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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign showing the Green Children of Woolpit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frontispiece from Lost Endeavour, first edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Edition of A Crystal Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Edition of Titus Groan

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

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

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

Book List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herbert Read

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

Ithell Colquhoun, Gouffres Amers (1937)

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

Roland Penrose, Night and Day (1937)

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

Marion Adnams, The Distraught Infanta (1944)

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

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

Ithell Colquhoun, Scylla (1939)

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

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

Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943)

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothea Tanning, Children’s Games (1942)

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

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

Lee Miller, Bathing Feature (1941)

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

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

Ithell Colquhoun, Gorgon (1946)

Book List

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

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

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

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

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

Mervyn Peake, ‘September 1939’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leslie Hurry, ‘September 1939’

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

Leslie Hurry, This Extraordinary Year, 1945

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

Leslie Hurry, ‘Self-Portrait 1944’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Au Moulin Joyeux

September Crisis, 1938

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

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

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

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

We Are the Haunted People

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

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

Mervyn Peake, ‘Steerpike’

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

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

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

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

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

Mervyn Peake, ‘Reclining Figure by Hitler’

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

Puvis de Chavannes, ‘La Fantaisie’

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Metal Bird

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

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

El Greco, ‘Landscape of Fire’

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

El Greco

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

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

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

Notes

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

[2] See Collected Poems, p. 1.

[3] Collected Poems, p. 65.

[4] Collected Poems, p. 52.

[5] Collected Poems, p. 43.

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

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

[8] Collected Poems, p. 48.

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

[10] Writings and Drawings, p. 81.

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

[12] ‘Blake’, Collected Poems, p. 63.

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

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

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

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

[17] Collected Poems, p. 31.

[18] Collected Poems, p. 50.

[19] Collected Poems, p. 41

[20] Writings and Drawings, p. 81.

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

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

Cover design by John Robert Monsell, Irwin’s husband

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

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

Melusina

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

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

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

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

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

Prospero and Miranda by William Maw Egley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Othello woos Desdemona, by Theodore Chasseriau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viking Berserker Figures, 6th Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Irwin between the Wars, Part 2: Still She Wished for Company (1924)

[For me, August 2019 has been Margaret Irwin month. This is the second of three posts on her best-known works of the fantastic. The first can be found here. Enjoy!]

Margaret Irwin, 27 July 1939

Margaret Irwin achieved lasting popularity as a writer of historical novels, in particular for her work in recovering the lives of remarkable women, using her imagination to bridge the gap of years: Mary Queen of Scots, Mrs Oliver Cromwell, Elizabeth I. Her first novel, however – Still She Wished for Company (1924)[1]– considers the relationship between past and present in a different way, through a romance that impossibly spans more than a century. It tells of a young woman of the 1770s, Juliana, who lives in a country house called Chidleigh, and who is hypnotically coerced by her elder brother Lucian into using her considerable powers as a medium to establish a relationship across time between himself and another young woman he has seen in his dreams. The dream-object of his desire turns out to be Rose Janet, known as Jan, a woman of the twentieth century with a fascination for the past, as embodied in a ‘Gentleman Unknown’ she sees in dreams and visions, and who in turn resembles Lucian. Before the connection between Jan and Lucian can be fully established, however, Lucian murders a former medium of his – a French Duke – and becomes a hunted man. But he retains his hypnotic hold over Juliana even in his absence, as he hides from the forces of the law in far-off London. As a result, her visions of the 1920s grow more intense and more frequent, until she stands in danger of getting lost in the space between the past and the future, her soul wandering for ever in quest of Lucian’s twentieth-century ideal woman.  Lucian takes the decision to return home and release her from bondage to him, an act that gets him killed; and at the end of the book we learn that Juliana later got married to a sensible neighbour, drifting back to the dull but happy life she had been leading at the start of the story.

Juliana, then – the go-between in this transhistorical romance – is a woman who lives quite literally between two people, serving as a channel or conduit for their mutual obsession. As the novel goes on, her journeys into the future – which somehow enable meetings between her brother and Juliana’s twentieth-century counterpart (the link between Jan and Juliana is reflected in the similarity of their names)[2]– mean that she spends more and more of her time in a kind of dream state: a condition of suspended animation whereby her mind leaves her body and voyages through time, until her final, most lengthy psychic voyage plunges her into a coma, hovering between life and death like the Sleeping Beauty in the fairy tale, waiting for a Prince in the shape of her brother to set her free – though ironically it was this selfsame Prince who put her in the coma to begin with.

Jan, too, exists in a space between alternative states. She has had the advantage of a good education, which enabled her to get work and so to support her impoverished family. She has the freedom to choose a partner for herself instead of having one chosen for her (Juliana is not so free to choose, and spends part of the novel under threat of an arranged marriage to the French Duke). Jan can buy her own clothes, and gets letters from men in far-off places, Germany and India (pp. 23-4). On the other hand she loathes her job, and finds it so stressful that her fiancé is afraid it is making her ill. She cannot afford well-made shoes; she is restricted to moving around a few limited streets in London on an inadequate public transport system, despite her theoretical freedom of movement; and she feels that she is being pressurized into marrying a man she is not sure she loves. Her seeming liberty, in other words, is hemmed in on all sides by geographical, social and economic constraints, and she is caught between the limited opportunities of an eighteenth-century woman and the seemingly limitless possibilities available to twentieth-century middle-class men – making her an embodiment of the uncertain in-between status of women in the years before the universal franchise.

Lucian is also caught in a state of in-between-ness. Despised by his athletic younger brothers for not meeting their crude standards of masculinity; marked out as different by his appearance (he is slim, dark, and of moderate height, where the rest of the men in his family are pink-and-white giants); uninterested in the conversations and pastimes of his fellow aristocrats; he is nevertheless the male heir to the family title and estates with all the financial and social power that these bring with them. Foreign in appearance and by inclination (Paris is the only place that appeals to him in his own period), his name and birth ironically tie him to a family, place and time that he rejects. Like Jan and Juliana, then, he gets his chief pleasure from indulging in private fantasies, absenting himself in dreams and imaginings from a cultural context he finds inimical to his health, and yearning for a place and time he thinks will be more congenial, as embodied in Jan, the woman of the 1920s.

The in-between-ness of these three central characters is reflected in the novel’s plot. The bulk of the book is given over to a kind of lyrical mood music, wittily evoking the mundane details of family life in Chidleigh House while charting the steady growth of Lucian’s influence over Juliana and the concomitant doubling and redoubling of her visions of twentieth-century Chidleigh. Juliana’s visions of the 1920s show her everyday, commonplace events, the sorts of things that happen in between significant occasions such as marriages, births and funerals. Nothing spectacular happens in any of them, apart from the fact that they reinforce Juliana’s and Jan’s increasing certainty that they are being somehow granted access to each other’s lives in defiance of time. But a great deal is always on the verge of happening, so that Irwin’s novel could be said to exist on the brink of deeply disturbing, even diabolical events; the sorts of events that lurk in the background of ‘The Book’. At the same time the narrative occasionally conjures up a fairy tale atmosphere of total mutual contentment, as experienced by Juliana and Lucian when they are at their closest, by Jan and Lucian when they meet in dreams or through the mediating influence of Juliana’s transitions between periods, and by Jan and Juliana when they are most at ease with their earthly lovers – in Jan’s case a practical Scotsman called Donald, in Juliana’s her mature and protective neighbour, Mr Daintree. Both the diabolical and the fairytale elements in the book are in some sense timeless, familiar to successive generations through dreams and nightmares, or through poems, plays and well-known stories. By mixing together these different kinds of narrative – the brooding nocturnes of the Gothic, the pastoralism of the fairy story, the modern realistic romance in the Jan scenes, the novels of Jane Austen in the Juliana ones – Still She Wished for Company transforms itself into a kind of eclectic library of the kind we’ve already encountered in ‘The Book’; a library which both celebrates and warns against the transformative powers of the act of reading, and of the dreaming which it encourages and springs from.

Most of the action takes place in a single late eighteenth-century summer, its events largely unrecorded in the history books, featuring characters whose very names have been forgotten. Juliana’s whole family is said to have died out by 1800, and the novel opens with a wistful dedication by the author to Juliana herself, ‘since there is none now left to remember her’. But traces of the girl and her family survive, both in the pages of Juliana’s journal and in the narrator’s imaginative evocation of their personalities – largely based on the journal – as well as in the occasional ghostly presences detected at Chidleigh by the psychically sensitive in other epochs. One such sensitive soul is Jan, whose story frames the novel. Her mind is always drifting away from the drabness of the present in pursuit of congenial figures from the past: people in early modern paintings, such as the seventeenth-century portrait of the ‘Gentleman Unknown’; evasive ideal women in poems by Walter de la Mare and John Donne, or damned spirits and seductive demons in plays by Robert Greene and Christopher Marlowe; and gradually these imagined figures become more real to her until she finds it hard at times to concentrate on her living contemporaries. Juliana, too, is sensitive, her sensitivity being expressed in her acute awareness of geographical spaces overlooked by other people – most notably the avenue of splendid trees that leads from the highway to the house at Chidleigh, whose changing appearance often gives her the strongest clue that she has transitioned between historical epochs. And since many of the things that happen in the novel are explicitly stated not to have been mentioned in her source text, Juliana’s journal, the narrator clearly shares Jan and Juliana’s capacity for transitioning between periods. Meanwhile the narrative helps us, the readers, to become as sensitive as these three women, and its many allusions to other texts suggest that this sensitivity is exactly what literature is designed to engender – in contrast to history, which is strictly concerned with what can be deduced from the material evidence. Literature, in fact, is an in-between medium, throwing light on gaps and occlusions in the official account, and this can make it an unnerving, even a dangerous experience as well as an enlightening one, in this novel as much as in ‘The Book’.

Juliana’s story is sandwiched both between opening and closing chapters from Jan’s point of view and between the two most significant revolutions of the eighteenth century. The summer of Juliana’s experiences as a medium is the ‘dull year of grace 1779’, when ‘nothing pretty or romantic ever happened’. Yet major events took place before and after that dull year: the American War of Independence in 1776, the French Revolution of 1789. Juliana, then, lives very much ‘between the wars’, and her unromantic life exists on the cusp of what could be called the most romantic event of all: the outbreak of the Romantic movement in literature and art. Juliana’s family, however, seems wholly oblivious to the revolution that has just taken place across the Atlantic, and the girl herself is half convinced that things will always stay the same, finding herself torn at times between the desire for radical change and a nostalgic yearning for stability; the latter embodied in her boisterous but profoundly conservative brothers George and Vesey, the former in her radical oldest brother Lucian, who arrives home unexpectedly from Paris at the beginning of the summer to take over the reins of the family estate. Juliana’s split personality encapsulates a cultural split acknowledged in Jane Austen’s novels, especially Sense and Sensibility (1811), where the two sisters Elinor and Marianne stand respectively for the ‘good sense’ cherished by the Enlightenment and the romantic privileging of emotion which has begun to take the literary world by storm. Juliana resembles a milder, more easily manipulated version of Marianne, the romantic sister, and like her ends up married to a much older, more sensible, but attractively sensitive man. Irwin’s prose style in this novel is a pastiche of Austen’s, and Chidleigh House is a direct descendant of an Austenian country estate: Darcy’s Pemberley, Sir Thomas Bertram’s Mansfield Park, and most obviously Mr Knightley’s part-medieval, part-Augustan Donwell Abbey in Austen’s favourite novel, Emma (1815).

Medmenham Abbey, where the Hellfire Club met

Juliana’s divided mind, however, is confronted by far stranger and more sinister forces than is Austen’s Marianne. Her brother Lucian invokes the connotations of Marianne and Elinor’s family name of Dashwood, which was also the name of the founder of the notorious Hellfire Club, Sir Francis Dashwood. Sir Francis is said to have set up the club – also known as the ‘Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe’ – as a means for wealthy men to satisfy their illegal appetites and hedonistic impulses. Lucian, too, is rumoured to have been the ‘chief and head’ of the Hellfire Club (p. 50), and to have made acquaintances in Paris whose aristocratic background and taste for illicit sexual activities link them to an even more notorious figure of the period: the Marquis de Sade. Indeed Juliana’s name invokes (among other things) the protagonists of two of de Sade’s novels, Justine (1791) and Juliette (1797), both of which were being championed by the continental Surrealists at the time of writing. Lucian’s name, meanwhile, summons up de Sade’s atheism, since the second-century writer Lucian of Samosata was notorious among literary historians as an atheist as well as a writer of satires and early science fiction. It also invokes the diabolism of the Hellfire Club, since ‘Lucian’ echoes ‘Lucifer’, just as the young man himself resembles conventional representations of Satan, with his foppish elegance and satyr’s eyebrows. The Master of Chidleigh plans to marry off Juliana to his former medium, the Duc de Saint Aumerle, and to use her before and after the marriage as his own ‘instrument’, his ‘delicate plaything’ – phrases that suggest incestuous erotic manipulation, as well as his willingness to exploit her visionary gifts to bring about a sexual union between himself and Jan. De Sade indulged in fantasies of abusive incest, and Juliana’s physical attraction to Lucian is implied by the fact that her brother is repeatedly set up in the novel as a rival for her respectable suitor, Mr Daintree – most notably when he confesses his jealousy at her tendency to ‘wander’ in her affections between himself and the older man (p. 151). The rivalry invokes the semi-incestuous love affair between Catherine Earnshaw and her adoptive brother Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1847), though Lucian is a very different character from Heathcliff and the Berkshire landscape around Chidleigh has little in common with the Yorkshire Moors.

But Lucian is not represented solely as a demonic exploiter of his sister’s affection for him. His reciprocal liking for her makes him come to regret his use of her as a psychic plaything, and as the book goes on he considers her more and more instead as good company, an emotional and intellectual equal. ‘I think I am learning to prefer my sweet sister to any creature in the world’, he tells her at one point (p. 226), before spoiling the effect by reminding her that Jan is not ‘in the world’, since he has only ever seen her in his dreams. Lucian also stands in opposition to the dominant eighteenth-century models of masculinity, as embodied in his laddish brothers George and Vesey. Both men are constantly making misogynist remarks, drinking themselves stupid, sleeping around, and indulging in blood sports such as cockfighting and bull baiting. Their friend the local clergyman Dr Eden is of a similar stamp, interested only in self-gratification in the company of other men, while the brothers are mirror images of their father, who died of an apoplectic fit brought on by Lucian’s resistance to his will. Juliana’s suitor Mr Daintree, meanwhile, provides another contrast to the masculine norm – a gentler alternative to Lucian – in his genuine admiration for Juliana and his lack of interest in male companionship. At the same time he confesses to having developed an attraction to Juliana in her very early childhood, and his proposal to her when she is seventeen and he is in his thirties means that the distribution of power between them is heavily weighted in his favour. Moreover, his attraction to Juliana, like George and Vesey’s attraction to servant girls and lively noblewomen, is expressed in highly physical terms. He presents her with verses written by a notorious rake, Sir Charles Sedley, and alludes to the ‘exquisite […] pain’ given him by her smile as a six-year-old (p. 142). Lucian, by contrast, claims to see her as a ‘rebel and an adventuress’ (p. 80) as well as a beauty, and has a genuine psychological connection to her, which draws brother and sister together whenever they fix their attention on one another, no matter how far apart they happen to be at the time. Lucian may wish to take advantage of the power over Juliana that his position affords him, but he is also connected to her by their shared dreams, frustrated desires and mutual interests, and it is his awareness of this connection that drives him to free her from his power at the end of the novel.

Arthur Rackham, illustration for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

The bond that links Lucian, Juliana and Jan is not so much a sexual one (though Lucian clearly has sexual designs on Jan) as the conviction that they were born at the wrong time. All three feel painfully aware that they are being suffocated by the conventions of the culture they inhabit; and all three are unusual in being able to gain first-hand experience of alternative cultures and personalities than the ones on offer in their lifetimes. This feeling of displacement, of exclusion from the life one should be living and of attraction to other possibilities, is beautifully invoked in the novel’s opening chapter, where groups of twentieth-century Londoners pause for a moment to gaze at a secluded ‘waterfall garden’ in Hyde Park, staring through railings at the ‘miniature lake just beyond their reach’ where ‘Pale yellow flags and rushes stood deep in the dark water, stirring very slightly now and then’ in response to a breeze (p. 1). Jan, too, stares at the inaccessible garden, but with the impression ‘that she was looking into a garden removed from her, not by a row of iron railings, but by an immeasurable distance. She wished that she were there’ (p. 2). The choice of Hyde Park for this inaccessible garden is surely no coincidence. J M Barrie’s Peter Pan spent his early years in Kensington Gardens, an enclosed space within the larger recreation ground, which makes Hyde Park the starting point for his famous rebellion against the tyranny of time. And Jan’s fancy about the garden’s ‘immeasurable distance’ from her has a fairy tale quality, like Peter’s adventures among the fairies of Kensington Gardens. Jan’s full name, for instance, chosen by her father ‘in a flight of fancy consequent on the reading of ballads’, is Rose Janet, which invokes the Border ballad of Tam Lin, whose heroine summons a fairy lover by plucking a rose and later rescues him from certain death at the hands of the Fairy Queen. (One of the stanzas in Burns’s version of the ballad goes ‘Why pu’s thou the rose, Janet, / Amang the groves sae green’; hence ‘Rose Janet’). For Jan, the world is full of glimpses of magical other worlds like the one afforded by the garden. A sudden downpour makes ‘fairy thimbles’ in the city streets, when ‘huge drops leap up from the pavements in a thousand tiny fountains’, prompting her to ask herself ‘Was this fairy rain?’ And as a child she was convinced that Blake’s famous poem ‘The Sick Rose’ was all about her (since she was then called Rose), and that whenever she fell ill an ‘invisible worm’ was winging its way through the darkness to wreak her destruction. These supernatural glimpses – sometimes ravishing, sometimes terrifying – stand in stark contrast to her drab but necessary day job, to the crowded bus she boards in the first chapter, which symbolically has no room for her, and to her practical lover, a Scottish architect called Donald. Her glimpses, like the secluded garden, exist in the spaces between officially productive zones: in breaks from work, in the city streets, on buses. And she finds echoes of them in the literature she is always quoting: a line from Donne (‘Tell me where all past times are’, as she misquotes it), a half-remembered set of phrases from Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Blake’s verses, two Border ballads, a recent poem by Walter de la Mare. She is familiar, too, with the work of Barrie, though she quotes (or rather Donald remembers her as quoting) from What Every Woman Knows, not Peter Pan (p. 11). What Every Woman Knows is a play about the unacknowledged influence of women on male success in public life, a concept which makes women themselves into in-between figures, overlooked yet secretly powerful fairy godmothers to many generations of male Cinderellas.

