Escaping from Belfast

V.S. Pritchett

  • Green Avenue: The Life and Writings of Forrest Reid 1875-1947 by Brian Taylor
    Cambridge, 218 pp, £12.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 521 22801 8

Early in 1923, when I was a very naive and untrained newspaper correspondent in Dublin, it was my duty to take a regular trip to Belfast and to find out what was going on politically in that depressing and bigoted city of linen mills and shipyards. The Orangemen were contemptuous of the Southern Irish and had a blustering condescension to Englishmen like myself, and one of the few people whose talk was a relief from this was Forrest Reid, a novelist and critic in his late forties, admired by Yeats, Forster and Walter de la Mare, but almost ignored in his own city at that time.

His family had belonged to the merchant class, who were relatively free of the political stubbornness which was extreme among the industrialists and their workers. He himself was totally indifferent to Irish or to any other brand of politics. He had broken with the Christian faith and was a professed pagan of the Classical Greek persuasion – certainly without the Gaelic nostalgia of the South, despite his friendship with Yeats. I found him living alone on the top floor of a shabby house in a noisy and dirty factory district. His room was bare and poor, and only packed shelves of books, carefully bound in white paper covers to protect them from smoke and smuts, suggested the bibliophile and the scholar. A pile of novels for review stood on his table, alongside his papers and pencils, and the remains of a cold leg of mutton which, I imagined, had to last the week, and during our talks he would sit near to a miserable little fire, shyly drawing intricate patterns with a poker in the soot on the back of the fireplace. I had never met a book-reviewer before, had not read any of his novels, and though by this time I had heard talk of mysticism, the supernatural, visions, and of reality dissolving into dream, these subjects were above my head and beyond my inclination.

But his talk was quiet and enlightening. He did once or twice mention that E.M. Forster was a friend of his and that he knew Cambridge, and this explained why his speech was free of the mournful glottal-bottle blurting of Ulster address; as I had not heard of Forster at the time, this made Reid even stranger to me. The certainty was that he was one more example of the ‘quare fellow’ or of the large population of Ireland’s eternal bachelors. He was 48. I left Ireland, and not until years later, when I read Apostate, the account of his upbringing in Belfast, did I understand that he was more than a shabby and kindly eccentric schoolmasterish man. He was ugly in a fascinating way because of his high block-like forehead and his broad nose that turned up at the tip as if in ironic inquiry, but there was a kind of genius in his truthful portraits of boys as the wary or daring young animal grows up.

His present biographer mentions that Reid’s small feet had high insteps, which – to me, at any rate – suggests someone capable of springing into some other air. I had not noticed his feet, nor did I know that this lonely and engaging man was a pederast – one who found the homosexual and heterosexual acts ‘disgusting’ and who had sublimated his desires in tutorial friendships that, perforce, would die as those he loved grew up, got tired of him or married – the last hard for him to bear.

An earlier biographer of Forrest Reid – Russell Burlingham – found this subject difficult to discuss in 1953. So, even now, does Brian Taylor, but he has treated it with delicacy and understanding. If Forrest Reid was ‘a case’, Taylor shows that ‘a case’ is in itself a crude simplification of a life. All ‘cases’ are different: Reid was an instance of the man whose desires are overruled by his affections and his principles. He spoke frankly of his ‘arrested development’, and, as Taylor shows, it led to a lifelong preoccupation with the intervention of dream-like moments in reality. As a youth – in Belfast, of all places – he had been under the influence of Henry James to the point of writing to the Master boldly and getting flattering replies. As for the ‘pagan supernatural’, that had been stimulated by Forster’s The Celestial Omnibus and the stories and poems of Walter de la Mare. The latter pair had become his literary counsellors and friends. He rather daringly sent his first novel to Henry James, who responded seriously: but when the Master read Reid’s second novel The Garden God, in which the portrait of a beautiful boy by G.A. Storey in the Royal Academy dissolves, and the boy turns into a phantom dressed in a silver suit riding in a forest, so that ‘something told me I was looking on either the boy’s innermost life or on some former life of his,’ James was embarrassed and angered by the platonic eroticism of the book and broke off the relationship in a panic. Edmund Gosse was not disturbed. He detected the pain in Reid’s isolation and added that ‘for people too obstinately themselves, there is always dreamland.’ A rather Barrie-like observation: but if Reid was timid and not without self-pity, he was not a sentimentalist. He found a complex resource in a Proustian obsession with memory, and a curiosity about Time. In one of his much praised later novels, Uncle Stephen, there is this passage:

Could you be in two times at once? Certainly your mind could be in one time and your body in another ... Somebody might come to you out of his time into yours. You might, for instance, come face to face with your own father as he was when he was a boy. Of course, you wouldn’t know each other; still you might meet and become friends, the way you do with people in dreams.

Reid seems to be stating, as Brian Taylor suggests, his perennial concern with a boy’s search for a father and a childless man’s search for a son, for ‘companionship and understanding’.

Forrest Reid was the youngest and not much wanted son of a Belfast merchant whose business was failing and of a mother of an old aristocratic English family who could not conceal that she had married beneath her. This story is told in Apostate. Reid’s passionate love was given totally to his nurse, Emma, who after a few years left home suddenly without explanation: he could love no woman after that. After his father’s early death, the family went further down hill, the neglected boy played with ‘rough’ boys in the streets and was a pain to his older sisters. He was ugly, but his boyish animal spirits were high and he was clever. He left a good school early and was put to work in a tea merchant’s office, an easy trade, for he found it simple to hide in a storeroom and read Greek and was determined to write. In loneliness, his search for friendship was fierce and possessive. He was already a Platonist. His mother’s death freed him from the tea trade, for he was left a small legacy, and, at last, got what he wanted – a place at Cambridge – but far too late. (He was nearly thirty and said he got little out of his time there.) He can be said to have been penned in by autobiography all his life, writing version after version of his boyhood experience, in nearly all his novels, and becoming obsessed about ‘getting it right’ while evading – as was inevitable in his time – the sexual dilemma. Perhaps the pagan did not quite suppress the Presbyterian, and he was left, as he said, ‘intractable’ in his companionship with the one or two men with whom he lived in a tutor-pupil relationship.

The striking things in Reid’s writings are the clarity of his descriptive style, his fervid response to landscape and his totally unsentimental, almost minute-to-minute evocations of the changes in a boy’s real and imaginative experience as he passes from childhood to youth and the loss of wild innocence. He recalls what the day brought and felt like without affectation and what most of us have inevitably generalised or forgotten in growing up. We have forgotten, also, the passing dreams that suddenly came and abruptly vanished. His obsession, or perhaps a half-humorous pedantry, obliged him to try and try again exactly to recover those moments – which of course narrowed his scope – and the many quotations here from scenes in his novels and from his letters make this point. One is especially struck by the curious fact that Aksakov’s memories of his childhood under the rule of a dominant mother was one of Reid’s favourite books – one more example of a natural sympathy between some Irish writing and the Russian feeling for the vivid and troubled hour of the day. The pagan Greek ideal has something precious and Ninetyish in it, and this Russian naturalness seems to me a more valuable influence on his talent, although Reid’s Irishness was almost non-existent, except in that pure, direct response to the natural scene, whereas Aksakov’s Russianness was historically Slavophil and innate.

Reid has been thought of as a provincial and escapist: he accepted that. He wrote in a letter that he preferred ‘the literature of escape and what I should call the literature of imagination, for the escape is from the impermanent’. Brian Taylor refers to Russell Burlingham’s Portrait and Study for purely literary criticism. Taylor’s is a sensitive and intelligent study of Reid’s dilemma without the dramatising aid of Freudian or sociological fictions. As a person, Reid becomes very clear, sad and droll. He was soon to leave that bare room where I first listened to his talk and his friendly silences. He moved to a council house outside Belfast with his adored dogs and his current friend, perpetuating a kind of boyhood, smoking his pipe as though he were a Belfast chimney. He could be testy at the card-table. He was barricaded by an ever-growing pile of first editions, he pondered his stamp collection, and was loftily resigned to being more avidly read for his excellent book reviews than – as far as the large public was concerned – for his admired and not very saleable novels. He did attain a local fame. One claim he could make: the scrupulous artist had reserves of sudden extrovert fierceness and triumphant skill and cunning – he could win Challenge Cups at croquet all over England and Ireland. No sublimation there: he was certain to get through those hoops.