I have prejudices against David Garnett. Being a Bloomsbury hanger-on loses him points, as does his treatment of Angelica Grant, the girl he announced he would marry after he was introduced to her when she was in her cradle. I was also suspicious of his later friendship with T H White, a lonely and tortured man whose predilections for cruelty and misogyny don’t seem to have been ameliorated by his mentee relationshop with Garnett. Altogether, Garnett isn’t someone I would have liked to have spent time with.
I liked Garnett’s novel Lady Into Fox (1922), though it’s not one I want to reread very much. Cruelty, and a sense of the disposability of women, are my strongest memories of it. I had known of his 1929 novel (the copy I read gives 1929 as its publication date: Wikipedia says 1925) The Sailor’s Return for its association with Chaldon Herring and the lives of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, and T F Powys. A friend lent it to me, and it was an uncomfortable reading experience, very like the novels of Powys in which people die and cruelty runs rampant as a function of the powers of natural behaviour.
The plot concerns William Targett, a Dorset sailor, who returns to England in the 1820s with two companions he has brought from Africa. One is Tulip, a young man, and the other is Sambo, a small and obedient toddler. Tulip turns out to be Sambo’s mother and Targett’s wife: they were married under the rites of her home kingdom of Dahomey where she is a princess. Targett brings back a great deal of Tulip’s portable treasure to England, with which he leases a pub in a Dorset village called The Sailor’s Return, having a fancy to leave the sea to settle down as a publican. Tulip has fine clothes and crinolines for public wear, and serviceable working clothes for working in the pub. She works hard and is happy. She likes Tom the faithful potboy and benevolent Mrs Clall who work for them in the pub. Sambo is a delightful and happy child. But they are not accepted by the villagers, and are loathed by Targett’s sister, Mrs Lucy Sturmey. The status of their marriage is a problem, especially as Tulip knows her own worth as a princess and a lady of her nation, and respects the laws of her ancestors. Racism, bigotry, bullying, ostracism, arrogance and outright violence escalate, until the sad and violent ending.
It’s not a story I want to reread: neighbourly malice for no good reason is a miserable subject. Garnett doesn’t condemn the vile behaviour of the villagers towards Tulip and Sambo, and one has to ask, is this because he didn’t see much wrong with it? I also wonder, what did Garnett know of white prejudices in the 1820s towards Africans? I doubt that he knew anything of them at all: and I suspect that he merely applied the customs of his own day, class and politics to rural villagers of a century earlier. In our own day there has been research done on the history of black Dorset: I wonder if Garnett knew or cared that such history existed?
That bald outline of the plot does not convey the insidious and repellent effect of the many synonyms for ‘black African’ used by Garnett throughout the novel in the narrative voice as part of the vocabulary of his day. It’s foolish to be prejudiced against a person for using words they heard and read all around them as part of the backdrop of their daily lives. Trouble is, Garnett’s poetic and elegant prose deliberately places ‘blackamoor’, ‘negro’, ‘savage’, ‘nigger’ and similar into the narrative to describe Tulip and Sambo, as an aesthetic choice rather than casual social usage. There are so many of them. Anachronistic or not, this is hard to read now.
Likewise, the angry treatment of these black characters by white characters is relentless. It’s validated by the disapproval of the Church concerning marriage and baptism, and accentuated further by the mixed reactions of Targett’s own family. Some love Tulip, some hate her, some withdraw the hems of their garments in an indifferently shameful way. It is the tragic heart of this novel that Tulip and her son are brought to England by an ill-advised but affectionately colour-neutral Targett, and they all suffer for it.
So what is the point of this conjunction of racism and white atavism? Why write or even read it? An Awful Warning? (Do Not Marry Black Women.) A morality lesson about bigotry (hardly)? Toying with the sensibilities of the reader when presented with the spectacle of the suffering of the innocent and admirable? I don’t think any of those options reflect well on Garnett’s desire to write this novel. He may have wanted to explore what would have happened to a young black woman of good family who fell among white savages in England. But his relish for Tulip’s naked body and joyous dancing is a little too lip-licking to disregard. She is in the novel as Targett’s choice of wife (he chooses her when she is a naked thirteen-year old). She is victimised by the villagers because she isn’t one of them.
The Chaldon Herring villagers were generous and easy-going in their acceptance of sexually-complicated literary Londoners and the bizarre Powys clan who lived among them for decades. Was Garnett wondering how they might have turned nasty had someone beyond the pale moved in?