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’

 

The Strange Houses of William Morris

William Morris by George Frederic Watts

Fantasy is the literature of the impossible; fiction that deals in strange events, uniquely gifted people and bizarre or wonderful beasts that never existed and never could exist. Its impossibility marks it out as fiction, decisively turning its back on the real to take the path of visions, dreams and nightmares. Yet fantasy also aspires to bring the impossible into the sphere of material reality, through every artistic device at its disposal. No writer more vividly illustrates this aspiration than William Morris. Interior designer, poet, printer, craftsman, author of neo-medieval romances, political activist, purveyor of stained glass windows, he embodied the desire to bring an idealized past that never existed into material existence as the first step towards a better future. This desire to realize or make real the fantastic was his legacy to the fantasy tradition; and another of his legacies was his passion for strange houses, which in his hands became powerful political spaces where past, present and future intersect to work magical changes on the householders. Morris’s influence on actual houses, from the level of town planning to that of wallpaper, is widely accepted.[1] But his late romances give us a sense of what he wanted his houses to do – of the way he hoped they might change the world, like stained glass windows that effect real changes of colour in the landscapes we see through them. I’d like here to consider what his houses have to tell us about his dreams, as a prelude to thinking more about the place of houses in the fantasy tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Houses were much on people’s minds in the nineteenth century. The question of how to accommodate the industrial working classes, of how to make towns and cities capable of housing a healthy population, preoccupied politicians of all stamps, since the consequences of failing to do so were likely to be as devastating for the ruling classes as for unskilled labourers. Successive acts of parliament sought to impose better standards of construction and infrastructure on builders. Towns began to be planned instead of growing haphazardly. As a result, Victorian houses and streets were always changing. The suburbs expanded exponentially, as row upon row of identical terraced houses sprang up on the peripheries of London and Manchester and tenement blocks imposed an orderly grid system on the hills near Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. Coal dust turned the new facades soot-black within a year of their construction. People moved into these houses in their thousands, abandoning rural communities in quest of work. The dispersal of those rural communities, with the corresponding sense that the past was being lost for ever as the people who remembered songs and stories were scattered abroad, led to the urge to commemorate the past through an accumulation of curiosities and knickknacks.  The houses people lived in became indexes both of social transformation and of resistance to change; dynamic cultural hubs, whose occupants expressed their sense of loss, their present needs and their hopes for a better future by means of the things they gathered round them.

John Tenniel, Alice in the White Rabbit’s House

The various forms of pre-fantastic fiction acknowledge the house as the focal point for radical change. The most popular collection of fairy tales was the aptly-named Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm, in which a fisherman’s hovel gets turned into a palace and a cottage made from bread and cakes gets consumed by children who are soon in danger of being consumed themselves. Children’s stories such as Alice in Wonderland, The Water Babies, Mopsa the Fairy and The Cuckoo Clock take the house as the starting or end point for bizarre adventures among unheard-of creatures, quite different from the birds and beasts of oral tradition.Neo-Gothic narratives in the first half of the century are full of the ruins of buildings left over from the past, while by the century’s end they feature mysterious urban residences haunted by ancient vampires, long-dead ghosts, and immortal demonic women seeking a place for themselves among the streets of the modern metropolis.And at the end of the century, too, William Morris developed what could be called the romance of housing: a series of neo-medieval romances which take as their subject the quest for a place to settle down, tracing the epic journeys of their protagonists through a succession of buildings and towns as they search for the perfect combination of location, occupation and community that will permit them to live well.

For Morris the domestic house was a political space, and its function as an interface between the person and the world made any contribution to its improvement a political act. This is why his great utopia, News from Nowhere (1890), begins with the Victorian time-traveller, William Guest, observing how houses have changed in the future society to which he finds his way, taking this as the principal proof of humanity’s progress over the last two hundred years. It also explains why News from Nowhere contains a number of embarrassing pronouncements on the subject of women and housekeeping (‘don’t you know that it is a great pleasure to a woman to manage a house skillfully,’ an elderly utopian mansplains to the troubled Guest).[2] As an advocate of women’s suffrage Morris might have been expected to support the campaign to liberate women from bondage to housework, but if the house is the most significant unit in Morris’s utopia – the hub of skilled labour once industrial factories have been abolished – then the economics of the household is ‘deserving of respect’ (p. 94), as the utopian points out, on a level at least as elevated as any other occupation in the community. And the romances that followed News from Nowhere make a good case for the centrality of housekeeping to the sociopolitical wellbeing of any well-organized commonwealth.

Morris was as concerned with interior design and furnishings of houses as he was with the buildings themselves. His late essay on ‘Gothic Architecture’ (1893)[3] extends the definition of architecture to encompass everything that contributes to a householder’s practical and aesthetic needs:

A true architectural work […] is a building duly provided with all necessary furniture, decorated with all due ornament, according to the use, quality, and dignity of the building, from mere mouldings or abstract lines, to the great epical works of sculpture and painting, which, except as decorations of the nobler form of such buildings, cannot be produced at all. So looked on, a work of architecture is a harmonious co-operative work of art, inclusive of all the serious arts. (p. 331)

For Morris, the ‘due ornament’ of buildings is as ‘necessary’ as household furniture, and both form part of the collective work of art which is a house, which itself fulfils a function within the larger community as a form of expression as well as an essential residential unit. The details of the house and its contents articulate the kind of work that has gone into them, in the best examples expressing ‘the happy exercise of the energies of the most useful part of [a society’s] population’ (p. 331), and so passing judgment on that society as a whole. In addition, the house makes nonsense both of the notion of hierarchy in art and of the myth of the artist as a solitary genius. Each work of art in the domestic space, from walls and windows to cabinets and carpets, must necessarily complement all the other works of art that fulfill equally necessary functions around it – just as the structure of the building must accommodate the unique features of the landscape in which it is set. This series of relationships between each element of the all-inclusive Morrisian ‘architecture’ should ideally be what Morris calls ‘organic’ (pp. 332 and 337) – that is, flexibly responsive to the particular demands of their geographical and social context. He sees the Gothic arch as the supreme example of organicism, combining as it does beauty with functionality in such a way as to make it as decorative as it is robust. Classical architecture is, for Morris, no more than a slight advance on the child’s crude edifices of brick piled on brick; it pays no attention to location and obeys strict codes of practice laid down by pedants with scant regard for circumstance. Gothic architecture, by contrast, responds to the land in its mimicry of the shapes of trees and rock formations, and embraces the meticulous efforts of individual craftspeople, whose seamless fusion of decoration and purpose speak of the ‘freedom of hand and mind subordinated to the co-operative harmony which made the freedom possible’ (p. 339). This expression of freedom means that for Morris Gothic architecture is always in dialogue with both a flawed but intelligent past and a better future. It’s as modern as it is medieval, and anticipates the moment when the need for mass produced materials will be superseded by a recognition of the greater need for dignified labour and respect for the environment.

A similar passion for what Morris calls the harmonious architectural unit, whereby every detail complements the structure of the whole, underlies his founding of the Kelmscott Press, itself named after Morris’s famous house in the Cotswolds, Kelmscott Manor. The press dedicated itself to producing the kind of lovely books that would grace the modern Gothic house as Morris conceived it. Morris’s ‘Note on his Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press’[4] testifies to his care in choosing the best handmade paper, designing the most legible fonts, and considering the perfect layout of print and pictures on the page, each of which involved a careful study of the best practice as Morris saw it, along with a historical study of the material conditions which made that practice possible. The contents of each book were chosen with equal care, and while the most famous products of the press reprinted medieval texts from what Morris considered the golden age of Gothic art – the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – it was inevitable that a number of books should also house his romantic visions of an alternativeGothic past; a fourteenth century that never was, which points towards a desirable future in which society as a whole would become, in effect, a ‘harmonious architectural unit’. The most detailed of these romances of housing is The Water of the Wondrous Isles(1897), which can be read, like all his fiction from The House of the Wolfings(1889) onwards, as an extended meditation on the politics of domestic architecture.[5]

The story is simple enough. It tells of a young girl named Birdalone who is stolen from her mother by a witch and raised in a house on the edge of a wood as the witch’s slave. She escapes in a magic boat and sets out across the Water of the title, a vast freshwater lake dotted with mysterious ‘wonder isles’ full of enchanted buildings, where men and women exist in a condition of permanent stasis, frozen in time like forgotten works of art. At the other side she finds herself in a more conventional country, a land of castles, fields and towns where magic is not widely practised, but where crafts of all kinds are held in high esteem. After many twists and turns she finds a place to settle down – suitably enough, in the very town from which she was stolen as an infant. Here she becomes part of what is in effect a neo-medieval utopian community, an island of socio-political sanity in a sea of historical violence and oppression.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia

The simplicity of the plot, however, is deceptive. For one thing, this is a chivalric romance with a woman at the heart of it; if you like, the first work of high fantasy written for adults with a female lead. And the woman in question is highly unusual. Birdalone, whose name points both to her solitary state and to the desire for flocking together with others of her kind as birds do, is equally adept in the arts of the domestic worker, the agricultural labourer, the craftswoman and the hunter. She is beautiful, as the heroine of a romance must always be, but she is also strong, capable of swimming out to the little ‘eyots’ or rocky islands near the lakeshore where she lives, of running faster than most men, and of shooting with a bow as well as any trained archer. Her education in domesticity and agriculture at the hands of the witch is complemented by an alternative education in what Morris calls ‘wisdom’ – which includes magic and dressmaking – delivered secretly by a woman called Habundia, a faery ‘wood-wife’ who is effectively the tutelary spirit of the forest beside which the witch’s cottage stands. This intimacy with the wood’s guardian means that Birdalone is at home among the trees in a way that the witch can never be. Her house, in other words, extends well beyond the enclosing walls of her mistress’s dwelling, taking in all the different terrains and elements that make up the remote environment to which she has been abducted, and giving her an intimate practical knowledge of all the different processes that make life possible.