Juliana’s detachment from her time, meanwhile, is most often associated with another in-between space: the tree-lined avenue that leads to Chidleigh House. It’s her close attention to the details of this avenue and the parts of the house and grounds ignored by its other occupants (an ornamental bridge where she glimpses one of Chidleigh’s former owners, the boy king Edward VI; the arch which is all that remains from the days when the house was a medieval castle) that informs her whenever she makes a journey between epochs. Half way down the avenue of trees stands her former Nurse’s cottage, and whenever she travels to the twentieth century she finds that the cottage has disappeared and that the thoroughfare where it stood has become neglected. On one traumatic occasion she even learns that the modern owner of Chidleigh has begun to chop down the trees that line the avenue, having built a new driveway to the house and deeming the old approach redundant. For her, neglected and forgotten things emblematize her own neglected and forgotten status, and she longs to use her ability to move between times to preserve them and herself from oblivion.

Jan’s detachment from her time and place is fuelled by her fascination with books, a fascination which she shares with Juliana and Lucian. Lucian makes assignations with his sister in the Library at Chidleigh, where he puts her under hypnosis and sends her off through time and space in pursuit of Jan. When Jan first visits the Library in its twentieth-century form she recognizes it as a place she’s often visited in her dreams, where the schoolboy Lucian sat in resentful solitude and took revenge on his hostile brothers by conjuring up sadistic fantasies about them. All three young people in the book take delight in the same set of texts, and as we learn more about their reading habits it becomes clear that they are able to swap these texts with one another in defiance of logic, as if drawing them from the same set of timeless bookshelves. Jan’s misquotation of Donne’s poem ‘Go and Catch a Falling Star’ in the first chapter is later ‘explained’ by the fact that it comes from the version of the text best known to Lucian, ‘John Bell’s pocket edition of the Poets from Chaucer to Churchill’ (p. 163). Juliana, meanwhile, knows exactly who spoke the words which Jan half recalls from Robert Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1590)– ‘Time Is, Time Was, Time Has Been’ (Jan thinks they were written by Francis Bacon) – and which in turn provide the titles for the three parts of Irwin’s novel. And at a sumptuous water party on the Thames Juliana finds herself somehow ‘remembering’ the lines from a Walter de la Mare poem that were earlier quoted by Jan: ‘But beauty vanishes, beauty passes, / However rare – rare it be’ (p. 139). Jan recollects these lines again when she visits Juliana’s tomb in the final chapter, completing the stanza as she does so:

But beauty vanishes, beauty passes,
However rare – rare it be.
And when I crumble, who will remember
This lady of the West Country? (p. 305)

The answer, it would seem, is poets, novelists, playwrights, artists and lovers, whose words and visions echo back and forth across history in anachronistic interchange.  Imaginative sympathy between people in time past and time to come dissolves the boundaries between periods, establishing a trans-historical ‘company’ or fellowship of like-minded people whose mutual affection and common interests provide a kind of compensation for the isolation imposed on them by an uncongenial present.

At the same time, seeking satisfaction in another period has its dangers. Lucian’s friends in Paris take as their role models Dr Faustus and Roger Bacon, both notorious magicians. Dr Faustus damned himself by dabbling in necromancy to summon up figures from the past, while Friar Bacon forged a brazen head capable of seeing into the future, thereby setting a precedent for Lucian’s exploitation of living people as his instruments or tools. The title of Irwin’s novel, too, invokes the deadly consequences of seeking companionship outside the realms of the living. The phrase ‘Still She Wished for Company’ comes from the chorus of another Border ballad, which tells of a lonely woman who sits spinning in her cottage and longs for fellowship so intensely that she summons up a sinister being from the beyond. Limb by limb, organ by organ the being assembles itself by the woman’s hearth until it is complete, whereupon it begins a conversation with its lonely summoner concerning the reasons for its appearance in her cottage. The ballad ends with the monster suddenly roaring at the woman it has come ‘FOR YOU’, presumably in a diabolical quest for her body and spirit. We don’t hear what happened next, but destruction of some sort is implied, just as it is for Juliana when she sinks into a coma under Lucian’s hypnotic influence. The novel as a whole, then, is presided over by the fear of perdition – damnation as well as loss and forgetting – though this is discreetly veiled by the comfortable-sounding phrase on its title page.

There is clear evidence in the narrative of the specific dangers of getting involved with Lucian in particular. His former medium, the Duc de Saint Aumerle, is a shell of a man, and there are strong indications that this is because of Lucian’s influence. As the young lord’s former ‘instrument’ in Paris – the clairvoyant whose powers he first sought to make use of to forge a link with Jan – the Duke’s behaviour and appearance suggest that he may also have been the Englishman’s lover, now cast off and diminished. Aumerle is yet further removed from eighteenth-century ideals of masculinity than Lucian: slighter, prettier, more garrulous, less active. He enjoys cards instead of blood sports, and spends most of the day tucked up in bed, humming tunelessly and working at his embroidery frame before dressing for dinner and coming downstairs to take over the household for the evening. His utter lack of interest in women is hinted at by Lucian’s insistence that his projected marriage to Juliana will be one of convenience, leaving her at ‘liberty’, as her brother puts it, to become an éminence grise at the French Court – and hence of great use to her manipulative sibling (p. 203). The Duke’s valet later confirms his master’s indifference to women. When Aumerle is killed, the Chidleigh household assumes he has been murdered in a quarrel over a girl, but the valet ‘refused to believe that his master would have taken the trouble to walk down to the summer-house for any girl on earth’ (p. 239, my emphasis). Meanwhile the Duke himself describes Lucian’s replacement of him with his sister as the substitution of a ‘young virgin, a pure child’ for a ‘dead instrument’ which has been ‘used till it withered’. The sexualized description of Juliana as a ‘virgin’ reinforces the impression one gets elsewhere in the text that she is in effect Lucian’s new lover, which in turn implies that the Duke was his old one. There may be another hint at this in the Duke’s title; Aumerle was one of the favourites of Shakespeare’s Richard II, a king often depicted in Irwin’s lifetime as a homosexual monarch who neglects his wife’s bed for affairs with men. As a gay man, Aumerle might be seen as another figure out of time, stranded in a world where homoerotic desire is criminalized and very conscious of himself as someone with interests and capabilities no one else is willing openly to share.

Joshua Reynolds, Cupid as a Link-Boy

(Lucian’s ambiguous sexuality, meanwhile, is hinted at by his attraction to Jan, with her gender-neutral name and appearance. When Juliana first describes Jan to Lucian he asks her ‘You are certain it was a girl?’ (p. 100), and Juliana acknowledges that ‘indeed she had an odd, boyish air’ (p. 101). And Lucian’s final glimpse of Jan from a London window represents her as a ‘slight, dark figure, not unlike that of a link-boy’ (p. 267). The Englishman’s transference of his erotic attention from the French Duke to this English gamine might be described as the substitution of an androgynous ‘pure child’ for a ‘withered instrument’.)

The Duke objectifies his sexual and social isolation in the cane he carries, which has a handle of his own design carved in the shape of a woman’s head. No one else, he claims, appreciates the artistry of this design of his, which will become fashionable, he predicts, in fifty years’ time. The sheer pettiness of this claim to genius – that he will be remembered after his death as the designer of a trendy walking stick – identifies the Duke as a marginal figure, drained of any claim to interest he may once have had except as a tool to be used for other people’s purposes. In fact, the offensiveness of the cane’s appearance – the woman’s head is said to be ‘Ethiopian’ – suggests that its inventor is behind the times, not ahead of them. The ‘Ethiopian’ motif embodies a perception of African people as commodities which was being challenged in the 1770s and 80s by abolitionists like Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano. And the Duke’s status as a French aristocrat identifies him with an entire class which is on the brink of extinction. His death – which occurs when he attacks Lucian in a bid to free himself and Juliana from the young man’s influence – anticipates the general massacre of the French aristocracy in the 1790s in the name of a ‘liberty’ far more wide-ranging than the kind Juliana’s marriage of convenience might have brought her; a calamitous historical event in which he never gets the chance to participate, and hence yet another sign of his diminution at the hands of his former lover.

The Duke, in fact, is himself an object, a pale counterpart of his Ethiopian cane. His face, we are told, resembles ‘a large white egg’ (p. 180), exquisitely shaped but perfectly blank, its porcelain surface confirming its inability to incubate new life. His presence at Chidleigh transforms the household (in Juliana’s eyes) into a collection of mindless automata, dancing mechanically to Lucian’s tunes like the puppets described by Wilde in some of his poems: ‘it occurred to her that all the figures in the great white and gold room were like dolls in some mechanical contrivance, that spoke and looked and bowed when moved by wires’ (p. 181).[3]And Jan and Juliana, too, stand in danger of absenting themselves into the blank anonymity of objects. When Jan’s fiancé sees her staring at the secluded garden in the first chapter he fears that her dreamy attraction to distant times and inaccessible places, which can mutate into ‘laughing disillusionment’ (p. 12), will leave her unable to form relationships with her contemporaries. Juliana’s coma very nearly cuts her off from life itself, confirming the worst forebodings of her fiancé Mr Daintree, who has grown increasingly anxious for her wellbeing as he keeps coming across her in a state of confusion or unconsciousness. Both women are seduced by the charms of Lucian, and risk being diminished or ‘withered’ by the force of his personality like Aumerle before them. At the same time, unlike Aumerle both women are also capable of enchanting Lucian in their turn, drawing him back from the verge of a suicidal rejection of the world he no longer finds delightful. And this capacity for reconnecting with life instead of rejecting or emptying it, of living intensely for the present moment despite their delight in other times and places, is what enables them finally to break the deadlock that threatens to trap them in limbo – either in the repetitive machinery of the everyday or in the void between past, present and future.

From the beginning of their relationship Jan is capable of influencing Lucian’s imagination, which has been deformed by his father’s and brothers’ incessant bullying. Lucian takes refuge from their cruelty in erotic fantasies like de Sade’s: his lonely days of his childhood in Chidleigh Library are spent indulging ‘gorgeous and horrible fancies’ of himself sitting on a ‘throne of carved ivory and gold, watching the tortures’ of his enemies, his ignorant tutor and abusive family (pp. 223-4). Into these fantasies Jan intrudes as a healing presence, transforming his nightmares into playful collaborations and in the process showing him a better, more democratic way of living. Each time she visits him in his dreams, he says, ‘She treated me as an equal companion in an enchanting game, where I had been accustomed to reign as sole despot of my semi-infernal kingdom’ (p. 225, my emphasis). He associates her with harmless fictions: with the heroine Incognita in Congreve’s only novel, whose actual name is Juliana, or with the fairy tales into which she playfully morphs his morbid fancies. With her he explores the streets of future London and visits the railed-off garden in Hyde Park. She provides the substance for his ‘impossible desires’, most notably when he sees her in the street outside his London house after his flight from Chidleigh; and she offers him hope of a new narrative, an escape route from the dead ends towards which his disaffection with his time is taking him.

Couple walking, by Thomas Gainsborough

Juliana, meanwhile, enables Lucian to enjoy the present as no one else can. This ability manifests itself most clearly in the night scene where they walk together on the terraces of Chidleigh House, ignoring outside claims on their attention (Juliana’s mother calling for her, Lucian’s schemes for Juliana’s future) as they concentrate on one another for what becomes a timeless moment. ‘They walked past the tall box hedge again,’ Irwin tells us. ‘Shadows stole out on the milky ground, of a bent head, ribbon at neck, of a head, turned up to meet it, under a high-piled tower of hair’ (p. 127). When Lucian tells Juliana at this point that her companionable silence has taken her ‘far away’ she answers, ‘No […] I am here and with you’. And she later notes the moment as one of perfect harmony between them:

They laughed together. She was deliciously happy, not so much because of the French duke whose name she had forgotten to ask, as because Lucian had never been quite so charmingly easy and friendly with her. (p. 154)

Later still, when Lucian returns from London to free her from his hypnotic influence over her, he urges his sister to enjoy the present as she did that night, forgetting the experiences he has made her undergo and concentrating instead on those ‘who love you and not to hurt’ (p. 276). In the process the past is wiped out, his power over her laid aside, and the here-and-now is placed at Juliana’s disposal. As a result, Lucian extends his own present, despite his imminent death and erasure from history as a disgraced peer: ‘You will not quite forget me,’ he insists, ‘no matter what else you forget’ (p. 277). Escape from the blankness of anonymity depends for Irwin on a recognition of equality which could be described as discovering the wished-for ‘company’ of the title, in spite of the unequal distribution of social and political resources in any given epoch. Juliana presumably finds another model of such ‘company’ in her husband Mr Daintree, whose epitaph, as read by Jan in the final chapter, speaks of his reluctance to go on living after her death – her companionship having become for him a necessary condition of life itself.

In the final chapter, Jan too finds herself reconciled to the present as a time of opportunity as well as frustration. Like Lucian, she has till this point been obsessed with her ideal partner, a literary composite assembled ‘chiefly from her casual glimpses in the library […] of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, Congreve’s Valentine, Lovelace without his insatiable vanity; a man of easy ironic wit, assured composure impossible to ruffle, and yet of fancies as fantastic as her own’ (p. 19). Each of these literary influences is in some way damaging to women: La Rochefoucauld and Lord Chesterfield give cynical advice to naïve young people, Valentine from Love for Love and Lovelace from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa are rakes and libertines, while Lovelace is also a kidnapper and a rapist. Jan thinks to have found the embodiment of this ideal in Lucian, not least, perhaps, because she first sees him in a library, like the real-life model for the book-based lover of her dreams. But Lucian relinquishes his rakish designs on her when he releases Juliana from his power, and at this point Jan turns her attention to her living fiancé, the Scottish architect Donald Graeme. Donald is the ultimate modern man, both in his determination to promote himself through hard work and in his admiration for American architecture – qualities unlikely to endear him to a woman obsessed with the aristocracy, whose favourite building is Chidleigh House, a structure that ‘might have imprisoned a princess in a fairy tale’ (p. 287). In the final chapter, however, Donald reveals another side to his nature. When Jan tells him about her visions of the past he doesn’t dismiss them, instead accepting imagination as a necessary faculty which he shares with her thanks to his ambitious plans for the future: ‘Any servant girl who longs to be a duchess, anyone who has dreams of successful ambition, finds their chief happiness in something that doesn’t exist. All artists do. Perhaps most lovers do’ (p. 301). More importantly, he believes that what she saw in her dreams of Lucian was in some sense ‘real’, though it ‘doesn’t exist’ in the here and now. He has become convinced, he tells her, that she has second sight – the ability to see beyond the material present, a concept he knows about thanks to his Celtic roots (Jan awkwardly refers to him as ‘half highland’). This familiarity with the ‘impossible’ enables him to accept her fascination with ‘unreal people’, ‘nonsense’, ‘chimeras’, the ‘company of a dream’, as evidence of her affinity for the arts rather than madness. And this in turn invests Donald himself – despite his practicality – with the quality of a ‘shadow’ rather than a ‘living companion’ (p. 300), something that links him with Lucian, since the companionship between the Master of Chidleigh and his sister became associated with shadows during their walk on the Chidleigh terraces, when their images walked alongside them in a prefiguration of their future as dreams, ghosts, or characters in Irwin’s novel.

A woman with a ‘high-piled tower of hair’, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Donald, then, earns Jan’s affection by proving himself one of the select dream ‘company’ she has always been obsessed with; a suitable companion for herself, Juliana and Lucian, and more distantly for Mr Daintree, Juliana’s husband. Donald gets linked in particular with Lucian, becoming a kind of vessel for him, in much the same way as Juliana became a vessel for Jan. For much of the book the notion of one person being used by another, of becoming an involuntary vessel for someone else’s personality, is associated with the abuse of power – the kind of possession Irwin would later represent in Mr Corbett’s fascination with the Book. But in the last paragraph of the novel all four lovers are united in perfect equality, with Donald and Jan re-enacting the scene where Juliana walked with her brother on the terraces at Chidleigh:

They were walking by a box hedge as tall as themselves at the end of one of the grass terraces. Then they went slowly down the terrace, the moon behind them. Faint shadows stole out before them, and she, looking down at the milky ground, saw that they were the shadows of a hooped skirt and a sword, of a bent head, ribbon at neck, and a head upturned to meet it, under a high-piled tower of hair. (p. 307)

The scene is notable for the way it erases distinctions between the sexes – the man’s ribboned hair and sword perfectly balancing the woman’s skirt and tower of hair – while erasing the gaps between past and present, as the twentieth-century man and woman about to embark on the ultimate modern journey – from the Old World to the New – find themselves fused with their eighteenth-century precursors. In this way a novel about isolation and loneliness ends by asserting the possibility of a new community that dissolves all barriers by means of a rare and hard-won sympathy among its members.

It’s important to note, however, that this final fusion is not presented as another ideal. Lucian’s association with rakes and orgies, with devil worship and mesmerism, makes him a highly problematic ideal for either Jan or Juliana; while Jan’s fascination with fairy tale princesses waiting passively to be carried off by a lustful prince, or with aristocracy and the rigid class system on which it depends, or with literary rapists, abusers and misogynists, connects her fantasies with the worst tyrannies of the past. Irwin’s past is no better than her present, and her present is almost as problematic for women as the past, so that her characters have to cobble together a better world for themselves out of imaginative fusions of both. Meanwhile Donald’s respect for Jan, Lucian’s affection for Juliana, have to be won with difficulty from both men’s obsession with what they imagine to be better futures; futures which are shown by the end to have distracted them from the present as completely as the women were distracted from the here and now by their imaginative lives. Lucian’s distractions prove in the end as destructive to him as Mr Corbett’s did, while Juliana escapes annihilation as narrowly as did Mr Corbett’s young daughter.  The need for assembling a congenial company of men and women by travelling between periods suggests that such a company doesn’t yet exist, and Still She Wished for Company suggests that the emergence of the place and time for women isn’t yet in sight, either.

Notes

[1]All quotations are from Margaret Irwin, Still She Wished for Company (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935).

[2]Their names are linked through fiction too. Juliana shares her name with the heroine of William Congreve’s seventeenth-century novel Incognita, while Lucian takes to calling Jan ‘Incognita’ (p. 261), which is Juliana’s pseudonym in Congreve’s text.

[3]Compare Wilde’s ‘The Harlot’s House’: ‘Like wire-pulled automatons, / Slim silhouetted skeletons / Went sidling through the slow quadrille’ etc.

 

Margaret Irwin between the Wars, Part 1: ‘The Book’ (1930)

[For me, August 2019 has been Margaret Irwin month. Not much is known, it seems, about this popular historical novelist, but she’s a wonderful writer of fantasy and horror, and over the next few days I’ll be devoting three substantial posts to her best-known works of the fantastic. Enjoy!]

