That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis (1945)

‘A conscious being is either obeying God or disobeying Him.’ Dr Dimble

That Hideous Strength is the third and final volume in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. As is so often the case in concluding volumes, it is significantly longer than the previous members of the series (Out of The Silent Planet 58,715 words, Perelandra 85,376 words, That Hideous Strength 156,719 words, double its predecessor, nearly three times as long as the first story) and it really feels like it.

It feels like Lewis has stuffed the book as full of his thoughts about Christian belief, angels, prayer, about the nature of obedience, charity and love on the one hand – and on the other, produced a huge gallery of characters, organisations, beliefs and behaviours which he thinks plague modern life and which all stem, at bottom, from a loss of faith in God.

The plot

That Hideous Strength opens like a campus novel, with squabbles among amusingly depicted caricatures of stuffy old male dons, at a place called Bracton College, one of the supposed three colleges which comprise the fictional little university of Edgestow, somewhere in the Midlands.

We are introduced to the usual cast of senile, pompous, ambitious, sly, snide and slimy academics, but the main protagonist is Mark Studdock, a Sociologist who has just been elected to a teaching post. Lewis takes us back into Mark’s childhood and boyhood to show how he has always been an outsider who wanted to be in with the smart set, at school, at university and now, here, at Bracton.

The smart set here calls itself the ‘progressive element’ and is plotting schemes. To be precise we watch as they manoeuvre the board of dons into selling off a plot of land centring on ancient and legendary Bracton wood to a new, go-ahead organisation, the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments or the N.I.C.E.

Mark is taken up by the progressive element, but it then turns out the leaders of this as in fact working for the N.I.C.E., and he is offered a place within that secretive organisation. For hundreds of pages we watch how Mark’s frailties, his lack of confidence, his wish to be accepted and part of a clique, leads him deeper and deeper into the heart of the N.I.C.E.

Where he finds horror. At first he discovers that the scientist at its heart, one Dr Filostrato, is experimenting with reviving the heads of dead men, with a view to creating a new race of disembodied intelligences who will transcend mere mortals with their silly perishable bodies.

In the so-called Blood Transfusion Office at Belbury, where the nucleus of the N.I.C.E. had taken up its temporary abode, Mark is taken to see the floating head which Mark is taken to see, the head of a criminal recently guillotined in France, and now suspended from a bracket in a laboratory, with all kinds of tubes and cables running into it, which drools and then – horror of horrors – speaks.

This takes a while to build up to, to show to Mark, and for the full horrific implications to sink in – that the N.I.C.E. is working to abolish mankind as we currently know it.

But that turns out not to be the inner truth. In fact Wither and Frost are using Filostrato, and keeping all the other inner circle of the N.I.C.E. in ignorance of the secret plan, known only to them. This is that they are in touch with dark forces larger and older than man – what they call macrobes – and the N.I.C.E. is preparing the way for them to supercede mankind as rulers of the earth.

Throughout all the long sequences to do with the N.I.C.E. I was continually reminded of the Dr Who episodes from my youth. My Dr Who was Jon Pertwee, whose Tardis had broken leaving him stuck here on earth to help Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the forces of U.N.I.T. (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce). Each week they discovered a fiendish conspiracy to invade and take over earth. More often than not these conspiracies were launched from the shiny offices of gleaming modern corporations which ran a mining operation or massive chemical works or suchlike, which turned out to be an elaborate front for creating some matter poisonous to humans or a front for allowing aliens to invade or for kidnapping humans and turning them into zombies.

Well, that’s what the N.I.C.E. are doing. Lewis builds in an analogy with the totalitarian nations England was fighting as he wrote the book by having the N.I.C.E. run its own police department. Directors of the N.I.C.E. orchestrate incidents and then riots with the local townspeople and then, using their contacts in parliament and among the authorities, get a ‘state of emergency’ declared in Edgestow such that the N.I.C.E. police take over running the town and, as you might expect, turn out to be a very unpleasant paramilitary force. People are beaten up, many carted off to the new prison cells the N.I.C.E. is building, there is mention of at least one rape and beating to death.

All this is supervised by a big domineering leering woman, Miss Hardcastle, who is portrayed as a lascivious, Robert Crumb-like, dominating lesbian, dressed in leather, who surrounds herself with fluffy young women she can bully, and enjoys going down to the N.I.C.E. cells to torture people.

Sleepy little Edgestow turns, before our eyes, into a fascist statelet combined with the shiny new buildings of a modern new town-cum-industrial complex. Filostrato tells Mark they are aiming to abolish all organic life, trees, plants, animals: all the chemicals they produce for the air, all the food they produce can be made much more efficiently in factories. Frost, a man who has talked himself out of any emotions or feelings, tells Mark they are aiming for ‘efficiency’, they aim to become so efficient that they will supersede humanity altogether.

The good guys

Lewis makes no bones that the book is a kind of fairy story, maybe a morality tale as well. So it’s no surprise to discover that all these bad guys are mirrored by a gang of good guys. Specifically, the book opens with Mark’s wife, Jane. She is bored and lonely at home, trying to concentrate on her academic PhD i.e. when the book opens her and Mark’s marriage is failing due to mutual incomprehension, lack of trust, lack of candour, lack of love. Mark is far too busy trying to brown-nose his way into the ‘progressive element’ in his college, and then trying to wangle a job at the N.I.C.E., to listen to Jane.

