Fantasy 1939: Lord Dunsany, The Story of Mona Sheehy

[This is the second of two blog posts on Dunsany’s Irish Fiction; the first can be found here.]

Dunsany’s Irish novel of 1939, The Story of Mona Sheehy, is one of a pair, both of which can be read as Quixotic, like the earlier Chronicles of Rodriguez. The first of these is Rory and Bran (1936), about a teenage boy and his dog who are entrusted by the boy’s parents with the daunting task of driving a small herd of cattle to the local market without supervision. The boy is Rory and the dog is Bran, and their mission is rendered more challenging by the fact that the boy is widely regarded as having learning difficulties (his parents agonize for a long time over whether or not he has the ‘wits’ to get the cattle safe to Gurtnaroonagh, pp. 1-5). The narrator, however, is of a different opinion. He often celebrates Bran’s abilities, for instance, and never even mentions till the final chapter the fact that Bran is not a human being; so he clearly does not share the view of intelligence which scorns the idiosyncrasies of eccentric or unusual thinkers. And he makes it clear from the opening pages that Rory’s wits are not so much wanting as sharply focused. The boy is obsessed with the heroes of medieval romance, though his heroes are continental rather than Irish – Roland, Charlemagne, Don Quixote and Arthur of Britain; and he sets out on his adventures determined to prove a latter-day Quixote, with the dog Bran as his Sancho Panza. In this he succeeds, and in doing so offers a model of eccentric but effective dealings with the world to his fellow Irish citizens, a model designed to challenge the homogenizing processes that threaten to subdue 1930s culture to drab and sometimes deadly uniformity.

Ranged against Bran and Rory in their quest to get the cattle to market are a couple of tricksters, reminiscent of the fox and the cat in Collodi’s Pinocchio: a cheating jockey named Fagan and a combative traveller named the O’Harrigan. Between them, these men purloin the cattle from Rory several times and promptly lose them back to him again, often through the intervention of the resourceful Bran. On Rory’s side stands a nameless tinker or traveller, who claims to derive his powers from the moon and who takes the young man under his wing as a kind of apprentice, and a dreamy young girl named Oriana, whose name identifies her with the lover of the medieval hero Amadis de Gaul, so admired of Quixote. But Fagan and the O’Harrigan are as fantastical in their imaginings as Rory, Oriana and the moonstruck tinker. O’Harrigan, for instance, claims to be hereditary lord of a ruined castle overlooking a bog, which gives him in Rory’s eyes ‘an almost knightly status’ (p. 41); while Fagan supplies Rory with the colourful, quasi-medieval clothes of a jockey and an old horse to be his Rosinante, thereby exalting him to a ‘splendid position’ in his own eyes, if nobody else’s (p. 55). In addition, both men’s inability to derive any long-term benefit from their scams renders them as Quixotic as Dunsany’s young protagonist. Much more sinister is Rory’s Aunt Bridget, who plots to have the other-worldly Oriana committed to the Mullingar Asylum, a genuine institution in Dunsany’s own County Meath where certified lunatics could be shut away from the eyes of uneasy relatives. Shut away with them are their dreams, which resemble those conjured up by Rory’s reading: dreams woven from the Irish landscape and the Irish weather, just as Mrs Marlin’s dreams in The Curse of the Wise Woman were woven from the bog. In Rory’s eyes, his heroes Roland, Arthur and the rest are connected with the slopes of the local mountain, Slievenamona (as Dunsany writes it in this novel). The magic that invokes them is linked to the constantly changing light and the gradual or rapid changes that take place throughout the year in response to the changing seasons. Oriana’s imprisonment in Mullingar would in effect rob the landscape itself of the magic she sees in it, as does Rory. It’s appropriate, then, that she should be rescued on her way to the Asylum by Rory, still in his gorgeous jockey’s silks, and his fellow dreamers, the tinker, the jockey and the O’Harrigan, by this stage working together as a superpowered team like an Irish Avengers. The tinker is bound up with the landscape thanks to his belief that all roads are his property, as well as all rabbits, chickens, cows and clothes he may find by the wayside; while the O’Harrigan is part of the landscape thanks to his attachment to his ruined castle; and their collective rescue of Oriana represents a triumph for an imaginative commitment to the Irish countryside that stands in danger of being lost in the 1930s, consigned to the categories of the romantic, the useless and the impossible that blind the sceptic’s eye to the haunting loveliness of the fields, bogs, mountains and woods of rural Ireland.

Rory and Bran and The Story of Mona Sheehy are often described as ‘realistic’ novels, but a glance at a passage or two from either of them will undermine that assumption. Rory in the first is our hero, and for him the chivalric heroes he imagines are all around him. When he sets out from home for the first time as a drover they seem to fill his house: ‘He rose and dressed, and went downstairs reluctantly, for in the shadows all over his room there seemed to be lingering yet the shapes of paladins, shadows only themselves, but shadows with a brightness about them’ (p. 8). Shadows, of course, form part of the landscape too, and their mystery is an integral part of what gives a landscape or a building its attraction. Later, after being swindled by the jockey and the O’Harrigan, Rory settles down to sleep beside Bran on Sleivenamona, and finds himself in a dream conversation with the lord of the paladins himself, Charlemagne of France:

[I]n the brief sleep he got […] Charlemagne came to see him, and spoke to him gravely, his huge beard grey as the skirts of the clouds that touched Slievenamona, and told him not to trouble over the loss of money or cattle, the splendours of the hills (‘where we walk unseen,’ he said) and the splendours of Time, ‘where we walk in the sight of all men,’ being enough. (p. 108)

Charlemagne here can be dismissed as a figment, his beard woven out of the beard-like clouds Rory has been immersed in as he climbed the mountain; but the words he speaks are wise, and point up the close link between what is ‘unseen’ and what is plainly visible to ‘the sight of all men’, while highlighting the illusory and transient, cloudlike nature of possessions and riches. Material and immaterial things are set side by side, and the narrator invites the reader to consider, at least, the possibility of consenting to Charlemagne’s judgment that immaterial things or shadows are more worth having.

But it’s Rory’s encounter with the tinker that finally brings him into the orbit of a philosopher worthy of his personal vision. The tinker is from one point of view a madman, with his literally lunatic trust in the moon as a kind of generator for his waxing and waning energies. He plays on his fiddle tunes he claims to have learned at the fairy court, and he possesses a charm called the Stone of the Sea, a piece of glass in which he professes to read the future. Yet at the same time he is an acknowledged expert in the practical business of earning a living. He knows that predicting the future is a kind of sham, but knows too that folk of all kinds love to be fooled, and gives the Stone of the Sea to Rory – the certified fool – as a means of keeping himself alive when he is on the road, since the boy is clearly unsuited to the trade of drover. The tinker, then, nurtures Rory, and in the process nurtures the reader, who allows herself to be fooled for a time by Rory’s adventures, even as the adventures themselves chart the grey area between self-deception and belief.

Dunsany articulates the symbiotic relationship between imagined things and solid objects in a passage that gives a clear sense of Rory’s function, and of the tinker’s role in helping him fulfil it:

As Rory rode away he passed the tinker’s donkey, grazing the land that for the purposes of agricultural returns was always classified as bare mountain. Between him and the tinker, by the side of the road, [so] draped with a profusion of old clothing and bedding as to suggest a monument set up in those hills to Untidiness, Rory saw the donkey’s cart. One might have imagined upon it the figure of Untidiness herself, hidden by all those cloths and pieces of canvas that were her full regalia. Rory as he glanced at it imagined nothing; such tawdry subjects as that were not for him; the music of the tinker’s violin, the sight of the further peaks, all solemn at evening, the mist that closed high valleys against the eye and opened their golden gates to imagination, those were the things for Rory. To some extent he goes for us as an ambassador, from the world that is all around us to the world we should like to know more of; often losing himself on the way, and lost for good but for Bran; and yet a link of a sort between us and Roland. (pp. 120-1)

Advertisements for Rory and Bran and Up in the Hills, on the dustcover of Dunsany’s other ‘dog’ book, Dean Spanley

A range of visions combine in this passage. There is Rory with his dreams; there is the tinker and his material effects, the cart and the donkey; there is the sophisticated writer who comments on both; and there is the reader who, like the writer, can enjoy all these perspectives. Each of these visions is connected to the others by the rural space they occupy, with Rory moving through it like a tutelary spirit, enabling all four visions as he goes – his own, the tinker’s, the writer’s, ours. The landscape that contains him is defined as valueless by the documents pertaining to agricultural returns, which mark the place where we find ourselves as waste or liminal ground, a no-man’s-land standing idle between profitable patches. The tinker and his donkey make productive use of this unproductive zone, for grazing, for mending broken pans, for living in – and above all, perhaps, for appreciating, both at close quarters and at a distance (it’s a good place to enjoy ‘the sight of the further peaks’ in, as the tinker observes). The writer, meanwhile, makes use of the tinker’s cart as a source of material for his allegorical figure of Untidiness, a being that recalls the eighteenth-century passion for eccentric personifications, a passion shared by Dunsany in his earliest short stories where he used it to conjure up an ancient world full of exiled monarchs, lost cities and forgotten gods. Finally there is Rory, who is wholly committed to the world of dreams as shaped into stories by romance, where the ‘high valleys’ of the hills have ‘golden gates’ that equip them for the needs of high adventure. In ending with Rory’s vision, the passage traces a continuity between the mess of the tinker’s cart and the heroic deeds that preoccupy the boy; for Rory these deeds and their doers share the scene with him and us, and the scene is transfigured by them. Dunsany’s description of him as an ‘ambassador’ between different perspectives lends him a seriousness he does not possess in the eyes of Aunt Bridget, or of the strangers who pass him by in his ridiculous outfit, shakily perched on a half-dead horse. An ambassador’s status sets up Rory’s imagination as something that can co-exist, if properly respected, with the other perspectives, and can even be seen as the more exalted vision, the perspective that lends the whole scene a dignity it would not otherwise have.

Fantasy, then, in this mimetic novel, has what might be described as a material function. It makes things happen, unlike poetry – at least, unlike poetry as described in Auden’s three-part elegy on Dunsany’s friend Yeats, which was published in February 1939. Auden’s famously ambiguous statement occurs in the middle section of his elegy:

Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Auden’s poetry, as wielded by Yeats, here both ‘makes nothing happen’ and represents ‘a way of happening’ – which suggests that the nothing it spoke of earlier happens after all, in places overlooked by the executives, liminal places like rural valleys, raw towns and ‘ranches of isolation’. Dunsany’s fantasy has this in common with Auden’s poetry: its ambiguous effectiveness. Rory’s rescue of Oriana, for instance, does not ‘really’ happen, in the sense that it is a fictional episode invented by Dunsany, which is itself invested in the book with the glamour of romance by a teenage boy’s overactive imagination. But the rescue is brought to life by the writer’s account of it; and it is the first practical thing Rory does in the book which is an unqualified success, marking the moment when he discovers the trick of surviving, despite his dreams, in the rural valley where he was born. In addition, the episode involves chivalric heroism, in that four self-appointed knights errant (the tinker, the jockey, the trickster and the boy) successfully free a young woman from her draconian oppressors. And Rory’s eventual marriage to Oriana seals his tale as a chivalric romance, rather than a tragicomedy like that of his closest literary relative, Quixote. The couple then bequeath romance to future generations in the form of their children, one of whom (we’re told) ‘took a prominent part in Irish politics’ and had the distinction of getting a bill passed which identified the Phoenix – that ‘most national of Irish birds’ – as a protected species (pp. 320-1). The Irish imagination, in other words, as embodied in Rory, Oriana and their descendants, is alive and well in the institutions of the Free State, Dunsany suggests, thriving even in its highest executive body, the Dáil. And it makes things happen by leaving its mark on the landscape as well as the law.

The Phoenix Monument, Dublin

The Phoenix is not in fact the ‘most national of Irish birds’, though as Dunsany points out there have been monuments erected to it in Ireland – most notably the Phoenix Column in Dublin’s famous Phoenix Park. Ironically, the Phoenix Column was erected by an Englishman, the Earl of Chesterfield, and represents a name for the park that stems from a mishearing of the Irish ‘fionn uisce’, meaning ‘clear water’. Rory’s heroes, too, are for the most part not Irish – though when he has a vision of the drovers at Gurtnaroonagh as mythical heroes he sees Finn and Cuchulain among them (pp. 172 and 177). By mingling these Irish demi-gods with French, Spanish and British heroes (Rory thinks of Arthur as King of Little Britain, that is, Brittany) Dunsany frees the young man’s dreams from nationalist politics, attaching them instead to the material spaces and solid objects – constantly changing in Ireland’s weather – which furnish the needs of all political parties, regardless of their members’ conflicting visions of the nation’s future.

If Rory and Bran presents us with a quasi-fantastic, secluded Ireland beyond the reach of party politics, its companion piece, The Story of Mona Sheehy, puts that Ireland in dialogue with the other land of Dunsany’s dreams: England, where both books were originally published. Dunsany grew up at his family’s homes in Kent and London as well as County Meath. Kent provided him with the setting for his novel The Blessing of Pan (1928), in which he shut away part of the county in a permanent state of pagan preservation, shielded for ever from the toxic developments (as he saw them) of industrialization. The Story of Mona Sheehy, on the other hand, represents his dream Ireland as existing at the edge of the damaging dreams of free market capitalism, teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed by them, in a drastic reversal of the overwhelming of Erl by the dreams of Elfland. The quest of the novel is to find a way of coexisting with modernity without succumbing to it, of living in a world that acknowledges the metropolitan wonders of London while at the same time allowing rural Ireland to maintain its independence from the British capital, preserving the particular wonders of its culture and landscape against the depredations of social and technological change. Change takes place in it, of course, and is not represented as an unqualified evil, as it sometimes is in the work of Tolkien; but Dunsany protects his rural Irish community from the worst excesses of twentieth-century progress, preserving it in a kind of imaginative neutrality that anticipates Ireland’s real-life neutrality in the Second World War.

At the heart of the novel is a distinction between the idea of choice, which is the motor that drives the capitalist economy, and inclusivity, which Dunsany sees as the defining feature of his dream Ireland. Capitalism urges its subjects to make frequent selective decisions: between commodities, between homes and jobs, between winning and losing (in a horserace or a financial speculation), between high social status and obscurity. Dunsany’s dream Ireland, by contrast, is resistant to hard and fast choices, preferring to permit its inhabitants to harbour two or more points of view simultaneously and hold them in a delicate but stable equipoise as they go about their daily business. In 1939, such inclusivity was threatened on all sides, in Ireland as much as in totalitarian states elsewhere in Europe. As a result Dunsany’s book is in effect a political project, despite its explicit resistance to party politics, since it is concerned to stress what unifies his country, as against the divisive forces that could dismantle Irish culture (as he sees it) in perpetuity. In The Story of Mona Sheehy Ireland becomes a Quixotic nation, nurturing the dreams of its inhabitants in the face of unimaginative governments – including its own – and the looming threat of global war.

Cathleen Ni Houlihan on stage

Inclusivity in this book is exemplified by the young protagonist, who for the first time in Dunsany’s novels is a woman (or rather a teenage girl). Having a female protagonist could itself be seen as a political act on the part of an Irish writer in the 1930s, given that Ireland had been figured as female since at least the time of Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902), the influential one-act play by Yeats and Lady Gregory. In the play, a wandering old woman is revealed as the personification of Ireland in the final scene. Her homelessness and frailty designates the state of the country under British rule, while her eventual transformation into a strong young girl ‘with the walk of a queen’ represents what the liberated country might eventually become. Mona Sheehy’s link with the Queen of the Shee, which is enshrined in her unusual surname, marks her out as a potential avatar for the regal younger version of Cathleen. She was even born around the time of the play’s first performance, since we are told that she turns sixteen in the year the Great War comes to an end.[1] At the same time, her link with the Shee marks her out as a threat to the community, since the Queen of those troublesome people can be as dangerous as she is beautiful, bringing ruin on persons or populations who invoke her name without due caution. Mona’s status as a source of both local pride and occasional terror confirms her as the embodiment of Ireland, and in particular of Ireland’s capacity for accommodating several contradictory points of view at once, the quality for which Dunsany most loves his imagined country.

Like Ireland, too, Mona’s identity is under debate from the day of her birth. Is she or is she not the descendant of a supernatural entity, as her name suggests? Her neighbours in the village of Athroonagh think she is, and for the most part she agrees with them. The narrator, meanwhile, knows she is not, and lays out the evidence against her fairy origins with exemplary thoroughness in the opening chapter. Yet he also clearly delights in the villagers’ readiness to accommodate fairies in their world view – against all the resources of reason and science – as a metaphor (among other things) for everything that can’t be measured or articulated. Throughout the book, belief in Mona’s supernatural origins competes with disbelief, in her mind and the minds of others, without either position winning a final victory. And although in the closing chapter her mortal birth seems to have been confirmed, there remains a lingering uncertainty over the sources of her beauty, so that the victory remains as ambiguous as Auden’s claim that poetry makes nothing happen. As one experienced traveller puts it on the final page: ‘I’ve seen such beauty before, but nowhere in this world’ (p. 334). As a result, the air of mystery about Mona is never dispelled, and can be bequeathed at the end of the book to her Irish descendants, a guarantee that they will go on accommodating multiple perspectives in the face of the laws of governments, scientists, lawyers and Church authorities in time to come.

Mona’s ambiguous origins stand at odds, in fact, with rigid rules of all kinds. The few details we are given about the circumstances of her birth point towards a trespass against the laws of the Church, in that she’s clearly illegitimate. But they also hint at a potential infringement of one of the more draconian laws passed by the contemporary Irish government: its right to censor printed texts, as asserted in the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929. Representing explicit sexual acts could get a book banned in 1930s Ireland, and Dunsany is surely playing a game with the censors’ prudishness in the prevarications over Mona’s conception that open the novel. The book begins with a question of sex, as two priests engage in an urgent debate over whether or not the five-year-old Mona is a ‘mortal child’ – in other words, whether she is human. In the opening sentence, the older priest asserts unequivocally that she is: ‘I never saw a more mortal child’ (p. 1), and he repeats the assertion in the final sentence of the book, at Mona’s wedding (p. 334). But in between, the joke is that this assertion can coexist in Ireland with a conviction that the girl could indeed be immortal, whatever the Church asserts or the priests conclude among themselves. And the priests’ concern with the child’s mortality or humanness seems in any case to erase from their minds the mortal sin committed at her conception – the sin that would have been of overriding concern to the government censors. Institutions may have rigid views about the boundaries of legitimacy, but mortals do not, and Mona’s presence in the Athroonagh community serves as a focus for all the ambiguities and plural standards its members embrace on a daily basis.

Indeed, the uncertainty surrounding Mona’s conception helps to cement her status as a representative or ‘ambassador’ for her community. No one knows for sure who her mother is – and even if she were confirmed to be the fairy queen the doubt would remain, since no one is entirely sure what a fairy is. As it happens there is also doubt over her father’s identity, the choice being between a peasant farmer called Dennis O’Flanagan and a self-serving upper-class entrepreneur called Peevers (and one might add to these two Father Kinnehy, the young parish priest of Athroonagh, who is her spiritual father). In the end, no choice is made as to which of these two paternities is more probable, and both men have a hand in her upbringing, which leads to a series of complications which cannot be resolved until Mona’s fate is finally placed in her own hands. The girl’s illegitimacy, then, implicates the whole of Athroonagh and its environs in her making, from the local dignitaries Lady Gurtrim and her husband to the gossips Mrs Ryan and Mrs O’Kelly, who assume a kind of authority over the child on behalf of the local community, the tinker couple who adopt her when she runs away from home, and the mysterious tramp who seems to have strange insights into the minds of both young Mona and Lady Gurtrim. Mona’s presence looms over her neighbours like the mountain Slieve-na-mona from which her first name was taken – the mountain that also happens to be the place of her conception. This means that the novel from beginning to end is dominated by an illicit act of sex, in defiance of the government ban on explicit treatment of this topic in Irish fiction. None of the events in it would have happened if Mona had been born within the pale of legitimacy. In other words, the book itself is illegitimate, and celebrates illegitimacy as a kind of counter to the various forms of tyranny that threaten to constrain the actions of Mona – and by extension of the local and national populations she represents – both in the novel and in the world of the 1930s.

Unlike the Irish censors or the higher Church authorities, the priests who discuss Mona’s birth in the opening chapter are flexible enough to recognize that there is more than one way of representing the act of sex. Refreshingly pragmatic about how their parishioners see the truth, they refuse in the end to take an absolutist stance on the question of Mona’s parentage. Having concluded that both her father and mother were human, they decide not to communicate this conclusion to their parishioners, for the simple reason that the people of Athroonagh would refuse to believe it if they did: ‘And it’s best for us not to be telling them things they would disbelieve,’ as the older priest puts it, because ‘You don’t know where they would stop’ (p. 2). The clergy, then, keep their opinions about Mona to themselves, in deference to the villagers’ reluctance to forfeit any one of their many rival and often contradictory convictions at the behest of those in charge. And the novel’s narrator takes a similar stance. Although he shares the priests’ opinion on the girl’s mortality, he also shares their understanding and sympathy for the villagers’ perspective. This is borne out by the bipartite structure of the opening chapter, which begins with the priests’ discussion of Mona’s parentage and goes on to describe the night of her conception. Just as the discussion ends inconclusively, despite the priests’ clear statement of their views, so too does the story of that night somehow end up simultaneously supporting both the view that Mona is mortal and the perception that there is something magical about her. This is because the narrator describes the facts with some precision, while at the same time investing them with a magical air that fully explains, even while it doesn’t endorse, the villagers’ conviction that supernatural forces were at work on the night in question. He gives us what he calls the ‘story’ of Mona’s birth (p. 2), and in the process places the telling of stories, and the various levels of belief invested in them, at the centre of this novel, which is itself a Story.

The Fairy Queen by Henry Fuseli, illustrating Spenser’s 16th-century Irish epic, The Faerie Queene

The atmosphere and location of the ‘story’ are wholly magical, however unmagical the processes involved. A local dignitary, Lady Gurtrim, is on her way home from an unsatisfactory ball, and is therefore dressed in her finest clothes, with a tiara on her head fit for a queen. She stops her coach on the slopes of Slieve-na-mona, a mountain traditionally linked to the fairies, and steps out for a moment to take the air. She dances dreamily on the slopes, enjoying the movement she did not get the chance to enjoy at the party, to which her dancing partner and adulterous lover, the contemptible Peevers, failed to show up. A local farmer chances by, takes her for the Queen of the Fairies, and proceeds to dance with her by starlight – after which they ‘dance’ together in a different way. Lady Gurtrim knows full well that the farmer believes her to be a fairy, and knows of course that the young man is mistaken; yet at the same time his mistake seems wholly reasonable to her, since ‘she was the daughter of a squireen in lonely hills in Kilkenny, and had never quite made out, from the various tales of her childhood, what actually haunted the hills and what did not’ (p. 5). She therefore plays the role of the Queen of the Fairies with the authenticity of someone who really believes there might be such a person. For the Church authorities, there are ordinary mortals and supernatural beings, but a person (apart from Christ) cannot be both. For governments, there are those who adhere to the laws and those who break them, but you can’t do both in the selfsame act. But for the priests and people of Athroonagh, a girl can somehow be both mortal and immortal, both illegitimate and of high ancestry, both a Christian child and a pagan, both magical and mundane, both on the margins of the community and at the centre of it; and it’s this capacity to sustain a simultaneous belief in two or more incompatible systems that makes these people so well worth celebrating at a time of dictatorship and mechanised conflict.

As it turns out, there are many ways in which the people of Athroonagh can sustain their existence in a liminal place between radically different worlds. If their priests can achieve a delicate balance between two incompatible convictions, so too can those bastions of the law the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. When interrogated several chapters later on Mona’s identity, the police sergeant at Athroonagh refuses to be drawn on ‘religion and politics’, but will still affirm that he has ‘seen strange things in the course of [his] duties’ (p. 79), which means that she may or may not be what people think she is: a child of the Shee. The sergeant’s views are at once endorsed by his traditional enemy, a passing tramp; and the postmistress adds that the existence of fairies may be a wonder, but so too is that scientific miracle the telegraph, ‘a thing that can talk from the ends of the earth’ (p. 80); and after its invention how can anyone question the validity of other kinds of miracles? The schoolmaster, meanwhile – whose task it is to instil immutable truths in his young charges, and who is instructed by the priest to treat Mona like an ordinary human being – is outraged by the daft pretence that has thus been forced upon him, since he considers it a ‘silly game […] to treat one who came of those mighty forces that roamed the mountain at night, and sometimes shrilled with great voices between the roof and the stars, as a common and mortal child’ (p. 19). As these instances of parallel convictions multiply, Athroonagh begins to look like the most capacious of receptacles for the conflicting paradoxes of twentieth-century existence, a receptacle rendered potent by its unlimited credulity – or to put it another way, by its unusually rich capacity for belief.

The local gamekeeper, too, finds himself torn between contradictory positions. His task is to police the boundaries between public land and private property, but when confronted by Mona Sheehy at twilight he finds himself unable to deny her access to the woods he guards. When she points out that last time they met in the woods he chased her home, he tells her:

‘Ah, sure I have my duty to do by day […] but I don’t forget the ancient powers for that, nor the children of them. And, begob, when the moon’s like that and the woods are still, sure Ireland isn’t any longer under the Government then. It’s under the power of Her Majesty that does be reigning behind Slieve-na-mona. Doesn’t even my dog know it?’ (p. 30).

The gamekeeper’s conflicted state of mind has a political dimension, as this speech suggests. One queen can displace another quite easily in his imagination, and his affiliation to political movements can change just as easily, despite his insistence that Mona needs to choose between being a mortal girl and the child of a fairy. ‘It’s either the top of Slieve-na-mona looking down on the centuries,’ he pronounces, ‘or else it’s our bits of houses and our human ways and the sins we sin and the hopes we have. It can’t be both’ (p. 31). But the choices available to the gamekeeper seem less fixed than this pronouncement tends to suggest, shifting in response to the time of day, the shifting seasons, the changing weather. ‘In that light and at that hour,’ Dunsany assures us,

he would himself have enlisted as one of the bodyguard of the Queen of the Shee, had he been asked to do so by any supernatural power coming from Slieve-na-Mona. And at another hour he would have joined the Fenians, and maybe died in prison for doing it. And in another light and at some other hour he might have enlisted in the Brigade of Guards, being the right height for them, and would have carried into old age tales of their battles as well as tales of the Shee.

At different times of day, Dunsany suggests, the convictions of the Fenians and those of the Unionists might take the upper hand in the gamekeeper’s personality, though both seem equally compatible with ‘tales of the Shee’. The borders set by political parties are always moving in Ireland, like the borders of Elfland in Dunsany’s most famous novel, and affiliates of opposing Irish parties have more that unites them than divides them in Dunsany’s fiction.

The borders of the country were shifting too, of course, around the time when the novel is set – 1919 to 1920 – and at the end of the novel the police sergeant, despite all his efforts to steer clear of religion and politics, is forced to hurry over the border to the newly-established Northern Ireland to avoid paying a heavy price for his membership of an imperialist police force. Making a choice of any kind, it would seem, gets you involved in politics, so that avoiding choices, too, could be a political decision, a means of steering carefully between the deadly shoals of opposing factions.

The borders between purportedly distinct populations of Athroonagh are highly permeable. The villagers live in a symbiotic relationship with the people who live without houses, the traveler or tinker community, who mend their pots, supply their gambling needs, and provide them with false coins when the need arises. The tinkers’ capacity for crossing borders and breaching limits is merely an extension of the villagers’ refusal to be contained within the boundaries of legitimacy. Property laws are largely irrelevant to the tinkers – except where it comes to donkeys (p. 139) – and they treat the whole of Ireland as their household, with all its contents available for them to use at their pleasure, including chickens, rabbits, cows and crops, regardless of legal ownership. The same is true (though to a lesser extent) of the villagers, which is why there’s a need for a gamekeeper in Athroonagh. And while the tinkers have no interest in property, they are also willing (Dunsany suggests) to stake an exclusive claim to the possession of certain individuals, such as Mona Sheehy once she has been cast out by the village community. The two populations may be distinguished by different customs, but they have more in common than either population is willing to concede, and the whole structure of Dunsany’s book has been devised to draw this out.

The tinkers’ criminal activities, too, are coterminous with the secret crimes of the villagers. In Rory and Bran the only tinker was a friendly visionary; but in Mona Sheehy Dunsany represents the tinker community as dangerously as well as delightfully anarchic. Murders, rapes and abductions can be committed among them with impunity, and they have an unsettling habit of stowing dead bodies in the false bottoms of their carts along with the other doubtfully legal goods they carry. Yet the tinkers’ relative lawlessness is never judged, either by the tinkers themselves, the people of Athroonagh or the narrator. This is partly because they exist on a continuum between the fantastic and the real, a mobile state of being that involves radical moral shifts as well as geographical ones; it’s inevitable, then, that they should share the dangerous aspects of the fairies they dream of, as well as their knowledge, musicality, charm, and appreciation of mortal beauty such as Mona’s. In addition, the tinkers’ crimes are committed with equal enthusiasm by the villagers. The gamekeeper’s son, young Peter, commits a murder for Mona’s sake, killing a tinker who plans to rape her; and Mona’s living body is disposed of repeatedly by other people than the tinkers in the course of the novel – from the villagers, who cast her out of the village as a danger to it, to Lady Gurtrim’s lover Peevers, who sends her to London for purposes of his own, to Mona’s ‘true’ father Dennis O’Flanagan and his sister, who forbid her to marry the young man she loves – without considering the girl’s own wishes. Like Mona herself, then, the tinkers could be said to represent the state of continuous fluctuation which is the atmosphere of Athroonagh, and Dunsany celebrates them because they represent the reverse of the rigid lines that separate state from state and right from wrong in the minds of less inclusive populations.

Like the gamekeeper at Athroonagh, the tinkers’ identity fluctuates depending on the time of day and their state of mind. As the wise woman tinker Mrs Joyce tells Mona at one point, the young men of her community can be ‘a bit wicked sometimes’, especially after one of them has killed another in a fight; and on such occasions the wickedness persists ‘until anything happens to make them forget about it’ (pp. 164-5). Even in this, though, they are little different from the villagers. After killing the tinker who wishes to rape Mona – bashing his head in with his shillelagh in a fair but illegal fight – the gamekeeper’s son, young Peter, flees to the hills for a while until the fuss about the death has died down, where he joins the IRA, ‘a band of young men that drilled at night […] and carried a rifle with them’ (p. 256). But he soon returns to his work as a gamekeeper’s assistant for a local landowner, Lord Harahanstown – presumably one of the members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy that the IRA has sworn to drive out. Peter’s political commitments change with the changing weather, as his father’s do, and his opinions about Mona – whom he loves and courts – change likewise as the weather changes, growing uneasy about her fairy blood when the day grows dark. Peter’s fight with the tinker, in other words, is governed by non-legalistic rules both parties abide by, and the tinkers are as careful to conceal the evidence of Peter’s act of murder as they were to conceal the murder committed by a member of their own community in a fight over Mona the night before.

The tinkers exist on a continuum of belief that runs between the fairies at one end and the police at the other, between anarchy and the long arm of the law; and they maintain an ambiguous understanding with the people at both ends of that continuum. The tinker Joyce, for instance, who takes in Mona when she runs away from Athroonagh, asks her to deliver a message to her mother, the Queen of the Fairies, apologising for his obtuseness in failing to understand her messages throughout his lifetime (pp. 48-50). He does his best to do the Queen’s will, he explains, but was left by his negligent mother with an imperfect knowledge of the many distinctive languages fairies speak. Meanwhile he and his fellow tinkers have their own distinctive way of talking to the police, a form of language designed to delay their investigations for as long as possible through repeated calls for clarification, before eventually sending them off in the wrong direction. The fairies, of course, must be similarly misdirected – no one must name them openly, for fear of attracting their attention (‘Will you not speak that name,’ Mrs Joyce tells Mona when she mentions her putative mother, ‘and bring bad luck down on the tinkers’, p. 140). But this in turn is an extension of the unwritten rules for conversation in Dunsany’s Ireland. Questions from anyone in that country will be met with prevarications, indicative of productive indecision or two-mindedness as much as of a desire to mislead. The tinkers’ discourse is riddled with circumlocutions: ‘I’m not saying they’re not right’ (p. 175), ‘I’m not saying you will’ (p. 49), ‘I’m not saying I saw either, nor I’m not saying I didn’t’ (p. 171), ‘I wouldn’t say it was […] nor I wouldn’t say it wasn’t’ (p. 185). And in using this roundabout way of speaking the tinkers simply take the ways of Athroonagh to a new level. The gamekeeper, for example, shares their liking for circuitous sentences: ‘I’m not saying who’s immortal and who’s not’, he tells his son with reference to Mona (p. 73), and does so ‘with an Irishman’s anxiety not to be definite’. Even the most opinionated villagers reserve the right to change their minds at a moment’s notice. The gossips Mrs Ryan and Mrs O’Kelly do so multiple times in the course of the novel, on one occasion pronouncing the doom that expels poor Mona from the village, on another affirming with equal certainty the rightness and necessity of her return; first denying her the right to marry Peter, then implicitly confirming that the same marriage is entirely appropriate by attending the wedding, and spending the ceremony in making careful comparisons with all the other weddings they have seen in their lifetimes, ‘drawing a moral from any differences that were observed’ (p. 333). Any statement made by the villagers or the tinkers, then, is constructed in such a way as to enable them to retract its assertions whenever necessary, in response to the changing contours of the political, social or emotional landscape.

