Reviewed by Harriet
It can only be good news that Penguin have been reissuing Sylvia Townsend Warner’s admirable novels. I only discovered her writing about three years ago when I read a volume of her short stories. I’ve read two more volumes of these since then, reviewed here and here, and just two of her novels, Lolly Willowes and now Mr Fortune’s Maggot.
Maggot? No, the title doesn’t refer to an unpleasant insect feeding on dead bodies, but to an archaic sense of the word: according to the OED, ‘a whimsical, eccentric, strange, or perverse notion or idea’. But what exactly was Mr Fortune’s maggot? There’s more than one possibility in this totally charming novel, first published in 1927.
The Reverend Timothy Fortune is a missionary. He wasn’t always one – he had worked in a bank until an inheritance enabled him to study for the church, and after he was ordained he had decided to set off for the Pacific island of St Fabien. But after ten years there, craving for even more solitude, he told the Archdeacon that he would like to go to the remote island of Fanua, only accessible by canoe. The Archdeacon was dubious:
‘I must warn you, Fortune, you are not likely to make many converts in Fanua’.’What, are they cannibals?’ ‘No, no! But they are like children, always singing and dancing, and of course immoral’.
Mr Fortune had set off for the island full of optimism. The inhabitants seemed delighted to see him, and built him a hut in which he was able to place his harmonium, his sewing machine and his oil lamp. Apart from these, ‘he wished to live as the natives did’.
When everything was completed he gave each of the islanders a gingerbread-nut and made a little formal speech, thanking them for their gifts and their assistance, and going on to explain his reasons for coming to Fanua. He had heard, he said, with pleasure what a happy people they were, and he had come to dwell with them and teach them how they might be as happy in another life as they were in this.
The islanders received his speech in silence broken only by crunching. Their expressions were those of people struck into awe by some surprising novelty: Mr Fortune wondered if he were that novelty, or Huntley and Palmers.
The Archdeacon’s warning had proved only too true. After three years on the island, Mr Fortune had made only one convert. This happened quite soon after his arrival. He had just finished his morning prayers when he noticed that he had been joined by a naked brown boy, who was kneeling beside him, and appeared to be grateful to receive the sign of the cross which Mr Fortune made on his forehead. The boy, whose name was Lueli, has evidently come to stay. And for three happy years, so he does. He clearly worships Mr Fortune in his innocent, childlike way, and Mr Fortune quickly grows to love him in return.He teaches Lueli about Christianity, or attempts to, makes him clothes which he doesn’t wear, finally accepts Lueli’s offer to massage his back with coconut oil, watches the child grow into a young man. Lueli at one point produces a wooden idol, which shocks Mr Fortune, but he tells the boy to take it away, and assumes he has seen the last of it. Life goes on smoothly and contentedly – until it doesn’t.
One evening Mr Fortune goes out for a walk. This is something he often does, but on this particular evening he takes a different, unaccustomed route. He is surprised to see that Lueli has obviously been this way, picking flowers – and then he suffers a terrible shock. In a glade he sees plate full of fruit, a garland of flowers,and behind them something ‘dreadfully familiar’. ‘And trampling on the garland he stood glaring a Lueli’s idol, which looked back at him with flowers behind its ears’. Agonised and shocked, he snatches it up and returns to his hut to reprimand the boy, but all of a sudden the whole ground begins to shake, and Mr Fortune realises they are in the midst of an earthquake.
The earthquake goes on all night, and afterwards Lueli seems uncharacteristically sad and subdued, When the two of them return to the hut to inspect the damage, they find the hut and all its contents have been completely destroyed by a fire caused by Mr Fortune’s broken oil lamp. The boy starts searching frantically through the rubble. Ar first Mr Fortune is puzzled, then the truth dawns. ‘”Is it your god you were looking for? Is he gone?”’
‘My poor Lueli! Is that it? … Is it so dreadful? Yes, I know it must be, I know, I know. I would do anything to comfort you, but I cannot think how, I can only tell you how I pity you with my whole heart. I do, indeed I do. Believe me, though I told you to burn your god, yet at this moment, were it possible for me, I think I would even give it to you again’.
Nothing, however, will comfort Lueli. He retreats into a state of silent misery, refusing to speak or eat. Mr Fortune feels powerless. He attempts to pray, with little result. He looks around him, realising that everything that has happened is simply a part of nature, completely inevitable.
Still he looked around him. But he was not looking for anything now, nor did he need to raise his eyes to heaven or close them before any presence unseen. The God who had walked with him on the island was gone…..Mr Fortune no longer believed in a God.
This is not yet the end of the novel – I could go on, but you really need to read it yourself to see what happens. Warner’s preface, written in 1978, gives a fascinating insight into how she came to write the novel, which describes how it landed with her almost fully formed in an extremely vivid dream – it’s well worth reading this too as it gives a fascinating insight into her processes of composition.
It’s really good news that this novel is now easily available. It’s warm, witty, frequently surprising. Yes there are obvious parallels between Lueli’s and Mr Fortune’s loss of their gods, but Warner is far too subtle and complex a writer to drive this home. Just read it for it’s charm and humour and wisdom.
Harriet is co-founder and co-editor of Shiny New Books, and would quite like to be on a Pacific island living a simple life.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr Fortune’s Maggot (Penguin Classics, 2021). 978-0241476093, 160pp., paperback original.
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