Nicholas Stuart Gray, Down in the Cellar (1961)

Nicholas Stuart Gray is a name which is mostly missing from histories of children’s literature, but which rouses strong passions in those who admire his work. He started out as a respected children’s playwright, his first play being performed in 1949, and worked on many productions throughout the 50s and 60s with his close friend the stage designer Joan Jefferson Farjeon. The plays are all based on fairy tales, though they also include a version of the great medieval fairy poem Gawain and the Green Knight. Not much is known about his private life apart from the fact that he describes himself in blurbs as a ‘Highlander’, that some of his books are set in Sussex and Devon, and that he went on cycling holidays with Joan Jefferson Farjeon in Provence. I discovered him by chance in the early 80s when a friend lent me a copy of his first novel, Over the Hills to Fabylon (1954), about a magical moving city ruled by a paranoid monarch (think Howl’s Moving Castle with a cast of thousands). After this my grandmother took to buying me his books one by one for birthdays and Christmases: The Seventh Swan (1962), The Stone Cage (1963), Mainly in Moonlight (1963), The Apple-Stone (1965), Grimbold’s Other World (1965), and my favourite, Down in the Cellar (1961), magnificently illustrated by Edward Ardizzone.[1] There are several more I haven’t read, and it’s time the whole oeuvre was brought back into print to delight and move new generations. I’m not the only one to think so. This blog post stems from a rereading of Down in the Cellar after Gray’s name was mentioned on Twitter by Neil Gaiman, which led to an outpouring of praise for him from Ellen Kushner, Katherine Langrish, Garth Nix and Terri Windling, among many others. That’s a roll call that should make publishers sit up and take note; and I hope a few words about Down in the Cellar will add fuel to the flame.

Gray’s book is an unsettling fusion of disparate elements that locate it precisely in the time and place of its composition. The plot is misleadingly simple. Four young siblings – Bruce, Julia, Andrew and Deirdre Jefferson, who share their family name with Joan Jefferson Farjeon – are staying in their uncle’s rambling Rectory in the South Downs when they find an injured man in a disused cave. The man tells them he is on the run, and they decide to hide him in a half-forgotten cellar of the Rectory, which they happen to have stumbled across a few days earlier. Having hidden him in the cellar and done their best to tend his wounds, the children suddenly find themselves under siege by a range of threatening forces: from the Rector’s stern but affectionate housekeeper, Old Mim – who is afraid the cellars have rats in them and wants to call in the ratcatchers, like Mrs Driver in The Borrowers (1952) – to the local police, who are on the lookout for a runaway whistleblower; from a conspiracy of unpleasant grown ups who belong to the ‘Spinners and Weavers Club’ – clearly a witch’s coven – to the sinister, barely-visible ‘Green Lantern people’ who infest the hills and fields around the Rectory. All these forces show a keen and unwelcome interest in the cellar and its occupant, while the stranger himself gets increasingly ill as the book goes on, his condition worsening despite the best efforts of Bruce, the eldest Jefferson, who plans to be a doctor or a vet when he grows up ‘Depending on which examination is the easiest’ (p. 9). The novel, in other words, mixes together elements from the Scottish Border Ballads, horror stories and spy thrillers (two of the people tracking Stephen are foreign agents who want to assassinate him for betraying state secrets), as well as children’s fantasy fiction of the sort popularized by Edith Nesbit in the 1900s. The shadow of the Second World War hangs over the narrative in the form of the cave, which was constructed as a shelter to protect the villagers from German flying bombs; while the atmosphere of paranoia generated by the search for the injured man, led as it is by policemen and assassins, locates the action in the decades-long stand-off between superpowers which culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This modern political context competes for centre stage in the book with a legendary past embodied in the ‘old Roman Camp’ (a prehistoric barrow frequented by the Green Lantern people) and an ancient fairy hill which once stood where now the Rectory stands, and whose entrance may still be concealed in a wall of the cellar. This fusion of ancient and modern narratives, none of which is fully articulated – the Cold War is never mentioned, the words ‘fairy’ or ‘Sidhe’ (i.e. people of the hills) are never uttered – gives the whole story an air of uneasy mystery. At no stage are we offered a full explanation for what is happening in the narrative, or how the competing strands of it fit together, and this refusal to elucidate is what makes the book so strange, with a strangeness that speaks to the uneasy historical moment when it first saw print.

The four Jeffersons

This is a crosshatch novel, in other words – to borrow John Clute’s term from the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy. The word was repurposed by China Miéville in The City and the City (2009) to describe districts claimed by two or more competing cultures or political authorities at the same time. As I’ve suggested, the first sort of crosshatching one can see in the novel is the literary variety. It’s indebted to a range of authors for specific elements in its make-up: Edith Nesbit for the first person narrative from the point of view of a child protagonist; C. S. Lewis for the rambling house where the children stay with an elderly scholar, the village Rector; John Buchan for the spy story element, which comes to the fore when the children are pursued through the night by a pair of grim-faced labourers, clearly assassins in disguise; and John Masefield for the Spinners and Weavers Club, led by the silky Mr Atkinson, which closely resembles the coven led by Abner Brown in The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935). The crosshatching of time, meanwhile, in the novel – which fuses the unimaginably ancient with the historical and the modern – is foregrounded by the chronologically ambiguous spaces in which the action unfolds. The bomb shelter, for instance, keeps slipping between time periods in the children’s imagination as they approach and enter it. Julia is afraid to go in because it was constructed ‘ages back, and things might have come to live there since’ (p. 29). Andrew suggests that its inhabitants might be troglodytes or ‘cave-men’, and when Bruce claims that the shelter could have made quite a pleasant modern refuge if well stocked with ‘oil-stoves and […] people’, his brother points out that ‘the cave-men would have lit huge fires and roasted bears for their dinner’ (p. 31), and speculates that the person hiding there might be a ‘left-over cave-man […] drawing bison on the wall’ (p. 31). For the youngest Jefferson, Deirdre, the location has an emotional and supernatural resonance rather than a historical one, as the place where ‘Sad people’ come when they need to cry (p. 30). The strange young man they find in an inner chamber of this shelter resembles by turns a Dickensian ‘escaped convict’ (p. 36), a ‘hunted Cavalier, or a Jacobite in hiding’ (p. 37) – like someone from the work of Captain Marryat or Buchan – and a supernatural being, when he gives a laugh ‘of the sort a ghost would make, if it wasn’t trying to be frightening’ (p. 40). The liminal status of the cave perfectly suits the liminal status of the young man hiding in it, who is stranded between different ideologies (as we deduce later), different countries, and different realms of possibility – that is, between the everyday, the world of espionage and the supernatural, the last of these being in the end the only space available to him as a means of escape from his predicament. He is also caught between the living and the dead, since his younger sister (we later learn) is dead – killed in a car crash – yet he keeps mistaking Deirdre for her. This explains his status as simultaneously one of the ‘Sad people’, who make their way to the cave as a place of mourning, and a kind of ghost suspended between a lost past and an impossible future. Neither healthily stable nor unquestionably doomed to imminent termination, his life is precarious, and might be cut short at any moment either at the hands of the various enemies who are looking for him or by the fever that takes hold as his injury worsens. The fever is a perfect metaphor for his precarious situation and unstable identity, and it worsens as that precariousness and instability grow more intense.

Discovering the cellar

Crosshatched spaces like the cave keep cropping up throughout the novel. There is the cellar of the title, the ‘dark and cobwebbed underworld’ (p. 7) where the children act out games across time and space – Boadicea against the Romans, King Solomon’s Mines, the Babes in the Wood, representing history, adventure romance and fairy tale respectively, all blended and blurred together in the subterranean twilight – and where they later hide the young man, Stephen. The cellar occupies the space where once there was a hill – ‘It was supposed to be a magic one, with sort of people living inside it, and things’ (p. 86) – which was then dug out to make a sandpit and afterwards leveled to provide foundations for the Rectory, that pillar of the eighteenth-century establishment. In former times the cellar served as a storage place for horse’s harness, sacks, wine and other necessities, but by the time the children find it there is nothing left there of any value apart from abandoned odds and ends they use in their games. The nearby village is another liminal space, divided between very old houses like the chemist’s, ‘with its beams showing among the narrow, pink bricks’ (p. 137), and new buildings like the Home Made Cake and Tea-Shoppe, which is a crude pastiche of an older structure: ‘This building also had beams showing, but they were quite new, and rather obvious as they were stained black against the white-washed wall of the front’ (p. 140). The fakeness of the Tea-Shoppe means the children don’t ‘care for it’ much, and also makes it the ideal meeting place for the Spinners and Weavers Club, whose harmless hobbies serve as a front for their machinations against the fugitive, Stephen. A third crosshatched place is the Roman Camp or mound, which is equally associated with the practical Romans and the elusive Green Lantern people. This is a ‘hump like a gigantic mole-hill’ (p. 163), under which the youngest Jefferson is imprisoned at one point by its supernatural occupants, and where the members of the Spinners and Weavers Club converge to barter with the three older Jefferson children for her release. The mound’s joint connection with the Romans and the ahistorical fairies is rendered confusing by the actions of the Spinners and Weavers as they gather round it. As the eldest Jefferson, Bruce, points out, his younger sister ‘said they wove circles and spells. I knew nothing about spells… who does? […] But these people were certainly weaving circles’. The link between magical and physical weaving sets the boy’s thoughts ‘whirling’ or spinning in his head (p. 167), making it hard to focus on the problem of how to win back his imprisoned sister from the mound that impossibly contains her. Is rational thought or a spell the appropriate instrument for her salvation – or should one try a combination of the two? Crossing a Cold War thriller with a fairy story makes the answer uncertain, especially for Bruce, who does not believe in fairies, yet finds himself faced with what seems incontrovertible evidence that they have stolen away his sister.

The solution to Bruce’s dilemma comes from an unexpected quarter: a pair of young and irritating children, Robin and Karen Meddings, who inhabit the most radically crosshatched building in the village. If the Jeffersons find the Home Made Cake and Tea-Shoppe repulsive for its fakery, the Old Forge is more repulsive still, as Bruce explains:

It’s all got up with wrought-iron gates, and lanterns, plaster doves on the roof, and… believe it or not… a plaster deer on the lawn! […] Where the blacksmith used to have his furnace, they have an anvil standing in the fireplace. And the room is packed to bursting with warming-pans, and horse-brasses, and candlesticks wired for electric light, and a wheel hung from the ceiling for more electric light. It’s like a tea-shoppe. We were only asked in once. Julia says we shouldn’t have laughed. Honestly, we didn’t do it loudly, I thought. (p. 23)

The Meddings children who live in this mocked-up Forge are, for Bruce, as fake as their home’s interior décor. They are always simpering and deferring to one another, behaviour that conceals the fact that they are no more angelic at heart than ‘normal’ children like the Jeffersons:

It’s not as though they really meant it. They only do this act when anyone’s watching. I saw Robin once snatch a sweet from his sister, just as she was putting it in her mouth. And she screamed and kicked him. It wasn’t pretty, but at least it was normal. Then they saw me, and started bowing and smirking to each other sickeningly. They may grow out of it. (p. 24)

Bruce’s distaste for the Meddings children’s hypocrisy, as he sees it, makes him treat them ‘’orribly’ (as Robin puts it) whenever he meets them. At one point Robin and Karen have the misfortune to show up at a point when tensions are at their highest – with the cellar under siege by its enemies – and Bruce lets off steam with a fierce tirade against the youngsters as if they embodied all the sinister forces ranged against him in one small package: ‘“Silly brats!” I shouted at them. “Dotty idiots! Showing-off asses! Don’t stand there staring, in front of your silly house. ‘Old Forge’, indeed! It’s an old forgery!’ (p. 135). On this occasion Bruce only succeeds in upsetting his own siblings as well as the Meddingses, making it one of his many moments of physical and social clumsiness in the narrative. Indeed, his resentment of the Meddings children may well stem from the fact that they seem at ease in an adult social context which he finds completely unfathomable, and which he is always failing to negotiate owing to the difficulty he has in concealing his feelings or finding words to convey his meaning.

In the chemist’s shop

At the same time, his association of Robin and Karen with Stephen’s enemies is hardly surprising, since all of them are adepts in the art of concealment. Not only does the Spinners and Weavers Club meet in a Tea Shoppe that closely resembles the Old Forge in its faux-medieval aesthetic, but the Spinners and Weavers themselves are past masters in the art of interweaving truth and falsehood, just like the Meddings children as Bruce sees them. When Bruce meets the Club’s leader, for instance – Mr Atkinson – he at once gets caught up in a complex web of lies and half-truths. Yes, Mr Atkinson is an old university ‘friend’ of the Rector’s, as he claims, but the word ‘friend’ is a misnomer, since the Rector later confesses ‘I didn’t like him very much’ (p. 90). Yes, Mr Atkinson has been given permission to sketch in the parish church, but he can’t be sketching a ‘crusader’s tomb’, as he insists (p. 82), because there isn’t one. The old man keeps addressing Bruce as ‘little boy’, which is both true and false, since Bruce is indeed young, but has no conception of himself as ‘little’ and so feels humiliated by the description. And Bruce does indeed have a ‘secret’, as Mr Atkinson insinuates (p. 81) – he is hiding Stephen – but the old man has secrets too, and the lie about the crusader’s tomb suggests that he will not willingly part with them. The same mixture of truth and falsehood characterizes the other members of the Club. The woman in the chemist’s shop, for instance, is really the sister of the chemist, as she claims, but she is also as ‘nasty’ as he is nice, and seems all too eager to weigh the Jeffersons ‘on a long hook’ – a metaphor with a potentially ‘gruesome double meaning’ (p. 139) – and to supply them with her own home-made and possibly lethal ‘tonic’ in place of their usual medicine. One member of the Club at the Tea Shoppe has her hair dyed blue as if in token of her fakery, while another has ‘what looked to me like a hundred huge false teeth’ (pp. 140-1), and owns a dog that may well be a wolf. In addition, the members of the Club are somehow linked to the ‘so-called labourers’ working at the church (p. 141). Their motives in tracking down Stephen are unclear, but the unclearness itself is of a piece with the disparity between their semi-respectable, everyday appearances and the obvious malice of their hidden agenda.

Bruce, Mr Atkinson, Old Mim

The whole world through which the Jeffersons move is in fact packed with menacing double meanings and false appearances. This leads Bruce a number of times into mistaking friends as enemies: Old Stanley the poacher, for instance, whom he identifies at first as one of Stephen’s pursuers (p. 63) but later finds to be a useful ally against them; or Lady Ariadne Hodgson, whose deep voice and unfriendly appearance make the children think of her as a ‘witch’ (p. 126), but who makes peace with them by giving them a box of toffees, which she cannot eat herself because of her false teeth (so that she too is revealed as a confusing mixture of the fake and the authentic). Robin and Karen Meddings, too, are transformed into friends from their initial status as diminutive enemies. Yet like Old Stanley and Lady Ariadne, the Meddings kids retain their dual nature as a fusion of the true and the false, the real and the imagined, and their transformation could be said to entail a belated recognition on the part of the Jeffersons that they themselves inhabit a context composed in equal parts of dreams and logic, facts and falsehoods.

The Spinners and Weavers at the Roman mound

The transformation of the Meddingses takes place on the night when Deirdre, the youngest of the Jeffersons, gets imprisoned in the crosshatched space of the Roman mound. Taunted by Deirdre’s captors (the Green Lantern people) and their allies (the old men and women of the Spinners and Weavers Club), the three older Jeffersons find themselves on the verge of surrendering Stephen to his pursuers in exchange for the little girl’s safety. At this precise moment they hear footsteps approaching through the darkness, which make the Spinners and Weavers vanish. Bruce at once seeks a ‘reason’ for the coven’s disappearance, and his sister Julia suggests that the footsteps may belong to that embodiment of authenticity and ordinariness, the housekeeper Old Mim. Instead they belong to the Meddings children, embodiments of middle-class ‘forgery’, who are walking up the hill holding hands in the ‘phony’ way Bruce finds so disgusting, and carrying a gift he thinks irrelevant: ‘a big, and very rusty horse-shoe, all covered with mud’ (p. 169). All three of the older Jeffersons, frantic with worry, unite to shoo these kids away and reject their gift; but they are wrong to do so, as Robin insists. The horseshoe is physical proof that the Old Forge and its inhabitants are not in fact the products of fakeness:

‘It’s one the blacksmith made […] We dug it up in the garden this afternoon, when we were planting a chocolate. In our garden. So ’tisn’t all forgery and that, either! This is proper iron, what a proper blacksmith made.’ (p. 169)

The horseshoe shows that the Old Forge is a ‘proper place where a proper blacksmith made proper iron and things’; the name of the house has a meaning just as authentic as that of the Rectory where the children are staying. And the gift is authentically useful to the Jeffersons. Being made of iron and twisted into the familiar U of the horseshoe, with its age-old connotations of protection and good luck, it proves highly effective in the bewildering nocturnal world in which the siblings find themselves stranded. Andrew Jefferson suddenly has the idea of embedding it in the mound as a kind of padlock, thereby imprisoning Deirdre’s gaolers – who like other members of the fairy community cannot pass cold iron – and enabling Andrew to demand his sister’s release in exchange for their freedom. Like the Meddingses themselves, whose presence drove away the Spinners and Weavers, the Meddingses’ gift subdues the powers of Deirdre’s captors, confirming the younger children’s participation in the Jeffersons’ adventures, despite all of Bruce’s attempts to keep them at arm’s length and to claim that the supernatural events going on all round him have a perfectly rational explanation.

Tending to Stephen

In the process, the enduring presence of magic underneath the Sussex landscape is confirmed – the resistance of its ancient charms to all the rapid changes of recent decades. The disused shelter, the forgotten cellar, the Roman mound, even the gnome-ridden garden of the Old Forge each retain an active link to still potent traces of the past, despite the patina of newness that covers them. Indeed, the shelter and the Old Forge could be described as acts of homage to the past, an acknowledgment of its continuing potency framed in terms of the kitsch and the obsolete. The Forge’s plaster gnomes have an ambiguously ‘real’ equivalent in the living gnomes mentioned at one point by Bruce’s younger sister: ‘Deirdre said she didn’t mind gnomes, but she didn’t like the lantern-men who’d gone over the hills, looking and looking’ (p. 65). And as the supernatural hunters and seekers converge on Stephen’s hiding place in the cellar, ‘looking and looking’, Bruce’s desperate efforts to keep things rational prove increasingly ineffective, until he is forced to enlist the Meddingses in the struggle against Stephen’s enemies. After all, Robin and Karen come from a background that freely accommodates the impossible: gnomes and fairies, magic rituals, the resurgence of the past, the power of cold iron. Their parents are ‘artistic’, despite their affection for warming-pans and horse-brasses: the mother is a TV scriptwriter, the father an actor, and both are therefore adult participants in the same imaginative games enjoyed by the Rectory children (p. 22). And the Meddings children themselves mean well, despite their mannerisms and the intrusiveness of their efforts to win the approval of the Jeffersons.

Meaning, in fact, is a central theme of Gray’s novel; in particular, the way meanings change in different contexts. This theme is pointed up by a stylistic quirk of the first person narrative voice, which is that of Bruce, the oldest of the Jefferson siblings. The Jeffersons could be said to inhabit a crosshatched space of their own, whose function in the narrative shifts repeatedly in response to changing situations, and who therefore provide an ideal vehicle for thinking about the complex process of making meaning in the 1960s. Their surname, as I mentioned earlier, recalls the ‘professional name’ of Gray’s good friend Joan Jefferson Farjeon, which she adopted to underline her descent from a celebrated dynasty of American actors. The Jefferson children, too, are inveterate actors, transforming the cellar they find into a private stage sealed off from the rest of the Rectory by a symbolic curtain. Their days are passed in a blend of the imagined and the real quite as complicated as anything they encounter in the outside world, and for them the cellar embodies that potent mixture, changing its significance with each new game they play, from the heathland of Ancient Britain to a fairy tale forest to King Solomon’s mines, depending on which of them is in charge of their activities. Bruce’s voice as narrator mimics the voice of Oswald Bastable, narrator of Edith Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers and its sequels. Like Oswald, Bruce is an eldest brother with multiple siblings, though Gray adjusts the number to take account of the diminishing size of the average family in the 1960s. Where Oswald is one of six, Bruce is one of only four – two boys, two girls – and is older than his twin sister Julia by just half an hour, which suggests another adjustment in terms of equality between the sexes (although he draws heavily on his male privilege to assume the role of ‘masterful leader’ on most occasions). The characters of these four children are carefully differentiated: Julia is the aspiring novelist with the novelist’s capacity for imaginative empathy; her younger brother Andrew is a passionate reader of non-fiction and decidedly ‘clever’, though imaginative too, as his trick with the horseshoe shows; while five-year-old Deirdre, saddled with a name from Irish mythology, is inevitably a seer, inclined to imagine ‘too much’, as we learn towards the end of the story (p. 200), and vulnerable as a result to the machinations of the Green Lantern people she alone can visualize with absolute clarity.

Bruce meets a bull

Bruce, meanwhile, is a literalist, or so he claims. He keeps insisting he has no imagination – although he willingly joins in with his siblings’ games – and his ambition to become a doctor underlines his concern with the practical needs of the mind and body. His literalism expresses itself in his prose style, which is full of comic clarifications aimed at removing ambiguity from his declarations, but managing only to draw attention to the sometimes bizarre alternative constructions that could be put on his words. From the beginning to the end of the narrative he works to elucidate his meaning, repeatedly using the phrase ‘I mean’ whenever he thinks a word or phrase may be ambiguous: ‘The cellar ran all about under the Rectory. It hadn’t been used for years. The cellar, I mean’ (p. 7); ‘we dropped it… the book, I mean… and it got trodden in with the cider’ (p. 12); ‘This turned out to control the milking-machine, in some obscure way. The switch, I mean’ (p. 14); ‘We’d found some candle-ends in a tin box down there. In the cellar, I mean. […] I took a box of matches from the bathroom, leaving twopence in its place. Just for a start, that was. The matches, I mean’ (p. 17). In most cases here the clarifying phrase ‘I mean’ serves to point up the chaotic situations the children get themselves into: the book of instructions for making cider getting mixed up with the cider itself, the confusion over the function of the switch for the milking-machine, the complex self-justification rendered necessary by an act of minor theft from the Rectory’s stores. Their activities defy all Bruce’s attempts to reduce them to grammatical and rational order – to bring the uncontrollable, so to speak, under verbal control.

The Jeffersons with their uncle, the Rector

In the same way, the eldest Jefferson is always seeking to find rational explanations for things, assigning new, mundane meanings to them as new evidence emerges, but invariably reaching a point where conventional reasoning fails to account for what’s going on. When strange lights begin to appear in the cellar – Deirdre says they come from the gates of the fairy hill – his reasoning becomes fragmented and frantic: ‘There had to be a reasonable explanation for it all. Otherwise one might be forced to believe in Spoilers, and witches, and suchlike. Which was impossible. So there must be the explanation. The trouble was, I couldn’t think of one’ (p. 105). The bewildering events at the Roman mound challenge his logic still further. As the children make their way home after rescuing Deirdre, Bruce observes that ‘No one said any more about the lantern-men for the time being. To my great relief, as I could think of very little to say that made any sense’ (p. 174). Barred from the belief in the impossible that his three siblings increasingly share, his sense of incomprehension grows until the final chapter, ‘The Gate’, when the entrance to the fairy hill is finally opened in the cellar. Here all three of his siblings are able to see that something magical is taking place, but Bruce cannot, since he has been vouchsafed only transient glimpses of the supernatural throughout the narrative. To the end of the story he continues to insist that ‘It was all imagination’ (p. 197) despite the accumulation of evidence to the contrary. When his brother Andrew tells him ‘The cellar’s full of sunlight’, he can only answer: ‘Well, it wasn’t. Not that I could see’, and add: ‘I felt for a moment that I was going mad, rather than the others’. This from the boy who observed in the opening chapter that he might need to become a ‘brain specialist’ to take account of the imaginative eccentricities of his two youngest siblings, who may both be ‘mad’ (p. 9). In the final chapter, in fact, he recognizes that it may be his own senses that are faulty rather than theirs: ‘If I was really the only one who had seen nothing special, then perhaps I was duller than the rest… which was sad, but quite possible’ (p. 196). In the course of the story the boundaries of the possible have grown permeable, and Bruce’s certainty about his position – as rationalist, as the eldest and as the most ‘masterful’ member of his family (p. 62) – has been shaken to the roots.

Stephen in the cellar

The shaking of Bruce’s rationalism is in fact quite literal; he is constantly getting knocks on the head in the course of his adventures, rendering him temporarily disoriented and subject to visual disturbances. His first encounter with the cellar is a violent one: suspended upside down inside a cupboard, he is pushed by Andrew, falls (presumably on his head) and rolls down ‘about ten steps’ into the hidden room. Later the children set up a booby-trap to deter unwelcome visitors, and Bruce promptly forgets it is there, falling down the stairs a second time and being hit on the head with a broom (again by Andrew) at the bottom (‘Things went rather dim for a while’, he comments wryly, p.99). Later still, in a neighbour’s barn, Bruce bangs his head ‘so hard on a beam that it rang like a bell. My head, I mean’ (p. 149); and when the Spinners and Weavers Club converge on the children by the Roman mound he trips over a hummock and falls flat on his face, which prompts Mr Atkinson to comment: ‘Poor little boy […] it’s bumped its poor head, and now it’s all muddled’ (p. 165). This adds to Bruce’s difficulties in distinguishing between the real and the illusory: ‘My head was spinning. I suppose I’d banged it just once too often that night. Even now I can’t be quite sure how much of all this really happened, and how much I imagined. I may have been dreaming, though I was not asleep’ (p. 165). In response to all these knocks, the inside of Bruce’s head becomes a crosshatched space, its contents muddled to the extent that memories can no longer be disentangled from waking dreams.

At the same time, the distinction between the imagined and the real, the dreamed and the remembered, keeps getting blurred even outside Bruce’s head as the book goes on. For one thing, the children’s games keep turning real. Deirdre is constantly telling adults about their clandestine adventures, and although she is never believed – her stories are variously described as ‘horrible inventions’ (p. 160) and wild ‘fantasies’ (p. 175) – her elder siblings are always on tenterhooks in case she lets slip something too believable about the all-too-material runaway Stephen. At one point, seeking to distract their enemies’ attention from the cellar where Stephen is hiding, the children pack a suitcase full of fake medical supplies and set out across country, drawing the two fake labourers after them towards a neighbouring farm. Here the classic children’s game of doctors and nurses becomes a component part of a genuine crisis: the Jeffersons are in fact genuinely tending to a sick fugitive, and only the location of the man and the supplies they carry are illusions. The Roman mound is the focus of a real adventure when Deirdre is trapped underneath it, but it’s also a reminder of the games the children played in the cellar earlier, which involved Romans and Britons, with Bruce inevitably playing a rational Roman while Julia stood in for the impetuous British queen, Boadicea. Not long afterwards the stuff of games is repurposed again as the children prepare to repel Stephen’s massed ‘enemies’ from the cellar. The dustbin-lids and rusty scythe-blades they used as Roman and British weapons in Chapter 2 get recalled and reused in Chapter 13, when Bruce describes them as ‘the weapons of happier days’ and adds forlornly, ‘We didn’t really think they would be much use’ (p. 192). The horseshoe brought to them by the Meddings children changes from an element in a game – Robin and Karen were burying a chocolate when they found it – into a key part of Deirdre’s rescue from the mound. Later the Jeffersons recall the power of cold iron when pondering ways to protect the Rectory, placing iron objects in all the windows and doors to repel the Lantern people. Repeatedly, objects and concepts that were first given new meaning by their involvement in imagined scenarios acquire a serious, even urgent function in the decidedly unplayful context of the hunt for and defence of the fugitive.

Bruce and Julia Jefferson face the police

As the process of ‘realising’ the imaginary goes on, both of the older Jefferson siblings, Bruce and Julia, feel increasingly stressed by the mounting complexity of the situation. This is one of the ways Gray’s novel differs from some analogous work by his contemporaries, such as Alan Garner’s debut novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), which was published the year before. In that book, the child protagonists Colin and Susan are left more or less unscathed by their adventures. The svart alfar or Dark Elves, the terrible journey through the mines, even the death of their friend, the dwarf Durathror, at the hands of the Morrigan – none of these incidents seems to have got much emotional purchase on their psychologies (though the psychological effects of mixing with magic get much more intense in Garner’s later novels). Down in the Cellar, by contrast, leaves one with the sense that Bruce’s mental health, and that of his twin sister, is genuinely suffering as they struggle to manage a state of affairs that would have challenged the psychological equilibrium of any adult. Bruce’s fierce diatribe against the Meddings children is a symptom of this mental stress, which reaches its climax when he bursts into tears under interrogation by the Chief Constable, Mr Wheatley, who has come in person to lead the search for the missing man. ‘Everyone was amazed,’ Bruce says at this point, ‘including me. But I couldn’t help it, it just happened’; and in response, the police and his family members ‘stared at me in horror, while I stood with my mouth open, and tears running into it, hiccupping and sobbing for breath’ (p. 186). Yet Bruce’s siblings mistake this torrent of emotion for a cunning ruse, another bit of playacting designed to disrupt Mr Wheatley’s investigations. Afterwards Andrew asks admiringly, ‘How on earth did you do it? They were real tears!’, and Julia admits ‘I didn’t honestly think Bruce had it in him’; while Bruce himself decides to say no more about ‘the reasons for my break-down’ (p. 187). One good reason for this reticence, perhaps, is that his breakdown springs from the breakdown of reason itself; first, in that his own reasons for protecting the fugitive may not stand up to police scrutiny, and secondly because the events since Stephen entered their lives have been so confusing. Bruce’s outburst is allowed to stand for what his siblings think it: another game that has suddenly been saddled with a serious purpose.

The opening of the gate into the hill

One could read Gray’s novel as what’s glibly called a ‘coming-of-age’ story, as if children grew to adulthood at some definable moment in their lives, or as if maturity itself were something stable. The book suggests instead that the process is complicated, since responsibility emerges from within the context of childhood play, while play and serious adult concerns have the same ingredients. But there’s something else that might be read into Gray’s narrative of transition. Bruce’s isolation at the end, as the only unimaginative Jefferson, is intensified by the fact that he alone of the four siblings is blessed or cursed with the ability to remember Stephen and all they went through to hide and defend him. The three younger children are asked to forget the strange young man by the Lady of the Hill, as she leads him away through the hidden gates to her underground kingdom. The least imaginative Jefferson, Bruce, is left with a memory of Stephen’s face, now indistinguishable from a private dream since none of his siblings shares it. By the final page of the novel the two youngest children have already switched their attention to other things: Deirdre declares that when she gets older she may marry Robin, the older Meddings child, while Andrew adds: ‘Come to that, I may decide to marry Karen’ (p. 203). Bruce, by contrast, recalls specific details of Stephen’s appearance: ‘I remembered Uncle’s old dressing-gown that Stephen had taken with him. And the heap of chalk-stained clothes he’d left behind’ (p. 203). For Bruce, in fact, Stephen himself is always physically interesting, indeed attractive, as well as mysterious. When he first sees the fugitive he describes him as ‘a handsome sort of person, though unshaven and grimy, and all smeared with chalk’ (p. 35). Later on, when tending to him in the cellar, Bruce thinks that Stephen may be complimenting him on his own appearance: ‘How kind you are, and how beautiful’, the sick man murmurs (p. 109), and the startled Stephen thinks to himself, ‘I hoped I was fairly kind, but no one would describe me as more than average good-looking’. On another occasion Bruce is struck for a second time by the stranger’s good looks; now he has grown a beard, he observes, ‘He looked like an actor in Shakespeare or something. Actually, it suited him. It was rather romantic. As he was asleep and couldn’t hear, I said this to Andrew. And he agreed’ (p. 180). Bruce seeks reassurance from his brother that his perception of Stephen’s appearance is accurate, and duly records that his brother agrees, as if to exonerate himself from the charge of paying too much attention to what a man looks like. Then towards the end, when the Hill-Lady finally comes to take Stephen to safety, Bruce is still more impressed by the young man’s beauty: ‘He was much handsomer than anyone we’d imagined from stories’ (p. 200). Stephen, in other words, has drifted in Bruce’s mind from being a figure out of fiction, to the author or actor of fictions, to a real, live human being, whose face is better than anything he could have conjured up in his childhood imaginings. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that the young man’s departure has such an acute effect on Gray’s narrator. As Stephen limps out of the underground room where the siblings have tended him, ‘A sort of grief came over me in a wave’, Bruce tells us (p. 200), and Stephen stops and looks at him as if in response. What Stephen says at this point is an observation that might well have come from a man addressing a young male admirer on parting, at a time in history when same-sex desire was effectively outlawed. ‘You mustn’t mind, Bruce,’ he tells him; ‘It’s not easy to see a thing through, when you aren’t sure what it is you’re seeing’. In the 50s and early 60s same-sex desire might well be something a growing child could not be certain he was seeing or feeling, a state of mind that was wholly unacknowledged in his education or family life. As he passes from the cellar into the hill, Stephen leaves Bruce with a story he can never tell in full, at least with any expectation of understanding, a story he does not fully understand himself, and part of that story may well be what first attracted him to Stephen. Gray’s fairy tale, in other words – like the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde and Hans Christian Andersen, four of which provided themes for plays by Gray – could stand in for the experience of first discovering yourself to be gay in early adolescence.

Gray’s other fiction lends support to this reading. His first short story collection, for instance – Mainly in Moonlight (1965) – is full of stories of young men who are rejected by their communities and find a new place for themselves in an all-male household. The first story, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentices’, involves a boy called Martin rescuing another boy called Avenel and bringing him back to live with him in the house of his male teacher, Alain. ‘The Hunting of the Dragon’ involves another rescue of a boy by another boy, after which the rescuer, Prince Michael, feels comfortable with his own identity for the first time in his life. ‘According to Tradition’ tells of a pair of princely brothers the younger of whom ends up as the married king of his country, while the elder chooses to defy tradition and go live with the fairies – led by a handsome witch-king – because he ‘could never be at home’ living by the conventions of ‘mortal men’ (p. 104). ‘The Lady’s Quest’ tells of a prince who hates the convention that only men are allowed to embark on dangerous quests. His sister Alexa tells him that ‘you would make a better girl than I do’, he tells one of his father’s soldiers that his men are ‘lovely’ (p. 119), and his best friend Gregory is ‘not quite at home in the company of ladies’ (p. 125). The story culminates with the two young men being rescued by Alexa, and though Gray hints that both have become fascinated by the women they have met in the course of their adventures, there is no indication that either boy intends to do more with this new interest than learn at last ‘to be at ease in the company of ladies’ (p. 129). Very few of Gray’s fairy tales end in marriage; many are about young men who feel deeply out of place in the world they were born into. In one of the most poignant stories, ‘The Star Beast’, an intelligent creature of uncertain gender from another world – its hands are ‘slender, long-fingered, with the fine nails of a girl’, its body ‘like that of a boy – a half-grown lad – though it was as tall as a man’ (p. 71) – is mistreated until it starts to behave like what it has been called by all the people it meets: an abused animal. Both Bruce and Stephen of Down in the Cellar fit easily into this collection of displaced boys and men.

The novel ends with Bruce hearing a sound in the cellar that reminds him of some lines from the Scottish Border Ballad Tam Lin: ‘About the mid-hour of the night / They heard the bridles ring’ (p. 203). The sound, so clearly out of place under the Rectory, offers one final confirmation that it was indeed the ‘Hill-Lady’ who took Stephen into the hill before erasing all memory of him from those who saw him, apart from Bruce. The displacement of the ballad from Scotland to the Sussex Downs, alongside the displacement of the sound from the open air to an enclosed cellar, emphasizes the theme of displacement that runs through the novel; and this displacement is invoked by a number of references to Scotland throughout – from Bruce’s name, which invokes the Scottish hero Robert the Bruce, or Andrew’s, which he shares with Scotland’s patron saint (Deirdre’s name, by contrast, is Irish), to Julie’s observation to the police that the fugitive ‘is probably in the north of Scotland by this time’ (p. 78). The children themselves are displaced, in that they are outsiders from London in a Sussex village, while their parents are on the other side of the planet, in New Zealand. Stephen comes from an unnamed country where a different language is spoken; he can clearly never go back there, and as the novel goes on it becomes clear that there is also no place for him in England. For most of his life Gray was a Scot in England, and the cultural crosshatching he practises in Down in the Cellar, as well as the sense of alienation that fills it, may well have been deeply familiar to him.

As a version of Tam Lin, Gray’s novel does not run ‘According to Tradition’ any more than his other fairy tales tend to. The handsome Tam Lin had to be rescued from the fairy queen to save him from the fate of serving as a human sacrifice to Hell – the famous fairy ‘teind’. The rescue involved great courage on the part of his earthly lover, Janet, who clung to him as he changed shape into a variety of wild animals, as well as a burning coal and a naked man, never letting go until the spell that bound him was finally broken. One of the stories in Mainly in Moonlight, ‘A Letter to My Love’, culminates in an ordeal very like Janet’s, where a young woman clings to the body of a man in need of rescue as it changes from lizard to woodlouse, from slug to lump of ice (pp. 68-69). Stephen, by contrast, must be given over to the Hill-Lady if he is to survive. ‘Poor Bruce’ must let go of him instead of clinging on, give him up instead of winning him, and can expect ‘no sort of reward’ for all his struggles on the stranger’s behalf, all the mental and physical pain he has undergone for him. Tam Lin in all its versions is about a difficult romance, from Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock (1984) to Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin (1991) and Sally Prue’s Cold Tom (2002). Romance is the lifeblood of the story, and Bruce’s sense of loss at the close of the novel – the ‘sort of grief’ that ‘came over me in a wave’ (p. 200)– suggests an emerging awareness that he is being bereaved of the romance that he identified with Stephen from the moment of his discovery in a disused cave.

Among other things, Down in the Cellar is a story about finding that the mind is a strange and complex organ, and about how words, places, communities and relationships participate in its complexity. In it, the imaginative and the rational exist in partnership, memory and fantasy cohabit, new desires transform the world, the body affects the mind and the mind the body, while the lightness of games is always giving way to the heavy weight of responsibility, which in turn reveals an unsuspected affinity with childhood play. It’s a fine example of the way fantasy for children responds to the particular challenges of political and social history. And it’s an argument in itself, I think, for reprinting Gray’s fiction for children.

Note

[1] Gray’s other illustrators included Joan Jefferson Farjeon, Charles W Stewart (who also worked in theatre design), Charles Keeping and himself.

Fantasy Brussels 1: Comics and Museums

Brussels: Grand Place with Maison du Roi or Broodhuis

As the UK bids farewell to the European Union I find my thoughts turning to fantasy on the European continent, and in particular to the most fantastic city on that continent, Brussels. This is a kind of polder in Belgium, as John Clute defined the word in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Derived from the Old Dutch term for ‘a tract of low-lying land reclaimed from a body of water and generally surrounded by dykes’, Clute takes ‘polder’ to mean an ‘enclave […] of toughened Reality, demarcated by boundaries from the surrounding world’. The boundaries need to be maintained by powerful magic wielded by some figure who recognises the need to keep them in place. ‘A polder, in other words,’ Clute sums up, ‘is an active Microcosm, armed against the potential Wrongness of that which surrounds it, an anachronism consciously opposed to wrong time’. There could hardly be a better word for Brussels, in its capacity either as imaginary capital of Europe – set up to oppose the Wrongness of totalitarianism, corruption and international conflict – or as a cultural centre, protector of artistic innovators and eccentrics from Pieter Brueghel the Elder to Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Horta and Magritte. The figure maintaining the integrity of Brussels through magic remains obscure, but the magic is there for sure, as well as the notion of the city as a focus of anachronisms, a meeting place between multiple strands of history and the very modern social and economic problems it works haltingly to resolve.

The Belgian Revolution (1830) by Gustaf Wappers (1834)

Brussels is a linguistic as well as a cultural polder: a French-speaking capital city stranded in the middle of Flemish-speaking territory. Different rules apply here. Spatially it’s confusing, with its jumble of ancient, decrepit, out-of-date, modernist, postmodern and ultra-modern buildings, many of them highly eccentric, all locked inside a labyrinth of streets, both cobbled and tarmacked, to which no map provides an adequate key. It’s here that the Belgian Revolution started in 1830, the only political coup ever to have been triggered in an opera house. The work that got it going, La muette de Portici (‘The Mute Girl of Portici’), by Daniel Auber and Germain Delavigne – whose lead, bizarrely for an opera, is a voiceless woman performed by a dancer – is often described as the first Grand Opera, and the people of Brussels were so inspired by it that they rose against their Dutch oppressors and established the Kingdom of Belgium as an independent state in emulation of its central characters. The eccentricity that transformed Grand Opera into Revolution continues to mark the people of Brussels to this day, and a quick glance around the city will confirm its omnipresence there, embodied in the bizarre architectural structures and peculiar statues with which it is so well stocked.

The Museum of Musical Instruments, designed by Paul Saintenoy (1899)

Its eccentricity is also embodied in the extraordinary diversity of strange museums in the capital. There is no other city in the world that has half so many museums per capita (that’s a claim I’ve just invented, but I bet it’s true). From the Museum of Beer to the Museums of Freemasonry, Jazz, Chocolate, Clocks, Trams, Musical Instruments, Lace, and Fantastic Art, each of these institutions embodies an obsession, and many are housed in buildings which are themselves museum pieces (the Museum of Musical Instruments is a great example). The monumental Musée des Beaux-Arts near the royal palace, with its unparalleled collection of Flemish masters, was immortalised in an Auden poem [link]; he summed it up as the place where Icarus can be found, the boy who fell from the sky while everyone else went quietly about their business. That’s exactly what you’d expect to happen in Brussels. The city has been an artistic as well as a commercial centre for many centuries, providing a generous home for movements such as Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Expressionism and Surrealism, and between them the museums testify to the sheer oddness of the creative gestures the Bruxellois have found most congenial. Some museums also testify to its violent past: the Museum of Central Africa, for instance, full of traces of the Belgian atrocities in the Congo which underpin Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces in the Parc du Cinquentenaire, which when I last saw it was crammed with German helmets from the Second World War with bullet holes in them, mute reminders of the importance of the project of a unified Europe. Perhaps the strangest of the museums is the Wiertz Museum, dedicated to a painter of vast lurid pictures which he left to the state on condition they be displayed for ever in his majestic studio. Wiertz’s subjects include the body of Patroclus being torn apart as the Trojans and Greeks fight over it, a cholera victim who has been accidentally buried alive clawing his way out of his coffin, a half-naked man blowing his brains out with a pistol, and a young woman smirking at an undead skeleton. There is hope that Wiertz himself might one day become a museum exhibit; his body was embalmed according to Egyptian custom and stored safely in an underground vault.

