Sunday, June 9, 2024

'The Heavenly Ladder' by Compton Mackenzie: A Guest Post by John Howard

Sir Edward Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) was a prolific author, producing a steady stream of novels, satire, biographies, memoirs, and many other works during a career that lasted for over 65 years. The distinctive name of Compton Mackenzie always seemed somewhere in the background of life at home when I was young. My mother read her way through the ten volumes of Mackenzie’s autobiography My Life and Times she borrowed from the town library. (It was archly published in ‘Octaves’: each book covering eight years or so.) The family sitting-room boasted a tall bookcase containing copies of composer biographies belonging to my father and my mother’s paperbacks of Nevil Shute, Alastair MacLean, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien – and a copy of Mackenzie’s comic novel Whisky Galore. In the cabinet beneath my father kept his record collection and back issues of music review magazines. His favourite was Gramophone, which in every issue proclaimed that it had been founded and edited by Compton Mackenzie.

Mackenzie was added to my own shelves when, as a student in an ancient cathedral city, I bought a copy of the heftiest (829 pages) old orange Penguin paperback I had ever seen: his early novel Sinister Street. Although not uncritical, I was very taken with the story, a bulky Bildungsroman chronicling the progress of Michael Fane in society through school, university, and life in London. For me, one memorable aspect of Sinister Street was Fane’s Anglo-Catholicism. I mentioned this to my tutor, who promptly handed me three thick, battered volumes and said that I might like to borrow them. So I became further acquainted with Mackenzie’s fiction, another extended tale of character education, growth, and self-analysis, with one Mark Lidderdale as protagonist. Always a fast worker, Mackenzie had written and published the trilogy in short order: The Altar Steps (1922), The Parson’s Progress (1923), and, one hundred years ago in June 1924, The Heavenly Ladder.

The first volume takes Lidderdale from his childhood as the son of an Anglo-Catholic ‘slum priest’ in London, through gradually discerning his own vocation, to Silchester Theological College and ordination. Lidderdale’s father had regretted getting married and left his wife and son to become a missionary in Africa; the child and his mother moved to Cornwall to live with her father, also a clergyman. The tensions for a priest, whether married or not, between his spiritual and pastoral duties and personal desires and responsibilities, form a constant theme throughout the novels. In the second volume Lidderdale undertakes his first curacy and a series of parochial appointments, mainly in London, where he develops into a sought-after preacher and confessor. Eventually the ‘intensive work in the box’ breaks him, and The Heavenly Ladder sees Lidderdale appointed Vicar of Nancepean – the small Cornish parish where he had lived as a boy.

Lidderdale throws himself wholeheartedly into his new responsibilities, determined from the outset that ‘the change in the style of worshipping to be complete, the transition to [Anglo-] Catholicism to be rapid and sudden’ (1). Nancepean was a very poorly endowed parish, so Lidderdale relies on his London friends to provide the vestments, chalices, books, and furniture that he wants for his church and the richly elaborate rites and ceremonies that he wishes to introduce. He also attempts to pick up the threads of his childhood friendships, but his status as Vicar, rather than mere grandson of old Parson Trehawke, ensures that neither is entirely successful. Although Lidderdale faces much opposition he is still able to inspire a small but loyal band of supporters.

The appointment of a new, unsympathetic, bishop brings the conflict in the parish to a head, when he demands that Lidderdale cease his ‘Roman’ practices. As the Great War suddenly breaks out, Lidderdale decides that if he cannot be Vicar of Nancepean on the terms he believes required by his duty to God, then he will disobey. Lidderdale is deprived of his living and ejected from his vicarage: he ‘struggled on into the darkness, from which he would emerge only to be lost under another name in the deeper murk and utter darkness of war . . . ’ (304). After demobilisation, when he came to consider his future, ‘Mark chose a village in the Bernese Oberland in which to make his interior peace while the nations were making their exterior peace at Versailles’ (313). Conversations with an elderly Roman Catholic priest from England convince Lidderdale to accept that he must reject his Anglican priesthood: the thing that he had desired most.

For some reason Mackenzie, who had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1914, chose to write about the Anglican variety. Perhaps it was simply more appealing to a storyteller: Anglo-Catholicism was full of larger-than-life personalities both lay and clerical, and had a constantly growing mythology of exploits, told and retold by the faithful and denounced by their enemies. It was decidedly not respectable, but even dissident and transgressive: an incense-laden world of its own, in conflict with the ‘Establishment’ while paradoxically part of it by law.

Although Lidderdale’s progress, his spiritual journey, is never straightforward, its destination is also, perhaps, never really in doubt, because as a Roman Catholic Mackenzie would not have written it any other way. Perhaps, too, it is only natural that the conclusion of The Heavenly Ladder should read like a New Testament paraphrase, words reminiscent of Matthew 18:3, a teaching from the mouth of the Lord who he will still follow: ‘And he, like a child, was beginning life all over again.’

(John Howard)

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Mr. Priestley Fears Not: J.B. Priestley on L.P. Hartley's 'Night Fears'

As our previous posts may have suggested so far, 1924 was a quite well-blessed year for fantastic and supernatural fiction, with some notable titles. This month also marks the centenary of L. P. Hartley’s first book, Night Fears (1924), a short story collection. Hartley was 28, and had begun his literary career with reviewing and contributions to periodicals.

This volume includes some macabre and uncanny pieces, which were evidently an early taste of his, but at this stage they do not quite rise to the sure and sophisticated style he perfected in his later collections, such as The Killing Bottle (1932) and The Travelling Grave (1948). Nevertheless, the tales are of interest as the early work of a later master of the form, and they certainly show invention and panache.

The book was reviewed by J. B. Priestley in the London Mercury for August 1924 (Vol X, No 58) alongside contemporary novels, and receives a paragraph. Priestley was on the whole a generous and tolerant reviewer, with a particular pleasure in classic storytelling qualities of the kind later to be exemplified by his own work. But he was unconvinced by Hartley’s book.  

He begins: ‘Mr. Hartley has collected his short tales too soon. Except in one or two places, he is still merely trying his hand; the experienced and sensitive reader and reviewer is more apparent here than the genuine creative artist’.

It is amusing to see Priestley adopting a sort of avuncular tone here, since the two were near contemporaries: Priestley was born in 1894, Hartley in 1895. Priestley had not yet published a book himself, perhaps because he thought that he was a ‘genuine creative artist’ and was waiting for the right moment. When it came, it was with the Stevensonian thriller Adam in Moonshine (1927), about a picturesque modern Jacobite conspiracy in the wilds of Yorkshire, a most agreeable yarn with a moonshine plot as well as title. I found it great fun, although I'm not sure J.B. quite knew how to end it.

In the rest of the notice, Priestley becomes rather restless about the cleverness and style of Hartley’s work. ’Most of these stories are in reality somewhat pointless anecdotes that have a kind of false subtlety in the telling, a nod and wink manner (italics in original). He can at least see that Hartley has promise, though Priestley expresses this in a somewhat awkward and grudging double-negative: ‘reading these things . . .  does not leave me convinced that Mr. Hartley will not write good fiction—for I think he will’.

Priestley concludes with a characteristic harrumph. The book ‘does at least strengthen the suspicion that what might be called the “highbrow” short story is rapidly becoming as standardised, as much a mere bag of tricks as the despised “low brow” magazine tale.” It is interesting to see him here already quite robust in his literary tastes and opinions. He was himself to become a highly successful author of popular novels now regarded as resolutely ”middlebrow” (if we must have such terns).

He was of course correct to see that Hartley would indeed write good fiction, including some classic stylish and sardonic tales of the uncanny, and these may be found in the two volume edition of The Collected Macabre Stories from Tartarus Press.

(Mark Valentine) 

Image: The first edition of Night Fears (Ashton Rare Books).

Monday, June 3, 2024

Silent Harlequinade - Oliver Onions' 'Ghosts in Daylight'

Ghosts in Daylight (1924), which celebrates its centenary this year, was Oliver Onions’ second volume of ghost stories, following Widdershins (1911). E F Bleiler, in his Guide to Supernatural Fiction, hails the earlier volume as a landmark work in the field, but regards the second book as less successful. Certainly, it has no story to compare with the classic “The Beckoning Fair One” in Widdershins, but then that’s a tall order. 