Margaret Irwin started to write books in the 1920s, a remarkable decade for women’s fantasy. Other authors who made a name for themselves in that decade included Stella Benson, Hope Mirrlees, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Elinor Wylie, all of whom wrote fantastic novels – Living Alone (1919), Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), Lolly Willowes (1926) and The Venetian Glass Nephew (1925) – while May Sinclair published a collection of modernist ghost stories in 1923, and Virginia Woolf her most lushly fantastic experiment in prose, Orlando, in 1928. Even male writers took to representing women fantastically in the 1920s, from Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) to David Garnett in his wildly successful novella Lady into Fox (1922), David Lindsay in The Haunted Woman (1922), and Walter de la Mare in his celebrated faux-autobiography Memoirs of a Midget (1921), as well as his finest short story, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ (1922). The centrality of women to post-war fiction is hardly surprising, given both their unusual visibility during the conflict and the extension of the vote to women in 1918 and 1928 (though I should stress that most of the texts I’ve listed are more concerned with female invisibility than with the belated entrance of women into full citizenship). But why did so many writers choose to represent women’s experiences in fantastic fiction? Margaret Irwin’s first two novels were fantasies, and at the end of the decade she wrote the most anthologized of her short stories, a supernatural horror called ‘The Book’ (1930). These three texts might be said to provide a kind of answer to my question, and one that throws light on the other women’s fantasies I’ve listed.

The 1920s and 1930s have together come to be known as between the wars, as if they were defined by the cataclysmic acts of violence that hem them in, making them a no-man’s land without an identity or direction of its own. The dominant mode of Irwin’s fantasies is in-betweenness. Each story conveys a similar sense of waiting in a state of uneasy suspension to see if something that has just ended will complete its transformation into something else. The transformation hasn’t been fully accomplished by the end of the narrative, and the feeling you’re left with after reading is one of uncertainty, with the protagonist and hence the reader poised or held in prolonged suspension between alternative genres or modes of existence – different philosophies – without any clear sense of which of these, or which combination of these, might best be embraced in order to make sense of the time to come. This mood of suspension pervades all the most prominent female fantasies of the decade. Lolly Willowes ends with its protagonist uncertain about her future, despite her initiation into the powers and demonic connections of being a witch. Living Alone finishes with its desultory heroine wandering off to the United States, uncertain what she will do next. Lud-in-the-Mist leaves many of its female characters either dead or marginalized, despite the transformation of their country through a magical revolution; Orlando’s hero becomes a heroine half way through his unexpectedly extended lifespan, but her happiness at the end of the book is associated with her lifelong association with a quiet and prosperous country estate, out of the political and cultural limelight. Each of these books brings its women into direct contact with potent magical forces, but each also leaves them waiting, half hopeful but with a bass note of well-founded scepticism, for those energies to manifest themselves in genuine social change. And the sense of infinite promise mixed with doubt and even fear pervades the marvellous early narratives of Margaret Irwin.

The best known of Irwin’s fantasies is ‘The Book’, which I first came across in Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s fine anthology The Weird (2011). The protagonist of the story is a man, but his in-between-ness, like that of the women in the books I’ve listed, is never in question. He is a modestly prosperous middle-class gentleman, with a reliable job, a wife, three children and a dog, and a house in which they all live in close and reasonably democratic proximity. The children in his house all have a voice, and the man’s ‘favourite’ is the youngest, eight-year-old Jean. The egalitarian tendencies of this family are embodied in its solitary set of bookshelves, which promiscuously mingles ancient and modern, male and female, adult’s and children’s texts in cheerful disorder:

The dining-room bookcase was the only considerable one in the house and held a careless unselected collection to suit all the tastes of the household, together with a few dull and obscure old theological books that had been left over from the sale of a learned uncle’s library. Cheap red novels, bought on railway stalls by Mrs Corbett, who thought a journey the only time to read, were thrust in like pert, undersized intruders among the respectable nineteenth-century works of culture, chastely bound in dark blue or green, which Mr Corbett had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days; beside these there swaggered the children’s large gaily bound story-books and collections of Fairy Tales in every colour.

This household, then, embodies the inter-war epoch which saw the vote finally extended to all British citizens of suitable age. Its bookshelves are available to all its members and represent many aspects of European culture, both elite and popular, from fairy tales and Latin poetry to railway novels and detective fiction (Mr Corbett was reading a detective novel in the story’s opening sentence, despite the fact that the ‘pert, undersized intruders’ of popular fiction are associated in the list with his less educated wife). The house is not excessively democratic, however; it is not revolutionary, like Soviet Russia. We learn a few pages later that the servants are assumed by their employers to be uninterested in reading: ‘The maid never touched the books’ Mr Corbett thinks (p. 184). And the books themselves speak to moments of ambition in Mr Corbett’s past. They contain a number of nineteenth-century volumes he ‘had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days’ and the theological tomes whose only function (since they are never read) must be to inform the world that Mr Corbett’s uncle was a Dean, a figure of some stature in the Church of England. It is one of these ancient books that gives Irwin’s text its title, apparently infecting Mr Corbett’s mind with a miasma of self-interest, intensifying those early ambitions into an all-consuming obsession with financial and intellectual self-advancement at the expense of everyone around him. I say ‘apparently’ here because his passion for self-promotion is hinted at, as we’ve seen, in the books he owns, and Irwin carefully refrains from allowing us to conclude with any certainty that the effects of the titular Book are supernatural. Here is another form of in-between-ness the narrative contains: the gradual corruption of Mr Corbett’s mind by ‘The Book’ can be as easily ascribed to his own character and upbringing as to supernatural causes, and the tale is a perfect example of Tzvetan Todorov’s ‘hesitation’ between supernatural and natural explanations of seemingly impossible occurrences – a hesitation which suggests that the world itself is somehow suspended between irreconcilable philosophical perspectives, materialist and spiritual, supposedly committed to the former while being unable to shake off the residual influence of the latter, even if only as a means of disclaiming responsibility for its own worst actions.

The Book itself is an in-between object. Its presence on the bookshelves can at first only be deduced from an absence: an unexplained gap between the usually densely-packed volumes, which acquires for Mr Corbett an ‘unnatural importance’ and begins to prey on his mind until it develops an unsettling resemblance to ‘a gap between the two front teeth of some grinning monster’. For Chaucer and his medieval contemporaries a gap between the two front teeth was a sign of lechery, and there’s no mistaking the association between Mr Corbett’s obsession with the Book and erotic desire – in particular pornography. Censorship has ensured that pornography constitutes an absence in many libraries. It has also ensured that obscene passages in nineteenth-century texts were sometimes printed in Latin, barring access to uneducated readers on the dubious assumption that only the well-schooled are disciplined enough to read such passages without succumbing to temptation. The Book, when Mr Corbett stumbles across it, turns out to be in Latin, and he is at first drawn to the illustrations rather than the text, since his linguistic skills are not the best. These illustrations invoke both sexual temptation and its possible consequence, childbirth: ‘an ugly woodcut of Adam and Eve with figures like bolsters and hair like dahlias, or a map of the Cosmos with Hell-mouth in the corner, belching forth demons’ (p. 186). When at last Mr Corbett decides to decipher the Latin with the help of his young son’s dictionary, he ‘steals’ into the schoolroom like a thief in the night ‘With a secret and guilty air which would have looked absurd to anyone who knew his harmless purpose’. The part of the book he reads with most attention is a passage that describes (as he thinks) ‘some horrible rite practised by a savage tribe of devil-worshippers’ – though he reflects extensively on it afterwards, ‘committing each detail to memory’ as if to preserve it for his own uses. And the guilt that accompanies his clandestine reading of the Book soon begins to extend itself to Mr Corbett’s dealings with his family. He begins to think they suspect him of some unspecified misconduct and becomes infuriated at their ‘low and bestial suspicions and heavy dullness of mind’. The second time he borrows the dictionary from his son he ‘thought the boy looked oddly at him and he cursed him in his heart for a suspicious young devil, though of what he should be suspicious he could not say’ (p. 187). By this stage in the story his family has become a ‘savage tribe’ with devilish suspicions or superstitions, whose language he no longer speaks and whose culture is a closed book to him. Mr Corbett has become a colonial intruder into his own household, and anyone familiar with the habits of colonists will have begun to expect the worst from his bids to penetrate the secret spaces of its other inhabitants.

Mr Corbett’s inability to say what his family might suspect him of can be taken as another significant gap in the narrative, a deliberate exclusion from it of something in him which Mr Corbett himself refuses to acknowledge. The nature of that unsaid something may be hinted at in the phrase ‘low and bestial suspicions’, sexual desire being often associated with wild animals as against civilized men. The same refusal to acknowledge his own half-suppressed desires is implied by his assumption that the outrageous passage he translates so carefully refers to some ritual performed by savages, as against the actions of a self-disciplined Englishman like himself.  Yet Mr Corbett has been having what are obliquely identified as sexual fantasies before ever he lays hands on the Book. The story begins with him falling into the habit of reading familiar books in perverse new ways, all of which can be seen as eroticized or sexual. Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop – its title suggesting the secrets that might be hidden in broad daylight in a packed emporium – becomes for him an index to its author’s sado-masochistic leanings: ‘Beneath the author’s sentimental pity for the weak and helpless, he could discern a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering’. When he turns instead to the classical fiction of Walter Pater he concludes that ‘there is something evil in the austere worship of beauty for its own sake’ (p. 184). Later he identifies Robert Louis Stevenson as another sadist, Treasure Island exhibiting ‘an invalid’s sickly attraction to brutality’ (p. 185). Perverse readings like these can also be readily practised, it turns out, on the books that formed the bedrock of Mr Corbett’s education. In his nightmares after reading Pater ‘the gods and heroes of classic fable acted deeds whose naked crime and shame [he] had never appreciated in Latin and Greek Unseens’, and he wakes ‘in a cold sweat from the spectacle of the ravished Philomel’s torn and bleeding tongue’ (p. 184). Latin itself, the mark of a high-class schooling eminently suitable for boys who are destined by birth to become leaders of men, has been contaminated by association with rape and other ‘naked crimes’ well before Mr Corbett first glances into the manuscript pages of the mysterious tome of the story’s title.

Meanwhile, Mr Corbett entertains the same suspicions of other family members as he suspects them of entertaining about him. When his son in turn suddenly becomes disgusted by a book he used to enjoy (‘Filthy stuff’, he calls it), Mr Corbett’s first assumption is that the boy has been reading a pornographic publication passed on to him by servants or other boys: ‘Mr Corbett was disturbed. Unpleasant housemaids and bad schoolfriends passed through his head, as he gravely asked his son how he had got hold of that book’. His suspicions prove groundless, however. The book the boy finds ‘filthy’ is an expurgated edition of Gulliver’s Travels, with all the obscene bits taken out – though of course in the original Swift’s misanthropic ‘cynicism’, as Mr Corbett calls it, is expressed in graphically corporeal terms. Before long Mr Corbett himself is echoing the boy’s reaction to Swift (and the irony of Swift having been another Dean is surely intentional). By this stage, for him all authors have become ‘filthy-minded’, from the sexually repressed Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte to William Wordsworth with his unwholesome nature fetish, and all of them use literature to articulate ‘what they dared not express in their lives’. Literature itself points to a gap in public life, the gap from which the articulation of erotic arousal has been erased, and it is this gap that the Book of the story’s title comes exclusively to fill in Mr Corbett’s own existence.

As he gets to know the Book better he notices that it is unfinished. There are blank pages at the end, a gap where the perpetual process of learning to which the text pays verbal tribute has been cut short by the author’s death. As Mr Corbett painstakingly deciphers the Book’s contents he sees that these blank pages are being gradually filled with lines of new writing: instructions which permit him to satisfy his clandestine desires in the world beyond the text. At first these lines give him tips on good investments, glutting his appetite for wealth and status. Later, however, they move on to more obviously damaging suggestions, instructing him to kill the family dog and thus pandering to the sadistic pleasure in cruelty which he detected in Stevenson and Dickens. Inevitably the mysterious instructions that appear on the blank pages, which so conveniently chime in with Mr Corbett’s unspoken wishes, imply that he has started to write these wishes into the manuscript, embellishing his work of translation with unwholesome fantasies of his own. His belief that he must obey the lines’ instructions to the letter (if not, he is convinced that something dreadful will happen to him) invokes his respect for authority, as exemplified in his decision to keep his uncle’s books in the first place; and here we come to perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story – its gender politics.

I suggested earlier that the Corbett household has a quasi-democratic air about it, as attested by its bookshelves, or by the fact that Mr Corbett and his wife share the same tastes in lowbrow reading. What Mr Corbett’s new reading habits exemplify, by contrast, is his frustrated wish for power. His perverse analyses of Dickens, Stevenson and the Book make him feel superior – first to his younger self, who he thinks did not read with the penetration he has acquired in his maturity; then to his wife and children, who strike him as dull and narrow-minded by comparison; and finally to his friends and professional colleagues, whose inability to profit from the Book’s financial tips makes him think of them as incompetent. Inevitably, perhaps, his sense of superiority has a gendered aspect. In the 1920s Latin formed an integral part of a middle-class boy’s education – and there is no indication in the story that the girls in his family have access to it. It’s the ancient language of the law, and Mr Corbett gives as his excuse for borrowing the dictionary his need to translate an old law case for professional purposes. And it’s the language of theology, associated with the late Dean’s library. Law and theology, like Latin, have traditionally been the exclusive province of men; in Irwin’s day this was only slowly changing. And in medieval times, when the Book was written, Latin was the language of the Bible, and of the male priests who had sole access to its contents. Indeed, the title of the short story could well be read as referring to the Good Book, and the mysterious Book itself with its pictures of Adam and Eve and the mouth of Hell could well be taken for an annotated copy of the Scriptures. In turning from detective fiction to what he thinks of as theology Mr Corbett is embracing authority, just as he is when he casts aside the demotic Dickens for the more socially elevated Pater.

Mr Corbett’s recourse to the Dean’s volumes, in other words, immerses him in a world where men’s activities are carefully segregated from those of women; a world from which the twentieth century was only just beginning to emerge in the two decades between the wars. The unhealthy miasma he detects in the vicinity of the bookshelves – exuded by the Dean’s library, and perhaps by the Book in particular – could be construed as the stink of the patriarchal past, when women were men’s chattels and it was the absolute prerogative of men to dispose of their offspring as they saw fit. The association of the Dean’s library with pornography points up the various abuses to which patriarchy gives rise – through its tendency to represent women and children as objects, through its privileging of individual male desires over the collective needs of the community, through its restriction of the arcane secrets of sexual knowledge to male eyes and hands. There’s a ghastly inevitability, then, about the fact that Mr Corbett’s perverse reading culminates in an assault on Jean, a female child. Philomela, after all, whose severed tongue Mr Corbett dreams of, was raped by a patriarch – her father, Tereus – and Mr Corbett’s final attack on his own daughter can be read as the consequence of an education designed to reinforce the historical linkage of patriarchal power with sexual violence.

The build-up to the attack is framed precisely in terms of the protection of privileged authority. By this point the Book has become for Mr Corbett ‘the source of ancient and secret power’, and the nightmares his daughter has begun to have about it suggest that she has somehow ‘acquired dangerous knowledge’ herself – perhaps by reading it, which would make her in his eyes a kind of heretic against his own divine status. She has teamed up with the family dog, he thinks absurdly, to conspire against his plans for universal domination; and the thought leads him to quote a line from the Good Book: ‘“All that are not with me are against me,” he repeated softly’. The words are derived from a sentence uttered by the divine son of a patriarchal God (‘He that is not with me is against me’, Matthew 12:30), and Mr Corbett’s easy appropriation of it for his own ends echoes, in effect, many generations of scriptural exegesis on behalf of male supremacy. In a similar spirit he decides to kill the child with a dose of rat poison no one knows he has – a particularly deadly form of secret knowledge, playing on the notion that his mind (like that of Dorian Gray) has been metaphorically ‘poisoned’ by a Book; his murder will be committed, like an act of God, by the unseen hand of a ‘secret power’. In these final paragraphs of the story Mr Corbett has become an activist on behalf of religion itself, which has acted since classical times in the service of male oppression.

In fact, to his credit, Mr Corbett withstands this last temptation. He doesn’t kill his daughter, but dies himself in her place, destroyed either by the shocking revelation that all his recent investments have collapsed (as some people believe) or by the pressure of a hand upon his windpipe (as the coroner’s report suggests). Was he killed by the Book’s disembodied servant, the demonic hand about which his daughter has been having so many nightmares? Or did he kill himself by his own hand, as the lawyers assert, somehow throttling himself to death to prevent himself becoming a similar servant of oppression? The notion that the hand that killed him might have been his own would seem far-fetched, if it weren’t for the fact that his hand has been associated throughout the story both with his reading of the Latin book and his carrying out of its instructions: ‘with his finger he traced out the words that had been written’; ‘He held onto the door handle [of his daughter’s bedroom], but his fingers seemed to have grown numb, for he could not turn it’ (p. 191). The story’s end, then, falls into a gap between two alternative theories of Mr Corbett’s death, and in doing so it defines the interwar period as a time in suspension between the immaterial preoccupations of the past and the material obsessions of the present; or else between the total dominance of the patriarchy, supported by an intensely patriarchal religion firmly rooted in the scriptures, and the ushering in of a new, egalitarian age in the wake of the universal franchise. It’s presumably up to the reader (as it was to Mr Corbett) to determine which.

Lynd Ward, illustration for William F. Harvey, ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’

 

The Strange Houses of William Morris

William Morris by George Frederic Watts

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

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

John Tenniel, Alice in the White Rabbit’s House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia

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

Edward Burne Jones, Frontispiece to The Wood Beyond the World

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

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

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

Edward Burne Jones, Love Among the Ruins

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

William Morris, Strawberry Thief

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

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

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Morris and Edward Burne Jones, The Flora Tapestry

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

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of many portraits of Jane Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Morris, Blackthorn

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

John William Waterhouse, Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus

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

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

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

Kelmscott Manor

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

The Brothers Hildebrandt, Bilbo at Rivendell

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

Imagining England in the Reign of Mary Tudor

The reign of Mary Tudor (1553-8) has never been celebrated for its imaginative writing. Yet perversely enough it has always provided ample material for imaginative rewriting: reinventions of history which seek to construct some sort of orderly narrative out of the chaos of England’s erratic journey towards Protestantism in the turbulent middle years of the sixteenth century. After the accession of Elizabeth I her sister’s reign began to be characterized by Protestants as a period when the religious imagination of the English people temporarily ran amok, drawing them away from the dawning light of the gospel and back to the illusions and conjuring tricks of the Catholic church. And by the early seventeenth century the period was sometimes represented, thanks to the softening mist of nostalgia, as a time of relative innocence, when communities were united in their conviction (however misguided) that they shared the land with benevolent fairies as well as affectionate (sometimes over-affectionate) priests, monks and nuns.

