The Orissers by L H Myers

I’ve long been meaning to read something by Leopold Hamilton Myers (1881–1944), one of David Lindsay’s few literary friends. Unlike Lindsay, Myers seems to have achieved both popular and critical success in his own lifetime; again unlike Lindsay, he’s almost entirely forgotten today. The Orissers was his first novel (though he’d published a verse-play, Arvat, in 1908). He started working on it around 1909, and it was published in 1922, initially in a large-format limited edition, which was, ironically, easier for me to find and buy than its standard first edition. So, I’ve ended up with a signed copy, little smaller than a shoe-box, with a letter from Myers to the owner pasted in (see below).

The titular Orisser family have lived on the country estate of Eamor for generations. At the opening of the novel their latest patriarch, the archaeologist Sir Charles Orisser, has given in to impulse and taken a new, young wife, Lilian (a cousin, so also an Orisser). After this he feels the need to amass more money, makes bad investments, ends up broke and kills himself. Lilian, now penniless and living in an enormous house, receives an offer of marriage from a former admirer, another much older man, the business tycoon John Mayne. Mayne promises to pay off all her husband’s debts if she marries him, and to bequeath Eamor back to her when he dies, so it will remain in the hands of the Orissers. But the marriage doesn’t go well. Lilian continues to live in Eamor — away from her husband — and when Mayne becomes ill, the family start to doubt he really is going to will the house back to them, considering how Lilian failed to live up to his expectations as a wife.

It’s easy to see from this summary why the novel attracted comparisons with E M Forster, as both The Orissers and Howards End are about the ownership of a beloved house, fought over by two families, one worldly and business-wise, the other artistic or unworldly in some way. (Forster met Myers just once, and found him “chilly”.) It’s perhaps less easy to see why the novel was also compared by at least one reviewer to Wuthering Heights, but I suspect this comes about because of a rather odd character, Cosmo Orisser, who is surely the most interesting in the book — or would be, if he was allowed to actually appear on the page, rather than having his exploits mostly related secondhand, before finally turning up only to drop dead.

Cosmo seems like just the sort of character who’d have appeared in Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (and Wilson did write about Myers in his essay collection Eagle & Earwig, saying “there are few novelists who make such an excellent impression”, but probably referring here to his later books). Here’s Cosmo — “the world abhorring and by the world abhorred”:

“Cosmo was a magnificent creature. His great physical vitality was matched by the fire of his spirit. One felt that his body with all its energies was subjugated to his imperious mind. What, then, was the reason of his failure in life?”

What indeed? Cosmo is a mystery Myers doesn’t provide us with enough clues to solve. (There’s one incident early in the novel — related secondhand, of course, and not once but twice — where Cosmo, on holiday in a foreign country, stabs his rich host, only to nurse him back to health and part on seemingly good terms. Lilian walks in on the scene, but refuses to say something key about it, which only makes me wonder what we’re meant to understand about what really happened. Was Cosmo involved in a homosexual affair with his host, for instance? It’s the only thing I can think, but despite having two separate characters relate the incident, Myers evades the slightest hint for both the stabbing and the parting on good terms.) Cosmo then spends the rest of the novel either fevered, mad, or just plain dangerous to know:

“Every hour spent in Cosmo’s company added to his wonder at the strange combination of wisdom and folly, insight and blindness, that his companion presented. Unreasonable as Cosmo was, there was yet much to admire in his extreme sensitiveness to all that was unlovely and mean in the spiritual as well as in the material life…”

Cosmo, though, feels like a character from another novel — perhaps one by Dostoevsky — who’s occasionally glimpsed from this far more sedate and Englishly-reserved one.

John Mayne is the other impressive character, though more of the George Bernard Shaw than the Colin Wilson Outsider type, justifying his money-making with no apologies about being so rich. Like Cosmo, though, he spends most of the novel off-page, even when he’s in the same house as the other characters. I can’t really remember if he makes an actual appearance before his death near the end, which finally precipitates the events the previous pages have been building towards.

I say “building”, but really, there’s an awful lot of novel before things start doing even that. This is a long book, and I have to say I found the first three quarters, if not more, often quite tedious. Myers brought on his characters — apart from those interesting two, who we only hear about — and just seemed to shift them about like a chess player trying to decide which move to make. The main characters are one Allen Allen — and any other novelist, surely, would have explained why his main character has the same name twice, or even make a joke about it, but not Myers — and the young Nicholas Orisser. Much time is spent on Nicholas’s existential pains, and his agonising over an affair he proceeds to have, then break off. None of which I cared about. Nicholas, I couldn’t help feeling, was something of a first-novel repository of his author’s pent-up feelings about his young self, but lacks the sort of distance that might hone such a mess of adolescent angst into something interesting. It all felt a little squalid and self-directed.

At other points, Myers seemed to be struggling with what to do with his characters. At one stage, young Nicholas even reads Allen Allen an essay he’s written on the meaning of the other characters in the novel, with no irony or postmodernism intended. (And this brings out another flaw in the book. Myers likes to tell us things about his characters, but doesn’t actually make those characters live up to what he tells us about them. It’s as though he’s desperately flinging depth at them, but it refuses to stick.)

I kept reading because I’d glimpsed a discussion near the end in which Nicholas and Allen talk about “the Great Mother”, and wondered if this might have been read by David Lindsay — who surely must have read his friend’s novel — and in some way influenced Devil’s Tor. But Myers’ characters have none of Lindsay’s mystical feelings. To Nicholas, the Great Mother is the force of nature that drives men to find a mate and reproduce, nothing more. Allen Allen has a slightly deeper view:

“Yes, in you it is Venus, not Isis—not Isis, the sacred mother of life, upon whose statue was engraved the words: ‘I am that which is, has been, and shall be.’”

But still it’s not Lindsay’s cosmic quest for a meaning behind it all.

The one thing I will say about The Orissers, though, is that it ended well. Suddenly, in the last quarter (or probably less), with John Mayne newly dead and the other characters manoeuvring around some wills and other documents, things build to a genuinely tense and dramatic confrontation. All taking place in one room, with a small cast of characters, it could have made a good short play, or a taut novella — though how much of the previous bagginess was required as a build-up, I don’t know.

The letter pasted into my copy of The Orissers, dated 5 Aug 1927: “Dear Sir, I am grateful to you for writing to me. Private letters of appreciation mean much more to me than reviews. I put a great deal of work & feeling into that book,—and letters such as yours make one feel that it was worth while. I am now engaged on another serious book like The Orissers; The Clio was an interlude, an experiment in another vein. Thanking you for writing, I am yours truly, L H Myers.”

L H Myers. As Virginia Woolf wrote of him: “like a du Maurier drawing; such a perfect white waistcoat and his grizzled distinguished head. But he still looks like a sleepy viper…”

Myers is an intriguing man. The one fact always brought up in every biographical summary of him, however short, is that his father was F W H Myers, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research. (It’s thanks to L H Myers that his father’s Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death was compiled, abridged, and published, after its author’s death — and, it has to be said, that same author’s failure to turn up at his appointed return from said death.) Myers himself made some interesting friendships — with Olaf Stapledon, David Lindsay, and L P Hartley, to name but three who have appeared on this blog — but towards the end of his life rejected them all. (Apparently, he wrote to his wealthy friends, saying that, despite his affection for them, he never wished to set eyes on them again.) Born into wealth and taking full advantage of it, Myers nevertheless considered financial inequality to be one of the main sources of the world’s ills. (Frances Partridge, in her diary, writes of him: “Once when lunching at Claridges I couldn’t help commenting on the contrast between our surroundings (oozing money and privilege) with the theories he was propounding. ‘Yes, I know,’ he said, ‘but that has absolutely no bearing on their validity.’”)

Despite The Orissers being something of a stodgy read, that ending made me wonder if he hadn’t burned away all the first-novel dross most writers get done with in their unpublished works. (Myers, being rich and well-connected, was perhaps denied the sort of publisher’s rejection he needed to make him try again and do better. I’m pretty sure his first novel’s publication was at least partly paid for by Myers himself, and some of its good reviews came about through friendship rather than literary judgement.) So, I also read his next and much shorter novel, The Clio. And, it turned out, Myers had learned something after all…

Add a comment...

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *