This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Margaret Irwin (1889 – 1969) was an English writer of a long series of critically acclaimed historical novels as well as the supernatural classic Still She Wished for Company (1924). She wrote her first ghost story at age five and continued to write them for much of her life, the best collected in Madame Fears the Dark (1935) and Bloodstock (1953). “The Book” (1930) is one of only a handful of ghost stories “weird” enough to appear in The Weird. The writer Joanna Russ, appearing in The Weird with another unusual ghost story, described “The Book” as “one of the most interesting stories of the supernatural I ever read,” a sentiment also expressed by contributor and New Weird writer China Mieville. This view is also held by Lisa Hannett, who skillfully examines “The Book” as well as Irwin’s body of work and finds these stories centering on a vital dilemma: what is more monstrous, the world of the Weird or the world we, the readers, inhabit?
– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”
On a foggy night in November, Mr. Corbett, having guessed the murderer by the third chapter of his detective story, arose in disappointment from his bed and went downstairs in search of something more satisfactory to send him to sleep. (‘The Book’, 107)
On first glance, the opening line of Margaret Irwin’s ‘The Book’ presents a situation so familiar it is almost boring. Many of us have been in Mr Corbett’s place: reading before bed, figuring out the story’s plot twists, abandoning the book in hopes of finding something more to our tastes. Superficially, the scenario is quite mundane. Yet this line not only tells us nearly everything we need to know about Mr Corbett, it also highlights a theme that runs through many of Irwin’s works — the disenchantment of affluent people and the lengths to which they will go to escape the tedium of their comfortable lives.
Mr Corbett’s behaviour in this opening line foreshadows later instances in which he contradicts the narrator’s descriptions of him. Here we see Mr Corbett grown tired of his detective novel, the story boring as soon as he’s guessed the murderer’s identity. If a book is tiresome enough to make a person rise from bed and go downstairs for a new one, it would make sense that what s/he seeks is a more exciting narrative, something more interesting and engaging. However, the narrator explains that Corbett goes downstairs “in search of something more satisfactory to send him to sleep.” Mr Corbett actively seeks boredom, or so the narrator tells us; he gets up and leaves his predictable story in order to find something even more insipid to lull him to sleep. Why not stick with the first book, if boredom and sleep are the end goals? The contrast between what the narrator says Corbett is doing and what Corbett actually does strikes a note of discord that echoes throughout the story: he is consistently portrayed as a man who acts against his own nature.
He is not prone to flights of fancy, says the narrator, yet he imagines that his bookcase is shrouded in “vaporous and fog-ridden air” which is “like a dank and poisonous breath exhaled by one or other of these slowly rotting volumes” (108). He wants a book that will send him to sleep, yet he reads a potentially exciting detective story. When it dissatisfies, he plucks The Old Curiosity Shop from the shelf — ostensibly because Dickens is a calming, pleasant, comfortable author. But we cannot help but make a connection between ‘curiosity’ in the book’s title and Corbett’s insatiable appetite for change; moreover, a ‘curiosity shop’ is a place filled with unexpected odds and ends, much like Corbett’s bookcase itself, and it serves as a backdrop for a novel filled with troubled characters. That Corbett quickly finds this ‘comfortable’ book disturbing comes as no surprise since he, too, is troubled. What he actually seems to need in his life is adventure, a break from the humdrum norm, not reassurance. Still unaware of this urge for upheaval, however, he turns to Marius the Epicurean, since Walter Pater’s book can be relied upon “for the repose and dignity of a classic spirit” (109).
Even in this we are given insight into Corbett’s true, as-yet unacknowledged, desires and we are also offered a clue as to what will happen later in ‘The Book’. Pater’s novel tells the story of Marius, a young man who, in the process of acting as amanuensis for Marcus Aurelius, has his eyes opened to the narrowness of his Epicurean philosophical beliefs. Both fictional works take Corbett out of his own time and plunge him into the past — a theme Irwin first explored in her ‘timeslip’ novel Still She Wished for Company (1924) and later in ‘The Earlier Service’ (1935). Dickens and Pater’s narratives remove Corbett, however temporarily, from his tedious present. More importantly, there are clear connections here between Marius and Corbett as ‘scribes’. Repetitive acts of writing change the protagonist’s worldview in Marius the Epicurean, much as ‘channelling’ a series of new lines into his strange theological volume eventually change Mr Corbett’s life in ‘The Book.’
Even so, after the excitement of discovering the mysterious reappearing gap in the collection of books on his shelf, Corbett finds that he has lost his taste for reading.
Every new book seemed to him weak, tasteless and insipid; while his old and familiar books were depressing or even, in some obscure way, disgusting. Authors must all be filthy-minded; they probably wrote what they dared not express in their lives (112).
As it turns out, Corbett himself becomes an ‘author’ of sorts, one who enables filthy things to be written that he would never dare express in his life. Yet even at this early stage in the narrative, we can see that Corbett is also a character driven by the need to escape that which is weak, insipid, familiar. Although the house and/or the bookshelf is apparently ‘haunted’ by a spirit communicating with him through the ancient volume, it is Corbett’s otherwise normal, comfortable, well-to-do life that seems increasingly unnatural to him. His children’s bickering disturbs him, his work luncheons are taken with “sentimental yet successful dotards,” his golf games are altogether spoiled.
He discovered also and with a slight shock that Mrs. Corbett had always bored him. Dicky he began actively to dislike as an impudent blockhead, and the two girls were as insipidly alike as white mice; it was a relief when he abolished their tiresome habit of coming in to say good night (113).
Ironically, the very thing that inspired all this revulsion — reading — encourages Corbett to read even more: it “gave him a zest to find out what he disliked so much” (112).
We might be tempted to read this aversion to all he once loved as a symptom of Corbett’s bewitchment. True, he unintentionally deciphers a ‘spell’ from one of his uncle’s crumbling theological books, which leads to the more stereotypical ‘deal with the devil’ or ‘ghost story’ elements that conclude this tale. And in Corbett’s now-familiar, paradoxical manner, “though he called [the book] ‘horrible,’ he reflected on it, committing each detail to memory” (115). He obsesses over that which he despises. Nevertheless, this paranormal enchantment is the product, not the cause, of Corbett’s disenchantment with the trappings of his middle-class life.
Turning to the supernatural as a means of escaping tedium is a recurring theme in Irwin’s writing, in both her long and short fiction. In the novel Still She Wished for Company, Lucian Clare, an 18th century English lord and heir of the Chidleigh estate, kept society with hypnotists and mesmerists while he was in Paris, where he was also rumoured to have been part of a Satanic cult — all to escape the dullness of English country life. Using his young sister as a vehicle for his supernatural talents, Lucian attempts a sort of ghostly time-travel to interact with people from a different era (200 years in the future), in order to find a “consistent purpose to his cold existence.”
Yet he could hardly have told what he wished for in success. If his dream could be embodied and possessed, would it be anything more than the repetition of an experience he had had so often that he was wearied to death of it? To reverse Æsop’s fable, he was dropping the shadow to snatch at the substance, but, unlike the dog in the fable, he could not be sure that the shadow had not after all the greater quality (156).
Reality, in other words, is a thin shadow in Irwin’s “uncanny” and historical stories, a wearying, repetitive experience compared to the vivid substance of dreams.
Bearing that in mind, there is a certain inevitability to Corbett’s actions in ‘The Book’. From the very first line, we are presented with a character who secretly wants something more than what he’s got — excitement, adventure, a break from routine — and he’s willing to make himself uncomfortable to get it. Similarly, in ‘Mrs Oliver Cromwell’ (1940) the titular character’s famous husband also nurtures a desire for escape, regardless of cost (loss of power, position, British ‘civilisation’):
He had hoped that in escaping from England he might escape himself; that they might all emigrate to America, that unexplored land of freedom and promise where everything was new and untouched as at the beginning of the world, and he could make what he would of it, instead of having to put up with what other men had made of England (211).
And in ‘Monsieur Seeks a Wife’ (1935), Monsieur de St. Aignan, an early 18th century French nobleman, looks for his spouse in a wild setting that wouldn’t be out of place in Dracula or ‘Bluebeard’ — and it soon becomes clear that his voyage is also designed to postpone the monotony of ‘noble’ life.
I had heard much of the unutterable tedium of the lives of the smaller nobility on their country estates, a tedium that left many vacant and drove some to madness, a tedium only to be surpassed by the monotony of the religious life, which poverty enforces so large a proportion of our daughters and younger sons to enter (132).
