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.