Friday, 3 April 2015

Book Review: Mr. Fortune's Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Today is Good Friday and I thought that this might be the right moment to feature kind of a Christian read. The protagonist of the novel that I picked for my review is an Protestant missionary on a remote islet in the South Seas, but the plot revolves less around religion than it is about love and the harm that the influence of western civilisation can do, especially in combination with the belief in its supremacy. The topic undoubtedly is a serious one, and yet Mr. Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner isn’t a stern book at all. It’s a satire of missionary zeal to convert the savage to true faith and western life-style. The novel is set before the Great War of 1914-18 when there still were untouched spots on our planet, thus long before the world had shrunk to the size of a computer screen.

Sylvia Townsend Warner was born in Harrow on the Hill, England, U.K., in December 1893. She was home-taught by her father, a much revered housemaster at prestigious Harrow School, and gifted for music as well as words. In the 1920s she earned a decent living as one of the editors of the Oxford University Press’ catalogue of Tudor Church Music (1922-1929), but soon felt drawn towards writing. She made her literary debut with a volume of poetry titled The Espalier (1925) and followed suit bringing out her first satirical novel Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman (1926) which became a best-seller right away. Her next book, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot (1927), was a success, too, and firmly established her as a novelist. During the following five decades the author published another five novels – most notable among them Summer Will Show (1936) and After the Death of Don Juan (1938) –, fourteen short-story collections, six volumes of poetry, translations of Marcel Proust’s By Way of Sainte-Beuve (1958) and Jean-René Huguenin’s A Place of Shipwreck (1963), and a biography of T. H. White (1967). Sylvia Townsend Warner died in Frome Vauchurch, England, U.K., in May 1978.

The main scene of Mr. Fortune’s Maggot is Fanua, a small tropical island of the Rarotongan Archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Middle-aged Reverend Timothy Fortune is a former bank clerk who came to the region ten years earlier to follow his call as a missionary, but was assigned to teaching and keeping the accounts of the Church in the sea port of Saint Fabien. When he asks the Archdeacon to be allowed to move to Fanua to start a mission, his wish is granted reluctantly. And there he is on the paradisiacal island at the back of beyond which provides its inhabitants generously with everything they need. People receive him kindly and help him wherever they can, but to his astonishment they don’t pay any attention to his preaching because they are happy and don’t long for change. Only a young boy called Lueli shows interest in the stranger and watches him say his first mass on Sunday morning. None of the other islanders are present and Reverend Fortune is convinced that the boy is his God-sent first convert, his key to the pagan hearts of all others. The same day he baptises Lueli and takes him into his hut to make him a full-fledged and civilised Christian. For three years he teaches the youth catechism and is pleased not just with his pupil’s progress, but also with his good looks. He loves the boy very dearly and thinks the best of him. Then fate strikes. On a walk Reverend Fortune comes across Lueli’s idol and he realises that the boy still worships his old God like the rest of the islanders. The very moment he calls Lueli to account the Earth shakes and the island’s volcano erupts. A burning lamp falls to the ground and sets the hut as well as the wooden idol on fire shattering the peace of mind of both the reverend and Lueli because each loses his faith in God.

The story of Mr. Fortune’s Maggot is a satirical third-person narrative which clearly criticises the arrogance of our western, i.e. Christian society which likes to think of itself as the best in the world and which takes it for granted that all people should be grateful for getting a chance to adopt our culture (the same goes for several other, non-Christian societies, by the way). Reverend Fortune is a typical man brought up in the Victorian age and he strongly believes in the supremacy of his culture when he follows his maggot, which is defined as “a whimsical or perverse fancy; a crotchet”, to evangelise the people of Fanua. Despite all, three years among “savages” in the “wilderness” of a paradisiacal tropic island teach him that pagan society isn’t as bad and worthless as he always thought and reduce his missionary zeal as well as his faith in God to nothing. However, there’s yet another important dimension to this short novel. The reader soon realises that it’s a love story, although none of the usual kind. Lueli is described as a graceful Polynesian boy and quite obviously Reverend Fortune feels attracted to him as he might feel to a beautiful woman. Nonetheless, their relationship remains innocent throughout the novel and it doesn’t become entirely clear if the reverend is actually gay or not. In any case his love turns selfless, even kind of self-sacrificing in the end. Lueli, on the other hand, loves everything and everybody around him indiscriminately with all his heart because it’s natural to him like breathing, but then he grew up in the peaceful community on the island and he only enters adolescence by the end of the novel. Considering that the author never visited the South Seas and also admitted not to have burdened herself with thorough research, the scenery of the novel feels amazingly vivid and authentic. Also Reverend Fortune’s inner conflicts regarding his failure as a missionary and his love for Lueli are very credible. The author wrote her book in a very precise and concise language which makes it feel very modern and was a mere pleasure to read.

As you can see, I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner. There’s also a novella meant as a sequel to it, The Salutation, which the author published in a volume of short stories of the same title in 1932 and which is now available together with the original novel in a combinded edition titled Mr. Fortune. I can recommend both of them for reading although I liked the first novel better.

* * * * * review is a contribution to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015, namely to the category Humorous or Satirical Classic.

»»» see my sign-up post with the complete reading list.

And this is also a review for Valentina's 2015 Women Challenge # 3 on Peek-a-booK!, too.

»»» please read my sign-up post to know more.

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