I have just returned from a long holiday in the Channel Islands visiting with Ebenezer Le Page, an old and valued friend, at Les Moulins, Ebenezer’s cottage by the sea. It is built of the same blue Guernsey granite that he is, and as he says, it will last for ever. They both will. Ebenezer is the creation of G. B. Edwards, the author of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. It is his only book, published posthumously. It is fiction, but I don’t have to believe that if I don’t want to. The word ‘creation’ is precisely the correct term. This is not a work of literature. It is a thing of flesh and bone. Ebenezer and I had often journeyed together in imagination, and shared our tea in front of a coal fire, but now I had come to Guernsey in body as well as spirit, to walk the streets he walked and follow the path of his life.
What little we know of Gerald Basil Edwards comes to us in John Fowles’s introduction to the first edition. Edwards was a native of Guernsey, born in 1899. He served as a gunnery instructor in the First World War, attended Bristol University, worked much of his life as a civil servant and briefly as a lecturer in English literature and drama, befriended Frieda Lawrence and John Middleton Murry, fathered several children in an unsuccessful marriage, and died in England in 1976. He was melancholic, intensely private, and in his later years reclusive. In letters to Edward Chaney, his friend and literary executor, he says that ‘The mere thought of having a public image appalls me’ and ‘I would not willingly supply the public with any autobiographical data whatever.’ He wrote poetry, articles and plays, and destroyed all of what was not lost. He spared only a few official documents, a photograph of his mother, and this manuscript. When it was first published in 1981, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page was suspected by some critics to be a hoax perpetrated by Fowles because the technique of sustained reminiscence was so unusual and so successful.
Ebenezer’s story, told in the first person, spans seven decades. Born near the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, Ebenezer as a boy intends to emulate his beloved father and become a quarryman – most of the buildings on Guernsey are made of granite – until a tragic accident in the quarry causes his father to decide otherwise, and Ebenezer spends his long life quietly growing tomatoes in greenhouses and fishing in his small boat for his dinner. It is an austere life, sometimes hard, but a good one; self-reliant and rhythmically following the sun and the seasons. Ebenezer lives his entire life on Guernsey and survives two world wars. Though he is weak with hunger through most of the Occupation he is mostly left to himself, his house considered unfit for German soldiers as it has neither electricity nor running water. He befriends one German soldier and murders another, leaving Ebenezer with the only secret he will never reveal to anyone. After the war he watches with growing anger as his ‘whore of an island’ transforms itself from an insular agricultural economy to an international one based on banking and tourism. He lives a life of pathos and joy, friendship and death, purpose and futility, and at last, peace. And when he looks back on it all he thinks that his great triumph in life is winning a leg of mutton.
The visitor to Guernsey who has come 6,000 miles to walk in the footsteps of a fictional character, to see how much of Ebenezer’s Guernsey remains and how it compares with the landscape of imagination, is greeted with the smiling, raised-eyebrow benevolence that is usually reserved for a beloved and long-lost family member. The name Ebenezer Le Page literally opens doors for the traveller in Guernsey, who is astonished to see the flash of recognition in the faces not just of local scholars, librarians and museum curators, but also bus drivers, grocers, barmaids, clerks, innkeepers, antique dealers and a spirited elderly lady on a bus who enthusiastically crowed, ‘My name’s Le Page!’ Ebenezer’s socially conscious aunt was correct, ‘The Le Pages are as common as flies.’ Ebenezer’s Guernsey is rapidly disappearing, but much remains. Greenhouses, remnants of Guernsey’s agrarian past, are still occasionally to be seen. The Red Lion and The Ship and Crown, known simply as The Crown in Ebenezer’s day, are still very much in operation, though the sign is all that remains of The Caves de Bordeaux. L’Ancresse Common, where Ebenezer and his father once flew paper kites, is a golf course. The tram that once took Ebenezer halfway to town, where he could transfer to the bus, is long gone, but there is still a bus stop called ‘the halfway’; only the elderly know why. Victor Hugo’s statue can no longer show his backside to Queen Victoria’s as the Guernsey Museum and Gallery now divides them, but Trinity Square really does have three sides.
I first met Ebenezer in my late twenties, our introduction made possible by one of the many booksellers’ catalogues that flock to my door with the unerring accuracy of carrier pigeons. The comment below the title and author, with classic book-catalogue brevity and understatement, simply read ‘a great novel’. When I finished it, I thought it quite good. I did not realize that I had been in the hands of a master (alas, I was young!). The voice lingered, though. It stayed with me for months. I reread Ebenezer. Again, there it was: the essence of a man, a voice. Again, it lingered. It lingers still. It has been with me now for twenty years.
This voice is the magic of Ebenezer Le Page. It is the voice of a no-nonsense man: plain-spoken, old-fashioned, earthy, austere, solitary, prickly, mischievous. He is stubborn and pigheaded, sometimes miserly and sometimes generous. He is a man of strong opinions and immovable prejudices: at the top of Ebenezer’s hierarchy of hatreds, beyond Americans, Englishmen, tourists ‘looking like the lost sheep of the House of Israel’, and even the Germans who occupied Guernsey during the war, is The Jerseyman. As Ebenezer says of his Channel Island neighbours, ‘A Jerseyman is a Jerseyman’, a statement which he regards as self-explanatory, irredeemable and indefensible. This island antipathy, which dates at least from the mid-seventeenth century – Jerseymen were Royalists, while Guernseymen supported Cromwell – endures today in the form of a (usually) good-natured gesture of derision which springs forth at the mere mention of the name ‘Jersey’, and which takes the form of a snort – words being insufficient to the task – and a wave of the hand that ends the subject with incomparable finality. When asked if he had ever been to Jersey, one leather-faced septuagenarian growled over the top of his pint, ‘I know where it is.’
Ebenezer is introspective, melancholic, curmudgeonly and vividly observant, and he sees the phoney and the hypocrite with unrelenting clarity. Here he is being introduced by his younger cousin, Raymond, who refers to Ebenezer as his uncle, to the Reverend Donald Mallison:
He [Mallison] had just passed his final exam and got his licence to preach. I took an instant dislike to him. He was a weed of a chap with no chin to speak of and teeth like a rabbit’s. He said to me, ‘Are you of our persuasion?’ Raymond laughed. It was his wicked laugh, so there was hope for him yet. ‘He is an old pagan,’ Raymond said. ‘I don’t know what a pagan is,’ I said, ‘so I don’t know if I am one or not; but I don’t know what a Christian is either. There are thousands of Christians of all shapes and sizes on this island. They may not all of them go after the flesh-pots, though some of them do on the sly; but they go to war and kill other people, and in peace-time make as much money as they can out of each other, and don’t love their neighbours any more than I do.’. . . ‘Christianity is taking up your cross wherever you are,’ said the Reverend Donald Mallison, and showed me his rabbit’s teeth in a Holy Willie smile. He may have been right at that; but he wasn’t taking up no cross, that one. He was pleased as punch with himself. When he went he said to me, ‘I will pray for you.’ The cheek, I thought.
For all his hidebound provincialism, Ebenezer can be surprisingly open-minded, though, even when faced with that horror of horrors, the Roman Catholic priest:
Then there was Father Darcy. Now I must admit that I was prepared to dislike that man at the mere mention of his name. He was a Roman Catholic priest and that was enough for me! . . . It was the greatest shock to me when I met Father Darcy that I should take to him from the moment I shook hands with him; and I want to say now once and for all, though I don’t know what a saint is, I reckon he was nearer to being a saint than any man I have ever known . . . I can’t say how it was, or why it was, he was good; but he was. I began to think if the Catholic religion made men like him, when the Catholic Church was the church to belong to; but now I can’t help wondering if, perhaps it wasn’t the Catholic Church made him good, but men like him who have made the Catholic Church good.
Ebenezer likes ‘a chap who say straight out what he think at the moment and don’t care a bugger if he is right or wrong’. He is such a chap, and I like him very much. His voice is as much a part of Guernsey as the sea-battered rocks. It is a Guernsey patois: English, but with a grammar and syntax that ring in the ear of the outsider like a familiar melody in a new arrangement or a different key, and nudge him occasionally as a reminder that he has entered a culture not quite his own.
Personalities flash by in a few lines, life stories in a few paragraphs. Tragedy, comedy and pathos are inseparably blended, and even the most remotely peripheral characters are lovingly and meticulously sketched. We know them all: his aunts, Prissy and Hetty, who, when they aren’t speaking, blame each other for everything, and when they are, blame everybody else; his cousin Horace, ‘who showed you his teeth while his eyes was reckoning up what he could make out of you’; and Lydia Mahy, with her long white hands, who ‘wouldn’t even help the girl in the dairy, for fear they got dirty. She passed her time reading love stories and playing the piano and painting flowers on satin. I had no patience with her.’ Neither did I.
