Friday, July 28, 2017

At the Club of Bad Books – Dylan Thomas & John Davenport’s The Death of the King’s Canary


Quite a few years ago I visited, with my friend and fellow Arthur Machen enthusiast Roger Dobson, the legendary bookseller Ben Bass at Greyne House, his home in the little Wiltshire town of Marshfield. Roger had worked as a journalist in nearby Bristol, and had got to know Ben, who then sold books on the city market. I had already begun to receive Ben’s characterful catalogues, full of fantasists and decadents, and which sometimes contained entirely fanciful titles. They were not always easy to spot, since so many of the genuine titles seemed equally implausible.

While we were in Marshfield, Roger conducted me along the road to look at a house a few doors down. He pointed to the upper storeys. “In that house,” he proclaimed, “Dylan Thomas and John Davenport wrote The Death of the King’s Canary.” I regarded the windows carefully, as if the faces of the poet and his friend might have left some spectral imprint. The place looked lofty, haughty, but also curiously empty, a hall of departed glory. The local reputation, I learned, was that Thomas and Davenport had been a somewhat lively party.

In ‘The Malting House Summer’ (The New Review, Vol. 3, No. 31, October 1976), Diana Davenport recalled the place: “The Malting House still retains an air of legend: a tall, Provencal-looking building, flat against the main street, its putty-coloured wash peeling, lower windows shuttered, door ever-open.” Within, there were rooms that the Dylan Thomas party had named The Pub Room and The Music Room, and a study where Thomas and Davenport worked each morning at their book. This they planned to be the first of a new venture, the Club of Bad Books (perhaps with a nod to Chesterton’s Club of Queer Trades). A barn at the back of the garden was used, she recalled, by the parish priest to say Mass: on one wall of the courtyard was a mosaic of St Francis and his attendant birds and animals.

Later, I got the book out from the library, but I didn’t make much of it. I might have been expecting something vaguely Ruritanian, or at least a swashbuckling crime story. I couldn’t work what all the mad cavalcade of characters were up to, or when things would begin to make sense. It was just one of a number of very peculiar books that I tried around that time, which I knew were clever and odd but didn’t quite understand. They included A Melon for Ecstasy (1971) by John Fortune and John Wells, about a lonely young man who falls in love with a laburnum, and The Terror of Dr Treviles (1974) by Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle, a tumultous tale of Cornish sex-magic. It was only a long time later that I came to realise just what kind of book The Death of the King’s Canary was: a full tilt, full-bodied spoof of most of Thomas’ poet contemporaries, and a cod-Gothic extravaganza.

Thomas stayed with Davenport at The Malting House in the Summer of 1940, along with a spasmodic company of composers, musicians, artists and other writers. Here they spent some months in louche living. Thomas had just had a success with his novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), and reckoned publishers could be persuaded to have another one from him.

John Davenport was a larger-than-life critic and raconteur, a busy man of letters, a reviews editor, maker of reputations, literary go-between, who had contrived nevertheless not to have published a book himself. He had probably met Dylan Thomas as part of the dedicated drinking circle that came to be known as the Fitzrovians, after the Fitzroy, the Soho tavern that was one (but only one) of their favourite haunts.

He had earlier met and befriended Malcolm Lowry at Cambridge, and encouraged him in the writing of his first novel, Ultramarine (1933). Later, when Lowry had gone to live in Mexico and Canada, Davenport was the recipient of some of his long, literary and often (at least) half-sozzled letters.

Thomas had been working on The Death of the King’s Canary at intervals for a few years. It was to be a spoof crime story that broke all the rules, and had every bizarre improbability it was possible to cram in. There was already, it is true, a tradition of literary crime novels, in which obscure knowledge about a minor poem might provide the vital clue, or where characters bandied apposite quotations with each other: Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes were the leading writers in this field, now often referred to as the “donnish” detective story.

It would be putting it mildly to say that Thomas’s book wasn’t in that tradition. Instead, his book was to be a surreal romp, and a fast-flowing satire. It was also going to be so vigorous and bold that its popularity would be assured, and royalties would flow: the usually impecunious Thomas would soon be in funds. Privately, friends doubted if it would ever be finished, or even very far begun. It was usually composed in bars, with suggestions and passages thrown in by whoever was around.

But, unexpectedly, it did finally find some sort of shape in the Marshfield studio, with Thomas and Davenport writing alternate chapters, or possibly alternative sentences, or simply working together in some wayward, improvised duet of their own devising. They each appeared in the book, too, growing larger in it as it progressed, John Davenport as Tom Asgard, and Dylan Thomas as Owen Tudor.

The King’s Canary of the title is the Poet Laureate. A vacancy has occurred and the Prime Minister is, somewhat improbably, reading the work of the possible successors and weighing up whom to advise the King to appoint. This dilemma could indeed be quite a real one. When Alfred, Lord Tennyson had died in 1892, there were difficulties with the personal reputation or the politics of the most obvious choices, Algernon Swinburne and William Morris. But none of the other candidates, such as Sir Edwin Arnold and Sir Lewis Morris, had anything like the stature of the late lord.

The appointment was only reluctantly made four years later, when in 1896 it was given to Alfred Austin. This poet’s politics were sound, so far as the statesmen were concerned, and he was safe in character: but his verse was largely negligible, and the news was received with near-universal derision. The appointment, even for such an honorary position, therefore required judicious handling. Any premier, or more likely his advisers, faced with the task would want to do two things: be sure enough that the choice would not revive the opprobrium of the Austin appointment; and put in place someone still with plenty of years left in them so that they did not have to bother with the whole thing again for a long while.

The Prime Minister’s deliberations in The Death of the King’s Canary provide the opportunity for Thomas and Davenport to produce parodies, under lightly disguised names, of all the likely contenders of their time (and some unlikely ones). These are often highly pointed and precise. Amongst those whose work is held up to view are Auden, Eliot, Sassoon and Edith Sitwell. The spoof of Eliot in his most vatic mode is uncannily accurate:

Everything is the same. It only differs
in the subjective mind which is the same
being or not-being, born, unborn,
a wind among leaves deciduous or dead.
It does not matter where
it does not matter.
Windfall or wordfall or a linnet’s feather
in rank orchards where perpetual turns the worm.
It is not different …

The Prime Minister’s choice falls upon Hilary Byrd, a tolerably acceptable poet whose verse he almost understands, and whose father he happens to know. Despite his weary diligence, the choice is still greeted with almost as much derision as the Austin appointment. Nevertheless, most of the rivals for the title agree to attend a banquet held by the new laureate to celebrate.

It is at this point that the conventional set-up for a detective story is outlined: we are in a picturesque locale, somewhat aside from the outer world, and the place is teeming with potential suspects, each with a grudge. But it is not only poets who are paraded through the book. Aleister Crowley appears as the Great Raven, telling fortunes at a midsummer fair, which also features a circle of dwarfs, a bearded lady, hermaphrodites, and a thinly disguised Augustus John.

“We shall soon make money and enemies,” Thomas had hopefully proclaimed to Davenport. Alas, the book was found to be too full of potential libels to be published, and it did not appear for well over thirty years. It was not until 1976 that it was thought (though even then with some misgivings) to be safe enough to publish. Although the tale is not on the whole well-regarded by crime fiction aficionados, it has a certain élan and undoubtedly succeeds in its aim of spoofing both this form and the modern poetry circles in which Dylan Thomas so uproariously moved.

Mark Valentine

Friday, July 14, 2017

Supernatural Tales 35


The latest issue of the long-running and much-relished journal Supernatural Tales, edited by David Longhorn, has just been announced. Issue 35 offers seven stories both from stalwarts of the field and newer names, "covering every possible topic from ancient legends to weird local customs to entities from beyond our mundane realm. And then some." These are:

'Absolute Possession' by Charles Wilkinson
'The Scarlet Door' by Mark Valentine
'A Russian Nesting Demon' by Andrew Alford
'The Subliminals' Pt 1. by Michael Chislett
'To Utter Dust' by Mat Joiner
'The House at Twilight' by John Howard
'Gold' by Helen Grant

In 'The Scarlet Door', three keen book-collectors decide to search in dusty old bookshops for any books that are not on the net, not in any digital catalogue, never caught by any corporation, unknown to the online world. They want to keep them secret, so that some words will always remain free in the wild. Books of this sort, they find, generally come into three categories: poetry, pornography and prophecy. Each choosing one as their specialism, that's where they concentrate their efforts.

But what if certain books have their own defences?

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Did Branwell Write 'Wuthering Heights'?


In Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (1932), Mr Mybug (portrayed as somewhat eccentric) is writing a book to show that Branwell Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights:

‘“You see, it’s obvious that it’s his book and not Emily’s. No woman could have written that. It’s male stuff…”’

His further theory is that it was Branwell’s sisters who were drunkards, not he, and that they passed the books off (he had written Shirley and Villette too) as theirs so they could get money for drink. Flora, the heroine, raises some not unreasonable objections, but Mr Mybug has answers for each of them, at least to his own satisfaction. '“There isn’t an intelligent person in Europe today who really believes Emily wrote the Heights,”' he avers.

Most readers have probably assumed this was all Stella Gibbons' entertaining invention. But in fact there were indeed real Branwellians. The idea had already been put forward before the publication of her comic satire, though lacking the picturesque extension that he had written any other Bronte books.

The main champion of the Branwellian hypothesis was Alice Law, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Historical Society. Her book Patrick Branwell Bronte (London: A M Philpot, no date, but c. 1924) offers a short biography of her subject, and a selection of his poems, but its main purpose is to advance the idea that Wuthering Heights was largely his work. Chapter V is entitled “’Wuthering Heights’ – by Emily?” and Chapter VI is entitled “’Wuthering Heights’ – by Branwell?”.

I had in fact come across this proposition before, in a copy of John O’London’s Weekly, the popular book magazine. A correspondent had written to their letters column to give a circumstantial account of Branwell reading chapters from Wuthering Heights to a circle of local gentlemen whom he knew, and presenting it as his own work. Even if the anecdote is authentic, it is not very strong evidence of his authorship. The listeners may have simply assumed it was his; he might have represented it so because he thought they would give it more attention; he and Emily may have both been involved in presenting it as his for the same reason, or are as a mild joke.

Alice Law was already a published poet before she put forward the Branwellian theory. Her Songs of the Uplands appeared from T. Fisher Unwin in 1908, and Cupid and Psyche, and Other Poems from the Nineties publisher Elkin Mathews in 1919: she also put lyrics to music. She later issued volumes from what looks her like her own Old Parsonage Press at Altham, Lancs, in the Twenties and Thirties, and a further volume in the Branwellian campaign, Emily Jane Bronte and the Authorship of Wuthering Heights, came out from this imprint in 1928.

Wuthering Heights first appeared in 1847 under the pseudonym of ‘Ellis Bell’. Rumours, says Law, circulated that the book was by Charlotte. The author of Jane Eyre did not want the stormier book associated with her, so she asked Emily and Anne to accompany her on a visit to their publisher, to convince him they were three separate authors. Anne agreed: but Emily would not. The book must only be known as by ‘Ellis Bell’. In fact, avers Law, she insisted that Charlotte write to Mr Williams, the reader at their publisher Smith, Elder, now denying that each of the three sisters had written a book.

The origin of the idea that Branwell was the author comes largely from a book written by a friend of the Bronte family. This was Pictures of the Past. Memories of Men I Have Met and Places I have Seen by Francis H. Grundy (London and Edinburgh: Griffith and Farran, 1879). The author recalls a visit he made to the Parsonage at Haworth in 1846, when Charlotte was away but Branwell, Emily and Anne were present. Alice Law quotes from the book:

“Patrick Bronte declared to me, and what his sister said bore out the assertion, that he wrote a great portion of ‘Wuthering Heights’ himself. Indeed, it is impossible for me to read that story without meeting many pages which I feel certain must have come from his pen. The weird fancies of diseased genius with which he used to entertain me in our long talks at Luddenden Foot reappear in the pages of the novel, and I am inclined to believe that the very plot was his invention rather than his sister’s.”

Law states that the first attribution of the book to Emily was in Charlotte Bronte’s preface to the 1850 edition. Charlotte, she argues, genuinely thought Emily was the author: she had not been present when Mr Grundy visited in 1846. Her main further argument against Emily’s authorship, apart from the curious episode of the letter to Smith, Elder and the recollection (over 30 years later) of Mr Grundy, is that Wuthering Heights is not mentioned in the surviving letters between Anne and Emily – they are full of the secret history of Gondal, the fantasy world the two had invented.

So much for the evidence against the full authorship by Emily. What is the evidence for any authorship of the book by Branwell? Law quotes from a September, 1845, letter by him to his friend Leyland Smith: “I have, since I saw you at Halifax, devoted my hours of time…to the composition of a three-volume novel, one volume of which is completed”. This, he hopes, gives a “vivid picture of human feelings for good and evil…the conflicting feelings and clashing pursuits in our uncertain path through life.”

Further evidence is put forward by another friend of Branwell, William Dearden, in a letter to the Halifax Guardian of June, 1867. He recalled that he and Branwell met at an inn with Leyland Smith to read their poetry in a spirit of friendly rivalry: but when Branwell pulled his manuscript from under his hat, he found he had brought part of a novel “by an annoying mischance.” His friends pressed him to read this instead and he “riveted our attention for about an hour…”. It was a scene from Wuthering Heights. Dearden adds that Branwell had also read passages from the book to another friend, Edward Sloane, who recognised them at once when Ellis Bell’s book appeared.

Alice Law’s proposal is that Branwell had written significant parts of the book, that “Emily urged him to continue, and offered to help him with the copying or with the more tedious parts of the composition,” discussed it with him, and helped him to finish the work. That was why she compelled Charlotte to deny she had written it, and wished to retain the Ellis Bell attribution. But following Emily’s death, Charlotte, who had been estranged from her brother, promoted Emily as the author, in defiance of her sister’s express wishes. When the evidence of Branwell’s contemporaries emerged, much later, the image of him as a dissolute failure had already taken hold, and so the book could not be seen as his.

Just as the Shakespeare authorship controversies often begin with the assumption that a glover’s son could not have written such works, and their author must have been a sophisticated courtier, so the Branwell theory is influenced by the prejudice that a young woman could not have written so stark and powerful a book as Wuthering Heights. In both cases, of course, the premise is quite wrong. But whereas in the Shakespeare case the alternative arguments rest on very thin evidence, sometimes involving improbable ciphers, the Branwell case does at least have some curious aspects to it, in Charlotte’s behaviour and the evidence of his friends.

And it raises the question: was there ever at least part of a now lost novel by Branwell Bronte, the one Mr Grundy mis-remembered, the one he told Leyland Smith about, the one from which his other friends heard him read?

Mark Valentine