Uncle stephen, p.1
Uncle Stephen, page 1
‘O that I might have my request; and that God would grant me the thing that I long for!’
—THE BOOK OF JOB
Table of Contents
Uncle Stephen was the first of Forrest Reid’s Tom Barber trilogy to be published, in 1931. But in narrative terms it is the last of the series: a trilogy where the novels are the ‘reverse of a sequel’, as Reid himself described it.
The central character, Tom, is here fifteen. In The Retreat (1936) he is thirteen, and in Young Tom (1944), Reid’s final masterpiece, we find him on the threshold of adolescence, at eleven years old. Boyhood and adolescence—‘visions of boyhood’ as he called them—and the gradations of experience between the two, are the main themes of almost all Forrest Reid’s novels, from The Kingdom of Twilight (1904) for the next forty and more years of his writing career. Indeed, his second published novel, The Garden God (1903)—originally dedicated to Henry James but brusquely rejected by that reserved, sensitive figure—already contains many of the themes which are brought to their finest expression in the Tom Barber trilogy.
James’s shocked reaction to The Garden God can perhaps be explained by Reid’s constant interest in Greek ideals, pagan sentiments, and naked youths—‘beautiful boys in beautiful landscapes’ as it has been rather dismissively described. But James, while clearly aware of the homoerotic implications of The Garden God, doth protest too much. Reid himself, less than ten years after Oscar Wilde’s trials, would have been the last to associate himself with the Uranians, or with any explicit declaration of homosexual intent, either in his life or in his writings. The element of homoeroticism is always present, but it is implicit rather than explicit, suggested rather than recounted. To this extent Reid is closer to the painter Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929) than to any of his literary contemporaries—even E. M. Forster, a close friend, and an astute and enthusiastic critic of Reid’s writing.
Like Tuke, Reid glories in the naked freedom of his youthful subjects, but studiously avoids any sexual details of their bodies, or any sexual preoccupations in their adolescent minds. This might easily be adduced as a fault: unrealistic, sublimated, and romantic. But that is precisely what Reid wanted to be. His writing is the bringing to perfection of the last moments of innocence in a fallen world where the dream must, of necessity, become more real than the reality.
The return to, or search to remain in, a childhood world is a recurring phenomenon in the literature of the early years of this century. From Kenneth Grahame to E. Nesbit, from A. A. Milne to L. P. Hartley we find variations on the theme of closed worlds, semi-Utopias, where the threats and fears of modern life are carefully excluded, or, especially in E. Nesbit’s novels, hinted at but triumphed over. Like most escapist writing, these works offer an alternative reality, an idealised existence, a game of charades wherein Toad’s trial is as unthreatening as Kafka’s is terrifying.
Because Forrest Reid is so explicit in his idealisation of naked youth, the emphasis in his works falls not on sexuality (which, for him, must be seen as an adult concept) but on friendship, companionship, and the innocent joy of playmates. That this is a thoroughly middle-class ethos underlines not only the limitations of Reid’s known world, the Ulster which he left only rarely, but also the malaise that makes the imaginative escape both necessary and desirable.
Perhaps because Reid’s world is less safe and secure than, say, Grahame’s in The Wind in the Willows, his writings have not had the popular success of that sub-Utopian fable. Reid’s fables are classically based; their intellectual range and terms of reference are wide; his characters worship Pan rather than the household gods of riverbank domesticity. When reality encroaches in Uncle Stephen, for example, it is in the shape of lawyers, ‘nauseating gossip’, rude words on walls, a butcher’s boy talking about ‘tarts’ in films (shades of Mr Trabb’s boy in Great Expectations?), class difference, and impossibly long delays on train journeys.
Reid is fully conscious of the world young Tom Barber wants to escape from—and Tom himself is only a little less so. The novel opens at Tom’s father’s funeral, his mother having died some time before. And immediately the reader is taken away from that reality, into Tom’s own thoughts, into an unselfconscious, mind-wandering journey which, without ever having to be labelled ‘stream of consciousness’, will take him away from his stepmother and acquired relations to his only living ‘real’ relation, Uncle Stephen.
