Gerald Bullett, The Spanish Caravel (1927), reissued as The Happy Mariners (1935

One of my favourite illustrations in The Hobbit (1937) is Tolkien’s drawing of the three trolls, Tom, Bill and Bert, hiding behind trees as a dwarf approaches the fire they have built in a wood.[1] The wood stands, we’re told, in a disreputable country not far from the Misty Mountains, to which policemen and map-makers never go and where people have never even heard the name of the king. This is the location of Bilbo’s first adventure after leaving home and the first time he acts as a burglar; he has been hired in this capacity to help steal back the treasure of the dwarves, stolen long before by a dragon. It is also the first time the dwarves let themselves get caught by one of their enemies. Bilbo’s expertise as a burglar steadily grows as the adventure continues after this episode. The dwarves, on the other hand, don’t seem to learn anything at all from this first experience of captivity. They get caught again in the Misty Mountains by goblins, in Mirkwood by spiders, and in Mirkwood a second time by their tetchy old foes the Wood-Elves. On one occasion they are even caught in exactly the same way as they were by the trolls: they see firelight in the distance, assume correctly that where there’s fire there’s food, and hurry towards it without taking the most basic precautions, letting their stomachs do their thinking for them. Confusticate and bebother these unteachable dwarves, as Bilbo might well have put it.

This first episode in the hobbit’s adventures – the meeting with the trolls – contains in miniature all the rest. It involves fire, woods, mountains (at a distance), meetings with dangerous creatures, a bit of magic, a good deal of trickery, and some shenanigans with pockets (Bilbo tries to pick a troll’s pocket and gets caught because the purse he lifts is able to talk; pockets or pocketses also play a central role in his later meeting with Gollum). It even involves treasure, since Bilbo and the Dwarves afterwards find the trolls’ cave, which is full of food, gold, unpleasant smells and some useful swords. With the swords is the long, keen knife Bilbo christens ‘Sting’, which he uses to rescue the dwarves when they are caught by giant spiders in Mirkwood. In that later rescue he copies Gandalf’s trick of enraging his enemies with his voice while keeping himself hidden, which suggests again that the hobbit learns from his adventures. Thanks to his growing knowledge, Bilbo grows in stature as the novel progresses, reflecting the growing confidence of the novice reader who follows his journey to the Lonely Mountain (and back again, of course), as charted by Francis Spufford in The Child That Books Built.[2]

The illustration Tolkien drew for this adventure is dominated by trees: long boles in foreground and background, with a bright fire in the middle ground, slightly right of centre, from which smoke rises in baroque curls above stylised flames. There are very few branches visible; the trees are mostly shown as a cluster of trunks standing closely together. There are various items by the fire: the barrel from which the trolls have been serving out beer, a stone for sitting on (or is it a sack?), a jug, two bowls. In the foreground a dwarf with a hood approaches the fire. At least, Tolkien tells us in the text that the dwarves wore hoods, but this one wears something more like a hat as modelled by the dwarves in Disney’s Snow White (1937), which wasn’t released in the UK until 1938, the year after The Hobbit was first published.

From behind the tree trunks in the background three trolls peer out; they have prominent eyes and pointed ears set high on their heads, like the eyes and ears of cats. I remember thinking as a child that the trolls didn’t look much like the way I’d imagined them; too slim, their heads too large in proportion to their bodies, and the text never mentions those pointed ears.[3] The trees, on the other hand, were wonderful. The ones in the foreground are drawn in broken and unbroken white lines against a black background, while the ones behind are textured with white dots on black, reversing the black dots on white with which Tolkien decorates the ground around the fire; this mixture of line-work with pointillism gives the drawing tremendous energy. Three of the trees have vines curling up them, neatly echoing the curls of smoke rising from the fire. I also liked the way Tolkien put a triple border round the picture, just like an Edwardian picture frame, with the title displayed at the bottom as if on a plaque. This was something I tried to emulate in my own finished drawings at the age of seven or eight.

More recently I’ve been reading a novel for children by Gerald Bullett, The Spanish Caravel (1927), republished in 1935 as The Happy Mariners with illustrations by the celebrated artist and theatrical scholar C. Walter Hodges.[4] Bullett’s novel was well known in his lifetime; my 1956 edition tells me it had been reprinted three times, and the illustrations by Hodges are wonderful work, on a par with his much-loved illustrations for Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse (1946). These days any reader will find the book offensive for its representation of Pacific Islanders as a horde of ‘comic’ cannibals who speak a nonsense language; the fact that those islanders are clearly intended to parody British childhood fantasies of adventure in far-off places modelled on imperialist stories tailored to middle-class boys does nothing to soften the racism. But the novel is also full of passages of beautiful prose – something Bullett was well known for in his lifetime. And its central character, a ten-year-old girl called Elizabeth Robinson, could be considered a curious example of British male attitudes to girls just before the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 – better known as the Universal Franchise – which finally granted women the vote on the same terms as men in the United Kingdom. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment.

Most importantly for my purposes in this blog post, however, one of Hodges’s illustrations looks remarkably like Tolkien’s drawing of the trolls. This is a picture titled ‘Night in the Forest’, on p. 119 of my edition, almost exactly halfway through the book. The parallels are striking. First, the trees: long boles in the foreground and background, with a bright fire in the middle ground, once again slightly right of centre, from which smoke rises in billows and curls more naturalistically depicted than in Tolkien’s drawing. Once again there are very few branches visible, and the trees are standing close together, rising from the bottom to the top of the picture like the bars of a cage. People, not objects, are visible by the fire, one sitting, one lying half raised on their arms; it’s hard to tell which of the four children in Bullett’s book they represent. In foreground and background, occupying the place of Tolkien’s dwarf and three trolls, are the shapes of big cats: eight cats in all, counting the one that’s only visible thanks to its glowing eyes in the dense shadows at the left in the foreground. In Bullett’s text the creatures are not specifically cats but ‘beasts of prey’ (p. 117); Hodges has chosen to interpret them as feline, which is interesting considering the feline appearance of Tolkien’s trolls, with their pointed ears and large, glowing eyes so unlike the description in his narrative. Hodges’s picture, like Tolkien’s, is given texture by the juxtaposition of white on black and black on white, with black predominating throughout, as you might expect in a night scene. Like Tolkien’s, the picture is surrounded by a frame of three parallel lines, and like Tolkien’s its title is given underneath, inscribed on what looks like a brass plaque. So many parallels, it seemed to me when I first saw the picture, could hardly be a coincidence, and I’m inclined to believe that still, though I have little concrete evidence to back this up.

In theory, of course, Tolkien could have read The Happy Mariners, and his youngest son Christopher and daughter Priscilla were of an age to enjoy the edition illustrated by Hodges, which came out in the year when Christopher turned eleven and Priscilla turned six. Bullett’s child protagonists are twelve, twins of ten-and-a-half, and seven, which tallies nicely with the ages of Christopher and Priscilla, as does the fact that there are three boys and a girl in the fictional family, which matches the composition of Tolkien’s actual one. Beyond this, Bullett’s novel has little in common with The Hobbit, apart from the fact that it includes a meeting with anthropophagic people, that is, people who eat other people (though the trolls in The Hobbit are not strictly cannibals, since they are clearly identified as a different species from the beings they eat). There’s much more in it, however, that aligns with the fiction of C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s best friend in the 1930s; again, I’ll have more to say about this later. Could Lewis, I wondered, have recommended the book to Tolkien, or vice versa? Sharing views on fiction, especially fiction with a fantastic aspect, was common practice among the Inklings, the informal literary circle that met at the Eagle and Child pub and elsewhere in Oxford throughout that decade, of which Lewis and Tolkien were the principal members.[5] Bullett is exactly the kind of writer who would have interested them, even if they might not have agreed with his ‘liberal socialist’ politics; he wrote Christian apologetics, among other things, and poetry of a slightly old-fashioned kind, the kind of which they might have approved. Moreover, one of the novels Bullett wrote in the 1930s was about Adam and Eve (Eden River, 1934), a mythic story Lewis took up nine years later in his second science fiction novel, Perelandra (1943); he might well have read Bullett’s story with attention. The Happy Mariners was another story that contained material potentially attractive to the Inklings, above all in its use of fantastic tropes and dreamscapes made real, as well as in its rich deployment of literary allusions.

In the opening chapter of Bullett’s book, the Robinson family is visited by a strange man who brings a gift for one of the children – Elizabeth – which turns out to be a ship in a bottle. The children take the ship to a pond in a brickfield (a site where bricks are made) and launch it in its glass container, then throw stones at the bottle to free the craft from bondage. As soon as the glass breaks the children find themselves at the edge of a high cliff, looking down on a full-scale version of the vessel floating in the sea beneath them. After managing to get on board, they learn that the ship is in fact a Spanish caravel which has been captured by a solitary English mariner, who wakes up after a sleep of three hundred and fifty years or so and helps them steer it across the ocean to an uninhabited island. The island closely resembles an island the children drew on a map at the beginning of the novel to provide a focus for their games. As they explore the place they find that all the details they included on the map are present, from a log cabin for shelter to a trail of footprints and a trove of buried treasure, which includes cake and a large stone sundial. Also present are some comic but threatening pirates and some comic but friendly Pacific Islanders, and the novel ends, after various adventures, with the defeat of the first and the bequeathal of the treasure to the second (with strict instructions to bury it again at a site of their choosing). The children then return home in the caravel. In the course of the journey the mariner who helped them sail it returns to his long sleep, and having got them safely home the ship returns to the size it was at the beginning of the story, ‘eight inches from prow to stern’ (p. 248). The novel, in other words, describes a there-and-back-again trajectory, which is the only other thing it has in common with The Hobbit.[6]

Bullett’s book holds many echoes of earlier fiction for children. The fact that there are four child protagonists – three boys and a girl – recalls the plural child protagonists of Edith Nesbit’s novels, and the magic that takes place in a claypit used for making bricks may remind us of the industrial sandpit in which Nesbit’s four children (not including the baby) discover the Psammead in Five Children and It (1902). Bullett’s frequent shifting of point-of-view between one child and another similarly recalls Five Children and It, as does the humorous tone of their frequent squabbling. The Elizabethan sailor awakened after long sleep recalls Nesbit’s rudely-awakened Psammead, a sand-fairy who grants the five children their wishes, all of which come true with awkward consequences unforeseen by the wisher; the sailor is much less grumpy than the sand-fairy, and the magic he and his ship unleash is less awkward in its effects, but the parallels are clear enough. The island, meanwhile, has much in common with the Neverland of J M Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy (1911). Barrie tells us that the Neverland is based on the map of a child’s mind, which nearly always takes the shape of an island,

with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. (p. 73)[7]

The mixture of adventure story and fairy story in this description exactly matches Bullett’s ‘island of the map’. So too does the fact that Barrie’s Neverland has different contents depending on which child is dreaming it. ‘Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal’, Barrie tells us, so that John’s has a lagoon with flamingos flying over it, for instance, while Wendy’s has a ‘house of leaves deftly sewn together’ (p. 74). Bullett’s island, by contrast, is a response to the collective imaginations of the four children who drew the map on which it is based; but the different children each have specially tailored adventures on it. The youngest child, for instance, seven-year-old Martin, finds his way at night into a ‘Forest of Fairy Tales’ which none of the other children encounter (Chapter 14), though they get taken home in the end by a friendly cuckoo he met on this solitary adventure – remembered, perhaps, from Mrs Molesworth’s The Cuckoo Clock (1877). The island also contains elements from Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1881-1883), most obviously in the siege of the log cabin by pirates, which invokes the siege of the stockade in the earlier novel (the eldest child, Rex, ‘had just been reading Treasure Island’ before the book begins, p. 2). The footprints leading to the treasure recall the famous footprint in Robinson Crusoe (1719), a book which is also invoked by the children’s surname; and the attack on the pirates by the Pacific Islanders recalls a similar attack in R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857), as do the many lavish descriptions of tropical vegetation. All these echoes of earlier fiction for children must be deliberate, I think, and suggest that Bullett read the map of children’s minds as dominated by their reading, supplemented by conversations with adults, especially their businessman father. Even the Elizabethan sailor, Phineas Dyke, comes from an episode in British history much read about by British children in the age of imperialism: the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Phineas’s awakening from long sleep summons up the many characters from history brought back to life by the fairy Robin Goodfellow in Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and its sequel, Rewards and Fairies (1910), to tell their stories to two British children, just as Phineas tells the story of his capture of the real Spanish caravel to Bullett’s child protagonists. The Happy Mariners reads in fact like a journey through a library; the kind of journey recounted by Walter de la Mare in his first novel, Henry Brocken (1904), which tells of its protagonist’s travels in the ‘Rich, Strange, Scarce-Imaginable Regions of Romance’.

The originality of Bullett’s story derives from its passages of rich description, a series of dreamy set pieces which mark it out as a novel written after the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis.[8] Each of these passages is sensually vivid, but also self-evidently unrealistic, full of details that can’t be explained by conventional logic. Here, for instance, is Elizabeth’s first impression of life on the ship:

She had known every inch of the ship so well when the ship was in its bottle that she was filled with astonishment at finding everything a thousand times bigger. Here was the half-deck, higher by four feet than the other; here, on their swivels, were the two guns (faulcons, as Father had called them); and here was the cook’s galley. All was exactly as her father had shown her, and as she herself had seen when, with the ship in her hand, she had studied and admired its every part. The beams of the deck were slippery; two or three times she nearly lost her footing, and once only saved herself from falling by clutching at a gigantic coil of rope, rope thicker than her arm in a coil as tall as herself. The great lantern that swung and swayed half-way up the mizzen mast held her attention for a wondering moment. How did it come there, and who had lit it? Perhaps Rex had found it in the course of his explorations. The question did not occupy her for long, for she was enraptured with the taste – the salt and tarry taste – of this adventure; the sight of stars moving overhead; the feeling of the ship, like a live thing, under her; the rhythm and music of the ploughed sea; the sound of the canvas that was like the beating wings of a gigantic bird. She felt that she, like a queen, was riding the ship, and that the ship was riding the sea, and that the sea itself, with its myriads of leaping waves, was racing round the world. Speed and air, music and starshine, were  mixed in one glorious cup for her. (p. 54)

The passage mingles accurate marine vocabulary – half-deck, faulcons, cook’s galley, beams and so on – with elements of arrant fantasy, such as the sudden growth of an eight-inch model of a ship into a craft ‘a thousand times bigger’, or the fact that a lantern is somehow burning on the ship’s mizzen mast without having been lit by anyone (though there may be a rationale for this – ‘Perhaps Rex had found it’). Elizabeth’s attempts to rationalise the lantern get quickly subsumed by her enjoyment of the sensory richness of her adventure; it has a ‘salt and tarry taste’, the stars look as though they are moving along with the ship, the ship’s movements make it feel ‘like a live thing, under her’, the sea sounds like music, while the flapping of the sails sounds like the wings of a giant bird – everything around her is endowed with life by each of her senses in turn and together. Her intense sensory awareness convinces her that she can feel the sea itself ‘racing round the world’ – which it may well be, though the ability to sense that world-encompassing motion could be regarded as a supernatural gift. The passage ends with the idea that all her senses together contribute to her general delight, the ‘glorious cup’ from which she is drinking. Delight trumps conventional logic, then, on Elizabeth’s maiden voyage, despite (or because of) the promise of imminent danger held by the faulcons on their swivels.

Part of the dreamlike aspect of this passage derives from the fact that it’s written from the perspective of a young girl of the 1920s. Elizabeth’s delight in the ship stems from a fascination with maritime adventure which makes itself felt in the careful study she has made of the model gifted to her by a kindly-eyed sailor. The model’s release from its glass bottle and expansion to full size enables Elizabeth to realise her dreams of adventure, a dream stimulated, it would seem, by the books she has read – the books I’ve listed, some of which are directly referenced in the text. All these books are directed at boy readers rather than girls, but Elizabeth finds a way of reading against the grain to incorporate details from those books into her games with her siblings. For instance, she’s the one who draws the outline of the island on the children’s map, after a first abortive attempt by her younger brother; she’s also the one who first and most vividly brings the ship to imaginative life: ‘In fancy she sailed under a copper sky down a broad river that ran through the dark and sleeping forest; she saw panthers gliding among the trees, and monkeys leaping from branch to branch pelting each other with coconuts, and scarlet parrots that started screaming at her ship’s approach’ (p. 16); and it’s from her imaginings that her male siblings get inspiration: ‘Her brothers […] caught fire from her eyes’ (p. 19). She’s the one who succeeds in breaking the bottle with a well-cast stone, ‘though it is notorious that girls can’t throw straight’ (p. 23), and thereby wins the captaincy of the craft inside; and she knows more about that craft than the other children (‘“You seem to know a lot about this ship,” said Rex, almost complainingly. “You haven’t been on her before, have you?”’, p. 35). By the time we read the paragraph I’ve just cited, Elizabeth is both captain and ‘queen’ of a captured warship, leading her siblings on a quest to an unknown island of their own invention. She’s in a position, in other words, which outside this book she could only dream of, and her delight in riding the ship around the world is intensified, one might guess, by the fact that she could never enjoy these experiences under ordinary, non-magical circumstances.

At the same time, however, Elizabeth is constantly being relegated in Bullett’s novel to roles traditionally assigned to women under patriarchy: looking after her younger brother, cooking in the ship’s galley, being sent below when a storm blows up at sea while her brothers help man the vessel, sewing clothes in the log cabin and so on. Yet she is steering the ship when the children first encounter the pirates, takes an active part in the defence of the log cabin during the siege, and befriends the chief of the Pacific Islanders, thereby saving herself and her siblings from the evil designs of the buccaneers. Elizabeth, in fact, is a kind of in-between figure, both capable of acquitting herself well in situations formerly reserved for boys, and unable to free herself from the narrow range of roles available to young girls in her lifetime, above all as future wives and mothers. Elizabeth’s delight in the ship shows her to be willing and eager to embrace roles far beyond this narrow range, but she sometimes accepts the limitations imposed by men, as embodied by her oldest brother. That brother’s name – Rex, which is Latin for king – seems to identify him as more ‘naturally’ worthy of a leadership role than she is, despite her own name’s connection to a woman who famously had the ‘heart and stomach of a king’; and when the children land on the island Elizabeth soon hands over the captaincy to Rex. She occupies a liminal position, neither equal with her brothers (despite the promise of equality held out by the Equal Franchise Act of 1928) nor willing to accept her unequal status.

It’s for this reason, perhaps, that Elizabeth often seems most aware of the rules that govern the ‘salt and tarry’ adventure in which the children find themselves caught up. For instance, when the model ship first changes size she suggests, ‘Perhaps […] it was a big ship all the time, really. But we couldn’t see it. It was in the bottle, and the bottle was magic’ (p. 51). Later, when they discover the log cabin on the island in exactly the place they put it on the map, she suspects at once that it came into being when they imagined it:

‘Why, it might have been built yesterday,’ said Guy, ‘by the look of it.’
‘Perhaps it was,’ said Elizabeth thoughtfully.
‘What on earth do you mean?’
Elizabeth shook her head. ‘I don’t know.’ (p. 139)

Later still, she thinks she understands how and why Phineas unexpectedly vanished from the island and reappeared on board the caravel:

‘He belongs to the ship, don’t you see? He’s lived on her for three hundred years. It’s his home, and he’s helpless and kind of lost anywhere else. That’s why he came back, I’m sure. He just forgot all about us and went back to his old ship without quite knowing what he was doing. Like people walking in their sleep.’ (p. 242)

Elizabeth’s in-between state, not bound to the rules of ‘realistic’ adventure stories as her older brother is (the younger boys abide by different rules, as we’ll see), makes her at ‘home’ on the ship and the island, as he is not. She rarely gets worried or frightened, as the boys do, and finds herself able to sympathize both with the wicked pirate chief when they pick him up at sea and with the chief of the Pacific ‘cannibals’ when she finds him injured outside the cabin; in fact, her willingness to set aside convention to make friends with the latter ensures that their adventure gets a happy ending. Thanks to her experiences as a girl in a society dominated by men, she is acutely conscious from the start that the children are engaged in events that have little to do with the rules of physics or social conventions – though those rules and conventions are always at work behind the scenes. In the end it seems clear that the whole adventure could not have happened without Elizabeth’s involvement, and in this she is closely related to Barrie’s Wendy, for whom Neverland and all its adventures are engineered by Peter Pan; though Elizabeth’s greater agency is reflected in the fact that she engineers the island for herself by sketching out its contours in the opening chapter. That the adventure is predominantly Elizabeth’s is also suggested by the fate of the pirate chief, who has his head cut off by Phineas in single combat on the deck of the caravel, but spouts only sawdust from his injuries, making it clear that he cannot feel them and so no longer needs Elizabeth’s sympathy (which she bestowed on him freely on his earlier visit to the vessel). The sawdust conveys the fact that the whole adventure was only ever a brief holiday from ‘real life’, and that this interval of play – when living and breathing human beings can be filled with sawdust like a child’s dolls – will soon be over, giving way once again to the world we call ‘real’. Of all the children, Elizabeth seems most aware of the evanescence of the adventure, since she has most to lose by its coming to an end. She’s the first to note, after the pirate chief’s beheading, that they will likely be home in time for tea (p. 246); but she is also the last to leave the island, lingering as long as she can to say goodbye to her friend the chief of the Pacific Islanders (pp. 236-7). Her in-betweenness persists to the novel’s final page.

Interestingly, the boys in the story too exist in an in-between state, caught both between childhood and adulthood and between conventionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ attributes. The eldest boy, Rex, is the most maddeningly masculine of the three, constantly seeking to assert his greater knowledge and strength over those of his siblings. He addresses his youngest brother, Martin, as ‘my lamb’ (p. 6), telling him that ‘When you’re a bit older’ he’ll learn to fear pirates as well as yearn for them. On one occasion he calls his other brother Guy ‘my little man’, like a tiresome adult, while ‘thrusting two hands mannishly into his trouser pockets’ and giving ‘a scornful laugh that was very impressive’ (pp. 17-18). At the same time, Rex is not yet wholly given over to the patriarchy, since he is willing to cede his ‘natural’ place as leader from time to time by consenting to the best ideas of his brothers and sister: ‘That was the pleasant thing about Rex,’ Bullett tells us; ‘even though he was the eldest he was never above taking suggestions from the others’ (p. 6). His genial compliance derives, no doubt, from his secure position as presumptive leader of the Robinson children.

The youngest boy, meanwhile – Martin – lives equally in his imagination and the material world, being wholly devoted to his older sister, his cat Fandy, and a broken cuckoo clock he treats as a toy. Unlike Rex he is not yet fully aware of the distinctions between his dreams and desires and the reason-based universe adults expect him to inhabit; and this is best exemplified by his solo adventure in the ‘Forest of Fairy-Tales’ to which he finds his way on the island, where he meets a dwarf who offers him three wishes in time-honoured fashion (pp. 152-4). Martin has just passed a beautiful orange tree in the forest, and wishes for that; at once he finds it growing next to him, and his next wish is to be able to take it away with him when he goes home. The dwarf suggests he carry it away in a pot, but Martin is horrified: ‘But it won’t be the same in a pot!’, he cries in distress. The dwarf then offers him the forest as well, to keep the tree in its ideal context; Martin agrees at once, and his second wish is duly granted. After this, Martin pauses to consider his final wish. He would like, he says, to eat the oranges, but also doesn’t want to ‘spoil the tree’ by plucking them. Unfortunately the dwarf ignores the second part of his wish and plucks all the fruit, after which ‘The tree was bare; the oranges lay scattered on the ground’, and Martin finds himself ‘on the verge of tears’, realising that the tree he loved no longer exists in the state that made him fall in love with it. Martin’s desires, he learns, are unattainable in the ‘real’ world, something that’s made clear to him through his inability to formulate his wishes satisfactorily (shades here, again, of Five Children and It). In recompense the dwarf offers him one more wish – forgetfulness – and Martin at once forgets the lesson; perhaps Bullett thinks him too young, as yet, to have learned it. The youngest Robinson goes on to have other fairy-tale adventures that night – in a snow-bound village where he meets the cuckoo from his broken cuckoo-clock and Cinderella – and he tells his siblings all about them when he gets home; but he never again mentions the vexed conundrum of the orange tree.

All the same, there are hints elsewhere in the text that Martin is fully aware at times of the disconnect between his desires and the ‘actual’ world he lives in. When the children first come aboard the life-size ship, Martin quickly learns he may not be much help in its handling. ‘I’ve got a feeling I’m not going to like this trip very much,’ he tells his sister. ‘I wanted to help with the ship, but they said I was too little’ (p. 59). Soon afterwards he adds, ‘I think it would be rather nice to go home. You could come too, couldn’t you? They don’t want girls here, you know. As Rex said, this is a man’s job’ (pp. 59-60). Martin is, in fact, the only one of the brothers who directly recognises the convention that makes Elizabeth an unusual member of a ship’s crew, and he does so because he finds himself in the same position; unlike the older boys he cannot pretend to be a man. It takes all of Elizabeth’s ingenuity to persuade him that they can’t go home in the ship’s boat, rapidly explaining that ‘it was impossible, that she couldn’t row, that it would spoil the fun, that she must stay with her brothers, and that Martin was going to have the time of his life on the Resmiranda’ (p. 60). If Martin, at his young age, is tied to convention, Elizabeth has the wherewithal, here as elsewhere, to find imaginative ways around it.

Rex, then, is almost a maddening sort of man and Martin is very definitely a child; but the middle brother, Guy, is more ambiguous in his role. First, he is Elizabeth’s twin, and very fond of his sister – something that Rex finds it necessary to tease him about from time to time (‘real’ men, in Rex’s opinion, don’t side with girls in every family disagreement). His relative plumpness makes him less suited to the ‘male’ life of high adventure; when he slides down the rope that leads from the cliff-top to the newly life-size ship, his weight causes the rope to break and he falls into the sea, which means he is forced to spend the first few hours on board without his clothes as he waits for them to dry; a humiliating situation for any would-be mariner. His position in the family between his brothers and between a child and an adult comes across most clearly in the adventure he has on his own, when he decides to leave the log cabin to spy out the land without consulting his siblings. This comes straight after Martin’s solitary adventure, and we’re told that Guy is the only one of Martin’s siblings to fully believe in his adventures in the Forest of Fairy Tales, since in Guy’s opinion

This island […] was not an ordinary island; it seemed to be a place where things you thought of had a queer trick of coming true when you least expected it. And not only things you thought of, but things you half-thought of, things you had forgotten, and perhaps – who could say? – things that lay buried inside you under all the other thoughts. (p. 178).

This makes it sound as though the island releases things from your Freudian unconscious (or ‘subconscious’, as Bullett calls it in his essay Dreaming); and sure enough, Guy feels the pull of the unconscious on his own solitary adventure, much as Martin did in his encounter with the dwarf. As he hurries towards the highest point on the island he abruptly feels a strange inclination to take a detour towards a nearby spot where his dreams might come true, like Martin’s:

As he came closer, a warm breath of intoxicating scent floated up into his face, and phrases of distant music stole upon his senses. The leaves of all the trees began to quiver and glow, as though little lamps had been lit inside them; and the whole forest seemed to be singing, murmuring. At any moment something strange and delightful might happen, for near him, within hand’s touch, he was aware of another world, a world both inside and outside the forest that he saw, the sea that he remembered, and the home that he had left so long (it seemed) ago; and he felt that some trifling happy chance – a step, a movement, the flicker of an eyelash, or a single word if only it were the right word – might release him into that world. (p. 179)

This enchantment of Guy’s has much in common with Elizabeth’s feeling of sensory pleasure on the ship; each of Guy’s senses is caught in turn by the ‘other world’ that seeks to draw him to itself, from smell (‘scent’) and sound (‘music’) to sight (the ‘little lamps’ of the leaves) and touch (hand’s touch) – only taste is missing. The accumulation of these sense impressions brings with it the potential for delight of the kind embraced by Elizabeth (‘something strange and delightful might happen’), but Guy has a mission and, as a boy, suspects that what tempts him to abandon it must be wrong, running counter to the values boys and men are supposed to embrace. He therefore resists delight as Elizabeth did not, hurrying past the place of enchantment towards the hilltop where he hopes to be able to see all round the island. A second time he is tempted – this time by the sudden realisation that the treasure must be buried nearby, where they located it on the map – and this time he succumbs to temptation, digging for a while until his ‘conscience’ strikes him again and he hurries on to Look-out Hill (p. 180-1). Even here he finds himself revelling in the pleasure of seeing the island laid out below exactly as he and the other children conceived it, and realising that ‘it was the map itself come beautifully and marvellously true’ (p. 181). In the face of this beauty, the need to arm himself with ‘information of immense stragetical (or was it strategical?) importance’ (pp. 181-2) seems only supplementary to the pleasure of simply living in the present. For a while, in fact, he completely forgets his patriarchal role as the male scout on whom his family depends, enraptured by another assault on his senses, beginning with the ‘slow lazy rhythm’ of waves breaking on the shore:

Guy listened to this music crashing and echoing round the coast, and stared in delight, forgetful of danger, at the rippling water, which, though near at hand crested with tiny waves, in the distance seemed so smooth and blue that he could scarcely tell where the sea ended and sky began. (p. 182)

Throughout his adventure, then, Guy finds himself torn between the vision of the fairy tale forest afforded to Martin, the sensory delight afforded to Elizabeth, and his responsibility as the male protector of women and children, who must set aside visions and pleasures for practical ends. The sight of the approaching canoes of the Pacific Islanders recalls him to his position within the patriarchy, so that he starts taking practical measures – ‘he took bearings’ (p. 182) – in an effort to judge how far away they are and how much time he has to warn the others about them. Patriarchal values, however, have just as great a tendency to lapse into fantasy as a delight in one’s physical surroundings, or a conviction that another, more beautiful universe exists ‘both inside and outside the forest he saw’. As he watches the canoes Guy is seized by an impulse to attack them all by himself, like a rogue bull; but he comes back to earth with a bump when he suddenly realises that even ‘he and old Rex’ together ‘would be hard put to it to protect those youngsters’, Martin and Elizabeth – his twin sister being relegated to the status of youngster ‘by virtue of her sex’ (p. 183). He hurries back to the cabin, and after that all his various fantasies get swept away by the urgent need to defend their stronghold against both pirates and Pacific Islanders. During the siege, Elizabeth’s relative ‘youth’ too gets forgotten, and she takes up a musket with just as much confidence and skill as the boys.

Guy’s wavering between the values of the child Martin, his sister Elizabeth, and his older brother Rex, encapsulates the experience of reading The Happy Mariners, which slips easily between sophisticated descriptions of bodily responses to the sea and the island and passages of comic melodrama, like the absurd behaviour of the pirates Bill Murder and Nautical Tallboy in Chapter Twelve; between moments of life-and-death urgency, like Guy’s race to inform his siblings of the Islanders’ approach, and moments of outright fantasy, like the sudden arrival of the wooden cuckoo from Martin’s cuckoo clock at the exact moment when she is needed to transport the children from island to ship at the end of their island adventure. Bullett’s point, it would seem, is that all these ingredients play an active part in the lives of adults as well as of children; a view confirmed by the fact that the children are as much influenced in their thinking by their businessman father as they are by their reading. Claims that one or other set of values belongs exclusively to children or to adults, to boys or to girls, seem to be undermined by the shared nature of so many of the children’s experiences; though the novel also pays due attention to the pressure on boys and girls to adopt exclusively masculine or feminine habits, on children to ‘grow out of’ their weakness and imaginative playfulness, and on everyone to pay less attention to the delight of the moment than to the useful plans they ought to be making for the future. Bullett’s alertness to this pressure lends the novel an atmosphere of gentle mournfulness – the children must surely succumb to such pressure at some point – despite its seeming endorsement of bodily and imaginative pleasures over the demands of duty and convention.

Running through the novel is another theme to which Hodge’s picture, ‘Night in the Forest’, alerts us: cats. I mentioned before that Martin’s favourite companion, besides the wooden cuckoo in his cuckoo clock, is the cat Fandy; and somehow Fandy pervades the children’s adventures with his presence. He accompanies them on the visit to the pond in the brick field which opens the novel, sitting near them ‘languidly washing his face’ as they discuss the island in the pond that inspires their map. On the map, the island takes on the shape of a ‘crouching leopard’, so that all events within its confines could be said to exist within the confines of a feline body. The absence of the Fandy cat and the cuckoo clock from the ship (Martin drops the clock as he climbs on board) is what makes the youngest Robinson wish to go home (pp. 59-60), and the discovery that the cat is in fact on board is what decides him to stay (‘Martin was delighted to have Fandy with him again, and he said no more about wanting to go home’, p. 65) – in spite of the fact that Fandy gave them all a fright with his gleaming eyes in the dark of the hold (pp. 63-4). The loss of Fandy on the island makes Martin miserable again, and it’s in search of Fandy that he sets off on his journey into the Forest of Fairy Tales, where he finds the cat again in the house of Cinderella, as if the island had always been the cat’s home (or one of them). Later, when Bill Murder creeps into the log cabin and prepares to stab Guy, Fandy jumps on him ‘from his hiding-place in the shadows’ and scratches his face ‘quickly and furiously with all his sharp claws at once’, thus saving Guy’s life and perhaps the lives of the other children. After this the cat recedes into the background for a while, reappearing at the precise moment when the cuckoo arrives to carry them back to the ship, when Martin points him out sitting on the beach nearby, ‘unconcernedly washing his face’ (p. 240). On returning to the ship Fandy vanishes once more, before turning up in the final sentences of the novel, ‘busy washing his face’ again; as the narrator observes, ‘There never was a cleaner cat than Fandy’ (p. 248). Martin’s cat, then, frames the story in at least two senses: he appears at the beginning and the end, and his shape provides the ‘frame’ or outline for the island which lies at the heart of their adventures. In the course of the narrative, he keeps vanishing and reappearing, as if calling in question the laws of physics; and he is sometimes scary (as he is in the hold) and sometimes heroic (as he is in the log cabin), as unconcerned about being consistent as he is about being always present.

Which brings us back to Hodges’s illustration, ‘Night in the Forest’. The picture shows the children by a fire in the forest at night surrounded by wild animals, the same wild animals they earlier insisted should be present on their island of adventure. Long before night fell, they encountered similar animals in the jungle: ‘once a huge yellow beast sprang out of its hiding-place into their path, stood for an instant grinning and glaring at them and lashing its tail, and then loped off with an angry laugh’ (pp. 108-9). Rex claims that this beast is a hyena – presumably because of its laugh – but its capacity for springing out of hiding-places and its glaring eyes might remind us of Fandy. Elizabeth seeks to defuse the fears the hyena inspires by reminding the others they have made it up: ‘Of course we did say there’d be wild beasts, when we drew the map. So we’ve only ourselves to thank for it. But I hope they won’t be too wild’ (p. 109). But more beasts emerge after nightfall, when only Rex and Guy are awake, all of them definitely ‘too wild’: first a ‘sleek hissing snake’ (p. 116), then ‘distant shapes’ beyond the firelight, at one point distinguishable as ‘a prowling beast of prey, a spotted yellow thing, lithe and sinuous, baring its cruel fangs and sniffing the human scent’ (p. 117). This creature’s spots and sinuous body evoke a leopard, like the one that inspired the shape of the island, and the impression is reinforced later when the boys see ‘a huge black cat-like creature with blazing emerald eyes’ (p. 118) approaching the fire, which Rex fights off with a blazing branch in time-honoured hero fashion, like Mowgli fighting off Shere Khan. Hodges’s picture shows the beasts as lithe black cats, despite Bullett’s later reference to them as ‘howling’ (p. 121), and the feline ears he gives them reappear in Tolkien’s drawing of the trolls.

What Hodges’s picture does not show is how the beasts are finally dispersed. ‘Suddenly,’ Bullett tells us,

There was a stir among the beasts, a flicker of fear in the bright cruel eyes. A heavy pad-pad, a mighty earth-shaking roar, and into their midst leapt a huge lion. The boys, transfixed with fear, sat for one instant staring at the creature, saw it leap upon its prey and plunge its claws into the soft fur. What animal it had chosen they could not discern; they could only see that it was almost as big as the lion itself, and they gave a gasp of astonishment to see the lion, like a monstrous cat, take up the struggling creature in its jaws and carry it away without effort as though it had been a mouse. All the other animals had fled, and now the lion was gone, and it was unlikely, said Rex, that he would bother to visit them again. (p. 121)

The beasts that threaten the children, then, and the beast that scares them off, are both clearly modelled on cats, and hence on Fandy. Disappearing and reappearing throughout the text, sometimes as a terrifying threat, sometimes as a protective guardian, always implicitly present even when the narrator fails to mention him for many pages at a time, Martin’s animal companion embodies the workings of the unconscious better, perhaps, than any other component of the novel. Even the lion that saves the children remains ambiguous in its motives. After it leaves with ‘the struggling creature in its jaws’ Rex is not wholly sure it will not come back to eat them, too: ‘Even lions are afraid of fire’, he tells Guy reassuringly, but adds a qualification: ‘I expect’ (p. 121). The simple adventures undergone by the children, where goodies are goodies and baddies are baddies, hides another world in which the distinction is not so clear, in which lions are not simple allegories of imperial might or divine strength, love and wisdom.

The appearance of the lion in the forest, just after the moment pictured by Hodges in his illustration, is perhaps the episode in the book with clearest associations with the work of C. S. Lewis. Lewis’s allegorical representation of Christ (or Christ’s qualities) in the Narnia books is of course the great lion Aslan; and Aslan has a way of appearing and disappearing unexpectedly, leaving humans and sentient animals for long periods to fend for themselves; after all, he’s ‘not like a tame lion’, as Mr Beaver tells the child protagonists in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).[9] He’s also liable to reappear in different guises; for instance, in Prince Caspian (1951) he is at first invisible to all the child protagonists except Lucy, and in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) he manifests himself successively as a picture in a book (p. 133), an albatross (pp. 158-9) and a lamb (pp. 208-9).[10] Closest to Bullett’s cat theme is the version of Aslan in The Horse and his Boy (1954), which sees the great beast transform into several felines of different sizes, from the two or more lions who first bring Shasta and Aravis together (pp. 29-32) to the solitary lion who chases Shasta and Bree to the Hermit’s garden (pp. 128-9) or the friendly cat who comforts Shasta among the tombs (‘big and very solemn […] Its eyes made you think it knew secrets it would not tell’, p. 80).[11] In this, Lewis’s version of the Thousand and One Nights, Aslan is a recurrent but various presence, exactly as Fandy is in The Happy Mariners.

There are other echoes of Lewis’s work in Bullett’s novel. The ship that begins as a miniature version of itself anticipates Lewis’s ship the Dawn Treader, which the children in that book first encounter as a picture on a wall. That ship, too, becomes full size by magic after a destructive act, in this case a furious attack by a boy called Eustace. ‘I’ll smash the rotten thing,’ Eustace cries as he rushes at the picture (p. 14), but in doing so he hurls the child protagonists into the world of Narnia, just as Elizabeth’s well-cast stone, which breaks the bottle, hurls Bullett’s child protagonists into the world of their dreams. The island where dreams come true, meanwhile, finds an echo in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the protagonists come across a ‘Dark Island’ in which all dreams, including nightmares, are made real; something Lewis represents as the worst of horrors: ‘Do you hear what I say? This is where dreams – dreams, do you understand – come to life, become real. Not daydreams: dreams’ (p. 156); an idea the crew of the Dawn Treader find they cannot face. Guy’s wrestle with his conscience on the way to Look-Out Hill finds echoes in several Narnia books, in which children get tempted in various ways and either succumb to temptation or successfully resist it. Diggory in The Magician’s Nephew (1955), does both, first releasing an evil witch from an age-long enchantment, then successfully resisting her blandishments in a Narnian Garden of Eden.

Most strikingly of all, perhaps, Bullett’s young Martin learns in the Forest of Fairy Tales that the place resembles a series of boxes of the sort widely known as Chinese boxes. His friend Cinderella calls these boxes ‘Indian’, but explains what they are with helpful clarity:

‘It’s like those Indian boxes,’ she said, ‘all different sizes, one inside the other. The forest of firs was like the first box; inside that was the snow country; and inside the snow country was the little town of moonshine where I live. The funny thing is, that they get bigger instead of getting smaller. And the one in the middle is biggest of all.’ (p. 168)

The passage, of course, foreshadows the final Narnian chronicle, The Last Battle (1956), in which Lewis’s children find their way to a succession of new worlds, ‘world within world, Narnia within Narnia’, like an onion, ‘except that as you go in and in, each circle is larger than the last’ (p. 181).[12] Once again, these echoes of Bullett’s novel in the work of Lewis seem to me more than coincidental, and I find myself suspecting that Tolkien’s friend may have known it better than Tolkien himself.

It seems to me too, however, that Bullett’s cats have very different connotations from Lewis’s Aslan. My suspicion is based on another work by Bullett, a collection of poems he published as an undergraduate at Cambridge under the title Mice and Other Poems (1921), only six years before the first version of The Happy Mariners. In his introduction to Mice and Other Poems, the critic and poet Arthur Quiller-Couch pointed out that many young men who had fought in the Great War turned to writing poetry, and that their verse – including the verse contained in ‘this pamphlet’ – often displays a not unnatural ‘bitterness of resentment’.[13] The first poem in Bullett’s collection both explains its title and manifests the ‘bitterness of resentment’ born from the horrors of industrialised warfare. Here it is:

Mice

I see the broken bodies of women and men,
Temples of God ruined; I see the claws
Of sinister Fate, from the reach of whose feline paws
Never are safe the bodies of women and men.

