Upper-Class Contemplative

John Bayley

  • The Fountain by Charles Morgan
    Boydell, 434 pp, £4.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 85115 237 6

There is a category of novel – The Constant Nymph, The White Hotel, Love Story – which is read by everyone for a while and then sinks into limbo. Have such best-sellers anything in common? Obviously they are not – like War and Peace, say – hardy perennials. Their appeal is to something specific in the temper of the time. Going with that, perhaps, is a capacity to have their cake and eat it, and to give their readers the same treat. In Margaret Kennedy’s novel the constant nymph is both satisfyingly bohemian and reassuringly respectable – a combination appealing to the period. She is constant because she dies, and virtuous because she dies a virgin, thus releasing her paramour (and the reader) for further adventures combined with a beautiful memory. Love Story takes the formula a stage further by giving the couple a full and perfect sex-life before the heroine dies, thus releasing etc. As might be expected, the process is more subtle and more comprehensive in such a case as The White Hotel, a more ambitious and imaginative affair. But something similar is going on, enabling the reader to enjoy at the same time the authority and dignity of Freud and the pleasures of pornographic daydream, which combine to license and disinfect the genuine and disgusting horrors of a mass extermination. It seems typical of the literary appetite of our time that the three go together, and that the first two enable art to obtain a sort of false grip on the third, a grip that the Polish poet Herbert says, in his poem ‘The Pebble’, that art should never try to obtain.

In these cases, appetite soon sickens. The succeeding age is indifferent to what had pleased the former, or it protects itself from a touch of pudeur with amusement or derision. Granted that the examples are different, they all provoke disillusion after the spell has ceased to work. But having the cake and eating it is not the whole story: it could be argued that War and Peace itself does just that, letting the reader share both the excitement of warfare and the calm of a Russian idyll, the experience of both aristocrat and peasant, patriotism and pacifism. Probably all successful art works by having things all ways, but great art appeals to what is continuous in human nature. The interest of superior best-sellers, which flourish and fade, is in detecting why they appeal as they do to the spirit of the age in which they appear.

The Fountain, the novel which made Charles Morgan’s reputation, came out in 1932 and had a very considerable succès d’estime. It was much admired in France, where Morgan still has a solid reputation. Valéry admired it, writing that in Morgan’s novels ‘the song of life is always perceptible,’ that ‘a poet is latent in each of his principal characters,’ and that ‘his prose gives to love, even in the suggested presentment of its physical powers, a universal tenderness.’ All that, we might now be inclined to feel, is just the trouble. Morgan writes like a Frenchman, and the ‘beauty’ of a French style is apt to sound uneasy and false in English. Every sentence is admirably finished, so that a man scratching his head or taking down a book becomes as spiritually significant, in terms of the solid gleam of the prose, as a waterfall shining and occulting in the grounds of a great house. To make everything significant in this way, or poetic, is indeed the object of the fine writing. That a book was ‘beautifully written’ was a great and straight recommendation in the Twenties and Thirties, and The Fountain is written as beautifully as it is possible for a book to be.

But that is only the beginning. The French admired the way in which spirituality was harmoniously allied with adultery and physical passion, an alliance to which a fine French style like Valéry’s can attend with perfect ease and savoir faire. The terms in which he praises Morgan show how much Valéry himself was capable in his style of the higher vulgarity. But in French these things are managed with more chic. An example or two will show what seems to be wrong with Morgan’s prose, as with other fine writing of the period. This is the library of a castle in Holland. ‘Here indeed the hours went by in untroubled calm, there being in old books, as in a country churchyard, so deep and natural an acceptance of mortality, that to handle them and observe their brief passions, their urgent persuasions, now dissipated, now silent, is to perceive that the pressure of time is itself a vanity, a delusion in the great leisure of the spirit.’ Well, yes. But this is not just the aftermath of Walter Pater and Marius the Epicurean. The real trouble is that the words have the deprecatory tone of the well-bred Englishman being serious for a moment. They have the air of making ever so slight an apology for their own sensitivity. A French equivalent of the tone essayed in The Fountain – say, Gide’s La Porte Etroite – is as vigorous and unself-conscious as the word amour, its delicatesse genuinely full-blooded. English cadence cannot manage this without becoming too aware of itself. It has to act the part, as the heroine seems to be acting it here, when she sinks for the first time into the hero’s arms. ‘Desire remained without the terror and anger of desire. Delight shone there, but with a clear, tranquil brilliance. He sprang to his feet, drawing her towards him by both her hands, and so easily did she follow that her hair was lifted from her shoulders by the swiftness of her movement.’ ‘Bravo!’ seems the proper response.

