Daphne du Maurier, a Vindication

Hunting for Daphne du Maurier in a book shop is never a simple task. Dependant on the whims of the book seller, she may be displayed prominently in the classics or literature section, tucked away on the Young Adult shelves or demoted to romance and ‘chick lit.’ Despite her prominence as one of the best selling British authors of the 20th century, she is sometimes absent altogether, wheeled out only when one of her works is adapted for film or television. Journalists and critics are still debating the quality of her work, was she a literary genius? Or a middlebrow hack writer?

When I first picked up a copy of Rebecca, I wasn’t sure either. The most famous of her novels has all the hallmarks of a gothic romance, and yet is executed with great skill and originality. Rebecca is innovative in its use of the nameless first person protagonist. It has a masterful control of narrative pace, taking time over evocative descriptions of its Cornish setting, while elegantly baiting the reader with hints of suspense. Most significantly, it is a re-writing and response to Jane Eyre. Du Maurier takes Charlotte Bronte’s classic and transposes it to the 20th century. The two have since become inseparable in my mind. Maurier picks up on the uncomfortable conclusion to Jane Eyre and uses it to her advantage, making the narrator accomplice in the very deceit that she has been subjected to. To place Rebecca in the romance genre is to miss-sell it entirely. It is not a wish fulfilling romance with a happy ending. Rather, it engages intimately with the literary canon, asking the still pertinent question – how far have we really come in the power relations between men and women since 1847?

Although I thoroughly enjoyed Rebecca, I wondered if it was something of an exception to du Maurier’s usual fare. Was she a romance writer with one book that transcended the genre? Reading The Scapegoat, put this question firmly to rest. The Scapegoat‘s protagonist-narrator is a young, idealistic man who meets his doppelganger in France and switches places, assuming the role and dysfunctional family of a French Count. The premise is admittedly far fetched, yet the book seems to acknowledge this. At first it appears to be a rags-to-riches fairy tale but, like Rebecca, it subverts this trope to offer a disquieting view of family responsibility. The Scapegoat reminded me strongly of Dumas’s work, it asks similar questions – how much are we the masks we wear, and is it possible to ever escape them?

My Cousin Rachel likewise features a male protagonist-narrator. A brooding, entitled and prejudiced young squire dealing with the potentially dangerous widow of his late guardian. Like Rebecca, Rachel features a femme fatale who has no actual voice in the text. We are never given her side of the story, only that of the unreliable narrator. The entire novel revolves around the question of Rachel’s innocence or guilt and yet her judge is, for numerous reasons, incapable of convincing us of either case. I was fascinated by the way du Maurier reversed the trope of the fallen woman. The Victorian heroine ‘giving up her virtue’ for love and an unfulfilled marriage proposal is here entirely inverted in a financially powerful but unwordly male figure. I found this the most unsettling of the three novels, and the most ambiguous, showing du Maurier at the height of her talent.

These books are all, in my mind, worthy of critical acclaim. Which leads me to ask, why have they failed to find a solid place in the literary canon? I propose that their very popularity works against them. They are not difficult books to read and their excellent use of pacing and mystery makes them page-turners. Du Maurier’s books have been marketed as genre novels, sporting lurid bodice-ripper covers in the 60’s and 70’s but I would argue they fail to meet the requirements of the romance genre. Although some are historical in setting, they are not overly interested in history. As keen as I am to champion literary qualities amongst genre fiction, these books do not, in my mind, belong on the genre shelves.

Another major factor in their mixed reception is gender. Adaptations of du Maurier’s books by Alfred Hitchcock receive critical acclaim as cinematic classics. Of course, the audience for these is not assumed to be exclusively female. Despite her ability to create convincing and complicated male protagonists, Daphne du Maurier is rarely marketed in a ‘gender neutral’ way, and I have no doubt that her name and image effect the critics’ position on her work.

So, are these books ‘literary’ fiction? While I have my issues with the inherent snobbery in this distinction, I will go so far as to say that I consider Daphne du Maurier on par with many of the finest writers of the 20th century. Her work engages with the Western literary tradition, responding to classics and placing them in a modern context. Her use of the first person narrator is experimental and innovative. Her protagonists and antagonists both demonstrate moral ambiguity. Her narratives are frequently unsatisfying and disturbing in their refusal to conform to our expectations. Her style is alternately simple and highly detailed. She poses intriguing psychological and sociological questions without offering easy answers. The fact that her novels are also eminently readable does not undermine these qualities in the least. Rather, it enhances them, as the reader is unable to maintain an objective distance from her powerfully engaging characters.


An Antidote to War: T.H. White’s The Once and Future King

I’ve attempted to read The Sword in the Stone, the first volume of T.H. White’s retelling of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, twice in the past, but gave up in exasperation. However, following my recent read of Malory, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography of White (which is both sympathetic and brutally revealing) I decided to have another go at it and see if I could get through to the latter books that complete the saga. I’m very glad I did, because a few years of medieval studies and a recent interest in early 20th century British fiction have made all the difference. The Once and Future King is many things; a tribute to Malory’s genius, a deliberate contribution to the Matter of Britain, a pantomime comedy, a personal manifesto, a pamphlet on ethics, a rather Freudian take on maternal relationships, an attack on the myth of progress, a paean to the middle ages, a piece of occasionally exquisite nature writing and an attempt to solve what White saw as the central problem of the human species – war.

Academics commenting on the Arthurian tradition invariably point out that each new interpretation of the material highlights the political concerns of the time and place in which it was written. In White’s case, this is entirely conscious. As he explains in his letters and diaries, the purpose of writing The Once and Future King was to discover an antidote to  war. This is rather a bold ambition, many authors set out to ask questions about conflict, but White is not satisfied to leave the issue open. The book is essentially didactic, it is a modern Mirror for Princes. The great beauty of this attempt is, in my view, that you can see White himself grappling with the problem, both as Arthur and as Merlyn, and the changes to his beliefs and opinions as the work progresses. It asks questions, provides answers, and then questions those answers.

The Sword in the Stone, the best known and loved of the volumes, is also the most innocent. Featuring Arthur as a boy under the pseudonym ‘Wart’, guided by a Merlyn in the guise of eccentric professor, it is full of magic, parody and genuine fun. It depicts ‘Merry Old England’ as a golden age, with long hot summers, snowy Christmasses, haymaking and real forests full of fairies and Saxon outlaws. Even feudalism is set up as an ideal, only ruined by those ‘nasty barons’ who abuse the system. White is overtly conscious of his own nostalgia and revels in it, which is part of what makes this work so enjoyable. The Sword is full of detailed descriptions and explanations of the lost medieval arts that fascinated White, from hawking and tilting to boar hunting. While the focus is on the pleasures of the gentry, it still makes for a fascinating and well researched bit of medievalism that makes me think of White as something of an experimental archaeologist. The politics in this book are light, explored through Wart’s experiences in the animal kingdom.

The Witch in the Wood, also titled The Queen of Air and Darkness, is a transition from the sunshine of The Sword to the shadows of the later books. It contains three narrative streams; Arthur’s war with the five kings and Merlyn’s counsel for his future reign, the boyhood of the Orkney faction (Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth) and King Pellinore’s hunt for the questing beast. The first two threads are full of pathos, Arthur makes difficult choices and gets a taste for war while Merlyn fails to avert Mordred’s conception by giving the one piece of necessary advice. White begins to show his mother issues in the treatment of Morgause, who replaces Guenever as the femme fatale of the piece. The scene with the unicorn is perhaps the darkest and most shocking passage of the entire series, a turning point at which cynicism and nihilism begin to seep into White’s glowing middle ages. Meanwhile the pantomime of King Pellinore’s story seems out of place, a fool who has wandered onto the set of a tragedy. Another element that creeps into book two and lurks in the following volumes is White’s own racism towards the Gaelic speaking peoples. The Irish and the Scottish are described as melancholy, backwards brutes nursing a cold hatred towards the English, with brooding violence a feature of their racial temperament. This attitude rears its ugly head several times in the books and rather ruins White’s more lofty sentiments.