The poet William Warner, for instance, included ‘A Tale of Robin Goodfellow’ in the 1606 edition of his ever-expanding epic Albions England (1606). In this little-known episode from the country’s history, a ‘bare-breeched Goblin’ laments the departure of superstition as the reformed religion took hold, robbing monks and nuns of their livelihood and depriving Robin himself of the dishes of milk and other titbits which had once been considered his due. The over-active imaginations of Marian Catholics, the goblin tells us, meant that for fairies and their infernal accomplices – the Pope and the Devil – it ‘Was then a merry world with us when Mary wore the Crown […] But all things have gone cross with us since here the Gospel shined’. Around the same time the poet-bishop Richard Corbett wrote a celebrated lament for the forgotten customs of the Marian ‘good folk’, such as leaving coins in the shoes of diligent housemaids as a reward for (sexual?) services rendered, stealing away the illegitimate children of priests to be raised elsewhere, or dancing at dawn to cover the tracks of early-rising lovers:

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.

For Corbett the departure of the fairies has left a glaring absence of convenient excuses for covering up a man or a woman’s erotic adventures, and an England dominated by eagle-eyed, judgmental Puritans is no happy substitute. Corbett is all for the imaginative rewriting of the history of sex between consenting adults, and the relaxed attitude to the sins of the body which such retouching of past misdemeanours would seem to imply.

Corbett’s poem is of course well known, especially to fans of Rudyard Kipling. Less well known is the fact that during Mary’s reign, too, the struggle between Catholics and Protestants was often represented by its chroniclers – both authorised and unofficial – as a heated struggle for the imaginations of English subjects. Like More and Tyndale in their controversy over the translation of the scriptures into English, each side accused the other of fabricating fictions in their efforts to gain control of people’s minds (indeed, the More/Tyndale controversy was reanimated by the publication in 1557 of William Rastell’s edition of Thomas More’s Workes). The Protestant martyrologist John Foxe encapsulates these accusations and counter-accusations in an anecdote he tells about ‘A false fearful imagination of fire’ at Oxford University, in which academics assembled to hear the recantation of a Protestant colleague in St Mary’s church are thrown into panic by a false alarm:

And as in a great fire (where fire is indeed), we see many times how one little spark giveth matter of a mighty flame, setting whole stacks and piles a burning: so here, upon a small occasion of one man’s word, kindled first a general cry, then a strong opinion running in every man’s head within the church, thinking the church to be on fire, where no fire was at all. Thus it pleased Almighty God to delude these deluders: that is, that these great Doctors and wise men of the schools, who think themselves so wise in God’s matters as though they could not err; should see, by their own senses and judgments, how blinded and infatuated they were, in these so small matters and sensible trifles.

The incident offers an elaborate comic allegory, scripted by God himself, of the ‘imaginations’ or delusions spun by Catholic apologists as they labour to ignite an ersatz pentecostal flame in the English church, whether by the force of their own ‘strong opinion’ or by burning Protestants. Imaginary fires like these illuminate the landscape of Marian England alongside real ones, drawing the bewildered populace (so the propagandists would have us think) first to one faith, then to another, and threatening to render the light of religious truth invisible forever.

But the workings of the imagination were also taken to be central to political struggles throughout the period. George Cavendish’s celebrated Life of Wolsey (c. 1553-8) documents Cardinal Wolsey’s efforts to discredit attempts by his enemies to sow suspicious ‘imaginations’ about him in the head of his master, Henry VIII. As his fall is engineered by noblemen close to the king, the Cardinal’s only hope of overcoming ‘the enemy that never sleepeth, but studieth and continually imagineth, both sleeping and waking, my utter destruction’ is to get close to the king himself, ‘that my truth should vanquish all their untruth and surmised accusations’. Cavendish’s Life itself constitutes a sustained effort to counteract what he calls the ‘untrue imaginations’ about the Cardinal set forth in ‘divers printed books’ which have been circulating since his death. William Roper’s Life of Thomas More (c. 1553-8) similarly records the systematic exclusion of the titular Lord Chancellor from the king’s presence, which lends credibility to the ‘slanderous surmises… imagined against’ him by his detractors in his absence. But unlike Wolsey, More collaborates with his enemies in engineering his own withdrawal from political action. The court is a glamorous world of fictions to which his skills as a performer initially grant him access, and his one hope of establishing himself as custodian of the truth is to mortify his imaginative faculties – or at least, to ‘dissemble’ them. In Mary’s reign, by contrast, religious dissidents who did not aspire to the martyr’s crown found that the safest place to practise their religion was as close as possible to the Queen’s person. Edward Underhill, known as the ‘hot gospeller’ for his combative Protestantism, tells us in his autobiography (written after 1561) that for members of the true religion ‘there was no such place to shift [hide] in, in this realm, as in London, notwithstanding their great spial and search; nor no better place to shift the Easter time [i.e. to avoid taking the Catholic mass] than in Queen Mary’s Court’. The closer you were to the body of a Tudor monarch, the less the imagination of the monarch could be turned against you by your enemies, and the less vulnerable you were to accusations of ‘imagining’ or plotting against the prince’s person.

Thomas Wyatt the Rebel

Conversely, the further you were from the monarch’s body the more vulnerable you were to slander, suspicion and rumour. The focus of Mary’s fears was the provinces: from nearby Kent, where Wyatt’s rebellion of 1554 broke out inflamed by reports ‘maliciously imagined and blown abroad’ of an invasion by a Spanish army, to far-off Wales and Cornwall, which were expected to rise in support of the rebellion and which remained the focus of rumours of new rebellions throughout the remainder of Mary’s reign. John Proctor wrote his Historie of Wyates Rebellion (1554), he tells us, partly to discredit the ‘sundry tales thereof… far wide from truth’, and partly to vindicate his Kentish fellow-countrymen from the ‘notable infamy’ which the rebellion had brought them. The fear of insurrection in the provinces was by no means pure paranoia on the part of Mary and her supporters. The great historical verse miscellany The Mirror for Magistrates (1555-1610) – especially those parts of it known to have been composed during or shortly after Mary’s reign – suggests repeatedly that the further you live from London the more likely you are to succumb to dynastic fantasies, based for the most part on what Cavendish calls ‘dark and strange prophecies’ and the ‘imaginations and travailous business’ undertaken either to prevent their fulfilment or to bring it about. In the Mirror the fifteenth-century Welsh prince Owen Glendower bases his claim to the throne of England on the compositions of irresponsible Welsh prophet-bards, while the Cornish blacksmith who led the 1497 ‘An Gof’ rebellion – and whose insurrection prefigures both the Prayerbook Rebellion of Edward’s reign and the Wyatt Rebellion of Mary’s – similarly bases his claim to princely status on the vatic encouragements of ballad-mongers. William Baldwin, the first editor of the Mirror and its principal poet, is of course eager to insist that these examples demonstrate the difference between imagined pretensions to monarchic supremacy and real ones. But as claims to power multiply in the Mirror’s successive tragedies, the possibility of distinguishing between authentic pretensions and imagined ones, between the genuine dynasties traced by historians and the fantastic ones forged by heralds, grows ever more remote. The problem is summed up by Fulke Greville in his account of Sir Philip Sidney’s letter to Elizabeth I on the subject of her proposed marriage to the Catholic Duc d’Alençon in 1579. For Sidney, Mary’s marriage to Philip II of Spain offers the best of reasons for avoiding such another match between an English Queen and a Spanish monarch, working as it did solely in the interests of King Philip, who hoped by this means to ‘possess this diversly diseased estate with certain poetical titles of his own’. In Mary’s time, according to Greville, plots to seize power were evolved in the diseased imaginations or poetic fancies of ambitious men, generated by the faculty which also generates verses, monsters, insurrections, false genealogies and heresies of all kinds.

From Beware the Cat

The poets of The Mirror for Magistrates would have agreed with Greville. In unfolding the tragedies of princes and great men, they lay heavy emphasis on the origins of these tragedies in the wayward imaginations of their protagonists: their dreams, hopes, fears, delusions. They also locate these origins at or beyond the margins of the Tudor demesnes, from Wales and Cornwall to Ireland, where the elder Mortimer meets his end, and Scotland, where James IV unlearns all the civility he acquired during his childhood residence in England, regressing rapidly to Celtic treachery and barbarism. From the margins imagined sedition spreads with unnerving rapidity to the centre, in the form of gossip, rumours, fake news, scaremongering. William Baldwin records the spread of superstition and violence from Ireland to central London in his late-Edwardian prose fiction Beware the Cat (c. 1553), just as John Proctor records the successive waves of rumour – that the Spaniards had invaded, that Wyatt had taken London – which almost secured the success of Wyatt’s rebellion. At the margins, too, that imaginary entity the nation could be appropriated with alarming ease by factions hostile to the government. When marching through Kent, Wyatt appealed for support from all true Englishmen; the band of ‘white-coats’ who joined his forces offered the statement that ‘we are all Englishmen’ as explanation for their decision; while the later insurrectionist Thomas Stafford, who seized Scarborough castle in 1557, called on the English to overthrow a ‘most unworthy queen’ who had ‘forfeited the crown; because she, being naturally born half Spanish and half English, sheweth herself a whole Spaniard in loving Spaniards and hating English, enriching Spaniards and robbing English’. During the Marian period the task of imagining the English nation achieves a political significance and urgency it had never possessed before, as a result both of the counter-Reformation and of Mary’s Spanish marriage: and a great many of the texts it generated take the concepts of England and Englishness as their themes.

Image from The Spider and the Fly

As the historian Whitney Jones has pointed out, this is also a period when literature of all kinds is much preoccupied with social and economic reform, focused in particular around the concept of the Tudor Commonwealth. With the partial exception of Tottel’s poetic Miscellany (1557), every major ‘literary’ text of Mary’s reign addresses social and economic problems and their solutions, from Nicholas Udall’s Christmas play Respublica (1553) to John Heywood’s fabular epic The Spider and the Fly (1556), from William Baldwin’s satirical elegy The Funerals of King Edward VI (1553) to the conduct-book The Institution of a Gentleman (1555). In each case the imagination is taken to be the faculty responsible for social and economic abuse: the imagination which enables the vice Avarice and his cronies to adopt new, misleading names in Respublica, and so to beguile the Lady Commonwealth into allowing them to take control of her affairs: the imagination which seduces the aristocracy and gentry in The Institution of a Gentleman into idleness, lust and tyranny; the imagination which, in Baldwin’s poem, gives the aristocracy such inflated self-esteem that Death has difficulty in distinguishing King Edward’s palace from the palatial residences of his subjects as he seeks out the boy-king to punish him for the sins of his people. At one point in Heywood’s The Spider and the Fly a fly caught in a spider’s web changes places with the spider in order to understand his point of view as an aristocratic oppressor of the commons. They agree, as the prose argument puts it, ‘to change places (each for the time) to imagine and set forth other’s part the best they can […] Wherein the fly anon is so allured to pride and ambition in occupying (for the while) the spider’s stately place, that he at last with an oath affirmeth that spiders are owners of all windows’ – that is, that the aristocracy has a God-given right to the possession of all the land in a commonwealth. Power or stateliness is a mind-altering drug, inducing in its possessor the condition of imaginative ‘vainglory’ which Marian writers – like their Edwardian predecessors – take to be the presiding vice of the time.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the epistolary prose fiction The Image of Idleness (1556) constitutes an extended examination of ‘vainglory’ as it is manifested in one of Mary’s humbler subjects, an elderly gentleman-soldier named Bawdin Bachelor who wants a wife but fails to persuade any woman to marry him. He combats the depression brought on by successive rejections by immersing himself in a fantasy world, designed to boost his flagging self-esteem in the face of adversity:

For doubtless this transitory life is entangled with so many kinds of misery, that unless a man will flatter himself with some kind of vain glory or, contrary to the lively eye of his reason, delight or rejoice in some one trifle or other, the calamity and unquietness thereof will so fret nature that none shall be able to live out half their natural course.

I take The Image of Idleness to be a satire on contemporary social and religious mores, identifying the centrality of fantasy, dissimulation and flattery – especially self-flattery – to Marian culture. The Marian government and the church it sponsors depend for their survival on cultivating the fertile imaginations of their subjects: and the anonymous author of this epistolary narrative subjects the workings of contemporary ideologies to the same witty analysis as Erasmus practised in The Praise of Folly, a book on which The Image of Idleness is partly modelled.

A groat from the reign of Mary Tudor

If I were to write a book on the literature of Mary Tudor’s reign, then, it would have the title Marian Imaginations. It would concern itself with the workings of the English imagination in and after the reign of Mary Tudor: from the imagination of the rebel, who spawns fear and paranoia in the provinces for his own ends, to that of the Queen herself, whose imaginary pregnancies bodied forth her desire to alter the course of English history; from the role of the imagination in the story of England as recorded in Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey, William Baldwin’s Mirror for Magistrates and Joh Proctor’s History of Wyatt’s Rebellion, to the imaginative rewriting of Mary’s reign by Elizabethan historians such as John Foxe. It would end by demonstrating the profound effect of these various Marian and post-Marian explorations of the imagination on the better-known products of the writerly imagination in the reign of Elizabeth I.

The book will never, I think, be written – at least by me; but as a curious missing link in the history of the human imagination it would, I think, have been well worth writing. So I’m duly placing it here, in one of the obscurer libraries of the City of Lost Books. If you find it here, feel free to rewrite it for yourself…

 

Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells

[This is a version of an essay I published a few years ago. For a fully annotated version see “Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman,” New Hibernia Review, vol. 10 no. 4 (Winter 2006), 84-104.]

During the approach to the Second World War Brian O’Nolan wrote two novels in English under the pen-name Flann O’Brien, both of which are closely connected with bombs. The first of these, At Swim-Two-Birds (published by Longman’s in 1939), sold few copies and got lukewarm reviews, so it could be said to have bombed. The following year Longman’s premises in London were destroyed by a real bomb, and with them the remaining stocks of O’Nolan’s book, and after that it more or less disappeared from public consciousness until it was reprinted in 1960. His second novel, The Third Policeman (finished in 1940), ends with a revelation that might be described as a bombshell. In the last pages of the book the narrator makes the shocking discovery that he has been blown to bits by a booby trap and that he’s telling his tale from beyond the grave. On being offered to the publishers, this novel did more than bomb: it was rejected, and didn’t see print until after O’Nolan’s death.

The link between these two bombs – the real one that destroyed the first edition of At Swim-Two-Birds and the fictitious one in The Third Policeman – may be a brittle one, but it seems to me worth forging. Setting them side by side helps to underscore two things about O’Nolan’s work: the extent to which it is bound up with violence, and the extent to which the imaginary violence it contains has a grounding in reality. The independent Ireland of which At Swim-Two-Birds is an ambiguous celebration was built on armed conflict, and by the time the novel was published that conflict was spreading rapidly through Europe. My contention here is that this novel and its successor express a response to the prospect of annihilation raised by the rapid approach of the Second World War. Everything in them tends to confirm the likelihood both of the outbreak of military aggression and of its cataclysmic effects; effects which may be summarized in the destructive capabilities of bombs, whether conventional – like the bomb that blew up the warehouse – or nuclear – like the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The processes of imagining, constructing and countenancing the use of bombs are carefully mimicked in the pages of these books, and mark them out as prominent examples of what might be called the comedy of cataclysm, of which Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr Strangelove (1964) is the most celebrated example.

O’Nolan’s consciousness that violence is the presiding genius of his time finds its most direct expression in the ruthlessness with which he kills off his narrators. Much of At Swim-Two-Birds concerns the efforts of the fictional characters in a novel to outwit and finally execute the writer who brought them together. And at the end of the book this cast of revolutionary characters – all of whom collaborate in writing part of the narrative they inhabit – is massacred at one fell swoop, when the pages that sustain their existence are burnt by the writer’s servant. In The Third Policeman the threat of death hangs over the narrator from near the beginning of the story, and at the end he finds that he has been dead since the moment he started to live in fear of death. Like Europe, then, both novels contain the seeds of their own destruction, which germinate and come to appalling fruition as the narrative unfolds. At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman re-enact the contemporary struggle to the death between dictatorship and democracy, and the outcome O’Nolan envisages – for both the real and the fictional struggle – is a catastrophic explosion.

At the same time, the people who inhabit these novels, whether despots or revolutionaries, are supremely civil individuals, always ready to come to terms with one another or to exchange elaborate compliments. The word “civil” is, indeed, among O’Nolan’s favourites, invoking as it does both the prospect of good company and the potential for an unexpected outbreak of genial civil war. The fictional insurgents in At Swim-Two-Birds are so uniformly courteous that one character in the novel who reads about them complains that he’s unable to tell them apart, condemning their “spiritual and physical identity” and claiming that “true dialogue is dependent on the conflict rather than the confluence of minds.” Strangely, though, it’s the confluence of minds that leads to violence in O’Nolan’s work. For him, people resemble certain chemical substances, which, while independently harmless, may when combined acquire the potential to wreak widespread devastation. This process of destructive combining comes to a head at the end of At Swim-Two-Birds, where the many civil conversations that fill the text culminate in the politest of exchanges between a devilish fairy called the Pooka MacPhellimey and a man called Trellis – the dictatorial author whose characters have mutinied against him. Tormented by the Pooka beyond endurance, Trellis is finally goaded into calling him a “black bastard,” to which the devil-fairy retorts: “The character of your colloquy is not harmonious […] and makes for barriers between the classes. Honey-words in torment, a growing urbanity against the sad extremities of human woe, that is the […] injunction I place upon your head.” From this moment Trellis is compelled to behave like a sweet-spoken saint in adversity, warmly congratulating his adversary on the inventiveness with which he smashes, mangles and bursts the unfortunate author’s limbs and organs. Here the confluence of characters proves agonizing, but it is marked by a verbal fluency that manufactures poetry from pain, wit from wounds, delight from disintegration. For O’Nolan as for Yeats, creation and destruction spring from the same roots, and honest writers of both real and fictional histories are forever condemned to pay horrified tribute to this paradox.

If civility is one characteristic of O’Nolan’s Ireland, another is its obsession with knowledge. The acquisition of – or rather, the appearance of possessing – arcane inside information is the supreme goal of every character he invents. In his celebrated column in the Irish Times, for instance, O’Nolan’s alter-ego Myles na gCopaleen veers from sharing his expertise in the field of steam transport to leading his mighty Research Bureau in its efforts to find new means of circumventing wartime shortages; from collaborating with Einstein in his researches to playing duets with the eminent violinist Fritz Kreisler; from drawing on his personal intimacy with Diaghilev and Anna Pavlova to intervening in the global economy through his directorship of the Myles na gCopaleen Banking Corporation. The knowledge he claims in each of these areas – like all the knowledge professed by O’Nolan’s creations – serves the ends, not of some spurious objective “truth” now discredited by Einstein’s theory of relativity, but of relentless self-promotion. Knowledge in O’Nolan’s work is only ever used to make its possessor look big. And it rarely if ever achieves this objective; partly, no doubt, because everyone is familiar with the rules by which the know-all or egg-head operates, and is thus forearmed against his grandiose pretensions.

