Thursday, March 3, 2016

'Beneath the Surface' - Gerald Warre Cornish

About a hundred years ago, Gerald Warre Cornish, training with the 6th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry, and afterwards serving in France, wrote a story called ‘Beneath the Surface’. The framework of the story is similar to that of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912); an unorthodox explorer, regarded as vain and bombastic by his peers, is planning an expedition to remote parts. This maverick figure exercises a magnetic attraction, a strangely compelling force, on the narrator, who, despite general opinion, chooses to go with him. Ostensibly, Finn Lund, the shunned Danish explorer of Warre Cornish’s story, is commissioned to map certain unknown quarters of Mesopotamia. But in fact his quest is for the original Garden of Eden.

What impels Lund is a belief that the world we see, and all its natural processes, is simply what has been left behind by the passage of a much greater force. We are walking among the husks and shells of a vast creative energy, which he intends to pursue to its source. The narrator senses this force working within Lund too, and knows he must go with him to discover where it will lead. In the descriptions of this primeval power, often compared to a great river, and linked in this world to the meanderings of the Euphrates, there are passages of supernatural awe which rival those found in the fiction of Algernon Blackwood.

Warre Cornish was killed on the Somme on 16 September, 1916. The story, really a short novel, was posthumously published in Beneath the Surface And Other Stories from Grant Richards in 1918. There were six other stories, of a mixed sort similar to the range of periodical fiction of the day. One, however, ‘Anabasis’, is more unusual: it is an episode from ancient history, telling of the bid by Cyrus the Younger to seize the throne of Persia, as witnessed by the Greek historian Xenophon. It is vividly written, and at ease with the character of the time.

Warre Cornish’s style is plain and clear, without flourishes or any particular tone, but it is not dry or dull: it is notable for its brevity and lucidity. The volume included an introduction by the author’s brother-in-law, Desmond MacCarthy, husband of his sister Mary, known as Mollie, a Bloomsburyite. This, however, gives little biographical information, because the author “wished his stories to be published, but without any memoir or account of himself”.

A few facts about the author are available. He was born on 31 July 1874 at Eton, the son of Francis Warre-Cornish, then a a master and subsequently the Vice-Provost at the school, and his wife Blanche. His father was a friend and colleague of M R James, who joined and enjoyed the Shakespeare Society started by his mother. Gerald was at school at Eton and went on to King’s College, Cambridge, following the traditional (and Jamesian) route .

He took holy orders and was Curate at Westminster from 1899-1901, at Ewyas Harold, Herefordshire in 1902 and at Burley, Hampshire in 1903-4. From 1910-13 he was a lecturer in Greek at Manchester University. So he was already a mature man in his forties when he went to war: by comparison with most of the officers around him, in their early twenties or even younger, he would have seemed distinctly old. As an ordained priest, of course, he need not have joined the armed forces at all, or could have served as a chaplain.

Warre Cornish was the author of two other books. In 1908 he had published a school book, Alcestis of Euripides done into English verse, described as an “Acting edition for the use of the boys of University College School, Hampstead.” And in 1937 the Cambridge publisher Heffer issued St. Paul from the Trenches - A rendering of the Epistles to the Corinthians and Ephesians done in France during the Great War. This had been found handwritten in a muddy notebook on Warre Cornish’s body, and is a brisk, modern, almost colloquial rendering of the text. It quickly went through several editions. T.S. Eliot said of it: “Some years ago Dr. J.H. Oldham lent me the translation of St Paul’s Epistles made by Gerald Warre Cornish (who fell in action, I believe, in the First World War). It struck me as admirable and very useful.”

‘Beneath the Surface’ was praised by G K Chesterton. “Some much larger mystery veils the origins of man,” he wrote, in a chapter entitled ‘The Other Side of the Desert’ in The New Jerusalem (1920), than was admitted by the partisans of either “Science or Scripture”. He continued: “It was never so well expressed as by one of the most promising of those whose literary possibilities were gloriously broken off by the war; Lieutenant Warre-Cornish, who left a strange and striking fragment about a man who came to these lands with a mystical idea of forcing himself back against the stream of time into the very fountain of creation.”

However, the spiritual energy evoked in ‘Beneath the Surface’ does not have any overtly Christian overtones, despite its author’s vocation. It is much nearer to the pantheistic forces that permeate Blackwood’s books, and there is even a suggestion of the existence of past lives, echoing Blackwood’s interest in reincarnation. It is true that biblical symbolism is used in the quest for the lost Eden, but this too is given a broader dimension. We can sense Warre Cornish trying to express universal truths that didn’t quite fit into the conventional faith of his time.

MacCarthy rightly says that “the transitions in the story from the normal to the transcendental are skilfully managed”. Indeed, the author is able to avoid the ponderous esoteric jargon that Blackwood sometimes uses: he convincingly conveys what the strange experiences would seem like through the words of a character described by a colleague as “the most unassuming, long-suffering man in the world”. MacCarthy also praised Warre Cornish’s “integrity of imagination”, meaning I think both the way the story remains true to itself, and the author’s steady, scrupulous following of his own ideas and ideals. Certainly ‘Beneath the Surface’ is a minor classic in the literature of mystical fiction.

(c) Mark Valentine 2016


  1. Thank you, Mark, for showing us another buried piece of mystical and visionary literature. Authors who only dabbled once in the supernatural and the weird are interesting -- whatever led them to write a tale concerning the arcanic powers and forces that are hidden from human sight?

  2. Where can I find this book as a PDF or paper copy at a reasonable price? (It's on eBay for $200 or so but that's just too expensive...) Thanks!