As the N.I.C.E. take over Edgestow she discovers that her kindly tutor, Dr Dimple and his wife, are being kicked out of the college house they live in, as is her cleaner, the working class Ivy Maggs. She takes pity on them and discovers they are going to stay in the big old house up on St Anne’s Hill.

But the important thing about Jane is her dreams. She has terrifying dreams which turn out to be true, to be visions of things which have really taken place. She dreams of a middle aged man in prison, another comes into the cell and twists off his head. This refers to the guillotining of a criminal in France which is in the next day’s news. Her friends, the Dennistons, suggest she goes to see an ‘analyst’ about the dreams, one Grace Ironwood who also lives up on St Anne’s Hill.

What emerges or develops, over several chapters, is that Janes slowly accepts that her dreams are in fact visions of real events; and she too is forced to take refuge up in the big house on the hill. Here she discovers quite a menage, Doctor Dimble (who had been Jane’s supervisor) and his wife, a bustling older woman who everyone called ‘Mother’ Dimble, Mr and Camilla Denniston, Ivy Maggs the cleaning lady, and a sceptical Scot named MacPhee – along with a menagerie of animals which includes Baron Corvo the crow and – preposterously but fittingly for a fairy tale – a tame bear named Mr Bultitude.

But overseeing the house at St Anne’s is a figure she is at first told is named Mr Fisher-King. The second I read this I thought it was too direct a reference to the role of the Fisher King in T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Waste Land, itself borrowed (according to Eliot’s notorious notes) from The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, the compendious study of mythology and religion by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer.

He is called this until Jane is actually presented to him at which point we realise that Mr Fisher-King is none other than Elwin Ransom, protagonist of the first two novels in the series. Wonderfully well-preserved and youthful looking, due to his stay on Venus (described in the second book) Ransom is nonetheless in pain due to the bite he received there from the evil Weston, possessed by a demon.

Each of these revelations – Mark’s step-by-step induction into the college’s progressive element, then into the conspiracy to sell the old college wood to the N.I.C.E., then into the ‘true’ purpose of the N.I.C.E. in Dr Filostrato’s version (to create a new race of superhuman heads or intelligences), then into the level above that – into Wither and Frost’s true knowledge that even the head experiment is a front for raising much darker forces, is prefaced by much suspense – is accompanied by shock on the part of the initiate – and then a world of doubts and fears and uncertainties.

Same goes for Jane. We follow her journey from unhappy ‘modern’ woman, sceptic and feminist, frustrated by her marriage and stalled career. We follow her anxious response to her dreams, and her seeking help from Grace Ironwood. Then her realisation that dark forces are taking over Edgestow – which includes her being arrested by N.I.C.E police during a riot, and tortured by the sadistic pervert Miss Hardcastle (by having a lighted cheroot stubbed out on her skin). Her flight to the house at St Anne’s. Her introduction to the household and the way she has to overcome her middle class snobbery about consorting with her ‘cleaning lady’, Mrs Maggs. Her introduction to Mr Fisher-King where her modern sceptical mind reels at everything he tells her about dark forces.

And so on. Step by step Mark goes deeper into the darkness, and Lewis paints the doubts, anxieties and inferiority complex which drives him, making him a very human figure, explaining how easy it would be for us, the reader, to do likewise.

And step by step Jane climbs out of Edgestow, ascends out of the real and actual fog the N.I.C.E have projected over the town, up into the sunlit hilltop of St Anne’s, where she is inducted into a successive circle of secrets concerning Ransom.

Merlin

Slowly the narrative focuses onto the reason the N.I.C.E bought the college wood in the first place. There was a hoary old legend that Merlin lived and died there. Now Jane is afflicted by dreams of an underground cavern and an ancient figure lying on a raised altar. Surely, Ransom and his advisers think, this must be Merlin. And the Dark Side is seeking the exact location of the burial chamber in order to waken him, and recruit him and his ancient magic to their plan.

Meanwhile, in the Mark chapters, the men who have emerged as leaders of the Dark Side – Wither and Frost – know about Jane’s dreams but not exactly what they mean. Thus they put Mark under pressure to get his wife to join him – and he realises it’s because they want to use her – and for the first time he begins to see how wicked these dried-up old husks of men are. And it dawns on him that, in a way, he has always used her, for sex, for comfort, because having a wife is respectable – but he has never really listened to her or respected her.

Anyway, the waking of Merlin is the turning point of the novel and, I couldn’t help feeling, in a way it is all downhill from here.

there is a genuinely scary (in the way a children’s story can be genuinely scary) chapter where Jane guides Denniston and Dimble to the grotto where she thinks she saw in a dream a figure who might have been Merlin, and as they circle towards a a fire burning in a glen in the pouring rain there is a real sense of suspense and terror. But nobody is there.

Instead Merlin turns up at the house on the hill, banging the door open, riding a wild horse, rearing in the weird light of the rainy evening. This image promised all kinds of mayhem and Lewis surrounds it with multiple examples of his scholarly knowledge of ancient myths, fairies, elves, woodwos and so on.