Mullingar Asylum (St Loman’s Hospital)

The continuum of belief, supported by flexible forms of discourse, finds a counterpart in the invisible map of Ireland constructed by the movements of the tinkers around the country. In Rory and Bran, the madhouse at Mullingar was a destination reserved for tinkers who could no longer disguise their insane dependence on the moon, or young women who show too much faith in the wild romantic dreams of mad young men. In The Story of Mona Sheehy it has become a regular stop on the tinkers’ route from town to town – though it also remains an institution for the incarceration of crazy tramps (p. 263). The Joyces tell Mona that their annual wanderings take them ‘along the roads between Galway and Mullingar’ (p. 49), or ‘between Dublin and Mullingar’ (p. 50), naming points at the extreme West and East of Ireland in relation to the town that contains the asylum, roughly in the middle. Distances are variable – somewhere ‘not far’ might be a week away or more, as a donkey goes (p. 145), while the mysterious tramp who crops up periodically through the novel claims to have travelled through the whole world ‘and other places besides’ (p. 79). For the Joyces and the tramp, space is as relative as the truth, since the whole of the outdoors is their living room, the side of a road their kitchen, the ground their bed.

Science is present in Mona Sheehy as it is not in Rory and Bran, but Dunsany invests it with magical qualities, using similar techniques to the ones he used to enchant the night of Mona’s conception. Mona’s banishment from Athroonagh occurs on the night when she goes to the mountain to find her supernatural mother, which happens also to be the night when the Northern Lights appear in the sky. The villagers assume that these strange celestial lights are manifestations of her mother’s wrath, and drive Mona away to ensure that the consequences of that wrath will not be visited on their community. When the bishops hears of her banishment he sends the villagers a detailed scientific explanation of the meteorological conditions that produce the aurora borealis: ‘they are of the nature of an electrical meteor appearing most frequently in high latitudes in the form of luminous clouds, arches and rays, of which the latter sometimes meet at a point near the zenith’ (p. 158). But the bishop’s explanation itself becomes for the villagers a magic spell of tremendous power against the fairies: ‘Bits of that letter are quoted in Athroonagh to this day,’ Dunsany tells us, ‘and many a frightened man hearing steps behind him at night has muttered to himself “or in other words to the curves of the magnetic force,” and found that the sound of the steps would disappear’ (p. 159). Science has its place on the same continuum that links the fairies to the police, and a scientific publication can become a spell in Athroonagh as easy as blinking.

Mona’s earthly mother is linked with science, just as her supernatural mother is, in this case through her love of cars. The car is a machine whose movements are restricted by the narrow limits of the tarmacked roads along which it travels, as well as the capacities of its engine. Yet it too is invested with magic by the villagers and travellers it passes after dark:

And the hum of a large car disturbed the night, and the radiant light called more trees out of the darkness to show their midday greenery for a moment. The golden flood swept rapidly over the hedges and a huge car went by, and ashes and scraps of paper from the Joyces’ fire ran after it, and the light and the noise were swallowed up by the dark and silent night. It was Lady Gurtrim taking her great car to the coast. (p. 267)

For the Joyces who watch as the car sweeps by, it is as supernatural an event as Lady Gurtrim dancing in the moonlight seemed to the farmer Dennis O’Flanagan more than sixteen years before. At the same time, for Lady Gurtrim her machine is a strictly private obsession, something that cuts her off from the dreams and stories of her neighbours, and prevents her from participating in their generously inclusive systems of belief. She is as narrowly focused on her driving as her ‘great car’ is narrowly constrained and bounded by the road; when sitting at the wheel of her Grostyn-Dhobler she has no eyes or ears or thought for anything else. So it seems appropriate that her obsession with driving should bring about her death, since it divorces her from the community she is part of – the people of Athroonagh, her unacknowledged daughter, her kindly husband. Her car, in fact, cuts her off from life long before it kills her; it’s a symbol of her ‘selfish’ conduct (p. 284), as she acknowledges in the split second before she dies.

Mercedes-Benz W 154, 1939

In Rory and Bran, Lord Dunsany indulged himself in painting a picture of the class to which he belonged – the Irish aristocracy – as an extension of the country’s landscape and an integral part of its ancient culture. When travelling with the moon-worshipping tinker, Rory learns from him that a certain local landowner is a generous patron of travelling folk, and will provide them with a character reference with heartwarming ease. Sure enough, Rory obtains a reference from the baronet Sir Frank of Ardmona House, and uses it to beg a warm coat from Sir Frank’s near neighbour, the landlord Mr Percival, thereby confirming the symbiotic relationship between the ruling classes and the peasantry in rural Ireland before the Great War. In The Story of Mona Sheehy, by contrast, the aristocracy seems on the verge of extinction. The alienation of Lady Gurtrim from Lord Gurtrim means that they have no children, and since Lady Gurtrim never officially acknowledges her relationship to Mona, this means that when both have died they leave no heirs. The couple die separately, each in pursuit of their own hobby: Lord Gurtrim while hunting a fox to hounds, Lady Gurtrim while racing her car. Lord Gurtrim’s hobby is a communal one, since for Dunsany ‘love of the hunt is […] in the Irish blood, and to watch a fox-hunt is as natural to Irish people as to hear tales of the Shee’ (p. 114). His love of hunting, too, is connected in the chapter about his death with his fabled generosity, from which Mona hopes to benefit when she runs away from Athroonagh. He is clearly of a piece with Rory’s benefactor, Sir Frank, in Rory and Bran, because it is widely know that ‘no one in distress appealed in vain to Lord Gurtrim’ (p. 112). His death, then, could be read as a symbol of the end of an era, with Lady Gurtrim and her lover Peevers its cause: Lord Gurtrim thinks about Peevers as he dies, and describes him as a ‘Nasty little rat’ (p.119). Lady Gurtrim, on the other hand, is alone as she dies, and looks back on her life as a selfish one. Her death, however, makes ‘some amends’ for this selfishness (p. 284). While still officially in mourning for her husband, Lady Gurtrim drives her Grostyn-Dhobler to a race in England, and in the middle of the race a little girl runs out of the crowd in front of her car. Lady Gurtrim thinks for a moment that the foolish child deserves to die, then makes ‘The Choice’ which is referred to in the chapter’s title. The choice is a simple one: drive straight on, keeping to the road as her machine is designed to do, and kill the girl; or swerve aside to avoid the child, thus taking the car on a trajectory that will be fatal to its driver. In terms of the rules of the race and of Newtonian motion, the second choice does not exist; and its impossibility is signalled by the presence at the edge of the road of a containing parapet, a ‘cement balustrade that was imitating marble’ (pp. 283-4). But Lady Gurtrim takes it anyway, steering away from the only legitimate or regular course available to her. In the process she steers herself back into a sense of community, and at the same time into local mythology. As the car flashes past the astonished child it seems to her ‘wonderful’, and as it bursts through the parapet the Grostyn-Dobler takes on the appearance of a second meteorological apparition, a firework display on a par with the Northern Lights that shocked the village a few chapters earlier: ‘The balustrade of sham marble burst into dust, and the Grostyn-Dhobler, catching light at once, went over the tree-tops in one long stream of fire’ (p. 285). Lady Gurtrim thereby passes into legend – just as the hunt in which Lord Gurtrim died passes into legend (we are told) among the hunting community of the county. In the process, the aristocracy of Ireland passes into legend too, to be replaced, perhaps, by the born survivor: Lady Gurtrim’s lover Peevers, the ‘Nasty little rat’ who deserts every sinking ship he boards with shameless aplomb.

Race-goers having a picnic at the Galway Races, 1945. Photo by Francis Reiss

Peevers represents the extension of selfish principles to society as a whole, as embodied in free market capitalism, which is founded on providing an increasing number of choices to consumers while a diminishing number of providers stand to benefit from these choices. Choice itself, as Lady Gurtrim discovers in the end, involves shutting down certain possibilities for ever. So when Peevers encourages Mona to bet all her money on a horse at the Rathmoon races – as he does himself – she loses all of it, and so diminishes the range of choice available to her in terms of her life after leaving Athroonagh. Peevers himself, of course, has more money than she does, so that his own range of choices is hardly narrowed at all by his loss. His response to the loss illustrates the free market capitalist’s attitude to projects that fail: fault for the failure is anyone else’s but his own, and in this case it is that of the rider, which introduces a second act of choice: ‘a comparison between his own intelligence and the folly of a jockey’ (p. 203). Each choice Peevers offers in the book is similarly weighted in his favour and against the wellbeing of other choosers. When he suggests that Mona should go to London to work for an advertising company, presenting it as a choice, the suggestion brings a range of benefits for him: Lady Gurtrim will be impressed by his ability to deal with intransigent problems, such as how to provide for her illegitimate daughter without the need to acknowledge her, while the manager of the firm will be impressed by Peevers’s ability to ‘supply him with the kind of material for employment that he rather thought he wanted’ (p. 199). For Mona, however, it brings no benefits at all, however extravagantly Peevers talks up the likelihood that it will make her ‘a good deal of money’ (p. 198). Being underage, she has no choice over whether or not she goes to London; the decision is made for her by her rival fathers, Dennis O’Flanagan and Peevers, who in this case speak with one voice, as if to emphasize the choicelessness of the market system they are urging her to join. She is unhappy when she gets to London, and grows unhappier as time goes by. And London turns out to be a world where her range of choices grows progressively narrower, until she can find no escape at all from the maze-like circuit of its streets. The choice of goods in the city’s shop windows, the choice of company in its streets, the choice of destinations its stations offer to well-heeled travellers – all are closed to her owing to her poverty and inexperience. From the moment she arrives there, then, she begins to shrink, reduced from the queenly daughter of the Shee to an indigent worker trudging the route from work to lodgings, from lodgings to work from day to day without hope of change. The subtle changes of the Irish landscape have been barred to her, and she is reduced to seeking escape from her situation in a place where any escape is merely a route to another dead end.

1939 advertisement

The progressive narrowing of Mona’s choices is summed up by the culture of the firm she works for, the World Improvement Publicity Company. The aim of the firm is to invent for its customers needs they did not think they had, such as the overwhelming need for a new, expensive form of mustard, which is sprayed on your food in a fine transparent mist, as against the yellow, lumpy condiment everyone uses as things stand. The aim of the firm is first to present the spray-on mustard as a superior choice to the lumpy kind, then to ensure that in the end it is the only kind available, and that its manufacturers are the only people to benefit from it. The idea for the mustard comes from a man with the unfortunate name of Snerooth, the son of the firm’s owner, whose monopoly over the product gives him a monopoly over any profits it might bring. Snerooth seeks a similar monopoly over Mona, and when he proposes marriage to her he presents the proposal – like his mustard – as a choice which in the end is no choice at all. If she refuses, she will be condemned to work for the World Improvement Publicity Company for the rest of her life; if she takes it, he will possess her along with the rest of the company’s assets. Snerooth presents to Mona, in fact, a ready made destiny, whereby her life will continue to be shaped by insidious forces beyond her capacity to affect. In this he resembles the odious Peevers, who has a ‘strange desire for a reputation for being able to control destinies’ (p. 199), and who offers choices which are no choices to everyone he meets. For Snerooth and Peevers, money offers choice; but this choice turns out to be as illusory as the choices offered by advertising. The riches promised to Mona by Peevers turn out to be a salary so small that she will take years to build up the capital to do what she wants, go home to Ireland. And when she is left money by Lady Gurtrim in her will, her new wealth means she can finally go home, but once there she is forbidden to marry the man she loves – young Peter, the gamekeeper’s son – because he is now ‘beneath’ her, socially speaking. The mythical gold with which the streets of London are paved is in fact a gold that has no value, just as the mustard devised by Snerooth will have no flavour or colour or substance. Instead it forces on its users a destiny – a single path from which it’s impossible to turn aside – that is not worth having, the polar opposite of the freedom of the Irish roads.

Throughout the London section of the novel, the differences between the metropolis and Athroonagh are repeatedly brought home to us. As Mona travels to London, for instance, Ireland shows herself in her most attractive colours, putting herself in competitive dialogue with the gilded thoroughfares of the capital:

The gorse at the height of its glory beamed upon her. Almost it seems strange that Earth, which has so little gold, could send forth such an abundance of gorse: flowers planted upon a stratum of gold and nurtured by gold dust could not have been more yellow. Catkins shone from the willows and sometimes a blackthorn flashed; and kingcups, which she knew she was leaving, nearly brought tears to her eyes (p. 205).

Here the gold of the Irish countryside offers itself in generous abundance to every passer by, not restricting its loveliness to a small elite. There is no need for jealousy of its possession, as there is (for instance) among the girls at the London firm for Mona’s luck in catching the heart of the owner’s heir. Later, the ‘intrusiveness and the tirelessness’ of advertising in London, which drowns out the subtle, distinctive ‘message’ of the city, is contrasted with the cheerful invitations to passers-by offered up by the tinkers at the Rathmoon races, which attracted players to Mr Joyce’s roulette board ‘of their own accord’ – by a genuine choice (p. 213) – as against the spurious sense of need imposed by publicity. The restricted nature of London’s wealth is emphasized by the suspicious store detectives who police the shop windows, draining them of the seductive ‘magic’ Mona found in them at first, the only magic she found in the capital apart from its power of drawing people to it against their will. The smell of petrol replaces ‘the smell of the flowers that the wind blew over the fields of Athroonagh’ (p. 221), and the ‘sight of immensities’ such as Slieve-na-mona is narrowed down to occasional fleeting glimpses of the clouds:

Sometimes the sky would flash at her down a long street, showing her wandering clouds, and for a moment the world was again a world she was born to live in; and then she was once more under the steep houses, and a shadow fell on her spirit that was so easily shadowed. (p. 221).

Earlier in the book, shadows seen from the height of Slieve-na-mona represented the infinite possibilities of mystery embedded in the Irish landscape (‘she saw even in that broad daylight blue folds of the ground and dark ridges, and patches hidden by mist, which the child decided might well be haunted by the hosts of the people of legend’, p. 69). Shadow Ireland lay all around her, summoning to it the shadows of myth and legend that spoke to Rory. In London however, shadows are simply shadows, and Mona’s ability to talk and think about the ‘hosts of the people of legend’ is taken away (p. 228), leaving her a shadow of her former self. The streets, too, hemmed in by ‘steep houses’, contrast with the ‘wandering’ country lanes of Ireland, along which wayfarers pass with the insouciance of clouds. In this passage, Mona finds herself at the end of the road, her direction permanently fixed for her, in stark opposition to her unknown path of travel when she first set out from Athroonagh, without a destiny, a destination or even the vaguest plan of action, like a wandering knight in an old romance.

1939 advertisement

Her personality, too, is fixed in London, as it never was in Ireland, where she effectively changes her species as the novel goes on. As a daughter of the Shee she is seen by her fellow villagers as a phoenix, akin to the national bird of Ireland commemorated by the statue in Phoenix Park. As Lady Grutrim’s daughter, heir to twenty or forty thousand pounds depending on the whim of rumour, she becomes for the villagers a bird of paradise, a burst of bright feathers of the kind fine ladies put on their hats. In the final chapter of the book, when Peevers has succeeded in frittering away the fortune left her by Lady Gurtrim by investing it all in business prospects that fail – including the ersatz mustard of Snerooth – Mona is reduced, we’re told, to a ‘mere hen, which there was no reason now for grudging to Peter’ (pp. 329-30). At all times, though, she is a bird, and therefore akin to the blackbirds, cuckoos, swallows and thrushes that haunt the woods where she wanders with her young man, singing ‘of magic to her, and the fairy people, and the royal race of the Shee’ (p. 72). And her ability to transform herself by her own powers, and to be transformed into strange new shapes by events beyond her control, suggests that her destiny will not be determined or ordered for her in Athroonagh, as it seemed to be in London when the city consumed her.

The Story of Mona Sheehy offers its readers Lord Dunsany’s final thoughts on Ireland and fantasy before the outbreak of the Second World War. Like Rory and Bran it finds the ‘message’ of Ireland in the Irish countryside round Slieve-na- mona, and more specifically in Irish country roads, which link the country together in an elaborate network along which travellers and tinkers move with the freedom of birds. In doing so it attaches itself to the work of James Stephens, whose novels The Crock of Gold (1912) and The Demi-Gods (1914) concern themselves with the traveller’s life in Ireland, offering it up as a working model for the nation’s road to independence. This attachment – which would have been obvious to readers in the 30s, when the popularity of Stephens’s novels was at its height – suggests (I think) that in these two books Dunsany works out his own imaginative reconciliation with the idea of an independent Ireland, in defiance of his own political stance as a Conservative Unionist. Mona Sheehy in particular, which pictures Ireland on the cusp of the War of Independence, seems to celebrate Ireland’s imminent self-detachment from a destiny bound up with that of London. Mona’s return to Ireland and the loss of her fortune – which parallels the economic ruin predicted by many Unionists to be the inevitable consequence of Irish independence – permits the continuation of the ‘golden romance’ that surrounded her birth (p. 331); a romance that sets itself in opposition to the mineral gold so prized by capitalism, and is conserved not by banks but by the travellers who attend Mona’s marriage ceremony, playing ‘strange music suited well to the wedding of one, whose royal and elfin pretensions were remembered still by the tinkers’ (p. 333).

Ireland’s ‘message’, for Dunsany – its distinctive voice – comes from its commitment to dreams, those never-failing sources of the fantastic imagination. His way of dealing with dreams is what distinguishes Dunsany’s fantasy from Tolkien’s. Tolkien was interested in immersive fantasy, the kind that enables its reader to forget completely for a time the ‘real’ world she lives in. Dunsany’s fantasy after the Great War, by contrast, is always conscious of the ‘real’ world it holds at arm’s length. Rodriguez looks into it from his chronicles through an enchanter’s window; Alveric’s son Orion bequeaths enchantment to it in the form of a unicorn’s horn, which ends up in the real-world royal treasury of France; while in Dunsany’s Irish novels it is the substance through which the shadows of the impossible drift, never quite dispersing. Brian Attebery wrote in Strategies of Fantasy about the idea that fantasy exists on a continuum between two poles; one pole being the purest fantastic, which is dominated by impossible events and beings, such as Alice in Wonderland or the nonsense stories of Edward Lear; and the other being ‘purely’ realist texts such as Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave, into which the fantastic or impossible only intrudes as dream or metaphor.[2] Dunsany’s fiction between the wars self-consciously slides along this continuum, celebrating the persistence of fantastic romance even while it acknowledges its fictionality. Rory and Bran and Mona Sheehy have no ‘really’ impossible events in them, unlike The Curse of the Wise Woman; but they concern themselves very seriously with belief in the impossible, and contain many characters who cannot rid themselves of the suspicion that the impossible happens, at particular times and in certain places. For Dunsany, the certainty that they do not is something that belongs to the sinister people who wish to profit from others, not share things with them. Such people exist in London and Ireland as well as in the fascist regimes of Italy, Germany and Spain. And the balancing act he achieves in keeping impossible things alive and free in the face of such restrictive opposition remains worth thinking about, I think.

Slievenamon Mountain, Co. Tipperary

Books Cited

Auden, W. H., The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986)

Dunsany, Lord, Rory and Bran (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1936)

Dunsany, Lord, The Story of Mona Sheehy (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1939)

Notes

[1] The novel can be dated pretty precisely from two statements: the first, that the four-year Great War has finished by the time the main action begins (p. 83); the second, that the year that followed her adventures involved ‘anxious months’ for members of the Royal Irish Constabulary – seen by nationalists as the instruments of British oppression (see p. 333) – thanks to the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence. At the same time, Dunsany insists that his book is ‘no history of the greater world, whose faith is in phosgene’ (p. 83) – that is, in a poisonous gas used as a weapon in World War I.

[2] Brian Attebery, Strategies of Fantasy (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 2-4.

Fantasy 1939: Lord Dunsany’s Irish Fiction

[This is the first of two blog posts on Dunsany’s Irish Fiction. It follows on from my earlier post on Fantasy 1939: Science Fiction, and is followed by a post dedicated to Dunsany’s The Story of Mona Sheehy.]

Irish fantasy was as fertile as British fantasy between the wars, and in many cases as well known in Britain as in Ireland. This is partly because most of the major fantasy texts were published in or near London. Lord Dunsany’s fantasy novels of the 1920s, for example, were published in the British capital by the American publisher G. P. Putnam’s Sons, and his Irish books – beginning with The Curse of the Wise Woman – by the British firm Heinemann, often bound in green cloth to advertise their Irish content. James Stephens migrated to London in 1925, where he gained great popularity as a broadcaster from 1937 onwards; most of his books were published by Macmillan. Eimar O’Duffy (who also migrated to London in 1925) published his satirical Cuanduine trilogy, King Goshawk and the Birds (1926), The Spacious Adventures of the Man in the Street (1928) and Asses in Clover (1933), with Macmillan and Putnam’s, while Flann O’Brien’s equally satirical At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) was published by Longman’s. Patricia Lynch’s novels of the 1930s were all published by Dent. There was, then, a constant exchange of fantastic ideas between Ireland and the United Kingdom, not to mention the European continent (where Joyce was based) and the United States (where Padraic Colum lived, though he was also in Paris in the early 30s). Irish fantasy fiction needed to take account of a readership in Ireland, Britain and the United States, not to mention France. And in 1939 – as Britain plunged into the Second World War while Ireland and the United States remained neutral – one imagines that it might have been read in very different ways in all three countries, and within each country, too, depending on the political stances of their readers.

For Irish readers, for instance, the dictatorial author Trellis in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds is a much more complex phenomenon than the many British dictators in contemporary fiction, from the Hitler-like Hillier in Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year (1936) to the Mosley-esque Jagger in R C Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript (1939). This is because Trellis belongs to one of the ‘oppressed peoples’ championed by the Iranian conqueror of Europe, General Selim, at the end of Sherriff’s novel. As the native of a country that existed under foreign rule for many centuries, Trellis’s mistreatment of his characters – and his characters’ savage revenge on him, which involves protracted torture – spring from an experience of colonization which makes it impossible to describe him simply as a ‘home-grown tyrant’, as one might describe Hillier, Jagger, or Clemence Dane’s scarecrow-dictator White Ben. The unique status of Ireland among the islands of the Western Archipelago seems to be underscored by the fact that At Swim-Two-Birds is not exactly a fantasy, and is therefore rarely considered as such in histories of the genre, and yet is also hard to describe as anything else. The fantastic plot of the novel, in which characters in a work of fiction rebel against their author, can be read as a subplot of the realistic scenario that opens the novel, where a first-person narrator, a student at University College Dublin, begins to write an experimental novel with three distinct openings and three concurrent narratives. But as the book goes on the three narratives cross-fertilize, breaking down the generic and stylistic distinctions between them. The student writer is soon joined as ‘author’ of the novel first by the fictional author Dermot Trellis, then by Trellis’s illegitimate son (fathered on another fictional character), a young man called Orlick. And the novel ends – in the third of three conclusions to its three narrative threads – not with the ‘realistic’ narrative about the student but with an anecdote about a German fantasist, who like the student is strangely obsessed with the number three. The man’s obsession leads him to commit an unusual act of suicide in the final paragraph: ‘He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea with three lumps of sugar in each, cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife good-bye, good-bye, good-bye’ (p. 218). The story of the suicidal German is offered to the reader as an explanation of Trellis’s conviction that the characters in his novel have rebelled against him; perhaps, the narrative voice at this point implies, Trellis was a victim of the same sort of delusion as the one that killed the German, that his life was wholly under control by forces he himself had put in motion. But the obsession with threes, and another personality trait of Trellis’s – the tendency to spend too much time in bed – is as characteristic of the student narrator as of his invented author-figure. And of course another writer – Flann O’Brien, himself a stand-in for the Irish civil servant Brian O’Nolan – is responsible for all the author figures in At Swim-Two-Birds. Fantasies, then – such as the conviction that a certain form of ritual behaviour will have a material effect on the universe – bleed not only into each other but into the substance of the world itself, and lead to suicidal acts of self-damage which by 1939 could be clearly seen to include the imminent outbreak of war in Europe. And the causal links that lead from one author figure to another – from O’Nolan to O’Brien to the student to Trellis to Orlick – can be seen as standing in for the complex links between Ireland, Britain and continental Europe, as well as America (among the cast of the novel is a posse of Dublin cowboys). Writing fiction, psychological delusions and political power are bound together in tangled chains of cause and effect, rendered yet more tangled by the student author’s willingness to practise plagiarism, lifting whole sections of his book from other people’s writings. The notion of the home-grown dictator, O’Nolan implies, is pretty much unsustainable for Irish writers of the period. Too many of the influences on an Irish dictator in the 1930s would have been absentees or foreigners of one sort or another; being home-grown is barely an option, and when it is, the notion of ‘home’ is in any case contaminated by colonialism.

Ireland’s relationship with fantasy itself was both rich and vexed. Yeats, for example, described the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, which was meant to restore Irish independence, as a collection of sleepwalkers who ‘dreamed and are dead’, and whose dreams effectively killed them. Yet veterans of the Easter Rising played a practical and very central role in the establishment of a fully independent Republic of Ireland in 1937, and included the first Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera. Two great Irish fantasy writers had a close relationship with the Rising’s leaders – James Stephens and Padraic Colum; and Stephens’s hugely popular The Crock of Gold (1912) is a kind of rallying cry for a peaceful version of the Insurrection in Dublin (as Stephens called the Easter Rising), providing a vision of a secular, socialist, liberal Ireland very different from the Free State when it came. Nowhere in Europe, then, was it clearer than in Ireland that national identity was a kind of fantasy, the product of a collective feat of the imagination. And nowhere was it clearer that such fantasies could be hijacked for their own purposes by competing political and economic interest groups, with sometimes devastating consequences in the real world.

Two versions of these competing dreams found expression in books of Irish fantasy published by British printers in 1939. These are The Story of Mona Sheehy, by Lord Dunsany, and The Grey Goose of Kilnevin, by Patricia Lynch. The writers of both books were present at the Easter Rising, with affiliations to different sides. Dunsany was a Captain in the British Army, who got shot and captured by the insurrectionists, while Lynch was a young reporter sympathetic to the nationalist cause, eager to put across women’s experience of the Rising in her report for the paper she worked for: The Worker’s Dreadnought, edited by the suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst. Dunsany’s and Lynch’s novels of 1939, then, between them provide an example of how the medium of fantastic fiction could be used to put forward different visions of Irish nationhood.

At the same time, the differences between the two novels are perhaps less obvious than their similarities. Both writers chose to set their books in rural Ireland, placing the Irish traveller community at its heart. Both chose to put forward a version of Ireland that’s to some extent at odds with the nation as it was at the end of the 30s. Both chose women (or rather girls) as their protagonists. And the debt both authors owe to the nationalist James Stephens – whose Crock of Gold also inspired Brian O’Nolan’s second novel, The Third Policeman (1940)[1] ­– confirms the status of Stephens’s novel as a taproot text for fantastic fiction in Ireland, regardless of one’s political position. I’ll be looking at Lynch’s book in a separate blog post, but mention it here to underscore the point that Dunsany’s Irish fantasies – often represented as uncomplicatedly conservative and unionist – have an affinity with the socialist fantasies of his Irish contemporaries, which confirms the strange position they hold in the history of Irish literature. This strange position may well account for the neglect they have fallen into, despite their obvious literary qualities (obvious, at least, to enthusiasts like me).

Dunsany’s politics was much more complicated than simple Unionism – though he remained a professed Conservative Unionist all his life.[2] In an earlier blog post I summed it up as follows:

He was a Unionist, but his family name of Plunkett was intimately associated with the nationalist cause. His uncle, the agricultural reformer Sir Horace Plunkett, began as a unionist but ended as a prominent advocate of Home Rule, while another of his close relatives, Joseph Plunkett, was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Dunsany’s friend the poet Francis Ledwidge was another nationalist, who wrote one of the most celebrated verse responses to the Rising, ‘Lament for the Poets’, which transforms the leaders – three of whom were poets like himself – into blackbirds whose songs have been extinguished for ever. Dunsany’s religious affiliations, too, were mixed. He was raised a Protestant, but many of his relatives were Catholic, including George Noble Plunkett, a Papal Count and the father of Joseph.

Dunsany Castle, Co. Meath

One suspects that it’s partly as a result of this mixed religious and political background that Dunsany largely steered clear of Irish subjects in the first half of his career, between 1900 and 1930 or so. When he did come to write fiction set in Ireland – beginning with The Curse of the Wise Woman in 1933 – his representation of the relationship between the Nationalist and Unionist positions was very carefully managed. It’s best summed up by the strangely symbiotic relationship between the protagonist of the Curse, Charles – the teenage son of an Irish peer, whose father is the target of an assassination attempt on the part of the nationalists – and the four IRA hitmen sent to kill Charles’s father, known as the ‘Duke’, at his family home. The boy earns the respect of the assassins when he first refuses to disclose the Duke’s whereabouts, then seeks to distract their attention by talking about the sport of shooting geese on the nearby boglands. A few weeks later, Charles hides the hitmen from the police, using the same method his father used to evade his assassins: a hidden passage in the house’s library. In return for this act of mercy one of the assassins chooses to die at the hands of his fellow nationalists rather than break his promise not to hunt the boy’s father down (p. 176), and decades later another of the assassins – now a ‘very prominent member of the Council of the League of Nations’ (p. 322) – secures an overseas ministerial post for Charles under the Irish Free State. The complex dance of give-and-take between the boy from an ambiguously unionist family and the four nationalists is conducted in a peculiarly Irish language of diplomacy, whereby nothing is said directly apart from the oaths taken by both parties at different times on a holy relic of the True Cross which is kept in Charles’s home (the boy swears he is telling the truth about his father’s location, the assassins later swear that they will not kill his father, and both keep their promises as best they can).

Dunsany gives us an example of the indirect discourse of Irish politics in an incident that occurs a few days after the Duke has been finally killed by assassins in Paris. At once the four hitmen send Charles a message to let him know they were not responsible. A little boy brings it to Charles, who asks:

‘Who is it from?’
‘They said you’d know,’ he answered.
‘But what were their names?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What’s the message?’
‘“It wasn’t us”,’ he said.
‘Was there anything more?’
‘They just said: “It wasn’t us,”’ the boy answered, and was gone over the wall. (p. 199)

The message, like many political messages in occupied Ireland, is carefully shrouded in obscurity, but its meaning is understood at once by the recipient – an understanding that cannot be shared by people outside the country. Master Charles, like Dunsany himself, is a schoolboy at Eton, where Irish pupils ‘come by the habit […] of avoiding talk in public about religion or politics’ – which means they talk very little of home, since ‘so much in Ireland comes under those two headings’ (p. 197). Even Charles’s favourite sport, the shooting of geese over the local boglands, gets mixed up with politics. One of the assassins gives him a tip on how best to shoot them, just as he’s leaving the house after failing to find the Duke. A goose, he tells him, ‘takes a long time to get his pace up. Don’t aim so much in front of a goose as you do at other birds’ (p. 15). And he adds, ominously: ‘if it ever comes to it, and God knows the world’s full of trouble, aim a foot in front of a man walking, at a hundred yards’. The advice is more pertinent to Dunsany’s political career than it is to Charles’s. During the Easter Rising Dunsany was wounded by a nationalist bullet, and pointed out in his autobiography that if the rifleman had known to ‘aim a foot in front of a man walking, at a hundred yards’ he would never have lived to tell the tale. To talk about Ireland is to talk about religion, politics, and family, all of which are woven together in complicated skeins. Hence Dunsany’s avoidance of writing fiction about his country before the thirties, and his care in writing about it when he did.

There’s another side to Ireland which Dunsany finds endlessly fascinating: its association with the imagination. But the imagination too is political in a country so long colonized; so that Dunsany laboured hard in the first half of his career to keep his imagination un-Irish (his literary models were classical literature, the Thousand and One Nights and the Authorized version of the Bible). The rare cases where he mentions Ireland represent the country as a land of dreams. In the fine short story ‘Idle Days on the Yann’, the narrator tells of his journey through exotic lands only visited in sleep: Kyph, Pir, Mandaroon, Perdóndaris, Nen, and the rest. All these places are chock-full of wonders, such as a city gate fashioned from the tooth of some giant carnivore; but when the narrator tells his fellow-travellers about his own country, ‘Ireland, which is of Europe’ (p. 264), they dismiss the two locations as excessively fanciful: ‘There are no such places,’ they tell him, ‘in all the land of dreams’. And the description of Ireland he gives at the end of the story places it firmly on the border of dreamland, like the Kingdom of Erl in his most famous book, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924):

…and I to find my way by strange means back to those hazy fields that all poets know, wherein stand small mysterious cottages through whose windows, looking westwards, you may see the fields of men, and looking eastwards see glittering elfin mountains, tipped with snow, going range on range into the region of Myth, and beyond it into the kingdom of Fantasy, which pertain to the Lands of Dream. (p. 281)

The description of Ireland’s topography given here offers a clue to Dunsany’s technique when he wrote about the country in the 1930s. The distinction between Irish Myth, which is the stock-in-trade of the nationalist movement, and the adjoining Lands of Fantasy and Dream, is an important one. The lands surrounding the river Yann in Dunsany’s story are lands of Dream, with names conjured up by the writer’s fancy, not derived from any extant mythology, Irish or otherwise. Dunsany’s Irish novels, too, contain few references to specific literary and mythical stories of old Ireland; and when they do touch on them, ensure that they are largely kept apart from party politics, though not from religion.[3]

In The Curse of the Wise Woman, for example, there are two great visionaries, mother and son – Mrs Marlin and Marlin – who live together at the edge of the bog where the geese come in Spring. Both are worshippers of the bog and of the seasonal transformations that come over it as the year goes round. Both associate these transformations with distant dream countries; but each of their dreamlands is subtly different. For the son, the country in question is Tir-nan-Og, the mythical Irish Land of Youth across the Western sea, and he fears that his commitment to this pagan Paradise will finally damn his immortal soul in the eyes of the Church. Marlin’s political knowledge is sophisticated. He knows why the assassins targeted Charles’s father (the Duke had warned an ex-policeman about an IRA plot against his life, pp. 28-9), and can interpret the secret meaning that underlies the Duke’s coded letter to his son, where Charles himself cannot. But Marlin’s obsession with Tir-nan-Og is not political but personal, and the language he uses to describe it is entirely his own, as when he identifies the moon as a visitor from his dream country:

It comes up huge […] on the hills of Tir-nan-Og, rising up in the West as it sets here, and larger than the shield of the oldest giant, and brighter than we have seen it and full of music. And they hear its music in the Land of Youth. […] Not all the gold of the cities […] nor the gold that is still in the earth, can equal the glow of the blossoms of Tir-nan-Og when the orchards answer the moonlight. It’s for the Land of the Young that it’s shining. (p. 160)

For Mrs Marlin, meanwhile, the dream country evoked by the bog is her beloved Ireland, but an Ireland of the future, far removed from the country she now inhabits, and equally far removed from anything in old Irish literature. The language in which she speaks of it will be familiar to any reader of Dunsany’s early stories, such as ‘Idle Days on the Yann’. ‘There’ll be a day,’ she informs young Charles,

When Ireland’s ships, putting out from all our rivers, will crowd every sea. And they’ll see no grander ships in all their journeys. […] And the ambassadors from foreign lands, coming to greet us, will pass up our rivers and anchor under the walls of the Irish cities, and see their ships go dark from the shade of our towers and humble from the glow of our cities’ pride. And when they ask of our wealth and trade that we do with the other great nations of the world, our singers will tell them, coming down to the harbour’s edge with trumpets and gonfalons and telling the men of strange lands of Ireland’s glory. And the ambassadors will go back wistful into their own lands, telling what they have seen in the West, and all the nations will send costly gifts to welcome us, and to win from us treaties with far Indian kings (pp. 86-7).

So dedicated are mother and son to their own particular visions of a distant dreamland that in the end they sacrifice their lives for them, both vanishing into the bog and thus cutting themselves off along with their visions from the modern Ireland of the 1930s. Their disappearance, however, is not absolute. Both end up buried in the land they loved, and the implication is that their visions live on, partly in the memory of Charles, who is writing the story, and partly in the identity of modern Ireland, an idea that gets more fully explained in Dunsany’s later Irish novels.

Meanwhile The Curse of the Wise Woman carefully keeps the specifics of history at arm’s length. The dates of the events it relates remain uncertain; the narrator insists he is no good with calendars and has never kept a proper journal, though at one point he does inform us that the events he is describing took place around the time of the Siege of Khartoum (1885). Largely unmoored from the markers of chronology, the novel also unmoors itself from political partisanship, transforming nineteenth-century Ireland into a distant place like Tir-nan-Og, whose rivalries, tensions and deeds of violence have melted into the landscape with the establishment of the Free State. One should add, perhaps, that the protagonist of The Curse of the Wise Woman is Catholic, unlike Dunsany himself, so that his relationship with unionism is even more ambiguous than the writer’s, as I hinted earlier. Charles goes to an English school – Eton – and like his father is on good terms with the police, those embodiments of British imperialism (they supply him with a personal bodyguard after the assassins’ visit). Yet his faith is that of the nationalists, and he shares with the Marlins a deep respect for the old stories and myths that inspire their visions, to the extent that he shares Marlin’s fear of being drawn by them towards paganism and damnation. He represents a middle ground in Irish political identity, much as County Meath (where Dunsany Castle stands) occupies the middle ground in Ireland, its name being derived by the antiquarian Edmund Campion from the Latin ‘media’, meaning middle.[4]

All of Dunsany’s Irish novels (apart from one, Up in the Hills [1935], which I’m not discussing here) are set in the days before the Free State, and share with The Curse of the Wise Woman the sense that they inhabit a time now lost, disconnected from the present by major shifts in Irish culture. The most significant of these shifts is the embracing of capitalism, as represented in The Curse of the Wise Woman by the Peat Development (Ireland) Syndicate, which aims to exploit the resources of the bog on an industrial scale. The Syndicate’s plans for the bog – to bring ‘wheels and rails and machinery, and all the unnatural things that the factory was even then giving the world’, and use it to ‘Compress the turf [i.e. peat] by machinery and sell it as coal’ (pp. 211-2) – are designed to bring handsome profits to its shareholders through the wholesale destruction of the natural order. Against this form of destruction-for-profit stand the visions of Marlin and his mother. Mrs Marlin’s fabulously wealthy future Ireland is firmly rooted in the bog she adores and the rivers that feed it, its prosperity assured by a web of treaties with equally fabulous foreign powers, most of them associated with the fantastical Orient of the Thousand and One Nights which inspired so many of Dunsany’s early stories and plays. Mrs Marlin’s potent cursing of the Syndicate – the wise woman’s curse of the title – represents a triumph of the Irish imagination over the industrial capitalist menace, since it brings about the one fantastic incident in the novel, when the bog rises to overwhelm the wheels and cutting machines of Ireland’s ‘real’ future in the name of her imagined one. The curse itself aligns the wise woman’s vision with the natural world, as against the details of Irish mythology. She summons the wind, for instance, to her assistance, ‘with all the strength of the North and the might and splendor of winter’ (p. 306), the rain harvested from the ‘ancient ice of the mountains’ (p. 309), and the clouds which are the nameless ‘kings of the sky, proud riders’ (p. 309) – as against the legendary Irish kings. In summoning these elements she appeals to the weather conditions and seasonal processes that for many contemporary folklorists, as Tolkien points out, lay at the root of all myths.[5] And in the process Dunsany aligns his own fantasies – the fantasies invoked by Mrs Marlin in her vision of the glorious cities of future Ireland – with the natural processes that must be acknowledged and worked with by all political factions, ideologies, empires, no matter how different the convictions or cultures they embody.

In setting themselves against the self-styled financial pragmatists of the future, Mrs Marlin and her son can be seen as eccentric loners, representatives of nostalgia – though Marlin’s political knowhow makes him hard to dismiss as altogether out of touch. The overwhelming of the Syndicate’s machinery by the bog, on the other hand, suggests that the Marlins’ eccentricity is potent; it can make things happen. In fact, it’s one example among many of the efficacious eccentricity of Irish people in Dunsany’s Irish novels, and this stress on the triumph of the marginalized and mocked imagination makes these novels direct successors of the Quixotic novels Dunsany wrote in the 1920s. I suspect this emphasis on Quixotism in his work is a legacy of the Great War, springing from the widespread sense in the wake of that slaughter that governments had lost all respect, if they ever had any, for moral courage, courtesy, honesty and open-handedness. Dunsany’s fiction before the War did not feature Quixote figures, although there are mortals who defy Time and the gods in a number of narratives – most notably King Karnith Zo in ‘The Land of Time’ (1906), who leads an army against the country of the title and is wiped out with all his men by that country’s ruler, Time himself. The first of Dunsany’s genuine Quixotes is the young protagonist of his first novel, The Chronicles of Rodriguez (1922), who sets out on his adventures in search of a war because he hopes to win a castle in it, armed only with his father’s sword and supported by a Sancho Panza figure called Morano. But Rodriguez soon discovers that war is quite different from what it seemed in the old romances that shaped his character. At one point in the book, he is given a glimpse of past and future conflicts through the magic windows of an enchanter’s house, and sees the horrors of the fields of France which Dunsany witnessed at first hand:

Rodriguez lifted his eyes and glanced from city to city, to Albert, Bapaume, and Arras, his gaze moved over a plain with its harvest of desolation lying forlorn and ungathered, lit by the flashing clouds and the moon and peering rockets. He turned from the window and wept (p. 84).

Despite this vision of what’s ‘real’, the young man somehow preserves his romantic outlook on life, and retires at last to the castle of his dreams, a hidden fortress in a forest built for him by a band of Spanish Robin Hoods, who adopt him as their leader. In this way Rodriguez takes his place among the romantic visions of the past that inspired his own quixotic journey. The young man lives on with his lover in that fortress, located in a Shadow Valley whose name suggests it represents the secret spaces of the mind: the Freudian or Jungian unconscious, unacknowledged but hugely potent in the lives of later men and women. His glimpse of the Great War through the enchanter’s window makes him in some sense Dunsany’s contemporary, despite his anachronistic weapons and outlook; and his continuing presence in the shadows, as recorded in the Chronicles, identifies continuing Quixotism (a willingness to cleave to one’s romantic ideals in the teeth of mechanical, militaristic and totalitarian change) as a feature of the modern landscape as much as it was of early modern Spain.

Another Quixote figure of this period is Alveric in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), who persists in his quest for Elfland despite the growing scepticism of his travelling companions as to its existence, and whose faith is rewarded by the eventual merging of his country, Erl, with the elusive land of the Elves. Unlike Rodriguez, Alveric is considered mad by many who meet him, obsessed as he is with finding a place he may only have imagined. Mrs Marlin too is considered mad by the English workers of the Peat Development (Ireland) Syndicate, who in this assessment of her show themselves unfamiliar both with the workings of the Irish imagination and the attractions of Quixotism, which in Cervantes’s text too draws accusations of lunacy. If Rodriguez is innocent or ignorant on account of his youth – which puts him at risk of death at the hands of callous warlords – Alveric’s and Mrs Marlin’s insanity puts them at risk of being cast out from their communities, their visions forgotten, their histories erased. In Dunsany’s novels of the 1930s, Quixote figures get threatened with the madhouse, a location that excludes its inmates from participation in the life of the nation – like the cage in which Quixote is imprisoned at the end of Part One. But in each case Dunsany takes care to reintegrate them into modern Ireland, as Rodriguez was effectively reabsorbed into the landscape of Spain and Mrs Marlin into the landscape of the bog.

The Chronicles of Rodriguez is set in a fantastical Golden Age Spain, as is its successor The Charwoman’s Shadow (1926). The King of Elfland’s Daughter takes place in an alternative England, and like the Chronicles with its glimpse through the window into the future is linked with the annals of ‘actual’ history on just one occasion. The horn of a unicorn killed by Alveric’s hunter son, Orion, is said to have been presented by the Pope to King Francis of France in 1530, as recorded in the autobiography of the irascible goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (pp. 166-7). The games played in these three novels of the 1920s with the connections between the fantastic and the historical – a unicorn’s horn and the King of France, an enchanter’s house and the Great War – continue in the Irish novels of the 1930s, making of Dunsany’s Ireland a ‘Shadow Ireland’ reminiscent of the Shadow Valley where Rodriguez makes his home. And just as the Spain inhabited by Don Quixote – full of giants in need of slaying and knights available and willing to slay them – is a better, simpler world than the actual Golden Age Spain, with its imperial conquests, sordid wars and Inquisition, so Dunsany’s simple Ireland is clearly meant as a better world than the politically complex Ireland he grew up in. Yet the later Irish novels are also designed to draw his Shadow Ireland and modern Ireland closer together, in the spirit of The Curse of the Wise Woman, which aims to reconcile all shades of the nationalist and unionist parties through its explicit rejection of factionalism.

As I suggested, Mrs Marlin and her son in The Curse of the Wise Woman could be read as Quixote figures, who self-consciously turn away from the real in favour of the dreamlands they have constructed in their minds, based on the landscape they inhabit. In this they resemble Alveric in his wanderings in quest of Elfland, which take him through landscapes strangely littered with the lost toys and elusive memories of his childhood; and they also resemble Alveric in that despite their eccentricity they finally get what they desire from both their dreamlands. Marlin is preserved from damnation by giving himself up to the Land of Youth, as embodied in the bog; but Mrs Marlin’s triumph is more spectacular. The overwhelming of the industrial peat-cutting syndicate in response to her curse destroys her along with the machines she despises – both are swallowed up by the ancient peat. But something grander seems to take place as the bog rises, which is that two worlds are brought together, Mrs Marlin’s fantastic future Ireland and the Free State Ireland of the early 1930s. Her triumph resembles the climactic moment in The King of Elfland’s Daughter, when Elfland magically merges with Alveric’s homeland, the mortal land of Erl, giving to each the special properties of the other: the immemorial beauty and stasis of Elfland, the subtle changes wrought on Erl by the operations of time, seasons and weather. Mrs Marlin is buried underground by the peat she incites to destroy the work of her industrialist enemies; and in this she resembles the ancient Tuatha Dé Danann of Ireland, who were defeated by the iron-wielding Milesians from Spain at Tailtiu or Teltown in Dunsany’s own County Meath, and afterwards literally went underground, becoming the aes sídhe or hill-dwelling people known as the fairies. Dunsany makes very little of this alignment of the two Marlins with the Sidhe, but Charles tells us in the book’s last chapter that her memory eclipses in his mind the spectacular events that have overwhelmed the world since her death, including the Great War (‘four and a quarter years of [man’s] greatest violence’) and the invention of the radio (p. 319). She has become a powerful undercurrent in his personal history, and similar undercurrents form a major theme of Dunsany’s later Irish novels, imaginatively shaping Irish identity in defiance of the scorn of the imagination that dominates modern capitalist culture.

Books Cited

Dunsany, Lord, ‘Idle Days on the Yann’, Time and the Gods, Fantasy Masterworks (London: Gollancz, 2003)

Dunsany, Lord, The Chronicles of Don Rodriguez (London and New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1922)

Dunsany, Lord, The Curse of the Wise Woman (London: William Heinemann, 1933)

Dunsany, Lord, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (London and New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924)

O’Brien, Flann, At Swim-Two-Birds (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983)

Notes

[1] See my essay ‘Fantastic Economies: James Stephens and Flann O’Brien’, Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority, ed. Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan and John McCourt (Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), pp. 136-51. ISBN 978-1-78205-230-2.

[2] For a detailed analysis of Dunsany’s political position see Patrick Maume, ‘Dreams of Empire, Empire of Dreams: Lord Dunsany Plays the Game’, in S. T. Joshi (ed.), Critical Essays on Lord Dunsany (Lanham, Toronto and Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, 2013), pp. 53-71.

[3] The big exception here is Up in the Hills (1935), whose satire of the Irish Civil War is well analysed by Maume.

[4] See Richard Marsh, Meath Folk Tales (Dublin: The History Press, 2013), Introduction, p. 9.

[5] ‘At one time it was a dominant view that all such matter was derived from “nature-myths”. The Olympians were personifications of the sun, of dawn, of night, and so on, and all the stories told about them were originally myths (allegories would have been a better word) of the greater elemental changes and processes of nature’. ‘On Fairy-Stories’, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 23.

Fantasy 1939: Science Fiction

Howell Davies/Andrew Marvell, Congratulate the Devil; R C Sherriff, The Hopkins Manuscript

Sam Haile, Woman and Suspended Man (1939)

The 1930s saw a vast range of fantasy published in the United Kingdom and Ireland. But this is a claim that needs interrogation. What do we mean by fantasy in a decade before the term has come to denote a literary genre, before fantasy (invariably yoked up with science fiction) has acquired a section of its own on the shelves of bookshops? My series of blog posts marked ‘British and Irish Fantasy 1939’ are an attempt to answer that question; and more importantly, they’re a bid to show that the question itself – what do we mean by fantasy? – played a central role in British and Irish fiction in the decade that saw the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Leonora Carrington, The Pomps of the Subsoil (1947)

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the word ‘fantasy’ was widely used in criticism that decade. Herbert Read defined it in his book English Prose Style (1928), which kept being republished and revised throughout the 1930s and 40s, while J R R Tolkien subjected it to more extended scrutiny in his Andrew Lang lecture ‘On Fairy Stories’ in 1937. For Read, fantasy was a sustained work of ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ – with the emphasis on the word sustained – concerning itself with ‘things which are concrete, clearly perceptible, visibly defined’, and developing its caprices in a scrupulously logical manner. Tolkien chose to define fantasy (which as a philologist he knew very well to have a wider range of meanings) as one aspect of the faculty that mediates between the imagination – the capacity to form mental images of things not actually present, as Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary put it – and the external world, or rather its human population. That is, it’s ‘the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality’ (pp. 46-7), the ‘operative link’ between the imagination and its expression in a work of art. More specifically, it’s that aspect of this power or operative link which is concerned to generate ‘a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story’. Fantasy, for Tolkien, is the capacity to make works of art that convey a sense of ‘“unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to our Primary World), of freedom from the domination of “observed fact”, in short of the fantastic’ (p. 47). It’s the art of the impossible, in other words: art that flamboyantly violates the laws of physics, biology, geography, or space and time, where ‘art’ is being used in the old sense of a skill as well as the product of that skill. Taken in this inclusive but quite specific sense, fantasy fiction of the 1930s is quite astonishing in terms of the sheer diversity of its experiments, and suggests the extent to which the imaginations of writers were being troubled and transformed by the turbulent times they lived in, when world-wide recession, totalitarianism and the spread of conflict across the globe threatened to wipe out all traces of the past – and rewrite the terms on which people lived the present – in what must have looked something like a slow tsunami.

Michael Ayrton, Sleeper in Flight (1943)

Fantasy as the art of the impossible found itself in a strange position in that decade. All certainties about what was impossible, or conversely about what could be described (in Read’s terms) as ‘concrete, clearly perceptible, visibly defined’, were in dispute, caught up in the struggle between opposing philosophies and political positions. Tolkien expresses anxiety about the operations of the faculty called fantasy – ‘the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality’ – in part because it could so easily serve the interests of falsification, in particular the falsification of history beloved of the fascists. This is why he stresses (a) the importance of incorporating the qualities of strangeness and wonder into the products of the fantasy, emphasizing its self-segregation from consensus reality; (b) the fairy tale’s subservience (as ‘sub-creation’) to the primary, substantial creative work of making planets, living creatures and so on, which is the exclusive province of God; and (c) the preservation of a rigorous sense of history in one’s treatment of it – even while he acknowledges that the history of fantasy’s most familiar literary product, the fairy tale, is next to impossible to write. This final point was a tricky one in the 1930s – I mean, the preservation of the rigorous historical perspective for which an etymologist or historian of words like Tolkien prided himself. In the between-war period the distinction between the primary world – whether or not one took it to have been intentionally created by a singular God – and the strangeness of what cannot and never could exist, was constantly being challenged in fantastic fiction, in an obvious and often deliberate reflection of the breakdown of political, social, economic, religious, philosophical and scientific certainties taking place in these two decades. A rigorous historical perspective – an account of the past or indeed the present based on the concrete evidence available, uncontaminated by baseless speculation – was not so easy to define or maintain under the circumstances.

Conroy Maddox, The Lesson (1938)

At the same time as societies were undergoing radical changes, the human mind was being revealed by psychoanalysts as a complex repository of conscious and unconscious fantasies, many of them concerned with exerting some level of control over people, actions, situations and sensations. For Freudians, fantasies were always interposing themselves between the individual’s mind and the world, determining how one interacted with one’s fellow human beings, so that what was ‘real’ was difficult to determine or access. This difficulty underpins many contemporary interpretations of the artistic movement known as surrealism, which took root in Britain in the 1930s. British surrealist apologists like Herbert Read insisted that the set of conventions known as ‘realism’ or mimesis could not properly take account of human experience in the world, since our unconscious desires, dreams and obsessions always direct the way we perceive or interact with our environment.[1] Surrealism, for Read, meant ‘super-realism’: going beyond the notion of objective reality, as befitted artists or creators realistic enough to know that fantasies invariably mediate between ourselves and the material spaces we inhabit, the objects and living creatures with which we interact. The word’s prominence in 1930s Britain, where a wide range of British and Irish artists joined artists from the continent in the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, underlines the extent to which an awareness of fantasy as a faculty or a product of that faculty was helping to destabilize the very concept of the ‘real’.

One way of grasping the sheer diversity of fantasy literature in the 1930s is to take a snapshot of the fiction that might be termed ‘fantastic’ in any given year. For the purposes of this post and those that follow it I’ve chosen the year when war broke out between Britain and Germany, 1939, selecting a small number of texts from that year – many of which we would now see as belonging to different genres – that demonstrate a sustained engagement with ‘fantasy’ in one or more of the senses given above. Each post deals with a different kind of fantastic fiction: science fiction, Irish rural fantasy, children’s literature – though it doesn’t claim to deal with all examples of these kinds, even in the year under discussion.[2] Instead the books have been chosen because they speak to each other in some way, and because they collectively speak to the state of fantasy at the time of writing.

Two significant books we would now call science fiction came out that year, both of which have a clear association with fantasy and the fantastic. One was by Andrew Marvell: Congratulate the Devil, about a drug that gives its user power over other people’s minds, enabling him or her to realize the desire for absolute control which for anyone else must always remain a daydream. The other is by R C Sherriff: The Hopkins Manuscript, about the collision of the moon with the earth and the social chaos that ensues, as seen through the eyes of an Englishman living in rural Hampshire. Two experimental fantasies were also published: Clemence Dane’s little-known satire The Arrogant History of White Ben, about a scarecrow that becomes fascist dictator of Britain, and Flann O’Brien’s celebrated first novel At Swim-Two-Birds, about a medley of characters in a book who rebel against the tyranny of the author. I’ve written elsewhere about both Dane’s book and O’Brien’s, and introduce them here to give a sense of how Marvell’s and Sherriff’s novels share a number of features with other kinds of fantastic texts published at the same time. To begin with, three of the four books I’ve just listed were published under pseudonyms: Andrew Marvell was the Welsh editor and theatre critic Howell Davies, Clemence Dane the English novelist and playwright Winifred Ashton, while Flann O’Brien was the Irish civil servant Brian O’Nolan. The use of pseudonyms gives some sense of the constraints under which writers felt themselves to be practising their craft at this point in history. All four books concern abuses of power in the form of the dictatorships imposed by the author, the scarecrow and the British government in the books by O’Brien, Dane and Sherriff, as well as through mind control in Marvell’s novel. In all four novels a form of social breakdown takes place, and in every case this follows on from the rise of fascistic forces in the writer’s own country: O’Brien’s Ireland, Sherriff’s United Kingdom, Marvell’s Wales and England (as a Welshman he makes a clear distinction between them), and most grimly of all Dane’s Britain, where after the scarecrow takes control a growing number of social groups begin to be classified as ‘crows’ and condemned to death. All four novels localize the root causes of social and political calamity not in some overseas nation – Fascist Italy or Spain, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia – but in the fields, towns and cityscapes of home (even The Hopkins Manuscript does this, as we shall see). Clemence Dane’s totalitarian scarecrow, White Ben, is peculiarly British in his origins, constructed by a child and clothed in a random selection of garments that between them represent a cross-section of British society. He springs from the soil of England like the plant that grows in the field where he acquires sentience, and from which he takes his surname, campion. His dictatorship, then, is a British one, forged exclusively from British materials, tailored to British culture. He can stand for many of the adult fantasies written in the late 1930s in his disastrous transplantation of the fascistic dreams that were sweeping through continental Europe into the receptive ground of his native island.

Andrew Marvell’s Congratulate the Devil offers a particularly interesting perspective on the breakdown of boundaries between the fantastic and the real in contemporary Britain. The story tells of a young chemist, William Roper, who discovers a version of the drug mescal which enables him to take control of other people’s minds, and hence to realize his own private fantasies in the actual world (at least to some extent: the drug only works within a certain distance of its user). Roper is a man who bears a marked resemblance to the devil, both in his appearance – he has ‘two glistening lumps’ on his forehead like incipient horns – and his personality, since he loves playing malicious tricks on random strangers. He himself, then, is corporeally linked to the supernatural or impossible, and the drug gives him the chance to demolish the walls between the immaterial religious world whose chief antagonist he resembles and the material world he lives in. The comic possibilities of this demolition of boundaries are obvious, and Roper begins by using his new drug impishly, for his own amusement. He first feeds it to a dog, whose doggish mind then forces all human beings within range to behave like dogs, an episode described in something like the comic style of Lord Dunsany’s charming novella My talks with Dean Spanley (1936). Dunsany’s book is about a clergyman who keeps remembering his former life as a spaniel; it has nothing too serious about it (though there’s a drug involved: he only revisits his past lives when he drinks the Hungarian sweet wine Tokay). In Marvell’s novel, by contrast, Roper’s behaviour quickly transitions from the impish to the diabolical. He falls in love with an artist’s model and forces her to love him back by means of the drug; and from that point on, driven by his no-longer-repressed desires, the chemist’s powers get used for increasingly disturbing purposes: rape, murder, robbery, an incipient revolution. But it also becomes increasingly clear that the young man’s devilry is merely an extension of a range of diabolical activities that are already endemic in British society; that Britain itself, in fact – as a community and an institution – has a barely repressed unconscious which is always breaking through in acts of more or less authoritarian violence. Roper’s incipient horns are the physical manifestation of a widespread tendency throughout the nation he inhabits; and correspondingly, Roper’s adventures make the incipient horns of contemporary Britain clearly visible to Marvell’s readers.

Mervyn Peake, Rumpelstiltskin

For Marvell, the English language itself acknowledges the omnipresence of diabolical tendencies among its users. As you read the novel, count the incidence of diabolical terms such as ‘devil’, ‘hell’, ‘infernal’ and ‘damnation’ in the text, often in commonly used phrases whose submerged religious or moral sense is reawakened by their context: ‘’Old ’im, Sir, ’old the devil’ (p. 8); ‘I […] pelted down the lane as if the devil were at my heels’ (p. 117); ‘Women were the devil’ (p. 185); ‘What the devil is Mayfair running away from?’ (p. 258). Roper’s devilishness, then, is native both to Britain and its dominant language. So too is his coercive attitude to women. The model he desires, Anita, is a married woman, whose husband asserts his power over her through violence, which is effectively condoned by those who know her, since there is little recourse in British law for victims of domestic abuse. As the artist who paints Anita puts it, ‘There have been bruises, now and again, but she hasn’t said anything’ (p. 104) – presumably because nothing she says will make any difference. Roper’s exertion of power over Anita with the help of his drug is just another version of the male violence to which she is already subjected, thanks to the tacit acceptance in British society of the husband’s right to attack his wife whenever he chooses.

Leonora Carrington, The Pine Family (1940)

The relationship between Anita and her husband, then, is as much of a devil’s bargain as her relationship with Roper; and again this is pointed up in Marvell’s infernal references. When the narrator, Jim, first meets the husband, he asks: ‘What the devil do you want? Who are you?’ (p. 153), and the husband’s response exposes the hell of marriage for many wives. He wants to make a business deal with Roper, using the narrator as an intermediary and his wife as a bargaining chip; he knows Roper has been sleeping with Anita and insists on being paid not to divulge it, and when the narrator refuses, the husband beats her up ‘like a maniac’, as Roper puts it (p. 157). From one perspective, this is blackmail reinforced by assault; but from another it’s capitalism in action, as the husband implies when he describes himself and the narrator as ‘men of the world’ (p. 155). In other words, it’s a way of doing business that’s not just accepted but fiercely defended by governments and institutions all over the planet. And when Roper finally kills him – leaving Anita ‘free’, as Roper puts it, though not free to resist Roper’s wishes – the chemist insists it is not murder but justice, and that the narrator’s disapproval brands him a hypocrite (p. 160). Not acting to put a stop to the husband’s violence is more diabolical, Roper implies, than Roper’s own decision to end that violence through violence, so that Roper is in some respects less devilish than the Britain that condones misogynist abuse. By this stage it’s become clear, in fact, that the chemist’s devilish use of mind control – the fantastic impossibility at the heart of the novel – provides a kind of key to reveal the devilish forms of mind control already at work in British society, as well as the intricate hypocrisies – the ‘compunctions and evasions’, as Marvell puts it (p. 89) – that work to sustain them.

Mervyn Peake, Mr Hyde (1948)

As Roper implies, the narrator’s penchant for hypocrisy makes him not just a double for Roper but perhaps even his superior in the hierarchy of wickedness. Jim is a playboy, by his own admission. He claims to be studying the politics of labour in countries round the world, a useful project, one would have thought, at a time of global recession like the 1930s; but his ‘studies’ are merely an excuse for tourism and philandering, and his contributions to political thought or economic planning are non-existent. His identity, too, is almost non-existent. His name is Jim Starling, which suggests a flightiness, a penchant for imitating other people and a liking for bright shiny things without much awareness of their value. We don’t know a great deal about him or his family – and it’s implied that there is little to know – but we’re aware that his money is running out and that his days as a playboy are therefore numbered, thus effectively erasing his identity, since he is defined by his indecisiveness and self-indulgence, both of which are made possible by his fortune. His days themselves are numbered in any case, as we know from the opening sentence: ‘In seven days I shall be killed’, it announces, turning the tumbling pace of the novel into a sprightly gallop towards Jim’s death.

But Jim has already been effectively erased from the world of the book some time before this happens. From the beginning of the novel, his fate is indistinguishable from Roper’s, since he has no story outside of Roper’s story, and there is even a point at which Roper occupies Jim’s body with the help of his drug – when Jim becomes Roper, so to speak. Marvell makes it clear that this occupation is a form of rape; Jim insists, ‘I didn’t want him to do it’ (p. 88), and later tells him directly ‘I would rather not’ (p. 88), but Roper does it anyway, just as he later forces Anita to become his lover. As with Anita, too, Roper represents his violation of Jim as tantamount to an act of love: ‘It’s the kind of thing lovers long for: complete union with the beloved’ (p. 88) – though he adds with characteristic irony, ‘I don’t suppose it would be a healthy experience’. Oddly, though, it’s Roper who claims to feel violated by Jim as a result of their joint occupation of Jim’s body: ‘I think I shall always bear you a grudge for this rape’, he tells him afterwards (p. 90). His resentment stems from a number of sources. First, there is Jim’s stated unwillingness to describe the experience of sharing Roper’s identity, which both Roper and the reader might ascribe to Jim’s cowardice, his reluctance to expose the unsettling cynicism, resentment and lack of conscience he has found in Roper’s mind. Partly, too, the chemist’s resentment stems from his belated wish to preserve what he calls a ‘privacy of self’ (p. 90). Most disturbing of all for Roper, though, is the evidence Jim might provide of the instability of his own identity. During Roper’s occupation of Jim’s body, Jim sees clearly the distinction between himself and Roper: ‘I had never imagined that someone else could feel so different,’ he writes, ‘that his “being” should vary so profoundly from my “being”’ (p. 88); and he confirms that Roper’s personality has what he calls ‘weight’, or gravity, in stark opposition to his own vapid ‘lightness’. But his friend’s mind is also described as existing in some sort of ‘bondage’, exuding a sense ‘of being swathed round and of a desperate stretching against the bandages, as though he were buried alive’, of being in ‘constant strife’ – a phrase that neatly encapsulates the devil’s nature as the arch-fiend or universal enemy, trapped by his own opposition to the whole of creation. Shortly afterwards Jim describes him as ‘a bold, dark, striving spirit, constantly disintegrating and re-cohering’ (p. 89), like evil in Milton’s Comus.[3] Roper, then, like Jim himself, has no consistent being; he can’t distinguish himself from his own victims, and is as subject to coercive binding as anyone he binds with his drug. The breaking down of boundaries between minds, which is made possible by the drug, reveals the permeability of the boundaries between one identity and another, and hence perhaps the difficulty of assigning responsibility for any given action, of determining its moral status. No wonder, then, if Jim tells us that Roper’s brief possession of his body leaves him (and presumably Roper) with a powerful unease about what he calls the ‘mystery of personality’ (p. 88), as well as a ‘furtive sense of shame’, as if his refusal to describe Roper’s mind to its owner makes him responsible, in some sense, both for what Roper has done in the past and what he will do in future.

Mervyn Peake, Dr Jekyll (1948)

Sure enough, Jim condones Roper’s actions again and again in the book, first by failing to describe the state of Roper’s mind to him at this early stage in his addiction, then by repeatedly refusing to condemn them to his face, and finally by failing to report the murders he commits to the authorities – aiding and abetting him, in other words, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. His own unstable identity transforms him at times into a dead ringer for his more forceful friend, while his hypocrisy makes him as responsible for Roper’s actions as Roper himself; perhaps more so, since he could have brought them to an end more easily than Roper, given the chemist’s self-confessed condition as an ‘addict’ to his new drug (p. 114).

But Jim is not alone in his complicity with Roper’s actions. The book sees the chemist’s personal devilishness manifested in nearly every other character: from the police constable whose mind Roper makes use of to club an unfortunate servant to death with his truncheon (p. 135), to Jim’s elderly aunt, who shows an unseemly fascination with the details of the servant’s murder (p. 112); from Cousin Flo, an unmarried relative of Roper’s who gets hold of one of the pills and transforms a Vicar into the husband of her dreams (p. 144), to the narrator, who is accused by Roper of having designs on the pills himself (p. 138). When Jim insists that Roper give him the pills after the servant’s murder, Roper tells him that he is behaving just like Hitler: ‘with you they’d be safe,’ he observes ironically; ‘It sounds like Hitler’s argument for taking away the colonies’ (p. 138). Britain is filled, in fact, with little Hitlers, whose claims to benevolence are indistinguishable from the dictator’s desire to exercise absolute power. The pills do no more than underline this affinity between the outwardly good-natured English or Welsh citizen and the Nazi dictator of Germany, by giving some of them the means to incarnate their ‘secret desire […] for conquest and capitulation’ (p. 144).

