One of the standard figures of literature, and one that appears in many writers’ lives, is that of the inspirational teacher. From Miss Moffatt in Emlyn Williams’s The Corn is Green to Mr Hector in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, this man or woman is shown as eccentric, omniscient, selfless, stern, and yet full of a radiant kindness.
Years ago such teachers were not uncommon in actual life; today they are probably as rare as unicorns in a school system that seems to have been devised by a confederacy of dunces. In the couple of years I spent at a school in mid-Wales in the late 1950s I was lucky to be taught English by the splendidly named Miss Jehu. With her bush of white hair she seemed very old to me, though she was probably only 50 or so. We were taught, officially, nothing beyond the Romantic poets and Shakespeare, but Miss Jehu roamed wide and free. We were required to learn poems by heart and to recite them. The actual mechanics of English grammar were largely ignored – it was assumed that these had been absorbed years before.
We were also encouraged to write, in our own way, stories and poems, and to use the school library. I think that I wrote in the style of whatever author I was reading at the time, producing one week sub-Audenesque bitter ballads, the next sub-Hopkinsian hymns to nature. Miss Jehu took an interest in the very odd boy I was then. She gently pointed out glaring debts to Dylan Thomas (it was his turn that week) in one of my poems and asked, equally gently, if I was not frightened when she found me reading ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ by Walter de la Mare in an anthology of ghost stories. She said she found some of his things quite terrifying. Did I like his poetry? I responded with opinions I had picked up from some dour book on modern poetry – that his work was dated and a bit too pretty and prissy. Well, yes, she agreed, some of the poetry did read a bit oddly now, but much of it was very good and a litt
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One of the standard figures of literature, and one that appears in many writers’ lives, is that of the inspirational teacher. From Miss Moffatt in Emlyn Williams’s The Corn is Green to Mr Hector in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, this man or woman is shown as eccentric, omniscient, selfless, stern, and yet full of a radiant kindness.Years ago such teachers were not uncommon in actual life; today they are probably as rare as unicorns in a school system that seems to have been devised by a confederacy of dunces. In the couple of years I spent at a school in mid-Wales in the late 1950s I was lucky to be taught English by the splendidly named Miss Jehu. With her bush of white hair she seemed very old to me, though she was probably only 50 or so. We were taught, officially, nothing beyond the Romantic poets and Shakespeare, but Miss Jehu roamed wide and free. We were required to learn poems by heart and to recite them. The actual mechanics of English grammar were largely ignored – it was assumed that these had been absorbed years before. We were also encouraged to write, in our own way, stories and poems, and to use the school library. I think that I wrote in the style of whatever author I was reading at the time, producing one week sub-Audenesque bitter ballads, the next sub-Hopkinsian hymns to nature. Miss Jehu took an interest in the very odd boy I was then. She gently pointed out glaring debts to Dylan Thomas (it was his turn that week) in one of my poems and asked, equally gently, if I was not frightened when she found me reading ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ by Walter de la Mare in an anthology of ghost stories. She said she found some of his things quite terrifying. Did I like his poetry? I responded with opinions I had picked up from some dour book on modern poetry – that his work was dated and a bit too pretty and prissy. Well, yes, she agreed, some of the poetry did read a bit oddly now, but much of it was very good and a little of it was superb, and good things did not go out of date but only out of fashion. I didn’t really understand that subtle difference then, but with the fiftieth anniversary of de la Mare’s death this year, I have been reading a lot of his prose – and I realize that Miss Jehu was right; what is good lasts even if it is neglected. And it could certainly be said that Walter de la Mare has been neglected for far too long. Faber & Faber, who published his work for many years, are bringing out a small volume of his selected poems, but of his many other books only his short stories remain in print. The wonderfully varied and erudite anthologies he made from the work of other writers, Come Hither, Early One Morning and Behold This Dreamer, can still be found in second-hand bookshops (if you can find a second-hand bookshop). Critical works largely ignore him and he is omitted from the new Cambridge History of Twentieth Century Literature – along with Conan Doyle, H. E. Bates, Norman Douglas, Richard Hughes, Lawrence Durrell and many other writers whose idiosyncratic styles or subject-matter do not accord with the present glum and ludicrous diktats of English Studies. Indeed in the modern reference works in which he does appear, de la Mare is now often referred to only as a writer for children, despite the championing of his prose fiction for adults by fellow-writers from Graham Greene to Angela Carter. Perhaps he was born (in 1873) at the wrong time, or simply too early. He was a greatly admired poet in the Georgian School before the First World War, but after that conflagration