Mary Rose by J M Barrie

MaryRoseMary Rose is, literally, a sinister play: right-handed J M Barrie, suffering writer’s cramp, wrote it with his left hand. It is, in a way, the anti-Peter Pan, dealing not with the wonderful adventures of children in Never Never Land, but with the loss felt by those left behind — an adult play, rather than one for children, and a post-World War play, too, rather than one set in the Arcadian Edwardian era of long, golden summers.

It starts with a young man, Harry, visiting the house he used to live in before he ran away to sea at the age of 12. Now empty and a long time on the market, the house is reputed to be haunted, though its stony caretaker, Mrs Otery, is not to be drawn on the matter. The second act gives us the back-story: when she was eleven, a young girl called Mary Rose disappeared, for twenty days, on a small island in the Hebrides, where she had been sketching whilst her father fished. Her parents were frantic; but then Mary Rose returned thinking only a few hours had passed. As a grown-up woman she apparently remembers nothing of the incident, though feels a vague fondness for the island. She tries to convince her husband-to-be Simon to spend their honeymoon there. He, having been told what happened, thinks better of it, until several years into their marriage, by which time they have a two-year-old boy, and Simon has grown to disbelieve the story about Mary Rose’s disappearance. They visit the island, and she disappears again — not for twenty days this time, but twenty-five years. When she returns, she’s not a day older. Everyone else, of course, has aged: her parents are now old, her husband is grey and used to being alone, her baby boy has grown up and run away to sea. The play, which for much of its time is a lightly comic portrait of a rather idealised, Edwardian ‘perfect’ marriage — with the man being decent, strong and a little stupid, and the woman being quirky, wilful and doting — is bookended by a sense of utter loss, both loss-through-absence and an even worse sort of loss, when the presence of someone longed-for or loved but irretrievably changed only serves as a reminder of all that is lost. Mary Rose’s parents, Mr and Mrs Morland, lose Mary Rose (at first through marriage, though she continues to live at home, then to the mysterious island); husband Simon loses his wife; Mary Rose loses her parents and her husband and her child. When she returns after her second absence, the years have come between her and those that remain, and she can only pine for her baby, who is now not only grown up but run away. This multi-generational, omnidirectional sense of loss is even more concentrated on the boy, Harry, whose running away at the age of twelve isn’t explained, but could be seen as an attempt to lose even himself, having spent his early years so overshadowed by the loss of his mother.

coverOften described as a ghost play (because, even though she’s said to have died, Mary Rose somehow lingers in the house to which she returned, acting as both a playful, absent-minded child, and a pining mother), Mary Rose resonates just as much with fairy stories about people who disappear — as in Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall, or, much more intensely, Alan Garner’s Boneland — or who disappear then return — as in Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale — only to feel severed from those they once loved. The key fantasy element, Mary Rose’s disappearance, is never explained. (The island is known as ‘The Island that Likes to be Visited’, though as a local notes, ‘an island that had visitors would not need to want to be visited’.) Perhaps this is why the overlap between the ghostly and the fairy seems to work so well: it gives the play an uncompromising feeling of dropping you into an utterly unexplained abyss, a terrible fact that is just there, and which can never be assimilated or ameliorated. Which is, of course, what loss feels like.

J M BarrieIt’s easy to see parallels with J M Barrie’s life. When his elder brother (his mother’s favourite) died in a skating accident just before turning 14, Barrie tried but failed to take the boy’s place. Later in life he adopted the Davies children (one of whom inspired Peter Pan), after both their parents died; then Barrie’s favourite of those children, George, died in the War. But it’s odd the play doesn’t feel, to me, to be about death, as such, but about a mix of both absence and presence — and a very physical presence, at that (Mary Rose, as a ghost, is not insubstantial, though the caretaker Mrs Otery says ‘she’s as light as air’, linking her with Peter Pan). Of all the parallels in J M Barrie’s life, Mary Rose herself seems most like Barrie’s mother, depressed after the death of her most beloved child, and failing to recognise that child in Barrie himself, who was trying to play the role.

Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a film of Mary Rose, though it feels like, with Vertigo, he already did, as that film is also about a very physical haunting, centred on a woman who seems trapped in the past and unable to make an emotional connection the male lead desperately needs. If any film captures Mary Rose’s sense of sudden, utterly unexplainable loss, though, it has to be Picnic at Hanging Rock.

tartarus_2004One more connection I’d love to make — and it almost but perhaps doesn’t fit — is with David Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. Both Lindsay’s novel and Barrie’s play start with someone going over a house being put up for sale, and both deal with a room in that house which is sometimes, unexplainably and supernaturally, inaccessible. (In Mary Rose, the room is the nursery, whose door, though unlocked, is sometimes ‘held’; in The Haunted Woman, there’s a staircase that appears to some people, not to others, and only at certain times, giving access to an area described as ‘far and away the oldest part of the house’ — just as the ‘held’ room in Mary Rose is also ‘the oldest part of the house’.) I like to think of Lindsay — whose books make a lot of reference to theatres, plays, and so on — going to see Barrie’s play and getting the seed of an idea which sparked off his own, very strange, reinterpretation. Mary Rose was first performed on April 22nd, 1920 at the Haymarket Theatre, London; David Lindsay, apparently, began work on The Haunted Woman immediately after the acceptance of his first novel, which was finished in March 1920. Does this fit? I don’t know. But both times I’ve read Mary Rose, the opening reminds me of Lindsay’s second novel.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Henry JamesThe first time I read The Turn of the Screw, I hated it. I hated the over-stuffy prose, which seemed to be hiding a good ghost story behind thickets of Victorian verbiage so tangled the only emotion to get through was the most insistently hysterical. The characters seemed nothing more than embodiments of the era’s most conventional attitudes: the oh-so-angelic children, the distant, paternalistic gentleman-employer who of course knows best about everything, the loyal housekeeper with an unquestioning faith in her superiors, and the governess, a wide-eyed innocent country parson’s daughter on her first adventure out into the world…

And then, on a recent re-read, I realised this was, of course, the point. The story, told by the governess (that country parson’s daughter on her first adventure into the world) is infused with her hysterical insistence that things be as the Victorian world liked to pretend they should be, precisely when they’re revealing themselves to be the opposite. Those thickets of Victorian verbiage are her way of trying to keep a destabilised world in check, a world in which children aren’t little angels but human beings (and so can seem, at times, like devils); a world in which distant paternalistic gentleman-employers don’t know best, but simply don’t care; a world in which some servants aren’t so unquestioning and loyal.

turn-of-the-screw-01I suppose what wrongfooted me on that first read was I expected The Turn of the Screw to be a ‘straightforward’ ghost story (which was the only type I’d read, at the time). By this I mean a story in which a normal world is invaded by the supernatural. To make this sort of ‘straightforward’ ghost story work, you need characters who are straightforwardly normal, whose very normality acts as a baseline to which the abnormality of the supernatural can be compared. But The Turn of the Screw isn’t of this type. It is, I’d say, one of the first truly modern ghost stories, whose characteristic is that they tangle the supernatural with the psychological to such a degree it’s impossible to unravel the two.

The Turn of the Screw is the famous example of a ghost story that can be read entirely psychologically (the governess, coming apart at the seams, hallucinates ghosts as an expression of her own super-heated repressions) or supernaturally. As someone who doesn’t like their ghosts to be explained away, but who also likes the fantastic to feel psychologically significant, I prefer to read it as the perfect meeting of haunters and haunted — a pair of ghosts who, though real, fit exactly into the dark cracks of an unhinged, still-living mind. The governess, in The Turn of the Screw, is as much a monster as that ‘horror’, the dead manservant Peter Quint, only she’s a monster of the opposite extreme: Quint is ‘much too free’; the governess is as tight-laced and primly judgemental as any inexperienced, over-romantic Victorian pastor’s daughter can be. And whereas Quint is transgressive of all boundaries — between the classes, between the sexes, between adult and child, and, now, between life and death — the governess insists on everything being filed way into the absolute, binary opposites of her age: people are either ‘gentlemen’ or they are ‘horrors’, children are ‘angelic’ and innocent or ‘corrupt’. While eight-year-old Flora is at first ‘the most beautiful child I had ever seen’, she is, at the end, ‘hideously hard… common and almost ugly’.

It’s the governess’s relationship with the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, that’s key to both her personality, and my own initial reaction against the novel. Once the governess realises she can, effectively, bully Mrs Grose into agreeing with her, she’s constantly finishing Mrs Grose’s sentences, forcing her own (often wild and illogical) interpretations on what Mrs Grose has seen, heard, or suspects, as though they were the only possibilities:

‘He was looking for someone else, you say – someone who was not you?’

‘He was looking for little Miles.’ A portentous clearness now possessed me. ‘That’s whom he was looking for.’

‘But how do you know?’

‘I know, I know, I know!’ My exaltation grew. ‘And you know, my dear!’

Turn_of_the_screw_02This is what I found so repellent about the book that first time I read it — the governess isn’t merely hijacking Mrs Grose’s point of view, she’s hijacking the reader’s too. No room is left for any doubt that those infamous horrors, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, are seeking to corrupt the children, and that the children are willing accomplices. And, while the governess herself freely corrupts Mrs Grose with her own hysterical insistence, she knows she can’t put words into the children’s mouths. The Turn of the Screw becomes a battle with silence — with, in a way, a sort of tortured social propriety, in which the only way to find out if something awful has happened to the children is to suggest that awfulness, but to do that is to potentially ruin what is (to the governess’s mind) most valuable about them, their innocence. So they must be made to speak without prompting, and the more they refuse to do so, the more the governess, in her twisted way, takes the children’s silence as proof of their corruption. Silence, in The Turn of the Screw, becomes a palpable thing, identical both with the ghosts (‘the silence itself — which was indeed in a manner an attestation of my strength — became the element into which I saw the figure disappear’) and with horror, too:

‘Not a word – that’s the horror. She kept it to herself! The child of eight, that child!’

The governess herself is bound to silence: by the children’s uncle, who wants someone to look after his niece and nephew and not bother him, but also by her society, that expects women to have no voice, and children to be ‘seen and not heard’. Miles’s expulsion from school is because of his saying unspecified ‘things’ (and he later steals a letter, from the governess to the uncle, which was itself an attempt to break a silence). Words are how innocence is corrupted. But, at the same time, confession — breaking silence — is linked with salvation:

‘I’ll get it out of him. He’ll meet me. He’ll confess. If he confesses he’s saved.’

The governess exists in a weird duality with the ghosts. She first sees Quint standing in the tower where she was standing some time before; when she next sees him, through a window, she feels compelled to go outside and stand where he stood, looking in, like two chess pieces chasing one another round a board. She sees Miss Jessel at the foot of the stairs, crying, then later finds herself in the same place, in the same turmoil. When she sees Miss Jessel sitting at the teacher’s desk of the schoolroom where she herself usually sits, the words she comes out with — ‘You terrible, miserable woman!’ — could be her own judgement of herself. Quint is the shadow image of her over-romanticisation of the children’s uncle; Miss Jessel is an image of her own possible ruin. The governess’s utter inability to see herself for what she is (those windows she keeps seeing Peter Quint through could be acting as mirrors), her inability to break a silence she shares with herself, are what makes her monstrous.

OWC DraculaLike the other great horror stories that came out at the time — that embarrassment of graveyard blooms from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and H G Wells’ science-fictional horrors, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor MoreauThe Turn of the Screw gets its power from a new awareness of how our inner lives can entangle us with dark powers, creating far more complex relationships with the horrific and supernatural than merely that of fear. The end of the Victorian era thus saw the creation of a set of stories that have proved fertile for more than a century of ongoing adaptations and reimaginings. Thanks to Freud and co., those Victorian times came to symbolise, in a way, repression itself. The governess of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is perhaps, then, the perfect Victorian monster, so deeply does she embody the strictures, mores, prejudices, idealisations and judgements of what we now tend to look on as an over-straitened age; but she also presents a rich portrait of human self-blindness that continues to be relevant well into the present.

Edward Gorey

I first came across mention of Edward Gorey in The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural, and instantly knew I had to read him:

“His characters perform or endure unspeakable indecencies set against Victorian and Edwardian backdrops. His preoccupations are those of a man obsessed by the terrifying randomness of daily life: rocks and urns plummet from the sky without warning; everyday objects suddenly turn menacing.”

There’s something instantly recognisable about his world of Edwardian Grimm. His strain of nonsense — bringing to the forefront the often too-casual-to-see violence & horror depicted in the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll — veers at times towards the purely surreal, but also borrows from that Roald Dahl-like reaction to moralising children’s literature that’s been going on at least since Struwwelpeter (1845, whose “Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches” might be an episode in a Gorey book), if not before. Part of the fun of his pseudo-pastiche style is that his books feel like they might have actually existed in the past, and might now be considered curios or classics of a bygone age, unconsciously horrific beneath their air of gentility. Gorey’s is both a ready-made archetypal world, and a world entirely his own, an abandoned nursery room of the imagination, where yesteryear’s toys, ill-used and left to collect spiderwebs, have attained both life and malignancy.

Gorey worked as an illustrator (also producing a lot of book covers) for some time before beginning to write and illustrate the short books he’s perhaps best known for, many of which were self-published by his Fantod Press, (some appearing under anagrammatic or punning pseudonyms), and which have subsequently been collected in a series of bumper volumes Amphigorey, Amphigorey Too, and Amphigorey Also. My two favourites are The Unstrung Harp (1953) and The Doubtful Guest (1957) (both found in Amphigorey).

extract

The Unstrung Harp relates the cyclical life of author Clavius Frederick Earbrass, showing how the writing of a novel (whose title is selected at random from “a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book”) progresses from boredom to self-doubt to gloom to despair to desperation and, post-completion, a sort of blank bemusement as to what it was all for, all wrapped up in the semi-superstitious rituals of a deeply-ingrained creative process.

In The Doubtful Guest, a peculiar, penguin-esque creature invites itself into the house of a Victwardian upper class family, mostly to get in the way, damage things, cause difficulties, and be generally exasperating in a world too reserved to express exasperation. Existing somewhere between Paddington Bear and the staring ghost monkey of Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”, it shares Mr Earbrass’s elongated profile and staring eyeball — the characteristic Gorey look that seems to combine angst, anger, despair, exasperation, resignation and a sense of cosmic dread all in one.

All at once it leapt down and ran into the hall/Where it chose to remain with its nose to the wall

The Doubtful Guest is a perfect example of how nonsense becomes sense each time it’s read. The “Guest” could be interpreted as much as a gloomy mood as an actual person, but the first time I read it, it immediately made me think of my stepfather, who appeared in our house almost as abruptly as the “Guest” and came with just as irrational, peculiar, and incomprehensible a set of habits, such as endlessly searching through legions of plastic bags while the rest of us tried to watch TV. I can imagine The Doubtful Guest as an excellent book to leave in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, or as the perfect way for a (perhaps cruel) parent to introduce a child to the concept of a new sibling on the way.

In fact, any one of Gorey’s books might usefully furnish a psychiatrist’s waiting room, if the psychiatrist were sufficiently enlightened or just plain provocative, including his alphabets that describe the various grisly ends of a series of unfortunate children (The Gashlycrumb Tinies being the most well-known), or The Curious Sofa, “a pornographic work” so abstract and discreet, it’s almost entirely chaste:

Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan

But beware. Just as with the Grimmest of fairy tales, Gorey’s atmosphere of gentility & nonsense can lull you into letting your guard down. Of his fictionalisation of the Moors Murderers’ relationship, The Loathsome Couple, he says: “I showed it to my editor at the time, and he didn’t think it was very funny, and I thought, ‘Oh really, dear, I don’t think it’s very funny either; what made you think that I thought it was funny?'” (quoted in Ascending Peculiarity, a collection of interviews with Gorey).

It’s partly because his work seems to borrow that hand-holding air you get from some children’s literature, that you don’t fully notice, till it’s too late, that the hand in question is leading you towards a pretty dangerous-looking precipice. And, perhaps, a Gorey end?