Thursday, January 6, 2022

Legend - Clemence Dane

In Clemence Dane’s Legend (1919), Madala Grey, a young woman in her early twenties achieves remarkable acclaim for her books. Visiting her childhood home she meets and marries the family doctor, and dies in childbirth. The news is brought to a gathering of her friends in the fogbound London house of a well-respected, but less successful, critic who “discovered” her, is her literary executor, and is going to write her life, determined that this will bring her similar acclaim. They talk about her.

This novel should not work. For one thing, it is about not one but two authors – in fact, a third, because a diffident cousin of the critic is the narrator, writing this book. And books about authors always seem to suggest a want of invention, a self-referential limitation. For another thing, almost all of the book is in the conversation of this rather superficial clique and all the action, such as it is, in this single evening in the house. Nor is the character of the famous author, as seen through their eyes, all that compelling. Further, Dane reproduces a few passages from her famous author’s books, a risky thing to do because they have to be convincing as the work of an acclaimed genius: and they aren’t.  

But despite these drawbacks in Dane’s novel, I think it does succeed, and that is because of the haunted atmosphere that she is able to create. It is at first obliquely achieved. She has arranged an enclave: the fog is so thick that there are no cabs and even pedestrians cannot see where they walk. So the guests in the house are marooned there. And Madala Grey’s presence is pervasive in the room, at first just figuratively, in the thoughts and shared memories and opinions of this shallow little coterie. There is, in fact, a brief eerie scene in flashback when the young author is wandering in the churchyard of her childhood village and shivers – as if, she says, she had stepped over her own grave, an apparent premonition.

This obsessive going over and over the qualities and characteristics of the famous author builds up a tension. You marvel that Dane can keep it going and hold the reader’s interest in this single subject in this single narrow time and place. Perhaps it is a bit too drawn-out. I began to wonder just how much more Dane could eke it out. But then she brings the curtain down with a final scene that, though it does follow on from what has gone before, is yet a dramatic incursion.

Two of the characters, the narrator and an artist with a strong affinity to Madala, have remained mostly aloof from the circle and are drawn tacitly and tentatively together. The front door opens and only they are in sight of it. The fog seeps in, and with it an apparition that they each see, though they see it differently. We have been very briefly prepared for this, we may now recall, by a passing remark of a character earlier, about seeing the face of the lost one everywhere you look. So there might, just, be a psychological explanation. But this figure is stronger than that: this vision has purpose.

In Legend, Dane has written a novella-length ghost story which is modern in its setting and its technique, yet traditional in its imagery—the fog, the figure at the door, the incident in the churchyard—and in its denouement, the spirit that returns to complete a mission. It is a daring approach, with highly disciplined writing, and it just about works.

I wondered if Dane had in mind as one model for her lead character ‘Michael Fairless’, the young woman who had such a success with The Roadmender (1902), and died young. It would be hard to avoid that example, and although Dane’s character is more sophisticated, she shares with Fairless a deep, simple longing for the countryside. There may be a hint of this origin in the quoted last paragraph of her character’s third and last book, which specifically evokes roadmenders.

Dane’s book now looks like a pioneer in the development of the modernist metaphysical novel. It was followed, for example, by Helen Simpson’s Cup, Wands and Swords (1927), which similarly introduces the supernatural into the affairs of a London artistic set: and in fact Simpson and Dane were good friends and collaborated on crime novels together. There are parallels also with Mary Butts’ Armed With Madness (1928), where quarelling bohemians in Dorset encounter the Holy Grail. All three novels entwine modernity and eternity.

Clemence Dane was also an enthusiast of the novels of Claude Houghton, and contributed to a set of appreciations of him: and his Thirties metaphysical novels have affinities to her work. Indeed, his great success I Am Jonathan Scrivener (1930) uses a similar technique to Legend, of a strong central character described from differing perspectives in the memories and conversations of others, and also has a similar final scene, the dramatic opening of a door.

E F Bleiler, in The Guide to Supernatural Fiction, does not list Legend, but he does include her short story collection Fate Cries Out (1933), and her family saga The Babyons (1928), which has supernatural interludes. He describes the latter as ‘Literate, stylistically interesting Art Deco romanticism’. That would do equally well for Legend.

(Mark Valentine)


  1. Mark, I haven't read Maurice Baring's "Daphne Adeane" yet, but as I mentioned to the The Everlasting Club, I'm told it is about the ongoing presence and influence of the dead Daphne Deane on people she knew. It came out in 1926 but I wonder if it might be of the same character as "Legend." Of course, the theme isn't so very unusual. -md

  2. Thank you, Michael, I don't know 'Daphne Adeane' either, but it sounds worth investigating. Mark

  3. Sorry to be contrarian here but I just read it and your description of

    "In Legend, Dane has written a novella-length ghost story which is modern in its setting and its technique, yet traditional in its imagery—the fog, the figure at the door, the incident in the churchyard—and in its denouement, the spirit that returns to complete a mission."

    makes it sound way more exciting than it actually is, as there is basically no atmosphere of mysticism beyond a few scattered allusions to fog and the Ghost appearing for a whole 4 pages about 170 + pages in, after endless arguing about whether or not Madala had an affair and if her last book is a parody or not.

    I would have loved for the book to match your description more, as it very much sounds better than what Dane/Ashton actually wrote. Nothing against you of course, I am just disappointed with Dane.