bloody eagle circling the skies!
Our century has bred a newer beauty,
The metal bird from the cold factory.[17]

Once again the poem charts the displacement of the past – embodied in Jove’s bird, the eagle (which has got fused here with the suffering Job of the Old Testament) and the ‘hawk with naked eyes’ – by a manmade military machine, whose metallic precision and coldly efficient destructiveness marks it out as a product of logic, as against romantic passion. The fact that this bird is flying ‘to the town’, along with the references to skeletons and screaming bones, might have linked it at once to Guernica in the minds of the poem’s first readers. The poem was published in the London Mercury in January 1938; and almost two years later, in November 1939, Peake published in The Listener another version of the same conceit, this time cast as a sonnet, ‘Where Skidded Only in the Upper Air’.[18] In this version, the plane in question is certainly a bomber, ‘Whose metal womb is heavy with a cold / Foetus of bombs unborn, that, ere they rest / In death will revel in a birth of blood’. By 1939, however, when children were being evacuated from all the urban centres of Britain, the significance of these explosive foetuses would probably have struck much closer to home than Guernica.

El Greco, ‘Landscape of Fire’

Between these two versions of the same poem, however, Peake made his most direct poetic reference to the bombing of Guernica. This occurs in another sonnet, this one dedicated to the greatest Spanish painter of the sixteenth century:

El Greco

They spire titanic bodies into heaven,
Tall Saints enswathed in a tempestuous flare
Of twisting draperies that coil through air,
Of dye incredible, from rapture woven,
And heads set steeply skywards, brittle-carven
Against the coiling clouds in regions rare;
Their beauty, ice-like, shrills – and everywhere
A metal music sounds, cold spirit shriven.
So drives the acid nail of coloured pain
Into our vulnerable wood, earth-rooted,
And sends the red sap racing through the trees
Where slugged it lay, now spun with visions looted
From whining skies and cold Gethsemanes
Of hollow light, and all the wounds of Spain.[19]

Here again, as in all the poems we’ve been looking at in this post, the past finds itself utterly transformed by the present; not displaced or lost in darkness, this time, but given a terrible new significance that could never have been anticipated by a sixteenth-century painter, no matter how visionary. In the introduction to The Drawings of Mervyn Peake the artist writes about how one’s perception of a well-known picture can be utterly transformed by increasing familiarity with the artistic tradition it springs from. ‘A particular man,’ he tells us, ‘can see only his own reflection’ as he studies any given painting or drawing; but ‘When he enriches his knowledge of pictures – in other words, when he becomes to that extent a slightly different man – he will see a slightly different picture, and so on, until the canvas or the drawing bears no relation to the work he stared at five years earlier. […] And so,’ he concludes, ‘before all work that is authoritative and vital there must be an inner adjustment: a willingness to change, in other words – to grow’.[20] ‘El Greco’, by contrast, traces a different kind of transformation. In this poem, a familiar painting on a religious subject – ‘Tall saints […] from rapture woven’ – is suddenly overlaid with a modern significance. The curling clouds to which they lift their enraptured hands suddenly get filled with a strange new noise; they shrill, like the implied bomb in ‘The Metal Bird’ that ‘sheers shrill-naked to the screaming bone’. This new ‘metal music’ shifts the scene to twentieth-century Guernica. The viewer feels a stab of ‘coloured pain’ at the association, as if a nail of sympathy has been driven home by the shared nationality of the painter and the bomb victims in the devastated town. The association wakens the sluggish viewer’s response to El Greco’s image into urgent new life. Instead of a religious theme the painting is ‘now spun with visions looted / From whining skies and cold Gethsemanes / Of hollow light, and all the wounds of Spain’. From being historical it has been made urgently topical, and from this moment on the painter’s works can never be looked at in the same light again.

Leslie Hurry’s painting ‘September 1939’ brings a moment of history to life. Plugged into the complex circuitry of Mervyn Peake’s artistic and literary context, it illuminates associations and links that had largely lain in darkness before its discovery: links with the political Left, with the British surrealists, with the major historical markers in the approach to the Second World War – Guernica, the September Crisis, the declaration of war, the evacuation of London. It points up the obsession with equilibrium and its loss that dominates Peake’s thoughts about art and human identity. And it provides a gate or doorway to new, more passionately topical readings of the Gormenghast sequence than the ones we’ve practised before. Read as a continuation, for instance, of his close encounters with surrealists as well as neo-romantics, with anarchists and experimentalists as well as with pillars of the British establishment, Gormenghast Castle starts to look less eccentrically isolated, more organically bound up with other artistic and political responses to the global conflicts of the twentieth century. I look forward to exploring these associations in greater detail.

Notes

[1] All references to Peake’s poems in this post are taken from my edition of his Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008). ‘September 1939’ is on p. 47.

[2] See Collected Poems, p. 1.

[3] Collected Poems, p. 65.

[4] Collected Poems, p. 52.

[5] Collected Poems, p. 43.

[6] For Peake’s fascination with islands see G. Peter Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), chapter 3, ‘Islands’.

[7] See Maeve Gilmore, A World Away: A Memoir of Mervyn Peake, in Mervyn Peake: Two Lives, introd. Sebastian Peake (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 26.

[8] Collected Poems, p. 48.

[9] Mervyn Peake, Writings and Drawings, ed. Maeve Gilmore and Shelagh Johnson (London: Academy Editions and New York: St Martin Press, 1974), p. 80.

[10] Writings and Drawings, p. 81.

[11] Several of these pictures are reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art, compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), pp. 66-69.

[12] ‘Blake’, Collected Poems, p. 63.

[13] See Michael Remy, Surrealism in Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999).

[14] See James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: ELS Editions, 2018), chapter 3, pp. 122-45.

[15] Malcolm Yorke, Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), p. 80: ‘Somehow they managed to ignore all the very unromantic preparations for war which were going on all around them in Europe.’

[16] For Peake’s visit to Wales see G Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography(London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 112.

[17] Collected Poems, p. 31.

[18] Collected Poems, p. 50.

[19] Collected Poems, p. 41

[20] Writings and Drawings, p. 81.

Margaret Irwin between the Wars, Part 3: These Mortals (1925)

[This is the last of three posts on Margaret Irwin’s best-known works of the fantastic. The first can be found here, and the second here. Enjoy!]

Cover design by John Robert Monsell, Irwin’s husband

Irwin’s second novel, These Mortals (1925), is an adult revisionist fairy tale, one of the few I can think of from the 1920s. The same decade saw the publication of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Coming of the Fairies (1922) and Bernard Sleigh’s The Gates of Horn (1926), both of which purport to describe genuine encounters with the fairy world, tapping into the contemporary passion for the occult which pervades Still She Wished for Company. These Mortals, by contrast, is an anti-occult novel. The focus of attention in it is the world of ordinary human beings as experienced by the protagonist, Melusine the enchanter’s daughter, who is half a fairy and has been raised by her father in an isolation permeated by his enchantments. For her, human behaviour is a source of strangeness and fear more potent than anything supernatural. The book’s achievement is its success in permitting its readers to share her perspective: that is, to acknowledge the perverse combination of delight and destructiveness, desire and self-obsession, which dominates ruling-class culture between the wars – and to be astonished at it, as Melusine is, as an oxymoron more extreme than anything to be found between the pages of the colourful fairy books of Andrew Lang.

If Melusine is delighted and appalled by human culture, ‘these mortals’ take no interest whatever in the occult except as a means of concealing the truth about themselves for purposes of self-advancement. We discover this very early in the narrative when the enchanter’s daughter is introduced to a Prince at the human court. As she approaches him she happens to mention – in all innocence – that she has met him once before, coming out of a brothel. At once the Prince’s mother ascribes this apparent ‘memory’ to the foreign lady’s occult gifts: ‘Our little friend,’ she insists, ‘has the strangest fancies. You have already seen Prince Pharamond in your dreams, my dear? I knew it. The moment I saw your eyes, I said to myself, “She is psychic”’ (p. 42). The use of fairy lore to excuse sexual misconduct recalls Richard Corbet’s famous poem ‘The Fairies’ Farewell’, which implies that monks and nuns in the Middle Ages exploited supernatural stories to cover up their sexual tracks – visible ‘On many a grassy plain’ in the form of the trampled areas known as fairy rings. The question of whether or not fairy tales are ‘true’, as Conan Doyle attempted to prove in The Coming of the Fairies, is less important in Irwin’s text than the far more urgent question of how facts can be suppressed. Like Still She Wished, in other words, her book concerns itself with what has been left out of history – with the events that take place between the official accounts of any given period – and in particular with the question of how and why such omissions have been engineered by the ruling classes.

Melusina

Irwin’s novel is based on the legend of Melusine, long associated with the noble House of Lusignan in France. The legend tells of a romance between a knight and a fairy and their subsequent marriage, which is governed by a strict prenuptial contract reminiscent of the one that governs the marriage of Cupid and Psyche in Greek myth. The knight must not visit Melusine’s bedchamber, especially when she is giving birth or bathing her babies; if he does she will instantly leave him. Inevitably the knight breaks the contract and Melusine departs, but at this point her story parts company with that of Psyche, in that there is no happy ending. After Melusine’s departure she is only ever heard of by the knight’s descendants on the eve of some dire calamity, screaming and howling her heart out as she flies around the roofs of the ancestral castle. At the centre of any novel based on this legend, then, is likely to be a warning about transitoriness. Any moment of pleasure it contains – marriage, sex, a family – will be followed by an inevitable sundering, and the prospects for a Tolkien-esque recovery – a return to the innocent days of romantic wonder and delight, as recorded in fairy tales and adventure stories – are not good.

The most distinctive feature of the Lusignan story is Melusine herself. Instead of legs the fairy has the tail of a fish or serpent, and her children are sometimes said to have inherited similar bodily deformities, as Irwin’s novel reminds us (p. 26). Melusine’s body tells us, in other words, that she inhabits two adjacent worlds – that she lives between them; and her difference from the mortals she calamitously consorts with is immediately obvious to anyone who looks at her. Irwin’s protagonist, also named Melusine, has no tail, but the mortals who come in contact with her know at once that there is something ‘fishy’ about her, and it is this difference that threatens to isolate her from them as completely and permanently as her ancestor.

The title of Irwin’s second novel, like her first, contains a literary allusion. The trickster-fairy Robin Goodfellow in Midsummer Night’s Dream utters the words ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be’ after watching the antics of two sets of unfaithful lovers and some amateur actors in a wood. The phrase from Shakespeare’s play, in other words, invokes dreams, magic, and infidelity, just as the ballad reference in Still She Wished invokes fear, loneliness and magic, the key components of the book that follows. ‘These mortals’ also invokes detachment from the human world – Puck is an outsider looking in – as well as active interference in it: not content to remain an ‘auditor’ or listener, Puck chooses to take a role in the performance of his lovers and amateur thespians, with chaotic results. The heroine of These Mortals does the same. She begins as a spectator, riding on moonbeams courtesy of her magic and examining the strange behaviour of mortal lovers from a distance; but she goes on to take a major part in the drama she has been enjoying, bringing confusion on herself and her fellow actors in the process.

Still She Wished, too, had a theatrical dimension; Irwin even turned it into a play in the 1950s. As mentioned in my last post, its three parts are headed with lines from a supernatural comedy by Robert Greene: the phrases ‘Time Is’, ‘Time Was’, ‘Time Has Been’, come from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1590), in which they help to remind the reader how the transitory ‘two hours’ traffic’ of a stage performance can embody the transitory nature of life itself (blink and you’ll miss it, in effect they say). In addition, Lucian and Juliana have an obsession with the only piece of prose fiction written by the celebrated playwright William Congreve, and there are other references in the book to the Restoration period that spawned Congreve and other writers of cruel comedy: Lucian quotes Lord Rochester, for instance; Mr Daintree quotes Rochester’s friend Sir Charles Sedley; while Chidleigh is full of the disguises, love rivalries and witty banter that dominated the seventeenth-century stage. Meanwhile, Puck’s transition from spectator to performer gets repeated in the lives of Lucian, Jan and Juliana, who begin by watching the fascinating figures in their visions of past and future and end by chasing after them; and the confusion caused by this shift from viewing to performance ends in tragedy, for Lucian at least.

The threat of a tragic ending is present, in fact, in both books’ titles. Still She Wished refers to a ballad that ends in destruction, while the simple phrase These Mortals invokes the inevitability of death, and might remind us that violent death lurks in the background of Shakespeare’s Dream, especially in the scenes where Robin Goodfellow goads the lovers to hunt each other through the woods with weapons drawn. Both books are satires, like the best-known plays of the Restoration, and like many of those plays they set up situations that nearly bring about disaster. They hover between two worlds, like Melusine herself – the comic and the tragic – and as such conjure up the mood of the post-war period, when an appetite for light entertainment barely succeeded in distracting attention from the era of devastating violence that had just come to an end.

Prospero and Miranda by William Maw Egley

The two novels begin, however, in opposite places. Still She Wished opens in the mundane London of the 1920s, while These Mortals opens in a world suffused with magic, where Melusine passes her days with her enchanter father – named Aldebaran, after the star – like a second Miranda on her desert island. Like Miranda, too, she is given to wondering. She delights in abstruse knowledge of the kind her father delights to provide her with, though she also wishes to know about the things he chooses to leave out of her education. In her leisure time she goes on visits to the wonderful demesnes of mermaids and moon-maidens, and over time she has even gained the power to become a wonder herself, morphing into a moon-maiden on moonlit nights and travelling wherever the beams of the moon will take her. For Melusine, though, the greatest wonder of all is the world of ordinary mortals, whose bizarre arrangements for managing their affairs – ‘their municipal governments, their police and their drainage systems’ (p. 5) – have nothing in common with the fairy tale economy she grew up in. Thanks to a spell rashly given her by her father she sets sail in a boat made of a seashell and travels across the ocean (following the track of the moon on the waves, as is her wont) to a palace just like a building from the fairy tales (and therefore just like Chidleigh, which ‘might have imprisoned a princess in a fairy tale’, Irwin informs us). And here Melusine discovers, like Jan and Juliana before her, how very unlike a fairy tale human life can be.

She can’t say she wasn’t warned. Her enchanter father Aldebaran foreswore the human world, we’re told, because of dis-enchantment; above all, because of his discovery of the fact (well known to all the central characters of Still She Wished) that human beings are profoundly isolated. ‘All the intricacies of their laws, their societies, their towns, and their nations,’ he tells his daughter,

‘amount only to this: that each individual human being dreads solitude and tries to circumvent it. From the moment that you enter the world (should you ever have that misfortune), your immediate concern will be to find a companion, and when you have done so you will believe that you have found yourself. You will discover a hitherto unimagined interest and value in all your actions, thoughts and memories, since you think to share them with another. Only gradually will you discover that it is impossible to do this wholly; that speech often obscures and sometimes conceals our thoughts; that the fictitious contacts of the flesh give an ecstasy which is poignant chiefly in that it reminds us of the incommunicable solitude of our souls’ (p. 6).

Sure enough, this is exactly what happens to Melusine. The court she sails to in her magic boat turns out to be enmeshed in a web of magic ‘stronger than my father’s’ – a phrase that becomes a ballad-like refrain throughout the novel. In it, the appearance of friendship conceals causeless enmity and casual aggression; outward beauty hides inward ugliness; the term ‘love’ is a synonym for self-interest, which always ends in self-damage; simplicity masks extreme cunning, which has a worse effect on its owners than stupidity. And so the multitude of oxymorons that ‘obscure […] and conceal’ the thoughts of mortals expands into a constricting network which threatens to suffocate the palace’s inhabitants, and makes the joy of sharing ideas and bodily sensations quite impossible. Melusine’s first encounter with the court reveals to her that the courtiers’ pleasures make them angry: when she meets Prince Pharamond near the brothel he has a hangover, which has its usual bad effect on his good temper. Later she learns that their happiest memories make them sad (through her magic she summons up the Emperor’s most treasured recollection – an assignation with a farm girl – which merely reminds him how unhappy he is with his wife). She discovers that humans remain bound to each other by unbreakable chains even when they hate each other (the imperial marriage bed is a fermentation chamber of frustration and loathing); that they are incapable of transparency (a quality she learned from the moon-maidens along with their magic); and that their words have multiple meanings she cannot fathom. The human court, in fact, is a particularly noxious fantasy, filled with emotional impossibilities rather than physical ones, which is why court culture is indistinguishable from magic for Melusine, and why she finds it so dangerously alluring, despite all the destructive contradictions it is riddled with.

