A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is a dark little fable by T F Powys, a novelist and mystic, one of eleven siblings, who lived in Dorset – the very secluded villages of East Chaldon and Mappowder, to be exact – in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. His name might ring faint bells in connection with the poet Valentine Ackland or the musicologist and novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner. His brothers, also writers, John Cowper Powys and Llewelyn, are marginally better known than Theodore, and his sisters Philippa (a poet), Marian (a lace-maker), and Gertrude (a painter) are probably very unknown indeed outside niche readerships. In his day, T F Powys was only acclaimed after his fifth novel, Mr Weston’s Good Wine (1927) became a success. When I found a really lovely Phoenix Library edition of Mr Tasker’s Gods in the Minster Bookshop in York for a ridiculously low price, I bought it. I do like these Chatto & Windus slim travel editions from the 1920s: they are so beautifully designed, are a pleasing weight in the hand, and have a large print that fool you into reading faster than you think possible. But Mr Tasker’s Gods took me a few days.
It’s a Gothic novel set in the English countryside, possibly before the First World War, since that isn’t mentioned, though cars trundle up and down the dusty roads. It begins as a rural fable, gets darker and more brutal, and lurches to a grotesque but satisfying ending. Hypocrisy and violence are part of everyday existence, so its quite a bracing read. It has much in common with Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels, but is much harsher about human nature. There is a pig-farmer and church-warden, Mr Tasker, and the vicar, the Reverend Hector Turnbull. Mr Tasker’s wife and children are farmyard slaves, and his father is a cunning and vicious tramp. Mr Tasker only cares for his pigs, which he feeds on the flayed carcasses of cows and worn-out horses, dragged slowly across the field by another horse in an opening scene of peculiar horror.
The Reverend Turnbull has three sons, and he is much concerned with finding ways to have little treats with servant girl sin nearby towns. His wife thinks only of making and eating jam. The two elder sons (another vicar and a doctor) are large and calm, sure of their inheritance, and cautious in when and how they spend money, or take a step that might injure their dignity. George, the younger son, is the fool, the spirit of love and innocence that our emotional equilibrium needs in this very dark and unpleasant set of characters. George is worked hard as a servant by his father, since when he was sent to Canada with his patrimony he watched it being drunk and stolen by his business partner, and so is patently unfit for the modern world. So he works in the garden and does everything in the house that isn’t done by the servant girls.
Yes, these servant girls. I don’t know what it was about 1920s Dorset towns, but Powys gives his version a population of venal and predatious criminals, catering for the sailors’ trade, and luring servant girls to their inevitable doom in brothels flimsily disguised as lodging houses. But these at least are honest enough in what they sell and do. Mrs Fancy runs a respectable boarding house, in which she likes to entertain older men who bring their brides after their ‘wedding’, reserving the room first, and collecting the very young bride and her bag from the station later, bringing her straight to Mrs Fancy’s. Mrs Fancy does like to hear sin being conducted and to watch with pleasure the ruin of young girls and the wickedness of men. She has a partner who makes sure she gets enough traffic, because he can share in any blackmail profits later.
Thankfully, Miss Rose Netley is at hand to ruin the lodging-house trade in girls for sailors by posing as a servant girl, and screaming and breaking the window of the room when the assault begins, so that her fiancé can break down the door and drag her to safety. The imprisoned girls make their escape in the fuss. Miss Netley is the second of the story’s three angels who resist the unpleasant and horribly familiar goings on of the respectable vicar and his churchwarden. The third is Henry Neville, a kind and noble vicar dying from cancer, whose sister Molly comes from India to nurse him, and to stop his housekeeper drinking his money. Naturally the outraged housekeeper talks about this all over the village, and is sure to appear at the inquest to testify that Molly Neville bought four phials of morphine to give to her brother when the pain was unbearable. Molly prepares for victimisation, because George Turnbull is now living with her since he has no home at the Vicarage (the Reverend Turnbull had an unexpected death). Molly has also taken in a servant girl who foolishly didn’t die after a righteous beating, and popular sentiment has ensured that Mr Tasker’s father has been given a job of murder to do with the innkeeper’s hobnailed boots. The end of this remarkable and addictively horrible fable of darkness swamping the light is inevitable, but whose body will be fed to Mr Tasker’s gods?
T F Powys, Mr Tasker’s Gods (1925), recently reprinted by Faber & Faber at £13.00.
Kate podcasts abut books that she really, really likes at http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.