Almighty Cat, it sits on the Throne of the World,
With paw outstretched, grinning at us, the mice,
Who play our trivial games of virtue and vice,
And pray—to That which sits on the Throne of the World!

From our beginning till all is over and done,
Unwitting who watches, pursuing our personal ends,
Hither and thither we scamper… The paw descends;
The paw descends and all is over and done.

In this early poem, written during or soon after his experience of combat in the Great War, cats embody an indifferent Fate wholly unlike the stern but cheerful lion-god of the Narnian chronicles; the sort of Fate that could condone casual slaughter on an industrial scale. In his essay Dreaming Bullett directly associates this sort of nightmare-cat with army life, referring to a dream of his in which a ‘cat-faced demon […] dressed in military uniform with all his buttons hideously shining, leaped out of a boiled egg at the tap of my spoon and ordered me to stand to attention’ (p. 12). The presence of war lurks in the background of The Happy Mariners, too. Phineas Dyke, the Elizabethan sailor who wakes from long sleep aboard Elizabeth’s ship, is the only survivor of a naval action in which all his fellow combatants died, friends and enemies alike, leaving him in sole charge of the caravel. Sleep fell on him as soon as the action ended, and his extended period of unconsciousness could be read as a kind of self-induced coma, offering a welcome escape into dreams from the horrors of war at sea. The cats in the novel, more often friendly and protective than terrifying, could represent the sort of softening or mellowing which Arthur Quiller-Couch hopes will take place in the young soldier-poets who have endured so much. But their terrifying aspect lingers, and the belligerent tendencies of the three boys in Bullett’s novel may have added to the melancholy undertones of the novel, especially for an adult reader who remembered the massive loss of young male life (and female too, as ‘Mice’ reminds us) in Flanders and France. These boys are already shaping up to provide perfect cannon fodder for the next outbreak of global warfare in 1939.

But I’d like to end with a more cheerful thought on Hodge’s illustration, ‘Night in the Forest’. Bullett’s essay, Dreaming, intersects in several ways with his novel for children, most obviously in its various lyrical meditations on the possible ways of viewing dreams. In the first section of the essay, Bullett tells us about his childhood theory that every person consists in fact of two people, each of whom is awake when the other is asleep; consciousness and dreams, according to this theory, have equal value, which means that Elizabeth’s dream life as captain and queen is as valid as her waking life as a girl from suburbia. In the second section, Bullett suggests that a person’s dream life exists in seamless continuity with their waking life, both being made up of identical elements, memory and thought, but in different proportions, with organising thought being almost absent from dream, while by contrast organising thought dominates any act of conscious recollection. A daydream or reverie, for Bullett, inhabits a liminal place between waking and dreaming, and its essential quality, translated into visual terms, most closely resembles ‘that quivering glaze of heat, colourless and transparent, that we sometimes see in summertime rising liquidly from the dry ground’; while in terms of hearing it invokes ‘the warm hum – the very voice of magic – with which sun-saturated woods are filled at noon’ (p. 18). Lying in such woods under such conditions – on a hot day in summer, with the trees rendered ‘at once more bright and less solid than reality’ – a person may entertain ‘a long procession of fancies’, among others that what we take to be ‘real’ is in fact no more stable or rational than what we take to be imaginary. This perception, if applied to the dream- or play-world of the island – made up as it is of memories – and the ‘real’ world from which it offers an escape, would again suggest that neither is more real or concrete than the other, each being susceptible to conditions that render them ‘less solid than reality’; conditions that include the darkness of midnight as well as summertime heat ‘rising liquidly from the dry ground’ at noon.  Elizabeth’s experiences on the ship and the island, in other words, are as positively real and valid a component of her memory – and of the personality of which her memory forms an essential part – as any of the seemingly inflexible rules and reasons imposed on her by education and convention. Both are equally real, while at the same time both form part of the same ‘long procession of fancies’. The same is true of Martin’s experiences in the Fairy-Tale Forest, or of Guy’s delight in his senses as he hurries through the woods or stands on Look-Out Hill, exulting in the sight and sound of the waves breaking on the shore. There is hope, in other words, that Elizabeth and her brothers will emerge from the woods of their island more ‘equal’, at least in each other’s eyes, than they were when they first went in. Their shared experience there, which is as real as their time in the suburban house Hodges pictures at the beginning and end of Bullett’s narrative, makes them comrades in spite of the accidents of gender, age, or personal disposition.

To adopt another idea from C. S. Lewis – that of the Wood Between the World in The Magician’s Nephew, which is full of ponds (like the pond in the brick field where the Robinsons’ adventure started) that offer gateways into other worlds – the children may possibly emerge from the woods on the island into a world which is slightly better than the world that spawned the Great War. We know from history, of course, that they did not, and that the rise of Nazism and the Second World War were just around the corner. But the hope endured, given shape and legal form by the Equal Franchise Act of 1928. So when we look at Tolkien’s drawing of the trolls in the woods, we might think about Bullett’s woods as pictured by Hodges in The Happy Mariners, the woods of daydream in Bullett’s essay on Dreaming, and Lewis’s Wood Between the Worlds; and we might take this ‘long procession of fancies’ as an invitation to go wandering in the woods of our own waking and sleeping dreams, from which we too might emerge with our hopes intact – and possibly even rendered a little more accessible.

NOTES

[1] My edition of The Hobbit is the 50th Anniversary edition (London and Sydney: Unwin Hyman, 1987), and the picture of the trolls can be found on p. 43.

[2] See Spufford, The Child That Books Built ( London: Faber and Faber, 2003), pp. 64-71.

[3] Spufford mentions the non-authoritative nature of Tolkien’s illustrations (for himself as a child) in The Child That Books Built, p. 71: ‘Illustrations – I decided – were limitations’. I felt the same way about some books but not about others; Pauline Baynes’s illustrations for the Narnia books, for instance, seemed to me of a piece with the text, and indispensable.

[4] All references in this post are to Bullett, The Happy Mariners, illustrated by C. Walter Hodges (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1956).

[5] See Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1982).

[6] There and Back Again is of course the subtitle of Tolkien’s novel.

[7] Quoted from Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[8] Bullett’s keen interest in and admiration for Freud are clearly evident in his essay Dreaming, published as a pamphlet in 1928, the year after The Spanish Caravel (The Happy Mariners). The complete pamphlet can be found here: https://archive.org/details/dli.ernet.470223/mode/2up.

[9] Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Puffin Books (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1959), p. 166.

[10] Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Puffin Books (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965).

[11] Lewis, The Horse and His Boy (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1959).

[12] Lewis, The Last Battle (London: The Bodley Head, 1958).

[13] References are to The Project Gutenberg eBook of Mice and Other Poems, transcribed from the Cambridge University Press edition of 1921.

David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937): ‘a kind of space between’

Mervyn Peake, David Jones (1939)

I’ve been reading David Jones’s In Parenthesis lately, a book often referred to as a poem (though it’s largely in prose) written by a brilliant artist who illustrated Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner in 1929. I’m reading it as part of a project on Mervyn Peake, because Peake drew Jones’s portrait in January 1939, two years after In Parenthesis was published. I presume the portrait was commissioned by The London Mercury in response to the impact the book was having in literary circles. Prominent writers had praised Jones’s epic prose poem in fulsome terms, including W H Auden (whose portrait Peake also drew in the late 30s), Graham Greene (who selected Titus Groan for publication by Eyre and Spottiswoode), and Herbert Read, the theorist of surrealism and a veteran of the Great War like Jones himself, whose work Peake must have known well as a professional artist and teacher. I can hardly imagine, then, that Peake did not read Jones’s Anglo-Welsh prose epic. He was fascinated by poetry, by book illustration – he too illustrated The Ancient Mariner in 1943 – and by Welshness, thanks to his Welsh mother and his friendship with Dylan Thomas; and like everyone else in 1939, he lived in the shadow of war. He was later in the habit of reading books he illustrated with close attention; I don’t know if this practice extended to the books of men and women whose portraits he drew, but this seems likely. Of course it’s not fair to look at Jones’s work merely through the lens of my interest in Peake, but it seems to me that In Parenthesis has much to tell us about how the Great War helped shape the emergence of fantasy as an artistic mode or practice between the wars. Jones forms, then, part of the picture that includes Tolkien’s emerging The Lord of the Rings, Peake’s development as a fantasy writer as well as an artist, and a number of important fantasy texts I’ll be looking at in future blog posts. Reading In Parenthesis in relation to fantasy, then, may be worthwhile, and that’s what I want to try briefly here.

As I said, the book is often described as a poem, despite the fact that it’s written in prose. This may partly be because of T S Eliot’s championing of it, and because of Jones’s regular references to Eliot and other poets in his preface and throughout the text; but it’s mainly an acknowledgement of Jones’s scrupulous attention to the verbal medium he uses – its rhythms, its sounds, its punctuation, its layout on the page. It tells the story of eight months in the Great War, from December 1915 to July 1916 – a journey from the training of new recruits in the British army to their first major engagement, the attack on Mametz Wood in which Jones was injured. This chronology takes us from Christmastide to High Summer, from relative innocence to hard-won experience, from the largely familiar to the deeply strange, from the nature-oriented past to the mechanized future. It’s told in a kind of verbal collage made up of dialogue in English and Welsh, technical military language including numerous acronyms, painterly descriptive passages, quotations from literature and snatches of song. The dialogue brings together numerous dialects used by different classes in various localities – most often in London and Wales. The narrative is divided into seven parts, each of which has its own pace, rhythm and stylistic techniques, which have been selected to match the subject matter: training and travel, marching, arriving at the front by night, contemplating no-man’s land, the routine of army life, the eve of battle, the battle itself. By the end of the book a transformation has taken place – multiple transformations, in fact, which are too complex to summarize briefly, but which echo the fantastic metamorphoses and ungainly fusions that took place in fiction, art and poetry after the war.

David Jones, Frontispiece to In Parenthesis

The text’s point of view is mainly that of a private called John Ball. Ball is named for the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, who also appears in one of William Morris’s first socialist fictions, The Dream of John Ball (1888), where he embodies the brand of neo-medieval socialism Morris sought to articulate and promote. There is a link here to fantasy as well as politics, since Morris famously wrote a series of neo-medieval romances in the 1890s which strongly influenced Tolkien. Morris’s romances were widely read in the trenches, especially The Well at the World’s End (1896), with its deft mimicry of the prose of Thomas Malory and its vision of a largely egalitarian, meticulously reinvented Middle Ages. Jones had another reason, though, for admiring Morris. The Victorian designer-poet’s theories about the dignity of craftsmanship as embodied in medieval craftsmen’s guilds, and the importance of substituting these for the alienated labour of industrialism, strongly influenced Jones’s mentor the sculptor and designer Eric Gill, founder of the Catholic Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, to which Jones belonged. It’s no surprise, then, if the point of view in the book is more collective than specific. The personal pronouns throughout the book are always changing their referent, so that ‘he’, for instance, can refer at different times to Private Ball, the German enemy, the sun (p. 59), or one of Ball’s comrades or superiors, while ‘she’ can mean a specific woman, or the moon (p. 27), or a ship’s figurehead (p. 51), or Ball’s rifle, or the spiritual embodiment of the wood where the final battle takes place. ‘They’ can be members of other units, distinguished from yours by the supposed cushiness of their living standards (p. 47); or else you and your comrades as you discover the alienness of your bodies after a poor night’s sleep (p. 63). The second person, ‘you’, meanwhile, gets used everywhere, drawing the reader into the narrative by weirdly investing her or him with the status of honorary veteran of a war they didn’t experience.

The most important feature of the book, however – at least from the point of view of understanding its relationship to fantasy – is its title. For Jones, the Great War took place as it were between brackets, separated by imaginary punctuation marks from every other experience he or anyone else involved had undergone. ‘This writing’, he tells us in the Preface,

is called “In Parenthesis” because I have written it in a kind of space between – I don’t know between quite what – but as you turn aside to do something; and because for us amateur soldiers […] the war itself was a parenthesis – how glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of ’18 – and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis. (p. xv)

The final part of this paragraph seems to extend the wartime experience to the whole of human life (‘our curious type of existence here’); but the text itself marks out the difference of wartime existence from other kinds in a number of ways. The process of reading it is much like entering an invented world of the kind Tolkien started to construct in the trenches; the language, in particular, is distinctive, punctuated by technical military terms which make it necessary for Jones to provide the ignorant reader with detailed notes, and the strangeness of war is constantly being associated with the impossible events and mythic resonances that have come to characterize the genre or mode now known as fantasy. And in the bracketed ‘space between’ that is the war, or the part of the war Jones chose as his subject, many more bracketed spaces occur: turnings aside, as the Preface puts it, ‘to do something’ distinctly different from the monotonous routines of army life. Each of these parentheses has its particular atmosphere and organization, so that it resembles what John Clute has called a ‘polder’ in fantasy fiction: a place where the rules are either subtly or radically different from the ones that govern the world in which the overall narrative takes place.

David Jones, The Mariners, from The Ancient Mariner

Jones prepares us in the Preface for the fantastic nature of what occurs between his book’s pages. ‘I think the day by day in the Waste Land,’ he writes, ‘the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the imaginations of those who suffered it’ (p. x). He adds, with wonderful unexpectedness: ‘It was a place of enchantment’. Before heading over to France, he tells us, ‘The air was full of rumour, fantastic and credible’ (p. 14), so that the impossible is already starting to be accepted by soldiers as the binding condition of their future lives. Rumour here is the preliminary ritual that sets aside the charm or spell or invocation from ordinary transactions, like the resounding hand-claps that alert the Japanese gods to the prayers of the faithful. Later, as the soldiers disembark from their trucks not far from the front, they receive ‘in their nostrils an awareness and at all their sense-centres a perceiving of strange new things’ (p. 18): a sentence that makes wonderfully concrete the bodily process of encountering and absorbing strangeness. The landscape they find themselves in is a matter of wonder – sometimes, Private Ball discovers, because of its very ordinariness, its stubborn persistence in being at once quotidian and the theatre of unprecedented atrocities.[1] One of the things that make it strange is the shifting light- and sound-patterns caused by natural or man-made weather, which is always rendering the everyday transcendent. Ball ‘marveled’, we learn early on, ‘at these foreign clouds’ (p. 20); and later he witnesses a sunrise like a revelation, the emergence of something divine from behind the cloud-cover: ‘Behind them, beyond the brumous piling the last stars paled and twinkled fitfully, then faded altogether; this beautiful one, his cloud garments dyed, ruddy-flecked, fleecy stoled; the bright healer, climbing certainly the exact degrees to his meridian’ (p. 62). In the bizarre nocturnal of Part 3, lit by flares and gunfire – where the language of the narrative shifts abruptly towards radical modernistic fusions of disparate idea and sound and image, in its efforts to invoke the state of being half-asleep while striving to stay alert and watchful while on sentry duty – the transition to fantasy is made explicit: ‘his mess-mates sleeping like long-barrow sleepers, their dark arms at reach. Spell-sleepers, thrown about anyhow under the night. And this one’s bright brow turned against your boot leather, tranquil as a fer sidhe sleeper, under fairy tumuli, fair as Mac Og sleeping’ (p. 51). The soldiers here resemble the legendary sleepers under mounds – King Arthur and his knights, the Seven Sleepers and the rest – in that they are both fully armed and unconscious, buried alive, so to speak, in roughly-executed trenches, precariously suspended between life and death, their very capacity to sleep under such circumstances a miracle, sure proof of enchantment. At the end of the book, the dead remain for ever in this fairy state, having been invested as ‘secret princes under the trees’ by the mysterious Queen of the Woods, who chooses ‘twelve gentle-men’ from among them to ‘reign with her for a thousand years’ (p. 185). The implication is that the strangeness of the ‘Waste Land’ of war has in some sense persisted beyond its temporal boundaries, enacting the ‘ever after’ of conventional fairy stories through the continuing presence of the twelve chosen sleepers in the mind of the man who saw them, thanks to the alchemy of memory. His memories of the dead, however, are framed in the language of fantastic narratives: dream reportage, folk tales, neo-medieval romances, bedtime stories. Fantasy is what makes it possible to recall them without self-damage, and what lends their casual slaughter point and purpose, giving their abruptly terminated narratives shape. The fantastic references throughout In Parenthesis alert the reader to the fact that the narrative is not a memoir, but a means of making memory bearable, in the sense of being transferrable to new, better contexts where the horror of war can be transmuted into art.

David Jones, page from the manuscript of In Parenthesis

As I’ve already implied, the resemblance of the parenthetical ‘space between’ of war to the secondary world of high fantasy is partly achieved by the cultural difference of army life in wartime from the lives of ordinary citizens, whatever their trade. This cultural difference imposes a clear distinction between readers of the book who were there at the front with Jones and those who were not. The distinction is emphasized, as I suggested, by the necessity for notes. Old soldiers will not need them, at least not the notes explaining army terminology. In the same way, Welshmen won’t need the translations from Welsh, nor Londoners the interpretations of cockney rhyming slang – at least, they won’t need these if they belong to the working classes, or have lived and fought alongside them, as Jones did. This bracketing-off of the veterans, in particular the set of veterans Jones fought with – as well as of the different kinds and phases of veteranship (Jones informs us that some of the terms he uses in the book belong to specific phases in the War, falling into and out of use as the conflict wore on) – may be what’s being referred to in the final sentence: ‘the man who does not know this has not understood anything’ (p. 187). Non-combatants or even combatants who never saw the Somme cannot hope to share the weird knowledge Jones has to impart, and the strangeness of Jones’s patchwork style is designed to emphasize the impossibility of a stranger’s ever achieving comprehension.

David Jones, sleeping soldier (1915)

At the same time, Private Ball himself is quickly initiated into the alien culture of the front after first encountering it as an outsider. Arriving at the trenches he discovers a distinctive ‘folk-life’ embedded there, ‘a people, a culture already developed, already venerable and rooted’, and it’s only with time that he gets initiated as a full member of this order or community: ‘And you too are assimilated, you too are of this people – there will be an indelible characterization – you’ll tip-toe when they name the place’ (p. 49). The sentence emphasizes the exclusiveness of membership of this war-torn people, but its use of the second person also ensures that Ball’s own initiation is shared by the reader. This is not, then, an elitist text, despite its moments of obscurity and its use of unfamiliar cultural references – such as the early medieval Brittonic poem Y Gododdin, quotations from which open each of the seven sections, alongside the much better-known text Morte Darthur by the fifteenth-century soldier Sir Thomas Malory, which crops up everywhere. Jones laments, for instance, the fact that convention forbids him from using swearwords in the text, about which he says in the Preface: ‘The very repetition of them made them seem liturgical, certainly deprived them of malice, and occasionally when skillfully disposed, and used according to established but flexible tradition, gave a kind of significance, and even at moments a dignity, to our speech’ (p. xii). The demotic is elevated to liturgy by the stresses and strains of war, rendering socially ostracized discourse as precious as the language of the training ground, the law court or the parlour.