Melusine brings with her to the court three non-human friends: a cat, a snake and a raven, whose loyalty, intelligence and honesty – as well as the fact that there are three of them – underline their link to the animal companions of the fairy tale tradition. Melusine’s own loyalty is as unswerving as that of her three friends. She goes on admiring the Princess Blanchelys as a goddess, despite the successive acts of betrayal to which the Emperor’s daughter subjects her. She presents this goddess one by one with a series of gifts that get used against her: friendship, sympathy, advice, a magic spell to make men fall in love with its caster, and finally Melusine’s own appearance, handed over piecemeal (first her hair, then her complexion, then her eyes) in a succession of magical transactions which leave their former possessor drab to look at and inwardly despairing. The princess, meanwhile, uses Melusine’s gifts for selfish purposes, thus underlining the radical difference between them. No change, in fact, is worked by magic in this book; it merely serves to make individuals more themselves, and to underline the gap that separates Melusine from the mortals among whom she has been stranded. Spells prosthetically enhance the identity of those who practise them and of those on whom they are practised, so that as the princess gets more magical powers she desires more, just as she always has done with anything desirable. Meanwhile Melusine uses enchantment to make her animal companions more intensely catlike, snakelike, birdlike. With the spell that expanded her shell to the size of a boat she grows them each in succession to huge proportions, thus lending their qualities a power they don’t usually possess in a human context. This brings out the absence of these qualities from mortal affairs, and finally enables the beasts to free her from the various traps constructed by the human court to hem her in, helping her to find a fairy tale ending despite all the efforts of the courtiers to keep it from her. Unfortunately, there is no indication here that such an ending might be available to anyone else in the mortal world, apart from the one man she finds who takes the trouble to get to know her.

Melusine, like her three friends, is always freeing things from entrapment. She frees herself from her father’s protective influence when she sails away from him in her enchanted seashell. She uses the moon-maidens’ magic to disappear from the arms of annoying and dangerous ‘lovers’. She uses a spell to help a stag escape from the hounds at a royal hunt – though since she turns it successively into an otter and a seagull the animal is unimpressed by this act of kindness (like her three animal companions it sets great store by its personal integrity). She frees several mortals briefly from their self-obsession: the woodcutter’s daughter, who begins by exploiting her and ends by liking her; Prince Pharamond, who plans at first to rape her but in the end helps to reunite her with her mortal lover. This lover, King Garth, is a prisoner when she meets him, and she frees him from mental torment when she visits him in his cell. Later she frees herself from a room with no windows in an act of tricksterism worthy of Robin Goodfellow. And later still she ‘frees and enfranchises’ Garth’s baby from her womb, like Shakespeare’s Hermione before her. In the final chapter she liberates herself, King Garth and the baby from the imprisoning palace with the help of her animal companions. Each prison she enters is more formidable than the last, and each Houdini-like escape she effects is more impressive, since it defies ever steeper odds.

Joseph Holland as Theseus and Phoebe Russell as Hippolyta (1888)

The court, meanwhile, specializes in constructing traps; and the most ingenious of these traps is marriage. The Emperor and Empress are locked in a conjugal dungeon, and they seek to imprison their children, their subjects and their guests in similar bonds. Garth, for instance, is a foreign king who gets clapped in jail by imperial command when he refuses to marry the Emperor’s daughter. Melusine gets jailed herself when she is found in his cell, because her presence there might jeopardize the intended union. While in prison, Melusine finds herself courted by the Emperor’s son, Prince Pharamond, who has clearly inherited his parents’ propensity for coupling marriage with entrapment, since he is happy enough to press his suit when she cannot escape it. She gets imprisoned again on the wedding day of the Princess and King Garth. Among these mortals, in other words, a legal commitment to lifelong companionship effectively shackles husband and wife to one another in perpetuity, and shackles everyone around them in a perpetual state of non-interference with their unhappy union. One might be reminded of Theseus and Hippolita in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, locked into a forced marriage, as Theseus reminds his Amazonian spouse in the opening scene (‘Hippolita, I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injury’), and seeking to impose another forced marriage on their subject Hermia, while having their marriage-bed blest in the final scene by the embodiments of marital disharmony, King Oberon and Queen Titania. At least in Shakespeare’s play a happy ending could be imposed on everyone involved with a judicious use of fairy magic. The happy ending of These Mortals is much more limited, overshadowed as it is by Aldebaran’s conviction of ‘the incommunicable solitude of our souls’.

In consequence of this conviction, Melusine’s father chooses aloofness as a better alternative to lifelong partnership. Unmarried, it would seem – we never find out the name of Melusine’s mother, though we must presume it was the Fairy of Lusignan or one of her relations – Aldebaran has withdrawn into the role of stargazer, as his name suggests, and teaches his daughter only inhuman things such as the higher mathematics, ‘so high that she could calculate how many peacock’s feathers, placed end to end, it would take to reach the moon’ (p. 1). At the court Melusine meets three more isolated spectators, who pride themselves as much on their detachment from court culture as their knowledge of it. There is the hunchbacked jester, whose body condemns him to non-participation in the sexual intrigues going on all round him, and who hates women as a result, though for a while he accepts the friendship of the enchanter’s daughter because of their common status as outsiders. There is Salacius, the defrocked priest, who is a cynic, misogynist and pimp, with a nasty hold on the feeble mind of Prince Pharamond. And there is Sir Diarmid, who from his name is clearly Irish (he describes his country as ‘a land of sorrows’ and speaks of the ‘Land of Heart’s Desire’ [p. 73], which is the title of a play by Yeats). Like Oscar Wilde, Sir Diarmid spends his time in satirizing the ruling classes of the powerful empire he has made his home. Of these three observers, Sir Diarmid is by far the most complex, in that he demonstrates the impossibility of the detachment he professes. Thanks to his presence at court he is a courtier, and as much responsible for the court’s narcissistic viciousness as any of the aristocrats he satirizes. Like the other two detached observers, the hunchback and Salacius, the chief target of his satire is women; he specializes in destroying them, or more precisely in helping them destroy themselves. And his own effeminacy, reflected in his fascination with beauty, taste and his own appearance, makes his commitment to damaging women the most perverse of the many acts of self-harm that pervade the novel.

