The Magician by William Somerset Maugham (1908)

‘It was the face of a fiend of wickedness.’ (Susie describing Oliver Haddo)

This is, surprisingly from Maugham, a horror story.

The setup

The book begins as a fairly run-of-the-mill love story. Young English surgeon Arthur Burdon knew Margaret Dauncey’s parents. When they died he was named the girl’s executor and guardian, a duty he faithfully performed. When she turned 17 she expressed a wish to go to Paris to study art, which Arthur supported and enabled. But it was at this stage that Margaret discovered her father had died penniless and Arthur had actually paid for entire education and living expenses.

During the tearful conversation where Margaret asks if this is true and Arthur admits it, they both also admit that they’re deeply in love with each other.

‘Don’t you know that I’d do anything in the world for you?’ she cried.

And they admit on the spot that they would like to be married. Nonetheless, Arthur insists that she goes off to Paris, studies art, sees life and so on, before they get wed. He is a thoroughly decent chap.

In Paris Margaret stays in the studio of Susie Boyd (at 30, a lot older and more experienced than Margaret) in Montparnasse and becomes a regular at the local bar, Le Chien Noir, much frequented by poets, writers and artists.

So it’s at this point that the story begins, with Arthur arriving in Paris to meet Margaret and finalise plans for their wedding.

Commenting on the action is a much older man, Dr Porhoët, who was friends with Arthur’s parents and has known him ever since he was born. Dr Porhoët is a wise and bookish old man. He spent most of life as a practicing doctor in Egypt and is now retired, and thus is available to the characters for tea, conversation and advice as required.

Porhoët candidly tells Arthur he is surprised that he and Margaret are in love because Arthur is such an extremely unimaginative, prosaic, practical man who, by dint of working hard, has made himself into a leading surgeon – whereas Margaret is young and fanciful, not only beautiful but highly imaginative.

The magician

So far, so standard. The novel looks like settling down to become another of Maugham’s stories about the trials and tribulations of another mismatched couple. Except that into this fairly run-of-the-mill setup Maugham throws a bomb, in the shape of the tall, monstrously obese, absurdly flamboyant and utterly sinister, self-proclaimed magician and master of the dark arts, Oliver Haddo.

In the introduction to The Magician which Maugham wrote years later, he freely admits to basing the character of Haddo on the notorious black magician, writer, poet and self-publicist Aleister Crowley, who he met in Paris in the mid-1900s when he was living with the painter Gerald Kelly.

In fact not only Haddo-Crowley but many of the other characters and settings are borrowed directly from life. Margaret’s studio is modelled on Kelly’s. Maugham and Kelly were regulars at a bar in Montparnasse called Le Chat Blanc, where local poets and artists congregated almost every evening. In the book this café becomes Le Chien Noir and many of its real-life habitués are coped into Maugham’s book with only slightly altered names. Maugham was notoriously sloppy about this, writing many of his stories almost directly from life and sometimes not even bothering to change people’s names – a habit which got him into trouble especially in classic short stories from south-east Asia a generation later.

The main characters

I enjoy the old-fashioned, detailed, physical and psychological descriptions Maugham gives of his characters. I like the way they’re often unexpected or have unexpected aspects. We’re so culturally conditioned by Hollywood and advertising stereotypes of above all young, physically fit, good-looking protagonists, that it’s a pleasure to go back before the domination of American advertising to be presented with characters who come from a different set of values. Here’s the hero, Arthur:

He was very tall and very thin. His frame had a Yorkshireman’s solidity, and his bones were massive. He missed being ungainly only through the serenity of his self-reliance. He had high cheek-bones and a long, lean face. His nose and mouth were large, and his skin was sallow. But there were two characteristics which fascinated her, an imposing strength of purpose and a singular capacity for suffering.

Margaret is the most stereotypical, being young and beautiful. But I still enjoyed the way the longest description of her is occurs while she and Arthur are looking at a statue of a perfect young woman in the Louvre:

In Arthur’s eyes Margaret had all the exquisite grace of the statue, and the same unconscious composure; and in her also breathed the spring odours of ineffable purity. Her features were chiselled with the clear and divine perfection of this Greek girl’s; her ears were as delicate and as finely wrought. The colour of her skin was so tender that it reminded you vaguely of all beautiful soft things, the radiance of sunset and the darkness of the night, the heart of roses and the depth of running water. The goddess’s hand was raised to her right shoulder, and Margaret’s hand was as small, as dainty, and as white.

Susie:

She was one of those plain women whose plainness does not matter. A gallant Frenchman had to her face called her a belle laide, and, far from denying the justness of his observation, she had been almost flattered. Her mouth was large, and she had little round bright eyes. Her skin was colourless and much disfigured by freckles. Her nose was long and thin. But her face was so kindly, her vivacity so attractive, that no one after ten minutes thought of her ugliness. You noticed then that her hair, though sprinkled with white, was pretty, and that her figure was exceedingly neat. She had good hands, very white and admirably formed, which she waved continually in the fervour of her gesticulation. Now that her means were adequate she took great pains with her dress, and her clothes, though they cost much more than she could afford, were always beautiful. Her taste was so great, her tact so sure, that she was able to make the most of herself. She was determined that if people called her ugly they should be forced in the same breath to confess that she was perfectly gowned.

And a passage to make feminists explode with outrage:

Susie could not prevent the pang that wrung her heart; for she too was capable of love. There was in her a wealth of passionate affection that none had sought to find. None had ever whispered in her ears the charming nonsense that she read in books. She recognised that she had no beauty to help her, but once she had at least the charm of vivacious youth. That was gone now, and the freedom to go into the world had come too late; yet her instinct told her that she was made to be a decent man’s wife and the mother of children.

It is fascinating, chilling, informative, amazing, that at age 30, Susie considers herself an old maid, a spinster, over the hill and on the shelf. It is a vivid insight into social history.

Anyway, Susie plays the well-worn role of friend and confidante to the heroine and secret admirer of the hero. It’s a similar role to that played by Miss Ley in Maugham’s second novel Mrs Craddock, and in just the same way that Miss Ley comments sardonically and insightfully into the story of Bertha and Jim in that marriage, so Susie, at least initially, finds everything in the earnest love affair of Arthur and Margaret funny and mockable. (In a tiny grace not, a ‘Miss Ley’ is mentioned in the letter written to Arthur from a friend who knew Haddo at Oxford: the letter describes the dark rumours which described the man even as a student, but it is this casual reference to a ‘Miss Ley’ which makes the Maugham fan’s ears prick up and wonder whether, at one stage, he was going to create an overlapping universe of characters appearing across all his novels. Intriguing thought. Instead of a Marvel Comic Universe, a Maugham Character Universe. To some extent he did do this, with the character of ‘William Ashenden’ narrating both Cakes and Ale and the book of short stories named after him – and the Kent town of Whitstable appearing in several novels renamed ‘Blackstable.’)

Anyway. Then there is the villain, Haddo, whose main characteristic – as of so many villains throughout the ages – is his gross fatness:

He was a man of great size, two or three inches more than six feet high; but the most noticeable thing about him was a vast obesity. His paunch was of imposing dimensions. His face was large and fleshy. He had thrown himself into the arrogant attitude of Velasquez’s portrait of Del Borro in the Museum of Berlin; and his countenance bore of set purpose the same contemptuous smile.

And:

He was clearly not old, though his corpulence added to his apparent age. His features were good, his ears small, and his nose delicately shaped. He had big teeth, but they were white and even. His mouth was large, with heavy moist lips. He had the neck of a bullock. His dark, curling hair had retreated from the forehead and temples in such a way as to give his clean-shaven face a disconcerting nudity. The baldness of his crown was vaguely like a tonsure. He had the look of a very wicked, sensual priest.

Big fat and evil, Haddo is designed to send shivers of horror through the reader and, as the book proceeds, does so very effectively. So, having created and described these characters in great detail, what does Maugham do with them?

The plot

Through a series of carefully orchestrated events, Haddo becomes an increasing and insidious presence in the lives of the young couple. It is on Arthur’s very first night in Paris that Margaret and Susie take him to Le Chien Noir where he is introduced to the gallery of bohemians, and into which Haddo erupts, fat and grandiloquent and ridiculous and spooky.

At first, as Haddo tells a series of preposterous stories about what a wonderful big game hunter and mountain climber he is at Le Chien Noir he is met with mockery and scorn. It isn’t long before the theme of magic is raised and Haddo prompted to tell at length the lives of the famous magicians and alchemists of old – Paracelsus, Raymon Lull et al. (These are the sections which his critics drew attention to, as feeling like they had been cut and pasted out of the Encyclopedia Britannica and Maugham admits, very candidly, in his introduction to spending weeks in the British Museum researching. I like medieval history, and the voodoo feel of the medieval and early Renaissance world, so I enjoyed the atmosphere of flickering candles in darkened cellars, and mystic shapes drawn on the floor and ritual incantations.)

Haddo intersperses stories about the alchemists with tales of his own encounters with strange men and women who possess second sight, the ability to control animals and to conjure spirits. It helps to reinforce all this that Dr Porhoët chips in, mostly sceptical but admitting that, during his time in Egypt, he also witnessed strange and unaccountable events.

‘I have seen many things in the East which are inexplicable by the known processes of science.’

The same night, after eating at the bar, Haddo ends up tagging along with Susie, Arthur and Margaret to a fair ‘held at the Lion de Belfort’ in Montparnasse. Haddo lays his hands on the mane of the horse which pulls the cab they go to the fair in, and the horse starts whinnying and shivering in fear. As soon as he removes his hand, the horse stops. At the fair they see the usual sights, but then go to a scruffy booth presided over by an oriental woman who has a weird control over the snakes she tends.

Throughout these scenes the core trio of Arthur, Margaret and Susie are generally accompanied by Dr Porhoët, and he has a definite function in the book, which is to provide a plausible support of Haddo’s stories.

If Haddo had been the only one talking about the Zohar and the Clavicula Salomonis and the Pseudomonarchia Daemonorum of Wierus and the Grimoire of Honorius and the Hexameron of Torquemada and the Tableau de l’Inconstance des Démons, by Delancre and Delrio’s Disquisitiones Magicae he would have been isolated and much less believable.

But Maugham has given Dr Porhoët a career in Egypt so that he can position Porhoët as backing up and reinforcing many of Haddo’s claims. A few days later, when the trio visit Dr Porhoët’s apartment they discover it to be lined from floor to ceiling with leather-bound ancient volumes by all the great masters of the dark arts. Porhoët isn’t a magician and is drily ironic about most of the ‘learning’ contained in his books. But he does have one or two stories of weird and inexplicable events he saw occur during his time in Egypt…

So Dr Porhoët is like a straight man to Haddo’s dark magician, not quite believing in magic but helping to establish the fact that there is a vast body of writings on the subject, and that, maybe, you know, there’s something to it… Thus he and Haddo are able to have learned conversations about the old magicians, alchemists and their texts, a dramatic to and fro, spiced with Porhoët’s scepticism, which are much more persuasive than if Maugham had had Haddo just give long monologues covering the same material.

Dr Porhoët is Haddo’s enabler. He is the door which lets Haddo in. Dr Porhoët’s testimony makes Haddo’s belief in ancient magic much more believable. If a man of science who is basically a sceptic believes some of these stories, then maybe…

The crisis of the plot

Out of politeness, after the fair outing, Margaret invites Haddo a few days later to come to tea.

Part one of this tea party is another long disquition between Haddo and Dr Porhoët, touching on the lives and works of Paracelsus, Hermes Trismegistus and Albertus Magnus. It builds up to the long and vivid story of how Paracelsus created and nurtured ten little homunculi or spirits in jars. Silly though it sounds, the telling, amid plenty of detail, and horror-stricken intensity, creates a real atmosphere.

The story ended, Dr Porhoët rises to leave the little party and disaster strikes. Margaret’s little pet dog, which had started whining and gone to hide in a corner when Haddo first arrived, now inexplicably springs at him and bites Haddo in the hand. Without thinking, Haddo brutally kicks the dog right across the room at which Margaret screams and Arthur – who has met all of Haddo’s stories with mockery and disbelief – punches him full in the face then, while he is on the ground, kicks him again and again. For the usually sedate and restrained Maugham, this is a shocking scene. While they all turn their attention to the dog, Haddo staggers to his feet, where he makes a dignified apology for his behaviour, bows and leaves the apartment. But not before Susie has seen a look of implacable demonic hatred on his face!

Haddo’s campaign of seduction

Next day Margaret encounters Haddo in the street who promptly stumbles and collapses. Passersby say he is having a heart attack. Margaret is forced to take him into her apartment, despite her misgivings, to rest, give him a glass of water etc. She is full of dislike but her good manners prevail.

This is a bad mistake because Haddo proceeds to seduce Margaret, but not in a sexual sense, something far worse. He entrances her somehow. He is meek and apologetic, he begs forgiveness, she finds herself touched by the tears in his eyes, she finds herself noticing the beauty of his lips and face. He recites Walter Pater’s famous description of the Mona Lisa and then goes on to spin flowery prose poetry about other paintings, paintings characterised by dark atmosphere and unknown sins… the whole thing sounding very much like the purple prose used by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray – paintings, art, strange moods, rare emotions, unknown pleasures and so on…

When he commands her to listen to him playing the piano she follows and sits meekly, aware that she can do no other. He has somehow hypnotised her into admiration and submission. He doesn’t take advantage of her body; much more insidiously, she finds him entering her heart and affections.

Haddo performs magic. He scatters a pinch of blue powder onto a bowl of water and, behold! the water burns up and disappears. Haddo elaborates a fantasy in which he scatters enough blue powder over the world to burn up the oceans!

He then scatters dried leaves over the fire to produce a pungent smoke which he tells Margaret to inhale deeply. He takes her hand and suddenly they are transported to a barren cross-roads in a bleak landscape of burnt heather where Margaret sees a sort of witches’ sabbath.

Margaret’s gaze was riveted upon a great, ruined tree that stood in that waste place, alone, in ghastly desolation; and though a dead thing, it seemed to suffer a more than human pain. The lightning had torn it asunder, but the wind of centuries had sought in vain to drag up its roots. The tortured branches, bare of any twig, were like a Titan’s arms, convulsed with intolerable anguish. And in a moment she grew sick with fear, for a change came into the tree, and the tremulousness of life was in it; the rough bark was changed into brutish flesh and the twisted branches into human arms. It became a monstrous, goat-legged thing, more vast than the creatures of nightmare. She saw the horns and the long beard, the great hairy legs with their hoofs, and the man’s rapacious hands. The face was horrible with lust and cruelty, and yet it was divine. It was Pan, playing on his pipes, and the lecherous eyes caressed her with a hideous tenderness. But even while she looked, as the mist of early day, rising, discloses a fair country, the animal part of that ghoulish creature seemed to fall away, and she saw a lovely youth, titanic but sublime, leaning against a massive rock. He was more beautiful than the Adam of Michelangelo who wakes into life at the call of the Almighty; and, like him freshly created, he had the adorable languor of one who feels still in his limbs the soft rain on the loose brown earth. Naked and full of majesty he lay, the outcast son of the morning; and she dared not look upon his face, for she knew it was impossible to bear the undying pain that darkened it with ruthless shadows. Impelled by a great curiosity, she sought to come nearer, but the vast figure seemed strangely to dissolve into a cloud; and immediately she felt herself again surrounded by a hurrying throng. Then came all legendary monsters and foul beasts of a madman’s fancy; in the darkness she saw enormous toads, with paws pressed to their flanks, and huge limping scarabs, shelled creatures the like of which she had never seen, and noisome brutes with horny scales and round crabs’ eyes, uncouth primeval things, and winged serpents, and creeping animals begotten of the slime. She heard shrill cries and peals of laughter and the terrifying rattle of men at the point of death. Haggard women, dishevelled and lewd, carried wine; and when they spilt it there were stains like the stains of blood. And it seemed to Margaret that a fire burned in her veins, and her soul fled from her body; but a new soul came in its place, and suddenly she knew all that was obscene. She took part in some festival of hideous lust, and the wickedness of the world was patent to her eyes. She saw things so vile that she screamed in terror, and she heard Oliver laugh in derision by her side. It was a scene of indescribable horror, and she put her hands to her eyes so that she might not see.

It is preposterous like all horror stories but, if you give yourself permission, if you read sympathetically and let your imagination go, many passages of the book are genuinely visionary and creepy.

Abruptly he leaves, and she comes back to herself. But over the following days she finds herself thinking of him more and more. He had scribbled down his address before he departed and now Margaret finds herself drawn to go and see him, despite her better judgement. Susie returns to the studio, Arthur arrives and takes her in his arms – but she is changed utterly, and walks and talks as in a daze.

The wrong marriage

Long story short – Margaret makes excuses to Susie and lies to Arthur and starts to visit Haddo every afternoon. He shows her more of the Dark Side, explaining more foul mysteries and mysterious sins.

If this was a modern movie I might have expected them to have sex, the camera lingering on the sight of the enormous repulsive slug-like magician ravishing the slender beautiful Margaret in a variety of pornographic postures.

However, two things appear to restrain Maugham. One is the censorship of his day. A whole raft of publishers had refused to publish Mrs Craddock simply because it depicts feelings of arousal and lust, without any actual sex. Here again we have the feeling that Maugham is sailing as close to the wind as he can, but there is a definite line he can’t cross.

But reason two is that it will become important to the plot that Margaret remain a virgin.

In a nutshell, all the time she is making plans for her wedding to Arthur, naming the day, the dress, the cake and so on -she is secretly seeing Haddo and, to the reader’s horror, agreeing to marry him, overcome with horror and revulsion but unable to stop herself.

On the day that she and Arthur are due to catch the boat train from Paris back to London, Margaret sends a note to say that she has married Haddo and left town. Susie spends a day visiting her dressmaker, Haddo’s apartment, the British Embassy, establishing the truth of the story before telling Arthur who is absolutely devastated.

Thus Haddo wreaks the revenge on Arthur that Susie had seen in his face, after Arthur knocked him to the ground after the incident of the dog bite.

Haddo and Margaret’s peregrinations

Arthur returns to London where he throws himself into his work, taking two jobs, delivering lectures and editing a big book of surgery in order to try and blot out his intense emotional pain.

Susie takes up an invitation from a friend to go and stay in Italy for the winter. In the spring she passes on to the Riviera. In both places she discovers Haddo and Margaret have been staying, spreading scandalous behaviour. Haddo gambles intensely, getting Margaret to lay the bets at the tables. They have high society parties but eventually Haddo’s caddish behaviour is found out – he cheats at cards, he tries to pass forged money- and he is blackballed and cold shouldered by Society.

In Monte Carlo Susie actually witnesses Margaret gambling and shudders as she then smiles acquaintance with a notorious courtesan.

Susie returns to London, and meets with Arthur a few times. What Arthur doesn’t realise is that Susie is passionately in love with him. It gives an added intensity to the story that Susie loves Arthur with a pure disinterested love which she knows can never be returned because of Arthur’s total commitment to Margaret.

They go to the opera (music, Susie realises, is a drug Arthur uses to help transport him away from his pain at Margaret’s desertion) and bump into an acquaintance of Arthur’s who invites them to make up a dinner at the Savoy.

Here they are horrified to discover two of the other guests are Haddo and Margaret, with Margaret appearing cold and disdainful while Haddo politely but cruelly mocks Arthur at every opportunity in the conversation, and Susie has to sit watching her beloved suffer, wincing at every one of Haddo’s cruel jibes.

They abduct Margaret

Convinced that Margaret is not happy but somehow hypnotised by the obese bully, Arthur goes to the Savoy the next day and, after a long pleading conversation in which Margaret reveals that she is unhappy, abducts her – marching her out of the room, into a hansom cab, directing it to Euston and fleeing to the country.

There’s a chapter where Arthur tries to detoxify Margaret and where Susie assist. There is an explanation of the type of late Victorian divorce which they will arrange for her. But when Arthur returns to London to resume his work and organise the divorce Margaret becomes more and more restless, and one day Susie goes into her room to find she’s left. She has returned to Haddo.

Susie, by now convinced that Haddo’s hold over Margaret really is irrational and magical, travels back to Paris to see Dr Porhoët. More tales of how ancient magicians exert power and control over their victims (designed to reinforce the plausibility of the situation).

A few weeks later Arthur turns up and tells a long story about how he has visited Haddo’s country seat (apart from everything else, Haddo is posh; he went to Eton and Oxford and is heir to a big estate in Staffordshire, Skene.) He stayed at the local inn and then walked through the bleak and blasted countryside to the spooky old Gothic house. It is protected by a fence surrounding the grounds. Arthur finds a loose plank, wriggles it loose and and – in a spooky scene – stumbles through a dark wood to a clearing with a bench.

After a while Margaret comes and sits at the bench in a spectacularly convenient coincidence – whatever; we left plausibility behind quite a time ago. She initially thinks Arthur is a phantom and explains to Arthur that she knows Haddo is carrying out all kinds of black magic in the house. She quite calmly tells Arthur that she thinks Haddo is going to kill her, using her somehow in some black magic ritual. Terrified, Arthur pleads for her to come with him but she wriggles free and says No, Haddo will punish her if he knew she was speaking to Arthur, she must go she must go now — and runs off into the pitch blackness of the woods. Arthur searches and searches in vain, then retraces his footsteps to the hole in the fence, walks back to the local inn, gets a cab ride the next day to the station, catches the train to London, catches to boat train to Paris and is now standing in front of Susie and Porhoët telling him this narrative.

As it happens Susie and Dr Porhoët had just been having another one of those conversations about black magic and speculating on Haddo’s motives. Now she remembers one of the many black rumours about Haddo that she heard in Monte Carlo.