In a nutshell, the rules are these:

• Facts, both historical and physical, may be freely distorted or invented, but must always be stated with absolute confidence, no matter how misplaced.
• Facts must be conveyed with the help of the most powerful rhetorical tools available. Details of these are given at intervals throughout At Swim-Two-Birds.
• The information thus conveyed must be entirely useless, and must do no good either to you or to anyone else. It must not advance your career, improve your health, or help you to win the philosophical compensation prize of getting to know yourself. Your information must, in fact, contribute nothing whatsoever to the well-being of humanity.
• On the contrary, your information should if possible kill you, or even damn you to perdition. The possession of it, after all, is very often the result of a Faustian pact, a declaration – implicit or explicit – of one’s willingness to sell one’s soul for worthless knowledge.

The Faustian strain in O’Nolan’s work came to the fore in his play Faustus Kelly (1943), in which a local politician teaches the devil that Irish public life is more authentically hellish than Hell itself, and that knowing how to operate in it is a task beyond even the Prince of Darkness. In The Third Policeman, too, Ireland is infernal, and the protagonist is sent there for his murderous zeal in the pursuit of learning. Knowledge is capable of producing the bombs that dismembered so many bodies in the Second World War; but before it does this devilish work it must demoralize the soul to the extent that it is able to condone the manufacture and use of bombs. And in the Ireland of the thirties and forties, O’Nolan tells us, this demoralizing process is exceptionally well advanced.

O’Nolan’s opus didn’t begin with this jaded view of the contemporary forms of knowledge. His first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, begins by treating knowledge with respect: in its opening pages, learning of all kinds figures as the chief weapon wielded by activists for democracy and civil rights in the struggle against tyranny. The novel’s protagonist is a student who is writing a novel about an older author (Trellis), who is also writing a novel, though of a very different kind from the one planned by the student. The story Trellis proposes to write will be a “salutary book to be read by all,” filled with smut in order to appeal to the modern reading public and populated only by villains; a book which will “show the terrible cancer of sin in its true light and act as a clarion-call to torn humanity.” Trellis’s view of sin is appallingly limited given the momentous times in which he’s writing, with fascism on the rise and global conflict just around the corner. He is horrified not by stories of massacres, invasions and civil war but “by the spate of sexual and other crimes recorded in recent times in the newspapers – particularly in those published on Saturday night.” And his scapegoats for these crimes are the motley cast of characters he assembles to participate in his “bad book”, all of whom have been stolen unacknowledged from the work of other writers. It is this process of being forced into an uncongenial role to satisfy the whim of an egotistical plagiarist that the characters object to, and that provokes them to insurrection. From one point of view, their rebellion resembles Ireland’s revolt against its self-styled English landlords; after all, Trellis is the proprietor of a pub called the Red Swan Hotel, so he is indisputably a landlord. But Trellis is also indisputably Irish, with parents from both North and South (“his father was a Galwayman, sober and industrious, tried and true in the service of his country. His mother was from far Fermanagh”). So even the rising he provokes is a form of plagiary, a pale imitation of the struggle for independence. In inventing it, O’Nolan – or his student persona – would seem to be making a point about the substitution of one form of despotism for another that has taken place since the achievement of independence. The new despotism is a petty one, dominated by the church and the policing it encourages: a policing to which Trellis is as much subject as the characters he exploits (his views on the “cancer of sin” have clearly been thrashed into him by the Christian Brothers). And for the student novelist who creates both Trellis and the rebel characters, the resolution to Ireland’s continued subjection to tyrants large and small lies in the revolutionizing of the novel form itself: a transformation of the genre into a treasure-house or storage-room for the many kinds of wisdom that are freely available to Irishmen of all classes.

Before beginning the story of Trellis, the student novelist draws up a manifesto for the modern novel that resembles the charter of a new nation, an idealistic declaration of independence for twentieth-century prose fiction:

The novel, in the hands of an unscrupulous writer, could be despotic […] It was undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service […] The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.

The reference to the exclusion of “persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature” smacks of elitism, and many of O’Nolan’s characters suffer from advanced cases of intellectual snobbery. But in practice the novel written by the student embraces popular culture with the same enthusiasm it shows for the classics of Irish literature. Its “wealth of references to existing works” accommodates fireside anecdote alongside old Irish storytelling, the American Western novel alongside the philosophical disputation, the poetry of the working man alongside lyrics relating to the ancient Irish kings. All classes of Irish society are represented in the student’s book. All are given work to do and rewarded – at least for a time – with “a decent standard of living.” And all classes of Irish society are shown to have their own peculiar branches of knowledge, to be raided at will by omnivorous youth in its quest for understanding and reconciliation.

Certain forms of knowledge are of common and obvious interest to all classes: among them the rituals associated with “intoxicating beverages and their strange intestinal chemistry,” together with their physical consequences (described in a tract by the Christian Brothers which the student author incorporates into his novel); or information pertaining to turf or track (the student also incorporates letters from a Newmarket man who delivers the goods on “cast-iron plungers”). But the respect of one class for knowledge associated with other classes is also evident throughout the narrative. The working class figures who populate the student’s novel, and who form the backbone of the revolutionary movement against the tyrannical landlord-author Trellis, show an enthusiastic appreciation for the story-telling skills of a character from a quite different tradition – Finn Mac Cool, a “hero of old Ireland.” And although the poet they most admire is the “Poet of the Pick” Jem Casey, author of a ballad with the stirring refrain A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN, Casey himself when he enters the narrative is a confirmed admirer of ancient Irish poetry. On meeting the mad king Sweeny Casey announces “By God I know a bloody poet when I hear one. Hands off the poets. I can write a verse myself and I respect the man that can do the same.”

The solidarity between ancient and modern Ireland and the literatures of both is expressed with still greater eloquence by another working class character from the student’s novel:

You can’t beat it, of course, said Shanahan with a reddening of the features, the real old stuff of the native land, you know, the stuff that brought scholars to our shores when your men on the other side were on the flat of their bellies before the calf of gold with a sheepskin around their man. It’s the stuff that put our country where she stands today, Mr Furriskey, and I’d have my tongue out of my head by the bloody roots before I’d be heard saying a word against it.

Here again the respect for knowledge “that brought scholars to our shores” is warmly and forcefully articulated; in the deep past, at least, knowledge was a matter for unqualified celebration. It’s no wonder that the revolutionary Shanahan delights in “the real old stuff of our native land” since what we see of it in the student’s novel is peculiarly democratic: churchmen and laymen, kings, witches, madmen and milkmaids engage in rhetorical or athletic competition without getting aggressive, and boast outrageously without giving offence. But Shanahan adds a qualification to his praise of old Irish poetry as it is practised and purveyed in modern times: “the man in the street, where does he come in? By God he doesn’t come in at all as far as I can see.” In the twentieth century, knowledge is hemmed in by elitism and by “barriers between the classes.” In the world the student inhabits – the world beyond the pages of his novel where he is reading for a degree at University College Dublin, like Stephen Dedalus – knowledge, and the competition between different kinds of knowledge, is in a permanent state of war, of which the Second World War is merely an aggravated symptom.

The student novelist’s uncle is a member of the lower middle classes who is deeply embroiled in the war of knowledge. Like Trellis, he’s a great purveyor of hackneyed wisdom: “A good degree is a very nice thing to have […] The old schoolmasters believed in the big stick […] For what is the love of God but the love of your neighbour? […] Doctoring and teaching, the two of them are marked out for special graces and blessings.” And like Trellis, the nature of his hackneyed wisdom identifies him as the product of a Catholic education, which serves to strengthen the church’s hegemony in Ireland. But he claims to have a stake in this hegemony: he has a “very special friend” in the Christian Brothers, and can pull strings to get the student-novelist’s friend into the order. And his claim to an insider’s knowledge of the Brothers is of a piece with his claim to an inside knowledge of his nephew’s private doings. “I know the studying you do in your bedroom,” he tells him, “Damn the studying you do in your bedroom […] Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all? […] O I know the game you are at above in your bedroom. I am not as stupid as I look, I’ll warrant you that.” For the sake of his own dignity – for the sake of his aspirations to the “self-determination” mentioned in the manifesto for the student’s novel – this lower-middle-class speaker has built up an impregnable defence system constructed largely from rhetoric. He is “Rat-brained, cunning, concerned-that-he-should-be-well-thought of. Abounding in pretence, deceit.” One might add: acutely conscious that there are areas of knowledge from which he has been systematically excluded, and which impart power to the initiated; eager that he should be thought to have “special” access to these areas. He knows what goes on when a student claims to be “studying,” and he knows the inner workings of the church hierarchy. He seeks additional stakes in ruling-class culture by joining an amateur operatic society that performs the work of those representative Imperial Englishmen, Gilbert and Sullivan. His part in their work requires that he wear a papier-maché replica of a policeman’s hat, marking him out as an eager mimic of Ireland’s former “landlords.” Not surprisingly, then, at the beginning of the novel the student-novelist sees him as the would-be tyrant of his household, an enemy determined to gain control over him by every means at the disposal of his devious rat brain.

But by the end the uncle has been reduced to the status of a comic entertainer – the stage Irishman who is O’Nolan’s pet hate and who hovers at the wings of every passage he writes. He is no longer the enemy; when the student passes his exams the uncle presents him with a second hand gold watch in token of his admission into the work schedule of the nation, of which the uncle himself is part. The enemy is the system that sets one class at odds with another in the same society, in the same family even, using knowledge as its instrument. The enemy, that is, is the class system, an import equally from England and from Rome. And by the end of At Swim-Two-Birds the malevolent machinery of that system stands poised and ready to consume the student-novelist and his reader as they reach the closing pages of the book.

The transmutation of knowledge-acquisition in At Swim-Two-Birds from an amicably democratic occupation to a power-struggle, a war, may be traced by glancing at the beginning and the end of the novel. In keeping with the manifesto’s statement that the modern novel should be a work of reference, a sort of encyclopaedia, At Swim-Two-Birds is interspersed with leaves from an actual encyclopaedia that stands in the student-novelist’s bedroom. It’s a Conspectus of the Arts and Natural Sciences, published in forty buckskin volumes in 1854 by a “reputable Bath house for a guinea the volume.” The volumes “bore their years bravely,” we are told, and “retained in their interior the kindly seed of knowledge intact and without decay.” The Conspectus is a democratic project: it exists to make specialist information available to the curious general reader, regardless of social status or education. Accordingly, in the novel written by the student, knowledge would indeed seem at times to be both kindly and freely available. It is bestowed, for instance, in cornucopian abundance on the rebel characters when one of their number takes over Trellis’s narrative, so that they speak in tongues, as it were, on topics as diverse as the colloquial names for chemical elements, the camel’s inability to swim and the correct way to read your gas metre. But at the time they obtain this wealth of knowledge they are also engaged in less attractive pursuits; above all, in subjecting their author Trellis to unspeakable agonies through the disinterested agency of the Pooka MacPhellimey. And the Pooka, too, possesses an abundance of arcane knowledge, which he applies to Trellis with far-from-pleasant consequences:

A number of miracles were wrought as one and together […] Leaden-hard forked arteries ran speedily about his scalp, his eye-beads bled and the corrugations of boils and piteous tumuli which appeared upon the large of his back gave it the appearance of a valuable studded shield and could be ascertained on counting to be sixty-four in number […] In addition to his person, his room was also the subject of mutations unexplained by any purely physical hypothesis and not to be accounted for by mechanical devices relating to the manipulation of guy-ropes, pulley-blocks, or mechanical collapsible wallsteads of German manufacture, nor did the movements of the room conform to any known laws relating to the behaviour of projectiles as ascertained by a study of gravitation enforced by calculations based on the postulata of the science of ballistics […] A clock could be heard incessantly reciting the hours, a token that the free flight of time had also been interfered with; while the mumbling of the Pooka at his hell-prayers and the screaming of the sufferer, these were other noises perceptible to the practised ear.

Half a dozen academic discourses dependent on precision are at work in this passage: the Catholic theologian’s painstaking notation of miracles; the archaeologist’s eye, which appraises the author’s boil-encrusted back in the light of excavations of pre-Christian tumuli; the mathematician’s fondness for numbers and geometrical patterns; the engineer’s pleasure in mechanics and the physicist’s in disruptions in the space-time continuum; the poet’s delight in perfectly rhythmic speech. And all this in the service of quasi-inquisitorial excruciation. The possessor of knowledge, the Pooka, first appoints himself judge, prosecution, jury and executioner, then applies all the weight of his learning to the end of putting the screws on his chosen victim.

We have entered territory, in fact, which will be explored more thoroughly in The Third Policeman. The pattern is one we shall see repeated in an extraordinary range of O’Nolan’s writings. In the trial scene towards the end of At Swim-Two-Birds, for instance, the author Trellis is arraigned by a panel of judges who are his known enemies – the characters in his novel. The courtroom itself is a former music-hall which has been converted to a cinema and is now a bar, both legal and licensed (all the judges have pints of porter in their fists). These many functions for a single space should alert us to something else that is always happening in O’Nolan’s writing: people are always being judged and convicted in every social space in Ireland, from street to pub to church to schoolroom to bed-chamber. The conviction is always a foregone conclusion, and the laws of physics, of nature, of history, of the nation, and of the divinity will be freely transgressed in order to bring that conviction about. When you think about it, a conviction or legal sentence is a kind of punch-line, and all O’Nolan’s characters will violate any principle in order to end an anecdote with style. And the more you read O’Nolan, the more terrible this comic inevitability becomes. One is tempted to say that for him the comic narrative, the shaggy dog story, the anecdote with the devastating punch-line that unleashes a burst of agonized laughter, is the exact model for what was happening to Ireland and to Europe as the 1930s deteriorated into war.

In At Swim-Two-Birds the inevitable fate of the author is postponed by the act of fate we encountered earlier, when his servant Teresa burns the pages of his novel that give life to his antagonists, the characters who are about to sentence him to death. His legal sentence is commuted to a conversational sentence, a feeble bit of wordplay, which the battered author delivers when he has returned to his house and is following Teresa upstairs, observing the motion of her buttocks – decently concealed beneath her skirt – as he goes: “Ars est celare artem, muttered Trellis, doubtful as to whether he had made a pun.” As he returns to his bedroom the power structure reverts to its pre-revolutionary state, with the author supine on his bed manipulating his characters and fooling his readers as he has always done, a perfect imitation of the social hegemony at work, the art of its power foxily concealed from view. We have assisted at the birth of an encyclopaedia, a circle of knowledge, which has now been transformed from the promise of infinite freedom that it held at the beginning of the book to an elaborate trap. And this is the third characteristic O’Nolan ascribes to 1930s Ireland. Urbanity is the first; an obsession with knowledge is the second. The third is entrapment.

Trapped! You see a bore coming down the street – you make evasive manoeuvres – they are half-hearted ones because you know he has spotted you and is bearing down like a heat-seeking missile. And now you are subject to the anecdote: the unloading of a mass of worthless information with just one end – to astonish, to perplex, to invoke reluctant admiration, to establish the superiority of the bore regardless of all outward and visible signs of his commonplace condition. The punch-line is the sprung trap that awaits you at the end of the anecdote, the confirmation of the bore’s victory, and you will seek every means to identify its whereabouts and to shield yourself against its approach. Yet your efforts to protect yourself will always fail, because the bore holds all the cards, you cannot possibly second-guess the tortuous racking to which he will subject language, history, space and time in order to spring his surprise. The punch-line is the ultimate form of occult knowledge, and the best thief in the world is unable either to wrest the secret of it from the narrator who plans to deliver it – or to divert the narrator from his purpose of giving it vent.

This is especially the case with Keats and Chapman, protagonists of a series of shaggy dog stories O’Nolan unfolded in his daily column in the Irish Times. Each story culminates in one of Keats’s abominable puns, often achieved at the cost of appalling physical pain to some unfortunate innocent – usually his unhappy friend Chapman. On one occasion the schoolboy Chapman is glued to the back of his head teacher, solely in order that Keats can say “I like a man that sticks to his principals.” On another he is chewed and mashed by a steel rolling mill in the interests of allowing Keats to observe that he has “been through the mill.” On a third, a man suffers from intolerable adenoidal agonies after an amateur operation performed by Chapman, which leaves the patient with a surgical instrument embedded in his sinuses for more than a week, merely as a pretext for Keats to state at the end of it all: “He had it up his nose for you a long time.” In each of these episodes, elaborate, weighty machinery is set in motion, narratives of an epic length and complexity are unfolded (remember that Keats and Chapman are associated with an Irish epic, the works of Homer), and the material world is disjointed and stretched beyond the limits of its capacity, all in the interest of a jeu de mots the most appropriate response to which is a scream of derision or torment. In this sense, At Swim-Two-Birds is a Keats and Chapman anecdote, the victim of its violence being the author Trellis. Here for once the victim is allowed to have the punch-line (except of course that Trellis is the most tyrannical anecdotalist of all, the novelist, as well as the novel’s victim). But in most of O’Nolan’s anecdotes the victim of physical violence is made the helpless subject of the climactic pun: like the stranger who is murdered, dissolved in an acid bath, then drunk by Chapman cup by cup, solely in order that Keats’s friend might claim that he has drunk the fellow under the table.

Here the anecdote is relatively innocent, if nasty. But there are times when O’Nolan’s anecdotes are not just nasty but horrible, straying into uncharted regions of poor taste.

One example is the Keats and Chapman story where the unfortunate pair are caught in the blast of an American atomic bomb, whose most freakish effect is to “blow the backs off several humans, leaving them alive, conscious, and otherwise intact.” Keats is one of these unfortunates, and the ensuing search for his own missing part among heaps of bleeding backs while uttering terrible threats of vengeance is driven solely by O’Nolan’s need to vent himself of the final line: “‘I’m going to get my own back,’ Keats said savagely, turning over nearby fleshes.’” “Savagely” is just the right word: the comic has seldom got much closer than this to the monstrously mundane logic of the War Room (the anecdote was published in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

But perhaps the most calculatedly offensive of O’Nolan’s anecdotes is “The Martyr’s Crown,” a short story cited by Frank O’Connor as symptomatic of the degenerate state of Irish writing in the 1930s. In it the fight for independence, the heroic deeds of the Irish resistance and the sacrifices of the men and women who helped them in their struggle against the British are enlisted as components of a squalid tale narrated by the most outrageous of O’Nolan’s self-promoters. The narrator is a man called Toole, whose yearning to be an “insider” has reached unprecedented intensity, and who satisfies it by hailing eminent passers-by as if they were his closest friends, thus startling them into acknowledging his cheerful greetings despite the fact that they do not know him from Adam. Toole then turns to any given walking-companion who has witnessed the incident and proceeds to back up his claim to the passer-by’s acquaintance with some elaborate story concerning their mutual adventures. In one case, an elegant young man has the poise to ignore Toole’s greeting with a devastating display of frostiness, and Toole is stung into inventing an unusually elaborate story to explain the youth’s indifference. It’s a tale that includes a bloody ambush (once again featuring explosives – “a class of a home-made bomb that Bart used to make in his own kitchen”), a massacre of the British military (“there was no heads left on some of them”), and an Irishwoman who sleeps with a British captain to save the resistance fighters hiding in her house – all in the interest of providing Toole with the most explosive of punchlines. Of course the young man is proud, the anecdotalist declares triumphantly; too proud to acknowledge his humbler acquaintances. He is the offspring of the union between the patriotic Irishwoman and the British captain. “For seven hundred years,” Toole goes on, “thousands – no, I’ll make it millions – of Irish men and women have died for Ireland […] But that young man was born for Ireland. There was never anybody else like him. Why wouldn’t he be proud?” In “The Martyr’s Crown,” in other words, Ireland’s bloody history serves as raw material for an elaborate rhetorical scheme for fleeting self-promotion on the part of a nobody. The hopes and high ambitions entertained by the Irish freedom fighters have been reduced to this: and if O’Connor was disgusted by O’Nolan’s willingness to transform an epic struggle into a joke, this was clearly just the reaction O’Nolan was looking for. The apt response to Toole’s punchline is a shriek of mingled laughter and derision both shriller and more unnerving than anything elicited by the various lives of Keats and Chapman. And a more muted shriek might be an apt response to the collective political and economic disappointments suffered by the partitioned Irish people in the early years of independence.

All the characteristics of O’Nolan’s writing I’ve discussed so far find their funniest and most appalling manifestations in The Third Policeman. The book is an anecdote told by a bore – a nameless first-person narrator obsessed with the work of an insane philosopher called de Selby. And it’s populated by many additional raconteurs, each of whom is as willing as the narrator to twist the geometries of space, time, and reason in their efforts to arrive at the punch-line they desire. Unlike O’Nolan’s other texts, however, this anecdote goes on interminably beyond the punch-line, and is located in an infernal Ireland where every verbal coup is a body-blow, calling forth ever more horrified cries of astonishment on the part of the narrator, until he observes that such cries have become “almost a habit with me.” In this place as in all of O’Nolan’s Irelands people are constantly being judged and sentenced without due process (there is “no trial or preliminary proceedings, no caution administered and no hearing before a Commissioner of the Public Peace”). And the sentence passed on the narrator himself – as in At Swim-Two-Birds – is death. But here the irrational system that sentences the narrator to death has everyone in its grip. Everyone is either criminal or policeman or both, and is governed by an arcane set of rules which however arbitrary are finally inescapable, even if nobody knows them. Or rather, the rules are eminently escapable; they can always be circumvented, but only apparently and temporarily before reasserting themselves in the most unexpected and disturbing manner possible, like the pun at the end of a Keats and Chapman story. When the narrator hears in the middle of the book that he’s to be hanged for a murder nobody knows he has committed, he cries out in consternation: “Is this all a joke for entertainment purposes?” To this his accuser and would-be executioner, Sergeant Pluck, replies with warmth: “If you take it that way I will be indefinitely beholden to you.” The book as a whole is only a joke if it is taken that way – just as the outbreak of war may only be taken as a joke if you set aside your humanity and all your moral convictions. In this novel the fear of death is never alleviated, the inevitability of the death sentence never questioned; the narrator is locked into the ultimate tyranny, and the sense of entrapment his story generates is only intensified by the supreme civility with which all the characters behave towards one another, the sincerity with which they comfort their victims in the face of approaching doom.

The worst thing about this comic narrative is that it documents a self-imposed tyranny, a self-sprung trap. Like O’Nolan’s other protagonists the narrator is a seeker after knowledge for his own private advancement; and his quest to make his name through knowledge leads to murder. He kills an elderly man called Mathers for the sake of his money, which he needs to finance the publication of his definitive index to the works of de Selby. And this murder for the sake of knowledge precipitates him into the nightmare world of the three policemen of the title; an idyllic rural landscape dominated by a monstrously crooked police station, centre of operations for Sergeant Pluck and his strange and eloquent colleagues. The narrator goes to the station in his quest for Mathers’s vanished millions, voluntarily delivering himself into the hands of the law when he discovers that the cash is not where he expects to find it. The police, he thinks, will direct him to what he feels is his by right – even if his right to the old man’s cash was obtained through manslaughter. And as if in response to his distorted sense of values, he finds himself in a land where all laws are distorted – even the law of perspective; where a man’s own point of view shapes what he sees (hence the emphasis throughout on the eyes of the different characters); and where the unspoken first and second rules of wisdom that obtain in all of O’Nolan’s works have been adopted by the first policeman he meets as a universal guiding principle. “Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any,” Sergeant Pluck tells him, and “Turn everything you hear to your own advantage.” The latter rule is the narrator’s downfall. When Pluck’s superior, the angry Inspector O’Corky, appears at the station to ask why no action has been taken to find old Mathers’s murderer, Pluck instantly replies that the murderer has been apprehended and is currently awaiting execution. The narrator quickly realizes that he himself is the criminal in question; that he has been identified as the killer regardless of the absence of evidence against him, and that he is to be sacrificed for Pluck’s private purposes, summarily despatched to protect the sergeant from a petty reprimand. Pettiness, parochialism and egomania not only dominate this nightmare Ireland but kill people in it, as if to demonstrate the nation’s unwitting complicity in the atrocities being perpetrated elsewhere in Europe. And despite the arbitrariness of Pluck’s sentence, despite the cheerful despotism it springs from, the narrator can hardly deny in his soul that he thoroughly deserves it, and that he has sought it out with all the tenacity of a detective following the trail of clues he has left behind for his own incrimination.

This self-destructive urge in the narrator – the urge that takes him directly to a police station after he has committed a murder – is part of a tendency to self-destruction that seems inherent in every detail of O’Nolan’s narrative. The rich stock of knowledge it contains – the arcane knowledge purveyed by Policemen MacCruiskeen and Fox as well as by Sergeant Pluck and the narrator himself – tends towards one end only: a great big bang; and the novel itself may aptly be described as an infernal machine, a time-bomb that has already gone off by the time the reader discovers its nature. This aspect of the book is best considered by way of its treatment of boxes. The object for which the narrator commits his murder is a black metal cashbox containing the legendary fortune of old man Mathers. While the narrator is murdering Mathers with his spade, his accomplice Divney conceals the box in the old man’s house, and later sends the narrator to collect it from its hiding place. In the meantime Divney has replaced the cash with an explosive device, and we learn at the end of the novel that the cashbox blew up as soon as the narrator touched it, killing him and demolishing the building. As a result, most of the narrator’s adventures in the novel are posthumous ones. For the narrator, however, at the instant of detonation the cashbox simply disappears; and as far as he is concerned, his adventures are no more than an extended search for the object of his murderous desires. It’s therefore only fitting that from the moment of the cashbox’s disappearance the book should be filled with boxes like the one he’s obsessed with: from the nest of impossible containers constructed by Policeman MacCruiskeen – a pointless labour of love like the narrator’s index to the works of de Selby – to the black boxes with coloured wires coming out of them which MacCruiskeen uses to manufacture light out of noise; from the boxes of peat being cut out of the soil by labourers near the police station to the narrator’s many accounts of de Selby’s mysterious “water box” and MacCruiskeen’s inaudible music box with the knobs on. The brain is a box, as Sergeant Pluck reminds the narrator, and so is the coffin that is constructed to receive the narrator’s body after his execution. At one point the narrator finds himself locked in an “iron box” or elevator with a sixteen stone policeman, descending to an underground region where the obscure mechanisms that control the sunlit world above their heads appear to be located. This underground region, too, is full of boxes, from cubical compartments containing anything you ask for, to biscuit-boxes of indescribable shape and colour that tumble from a chute. And the majority of the boxes that fill the book are deadly. The boxes with coloured wires, for instance, which compress ordinary daytime sounds into electric light, are a disaster waiting to happen. Somewhere in their interiors lurks the dreadful noise of a quarry, a cacophony collected by the policemen during the previous summer as fuel for the dark winter evenings; and when this is compressed, MacCruiskeen tells the narrator, everyone in the vicinity will be blinded. The elevator will kill its occupants if they change weight at all during their subterranean visit. The nest of boxes will drive their contemplator mad if thought about for too long. And on the mantelpiece of MacCruiskeen’s room there is a little box that has already driven two men mad: they lost their wits when they examined its interior. Light-, heat- and sound- producing boxes in this novel are dangerously volatile containers – like the “box” that is the brain; and the whole novel trembles with the anticipation of their eventual detonation.

Over and above the boxes, the world the narrator finds himself in after his death is a peculiarly artificial one. Like the technologies and industries of the twentieth century it is driven by elaborate mechanisms: from parts of the human body, such as old man Mathers’ robotic eyes, or Policeman Fox’s face which is “red and gross as if gallons of hot thick blood had been pumped into it,” or Divney’s jaws, which “clicked a few times like a machine,” to the earth itself, which resembles a giant power-plant driven by subterranean engines. As the narrator approaches the entrance to the underground engine-room with Sergeant Pluck he observes that “The world rang in my ear like a great workshop. Sublime feats of mechanics and chemistry were evident on every side.” Metaphors of mechanism are everywhere; from the “mechanical task” the narrator sets himself of finding the black box, to the description of his response to an unexpected encounter with the reanimated corpse of the man he has murdered: “Words spilled out of me as if they were produced by machinery;” from Pluck’s description of the law as “an extremely intricate phenomenon,” to MacCruiskeen’s account of a retractable pencil as “an intricate article full of machinery and a Present from Southport.” And much of this machinery, like the boxes, is potentially deadly. On meeting a fellow murderer called Martin Finnucane early in the book, the narrator learns that life itself is “a queer contraption, very dangerous, a certain death-trap.” And that is just how it turns out for the narrator, who lives always on the verge of a cataclysm that has always already happened. The policemen in their station are constantly preoccupied with the difficult task of keeping the figures on some obscure device in the underground region poised in delicate equilibrium; should they fail in this task, the implication is, chaos will be unleashed and the world will end. As Sergeant Pluck prepares the scaffold for the narrator’s execution the young man watches him “patiently and politely arranging the mechanics of my death.” Later, when the narrator encounters Policeman Fox and learns that he invented the underground region as a ponderous prank, a practical joke at the expense of his colleagues, he loftily dismisses him as an oaf whose mind had been “fed upon adventure books of small boys, books in which every extravagance was mechanical and lethal and solely concerned with bringing about somebody’s death in the most elaborate way imaginable” – books, that is, like the Sexton Blake adventures O’Nolan himself may have written. But of course this is also a perfectly accurate description of the book in which the narrator finds himself. Any more elaborate literary mechanism for accomplishing death could hardly have been contrived by the most devious deviser of detective thrillers. And lethal mechanical extravagances were also of course a feature of the age of war in which The Third Policeman was composed.

O’Nolan’s novel is built into its time, entrapped by it, caught up in its interior workings. As many commentators have noted, the book is full of references to that most deadly and imaginatively stimulating of all energy sources, atomic energy. Sergeant Pluck expounds his own absurd atomic theory to the writer, which involves the exchange of atoms between the bodies of cyclists and the machines they ride, a process that fuses humans with the tools they have made to serve them. And later, Policeman MacCruiskeen discloses the existence of a substance called omnium, which is a fantastically potent version of sub-atomic matter. As MacCruiskeen puts it, “Omnium is the essential inherent interior essence which is hidden inside the root of the kernel of everything and it is always the same,” and anyone who possesses omnium can do anything, transforming any kind of matter to an infinite range of new and astonishing shapes in a trice, on a moment’s whim. This is what Policeman Fox does when he fabricates the underground region out of a lump of omnium he finds in Mathers’s cashbox. Atomic theory and the theory of relativity – which destabilize the laws of time and space as radically as Pluck, Fox and MacCruiskeen do – are for many people the most “modern” of all forms of scientific knowledge; they were born with the twentieth century and dominated the military and political minds of that century from beginning to end. Both areas of knowledge seemed at the beginning of the century to hold the seed of utopian planetary transformations; both were involved in producing instead the most devastating of weapons, the atomic bomb (or as O’Nolan christened it in 1945, the “abombic tomb”). The presence of atomic theory in O’Nolan’s book, then, links the local crises of the newly-fledged Irish nation with the deepening global crisis at the end of the 1930s in a way that predicts the worst outcome for both. And there is no doubt that O’Nolan could have known about both the best and the worst contemporary predictions for the future as it would be shaped by human interference with the atom.

As early as 1914, H. G. Wells wrote a novel describing both the immense powers for utopian transformation inherent in the atom and the infinite potential for destruction it contained. The World Set Free gives an account of the first nuclear war, in which half-crazed aeronauts hurl bombs from the cockpits of their monoplanes and perish triumphantly in the ensuing conflagration. And a single passage from the beginning of Wells’s novel would have been enough, I think, to have conjured the genially monstrous minds of Pluck, Fox and MacCruiskeen from O’Nolan’s imagination. Here is the passage, from the speech of a Scottish professor named Rufus, an enthusiast for atomic energy:

we know now that the atom, that once we thought hard and impenetrable, and indivisible and final and – lifeless – lifeless, is really a reservoir of immense energy. That is the most wonderful thing about all this work. A little while ago we thought of the atoms as we thought of bricks, as solid building material, as substantial matter, as unit masses of lifeless stuff, and behold! These bricks are boxes, treasure boxes, boxes full of the intensest force. This little bottle contains about a pint of uranium oxide; that is to say about fourteen ounces of the element uranium. It is worth about a pound. And in this bottle, ladies and gentlemen, in the atoms in this bottle slumbers at least as much energy as we could get by burning a hundred and sixty tons of coal. If at a word, in one instant I could suddenly release that energy here and now it would blow us and everything about us to fragments; if I could turn it into the machinery that lights this city, it could keep Edinburgh brightly lit for a week. But at present no man knows, no man has an inkling of how this little lump of stuff can be made to hasten the release of its store…

In The Third Policeman Rufus’ treasure boxes have become a black cashbox, the boxes that can light a city have been perfected, and boxes that release energy little by little exist side by side with boxes that demolish buildings in an explosive instant. Indeed, the passage helps to explain something puzzling about O’Nolan’s novel: which is why a story about death should hum and seethe as it does with the sheer overwhelming energy of the world, its teeming vitality, the life in its every particle. Life and death cohabit in O’Nolan’s Ireland, as they do in Rufus’ atoms, in terrifyingly unstable proximity, ready to set each other off in a vast explosion that will obliterate his little nation and the rest of Europe with it. And the little black boxes that contain these explosive elements are in the hands of madmen and obsessives.

The Third Policeman contains O’Nolan’s most potent bombshells, packed to the skin with comic and tragic elements in equal measure. It is, as I’ve said, an infernal machine, an incendiary device – or perhaps a diagram of the infernal machine that is Europe in the mid-twentieth century. At one point in the book, as he stands on the scaffold beside the writer he is about to hang, Sergeant Pluck tells a story about Ireland’s willingness to seek knowledge through violence. It concerns a man who visits the clouds in a balloon, and is almost lynched when he comes back because he refuses to answer questions about his visit. “That is a nice piece of law and order for you,” says Pluck, shaking his head over the narrowly-averted lynching: “a terrific indictment of democratic self-government, a beautiful commentary on Home Rule.” A little later we learn, in one of the novel’s anarchic footnotes, about the murderous proclivities of commentators on the philosopher-scientist de Selby – something we already know about from the actions of the novel’s protagonist. Exasperated by verbal attacks on his idol de Selby, one commentator – Hatchjaw – sets out for mainland Europe to confront the sage’s chief detractor, a “shadowy” German scholar named Kraus. Hatchjaw is armed, among other things, with “explosive chemicals and the unassembled components of several bombs, grenades and landmines” with which he plans to unleash a “cataclysm” to consume both the German and himself. In each case – the lynching and the cataclysm – violence is narrowly averted. But the point of O’Nolan’s narrative is that all the ingenious trickery and extravagant rhetoric in the world will not finally avert further violence when once it has been accepted and engaged in as a modus operandi – by an individual, a nation or a continent. And the novel’s punch-line involves the retrospective discovery that further violence has not been averted, despite all the twists and turns of the narrator in his efforts to stave it off…

O’Nolan could not have predicted exactly how knowledge-driven violence would manifest itself in the later years of the Second World War. Still less could he have predicted how misinformation and weapons of mass destruction would continue to dominate global politics in the twenty-first century. But if his writings of the 1930s and 40s are undoubtedly the products of an astute analysis of his own place and time, they nevertheless continue to have a shocking applicability to our own disordered decade, here in the 2010s. His jokes cannot be safely contained within the confines of his lifetime, any more than radioactive matter can be safely contained within the slender leaves of a comic novel. They – his jokes, that is – are still very much on us.

Naomi Mitchison, The Big House (1950)

In the year C. S. Lewis published The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 1950, Naomi Mitchison published a very different fantasy novel for children. Unlike Lewis’s book, The Big House is intimately involved with its own particular time and place, and time and place play a central role in its complex plotting. Set in Argyllshire immediately after the Second World War, in a village called Port-na-Sgadan (‘The Port of the Herring’) which is clearly modeled on Mitchison’s home of Carradale, the novel updates and relocates the Border ballad of Tam Lin, transforming it into a multi-stranded political fable. Simply put, it tells the story of a girl called Susan – Su for short – who embarks on a quest to save a long-lost piper from the fairies. In the process Su learns a great deal about the Big House where she lives and its role in local and national history. More specifically, she learns about class struggle, and how the Big House is deeply implicated in the continuing war of attrition that has been waged by the aristocracy on the commoners over the course of many centuries. As it happens, she also learns a few things about how that war of attrition might be brought to an end; and it’s this final element of the novel that marks its most radical distinction from the Narnian chronicles.

Rescuing the piper from the fairies involves travelling back in time, first to the days of the piper’s early life in the Napoleonic Wars, then to the medieval period, when the Big House is markedly smaller than its twentieth-century equivalent. Su’s travelling companion on these journeys is a working-class boy called Winkie, and each journey places the two children, girl and boy, in radically different situations, figured in each case by their different relationships to the Big House. The four siblings in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe experience Narnia in different ways because of their different personalities (though it’s implied that one of them, Edmund, has had his character somehow ruined by an experimental school he went to). For Mitchison, by contrast, difference is embedded in the class system, which is also bound up with national, regional and gender identities in a complex web of changing relationships which gives her novel a much subtler and darker flavour, so to speak, than the first entry in the Narnia sequence. Its subtlety and darkness explains, perhaps, why it’s less well known than Lewis’s series, but the book is well worth recovering, along with its feisty protagonist, Susan, who provides such a welcome contrast to the relative insipidity of her Narnian namesake.

Carradale House

The Big House falls into three parts or acts, each of which drives a deeper wedge between Su and her companion, Winkie. The first act takes place in the present day, just after the war, at a point in history when the class system has been loosened or at least unsettled by the pressures of global conflict. It also takes place at a time of year – Halloween – when all the social, cultural and supernatural forces that seethe beneath the surface of the local community tend to boil over, thanks to the old traditions observed by all classes in Port-na-Sgadan. The second act of the novel, set in the early nineteenth century, exposes the material roots of the class struggle that brought about the long-standing hostility between the inhabitants of the Big House and their poorer neighbours. The third act takes the children back to medieval times and underlines the arbitrariness of the class system by placing Su and Winkie in reverse positions. In this period Winkie unexpectedly finds himself in charge of the Big House as clan chief, while Su becomes dependent on his good will in her new role as an injured stranger, who happens to be under Winkie’s protection as his houseguest. The final chapter of the novel returns to the possibility of discovering alternative narratives within the dominant narratives of history which is where the book began. In the process it suggests that the relationship between Su and Winkie might mark the beginning of a new and better phase of class relations, or even the eventual end of class antagonism altogether.

Naomi Mitchison

The threefold structure neatly invokes the many sets of threes that dominate the traditional fairy tale, and we’re invited to consider this numerical significance by the novel’s playfulness with numbers – although the number seven is more closely aligned with the fairies in this book than the number three. Three is the charm, though, as they say, and Mitchison’s narrative (which is full of magic charms of one kind or another) seems to urge or charm its readership, through their sympathy with the personal charms of its two protagonists, into both understanding and breaking down some of the inequalities that divided British communities in the 1950s. If Lewis is concerned with the spiritual and imaginative wellbeing of his readers, Mitchison is more concerned with their material and political welfare. But she too introduces a spiritual dimension into her narrative thanks to the prominence in all three acts of religion and the pagan supernatural, in the shape of the Christian church and its old arch enemies: ‘Yon Ones’, as Winkie terms them, the fairies or good people. The coexistence of these antagonistic supernatural elements alongside the class antagonism that threatens Su and Winkie’s friendship suggests that Mitchison wishes to stress the presence in any given period of multiple narratives or versions of events; narratives that must be understood and reconciled before the foundations can be laid of a better social order.

As I said, the first act of the novel takes place at Halloween, and represents it as a time when the power relations in the children’s community are temporarily suspended (or turned ‘tapsalteery’, as Winkie puts it, p. 66). The mechanism of this suspension is the Scottish custom of ‘guising’ as practised in this remote part of Argyllshire. In Port-na-Sgadan on All Hallows’ Eve women dress up as men, men dress as women, and all revelers don a ‘false-face’ or facial disguise to conceal their identity. Under cover of this disguise, class hostility can either be temporarily set aside (since nobody knows the identity of the revelers) or given free play (for the exact same reason). As the book opens, Su has just been attacked and hurt by an anonymous group of older schoolmates ‘because she was from the Big House, and in times past the Big House had been hard and cruel to the fathers and grandfathers of the ones at the school, and kept them in fear and, maybe, put them out of their houses, but now the thing had turned round and they had revenged themselves’ (p. 10). Halloween, then, represents a kind of miniature social revolution – literally, a ‘turning round’, when girls can join with boys in acts of violence that would not normally be condoned by either sex (Su is usually only subjected to class hostility at school through ostracism, as we learn later). The notion of turning things round also suggests that Halloween is a season when conventional measurements of time are somehow suspended, as they are in all annual rituals, since such rituals imply that time is cyclical rather than linear, and hence that progress, revolution and reconciliation are equally unlikely ever to be accomplished. Su’s attackers are committed, in fact, to upholding a perpetual cycle of injury and revenge – of feuding, in other words – which repeats itself in all three parts of the novel, and against which Su and Winkie’s friendship stands as the sole hope of future amendment.

Carradale

The cyclical view of time invoked by the annual custom of guising in turn reminds us that Halloween is a season when other forces are at work besides class politics. It’s a significant date in the old church calendar, for one thing, being the day before the major feast of All Saint’s Day. And it’s also a significant date in the pagan year: Samhain, when fairies and the dead are said to roam abroad and when children in particular are vulnerable to supernatural influences (this may lie behind the custom of guising, concealing as it does the children’s identity from potential fairy kidnappers). Sure enough, on this particular Halloween Su and Winkie meet the walking dead in the form of the piper, Donald Ferguson, who was born in the early nineteenth century before being abducted by fairies and granted supernatural longevity in exchange for his freedom. Halloween is the time of year when the doors of Fairy Land stand open, and Donald has managed to slip through them – pipes and all – and make his way down to the village that was once his home. As he marches along he plays a tune to give himself courage and keeps an eye out for the church, where he hopes to gain sanctuary from ‘Yon Ones’ on premises held sacred by their religious antagonists. Instead Su and Winkie take him to the Big House and protect him from the Fairy Prince by barring the way to his hiding place with a family Bible. Later he and the children seek to know what to do next by choosing a text from the scriptures at random, one for each of them – three in all; and each text accurately predicts the experiences of its chooser in each of the three acts of the novel. All three acts mix pagan and Christian elements in a continuation of the narrative begun at Halloween, thus underscoring for the children the coexistence of different religious as well as political perspectives on each historical period they visit. It’s an ingenious plot structure, which enables Mitchison to offer her readers an understanding of the interwoven processes of history of the sort C S Lewis is simply not concerned to provide.

Caramel from Above

There is a clear crossover between the political and the supernatural narratives in Mitchison’s text. The abduction of the piper by the fairies, for instance, has a political dimension. Donald Ferguson is a working-class man, and his abductor is a Fairy Prince unwilling to free him from his bondage or enslavement in the fairy kingdom. Yet despite the danger he is in from his fairy pursuers, Donald is at first reluctant to enter the Big House when Su invites him. ‘I will not go the Big House’ he insists (p. 12), presumably because (like his kinsman Winkie) he will not feel welcome or safe in the local stronghold of the ruling classes. His reluctance is justified a page or two later when Su instinctively invites the Fairy Prince into the building as he comes looking for the piper, giving him access to the premises with a formal Gaelic welcome as if in unconscious acknowledgment of their affinity as fellow members of the governing elite (p. 17). It’s because of Winkie’s class background, too, that the boy is so much more au fait with supernatural goings-on in Port-na-Sgadan than Su is. From the moment he meets the piper he is convinced of the continuing presence there of ‘Yon Ones’, as Susan is not; and this may be as much because there is no electric lighting in his house as because his family is more inclined than hers to give credence to oral traditions (‘“It just can’t be true,’ said Su, ‘you know it can’t! It just doesn’t go with electric light!’”, p. 16). Winkie knows many things that don’t ‘go with electric light’. He knows, for instance, about the recent doings in Port-na-Sgadan of the tutelary guardian of the Big House, the Brounie; doings about which Su has never heard, since, as Winkie puts it, ‘“There is things that dinna get told to the Big House ones”’ (p. 30). Moreover, for Winkie the difference between the Brounie, which gives its supernatural assistance to anyone who needs it regardless of class, and the Fairy Prince, who expects unquestioning compliance from his social inferiors, is fundamentally a class difference. This class difference is present, too, in the different level of understanding of the fairies possessed by the travelling folk, the tinkers, as compared to the local working-class people like Winkie, who despise the traveller community. The young tinker Ian Townsley can play a tune on the pipes which makes the Fairy Prince disappear from the Big House kitchen in the first act of the narrative; while in the third and final act Su and Winkie get help from tinkers when they find themselves stranded on the road between past, present and future. Each distinct class – the ‘Big House ones’, the local working-class population and the travellers – has access to a different level of knowledge about Yon Ones, which is in inverse proportion to their access to educational opportunities and the benefits of technological progress, such as electric lighting.

Second World War Mine in Carradale

Running alongside the other narratives in the novel – the stories of the class struggle and of the struggle between Christianity and paganism – runs the narrative of the recently ended global conflict. The impact of the War is felt everywhere in the novel, most deeply, perhaps, in the changes that have taken place in the Big House of the title. Like the Professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the building has diminished in social stature over time, but unlike Lewis Mitchison is keen to stress the role played by war in this diminution. The resident family’s fortunes clearly took a downturn during the Blitz, which destroyed their London home and killed Su’s ‘London aunt’; and since then London has remained the centre of the mother’s activities, because she works at a Ministry (we never learn which one, just as we never find out what has happened to Su’s father). Power, then, has been sapped from the Big House by the concentration of the military, governmental and economic High Command in the southeast corner of the United Kingdom. The absence of servants in the Big House, apart from old Morag, can be attributed to the fact that ‘there’s a war on’ (p. 24) – or at least a peace which continues to be shaped by the demands of war. The war explains, in fact, why the Big House has lost its ruling class glamour. Its once splendid kitchen now serves only the blandest food – potatoes, oatmeal, herrings, milk (p. 18) – because of rationing, which continued in the UK well into the 1950s. The occupants of the house are evidently subject to the same restrictions and regulations as the rest of the population, with the result that the appearance of the piper raises urgent questions in Su’s mind as to where she will find him an official ration book. The war has turned the Big House into a minor component in a nation-wide military machine, and in the process its political significance and authority have receded into the past.

The other classes in the novel too have been affected by war. Many of the men in the village have served in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who wear military issue kilts, and when Su first sees the kilted piper she thinks he might be one of them. Presumably the servants at the Big House have been called up for military service or other war work. The fairies, meanwhile, seem to know as much about the war as the human population. When the children enter the fairy kingdom under the Hill in the second act, an enchanted brazen head asks them a riddle whose answer is ‘a bomber’. Not long afterwards the protective spirit of the Big House, the ‘Brounie’, shows a remarkable skill in forging official documents such as ration books and identity cards. The most striking of these supernatural wartime references, though, is the series of spells cast by the Fairy Prince in his effort to reassert his power over the piper, which resemble bomb blasts like the one that destroyed Su’s London home:

Then the Prince lifted his hand, and everything began to shake like in an air raid when they are coming close and you are all on the floor waiting for the next one. And like the falling of a bomb something terrible and blinding seemed to happen, and Su was holding in her arms a coiling, wriggling mass of snakes, or one snake, and its head was looking at her, and it opened a fanged earth-smelling mouth (p. 89).

In this passage it becomes clear that the children in Mitchison’s narrative have undergone wartime experiences that more than prepare them for the perils and terrors they encounter in their dealings with ‘Yon Ones’. Su clings fiercely to the piper as he changes into a succession of terrifying forms, just as Janet clung to Tam Lin in the old ballad to free him from the power of the fairy queen, and we are told before the changes begin that the piper’s wife was unable to complete the same challenge when it was given her many decades earlier. Su’s success, despite her young age, can be explained by her seemingly first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to live through an air raid. And this knowledge comes in useful again later in the narrative, when she and Winkie correctly answer the riddle posed by the brazen head: ‘What is the bird that flies but is dead, and the eggs that it lays flying hatch death?’ […] ‘We think it is a bomber’ (p. 74). The head seems profoundly disturbed by their familiarity with the hardware of destruction (‘Sorrow, sorrow on me!’ it cries, ‘Sorrow on yourselves! Children of middle earth, it is over much that you know’); but the children themselves take their wartime experiences very much for granted, like their experiences of injustice in the classroom or of hostility between social classes. C. S. Lewis didn’t see fit to explain why Peter found it so easy to face a wolf with a sword in his hand when he had no experience of hand-to-hand combat; the impression we get is that such exploits just come naturally to properly brought up boys. Mitchison is careful to underline where Su’s courage springs from.

The difference between Lewis’s and Mitchison’s positions with respect to the war finds its most striking expression at the point in each novel when the antagonist offers a child some luxury sweets. Lewis says nothing at all about the sheer level of temptation felt by Edmund when the White Witch offers him Turkish Delight, or about the reasons why he should have succumbed to this temptation at a time of rationing. When the Fairy Prince offers Su and Winkie chocolates, by contrast, in the hope of tempting them to reveal the piper’s whereabouts, their experience of the offering is considered in meticulous detail. Su thinks at first, from the look of the chocolate box, that the Prince is about to offer her a diamond necklace, something she would find easy to refuse. But the chocolates – which evoke pre-war Christmases, a time of plenty and affection as embodied in the London aunt who used to give similar chocolates to her nieces and nephews as Christmas presents, so that the candy invokes an emotional as well as a physical yearning – the chocolates are a much more attractive proposition. They are made, we are told, ‘with the very best chocolate […] and real butter and real almonds and walnuts and Brazil nuts and pistachio nuts, and real fruit and any amount of castor sugar, and not one bit of saccharine or soya flour or flavouring out of bottles’ (p. 18). Like Edmund’s Turkish Delight these ingredients come from far off lands – the term ‘Brazil nuts’ stresses the fact – and the reference at the end of the sentence to the artificial ingredients substituted for natural ones because of shortages serves to intensify the sense of their exoticism and costliness. Even the butter is luxurious, since we learn later in the book that a ration of butter lasts only for a few days of each week, so that ‘it’s always margarine’ by Friday (p. 26). So far so tempting; but Mitchison also stresses the subtly different levels of temptation felt by ruling-class Su and working-class Winkie. ‘[T]here were no sweeties like this in all Europe,’ she points out, ‘and never had been for Winkie, and never would be again for Su’ (p. 18). The children are only rescued from temptation by the sudden arrival of a party of guisers, which means that the chocolates turn abruptly to a ‘scatter of leaves’. There is no suggestion that Mitchison would have judged the children if they’d eaten the sweets, and Su is later quite open about the fact that if she were offered them again she would be more than ever tempted to take some (‘“I do hope they won’t try and give us sweeties again like last time,” said Su, and sighed’, p. 33). Lewis’s moral condemnation of Edmund is the easy judgment of the well-fed. Mitchison, on the other hand, is concerned to stress the genuine difficulty any child would face in refusing a gift like this in a postwar economy.

The division between the two children’s class experiences, as embodied in episode with the chocolates, gets exacerbated in the novel’s second act. Here they travel back in time to the early nineteenth century, in a quest to recover Su’s shadow – stolen from her by the Fairy Prince in retaliation for her successful defence of the piper against his spells. The Fairy Prince perhaps considers himself entitled to the shadow because of the class bond between himself and Su which was confirmed when she welcomed him into her family home; and the period to which the children travel quickly interposes the shadow of class antagonism between the two of them, even before they have properly begun their quest. They live apart in this period for several weeks, and by the time they meet again their divided lives as ruling-class girl and working-class boy have radically changed their bodies – especially Winkie’s. When Su puts her arm around the boy’s shoulders she finds he has grown appallingly thin, and this lends weight to his words when he tells her that since his arrival in this epoch he has always been hungry. As a result, when food is offered as temptation by the fairies for the second time a few pages later, Winkie finds it almost impossible to refuse the gift and has to be forcibly dragged away by his better-fed companion:

‘Do you know,’ said Su, in her best grown-up voice, ‘I am really not hungry just now.’

‘Winkie is hungry,’ said Winkie’s lovely partner. ‘Eat now! Do you think I would harm you, Winkie? Do you think it is in me to harm you?’ And she smiled at him.

Su snatched at his hands. ‘Don’t eat, Winkie. Remember!’ (p. 70)

In this way the different period intensifies the children’s consciousness of the material differences involved in living as members of different social classes, and this awareness also means that their friendship is tested to a new level. Even meeting is difficult for them, and their eventual reunion is only achieved thanks to Su’s returning memory of their friendship in the twentieth century, a friendship that would be next to impossible in the nineteenth.

The friendship between the Pevensie children too is severely tested, of course, in Lewis’s novel; first by Edmund’s decision not to corroborate Lucy’s claim to have visited Narnia, then much more seriously by Edmund’s betrayal of his siblings to the White Witch. But in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe no motive is given for this betrayal beyond the vague allusion to the school he went to; and there is no real reason for Edmund’s actions not to be forgiven and forgotten as soon as he changes his mind. Since the four Pevensies share the same class background it is accepted among them that forgiveness is more honourable than resentment – that it is gentlemanly, to use an ideologically loaded term. In any case Edmund is the brother of Peter, Susan and Lucy, and forgiveness between siblings is ‘natural’. The threatened enmity between Su and Winkie, on the other hand, is structurally embedded in the class system as it manifests itself in each of the societies they live in. It’s embedded in their bodies – especially Winkie’s, which grows stronger and more energetic in the medieval period, when he is Chief of his clan and master of the Big House, just as it grew weaker in the nineteenth century. It’s embedded, too, in their experience of work, a world with which Winkie is already familiar in the twentieth century, as the son of a fisherman, and which becomes a desperate struggle for survival for him in the Napoleonic era. Su, meanwhile, does not work in the 1940s, and experiences the early nineteenth century as a time of uninterrupted play. The medieval period, by contrast, is for her a time of physical and emotional suffering. Winkie shoots her in the arm with an arrow, thinking she is a swan, and she spends the rest of her time there as an outsider among his people, yearning for a return to the modern Big House where she felt at home. She is unable to join in the ‘bower crafts’ of the women in Winkie’s community, and her inability to find a place for herself through work adds to her impression that the medieval period is somehow ‘unreal’ and that her own time is the only one that has any substance. The segregated activities of class and sex drive a wedge between the novel’s protagonists which threatens their friendship by forcing them to confront the alien cultures in which they were raised, the alien perspectives on history from which they have emerged, and the distinct kinds of knowledge they possess in every epoch.

At the same time, their friendship keeps reasserting its reality in each period, reestablishing itself as materially present at the expense of new relationships they have formed. At one point in the second act Su has a talk about class with one of her Big House relatives – a girl called Elspeth – which suddenly reveals to her the distance that separates them in terms of their attitudes to working people. Elspeth considers it perfectly reasonable to punish a man for cutting down a tree on Big House property, while Su is horrified by the savagery of his punishment (he has been forcibly conscripted in the British army and dispatched to the wars). Afterwards Su is suddenly visited by a Gothic vision in which Elspeth and the other children whose room she shares have turned into corpses in a mausoleum:

She rolled round. Elspeth was asleep. And at that she began to think in a horror, that grew worse and worse, how from her own time all these people were dead, and Elspie there was a dead corpse, and Mysie and Helen and all, and here she was left alone with them and she could not bear it, and she slipped quickly out of bed. Here was the room that used to seem so nice and cosy with the glow of the fire and the white linen of the feather beds, and each bed tented with bright curtains into a soft cave for two yellow heads whispering over the day; it was frightening now, it was not properly there! (p. 45)

This sensation that she is experiencing a variety of false consciousness, expressed in the melodramatic terms of early nineteenth-century sensational novels such as Frankenstein or Melmoth the Wanderer, impels her to leave the Big House and meet up with Winkie. The boy then reveals to her the material conditions that have enabled her to live her comfortable life up to this point: the near starvation of his family, the violent suppression of their political ideas, the aggressive punishment of minor crimes to which they were driven by poverty. As he speaks it becomes increasingly clear that the class conflict they have experienced stands on the verge of escalating into full-scale civil war, and that the war being waged on Napoleon is an aspect of the same class conflict.