The Irishman’s emblem is the mirror he keeps in his room, which Irwin describes in meticulous detail as Melusine studies it, unobserved, in her guise as a moon-maiden:

In another room, to the side of a single window, she saw seven candles, all tall but of different heights, burning before a beautiful mirror. They were as bright within the mirror as without it, so that there seemed a small army of pointed flames tapering upwards, each trying to out-top the others. The frame of the mirror was carved with festoons of painted fruit and flowers and it was supported at the base by Cupids, whose heads were turned to gaze upwards in rapture at the reflection in the mirror. This reflection was so still that Melusine had at first taken it for that of a life-size picture. But a slight upward movement of the head, improving the position, and a rearrangement of the fingers that rested lightly on the long and slender hip, showed her that it reflected no picture but that singularly elegant young man who had introduced himself to her that evening as Sir Diarmid. (pp. 30-1)

Dorian conceals his picture in Albert Lewin’s film version, 1945

The mirror evidently reflects Wilde’s famous picture of Dorian Gray, the enchanted portrait in his novel of 1890, which is also his fiercest yet most admiring attack on the English aristocracy. The seven competitive candles reflected in Sir Diarmid’s glass suggest that its purpose is to lampoon the competitive self-obsession of the ruling classes. At the same time the mirror reflects Sir Diarmid himself, exposing his commitment to and passion for himself. Sir Diarmid’s skill throughout the novel is to make women fall in love with him thanks to his reputation as the ‘glass’ of fashion, the initiator and terminator of all trends. Unlike that would-be trendsetter Saint Aumerle, his power is such that he can draw women into his room, like flies to a web, and make them look into his mirror of cupidity. What they see there, however, is not their own faces but Sir Diarmid’s, as Melusine learns when she watches a woman called Lady Valeria enter his chamber for an assignation:

[Melusine] watched, as she would watch the working of a spell, and saw how the down-dropped lashes of that lady’s eyes rested on her cheeks in two half-moons, saw how they trembled and raised themselves, slowly, inevitably, to the reflection, not of her own face, but of the young man who stood beside her and still held the veil behind her head. (pp. 31-2)

Sir Diarmid’s role as observer and satirical commentator, in other words, does not bring self-knowledge to its female subjects but hopeless desire; an enslavement to the male gaze, and the limited functions imposed on them by a playfully cruel patriarchy. When we meet Lady Valeria again later in the novel she has retreated from the court and become a nun, imprisoned in a religious life to which she is not committed – another form of unhappy marriage. The mark of her imprisonment is her conviction that the night she looked into Sir Diarmid’s mirror was the ‘supreme moment of her life’ (p. 91), which she could neither extend for more than a moment nor properly share with him. As a nun, she goes on unholily praying that it was also the ‘supreme moment’ of Sir Diarmid’s existence, something Melusine knows full well from her observations is not the case. Sir Diarmid, then, is not committed to inculcating any sort of awareness either in others or in himself; only to admiring his own powers as a seducer and taking sadistic pleasure in the pain of his victims. He is, in other words, a second Lucian, a representation of the breathtaking hypocrisy of claiming to be aloof, a satire against satire itself as a fundamentally conservative, patriarchal and redundant exercise.

Melusine, by contrast, is committed to sharing herself and her experiences with others – that metaphysical impossibility, as far as her father is concerned. She shares her sympathy with the hunted stag; she shares a sense of being marginalized and exiled with the hunchback and Sir Diarmid; she would have shared her jewel-encrusted shoes with Princess Blanchelys if she had not felt sure this would prove insulting to that godlike being – and she gives away the shoes not long afterwards to a more needy individual, when she exchanges clothes with a woodcutter’s daughter in order to get close to the Princess’s wedding. She gives her friendship to the Princess, and when that friendship is betrayed she gives the young woman her looks as a means of spending one last night with King Garth. In all these acts of sharing and giving, however, she never loses her sense of who she is. Once she is in love she remains in love and doesn’t waver despite her lover’s infidelity (though King Garth may be excused for this on the grounds of having been enchanted by one of Melusine’s own spells). Once she has given her friendship, too, she doesn’t withdraw it until her friend has definitively proved herself an enemy. Sharing and giving freely, loving loyally and forging lasting friendships, liberating others and herself repeatedly from all forms of entrapment – these are the qualities that make up the enchanter’s daughter. And these qualities bind her to her lover more securely than the imprisoning bonds of marriage.

Othello woos Desdemona, by Theodore Chasseriau

King Garth shares with Melusine both a love of freedom and a love of sharing. Like her he is a traveller from overseas – an outsider – and when they meet in the palace prison he woos her as Othello wooed Desdemona, by sharing tales with her of his past adventures on the boundless ocean. He delights in knowledge, as she does, and his adventures have taught him facts unknown to scholars confined in their libraries, which Melusine receives as ‘marvels greater than any she had learned before’ (p. 68). The King has proved by deduction, for instance, that the world is round, and has used this knowledge to sail with his companions ‘on and on towards the setting sun, until at last they came to a land of green vines and scarlet birds and men whose faces were the colour of burnished copper’ – the New World to which Jan and Donald planned to sail at the end of Still She Wished. He has discovered that the Arctic was once warm enough for elephants to live on, having ‘found a huge curled tusk embedded in the ice’, in a land where ‘rocks of ice as high as mountains had come floating over the sea, gleaming like sapphire and emerald’. In the same region he also learned that there is ‘no land uninhabitable nor sea unnavigable’. As he tells these stories, Melusine learns, among other things, that he shares her passion for sharing: ‘in the ring of his voice she heard his joy in remembered danger and hardship, shared equally with his crew, each bearing another’s burden with no respect to persons’ (p. 69). And as she listens, this love of shared danger gets shared with her: ‘She entered his world and knew his friends and found in their jovial comradeship and courage, their common endeavor, and curiosity to which the sea could set no limit, a charm deeper than any of her father’s’. At this point the enchanter’s scepticism about the possibility of true companionship based on mutual understanding stands on the brink of getting swept aside.

