James Simmons, ‘The Recipe for all Misfortunes, Courage’: A study of three works by Ulster Protestant authors [....]’ (1985)

Source: ‘“The Recipe for all Misfortunes, Courage”: A Study of Three Works by Ulster Protestant Authors: Apostate by Forrest Reid, Castle Corner by Joyce Cary and December Bride by Sam Hanna Bell’, in Across the Roaring Hill: The Protestant Imagination in Modern Ireland - Essays in Honour of John Hewitt, ed. Gerald Dawe & Edna Longley (Belfast: Blackstaff 1985). pp.79-98.

Most modern authors that I take seriously have left the Church they were reared in; but it is not so clear that they have left their tribe. It may be important that they should not.

The poet and novelist Michael Foley remarked of a recent story of mine that I didn’t seem to realise how hard it was for most people to feel free, and therefore I could not properly empathise with the downtrodden. Think how often the word ‘churl’ turns up in his work, applied to himself when young and to his fellow-Catholics. At apparent liberty in London, with a good job teaching computer science, he still feels part of a downtrodden, self-defeating group. He feels this is what it is to be born an Irish Catholic and that I am different, partly because I was born an Ulster Protestant. I don’t pretend to know how common his feelings are; but in a way it is not surprising that there should be that side to Irish Catholicism, because the native Irish, largely Catholics, were defeated again and again over four centuries.

As an Irishman, by Bloom’s definition (‘I live here ...’), I regret the harm done to my country by English misrule; but at the same time I realise that the horrors of Irish history are the way of the world. It is a nightmare that we all want to wake up from; but every country with power in the last few thousand years acted the imperialist. It seems the Irish were remarkable for the persistence of their resistance; but it was not in the name of a better society. Hugh O’Neill was not a more just ruler than Elizabeth. When he had the chance he was the scourge of his own countrymen. lt,is curious hdw much courage we spend on the right to be’exploited by our own’.

The Irish resistance was partly a response to English cruelty. [79] The English didn’t seem to want integration. John Mitchel’s apparently wild reaction was no more than true to the facts. Those unctuous nineteenth-century hypocrites had devised a means of pursuing a policy of genocide under the label Free Trade; but, though a cultivated nation could be reduced to dirty scarecrows, what was happening could never stop being an insult. It wasn’t the gods in power (as the English must have seemed to remoter civilisations), it was Valentine Brown.

It is hard to discuss Irish literature outside an historical context. What leads me in to some preliminary comments on James Joyce is that the Irish learnt a peculiar loyalty to the priests who stood by them in the eighteenth century, and by the time of the Famine there was very little the mass of Irish people could call their own but their religion. When the Americans were confidently separating Church and State the Irish were contracting an unnatural loyalty to the most conservative and power-hungry of Churches, an imperial power, as joyce recognised. But while the weight of all his books is a challenge to Church domination (Bloom’s friendly, practical meditations undermine the Church continually. ... ‘Said he was going to paradise or is in paradise. Says that over everybody. Tiresome kind of a job. But he has to say something’), the technical intricacy of the book as a whole can seem like a desire to compete with or impress that Church. [ftn. ref. to Simmons’ poem “The Catholic Church’s Revenge on James Joyce”.] What are we to think of his negative attitude to politics? If we can understand his early lack of faith in the ability of the Irish to free themselves from British rule, why is he so indifferent when they actually bring it off? Joyce’s comedy is so warm and liberating and original that we often choose to ignore the proud, pretentious side of him, what you might call “the tossing antlers syndrome”, that made him a prey to Modernism, a movement with pride and despair in its heart, a last fling of aristocracy, though, as a young American poet writes, ‘at least the quatrains ran on timel. [Bill Knott, Becos, 1983]. To invent Bloom was a profound assertion of the rights of man: a foreigner who masturbates, is cuckolded and lacks any obvious talent, claims his rights as a man, an Irishman, a husband and a citizen with disarming simplicity, courage and directness. Not all the selfconscious literary experiment that the author indulges in can hide [80] his primary inspiration. If we look to literature for some sort of guidance in this life, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses are not to be ignored, for warmth, boldness and intelligence. There is in some respects a steadier warmth and boldness in the authors I am contracted to discuss; but none of them is so radical and original.