his metrically impeccable verse and his love of nature and obsession with ghosts and legends fell very much out of fashion. He was already nearing 50 when Eliot published The Waste Land and, however perturbed, continued to write as he had done since the 1890s. But it may have been the cultural shock of the change in poetic style that caused him to turn to fiction writing again and to gather together his first collection of short stories, The Riddle, in 1923. When the novelist François Mauriac said, ‘It is as though when I was twenty a door within me closed forever’, he was talking about the importance of early experience for the writer and his belief that all the most significant emotional and intellectual impulses are established by that age. De la Mare would have placed this crucial age even earlier. He hated growing up. ‘It is a fiasco I am more convinced every day,’ he wrote. The glorification of childhood was shared with slightly older writers such as Kenneth Grahame and J. M. Barrie: probably a combination of literary Romanticism, improved education, and the simple fact that most middle-class children led unprecedentedly protected lives in the warm, secure houses of the new suburbs, which grew at such a phenomenal rate between 1880 and 1910. De la Mare’s elderly father died while his son was still a very young child, but the boy led an unusually extended childhood at home with his doting mother. This idyll came to an end at the age of 10, when he was enrolled as a boarder at St Paul’s Cathedral School. The dark chambers, side corridors and hidden staircases of school and cathedral re-echo in his later stories, particularly ‘All Hallows’, a haunting – and haunted – story of a young man coming to a deserted and disused cathedral set by itself in a valley, where he meets the old man who is its guardian and is introduced to the evil forces that beset the place. The five collections of stories published between 1923 and 1956 represent, together with the novel Memoirs of a Midget, the finest of all de la Mare’s prose. Many of the stories were written long before book publication; indeed the first story in the first collection, and the last story in the final volume, were both written around 1905. So, although there is some stylistic development and a deepening of emotion in the later stories, the obsessions and narratives of these disquieting tales remain pretty constant. And disquiet they certainly do. A few are what could be called conventional ghost stories, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, ‘Crewe’ and ‘A Recluse’ among them, but some of the other tales dealing with seemingly ordinary lives are very odd. The critic Martin Seymour-Smith pointed out that however old-fashioned and plush de la Mare’s style may sometimes appear to the modern reader, the world he conjures up and his view of that world are thoroughly ‘modern’. It is a world splendidly detailed in its descriptions of landscapes, buildings and their surroundings, and of the peculiar human beings who inhabit them. But it is also a world of terror: the beautifully evoked landscapes are curiously empty, usually seen at sunset or by night; houses stand on their own, their doors more like shadowed traps than welcoming portals; those who live in these houses are odd and lonely people; travellers and visitors are always unaccompanied. The typical protagonist or narrator is a child or young man, with no close family. One of the very first of the stories, ‘The Almond Tree’, is a portrait of a marriage in break-up and despair, witnessed until its violent end by an uncomprehending child. Apart from a few period touches at beginning and end, the story is extraordinarily compelling. Here is the little boy observing his parents (they have all just come into the house after gathering strawberries one summer’s evening): ‘I saw my mother stoop impulsively and kiss his arm. He brushed off her hand impatiently, and went into his study. I heard the door shut. A moment later he called for candles . . . I knew with the intuition of childhood that he was suddenly sick to death of us all: and I knew that my mother shared my intuition.’ Such appalling moments occur throughout these stories; the poor mad woman in ‘Miss Duveen’ says, ‘One thing, dear child, you may be astonished to hear, I learned only yesterday, and that is how exceedingly sad life is . . . And yet, you know, they say very little about it . . . They don’t mention it.’ This perception of the brittleness and evanescence of the world is everywhere. ‘The Bird of Travel’ begins: ‘We had been talking of houses – their looks and way and influences. What shallow defences they were, we agreed.’ Defences against what? Perhaps the very materials from which they are made. In ‘The Recluse’ a character remarks, ‘matter seldom advertises the precariousness imputed to it by the physicist. But now, every object around me seemed to be proclaiming its impermanence, the danger, so to speak, it was in.’ This, for 1927, is not a bad summary of quantum mechanics. So, the very world de la Mare describes is unsettled and unsettling. What about the beings? Ghosts may haunt some of these places, but other demons come from within the inhabitants. De la Mare was obsessed by dreams and recorded his own. ‘The Wharf ’ contains a young woman’s truly terrifying dream of death. Other stories are almost wholly dream-like, suffering from obscurity of motive and bizarre dislocation; thus, ‘The Connoisseur’ and ‘The Vats’, though full of the most wonderful and exotic imagery seem, to me at least, almost wholly incomprehensible. But another story, ‘At First Sight’, uses a very limited viewpoint to say a great deal about the world. Cecil, a young man, again without parents, is looked after by his ‘Grummumma’, the rather gruesome Mrs Le Mercier. He has to be protected from the world because a defect in his eyes means that he cannot look up without suffering great pain. He wears a large peaked green silk eyeshade and his vision is limited to a foot-wide circle around his feet. ‘He had long been an expert in his own orbit . . . cigarette ends, dead matches, hairpins, footprints, pavement weeds, moss . . . puddles, mud, dogs, cats, pebbles, straw . . .’ He becomes obsessed with a fallen glove he has picked up from the pavement, and awkwardly and painfully courts its owner. This is a story of great humour at the expense of sententious clergymen and relatives, whose voices and ‘horrible legs scissoring around’ impinge annoyingly on Cecil. The only other work of literature to which the story bears any resemblance, in its peculiar view of a partial world, is Kafka’s ‘Investigations of a Dog’ – in which the dogs cannot see the humans who control their world and evolve absurd and conflicting theories and theologies to account for the mysterious provision of food and shelter. This sense of some essential falsity in our experience of the world, of something hidden from us, runs through all of de la Mare’s poetry and fiction. This may be one of the reasons the stories are unfashionable now. They do not show a ‘realistic’ world. Ever since Chekhov revolutionized the story by ceasing to make it an extended anecdote or tale, we have expected it to be a more or less muted description of ordinary lives, with value lying in the accuracy of descriptions of emotions and relationships. De la Mare was well aware of Chekhov, calling him ‘the finest writer of short stories’, but his own methods and obsessions were very different. In one sense, his disillusionment went deeper than Chekhov’s and was in the end less humane. The way his seemingly substantial characters question the very basis of existence is chilling: ‘“But quite seriously, doctor,” he began again apologetically, “why are some of us singled out to realise the appalling trap we are all in?”’ (‘Disillusioned’); ‘“My dream was only – after; the state after death, as they call it . . .” Mr Eaves leaned forward, and all but whispered the curious tidings into her ear. “It’s – it’s just the same,” he said’ (‘The Three Friends’). As Graham Greene remarked in an essay on de la Mare, this obsession with an afterlife is not a token of any religious belief. If the world is an illusory reality, or a façade with nothing or a more terrible reality behind it, there is no place for a God. The afterlife Mr Eaves whispered about becomes an alternative life to this one, perhaps better, perhaps worse. The religious buildings are usually disturbingly empty, or populated by one garrulous stranger, just like the railway waiting-rooms that appear again and again, and where so many of those odd stories within stories are told by waiting passengers. The railway with its dusty stations and gleaming rails at twilight is a central metaphor in much of de la Mare’s work. His characters spend a lot of time watching and waiting and listening, but Time itself exists only on an oddly contingent basis. A boy experiences a suspension of time: ‘He glanced up at the clock, which thereupon at once began to tick.’ In ‘The Talisman’ a young man is given a watch on whose ‘markless face there moved a single slender hand, telling no hours, no minutes, no seconds even; only Time’. Time has not been kind to de la Mare’s reputation, but writers have always admired him. Greene was undoubtedly influenced by the older writer. His novella The Basement Room is heavily indebted to de la Mare’s wonderful story of childhood and witnessed murder, ‘An Ideal Craftsman’. Greene also praised the prose style of the stories, saying that it was ‘unequalled in its richness since the death of James’. Enthralling prose then, but cold comfort for the reader? No. If some of the stories are immured in their own time and their endings are often sentimentally contrived, nearly all contain some remarkable passage of writing or imagery worth searching out, and most of the titles mentioned above are completely realized and worth reading over and over again. The implications of some of them are quite terrifying, but others, such as ‘A Recluse’ and ‘Willows’, borrow elements of the ghost story only to make it comic. ‘The Orgy: An Idyll’ is almost Wodehousian in telling of a young man emptying a rich and tyrannical uncle’s bank account on a wonderfully detailed spending spree in a huge department store. All the stories are now available in two volumes; too rich to be consumed in a hurry perhaps, but taken one at a time very rewarding. Also worth searching out is the now unfortunately out-of-print Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare by Teresa Whistler, a biography that illuminates the origins of these superbly written and utterly original works by a neglected master. And I must pay belated and heartfelt thanks to Miss Jehu, wherever she may be, for teaching me to read in a true sense. I hope that she would have liked this piece – though she would probably have scored lines through and added a barrage of red ticks and crosses and exclamation marks.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 10 © William Palmer 2006
About the contributor
William Palmer went to a number of schools and worked in a bewildering variety of jobs before becoming a full-time writer in 1988. He has written six novels, including The India House, available now in paperback.