As Ebenezer introduces each character, he offers us bit by bit a sketch of himself. And because his opinions are so convincingly clearsighted and honestly held, we like whom Ebenezer likes and dislike whom he dislikes. On those rare occasions when he revises his opinions or changes his mind completely, we change our minds as well.
One person of whom Ebenezer is particularly fond is Liza Queripel. Women are mostly opaque to Ebenezer. He has never understood how men and women ‘can live together on earth without killing one another off in some way or another’. This is hardly surprising, for Ebenezer has chosen for himself the most complex and mercurial woman on the island. Liza is the granddaughter of a witch who ‘gave powders for those who wanted husbands, and powders for those who had husbands they didn’t want’. As Ebenezer’s friend Jim Mahy says, ‘She think a lot of herself.’ The only person who ever dislikes Jim, of course, is Liza; not because he sees through her (Ebenezer does that), but because he commands Ebenezer’s attention, and for Jim, Liza has no allure. Self-confident, independent, vain and unapologetic, Liza is a survivor. She is also the love of Ebenezer’s life, God help him.
Ebenezer can recall in fine detail everything Liza wore the first moment he saw her fifty years before, and at every meeting since. He will change his mind about her many times, often in the same afternoon, and every time we move with him, liking her, admiring her, loathing her and wanting, as he often does, to drown her. We know, as he knows, that they belong together. We also know, as she knows, that she will never make him happy. As Ebenezer observes, ‘I don’t believe she have ever said “I love you” to a single living soul.’ She will. They will spar all their lives, and in the end find both personal resolution and joy, of a kind, but not in a form that either of them could possibly have expected.
The one person on Guernsey with whom Ebenezer will never come to blows is Jim. Jim is Ebenezer’s dearest friend, and how could he not be? Gentle and selfless, honest and true, he is the only person, until the end of his life, with whom Ebenezer feels completely comfortable.
The trouble with Jim was that he was soft about the animals. They wasn’t just so much milk and butter and meat so far as he was concerned, but Rosie and Marie and Evangeline and Boney, the bull. It nearly broke Jim’s heart when the young bullocks had to go off to the slaughterhouse . . . The creatures knew Jim’s weakness. I could get the cows down the lane in five minutes. It used to take Jim half-an-hour and, even then, two or three would be wandering back to where they’d come from. He’d swear at them in all the colours of the rainbow; but they didn’t take a blind bit of notice. ‘Ah well, cows are cows,’ he’d say.
I know of no finer or more subtly nuanced account of a loving friendship between two men than the story of Ebenezer and Jim.
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is not a book to be nibbled at in bits, but to be torn off in chunks. It is composed of small vignettes, finely and meticulously threaded, and like a patchwork quilt each piece is a tiny work of art, but it is only as a whole that it gives both beauty and warmth. If you can read it in front of a coal fire ‘burning blue in the grate’, so much the better; if not, Ebenezer will provide one for you. He writes mostly in the winter, ‘when I would be able to spend the long dark evenings with those people I had known when I was younger. They was more real to me than any of those I saw and spoke to every day.’ They are all incomparably real. I was often moved to tears of laughter, and ultimately, to tears of joy.
Darkness forms on those long winter nights, but by the last page we have come not to the abyss of a darkly melancholic vision but to a celebration of life. There is a new friend: ‘For a minute I hated him because he was young and fine-looking, and I was an old crab. He had everything to come, and I had nothing to look forward to; but I couldn’t hate him for long. He was far better to look at than I had ever been; I was glad he would be in the world when I was gone.’
We know enough of Gerald Edwards’s life to be aware that, while much of it has been grist for his mill, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is not an autobiography, yet there is not a single incident, a single character, a single line or phrase that does not ring with authenticity. The spell never breaks. Ebenezer is so real that the grave digger at the Vale Church, which is surrounded by a graveyard displaying many graves with family names from the story, has grown weary from alienating two and a half decades of incredulous visitors, to whom he has had to explain, having read the book twice himself, that Ebenezer is in fact a fictional character and was neither baptized nor buried there. Their disbelief is easily explained. To accept this book as a work of fiction requires an act of will.
Gerald Edwards has been gone now for thirty years, and well may we mourn his loss, but I think he would be glad to know that Ebenezer Le Page, ‘the funny old man who live at Les Moulins’, is still in the world. We need never mourn him, for he is immortal.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 15 © Richard Platt 2007