The book is in three sections – “The Roadmender”, “Out of the Shadow” and “The White Gate”. The first and last sections are set in the English countryside, the middle section in London. The London section, with its references to the funeral of Queen Victoria, gives the only indication of the book’s supposed time of writing. With its overwrought metaphors, little romantic vignettes of bucolic poverty, musings on Wagner and hortatory religious reflections, it’s one of the finest pieces of sentimental clap-trap I’ve ever read in my life. And I’m still only two thirds of the way through it, so there are probably a few more delights to come.
I have attained my ideal: I am a roadmender, some say stonebreaker. Both titles are correct, but the one is more pregnant than the other. All day I sit by the roadside on a stretch of grass under a high hedge of saplings and a tangle of traveller’s joy, woodbine, sweetbriar and late roses. Opposite me is a white gate, seldom used, if one may judge from the trail of the honeysuckle growing tranquilly along it: I know now that whenever and wherever I die my soul will pass out through this white gate; and then, thank God, I shall not have need to undo that trail.That’s just the opening of the first section, full of those romantic vignettes of rural poverty that I mentioned earlier – “Fairless’” own (it's evident from the text that Fairless is a pseudonym), self-imposed poverty, and that of the people who pass along “his” road, providing Fairless with the opportunity to take a little time-out from his self-aggrandising religious meditations:
In our youth we discussed our ideals freely: I wonder how many beside myself have attained, or would understand my attaining. After all, what do we ask of life, here or indeed hereafter, but leave to serve, to live, to commune with our fellow-men and with ourselves; and from the lap of earth to look up into the face of God? All these gifts are mine as I sit by the winding road and serve the footsteps of my fellows …
… Morning and night I serve with the Gibeonites, their curse my blessing, as no doubt it was theirs when their hearts were purged by service… The Gibeonites were servants in the house of God, ministers of the sacrament of service even as the High Priest himself; and I sharing their high office of servitude, thank God that the ground was accursed for my sake, for surely that curse was the womb of all unborn blessing.His hero-worship of Wagner:
What a wonderful work Wagner has done for humanity in translating the toil of life into the readable script of music! For those who seek the tale of other worlds his music is silent: but earth-travail under his wand becomes instinct with rhythmic song to an accompaniment of the elements, and the blare and crash of the bottomless pit itself.And his gloomy musings on the decline of civilisation as he knows it:
The swift stride of civilisation is leaving behind individual effort, and turning man into the Daemon of a machine. To and fro in front of the long loom, lifting a lever at either end, paces he who once with painstaking intelligence drove the shuttle. Then he tasted the joy of completed work, that which his eye had looked upon and his hands had handled; now his work is as little finished as the web of Penelope. Once the reaper grasped the golden corn stems, and with dextrous sweep of sickle set free the treasure of the earth… now he sits serene on Juggernaut’s car, its guiding Daemon, and the field is silent to him.There’s something I forgot to mention earlier – there’s a shitload of purple prose in the book too.
All that said, I have to give Fairless his due; maybe once or twice during the course of his mental meanderings, he gets his head far enough out of his arse to notice something worth recording, and manages to describe it in a style that doesn’t completely overwhelm his subject matter:
There is an old couple in our village who are past work. The married daughter has made shift to take her mother and the parish half-crown, but there is neither room nor food for the father, and he must go to N--. If husband and wife went together they would be separated at the workhouse door. The parting had to come; it came yesterday. I saw them stumbling lamely down the road on their last journey together, walking side by side without touch or speech, seeing and heeding nothing but a blank future. As they passed me the old man said gruffly, “Tis far eno’; better be getting back”; but the woman shook her head and they breasted the hill together. At the top they paused, shook hands, and separated; one went on, the other turned back; and as the the old woman limped blindly by I turned away, for there are sights a man dare not look upon. She passed; and I heard a child’s shrill voice say, “I come to look for you, Gran”: and I thanked God that there need be no utter loneliness in the world while it holds a little child.Well, come on, I never said that “Fairless” demonstrated any insight into what he was seeing, did I?
(Cross posted at Larvatus Prodeo)