The Berlaymont Building (1963-9), designed by Lucien De Vestel, in 1974, when I first knew it

I came to know Brussels in the early 1970s when my father went to work there as an official in the European Commission. He lived in a high rise just down the road from the Berlaymont building, many storeys above the street and accessible only by a small lift or many flights of narrow stairs; when he moved there, the larger items of furniture he owned had to be hauled in through the sitting room window. The kitchen of this flat had a chute with a metal flap on it through which you could post your rubbish, which went crashing down from storey to storey till it came to rest in a noxious refuse bin in the subterranean basement. If you visited the basement to take out rubbish that didn’t fit in the chute you had to dare the automatic lights, which turned off after several seconds leaving you stranded in the dark; you then had to grope your way to one of the switches, which glowed like the eyes of Morlocks in the George Pal movie of The Time Machine, and activate the lights again – for a few seconds, until they switched themselves off and plunged you once more in abysmal darkness. When we children stayed with my father we went to the Berlaymont every weekday for lunch, being introduced to such typically Belgian delicacies as ‘filet américain’ (a plateful of raw mince) and roast chicory wrapped in ham and doused in a thick cheese sauce. There were no Brussels sprouts in Brussels back in those days, which broke my father’s heart because he loved them more than any other vegetable; just chicory in unimaginable quantities. The most remarkable thing about the Berlaymont canteen in the 1970s was that it was the only place in the country where you could get a truly terrible meal. On special occasions we would go out to a proper restaurant such as Chez Léon, near the celebrated Grand Place or central square, to eat moules frites – mussels with chips – which is the Belgian national dish, the shellfish in question being doused in every kind of sauce you can possibly imagine and many you can’t. You can’t talk about Brussels, in fact, without talking about food and drink. The food there is as various and eccentric as the architecture, and somehow perfectly adapted to it, as full of curlicues and flourishes as the Maison du Roi in the Grand Place: a confection of Gothic revival balconies and images which houses the Brussels City Museum and is also known as the Broodhuis or Bread Hall, though it looks more like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake than a conventional loaf of bread. You see? Food and buildings exist in a symbiotic relationship chez les Belges.

François Schuiten’s version of the Palais de Justice as Poelart intended it, with a pyramid instead of a dome

On successive stays in Brussels I fell in love with some of the city’s bizarrer architectural manifestations, such as the futuristic Atomium (1958), constructed in the shape of an iron crystal – and extremely dilapidated when I first visited it – and Joseph Poelart’s Palais de Justice (1866-1883), the largest building constructed in the nineteenth century, which is essentially a monstrous portico with no rooms attached to it (though there are some very impressive staircases both inside and out). Some claim that Orson Welles wanted to shoot his version of Kafka’s The Trial among its halls and corridors, while Poelart himself is said to have gone mad while building it – just as the architect of Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum is said to have been driven to distraction by the discovery that his masterpiece had been constructed back to front, throwing himself off one of the building’s many towers in a fit of pique. At an early age I also became aware of the practice of ‘Brusselization’, which involves buying fine old buildings and allowing them to decay until they are completely irreparable, then tearing them down and building something hideous in their place. When I first went to Brussels the city was full of these carefully neglected ruins, which lent the streets an air of melancholy, as if some calamitous architectural disease were eating away at its vital organs. The effect was enhanced by the mania for preserving historical façades while tearing down the buildings they once fronted. The many ornate frontages with nothing behind them except scaffolding and gaping brick-fringed holes in the Belgian soil added to the impression that Brussels was a kind of conspiracy, a front for something deeply suspicious and possibly inhuman which was working towards the universal destruction of mankind.

Toone Puppet Theatre, bar area

Conspiracy theories like to portray human beings as helpless sentient puppets manipulated by monstrous unseen hands; and Brussels has a hidden gem ideally suited to the tastes of inveterate seekers-out of Rosicrucian plots and anarchistic machinations. This is the Toone puppet theatre, a tiny, shadowy cave tucked away in an inner courtyard off one of the narrow medieval streets that worm the vicinity of the Grand Place. The theatre doubles as a bar draped with superannuated puppets, like corpses in a painting by the manic Belgian etcher and painter James Ensor. It has been in existence since its foundation by Antoine ‘Toone’ Genty in about 1830. Disturbingly, all the puppet masters since have adopted the name of Toone, as if they were clones of their great precursor, carved by him out of wood and brought to life by some perverse blue fairy; or a succession of boy apprentices carefully trained in the supernatural art of bringing life to inanimate objects, each of whom got possessed by the spirit of Genty at a certain point in his professional development. One memorable Toone production I saw in my teenage years involved Lucretia Borgia’s murderous attempts to set herself up as ‘Papesse’ – a female Pope much addicted to poisoning her rivals. Another was a particularly violent version of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, all acted in the Brussels dialect, a unique fusion of Flemish and French which ends up sounding very much like English. The Toone Theatre is yet another polder within the larger polder of Brussels, its inhabitants dusty people made of wood, cloth, wire and string, with unsettling painted eyes. It’s a museum too, of course, as well as a bar and theatre. I think perhaps every building in Brussels is also a museum. And a bar. And possibly a theatre too, now I come to think of it.

Rouge Cloître, with one of its fishponds

When my father moved to Auderghem, a former forest village in the south east of the city, we spent many afternoons among the etiolated trees of the Forêt de Soignes, where charcoal burners and hunters once plied their trades and where the tracks of deer can still be traced after each fresh fall of snow. Our favourite spot was a former monastery called Rouge Cloître: a cluster of buildings surrounded by woods, within whose precincts a succession of excellent restaurants and cafés have been set up over the years, none of which have lasted more than three or four seasons. One modest café there only ever served quiches, but they were the finest quiches in the whole of creation. Parokeets flew screeching through the nearby branches, Siberian chipmunks whisked along the tops of the crumbling walls, while huge carp surfaced in the ancient fishponds, some of them attached to the fishing lines of the many anglers who crowded the banks. When in town I drank at the famous bar À la mort subite – Sudden Death – near the city centre, an ornately decorated chamber thronged with indifferent lounging cats. There and elsewhere I discovered the astonishing diversity of Belgian beers, from Gueuze, Kriek and Hoegaarden to the much more potent abbey brews, blond, dark and russet. The abbey connection suggests that beer is something of a religion in that part of Europe. There’s a Scottish connection, too; when I moved to Glasgow in 1992 I learned that Scottish beer was more highly regarded in Brussels than in Scotland, and that at least one variety – Gordon’s Highland Scotch Ale – was still being brewed exclusively for the Belgian market in Edinburgh (production was transferred to Belgium after the millennium). I have never been to the Beer Museum, but I’ll wager it’s full of astonishing facts like this one.

Les Archers, the first Thorgal album I owned

All these details give some sense of the eccentricity of a city whose best-known symbol is a little boy having a pee, who gets dressed up in a different costume for every day of the year (there’s a museum for his costumes, of course: the ‘Garderobe Manneken Pis’). But I promised to talk about Brussels and fantasy, and for me the epitome of fantasy in Brussels has always been the comics. By comics I mean, of course, the bandes dessinées or BDs of the Franco-Belgian school, known to francophone commentators as the ‘ninth art’ (the eighth is television; I forget the rest). My father’s flat near the Berlaymont Building was crammed with BDs, and later so was his house in Auderghem. He had all the Tintin books, mostly in French with a few English titles thrown in; he also had the whole of Asterix, an Enki Bilal, some Lucky Lukes, and more. I read everything dozens of times, poring over the relationship between words and pictures, the transition from panel to panel, the colour schemes, and slowly discovering new puns, allusions and even plotlines as the years went by and my French improved. After a few years I began to collect BDs of my own: most notably Thorgal le Viking, by the Polish artist Grzegorz Rosinski and the prolific Belgian scenario-writer Jean van Hamme, and the Cités obscures series by the Belgian artist François Schuiten and the French novelist and scholar Benoît Peeters. My taste in comics was largely determined by my taste in drawing styles. I loved pictures I could study for hours on end and return to again and again, stumbling across new details and more ingenious juxtapositions, or simply marvelling at the skill that had been lavished on each panel, page or double spread. Such were the drawings of the French artist Jean Giraud, known as Moebius, which led me to his masterpiece L’Incal, scripted by the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Brazilian writer-artist Leo drew me to his series Les mondes d’Aldébaran with his careful representations of peculiar alien animals, each of which is sufficiently close to some terrestrial life-form to disturb and amuse in equal measure. Régis Loisel’s flamboyant penmanship made me enamoured of La quête de l’oiseau du temps, scripted by Serge Le Tendre, while the rich textures and three-dimensional solidity of Juan Díaz Canales’s anthropomorphic dogs, goats, polar bears and rhinoceroses led me to the neo-noir adventures of the feline private eye Blacksad, written by Canales’s fellow Spaniard Juanjo Guarnido. Recent discoveries are the Valérian books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières (I was alerted to these, of course, by Luc Besson’s film), the Orbital series by Serge Pellé and Sylvain Runberg, and Sillage by Jean-David Morvan and Philippe Buchet. The ten-volume Décalogue, conceived by Frank Giroud and drawn by several artists, delighted me by setting the first of its volumes in Glasgow, so that I had the pleasure of seeing the buildings I knew best magically embedded in the panels of a Franco-Belgian comic. I collected volumes or ‘tomes’ of BDs each time I went to Brussels to visit my father, often in the local Carrefour supermarket, sometimes in the Museum of Comics near the Grand Place – more accurately, the Centre Belge de la bande dessinée.

Museum of Comics, Brussels, designed by Victor Horta,

The Comics Museum is housed in a former department store designed by Victor Horta, so one could say that the BD industry has been built into the landscape of the city, entwined with the vegetable inventiveness of Belgian Art Nouveau. Another of Horta’s buildings houses material relating to the comics of François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters; this is La Maison Autrique, which contains a permanent display of Schuiten’s pictures honouring the Horta legacy. The Maison plays a central role in one of the final albums of the Cités obscures series, La théorie du grain de sable. Museums occur, in fact, with remarkable frequency in Franco-Belgian comics. Captain Haddock’s house, Moulinsart or Marlinspike, is effectively a museum stocked with family heirlooms going back many centuries, standing shoulder to shoulder with mementoes of the Captain’s travels with his young friend Tintin. So is Professor Tarragon’s house in Les sept boules de cristal, its contents based on research carried out among the Incan holdings of the Cinquentenaire Museum in Brussels. There is an actual museum in L’oreille cassée, and many more in Edgar P. Jacobs’s Blake and Mortimer series and Jacques Tardi’s Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec. Schuiten and Peeters’s Mémoirs de l’éternel présent includes a museum dedicated to forbidden things, mostly clocks and timepieces whose very existence suggests that the City of Taxandria hasn’t always existed in the eternal present, as its government insists. Bande dessinée, in other words, is as besotted with miscellaneous collections of displaced antiquities, forgotten or rejected customs and extravagant artworks as the city which is the BD’s spiritual home. The strange juxtapositions accidentally achieved in the display cabinets of scholarly collections are the stock-in-trade of the ninth art, and it’s with juxtapositions that my next blog post on Fantasy Brussels, dedicated to the comics of Schuiten and Peeters, will be concerned.