‘They said there that he was attempting to make living creatures by a magical operation.’ She glanced at the doctor, but spoke to Arthur. ‘Just before you came in, our friend was talking of that book of Paracelsus in which he speaks of feeding the monsters he has made on human blood.’
Arthur gave a horrified cry. (Chapter 13)

Susie, rather inconsequentially, persuades the by-now distraught Arthur to accompany her for a few days to Chartres to calm his nerves. But one day he rushes into her room convinced that something has happened to Margaret. How? Why? He can’t explain. Even staid, boring, unimaginative Arthur is now caught up in the atmosphere of magic and irrationality.

Back to England, back to Skene

They rush back to Paris, co-opt Dr Porhoët (what a hectic retirement he’s turning out to have!), catch the next boat train to London (‘Susie never forgot the horror of that journey to England’), catch a cab to Euston, catch the train to Staffordshire, catch a cab to the local inn at the village of Venning, and hear from the innkeeper’s nosy wife that, Yes, Mr Haddo’s beautiful wife passed away earlier that week. The funeral had taken place the previous day.

Arthur is even more distraught. He takes the others to confront the local doctor, slow provincial Dr Richardson, who claims it was a case of heart disease at which Arthur lets fly a stream of insults and abuse before storming out with a plan. For a moment I thought he might be planning to dig up the corpse which would have made for a grim and compelling scene.

Instead Arthur drags Susie and Dr Porhoët along with him to the gates of Skene House, pushes past the outraged gatekeeper, bangs on the door and loudly asks entrance from the  stroppy doorkeeper. Next thing we know, Haddo himself is there, even more physically repulsive than before.

Dr Porhoët, who had not seen him for some time, was astounded at the change which had taken place in him. The corpulence which had been his before was become now a positive disease. He was enormous. His chin was a mass of heavy folds distended with fat, and his cheeks were puffed up so that his eyes were preternaturally small. He peered at you from between the swollen lids. All his features had sunk into that hideous obesity. His ears were horribly bloated, and the lobes were large and swelled. He had apparently a difficulty in breathing, for his large mouth, with its scarlet, shining lips, was constantly open. He had grown much balder and now there was only a crescent of long hair stretching across the back of his head from ear to ear. There was something terrible about that great shining scalp. His paunch was huge; he was a very tall man and held himself erect, so that it protruded like a vast barrel. His hands were infinitely repulsive; they were red and soft and moist. He was sweating freely, and beads of perspiration stood on his forehead and on his shaven lip. (Chapter 14)

Haddo simply brushes them off and ignores their concerns. Margaret died of a heart attack, the local doctor says so. If Arthur attacks him, Haddo, now, in the doorway of his house in front of witnesses, why he will be compelled to report it to the village constable.

Incensed with frustration Arthur turns on his heel and marches back down the drive with the other two lamely following in his wake. And now there is a stranger plot development which is that Arthur – cool phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon rational scientist Arthur – asks Dr Porhoët to raise Margaret’s ghost from the dead! Without his books, and relying on memory, given a day to buy the basic ingredients from the local store, Porhoët, against all expectations, but in accordance with the book’s by-now dream logic, manages to do this. Out in the blasted heath, miles from any other people, at night, Porhoët arranges bowls, burns incense, says magic spells.

Inexplicably, a sudden terror seized Susie. She felt that the hairs of her head stood up, and a cold sweat broke out on her body. Her limbs had grown on an instant inconceivably heavy so that she could not move. A panic such as she had never known came upon her, and, except that her legs would not carry her, she would have fled blindly. She began to tremble. She tried to speak, but her tongue clave to her throat.

Margaret doesn’t appear like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, in the same shape as in life and speaking clearly to command revenge. Instead they at first only hear her, hear the sound of a woman weeping uncontrollably.

And then, seeming to come out of nothingness, extraordinarily, they heard with a curious distinctness the sound of a woman weeping. Susie’s heart stood still. They heard the sound of a woman weeping, and they recognized the voice of Margaret. A groan of anguish burst from Arthur’s lips, and he was on the point of starting forward. But quickly Dr Porhoët put out his hand to prevent him. The sound was heartrending, the sobbing of a woman who had lost all hope, the sobbing of a woman terrified. If Susie had been able to stir, she would have put her hands to her ears to shut out the ghastly agony of it.

And in a moment, notwithstanding the heavy darkness of the starless night, Arthur saw her. She was seated on the stone bench as when last he had spoken with her. In her anguish she sought not to hide her face. She looked at the ground, and the tears fell down her cheeks. Her bosom heaved with the pain of her weeping.

Then Arthur knew that all his suspicions were justified.

Fiery climax

The die is cast. In the long final chapter two things happen: the fight and the storming of the old house.

Several days go by while Arthur goes for long walks in the countryside and Susie and Dr Porhoët worry about him. One afternoon the sultry air is growing heavy with a storm when Arthur returns to the inn. It is getting dark as Susie and Dr Porhoët beg Arthur to tell them what his plan is: To kill Haddo, he simply replies.

The wind in the darkness outside rises to a howl and then the lamp in the room they’re in is suddenly extinguished. In the darkness they all realise that someone else is in the room with them. Reading this at night I found it genuinely scary. A huge black shape fills a corner and without a word Arthur flings himself on it, identifying arms and head and neck, rolling over, struggling, fighting for a grip.

Arthur seized the huge bullock throat and dug his fingers into it, and they sunk into the heavy rolls of fat; and he flung the whole weight of his body into them.

Arthur fights to the death in the pitch blackness, breaking the thing’s arm and then strangling it to death. He staggers to his feet. ‘I’ve killed him,’ he says hoarsely. Except that, when Susie lights a candle with the rasp of a match… the room is empty. There is nothing there!

It is an uncanny and genuinely eerie touch.

They must go, go now, go immediately to Skene, Arthur insists. And so he force marches Susie and Dr Porhoët  the three or so miles from the inn to the fence of the old Gothic pile. He breaks in through the broken fence. He bangs on the door but there is no answer. They know from the gossipy landlady of the inn, the servants are sent away at night. Confident that the house is empty save for Haddo, Arthur breaks into a ground floor window then comes to the front door to let the other two in.

Room by room the search the house, finding half of it abandoned and cold. They search two floors then are stymied about how to get up to the upper floor, the only rooms which they saw lit, from the outside. Eventually Arthur finds a secret passage concealed behind the wood panelling.

Up they go and discover – chambers of horrors: three long rooms which are a) dazzlingly lit b) immensely hot, warmed by open furnaces. There is a lengthy description of all the alchemical equipment Haddo had gathered and was using, but the climax of the entire novel is a series of glass bowls in which Haddo had been experimenting… to create humans, to create human life – going far beyond the tales of the homunculi created by Paracelsus and into a world of creating and moulding human beings which is reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s horrifying fantasy of a decade earlier, The Island of Dr Moreau.

All of Maugham’s habitual taste and decorum is thrown to the winds as he describes, at nauseating length, a series of half-human abortions and monstrous lumps which are kept in the glass basins, palpitating, or writhing or scuttling on deformed limbs. As a modern reader inured to the disgusting by, for example, the Alien movies I still found the descriptions sickening. God knows what contemporary Edwardian readers must have made of them.

In another [bowl] the trunk was almost like that of a human child, except that it was patched strangely with red and grey. But the terror of it was that at the neck it branched hideously, and there were two distinct heads, monstrously large, but duly provided with all their features. The features were a caricature of humanity so shameful that one could hardly bear to look. And as the light fell on it, the eyes of each head opened slowly. They had no pigment in them, but were pink, like the eyes of white rabbits; and they stared for a moment with an odd, unseeing glance. Then they were shut again, and what was curiously terrifying was that the movements were not quite simultaneous; the eyelids of one head fell slowly just before those of the other.

And then, over in a corner, they see the vast body of Haddo, lying dead, strangled with protruding eyes and tongue. His arm is broken, as Arthur broke the fat body he fought with in the blackout at the hotel. Somehow, by some magic which we are now totally prepared to believe, Haddo transported his body, or a version of himself to the hotel room, and Arthur, killing the phantasm there, also killed the host body.

‘Out, out,’ cries Arthur, ‘We must leave now,’ and hustles them out of the rooms and down the stairs. Aren’t you coming? cries Susie. ‘In a moment,’ he replies. He rejoins them at the door, the run down the drive, then detour into the dark wood, find the hole in the fence and walk the long way back towards the inn.

Dawn comes as they approach the inn. Susie feels an enormous sense of life and colour returning to the landscape. And then she realises there is red in the west too. Arthur set Skene alight. Now it is blazing out of control. The old Gothic ruin, along with the body of its black magician master and the horror of the creatures he made, will all be wiped from the face of the earth.

Arthur puts his arm around Susie to support her and she suddenly feels safe and protected. The warm sun rises over the rejuvenated landscape. All will be well.


The pleasures of the text

Entertainment

Although it’s a preposterous story told in often lurid and over-wrought prose, it is still, like most of Maugham, immensely entertaining and readable.

Escapism

There’s not only the obvious escape any story offers, namely of escaping your present-day concerns into a world where you understand all the characters and what is going on – and where stories have neat beginnings, middles and ends – so very unlike the experience of messy, complicated and often inexplicable life that most of us experience.

There’s also the pleasure of escape into another era, the Downton Abbey syndrome. There are different clothes (for women, an amazing array of rich costumes, gowns, cloaks, dresses, and hats – lots of hats – and fine jewellery). There is the way the streets of London, Paris or the towns they visit are not clogged and poisoned by cars, lorries, buses, taxis and other sources of poisonous toxic fumes.

And, something I noticed in Mrs Craddock and here – all the characters take it for granted that they can just swan off abroad whenever they like. We are told that Arthur is a busy surgeon at a leading hospital but he can not only pop over to Paris for weeks at a time, but go gallivanting off to Charters, or spend the latter part of the novel running off to Staffordshire. I wish I had that kind of job.

Even more I wish I led the life of Susie. On the one hand the modern feminist reader might be horrified at the way she – and presumably the society around her – consider her an old maid on the shelf at age 30, and might object to the rather harsh way in which Maugham repeatedly emphasises the plainness of her looks, which verge on ugliness.

But on the upside – she doesn’t have to work! As far as I can tell she has no job because she enjoys a modest allowance. This means she spends all day strolling round Paris, visiting galleries, having little tea parties and, when Margaret leaves with Haddo, simply accepts an invitation from a friend to go and stay in Rome for the winter, going to the opera, going out for dinner, strolling round galleries. When she gets bored of that, she moves on to the Riviera for spring.

If she is meant to be proof of the terrible suffering and oppression which women endured in late Victorian and Edwardian times well, I wish I could have spent my life undergoing the same ‘suffering’. Spring? ‘We’re off to Monte Carlo, darling’. Summer? ‘Probably back for the Season. Shall we meet you at the opera?’

Manners

Everyone is so polite. It is lovely to read about the decorum and manners of a long lost era. Sure, it acted as a terrible restraint on people’s feelings – for example, it is made very clear that Arthur suffers immensely because he feels he cannot speak openly to anyone about his anguish over Margaret, but the general level of exquisite politeness at almost every level of society is so remote from the everyday rudeness and curtness of our own times.

And you have to enter into this world of exquisite manners in order to understand, and enjoy, when they are being deliberately manipulated by the characters. For example, it is one of Haddo’s amusing traits that he is wickedly heartless with the most polished manners, twisting the emotional knife into Arthur with soft words and refined diction. Take the scene on the door of Skene House where our trio have barged their way to find the truth about Margaret’s death. Haddo appears with silky ease and is the soul of politesse.

‘I have come about Margaret’s death,’ said Arthur.
Haddo, as was his habit, did not immediately answer. He looked slowly from Arthur to Dr Porhoët, and from Dr Porhoët to Susie. His eyes rested on her hat, and she felt uncomfortably that he was inventing some gibe about it.
‘I should have thought this hardly the moment to intrude upon my sorrow,’ he said at last. ‘If you have condolences to offer, I venture to suggest that you might conveniently send them by means of the penny post.’

Even in the midst of all the horror, Maugham still has the focus to make Haddo the source of wonderfully cynical jibes, clothed in Eton-Oxford-aristocratic refinement. Here is Arthur shouting at Haddo, and Haddo fending him off with unimpeachable civility.

‘I saw Margaret three weeks ago, and she told me that she went in terror of her life.’
‘Poor Margaret! She had always the romantic temperament. I think it was that which first brought us together.’
‘You damned scoundrel!’ cried Arthur.
‘My dear fellow, pray moderate your language. This is surely not an occasion when you should give way to your lamentable taste for abuse. You outrage all Miss Boyd’s susceptibilities.’ He turned to her with an airy wave of his fat hand. ‘You must forgive me if I do not offer you the hospitality of Skene, but the loss I have so lately sustained does not permit me to indulge in the levity of entertaining.’

Well, if you’re going to be a black magician confronted by the fiancé of the woman you stole from him and subsequently murdered as part of your fiendish experiments – this is the style to do it in.

The movie

The Magician was made into a fabulously melodramatic black-and-white silent film in 1926, directed by Rex Ingram.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1902 Mrs Craddock
1908 The Magician
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner (novel)
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before The Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells (1901)

This is the seventh of Wells’s classic science fiction novels. He had also, by 1901, written over 60 science fiction short stories. Single-handedly he had created a new genre for the English-speaking world, which was quickly taken up and copied.

It wasn’t just that he wrote a lot, it’s that the early books each tackled, described, thought through and realistically presented some of the founding tropes of science fiction – time travel and attack by aliens from another world, being the two outstanding ones – which have been recycled thousands of times since.

The First Men in the Moon is not quite in the same league because it didn’t invent the topic of travelling to the moon – Jules Vernes had written a novel on the same theme thirty years earlier (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865) and in fact a number of fantasies and romances on the subject had been written for centuries (including the version by the 17th century writer Cyrano de Bergerac whose illustrations by Quentin Blake I recently reviewed – Voyages to the Moon and the Sun, based on the Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon, 1657).

Also, the scientific basis of the story – the mechanism by which the protagonists get to the moon – using some kind of anti-gravity metal – the way it’s discovered and handled, isn’t as persuasive as some of the earlier fantasies. Nonetheless, the story is still compelling because of the thoroughness with which Wells thinks through the practical details – and then because of the avalanche of astounding discoveries which his heroes make once they’ve arrived on the moon, and which keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.

Amateur hour

As usual in Wells, the whole thing is invented by an inspired amateur – the notion of government-sponsored scientific research being still decades away, pioneered by the Manhattan project of the 1940s.

Instead the story is narrated in the first person by a rather disreputable bankrupt, Mr Bedford, who retreats to a bungalow on the Kent coast where he hopes to scribble a best-selling play in order to make a quick buck, but gets into conversation with an eccentric neighbour, Cavor, and gets drawn into the latter’s scientific experiments.

The ‘scientific’ basis is simple, or simple-minded, enough. Cavor points out that we now know the universe is full of rays and waves that act at a distance – light rays, x-rays, electricity and gravity. And we know of materials which block some of these rays – light and electricity and x-rays. So why can’t we create something which blocks the effect of gravity?

Bedford immediately sees the vast amounts of money to be made from such a material in a hundred and one commercial applications:

An extraordinary possibility came rushing into my mind. Suddenly I saw, as in a vision, the whole solar system threaded with Cavorite liners and spheres de luxe. (p.27)

So Bedford persuades the rather other-worldly Cavor to take him on as a ‘partner’, and becomes a regular visitor to the latter’s house down the hill (incidentally observing the comic rivalry of the three working class labourers Cavor has working in his various workshops).

An enormous explosion and then a terrific hurricane announce to the narrator that Cavor has indeed succeeded in making the new material. it happened by fluke, when a substance they’d been working on was left to cool and crystallised into the material they now decide to christen ‘cavorite’. (It all takes place on 14 October 1899, as Bedford faithfully records.)

What caused the hurricane is that, as soon as it came into existence, the cavorite blocked the earth’s gravitational pull from working on the air above it. This meant that that air – which normally presses downwards at a pressure of 14 pounds per square inch – ceased doing so, and instead floated freely upwards. This created a column of ’empty air’ directly about the square of cavorite. Into this gravity-less tube rushed all the surrounding air which, on finding itself also liberated from the earth’s gravity, also lost its downward weight and was itself forced upwards by the rest of the surrounding air rushing in. And so on and so on. In a split second the pull of pressurised air into the column of unweighted air created a huge inrush of air from the surroundings, in which everything which was not tied down was immediately dragged towards it at tremendous force.

For the few moments that this happened all the air in the neighbourhood was sucked into the gravity-free tube – which explains the sudden hurricane Cavor and Bedford felt. But then they themselves saw the little sheet of cavorite itself get sucked up by the empty vortex and they both watched it soar up through the column, up, up and – presumably – right out of the earth’s atmosphere… at which point everything returned to normal. ‘By Jove, old chap.’

Bedford and Cavor look at each other. This thing could escape the earth’s atmosphere. It could fulfil man’s oldest dream of leaving earth. But how to steer or control it? Cavor goes off pondering and the next day has come up with a solution: encase the cavorite in steel plates which mask its anti-gravity effect, and only open the plates facing in a certain direction when you want the anti-gravity cavorite to work in that direction.

(You can see why Wells has his narrator, Bedford, continually lament that he didn’t keep notes, didn’t make a record of the process by which cavorite was made, didn’t follow all of Cavor’s abstruse thinking and so on. This is because Well’s idea doesn’t really make practical sense.)

So the pair construct a sphere, with an inner layer made of glass, then covered in warm cavorite paste, then steel divided into plates. (In fact it’s less a sphere than a polyhedron made of flat plates. And the plates are more, in fact, like ‘blinds’ which can be opened and closed. I’ve always found this quite hard to visualise.) Once everything is in place they heat the cavorite paste to securely bind it to the ‘sphere’ and then, as it cools, it assumes the magical properties and – whoosh!

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Hering (1901)

The idea is that to steer the sphere you open a plate in the direction you want gravity to cease working and are repelled away from any nearby object (the earth or moon or sun) which would ordinarily exert the attractive power of gravity. Once in space, close the plates and you’ll be pulled towards the nearest big object. Like the moon.

Bedford climbs into the sphere and Cavor shows him how he’s furnished it – the blankets, some frozen oxygen in cylinders, some food, an electric light and some carbolic acid device to get rid of the carbon dioxide they inhale. But while Bedford is still pondering whether he wants to go, Cavor opens the earthside shutters, the cavorite works and whoosh! they are flying towards the moon.

Wells’s story races at top speed to prevent you from realising what tosh it is, and to enchant you in his narrative spell. Wonder follows wonder. First of all there is weightlessness. Maybe earlier writers had realised that we would be weightless in space but Wells gives a very accurate prophecy of what it feels like, the tingling in the blood and the way everything inside the sphere floats around bumping into everything else.

It was the strangest sensation conceivable, floating thus loosely in space, at first indeed horribly strange, and when the horror passed, not disagreeable at all, exceeding restful; indeed, the nearest thing in earthly experience to it that I know is lying on a very thick, soft feather bed. But the quality of utter detachment and independence! I had not reckoned on things like this. I had expected a violent jerk at starting, a giddy sense of speed. Instead I felt – as if I were disembodied. It was not like the beginning of a journey; it was like the beginning of a dream.

They open some of the plates to see where they’re headed and a) are dazzled by the brightness of the sun and b) looking the other direction, are stunned by the profusion of stars, millions more than you can see through earth’s atmosphere.

Cavor makes last-minute adjustments and they come to land in a vast crater on the moon. Here the reader is bombarded with vivid impressions. It is dark and the ground is covered in soft white stuff which they only slowly realise is not dust but frozen atmosphere. They have arrived just at sunrise over the crater and are astonished to watch the frozen white stuff all around them melt and then evaporate, to form an atmosphere, tingeing the sky blue.

Is it breathable? Cavor performs the ludicrously amateur experiment of opening the manhole which they use to get in and out of the capsule and discovers that – yes, it is thinner than earth’s but the moon’s atmosphere turns out to be perfectly breathable. (No ill effects from sunlight, radiation, burning, toxic gases, nothing! Convenient, eh?)

They climb outside and are astounded to watch small pebbles shiver, pop, put out roots, and then stalks. They are plants and shrubs and strange tree-sized flora, which grows even as they watch. Of course. The moon’s ‘year’ – the length of time it takes the sun to rise and set over the lunar surface – only lasts for 14 earth days. In that fortnight, life forms have to spring, grow, mature, produce their own seed, and decline.

But the thing they are most enraptured with is the low gravity. Only a sixth of the earth’s. Off they go springing and bounding in giant leaps amid the surreally growing and blossoming fruits of the moon. Until  – oops – they both realise they have forgotten where the sphere was and, looking back, see only an immense rustling growing forest of moon flora.

And it is then that they hear an ominous boom boom boom noise from beneath the surface and a grinding as of great gates opening. Not long afterwards they see the first of the Selenites herding a vast slug-like creature with tiny closed eyes and a horrid red mouth which is slurping and munching its way through the foliage, like a farmer herding a monstrous cow.

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Amazement

Wells’s aim is to amaze, stun, astonish and astound. The basic, foundational trope of a visit to a strange land is reminiscent of any number of late-Victorian yarns – Vernes’ Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), Rider Haggard’s journeys to darkest Africa (She, 1886), or Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger trip to a Lost World (1912) in the remotest Amazon.

But science fiction has the advantage over mere adventure stories in that it can make things up purely to astound, astonish, shock, disgust and amaze the reader.

Because the text is available online, it is searchable, and so I searched and counted no fewer than 415 exclamation marks, as the characters, and the author, continually signal their amazement at their astounding discoveries!!!