David Jones, Periscope

The democratic aspect of conflict is intensified by Jones’s acute awareness that every soldier at the front, whatever his background, is unique and therefore valuable in light of the particular cultural referents he contains, as it were in brackets, within his body. No one soldier is more unique and hence significant than anyone else, as the slippery pronouns demonstrate, and this radical egalitarianism cannot help but impose itself on Jones’s readers – re-acculturating us as we read until by the end we are forced to inhabit an egalitarian space, no matter what space we came from at the beginning. The rich specificity of each individual’s assemblage of experiences, cultures and histories is brought out with greatest force at the point of death, when the casual demolition of people we have come to know well in the course of the narrative – such as the young lieutenant Mr Jenkins, sinking to the ground with his revolver swinging from its pendulum like ‘the clock run down’ (p. 166), or Private Wastebottom, who is killed waiting in the trenches for the last assault, yet ‘maintained correct alignment with the others, face down, and you could never have guessed’ (p. 158) – is set alongside the deaths of anonymous soldiers whose lives are briefly lit up, so to speak, by the names of the places and people that helped to make them: such as the German killed by Private Ball in the wood, who in dying ‘calls for Elsa, for Manuela / for the parish priest of Burkersdorf in Saxe Altenburg’ (p. 169). Conversely, one Welsh soldier’s death links him to the deaths of all soldiers everywhere, thanks to his being the namesake of the poet Aneirin who wrote Y Gododdin, the poem that provides In Parenthesis with its epigrams:

No one to care there for Aneirin Lewis spilled there
who worshipped his ancestors like a Chink
who sleeps in Arthur’s lap
who saw Olwen-trefoils some moonlighted night
on precarious slats at Festurbet,
on narrow foothold on le Plantin marsh –
more shaved he is to the bare bone than
Yspaddadan Penkawr.
Properly organized chemists can let make more riving power than ever Twrch Trwyth;
more blistered he is than painted Troy Towers
and unwholer, limb from limb, than any of them fallen at Catraeth
or on the seaboard-down, by Salisbury,
and no maker to contrive his funerary song. (p. 155)

Here Aneirin’s personality or personhood – most marked earlier in the narrative by his propensity for singing constantly under his breath, as if transforming the experiences we are reading into song – gets mixed in with those of earlier poetic memorialists of warfare. These include Shakespeare (in the reference to Arthur’s lap, mentioned as Falstaff’s final resting-place in Henry V); the writer of the Culhwch and Olwen section of the medieval Welsh anthology the Mabinogion; the Arthurian storytellers and poets from Nennius to Chrétien de Troyes; the many poets and dramatists who have written about Troy; and the fifteenth-century soldier-storyteller Malory, whose style is echoed in the phrase ‘let make’ and whose story of Arthur’s final battle on Salisbury Plain is referred to in the penultimate line. At the same time, Aneirin is elevated above and separated from these distinguished predecessors by the excessive destructiveness of his demolition. He is more ‘shaved […] to the bare bone’, more ‘blistered’ and rent ‘limb from limb’ then any soldier on the battlefield of Catraeth, where the tragic action of Y Gododdin takes place. Unlike his predecessors, too, after this horrible unmaking he has no poetic ‘maker to contrive his funerary song’ – he is not remade, so to speak, in verbal form. Not, at least, until Jones started writing; and the success of Jones’s exercise in commemoration depends on the reader’s participation in it, their willingness to subject themselves to the dreadful account of Aneirin’s dismemberment, to understand both where it connects with and where it is bracketed off from the past dismemberments Jones lists in this passage. The reader’s importance is acknowledged in the final broken paragraph of the book, from which I quoted earlier: ‘The geste says this and the man who was in the field… and who wrote the book… the man who does not know this has not understood anything’. Understanding is associated with the man who ‘wrote the book’, which makes the book we have just read a means of connecting us with the material reality of the ‘field’, through a combination of the act of writing, the act of reading, and the act of imagining – all of which take courage. Aneirin’s remaking is achieved through Jones’s connection of the field of the Somme with the field of Catraeth, which most of his readers will not have heard of before that too was remade, so to speak, in the epigrams and notes to In Parenthesis. Making Aneirin anew is possible, then, despite the radical dissimilarity of his death from those in the texts alluded to – the tales of Troy and Catraeth and Arthur – and despite the unfamiliarity of most readers with the time and place where it took place.

The most moving moment in the passage occurs when Jones conjures up an intimate detail of Aneirin’s life at the front line: the time when the soldier noticed a certain species of flower, a trefoil, despite his own precarious perch on moonlit slats in a trench under enemy observation. The flower had for Aneirin an association with a story from his homeland, that of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion: it is ‘Olwen-trefoil’ (my emphasis). So this perception on the part of Aneirin brings life, so to speak – imparts urgency and vividness – to a tiny fragment of Welsh culture; and this process of bringing a fragment of culture to life would have been lost to the world if Jones had not recorded it. The association between a fragile, easily-missed blossom and personal and cultural memory recalls the opening tale in Lord Dunsany’s 1918 collection Tales of War, in which soldiers from a small Kentish village called Daleswood – all the grown men left in the community apart from the very old – expecting to be wiped out at any moment, seek some way to record what matters to them most about their village. They seek not to register their own names or the grand historical events they and their ancestors have taken part in, but the tiny everyday details which are crucial, in their opinion, to the place’s identity, and which will be lost for ever if none of them survive (the women of the village, they claim, have different priorities from the menfolk, and would choose to remember different things). But the men cannot agree on what those crucial details are; whether the foxgloves in the wood at the end of summer, or the time of year when they cut the hay with scythes, or the ‘valleys beyond the wood and the twilight on them’, or the ‘old village, with queer chimneys, of red brick, in the wood’. In the end they record on a lump of chalk only the sentiment: ‘Please, God, remember Daleswood just like it used to be’. As it transpires, the men survive; but the question of commemoration – of what’s worth preserving about a culture, a place, a person – remains; and the men’s sense that they lack the verbal means to perform the commemorative act, or even a consensus on what should be mentioned in their memorial, lingers on in the reader’s mind long after the story is finished and the men from the village are unexpectedly spared. The death of Aneirin is of course a tougher proposition. Salvaging the details of his death from Jones’s memory, with other wartime matters, was achieved at the expense of a nervous breakdown on the writer’s part, and the details Jones gives us about him are no more than fragments of the man who died. But they form part of a larger structure of great beauty, while being parenthetically bracketed off from the rest of the book by their specific application to a single soldier, now gone for ever. If it does not succeed in memorializing Aneirin adequately, the passage makes quite clear what has been lost by this inability to memorialize – just as Dunsany’s story makes quite clear what would have been lost if the men of Daleswood had died without being able to pass on their small observations of the village to their children and grandchildren.

The parentheses of Jones’s book, in other words, do not segregate his text from the understanding of its ‘lay’ readers – though that understanding will include, for most of them, the awareness that there is a clear distinction between the man ‘who was in the field’ and the man or woman who was not. Parentheses, in fact, are for Jones the condition we all inhabit, not just soldiers: ‘our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis’. Our lives are parenthetically bound in by non-life, before birth and after death, and war serves only to stress their parenthetical nature by means of its difference. The most startling example of a wartime parenthesis – the kind that accentuates parentheses of other kinds – comes in Part Seven, when the enemy artillery gets increasingly accurate in its aim at the British troops waiting in the trenches. As Private Ball stands motionless, listening and waiting, he observes – using one of those flexible pronouns that turn up everywhere, in this case denoting the enemy by way of the third person singular – how ‘He’s getting it more accurately and each salvo brackets more narrowly and a couple right in, just as “D” and “C” are forming for the second wave’ (p. 157). These are the salvos that annihilate Privates Wastebottom and Talacryn, in very different and individual ways: ‘Talacryn doesn’t take it like Wastebottom, he leaps up & says he’s dead, a-slither down the pale face – his limbs a-girandole at the bottom of the nullah [i.e. ravine or trench]’ (p. 158). Sandwiched between these murderous brackets, Private Ball finds the parenthesis of his life reduced to the fewer and fewer inexorable seconds before he finds himself within range of an enemy salvo; and his awareness of this extends his sense of time to encompass whole epochs: ‘Last minute drums its taut millennium out […] and seconds now our measuring-rods with no Duke Josue nor conniving God / to stay the Divisional Synchronization’ (p. 159). By the time he gets the command to go over the top, every second is a parenthesis packed full of stark terror, impotent denial of his own mortality, and a sense of the infinite preciousness of the tiniest temporal fraction of a man’s existence.

David Jones, rats shot in the trenches

The murderous bracketing of D and C companies by the double salvo can in turn be understood as an open parenthesis before the assault, for which the closing parenthesis for many will be death by violence. But this is just one of many temporal parentheses in the book. There is the opening bracket of the departure from England after training, bracketed at the other end of the war by the capitalized Big Ship that will ferry survivors home (p. 104). There is the parenthetical space of the night described in Part 3, with its own distinctive rules and visions and language; the night is bracketed by those wonderful passages in which Jones describes the slow departure of light and its equally slow return. There’s the parenthetical space of waiting between brief periods of action, the ‘King Pellam’s Laund’, No-Man’s Land or Wasteland of Part 4 – a location which is physically parenthetical, or unlike any other, in that it is stranded between the elements of earth and water (p. 88) and requires constant labour on the soldiers’ part to maintain its identity as solid land. The life led in this location by combatants on both sides aligns them with that parenthetical animal, the ‘rat of no-man’s land’ (p. 67); a parasite that exists in the interstitial spaces between the mapped regions inhabited by ‘real’ people and ‘real’ animals such as horses and mules. There’s the parenthetical space of Private Ball’s period of rest at the start of Part 6, in which he ties his own groundsheet to those of two comrades for extra comfort; a period that ends when one of the three is ordered away to act as a runner. This leads to the symbolic disengagement of the three groundsheets from one another, an act that gains significance from the friends’ awareness that their separation may well prove permanent: ‘such breakings-away and dissolving of comradeship and token of division are cause of great anguish when men sense how they stand so perilous and transitory in the world’ (p. 137). Private Ball’s meeting later that day with another two friends from different regiments takes place in a parenthesis which is grammatically as well as geographically distinct from their everyday lives: ‘These three seldom met except for very brief periods out of the line – at Brigade rest perhaps – or if some accident of billeting threw them near together. These three loved each other, but the routine of their lives made the chances of foregathering rare’ (p. 139). The final foregathering of the three is bracketed by intimations of mortality: the hammering of carpenters as they work to build coffins ahead of the assault (‘He wished they’d stop that hollow tap-tapping’, p. 139, my emphasis) and the parting shot of one of the friends: ‘don’t get nabbed tapping the Gen’ral’s wire – I’d hate to see you shot at dawn’ (p. 143, my emphasis). Each parenthesis, in other words, is a miniature reflection of the great parenthesis which is an individual lifetime, here all too often curtailed by the cold machinery of war.

David Jones, Christ mocked by soldiers

The military body itself in the book is a kind of parenthetical enclosure, clearly distinguished by virtue of its discomfort – and the forms of violence visited on it – from civilian bodies, as well as from its contents, the thoughts and feelings that make up personhood (‘feet following file friends, each his own thought-maze treading’, p. 37). At each stage of its army existence the body is defined as mechanism, the mind as something sensitive, soft and alien to the machine that encloses it, and Jones repeatedly invokes this awkward disparity between the component elements of a soldier’s self. As Private Ball marches, ‘his loaded body moved forward unchoosingly as part of a mechanism’ (p. 19), while his mind roams in other directions. As he wakes up each morning with other members of his platoon, ‘delicate mechanisms of nerve and sinew, grapple afresh, deal for another day’ (p. 61). As stress sets in before the final battle, the machine falters: ‘the sensibility of these instruments to register, / fails; / needle dithers disorientate. / The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers – you simply can’t take any more in’ (p. 156). Then at the point of death the machine runs down and comes to a stop: Mr Jenkins sags to the ground like ‘the clock run down’ (p. 166); Private Talacryn’s ‘mechanism slackens, unfed’ (p. 158); their respective recollections, desires and sense impressions are lost irretrievably as their specific functions in the engine of war come to an end. In the last pages of the book, the body becomes increasingly fragmented: Private Lewis loses his limbs, Private Morgan his head (which ‘grins like the Cheshire cat / and full grimly’, p. 180), and Private Ball the use of his legs in a kind of industrial cataclysm, ‘as if a rigid beam of great weight flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker’ (p. 183). After the war, we’re told, injured men will learn to live without limbs and organs they once thought essential: ‘Give them glass eyes to see / and synthetic spare parts to walk in the Triumphs, without anyone feeling awkward’ (p. 176). The final scene finds us in a wood full of corpses, recumbent in a tree-made crypt where the body is finally liberated from the state of mechanization. The German dead – tall ‘strangers’ in ‘field-grey’ – resemble stone statues rather than broken engines:

Aisle-ways bunged-up between these columns rising,
these long strangers, under this vaulting stare upward,
for recumbent princes of his people.
Stone lords coiffed
long-skirted field-grey to straight fold
for a coat-armour
and for a cere-cloth, for men of renown:
Hardrada-corpse for Froggy sepulture. (p. 182)

The Welsh dead, by contrast, recall discarded clothing, their bodies reduced by war-damage to the condition of prehistoric bog-people or the occupants of Neolithic burial chambers:

And here and there and huddled over, death-halsed to these, a Picton-five-feet-four paragon for the Line, from Newcastle Emlyn or Talgarth in Brycheiniog, lying disordered like discarded garments or crumpled chin to shin-bone like a Lambourne find. (p. 182)[2]

Deprived of their mechanical rigidity, these resting bodies – some broken, some intact – remain as anonymous as memorials in churches or archaeological discoveries. But as the wounded Private Ball crawls through the wood where they lie he imagines a dryad figure ritually reaping their minds and memories as she selects from among the corpses heroes worthy to ‘reign with her for a thousand years’; and Jones’s own recording of this ritual reanimates the dead men by name and personality as a stone tomb or burial chamber never could.

Mervyn Peake, The Ancient Mariner

If the body is a parenthetical ‘space between’, so too is what might be called the War Time into which Jones plunges as he leaves the training ground and travels to France. He tells us in the Preface, ‘I suppose at no time did one so much live with a consciousness of the past, the very remote, and the more immediate and trivial past’ (p. xi); and this fascinating fusion of the remote past of communities and the trivial past of the individual sets the place of war apart from other places in terms of the way it measures time. Time is distorted by the actions of war. Sentry duty distends it, rendering the phosphorescent dial of the soldier’s watch spookily inadequate to the task of marking its passage. The moments before the assault make the soldier yearn to stop time altogether, or somehow to evade the specific period in which the assault will take place, set it apart from himself in a parenthesis where only other soldiers die (p. 158). Transitions from day to night and from night to day are often used to mark the passage of time when clocks or watches are unavailable, but In Parenthesis is filled with twilight moments when day and night are in contention with each other, and where space too seems to collapse:

With the coming dark, ground-mist creeps back to regain the hollow places; across the rare atmosphere you could hear the foreign men cough, and stamp with foreign feet. Things seen precisely just now lost exactness […] Your eyes begin to strain after escaping definitions. (p. 98)

The past, too, ceases to be distinguishable from the present, because the soldier inhabits a continuous War Time which (as the Preface pointed out) seems to exist as a dark undercurrent that is always present behind or alongside the organized timetable of Peace. This is why Jones keeps straying into the language of the war poets, Aneirin, Malory, Shakespeare, the Chanson de Roland; their literary representations of war are always occurring to Private Ball as accurate statements about the strange world he has entered, despite the major changes that have taken place between their times and his own. History is erased or rendered null by War Time because no one has learned from it; men are still marching out to die as they did in Y Gododdin, in which case what is the point of differentiating 600 AD from 1916? The erasure of history is another of the many equalizing processes at work in Jones’s text. Any man in the army can take part in it, from Private Dai Greatcoat – who delivers himself of a long formal boast that links him to an endless line of fighters stretching back to Cain and the Trojan War (pp. 79-84) – to Private Donkin, whose personal history has brought him to France in a mission to avenge the atrocity whereby four of his brothers died at the front the year before (pp. 144-5); revenge being a process of balancing the books that effectively wipes the action you are avenging from the records, rendering it null and void. Outside War Time, killing is forbidden, or at least killing for personal reasons such as revenge. In War Time, every soldier finds himself exempt from such restrictions, encouraged to do things that would have got him imprisoned or hanged before he joined up – and which may still get him killed, imprisoned or maimed, as Private Donkin’s story shows. The clock of his life, in other words, has undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis. Long before it winds down and stops, it has entered a ‘space between’ and given itself over to Salvador-Dali-style dissolution, as inadequate for the purpose of measuring the distance between one moment and the next as the luminous watch-dial of a bored or frightened sentry.

David Jones, Capel-y-ffin

The final parenthesis in the book incorporates all the others, and seals the link between Jones’s record of wartime and the other great literary records of wars gone by. It’s the parenthesis of the Wood which is the objective of the assault in Part 7, and which becomes the paradigm of woods and forests everywhere in literature, the ‘spaces between’ where adventures take place, magic lurks, and supernatural people and creatures live and move and have their being. Private Ball identifies the Wood as a place apart as early as Part 4, where he contemplates it from a distance while on sentry-duty, observing: ‘To the woods of all the world is this potency – to move the bowels of us’ (p. 66). Woods, he recalls, are at certain times of year a place of holiday, to which men come ‘in heart’s ease and school-free’ or ‘perplexedly with first loves’; or the perfect hiding-place for an ambush; or a refuge for the justly or unjustly persecuted and the lost. They are associated with exiled ‘sweet princes by malignant interests deprived’, like Shakespeare’s Duke Senior, parenthetically barred from his hereditary role; or madmen running wild from grief and pain, as Lancelot did when Guinevere rejected him, or Merlin in certain Arthurian traditions, as well as ‘broken men’ of other kinds. Private Ball or one of his comrades – it’s not clear which – becomes such a ‘broken man’ at the beginning of Part 7, as Jones himself did while writing the poem: ‘He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things’ (p. 153), in the prelude to the assault on the Wood where he knows most of his company will be slaughtered. Woods, then, are where men are unmade, in that they are dismantled body and mind; but they are also where makings begin. Here unmade men will find a maker to commemorate them, since makers in the sense of poets and storytellers love the woods, which occur everywhere in old romances, lyrics and laments. Woods, then, are a place of destruction and reconstruction. They’re also a kind of neutral ground in wartime. They occur, we’re told in Part 4, on the maps of army draughtsmen, one of whom

Made note on a blue-print of the significance of that grove as one of his [i.e. the enemy’s] strong-points; this wooded rise as the gate of their enemies, a door at whose splintered posts, Janus-wise emplacements shield an automatic fire (p. 66).

Woods are liminal, in other words, Janus-faced like the first month of the year, facing at once towards past and future, death and life, the Germans and the British, making themselves available to anyone with the guts to approach and seize them for the flag. In addition, the Wood in Part 7 serves both as a gate that closes the parentheses within which the action of In Parenthesis takes place and a gate that opens out from the book onto the postwar era when it was written and published. As a portal of both kinds, it gives the lie to the notion of parentheses as sealing off what they contain from ‘normal life’. The world was deeply affected by the Great War; cultures changed radically in response to it; afterwards, as after Covid 19, there was a ‘new normal’. Parentheses in fact are always permeable, like portals, and In Parenthesis enacts this permeability through the uncanny skill with which it conjures up for a postwar readership the between-space of War Time.

Edward Burne Jones, Panel from The Legend of Briar Rose

Through the wood, as I mentioned earlier, stalks the enigmatic Queen of the Woods – whether in earnest or as a figment of Private Ball’s imagination. Her careful selection from among the dead of a representative twelve to serve as her knights makes that sample too a kind of parenthesis, in that it stands outside the categories of class and nation imposed on ordinary individuals by custom. She chooses for inclusion in her company both German and British soldiers, both privates and officers, both men like gods and men who are nothing more than jokes to their companions. And like the mad Ophelia, exempt by virtue of her broken mind from the restrictions that govern the sane, she presents each with some suitable woodland plant as a token of their admission into the culture of the strange:

Her awarding hands can pluck for each their fragile prize.
She speaks to them according to precedence. She knows what’s due to this elect society. She can choose twelve gentle-men. She knows who is most lord between the high trees and the open down.
Some she gives white berries
some she gives brown
Emil has a curious crown it’s
made of golden saxifrage.
Fatty wears sweet-briar […]
For Balder she reaches high to fetch his
Ulrich smiles for his myrtle wand.
That swine Lillywhite has daisies to his chain – you’d hardly credit it.
She plaits torques of equal splendor for Mr Jenkins and Billy Crower.
Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for a palm, where they lie in serious embrace beneath the twisted tripod. (p. 185)

In this scene, reminiscent of an arts-and-crafts painting – a panel, perhaps, from Burne Jones’s Briar Rose series of panels – men of all ranks and origins combine in quasi-erotic intimacy. Twelve of them are selected, like twelve apostles for some vegetable Jesus, twelve members of an assessing jury, none differentiated in terms of rank or importance from his copesmate. Balder the beautiful, the Christ-like Norse god who was killed with a mistletoe sprig through Loki’s trickery, is set alongside the pauper Hansel, driven by hunger to the woods with his sister to be murdered by a stranger; the German Hansel locked in ‘serious embrace’ with the Welshman Gronwy, all enmity forgotten; the unpopular commissioned officer Lillywhite alongside Lieutenant Jenkins and Private Crower, all bound together by daisy-chains ‘of equal splendor’, confirming their equal status in the Wood Queen’s universe, which lies well away from the social and military hierarchies that govern the spaces outside the parentheses of war and madness (‘wood’ means madness in Shakespeare’s time, as Demetrius’s phrase from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – ‘wood within this wood’ – might remind us).

John Everett Millais, Ophelia

A ‘prize’ is something that bestows meaning and value on a person’s achievements. The Wood Queen’s awarding of prizes, with its richly pictorial quality, may remind the reader of Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Ophelia as well as Burne Jones’s Legend of Briar Rose; above all the famous painting by John Everett Millais of the drowning Ophelia in the stream, singing as she sinks, and John William Waterhouse’s image of her sitting bolt upright on the river-bank, bedecking her hair like a sacrificial calf before she throws herself into the murderous waters. Millais was one of the founding members of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, while Waterhouse was one of its final generation of adherents, who worked alongside Burne-Jones and his good friend William Morris, whose guild socialism lived on in Eric Gill’s Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, to which Jones belonged. Jones’s creation of a post-pre-Raphaelite scene in these final moments of his book anticipates Gill’s attempt to carry forward the ideas of Morris and his predecessor Ruskin into the postwar era.

David Jones, Ancient Mariner with Albatross. He compares his rifle to the albatross in Part 7.

But the end of the book also seeks to leave the past behind, perhaps by ensuring it undergoes a suitably radical transformation in response to the transformative horror of the war years. The work of setting the war and all that brought it about behind him is accomplished by Jones in the section where Private Ball decides to leave his rifle behind in the Lady’s Wood, where he was wounded. The rifle is his lover – just as the ‘many men so beautiful’ who died embracing one another among the trees are also in a sense his lovers (p. xxi). He has been taught by his training to treat this thing of wood and metal, this fusion of the organic and the industrial, as a bride (‘cherish her, she’s your very own’, p. 183); and the process of abandoning the rifle-bride is announced and then accomplished before and after the Wood-Queen’s ritual selection of her own retinue of dead heroes. Left behind at the ‘gate of the wood’ (p. 186) under an oak tree, like the bodies of Ball’s mingled enemies and comrades (‘Lie still under the oak / next to the Jerry / and Sergeant Jerry Coke’, p. 187), the abandoned gun represents the leaving-behind of a period that has brought both terrible violence and terrible beauty, like Yeats’s Easter 1916. But a gate, as we’ve seen, is Janus-faced, a limen or threshold that admits people both ways, both out and in. It’s a permeable boundary. Jones or Ball imagines the rifle becoming a future archaeological find, to be plundered by bloody-minded tourists on the lookout for souvenirs of mass slaughter (‘a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas’, p. 186). And his account of the war experience ensures that it will be brought to life again, as his comrades will, each time a reader chooses to visit his pages. The gun that unmakes is remade, here, as a way to remake the dead, a tool as essential to the work of the maker as his pen.

In the preface to In Parenthesis, one of the transformations Jones imagines taking place in the wake of the war is the capacity to see the post-industrial world and its killing engines as stunningly beautiful – of giving guns and bombs and poison gas the romantic or magical associations of other murderous objects such as swords and fires, or of tarot cards, or of landscapes like the plains of Troy or Salisbury or the hills of Catraeth. ‘It is not easy,’ he observes,

in considering a trench-mortar barrage to give praise for the action proper to chemicals – full though it may be of beauty. […] We who are of the same world of sense with the hairy ass and furry wolf and who presume to other and more radiant affinities, are finding it difficult, as yet, to recognize these creatures of chemicals as true extensions of ourselves, that we may feel for them a native affection, which alone can make them magical for us. It would be interesting to know how we shall ennoble our new media as we have already ennobled and made significant our old – candle-light, fire-light, Cups, Wands and Swords (p. xiv).

One of the techniques by which Jones turns his War Time into a ‘place of enchantment’ is through the practice of radical anachronism: the running together of old and new, past and present, to produce a synthesis which is both disturbing and wonderful (disturbing because wonderful, I could have written). The experiments he practised among the parentheses of In Parenthesis anticipate the experiments practised by fantasy writers after the war, when they invented radically anachronistic, parenthetical secondary worlds as a means of understanding the strange new fusions that surrounded them, whose novelty the Great War threw so violently into relief. Jones helps us to understand, I think, how far these seemingly distant fantastic spaces can be read as responses to the equally anachronistic spaces through which their writers moved, within which they worked. Lovers of fantasy, then, should embrace his epic with the same enthusiasm as the modernists embraced it on its first appearance.

David Jones, Everyman

EDITION USED

Jones, David, In Parenthesis (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1978)

NOTES

[1] ‘It was not that the look of the place was unfamiliar to you. It was at one to all appearances with what you knew already. […] That’s a very usual looking farm house. […] The day itself was what you’d expect of December’ (pp. 18-19).

[2] The Seven Barrows and the Long Barrow at Lambourn (spelt Lambourne here) are thought to have inspired Tolkien’s account of the Barrow Wights in The Fellowship of the Ring. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lambourn

Fantasies of War in the Poetry of Mervyn Peake

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

Wartime sketch

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

From The Drawings of Mervyn Peake (1949)

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

Sketch

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Was Not There

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration to a poem by Oscar Wilde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long John Silver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

[2] Collected Poems, p. 165.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare’s Merry England, Part 3: Falstaff’s Wholesomeness

Ralph Richardson as Falstaff, Laurence Olivier as Shallow

[You can find the first part of ‘Shakespeare’s Merry England’ here, and the second part here.]

Time catches up with Falstaff in the end.  2 Henry IV resonates with the ticking of clocks – ‘we are time’s subjects’, says one of the elderly rebels as the insurrection gets under way (1.3.110) – and clocks are Falstaff’s enemy, bringing him always closer to humiliation and death.  It is full, too, of fragile and broken friendships, of which Falstaff has his share.  Justice Shallow masquerades as his lifelong bosom buddy despite the fact that they both know Shallow’s account of their wild youth together to be fraudulent, a crude and hasty fabrication designed to screen their mercenary desire to profit by one another.  ‘I do remember him at Clement’s Inn’, says Falstaff, ‘like a man made after supper of a cheese-paring.  When a was naked, he was for all the world like a forked radish, with a head fantastically carved upon it with a knife’ (3.2.303-7); and he later adds that he could make a dozen Shallows from the superabundant material of his own body (5.1.62-4).  Shallow clearly hopes that Falstaff will ‘make’ him in another sense by making his fortune, and this is the shallow foundation of their friendship.  The casting off of Falstaff is the moment when his accumulated debts catch up with him, as the newly-crowned Hal reminds him of what he said in Part One – that ‘thou owest God a death’ (1 Henry IV, 5.1.126) – and forestalls any ‘fool-born jest’ he might invent to inveigle his way out of due payment (2 Henry IV, 5.5.55).  Shallow at once calls in his loans (‘let me have five hundred of my thousand’ (5.5.84-5)) and Falstaff is clapped into prison to atone for his misdeeds, financial and moral.   The fat knight’s promised reappearance in Henry V, which is flagged in the epilogue, never materializes except in the account given by the hostess of his death (Henry V, 2.3.9-25) – as if he has managed one last time to escape shot-free from his creditors, in this case the theatre audience which is responsible for his success, and which clamoured for a sight of his curtain call.  Falstaff’s reign ends with Hal’s betrayal, and the ancient moral and social hierarchies of England are both reinstated at once, their restoration ushered in with tired old moral commonplaces such as ‘How ill white hairs become a fool and jester’ (5.5.48).

Shallow and Silence, by J. Coghlan (c. 1820)

But this is not the whole story; because Hal’s crowning coincides with the figurative crowning of Falstaff, and it is on the body of Falstaff, as it were, that Hal erects his kingdom.  Falstaff is the presiding spirit of the unhistorical ‘merry’ or comic England over which Hal plans to reign; the England where lions recognize the true prince ‘by instinct’ and where Shallow’s glowing account of his youth is true.  ‘Merry England’ is created in 2 Henry IV by the sheer force of Falstaff’s laughter.  ‘The brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man,’ he tells us, ‘is not able to invent anything that intends to laughter more than I invent, or is invented on me; I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men’ (1.2.7-10).  And he triumphantly bears out this claim in the rest of the action.  His arraignment by the Lord Chief Justice is transformed at his hands into a jest; Shallow’s falsifying of the past furnishes him with comic material to ‘keep Prince Harry in continual laughter the wearing out of six fashions’ (5.1.77-81); and even the grim Prince John, despite the fact that ‘a man cannot make him laugh’ (4.3.87-8), prompts one of his most brilliant flights of fantasy, the disquisition on sack.  The fat knight’s disease-ridden body, then, grown cold with age and huge with self-indulgence, generates wholesome hilarity, the healthiest of moods, which spreads from him like a benign virus until near the end of the play it erupts in the cheeriest party in theatrical history.  The party takes place in an orchard on the eve of Hal’s coronation, and in it a man called Silence bursts into song, a male servant is commended for being a good ‘husband’ to his master (5.3.10-11) – meaning both a good steward and a good marriage partner; Falstaff’s red-nosed retainer Bardolph is told he speaks like a king (5.3.68), a young page finds himself welcomed with the same enthusiasm as his old employer (‘Welcome, my little tiny thief and welcome indeed, too!’ (5.3.56-7)), and the company in general is urged to ‘Lack nothing’ (5.3.68), to discard the years of penury they have suffered and to feast instead on the fruits with which Shallow’s orchard, and England in general, is stocked.  The contrast with the orchard scene where the starving Jack Cade was killed in the midst of plenty could not be more pronounced.  And the party ends with a promise that this genial atmosphere will soon extend itself throughout the nation, as Falstaff hears the news of Henry’s death and declares that ‘the laws of England are at my commandment’ (5.3.136-7), while his comrade Pistol salutes a happy future: ‘welcome these pleasant days’ (5.3.141).

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V

Of course the casting-off of Falstaff puts a dampener on these celebrations.  The authority of a monarch could not tolerate a rival of Falstaff’s size and energy, and although we are assured that Hal’s former friends ‘Shall all be very well provided for’ (5.5.100), the fact that it is the odious Prince John who tells us so – and that such sensible provisions seem so much less glorious than the comic vision we glimpsed in Shallow’s orchard – detracts from the pleasure we might otherwise derive from these reassurances.  If Prince John delights in Hal’s transformation, we as an audience have good reason to distrust it.  And sure enough, there are plenty of Prince John moments in the career of Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Henry’s humour is as calculated as Hal’s, and recalls at times the cruelty of Prince John’s coldly jocular betrayal of the rebels.  We have already mentioned his witty exposure of the treachery of his friends Cambridge and Scroop, whom he mocks for having ‘lightly conspired’ against his throne (Henry V, 2.2.89); but far more disturbing is the gigantic jest that is the invasion of France.  It is one of a series of dazzling diversions designed to draw attention away from the problematic aspects of Henry’s inheritance.  If his claim to the throne of England is poor, he must stress his claim to the throne of France, obedient to his father’s advice to busy the ‘giddy minds’ of his subjects with foreign quarrels (2 Henry IV, 4.5.213-4).  If he is the aggressor in a war let him transfer the blame to his enemies, telling the besieged citizens of Harfleur that ‘you yourselves are cause, / If your pure maidens fall into the hand / Of hot and forcing violation’ (Henry V, 3.3.19-21) (he sounds here as if he is recalling a lesson from the laughing conquest of Asia by Marlowe’s Tamburlaine).  If military action is in his interest he must make sure it is represented as God’s war, divine punishment on any English criminals who die in battle.  It is the very lightness of touch, the comic sleight of hand involved in all these post-Falstavian evasions that makes them chilling.  Hal’s lies are not gross as a mountain, as Falstaff’s were, but breezy and scarcely visible.  And their breeziness kills people, like the jovial folksiness of a modern warmonger.

Felix Aylmer, Laurence Olivier and Robert Helpmann in the opening scene of Henry V

The link between laughter and slaughter in Henry’s reign is at its strongest in Act One, when the Archbishop of Canterbury – eager to divert Henry’s attention from his plans to tax the church by sending him to France – describes England’s former French campaigns as a grotesque spectator sport, in which the Black Prince’s father ‘Stood smiling to behold his lion’s whelp / Forage in blood of French nobility’ (1.2.109-10), while half the English army stood ‘laughing’ next to him, ‘All out of work and cold for action’ (1.2.113-4).  Henry at once catches the Archbishop’s tone, and seizes the pretext of the Dauphin’s mocking gift of tennis balls to represent his own French campaign as a still bloodier joke than the wars waged by his ancestors:

        …tell the pleasant Prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gun-stones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down…
His jest shall savour but of shallow wit
When thousands weep more than did laugh at it. (1.2.282-97)

Henry’s campaign is designed to show that the English King is wittier than the French Prince, that all debts to him will be repaid with interest, and that all insults aimed at him will produce an instant and devastating retaliation.  Henry, in fact, must be the undisputed master of ceremonies in the play that bears his name.

Laurence Olivier as Henry V

But Falstaff leaves Hal with another legacy besides the ability to forge brilliant ripostes and improbable evasions.  The fat knight acted as a bridge between the Prince and the common people, whose language Hal learned in Falstaff’s company.  As Hal puts it in Part One, ‘I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life’, and ‘when I am King of England I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap’ (2.4.13-19); and the heir apparent even goes so far as to disguise himself as a tapster in Part Two.  This familiarity with the people and their language provides Henry with his most brilliant evasive stratagem: that of avoiding the issue of his shaky claim to the throne by rhetorically ennobling the entire population of his nation.  In Henry’s language, though not in his policies, the hopes of Falstaff and his gang to be elevated to the aristocracy are abundantly borne out.  As he storms the breach at Harfleur Henry urges all his men, not just the aristocracy, to remember their ancestry with pride: ‘On, on, you noblest English’, he cries, and describes their fathers as ‘so many Alexanders’ (3.1.17-19).  Later the Welsh captain Fluellen attests to the success of this stratagem when he compares Henry to Alexander partly on the strength of the resemblance between Monmouth in Wales and Alexander’s Macedonia (4.7.11-52).  Henry has clearly succeeded in giving his subjects – even his non-English subjects – a sense of ownership, of full participation in his triumphs.  ‘There is none of you so mean and base,’ he tells them, ‘That hath not noble lustre in your eyes’ (3.1.29-30), and in saying so he draws their attention away from the less than royal lustre of his own coat of arms.  The Prince John aspect of Henry’s humour prompts him to trick one of his common soldiers, Michael Williams, into being falsely accused of high treason (4.8.9ff.) – though he pardons his victim at the last minute and compensates him for his terror.  The Sir John aspect of his personality, by contrast, permits him to demystify the role of King (‘his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man’ (4.1.104-5)), and to address his followers as ‘brothers, friends, and countrymen’ (4.0.34).[1]  When he imparts to both his ‘mean and gentle’ soldiers ‘A little touch of Harry in the night’ (4.0.45-7), he transforms them into aspects or clones of himself, thus strengthening his power to the extent that it can never be undermined.  The skill with which he achieves this he owes to the ‘tutor and… feeder of his riots’, Falstaff (2 Henry IV, 5.5.62).

Henry is no egalitarian.  All his rhetoric is designed to strengthen his position as undisputed monarch of England and France, not to establish a new English commonwealth based on fairer principles than the old.  But his reign involves due recognition of the central role played by the common people in the changing fortunes of England; and from this time forth their status as major players in history is confirmed.  Henry dies young, and his predictions of the future, like Falstaff’s, prove over-optimistic from his own point of view.  He never fathers a son who is capable of leading a crusade to Constantinople or of forging a lasting peace between the French and English peoples – or even between rival factions in the English aristocracy.  But the common people he figuratively ennobled, and whose power he understood, live on, and comprise the audience of Shakespeare’s Henry V, a play that reminds them repeatedly of their capacity to make a difference in affairs of state.  It is the common people, the play seems to say, who make or break monarchs, just as the collective power of the people’s imagination can recreate a Henry on the Elizabethan stage.  Without the precedent of Falstaff’s outrageous imaginings this Shakespearean revelation could never have acquired the force it has.

And Falstaff’s imaginative construction of ‘merry England’ has another outlet besides the career of Henry V.  The merry-making in Shallow’s orchard is recalled in the title of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the only Shakespearean comedy set in England; and the play provides a kind of escape from the nightmare of history.  There is just one mention in it of the grand narrative of the Second Tetralogy, when we are told that the impoverished aristocrat Fenton was once a companion of ‘the wild Prince and Poins’ (3.2.65-6); but this merely disqualifies him, in the minds of the middle-class married couples who dominate the play, as a suitable match for their daughter (3.4.4-10).  In the same way, the middle classes are carefully excluded from the Tetralogy, paying their way out of military service and thus avoiding the slaughters, betrayals and machinations that are the province of their nominal rulers.  The events of chronicle histories are irrelevant to these people’s lives; and this play narrates the histories of ordinary men and women, history as it is purveyed in the jest-books, whose pranks and japes are faithfully reproduced in the farcical situations with which it is filled.

The titular merry wives occupy an egalitarian rural space where nearly everyone can participate with equal enthusiasm in plots to make, break, prevent or preserve each other’s marriages.[2]  It is a space where women rule the roost, hatching stratagems designed to show, as Mistress Page insists, that ‘Wives may be merry and yet honest too’ (4.2.100), in contrast to the dishonest merriment of aristocrats and hereditary knights like Sir John.  And it is a space where jests do no harm, as all the characters repeatedly assure us.  The host’s deception of the doctor, Caius, and Hugh Evans the parson, is devised not to hurt them but to prevent them from doing each other damage in a duel; the wives’ deception of Falstaff aims to prevent him hurting their husbands by committing adultery; Fenton’s tricking of Anne Page’s parents proves that he has laid aside his aristocratic wildness and committed himself to the stability of middle-class matrimony.  As Parson Evans puts it, the play is driven by ‘admirable pleasures and ferry honest knaveries’ (4.4.79-80), and Master Page piously confirms his view: ‘God prosper our sport.  No man means evil but the devil, and we shall know him by his horns’ (5.2.12-13).  The authoritarian anti-theatrical lobby, then, is as irrelevant here as the iron hand of the law, or civil war, or bloody revenge; and so rigorously are these oppressive considerations excluded from the action that it would be fair to describe this as Shakespeare’s only pure comedy, the only play in his oeuvre that is unshadowed by the threat of death or the intimidating presence of rulers.29

Falstaff as Herne the Hunter, by Robert Smirke

The egalitarianism of the play asserts itself in the fact that nearly everyone in it has at least one prank played on them.  Falstaff is tricked more often than anyone else, and subjected to more painful physical abuse: half-drowned in a deep ditch, beaten in women’s clothes, pinched black and blue by children disguised as fairies.  But he is never isolated in his comic sufferings, as he so often seemed to be in Henry IV; his humiliation is shared by the bulk of the Windsor community.  Master Ford, Mr and Mrs Page, Slender, Shallow, Doctor Caius, the Host of the Garter and Parson Evans, are all conned as comprehensively as he is, and he himself notes the multiplicity of quarries there are for the play’s pranksters: ‘When night-dogs run, all sorts of deer are chased’ (5.5.232).  So if Falstaff is toppled from his position of supreme comic pre-eminence in this play, as many commentators have remarked, his former absolutist monarchy is supplanted by a commonwealth of merriment, the model for a new anti-authoritarian England.  In place of the crown of power and influence he hoped for in the Henriad, the fat knight is given a crown composed of the antlers of a Windsor stag, ‘the fattest, I think, i’the forest’ (5.5.12-13).  And while the stag is the most lordly of wild beasts, it is also the principal ingredient of the ‘hot venison pasty’ Master Page serves to his guests in the first scene of the play, in token of the amity between them (1.1.181).  In the play’s last scene, then, Falstaff has become a wholly wholesome dish, his predatory sexual desires transmuted into a harmless fairy-tale, his bulk made the centre of an inclusive social circle.  He has been defused, in other words, but not deflated, and the genial metamorphosis is completed at the end of the scene when Mistress Page invites him to ‘laugh this sport o’er by a country fire’ and enjoy, with his friends, ‘many, many merry days’ (5.5.234-7).  In The Merry Wives of Windsor merriness is vindicated, laughter liberated from slaughter, and the shadow of civil war dispersed from a land where everyone enjoys warmth and enough to eat.  It is not the land where the Elizabethans lived, but thanks to Falstaff and his friends they could go home from the performance nurturing the hope that one day it might be.

NOTES

[1] He again makes his followers his brothers – thus ennobling them – in the famous St Crispin’s Day speech (Henry V, 4.3.56-67).

[2] Leah S. Marcus argues that the version of the play printed in the First Quarto of 1602 is more egalitarian in its drift than the version in the Folio: ‘Levelling Shakespeare: Local Customs and Local Texts’, Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991), pp. 168-78.  For the relationship between the two texts see The Norton Shakespeare, pp. 1231-3.

[3] Apart, of course, from the ruler who may have been watching the play’s first performance.  For the theory that the play was written at the command of Elizabeth I for performance in her presence at the Garter Feast of 1597, see Peter Erickson, ‘The Order of the Garter, the Cult of Elizabeth, and Class-Gender Tension in The Merry Wives of Windsor’, Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor (New York, 1987), pp. 116-45.  It should be noted, though, that the one direct reference to Elizabeth in the play – as a future owner of Windsor Castle who is blessed by Mistress Quickly in her capacity as Fairy Queen – stresses her absence from the play’s world; the castle is blessed while it is seemingly empty (5.5.55-74).

 

 

 

Shakespeare’s Merry England, Part 2: The Fatness of Falstaff

Richard II, boy king

[You can find the first part of ‘Shakespeare’s Merry England’ here.]

Besides being rooted in his nation’s present, Jack Cade’s campaign is also embroiled in its past: his insurrection could never have got under way if he had not claimed descent from the ‘legitimate’ successor to the deposed King Richard II.  The emaciated Cade, then, owes his rise and fall to the same conditions that permit the rise and fall of that ‘gross fat man’ Jack Falstaff: the disorder that followed Richard’s deposition from the throne of England.  But Falstaff’s body is far more intimately involved with the physical condition of his country than Cade’s is.   From the beginning of Richard II, when England succumbs to the social sickness that will plague it throughout the civil wars of the fifteenth century, the body forms the focus of Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy – the epic series of plays comprising Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V.  And the mountain of flesh Falstaff, who dominates the two central plays of the series, is living, breathing proof both of England’s diseased condition and of its irrepressible vitality, its lively hope, like that of a pregnant mother, of better times to come.[1]

Falstaff is no commoner: he is a hereditary knight who has fallen on hard times but lives in expectation of rejoining the ranks of the nobility once Hal comes into his inheritance.[2]  But Falstaff’s body has been swollen by the attentions of commoners, especially brewers and barmen; it holds sway in the streets and taverns of the city where commoners throng; and it consumes the cheap luxury commodities that enrich the commoners’ leisure hours.  He links the material preoccupations of the commoners to the airy obsessions of the ruling classes as no-one else does in Shakespeare; and he does so through the miracle of his corporal vastness, which is as much a product of his exuberant language as it is of his physical presence on the stage of English history.

Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt

In Richard II, a king’s self-indulgent playfulness, his arrogant assumption that his royal powers are absolute and that he may therefore ignore the contracts that bind him to his subjects, unleash a sequence of consequences that are described in metaphors of physical debility.  Richard’s arbitrariness first manifests itself when he banishes two of his nobles in the opening act, with devastating effects on their bodies.  The pair, who are initially in perfect health (Bolingbroke describes himself as ‘lusty, young, and cheerly drawing breath’ (1.3.66)), abruptly find their limbs out of control, bereft of their former agility.  As the other exile, Mowbray, tells the King, by sending him to a foreign land ‘Within my mouth you have engaol’d my tongue, / Doubly portcullis’d with my teeth and lips’ (1.3.166-7), while Bolingbroke compares the severing of their flesh from English soil to the parting of soul from body (1.3.194-7).  Meanwhile Bolingbroke’s father, the dying John of Gaunt whose spirit is literally about to leave his body, accuses the King of damaging his own constitution as well as those of his nobles and his kingdom.  The fashionable monarch ‘limps after’ the trendy customs of Italy (2.1.23), ‘tires’, ‘chokes’ and ‘consumes’ himself with a ‘rash, fierce blaze of riot’ (2.1.33-9), and binds up that ‘teeming womb of royal kings’ England in crushing legal restraints to pay for his own excesses (2.1.51ff.).  John of Gaunt’s body, as emaciated as his name suggests, is for him the emblem of England’s decay, bled dry by the King’s frivolous rapacity (2.1.73-83).  But it also illustrates the accelerated decrepitude that Richard is bringing on himself as he commits his ‘anointed body’ to the care of ‘those physicians that first wounded thee,’ his reckless favourites (2.1.98-9).  And once old Gaunt is dead, Richard’s diseases multiply apace.  His Queen quickly detects ‘Some unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune’s womb’ about to fall on his head instead of the son he has failed to father (2.2.10); and when Bolingbroke reappears on the scene, proclaiming his intention to reclaim the ancestral property Richard stole from him during his exile, the Queen recognizes the ambitious young man as her ‘sorrow’s dismal heir’ (2.2.63) – metaphorically designating him both as a substitute prince of the royal blood and as an embodiment of his kingdom’s future misery.  In the same scene, the Duke of York compares Bolingbroke to an illness invading the nation’s bloodstream in response to the King’s lifestyle: ‘Now comes the sick hour that [Richard’s] surfeit made’ (2.2.84).  From this time forth, Richard with his ‘ruin’d ears’  (3.3.34) and eyes blinded with tears is marked as subject to a more powerful monarch, Death, who occupies the ‘court’ of the King’s living corpse, ‘grinning at his pomp’ with fleshless jaws (3.2.155-70).  Richard begets his own death, in other words, like a parodic heir apparent, a grotesque alternative dynasty to replace the dynasty that he never succeeds in founding.  At the end of his life he is still fathering imaginary, abortive heirs: ‘A generation of still-breeding thoughts’ that plague him in prison after his abdication (5.5.8), content with nothing till they are finally made nothing by Richard’s death.

But for Bolingbroke, too, as Richard’s heir, the prognosis is none too good.  If he is Richard’s and England’s sickness, the time will inevitably come when the disease will grow to a crisis, when ‘foul sin gathering head / Shall break into corruption’, as Richard puts it (5.1.58-9).  Richard predicts that this crisis will be brought about by Bolingbroke’s friend and ally, the Earl of Northumberland: and his prediction is remembered eight years later by the ailing Bolingbroke – now Henry IV of England – in the third act of 2 Henry IV (3.1.76-7).  The two parts of Henry IV chart the progress of England’s infection, and Falstaff is at once its most visible symptom, its most eloquent diagnostician and (perhaps) its comic cure.[3]

Tom Hiddleston as Hal, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff

Every detail of the environment he inhabits was predicted in Richard II.  Richard’s addiction to laughter forms the model for Hal’s tavern-haunting, as Henry IV points out (‘For all the world / As thou art to this hour was Richard then’ (1 Henry IV 3.2.93-4)), and Hal’s drinking-bouts with Jack recall Richard’s rowdy exploits with his boon companions Bushy, Bagot and Green.  Bolingbroke’s rise to power in Richard II, sustained by the commoners who love him, is described by Richard’s Queen as a process whereby ‘triumph is become an alehouse guest’ (5.1.15), and spurs Hal to nurture a still greater intimacy with the residents of alehouses.  Falstaff’s commentary on affairs of state, too, has a precedent in Richard II, in the commentary of an egalitarian gardener on the state of England in Act Three (3.4.24ff.).  More unsettlingly, the brittle and temporary nature of the friendship between Falstaff and Hal – a brittleness that is repeatedly emphasized by the Prince – resembles the superficial friendships cultivated by Bolingbroke in his rise to power.  ‘I count myself in nothing else so happy,’ Bolingbroke tells Northumberland as he returns from exile, ‘As in a soul rememb’ring my good friends’ (Richard II, 2.3.46-7); but it is the breakdown of friendship between Bolingbroke and Northumberland that precipitates rebellion when Bolingbroke is King.  In his relationship with Falstaff Hal comically recreates the history of the monarchs who preceded him, scrutinizing the conditions that led first Richard and then Henry to lose control over the course of events, as they presented their subjects with every opportunity to reinvent them at will, to trespass on the royal prerogative of self-definition.  Through Falstaff Hal acquires the art both of reinventing himself and of evading definition by others: a comic skill, but the art of the wit rather than the fool, of the acknowledged master of delightful improvization rather than the helpless butt of collective laughter.  With Falstaff, too, Hal learns the art of controlling others – even the most uncontrollable people of all, the clever clowns.  Or at least, so Hal presumes; how far he succeeds has always been a matter of debate.

The splitting of the reign of Henry IV into two plays corresponds to the splitting of his kingdom into factions – another symptom of the disease of state contracted first by Richard and then by Henry.  It structurally reinforces, too, the astonishing multiplication of would-be kings and heirs that emerge as a direct result of Henry’s illegal seizure of power from the legitimate monarch.  Both plays are full, not so much of pretenders to the throne as of competing versions of the King himself and the Prince his son.  The First Part opens with Henry wishing it could be proved that his son Hal had been substituted at birth for the young war-hero Hotspur, who seems so much more princely in his conduct than the prince (1.1.77-90).  Later, Henry tells Hal how his younger brother Prince John has acted as Hal’s substitute in the Privy Council (3.2.32-3); and this is what stings Hal to predict the moment when he will substitute himself for his rival Hotspur, making him ‘exchange / His glorious deeds for my indignities’ in a deadly encounter on the battlefield (3.2.145-6).  Hal, then, is regularly ‘performed’ both by his subjects and in his father’s imagination; and Henry IV finds himself performed yet more often by those beneath him.  The rebel lords see him as their creation (he enjoys ‘that same greatness… which our own hands / Have holp to make so portly’ (1.3.12-13)), and take it on themselves to read his thoughts, assuming that he ‘studies day and night’ to pay his debt to them with their deaths (1.3.182) – an assumption that is directly responsible for their insurrection.  In Act Two, Hal and Falstaff take it in turns to play the King in an impromptu comedy performed in an Eastcheap tavern (2.4.368ff.).  In Act Four it is Hotspur’s turn to be christened by Douglas ‘the king of honour’ (4.1.10) (Hal has earlier dubbed himself ‘the king of courtesy’ (2.4.10)).  And in the battle of Shrewsbury there are dozens of men playing the King, ‘marching in his coats’ as decoys for the rebels’ blades (5.3.25).  As a result, the battlefield seems to be comically thronged with Henries, a host of visored monarchs whose outsides give no clue to their inward identity, so that the frustrated Douglas finds he must ‘murder’ all the royal wardrobe ‘piece by piece’ before he can reach the King (5.3.27).  This giddying multiplication of Henries slows down in 2 Henry IV, but even here Falstaff and the Lord Chief Justice contend with Henry for the position of father to the Prince of Wales.  Henry IV, then, is not two parts but many, as if his expert performance of the previously restricted role of king has inspired all ambitious men to think they can emulate his acting skills with impunity.  As with Macbeth, the leap of imagination he took in usurping the monarchy unleashes the power of his subjects’ imaginations, so that nothing is unthinkable – no act of treason, courage or ambition – for as long as he retains the throne of England.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

But the two parts of Henry IV also indicate a split within Henry himself, a deadly separation of his vital components that is one physical consequence of his failure to commit himself, in Richard II, on the subject of whether he was or was not a legitimate contender for the crown.  According to early modern medical theory, derived from the teachings of the Roman physician Galen, the human body is composed of four elements or humours, the microcosmic equivalents of the four elements that make up the world: earth, air, fire and water.[4]  A healthy body has its four humours in perfect harmony, holding each other in a precarious equilibrium, whereas in an ailing person one or more of these humours dominate, reducing the others to a secondary role and enfeebling the whole constitution as a result.  The two parts of Henry IV suggest through metaphor that the humours in the body of the English nation have been radically destabilized.  In the first part, the elements of fire and air hold sway; the emphasis is on the self-destructive energies of youth, on the dangerous love of sheer speed that is one of youth’s characteristics, and on the violent rivalries between young men that had such damaging effects in Romeo’s Verona.  In the second part, earth and water prevail over fire and air, old age supplants youth as the presiding genius of the time, a chill settles on the language of the contesting English factions, and everyone seems to stir themselves reluctantly into sluggish action, forcing their bodies to move – whether in rebellion or counter-rebellion – with pain and difficulty, and desisting from motion with obvious relief.  In Part One, the heat of the times engenders warm friendships between men and loving exchanges between husbands and wives.  Hal’s affectionate farewell to Falstaff when he thinks him dead is the high point of their relationship (5.4.101-9), and the exchanges between Harry Hotspur and Kate his wife evoke an atmosphere of marital closeness, strong desires and cheerful bickering that endears them to the play’s spectators.  In the second part, relationships are at best cooler, at worst shattered by rejection and betrayal.   Family members are distant from one another: Hotspur’s wife Kate, who has survived her husband’s death at the end of Part One, urges her father-in-law Northumberland to break his word to his fellow rebels for no better reason than that he has already broken his word to Hotspur his son, the man she loved (2.3.9ff.); while the mood of the play is incapsulated in Henry IV’s despairing cry to his own sons – from whose number at this moment Hal is conspicuously absent – ‘O me! Come near me, now I am much ill’ (4.3.111).  The contrast between the two parts may best be summarized by the climactic encounters between the rebels and the forces of the crown in each play.  The first culminates in a duel between two young men, fuelled by hot words and ending with the gushing of youthful blood.  The second culminates in an act of treachery, where a rebel force headed by old men are tricked into disbanding with a promise of mercy, then massacred by the army of the cold-blooded Prince John.  Heat and cold, youth and old age, and the elements associated with these conditions, seem to have undergone an agonizing divorce in Henry’s reign, and the instability of a state has never been more brilliantly realized in artistic form than it is in this astonishing diptych.

Orson Welles as Falstaff

Falstaff provides a satirical running commentary on the divorce between the humours and their associated elements that afflicts the plays.  In Part One he absurdly masquerades as a man of Hal’s and Hotspur’s generation, bellowing ‘young men must live’ as he robs the travellers at Gadshill (2.2.90) and melting his fat in streams of perspiration as he flees from the scene of the crime (2.2.107-8), in grotesque imitation of the ‘beads of sweat’ shed by the sleeping Hotspur as he dreams of battles to come (2.3.56-9).  The tavern scenes over which Falstaff presides are lit by fires – the ‘everlasting bonfire-light’ of his retainer Bardolph’s inflamed nose (3.3.41), and the infernal conflagrations conjured up by repeated references to devils and hell (Jack himself is ‘a devil… in the likeness of an old fat man’ (2.4.441-2)).  In the second part the fat knight’s pretensions to youth are exploded early on by the Lord Chief Justice, and for the rest of the action Falstaff is acutely conscious of his age, reminded of it repeatedly by the nostalgic ramblings of Justice Shallow and the tendency of the whore Doll and others to ‘speak like a death’s head’ by bidding him ‘remember mine end’ (2.4.34-5).  If Falstaff’s constitution is never quite cold in the Second Part – unlike that of other old men, such as Northumberland, the Archbishop of York, and the King  – it is because his blood has been artificially heated by alcohol, as he explains in his famous speech on the inflammatory qualities of a ‘good sherris-sack’ (4.4.85-124).  Nevertheless, this speech ties in with the many allusions to water and other chilling liquids that fill the play; and a look at these ties will help to show how the Falstavian comic ‘subplot’ operates with relation to the political ‘main plots’ in the two Parts.

In Part Two, water metaphors dominate the language of the rebels, who associate their insurrection with one of the sudden deluges that brought periodic devastation to the English countryside.  In the first scene, Northumberland declares that the death of his son Hotspur has unleashed a flood of grief in him that will overwhelm the nation.  ‘Now let not Nature’s hand / Keep the wild flood confin’d’, he cries (1.1.153-4), and later the Archbishop of York takes up the theme, telling the King’s representative that he and his colleagues were ‘enforc’d from our most quiet… / By the rough torrent of occasion’ (4.1.71-2), and promising that if their demands are met ‘We come within our aweful banks again’ (4.1.176).[5]  Henry IV’s followers, too, associate water with insurrection and impending anarchy.  As the king lies dying his younger sons speak of the omens that announce his imminent death, and the chaos that will follow once his wild son Hal assumes the crown: ‘The river hath thrice flow’d, no ebb between’, says Clarence, ‘And the old folk… Say it did so a little time before / That our great-grandsire Edward sick’d and died’ (4.4.125-8).  Hal responds, when he inherits the throne, by proclaiming the return of moderation to the ‘tide’ of his blood:

          The tide of blood in me
Hath proudly flow’d in vanity till now.
Now doth it turn, and ebb back to the sea,
Where it shall mingle with the state of floods,
And flow henceforth in formal majesty. (5.2.129-33)

Falstaff’s speech on sack, then – the fortified Spanish wine that stirs up the forces of ‘this little kingdom, man’ (4.3.108), and has made Hal ‘very hot and valiant’ (4.3.121) – contributes to the many references to liquid that distinguish this play from its fire-filled predecessor.  And although the liquid Falstaff mentions is a fiery one, counteracting with its warming properties the ‘cold blood’ he says the Prince inherited from his father (4.3.117), its effects are only temporary, and its after-effects as cooling as those of any other inundation.  We have good reason to be aware of this when Falstaff delivers his eulogy, because in the previous scene we have seen Hal’s brother Prince John drinking with the rebels in token of the settlement reached between them and the King; and this loving cup turns out to be a poisoned one.  ‘Let’s drink together friendly and embrace,’ Prince John proposes to the gullible insurgents, ‘That all… eyes may bear those tokens home / Of our restored love and amity’ (4.2.63-5); but as soon as the drink has been taken and the rebel army disbanded he has his new ‘friends’ arrested and carted off to ‘Treason’s true bed’ (4.2.123) – the executioner’s block – like drunks carried home after a night of over-indulgence.  Drink makes men sick, as Falstaff himself informs us at the beginning of the play when he complains of the gout it has given him (1.3.244-5).  And Falstaff’s celebration of Hal’s drink-induced warmth, too, turns cold when Hal freezes him out in the final act, rejecting him as irrelevant to his new kingly role.  The old man’s sickness and death, so touchingly reported in Henry V, follow on naturally from the fact that Hal no longer needs either him or sack – or indeed ‘small beer’, the poor man’s tipple that Hal recalls with fondness early in Part Two (2.2.5-11) – to counteract the natural coldness of his dead father.

Carlos Àlvarez in Verdi’s Falstaff

If Falstaff’s encomium of sack meshes with the metaphorical fabric of Part Two, his equally celebrated speech or ‘catechism’ on honour occupies a similar place in the figurative design of Part One (5.1.127-41).  Honour is the preferred currency of the hot-blooded aristocrats who lead the rebellion in this part, and as Falstaff suggests, it is entirely constructed from air.  At the beginning of the play Hotspur declares his intention of lifting his favoured claimant to the throne, Lord Mortimer, ‘As high in the air as this unthankful King’ (1.3.134); and the phrase makes insurrection sound like a kind of trapeze artistry, a dangerous and futile exercise in acrobatics.  When he later boasts of the ease with which he might ‘pluck bright honour from the pale-fac’d moon’ (1.3.200) his uncle Worcester notes the emptiness of his rhetoric: ‘He apprehends a world of figures here, / But not the form of what he should attend’ (1.3.207-8).  His speeches are glowing castles in the air, constructed and dismantled at a moment’s notice.  The anonymous letter he receives warning him of the ‘lightness’ of his plot (2.3.12) triggers a lengthy speech from Hotspur dismissing the writer’s objections, which ends by blowing away the young man’s own anxieties in a trice and rendering itself superfluous: ‘Hang him, let him tell the King, we are prepared’ (2.3.33-4).  Similarly, his lengthy speech detailing the rebels’ grievances in Act Four is retracted as soon as uttered: when Blunt asks, ‘Shall I return this answer to the King?’ the young man replies, ‘Not so, Sir Walter.  We’ll withdraw awhile’ (4.3.106-7).  Hotspur’s nightmares, which so worry his wife, are insubstantial visions, and made more so by Hotspur’s airy dismissal of Lady Percy’s worries.  And the rebel is equally quick to dismiss his co-conspirator Glendower’s claims to supernatural powers as so much wind.  The portents that occurred at the Welshman’s birth were for Hotspur merely a ‘kind of colic’ suffered by the earth (3.1.26), while Glendower himself is no more than a windbag: ‘I had rather live / With cheese and garlic, in a windmill, far, / Than feed on cates and have him talk to me / In any summer house in Christendom’ (3.1.155-8).[6]   The insubstantial airiness of Hotspur and his confederates has been well established, then, by the time Falstaff composes his catechism on honour, and the speech is the pin that finally bursts the rebels’ balloon.  The word honour, he says – the groundwork of their action – is nothing but a sign without a referent, an empty cipher: ‘What is honour?  A word.  What is in that word honour?  What is that honour?  Air.  A trim reckoning!’ (5.1.133-5).  The last phrase sums up the fat knight’s attitude: honour will not pay any bills (reckonings), and its thinness makes it Falstaff’s meagre opposite, reduced to non-existence by comparison with his massive girth.  Its lightness betrays the lightness of the insurgents, who aspire or mount upwards to power like the fire and wind that dominate the play’s imagery, and who crack jokes – something Hotspur does in the midst of his most serious business as enthusiastically as Hal or Jack – while leading their followers to a futile and unnecessary death.  If Falstaff is disgraceful in his willingness to lie, bluster, con and steal his way through life, he is of infinitely greater substance or weight – as Cade was, despite his thinness – than the aristocratic men of honour he mocks, who (as Henry IV points out) justify their rebellion with washed out ‘water-colours’ (5.1.80) instead of sound political argument.

But the importance of Falstaff’s role as commentator stems not so much from his sensitivity to the governing metaphors of his time – after all, every character shares this sensitivity to some degree – as from his mastery of the arts of comedy.  He is the greatest improviser in Shakespeare’s work, the greatest springer of outrageous verbal surprises and inventor of fire-new phrases; and these abilities come into their own in the age of Henry IV, when uneasy laughter reigns supreme in England.  This is Shakespeare’s astounding contribution to the legend of Henry V as purveyed in the Famous Victories.  Where the earlier play gives young Prince Harry a virtual monopoly on laughter – a monopoly that is reinforced, not undermined by the admiring mimicry of the clown Derrick – in the Second Tetralogy nearly every major political player has his own peculiar brand of humour, and Falstaff has unrivalled access to them all.  It is this all-embracing comic vision to which Hal gains access by seeking Falstaff’s company; and in acquiring it he gains directorial control over the spectacular theatrical performance that is kingship, outmanoeuvring all his rivals with his carefully cultivated wit.[7]

Joe Armstrong as Hotspur

For Hal’s father Henry IV, the dominance of the comic in England began in the reign of Richard, the ‘skipping King’ who ‘ambled up and down, / With shallow jesters, and rash bavin wits’ until his subjects got sick of his constant playing and got rid of him (1 Henry IV, 3.2.60-1).  But his death did not rid the land of his jesting spirit: Hotspur is one of its inheritors, and the most noteworthy thing about his rebellion, like that of Jack Cade, is how funny it is – and how relentlessly its humour directs itself against the King.  On his first appearance, Hotspur transforms the King’s messenger into a contemptible fop, a ‘popinjay’ whose misplaced arrogance clearly reflects on the master he serves: ‘he made me mad / To see him shine so brisk, and smell so sweet, / And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman / Of guns, and drums, and wounds, God save the mark!’ (1.3.49-55).[8]  By implication, the King who sent him is equally alien to military action, equally willing to belittle the military achievements of his victorious generals – and equally funny.  The morose Henry IV seems an unlikely candidate for comic status, but Hotspur assures his fellow conspirators that he is a ‘king of smiles’ (1.3.243) whose ‘jeering and disdain’d contempt’ has ‘fool’d, discarded’ and shaken them off (1.3.176-81).  And in saying so Hotspur lays the grounds for treachery and rebellion.  Reducing the King to the stature of a clown makes his overthrow seem easy, a matter of training a starling to shriek ‘Mortimer’ constantly in the monarch’s ear (1.3.221-3), of finding a ‘noble plot’ (1.3.273) – it hardly seems to matter which one – and of hurling yourself bodily into the bloody ‘sport’ of the battlefield (1.3.296).  The Hotspur rebellion is an elaborate joke – a joke that turns sour at the end of the play – and this is what Falstaff’s commentary on it graphically demonstrates.

At each stage of the play the scenes dominated by Falstaff parody the actions of the rebels.  Falstaff’s absurd self-inflation – his claims to heroism at Gadshill and the battle of Shrewsbury, his accusation of Mistress Quickly for stealing valuables he never possessed, even his baseless insults of the Prince in Part Two – exposes the self-inflation of the rebels, whose claims to honour and condemnation of Henry rest on an equally insubstantial basis.  Falstaff is the master of the ‘incomprehensible lie’ or preposterous fib (1.2.181-2), which is, like his body, ‘gross as a mountain, open, palpable’ (2.5.222), but which he can defend or disown with the agility of a master fencer; and the palpable grossness of his lies alerts us to the equal grossness of the rebels’ fabrication of their case against their monarch.  Besides these general resemblances, there are specific echoes of the rebels’ plot in Falstaff’s, some of which we have already noted.  In the second scene, Falstaff asks Hal to change the designation of highway robbers when he is king; instead of thieves, he says, they should be rechristened ‘Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon’ (1.2.25-6); and his efforts to mythologize their lawlessness are no more absurd than the rebels’ efforts to dignify their cause with resonant titles.  Later in the same scene, Falstaff looks forward to seeing the ‘true prince… prove a false thief’ when Hal takes part in the robbery at Gadshill (1.2.151-2); and in doing so he anticipates the following scene, where the rebels effectively accuse Henry of stealing the crown like a common criminal (1.3.138-57).  Later still, Hal and Poins betray Falstaff after the robbery at Gadshill, robbing him of his ill-gotten booty in the interest of producing ‘laughter for a month, and a good jest for ever’ (2.2.94-5).  Immediately afterwards Hotspur enters reading a letter from an unnamed friend, which tells him that ‘The purpose you undertake is dangerous, the friends you have named uncertain, the time itself unsorted, and your whole plot too light, for the counterpoise of so great an opposition’ (2.4.9-12).  Hal’s plot against Falstaff, designed to deflate his monstrous pretensions, is no lighter than Hotspur’s light plot against his monarch, which aims to immortalize the names of its perpetrators through blood.  And Hal’s betrayal of Falstaff – in Part One, at least – is a harmless one, a source of perpetual merriment to be commemorated in successive generations of jest-books and farces; where Hotspur’s betrayal of his former friend the King, and his later betrayal by his own allies (Glendower, Mortimer and his own father Northumberland fail to join him at the decisive battle of Shrewsbury) have dreadful consequences for his followers as well as for himself.  Hotspur’s lightness, then, is exposed by Falstaff and Hal as a deplorable lapse in comic taste.  And the nastiness of this lapse becomes more obvious as the play goes on: when Hal describes Hotspur telling his wife that killing ‘six or seven dozen of Scots at breakfast’ is ‘a trifle’ (2.4.101-7), for instance, or when Falstaff leads his company of ‘ragamuffins’ to be slaughtered on Shrewsbury field (5.3.35-8).  By Part Two, insurrection is no longer comic – or if it is, the humour it produces is of the grimmest kind, like the horrible joke played on the insurgents by Prince John, who tells them as he sends them to the block, ‘Most shallowly did you these arms commence, / Fondly brought here, and foolishly sent hence’ (4.2.118-9).  At this stage in the Tetralogy, nobody is inclined to laugh at the disastrous shallowness and folly of the ruling classes.

Prince Hal at the Boar’s Head, artist unknown

Like Hotspur’s humour, Hal’s is closely connected to betrayal.  Shakespeare’s contemporary John Donne saw all humour as a form of betrayal: a betrayal of the expectations of its audience, who are surprised or shocked into laughter by its spontaneous reversals of their settled assumptions about what is to come.  Of all humorists in the Second Tetralogy it is Hal who is most concerned to overthrow the expectations of his audience.  His carefully-planned career constitutes an elaborate prank whose punch-line he sets up at the beginning of Part One: in the end, he says, he will ‘falsify men’s hopes’ with his abrupt reformation (1.2.206) and display himself as he is, like the sun breaking through ‘base contagious clouds’ in order to intensify the glory of his half-forgotten form (1.2.193).  That Hal sees this as a joke is confirmed by his description of this future moment as a ‘playing holiday’ (1.2.199) – a break from, rather than a continuation of, the apparent holiday he has enjoyed in Falstaff’s company.  As many commentators have noted, there is something cruel about this well-laid comic plot; and indeed Hal’s laughter at Falstaff’s expense often smacks of cruelty, even in the genial Part One.  He is always insulting, needling or threatening him – most famously when Falstaff tells him that to banish ‘plump Jack’ would be to banish all the world, and Hal replies, ‘I do, I will’ (2.4.473-4).  In response Falstaff is always threatening half-seriously to break off relations between them, like a lover conscious that his relationship is hurtful to his own health and may eventually end his life.  Hal’s father fears that his relationship with Falstaff will do him moral harm, and this conventional view – that the young are always corrupted by the old, never vice versa – is reiterated by Falstaff himself when he plays the role of the King in an impromptu play: ‘pitch (as ancient writers do report) doth defile[.]  So doth the company thou keepest’ (2.4.408-10).  But the Prince proves wholly impervious to Falstaff’s gracelessness, and it is Falstaff who is always the loser by their connection.  ‘Thou hast done much harm upon me, Hal,’ he says in their very first scene together, ‘God forgive thee for it’ (1.2.90-1); and the element of pain in their relationship is later summed up in a phrase of Hal’s: ‘Were’t not for laughing, I should pity him’ (2.2.109).  The power is always on Hal’s side, and it is in teaching him how to take advantage of this power that Falstaff proves most useful to the heir apparent.

Hal’s humour, then, is a calculated matter, and as such it is the obverse of Falstaff’s.  The Prince lays down careful comic plots: the robbery of Falstaff at Gadshill, the plan to expose the fat knight’s hypocrisy by eavesdropping on him disguised as a tapster in Part Two (2.2.163-70) – whereas Falstaff specializes in fashioning spontaneous responses to other people’s machinations.  Jack’s only long-term plan is to get power and influence when Hal inherits the crown, and from the beginning it seems inevitable that Hal will overthrow this plan with a counter-plot of his own, prepared and executed with almost bureaucratic precision.  The Prince displays the same cold, bureaucratic sense of humour when he exposes a conspiracy against him in Henry V by presenting the traitors – his former friends – with scrolls detailing their treason at the point when they least expect it (2.2.13ff.).  In a treacherous world, Hal is the master traitor; though oddly enough, his treason consists in keeping his word rather than breaking it, since honesty is the last thing anyone expects from a ruling class riddled with oath-breakers.

The contrast between Hal’s and Falstaff’s comic styles is at its sharpest in their differing attitudes to time and money.  The rebellion in Part One is sparked off by the rebels’ awareness that the King is irrecoverably indebted to them for supporting him in his rise to power: ‘The King,’ says Worcester, ‘will always think him in our debt, / And think we think ourselves unsatisfy’d, / Till he hath found a time to pay us home’ (1.3.280-2), and the insurgents therefore think themselves obliged to deny him this valuable time, to forestall his attack on them with a speedy attack of their own.  Hal’s aim, then, is to avoid debts as far as he can, to put others in his debt as much as possible, and to pay off any debts he owes instantly, before they can accumulate interest.  At Shrewsbury he tells the rebel Douglas that ‘It is the Prince of Wales that threatens thee, / Who never promiseth but he means to pay’ (5.4.41-2); and sure enough, Hal is always dispensing funds to defray expenses, from the bills Falstaff owes at the Boar’s Head to the money stolen at Gadshill.  This is one source of his power over Falstaff; and it is also a source of his power over Hotspur, who is in Hal’s debt for the advantages he gains by occupying Hal’s rightful position as apparent heir to the kingdom.  The Prince describes Hotspur as his ‘factor’ or financial manager, employed to ‘engross up glorious deeds on my behalf’ until such time as Hal ‘will call him to… account’, when Hotspur will ‘render every glory up, / Yea, even the slightest worship of his time, / Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart’ (3.2.147-52).  For Hal, then, time is money, and even his seeming period of idleness with Falstaff is productive, since his investment in Hotspur accumulates interest in the Prince’s absence.  He has an instinctive grasp of the principles of emergent capitalism that marks him out as a member of a new generation, as Hotspur, with his adherence to a redundant code of chivalry, or Henry, with his abiding conviction of the inherent sanctity of kingship, are not.

Orson Welles as Falstaff, Keith Baxter as Hal

Falstaff, meanwhile, is an inveterate evader of taxes, an accumulator of debts he never means to repay, a shameless sponger.  Time for him is to be stretched and distorted at will, beguiled with amateur dramatics, lost in an alcoholic haze, falsified as he falsifies his age.  ‘What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?’ Hal asks him on his first appearance (1.2.6), and in doing so introduces us to a world that is governed by different priorities than those of Henry IV, who in the previous scene was urgently seeking ‘a time for frighted peace to pant’ (1.1.2), but whose efforts to free himself from the tyranny of time are repeatedly frustrated in the course of the two central plays of the Tetralogy.  Falstaff and his tavern, then, are a place of retreat for Hal, an escape from the pressures of the official calendar and a breathing-space in which to draw up a calendar of his own; and both these functions vindicate comedy from the common Elizabethan charge of being a waste of time – the charge Richard II memorably invoked when he said, in the scene of his death, ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me’ (5.5.49).  The tavern is also a location in which the nature of capital can be contemplated at leisure.  For Falstaff, money like time is subject to the imagination: insubstantial, governed by no fixed rules, and therefore incapable of getting any kind of hold on him – just as he is unable to get any hold on it.  The credit with which he pays for his drink – credit he derives from his friendship with Hal, whose financial prospects are theoretically boundless – is wholly imaginary, like the money he claims was stolen from him as he slept.  He obtains money by imaginative improvisation: taking advantage of his command of a company in the civil wars to garner cash from prosperous men who are too scared to fulfil their feudal duty of fighting for the crown (4.2.11-47); or collecting from Hotspur the debt he owes to Hal (it is for his non-existent part in killing Hotspur in Part One that he climbs to social pre-eminence in Part Two).  Falstaff matches Hal’s ability to collect debts from other people with a seemingly boundless capacity for escaping ‘shot-free’ (1 Henry IV, 5.3.30) – a skill that helps him to avoid injury from gun-shots in battle as easily as he avoids paying bills in peacetime.  This capacity for transferring one’s obligations, debts and guilt to other people is another thing Hal will find invaluable when he inherits the kingdom, at which point Hal begins to exert all his imaginative faculties, in Falstavian fashion, to offload the obligations, debts and guilt he inherited with it.  But the price Hal pays for acquiring Falstaff’s skills of comic evasion is his casting-off of Falstaff; a deed for which audiences have found it hard to forgive him, despite the seeming success of his efforts to obtain forgiveness for his deeds from heaven.

[You can find the third part of ‘Shakespeare’s Merry England’ here.]

NOTES

[1] Valerie Traub compares Falstaff’s body to that of a pregnant woman in Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (London, 1992), pp. 56-61.

[2] For Falstaff’s class see Paul N. Siegel, The Gathering Storm: Shakespeare’s English and Roman History Plays: a Marxist Analysis (London, 1992), ch. 6.

[3] For the health-giving properties of laughter, attested to by Hippocrates, as well as its ill effects on the body, see Laurent Joubert, Treatise on Laughter, especially Book 3, chs. 14, 15 and 16, pp. 126-33.  The English physician Andrew Borde, who studied like Joubert at the University of Montpellier, thought that mirth could be both therapeutic and dangerous: ‘there be many… myrthes and consolacions, some being good and laudable, and some vytuperable… myrth is when a man lyveth out of det, and may have meate and drinke and cloth, although he have never a peny in his purse; but nowe a dayes, he is merye that hath golde and sylver,, and ryches with lechery; and all is not worth a blewe poynte.’  Elsewhere Boorde opines: ‘A mery herte and mynde, the whiche is in reste and quyetnes,, without adversyte and to moche worldly busyness, causeth a man to lyve longe, and to loke yongly, although he be agyd.  Care and sorowe bryngeth in age and deth, wherefore let every man be mery; and yf he can not, let hym resorte to mery company to breke of his perplexatyves.’  Andrew Boorde’s Introduction and Dyetary, ed. F. J. Furnivall, Early English Text Society (London, 1870), pp. 88 and 300.

[4] For an account of the humours see F. David Hoeniger, Medicine and Shakespeare in the English Renaissance  (Newark, London and Toronto, 1992), ch.5, esp. pp. 102-7.  The chapter culminates in an analysis of Falstaff’s defence of sherris-sack.  The centrality of the humours to the Second Tetralogy is hinted at in the title of the 1600 quarto of 2 Henry IV: The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, Continuing to his Death, and Coronation of Henry the Fifth.  With the Humours of Sir John Falstaff, and Swaggering Pistol.  For metaphors of the body in early modern England see Leonard Barkan, Nature’s Work of Art: The Human Body as Image of the World (New Haven, 1975).

[5] Northumberland uses the same metaphor when he decides to betray his fellow rebels: ‘’Tis with my mind / As with the tide swell’d up unto his height, / That makes a still-stand, running neither way’ (2 Henry IV, 2.3.62-4).

[6] Before the battle of Shrewsbury, too, Hal notes that ‘The southern wind / Doth play the trumpet to his purposes, / And by his hollow whistling in the leaves / Foretells a tempest’ (1 Henry IV, 5.1.3-6) – a bad omen for the rebels who have been associated with air and wind.

[7] Leonard Tennenhouse gives an account of what Hal learns from Falstaff in ‘Strategies of State and Political Plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VIII’, Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, second edition (Manchester, 1994), pp. 109-28.  For another perspective see Graham Holderness, Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama (New York etc., 1992), ch. 6.

[8] In this speech, too, air dominates the elements: Hotspur is ‘breathless’ from his  exertions during the battle, and the ‘perfumed’ courtier is offended by the smell of a corpse that comes ‘Betwixt the wind and his nobility’ (I Henry IV, 1.3.31-44).

 

 

Shakespeare’s Merry England, Part 1: The Emaciation of Jack Cade

[Here is the first part of a chapter cut out of my book Shakespeare and Comedy; a lost chapter, then, rather than a lost book. If you like it, print it out and put it between the last chapter of the book and the conclusion!]

For the Elizabethans, the past was populated with laughter-mongers.  Jest-books disinterred the buried careers of the great clowns of English history: Scoggin and Will Summers, John Skelton and Long Meg of Westminster, Dobson, Hobson and the magician Roger Bacon.[1]  These were clever, tough commoners whose brushes with authority made them all too familiar with the insides of prisons and the danger of death, but the political impact of whose escapades was softened by the cushion of intervening generations.  The jest-book gave birth to the historical novel of the 1590s, in which the cheerful Clothier Jack of Newbury has run-ins with Cardinal Wolsey, or the page Jack Wilton finds himself whirling through early sixteenth-century Europe, getting caught up in the wars of the Reformation and fleeing from outbreaks of the Plague.[2]  On the stage, too, non-Shakespearean English history plays were often dominated by wayward comedians, who were either commoners or fraternizers with the commonalty: the Robin Hood figure George a Green, who beats up treacherous lords but remains fiercely loyal to the English throne;[3] Robin Hood himself, who teamed up with George a Green in the 1580s and starred in two tragicomedies of his own in the late 1590s, skirmishing with the despicable Prince John;[4] the parson-highwayman Sir John of Wrotham, who gave Henry V a taste of his own medicine by robbing him on the king’s own highway in Sir John Oldcastle Part 1;[5] and young Prince Harry of England himself, who with his drinking companions bears a striking resemblance to Robin Hood and his merry men in the anonymous Famous Victories of Henry V.  If chronicle histories narrated England’s past as a series of solemn encounters between kings, nobles, and powerful churchmen, the prose and drama of the late sixteenth century put certain lords on intimate terms with their humblest subjects, and thrust clowns ‘by head and shoulders’, as Sidney put it, into the affairs of state that formed the English nation.[6]

Shakespeare’s Falstaff is the prodigal heir to this rich tradition of historical clowning.[7]  As a boy he fought with Scoggin at the Inns of Court (so Justice Shallow tells us) and broke his head; and his fake death at the battle of Shrewsbury is a feat he borrows from Scoggin’s Jests.[8]  He mimics the exploits of Robin Hood on the king’s highway at Gadshill, and clashes with authority, as represented by the Lord Chief Justice, in parodic imitation of the clashes between Skelton or Jack of Newbury and the upstart Lord Chancellor of England, Cardinal Wolsey.[9]  He takes on himself the wilder aspects of Prince Harry’s conduct in the Famous Victories, and shares with Jack Wilton both a skill in impersonating aristocracy and a perception of history as a sustained assault on the human body, bloating, starving, infecting or dealing wounds on its victims in an unholy alliance with succeeding generations of powerful men.[10]

Above all, like these jest-book heroes and theatrical wise-crackers he demonstrates the extent to which laughter permeates history, and the centrality of those things to which laughter is addicted (improvisations, quixotic quests for material gain, hunger, alcohol, sexual voracity, the cutting down to size of misplaced arrogance) to the past and present of Elizabethan England.   Falstaff’s bulky presence – its sheer size a testimony to the awe-inspiring effects of excessive laughter on the human frame [11] – threatens to reshape our perceptions of the ruling classes who dominate the chronicles, confirming for us the absurdity of their priorities, the appalling destructiveness of their swollen ambitions.  If actors are, as Hamlet says, ‘the abstract and brief chronicles of the time’ (2.2.525), Falstaff makes these chronicles look both more substantial and more true to life than other forms of history, written as these are at the behest of monarchs. At the same time, the comic lessons Falstaff imparts to his protégé Prince Hal help to shape him into a powerful and popular monarch, Henry V.  His comic performance instructs the young prince in the art of wittily rewriting the past, an accomplishment that permits him to consolidate his position as king by a deft deployment of the power of comedy.  For Shakespeare as for Marlowe, the humour that transcends class boundaries is a potent political tool, capable of making and destroying kings; and it is in the series of plays known as the Second Tetralogy [Richard II, 1 Henry IV2 Henry IVHenry V], with Falstaff in the middle of them, that he explores this notion most intensively.

Falstaff carries with him strong echoes of Shakespeare’s most disturbing earlier representation of the clown in English history: the rebel Jack Cade from the First Tetralogy (1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VIRichard III), a ferociously anarchic revision of George a Green, who refuses to offer any consistent rationale for the massacres he perpetrates among the ruling classes.  The popular hero George a Green kills nobles who betray their king;[12] Jack Cade betrays his king by killing nobles.  More disturbingly, Jack is a king, in his own imagination and that of his followers, and so confirms the fear of Stephen Gosson that comedy could simulate and perhaps even stimulate insurrection.  He is the clown as king, just as in the Famous Victories young Prince Harry is the king as clown.  Cade’s proximity to this early version of Henry V, written by an anonymous playwright before 1588, is one of the many disturbing elements in his spectacular career, and helps to link him with the Shakespearean Hal’s ambiguous companion Falstaff.

In the Famous Victories, young Prince Harry leads a troupe of riotous knights round the taverns of London and shares with them a radical vision for his future kingdom that anticipates Cade’s plans for it in more ways than one.[13]  Harry and his friends intend to share power equally (‘we would be all kings’ (1.79-80)); to abolish ‘prisoning’, hanging and whipping – at least, for courageous highwaymen, who will instead get royal pensions for their courage (5.10-12); and to turn the prisons into fencing-schools, where Harry will fight a decisive ‘bout’ with the Lord Chief Justice (5.20-2). Later Harry undergoes a conversion to orthodoxy like his Shakespearean counterpart Hal; but the Henry V of the 1580s never forgets his experience as a tavern-haunting prankster.  When the Dauphin of France sends him tennis balls, ‘meaning that you are more fitter for a tennis-court than a field, and more fitter for a carpet than the camp’ (9.112-3), this Harry responds with the jocular bravado made famous by Hal (‘tell him that instead of balls of leather we will toss him balls of brass and iron’ (9.114-6)); but unlike Shakespeare’s hero he repeats the joke throughout his French campaign.  On hearing that the Dauphin will not fight at Agincourt Harry says he is disappointed to have lost the chance to thrash him at tennis (12.24-33); and when a French herald asks him to set the terms of his ransom Harry replies that he will give ‘not so much as one poor tennis-ball’ to free himself in the event of his capture (14.41).  His humorous courtship of the French king’s daughter forms part of an unbroken continuum of aggressive wit that stretches from his tavern days in London to the successful completion of his continental campaign.  Continuity is emphasized by the fact that his actions are periodically echoed by a bevy of insubordinate commoners led by Derick – originally played by the great Dick Tarlton [14]– who starts out as a carrier robbed by one of Harry’s wild companions and ends as the most timorous soldier at the battle of Agincourt.

The Harry of the Famous Victories, then, represents a wish-fulfilment fantasy for regulars at the London taverns.  If he does not fulfil his promise to turn prisons into fencing-schools, he retains his keen appetite for sports, and never loses the sense of humour so essential for a good night on the town.  But he is also a wish-fulfilment fantasy for his father, effortlessly reconciling this role with his reputation as a fun-loving criminal.  Before his death Henry IV foretells the prince’s smooth transition from bold, bad youth to world-class conqueror, predicting that ‘he will prove as valiant and victorious a king as ever reigned in England’ (8.4-5), as if Harry’s adolescent exploits are a form of training for his role as a military leader.  In this early play, laughter is the secret weapon of the English monarchy, binding subjects to the king’s service with ties stronger than those of feudal duty, and forming a powerful element in the rhetorical arsenal with which England differentiates itself from, and seeks to assert its superiority to, its continental neighbours.

In Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI, by contrast, royalty has signally failed to differentiate itself from the ambitious subjects who seek to acquire it, just as England’s foreign battles have failed either to unite its warring factions at home or to establish its supremacy in Europe.  Jack Cade is the product of a domestic tiff among the English aristocracy that culminates in civil war, and his antics, much more than Derick’s, amount to a devastating critique of the ruling class.  In this, perhaps the first of Shakespeare’s history plays – scholars have argued that 1 Henry VI was written later [15] – the health of the nation can be gauged by the state of relations between the classes, and by the time Cade’s insurrection takes place these relations have effectively collapsed.  Warring nobles articulate their hatred for one another by contemptuous references to poverty or low birth.  York describes the supporters of the King as ‘Pirates’ (1.1.220), the Queen thinks her arch-rival the Duchess of Gloucester a ‘Contemptuous base-born callet’ (1.3.84), and at the point when Cade’s rebellion breaks out Suffolk and Warwick are trading insults concerning one another’s connection to the peasantry (Warwick’s mother, says Suffolk, ‘took into her blameful bed / Some stern untutored churl’, while Warwick childishly retorts that ‘it was thy mother that thou meant’st’ (3.2.211-23)).  The one noble who is loved by the common people – the good Duke Humphrey of Gloucester – is held in contempt for his ‘base and humble mind’ by his own ambitious wife (1.2.62), and eventually murdered by his aristocratic colleagues.  Meanwhile ordinary subjects have their petitions to the King torn up by his unfaithful Queen (‘Away, base cullions!’ (1.3.41)), are reduced to conning one another ‘for pure need’ (2.1.149), and find themselves reluctantly embroiled in the squabbles among the nobles, taking justice into their own hands for want of adequate legal representation in the courts.  An apprentice accuses his master of high treason for saying that the Duke of York has a better claim to the throne than King Henry, and afterwards kills him in a parodic trial-by-combat (2.3.47ff.); and later Suffolk finds himself put on trial at sea by a crew of real pirates, who sentence him to death for crimes against the ‘good Duke Humphrey’, Henry VI, the house of York, and the state (4.1.70-103).  Suffolk is amazed and horrified that such lowly subjects should have power to kill him.  He calls the pirate captain an ‘Obscure and lousy swain’ (4.1.50), leader of a gang of ‘paltry, servile, abject drudges’ (4.1.105), and insists ‘it is impossible that I should die / By such a lowly vassal as thyself’ (4.1.110-1).  But die he does, and his death marks the temporary transference of power in the play from the aristocracy to the commoners: the kind of hierarchic inversion that would have horrified theatre-haters such as Stephen Gosson, John Rankins and Philip Stubbes.[16]  The arrival of the commoners at the heart of history is signaled by the arrival of full-blooded comedy – the theatrical mode associated with commoners – in Act 4 scene 2.  And the mock-king who presides over the play’s comic climax is the cloth-worker Jack Cade.

Cade’s ferocious directness comes as a welcome relief after the stifling spectacle to which we have been subjected before his appearance, in which aristocrats barely conceal their loathing for one another beneath a brittle veneer of courtesy.  Cade never pretends, as they do, to be honourable or consistent. He readily admits, for instance, what the audience already knows, that it was the Duke of York who encouraged him to assert his claim to the throne, and that he invented the details of his royal pedigree for himself.  As he explains this pedigree to his followers, his friends Dick the Butcher and Smith the Weaver undermine it with a running commentary: his father was ‘an honest man and a good bricklayer’ (4.2.37-8), his mother a midwife, his valour is attested by his open practice of illegal beggary, his endurance by his experience of being frequently whipped (presumably as a vagrant; we are later told that he has no home to go to).  But there is something exhilarating about the repeated deflation of Cade’s pretensions. The arrogant nobles who have dominated the play are equally inconsistent in their claims and counter-claims, and much less amusing in their inconsistency.  Cade’s birth and background, matters by which the nobility set so much store and over which they have wrangled since the opening scene of the play, clearly do not matter very much to Cade or his men, and his real claim to deserve a stake in England’s government derives from a much sounder principle: that ‘Adam was a gardener’ (4.2.126), so that all pedigrees in the end are equally ancient, and anyone has an equal right to join the competition to seize the crown.  Besides, Cade’s programme for reforming the kingdom – or refurbishing its garments, as his followers put it, in honour of his trade (4.2.4-6) – is full of disarming details.  Seven halfpenny loaves are to be sold for a penny, there will be a ban on weak beer, all land will be held in common and the monetary system abandoned, everyone will eat and drink at the king’s expense and wear the same clothes so that ‘they may agree like brothers’ (4.2.70-1), the aristocracy and gentry will be wiped out, and in the first year of his reign one of the London fountains shall ‘run nothing but claret wine’ (4.6.3-4).  No noble in the play has a vision to match these.  Indeed, not one of them seems to have imagined instituting any kind of programme for social reform – a failure that Cade’s programme helps to expose, despite its absurdity.  For much of Shakespeare’s audience one suspects the laughter that accompanied Cade’s campaign would have been more delighted than derisory.

At the same time, there is a frightening aspect to Jack Cade.  He is prone to outbreaks of Tamburlainian violence, either sudden – as in the hanging of the Clerk of Chatham and the impromptu killing of a soldier who calls him by the wrong name – or calculated, as in his proposal that ‘there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they have it’ (4.7.114-6).  And his sense of humour is as aggressive as that of the aristocracy he aims to supplant.  After decapitating Lord Say and his son-in-law he has their heads put on poles and gives the order that they be made to ‘kiss’ at every street corner, in token of their supposed conspiracy to surrender England’s possessions in France (4.7.123-9).  Most disturbing of all, perhaps, is the reasoning that underpins his most extreme acts of violence: his rooted antagonism to learning in all its manifestations.  The Clerk of Chatham is executed because he can write his name, while Lord Say condemns himself to death by the very skill with which he begs for mercy: ‘He shall die,’ Cade decides, ‘an it be but for pleading so well for his life’ (4.7.100-1).  Surely, we may think, Shakespeare is here working to undermine any sympathy we might have conceived for the rebels.  As an educated man he could hardly have disagreed with Lord Say’s view that ‘ignorance is the curse of God’ and ‘Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven’ (4.7.68-9), and Cade himself confesses he feels ‘remorse’ for his determination to execute the apparently deserving noble (4.7.99).  At such times Cade’s behaviour seems to set him on the high road to hell, to which Anthony Iden consigns him at the end of Act Four (4.10.76-8), as if in vindication of the beliefs of the educated middle class (the class that included Erasmus, Luther, Marlowe, Gosson, Jonson and Shakespeare himself) who saw education as the road to personal success, if not to a more widespread social redemption, and ignorance as a vice akin to idleness.

Yet our discomfort with Cade’s aggression is based on shaky premises.  Above all, it relies on the too-easy assumption that everyone in a given historical epoch shares a consistent set of values, with learning, reason and benevolence near the top of the moral hierarchy and rape, murder and betrayal near the bottom.  In 2 Henry VI this assumption has been exploded long before Cade’s arrival by the behaviour of the English nobles, who blithely arrange for the assassination of the innocent Lord Protector, and whose predatory sexual behaviour belies their stated respect for uncontaminated bloodlines.  Cade’s most outrageous actions, in fact, merely parody those of his social superiors.  His announcement that he will have the right to sleep with all virgins in the realm before their marriage revives an old feudal privilege claimed by local lords, as well as further undermining an aristocratic system of heredity that has already been seriously compromised by the aristocrats themselves.[17]  And his contempt for learning echoes his former master York’s contempt for the ‘bookish’ Henry VI (1.1.257).  Cade, however, has far better reason than York for his hostility to letters, since learning has very different connotations for the powerful than for the powerless.  As applied by lawyers, learning makes possible the atrocious situation that ‘parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man’ (4.2.75-6); that judges are able ‘to call poor men before them, about matters they [are] not able to answer’ (4.7.38-9); and that the setting of a seal on a written contract may sign away a person’s freedom (‘I did but seal once to a thing,’ claims Cade, ‘and I was never my own man since’ (4.2.77-8)).  As a remedy for these abuses Cade proposes to kill all lawyers, burn all written records and distribute justice orally: ‘My mouth,’ he says, ‘shall be the parliament of England’ (4.7.12-13).  His oral form of government is no more arbitrary than the regime it replaces; and in proposing it he strikes a blow in the ongoing struggle between the social classes in early modern Europe, exposing the complacency of the intellectual assumptions on which the polemics of the theatre-haters – and indeed the whole humanist educational enterprise on which they drew for their arguments – depended.

Cade’s career is a short one, but even its ending reveals the moral vacuum at the heart of the English hegemony. Lord Clifford seduces his followers to turn against him by invoking the name of the dead national hero Henry V: a warlord whose popularity rested on his appeal to English xenophobia rather than his birthright (from one point of view, his claim to the throne was not much better than Cade’s).  As we have seen, young Henry’s plans for England in the Famous Victories and Cade’s plans for a new commonwealth in 2 Henry VI have much in common – except that Harry renounces his plans when he gets the crown, whereas Cade never ceases to urge his followers to ‘recover your ancient freedom’ (4.8.26-7).  Lord Clifford invokes Henry’s name in a spurious promise to channel the commoners’ aggression into a new assault against their old enemies the French, whose recent successes against the English form part of the general resentment against the current administration.  ‘Will [Cade] conduct you through the heart of France,’ Clifford asks, ‘And make the meanest of you earls and dukes?’ (4.8.36-7).  As the Elizabethan audience knew full well, Clifford has no intention of doing any such thing: the only wars in prospect for the English are civil ones.  The empty call to arms that closes his speech, and to which Cade’s followers respond so enthusiastically (‘To France!  To France!  And get what you have lost!’ (4.8.49)), perfectly demonstrates the lack of a shared set of values or a trustworthy system of communication between the rulers and the ruled in England.  The land is fundamentally split, Henry V and his heroic deeds are dead and buried, and Cade’s efforts to reinvent England on a new model are founded on an accurate perception of its irreversibly damaged current state.

Cade is a home-grown threat, rooted in English soil as firmly as any noble.  Yet he is able to mimic England’s foreign enemies with the same skill he displays in mimicking the aristocracy.  He looks exactly like Lord Mortimer, heir to Richard II, York tells us (3.1.371-2); yet during England’s war with Ireland Cade has often spied on the Irish disguised as a ‘shag-haired crafty kern […] And, undiscovered, come to me again / And given me notice of their villainies’ (3.1.366-9).  England’s most despised antagonists overseas and her most privileged native sons have become indistinguishable in the current climate; and this loss of distinction is underscored when York invades England at the head of an Irish army while announcing himself as ‘England’s lawful king’ (5.1.4).  Clearly England under Henry VI nurtures the seeds of its own destruction.  At the same time, its abundantly fruitful soil is incapable of sustaining all the English equally under the current regime; a fact we are apprised of by the death of Cade.  In a final gesture of defiance the starving rebel confronts a prosperous landowner, Anthony Iden, in his orchard: and the comparison that follows between the landowner’s sturdy body and Cade’s emaciated corpse offers an animated picture of the commoners’ grievances against the wealthy.  ‘Thy hand is but a finger to my fist,’ Iden points out (4.10.47-8), ‘Thy leg a stick compared with this truncheon’ (meaning his own swelling thigh and calf).  The garden of England is only Eden to those like Iden with the means and the name to take advantage of it; everyone else is an enemy of the nation, regardless of nationality.  The rights of men as the common descendants of Adam have no place there, and ‘ancient freedom’ has been replaced with backbreaking ‘slavery to the nobility’ (4.8.28).  If nothing else, the comic mock-history of Jack Cade graphically illustrates the amount of mental and physical ‘labour’ that will be necessary before ‘the public good’ takes precedence over private interest in this divided country.[18]  And after its suppression, the claims of the nobility to be working in the interests of the people of England look thinner and more self-deluding than their comic shadow Cade did at his death.

Cade’s history displays the extent to which the commoner’s medium – laughter – may both comment on and affect the course of public events, despite the claims of the ruling classes to have a monopoly over national politics.  The Famous Victories showed this too, of course, but in 2 Henry VI laughter undermines the monarchy instead of sustaining it.  Cade proves the power of comic fooling both to subvert ‘legitimate’ claims to power and to forge outrageous new ones; and the lesson is taken up after Cade’s death by the funniest and most alarming of Shakespeare’s monarchs, Richard III, who effectively laughs the heads off his rivals as he jests his way to power.  Richard fails, however, to harness popular support as Cade does, so that his reign gets increasingly humourless as it staggers towards its end, unable to sustain the tide of anxious mirth that swept this despot to power with the horrified approval of the playhouse audience.  It remains for Prince Hal to learn the trick of popularity from Cade’s successor Falstaff, whose ample body gives weight and lasting sustenance to Hal’s serio-comic campaign for the crown, as Cade’s skeletal corpse and Richard’s twisted frame were unable to do for theirs.

[You can find the second part of ‘Shakespeare’s Merry England’ here.]

NOTES

[1] Will Summers – jester to Henry VIII – was celebrated in A Pleasant History of the Life and Death of Will Summers(1637).  The heroic Long Meg, who also lived in Henry’s time, starred in The Life of Long Meg of Westminster (1620).  Dobson the early Elizabethan chorister-cum-practical-joker held court in Dobson’s Dry Bobs (1607), while his contemporary the haberdasher Hobson was commemorated by Richard Johnson in The Pleasant Conceits of Old Hobson the Merry Londoner (1607).  Roger Bacon’s career was recorded in The Famous History of Friar Bacon (1625).  Some of these texts were published in Elizabethan times, although the early editions have been lost; the Famous History, for instance, was the likely source of Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1592).

[2] See Thomas Deloney, Jack of Newbury (1597), and Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), both reprinted in Paul Salzman (ed.), An Anthology of Elizabethan Prose Fiction (Oxford and New York, 1987).

[3] Star of the anonymous play George a Green, The Pinner of Wakefield (c. 1590).

[4] The tragicomedies are Anthony Munday, The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (1598).  Robin Hood fights with George a Green in lines 1049-1106 of the anonymous play: see Joseph Quincy Adams (ed.), Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas (London, Calcutta and Sydney, n.d.), p. 708.

[5] See Sir John Oldcastle, Part 1, in The Oldcastle Controversy: Sir John Oldcastle, Part 1; The Famous Victories of Henry V, ed. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge, The Revels Plays Companion Library (Manchester and New York, 1991), sc. 10.

[6] The phrase ‘by head and shoulders’ comes from Philip Sidney’s discussion of Elizabethan clowning, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd, revised R. W. Maslen (Manchester, 2002), p. 112, line 3.

[7] The classic account of Falstaff in the context of Shakespearean comedy is C. L. Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Rellattion to Social Custom (Princeton, 1959), especially ch. 8.

[8] See W. Carew Hazlitt (ed.), Shakespeare Jest-Books, 3 vols. (London, 1864), vol. 2, p. 155: ‘Scogin seeing that he had lost the favour of  the King and Queene, hee mused how he might be pardoned of the King and of the Queene.  Hee heard say that the King would ride a progress, and at a convenient place, Scogin said to his servant: cast a coverlet over me, and say that I am dead, and say that, at my departure, I desired thee to pray to the King and Queen to forgive me.   When the King and Queene did come by, Scogin lying under the coverlet by the high way, his servant said: here doth lye Scogin dead, and when hee departed, hee prayed both your Graces to forgive him.  Now (said the King and Queen) God forgive him, and wee do.  Scogin start up, and sayd: I do thank both your Graces, and hereafter I will no more displease you: for I see it is more harder to keepe a friend, then to get one.’

[9] For Skelton’s clashes with Cardinal Wolsey see Shakespeare Jest-Books, ed. Hazlitt, vol. 2, pp. 18 and 34.  For Jack of Newbury’s run-ins with the cardinal see An Anthology of Elizabethan Prose Fiction, ed. Paul Salzman (Oxford, 1987), pp. 346-7 and 364-6.

[10] For a comparison of Nashe’s Jack Wilton and Falstaff see Neil Rhodes, Elizabethan Grotesque (London, Boston and Henley, 1980), Part 2: ‘Shakespearean Grotesque: The Falstaff Plays’.

[11] For the notion, derived from the Greek physician Hippocrates, that laughter makes you fat, see Laurent Joubert, Treatise on Laughter, translated and annotated by Gregory David de Rocher (University, Alabama, 1980), Book 3, ch. 13, pp. 124-6.

[12] George kills the traitor Sir Gilbert Armstrong at lines 693-781 of Adams’s edition.

[13] All references are to the edition of The Famous Victories in The Oldcastle Controversy, ed. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge.

[14] On Tarlton’s performance in Famous Victories see The Oldcastle Controversy, ed. Corbin and Sedge, pp. 25-8.

[15] For a detailed account of the dates and sequence of the Henry VI plays see King Henry VI Part 2, ed. Ronald Knowles, The Arden Shakespeare (Walton-on-Thames, 1999), pp. 111-21.  See also Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor et al., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford, 1987), pp. 111-3.

[16] For Cade’s relationship to the real fears of the Elizabethan authorities see Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford, 1989), ch. 2.

[17] See The Norton Shakespeare, The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (2 Henry VI), 4.7.112n.

[18] Salisbury and Warwick promise to ‘labour’ for the ‘common profit’ of the land at 1.1.180-204.

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.

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

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

Cover design by John Robert Monsell, Irwin’s husband

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

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

Melusina

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

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

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

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

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

Prospero and Miranda by William Maw Egley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Othello woos Desdemona, by Theodore Chasseriau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viking Berserker Figures, 6th Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Irwin, 27 July 1939

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medmenham Abbey, where the Hellfire Club met

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

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

Arthur Rackham, illustration for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joshua Reynolds, Cupid as a Link-Boy

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

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

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

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

Couple walking, by Thomas Gainsborough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[For my third post on Margaret Irwin’s fantasy, see here.]

NOTES

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[For the second post on Margaret Irwin’s fantasy, see here.]

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