Frances Hardinge, Fly by Night

[This post contains many spoilers. Sorry.]

51yVWZqt8bL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Can we count as fantasy those texts in which nothing impossible actually happens? There are plenty of books in the fantasy section of my mental library about which this could be said: G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the Gormenghast books, many of the novels in Joan Aiken’s Wolves series, Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. Given the absence of impossibilities in these narratives – people turning into beetles, acts of magic, fairies, dragons, mythical beings with astounding powers – why do they persist in finding their way onto fantasy booklists? Why do I think of Frances Hardinge as a fantasy writer, despite the fact that her first novel, Fly by Night, only violates the laws of physics once or twice, and then not to a degree significantly more startling than a conventional thriller?

In each of the cases I’ve listed the relationship with the fantastic is, I think, slightly different; but one thing all of them have in common is a knowing dialogue with other books of different degrees of implausibility. Chesterton is in conversation with detective fiction and the supernatural stories of the previous decade, such as Dorian Gray; Peake draws his inspiration from Dickens and the folklore of piracy; Aiken pays homage to Victorian melodrama; Kushner to the regency romances of Georgette Heyer and the swashbuckling adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas. These non-fantastic fantasies are books at two removes from what we think of as reality, and their flamboyant display of their own literariness makes it clear to their readers that they have no pretensions to mimetic realism except as a literary technique, a means of bringing alive a cast of invented characters in a clearly imaginary space. They are concerned to generate for a new readership some literary atmosphere which is particularly important for the writer – or rather, they seek to produce a new atmosphere out of that old one, an atmosphere that fuses the properties of an old literary genre with the urgent concerns of the present.

hardinge-xlarge_trans++1e7PqSjuVlPS9E5Sk9dVRSUvG1VjmqmGsf10Hf8vKfcFly by Night is unusual in that the texts it draws on have rarely been chosen as raw material for the construction of alternative universes. It’s also unusual, even among the fantasies mentioned above, in the degree to which its literariness is foregrounded. Literature – the world of littera or letters – is what it’s all about, and there are few novels that have played with concepts of literacy more wittily. Characters are read, written and printed with unceasing diligence throughout the narrative – at one point the heroine even finds herself stamped all over with printer’s ink – and the consequences of all these literary acts are as various as the people they happen to. Books, in this book, are the proverbial dragon’s teeth in Milton’s celebrated essay on censorship, Areopagitica: the seeds they sow spring up as armed men, and the urgent question that preoccupies Hardinge’s characters is whose side those armed men are on, whether or not their guns are loaded, and at whom they are prepared to shoot. Reading and writing are not, for Hardinge, an unqualified good. They can be instruments of torture, as when thieves are branded with the letter T, making their crimes indelible, their characters irrecoverable (and a character, too, is an act of writing). But reading and writing are always immensely powerful, and their power isn’t easy or even possible to control. That’s a good starting point for a book to take, I think, if it wishes to imprint itself on its reader’s imagination.

If there was ever a time when pens could kill, the early eighteenth century was it, when Pope, Swift, Addison and Steele waged war on the follies of humankind from the smoky interiors of coffee houses, when religion was a fiery theme and the British Empire was spreading its crimson tentacles across the globe, partly funded by the profits from the slave trade. This was also the period of enormous wigs, silly hats and ridiculous clothes worn mostly by men and women of the upper classes. What tends to get remembered from this time is the stuff of romance: the pirates who sailed the early eighteenth-century seas, the highwaymen who haunted its heaths, the plots being hatched by rebels of various stamps in its city streets, the battles fought by its generals. Hardinge’s secondary world, the Shattered or Fractured Realm, is evidently based on early eighteenth-century England, but her book is not concerned to romanticize it. Its only pirate is a barge captain with a fierce temper and a crooked wrist instead of a hook. Its only highwayman finds life on the open heath cataclysmically bad for his health, and the fame his exploits bring him profoundly inconvenient. Its principal rebel is a mild-mannered schoolteacher who has nothing further from his mind than insurrection; its only general an insane Duke who cheats when fighting a duel on behalf of his imaginary lovers. Hardinge’s topic is not so much romance as the processes by which romance is generated: in particular the printing press, whose output turns highwaymen into heroes, ordinary men into revolutionary masterminds, and piratical barge captains into corpses, thanks to the efforts of competing factions to take control of what the printing press produces.

Hardinge’s aim, in fact, is to make her readers think twice about the nature of the book they’re reading: the stuff it’s made of, print, paper, pages, font, words, letters, sentences, chapters, plots, and what these different things can accomplish for good and bad when brought together. And her means of doing this is to pick them apart, in much the same way that she picks apart eighteenth-century England by reducing it to its constituent elements in the Shattered Realm.

The name ‘Shattered Realm’ gets applied to Hardinge’s world in the book’s first chapter by Quillam Mye, a scholar whose work is banned and whose account of the country’s history left unfinished, so that it never gets printed. It’s an unofficial name, then, although it describes the country’s condition with perfect accuracy. And it’s a name that, like Quillam’s forbidden books and pamphlets, escapes from the limits of the written page and finds its way into public ownership, because it’s needed, because the people it describes require its lucid acknowledgement of their political and social situation. Like Dorimare in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, the Realm has undergone a revolution in which the monarchs were expelled, as in the English Civil War of 1645; and like Dorimare it has never undergone a Restoration, whereby the monarchs returned in triumph to resume their position at the head of state. As a result, the divisions between the religious and political beliefs of the Realm’s inhabitants are everywhere obvious. They worship different gods – saint-like figures called the Beloved, with bizarre names and peculiar functions, such as Goodman Palpitattle (He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butterchurns), Goodlady Prill (Protector of Pigs), Goodman Grenoble (He Who Keeps Knots out of Moustachios) and Goodman Sicklenose (He Who Lures the Shelled Fish into the Hungry Net). They give their allegiance to different claimants to the throne: King Prael, the ‘king across the Tosteroy Sea’, King Hazard, the ‘king across the Magora mountains’, the Twin Queens, the ‘monarchs beyond the Jottland foothills’. Workers in every trade belong to a different Guild; dwellers in adjacent districts wear distinctive clothing; members of different Guilds or with different beliefs frequent different coffee houses. Yet these diverse affiliations are not absolute ones. The inhabitants of the Realm seem perfectly comfortable with their differences, and the chief dangers in the book are posed by fanatics who want total unity: a unified religion, a plain understanding of right and wrong, a single ruler, one set of keys to all the kingdom’s doors, a censorship system that imposes identical restraints on all printed texts, and so on. In Hardinge’s Realm, centrism is pitched against eccentricity, conformity against the marginal, consistency against multiplicity, and the artificiality of imposing any uniform regime on a wildly diverse population is brought out by the crazy inventiveness of their names: Aramai Goshawk, Mabwick Toke, Eponymous Clent, Vocado Avourlace, Mosca Mye. The Shattered Realm owes its fragmentary nature to the splits between large and small segments of its populace, and the question of how to bind the nation together without losing the distinctiveness of its fragments is a vexed one, to which Hardinge offers no simple answer.

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Mosca by Antonia Russell-Clark

The book, too, is a thing of fragments working together to solve a problem: how to find a place in the Realm for its diminutive heroine, twelve-year-old Mosca Mye. Each chapter takes for its title a letter of the alphabet which is linked to the aspect of the Realm it reveals to Mosca: ‘E is for Extortion’, ‘L is for Locksmith’, ‘S is for Sedition’, and so forth. The format of these chapter titles is that of old alphabets used to teach children their letters; but where conventional alphabets of this kind refer to simple everyday things (A is for Apple, B is for Bread, C is for Cat), Hardinge’s letters allude to the criminal underclass and the legal system that seeks to contain them. This is because Mosca herself is doomed from the start to consort with felons. Her father is an exile, sent to Chough from Mandelion for writing seditious tracts about the non-existence of the Beloved, the corruption of the powerful, and the universal necessity for freedom of expression. What’s more, her father taught her to read, which is another violation of convention in the Realm (considering her sex) and has thus invested her eyes with a power that renders her permanently suspect to the illiterate villagers among whom she grew up:

Everybody knew that books were dangerous. Read the wrong book, it was said, and the words crawled around your brain on black legs and drove you mad, wicked mad. […] Mosca might as well have been the local witch in miniature.

Here Mosca, whose name means ‘fly’ in Italian, gets inextricably linked with the words she loves, which crawl around readers’ brains (so the Choughians think) and drive them mad like the constant buzzing of flies in a limited space. The villagers’ reaction to this danger is to deprive the girl of reading material. When her father dies they burn his books with the aim of restricting his daughter’s development as a reader. But the result of this act of censorship is precisely the opposite of what was intended. In response to the lack of books, the girl reads everything else instead: the arbitrary rules the villagers live by, the monotonous rigidity of their existence, the fascinating ways of passing strangers. Hardinge’s constant references to her ink-black eyes insist on their agency, the agency of a child who is always playing the old alphabet game of ‘I spy’ (and the chapter headings could also be taken as answers to the game as she plays it). Mosca picks out unremarked elements of her surroundings and uses them to her advantage in the competition she has been forced to take part in since her father’s death: the struggle for survival in a hostile environment. In the process she continues her father’s work of challenging other people to see what she sees, with drastic results, in the end, for the Realm itself.

710437Mosca is not just a reader; she’s a writer too. She carries with her a violent goose called Saracen, whose name identifies him as another outsider in the village that raised him – hence their strange alliance. Quillam Mye, as his name suggests, wrote his books with a quill, and the best writing quills are fashioned from the primary feathers of a goose or swan. Mosca, then, carries a living sheaf of quills on her adventures, quills with a will of their own and a belligerent energy that reduces armed men to quivering wrecks in any confrontation. The goose also embodies her resistance to the most deadly threat she faces on her travels: the Birdcatchers, religious fanatics whose name alludes to their obsession with restricting the free movement of minds and bodies, as expressed in their vicious practice of trapping birds, men, women and children in metal cages, then murdering them by starvation or burning. The Birdcatchers think of anyone who disagrees with them as heretics, and Saracen’s name connects him with the ultimate heresy, a different religion altogether. During their period of power in the Realm, the Birdcatchers took control of the printing presses and restricted what could be written to texts authorized by their church. Saracen’s quills can no more be controlled than Quillam’s pen, and Mosca’s alliance with him marks her out as a resister of religious intolerance as well as of censorship, like her father before her.

With Saracen’s help she finds her way into the underworld of the Realm, where she learns new words: the argot of the streets which is designed to befuddle the ignorant as surely as the professional jargon spoken by lawyers, doctors, clerics, politicians and poets. But her vigilant eyes ensure that she also picks up the words of the elite, startling strangers with her command of a vocabulary to which by rights she should have had no access. This little fly gets everywhere, like letters, those insectile scrawlings which can be used for the purposes of all classes, all plots, all tricksters with the nous to arrange them in different orders.

Letter by letter, she makes her way through the Shattered Realm, assembling her own unofficial version of the country, its past, its present, its possible futures. It’s a journey from rigidity to fluidity, from settled certainties to infinite possibilities, from being written to writing the world for herself with her own peculiar slant. At the beginning of the novel she is given a name that brands her forever as an affiliate of the least propitious of Beloveds, Palpitattle – the Realm’s equivalent of Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies. Her father insists she be given this name because she was born on Palpitattle’s feast day, and children in the Realm are always named for their patron Beloved; despite his atheism, the historian considers accuracy to be sacrosanct and will not permit the infant’s nurse to change the record of her birth by half an hour to give her the advantage of a better title. From this moment her name allies her to unpalatable truths – after all, flies are a necessary element in any ecosystem, like the detritus they feed on.[1] But flies are not easily contained, and by the end of the book Mosca is making her own choices, all of which involve liberating words and people from unwelcome constraints. This liberation, too, is associated with the alphabet, since Hardinge makes sure the procession of letters in her chapter titles never reaches Z: the final chapter heading is ‘V for Verdict’, and in it Mosca passes judgement on the people of Realm, just as they have judged her, while heading off in a new direction, not dictated by the conventions of the classroom. Her new direction was predicted, like the start of her life, by her father, with his passion for truth: ‘True stories seldom have endings’, he tells her, thus ensuring she will finally settle for the life of a vagabond (V stands for that too), and eschew the happy ever after of romance.

BlackbirdInk fanart - Mosca and Saracen in Chough
Mosca and Saracen by Lesya Blackbirdink

The movement from restraint to liberation is embodied in water as well as in letters. The village of Chough is full of the sound of water thanks to its dreadful climate, but the limescale in the water ensures that everything immersed in it turns to stone. The connection with the mental rigidity of Chough’s occupants is obvious. So too is the fact that it’s the criminal underworld that takes best advantage of this rigidity, offering an escape route to the child who suffers most from the villagers’ petrifaction. An itinerant conman, Eponymous Clent, spins a web of yarns from their hopes and dreams, and is condemned to the stocks when his scams are exposed. Mosca’s first act of liberation is to set him free, and in the process to free herself, since he can act as her mentor on the unfamiliar highways through the Realm she intends to take. It’s Clent who introduces her to Jennifer Bessel, a former gang leader who now sells objects turned to stone by the waters of Chough. Jennifer’s trade shows how ordinary things can be turned to new uses with a bit of ingenuity. So too does the barge captain, Partridge, with whom Clent and she take passage to Mandelion. Partridge is smuggling statues of Beloveds stolen from shrines in the hold of his barge, with the aim of melting down the lead they contain to make bullets for a planned insurrection. Thanks to Clent, Bessel, Partridge and their fellow felons, the rigidity bestowed by the waters of Chough melts away to be replaced by fluidity – of words, scams, improvised falsehoods and imaginative circumventions of authority (including the Guild of Watermen, who serve as the river police). By the end of the book Mosca is utterly at home on the water – as well as with felons of all stamps – while two at least of her enemies have met their end by it.

She has also learned the fluidity that characterizes human affairs, in spite of all attempts to render them rigid and simple – that is, to divide people into simple categories of good or bad, orthodox or heretic, law-abiding citizen or hardened criminal, or to write them into the constricting clichés of romance. Everyone in Hardinge’s world has a back story which makes them capable of eliciting sympathy. Everyone is to some extent connected with everyone else, and Mosca’s assessment of every major character changes in the course of the narrative, sometimes more than once. So too does her assessment of herself. At different stages of her journey she thinks of herself in different terms, as she aligns herself first with one character or interest group and then with another. This fluidity of narrative and personality can be seen as an act of re-education of her readers on the part of the author: the invention of a new kind of writing, with Mosca and her unorthodox schooling as an avatar of the reader, learning day by day to translate her growing skills in literacy into a fresh understanding of the richly interwoven languages of Hardinge’s world and our own.

The chief architect of this education is the conman, Eponymous Clent, whose first name links him to the title of the book, thereby signaling the crucial role he plays in its plotting. The eponymous hero of any narrative is the one whose name appears on the title page, and Clent is a fly-by-night if ever there was one, whose lies keep landing him in trouble even as they propel the story he gets caught up in. Trouble is what stories thrive on; without it there would be no tension to hold our attention for page after page, no crisis to trace through its convolutions to resolution. Clent himself allies the art of the professional fibber and thief with the art of the wordsmith. When Mosca bluntly tells him what he does for a living – ‘You tell lies for money’ – he replies by spinning himself a cloak of artistic respectability which serves as a perfect smokescreen for his scams. ‘My child,’ he tells her,

you have a flawed grasp of the nature of myth-making. I am a poet and storyteller, a creator of ballads and sagas. Pray do not confuse the exercise of the imagination with mere mendacity. I am a master of the mysteries of words, their meanings and music and mellifluous magic.

Mosca sees at once that he is right, since he drew her to him in the first place with his language, the fire-new phrases he brought to rural Chough (mellifluous, mendacity) which she ‘stroked […] in her thoughts like the curved backs of cats’. At the same time she sees that she is right also: he may supply her with ‘Words, words, wonderful words’, but they are ‘lies too’, and it’s this linguistic duplicity that governs their relationship throughout the novel.

200px-FlyByNight-FrancesHardingeAfter the girl has freed him from the stocks, Clent employs her as his secretary – literally, the keeper of his secrets – despite his assumption that (as a country girl) she cannot read or write, and despite the fact that he has no intention of taking her into his confidence. But it’s through her unsuspected skill as a reader that she discovers his only secret: a letter that reveals his identity as a spy for the Guild of Stationers, the organization in charge of the printing and censorship of books – the organization with which her father worked before his exile. The discovery puts Clent in her power, as she had earlier put herself in Clent’s by revealing that she’d torched her uncle’s mill; but it also connects Clent in her mind with her dead father, that uncompromising advocate of truth who was sent into exile for his insistence that people be permitted to peddle lies in print, unmolested by censorship. It’s appropriate, then, that Clent and Mosca should turn to writing as a means of cementing their relationship, and that the writing in question should be as mutual as their knowledge of each other’s secrets. Clent draws up a contract with Mosca, a document that binds him as well as her, and which she co-authors. But if words are lies, then a contract written in words can never be binding, and Mosca quickly loses confidence in the document, reading Clent’s dialogue and behaviour in a sinister new light thanks to her newly-acquired belief that he hides a more terrible secret than spying – she thinks him a murderer, which makes his cheerful garrulity deeply sinister. Later she recovers her former opinion of him, as a self-interested but largely loyal rogue; but in the meantime it’s become clear how the same words and actions can be subjected to entirely different interpretations, a revelation that applies with even greater force to the other characters she encounters.

Lady Tamarind, for example – the first woman she meets on the road after Jennifer Bessel – embodies a mass of carefully calculated contradictions. On first appearance she puts herself across as a coolly detached but still romantic damsel in distress, a white-clad fairytale princess whose damaged coach is attacked by highwaymen, placing her in a situation from which she permits herself to be rescued by the eloquent Clent. But the unvarying whiteness of her clothing also marks her out as a blank page, unreadable to others, unwritten on and therefore unaffiliated, available to be filled with any text of her choice that might advance her Machiavellian interests. She is a master wordsmith, like Clent, but on a grander, less human scale. Her main motive for avoiding robbery is to keep possession of an illegal signet ring which she uses to forge letters from the Twin Queens to her brother the Duke – who is obsessed with the identical monarchs –thus manipulating him into acting as she pleases. She also wields a printing press which she uses to sow fear throughout the city, again in her own interests, and employs the word-loving urchin Mosca as her spy, exchanging notes with her through the medium of a feather: a quill planted in the ground as a memorial to the many victims of the fanatical Birdcatchers. For a while Mosca is as obsessed with her as the Duke is with his uninterested lovers; she dreams of serving her and even becoming her, a distant figure clothed in white as a symbol of her exemption from the common dirt that binds together the rest of the Realm. But Lady Tamarind is not content with mere detachment – with not being written; she seeks to write others, as her scripting of her brother’s non-existent correspondence with the Queens makes clear. In this, ironically enough, she resembles the brother she seeks to displace, whose obsession with a pair of perfect doubles prompts him to rebuild the city, bit by bit, in perfect and impractical symmetry, at the cost of demolished homes and mass unrest. Lady Tamarind’s immaculate clothes have an equivalent in the Duke’s concern with his own appearance: he possesses the largest collection of wigs in the Realm, and is followed everywhere by a servant carrying spares. If the different parts of the Realm have different styles of garment, the distinctive fashions of Lady Tamarind and her brother set them apart, identifying them as outsiders, like the ousted monarchs of the Realm, for ever above and beyond their subjects – and therefore irrelevant to them, despite all their efforts to write them (and the city’s geography) into submission.

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Lady Tamarind by Tealin

Lady Tamarind is not, however, as detached from her people as she thinks. For one thing, she enlists Clent as well as Mosca as her spy after he rescues her from the highwaymen; and between them, Clent and Mosca seem to have connections with everyone else in the Shattered Realm. For another, the lady has servants and admirers, women of an inferior class who aspire to emulate her ‘look’ – and it’s one such act of emulation that leads Mosca to expose Lady Tamarind’s darkest secret: her control of the clandestine printing press with which she disseminates fear throughout the city for her own nefarious purposes. One of Tamarind’s maids sells a dress of hers – pure white, of course – which has been blemished in a distinctive way by contact with the press, and Mosca learns to ‘read’ the dress after finding the press and getting blemished with printer’s ink in a similar manner. In the process she exposes Tamarind as a liar far more deadly than Clent. Her fibs have led to imprisonment and danger of death for many, and her plans for the city include its seizure by the most deadly absolutists of them all, the Birdcatchers – who paradoxically see themselves as the unique custodians of truth, despite their alliance with the Duke’s mendacious sister. Where Clent wields words as tools in an elaborate and democratic competition, a game of ‘I spy’ in which everyone and anyone can join, Lady Tamarind’s words are designed to limit and suppress the words of others, to reduce them to a petrified silence, the oral equivalent of her pristine garments. This also sets her in opposition to Mosca’s father, whose controversial works are often mistaken for Birdcatcher propaganda, but who devoted his career to the fight for freedom of expression. Tamarind uses words as well as clothes to distinguish herself from others, to control them – and it’s Mosca’s awareness that words themselves, with their multiple meanings, can’t be controlled, that leads to the ultimate defeat of Tamarind’s plans, the frustration of her intended narrative.

The most prominent of Tamarind’s servants is Linden Kohlrabi, a young man so different from what he seems that his very name may not be his own – despite the taboo against changing your name in the Shattered Realm. His first meeting with Mosca entails an act of secrecy – he conceals her from a pursuer beneath his cloak – and this effectively defines their relationship as one of shared confidences, though of a very different kind than the confidences Mosca shares with Eponymous Clent. Mosca takes him for a replacement father, the association confirmed when he gifts her a pipe very like her father’s, which she had used – before she lost it – as an aid to thought. Kohlrabi meanwhile takes her as a copy of himself, an orphan whose father died for a cause – just as he reads her father’s works as confirmations of his own convictions as a lifelong member of the Birdcatcher cult. He is wrong, of course – Hardinge’s awareness of words’ duplicity makes this inevitable. Quillam Mye was never a Birdcatcher, he was a freethinker and a sceptic. And Mosca is not blindly loyal to her father, which makes her wholly unlike Linden. She used her father’s pipe to think for herself, not to share his thoughts; and in the process she followed his instructions not to let herself be told what to think by others, and thus not to subject herself to inward censorship. For this reason, it’s also inevitable that Mosca’s view of Kohlrabi will change, as will his of her, with tragic results. But the link forged between them ensures that neither finally sees the other as an enemy, despite Kohlrabi’s willingness, in the end, to take Mosca’s life.

Kohlrabi is a fundamentalist. He is willing to defend Lady Tamarind’s press by murder, because for him words must only ever be used to defend his faith, which is inherited, not self-discovered – handed down wholesale from his father, who he always took at his word. Given this, it is paradoxical that words themselves have little interest for him. It is their meaning that concerns him, and his certainty that this meaning can be conveyed by language without ambiguity or misunderstanding. When Mosca tells him, towards the end, that she knows he is a Birdcatcher, he dismisses the term as an empty signifier, scoffing that ‘the whole country is frightened of a word’, and adding that a word has never killed anyone – ironically enough, given his murder of Partridge to protect a printing press that was being used to foment civil war. He goes on to explain the Birdcatcher faith:

that there is something higher and better in this world than the dirt and darkness which surrounds us […] something pure, something so bright that its light could enchant everything else, like sunlight through a stained-glass window.

The man who makes this statement has blood on his hands and wishes to stain them with more. The conviction that things are see-through, that words or objects can be used as a means to gain access to some immutable truth, is the first step on the road to murder, itself the first step on the road to genocide. From this perspective it would be easy to persuade oneself that those who stand in the way of the light must be disposed of, and that the process of disposal is no more horrifying than the removal of dirt from a lens, the dispersal of darkness to illuminate a room. Mosca reponds to this conviction with the sentence she first applied to the conman Clent: ‘Words, words, wonderful words. But lies too.’ The difference is that she now knows the difference between Clent’s lies and the lies of a killer. Clent’s lies spring from an entirely different perception of language; and Clent’s perception brings life and liberty, where Kohlrabi’s brings only death, petrifaction, and imprisonment in iron cages.

