Gothic Pastoral: Isherwood and Upward's The Mortmere Stories
"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," an early outing for Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, sees the mastermind of the outré hunch and his everyman companion travel by train through the subtly impressive rural landscape of southern England. Gazing from the window, Holmes upbraids Watson's dogged fidelity to received opinion, speaking of the malevolence that he is sure lurks undetected in the ostensibly benign countryside. As Holmes tells it, the stables and farm cottages that the Doctor views without sophistication as "dear old homesteads":
"always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief […] founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."
In this scene something more significant is taking place than merely the latest episode in the pair's long-running intellectual argument about appearance and reality. Watson's sentimental understanding of what it means to be 'rural' throws Holmes's observation into particularly sharp relief, thereby allowing Conan Doyle to highlight the instrumentality of a Gothic pastoral in his narrative mechanics. This version of pastoral, of which the poetic fulcrum is the same eruption of abject unease in the heart of the (theoretically) reassuring and familiar that Sigmund Freud sought to describe in his 1919 essay "The Uncanny," is by no means unique to the Holmes stories or to Conan Doyle's work in general. By any prudent reckoning, it is at least as important as idealised representations of the countryside to the collective imagination's conception of English provinciality in the modern era.
While mainstream modernist novelists, poets, and visual artists were producing a predominantly urban account of terror, emblematised by the occasionally schlocky supernaturalism of T.S. Eliot's Waste Land, another aesthetic was busy locating what Holmes calls "deeds of hellish cruelty" well beyond the city limits. Not necessarily opposed to the formally radical strategies of modernism, this revelation of horror in the hedgerows continues to thrive even in the present day. Its varied canon accommodates the Archers-meets-Asimov vision of John Wyndham, all the perilous hinterlands cooked up by Nigel Kneale and Hammer in the 1960s and 1970s, The Prisoner, The Wicker Man, many of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, and the unnerving upland absurdism of the BBC's League of Gentlemen.
Approximately equidistant from Conan Doyle and Wyndham are Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward's Mortmere tales, contributions that should be considered essential to the genre (if Gothic pastoral can be labelled as such) even though they remained unpublished and unknown in their own moment. In becoming acquainted with Mortmere, a none-more-English village of trimmed lawns and tipsy vicars, the reader discovers wilfully bizarre dramatis personae who play out an assortment of outlandish scenarios. There's a murderous garage-owner who keeps business coming through the door by scattering the local roads with spiked ball-bearings, a man molested by a gang of choirboys, a railway signal which doubles up as a gallows pole, and a woman who pushes a pram that turns out, upon closer investigation, to conceal a venomous snake.
Isherwood is best known for his Berlin-set novels of the 1930s and his subsequent flight with W.H. Auden to the United States on the eve of World War II. Upward, meanwhile, is often identified with the internal wranglings of mid-century British Marxism that are detailed in his Spiral Ascent trilogy, composed in the wake of World War II and Leonid Kruschev's denunciation of Stalinism. The two first met at Repton School, but the imaginative excursions that would culminate in Mortmere only really began during their time at Cambridge in the 1920s. Repulsed by the boorish, landed-aristocratic attitudes of their academic peers, they expressed their dissatisfaction in an intricate Gothic send-up of the city, a caricature that they referred to meaningfully between themselves as 'The Other Town.' Isherwood's memoir Lions and Shadows lists the influences that shaped this Cambridge-in-negative: "memories of Alice in Wonderland, Beatrix Potter and Grimm […] the imagery of Thomas Browne, Poe and the Ballads [and] and the three Dürer engravings in [Upward's] room." These were the eccentric and macabre lenses through which they apprehended the city.
The Other Town progressively gained autonomy from its real-world coordinates, and it occurred to its creators to transpose their concept elsewhere and rename it. Mortmere -a toponym whose interpretation demands no expertise in French- was located with the significant vagueness of Kafka's Castle (a map appended to the Katherine Bucknell-edited collection of the stories sites it on the Atlantic coast, but such embedding gestures were never more than provisional arrangements). It is detailed not with a specific geography but with an archetypal landscape akin to that of Expressionist theatre. The withering of interwar England's local colour to a set of evocative outlines was to become a trait of Auden's plays Paid on Both Sides and The Dog Beneath the Skin, but Isherwood and Upward have a decent claim on having distilled from the provinces a set of menacing mises-en-scènes (the manor house on its uppers; the scoundrel squire's croquet party) some time in advance of the writer whose name is used as shorthand for their entire generation.
Historically, critics have been divided on whether the stories are an important native counterpart to continental Surrealism, or simply period-piece juvenilia, the product of two disaffected tyro intellectuals going guns-blazing against the 'poshocracy' of an England that had apparently learned no lessons from World War One. Certainly, some of the stories' titles -"The Railway Accident," "The Horror in the Tower"- hint at some confrontational intent on their authors' part, and their unwavering desire to root out the weirdness of England and Englishness can at times mirror the strained, whimsical, Surrealist-lite trippiness of The Beatles on an off-day. 'Gustav Shreeve,' the principal of Mortmere's Frisbald College, sounds rather like a spectator in the wacky circus that John Lennon rambles about in Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite; tropes such as the hectic, not-so-innocent treasure hunt with which "The Railway Accident" concludes feel a little too close to Lear, Carroll, and Magical Mystery Tour to be truly remarkable. But this lysergic twist on the uncanny also works in the stories' favour. Take, for example, the description of the scene from which "The Railway Accident" derives its name:
"Coaches mounted like viciously copulating bulls, telescoped like ventilator hatches. Nostril gaps in a tunnel clogged with wreckage instantly flamed. A faint jet of blood sprayed from a window. Frog-sprawling bodies fumed in blazing reeds. The architecture of the tunnel crested with daffodils fell compact as hinged scenery."
In that cut to a 'faint jet of blood,' there's a revelling in the comedy of violence (a feature of the Gothic dating back to Walpole's Castle of Otranto) that looks ahead to William Sansom's blackly comic depictions of Blitz London, and bears out Henri Bergson's comment that comedy involves a "momentary anaesthesia of the heart." There is no trace of sanctimony here: one notes the levelled-out, palpably dissociated prose which seduces the reader into contemplating the catastrophe as if it were an example of the 'convulsive beauty' that Surrealism celebrated. Although this passage shows the calculated aggravations of Upward (who wrote the story) at their most nihilistic, it has real finesse: its finely-wrought sequencing of images is less similar to the verbal sludge with which Victorian and Edwardian fiction evoked disaster than it is to Eisensteinian montage or the angular phrases of modernist composition.
In spite of their rural settings, it is within this modernist context (suggested earlier as the intellectual milieu that Gothic pastoral alternately appealed to and diverged from) that Mortmere must eventually be appreciated. Formally, "The Railway Accident" feels like nothing so much as an attempt on Upward's part to reproduce the structural blind-spots and inconsistencies of a nightmare. Can one be certain who wrecked the train? Does the accident even really take place? What of all the tale's half-uttered references to an earlier calamity, and its overwhelming sense of objectless dread? Its ellipses are Kafkaesque, certainly, but they also read like an attempt to gain aesthetic effect from the impasse that Freud experienced when he tried to construct intelligible narratives out of the racy illogic of his patients' dream-recollections. Isherwood and Upward might have felt a great deal of resentment about their historical lot, but their efforts to find a way of making dreams as they are actually experienced fit into words tapped an exceedingly modish twenties preoccupation.
This seam of oneirism is what really holds The Mortmere Stories together. Even when the plot shows some promise of conventional coherence, as in the grisly revenge caper "The Garage in Drover's Hollow," the topography remains dreamlike. The road through the Hollow:
"is remarkable for two things, for its surface, which is smooth as polished steel, and for its six miles of absolute straightness […] The surrounding plain is desolate and almost uninhabited. The small herds of cattle, which graze there, seem almost lost beneath a marine immensity of sky. Solitary elms, like puffs of ascending smoke, alone break the faultless circle of the horizon."
Nationalistic and patriotic landscape art tends to code the English countryside as reassuringly maternal, a terrain of gentle folds and arable munificence, but here the scenery is saturated with precisely the same spatially-articulated anxieties discussed in Freud's early case histories. The bucolic and homely cattle accentuate the overall unhomeliness of the tableau: there are signs that we are in provincial England, but it's an England that has been made intimidatingly barren. Oedipal threat in the English landscape tradition extends at least as far back as Turner's amniotic menace, and was certainly present in the agoraphobic, Yves Tanguy-influenced visions of bleak undulation that Tristram Hillier produced shortly after Isherwood and Upward turned their backs on Mortmere. However, the camber of the anxiety expressed here belongs distinctly to a nation still possessed by the psychological and material effects of World War One. Isherwood and Upward's skewed pastoral voices a generation's resentment of the enforced patriotism that had led to the decimation of 1914-1918, and protests the ongoing power of this conventional loyalty to nation in the twenties. Implicitly, all the stories pose the question of how one is meant to imagine a homeland which demands an unlimited degree of sacrificial willingness from its citizens, if not with the 'certain horror' that Holmes experiences on his rural excursions. --Joe Kennedy