Then, for fun, I searched all the instances of the word ‘amazing’.

It comes to me with a certain quality of astonishment that my participation in these amazing adventures of Mr. Cavor was, after all, the outcome of the purest accident.

[Cavor’s workshop] looked like business from cellar to attic – an amazing little place to find in an out-of-the-way village

It was an amazing piece of reasoning. Much as it amazed and exercised me at the time.

And then, sudden, swift, and amazing, came the lunar day.

With a steady assurance, a swift deliberation, these amazing seeds thrust a rootlet downward to the earth and a queer little bundle-like bud into the air.

Cavor panted something about ‘amazing sensations’.

What the Selenites made of this amazing, and to my mind undignified irruption from another planet, I have no means of guessing.

Amazing little corner in the universe – the landing place of men!

… returning after amazing adventures to this world of ours.

There were several amazing forms, with heads reduced to microscopic proportions and blobby bodies.

Amazing and incredible as it may seem, these two creatures, these fantastic men insects, these beings of other world, were presently communicating with Cavor by means of terrestrial speech.

The dictionary definition of to amaze is ‘to cause someone to be extremely surprised’. Synonyms for ‘amaze’ give a sense of the goal of Well’s fantasies (and of the thousands of pulp sci-fi writers who followed him). it is to:

astonish, astound, surprise, bewilder, stun, stagger, flabbergast, nonplus, shock, startle, shake, stop someone in their tracks, stupefy, leave open-mouthed, leave aghast, take someone’s breath away, dumbfound, daze, benumb, perplex, confound, dismay, disconcert, shatter, take aback, jolt, shake up

Taken prisoner

Back in the story our heroes sneak away from the ghastly apparition of the Selenite and realise they are hungry. Not having any provisions from the sphere they are driven by desperation to nibble one of the growing lunar ‘trees’ and Wells gives quite a humorous account of the way that the ‘food’ does them no harm but makes them both very drunk. Through their drunken bickering they are aware of Selenites surrounding them and of some kind of struggle, then it all goes dark.

They wake up with hangovers in a dark cell in handcuffs and shackles. One or two individual Selenites come to see them before they are raised to their feet and led by a posse of Selenites, some of whom are carrying the sharp spiked goads they’d seen one using on get the big fat mooncalf earlier. Our heroes are fascinated and disgusted at the Selenites’ appearance, a kind of giant ant. The shapes of their heads appear to vary, indicating different brain size and probably advanced specialisation of job or function in what they come to realise is the complex Selenite civilisation.

They are taken through caverns measureless to man, past enormous machinery which appears to be pumping out some kind of liquid which glows blue and provides illumination here. Cavor speculates wildly that there may be a whole civilisation here, under the surface of the moon. Maybe networks of caverns descending via tunnels down to some inner sea. Scooped out and developed over thousands of years.

When they come to a narrow plank going out over what appears to be a vast bottomless pit, Bedford rebels. One of the Selenites goads him with the spiky implement and he sees red. He punches the Selenite and is astonished to watch his fist go right through its head and out the other side. They are clearly far less sturdy and strongly made than humans. Before he knows it he is attacking all of them and then grabbing Cavor to make a getaway.

This is actually the turning point of the book, because the rest of the main narrative describes their panic-stricken escape back to the surface of the moon. It is a chase narrative. As you might imagine, it involves climbing up clefts and stumbling into vast caverns and a lot more fighting, with the unpleasant discovery that the Selenites have a sort of crossbow which fires spears.

Nonetheless, triumphing over all these perils our heroes finally blunder out into a huge circular shaft with spiral steps running up along the wall (the kind of thing we’ve all seen in sci-fi and fantasy movies) leading up to the surface. Up it they run, emerging into the lip of a ‘crater’ – and they now understand that the moon’s ‘craters’ are in fact an immense network of circular ‘lids’ which can be retracted to reveal the labyrinth of tunnels created by Selenite civilisation and which allow the Selenites to emerge onto the surface to farm their herds of moon cows.

The sun is visibly waning: some 14 days have passed underground though they haven’t noticed, and is now threatening to set with all that entails in terms of losing the breathable atmosphere. Where is the sphere?

Afflicted by despair as they survey the vast area of lunar foliage, now visibly browning and declining, they pin a handkerchief to a nearby bush and set off to explore in opposite directions, taking vast moon leaps as they go.

Nearing exhaustion and plagued by fear that search parties of very angry Selenites will be out after them, Bedford is on the brink of giving up when he is momentarily dazzled by a shaft of light and realises it is sunlight reflecting off a panel of the sphere. Weeping with relief he bounds over and confirms it’s true. But what of Cavor? He leaps to a nearby peak and shouts Cavor’s name but – as Wells had pointed out from the first (in the kind of scientifically accurate detail which are such a joy of these stories) moon air is a lot thinner than earth air and so sound doesn’t carry very well: even when they’re shouting at each other it sounds like they’re whispering.

He can see the hankie in a bush a few miles away and so leaps over towards it. Here he yells Cavor’s name again, then looks down and sees an archetypal adventure story sight: broken bushes, churned-up soil, all the signs of a struggle. Going down he finds a scrap of paper in which Cavor has hurriedly written that he’s hurt his knee in landing awkwardly in a ditch and can hear the Selenites closing in, any moment they’re going to come, oh my God –

And here his message breaks off and the paper is marked by… a red liquid. Blood!!!!

The Selenites have got him. The crater is closed. All entrance to the interior is blocked off. The sun has almost set. Bedford realises he must save himself. I found his flight back the sphere quite gripping. Wells convincingly describes the sudden drop in temperature as the sun declines, the air grows thin and cold and then the first snowflakes will fall. The temperature will ultimately drop to Absolute Zero and Bedford will freeze to death unless he can make it to the sphere in time. At last he is there. Crawling on hands and knees. Barely strength to reach up to the manhole, Twists. Can’t do it. Twists again. Pulls himself up and is… inside!

An exhausted Bedford just about makes it back to the sphere as snow falls, illustration for The First Men In The Moon by Claude Allin Shepperson

An exhausted Bedford just about makes it back to the sphere as snow falls, illustration for The First Men In The Moon by Claude Allin Shepperson

Food. Blanket. Warmth. Recovery. Sleep. Wakes rejuvenated. Grasps the grim reality of his situation. Opens the cavorite plates. Silently flies into space. More by luck than judgement he steers a course back to earth.

In an outcome so ludicrous it is like a pantomime, he not only lands back on earth, but he lands back on the south coast of England, barely a few miles from where they took off. On the sea, but conveniently close to a beach which he is then washed up on. Some jolly English chaps are coming down for their morning swim. ‘Crikey, old chap, you look a bit peaky let us take you up to the old hotel.’

Here he tucks into bacon and eggs and is drinking coffee when there’s an explosion and bewilderment outside the door. Some young lad had been hanging round as the chaps took dirty, dishevelled Bedford up to their hotel. He’d looked a bit shifty. The young wretch must have gone back to the sphere, climbed in and opened a plate, making it lift off. Damn and blast! There go Bedford’s dreams of setting up an interplanetary travel agency.

But he still has the gold. Did I mention the gold? Amid their adventures Bedford had realised that the shackles and manacles the Selenites had bound them with were made of gold. He had grabbed a couple of tyre lever-sized gold rods during their breakout. In fact he’d found them handy for fighting their way through the Selenites.

At least he still has them. He is rich.

A coda from Cavor

Wells could have stopped his tale there. Instead, there is a coda which takes up a surprising amount of space, pages 150 to 186 in the Everyman paperback edition.

To the outrage of all common sense, a Dutch electrician and early radio ham, picks up radio messages… from the moon! Yes, Cavor was captured, as Bedford had described: but his captors were kind to him, and, once he’d recovered, they took him on a Cook’s Tour of their vast civilisation. Part of this was learning that there was an apparently infinite variety of types of Selenites and soon Cavor was being introduced to the brainy ones: he could tell they were brainy, because they had very big heads! Big heads and thin skins so he could actually see the brain matter pulsating as they thought their deep thoughts.

Turns out that some of the Selenites are specialists in language and set about teaching Cavor who quickly catches on and starts to teach them English. Thus, within a few weeks, Cavor is communicating with the Selenites who explain how their society works, confirm that the moon is a swiss cheese of underground caverns and passages, that the phosphorescent liquid and much else is produced by immense machinery, that at the centre of the moon there is indeed a vast and tempestuous sea – and much more besides.

These visions of an alien civilisation, as so often, develop a strong flavour of being social criticism of the author’s own civilisation. Cavor discovers that the Selenites breed all the different types of workers in the equivalent of test tubes, distorting all aspects of their bodies and brains to suit them to the work they’re destined for. (Anticipating Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World by 30 years).

Harsh? Yes, he is a bit disgusted by it and especially by one particular sight of an embryonic Selenite having its forelimbs artificially lengthened to do manual work, but – and here is the Author’s Message –

of course it is really in the end a far more humane proceeding than our earthly method of leaving children to grow into human beings, and then making machines of them.

On another occasion his guides – the preposterously named Phi-oo and Tsi-puff – bring him to a great field of mushrooms being grown for food, where they find all the workers drugged and fast asleep, until they are needed for the harvest when they’ll be woken. Again, the character Cavor becomes a mouthpiece for the Fabian Socialist H.G. Wells:

To drug the worker one does not want and toss him aside is surely far better than to expel him from his factory to wander starving in the streets

Cavor’s tour climaxes with a presentation to the Grand Lunar, Master of the Moon – at which point the book definitely feels more like a lampoon or a parody than a ‘serious’ fantasy, a kind of ludicrous Wizard of Oz vibe.

Except that here it also reaches a kind of height of teenage socialism. Cavor radios back to earth a lengthy version of his interview with the Grand Lunar which begins with harmless stuff about the structure of the earth, why we live on the surface and not underneath like the Selenites, what weather is like in a place with 12 hour days, and so on. Little by little Cavor describes human civilisation, cities and factories and trains, how we do not breed different types of human to perform different tasks, not yet anyway.

But, when asked whether there is a Grand Earthly as there is a Grand Lunar, he finds himself having to explain the idea of ‘nations’ and ’empires’ and, before he realises it, is describing ‘war’. His brutal description of this absurd folly fills the Grand Lunar and the huge entourage of Selenites listening to Cavor’s account with horror.

Yes, wars in which men flock to the flag, train and arm and proudly wear uniforms, before clashing in huge armies designed solely to kill as many of the opponents as possible. As he proceeds, Cavor notes the moans of disappointment and disillusion rising from the crowd and the ‘expression’ on what passes for the Grand Lunar’s face.

Cover of Amazing Histories magazine, featuring an illustration of Cavor addressing the Great Lunar

Cover of Amazing Histories magazine, featuring an illustration of Cavor addressing the Great Lunar

A week later comes the final broadcast we are ever to hear from Cavor. It is a panic-stricken sentence, ‘I was mad to let the Grand Lunar know – ‘… and then a few words attempting to convey the secret of cavorite. Then silence.

Bedford imagines the dismay Cavor’s revelation about the true nature of human beings must have caused among the Selenites, and how the mood turned against Cavor, and how the moon people then realised that he was broadcasting messages to his violent brethren back on earth, with the risk that these psychopaths might return in one of these ‘armies’ and conquer the Selenites.

Gulliver

When I read this as a teenager I was awed by Wells’s profound insight into human nature. Now it reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels, in which the hero also describes human behaviour to the peace-loving King of Brobdingnag, who replies, accurately enough:

‘I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.’

True or not, the point is that, bolted on to the science fantasy, this coda reads very much like a variation on the time-honoured satire on contemporary civilisation and, by extension, of human nature, which goes back before Swift to Thomas More’s Utopia and before that to any number of Roman and Greek authors.


Commentary

There are three obvious features about a Wells novel like this, what he called his ‘fantasy novels’:

1. Fast

It’s fast-moving. Bedford has bumped into Cavor, built the sphere, gone to the moon, watched the desert bloom, been captured and taken below, escaped and fought his way to the surface, found the sphere and escaped, crash-landed on earth and had a hearty breakfast, all in a mere 150 pages (in the Everyman paperback edition I read).

2. Fantastic

The speed prevents you noticing its preposterousness. It’s so fast-moving you don’t notice how quickly you leave the world of Edwardian England, with its pubs and evening strolls along the Downs, completely behind. It only requires ten or so pages from Bedford meeting Cavor, to him thoroughly involving him in his theoretical speculations, and then – whoosh! they’re off to the moon.

It is fast-moving because it is, in a sense, pulp.  Only by moving fast from one astounding moment to the next can it stop you pausing to reflect and thus breaking the spell.

3. Mundanity

But, contradicting a little what I’ve said above, just as important as the speed and fantasy, is its air of mundaneness and normality.

I think it was Tom Shippey in his book about Lord of the Rings who explained that what made the book such a success was the invention of the hobbits. Tolkien had been working on his private-world mythology for decades, inventing languages and complex histories for his elves and dwarves and so on, and had produced quite a few texts narrating whole eras in his legendary Middle Earth. But they were boring and flat.

It was the invention of the down-to-earth, small, beer-drinking, pipe-smoking, no-nonsense, common-sensical hobbits which gave him a vehicle to take the reader into his world. We are introduced to the hobbits first and thoroughly identify with their idealised pastoral English life – before the first hints of other-worldly menace ever appear.

This explains why Lord of the Rings is regularly voted the greatest novel of the 20th century, while I’ve never met anyone who managed to complete The Silmarillion, another of Tolkien’s epics, describing a different era in Middle Earth’s history, but which lacks hobbits and, therefore, all charm and – crucially – representatives of the ordinary reader; imaginative vectors allowing us to enter into his imaginative world.

It’s an overlooked element of Wells that his best books also require this dichotomy – the interlocking of two opposites, the fantastic and the mundane.

We all know about the fantastical in his books, for example the idea that Martians launch an attack on earth or a man invents a time machine and travels to the distant future. Those are certainly the ideas at the core of the books. But when you actually read the texts what comes across almost as powerfully is the very mundane details of the places where this all happens – that the Martians land in Dorking and head towards London across the humdrum landscape of Surrey, blasting well known landmarks on their way (which is why there is a striking sculpture of a ‘Martian’ in Dorking town centre).

Wells himself was well aware of doing this:

For the writer of fantastic stories to help the reader play the game properly he must help him, in every possible unobtrusive way, to domesticate the impossible hypothesis. (Quoted in the critical afterword to the Everyman edition)

And one mark of this is the way the people who witness and generally write up the narratives are always very ordinary, everyday chaps, who are often a bit confused, puzzled, don’t quite follow what’s going on, miss important details, don’t quite follow the scientific whatchamacallit, and, in their bumbling innocence, stand in as a kind of stylised representative of the innocent reader.

They are all Dr Watsons to a succession of fierce, eccentric or visionary Holmeses, respectively:

  • 1895 The Time Machine – first person unnamed narrator
  • 1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – first person narrative by shipwrecked sailor Edward Prendick
  • 1897 The Invisible Man – (third person narrator)
  • 1898 The War of the Worlds – first person unnamed narrator
  • 1899 When the Sleeper Wakes – Graham, the eponymous sleeper
  • 1901 The First Men in the Moon – first person narrative by Mr Bedford
  • 1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – third person narrative
  • 1906 In The Days of the Comet – unnamed first person narrator
  • 1908 The War in the Air – featuring Bert and Tom Smallways
  • 1914 The World Set Free – third person narrator

Making this list shows that this isn’t exactly a hard-and-fast rule, but that most of the most effective fantasies are told in the first person by someone undergoing the adventure themselves.

It goes some way to explaining why of the early stories The Invisible Man stands out as particularly unlikeable and negative: it is one of the few not told by a more or less reasonable chap, who we’re meant to identify with.

As a footnote, this helps explain the presence of the three working class men who Cavor employs in his lab, in the earlier pages of the book. They are each jealous of each other’s specialisms, argue and often down tools to go off to the pub and argue some more and so perform the function of the rude mechanicals in Shakespeare, offering comic interludes but also throwing into relief the more serious activities of their middle class superiors. Anchoring them to a humorous everyday reality.

This also explains why Bedford, at an early stage, after he’s had an argument with Cavor, goes off for an epic walk across Kent, enjoying the countryside, stopping for lunch in a pub, chatting with the local yokels while he puffs on his pipe. All designed to embed the wild fantasy in a comfortable, relaxing coat of verisimilitude.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

Heath Robinson’s World of Advertising @ the Heath Robinson Museum

His subjects were human nature and particularly those individuals who had an inflated view of their own importance. (Geoffrey Beare, curator and author of the exhibition book)

By the late 1890s Heath Robinson had established his reputation as a cartoonist for magazines like Tatler and Punch and as an illustrator of luxury editions of Shakespeare. The 1890s and the Edwardian decade were the heyday of English book illustrations and Heath Robinson even wrote and illustrated some books of his own (for example, The adventures of Uncle Lubin, 1902).

Unsurprisingly, the Great War changed all that. For a while there was a greater appetite for humorous stories and cartoons to keep up the spirits of people both at the Front and back home, and HR provided a steady stream of morale-boosting cartoons, many now collected in Heath Robinson’s Great War.

But in 1915 his career took a new turn. He was approached by Johnny Walker’s distillery and asked to produce cartoons showing how their trademark Scotch whiskey was manufactured. HR visited the factory in Scotland, not to produce a documentary record, but to spot ideas for his fantastical contraptions. The result was a set of cartoons showing the manufacture of the holy elixir using a series of ever more complex and ramshackle devices.

In the filtering vats at Kilmarnock by William Heath Robinson (1927) © The William Heath Robinson Trust

In the filtering vats at Kilmarnock by William Heath Robinson (1927) © The William Heath Robinson Trust

After the Great War the market for the kind of luxury books Heath Robinson had illustrated dried up. Cartoon work continued in a new generation of magazines, and he continued to ply his trade there. But it was in the post-war 1920s that the modern advertising trade really took off, and HR was poised to take advantage of it.

This fabulous exhibition at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner (just five minutes from Pinner tube station on the Metropolitan line) brings together a choice selection of Heath Robinson’s extensive work in advertising illustration.

It’s estimated that between the 1915 Johnny Walker commission and his death in 1944, Heath Robinson worked for over 100 companies, making drawings and cartoons to promote goods as varied as asbestos roofs, bread, carbon paper, tarmac, antiseptics, bespoke tailoring and leather car seats.

In fact, just the list of products he promoted gives a kind of surreal insight into the realities of 1920s and 1930s social life.

The exhibition displays over 60 original artworks on the walls, as well as 20 or so examples of printed material from contemporary magazines. The Heath Robinson consists of one room given over to the permanent collection and one room given over to changing exhibitions. One room doesn’t sound much but it is a room jam-packed with gadgets, jokes and gags.

It is rare to hear laughter in an ‘art’ gallery, but when I visited, the room was full of people pointing out and laughing at the confabulated contraptions and heroic absurdities of his pictures.

‘Heath Robinson’s Golf Course’, design for a biscuit tin, Peek Frean (c.1925) © William Heath Robinson Trust

Heath Robinson’s Golf Course, design for a biscuit tin for Peek Frean (c.1925) © William Heath Robinson Trust

The exhibition focuses on sets of work produced for particular clients, showing how he elaborated ideas around a central theme. As far as I could see, he took three strategies or approaches to the commissions:

  • a comic account of the production process itself, requiring as much tottering and patched up preposterous machinery as possible (as with Johnny Walker)
  • a humorous look at the product though history
  • the with/without approach i.e. showing the benefits of buying/using/eating product X

A good example of the historical approach is a set of cartoons showing the benefits which would have been brought to various historical figures if only they had had the opportunity to purchase luxury leather goods from Connolly Brothers of Wandsworth. Figures like Mr and Mrs Noah, Alfred the Great, and William the Conqueror are shown benefiting from Connolly Brothers luxury leather products.

William the Conqueror appreciates the comforts of leather by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

William the Conqueror appreciates the comforts of leather by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

Heath Robinson developed a close working relationship with Connolly Brothers, who manufactured a wide array of leather goods including car seats, car hoods, furniture, bags, cases and so on. His first work for them was a 12-page booklet which they used to promote their products at that year’s Motor show and was so successful that they didn’t quite commission a new one annually, but by the end of his career he’d produced a total of 12 books and some 200 cartoons for them, and there are extensive selections here from three volumes, Light on Leather (1922), Leather breeding on the Wandle (1927) and The Connolly Chronicles (1933).

In the same vein are cartoons promoting macaroni, sugar, paper, a herd of thoroughbred pigs, pianos and the Great West Railway.

I particularly liked the set made for the toffee manufacturer John Mackintosh in 1921, which Heath Robinson titled ‘A half hour in Toffee Town’ – especially the illustration in the centre-right, of how they get the chocolate to completely cover each individual toffee, which involves a watering can, a pulley and an umbrella.

A half hour in Toffee Town by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

A half hour in Toffee Town by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

In a set like this each individual incident is, apparently, called a vignette. Individual vignettes could be extracted from the larger context and recycled. Thus single vignettes Heath Robinson drew for the manufacturers of Izal, an antiseptic product, were issued as postcards, and even printed on toilet paper. Another client used Heath Robinson illustrations on blotting paper.

These are all examples of the proliferation of the image across all kinds of products and new media in the 1920s. Heath Robinson was one of the graphic artists who rewrote the rules on how we communicate commercially: replacing heavy, Victorian, copy-dominated ads with a focus on imagery which tells stories.

Take one of his most famous works, the Hovis ads, a classic example of the ‘with/without’ approach mentioned above, and of the new image-focused approach.