It is this madness-inducing tedium that seems to have the greatest effect on characters in Irwin’s stories. Like Corbett and Lucian, Monsieur suffers from bouts of depression and existential despair that the narrator describes as incongruous to his otherwise sensible nature; likewise, these characters find temporary diversion from their woes in superstition, black magic, and encounters with witchcraft.
Irwin subtly builds tension between the ordinary and the extraordinary in these stories. Despite the horrific deeds Corbett is willing to perform in ‘The Book’, his former ordinary life becomes increasingly abhorrent, and his supernatural encounters increasingly fascinating. Lucian, Corbett and Monsieur yearn to rewrite their narratives and to break free of expectations; they undermine their socially-imposed, middle class restraints by acting on the ‘monstrous’ desire to “make what [they] would” of their lives. They all act selfishly, they all get entangled in supernatural events, they all get carried away to the detriment of others (and themselves) — and therein lies the excitement, the weirdness, the promised escape from ennui. That things turn out badly for all of these characters should not necessarily be read as a criticism of their ‘monstrous’ motivations. Instead, the endings seem to reinforce how stifling the status quo can be in these historical eras, how futile the characters’ efforts to change it. Things begin to fall apart the moment Mr Corbett is given the power to alter his own story in ‘The Book’ — but far from being excited at inciting change, Corbett is ultimately horrified. And this time, when he guesses who the murderer will be, the result is anything but boring.
About Margaret Irwin
Margaret Emma Faith Irwin (1889-1969) was the author of fifteen novels and one book of short stories (Bloodstock and Other Stories, 1953) which contains works previously published in shorter ‘boutique’ collections, such as Madame Fears the Dark (1935) and Mrs Oliver Cromwell and Other Stories (1941). Her first novels, Still She Wished for Company (1924) and These Mortals (1925), can easily be classified as speculative fiction. The former is a refreshing take on the ‘haunted manor’ ghost story, with a narrative that begins in 1920s England but is largely set in the early 18th century; the latter, a reinterpretation of Melusine folklore, is the author’s only foray into pure ‘fantasy’. Although many of her novels and short stories retain a Gothic tone, she is most remembered for writing historical rather than speculative fiction. She was a noted authority on Elizabethan and Stuart England, which is evident in her popular ‘Queen Elizabeth’ trilogy: Young Bess (1944), Elizabeth, Captive Princess (1948) and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain (1953), all of which have been regularly reprinted since their initial publication almost seventy years ago. Another favourite among fans of historical romance is The Galliard: The Story of Mary Queen of Scots (1941). By contrast, Irwin’s works of “uncanny” fiction have, until recently, been quite difficult to track down. ‘The Book’, ‘The Earlier Service’ and ‘Monsieur Seeks a Wife’ were frequently reissued in anthologies of classic ghost and horror stories in the 1960s-1980s, but others, such as the suite of ‘Irish’ tales in Bloodstock and Other Stories have been largely overlooked in reprint collections of dark fiction.
Details of the author’s life are elusive. Born in London, England, educated at Oxford, Irwin began publishing stories in the 1920s to mixed reviews. Upon re-reading Still She Wished for Company, the reviewer at The Bookman (December 1932) waxed poetic about Irwin’s “exquisite certainty and grace of expression. Indeed in the form and structure of her writing … Miss Irwin is unique among present-day novelists.” Meanwhile, The Saturday Review (November 21, 1925) claimed the author “managed to give [These Mortals] every virtue but interest” whereas, two years later, Knock Four Times (1927) was lauded in that same journal: “the interplay of personality on personality is a delight as caught and recorded in Margaret Irwin’s brilliantly staccato style.” Irwin’s historical romances garnered attention for the strength of her research, often compared to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando in terms of atmosphere and style, and for the pathos and tenderness with which she crafted her characters. She wrote a biography of Sir Walter Raleigh (The Great Lucifer, 1960) but records of her own life are, frustratingly, scarce. Her husband, John Robert (J.R.) Monsell, whom she married in either 1927 or 1929, wrote and illustrated children’s books and staged musical plays, for which he also wrote libretti and designed costumes. Monsell created most of the covers for Irwin’s books and together they produced a stage play of Still She Wished for Company, which was performed only once, at Whitehall in 1947.
Bloodstock and Other Stories (1953; repr. Bloomsbury, 2011)
Still She Wished for Company (1924; repr. Chatto & Windus, 1968)
Contemporary reviews of Irwin’s work: http://www.unz.org/Author/IrwinMargaret