But, alas, when Merlin is dressed and shown up to the Director (i.e. Ransom’s) room, he is quickly tamed. Merlin wants to unleash the earth, the trees and other organic forces against the bad guys, but Ransom refuses, tells him no. And now Ransom reveals that he is the legitimate king or Pendragon of the nation of Logres, the heir of King Arthur, having been handed the crown by a dying man in remote Cumberland (chapter 17, section 4).

There is a great deal of background information explaining how two forces have always vied on these islands – Logres, the small league of mystical powers, against ‘Britain’, the humdrum and prosaic.

The triumph of the N.I.C.E. is the triumph of the prosaic; the scientific, technocratic, managerial worldview which is so concerned for ‘efficiency’ that it would sweep away all traditions and customs, all chivalry and courtesy, all kindness and charity, in fact all organic life itself, reducing life on earth to chemical processes supervised by a handful of super-brains.

Logres stands for the opposite, and Ransom – Fisher-King – Pendragon – is its head.

What happens then is that Ransom calls down the tutelary spirits of the planets of the solar system – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn – and each in turn a) infects the whole household with their qualities (when Mercury appears everyone becomes talkative and gay, when Mars appears everyone starts quarreling), and infuse their powers into Merlin.

The climax

The ending is disappointing for a number of reasons. I haven’t mentioned that, at the same time that Merlin burst into St Anne’s house, the N.I.C.E. police force were out looking for him and did, indeed find someone, a rough looking big man who couldn’t talk. He is brought to Wither and frost who put him in the same prison cells as Mark – who is refusing to go and get Jane for them. In  a broadly comic scene Mark tumbles to the fact that the scruffy old geezer is just a common or garden tramp but he’s not going to let the two heads of N.I.C.E. know that.

What happens then is that the cell door is unlocked and a big unwieldy curate is ushered in by Wither and Frost. Unbeknown to Mark it is the real Merlin in disguise. He hypnotises the tramp and makes him speak gibberish which he then ‘interprets’ back to Wither and Frost. The ‘curate’ claims that ‘Merlin’ is demanding a tour of the facilities, so off they go, rather reluctantly.

This demand coincides, very inconveniently, with a visit from the man who Wither and Frost had long ago persuaded to be the official figurehead of the N.I.C.E., a superannuated novelist and popular science writer ‘Horace Jules’. I think this a fairly broad caricature of H.G. Wells (who died in the same year this novel was published, 1945). He is rather cruelly depicted as a short, stocky, vulgar Cockney, who got his ideas from Thomas Huxley 50 years ago, and had never learned anything new since.

The climax of the entire novel – with its themes of God versus the devil, faith versus scientific modernism, of ancient Logres versus technocratic Britain, of charity versus ruthlessness, of the superlunary powers of the planets versus the dark forces of earth – all this comes to a grand climax in…. a college dining hall.

For it is here that the fellows of Bracton College (by the time you get to the end of the novel it’s difficult to remember that it all began on the campus of a fictional college) assemble and Jules rises to give his speech to discover… that he is talking gibberish. The audience starts tittering. Wither rises to interrupt him and take control, but he talks gibberish. the audience start laughing then talking among themselves and discover that everyone is talking gibberish.

At that point a tiger appears in the dining hall and starts attacking people. Then a snake. Then an elephant breaks down the doors into the dining hall and proceeds to stomp all over the assembled dons as a peasant woman stamps down the grapes. Miss Hardcastle shoots Jules dead before herself being torn to shreds by the tiger.

These animals – we realise – were just some of the animals which the N.I.C.E were conducting vivisection experiments on. Still it comes as a complete surprise when this happens and seems utterly random.

Some of the bad guys escape. Wither and Straik force the injured Filostrato along to the laboratory which contains the head. The head makes them bow down and worship it. then it demands another head. Wither and Straik manhandle Filotrato over to the guillotine and behead him, offering the Head this new head and chanting to him. Then at the same moment they both realise the Head will ask for another head, and attack each other. Straik flees but Wither kills him with a knife and is just contemplating his body when a bear walks into the laboratory, reared up on its two hind legs, inflamed by the smell of blood, and kills him.

Frost makes his way to the laboratory, discovers the three corpses there and – his mind suddenly taken over by some force – finds himself locking himself in, pouring petrol everywhere and burning to death.

Some of the baddies escape further, namely Lord Feverstone, a slimy politicking member of the college, who also had a seat in the House of Lords and so helped to secure the state of emergency which allowed the N.I.C.E. to take over Edgestow.

But now there is an earthquake, all the land surrounding Edgestow turns into the cone of a volcano and all the buildings, roads, cars and people trying to flee – including Featherstone – are tipped tumbling down into the inferno.

Aftermath

Ransom / the Director / Pendragon, assembles his team – Dr and Mrs Dimble, Mr and Mrs Denniston, Ivy (now reunited with her husband, who had been doing time in prison), Jane and sceptical old MacPhee.

He delivers the last of the explanations which are required i.e. a long account of how he came to be the Pendragon, having inherited it from the old man in Cumberland, and what Logres means and why it is always at odds with ‘Britain’.

And he says goodbye one by one to his ‘disciples’ touching their heads and blessing them. He is leaving. He is returning to Perelandra where he gained his wound and where it will be healed.

