The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay

first edition, from Methuen

What is the haunted woman in David Lindsay’s The Haunted Woman haunted by? The novel starts with Isbel Loment (whose name is a wonderfully Lindsayan mix of music and tragedy), engaged to a Lloyd’s underwriter, Marshall Stokes, but in the meantime living an itinerant existence in a series of hotels with her aunt, Mrs Moor. Before her marriage, Isbel knows she must find a place for her aunt to settle, and Marshall, coming back from a trip to the United States, hears of a possibility, Runhill Court, near Steyning, in Sussex. As Isbel and her aunt are at present staying in Brighton, it’s only a short car-ride away, so an afternoon excursion is planned.

As well as showing the two women round this mostly Elizabethan mansion, Marshall has an additional assignment given to him by the house’s current owner, the 58-year-old widower Henry Judge. Judge, not presently living at the house, had some unusual experiences in the East Room, and wants Marshall’s opinion of the place. (Presumably he asked Marshall because, as Marshall himself admits, “I’m not gifted with a great deal of imagination”, and so might be expected to be down-to-earth in such matters.) But it’s Isbel who senses something strange about the place, hearing a sound in the passage leading to the East Room which the others can’t hear, and which she compares to both an orchestra tuning up, and “a telephone wire while you’re waiting for a connection”.

It’s already been revealed that Isbel has unfulfilled depths to her character. Sherrup, an artist and musician they meet briefly at Runhill Court, later tells her she’s “an artist without a profession… a lightning-rod without an outlet”, and she herself has already intimated that the rather shallow Marshall might not be the best match for her:

“I don’t know. . . . Love must be stronger than that. . . . I mean, one girl might be content with mere placid affection, and another might ask for nothing better than a thick sentimental syrup. It depends on character. My character is tragic, I fancy.”

Isbel, then, is all potential; the house, with its supernatural orchestra tuning up, is also all potential. Isbel says Runhill Court’s “atmosphere seems tragical”, so it’s obvious in which general direction all this potential is going. And when she meets the house’s owner, Henry Judge, and he says to her:

“There are deep, and possibly painful, transactions of the heart to which the term ‘romance’ would be quite inadequate…”

— she perhaps ought to know Marshall is not the man to fulfil her deeper nature, and Henry Judge is. But, already engaged as she is, society will not allow her to even think of the possibility. So constricting are the social rules by which Isbel and Judge live, it affects even their ability to feel when their deeper selves begin to suggest a route towards fulfilment.

Japanese edition

(The social world, in The Haunted Woman, is staid and placid on the surface, but vicious immediately beneath, as exemplified by Isbel’s exchanges with the widow Mrs Richborough, who also has her sights set on Judge. Judge, like all the men in the novel, except perhaps for the artist Sherrup, is oblivious to the barely-veiled subtext of what Isbel and Mrs Richborough are saying, but beneath their civilities, the two women are spitting venom and all but tearing at each other with their teeth.)

So, it’s her tragical, passionate nature that makes Isbel a haunted woman, and it requires a haunted house to bring the haunting out. Runhill Court doesn’t offer the traditional kind of haunting; its ghost is architectural. As Sherrup says of the structure that first stood where Runhill Court stands now:

“It was called Ulf’s Tower. The story is that Ulf was the original builder of the house. He lived about a hundred years after the first landing of the South Saxons… When Ulf built his house, Miss Loment, it was on haunted land. Run Hill was a waste elevation, inhabited by trolls—which, I figure, were a variety of malevolent land-sprites. Ulf didn’t care, though he was a pagan. He built his house. I gather he was a tough fellow, away above the superstitions of his time and country. And—well, one day Ulf disappears and a part of his house with him. Some of the top rooms of the Tower were clean carried off by the trolls; it happened to be the east end of the house, the nearest to their happy hunting-grounds. That was the very last that was heard of Ulf, but all through the centuries folks have been jumping up to announce that they’ve caught sight of the lost rooms. . . . ”

These rooms, accessible by a staircase that appears only to certain people at certain times, are where the story of Isbel and Judge’s true selves play out. The idea that it’s only in a place supernaturally removed from the day-to-day world that we can even start to make contact with our deeper feelings, our truer instincts, is typically uncompromising of David Lindsay. What’s worse, as soon as Isbel and Judge leave the rooms, they return to their everyday mindsets and forget everything that has just happened, even their most heartfelt vows and life-changing decisions.

Unlike A Voyage to Arcturus, The Haunted Woman offers no explicit, final explanation. Isbel has no Krag to tell her what it all means. This is one of the characteristics of Lindsay’s novels between Arcturus and Devil’s Tor — the human characters get mind-blasting visions, but no clue or guidance as to what they mean or how to fit this new strata of experience into the everyday world of twenties England.

Tartarus Press edition, artwork by R B Russell

For most of The Haunted Woman, though, the meaning of the supernatural elements seems clear. Up the phantom staircase, Isbel is confronted by three doorways, and in her first three trips, she explores a different room each time. In the first room, furnished only with a mirror, she receives a vision of herself as she truly is, with all her tragical and passionate potentialities written clearly on her face. In the second room, furnished only with a couch, she meets Judge and the two can “drop the mask of convention, and talk to each other more humanly and truthfully” than in the outside world. But what of the third room? Here, there’s a window, looking out on a Spring-like, fresh world, unspoilt by man. No roads, no hedgerows. A musician plays his archaic instrument and his music awakens the pair’s passionate nature, until they’re overwhelmed, and can’t sustain the “worldly prudence on his side, angry pride on hers” that keeps them apart in the normal world. But what Lindsay does next takes it all one step further than a mere allegory of love in the face of straitening social bounds. Looking into the musician’s face kills two of the novel’s characters. The musician is not, then, the embodiment of human love or passion, but of the essentially tragic nature of the passion that’s so much a part (though submerged throughout her normal, waking life) of Isbel’s character.

David Lindsay, grainy newspaper photo, from the time of the publication of Devil’s Tor

So, passion, or love, is lifted to the level of Muspel (our true spiritual home) from A Voyage to Arcturus, as though Lindsay is saying that what Pain was in that first novel, Tragical Passion is in this one — the way out of a deceptive, ensnaring world, and the way home. (Lindsay several times in the novel links passion with pain — and music — as when he describes the sound of the musician’s bowed instrument as “low, fierce, passionate, exactly resembling a deep, forced human cry of love-pain.”)

This feeling that the coming together of a man and woman in a deeply meaningful, but deeply tragical and troubled manner, is the closest the living can come to a sort of reconnection with their deeper, truer selves, is reiterated in The Violet Apple, and intensified in Devil’s Tor. (I’d say it also has a hint of fairy-tale fulfilment at the end of The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly.) It obviously had great meaning for David Lindsay, and is certainly an argument for regarding his post-Arcturus novels not as commercial compromises (as they’re often seen), but as genuine attempts to further his understanding of his own ideas.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth Exhibition

The Bodleian Library in Oxford is currently (1st June to 28th October) running an exhibition of items from the Tolkien archives. I’ve never been one to bask in, for instance, the particular chair an author wrote in (the chair from Tolkien’s study, and his little writing desk, are both on display), nor to get much from standing in the presence of an original manuscript, unless it’s been made more interesting with doodles (as with Mervyn Peake) or interesting corrections. I was, though, genuinely thrilled to see some of Tolkien’s original artwork, including two I must have known since first reading The Hobbit around the age of 10 or 11 — “A Conversation with Smaug”, which was used as the cover to my copy of The Hobbit, and his illustration of the trolls.

“A Conversation with Smaug” by Tolkien

What struck me about both was how small they were. Neither seemed appreciably bigger than the state in which I’d first seen them, i.e. the page-size of a 1970s paperback (they were probably more hardback size). And this smallness — tinyness, even — became something of a theme throughout the exhibition. For someone who created the first modern epic-sized fantasy, Tolkien, when he wrote, and when he drew, wrote and drew very small. The thing that really brought this home was seeing a letter written by Tolkien’s mother. Her handwriting was extremely neat, quite stylistic, but extremely tiny. I can’t find an example to reproduce, but I particularly remember her letter “p”, which had a strongly angled upright, with a little curlicue at the end, joined onto a perfect little circle. The whole thing looked as regular as typewritten text, but also, of course, being handwritten, entirely unique. And also tiny. Tiny, tiny, tiny.

Moving from that to some examples of Tolkien’s own writing, in his invented scripts, seemed more of a logical step than a leap of invention — with his invented letters being based around tiny circles with lines and curlicues attached, all so neat and tiny. Not quite as tiny as Mrs Tolkien’s, but tiny nevertheless. The tinyness of Mrs Tolkien’s handwriting could, of course, be put down to her writing on small letter-paper to keep down on postage costs, but to me, the tinyness of Tolkien’s runes and handwriting makes me think more of the privacy of imaginative creation, as though, in a way, he was making his “sub-created” world out of deliberately smaller elements, to contain it within our world, not make it stand on a par with it.

And I’ve no doubt that so much practice with tiny, neat calligraphy would have given Tolkien the control of his pen (and paintbrush) needed to produce his very neat drawings and paintings. There was a quote from Tolkien reproduced alongside one of his drawings, saying that he didn’t have the patience to be an illustrator and didn’t think he could draw, but I’m always impressed by how much the more successful of his artworks work because of the sort of sparseness and control you don’t expect to find in an amateur, who’d be more given to over-drawing, filling up the page with detail to compensate for lack of skill. Tolkien seemed to know what he wanted to draw, did it to the best of his ability, then stopped. And his use of colour on occasion makes successful use of quite restrained pastel shades, another thing I don’t associate with someone who “can’t draw”.

I have to add, though, that the last thing I looked at in the exhibition was Pauline Baynes’ watercolour map of Middle-earth, and there you could definitely see the subtle touches that showed a professional was at work. Despite being the original piece, I could only detect the barest hint of supporting pencil work — a very faint line running through the centre of the curves of text naming regions of the map was about it. (The colours were also a lot subtler and brighter than the image I’ve linked to.) Pauline Bayne’s illustrations (for the Narnia books) are something I’ve known for about as long as Tolkien’s Hobbit illustrations, so that was another thrill, seeing some of her original work.

One of Tolkien’s pages from The Book of Mazarbul”

Elsewhere, there were Tolkien’s maps — not just finished versions, but some work-in-progress versions, one of which had a second layer of paper stuck onto it, where frequent rubbings-out and corrections led to his needing to redraw a section. Role-playing gamers of a certain generation will no doubt be thrilled to see one map of Middle-earth drawn on green-lined graph paper, which was, for me, the go-to stationery for your serious fantasy role-play mapping (having smaller squares than standard squared paper, it seemed you were being that much more serious). Role-players will also be happy to see Tolkien’s artistic attempts to recreate pages from the Book of Mazarbul that the Fellowship find in Moria, recording the last days of the dwarves’ attempt to reclaim their old domain. Tolkien has artistically burned the edges and added suggestive smudges of blood-like red. It could be a prop from a particularly well-made dungeon crawl.

There were also letters. On display was a reader’s report from a young Rayner Unwin on The Lord of the Rings, and a few fan letters, one in runes, one from a young Terry Pratchett (praising Smith of Wootton Major), and some illustrations to The Lord of the Rings done by Princess Margrethe, two years before she became Queen of Denmark.

All in all, a good exhibition. Not many physical objects (a chair, a collection of pipes, an old — and, again, tiny — notebook), nor many photos, but the things I got the most out of, anyway, were the originals of the illustrations and book-cover designs (those for The Lord of the Rings and the first hardback of The Hobbit were all there). The exhibition was held in one reasonably-sized room, but it didn’t feel small, thanks in part to that intriguing Tolkienian tinyness.

Quantum by Manjit Kumar

It started with an attempt to build a better light-bulb, and ended with the dissolution of our notions of reality. Quantum is the story of how our understanding — if understanding is the right word — of the subatomic world progressed from not-quite-believing in atoms at the end of the 19th century to a point at the end of the 20th century where scientists wondered if perhaps the best explanation for it all wasn’t that there were an infinite number of universes out there, enumerating each and every combination of all possible outcomes for all possible events. This could be what Lovecraft was going on about in the opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu” (first published in 1920, the year the two main protagonists of Manjit Kumar’s narrative, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, met for the first time):

“…some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Max Planck

Although, so far, we’ve done neither.

Quantum begins with Max Planck sitting down to work out some equations that tally with the results of experiments into the relationship between the temperature of a piece of metal (the filament in a light-bulb, for instance), and the light it emits. But Planck’s equations were a bit of a hack, because they had no scientific reasoning behind them. So, once he’d got them, he set about trying to explain why they worked. And he found an answer, but only — to his chagrin — by bringing in some ideas he didn’t quite agree with, such as the existence of atoms, and also the idea that energy, in this light-bulb set-up, had to be released in discrete, tiny packets, rather than as a continuous flow.

It was Albert Einstein who took things a step further, using this idea of quantised energy to solve one of physics’s then-mysteries, the photoelectric effect (the fact that electrons are emitted from metal when it’s exposed to electromagnetic radiation, but only if the radiation exceeds a certain minimum wavelength), publishing a paper on it in the same year (1905) as his name-making paper on the special theory of relativity. This idea of energy quanta, it seemed, could explain things classical physics couldn’t.

Niels Bohr

Increasingly, what became known as “the Copenhagen interpretation” came to dominate the world of quantum theory. This centred around Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who thought that asking what quantum mechanics meant, in terms of how it explained physical reality, was a nonsensical question. What mattered was that the theory predicted results that were verified by experiments. To ask more of it — that, for instance, it might paint a visualisable picture of reality at the subatomic level — was to ask too much. After all, we couldn’t ask what an electron looked like, it was just too small an entity to affect the light waves we human beings use for looking. In fact, the only way to know anything about an electron, or any other subatomic entity, was to interact with it in some disruptive way, and measure the results. The old idea of a scientist as a passive observer didn’t work at such a tiny level, when observation meant active interference. And measuring one aspect of a subatomic entity’s state in this knockabout way blurred any chance of measuring certain complimentary aspects, thanks to what became known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. We could, then, never get the whole picture.

Albert Einstein

Einstein didn’t like this “it works, let’s leave it at that” approach. He thought physics should, as well as predicting the results of experiments, provide a model of reality. He wanted to know, for instance, that electrons were like tiny billiard balls, or tiny waves, or whatever it was they were like. He wanted a picture, not just an equation. (Which makes sense when you consider how he did his physics — mostly by sitting down and imagining his way through thought experiments, like what the universe would look like if you were riding on a beam of light, which is what led to his development of the special theory of relativity.)

Our (by which I don’t mean “my”) understanding of quantum reality advanced through the work of a lot of scientists, some of whose differences (as between Heisenberg’s “matrix mechanics” and Schrödinger’s “wave mechanics” approaches) could get pretty personal, as though this were a matter of faith rather than science. (Even when matrix mechanics and wave mechanics were proved to be mathematically equivalent, Heisenberg got annoyed at how his method was sidelined by physicists who found Schrödinger’s easier to work with.)

But always at the core of it were Einstein and Bohr. Einstein loved coming up with often stunningly simple theoretical experiments to thwart the consistency of Bohr’s “Copenhagen interpretation”, after which Bohr would spend frantic hours or even days trying to see through them — which he always would. Einstein, still the more famous name today, came to seem to his colleagues at the time like the old man of yesterday’s science, stuck in the past by his refusal to be convinced by this new approach, while incoming generations took up Bohr’s approach unquestioningly, simply because it worked.

Despite this difference, Einstein and Bohr maintained a mutual respect and friendship throughout most of their lives. A distance grew between them when Bohr became increasingly exasperated by Einstein’s refusal to accept the “Copenhagen interpretation”, but this was perhaps as much down to physical distance as a philosophical one, once Einstein moved to the US (driven there by Nazi Germany’s ridiculous need to purge itself of “Jewish science”), and there’s a wonderful anecdote in the book of how, on a visit to America, Bohr was dictating a letter, staring out of the window, and at one point paused to think over the one subject that constantly preoccupied his mind. Musing aloud, he muttered, “Einstein… Einstein… Einstein,” only to turn and find the man himself standing there as if summoned by name. (Einstein had, it turned out, snuck in to purloin a little of his friend’s pipe tobacco.)

The thing I liked about Kumar’s Quantum is that it’s not so much an explanation of quantum mechanics as the story of its discovery, and the lives of the scientists who helped it at each step. It’s about the collaborative, discursive and sometimes competitive struggle to both advance science and make a name for oneself, and the battle between reaching understanding and finding something that just works. At times, it reminded me a bit of my reading of Gareth Williams’s book on the Loch Ness monster — another (sometimes) scientific quest for an unexplainable beast. Of course, there’s a big difference. The Loch Ness monster remains to be found, while the quantum, even though it will never be seen, has proven its existence consistently through experimentation and practical results.

As to what a quantum is, and what its existence means… There, it still seems as much of a hard-to-pin-down beast as Nessie herself. Analogies with concepts that apply to our macro-level, human-sized world, just don’t work. Whenever we poke at a subatomic entity to try to work out what it is, the very act of poking prevents our being able to grasp its fuller nature. Treat it like a wave — measure its wavelength — and it acts like a wave, giving you a wavelength. Treat it like a particle — measure its momentum — and it acts like a particle, giving you its momentum. But once it’s done that, it won’t give you the other side of its dual nature. Mathematically, it acts more like a probability than a solid thing. It’s all very confusing. Whatever it is, down there, that is a quantum, whatever strange soup of indecision it’s swimming in, the only law it seems to obey is that, the closer you move towards it, the stranger it gets.

(Any scientific errors in the above account are entirely down to my own Uncertainty Principle, which states that this Mewsings may be an article, or it may be a rave, but it’s probably a bit of both.)