Sunday, May 26, 2019

A Forgotten Renaissance Man: A.E.W. Mason

It didn't last long.  It was all just a brief moment of time.  The curious part is how much was accomplished in such a short space.  When the Victorian Era is thought about at all today, it is through the reflecting lens of adaptations of A Christmas Carol, or else it has been rebranded by the look and style of the Steam Punk movement.  The time itself was both less and more than this, however.  It's greatest legacy stems from its literary output.  There are tons avenues worth exploring from the many bookish corners of that era.  The one I find that holds the most interest is what might be called the Victorian Romantic Movement.  This label is taken to both designate and encompass an entire collection of writers and authors who, together and separately, created a series of popular texts that have gone on to reach canonical status.

Once you look at the titles of these books, you perhaps begin to get an idea of why they've earned their place in the current pantheon of great writings.  In this corner there are Dr. Jekyll and his shadowy partner, Mr. Hyde.  Here also is Stevenson's Treasure Island, the Africa of H. Rider Haggard, and Kipling's India.  It was during the reign of Queen Victoria that a stammering school teacher had the idea of a girl falling down a rabbit hole into a satiric parody of the world around her.  It was the best and worst of times.  In other words, it was during the British 19th century that most of the greatest works of fantasy and adventure literature were written.

This is one those literary legacies that manages to be all but forgotten while casting a shadow so large that the great majority will have little choice but to go through their lives never completely knowing that modern entertainment exists both under and within it.  It is one of the most amazing truths of history that the shape and form of the current popular genres were forged and molded by a small coterie of artists, working separately for the most part, but with something like an actual network made up of letters of correspondence and critique.  It's a phenomenon that can occur on occasions.  The original Romantic Movement is the prime example, while the 20th century Modernists are the most recent.

The real curious part however is that the works of these authors was able to go on to have any kind of major impact at all across both times and cultures.  No one seems to have intended for anything to get so big.  At the same time, it's what happened, regardless of what any of them hoped would become of their works.  In addition to being well told stories, there is something in or about a book like King Solomon's Mines, or Huck Finn, that also enables them acts as methods of literary transmission and inheritance.  Their quality is such that they are able to establish a tradition or standards for other artists to learn, grow, and find their own voices from.  

Another curiosity about Victorian Romanticism is that it was able to make the transition to the Edwardian Age without missing a beat, and with no discernible alterations in it's stylistic or storytelling methods, or in its choices of subject matter.  For all intents and purposes, the Edwardian Era seems, for a time at least, to be more like a continuation rather than a break with the past.  It would take the disillusionment of the First World War to create an actual break between past and present.  The irony is that while the Great War may have caused the Victorian strain of Romanticism to go out of fashion, it couldn't erase the hold it had on the imaginations of many of its inheritors.  The most famous of these was J.R.R. Tolkien, and his works on Middle Earth owe a great deal to his grounding in the kind of reading material that was later consigned to the nursery by the time he was a graduate student at Oxford University.  While Tolkien is the most famous example of a modern author taking inspiration from Victorian Adventure and Fantasy genres, it would be a mistake to believe his was the only one.  History is littered with the names of forgotten inheritors.

I have to thank another forgotten author, Roger Lancelyn Green for pointing all this out to me, even if he wasn't exactly around to do it.  While the author in question may have passed away in October of 1987, his textual voice can still find ways of remaining far from silent.  He was most notable in life as the author of a popular set of children's anthologies revolving around the various mythic cycles of both Norse, classical Greco-Roman, and English/Arthurian cultures.   In addition to this, Green was also a surprisingly capable scholar of Victorian Fantasy, and the men and women who created it.  One of them is A.E.W. Mason.

In 1952, Green published a biography of Mason.  So far as I can tell, it remains the sole book in existence to tackle this author, and the nature of the books that made him famous, at least for a time.  In setting out the life of his subject, Green is also giving his readers as good a snapshot of not just a time long vanished.  Instead, the biographer is trying to present an atmosphere or idea of the literary climate in which Mason worked and traveled in.  It is precisely the atmosphere of this climate that stands out so well in the biography.  A perfect example of what I mean is shown by Green on the first page of his book:

"As in the case of his novels, when one thinks of A.E.W. Mason one thinks first  of the swift, breathless, joyous rush of adventures: Mason as an actor; Mason as a struggling journalist leaping suddenly into fame with his second novel; Mason the traveler exploring the Sudan; Morocco, Spain, taking swift, eager journeys to South America, South Africa, India, Burma, Ceylon and Australia; Mason in his yacht coasting the Scillies, crossing the Bay, tacking up the Seine to Rouen or threading the canals of Holland;  Mason the mountaineer spending his Easter vacation from Oxford on the fells above Wastdale, and later going year after year to climb in the Alps - the Col du Geant, Mont Blanc (sixteen hours on the Brenva Ridge); Mason the member of Parliament; Mason the Secret Service Agent in Spain and Mexico during the first World War...(7)"  