Uncle Stephen is ‘a magician’, ‘a recluse’, an outsider to good Ulster middle-class society, a man in his sixties with the kind of past which involves ‘friends’ (young men) and youthful experiences in Italy. Tom runs away from home (a recurring feature of the trilogy) to find himself, and his Uncle Stephen. In an amazing time-shift, Uncle Stephen will become Philip Coombe, a boy of Tom’s own age, who is, in fact, the young Stephen. Thus the boy makes the old man young again, while the older man helps the young man to self-knowledge, and perfect companionship is achieved between the two.
‘And the old Man’s heart seemed born again’ runs the epigraph to the novel. Reid himself was 54 when he started writing Uncle Stephen, and wrote of that time, ‘it was less like writing a book than living in one.’ In his own life he had a series of just such companionships, Toms to his Uncle Stephen: the last, and longest-lasting such friendship, with Stephen Gilbert, later to be Reid’s executor, began as he was completing Uncle Stephen, in 1931. (Aspects of that relationship are described in Brian Westby, the most realistic of Reid’s novels, published in 1934.)
Everyone needs an Uncle Stephen, just as every Uncle Stephen needs a young Tom. But, beyond this very touching account of the interdependence of youth and age, there lie the closely linked themes of paganism and the reality of dreams. It is here that Reid’s genius is unique. His novels do not give off too damaging a sense of loss—the Eden is not irrecoverable, despite the longing, and the difficulty of the search for it. ‘The boundary line between two worlds’ is all we have to find, and there, in a secret garden (not too far in realistic terms from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s), the god Hermes Ðáéäï÷üñïò can be found, if we are ready and able to accommodate him. Once found, this dream god can give us a life of the mind that will compensate in some measure for the normality of the world around us. This, it has to be said, is not the feyness of Peter Pan, or the eternal childhood idyll of Bevis, in Richard Jeffries’ classic novel of the same name (1882). It is a hard-fought struggle towards a reconciliation of the imagination, the spirit, and the flesh.
To say that Reid’s search is not dissimilar to D.H. Lawrence’s might seem anathema. But a line in Uncle Stephen—‘he wondered for how many creatures this choked fountain was the whole world’—is remarkably close in tone and intention, in spirit and sympathy, to this line from Love Among the Haystacks, which dates from much the same time: ‘As he soused his face in the trough, he wondered what the little creatures that lived in the velvety silt at the bottom would think of the taste of soap.’ A concern for the littleness
The excellent chapter 17 of Uncle Stephen, where Tom gives Jim Deverell £50 so that he can escape the law, is Reid at his realistic emotional best. Chapter 22 shows another level of his achievement—how that realistic mastery can subtly be transformed into pagan god-worship and imaginative ecstasy.
Reid treads a very fine line between real and unreal, the sublimated and the sublime, and with great artistry manages to avoid the double traps of feyness and bathos. The reader almost believes with Tom Barber that ‘the earth might be a kind of heaven! It wasn’t really impossible.’
That is the challenge Reid poses in his novels; and his achievement is that, for a moment, he convinces us that Tom just might be right; and even if he is not, the world would be a much duller place without those who try to see it as Tom does.
They were as companions… .
Objects which the Shepherd loved before
Were dearer now… . From the Boy there came
Feelings and emanations—things which were
Light to the sun and music to the wind;
And the old Man’s heart seemed born again.
Beyond the iron wicket-gate stretched an avenue of yew-trees with, at the end of it, four wide shallow steps, dark and mossy, descending in a terrace to the graves. This avenue was straight as if marked out with a ruler. The yew-trees were straight, trim, and sombre, of a dull bluish-green that was not so dark as the shadows they threw on the unmown grass. They stood up stiffly against a deep ultramarine sky, and composed a picture at once formal and intensely romantic.
That is, if it happened to burst upon your vision unexpectedly, as it did upon Tom Barber’s, flooded with a light from Poe’s Ulalume. Young Tom in his new and ill-fitting suit of rough black cloth, beneath which he had sweated freely during the long drive, was for a minute or two rapt by that instant recognition into forgetfulness of the business that had brought him here. It was but a brief respite, however, and he awakened from it guiltily. Certain muffled and sliding sounds caused him to shrink back. This was not like Ulalume—this ugly varnished brass-handled box covered with flowers. For the flowers somehow increased its ghastliness. Shoulder-high his father’s coffin was carried through the narrow gate and down the avenue, while he followed with Eric and Leonard—the chief mourners.
