Leaving the Door Ajar

Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare

by Theresa Whistler
Duckworth, 478 pp., £25.00

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…

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