The Ill-Made Knight features the story of Lancelot, and to a lesser extent, Guenever. It is an an uncompromising self portrait of the author, who seems to have identified with Lancelot enough to give the knight all his faults and insecurities. The character that emerges is perhaps the only real person in White’s series; deeply conflicted, emotional, self-critical, searching for a higher purpose, an ideal of honour, and yet falling short of it due to his physical appetites and wracked by shame for his own desires. All of this comes from White himself, who writes of young Lancelot:

The boy thought that there was something wrong with him. All through his life – even when he was a great man with the world at his feet – he was able to feel this gap: something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware, and ashamed, but which he did not understand.

White was, according to his biographer and his friend David Garnett, a sadist, who struggled to establish intimacy with anyone. His only real connection was to his dog, Brownie. White’s life seems to have been one of continual self-imposed loneliness, a fate he bestows on Lancelot, who, despite his affairs with Guenever and Elaine, and his love for Arthur, is a lost soul, the noble tragic hero who is never fully redeemed. The Ill-Made Knight is beautiful and terrible in its sorrow. Easily the best of the books on literary merits, but perhaps the hardest to read.

In The Candle in the Wind, White returns to the declared purpose of his work, the question of war. Here we meet Arthur again, as an old man, tired and feeling that his great attempt at civilisation has failed. I haven’t mentioned White’s direct references to Malory thus far, but in the latter books they become more pronounced. Often when he doesn’t want to describe a scene he will simply tell the reader to look it up in Malory. He creates a young page named ‘Tom’ whom Arthur tasks with carrying his ideas into the future. White even inserts a reference to himself as future chronicler in a list including Milton and Geoffrey of Monmouth. Merlyn describes the author:

After a bit there was poor old White, who thought that we represented the ideals of chivalry. He said that our importance lay in our decency, in our resistance against the bloody mind of man. What an anachronist he was, dear fellow!

The Candle is by far the most political of the books, excepting The Book of Merlyn, and the volume which contains the most references to the second world war, from which White was a conscientious objector, although never very sure of his own conviction. Mordred becomes a foppish fascist leader whose blackshirts are known as the ‘Thrashers’ and whose villainy stems from his own mother issues. Morgause, although dead, is still held to account for the crimes of her sons while Arthur is forgiven even his massacre of the innocents.

When these four separate books were first published as The Once and Future King they did not include The Book of Merlyn. Rather, White took the two animal incidents, the ants and the geese and inserted them into The Sword and the Stone. My copy, however, includes the fifth book, and although this results in some repetition, I feel that the inclusion is necessary as a capstone to White’s series. This final book sees Merlyn return once more, to collect Arthur on the eve of Camlann, and ‘fill in the gaps in his education.’ It is essentially White’s political manifesto in which he attempts to answer the question of war; what causes it and what system of human organisation would prevent it. Merlyn, at his least charming, spends most of the short book on a soap box, declaiming against mankind in favour of other species, and then using biology to rationalise his (White’s) political beliefs. Here, finally, even Arthur recognises what I have referred to in a previous post as the sinister Merlyn of Malory:

You move me like a chess piece. Have you the right to take my soul and twist it into shapes, to rob a mind of its mind? […] Who made you into gods to meddle with destiny, or set you over hearts to bid them come and go? I will do this filthy work no longer; I will trouble with your filthy plans no further, I will go away into some quiet place with the goose-people, where I can die in peace.

What then, is the culmination of Merlyn’s research? What does he see as the antidote to war? As it turns out, he is against nationalism of all kinds, and offers in its place individualism, capitalism and anarchy. Much like White’s uncertain conscientious objection (he even wrote to the war office offering his service, but was relieved when they declined) Merlyn is forced to recognise the flaws in his own manifesto. He can find no example of true capitalism in the animal kingdom and does suggest that a cap on income might be necessary to prevent oligarchy, without acknowledging that this requires some sort of government to enforce it. White’s racism is expanded to include, alongside the Gaels, the Polish, Germans and Japanese. The Matter of Britain, which has for so long been used to promote nationalism, proves an ineffectual weapon with which to demolish it.

There is something sad and desperate about White’s Merlyn, shut away in his cave (which is, however, a very comfortable academic common room from which he can leave whenever it pleases him) with a committee of animals to help him solve the problems of the human race like a mental puzzle. Merlyn, like his creator, is unable to live amongst humanity and can only analyse it from the outside with growing frustration. It was a genius move of White to explain Merlyn’s prophesies by way of his living backward through time, yet he lacks true historical (or future) awareness and attempts instead to base his antidote to war on hard science. Those of us who have seen how 20th century experiments in individualism and capitalism have worked out can perhaps sympathise more easily with Arthur, who redeems this book with deeply moving passages about love, duty and the desire to do what is right, however ignorant it may be.

The Once and Future King, for all its flaws, is a masterpiece of Arthurian literature. White, at his best, crafts complex motives for Malory’s characters, going to great lengths to understand the moments in Le Morte d’Arthur where Lancelot weeps, or Sir Bors’ decision to save the lady over his brother. He gently mocks conventions of medieval literature, but shows a deep appreciation for the medieval world with wonderful descriptions that allow the reader to experience it sensually. Even his political views and statements are not all irrelevant, his insistence on the humility of the human race as just one of many species and of the ignorance in our worship of progress still resonate today. A great many of his own weaknesses are self-acknowledged, White struggled to write female characters, but Gwenever is not entirely unsympathetic. Even the antidote he offers to war is only produced as a guess, a hope, a possible direction or line of thought to follow. After all, Merlyn reminds us that…

…the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people.

Image: Detail from Dennis Nolan’s illustration to The Sword in the Stone

Approaching Arthur

I was very fortunate to be introduced to Arthur in what I consider the best possible way; as a child, listening to an audio book of Rosemary Manning’s Green Smoke, read in the sumptuous Welsh accent of Sian Phillips. Manning’s story is a frame tale, in which a young girl on holiday in Cornwall encounters a retired dragon living in a seaside cave. The dragon, who has been around since the time of Arthur, recounts episodes from Malory, interspersed with other English folk tales. The Arthurian stories are themselves reworked as folk tales and linked to the surrounding locality, including Tintagel and Bodmin Moor. I listened to and read this story over and over, so that the tales are deeply imprinted on my memory. I realise now that Manning was doing something very subtle and clever; returning Arthur to his homeland, and perhaps even to an older form of storytelling than the Romances or epics produced in the Middle Ages. As a slightly older child I read Bulfinch’s The Age of Chivalry (1858). Both writers used Malory as source, indeed Manning’s dragon sometimes quotes his most evocative lines. Arthur was so great an influence on my early experience of literature, that I find I am always drawn back to him. It is part of the reason I am pursuing medieval studies in the first place (the other being C. S. Lewis) and yet I am nervous of approaching the vast body of texts that make up this tradition.

Lately, I’ve decided I really can’t afford to skirt around the topic any longer and must make a considerable effort to get to grips with it. I’ve begun with Derek Pearsall’s Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction (2003), which does exactly what it says on the cover, in an witty and insightful manner. The most helpful distinction Pearsall makes is between the English tradition, which focuses on Arthur as a national hero and even conqueror, and the French romances in which he is more of a background figure to the courtly love intrigues of Lancelot and Guinevere. Both explore the tragedy of the death of Arthur but while the Vulgate cycle (composed in monasteries) blames this on sexual transgression and the vanity of secular knighthood, English writers explore the human failings of the principal characters.

Having just started reading Malory (Helen Cooper’s Oxford World Classics edition) I’m impressed by his ability to include both streams of the Arthurian tradition and weave them into a whole. We often think of Arthurian characters as idealised, even archetypal figures but Marlory’s knights and kings are deeply flawed. He plays on the dramatic irony of his audience’s familiarity with the source material by having his characters spout morals that we know they will fail to live up to. I’m fascinated by the contrast between Gawain, who cannot seem to put a foot right, and Lancelot, who never loses a physical or moral battle and am keen to see how their later conflict is portrayed, because I feel it is this contrast; between worldly Gawain and holy Lancelot, that is really behind the downfall of Arthur more so than the treachery of Mordred, which was anticipated from the beginning.

