Writing can make you new friends in more ways than one. Recently I met novelist Dennis Hamley and discovered we had a number of interests in common, not the least of which was an admiration for A.S. Byatt and her novel Possession (can I have mentioned this before? see blog My Favourite Book). Most particularly, we talked of her skill in reproducing the cadences and style of 19th century poets, such as Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: and the extraordinary ability she had to write convincingly as two different but equally celebrated poets, one man and one woman. Then he confessed that he, too, writes pastiche, and that his latest novel is in large part about an 18th century poet, who writes in the style of Pope.
What could I do but acquire a copy of Spirit of the Place to read for myself?
This book is more than a demonstration of Hamley’s skill in reproducing 18th century flamboyance, though that is impressive enough. His poet, Nicholas Fowler, is determined to build a grotto in the style of Pope’s place in Twickenham, complete with “marbles, spars, gems and minerals”. But his plans become ever more grandiose, and as workmen dig into the hill on his land to create passageways and interlinked caves, the excavated soil is piled into a second balancing hill designed to improve on nature and blot out the sight of the wretched cottages of the poor, and a lake complete with cascade is planned where no water might be expected to flow. This entire project is to be celebrated in a long poem which he will publish and read at its grand opening. To quote Fowler himself:
What secrets are exposed by human toil? /What great new work replaces sullen soil? /A thing of beauty forms for all of time. / Its epithet is clear: it is sublime.
For Nicholas Fowler, great men like himself are on a par with God, for they can master Nature and bend her to their will. Lesser men are dispensable – what matters it that a workman dies, buried inside a badly supported tunnel? A necessary sacrifice to a greater good. So it matters even less that a cat should drown while he watches, so intrigued by its struggles that he strikes the boy who tries to rescue the animal.
This 18th century belief in the supremacy of Man and his god-like ability to control and transform Nature is contrasted and compared with the late 20th century faith in the Genome Project as the means of controlling disease and genetic malformations. And the link between the two centuries arises through two students, one a young woman, Lindsey, who is studying the work of the obscure poet Nicholas Fowler, and her boyfriend, Rob, who is obsessed by the genetics now being investigated in Fowler’s former home.
And the “spirit of the place”? This is the cat that drowned, buried in the walls of the grotto by the boy who loved her: his hatred of his callous master culminates in this daring act of defiance and the psychic power of his anger affects even Fowler. But a further link leads to a startling conclusion: Fowler, who has no knowledge of science or mechanics, hands over a ‘lightning machine’ to a man servant to operate; said manservant is intelligent and transforms a dud machine into a working model, which has unforeseen consequences. Said manservant is also linked genetically to the science student, Rob. The two students explore the old grotto and are confronted by both the spirit of Fowler and that ‘of the place’. A strange and compelling scenario impossible to convey schematically. It needs to be read!
I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Spirit of the Place’. The parallel between the 18th century belief that Man was put on earth to perfect God’s handiwork (what a gloriously grandiloquent notion) and the present belief that genetic engineering will eliminate inherited defects is perfect – and profoundly disturbing. I especially enjoyed the eighteenth century scenes, the characters of the house servants – all distinctly drawn and sympathetic, the creative ambitions of Nicholas Fowler and his casual dismissal of practical barriers, his view of servants and workmen as mere tools: is this an accurate picture of the creative in action, I wonder? Writers are often held to be both more sensitive than ordinary mortals, and more ruthless.