And the book ends where it began: with Mark and Jane Studdock. I haven’t had space to mention it, but at the point where Wither and Frost began clamouring for Mark to bring Jane to them, he had realised something was wrong. Not just with the N.I.C.E. but with him, and his whole life, and his whole attitude to life. He had been undergoing training to join the really inner circle of Wither and Frost, a training in abnormality, a training designed to burn out of him any morality, normality and decency. But when it came to spitting and treading on the helpless figure of Christ, on a big crucifix laid on the floor of the training room, he refused, he rebelled and from that moment hardened his heart against the N.I.C.E. and all its works, and began to repent.

Thus, in the confusion of the escaping animals, the massacre of dons, and then the fire which starts in the Laboratory and quickly spreads, he escapes, makes it up out of the earthquake zone and finds himself trudging towards St Anne’s, miserable, humbled, willing to apologise.

And, when ransom dismisses Jane, he sends her to the cottage in the big house’s grounds, where Venus appears to her in a vision. She also has been chastened and humbled. She has learned that the beginning of wisdom is to realise other people are as important as you, that there are powers above you, that egotism always turns in on itself, whereas charity expands the soul and obedience, paradoxically, leads to a wonderful freedom.

And so the chastened young couple enter the cottage and proceed to a new marriage bed, based on mutual respect and understanding.

Quite a story, eh?


Comment

Where to start with what is really an enormous hodge-podge of a book?

I’ll start with the disappointing elements.

1. The prophecy that doesn’t arrive At the end of the previous novel in the sequence, the great spirit presiding over Perelandra had made the following prophecy regarding the ‘final battle’:

‘We shall fall upon your moon, wherein there is a secret evil, and which is as the shield of the Dark Lord of Thulcandra – scarred with many a blow. We shall break her. Her light shall be put out. Her fragments shall fall into your world and the seas and the smoke shall arise so that the dwellers in Thulcandra will no longer see the light of Arbol. And as Maleldil Himself draws near, the evil things in your world shall show themselves stripped of disguise so that plagues and horrors shall cover your lands and seas. But in the end all shall be cleansed, and even the memory of your Black Oyarsa blotted out, and your world shall be fair and sweet and reunited to the field of Arbol and its true name shall be heard again.’

Nothing like this happens. The moon isn’t smashed into fragments which fall into the sea creating a fog which blots out the sky, plagues and horrors do not cover the land, the Black Oyarsa doesn’t come into it, and there is no sense at all of the world swept clean.

The opposite. Towards the end Doc Dimble – who seems to know a surprising amount about Logres and so on – explains to the others i.e. Jane, MacPhee and the ladies, that the tension between ‘Britain’ and ‘Logres’ is a permanent state of affairs on these islands, in England, in Albion. I.e there is never a final anything. Conflict between the ancient and the modern technocratic vision will be permanent.

2. The silly massacre Instead of this world-shattering prophecy, what we get is a massacre in a college dining hall. Lewis tries to jive it up by saying that in the days leading up to the climax a thick fog settles over Edgestow, a small town in the Midlands. But that’s not quite the same as the moon being shattered into pieces and falling into the oceans, is it? Fog over small town in the Midlands is not headline-grabbing news. But nothing can hide the fact that the massacre in the dining hall falls far short of what the build-up had led us to expect, in lots of ways.

a) Farce It is treated more as farce than tragedy, beginning as it does with an entirely comical caricature of H.G. Wells and his pompous lecturing of the fawning dons. The way that he, and then everyone in the hall, starts speaking gibberish is a very small piece of magic, for such a mighty magician as Merlin to perform. It seems more like a parlour trick.

b) The animals’ revenge And then the way they are massacred by wild beasts is just not properly built-up to. Sure, we’d been told a few times that part of the N.I.C.E.’s experimental work involved vivisection, but it was never a central part of the novel at all. Using it as the central instrument of revenge feels random and contrived.

3. Merlin The central part of the novel deepens the mystical significance of events by invoking all manner of medieval and pre-medieval beliefs, by taking us – very atmospherically – back to the darkest of the dark ages after the Romans left and all kinds of pagan spirits reasserted their presence, and both Dimble and Ransom hint that Merlin’s powers in fact stretch far back before that, to the earliest days of humankind.

Jane’s creams of Merlin in  his chamber, and Ransom and Dimble’s accounts of his deep ancestral magic are very evocative and a bit scary. It is, then, a profound disappointment that Merlin’s main role is to be chastened by Ransom, to be told he can’t use any of his old magic, to be told he has to act within the framework which Ransom dictates.

It is a fundamental failure of the book that the rip-roaring ancient magic which we had been led to expect does not then arrive. Instead, Merlin is persuaded to dress up as a curate, inveigle his way into the N.I.C.E. masquerading as a priest who knows arcane old languages and so may be able to speak to the old man they’ve brought in (who Mark and the reader knows to be a harmless old tramp just after a warm place to kip and some decent grub).

Instead of being big, mighty and transformative, this scene is small, paltry and silly, more reminiscent of a French farce. Merlin in disguise hypnotises the tramp into speaking gibberish which Merlin then translates to Wither and Frost as a wish to see the facilities. Once touring round them Merlin a) casts the spell which makes everyone at the dinner speak gibberish b) sets the animals free.

That’s it. Very anti-climactic.

4. The gods Now Lewis tries to juice up Merlin’s role by having the tutelary spirits, the oyarsa, of the planets of the solar system appear one by one and infuse Merlin with their powers. This is a highly symbolic and schematic scene – one where we are meant to recognise and enjoy the depiction of the attributes of each planet, which could almost be a scene from Chaucer or Spenser, and yet… in the end…. What does Merlin do with all this mighty extra-terrestrial power? Put a spell on some doddery old academics and let the animals out of their cages. Hardly needed spirits from the solar system come down to help him do that.

5. The devil I was led to believe the devil was going to appear, the ‘bent’ oyarsa or darkarchon who rules this world – and that he would be overthrown and everything wiped clean. This doesn’t happen. Ransom disappears off to Perelandra at the end, and Mark and Jane go to bed together, for the first time to make love with courtesy and respect – which is all very nice – but what happened to the Dark Archon? Is the world still in his control? Has the new era prophesied at the end of Perelandra come about?

Emphatically not.

It doesn’t gel

They don’t mesh. The prophecy and expectation built up by the first two books of an Last Battle and global cleansing – the sense that the future of all mankind is at stake – the yoking in of Merlin and Logres – and setting it all in the broadly comic setting of the senior common room of a dusty old college or in a nice English country house – it is too much to manage, to pull together, and Lewis fails to deliver on all fronts.

Of the three novels, Perelandra is much the best, because its setting on another planet allowed Lewis’s imagination absolute free rein to dazzle us with his imagination, and to create from nothing a magnificent setting which truly dramatised the themes he was dealing with (the nature of evil, the fall, the nature of faith).

Some issues

The original version of That Hideous Strength was, as I’ve pointed out, nearly three times as long as the first book in the trilogy. Lewis clearly threw everything into it, creating an unstoppable outpouring of rambunctious ideas and social criticism.

While the main narrative of the book alternates between Mark’s adventures and Jane’s adventures, hardly an incident occurs which he doesn’t use to promote his view that the modern world with its blind belief in science and technology and efficiency and materialism has led modern man to a cliff edge, is destroying age-old values of courtesy and chivalry and charity and love and, above all, belief in something outside ourselves, something bigger than our individual selves, which made the world and deserves our respect and gratitude and obedience.

The experience of reading the book is to be almost continually lectured, either by the Dark Side characters lecturing Mark about everything from how to manipulate committees, how to write propaganda, how to manage the media, how to create talking heads, how to promote efficiency to such a degree that you end up abolishing mankind altogether – or, on the Light Side, Ransom’s explanations to innocent Jane of everything we learned in the first two books about the spirits of the universe, the oyarsa which rule each planet, and Dimble’s lengthy lectures about Merlin and Logres.

Somewhere the American novelist Saul Bellow laments that, these days, everyone is an expert, everyone is ‘a reality instructor’. Well, almost all the characters in this book seem to be lecturing each other about something or other. Here is Dr Dimble lecturing the sceptical MacPhee who is used as a butt for his and Ransom’s arguments.

‘You see, MacPhee, if one is thinking simply of goodness in the abstract, one soon reaches the fatal idea of something standardised – some common kind of life to which all nations ought to progress. Of course there are universal rules to which all goodness must conform. But that’s only the grammar of virtue. It’s not there that the sap is. He doesn’t make two blades of grass the same: how much less two saints, two nations, two angels. The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each.’

Here is Lord Feverstone (who I only realised, half way through, is the same slimy, selfish adventurer who helped kidnap Ransom and transport him to Mars in the very first novel) who has got himself made a lord and is now a mover and shaker at Bracton college, here he is early on explaining things to naive young Mark:

‘Man has got to take charge of man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest – which is another reason for cashing in on it as soon as one can. You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of. Quite.’

‘What sort of thing have you in mind?’

‘Quite simple and obvious things, at first – sterilisation of the unfit, liquidation of backward races (we don’t want any dead weights), selective breeding. Then real education, including pre-natal education. By real education I mean one that has no ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ nonsense. A real education makes the patient what it wants infallibly: whatever he or his parents try to do about it. Of course, it’ll have to be mainly psychological at first. But we’ll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain.’

You can see why Mark is taken aback, Sterilisation, liquidation? Oh yes old chap, drawls Feverstone, all in the name of progress, doncha know. Elsewhere Filostrato opens up the possibility that the two world wars they’d lived through are just the start of a sequence of wars which will all but wipe humanity out.

Throughout the book Lewis conflates modern management techniques in big organisations with special constables, underground cells, torture, liquidation. There are hundreds and hundreds of digs at the entire vocabulary of modern social services. there’s a section where Feverstone explains that the N.I.C.E. have persuaded the government to let them undertake the ‘rehabilitation’ of prisoners (as opposed to what Lewis clearly sees as the more honest, traditional view of punishment) but that this rehabilitation actually means a license to carry out experiments and torture.

Mr Straik is a clergyman who has gone profoundly wrong, whose theology has become so other-worldly that he has lost all touch with human life in all its imperfection. He tells Mark why he has joined the N.I.C.E.

‘The feeblest of these people here has the tragic sense of life, the ruthlessness, the total commitment, the readiness to sacrifice all merely human values, which I could not find amid all the nauseating cant of the organised religions.’

Dr Filostrato is the ‘scientist’ masterminding the bringing back to life of the head of the guillotined criminal Alcasar. During a college dinner early on, he explains to Mark that, having seen a metal tree made as a work of art in an art gallery, he realised, why stop at one? Why not replace all real trees with metal trees?

‘Why one or two? At present, I allow, we must have forest for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then, why any natural trees? I foresee nothing but the art tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.’

‘Do you mean,’ put in a man called Gould, ‘that we are to have no vegetation at all?’

‘Exactly. You shave your face: even, in the English fashion, you shave him every day. One day we shave the planet.’

‘I wonder what the birds will make of it?’

‘I would not have any birds either. On the art tree I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.’

‘It sounds,’ said Mark, ‘like abolishing pretty well all organic life.’

‘And why not? It is simple hygiene.’

It is no accident that Mark’s academic subject is Sociology. Lewis obviously loathes Sociology. It sums up everything which is wrong with the modern world, which is regarding people as numbers and units instead of rich, complex human beings. Mark’s

education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw. Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow. Though he had never noticed it himself, he had a great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as ‘man’ or ‘woman’. He preferred to write about ‘vocational group’, ‘elements’, ‘classes’, and ‘populations’: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.

Early on, one of the dons who disapproves of the N.I.C.E., Bill Hingest, makes a telling point to Mark:

‘I happen to believe that you can’t study men, you can only get to know them.;

Good idea, good thought. For his opposition to the N.I.C.E. his car is flagged down in a dark country lane and he is beaten to death by N.I.C.E. goons.

Ancient versus modern

Wither witters on in interminable and obscure sentences designed to confuse his listeners, and also ensure they never know where they stand. He is obfuscation versus Lewis’s ideal of the simple autoritative clarity with which Ransom speaks. Here is Wither:

‘Good morning, good morning, Mr. Studdock,’ he said. ‘It is with the greatest regret that I–er–in short, I would not have kept you from your breakfast unless I had felt that in your own interests you should be placed in full possession of the facts at the earliest possible moment. You will of course regard all that I am about to say as strictly confidential. The matter is a distressing or at least an embarrassing one. I feel sure that as the conversation proceeds (pray be seated, Mr. Studdock) you will realise in your present situation how very wise we have been in securing from the outset a police force–to give it that rather unfortunate name–of our own.’

Here is Ransom:

‘I am the Director,’ said Ransom, smiling. ‘Do you think I would claim the authority I do if the relation between us depended either on your choice or mine? You never chose me. I never chose you. Even the great Oyéresu whom I serve never chose me. I came into their worlds by what seemed, at first, a chance; as you came to me–as the very animals in this house first came to it. You and I have not started or devised this: it has descended on us–sucked us into itself, if you like. It is, no doubt, an organisation: but we are not the organisers. And that is why I have no authority to give any one of you permission to leave my household.’

Light versus dark. Clarity versus obscurity. Good faith versus deliberate uncertainty. Sunlight versus fog. Love versus fear. Openness and permission contrasted with a paramilitary police and torture cells. Country versus city. Rural landscape versus industry. Tradition versus novelty. People versus statistics. Muddling through versus inhuman ‘efficiency’.

Filostrato wants to  abolish all organic life from the planet. In sharp contrast Ransom is shown going out of his way to be courteous and loving to animals, to the unexpected bear Mr Bultitude, but also to a covey of mice who he rings a bell to summons to eat the crumbs left over by the humans, his pets Baron Corvo the jackdaw and Mr Pinch the cat.

Ransom’s is a supra-human vision which encompasses all life forms.

The cosmic view

‘Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws; whereas they are only the remote results which the true laws bring about more often than not; as a kind of accident.’ (Grace Ironwood)

Merlin

Lewis writes wonderfully evocatively of the Dark Ages whose literature he knew so well.

And suddenly all that Britain which had been so long familiar to him as a scholar rose up like a solid thing. He could see it all. Little dwindling cities where the light of Rome still rested – little Christian sites, Camalodunum, Kaerleon, Glastonbury – a church, a villa or two, a huddle of houses, an earthwork. And then, beginning scarcely a stone’s-throw beyond the gates, the wet, tangled, endless woods, silted with the accumulated decay of autumns that had been dropping leaves since before Britain was an island; wolves slinking, beavers building, wide shallow marshes, dim horns and drummings, eyes in the thickets, eyes of men not only Pre-Roman but Pre-British, ancient creatures, unhappy and dispossessed, who became the elves and ogres and wood-wooses of the later tradition. But worse than the forests, the clearings. Little strongholds with unheard-of kings. Little colleges and covines of Druids. Houses whose mortar had been ritually mixed with babies’ blood.

And the figure of Merlin is, at least initially, presented with a powerful sense of the old pagan beliefs.

his great mass stood as if it had been planted like a tree, and he seemed in no hurry. And the voice, too, was such as one might imagine to be the voice of a tree, large and slow and patient, drawn up through roots and clay and gravel from the depths of the Earth.

And Lewis gives Merlin some great speeches, commenting on what, to him, are the peculiarities of 20th century life.