Forrest Reid, Joyce Cary, Sam Hanna Bell: three Protestant names are worth dwelling on. At a time when Ulster Protestants lack leadership, when thoughtful Protestants remain embarrassed because Terence O’Neill’s attempt to apologise for misrule and set things to rights proved to be more than we would let him deliver, when we must feel like very poor and distant representatives of the great reforming movement that beagan with Luther, there is some encouragement in finding that Protestant novelists have been covering the situation, keeping some sort of flame alive.

The range of Cary’s Castle Corner is so wide that it must strain the sympthies of many readers. In an early essay [‘Joyce Cary in Ireland’, in On the Novel, ed. B. S. Bendekz, Dent 1971]. I followed the story of Philip Feenix, a complete and satisfying tragedy, but that is only one thread in the tapestry. The book mainly concerns itself with the Corner family, but thorugh them with their neighbours and visitors, with people they meet in England and Africa, so that it is clear Cary wants to connect the colonial situation in Inishown (Annish in the novel) with the political climate in England before the Boer War, and also with imperial expansion in West Africa. He writes in the introduction to the Carfax edition that he was trying to raise such questions as, “Is there a final shape of society, to be founded upon the common needs and hopes of humanity?” He certainly shows his three societies in action, vividly and in detail, able to get inside the minds of Muslim emirs, pagan chiefs and warriors, women and children, radical politicians, big businessmen, an aesthete, a courtesan, as well as a huge cast of Ulster people. His method is to present vivid scenes of action and description with quick, glancing generalisations from a marvellously stocked and curious mind. Perhaps because he does so much (however well) he has not got the credit or readership he deserves. Like Conrad, he is a man of the world.

There are two common ways for a writer to impinge on society: one is to be a notable example of a movement or fashion, as, say, Joyce is an example of Modernism. The other is to speak for an age or a people or a class. There was an abortive attempt to sell Cary as an existentialist; but he is outside that movement. Although highly original, he never draws attention to his technical innovations, which makes him ineligible for the Modemist camp, and his sympathies are too broad, or have so far seemed too broad for him to be taken up by Ulster Protestants (supposing that tribe has the energy to take up anything worth while). Of course, most of his work is set in England and Africa. I don’t think this notion of a writer speaking on behalf of some emerging group is a delusion: Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville and Hemingway speak most urgently to Americans, although they are universally admired. When Robert Frost was included in John F. Kennedy’s inauguration ceremony he looked very much at home. Similarly Joyce and Yeats speak passionately out of certain classes in Irish society, although they may annoy their own people, and Northern Catholics have a peculiar interest in Seamus Heaney. Is there some sense in which, because he speaks for them, his voice vibrates for a very wide audience? I am groping here towards the notion that a special power accrues to writers who are part of some emerging class or nation, as D. H. Lawrence came out of the English working class or as joyce came out of the Irish Catholic nation, and O’Connor and,O’Faolain. If this is the case then, however talented and wise and vivid Joyce Cary’s writing, is it somehow invalidated?

I revolt against this notion. I love Cary’s work and read Castle Corner in a continual simmer of wonder and excitement and assent; but I am of the same tribe, and as a tribe our day may be past. On the other hand it may be possible to follow Yeats’s example and throw ourselves so energetically into the struggles of the day, even in a negative way, that we claw our way into the future. ‘In the destructive element immerse,’ wrote Conrad. What of his case?

It is also true that the most vivid characters in Cary’s novel are failures, men of talent and energy who cannot get to grips with life. [82] When John Chass, the present owner of Castle Corner is refurbishing the ‘old set piece’, an arch or canopy with a portrait of Queen Victoria, for her jubilee, his creative ventures with the half-used paint pots seem to involve the whole community; but at the end of this happy scene an old boat-painter approaches Mary Corner about varnishing the masterpiece:

The pale, worn face, as full of hard and long experience as Mary’s own, had the grave urgency of a saint’s, who fights for the holy kingdom. ‘Ye see, if she’s not dead dry, ye’ll get a bloom on her.’

Mary understands at once:

It was tacitly agreed between them that John Chass was not a completely serious man; and in fact the character of everyone in Annish was so well understood by a shrewd community whose chief pastime was discussion, that there was very little hypocrisy even in loyalty.
  John Chass, his genius in all the arts of life, his dislike of trouble, his generosity, which was half the vice of self-indulgence, and partly carelessness of money; and the vein of self-mockery, purely Irish, which ran through all, sometimes appearing like the vital flaw which ruined a nature meant for great achievement, and sometimes like the essence, the life blood, of a real greatness already possessed, had been analysed over a hundred cottage fires for years.