'Hovis, the bread of health' by William Heath Robinson (1927) © The William Heath Robinson Trust

‘Hovis, the bread of health’ by William Heath Robinson (1927) © The William Heath Robinson Trust

As well as lots of hilarious pictures, and fascinating social history about the products he was promoting, the exhibition also allows you to trace the development of Heath Robinson’s style.

Although his work was always too varied to defy sweeping generalisation, by and large what you see is a progression from a turn-of-the-century, Arthur Rackham-esque interest in the grotesque, the crabbed and the eccentric, often set inside cramped or spooky interiors – to a much sparser, cleaner, and possibly Art Deco-influenced line in the 1930s.

Thus the elaborate stone setting of the vaults in the Johnny Walker picture from 1915 (at the top of this review) could, at a stretch, be home to a troll or goblin. Although this reproduction is in black and white, the original was coloured in watercolour, adding to the sense of depth and density.

Compare and contrast with the clarity of line and the lack of shading in a picture like this, drawn some 20 years later to promote pianos manufactured by Firth Brothers. Even when the later pictures portray complex contraptions, the ones from the 1930s do so in a style which is somehow cleaner and crisper.

Some interesting pianos not made by Firth Brothers by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

Some interesting pianos not made by Firth Brothers by William Heath Robinson © The William Heath Robinson Trust

Summary

So do your funny bones a favour: get along to the Heath Robinson Museum and spend a happy hour chortling at the works of this great promoter of happiness, as well as picking up titbits of English social history, and enjoying the evolution and changing style of a great English humorist.

Credit

All Heath Robinson images reproduced with kind permission of the William Heath Robinson Trust and © The William Heath Robinson Trust.


Related links

Related reviews

Symbolism by Michael Gibson (1995)

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. (p.35)

This is an enormous coffee-table book, some 31.5 cm tall and 25 cm wide. The hardback version I borrowed from the library would break your toes if you dropped it.

Its 227 pages of text contain a cornucopia of richly-coloured reproductions of symbolist paintings, famous and obscure, from right across the continent, with separate chapters focusing on France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic countries, the Mediterranean countries and so on.

The main body of the text is followed by eight pages giving potted biographies of the key symbolist artists, and a handy table of illustrations – all of this textual paraphernalia as well as the end-covers and the incidental pages are lavishly decorated with the evocative line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is a beautiful book to have and hold and flip through and relish.

Symbolism was a literary movement

So what is Symbolism? A big question which has stymied many art historians. Gibson approaches the problem from a number of angles. For a start Symbolism was a literary movement before it was an artistic one. The Symbolist manifesto published in 1886 was written by a poet, Jean Moreas, and referred to poets of the day such as Verlaine or the young Mallarmé. Moreas suggested that these writers were aiming ‘to clothe the idea in perceptible form.’ In looking for ways to illustrate this point he mentioned the similar aim in several contemporary artists, most notably Gustave Moreau.

What idea? Well, there were eventually hundreds of symbolist painters and, arguably, every single one of them had a different ‘idea’.

Symbolism against the modern world

Gibson takes a different tack and offers a sociological explanation. What they almost all had in common was a rejection of the scientific rationalism and the industrial pragmatism of the age (the late nineteenth century). These latter movements were represented by a writer like Émile Zola, who embraced the modern age in its dirt and squalor and poverty and drunkenness, developing an approach he called ‘Naturalism’.

The influential philosopher Auguste Comte preached a social philosophy called ‘Positivism’, which thought we could use scientific and technological advances to create a new society – a technocratic and utopian ideal which finds its fullest flood in the English-speaking world in the scientific utopias of H.G. Wells.

Symbolists hated all this. They thought it was killing off all the mystery and imagination in life. They went in search of the strange, the obscure, the irrational, the mysterious, the barely articulatable.

Symbolism a legacy of lapsed Catholicism

Gibson makes the profound point that symbolism flourished in a) Catholic countries b) that were affected by industralisation. So the strongly Catholic countries of the Mediterranean (Spain or Italy) were unaffected because they hadn’t suffered the upheavals of widespread industrialisation. Symbolism flourished in the northern Catholic regions of heavily industrialised France, Germany and Belgium.

He explains how the Industrial Revolution, coming later to these countries than to pioneering Britain, seriously disrupted the age-old beliefs, traditions and customs of Roman Catholicism. In particular, huge numbers of the peasant population left the land and flocked to the cities, to become a new industrial proletariat (or fled Europe altogether, emigrating to the United States). In the second half of the nineteenth century Europe saw social disruption and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

Urban intellectuals in Catholic countries felt that the age-old sense of community and tradition embodied by continent-wide Catholicism had been ruptured and broken. Many lost their faith in the face of such huge social changes, or as a result of the intellectual impact of Darwinism, or the visible triumph of science and technology. But they regretted what they’d lost.

  • The Great Upheaval by Henry de Groux (1893) Gibson reads this confusingly cluttered painting as representing the disruption of traditional values in a society undergoing rapid change – note the broken crucifix in the middle of the composition.

Symbolism, to some extent, represents the mood right across northern Europe, of artists and intellectuals for whom traditional Catholicism has died, but who still dreamed of transcendental values, of a realm of mysteries and hints from ‘the beyond’. As Gibson eloquently puts it, Symbolism is:

the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. (p.24)

Hence the widespread movement among intellectuals to set up clubs, new religious ‘orders’, hermetic societies, cabbalistic cults, to turn to spiritualism, clairvoyance, and a wide range of fin-de-siecle voodoo.

Mention of voodoo prompts the thought that, up till now I’ve made it sound like harmless replacement for lost religious certainties. I haven’t brought out the widespread sense of anxiety and nightmarish fear which also dominates much of Symbolist art.

Symbolism and the femme fatale

There’s a lot of threat in Symbolist paintings. In Monet women innocently walk through fields with parasols, in Renoir women are laughing partners in sunlit gardens. But in Symbolist paintings women tend to be depicted as extremes, either as muses dreaming of another world or as sexually threatening and voracious demons.

  • Salome (1909) by Julius Klinger The Biblical story of Salome who persuades King Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded, haunts the fin-de-siecle era. Wilde wrote a play about it, Strauss an opera, and there are scores of paintings. In most of them Salome represents the femme fatale, the woman who uses her sexual attraction to lure men into dangerous or fatal situations. Dr Freud of Vienna would have said the real terror lying hidden in these paintings was the male castration complex. Surely the idea was never made more explicit than in this painting by Julius Klinger which shows Salome carrying – not the traditional head of John – but a severed set of testicles and penis drooling blood, along with the blood-red knife with which she has just cut off a man’s penis.

Why this anxiety? Why, above all, did it present in sexual form?

Maybe because Symbolist artists were almost all men (there were several successful women Impressionists but no female Symbolists that I can see), and that they were dedicated to exploring the irrational aspects of human nature – and not much is more irrational than people’s sex lives, fantasies, desires and anxieties.

And so these men, psyched up to explore the strange, the fantastical, the edgy the socially taboo – projected onto the blank canvas of ‘woman’ a florid range of their own longings and fears. The ‘irrational’ is not the friend of feminism.

  • Sin (1893) by Franz von Stuck The alluring half-naked woman with her pink nipples and her mild smile almost distracts you from the enormous snake draped round her and ready to bite off your… your what? (‘Paging Dr Freud’ as they used to say in Hollywood screwball comedies.) A very Catholic image since, after all, the basis of Catholicism is the snake tempting Eve who in turn tempted Adam into the Fall. In this image Snake and Woman once again tempt the (male) viewer.

Symbolism and death

If Symbolist art often portrays Woman (with a capital W) as femme fatale, it just as often betrays anxieties about Death (with a capital D). But death not as we most of us will experience it (hooked up to beeping machines in a soulless hospital ward), instead encountered like a seductive figure in a folk tale, often handsome and alluring, often female, even sexy.

Symbolism and decadence

Fin-de-siecle art is often identified with ‘Decadence’, the cult of etiolated aristocrats reclining on velvet divans in an atmosphere heavy with incense and debauchery, as epitomised in the classic novel, Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

Gibson sheds light on this, too, by saying the Decadence wasn’t fuelled so much by a sense of decline, as by a resolute opposition to the doctrine of Progress, a subtly different idea. This artistically aristocratic sensibility refused to kow-tow to the vulgar jingoism and gimcrack technical advances of the age (telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, early cinema – how ghastly), remaining nostalgic for the imagined superiority of its ancestors in an imaginary, pre-scientific age.

There are always servants in Decadent literature. From a sociological point of view that is one of their most important features. In fact servants feature in the most famous line from the the ‘decadent’ dram Axël by French writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, where a typically aloof aristocrat drawls:

As to living, our servants will do that for us.

The Salon de la Rose+Croix

In 1891 the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix published a manifesto in which they declared that Symbolist artists were forbidden to practice history, patriotic and military painting, all representation of contemporary life, portrait painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, ‘all animals either domestic or connected with sport’, flowers or fruit. On the plus side, they welcomed mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, any work based on legend, myth, allegory or dream (p.56).

It’s an accurate enough snapshot of the Symbolist mentality.

This sensibility locks itself away from the world, cloistered (a Catholic image) in an ivory tower, waking only at night (Symbolism is as fascinated by night, by shades of darkness, as Impressionism is by sunlight and daytime). Rejecting science, the exoteric (obvious), and everyday banality, it retreats into esoteric studies of the past, into alchemy, into the artificial recreation of medieval ‘orders’ (the more artificial, the more delicious), into mesmeric incantations about sin and death and damnation (overlooking the rather more mundane positive elements of Catholicism – charity, good works and so on).

The vast range of Symbolism

The great success of this book is in bringing together a really vast range of works from right across Europe to show how this mood, this urge, this wish for another, stranger, irrational world, took so many weird and wonderful forms, in the paintings of hundreds of European artists.

And it also investigates the shifting borders of Symbolism, where the impulse to ‘clothe the Idea’ shaded off into other schools or movements – of post-Impressionist abstraction, or Expressionist Angst, into Art Nouveau decorativeness, or just into something weird, unique and one-off.

The more I read on and the more examples I saw, the more I began to wonder in particular about the border between Symbolism and ‘the Fantastic’. Despite Gibson’s inclusivity, some of the paintings reproduced here look more like illustrations for fantasy novels than grand gestures towards a solemn mystery world. It’s a tricky business, trying to navigate through such a varied plethora of images.

Here, from the hundreds on offer, are the paintings which stood out for me:

Symbolists against nature

Numerous symbolist writers and artists argued that the world of art is radically separate from the so-called ‘real world’. They thought that the Impressionists (who they heartily disliked) were simply striving for a better type of naturalism. Symbolists, on the contrary, wanted next to nothing to do with the yukky real world. As Gibson puts it:

No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. (p.27)

Symbolists found the idea of the total autonomy of the work of art

No following of nature, then, but, in various manifestos, essays, poems and paintings, the Symbolists claimed the total autonomy of art, accountable to no-one but the artist and the imagination of their reader or viewer. Gibson argues that these claims for the complete autonomy of art lie at the root, provide the foundation of, all the later movements of Modernism.

Maybe.

Symbolism ended by the Great War

What is certain is that the strange otherworlds of Symbolism tended to come to a grinding halt with the Great War, which tore apart the community of Europe more violently than the Industrial Revolution. The movements which emerged just before and during it – the absurdist Dadaists, the violent Futurists, the avant-garde cubists – all tended to despise wishy-washy spiritualism, all guff about another world.

However the irrational mood, the imperative to reject the business-like bourgeois world, was revived by the Surrealists (founded in 1924) and it’s easy to identify a continuity of fantastical imagery from the later symbolists through to the Surrealists.

But the Surrealists’ great secret wasn’t other-worldly, it was other-mindly. Their worldview wasn’t underpinned by lapsed Catholic notions of the divine and the demonic. The Surrealists were students of Freud who thought that if they brought the creatures of the unconscious out into the open – via automatic writings and artfully bizarre imagery – they would somehow liberate the world, or at least themselves, from bourgeois constraints.

But in practice some of the art from the 1920s, and even 1930s, is not that distinguishable from the weirder visions of the 1880s and 1890s.

The conservatism of Symbolism

Reading steadily through the book made me have a thought which Gibson doesn’t articulate, which is that almost all of this art was oddly conservative in technique.

It is overwhelmingly realistic and figurative, in that it portrays human beings (or angels of death or satanic women or whatever), generally painted in a very traditional academic way. There are (as the Rose+Croix wanted) on the whole no landscapes, still lives or history scenes featuring crowds. Instead you get one or two people caught in moments of sombre meaningfulness.

And hardly any of it is experimental in form. Not much of it invokes the scattered brush work of a Monet or the unfinished sketchiness of a Degas or the interest in geometric forms of a Cézanne. Nothing in the book is as outrageous as the colour-slashed paintings by the Fauves, by Derain or Vlaminck.

This art of the strange and the other-worldly was peculiarly conservative. I guess that chimes with the way the belief almost all these artists shared in some kind of otherworld, some meaning or presence deeper than our everyday existence, was profoundly conservative, a nostalgic hearkening back to an imagined era of intellectual and spiritual completeness.

The twentieth century was to blow away both these things – both the belief in some vaporous, misty otherworld, and the traditional 19th century naturalist style which (on the whole) had been used to convey it.

Cars and planes, tanks and bombs, were to obliterate both fields of poppies and séances and spiritualism.


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Metamorphoses by PJ Crook @ The Royal West of England Academy

PJ (no full stops) lives and works in the West Country, is a member of the Royal West of England Academy and, over a long career, has not only created works across a wide range of media, but also been active in supporting numerous art organisations and initiatives, resulting in the recent award of an MBE for services to art.

PJ Crook at work

PJ Crook at work

This exhibition of recent work, titled Metamorphoses, fills one downstairs room at the RWA’s Bristol gallery with 20 or so (generally quite small) paintings and six or so (quite large) assemblages.

Soundscape by Robert Fripp

The exhibition is accompanied by a ‘soundscape’ created by PJ’s long-standing friend, the guitarist and composer Robert Fripp. From hidden speakers Fripp’s ambient waves of sound wash slowly over the visitor. Since the entire show is housed in one, bare, white room, the overall affect is soothing and relaxing, slowing you down enough to soak up PJ’s dream-like fantasias.

Paintings and assemblages

There’s a big visual difference between the paintings and the assemblages. The paintings are small, the size of a large format book – whereas the assemblages consist of stools or mannekins or tables, thrusting out of the wall which they’re often attached to, intruding into the visitor space, festooned with stuffed birds, shoes and other objects.

The day I visited the artist was there herself and I was lucky enough to be able to ask her a few questions. PJ explained that an initial thought had been to display just the assemblages, but that by themselves they created a rather craggy, pointy, threatening experience. So the small and smooth paintings were put in between them to create rhythm, light and shade, a contrast between the assemblages, which you have to step back to really take in, and the paintings, which you have to lean into to enjoy the detail.

A wood near Athens by PJ Crook

A wood near Athens by PJ Crook

The paintings

The wall labels and catalogue quote from the opening of Ovid’s long poem Metamorphoses, a wonderful collection of all the ancient Greek myths in which people turn into trees or animals or clouds, and so on, which has been translated and quoted by English poets from Shakespeare to Ted Hughes.

Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme my spirit impels me now to recite.
Inspire me, O gods (it is you who have even transformed my art), and spin me a thread
from the world’s beginning down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.

And PJ herself explained, some of the paintings were directly inspired by a recent visit to Greece, such as the myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus.

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus by PJ Crook

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus by PJ Crook

But, to this visitor, what came over much more powerfully was the sequence of dark and mysterious images which seem to emanate from a northern imagination of forests and fairy tales.

Grandma by PJ Crook

Grandma by PJ Crook

Even the sequence obviously taken from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (originally set in Greece) and showing Bottom with his ass’s head, have more the feel of a dreamy northern night – it is a world of sensible shirt and ties (as below) or waistcoat, trousers and laced shoes (in A wood near Athens, above) rather than the bare rock and bare bodies of hot Greece. Part of the dreamlike state is that the animal has been tamed.

Enchanted by PJ Crook

Enchanted by PJ Crook

These could be illustrations to Angela Carter’s feminist retellings of fairy tales, a night-time world of dream women somehow in control of mannekin men, leading the dance, seeing the world in their own terms, all floating beneath the mysterious, female power of the moon (traditionally associated with the female principle, as opposed to the harsh male sun).

Style

As you can see from these examples, the paintings are in a sort of ‘naively’ realistic style, an impression of innocent artlessness which is emphasised by the way all of the paintings overflow to include the heavy wooden frames.

PJ told me she’s been called a surrealist artist, a naive artist and so on. Certainly there are juxtapositions of incongruous objects, as in the early Surrealist manifestos, and these odd visions are painted in a very finished, figurative style. But their powerful dreamlike vibe is entirely her own.

One consistent element I noticed is the blankness of the faces. Strange things are happening – a woman dances with a donkey-headed man or sees herself as a bear in a mirror – and make no comment. The girls’ or women’s faces remain placid and accepting. ‘Yes, of course, why not,’ they seem to be saying. Or thinking.

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor by PJ Crook

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor by PJ Crook

Then I realised that, although there are a few naked people, you don’t see any nipples or other private parts. They would make the pictures too… too real, give too much of an edge to pictures which are intended to be edgeless, to take us away from the harsh world of the sexualised body and into a desexualised world of dreamy imagination.

On the contrary, the lack of naked bodies or, to be precise, the way the bodies are often so chastely dressed – adds to the incongruity, to the surrealism, of the images. Bottom may well be an ancient Greek workman with a donkey’s head – but he is wearing the waistcoat, shirt, tie and bell-bottomed trousers that remind me of the roll-your-own folk singers of the 1970s; the girl turning into a stag is wearing a sensible summer dress buttoned to the throat and a carefully tied ribbon, as of a 1950s children’s book illustration.

Metamorphses by PJ Crook

Metamorphoses by PJ Crook

The decorum and the chasteness of the figures is part of their lack of affect, their lack of emotional response, to the strange things happening to them, which help to create the all-prevading dream-like mood.

(I recently came across the idea of sticking butterflies to the picture frame in a 1926 work by Francis Picabia, Machaon, where it is explained that the butterfly was a Christian symbol for rebirth i.e. a form of metamorphosis).

Solitary

Continuing along the same line of thought, PJ’s Wikipedia and RWA profiles emphasise that she often paints crowds. Once it was pointed out to me I realised that I’ve seen her artwork on the cover of a lot of the later album covers of King Crimson, the 1970s prog rock group founded by Robert Fripp, which still records and tours. In fact, PJ has provided artwork for no fewer than 13 KC albums:

List of King Crimson albums with cover art by PJ Crook

Most of these feature multiple figures, and some have large crowds, marching in the street or making up the audience at theatres or the circus. Whereas all of the works in this show do not show crowds: two is generally as many ‘people’ who feature, and a number only show one isolated figure. In other words, this appears to be a selection of works deliberately distinct from the crowd pictures.

This solitariness, the relative isolation and singleness of the figures in these Metamorphoses paintings is another element which adds to their sense of dreamy drifting. Instead of being packed into a crowd reading newspapers or cheering at the theatre, individuals are isolated, looking into mirrors, or dancing with donkeys under the moon, or calmly turning into a stag – unattached, unattended, profoundly untroubled.

The assemblages

The assemblages are wildly different in presence and impact from the paintings. Only on closer examination do you see how they bear the imprint of PJ’s style. Several things are notable about them, first of all, their sheer variety. There are:

  • enormous antique shelf units designed to hold curios and trinkets
  • a tailor’s dummy painted with a cloudy blue sky
  • an antique, 18th century-looking corner table
  • a stool with a guitar placed on it and a cockerel sitting on the guitar
  • a picture frame around a painting of shoes, with shoes stuck on the canvas and around the frame

 

Stepping Out (in my shows) by PJ Crook

Stepping Out (in my shoes) by PJ Crook

What unifies them is:

  • the stuffed birds
  • the colourful decoration of the objects
  • text painted onto the objects
  • the humorously factual titles

The stuffed birds

PJ told me she didn’t have the birds stuffed specially but rescued them from curio shops around the area. I counted 21 stuffed birds, perching not only on the assemblages but poking out from some of the paintings, as well as birds in the paintings.

The ubiquity of the birds is as much of a theme as classical metamorphoses. They it link together apparently disparate works across the exhibition and give the show a visual and avian uniformity.

Bird by PJ Crook

Bird by PJ Crook

The most avian work is Bird Table (below) which neatly illustrates some of the other characteristics, namely the humorous titles and the use of text. It is titled Bird table because it is a table with birds on. I really liked that. As to text, I could see that she’d painted the words ‘one x bird 4 sorrow, 2 x bird for joy’ etc onto the table, and this matched the fact that the two dominant stuffed birds are magpies. But PJ also explained the meaning of the images on the table legs which – being slow – I initially took for pop culture references. The Blue bird logo, Bird’s instant custard, the twitter bird logo, Daffy duck, Robin from Batman and Robin – all birds :).

Bird Table by PJ Crook

Bird Table by PJ Crook

So: an antique shop ready-made object, festooned with stuffed birds (and a bird book and a globe indicating the migratory flights of birds), with painted text relevant to the birds (the magpies) across the table drawers, and visual puns (‘4’ on the left hand leg, ‘& 20’ on the next leg, the image of a blackbird on the third leg).

Having learned to ‘read’ this example I was ready to enjoy deciphering Cock a doodle, but it needed PJ herself to tell me that this stool was sat on by Robert Fripp when he came and did a performance at a hall near her. This explains the guitar (and the mannekin hand – maybe it’s in the position of making a guitar chord?) but it was only when I looked closely that I saw that the titles of various King Crimson tracks are painted along the legs and frame of the stool.