Edward Burne Jones, Frontispiece to The Wood Beyond the World

Morris describes the location where the child Birdalone grows up in meticulous detail, and in doing so helps us understand what makes his protagonist different from the men and women she meets on her travels. The proximity of the witch’s house to the woods and the lake, where Birdalone runs and swims when the witch does not need her, explains the unique combination of qualities she possesses. Raised to be a slave, Birdalone refuses to have her education curtailed by the limited expectations of what a slave must know in order to be useful. Raised a woman, she possesses the courage, practical skill and energetic adventurousness associated in a phallocentric culture with masculinity. Raised ‘wild’ thanks to her love of the woods and her ignorance of social conventions (she describes herself repeatedly as a ‘wild woman’ in the course of the book), she is also capable of civilizing wild things through her beauty, which is to a great extent a function of her intelligence and her social gifts of kindness and courtesy. Birdalone is in effect a miniature utopia in herself, capable of everything traditionally expected of a man or woman of any class, the ideal inhabitant of the ideal house; and the function of the romance is to find an ideal house for her to live in.

Most of Morris’s late romances have a there-and-back-again structure which anticipates the organizing principle of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair (1895) opens and closes in the forest city of Oakenrealm; The Well at the World’s End (1896) begins and ends in the ‘High House’ of Upmeads; The Sundering Flood (1897) in a more modest house at a place called Wethermel, next to a river that can’t be crossed. As we have seen, The Water of the Wondrous Isles is no exception. It begins in a dilapidated house at the edge of Utterhay, from which Birdalone is stolen; loiters for a time at the witch’s house; then passes on from house to house, from castle to town to city, before revisiting all these locations on its way back to the witch’s cottage, and then to Utterhay where it started. This process of return in fantasy fiction is often read as a conservative gesture, an expression of the middle-class desire for restoration of the status quo, but for Morris it serves a very different function. Birdalone’s return to the witch’s house sees her transformed by her adventures, an expert in many different models of cohabitation, and the added power this transformation lends her gives rise to a radical domestic transformation. The witch has died while she was away, and on her return the witch’s house – formerly known as the House of Captivity – is repurposed as the House of Love, since Birdalone brings home to it the man she has chosen for her mate. With his help she makes it a sanctuary of mutual desire and collaborative labour, dispelling the miasma of oppression which had clung to it throughout her early years.

Her eventual return to the town of Utterhay, where she started out, is equally transformative. She arrives there in the company of what Morris calls a ‘fellowship’ – resonant word for lovers of Tolkien. This is a group of equals, men and women, whom she has met on her travels and effectively rescued from a condition of stasis and segregation: the women from captivity to the witch’s sister on one of the ‘wonder isles’ in the mysterious lake; the men from a state of constant warfare with aggressive neighbours in the women’s absence. So large a fellowship cannot live in a place as small as the House of Love – they need a town to live in, with all the crafts, trades, friendships, entertainments and protective alliances it can provide. But they bring to the town what they learned in the witch’s cottage, above all the kind of wisdom Birdalone taught them there: an aptitude for combining things, activities and people which are traditionally considered to inhabit separate spheres.

Edward Burne Jones, Love Among the Ruins

The man she brought to the House of Love was a knight, whose usual home is a castle rather than a cottage, and whose usual mode is one of command. Birdalone found him in a state of despair, living insane and alone in the woods after having lost her, as he thought, for ever. She domesticated and civilized him, making him the worthy inhabitant of a miniature collaborative civitas or society and healing him both psychologically and physically in the process. And she also brought the faery wood-wife to the House on one occasion. Uneasy in human dwellings, drawing all her power from the natural world and profoundly at odds with human hierarchies, Habundia found herself shrinking to diminutive size as she stepped through the door, but Birdalone’s affection for her restored her to adult proportions, and in the process suggested that the wood-wife’s connection with the wilderness had been domesticated too: naturalized, one might say, to this particular human habitation, and thus shown to be compatible with living in houses everywhere if properly respected and embraced. The wood-wife does not go on to live in Utterhay like the rest of Birdalone’s fellowship; but she remains an integral part of the company, maintaining links with them through regular meetings in the woods throughout the year, and affirming as a result the new organic connection between the town and its environment.

William Morris, Strawberry Thief

Between Birdalone’s departure from the witch’s House of Captivity and her return to what is now the House of Love, she visits a range of houses which articulate in different ways the conditions of their inhabitants. The witch’s boat brings her first to the house of the witch’s despotic sister on the Isle of Increase Unsought: a magnificent structure ‘nobly builded’ (p. 82), which incorporates a prison called the Wailing Tower where Birdalone is jailed for a while before being freed by three female slaves. Birdalone calls this structure the House of Death, and its unsound social foundations are later confirmed when it collapses as soon as its owner has been deprived of her magic powers. The Isle of the Young and the Old is inhabited only by children and one old man, and its once magnificent house is now ‘ruined and broken’ (p. 124), bereft of the solicitous care of strong and intelligent men and women. The Isle of Queens contains a ‘great house, white and fair, as if it were new-builded, and all glorious with pinnacles, and tabernacles set with imagery’ (p. 131); but this house holds only women, and the women are as motionless and breathless as statues, so that this building too could be called a House of Death. The same name would apply to the ‘castle, white, high, and hugely builded’ (p. 136) that stands on the Isle of the Kings, which is full of the motionless bodies of ‘all-armed men’ (p. 138). Each of these buildings speaks of a society that segregates genders and generations, unable to achieve the organic synchrony of elements which is the objective of Morris’s ideal architecture. The final wondrous isle she visits is the Isle of Nothing, which expresses the barrenness of such segregation; Birdalone is nearly stranded there in permanent solitude, with nowhere to go that suits her needs as a free woman.

With the help of the wood-wife’s magic, Birdalone escapes from the Isle of Nothing and finds her way to more promising regions on the mainland. Here too, however, the segregation of genders is practised, with devastating consequences for the communities that practise it. The Castle of the Quest, which is the first place she comes to after her voyage across the Water, is a functional building designed by the three knights who loved and lost the three female slaves befriended by Birdalone on the Isle of Increase Unsought. It is ‘brand-new, and […] fair enough builded, part of stone and lime, part of framed work’ (p. 147), but it is out of bounds to women, and its situation is precarious, since its occupants are in constant conflict with the rapacious men of a nearby fortress called the Red Hold. Birdalone’s arrival triggers the end of segregation, first by providing the Castle of the Quest with its first female guest, then by setting its owners on the path to the Isle of Increase Unsought where their lovers are slaves. And while they are away she also begins the process of ending the conflict between the men of the Castle and the men of the Red Hold.

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci

In each house she visits on her adventures she serves as a catalyst, breaking the tyranny of stasis and initiating a process of new growth.On being kidnapped, for example, by the henchman of the Red Hold’s ‘tyrant’, Birdalone has such an effect on her captor that he decides to take her to a secret house of his own where he hopes his violent master will never find them. The house is barely even a building – merely a ‘bower builded of turf and thatched with reed’ (p. 251), constructed, he tells her, ‘with mine own hands’ (p. 253) – but it embodies his better nature, since he has always retreated to it at times ‘when my heart was overmuch oppressed with black burdens of evil and turmoil, and have whiles prevailed against the evil, and whiles not’ (p. 254). On this occasion Birdalone’s company helps him prevail against evil; after staying with her there for two days, sustained by the sense of sharing the place he built with his own labour for the first time in his life, he agrees to take her home to the Castle of the Quest, and is only prevented from doing so by his death at the hands of his tyrannical master. Birdalone’s civilizing influence combines with the influence of his natural surroundings and the house he himself constructed in a potent fusion that finally fulfils that latent potential in Sir Thomas, turning him from banditry to a commitment to fellowship or mutual support, though at the cost of his life.

The combination of ingredients that enable Birdalone to heal Sir Thomas is exquisitely invoked in Morris’s account of their time together in the bower, hunting, eating, talking and engaging in crafts, in a kind of sensuous utopian ecosystem caught in time between periods of conflict:

So they gat them a roe and came back therewith to the bower, and the knight dight it and cooked it, and again they ate in fellowship and kindness; and Birdalone had been to the river and fetched thence store of blue-flowered mouse-ear, and of meadow-sweet, whereof was still some left from the early days of summer, and had made her garlands for her head and her loins; and the knight sat and worshipped her, yet he would not so much as touch her hand, sorely as he hungered for the beauty of her body. (pp. 260-1)

The organic interweaving of diverse ingredients represented here – company, food, deft manual or mental activity – is repeated time and again in other houses Birdalone visits: in the prison-chamber on the Isle of Increase Unsought, where Birdalone and her fellow inmates sit down to eat and talk while keeping a sharp ear open for the arrival of their captor, the witch’s sister; in the garden of the Castle of the Quest, where Birdalone first tells her story to the Knights who built it; in the forest cave which the faery wood-wife calls her ‘house’. In each case the concept of an ideal dwelling place is briefly invoked by the beauty of the location, which serves both as an oasis of calm and conversation and as a trigger for action, the sort of action that takes Birdalone and her friends or fellows closer to the ideal domicile they hope to construct by the end of their narrative. In many cases old houses are repurposed as part of the journey towards this utopian future. The Red Hold, for instance, becomes a possession of the Knights of the Quest after the defeat of its master, while the buildings on the ‘Wonder Isles’ of the enchanted Water have each been requisitioned by new inhabitants when Birdalone visits them for a second time on her journey back to Utterhay. The most radical repurposing is that of the witch’s house, the House of Captivity, which is rebranded as the House of Love. Each of these repurposed houses can be read as a blueprint for, or a stage in, the organic planning and construction over time of the ‘good and fair castle’ at Utterhay where Birdalone eventually makes her home.