In the first act, Su rather patronizingly dismisses the ‘terrible great war’ against Napoleon, as the piper calls it, with the observation that her own time ‘had Hitler, who was much worse’ (p. 26). Her assumption is that the twentieth-century experience of war has been far more ‘terrible’ than the piper’s in every way. The piper, on the other hand, sees the Second World War as the continuation of a struggle that has carried on in every epoch: ‘It was always so,’ he observes resignedly. Su and Winkie’s visits to the past confirm both the savage nature of the conflict he mentioned and its continuity through successive generations. In the Napoleonic era, Winkie’s response to the prosecution of his cousin Dougie is to join with Dougie’s brother to give the magistrate a beating or ‘slashing’ of the kind handed out to Dougie before he was sentenced. As it turns out the magistrate involved is an uncle of Su’s in this period, and she must show solidarity with Winkie by joining him on the expedition of revenge against a member of her own family. Su watches as Winkie and his older cousin engage in an awkward and unsatisfactory brawl with the uncle, who is mounted and armed with a whip. Afterwards, she, Winkie and the cousin are chased through the night by the magistrate and his men in another act of retaliation, which will implicitly lead on to further retaliatory acts until the moment at the opening of the novel when Su herself will be attacked by her schoolmates for being descended from men like her magistrate uncle. These experiences are echoed in the third act of the novel when Winkie as chief of his clan is expected to carry on a blood feud with the neighbouring clan, killing a relative of the man who killed his father in a cycle of murder and counter-murder which lays the foundation, we are led to suppose, for the future acts of violence against class enemies which have blighted the lives of Winkie’s and Su’s families. The possibility of breaking out of this cycle of violence seems even more remote than the possibility of rescuing the piper from the fairies or retrieving Su’s shadow from beneath the fairy hill.

At the same time, Su’s growing experience of cyclical violence consolidates her determination to put an end to it. Near the beginning of the story, when the piper gives Winkie a sgian dubh or knife to use on his travels Su is envious of the possibilities for bloodshed it represents: ‘“Oh, you are lucky!”’ she tells him, ‘“You might really be able to kill someone!”’ (p. 34). By the time she and Winkie find their way to the fairy realm after the attack on the magistrate, however, she has changed her tune, and when the High King of the Fairies offers her a wish in place of her shadow, she tells him that her ambition in life is to be ‘someone who can stop wars happening’ (p. 77). In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Father Christmas tells Susan and Lucy that ‘battles are ugly when women fight’ and bars them from the final conflict with the White Witch. Su, by contrast, chooses to set herself against violence, and learns in the process that the struggle for peace and social justice will be just as hard as the path of war. As he tempts her to turn aside from her quest for her shadow the High King of the Fairies gives her a glimpse in a magic mirror of the difficulties such a struggle will involve:

and it seemed to her to be a terrible hard way, and many of them on it were dead or dying, in some cruel and senseless fashion. And at each side there were a thousand pitfalls and temptations, and the end was beyond sight […] and indeed it was more than she had in her at this time to look along it any more. (p. 77)

Later, she learns from the Big House Brounie that her counterpart in the Napoleonic period – the girl whose place she took when she travelled back from the twentieth century, an ancestor of hers – chose a similar path of social justice, and that after a life spent fighting for ‘every kind o’ reform […] in the end she died of a fever that came on her down Gorbals way nursing a poor woman body that had nae kin of her ain’ (p. 80). Running alongside the heritage of violence, then, that mars Su’s family history, there is a counter-tradition of reconciliation and social responsibility whose adherents are as heroic – and often as badly damaged by their heroic actions – as any warrior. This tradition is more or less absent from the Narnian chronicles, despite the presence of female characters among its protagonists, and its absence is made the more striking by its prominence in Mitchison’s novel.

The tradition of reconciliation is embodied from the opening pages of The Big House in the friendship between Su and Winkie. When Su is attacked by older children, some of whom seem to be Winkie’s relatives, the boy chooses to take her side against his family because he feels ‘terrible affronted’ by what has been done to her (p. 10). Later he urges her to replicate this gesture by witnessing his own assault on her magistrate uncle, thus distancing herself from her family in a display of solidarity with Winkie’s kin. Meanwhile there have been several hints that a new kind of bond exists between them; something stronger than friendship or solidarity. This bond is implicit in the very fact that they find themselves together at Halloween. Robert Burns’s poem ‘Halloween’ (1785) associates the season with pagan fertility charms: every Halloween custom it describes involves some trick or spell to find out who will be your ‘future conjugal yoke-fellow’, as Burns put it, either by picking kale stalks or pulling at a thread, or looking in a mirror while eating an apple, or sowing hemp-seed. These are Ayrshire customs, presumably, since Burns grew up near Ayr, but the customs invoked by Mitchison are just as focused on desire and the prospect of some future ‘yoke-fellow’. Cross-dressing draws the revelers’ attention to gender identity – the difference between male and female as established by custom and expressed in clothing – while their ‘false-faces’ invite guessing games about who is behind which mask, and by extension about whose company they are keeping. Winkie and Su join in these games even after they’ve met the piper:

Five people went by, grown-ups, all dressed and with false-faces and laughing. Susan and Winkie argued about who they were. Winkie was sure it was old Mrs. Macdonald from the smiddy’s skirt on the man of the party, and the one with the navy trousers and its head in a flour-bag was Betty who worked at the Manse. Su said no, it was young Mrs. Paterson. ‘It was Betty, right enough,’ said Winkie, ‘I knew her from the way she wiggled her behind.’

‘Well then, if it was Betty,’ said Su, ‘the man would have been Red Tom, and he isn’t that size.’

‘Betty hasna been going with Red Tom this month past,’ said Winkie, ‘she is after a slater from down the way.’ (pp. 13-14)

Part of the evening’s sport, then, is to decide who is ‘going with’ whom. Under the covers of the false-faces boys and girls, men and women can walk out with their chosen partners under a screen of anonymity, and the right guessing of who is walking out with whom serves to confirm the guesser’s knowledge of the local community. As an upper-class outsider Su finds this guessing game more difficult than Winkie; but the boy’s decision to come home with her that night, despite his unease in the Big House, allows the reader to make a good guess as to the strength of his feelings for her. And there are further hints later in the narrative. When the piper meets Winkie in the Napoleonic era and asks him ‘Where is your lassie?’ he causes the boy acute embarrassment, which Winkie expresses in terms that echo the description of his inner turmoil as he stood by Su after the attack: ‘myself feeling so affronted I could have bitten him’ (p. 54, my emphasis). The Brounie of the Big House, meanwhile, keeps referring to Su as Winkie’s lassie; and in the third act of the novel Winkie describes her in the same terms himself (‘I must seek my lassie’, p. 121), even going so far as to promise to marry her if she will stay with him in the medieval period (p. 158). Mitchison’s is a world in which children are not barred from an awareness of current or future attraction to each other. Lewis’s Pevensie siblings, on the other hand, are never put in the position of thinking positively about relations between the sexes, and the one sibling who does think about such things – Susan – is famously barred from a return to Narnia in the sequence’s final book. Lewis may have provided his children with serious adventures for high stakes, in recognition of the serious roles children had taken on in the Second World War, but he rarely contemplates the possibility that they might experience any form of mutual desire or attraction.

Su and Winkie’s relationship, by contrast, takes centre stage in Mitchison’s novel, anticipating the centrality of Lyra and Will’s relationship in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And like Lyra and Will’s relationship, it grows more intense as the book goes on, reaching its culmination in the third act. The act opens with the greatest test of their bond so far: Su has been sent away to boarding school in England, which both removes her from the hostile environment of the local state school and drives a new wedge between her and Winkie, ensuring that they don’t meet at all when she returns to the Big House for the vacation. But before this happens their bond has reached a new pitch of intensity. At the end of the second act Su saves the piper from the fairies for a second time, as Janet saved Tam Lin, by clinging to him as he goes through a range of magical changes into terrifying forms. But unlike Janet, Su emerges from this trial not with a lover but a baby; the last form the piper assumes is that of an infant, and an infant he remains after the fairies relinquish their claim on him. This alteration of the ballad is carefully considered, since the baby dominates the third act of the novel as an embodiment of the difficult but potentially transformative union of ruling-class and working-class culture that might spring from Su and Winkie’s alliance. The difficulty dominates at first. While Su warms to the baby at once, Winkie is deeply unsettled by the suggestion that he might take on the role of the child’s father, and accepts responsibility for him only when it appears that Donald will be raised as a Big House boy with no input at all from the working-class villagers. This is another affront to Winkie’s pride, since it involves making the infant piper a class traitor, a situation the boy finds intolerable: ‘“He isna to be just a Big House one!”’ (p. 97). It’s at this point that the baby assumes a new role as a promise for the future, confirming the connection between Su of the Big House and the fisherman’s son through a common concern for the child’s education:

‘I dinna want to be his father,’ said Winkie, ‘but when I have my own boat I want him to come wi’ me.’

‘But of course he is going to do that,’ said Su […] ‘and so am I. And it’s no good saying I’m only a girl, Winkie, because it won’t work with me. And after all, what Donald wanted was a home, and he may as well have that twice over. Yes, and he is going to play with the tinkers, and sit next to them at the school, Winkie. And you may as well make up your mind to it. (pp. 97-8)

The piper’s transformation into an infant, then, represents a new beginning for his fragmented Argyllshire community, uniting all the narrative strands in the book so far. As well as bringing Su and Winkie closer together Donald offers an opportunity to erode the arbitrary gendering of roles in the workplace and to erase the class hostility between dwellers in houses and the travellers. So when the child’s soul is stolen away in the final act, leaving a foul-mouthed changeling to possess his body, there is an implied threat to the whole community in the exchange. Mitchison’s solution to this threat is to weave the separate narrative strands of her story into single cloth, bringing together the Christian church and the fairies, the fairies and Su, the ‘Big House ones’ and the villagers, the tinkers and Winkie’s people, in a complementary warp and weft which can no longer be separated, and which together make up the concept of ‘home’. The fusion is anticipated in the baby, which has a home ‘twice over’ – in working-class Port-na-Sgadan and the Big House; and the novel’s concluding part can in fact be read as the forging of a home that meets the needs of all its inhabitants, as represented by the infant Donald.

The adventure begins on the night after the stealing of the baby’s soul, when Su wakes to find the Brounie in her room. The household spirit has sought her out to put things right by fetching the soul from the past, where it has been hidden, and once again this involves a journey into history. From the start this second journey involves a fusion of disparate elements, beginning with Christianity and paganism. To make the spell that will send Su back in time the Brounie draws a cross in the dust on the Big House floor, and it later uses the same mark to send Winkie on a separate journey. For the Brounie the cross functions as a potent magic symbol, capable of turning the girl into a time-travelling swan and hurling the boy from body to body across many centuries. But Winkie’s journey ends when he sees the same mark on the cover of a Christian Bible, on which he is being sworn in as the new Chief of his clan after his father’s murder. The medieval period he has arrived in has the rivalry between Christianity and the fairy people at its core; and when Su gets there shortly afterwards she learns from her friend Donaldina the tinker that the power of the Church functions to keep the power of the Fairy Hill at bay: ‘“They are aye taking the babies. They are aye putting their power on to folk for ill, or whiles for good. […] But when we are going to the church we have a bigger power and a stronger sign.”’ The two marks or crosses, then, seem to be at odds; except that the opposition between fairy and church is undermined by Su herself, who is transformed by the Brounie’s magic into a swan maiden, a kind of fairy queen, and whose moment of greatest power again fuses the pagan and Christian crosses into a ‘stronger sign’.

Part of Winkie’s duties as clan chief is to avenge his father’s murder on the neighbouring clan who carried it out. The opportunity for this comes when his foster brother brings one of the hostile clansmen to the Big House, now Winkie’s castle. Winkie prepares to carry out a summary execution; but before this can happen Su intervenes, and her intervention is accompanied by the reappearance of the Brounie’s cross in the hall of the castle: ‘a pattern of brightness came between herself and them, a pattern as huge as the hall, of a cross in the square, and the lines within the cross, and then the joining together of the lines through curves and loops’ (p. 132). Su enlists the pagan cross on behalf of her cause as she begs the boy to spare his enemy; and she finds an unexpected ally in the local priest, who backs up her plea for mercy with a text from the Scriptures, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (p. 133). The priest points out that this is not the first time he has cited the commandment in his efforts to end the feud, but that the clan has always persisted in cleaving instead to the ‘law of the old days’ – the law of retribution. Clearly a power from these same ‘old days’ – the swan maiden, with her pagan sign – was needed before the half-pagan men of the clan were able to hear the priest’s injunction. Later the swan maiden and the priest again join forces, this time to capture the Fairy Queen and compel her to reveal the hiding-place where Donald’s soul is stowed. On this occasion it’s the priest who seeks retribution, and as he prepares to destroy the Fairy Queen with holy water, Su again intervenes with a plea for mercy. Both her interventions prove successful; and as a result Su’s presence in the past turns out to have reconciled – for a time at least – the seemingly incompatible powers of Christianity and the pagan supernatural, combining them into a ‘stronger sign’ than either one of them would have been in isolation.

Carradale Church

Meanwhile Winkie’s position as elected chief of the clan, possessed of the fortified tower that stands where the Big House will later be situated, undermines the notion that social status is a matter of bloodline. His kinship with Su has in any case been established in the second act, when they wore the same tartan in the enchanted dance hall of the Fairy Hill. In the final act, for a while, their kinship seems to have been revoked by the Brounie’s magic – even though it was the Brounie who first pointed out the historical ties between them. Many of Winkie’s people, including the priest, are convinced that Su is not even human; after all, they first saw her as a swan, and even after her return to human form her quarters in the castle are often adrift with swan down. Winkie, however, insists on her humanity, and heroically keeps himself and Su together against all odds – above all, against his own interests. He brings her under his roof despite the suspicions harboured by the priest against her, agrees to spare his enemy at her request despite the demands of the feud, escorts her to the location of Donald’s soul despite his initial reluctance to go there, and finally agrees to give up his status as chief, with all the pleasures and privileges it entails, in order to help her get back to the twentieth century. In the process he cements the bond between them. As Su says to him after their return to Port-na-Sgadan, when he again expresses reluctance to enter the Big House with all her family in it, ‘Nobody else did what you did for me’ (p. 168) – in other words, he has brought himself closer to her than any of her relatives. In this final section of the book, then, as in the other sections, comradeship and humaneness outweigh the divisions that are always being imposed between classes, sexes, religions, cultures, families and neighbours. Mutual solidarity and affection win out over the material wealth that makes some people comfortable at the expense of others. It’s a far more complex ending than the one Lewis chose for his first Narnian book – a battle in which the antagonist is killed and all rights are wronged without any residual rancor or regret; then a role as monarchs for all four Pevensie children, a role that seems to have no impact whatsoever on their afterlives in the ‘real’ world of the reader. History is not so painlessly dismissed in Mitchison’s universe.

The last chapter of The Big House has the title ‘Times Within Times’, for what at first seems an obvious reason. In it, Su and Winkie meet a truck driver who is somehow also the prisoner Winkie freed at Su’s request. The driver is able to tell them what happened to the historical chief whose place Winkie took when he went back in time. Meanwhile Winkie and Su themselves embody times within times, since they remember all their adventures in the past, and plan to use these experiences to build their futures. Su intends to follow the difficult path taken by the ancestor whose body she briefly occupied, and work as a lifelong campaigner for peace. Winkie hopes to imitate the Chief whose place he filled. All three of these people in the final chapter – Su, the truck driver and Winkie – contain the past within their bodies, much as the Halloween revelers in the first chapter concealed beneath their masks at once their own personal identities and a link, through tradition, to the Halloween revelers that came before them. The difference is that Su and Winkie are concerned to change things rather than to keep them the same; and the truck driver – who was once a prisoner condemned to death and whose life they saved – represents that resolve as clearly as the baby’s soul they are carrying home with them.

In this book, then, Mitchison uses the past to build not a nostalgic dream of a golden time that never was but an aspiration for a better future. But she also insists that this better future must be built on a knowledge of times past – must contain those times within it, be in dialogue with them, so to speak – if it’s really to better them. The children who hold that knowledge embodied within them – having literally acted out the past using the limbs of their ancestors – find themselves better able to reshape the place where they live into a home fit for all its inhabitants, instead of just some of them. The potential for the Big House to be such a home has been signaled several times in the novel: when Su and Winkie defended the piper against the Fairy Prince in the Big House kitchen; when the Brounie revealed that it considered itself as much a protector of Su’s distant relatives in the village as of the actual residents in the building; and most of all when the piper gets a premonition, in the second act, that the Big House could be a ‘home’ to him as well as to Su. ‘It runs in my mind,’ he tells the children in a moment of vision that links him to bards before him, such as Thomas the Rhymer, ‘that there is a place for me at the Big House’; and he reinforces this premonition with a quotation from scriptures: ‘in my Father’s house there are many mansions’ (p. 85). The verse is one of Christ’s most all-inclusive declarations, uttered just before his death, in which he reassures his disciples that there is room in heaven for all of them (John 14.2). Su at once takes Christ at his word by linking the saying to the fairies: ‘The [Fairy] Hill was full of mansions, too’, she tells the piper, and in doing so once again brings paganism and Christianity into a kind of imaginative union. And by the end of the book, when Su asks Winkie to come back to the Big House the next day – after the book has ended – the building seems to be about to fulfill its destiny of being a place with many mansions or homely locations in it. In the process it becomes a miniature model – like the lavish doll’s house Su enjoys in the Big House of the early nineteenth century – of the ideal community, nation or world, just as Su and Winkie become the world’s ideal future citizens.

It’s perhaps worth ending with a word or two about Mitchison’s style in this particular novel (she has as many styles, very nearly, as she wrote novels, essays and short stories). As may be obvious from the quotations I’ve given, she tells her tale in a flexible, often conversational, sometimes lyrical prose style that drifts in and out of Scots, and in and out of different varieties of Scots – historical and contemporary, middle and working class, old-fashioned and modern (for the 1950s) – in such a way as to invoke the diversity of class and culture which is its topic. It’s worth comparing this to Lewis’s style, which is dominated by an authoritative and implicitly adult controlling presence, and which does not vary much in the course of his narrative. Mitchison’s prose, like her plot, is less tightly controlled, more tumbling and prolix, at least on the surface, and her narrator is constantly being subsumed into the consciousness and (more importantly) the language of her two young heroes. This language, as well as its plot’s multi-stranded complexity, may explain why The Big House hasn’t achieved the international success of Lewis’s simpler chronicle; after all, not many readers outside Scotland will know the meaning of all the terms Mitchison uses. But the house of literature, like the house of memory, has many rooms in it, and I hope I’ve done enough to suggest that this fine book deserves a place in one of them.

Notes

All references to The Big House are to the Canongate Kelpies paperback edition of 1987.

An excellent account of the novel can be found in Moira Burgess, Naomi Mitchison’s Early in OrcadiaThe Big House and Travel Light, Scotnotes No. 19 (Glasgow: ASLS, 2004).