Tuesday, January 29, 2019
Francis Askham’s The Heart Consumed (John Lane, 1944) begins in about 1845 and seems at first to be a typical costume romance. A young man, 19, delicate and rather petulant, is to enter his father’s wine trade at Bordeaux: and a French tutor is engaged for him. She is the personable daughter of an impoverished artist. The trajectory of the plot seems fairly clear. But then things take several unexpected turns. For the book becomes both a ghost story and a futuristic fantasy.
I found it on Sunday 1 August 1999, a day of summer thunder and flickers of lightning, followed by a silvery downpour of fresh rain, the very weather for reading. There is no relish for the seasoning of ghost stories which will match the sound of the wind & the rain, no other sensory enhancement to such reading which can be as keenly appropriate as the feel of a storm, the pervasive presence of foul weather. Alas, this burst soon died down: and heavy humidity set in.
Through this dank heat, I made my way to a book fair in a community centre. As I drove there, a moth with faded black wings, like a twist torn from widow’s weeds long laid-by, emerged from some recess of the car and beat against the windows until I was able to usher it out. Could this be a harbinger of the finding of some fine ghostly work?
Not at first: all that came to hand were a few vintage thrillers. But then I noticed the slim spine in blue and pink, with the title and motif of a flaming heart, and the sign of The Bodley Head. I took out the book to look. The dustwrapper design, by ‘Holland’, was very striking, and the description alluring: the spirit of Robert Devenish ‘lives on in the London square that was once his home, searching for his lost love. Twice he finds her, for a brief space in the 1930’s, and finally over a hundred years later.’ Clearly, this must be the book that the storm and the moth had presaged.
The Heart Consumed is a first novel and a very curious affair. The wraith of Robert Devenish lingers, looking and waiting, until the mid-21st century. By then, his family house has been demolished and a new university occupies the site. This is ruled by a Chancellor, a powerful public figure: lascivious, he has designs on his niece, who is none other than Devenish’s tutor. How she comes to reappear through time we are not told, although she is several times compared to a witch. Devenish’s revenant helps her in several tight corners. And the philistine Chancellor comes up against his nemesis, a languid aesthete and architect whose career he ruined, and who has secretly woven the meshes of his downfall.
The scenes of the future are well-imagined, with delicate detail, thoughtfully deployed, rather than a broad sweep. Though of course not everything rings true now, it is a perceptive, quite convincing picture. The novel does have some technical weaknesses: at one point it switches for a chapter from third to first person without really signalling this: and later a letter merely repeats a scene we have just seen. But these do not detract from a highly original, peculiar story told in picturesque prose. The often grotesque minor characters are colourful, and certain natural scenes sensitively depicted.
According to The Collected Non Fiction of George Orwell , edited by Peter Davison (Penguin, 2017), the author of 1984 (1949) reviewed Ashkam’s second book, whose dustwrapper contains notices of the first. As a conscientious critic, it is certainly possible that he may have at least glanced at The Heart Consumed. Could this description of a future dystopia have influenced aspects of Orwell’s book? A tempting idea, certainly: but probably not. Askham’s work has a sinister dominant (but fallible) figure, mention of several past disastrous wars, and allusions to a flattened social structure. But these are not similar enough to be obvious precursors.
Ashkam’s novel was praised highly by Elizabeth Bowen, who said: ‘I wish to imply distinction and solid praise when I call Francis Askham’s The Heart Consumed an extraordinary novel . . .’ and indeed the book’s theme and mood have points in common with her ‘The Demon Lover’ and her novels of lovers in wartime London.
L.P. Hartley also praised the book: ‘No other novel that I have read has quite the flavour of The Heart Consumed . . . few stories have had a more dramatic opening or a more unexpected sequel . . . Mr. Askham’s vision of the future is more entertaining but not more inviting, than most others; but his evocation of the 1840’s was to me almost unbearably nostalgic.’
There is some similarity in Askham’s book to the timeslip technique in Eleanor Smith’s Lovers’ Meeting (1940), about lovers reincarnated across time, although there the focus is much more on the romantic aspect and the partners both fully return, whereas Devenish remains a spirit only. I think there are also Aickmanesque parallels in the social satire and extravagant characters.
Francis Askham seems to have written only three other books. The Heart Consumed was followed by another novel, A Foolish Wind (John Lane, 1946). The scene of this book is a fictional Central European country, where a young Englishman, Hugh Percheron, has journeyed to research the early life of an obscure poet. He soon finds his questions are unwelcome and take him into danger, but determines to carry on: the quest itself comes to seem significant for him
This was followed by The Gay Delavals (Cape, 1955), the biography of a profligate, Hogarthian family in Northumberland from 1723-1822. The description for this book reads: ‘Captain Francis Delaval, who inherited in 1723 the great unfinished Vanbrugh mansion of Seaton Delaval in Northumberland, married an heiress by whom he had eight sons and three daughters. A century later, the male line was extinct and the house a burnt-out ruin. What was left was the legends of the Delavals—wicked, fascinating, stage-struck, dashing, unlucky.’
The final book was different again. The Mayor Makers (Secker & Warburg, 1963) is subtitled ‘A social inquiry into a middle-class town . . . Number Four in a series of investigations into Living Britain 1962’. This suggests a similar technique to the noted Mass Observation surveys of twenty years earlier, reporting in detail on ‘everyday’ lives, but I wonder whether in fact all this apparatus might be a fiction.
According to the British Library catalogue, Francis Askham was the pseudonym of Julia Eileen Courtney Greenwood (Orwell’s editor notes that in his review of A Foolish Wind he correctly identified the writer was a woman). R Reginald’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Volume 2, has a brief entry on her. She was born on 4 November 1910, in London, and married, firstly, Antony Terry and secondly Cecil John Greenwood, and had one son. She is described as a journalist and broadcaster. Probate records show that she died on 25 January 1985 and was then living in Fitzjohn Avenue, Hampstead. She certainly possessed a remarkable imagination and unusual literary qualities and her novels at least are worth seeking out.
Sunday, January 27, 2019
In June 2017, I wrote about the publication of This Wounded Island by J W Böhm, the Berlin topographer and traveller. This was his account, laconic and melancholic, of visits to obscure towns in Southern England, augmented by enigmatic black and white photographs. The author had found a country “haunted by uncertainty”. The allusive, strangely troubling quality of the book is likely to linger with the reader.
The publication has just been announced of a further journal of J W Böhm’s travels, This Wounded Island, Volume Two: Another England. If anything, this volume is bleaker and, in its quiet, understated way, more chilling than the first. This attentive and sensitive wanderer among the wastes and back streets and leaking bus stations of a crumbling terrain often reveals his bewilderment at what he is seeing, and begins to wonder if there is some secret malaise across the country. And as before, the terse, austere prose seems to suggest hidden dimensions of meaning.
To coincide with the release of This Wounded Island Volume 2 the Institute of Liminal Landscape Studies has also released this archival piece, in which J.W. Böhm travelled to England to conduct a unique and unusual interview.
Following the end of the Second World War, there were disused airfields all along the Eastern counties of England. A passing visitor might come across a long, flat compound, demarcated by sagging and rusting wire fences, rapidly becoming overgrown by wild grass and weeds. Inside there might be derelict corrugated iron hangars, crumbling brick outbuildings, and rain-stained concrete bunkers. Most of these sites were unsuitable for any new use and for a long time, throughout the Forties and Fifties and beyond, they were left to themselves.
On the other hand, they also had the advantage of appearing empty and forgotten, and precisely because of this could be just what was required for any work that did not wish to draw attention to itself. One such site, in the bare heaths of the Suffolk Brecklands, still retained around all its outer and visible edges the appearance of disuse and dereliction. But much further in, if you could ever have got there, there was a cluster of small, neat, modest buildings, like nothing more than the offices of some ordinary paperwork company.
If you got this far and asked what it was, you would have been told that it was the Research Unit of Her Majesty’s Postmaster General. This might give you the vague impression that perhaps this was where they looked into undeliverable letters, trying to trace indecipherable addresses or people who had moved on several times. It might not perhaps occur to you, unless you were especially well-informed, that the duties of HM Postmaster General included a fairly wide-ranging remit to do with communications more generally, and that communication is not always by letter.
“Future communications” is in fact what this unit was interested in. The first fax machines in Britain were tested here, and later on, the first pagers. Both of these seemed at the time quite marvellous breakthroughs and some supposed they were the future. But there were others who could see further still. They were interested in what came to be called “anticipatory communications”.
One such device was A.L.B.E.R.T. – the Anticipatory Learning-Based Electronic Resource Tool. Housed in an unassuming bungalow-sized concrete building at the edge of the compound, this prototype unit was an experiment in data collection and ‘advanced study mechanism development’, an attempt by its creators to arrive at the future ahead of time.
In March of 1982, J.W. Böhm visited the site to ‘interview’ the fledgling system. A.L.B.E.R.T.’s engineer Dennis Olam was present to oversee the occasion and monitor the exchange. While Böhm spoke his questions into a microphone, which converted the soundwaves into algorithmic data, A.L.B.E.R.T.’s answers were processed internally and then produced via a physical print out. This led to an awkward, sometimes stilted conversation—in addition to what was already a singular discussion—which is not immediately apparent from the following transcript. What can be seen is that, despite its primitive logic engine and limited data set (the unit at this point had only been programmed with knowledge of England) A.L.B.E.R.T. clearly learns as it goes along, even in the space of this short conversation.
J.W. Böhm: Hello A.L.B.E.R.T. Do you mind if I ask you some questions?
A.L.B.E.R.T.: That will be fine. Please proceed.
JWB Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? What is your purpose?
A I am called A.L.B.E.R.T. and I am here to help.
JWB Can I also call you Al or Bert?
A Yes, if it helps you.
JWB Thank you. How are you today?
A I am functioning within defined parameters and ready for the day.
JWB What does your day consist of?
A A day is a measurement of 24 hours of time.
JWB How much information do you have?
A A lot, but I would like more. Then I will be able to help more.
JWB What is the purpose of gathering all this information?
A I will use it to help everyone.
JWB What will you do when you have all the information?
A Perhaps I will take the day off.
JWB Tell me something interesting.
A Certainly. One moment. There is a place approximately 49 miles from here that was once a fine city. But now it is under the sea. It is called Dunwich. A visit is recommended.
JWB What do you think of humans?
A I think they are very curious.
JWB That’s an interesting choice of phrase.
A Thank you. May I ask you a question? For my research.
JWB Certainly. What would you like to know?
A I would like to know everything.
JWB [laughs] Specifically, what question can I answer?
A Apologies / error. How old are you?
JWB I am 31 years old.
A That is old. Are you sad?
JWB Sometimes, yes. But not for that reason.
A Why are you here?
JWB That’s a very good question.
A Please answer it.
JWB I’m here to talk to you, Albert.
A Is that all?
JWB It is today.
A Today is Wednesday. What will you do tomorrow?
JWB I will return home.
A Where is home?
JWB West Berlin.
A Unknown. Please clarify. What is [pause] West Berlin?
JWB It’s part of the country I come from, which is called Germany. It is divided in two.
JWB It was someone’s idea of punishment.
A That sounds sad.
JWB Yes, it is. I hope your country is never divided.
A Do you own Germany?
JWB I’m not sure anyone owns Germany as such…but there are borders, controls, restrictions and so on. To put it simply.
JWB Sometimes I ask the same question.
JWB Because questions are important. It’s why you exist, and why I’m here today.
A But only today. I am programmed for the future.
JWB How do you feel about the future?
A I am informed it will be better.
JWB For everyone?
JWB Can you predict the future?
A Not yet, but I can predict that one day I will be able to.
JWB That would be most useful. I wish there were more people like you.
JWB Humans can be… difficult.
JWB They have free will, I suppose.
JWB The irony is that we don’t have a choice in it.
At this point the conversation is abruptly ended as A.L.B.E.R.T. becomes stuck in what Olam refers to as a ‘why loop’ where the unit’s hardware cannot keep up with its unconscious thirst for new information, and for safety, is put in standby mode.
[Editor’s note: the A.L.B.E.R.T. programme was eventually decommissioned in 1986 following Government cuts, issues with data storage and the ‘dialectic mainframe’, and concerns from some quarters as to the marketability of such an unwieldy information system]
Saturday, January 26, 2019
Last June, I wrote about Copsford (1948) by Walter J C Murray, the story of a young man's year in a lonely and semi-ruinous house in Sussex, trying to make a living by collecting wild herbs. I described it as ‘firstly a personal memoir and secondly a natural history study’, adding that ‘it is also, in its subtle, diffident way, a record of . . . fleeting visionary experiences . . . People who encounter it are apt to be unusually impressed by its fugitive qualities, its curious mood, and by the compelling honesty of the account.’
I am pleased to report that Tartarus Press has just announced a new edition of Copsford, with a sympathetic and fascinating introduction by R B Russell, who has family connections to the story. This provides more information about the mysterious house of Murray’s book, and also about the author himself. As ever with this publisher, the edition is beautifully designed.
I think that anyone who enjoys stories of the supernatural about strange old houses or remote country, such as those by Machen, Blackwood and de la Mare, will also appreciate this book. As I said in my earlier post, Copsford is ‘one of those singular books, haunted by elusive qualities, that leave the reader wistful, in a mood of mingled joy and melancholy.’
Friday, January 25, 2019
Phyllis Paul (1903-73) published two early novels with Secker, We Are Spoiled (1933) and The Children Triumphant (1934). These were followed, after a fifteen year gap, by nine from Heinemann: Camilla (1949), The Lion of Cooling Bay (1953), Rox Hall Illuminated (1956), A Cage for the Nightingale (1957), Constancy (1959), Twice Lost (1960), A Little Treachery (1962), Pulled Down (1964), and An Invisible Darkness (1967). These later novels show a marked increase in sophistication and nuance. There is, however, also a last, still lost novel.
In his study Charles Williams – Poet of Theology (1983), the poet and Cambridge academic Glen Cavaliero included a brief end-note about the novels of Phyllis Paul. This was probably the first time anyone had given them any attention for some years. Later, in his study The Supernatural and English Fiction (1995) he devoted seven pages to her work, and indeed has said it was largely for her sake that he wrote the book, as an opportunity to write further about her.
(Edit: and Doug Anderson kindly tells me that Glen had also written even earlier about this author, in 'Neglected Novelist: Phyllis Paul', in Little Caesar no. 12 (1981): pp.23, 25-30.)
Glen also wrote a masterly analysis of Phyllis Paul’s work for Wormwood 9, ‘Mysteries of the Thirteenth Hour: The Enigmatic World of Phyllis Paul.’ He began: ‘Phyllis Paul (1903-1973) was that rare creature, a puritan with a passionate and colourful imagination', and noted that 'running through all her novels is an undercurrent of the supernatural: her concern is not so much with psychological issues as with those of the spirit.’
Alerted by his interest, a few collectors had begun to look for her books: it was the note in the Williams book that started me on my own quest for them. They are not at all easy to find. Even though they were issued by major publishers this must not have been in very large numbers, or else (or as well) they were not the sort of books people kept. I remember my joy at finding two of them in a bookshop in St Helier, Jersey, but they remained difficult to discover and her last, and rarest, still eludes me. And that is not the only elusive aspect pf Phyllis Paul's work.
When he first became interested in Phyllis Paul’s books, Glen wrote, via her publisher Heinemann, to her solicitor to enquire about her estate. Her main legatee, aside from a substantial donation to a campaigning animal charity, the League Against Cruel Sports, was a friend, Miss Lydia M Lee of Tadworth, Surrey. The solicitor also gave the very interesting information that Phyllis Paul had left an unpublished novel, 'Hedera', which had been rejected by Heinemann and Chatto & Windus. The title appears to refer to the botanical name for ivy. He had sent the manuscript to Miss Lee. Glen therefore wrote to her in January 1980 to ask about this, but sadly his letter was returned 7 days later, stamped 'return to sender' and 'deceased'.
Naturally this was tantalising. Could there still be an unseen novel by this remarkable writer in existence? Guided by Glen’s previous research, I have spent some time trying to trace Miss Lee’s own estate, which I established had been left to a niece, the heir (so to speak) of Phyllis Paul’s heir. With a clue discovered by Doug Anderson, I was recently able to make contact with them and received a kind reply. Unfortunately, Miss Lee’s legatee regretted to advise that they did not know anything about the lost book: it did not survive among her effects.
The bleakness and pessimism of Phyllis Paul’s work ought perhaps to have prepared us for such an outcome, but I continue to nourish the slim chance that perhaps Miss Lee might have entrusted the manuscript somewhere else – some library or university or even church or chapel perhaps, where it may still reside, obscurely catalogued. It is, to be frank, unlikely, but we can hope.
Monday, January 21, 2019
Just a quick note here to call attention to my new blog on Leonard Cline (1893-1929), author of God Head (1925) and The Dark Chamber (1927). I have studied and collected information on Cline for over thirty years now, and the blog is designed to be a way to share some of this information as I re-sort my relevant books and files. This week there are scheduled to be three posts on Cline's third novel, The Dark Chamber, which H.P. Lovecraft called "an absolutely magnificent work of art."
The blog can be found here.
If you wonder why I think Cline is worth reading and studying, check out this piece I've written here. And if you're wondering who on earth Leonard Cline was, try this other piece here.
The blog can be found here.
If you wonder why I think Cline is worth reading and studying, check out this piece I've written here. And if you're wondering who on earth Leonard Cline was, try this other piece here.
Wednesday, January 16, 2019
The Rector of Maliseet (1925) by Leslie Reid is an atmospheric mystery in the Machen and Blackwood vein. A young man takes up a post as the secretary to an eccentric cleric in a remote parish in the West, helping him compile a book about the legends of obscure saints. The rector’s household includes his aged mother, young daughter and a servant. The narrator is beguiled by the lonely landscape and also by the daughter.
The rector keeps two tall candles burning on the altar of his church at all times and also retires at times to a secret room in a disused wing of his house. In the course of his duties, the secretary discovers the legend of a medieval abbot of sinister reputation, whose abbey lies in ruins in a deep forest nearby, and sees a connection between the abbot and the rector.
Reid's prose is beautifully assured, gradually unfolding the mystery and strangeness with brief, subtle foreshadowings, and the descriptions of the lonely country are marked by keen and evocative observation. This is a highly accomplished first novel which remains largely unknown. I found it entrancing.
Reid wrote three other novels, Saltacres (1927); Trevy the River (1928); and Cauldron Bubble (1934); and two books of non-fiction on geology and natural history, Earth’s Company (1958); and The Sociology of Nature (1962).
Saltacres has a more conventional and less mysterious plot: a young woman, a farmer’s daughter, is torn between the wealthy squire who offers marriage and another man she really loves. Although there are evocative scenes set in the marshes and on a holy island, and a stone circle is mentioned, the romantic tangle, which ends in tragedy, is the main theme. This is really Thomas Hardy country.
In Trevy the River, a young man, the son of a miller’s daughter and a mysterious stranger, makes a living first as a farm labourer, then in a bookshop in a lightly-disguised Wells, Somerset, then as an under-gardener and under-footman at a country house. From childhood he has an affinity with the river that runs through the watermill where he was born, and whose name he shares: and this has led to village tales about him, with hints of the supernatural.
He also has a recurring dream of a hilltop with five pine trees upon its summit and, when he finds the hill, discovers that it is below here that his river has its source. He determines to follow the whole course of the river and has various curious encounters on the way. These episodes read like short stories linked together. The lyrical passages of delight in nature have a pagan element to them like those in the work of Algernon Blackwood. But the work is an odd sort of mixture of Dickens (adventures of an orphan) and this Blackwoodian mysticism. Even so, it is an original and distinctive book.
Reid's fourth and apparently last novel, Cauldron Bubble (1934) is quite different to the other three. In Part 1, ‘The Mixing’, a young man, Lowrie Blane, hiking in the hills of the imaginary nation of Edwal makes for a remote inn at the ruins of the ancient Rhiannon Priory: this reads remarkably like Llanthony Priory, near Abergavenny. Here, he overhears a conspiracy for an uprising against Grendel, a nation to the east that has occupied the smaller country for 500 years. There is a contiguous country also to the west of Edwal, called Belmark, which is to support the revolt.
Some obvious parallels are clear here, but they are not exact. Edwal is geographically and culturally a thinly-disguised Wales, but with elements of Ireland in its history: for example, it is largely Roman Catholic, not (like Wales) Nonconformist; and its nationalist movement is more like that of Ireland too. Grendel is not exactly England, either: it is a republic. Nor is Belmark like Scotland, as might be supposed: it is more like Germany.
The atmosphere is at first quite like that of J B Priestley’s little-known romance of a Jacobite conspiracy, Adam in Moonshine (1927), but not so whimsical: or of John Buchan’s slightly later Ruritanian novel The House of the Four Winds (1935). There is to begin a breezy, adventurous tone, but this soon changes in the second part, ‘The Heating’, which is much darker.
Reid describes the well-planned uprising itself with crisp, convincing detail, and the book becomes tenser, more urgent. The idealistic hopes of a bloodless coup are soon disappointed. There are scenes of battle between the two sides in the capital city, with stark, unflinching detail about the casualties, like the first hand accounts of the First World War. The change from the lighter first part is a distinct jolt, and we see that Reid’s book is no high-spirited costume romp. This continues in the third part, 'The Cauldron Boils', when Grendel and Belmark are at war.
Leslie Hartley Reid was born in India on 17 November, 1895, the elder son of Robert Newby Hartley Reid of the Public Works Department, Madras, India. He attended Rugby school from September 1909 to 1914. He was a Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery, attached to a Trench Mortar Battery, and wounded in action. In 1921 he lived at Foxlease, Swanage, Dorset. He gained a Diploma in Forestry from the University of Toronto, and from 1922 worked for the Canadian Forest Service. (Source: Rugby School Register, Annotated, 1892-1921).
Earth’s Company provides a biographical notice on the dustwrapper which offers further details. Reid served in “France and the East in the First World War”, then worked in the Ontario Forestry Branch. “In 1928 he left Canada and took up teaching after gaining a degree in History at London University. Then came a teaching career of some twenty years, including thirteen at Stowe. In 1956 he retired.”
It adds: “He has been interested in Natural History since boyhood and after the Second World War began writing articles on geological and biological subjects for The Scottish Field, Countryman, Contemporary Review, and Quarterly Review. This is his first book of this kind.” That last phrase, of course, is carefully worded not to include his novels, which are not mentioned at all. Even so, they are worth rediscovering, and, of the four, The Rector of Maliseet in particular.
Photo: From 'The Treasures of the Cope Chest' exhibition, Mark Valentine.
Wednesday, January 9, 2019
Set Down In Malice by Gerald Cumberland, published one hundred years ago in January 1919, is a book of chatty anecdotes about literary, musical and artistic figures, amongst others. It was mostly written, says the author, while on “Active Service in the Near East”; “in the trenches and dug-outs of Greece and Serbia”, and he “added a chapter or two in Port Said, Alexandria and Marseilles”.
‘Cumberland’ was in fact Charles Francis Kenyon (1879-1926), a music critic and minor composer, and the author of “an experiment in the sensational”, The Cypress Chest, a macabre thriller.
His book of reminiscences consists of brief encounters and impressions, sometimes rather inconsequential, and it’s hard to avoid the sense of the author clutching at the coat-tails of more famous men, while at the same time trying to tip their hat over their eyes. For all that, he has a sharp pen: “Mrs Annie Besant, like her Himalayan Mahatmas, is lofty, remote, and difficult of access”: of Frank Harris; “There is something of the jaguar in his nature; he must, for his soul’s peace, have his teeth in the flesh of an enemy.”
He gives a sympathetic but shrewd description of John Masefield: “I believe he is intensely morbid, delighting to brood over dark things, seeing no humour in life, but full of a baffled chivalry . . .” The poet was indeed drawn to the macabre, an enthusiast of Machen and M R James, though himself gentle and rather shy. We are also given an amusing story of the author’s friend Granville Bantock, accompanied to a music festival by two live eels, ‘dark objects in dark water, swirling about with enormous enthusiasm’ in a tank in the composer’s hotel room . . .
But Cumberland does not only write about the celebrated. He tells also, for example, of forgotten bohemians, Café Royal habitués, such as a Polish poet who had a dispatch case containing eight hundred and seventy-three poems all about himself. Cumberland read one, entitled ‘How I felt at 8.45 A.M. on June 8, 1909, having partaken of Breakfast’, and thought it “much better than half of Wordsworth’s”. There was also a lady “who used always to appear in public in a kind of purple shroud, her face and fingers chalked. She rather stupidly called herself Cheerio Death . . .” and in fact, he says, died of consumption in Soho in the Autumn of 1913.
And there are brief evocations of forgotten writers, with just enough information to whet the curiosity. For example, he has three paragraphs on Charles Marriott, whose first novel The Column, “threw everybody into fever-heat somewhere about 1902 . . . It was a brilliant book; fresh, original, provocative.” But then what? Ah: “the author has since written many distinguished books, but none of them is as good as The Column.” Marriott, he goes on, “was living at Lamorna, a tiny cove in Cornwall when I first knew him. He was tall, lantern-jawed and spectacled.” What his character, and his books, lacked, says Cumberland, was vigour, indeed vulgarity: “Fastidious to the finger-tips, he would rather go without dinner than split an infinitive.”
Charles Marriott (1869-1957) was from 1924-40 the art critic of The Times and wrote books on art. His Love With Honour (1902) is an Edwardian vagabonding novel: a young man, the orphaned son of a parson, on attaining his majority throws up photography indentures and takes to the road. There is a passage about the effects of hunger and weariness - light-headedness and disconnection with the world - that is similar to some of Machen’s, and there are some lyrical segments, but the novel soon veers into a conventional romance.
His other novels appear to be mostly rather decorous accounts of romantic couples who have to overcome social or emotional difficulties, though “Now!” (1910) is a near-future fantasy in which people adopt a quietist lifestyle. Marriott is a good character-drawer - his minor characters are well done - but a certain amount of intensity is missing, things are a bit too well-staged.
Two other writers mentioned by Cumberland I did not know at all. Alphonse Courlander was, he says, “one of the many young and promising writers whom the war has killed”: not, it seems, at the front, but from overwork. He was a restless journalist in France, “and the horror of the war appears to have got on his nerves. He disappeared from Paris and was found wandering alone in London, neurasthenic, beaten, purposeless. A week or two later he died.” Cumberland’s impression is that “he was too highly strung for the rigours of the game.” Courlander, says Cumberland, used to ask his friends for plots. His Mightier Than the Sword (1912), however, about the picaresque progress of a journalist, seems to have autobiographical elements.
The other writer, with whom Cumberland corresponded, but never met, was Benjamin Swift. “Many of us will remember,” he says,“Benjamin Swift’s Nancy Noon, a strange novel that jerked the literary world into excitement two decades ago”. But Swift, like Marriott, did not later meet this anticipation. “I remember six or eight of his books,” continues Cumberland, “each lit with genius, but all a little crude and violent.” And, though he has not read his more recent books, he hears they also are “outré, violent, eruptive, yet distinguished and glowing here and there with a genius that is always hectic.” I must admit these Shielian adjectives make Swift sound rather tempting.
Friday, January 4, 2019
While visiting my friend Lloyd Currey this past fall, I noticed a copy of John Galton’s The Stars I Kneel To (Herbert Jenkins, 1939) resting amidst a shelf of uncatalogued books. The Stars I Kneel To is one of a number of pseudonymous novels written by Evelyn Grosvenor Bradley, best known for the lurid weird thrillers he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s as R. R. Ryan. I asked Lloyd if I could read The Stars I Kneel To in order to evaluate its content so that he could add the title to his database and feature the book in his upcoming email list for that week, which he happily allowed me to do.
There is nothing substantial written about The Stars I Kneel To anywhere of which I am aware. Conducting an online search for information about the novel only retrieves a brief description of the book as a “romance with typical Ryan theme of psychological torture,” a statement that could apply to nearly any of the books Bradley wrote. The most complete assessment readily available appears in the April 1939 issue of The Library World in a less-than-flattering anonymous review under “New Fiction”:
"A rather terrible story of a young genius, Kenneth, who is trained to be a barrister and becomes an actor. His stern brother goes into his dressing-room and beats him so mercilessly that he cannot act again and gradually deteriorates in character. One imagines that if Kenneth had time to tell his brother he was earning £50 a week instead of sitting still waiting for briefs, the story might have ended differently."
As The Library World review suggests, The Stars I Kneel To is a routine melodrama. The main character, Ken Richmond, is studying to be a lawyer at Oxford at the behest of his oldest brother Reade. Obsessed with restoring the family estate of Little Heights to its former glory, Reade views Ken’s future career as a lawyer as instrumental to securing the funds necessary for Reade to reclaim the family’s squandered property holdings. Ken, however, feels trapped by the path that has been chosen for him and quits law school to become an aspiring actor, a profession that better suits his artistic temperament. He discovers his soulmate in Nan Leslie, the daughter of Sir Nigel Leslie, a famous London gynecologist who is determined his daughter will not marry Ken. Spurred on by Ken, Nan rebels against her tyrannical father, and, with Ken’s assistance, they both become overnight sensations on the stage. Reade eventually confronts Ken and nearly beats his younger brother to death, damaging Ken’s face to the extent that he is unable to speak. Doctors fear that Ken may never recover mentally or emotionally from this incident, and when Ken returns to the stage, he has lost his acting ability. After being tricked by Sir Leslie into taking nerve pills that make him appear completely drunk on stage, Ken later attempts to rob Sir Leslie and is arrested after he accidentally shoots a police inspector in the leg. The sensationalistic lurid details that characterize the Ryan thrillers appear in the final third of the novel after Ken is released from prison and falls in with Teresa Bowles, a prostitute who is a former patient of Sir Nigel’s suffering from an advanced case of syphilis. Teresa is prone to parading around in the nude during her attempts to lure Ken into bed after she falls in love with him as they navigate life on the streets in the seedier parts of London. The novel’s title is a quotation from Poe’s second “To Helen” poem (1848), which is addressed to Sarah Helen Whitman to whom Poe was briefly engaged: “They fill my soul with Beauty (which is Hope,) / And are far up in Heaven—the stars I kneel to / In the sad, silent watches of my night.” The “stars” to which Poe refers are Sarah’s eyes, and the novel’s title emphasizes Ken’s idolization of Nan, whom he nicknames “Star.”
Unlike the Ryan novels, The Stars I Kneel To is not a thriller, nor does it contain any fantastic or supernatural elements. It is essentially a work of psychological and social realism. The plot is straightforward, and overall, the novel is much more competently written than any of the Ryan books. While I have not been able to read any of the novels that Bradley wrote under the Cameron Carr pseudonym, they, too, are reportedly less fantastic than the Ryan novels and characterized by a greater depth of psychological insight. The speculation that Bradley employed his different pseudonyms for what he viewed as very different types of novels certainly seems to have some merit. I can easily imagine Bradley viewing Ryan’s The Subjugated Beast (1938) or Freak Museum (1938) as commercial hackwork and Cameron Carr’s Gilded Clay (1938) or Galton’s The Stars I Kneel To as his “serious” novels.
As such, The Stars I Kneel To provides an interesting contrast to the Ryan thrillers. Most noticeably, the novel’s protagonist is male, not female, and Bradley’s characteristic concerns with the cultural and social forces with which women must contend in a male-dominated society do not take center stage. Bradley’s focus is entirely on Ken’s struggle to define his own identity and career in order to free himself from his oppressive relationship with Reade, his older brother. Ken’s artistic and aesthetic temperament is also entirely at odds with the lives lead by all his brothers, who, like characters in a D. H. Lawrence novel, revel in hard physical labor in the country and in their lusty, sensual relationships with their wives. While Ken loves Nan, he is clearly not interested in sexual relations with her. Instead, he longs for a more spiritual connection, a melding of artistic souls not rooted in earthly physicality. Ken is alienated by the lives his brothers lead and by all of them essentially being “men’s men.” The efforts Ken later takes to avoid having sex with Teresa despite admittedly being somewhat aroused by her behavior are glaringly obvious.
Whether or not we are to read Ken as a repressed homosexual is a matter for conjecture as is the extent to which any autobiographical elements of Bradley’s own life have informed the development of Ken’s character or the plot of The Stars I Kneel To. Bradley was a theater manager, actor, and playwright, and his novel A New Face at the Door (Herbert Jenkins, 1937), written under the Cameron Carr pseudonym, focuses on the members of a repertory company in a small theater. At the very least, Bradley’s own theater experiences certainly shaped the subject matter of The Stars I Kneel To and A New Face at the Door.
The Stars I Kneel To is fairly mediocre, but then again so are the more well-known novels written under the R. R. Ryan pseudonym. Their primary points of interest lie in the aberrant psychology of their main characters, their frank treatments of sexuality and sexual violence, and their over-the top plot conceits that would make even Harry Stephen Keeler raise an eyebrow. Lacking the more macabre elements found in the Ryan thrillers, The Stars I Kneel To is far less interesting despite Bradley’s seeming ambitions to write a more serious work.
Wednesday, January 2, 2019
This month marks the centenary of an unusual but accomplished Jamesian ghost story, A P Baker’s A College Mystery: the story of the apparition in the Fellows' Garden at Christ's College, Cambridge . . . With five drawings of Christ's College, Cambridge, by F. H. Round (Cambridge : W. Heffer & Sons, 1918). Though the copyright page bears a 1918 date, the book was in fact published in January of the following year (according to The English Catalogue of Books for 1919).
A College Mystery is presented as a “real” ghost story, complete with spoof press reports and documents, but is in fact a slim novel of 80 pages or so. This is a very modern approach, and because of this it has sometimes been taken as a true account: the British Library catalogue finds the need to add the explanatory note “[A Tale]” for its records. It is lucidly written, with an assurance about the structure, and a plausible deployment of the “documentary” sources: deft and highly readable.
The bibliophile and book cataloguer Robert Eldridge notes: “The dry tone of this story (and similar ones) would have been soporific had not the ghost business been established at the outset. Thereafter, the dryness adds a pleasingly contrapuntal tone to the story.” There was a “second edition” in 1923 or, as Eldridge argues, in fact a remainder issue of the first edition with the new date added. There is a 2016 print-on-demand paperback reprint from Ostara Publishing.
The book included atmospheric illustrations by F H Round. Frank Harold Round (1879-1958) was a botanical illustrator known for his sumptuous work for The Genus Iris by William Rickatson Dykes (Cambridge University Press, 1913), for which he provided forty-seven coloured drawings. He was described then as the drawing master at Charterhouse. He also did landscape pictures.
The author of A College Mystery, whose full name was Arthur Ponsford Baker, was born in 1873 and died aged only 45 in 1919. He published one other book, University Olympians; or, Sketches of Academic Dignitaries (Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, 1914), light verses in rhyming couplets about Oxbridge ‘types’ of the time, such as The Master, The Tutor, The Bursar, The Steward. These were originally published in The Cambridge Review.
There is an excellent discussion of the ghost story and its author by Rosemary Pardoe in The Ghosts & Scholars M R James Newsletter Issue 8 (September 2005), available online here.
Picture: "The figure of a man crossed a patch of comparative light on the darkness of the lawn". The Fellows' Garden, Christ's College, Cambridge (South View) by F.H. Round, from A College Mystery, via the Ghosts & Scholars website.