'Today I heard that one of those little jump-up firms which proliferate like fireweed in the ruins of publishing wants to re-issue Mr Fortune's Maggot...'
Not me but Sylvia Townsend Warner writing to William Maxwell in 1976 about her novel first published in 1927.
It's months since I read Mr Fortune's Maggot, not just a few, we're talking six at least. Then there had been a delay in writing down my initial thoughts and I knew I hadn't quite nailed the book as I wanted to, it had felt slippery and elusive, any vaguely intelligent or original thought evaded me, so I had planned to throw in the towel and let the post slip down the order and on into oblivion.
Except for some reason the book has sat patiently by my desk alongside Lolly Willowes and both refusing to go back on the shelf. Each time I glanced in their direction I got that look of reproach and defeat a book is quite capable of giving. So I pick it up to admire the cover occasionally and recall that it was the writer Salley Vickers who recommended Lolly Willowes at a literary festival some years ago, and I had then scurried off to find it. It was Ruth (who comments here) who found the then lesser known but very delicious looking editions published by the New York Review of Books, and we both succumbed. I only really wanted Lolly Willowes but couldn't resist Mr Fortune's Maggot too, because they looked nice.
Lame but true.
So I have hauled this post blinking up into the daylight because Mr Fortune's Maggot really was a book too good to pass over, and because at the time I was reading the correspondence between William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and alongside that William Maxwell's novels, and then it seemed only right and proper that I read some of Sylvia's and write about them too. The introductions here are from contemporary literary voices, Alison Lurie and Adam Mars-Jones respectively here, and of course being NYRB Classics any boxes about paper quality and production values are firmly ticked.
Having progressed from the life of a bank clerk in Hornsey the 'tall, raw-boned and rather rummaged -looking' Reverend Timothy Fortune has settled into the life of an island missionary on the Raratongan archipelago in the Pacific. Undaunted, easy-going and seemingly humble in his approach, further isolation beckons and he decides to upsticks and settle on the remote island of Fanua.
Warnings of much singing and dancing and plenty of immorality plus uncertainties about cannibalism don't deter Mr Fortune who, with his housewifely mind and staid and conscientious approach to his mission, somehow seems capable of riding out any storm, whether it be physical or emotional. Armed with a wheezy harmonium and the leaving gift of a very useful silver teapot, his arrival on Fanua is greeted with much excitement by the islanders... I did wonder whether there was enough meat on him for a good dinner.
Mr Fortune makes a rapid convert in the young boy Lueli who quickly becomes his constant companion, though with assurances all round that this is a chaste and uncomplicated friendship. Further converts do not flock in so Mr Fortune focuses all his attention rather single-mindedly on Lueli and his education.
Lueli's conversion is complicated by his worship of a wooden idol and of course the relationship becomes increasingly complex too as Mr Fortune's love for Lueli shifts and deepens, bringing with it come some agonisingly deep realisations for him about love, conversion, faith and idolatory and some mega-tussles with his conscience.
'And because I loved him so for what he was I could not spend a day without trying to alter him. How dreadful it is that because of our wills we can never love anything without messing it about!'
The sense of place is magnificent. Fanua is a volcanic island also prone to earthquakes and I was amazed to discover that STW had done all her research from a single library book. The eruption, when it happens is likewise going to signal some earth shifting decisions for Mr Fortune too.
... and that was as far as that initial post went.
So without re-reading, I'm thinking back now to my firmest recollections of the book and I realise that I am left with a deep sense of empathy and sadness over it all, it is a book that warns about many things not least the dangers of obssessive love and passing judgement over the faith of others.
Of her own creation, STW said
'I love him with a dreadful uneasy passion which in itself denotes him a cripple...'
and I sense that too having read and reflected on poor old Mr Fortune.
It seems I was sufficiently impressed by Sylvia Townsend Warner's writing back in 2004 to join the STW Society but soon realised that I wasn't keen enough to want to go on rambles around her homeland of Dorset, but she does have a large and loyal following who thankfully do that and much more to keep her name and her literary legacy alive.
I do know that the two books I have read so far have left their mark but in a strange and rather intangible way. Sylvia's writing touches a chord and resonates. I love the way that she snatches those opportunities for wry humour right on the brink of deeply serious moments, whilst placing it all so sensitively in the midst of what can often be described as sad and disempowered lives. In Lolly Willows and now Mr Fortune's Maggot, lives that are about to make some very difficult decisions in order to wrestle that power back from elsewhere. I also know that there is something I can't quite touch and reading back through my one copy of The STW Society Journal this evening (I went to the society website to find that link, saw the cover on the webpage and remembered mine on the shelf) and I see that Gillian Beer quotes John Updike who feels likewise when reviewing STW's short stories,
'She has the spiritual digestion of a goat. 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.'
Gillian Beer goes on to argue that the novels
'at once baffle and possess the reader. Douce, whimsical and shifting seamlessly across verbal registers, they suddenly expose us to appalling suffering that cannot be set aside. Calamity is simply there, and to be practised. It is shared with the characters. Sometimes it closes up again into comedy.... empathy is encouraged and then rejected.'
I could have done with reading all that months ago, if not earlier this evening as I wrote this as it would have explained something that I couldn't, because I have indeed been oddly baffled.
I'm still not sure I've done the book or Sylvia Townsend Warner justice but it's been good to think out loud with all of you and thank you if you've stayed the course this far. Six months later Mr Fortune's Maggot is still echoing around in my mind very clearly and it has not been difficult to recall it again, but I'm also quite relieved to be putting the book back on the shelf at last too.
Recently I came across The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner £2.50 for an unread 1995 Virago edition and dipping in I feel sure more of the bafflement may be explained, but I'd love to hear your thoughts if you've read this one or any others.