Leslie Hurry, Café Bar (1946)

Despite Jim’s insistence that he is a playboy, then, with no serious political or intellectual commitments; despite the ‘lightness’ of his prose style as first-person narrator of Marvell’s book – full of short paragraphs, rapid-fire dialogue and swift transitions; Jim’s narrative is in the end a political one, as perhaps all narratives had to be in 1939. The political aspect of the book is revealed quite gradually, but comes to a head in the final pages, when the British government stands revealed as the worst of devils in that devilish nation. As the self-appointed watchdogs of global capitalism, the British authorities, it turns out, are willing to sacrifice any number of innocent citizens to protect its interests; and the people they destroy by violence include members of their own forces, policemen and soldiers. The irony is that these innocents are killed to put an end to a professedly benevolent revolution, involving the forcible spread of ‘human kindness’ through the agency of Roper’s friend, a saintly Welsh street singer called Bert who is the chemist’s polar opposite in terms of his moral proclivities. When Bert gets hold of the pills he is persuaded by Roper (for the young man’s private amusement) to conduct an experiment on the British public by forcing them through mind control to be relentlessly ‘kind’ to one another. Kindness, however – it turns out – is inimical to property laws, the hoarding of gold reserves by banks, and hierarchies of every kind; so the government cannot possibly accept its imposition on the populace. The book ends with a devastating artillery attack that kills Roper, Bert, policemen, soldiers and a host of bystanders. As Howell Davies, Andrew Marvell was a veteran of the Great War; so the termination of his novel with the indiscriminate shelling by his government of its own people, in a year when global conflict was about to break out for a second time in the author’s lifetime, makes bona fide devils of the British state.

George Frampton, Peter Pan statue, Kensington Gardens (1911)

The authorities’ erasure of Bert’s revolution also erases Bert and Roper from the annals of history. The clothes of the dictator-scarecrow in Clemence Dane’s The Arrogant History of White Ben transform their wearer into a living emblem of the past: ‘He had been garmented’, Dane writes, ‘with religion, diplomacy, the art of war, the art of healing; for he wore a priest’s vestment, a soldier’s gauntlets and civilian mackintosh; a gentleman’s pleasure-hat, a surgeon’s coat. […] [M]en’s memories were buttoned about him’ (p. 20). The fate of Marvell’s characters, by contrast, is to be remembered (if at all) as the cast of a novel, and hence to be written out of the historical record altogether. This process of writing them out begins at an early stage in the revolution, as the government carefully vets the newspaper coverage of its spread; and later one of the ‘journalists’ reporting on Bert’s movements turns out to be a government spy, whose information enables the shell attack on the Welshman and his followers to be accurately targeted. The only reliable account of what happened to Bert and Roper is to be found in the pages of the seemingly fantastical story told by Jim, which he writes down while staying in a tiny village in Wales – on the margins of history, so to speak – and arranges to be smuggled to Roper’s father after his death. The fact that we are reading this posthumous account in the form of a work of fantastic fiction suggests that the father chose to release it as a product of the imagination rather than of history, presumably to protect the contents from censorship. Indeed, the decision to release it as fantasy seems to be anticipated by the choice of setting for Bert’s last revolutionary headquarters: the tea-house in Kensington Gardens – now the Serpentine Gallery – located in a section of Hyde Park whose best-known associations are with that most influential of British fantasies, Peter Pan. Peter’s first literary appearance famously took place in Kensington Gardens, in J M Barrie’s The Little White Bird, and his statue by Sir George Frampton still stands on the other side of the water from the former café. In Congratulate the Devil, then, the fantastic and the historical are in constant dialogue or exchange, so that the distinction between them is at times more or less impossible to make.

Edward Burra, Dancing Skeletons (1934)

The disintegration of boundaries between fantasy and reality is for Marvell profoundly damaging. He reflects this formally by refusing to divide his novel into chapters, as (for instance) R C Sherriff did in The Hopkins Manuscript. As a result the comic episodes at the beginning, where humans behave like cheerful dogs, exist in a continuum with the much more troubling incidents that follow: the murder of one of those humans – the servant Dobbs; the bank robbery; Roper’s murder of Anita; the destruction of the teahouse by shelling. As we’ve seen, Roper’s mescal breaks down the boundaries between the imagination and material life; Bert’s conviction that human kindness provides the key to a better world, for instance, is described as one of his ‘fantasies’, and the pills let him put this fantasy into practice. But for powerful people – newspaper magnates, rich men, politicians – the world is already a ‘fine hot-pot of fact and fantasy’, which is how Roper describes the ‘inaccurate’ coverage of his killing of Dobbs in the national press (p. 130).

The bank robbery staged by Roper shortly after the murder demonstrates the central role played by fantasy in economics. With his pills he forces the bank manager to think of the money in his vaults as worth less than a pile of leaves: ‘Pieces of paper,’ he calls them, ‘silly little pieces of paper with pictures on them. Gentlemen, you are welcome to them. […] Take them all. […] Leave not a wrack behind’ (p. 125). As the banker expatiates on this new perspective, the notion that ‘pieces of paper with pictures on them’ should have some sort of intrinsic value becomes increasingly absurd; yet it’s in the interests of defending this absurdity that the British government bombs the tea-house in Kensington Gardens. In other words, Roper’s imposition of his fantasies through the operation of his new drug underlines the far more successful imposition of fantasies on human beings by the world’s businesses and the governments that serve them, a form of mind control that reduces people of all nations to helpless dupes.

Alfred Kubin, Caliban (1918)

The bank manager’s phrase, ‘Leave not a wrack behind’, comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s from the scene where the enchanter Prospero acknowledges the insubstantial nature of his magic, and aligns it with the insubstantial nature of the ‘great globe itself’, which will fade away at last and leave no trace of its passing. This is the first of two key references to The Tempest in Marvell’s novel. The second is Roper’s, when he contemplates what would have happened if the islander Caliban had got control of Prospero’s wand and used it to reshape the world around him (p. 152). Roper thinks of himself as a second Caliban: a misshapen, marginalized individual, enslaved by pointless conventions, who lusts after Anita just as Caliban lusted after Prospero’s daughter Miranda. At first the young chemist claims to have no interest in gaining Anita’s affections through the mind-controlling ‘magic’ of mescal, and insists that Caliban, too, would have been uninterested in forcing Miranda to love him. But Shakespeare’s play does not bear this out this assertion. Caliban did in fact try to rape Miranda – according to her father – and Roper follows in his footsteps. With the help of the drug he forces Anita to sleep with him, then when the effects wear off and she recoils from him in horror he strangles her in a paroxysm of rage, resentful of her inability to go on embodying his erotic daydreams without the drug’s intervention. In both play and novel, then, magic is the expression of the desire to shape the world in accordance with one’s fantasies, a project whose eventual failure is rendered inevitable by the incompatibility of one person’s fantasies with another’s – except in an impossible utopia, of the kind Marvell’s Bert or Shakespeare’s Gonzalo conjures up.

Ithell Colquhoun, Song of Songs (1933)

Roper’s willingness to ‘force’ Anita to service his desires is represented as devilish, but no more so than the world’s tendency to ‘force’ her to embody an androcentric vision of femininity. The young chemist first sees the girl in a painting executed by an artist named Joubert, who also happens to supply Roper with the drug which is the source of his problems. In the painting – presumably executed under the influence of the drug in question – Anita stands facing the viewer, naked, ‘hands turned towards us’, looking off into the distance at an indeterminate object (‘It might be a lover, it might be God’, p. 102). It is Roper who suggests a title for this picture: ‘the moment of truth’; but in fact, of course, it’s another fantasy, the image of a young girl as freely and willingly available for all men’s pleasure. The street singer Bert correctly identifies the painting as exploitative, but couches his objections to Anita’s nudity in the same possessive terms that the picture invites all men to use about her: ‘I don’t like you doing that’, he tells her (p. 103). Both Roper’s and Bert’s perceptions of Anita are based on the painting’s representation of her as somehow ‘made’ by and for the male viewer:

‘Look, you made me, here I am. I have nothing to hide. The beauty is yours, all yours.’ She seemed to be saying that, and glorying, too, that the beauty was there to bestow, utterly, without reservation. (p. 103)

Bert later liberates Anita from both Joubert’s and Roper’s influence, but in doing so places her in a setting that infantilizes her – a sweet shop – as does his refusal to acknowledge her adult desire for Bert himself. Later still, Roper murders Anita because she refuses to act out the role of ‘the beauty [that is] there to bestow, utterly, without reservation’ in life as she did in the painting. Both men, in fact, use the drug to ‘make’ or remake Anita as they wish her to be, just as the painter did, and both find themselves unable to cope when she insists on following her own desires and inclinations. In this they are the exact opposite of Roper’s father, a man who the chemist describes as the ‘only complete realist I know’, who ‘knows exactly what he wants from life, never asks more of it than it can give, and is always prepared to find that it gives less than he expects’ (p. 92). The father’s decision to release the narrative of Roper’s drug as a fantasy novel, as against a historical account, is ironically a more realistic choice than any made by the drug’s users, who persist in believing that the world can be reshaped by the transient influence of the magic it contains. Roper and Bert are fantasists, and their treatment of Anita underlines the tendency of fantasists in the 1930s to force their damaging dreams on the world, always asking ‘more of it than it can give’, and roused to rage, in Roper’s case – like Wilde’s version of Caliban – when it doesn’t mirror their dreams and expectations with servile faithfulness.

Oswald Mosley and the British Fascist Blackshirts (1936)

Ironically, Roper’s own death is brought about for a similar reason to his murder of the woman who obsessed him. Bert’s revolution, which Roper first suggests to him and then helps to orchestrate, exposes money and social inequality as manifestations of false consciousness; that is, as fantasies devised to keep the ruling elite in power. It is, in fact, an attempt on Roper’s part to return to the ‘realism’ he was taught by his father, and which he abandoned by treating Anita as an ideal; and as we’ve seen it proves insupportable to the government, which destroys him as he destroyed Anita. This would seem to be Roper’s intention from the beginning: a suicidal desire to atone for his killing of Anita with his own destruction, though as a devil-figure he inevitably brings down his friends Bert and Jim along with him. Roper knows very well how the revolution of kindness is likely to end. When Jim suggests at one point that the government is reluctant to fire on the revolutionaries because of the crowd of innocent people gathered round them, Roper asks him: ‘What do you think you’re up against, the Peace Pledge Union?’ (p. 256) – referring to the pacifists who opposed a military response to the Nazi threat. The real reason for the government’s reluctance, Roper insists, is that the revolutionaries are out of range of the army’s machine guns; and the bombing of the café confirms his suspicions, while also signaling to Marvell’s readers the end of the democratic dream of government as a beneficent force at the service of its electors. World leaders share the obsessive self-interest of other men, a self-interest that devours those who refuse to serve it as a cannibal devours other members of its own species. Roper himself describes his obsession with Anita as a kind of hunger: ‘Ever been hungry, really hungry?’ he asks Jim (pp. 195 and 200), as an analogy for his yearning for her body. This hunger finally consumes her, and it’s in response to this act of metaphorical cannibalism that Roper allows himself to be consumed in his turn by dying in a famous eating-house. Marvell’s novel finishes, in fact, by implying that the mind control imposed on individuals or populations by fascist populism is a form of anthropophagy, and that it is practised everywhere in Europe by governments determined to sustain themselves by consuming the citizens they govern. T H White had made a similar point just one year earlier in The Sword in the Stone (1938).

Bela Lugosi in Chandu the Magician (1932)

In his essay on fairy stories, Tolkien’s unease with the power exerted by fantasy over its readers comes to a head in his discussion of the difference between Magic and Enchantment. Magic makes a change to the world we live in, he tells us, and ‘its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills’. Enchantment, on the other hand, is the art of sub-creation – of inventing new worlds as imaginative subsets of this one – and is ‘inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician’ (p. 53). But Enchantment too can be ‘perilous’, Tolkien warns (p. 53), because ‘Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil’ (p. 55). Congratulate the Devil is a book about Magic, in Tolkien’s terms, whose protagonists are as greedy for power as Tolkien’s Magician. But Tolkien also believes that Enchantment, as the human craft he calls Fantasy works it, can be abused to such an extent that we think our sub-created secondary worlds to be somehow real: ‘[Men] have made false gods out of other materials: their nations, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice’ (pp. 55-6). From this perspective, Congratulate the Devil is a work of Enchantment, and as such the product of Fantasy. It draws attention, as I’ve argued here, to the totalitarian abuses of Fantasy that pervaded Europe in the 1930s; and in the process it reminds its readers that they themselves might be worshipping deformed gods of their own invention – the Ropers of their minds.

How, I wonder, does Marvell imagine the effect of his book on its readers? Does he see it as practising mind control on us, experimentally forcing us to root for the devil, Roper, and to congratulate him in the end for the morbid entertainment he has afforded us? There’s a clue, perhaps, in the connection with Wilde I’ve already touched on in connection with Caliban. If Roper is Caliban, he will produce a dual effect on his readership, according to Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, since ‘The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass’, while ‘The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism’ – for which read deliberately unrealistic narratives, like modern fantasy – ‘is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in the glass’. Roper as a representation of contemporary Britishness will make readers angry; Roper as an unrealistic character, with his devilish horn-stubs, will arouse readers’ contempt; though all the while readers will fail to note that they are as much Caliban as Roper is, if we take Wilde’s dicta seriously. Meanwhile the portrait of Anita can be seen as a version of the Picture of Dorian Gray, mirroring the faults of its painter (who worshipped a fake version of Anita just as Basil Hallward worshipped a fake version of Dorian) as well as its spectators (who expect all women to act as the model is made to act by the painter). Marvell’s readers are as much the painters and avid spectators of Anita’s portrait as Joubert and Roper are. Marvell’s position as author, meanwhile, is that of Roper’s father: the realist who expects nothing more from life than it can actually give him, since he unflinchingly demonstrates the likely outcome of giving credence to such deadly fantasies. His fantasy speaks unpalatable truths to power – and to the people who willingly lend unscrupulous authorities what power they have; though like Roper’s father he has no expectation that power or the people will pay attention to it. For Marvell, as for Auden (also writing in 1939), fantasy ‘makes nothing happen’ – though in flamboyant and sometimes spectacular fashion.

*****

I’ve suggested that Congratulate the Devil concerns itself in part with the erasure of unpalatable happenings from the pages of history; but Sherriff’s novel The Hopkins Manuscript contains yet more unsettling revelations about the unreliability of human accounts of the past. Once again the novel presents itself as a form of documentary evidence for events that might seem far-fetched to its readers. Here, however, those events took place at a time so long ago that it has become known as a second Dark Ages. The frame of the novel – like the frame of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – transports the reader to a point many centuries in the future, after the population of Europe has been wiped out, first by the devastating effects of the moon’s collision with the earth, then by conflict over ownership of the shattered remains of the satellite among rival European nations. Lunacy, in other words, is its subject, and the moon serves in it both as a deadly menace – a giant bomb – and as a potent metaphor for the capacity of human beings to set aside reason and self-preservation in the quest for power, or for the illusion of power, since all power is finally lost in Sherriff’s narrative, including the simple power to light a candle in the darkness (the book is written by the light of ‘feeble home-made lanterns’, p. 5). The imminent moon crash is the focus of the first two thirds of the novel; but as it turns out, the cataclysm proves eminently survivable. What destroys Europe is the madness of war, and the complex network of fantasies that bring this madness about, as both embodied and critiqued by Sherriff’s narrator, Edgar Hopkins: the man who gives the book its title and becomes the last lost voice of vanished Britain, ‘a thin, lonely cry of anguish from the gathering darkness’ (p. 3).