‘I cannot, indeed, understand the way you live, and your house is strange to me. You give me a bath such as the Emperor himself might envy, but no one attends me to it: a bed softer than sleep itself, but when I rise from it I find I must put on my own clothes with my own hands as if I were a peasant. I lie in a room with windows of pure crystal so that you can see the sky as clearly when they are shut as when they are open, and there is not wind enough within the room to blow out an unguarded taper; but I lie in it alone, with no more honour than a prisoner in a dungeon. Your people eat dry and tasteless flesh, but it is off plates as smooth as ivory and as round as the sun. In all the house there is warmth and softness and silence that might put a man in mind of paradise terrestrial; but no hangings, no beautified pavements, no musicians, no perfumes, no high seats, not a gleam of gold, not a hawk, not a hound. You seem to me to live neither like a rich man nor a poor one: neither like a lord nor a hermit.’

Compared to the thrilling power of his own days.

Merlin saw in memory the wintry grass on Badon Hill, the long banner of the Virgin fluttering above the heavy British-Roman cataphracts, the yellow-haired barbarians. He heard the snap of the bows, the click-click of steel points in wooden shields, the cheers, the howling, the ringing of struck mail. He remembered also the evening, fires twinkling along the hill, frost making the gashes smart, starlight on a pool fouled with blood, eagles crowding together in the pale sky.

Wow! Such a shame that this primal force then has to be tamed and neutered by Ransom.

The choice

What the books brings out is that both Jane and Mark are brought to the point of having to make a choice. Which side are you on?

In his normal condition, explanations that laid on impersonal forces outside himself the responsibility for all this life of dust and broken bottles would have occurred at once to his mind and been at once accepted. It would have been “the system” or “an inferiority complex” due to his parents, or the peculiarities of the age. None of these things occurred to him now. His “scientific” outlook had never been a real philosophy believed with blood and heart. It had lived only in his brain, and was a part of that public self which was now falling off him. He was aware, without even having to think of it, that it was he himself–nothing else in the whole universe–that had chosen the dust and broken bottles, the heap of old tin cans, the dry and choking places.

Even realising that you have a choice, even realising that we must all take responsibility for our own lives is presented by Lewis, as almost a lost knowledge, as a basic prerequisite for being human which modern society does everything it can to obscure. Mark:

became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed.

Feminism

There is a massive amount to be written about Lewis’s depiction of the female characters. I imagine modern women students will want to throw the book in the nearest fire when they read the howlingly stereotyped characterisation of Miss Hardcastle, the leather-clad lesbian chief of police and torturer – although I enjoyed her character on an entirely cartoon level.

But central to the book is the way both Mark and Jane have to be cured of their modern scepticism and atheism and brought to see that there are people outside them a world outside them, powers outside them, that they are really very small and have to smother their egotism and learn to love others, and to love their Creator.

Jane is a moderately complex figure, in some ways the most sympathetic character in the book (Mark is depicted as an unrelentingly selfish fool in a hurry to suck up to anyone who’s in a position of power). Feminists might sympathise with the opening where Jane is depicted as frustrated by married life and excluded from an academic career, and by her later comments about sexism.

For a moment she looked on Mr. Denniston with real dislike. She saw him, and Mark, and the Fisher-King man and this preposterous Indian fakir simply as men – complacent, patriarchal figures making arrangements for women as if women were children or bartering them like cattle. (‘And so the king promised that if anyone killed the dragon he would give him his daughter in marriage.’) She was very angry.

But feminists presumably wouldn’t like the sections where she has to overcome these feminist views, in order to progress to the next level, the level Lewis depicts as to do with very ancient symbols of gender, of male and female coming together in rituals and ceremonies celebrating fertility and, at the end of the story, in a traditional marriage bed – cleansed and healed from their modern angry scepticism. Brought to realise that they should both be humble, forgiving and charitable.

Continually, throughout the book, the good things evoke whole systems of personal and folk memory, so that this generation is seen as repeating, echoing, and confirming the wisdom of the ages.

It woke in Jane vague memories of helping at Christmas or Easter decorations in church when she had been a small child. But it also suggested to her literary memory all sorts of things out of sixteenth-century epithalamions – age-old superstitions, jokes, and sentimentalities about bridal beds and marriage bowers, with omens at the threshold and fairies upon the hearth.

Maybe much of this can be critiqued as outrageously sexist, patriarchal and patronising, bit I, for one, can see where Lewis is coming from in invoking folk traditions, religious traditions, pagan traditions, pre-Christian traditions, and non-Western traditions, all of which see humans as aspiring to literally superhuman ideals of masculinity and femininity – ideals none of us may be able to attain, but which are guides to behaviour.

Or we can do what many people are doing in our day and age, try to rewrite our understanding of human nature and gender from scratch. But even if they’re not true, even if they are not exactly a guide for modern living, I – like Lewis – love and reverence the old literature, the old traditions and the old magic.

In Perelandra the theme and the treatment have a unity which completely transport the reader and make you accept all kinds of stately, ceremonial behaviour, at bottom based on gender norms and traditional views of fertility and procreation.

But when he tries to set the same ideas in the ‘modern’ age (well, 1940s England) they, along with much else in this mad gallimaufrey of a story, fall to really cohere or convince.


Related links

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

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – 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 by H.G. Wells – 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 by H.G. Wells – 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 by H.G. Wells – 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 by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then 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 by H.G. Wells – 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 by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – 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 by H.G. Wells – 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
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
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – 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
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
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
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

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

In his prime, between 1910 and into the 1930s, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’.