[To be continued.]

The Museum of Comics as represented by François Schuiten in La route d’Armilia
La Maison Autrique

Fantasies of War in the Poetry of Mervyn Peake

[This essay was first published in Peake Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4 (April 2008), 5-23, and can also be found online here, beautifully typeset by Peter Winnington. Among other things, it’s a supplement to my edition of Peake’s Collected Poems.]

Wartime sketch

Mervyn Peake was pre-eminently a war poet. Of course not all his poems concern themselves directly with armed conflict, but the condition of warfare infects the tissue of his major verse, shaping and distorting it whatever its primary subject. He began to publish poems in 1937, during the long approach to the Second World War, each step of which they record, from the bombing of Guernica to the September Crisis; and he wrote the bulk of his verse between 1939 and 1945.[1] Even his post-war poems continue to worry away at the themes and traumas of his wartime experiences. How could it be otherwise, when he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1942 after two fruitless years in the army, and later witnessed the aftermath of war in France and Germany, above all at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp? Like many who lived through it he internalized the global crisis, making it part of his inward landscape. He may even have laboured at times under the horrible illusion that the war had sprung fully-fledged from his imagination, like a monstrous version of the winged horse that springs from the floor of a station concourse in his poem ‘Victoria Station. 6.58 p.m.’.[2] It is this possibility I would like to look at here, with the help of a few fragments of poetry I was not able to include in my edition of his Collected Poems.

From The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949)

Peake’s imagination, after all, could be a fearsome place. From the beginning to the end of his writing career it preoccupied itself with violence, to the extent that artistic creation and physical aggression seem at times to be locked together in an intimate symbiotic relation ship inside his head. The relationship may be encapsulated in the duel scene between two rival lovers in Titus Groan, where the men, both sculptors, hack away at each other’s naked bodies in a knife-fight that parodies the process of carving a work of art from a block of wood.[3] Peake wrote this fight during the war, when it might be thought his imagination was unusually concerned with bloodshed. But one of Peake’s earliest surviving poems, a long Masefield-inspired narrative called ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ (1929), constructs a story from an act of still more horrible brutality.[4] In it, a tyrannical ship’s captain flings an old sailor into the furnace of his vessel, in grotesque anticipation of the Nazi atrocities. The old sailor has his revenge; through a titanic act of posthumous will-power he makes a new body from the ashes of his old one, and visits the captain three times at night, killing him on the third visit after driving him insane. Clearly then, from the start of his career Peake was willing to make poetry from violence; aggression was part of his imaginative make-up. One wonders whether this had anything to do with his childhood experiences in China. He was born in 1911 during a savage civil war, which his father recorded in a series of graphic photographs; and as he grew up, his father’s work as a missionary doctor brought Peake into close proximity with pain and death. From an early age he watched him perform surgery, including amputations, and saw long lines of maimed or diseased patients entering and emerging from his clinic.[5] Did these youthful encounters with dismemberment and debility haunt his dreams, reconstituting themselves from the material made available by war, as the old dead sailor in ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ repeatedly reconstitutes his body from the grey dust which is all that remains of him after his death?

Sketch

Certainly hauntings of one kind or another are a recurrent motif in Peake’s writing. A poem of 1939, ‘We Are the Haunted People’, figures the helpless lookers-on at the outbreak of war as visited by the shadows of ‘dark deeds’ on the continent – deeds that sow the horribly fertile seeds of propaganda and destruction. Then in Titus Groan (1946), the young earl’s father Lord Sepulchrave is a perpetually haunted soul, his brain thronged with imaginary owls, which eventually merge with the real owls in the Tower of Flints who tear him apart when he brings them Swelter’s corpse to feed on. And towards the end of his working life, Peake represents himself as troubled with apparitions just as terrible as the ones that killed Sepulchrave and the tyrannical captain. A manuscript of Titus Alone from the early 50s contains this fragment:[6]

Out of cloud the face emerges
Every night before I sleep
It is pale as when cold surges
Burn like frost upon the deep
It is pale this head of horror
Save for where its chin shines red
With the blood

The ghostly head, like the ashen body of the old sailor in ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’, is linked with the ‘cold surges’ of the sea; and it would seem that the nightmare recurred with increasing frequency as Peake’s final illness took a grip of him. After his hospitalization in 1958 he wrote the poem ‘Heads Float About Me’, in which phantoms float about the corridors of Holloway hospital terrifying Peake, while being ‘haunted’ themselves by ‘solitary sorrows’.[7] And the most frightening thing about these disembodied heads is that they ‘deny the nightmare / That they should be’. They are real, not just a nightmare; or else they embody something real, ‘the horror / Of truth, of this intrinsic truth / Drifting, ah God, along the corridors / Of the world.’ Since childhood Peake had known the worst of nightmares to be true, not merely fiction; and his experiences in the Second World War drove home ‘this intrinsic truth’ with terrible force.

Recently discovered sketch (c. 1940), with centaurs and soldiers

Two previously unknown drafts of poems he wrote about the Blitz during or shortly after the War give powerful, though quite different insights into the interaction between Peake’s fantastic imagination and the fantastic works of art being shockingly produced by global conflict. The first reminds us of something that Peake was intensely aware of: until he visited Bergen-Belsen in 1945, war’s atrocities were some thing he could only imagine, as he studied the astonishing shapes it left in the urban landscape – the visible marks both of its terrible impact and of its absence, the fact that he has missed the moment when that impact took place. His poems ‘The Shapes’, ‘London 1941’ and ‘The Craters’ (all published in his first collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941)) scrutinize the contours war leaves behind – the mournful beauty of shattered buildings, the emotional impact of the gaping pits and quarries dug by bombs; but for the events that produced them he had to turn to black-and-white newsreels and the colourful pictures furnished by his own imagination. And finding a way to imagine these events responsibly – to disengage them from what might be seen as his predisposition to glamorize violence, to revel in horror, and to delight in extremes of physical suffering for their own sake – was something, I suggest, that he found difficult. The two new drafts offer an insight into his difficulties.

The first of the drafts, ‘I was not there’, is a sketch for a poem first published in his prizewinning 1950 collection The Glassblowers and reprinted in Selected Poems (1975) and Peake’s Progress (1980). In all its published forms the title is ‘When Tiger-Men Sat their Mercurial Coursers’. And it was always printed without its final verse, so that nobody till now has known it had anything to do with the war. Indeed in Peake’s Progress it appears in a section called ‘Other Worlds’, as if to reinforce its nostalgic escapism. In one of his poetry notebooks, however – tentatively dated to around 1946, though many of the verses it contains were written earlier[8] – the poem is given a different title, and a fourth stanza, which fuses the other worldly with the experiences of the Blitz which Peake never lived at first hand:

I Was Not There

When Tiger-men sat their mercurial coursers,
Hauled into granite arches the proud fibre
Of head and throat, sank spurs, and trod on air
I was not there.

When clamorous Centaurs thundered to the rain-pools,
Shattered with their fierce hooves the silent mirrors,
When glittering drops clung to their beards and hair,
I was not there.

When through a blood-dark dawn a man with antlers
Cried and throughout the day the echoes suffered
His agony, and died in evening air
I was not there.

Even when Paul’s voluminous dome reflected
The apple-green and lilac fires; or swelling
Like an enormous Ethiopian breast, raw crimson
Weltered behind its rare
Sweep of plumbed midnight – when the air was madness,
When water shot like blood from serpent hoses,
And excellence was wrested from a nightmare
I was not there.

In this version, the notion of absence – of missing things – is enshrined in the title, whereas the title of the printed version laid emphasis on the visions Peake could conjure up so vividly despite never having seen them. And in ‘I Was Not There’, the central lack or loss is trans formed from a simple threnody for unwitnessed moments to a complex meditation on the relationship between the imaginary and the imagined, two spheres that get fused in Peake’s dreamscapes (and dreams are specifically evoked in the penultimate line). It’s worth reminding oneself here that much of Peake’s war was a time of frustration, as the young conscript was shunted from one army training camp to another in a quest to find some military role for him, while his appeals to have his real talents turned to good use through employment as a war artist were repeatedly turned down. Exclusion from the centre of things here extends from the source of his imaginative energy – the horses and man-horses which figure everywhere in his poems and pictures, and from which his conscription diverted him so fruitlessly – to the dazzling vision of St Paul’s Cathedral under bombardment, miraculously intact among the ruins of the City of London. The poet’s absence becomes an exclusion from ecstasy, both homoerotic and heterosexual, and one might detect in the poem at once the rage of the artist denied access to his art, the intense sexual frustration which is an integral component of military service, and the psychological disturbance generated by war’s perverse conversion of erotic energies and male bonding rituals into integral components of the military machine.

Illustration to a poem by Oscar Wilde

The first three stanzas record scenes of gigantic masculine energy. Each is marked by violence: the restraining of a horse as the rider hauls its head and throat into a semblance of architectural rigidity; the shattering of the peace of a mirror-like pool; the death (as it seems) of an antlered man, whose agony gives new voice and feeling to the old metaphor of the ‘blood-dark dawn’. Each stanza records the encounter between disparate elements: in the first, man and horse, concrete and air; in the second, centaur and water, clamorous thunder and silence; in the third, the antlered man and the air to which his suffering transmits itself. But the previously unknown fourth stanza is much more shocking. The disparate elements – the lights of the blazing city and the cathedral’s racialized darkness; the breast-like dome and the phallic hoses – are fused with more drastic violence than in any of the first three verses. The ‘raw crimson’ of the sky sounds like a wound, and the hoses like severed arteries, hideous pastiches of male and female genitalia. The wresting of excellence from a nightmare makes the agonized sexual act recorded here sound as though it has been forced on its participants, so that the work of art Peake imagines being created by the Blitz is also an act of violation, a dual rape. The stanza makes explicit what is only implicit in the first three stanzas – that the male energies being described there are erotic ones, which culminate in the orgasmic roar of a rutting stag, and that the sexual acts they describe are aggressive. The extent of that aggression is intensified by that fourth stanza, and rendered unnerving by the introduction both of an implied woman and of a racial dimension into the picture. The myth or legend of the first three stanzas thus becomes contaminated, forced to align itself with the abominable motives behind aerial bombardment.

