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

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

Cover design by John Robert Monsell, Irwin’s husband

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

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

Melusina

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

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

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

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

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

Prospero and Miranda by William Maw Egley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Othello woos Desdemona, by Theodore Chasseriau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viking Berserker Figures, 6th Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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