R C Sherriff

Sherriff’s choice of narrator is inspired. In the introduction, an unnamed historian from the future describes him damningly as ‘Edgar Hopkins […] a man of such unquenchable self-esteem and limited vision that his narrative becomes valueless to the scientist and historian’ (p. 1). He is, in other words, a fantasist, incapable of adjusting his perception of himself in the light of the catastrophe to which he is subjected – or so the historian claims, though the summary is not fair to him. In a number of ways, Hopkins is a perfect representative of British culture in the 1930s. As a middle-class white man who lives in the countryside, he is a type who is disproportionately represented among the protagonists of English literature – a representative of the fantasy Englishman who never existed – although his self-esteem has rarely been as devastatingly cut down to size as it is by Sherriff’s catastrophe. Despite his high opinion of himself, his marginal status is made obvious from the beginning, as well as his ordinariness (Sherriff’s first title for the book was An Ordinary Man). Retired very early from his job as a teacher (we learn at a late stage in the novel that he was bullied by his pupils, which explains his decision to withdraw his labour), and more interested in breeding chickens than in politics or astronomy, Hopkins becomes a member of the British Lunar Society pretty much by accident; yet he considers his membership of the society – and the early awareness it gives him of the problem with the moon – to mark him out as a person of consequence, specially selected by virtue of his intelligence, birth and education to be the custodian of secret information vouchsafed only to the cream of the British ruling classes. Sherriff brilliantly conveys the strain on Hopkins of maintaining this fantastic view of himself over the months that elapse between the revelation of the coming collision, at a private meeting of the Lunar Society, and the release of the news to the general public. At times during this period Hopkins succeeds in seeing himself as the elite guardian of what he calls The Secret. At others he teeters on the brink of madness, as he notes the horrible disparity between the everyday goings-on around him and the approaching annihilation of life on earth. Christmas brings out this disparity in drastic fashion. It’s a feast that centres on the fantastic, in the form of myths of universal brotherhood, Father Christmas on his sleigh, God’s love for all humanity and so on. It’s also a ritual which is annually repeated – or would be if the world were not about to come to an end. And it’s the yearly high point of consumer capitalism, when economic inequalities are both at their most pronounced and most assiduously occluded. As a result, the Christmas before the crash becomes for Hopkins an almost unbearably ironic pantomime, full of scenes he can’t help but contrast with the devastation that will shortly be unleashed. A family passing Hamley’s toyshop, for instance, ‘brimming with the best that life can give’, fills him with ‘impotent rage’ because ‘this monstrous thing could not happen in a world that harboured such people as these’ (p. 74). Hopkins’ idealized vision of the family, whom he imagines returning ‘to some quiet house in a tree-lined road’, is as palpable a fantasy, perhaps, as the idea that the moon won’t strike the earth, despite the science; and in harbouring it Hopkins displays his own ordinariness at the very point when he wishes to present himself as most elevated by his exclusive lunar knowledge.

Yet on the whole Hopkins manages to preserve his sense of being exceptional, largely by concentrating from day to day on his chicken-breeding – another irony, of course, since breeding prize chickens is hardly regarded even in rural populations as the most significant of occupations (with apologies to my Galloway cousin who breeds ducks). Even in his sense of exceptionalism, however, he is ordinary, since the British people seem largely to share his ability to see themselves as somehow special. In a passage that resonates strikingly with early British responses to Covid 19, Hopkins describes the threefold reaction of the country’s citizens when news of the lunar strike is finally released. For a substantial portion of the populace, he explains – the so-called ‘country gentlemen’ –

‘the moon business’ was all a scare. Nothing would happen, but if it did, it would happen in China where that sort of thing always happened. In their opinion, it would not affect England. Things like that did not happen in England. We should ‘muddle through’ as we always had done in other troubles. We had a Government with a strong majority and the police were equal to anything. (p. 113)

Another portion of the British people anticipates the moon’s arrival as a public spectacle, something to be witnessed from a safe distance and remembered for a lifetime, since they are convinced that the satellite will merely ‘graze’ the earth before glancing off again into space:

They were prepared to see the stately beech trees of Burgin Park come crashing down like nine-pins; they were ready for a deluge, a hurricane, a terrific blowing about of dustbin lids, and a very fine sight as the moon passed overhead almost within touching distance (p. 113).

This portion of the public is seduced each night, he tells us, by their own ‘fantastic imaginings’ (p. 114), which successfully divert their attention from the ‘huge, glittering ball’ of the moon itself. The third part of the British people – only about ‘one in ten’, as Hopkins calculates – are convinced that the world is indeed about to end, and either fall back on religious faith for comfort, as the village Vicar does, or collapse into a state of existential despair which is as fantastic (in Hopkins’s view) as the imaginings of the ‘moon will graze us’ party. The chief representative of these fatalists is the landlord of the local inn, Murgatroyd, whose vision of the end of the world ‘reeked of hearses, musty black plumes and grave-clothes […] the spade of the sexton – the toll of the bell – blackness – dirt -corruption’ (p. 115); a magnificently inappropriate set of images for encompassing universal destruction. Of course as readers of a first-person narrative we have no idea whether Hopkins’s account of Murgatroyd’s views on the crash is in any way accurate, though we are made aware that the ex-teacher dislikes the publican intensely, so it’s probably biased. Each of the three reactions listed here, in other words, as well as Hopkins’s account of them, is more or less an illusion; but then again, the concept of the end of the world is so extreme that it’s hard to envisage a way of describing it that did not fall back on delusions and fancies.

Paul Nash, Eclipse of Sunflower (1945)

This makes it seem particularly suitable for Sherriff to have set his story of the moon-crash in the context of what for many of his readers would have looked like a pastoral fantasy: a prosperous village in rural Hampshire several miles from the nearest town. Such a place is used to seeing itself as on the margins in the best of ways, mostly untroubled by the national and global events that loom so large in the metropolis. That this sense of existing on the margins is an illusion becomes increasingly clear as the book goes on, and the policies of central government begin to take effect in the rural community. First comes the order to build an underground shelter or ‘dug-out’ on village land, capable of holding the whole village. The reason initially given for constructing the dugout – issued before the moon crash has become general knowledge – is that war may soon break out between Britain and some nameless ‘foreign enemy’ (p. 63). This, of course, is an illusion, rather like the notion of national superiority entertained by some of the villagers; though a far greater illusion, as it turns out, is the idea that the dugout will protect its builders. The construction of the shelter does, however, serve a practical purpose: it gives the community something to work on in the weeks before the crash, and by drawing them more closely together than they have ever been before – a process which is made particularly clear by Hopkins’s situation, as he finds himself increasingly reluctant to leave the construction site for his lonely hilltop home after work each evening. The communal nature of the construction process similarly brings out the illusory nature of the social divides that separate the villagers in normal times. All the villagers must cooperate to finish the shelter, which makes it all the odder when Hopkins finds himself reluctant to share his Christian name with the working-class men and women who are working on it by his side; this in spite of the fact that the man in overall charge of the project is a working-class Welshman, Sapper Evans. The dugout is, in fact, both a fantasy and a focus for fantasies, and its fantastic nature is confirmed when it largely fails in its intended function. The moon’s collision with the earth opens up cracks in the walls, letting in seawater and drowning most of the occupants.

The teacher’s dependence on fantasy to sustain his picture of life in the English countryside, and of his own significance as the human race speeds towards extinction, is beautifully pointed up by his choice of reading in the final moments before the moon strikes. The night before, he reads The Wind in the Willows and ‘roamed again in the fragrant meadows with Badger, Mole and the immortal Toad’ (p. 175). On the day itself he begins by revisiting Huckleberry Finn, and in the final hour manages ‘to read, even to enjoy, the first chapter of Treasure Island’. Hopkins regresses to childhood at this time of crisis, setting aside religion and politics in favour of comfortable adventures removed from his own particular moment in history by time, geography and a lack of significant consequences for the events that unfold in the course of the narrative. Each book describes adventures with an all-male cast-list whose ends he knows, and which he regards, ironically enough under the circumstances, as somehow ‘immortal’. Toad’s battle with the working classes of the Wild Wood, Huck’s travels with the African American Jim, Jim Hawkins’s struggle against pirates on behalf of his middle-class friends, Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney, reassure him that the Britain he loves and the class and race relations it sustains will endure beyond the end of the world itself.

As Hopkins works on the dugout he does in the end begin to set aside some of his snobbery – most obviously in his admiration for the energetic, well-organised Evans. He also begins to emerge from self-inflicted loneliness, a loneliness imposed on him by his sense of aloof superiority to most of his village neighbours and shy inferiority to the local representatives of the ruling classes. The period after the calamity, when he effectively adopts the son and daughter of a local dignitary (tellingly based at The Manor House), reinforces his new sense of belonging. In the first place it gives him an ersatz family and a social status he has never felt before (their adoption of him makes him their replacement father, which means he is now in effect the Lord of the Manor); and in the second (ironically enough, in view of the first) it continues to erode the social divisions by which his life has been guided. The new society established in the two-year ‘Epoch of Recovery’ after the calamity has an Arcadian quality about it, reinforced by the fact that it fulfills Hopkins’s lifelong fantasies, through his effective rise in social status, his acquisition of two affectionate young companions, and the recognition by the entire neighbourhood of his unparalleled importance as a chicken breeder, along with his seeming immortalization in the name of a new breed of hen: the ‘Beadle-Hopkins pullets’. Hopkins is even convinced (despite ample evidence to the contrary, such as his own employment of two farm servants) that in this new order ‘Distinctions of class were gone for ever’, something he illustrates by his willingness to sit side by side with his social inferiors at a civic banquet: ‘I sat with Mrs Smithson, the wife of a plumber, and Miss Bingham of the drapery store, talking to them almost as if they were my equals’ (p. 273).

Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon (1902), still

At the same time the status of this two-year period as a continuing pipe dream is reinforced by the fact that is punctuated by a trip to the moon, which has landed in the Atlantic Ocean and become something of a tourist destination. A trip to the moon has traditionally been the term for an absurd impossibility, as Hugh Lofting recognized when he sent Doctor Dolittle there, mounted on a moth, in 1928;[4] and the British enthusiasm for indulging in moon tourism serves in this section of the novel as a metaphor for a peculiarly British capacity for social and political self-delusion. At the same time, the trip itself proves disappointing for Hopkins and his adoptive son and daughter. All they find on the shore of what was once the ocean is ‘what appeared to be the edge of an immense slag-heap of grey, broken slate stretching as far as we could see across the land and far into the distant sea like some gloomy, ghostly continent of primeval times’ (p. 249). The image resembles a post-industrial wasteland as well as a primordial desert, or else the landscape of a battlefield in Flanders, and its blankness also predicts the erasure of history that is to come; so it’s no surprise that Hopkins leave it with a sense of ‘indefinable dread: a haunting conviction that the terrors of its arrival were trivial beside the horrors that it held in store for us’ (p. 250). His premonition proves accurate; the moon turns out to be a storehouse of vast wealth in industrial and monetary terms, laden with gold, coal and other valuable minerals, which leads inevitably to a struggle over which nation has the primary claim to its resources. These industrial fantasies about moon-minerals lead, through the equally toxic fantasy of nationhood, to all-out war, in Britain’s case waged in the name of the most evanescent fantasy of all, the illusion of a continuing global Empire. The war itself ends with the annihilation of European culture and the obliteration of all traces of its past, with ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ as one of the few pieces of material evidence (thanks to its preservation in a Thermos flask) for British or even European identity. Hopkins, in other words, really does acquire a kind of immortality, and the name of the Hopkins-Beadle pullets really is remembered centuries after the breed first saw the light. His reference to the ‘immortal Toad’ in The Wind in the Willows becomes one of the last pieces of evidence for the existence of a literature in English, a fact whose irony is intensified by the fact that Toad embodies the toxic absurdity of the British class system. Hopkins’s private fantasies become the historical epitaph of the fantasy which is Britain.

It’s not too surprising, then, that one of the last scenes in the book takes place in that hub of the fantastic, Kensington Gardens, where Congratulate the Devil also ended. Here Hopkins discusses with an acquaintance, Professor Bransbury – who is said to resemble another character familiar to children, Robinson Crusoe – the invasion of Europe by the forces of an Iranian general called Selim. Selim and his Asian and African followers aim to erase all traces of ‘Western civilization’ from the world (p. 1), a project whose successful completion is confirmed by the description of a Europe bereft of history in the opening pages of the novel. Selim’s success is partly a consequence of in-fighting among nationalist European leaders such as Britain’s fascist prime minister, Jagger. But it also takes advantage of the fantasies made available by the lunar crash, which enables Selim to identify the moon as the ‘god of oppressed peoples’, who descended to earth in order ‘to destroy their hated white oppressors’ (p. 308). One fantasy, in other words, has effectively driven out another in a world dominated by the conviction that fantasies can be realized, made real: the world of the 30s, extrapolated into the 40s by Sherriff’s almost unbearably convincing little future history.

In the next blogpost on ‘British and Irish Fantasy 1939’ I’ll be looking at Irish rural fantasy, considering what it tells us about the state of things in a country even more on the edge of Europe than its British neighbours; and later I’ll be looking at time in the children’s fantasies of 1939. A series of trips to the moon, so to speak, on the brink of war.

Charles Bittinger, Earth as seen from the moon, National Geographic (1930s)

Appendix: Abyssinia in The Hopkins Manuscript

It’s worth noting that the ‘Foreword’ to The Hopkins Manuscript is said to have been written by a scholar from Addis Ababa in Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) at some point in the far future. At the time of the novel’s publication Abyssinia was under occupation by fascist Italy, having been invaded in 1936. The League of Nations failed to condemn the invasion, but a speech to the League of Nations by the Abyssinian Emperor in exile, Haile Selassie, became internationally celebrated as an outstanding example of anti-fascist oratory. Sherriff’s decision, then, to have his conquered, culturally bereft version of Europe studied by scholars from a country currently under occupation by European fascists was a carefully considered political gesture.

Notes

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

[2] For example, under science fiction I could have included H G Wells’s The Holy Terror and Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer, and under children’s fantasy Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood.

[3] I’m thinking of this passage:

But evil on itself shall back recoil
And mix no more with goodness, when at last
Gather’d like scum, and settl’d to itself,
It shall be in eternal restless change
Self-fed, and self-consum’d (Comus, lines 593-7)

[4] The moon’s association with lunacy is also exploited in Eric Linklater’s wartime classic of children’s fantasy, The Wind on the Moon (1944). As a follower of H G Wells, Sherriff will have been familiar with The First Men in the Moon (1901), in which the insane aggression of humankind trumps the horrors of the Selenite dystopia found on the moon by the travellers of the title.

Editions Used

Howell Davies / Andrew Marvell, Congratulate the Devil, The Library of Wales (Cardigan: Parthian Books, 2008)

R C Sherriff, The Hopkins Manuscript, Penguin Modern Classics (UK: Penguin Random House, 2018)

 

Fantasy 1939: Mervyn Peake, ‘September 1939’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leslie Hurry, ‘September 1939’

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

Leslie Hurry, This Extraordinary Year, 1945

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

Leslie Hurry, ‘Self-Portrait 1944’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Au Moulin Joyeux

September Crisis, 1938

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

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

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

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

We Are the Haunted People

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

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

Mervyn Peake, ‘Steerpike’

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

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

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

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

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

Mervyn Peake, ‘Reclining Figure by Hitler’

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

Puvis de Chavannes, ‘La Fantaisie’

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Metal Bird

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

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

El Greco, ‘Landscape of Fire’

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

El Greco

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

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

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

Additional thoughts, April 2020.

At the time I wrote this post I’d somehow forgotten that Leslie Hurry also illustrated two poems of Peake’s that were published in the year this painting was made, 1939. These were  ‘Watch, Here and Now’, first published in Pinpoints, May-June 1939, No.4, p. 25 (see Collected Poems, pp 42-3), and ‘Au Moulin Joyeux: September Crisis, 1938’ (see above), first printed in Eve’s Journal, July 1939, p. 48. Along with the newly discovered illustration discussed in this post these three examples confirm that Peake and Hurry were working together intensively for a while to combine Peake’s words with Hurry’s images. It’s interesting to note that two of the three poems refer to major current events; was this the sort of thing the two artists discussed together? When I get access to the published Hurry illustrations I hope to have something to say about them.

Another idea occurred to me this month which may be worth mentioning here: that the line ‘The men with the equal tread’ in Peake’s ‘September 1939’ may owe something to one of the epigrams in David Jones’s modernist masterpiece In Parenthesis, first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. The epigram is from a medieval Welsh epic, Y Gododdin, quoted throughout Jones’s own epic: ‘Men marched, they kept equal step… / Men marched, they had been nurtured together’ (In Parenthesis, London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1963, p. xx). The link with Jones’s epigram, if there is one, suggests that Peake’s line ‘the men of the equal tread’ may refer to soldiers of all kinds, not just the Nazis. After all, Jones is careful to dedicate his poem both to his comrades-in-arms and to the German soldiers on the front line, ‘WHO SHARED OUR PAINS AGAINST WHOM WE FOUND OURSELVES BY MISADVENTURE’ (p. xvii). It’s worth mentioning too, perhaps, that on the title page of Part One of Jones’s work the Y Gododdin quote occurs alongside a quote from Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, ‘The many men so beautiful’. Peake drew a picture of Jones in 1937, as one of a series of portraits of major figures in the arts he published in The London Mercury; see The Drawings of Mervyn Peake, introd. Hilary Spurling (London and New York: Allison and Busby), p. 46, and G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2009), p. 108. Another connection between the two artists is that both claimed Welsh ancestry (Peake through his Welsh mother – hence his Welsh Christian name) and both illustrated The Ancient Mariner, Jones in 1929, Peake in 1943.

Notes

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

[2] See Collected Poems, p. 1.

[3] Collected Poems, p. 65.

[4] Collected Poems, p. 52.

[5] Collected Poems, p. 43.

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

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

[8] Collected Poems, p. 48.

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

[10] Writings and Drawings, p. 81.

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

[12] ‘Blake’, Collected Poems, p. 63.

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

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

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

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

[17] Collected Poems, p. 31.

[18] Collected Poems, p. 50.

[19] Collected Poems, p. 41

[20] Writings and Drawings, p. 81.