Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS: A Review "to make the gorge rise"

David Lindsay had an ill-starred publishing career from its very outset with the publication of his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, in September 1920.  One of the first reviews of the book appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, on 30 September 1920.  It reads in full:

However much one may resent such a book as 'A Voyage to Arcturus', one must pay tribute to the cleverness which enables Mr. David Lindsay to capture the elusive quality of the worst kind of nightmare. He does not content himself with giving us a vivid description of life as it conceivably might be on another planet; we are transported to remote regions of space in order that the riddle of human existence may be studied in the true perspective; and the solution thence afforded is very much what one might expect a temporarily unbalanced mind to arrive at if an anaesthetic were potent for just one critical instant longer—which, mercifully, it never is. Mr. Lindsay's imagination is prolific rather than powerful, and he has not controlled it towards any coherent result. For instance, the hero of the adventure, Maskull, encounters on his journey in Arcturus, a number of entities— human, superhuman, and diabolic—whose relation to him and to each other never becomes clear; nor can we find any connecting link between the startling and often gruesome episodes which mark his progress. There may be an intention of allegory in what appears to be simply the riot of morbid fancy; but we doubt whether many readers will be inclined to pursue the possible hidden meaning over a quagmire and through a noisome fog. For the book is, at any rate, consistent in respect of its uniform unwholesomeness; the keynote being struck in the opening chapter, which recalls Baudelaire or Poe in his most grisly vein. It is, no doubt, a legitimate aim of the writer of fiction to make the flesh creep; scarcely, we think, to make the gorge rise. 

Poor Lindsay! To be so completely misunderstood and so thoroughly mis-categorized on the publication of his very first book. Who wrote these idiotic statements?  What kind of reviewer was this?  Of course the TLS reviews were anonymous for many years, so one might think that the identity of this reviewer would never be known, but in the last decade, the historical database of The Times Literary Supplement has revealed the identities of  the bulk of the people who reviewed specific titles anonymously.  And the author of the above review of A Voyage to Arcturus was one A.M. Champneys. Which leads on to further questions: who was A.M. Champneys, and why did this person have such a unflinchingly erroneous view of Lindsay's book?

It turns out that A.M. Champneys was in fact Adelaide Mary Champneys (1888-1966), the fourth and final child of the famous architect (of many buildings in Oxford, Cambridge and London) and author Basil Champneys (1842-1935) and his wife, Mary Theresa Ella née Drummond (1858-1941), who were married in 1876.  Basil's father and one of his brothers were clergyman (his father was very late in life made the Dean of Lichfield). Basil had been one of eight children of a hard-working old county family with only a modest income; at his death he left an estate valued at nearly fifty-thousand pounds. Of his two sons, Amian Lister Champneys (1879-1951) followed his father's footsteps and became an architect, while Michael Weldon Champneys (1884-1957) became a clergyman.  His other daughter, besides Adelaide, was Cicely Marion Champneys (1881-1968).

Adelaide's first book was a booklet of Verses (1902), printed by the Chiswick Press. It was signed with her initials, A.M.C., with a poem "Father's Good Wishes" signed B.C. Her next three books were signed as by A.M. Champneys, and they include Love's Empire and Other Poems (1909) and two novels, Bride Elect (1913) and The Recoiling Force (1914).  Between 1919 and 1924, Adelaide reviewed some seventy books in the TLS. Contrasting her review of A Voyage to Arcturus, Adelaide found favor in books like Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson ("an altogether satisfying entertainment," 5 August 1920), and Margaret Irwin's Still She Wished for Company ("there is scarcely a flaw in the working out of this ingenious fantasy," 13 March 1924). As she ceased reviewing, she turned back to the writing of novels, publishing them anonymously, beginning with The House Made with Hands (1924) and Miss Tiverton Goes Out (1925).  While the former was apparently moderately successful in England, the latter was a hit in the United States, and while her next two novels appeared in England as "by the author of The House Made with Hands,"  the American publisher Bobbs-Merrill quickly brought out The House Made with Hands, and subsequent books, marketing them as "by the author of Miss Tiverton Goes Out." These include This Day's Madness (1926) and November Night (1928). Her British publisher dropped her, but Bobbs-Merrill kept going with her new work, including a Memorial to George, by Himself (1929), which is the diary of a squirrel, his memoirs being edited "by the author of Miss Tiverton Goes Out." Next came The Longer Day (1930) and I Can Wait (1933), followed by Fool's Melody (1937). The latter is "by the author of Miss Tiverton Goes Out and Michael Cape-Meadows,"  Cape-Meadows being the pseudonym of her clergyman brother Michael. Her final book came out ten years later, Red Sun and Harvest Moon  (1947), as by Adelaide Champneys. Evidently this book finally revealed Champneys as the author of Miss Tiverton Goes Out.

