#AW80Books: Mr Fortune’s Maggot – Sylvia Townsend Warner
Feeling in need of some escapism in the wake of recent political events, I thought I’d swan off to the tropical heat and swaying palms of the South Sea Islands – in my armchair, of course! So for my latest stop on our Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge (#AW80Books) I had a much needed sojourn in the company of bank clerk turned missionary, Mr Timothy Fortune, observing his attempts to convert the indigenous population of the remote island of Fanua, in Mr Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1927).
Due to my evangelical Christian upbringing I’ve met a lot of missionaries in my time. Had I known then about the erosion of cultural identities and practices, not to mention the spread of Western diseases wrought by such religious Imperialistic vision at the time, I might not have been quite so thrilled to hear the tales of life overseas, and reading about missionaries now, tends to make me cringe. For example, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, powerfully laid bare the arrogance and folly of a missionary’s unwavering conviction, and made for an angry as well as an excruciating read. While the subject matter is similar, Mr Fortune’s Maggot is less judgmental in tone, and is told with touches of wry humour. However, while it is a quieter novel, it is no less powerful for it.
Having left his job as a bank clerk to join a missionary society in St. Fabien, in the Cook Islands, Mr Fortune sees a cloud on the horizon and thinks it is a sign that God wants him to go to the island of Fanua. The Archdeacon tries to dissuade him.
“I must warn you, Fortune, you are not likely to make many converts in Fanua….they are like children, always singing and dancing, and of course immoral. But all natives are like that.
Despite this, Fortune is determined, and is packed off in a little boat with provisions, a cumbersome and wheezy harmonium, an oil lamp and a silver teapot. On his arrival , he is welcomed by the people who adorn him with a flower garland, then he sets about exploring what he sees as ‘his’ island.
Above this swirl and foam of tree-tops the mountain rises up in crags or steep tracts of scrub and clinker to the old crater, whose ramparts are broken into curious cactus-shaped pinnacles of rock, in colour the reddish-lavender of rhododendron blossoms.
A socket of molten stone, rent and deserted by its ancient fires and garlanded round with a vegetation as wild as fire and more inexhaustible, the whole island breathes the peculiar romance of a being with a stormy past. The ripened fruit falls from the tree, the tree falls too and the ferns leap up from it as though it were being consumed with green flames. The air is sleepy with salt and honey, and the sharp wild cries of the birds seem to float like fragments of coloured paper upon the monotonous background of breaking waves and falling cataract.
Settling in an abandoned dwelling on a slope a little removed from the village, Mr Fortune attracts the attention of a young man called Lueli. He becomes a constant companion, one that Mr Fortune believes is his first convert, however, it is not long before Mr Fortune realises that Lueli only remains because he enjoys his company rather than because he has had a religious epiphany.
Over time, their relationship settles into a close companionship, sounding quite homoerotic in places, and Mr Fortune admits that he is as devoted to Lueli, as he is to him, and even though he eventually succumbs to the ritual of oiling and massaging each other after bathing as the other islanders do, he is determined that he only loves him in the ‘purest’ sense.
When the island is struck by an earthquake, their house is destroyed and there is great devastation across the island. A fire in the house burns Lueli’s wooden idol and he is inconsolable. Mr Fortune sees the futility of all his attempts at conversion and wishes he had some way of easing his pain. Apart from their friendship, his attempts to improve Lueli have only brought confusion, and, in despair, believing he has lost his soul with his idol, Lueli tries to take his own life. He is saved, but Mr Fortune is wracked with guilt.
I started interfering. I made him a Christian, or thought I did. I taught him to do this and not to do the other, I checked him, I fidgeted over him. And because I loved him so for what he was I could not spend a day without trying to alter him. How dreadful it is that because of our wills we can never love anything without messing it about! we couldn’t even love a tree, not a stone even; for sooner or later we should be pruning the tree or chipping a bit off the stone.
In the end, it is Mr Fortune who has the spiritual epiphany. Loving Lueli too much to continue trying to change him, he determines to leave the island, and return home. When Lueli lost his idol in the fire, he wasn’t the only one to lose a god that day. Before leaving, Mr Fortune carves a replacement idol for Lueli. Sharing out his remaining possessions among the islanders who welcomed him with such ease and grace, he said his goodbyes and departed in deep contemplation.
But alas! There would soon be plenty of white men in Fanua, to bring them galvanised iron and law-courts and commerce and industry and bicycles and patent medicines and American alarm clocks, besides the blessing of religion.
The story Mr Fortune’s Maggot, arrived fully formed in a dream which Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote down in a frenzy, anxious that it might dissipate before she managed to complete it.
I was so intensely conscious that the shape and balance of the narrative must be exactly right – or the whole thing would fall to smithereens, and I could never pick it up again. I remember saying to Bea that I felt as if I were in advanced pregnancy with a venice glass child.
I enjoyed the book far more than I expected to, partly because, as a character, Mr Fortune was able to question his own behaviour, his motivations, and ultimately his faith. He redeemed himself in my eyes, although the portent at the end was as depressing as it was true. The novel’s prose was exquisite. Sylvia Townsend Warner painted the environment with such vibrant colour and detail that I could hear the crickets and the sighing of the tides, and smell the ocean breeze. She was obviously very fond of Mr Fortune as a character, as indeed I was, and she added this envoy at the very end:
My poor Timothy, goodbye! I do not know what will become of you.
(If you want to see what we’ve read so far on our #AW80Books reading challenge, you can find that here).