There is another thread to the Arthurian tradition that is only touched on by Pearsall, and that is the supernatural elements it inherits from Breton lais and Welsh mythology. These are the features that intrigue me personally; Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Nenive/Vivienne/The Lady of the Lake and various other warlocks and enchantresses who pop up throughout the texts. I’m pleased to find that Malory preserves these, and although he seems to get confused as to which magical lady is which sometimes, the effect is that there are a fair few women in Le Morte Darthur with personal agency. Merlin, thankfully, is shut away in his rock fairly early in the book and Nenive assumes his role as deus ex machina, resolving difficult situations with magical intervention. She’s not altogether benign, but then neither was Merlin. I’m fascinated by the way magic is used in Morte Darthur, where enchantment is as commonplace as violence, and just as morally ambiguous.

I’m glad I’ve decided to return to these texts and explore them more thoroughly, because they still retain the power to enchant me. I love the combination of quirky humor (not always intentional), rollicking adventure and gentle pathos in Malory, and I look forward to reading later works inspired by him to see how these are developed.

Image: The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, Edward Burne-Jones, 1889.

Summer Reading: The Enchanted April

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922) is really a spring book, about awakenings and new beginnings, with pages full of flowers and April showers. However it also has the atmosphere of summer holidays; of the seaside, of white dresses and warm breezes and hours spent lying in the shade. As a summer break read it is ideal, for it focuses on the space for self reflection and personal change that a good holiday can provide.

In the first chapter Mrs. Wilkins discovers an advertisement in The Times, “To Those who Appreciate Wistaria* and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.” She soon convinces three other women to join her on a month long holiday, escaping husbands, would-be-lovers and dreary London weather.

I learnt of The Enchanted April by way of the film made in 1991, a classic in its own right, which I had the pleasure of watching a few years back. The film is quite true to the book, and manages to capture the wonderful light of San Salvatore, as well as perfectly casting the lead characters (except perhaps Lady Caroline.) What it cannot hope to replicate though, is the charm of von Arnim’s prose, her gentle wit and the fact that most of the text is spent exploring the characters’ meditations, largely about themselves. It is not a story in which much happens externally; a few visitors arrive at the castle, some furniture is moved, there is a disagreement over the catering expenses. Whenever it looks as though something truly dramatic might happen it is always averted, usually thanks to Lady Caroline – “But he was reckoning without Scrap”! This subverts our narrative expectations with subtle humour, setting up the conditions for melodrama and then sorting everything out in a polite English manner before it becomes a problem.

From all of the above you might think this a dull, conservative sort of book and nothing could be further from the truth. Each of the women is escaping from something: an inattentive husband, excessive good-works, a surplus of attention or the memories of her glory days – and each, through a process of self reflection and sun bathing, comes to personal realisation and acts upon it. In the second half of the book their reverie is disturbed by the arrival of male guests and each of these is a wonderfully well realised character in himself. I loved von Arnim’s ability to create good outcomes from selfish motivations, showing that some people do the right thing for the wrong reasons, but this can still facilitate happiness.

The Enchanted April is a gentle book, and would probably make less of an impact if it were published today, but it is quietly revolutionary. The women each claim an independence, even within their existing relationships. Many early 20th century classics are about broken marriages, affairs and women fighting to free themselves from restrictive circumstances. Elizabeth von Arnim does something else, she works inner transformations and expresses the longings of most people as fairly simple, and happiness as something that can be found by looking at the world in a different, perhaps Italian, light.

Skye M. W.

Image: Roses, Peder Severin Krøyer, 1893 (I could live in this painting.)

*What a pity it is we don’t commonly use the spelling ‘wistaria.’ Is there any prettier name for a flower than wistaria? Wisteria sounds too much like hysteria and that is all wrong.

Summer Reading: Cider With Rosie

There are some books that are entirely seasonal, and cannot be fully appreciated at the wrong time of year. In summer I find myself craving desert fables, Mediterranean travelogues and heady, green poetic prose – to this later category belongs Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee, first published in 1959. I picked up my copy (above) from a charity shop last year, and put off reading it until the weather was warm and sultry. It’s an out-of-doors sort of book, for reading on uncut lawns beneath wilting, over-blown roses.

Cider With Rosie is a memoir, a rural elegy of an early 20th century childhood in a semi-isolated village where modernity had yet to catch on. Laurie Lee is a poet writing prose, always trying to break away from the form. The first chapter is some of the most languid and sensuous stuff I’ve ever read:

Here I discovered water — a very different element from the green crawling scum that stank in the garden tub. You could pump it in pure blue gulps out of the ground, you could swing on the pump handle and it came out sparkling like liquid sky. And it broke and ran and shone on the tiled floor, or quivered in a jug, or weighted your clothes with cold.

The tone changes as each chapter reveals a vignette of some aspect of Cotswold’s life; vivid portraits of local characters, village gatherings as seen through the eyes of a young boy, native folklore and darker happenings, all heavily mythologised.

Lee’s own character is only a vague presence, a spectator through which the scenery is experienced. He writes distinctly of youthful memories, his description of summer brought me physically back to my own out-of-doors childhood, despite the different climate and landscape:

…of sweat running down the legs; of boiling potatoes on bramble fires, of flames glass-blue in the sun; of lying naked in the hill-cold stream; begging pennies for bottles of pop; of girls’ bare arms and unripe cherries, green apples and liquid walnuts; of fights and falls and new-scabbed knees, sobbing pursuits and flights; of picnics high up in the crumbling quarries, of butter running like oil…

However it is, without doubt, a boys’ book, a masculine perspective, and all of Lee’s women are of some other species, separate and remote. The chapter which receives the most praise and inspired the title I found underwhelming. Rosie is nothing but a cameo, a stand-in for Eve, an archetype, never a person. The adolescent boys are predatory and disturbing under the veil of ignorance he casts over them.

Despite this, the whole book is dominated by one incredible woman who feels more three-dimensional, sympathetic and real than Lee himself; his mother, Annie Lee. The chapter dedicated to her is easily the best and she wanders through the rest of the book with armloads of wildflowers, holding up buses, losing her corset under the piano and reciting poetry on cross-country walks. She is an Anne Shirley; an indomitable, scattered, romantic figure who seems to possess an endless supply of optimism and hope. I could relate to her compassionately, but never pity her despite her circumstances, her courage and loyalty forbade it.

I fear Cider With Rosie is a slightly dated classic now, not because it achieves its aim of preserving a slice of rural history, but because the Arcadian vision of England it presents is out of fashion, and it fails modern standards of discrimination, but I feel it is still worth reading for the beauty of its prose, especially on a hot summer’s day.

Skye M. W.


Kingdoms of Elfin, Sylvia Townsend Warner

Apart from the element of piety, court life at Brocéliande was much the same as in other Kingdoms. There were fashions of the moment — collecting butterflies, determining the pitch of birdsongs, table-turning, cat races, purifying the language, building card castles. There were expeditions to the coast to watch shipwrecks, summer picnics in the forest, deer hunts with the Royal Pack of Werewolves.

Few books that I’ve desired to read have been as difficult to track down as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1977 anthology, Kingdoms of Elfin. There isn’t a single copy in the Australian library system, no local booksellers had heard of it, it is currently out of print and the Reid library, which has everything else of STW’s including her letters and diaries, does not have it. I have known of the book’s existence for years, since I first discovered The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (Manguel & Guadalupi 1980) in which there is a map of the Kingdoms. Being reminded of it by a reference in a journal article, I decided it was about time to find it and managed to order a copy (a UK first edition) through a bookseller in New Zealand. I have to admit that its very obscurity attracted me to it, as I love to discover under-appreciated treasures.

Kingdoms of Elfin is certainly a treasure. A collection of short stories previously published in The New Yorker, about various fairy courts throughout Europe and Asia, it is a forgotten gem of 20th century fantasy. Unlike many collections of folk tales, or stories based on fairy lore (such as Susanna Clarke’s brilliant The Ladies of Grace Adieu, 2006) these tales do not commonly feature human protagonists who encounter fairies* but rather focus on elfin protagonists who, in some way, revolt against the culture and expectations of the courts they inhabit. The significance of this cannot be overstated, not only are the majority of STW’s characters inhuman, they are entirely other, with an alien set of values, they appear amoral from a human perspective. In doing this, STW captures not only the amorality traditionally associated with ‘the fair folk’ but manages to create characters that are eccentric outsiders within a culture already incompatible with our own. Through the Kingdoms (which are actually Queendoms) she is able to highlight the cruelties and vanities of humanity, particularly the decadent courts of early modern Europe. The shocking traditions of the elfin monarchies are made even more so when compared to their historical counterparts.

Sylvia Townsend Warner also proves herself, through this collection, an expert scholar of the fairy tradition in both literature and folklore. You will meet Robert Kirk, Thomas the Rhymer and James Hogg (wonderfully oblivious) wandering through the pages, and find allusions to Shakespeare, Aristophanes (“Of all the mortal writers, Aristophanes is nearest the Elfin mind”) and Partonope of Blois. Of particular interest are her choice of names, and I highly recommend looking up any that seem unfamiliar or original, as by doing so I uncovered several obscure sources which have been added to my own reading list! STW has clearly read her Katherine M. Briggs cover to cover, but rather than retelling old folk tales she invents new ones. In each the reader feels privileged to a unique view and access to the elfin world, from within that world, rather than from the traditional perspective of a human outsider.

The prose itself is crisp and lyrical; “She was a very pretty shade of green- a pure delicate tint, such as might have been cast on a white eggshell by the sun shining through the young foliage of a beech tree. Her hair, brows and lashes were of a darker shade; her lashes lay on her green cheek like a miniature fern frond… The smell, of course, was that smell of elderflowers. This passage made me think immediately of Randolph Stow’s The Girl Green as Elderflower (1980) and I can’t help but wonder if he read it. The stories also feature STW’s trademark wit; “‘Heresy,’ said Sir Bodach obligingly, ‘Is to believe in what other people don’t believe in. It is an offence against society.’”  But what may lead to some confusion and frustration, to anyone not familiar with her rather individual style, is the complete lack of regard for narrative convention. STW starts a new story, quite often, with a description of the particular ‘kingdom’ then introduces one or two characters, any of whom may turn out to be the protagonist, or may die before the protagonist even appears. She ends the story when she seems to grow tired of it, with little concern for denouement. Somehow, this flippancy adds to the elfin nature of the texts, as the fairy disregard for human morals is transferred onto our idea of how a story should be told. It is characteristic of STW in both life and writing, that she always seems to have done exactly as she pleased, and become a master of breaking the ‘rules.’

This style of narrative may explain, in part, why this book has fallen out of print and circulation. I would further suggest that, although I have called it a fantasy, Kingdoms is not something that could be marketed to a genre readership in the wake of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings. It fits instead, into that other vein of 20th century fantastic fiction that includes the likes of Hope Mirrlees, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen (her uncle by marriage) and the writers of Weird Fiction, although despite its moments of horror, I would not place it in that sub genre. Kingdoms of Elfin was the last of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s prose to be published during her lifetime, but it was a wonderful introduction to her work, which I will continue to pursue and write about with great interest.

Skye M. W.

Yule, 2015

*With the exception of Foxcastle, which follows this motif, and The One and The Other which is the tale of a human changeling.

A brief biography and bibliography of STW’s work can be found at The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society.

Image: Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, William Blake, c. 1786


The Essays of Hope Mirrlees

After recently developing nothing short of an addiction to Sylvia Townsend Warner (a proper post on her forthcoming), I was reminded of another obscure talent of the early 20th century who moved on the periphery of more famous literary circles – Hope Mirrlees. I came to Mirrlees as most do, through her extraordinary work of pre-Inklings fantasy, Lud-in-the-Mist. I went on to read her poetry which has received some praise lately (particularly Paris) and then discovered, buried at the back of her collected poems,¹ six essays.

The majority of the essays were originally published in The Nation & Athenaeum. They cover diverse topics ranging from literary criticism, to travelogues, history and religion and show a lively, broadly educated mind able to make nimble observations and develop them into a personal philosophy that is somehow both conservative and subversive. Mirrlees makes brilliant little similes and turns everyday experiences into clever anecdotes. She is able to pull, from a vast memory of literature, disparate threads with such deftness and weave them in so neatly that it never seems mere name-dropping, but more like sitting in on a dinner conversation between herself and everyone she has ever read (Mirrlees would doubtless have a far better metaphor for this!)

As one of the few published articles on Mirrlees states: “she emerges as a travelling modernist in a broad sense, moving across overlapping coteries, from the intellectual circles of Cambridge to literary London and lesbian Paris. Elegantly dressed, relatively wealthy, accomplished in languages and the classics, she can be seen as a kind of intellectual flâneuse, working across literary genres, exploring and commenting on both the past and the present, never lingering long enough to be easily identified with a single group. “² The essays certainly give credence to this intriguing persona.