This wide sympathy and questioning approach may be too universal to claim a place in one of history’s processions. When reviewing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man H.G. Wells could see at once that the book was anti-British, though the Irish reader is much more (perhaps only) conscious of attacks on Nationalism, family and the Catholic Church. Even in the mature Ulysses hostility to the British soldiers and the English royal family is in the air the book breathes. The book is written from inside the Catholic Irish experience, even though Joyce is embarrassing everyone by demanding attention for the Jewish cuckold, Bloom. Although Cary has real insight into all the [83] societies he describes, his moral and imaginative energy requires the reader to be outside as well as inside, and demands something like universal sympathy.

Our most widely admired living Catholic novelist, John McGahern gets some of his power writing from deep within the society he grew up in; but his melancholic pessimism can irritate readers who want to shout in his ear, ‘There is a world elsewhere!’ Of course McGahern travels widely and occasionally writes in a European setting; but there his power deserts him, as it does Heaney’s Antaeus, when his feet leave the holy ground.

It is a sustained theme in Castle Corner that the generations are declining from the vigour of the seventeenth-century ‘Imperial filibuster of Old John Recorder and the rest of the young sons from the West country, who cut out for themselves Irish principalities about 1610’. The oldest Corner in the novel, Mr John Corner, is conducting prayers in the opening paragraph. His faith is strong, his actions decisive. He evicts the Foys because ‘Fifteen acres can’t keep two families - fifteen acres of Donegal mountain.’ He says if the tenants are allowed to divide their farms, ‘we’ll have the same misery and poverty here that ruined Connaught’.

His son, John Chass is a very attractive man, generous and hospitable; but he has no faith in God or in the empire. He goes through the motions, but what he likes is to be comfortable. This is about the turn of the century. When local elections are brought in, John Chass can’t be bothered to stand against the local Nationalist grocer Joe Giveen. There is no crisis of faith with John Chass, he isn’t that sort of man. According to Cary, it seems that at one time the Protestant religion was capable of satisfying an active people and getting the best out of them. It is never considered whether the faith is in some way objectively true. He isn’t interested in that; but he is very interested in how it affects people. John Chass’s wife, Mary, is of French Protestant stock, an ugly woman whose children always die at birth or soon after. At forty she has Shon who is worshipped by his mother and his Irish nanny, Kitty. Kitty marries and goes to America with Con. When she comes back, rich, she has TB. Dr Hanna suggests that Mary [84] should keep Shon away from Kitty as there is a risk of infection:

Mary was distressed and therefore excited. She was always mysteriously troubled by a question like this, as if she feared there might be no answer to it. She used an argumentative tone that was rare with her. ‘I’m surprised that Doctor Hanna hasn’t more sense than to suggest a thing like that. I’d have to forbid Kitty the house, and how can I do that after all she’s done for us and Shon.’

This simple statement makes clear her tragic quandary, and it is all she ever says; but Cary takes us through her impulses and her background. Her husband says whatever he thinks she wants to hear: ‘half Annish is coughing this time of year’, and promises to send down a barrel of stout for Kitty to strengthen her ... ‘He was sure all his life that no misfortune could happen to him, by an optimism that was part of his strong flowing life.’ Many another author would have shown disapproval, as they might for Mr John’s evictions. Cary is just interested in how things work, although no one depicts suffering, joy, courage and despair more vividly:

Mary Corner as a child had been taught by the evangelistic preachers of her church that God was love; and all her woman’s instinct agreed with that doctrine. The faith of love was as deep and strong within her as her life. She could not do a cruel act. She could not believe that good could come from unkindness.
  Yet, as she looked down on Shon she felt a dark, painful confusion which had destroyed her happiness for weeks past, a sense of bewilderment and guilt.
 She could not pray for help because she did not expect God to interfere in the world; she did not know even what to pray for ...

Cary maintains a wonderful balance in his portrayal of Mary. She is a comic conservative Protestant, all duty, who never thinks of herself. The dumb hedonist might sneer, everyone will smile; but 1 think most of us will be inclined to cheer the heroic and kind [85] woman Cary presents in all her simplicity and complexity. Is he saying that there are basic human types that feed off one or other of the visions that humanity invents to live by?

The local minister, Philip’s father, is a ghostly figure who preaches sermons too deep for his few parishioners, mourns his dead wife and cannot reach his son, who is wooed away by his crass but energetic and rich uncle, Slatter. Old John kept family prayers going but could be brutal. The same religious source fires them all to very different manifestations. And yet these are all Protestant manifestations. They don’t really have Foley’s special difficulty. For each of them their own individuality, for better or worse, is very well expressed in their lives, in what they do. Is this explained by their religion or their connection with power?

The same question in reverse must be asked of the Catholic characters. The only people not frustrated are the priest and Joe Giveen, the grocer Nationalist. Tne former is presented mostly through other people’s eyes. He collaborates with the Corners in matters of law and order, but finds himself always refusing invitations to dine, although his predecessor was a regular visitor at the castle. The Church has a new confidence. There is very little more on Giveen. He is shot in the backside by the local Parnllites, and in the end he is the Catholic representative on the new local councils: ‘Joe Giveen was suddenly the man in power; the dispenser of jobs, contracts, cottages, relief; to be capped and wheedled.’ At one vivid moment Cary describes him leaping the sugar bags over each other on his counter, unconsciously illustrating how easily he can manipulate people. The priest and the rising politician have some access to power and financial competence. The common characteristic of the many other local Catholics is that they are very poor indeed, except Con Foy, Kitty’s husband, who makes his pile in America. He comes back full of progressive notions that come to nothing because he is obsessed by the lack of spirit in his fellow-Catholics (as Foley is).

It has to he said that, although Cary presents brilliantly a wide range of Catholic characters in Castle Corner, they mostly impinge on the reader, as they impinge on the action, where they touch the concerns of the Ascendancy. This in no way devalues the [86] novel and bears a prophetic relationship to history. At the turn of the century it was the Joe Giveens who achieved whatever political advance was being achieved. Manus, who starts as a brilliant child destined for the priesthood, identifies with Parnell and goes to prison after shooting Joe Giveen. When he gets out he haunts the story, bitter, suspicious, selling poteen to Coo Slatter for her alcoholic husband in exchange for boots and pairs of socks. Fair enough. Bridget Foy allows herself to be seduced by the young master, Cleeve, in her pursuit of a dream of glory as a courtesan. Cary allows her stumbling note to young Cleeve as he arrives at Oxford to echo in our minds, though Cleeve totally ignores it:

The baby is boy was born Tuesday christened Finian becas I cud not call him Cleeve he is beutiful boy blue eyes like you you wud like to se him Bridget.

That is true to life.

Equally true to life, the novel is haunted by a multitude of Catholic characters, suffering and dying in hideous conditions which to them are fairly normal. Common among them is the backward look, usually without much acrimony, to a time when Foys and Egans owned the land. Some claim they are an old people who have had their glory. Some claim that it is Irish soldiers who are winning the empire for Victoria. When John Chass offers his public toast on the jubilee and the locals are receiving free whiskey and their children jubilee mugs, he is offered the sort of respectful attention these people would also give ‘the Shah of Persia’. One old soldier shouts: ‘The oul’ skate, I gave her my leg at the Alma and I’ll give her my hand now.’ Con grumbles about Irish subservience. A filthy old mountain man offers an elegant tribute to young Shon’s beauty (he has crept out in his dressing gown to see the celebrations, and is being carted around by the drunken cook, Sukey):

‘Aye, a princely beauty,’ the ragamuffin said. ‘Thanks be to Gawd I saw that one for I never seen him before’ ... It was the mountain men who burnt alive the Corner children in the rebellion of 1641 [87]
 That was the other side of reverence ...
‘The Corners are the biggest robbers in Annish,’ Con said, ‘but why wouldn’t they rob ye when ye let them’ ...
‘Our hearts go out to her,’ John Chass said in his clear, loud baritone, ‘and hers, we know is with us.’

This brutal abbreviation (not in sequence) is an attempt to convey some of the richness of Cary’s writing. The long scene, which this can only briefly suggest, is paralleled by many more of equally complex richness: the death of Shon, the painting of the ‘old set piece’, the assault on the house following the party for Con’s emigration, the skating party in England, the marriage and suicide of Philip Feenix, Cleeve’s introduction to election meetings, the invasion of Daji, the slave raid, for instance, make this - objectively - a richer and more profound book, I would guess, than Ulysses. Most frustrating of all, it was meant to be the first of a trilogy that Cary never completed.

However, I must limit myself to exploring one small basic thread: the Protestant ideal that winds itself particularly round Mary Corner, the energy, courage, generosity and love that can exist within a narrow Protestant upbringing. In Kitty’s death scene Cary blends two visions of life:

Father MacFee took the holy oils to Kitty on Wednesday morning, but she was still alive on Thursday when Mary Corner went to her for the last time. She was lying flat on her back in the little room which was only two foot wider than the bed, gazing at the rafters. Mary had never seen such a look of calm triumphant happiness on any face. It filled her with such pity and grief that she could not speak for a moment. She sat down and took Kitty’s hand in hers. Kitty turned her brilliant eyes towards her mistress and said, ‘I’ll be seeing the wee master this very day.’
 Mary’s lips were pressed together; she had a look of desperation as if turning her face towards a victorious enemy. Her hand crushed Kitty’s. ‘This very day, ‘Kitty said, ‘will I see the wee false smile he had when he wanted something out of me.’ [88]
  Mary said in a hoarse voice, ‘You’re a brave gel, Catherine, and I don’t know how we’ll do without you.’

I pause for breath. It would be presumption to expound this:

Mary, in her Protestant heart, could not believe that death was the gateway of joy. She loved people far more than she ever loved God, and she could not bear to lose them or to see them lost from love. She felt now such a pain in her heart, like a spasm of the heart muscle, that she did not know how to utter her grief and pity. She could only give her final recipe for all misfortunes, courage.
  But in fact Kitty did not need pity. Her nerves, excited by the toxins of her illness, were in continual vibration and all their different excitements, like a poet’s under a drug, rejoiced together in the single harmony, reconciling all their appetites in the one passion. Her love of Annish and her love of the Virgin were parts of one love in which Annish was the holy place of God, as much nearer to Heaven than America as the miles of ocean between them. All the Atlantic for Kitty had been downhill, and now she had climbed again to the clear air where, washed by daily showers, the sky itself seemed penetrable by the light of the blessed saints turning down their faces towards Ireland.

Alongside that true Catholic feeling, Mary’s contrasting faith in the ‘final recipe for all misfortunes, courage’ struck me as central to what I wanted to pick out of these three works.

For all his personal courage and the energy of his style, his compassion and delight in courage, Cary presents society as very confused, with power ultimately in the hands of rich and powerful financiers who can manipulate the market and the press for their own ends, which seem to be chiefly the hunger for new markets, new worlds to conquer. All the characters live their lives under this shadow and, by and large, fall. Felix Corner, the most gifted person in the book, ends up going native up the Niger. John Chass survives at Castle Corner by grace of a lucky investment. The empire that Cocky Jarvis serves so bravely is not at all what he [89] thinks it. As it is with Mary Corner, so with most of these characters: their courage is bred into them by people confident of their right to rule and of their duties. They support as well as exploit others. Cary writes in his introduction:

The tragic dilemma of freedom is incurable; that it can’t have either security or justice, which belong only to robots, to machines; that because it has the power to know goodness, it must also suffer evil. In fact those who have the keenest intensity of happiness, in love and achievement, are those most exposed to suffering in loss and defeat.

The poor Catholics in the novel, it must be said, are equally brave and more stylish. It is the two men who aspire to change society that suffer bitterness and failure, Con and Manus. The wily materialists Giveen and Slatter get what power is to be got within the system.

The repetitions of ‘Yes’ at the end of Ulysses have given that novel the reputation of being a great celebration of life; but there is no doubt that, apart from Molly Bloom, not a character in the book gets much satisfaction. It is all talk and drink. Anyone with a bit of power or money is grotesque. The whole aspiration to freedom is reduced to the rantings of the Citizen. Is it not odd that St’ephen and Bloom make no approach to the prostitutes in Nighttown? Blazes Boylan, the only man in the book who makes any attempt to please a woman, meets blanket disapproval. Much as 1 enjoy Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, 1 cannot help feeling that joyce’s relationship with Nora Barnacle should have given him material for a more mature tribute to femininity. He is still the adolescent, indignant that he was never told about menstruation, copulation and the little tricks and oddities lovers get up to. Molly’s pilgrim soul is not allowed to exist. Outside Bloom’s courage, kindness and curiosity, the only positives 1 can discover are Stephen’s tenderness for one of his pupils, Deasy’s concern for Stephen and the good singing of Simon Dedalus and Ben Dollard, more drowned than celebrated by language games. And what about poor Gerty MacDowell? Why was joyce driven to parody and pastiche, even as early as Dubliners? Is this a limitation in Joyce [90] or an accurate picture of middle-class Catholic society? A comparison with the work of Corkery, O’Connor and O’Faolain suggests it is a limitation in joyce.

In the long passage quoted above obviously both women exhibit great courage; but Kitty’s requires the manipulation of reality, the meeting in heaven, a place both are supposed to believe in. Here it helps Kitty to a happy death, earned of course by her great love for the child, Shon; but in some of the African scenes we see how such a belief acts negatively in life. Belief in the supernatural allows people to watch their kin slaughtered in blood sacrifice to the god. Mary’s faith requires virtuous behaviour of her; the notion of reward or an extra-terrestrial arena that might console us for this world has no life for her. 1 have responded to Jesus’s promise: ‘This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.’ But it can only be valid as a way to keep up the courage of the cause (as in The Ballad of Joe Hill: “‘I never died,” said he. ... “Where workers strike and organise,” said he, “you’ll find Joe Hill”’). The nearer you get to a literal belief in immortality the less likely are your best energies to go into the life we know. Atrocity as well as sacrifice comes more readily. Jesus’s promise is closer to the easy ways out that Forrest Reid allows his heroes, when they run away from vulgar homes to find privileged comfort with rich and enlightened relations: an engaging but totally unserious area of his imagination.

Someone once said of Henry James that there was a sense of freedom even in the structure of his sentences. For Joyce Cary and Forrest Reld this is also true. It is less true of Sam Hanna Bell who, freed by birth from Catholic fatalism, flirts with the fatalism of Thomas Hardy. Although, to be fair, Hardy’s fatalism partly derives from his taking poor people for his subjects; just as Catholic Irish fatalism partly derives from the native Irish having been for so long a tormented subject-people. They did not impose the Penal Laws on themselves. I would say Cary is more conscious of this than Joyce; but Joyce far more intimately touches the Irish nerve, even in flaunting, egotistical formulations such as Stephen’s ‘I suspect Ireland must be important because it belongs to me.’ The thrill of a local boy saying that and the world listening! [91]

Especially one who has his main character say, ‘We must all work together.’ I think it appeals to the Catholic Irish temperament that Joyce hides his stunning affirmations among the coils and scrolls, the jokes, arcane references and linguistic tricks: ‘But in here it is I must kill the priest and the king ... But I say: Let my country die for me. Up to the present it has done so. I don’t want to die. Damn death. Long live life!’

I had not read December Bride for ten years despite my early enthusiasm for it. I must have been reluctant to face the disappointment of its petering out from a work of great power and beauty into a melodrama, desultorily tied up by a few weak chapters. It is also more obvious at a second reading that there is very little development in the characters. The house at Rathard is ruled at first by a patriarch, Andrew (as Castle Corner is ruled by Mr John). What goes on between him and his two sons and the two women who come into the house is interesting, and later, what goes on between the two sons and Sarah when Andrew dies and Sarah’s mother leaves; but when Frank is crippled, the novel suffers a hiatus and we move on to the next generation, unsatisfied. There are further passages of great beauty, but the author has deserted his theme.

I take the theme to be a preference for the natural dignity of the people at Rathard over the values and religion of Mr Sorleyson’s Sarah’s resentment of the way he treats old Andrew’s sacrifice of his life leads to her defiance of him when he tries to make her marry one or other of the brothers. Bell is describing the growth of moral consciousness and offering a challenge to the Christian Church in Ulster. Because he chooses characters who can barely express themselves in words the challenge is muted, but very strong.

I suppose D. H. Lawrence would have tried to imply something more specific about basic sexual needs. Bell allows Sarah to be confused between social ambition and sexual hunger. I am not certain whether this is subtlety or cold feet. Quite early on it seems that Sarah is a woman of considerable energy trapped in poverty and dependence: [92]

From the first, Sarah had felt drawn towards Andrew, inspired by his kindness, humour and prophetic appearance. She was also impelled by a trait in herself, not uncommon in those who have tasted poverty, which made her prefer the father to the son, the master rather than the steward.

I can believe absolutely in what lifts her out of her situation. The father tells about a boat they have had for some time, stored by the lake and seldom used:

‘Will she swim?’ asked Sarah, drawing out the pot. ‘Aye, she’ll swim! She’s as tight as a bottle.’ There was silence as Sarah filled the cups. ‘Well, will ye take me for a sail?’ Andrew laughed and Martha slopped her cloth noisily on the table. She always felt uneasy when her daughter asked favours like this in such a self-assured way, as if a refusal wasn’t to be dreamt of.

In a way this cuts through the heavy weather I have been making about downtrodden Catholics. I cannot believe such an impulse is peculiar to any tribe. This impulse to freedom is not rebuffed by old Andrew because he, like the Corners, is kind and easy in his position of authority (at a much lower end of the social scale). On the other hand Martha, the mother, has been at the bottom of the heap too long to rise.

They go out in the boat to visit relations, and Fergus Pentland seems for a while to be a young man of proper age to whom Sarah feels spontaneous attraction. He courts her, but comes to believe that Frank is already sleeping with the girl. Why she gives in to Frank when she has a definite prospect of Fergus is not clear, except that such false starts and missed chances occur, and Bell’s invocation of Thomas Hardy in his epigraph emphasises that this is part of his subject.

A theme in fiction should not be too easy to pin down [cf. Cary’s introduction to Castle Corner], but we must have a clear sense of why each bit of reality is being offered us in the name of a novel. In this case Bell has drawn our attention to Sarah’s preferences. And if we are to accept that she loses Fergus from bad luck or hasty action, the notion of preference still [93] comes up when Sarah is sleeping with both Frank and Hamilton. I think at the very least the reader is curious about the details, more precisely how the arrangement works. And then it is suggested that there is a fineness and sensitivity about Frank that Hamilton does not possess, although there is an attractive courage and kindness in Hamilton.

It may be that Bell is very properly suggesting that these people have no vocabulary in which to present these issues to themselves and each other; but they must experience differences that lead to discrimination. After all, the confrontation with the minister implies an unusual fineness of sensibility, an innate scrupulousness that hears what the minister is saying about God’s will and finds it a violation of the truth: ‘she suspected, and her anger rose at the thought, that Sorleyson had bent a fortuitous and tragic occurrence to buttress his own beliefs and teachings, and had in some way robbed the lustre of Andrew’s self-sacrifice’. On this occasion the man of words has undertaken to interpret her life and she has rejected the interpretation. Again, when he tries to persuade her to go to church after old Andrew’s death, we are to assume that his treatment of death has made them resentful. She says to her mother ‘Why does he come in here interfering in my concern?’ When her mother presses her, she strings together a very coherent sequence of ideas, starting with resentment that her people having always been pious were always downtrodden, and that her mother has always urged her to be humble:

‘My ways are my own. I get up in the morn tae my work, and at night I lie down in my bed, and if I fall dead in the midst o’ it, there’ll be little talk and less weeping!’

The mother is shocked and warns her ‘... it’s pain and evil you’ll bring on yourself if your hard heart isn’t changed’. To which she replies, ‘There’s pain and evil in me now! ... But I’ll thole it - and it won’t be on my knees!’ A paragraph after this Frank has seduced her.

It is a very eventful short chapter that starts with Fergus’s visits and Frank tormenting him by secretive smiles to imply that something is going on; yet Fergus and she have walked out [94] together and he has felt ‘the sincerity and warmth of her embrace’. At the same time she shows some sort of complicity with Frank who can’t take his eyes off her. They both feel marvellously released by the death of the father, though they loved him. He is chasing her round the table, she knocks a mug over, the mother calls down to inquire and ‘The girl laughed silently in his face.’ All that happens is vivid and believable, but sometimes it has the inconsequentiality of melodrama, and sometimes there is evidence of a sort of derivative ‘fine writing’. The moment of seduction is covered thus: ‘For a moment, but only for a moment, his lust wavered under her look of supplication. He took the basin from her nerveless fingers and laid it on the sill. The straw motes circled lazily upward in the red sunlight.’ This is evasive, like the seduction of Stephen by the prostitute in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, unlike Cleeve’s seduction in Castle Corner.

There is an element of folklore in December Bride, the sort of thing that goes on in the minds of those who collect the old songs and dwell on the old ways. It is a strength in that Bell’s knowledge seems thorough, his people are not quaint fantasies and the way he describes the seasonal changes is tied up with his interest in the work that occupies the lives of these people. Work is important to them (it is what they know about best) and a source of great satisfaction. The only work in Ulysses is Bloom’s desperate efforts to solicit some advertising for The House of Keys.

