Dark whimsy: Mr Powys’ Mr Weston and Mr Peake’s Mr Pye

weston 1Mr Weston’s Good Wine, by T F Powys (1927), and Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye (1953) are English fantasies about sex, sin and other violations of civilised behaviour. Mr Weston’s Good Wine is an allegorical inter-war rural fantasia about casual rape, and Mr Pye uses a prim and postwar Channel Islands setting that shimmies with loathing and desire amongst the raging jealousy between neighbours. Both authors write from the tradition of dark whimsy that lurks underneath English cosiness. Both novels depict an incomer cunningly manipulating religious faith in the community to secure a power base and a bizarre night-time apotheosis.

Mr Weston’s Good Wine is beautifully written, but disturbing. T F Powys lived in a Dorset village almost all his life. The intense and highly-strung lives he and his sisters, brothers, friends and acolytes led in Chaldon Herring are alarming to read. Judith Stinson’s survey of their community describes the Powys’ family lives, and helps the bemused reader understand where Mr Weston’s Good Wine came from. Never have I less wanted to go back in time to take tea with a literary figure.

weston 2Mr Weston arrives in a small country town on a sunny afternoon, in a small van driven by his assistant. They rest in the shade, and wait. A small boy climbs nosily into the back of the van, stares, jumps down and runs away screaming, because he has seen a lion inside, or is it a tiger? A maiden lady secretly in love with the mayor walks neatly past the van, and is perceived in her innocence and goodness as worthy of reward. Mr Weston is an allegory for Christ, or God, and he is giving his Good Wine to the righteous and the worthy. Or is he identifying those who have already drunk his Good Wine by their subsequent good behaviour?  A simple country maiden is being urged by an older spinster to go out and meet her lover at night, because the spinster is longing for the maiden’s ruin. She is not nice, and the maiden is simply stupid. The waiting rapists are hearty countrymen who expect to roam freely among the country girls as if by right. Mr Weston moves on before dusk, to park his van above the village above the cliffside, and waits for the evening’s desecrations to begin.

pye 2The allegory is as thick as mud: just when you think you’ve got an idea of what is going on, you slip sideways and find something else entirely. It is quite possible that Mr Weston is not God but the Devil, and the Good Wine is the wages of sin, such is the inevitability of illicit sex in every chapter. This confusion about what in heaven or earth is happening is also strong in Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye, which also begins with a stranger coming to town. He takes a single ticket for the ferry from St Peter Port in Guernsey to Sark, which signifies that he has no intention of returning. The novel was filmed in the 1980s, but the stills and reviews online don’t seem to persuade me that its essential darkness has been kept.

Mr Pye has booked a room in gruff Miss Dredger’s house, and causes ruptures in the social carapaces of Sark life as soon as he arrives. He forces ancient enemies to speak to each other, he breaks protocol, he dominates by force of personality. He is expansive, cultured, highly persuasive, and gushing. He is a self-proclaimed emissary of God, whom he whimsically calls the Great Pal, intent on saving the Sark people’s souls. He is not an angel, though is in danger of becoming one, since wings begin to grow from his back, to his extreme alarm and embarrassment. When he fights back by doing evil deeds instead, horns begin to grow on his forehead, and the wings retreat. Both processes are painful, despite the soothing care by Miss Dredger, his now devoted acolyte. The islanders are fascinated, and gossip flies everywhere so strongly that Mr Pye’s self-proclaimed work of saving souls is made easier by quietly listening at doors and asking careful questions to people willing to spill out their grudges and hate for each other. The ‘husky beauty’ Tintagieu, who simply can’t resist men, is the island’s spirit of love, and a fine independent thinker. She is the only islander to remain unaffected by Mr Pye’s fanciful plans and social arrangements, yet she helps him escape. The final vision of Mr Pye learning to fly as he leaps from the cliff-edge is supremely fantastical.

pye 1A little light browsing online found me a footnote in Colin Manlove’s Modern Fantasy (1975) that speculates about the origin of the character of Mr Pye being influenced by Mr Weston, but nothing else is said about the novels as a pair. If I were setting a student research essay, or pitching ideas for a PhD, I’d throw in Dylan Thomas’s radio play Under Milk Wood (1954) and George Mackay Brown’s novel Greenvoe (1972) as well. They’re linked to Powys and Peake by the poetry of the writing, since Thomas and Brown are much better known for their poetry. All four works are formal tours through the life of the place, looking through windows and listening at doors to hear what goes on there at night.

 

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