John Masefield in 1908 was not a contented man. As he himself put it: 'I was then living wholly in London, and thinking it a dark, dismal, and oppressive city. I longed for the open spaces and freedom of life that I had known in the past' (Masefield, 1967, p.viii). The amount of hack work that he was being forced to do in order to support himself and his family was also a considerable burden. This hardship was, moreover, nothing new. For the past decade, as he attempted to establish himself in London, life had been a constant struggle for him.
On his return from America in 1897, Masefield had been prevailed upon to accept a job as a clerk in London, but this was never seen by him as anything but a temporary expedient. The ambition to become a writer which had originally impelled him to come home had not left him; and he seems, indeed, to have felt rather guilty about the "lowliness" of the function he was performing instead (as he reveals in a letter written to Laurence Binyon):
I have reproached myself, since our conversation, with having shown, perhaps, something of a lack of frankness in replying to your query as to my present occupation.
I think I ought to have answered you in a more straightforward manner.
I am a clerk in a bank.(Smith, 1978, p.65)
The grimness in that last sentence may sound a little over-portentous – but the depth of Masefield's discouragement cannot be doubted.
So it comes as no surprise to learn that when his friends conspired together to lift him out of this daily drudgery (as in the case of T. S. Eliot twenty years later); Masefield (unlike Eliot) was glad to accept their help. He worked at first as secretary to a picture exhibition in Wolverhampton, and later as a free-lance journalist; and managed to publish a first book of poems, Salt-Water Ballads, in 1902 – which established him (at least to those in the know) as a new poetic voice.
All this changed when, in 1903, he decided to marry Constance Crommelin, an Irish school-teacher whom he had met at one of Laurence Binyon's parties. Masefield knew that in order to marry he would have to greatly increase the amount of journalistic work he was doing, and perhaps even accept a regular job on a newspaper (since Constance had little money of her own), but this was a risk he was prepared to take. 'I am now going to grind out work like a barrel-organ on the August Bank' (Smith, 1978, p.81), as he wrote in a letter to Mrs. Jack Yeats. He began to review books for the Manchester Guardian, and eventually accepted an office job with them which involved 'working in Manchester' (Smith, 1978, p.88), in late 1904. The strain of this, combined with his other responsibilities, proved too much, however; and he was forced to resign after five months – continuing, nevertheless, to review books and write articles for the paper.
Anthologies, editions, introductions, essays, and sketches poured from Masefield's pen; but he was still, in 1908, having trouble making a living from writing. As he wrote to his sister and brother-in-law:
I'm afraid I can't possibly manage a weekend. I work seven days a week alas … You taste real luxury, fifty-two Sundays, four or five Bank Holidays, and three weeks clear, or 70-odd days a year. (Smith, 1978, p.93)
Some forms of writing are more profitable than others, however – as he appears to have been thinking when he wrote this complaint to W. B. Yeats in 1904:
I cannot write prose all day, and verses when the prose is done. I have written 160,000 words (the length of two novels) this year. (Smith, 1978, p.85)
This, in itself, explains why Masefield published no new books of poems between 1903 and 1910. It also shows him already thinking in terms of novel lengths. After all, if it were necessary to produce such a large amount of prose, why should one not put it in the less ephemeral form of a novel?
The theatre had already occurred to him as a possible way out of his difficulties. 'He had been writing plays for years – and, while his first to be produced, The Campden Wonder, had been more of a succès d'estime than a commercial venture, his second, The Tragedy of Nan, was hailed by public and critics alike.
Nevertheless, even this expedient proved insufficient for his needs. For years past he had been reviewing books – in a letter written in 1904 'he mentioned that he had got "a page of reviewing 20 books weekly", and in others he referred to "24 books to review at once" and "over 80 books to review'" (Smith, 1978, p.86) – and we know that most of these books were novels. What is more, his novel notices were 'the shortest and most incisive that we had. He could pack an extraordinary amount of criticism into a short paragraph' (Smith, 1978, p.86). In the Edwardian literary atmosphere – with the novelist in the preeminent position – a novel was the obvious solution to his dilemma.
Masefield certainly had the principal qualities required – most important of all, perhaps, a considerable experience of prose-writing, often at some length (as in his historical essays). He had also acquired a knowledge of what the contemporary novel was expected to contain – from reviewing, and (presumably) from general reading of novels in French and English. Finally, he had a subject-matter which came ready to hand – ships and the sea. (Masefield had reviewed some of Conrad's books – but, generally, their areas of interest cannot be said to overlap appreciably).
Even with all these arguments in favour of a novel, Masefield still required some prompting. He had, by now, acquired a literary agent: C. F. Cazenove, and, 'according to Grant Richards, who until 1910 was Masefield's main publisher, Cazenove and he "conspired" together, and as a result Masefield's two first novels were published in 1908 and 1909' (Smith, 1978, pp.696-97) – respectively, Captain Margaret and Multitude and Solitude. 'Fiction on this scale did not come easily to Masefield at first; he later admitted that he had to force himself to compose these two full-length novels' (Smith, 1978, p.97).
That Masefield – seeking to establish himself as a writer – would sooner or later produce a novel was almost inevitable. Nevertheless, he was obviously reluctant to begin – perhaps partially because he was intimidated by the sheer amount of work involved; but more probably because he was afraid of being "type-cast" as a novel-writer, and thus losing his impetus to produce poetry. After all, did not 'Mr. Nixon' tell Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:
And give up verse, my boy, There's nothing in it. (Pound, 1971, p.179)
(Arnold Bennett, the real-life 'Mr. Nixon', found The Street of To-Day (1911), Masefield's third "serious" novel, 'difficult to read' (Hamilton, 1925, p.47) – but he certainly expected him to go on and write 'more and better novels' (Hamilton, 1925, p.54)).
Nevertheless, the potential rewards – both in terms of financial gain and artistic recognition – were too great to be ignored. Whatever his scruples, Masefield had by now turned himself into a thoroughly professional writer; so the novel – a long novel, of around 130,000 words – did eventually reach a conclusion.
Captain Margaret, then, was published on the 17th of June, 1908, in an edition of 2,000 copies (1,000 of them for sale in America). Swinnerton, after complaining of the. 'staccato and highly self-conscious brevity' of Masefield's sentences (a charge I have cursorily dealt with in Chapter Two), goes on to say 'the first "Captain Margaret" I ever had in my hand was a library copy, in which some previous reader had written upon the first page: "This reads like the attempt of a child of five to write a book" (Swinnerton, 1969, p.210). Certainly, Masefield's prose does not remind us of Henry James's or George Meredith's – but that is, if anything, a recommendation to the modern reader.
The book begins:
The short summer night was over; the stars were paling; there was a faint light above the hills. The flame in the ship's lantern felt the day beginning. A cock in the hen-coop crowed, flapping his wings. The hour was full of mystery. Though it was still, it was full of the suggestion of noise. There was a rustle, a murmur, a sense of preparation. (1Masefield, 1974, p.1)
These sentences are short; but they build up a cumulative effect. In any case, their brevity is not obtrusive – what is more, Masefield was deliberately disciplining himself to avoid an opposite and perhaps more heinous error. As he complained earlier, in 1902, when his first autobiographical articles were appearing in the Speaker:
Writing plain narrative is the very devil ... I am too flamboyant and when I feel really 'inspired' I write the most turgid slush that ever sickened a critic. (Smith, 1978, p.71)
This fault, though (if it ever really existed), could only be said to apply to some of his earliest stories and sketches. By this time, at any rate, Masefield's prose had become what it has always been acknowledged to be: clear, simple and fluent.
