Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Guest Post: Phyllis Paul: A Few Glimpses of Her Meaning by Dale Nelson

Miss Paul maintains a pervasive sense of mystery, even though much in her books may be mysterious only in the conventional sense, that is, mysterious until more information is gathered, which then resolves some of the questions that have accumulated. 

In her work mystery remains; it is as if, when the earthly mysterious has been cleared up, something of unearthly mystery remains untouched.  Her imagination tends to the quasi-Gnostic.  References to the Cathars (in The Lion of Cooling Bay) and so on suggest Miss Paul may have studied heterodox religious history. 

However, her ideas and her beliefs may have changed over time.  And whatever she believed at a given point, she may have borrowed elements of some system that she herself did not believe for its imaginative, literary possibilities. 

Here are some observations about matters of the spirit in Miss Paul’s fiction.

In the seven novels that I’ve read so far, Miss Paul allows only a weak connection between English religion and the world of the spirit.  She doesn’t seem interested in a thoroughgoing satire of parish religion, but nor does she endorse it. 

Thus, in Twice Lost, Christine’s mother, Mrs. Gray, maintains a spiritual atmosphere with Scripture texts on the wall at home and with feelings of spiritual communion that she cultivates.  And she is no fool; when Keith Antequin intrudes upon this atmosphere, she knows he is a fake.  Unfortunately, when elderly Thomas Antequin brought himself forward as a suitor for Christine’s hand, he seemed to Mrs. Gray a convenient – perhaps, fatally, a providential – protector for her troubled young daughter. 

Rachel in A Cage for the Nightingale is an Anglican happy with the round of parish life, but she doesn’t understand the more spiritual Victoria.

For Roman Catholicism Miss Paul has a strong aversion, which, as I understand, she particularly indulges in Pulled Down, which I haven’t read yet.  In Cage, several of the worst characters are Catholics. In Twice Lost, Thomas Antequin’s historical play concerns the Inquisition and the theme is cruelty. 

Detail from Breugel's Triumph of Death
Ricky in The Lion of Cooling Bay is attracted to Romanism and to sexual perversity. In the same novel, the narrator refers to the “torture-wheels of the Spanish devils” as painted by Bruegel (see his Triumph of Death), and the Catholic boy Francis dreams of a ceremony in which “the crowd was surrounded by a circle of lofty poles, each of which had a wheel fixed horizontally on its summit; objects which he felt he had seen before, perhaps in some old picture, without understanding their significance.”  (There is a curious reference, in Twice Lost, to a “clubbed tree [that] was crowned with a huge wheel” in a Kensington square.) 

Miss Paul worked within the Gothic tradition, where portrayals of Roman Catholic cruelty have a long pedigree.  However, the anti-Catholic curate Treadworthy, in Rox Hall Illuminated, is rather creepy.

Miss Paul evinces some respect for certain 17th-century Protestant authors who had a keen sense of the reality of spiritual evil.  In A Cage for the Nightingale, Victoria’s imagination was “darkly stirred” when, as a child, she read Hall, Baxter, and Browne. 

Richard Baxter, the Puritan, quoted Bishop Joseph Hall about “Satan’s prevalency in this age” being evident from the numbers of witches.  (Hall is better known for his Anglican Neostoicism.)
Baxter may still be remembered for The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, which has a section on ghosts, and was also author of The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits.  And Consequently of the Immortality of Souls.  Of the Malice and Misery of the Devils, and the Damned.  And of the Blessedness of the Justified.  Fully Evinced by the Unquestionable Histories of Apparitions, Operations, Witchcrafts, Voices, &c.  Written as an Addition to Many Other Treatises, for the Conviction of Sadduces [sic] and Infidels (1691). 

Sir Thomas Browne is best known for Urn Burial and especially Religio Medici, wherein the point is made that it is not in the devil’s interest to reveal himself to those who profess disbelief in the devil and in God.

The devil is a dreadful presence – seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8) -- in The Lion of Cooling Bay.  Anne described to William a drawing she saw in Julian’s room, with a great shadow on the landscape, and an inscription naming “The Lion – the King of beasts – God of this world – Ruler of the darkness of this world.”

With particular clarity, A Cage for the Nightingale exhibits a threefold Gnostic-type spirituality.

1.Most of the characters are examples of the sarkikos anthropos, the fleshly person.  They are concerned with this world, its silly or base pleasures, its bogus values.  Herve, Tonine, Janet, Pat, Maurice, and Constantine belong to this category. 

2.Rachel is an example of the psychikos anthropos, the soulish person.  She isn’t worldly like the fleshly characters.  She has some awareness of spiritual reality in sometimes detecting sinister atmosphere, and she is intrigued by Victoria, who is on a higher spiritual level than herself.  Miss Paul makes Rachel an artist who draws without genius.  She would like to go to a Christmas Eve service.  Gnostics would see Christians such as Rachel as satisfied by family life and a conventional religion inadequate for finer spirits.

3.Much-tormented Victoria is the exemplar of the pneumatic or spiritual person.  Though she has felt that she is “all light inside,” she is the imprisoned nightingale, fluttering against the bars of the cage – that is, the trammels of earthly embodiment.  Unlike Rachel’s drawings, Victoria’s artwork has an impressive, real quality.  Paul uses art as a symbol of spiritual life. 

In Gnosticism, God exists but is remote from this world.  As Victoria says, “‘The fall of a sparrow!  God sees it and lets it fall.’”

The phenomenal world hides the realm of spirit, which is associated with light, e.g. in The Lion of Cooling Bay with sunlight burning through leaves.

Christine in Twice Lost thinks of God as absent in one’s time of spiritual anguish – not nonexistent, but not concerned. 

Christine is a superb study, from a classic Lutheran point of view, of a person bowed down under the “curse of the Law.” The two great commandments are to love God with all one’s heart and mind and strength and one’s neighbor as oneself. 

Christine knows that she did fail the unattractive, unwinsome little girl Vivian Lambert, when she didn’t wait to make sure the child got inside her house late one evening, but left her on the doorstep.  She is haunted by part of this passage (St. Matthew 18:6): whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Vivian disappeared and was presumed to have been murdered.  Thereafter, Christine suffers, a prisoner of inner condemnation.  She deals with her guilt in two ways, by doing good works (she is a volunteer at a clinic for the poor, as I recall) and by hoping desperately that Vivian didn’t die, but only disappeared; if Vivian didn’t die, then she, Christine, is not guilty of her death.  There is no suggestion in the novel that she could have opened her tormented heart to a pastor and received the comfort of Gospel absolution, the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake.

A severe spirituality – characterized by Glen Cavaliero as “steely puritanism” -- is integral to the atmosphere and meaning of the novels discussed here.  It deserves further exploration.
Note: I consulted Edwyn Bevan’s Symbolism and Belief for a discussion of Gnosticism’s threefold anthropology.  Baxter’s Saints’ Everlasting Rest is often issued in abridged form without the section on ghosts – which I know of but haven’t seen.

© 2019 Dale Nelson


  1. A wonderful article as usual by you Douglas... though it gets more and more frustrating to read praise of Paul when only 2-3 of her books aren't hopelessly scarce. I was lucky enough to snag Nightingale from Sundial, plus Twice Lost and Echo of Guilt in paperback, but any of her other books appear for sell quite less than never. Hopefully an astute publisher will remedy this.
    Jeff Matthews

    1. The author of the piece is not me but Dale Nelson, so all kudos go to him.(He's written a bunch of Guest Posts at Wormwoodiana--search at the "Labels" function on the Wormwoodiana page and you'll get links to them all.) Later this month Sundial Press is supposed to issue a reprint of Pulled Down. One hopes that other Paul titles will follow.

  2. Thanks for the reply, Douglas, and I'm sorry for the misattribution, Mr. Nelson!
    While I wish Sundial was reprinting one of her scarcer titles, it is still good news.
    -Jeff Matthews

  3. And I just notice on the Sundial website: "In due course we plan to publish further novels by Phyllis Paul."
    -Jeff Matthews