A feeling of resentment arose unhappily in his mind against everything and everybody connected with the funeral. The solemn wooden faces, the formal clothes, the secret indifference which had allowed hired men to bear the burden, depressed and exasperated him. If anyone had really cared! But all this, and particularly those hideous wreaths with the cards of their donors carefully attached to them, suggested neither grief nor affection, but only the triumph of clay and worms, and the horrors that were already out of sight.
The burial service began. Mr. Carteret in his starched yet ghostly surplice stood by the grave slightly apart from the bareheaded group who watched and listened to him. It was as if everything for the moment had passed into his hands, and he were, by some mysterious incantation, sending forth the soul, which till now had lingered near its old dwelling, on a perilous and distant journey. Tom felt a sudden desire to weep.
He turned away. Deliberately he fixed his attention on a creamy, black-spotted butterfly who had entered the avenue. The butterfly’s wavering flight as he flickered in and out of the bands of shadow and sunlight barring the green path seemed purposeless as that of a leaf in the wind. He, too, was like a little soul newly exiled from the body and not knowing whither to fly. The soul of an infant, perhaps. Then suddenly he alit on a stalk of foxgloves and became at once a comfortable earthly creature, warm with appetites, eager, impatient, purposeful, as he explored cave after purple cave, forcing an entrance, greedy, determined. Tom smiled: he very nearly laughed.
His smile faded and he blushed hotly as he encountered the rather dry and speculative gaze of Dr. Macrory. Dr. Macrory looked away, but Tom knew he had been caught. He felt ashamed and miserable. Furtively he glanced round the little group of mourners of whom he was the smallest and youngest, but every face was still drawn to an appropriate expression of apathetic decorum. Only his mind had wandered, and yet it was his father they were burying. He was only Eric’s and Leonard’s step-father; only Uncle Horace’s brother-in-law: as for the rest, there were even several persons there whose names Tom did not know.
He heard a faint cawing of rooks, like sleepy distant music. If he could slip away now, away from that raw red gaping hole… . He heard Mr. Carteret’s voice: ‘to raise us from the death of sin into the life of righteousness; that when we shall depart this life, we may rest in him, as our hope is this our brother doth; and that, at the general Resurrection in the last day …’ The words fell with a solemn cadence, but for Tom they had neither more nor less meaning than the cawing of the rooks. Any gentler feelings he might have had about death were at present obliterated by its unsightliness. The ugliness of death had been revealed suddenly, much as if he had come on an obscene inscription or picture chalked up on a wall. You didn’t hang wreaths of flowers round that, or put on your best clothes to mope or to gloat over it. And supposing it was somebody you loved who had died—then all this kind of thing would be doubly revolting… .
Uncle Horace and Eric and Leonard:—he found himself staring at them with hostility. And at home there was his step-mother, and Jane his step-sister—Jane, who among all these ‘steps’ was the only one he really liked. He had liked Eric—liked him more than he would ever like Jane—but it is impossible to go on caring for a person who shows you he doesn’t want to be cared for. Eric did not like him, and Leonard did not like him, and his stepmother did not like him. The only difference was that he could see Mrs. Gavney—now Mrs. Barber—trying to like him, an effort that faintly tickled his sense of humour, which was as odd as everything else about him. Of course, both Eric and Leonard were older than he was—though Leonard was only a year older, and for that matter Tom knew the question of age had nothing to do with it. They did not despise him because he was young but because he was different. And the worst of it was that in all on which they set the slightest value they were his superiors… .
Tom’s eyes closed for a moment at the sound of the shovelling of earth—the first dull thuds on hollow wood. It was horrible, but it passed quickly: once the coffin was covered there was only a scraping, scuffling noise. And all this squeamishness was not really sorrow for his father. Was he sorry—even a little? While his father had been alive he had never felt much affection for him: an atmosphere of spiritual remoteness had, as far back as he could remember, surrounded him. His father had never been unkind, but he had been extraordinarily unapproachable. And after his second marriage—his marriage with Mrs. Gavney, the mother of Eric and Leonard and Jane—he had seemed to think Tom must now have everything he needed—a second mother, companions of his own age. This last advantage had actually been mentioned—during a painfully embarrassing conversation from which Tom had escaped as soon as he could. Well, they needn’t think he intended to go on living in that house in Gloucester Terrace, because he didn’t. Not without a struggle at any rate! If only he were his own master how easy it would be! In that case he would simply pack up an
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