It is difficult to understand what the rest of Swinnerton's comment (about the 'child of five') can be referring to. Certainly, as we shall see, some of the events and characterizations in the novel are rather strange; but, even so, it seems difficult to find fault with Masefield's basic technical proficiency as a novelist. It is, after all, a first novel – and first novels have certain characteristic defects, mainly of tempo and spacing. Things tend to happen too quickly in the story of a novice, without sufficient attention being paid to each event. Masefield, however, handles these problems of a lengthy narrative with consummate ease. Indeed – perhaps because of his training as a reviewer – if he errs at all, it is on the side of too slavishly supplying what his readers want. Novelists at that time were, as is well known, rather prone to luxuriate in long pages of description (Conrad is a case in point) – and Masefield obediently follows suit. Not until later would he develop his own particular non-stop, "breathless" idiom and tone.
Masefield, too, does anything but the unexpected in his choice of subject and period for this, his first novel. His early articles and poems had been about the sea, which gave him an obvious precedent. The sea implies a voyage – which, in its turn, requires three things: a crew, a ship, and a destination. The destination was natural – the Caribbean coast of South America – an area which fascinated Masefield throughout his life (and whose background he knew well from having written about it in On the Spanish Main two years earlier). In order to include the buccaneers and other picturesque denizens of the coast, the era would have to be the sixteenth or seventeenth century. And, in fact, his period is the reign of James II, 1685-88.
The ship in the novel, the Broken Heart, was perhaps even more important. Masefield had a lifelong passion for sailing-ships (as opposed to 'Dirty British coasters' (Masefield, 1941, p.54)) – something which is revealed most clearly in his long poem and book devoted to the Wanderer of Liverpool. There are also numerous ships in his later novels: notably, the Bird of Dawning, in the novel of that name; and the Pathfinder, in Sard Harker (1924), which appears to the hero, Sard, in a dream, in order to lead him over a mountain-range:
He told himself, 'This is all nonsense. The Pathfinder is a ship, she has not even a figurehead, but a fiddle-head; this is a woman.
But the figure said, 'I am the Pathfinder. I can find a path for you.' (Masefield, 1963, p.211)
The partial explanation given for this appearance is that 'He had put so much of his virtue into that ship, that she was almost part of him' (1963, p.214). Ships are, indeed, seen by Masefield almost as living beings, and the Broken Heart is no exception:
An artist's heart, hungry for beauty, had seen the idea of her in dream; she had her counterpart in the kingdom of vision. There was a spirit in her, as there is in all things fashioned by the soul of man; not a spirit of beauty, not a spirit of strength, but the spirit of her builder: a Peruvian Spaniard ... She came from a man’s soul, stamped with his defects. Standing on her deck, one could see the man laid bare melancholy, noble, and wanting – till one felt pity for the ship which carried his image about the world … Some of those who had sailed in her had noticed that the caryatides of the rails, the caryatides of the quarter-gallery, and the figurehead which watched over the sea, were all carven portraits of the one woman. But of those who noticed, none knew that they touched the bloody heart of a man, that before them was the builder's secret, the key to his soul. (Masefield, 1974, pp.2-3)
In a sense, then, all the elements of the unhappy love story of Captain Margaret are already prefigured in the ship where it unfolds. The ship, indeed, is a character not, we feel, precisely shaping the action; but feeling sympathy (in the fullest sense) for those involved. 'She had housed many wandering spirits' (Masefield, 1974, p.3) – and among them are Captain Margaret and Olivia.
Even a ship with a soul requires a crew, however – and the crew of this ship is a rather curious one. There is the owner, Captain Charles Margaret, whose heart has been broken by an unhappy love affair, and who is going on a voyage to Virginia and the Caribbean to forget his sorrows. There is his companion, Edward Perrin – who is, in theory at any rate, a Rochester-like rake 'broken by excess' – an 'emotional creature, attractive and pathetic, the stick of a rocket which had blazed across heaven' (Masefield, 1974, p.7). There is the sailing-master, Captain Cammock, an old buccaneer full of reminiscences of Morgan and the old days in the West Indies. Finally there are two unexpected arrivals who turn up at the last moment – Olivia, who is Margaret's beloved, but who has rejected him; and Tom Stukeley, her husband (also a 'Captain'), a brutal and obnoxious ruffian who is only tolerated for her sake, since he can do no wrong in her eyes.
Another necessity for a novel at this time was, of course, a "love interest". Masefield mentions of an earlier novel, started in America and left unfinished when he departed for England, that he 'wished that the dull parts might get done, so that I could get my heroine aboard the lugger, whose saucy decks, alas, she never trod' (Spark, 1953, p.43). One feels that the regret is, in this case, occasioned more by the decks than by the heroine; but there is no reason to suspect that Masefield included a heroine in Captain Margaret simply as a perfunctory gesture (like the obligatory females added to Hollywood versions of classic adventure stories – from Journey to the Centre of the Earth, to King Solomon's Mines). Masefield, in fact, subtitled his book: 'A Romance', and also gave it the motto:
I thought Love lived in the hot sunshine:
But, O, he lives in the moony light.
– thus making it clear that the softer passions were at least to be extensively treated in it.
The Western tradition of Romantic love as a rule requires pursuit rather than fulfilment as a precondition for "love interest"; but Masefield was perhaps helped in his choice of a love triangle (Stukeley – Olivia – Margaret) as the specific exemplum of frustrated love in his book, by his acquaintance with French fiction, and, probably, Hedda Gabler itself (his friend Mrs. Robins, a prominent Feminist, was also one of the first lbsenite actresses in London). Though in another sense, of course, the theme is as old as Lancelot and Guinevere.
A plot summary will, I fear, be necessary in order to expound the complexities of this book. Briefly, then:
Captain Margaret, before leaving for South America in the Broken Heart, pays a last visit to Olivia, who is celebrating her honeymoon at an inn in Salcombe. Tom Stukeley, 'a cad, born a gentleman' (Masefield, 1974, p.30), who is expecting at any moment to be arrested for debt, is behaving boorishly as usual – although he does wait until Olivia is out of the room before attempting to seduce the maid.
Women were attracted by him, perhaps because he frightened them physically. His love affairs were not unlike the love affairs of python and gazelle. 'They like it,' he would say. 'They like it.' (Masefield, 1974, p.29)
Margaret's interview with Olivia – still obviously infatuated with Stukeley – is inconclusive; but it gives Stukeley an idea for a possible way out of his dilemma. When Margaret returns to the ship he is informed by Captain Cammock that a small boat is pulling out to meet them. The boat proves to contain Olivia and Stukeley, who are being chased by his creditors – but Margaret decides to wait and pick them up (the ship is on the point of sailing), despite the protests of the King's officers in pursuit. A frigate, at anchor in the harbour, fires upon them as they make good their escape.
Margaret has thus put himself on the wrong side of the law by aiding and abetting a criminal. The most remarkable thing about the whole affair, however, is that Olivia has not realized what has happened:
'It was such a race,' said Olivia. 'But we beat them. They chased us all the way from Halwell. It was such fun.' (Masefield, 1974, p.58)
Stukeley has told her that he wants to go with Captain Margaret in order to help the 'poor Indians', whose support Margaret is planning to enlist for a scheme to set up an English settlement in Darien.
'Here,' he said, drawing them aside. 'We're coming with you. I'm wanted. And I'm coming with you. She thinks I'm coming to help – to help the Indians.' He seemed to choke with laughter. He was out of breath from rowing. (Masefield, 1974, p.57)
Even Margaret feels a little doubtful about this: 'His thought was, "Can she be such a fool? Surely she must know." But at that time he knew very little of Stukeley' (Masefield, 1974, p.62). Stukeley is, that is to say, simultaneously a 'mass of mucous membrane, boorishly informed, lit only by the marsh-lights of indulged sense' (Masefield, 1974, p.29), with 'the vulgarity and the insolence of a choice English bagman' (Masefield, 1974, p.28) – and a positive Machiavelli of diabolical cunning, able to bend the wills of all he meets to his own ends.
