Another ideal runs ahead of us, a strange, tempting, dangerous ideal … the ideal of a spirit who plays … with all that was hitherto called holy, good, untouchable, divine … when it confronts all earthly seriousness so far, all solemnity in gesture, word, tone, eye, morality, and task so far, as if it were their most incarnate and involuntary parody – and in spite of all this, it is perhaps only with him that great seriousness really begins. (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, New York 1974, p. 347) The early twentieth-century British writer Ronald Firbank (1886–1926) wrote novels unlike any others in English. Reviewing Firbank’s career a few years after the novelist’s early death at the age of 39, British critic Cuthbert Wright contended that ‘Firbank was superlatively himself, and no one has resembled him’.1 Carl Van Vechten, the American avant-garde novelist and photographer, likewise remarked upon Firbank’s uniqueness in his 1924 introduction to the first American edition of a Firbank novel: ‘When you compare him with other authors, logically you can go no further than the binding. His utterly own manner alienates him completely from the possibility of any other form of estimate. He is unique, a glittering dragon-fly skimming over the sunlit literary garden, where almost all the other creatures crawl.’2 Firbank’s stylistic manner was influential for writers in the succeeding generation of British novelists such as Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, but it was an influence that proved perhaps more inhibiting than enabling, as Firbank’s style is so conspicuous that it cannot be borrowed without appearing derivative. An example of a derivative borrowing is the Channel-crossing scene at the beginning of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. However, successful internalisations and transformations of Firbank’s manner may be witnessed in the final two novels, Nothing and Doting, of mid-century British author Henry Green, as well as in the late pastoral romances Out with the Stars and Garments the Living Wear by American writer James Purdy. An attuned ear also might hear occasional echoes of Firbank’s distinctive prose style in the playful postmodern poetry of John Ashbery, a lifelong fan. Firbank’s grandfather was an uneducated labourer on the railways who rose by his career’s end to be a tycoon of British industry, leaving behind a large fortune. Firbank’s father was ennobled and was a longtime Member of Parliament and patron of the arts. In a notably diffident introduction to the 1961 Complete Ronald Firbank, Powell remarked upon Firbank’s odd patrimony: Like everything else about him, the family background is unusual. He is the classic, the ultimate, example of the ‘third generation type’, that trio of descending individuals in which the grandfather makes the money, the son consolidates the social position, the grandson practices the arts (or sometimes merely patronises them), in some ‘decadent’ manner, thus expressing the still existent, yet by now failing and feverish, energy that suddenly, unexpectedly, welled up in the race.3 Firbank self-published his juvenile fiction before entering Cambridge, but it took him a relatively long while thereafter to develop his own distinctive voice and mature style, and to settle down to the arduous business of novel-writing. In his insightful and admiring 1950 introductory essay to New Direction’s Five Novels of Ronald Firbank, which is still in print, Firbank’s friend and fellow author Osbert Sitwell remarked that the First World War was the catalyst for Firbank’s long-delayed embarkation on his all-too-brief career as a novelist, a vocation for which he in hindsight seemed destined: He felt himself totally out of place in a khaki-clad, war-mad world, where there was no music, no gaiety, and in which one could no longer travel except about the business of death. He failed to summon up any enthusiasm whatever over the current war, protesting that for his part he had always found the Germans ‘most polite’. In fact ‘that awful persecution’ was the phrase which it was most often his wont to use in alluding in after years to the first World War. It had driven him to become more than ever a recluse; it had deprived him of all outside interest, until finally ennui forced him to write the book of which he had talked for so long.4 Firbank wrote three novels in quick succession in the war years, and in the first of them, Vainglory (1916), he provides a revealing self-portrait in the minor character of Claud Harvester (the author of ‘Vaindreams’) who, like his creator, took a long and indirect route to arrive at his destined vocation: Claud Harvester was usually considered charming. He had gone about here and there, tinting his personality after the fashion of a Venetian glass. Certainly he had wandered … He had been into Arcadia even, a place where artificial temperaments so seldom get – their nearest approach being, perhaps, a matinee of The Winter’s Tale. Many thought him ‘interesting’. He had groped so … In the end, he began to suspect that what he had been seeking for all along was the theater. He had discovered truth in writing plays. In style – he was often called obscure, although, in reality, he was as charming as an apple-tree above a wall.5 Firbank found his truth in writing novels rather than plays, but in his mature style he adapted several conventions of the drama to his experimental fictive method, particularly the stage-play convention of quick-patter dialogue in the absence of a narrator as director, as in this humorously revealing scene with Claud Harvester further on in the novel: ‘Tell me … who is the Victorian man talking to that gorgeous thing – in the gold trailing skirts?’ ‘You mean Claud Harvester? His play the other night was a disaster. Did you see it?’ ‘It was delightfully slight, I thought.’ ‘A disaster.’ ‘Never mind, Mr. Harvester’, Lady Georgia was saying to him. ‘I’m sure your play was exquisite or it would have had a longer run.’ (Three More Novels, pp.16–17) In this intriguingly prophetic passage Firbank both anticipates and defends himself against the critical reception the book in hand will receive. He seeks to tutor his maiden readers as well through his fictive self-portraiture by providing them with several hints regarding a successful categorisation and appreciation of his work. One is the telling reference to Arcadia, the mythic home of the pastoral genre, to which Firbank’s fiction contributes significantly. Another is the portrayal of the author as a wanderer and a groper after truth. For one of the most surprising aspects of Firbank’s surprising fiction is its metaphysical and spiritual insight, which deepens as his novels progress. The metaphysical implications and spiritual import of Firbank’s work, as well as its sustained but overlooked political argument, are best comprehended and appreciated when that work is read in the context of its relationship to the prophetic aesthetics of Oscar Wilde, whose influence upon Firbank’s life and work was determinative. In her enormous and eccentric but exhaustively researched and convincingly argued biography of Firbank, Prancing Novelist, Brigid Brophy observed that ‘Firbank’s relation to Wilde was a devotion, like a special devotion to a saint. It was a matter of drawing magical inspiration from Wilde. It was pointedly not a matter of Firbank’s identifying himself with Wilde. So far from aiming to become Wilde, Firbank was afraid that such an identity might overtake him.’6 Brophy is referring of course to Wilde’s homosexual martyrdom which Firbank, though homosexual, had no interest in replicating. Although Firbank’s fiction is clearly influenced by the clever and urbane dialogue and prose of Wilde’s plays and essays, it is Wilde’s late Romantic aesthetic theory, so entertainingly yet earnestly put forth in his essays, that is the key to understanding Firbank’s relation to and inspiration from Wilde. The gist of Wilde’s aesthetic theory is contained in his famous dictum that ‘truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style’,7 which implies a metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics originating from and centred upon individual subjectivity. Throughout his essays, Wilde pushed back against an encroaching pseudo-scientific objective materialism that dehumanises and de-spiritualises the world – ‘Certainly we are a degraded race, and have sold our birthright for a mess of facts’8 – arguing that the only response adequate to a purportedly objective and wholly materialistic realism is a reinvigorated Romanticism of subjective individualism. Wilde perceived that the truth of subjectivity was not merely the prejudice of human nature, but that nature as a whole evolved in accordance with subjective individualism: ‘To ask whether Individualism is practical is like asking whether Evolution is practical. Evolution is the law of life, and there is no evolution except towards Individualism. Where this tendency is not expressed, it is a case of artificially-arrested growth, or of disease, or of death.’9 Wilde here clearly signalled his debt to the metaphysical ethics of Baruch Spinoza, which equates individual virtue with the successful expression and fulfilment of our particular individual natures.10 Elsewhere, Wilde remarked that healthy individual thriving is expressed in happiness, while ‘sorrow, as Spinoza says somewhere, is a passage to a lesser perfection’.11 Wilde’s theory of subjective individualism, moreover, anticipates and very possibly influenced the revolutionary early twentieth-century philosophy of organism of Alfred North Whitehead, who argued that truth in and of nature is indeed a matter of style – that is, of individual predilections and inclinations, a matter of taste – a characteristic of all of organic life to which materialistic science is wilfully blind: ‘The characteristics of life are absolute self-enjoyment, creative activity, aim … Science can find no individual enjoyment in nature: Science can find no aim in nature: Science can find no creativity in nature: it finds mere rules of succession.’12 On the other hand, Whitehead praised the writers of the Romantic movement for their ‘intuitive refusal seriously to accept the abstract materialism of science’.13 The highly stylised characteristics of Firbank’s fiction that critical commentators have found most offputting are the very characteristics that most fully and convincingly express the subjective individualism that is the ideal of Wilde’s late Romantic aesthetics. When Firbank writes that Claud Harvester had ‘discovered truth in writing plays. In style’ (Three More Novels, p. 12), we might infer that what Claud Harvester had discovered is the playful truth of style itself, the Wildean insight that confirmed Firbank in his vocation as a novelist, which he pursued with the earnestness of an aspiring saint, a figure variously and hilariously travestied throughout his work. As Edmund Wilson acutely observed of Firbank: ‘Whatever else he may not take seriously, he is serious about literature’.14 Through his ingenious characterisations, Firbank devoted himself to the task of expressing and celebrating the eccentric, capricious, and fantastical elements of human individuality – all that is most ornamental and artificial in human nature – exemplifying in the process the amused tolerance and sophisticated appreciation that characterise what Wilde postulated as the prime civilised human virtue of unselfishness: A man is called selfish if he lives in the manner that seems to him most suitable for the full realization of his own personality; if, in fact, the primary aim of his life is self-development. But this is the way in which everyone should live. Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it.15 In his successful effort to explore and express a fascinating and humorous variety of wayward and elusive individual types of human temperament, Firbank developed a style that he himself described as ‘aggressive, witty, and unrelenting’.16 His remarkable miniature and quick-sketch character portraits exhibit the effectiveness of this style as the author nets and pins a cast of flighty and flaky, but entirely wilful and self-expressed characters: With the deftness of a virtuoso, the Countess seized, and crushed with her muff, a pale-winged passing gnat. ‘Before life,’ she murmured, ‘that saddest thing of all, was thrust upon us, I believe I was an angel …’ (Two Novels, p. 140)17 ‘Tell me truthfully,’ Julia queried, ‘how am I looking?’ ‘Beautifully weary, miss.’ Miss Compostella sank back. Like some indignant Europa she saw herself being carried away by the years. (Three More Novels, p. 50) ‘And there was the wind bellowing and we witches wailing: and no Macbeth!’ a young man with a voice like cheap scent was saying to a sympathetic journalist for whatever it might be worth. (Caprice, in Three More Novels, p. 71) ‘Temperament will out, Dona Consolacion, it cannot be hid.’ The laundress beamed. ‘Mine’s the French.’ ‘It’s God’s will whatever it is.’ ‘It’s the French,’ she lisped, considering the silver rings on her honey-brown hands. Of distinguished presence, with dark matted curls at either ear, she was the apotheosis of flesh triumphant. (Five Novels, p. 296) One could quote almost endlessly in this vein merely by flipping through the pages of Firbank’s vigorously condensed novels, which are chock-full of such humorously revealing caricatures. Van Vechten commented that Firbank was the ‘only one authentic master of the light touch’ in modern literature, expounding upon the remarkable unegoistic clarity of Firbank’s creative envisioning: ‘He is, perhaps, the only purely Greek writer that we possess today. There is no sentimentality or irony in his work; hardly even cynicism. There is, indeed, a baffling quality about Firbank’s very lucidity, his gay, firm grasp of the trivial peccancies.’18 Other early commentators were less well disposed toward Firbank’s insistently subjectivising approach to fiction, accusing him of an excessive self-indulgence, as did Powell when remarking that Firbank’s novels are a ‘cavalcade of wish-fulfilment myths’, and as did E. M. Forster when he criticised Firbank for being ‘completely absorbed in his own nonsense’.19 Likewise Evelyn Waugh, responding to an interviewer’s query late in his life as to whether he continued to read Firbank (an oft-cited influence on his early work), dismissively remarked: ‘I think there would be something wrong with an elderly man who could enjoy Firbank.’20 Van Vechten offered a pointed rejoinder to all such condescending and disapproving dismissals of Firbank and his fiction: I meet ladies in the street who batter me with their parasols because they have been led to read his books through reading encomiastic articles of mine. I quite appreciate the depth of their feeling, but when these ladies assure me that they do not like Firbank, I am learning more about the ladies themselves than I am about the object of their abomination.21 Forster’s criticism is the most revealing, both of his own internalised homophobia and of the condemning and condescending misreading of Firbank that became the norm. He remarked of Firbank that ‘there is nothing up-to-date in him. He is fin de siècle, as it used to be called; he belongs to the nineties and the Yellow Book … To the historian he is an interesting example of literary conservatism.’22 Brophy aptly observed of Forster’s characterisation of Firbank as old-fashioned and conservative that ‘It is a strange judgment to be posthumously passed on Firbank, who published a play openly depicting and siding with homosexuals, by a novelist who refused, throughout his long life, to publish his own novel about homosexuality’,23 and it is a strange comment as well to be made by a novelist so decidedly traditional and conventional in his mode and manner of one so remarkably and radically experimental. (It is interesting to note that Forster, who outlived Firbank by nearly half a century, was actually the elder of the two, by seven years.) But Forster’s major criticism of Firbank is a moral rather than a political or an aesthetic one. He contended that all of Firbank’s novels are characterised by ‘the absence of a soul’, arguing that ‘there is nothing to be saved or damned’ in them, for they have ‘no relation to philosophic truth’. And he concluded with the judgement that, because Firbank’s novels fail to ‘introduce the soul [and] its attendant scenery of Right and Wrong’, they are ‘fundamentally unserious’.24 Certainly it is true that Firbank’s novels eschew the conventional fictive ‘scenery of Right and Wrong’. Wright wryly noted of Firbank as novelist that ‘it was not so much that he defied certain social and moral conventions; it was as if he had never heard of them’,25 a seeming ignorance that has been interpreted by his detractors as proof of Firbank’s fatally immature naivety in regard to the real world, whereas it actually bespeaks a remarkable ethical maturity and aesthetic achievement. For Firbank’s fiction emphatically denies Forster’s premise that ‘Right and Wrong’ are essential characteristics of the soul. Rather, Firbank follows Wilde in creatively expressing a world in which ‘Aesthetics are higher than ethics. They belong to a more spiritual sphere. To discern the beauty of the thing is the finest point to which we can arrive. Even a colour sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong.’26 In Wilde’s effort to align his aesthetic theory with the enabling paradigm of creative evolution (which he had internalised intellectually before most thinkers of his or even our day), Wilde further contended that the difference between natural and sexual selection in the biological realm parallels the difference between ethics and aesthetics in the ‘sphere of conscious civilization’:27 Ethics, like natural selection, make existence possible. Aesthetics, like sexual selection, make life lovely and wonderful, fill it with new forms, and give it progress, and variety and change. And when we reach the true culture that is our aim, we attain to that perfection of which the saints have dreamed, the perfection of those to whom sin is impossible, not because they make the renunciation of the ascetic, but because they can do everything they wish without hurt to the soul.28 Firbank’s fiction is devoted to imaginative expression of this world of ‘true culture’ in which ‘sin is impossible’. In generic terms, such a world traditionally is envisioned in and through the pastoral, which is the genre and realm that all of Firbank’s mature fiction entertainingly inhabits. W. H. Auden, always a keenly perceptive categoriser, alluded to Firbank’s pastoral proclivities in his observation that Firbank’s novels are concerned ‘with Eden’,29 and Firbank likewise acknowledged his tendency to transform the all too actual into the rarefied pastoral when he admonished his American publisher not to be concerned by the fact that he had yet to visit New York City before beginning work on his new novel to be set there (The New Rythum, unfinished at his death), as New York was certain to be transformed into ‘the New Jerusalem before I have done with it’ (The New Rythum, p. 14). Sitwell alludes as well to the pastoral realm in which sin is impossible in his characterisation of the playful alternative reality that Firbank’s novels imaginatively posit: ‘Here was to be found a new if minute world, which existed by its own pulse of time and exhibited its own standards of behavior … The virtuosity of the author was able to net any situation, however crazy or occasionally even obscene, and let it loose in the realms of a harmless reality’ (introduction to Five Novels, pp. ix–x). Following Wilde’s argument, we might consider that the conventional realist novel with its egocentric concentration on individual success and failure amid an ethically inflected social environment is expressive of the innately competitive natural selection that characterises human existence in the social realm. The survival of human society itself requires that we pay heed as social creatures to the ethical issues of justice and injustice, liberty and oppression, opportunity and the lack thereof, that long have been the argumentative province of the realist novel. Firbank’s pastoral novels, by contrast, are concerned with the individual self-expression and exploration that make human culture in its myriad manifestations valuable and beautiful. Moral judgements of right and wrong that condition individual action and expression in the actual world are replaced in the pastoral realm by aesthetic judgements of good and bad taste, with the caveat always implied that taste is a matter of individual inclination for which there is no ultimate accounting. Although Firbank’s pastoral novels are devoted to imaginative expression of the idealised world of innocent pleasures in which sin is impossible, they are acutely aware of the fact that such is not the habitual world in which we live, which is precisely why they remain in retreat behind the pastoral boundary, from the safe haven of which they gesture to the actual ethical and political world by implication. In order to read the argument of Firbank’s pastoral fictionalising successfully, we must make explicit their ethical and political implications, which requires that we take seriously the persistent attitudinising in and through which the argument is made. When such attitudinising is taken as a frivolous and self-indulgent end in itself, as Powell and Forster assumed in their condemning remarks concerning Firbank’s wish-fulfilling nonsense, the implicit political argument is elided and the conventional ethical status quo is affirmed and endorsed. That Firbank’s fiction requires close reading in terms of its implicit mode of argumentation was noted early on by Wilson in his perceptive observation that Firbank’s ‘books are not foolish trifles, scribbled down to get through the boredoms of a languid and luxurious life. They are extremely intellectual, and composed with the closest attention: dense textures of indirection that always disguise point. They have to be read with care, and they can be read again and again, because Firbank has loaded every rift with ore.’30 Although the frivolous attitude of Firbank’s fiction may seem to claim immunity from all ethical concerns, when we make explicit the novels’ attitudinal implications, we find that they are vigorously engaged in opposing oppressive social strictures against individual identities and inclinations. They are particularly preoccupied with three areas of individual identity – sexuality, race, and religion – that make them especially relevant to our contemporary world. Firbank approaches these ‘hot-button’ identity issues as matters of aesthetic taste entirely removed from an ethical-political framework of right and wrong. His fiction implicitly refutes the reactionary argument that it is necessary for us to discriminate between these differing identity traits and allegiances in order to sustain human existence in society. Rather, his novels contend that differing types of sexual identity, race, and religion are non-essential biological and cultural variations that should be valued, enjoyed, and celebrated for their very difference. Given his own undisguised individual predilection in sexual matters, Firbank in his fiction is most noted for his expression and celebration of sexual identities that go against the norm. His second mature novel, Inclinations, is centred on a middle-aged lesbian biographer, Geraldine O’Brookomore, who falls hopelessly in love with the teenage Mabel Collins, who then deserts her for an opportunistic marriage to an Italian nobleman, Count Pastorelli, resulting in the most famously condensed chapter in Firbank’s fiction: ‘Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!’ (Three More Novels, p. 290). The pastoral is traditionally opposed to marriage (as to all hierarchical social relations), as Miss O’Brookomore alludes in warning Mabel Collins of the Count’s matrimonial designs upon her: “‘Take my word for it … he’s not so pastoral as he sounds’” (p. 222), and Firbank’s fiction proves true to the convention in its relentless satirical attacks on the state of purported wedded bliss. In Vainglory, a group of churchwomen venture to see a series of tapestries devoted to the life of a local near-saint, Mrs Cresswell, which they observe in reverse chronological order, beginning with the panel depicting the response to her martyrdom, ‘which was simply Bacchanals’ (p. 25), and proceeding backwards in her eventful career: And so, in the dim light, the fourteen panels ran: growing, as they receded, less and less serene, until, at the opening scene, the atmosphere was one of positive gloom. ‘It was the “Marriage”.’ ‘What do people marry for?’ Miss Wardle said. ‘I’ve sometimes wondered.’ ‘My dear, don’t ask me.’ ‘One marries for latitude, I suppose.’ ‘Or to become a widow.’ ‘I’d give such worlds to be a widow,’ Miss Pontypool declared. (p. 125) If marriage cannot be avoided in Firbank’s fiction, then it is to be got round as suavely as possible, as evidenced by this domestic scene from Prancing Nigger, an unfortunate title Firbank’s American publisher gave to a novel that he had christened more aptly Sorrow in Sunlight: In the convivial ground-floor dining-room, ‘First-Greek-Empire’ style, it was hard, at times, to endure such second-rate company, as that of a querulous husband. Yes, marriage had its dull side, and its drawbacks, still, where would society be, (and where morality!) without the married women? Mrs. Mouth fetched a sigh. Just at her husband’s back, above the ebony sideboard, hung a Biblical engraving after Rembrandt, Woman Taken in Adultery, the conception of which seemed to her exaggerated and overdone, knowing full well, from previous experience, that there need not, really, be much fuss … Indeed, there need not be any: but to be Taken like that! A couple of idiots. (Two Novels, pp. 335–6) Firbank’s fictive skewering of the marriage state endorses Wilde’s contention that, in the socialist world of the future, ‘Marriage in its present form must disappear. This is part of the program. Individualism accepts this and makes it fine.’31 Certainly Firbank’s fictive send-ups of marriage make one wonder whether he would consider the contemporary drive for gay marriage equality as social progress or a wrong turn on the road. His characters, in any case, consider marriage an almost inevitable misfortune: ‘I can’t quite forgive Nils for getting married,’ Mrs Shamefoot murmured, twirling in the air a pale rose with almost crimson leaves. ‘I used to like to talk nonsense with him. He talked agreeable nonsense better than anyone I ever knew.’ ‘I’m more concerned for Isolde,’ Mrs Henedge said. ‘I pity her, poor child, married to a charming little vain fickle thing like that!’ ‘Oh, what does it matter?’ Mrs Shamefoot queried. ‘When I took Soco I married him for certain qualities which now, alas! I see he can have never had.’ ‘That’s just what’s so sad! I mean, I’m afraid you did something commonplace after all.’ Mrs. Shamefoot became discomposed. ‘Oh well,’ she said, ‘when I got engaged, I was unconscious, or very nearly. I had fallen sound asleep, I remember, off an iron chair in the park. The next day he had it put in the paper; and we none of us could raise the guinea to contradict…’ (Three More Novels, p. 38) Frustrated in marriage and disappointed in life in general, Mrs Shamefoot turns her attention to the afterlife, drawing upon the deep pockets of her successful and neglectful husband in arranging for the creation of a stained-glass window enshrining her saint-like image to be placed in the walls of an elegant but impoverished rural cathedral, the windows of which fortuitously have been wrecked recently by lightning. In suitably humble but historic lodgings overlooking the graveyard and in the very shadow of her own radiant memorial, Mrs Shamefoot resolves to live out her remaining days, remarking to a society friend visiting from London: ‘I like to sit in the window and watch the moon rise until the brass weather-cock on the belfry turns slowly silver above the trees … or, in the early dawn, perhaps, when it rains, and the whole world seems so melancholy and desolate and personal and quite intensely sad – and life an utter hoax’ – Lady Georgia rubbed away a tear. ‘I don’t know!’ she said. ‘A hoax! You wonder I can isolate myself so completely. Dear Georgia, just because I want so much, it’s extraordinary how little I require.’ (Three More Novels, p. 199) The pastoral instinct to reduce existence to its bare essentials results in its preoccupation with the two great givens of life, death and love. Firbank’s most fully formed and affecting character, the Andalusian Cardinal Pirelli, conjoins the two in his final figure, as he drops dead in the heart of the cathedral while in amorous pursuit of an elusive altar boy who is driving a hard bargain in return for his affections: ‘You’d do the handsome by me, sir; you’d not be mean?’ ‘Eh? …’ ‘The Fathers only give us texts; you’d be surprised, your Greatness, of the stinginess of some!’ ‘…?’ ‘You’d run to something better, sir; you’d give me something more substantial?’ ‘I’ll give you my slipper, child, if you don’t come here!’ his Eminence warned him … ‘Olé, your Purpleship!’ (Five Novels, p. 340) Firbank’s blithely scandalous fiction entirely refuses to engage in politically correct victimisations. Rather it is the enamoured individual who inevitably is the victim of his or her own overweening desires. So it is that an aristocratic grandmother in the same novel accounts for her erotic pursuit of a young footman by explaining that ‘He keeps me from thinking (ah perhaps more than I should) of my little grandson. Imagine, Luiza … Fifteen, white and vivid rose, and ink-black hair …’ And the Marchioness cast a long, pencilled eye towards the world-famous Pieta above her head. ‘Queen of Heaven, defend a weak woman from that!’ she besought. (Five Novels. p. 306) In its playfully satirical way, Firbank’s fiction reminds us that the sexual norms and prohibitions that we are prone to view as natural and essential are in fact socially relative and culturally conditioned, and true to its pastoral temperament, the fiction refuses to judge of its characters’ erotic predilections and egomaniacal inclinations, although it is full of complaints regarding the existential condition that constrains us within the confines of our natures’ ruling passions. Firbank’s travestying treatment of the conventional racial divide is another instance of his persistent challenging of social prejudice. The plot of the 1919 novel Valmouth centres on the betrothal of the world-travelling seaman and heir to Hare-Hatch House, Captain Thoroughfare, to a beautiful young ‘negress’, Niri-Esther, whom he met on a tropical voyage – although the handsome young captain seems not entirely devoted to the fairer sex, as he indicates when boasting of his ‘middy-chum, Jack Whorwood’ (Firbank’s characters’ names are often amusingly telling) ‘who was not much over fifteen and the youngest lad on board’: ‘“That little lad,” he had said, with a peculiar smile that revealed his regular pointed teeth, “that little lad, on a cruise, is, to me, what Patroclus was to Achilles, and even more”’ (Five Novels, p. 160). Almost everyone in this perhaps most fanciful of Firbank’s books, subtitled ‘A Romantic Novel’, suffers from what an immigrant black masseuse, Mrs Yaj, perceptively diagnoses as ‘erot-o-maniah’ (p. 158). Far from being romantic hindrances, differences of race, culture, age, and class serve only to enhance these characters’ attractiveness to one another, as Mrs Yaj admits when telling of her own erotomaniac obsession: ‘I have known what love is, I!’ the negress heaved. ‘Dair are often days ven I can neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, ven my fingers hab no strength at all (massage den is quite impossible) – and I am able only to groan and groan and groan – ah, my darling!’ ‘A nigger?’ ‘A nigger! No. He was a little blond Londoner – all buttoned-and-braided, one ob de chasseurs at your hotel.’ ‘Thank you’. Lady Parvula looked detached. (Five Novels, p. 178) Mrs Yaj’s seeming annoyance at the implication that she would be obsessed with ‘a nigger’ is – in Firbank’s world – not so much an indication of class aspirations or racial prejudice as it is the natural snobbery that one has in regard to one’s individual taste. Lady Parvula may seem to evince her own distaste in her ‘detached’ response to Mrs Yaj’s romantic choice, but she is herself all too vulnerable in her unrequited ardent obsession with a young shepherd boy, considering which she muses, ‘I know I should despise myself, but I don’t’ (p. 215). Neither do her society friends despise her for this most recent in a long series of unsuitable attachments: ‘Poor Parvula …! a scandal, more or less, it will make no difference to her whatever’ (p. 203). By highlighting the arbitrary, relative nature of culture, race, and sex, Firbank emphasises the natural and innate artifice of all such identity differences, which he aggressively travesties: ‘A negress never powders.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because she knows it’s useless,’ the lieutenant lucidly explained. (p. 230) The lieutenant knows whereof he speaks, as he is himself devoted to cosmetic self-enhancement: Bending over a charming little mirror of composite precious woods, Mrs Thoroughfare detected Lieutenant Whorwood grooming assiduously his romantic curls. Embarrassed at being taken thus unawares, the young man blushed up to the rose-mauve of his lips. ‘I realize,’ said he, ‘I’m one of those who, at the last Trump, would run their hand across their hair.’ (p. 227) The lieutenant needn’t feel embarrassed, however, as his inclinations are in perfect harmony with Mrs Thoroughfare’s taste: ‘Some men are ultra-womanly, and they’re the kind I love!’ Mrs. Thoroughfare chirruped. ‘I suppose that none but those whose courage is unquestionable can venture to be effeminate?’ Lady Parvula said, plunging a two-pronged fork into a ‘made’ dish of sugared-violets served in aspic. (p. 168) The lieutenant’s aesthetic criticism of Captain Thoroughfare’s black-skinned fiancée is far from being disinterested, as she has put a social claim on his own ‘middy-chum’. By the novel’s end, however, the social set in Valmouth seems more or less prepared to accept the couple’s unconventional pairing, although not without complaining about the difficulty of competing erotically with one who has Niri-Esther’s exotic complexion and appeal: ‘All the fair men – the blondes, she will take from us … But I don’t really mind! So long as I get the gypsies …’ (p. 236). In the romantic world, as in life in general, we play the cards we are dealt by fate, and none of us can discard the joker in the deck that is our wholly individual and inevitable death. No one in Firbank’s fiction is immune from the recurrent ache of love or the ever-present awareness of death. In the face of these two great givens, his fiction implicitly demands, what is the significance of a difference of skin colour, or of sexual preference, or even of a religious doctrine or practice? For spiritual contemplation vies with carnal delights as the central preoccupation of Firbank’s pastoral figures. As would be expected, they are far from conventional in their approaches to the eternal, and as with his treatment of sexual and racial identities, Firbank’s playful satirising of religious rituals and beliefs serves to highlight their essential artifice. A humorous example of such is Mrs Thoroughfare of Valmouth and her bosom friend and domestic partner, Mrs Hurstpierpoint, who find expression of their religious ardency in the opposing devotional tendencies of a mortification of the flesh and an extreme indulgence of their ultra-ornamental aesthetic proclivities, concerning which, Mrs Thoroughfare comments to her housemate: ‘“If we go on as we go … we’ll be almost too ornate!” It was what they, each in their way, were ready for’ (Five Novels, p. 166). When an unplanned visitor arrives at the house, she is shown into an exquisitely appointed drawing room: ‘The mistress, I presume, is with the scourge,’ the butler announced, peering impassively around. Lady Parvula placed her fan to her train. ‘Let her lash it!’ she said. ‘In this glorious room one is quite content to wait.’ (p. 163) Later in the novel, Mrs Hurstpierpoint asks of her friend, ‘May a woman know dear … when she may receive her drubbing?’ ‘Oh I’ve no strength left in me today, I fear, for anything’, Mrs. Thoroughfare answered. ‘Positively?’ (p. 192) Both women are devotees of the fictive feminine saint Automona Meris, whose ‘life’ is depicted in a set of ‘mystic windows’ in the house’s private chapel: Automona by way of prelude lolling at a mirror … Automona with a purple heartsease pursuing a nail-pink youth … Automona with four male rakes (like the little brown men of Egypt) … Automona, in marvelous mourning and with Nile-green hair, seated like a mummy bolt upright. Automona meeting Queen Maud of Cassiopia: ‘You look like some rare plant, dear!’ Her growing mysticism. She meets Mother Maia: ‘I’m not the woman I was.’ Her moods. Her austerities. Her increasing dowdiness. Her indifference to dress. She repulses her couturier: ‘Send her away!’ Her founding of Sodbury. Her end. Dear ardent soul!’ Mrs Thoroughfare commented, her spirit rejoicing in the soft neurotic light. (p. 225) There is a great deal of rejoicing in Firbank’s fiction, prompted by enthusiastic appreciations of both art and nature, between which, in these novels’ pastoral havens, there is no essential distinction. Human nature itself is approached by Firbank with the scrupulousness of a connoisseur, and the elements in our nature that are precious (such as our instinct and capacity for friendship, romance, devotion, art, and pleasure) are placed in gorgeous settings that flatter them, while the unattractive and distasteful elements (such as hatred, envy, fear, bitterness, and strife) are banished from the picture, pushed beyond the pastoral boundary that both frames and shields Firbank’s fictive world of innocent pleasure. Firbank’s narrative eulogy of Cardinal Pirelli, his last completed and most resonant character, is an apt commentary on the affectionate and appealing fictive figure of his work as a whole: Now that the ache of life, with its fevers, passions, doubts, its routine, vulgarity, and boredom, was over, his serene, unclouded face was a marvelment to behold. Very great distinction and sweetness was visible there, together with much nobility, and love, all magnified and commingled … Through the triple windows of the chancel the sky was clear and blue – a blue like the blue of lupins. Above him stirred the wind-blown banners in the Nave. (Five Novels, pp. 341–2) It is fitting that this last of Firbank’s completed works before his early death ends not with the focus on the egoistic human individual, however loving and noble, but on the lifeless corpse in its living environment, thus emphasising the brevity of our life and time on earth. It is not only we ourselves who are mutable, but also our fictions and forms of belief. Cardinal Pirelli, who dies the night before he is to depart for the Vatican to defend his ‘eccentricities’ – such as going out for nights on the town disguised in drag, ‘disliking to forgo altogether the militant bravoura of a skirt’ (p. 294) – muses one lonely night in his monastery retreat on the inevitable mortality of the Church itself: The forsaken splendor of the vast closed cloisters seemed almost to augur the waning of a cult. Likewise the decline of Apollo, Diana, Isis, with the gradual downfall of their temples, had been heralded, in past times, by the dispersal of their priests. It looked as though Mother Church, like Venus or Diana, was making way in due turn for the beliefs that should follow: ‘and we shall begin again with intolerance, martyrdom, and converts’, the Cardinal ruminated, passing before an ancient fresco depicting the eleven thousand virgins, or as many as there was room for. (p. 325) Firbank, who all his life was fascinated by various forms of religious faith and ritual – in particular of Catholicism and Islam – knew from his own failed religious effort that he was living near the end of an age of belief, and this passage, in which his cardinal recalls earlier ages that have passed, and looks forward toward a new age to come (and that will as assuredly pass), seems almost a parody of Nietzsche’s eternal return. Nietzsche of course famously foretold the arrival of a new age with new values (heralded by a radically parodic figure that Firbank in his fiction closely resembles) and Wilde prophesied in similar fashion in his crucial critical essays. At the conclusion of his most audacious prophecy, ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, Wilde predicted that the Christian paradigm of self-realisation through pain would give way to a ‘new Hellenism’ that would find its fulfilment in pleasure.32 But he qualified both assertions thus: What man has sought for is, indeed, neither pain nor pleasure, but simply Life. Man has sought to live intensely, fully, perfectly. When he can do so without exercising restraint on others, or suffering it ever, and his activities are all pleasurable to him, he will be saner, healthier, more civilised, more himself. Pleasure is Nature’s test, her sign of approval. When man is happy, he is in harmony with himself and his environment.33 It is interesting to note that, while Wilde was able to predict such a future theoretically, he was unable to envision it imaginatively in his own creative work, which is so often enmeshed in the middle-class mores and melodramatic sentimentality of his Victorian audience. Wilde’s most authentic and prophetic creative voice found expression in and through the pitch-perfect allegories of his fairy tales, his novel, and his final play, which proves its allegorical allegiance by transforming a character trait into a veritable character. Allegory of course is a teaching and a preaching genre and Wilde, as one of the great visionary intellects of his time, was well fit for both. But it remained for his unlikely and heretofore largely unrecognised disciple and imaginative heir, Firbank, to fulfil fictively Wilde’s aesthetic prophecies by envisioning a world of harmonious pleasure smiled upon by Nature herself. In the process Firbank revivified the moribund pastoral genre, rather as Lytton Strachey (with a sexually covert debunking programme of his own) revised a late Victorian biographical practice that had sunk into a solemn senescence. The pastoral serves its psychological, cultural, and political purpose most fully and fruitfully in a time when more direct fictive argumentation is precluded. Firbank’s ingenious pastoral sense of indirection shielded his work from social censure in the hysterical homophobic wake of the Wilde debacle, but he succeeded all too well in hiding the seriousness of his intent from the unwitting modern reader unschooled in the pastoral mode of implicit argumentation. Wilson was the rare contemporary reader who could appreciate that while Firbank’s was ‘a glancing mind’, it ‘rarely wobbles’.34 Sitwell, Wright, Van Vechten, and Brophy likewise recognised and sought to publicise Firbank’s lonely and heroic achievement, but in the contemporary world of literary criticism he remains a sadly underrated and misunderstood figure, and in the world of the common reader he is largely ignored. One hopes that a future generation of critics and readers more alert to the intricacies of pastoral obliquity will be able to appreciate more fully the rare achievement and fundamental seriousness of Firbank’s unrelenting parodic play. Footnotes 1 Cuthbert Wright, ‘Mercutio in Mayfair’, The Nation, 133 (3453) (9 Sept. 1931) p. 263. 2 Carl Van Vechten, introduction to Firbank, Prancing Nigger (New York 1924) p. ix. 3 Anthony Powell, introduction to The Complete Ronald Firbank (London 1961) p. 1. 4 Osbert Sitwell, Introduction to Firbank, Five Novels (New York 1981) p. xii. 5 Firbank, Three More Novels: Vainglory, Inclinations, Caprice (New York 1986) pp. 12–13. 6 Brigid Brophy, Prancing Novelist (1973; reissued 2016 by Dalkey Archive Press) p. 333. 7 The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (London 1961) p. 981. 8 Wilde, Intentions (London 1913) p. 11 (Kindle). 9 Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism (London 1909) p. 18 (Kindle). 10 Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, trans. and ed. G. H. R. Parkinson (Oxford 2000) p. 241. 11 Intentions, p. 98. 12 Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York 1938) pp. 150, 154. 13 Alfred North Whitehead, Science and Modern World (New York 1925) p. 86. 14 Edmund Wilson, ‘Firbank and Beckford’, in The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the 1920’s and 1930’s (New York 1952) pp. 264–6: 264. 15 The Soul of Man, p. 18. 16 Firbankiana, ed. Raymond Foye and Francesco Clemente (New York 1974) p. 7. 17 Ronald Firbank, Two Novels (New York 1962). 18 Introduction to Prancing Nigger, pp. vii, viii. 19 Powell, introduction to The Complete Firbank, p. 12; E. M. Forster, Abinger Harvest (New York 1955) p. 113. 20 Evelyn Waugh, interview in The Paris Review (Summer/Autumn 1963) p. 11. 21 Introduction to Prancing Nigger, p. viii. 22 Abinger Harvest, p. 112. 23 Prancing Novelist, p. 251. 24 Abinger Harvest, pp. 111, 114. 25 ‘Mercutio in Mayfair’, p. 263. 26 Wilde, Collected Works, p. 958. 27 Ibid., p. 1058. 28 Ibid. 29 W. H. Auden, The Paris Review Interviews, ed. George Plimpton, introd. Wilfrid Sheed, Writers at Work 4 (New York 1976) p. 265. 30 Edmund Wilson, ‘A Revival of Ronald Firbank’, in Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (New York 1976) pp. 486–502: 491. 31 The Soul of Man, p. 7. 32 Ibid., pp. 20–2. 33 Ibid., p. 20. 34 Classics and Commercials, p. 491. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Cambridge Quarterly – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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