In Castle Corner and December Bride the authors describe the triumph of natural love or courage, a basic human impulse, over the creeds and fashions people are given to live by. Forrest Reid’s best book is an autobiography; but at its heart is the same theme. It colours the whole book (and the second volume of his autobiography) but is stated most poignantly in the first chapters of Apostate where he evokes his relationship with his nanny, Emma: ‘Certainly her care for me was far beyond any that deities are wont to practise. It had a beautiful quality of mingled tenderness and wisdom ...’ He is aware that it would be more normal for him to have this feeling for his mother, but, ‘I had conceived an affection for her which neither my mother nor anybody else in later life was to oust.’ What he says, thus directly, goes a long way [95] towards explaining the limitations and strength of his fictional output. He fills out this statement with exemplary details. The young Forrest Reid had a fancy for feeding the stone lions of the town, which his mother disapproved of: ‘Emma, though for all I know to the contrary she too may have been indifferent to animals, as usual understood; and so each morning we sallied forth with our little parcel of provisions.’ Is this not the same as Mary Corner’s absolute impulse to kindness?

Emma was deeply religious, and she is the only deeply religious person I have met with whom I have been able to feel quite happy and at my ease. Doubtless her creed was narrow, and probably it was gloomy; but she herself was so emphatically not narrow and not gloomy that it mattered very little what she supposed herself to believe.

After she leaves the house (and Reid makes us feel the horror and enormity of this most powerfully) he is forced to go to church by his family and some deep fastidiousness in the child makes him revolt violently:

the day of rest was for me a day of storm and battle ... With Emma there could never have been such scenes. Her infinite tolerance and understanding would have made them impossible. Her deep desire was that one should be good, but her still deeper desire was that one should be happy; and she would never have believed it good to go to church with a heart of fury ... Yet nothing could be farther from the truth than that she simply allowed me to take my own way ... Her rule was supreme, but it was an influence, not a rigid law ... The whole secret is that Emma was wise, and the rule of the wise is never oppressive, never violent or retributive or lachrymose. It establishes a sense of companionship and security ... that there is someone who will always understand, and therefore always be just. And justice is the quality a child values above everything. Not all the capricious affection in the world will make up to him for its absence.

There is a great deal more of this wisdom, cogently stated, and the [96] whole book serves to illuminate the natural hunger of the boy for such qualities of love and justice, and what life is like without them. In all three of these books there are key characters, apparently rigid Protestants, whose faith gives them authority; but whose practice bears witness to something deeper than their creed, and more or less against the popular notion of what such a creed represents.

Forrest Reid’s life and work represent an attempt to offer an alternative vision to bourgeois Protestantism, something Grecian and mystical; but it is never embodied with more power than in his tribute to his Protestant nanny’s natural kindness. The best he can say for any of his clergymen is that the fanatic Mr Farrington (in Apostate) had intensity: ‘one might have confessed a crime to him and not been received with the platitudes of outraged respectability’. Similarly, in December Bride the older Reverend Sorleyson feels rebuked by the superior humanity of Sarah. That understated moment, when he bemusedly reaches out and touches her breast, is really quite explosive, or should be. The younger Mr Sorleyson comes in at the novel’s end in the name of good will to suggest a solution more sophisticated than Sarah and Andrew could conceive. Although not allowed proper weight, his solution implies that the man of learning in a community, given the responsibilities of a minister, should make himself useful as a trouble-shooter. Of course the tragedy of the Ulster Protestant Churches is that they falter behind the crass elders and greedy politicians, muttering pious noises which no one can hear with satisfaction or renewed heart, and several depraved pastors vie with the politicians in mouthing, repressive slogans.

You get in these novels what you would expect from common Ulster experience: that such human leaps forward as we are likely to have come from individuals, not from any of the Churches. Yet the individuals who bolster and support their weaker brethren have some sort of faith and a belief in something greater than themselves. The Protestant experience offers the best paradigm of this because it is central to the ethos that the individual should reach beyona the Church to God: to some positive image, created by men at the height of their imagination that embodies permanent [97] truth and inspiration, like the life of Christ. In a barbarous time when we have lost touch with our inspirational past, and the way back is barred by dead forms, fallible human beings still stumble forward by instinct, sometimes.

It seems to me that these three books are inspirational; in each case the compassion, energy and passion of the author presents the dark material of reality beautifully, humanely, cogently. [End.]

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