Taste in literature, like taste in food, changes over time. The complex, subtly flavored custards and meringues and soufflés that crowned a company dinner fifty or sixty years ago are seldom seen today—like many of the writers most admired in mid-century.
Walter de la Mare, who was once celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, is now almost unknown here. Few of his many books of fiction, poetry, and essays are still in print, and his once best-selling anthologies, including the remarkable Come Hither, are only available in second-hand bookshops. Like old-fashioned desserts, much of his work now seems over-elaborate, full of air and sugar.
Though de la Mare was once considered a master of fantasy, his spooky tales may be too low-key and literary for current tastes. In his time readers—at least, middle-class readers—were somewhat sheltered from the violence of the world; it did not take much to create a pleasing shudder. Now many authors feel they must compete with the real-life horrors served on television; as a result, popular fiction is crowded with exploding bodies, drooling vampires, carnivorous reptiles, and repellently decaying corpses risen from the grave. To readers used to such coarse fare, de la Mare’s skillful and haunting tales may seem flavorless as well as “bloodless”—which they usually literally are.
In another sense, however, many of de la Mare’s stories are as strange and terrible as any told today—and often far better written. In contemporary thrillers evil usually assaults the central character from without; he may be terrified, injured, or even killed, but he is always sympathetic. But in some of de la Mare’s most successful tales ordinary-looking protagonists, very like his readers, turn out to have dark histories and violent impulses. Often, simply being alone or idle is enough to call them up. As the heroine of “The Wharf” says, “If you remain empty, ideas come creeping in…. It is always dangerous—leaving doors ajar.”
Occasionally, however, evil in de la Mare is external; but if so it tends to be embodied not in obvious villains, but in people and places that at first sight seem familiar or even reassuring: a spinster aunt who sends generous food parcels to her nephew at boardingschool; a picturesque old cathedral in the depths of the country. Only gradually do we realize that Seaton’s aunt, in the story of that name, has psychologically devoured her nephew, or that the cathedral has been taken over by demons.
Theresa Whistler’s intelligent, well-researched, and wonderfully readable new biography of de la Mare presents itself as a record of his life; but it is also a sensitive and thoughtful study of his fiction and poetry. She comes to her task with important advantages: as the granddaughter of de la Mare’s old friend and patron Sir Henry Newbolt, she knew him and many of his associates from infancy. As she says in her prologue, she “inherited a friendship with him already intimate through three generations.” She began her research for this book shortly after de la Mare’s death in 1956, when many of his friends and relatives were still alive.
Theresa Whistler does not attempt to present de la Mare as an unfairly neglected writer. If anything, she rather undervalues him. Though she claims that his work “carries the tang of authentic spiritual experience,” she calls his subjects “elusive, fantastic, fine-spun and minor-keyed” and says that for her his prose is sometimes “exhausting and blood-thinning,” and his “sentiment dated.”
But minor or dated as de la Mare may now seem even to his biographer, he is an important writer in that he was able to discover and claim a literary territory, and change his readers’ perception of the world. Half-abandoned, possibly haunted old houses, lonely and eccentric spinsters and bachelors, and foggy, melancholy woodlands existed before he wrote, but he described them with such intensity that now one can recognize a de la Mare character, mood, or landscape anywhere.
To readers who know his books, it may seem surprising that it has taken, so long for a full-length life of de la Mare to appear. But biographers today prefer subjects who do much of the preliminary work themselves, creating themselves as dramatic public figures—something de la Mare avoided whenever possible. They also like crisis and scandal, and if possible, violence and tragedy. De la Mare’s life, after his early struggles for recognition, was private and uneventful. He married at twenty-six and remained married until his wife died forty-eight years later, and he was an affectionate father to their four children. He had few enemies, and only one—unconsummated—love affair. Even his biographer calls his history “unexciting and respectable.”
Essentially, de la Mare had the life that Forster’s Leonard Bast, the doomed clerk of Howards End, might have had with better luck. Like Leonard Bast, he began in the lowest strata of the middle class: his father died in 1877 when he was four, plunging de la Mare’s mother and her seven children into poverty. At the age of ten he had the good fortune to be accepted as a choirboy at St. Paul’s Cathedral; and for the next six years he received a decent education. But at sixteen, after his voice changed, he had to leave school and become a low-ranking clerk in the City. He accepted adulthood only reluctantly; growing up, he wrote to Henry Newbolt, was “a fiasco.” And this preference for childhood persisted into old age. When at twenty-one Theresa Whistler protested this view, he declared to her, “Take your own case. Look how diluted you are!“
For eighteen years de la Mare worked fifty-seven hours a week in the statistical department of the Anglo-American Oil Company, adding columns of figures and copying documents. Hating this organization, which he called “carnivorous,” he lived as much as he could in the world of his imagination, believing in the existence of what he called “another reality” which could be sought through “make-believe, day-dream, empathy, [and] free association.” Theresa Whistler suggests that perhaps it was to feel closer to this dream-world that after he left school he changed the spelling of his family name, Delamare, to the older and more continental form.
According to all accounts de la Mare was a good-looking, sensitive, romantic young man, with vague but intense intellectual and literary ambitions, and a boring job in which he was over-worked and underpaid. Like Forster’s Leonard Bast, he married unwisely, and probably under pressure—in his case, two and a half months before the birth of his first child. His wife, Elfie, was eleven years older, a clerk in an insurance office, and the leading lady of the local South London dramatic society. She was essentially uneducated and rather silly, but from the beginning she believed wholly in de la Mare as a writer, and for many years, starting even before the marriage, she took on the task of sending out his manuscripts in order to spare him the pain of rejection slips.
De la Mare was also lucky in that his ambitions were more focused than those of Leonard Bast: from the age of twenty he was determined to be an author. Often, after office hours were over at 6:30, he remained at his desk in the Anglo-American Oil Company until midnight to write. Soon this industry was rewarded: his first story was accepted when he was only twenty-two, though he didn’t publish a book until seven years later. He was fortunate also in that he was not taken up by well-meaning but ultimately destructive well-to-do people like Leonard Bast’s Schlegels. Instead he gradually made friends with other young writers including Rupert Brooke, W.H. Davies, Ralph Hodgson, and Edward Thomas.
Unlike most male writers of his own time (not to mention our own) de la Mare enjoyed domesticity. He loved children and was good at housekeeping: he could change diapers and bake a cake. But overwork and constant worry about money dragged him down. In his twenties and early thirties he was frequently depressed and troubled by doubts about his own ability. By the time he was thirty-five he had published several books of poetry and the fantasy novel Henry Brocken, but though reviews were good, he was earning almost nothing from his writing, and only £143 a year from Anglo-American Oil.
Now, however, his luck turned. Henry Newbolt (who at the time was far better known than de la Mare) managed to get him a government grant of £200 and persuaded him to quit his job and accept it. Suddenly he had time to write. Poems and stories and essays poured out; he also began to review regularly and started a children’s book based on the tales he had told his own children. After 1908 de la Mare still had periods of self-doubt and depression, but essentially he was out of the woods—though in his case that seems the wrong metaphor, since nothing delighted and fascinated him more than an ancient and shadowy forest.
The landscape of de la Mare’s stories and poems, of course, was not unique to him, but part of the nineteenth-century Romantic tradition of the haunted English countryside: the numinous, isolated woods and fields and marshes that provide the background in writers like Arthur Machen, Forrest Reid, Lord Dunsany, and Sylvia Townsend Warner. Their best-known stories are set by preference in a rural world that was disappearing in their lifetimes, a world not yet shrunken by the telephone and the motorcar. Its characteristic atmosphere of romantic melancholy is a sort of pathetic fallacy—loss embodied in landscape. What makes de la Mare’s writing unique is that for him this scenery and the mixture of sadness and enchantment it embodied were often the central subject of his work; foreground as well as background.
Though the landscape that most moved de la Mare was that of south-west England, especially Devon and Cornwall, he grew up in South London’s shabby outer suburbs, and his ancestry was part Scotch and part French Huguenot. A geneticist might suggest that this inheritance made him both a dreamer and a Puritan—a combination that might be another reason for his loss of popularity. Today, passion is expected to express itself in physical data: size of parts, number of orgasms, type of contraception used; the description of a love affair that doesn’t include such details seems fuzzy and incomplete. But though de la Mare could be deeply romantic, the erotic is almost wholly absent from his work. According to Theresa Whistler, he was not much interested in sex. He was, as she puts it, “romantic, fastidious, and private,” someone for whom “the physical aspects of anything, not merely of love, would always be secondary.”
When he was thirty-eight, and beginning to be well-known, de la Mare fell in love with the literary editor of a magazine to which he was a contributor, the Saturday Westminster Review. Naomi Royde-Smith was thirty-three: a lively, intelligent, and independent woman with a romantic imagination. She had always wanted to be the soul-mate and Muse of a great writer; and de la Mare was happy to assign her that role.