The overall impression is of a passage that reads like something from a pulp novel.  It also might be the whole point.  In this one paragraph, Green has given his readers an insight into both the kind of larger than life personality that Mason possessed, as well as the tone and style of the kind of novels that made him famous.  On the very first page the reader finds himself in a realm that is close to that of someone like Robert Louis Stevenson, or Jack London.  It's a world where sometimes an adventure can still be found on the high-seas, and there are still unexplored corners that remain on the map.  This is the literary climate that produces films like King Kong or Lawrence of Arabia.  It is a product of the very same Romantics going all the way back to Dickensian England.  While it's true this was all before Mason's time, the fact remains that it is this particular style and genre of writing that has left the defining imaginative impact on Green's subject.  In that sense, the entire biography is an examination of literary survivals and revivals.

Green outlines the purpose of his biography as follows: "to tell the story of A.E. W. Mason as completely as possible, in his own words whenever they existed in letters, in odd passages from his books, and in a rare introduction or interview - following Graham Balfour's dictum that 'all biography would be autobiography if it could'.  I have tried also to describe the genesis of each of his books, plays or films, with a word or two of the contemporary reaction - reviews of the day or letters from his friends - and to offer a critical estimate of the whole body of his literary achievement (8)".  

My own goals are a bit less ambitious.  For me, this post is really a form of literary excavation with the hope of rediscovery as it's goal.  It is Green's book on Mason as both an author and as a person that I wish to examine here.  While the subject of Green's biography is not a household word like Tolkien or Rowling, Mason still provides a good jumping off point into the exploration of a greater literary landscape.

The final thing to note before getting started is that I've decided to take a thematic, rather than chronological approach to Green's book.  My reasons for doing this are because I think a brief outline sketch of all the salient points will be a better help toward giving the reader a good idea of the kind text they are dealing with if anyone should ever decide to pick it up.  The key part of Green's book is his exploration of Mason as an artist.  That means the best parts are when the reader is given a clue into both the author's creative thought process, and the relation of his imaginative exploits to the literary cultural tapestry of which it forms a part.  For these reasons, I think it's best to give an account of the ideas that make this biography worth a read.  It still helps to take things one at a time, however.  The best place to start is at the beginning.

Early Creative Influences. 

There's a been a sort of ongoing debate about how much personal factors and experiences go into the making of our favorite books.  I've read the words of some who believe this adds little to nothing to conversation, as well as others who believe it's all just part of the ingredients of any given work of fiction.  I tend to fall into the latter camp, and perhaps that's one of the reason's Green's treatment of Mason comes as a welcome reading experience.

Mason was the product of a dysfunctional home life that included a mother who's poor upbringing helped solidify the urge to be upwardly mobile with the kind of desperation that leads one to believe it could all vanish at any moment, so it's best to store up everything.  Green states that while Mason.
 found this intolerable, it seems to have not effected him in any personal way.  I'm not so sure about that, however Green's subject never seems to have displayed any of the usual neurotic ticks that can breed in such a setting, so perhaps the biographer is right.

One thing Green is willing to admit is it was this same home life that ultimately drove Mason to the world of books.  Green gives a vivid and lively prose to some of the books and writers who would shape and mold the contours of Mason's imagination.  The first major influence cited by Green is Mason's exposure to performances of Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, and The Merchant of Venice (18).  However it seems to have been the discovery of poetry that set off the first mental spark in his mind.  In particular, there were "The Ingoldsby Legends, (Tennyson), (Shelley), and De Quincy's 'On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts'.

"...To the end of his life he considered De Quincey a superb writer: 'one wanders down endless corridors of prose to find quite wonderful passages, gleams of insight and imagination'.  Even more a favorite of his than 'Murder' was The English Mail-Coach which made a tremendous impression on him, in particular the vision which concludes it.

"De Quincey's effect on Mason at this time was very strong, together with that of other authors and the thoughts and ideas which they inspired in this rather lonely and not very happy boy who was struggling painfully and alone through the thorny wood of mental adolescence.  For the troubles at home became more and more unbearable to him as his came to a clearer and more sensitive perception of them (2)".

"Inevitably this state of affairs drove the boy into himself, buried him deeper and deeper in the world of books and brought out the strangest and most unexpected vagaries.  This period of his life was the most vital and important of any in shaping his character, and he turned back again and again to it in his books, using it as the key wherewith to unlock the secret springs which had caused character after character to develop in a particular way and follow particular lines of conduct; and usually the final development leads to situations that are indisputably autobiographical.  Stephen Drake in almost his earliest novel, The Philanderers, comes from his suburban home to look towards London from Sydenham Hill and dream the same dreams; and in the few pages of The Shaken City, the confessedly autobiographical novel which he was just beginning during the last year of his life, Mason sketched in this side of his youth more clearly than ever.  Most accurate of all, and most complete, is the account of Martin Hillyard's early experiences in The Summons - experiences which, after an intermediate period in other scenes, fitted him to perform one at least of Mason's own exploits in the Secret Service during the Great War.

"After the brief account of Hillyard's days at St. Eldred's School, we are told of his home life at the 'house in the garden of trees' which is (Mason's childhood home, sic) unnamed:

"Between himself and his parents there was little sympathy and understanding.  He saw them at meals, and fled from the table to his own room where he read voraciously.  'You never heard of such a jumble of books', he said...'Matthew Arnold...Paradise Lost...Tennyson.  I knew the whole of 'In Memoriam' by heart - absolutely every line of it, and pages of Browning.  The little brown books!  I would walk miles to pick one of them up.  My people would find the books lying about the house, and couldn't make head or tail of why I wanted to read them.  There were the read letter days; one when I first bought the two volumes of Herrick, the second when I tumbled upon De Quincey.  That's the author to bowl a boy over.  The Stage Coach, The Autobiography, The Confessions - I would never get tired of them (21)".

The overall picture brings to mind Wordsworth's ruminations on the mental impressions that shaped his own thinking in The Prelude.  It seems that Mason underwent a similar experience.  If this is the case, then his early reading exploits find the author making the discovery of the old Romantic literature, while at the same time beginning the construction of a place of his own in that same tradition.

In addition to the Romantic Poets, there is the contemporary influence of Mason's college room-mate at Oxford University, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.  This influence is a bit more interesting in that it seems as if "Q", as Quiller-Couch was known for most of his life, was one of the first people to get Mason to take an interesting in literary writing as a possible career.  It seems Mason walked in on Quiller-Couch just as the future writing instructor was busy getting started on his first novel.  "Mason took a particular interest in the book, though Quiller-Couch made him promise to 'abstain from looking at a line of it until the whole was written (31)".  Taken together, Mason's early childhood reading, along with his having the good luck to find admittance Oxford's bookish, literary culture helped to foster the latent desire to create some art of his own.

Quiller-Couch may also have had a hand in determining the particular genre and style of writing that Mason would be drawn to throughout his life.  Green is anxious to highlight the nature of the story Couch had in mind when he sat down to write his first novel.  As Q explained it Mason, "It seems to me that the best thing I can do is to write an adventure story - a cross between Robert Louis Stevenson and Rider Haggard, shall we say: those are the sort of novels people read nowadays (ibid)".  It could be that this statement was fortuitous in that it was a case of shared likes that contributed to Mason's final decision to put pen to paper.  Stevenson and Haggard were also among the "sort of novels" that Mason devoured as a child as well.  Again it seems like a combination of Victorian fantasy, and early Romanticism combined in the mind of a developing artist to explore similar territory.

Mason's Literary Culture.

At one point Green is able to produce a revealing picture of the historical milieu in which Mason chose to work as an artist.  "Those were the days when the great battle between 'the crocodile of realism and the katawampus of romance' was at its height - when the reading public took its literature seriously, and the monthly magazines filled the place which the wireless has since usurped.  The outcry over Rider Haggard had not long died down but he was still one of the best sellers of the day; Kipling had risen to take his place in the forefront of the more universally popular literature, and there was no sign, despite the protests of the 'other persuasion', that a time was drawing any nearer

"When the Rudyards cease from Kipling
"And the Haggards Ride no more

"True, the novels of Henry James were received with a respect befitting that lofty paragon of the prolix; Meredith was the grand old man of letters; Shaw and Archer, unamused by Anstey's parodies in Punch, were shouting up Ibsen; and it was quite the thing among the younger sets to disagree with Andrew Lang's strictures on the novels of Thomas Hardy.  But still the more popular books were being written by the story-tellers - by Conan-Doyle and Quiller-Couch, by Stanley Weyman and Anthony Hope, while S.R. Crockett, leaving J.M. Barrie and Ian Maclaren in undisputed possession of the kailyard, was producing three or four stories a year wherein the dashing sentiment of love's youngest dream, spread sparingly over a few bare bones of Scottish history, held the market which in a later day vends the wares of Edgar Wallace and the creator of Tarzan.

"All these authors sat at varying altitudes upon the Parnassus which enthroned Robert Louis Stevenson - Quiller-Couch indeed, master of the outward style if hardly of the inward light, was shortly to complete the unfinished St Ives, after Conan-Doyle had declined the honor - and that summit was a goal worthy of the greatest writer's ambition, whatever might be happening in the valleys (56)".        

It is moments like the one shown above where Roger Green shows his strengths as both a critic and literary historian.  The biographer demonstrates a sure hand at reading not just Mason, but also the quality of the literary culture to which he belonged as an author.  Green also allows his critical sensibilities to shine in passages like the following about The Courtship of Morrice Buckler, Mason's inaugural literary effort:

"The story - it is little more than a short story teased out to fill a slender volume - has all the studied disillusionment of a first novel, and is suitably stark and unromantic (in spite of its name)...It is in the writing that its only virtues lie, in the many vivid descriptions of Lakeland scenery which recaptures so much of Mason's own observations and experience there...Youthfulness of another and a sweeter kind is the keynote of The Courtship of Morrice Buckler.  It reads as a young man's book in its () dash and carefree eagerness for adventure; excitement and suspense fill its pages, yet there is room to for a certain sketchy characterization which makes of the people who throng its pages something more solid and more credible than the marionettes who carry the thrills in so many books of the same kind.  Still, perhaps it might best be described as a dream of reality rather than the real thing, which Mason was not, save for brief moments, to capture wholly in the realm of historical fiction until the three novels written in the last dozen years of his life (61)".

Despite his misgivings, Green ultimately sees Mason's first, tentative efforts as overall a good thing.  He is anxious to show it as striking a blow for the popular genres against their detractors:  "With so magnificent a 'send-off'...it is not surprising that Mason found few enemies in the ranks of the critics, besides a good many friends.  So popular romance assumed the nature of an insult to the champions of the naturalistic school - whose own besetting weakness in a good cause was lack of proportion, and a snobbishness of the intellect which sorted ill with the socialism of the subjects they advocated for the making of great literature (62)".

When speaking of Mason's literary output, it helps to remember that as an author he is an inheritor working within a tradition.  In cases like this, the question centers around whether the individual talent is able to carve out a place for himself within that tradition.  Mason's place in the genre of Victorian Romanticism is peculiar in that he does not follow any of it's currently recognizable tropes.  All of his novels are set in a make-believe version of the very real world, rather than a fantastic secondary one such as Middle Earth.  The curious part is that even without  any overt fantasy tropes, his stories manage to feature a lot of the same narrative beats and themes as those featured in Tolkien's work.  A good way to think about Mason's style of adventure is that it is what Middle Earth would look like in real life terms.

This is the sub-genre of Victorian Romanticism occupied by the like of Jack London, Louis Stevenson, or even Mark Twain.  While being grounded in a facsimile of contemporary or historical reality, the narrative backdrop is still, for all intents and purposes a fantasy setting in which larger than life adventures can unfold.  This is also the kind of fictional setting in which Mason was able to discover his natural voice.  It played well into his strengths as a writer, and provided him with several avenues to explore.  It turns out Mason wasn't always limited to the requirements of the adventure genre.  He also had a talent for the detective story.

Mason the Mystery Writer.

While the adventure novel might be responsible for Mason's ultimate claim to fame (of which, more in a minute), it is a surprise, and not an unpleasant one, to learn that he was able to make his own contribution to the genre of the Detective Mystery. This interesting in that it gives Mason a place with a foot in two camps. His adventure novels place him more or less in the sphere of Victorian Fantasy, while his mystery thrillers all belong to the Gothic. The Gothic itself is an off-shoot of fantasy.  It is an example of what happens when storytellers start to focus more on the trolls, goblins, and remnant spirits, rather than elves and dwarves.  In much the same way the Detective genre is what you get when certain writers zero in on the genre's propensity for violence, along with it's focus on the inner states of the characters.

Green's thoughts about Mason's Detective fiction, as well as the genre as a whole are by turns intriguing and somewhat frustrating.  His subject's main contributions to the genre center around the exploits of one Inspector Gabriel Hanaud.  The initial idea for a Detective story seems to have occurred to Mason sometime around 1908.  It's genesis was the result of a number of sources coming together to form the outlines of the plot for a potentially decent enough thriller.  Part of it came from reading reports in the newspaper of a pair of incompetent thieves whose bungling turned them into murderers (123-4).  Another plot idea came from "a drive down to...(a) hotel - at Richmond.  After dinner in a room above the long sloping garden and the river, my companion pointed out to me, scratched by a diamond ring upon the window-pane, two names.  One was that of Madame Fougere, a wealthy elderly woman who a year before had been murdered in her villa (122)".

The final strand seems to have been drawn from the personality traits of people from Mason's personal acquaintance.  According to Green, it was possible that "Ruby" Otway, a friend of Mason's, perhaps, sat for the heroine, Celia; and Hugh Warrender - we would consider him now almost a museum-piece - the acme of distinguished leisure, the perfection of the art of living, the English gentleman of ample means and over-ample etiquette, surely suggested at least a model who could be delightfully caricatured as Julius Ricardo.

"And for Hanaud himself, the immortal Hanaud, who?  Well, it was George Alexander, who would turn with a quite disconcerting abruptness and say 'What do you mean by that?', disconcerting because 'out of a pair of familiar and friendly eyes a complete and rather hostile stranger' seemed suddenly to be looking at you.  But it was Mason himself - I have seen him do it - who could be standing at his fireplace, with both hands on the mantelpiece, and then with a sudden stabbing swiftness (even when he was over eighty) whip round and shoot a question, alert in every nerve for your reaction.  And through all the more serious books which had preceded At the Villa Rose there had been apparent in the most convincing male character - the hero, or secondary hero inclined to usurp the leading role, no longer in the first flower of youth, yet endowed with various of Mason's own external characteristics - a single element common to all: observation swift and complete, leading by clear and well-reasoned stages to a logical deduction (121)".

It is in these passages examining the construction of his subject's first Mystery plot that Green is at his best in providing a glimpse into a creative-writing mind at work: "Mason had an incredible memory for detail; he could hold tiny incidents of an as yet unwritten story clearly in his mind - more clearly than the average reader of the completed book - sift and weigh and analyze them there until, perhaps a year or two later, the story was complete in every detail, and then write it down in his small, neat writing, with no sign of a second thought or of any pause in the clear dictation of his brain.  A word here or there is crossed out to give greater point and precision, but otherwise the original manuscript of a novel reads like a fair copy made by an amanuensis.  Occasionally he might forget that he had used an incident out of his own experience, and use it again in a much later novel or story; but when he did, the description was almost identical in word and phrase - as if he had photographed the incident and put the negative away in his mind for future use.  With this mental equipment ready and perfected by practice, a detective novel was almost inevitable (121-2)".

I  just want to note the irony of a writer crossing out words for the sake of clarity.  These days, an audience often seems to require that the writer put in more words in order to make his meaning clear.  It sort of begs the question of just how well informed most audiences were back in Mason's day, when he needed to use less in order to say more.  In any case, it's when you get to Green's thought's on the final product of Mason's thriller that the first discordant note is sounded:

"The art of detective fiction was then still in its infancy, in spite of the fact that Sherlock Holmes was approaching his last bow.  Conan-Doyle, with only Poe, Wilkie Collins and Gaboriau behind him, had swept the field, and his imitators had scarcely begun to escape from his coat-tails and attempt to walk in paths of their own.  The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the best detective story of its kind - the most straightforward kind - ever written, and that was selling its first thousands at much the time when Mason was reading the names on the window-pane at Richmond.   But At the Villa Rose makes a definite break-away: Mason is writing a novel in the form of a detective story, the fortunes of his characters are of interest not merely as means to the detectives ends; and the characters themselves, if a trifle over-drawn at times...are nevertheless real people with lives and emotions of their own, who act and interact throughout, instead of being the chessmen most usually to be found upon the detective's board.  That 'they wouldn't be chessmen' Mason was to demonstrate many years later in perhaps the best Hanaud novels, but it was just this knowledge that sets At the Villa Rose above most detective stories of the period, and keeps its vitality so very fresh today (125)".

Green's distinction between a Detective novel and a novel proper is the one element that stand out the most in his critique.  It's uncertain whether or not this is necessarily a good thing.  It sounds arbitrary and more like a capitulation to the very "Realistic" school that Green claims Mason to be writing against.  This discordant note is heightened when it's remembered that Green went so far as to paint himself as part of the anti-Realist Romantic camp.  It is a flaw worth coming back to examine near the end.  For the moment, what has to be noted is that the biographer has shown an inconsistency in his thinking.

The curious part is how this flaw doesn't inherently wreck his argument in its essentials.  Ii is perfectly possible to treat a work of popular fiction as having the depth as a novel, while still taking a Romantic approach to the whole proceedings.  A story like The Hound of the Baskervilles has just as much right to be considered a novel as At the Villa Rose.  All that has to be remembered is that Realism, in the strictest sense, is perhaps not the main prerogative of fiction.

It is also a mistake to believe that the original Conan-Doyle stories are best seen as one-dimensional in comparison with any other works that came later.  While it is true that Holmes and Watson are serial characters who are able to have an endless run of adventures, part of their appeal is just how well drawn they are as personalities.  Holmes has endured over the years because of the genuine semblance of life his author was able to breath into him.  There have even been reports to this day of people trying to consult a fictional character about various crime related problems.  That's how powerful an impact Doyle was able to leave behind long after he was gone.

More than this, Doyle was also savvy enough to realize that the draw of his narrative didn't always have to depend on the dynamic of his two main characters all by themselves.  For some time now, I've been of the opinion that the basic truth of the Holmes series is that they are meant to be seen more as stories about individual people from various walks of English society, and the choices that either make or break them.  What makes this second dynamic of Doyle's stories so appealing is how he is able to present a clever image of the compromised society of his day, and approach it with a satirical scalpel that could sometimes be just as sharp as Dickens.

It is the choices made on the part of both the criminals and the victims that lends the tales their narrative weight.  This is something that the late actor Jeremy Brett seemed to realize when he made his own series of adaptations of the Holmes canon.  Brett made sure that each episode focused in on the human element of Holmes's clients, and the struggles they went through as a result of their problems.  With all this in mind, it is hard to see how such aesthetic depth can be labeled as one-dimensional.  

The real curious part is how this whole anti-Realist aesthetic appears to be the mindset that Green is operating in for the most part.  It is only in these odd moments where the biographer steps into his own logical fallacies, and then just as quickly steps out of them again as if nothing had happened.  A final reckoning on this will still to wait until we've tackled the one book, out of all the others, that Mason is still somewhat famous for.

The Four Feathers.

If Mason is remembered for anything in this day and age, then the book that comes closest to guaranteeing the author some kind of legacy would have to be The Four Feathers.  It tells the story of a principled young man who finds himself caught in the machinations of both the Victorian Compromise and it's offshoot, Imperialism.  When this young man is called on to defend his country after the death of Lord Gordon, he becomes consumed with problems of cowardice, prompting three of his friends, and even his fiancee, to send him four feathers; a sign or mark of shame and the very same cowardice consuming his thoughts. It is this gesture on the part of all four characters that sends Harry, our protagonist, off on a journey to return all four items to each of their senders in an attempt to prove them all wrong.  It's a decision that will send him from his comfortable surroundings in England out into the deserts of Africa.  In the course of his journey he will find out the difference between the proposals that men make for each other, and the realities that nature and time can force upon everyone sooner or later.

Mason's novel came about as the result of a pleasure trip "up the Nile (86)".  "Across the river he found the half-ruined city of Omdurman, where Kitchener had finally broken the Khalifa's power little more than two years earlier.  He was shown the House of Stone, the prison resembling the Black Hole of Calcutta in which the Khalifa's captives, black, brown or white, it mattered not, had been herded like sheep in a pen, night after night through the long suffocation of the tropics.  He spoek to Slatin Pasha (an Austrian) who had endured imprisonment there", and Mason also heard about how various allies had things "arranged for his escape, with that of other...captives, from the House of Stone (87)".  "For setting he had the Sudan, and the great impression which it had made on him is shown by the vividness with which he is able to recapture every facet of his observation and turn them into word-pictures which call up living scenes even to those who have never seen the original...The dramatis personae are, of course, evolved from many sources and many people, and real originals for characters in fiction can seldom be identified, though real people may have formed the basis for at least some of them (89)". 

In taking stock of Green's words regarding Mason's best known work, I thought it best to see how the biographer's insights match up against those of another critic.  I thought this would work based on how two diametrically opposite views on the same book can wind up reinforcing the same conclusion.

Susannah Rowntree is the author and proprietor of Vintage Novels, a blog dedicated to the exploration of the forgotten literature of ages gone by.  A lot of her work is dedicated to the same Victorian Romantics mentioned above.  So it's not that big of a shock to discover she has read through The Four Feathers, and has something to say about it.  Things get awkward when you read her take on the novel, and then see how it square's with Green's view.  Take for instance this passage from Green's text:

 "For once all Mason's great abilities are concentrated in a single book, and there used in perfect proportions and welded together by genuine inspiration.  The story never falters for an instant, nor loses its grips from the first page to the last; the characters present us with real people, and yet the characterization and the psychology never come amiss in this tale which is also of adventure.  Durrance, of course, steals the limelight from Harry Feversham; but the interest only shifts to him when he is incapacitated from actions by his blindness, and Harry, whose psychological unfolding has been the chief interest until then, passes into the state of being simply the person round whom the exciting adventures happen.  The masterly study of Durrance as the blind man sharpening his wits so as to discover by reasoning and observation (aural, in his case) things which he cannot see, shows the first full example...of Mason's mastery in the technique of detection which was to lead him to the creation of Hanaud a few years later.

"Of his heroine, Ethne, it is harder to speak.  She is better studied than many of his female characters, who are so apt to sacrifice individuality to charm, but she leads the story into its only blemish; the excessive sentimentality of her second farewell to Harry (90)".

Now compare all that with Ms. Rowntree's take:

"This was quite a good book. But it was not really an adventure story. It is much too quiet and introspective for that, and the majority of the plot stays with Ethne in England. There is practically no historical information on the Mahdist war and Harry's adventures in the Sudan are mostly window-dressing to the real substance of the story, which is the emotional and psychological fallout of the breaking of Ethne's engagement, and her subsequent relationship with Durrance, a friend of Feversham's.

"This was a little maddening. I wanted to hear about the Sudan--which Mason seemed to have thoroughly researched, and could write grippingly about--and was instead left to bore myself with Ethne and Durrance. Mason was a good writer, and his characters are subtle and complex. But I lost sympathy for this pair very early on. Durrance loves Ethne, and she loves Feversham, but she agrees to marry Durrance anyway (for reasons that struck me as being supremely fatuous) and Durrance, who discovers that she loves Feversham, decides that Ethne would be happiest until Feversham returns in an engagement to him, and we are forced to watch these characters angst and suffer through this very artificial situation for most of the book while Harry Feversham is off in the Sudan getting his fingernails pulled out by villainous Emirs and what-not (web)".

The trouble is that there doesn't seem to be any way in which Ethne, based on the words of both critics, comes out in any kind of positive light.  Mason even goes so far as to call her ignorant (90).  The deal with this issue is that it's a real stretch to feel sympathy for a character like that, especially if her ignorance just makes her misguided instead of callous.  It is possible that these long, thematic exchanges are precisely the whole point for Green.  That these long passages are of value because it is here that Mason takes up the same scalpel wielded by Doyle and Dickens in order to dissect the prejudices and faults of the now Edwardian Era Britain.  In particular, it could be because Mason aims this scalpel at the folly of England's experiments with Colonialism that account for Green's devotion to it.  If this is the case, then at least Green's enthusiasm is more than just a bit understandable.  At the same time, Ms. Rowntree's words make it sound like the message has gotten in the way of the story, turning what should be a rollicking adventure yarn with a satirical trap tucked away neatly within it's folds into little more than a dull, plodding tract.  If this is the case, then I'm pretty sure I've seen this same idea given a much better treatment by J.R.R. Tolkien with books like The Hobbit.  


Conclusion.

Reviewing a book like this always presents a challenge.  The critic must make an assessment of not just the subject of the biography, but also of the biographer's grasp of his subject matter.  In this case, both Green and Mason come off as pretty much a success.  Green is a capable biographer with a sure and steady grasp of both the popular genres and the authors who help to create them.  His one fault lies in an apparent self-contradiction regarding the nature of fantasy and realism.  While spending the entire 266 pages of his work championing the cause of fantasy against "realistic" critics, he often finds himself succumbing to the same vices he hopes to prove wrong.  It is a naturalist strain in his thinking, and Green seems to be unconscious of just how much this one single unaware critical concession colors and shapes the way he views the tropes of popular fiction.  It is the nature of Fantasy to be fantastic, and therefore a certain ability to break the bounds of conventional believability is naturally permitted whenever the narrative is concerned with unnatural, or non-natural events.  The irony is that while Green's thought does contain a flaw, it remains one to which he doesn't always succumb, freeing his mind to go the necessary mile in his critical judgments.      

At least one other possibility presents itself.  It could be that all of Green's fixation with questions of Realism in Fantasy stemmed from his very desire that the fantastic genres be taken seriously, and given their due as literature.  If this was his goal, then his strange, schizoid approach could explained by the fact that in his day Fantasy and Science Fiction where still not perceived as worthy subjects for mainstream consideration, and it was the Realist-Naturalist school that ruled the roost when it came to acceptable literary judgments.  Looked at from this perspective, Green may have been forced to walk an uncomfortable, ill-fitting tightrope between the essentially Symbolist ethos of Popular Fiction, and the reigning Naturalism of the Realists.  This would mean that the critic would find himself in the awkward position of trying to demonstrate to the academic higher ups that an author like Mason could somehow still meet their narrow criteria for what makes a book worth "taking seriously".

If there's any truth to this surmise, then all it serves to do is demonstrate the shortsightedness of the literary standard of Green's decade.  The problem with it is that an argument can be made that it is not an objective conclusion about the literary merits of any given story, fantastic or otherwise.  Instead, it is a simple case of whatever happens to be the reigning artistic fad of the moment.  The trouble with fads is that it is their very nature to come, go, and change with the fashion of the times.  And fashions can never stand still, or mean much in any objective terms.  Instead, it is possible that Green found himself in a no-win situation when it came to appeasing the English 101 gods. If there is any possible truth to this scenario, then the whole situation would have been the kind you would have to look back on and wonder what everyone was thinking.  When it comes Literary Naturalism, I always find myself in the anti-Realist camp. It is a useless tool that does little good anyone who chooses to wield it. Either way, it shouldn't let the flaws of his biography spoil what remains an otherwise solid read.   

Despite it's flaws, there remains a great deal to Green's biography that still makes it worth hunting down a physical copy.  The two most important aspects are the insights Green has into the nature of the writing process, and how he relates it all to the culture that can (sometimes) nourish it and help it grow.  The surprising part is just how much Green's insights were able to anticipate pretty much the same kind of ideas that Stephen King would go on to tell about in On Writing.  For Green, Mason's creativity seems to be about waiting on the Muse to assemble all the ingredients in his Imagination.  It is then a simple question of whether it can all be transmuted into a finished work of art.

As for the culture which can either create or stifle the artistic creation, Green is able to invite readers into a different kind of secondary world.  What  sets the world Green writes of apart from something like Lewis Carroll's Wonderland is that it really exists, or at least it did for a brief period of time.  The overall impression left by Green's words is of a time and place that can remind one of the tranquil, country settings that might have put Carroll in a fantastic frame of mind at one moment.  The next moment we are in a bustling, inter-war metropolis of London or Paris that brings to mind something out of a Hitchcock film.  It is this strange blending of both the ancient of the Old Modern that is the biography's greatest impact.  Besides all this, however, there is the figure of Mason himself. 

I've used the term Renaissance Man to describe Mason.  In some ways, however, I think a better word to describe him would be Arthurian.  J.R.R.Tolkien is another individual who fits that description.  Like the famous Middle Earth scribe, the Mason who comes through in Green's book seems like another one of those guys who just have this sense of displacement about them.  It's almost as if he's a man out of time, or else out of joint with his own historical setting.  His thoughts about things are more or less nominal, yet there's a lingering sense of antiquity about the way they view things.  While embracing the present, he was always looking to the values of antiquity to inform his thought.  I suppose his real accomplishment is being able to find a way to do just that without succumbing to any kind of reactionary outlook.  Instead, he provided his readers with an awareness of the turmoils of the present (it was troubled times, after all), while still keeping a kind of literary lamp burning, like a lighthouse-keeper steering his readers toward a bigger sense of perspective.  This perspective Mason owed to the Romantic authors of his youth. 

The world of the Victorian novelists is a vanished city that still manages to cast a long shadow over contemporary fiction.  The life and work of A.E. Mason can serve as perhaps a sort of gateway author.  He's at least one avenue that can both stand for a host of other writers who worked in a similar vein.  In that regard Mason also serves as a good jumping off point for all of the others who belong to the Victorian Romantic tradition. 

2 comments:

  1. (1) "There's a been a sort of ongoing debate about how much personal factors and experiences go into the making of our favorite books." -- What an odd debate. It is literally impossible to divorce oneself from oneself when doing anything, so by definition the creation of a work of art is going to be heavily influenced by one's own life and experiences. Even if one is consciously reacting against that, the best one can do is turn art into an altered reflection of one's life. Arguing otherwise strikes me as being like arguing the Earth is flat -- sure, you can do that, but why would you?

    (2) I've got zero familiarity with Mason. I had at least heard of "The Four Feathers," but only via the Heath Ledger movie ... which I never even saw! So in terms of my own personal exposure, that's pretty dang obscure. It's better than many of Mason's contemporaries have managed, though.

    (3) Sorry I don;t have more to say specifically here. This is a topic well worth visiting, but my own knowledge of the era and its writers is slim to the point of near invisibility. What I'm reminded of is the thought that I, granted something like immortality, might well never grow bored with existence, because how could I when there are entire eras of literature to be explored? I have no doubt Mason is worth reading; I have no doubt this biography of him is worth reading. I have no doubt there were dozens of his contemporaries who'd be worth reading, and I have no doubt that, given time to do it, it would be enlightening and entertaining to line up every single author of the era in chronological order and then march my way through them one book at a time, mastering the entirety of it.

    And that's just one single era; a pebble from a mountain.

    Given time to do it, I'd explore that entire mountain.

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    1. (2,3) I think it's just a combination of luck coupled with the conviction that whenever a certain author mentions or cites the name of another book, or it's author either in an interview, essay, or what have you, it tends to mean something important, more often than not.

      Sometimes, yes, it can be a signal of the kind of works that have influenced this or that writer in their career, other times it can just be a recommendation of other talents out there.

      In the case of this Mason biography, it all comes about from reading or seeing the name Roger Lancelyn Green's name come up here and there in certain books or articles about Tolkien. After enough time passes, I begin to think something along the lines of "I wonder if there's something important about that guy". So I wiki his name, and see he was something of an actual critic who specialized in Victorian Fantasy. So I pick up a couple of his books, and I discover that one of them "Andrew Lang: a Critical Study" was a master's thesis overseen by Tolkien himself.

      I run across little bits of textual evidence, tucked away in them margins of some of these books, and it makes the semi-natural thought occur "Huh, I wonder if this Green guy could help shed some light on authors like the one who wrote "LOTR", and maybe a few others.

      Because of stuff like that, I've found myself lately being drawn to examine a lot of the other people Green brings up. Right now I got a whole box full of bios of names like J.M. Barrie, Robert Stevenson, you know, "the usual gang of idiots".

      In that sense, it's perhaps just pure luck born of enthusiasm, though I have to say it does help gain a perspective on where the books of today have come from. I also can't help wonder if maybe putting at least some info on this old forgotten text might help gain them some recognition. Or, who knows, maybe someone out there with more talent than me can use them as spark for their own works.

      Hey, who knows, a guy can dream.

      ChrisC

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