It is worth remembering that the athletics in bed which the modern novel goes in for are beginning today to sound almost as self-consciously enacted: as if there was a gap between what the writer really felt and what he expected language to do for himself and his reader. And yet that is not the case here. Reading the novel, one is convinced that Morgan, no less than D.H. Lawrence, believes exactly what his style says, and this is curiously impressive. The difficulty is that though he may deeply believe it as a man, the style can still sound equivocal because of his well-bred English persona, the image of a spiritual gentleman. His hero and heroine are the victims of the style, instead of really embodying it. As in many one-off best-sellers, class is very important, but by no means in a simple way. Everyone can join in, because by being sensitive, and conscious of the true harmony that should exist between the social and the contemplative tradition, we can all enter ‘a certain aristocracy of the spirit’.

Like many persons born in the professional class, Morgan both resents and admires the higher gentry, but he allows this having-it-both-ways privilege to himself and the reader in a highly unusual manner, which must be the key to the book’s success. Upper-class ideals were in need of a good write-up in 1932. The disillusionment of the war, and the brutal treatment of current specimens of the gentry by Evelyn Waugh and others, had sent their stock very low indeed. The Fountain was the ideal novel for the thoughtful middle class because it unexpectedly reinstated an ideal of gentlemanliness, going with tranquillity and inner confidence, which it portrayed convincingly and with power. In Auden’s ‘low dishonest decade’ the best turned out not to lack all conviction. Identified with English history, particularly the Anglican tradition of the 17th century, the middle class could still inherit and reinvigorate their time-honoured relation with the best in society, and have sexual emancipation as well. At a time of Nazi and Communist as well as many other day dreams and ideals, the atmosphere of the book helped to suggest more civilised alternatives, and it is possible that in our day, dominated as it seems to be by various strains of new conservatism, the book might again be a success. Morgan died in 1967, never having repeated the success of The Fountain, though his reputation was, appropriately enough, high during the war, when he produced two memorable short novels, The Empty Room and The Judge’s Story, and a play scenario about escapers from Europe called The River Line, in which a man of solid integrity and spirituality is mistaken for a traitor and murdered. This has the kind of coldly sentimental drama Morgan is good at. He was a drama critic for many years, and his best scenes have the sense of the stage in them, a sense that is absent in the two rather portentous novels which followed The Fountain, Sparkenbroke and The Voyage. Both are quasi-historical. The latter, an almost motionless work with a typically Morgan heroine, is set in Bordeaux at the time of the phylloxera epidemic. Sparkenbroke is about the life and death of a creative aristocrat.

Lewis Alison, the hero of The Fountain, is with the Naval Brigade defending Antwerp in 1914, and is interned in Holland. This had been Morgan’s own experience, and both he and his hero spent a quiet war on parole at a Dutch castle. Morgan occupied himself chiefly in writing a novel, The Gunroom, about his early experiences as a midshipman in the Navy. He lost the manuscript of this when the ship on which he was returning to England was mined, but rewrote it for publication in 1919. Lewis Alison occupies himself with writing ‘a history of the contemplative life’, but he also falls in love with Julie, stepdaughter of the Baron who owns the castle. He has known Julie in her childhood, when her mother, the Baron’s second wife, was married to an English essayist. Julie herself is married to a Prussian aristocrat, Rupert Von Narwitz.

The deceptive leisure of Morgan’s style is good at the suggesting atmosphere of a place like the castle, its routines and rhythms; and he possesses the gift – rare in the English novel though common in the French – for discussing intellectual and religious questions without any striving for effect, weaving them naturally into the texture of our growing intimacy with his characters. This goes with the fact that we come after a time to accept the style as natural, and to take a placid pleasure in its peculiar dignity of self-consciousness, so that there seems nothing absurd in a chapter which begins: ‘Lewis spent the morning in the 17th century, a noble period in Holland, and in England, he was inclined to think, of all periods the greatest.’ Morgan performs the feat, an exceptionally hard one, of drawing us hypnotically into the absorption of his hero, so that the account of his daily working and thinking gives the reader a kind of sensuous pleasure, as if he were doing it too, but without the effort. He achieves the same effect in The Judge’s Story, where the hero is planning to write a book about ancient Athens. The work or the talents of a character in a novel are usually a token affair: the leading function of Morgan’s hero, qua hero, is his dedication to a job and his ability to do it.

The hero’s absorption in his own thoughts and projects is an internal parallel, of course, to the novelist’s attempt to absorb the reader completely into the world of his novel. A striking feature of The Fountain is the way in which Morgan’s success at this seems equivocal, perhaps even to himself. A theme is the need for everyone of integrity to have a quiet place inside themselves into which they can withdraw, and which can never be violated from outside. In their secret enchantment at the castle the lovers possess this temporarily, but the war will come to an end: they will have to make the unromantic practical decision to get married and to settle into suburbia at home. The Adam and Eve by Rubens and Breughel at the Hague is introduced to underline the fact that the lovers and their admiring audience of readers are alike to be ejected from the novel’s Eden.

The instrument of eviction in the plot is Julie’s husband, Von Narwitz. Wounded many times in the war, he arrives at the castle an incurable invalid. He and Lewis take to one another immediately, and have long philosophical discussions. Narwitz is in constant pain, which the novel makes extraordinarily real to the reader, as it makes real Lewis’s own rhythm of meditation in his solitary studies. Narwitz is part scapegoat and part Archangel Gabriel, warning the lovers and instructing them. He is also a good German, a characteristic figure in post-war, pre-Hitler, intellectual England. Though the novel is only indirectly political, it suggests that thoughtful aristocrats everywhere, whether socially or of the spirit, must think and work together; and that former enemies may feel a special sympathy here. ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’ Narwitz’s favourite novel (and Morgan’s too) is Turgenev’s On the Eve. Social and spiritual enlightenment can only be international. Remarkably, there is nothing facile or romantic about Narwitz as high-born Socratic German, nor in his role of forgiving omniscient husband. He dies on the day of the Armistice, and his death is as genuinely moving as the coming together of the lovers.

Morgan was never afraid of strong simple effects, and this might endear him to new readers at a time when the novel may be turning away from its preoccupation with ‘fictiveness’ and its avoidance of direct emotion. At the same time he seems to be under no illusion about the nature of his wartime experience in Holland, which inspired his book. In her thoughtful introduction Leonée Ormond quotes his words on his internment having been a ‘blessing’, a gift of God which ‘compelled me to discover what I deeply cared for in life’. But it was also, at least for his earlier self, ‘a life within life – a sort of spiritual island, and so a delusion’. The difference indicates the way in which novels, as part of their success as an art form, can have things both ways. They know we live in worlds of make-believe, to which they minister, but they can also find these in, and explore their relation to, the unsanctified monotony of life. In his epigraph to the novel Morgan neatly snips out the first phrase of a couplet from Coleridge’s ‘Dejection’ Ode:

             from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within

Coleridge’s couplet in fact begins ‘I cannot hope ...’ But this novel can and does hope. Its wish-fulfilment mechanism, unobtrusively strong, ensures its success in the genre of novels which give us what we want, even though we did not know we wanted it. A propos of the Rubens picture the narrator observes that works of art help to build our retreat, our ‘intact island, ringed with the waters of the spirit’, where we can ‘set out on our own voyages’. Art’s chief function is the higher escapism, and Morgan’s novel subtly and not ignobly acknowledges this and embodies it.

Morgan and T.S. Eliot were fellow Kensingtonians and clearly had a great deal in common. The spirituality of Four Quartets, combining grave withdrawn delicacy with a remarkable power of commanding instant middlebrow popularity, has much in common with that of The Fountain, even down to that embarrassing description of ‘style’ in ‘Little Gidding’, which in its approval of ‘every phrase and sentence that is right’, and of ‘the word neither diffident nor ostentatious’, gives all too good an impression of Morgan’s own way of writing. They were fellow connoisseurs of J.H. Shorthouse’s novel John lnglesant, often mentioned in Morgan’s novels, of the Nicholas Ferrar community, of the moment

              while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel ...

Eliot, we know, read The Fountain with enthusiasm, and there is a strong echo in ‘Little Gidding’ of Von Narwitz’s discourse to the lovers, in which he distinguishes between detachment and indifference, ‘conditions which’, as Eliot writes, ‘often look alike/Yet differ completely’. Spirituality has, inevitably, an equally ambiguous nature, and there are moments when both The Fountain and Four Quartets may strike the reader as having it both ways, serving with fastidious skill both the world and the spirit, and earning the applause of the bourgeoisie in so doing. But that is not an achievement to be despised. It is how good art and best-sellers alike get produced, and in detecting the difference we ought also to recognise the similarity.