A traveller’s tales, of course, are traditionally unreliable, often told for the purpose of getting a free meal or winning a patron. This is why Desdemona’s father suspected the Moor of being a seducer, whose fantastic stories of ‘men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders’ (Act 1 Scene 3) are a form of witchcraft, a seductive spell sold to his daughter by a devious foreign salesman. But unlike Desdemona, Melusine shares with her foreign lover pleasures of an equally untrustworthy variety. She tells him stories of her visits to the moon-maidens in the nights of her girlhood; visits which may or may not have been dreams or fancies, but which have the material effect of lulling him to sleep (p. 54). She sings him songs that make the ‘roses on the upper earth’ bend their heads to listen, and fall ‘petal by petal through the dungeon grating in their desire to reach this fairy palace’ (p. 69). She performs for him seductive dances that cause the ‘dark confines’ of his prison to become ‘the boundless sea, and she the moonlight playing on its surface’ (an echo of The Winter’s Tale, in which Florizel tells Perdita that her movements are oceanic: ‘When you do dance, I wish you / A wave of the sea, that you might ever do / Nothing but that; move still, still so, / And own no other function’, Act 4 Scene 4). Their exchange is one of affection and desire of freedom freely given, of insubstantial things and visions which are nevertheless capable of affecting the bodies and minds of both recipients. It is an in-between thing, like the desires shared by the protagonists of Still She Wished: they meet under cover of darkness, after the business of the day has ended, in a cell whose occupants are always being forgotten by the officials whose task it is to feed and guard them. They open to each other the doors of their dreams – those inconsequential things – and escape from the official constraints of space and time completely, which is how Melusine forgets to keep track of the moon’s movement across the sky, doesn’t notice it setting, is unable to steal away on its beams, and gets caught by the guards at dawn. Their total participation in one another’s ‘world’ is confirmed by her forgetfulness and entrapment; but it is later also confirmed by the living child they conceive together, whose illegitimate birth both seals it as an unofficial, in-between individual and offers substantial proof of the real effects in the world of their conjoined imaginations, their insubstantial yet productive nocturnal exchanges.

King Garth shares his ability to share with Melusine’s animal companions. Like them, he is comfortable in his body: huge in size, he sports a leather cloak that resembles a hide, moves with speed and grace, and is despised as an inferior being by the haughty courtiers. ‘They thought that he did not notice their smiles,’ Irwin tells us, ‘but he did, though the only sign that he ever gave of it was to shift a little on his feet, swiftly and silently, a movement that somehow served to check his anger by reminding him how easy it would be, in one tremendous rush, to wreak it on these little clever foolish people’ (p. 132). At the same time, this restraint from vengeful action confirms the King’s liberation from the bonds of conventional masculinity. His role in Irwin’s narrative is not that of the heroic warrior he describes in his stories; instead he appears ‘as a prisoner, generally under enchantment, and frequently asleep; all of which [force] him to take a somewhat passive part in this story’ (p. 131). He is courted by Melusine in his cell – he does not do the courting, though he actively responds to her advances. Melusine repeatedly tries to save him, first from his prison cell, then from his marriage, so that when Garth finally turns to heroic action in the book’s final pages, his rescue of Melusine comes across as a reciprocal act, and one which can only be completed with her assistance; the final rescue is hers, when she grows the raven to giant size with her magic and they take to the skies. Their relationship, in other words, is companionable, the ‘jovial comradeship’ and ‘common endeavour’ Garth also shared with his male co-adventurers on his global travels.

Garth’s soporific state through much of the novel helps to strengthen his easy bond with the enchanter’s daughter. From the beginning of the book Melusine is associated with night and sleep, having midnight hair, a silver dress (the colour of moonbeams) and a belt or girdle of purple poppies. The poppy is the flower of sleep, of course, but it is also the flower of commemorative mourning, having been dedicated since 1921 – four years before the novel was published – to the sacrifice of the young men who died in the War (they are only sleeping, the poppies suggest, waiting to be woken when the need arises, like King Arthur). The control over sleep which these flowers symbolize enables Melusine to bring pleasant dreams to other people, especially men. She first shows this with the hunchback, then the Emperor, and finally King Garth, whose incarceration leaves him sleep-deprived, rendered insomniac by the ‘wishes and plans and regrets and fears and hot red rages’ which are all he has left after everything else has been taken from him. Neither the hunchback nor the Emperor is particularly grateful for the erotic fantasies Melusine brings them in their sleep, since they only serve to emphasize the absence of sex from their waking lives. King Garth, by contrast, welcomes the sleep she gives him and the waking pleasures it leads to. With the poppies from her belt she courts him, first freeing him from his insomnia, then approaching a little closer to his sleeping body each night, until she reaches the place where he lies, at which point he eventually wakes (with a little help from her animal companions) and they make love. Melusine marks the limits of each night’s progress with a single poppy, which King Garth preserves in a pouch as a memento of their courtship. The poppy, then, is the symbol of their wooing, as well as the symbol of heroic action – as embodied by Garth – and dreams, as embodied by her.

Like everything else of Melusine’s, however – her spells, her looks, her lover – the poppies get appropriated by the court. After putting Garth under the influence of Melusine’s magic, Princess Blanchelys finds the poppies in his pouch and uses them to put him to sleep for her own purposes: not to bring herself closer to Garth, which is the purpose Melusine used them for, but to get access to her lover Sir Diarmid, as she seeks to initiate an affair on the night of her wedding to the stranger king. As mentioned earlier, Melusine agrees to give Blanchelys her appearance in exchange for three nights with the Princess’s new husband; the Princess agrees, only to plunge the King into a deep sleep, through the poppies’ influence, which leaves him lying each night in stony unresponsiveness at Melusine’s side. While he sleeps, the Princess steals away to meet the Irish knight, whose admiration for Melusine’s looks is what persuaded Blanchelys that she could win him by taking possession of the foreign woman’s hair and eyes and complexion. Instead she finds herself in Sir Diarmid’s bedroom staring into a mirror, like Lady Valeria before her, having encountered at last in him – as he in her – a ‘conceit equal to my own’, as the Irishman puts it (p. 136).

In appropriating dreams and sleep for her own purposes, Blanchelys is treading in the footsteps of her imperial mother. The Empress’s first act on meeting Melusine was to take possession of her dreams, telling the enchanter’s daughter that she must have seen the Prince in her sleep the night before, not with her physical vision, and taking this non-existent nocturnal sign as evidence that the young couple must be destined for each other. For the Empress and her daughter, then, dreams are as functional as magic: tools to fulfil their own desires, and hence to annul them, since few desires can survive being ‘completely satisfied’ (Sir Diarmid’s phrase, p. 135). This mechanistic attitude transforms the victims of their schemes, too, into mechanisms. When the Princess casts a spell over King Garth – the love-spell Melusine gave her – he loses all his animal grace, becoming puppet-like where he was feline, weak where he was strong, unseeing where before his eyes were uncomfortably penetrating. When Melusine first meets the king after his enchantment, his eyes are ‘fastened’ on Blanchelys’s face ‘as by invisible cords’, rendered ‘blind’ by his fixation as he gives a ‘grave mechanical bow’ in response to her words (pp. 101-2). In response to these changes in him, Melusine changes too. She becomes lifeless and mechanical in appearance, drifting down the social scale (she exchanges clothes with a servant to get close to him) while simultaneously sinking into depression, until even the Emperor notices her physical decline: ‘as the figure advanced into the pool of yellow light beneath the lamp, he saw that her hair was not long and black like Melusine’s, nor of that peculiar gossamer fineness; it hung lank and dead and its colour was so nondescript that it looked more grey than anything else’ (pp. 125-6). Her lover shares this decline, as he shares in everything else of hers, lying prone in his marriage bed like a feature of the palace itself (‘He lay as still as a figure on a tomb and his face looked as though it were carved out of grey stone’, p. 126). This loss of the former suppleness and grace of the couple’s bodies brings the novel to its gloomiest moment, when they participate in the bondage suffered by the imperial husband and wife without the benefit of marriage, transformed into features of the building that has trapped them. Their bereavement of life also bereaves them of the shared life they engendered; the Empress orders Melusine’s baby removed from her cell and put up for adoption, clearing the way for her marriage to the would-be rapist, Prince Pharamond. There could hardly be a more devastating representation of the sterility of ruling-class conventions and priorities.

The final blow to Melusine’s identity comes when the court appropriates the darkness that has always been her medium. Her child having been abducted, she finds herself in an obscurity she finds ‘thick and horrible’, and seeks refuge in it as she always has before: ‘Yet because she had been accustomed to meet her lover in the darkness, she waited for an instant in a fantastic hope that his unseen hands would fall on her, that she would be lifted and clutched close against him and find herself at rest’ (p. 139). Instead she finds that the gloom of her cell is ‘empty’, deprived of the life that once filled it – her lover and her son – and taking on instead the texture of ‘palpable iron’, the medium of prisons and machines. The world she once commanded, the world of dreams and sleep and lovemaking, has been reduced to one of the court’s unyielding instruments or tools, confirming her father’s worst predictions about the consequences of entering the world and leaving Melusine, as she thinks, ‘alone in the darkness for ever’ (p. 140).

Meanwhile the Princess has been rejected by her lover Sir Diarmid and returned to her husband, the enchanted King Garth. Her arrival in his bedchamber, however, is mistimed; she gets there before he can be fed the potion containing Melusine’s stolen poppies, and as a result he is able to assess her for the first time in a wakeful state. At this point, of course, Blanchelys has taken on Melusine’s appearance, with black hair, white skin, green eyes, while remaining Blanchelys in terms of her personality, which means that everything she says is loaded with contradictory meanings. The first words she speaks to Garth are ‘I can now give you all that you desire’ (p. 140), and for the reader they ring hollow, since they are the exact words she spoke to her lover Sir Diarmid a few pages before (p. 135). The phrase is also ‘very awkward’, as she puts it, because she utters it to her husband – just as she uttered it to the Irishman – while wearing Melusine’s appearance, which implies that what both men most desire is in fact the enchanter’s daughter. In addition, the phrase implies that Blanchelys has not yet given her new husband ‘all that he desires’, despite the fact that it is three days since their wedding. And the courtly oxymorons pile up with every subsequent phrase she speaks. When she tells Garth ‘I am yours’ she still has two conflicting aspects – Melusine’s appearance and Blanchelys’s personality – which makes the phrase impossible to construe (which ‘I’ is she referring to?). When she tells him ‘I am your wife’, the question arises as to which woman she represents is Garth’s lifelong partner, his legitimate spouse. Recognizing the difficulty, the princess goes on to insist that she has only one identity, not two: ‘I am the Princess Blanchelys’; yet her need to stress her name suggests that the stable selfhood she claims is in fact uncertain. ‘In any case,’ she concludes, ‘I am your love’ (p. 141); and this phrase ‘wakes’ something in his mind: presumably a memory of his love which is not connected with Blanchelys but summoned up by the looks she wears. Her final claim – ‘I have not been false to you’ – may be true in the sense she means it – that is, technically she has not been false to her husband since she never slept with Sir Diarmid; but it’s undermined by all her other false statements. In response, then, King Garth can only pronounce her ‘the false bride’, since all the statements she has uttered to him have been duplicitous. And the last few pages of the book describe his return to action, as a fighting man (like the soldiers who died in the War) whose energies are directed at last not to the false values and selfish desires of the ruling classes but to the liberation of the oppressed, in the shape of his lover.

Viking Berserker Figures, 6th Century

King Garth’s ‘berserker’ rampage through the palace (p. 142), which sees him transformed at last into the Viking he resembles, with his giant stature, his outsized sword and his leather cloak, is presented by Irwin as a quest for memory – a memory that has been suppressed rather than preserved by the purloined commemorative poppies he was fed. Garth leaves the Princess in a bid to find the woman she resembles, ‘whose name he could not remember’ (p. 141), and meets as he searches other figures he cannot name: ‘he did not remember why he knew that face’, we learn as he sweeps past the Emperor, and ‘he did not remember why he hated that face’ (the Archbishop who married him), just as he has no recollection of Prince Pharamond, who fearfully directs him towards Melusine’s cell. When Garth finally finds the enchanter’s daughter she assumes he will not remember her because of her ruined appearance: ‘these are not the eyes you know’, she tells him (p. 142). But she is wrong; ‘this is the true bride’, he informs her, and the phrase finally restores a simple meaning to the words it contains, despite the fact that he and Melusine are not married. Past and present are unified in Garth’s recognition of his lover, and dead memory brought alive in the renewal of their affection.

After their reunion, the lovers no longer have any need of memory or commemoration. They escape from the palace on the raven, grown to giant size, and face the future, liberated from imprisonment by the past in the shape of constricting hierarchies, restrictive conventions, or immobilizing nostalgia. Their shared responsibility for the escape – Garth rescues Melusine from her prison, Melusine rescues Garth and the baby with the growing spell that makes the raven large enough to carry them all, along with the cat and the serpent – confirms that their joint ability to share in one another’s qualities and adventures has been restored. The positions they take up on the raven’s back confirm the equality between them: the courtly onlookers see ‘between its wings the King seated beside a woman who held something in her arms’ (p. 143). And the thing she holds, the child, confirms their concentration on the future rather than the past; a future that puts the prison of patriarchy, one might argue, firmly behind them. After all, the conception of the baby represents a ‘stranger magic than her father’s’ (p. 145), and a stronger magic too, since the enchanter was unable to find the secret of overcoming the condition of isolation he saw as the inevitable fate of the human race.

Memory recedes in the final section of Irwin’s novel. When Melusine mentions the enchantment that bound Garth to the princess the king replies, in puzzlement, ‘What enchantment?’ ‘What Princess’? (p. 144). Still She Wished dedicated itself to recovering the memory of an unknown woman of the eighteenth century – Juliana, whose name coincides with the heroine of Congreve’s novel Incognita, which means ‘the unknown woman’ – bringing her to life through an act of authorial conjuration, so that her memory enriches the life of the woman of the twentieth century who is her double, and who may be seen as fulfilling her predecessor’s lost potential. In These Mortals, by contrast, the past is a trap, just as patriarchal marriage is a trap. Lady Valeria expresses this best, after she has trapped herself in the habit of a nun. Having withdrawn from public life, she laments the lost ‘supreme moment’ in front of Sir Diarmid’s mirror when she thought herself at one with her Irish lover:

‘If I had only known […] how to keep our love there, at that supreme moment. But one does not know that the moment is there; and it passes, and it is only afterwards, at prayers, or while listening to the sweet singing of the nuns, that one knows. And by then it is too late; one cannot recall it except in memory, for the moment was lost, long, long ago’ (p. 91).

The statement provides an elegiac summary of many women’s experiences in the years after the Great War, when so many relationships had been cut short by slaughter, and when the possibility of new relationships (as Jan and her sisters comment in the opening pages of Still She Wished) seems to have been removed by a shortage of young men – and by the inadequacy of so many of the men who survived. For Lady Valeria, memory is the one way to keep hold of the lost moment of past love; a perception rendered bitter by the fact that her memory is a false one, recapturing a moment of apparent unity which the reader knows to be an illusion.

Melusine, by contrast, is for much of the book bereft of memory. At one point she expresses regret that her magic powers are limited because she has no access to her books, and cannot recollect the spells they hold: ‘“Alas,” said she, “none of my books are with me, and my dear father never allowed me to practise from memory. Ever since I happened to raise the many-headed hound of Hell, Cerberus, instead of Venus’ doves, he thought it better to avoid any possibility of mistake”’ (p. 109). Yet despite her limited powers of recall, Melusine accomplishes a wide range of effective enchantments in the narrative, from riding on moonbeams to transforming a stag into an otter and a seagull, presenting a friend with a love spell, and conferring her own appearance on another woman. On the one occasion when she does lapse into a state of nostalgic reminiscence, it is in prison, and her memories are torture to her, just as they were to her lover King Garth in his underground cell:

Now for the first time she knew herself to be alone, and now for the first time she despaired, beating her hands against the darkness until it became palpable iron, bruising and battering them against it, crying on the baby they had taken from her, crying on the Princess who had broken her promise, crying on her father who could not help her, crying on her lover who could not see her, crying that she was alone in the darkness for ever. (p. 140)

Alongside the prison of marriage as the court constructs it, in other words, exists a prison of memory, and to escape it, Irwin implies, involves putting memories aside and devoting oneself to action, honesty, equal companionship, and an unembarrassed delight in sharing the pleasures of body and mind.

If These Mortals adopts a different attitude to memory to Still She Wished, its attitude to the imagination and the fairy tales it engenders is remarkably similar. Sir Diarmid’s mirror reflects the nature of the court, which is to reenact fairy tale narratives while transforming them into mechanisms of torture and cultural traps. If Melusine embodies the liberating and efficacious joys of the imagination – its capacity to persuade us we can sweep through the sky on moonbeams, or escape from our cages on the backs of giant birds – her mirror image, Princess Blanchelys, embodies its capacity to restrict us, bind us, hem us in. This double vision of its own medium, the fairy tale genre, makes These Mortals a forerunner of the ironic fairy tales of Angela Carter, who found so much inspiration for her work in the great fantasy novels of the 1920s: Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget, which Carter described as a surrealist novel avant la lettre; Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which finds echoes everywhere in Carter’s work. I don’t know if Carter knew Irwin’s experimental anti-fairy-tale, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she did. And I’d like to urge Carter’s readers, too, to discover it.

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’