Periodically, over the years, several people have urged me to read the novels of Sylvia Townsend Warner. Somehow I never got round to it - until now, when I have taken the plunge and read her Mr Fortune's Maggot (1927). (That's 'maggot' in the sense of 'a whimsical or perverse fancy; a crotchet'.)
I knew I was in for something special just from reading the author's Preface (to the Virago edition), which describes how the whole essence of Mr Fortune's Maggot came to her in a dream, which she wrote down as fast as she could; the first third of the novel is, she says, exactly as she dashed it off, with scarcely a word's alteration.
'I was really in a very advanced stage of hallucination when I finished the book - writing in manuscript and taking wads of it to be typed at the Westbourne Secretarial College in Queens Road.
I remember writing the last paragraph - and reading over the conclusion, and then impulsively writing the Envoy, and beginning to weep bitterly.
I took the two copies, one for England and one for USA, to Chatto and Windus myself. I was afraid to trust them by post. It was a very foggy day, and I was nearly run over. I left them with a sense that my world was now nicely and neatly over.'
So ends the Preface - and who could not read on after that? Especially after noting in the list of Thanks, 'I am greatly obliged to Mr Victor Butler for his assistance in the geometrical passages, and for the definition of an umbrella'.
Mr Fortune's Maggot is the story of the Rev. Timothy Fortune, a sweet-natured and well-meaning ex-bank clerk who becomes a missionary and ends up on the remote South Sea island of Fanua, where in three years he makes just one (apparent) convert, a delightful boy called Lueli. A kind of innocent but intense love swiftly develops between the missionary and his convert, who becomes his pupil as Mr Fortune sets about educating him in the knowledge and concerns of a wider world. This process gives rise to some of the funniest passages in the book:
'Since the teaching had to be entirely conversational, Lueli learned much that was various and seemingly irrelevant. Strange alleys branched off from the subject in hand, references and similes that strayed into the teacher's discourse as the most natural things in the world had to be explained and enlarged upon. In the middle of an account of Christ's entry into Jerusalem Mr Fortune would find himself obliged to break off and describe a donkey. This would lead naturally to the sands of Weston-super-Mare and a short account of bathing machines; and that afternoon he would take his pupil down to the beach and show him how English children turned sand out of buckets and built castles with a moat round them. Moats might lead to the feudal system and the Wars of the Barons. Fighting Lueli understood very well, but other aspects of civilisation needed a great deal of explaining; and Mr Fortune nearly gave himself heat apoplexy by demonstrating in the course of one morning the technique of urging a golf ball out of a bunker, and how English housewives crawl around on their hands and kneed scrubbing the linoleum.'
The education of Lueli is not exactly a howling success, especially when Mr Fortune is inspired to pass on the rudiments of plane geometry:
'Calm, methodical, with a mind prepared for the onset, he guided Lueli down to the beach and with a stick prodded a small hole in it.
"What is this?"
"No, Lueli, it may seem like a hole, but it is a point."
Perhaps he had prodded a little too emphatically. Lueli's mistake was quite natural. Anyhow, there were bound to be a few misunderstandings at the start.
He took out his pocket knife and whittled the end of the stick. Then he tried again.
"What is this?"
"A smaller hole."
"Point," said Mr Fortune suggestively.
"Yes, I mean a smaller point."
"No, not quite. It is a point, but it is not smaller. Holes may be of different sizes, but no point is larger or smaller than another point."
Lueli looked from the first point to the second. He seemed to be about to speak, but to think better of it. He removed his gaze to the sea.'
Mr Fortune's Maggot has been described as a satire on imperialism and Christian evangelism, but it is something far bigger and deeper than that, especially after the dramatic crisis of the story, triggered by an earthquake and volcanic eruption, in the course of which Mr Fortune loses not only his own God - which he finds surprisingly painless - but also, by his own imperious actions, Lueli's god (embodied in a wooden idol), which he finds infinitely more painful.
What this novel is, above all else, is a love story - a tender and entirely convincing account of the special love between Mr Fortune and Lueli, and how that love leads to a shattering emotional climax, from which Mr Fortune struggles to find a path to redemption. Happily, in the end, he does. And by then the author is as much in love with Mr Fortune as is Lueli. Indeed, she wrote of him: 'I love him with a dreadful uneasy passion which in itself denotes him a cripple...'
Sylvia Townsend Warner has a style all her own, and reading this book is an exhilarating, unsettling experience. You never quite know where you are with her, or she with her creation. The poet Gillian Beer writes that her novels 'at once baffle and possess the reader. Douce, whimsical and shifting seamlessy across verbal registers, they suddenly expose us to appalling suffering that cannot be set aside.' That seems a very good summing-up, as does John Updike's: 'Her stories tend to convince us in process and baffle us in conclusion; they are not rounded with meaning but lift jaggedly toward new and unseen developments.'
I should just add that Mr Fortune's Maggot also describes its island setting - and the terrible eruption that threatens to destroy it - with extraordinary vividness. Her only source for these passages was a single book - the letters of a woman missionary in Polynesia - borrowed from the Paddington Public Library.