Saturday, June 9, 2018

'Time's hiding-places': a note on a new Walter de la Mare story

The latest issue of the Walter de la Mare Society magazine, no 19, includes a previously unpublished de la Mare story, given by its editor the title ‘Richard’. In his introductory note, Giles de la Mare explains that this was written in longhand in 1901 and a typescript from it was prepared in the late 1940s or early 1950s, presumably with a view to publication, but this did not transpire.

There are small gaps in the text, such as incomplete sentences, which he has used his editorial judgement to complete. He describes the piece as having “the same semi-poetic style” as de la Mare’s well-known story ‘The Almond Tree’ and, in a preceding article, he and the magazine’s editor, Emma Close-Brooks, explore some apparent connections with that story and the figure of the Count, who also appears in other de la Mare pieces. However, the newly published work stands perfectly well on its own.

At the outset of the tale, Richard is an orphan boy nearly nine who is the heir presumptive to a manor house, The Grange, occupied by his Uncle Henry, an artist and a man possessed of an elusive mystical philosophy. It is the house where Richard’s father lived, and died young, “of want of heart”, we are told, a studiedly ambiguous phrase. One Winter’s eve, with snow covering the land, the boy is taken there to live, from an Aunt’s house, Thorns, where he has grown up.

Richard’s cousin Jane, a few years older than he, also lives there, and is a memorable character. When they meet, she remarks in a light but pointed way that she would be the heir if she had not been a girl. She is restless about the choice she can see looming before her of finding a moneyed husband or lingering on alone, to be given, as she remarks bitterly, some attic corner in her old age from the charity of Richard. He is strongly attracted to her, but also a little fearful of her trenchant character.

The story is rich with many of de la Mare’s characteristic enigmatic phrases that each seem to convey hidden depths of meaning. Told the boy’s age, his Uncle says, “’Just three times nine of him to futility’.” The Uncle’s hands “were eloquent in their stillness”, a finely observed phrase. At a children’s party, late in the evening, “The candles were low, one or two lanterns without flame. There seemed to be festive witnesses at the door and windows, flocked together out of Time’s hiding-places, attracted to the stir and lustre of our festival.” (I wonder if they were originally “restive” witnesses, and have become “festive” in trying to decipher the handwriting?).

The uncle and aunts in this story, though eccentric, are not in the least sinister, as they sometimes are in other stories, yet I think I see a faint harbinger of a key scene in the much-admired and discussed later story ‘Seaton’s Aunt’. Taking Seaton’s guest to his room, the Aunt in that story proclaims: “This is the room, Withers, my brother William died in when a boy. Admire the view!” Similarly, in ‘Richard’, the young heir, introduced to his room, is told, “In this same bed, you remember, your dear father used to sleep, and there he is, looking out, who knows how far, across the snowy garden.” It is a portrait that looks out, but even so we feel the suggestion of a continued presence. And “dear” is of course only one letter away from a colder word.

In one sense, the story is about the emerging relationships between the various occupants of the house. There is very little overt incident and such as there is, is in a minor key. Yet they all have an intricate inner life, revealed in passages of elliptical dialogue, and they are haunted by a certain brittle apprehension of fate. In commenting on ‘The Almond Tree’, several times rejected by publishers, de la Mare noted, “it’s the flavour of the thing I swear by, atmosphere—what you will. If a story has that . . .” That is clearly the quality he was seeking for here too, and he certainly succeeds.

As often with de la Mare, there is no definite resolution at the end of the tale, and indeed the editors speculate that it might have been intended, with other pieces, to be part of a novel. Nevertheless, the story as we have it is beautifully subtle and strange and presages many of its author’s preoccupations in later stories, with childhood, solitude, time, transience and age. It is a story we must be very glad has been retrieved.

Mark Valentine

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