‘Mother and Child’, from Peake’s Catalogue for an Exhibition of Work by the Artist Adolf Hitler (1940)

Many works of art produced in wartime, perhaps, have this sense of being the products of force or compulsion. One thinks of Peake’s well known poem about a Belsen inmate, which is filled with guilt about the cold artist’s eye he brings to the business of sketching the death agonies of a young girl, with a view to working it up into a great finished painting at some future date.[9] The fourth stanza of ‘I Was Not There’ is in some ways worse than this, in that its celebration of the ‘excellence’ of the fire-surrounded dome seems guilt-free. The fact that three clearly fantastical scenes have preceded it liberates the poet from the severe judgement to which he subjected himself at Belsen. Regretting that one was not present at the death of a legendary stag-man is unproblematic; regretting one’s absence from a real-life inferno is not; and it’s not clear from that fourth stanza whether the poet is ready to acknowledge the difference. It would be interesting to know if it was Peake himself or someone else who decided he should cut it when the poem went to press.

Illustration for The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

The second of our two drafts comes from an early version of Peake’s long narrative poem, The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, a revision of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which Peake famously illustrated) written on Sark in about 1947.[10] I suggest in my introduction to the Collected Poems that this is the work in which Peake finally laid what he called his ‘war-ghosts’ to rest, sloughing off his sense of complicity with the global atrocities being perpetrated as he laboured to produce his art.[11] He achieved this exorcism, I think, by having the beauty of the Blitz witnessed by two innocents: a new-born baby (albeit an infant possessed of astonishing powers and unexpected knowledge), and the sailor who finds it in a gutter after a bomb has killed its mother. The innocence of these two witnesses is reinforced by the fact that both are denizens of a different element from the one in which they find themselves. The sailor is a figure from the maritime adventure stories Peake loved as a boy; his language makes him sound like a combination of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, the teenager and the murderously avuncular pirate, both of whom are badly out of their depth in wartime London. Cut off by fire from his beloved water, the sailor is confronted by real scenes more savagely absurd than anything in Stevenson’s fiction. And the baby, too, hails from the sea: the sailor calls it ‘little fish’, and when it suddenly gains a voice it reveals that it has shared many of his nautical experiences in previous lives. Together the pair reinvent the burning city as a scene from their seafaring past, turning blazing buildings into ships, flames into sea-flowers and red-hot ashes into the wide red mouths of figureheads. The baby’s comradeship gives the sailor courage to face his death, and by the time the ballad ends the ghastly beauty of the ruined metropolis has been retrospectively brought under control, tamed, as it were, by being harnessed to children’s fictions, without having its impact softened or diminished in the process.

Yet there is something missing from the poem: a specific absence at its core that becomes glaringly obvious once it’s been pointed out. As the pair take shelter in a shattered church, the sailor mounts the pulpit and announces that he is going to tell the baby a story. ‘Now listen to me while I sing you a tale,’ he announces, and goes on:

For the things I’ve forgotten for many a year
Are shouldering into my mind,
Of the time when my heart was a wave that heaved
To the gale of my sea-mad mind.

The infant at first seems keen to hear the narrative, but soon afterwards remembers that it has got plenty of sea-memories of its own, and asks instead to join him in a song. The early draft of the poem formerly held in the Bodleian Library, however, shows that the sailor did at one point begin to tell his tale; and it also shows why the full tale never got told. Here is the relevant section of the draft.

We had been at sea for a month or more
With the rich black coal below
But the storms had swept the bridge away
And the ship was a sheet of snow.

And the shining engines were red with rust
And the winter water lay
In mucky pools all over the coal
In the hold of our ship that day –

And there was no wind, and there was no warmth
And there was no water or food,
And our anchor was plunged in the freezing sea
As deep in the snow we stood.

The masts were gone and all was gone
But a thick white layer of snow
Like a poultice laid from end to end
With the two black dots to show

Where the last two men alive stood stiff
At the side of the ice-bound rail,
When out of the sea with a splash and a shout
Came a thing with a bright green tail.

Its cheeks were red as a sunset fierce,
And its hair streamed out behind
In a tangle of jet-black weed and its eyes
Were as yellow as lemon-rind.

Then up it lifted its great big head
From out of the murky sea
And opened the great salt merman curve
[Of] his mouth that was big as three.

‘And are you the crew of this ship of snow
That has so molested me
By dropping of your anchor at the door of my cave
At the bottom of the winter sea?

‘You have dropped your anchor across my door
And my wife is trapped inside
With our five blue chicks that are crying out their hearts
For a taste of the morning tide.’

Then the two stiff men cried, ‘Sorry we are
To have so disturbed your home,
But our captain it was who ordered us
To lower our anchor down.’

And our captain is dead and the crew is dead
And we are the last to go,
And we have no strength for to work the crank
And to haul back the anchor now.

‘We’re as frozen up as the engines are
And as cold as the ice on the rail.
But where O where did you get that hair
And that beautiful bright green tail?’

The merman he heaved himself aboard
And he swished the decks with his tail
And the white snow flew up into the air
And over the frozen rail.

‘Now I’ll answer you this and many things more,’
He said, ‘but I first must know,
With your arms so weak, what the deuce can be done
About the anchor that you’ve plunged below?’

His cheeks shone red and his yellow eyes
Were as bright as sovereigns in his head.
‘There’s only one thing can be done about this,
So listen to my words,’ he said.

‘You’ll never get home, and you’ll never find food
And you’ll have no strength to stir,
And you’ll freeze to death by the afternoon
If you go on standing here.

‘You must dive with me through the cold black sea
To my cave where your anchor stands,
And there you must marry a mermaid chill
With little white fins for hands.

‘And there you must marry a mermaid sweet
With a tail as long as your arm.
O it’s then you’ll have the strength for to move away
Your anchor from

And the rest is missing. By this point Peake must have known very well that his readers will have forgotten the Blitz, the baby and the sailor, as they mull over the problem of the trap the sailors find them selves in, and meditate, perhaps, on the relationship between this story and the old song ‘O ’twas in the broad Atlantic’. Peake has written himself into a dead end, and he dealt with it in the most sensible way he could: by stopping and going back to take up his tale at the point where the false trail began.

Long John Silver

This wasn’t the first time Peake had written himself into a hole, and on one occasion the hole had been very like this one. His unfinished early novel Mr Slaughterboard comes to a halt with another ship jammed in mid-ocean, impaled this time on a needle of rock improbably rising to within a few feet of the surface miles from the nearest shore.[12] The most notable feature of this ship, the Conger Eel, is its magnificent library, the Room of Books, where the Captain pores over the volumes he loves in the company of his eyeless servant Smear, and wonders what it would be like to add his own name to the illustrious register of dead authors. The closest he comes to doing so is by casually butchering his men, killing them off singly and in batches in the name of what he calls ‘art’. His brutality is unpleasant, but not especially disturbing, because it’s so obviously divorced from the world beyond the pages of Peake’s fiction. Smear’s eyelessness confirms his own and the captain’s determined self-segregation from the concerns and moral systems that govern other communities. As Peake puts it, ‘They formed their own Universe. Untouched by the workings of other minds, solely dependent upon themselves, they formed a cosmos of existence, a reality that moved and thought between the sea and the sky’. The marooning of the ship enables them to achieve their highest ambition: to be disconnected for ever from all inhabited countries, free to dedicate themselves to the workings of their own mental cosmos without reference to anybody else’s; and the Captain celebrates the moment with another bout of aesthetically-motivated slaughter. And this final orgy of killing again fails to disturb the reader because of the grotesqueness of the crew they slaughter, whose physical peculiarities mark them out as denizens of the Room of Books, like the Captain and Mr Smear.

‘Self Portrait’, from Peake’s Catalogue for an Exhibition of Works by the Artist Adolf Hitler (c. 1940)

But by the time he wrote The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, it was not so easy for Peake to justify casual slaughter in his writings, and the notion of aesthetically-motivated murder had become deeply disturbing. This shift in perspective was given visual expression in a series of pictures he drew in 1940, as a means of advertizing his skills to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. The series purports to be a portfolio of pictures by the artist Adolf Hitler, and has as its frontispiece Hitler’s self-portrait, staring in horror out of the page at what was presumably once a mirror – but is now the reader, who seems to have been made complicit with the dictator’s crimes by becoming the focus of his gaze. At the time Peake drew this series he had not yet seen the horrors of war at first hand, and had to rely on reports and his own imagination to flesh them out. But he wrote The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb after witnessing the aftermath of atrocities on French, German and British soil, and the relationship between his wild imaginings and the world they obliquely reflected had undergone a radical change. No longer motivated primarily by a yearning to be absorbed into the world of books, his habitual use of the fantastic possessed a new urgency that fills the later pages of his novel Titus Groan. The merman fragment offers an opportunity to consider the nature of that urgency.

Illustration for The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

Mr Slaughterboard’s ship and its occupants are things of fiction, which get transfixed in the course of a sea story that moves with seeming inevitability towards this goal. The story of the merman, by contrast, is dredged up from the sailor’s memory by what seems its polar opposite: the devastated London cityscape through which he wanders. The elements of fire and water have already become perversely fused for the sailor a few stanzas earlier, as the burning streets reassemble themselves into a bright pageant playing out his personal history: ‘And the ships of brick and the ships of stone / And the charcoal ships lurched by / While his footsteps clashed on the frozen waves / That shone to the scarlet sky.’ It is this pageant of fire and water, heat and cold that triggers his recollection of the merman incident, and he narrates it to the baby as a means of explaining the specific resonance that the London flames have struck in him, the particular ‘frozen waves’ he has in mind.

It’s clear enough why he sees these two traumatic moments of his life as related. The extremes of physical suffering produced by both environments – the Arctic seas and the wartime conflagration – are the same. In both cases, the miraculous emergence of a living person from a dead world is the same (the talking baby and the merman), suggesting against all likelihood that extremes of temperature may provide a congenial habitat for intelligent beings. And in both cases the being in question offers the sailor an uncanny escape route from what’s clearly an inescapable situation. In fact, both baby and merman can be read as the hallucinations of a dying mind, as it struggles to find an alternative to the intolerable inevitability of death. As the cold or heat becomes too intense to bear, the sailor discovers in each forbidding zone a native inhabitant, whose physical attributes – nakedness in the baby’s case, brilliant hues in the merman’s – proclaim their indifference to the flame or frost that is killing the sailor. This is a very different use of fantasy from Mr Slaughterboard’s exuberant self-indulgence; its escapism is a psychological necessity rather than a piece of adolescent whimsy, and the quest to find some sort of moral explanation, or even absolution, for the unjustified torment to which its protagonists are subjected, starkly contrasts with Mr Slaughterboard’s tormenting and slaughtering of his crew, which invites no moral justification at all.