Kohlrabi, then, is Clent’s inverted double, just as Lady Tamarind is Mosca’s (though as we’ve seen, the relationship between these four is more complicated than this). Kohlrabi and Tamarind aim to take control of the story of their country, writing it into something rigid, colourless and lifeless. Clent, on the other hand, improvises his stories spontaneously, desperately, with no overarching plot or scheme at all; yet his word-spinning finally sparks an uprising that briefly unites all the disparate elements of the Realm against the Duke, the Lady and Kohlrabi’s Birdcatchers. To save Tamarind from the highwaymen, Clent writes a ballad about their leader, Captain Blythe, which turns him into a hero; this makes Blythe the obvious choice for leader of the rising. Clent later writes a letter to his employers, the Guild of Stationers, claiming that a harmless lawyer called Pertellis is a deadly radical, who runs the clandestine press which the Guild is attempting to shut down. In the process Clent makes of Pertellis another popular hero ideally suited to supply the theory behind Blythe’s insurrection (and the theory he provides consists of the writings of Quillam Mye in defence of free speech). Clent’s letter falls into the hands of the Guild of Locksmiths, bringing them together (through circuitous routes) with their bitter rivals, the Guild of Stationers, as well as Blythe, Pertellis and Clent, in a floating coffee-house full of radicals, the Laurel Bower. The name of the coffee house connects it with poetry, of which Clent is a professed practitioner. And thus the web of Clent’s ‘way with words’, as Mosca puts it, comes full circle, confirming him as the disheveled Virgil, so to speak, of Hardinge’s farcical epic, and as the unacknowledged catalyst of insurrection.

Clent, then, has a kind of weight despite his comic appearance – and I’m not just referring to his physical corpulence. At the beginning of the book Kohlrabi identified him as dangerous, and by the end it’s clear the young Birdcatcher was right, since it’s Clent and Mosca between them who bring him down. Words, then, when used in the anarchic but expert way Clent has with them, can make things happen, for all Kohlrabi’s contempt for them as weightless objects, window panes that let light through but have no substance. Farce and pastiche, too, of which Clent is also a practitioner, can make real things happen. The marriage house where Clent stays, for instance – a semi-legal site where people get tied in bands of holy matrimony when the church refuses to tie them – plays an integral part in the improvised plot that leads to the fall of Lady Tamarind and the Duke: it’s here that Kohlrabi frames Clent for Partridge’s murder, the act that leads in a roundabout way to Mosca’s discovery of the clandestine press. And for all the absurdity of the ceremonies conducted in it, for all the Whitehall farces it encourages and takes part in, the marriage house also stands for something real as well as a fantasy, a tissue of dreams. One of its denizens, the young wedding-cake-maker who becomes Mosca’s friend and ally, learns about love there, a discovery that acquires substance in her romance with a young apprentice. Romance, like words, like poetry, like friendship, like loyalty, like truth, can be a source of joy as well as of danger. Nothing in this book is just one thing, and the lightest, most casual deployment of words can form part of a movement, can bring down tyrannies or shore them up.

Frances-HardingeI suspect that this is where, for me, Hardinge’s first novel intersects with the fantastic. Fantasy is a genre that has been consistently marginalized as a form of entertainment, branded as merely popular, merely escapist – much like farce, or its barely respectable parent, comedy. Hardinge’s novel affiliates itself with marginal people and popular fantasies, broadly defined, of every stripe: ballads, thrillers, detective novels, romances, fairy tales, farces, pamphlets, religious cults. To bring all these ingredients together in a coherent plot is an act of ingenuity. To make that plot a serious one, with political weight, would seem impossible. This is what she achieves; and in doing so she affirms my conviction that the fantastic, for all its lightness, is where we live, and that we must pay close attention to it if we don’t want it either to dull our minds or to be stolen from us by the forces of darkness.

They exist, those forces. We have them in us as well as around us, like Clent and Mosca, who are spies as well as heroes, traitors as well as resisters of tyranny. Thanks to Hardinge’s marvelously light but intricate novels, we now have the means to see more clearly how those forces work. We had better read her books if we want to know how the farcical and quasi-fantastic political events of 2016 could possibly have happened.

 

Notes

[1] Choughs too feed on detritus, above all manure; hence the poor reputation these birds enjoyed in the time of Shakespeare. So the citizens of Chough are more closely related to Mosca than they might have liked.

Inward Exile in Frances Browne’s Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1856)

190px-Frances_Browne_7Frances Browne (1816-1879) is a writer I’d like to know much more about. Born the daughter of the Postmaster of Stranorlar in Donegal, known in her lifetime as the ‘Blind Poetess of Ulster’, she made herself a voyager of the mind, who loved the works of Byron, Dante, Scott and Homer, and who traveled to Edinburgh and London at the height of the Famine to earn a living – and that of her family – by writing stories, essays, poems and reviews for magazines, as well as three novels. Her most famous work is Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1856), a collection of fairy tales written after she came to London. This exists in two versions that I know of: a simplified edition containing four stories bound together by a simple frame narrative, which looks like a clumsy redaction for small children; and a more stylistically sophisticated version, with longer words, longer sentences and longer paragraphs, containing seven stories and a much expanded frame. To me the longer version reads as both a trenchant analysis of the state of Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century and an ambitious work of art. These claims might seem grandiose given the book’s modest length and its faithful adherence to the language and conventions of the Victorian fairy tale; but I hope to make a case for it in these notes.

5140362346_a27b7d731b_bIn a letter quoted at the beginning of her first book of poems, The Star of Attéghéi (1844), Browne goes into detail about her education: how she persuaded her siblings to read to her in return for doing their chores; how she learned the location of distant countries by tracing the map with her fingers, beginning in a place she knew well and asking a sighted helper to name the places her fingertips passed until they reached the country in question; how she devoured history books and newspaper reports in her thirst to know the world, and learned novels and poems by heart in her thirst to expand her imaginative horizons. The Star of Attéghéi is packed with evidence of these mental travels. The two most ambitious poems it contains are a national epic set in Circassia, which gives the book its title, and ‘The Vision of Schwartz’, which tells the story of the twelfth-century German alchemist who invented gunpowder and who is afforded visions, by a spirit, of its drastic impact on world history. Other poems follow emigrants into exile from their homes in Ireland, Arabia, Canaan, Egypt, France, and the lands of the Cherokee people; her lifelong interest in the subject may have arisen from the fact that her father was the local emigration officer for several shipping lines to America and Australia. Browne finds in countries far from home echoes of the sufferings of her own; her Circassian epic begins and ends with an appeal to the bards of Ireland to sing something similar about the quest for ‘glory, love and liberty’ in Irish history. At the same time, many of her poems are about isolation, featuring a succession of male and female Robinson Crusoes (the introduction tells us this was one of the books her parents owned, along with the travels of the Scottish explorer Mungo Parke). One gets the impression that loneliness was an experience Browne knew well, despite the size of the family she grew up in.

A striking example of Browne’s poetry of isolation is ‘The Australian Emigrant’, in which a young girl on a ship bound for Melbourne laments that she has never felt at home, not even in Ireland. The story has a verse frame in which the stage is set for the girl’s song, which is in a different metre and includes this stanza:

Oh! MAN may grieve to sever
From the hearth or from the soil, –
For still some hope, some right, was his,
Which lived through want and toil; –
The dwellers of the forest,
They mourn their leafy lair; –
But why should WOMAN weep her land?
She has no portion there.
Woe – woe for deeds of worth,
That were only paid with ill! –
For to her the homes of earth
Are the house of bondage, still!

Here the girl expresses her disenfranchisement in a verse form widely used in Presbyterian hymns of the sort familiar to Browne from her upbringing (rhymed ABCB, with lines one, two and four in trimeter and line three for the most part in tetrameter). Such hymns were widely sung in households as well as churches, and the form’s association with communal singing gives an ironic contrast with the poem’s subject: a sense of exclusion that culminates in the young girl’s death. The girl’s song expresses a concept which pervades Browne’s work: that of what might be called inward exile, whereby a person feels herself to have been effectively displaced or marginalized by their local community or family. The resulting sense of home as a house of bondage is felt by the protagonists of both sexes in most of the stories in Granny’s Wonderful Chair, and while ‘The Australian Emigrant’ associates the experience with women, it could also be read as a direct consequence of living in a colonized country, at a time when British imperialism offered as a solution to domestic slavery the opportunity to travel around the globe in any direction – without ever finding a final escape from the ideological clutches of a global Empire.

Frances-Browne-Grannys-Wonderful-Chair-ills-DAs a result of its focus on inward exile and the outward migrations to which it gives rise, Granny’s Wonderful Chair offers an interesting perspective on the tendency of Victorian children’s literature, as considered by Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn in Children’s Fantasy Literature, to focus on enclosed domestic spaces. Levy and Mendlesohn see this tendency as driven by the desire to protect children by containing their imaginative and intellectual wanderings within a safely limited environment. For Browne, by contrast, the domestic space is very far from safe. It’s the location of abuse, neglect, hunger and child labour, and indoctrinates its child inhabitants in the necessity for travel – much as Browne’s own upbringing taught her to value migration (though there is no evidence that she was either abused or neglected). Home is not home for her heroes and heroines, and most of them set out to seek their fortune in classic fairy tale fashion, their restlessness echoing that of the Irish people in the mid-nineteenth century, who emigrated in their millions in the face of hunger and oppression.

i088Like Browne’s first book of poems, then, Granny’s Wonderful Chair is a peripatetic miscellany; but unlike the earlier volume – and in classic fairy tale fashion – the start and end points of the travels it describes are never specified. Instead each story begins by locating itself at a certain point of the compass: north, east, south, west, and then again west, west and north, as if in deference to Browne’s bias towards her own origins in the far north west of Ireland. These compass bearings imply that the collection takes place within a clearly defined topography, like the island of Ireland divided into many small kingdoms; and the work of the various protagonists and their families in each story – spinning, weaving, cobbling, shepherding, pig-keeping, fishing, fiddling, and so on – would have been familiar to Irish readers from their local communities. The presence of fairies in the landscape also associates the land with Ireland (though one of the fairies has the name Robin Goodfellow, which may make him more English than Irish), and there are a number of other links I’ll touch on later. At the same time the namelessness of the land makes it universal, a land of the mind, so that the travels it contains could be inward as much as outward ones; and indeed many of the stories in the collection are concerned with inward matters: the healing of a broken state of mind, for instance, or the reuniting of divided families. Granny’s Wonderful Chair, then, shows everywhere Browne’s preoccupation with the psychological as well as the material causes of alienation, and with bringing the experience of the world to bear on the particular troubles of the Irish.

3e948ac74967f477f9575b60c24bb625If the main characters in Granny’s Wonderful Chair find their homes unhomely, its narratives are also full of authority figures who spend little time at home: absentee landlords like the Irish landowners lampooned by Maria Edgeworth in Castle Rackrent (1800). Interestingly, each of these absentees is represented as a much-loved figure whose return is yearned for rather than dreaded. The frame narrative, for instance, tells of a poverty-stricken girl called Snowflower whose grandmother sets off on her travels, leaving her alone with only a magic chair for company. Luckily the chair is capable of telling her stories and transporting her physically as well as mentally anywhere she chooses – a metaphor, perhaps, for the books and stories Browne encountered in her own childhood. Snowflower makes her way in the chair to the court of King Winwealth, whose country has gone to rack and ruin since the unexplained disappearance of another much-loved figure, the King’s brother Prince Wisewit. The chair regales King Winwealth with stories to take his mind off his melancholy on account of his brother’s departure; and one of these stories again tells of absenteeism. ‘The Lords of the White and Grey Castles’ concerns a pair of much-loved local lords who disappear from their estates, leaving their children and tenants to be abused by their grasping stewards. In each case the lost authority figures have been kept away for reasons beyond their control, and their eventual return is greeted with delight by dependants who have been badly treated by the lost lords’ substitutes.

Alongside these physical absentees, many of Browne’s stories tell of rulers who are inwardly absent, thanks to depression or dissatisfaction of some kind, and whose misery makes their subjects miserable – psychological absentee landlords, so to speak. King Winwealth is one, and another is the king in the chair’s first story, ‘who had lately fallen into ill-humour because a neighbouring princess, with seven islands for her dowry, would not marry his eldest son’. The king of the mer-people in the sixth story is similarly discontent because a fisherman will not marry one of his daughters, and because the young man also refuses to tempt other mortals into visiting the underwater kingdom, which thrives on riches purloined from humans and their ships. The seventh and final story, which concerns a boy called Merrymind with a magic fiddle, again tells of a land made wretched by its ruler: in this case a lady called Dame Dreary with a dress of a ‘dingy drab colour’, ‘iron-grey’ hair and a ‘sour and gloomy’ face, whose subjects work unremittingly from dawn to sunset, unable to take a break until the spell of gloom is lifted from their dismal despot. In these unhappy kingdoms cheerfulness is more valuable than gold: Snowflower’s uncomplaining good humour as she retires to the meanest rooms in King Winwealth’s palace after regaling the King with tales; the optimism of the cobbler in the first story, who is granted the gift of merriment by the ‘Christmas Cuckoo’ of the title, and uses it to cheer up another king; young Merrymind in the final story, whose name denotes his disposition, and who liberates Dame Dreary and her people from their collective depression with the help of his enchanted violin. Songs and stories are a partial remedy, at least, for the psychological condition that leads to inward exile; and both are set in opposition to the lust for personal gain that drives the stories’ antagonists.

14802668033_a4041a7a9dIn Browne’s world, then, art is effective – it does work in the world and helps to change it. The stories told by the chair cheer up both King Winwealth and his people, as well as bringing financial security to Snowflower (just as Browne’s first collection of poems brought financial support to her, in the form of a small pension awarded by Robert Peele). The art of conversation and the disbursement of good advice, as practised by the cobbler Spare in the chair’s first story, teach another king and his court to share in Spare’s magical gift of merriment. Merrymind’s fiddle brings ‘the sound of merriment’ to the whole of Dame Dreary’s valley and teaches its inhabitants how to enjoy themselves outside working hours. Each of these works of verbal and musical art have a similar effect to the Irish tradition of song as celebrated by Browne in her most famous poem, ‘Songs of Our Land’, first published in the Irish Penny Journal in 1841. In the poem, Irish songs are praised as a kind oral archive, a repository of suppressed cultural information which endures from generation to generation, in marked contrast to the ‘power and the splendour’ of imperial thrones that ‘pass away’ and are forgotten along with their occupants. For Browne, songs preserve among the Irish people the thoughts of their ‘poets and sages’, keeping alive the ‘spirit of freedom’ in times of servitude and destitution. They also impart the sense of a stable identity to ‘wanderers through distance and danger’: emigrants, in other words, like Snowflower, or the cobbler Spare, or the boy Fairyfoot in the fourth story, who finds his way to the hidden land of the fairies, or the fisherman who journeys to the merfolk’s kingdom, or Merrymind, who leaves his home because his family has no time for him – apart from his mother (his mother also happens to be the only person apart from himself with any confidence in the possibilities for future employment represented by his fiddle). Each of these protagonists has an artistic gift. Fairyfoot, for instance, is a passionate dancer, while the fisherman Civil who visits the merfolk has the gift of the gab, as he tells a captive mortal woman when she asks him to help her escape from the submarine kingdom: ‘Fair speeches brought me here,’ he points out, ‘and fair speeches may help me back, but be sure I will not go without you’. Evidently stories, good advice, dancing, eloquence and wordless musicianship have much the same effect on these heroes and those who meet them as the songs in Browne’s poem, giving them a sense of community in troubled times – supplying them, in fact, with a portable home in their state of inward or outward exile.

zpage063If the rulers who remain at home in these stories are invariably inward exiles, so too (as I’ve suggested) are the stories’ protagonists: the boys and girls who set out to seek their fortune, some of whom we’ve already encountered. Before setting out the bulk of these young people already feel profoundly alienated. Merrymind is mocked by his father and siblings for his attachment to a fiddle he at first cannot play. Fairyfoot is derided by his large-footed family for the dainty size of his feet. In ‘The Christmas Cuckoo’, the cobbler Spare finds himself successively isolated in different communities: first his brother abandons him for not being sufficiently prosperous; he’s then looked down upon at the royal court for continuing to wear shabby clothes, in spite of the wealth he has gained from the monarch’s patronage; the king then loses interest in him when he loses his magical ability to make him cheerful; and Spare only finds a place for himself when he returns to the humble cottage where he first encountered the Christmas Cuckoo, and where he showed his community spirit by feeding it through the winter until it was strong enough to take flight in early spring. The young heroine in ‘Childe Charity’ is despised by her relatives after her parents’ death, as are the children of the lost Lords of the White and Grey Castles in the second story. If the ruling classes in each of these stories are disconnected from the lands they govern, their adult subjects and tenants are equally disconnected from their young dependants, showing no appreciation for the arts they practise or the generosity and good manners the children treasure.

zpage110The sense that the people of Browne’s alternative Ireland have lost their culture, and that it can be restored to them only with difficulty, is reinforced by the fact that entire races have gone into a kind of internal exile in the wildest parts of the country. Fairyfoot makes friends (as his name suggests he will) with the fairies, who live in hiding from other mortals because – as Robin Goodfellow tells him – ‘we and the people of this country have had no friendship ever since large feet came in fashion’. The abused children of the lost Lords of the White and Grey Castles find their way to the woodland home of a mysterious replacement mother, Lady Greensleeves, who has similarly been forgotten by the rest of humankind, and who helps them because she is lonely and likes their company. A similarly green-clad figure is at the centre of ‘The Greedy Shepherd’: a mysterious old man with the power to turn sheep into wolves to set them free when they have been mistreated. Meanwhile the fairies in ‘The Story of Childe Charity’ have cut themselves off from mortals in direct response to their selfish behaviour: the young girl of the title is taken to Fairyland as a unique piece of evidence that there are ‘good people still to be found in these false and greedy times’. The most prominent fairy folk in the story of Merrymind are ‘two fair maidens, all in white spinning on silver wheels, and singing together a blithe and pleasant tune like the larks on May-morning’. Known as the Night Spinners, they have been segregated from human beings for ‘seven times seven years’, and although we are never directly told this it would seem that what kept them away was the capitalistic self-absorption of Dame Dreary and her subjects. When Merrymind shows his community spirit by gathering firewood to keep them warm, the Night Spinners reward him with golden strings for his broken instrument, and he proceeds to smash the spell of glumness over the land by playing the tunes he heard them singing. The effect of these tunes is similar to the effect of the ‘Happy March’ at the end of James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912) – a collective liberation from alienated labour; and it’s worth considering the following passage by Browne as a possible influence on Stephens’s famous vision of liberation at the end of that novel:

The men paused in their delving; the women stopped their scrubbing; the little children dropped their work; and every one stood still in their places while Merrymind and his fiddle passed on. When he came to the castle, the coopers cast down their tools in the court; the churning and cheese-making ceased in the banquet hall; the looms and spinning-wheels stopped in the principal chambers; and Dame Dreary’s distaff stood still in her hand […] That night the fairies danced on the hill-tops; and the night-spinners, with their silver wheels, were seen by every hearth, and no more in the deserted cottage.

James Stephens is also worth thinking about in relation to another theme of Browne’s: hunger. Browne left Ireland for Edinburgh at the time of the Great Hunger, and it’s hunger that drives young Snowflower to leave her grandmother’s cottage on the magic chair – indirectly leading her to great good fortune at the court of King Winwealth. The cobbler Spare’s continual cheerfulness in the face of hunger is what first draws a melancholy lord to him as he is ‘gathering watercresses at a meadow stream’ – bereft of any other food source, like King Sweeney. Later in the story, the sign that Spare’s brother Scrub has inherited the gift of merriment is his utter contentment in the face of near starvation: he and his wife live only on wild birds’ eggs and berries after he obtains the gift. The abused children of the lost ‘Lords of the Grey and White Castles’ have only a barley loaf and some sour milk ‘to serve them for breakfast, dinner, and supper’, and their search for their fathers leaves them hungrier still. But like other fairy tale protagonists, and unlike the other characters in Browne’s book, these children are under a strict injunction from Lady Greensleeves not to eat or drink anything that’s given them on their travels; and this advice saves them from falling under the spell of the malevolent fairy lord who enchanted their fathers by giving them enchanted wine. Their willingness to suffer hunger, in other words, saves them from enslavement. Childe Charity gains the good will of the fairies for giving an old woman her supper, saving for herself only the scrapings of the pots in her abusive family’s kitchen. Meanwhile, plenty to eat continues to be the sign of servitude or entrapment. The fisherman Civil is unhappy in the sea-people’s kingdom because there is no end there of ‘fun and feasting’ – he concludes that ‘Fishing would have been easier than those everlasting feasts’ – and meets a fellow mortal who has been trapped there for many years. Merrymind rejects the offer of food from a surly giant in favour of wandering free and hungry around Dame Dreary’s land. Stephens, too, identifies hunger as a mark of solidarity among the poor, and contrasts the unspoken code that all poor people on Irish roads must share whatever they have to eat with one another with the psychological torment suffered by the servants of capitalism, as represented by two disembodied voices speaking out of the darkness in a police cell. For Stephens, this code of sharing food provides a template for the simple, egalitarian laws that will govern a future Ireland, unshackled at last from its prosperous and selfish imperial neighbour. Browne’s book implies something similar – though its vision of Irish liberation isn’t in the end as optimistic as that of Stephens, not surprisingly, perhaps, given the suppression of the Young Irelander rebellion in 1848, and the temporary absence after that of an alternative independence movement.

i071Throughout Granny’s Wonderful Chair the notion of the restoration of Irish identity is invoked by many means. The absent, loved lords in several stories have as much in common with the idealized Irish kings of legend as with the absentee landlords satirized by Edgeworth. The hidden fairies, with whom a succession of protagonists achieve reconciliation, bear a family resemblance to the Sídhe. More importantly, Snowflower’s storytelling invests her with a place in King Winwealth’s palace and helps to draw a new community around her. For each story the chair narrates Snowflower finds herself rewarded with a new item of clothing, better sleeping quarters and nicer food; each time the king wishes to hear another story he sends a more exalted page to find her. By the final chapter she is fully clothed in fine new garments, while in the course of the chapter the King’s unpleasant wife Wantall and daughter Greedalind disappear for ever down a gold mine, to be replaced at the monarch’s side by the long-lost Prince Wisewit and Snowflower’s grandmother. Both Wisewit and the grandmother, Frostyface, are connected with the chair of the book’s title, which may stand for Irish culture as celebrated in Browne’s poem ‘Songs of Our Land’: the chair belongs to the former, while the latter turns out to have been the owner of the magical voice that told the stories, trapped in a velvet cushion by a malignant fairy. The name of the fairy, Fortunetta, associates her with money rather than good fortune – a lesser, more grasping kind of fortune than the other kind, as the diminutive implies. Wisewit is liberated from his imprisonment in the cushion, ironically enough, by the efforts of Winwealth’s money-grubbing wife and daughter to secure the gift of storytelling for themselves. There’s an allegory, here, of the Irish artist’s need to retain her imaginative independence from her paymasters, whose acquisitive impulse is dictated by a desire for personal gain rather than the needs of the wider community. And in Browne’s book, imaginative independence helps to build a happy nation. Snowflower’s personal good fortune brings good fortune to King Winwealth’s people, whose new-found prosperity is best exemplified, Browne suggests, by their new-found freedom of movement: on his return as his brother’s adviser Wisewit makes ‘a highway through the forest, that all good people might come and go there at their leisure’, while the malignant fairy Fortunetta leaves the country in an ill-tempered gesture of self-imposed exile: ‘finding that her reign was over in those parts, [she] set off on a journey round the world, and did not return in the time of this story’. It’s an attractive thought that travel should be for Browne as much the sign of happiness at the end of the book as it was of misery at the beginning.

But the happy ending of Granny’s Wonderful Chair is not allowed to stand. Having conjured up a happy, prosperous kingdom, Browne promptly erases it again, much as George MacDonald did with the happy kingdom ruled over by Princess Irene and her miner-husband in The Princess and Curdie. ‘Good boys and girls, who may chance to read [this book],’ Browne tells us,

that time is long ago. Great wars, work, and learning, have passed over the world since then, and altered all its fashions. Kings make no seven-day feasts for all comers now. Queens and princesses, however greedy, do not mine for gold. Chairs tell no tales. Wells work no wonders; and there are no such doings on hills and forests, for the fairies dance no more. Some say it was the hum of schools—some think it was the din of factories that frightened them; but nobody has been known to have seen them for many a year, except, it is said, one Hans Christian Andersen, in Denmark, whose tales of the fairies are so good that they must have been heard from the fairies themselves.

front1Wars, schools and factories are the machinery of Empire, and the noise they make, Browne suggests, is capable of drowning out the songs and tales of colonized nations. But they persist, and she has heard them through the hubbub, like her mentor Andersen. Like him she has made their magic available to new generations. And she is not a singular instance of the sort of person who can hear old stories handed down from ancient times; this is a collective capability, and has helped to generate in some of its possessors a political conviction. ‘There are people who believe,’ she tells us, that the spell which has again trapped Prince Wisewit in the form of a storytelling mouth, a common item of household furniture, can again be broken, and that when that happens ‘the prince will make all things right again, and bring back the fairy times to the world’. This ending, with its sudden shift of focus from the realm of literary fairy tales to the ‘real’ world of the reader, throws into relief the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist allegory that has been implicit throughout the book in the names of the characters. It links storytelling to revolution through the person of Prince Wisewit. It’s an opening out of the collection’s ending rather than a shutting down: a promise that the active art we have encountered in Browne’s stories may also have its effect outside the limits of her book. And it’s a promise that the stories she has told will continue to travel through time till what they describe – the return of the prince – becomes reality, and home is made homely at last for the Irish people.

Julie Bertagna, the Exodus Trilogy

71-gaHrRwSLNot too surprisingly, literary fantasies of Glasgow are obsessed by the weather. Glasgow is a West Coast city which benefits from the warming influence of the Gulf Stream while enduring a high level of rainfall, as band after band of low pressure rolls in from the Atlantic, venting cataracts of water on the streets before passing on. The level of light in winter is low, as Alasdair Gray reminds us in his novel Lanark (1981), where a new arrival in an alternative Glasgow called Unthank spends much of his time in a futile quest for the missing sun. Gray’s Glasgow for much of his life was darker, of course, than Glasgow today – coal smoke from household fires and industrial chimneys had blackened the façades, and smogs settled over the city on a regular basis – but light continues to fascinate modern Glaswegians, thanks to the spectacular contrast between daylight hours in midsummer (when the sky never quite gets dark) and midwinter (when the sun sets not much after 3 in the afternoon). Neil Williamson’s Glassholm in The Moon King (2013) is literally tethered to the changing moon, and the moods of the city’s inhabitants are directly affected by its waxing and waning, as are the fabric of their houses and the local atmospheric conditions, which grow steadily more extreme as the full moon approaches. Williamson makes his alternative Glasgow an island, anticipating its eventual detachment from the rest of Scotland by rising seas as the polar icecaps melt. Kirsty Logan’s Glasgow has been totally submerged in The Gracekeepers (2015): the West of Scotland in that novel – and seemingly the rest of the world – has been reduced to a collection of islands, protected by their fiercely conservative occupants against incursions by travellers, pirates and refugees. But it’s in Julie Bertagna’s Exodus trilogy (2002-2011) that the weather truly takes charge, wiping out whole archipelagoes and transforming the city into a working, waterlogged model of the drastic social inequalities that obtain under late capitalism. Being a Young Adult series, the book places the fate of the rain- and wind-lashed survivors in the hands of two generations of intrepid teenagers; but the trilogy also considers the role of stories themselves in shaping the world and its changing weather to a greater extent than any of the other books I’ve mentioned.

zenith-by-julie-bertagnaThe Exodus trilogy is set in the future, 100 years from its date of publication, but Bertagna tells her story in the present tense, and it soon becomes apparent that this is a political as well as an aesthetic decision. The causes of the cataclysmic rise in the level of the world’s oceans are all around us as we read, and even as we’re caught up in the adventures of the young heroine of the first two books, Mara, we’re constantly reminded that her story is part of ours. The second volume, Zenith, even ends with a direct call to arms for its readers, informing them in a Q and A about a range of organizations they can join in the struggle to persuade the world’s governments to take climate change seriously. The effects of that climate change are most dramatically shown in the first book of the trilogy, Exodus, which opens with an island community battling the worst storms in living memory, whose ferocity forces them to stay indoors for weeks at a time, while the ocean eats away at the land they live on, consuming cliffs and fields and neighbouring islands with impartial greed. Mara’s frustration at her forced confinement is well evoked, as is the terror of hearing the sea as it chomps its way up the village street, and the shock of seeing the changes it has inflicted when it finally calms. The ocean continues to pose a threat when she leaves her island and finds her way to new communities: the shanty town of refugee boats that clings to the outer wall of the sky city, New Mungo, lashed by storms and the backwash from passing supply ships; the Netherworld of the Treenesters, whose wooded island is steadily sinking; the pirate city of Pomperoy, whose unexpected presence in mid ocean causes a collision which sparks off a war; the cliff city of Ilira, which exploits fog and darkness to wreck foreign vessels. In the second novel, Zenith, it’s the Arctic climate that dominates the narrative, with its winter night that lasts for weeks, turning water to stone and confining human beings to the shelter of caves and cliffside houses. The weather seems to have stabilized by the third novel, bringing with it the possibility of a new stability in the world’s communities; but the recollection of the turbulent weather of the first two books, and of the political struggles to which that turbulence gave rise, ensures that the reader is left under no illusion that this stability will be easy to maintain.

6742585The Exodus trilogy has been described as an epic, by Bertagna as well as her reviewers. The word is often used loosely, but here it’s appropriate, since the books have all the proper ingredients. The story begins in the middle, after the sea has risen. The roots of this latter-day deluge lie with us, the readers, while another segment of the story involved Mara’s heroic grandmother Mary, whose achievements in saving her people in the face of climatic disaster are often likened to hers. Mara’s adventures, meanwhile, recall those of Virgil’s Aeneas. Like him she leads her people from a place under siege towards the hope of a better future; and as with Aeneas this hope is underpinned by signs from supernatural forces. In her case these signs are inscribed in the surviving stone statues of a sunken city, some of which seem disconcertingly to share her features. Like Aeneas, Mara finds that the new lands to which her destiny takes her are already occupied by hostile peoples, and that she and her fellow exiles must fight for the right to share their territory (though not, as with Aeneas, to take it over). She spends the obligatory period in the underworld, like other epic heroes – two underworlds, in fact: first the shadowy Netherworld beneath the sky city of New Mungo, then (in the second novel, Zenith) the caves of Greenland. The funeral games in honour of Aeneas’s father Anchises have their equivalent in the games she plays among the decaying ruins of the internet, to which she gains access through a quasi-magical crystal ball, and which she knows as ‘the Weave’. And like the Aeneid, her story ends with a showdown, a time of conflict between rival peoples whose outcome will determine the nature of the new society she seeks to establish in the Arctic circle.

{19C8ADC8-EEBB-4735-95BB-E103DD4552AC}Img400In addition to these formal connections with epic, the trilogy also celebrates another art form in which the ancient epics are rooted: oral storytelling. The islanders at the beginning of Exodus pass the long storm season telling each other stories. Some of these are family histories (‘I’ve told you all the stories’ says the oldest islander, Tain, as he goes on to reveal new facts about Mara’s grandmother). Others are fairy tales, which help to stave off the terror of global catastrophe by placing fear at distance, through the power of that ancient incantation, Once upon a time. Mara’s little brother Corey combines the fairy tales she has told him in an effort to express his defiance of the weather: ‘Fee fi fo fum! Huff and puff and blow your house down! […] But the storm won’t get us, will it, Mara? Our house is made of stone.’ But there is a third kind of storytelling, closely related to these two, which is the art of telling the truth. This is the narrative art connected in old epics and tragedies with men and women who have a special relationship with the gods: prophets, heroes, victims, priests and legendary lovers. In Exodus Mara has the unenviable task of telling an inconvenient truth to her fellow islanders: that their only hope of survival is to leave their island and commit themselves to the uncertainties of exile. She succeeds in doing so with the help of evidence gathered from the Weave, which till then she has seen as a playground, a place without consequences in the real world of the island – just like stories themselves. It’s in the Weave that she finds the first clue to the existence of the legendary sky cities, which until that moment were no more than fairy tales, fabrications pandering to the islanders’ baseless dreams of eventual rescue. And it’s in the Weave that she establishes her first connection with the world beyond the island – once again through stories. Her first sight of the virtual equivalent of a sky city evokes in her mind the magical phrase that starts all stories, and it’s this phrase that draws the attention of a passing stranger:

She concentrates harder and the hazy vision resolves into a thick trunk of unimaginably colossal towers, topped by a ferocious geometry of networks and connections. […] The majestic towers look like something out of a fairy tale.

‘Once upon a time,’ Mara whispers, thrilling at the words that always began a story. ‘Once upon a time, in a time out of mind…’

[…] ‘Who are you?’ a voice demands out of the blue, sending jagged shock waves through the cyber haze. […] ‘Who are you? […] And what do you know about once upon a time?’

The stranger’s question is not an idle one. He is a cyberfox, the avatar of a boy called David Stone, who lives in New Mungo, a metropolis designed to protect its inhabitants by raising them on pillars high above the rising ocean. He and his fellow citizens have been denied access to certain essential truths about their past. They know nothing about the decision made by their ancestors to save a small portion of the world’s population at the expense of the rest; or about the continued existence outside the city walls of bands of starving boat people, who have no hope of gaining access to the life of luxury led by what are literally, in these novels, the upper classes. Under these circumstances, Once upon a time becomes a call to arms: knowing what happened in the past, when the cities were built – and knowing what’s happening outside them now, which is the result of what happened then – is the key to a revolution which may or may not overthrow the unjust world order. Telling the story of the abandoned millions becomes David’s lifelong task, just as it was Mara’s; in the third book of the trilogy we learn that he has fomented global rebellion, both within and beyond the cities, by telling stories. Some of these describe the way the world really is, narrating its past and present on the radio waves and planting historical facts like booby traps in the sky cities’ version of the internet, the Noos, to be discovered by his fellow citizens in their travels through cyberspace. Others are drawn from forgotten novels – Madame Bovary, War and Peace – and are designed to awaken the imaginations of potential rebels, to ignite their curiosity about their fellow citizens, about politics, gender, difference, class. All the forms of stories Bertagna incorporates into her epic, then, are intensely political; they are active, they do work in the world, they spark off rebellions large and small. In the course of reading the trilogy, stories become weapons as they were for John Milton and Doris Lessing, ‘alive and potent and fructifying’, capable of unsettling or giving strength to the minds that receive them.

But for Bertagna, as for Milton and Lessing, the process of telling stories is also a process of resisting the inherited stories that constrain or oppress us. Stone in this series – the substance from which cities are built, especially in Scotland – is both a promise and a prison. As I mentioned earlier, Mara’s destiny seems to be set in stone – she sees her image in the statues of Glasgow – and she spends much of her time in Exodus worrying over whether she is simply acting out a prewritten script, imposed on her by some invisible overlord, or acting for herself, in the best interests of the people she leads across the stormy ocean. David Stone, meanwhile, has had his destiny mapped out for him by his father, who expects him to inherit the reins of power in the elitist oligarchy he himself inherited from his father, the architect of the cities in the sky. David constructs a new identity for himself by changing his name; first to Fox, which refers to his cyberfox avatar which roams freely through the cyberspace of the Noos, and whose meeting with Mara first awakens him to the global injustice of which he is a part; then to the Midnight Storyteller, who narrates (among other things) the story of Mara’s adventures. He adopts these names in a bid to take control of his own story, to refuse the version of it told by his father and substitute the hope of change embodied by the young islander. Fox voices his motivation in becoming the Storyteller most clearly in the third book of the trilogy, where he changes his plans for the rebellion against the sky cities in an effort to track down and redeem his tyrannical parents: ‘I am the storyteller, he is thinking. I can tell this tale any way I want. I will not die.’ He does not succeed in ending the tale exactly as he wishes, but this is because he runs up against other people’s tales: that of his mother, for instance, who turns out to have a wholly unexpected backstory of her own. The moment when he discovers his mother’s narrative confirms for him that the world is made up of many stories, over which it is morally indefensible to seek to impose any kind of overall control. If Fox can change his story, others too can change the narratives of their lives and the movements they’re part of. Nothing – not even David Stone’s name – is set in stone. This is one of the hopeful statements made by the trilogy.

Names can be traps, though, if we’re not careful, and a tragic example of this is Fox’s young protégée Pandora. Her name – which is given her by Fox when he first finds her – evokes her confusion about the kind of story she is part of and the kind of future she wants for herself and others. At one point she thinks of herself as the heroine in a fairy tale romance, destined to marry her handsome rescuer – Fox himself; but she quickly learns that Fox regards her as a child, not a possible partner. Pandora also thinks of herself as human, but later learns that Fox thinks of her as a different species. Later still she imagines herself as a warrior princess preparing to seize power in New Mungo after the revolution, but afterwards discovers that Fox only intends her to be the guardian of the city, not its ruler. If Pandora is also a symbol of hope, like her mythical counterpart, it is hope for the people she liberates, not for herself. She is an anarchic resister of other people’s narratives, but she never quite finds a narrative of her own – at least, not within the confines of the trilogy. She represents, in fact, the dangers of an excessive reliance on old stories, such as traditional myths, fairy tales and romances, as well as the excitement of telling new ones. Their power can work to limit our thinking, and Bertagna is never simplistic in her celebration of the liberating power of fiction.

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Glasgow in the 1950s

Other characters in the trilogy are more fortunate than Pandora, in that they succeed in finding new stories to tell about themselves, new tales to embody. This success is encapsulated – as it is with Fox – in their willingness to take charge of their names. At the beginning of the trilogy many of Mara’s fellow islanders have traditional names: Mara’s grandmother Mary, her mother Rosemary, her brother Corey, the fishermen Alex and Jamie. These names link them in an unbroken line of succession to their readers, many of whom have names like these, with their implied associations with family, religion, history, place. One exception is the old islander Tain, who is named both for an old Irish epic and for the silvered back of a mirror, and thus points simultaneously to past and present. Tain gives Mara a mirror in a box, as if enjoining her to see herself as she is rather than as others see her, and tells her stories about her heroic grandmother and the world that was. The old man’s name may also recall the Scots word Teind, which means tithe or tax, and is often used to denote the sacrifice of a life that must be made every seven or nine years in order for the fairies to retain their immortality. Later, however, when Mara arrives in the Netherworld beneath New Mungo, she finds it occupied by the Treenesters – descendants of the Glasgow working classes who were refused admission to the sky city – and that they have named themselves after parts of the drowned city: Gorbals, Broomielaw, Possil, Partick, Candleriggs, Clayslaps. Each evening they reinforce their connection to their lost home by gathering around a fire and shouting their names, which are also Glasgow’s, into the darkness. The Treenesters, then, have renamed themselves – Candleriggs was once called Lily – but remain attached to the stones of the past, implying an inflexibility that threatens to drown them if they stubbornly stick to the land they live on, which is sinking fast.

41upGfvEqVL._AC_UL320_SR212,320_Later in the story, by contrast, young people are always naming themselves, in defiant assertion of their right to tell their own stories. In Aurora, an abused girl in Ilira calls herself by the hopeful name of Candle, in defiance of her father’s insistence that she be Tartoq, the Iliran word for darkness. A young sea gypsy renames himself Pontifix, which means bridge builder or (more ominously) Pope. A wild boy changes his name from Wing, which is the name of Mara’s island, to Wolfscar, which better describes his appearance and allegiances. In the process the boy confirms the trajectory of the series, which is from an identification of people with fixed places – drowned islands, lost cities, non-existent nations – to an identification with other people, not always from the same community (Mara names her daughter Lily after Candleriggs). Mara’s own name does not change, but its meanings shift; at first she associates it with the Hebrew word for bitterness, but it is also the Gaelic word for the sea she makes her own, and evokes her grandmother’s name of Mary (Queen of Scots, Queen of Heaven) without repeating it. Even the names that don’t get changed in Bertagna’s trilogy are fluid, complex in their connections, and thus eminently suited to the complex characters to whom she gives them.

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The Glasgow University Tower

Fluidity is the natural state of a world in deluge, and fluid is inimical to both books and buildings. One of the shocking aspects of Bertagna’s trilogy is the high ‘mortality rate’ (so to speak) for objects that are given a high cultural value in contemporary society: ancient architecture, museum and gallery artifacts, works of literature, science and history. Books get burned to keep people warm (shades of Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow), or lose pages, or get soaked (well, the world is covered in water) and become unreadable. Much-loved urban landmarks subside. I was struck by the buildings Bertagna chose to represent Glasgow: the medieval cathedral, which of course featured as a shelter for the homeless in Gray’s Lanark; the university building, especially its distinctive tower. Their dominance of the otherwise waterlogged Glasgow cityscape gives the book a fantastic air as opposed to a science fictional one – in ‘real life’ other buildings would presumably survive along with them, such as the magnificently brutalist Glasgow University Library, or the Piranesi-esque Royal Infirmary. But Bertagna chooses these ones for good reason: so that the abandonment of a great religious monument, and the collapse of Gilbert Scott’s baronial fantasia, can be measured against the fate of those who really embody the city: its citizens, whose needs are so often subordinated to those of the material cityscape. Seeing these attractive buildings and important books subjected to dreadful abuse in the trilogy is disturbing; but it’s more disturbing, perhaps, to find oneself more upset by their treatment than by that of the novels’ human population. Emmerich used that trick well in the New York library scenes from The Day after Tomorrow, as did the ending of Schaffner’s 1968 movie of The Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston famously stumbles across the Statue of Liberty sticking up out of the sand. The notion of the artist/reader/viewer’s complicity with the warped values they claim to resist is a repeated theme of radical writers such as Alasdair Gray and China Miéville. Works of art like Bertagna’s cannot help but be complicit with (for instance) global warming, or global capitalism, since they are part of the industrialized human culture that gave rise to both. And like it or not, readers too are complicit; we wear global warming in our clothes, we eat it, drink it, breathe it, and use it to style our hair. What these writers offer us instead is a means of examining our complicity rather than ignoring it altogether, as we usually do.

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Glasgow Cathedral

Bertagna’s best examination of the issue of complicity comes at the point in Exodus when Mara finds herself effectively fighting off the desperate people who struggle to board her vessel as it sails away from the sky city towards what she hopes will be freedom. There are so many desperate boat people trying to board that she is afraid her ship will capsize; but even as she fights to save it she recognizes that she is repeating the worst atrocities of the citizens of New Mungo, who barred the bulk of the world’s population from their refuges because – quite simply – there wasn’t room for them in Paradise. Fluidity, then, extends from stories and names to morality in this series, and Mara finds herself unable wholly to condemn the actions of the world’s elite because she herself has repeated them. Indeed, her actions are morally more reprehensible than theirs, since unlike most of New Mungo’s occupants she knows herself to be a fellow migrant, having fled her island on the same sort of ‘refugee boats’ the would-be stowaways are trying to escape from. It’s a fine and startling moment in Bertagna’s narrative, and lingers with the reader as well as with Mara for the rest of the series.

Fluidity is also a characteristic of human relationships in this trilogy. If stories can be both destructive and constructive, so can affections. Bertagna’s books are full of rivalries in love – in particular, love triangles, like miniature versions of the trilogy itself. In the first book Mara meets the Treenester Broomielaw, who is loved with equal intensity by two men, Possil and Gorbals. Mara herself is loved in that novel by Rowan and Fox, while in the second book, Zenith, her posse of lovers grows more complex, as Rowan and Fox are joined by the gypsy, Tuck. Fox, meanwhile, is adored by Mara and Pandora, just as his grandfather Caledon – founder of New Mungo – is loved by two women, Lily/Candleriggs and Fox’s mother. Each of these sets of relationships represents a choice of paths or possibilities: alliances with one or other of the different communities that make up Bertagna’s postdiluvian world. Each of the single figures who finds him- or herself loved by two others represents a potential bridge between these communities; each rivalry could easily develop into a new alliance or a state of war. The threefold relationships could be taken to represent Bertagna’s refusal to see the world in binaries; the crude binaries of traditional marriage, of us and them, of good and evil. Her new story, in other words, is designed in its every element to offer a different kind of narrative to the ideological ones she has inherited.

The dominant images in the trilogy – at least, the ones I have noticed – are twofold. The first is a series of bridges – most of them broken in the first book, and some of them designed for the exclusive use of an elite. It would have been easy for Bertagna to give bridges wholly positive associations – as ways of connecting the world, mending broken communities, bringing hostile peoples or individuals together – but she rejects this kind of oversimplification. One gigantic, unfinished bridge in Exodus is being constructed by slaves for the sole benefit of the citizens of New Mungo. A web of bridges in Aurora is both a defence system and a deadly trap, despite its ingenuity and loveliness. Once again, then, physical bridges aren’t the point; it’s bridges between living people that need to be built before material bridges can be used for positive purposes.

The other set of images that sticks in the mind are the emblems that accompany each chapter heading, each emblem offering the reader an indication of the character whose point of view will dominate the chapter. In Exodus there are two such emblems: for Mara, a version of the symbol of the City of Glasgow (fish, bell, bird, tree); for David Stone/Fox, a fox’s head in a swirl of wind or water. In Zenith the emblems become more numerous: the North Star for Mara, representing the hope that guides her across the waves in her stolen ship; a moon for Tuck the gypsy, which stands for his favourite weapon, a scimitar; a stylized sun half obscured by clouds for Fox; the globe of the earth for scenes set in the virtual world of the Weave. In the world we inhabit, these elements work together for everyone’s benefit; in Bertagna’s they have all become detached from each other, and only tremendous effort can bridge the oceans that part them. The emblems that introduce each chapter in the final book, Aurora, show the places where each of the communities we’ve got to know have ended up. Again, the gaps between these places need to be bridged, their communities linked if the future of the world is to prove much better than its fractured present. The work of thinking about the relationship between the emblems – what they stand for, the implications of their separation from one another, how the points of view given in the chapters they introduce can be reconciled – is left to the reader, and we become collaborators in the business of assembling Bertagna’s future earth into a coherent whole. Cooperation is the positive reverse side of complicity, and there is no better emblem for cooperation than the unspoken imaginative contract between writer and reader, as they seek to make sense of relations between word and word, or word and image.

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Julie Bertagna

Julie Bertagna was the keynote speaker at a recent conference at the University of Glasgow, co-organised by the conveners of the M.Ed in Children’s Literature and Literacies and the M.Litt in Fantasy. She’s a brilliant speaker, and one of the most interesting aspects of her talk concerned the way her trilogy has become a focus for discussion in schools around the UK in recent years. There’s never been a time when the issues it raises have been more pertinent – global warming, mass migration, the widening gap between rich and poor. She was also fascinating on the difficulty of getting ambitious books like these ones published in the context of the modern YA book market, dominated as it is by the hunt for the next million-seller. One way to ensure such books will continue to be published is to demand and read them. I hope this post will encourage you to do just that.

 

 

Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Touch

20706317Last year I was lucky enough to be at the University of Kansas when Claire North, aka Kate Griffin, aka Cat Webb, won the John W Campbell Award for her novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. The award is for science fiction, and the novel has some SF elements – notably the quest for something called a ‘quantum mirror’, after a portal that permits travel between alternative universes in the TV series Stargate. But the central premise of Fifteen Lives is pure fantasy: the notion that there is a certain group of people in any given historical period who get reborn repeatedly – perhaps for ever – as themselves, at the same time and in the same location and community as in all their former lives. Crucially, with each rebirth they remember everything they’ve experienced in their accumulated pasts; in other words, for each of them it’s Groundhog Day with a life instead of a day as the unit of reiterated time. With each rebirth, too, they get to chart a different course through their historical period, and this gives them the opportunity to get to know it as nobody else could. They become increasingly encyclopedic chronicles of the years they live through, incorporating into their bodies, so to speak – though always with a certain inevitable bias – all the wars, alliances, achievements, disasters, financial and cultural exchanges that occur within the limited tract of time they are able to encompass. It’s a dazzling concept, and handled with dazzling skill, above all in the elegant control North exerts over the complex mesh of plots to which the premise must inevitably give rise. And remember, the book deals only with the first fifteen of what could potentially be an infinite number of parallel lives – in Borgesian terms, a biography of Babel. The mind reels at the thought of including any more of these simultaneous life stories.

