[John Masefield (1930)]
Two Novels of Contemporary Life
'There was only one question to those men, the condition-of-England question'
(Masefield, 1919, p.10)
Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, writes, on the eve of his departure for Paris:
I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. (Levin, 1974, p.252)
There is, however, a rather interesting near-parallel to this statement in the remark of an earlier fictional "writer" – Roger Naldrett, in John Masefield's Multitude and Solitude (1909). He says, of 'a literary life':
That life, if it be in the least worthy, is consecrated to the creation of the age's moral consciousness. (Masefield, 1927, p.172)
The remarks are similar, but the effects they give are quite different. They both contain roughly the same idea – 'conscience' for 'consciousness' and 'race' for 'age' are not sufficiently disparate to make much difference to the meaning – but the two tones of voice could hardly be more at variance. Joyce's is bold, impetuous – almost arrogant in the strength of its enthusiasm. Masefield's, on the other hand, sounds pious, a little smug, and rather boringly "earnest".
The dichotomy may seem to be harshly presented, but there is, nevertheless, a reason for this distinction, and it is one which is not wholly favourable to Joyce. A few pages earlier, in his famous conversation with Lynch, Stephen had outlined various aspects of his aesthetic theory, among them his belief that:
The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak ... The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.
– Trying to refine them also out of existence, said Lynch. (Levin, 1974, p.221)
The somewhat irreverent remarks of Lynch provide an ironic commentary or chorus – a sort of 'Damn braces. Bless relaxes' (Keynes, 1948, p.185) – on the young Stephen's intense and ideal intellectualism. Lynch goes on to say:
– What do you mean ... by prating about beauty and the imagination in this miserable Godforsaken island? No wonder the artist retired within or behind his handiwork after having perpetrated this country. (p.221)
Lynch, in other words, is trying to keep the discussion in the realm of the concrete – to examine the motives of the 'artist' in his everyday life, rather than in his imagined subordination to the 'mystery of aesthetic' (p.221). And even Stephen is forced to acknowledge that such a level does indeed exist:
– As for that, Stephen said in polite parenthesis, we are all animals. I also am an animal.
– You are, said Lynch.
– But we are just now in a mental world, Stephen continued. The desire and loathing excited by improper aesthetic means are really not aesthetic emotions not only because they are kinetic in character but also because they are not more than physical. (p.213)
And this is, of course, perfectly respectable intellectually. If one did happen to be discussing things on the physical level, a lot would be relevant that, as it is, serves merely as a distraction to the theoretician.
Nevertheless, while one can hardly reject the concept of intellectual registers as such, there is still a good deal to be said for questioning the motives of those who seem determined to confine themselves exclusively to the plane of the ideal and theoretical. "How do you, yourself, justify being an artist in this country, Ireland, at this particular moment?" is what Lynch is really asking (most of the time). And, while one suspects that Stephen is right to ignore so comprehensive and unanswerable a question (if there is an answer at all, it lies in the Portrait as a whole – the later Joyce's synthesis of his early life), one also feels that Lynch has some justice on his side.
Masefield, in Multitude and Solitude, has attempted to answer precisely this question of Lynch's – only in the case of Roger Naldrett it is a semi-successful playwright and novelist who is trying to justify himself and his position in society. His comments and theories are desperately sincere – and bear directly on the real world, since Roger and Masefield were in such closely parallel situations. One feels that it is not really possible to disentangle the two when Roger says:
An artist had no right to create at pleasure, ignoble types and situations, fixing fragments of the perishing to the walls of the world, as a keeper nails vermin ... Great art called such work 'sin,' 'denial of the Holy Ghost,' 'crucifixion of our Lord.' (Masefield, 1927, p.53)
And yet, it is more as if Masefield is trying out the idea than actually committing himself to a particular point of view. His is a "novel of ideas" only in the sense that various ideas are expounded in it at different times. One feels no sense of a synthesis – of a guiding purpose. It is more as if the book is an experimental culture for testing bacilli – with the pious hope that only those best fitted to defend themselves will survive.
Roger expounds the basic dilemma facing Masefield (and himself) in this way:
an artist is concerned above all things with moral ideas. He is not limited, or should not be, to particular truths. His word is the entire world, reduced, by strict and passionate thinking, to its imaginative essence ... At the same time, there is nothing the man of thought desires so much as to be a man of action ... Byron went liberating Greece. Chaucer was an ambassador; Spenser a sort of Irish R.M.; Shakespeare an actor-manager and money-lender, or, as some think, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Writing alone is not enough for a man. (Masefield, 1927, pp.142-43)
The first part of this statement is rather reminiscent of Joyce – the two share, at any rate, an equally high sense of the artist's responsibility; and neither believes him to be confined to narrow sectarian concerns. 'There is nothing topical in good literature' (Masefield, 1927, p.20), as Roger had intimated earlier, or, even more revealing: 'for a military man, who merely wants food for powder, for no grand creative principle, I would not write even if the Nicaraguans were battering St. Paul's' (p.140).
The second part, though – about the 'man of action' – is venturing into realms that Joyce left strictly alone. Why does a man write? And how does he fit himself for writing? Roger feels little doubt about the artist's ideal function:
My province is to induce emotion ... My work is to find out certain general truths in nature, and to express them, in prose or verse, in as high and living a manner as I can. (Masefield, 1927, p.136)
And it is for this reason that he does not 'believe in mixing art with propaganda' (p.136). How a man is to reach that high level is, however, a rather more difficult question. Nevertheless, the fact remains, 'Without action we are stagnant. If you sit down to write, day after day, for months on end, you can feel the scum growing on your mind' (Masefield, 1927, p.173). (Here, one suspects, one is hearing the experience of Masefield himself). Roger now enriches his list of Byron, Chaucer and Shakespeare with a still more illustrious predecessor:
Homer never existed, of course, but the old idea of a poet's being blind is very significant. Poets must have been men of action, like the other men of their race. They only became poets when they lost their sight, or ceased ... to be efficient in the musters, when, in fact, their lives were turned inwards. Nowadays that is changed, Heseltine. A man writes because he has read, or because he is idle, or greedy, or vicious, or vain, for a dozen different reasons; but very seldom because his whole life has been turned inward by the discipline of action, thought, or suffering. (Masefield, 1927, pp.172-73)
That last series of motivations for writing 'nowadays' rather resembles Freud's famous statement about the artist: 'He desires to win honour, power, wealth, fame and the love of women; but he lacks the means for achieving these satisfactions. Consequently, like any other unsatisfied man, he turns away from reality and transfers all his interest, and his libido too, to the wishful constructions of his life of phantasy' (Freud, 1978, p.423). Roger, too, sees the danger in the artist's turning away entirely from reality – from life in the world – and argues about it with his companion, Lionel Heseltine, who is, himself, a real 'man of action' – a scientist – just back from Africa, where he has been combatting sleeping sickness:
'Good God, Heseltine, it seems to me terrible that a man should be permitted to write a play before he has risked his life for another, or for the State.'
'Well,' said Lionel, picking up his cigarette ... 'Yes. But look here. I met
that French poet fellow, Mongeron, the other day ... He said that action was unnecessary to the man of thought, since the imagination enabled him to possess all experience imaginatively.'
'Yes. I know that pleasant theory. I agree,' said Roger. 'But only when action has formed the character.' (Masefield, 1927, pp.173-74)
Mongeron's position is basically that of Freud – the artist can achieve 'through his phantasy what originally he had achieved only in his phantasy – honour, power and the love of women' (Freud, 1978, p.424) – though Mongeron's view of what he hopes to achieve is a little more elevated. Roger, however, feels that this is too simple – that it is the formation of character which is the essential thing, and that this can only be accomplished by active involvement in life:
I begin to think that a writer without character, without high and austere character, in himself, and in the written image of himself, is a panderer, a bawd, a seller of Christ. (Masefield, 1927, p.173)
Lionel and Roger, indeed, sound almost like the representatives of C. P. Snow's 'Two Cultures' having a debate – only with the normal positions reversed. Roger has been seized with a passion for 'action', for getting in the thick of it, and he has begun to suspect that 'Science, so cleanly and fearless, was doing the poet's work, while the poet, taking his cue from Blake, maligned her with the malignity of ignorance' (Masefield, 1927, p.156) – even though 'He knew so little of science that his thought of it was little more than a consideration of sleeping sickness' (p.157). Lionel, on the other hand, would 'give the world to be able to write. To write poetry. Or I'd like to be able to write a play' (p.165). He has read a book by Roger, which impressed him greatly:
'That was a fine book. I liked your little word-pictures.'
'I am sorry you liked that book. It is very crude. I remember Ottalie was down on me for it.' (Masefield, 1927, p.167)
(Ottalie is Roger's fiancée – and guiding star).
Roger's "practical" concern for what a man should do in order to be a worthy artist proves, therefore, to be largely theory. The real 'man of action' – Lionel – only tolerates him because Lionel, in his turn, has been greatly impressed by a 'crude' and superseded book of Roger's. Each admires the other as a result of his own ignorance – a somewhat uncertain basis for successful emulation. Nor does either of them change his way of thinking appreciably during the course of the narrative. Roger remains an amateur scientist – a 'griff' – who gets results by intuition rather than scientific method:
'But did you look at the blood microscopically?'
'No,' said Roger, ashamed. 'I looked at my sera for streptococci.'
'You juggins!' said Lionel. 'Yet you come out and land on a cure. Well, well! You're a lucky dog.' (Masefield, 1927, p.290)
And Lionel remains as inartistic as ever. ('They're not bad at all,' Roger had said of some of his verses earlier in the story. 'You haven't got much ear; but that's only a matter of training. People can always write well if they are moved or interested' (p.167) – rather damning him with faint praise!)
Perhaps, then, after all, there is something to be said for Joyce's notion of concentrating on the difficulties of writing rather than the supposed consequences of being a writer. Taking some decisive action in your personal life – Stephen's (and Joyce's) departure for Paris at the end of the Portrait, for instance – is one thing. Theorizing about the necessity for action, and then acting on the strength of your theories (like Roger) is quite another.
Nor is Joyce's decision to present his aesthetic theory in so 'static' a fashion the result of any hasty decision. The earlier version of the book, Stephen Hero, is – in its mode of presentation, at any rate – far more analogous with Multitude and Solitude:
the aesthetic theory with which we are familiar in the Portrait is already fully outlined in Stephen Hero ... In the Portrait Stephen outlines his aesthetic programme in a conversation with Lynch, and the intellectual integrity and hardness of Stephen's ideas are contrasted with the coarse ejaculations and comments of his companion ... But ... Stephen merely expounds his views; we are made to feel that he is so convinced of their truth that it doesn't in the least matter to him whether anybody else agrees with him or not ...
Not so the younger Stephen of the present text. To him the setting forth of his ideas is a matter of great personal importance, and he delivers them, not in the casual form of a conversation with a friend, but in the form of a public paper to a literary society; it is a public event, an event for which Stephen prepares with great care ... in the present text [the theory] is expounded kinetically. Stephen is personally interested in the success of his paper, his intellectual fortunes seem to depend on it, and we are moved – not necessarily to do something – but to sympathy and concern for the outcome. The later text is, as usual, more mature, and shows Joyce, as the earlier version does not, illustrating his theory by his practice. (Theodore Spencer, "Introduction," in Joyce, 1961, pp.14-16)
In other words, the truly Joycean "novel of ideas" does not just introduce them artfully into the conversation, but must weave them into the very structure of the book. Stephen Hero does not live up to this ideal because the techniques it employs are too conventional – scenes, confrontation, clashes of interest:
In the manuscript Stephen does, to be sure, discuss his aesthetic theory with a friend ... But it is interesting to note that the friend is Cranly, not Lynch, that the conversation comes long after the main theory is expounded in the public essay, and that Stephen is personally disappointed in Cranly's failure to be interested in the argument. (Joyce, 1961, p.15)
The techniques employed in Multitude and Solitude are on a more rudimentary level still. They can be summed up under three basic headings:
Dialogue – as Dr. Johnson put it: 'It is indeed much more easy to form dialogues than to contrive adventures. Every position makes way for an argument, and every objection dictates an answer. When two disputants are engaged upon a complicated and extensive question, the difficulty is not to continue, but to end the controversy' (Johnson, 1912, 1:147). With Masefield, too, it is much easier to talk about ideas than to embody them effectively in the action. Dinner parties, tea parties, and even strolls in the woods, become mere vehicles for impromptu monologues – and Socratic dialogues – between the author's mouthpiece and whoever happens to be serving as his foil.
The second technique is a little more difficult to define one hesitates to label it simply as suspense, action, or adventure. It is the faculty that Masefield undoubtedly possessed of getting his readers involved in the adventures and tribulations of a single hero. One of Masefield's major disabilities as a novelist, actually, was his lack of any sort of detachment – ironic or otherwise – from his characters. He identifies with the "good" and relentlessly blackens the "bad" ones (there is never very much difficulty in working out which is which) – and this leads him, on occasion, into condoning some quite remarkable behaviour on the part of his "chosen people". While this defect tends to cripple Masefield as a serious novelist (particularly as a novelist of "ideas" – which depend largely on detachment), it is of considerable use to him as an adventure writer. His books are always at their best when one hero – Sard Harker, for example; or one of his boy heroes – is presented in conflict with a hostile world (as is the case in Multitude and Solitude when Roger is left to shift for himself in the middle of Africa).
The third technique is simple description – and, again, it is something that Masefield does very well. Not for him the "purple patches" and lengthy word-pictures of a Conrad or a W. H. Hudson. His.descriptions tend to support very well the underlying machinations of the plot, and help to create a richness of atmosphere which does much to offset his other shortcomings:
The bones were covered with lichen now; but the skull grinned at Roger friendlily, as it had often grinned. Riding on, and glancing back over his shoulder, at risk of going into the ditch, he saw the skull's eyes fixed upon him. (Masefield, 1927, p.94)
Some of the best descriptions in the whole book, however, are of dreams – which Masefield always handles superbly, with just the right blend of the inconsequential and the significant:
He ceased to fumble at the net. He began to see an endless army of artillery going over a pass. The men were all dark; the guns were all painted black; the horses were black. They were going uphill endlessly, endlessly, endlessly. He cried out to them to stop that driving, to do anything rather than go on and on and on in that ghastly way. Instantly they changed to tsetses, riding on dying cattle. They were giant tsetses, with eyes like cannon-balls. An infernal host of trypanosomes wriggled around them. The trypanosomes were wriggling allover him. A giant tsetse was forcing his mouth open with a hairy bill, so that the trypanosomes might wriggle down his throat. A flattened trypanosome, tasting.as flabby as jelly, was swarming over his lips. (Masefield, 1927, p.197)
That 'tasting as flabby as jelly' is worth a whole paragraph on the poetic imagination in itself!
The one great failing in Masefield's novels is their lack of what might be called "significant structure". As we have seen above, he was perfectly competent in the various major branches of the novelist's art – narrative excitement, dialogue, description – but he lacked the ability (possessed in such overflowing measure by Joyce) to link all these elements together, and subordinate them to an overarching design. Unfortunately, this is the one talent that a novelist must not lack:
It's a writer's business to develop an infallible sense for the proper size and length of a work; the beauty of the novella and novel is essentially architectural, the beauty of proportion. (Le Guin, 1979, p.111)
Nevertheless, like most writers, Masefield was well aware of his own principal failings, and was quite ingenious in avoiding them. His usual expedients in his later novels were either to employ first-person narration (as in Dead Ned and its sequel Live and Kicking Ned (1938 & 1939)), which supplies a sort of natural structuring device – the exigencies of memory – in itself; or to concentrate on the fortunes of a single hero or protagonist almost to the exclusion of all else: Sard Harker (1924), Odtaa (1925), Basilissa (1940). Another successful variation on this device was to devote a whole book to the reactions of his hero to a single crisis, lasting a few hours or days: The Bird of Dawning (1933), Victorious Troy (1935). This latter book, which deals with a ship struck by a hurricane, is rather reminiscent of Conrad's Typhoon (1903), or, more particularly – presumably as an analogue rather than an antecedent – of Richard Hughes' In Hazard (1938).
In the present novel, Multitude and Solitude, Masefield does not so much resolve his problems by embodying them in the form of fiction, as create a principal character to argue about them, and test out the various proposed solutions to them "in the field". It is no accident that Roger's obsession with sleeping sickness parallels the young Masefield's desire to become a doctor in order to fight yellow fever:
To be a doctor and to work at yellow fever, that hope shone like a star. I had been brought up in a generation which had suffered much from yellow fever. De Lesseps' Canal scheme had been wrecked by it. Cape Horn was still made necessary by it. I had known many sailors who had seen it at close quarters, and had shuddered at its deadliness and mystery. I had had a friend suddenly killed by it. I longed to work at that enemy, and to help to find 'its unseen, small, but million-murdering cause'. (Masefield, 1941c, p.95)
It was the discovery of poetry – the works of Chaucer, Keats and Shelley – which deterred him from this ambition; though he did later (in 1923) describe the discovery by Sir Ronald Ross of 'the part played by the mosquito in conveying the malarial parasite' as 'the greatest thing done in our time by one man' (Handley-Taylor, 1960, p.18). In 1909, in the state of depression and overwork described in Chapter Three of this study, it was natural for Masefield – a writer who seemed unable to achieve a real, substantial success – to resume his old plans, and to dream of a freer, more satisfying life of "service to mankind". This cannot be called "escape" in the sense in which we applied it to Childers' The Riddle of the Sands, since Masefield is testing his plan in action, in the pages of a novel, rather than using it simply as the excuse to indulge in largely irrelevant adventures.
The purpose of this preamble, then, has been to clarify precisely what sort of "discussion of ideas" can be expected from Masefield's two early 'condition-of-England' (or of contemporary society) novels – Multitude and Solitude and The Street of To-Day (1911) – so that one can concentrate on their very real virtues, without too much reference to their faults of comprehensive structure. Joyce is, of course, a better novelist – but the virtues of the Portrait lie more in ruthless selectivity than in wide-ranging "human sympathy" (though this is undoubtedly present – perhaps in a greater measure than in the unfortunately fragmentary Stephen Hero). Masefield's merits lie in his inclusiveness – the interest inherent in each separate plot-line, rather than in its direct contribution to the whole. Both are writing "autobiographically" – but Masefield in a spirit of openness and experiment; Joyce with magisterial condescension – definitively.
The novel Multitude and Solitude opens with Roger Naldrett watching the failure of his tragedy, A Roman Matron, on stage. As I have already stressed, Roger represents not so much Masefield himself, as a sort of dramatization of the various options that lay before him at that particular time, 1909. Like Masefield, Roger is a playwright (The Matron sounds a little like a mixture of The Tragedy of Nan and The Tragedy of Pompey the Great) and novelist (we are told that 'His agent sent him a very welcome cheque for £108, for his newly completed novel' (Masefield, 1927, p.54); and Roger has mentioned, a little earlier, that 'I've a novel half finished: I told you the fable, I think' (p.27) – respectively, Captain Margaret, and Multitude and Solitude itself?). He has also published a book of sketches, entitled The Handful, of which we are told that they 'had been self-conscious experiments in style, detached, pictorial presentation of crises, clever things in their way, but startling, both in colour and in subject, the results of moods, not of perfected personality' (p.53). They sound, in short, more like Dubliners than either A Mainsail Haul or A Tarpaulin Muster. This is not simply the result of wishful thinking, however – Roger Naldrett is a more mainstream, less specifically "nautical" writer than Masefield – perhaps in order to make him more representative; a more standard yardstick against which to measure the age-old dilemma of "artist and society". As it happens, Masefield identifies too closely with his character for any real distance to exist between the two; but the fact that Roger is not (as far as we are told) a poet, and that he has no specific associations with the sea, does in fact help us to see him rather as a parallel or analogue to Masefield, than as a 'Stephen Dedalus' author-surrogate.
After seeing the ruin of his play, Roger goes off to have supper at a small restaurant with his friend John O'Neill, who was also present at the performance. O'Neill is a mysterious figure:
Nobody knew him. Nobody knew what he was. There were some who held that John was the Wandering Jew, others that he was a Nihilist, a Carlist, a Barmacedist, a Jacobite, the heir to France, King Arthur, Anti-Christ, or Parnell. All had felt the mystery, but none had solved it. (Masefield, 1927, p.25)
Roger, however, is beginning to feel that 'John was a kind of John the Baptist, a torch-bearer, sent to set other people on fire, but without real fire of his own' (p.25). O'Neill is about to leave for Spain with a young Spanish scholar called Centeno, and is already there in spirit: 'His friend was already in those secret rooms at the top of a house in Queen Square. His spirit was there, bowed over the work with the Spanish scholar; the earthly part of him was a parcel left behind in a restaurant to follow as it might' (p.28). As Roger sees him off in a cab:
It struck Roger then that the evening had brought him very near to romance. He had seen his soul's work shouted down by the Minotaur. Now the man whom he had worshipped was going away to die. (Masefield, 1927, p.29)
The terms in which he is described make it obvious that O'Neill is, in fact, a personification of the artistic instinct. In his "occult" preoccupations he resembles W. B. Yeats a little; but the reason why he remains so shadowy as a character (we are never even allowed to meet 'Centeno', the young scholar) is because his significance is largely symbolic. His departure for Spain represents a sort of 'god abandoning Antony' for Roger – whose hopes are at their lowest ebb, and who is uncertain of his vocation and of all the ideals he has hitherto held dear.
Before leaving, O'Neill mentions the other major call on Roger's affections – his fiancee, Ottalie Fawcett. It is to thoughts of her that Roger now turns, resisting his impulse to 'creep in upon the secret, up the stairs, through the corridor piled with books, to the dark room, hung with green, where the work went forward ... to surprise those conspirators [O'Neill and Centeno] over their secret of the soul, and to be initiated into the mystery, even at the sword's point' (pp.29-30).
His equanimity is further threatened, however, by an encounter with a drunkard on his way home:
As he bent over the flame, someone struck him violently between the shoulders. He turned swiftly, full of anger, to confront a halfdrunken man whose face had the peculiar bloated shapelessness of the London sot. The man unjustly claimed, with many filthy words, that Roger had jostled against him, and that he was going to – well, show him different. A little crowd gathered, expecting a fight. When the man's language was at its filthiest, a policeman interfered, bidding the drunkard go home
The mistake, and the foul talk, and the sudden attentions of the crowd at such a moment when he hoped to be alone, gave Roger a feeling of helpless hatred of himself and of modern life. (Masefield, 1927, p.30)
In order to recover, Roger goes into a small restaurant nearby:
As he smoked the memories of the evening assailed him. He saw his work hooted from the stage, and John passing from his life, and the sot's bloated mouth babbling filth at him. His nerves were all shaken to pieces by the emotional strain of the past fortnight. He was in a child's mood: the mood of the homesick boy at school. He was as dangerously near hysteria as the drunkard. He longed to be over in Ireland, in the house of that beautiful woman whom he loved ... away from all these horrors and desolations. (Masefield, 1927, p.31)
Roger is, in short, under assault on all sides. The atmosphere of depression, of aimlessness, is built up carefully by Masefield in a series of short scenes and vignettes, each fitting neatly into the next.
When he gets home, Roger is unable to sleep, because the woman who lives next door, the wife of an M.P., 'an irregular, eccentric lady, fond of late hours', who is 'musical, in a hard accomplished way', is inspired by 'some wandering devil ... to begin to play at midnight' (p.35). Roger gets up, and, after doing a little reading in a desultory fashion, goes out on his balcony to admire the night.
His reverie is interrupted by the M.P.'s wife, who has come out on her own balcony, just adjacent, and who asks him for a cigarette. After a little more talk she invites him over, and Roger, who was 'used to unconventional people', agrees. 'He knew that Templeton [her husband] seldom went to bed before two. He took it for granted that Templeton was in the sitting-room; possibly within earshot' (p.43).
Roger and Hrs. Templeton talk for a little while, but then are interrupted by the return of her husband, who has been attending a late sitting of the house.
In the doorway stood Templeton – a tall, bald, thin-faced man, with foxy moustache and weak eyes. His face showed amazed anger. (Masefield, 1927, p.47)
He orders Roger to leave, and Roger, who is angry at having been put in a false position, hastens to do so; but first he 'looked hard at Mrs. Templeton. Never again would he speak civilly to a woman with high cheekbones, steel eyes, and loose mouth. He bowed to her. "I didn't deserve it," he said quietly' (p.48).
... For a moment Roger felt furious with Templeton. Then he blamed the lady. She had played him a scurvy trick. Lastly, as he began to understand her position, he forgave her. He blamed himself. He felt that he had mixed himself with something indescribably squalid. (Masefield, 1927, p.48)
The incident reinforces Roger's growing disillusionment with the life that surrounds him, and the life that he himself is leading. He thinks again of Ottalie and the clean Irish countryside she inhabits before he goes to sleep. The contrast between her and Mrs. Templeton is immense:
Ottalie sang with all the beauty of her character, giving to each note an indescribable rightness of value, verbal as well as musical, conveying to her hearers a sense of her distinction of soul, a sense of the noble living of dead generations of Fawcetts; a sense of style and race and personal exquisiteness. This lady sang as though she were out in a hockey field, charging the ball healthily, in short skirts, among many gay young sprigs from the barracks. She sang like the daughter of a nouveau riche. (Masefield, 1927, p.36)
This sounds, on the surface, like the most appalling snobbery; but it is, at least, based on Ottalie's "gentilesse" of soul, rather than simply her distinction of birth. It is true that Masefield seems to suppose that the two are linked, but he does so in the same sense as Yeats seeing in aristocratic virtues a way of protesting against the unmistakable ills of contemporary society:
My mediaeval knees lack health until they bend,
But in that woman, in that household where
Honour had lived so long, all lacking found.
Childless I thought, 'My children may find here
Deep-rooted things,' but never foresaw its end,
And now that end has come I have not wept;
No fox can foul the lair the badger swept – (Yeats, 1977, p.369)
Ottalie, too, is doomed to destruction by this modern world, where the old standards have disappeared, and 'A large proportion of English people, having lost faith in their old ruler, supernatural religion, fly about wildly in motor-cars' (Masefield, 1927, p.137).
Having finally fallen asleep, Roger now dreams of Ottalie but the dream is not an encouraging one. He sees himself waiting at her door:
he had stood upon the stair-top knocking vainly at the door of an empty house. It came upon him then with an exhaustion of the soul, like death itself, that he had come too late. She had gone away disappointed, perhaps angry. The door would never open to him; he would never meet her again; never even enter the hall, dimly seen through the glass, to gather relics of her. (Masefield, 1927, pp.51-52)
The next long section of the novel is devoted to an account of Roger's pursuit of Ottalie. He suspects she is in London, but is distracted, on his way to see her, by a summons to a friend whose wife has just fallen ill (she fainted when she saw him lying stunned on the hearth-rug). Roger has to go and search for a nurse for Mrs. Pollock, and then accompany Pollock (who is a painter) to the National Gallery, in order to "take him out of himself". By the time he reaches Ottalie's flat, she has left again.
On returning to the Gallery, he discovers that Pollock has gone – and, after a vain attempt to find him, Roger goes to a restaurant, where he is accosted by various friends and critics of his play. He still hopes to catch up with Ottalie before she leaves London, as he fears that she is going to the continent, but finds no trace of her at the railway-station, the only place left to look.
When he finally reaches home, he finds a letter from Ottalie which had arrived just after he left: 'Five minutes' patience would have altered his life' (Masefield, 1927, p.83) – but it is now too late. His landlady tells him that a lady came to see him, and that 'She seemed very put out at not finding you' (p.83). The lady was, of course, Ottalie:
All his misery seemed rolled into a leaden ball, which was smashing through his brain. The play I.as a little thing. The loss of John was a little thing. Templeton was farcical, the critics were little gnats, but to have missed Ottalie, to have lost Ottalie! He tasted a moment of despair. (Masefield, 1927, p.84)
Indeed, Roger suspects 'some juggling against him of the powers outside life' (p.84). He is not yet beaten, though. He determines to go to Ireland to intercept her (her letter had told him that she was returning home from Greece, and would only be in London for a short time). The sense of impending catastrophe is growing all through this long series of futile manoeuvres, however. As he drives to the station 'He saw one newsbill flutter out from a man's hand. "British Liner Lost," ran the heading. He felt relieved that the monkey-mind had now something new to occupy it' (p.85).
On arriving in Ireland, Roger immediately feels better:
As he rode, he thought burningly of what that afternoon would be to him. Ottalie might not be there. She might be away. She might be out; but something told him she would be there. With Ottalie in the world, the world did not matter greatly. (Masefield, 1927, p.93)
On arriving at the house, he asks for Ottalie. As he predicted, she is there:
'Is Miss Fawcett in?'
'Have you not heard, sir?'
'Miss Ottalah's dead, sir.'
'She was drowned in the boat that was run into, crossing the sea, two days ago. There was a fog, sir. Did no one tell you, sir?'
'There was eleven of them drowned, sir.'
'Was she ... Is she lying here?'
'Yes, sir. She's within. The burying will no' be till Saturday. She is no' chested yet.' (Masefield, 1927, p.97)
The whole of this episode is splendidly done. It is a little difficult, in.such a brief summary, to do justice to fifty pages of gradually accelerating narrative, building up to this abrupt and curt finale – the cumulative effect of so many frustrations, distractions, and forebodings must be experienced; not simply described. One should certainly mention, though, (leaving aside for a moment the significance of the episode in this particular book), that this is the first appearance of what would later become one of Masefield's most obsessive themes. The novels Sard Harker and Odtaa consist of little more than one frustration after another hindering their respective heroes from reaching their objectives (Sard Harker's famous battle with an almost sentient swamp occupies almost ten pages in the former book (Masefield, 1963, pp.106-15); while the significance of the latter's title: One damn thing after another, prefigures the fact that its hero, Highworth Ridden, does not in fact ever achieve his purpose). Masefield's "theory" of frustration is perhaps best summed up in a passage from the book Conquer (1941):
When, in those hours of moments, one tried to do any one thing, a hundred other things rose up to stop its doing, and to thrust forward things to be done first. Frustration and retardation are the enemies in war; it is the being unable to act freely that is the curse in life. In childhood, sickness, war and old age, all the four curses of man, this being tied, this being unable, is the annulling thing. (Masefield, 1941b, p.85)
Though one suspects that this technique may have its roots in Hardy – the episode of the boots, or of the letter, in Tess, for example – there is no denying that Masefield has carried it much further. Indeed, in books such as Sard Harker – or Live and Kicking Ned, where the hero and his friends struggle to alert the administration of a mythical "lost" city in Africa to the menace from outside – it has been elevated almost to a law of the Universe.
In Multitude and Solitude, however, its main function is to knock away the last prop from Roger's already shaky worldview. He goes to see Agatha, Ottalie's closest friend long an enemy of his (a sort of Isabel Fry figure?) – and finds that neither of them now feels anything but sympathy for the other. Even jealousy is dead:
He would have asked to look upon Ottalie; but he refrained, in the presence of that passion. Agatha had enough to bear. He would not flick her jealousies ... There she was, in that quiet room, behind the blinds, lying on the bed, still and blank ... And here were her two lovers, listening to the clock, listening to the spadestrokes in the garden, where old John was at work. (Masefield, 1927, pp.101-2)
Roger is now at a loose end – having had all his ties with society (the 'multitude' of the title) severed one by one. His work has been hissed, his mysterious 'torch-bearer' friend has departed, and now his beloved is dead. London, and London people – from Mrs. Templeton to the 'Newsboys, with debased, predatory faces,' peering 'with ophthalmic eyes into betting news' (p.176) (the tautology, 'ophthalmic eyes' (perhaps he means "myopic") shows Masefield, as usual, laying it on a little too thick) – are now loathsome to him as mere 'symptoms of disease' (p.176).
The second major section of the book begins with Roger talking to Leslie, Ottalie's brother, an author in his own right. Leslie believes that:
the art life is strangely like the life of the religious contemplative. Both attract men by the gratification of emotion as well as by the possibility of perfection. One of the great Spanish saints ... says that many novices deliberately indulge themselves in religious emotion, for the sake of the emotion, instead of for the love of God; but that the knowledge of God is only revealed to those who get beyond that stage, and can endure stages of 'stypticities and drynesses,' with the same fervour. (Masefield, 1927, p.111)
Under this "gentle persuasion", Roger realizes that he has not been serious enough about his art in the past, and that there is something else still expected of him. He dreams again of Ottalie before he leaves Ireland:
Last of all came an elderly lady carrying a light. She was dressed in a robe of dim purple. She, too, knocked sharply on the door. She lingered there, long enough for him to study her fine intellectual face. It was the face of Ottalie grown old. The woman was the completed Ottalie. (Masefield, 1927, p.113)
He is sure that she has some message for him. Next day, he talks to Agatha, who intends to 'start a little school for poor girls' (p.117). Roger is shamed by her example: '"I loved Ottalie, too," he answered. "I won't say as much as you did, for you knew her intimately. I never was soul to soul with her as you were; but I loved her. I want now to make my life worthy of her, as you do. But it won't be in my work. I don't know what it will be in'" (p.118). Before leaving, he picks up a small scrap of newspaper, and determines to keep it as a 'relic' of Ottalie's home. It proves to contain a short paragraph about sleepingsickness, and reminds him of another article he once read about the affliction.
Roger stops at an inn on his way to the steamer, and, while looking over the recent papers, sees a photograph representing 'A COMMON SCENE IN THE SLEEPING SICKNESS
BELT ... two natives in the last stages of the dread disease, which, at present, is believed to be incurable' (p.122). He discusses the disease with Leslie, who is accompanying him to the ship, and then, just before he boards, hears a singer with a banjo singing a song:
'0, I'm so seedy
So very seedy,
I don't know what to do.
I've consumption of the liver
And a dose of yellow fever
And sleeping sickness, too.
0, my head aches
And my heart ... ' (Masefield, 1927, p.124)
It is a voice Roger has heard before. A singer in one of his dreams.
The "sleeping-sickness theme" – introduced gradually in much the same way as the hints that Ottalie has been drowned – dominates most of the rest of the book. As a motif, it is, unfortunately, much less successful that the "pursuit of the beloved" – perhaps because, with the best will in the world, it is difficult to take it seriously as a solution to the dilemmas of the artist in the modern world. Fighting disease was a dream of Masefield's – but it is not sufficiently universal to strike us as a likely "message" to be sent by the sainted Ottalie in the next world. There is something quintessentially Masefieldian in the passage where he tells us that:
He thought that little chance happenings in life were signals from her in the other world, or if not signals, attempts to move him, attempts to make him turn to her; things full of significance if only he could interpret them. He felt that in some way she was trying to communicate. It was as though the telephone had broken. It was as though the speaker could not say her message directly; but had to say it in fragments to erring, forgetful, wayward messengers, who forgot and lost their sequence. (Masefield, 1927, pp.126-27)
Woman-worship and the supernatural – the idea of the dead continuing to guide the living – two of Masefield's favourite themes, are most satisfactorily blended here. But it comes as a distinct anti-climax to hear what Roger actually supposes the message to be: 'He thought that she had sent him some message about sleeping sickness, using the torn page, the magazine, and the naval officer [the singer], as her messengers' (p.127).
In any case, it is at this point in the book that the really full-dress debates begin, so I shall treat the rest of the narrative in considerably less detail – especially as I have already considered some of the implications of Roger's, and his friend, Lionel Heseltine's, views above, in the introductory section to this chapter.
Roger, then, meets Lionel on his return to London – and pumps him for information on sleeping sickness – while Lionel, in his turn, asks him about art. The somewhat subjective nature of Roger's disenchantment is shown by comments like:
One feels very clever, with these wise books in one's head; but they don't go down to bedrock. Tney don't mean much in the great things of life. They don't help one over a death. (Masefield, 1927, p.174)
Only the last sentence, one suspects, reveals the true reason for Roger's grievance against art. Nevertheless, he continues to "generalize" his most painful impressions:
I sometimes feel that all the thoroughly good artists, like Dürer, Shakespeare, Michael Angelo, Dante, all of them, sit in judgement on the lesser artists when they die. I think they forgive bad art, because they know how jolly difficult art of any kind is ... But they would never forgive faults of character or of life. They would exact a high strain of conduct, mercilessly. (Masefield, 1927, p.173)
If one could be sure that Masefield meant it in that way, one might say that this is an extremely interesting study of the personal experience underlying even the most seemingly "general" conclusions. Roger's feelings about Ottalie obviously influence the sentence excised from the passage quoted above: 'I don't believe that art was ever easy to anybody, except perhaps to women, whose whole lives are art'." However it may be rather because Masefield as a novelist is unable to motivate – or to introduce – ideological discussion in any other way. In any case, I shall refer to this subject again at the end of my analysis.
From chapter eight on, almost an entirely new book begins. The first sentence of this new section is:
Ten months later Roger sat swathed in blankets under mosquito netting, steering a boat upstream. (Masefield, 1927, p.177)
This is a narrative of adventure in Africa, and it bears only a tenuous relation to what has gone before (it is the 'solitude' referred to in the title Multitude and Solitude).
Lionel has come down with fever, and Roger has been forced to take charge, under a chorus of constant carping criticism from the petulant invalid:
'Don't you dare to give me medicine' Lionel answered, knocking the dose away. 'I believe you're poisoning me. I've watched you. You're poisoning me.'
'Don't say things like that, Lionel,' said Roger. 'You're awfully tired, I know, but they hurt. I wish I could get you well,' he mused. 'It's not so easy as you seem to think,' he added. (Masefield, 1927, p.194)
Roger too is feverish, but he forces himself to keep going. They land the supplies and set up camp in an old stone fortress or 'Zimbabwe' ('a native name for ruins' (p.200)) on the hill. And there they encounter a lavishly-described tropical storm (rather reminiscent of the one in A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) – another example of Masefield anticipating Richard Hughes). When Roger finally extricates himself from a sodden tarpaulin next morning he finds that all of their bearers have absconded, taking with them the boat and most of the supplies. A few boxes have been left strewn along the shore, but most of them, when opened, prove to have been emptied and then "salted" by thieves at some point along the way:
'A quaker,' he said grimly, after one look. 'It's a quaker case.'
'What's a quaker?'
'This case here is what we call a quaker. Why? Because it makes one quake. Look at these bottles. They're full of paper and sawdust. Look at this one. Old rags. (Masefield, 1927, pp.218-19)
Most of their drugs – except for one bottle of 'atoxyl', the only remedy against sleeping sickness they have – are gone. The expedition is in ruins.
Outrage against the people who have done this prompts Lionel and Roger to further diatribes against society:
'It's not the crime itself,' said Roger. 'Not knowing the criminal, I cannot judge the crime; but it s the state of mind which sickens me. The state of mind which could prompt such a thing.'
'It's a common enough stage of mind,' said Lionel. 'In business it's common enough ... You may say what you like about war. Business is the real curse of a nation. Business, and the business-brain, and, oh, my God, the business man! Swine. Fatted, vulpine swine.' (Masefield, 1927, p.221)
The interesting thing about these statements is how clearly they show the much greater care which is taken to substantiate specific statements than generalizations. 'Not knowing the criminal, I cannot judge the crime' says Roger – but he is not so scrupulous about the general 'state of mind' that that crime shows. After all, nobody can ever know the 'state of mind' of an era as well as he can know an individual – and therefore nobody can be debarred from talking about it. The syllogism may seem a little faulty, but that would appear to be the burden of what the two are saying.
Finally, Lionel sums up:
It is one of the mysteries of life to me that a man tends to lose ... tenacity and efficiency for life as soon as he becomes sufficiently subtle and fine to be really worth having in the world. I like Shakespeare because he is one of the very few men who realize that. He is harping on it again and again ... in lots of the plays, in the minor characters, too, like Malvolio; even in Aguecheek. And people call that disgusting, beefy brute, Prince Henry, 'Shakespeare's one hero ... '! (Masefield, 1927, p.229)
It is, indeed, one of the mysteries of life – to John Masefield – and that is why his character has been made to say it, and to back it up with a lot of Masefieldian interpretations of Shakespeare. Lionel may speak about these things a little more vehemently than his creator allowed himself to do (though not by very much – see the remarks on 'Prince Hal' quoted in the analysis of Stukeley in Chapter Three), but this simply highlights one of the great advantages of fiction to Masefield – one can express one point of view wholeheartedly, and then counter it with another, or a mere variation of the first, without having to make up one's mind between them! Indeed, that is one of the principal uses of Multitude and Solitude to Masefield - a means of venting spleen, without having to be tiresomely "reasonable" all the time.
In any case, Masefield is by now wholeheartedly absorbed in his adventure story, and has (mercifully) little time to spare for more abstract concerns.
Refusing to admit defeat, Lionel and Roger go down to the native village below the 'Zimbabwe', and attempt to doctor the people. There is a rather nauseating scene where they go about 'choosing who are to inherit the earth' (p.233) – as their supply of atoxyl, the only remedy, is severely limited:
They looked at the boys, noting their teeth, skulls, and physiognomies. Several showed signs of congenital malignant disease; others were brutish and loutish looking; but they were, on the whole, a much nicer-looking lot than the boys who sell papers in London. They narrowed the choice to four. One of them showed signs of pneumonia. He was rejected. The others were examined carefully. Their prefrontal areas were measured ... The matter was doubtful for a time. The lad with the best head was more drowsy than the other two. The question arose, should the doubtful cure of a genius be preferred to the less doubtful cure of a dunce? 'Nature has made an effort for this one,' said Lionel, 'at the expense of the type. This fellow has got a better head than the others, but he is not quite so fine a specimen .. That means that he will be less happy. Nature would probably prefer the other fellows.' (Masefield, 1927, pp.235-36)
Now this is really rather subtle. The arguments which Lionel and Roger use about these boys are, of course, generalizations about the probable fate of the genius and the normal man in society. But it is on the basis of these arguments that they choose who is to be saved. It is almost like a little parody or punning-match on the value of generalized ideas. After all, the choice must be made somehow – and it was not impossible (at least not in 1909) that skull-size had something to do with intelligence. One suspects that here Masefield's artistic instinct (one might as well call it his "daemon") has caused him to stifle his usual didacticism in order to make fun of Lionel and Roger and their half-baked attempts to set up 'an outpost of progress'!
The other reflection which this passage inspires is the question of Masefield's attitude towards people of other races. Certainly, Lionel and Roger are not shewn as being particularly enlightened – their rowers are called things like 'Merrylegs', 'Jellybags', 'Toro', 'Buckshot', and 'Pocahontas' (pp.179 & 293). And there are certainly some rather unfortunate passages:
One of the stroke-oars, clambering over the boxes in the stern-sheets, beat the dying man upon the chest. He was beating out the devil, he explained. He soon grew tired. He shouted in the sick man's ear, laughed delightedly at his groans, and went forward to explain his prowess. He broke into a song about it.Kilemba has a big devil in his belly.
Big devil eat up Kilemba. Eat all up.
But Muafi a strong man. Very strong Man.
Devil no good.
Not eat Muafi. (Masefield, 1927, p.182)
Nevertheless, as a general rule, Masefield seems more fascinated by the negroes – as a strange, alien race with an unfathomable way of thinking – than contemptuous of them. Even the passage quoted above is a scene observed from the outside, and reproduced with Masefield's uncanny gift for mimicry, rather than the usual "Black Sambo" mockery. This wonder – almost awe – at the strangeness of other peoples is perhaps more notable in Masefield's novels about South America (Sard Harker, or Lost Endeavour (1910)), but it is present even here. Lionel and Roger do, it is true, act a little patronizingly towards the negroes – but they have come to Africa, at the risk of their own lives, to save them; so it would perhaps be rather invidious to rebuke them too roundly. In any case, in the sheer interest of historical accuracy, it would be wrong to expect Masefield, writing in 1909, to portray a couple of heroes with the attitudes of today – wnether he shared their opinions or not. There is certainly nothing like the blatant racism – or even the sidelong sneers – of John Buchan in any of the works of John Masefield (there are not even any anti-Semitic remarks in Multitude and Solitude – a rare accolade for a book written before 1914).
The two chosen boys are duly dosed with atoxyl (and run off again shortly afterwards), but then Lionel, who has had sleeping sickness before, suffers a relapse – and the atoxyl bottle is nowhere to be found. Roger, knowing that his friend's life depends on it, undertakes a massive search for the bottle 'over a space of Africa a hundred yards long by eighty broad';
After it was over, Roger thought that his search for the lost bottle was the best thing he had ever done. He had trampled carefully over every inch of the measured ground. He had taken no chances, he had neglected no possible hole or tussock. A wide space of trodden grass and battered shrub testified to the thoroughness of his painful hunt. And all was useless. The bottle was not there. The ataxyl was lost. (Masefield, 1927, pp.250-51)
Masefield has made a valiant attempt to imply that this search – and the singleness of purpose it represents – is the linking factor between the two halves of the book. 'To do something very difficult, which would "tax all his powers, that was his task. When that was done he would feel that he had won his bride' (p.227). Roger's task in Africa, that is, is to make himself worthy of Ottalie – and here, where his motive is pure necessity, a question of life or death, and he makes every conceivable effort, he can finally feel satisfied.
The idea of 'failure', too, was always an interesting one to Masefield. There is almost a "cult of failure" in his works – from the Wanderer of Liverpool: 'Mocked and deserted by the common man, / Made half divine to me for having failed' (Masefield, 1941a, p.369); to Captain Margaret: 'There is no dishonour, Charles. You failed. The only glory is failure' (Masefield, 1974, p.405); to Christ himself. It recurs endlessly in Masefield's poetry:
Life's battle is a conquest for the strong;
The meaning shows in the defeated thing. (1941a, p.372)
Man with his soul so noble: man half god and half brute.
Women bear him in pain that he may bring them tears.
He is a king on earth, he rules for a term of years.
And the conqueror's prize is dust and lost endeavour.
And the beaten man becomes a story for ever. (1941a, p.83)
This last quotation links it with the theme of 'frustration' discussed earlier. Virtue in life can only be obtained through struggle – not because struggle is good in itself, but because that is the only way to build a beautiful soul. Failure is good because it prevents the distractions caused by success – even after great struggles – on the earthly plane. Masefield's natural Platonism made him automatically relate things here to their significance on a "higher" plane.
When one knows this much, Roger's failure to find the atoxyl takes on a new meaning – but, in context, it seems a rather disproportionate significance to attach to such an trivial event.
In any case, Roger now fears that he himself may be coming down with the disease. Having no atoxyl, he is forced to try and concoct a serum – although he has been warned against this by Lionel: 'You will try none of your sera on me, my friend. If you like to go getting sera from dying, dirty, anthraxy wild beasts, do so; but don't put any of the poison, so got, into me' (Masefield, 1927, p.231). Roger does so – goes out and shoots an animal, and then fulfils another part of Lionel's prophecy: 'I see you so plainly strangling a deer in a mud-wallow, and drawing off the blood into a methylated spirits can' (pp.231-32). Masefield mentions that Roger took the animal he shot to be a 'koodoo cow', but says in a footnote that 'It was probably an oryx' (p.279) perhaps merely from an antiquarian impulse, but more probably to show how dispassionate and "scientific" he can be about details.
And, indeed, the book gets far more "scientific" from now on. Roger carefully prepares a batch of cultures and injects them into Lionel (who has been in a coma since before the two boys ran away) and himself. Both of them are saved by this, although all the other patients Roger injects are killed.
Lionel refuses to believe, on first coming to, that he has been lying in delirium for five weeks. His first act is to point out the bottle of atoxyl, where it stood 'in the dimness of a hole in the wall. Roger must have passed it some fifty times' (p.287). Lionel also explains why the serum saved them and killed the others:
My good Lord! It's as plain as measles. You inject the dead culture. That's the first step. That makes the trypanosomes agglutinize. Very well, then. You inject your serum when they are agglutinized; not before. When they are agglutinized, the serum destroys them, after raising queer symptoms. When they are not agglutinized the serum destroys you by the excess of what causes the queer symptoms. (Masefield, 1927, p.290)
If immunology were as simple as that, even I might be able to understand it! However, this explanation is sufficient to satisfy Roger.
Masefield now rather hastily wraps up his story in a few pages. He gives a sort of summary of the achievements of the expedition in the closest he can get to the style of a scientific case-study:
They had been the first to cure cases with animal serum. They had been the first to study in any way the effect of nagana upon the young of wild game, and to prepare (as yet untested} vaccine from young antelopes, quaggas, and elands ... They had cleared some three miles of fly belt. They had studied the tsetse. They had surveyed the whole and excavated a part of the Zimbabwe. (Masefield, 1927, p.291)
The funny thing is that Masefield seems to be treating this farrago of implausibilities quite seriously. Perhaps the explanation is that he has gone so far beyond his own area of expertise that he can no longer tell fantasy from probability. In any case, he undercuts this "splendid achievement" by making the two friends discover, on the way home, that all their results have been anticipated by 'The Japanese bacteriologist ... Hiroshiga' (pp.293-94). One could interpret this as Masefield cannily hedging his bets in case anyone took his heroes' claim to have discovered a cure for sleeping sickness seriously; or else – as a final ironic twist contradicting our natural expectations as to how the novel was likely to end (perhaps he thought that too big a success might ruin his heroes' characters).
In any case, on arriving home, Lionel, Roger and Leslie decide to band together to form a new world full of light and hygiene – and Roger walks off into the garden, convinced that by promoting such a scheme, he will be helping to fulfil the will of Ottalie for his life:
Thinking of the woman who had waited for him there in his vision, he prayed that her influence in him might help to bring to earth that promised life, in which man, curbing Nature to his use, would assert a new law and rule like a king, where now, even in his strength, he walks sentenced, a prey to all things baser. (Masefield, 1927, p.296)
Criticizing the novel Multitude and Solitude can become almost as bewildering as writing it must have been – which is one reason why I have adopted a basically linear approach. Certainly, when one considers the kaleidoscopic variety of ideas, plot-lines, narrative devices, and motifs in the book – that last, summarizing passage quoted above becomes almost a miracle of lucidity!
This is, indeed, the book's great strength – just as it is its great weakness. Time after time one thinks one has pinned down its central message – only to find a contradictory paragraph a few pages further on.
I think, however, that one can summarize by saying that, as a novel of ideas, the book is crippled by its own author's too equivocal viewpoint – the fact that he tests ideas rather than resolving them. One must add, however, that his witty and extremely cogent demolition of the idea of "objective" generalizations (whether performed intentionally or not) – accomplished by showing the personal and arbitrary bases for almost everyone of Lionel and Roger's "general" notions – throws great doubt on the whole concept of "summarizing" ideas in a book.
It is also fair to say that the novel falls into two halves – that set in London and Ireland; and that set in Africa which seem to be pursuing almost entirely separate objectives. The title, Multitude and Solitude, attempts to imply some purpose for this separation – but it is really an unbridgeable divide. Masefield, too, must have realized that this was the case – for his next "contemporary" novel, The Street of To-Day, is set entirely in England, without abrupt changes of scene or of stylistic direction. The "African adventure" portion of the book, however, was to serve as a model (almost a forefather) for many more stories of exciting happenings in exotic parts of the globe – from South America to Byzantium.
Nevertheless, for all its lack of "rigorous" form and finish, Multitude and Solitude remains a fascinating novel. It obviously truthfully reflects the young Masefield's sense of being trapped in the seething turmoil of London and also his dreams of a "cleaner", more satisfying life in the open air. Yet this raw material is skilfully woven into a series of "knots" of action – each of which draws the reader inexorably into its embrace. First the gradually accelerating and infinitely frustrating hunt for Ottalie, with its atmosphere of impending doom and moral constriction. Then the long, strange aftermath – with voices in dreams, and the growing sense of an occult purpose in life. Finally, and perhaps most successful of all, Roger's solitary battle against fever, loneliness, the alien surroundings of Africa – in effect, the forces of Nature itself:
Nature was enduring; Nature the imperfect; Nature the enemy, which blighted the rose and spread the weed. (Masefield, 1927, pp.295-96)
Many of the things which have already been said about Multitude and Solitude (particularly in the section comparing Masefield to Joyce at the opening of this chapter) apply also to The Street of To-Day; and for this reason I will confine myself here to tracing two main themes which seem to me to sum up the essential purpose of the book. The first of them is the 'Nietzscheism' of the hero, Lionel Heseltine (the book is a direct sequel to Multitude and Solitude – though some of Masefield's, and therefore Lionel's, preoccupations have changed a little since then); and the second is the theme of love especially married love – which runs through it.
The first impression that anyone might gain of The Street of To-Day is that it is a tissue of epigrams – and one must admit that in this it is simply accentuating the habitual usage of Multitude and Solitude. This was, of course, a convention of the period; but, although he applies himself manfully, I think it would be fair to say that Masefield was never very much at home in the "demesne" of Oscar Wilde. Almost every page, for long tracts at a time, is covered with remarks such as: 'Women aren't a sex. They're a free-masonry' (Masefield, 1911, p.6), or:
'Perhaps art bores you, though. Does it?'
'Not at all,' said Lionel. 'It interests me. Especially modern art. I look on it as a morbid state, due to the turning inward of the healthy activities. It's an hallucination, Miss Derrick, caused by life in towns.' (Masefield, 1911, p.36)
One suspects, therefore, that much of the atmosphere of "intellectuality" which surrounds the book is due to the style, rather than any real complexity of thought.
Once again the book reflects certain overmastering concerns in Masefield's own life – particularly his entanglement with Elizabeth Robins, and, through her, with the woman's suffrage movement. And, indeed, W. H. Hamilton says of the book that it is 'contemporary with the more hysterical phase of the feminist agitation just prior to the war with Germany ... and under the mental strain it becomes as extravagant and hysterical and obsessed as many of the most sensitive souls – both women and men – were apt to do at that time' (Hamilton, 1925, p.50). Hamilton was, of course, writing in the 1920s (the first edition of his book appeared in 1922) – and whether or not this sympathy with 'feminism' recommends Masefield to us more in retrospect, I will leave you to decide after reading the rest of my comments on the book.
Hami1ton also says: 'It must have been agony to conceive and write such a book. To read it is hardly less' (1925, p.47); and quotes a remark of Masefield's, à propos of all his early novels, that he 'could not remember in what order they appeared, but it does not matter much since they are all (I hope) forgotten by now' (Hamilton, 1925, p.39). This is, however, hardly a fair summary. It is true that the book is 'difficult to read' (Hamilton, 1925, p.47), as Arnold Bennett put it, but it contains a wealth of interesting material, and is, indeed - in some respects – the most original and disturbing of Masefield's early novels.
Lionel Heseltine had already shown some distressing tendencies in Multitude and Solitude (indeed, in some senses, the two books are more like parallels than novel and sequel – one dealing with the artist's struggle to come to terms with society, and the other with the reformer's (or 'man of action's') attempts to change it). His reactions were always more extreme and violent than Roger's – as they walked through the streets of London:
'Plenty of disease here,' said Roger.
'All preventable,' said Lionel. Only we're not allowed to prevent it. People here would rather have it by them to reform. Science won't mix with sentiment, thank God!' (Masefield, 1927, p.176)
Now, after nine months 'grilling in an African pest-house' (Masefield, 1911, p.6):
As he wandered on, the vastness of London, its incredible grossness of life, began to stimulate him. Here was all this vast disease spread out for a surgical Balzac. Here was all this great floppy cancer ready for his probe, his lance, his surgical saw.' (Masefield, 1911, p.25)
Apart from a string of demands for "cleanness" and "efficiency", it is never quite clear what Lionel actually intends to do about his ideas. Indeed, he himself seems a trifle unsure:
I don't much mind what I do to help the world, as long as it's something vigorous. (Masefield, 1911, p.84)
Now this is a rather dangerous point of view, and when one adds comments like: 'I don't believe methods matter as long as you're in earnest' (p.91), and 'if a man has strength enough to conceive a possible political good, he is strong enough to enforce it on his fellows' (p.86); then one begins to see that – like a later colleague of his, Frampton Mansell, in The Square Peg (1937) – Lionel would 'make a good dictator' (Masefield, 1937, p.23). It all adds up to a Masefield far further down the path of reaction, far more disenchanted with his lot, than when he wrote Multitude and Solitude.
There, when Roger looked out over London:
he found himself wondering whether all the squalor of the town, its beastly drinking dens, its mobs of brainless, inquisitive shouters, might not be changed suddenly to beauty and noble life by some sudden general inspiration, such as comes to nations at rare times under suffering. He decided against it. (Masefield, 1927, p.81)
Reactionary and disillusioned, perhaps – but also a little sad. This was a mood which would be swiftly dispelled by the coming of World War I.
Here, on the other hand, is Lionel on much the same subject:
States thrive while they preserve a strong and stern efficiency for life, while they look things in the eye, straight, without any cant about what might be ... I believe that if we looked at things straight, and killed off cur rogues and inefficients, instead of keeping them healthy so that they may have every opportunity for breeding, we should soon begin to show that enthusiasm. (Masefield, 1911, pp.19-20)
It is true that this sort of thing sounds a little different now, after two World Wars and a succession of regimes attempting to introduce 'efficiency' into political life, but it is the awful enthusiasm of Lionel that is so hard to take – he is, without a doubt, as clear an example of a "proto–fascist" as any on record.
When the three friends, Roger, Leslie and Lionel – who had decided to join together to agitate for reform at the end of the last book – meet again at the beginning of this one (along with Mrs. Drummond, an "older woman" whom Lionel has recently encountered), they find it rather difficult to agree on a programme. Roger wants to work for woman's suffrage, as he feels that the presence of women in parliament would automatically make politics more moral.
Leslie thinks they should start a laboratory, with a periodical to publish their research. Mrs. Drummond wants to improve public health. Lionel sums up:
'Whatever we do,' said Lionel, 'whatever anybody does, he must first upset something fat and sleepy which has had its use. That's a natural law. Things are in a mess. Leslie thinks they can be improved by pointing out the way. You think they can be improved by giving women the vote. Mrs. Drummond thinks they can be improved by the reform of the Poor Law ... What's wanted is some jolly big reform. It's not giving women the vote. It's not reforming the Poor Law. What the State wants is complete control of the life within it, in the interests of humanity. Nobody cares a twopenny rush for humanity except the scientist. (Masefield, 1911, p.85)
This is precisely the sort of right-wing idealism – hazy both about ends and the means necessary to achieve them – which was so effectively and cynically exploited by demagogues such as Mussolini and Hitler. The embattled bourgeois pins his hopes on anything that is 'vigorous' and whole-hearted – in this case the transforming power of Science. It is, essentially, an élitist creed; and Lionel is nothing if not élitist.
Nevertheless, Lionel, although Masefield's protagonist, holds views which are not entirely endorsed by him. His over-violent speech is perhaps caused by the fact that, as a man of action, he believes that "talk is cheap" in any case. Certainly some of the other characters – especially Mary Drummond, who is perhaps more closely representative of Masefield's own point of view – think he goes too far on
'You don't believe that, really,' she said, feeling vexed and sorry at the same time. (Masefield, 1911, p.91)
The situation becomes still more interesting when one examines what Lionel's principles actually achieve. He begins by founding a popular, mass-appeal newspaper called 'Snip Snap' – designed to propagandize the people – and organizes a 'brigade of news-boys' to distribute it. This 'brigade' is also designed to serve as a channel for the untapped energies of the undernourished youth of London. It would be perhaps exaggerating slightly to refer to the brigade, without further ado, as "black-shirts" or "storm– troopers"; but the fact is that they are organized along military lines:
On the day before the day of the first publication of Snip Snap, Lionel muste~ed the brigade in Hyde Park. He had a force of four hundred infantry, fifty bicyclists, and a band of thirty instruments, mostly drums and fifes. Lionel put them through a little simple drill, in the presence of some hundreds of loafers. He then marched them down Oxford Street singing to a new catchy quickstep. (Masefield, 1911, pp.303-4)
This sounds like a prophetic account of one of Oswald Mosley's rallies; but it would sceem probable that Masefield is really envisaging little more than a kind of glorified, dynamic Boy Scouts (Baden-Powell's first, experimental camp on Brownsea Island was in l907 – and the idea seens to have caught Masefield's imagination; as I shall discuss in my account of A Book of Discoveries in Chapter Five).
Both Masefield and Lionel feel a little ambivalent about the methods employed to sell Snip Snap: including 'the well-known comedian', Lorenzo Ike's 'new topical
Have you seen Snip Snap?
If you haven't, you're a pip, chap.'
'When once heard, the song stayed in the brain till death released the sufferer' (Masefield, 1911, pp.304-5). It all sounds rather like the famous "advertising scene" in H. G. Wells' Anti-Utopia "A Story of the Days to Come" (1899):
For the benefit of those who chanced to be deaf and deafness was not uncommon in the London of that age, inscriptions of all sizes were thrown from the roof above ... and on one's hand or on the bald head of the man before one, or on a lady's shoulders, or in a sudden jet of flame before one's feet, the moving finger wrote in unanticipated letters of fire "ets r chip t'de,' or simply 'ets' ...
'Look!' said the anaemic woman: 'there's yer father.'
'Which?' said the little girl.
''Im wiv his nose coloured red,' said the anaemic woman.
The little girl began to cry (Wells, 1948, pp.758-9 & 761).
As it happens, Lionel's paper fails in spite of all these efforts: 'Papers as vulgar, as silly, as cheap, as sensational, sold and sold well. His paper did not sell' (Masefield, 1911, p.323). The brigade inspires a strike among the other newsboys, and becomes a mill-stone around his neck. Worst of all, Lionel cannot even console himself with having been too far above the public taste to appeal – he had deliberately lowered himself to the level of his competitors, and still he had not succeeded. When he watches the start of an advertising campaign for Tip Top, a paper started in opposition to his own: 'He felt that he was seeing his ideas under a magnifying glass. He did not like the sight' (Masefield, 1911, p.371).
In the event, Lionel is saved from complete collapse (he is worried most of all for the boys in the brigade) by a rather unlikely buyer for the paper, 'Sir Pica Galley' (an old friend of Mary Drummond's), who agrees to keep on the brigade as well.
Masefield is, throughout, dangerously sympathetic to Lionel's megalomaniac ambitions; but this is partially, of course, because he is incapable of not identifying with his protagonist – especially a protagonist so beleaguered by enemies as Lionel. In the end, in any case, moral sanity reasserts itself – Masefield's passion for honourable failure causes him to undermine Lionel's vulgar taste for success – and his hero is left a wiser, chastened man, who has been shown his own limitations.
We are left with the hope that:
Some day, in the future ... sin will be prescribed for, not sentenced. A little 'cutting' with a lancet, a little spurt of blood to the shrunk veins, and the beast is tamed, the devil expelled. (Masefield, 1911, p.259)
Science – the advance of knowledge – is the only way out of the cul-de-sac in which society is trapped. we have not, however, yet reached the level where that remedy could be safely applied, so our present attempts at radical reform are doomed to failure:
'The stamping out of disease might, for all we know, be a very fatal thing. We don't know what disease is' (Masefield, 1911, p.88).
Masefield thus, at the eleventh hour, saves himself from becoming a reactionary (it would, strictly speaking, be anachronistic to label him a "fascist"), and remains what he was forever afterwards to be: a sentimental, aristocratic idealist.
The second theme which I intend to examine in The Street of To-Day is the saga of Rhoda Derrick, who is wooed by Lionel throughout Book I of the novel, marries him at the beginning of Book II, and leaves him at the end of Book II.
Lionel first comes across her in a 'dangerous, sentimental mood':
To be loved by a woman. That was glory enough for one life. They were so far above men. They were so sacred. So beautiful. He was in love with his work, of course; but work was not everything. Wanting love, he wanted inspiration. What would it be like to have a woman like that in his life? ... To know what went on in the brain there. To have that life merged into his. To be the body to that soul. (Masefield, 1911, p.6)
In fact, so far does this intoxication extend, that 'He wished that the great lamp beside him might explode, so that he might stifle the flames for them' (p.13). Rhoda is more the "object" than the "subject" of these passions; and he fails to notice, during their whirlwind courtship, how little they have in common.
Nature reasserts itself after the marriage, however:
Lionel's teeth gritted at the thought of the obsolete indignities of marriage, of wedding breakfasts and the like. (Masefield, 1911, p.239)
While Rhoda, in her turn, 'was suddenly conscious that she was entering life with a creature of whom she knew nothing. Lionel was as strange to her as the hotel servant at the desk. What were men like? What was Lionel like?' (Masefield, 1911, p.240).
Their "honeymoon", aboard a steamer, is an unmitigated disaster. Rhoda is sea-sick, and orders Lionel out; and they are forced to return home ignominiously before even reaching Madrid, their destination. There is, in fact, no evidence in the text that the marriage is ever consummated – 'don't let's talk of body' (p.288), says Rhoda.
It would take too much time to trace all the various vicissitudes of their relationship in detail, but its implications are most interesting. Lionel proves himself an archetypal "male chauvinist pig" – always too busy to talk to Rhoda, full of half-baked theories on the nature of sex:
The physical side of marriage was ugly, he thought, without children. And more important than children was cleanness. In his thought he was contemptuous of women. 'They cannot think. They've not been trained to think. And they've contrived to keep men's thoughts upon themselves. And they've played the devil, and taught men to play the devil.' (Masefield, 1911, p.241)
These misogynist reflections come about an hour after the wedding; and lead, later, to the following remarkable reflections:
'I've thought of this sex-business ... I made up my mind that as far as I'm concerned it will stay as Nature meant it. Nature means it to be the perfectly normal expression of a temporary, strictly seasonal mood, lasting, perhaps, for two or three weeks in each autumn. He stopped. He looked gravely at her; waiting for her reply. 'That is my attitude, he said. (Masefield, 1911, p.292)
Under the circumstances her reply that 'It is more than that' is almost superhumanly restrained (perhaps she is the true 'Nietzschean'!).
The strange thing is that Masefield shows his hero to be pompous and insensitive; and yet, simultaneously, takes his part in all of the couple's disagreements. It lis ahlways Rhoda's fault (presumably, for "entrapping" him in the first place); never Lionel's. It is only when set against the saintly Mary Drummond, a widow – who lives with her "friend" Kitty Minot in the country – that Lionel is ever shown as being definitely in the wrong. Once again, as in the case of Captain Margaret, Masefield's innate honesty as a writer (his freedom from irony, what might be described as his "refusal to take out insurance" on what he writes) has led him to give a very different picture from that which he intended.
Rhoda's position is, after all, so difficult – and her reactions so understandable. She goads Lionel, whom she cannot understand; and is goaded by him in her turn: 'She thought him too stupid to know when he was being pricked. Bitter women make that mistake, and wonder that they have no votes' (p.323). That last reflection is obviously Masefield's; but the fact remains, he was uniquely wellqualified to present a woman like Rhoda, and he made a remarkable job of it. The whole thing hinges on Rhoda's very real distaste for sex and physical contact, her frigidity:
'A little child would be very much to us, Rhoda.' She shook her head to his pleading. 'I can imagine,' she said. 'But, no. It is something against my nature. It isn't dread. It's horror.' (Masefield, 1911, p.293)
Masefield gets all the evasions, all the euphemisms precisely right:
'I've been ill, as you know. My nerves aren't quite under control. I can't bring myself to face. I'm ... I find it difficult, since my illness, to face things which I never really realised before it. You mustn't blame me altogether. I think women don't play quite fair with girls; perhaps men don't.' (Masefield, 1911, p.290)
Apart from a little adolescent lesbian flirtation with her friend Dora (for which see Chapter Three), Rhoda's sexuality seems entirely confined to the realm of daydreaming and vague sentiment. Her previous "beau", before Lionel, was called Colin Maunsel; and she becomes very preoccupied with thoughts of him when the marriage begins to go sour. Far from wishing to commit adultery with him, though, she much prefers the dream-image to the real man. 'Colin made her a little afraid. She had run away from Colin' (p.285); but she loves to dream about him:
'Oh, Colin, Colin, I wish we were dead together somewhere on the hills.' She had a pathetic sight of two white faces senseless in the fern, with the rain falling on them. 'That would be peace,' she thought. 'Up there on the hills.' Drying her eyes, while her misery fattened on the melancholy picture, she flung herself upon her bed. (Masefield, 1911, p.319)
When Lionel, near the end of the book, proposes that they run away together and make a new start:
She saw the life à deux in a hired cottage in South Devon or Cornwall. She knew then that the proposal came too late. The work which had been her rival was now her opportunity. It gave her peace from him. It gave her leisure for her dreams. She could dream of Colin all day long. And that was sweet to her. She had not realised how sweet. She could not give up that intimate dream-life. (Masefield, 1911, p.339)
The representations of sensuality and physical love in Masefield (Tom Stukeley and Jessie the barmaid in Captain Margaret, for instance) never have much life about them and I suspect this to be the reason why he made such a triumphant success of Rhoda. Her gradually growing preference of the shadow to the reality is presented most subtly; and indicates, in my opinion, a far greater 'sexual sophistication' than that which Hugh Greene has claimed for the earlier novel (Masefield, 1974, p.viii).
Masefield lacks the specifically metaphysical concerns of Charles Williams (in this novel, at any rate) – but Rhoda's dreams of Colin remind one very clearly of the passages in Descent into Hell (1937) where Wentworth exchanges an uncertain relationship with a real girl, Adela, for complete mastery over an "eidolon" or soulless image of her.
I have, I hope, said enough to convey the interest that lies in these two early novels of John Masefield's. One rather despairs, however, of conveying just how simultaneously chaotic (particularly The Street of To-Day), and compelling (especially Multitude and Solitude), they can be. Masefield has made a deliberate attempt to pour into them everything he was thinking at the time; everything he was reading – and everything that he was concealing. In a sense, the man who was so reticent in his autobiographical writings is almost masochistically self-revealing in his fiction. And yet, the confusion is too great – for every definite statement there is a counterstatement or an argument – and one is left, finally, grappling with the kaleidoscopic bewilderment and confusion of a human brain. (As in Borges' mysterious 'Tlön': 'A book which does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete' (Borges, 1979, p.37)).
1. See, for example, some of the antics of Frampton Mansell in The Square Peg (1937).
2. I realise in how specialized a sense 'Stephen Dedalus' represents even the young James Joyce, but the fact is he is avowedly 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man'. His role in Ulysses is something else again.
3. Despite its comparative political extremism, the one mention of Jews in The Street of To-Day is also fairly mild: "'I'll not give up my work," Lionel muttered, "for all the wives in Christendom. Nor for all the middle-men in Jewry." (1911, p.344).
4. See the plays Good Friday (1916) and The Trial of Jesus (1925). The Coming of Christ (1928) is about the Nativity.
5. 'You get your philosophy from Athens, Mrs. Drummond. I get mine from Germany. You can't get over fifteen degrees of latitude' (Masefield, 1911, p.75).
7. It is only fair to record that Hamilton quotes this comment in order to dissent from it.
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[John Masefield: Martin Hyde (1910)]