Some Aspects of the Art of Aleksey Mikhailovich Remizov is ostensibly an exploration of that author’s style, with a good deal of praise. However it quickly becomes a game of comparisons, with such tangents as the real meaning of ‘Shakespearian’ and the nature of Russian patriotism. She is at her best when accidentally poetic, “But for Russians in exile? All Moscow is in flower, and everything is so sweet that bees swarm on the tower of Ivan the Great.” The essay conveys a deep familiarity with the breadth of English literature and concludes with several insights into the nature of reading and writing.

Listening in to the Past muses on the ways in which we receive history, through the metaphor of a wireless tuned in to distant voices, catching fragments of conversation without answers. She argues that it is in the records of law, and not in literature, that we find honest voices, but I would disagree and say that it is both. To (clumsily) carry her metaphor; you might hear both the news and the song of the day on the wireless, and both will tell you something about when and where you are.

An Earthly Paradise is an amusing account of her stay in a Paris hotel, where she waxes lyrical about the library. She inserts little declarations which I think, reflect both her privilege and character: “And Life, if you make your demands with a pistol to her head, is apt to stand and deliver.” I liked best her clever descriptions, stories in themselves, “One was apt to see nuns in that street, on an average, say of two a week; and just as one begins to suspect by slow degrees that somewhere in one’s garden is concealed a nest of insects, so in time we came to realise that the grim taciturn buildings that lined one side of the street were all of them contraband nunneries.”

The Religion of Women would, I think, give gender studies scholars a bit of trouble. It begins with an unflattering examination of middle aged women (of the middle class in particular), but ends, after an enchanting musing on the lack of seasons on Jupiter and how that might effect poetry, in a rather more dolefully feminist tone, “One of the duties of slaves is to mourn their master, and women are the slaves of Time.”

Gothic Dreams investigates the development and influence of Gothic fiction. Mirrlees connects the Gothic to a negative form of medievalism and fear of Catholic superstition. It brought to mind Max Weber’s theory of disenchantment and the later witchcraft trials. She discusses the dreamlike quality of Gothic romance and points out the wide influence of writers like Radcliffe who, “though undoubtedly a goose” was read by far more than the Catherine Morlands of her time.

By far the best of the essays though, is Bedside Books. It begins by exploring the sort of books suitable for bedtime reading (“Above all, they must not be dull”) with a wry humour and lyricism that will warm the hearts of book lovers; “To extract the last drop of sweetness from this delightful hour, we must be conscious of our bed as well as of our book, and a detective story emphasises the conceit that our bed is a hare’s form, a warm secret refuge from hunters and hounds – while outside our sanctuary there is terror and flight, and the surging enemy, mute and terrible.” This introduction does not prepare the reader at all for the rest of the essay, except perhaps, by acting as a lullaby itself – which is a whirlwind  tour through Mirrlee’s own favourites, with which she has an intimate familiarity – imagining Lucretius in bed reading Epicurus for example. She extols Burton, “The A-na-tomy of Me-lan-choly. The syllables are made of poppy and mandragora” and gets carried away with Homer. In this essay, even more than the others, we are exposed to the full power of her agile intelligence and also her whimsical and mischievous creativity – she somehow gets in a parrot.

It has been suggested that Mirrlees did not publish more because her financial independence gave her no need earn a living by her letters. If, however, she is right in that “the measure of a writer’s greatness is the disparity between the things he says and the things he knows” I’m left wondering how very much she knew, compared to how sadly little she wrote. She certainly manages to say a great deal in her few short essays.

Skye M. W.

La Quema del Diablo, 2015

¹ Mirrlees, H., and Parmar, S., Collected Poems. New York, Carcanet, 2011. All direct quotes are taken from this edition.

² Boyde, M., “The poet and the ghosts are walking the streets: Hope Mirrlees-Life and Poetry”, Hecate, 35(1), 29-41, p. 321, 2009. – I haven’t given much biographical information on Mirrlees, but Boyde gives a good account as does Parmar.