For the duration of the book, the titular Harry August – who was always born in 1918 and usually died before the end of the century – becomes our guide to the epoch immediately before our own, an often detached but always perceptive and concerned observer of the times that shaped us, the community of twenty-first century readers. Since Harry is an enthusiastic traveller, the different paths he takes through each of his lifetimes give his story an unparalleled (so to speak) geographical sweep – by his fifteenth life there seems to be almost nowhere he hasn’t been – and involve him with almost everyone imaginable, so that in spite of his attempt at detachment he’s knit up with his time, involved in it as none of his readers could ever be, and learns from this uninvited and undesired intimacy how far we are each of us complicit with historical, social and political events over which at the same time we have no control.

618698KrJJL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_The notion of complicity, and of the increasing difficulty of determining which side you should take in any conflict, is beautifully summarised by the fact that Harry’s nemesis in most of his lives is also his best friend: a man whose company he enjoys and who he continues to seek out in life after life even after he has decided the man is something of a monster. If the quantum mirror is the central SF trope of the novel, a Stevensonian pair of mirrored characters is at its heart, and at times it’s easy to see these men as devoted lovers – except that the ouroborans (people reborn repeatedly as themselves) tend not to cultivate love much after their first few efforts at it, perhaps for obvious reasons.

You could see the book as a metaphor, if you wanted. A metaphor for art, for example – especially the art of the novelist, who discovers so many narratives using for the most part the material of her own lifetime. I think Fifteen Lives may be Cat Webb’s fifteenth novel (I’m relying here on Wikipedia), which would be a neat thing if it were true. It could be a metaphor, too, for the multiple lives each of us leads. We can divide these up chronologically: this was the period when we lived here and were doing this; this the period when we lived there and changed our profession, even our personality, quite radically. Or we can do it according to the different spheres we move in. Claire North/Cat Webb is a lighting designer in one part of her life, a novelist in another, and she speaks interestingly (as I found in Kansas) on the extent to which the two activities/personas tend to stay separate while occupying the same corporeal space.

Harry_AugustFifteen Lives could also be a metaphor for the way we protect ourselves from harm by taking control of our emotions as the years go by. How many close friendships can we cultivate in a lifetime? How much love are we prepared to give out? How do we choose which part of our experience to invest in, emotionally speaking? This too is something Claire/Cat spoke on very well in Kansas: the need for a writer not to invest too much in the finished artefact, the published novel, but to move on to a new project as soon as the last one has been completed. From the reactions to this statement at the John W Campbell conference I don’t think this is a universal practice among novelists, but it strikes me as excellent advice if you can manage it. And Harry works with astonishing commitment to detach his emotional reaction to his best friend’s monstrosity from the need to get physically close to him over several lives so as to thwart his plans. One of the triumphs of the novel, though, is the extent to which he remains emotionally close to the man, too, despite all his efforts to bring him down, despite all the appalling things his friend has done to him, despite all his intentions of staying distant. He is involved in him as much as in everyone else; like it or not, they are responsible for one another, joined at the head and tail like the symbol of the ouroboros after which their sort of being is named. Claire/Cat knows a great deal about the difficulty of the emotional detachment she recommends.

There’s another aspect of the novel she stressed at the conference: that it is also a metaphor (she didn’t use the phrase) for the disconnect between a person’s age and her abilities, between the way a young person (especially a woman) is addressed by her society and the often substantial knowledge and experience she is conscious of within herself. Cat published her first novel at 14, so must have been made acutely conscious of this disconnect; she displays an understandable weariness when people exclaim for the umpteenth time over her remarkable youth (after all, what does one mean by ‘youth’ exactly – and how long does it last?) and its seeming incompatibility with the brilliance of her prose and the sheer number of her accomplishments. From another perspective, she told us about being treated like a simpleton when she first worked as lighting technician for a major theatre company after graduating with excellent qualifications and plenty of practical experience from RADA – a treatment she probably received because she was a woman as well as a neophyte in the profession. I think everyone (especially every woman) will have experienced these things in their early years; I remember very clearly the frustrations of being sixteen, and of having everything to say (I thought) and no one willing to hear it. The ouroborans experience these frustrations in lifetime after lifetime, as six-year-olds, for instance, with the brains of individuals many centuries old, and have to find ingenious ways to circumvent the problem – by sticking together with others of their kind in ouroboran communities, or playing games with their less experienced adult carers, or conducting elaborate secret lives with every means at their disposal. Childhood and youth are nightmares to them, to be hurried through as quickly as possible in order to reach what their particular period considers to be the age of responsibility, the age for taking back some semblance of control over the current version of their multiple destinies.

The way the novel is written is a marvel. It’s not linear; blessed or cursed with an infallible memory, like Severian in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Harry experiences all times as simultaneously present, and calls up relevant experiences from any of his lives as analogies for any given episode in his narrative. The effect is to explode any sense of linear progression as the dominant mode of the twentieth century, though clearly technological and scientific progress is to some extent linear, discovery building on discovery in a manner North describes with great skill. The point is, though, that these linear scientific discoveries don’t correspond to a linear development of the human psyche; each individual develops at a different rate, whatever is happening to the changing scientific landscape through which they move – and this disconnect, too, is exquisitely evoked by the novel’s unconventional form.

touchAt an event on the day after the John W. Campbell conference, North read an extract from her next book, Touch, and it was clear at once that this novel, too, would be concerned with the peculiarly twenty-first century experience of being everyone, of knowing everyone, of experiencing no degree of separation from anybody else in the world – or at least of living under that illusion, thanks to social media, reality TV, translation apps and cinema subtitles, the many manifestations of pseudo-democracy we experience from day to day. It was also clear that Touch could be seen as equally concerned with the novelist’s craft, and with that craft as a metaphor for the irrepressible human urge to inhabit another person’s skin. Here the central concept is that of the ghost – one of a small community of human beings who are gifted or cursed with the ability to transfer themselves from one body to another by the simple act of touching, however lightly, the smallest quantity of a person’s naked flesh. Once again, there are science fictional elements to this narrative: we learn of a research project that seeks to unveil the underlying scientific principles behind this mysterious power of transference. But we never learn these principles, never find out whether such principles could ever be discovered, so that the pure impossibility of the ghosts’ powers permits them to assume the status of metaphor, to be concentrated on for their philosophical ramifications rather than as a thought experiment in conjectural physics. Touching is what stories aim to do; they enable us to touch other lives, to inhabit other bodies, and they aim to touch us, to make us emotionally invest in the people whose skins we temporarily occupy. And this touching – like the ever more complex interweaving paths traced through time by the ouroboran Harry August – helps to remind us, by its sheer promiscuity – the sheer accumulating number of diverse bodies the protagonist enters in the course of the novel – how far we are part of each other, responsible for and complicit with one another’s thoughts and feelings and actions.

This is what novels are for, of course: to enable us to be other people, in the way we were when we were children being soldiers or queens or nurses or parents. The ghost who narrates Touch, who is known as Kepler, never loses the childish passion for this sort of role-playing. Each new person she encounters is like one of the planets discovered by the stargazer in Keats’s sonnet ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’: ‘Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, / When a new planet swims into his kin’ – hence perhaps the name she is known by.[1] She is fascinated by the possibilities that person represents, and above all by the kind of beauty which might be found in that particular life – and Kepler finds beauty in all kinds of lives, especially those of the disenfranchised, the social outcasts, emotional or intellectual misfits, perpetual wanderers. The beauty she finds in these people makes her ‘love’ them – that’s her word for it, though she is challenged for it on several occasions in the novel: aren’t you talking about your own idea of these people rather than the people themselves? Is love the right word for what you feel for them? – and as with Fifteen Lives, love is clearly one of the preoccupations of the novel (what does anyone mean by it? Isn’t it often as destructively selfish as it is gloriously self-denying – and sometimes both at once, as if the same concept held two opposite ideas in tension?). Her love for the people or bodies she inhabits – called by ghosts ‘skins’, as if to indicate how shallow their understanding of each vehicle must necessarily be – leads her to research their backgrounds assiduously before ‘becoming’ them, to assume their names and genders along with their bodies, and to resist the term by which she herself is known (‘don’t call me Kepler’, she tells people repeatedly, and corrects them when they give her the wrong gender for the body she currently occupies). If Kepler is a stand-in for the author, who usurps lives and professions not her own, then she would seem to be a responsible and sensitive example of the species.

51ZLLb9W+kL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_She certainly sees herself as a responsible ghost, always leaving the body she inhabits in better condition than she found it, with money, good clothes, a social position, perhaps a qualification that can take them places if they are able or willing to take advantage of it. Some of the skins are even willing vehicles, renting out their bodies to her under certain pre-agreed conditions, and afterwards, in some cases, going on to make a business of the practice, renting themselves out again and again to other ghosts for profit. But the relationship between herself and the skins remains problematic: the skins are always the powerless element in a game between two people in which one holds all the aces. At one point in Kepler’s life she acts as what she calls an estate agent, identifying and researching skins for ghosts to occupy, as if human beings could be treated as so much living space. One of her clients asks for a body to inhabit for a lifetime, and she complies with this request, with appalling consequences for the skin concerned: a young man who loses his youth, maturity and middle age as a result of a bargain for which his consent was never sought. Clearly such a situation sets Kepler’s kind apart from novelists; inventing a narrative doesn’t involve taking over an individual’s life at such appalling cost to that individual. But if we think of the situation in terms of writing novels it can help to draw out the extent to which novelists are colonists. They steal other people’s time away from them for hours and days, and appropriate unfamiliar cultures, sexes, age-groups, jobs and family relationships for their own purposes – an appropriation which, irresponsibly used, can lead to the perpetuation of ugly stereotypes and insidious prejudices. North brilliantly brings this problem home when she has Kepler inhabit, for a time, the body of a North African nurse about whom she knows nothing at all except his name. She has to guess at his language and nationality, and all her guesses turn out to be wrong; even a ghost who has spent so long researching and being other people will end up reproducing her own ingrained assumptions about a stranger she has not investigated properly prior to taking on his flesh.

zpage014Keats’s famous sonnet on Chapman’s Homer is helpful when considering the colonialism of creativity as well as its astronomical sweep and passion. In the sonnet, Keats compares his feelings on reading Homer’s work in Chapman’s translation to those of the conquistador Hernán Cortés gazing on the Pacific for the first time,

[…] when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Keats here describes himself discovering new poetic territories thanks to Chapman, but links the discovery, through the name of Cortés, with the violent overthrow of the Aztec Empire by Spain in 1519-20. As a result, the ‘realms of gold’ he mentions in the sonnet’s first line – by which he means the world of poetry – become tainted by association with the aggressive acquisitiveness of sixteenth-century seekers after the gold of Moctezuma. Reading becomes a colonial act, and so perhaps (by association) does Keats’s own verse, which further extends the ‘realms of gold’ into already occupied territories (he colonizes classical myth, for instance, in Endymion, the Old Testament in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Homer’s epics in this sonnet, and so on). There are, then, two distinct processes of discovery at work in Keats’s poem: discovery as performed by astronomers, which involves observation only, with no effect on the thing observed; and discovery as performed by colonists, which involves destruction as well as observation of the thing found. Kepler thinks of herself as engaged in the former, but is clearly for much of her many lives involved in the latter too. Keats’s poetry is a two-faced creature, both professedly impartial in its observations and fiercely self-serving in the uses it makes of them, bountiful in its imaginative revelations and possessive in its desire to direct those revelations towards the advancement of the poet’s interests, the progress of his chosen narrative arc. The same is true of Kepler, who is both the benefactor of her skins and their exploiter. Like all her kind she is two-faced, a fact acknowledged by another ghost she meets who calls himself Janus, the literally two-faced Roman god of doors, ambiguity, Doppelgängers and difficult choices.

Kepler’s doubleness is exposed by the fact that she, like the ouroboran Harry August, has a double: a dark twin or abusive lover figure called Galileo, whom she chases through the pages of the novel just as Harry August chased his enemy/lover through the pages of Fifteen Lives. The beautiful intricacy of the novel’s plot, too, exposes Kepler’s doubleness. Like Harry August’s, her story is not told chronologically, and at first the endless jumping around between lives present and lives past comes across as a random, virtuosic demonstration of sheer delight in her many identities as a ghost, a delight shared by North herself, who clearly relishes the glorious diversity of the stories she has let herself get caught up in. The sense of randomness is magnificently encapsulated in one skin she inhabits, a stylish young woman who turns out to have a severed finger in the bottom of her purse; there is never any explanation for this finger, and it remains embedded in the text as an instance of the many loose ends to which a being like Kepler must of necessity be subjected. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that many of the threads of it are interconnected, and that the connections between Kepler’s many lives finally make her responsible for her evil double, Galileo. She is Galileo’s creator just as surely as Victor Frankenstein was the creator of his monster, both in the sense that he sewed him together from disparate elements and in the sense that he was responsible in loco parentis for souring his experience of being alive – for turning him monstrous. Kepler made Galileo, we learn, in an act that was intended to be one of parental affection but was in fact one of selfishness; an act she did not initiate but in which she was deeply complicit. Complicity, then, is a theme of this book as surely as it was of Fifteen Lives; and between them, the two books imply that it’s a universal theme of the globalized world we all inhabit, about which North’s two protagonists know so much, and about which we learn so much in our turn through the vicarious experience of occupying their multiple bodies.

The relationship between Kepler and Galileo also exposes the Janus-like double nature of love, the most intimate way we have of touching each other. Love is the favourite theme of novelists as it is of poets, and in this book it has a disconcerting habit of inverting itself; Kepler possesses the bodies of people who hate her on several occasions in her search for Galileo, and as is her nature she comes to love each of these formerly hating bodies, delighting in the evidence of past traumas etched into their flesh, in the problem of how to bring out the best in them and hand it on when she finally leaves their private space. Galileo both hates and loves Kepler, as does Janus – as does Kepler herself, whose transitional existence is both a joy to her and a hell of loneliness, since no body knows her, no body is her own. The reason hatred is so close to love is that it involves an obsessive focus on the person who is hated, an acknowledgement that they exist, that they have an identity like no other. It’s inevitable, then, that Kepler’s hunt for her nemesis will turn at its climax into a complicated act of love-making, in which life and death, affirmation and assassination are woven together like the self-devouring snake of North’s previous novel.

lossy-page1-220px-Scheherazade.tifMore explicit in Touch than in Fifteen Lives is the association between the novel form, as it’s practised in the twenty-first century, and the ultimate storytelling fable: that of the Thousand and One Nights. The tale of Scheherazade is of course a two-faced narrative, involving both protracted and vigorous life in the form of a collection of interwoven tales that have endured for centuries, and the fear of death, which is an ever-present fact throughout the collection (the storyteller tells her stories to avoid being executed by a tyrannous Sultan). Both Touch and Fifteen Lives are such a collection, made up of multiple interlaced stories fleeing from the threat of encroaching annihilation: a mysterious apocalypse in Fifteen Lives, which gets closer with each successive life Harry leads, and an organization called Aquarius in Touch, whose name invokes the dawn of a new Golden Age of peace and love – albeit one that involves the extermination of all ghosts without trial or mercy. Touch, however, includes the added Scheherazade-related touch that the ghosts are themselves generated from the passionate urge to defer the moment of death. Each new ghost is formed at a time of trauma, when some human being finds his or her life prematurely ended and proceeds to jump as she dies into a new body, as the only available means to avoid annihilation. The urge to survive is what finally drives all their subsequent jumps between body and body, despite all the various rationales given by ghosts for particular transitions. Writing, too, is a way of eluding death, generating texts which are a form of afterlife more readily understood in a secular age than the notions of heaven or reincarnation.

The connection between Kepler and Scheherazade is further developed by the way the story transforms itself from time to time into an orientalist fable. In one of her lives Kepler falls in love with a woman, Ayesha, who is the third and youngest wife of an Egyptian merchant. To consummate her love for this woman Kepler enters the body of her husband, and in this form she lives with Ayesha happily for several years, while the merchant she occupies continues to amass his fortune, thanks in large part to a profitable trade in slaves (so: more complicity). When the French take Cairo, Kepler is forced to flee the city in the merchant’s body, at his wife’s request, so as to save the life of Ayesha’s merchant husband. In her absence Ayesha bears the child they conceived together and dies in childbirth; but the ghost remembers her as a woman who loved her deeply, despite being fully aware of her identity as an errant spirit which usurped a life to which it had no right.

Many years later, in a Paris café, Kepler comes across a descendant of her child by Ayesha: a young Algerian artist who retells the story of Kepler’s relationship with her ancestor in the manner of Scheherazade herself. In this retelling, Kepler becomes a creature from the Thousand and One Nights, a jinn or genie:

Fire of the desert, the knife-wind, he comes, he comes riding the sands, and his name is a thousand eyes without expression, elf’ayyoun we’ain douna ta’beer, youharrik elqazb doun arreeh, and his voice is stirs-the-reeds-without-wind, and his sword is starlight, and his eyes are hot embers of a fallen sun.

As the Algerian storyteller ends her tale Kepler stares at ‘this child, who had come from the flesh of Ayesha bint Kamal and Abdul al-Mu’allim al-Ninowy; but also from my soul’. It’s a moving moment in which storytelling creates a link between past and present, between flesh and spirit, between woman and woman, between France and Egypt and Algeria; but it’s also a moment of appropriation, when an artist – North herself – ventriloquizes a narrative style that has been frequently appropriated by imperialists – most famously by the British adventurer Richard Burton. Burton, an atheist, not only translated the Thousand and One Nights unexpurgated into English but undertook the Hajj, despite his lack of faith; his interest in the sexual lives of the various peoples he encountered on his travels gave him a scandalous reputation in the nineteenth century. Kepler’s love for Ayesha, then, is rendered two-faced by the manner of its commemoration in a French café. It is an orientalist adventure, in which Kepler satisfied his lust by adopting a disguise, as Richard Burton was said to have done; and it is a moving tale of mutual affection consummated in spite of overwhelming odds. The story itself revives a forgotten love affair from the past – but it also fictionalizes it, omitting some if its darker features, such as the means by which the merchant husband, Abdul, got his living (the slave trade). The story’s authenticity as an oriental tale spoken by a North African is undermined by its presence in a novel by a British writer. The story encapsulates, in fact, the many perceptions about the two-faced trade of telling stories that North offers us in the course of her astounding novels.

But the connection with the Thousand and One Nights is present everywhere in the text, and above all when Kepler is jumping from skin to skin in flight or pursuit, as in this passage where she changes bodies on a crowded train:

I slipped from skin to skin, a bump, a shudder, a slowing-down and a speeding-up, a swaying of the carriage, a stepping on another’s foot, I am
a child dressed in school uniform
an old man bent double over his stick.
I bleed in the body of a woman on the first day of her period,
ache down to the soles of my tired builder’s feet.
I crave alcohol, my nose burst and swollen from too much of the same.
The doors open and I am young again, and beautiful, dressed for summer in a slinky dress and hoping that the goosebumps on my flesh will not detract from the glamour I seek to express.
I am hungry
and now I am full,
desperate to pee by the carriage window,
eating crisps in the seat by the door.
I wear silk.
I wear nylon.
I loosen my tie.
I hurt in leather shoes.
My motion is constant, my skins are stationary, but by the brush of a hand on the rush-hour train
I am everyone.
I am no one at all.

There has never, I think, been a better evocation of the skipping generation of the present, the rhythms of its exuberant motion, its delight in diversity, its constitutional incapacity to stay rooted in one place, its desire for closeness and fulfilment, its fear of committing itself to any one manifestation of either state. Of course it would be in a rush hour train that a being like Kepler would feel most at home; a train full of individuals crushed together, rushing through a tunnel to some destination in a vehicle over whose motion they have no control. Kepler and the book she appears in are a constellation of entities rather than a single entity, subject to gravitational pulls from their fellow entities while steering their own complex courses through many kinds of space. In this they share their nature with North’s readers, who go to her books hungry for novelties and find far more there than they bargained for.

May her hectic novels continue to weave their spells around us until – well, until she chooses to take another shape, another name, a new way of writing, a different style.

I suspect we’ll choose to follow her, wherever.

 

 

[1] I also wonder if North was thinking of another Kepler – one with two ps who specializes in writing about Doppelgängers: see C. F. Keppler, The Literature of the Second Self (University of Arizona Press, 1972). I’m grateful to Matteo Barbagallo for drawing my attention to Keppler’s work.

Synchrony in Howl’s Moving Castle

howl-moving-castle-1Adults and children live in different time zones, their internal watches set to different rhythms, their days constructed around alternative timetables. The question of how to communicate across the temporal divide is confronted daily by parents and offspring, teachers and pupils, at school and in the home, and gets intensified in the strange encounter between child and adult that takes place in a work of art made for children. Such works are usually made by adults, whose principal challenge – how to imagine themselves into a frame of mind they inhabited years beforehand – is complicated by the problem of keeping track of the rapidly-shifting cultural reference points among young people. Living in a household with children may help the would-be creator tune in to the latest developments in music, gadgetry and fashion, but it’s likely too to reinforce the conviction that adults can never really understand what makes their offspring tick. In the struggle to communicate despite this lack of understanding, artists fall back on imaginative reconstructions of their own childhoods in the vain hope that the radical changes of the intervening decades haven’t rendered them wholly redundant, or distorted beyond redemption by overlays of sentiment and cliché. Such reconstructions invariably emphasize the chronological gap even as they seek to bridge it. And they often take as their subject – as the driving motor of their narratives, so to speak – the complex interplay between time zones that constitutes the domestic environment in each successive generation.

One way of thinking about how the generations co-operate in a household is the concept of synchrony, which has been explored by psychologists and sociologists for several decades. The idea that a mother and child can achieve physical synchrony with each other by spending time in close proximity – that the movements and even the heartbeats of mother and child fall into step with one another when they sleep together or engage in activities face to face – is widely accepted by psychologists. So too is the notion that the synchronization of heartbeats, of rhythmic movements and of emotions can be extended, in time, from the mother-child relationship to the wider parent-child community. Sociologists have also investigated the effects of using rhythmic rituals of various kinds – marching, chanting and dancing, for instance – to achieve better co-operation (that is, psychological and social synchrony) between members of a group, an army, church or organization. Less threateningly, perhaps, there have been studies of the effects on families of spending time together, co-ordinating timetables and calendars to accommodate one another, and how this can improve both partnerships between adults and relationships between the generations. Fictional explorations of how a family community can bond in spite of their chronological differences may be thought of as an effort to understand metaphorical and even literal synchrony – how the movements of a household’s members may be combined to their mutual advantage.

But such a process of coordination is a highly complex one; largely, perhaps, because the differences between members of the family or household may be considered to be as valuable as their capacity to fall into step with one another. How to work together, to fall in step to solve common problems, while valuing and nurturing the effects of the different experiences imparted to a household’s different inhabitants by virtue of the different times at which they happen to have been born – these are questions that fascinate specialists and householders alike. I’d like to think about two texts that attempt to discover the means of preserving the chronologically-generated differences between members of a household community while enabling them to work together. These are a celebrated children’s novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (1985) and the equally celebrated film adaptation of that novel by Hayao Miyazaki (2004). And it seems to me that these two works of art approach the problem of synchrony in rather different ways, as I’ll try to explain.

howls-moving-castleThe concern of Diana Wynne Jones with the complex chronology of domestic and other communities, where the time zones of the young, the middle aged and the old converge and clash, is evident throughout her work: from Seven Days of Luke (1975) and Dogsbody (1975), in which the lives of immortal beings (gods and stars) intersect with those of children, to The Homeward Bounders (1981), whose young protagonist finds himself ageing at a slower rate than his contemporaries, and Fire and Hemlock (1985), about the friendship between a young girl and a grown man, which changes as the girl gets older.[1] Wynne Jones’s novel Howl’s Moving Castle represents synchrony not merely as a prerequisite for the successful cohabitation of different generations within the same building or society, but as a psychological condition achieved with difficulty by individual men and women, aspects of whose personalities develop or mature at different rates, thus effectively establishing different time zones within a single mind and body. It’s this perception, among other things, that seems to have drawn Miyazaki to the novel, as permitting a new departure in his own lifelong exploration of temporal interfaces in domestic and social space.