He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles and literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and also wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, which are regularly dramatised for TV or radio. His next most famous works are probably the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill. This fictional book of poetry is described as being reviewed by the king, no less, who uses the pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’ and is described as being a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism. This ‘hammock’ school of criticism gets its name because so many of their reviews start by referring to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon.

I understand how this is a gentle satire on the state of literary criticism circa 1904, and it is sort of funny, in its way, but it requires a bit of effort to cast your mind back to that kind of era and worldview.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were so popular in Chesterton’s day and which is obviously designed to skewer not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all the other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on which proliferated at the turn of the century. Chesterton mocks them all by describing their prophetic predictions, and then extending them to ludicrous extremes.

Then, having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. Which is to make this novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, another grand social prophecy, to set it in the far distant remote year of 1984, and then to assert the simple fact that, contrary to all the predictions of all the so-called prophets… nothing whatsoever has changed!

All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

For, as Chesterton writes, with a broad smile on his face, the people – the uneducated, uninterested masses – have listened to the Great Prophets, have read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives.

They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, from a long list of eligible citizens.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – first sourcing the colour yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, then the colour red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After spouting much inconsequential Latin fieriness, the ex-President walks proudly off into the night never to be met again. I found this scene incomprehensible.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point. He is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new King of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin! He will be King Auberon!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around.He wanders up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with all his strength and honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter with the little boy sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and…? And so when his friend Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later, he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 London boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still King Auberon and still the joker. the 32 London boroughs really have become self-governing fiefdoms and all their officials forced to wear the ridiculous cod-medieval outfits Quin has designed for them.

One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development which he is managing. It is intended to go from Hammersmith up through Notting Hill and beyond but the rulers of Notting Hill are being obstructive. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on – all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by medieval pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens — the Provost of Notting Hill arrives and, at a stroke, reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly seriously!

He speaks medieval phraseology as if he means it. He says ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s silly joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises this chap is none other than the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. His name is Adam Wayne and now, aged 19, he announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. (This is, again, satire on what Chesterton takes to be the absurd pretentiousness of modernist poets and writers.)

Above all Wayne takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence we are shown Wayne canvassing opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour – from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers [I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air] to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours, the blustering, bumbling shopkeeper is a comic staple.)

Anyway, Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that, in his spare time, he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

What a find! A man after Wayne’s own heart!

The Pump Street fight

Anyway, the Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal to let the new road development cut up through Notting Hill put their case before King Auberon for his approval. Specifically the plans call for the demolition of a few buildings in Pump Street. Wayne says no. Led by Buck, the businessmen offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He had intended to create fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when things really do get out of hand.

He hears the sound of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates Kensington Gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, appears a god-like figure, blazoned with light – it is Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker (one of Quin’s friends who we met back at the start of the book), who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into the entrepreneur Buck closing up his shop, and tells him what has happened.

Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts of all the nearby London boroughs, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of them, and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has now become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks and turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness. Intimately familiar with their home turf, the Hillers launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead inserting writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal. Here he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then sets about concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – presumably this is all satire on journalism and newspapers’ readiness simply to invent the stuff they print – when real eye witnesses to the fighting, Barker and Buck, stumble into the offices.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual, comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. “When duty calls”… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles now being fought across the borough, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill.

Meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men each. He now has a substantial force at his disposal. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king suspects not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender.

Buck and his entourage burst out laughing, what a preposterous idea. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army which is standing in the valley below.

Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

Now the novel cuts to twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other London boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge, elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence.

King Auberon is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. He notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the discovery that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance, to want more than the simple Edwardian money-grubbing. Dressing and speaking as medieval burghers and courtiers turns out to be surprisingly liberating.

The king bumps into Barker, who begins explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out. A local inhabitant tells our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. Then the Hillers start singing a martial song of victory — and this pushes the ever-touchy Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps at passing revellers. Some of the other passersby turn out to be from other London boroughs, and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war and so soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about society, class, technology, gender, race, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish or inexplicable – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink their prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this approach much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which mostly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

In these last passages the reader is really challenged.

Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, and quickly relinquishes all contact with reality.

At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character. Repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it until, in finally pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but… symbolic of what, exactly?

I read in the introduction to the book that Chesterton was criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. For example, critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. The book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns which had very much dominated British culture. No fool glamorises that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising it. The book tries to have its cake and eat it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the last battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to be a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story.

‘And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient.

‘There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

The text then takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his own amusement and then forgot about it.

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crashing symbolism) and one of the two voices is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other, that of Wayne.

‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne.

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. And that’s what happens here. Somehow, the very fact that the entire premise of the story was one man’s childish joke — makes its unintended consequences all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – the two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, up until these last few pages, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god.

‘When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace.

‘But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend.

‘Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological or cultural assumptions which underly them are so often hard to understand or sympathise with. Making the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (indeed, whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind.

Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Accidie and world-weariness were clearly common feelings among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind – and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton.

He is eloquent on the sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long, blank streets. Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he often speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of specifically urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

Blankness upon blankness. And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

So although most of the book bubbles with (sometimes incomprehensible) satire and good humour, and then metamorphoses into a hymn to medievalism – nonetheless, not far from the surface and bubbling up in random locations, is Chesterton’s awareness of the bleak boredom of city life.


Related links

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

%d bloggers like this: