Thursday, May 21, 2015

Peterley Mystery

Peterley Harvest (Hutchinson, 1960) is a remarkable literary experiment. Its sub-title is ‘The private diary of David Peterley’ and it was presented as a journal edited from the Peterley Papers by Richard Pennington. In fact, it is now understood that there are no such papers and that the book is in effect an autobiographical novel.

A friend of the editor, Dr I A Shapiro, said in 1985 that it “is largely, perhaps wholly, disguised autobiography.” Pennington has placed many elements of his own life in a fictional framework as if they happened to a character similar to himself, but with certain key differences. For example, while he earned a living as a librarian, his character Peterley has private means, and an ancestral hall (albeit in decay) and leads a leisured, if hectic, existence.

As the book opens, ‘Peterley’ is returning to England after some years in Australia, where he had fled to avoid a too-solid fate in a solicitor’s office and an arranged marriage. His father had sent him a letter of advice which concluded succinctly: “fear God, honour the King, and be chivalrous to women”. Peterley, while “greatly impressed” by the style of the letter, “shows no signs of letting its precepts influence his conduct.”

We follow him through a series of amatory, aesthetic and artistic wanderings in London, in the English shires and in Prague, each evoked with candour and a certain louche style, in a chronicle of bohemian life whose narrator has some of the panache of Michael Arlen’s dashing modern cavaliers, and some of the mystery of Machen’s many scholarly adventurers, men-about-town with a mission to explore the curious.

The book includes vignettes of other authors. There is indeed an especially vivid description of a visit to Arthur Machen in his rooms at Lynwood in the High Street of Old Amersham, where he had retired. The two discuss Mithraism, and the persistence of folk memories. After a perceptive pen-picture of the old author and actor, ceremoniously taking round his jar of punch, Peterley notes: “He seemed a literary creation by Machen. The man is the quintessence of his works.”

The hubbub of the annual street fair in the little Buckinghamshire town is fervently evoked in the journal entry for 23 September 1935:

“Amersham was now like an allegory by Bunyan illustrated by Bosch. The faces peering through the smoky air looked less human; the laughter sounded diabolic and the wavering flares turned the street into shaky scenery that might vanish at midnight with the whole phantasmagoria. The engines hissed evilly with steam. The rolls of music were swallowed greedily by the mechanical organ. The wooden caryatides clapped their cymbals and beat their bells. When I reached the little upper room and saw our host pouring his punch, I had the impression of a necromancer who had conjured up the unnatural scene outside; and thought that at any moment he might put down his jug and leaning out of the window utter the cabalistic word at which the noise and the carnival would become moonlight in an empty street.”

The lethal effect of drinking Machen’s famous punch becomes clear when the narrator wakes up in unexpected company in London the next day, with little idea how he got there. “Machen’s party,” he wrote “seemed a shadowy fantastic rite performed in the light of torches to the clash of cymbals and the shouts of Bacchantes, a long way off in time and space.” Machen’s daughter Janet Pollock, in recommending the book warmly to me, confided that, in this episode at least, Richard Pennington himself was indeed the protagonist and the Peterley passage is pure autobiography.

Peterley Harvest was withdrawn soon after publication in 1960 for reasons which remain obscure. It had been received with bafflement by the critics who did not understand its adventurous form and feared being spoofed. However, word-of-mouth praise for its fine writing and flamboyant scenes and characters ensured that it soon became keenly sought.

A new edition was shepherded into print in 1985 by the biographer Michael Holroyd under an Arts Council reprint programme “designed to rescue maverick work” (as he put it). A press release (illustrated here) stressed the “stream of unanswered questions” about the book, asking: “Are these pages real or imaginary?” It described it as “a love story that develops tragically against the background of Hitler’s rise to power. . .an unusual counterpart to W.H. Auden’s The Orators and George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris.”

In his preface, Holroyd more-or-less gave the game away about the book, while still leaving a certain mystification. Even this led to continued doubt, with at least one reviewer wondering if Pennington himself existed. The biographer Claire Harman later described the book as “a fine illustration of the blurability of the line between fiction and non-fiction” (The Evening Standard, 7 January 2002). The author himself never commented upon the nature of the book.

Richard Pennington was born in Rugby, Warwickshire, on 6 September 1904. He took a BA at the University of Birmingham in 1924. Dr Shapiro later recalled that “while an undergraduate Pennington already displayed a range and variety of interests, including calligraphy, typography and art.” He was in Australia from 1926-30, where he moved among the circles of the continent’s literary luminaries. In particular he befriended the poet Christopher Brennan, then very neglected, and helped to revive interest in him.

On returning to Britain, he trained as a librarian at the University of London, and took up a post in this profession at the National Liberal Club. During the war he returned to Australia and held a post as librarian at the University of Queensland. From 1946, for eighteen years, his career took him to McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

Here he is described as “A man of dazzling complexity and great charisma who could be charming or disdainful with equal ease. Highly cultivated and urbane he had definite opinions on people and things which he articulated with irony and a sardonic wit” (“Scholar Librarians: Gould, Lomer and Pennington” by Peter F. McNally, Fontanus, from the collections of McGill University, Vol 1, 1988). While at the university he ran a private press, the Redpath Press, and published opuscules and monographs. These included Biscay Ballads (1958), a book of poems “from the Peterley Papers” which in fact preceded the Peterley “memoirs”.

He retired to Normandy, France where in 1974 he acquired a hand printing press and set up his own imprint, the Presse de l’Abricotier abattu. He and the press later moved to Blanzac, Charente. He also worked on a memoir of Christopher Brennan, published in Australia in 1970, and a monumental iconography of the engravings of Wenceslaus Holler, the Prague-born etcher who lived mostly in Stuart England. This study was issued in 1982. A Penguin paperback of Peterley Harvest in 1987 still did not bring a wide readership, and it may always remain a book for connoisseurs of the rare and recondite in literature.

Richard Pennington died on 1 May 2003 in Montreal. His papers are held at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

Text (c) Mark Valentine 2015


  1. "A Penguin paperback of Peterley Harvest in 1987 still did not bring a wide readership"
    ...but a less narrow one - that's how I came across it. I assumed it was like Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft - literary wish fulfilment, with a bit more plot - and that many of the complexities and alterations were to conceal the author's gayness in an autobiographical work at a time when homosexual activity was illegal and homosexuals persecuted in England. I don't know if Pennington was gay, but there was undoubtedly something odd about the attitudes to and portrayal of women in the book and that was the simplest explanation for it.

  2. I have never been drawn to books with a "wide readership" so this blog is an oasis for the lonely reader of obscure literature. It took years to meet another person who also loved, read, and collected Machen, for example, and that shared trait alone has sustained our friendship ever since.
    Bless you.