The process of making a home for Birdalone is complemented in the romance by the process of providing that home with its most significant furnishings: the clothes its occupant will wear, the housing of the body. Birdalone begins her life as an abductee in the witch’s cottage wearing rags, her garments an index of the older woman’s neglect:

Lank and long is Birdalone the sweet, with legs that come forth bare and browned from under her scant grey coat and scantier smock beneath, which was all her raiment save when the time was bitter, and then, forsooth, it was a cloak of goat-skin that eked her attire: for the dame heeded little the clothing of her. (p. 18)

William Morris and Edward Burne Jones, The Flora Tapestry

As she grows to adulthood Birdalone becomes ashamed of her rags and sets about making good clothing for herself: first a pair of embroidered deerskin brogues, then a green gown decorated with roses, lilies and ‘a tall tree springing up from amidmost the hem of the skirt, and a hart on either side thereof, face to face of each other’ (p. 21), in token of her organic connection to the wilds. Meanwhile her body is subjected to radically different treatments by the witch and the faery wood-wife. The wood-wife is the first to describe Birdalone’s physical appearance to her in detail, confirming her beauty both as an essentially socialattribute and as a work of exquisite craftsmanship on the part of God – or of the artist William Morris: ‘Surely he who did thy carven chin had a mind to do a master-work and did no less. Great was the deftness of thy imaginer, and he would have all folk that see thee wonder at thy deep thinking and thy carefulness and thy kindness’ (p. 25). The social aspect of Birdalone’s beauty is reinforced by the fact that the wood-wife magically takes on the young woman’s appearance, providing her with company, in the form of a double, and a co-conspirator against the witch who is in effect another self – Cicero’s famous definition of the perfect friend. The witch, meanwhile, treats Birdalone’s bodily beauty as an investment, a means of gaining power over the men who will be attracted to it; and she asserts her ownership of this investment by briefly transforming the girl into a deer, as punishment for a display of independence. In response, the wood-wife gives Birdalone renewed ownership of her own appearance by providing her with a ring of invisibility – a means of disappearing from the gaze of hostile eyes – with whose help she learns the secret of the witch’s boat.  Not long afterwards Birdalone escapes in the boat, but not before the witch has stolen from her both the ring and her clothes. In token of her liberation from slavery and of her new birth, so to speak, through the symbolic medium of water, Birdalone sets out on her adventures naked as a baby, and must find clothes of her own as well as a home in the course of her quest.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of many portraits of Jane Morris

Birdalone’s next set of garments are symbolic of her first entry into a community. Naked she arrives at the Isle of Increase Unsought, where she is enslaved again by the witch’s sister; and the three slave women she meets here invest her with clothes of their own before helping her escape for a second time. The garments they provide are not just decorative coverings, however – they are also messages to their knightly lovers. Each has a story woven into it, so to speak, having been given to its owner by her fiancé, and Birdalone learns the narrative behind each item when she meets the bereft young men at the Castle of the Quest. At the Castle, too, she is provided with jewels and alternative garments to replace the borrowed items, and her first entrance wearing her newly-made aparrel marks the end of the second part of her adventure:

She was so clad, that she had on a green gown with broidered sleeves, and thereover a white cote-hardie welted with gold, and gold-embroidered; on her feet were gold shoon of window-work, pearled and gemmed; and on her head a rose garland; on her neck she bore the Golden Knight’s collar; her loins were girt with the Black Squire’s girdle; and on her wrist was the Green Knight’s ancient golden ring; and she carried in her arms Aurea’s gown and Viridis’ shift and Atra’s shoon. (p. 186)

The carefully listed garments here identify her as an integral part of the story of the three knights of the Castle of the Quest and their respective ladies. From a ragged slave and naked wanderer she has been transformed into the embodiment of fellowship, of collective enterprise and collaborative workmanship; and Morris’s craftsman’s eye for the technical details of her apparel (a cote-hardie welted with gold, gold shoes of window-work) invites the reader to recognize the way it speaks to her new condition, as a participant in and beneficiary of a community of ‘carefulness’ (to use the wood-wife’s word) – in other words of mutual support and affection.

Birdalone undergoes several more changes of costume as the romance goes on – most notably into two successive suits of armour, the first provided by herself (a light hauberk covered by a surcoat, a sallet or light helmet and long boots of deer-leather, p. 396), the second by the faery wood-wife (‘helm and hauberk, and leg and arm wards; and they were all of green, and shone but little, but were fashioned as no smith of man-folk could have done the like’, p. 517). The second of these warlike ensembles is identical to the outfit supplied by the wood-wife to Birdalone’s lover, Arthur, and her physical strength in bearing ‘such light gear’ in the final battle to rid the woods of brigands helps to underline her equality with men at that late stage in Morris’s narrative.

The most significant new garment she gets, however, is the richest and most conventionally feminine of all: a dress presented to her by the faery wood-wife Habundia, fashioned from the ‘web of the Faery’, whose shifting colours seem to summarize the difficulty, variety, strangeness and frequent beauty of her experiences over the book’s 500-odd pages:

And therewith she laid on Birdalone’s outstretched arms the raiment she had brought with her, and it was as if the sunbeam had thrust through the close leafage of the oak, and made its shadow nought a space about Birdalone, so gleamed and glowed in shifty brightness the broidery of the gown; and Birdalone let it fall to earth, and passed over her hands and arms the fine smock sewed in yellow and white silk, so that the web thereof seemed of mingled cream and curd; and she looked on the shoon that lay beside the gown, that were done so nicely and finely that the work was as the feather-robe of a beauteous bird, whereof one scarce can say whether it be bright or grey, thousand-hued or all simple of colour. (pp. 463-4)

It is this set of clothes, here summarized in one exuberant, breathless sentence, that ‘abashes’ the ‘captain of the porte’ of Utterhay when the fellowship approaches his gates in the penultimate chapter, convincing him that ‘he had to do with folk of the Faery’ (p. 545). The ‘gleaming-glittering’ web or fabric of the gown, then, could also be said to symbolize the dynamic web of comradeship based on collaborative action of which Birdalone has become the central emblem. And it brings us back to the question of impossibility in Morris’s late fantastic fiction.

William Morris, Blackthorn

It’s often said that magic is only peripheral to Morris’s romances, and that their author’s heart and soul is more invested in crafts, communities and personal courage than in manifestations of the supernatural. It would be better to say, I think, that magic is organically woven into these final books of his – made of the same whole cloth. Its operation seems so much a natural part of Morris’s narratives that one hardly notices when it is happening; or rather, he makes little distinction between events where magic is at work and events where the behaviour or work of ordinary human beings has an effect like magic. The difference between the embroidered gown Birdalone fashions for herself, for instance, and the ‘gleaming-glittering’ gown Habundia gives her, is one of degree rather than substance. Both are made of beautiful fabric, both are sumptuously decorated with exquisite handiwork, both offset the personality of the garment’s wearer. They symbolize different things – in the first case Birdalone’s independence and skill, in spite of enslavement, in the second Birdalone’s bond with her Faery mentor – but both are equally remarkable, the former perhaps more so than the latter, since the preservation of independence and the acquisition of skill under such conditions is more of a miracle than the collective capacity of the Faeries to produce fine craftsmanship.  In the same way, Birdalone’s bodily beauty seems no less magical in its effects than the acts of magic by which it is obscured. Her transformation by the witch into a ‘milk-white hind’ gives her a shape that perfectly represents what the witch wants her to be, but the witch also feels constrained to make her new form a beautiful one, since beauty of mind and body is the essence of what makes Birdalone herself.   For the same transgression the witch also threatens to make Birdalone invisible in a very particular way, making her ‘wander about seen by none but me’ (p. 45), and thus underscoring the witch’s possession of Birdalone’s special form of loveliness. In the following chapter, the wood-wife offers Birdalone a different gift of invisibility, which differs from the witch’s in its emphasis on Birdalone’s agency – Birdalone herself can choose when to use it, and can be seen (when she turns invisible) by no one at all, not even the wood-wife (p. 50). In this way she restores to Birdalone a sense of her own identity as distinct from and independent of her mistress’s power. In both cases, however, it’s Birdalone’s personal qualities which make it worthwhile exerting power over her, and which remain unaffected – indeed, are enhanced – by the magic worked on her. The power of magic in effect intensifies her power, making the reader increasingly aware as the tale goes on of her effect on others, which is all the more remarkable given that Morris is concerned to stress at every point that Birdalone is not a frequent user of magic, despite her education in the wood-wife’s knowledge.

John William Waterhouse, Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus

Magic, then, in Morris’s work, is a way of intensifying the personality of the user; the way it is used provides an index to the user’s desires and values. In the process it also provides a means for Morris to emphasize how power works at its best and worst, since magic is raw power. When used by the unscrupulous it demonstrates the effects of tyrannical power on its victims, which is to bereave them of their personal powers. The witch’s transformation of Birdalone into a milk white hind robs her of the capacity to think and speak, while the magic powers of the Tyrant of the Red Hold puts Sir Thomas to sleep, replicating the effects of the mysterious magic that binds the noblemen and ladies on the Isles of Kings and Queens in a deathly sleep, the residents of the Isle of the Old and Young in perpetual childishness.  Well used, on the other hand, magic invests people and things which have often been held in low esteem – friendship between women, items of clothing or personal jewellery, keepsakes, houses – with an efficacy that asserts their centrality to human experience. The wood-wife’s magic, for instance, strengthens her bonds with Birdalone, whether it is invested in a gown, a ring or a lock of her hair. It reinforces the qualities in Birdalone which attract the wood-wife to her, as we’ve seen with the ring of invisibility and the glittering-gleaming gown. And it leads her out of the states of entrapment to which she is so often subjected: for instance, when Habundia sends her image to Birdalone to lead her out of an imprisoning fog on the Island of Nothing, or when she supplies her friends with faery guides to lead them away from and back to the forest. Magic entraps, encloses and curtails, or else it liberates, comforts and affirms; but in every case the person who works it, and the person on whom it is worked, find their identities painted in bolder colours by its operations, much as the personality of the sitter is enhanced by the process of having their portrait painted.

The operation of magic in The Water of the Wondrous Isles is most beautifully demonstrated, perhaps, in the episode where the wood-wife enters the house of the witch at Birdalone’s invitation (Chapter XXI, pp. 468-71). Before entering it for the first and only time in the book, Habundia asks Birdalone if she knows anything about the method of the house’s construction: ‘belike [the witch] buried some human being at one of its four corners. Tell me, fair child, sawest thou ever here at night-tide the shape of a youngling crowned with a garland straying about the house?’ (p. 469). On Birdalone’s affirming that she has never seen any such ghostly apparition, the wood-wife suggests that ‘maybe thou hast hallowed it with the wisdom and love of thee’, and adds that the materials from which the house has been constructed are natural and local, thus linking it with the wood which is Habundia’s home: ‘it is all builded of trees and the grass of the earth; and thou art free to use them by my leave’ (p. 469). Habundia then enters the house and shrinks to the height of a very young child – infantilized, it would seem, by the lingering influence of the witch’s impulse to tyranny. But shortly afterwards the affection of Birdalone magically restores her to full size, in token of her power of ‘hallowing’ what was diminished and curtailed, and they go on to eat and drink together ‘a simple meal of bread and cheese and wood-berries, and […] milk withal’ (p. 470, a kind of communion supper in celebration of their equal power, their wholesome friendship. The meal consists both of the fruits of Birdalone’s labour – bread and cheese – and the fruits of the wood-wife’s wilderness, and forms one of the series of companionable meals in times of tribulation that punctuate the narrative from beginning to end.

The analogy with communion brings us to another function of magic in Morris’s work, which is to serve as a substitute for religion. Morris’s new Middle Ages are striking for one glaring absence – the lack in them of a powerful Christian church, the terrestrial aspect of the celestial House of God. There are priests in them – albeit very few in comparison with the religious orders of the real medieval period, as the briefest glance at the cast-list of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will demonstrate; but these priests have little to say about the God they serve, and the only priest in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, a man called Leonard, worships Birdalone far more intensely than he does any heavenly deity. His worship of her recalls the various points in Morris’s work where a woman takes on the role of goddess: the Lady and the Maid, for instance, in The Wood Beyond the World, who are worshipped as divine by the pagan Bear people, or the Lady of Abundance in The Well at the World’s End, who is seen by some as a goddess, by others as a demonic sorceress. Such forms of personal idolatry are always represented as problematic in the romances, although they also always elicit the narrator’s sympathy (like Sir Philip Sidney he seems to share his characters’ tendency to idolize his heroines).  Leonard in The Water of the Wondrous Islesends his life as a solitary hermit living near the Castle of the Quest where he first met Birdalone; the last we see of him is standing on the shore as Birdalone speeds away from him in her magic boat, the holy man ‘staring on her speechless with grief and blinded with his bitter tears’ till she vanishes from sight (p. 412). The authority of God’s House is replaced in Morris’s work by the various kinds of influence exerted by a succession of secular houses, just as the power of a centralized monarchy is replaced by a succession of local leaders – soldiers, merchants, craftspeople – who use these houses as their headquarters.  The removal of the central powers of church and state is what allows Birdalone to take her place in the narrative as the ideal householder, the lynchpin of the fellowship of co-habitants which transforms Utterhay in the end into a model dwelling-place.

Kelmscott Manor

William Morris repurposed houses throughout his career: most famously Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds and Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, London. In his late romances he repurposed the literary houses of the Middle Ages to accommodate his dreams of a fairer time to come. His own fictional houses were repurposed in their turn, most famously by Tolkien; and a concentration on the houses in Tolkien’s fiction may help us understand how the there-and-back-again structure of The Lord of the Rings involves the repurposing of the celebrated underground houses of the Shire as a quasi-socialist utopia along the lines of Morris’s. Frodo’s journey to destroy the Ring takes him through a series of houses as various as the residences Birdalone visits: from his hobbit hole at Bag End to the house of Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, from the Last Homely House at Rivendell to Galadriel’s woodland home, Lothlorien, a hideout in Ithilien, an Orcish stronghold in Mordor, and the splendid city of Minas Tirith, newly restored to the rule of an unusually democratic king.As with Birdalone, Frodo’s eventual return to Bag End gives him a new appreciation for the quasi-socialist, organic space of the Shire, whose landscape is restored and improved, after the physical and political ravages wrought on it by Saruman, with the help of the wood-wife Galadriel – who thereby becomes permanently linked with the fellowship of humans and hobbits which protects the Shire from the depredations of malicious outside forces. This transformed Shire seems to throw off the shackles of the class system that identified Frodo as Sam’s Master; by the end of the narrative it’s Sam who’s the elected master or Mayor of his home country.Later still, Sam’s mastery of the narrative of the Ring – embodied in his possession of the collectively-written Red Book, which contains the story as begun by Bilbo and continued by his nephew – gets handed on to his daughter, as if in belated recognition of the role of women in the processes of making history. The Red Book itself is a work of craftsmanship – incorporating calligraphy, cartography, illustration, linguistic and historical scholarship, verse-making – which evokes the richly designed volumes of the Kelmscott Press. Viewed in terms of his inheritance from Morris, Tolkien’s there-and-back-again structure looks far less conservative than it is often made out to be. It’s Gothic, yes, but Gothic repurposed for the twentieth century, a form of Gothic whose location in a deep past that never existed holds out hope for a possible future restructuring of old spaces and structures to the mutual benefit of all their inhabitants.Add to it Morris’s radical reinvention of women’s roles in such a future, as articulated in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, and you have a future that still looks well worth having, from the perspective of the twenty-first century.

The Brothers Hildebrandt, Bilbo at Rivendell

NOTES

[1] See Gordon E. Cherry, ‘The Town Planning Movement and the Late Victorian City’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Vol. 4, No. 2, The Victorian City (1979), pp. 306-319

[2] William Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, ed. Clive Wilmer (London: Penguin, 1993, rev. 1998), p. 94.

[3] Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, pp. 329-48.

[4] Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, pp. 385-90.

[5] References to The Water of the Wondrous Isles are taken from my copy of the 1909 edition (New York, London and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co.).

What Should a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic Do?

[This is the final post dedicated to the Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic. It summarises the second part of the afternoon workshop at that event (for the first part see here), which responded to the question given above, with the aim of incorporating the group’s responses into our plans for a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow.  The post ends with a list of participants in the Symposium, to whom much thanks on behalf of the core Fantasy team at Glasgow: Dimitra Fimi, Rob Maslen, Matt Sangster and Rhys Williams.]

Dimitra opens the second part of the afternoon workshop

Once again the workshop divided itself into several small groups. Once again each group chose a different way to record its findings, through different coloured inks or different kinds of lists (though the mind-map technique fell out of use). This time the notes were briefer, and the bulk of the responses came in the form of single words or short phrases, which looked like headings or cues for more extended deliberation and debate. Many of the ideas in those lists were repeated several times, and of those not repeated, many could readily be subsumed under similar themes.

Among the most frequently repeated ideas was the notion of establishing a ‘good, user-friendly website’, which would enable us to share resources on an Open Access basis, as well as to advertise events and explain our purpose and history in an organized way. Such a website, someone pointed out in the discussion that followed the workshop, would necessitate a decent IT infrastructure and dedicated administrative support.  One group suggested that the website be interactive, like the website for Archaeology Scotland; and the same group urged us to make the most of our Scottish location, drawing visitors to the website into the historical and cultural web of the Scottish fantastic, and pointing up the intimate link between fantasy and the Scottish landscape. This might be best achieved, the group suggested, through one of the projects mentioned at the workshop: a Fantasy Map of Scotland, which would assign specific fantasy texts to specific locations and so transform the process of moving from place to place into an exercise in traversing fantastic history. The website could host the Fantasy Map of Scotland and any blogs, podcasts or Open Access publications we chose to maintain. It could also tie into another project mentioned by several groups: an online journal, embracing creative fiction and non-fiction as well as academic writing (though I persist in thinking of academic writing too as creative at its best). And some groups felt the website might serve as a kind of virtual library, providing visitors with free e-copies of primary texts, criticism and theory, the last two categories perhaps being embedded in an annual anthology of the year’s best essays on fantasy and the fantastic.

For two groups in particular this prospective annual anthology would embody the notion of ‘expertise’ in fantasy, of a kind that doesn’t exist in such concentrated form elsewhere. A concentration of experts, these groups suggested, would enable the Centre to ‘lead on critical conversation’, demonstrating its sensitivity to what’s happening globally by (for instance) reporting on significant conferences or shadowing the major fantasy awards. (I think here of the way Adam Roberts has for many years offered us his own idiosyncratic and often scintillating reviews of contenders for the major SF prizes in successive blogs.) All groups agreed that the Centre’s expertise should be in creative work as well as academic writing and research; and its active engagement with the creative community, some suggested, could be ensured through (for instance) curating art exhibitions, commissioning new works, setting up writer-in-residence programmes, or staging short story competitions with attractive prizes. The latter suggestion could well have been stimulated by the tremendous success of the recent competition mounted by Gavin Miller and Anna McFarlane as part of the University of Glasgow’s Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities project, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Another area in which the Centre’s expertise might prove invaluable is education. Several groups suggested that we could organize visits to schools to discuss fantasy with students and teachers, taking a lead from the School of Education, whose MEd students already undertake placements at schools throughout Scotland, while several of them are simultaneously auditing Fantasy MLitt courses and participating in events. Education in technology was also mentioned as a priority; and our experts could offer themselves as mentors for creative writers as well as for scholars. The group that suggested this, however, ended on a note of caution. Mentorship, they warned, should ‘avoid didactic connotations’, concentrating on encouragement and practical support rather than prescriptive guidance. Expertise shouldn’t entail arrogance, in other words, and the proposed anthologies should clearly signal the Centre’s eagerness to learn from communities well beyond conventional academic circles: in particular the global community of fantasy fandom and the under-represented but crucial body of independent scholars.

It’s already becoming clear, I think, that all the groups saw the Centre as a means of enabling crossover activities and events, designed to draw together the academy, fantasy’s fan base and the creative and artistic communities. The idea of crossover extended itself for several groups to embrace other kinds of inclusivity and collaboration. One kind of inclusion involved literary genres. The Centre should dedicate itself, all agreed, to discussing and practising every form of fantasy: children’s and young adult, folk and fairy tales, theatre, oral storytelling, poetry, song lyrics, ballads printed and performed; and all these forms and more should be studied in all the world’s languages (translated where necessary) as well as in English. Another kind of inclusion involved academic interdisciplinarity. We should dedicate ourselves to asserting fantasy’s relevance to other disciplines, from philosophy, medicine, history and comparative literature to the sciences, theology, anthropology, geography and classical studies. We should have a focus on fantasy in multiple medias as well as on the migration of fantasy narratives and concepts from one medium to another: music, art, film, radio, plays, TV, comics and videogames; and the Centre should seek to create a space for the development of all these things in practice, not just as subjects for scholarly debate and analysis.

One group in particular saw inclusivity as a political process. This group’s first thoughts addressed the question of access. If we aim to be really inclusive, it reasoned, we need to make it possible for students to study at Glasgow whether or not they can afford the fees, wherever in the world they happen to come from. This means implementing a system of scholarships, or lowering tuition fees for deserving cases. The same group urged us to ensure that fewer straight white men ran things, in and beyond the Centre, and that fewer straight white men were represented on the syllabus; their rallying cry was ‘decolonize and diversify’. Unsurprisingly, this was also one of the groups that urged us to cultivate community engagement and activism, asking ourselves ‘how can our research into the unreal impact the real’? One means of extending our community might be to liaise with other Centres, such as the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York, or with good outside partners beyond the academy. Arts Emergency was mentioned, with its mission of helping young people overcome barriers to participation in higher education and the creative or cultural industries. So were the Glasgow Women’s Library, the Mitchell Library, the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust in Dumfries, and the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre, directed by Malcolm Knight and located in Glasgow’s Maryhill. We should collaborate, others suggested, with major festivals, such as Aye Write!, Celtic Connections, Cymera, the Edinburgh Fringe and Scotland Loves Anime. To be fair, many such collaborations are already taking place, but having an identity as a Centre (and better still, a budget to play with) would give our participation essential visibility, and enable us to consolidate and prolong our relationship with these organizations and festivals.

A huge number of events were suggested. Someone suggested an event with food in fantasy as its theme, and I had a vision of ponies serving a vegetarian meal mostly made up of bread and honey while walking around on their hind hooves (I was thinking of The Hobbit); or a recipe book offering fantasy-loving chefs the chance to experiment with different kinds of stew (again, see the entry ‘stew’ in Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasy Land). Other events included storytelling, in schools and elsewhere, for therapeutic as well as pedagogic purposes; a story-reading and recording service, aimed at people who have trouble reading on the page; collaborating with museums and galleries (especially Glasgow’s own Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery) in putting on exhibitions of fantasy artifacts and artworks – the latter with a special focus on local artists; collaboratively developing a computer game; performances, including ballads, theatre, dance, opera, song (the AHRC-funded Modern Fairies project was mentioned as a successful model for collaboration with musicians and other artists, while an amateur theatre group of our own might bring fantasy plays to the community); monthly literary social gatherings, of the kind that already takes place in Edinburgh; a speaker series (which again we already have – though it could be better and more widely advertised, and take place on a more ambitious scale); more one-day symposiums like this one, each with a specific focus; and plentiful field trips. There was a particular preference in the case of field trips for walking, since many fantasy narratives (notably Tolkien) have walking at their heart. Dee Heddon’s ongoing series of projects on the relationship between walking and literature was mentioned, and I might also have draw attention to James Loxley’s explorations of literary walking at the University of Edinburgh. As I’ve already mentioned, several groups wanted us to establish a close connection with the landscape, which walking would serve well. The Centre should take people out of the University estate, they argued, freeing the practice and study of fantasy from the office and the classroom and connecting it with hills, buildings, woods, rivers, lochs, boglands and shorelines. The Fantasy Map of Scotland would work well in conjunction with walking; could the two be fused? Of course they could; it needs only time, imagination, hard work and a little money.

A financial motif emerged from the discussions of several groups. As well as the notion of providing scholarships or fee-waivers for needy students, it was pointed out that events always require a great deal of labour and that it’s all too easy to assume this will be freely offered by enthusiastic volunteers. One way to tackle this would be to establish paid internship programmes (as well as a squadron of ‘paid flying monkey minions’ for the Centre’s director, one group recommended). Another group said simply that the Centre should have its own ‘budget code’, though where the budget itself would come from wasn’t mentioned in the notes. In the open discussion that followed the workshop it was suggested that likely sources of funding might include sponsorship, bequests and crowdfunding. This explains the importance of the budget code; without it donations and award applications would be impossible, just as without Centre status accountability for any donations would be hard to ensure.

A budget would certainly be required for the accumulation of resources mentioned by several groups. Among these resources were books, of course – or rather, fantasy artifacts in general. A programme of strategic collecting needs to be implemented, bringing in novels, short stories, plays and theatrical recordings, films and film scripts, games, illustrations and other artworks and comics – as well as research materials of different kinds, ideally on the scale of the SF Foundation in Liverpool. Another resource mentioned several times was a dedicated physical space, including a community building or area for PGR students, a ‘children’s corner’, and a safe space or ‘sandpit’ (a real one, maybe?) in which to talk and engage in creative play. Two suggested resources I particularly appreciated were a shrine to Terry Pratchett and a monumental statue in honour of N K Jemisin, both presumably intended to function as a focus for meditation or secular worship. The chief resource, some groups insisted, would be a suitable team of fantasy specialists, and in this as in other things we’ve made a good start, with the appointments of Dimitra Fimi, Rhys Williams and Matt Sangster in the last three years.

After the end of the second workshop a discussion ensued, during which a spokesperson from each group reported on the group’s responses to the question ‘What should a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic do?’. Inevitably the discussion built on the groups’ conclusions, as if in response to the invitation implied by those lists of cues or headings. Some comments have been worked into my account of the groups’ annotations; but a few didn’t seem to fall into any of the categories I’ve identified, and several of these are well worth considering. It was suggested that the Centre should be outward-facing, but should have research at its heart (including the practice-based research of creative work). At the same time, however, it should cultivate enjoyment as its most crucial guiding principle (and I think this ties in with the widespread agreement among the delegates that fantasy is all about play). It should maintain contact with former Glasgow fantasy students as far as possible – in part to find out what becomes of graduates who choose to specialize in fantasy and the fantastic; what role does this concentration play in the career paths or ways of living they choose? This feeds into another suggestion, that we implement workshops aimed at career development for graduates working in the field (this is in fact something we’ve been thinking about for some time, and now that the MLitt programme has been running for almost four years we have some useful data to work with). Looking at the other end of the education process, it was pointed out that a stress on fantasy for children and young people might help to nurture new generations of scholars, writers and readers. Someone suggested we consider pooling our resources and teaching specialisms with other universities – again something we’ve been exploring; and someone else that we strengthen our support for international students, especially in Europe now that Brexit threatens to change our relationship with our European neighbours drastically. One of the best suggestions, I thought, was that we implement an award for the best work on fantasy by an independent scholar. Given the formidable contribution to both Fantasy and Science Fiction Studies of independent scholars like John Clute I can think of no field that owes more to that neglected but heroic vanguard of thinkers, and I’d love to find a way to put this award in place.

This is a highly ambitious list of desiderata; a list that smacks, some might say, of utopianism, in its original sense of a place that exists nowhere, a fantasy world which is finally impossible to bring into existence in the world we really inhabit. Each suggestion, however, came from the invited guests at the Symposium. Each was conceived in a mind or in a group of minds working together; so each already exists as a concept, and concepts (however bizarre or fanciful) have a way of transferring themselves from one medium to another, of stimulating action. One of the final contributions to the discussion was from Rhys Williams, who asked us to consider a further question on top of the ones that had structured the Symposium: how do you get involved? It’s a good question because it elicits many possible answers, most of which imply some specific action. What are the mechanics, the practical processes of involvement in building a Centre, and how do these processes differ depending on the conditions that affect each individual or group of people in the fantasy community (geography, economics, time, health and energy levels, skills, gender or sexuality, culture, socio-political point of view)? How do you get involved? One way is by taking part in this discussion, perhaps through comments on this blog post or through emails to one of its organizers (Dimitra Fimi, Matt Sangster, Rhys Williams or myself). But there will be kinds and methods of involvement none of us has yet thought of, in the Symposium or elsewhere.

We look forward to discovering them, with your help.

Terri delivers the keynote

List of Participants in the Glasgow Symposium for Fantasy and the Fantastic

Dimitra Fimi
Rob Maslen
Rhys Williams
Matt Sangster
Dahlia Porter
Noel Chidwick
Ben Colburn
Philip Tonner
Mariana Rios Maldonado
Fraser Dallachy
Cailean McBride
Francesca Tristan Barbini
Sally Gales
Geraldine Parsons
Theo Van Heijnsbergen
Juliette Irretier
Maureen Farrell
Matthew Creasy
Shelby Judge
Ben Holden
Christopher Lynch
Tony Pollard
Saeko Yazaki
Taylor Driggers
Myfanwy Rodman
Ruth Booth
Katarina O’Dette
Jen Porath
Dale Knickerbocker
Aslı Bülbül Candaş
Brian Attebery
Anna Vaninskaya
Neil Williamson
Laura Martin
Timothy Peacock
Kate Mathis
Lizanne Henderson
Dauvit Broun
Marita Arvaniti
Oliver Rendle
Elizabeth Dulemba
Alice Jenkins
Terri Windling
Hal Duncan

[All photographs of the Symposium by Olly Rendle]

What Does Fantasy Do?

[This is the penultimate post reflecting on the Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic. It summarises the thoughts of the afternoon workshop at that event, and together with the final post (forthcoming in a few days) points the way forward to the formation of a Glasgow Centre of Fantasy and the Fantastic. At the same time this particular post can stand on its own as a consideration of fantasy as a catalyst for action. Thanks to all the remarkable people whose thoughts fed into it.]

Rhys Williams and Dimitra Fimi in action

The Glasgow Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic was conceived by my colleague Dimitra Fimi as a way of taking the first steps towards establishing a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow. That would seem to be a clear statement of its objectives; but the terms I’ve just used deserve to be unpicked, and the desire itself, the desire to establish a Centre, needs to be explained. It’s not so easy to define fantasy, as many commentators have found. For me the word means the kind of fiction, the kind of films and paintings, music and TV shows and theatre and opera, even the kind of architecture I’m drawn to. I know it when I see it. I can feel its pull from inside the covers of a book I’ve picked off the shelves of a second-hand bookshop as I flick through the pages and spot some reference to magic, or an apparition, or a metamorphosis, or a country – preferably a world – that doesn’t exist. But not everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that all the things I’ve just listed are definitive of fantasy, and if we are to have a discussion on the topic, a conversation across disciplines and practices and cultures and art forms, we need to know what we’re talking about, have some sense that it is more or less the same thing.

A Centre, too, is an uncertain concept. Many Centres have no physical location at all (though a Centre for Fantasy should surely be located somewhere: in a forest or an abandoned building or on a threshold of some kind – a doorway, a railway tunnel, a piece of furniture – since place nearly always plays a crucial role in fantastic works of art). I know what I mean when I say ‘Centre’: it’s a term that pulls things to it much as fantasy pulls me, attracting people and funding and activities and resources; a term that insists on the existence of a community, however scattered and diverse, with a common objective, who will come together physically or virtually from time to time to share their knowledge, their experiences, their ‘arts’ (in the widest and most inventive sense of the word). But what a Centre is varies widely, even in the context of the University of Glasgow, and there is an astonishingly wide range of models for the way it might function and the things it might make happen.

To understand what a Glasgow Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic might be and do, then, it was clearly necessary to hear from the community that could potentially make it up. So Dimitra applied to Arts Lab – the organization responsible for supporting research and researchers in the College of Arts at Glasgow – and obtained funding to bring together a representative cross-section of such a community: writers, artists, ecologists, IT experts, scientists, students, fans, academics from many disciplines, editors, publishers, activists, educators, theatre people, musicians, circus performers, witches, talking animals and mythical beasts of all stripes and hues. She invited them to a day-long meeting in the recently refurbished Kelvin Hall. And she asked them questions related to the ones I’ve just been asking: What does Fantasy do? How does it work? What should a Fantasy Centre do? But the format of the Symposium affected the delegates’ answers, so I should start by explaining what the format was.

Noel Chidwick Presents

In the morning, attendees who wished to speak (not all of them did) were asked to introduce themselves in a series of ten-minute presentations – so-called ‘lightning talks’ summing up their fantasy-related activities – so that everyone would know who they were dealing with. Then came lunch and mingling; and in the afternoon a workshop in two parts, one addressing the questions of what fantasy does and how it does it, the other considering the potential functions of our putative Centre. The day ended with a talk from one of the most significant thinkers and activists on the part of fantasy: the writer, artist, musician, editor, performer, mentor and catalyst Terri Windling. After all, who better than a polymath to bring together the concerns of the diverse community which met that day? Who better than this inspirational orator to send us out into the world determined to act on what we’d been discussing?

And afterwards? What would happen next? That’s where we are now: at the stage of drafting the application to the University of Glasgow for Centre status. But before we set about that task in earnest we thought it important to leave some record of what happened that day. We began that record with a series of blog posts from individual attendees – representative samples of what was said in the ‘lightning’ talks that morning (the first is here). And now comes a summary of the two-part afternoon workshop – a trickier thing altogether, since all we have to go on are the sometimes cryptic notes taken by volunteers from each of the smaller groups who discussed each topic in a huddled knot before sharing their findings with the Symposium at large.

How to convert these notes into something more or less coherent? Or is coherence precisely what we should avoid: a trap that seeks to impose shape and unity on something dynamic, rendering it lifeless, inauthentic, ineffectual? ‘We murder to dissect’, said Wordsworth, a saying that joins itself in my mind with Keats’s ‘Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold Philosophy?’ and Pope’s ‘Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?’ as three fine expressions of resistance to analysis (though the last is more about expending excessive effort on a thing of no consequence, which is equally applicable to a discussion of the fantastic). But analysis is what I do – making coherent and logical narratives as best I can out of knotty, perplexing or fragmentary texts – and I choose here to reduce the notes to a continuous story, risking as I do so falsifying the meaning of the note-takers, but also hoping to turn them into something of a blueprint for action.

Action, after all, was at the heart of the questions we asked at the workshop. We asked the delegates not ‘what is fantasy?’ but ‘what does it do, what is it for?’ and afterwards, ‘how does it do what it does?’ – all of which presuppose the concept’s essential dynamism, its continuous reinvention of itself and redirection of its energies. As I’ve indicated above, each workshop of forty-odd people was divided into groups of varying sizes, each with a designated annotator. Each annotator chose to record the group’s deliberations in a different way; with a mind map, placing the questions in the centre of the page with ideas raying outwards from them at the end of sinuously curving arrows; with neat lists of mostly single words running down the page from top to bottom; using bullet points or numbers and more or less complete sentences; with scattered phrases or terms peppering the paper, as darts pepper holes across a dartboard. They also used different inks – black, blue, red, green – and I found myself wondering if this was significant. The choice of layout certainly affected the way I read the notes, and this suggests it may have reflected different approaches to the discussion.

The first list I’m looking at now, for instance, made up of mostly single words, suggests that fantasy is for the following:

entertainment
escapism
imagination
sense of wonder and beauty
inspiration for creative skills
role modeling
food (tastier)
recovery

My favourite entry here is ‘food – tastier’, a phrase that invokes the central role played by eating in fantasy narratives while heaping shame on the head of writers who can think of nothing more palatable than ‘stew’ to serve their characters (see Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasy Land for the lashings of ‘stew’ that get consumed in the less inventive fantasy fictions).

The final term, meanwhile, ‘recovery’, summons up Tolkien’s notion (as expressed in his famous Essay on Fairy Stories) that fantasy helps us to regain the sense of encountering things for the very first time and giving them names. For him, recovery takes us back to the state of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; seeing the world afresh, discovering its contents, tasting them, so to speak, with an unjaded palate (which takes us back to food); and these experiences are linked to the genre’s invocation of a ‘sense of wonder and beauty’, one of the other entries in the list. ‘Wonder’ is, for me, a little different from recovery, because it doesn’t involve naming or even recognition. It’s the state of astonishment, of the temporary suspension of one’s intellectual assumptions and linguistic faculties in favour of raw emotion and intense curiosity, with which one encounters something wholly unexpected or utterly absorbing – something that takes one out of oneself; the moment before one attempts to categorize, name, or explain the thing encountered (though one can sometimes think, I believe, in a state of wonder). ‘Escapism’ could be said to be the impulse that leads one to seek out a state of wonder in the first place. It’s a turning away from everyday stresses, perplexities and dullnesses, and has often been seen as a way of evading responsibility – though Tolkien saw it as a liberation from oppression, a freeing of one’s mind from entrapments of various kinds, from presuppositions and rooted prejudices, from limiting narratives about the world and about oneself and one’s narrow range of socially prescribed obligations and duties. The phrase ‘role modeling’ was perhaps the most unusual entry in the list, for me; it made me think of how fantasy can provide alternative roles for readers to imagine their way into, to be inspired by, and I like the implication of diversity in the term, the suggestion that there are many more roles available to make models of besides that of Joseph Campbell’s monomythical male hero. A role model, too, implies action, even as a sense of wonder reminds us of the moment before action is taken, or as recovery gifts us with the possibility of thinking afresh about the terms on which we’ll base our actions. Given that fantasy is often said to be about retelling familiar stories, these terms insist that the process of making them new is the thing that matters; and as a quester after fantasy and the fantastic I have to concur. I have no interest in fantasies that simply retread old paths; there has to be something new about them, on the level of language or style, or on the level of concept, form or plot.

At the same time, in the answers provided by this first group in response to the second question, ‘What is fantasy for?’, the past loomed large:

Provide history
Rewrite history
Representation
Explore fears/hopes/desires
Take you on a journey
Suspended reality

‘Provide history’ and ‘Rewrite history’ head the list, followed by ‘Representation’ – perhaps an extension of the concept of role models, though with greater stress on what role models might be used to do – that is, to represent people and ideas which have not been adequately represented elsewhere or by other means. Then come ‘Explore fears/hopes/desires’, ‘Take you on a journey’, both of which insist on physical or metaphorical movement through time and space; while the final category, ‘Suspended reality’, seems to pick up on many people’s central assumption about fantasy: that it takes place in an environment where the ‘real’ world and its rules are being in some way held in abeyance. This might take us back to the way history was described in those first two entries, as something that needs to be ‘provided’, suggesting that it has not yet been ‘provided’ in the way that fantasy provides it; an idea which is reinforced by the second entry in the list, the statement that fantasy rewrites history, offers a different version of it, perhaps from a new perspective or with a different emphasis, which gives it a new trajectory or shape. Each of the entries on this list implies that fantasy deals with our world even as it alters it. Reality cannot be suspended without drawing attention to the reality or rules that have been set aside; history cannot be rewritten without invoking the familiar history from which it diverges. Fantasy is firmly rooted in the here and now even as it turns away to reimagine the past or take us to non-existent places.

The same group went on to indicate how fantasy achieves these things, and again the annotator chose to record the group’s findings in the form of a list. Again some of the entries entail familiar concepts, others less familiar ones:

uncanny valley
experiment
address fundamental questions of human existence
moral quandary
transcend experience (lack of restriction by ‘normal’ rules)

viewing reality from outside

The phrase ‘uncanny valley’ refers to an idea first advanced by Masahiro Mori concerning a series of robots which are designed to resemble human beings to an ever increasing degree. The closer the resemblance between machine and human being, the more positive the human reaction to the machine becomes – that is, up to a certain point, when the closeness of the resemblance suddenly becomes unsettling and the human begins to find the robot deeply repulsive. This experience of revulsion continues until the robot is redesigned to resemble humans more closely still, when at a certain point human responses to the machine start to become more positive again. The period of revulsion at the robot’s imperfect duplication of human appearance is known as the ‘uncanny valley’, and explanations of the emotional response it provokes range from the idea that we find certain levels of resemblance threatening to our sense of identity, either as a person or as a species, to the association of ‘wrongness’ in a person’s looks with disease and the risk of infection. Once you know what uncanny valley is and where it lies, its position at the head of the list of answers to the question how does fantasy do what it does makes perfect sense. The ‘experiment’ which comes next on the list might involve various tests of the responses of writer and reader to imitations of the familiar world, with its ‘“normal” rules’ and authorized history, which vary from it to one degree or another, generating emotions that range from wonder and delight to fear and loathing, and underlining or generating the ‘moral quandaries’ or ‘fundamental questions’ which arise from, or are focused by, the variations they introduce (what would the possession of magic powers, for instance, do to an individual’s personality? How might the presence of those magic powers affect the structure of a community?). Each variation, once it becomes to some degree ‘naturalized’ to the writer or reader in the course of the narrative, can briefly give them the sense of viewing the real world ‘from outside’ as they emerge from the different world they’ve visited, and hence either of recovering that real world, in Tolkien’s sense, or of transforming it; this, at least, is what the final entry on the list suggests to me. It’s more complicated than making the other familiar, since fantasy often depends on retaining the sense of strangeness and newness from beginning to end; and it’s more complicated than estranging us from the world we live in, since fantasy also often depends on retaining that sense of nostalgic familiarity with which everyday scenes and actions are invested, even while sounding a note of otherness (the faery Note that haunts Nathaniel Chanticleer in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, the horns of Elfland heard by C S Lewis and W B Yeats). The list helps mark out the complications in each of its individual entries by juxtaposing them with other entries that affect or modify familiar concepts by their presence nearby.

Other groups came up with different ideas of what fantasy does and how it does it. The group whose thoughts were annotated in the form of a mind-map, for instance, seemed concerned to avoid the sort of hierarchy of importance that a list can imply; and accordingly it chose to resist being pinned down in terms of definitions and assumptions. For this group, one of fantasy’s functions was to ‘Make us ask: “what is fantasy?” and engage with “genre” as a concept’, and so to ‘engage with history/traditions/categorizations of fantasy’. These processes of self-contemplation are dynamic and continuous, so that the ‘inability to define [or delimit] fantasy is fantasy’, since the fantastic resists the state of closure or inertia which definition entails. The Mind Map Group also introduced a new concept which is only partly analogous to the notion of ‘experiment’ mentioned by the Group of Lists: that fantasy plays. The term ‘play’ implies trying things out in a light-hearted way, without overmuch concern for consequences; there may well be rules involved but these can be set aside or changed at the player’s whim. No one takes play excessively seriously, which means that it can turn attention to serous things without getting bogged down by them or by a single attitude to them. Play is always flexible, transformative, lighthearted – or better still, light (and I’m thinking here of Italo Calvino’s essay on lightness in Six Essays for the Next Millennium). These are qualities which the upholders of rules can sometimes find threatening, even dreadful – and play can go too far, turn sour, go bad, a possibility which is also often explored in fantastic narratives.

The Mind Map Group also insisted on the interactive nature of the act of reading fantasy. ‘Cultural differences influence reception’, it asserted, so that (for instance) what seems impossible to readers in the Netherlands might seem entirely possible for those in Argentina, Nigeria, Iceland or Japan. For this group, in fact, fantasy dissolves hard and fast distinctions or ‘boundaries’ of all kinds: between possibility and impossibility, reality and unreality, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the self and the other. At the same time, fantasy needs internal coherence; it ‘has to be real enough to immerse you. Fantastic worlds have RULES’, which enable them to test out ‘magic systems/social systems’ (and does the slash imply that magic systems are always a way of exploring social systems?). Asking how fantasy performs all these feats seems for this group to have elicited just one core idea – ‘Using fantastic mythos to do these things (e.g. dragons)’ – though this may well be because I’m misreading the mind-map.

Another group that used lists – though much messier ones, and expressed in terms of sentences or phrases rather than single terms – came up with more new concepts. Asked what fantasy does, the Messy Group replied, like the Group of Lists, that it’s an ‘exploratory tool’; and they added that while it can ‘reinforce the symbolism of mythology’ it can also engage ‘in salvage/détournement/appropriation (of past/myth/fairy tale/story etc.)’. So far so familiar. But for this group, one of fantasy’s primary functions is to ‘make communities’, through music and theatre (or like music and theatre, which are mostly communal activities). Another is to ‘enable the reader to live vicariously’ and hence potentially to ‘transform the reader’. The notion of transformation pointed the Messy Group towards another of fantasy’s functions, that of self-care – another meaning of ‘recovery’; and this was followed by a more sinister transformation: ‘sometimes you need spoons to make shivs’. For me this repurposing of a domestic tool suggested that the ordinary and everyday can provide the means for unexpected, violent action – perhaps as a way of escaping from prison (one of the functions Tolkien assigns to fairy stories in his famous essay) – and my thoughts turned to Michael de Larrabeiti’s YA fantasy series about class warfare in the 70s and 80s, The Borribles, whose protagonists often use shivs. But next on the list came a reference to ‘spoon theory,’ which gave the spoons a rather different significance. Spoon theory is a disability metaphor which refers to the ‘reduced amount of mental and physical energy available for activities of living and productive tasks as a result of disability or chronic illness’ (I’m adapting the Wikipedia entry). Spoons here are a way of metaphorically measuring that reduced amount of energy: each person is allotted only so many spoons in any given day, whose number will only be replenished when that person recharges, so to speak, by taking a rest, and as the group went on to indicate ‘there are only so many spoons to go around’ (and there’s a class connotation in this phrase: some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths, with the result that others are born with almost no spoons at all). In this way the group brought representations of class struggle, illness and disability into the discussion of fantasy’s functions. If fantasy is about transformation, and transformations are achieved through power, to emphasize the unequal distribution of power in your fantasy narrative can turn the fantasy genre itself into a tool for real social or political change. That’s something I’ll be pondering for quite some time, I think.

The Messy Group showed a special interest in the second question asked of the workshop: how does fantasy do things. As they responded to it the entries in their list got terser, though no less messy, at least in the way they were written down. Fantasy ‘changes the modality of sentences’ to achieve its effects (someone mentioned Samuel R Delany at this stage, and I thought of Delany’s statement that he is ‘forever delighted, then delighted all over, at the things sentences can trip and trick you into saying, into seeing’). Fantasy, they went on, uses hesitation/deliberation, tricksterism, play, genre crunching, different media, ‘displacement to elsewhens’, and ‘nostalgic/archaic desiring’, which was for this group a way of ‘tracing origins’, taking things ‘back to their roots’. As an arsenal of literary tools to support its potential political applications that’s pretty formidable, though other groups added to it considerably, as we shall see.

A fourth group, whose note-taker favoured a red pen, chose to focus on the question of what fantasy does which can’t be done by other modes or mediums. ‘Why would someone use fantasy to do these things?’, the Red Pen Group inquired, and concluded that there might be different reasons for different audiences (and for different writers and artists too, of course). The answers grouped together under this heading included the notion that fantasy engages in ‘Historical thinking that isn’t history’, which ‘allows a kind of reflection that isn’t otherwise accessible’; that it ‘allows us to step outside to see in’; and that it ‘says things that can’t be said of the real world [about] history, gender, society’. In addition, fantasy ‘softens the grip of our rational minds, reconnecting with our bodies and imaginations and the irrational’; and offers ‘Consolation (distraction?) for impotence’, in politics and elsewhere. Most of these things, of course, could also be said of other genres.  Other responses to the question of fantasy’s function offered by the Red Pen Group seemed more fantasy-specific. Among these were that it ‘reflects the structure of the world by abstracting away from inessentials’ – as realism does not; that it is iconogenic and mythopoeic, generating new raw material for our imagination to work on; and that it engages in a practice called ‘farfetching’ which involves ‘integrating distant or disparate ideas’ – a process that picks up on its interest in genre-crunching, as mentioned by one of the other groups, but also implies a great deal more. On reflection, these activities too are not unique to fantasy, apart perhaps from mythopoeia, the making of myths. Does this mean that nothing is, I wonder? If so, does it matter? I’ve sometimes thought that fantasy does what all fiction does, but more intensely, in a more exaggerated and self-aware fashion, since it calls attention to its status as fiction through the manifest impossibilities it peddles. Interestingly, however, neither this group nor any other had recourse to the term ‘impossible’ in their answers – though the idea that fantasy ‘says things that can’t be said of the real world’ comes interestingly close.