A long story in the book, and one to which Onions evidently attached some importance, is “The Real People”, a phrase he used elsewhere in writing about ghosts. It concerns an author of popular, sentimental romances who creates a dowdy housemaid character for the passing convenience of his plot but finds she is not satisfied with this role and insists on being the heroine and marrying the lord. This is not simply a case of an author finding his story evolving unexpectedly as he writes it, but of the active intervention of the character herself.

It is adroitly done and Onions is clever about not explaining exactly how the character forces her will on the author. Out of control characters have since become more frequently used in fiction and this may blunt the novelty of the tale a bit, but at least Onions was one of the first on the scene, and he makes more of the idea than might seem possible. It is a neat satire, not entirely light-hearted and with some speculative elements, even if it doesn’t have Onions’ trademark brooding quality.

“The Ascending Stair” offers three vignettes from Stone Age, Tudor and contemporary Jazz Age times in which a similar dream or vision, as in the title, forbodes doom. Each is quite brief and so there is no room for much development. “The Woman in the Way” also has a historical setting and is a straightforward, matter-of-fact ghost story: a schoolboy, then a parson who is consulted, encounter the spirit of a local woman in their path not only every day but at several points of the path. Onions is here illustrating the theory he later set out in his ‘Credo’ at the front of the Collected Ghost Stories (1935), that ghosts are all around us all the time and that the real question is what causes them to appear to us when usually they don’t. This makes for an eerie, puzzling story but it is perhaps a bit too plain, and in fact is rather like accounts of ‘real’ ghostly encounters, which are apt to be fairly basic.

The most successful story in terms of its mood and style is to my view “The Honey in the Wall”, which Bleiler regards as not supernatural at all. Yet Onions evidently thought it was, including it not only in this volume and the Collected Ghost Stories but in a further selection, Bells Rung Backwards (1953). The virtue of the story is in its precise, perceptive imagery, rich and strange as fairy tales. It operates on several levels. The scene is a decaying country house on the site of an old abbey: the inhabitants, mother and daughter, are hard up and have to gradually sell their possessions, furniture, pictures and ornaments, to agents and auction houses, but even this is not enough. The house is ‘a crushing burden of maintenance and mortgages and debts.’ Despite this, they are entertaining a house party of ‘Bright Young Things’ as guests, and Gervaise, the daughter, is emotionally entangled with one of the men, though she knows him to be a philanderer.

Alongside these two very human concerns, however, there is another dimension. Gervaise has a fascination for the portrait of an ancestor, Lady Grey, and she feels also the heritage of the house calling to her. When the young guests decide to have a ‘harlequinade’, a fancy dress game of stealthy chasing, she dresses as Lady Grey and startles one of the jejune young women into thinking she is a ghost.

So far, then, we have a metaphorical haunting, by the traditions of the house, and a mock-haunting, and Bleiler is correct that neither is supernatural. But there are several key passages where I think Onions takes us beyond those. So sensitive is Gervaise to the house that she feels she knows its passages not only through long familiarity but “immemorially”: this implies an ancient influence working within her. Further, she feels as if there is some different type of knowledge that is close at hand, though elusive: “when the thing for which she was looking did come, it would be one of those always-known things.” This is a delicate, subtle intimation that there is another dimension in the house, sensed by Gervaise.

Onions doesn’t choose, however, to make this the culmination of his tale, which returns instead to her thwarted longing for a man who even in her house is busy conducting a casual affair. He does not resolve the two aspects of his story, the diurnal and the ethereal. Both, we must suppose, are aspects of Gervaise’s character and we are being told she cannot escape her physical longings through her visionary moments. We may regret there is no more consoling resolution for her, but give Onions credit for not offering the neat romantic ending that his novelist in ‘The Real People’ would have contrived, if his characters had let him.

Ghosts in Daylight is a rare book. The stories are also available in later volumes – the Collected and Bells Rung Backwards – thought these are not all that much easier to find. However, they may be found too in the Tartarus Press two volume set The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions, along with a generous compendium of his other work in the field and an insightful introduction by Rosalie Parker.

(Mark Valentine)