Grandma-sophieThe protagonist of Wynne-Jones’s novel is a teenage girl, Sophie Hatter, who lets herself be seduced by the rules of fairy tale into believing that her destiny is predetermined by her position as the eldest daughter in a family. This conviction comes easily to her because she lives in the land of Ingary, ‘where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist’ – a land of fairy tale in action, where witches are as common as bakers.[2] Since she’s the eldest child, so the tales affirm, nothing interesting can ever happen to her: it’s always the youngest child who sets off on adventures and who gets the prize. In addition, her sole surviving parent is a stepmother, who Sophie assumes must therefore be tyrannous, if not wicked. As a result, Sophie’s lifelong entrapment in the family hat-making business (which she doesn’t enjoy) is for her as certain as if she’d already lived through it, and she behaves and dresses as if she were already the elderly spinster she expects to be. So when she’s transformed into a real old woman by a jealous witch, who has mistaken her for one of her attractive younger sisters, Sophie embraces her new condition with some enthusiasm. Before the transformation she was in effect an old woman trapped in a young girl’s body; after it she’s a young girl trapped in an old woman’s body; and since her life and story are now effectively over, she leaves the hat-making business and wanders out into the world to seek her fortune.

Sophie, in other words, is the victim of a particularly oppressive social form of synchrony – of ensuring that individuals know and retain their place within the community – which works hand in hand with ideology; synchrony as imposed on female children by the gender roles assigned to them by fairy tales and other narratives. Fortunately, however, the world – and the old women who play a vital part in it – proves to be very much more mobile than Sophie’s enslavement to fairy-tale convention leads her to expect. The delightful metaphor for this mobility is the Moving Castle of the title, and its erratic movements across Ingary can also be seen as standing for a more complex form of synchrony than the one that governs traditional fairy tales and hackneyed fantasies.

When she stumbles across the Moving Castle by accident, Sophie discovers in it a peculiar all-male household quite unlike the ‘conventional’ nuclear family (if such a thing exists, which Wynne Jones would have us doubt). It’s composed of the teenager Michael, an apprentice wizard; Calcifer, a stubborn but friendly fire-demon, whose magic keeps the Castle moving; and the wizard Howl himself, a dashing charmer whose one aim in life is to dodge the responsibility to which Sophie has always been a willing slave (hence Howl’s construction of this unusual mobile home). Including Sophie, these four householders span a tremendous age range, from the apprentice, who is fifteen, to the demon, who has lived for millennia. But they are none of them restricted in their movements by their apparent or actual age. In financial matters Michael behaves with a responsibility beyond his years, keeping some of the household money hidden from Howl to prevent him wasting it. Calcifer is as dependent on the other members of the household as an infant, confined to the Castle’s only hearth as a baby is confined to its cradle until somebody is willing to lift him out. Howl behaves like a spoiled adolescent, obsessed with his appearance and refusing to let Sophie clean his room. And Sophie, who makes herself Howl’s housekeeper because she can’t imagine herself as capable of anything else, becomes increasingly energetic as the novel goes on, despite her extreme old age: dashing across the landscape in seven-league boots, plotting to foil Howl’s various affairs, and rearranging the Castle so extensively that it eventually becomes her own home – quite literally, since Howl moves the building into the hat-shop at one point to avoid the unwanted attentions of the Witch of the Waste.

Age, then, in the Moving Castle, is no trap but a matter of attitude, and attitudes are always changing. Even the physical strength of the individual inhabitants’ bodies varies as much in response to hormones, cold germs and lashings of self-pity as to the motions of the heart (and Howl’s young heart is just as compromised, we learn in the end, as Sophie’s elderly organ). The movement of time determines nothing about a person’s character; it isn’t time that induces emotional or intellectual maturity, but successful interaction with other people, a capacity to adapt one’s personal needs to the demands of a community (and to resist those demands, of course, when they become oppressive). Household synchrony at its best, then, is for Wynne Jones a matter of careful and prolonged negotiation, enabling competing narratives and attitudes to achieve compatibility with one another, to co-exist – with frequent setbacks and digressions that prevent the negotiating process from becoming either consistent or linear. Her book is a celebration of domestic negotiation as a form of perpetual motion, like all her novels.

The identities of the Castle’s four eccentric tenants are as flexible as their ages. Michael disguises himself as a red-bearded man, or a horse, each time he leaves the building. Calcifer, in his capacity as (quite literally) the hearth of the Castle, changes the building’s appearance as well as its location with his demonic powers. Sophie successively takes on the roles of Howl’s assistant, his aunt, his mother, and (eventually) his partner, as the book goes on. And Howl has a different name and role in each community he visits. The Castle’s magical front door opens on a range of locations depending on the opener’s wishes: Kingsbury, Porthaven, Market Chipping, and (oddly) modern Wales; and in each place Howl has a distinct identity: as reluctant royal wizard, well-intentioned local magician, demonized ladykiller, and idle waster, all of them with alternative costumes and reputations as well as names. These conflicting roles of Howl’s converge and overlap in the interior of the Castle; and as a result the Castle provides an active illustration of the sheer dynamism of the domestic space to which Sophie has confined herself. All political and social action, all adventure, all identity originates in the creative melting-pot of the household, and the relationships between householders are forever mutating; responding to and influencing the mutations that take place in the world beyond. Nobody need be fixed, the Castle implies, in any role, whether by age, sex, birth, or any other factor – unless the community they inhabit, the household and the society it is part of, and above all their own state of mind, exert all their energy to imprison them in a single unchanging function. Nobody dominates the household, either. Control of the Moving Castle alternates between Howl and Sophie, with Michael and Calcifer taking the reins when the need arises. And the shape of the community inside it is always changing, as new members join the strange little family through Sophie’s influence. It’s a political as well as a temporal interface, a functional democracy, where the needs, pleasures and pains of old and new inhabitants succeed one another as the focus of attention according to the demands of the time.

424248_3164633998754_1352491418_3259108_263889306_nTo put an end to this condition of perpetual motion is the aim of Howl’s and Sophie’s arch-nemesis, the Witch of the Waste. Attended by a bevy of robotic page-boys, the Witch specializes in locking her victims into forms designed to limit their capacity for mobility and self-determination: a scarecrow, a dog, a skull, and of course the old woman Sophie. Each of her victims proves unexpectedly vigorous in resisting their containment; and each derives his or her vigour from Sophie’s boundless energy, which releases them one by one from their bondage through her capacity to ‘talk life’ into things – sticks, scarecrows, skulls, the dog’s inarticulate tongue – and transform them into dynamic components of her own and other people’s narratives or stories. The Witch needs only one more victim, Howl, to complete the construction of her ideal man: a crude puppet-being fashioned from parts of the complex actual people she has metamorphosed into objects or animals. She aims to set up her ideal puppet as King of Ingary – with the Witch as queen – transforming the land in the process into a barren desert bereft of material for the tales of which it should be composed, like the wasteland where she has built her own immobile fortress. Sophie’s resistance to the Witch is achieved through her ability to enable the Witch’s victims to work together as a community in spite of their differences, in spite of the instability of their personalities, in spite of their uncertainty about their individual identities. Her household is a domestic democracy rather than a monarchy.   And this notion of domestic democracy, or democratic domesticity, is another thing that seems to have attracted Miyazaki to the novel when he chose to adapt it for what was slated at the time as his final film, his swansong to the animation industry and the century in which he was born.

howlsMiyazaki’s movie has been described as less an adaptation than a reimagining, synchronizing the novelist’s concerns with the director’s through a series of daring shifts away from her storyline towards a set of themes that have engaged him for years. The problem of age remains at the centre of the narrative. Once again Sophie’s premature old age is balanced by Howl’s over-extended childhood, and the central problem is how to synchronize their ages, enabling them to cohabit in the Castle of the title. The problem could be said to represent the plight of an ageing film-maker as he seeks to engage the attention of much younger viewers – the problem I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. But in addition, the two time zones that converge in each of Miyazaki’s central characters – youth and elderliness, adolescence and maturity – become symptomatic of a pervasive dualism that extends through every aspect of their environment. It’s with the nature and function of this dualism that the rest of this post will be concerned.

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Albert Robida’s Future
robidavie08
Albert Robida’s Dreadnoughts

The principal dualism in the film is a socio-political one, concerning the two alternative futures towards which Ingary may be moving: as a bright, colourful, mutually supportive community dedicated to the arts of peace, or a dark, war-ravaged wasteland, the energies of whose inhabitants are synchronized in a collective drive towards destruction. Suspended between these possible future destinies, the Ingary of the film is an in-between place, drawing on sources in art and history that look two ways. The setting of the movie, for instance, is an alternative turn-of-the-century Europe, where a pastoral landscape of mountains and flower-strewn valleys is overshadowed by smoke-spewing industrial chimneys and half-monstrous, half-comic flying gunships. The model for this landscape is Alsace, the disputed border territory between France and Germany which found itself caught at the epicentre of two world wars.[3] The machines that move around this landscape – from flying kayaks to steam-driven trams and the bomb-filled gunship-zeppelins that patrol the skies – derive from the work of the visionary French artist Albert Robida (1848-1926), who became famous in the fin-de-siècle for his exuberant illustrations of technology as he imagined it would evolve in the coming century.[4] Every visual detail of the film, then, looks two ways, to war and peace, to the past and the future, so that the competition between ages fought out within Howl and Sophie serves as a miniature enactment of the competition over alternative destinies being fought out in the world around them. And the Moving Castle becomes an embodiment of all these dualisms, its erratic movements recalling the jerky progress of a turn-of-the-century nation (in the 1900s or 2000s) towards cataclysm or prosperity, towards life or death – or rather towards both, since the film’s audience is conscious that both will dominate the century they have just emerged from.

howls_moving_castle_battleships

Our first view of this building comes with the opening credits, and it’s a very different structure from the chimney-shaped fortress of the novel. Mounted on four metal chicken-legs, Miyazaki’s Castle resembles the hen-footed hut of Baba Yaga the Russian witch, an ambiguous figure who is either child-eater or magical helper depending on the storyteller’s whim; it points, then, to the centrality of ambiguous witches to the narrative. The surface of the Castle bristles with gun turrets and rural cottages, as if to point up the two opposite conditions towards which it may be moving, the military and the cosily domestic. The gun turrets embody Howl’s desire to defend himself from being drawn into war; but they also resemble the gun turrets of the ironclad dreadnoughts of Ingary’s navy, and thus point towards his possible enlistment as a secret weapon in the national defence force. And these ships have been part of the wizard’s life since early childhood. When Sophie visits the lakeside cottage where Howl spent his lonely vacations as a boy, she sees the model of a dreadnought on the table, reminding viewers of how boys are acculturated to play at war by the toys and games on offer. Howl’s Castle, then, fuses two influences from his upbringing, the isolated cottage and the ever-present warship, and Sophie’s adventures in housekeeping there have a direct influence on the direction in which the country, as well as the Castle and its occupants, is moving.

airships-howlThe first major change Miyazaki makes to the novel, then, is to place war at the heart of his film’s narrative, embodying its centrality in the eccentric mobile fortress. You might remember that the military is one of the areas in which sociologists have identified the extensive use of synchrony; by moving in concert, soldiers can be trained to subsume their interests to the interests of the group, even to the extent of sacrificing themselves so that collective actions can be successfully completed. One of the things you’ll notice in Miyazaki’s movie is the coordinated movements of the flying airships, with their flapping wings, and the fleets of human-faced bombs that drop out of their bellies. Clearly certain forms of synchrony encourage only conformity, and total conformity can be as disastrous to a community as total individualism. Some other form of synchrony must be found for the household, if it’s to become a successful centre for resistance to conformity with collective aggression.

Howls20Moving20Castle01065_from_we-The second change Miyazaki makes is to the villain of the story, who gets split in two, like everything else in the movie. The movie’s Witch of the Waste starts out as monstrous as she is in the book: a towering, fleshy presence who conjures Sophie into decrepitude in a spontaneous fit of jealousy. But she is soon supplanted by a much more devious enemy called Madame Suliman. Howl’s former tutor in the magic arts, Suliman deploys her formidable powers, ostensibly in the service of Ingary, as a combination of spymaster, bomber command and military general; and she is eager to secure her most promising pupil as her successor in all these capacities. Her character, then, combines aspects of Miss Pentstemmon (Howl’s kind old tutor in Wynne Jones’s novel), and the novel’s Witch of the Waste, who wishes to fix Howl in an unchanging form as her puppet husband. Like the Witch, Madame Suliman repeatedly tries to invade Howl’s domestic space – the Moving Castle – by a range of methods: direct assaults on the Castle doors by her servants, the blob men;[5] enlisting Sophie’s mother to deliver a magical spy-worm to the building; and above all, by drawing Howl deeper and deeper into armed conflict, on defensive raids from which he returns to domestic life with increasing difficulty, often still locked in the form of a monstrous flying demon he assumes when fighting. Howl’s repeated transformations make him more and more like the flocks of identical flying fortresses that threaten Ingary. Sophie’s challenge in the movie is to compete with Madame Suliman in the effort to synchronize her heart with Howl’s well-protected organ, which he has hidden in the hearth of the Castle for security, guarded by Calcifer. The two women stand for alternative versions of his destiny, his social role: as imperialist warmonger or affectionate family member, as obedient marcher in step with the military or as participant in the mutually supportive domestic community. And the richness of the film consists in its implicit acknowledgment that he could well end up as both.

08-howlsOne of the ways in which this perception is conveyed is through the refusal of the film to set up clearly demarcated opposing sides, of the kind Wynne Jones creates by installing the Witch of the Waste as Howl’s antagonist. Characters literally metamorphose into new shapes as the film goes on, taking on aspects of each other’s appearance and actions, and changing sides in a conflict whose causes and participants are never certain. The blob men who begin as henchmen of the Witch of the Waste seem to switch allegiance half way through, hiring themselves out to the more powerful sorceress, Madame Suliman, after her easy defeat of their first mistress in a showdown at the royal palace. Meanwhile, the defeated Witch becomes a member of the eccentric family circle that occupies Howl’s Castle – a kind of second Sophie, as if to acknowledge Sophie’s complicity with the spell with which the Witch aged her. So too does the asthmatic dog Heen, who starts out as Madame Suliman’s spy but ends as the playmate of Howl’s apprentice Merkl (a younger version of Wynne-Jones’s Michael). In Heen’s place, Sophie’s stepmother becomes Suliman’s spy, delivering the spy-worm to the Moving Castle under pretence of a family reunion with her long lost stepdaughter. Meanwhile another member of Howl’s household, the scarecrow Turnip, turns out in the end to have been an enchanted prince from the neighbouring country with which Ingary is at war. Enemies and friends, in the world of Miyazaki’s later movies, can be indistinguishable – which serves both to point up the painful futility of the conflicts that break out between them, and the possibility, against all odds, of bringing them at last into synchronistic alignment.

Witch's_henchmenThe most disturbing ambiguity of affiliation is that of the blob men. As the servants of Madame Suliman one might expect them to form part of Ingary’s army, and indeed when they attack the Castle they wear Ingarian military uniforms. But they also share a civilian uniform – of top hats, masks and tarry bodies – with the winged monsters who emerge from the bellies of the flying gun-ships as they attack Ingary. Madame Suliman, then, seems to be fighting on both sides of the conflict she presides over. For her it’s nothing but a game: the kind of war-game that might delight the young pages who surround her, each of them designed to look like Howl, as if to illustrate her desire to add him to her collection of pretty boys. Madame Suliman exposes her attitude to conflict at the end of the movie when she tells the pages, ‘Let’s put an end to this idiotic war’, implying that she could have done so at any point in the preceding action.[6] She is sinisterly playful, indulging a second childhood in old age as she conducts the affairs of the country from the comfort of a padded wheelchair in her flower-filled conservatory. Yet even Suliman cannot be dismissed as a mere monster; she is too humorous, too detached and too attractive to be so easily summarized, especially because it’s never entirely clear if all her machinations are actually causing damage to the people caught up in them. Her body, like Howl’s and Sophie’s, or like Ingary itself, is a space where different elements converge, each in turn becoming dominant as she wearies of the game she has been playing and moves on to a new one. So she too harbours the potential to be subsumed into a new model of domestic cohabitation.

21e63264e1ed9b48c5cf7c5b5e92a182War itself slips between identities as the film goes on, becoming sometimes a game, sometimes a hideous nightmare, in response to the changing moods of its conductors. At the beginning it’s a carnival, a form of collective play for the people of Ingary, whose lives are filled with toys: fancy hats from Sophie’s hat-shop, fancy cakes from the bakery where her sister works, national flags, charmingly silly steam-driven vehicles. It’s conducted by dashing soldiers in bright uniforms, post-adolescent show-offs who steer motorized kayaks around the sky like teenagers in sports cars. At the harbour, the civilians celebrate with childish enthusiasm the deployment of the national fleet. Sophie’s own stepmother adds to the air of flippant collusion with warfare by wearing a hat decorated with naval cannon in honour of the dreadnoughts. At first, then, war is full of light and colour; but it soon grows dark and violent, swallowed up in the bomb-torn night whose reds and blacks threaten by the end to dominate the movie’s palette. Lightness, then, and light, are capable of giving birth to heaviness and gloom; and in this war follows the trajectory along which Suliman is keen to steer her pupil Howl.[7]

tumblr_lk11muJQKe1qe0xgwo1_500From the beginning, Howl shares Suliman’s moral ambiguity. Rumour has it he devours the hearts of the girls he seduces; and although he first makes his appearance in a very different role – snatching the girl Sophie from the clutches of a pair of soldiers – even at that point he’s a source of danger, pursued by blob men who threaten Sophie more than the soldiers did. Not long after this, Sophie undergoes her transformation at the hands of the Witch, leaves home and joins Howl’s household as an elderly cleaner. But when she starts to clean up, she accidentally switches the blond and black hair dyes in his bathroom; and the transformation of Howl’s hair from blond to black signals his potential to transform himself from hero to villain, like a cowboy changing hats. This prospective switch of moral allegiance is foreshadowed by his reaction to the hair-dye incident. Howl goes into a titanic adolescent sulk, during which he generates both copious quantities of green slime, as in the novel, and a host of shadow-monsters closely resembling the blob men. This extravagant reaction, with its echoes of the sinister sorcery of the Witch and Suliman, is rendered more disturbing by the fact that immediately before this scene we witnessed Howl in action for the first time against the invading air force; an experience he seems to take far more lightly than Sophie’s assault on his cosmetics.

Howl.full.150241Howl’s lightness, then – his excessive concern for his appearance and the pleasures of flirtation – represents the flip side of his increasingly frequent forays into the darkness of war. If boys are the perfect recruits for a nation’s armies, Howl’s insistence on retaining his adolescent traits – his filthy, toy-strewn bedroom, from which he bars the cleaner Sophie; the ‘secret garden’ of his childhood, where his cottage retreat is hidden;[8] his love of fancy clothes – is what renders him vulnerable to Suliman’s efforts to draw him into her war games. The connection between his boyish lightness and his attraction to war is made most vividly when he shows Sophie the secret garden. At this point he looks much younger than he did earlier, gesturing towards flowers and mountains with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of childhood. But the appearance of a flying gunship prompts him to begin the change into a winged monster, smiling as he launches a magical attack on the gunship with one claw-like hand. The monster and the boy cohabit in Howl, both of them symptoms of his heartlessness – that is, his staunch defence of his emotional secrets, his carapace of bright insouciance, from external assault. If the literally light-hearted Calcifer guards Howl’s heart in the hearth of the Castle, safely hidden from intruders, it’s for Sophie to lend him the weight he needs to launch into a mature relationship.

o-oSophie, on the other hand, needs to achieve synchrony with Howl if she’s to escape the weight of self-inflicted reponsibility that binds her to an aged body. Their first meeting shows her what is missing from her life as a girl: the lightness Howl possesses in abundance. Wearing her trademark sober clothes and unflattering hat, she timidly skirts the carnival crowds as she crosses the city, dodging into shadowy back-streets to avoid the limelight. It’s in one of these alleys that Howl rescues her from the soldiers; and he later saves her from the blob men by launching them both into the air without the aid of wings, then walking with her, arm in arm, along an invisible pavement in the sky, visually acting out the light-heartedness of first love. After that, Sophie continues to see the airborne Howl as the carefree young man of this meeting, and works, as he grows darker and more monstrous, to align the chaotic interior of his Castle with the brightness of his first appearance. In the process she discovers lightness and colour in herself, which are reflected in the light and colour she brings to Howl’s shabby domicile – as well as in her increasingly frequent unconscious shifts from old age to youth. For a woman burdened with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and wedded to the shadows, Sophie succeeds in bringing an abundance of brightness to the Castle’s gloomy interior. She smashes a hole in the wall with a flying kayak while escaping from Suliman’s troops, and inspires the wizard to shift the Castle to the many-windowed, sunlit hat-shop to keep his household safe. Her final transformation of the Castle, when she rebuilds it from scratch by removing Calcifer, with Howl’s heart, from the fortified hearth and carrying both outside, culminates in the reduction of the building to an open platform, its defences stripped away, its inhabitants exposed to the elements. And although this transformation begins at night, so that its implications are hidden by the mountain gloom that surrounds the platform, when the dawn comes it’s clear that Sophie’s housekeeping has finally exposed Howl and his remarkable family to the open scrutiny from which he has so sedulously been keeping them hidden.

1446593538-5260766be0110108a38b58383f966fe3The synchrony between Howl and Sophie reaches its culmination in the reconstructed Moving Castle of the final frames. Winging its way across an open sky, on flapping wings not so very dissimilar to the wings of the airborne gunships, the flying fortress is now dominated by cottages rather than gun-turrets, gardens rather than protective armour. It represents, then, Howl’s opening up of his childhood secret garden to a wider community, his entry into full socialization – an entry in which the rejuvenated Sophie fully participates. But the gun turrets still poke out of the castle roof, and though the flying gunships are heading home they have not been destroyed or dismantled. The difficulty of achieving synchrony in personal relationships – between generations of a family or different people in the same generation – is clearly equivalent here to the difficulty of achieving synchrony between rival nations: a harmonising of different interests to the mutual advantage of both parties.

Howl-5Flight has been rendered joyful rather than threatening in the final frames of Howl’s Moving Castle. Howl and Sophie face forward into the future from the bows of the Castle with the self-assurance of young lovers, whose relationship has been literally tested in the fire. But the future towards which they are facing – whether it’s the twentieth century, when the film is set, or the beginning of the new millennium, when the film was made – will surely share the synchronies of their relationship: its darkness as well as its light, its war as well as its peace, the premature ageing brought on by anxiety as well as the exuberance of childhood prolonged into maturity. And the Moving Castle remains a poignantly rickety structure in which to confront such a future.

[1] For a full account of Diana Wynne Jones’s recurrent themes, see Farah Mendlesohn, Diana Wynne Jones: The Fantastic Tradition and Children’s Literature (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[2] Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (London: HarperCollins, 2005), p. 9.

[3] See The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle (San Francisco: Viz, 2005), p. 12.

[4] For Robida, see The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 49.

[5] The term ‘blob men’ is used in The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 212 and elsewhere.

[6] The quotation is taken from the script of the film as translated by Jim Hubbert, The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 252.