For the next three years, as Theresa Whistler relates, Naomi and de la Mare were in an emotional tizzy about each other. But, evidently to her annoyance, the affair remained platonic, though he wrote her nearly eight hundred love-letters. Since he was married he had what in the euphemism of the time was known as an Outlet; also, according to Theresa Whistler, he preferred the idea of Naomi to the reality.
I long to get things over, to have them safe in memory—[he wrote her]…. Even you are almost best in memory, where I cannot change you, nor you yourself.
In the summer of 1913 de la Mare spent three days in Naomi’s room, but apparently refused to sleep with her. From this time on, though the letters continued, Naomi became increasingly impatient with his demands on her time, attention, and emotion, and the relationship went downhill fast.
Soon after the start of World War I de la Mare contracted appendicitis, followed by complications that kept him convalescent for many months. Another man might have resented the enforced inactivity and separation from historic events, but de la Mare, who had had to share his mother with six other children and his wife with four, enjoyed being fed and cosseted by nurses. His return home brought on a period of depression, but in 1915 he had two strokes of good luck. First, he was made a Royal Society of Literature professor (largely an honorary office) and granted a pension of £100 a year. Then Rupert Brooke died in Greece and left everything to three friends and poets, of whom de la Mare was one. Death transformed Brooke into a world-class hero and best-selling poet, and the resulting royalties gave de la Mare economic security for the rest of his life.
In 1921 de la Mare published his strangest and most famous work of fiction, Memoirs of a Midget. It is a tour de force: a middle-aged man’s fully imagined and convincing vision of what it might be like to be a young woman between two and three feet tall (de la Mare never gives his heroine’s exact height). His narrator, Miss M—whose full name we never learn—is, like her creator, self-educated, thoughtful, dreamy, and fascinated by natural phenomena from the stars to the patterns of lichen. She begins life as a sheltered only child, becomes an orphan, falls in love with a beautiful and ambitious full-sized woman, and is courted by a male dwarf. Later she is taken up by London society as a kind of pet, and finally joins a circus.
According to Theresa Whistler, de la Mare always spoke of Miss M as a real person, a kind of imaginary companion. He saw himself as equally isolated and peculiar; and Ms. Whistler is surely right in tracing a connection between Miss M’s emotional life and his own. Like her, de la Mare felt an alternating pleasure and distaste when he was lionized by London society hostesses; like her, he both enjoyed and resented being taken care of.
Though Theresa Whistler does not point this out, it is also possible to see echoes of his relationship with Naomi Royde-Smith in the story. When Miss M tells the dwarf who loves her: “I share my secretest thoughts—my imagination, with you; isn’t that a kind of love?” it is easy to imagine de la Mare’s using the same excuse to Naomi. And when Fanny, the young woman Miss M romantically adores, complains of Miss M’s rejection of physical contact, it is possible to hear Naomi’s voice accusing de la Mare:
“You said you loved me—oh yes. But touch me, come here”—she laid her hand almost fondly on her breast—“and be humanly generous, no. That’s no more your nature than—than a changeling’s. Contamination, perhaps!”
Like most good novels, The Memoirs of a Midget can be read in many ways. It works, for instance, as an allegory about the position of middle-class women in the late nineteenth century: petted and minimized when weak, condemned when they want independence. Except for the few days when she is displaying herself in the circus, Miss M never earns a shilling; people take care of her because she is helpless and cute. Only after great difficulties is she able to live alone, and then on inherited money.
Miss M’s friend Fanny, on the other hand, has to earn her own living as a teacher; at one point she comes to Miss M desperate to borrow money (probably for an abortion, though de la Mare does not spell this out). Hard as she tries, Fanny cannot survive on her own. She ends up making a loveless marriage and blaming all her troubles on Miss M, whom she accuses of having been her enemy for years. In terms of the story this accusation is cruel and unreasonable, but it works symbolically. Rich, childish, dependent women were in a sense the enemies of poor Victorian working girls like Fanny. If the author of The Memoirs of a Midget had been a woman, it might now be acclaimed as an early feminist classic.
Classic or not, it is impressively well written. De la Mare cared about prose, and his is often brilliant; no one can set a mood, or describe landscape and weather better.
Soon after six…a storm, which all the afternoon had been steadily piling its leaden vapours into space, began to break…. The very air seemed to thicken, and every tree stood up as if carved out of metal. Of a sudden a great wind, with heavy plashing drops of rain, swept roaring round the house, thick with dust and green leaves torn from the dishevelled summer trees. There was a hush. The darkness intensified, and then a vast sheet of lightning seemed to picture all Kent in my eyes, and the air was full of water.