The cockerel itself? The black gloved hands reaching up from the floor? I don’t know, but I don’t care. It’s fun, bright and confident, colourful and jokey.

Cock a doodle doo by PJ Crook

Cock a doodle by PJ Crook

Sea urchin is a great title for a shop mannekin of a child which has miraculously grown silver scales and has a big fish stuck on its head. And a bird on its hand, one of the many birds which thematically bind the exhibits together. Is it a curlew, I wonder, the solitary bird of seaside strands?

Sea urchin by PJ Crook

Sea urchin by PJ Crook

Buy your own

The pieces are all for sale (though many have already been bought). The paintings cost from around £2,500 to £4,000, while the assemblages cost significantly more; for example Bird table costs £18,850.

I went to the exhibition with my son. His favourite work was this small painting of a sad-looking Minotaur at the centre of his maze, a snip at £1,125.

Minotaur by PJ Crook

Minotaur by PJ Crook

This is a very enjoyable, intriguing, other-worldly exhibition – with the Frippscape in the background, a spell of pure pleasure.

Related links

Into The Unknown @ Barbican

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition, with a number of distinct sections scattered in locations around the Barbican complex.

The main show is in The Curve, the continuous, curved exhibition space behind the Barbican theatre, which has been transformed into a treasure trove of sci-fi-themed videos, posters, books and magazines, costumes and special affects models.

Having worked through this you exit the other side into a foyer space where you can watch three contemporary sci-fi short films on a projection screen.

Fifty yards away, opposite the main bar, is a cinema-sized projector screen showing a film by Isaac Julien, Encore II (Radioactive) from 2004.

Beyond the bar is a darkened room showing another experimental film, In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain by Palestinian artist, Larissa Sansour and Danish author, Søren Lind.

And downstairs, in what is usually the Pit theatre, there is a funky art installation, In Light of the Machine by Conrad Shawcross.

There’s a lot to take in!

Installation view showing several of the video screens shoing clips from classic sci-fi movies

Installation view highlighting several of the video screens showing clips from classic sci-fi movies

The main exhibition is in The Curve and is divided into four or five sections each with a wall label introduction.

These labels are surprisingly vague and generalised and made me reflect that there is both too much and too little to say about science fiction. Quite quickly I found myself making my own summary of themes and ideas which emerged from the varied objects on display. Sci-fi can cover:

  • On earth Lost worlds here on earth, journeys to the centre of the earth, monsters on earth
  • In space Monsters from or in space, space travel to the moon or planets or other solar systems, space stations
  • Aliens Stand-alone alien civilisations which have nothing to do with earth or humans
  • Time travel to the past or future
  • The Future Future utopias or dystopias, with or without a nuclear apocalypses/plague etc thrown in
  • AI and robots Robots and artificial intelligence, which almost always turns out to be a bad thing, from Frankenstein’s monster onwards
  • Altered states of consciousness caused by drugs or various forms of artificial reality, probably most popularly captured in the Matrix franchise

See what I mean by ‘too much? ‘Science fiction’ in fact covers a vast range of subjects, themes and ideas – and that’s before you tiptoe into the neighbouring territory of ‘fantasy’.

But by ‘too little’ I mean that, in the end, a lot of sci-fi amounts to variations on a limited number of themes: in Alien they wake up an alien which kills them all. In The Thing they wake up an alien which kills them all. In The Matrix series the machines have enslaved humanity. In the Terminator series the machines have enslaved humanity. Not difficult to understand or enjoy, is it? On the up side, in Thunderbirds Thunderbirds save the day. In Star Trek Captain Kirk saves the day. In Dr Who Dr Who saves the day.

Watching clips from all these films and TV shows on the numerous projector screens scattered all through the exhibition made me realise just how many of these TV shows and movies tell the same story over and over again and are aimed, essentially, at children.

(Having watched Thunderbird Two take off on a massive screen hanging from the ceiling, I could have done with similar clips from Joe 90 or Fireball XL5 or UFO, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons or Stingray – all classic TV series from the great Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson. In my opinion Gerry and Sylvia could do with an exhibition in their own right.)

Comics and mags

The essentially juvenile nature of sci-fi is emphasised by the wonderful array of pulp magazines and lurid book jackets from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s on display here. Amazing stories, Astounding stories, Startling stories, Space stories, Thrilling wonder stories – you’ll be amazed, filled with wonder and thrilled. Often by nubile young women whose clothes are falling off (all wearing red because they are, presumably, all scarlet women).

Golden Age of Sci fi comics

Comics from the Golden Age of science fiction

The exhibition includes some examples of an unexpected art form, the cover art for boxes of sci-fi Super 8 films.

A selection of super 8 sci-fi box covers

A selection of super 8 sci-fi box covers

Illustrations

Books, comics, illustrations, models, film and TV clips, costumes, props, artwork – the exhibition as a whole has the feel of being a bric-a-brac shop, almost a jumble sale, with artefacts from every period of sci-fi thrown together in glorious profusion.

There is, if you look hard enough, a loose chronological order, starting with early illustrations for – and editions of – Jules Verne’s classic adventure series: voyages round the world, to the moon, to the bottom of the sea and so on – as well as models of the various contraptions which feature in Verne’s novels, the Nautilus submarine, the space ship to the moon, and so on.

Next to them is a set of paintings of ‘Dinotopia’, a fantasy world created by artist James Gurney in which humans live alongside tamed dinosaurs – beautifully painted, high quality and vivid book illustrations.

Dinosaur Parade from the Dinotopia series by James Gurney (1989)

Dinosaur Parade from the Dinotopia series by James Gurney (1989)

This tradition of sci-fi illustrations goes all the way from Vernes’s day to the art work for movies (Star Wars, Alien) alongside purely imaginary, maybe computer-enhanced, illustrations of future cities.

On a screen late in the show is projected a series of quite stunning visions of future cities by a range of contemporary sci-fi artists.

City of the Future (2017) by Marije Berting

City of the Future (2017) by Marije Berting

You get the impression that the art of science fiction – not made to illustrate a novel, not for a comic and not design work for a movie, but for itself, for the sheer joy of depicting fantastic, imaginary scenes – is an under-explored genre. A different exhibition might have concentrated just on the art of sci-fi.

Asteroid Collision by Chris Foss (1980)

Asteroid Collision by Chris Foss (1980)

But the exhibition is continually pulling us back to sci-fi’s cheap, pulpy roots, with display cases of comics and books, setting the literary classics alongside more pulpy works by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from Verne to Cormac McCarthy via Ursula LeGuin, and many more.

Original edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Pellucidar

Original edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel Pellucidar (1915)

Masks

Given that there are half a dozen screens dotted around showing continuous loops of sci-fi classics, (alongside some more obscure foreign, and older, movies) your first, and second, impression is that the show sees science fiction through the lens of films.

After all, the more private, and demanding, experience of reading is hard to capture in an exhibition. Whereas watching a clip from Jurassic Park is about as lazy and undemanding and enjoyable experience as a human being can have.

Installation view of the exhibition with screens shoing classic sci-fi moviescases of classic sci-fi books, wall displays of sci fi art

Installation view of the exhibition with screens showing classic sci-fi movies, cases of classic sci-fi books and wall displays of sci-fi art

The film-orientation of the show is reflected in the large number of props from movies and TV shows. Several large sections of the show feature models of masks, space ships, and space suits used in movies, including quite a few display cases housing the faces of creepy aliens!

Monster masks: top right Close Encounters; bottom left from Species II by H.R. Giger; in the middle a skull and mask from Enemy Mine

Monster masks: top right Close Encounters; bottom left from Species II by H.R. Giger; in the middle a skull and mask from Enemy Mine

Including probably the most famous sci-fi face of all time – H.R. Giger’s alien.

The most famous face in sci-fi? The alien mask from Alien (1986)

The most famous face in sci-fi? The alien mask from Alien (1986)

Spacesuits

On the same ooh-aaah level, the exhibition features life-size space-suits as actually worn in movies like Interstellar, Sunshine, Alien, Star Trek, Moon and so on. The space suit worn by Leonard Nimoy! Oooh! The actual suit worn by John Hurt in Alien!! Aaaah!

These don’t really tell you anything – reinforcing my sense that there’s less to sci-fi than meets the eye – they are just lovely objects for fans to drool over.

The space suit worn by Cillian Murphy in Sunshine (2007)

The space suit worn by Cillian Murphy in Sunshine (2007)

Alien, again.

Space suit worn by John Hurt in Alien (1979)

The space suit worn by John Hurt in Alien (1979)

There were some headphones for visitors to listen to audio clips from sci-fi classics like The Martian Chronicles of Ray Bradbury or Stanislav Lem’s Solaris but, symptomatically, no one was using them when I passed by and I didn’t use them either.

I wanted to look at beautiful things, at the models of space ships and space suits and movie props. On reflection, I am surprised there wasn’t a section on gadgets, which should have included the phaser and the tricorder and communicator from Star Trek at the very least, alongside Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver and… well, you can make your own list.

Space suit worn by Spock in Star Trek the Movie (1979)

Space suit worn by Spock in Star Trek: The Movie (1979)

Oh my God, they’ve got Robbie the Robot!! And the robot from the Will Smith movie, I, Robot.

The Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, known simply as Robot, from Lost in Space, and Sonny from I, Robot

The Class B-9-M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, known simply as Robot, from Lost in Space, and Sonny from I, Robot

Underneath Robbie was a display of teeny weeny vintage robot toys, such as you might find in any junk shop. It was hard not to feel yourself getting younger and younger as you soaked yourself in this comic, mag, fantasy, geek paradise.

I felt myself turning into one of the characters in Big Bang Theory leafing through the comics at Stu’s comic shop.

The films

If the Curve part of the show felt like a warm bath of nostalgia for sci-fi addicts, not so the films in the rest of the show, the ones you can watch after exiting the main exhibition in the Barbican foyer areas. These were contemporary, strange and disturbing.

To start with there were sections of Pierre-Jean Gilroux’s sumptuous, mesmerising and haunting films, titled Invisible Cities, parts 1 to 4.

Beautiful and, ultimately, reassuring.

By contrast, Afronaut directed by Frances Bodoma, is a kind of fantasy alternative reality in which poverty-stricken Ghanaians in what seems to be a shanty in the desert attempt to recreate the Apollo space mission. They train a hauntingly confused-looking albino black woman for space travel by rolling her down a hill inside a trash can and tossing her in a blanket, before stuffing her inside a space ship made from corrugated iron and lighting firecrackers under it.

In the weird alternative reality of the movie both she and her half dozen supporters undergo a genuinely transcendent experience, and the ship does appear to carry her to the moon.

The Blue Moon music on this clip below doesn’t do the full movie justice, makes it seem far too familiar and assimilable. In fact Afronaut‘s soundtrack is a confusing hubbub, the characters’ voices out-of-synch with their lips, or obscured by gritty dust and metal sounds, by the banging of metal, by chanting – all of which contributes to the powerful sense of entering a genuinely altered reality.

A bit more conventionally, the short film Pumzi is written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu, and tells the story of Asha, a young scientist living in an underground complex in Kenya some decades in the future after ‘the [inevitable] War’ has devastated earth, who decides to leave her safe environment and go questing over the desolate surface of the earth looking for life.

Even if this is a rather familiar trope, it is stunningly and beautifully shot.

Apparently, this movie is part of a movement known as Afrofuturism which envisages a future civilisation in Africa populated by black Africans. I read in the commentary that Pumzi undermines Hollywood norms and stereotypes but, in my opinion, the idea of a hero/ine escaping from a repressive, post-apocalypse society seems as old as sci-fi and has certainly been done in countless commercial films (Zardoz, Logan’s Run).

Also, the fact that the heroine is beautiful, young, slender and scantily dressed seems to me to be reinforcing pretty much the central sexist movie stereotype i.e. women in movies must be slender and sexy.

But the entirely African setting, and entirely black cast, make a welcome change from watching Tom Cruise blowing up aliens by the hundred.

Conclusions

I loved science fiction when I was a boy back in the 1970s when science fiction movies were as rare as hen’s teeth and discussing Philip K. Dick or Robert Heinlein marked you out as a member of a tiny sub-set of geeks.

Nowadays, barely a week goes by without a new sci-fi movie being released, and hundreds have been released in the past decade. Why the change? In discussion with my son we developed the idea that science fiction allows you to have all the thrills and spills which movies were designed for – chases, fights, shoot-outs, big explosions, spectacle and so on – with none of the moral challenges inherent in many of the older movie genres.

Nobody can make Biblical epics nowadays because most people are not Christians. War epics can’t really be such death-or-glory bubblegum entertainments after Saving Private Ryan showed the full, not-at-all funny, not-at-all-entertaining gory reality of war. Spy thrillers are at a loss since the end of the Cold War (though the War on Terror happily provides the setting for a new breed of terror thrillers). And westerns, one of the staples of my youth, have simply disappeared since we all began to feel sympathy for the oppressed Indians or ‘native Americans’.

By contrast, what science fiction provides is the Pure Untrammeled Baddy, untroubled by moral issues or cultural qualms. Whether it’s Darth Vadar’s Empire or something more disturbing like the extra terrestrials in 1979’s Alien or in this year’s scary Life, the issue of good and bad is black and white, men and women battling against The Bad Thing –  just as it was in each of the Star Trek movies or the Jurassic Park or Matrix franchises. Bad aliens trying to kill hero; hero fights back.

Just as simplistically, sci-fi movies can offer images of spotlessly heroic American patriotism which other genres now struggle with – take Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013) or Matt Damon in The Martian (2015), who both triumph against the odds, shucks, folks it was nothing, while the audience cheers and the Oscar nominations roll in.

So mainstream science fiction is a way of allowing film to do what it has always done best – shock and awe, with ear-splitting special effects, giant monsters, extreme situations and sexy young heroes/heroines.

None of this is very subversive: the exact opposite, in fact.

When I watched Chris Pratt of Jurassic World (2015) strip off his shirt to reveal his astonishing physique, and the heroine, Bryce Dallas Howard, quickly lose her smart business suit and strip down to her sweat-soaked underwear, I wondered if a film could possibly be more in thrall to the most neanderthal gender stereotyping.

But in mainstream sci-fi it doesn’t matter, nothing matters – we are all reduced to popcorn-munching melon-heads screaming each time a velociraptor jumps out of the screen at us.

By contrast, almost the only thing in the entire show which gave me that genuine frisson of fear, a real sense of the weird, inexplicable and uncanny, was the film Afronauts. I had no idea how it was going to end, I didn’t understand it a lot of the time, I felt I had entered a genuinely unpredictable and uncanny space. I’d like more of that, please.


Related links

Reviews of past exhibitions at the Barbican

Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans @ the Royal Academy

Ensor (1860-1949) is an oddity. He was born in Ostend, a windswept seaside ‘resort’ on the coast of Belgium in 1860 and chose to spend his whole life there. His parents kept a modest curiosity shop which made its money during the short summer tourist season, and the guide tells us that, once a year, Ostend had a colourful Mardi Gras carnival, where everyone wore masks. It is easy enough to make the connection between Ensor growing up among bizarre artefacts, experiencing this annual jamboree, and what was to become his trademark depiction of grotesquely distorted people wearing carnival masks…

The Intrigue by James Ensor (1890) Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

The Intrigue by James Ensor (1890) Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Photo KMSKA © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

The guide goes on to explain that Ostend had been the site of a lengthy siege and battle way back in the 17th century, and that all building works in the area tended to dig up piles of bones and skulls. Apparently there are photos of Ensor and friends holding mock duels on the beach using human bones (though not included in the show). All of which explains his other favourite subject of skulls and skeletons.

The exhibition could have stuck to an exploration of these themes but it is curated not by scholars but by fellow Belgian artist, Luc Tuymans (b.1958) who has always been attracted to his countryman’s work and sets out to show us that there is more to Ensor than just his best-known grotesque paintings. The show deliberately sets out to show us Ensor’s range and diversity, and so we are introduced to other major strands in his output, such as:

Early realist works

These include Bathing Hut (1876), painted when he was just 16 and showing a typical sight on the windswept beach, and Afternoon In Ostende (1881) showing his mother and sister in a grim muddy interior, indicative of the stiflingly conventional bourgeois the artist grew up in. This early naturalist style could hardly be more at odds with the style that made him famous. A good example here is the Self-portrait with a flowered hat (1883). OK he’s a bit of a dandy, but a very conventional one.

Self-portrait with Flowered Hat by James Ensor (1883) Mu.ZEE, Oostende Photo MuZee © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Self-portrait with Flowered Hat by James Ensor (1883) Mu.ZEE, Oostende
Photo MuZee © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Satirical cartoons

One of the three rooms in the show features a long case showing maybe forty examples of the satirical cartoons he produced by the score, as stand-alones or in sets, satirising Ostend bourgeois society. No wonder he became so unpopular in the town of his birth.

Plague here, Plague there, Plague Everywhere by James Ensor (1888) Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photograph: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Plague here, Plague there, Plague Everywhere by James Ensor (1888) Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. Photo KMSKA © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photograph: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Two large examples are hung separately:

  • The Bad Doctors (1892)
  • The Dangerous Cooks (1896) Ensor’s withering opinion of critics who are serving up his and a fellow artist’s heads on plates to be scoffed by porcine critics waiting at the table.

Ensor carried out a lifelong war against critics who didn’t like or value his work. This was the era when variations on Impressionism were still being produced and new movements from France, like Symbolism, were smooth and high-toned. Ensor was deliberately crude, clumsy, garish and, above all, satirical. It’s not a particularly good work, but the approach of the man seems to be summed up in The Pisser.

Religious art

Disappointingly for a man who considered himself a rebel and non-conformist, there’s a strong Christian thread through his work, represented here by a huge horrible painting of Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden of Eden. It is enormous and dominates one whole wall.

Apparently, his most famous work is Christ’s entry into Brussels, which is not on show here, combining his interests in the grotesque, social satire and religion into a ragbag which I’m afraid I don’t like at all.

The fantastic

Ensor produced hundreds of engravings, etchings and lithographs of very variable quality, many of them depicting scenes of fantasy and the grotesque. There is a series devoted to the seven deadly sins, which anticipate the deliberate ugliness of post-Great War satirists like George Grosz.

Both my children are at secondary school. In order to choose which secondary schools to send them to we went to open days of maybe a dozen schools in all. In every one, among other areas, you tour round the art rooms. Deliberately cack-handed, garish and obvious depictions of the seamy side of life – of ugly people, skeletons, skulls, alongside satire on religion or political leaders – depicted with the earnestness of 5th and 6th form teenagers is what these rooms are packed with. After looking at the 20th etching of a deadly sin or crowds mocking Christ or the troops at Waterloo it’s hard not to think of Ensor as a kind of patron saint of tens of thousands of clumsy, over-earnest adolescent imaginations.

Drawings

The show includes a lot of prints and drawings. What struck me is how powerfully naturalistic some of the early ones are before he discovered his talent for the macabre and grotesque. I much preferred these which have a depth and maturity which, paradoxically, his later deliberately sketchy satires wholly lack.

Still life 

In the room of grotesques one painting stood apart – a dazzling still life. This photographic reproduction completely fails to bring out the unnervingly oiliness and spookiness of the painting in the flesh. It is a far more intense and disturbing image than some of the overtly grotesque paintings. More subtly unnerving.

The Skate by James Ensor (1892) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo: J. Geleyns - Ro scan © DACS 2016

The Skate by James Ensor (1892) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels/photo: J. Geleyns – Ro scan © DACS 2016

Over by 40

Although Ensor lived to an advanced age, not dying until 1949, the excellent handout for the exhibition crisply points out that by the age of 40 (1900) his best work was done. He spent the next 40 years repeating the same motifs and, in his last years, developing a much lighter more gaseous style. The expert on the audio-commentary tries to claim these later works match the earlier ones, but they don’t.

Luc Tuymans

Because this is not a ‘scholarly’ exhibition but a personal selection of one artist’s works by another (Luc Tuymans) Tuymans mixes it up a little, adding other elements. Most notable are a couple of works by Tuymans himself, chiefly an enormous white carnival hat with billowing feathers, as worn at the Carnival de Binche in 2001, as well as five – to be honest, rather bland – carnival masks.

A bit more relevant is the self-portrait by Ensor’s Ostend contemporary, Léon Spilliart. Apparently it was seeing Ensor’s work that persuaded Spilliart to pack in being a lawyer and become a painter instead. Interesting story and I very much liked the intensity of this image, with the subject’s eyes in deep black shadow, and his reflection repeated in parallel mirrors to infinity. In fact googling this image shows that Spilliart did multiple self-portraits and comes over as an intense spin-off of the Edvard Munch school of northern depression.

But this one image, by itself, doesn’t really tell me much about Ensor or shed much light on the contemporary Belgian ‘scene’.

Conclusion

I knew next to nothing about Ensor before visiting, and so this exhibition is a useful overview of his life and achievement but, having got a grasp of his career, I would have liked to see more of his trademark weird mask and skull paintings, and/or more of the striking naturalistic paintings he did right at the start of his career.

There are only three rooms in this small exhibition and the majority of the space is devoted to drawings, prints and cartoons most of which just aren’t of the same quality as the grotesques/realist works. Imagine if the space had been full to overflowing with his paintings of garish masks and leering skeletons and green-faced women and men with pig noses – what a powerful experience it would have been!

While searching Ensor images on the internet I came across The Dejected Woman, was very impressed by it, and couldn’t help wondering whether a lot of the satirical drawings, sketches and cartoons which Ensor devoted so much effort to (e.g. Christ tormented by demons) and which are given so much wall space here, were, in fact, a waste of a breath-taking talent.