This cunning achieves even more remarkable – and implausible – results in the days to come. The next hundred pages are devoted to an account of their progress across the Atlantic to Virginia, where Margaret intends to buy up as much as possible of the tobacco crop for his backers in England. Stukeley manages to get away with just about everything obnoxious that it would be possible for him to do in the time. Knowing his hold over Margaret, due to the latter's continuing love for Olivia, he insults all of the ship's officers with maddening insistence. His attempts to foment mutiny are fortunately forestalled by Captain Cammock, who has little patience with Margaret's policy of "tolerance" towards a ruffianly bully – but he does succeed in seducing Hrs. Inigo, Olivia's maid. He also gets drunk, consorts with common sailors, and, at one point, even inspires a mild rebuke from Olivia:
'Tom dear,' said Olivia, conscious that the man she loved had made but a poor show. 'Tom, dear. You weren't very kind. I mean. I think you hurt Captain Cammock. And you made Edward angry. He can't bear to be teased. He's not easy-tempered like you, dear. I think sometimes you forget that, don't you, Tom? You won't be cross, Tom?
'Oh, nonsense, Polly,' he said, as he took her arm to lead her below. 'Nonsense, you old pretty-eyes. I can't resist teasing Pilly; he's such an old hen. As for Cammock, he's only an old pirate. I'm not going to be ordered about by a man like that. He's no right to be at liberty.'
Olivia was pleased by the reference to her eyes, so she said no more. (Masefield, 1974, p.139)
Margaret knows that the only one who will really suffer from the exposure of Stukeley's delinquencies will be Olivia; but it eventually becomes obvious even to him that he has made a mistake in putting up with this constant insolence. Stukeley has also noticed that his welcome is wearing a little thin; and decides, as a consequence, to pretend that Olivia is pregnant – knowing that none of the others will be indelicate enough to mention it to her, and that they will all have to be especially careful not to do or say anything to upset her.
A part, at least, of this edifice of deceit does not survive their landfall in Virginia. The governor (an old friend of Margaret's father) has received an account of Stukeley's misdeeds in a dispatch from England, and requires much persuasion from Margaret – still intent on protecting Olivia – before he is prepared to let them all go. Olivia, on reading the dispatch, urges Tom to go back and clear his name; and it is only on observing his reluctance to do so that she is finally awakened to the truth of the matter. Her reaction to this discovery is, however, somewhat unexpected – she blames Margaret:
'You think, Charles. You think, because. Because I'm not very happy. That I shall not notice. But I see. Oh, I see so well. You wish to poison me against Tom. You wish me to think. That. That. Him guilty.' (Masefield, 1971, p.271)
After the governor has brutally told her that 'If he returns to England, he will be hanged', the 'dazed creature' (Masefield, 1974, p.271) is carried away. (Incidentally, the main reason why Masefield's attempts to portray "halting" speech look so strange, is because he tends to use a full stop instead of the more usual ellipsis. Thus 'Him guilty' sounds more like 'He Tarzan. You Jane', than what it is the somewhat interrupted conclusion of 'You wish me to think':
You wish me to think – that – that … him guilty.)
Margaret and his companions have now put themselves in even worse odour with the authorities – but, since he is busily preparing to put the second part of his plan into action, their disapproval is of little moment. He intends to gather together a band of pirates, and with their help to defeat the Spaniards – who would undoubtedly oppose any English settlement on the coast of Latin America. His ambitions, however, soar even beyond this:
'Who knows? This place may be another Athens some day.'
'There's not much Athens here now. The colonials aren't much like Athenians.'
'I think they're very like, Edward. They're fond of liberty. They take a beautiful pride in their bodies. They are attached to the country. They're very like Athenians. The world doesn't alter much.' (Masefield, 1974, p.248)
Such more than sanguine hopes are, of course, doomed to failure. They fail firstly because of the treachery of Stukeley. On being taken ashore to act as an interpreter between Margaret and the Spanish, he seizes the opportunity to go over to the enemy; and Margaret almost loses his life going back to look for him. A more direct cause of failure, though, is the drunkenness and indiscipline of the pirates after the final assault on the Spanish town (it is this part of the book – Chapter XII, 'The End' – which so closely resembles Masefield's earlier account (mentioned above, in Chapter Two) of Drake's raid on Porto Bello).
One good thing that does come out of their short-lived capture of the town, however, is the discovery that Stukeley has died there of yellow fever. Characteristically, he has married in the meantime 'a black-eyed, hawk-nosed woman, of a crude and evil beauty' (Masefield, 1974, p.369), and turned Papist for the purpose. Margaret spends some of his time in the town – time better spent curbing the pirates – in digging a grave for him.
The desertion of the pirates, and the consequent failure of Margaret's ambitions, marks the effective end of the novel – especially as his absconding allies have gone back to destroy the beginnings of Margaret's Darien settlement. Olivia has finally come round, however, and the curtain falls on a tender scene of reconciliation between the two lovers:
'There is no dishonour, Charles. You failed. The only glory is failure. All artists fail. But one sees what they saw. You see that in their failure.' (Masefield, 1974, p.405)
To put it mildly, then, there would appear to be some curious features in this novel which demand explanation. Why, to begin with, is the book called Captain Margaret? The name inevitably inspires expectations of a story about a female pirate – yet at no point is any particular reference made to this unusual surname. It is difficult to avoid the conviction that it must be in some way linked with Shaw's Major Barbara (1905) – but at least in that case the "piquant" contrast between a military rank and its female incumbent was sustained. Masefield's choice has no such justification. Captain Margaret is, to be sure, an effeminate sort of hero:
from long brooding on this wayward beauty who had spoiled his life, he had learned much of women. He understood them emotionally, with a clearness which sometimes frightened him. He felt that he took a base advantage of them in allowing them to talk to him. Their hearts were open books to him. (Masefield, 1974, p.23)
(That, 'sometimes frightened him', in particular, seems to imply more of an identity with women, than a mere insight into their hearts). On the other hand, he is also described as giving 'the impression of a man who had lived fully, grandly, upon many sides of life' (Masefield, 1974, p.22). His indulgence towards Olivia and Stukeley is carried almost to the point of insanity (and appears to the reader more as exaggerated self-pity and masochism than magnanimity); but he is also shown impressing his more practical piratical colleagues with his boldness and decision, leading desperate ventures, and carrying out such business "coups" as cornering the tobacco market in Virginia! Margaret is a paradox – a sort of "man-woman" by nature – and perhaps this is what is intended to be implied by his name. It is, on the one hand, a feminine name applied to a masculine character; but it is also a feminine name linked to a "masculine" office held by a man – rather than the woman which the conventional, Shavian, paradox would have us expect. It is a man with a feminine name who has an unrequited love for a woman, and has, as a consequence (he believes – he proves unable to predict Olivia's reactions), grown to understand them – almost to be one of them. Perhaps one should also point out the resemblance of the name 'Margaret' to the name 'Masefield' – but more of that later.
A greater problem is that of Stukeley (who has the same name as an actual sixteenth century privateer, 'Thomas Stucley or Stukeley (1525?–78) ... said to be a natural son of Henry VIII' (Harvey, 1975, p.787)). Stukeley is too bad to be true - coarse, brutal, lustful, insolent: 'In company he was rude to all whom he did not fear. He was more rude to women than to men, partly because he feared them less; but partly because his physical tastes were gross' (Masefield, 1974, p.29). Perhaps his association with Henry the Eighth explains his being described as 'a creature of the body':
One could not like the man; for though his body had a kind of large splendour, it was the splendour of the prize cabbage, of the prize pig, a splendour really horrible. It is horrible to see any large thing without intelligence. The sight is an acquiescence in an offence against nature. (Masefield, 1974, p.28)
He is, that is to say, a type of John Bull – Masefield's bête noire – of whom another representative is Prince Hal in Shakespeare's King Henry IV plays:
Prince Henry is not a hero, he is not a thinker, he is not even a friend; he is a common man whose incapacity for feeling enables him to change his habits whenever interest bids him ... He talks continually of guts as though a belly were a kind of wit ... There is no goodfellowship in him, no sincerity, no wholeheartedness. He makes a mock of the drover who gives him his whole little pennyworth of sugar ... When he learns that his behaviour may have lost him his prospective crown he passes a sponge over his past, and fights like a wild cat for the right of not having to work for a living. (Masefield, 1926, pp.112-13)
In short, animal man as opposed to intellectual, spiritual man – John Bull against St. George. It is a parallel which recurs throughout Masefield's work.
But this is not sufficient to explain the almost vitriolic glee with which Masefield demolishes his character. The one solitary virtue he can find for Stukeley is that 'The man loved animals; was truly kind and thoughtful with them' (Masefield, 1974, p.280). On board ship his behaviour is impossibly provocative:
He looked up as Cammock entered, took a good pull at his drink, and called to Margaret. 'You were going to have some sort of parish meeting here. Here's the beadle. Suppose you begin, and get it over.'
He took another pull at the brandy. 'Take a seat, beadle,' he said insolently. (Masefield, 1974, p.90)
He is not even allowed to be 'inventive ... in his cruelty' (Masefield, 1974, p.142). Certainly there is a failure of verisimilitude here – but it goes beyond mere inability to create a convincing character. Why is this animal man simultaneously so loathsome and so successful with women? He seems to fascinate and repel the author as much as he does the other characters – and the depth of feeling which he provokes certainly makes nonsense of this attempt by Captain Margaret to sum up Stukeley's reasons for marrying Olivia:
'Suppose a man saw a woman in his better moment, saw how beautiful and far above him she was, and loved her for that moment, truly, before falling back to his old greeds.' (Masefield, 1974, p.336)
And then there is Olivia. Continually described as a being of great refinement and sensitivity, her actions show her to be paralysingly blind and obtuse – not noticing, for example, when her husband practically rapes a maid-servant in the next room (perhaps because 'she loved her husband so dearly that to speak of him to anyone, to an innservant, for example, seemed sacrilegious to her' (Masefield, 1974, p.38)). Masefield tells us that 'She was not for the world; not at least for the world of men. She was the idea of woman; she should have been spared the lot of women' (Masefield, 1974, pp.70-71). Another way of putting this might be to say that she is beautiful but dumb – however, this fails to resolve the problem of why she is presented so contradictorily throughout: on the one hand stupid, on the other 'unspeakably refined and pure' (Masefield, 1974, p.39). One explanation is that all this refinement is in the eyes of the beholders: 'She was so strange, so mysterious, and her voice thrilled so' (Masefield, 1974, p.105) – and has little to do with her real self:
'She says nothing,' he said to himself; 'but life is often like that. I have talked with people sometimes whose bodies seemed to be corpses. And all the time they were wonderful, possessed of devils and angels.' (Masefield, 1974, p.105)
Conversely, people with bodies like angels may have nothing of consequence inside.
Masefield, however, does not confine himself to presenting her from the outside. Her mental processes are also described, and in terms which make it clear that Masefield does not mean to disparage her intellect, but simply her judgement of men:
During the voyage she had grown to dislike Margaret and Perrin, much as one dislikes the guests who have overstayed their welcome. She had been too much in the rapture of love to see things clearly, to judge character clearly; she had taken her judgements ready-made from Tom, who disliked the two men. (Masefield, 1974, p.213)
Is it love, then – apparently seen by Masefield as necessarily involving major mental aberration – which is to blame for all her obtuseness?
And yet Hugh Greene, who has reprinted Captain Margaret in his Bow Street Library series, speaks of it in terms of high praise:
One can read Captain Margaret at more than one level. It is an exciting story of adventure at the end of the seventeenth century among buccaneers on the Spanish Main, and as such it was one of my favourites when I was a boy. Now that I have re-read it after nearly fifty years it seems much more than that, a subtle study of human relationships with a sexual sophistication unusual in its time. (Masefield, 1974, p.viii)
In order to make sense of this discrepancy, it will be necessary to go beyond the discussion of surface flaws of verisimilitude and characterization to the explanations for those flaws – which I believe are to be found, in this case, in the emotional life of the author himself (insofar as this can be reconstructed from the evidence of his writings and letters).
John Masefield wrote, in 1957:
When a writer dies, some say that he was a good chap but a poor artist, & others that he sometimes wrote interestingly but brought his parents to untimely sorrowful deaths, murdered his wife, ravished Jemima in the forest, & lived in sin with 3 choir boys & the curate. (Masefield, 1983, p.177)
Discussing an author's works through the medium of his life is always a perilous matter – but it is, nevertheless, sometimes necessary in order to grasp the full sense of a particular feature or stylistic anomaly.
In the case of Captain Margaret, it might be best to begin with the question of Masefield’s attitude towards women, raised by his treatment of Olivia (always hoping to avoid the scurrilities suggested by the quotation above).
His mother, Caroline, died of pneumonia when he was only six-and-a-half. It is interesting that Masefield believed this to have been partially caused by a hunting accident. Despite having written perhaps the foremost celebration of fox-hunting in English literature, his attitude towards it remained ambivalent all his life: on the one hand, a thing of beauty – on the other, a destructive and terrifying threat. This dichotomy is highlighted by the two separate sections of Reynard the Fox – one devoted to the human hunters – the other (by far the most moving) to their quarry, the fox. He also wrote (at much the same time) a poem called 'The Hounds of Hell' (Masefield, 1920): which deals with a sort of Wild Hunt – led by Death that hunts down and kills travellers on the moors, until one of their victims, a 'saint' (St. Swithiel), turns and faces them, and discovers that their only power is fear. The huntsman proves to be 'A Woman Death':
A Woman Death that palsy shook
Stood sick and dwindling there;
Her fingers were a bony crook,
And blood was on her hair. (Masefield, 1941, p.652)
Death – and women – and hunting – are, to say the least, linked interestingly here.
With this information before us, it should come as no surprise to learn that Masefield went on to write a novel virtually consisting of anti-hunting propaganda – The Square Peg (1937). The immediate cause prompting the novel was a hunting accident in which the pack killed one of his beloved cats (the book caused so much fuss when it was published that he had to leave the neighbourhood (Smith, 1978, pp.210-11)); but one suspects that it also draws on memories of his mother especially as it is only after the death of his fiancée, Margaret, in a car-accident, that the hero – Frampton Mansell – decides to close off his wood (designated by him as a 'bird sanctuary') to the local hunt, which has met there from time immemorial.
All this should serve to point out how deeply a seemingly trivial aspect of his mother's death has affected Masefield's subsequent work. His apparent volte-face on the subject of fox-hunting mystified earlier critics – but now, with the publication of Constance Babington Smith's recent biography (which provides the clues to settle that and many other long-standing problems), it seems at least explicable. The influence her early death exerted on him was far more wide-ranging than that, however.
Masefield also wrote a famous poem about his mother, entitled 'C.L.M.', in which he reveals his guilt at having been born at all – thus causing pain to her (she had died after giving birth to her sixth child – a girl, Norah).
In the dark womb where I began
My mother's life made me a man.
Through all the months of human birth
Her beauty fed my common earth.
I cannot see, nor breathe, nor stir,
But through the death of some of her. (Masefield, 1941, pp.74-75)
Masefield sees himself as 'common earth', on which her beauty was too abundantly lavished. He also emphasizes that his existence is only possible because of the death of 'some of her'. Perhaps, by the same reasoning, the births of all her children added up to the death of "all of her".
Down in the darkness of the grave
She cannot see the life she gave.
For all her love, she cannot tell
Whether I use it ill or well,
Nor knock at dusty doors to find
Her beauty dusty in the mind.
Masefield's life must be lived in order to make him worthy of this supreme sacrifice – yet, in his opinion, this is precisely what he has not done:
What have I done to keep in mind
My debt to her and womankind?
What woman's happier life repays
Her for those months of wretched days?
For all my mouthless body leeched
Ere Birth's releasing hell was reached?
'Hell' for whom? – For the child, perhaps – but for the woman, certainly! The male is a 'leech', a parasite described in much the same terms as a cancerous growth. Nor is this 'leeching' confined to the inside of the womb:
Men triumph over women still,
Men trample women's rights at will
And man's lust roves the world untamed.
* * *
O grave, keep shut lest I be shamed.
These last lines contain elements of doctrinaire feminism (Masefield supported the suffragettes), but they are obviously also deeply felt. The unreasoning vehemence of some of the images should be enough to establish that. Masefield's body, after all, was not 'mouthless' in the womb – even though its mouth was not being used. And 'man's lust roves the world untamed' is a melodramatic way of linking 'women's rights' (voting), with women's sexuality (seen automatically as "submitting to the beastliness of men"). His guilt about his mother's death seems to have extended to the whole realm of sexuality – which he appears to have defined as men forcing themselves upon women.
The initials 'C.L.M.' refer to Masefield’s mother, but they could apply almost as well to his wife, Constance de la Cherois (pronounced 'Lashery' (Smith, 1978, p.74)) Masefield, née Crommelin. She was eleven-and-a-half years his senior, and, from the start, assumed a dominating, maternal role over their household (an early visitor described it as using 'Jan as a sort of aide-de-camp to her generalship', though she adds that 'it seems the one chance of making such a dreamer achieve anything' (Smith, 1978, p.87)). Masefield himself appears to have agreed with this – he had complained earlier, in 1900, that 'If only I could abstain from my romantic dreams of John Silver, the Spanish Main, and all the Tropic Island palm tree business I think I might succeed by and by' (Smith, 1978, p.58). He was therefore careful to stress how glad he was of this discrepancy in ages. He wrote to his sister:
She is a very wise, learned and gentle woman and you'll like her ... She is several years older than I am, God be thanked. (Smith, 1978, p.75)
and added, in the same letter, that her face was 'Very beautiful, of a rounded, calm and serious beauty, with a stateliness in it very fine to see'. Certainly very "stately" language for a young lover! (Masefield was twenty-four). To another sister he wrote, somewhat disingenuously:
My lady is slightly older than I am, which, with such a bun-headed person as myself, is a jolly good thing. (Smith, 1978, p.75)
Masefield undoubtedly did feel it to be a 'jolly good thing' – but he knew how the rest of the world would instinctively react, and therefore played down the true measure of the age difference. As it turned out, Laurence Binyon, who had introduced them, greeted the news of their engagement with 'astonishment, even dismay' (Smith, 1978, p.83).
It is a psychological commonplace that all wives have an element of the mother – but the condition is seldom so marked as in Masefield's case. From his childhood on, Masefield had been fascinated by sympathetic "older women", and – as a consequence – they abound also in his fiction: from Mrs. Cottier in Jim Davis (1911), to Caroline Louisa in The Midnight Folk (1927). These women are generally presented as friends of the hero's (deceased) mother, and stand in the relationship of "fairy godmother" to him. Now Masefield had taken the further step of marrying one of these surrogate "mothers".
Constance herself was not without emotional entanglements with a friend of the same sex; and this fact also throws an interesting light on Masefield's emotional reactions. Before meeting 'Jan', she shared a ménage in London with Isabel Fry (sister of Roger); and this relationship was, according to Babington Smith, 'the decisive factor in her life' (Smith, 1978, p.77). Constance was determined not to let marriage alter her feelings for Isabel, a resolution she recorded in a 'small private notebook', in June 1903:
I want always to cherish, honour and protect Isabel. I will try always to have leisure for her every day and I know that in order to keep the bond of friendship as close as possible that I must keep absolutely parallel with her life.
I must always be as tender as I can, always remembering the dear character that I know so well, knowing that her temperament is melancholy and that it will never be any good pretending or assuming she has forgotten what she never can forget … we shall have one meal together daily whenever possible. I will pray for her always. (Smith, 1978, p.82)
Certainly it sounds as if the feelings were stronger on Isabel's side than Constance's – who appears to be acting mainly out of pity (was the thing which 'she can never forget' the "betrayal" of Constance's getting married at all?). Masefield accepted this intrusion on their solitude à deux 'quite happily, with no tinge of jealousy, as a friend – a very close friend – of the "gentle lady" whose judgement he so utterly respected' (Smith, 1978, p.82). Isabel, however, was not so sanguine – being observed, on the wedding day, 'weeping copiously in public' (Smith, 1978, p.85).
There are a great many such semi-lesbian "friendships" in Masefield's novels – and they seem to derive principally from the fact that Masefield's excessive idealization of women could not allow them any conventional sexual outlet, without "lowering" them in his eyes. Relationships with other women were, however, perfectly acceptable; and left them on the same exalted level as before. Thus his easy acceptance of Constance's "old flame" Isabel – and thus the fact that the closest thing to a torrid love scene in Masefield's fiction is the point in Tne Street of To-Day (1911) where Rhoda Derrick creeps into bed with her friend Dora (rather reminiscent of the similarly equivocal scene in Coleridge's “Christabel"):
Presently she slipped out of bed, and crept away, and tapped at Dora's bedroom door. Her friend was awake, too. She could not sleep. Rhoda nestled in beside her, and kissed her cheek ... Neither girl slept much. They passed the night in each other's arms, not understanding very well, but frightened and a little ashamed. (Masefield, 1911, p.114)
The same thing is seen in Multitude and Solitude (1909), where Roger Naldrett virtually has to apologize for mourning his fiancée’s death, to her closest female friend (her grief being naturally assumed to be far more clean and elevated than his) (Masefield, 1927, pp.99-101 & 117-19).
The "good" women, then, in Masefield's fiction, fall into a few clearly defined groups: virgins; mothers (usually widowed mothers); and "instinctively pure" young women.
Any physical relationship with a man has a degrading effect in his eyes – and therefore the representation of a happy, functioning, heterosexual couple becomes impossible for him (for all the frequent "marriages" at the ends of his books). A woman who lives up to these standards is a goddess, to be worshipped and never, under any circumstances, touched – but one who does not is, at best, something to be patronized and pitied. Witness Captain Margaret's thoughts of Olivia:
He looked at her eyes a moment, wondering with what love they had looked at Stukeley during the night-watches. The thought came to him that she was a beautiful soiled thing, to be pitied and tenderly reproved. (Masefield, 1974, p.39)
Constance was, it must be confessed, by no means the last of Masefield's "mothers". As her looks faded (physical beauty is always closely linked to spiritual perfection in Masefield's eyes), he began to prove a fickle son. The most important of these attachments – to the actress and feminist Elizabeth Robins – ended, however, when it became clear that Masefield's feelings for her were stronger than hers for him. The poem 'C.L.M. I was actually written for and presented to her (as he himself put it: 'Your son brings you his first fruits, your first fruits' (Smith, 1978, p.103)), and the whole situation provided the inspiration for Masefield's "tormented" third novel, The Street of To-Day - in which she is presented as the sympathetic older woman, Hary Drummond, who saves the hero when his marriage breaks down. After this, Masefield kept his emotions more within bounds – and when, in his old age, he began to write an extraordinary series of love-letters, or, as Babington Smith terms them, 'affection-letters' to younger female friends 'there was nothing clandestine about these friendships' (Smith, 1978, p.214) (the most important of these correspondences, Letters to Reyna – to Audrey Napier-Smith – has recently been published (at least in part)).
This is, of course, squarely in the tradition of aging Romantic artists like Goethe and Berlioz. But Masefield (like Berlioz with his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Fournier) was content to keep the relationships sentimental and affectionate; rather than attempting physical consummation (like Goethe and Fraülein von Lewezow).
Generally speaking, as Masefield grew older, his heroines became progressively younger and more ideal – losing even the faint traces of physicality observable in Olivia. There was, however, a darker side to this adoration of women: he was pitiless to those who seemed to him in any way "impure" – to have forfeited the high privileges and equally high responsibilities of their sex through sourness, unloveliness of spirit, or openly-displayed "animal" sexuality. Thus, when his aunt – who had brought him up, but whom he disliked intensely (she is probably the model for the wicked aunt in The Tragedy of Nan, who drives Nan to murder and suicide) – slighted Constance at their first meeting, he reacted violently:
a viler and more damnable reception than Con had could not be meted out in Hell to one of the worst of the lost. That sour curse in Eve's flesh nagged at her openly and covertly and I am not going to have anything more to do with a repulsive hag so dead to the requirements of decency, courtesy and reverence ... For her to go spitting her venom at a dear lady who was also her guest is a thing I will take care she shall regret (Smith, 1978, pp.83-84).
In a similar vein is his reference to 'four slimy female reporters' at Grand Rapids on his American tour, 'all dirty and evil looking, like retired whores' (Smith, 1978, p.149). This is the evil woman, the promiscuous woman, the temptress – represented in Captain Margaret by Jessie the tavern trollop, and, more especially, by Mrs. Inigo, Olivia's maid – both of whom make every effort to encourage the embraces of the unspeakable Stukeley (even the new wife he eventually ends up with is 'of a crude and evil beauty' (Masefield, 1974, p.369)). Anna in The Widow in the Bye Street is another of them; as is Rhoda Derrick in The Street of To-Day – she seemed nice enough until the hero, Lionel, married her, but then all the poison came spewing out – leaving him to be
rescued, finally, by a pair of clean-living (and motherly) lesbians.
One could easily multiply references of this sort ad infinitum, but perhaps a few more will serve to fill out the picture. This comment, for example, dating from the time of his service as a medical orderly during the war:
I like neither them [the female staff] nor their methods, but my job is mainly with men ... we have a lot of catty young minxes who have never worked in their lives, and they have catty society ways of wheedling, when it is a question of carrying stinking blood in a bucket ... They pet the young good-looking patients and neglect the others, and so destroy both. (Smith, 1978, p.126)
In other words, either being 'petted' or being neglected by 'society minxes' is destruction for a man. There seems to be a real dislike of women implicit in this statement, and even more in his description of a woman's meeting where:
Hundreds of parochial matrons throng round to press your hand while you long for a good knobby club to clump them on the head with ... one most fearful elderly spinster who was mad, and laughed in a padded cell kind of way, came up time and time again literally almost to embrace me ...
My God it was a fearful time. (Smith, 1978, p.147)
Perhaps it is all in jest, but, even so, this horror of women's physical presence, of women's sexuality – this preference for keeping them at arm's length – must inevitably lead us to speculate whether Masefield was a heterosexual as he seemed. Was he, in fact, a repressed homosexual? What was his attitude towards men?
And, at first sight, the evidence would appear to be good for this hypothesis. For a start, there is his straightforward physical appreciation of male beauty witness the following passages from Gallipoli (1916):
They were ... the finest body of young men ever brought together in modern times. For physical beauty and nobility of bearing they surpassed any men I have ever seen; they walked and looked like the kings in old poems (Masefield, 1935, p.19).
Or, even more revealing, the 'half-naked men ... with the bronze bodies of gods', whose:
... half-nakedness made them more grand than clad men. Very few of them were less than beautiful; whole battalions were magnificent, the very flower of the world's men. They had a look in their eyes which those who saw them will never forget. (pp.165-66)
One must of course remember that this was during the war, which naturally intensified feelings of male comradeship but many of the comments in his letters also become suggestive, seen from this point of view:
I never knew I loved men so much. They are a fine lot, a noble lot. I love them all.
I never felt brotherhood before, for anybody, since I was a boy. (Smith, 1978, pp.125 & 128)
Nor is it perhaps a coincidence that on his return from France it took him a while to readjust to a female-dominated environment:
he took care to warn Constance that when he first arrived they must keep at arm's length, for he was probably soaked with germs from septic wounds ... 'The days that followed were a little sad,' she went on. 'He had got this great new experience – the first independent one since we were married. But gradually his experience became mine to me.' (Smith, 1978, p.129)
On the one hand, this new-found "comradeship" of his inspired Masefield to become, in thought at least, a "man's man”:
Goldie [G. L. Dickinson] and those other eunuchs with their messy points of view simply make me sick … To fight is bad enough, but it has its manly side, but to let the mind dwell on it and peck its carrion and write of it is a devilish unmanly thing (Smith, 1978, p.128).
On the other hand, it is interesting to note the impression which he made on other men at the same time. The reaction, for example, of some French war correspondents:
They could not understand his shy, unassuming manners. 'Mais voyons, c'est une jeune fille', they said (Smith, 1978, p.166),
wrote Neville Lytton, whose friendship 'meant a great deal to Masefield', and whom he described as 'a most winning attractive person' (Smith, 1978, p.167).
All this is strikingly reminiscent of his own character Captain Margaret, who, besides being the 'manly' comrade of men of action, also has something of the 'jeune fille' about him. Particularly on the occasion when he 'burst out crying':
'I've got such white hands. Such white hands, like a girl.' He laughed in a shrill, silly cackle. 'You must think me a silly girl,' he said. (Masefield, 1974, p.331)
Masefield, in fact, notes that Margaret's 'hands were singularly beautiful' (Masefield, 1974, p.23).
All this does perhaps add up to some homosexual (or "homoerotic") inclinations on Masefield' s part – but, in the case of his novels, with which we are principally concerned here, we must remember that (paradoxically) single-sex relationships were the easiest vehicle for expressing deep emotion in the prudish Edwardian literary atmosphere. Close, physical descriptions of heterosexual love were unthinkable – and the innocent aura surrounding male "comradeship" made the most excessive expressions of it seem quite natural and "clean". The same holds true for the lesbian friendships in Masefield's fiction.
It is also true that Masefield's strongest feelings for men seem to have been expressed in the comparatively mild form of hero-worship. That, in fact, he was just as prone to put men on pedestals as his "ideal" women. 'I don't know what it is in such men,' he wrote of Sir Douglas Haig (!) 'it is partly a very fine delicate gentleness and generosity, and then partly a pervading power and partly a height of resolve. He made me understand Sidney and Fairfax and Falkland and all those others, Moore and the rest ... No enemy could stand against such a man. He took away my breath' (Smith, 1978, p.165). I don't think that it would be an appreciable exaggeration to say that Masefield had "fallen in love" with Haig – just as, earlier, with another general, Sir Ian Hamilton, whom he compared to Roland (Smith, 1978, p.158). Perhaps his strongest infatuation of this type was with the poet W. B. Yeats, however:
One saw at once that he was unlike anyone else in the world ...
His hands were the most lovely of his time;
His greeting, of the right hand gravely lifted,
Half, benediction, half, old courtesy,
Was such as Hector might have given in Troy (Smith, 1978, p.60).
He also greatly admired Swinburne – that is, until he actually saw the aging Master – whose appearance failed to match his reputation: 'The magnificent head was all that remained of the prophet and seer; the rest was a little shrunken stalk' (Masefield, 1967, p.vi). Masefield was not a public-school boy, but he seems to have imbibed something of the same spirit during his period as an apprentice aboard the training-ship Conway. Perhaps the first male for whom he felt such admiration was the apprentice 'H. B.', who, during Masefield' s first term as a 'new chum', 'invited Jack – to his amazement and joy – to "spin some ghost yarns" for him' (Smith, 1978, p.20). Other senior boys on the ship 'kindled his adoration' in a similar way.
The addition of this element to our discussion of Captain Margaret certainly helps to resolve some of the most notable problems in the text. Masefield's intense appreciation of male beauty – attested to by Gallipoli, and by other works, both early and late (such as the 'superb men, dark as dark-brown horses', who 'have such beauty in their supple strength' (Masefield, 1941, p.1110), in 'The Spanish Main', a poem written in 1936) – is always linked to some (supposed) spiritual quality. Thus the 'coarsely coloured face' of Tom Stukeley, which 'passed for beauty' (Masefield, 1974, p.29), 'seen ... so often, full of life and health, going with a laugh to sin, in the pride of the flesh' (Masefield, 1974, p.369), upsets his expectations, and inspires a sort of "attraction-repulsion" in him.
Stukeley represents a single raging volcano of sexuality in the repressed atmosphere of the Broken Heart:
his physical tastes were gross, so that he found pleasure in all horse-play – such as the snatching of handkerchiefs or trinkets, or even of kisses – in gaining which he had to touch or maul his victims, whether protesting or acquiescent. Women were attracted by him, perhaps because he frightened them physically. (Masefield, 1974, p.29)
It is, however, not so much Masefield, as his inferior, exaggerated shadow: Captain Margaret – the 'silly girl', whose 'fancy' it was 'in the latter years of his passion [for Olivia], to sublime all human experience, to reduce all action to intellectual essence, as an offering to her' (Masefield, 1974, p.24) – who feels attracted to Stukeley.
Olivia, of course – like all women – prefers the animal magnetism of Stukeley to the 'sublimated' intellect of Margaret. (As Yeats put it:
It's certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone. (Yeats, 1977, p.212))
And it is perhaps this which prompts Margaret – the man with a woman's name, who 'understood them emotionally, with a clearness which sometimes frightened him' – to look on his rival with new eyes.
Hugh Greene has already described Edward Perrin, Margaret's companion, as a 'shy and frail little homosexual' – citing in justification that Olivia recognised him as 'the nearest thing to a lady in the ship' (Masefield, 1974, pp.viii-ix) (he could have added the long scene – on pp.133-34 – where Perrin discusses the dress he would like to design for Olivia) – and ignoring (rightly, in my opinion) 'his one hopeless passion, as he called it': 'the memory of a woman who had once refused his offer of marriage' (Masefield, 1974, pp.6-7). Masefield has, in fact, made the identification easy, since he adds 'He had not loved the woman, for he was incapable of love; he was only capable of affection', and goes on to say:
He hated men, and loved his master [Captain Margaret] 'whom he worshipped with touching loyalty; he despised women, in spite of his memory of a woman; but he found individual women more attractive than they would have liked to think. (pp.6-7)
Greene, however, does not take the next step, and observe the kinship in the temperaments of master and man. He sees Margaret as firmly in love with Olivia, and Perrin with Margaret – not realizing that Perrin's relationship with Margaret is much like his relationship with Olivia – based on a recognition of the affinity of their temperaments, rather than on actual physical attraction. (Stukeley is not fooled, though – it is to this that he is referring when he tells Margaret: 'You ought to have been a woman. Then you could have married that damned fool Perrin' (Masefield, 1974, p.123)).
The real object of Perrin's affection is, I believe, the old buccaneer, Captain Cammack. I deduce this from the attentiveness with which he attends to his needs – refilling his glass, encouraging his anecdotes:
'You're a thoughtful young fellow to me,' said Captain Cammock, regarding him with favour. (Masefield, 1974, p.96)
The attraction, however, is not mutual: 'His thought was, "You'd make a steward, perhaps, boiled down a bit"; but this he kept to himself' (p.96). Cammock is sentimentally in love with Olivia; and with the past:
he lived very much in his past, thinking that such a thing, done long ago, was fine, and that such a man, shot long since, outside some Spanish breastwork, was a great man, better than the men of these days, braver, kindlier. (Masefield, 1974, p.140)
Captain Margaret – against his will and against his better judgement – is unmistakably fascinated by the gross physicality of Stukeley, who senses the truth of the matter and uses it as an additional taunt to goad him with, always calling him 'Maggy':
You'll lick my boots, Maggy. And hers. Lick, lick, lick, like a little crawling cat ... Don't go, Maggy. I'm just beginning to love you. (Masefield, 1974, p.124)
Both Stukeley and Margaret continue to pretend, nevertheless, that his only hold over Margaret is as Olivia's husband – though in passages like the one above the pretence is wearing a little thin: 'Olivia shall let you kiss her hand, shall she. Or no, you shall have a shoe of hers to slobber over, or a glove' (Masefield, 1974, p.125).
This heightened tension between Margaret and Stukeley communicates itself even to Olivia, and accounts for her otherwise inexplicable hostility towards her erstwhile suitor: 'Tom, I don't think they've been straightforward with us. There's something hidden. I'm sure of it' (Masefield, 1974, p.243). She feels jealous of her (aptly-named) Tom, without knowing exactly whom to fear, and without knowing that he has despised her all along.
Stukeley, in fact, behaves much like a homosexual tart at a public-school – spreading dissension among all those to whom he offers his favours, while remaining emotionally aloof himself. He is, in fact, a tease – since the people who attract him (barmaids and sluts, for the most part) are not the people who will help him remain alive, at liberty, and out of debt (he married Olivia for her money before he discovered the powers of 'the trustees of her father's estate, who viewed him with no favour' (Masefield, 1974, p.30)). This is noticeable also in his relations with the crew - particularly the second mate, Mr. Iles, whom he incites (purely for his own amusement) to defy Captain Cammock, thus causing him to lose his rank and privileges. There is a most curious scene where Stukeley encourages the sailors to have a 'leg-showing' contest which has definite unspoken undercurrents of trying to win his "favour" (Masefield, 1974, pp.150-53).
Stukeley has to balance a lot of claims against each other – and, like all "proud beauties" who promise more than they can perform, he always has to bear in mind the danger he runs from disappointed suitors.
Stukeley is not a nice man, but he is in a minority of one aboard the Broken Heart – the only active heterosexual among a society of introspective intellectuals, who have perhaps not 'sublimated' their instincts as much as they would like to think. Even the crew – lacking the company of the opposite sex – have been driven to the traditional Naval expedients of "rum, sodomy and the lash". Some of his protests against the sort of company he is forced to keep obviously come from the heart:
'Don't you like intellectual people, Stukeley?'
'I don't like prigs, and I don t like bluestockings, and I don't like –'
'People who care for beautiful things? Is that it?'
… 'I'd like my dinner in peace, without a lot of cross-examination. Talk about beauty with Perrin there. He likes to hear you. I don't.'
'No,' said Perrin, 'No, Stukeley. I shouldn't think you ever liked to hear of anything noble.' (Masefield, 1974, pp.163-65)
In face of this sort of sanctimonious condescension, Stukeley's reactions are at least comprehensible, though perhaps not laudable. He is disgusted by the hypocrisy of those who pretend to be so far above him, and yet cannot conceal their fascination with his "animal" nature – easy, pleasure-loving, sensual. He uses them, but despises them:
Stukeley watched him with amused contempt; he laughed. 'Maggy's in a paddy,' he said. 'No, Maggy. I'm a married man, now, ducky. I've gone into the stud.' (Masefield, 1974, p.123)
Stukeley fears that 'Maggy ... might turn sullen, and give him up in spite of Olivia' (p.127) prove groundless, however. Margaret carries toleration of his "favourite" to an absurd degree – putting up with his insolence and insubordination during the voyage; refusing to allow him to be arrested in Virginia (though it is by no means clear how this benefits Olivia, whom he is ostensibly protecting); even – the final absurdity – trusting Stukeley, a noted malcontent and actual mutineer (!), to act as his interpreter and chief negotiator with the Spanish.
Stukeley knows the largely discreditable emotions which lie behind this "tolerance" – and therefore exploits it, rather than faking any gratitude for the "indulgence" extended to him. He betrays the whole crew with perfect equanimity, and goes over to the Spanish; who are, at least, people he can understand. Margaret's disproportionate reaction at the news betrays the depth of his feelings. He refuses to believe that Stukeley is a traitor, and is almost killed going back to "rescue" him. His excessive grief – it is at this point that he calls himself a 'silly girl' – has to be charitably explained away as chagrin at not having guarded Olivia's husband better!
The interesting thing about Captain Margaret is that it is written entirely from the point of view of one of the two parties in a debate. It is the Margarets and Perrins who are sustained at every clash of opinion. Yet, paradoxically, it is an honest book – the author argues for one side, but he cannot prevent his "good" characters from revealing their deeper motivations with every word they utter. He is sure they are in the right – but is too honest to alter the evidence, even when it seems to call for sympathy for the unspeakable Stukeley. It is perhaps this which Hugh Greene meant when he spoke of the book's 'sexual sophistication' – not so much that Masefield is laying a sophisticated trap for his readers; but that he is, almost against his own will, giving us the clue to a labyrinth in which he himself was embroiled.
There remains something more to be said about Captain Margaret, however. The "homosexual hypothesis", though it undoubtedly gives us part of the answer, does not give it all. For that, we must go deeper into Masefield’s intentions for the book.
Masefield, after all, seems to have been largely successful in sublimating his own feelings into the appreciation of abstract "beauty". One of the most predominant themes in his writing is the extent to which all forms and beauties are mere foreshadowings of some higher reality elsewhere. This obsession with the thing behind the thing – the "idea", or Platonic archetype – can be observed in his attitudes towards ships, ballet, the countryside, and the physical beauty of both men and women (even, at times, the spectacle of a fox-hunt). He described his favourite ship, the Wanderer, as being:
Tense, like a supple athlete with lean hips,
Swiftness at pause ...
Come as of old a queen, untouched by Time,
Resting the beauty that no seas could tire,
Sparkling, as though the midnight's rain were rime,
Like a man’s thought transfigured into fire. (Masefield, 1941, p.372)
The very mixture of images – a "suggestively" posed athlete, a queen, a thought – seems to show how all these things merged into a single principle in Masefield's mind (it would be irrelevant, within the bounds of a critical study, to decide whether or not the same was true of his life). A perhaps slightly absurd, though telling, illustration of this is in the poem 'Tristan's singing', where the lovers Tristan and Isolt, instead of physically consummating their union, are translated into spirits at the moment of climax, and go about 'blessing sorrowing men' (Masefield, 1941, p.983).
Others may long for something a little more concrete – but that was the ideal after which Masefield strove. It therefore seems rather unlikely that he would write so extensive and serious a novel as Captain Margaret simply as a homosexual roman à clef. I say 'simply' because I believe that much of the novel is inexplicable on any other hypothesis – but I also believe there to be another, deeper, level present as well.
I have said that Margaret is an 'inferior, exaggerated shadow' of his creator – and perhaps the most fruitful wav to see Captain Margaret is as a kind of symbolic, Psychomachia – presenting the forces at conflict within a single human soul.
This is not to say that the novel is intended allegorically – but rather that the major characters are best interpreted as condensed aspects of the psyche of (presumably) their creator.
Margaret, of course, is the purified intellect – or, more specifically, the rationalized, externally-imposed code of behaviour which goes to make up the Freudian "superego". To put the thing entirely in his own terms, he 'was one of the few who had escaped from the world, escaped from that necessity for tooth and claw which is nature; and ... by being no longer natural, instinctive, common, he had risen to something higher, to a point from which he could regard the pirate as an interesting work of art' (Masefield, 1974, pp.194-95). There is still something missing, though – something denied; repressed – he still envies the pirate's freedom from restraint.
At the opposite pole is Stukeley – the "id", or Jungian "shadow". He is free, coarse, unrestrained, sensual, savage – the perfect example of emotion without intellect only a primitive dark cunning, without scruple or remorse. He is the Mr. Hyde to Margaret's Dr. Jekyll (or, perhaps, his 'secret sharer') and, as in Stevenson's novel, we tend to prefer the dark side to the light.
There is no underlying centre, no ego, to the book – the book itself, ideally (or the impression it produces in the reader's mind), should constitute that. Stukeley alone can remain static – self-contained and self-obsessed. Margaret is torn between his passion to move upwards – to love an ideal, an Olivia – and his fascination with Stukeley: in effect, with the darker side of himself. He shudders, like Shakespeare (Sonnet 144) to see his 'angel' and his 'devil' combine:
her child would be a monster, a goat-footed boy, a Stukeley. He shuddered to think of the child's hair, curling and black like the father's hair, negro hair; his nerves were shaken ... No man's love could bear that, could forgive that; though it glorified her, in a way, and made her very sacred. (Masefield, 1974, p.186)
Like the ritual prostitutes in an Eastern temple; like the King's daughter given up to the beast, 'it glorified her, in a way, and made her very sacred'.
Extrinsic explanations cannot make Captain Margaret a good novel, but they can point out some of the complexities which are undoubtedly there. Masefield failed to project the Othello-like tragedy of "larger-than-life" passions and personalities which I believe him to have intended – but he wrote, nevertheless, better than he knew. Much of the novel remains puzzling because Masefield himself could not explain it – but that is no reason for us not to try. Masefield, after all, was not just Captain Margaret: he was Stukeley as well. And while Margaret may have been holding the pen and shaping the sentences – it is Stukeley who lies at the heart of the action.
Captain Margaret is a novel about love, insofar as it provides a critique of the Romantic theory of love – from the hand of one of its staunchest adherents Margaret 's worship of Olivia – and denial of her physical needs – is, ultimately, self-defeating; for all their "happy ending" in each other's arms. Stukeley is an extreme – but he represents a factor that has been denied too long and cannot, ultimately, be entirely suppressed. It is the immaculate whiteness of Margaret and Olivia that makes their shadow stretch so black and long.
1. He was speaking of a slightly earlier period.
3. Reynard the Fox (1919) – see also the essay on 'Fox Hunting', originally published as a preface to the poem, in Recent Prose (1924).
4. Another example is Mr. Hampden's 'elderly lady friend' in A Book of Discoveries (1910). Mary Drummond, In The Street of To-Day, is an old friend of Lionel's mother.
5. Two comments telescoped.
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- Harvey, Sir Paul, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 4th ed. Rev. Dorothy Eagle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.
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