Now listen up people, because I want to tell you about a truly wonderful book. I loved it, loved it, loved it! What is it? Oh, did I forget to say? It’s Mr Fortune’s Maggot, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and it is fabulous, and I am so pleased I like it, because it is one of the new books I bought with the money my mother gave me to treat myself. Plus I got it on the strength of reading just one of her novels, and one short story (I’ve been raving about her ever since) so I was a teensy bit worried that Mr Fortune might not live up expectations, but he did, and I can’t wait to start the Virago collection of her short stories, which as another of my treats.
Anyway, the Reverend Timothy Fortune is a one-time bank clerk (he has the perfect name for someone who works with money), who uses a legacy from his godmother to train as a deacon and, once ordained, leaves England for St Fabien, a port on an island of the Raratongan Archipelago in the Pacific. But after 10 years Rev Fortune feels a call to take up residence on the remote island of Fanua which, so Warner tells us, ‘could only be seen in imagination from that beach edged with tin huts where Mr Fortune walked slowly up and down on evenings when he had time to’.
In the preface Warner says that when she first moved to London one of the books she borrowed from the local public library in Westbourne Grove was a volume of letters by a woman missionary in Polynesia.
I can’t remember the title, or her name; but the book pleased me a great deal, it had the minimum of religion, only elementary scenery, and a mass of details of everyday life. The woman wrote out of her own heart – for instance, describing an earthquake, she said the ground trembled like the lid of a boiling kettle.
The book stayed in her memory, and elements of it blended with a vivid dream she had in 1925.
A man stood alone on an ocean beach, wringing his hands in an intensity of despair; as I saw him in my dream I also knew something of his circumstances. He was a missionary, he was middle-aged, and a deprived character, his name was Hegarty, he was on an island where he had made only one convert: and at the moment I saw him he had just realised that the convert was no convert at all.
She jumped out of bed and started to write, and although much of the dream faded, the facts remained, and she felt as if she had actually experienced the man’s loneliness, simplicity and despair, as well as the look of the island.
She changed the name of the man, but the unknown library book and the dream combined to form the kernel of Mr Fortune’s Maggot, and she seems to have written it in a kind of frenzy, as if she had been taken over by some force outside herself, and there seems to have been little editing or alteration – as far as I can see the novel is pretty much as it came out of her head. She tells us:
I wrote steadily, and with increasing anxiety, not because I had any doubts about the story, but because I was so intensely conscious that the shape and balance of the narrative must be exactly right – or the whole thing would fall to smithereens, and I could never pick it up again.
She wept ‘bitterly’ when her work was complete, and I found the account of her reaction to the final sentence so moving that I very nearly cried myself.
I know this is a bit of a ramble, but I thought her explanation of how this strange and extraordinary novel came into being was fascinating, and it helps to put things in context. And by the way, if you are wondering about the title, there is a note at the beginning which states: Maggot. 2. A whimsical or perverse fancy; a crotchet. But words can be double-edged, and the maggot that destroys from within seems to have a bearing here as well.
So, back to the book. Rev Fortune’s preparations for departure to the island of Fanua are every bit as wonderful as those of William Boot leaving for Ishmaelia. He doesn’t take a cleft stick, but his purchases, which show a ‘nice mix of thrift and extravagance’, include:
…tinned meat, soup-squares, a chest of tea, soap, a tool-box, medicine chest, a gentleman’s housewife, a second-hand harmonium (rather cumbrous and wheezy but certainly a bargain), and an oil-lamp. He also bought a quantity of those coloured glass baubles which hang so ravishingly on Christmas trees, some picture-books, rolls of white cotton, and a sewing machine to make clothes for his converts…
But nothing goes to plan: the islanders are polite, cheerful, indolent, happy-go-lucky, – and stark naked. They are not a bit interested in being westernised or becoming Christians, and are quite happy to let Rev Fortune go his way, while they continue to go their’s. They certainly don’t want to be civilised and, as in Warner’s dream, there is only one convert: Lueli, a beautiful young boy who is anxious to please. But, just as in the dream, the boy is not a convert at all, and still worships his pagan God. And it is Rev Fortune who loses his faith…
I love the way Warner writes. It seems such a simple narrative, then – wham! All of a sudden she sneaks in and knocks you sideways with an unexpected turn of phrase that can be so sharp and subversive it takes your breath away, and you wonder if you’ve read it right, because she’s so subtle in the way she does it. She is, I think, a very sly writer, who can turn the world upside down in just a few words.
|Sylvia Townsend Warner
Yet she cab also write tenderly about emotions; deals honestly with questions of love, faith, belief and matters of the spirit, and evokes the lush beauty of an island paradise which has its darker side, as we discover through the terror of an earthquake and volcanic eruption – scenes which reflect the upheaval in Rev Fortune’s own feelings about life. To be honest, I am not at all sure this book would be published by a new author today. I am certain there would be questions regarding the portrayal of the islanders and the relationship between priest and boy, but it really is all very innocent and, like so many other books of this period, it is very much of its time.