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Other Royal Academy reviews

Debits and Credits by Rudyard Kipling (1926)

He observed, of a cake of dried poppy juice: ‘This has power to cut off all pain from a man’s body.’
‘I have seen it,’ said John.
‘But for pain of the soul there is, outside God’s Grace, but one drug; and that is a man’s craft, learning, or other helpful motion of his own mind.’ (The Eye of Allah)

Published eight long years after the end of the Great War, eleven years after his only son, John, was reported ‘missing presumed dead’ during the 1915 Battle of Loos, and gathering together all the short stories Kipling wanted to keep from the previous decade, Debits and Credits contains 14 stories and 21 poems.

In their range and, especially, in their worked-over depths and subtleties, this is by far his best volume of stories – some are flawed and uneven, cryptic and apparently callous – but many others are crafted and subtle and moving.

The stories

1. The Enemies to Each Other

2. Sea Constables (1915) ‘A tale of ’15. In February 1915 the German High Command declared the North Sea a war zone in which all merchant shipping, including neutral ships, were liable to be attacked and sunk without warning. This story describes four Royal Navy men meeting at a choice restaurant in London.

The four men sat down. They had the coarse-grained complexions of men who habitually did themselves well, and an air, too, of recent, red-eyed dissipation. Maddingham, the eldest, was a thick-set middle-aged presence, with crisped grizzled hair, of the type that one associates with Board Meetings. He limped slightly. Tegg, who followed him, blinking, was neat, small, and sandy, of unmistakable Navy cut, but sheepish aspect. Winchmore, the youngest, was more on the lines of the conventional prewar ‘nut,’ but his eyes were sunk in his head and his hands black-nailed and roughened. Portson, their host, with Vandyke beard and a comfortable little stomach, beamed upon them as they settled to their oysters.

In Kipling’s usual late manner the four old pros settle down to telling stories, before slowly drifting into swapping notes about the Neutral vessel (presumably American, though it isn’t stated) which they were all partly involved in tailing through the North Sea, down the Channel and round into the Irish Sea.

Winchmore sets the ball rolling, then hands over to Maddingham who played the lion’s share. The ‘Newt’ (as they nickname the neutral vessel) claims to be carrying oil for Antigua, which they think a likely story. Maddingham’s ship pursues the neutral vessel into the Irish Sea and then into an unnamed West of England port, where the American captain prompts a Court of Inquiry into the way he’s being closely tailed and chased.

This is portrayed as one of the umpteen examples in Kipling where the British bend over backwards to be fair and above board to an enemy (in this case suspected enemy) which is utterly unscrupulous – an approach he thought bedevilled our efforts in the Boer War – and the kind of ‘health and safety gone mad’ sentiment you can still read any day in the Daily Mail.

One of the four at table, Tegg, was a lawyer during the inquiry.

And that’s what you get for trying to serve your country in your old age!’ Maddingham emptied and refilled his glass.
‘We did give you rather a grilling,’ said Tegg placidly. ‘It’s the national sense of fair play.’

The Newt goes back to sea, closely followed again by Maddingham who tags him up and down the Irish Sea, in stormy foggy weather, regularly hailing the captain on his bridge and exchanging insults. Maddingham and the others suspect he was planning to rendezvous with a German submarine and transfer his cargo of oil to it. Eventually the Newt puts into Cloone Harbour, where the captain takes to his bed, ill with bronchial pneumonia. Dying, he asks Manningham to help him organise his affairs and write a will. Manningham sticks to his orders and refuses.

This is taken as the crux of the story, where a usually decent man fails to show common humanity / oversteps some moral mark, and is interpreted in some commentaries as an example of how war deforms morality. As usual the text is dense with naval jargon as swished around by a bunch of chaps used to shorthand expressions, fleeting references, who share the same values and so don’t have to explain their sentiments and views. A number of critics point to the clipped approach of these later stories, and the way they’re couched in talk, in reams of highly technical or slang or dialect speech, as evidence that Kipling had forged a kind of ‘modernist’ style of his own. Maybe. This is how the main talker, Maddingham, talks:

‘He set the tops’ls in his watch. Hilarity won’t steer under any canvas, so we rather sported round our friend that afternoon, I believe. When I came up after dinner, she was biting his behind, first one side, then the other. Let’s see — that would be about thirty miles east-sou-east of Harry Island. We were running as near as nothing south. The wind had dropped, and there was a useful cross-rip coming up from the south-east. I took the wheel and, the way I nursed him from starboard, he had to take the sea over his port bow. I had my sciatica on me — buccaneering’s no game for a middle-aged man — but I gave that fellow sprudel! By Jove; I washed him out! He stood it as long as he could, and then he made a bolt for Harry Island. I had to ride in his pocket most of the way there because I didn’t know that coast. We had charts, but Sherrin never understood ’em, and I couldn’t leave the wheel. So we rubbed along together, and about midnight this Newt dodged in over the tail of Harry Shoals and anchored, if you please, in the lee of the Double Ricks. It was dead calm there, except for the swell, but there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre in, and I wasn’t going to anchor. It looked too like a submarine rendezvous. But first, I came alongside and asked him what his trouble was. He told me he had overheated his something-or-other bulb. I’ve never been shipmates with Diesel engines, but I took his word for it, and I said I ‘ud stand by till it cooled. Then he told me to go to hell.’

3. ‘In the Interests of the Brethren’ (1917) In a pet shop the narrator briefly meets a man who he later bumps into running a tobacconist’s shop. He is a Mason and invites the narrator along to a meeting of his Lodge (‘Faith and Works 5837’) that night. The narrator helps vet half a dozen Masons in Army uniform who have turned up hoping for recognition and admission. It is a way to suggest the appalling damage to the war injured, men with jaws shot away, who’ve lost arms or legs, the huge holocaust of the injured, plus those Kipling calls the ‘shell-shockers’ or just ‘shockers’. One Brother explains how a severe ‘mental case’ was rehabilitated by being given the Lodge’s jewellery to clean and look after. Practical therapy.

The point of the story is the compassion the men show to each other. They vote on what ceremonies to perform and then the half-crippled men are helped to carry them out. For many it’s the only religion or ritual they’ve ever had. Others gain dignity and self-respect by performing the (unspecified) rituals, even if they need help from the able-bodied. A crippled man is carried by a sergeant Major into the organ loft where he softly plays Bach. A ‘silent’ Brother is moved to slobber and squawk something which another Brother interprets as a Welsh placename. Acceptance. Forgiveness. A one-legged Corporal explains to the narrator that it was all the tobacconist’s idea, to revive the Lodge and just create a place, a safe space, where wounded, injured, broken men can talk and support each other.

All Ritual is fortifying. Ritual’s a natural necessity for mankind.

This is not a ‘story’, it is in effect a lightly fictionalised journalistic feature. Kipling became a Freemason back in India in the 1880s. What is interesting is the new feel in the ‘story’ -a more mature sense of forgiveness, acceptance, mercy – and a deeper understanding of the healing power of ritual and ceremony which is not conventional empty Church ritual, something somehow more effective and inclusive.

Exactly the same message as in W.B. Yeat’s famous poem A Prayer For My Daughter (1919):

How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?

4. The United Idolaters (1924) Another ‘Stalky’ story i.e set among staff and pupils at a comically exaggerated version of Kipling’s own rather unconventional public school, United Services College in Devon. The ‘story’ loosely describes the craze among pupils and masters for Joel Chandler Harris’s Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox stories, collected in his best-selling Uncle Remus books (the first one of the series was published 1881).

Apart from the ostensible subject matter, it is useful to have Kipling’s own formulation of how the arcane and laboured facetiousness of public schoolboy slang was created from contemporary fads and crazes.

As the Studies brought back brackets and pictures for their walls, so did they bring odds and ends of speech — theatre, opera, and music-hall gags — from the great holiday world; some of which stuck for a term, and others were discarded… In a short time the College was as severely infected with Uncle Remus as it had been with Pinafore [1878] and Patience [1881] …. The book was amazing, and full of quotations that one could hurl like javelins.

It is interesting that Kipling acknowledges the aggression that can be implicit in groups, sets, circles of people using in-jokes and in-quotations, to fight each other or to keep outsiders out.

The comedy is in the escalation of the craze, as one of the boys buys a tortoise which is quickly painted house colours and hoisted by a rope up on a stick, and processed round the various form rooms to the accompaniment of Brer Rabbit-style songs. Then Stalky, Beetle, M’Turk and others make a good effigy of the Tar Baby (a character in the books).

Soon the school has divided into competing factions, each with distinct war chants, supporting either the Tar Baby or Brer Tortoise – some of the boys dress up in increasingly ludicrous outfits. A tug-of-war rope is introduced, which causes mayhem, and eventually desks are knocked over, windows smashed and even a fire grating wrenched out in the collective chaos.

Ultimately it all ends in a heroic number of canings by the Head, and the issuance of thousands of lines of Latin to be done as punishment by countless culprits. To give a sense of the schoolboy slang:

‘It was worth it,’ Dick Four pronounced on review of the profit-and-loss account with Number Five in his study.
‘Heap-plenty-bong-assez,’ Stalky assented.
‘But why didn’t King ra’ar up an’ cuss Tar Baby?’ Beetle asked.
‘You preter-pluperfect, fat-ended fool!’ Stalky began —‘Keep your hair on! We all know the Idolaters wasn’t our Uncle Stalky’s idea. But why didn’t King —’
‘Because Dick took care to paint Brer Terrapin King’s House-colours. You can always conciliate King by soothin’ his putrid esprit-demaisong. Ain’t that true, Dick?’
Dick Four, with the smile of modest worth unmasked, said it was so.

A running sub-plot throughout has been the appearance, at the start, of a new master to the school, a Mr Brownell. He is appalled all the way through by the school’s lax rules and permissiveness and utterly disgusted by the Brer Rabbit ‘riots’. He is shown at the end, having a bitter argument with the rest of the staff, before leaving in a huff. His stiff priggishness throws into relief the essential innocence of the schoolboy hijinks.

5. The Wish House (1924) Frame: Two old Sussex ladies, Mrs Ashcroft and Mrs Fettley meet to do some knitting in the sunshine, not much bothered by the packed charabancs motoring by down to the local football ground (the kind of framing detail which Kipling delights in). They fall to telling stories about men, men they’ve loved and lost. Mrs Fettley tells a story about a man she loved, who had died quite recently. But Kipling is such a savage editor of his own works, that the entire account of their affair has been cut and is only referred to obliquely.

Mrs. Fettley had spoken very precisely for some time without interruption, before she wiped her eyes. ‘And,’ she concluded, ‘they read ‘is death-notice to me, out o’ the paper last month.’

Then Kipling adjusts himself, makes himself more comfortable, eases deeper into the atmosphere he’s created.

The light and air had changed a little with the sun’s descent, and the two elderly ladies closed the kitchen-door against chill. A couple of jays squealed and skirmished through the undraped apple-trees in the garden. This time, the word was with Mrs. Ashcroft, her elbows on the tea table, and her sick leg propped on a stool…

Story: Now Mrs Ashcroft reveals that she was desperately in love with one Harry Mockler, Bert Mockler’s son. They feel in love when she came down from London to the area to work. When the time came for her to return to London, she went to the lengths of scalding her arm to delay her return.

Then they arranged between them for Harry to get a job up ‘Lunnon’ so they could be close. ‘‘Dere wadn’t much I didn’t do for him. ‘E was me master.’ But, eventually, Harry tired of her and took to other women.

It is then that a new element enters the text: their charwoman’s ‘fiddle girl’ — Sophy Ellis.

Mrs Ashcroft, it appears, was susceptible to severe headaches. During one of them Sophy, a little slip of a girl, goes off to a ‘wish house’ – just a non-descript terraced house that’s been abandoned for some time, and speaks her wish through the letter box to the ‘token’ within. Her wish is to take Mrs Ashcroft’s headache upon herself. And Mrs Ashcroft’s headache disappears. It is now that Sophy reappears at the house, looking awful and, when Mrs Ashcroft asks why, slowly, hesitantly, the girl tells the story of the wish house and how she’s taken Mrs A’s headache upon herself. Stuff and nonsense, the older woman cries.

Then she bumps into Harry in the street – still besotted with him, though he shamefacedly avoids her – and notices he is looking very ill. She learns that he’s been in hospital, having cut his foot badly with a spade and gotten a bad infected.

So, after some thought and hesitation, Mrs Ashcroft goes to the ‘wish house’, at the address Sophy told herself about – furtively, embarrassed, knocks and hears an eerie shuffling and pokes open the letter box.

I stooped me to the letter-box slit, an’ I says: “Let me take everythin’ bad that’s in store for my man, ‘Arry Mockler, for love’s sake.” Then, whatever it was ‘tother side de door let its breath out, like, as if it ‘ad been holdin’ it for to ‘ear better.’
‘Nothin’ was said to ye?’ Mrs. Fettley demanded.
‘Na’un. She just breathed out — a sort of A-ah, like. Then the steps went back an’ downstairs to the kitchen — all draggy — an’ I heard the cheer drawed up again.’

And, to her amazement, she learns soon after that Harry is healed. Oh how happy she is. And yet the restored man carries on with his womanising while she, for her part, develops a nasty ulcer on her shin which she’s had ever since. It is the physical form of Harry’s illness, which she has taken upon herself.

And that’s it. Now she knows she is dying. And Mrs Fettley, in the closing pages of the story herself confesses that she’s going blind. Two afflicted old women at the end of their lives. The story ends with Mrs Ashcroft pitifully needing reassurance that her sacrifice has been worth it, that by taking Harry’s pain she will guarantee his love… in another place.

‘But the pain do count, don’t ye think, Liz? The pain do count to keep ‘Arry where I want ’im. Say it can’t be wasted, like.’

This is a stunning story and his portrayal of two ailing old ladies is a tremendous advance in Kipling’s art from the casual misogyny of his early tales. He shows a tremendous imaginative sympathy with physical pain and with a certain kind of muted psychological suffering. This is just one of a set of late tales which reach out and depict older women with a tremendous vividness and sympathy.

6. The Janeites (1924) Further incidents in the Freemasons’ Lodge (“Faith and Works 5837”) introduced in the previous story, ‘In the Interests of the Brethren’. That was set in 1917; this one is set in autumn 1920. As with so many Kipling texts, there is the Frame and the Yarn.

Frame: The narrator has become a regular at the lodge and is helping to clean it on a Saturday afternoon, with a rag-tag body of ex-soldiers. Up in the organ loft sharp-eyed Anthony – a taxi-driver who served in Palestine and is always ready to tell acerbic anecdotes about life in a cab – is supervising big strong damaged Humberstall, as they polish the acacia-wood panels of the Lodge organ.

Humberstall served in an artillery battery, was badly wounded, recuperated at home back in Leicestershire, before sneaking back to rejoin his old regiment. His kindly Major recognises his need to be there, but tactfully orders him to become mess-waiter i.e. allots him a safe job away from the front. It is here, helping the head waiter, Macklin (much given to drunkenness) that he overhears a conversation between two officers – Captain Mosse and Major Hammick, a private detective and divorce lawyer in civilian life – discussing a woman they call ‘Jane’.

Story: Macklin explains to Humberstall the origins of the conversation he overheard: there is a Society of ‘Janeites’, membership of which allows officers to speak freely to men and vice versa. Macklin offers him membership, for a fee and so Humberstall pays up a ‘bradbury’ (slang for £1). Macklin explains that the society is based on the works of a woman who wrote long ago, Jane Austen, and makes him read Jane’s six novels. Humberstall (who is telling this narrative) is struck by how ordinary and recognisable all the characters are.

There is a longish sequence where Macklin and Humberstall get into trouble for chalking the names of three Austen characters on the sides of their big guns, with much larkey humour. Then the Germans launch their March Offensive in 1918 and roll up a lot of the Western Front, a naive officer comes past their position with a squad of little more than kids who are all wiped out in a barrage and then – the barrage lands on the guns and mess of our characters.

Humberstall recovers consciousness to find himself blown clear of the main damage, with his clothes blown off. There are corpses and body parts everywhere. He dresses with the clothes of a corpse, before staggering back to what’s left of the mess and discovering that Mosse, Hammick, Macklin and all the others are dead.

Humberstall hitches a lift on a retreating lorry, but at the nearest railhead he is prevented from squeezing onto a packed troop train by an officious nurse. It is here that his half-understood membership of ‘the Janeites’ gives him one last boost – he mentions to her superior that the officious nurse blocking him from the train reminds him of Miss Bates (from Austen’s novel Emma) – and the superior nurse is so impressed that she makes a space for him and his stretcher, not only on the train, but near a fire. And so his knowledge of Jane Austen probably saved his life.

Frame: Worshipful Brother Burges, who set up the Lodge and who we met in the first story, calls out to the soldiers that tea’s ready, and the Brethren cease their labours for refreshment. Big broken Humberstall ends his yarn and lumbers down the ladder, and sharp little Anthony turns to ask the narrator whether ‘the Janeites’ really existed. The narrator replies that it’s too complex a story for a man like Humberstall to have invented.

Anthony says he’s been seeing a lot of Humberstall’s sister, who’s giving him advice about how to look after Humberstall. ‘Careful,’ smiles the narrator: ‘Jane was a great match-maker and all her novels are about match-making. Maybe the Janeites will have one last legacy, and create a love affair between Humberstall’s sister and Anthony.’ Anthony blushes. Jane’s legacy lives on.

7. The Prophet and the Country (1924) Frame: This is another ‘motoring story’ and Kipling adopts the persona of the permanently disgruntled petrolhead, outraged that the police pull him over, outraged that any other vehicle gets in his way, outraged and disgusted of Tunbridge Wells (or Burwash, Sussex, in his case). His car breaks down and as he is preparing to spend the night in the car a sort of caravan pulls up driven, it soon emerges, by an American, all conveyed in Kipling’s characteristic allusive style.

I diagnosed it as a baker’s van on a Ford chassis, lit with unusual extravagance. It pulled up and asked what the trouble might be. The first sentence sufficed, even had my lights not revealed the full hairless face, the horn-rimmed spectacles, the hooded boots below, and the soft hat, fashioned on no block known to the Eastern trade, above, the yellow raincoat.

Story: The American tells his story which is a long rambling account of how, after his wife died, he decided to dedicate his life to making a film about the disastrous effects of Prohibition on the American national character. He predicts that weaning the entire nation off the Demon Drink will make it as weak and helpless as when the teetotal red Indians or Pacific Islanders were exposed to rum and whiskey i.e. after a long enough time teetotal, the Land of the Free will become vulnerable to attack from East and West by booze-wielding enemies.

The film he planned to make was based around photos of an angry red Indian, of his wife’s best friend who hoped he would marry her when he was widowed and of a motley crew of tourists in the wilderness, looking ‘unutterably mean’. As a ‘treatment’ for a film this is incomprehensible, and really just a frame for the American – named Mr Tarworth from Omaha Nebraska – to boom on in loud pretentious capitalised proper nouns.

He spoke in capital letters, a few of which I have preserved, on our National Spirit, which, he had sensed, was Homogeneous and in Ethical Contact throughout — Unconscious but Vitally Existent. That was his Estimate of our Racial Complex. It was an Asset, but a Democracy postulating genuine Ideals should be more multitudinously-minded and diverse in Outlook.

When word of this mad project got around, Tarworth was lambasted as an anti-American traitor, becoming so unpopular he was forced to leave the country, hence his touring round England. And the film ‘treatment’? Safe in the Bank of England but he wouldn’t consider trying to produce it here, as he is

‘a one-hundred-per-cent. American. The way I see it, I could not be a party to an indirect attack on my Native Land.’

I suppose this is a comedy, and some kind of satire against State Intervention, and maybe also against a certain kind of Americans’ booming self-importance – but in lots of ways it doesn’t make sense (the whole idea of working up a screenplay from four photos is bizarrely unlikely) and its irony and sarcasm – if that’s what they are p are certainly not very funny.

8. The Bull that Thought (1924) Frame: The narrator is touring France in a motor car, and has discovered a particularly straight stretch of road in the south, where you can get up to an amazing 90 kilometres per hour! (Since his chauffeur is Mr Leggatt, this is presumably the same narrator as in ‘The Horse Marines’ and, by extension, the other Pyecroft stories which featured a chauffeur named Leggatt.)

In the hotel where he’s staying, he meets Monsieur Andre Voiron, a well-off local businessman, who he takes along on the night-time drive to attempt maximum speed. Impressed, M. Voiron, back at the hotel, gets out his finest champagne and tells the narrator the story of a bull.

Story: They breed bulls hereabouts to send to the arena at Arles. One particular calf was always more intelligent than the others, chasing the boys who baited it; hiding and ambushing its enemies. He reports the time the bull assassinated a rival and then calmly cleaned its horns in the dust – very unusual. When it was taken to Arles its horns were padded with cloth to take part in pretend bull-fighting; but half way through the bout, it rubbed the pads off on the ground and terrorised its tormentors. Thereupon it was bought by Voiron’s chief herdsman Christophe, and Voiron returned to business.

The main part of the story occurs when Christophe informs Voiron that the bull – named, by the way, Apis – was scheduled to appear in a small bullring near Barcelona. The core of the story is how Apis humiliates (and kills) all the matadors and picadors sent to kill him, until an old-timer, Chisto, who used to play with him when he was a calf, defuses him, playing with him, frisking and then, in alliance, walking peacefully back to the gate through which Apis entered – and his life is spared.

According to bullfighting experts the story is misleading in at least two respects; if anyone is killed in a bullfight it is stopped immediately; bulls in bullfights are completely virgin – they have never seen the cloths or stands and gestures before; any bull which has and so has learned to dodge them and attack the matadors, is spotted and excluded. Lots of commentators overlook these factual flaws in interpreting the story as a metaphor for the artist and his art.

9. A Madonna of The Trenches (1924) Frame: One of several post-War stories set in the Freemason Lodge ‘Faith and Works 5837’. The narrator is helping the Senior Warden who is also a doctor, Dr Keede. During a lecture a new recruit, Strangwick, has a nervous attack, has to be helped out and administered a sedative. The noise of scraping chairs had reminded Strangwick of the noise made by the leather straps of the corpses which the French used to build their trenches over, of the squeaking noise the dead men’s straps made when you walked on the duckboards laid over them. God. What horror. But as Keede gently questions and sympathetically listens to the stammering man, he draws out a story which is far weirder and stranger than mere post-traumatic stress.

Story: Strangwick was in the same regiment as an older man, Sergeant Godsoe, who he’d known since a boy and had been a father figure to him and his sister. On the day in question, Godsoe was found dead in a sealed gas room in the trenches, with two lighted braziers. Asphyxiation. Dr Keede knew about the incident but thought, like everyone else, it was an accident – that the gas-proof door banged shut and locked Godsoe in by accident.

Now Strangwick slowly, hesitantly, in his working class idiom, explains that Godsoe had been having an affair with his (Strangwick’s) auntie Armine, his mum’s sister (real name, in fact, Bella). Auntie Armine had given Strangwick, on his most recent leave, a note to take back to Godsoe, saying her little trouble would be over on the 21st and she was dying to meet him as soon as possible thereafter.

Strangwick, in his job as a runner on the fateful 21 January, thinks he sees his Auntie Armine at a corner of an old French trench, and, when he tells Godsoe, the latter realises what it means and makes Strangwick take him back to the scene. Here Strangwick’s hair stands on end as he realises that the apparition he thought was a trick of the light earlier on, really is the ghost of his Auntie who – he later finds out – died of cancer that morning. The ghostly figure is holding out her arms to Sergeant Godsoe, imploring him with a terrifying look on her face – and the Sergeant calmly beckons her into the gas room with the braziers and barricades the door behind him. He deliberately asphyxiated himself, killed himself, so that he can be with his lover for all eternity.

Frame: Having got all this out of his system, Strangwick sleeps. The Brother who introduced him comes along and apologises for his behaviour. He’s been under a lot of strain, he explains, on account of a ‘breach of promise’ action brought against him by his sweetheart, after Strangwick broke off the engagement. The Brother doesn’t know why, but we know the full story and the way the sight of a) a middle-aged love affair b) and the ghostly horror of his ‘uncle’s death have unhinged Strangwick. And there is a final irony because the Brother who brought him to the Lodge is his actual Uncle, Auntie Armine’s husband. Only Strangwick knows that his Uncle’s wife was so totally unfaithful to him. And this is another element or level in his hysteria.

A spooky story, sure enough – but for me the ghost story element is outweighed by the touching sensitivity to hysterical soldiers shown by the narrator, the doctor and the other Masonic members, who quietly come to enquire if they can help. It is a community of men looking after men.

Strangwick, who had been fidgeting and twitching for some minutes, rose, drove back his chair grinding across the tesselated floor, and yelped ‘Oh, My Aunt! I can’t stand this any longer.’ Under cover of a general laugh of assent he brushed past us and stumbled towards the door.
‘I thought so!’ Keede whispered to me. ‘Come along!’ We overtook him in the passage, crowing hysterically and wringing his hands. Keede led him into the Tyler’s Room, a small office where we stored odds and ends of regalia and furniture, and locked the door.
‘I’m — I’m all right,’ the boy began, piteously.
‘‘Course you are.’ Keede opened a small cupboard which I had seen called upon before, mixed sal volatile and water in a graduated glass, and, as Strangwick drank, pushed him gently on to an old sofa. ‘There,’ he went on. ‘It’s nothing to write home about. I’ve seen you ten times worse. I expect our talk has brought things back.’
He hooked up a chair behind him with one foot, held the patient’s hands in his own, and sat down.

It feels a world away from the cocky young men kicking their native servants in Plain Tales, nearly 40 years earlier.

10. The Propagation of Knowledge (1926) Another ‘Stalky’ story i.e set among staff and pupils at a comically exaggerated version of Kipling’s own rather unconventional public school, United Services College in Devon. Mr King is trying to teach the class about Augustan literature. This story makes clearer than ever before that the elaborate facetious sarcasm of the teachers is a coping mechanism, a way of managing the daily battle with obstructive, obtuse and dilatory pupils.

Then King implored [Beetle] to vouchsafe his comrades one single fact connected with Dr. Johnson which might at any time have adhered to what, for decency’s sake, must, Mr. King supposed, be called his mind.

The focus of the story is when an external examiner comes down to the school to supervise their Army Preliminary Exam. Mr King sets a preparatory general knowledge exam and we are shown the boys conspiring and confabulating on how to divide up their thin store of knowledge so as all to get a pass. There is no notion whatever of individual boys being assessed on their work and merits; the whole ethos is that specialists in one area share around the likely answers on that topic, and that the whole group works together. In this rather unconventional way, the school – knowingly or not – fosters team effort, co-operation and a rough sense of fairness and comradeship.

‘Beetle’, the bookish bespectacled Kipling figure in the stories, has been recognised for his literary talents, let off maths and given free run of the headmaster’s extensive library. Here he stumbles across the theory that Shakespeare’s plays were written by Bacon or some other aristocrat. He shares this with his Form and when they hesitantly raise it in their next lesson Mr King goes mad, delivering a long tirade against this ‘imbecile and unspeakable girls’— school tripe’.

Which gives the boys a sneaky idea. When the external examiner arrives to work through their papers with the boys one or two casually float the notion that Shakespeare didn’t write his own works and… the examiner, a Mr Hume, far from exploding, listens with interest. Aha. He may be a devotee of the theory. In which case they may be able to distract him onto it and away from asking tricky questions about the Augustans. Which is what happens. In a carefully co-ordinated attack, the boys ask a series of leading questions about the Shakespeare theory which lead Hume into a lengthy consideration of the theory… only realising, embarrassed towards the end of the time, that he’s meant to be quizzing them about the Augustans. Nonetheless, he goes away impressed with their studiousness and says ‘

he would have particular pleasure in speaking well of this Army Class, which had evinced such a genuine and unusual interest in English Literature, and which reflected the greatest credit on their instructors.

Victory to the boys, Stalky, Beetle, M’Turk, Vernon and the others! And when Hume mentions in passing to Mr King the boys’ surprising knowledge of literature and especially the Shakespeare theory, King is left beside himself with rage and chagrin. I found this genuinely funny and enjoyable, like the other Stalky story in this volume; I think because they are genuinely humorous and light in tone, unlike the Stalky stories from the 1890s which were significantly more savage and cruel.

11. A Friend of the Family (1924) Frame: Fourth of the stories set in the Masonic Lodge ‘Faith and Works 5837’. Four chaps get chatting over dinner – Bevin, Pole, a sassy Australian with a glass eye named Orton, and the narrator. They yarn about their respective trades (Bevin owns a chicken farm and is diversifying into herbs). They all grumble that all they wanted after the War was Judgement and justice, instead of which they got talk talk talk. Grumble grumble grumble.

‘We didn’t want all that talk afterwards — we only wanted justice. What I say is, there must be a right and a wrong to things. It can’t all be kiss-an’-make-friends, no matter what you do.’

But if any generation had a right to grumble it’s the men who went through the war. Kipling conveys the way they fall to remembering incidents e.g. on the beach at Gallipolli, then go quiet, their faces suddenly tight, with the awful memories.

Story: Once they’re all comfortably settled after dinner, Bevin tells the story of Hickmot, a quiet Australian from the back of beyond, ‘brought up among blackfellas’, who was the only survivor of his battalion at Gallipolli and seconded to what was left of Bevin’s battalion. He was very quiet, very unobtrusive. Then a new draft came out including a man from the narrator, Bevin’s, village, one Bert Vigors. His dad was a market-gardener and they tried to exempt Bert on account of the family business but the local tribunal didn’t listen and he was drafted. The same tribunal exempted the son of a Mr Margetts, also a market gardener, because he hired a canny lawyer and was friends with some of the tribunes. Result: Vigors’ business goes bust, Margett’s old man buys it up.

Vigors won’t stop moaning to anyone who’ll listen about his Grievance, so quite quickly all the boys nickname him ‘the Grief’ and avoid him – all except Hickmot. He’ll listen to Vigors about his Grievance for hours so long as Vigors will then listen to him talking about sheep in the Outback. The two become inseparable. Soon Hickmot cops it in the leg and is shipped home and then Vigors is killed.

Bevin knows he right on the edge of a breakdown and wonders whether he’ll win a VC for some reckless exploit or go postal and shoot everyone around him. Just in time he’s posted back to England as a bomb instructor, marries his sweetheart – who just happens to have been Bert Vigors’s sister – and sleeps at home in his native village, before going off to instruction duty every day.

They get a letter from the Brighton hospital where Hickmot is asking if he can come and stay. Since Bert’s sister read about him in the letters Bert sent home, she says Yes. Hickmot arrives, with one leg amputated above the knee, hardly says a word, but fits right in and does all the chores. One day he unobtrusively accompanies Bevin to bomb instruction, holing up in the dugout where the duds are kept till used, then accompanying home at the end of the day. Then they see him onto the train to Roehampton, where he will be fitted with a prosthetic leg.

That night there is a series of explosions in the village, the villagers initially thinking they must be stray bombs from an air raid but Bevin and another officer quickly realise the damage is very localised; in fact it is limited to the market gardener Margett’s property: the roof of his house has been bombed, so it burns down, two hay ricks set afire, the furnace in his greenhouse has exploded demolishing it, all his horses released to trample and graze in the new fields he’d bought off Vigors’s dad. Oddest of all, Bevin had applied to dam a local stream to create a duck-pond for his wife’s ducks and been refused permission. But a bomb happens to have exploded under the bank of the stream and blocked it exactly where Bevin wanted. Fancy.

By now his listeners are laughing. Silent Hickmot had listened to all Vigor’s grievances and made a plan to enact justice for the injustice of his drafting and his death, and take revenge on the all-conquering Margett family.

Revenge: So it is one of Kipling’s many ‘revenge’ stories, but this time the brutality of the war somehow justifies it, and also justifies it as comedy, or farce – and also makes it very moving. On the surface it’s a story about how at least one soldier carried out poetic justice. But the real impact of the story comes from the many little touches in it indicating just how psychologically damaged and scarred by war the talkers are. There are several moments in his telling where Bevin’s face grows stiff and his hands go to tighten a belt he isn’t wearing, unconsciously carried back to the trenches. More overtly, he admits that, after Hickmot’s wounding and Vigors’s death, he was reaching breaking point, with a funny taste in his mouth and a sense of being distant from everything – just when his superiors had the sense to post him home as a bomb instructor. He is, in fact, just one more of Kipling’s many many men on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

‘It took ’em five minutes to make me understand I was saved. Then I vomited, an’ then I cried. You know!’ The fat face of Bevin had changed and grown drawn, even as he spoke; and his hands tugged as though to tighten an imaginary belt.’

12. On the Gate (1926) Set in 1916 and, according to various sources, drafted and finished in that year, then slowly pruned back over the following decade.

It is quite a funny comic sketch set at the Gates of Heaven where St Peter is feeling overwhelmed by the flood of dead people and – like an Army staff officer or schoolmaster – is struggling to keep his junior staff up to the mark. Death has called by for a chat and sympathises. Furthermore, it turns out there are several ‘deaths’ all in a highly bureaucratic civil service.

‘Thanks to this abominable war,’ he began testily, ‘my N.C.D. has to spend all its time fighting for mere existence. Your new War-side seems to think that nothing matters except the war. I’ve been asked to give up two-thirds of my Archives Basement (E. 7-E. 64) to the Polish Civilian Casualty Check and Audit. Preposterous! Where am I to move my Archives? And they’ve just been cross-indexed, too!’

Death in fact takes St Peter on a tour of the cramped office and over-burdened civil servants – in  this case seraphs and cherubim – struggling with all the paperwork and the confused causes of death these days. St Peter watches as a signal comes through on the wireless (Heaven has all the latest technology!) about a deserter and traitor being executed. He makes haste back to the Gates – what with all the crowds these days the ‘Lower Establishment’ (i.e. hell) is picking off stragglers heading towards heaven.

The basic premise sounds almost like a Monty Python sketch and there are some funny details, like the way St Peter deputises St Ignatius Loyola and St Christopher to the Admissions Board while he goes for his walkabout with Death – the former liable to let anyone in who argues with sufficient subtlety, while St Christopher is a sucker for anyone who’s wet and muddy. But overall it is arch and mechanical and there are satirical hits about contemporary England which the modern reader senses but doesn’t really ‘get’.

And there is some of Kipling’s strange science fiction visionariness.

The Saint and Death stayed behind to rest awhile. It was a heavenly evening. They could hear the whistle of the low-flighting Cherubim, clear and sharp, under the diviner note of some released Seraph’s wings, where, his errand accomplished, he plunged three or four stars deep into the cool Baths of Hercules; the steady dynamo-like hum of the nearer planets on their axes; and, as the hush deepened, the surprised little sigh of some new-born sun a universe of universes away.

13. The Eye of Allah (1926) As usual a group of men consort and yarn, only it is the 13th century and the men in this story are monks at the monastery of St Illod’s, who specialise in copying manuscripts. The main figure is John Otho or John of Burgos, a leading illustrator.

The Sub–Cantor looked over his shoulder at the pinned-down sheet where the first words of the Magnificat were built up in gold washed with red-lac for a background to the Virgin’s hardly yet fired halo. She was shown, hands joined in wonder, at a lattice of infinitely intricate arabesque, round the edges of which sprays of orange-bloom seemed to load the blue hot air that carried back over the minute parched landscape in the middle distance.

In the first half he journeys to Spain, to Burgos, for twenty months, ostensibly to research Moorish designs, the Spanish way of illustrating devils and to buy materials for the art work of the monastery. But in a sensitive conversation with the Abbot, Stephen, John admits that he is going to visit his infidel lover. it was a more relaxed age.

As in the Puck of Pook’s Hill stories, a lot of effort has gone into the factual background. As John, the Abbot, Martin the senior copyist, Clement the sub-cantor, the Infirmarian (doctor) and so on meet and chat and stroll around, the physical layout of the monastery is very precisely described – I shouldn’t be surprised if Kipling had made a diagram, or based it on a real monastery and carefully located each encounter.

John went down the stairs to the lane that divides the hospital and cook-house from the back-cloisters.

The Abbot and his guests went out to cool themselves in an upper cloister that took them, by way of the leads, to the South Choir side of the Triforium.

As to ‘plot’, the various conversations head towards a particular dinner, when the Abbot is entertaining two visitors, Roger a doctor from Salerno, and Roger Bacon, the English philosopher, and there is a good deal of impassioned discussion about the dead hand of ancient authors, and of the Church authorities, who prevent reasoned discussion (Roger Bacon) and the study of human anatomy (Roger of Salerno). The Abbot shrewdly defuses the tension by suggesting they look at John’s illustration for the scene of the Gadarene Swine in the copy of Luke’s gospel he is illuminating.

Some devils were mere lumps, with lobes and protuberances — a hint of a fiend’s face peering through jelly-like walls. And there was a family of impatient, globular devillings who had burst open the belly of their smirking parent, and were revolving desperately toward their prey. Others patterned themselves into rods, chains and ladders, single or conjoined, round the throat and jaws of a shrieking sow, from whose ear emerged the lashing, glassy tail of a devil that had made good his refuge. And there were granulated and conglomerate devils, mixed up with the foam and slaver where the attack was fiercest. Thence the eye carried on to the insanely active backs of the downward-racing swine, the swineherd’s aghast face, and his dog’s terror.

Discussion of where John gets his inspiration prompts him to get out a device he bought from the Arabs in Spain and they call ‘the eye of Allah’. It is a primitive microscope, with one lens, held between compass-type wooden pins. The Abbot, the two Rogers, John and Thomas the Infirmarian all look, in turn, through it at a drop of water, and are amazed and appalled to see the microscopic world of creatures wriggling and squirming in the liquid. It is a whole New World and the monks feverishly discuss whether it is a Hell or Heaven, and the two Rogers argue that this opens up vast new worlds for knowledge and research, but that they risk – as recent experimenters and rebels have – being burned at the stake for their trouble. But the Abbot is master here, insisting that the world is not ready for this knowledge. He insists on being handed the eye of Allah, crushes the crystal lens and burns the rest of it in the fire.

The whole story reminds us that Kipling was the nephew of the famous pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones, so moved in aesthetic circles in his boyhood, and was no mean draughtsman himself, as his own illustrations to the Just So Stories demonstrate. Indeed, the distinctness of the detail could be compared to the bright lucidity of a pre-Raphaelite painting.

Roger of Salerno was quite quiet till they regained the dining-room, where the fire had been comforted and the dates, raisins, ginger, figs, and cinnamon-scented sweetmeats set out, with the choicer wines, on the after-table. The Abbot seated himself, drew off his ring, dropped it, that all might hear the tinkle, into an empty silver cup, stretched his feet towards the hearth, and looked at the great gilt and carved rose in the barrel-roof… The bull-necked Friar watched a ray of sunlight split itself into colours on the rim of a crystal salt-cellar…

It could be a scene by Millais. It is also a good example of the way the later stories are made up of multiple layers: the factual background of the monastery; a detailed account of the art of illumination; the almost buried references to John’s beloved in Spain who, we learn, in a brief aside, died during childbirth, in his arms; then the learnèd debate about the state of scientific knowledge; and only then does the narrative reach its climax with the showing of the microscope. The story feels like it has been honed and burnished to reveal multiple depths and layers.

And this is also one of the late stories which feature art and sheds some light on Kipling’s own seriousness in his craft.

‘My meaning is that if the shape of anything be worth man’s thought to picture to man, it’s worth his best thought.’

‘In my craft, a thing done is done with. We go on to new shapes after that.’

14. The Gardener (1925) Written 10 years after Kipling’s own son, Jack, went missing during the Battle of Loos, this short story is about a well-off single woman, Helen, who adopts the orphaned son of her scapegrace brother, George, who had got an unmarried woman pregnant.

When George died in India, Helen arranged the passage home of the baby, named him Michael, and raised him as his ‘Aunty’. Michael goes through prep and public school and is scheduled to go up to Oxford when the Great War breaks out. He enlists into a regiment which is posted to fill the gap in the Loos Offensive. (This is the prolonged battle during which Kipling’s only son was killed, aged barely 18.)

Helen at once accepts the terrible message of the telegram, and communes with the vicar and others in the village who have also lost sons.

After some years she gets an official letter notifying her that Michael’s body has finally been found and buried in Hagenzeele Third graveyard, the letter giving the grave’s row and number.

Helen decides to go and visit it and finds herself entering what Kipling describes as a well-established process for travelling to France, feeling like she is entering a sausage factory, a production-line type machine, which had been set up to process literally millions of grieving relatives.

She arrives at the pre-booked hotel in France, where she has a strange encounter with an insistent fellow grave visitor, who insists on sitting with her at dinner and nattering on about this and that, before she more or less forces her way into Helen’s bedroom to confess that, when she said she was visiting her friends’ sons’ graves, she was lying – she is in fact compulsively visiting and revisiting the grave of the only man she ever loved but who belonged to another.

Helen gets rid of her and lies in bed shaking. Everybody’s lives seem wracked. Next morning she walks to the graveyard and is appalled by the rows upon rows of graves, some 20,000 in total. A young man planting flowers sees her, comes over, asks the number of Michael’s grave and takes her to it. In the very last line there is the strong, ghostly implication, that the young man is Christ.

A man knelt behind a line of headstones — evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand. He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: ‘Who are you looking for?’
‘Lieutenant Michael Turrell — my nephew,’ said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.
The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.
‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘and I will show you where your son lies.’
When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.

A masterpiece, a genuinely great story, which is all in the selection, the paring back to the barest essentials, just three short scenes conveying the relationship between the growing Michael and his Aunt – the disconcerting scene at the hotel with a distraught fellow grave visitor – and then just these seven sentences at the end. I’m crying as I write this.


Related links

Other Kipling reviews

The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976)

Counterfactual history

This is a startling surprise in Amis’s oeuvre, a counterfactual fantasy set in a meticulously-worked-out alternative England, an England in which Prince Arthur didn’t die and so Henry VIII never gained the throne, there was no Reformation, no Protestant tradition and no Industrial Revolution. Instead England in 1976 is dominated by the Catholic Church and its slightly sinister officials, from the great cathedral in Coverley (pronounced Cowley) outside Oxford to the various palaces of the Papal Curia in London. The streets are filled with horses and carts and serfs dressed in rough clothes who placidly accept their lowly status, while among them the princes of the church and the rich travel in luxury coaches. London has expanded nearly as far as Finsbury and there is distressing talk of new ‘manufactories’ being set up on the outskirts.

Counterfactual history jokes

This counter-history allows for all sorts of jokes, large and small. In this reality Martin Luther didn’t spark the Reformation but went on to become an eminent Pope, albeit a rather puritanical one: he put an end to the luxurious trimmings planned for St Peter’s basilica, driving one Buonarroti (ie Michelangelo) to suicide. Mozart didn’t die young and went on to develop a late style, unlike a younger colleague, one Beethoven, who amounted to nothing. The great cathedral in Coverley, the longest in Christendom, a Catholic masterpiece, was built by one Sir Christopher Wren. The unhappy Abbott puts aside the latest book De Existentiae Natura by Monsignor Jean-Paul Sartre. The airship which travels between England and New England is named the Edgar Allen Poe after the famous general who died leading his troops to victory against the Mexicans. And so very japefully on.

A totally Catholic world

Behind it all is the rather bigger point that, without the European civil wars – which is what the Reformation and Wars of Religion amounted to – the power of the Catholic church is never stemmed, there is no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era where the causes of freedom, democracy, liberalism triumphed over Christian repression. No Bolshevik revolution, no 20th century of holocausts and genocides.

Instead, Roman Catholicism rules supreme and unquestioned. There has been peace in a monoglot Europe for centuries, peace characterised by, on the one hand, the systematic repression of ‘scientists’, schismatics and deviants by a powerful Church backed up by a repressive Secular Arm; on the other hand, a continuous war with the Turks, with the muslim Ottoman Empire which continues to push at the borders established in the 16th century ie the Danube.

A different New England

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the New World was colonised but not by Protestant countries (as these never came into existence) so the colonisation was carried out by Catholic countries who divided up the continent piecemeal and, as there was no English tradition of Protestant democracy, the New Worlders have a rough and rude manner about them, with greater freedom of expression and behaviour (due to the rough culture of their log cabins hewn out of the vast untamed continent), but nothing like the economic and military might of our Americans.

There was never a slave trade. So the ambassador from the New World to England who we meet is attended not by blacks but by native American Indians. Nonetheless, no matter how free and easy their manners, the New Englanders devoutly believe the Indians are a different and inferior race, their brains smaller, not to be taught much because not capable of real intelligence.

Mise-en-scène

The novel opens at the high State Funeral for the dead King Stephen III, at which we meet various church figures who go on to discuss the fate of one particular ten-year-old boy, Hubert Anvil, a highly esteemed boy soprano in the choir at the service. So highly esteemed that the church and music school functionaries we are introduced to, go on to discuss in some detail the appropriateness of having him castrated so that he may continue to hymn the glory of God as a castrato.

Characters

A lot of time and effort is spent examining the responses, feelings and actions of everyone involved in this decision, in this alteration of just one boy. It is a plot device to explore this strange alternative world Amis has conjured and to meet a cross-section of its inhabitants:

  • the honest Abbott of the singing school Hubert attends, plus his composition teachers, who are upset that the boy will be steered towards singing and not composing
  • the three boys who share the dormitory with him: the oldest and most cynical, Decuman; the devout and timid Mark; the bystander, Thomas
  • Hubert’s father, Master Tobias, a well-off merchant in London, devout and worldly wise, his older, clever son Anthony, and rather cowed mother, Margaret
  • the rakish family priest (they are wealthy enough to have their own priest) who is swapping the glad eye with Margaret and will soon embark on a passionate physical affair with her
  • two eminent castrati who have traveled from Rome to ascertain Hubert’s skill

For the first hundred pages or so, very slowly, we are introduced to all these characters and it is Amis’s immense skill to imagine all their thoughts and emotions, their flickers of doubt, their sly smiles, their calculating each others’ motives, entirely within the framework of this imaginary world.

For example, when his father tries to explain to Hubert what an honour it is to be castrated for the glory of God, his mother cannot help hinting at the joys of physical love. It is only much later that Hubert realises she is channeling the physical ecstasy she is enjoying with the family priest-turned-fornicator.

Plot

After 120 or 130 pages or so of his predicament being considered from all angles by all characters – including a flying visit to Rome where they are shown round his apartments by the (Yorkshire-born) Pope himself, and Hubert is invited to have the operation performed in Rome and spend the rest of his life there; after all this build-up Hubert runs away. Helped by Decuman who finds a local pony and has saved money and food, they sneak out of the singing school dormitory and Hubert rides into Oxford and knocks at the door of the New England ambassador who he met on the day of King Stephen’s funeral. But the ambassador is in London.

The two native American servants take pity on him and one loads him, heavily disguised, onto an Express to London. Here Hubert catches a taxi but the taxi driver takes him into a warren of slum streets, then chloroforms him.

Hubert wakes up in the bare room of a Jew named Jacob who reveals his star, explains the persecution his people experience under Church rule, and then reluctantly explains that they plan to contact his parents and demand a ransom. He is a hostage. Hubert, more resourceful than he thought himself, pushes Jacob’s face towards the fire at the same second he throws brandy into it, causing the surge of flames to burn Jacob’s face, as Hubert runs out the room and out the house.

Some time later he taps at the window of his beloved older brother Anthony in Edgware Road, explains he’s run away, and Anthony helps disguise him and they walk together to the New England embassy where Anthony bluffs their way in. He is welcomed by the unconventional ambassador and his wife who are kindness and courtesy personified. Hubert sleeps, wakes, bathes, eats and then joins in the planning for his escape: they will smuggle him aboard the next airship bound across the Atlantic.

There is quite a lot of tense getting past security guards using forged papers involved in allthis, but finally Hubert is safely aboard the transatlantic vessel when – he is convulsed with pain and falls to the floor, screaming and clasping his groin.

Pessimism

The onboard doctor diagnoses Hubert with a twisted testicle; the blood supply to one has been cut off and it is swelling and will die unless operated on immediately. Hubert is taken off the ship and to the nearest hospital. Here he recovers consciousness to discover that, after all that effort, all that help and support from friends and those opposed to the totalitarian Church – fate (or is it God Himself) – has intervened in the most bitterly ironic way possible: the doctors had to remove both testicles. He has undergone the alteration willy-nilly.

Anti-Catholic

I am anti-Catholic for the same reason Amis was. a) There is quite obviously no God, so you judge these ideologies by their practical outcomes. b) Catholic countries have tended to be markedly unequal and repressive societies, lurching in the 20th century, from violent extreme to extreme of fascist junta or Marxist guerrillas. c) All the liberal freedoms we take for granted are Protestant in origin, deriving from the never-ending process of Protestant schism into countless non-conformist sects which eventually forced the authorities to accept that they had to concede their populations the right to freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and so on. This tradition flourished in the Protestant non-conforming Anglophone countries America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand; not so much in the homogenously Catholic and Fascist countries, Italy, Portugal and Spain and all the latter’s colonies.

The accusation against Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and all the other English Catholic writers of the 20th century is that they went on about the superiority of the Roman Catholic religion, while enjoying all the trappings of the peaceful, prosperous Protestant country they lived in. To put their money where their mouth was they should have moved to unambiguously Catholic countries and enjoyed the unquestioningly Catholic zeal of General Franco or Salazar.

Conclusions

Part of what makes this novel so brilliant is not just that Amis has imagined a complete alternative reality, but that he has done what so many science fiction writers fail to do, not seen it as a monolithic whole, but has imagined it so deeply as to grasp the various ways all the different characters respond to the heavy, sometimes violent, grasp of the Catholic hierarchy over their society. So drenched are all the characters in the Latin and terminology and prayers and iconography of their Catholic world, that it comes as a real shock when one of the characters admits he no longer believes in God. Others resent the oppressive control of every aspect of their lives by the Catholic Authorities. The boys in Hubert’s dorm present a little pre-teen cross-section, Hubert himself a wavering believer, Decuman the older cynic, Mark the zealot shocked at  his friend’s blasphemy.

It is a mark of the completeness of this imagining that Amis doesn’t present the New Englanders who rescue Hubert as perfect: the kindly priest who smuggles Hubert aboard the airship also very kindly takes it upon himself to explain that God made the Indians stupider than us so we have to treat them like children; one of the Indians explains that back in New England they don’t castrate just fancy singers, they castrate anybody found guilty of fornication, of broadly defined sex crimes. It makes this alternative reality all the more plausible to learn that man’s inhumanity to man crops up all over it, as it does in ours, even in the dwellings of our closest friends.

The Blemish

Of Amis’s forays into genre fiction, this is by far the best, the most complete and convincing. Only at the end is it let down by a crudely satirical chapter in which we witness the Yorkshire Pope and his closest advisers discussing His Holiness’s plans to control Europe’s runaway population explosion, and by really evil means. They review an experiment to put contraceptive chemicals in the drinking water which, alas, resulted in too many deformed babies being born – too noticeable. They then review recent experiments to introduce plague, carried out in Cornwall and the south of France. Alas, the victims died too quickly, before they could infect others, and so both outbreaks fizzled out.

No, His Holiness irritatedly dismisses the technical adviser who had developed both approaches (Cardinal Maserati) and is left moaning to his closest adviser that, oh well, looks like it’ll have to be another massive war with the Turks, then…

Up to this point, the oppressive and manipulative nature of the Church which dominates this alternative world had been implicit in the story, only revealed in the comments or behaviour of characters and their occasional, limited but threatening, brushes with authority. With this stand-alone chapter Amis rather spoils the integrity of the text by stepping out from behind the scenery and saying, ‘Look, the rulers of this Church are diabolically evil’. It is forceful satire – and maybe, for a teenager who isn’t familiar with the notion that rulers can be disgustingly Machiavellian, the pulling away of the mask right at the end of the novel to reveal the full scale of the Church’s wickedness in this parallel world might work as a powerful shock – but I found it rather blunt and crude after the carefully imagined subtlety of (most of) what had gone before. If I’d been his editor I’d have cut it.

Summary

This is certainly Amis’s best genre or experimental novel, his most astonishingly detailed, thorough and convincingly imagined work of fantasy, and deserves to rank with the top three or four of his novels as a whole.

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890)

Reading William Morris’s fiction is difficult for two reasons:

  • his prose is poor, his characterisation and plotting non-existent
  • every cause he believed in and hoped for, and which his prose exists to champion, has been defeated

Morris’s life

Clive Wilmer’s introduction to this Penguin edition paints a handy overview of Morris’s life. Number one, he was rich. He inherited money from his father, who was a successful financier. He inherited an interest in a copper company, becoming familiar with the practicalities of business at the young age of 21. Hence his later business ventures, namely William Morris and Co. – unlike most artists’ ventures into business – were efficiently run and profitable. He died leaving some £60,000, which Wilmer calculates to be £12 million in 1990s money, even more today.

The trajectory of his life is clear enough:

  • involvement at Oxford with the pre-Raphaelite group round the charismatic Dante Gabriel Rossetti with their passionate interest in medieval life, architecture, poetry, art
  • the powerful impact of John Ruskin, art and social critic, with his belief that Art should be incorporated into everyday life, that Work should be made useful and rewarding instead of the slave labour of the factory
  • unsatisfactory attempts at painting which quickly gave way to interests in the decorative arts which came to include fabrics, wallpaper, furniture, stained glass window and book-making
  • as a young man he married the ‘stunner’ Jane Burden, a working class girl who married to escape her poverty, but the marriage was unhappy and eventually Jane became mistress of Rossetti, plunging Morris into decades of personal unhappiness

Communism

As his arts & crafts business thrived, Morris worried that the works his company were making were only affordable by the rich. It was his lifelong concern to make beautifully-made things more accessible to everyone. Alongside this, the growing conviction that society as a whole needed a wholescale revolution to abolish the crushing poverty of the Victorian age, to liberate the great mass of the labouring poor, to remove the ugliness of Victorian industrialism, to make work rewarding, free people from the capitalist cash-nexus, and restore Nature to pristine beauty unspoilt by factories and pollution.

  • In 1883 Morris joined the Democratic Foundation, a socialist group, but left the following year to found the Socialist League (SL), disagreeing with DF support for Britain’s Imperalist foreign policy and its readiness to accept a Parliamentary route to reform. Morris thought Parliament hopelessly corrupt. What was needed was a Revolution.
  • For the remainder of his life Morris poured immense energy into giving speeches, organising meetings, writing socialist poems and chants and songs, promoting his uncompromising Marxist beliefs in the necessity of an international communist revolution. He was introduced to Friedrich Engels and worked with Marx’s daughter, Eleanor. He was arrested a number of times when police broke up meetings or marches led to scuffles, but escaped prison due to his impeccable middle class credentials.
  • Morris edited, wrote and subsidised the Socialist League’s newspaper, Commonweal. From November 1886 to January 1887 Morris’s novel, A Dream of John Ball, was serialised in it. From  January to October 1890, Morris serialised his most famous novel, News from Nowhere.

News from Nowhere

The authors of utopias tend to adopt the form in order to make polemical points, resulting in many utopias being strangely monotonous books which unravel into shopping lists of the author’s obsessions. Compare and contrast the success and popularity of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) a fully dramatised vision of future worlds, with his much more preachy A Modern Utopia (1905), which no-one reads. This, Morris’s most famous book, is no exception to the rule.

‘Plot’

In News from Nowhere a man in his fifites like Morris wakes up in Morris’s house in Hammersmith to find it is a hundred years in the future, England has gone through a Revolution and become an earthly paradise in which there is no private property, no big cities, no authority, no money, no divorce, no courts, no prisons and no class systems. People work freely for the joy of it. Everything they do, because it is freely done with joy, results in objects which are beautiful.

The plot, if it can be called that, starts with Morris – renamed William Guest – meeting the folk who now live around his Hammersmith home. This home is no longer crammed among smokey factories, iron bridges and bustling Londoners and the neighbouring buildings are now just a handful of cottages standing in open fields next to a magically unpolluted river Thames.

Perceiving his bewilderment these friendly strangers take Morris in a horse and cart across what was once London and is now a series of picturesque villages thinly populated with beautiful, healthy, artistically-dressed men and women, to meet an old man living next to what was once the British Museum who – in a long chapter – retells in detail the leadup to ‘the Great Change’ i.e. the Revolution which brought about this communist paradise.

Then they go back to Hammersmith and get in a boat and row up the Thames, now pure and clean and sparkling, denuded of horrible factories and the vulgar houses of Victorian nouveaux riches, until they reach Morris’s country house, Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire.

Along the way they pick up a laughing young woman Ellen, who falls in love with Guest. Then he wakes up and it was all a dream.

Psychological power

The journey up the Thames represents a journey through an idyllic, prelapsarian world to Home, which is also a journey back to Morris’s boyhood memories of a happier, simpler world and a journey towards the mutual, loving fulfilment he so miserably failed to have with his wife, Jane.

As I stood there Ellen detached herself from our happy friends who still stood on the little strand and came up to me. She took me by the hand, and said softly, ‘Take me on to the house at once; we need not wait for the others: I had rather not.’ (Ch XXXI)

It is a basket of deeply personal wishes expressed as a fable and I think what power it has comes from these psychological sources rather than any socialist ideas or doctrine. It is an adult’s powerful dream of returning to the golden summers of his boyhood.

…the garden between the wall and the house was redolent of the June flowers, and the roses were rolling over one another with that delicious superabundance of small well-tended gardens which at first sight takes away all thought from the beholder save that of beauty. The blackbirds were singing their loudest, the doves were cooing on the roof-ridge, the rooks in the high elm-trees beyond were garrulous among the young leaves, and the swifts wheeled whining about the gables. And the house itself was a fit guardian for all the beauty of this heart of summer. (XXXI)

Issues

For the serious-minded, News from Nowhere also contains a shopping list of the usual issues which crop up in utopias and, presumably, it was the touching on these hot topics which helped the book become a classic not only here but among socialists and communists across Europe.

In Morris’s post-revolutionary, communist paradise:

  • work- work is Art because it is free and unforced, done for its own joy and benefit
  • economics – there isn’t any economics because there is no money, no buying and selling, no capitalism
  • education – is not compulsory, children are left to find their own way to express themselves, not force fed in ‘boy-farms’
  • women – are free equals of men, not given or ‘owned’ in marriage
  • government – there is none – the Houses of Parliament have been converted into a large communal Dung store 🙂
  • Nature – has been liberated from factories, steam engines and all the dirt and stink of industralism, reverting to pristine beauty – ‘As we went, the folk on the bank talked indeed, mingling their kind voices with the cuckoo’s song, the sweet strong whistle of the blackbirds, and the ceaseless note of the corn-crake as he crept through the long grass of the mowing-field; whence came waves of fragrance from the flowering clover amidst of the ripe grass.’ (Ch XXXI)
  • technology – there doesn’t seem to be any at all, no steam engines or factories, let alone electric lights or telephones or motor cars, ‘so that the most obviously useful works looked beautiful and natural also.’ (Ch XXX)
  • communism – is the name given to this ideal unspoilt world of equality and freedom

Almost none of these ‘ideas’ are really worthy of serious consideration.

No-one would disagree that work for many is a grinding drudgery, that soul-less economics is the ruling ideology of our time, that education has become more regimented than ever and yet still seems to fail millions of children, that woman are still not equal or free, that the government is inept and political parties are just different flavours of yes-men fronting for banks and big business, that Nature has been ruined and despoiled, that a lot of technology is poisonous and destructive – and that it would be lovely if all this could be swept away and replaced by an eternal summer of beautiful men and women living lives of simplicity and rural leisure.

By framing the issues in such a vividly romantic vision of a world born again, Morris certainly in his own day, and maybe still in ours, gives a kind of psychological power to his vision of how the world could and should be if only we could get rid of ‘capitalism’, the ‘system’, ‘pollution’. But this nostalgia for a better world doesn’t find any practical solutions in the book, because Morris has no solutions except a mysterious and sweeping change to human nature, which transforms everyone into tall graceful characters from a medieval romance.

Style

Beguiling as this vision may be, and long into the night though the arguments about any of these perennial topics of conversation could last, a novel is made out of words and Morris, although he has the fluency and confidence of a man of his age and class (Marlborough public school, Oxford) seems to be incapable of writing an interesting sentence.

Bland and energyless and utterly predictable is every sentence in this long book.

So on we went, Dick rowing in an easy tireless way, and Clara sitting by my side admiring his manly beauty and heartily good-natured face, and thinking, I fancy, of nothing else. As we went higher up the river, there was less difference between the Thames of that day and Thames as I remembered it; for setting aside the hideous vulgarity of the cockney villas of the well-to-do, stockbrokers and other such, which in older time marred the beauty of the bough-hung banks, even this beginning of the country Thames was always beautiful; and as we slipped between the lovely summer greenery, I almost felt my youth come back to me, and as if I were on one of those water excursions which I used to enjoy so much in days when I was too happy to think that there could be much amiss anywhere. (Chapter XXII)

The book’s sub-title says it all: ‘An Epoch of Rest’.

Old-fashioned diction

Morris thought returning to the decorative motifs and subjects of medieval tapestries would result in better design and this may well be true of his famous and successful wallpapers, curtains, furniture coverings and so on.

However, it was not a successful strategy for his prose. Merely writing ‘quoth’ and ‘said I’ and ‘methinks’ and chucking in a few archaisms like ‘sele’ and ‘mamelon’ does not medievalise or beautify his style. It simply becomes standard Victorian with irritatingly anachronistic phraseology and vocabulary.

Around the time of the Great War English prose underwent a revolution which had many streams, many authors and styles, but nearly all of them led towards a Modernist rejection of all old-fashioned diction and an emphasis on modern words assembled in shorter, stripped-down sentences, reflecting, say, the move towards Art Deco in the decorative arts or neo-classicism in music.

In one short generation, by, say, the mid-twenties, Morris’s entire style and the endeavours of everyone like him who hoped to recapture and restore something of medieval beauty by using medieval words, looked ludicrous.

In the 1900s Wells and Bennett and Galsworthy had created a kind of suburban English style; by the end of the War writers like Aldous Huxley were creating a slick, spiffy style to reflect the Roaring Twenties. And then, of course, there were the Americans.

A short generation after his death, Morris’s prose, like his dark fussy wallpapers and fabrics, looked unbearably stuffy, a relic from a prehistoric age, tired faded books from an era become completely irrelevant to the permanent crises of the twentieth century. Why dream about lazy boating trips down the Thames when the Bolshevik army was invading Poland, or the Italian fascists were marching on Rome?

Today, a hundred and twenty-eight years later, in a society and a world completely dominated by the triumph of Finance Capitalism, throwaway consumerism and environmental destruction, it is hard to read News from Nowhere because its vision seems too naive and personal, because all the causes Morris fought for have been comprehensively defeated, and because it is written in a prose which offers almost no rewards, apart from the lulling, drowsy soporific of a lazy summer afternoon.

We came just here on a gang of men road-mending which delayed us a little; but I was not sorry for it; for all I had seen hitherto seemed a mere part of a summer holiday; and I wanted to see how this folk would set to on a piece of real necessary work. They had been resting, and had only just begun work again as we came up; so that the rattle of the picks was what woke me from my musing. There were about a dozen of them, strong young men, looking much like a boating party at Oxford would have looked in the days I remembered, and not more troubled with their work: their outer raiment lay on the road-side in an orderly pile under the guardianship of a six-year-old boy, who had his arm thrown over the neck of a big mastiff, who was as happily lazy as if the summer-day had been made for him alone. (Chapter VII)

The whole book is like the lapping of small waves against the sides of a punt on his beloved river Thames, pleasant, relaxing, utterly without impact.

History

News from Nowhere was published in book form in 1891. One hundred years later, in 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed. For that hundred years the book was part of the continuum of socialist or communist texts which helped to support and justify communist regimes around the world. Now it has lived on into the ideological vacuum of the post-communist era. Much of what it says about the misery and exploitation of the capitalist system, about the importance of fulfilling work and well-designed surroundings and the despoliation of nature, remain true today.

The difference is no-one believes anything can be done. Most people have abandoned any engagement with politics and live as atomised units connected only by their smartphones and Facebook.

Seems to me what impact News from Nowhere possesses comes from two sources:

  • the psychological or imaginative power of its sustained dream of the long lazy summers of childhood
  • and a nostalgia for a time when people gave a damn about politics and believed they really could change the world

These two strands, I think, overlap and combine to give the book its sad nostalgic feeling.

News from Nowhere, Kelmscott edition frontispiece

News from Nowhere, Kelmscott edition frontispiece


Related links

Reviews of other William Morris articles and essays

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