‘A way into secrecy frisked a pampered mouse’ – a curdled Georgian sentence that leads one straight into one of Walter de la Mare’s most plain and chilling tales about a boy’s initiation into horror. The story is ‘An Ideal Craftsman’. In this genre he was a master – albeit a very literary master – of the riddles of sado-masochism, the dark underside of his ‘magic’. So also was Stevenson – a predecessor in his ‘sedulous ape’ period; so too, later, is the bookish cross-bred Borges. Miss Angela Carter, whose preface speculates here on his famous novel Memoirs of a Midget, glances at Borges and goes on to the possibility that de la Mare may be the only English Surrealist, but one with a manner that has what she calls the ‘sheen’ of the Pre-Raphaelites. This ‘sheen’ on his best prose is of course protective and is intended to give the false sense of safety in which we can play with unease. The rooms of his old country houses and their furniture gleam with malign assurance; the gardened Kentish landscape is rich and somnolent. Gardens are important to him – the shadows of trees or the cries of birds alarm a writer who feels himself to be watcher and watched. His ‘normal’ people are torpid, the class manners in which they are set are decorous and assured, even when they have the English acidity. ‘A double-minded creature I was,’ cries Miss M., the genuine midget in this novel. A freak she may be, precocious in her intellect and her retorts as she reads her Jane Austen, her Brontës, her Metaphysical poets, and studies astronomy, but she is vivacious and violent too: she is sarcastic rather than humbled, in her estrangement from the human norm. ‘Foolish girl that I was,’ she cries out again when she considers her self-will and her passions. Looking back on her failure to be anything more than a deviant, she eventually elects to see herself as nothing less than a damned soul – damnation is a kind of fame – and mysteriously speaks at the end of her story of being ‘called away’ out of loneliness into limbo – but not Hell. Miss Angela Carter, who is searching on the symbolism which seems basic to the Memoirs, thinks that its ‘metaphysical sub-text is a decoy’. De la Mare had a gift for the riddle within a riddle: but she thinks he offers ‘a key to a door behind which there is only another door’ and that he is shut up in Victorian reticence and sternly anti-Freudian. She quotes his own defence from his introduction to the Everyman edition of the novel in 1938: ‘Feelings as well as thoughts may be expressed in symbols; and every character is not only a “chink” or “peep-hole” in the dark cottage from which his maker looks out at the world, but is also in some degree representative of himself, if a self in disguise.’ This is a truism. What one notices are the ‘peep-hole’ and ‘cottage’: he was drawn to the small and unique because he applied a microscope to it and thereby turned it into the grotesque. He believed in the privacy of the imagination, regarding it as an anatomical part. We may think that Fancy rather than Imagination was his forte. Still, within these terms, he was an ingenious and marvellous architect of his elaborate drama. Immediately after the 1914 war, Angela Carter suggests, older readers may have been drawn to a nostalgia for the exclusive if staling comforts of a past that was safe: but there is no doubt that this novel is a minor masterpiece. He was an authentic connoisseur of manners, their spites and the price paid for their comedy.
How small was Miss M.? This is uncertain, but for years she was so tiny that she ran about on the dining table and stood there reading books that were taller than herself. When a child, born to embarrassed full-sized parents, she could sleep in a cat’s basket. Even at the age of 20 – the year of her personal crisis as a young lady – she could hardly manage stairs. She may have reached a height of two feet. She has a tiny safe income, until the crash comes. She might be a toy, an object, a mere collector’s oddity but for the fact that she is aggressive, rash, sharp-tongued and carried away by adult passions, determined to be seen as far more alert than the normal people around her, at once scornful of them and craving to belong. She is sometimes arch, always demanding and a delightful talker. ‘Aren’t we becoming rather lugubrious?’ she says to a love-sick clergyman. She is snobbish and very class-conscious – she knows she is superior to the homely country woman who becomes her landlady after the death of her parents – yet, more important, is infatuated with Fanny, her landlady’s daughter, who is a schoolmistress and teaches English Literature. Miss M. picks up lower-class religious phrases and is proud of moments when she is ‘a child of wrath’, but can also preen herself on being ‘the child of grace’. After the piquant opening chapters the central drama appears. She falls in love with Fanny, who is a beauty, noted for her greed, her social-climbing schemes and her heartlessness, and wonderfully well-drawn. Fanny is the placid cat who decides Miss M. is a useful victim and will torment and eventually set out to destroy her. Fanny is a ‘vamp’ with men. She has already driven that village clergyman to suicide – one of de la Mare’s minutely documented suicides – and when Miss M. declares her love to her the girl turns on her and says: ‘Do you really suppose that to be loved is new to me; that to I’m not smeared all over with it wherever I go?’
Yet Miss M.’s infatuation lasts. What is its nature? Is it sexual? De la Mare is fortunately too reticent to say, though he grants her dislike of being touched. He either has no interest in sex or, at most, believes that it must be ingeniously disguised or disowned. Here we come to one of those doors which have no key – unless cruelty and the desire to suffer are more his interest. (There is a Plymouth Brother puritan in him and that perhaps prompted him to settle for ‘the Romantic agony’ of his period. Fanny may be Swinburne’s strapping dompteuse reborn.) Fanny’s object is solely to climb into Miss M.’s social world and get a rich husband. This is achieved when Miss M. is taken up by Mrs Monnerie, who collects freaks to show them off in her drawing-room, and gives Miss M. a London Season, no expense spared. Money will turn out to be Miss M.’s desperate temptation.
High Society turns Miss M.’s head. She confesses she became ‘pranked up with conceit’ in her intellectual superiority to the social crowd, many of whom had ‘faces that looked as though they had been on an almost unbelievable long journey – and not merely through this world, though that helps’. They regarded her as a curio. A birthday party her rich hostess gives for her is of spectacular vulgarity. The menu is meant to flatter her: there is a frightful dish of nightingales’ tongues, quails’ wings and such, which was bad enough for one who could not eat meat, but a glass of some heavy green syrup does for her. She gets up on the table and trots over to her beloved Fanny, calling out, ‘Holy Dying! Holy Dying! Sauve qui peut!’ and passes out beside Fanny’s plate.
Far stranger and elaborately symbolical events have occurred before this and are related by her quick and bookish tongue. To match the destructive Fanny there is the despised figure of one who is cut out to save her from spiritual ruin: it is Mr Anon, a revolting dwarf, who loves her. His name is distinctly coy. Miss M. loathes him and his devotion: he is a watcher! But he comes powerfully to the rescue when Mrs Monnerie and Fanny have turned on her and, being by now without money, she imitates a well-known rival midget and exhibits herself at a vulgar circus. In fact, Mr Anon is killed in a circus accident in attempting to save her life. He completes the tragic riddle which de la Mare has so pawkily and poetically elaborated. He is gnomic in a touching and melancholy way, but de la Mare’s gift of pampering the bleakness and horror of life gives him a dire force. There is a haunting metaphysical hint that, beyond Mr Anon, there may be a mysterious Guard Spirit: but, as Angela Carter says, this does suggest that de la Mare was frightened by his own nerve at the end. It seems that he has some unbearable private agony, stoically borne, that has driven him to embed artifice so thoroughly into his tale that it becomes momentous as it glitters and gapes under his magnifying glass. Memoirs of a Midget is a poet’s book, perhaps a satire, perhaps a transposed confession, perhaps a fairy-tale in which people are either too large or too small. One remembers that Hans Andersen said he wrote for adults.