Critically, Champneys got a fairly welcome reception after a rocky start. With regard to Bride Elect, the TLS noted "the author is not quite sufficiently equipped to fill so large a canvas" (27 February 1913), while it found The Recoiling Force to have "a large number of minor characters of whom unsympathetic would be a mild description"  (12 November 1914).  Of her later anonymous books, many reviewers detected that the author was a woman.  Here I will focus on only two of the books, Miss Tiverton Goes Out, her greatest success, and her final book, Red Sun and Harvest Moon.

A few reviews of Miss Tiverton Goes Out reveal the flavor of that book*:

The book describes the growth of a sensitive, rebellious child in an uncongenial and vulgar family. Juliet's reaction to her parents, her sisters and her brother is given with great truth. The Cinderella or ugly duckling theme, handled with sincerity, yields up treasuresin this case the awkward child's instinctive  awareness of a scheme of values outside outside her prison, her loyalty to the instinct through all failure and despiteful usage, and at last her acceptance of her course kindred as weak human beings with a claim upon her. . . . The symbolism conveying the sense of the other world ('time immemorial' is Juliet's phrase for it) is elaborated in the person of an old woman next door who is never seen and whose house and land Juliet's father (he is a speculative builder) tries and fails to buy. The effect [is] of a bustling, garish scene dominated, no one can say how or why, and in the end quite confounded, by an invisible presence of whom all that is known is that she is feeble, old and of no account. Miss Tiverton only appears at the end, and then in her coffin.  The New Statesman, 7 February 1925
Phantasy and philosophy are earnestly blent in this book. Perhaps the author's anonymity casts a glamour upon it. One suspects that a woman has written it; otherwise there are no clews. Whoever she may be, she understands the art of writing and has a mind so sensitive that she has conceived without flaw a subtle and delicate story. The New York Herald Tribune, April 1926  
And of her final novel:

Character story of a meek, down-trodden English woman, whose whole life is one of renunciation. The Book Review Digest, 1947
Miss Champneys (whose previous fiction, published anonymously, includes 'Miss Tiverton Goes Out') has written a novel which, presumably, will provide comfort and reassurance for those whose lives have followed such dreary paths of abnegation as Mildred's. Acceptance of one's lot in life is hard come by and is usually prefaced by some storm or questioning. The distraught Mildred is conditioned by heritage and environment to quick surrender of her individuality. Her story, while affecting, is not particularly exciting. And the interest of the general reader may well be dampened by the flow of her easy tears. The New York Times, 16 March 1947  
Do any of these details about Champneys's life and her works help to explain her hostility to A Voyage to Arcturus?  I don't know. Perhaps Lindsay's solution to the riddle of life on Tormance (the planet which circles around the double-star Arcturus) can only be seen as diabolic by someone like Champneys raised in a conventional family of clergyman?  Thus she found his philosophical explication to be "a nightmare" from a "temporarily unbalanced mind" with no "coherent result" beyond a "riot of morbid fancy" in a "quagmire and through a noisome fog" which is of "uniform unwholesomeness" and likely "to make the gorge rise." Again, I don't know, but will be glad to entertain other possibilities.

* See also the lengthy online review of this book at Furrowed Middlebrow which calls it "a kind of masterpiece of oddness." 



    1. "Unknown" sent (without comment) a URL to a blog-post about Arcturus. I don't agree with much of it. I don't think Arcturus is incoherent, and I think the blog-poster has thrown out from his dislike the unsupported claim that Lindsay's prose is "atrocious". Well, such badness comes in part from the expectations of the beholder. Why is Lindsay's prose bad? The blog does not offer any details, just the subjective criticism. Lindsay's own view was that style was a secondary concern--the the important point was to make the ideas remembered. But if you read other Lindsay (Devil's Tor, The Witch, his "Christmas Play") you'll find an author skilled in adapting his prose style. And I think the blog is mistaken in assuming the views in Arcturus are identical with Lindsay's views. I would say instead that Arcturus, like Lindsay's other novels, are philosophical explications of the situations set-up in each novel, based on Lindsay's own basic beliefs (enumerated in his "Sketch Notes for a New System of Philosophy"--note the words "Sketch Notes"). Thus the philosophy as represented in each novel is not the same in details, though it is based on Lindsay's basic idea that the world we know is a sham, and that beneath it is the real world, as represented by Muspel in A Voyage to Arcturus.

    2. I'm afraid that Arcturus, like the Zimiamvian Trilogy by Eddison will only appeal to people with open minds in search of knowledge and delight within and beyond their idea of reality.