‘Coming Up to Scratch’, from Figures of Speech (1954)

The merman story is sung in a church ‘To the tune of a bleeding hymn’; its impulse is religious, and marks religion in this context as a story that’s built from memory and fantasy, and from the desperation that fuses the two. The sailors in the narrative are frozen stiff until they are indistinguishable from the frozen vessel on which they’re stranded. There’s clearly no way out of their predicament except through death; and it’s in this extreme situation that a manifestation of the fantastic emerges godlike from the waves, adding the brilliance of oil colour – Peake’s painterly palette of greens, reds and yellows – to the whites, blacks and greys of the Arctic seascape. The merman also brings with him, godlike, both an accusation of guilt and a promise of forgiveness. Those who suffer invariably convince themselves that they deserve to suffer, so as to preserve some sense of the crude but safe moral coordinates with which they have been raised; and the merman brings a rationale for the sailors’ suffering in the form of a crime they have committed. The ship’s anchor has trapped his wife and children in their underwater cave, and the sailors will not be released from their torment until the anchor is raised again, the door of the cave opened and the family set free. Like Adam and Eve, or like conscripts accused of a crime against humanity, the sailors respond by transferring responsibility for their actions to a higher authority. It was the ship’s captain who ordered the anchor to be lowered, and the captain is now inaccessible, cut off from retribution, like most of his crew, by death. Like Adam and Eve and the rest of humanity, too, the sailors are incapable of atoning for their inadvertent crime under their own steam, as it were; they lack the strength to raise the anchor. Having confessed and sought to exonerate themselves, the men wait for divine judgement.

The merman’s judgement comes in the form of a solution to their impasse: they are to wed themselves to the elements that are killing them. First they must plunge into the inhospitable sea, then bind themselves by nuptial contract to an alien being: a ‘mermaid chill / With little white fins for hands’. Having performed this dual act of self-negation they will, he claims, gain the strength to raise the anchor, as if sexual and contractual union with a hostile environment has made everything within it easy for them. The merman anticipates their naturalization in the Arctic wastes in the fragment’s final stanza, where the once chilly mermaid is described as ‘sweet’, and her most alien feature – her tail – is measured against the familiar length of a sailor’s upper limb. In this way the fusion with ice and steel that was killing the sailors at the beginning of the extract is replaced by a marriage with cold black water and fishiness, that will inject them by some undisclosed means with the merman’s virile energy. Religion becomes the process of accepting – or rather of actively, passionately embracing – the causes of pain and destruction that you are too frail to fight. And it becomes, too, a fantasy, a dream born from desire, whose resistance to the remorselessness of wartime logic offers the only satisfactory solution to a problem insoluble by any other means.

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

But the merman isn’t necessary to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, as Peake recognized when he chose to stop writing about him. The sailor in wartime London has already found a god before he begins to tell this story – a miniature god which gently points out that it contains within itself all the sailor’s memories, desires and dreams – and this is the baby. While the sailor is gearing up to tell the merman story in the ruined church, the baby suddenly manifests its superhuman powers for the first time, responding to the sailor’s offer to narrate with a shrill cry of assent, then levitating in front of the pulpit, ‘Where it hovered with its hands clenched tight at its breast’ just next to an open Bible, like a latter-day version of Robert Southwell’s Burning Babe. The moment is a natural next stage in a process that began with the miracle of the baby’s discovery – when the sound of its heart in the midst of destruction astonished and awed the sailor. This miracle was reinforced by the sailor’s perception that the child is absurdly, insanely out of place (‘All bare and cold in that gutter of gold / You had no cause to be, / No more than it’s right for the likes of you / To be born in this century’); and led at last to his decision, after entering the church, to ‘worship’ the child for its ‘brand-new look’, its ‘fists like a brace of anemones’, and the miraculous ‘ticker’ it keeps in its fragile chest. The baby, then, provides an emblem of war’s absurdity, the incongruous juxtapositions it generates, and the fantasies that are the only apt response to these. And the comfort it dispenses is quite different from, and more imaginatively satisfying than, the strange sub-oceanic marriage offered by the sea-god as a solution to the sailor’s woes.

For one thing, the child refuses to adopt a position of judgement over the sailor – or of superiority to him – as the merman does. It refers to him as ‘sailor, saviour’, as if sharing its divinity with the dying man. Despite his scepticism, it extends to him the promise that he will share its ability to regenerate after death; and it gives him the benefit of its awareness that appalling events like the Blitz are nothing new, that they have precedents in history, and that therefore the sailor need not be erased from the earth with the disintegration of his body under the impact of the last flying bomb; after all, the baby is proof of this, with its new wrinkled arms and its astonishing memory for adventures, seascapes and people it has encountered in previous lives. Its only advantage over him, in fact, is that it remembers having ‘seen it all before’, and can therefore give him words of counsel as he drifts bleeding and blistered, with lacerated feet and unrecognizable face, towards his own particular death.

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

More importantly, perhaps (and this is a comfort Peake needed as much as his Stevensonian seafarer) it reassures him that his fantasies – the visions of miracles which Peake always associated with his heart – have as much validity as a response to the world, and above all to the World War, as any historical, philosophical or political narrative lodged in the archives at the British Library or the Imperial War Museum. ‘For, sailor,’ it says, ‘there’s nothing that is not true, / If it’s true to your heart and mine, / From a unicorn to a flying bomb, / From a wound to a glass of wine’. It’s the sailor’s imagination, after all, that first made the baby’s environment bearable for it, as he showed it ‘the coloured lights’ of the burning city, ‘And the golden shoals of the falling stones / And the scarlet of the streets’ – thus making loveliness out of horror. It’s the sailor’s imagination which permits him to conceive of a loving afterlife, and to believe in the love he has found in this one, despite the fact that ‘There is no proof’, rationally speaking, of either. And it’s his imagination that gives the sailor his final, joyful vision, which transmutes the urban devastation into a maritime adventure far more dazzling than the merman narrative:

‘The masts are bright with silver light,
The decks are black with grass
And the bay’s so smooth that I can see
The blood beneath the glass.

‘And here’s a child, and there’s a child
Running across the bay.
They laugh and shout, “Look out! look out!
We haven’t long to stay!”

‘And here’s a man who somersaults
Across the mid-mast air.
The long-shore flames leap out to sea
And drag him by the hair.

‘And the guns that shine with oil and wine
Are smothered in sea-flowers deep,
And in the throat of every gun
A mermaid lies asleep.

‘And the figurehead with mouth so red
Is drinking up the sea…
O little babe, why won’t you leap
Aboard, and sail with me?’

So the mer-people do find a place in The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, after all, nestled in the mouths of cannons in an imaginary warship. And Peake’s wayward imagination, too, finds a role for itself with relation to the war. What may have made the War Artists’ Advisory Committee so reluctant to employ him was a perception that his work was better suited to conveying the unreal than recording ‘facts’.[13] The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, including the unprinted fragment about the merman, demonstrates the vital relationship between the material conditions of war and the fantasies to which it gives rise. Peake’s fantasies are composed of searing frost and scorching fire, of metal, stone, coal, glass, and all the matter that makes up a bomb or the destruction it causes. And they are anchored, above all, in the body, in its bones and internal organs, its flesh, skin, limbs and bowels. His position as artist can be summarized in one more unpublished fragment from the early 50s:[14]

Neither a sage nor plowboy dumb, I stand
A marvel and a clod in either hand
And in my breast a vacillating heart

Without Peake’s solid clods and marvels, fused together by his vacillating heart, our picture of what it was like to live through the calamitous nineteen-forties would lack one vital and little-explored dimension. The fragments unearthed here, with the evidence they give of the extent to which even Peake’s most extravagant fantasies are bound up with war and its aftermath, suggest that further exploration of fantastic writing in wartime would be well worth undertaking – no matter how inhospitable the land- and seascapes into which that exploration might take us.[16]

Illustration to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (c. 1960)

NOTES

[1] Approximate dates for Peake’s poems are given in my edition of Peake’s Collected Poems, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008).

[2] Collected Poems, p. 165.

[3] See Peake, Titus Groan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp. 281-85 (‘Knives in the Moon’).

[4] For‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ see Peake’s Progress, ed. Maeve Gilmore, corrected by G. Peter Winnington (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), pp. 45-61.

[5] See G. Peter Winnington, Vast Alchemies: The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake (London: Peter Owen, 2000), pp. 38-39, which gives an account of operations witnessed by Mervyn as a boy in China; also Malcolm Yorke, A Life of Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), pp. 24-26.

[6] UCL MS Add. 234, Box 4 (iv), sig. 32r. At the time of writing the manuscript was on loan to the library of University College London; it now forms part of the Peake Archive in the British Library.

[7] ‘Heads Float About Me’ can be found in Collected Poems, pp. 214-5.

[8] For details of the 1946 notebook – now in the Peake Archive at the British Library – see Peake’s Collected Poems, Introduction. ‘I Was Not There’ occurs on p. 14 of Notebook 2 (as I call it in my notes), and is typed.

[9] The Belsen poem is ‘The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’, Collected Poems, pp. 133-4.

[10] The full text of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb is given in Collected Poems, pp. 178-201. The manuscript from which I took the text of the merman fragment was at the time on loan to the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Bod. Dep. Peake 5, fol. 33v-34v); it’s now in the Peake Archive in the British Library. I have added some punctuation. The rest of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb is quoted from Collected Poems.

[11] See ‘They Move with Me, My War-Ghosts’, published in Peake’s first poetry collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941); also in Collected Poems, pp. 93-94.

[12] Mr Slaughterboard can be found in Peake’s Progress, pp. 63-94.

[13] Twelve of the 25 pictures are reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington, pp. 66-69. An account of the series can be found on p. 65.

[14] Writing to Peake about his prospects of becoming a war artist, Sir Kenneth Clark observed that on the whole he seemed to be ‘much better away from facts’ (18th October 1940). Peake’s attempts to adapt his ‘non-factual’ artistic talents to the needs of the War Artists’ Committee – first by painting surreal representations of the Blitz, then by offering his services for the production of propaganda – can be traced through his (as yet unpublished) correspondence with Clark.

[15] The fragment was formerly held in UCLMS Add. 2.34, Box 4 (ii), fol. 30v, and is now in the Peake Archive. This contains an earlier draft of Titus Alone than the one in Box 4 (i), which gives as its earliest date December 1.

[16] Quite a bit has been written about fantasy in wartime since this was written; see for example Sara Wasson, Urban Gothic in the Second World War: Dark London (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).

The Surrealist Fantasy of Herbert Read, Part 2: The Green Child (1935)

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

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

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

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

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

Sign showing the Green Children of Woolpit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frontispiece from Lost Endeavour, first edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Edition of A Crystal Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Edition of Titus Groan

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

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

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

Book List

James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: BLS Editions, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herbert Read

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

Ithell Colquhoun, Gouffres Amers (1937)

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

Roland Penrose, Night and Day (1937)

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

Marion Adnams, The Distraught Infanta (1944)

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

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

Ithell Colquhoun, Scylla (1939)

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

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

Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943)

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothea Tanning, Children’s Games (1942)

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

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

Lee Miller, Bathing Feature (1941)

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

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

Ithell Colquhoun, Gorgon (1946)

Book List

James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: BLS Editions, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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 yellow 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 intensely concerned with contemporary politics; and Hurry’s illustration to the latter indicates that Peake 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.).