The emotional intensity and subtle, haunting charm of Memoirs of a Midget also power de la Mare’s best stories. As Theresa Whistler points out, very often they are told from the viewpoint of a child coolly observing the passions and tragedies of adults, or by an uninvolved narrator to whom strangers confide odd or dreadful histories. At first glance, they may seem slow and over-elaborate—but, then, so do the ghost stories of Henry James, whom de la Mare admired. In my opinion some, such as “Seaton’s Aunt,” “Crewe,” and “Miss Duveen” deserve to be classics, and so does his early, haunting tale “The Rifle,” in which seven children, singly or in pairs, vanish into an old oak chest in a house deep in the country—perhaps into death, perhaps only into adulthood.
De la Mare’s collections of fairy tales for children, Broomsticks and The Lord Fish, are also worth rereading. Nothing is harder than to invent a convincing fairy story, but in a couple of cases de la Mare manages it, notably in “The Lovely Mywfawny,” which features a father who, like de la Mare himself at one point, cannot bear the idea that his daughter will marry and leave him. The story was written the summer that Florence de la Mare announced her engagement to a family friend—upon which, according to Theresa Whistler, her father “blurted out ‘I am sorry to hear it!”‘ Yet his sense of humor and proportion reasserted itself, and in the tale the foolishly jealous father is turned into an ass.
It is harder to make a case for de la Mare’s verse. In his own lifetime he was even more famous as a poet than as a storyteller, but today much of his work seems dated. His contemporary Middleton Murry called it “a flourish of clichés,” and it is weakened further by de la Mare’s conviction that only certain subjects, certain emotions, and a certain diction are truly “poetic.” From the beginning he thought that his “other reality” should be described in a language different from that of everyday life: it demanded fine writing and strange and archaic words.
De la Mare’s verses are full of inversions, of words already archaic at the time (‘tis, aught, eve, amidst), and of capitalized nouns like Fate and Evening. He prefers the standard late-Romantic subjects: nature, the fleetingness of beauty, children, minor supernatural figures, and lost love. The late-Romantic subject for which de la Mare became most famous, however, was the mysteriousness of deserted or half-deserted buildings and landscapes. And in spite of their old-fashioned diction, some of his verses on this subject can still convey a subtle thrill, among them his best-known and most-often-anthologized poem, “The Listeners” (which I had to learn by heart as a child).
“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:…
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
In his own day de la Mare was also celebrated as the author of poetry for children, but though he was a favorite of my mother’s, I found many of his verses irritating or disturbing. It wasn’t fair, I thought, to change words for the sake of a rhyme, as in “Slowly, silently, now the moon / Walks the night in her silver shoon.” I was troubled by the fish in the frying pan who “lifted his head and cried ‘Alas!”‘ and by Poor Jim Jay who “got stuck fast / In Yesterday” and then slowly vanished away. It did not occur to me, of course, that de la Mare himself was somewhat stuck in yesterday; or that he would gradually vanish from the literary scene.
Probably most writers, if given the choice, would prefer to be successful and honored in their own lifetimes rather than after their death. De la Mare, in spite (or possibly because) of his sense of dreamy estrangement from the contemporary world, now seems very much a figure of his time, and I was disappointed but not surprised to learn that he disliked most mid-twentieth-century writing, did not care for Jews, and voted Tory.
The last years of his life followed the standard pattern of literary success. He continued to write and publish, and to gather awards and honors—though he twice refused the knighthood that he had already covertly awarded himself by creating the benevolent and learned Sir Walter of Memoirs of a Midget. He had lengthening periods of bad health; but for him this had certain advantages. Being ill and taken care of by others, he wrote, caused “a curious inward happiness,” and he liked the dreams that morphine gave him. He was horrified by news of the atomic bomb and of concentration camps; but continued to enjoy the things that had always made him happiest: reading, nature, his children, and the companionship of other writers.
De la Mare died at eighty-three, surrounded by friends and family, and devotedly cared for by a young nurse. And though his reputation did not long survive him, he escaped the pathetic fate described in one of his best stories, “Willows.” Here, a once-promising poet turns out not to have died young and romantically, but to have survived as “a tubby little man with staring blue eyes” whose work has become obscure and incomprehensible. De la Mare’s waning popularity and unsensational life also saved him from what, in the same story, a character calls “the danger worse than death” of predatory biographers and critics, “these so-called lovers of poetry—these parasites—their jealousies, their quarrels, their pretences, their petty curiosity, their suffocating silliness.” Instead, he had to wait nearly forty years for a serious biography; but in Theresa Whistler he has found one without any of the failings he lists. Though its lack of a bibliography is a minor disappointment, her perceptive and thoughtful book was worth the wait.
April 7, 1994