Looking through the responses from other groups adds further new responses to the question of what fantasy does. The group whose notes were peppered across the page (the Pepper Group, I’ll call them) proposed that fantasy is for ‘nothing and therefore everything’ – a phrase which I’d suggest comes very close to stating exactly what makes fantasy different, since the term ‘fantasy’ is so often used to refer to something so detached from reality that it has no value, and things of no value can do a great deal without being noticed (see under ‘play’ above). The Pepper Group also noted that fantasy ‘unites different storytelling traditions’, which is something a little different from genre crunching. I’m reading Charles de Lint’s Moonheart at the moment, which combines stories from European ‘Celtic’ cultures with stories from the cultures of the aboriginal peoples of North America, and this seems perfectly to illustrate the group’s perceptions, as does Tolkien’s fusion of Finnish and Old English material, or Lewis’s combination of Northern European and Mediterranean mythology. The question of the purpose of these combinations of different storytelling traditions, of what they do, is well worth asking; in the case of de Lint it’s to draw attention to the sometimes violent clash of cultures which is at the core of 1980s Canadian society, but as the Red Pen Group suggested there will be different answers in different contexts. The same group suggested that fantasy ‘brings dreams to life’ – which was implied by the Red Pen Group, though not explicitly stated – and that it is fundamentally intermedial, transferring its subject matter from one vehicle to another – from literature to video, comic, painting, game and song – just as Erasmus once said of the expert rhetorician, who ‘pours’ the same subject matter from one stylistic receptacle to the next, from verse to prose, from public speech to private letter to reported conversation between friends. The Pepper Group also suggested that fantasy is rhizomatic, meaning that it connects things in a non-hierarchical way – a philosophy better suited to representation by a mind-map or a peppering technique, perhaps, than by orderly lists. I’d be curious to test this notion of the rhizome or root-system as an organizational principle for fantasy at my leisure; it seems to me to apply quite well to the formal techniques of Terry Pratchett, or George R R Martin, or Ellen Kushner, each of whom uses multiple points of view to build their worlds with, though it may apply to other fantasy texts in ways I’ve not thought of (Charles Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao suddenly comes to mind, a book that has no central character, not even the impresario of the title, but which structures itself around visits by different people to the various tents of Dr Lao’s cavalcade; or Ursula Le Guin’s utopian miscellany Always Coming Home).

John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3

The group that recorded its findings in bright green ink added ‘mental acrobatics’ to the notion of play, and confirmed fantasy’s interest in intertextuality and metafiction by aligning it with ‘postmodernism and stuff’. But the Green Ink Group also introduced the new idea of the absences or lacunae in fantasy narratives. Fantasy, the group suggested, supplies its consumers with unfinished landscapes, leaving ‘gaps’ in them that we’re not necessarily expected to fill. This led the group to the phrase explored by Marita Arvaniti in her recent blog post: ‘fantasy exists badly’. I wonder if this means that the holes or gaps in fantasy narratives – the logical leaps and glaring omissions with which they’re filled – make it essential for their readers to use their own active imaginations to make up for what’s left out? If so, then the statement that we’re not necessarily expected to ‘fill’ those gaps stands out in sharp relief. We notice and condone them, we assume that there’s something that explains them or occupies that space, but filling in lacunae implies a methodical response which is precisely the reverse of what many readers want from the fantastic. One could call these readers’ refusal to engage in the filling-in process a preference for mystification, ignorance or deliberate self-deception; but one could equally call it a willingness not to let speculation be held back by petty details, and a corresponding affection for radical difference and epic transformations, things that can only be achieved by setting aside the question of exactly how those transformations might be brought about. I’m reminded here of John Martin’s giant paintings of impossible scenes, whose different parts are cut loose from each other by vast abysses implied through patches of obscurity, or by juxtapositions in each picture of scenes on radically different scales whose relationship to one another is only ever implied, not made clear on the canvas. The disengagement of the various sections of each painting from one another is precisely what makes them so disorienting, so exhilarating to look at. I apologize to the group if this is not what they had in mind, but let my response to the phrase ‘fantasy exists badly’ stand as an indication – through the gap or lacuna it represents – of the fruitfulness of the concept.

The Green Ink Group was much concerned with tensions – between formula and freedom, between new and old – as well as with fantasy’s preoccupation with allusion and cross-reference. For them, fantasy is always in ‘conversation with other books and itself and the mythosphere’, the latter phrase invoking the constantly changing common pool of stories on which narrators draw. These ideas, too, support the idea that ‘fantasy exists badly’, since they imply that it is always drawing attention to its own artifice. The Green Ink Group summed up this tendency in an invented term, ‘intermetaparatextuality’, which speaks for itself; and its list concluded with the fine observations that fantasy ‘creates immersion in the face of artifice’ – that is, that we find ourselves absorbed in it even as we get startled into noting its references to other narratives of similar kinds, or its unsettling gaps – and that fantasy thus assists at ‘the birth of the reader’. This final point highlights the fact that the Green Ink Group was almost entirely concerned with the relationship between reader and fantasy text, since the reader plays an active role in shaping fantasy through her willingness to condone absences, recognize allusions, engage in conversations with the real world, yet to be immersed or re-immersed in what she’s reading all the same. There’s a challenge here to Tolkien’s idea, as expressed in his essay on Fairy Stories, that what he calls ‘secondary belief’ involves a total imaginative commitment on the part of the reader to the world created by the writer, for as long as she’s reading. If this were true, Terry Pratchett’s books would be fantastic failures, riddled as they are with allusions to the ‘real’ world we inhabit, many in the form of footnotes or extended pastiche. Pratchett is always playfully un-immersing us, yet the reader freely re-immerses herself in his secondary world on each occasion, like a dolphin sporting in the waves. It’s the quality of lightnessthat makes this possible, and lightness is also (ironically) a quality that Tolkien possesses in abundance, and which he embodies in the lighthearted personalities of his hobbits.

The final group laid out their answers in a numbered list – I think so as to key in their responses to ‘what does fantasy do?’ to their responses to ‘how does fantasy do it?’. Time ran out, however, before they could provide all the ‘hows’. Their ‘whats’ yielded the following insights: that fantasy ‘makes visible the invisible’ (an idea that draws on the roots of the term in the Greek verb phantazein, to make visible); and that fantasy concerns itself with mirrors, windows and doors. The ‘hows’ expanded on that second idea, explaining that fantasy offers an ‘invitation to a place that’s different from where we are’, enabling us to ‘leave our troubles behind’, and that in this new place we feel able to ‘control time and space’; as a writer obviously, but perhaps also as a reader, given our capacity to manage the gaps in space, time and narrative which the writer leaves. Going back to the ‘whats’, the group claimed that fantasy ‘both feeds and feeds on our creativity’ in what it described as a ‘vicious circle’. And if this ‘what’ unsettlingly invokes the Elder Brother’s definition of evil in Milton’s Comus, something ‘self-fed and self-consumed’, bringing this group’s idea of fantasy close to horror, the last entry in their list of ‘whats’ introduced a comic element. Fantasy, the group concluded, is for ‘educating parents’, which they explained in the ‘hows’ as taking place when parents read fantasy books ‘and see the effects [of these] on their children’. One such effect is to ‘turn readers into writers’, eager to enjoy that absolute mastery over time and space available to sub-creators (as Tolkien calls them in his essay). Fantasy, the group suggested, is often the first stimulus towards making that transition, and this is not surprising given its nature as imaginative play, and hence its close alliance to the stories children tell themselves as they manoeuvre their toys or the contents of their minds.

Looking through the workshop’s responses to the questions ‘what is fantasy for?’ and ‘How does it do it’?, one thing struck me quite forcibly: that none of the groups chose to state in so many words that it is about inventing secondary worlds. The Group of Numbers came close, with their statement that it gives us entry through its imagined doors and windows to ‘a place that’s different from where we are’, while the claim by the Group of Lists that fantasy ‘transcends experience (lack of restriction by “normal” rules)’ and ‘views reality from outside’ implies an exodus from the world we live in, as does the Red Pen Group’s insistence that it ‘says things that can’t be said of the real world’. The Mind Map Group’s statement that ‘Fantastic worlds have RULES’ asserts the existence of secondary worlds, although that group did not choose to emphasize the process of making those worlds, and their statement was in any case a ‘how’ to supplement the initial observation that fantasy ‘has to be real enough to immerse you’. For all groups in the workshop, the question of what fantasy is for was firmly rooted in the world we live in. This is inevitable, of course, from one point of view: even when fantasy is entirely set in a world quite different from our own we can never gain access to that world except by means of terms we understand, terms that enable us to compare its strange contents with familiar things, and hence bring its strangeness into the compass of the known. But our groups were strikingly insistent on fantasy’s impact on our own world, its transformative effect on that world’s human inhabitants. Our questions – what does it do, what is it for, how does it work – invited such a bias, of course; but the result was a set of observations that did what we hoped: provided the basis for a template for action. And the second part of our workshop aimed to give a focus or context for that action by asking what a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic might accomplish – what transformations it could bring about, what journeys embark on, what strange fellowships and conjunctions conjure up. That will be the subject of the final blog post on the Symposium.

 

[All photos of the Symposium are by Olly Rendle]