[7] For an extended discussion of the concept of lightness (as against weight) in twentieth-century history, see Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh (London: Penguin, 2009), Lecture 1, ‘Lightness’, pp. 3-29.

[8] The term ‘secret garden’, with its invocation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, is used in Hubbert’s translation of Miyazaki’s script. See The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 240.

Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop

61F+j+HLN1L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Among the strangest of all the strange things about The Magic Toyshop (1967) is the fact that it is set when it was written, in the mid 1960s. These were the days when the electrified Bob Dylan shucked off the ‘easy answers’ and ‘easy imagery’ of his early protest songs and became, as Carter put it, a ‘prophet of chaos… clanging and vulgar, neon and plastic and, at the same time, blackly, bleakly romantic’; while the trial of the Rolling Stones could be portrayed as an act of sartorial warfare, with ‘the judge, in ritually potent robes and wig, invoking the doom of his age and class upon the beautiful children in frills and sunset colours, who dared to question the infallibility he represents as icon of the law and father figure’.[1] Over the years, when I’ve asked students to tell me when The Magic Toyshop takes place, they’ve located it at the beginning of the twentieth century in the early days of the decline of the British Empire; or plumb in the middle of the Victorian era, when Dickensian crossing-sweepers begged for alms from top-hatted villains outside Old Curiosity Shops where Little Nell lay dying in a welter of saintly sentimentality. I myself hardly noticed the references to cars and televisions and central heating when I first read it. And Carter clearly intended to generate this chronological confusion: it’s the topic of the book. Her cast of eccentric characters sit on a precarious fulcrum between past and present, like the Western Archipelago itself, like the postwar world, struggling and failing time and again to release themselves from the nightmare of history.

By problematizing the historical location of her novel, Carter put her finger on the pulse of the decade. The precision of the book as an evocation of its period lies in its amazed recognition that 1960s England was still to a great extent 1860s England, that the modern was still struggling to break through the putrescent morass of decaying Victoriana: junkyard relics whose dusty, worn-out, randomly heaped-up contents invade every urban space like Philip K. Dick’s kipple, encumbering every effort of the nation’s exhausted inhabitants to move into another mode of social living. What some now see as acts of massive cultural vandalism in the 60s – the driving of motorways through the heart of great Victorian cities, the wholesale demolition of richly ornamented public buildings, the erasure of parks, fountains, monuments and astonishing feats of industrial engineering – were perceived by many then as a struggle to the death against an oppressive past that refused to die, a grim self-image that pervaded British society from the topmost level of government to your own front room, monstrously perverting every effort to achieve rational change. The Magic Toyshop stands now as a record of this struggle between old and new, the radical young and the reactionary middle-aged. In it, as Carter said of Dylan’s new sound, there are no easy answers, no easy imagery. And the situation seems to have delighted her as a writer as much as it horrified her as a political agitator. It gave birth to her own uneasy imagery, and she went on returning to this clash of timeframes and ideologies in novel after novel, story after story, essay after essay.

Magic-Toyshop-for-display-520x245The Magic Toyshop has the shape of a Victorian novel. Our innocent but plucky young heroine, nicely brought up and well to do, suddenly finds herself orphaned and penniless, struggling to maintain her identity in the grimmest of working-class households, bravely taking on the burden of responsibility for her helpless younger siblings, wearing her fingers to the bone in appalling conditions, consorting with rough men and women who turn out to have hearts of gold, repelling the unwelcome advances of her evil uncle before winning through to freedom and independence with the heroic assistance of a brave young man. The elements of this plot are so deeply familiar that in themselves they constitute a reminder of how far our Victorian heritage continues to permeate our culture – a situation of which Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events takes full advantage. In Carter’s novel, as in Snickett’s series, each element of the conventional plot undergoes a metamorphosis through the agency of pastiche. Melanie’s wealthy middle-class background, for example, is no idyll – or if it is, it’s a very silly one. The working-class environment to which she’s transplanted isn’t horrible in itself, but only because it’s dominated by an abusive patriarch. Melanie never really takes on the burden of caring for her siblings, although she toys with the idea of doing so when Mrs Rundle puts it into her head. The work Melanie does hardly wears her fingers to the bone; it’s mostly monotonous, and sometimes enjoyable. And so on. But the presence of the familiar Victorian plot keeps reminding us that this book is a fiction, one of an infinite number of fictions by which we measure and judge the lives we lead. And as such, it takes its place among an enormous range of texts – stories, poems, songs and myths – to which Carter alludes in the course of her narrative, as if to demonstrate that we’re constructed from head to toe by the stories we tell ourselves: from the fairy tale of Bluebeard’s Castle which Melanie can never get out of her head, to the poems of Donne and Keats from her school anthology, quotations from which open and close the book; from the Irish songs that comfort the ‘Red People’ in Uncle Philip’s menagerie to Lewis Carroll’s Victorian classic Through the Looking Glass, which supplies Finn’s Pleasure Ground with its chessboard pavement, gives Aunt Margaret her unruly head of hair – borrowed from Carroll’s White Queen – and invites Melanie to wonder if she is being dreamed by Mrs Rundle (p. 95) as Alice is dreamed (perhaps) by Carroll’s Red King. And everywhere in the novel there are references to Shakespeare, the English ‘national bard’ whose words have taken root in the thoughts and conversations of all Carter’s characters as if in confirmation of the playwright’s dubious status as spokesman for all humanity. It’s worth lingering for a while on the significance of this wide range of textual reference.

If our minds are shaped by old fictions – from the ancient, such as the story of Bluebeard, to the Elizabethan – Donne, Shakespeare – and the late Victorian – Frances Hodgson Burnett, the younger Yeats – then how we tell stories acquires an importance that’s hard to exaggerate. The twists Carter gives to all these tales and allusions become the signs of the times, the markers that indicate potential transformations we will undergo as we launch at last into the new and unexpected narratives that will shape our future. One of the questions this book asks is: will these new narratives succeed in breaking free from the cycle of repression and oppression that has stunted our growth in the course of the twentieth century? – that has left the bulk of the world’s population, at a time of unprecedented technological innovation, locked in a desperate hand-to-mouth existence, needlessly imprisoned in a state of intellectual and political disempowerment, and ignored or humiliated by their self-appointed rulers? Another question she may invite is: which parts of the old stories are worth retaining, and which need to be rejected as the instruments of tyranny, the tools rather than the indicators of a corrupt social hierarchy? As one might expect, she doesn’t answer these questions – she doesn’t pose as a reader of tea-leaves, as Francie does very briefly when he tells Melanie that someone will soon be leaving on a journey. But we can better understand the terms of the two questions if we look at some of the odd things she does to the familiar novelistic situations she sets up.

scan0001Here are a few of them. For one thing, the book is full of absurd and excessive touches. The nanny who cooks only bread pudding and who has changed her name to Mrs Rundle by deed poll. The puppet in Uncle Philip’s workshop which bears an uncanny resemblance to Melanie when she put on her mother’s wedding-dress and climbed a phallic apple-tree – an incident he cannot possibly have known about. The twelve-year-old boy who is so uniquely obsessed with sailing ships that he eventually disappears into his own fantasy. The dog that beats its tail in time to music, and which is spotted at the end of the book running upstairs with a basket of flowers gripped between its teeth, in exact mimicry of the portrait of it that hangs in the kitchen. The severed hand of a child that appears in a kitchen drawer, then disappears without explanation. Any reading of The Magic Toyshop has to account for these bizarreries in one way or another; if not, it won’t be an honest response to Carter’s text.

One way of accounting for them is to say that they’re there to remind us, over and over again, that what we’re reading is fiction; that we shouldn’t let ourselves be seduced into accepting it as a slice of historic truth, as we might if it posed as ‘realism’. Bertolt Brecht did something similar in his drama, which he designed as an instrument for exposing the fantasies and fabrications by which the ruling classes maintain their grip on power. Into each play Brecht incorporates a series of devices that make us step back and recognize our position as a theatre audience, capable of analysing the action dispassionately without having our judgement impaired by an excess of imaginative sympathy. Analytic detachment is built into Carter’s novel by the fact that her characters – especially our heroine, Melanie – are so detached from things themselves: ‘She thought vaguely that they must look very striking, like a sot from a new-wave British film, locked in an embrace beside the broken statue in this dead fun palace’ (p. 106).[2] The dog, too, in her uncle’s household, might have been invented simply to surprise us into reassessing our relationship with the narrative. At several points in the story Melanie is not sure if she is looking at the dog or at Finn’s painting of the dog; and the moment in the last chapter when it appears with the basket of flowers might be meant to make us recognize the sheer absurdity of trying to distinguish a painted animal from a ‘real one’ – when the real one is itself only a fabrication constructed from words on a page. The absurdist elements in Carter’s book help to prevent us from abandoning our reason in sentimental sympathy with the plight of our lovely heroine, as we are constantly invited to do by Victorian narrators. But each has, too, a specific function at the moment when it occurs. Each one helps to point up other, less obvious absurdities, which permeate the culture of the 1960s.

tumblr_inline_n06lw0skKR1soxkr5Take Mrs Rundle, for example, whose fake title articulates her desire to rewrite history so that she will have fulfilled her destiny as a woman – according to the Victorian conventions by which she lives. She is described entirely in terms of popular fiction: the plays of J. M. Barrie and the comic theatre of the 1950s: ‘She had hairy moles and immense false teeth. She spoke with an old-world, never-never land stateliness, like a duchess in a Whitehall farce’ (p. 3). And she prays in church ‘astonishingly’ for a fake memory to go with her fake name: ‘Please God, let me remember that I was married as if I had really married […] Or at least […] let me remember that I had sex’ (p. 8). Mrs Rundle is clearly ridiculous; but she’s no more ridiculous than, say, Melanie’s father, who insists that his family go to church as a means of forgetting his own class origins: ‘Born in Salford, it pleased him to play gently at squire now he need never think of Salford again’ (p. 7). Indeed, he has so immersed himself in his public role as a successful writer that his own daughter cannot imagine him ever abandoning his tweeds, his tobacco and his typewriter ribbon – even when dying in a plane crash or making love. And his wife, Melanie’s mother, is not much more substantial: she is a set of clothes, and in the course of the novel anything else about her rapidly melts away into oblivion before the more robust presence of the new family Melanie finds in South London.

The rural idyll in which Melanie lives at the beginning of the novel is, in fact, an elaborate fake. So, too, is the ‘naturalness’ of the class system that all this fakery is constructed to preserve; or the illusion of permanent prosperity her first family lives under, which tricks Melanie’s father into failing to save money against a rainy day; or the moral system that assures Melanie she is being ‘punished’ for stealing her brother’s unwanted Biggles books when the false eyelashes she buys with the proceeds prove impossible to apply. The happy family home, too, of the novel’s opening pages, is an elaborate forgery. The loving parents who die, for instance, are total strangers to their children. They know so little about their son that they buy him Biggles books on the basis of his appearance – because he looks like the kind of boy who will enjoy such texts – not of his tastes or wishes. And the three children in this idyllic home spend all their time apart, in separate rooms – in Melanie’s case, at least, behind a locked door. The world they inhabit is the epitome of middle-class individualism, where other people are simply irrelevant to a person’s existence except as an unfocussed backdrop for their private internal dramas, and where money is never thought of except as a kind of atmosphere, a pervasive presence whose loss is unimaginable. Their move to Uncle Philip’s household makes them sociable, as they never were at home.

Mrs Rundle’s name identifies her as the nexus of a network of fantasies that envelop Melanie in the novel’s opening pages. So it’s interesting that she should prove the most enduring element from Melanie’s earlier life later in the novel, reasserting her claim to remembrance by sending the children practical, warming Christmas presents at a time when they have nothing else – and when their parents have left them nothing of themselves at all. Uncle Philip has the role of the moustache-twirling, sadistic, self-satisfied stage villain of Victorian melodrama in this novel; but his contempt for Melanie’s father has a sound material basis:

‘I never could abide your father,’ [he tells her.] ‘He thought ’isself too good for the Flowers by a long chalk, he did. A writer, he called ’isself. Soft bastard, he never got his hands dirty.’
‘But he was awfully clever!’ protested Melanie, stung with defiance at last.
‘Not so clever he thought to put a bit by to take care of you lot when he’d gone,’ Uncle Philip pointed out reasonably. ‘And so I’ve got his precious kids all for my very own, haven’t I? To make into little Flowers.’ (p. 144)

For Uncle Philip, children are there to be shaped into puppets, to perform scripts of his own devising. This is pernicious; but in the rural idyll that opens the novel, too, Melanie is little more than a puppet, shaping and reshaping herself in front of a mirror, but each time coming up with a male fantasy of which her father might approve – in other words, bodying forth a script devised by some higher authority. It’s worth considering, then, how far her life before and after her symbolic Fall in the Edenic garden of her father’s mansion may be described as an exile from Paradise. Or should it rather be described as the first step in the direction of a potential escape-route, a route that would have been closed to her if she had remained her father’s daughter? This view seems to be supported by Melanie’s reaction to a customer who enters the toyshop about half way through the novel. ‘She was an expensive woman,’ we’re told, ‘all in suede, come by car from north of the river. She represented a type of customer they persistently attracted, whom Uncle Philip especially loathed’ (p. 95). Melanie finds she shares Uncle Philip’s loathing, serving her with reluctance and mentally branding her ‘mean bitch’ when she buys the cheapest toy on offer. And as she leaves the shop, we’re told: ‘She was the sort of woman who used to come for the weekend at home, sometimes, with a suitcase full of little black dresses for cocktails and dinner… Melanie could easily have grown up into that sort of woman’. In the course of Carter’s novel, Melanie’s class sympathies shift, and it’s the analytical advantage this profound shift gives her that opens up new possibilities of escape for her from the restrictions and absurdities of middle-class fantasies about women, in which she is so sensuously enmeshed in the book’s first chapter.

81026Melanie’s reaction to the ‘expensive woman’ also shows how she is starting to make an internal map of London, despite her limited experience of the city. Her division of it into two halves, North and South, with different class affiliations, is one Carter returns to throughout her writing – as in her final novel, Wise Children, whose narrator tells us: ‘Once upon a time, you could make a crude distinction, thus: the rich lived amidst pleasant verdure in the North speedily whisked to exclusive shopping by abundant public transport while the poor eked out miserable existences in the South in circumstances of urban deprivation condemned to wait for hours at windswept bus-stops while sounds of marital violence, breaking glass and drunken song echoed around and it was cold and dark and smelled of fish and chips. There’s been a diaspora of the affluent, they jumped into their diesel Saabs and dispersed throughout the city’ (p. 1). Melanie’s recognition of the suede-clad woman as a migrant from the affluent North marks a stage in her naturalization as a citizen of the capital.

But let’s return to Mrs Rundle one last time. As we’ve seen, her name is one of many fantasies that dominate Melanie’s rural childhood; but it’s also representative of the most potent female fantasy of all, the myth that marriage represents the ultimate fulfilment for a woman. And this myth takes a terrible grip on the novel, monstrously seizing hold of and imprisoning all the female characters we meet. On her wedding day, Melanie’s mother disappears in a ‘pyrotechnic display of satin and lace, dressed as for a medieval banquet’ – we’re never told whether as a guest or as the decorative main course. After this ‘epiphany of clothing’, she never really re-emerges from under the weight of her extravagant garments, and a memory of clothes is all that’s left of her after her death. On her wedding day, Aunt Margaret loses her voice and acquires a straight grey frock and a jewelled choker as emblems of her slavery. Melanie practises repeatedly for her wedding day in the course of the narrative: first with her visions of a ‘phantom bridegroom’ in some ‘extra-dimensional bathroom-of-the-future in honeymoon Cannes. Or Venice. Or Miami Beach’ (p. 2); then when she dresses up in her mother’s wedding dress and finds herself assaulted by a monstrous apple-tree, emblematic of the violent and oppressive masculinity her daydreams have not yet equipped her to deal with. Later she is dressed as a reluctant child-bride by Uncle Philip in an effort to enslave her in his egocentric fantasies, as he has enslaved her aunt; and she’s assaulted again, this time by Philip’s puppet-swan. And finally, new visions of marriage usurp her visions of the future. No longer convinced by the notion of a ‘fancy’ marriage to her phantom bridegroom, she dreams in the end of a working-class marriage full of red-headed children, poverty, squalor, and a replacement Philip in the person of Finn, who appears to her in the role of husband when he takes over Uncle Philip’s chair in the kitchen. Is the vision she has at this point an accurate reading of her future? For her, at this point in the book, it’s the ultimate nightmare, and Finn seems to her less the mythic hero of old Ireland than the end of the road; but he also ends Philip’s swan, burying it in the ruined Victorian pleasure garden where it belongs, then coming to Melanie for comfort, crawling into her bed at night like a child in search of warmth and approval. There’s a potential here for balance and equality between them, if they can find a way to break the vicious cycle of birth, marriage and death that shaped them.

92d2164a1a02f330fdb8a82c6223fcf6-1The most monstrous manifestation of marriage in the book is the moment when Melanie sees the severed hand of a little girl in the kitchen drawer. It’s the hand of a child bride as Philip might have imagined it:

It was a soft-looking, plump little hand with pretty, tapering fingers the nails of which were tinted with a faint, pearly lacquer. There was a thin silver ring of the type small girls wear on the fourth finger. It was the hand of a child who goes to dancing class and wears frilled petticoats with knickers to match. From the raggedness of the flesh at the wrist, it appeared that the hand had been hewn from its arm with a knife or axe that was very blunt. Melanie heard blood fall plop in the drawer. (p. 118)

The little girl’s hand might suggest to us that this is the moment when Melanie recognizes that her connection with her past has now been violently cut off; after all, the hand belongs to the kind of girl she once was, a child from a prosperous background for whom nothing was too fancy. But the vision also invites us to think of marriage, since the fourth finger is the place for a wedding ring, being the finger ‘from which a vein leads to the heart’ (p. 120). So marriage too would seem to be a form of severance or cutting off. Above all, perhaps, it is a means of infantilizing women. The silencing of Aunt Margaret renders her childish; and Uncle Philip imagines his child-bride Leda as a child when she is violently wedded to the swan, and attempts to represent Melanie as younger than she is when he incorporates her into his appalling Christmas show, his pastiche of the Christmas story in which another virgin, Mary, was impregnated by another winged visitor from heaven. It’s not surprising, in other words, that the moment when Melanie finds the hand is the moment when she recognizes for the first time her affinity with the Jowles, and especially Margaret. She has become one of Philip’s many imaginary brides – among them Mary Queen of Scots and Philip’s own sister, Melanie’s mother, whose wedding picture he keeps in his room as if from an incestuous desire to share her marriage with the brother-in-law he despises – and as such she has become Margaret’s honorary sister, able to exchange glances of solidarity and understanding with her despite her dumbness.

The severed hand is just one of several emblems in the book of arrested development: of organic growth stopped in its tracks, which is one way of describing the Victorianism of 1960s England. Uncle Philip’s house in particular is full of such emblems: the fact that it is a toyshop, and one self-consciously modelled on a Victorian business, indicates his dedication to the infantilizing of its inhabitants, stopping them dead at a primitive point in their personal evolution. Presiding over the building is a cuckoo clock containing a real stuffed cuckoo: the herald of the Spring symbolically murdered on one of its annual visits and incorporated into the machinery that measures Uncle Philip’s inflexible timetable. On the shelves of the shop are toys that diminish the members of Philip’s ersatz family by mocking them: monkeys wearing Margaret’s and Francie’s clothes and playing Irish music on their own instruments, the fiddle and flute; a Noah’s ark with a miniature Finn on board, which is bought and taken away in cruel mockery of the ‘real’ Finn’s inability to liberate himself from Philip’s clutches. But the toyshop is no more infantilizing an environment than Melanie’s father’s house. There her little sister Victoria first learned to act like an infant, despite being five years old – the age when most children start school. Melanie imagines her continuing as an infant for the rest of her life, hidden away like a second Mrs Rochester in an upstairs room of the family house and ‘pushing her indecent baby face against the bannisters to coo at unnerved guests’ (p. 8). The world of post-Victorian England babifies its female citizens; and the Victorian origins of this process are indicated by Victoria’s name. The British Empress is alive and well in the 1960s, but dwindled to the stature of a cooing toddler and with no prospect of achieving anything more impressive than a baby achieves for the rest of her insignificant and slightly embarrassing existence – despite all the potential for intelligent action cooped up in her diminutive head.

magic toysh firstIf Victoria is an infantilized Queen, the magic toyshop itself is a kind of shrunken, worn-out replica of the lost British Empire, containing within itself all the essential components of that vast edifice – rather as the Crystal Palace, to which the novel alludes in its usual slantwise fashion, contained representative products from every corner of Britain’s global demesnes. The Jowles are the last sorry remnants of the colonies, flamboyantly Irish in their every word and gesture, playing traditional music, embodying famine, donning Easter Rising trilbies, spouting fatalistic rhetoric and nurturing a dark family secret which is merely one more affirmation of the many cod Irish myths they personify. The silent stoicism of Francie and Margaret under Uncle Philip’s tyranny makes them horrifyingly complacent with it, as they watch Finn’s defiance escalate towards its suicidal climax. Melanie is equally complicit, acquiescing to the various roles imposed on her in the toyshop, allowing herself to be absorbed into the Jowle family, finally letting herself be rescued from a fire by Finn – who often wears a second-hand fireman’s jacket – at the book’s conclusion. Each of them has allowed him- or herself to become Uncle Philip’s toy, his puppet, incapable of thought except in the terms he permits them to think in.

Yet by the time he rescues Melanie, Finn has taken the last and boldest step in his career as an insurrectionist: he has destroyed Uncle Philip’s swan, which is as much a token of mythical Ireland, thanks to Yeats, as it is of patriarchal oppression. Melanie has abetted him in this revolutionary act. Finn has regained his voice and so has Margaret; the two of them have kissed as they parted with ‘stately formality […] like fellow generals saluting each other the night before a great battle where one of the is like to die’ (p. 197). The revolutionary promise of the name Melanie gave the Jowles when she first came to the toyshop – the Red People – has been fulfilled, and a departure from the cycle of oppression even looks feasible. The final sentence of the novel finds Finn and Melanie standing on the edge of an uncertain future in another garden, facing each other with a wild surmise (p. 200); and the phrase both conjures up the spectre of colonialism and entertains the possibility of change. It comes from Keats’s famous sonnet of 1816, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, in which he exults over gaining access to the works of the epic poet in translation (Keats’s family couldn’t afford to have him educated in Greek, which at the time was the preserve of the British elite). The young poet compares the experience of reading the Iliad and the Odyssey to that of a Spanish conquistador confronted by the Pacific Ocean, having crossed the New World:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Cortez is of course the embodiment of colonial oppression – another Uncle Philip. Yet Keats’s poem is a celebration of success in overcoming the disadvantages of his educational background – an effusion of pleasure in new knowledge, and in the promise of further knowledge yet to come. That such knowledge might include ‘new planets’ as radically different from the old as Utopia was different from Europe has been the hope of imaginative writers since the sixteenth century – and Utopia, too, was located in the New World. Carter’s final phrase contains, then, the hope of new knowledge – even as it reminds us of the poetry Melanie imbibed at school, not all of it dedicated to the celebration of oppressors or of marriage. It sums up the hopes and fears of her epoch as quirkily and vividly as the rest of the book does. And one might surmise, too, that it instructs her readers in the state of mind they should entertain when approaching her experimental fiction.

[1] Angela Carter, Shaking a Leg: Collected Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1998), pp. 323 and 107.

[2] Quotations are from Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2009).

Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising

UnknownChristmas is the time when fantasies break loose, invading spaces they don’t usually occupy: your living room, offices, public thoroughfares, rubbish bins, most of the screens of the local multiplex cinema. But the fantasies of Christmas aren’t always comforting. This was always a time for ghost stories, tales designed to convert the shiver of cold into the shiver of fear. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) is a Christmas story. And festive stories invariably present the feast as under siege, haunted like Scrooge by the possibility of losing touch with its cheer for ever under pressure from a clutch of enemies: the Mouse King in Hoffmann’s Nutcracker (1816), the Wolves in The Box of Delights (1935), the goblins and the Nazis in Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters (1920-1942), the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the vagaries of the market in The Mouse and his Child (1967). In all these cases the threat to Christmas can be traced, with a bit of imagination, to sources outside the text: the Napoleonic wars that turned all young men into passive instruments in other men’s hands, like nutcrackers; fear of poverty; the shadows of the First World War, the Second World War, the War in Vietnam. Susan Cooper’s novel The Dark is Rising (1973), however – the second instalment in the sequence of that title – is unusual in that it never gives the assault on Christmas a face. The main antagonist, the Rider, seems to have been casually thrown together to provide the forces of the Dark with a focus, but he’s never really threatening, never even really present in any convincing way. At one point he confronts the protagonist, Will Stanton, in the role of a decoy, distracting attention from the real source of the Dark’s assault on the house where Will is staying, which is always inside, always located in the person or thought you’ve invited into your house and into your mind. The most drastic manifestation of malevolence in the book is the cold, and it’s tempting to see this as an allusion to the Cold War that was raging at the time; after all, Will’s favourite brother Stephen is in the navy and therefore on the front line of the global standoff. But the Dark’s lack of a face is what sets this book apart, and to set a name on it is to diminish the narrative, to make it smaller and less strange than it is while you are reading.

file_20414_0_darkisrisingteaseI was unsettled by this book when I read it as a teenager. For me, Will Stanton lived in my house: a big 1930s former Telephone Exchange, made of brick with metal windows, in a Surrey village (in fact Will lives in Berkshire). There was a church nearby, like Will’s, where I sang in the choir; a local Jacobean manor; large dogs bounding around in the hallway sweeping precious objects off tables with their muscular tails; and so many members of the extended family present that it was easy to creep off and find a place to be on your own (in my case, usually to read a book like The Dark is Rising). I loved the heavy snowfall that envelops this familiar landscape at the beginning of the novel, transforming Will’s world into a suitable backdrop for magic, just as I’d seen the Surrey landscape transformed from time to time. I loved the use of rooks as agents of evil – they had always struck me as uncanny birds, and there were masses of them in the yews along Vicarage Road. I loved the metamorphosis of a modern English woodland into a vast medieval forest: my own district, the Weald of Surrey, could easily be taken for an unbroken forest when you looked out across the wooded landscape from Jenner’s Field, where we walked the dogs. And I loved the seamlessness of the regular shifts in the narrative from the familiar domestic magic of Christmas to the inconceivably ancient magic of the Old Ones. But the book made me uneasy all the same, unlike any of the other festive tales I’ve listed.

wpid-photo-7-dec-2012-1336The shifts in Cooper’s book between past and present, present and past, reminded me of the way John Masefield executes similar transitions in his novels for children. Indeed, while I was reading it this time round I noticed how deeply Cooper was indebted to the second of Masefield’s children’s books, The Box of Delights: from the catchphrase of her novel, ‘the Dark is rising’, which echoes Masefield’s (‘the Wolves are Running’), to the triggering of magic at the beginning by the presence of an old wanderer from another epoch; from the unseasonably snowy weather to the focus on songs and music throughout the narrative (an entire choir gets itself kidnapped in The Box of Delights). Masefield’s old wanderer is called Cole Hawlings, and he gives Kay an object that makes the boy and his family the target of repeated attacks by the forces of evil, led by the smooth-tongued Abner Brown. Cooper’s wanderer is called Hawkin – the echo must surely be intentional – and he too gives something to Will, an object that again makes Will and his family the target of repeated attacks. In both cases the object in question endows its young possessor with certain powers. Cole Hawlings is later kidnapped or ‘scrobbled’ by Brown’s gang, just as Will’s sister is ‘nobbled’ by the Dark in the final act of his adventure, to be used as a bargaining tool for the objects of power the boy has been collecting. And both books feature Herne the Hunter, that mythical figure – part man part stag – from Windsor Forest, whose most famous literary appearance is in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where he is impersonated by that fat old con artist Sir John Falstaff. The big difference, though, is that Masefield’s novels are warm-hearted affairs, full of genial characters like the wicked old lady in The Midnight Folk (1927) who sings smugglers’ songs while quaffing rum in bed; or Kay’s cousin little Maria in The Box of Delights, who was expelled from three schools and owns a pair of revolvers with which ‘she shoots old electric light bulbs dangling from a clothes-line’. The Dark is Rising, by contrast, plunges Will into the cold: not just a bout of unseasonably bad weather, but a chilly supernatural community that seems to regard ordinary human beings as lesser creatures, to be sacrificed when necessary for what they consider the greater good. I found this idea unsettling, as I say, and it was only with this rereading that I’ve managed to put my finger on why.

The Old Ones are part of the problem. They’re a select club of seemingly immortal guardians of the Light which you cannot join by choice: choice is only involved, we are told, when you decide to betray them, as the mortal man Hawkin does, and as the Rider may have done at some point (although time doesn’t work in the same way for Old Ones like him). The man Hawkin is punished by being made to live on for centuries carrying a Sign which must be passed on to the last of the Old Ones – despite the fact that his betrayal arose from a situation beyond his control, when he was placed under more pressure than an ordinary man could bear. This brings out another troubling aspect of the Old Ones’ club: everything they say and do seems to have been preordained. Will has already always been ‘the Sign-Seeker’ when he first finds out he’s an Old One on his eleventh birthday. The inevitability of his role is consolidated by the fact that he’s the seventh son of a seventh son – always traditionally the most magical of situations to be born in. Yet he can make mistakes, and presumably fail in the quest he has been assigned: to collect six powerful Signs that will help the Old Ones in their struggle against the Dark. Each of the Signs manifests itself to him only after he has been tested, and the last of these tests involves the sacrifice of a member of his family: he must refuse to hand over the Signs in exchange for the life of his sister Mary. Without any choice of his own, then, Will is expected to transfer his loyalties, at the age of eleven, from his family to a weird cult from outside time, and in the process put his relatives in danger. In the process, too, he must learn to consider them inferior to himself. ‘Ordinary’ people have no part in the struggle between Light and Dark, and he must keep secrets from his family – even from his much-loved brother Paul, who suspects more than anyone else that something outlandish is going on in Will’s life. Worse still, Will must manipulate Paul like a puppet in order to save him. During one attack of the Dark he switches off Paul’s mind, leaving him ‘tranquil and empty, unaware’ as if in a coma. And when the attack is over he wipes his memory. That’s a terrible power to have – messing to that extent with people’s minds; and people who possess such a power are clearly dangerous; it wouldn’t take much to think of them as profoundly malevolent (as Hawkin does when he decides to betray the Old Ones). Cooper’s book has been called Manichean, in the sense that it sets Good and Evil against each other in equal struggle. But the two sides are not so easily distinguished; at least, they weren’t to my mind when I first encountered them as a teenager. I would have rejected them both, I thought, if I’d been in Will’s position.

The_Dark_Is_RisingThis was largely because of a particularly disturbing scene in the book that takes place on Christmas Day. The Dark attacks the parish church in the form of a storm of the mind, a psychological assault too powerful, we’re told, to be borne by ordinary mortals; yet the local rector tries to face it down with the power of prayer: ‘he stumbled a few paces nearer the church door, like a man struggling through waves in the sea, and leaning forward slightly made a sweeping sign of the Cross’. The watching Old Ones comment dispassionately on this useless act of defiance: ‘“Poor brave fellow,” said John Smith in the Old Speech. “This battle is not for his fighting. He is bound to think so, of course, being in his church”’. It’s an odd situation, I remember thinking, where ancient pagan magic is identified as operating independently of any religion. The rector later assumes it was the sign of the cross that repelled the Dark, but the Old Ones tell him he is wrong, because the protective Signs Will carries, each of which contains a cross, are much older than Christianity. As a teenage reader I thought it strange that any religion should be asked to consider its central tenets and symbols as relevant only to the historical period when they were formulated or took place; after all, medieval theologians found foreshadowings or ‘types’ of Christ everywhere in texts written before his birth. I think I also suspected that the separation of the forces of magic from the forces of religion leaves magic effectively unshackled from history itself, without any connection to ordinary people. In the days when magic was most widely practised it was inseparable from religion, as the historian Keith Thomas demonstrated in Religion and the Decline of Magic, published the year after The Dark is Rising. If Cooper’s magic isn’t religious, then it’s not related to the history of the world; it’s something separate, set apart, a narrative with which we have no intellectual or imaginative points of contact, practised by people who live among us but with whom we have no available means of communication.

That was what bewildered me, then: the sense of a supernatural community that was unshackled from the narrative of history. The Old Ones can move freely back and forth in time – sometimes without a conduit, sometimes by way of a pair of magic doors in the air like the one Aslan sets up at the end of Prince Caspian (1951). For this reason, the oldest of the Old Ones, Merriman Lyon, knows the future as well as he knows the past. He knows, for instance, what Will’s singing voice will sound like when it breaks: it ‘will be baritone,’ he comments at one point; ‘pleasant, but nothing special’. There’s a crushing weight of judgement here, as well as knowledge: Merriman has no doubt whatever that his assessment of Will’s future musical talent is correct. Would a mortal agree with him, I wondered? And what else does he know? Is everything in Will’s future life accessible to the Old Ones? If so, where does that leave the mental faculty after which the youngest of the Old Ones might have been named: free will? Nowhere, I suspected – and I still suspect this, though it doesn’t worry me now so much as assure me of the novel’s originality, its experimental daring, its willingness to risk alienating its readers.

The shocking length of the Old Ones’ perspective is brought home to us when Will finds the sign of stone in the wall of the church, soon after the episode with the rector:

The glowing thing came out of the wall easily from a break in the stucco where the Chiltern flints of the wall showed through. It lay on his palm: a circle, quartered by a cross. It had not been cut into that shape. Even through the light in it, Will could see the smooth roundness of the sides that told him this was a natural flint, grown in the Chiltern chalk fifteen million years ago.

To be part of a story this old is to have one’s past and future cut, or rather grown, in stone. Some of the other signs Will finds in the book touch human history: the sign of fire, for instance, has an Old English phrase on it meaning ‘Light had me made’; the signs of iron and bronze may or may not have been made by Wayland the Smith, who at least resembles a man. But the sign of wood seems to have grown inside the tree from which it’s taken: ‘There was no irregularity to it at all, as though it had never had any other shape than this’; and the sign of water, which comes to Will from the hand of a dead king, ‘is one of the oldest,’ Merriman tells him, ‘and the most powerful’. And there are additional signs all over the Berkshire landscape. Near the beginning of the novel, a hillside has the Old Ones’ symbol on it ‘cut through snow and turf into the chalk beneath the soil’; near the end, an island surrounded by water is divided in four by streams, making the Sign as if of its own volition. The story of the Old Ones is embedded in a past and present that has nothing to do with human beings, and as this becomes more obvious (a sign cut in a hillside is a human thing; an island spontaneously forming a familiar shape just isn’t) the notion of being an Old One becomes increasingly alien: almost Lovecraftian in its alienness, I’m tempted to say. These people show affection for one another, especially towards the end of the book. They show occasional concern for human beings: Merriman rescues Mary after Will has effectively given her up for the sake of the Signs. But the secret knowledge they share, absorbed from a magic book that gives them a hundred years’ experience in a few minutes, means that they occupy a different plane from ours – and there’s something desperately lonely in this thought, especially for the youngest of them, Will, who by the end of the book has only been an Old One, at least to his knowledge, for less than two weeks. He’s irrevocably changed by then. He speaks from time to time in a strange new voice, far removed from the vocabulary and content of a boy’s; there’s no indication that he’ll have any say about his future; and there’s no one in his family he can confide in. No wonder I was disconcerted by the novel’s ending, which leaves Will stranded like Robinson Crusoe on an alien shore.

DarkRising6Few novels, then, could be more accurately described as about the process of ‘coming of age’ (‘coming of extreme old age’ would be even more accurate). There are no formal rites for this process in many modern cultures, and Will’s father points this out near the beginning: ‘We should have some special kind of ceremony’, he suggests, to mark his youngest son’s arrival at ‘double-ones’. That ‘ceremony’ comes soon after in the form of a fall of snow; but the snow outstays its welcome, evolving from a Christmas card decoration or a child’s plaything to a country-wide menace. It’s snow that’s out of time, coming too thickly at the wrong time of year, staying too long, melting at last into a flood that’s as deadly as the cold was. And it helps to represent ‘coming of age’ as a fundamental shift in one’s perception of time. The child exists in a single temporal framework, concerned with the moment-to-moment gratification or frustration of her own desires and expectations. The adult recognizes countless claims on her time: the claims of the workplace, of family and friends of different ages, of government, the market, the changing body, learning, history, desire and so on. The Dark is Rising dramatizes the child’s encounter with this crazy congeries of time frames, in which one has to choose which time frame to prioritize at any given moment. It dramatizes too the fact that this is no real choice: that you find yourself all at once in a frantic race to get things done against the clock, without the leisure to consider which clock you’re following. It represents this, with terrible honesty, as a chilling encounter as well as an exhilarating one. And setting this moment of transition at Christmas was a stroke of genius: the time when emotional warmth clashes with the chill of fear or isolation; when elaborate plans get overthrown by unexpected reversals – of weather or of political or social crisis; when work and school come to a stop, and all generations with their different time frames converge in one place, so that time itself for a while goes haywire. All this at a time when the insanity of Cold War lay in the background, a shapeless fear in people’s minds, which surfaced from time to time in uncontrollable waves of fear, and whose antagonists couldn’t easily be sorted into good and bad, right and wrong. That’s a heady combination of temporal ingredients, and Cooper sets them against one another with the timing of a fine musician. One suspects that the prominence of music in the book is no accident, though most of the music in it seems to be performed solo, not as the polyphonic fusion of rhythms one might have expected.

I’m grateful to have had her complex book as part of my own coming of age in the 1970s.

Stella Benson, Living Alone

Stella BensonFantasy flourishes in wartime. Perhaps this is because it’s so clearly impossible to reconcile the orderly narratives of history, as taught in schools, newspapers and family anecdotes, with the mechanized slaughter of thousands in a chaos of bullets and shrapnel. Tolkien’s private mythology found fertile soil in the mud of the trenches. Lord Dunsany forged his post-war persona as a latter-day Don Quixote on the Front near Ypres, and perhaps also on the streets of Dublin, when he was wounded in the Easter Rising. And the feminist Stella Benson found a means of expressing her experiences as a worker on the Home Front in a remarkable novella, Living Alone (1919), which is more clearly a product of wartime than any other fantasy I can think of. Despite its willfully eccentric contents – an illiterate soldier who is also a wizard, a woman who keeps company with a cheeky East End Cupid, a boarding house for lonely people run by a witch, a magic battle fought on broomsticks over London – it gives an extraordinarily vivid account of the absurdities and frustrations of life in the metropolis during the Great War. It’s all there: rationing, the policing of the poor by charitable committees run by the middle and upper classes, ubiquitous propaganda, taking shelter in a church crypt during a bombing raid, middle-class women working the land, a policeman threatening to read the Riot Act to an unruly crowd. The presence of magic through all these events seems to represent a state of mind that’s easily acquired during wartime, combining a sense of incongruity, horror and profound disconnect in the face of state insanity dressed up as reason. But it also represents a celebration of the beauty that continues to flourish, against all odds, in the face of conflict, and which vaunts itself most strikingly in the cruelest month of the year, T.S. Eliot’s April, the month when the novel begins.

$(KGrHqZ,!nQE-)r!ncRbBPypIbH7Tg~~60_35Benson kept a detailed diary all her life, and her novels are said to be drawn in part from its pages. Living Alone certainly gives the impression of a prolonged self-analysis, coupled with precise observation of the minutiae of seasonal change in the capital. The central character, Sarah Brown, shares Benson’s initials, her proneness to pulmonary illness, her passion for dogs, her distaste for physical contact with her fellow human beings. She is self-effacing, at first not even being named as a member of the committee we meet in the opening chapter, and always convinced of her own incompetence and inability to participate, even in the magical events she is one of the few to witness. The committee, which is dedicated to the questionable task of instructing the poor in the art of saving, uses her as its general dogsbody because she is willing but not terribly efficient. She works the land but is too sick and weak to weed a row of beans. She falls in love but knows from the start that the man she loves will have no interest in her. This gives the novel an air of wistful cynicism, the tone of a tome which is all too aware that many of its readers will dismiss its contents as so much drivel. This is not least because the narrator, Stella Benson, shares Sarah’s self-effacing tendencies, dismissing her own book as not a ‘real’ one (‘This is not a real book’, the preface tells us), just as Sarah thinks herself not a ‘real woman’ because she can’t get interested in what other women think important: their bodies, clothes, marriage, money, romances featuring two or more persons, conversation. The witch’s boarding house after which the novel is named – the House of Living Alone – is likewise ‘not a real house’ to those who believe no self-respecting hostel could fail to charge a decent rent. Neither narrator nor protagonist will have an appreciable effect on the world, according to the two S.B.s. But in recording the things that have no appreciable effect – dancing in the garden, sitting on clouds, the aesthetic impact of atmospheric conditions, a journey on horseback through an Enchanted Forest – the book also conjures up an atmosphere of quiet resistance to the inflexible assumptions about ‘reality’ entertained by successful people, a resistance which has been practised through the ages by lonely and ailing adepts of the imagination.

after (Percy) Wyndham Lewis, lithograph, 1932
after (Percy) Wyndham Lewis, lithograph, 1932

When I read that Stella Benson was a suffragette and that this novel had witches in it, I imagined witchcraft as a metaphor for liberation, singing the pleasures of unhindered aerial acrobatics in the teeth of official opposition to female self-empowerment. I wasn’t far wrong. The witch, who has no name or origin, is always exposing the absurdity of the establishment figures she meets with her wide-eyed astonishment at their hypocrisies, and the passage where she dances on the lawn in the early morning is supremely lyrical. But Sarah Brown never makes friends with the witch – friendship is another of the things she cannot do well – and her efforts to protect her from a punitive law backfire at the end of the book, resulting in their permanent separation. Having access to magic in this novel is largely a recipe for isolation, and in this it’s a direct precursor to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s celebrated novel about witchcraft, Lolly Willowes (1926). Warner, too, expresses scepticism about women’s capacity to take advantage of their natural affinity for magic without being drawn back into the power schemes of men. Her protagonist, Laura, is well aware that her witch’s powers may have been granted to her by a male, the Devil himself, and remains wary of what he might demand of her in return. Laura’s attraction to witchcraft springs from her wish not to participate in the world prepared for women, the world of marriage, social visits and placid subservience. She likes the fact that witches live alone, deriving their energy from their dreams, their work, their animal companions; so Satan’s involvement in awaking her powers would be unwelcome even if it didn’t involve the perpetual damnation of her immortal soul.

Sarah Brown doesn’t get mixed up with Satan, largely because she remains an observer of magic throughout the novel, not a practitioner: a member of the ‘magically-inclined minority’ for whom the book is intended, to quote the preface, not ‘magic’ herself. As a result the book ends with a greater sense of loneliness and loss than Lolly Willowes, as Sarah begs the witch not to leave her friendless and ill on the shores of America, a land she sweepingly condemns as having been drained of magic by its citizens’ commitment to capitalism. Her self-imposed status as an outsider finds its ultimate expression in this ending, which strands her as an expatriate on hostile shores, like Benson herself, who spent the rest of her life abroad after leaving Britain at the end of the war.

0893768739e31d8e4fc642d6564bc495Sarah’s loneliness is the more pronounced because it’s not the only available state of being for the ‘magically-inclined’. A fellow lodger in the witch’s boarding house is a working-class woman, Peony, who has been haunted in recent years by an imaginary friend: a boy she calls Elbert, whose poor vision, perpetual youth and propensity for loosing his toy arrows in all directions identifies him as Cupid, child-god of desire. Like Cupid, the boy brings nothing but trouble. It’s Elbert who gets Peony sacked from her job on the assumption that he’s her illegitimate son, and who later brings her a lover called Richard, a soldier home on leave with a gift for magic. Richard’s presence in her life means that Peony will for ever be identified by charitable committees as an ‘unmarried wife’. A magic husband and a supernatural child, however, ensure that Peony will get a fairy tale happy ending. Men like Richard never get killed at the Front, she tells Sarah, and magic children never desert you, for all the periods of loneliness you suffer during their periods of absence. These periods of loneliness derive in part from doubt: at one point Peony begins to suspect that young Elbert is the Devil himself and flees from his riotous influence. Pretty soon, though, she succumbs again to his charm and makes peace with her well-founded fear that he will one day hurt her. The ‘hurt’ the boy brings her is unemployment and the status of a pariah – an unmarried wife. But she also escapes the fear that attaches itself to beloved males in wartime: that a boy will grow up to be conscripted, that a conscripted man will have his life cut short by a bullet. She ends the book scandalously ensconced at a place called Higgins Farm in Faery, ‘a fine place,’ as she points out, ‘for a boy such as Elbert to be born in’. So one person in the book, at least, gets an improbable happily ever after – though there is some doubt as to how permanent it is, given that at one point Sarah sees a castle that has been abandoned after the prince who owned it was conscripted.

The ‘everlasting boy’ Elbert, as a chapter heading dubs him, represents a singular characteristic of magic people in Benson’s world: their youth. For Benson (or her narrator) magic people are differentiated from everyone else by the fact that they have been born for the first time in this life, whereas everyone else has been born and reborn many times over, giving them a sense of wearisome overfamiliarity with the cruelties and contradictions of human culture. To magic people, by contrast, ‘magic alone is commonplace, everything else is unknown, unguessed, and undespised’. As a result they see and behave like children. The witch dances in the early morning ‘in a very far from grown-up way, rather like a baby that has thought of a new funny way of annoying its Nana’. The magic man Richard cannot strike a match on his trousers. Peony reverts to a state of childlike wonder when Elbert shows her Euston Station looking like a faery mountain, with the passengers in it like ‘the Little People they tell of, that lives inside ’ills, an’ on’y comes out under the moon’. When the witch is injured in hand-to-hand combat over London she chooses to heal herself in Kensington Gardens, where that other everlasting boy, Peter Pan, spent his infancy before emigrating to Neverland. Richard invites Sarah Brown to work at his faery farm on condition she agrees not to be ‘clever’, and instead lets herself surrender to the childish emotions of surprise and pleasure. Flying over those enchanted fields, even a warplane loses its sense of duty and turns childishly playful: ‘It leaps upon imaginary Boches, it stands upon its head and falls downward until the very butterflies take cover, it stands upon its tail and falls upward, it writes messages in a flowing hand across the sky and returns to cross the t’s’. Only after a prolonged display of skittishness does the plane abruptly recollect the ‘European war that gave it birth’ and return to its flightpath, cheered on by the faery farm workers.

Like the warplanes, Sarah Brown is no native of the fields of faery. She is too conscious of the distance that lies between herself and the young, fresh vision of the magic people, too racked by chest pains to let herself get carried away for long by beauty, love or laughter. As a result, she shares the committee’s consternation in the opening chapter when the witch decides to show them a glimpse of youth in its purest form: a ‘forgotten April’. The narrator, her namesake Benson, shares their consternation too:

Oh, let us flee from April! We are but swimmers in seas of words, we members of committees, and to the song of April there are no words. What do we know, and what does London know, after all these years of learning?

Old Mother London crouches, with her face buried in her hands; and she is walled in with her fogs and her loud noises, and over her head are the heavy beams of her dark roof, and she has the barred sun for a skylight, and winds that are but hideous draughts rush under her door. London knows much, and every moment she learns a new thing, but this she shall never learn – that the sun shines all day and the moon all night on the silver tiles of her dark house, and that the young months climb her walls, and run singing in and out between her chimneys…

Benson conjures up April several more times in the course of the novel – most notably when the witch dances barfeoot in the garden, or when Sarah is picking beans on the faery farm – but she never fails to remind her readers of the artifice of her acts of conjuration, insisting on its ‘not realness’ even as she makes it feel real with dazzling feats of verbal legerdemain. ‘This is a book of fine weather’, she tells us at one point, ‘a book written in Spring. I will not remember the winter and the rain’. Later she reminds us: ‘But no rain fell. Rain cannot fall in this book of fine weather’. Jerked out of our dream of reading, we’re reminded of the physical book we are holding in our hands, just as we are at the end of Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist when she tells us that the written word is a will-o’-the-wisp which is not to be trusted. The finest weather in the book occurs in the Enchanted Forest:

Just as the sun upon a stormy day makes golden a moving and elusive acre in our human woods, so the night in the Enchanted Forest comes and goes like a ghost upon the sight of lovers of the night. For there you may step, unastonished, from the end of a day into its beginning; there the summer and the winter may dodge each other round one tree; there you may see at one glance a spring hoar frost and an autumn trembling of airs, a wild cherry tree blossoming beside a tawny maple.

But a few pages later Benson reminds us – even as Sarah thinks it – that the ‘Enchanted Forest is only an accumulation of dreams, and from every traveller through it it exacts toll in the shape of a dream. By way of receipt, to every traveller it gives a darling memory that neither death nor hell nor paradise can efface’. The Forest isn’t real, though it can live on in the mind more vividly than any real-life recollection. It’s been brought alive by an act of strenuous creation, and both Brown and Benson are keen to inform us of the imaginative labour that has gone into its devising.

A little later Richard tells Sarah, as they walk back to the ordinary world through the Enchanted Forest, another theory of magic to match the earlier one about magic people who are born for the first time. Like fantasy, he tells her, magic flourishes in wartime: ‘So gross and so impossible and so unmagic was [the war’s] cause, that magic, which had been virtually dead, rose again to meet it’. As a result there is now

more magic in the world than ever before. The soil of France is alive with it, and as for Belgium – when Belgium gets home at last she will find her desecrated house enchanted… And the same applies to all the thresholds in the world which fighting-men have crossed and will never cross again, except in the dreams of their friends. That sort of austere and secret magic, like a word known by all and spoken by none, is pretty nearly all that is left to keep the world alive now…

By this measure, Stella Benson’s unreal book is a real contribution to the war effort – even if she, like her double Sarah Brown, cannot make much of a physical contribution owing to illness. Her book keeps the world alive by giving names to dogs and suitcases and hot water bottles, by celebrating early morning dances and spring weather, by finding a place for Cupid in the anti-romantic mess of international conflict, and by setting up a boarding house for lonely people in a city that only has room for those of its citizens who serve the collective well-being as defined by an imperialist bureaucracy.

1926 witchvBut Stella Benson isn’t quite a believer in the realness and efficacy of magic. Her fantasy is fragile, a thing fashioned of words and learning, themselves alien to the kind of magic it describes (Richard is illiterate, the witch and the boy Elbert have no names). Her book is a form of compensation for not having magic, a conjuration of it, not the thing itself. And once you notice the fragility of wartime and post-war fantasy like hers, you can see it everywhere. Lord Dunsany’s most celebrated novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), contains a seeker after magic, Prince Alveric, whom the world thinks mad – and his apparent madness doesn’t in itself grant him access to the place he is seeking, Elfland. The protagonist of Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), Nathaniel Chanticleer, fears magic as much as he desires it, and is by no means contented when he finally succeeds in having his country overrun with fairies. As we’ve seen, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s heroine in Lolly Willowes (1926) has little confidence in her ability to practise witchcraft uninterfered with by men or devils. It’s only when we get to 1928 and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography that we finally get a hero or heroine who feels at home with the magic he or she gets mixed up in. The brutal logic of guns and bombs may have made magic rise again to meet it, as Richard claimed, but it left the ‘magically-inclined minority’ profoundly shaken.

This is not surprising, really, and Benson shows us why. At one point in Living Alone, during a bombing raid, the nameless witch finds herself sitting on a cloud beside a German witch who has been fighting to protect the bombers. She engages her in conversation, asking: ‘As one Crusader to another […] do you think it does much good in the war against Evil to drop bombs on people in their homes?’  But she never succeeds in convincing her fellow witch of the futility of urban bombing campaigns. The two women find it easy enough to communicate despite their linguistic differences, but they can’t get through to each other. Living alone must sometimes have felt like the universal human condition in 1919.

Luckily, things have changed in the twenty-first century.

Secrets of the Fantastic Short Story

tumblr_ni2qbhNsuY1rzim2co1_500What makes a great fantasy short story? I recently read six of them, mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, and it struck me that they have a lot in common. All are what Farah Mendlesohn calls ‘intrusive fantasy’: narratives in which something impossible breaks through into the world we think we know. All are concerned with entrapment, which is a theme ideally suited to the narrow confines of short fiction. Several involve an element of hesitation on the part of the reader: are we facing the representation of a genuinely fantastic event or is the protagonist the victim of a delusion? Since illness features in all of them, the question of what’s real and what’s imagined is foregrounded in each narrative, though each of them treats that question in a different way.

These are the stories:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, 1892
Franz Kafka, ‘The Transformation’, 1915
Max Beerbohm, ‘Enoch Soames’, 1916
Walter de la Mare, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, 1922
D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’, 1926
Dorothy Haynes, ‘Changeling’, 1947

Five of these tales were written in the shadow of war. ‘The Transformation’ and ‘Enoch Soames’ took shape while war was raging in Europe, while de la Mare, Haynes and Lawrence composed their stories in the extended aftermath of global conflict. Yet none of them mentions war (with one exception: Bassett in ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ was Uncle Oscar’s batman or military servant, who got a gardening job with Oscar’s family after being invalided out of the army with a wounded foot); an odd omission, one might think, given how large it must have loomed in the lives of the writers. But then fantasy often makes a point of turning away from public events to explore what’s unsaid and unseen in official culture (as Rosemary Jackson puts it in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion). These texts address the wars fought on the domestic front, and much of what’s at stake in these vicious skirmishes concerns the things that are ignored or set aside, neglected, shunned or actively suppressed. Such suppressions are part of a cultural milieu that makes war possible; the fields of Flanders and the slowly decaying house in ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ are woven out of the same fabric. The suggestion in these narratives of unseen malevolent or tormented presences could easily be taken for an acknowledgement of the close proximity, in time and space, of inexplicable slaughter.

the_yellow_wallpaper_by_kaitaro04011War thrives on secrets, and each of these stories has a secret at the heart of it. The convalescent narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has secrecy forced on her: her obsession with the wallpaper of the title is something she can’t share with others, and her inability to talk about it means she can confide it only to the pages we are reading, which she has been forbidden to write. Indeed, the wallpaper might be read as an extension of this clandestine process of putting pen to paper, with its grotesquely active lined pattern and the strange images that surface through the lines – funguses, strangled heads, a host of creeping women. The pattern also resembles bars, like the bars on the windows that identify the room where the narrator sleeps – the room with the paper in it – as a former nursery. These bars stand for a different secret: that of her husband, who infantilizes her by refusing to let her write or talk about her feelings, but who presents himself as a benefactor, a physician dedicated to ‘curing’ her of the curse of imagination by barring her from her creative pleasures and her stimulating friends.

Gregor in ‘The Transformation’ is his family’s dark secret, and each of the calamities in the narrative occurs when he emerges uninvited into the public rooms of the flat they live in. His predicament – he has turned into a giant beetle – also seems at times to stand for the reluctance of his bourgeois relatives to acknowledge the material processes (his labour and hard-won earnings) by which they have maintained their middle-class respectability. His work as a commercial traveller is the unacknowledged bug under the family floorboards.

Seaton’s Aunt is Seaton’s secret, in that he has no one he can talk to about her. He can’t articulate her strange tyranny over him, not even to the story’s largely unsympathetic narrator, because it’s not clear that there’s any way of describing exactly who she is or what she represents. His monstrous relative herself has any number of secrets, but only in the sense that she seems to exist on a different plane from anyone else, so that the hidden and unpleasant things she sees with such clarity make the ordinary world a matter of indifference to her – a point of view which is confirmed by her eventual descent into a strangely panoptic blindness.

Rocking Horse WinnerThe boy Paul in Lawrence’s story repeatedly urges his uncle to keep the secret of the fact that he can predict winners at the races by riding his rocking horse at a frenzied gallop. The larger secret of the story, though, is the fact that his mother thinks herself short of money, but cannot say so except to her children, because talking about one’s financial situation is impolite in middle class circles – as too is talking openly about depression or one’s own unhappy marriage.

peake-004Seven-year-old Moreen in ‘Changeling’, like Seaton or the narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, has a secret in spite of all her efforts to make it public. She can’t persuade anyone to listen to her when she tells them she can see a witch outside her window, sitting astride a gargoyle on the church steeple. She isn’t listened to in Fairyland, either, when the witch comes through her window and carries her off to live among the Wee Folk. The fairies have had her brought to them as a plaything, and resent her persistent refusal to be playful. And no one listens to her when the witch takes her home again after a year of changing seasons among the little people, and she finds herself confronted as a child of eight with her grown-up replacement, the changeling of the title. The woman’s reaction to the little girl’s arrival on her doorstep is to send for the doctor, no doubt for psychological assessment and incarceration, perhaps in a disused nursery. The story closes with the misting over of the window through which Moreen first saw the witch – and through which she can still see her, older and more gnarled, at the end of the narrative. The misted glass obscures but does not erase the fact of the witch’s existence. In the same way, the story has sketched out the precise details of the wee folk (‘sharp as thorns and shrill as treble chanters’) and their country (‘Yellow leaves soaked sodden into the lake, and rain and frost raced each other over the brilliant berries’) so that they become part of the reader’s memories, despite the bleak mundaneness of the story’s ending.

220px-Enoch-soamesThe one narrative in the list without a secret is ‘Enoch Soames’. Indeed, the story is cruelly explicit about the facts of Soames’s case, which is that he yearns to be made immortal through his writing and instead finds himself made immortal by the writing of Max Beerbohm, whose short story is the only place where his name survives beyond his death. If there is a secret here, it’s the knowledge implicitly shared between Beerbohm and the reader that Soames is in fact no fiction, that this forgotten man really existed and is trapped somewhere, even now, in the devil’s clutches. The potency of this implied shared secret is attested by the desire of some readers to add to the puzzle set up by Beerbohm by staging in their turn an ‘actual’ visit of Soames to the Reading Room of the British Museum in the 1990s, at the exact time to which he was transported by the Devil in the story, and in the exact location where he searched in vain for evidence of his literary immortality. This imaginative extension of Beerbohm’s story into actual twentieth-century history is invited by the author, who fills his tale with references to real events and living people, and even introduces himself into the story as character as well as narrator. But it also represents what seems to me a widespread attitude to the best fantasy short stories: that they are the special secrets of their readers, making us into a cohort of initiates who have been collectively imprinted with their disturbing images and seduced by their strange intelligence, and who recognize each other by certain hallmarks when we meet in public places such as libraries, cafés and second hand bookshops.

MetamorphosisThe notion of private, solitary secrets (which ironically make a kind of secret family out of their initiates) has in most of these stories a social equivalent: a powerful clandestine community whose membership is often exclusively male, and which has its own ‘official’ secrets, its own specialized discourse, designed to exclude and diminish those who don’t know it. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ that community is the medical profession, to which the narrator’s brother and husband belong and into which women can only intrude if they are prepared to serve as acolytes – like the husband’s Sister, the capitalization of whose title marks her out as a hospital official. In ‘The Transformation’ there are several communities from which Gregor is excluded by virtue of his change: the workforce from whom he absents himself as a result of his condition, and from whose company he is barred at once – despite his conviction that he still speaks their language – because they can suddenly no longer understand a word he says. The family, whose notions of solidarity and mutual support he has violated by changing. The three bearded and identical gentlemen lodgers, who take advantage of his presence in the apartment to discharge themselves of the obligation to pay their rent. In ‘Enoch Soames’ the closed community is that of the artistic set of the decadent 1890s who both tolerate and scorn Enoch’s presence among them; and later the community of scholars in the 1990s, who turn him into a spectacle when he visits the British Museum of the future. Unlike Gregor, Enoch speaks the language of the group he longs to join – the decadent artists – with apparent fluency, but the words he uses are empty signifiers, and he continues to use them, and to imbibe the toxic fluid, absinthe, that marked out the artistic set from their contemporaries, long after the rest of that community has moved on to other discourses, other poisons. His scholarly labours, too, prove fruitless, because the only evidence of his existence in the British Museum turns out to be the story we’re reading, ‘Enoch Soames’, which turns him into a work of art. That, at least, is a kind of immortality, though for Enoch such immortality would be hell. He expected perpetual fame, but not as a verbal construct in someone else’s fiction; he planned to be remembered as a shining light, not as the apotheosis of dimness. Another open secret in the story, then, is that it’s Beerbohm rather than the Devil who has condemned his own protagonist to eternal torment.

In ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ the closed male community is that of the school. Running through the narrative – and standing out for a twenty-first century reader by virtue of its obsolescence – is the jargon of the Edwardian boarding school, which Seaton strives to use properly but repeatedly violates (he swears, for instance, which is forbidden by some unspoken agreement among his fellow pupils). Lawrence’s story inverts the situation: the boy Paul finds himself admitted into the brotherhood of the turf, speaks its jargon and gains its respect (with considerable winnings). But for Lawrence masculinity has been irretrievably damaged by the rise of capitalism, and by the apex of that rise, the mechanized war from which the world had just emerged. Paul’s mother dismisses her husband as ‘unlucky’ because his earnings aren’t enough to cover the costs of an upper middle class family. The gardener Bassett’s war injury has turned him into an object of charity, forcing him into companionship with a child rather than grown men. Young Paul struggles to find security by swearing his adult friends to silence about his many secrets; his perpetual mantra is the phrase ‘honour bright’, rendered ironic by the fact that the term ‘honour’ has been permanently tarnished by its overuse in the context of mass murder. The only successful man in the story is Uncle Oscar, who finds common ground with his nephew and his former batman by virtue of their common interest in the races. But he doesn’t come to visit when the child is dying, although he has enriched himself at Paul’s expense. And his belated words of sympathy for his dead nephew (‘poor devil, poor devil’) identify the boy as the unluckiest of the unlucky, a moral and economic reject who has never reached manhood. Uncle Oscar is the scourge of masculinity, not its epitome, and this is brought home to us by the fact that we never see him utter these words: it is his disembodied ‘voice’ that speaks them in the story’s closing lines, like the voice of a self-satisfied deity pronouncing its judgement from behind a screen of obscuring clouds.

In each of these stories, it’s the buildings inhabited by the central characters that both keep and reveal their secrets. Claustrophobic and insanitary, they conceal rooms that turn into prisons whose doors are locked by the inmates – as in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – or ‘echo and answer in […] a medley of infinite small stirrings and whisperings’, as in ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, awakening in their hearers the dreadful awareness of the presence in them of a jailed community of the dead. The locking and opening of doors successively conceal and reveal the noxious presence in the Samsas’ apartment of their shameful insectile relative; while Paul’s house insistently urges on him the irresistible demands of capitalism: ‘the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a kind of ecstasy: “There must be more money! […] There must be more money!”’. Moreen’s home in ‘Changeling’ embodies her imprisonment as the possessor of a truth no one else will acknowledge: ‘The house […] had its windows misted over with damp, and there were lace curtains, and geraniums gasping for air against the panes’. In these stories buildings are strident in bearing witness to the crimes being perpetrated within their walls; and in each the passers-by seem unacquainted with their stony dialect, despite its clarity to the reader, who hears them stirring, whispering, trilling, screaming and gasping as they turn the pages.

Reading RoomOnce again it’s ‘Enoch Soames’ that seems to be the exception. No building dominates: it moves from the Café Royal to various Soho restaurants to the New English Art Club, and in each of these places Soames is the only constant, with his soft hat, his waterproof cape and his incurable dimness. The building everyone remembers from the story is the Reading Room at the British Museum, as seen by the protagonist in the future, and the most striking thing about this is its merciless predictability: its refusal to confirm Soames’s grandiose expectations of discovering his fame in its catalogue; its insistence on fulfilling everyone else’s assumptions about the shape of things to come. On Soames’s return from the future to which he has been sent by his Faustian contract with the devil, Beerbohm questions him as to the people he found there: ‘all of them – men and women alike – looking very well-cared-for? very Utopian? and smelling very strongly of carbolic? and all of them quite hairless?’ Soames’s assent to all these questions may, of course, be due to distraction – he has, after all, every reason to be distracted, since he has just sold his soul to the devil for a glimpse of a future that never took place. His only observation on the future Reading Room is that it is ‘Much as usual’; for him it is no more than a tool, an architectural search engine, and the behavior of the readers merely a nuisance to be ignored as far as possible. For us, on the other hand – the readers of Beerbohm’s story – that ordinariness, the mundanity of the middle desk, the Dictionary of National Biography and the card catalogue, are tools to engineer Soames’s tragedy. The bright light that floods the room from the windows in its famous dome are what mark the dank, ‘dim’ Soames as less than a ghost – a figment spawned by a satire, an image conjured up by words.

Enoch-soames-maxThis ghostliness he shares with the central characters in all the other stories. Each of them fades away as their stories unfold, ignored or forgotten by their closest relatives, their bodies giving way under the strain of sustaining their identity in the face of the impossible – which in each case includes the impossible expectations foisted on them by an inflexible society. The narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ exchanges places with the creeping women from behind the pattern, her trajectory round the nursery-bedroom walls carved out for her, in effect, by her husband’s restriction of her movements. Gregor Samsa’s health declines after his transformation thanks to his family’s shame at his appearance – a shame that takes physical form in the apple that lodges itself in the middle of his back, thrown at him by his irate father in an attempt to force him back into his room. A stronger reason for his decline, however, is his own shame at the trouble he’s causing: ‘His own opinion that he must disappear was if anything even firmer than his sister’s’. Seaton is first diminished then exterminated by his aunt’s contempt; but he is also snuffed out, so to speak, by the contempt of his only friend – the story’s narrator – who is willing, for simplicity’s sake, to accept the aunt’s low opinion of her nephew. Seaton grows incrementally weaker, yellower and more ‘foreign’-looking as the story goes on, until by the end the narrator realizes with a shock that his old schoolfellow had been dead to him for some years before his actual death, buried beneath the piled-up prejudices held against him by his fellow pupils as much as by his aunt’s lifelong certainty that he will soon be added to her ever-expanding collection of captive ghosts.

The boy Paul, meanwhile, like Miles in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, grows feverish under the strain of channeling supernatural forces – or of precociously striving to measure up to the demands and desires of greedy adults. The calling of the doctor at the end of ‘Changeling’ encourages us to predict an anonymous future for Moreen, hidden away in some institution for those whose tales are not worth hearing. She will be disappeared, like the other protagonists, leaving only this curtailed work of fiction as ambiguous evidence that anyone like her ever existed. The great short stories of the fantastic, then, tell the tales of the vanished, the lost, the spurned, the prematurely deceased. And the greatest secret they contain is the secret of who, exactly, was responsible for their disappearance from the pages of history, and for their ghostly resurrection in the pages of story, where what’s lost gets found, for a while, perhaps, depending on the whim of any passing reader.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes

willowes03Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926) is one of a trio of fantasy masterpieces written by British women in the 1920s (Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and this), in the run up to the universal franchise of 1928.

This is by far the least known of the three, but it shares the strangeness of the other two. In some ways, in fact, it’s the strangest of all, because of the way its strangeness creeps up on you. If you’re told it’s about a woman who becomes a witch, you may get the wrong impression: you may assume that it’s about exuberant rebellion, wild midnight dances, the exultation of passionate sexuality and occult powers, but it’s not like that at all. At the beginning Laura Willowes (the name Lolly is thrust on her as a badge of her spinsterhood, a suitable sobriquet for an ageing maiden aunt) assumes she’s part of an unchanging story, the comfortable quasi-aristocratic life in a large house at the turn of the twentieth century – a house to which she literally holds the keys. But the narrative changes: her father dies, a move takes place, she finds herself no longer the protagonist of her own quiet drama but a patronized nanny-figure, lady companion and family servant in her brother’s Bloomsbury household, inhabiting a world of urban polite society she despises, and cut off from the seasonal ebb and flow that delightfully shaped her early years. Her sudden decision to move to the countryside in her late forties – and the way her forties creep up on her in this book is brilliantly observed, as startling as the arrival of The Victorian Age in Woolf’s Orlando – is prompted less by rebellious feelings than by a not wholly understood urge for something very specific, a place, a name (the village she moves to is called Great Mop, itself illogical since there is no Little Mop that anyone’s heard of). And this urge, which doesn’t conform to any of the conventional narratives by which women of her time are expected to explain their motives, becomes the theme of the rest of the book.

Laura doesn’t make ‘friends’ in Great Mop, though she is charmed by the inhabitants. She doesn’t find it beautiful – some of the parts she spends most time in are decidedly ugly. She doesn’t fall in love – the one man she likes there is instantly forgotten as soon as she’s out of his company, and she finds his hens more interesting than he is, since carrying them makes her feel like that magical figure, the ‘henwife’, in old tales. Even when she makes the discovery that most of the inhabitants take part in a nightly Witch’s Sabbath, and is invited to take part, she fails to find that social event any more amusing than her brother’s Bloomsbury parties (though she’s temporarily attracted to some of the participants, which didn’t happen in London). Her powers as a witch don’t work conventionally – and it’s not a witch’s powers that interest her in any case, so much as the witch’s capacity to ignore or forget what others think of her. Finally, when she meets the Devil, patron of witches, her response to him is deeply ambiguous. After all, he’s a powerful male, and powerful men have been a nuisance to her – though she was clearly strongly attached to her powerful father. We’re left at the end of the book not entirely sure what to think of her situation. It’s precarious. She’s liberated in one sense, yet still bound to a male potentate; freed from limiting narratives apart from the most terrifyingly limiting narrative of all, that of the Devil’s right to take eventual possession of her immortal soul. She comforts herself with the thought that neither she nor the Devil have any idea what happens after death (how can he know, since he’s immortal?). But the sense of precariousness remains after you’ve read the final sentence.

One of the things I found fascinating about this book was Townsend Warner’s choice of the Devil as the presiding genius of Lolly Willowes’s ambiguous liberation. It would have been easy to choose Pan instead, and it’s clear that the Devil in this book is very Pan-like. On both occasions when she meets him he adopts the appearance of a rustic man, especially at home in the woods (and for him woods are everywhere: ‘Once a wood, always a wood’, he insists at one point, which explains for Laura the strange feelings she has sometimes got from certain places in the city). Pan was everywhere in fiction between about 1895 and the 1920s: sometimes terrifying (Machen’s The Great God Pan (1890-4)), sometimes unsettling (Forster’s ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1904), Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912), Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan (1928)), sometimes comforting and cuddly (Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (1908)); and he could be used to refer to what was otherwise inexpressible (Forster’s story was about the awakening of homosexual desire, while Stephens’s Pan helps a young woman to free herself from the Irish church’s contempt for the desiring body). But Pan belongs to a dead religion, and from this point of view was a safe figure, safely fantastic, safely impossible, and with an impeccably classical pedigree to justify his inclusion in a respectable middle- or upper-class narrative.

The Devil, on the other hand, is part of a narrative that still had a fierce hold on early twentieth-century British society. He is democratic, in that people of any background may be afraid of him. And he is scary even to non-believers, since the practitioners of Devil-worship have had a universally bad press. Laura’s decision (or is it even a decision? It seems to be thrust on her without her volition) to commit herself to him is therefore disturbing because we genuinely don’t know, as readers, what to make of it. Has she been trapped into making a terrible mistake? Will she free herself from her contract, and if she doesn’t, will she suffer the consequences? Townsend Warner clearly wanted these questions to live on in the reader’s mind after the book has ended, perhaps precisely because the question of women’s freedom and equality with men had not yet found an answer, and wouldn’t find it in 1928, despite the official declaration that they were free at last to participate in the democratic process. The Devil is in the details of such declarations, she might have said (whose definition of democracy were women being invited to collude with?). And it’s in the beautifully observed details of the book, especially of Laura’s always unconventional reactions to the things, events, and people she encounters, that its brilliance lies.

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