I thought I was reasonably familiar with Houselander's work, but it came as a surprise to me to learn that she had written a novel: only this one, published in 1947. So when I saw an ad for an online seminar on the book, a joint effort from Dappled Things and the Collegium Institute, I signed up.
There were four sessions, and of course participants were assigned a set of chapters to read for each session. Being a bad student, I usually just managed to get each week's assignment done in time for the class, except for the second week when I ended up still one or two chapters behind when the appointed hour came. Had I been an actual student, held accountable for not having read quite all the assignment, I would have been tempted to cast a little of the blame on the author, for not having made the story interesting enough.
It is not a page-turner. In fact, after the first week's reading I said to myself This is not a novel at all, but rather a lyrical meditation on Christian themes. But "novel" is a very, very broad category, especially since sometime in the 20th century when the kind of fiction known (at least by its practitioners and fans) as "experimental" stretched the concept so that it could include almost any non-factual prose of sufficient length. For that reason among others I won't push my initial reaction.
But I can't escape it entirely. The Dry Wood is certainly a novel by any reasonable definition; the question is whether it's a good one. Answering that question obviously requires some reasonably definite idea of what a novel is and what makes a good one. Now, having finished the book and given it some thought, I've come to this relatively firm conclusion: it's not all that good a novel, but it's a very good book.
It is a story, and it has a cast of characters who do one thing and another. Still, my description of it as a lyrical meditation on Christian themes is justifiable. It comes across to me more as a sort of tableau, a series of pictures, than as a flowing stream of narrative. And the pictures are accompanied by words which are often...well, it's hard to find a word that doesn't have at least slightly negative connotations, at least with regard to a novel. "Preachy" is obviously negative, but not unwarranted. "Didactic" is only a little better. "Homiletical," maybe. Somewhat abstractedly theological, anyway. But whether the negative suggestion is deserved depends very much on what the author is trying to do. I think these qualities are best considered not as a fault in a novel but as a virtue in the sort of book this is.
I think it can be compared to a couple of C.S. Lewis's books: The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. Both these have the fictional elements of plot and character, but as far as I know they are not generally called novels. The Dry Wood is far more a novel than either of them, but it has in common with them that neither plot nor character is as finely and elaborately drawn as we expect in a novel, and like them it exhibits, contrary to standard fictional advice and practice, at least as much tell as show. Yet those of us who like the Lewis books don't regard their un-novelistic qualities as defects; we're judging them by a different standard.
I suppose I'm dwelling so much on this in part because I keep imagining what an ordinary secular-minded reader would make of Houselander's novel. In fact one of the questions proposed for discussion in the seminar was whether one would recommend the book to such a reader. My immediate reaction, thinking of several people I know who are anywhere from indifferent to hostile to Christianity, was an immediate and definite no. Perhaps I'm underestimating them, but I can only envision them dismissing the book as preaching, and that mainly to the converted. The homiletic element is deeply and often mystically Catholic, engaging and moving to one who sees the world in much the same way, dismissable as misty nonsense by one who does not. Someone in the seminar made me laugh by calling some passages of the book "spiritual purple prose." I think Flannery O'Connor would not have liked it; she thought even Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest too heavy on ideas.
The basic situation in the novel is this: the saintly priest, Fr. Malone, of a parish in a poor dockside London neighborhood called Riverside has just died. Members of the parish, including Fr. Malone's successor Fr. O'Grady, believe that Fr. Malone was (is) in fact a saint and are caught up in a fervent desire to see a miracle which can be attributed to him. To this end they come together in a novena asking him to save the life of a child, Willie Jewel, who is beloved by the whole community. Born with birth defects that will prevent him from ever walking or speaking, but always smiling and responsive, and now apparently declining toward death, he has been taken to heart by the community as a sort of little Christ of their own, a Christ-child who embodies the suffering of their own impoverished life while seeming to transcend it, and to whom they can bring little things that please him.
The story of the novel is essentially the progress of that novena and its effects on the relatively large cast of characters: Willie's parents; the agnostic physician Dr. Moncrieff who thinks Willie probably should not have been born at all; the young ex-Communist convert Timothy Green (he's the one who first made me think of The Screwtape Letters); Rose O'Shane, a fading beauty with a drinking problem; Solly Lee, a Jewish tailor and businessman who attempts to make a good sum of money off holy cards featuring Fr. Malone; Carmen Fernandez, a beautiful young woman more or less the kept lover of Solly Lee; the wise Archbishop Crecy, unsure of how far the enthusiasm for Fr. Malone ought to be allowed to go; Monsignor Frayne, a somewhat too urbane convert from the Church of England.
Those who are acquainted with Houselander's work will find familiar themes, most notably the idea that every person is Christ, fully alive in some, struggling to be born in others. There's also the sympathy and indeed love for the poor, and the necessity of the embrace of suffering. And skepticism, tinged with ridicule, of rich Christians who think they can drop in now and then and improve the poor, of activist Christians who believe that what the faith needs is a Movement led by the talented who can make it more attractive to the world. The book is not heavy on humor, but it does have some funny moments, and some of them are at the expense of these last two.
A taste of both the style and the sensibility of the book is in order:
The sun was going down when Father O'Grady reached the Jewels', and in the warm light the man and woman looked as if they were made of bronze. But Willie, even in this light, was a child of ivory.
He was as fair as his parents were dark, and his fairness, with its contrast to his own flesh and blood, added to the unspoken and perhaps unrealized impression among the people that there was something supernatural about the child. An innocent, who is visibly destined to die young, could not fail to have a certain radiance for people of simple faith. A little creature shining as purely from the waters of Baptism as on the day when they were first poured on him, and soon to be in the blue fields of Heaven. But when, as in Willie's case, such a little creature also suffers, and suffers with a smile on his face, then indeed it is hard to measure the awe, the sense of mystery, with which poor people approach him.
For those without the means that riches give for hiding, drugging, and disguising sorrow, or the ways that more sophisticated people have of finding at least temporary escape from its realization within themselves, suffering is not in itself a thing to be dreaded, as it is dreaded by those who imagine themselves to be more fortunate....
Those who suffer always are the aristocracy of the poor. So Willie Jewel was unique in the love and reverence of the people of Riverside. Not indeed that they wanted to see a child suffer, but they did want to be constantly easing his suffering, bringing him their gifts, seeing his sudden radiant smile, and a flush of pink on his white face. They came to him as simply as the shepherds did to the Child in the manger: not exactly glad that their God shivered in human flesh and lacked all things, yet glad that, since He chose to need, He needed the gifts that they had to give....
Remember, by the way, that Houselander had been among poor people and been poor herself, so this is not sentimentality--or if it is, it has a solid core. If you think some of it is a bit much, especially in a novel, well, I sympathize with you. But I repeat: this is a good book, a book I will re-read. And though I don't know what a reader who is unfamiliar with Houselander would think of it, I'm fairly sure that those who do know her other work will find it worthy to stand with the rest. Possibly--just possibly--an evaluation of all her work would put this one at the top, as it brings together all her themes very powerfully.
This book is one (the first?) in a series from Catholic University of America Press called Catholic Women Writers. Its aim is to re-publish works by Catholic women writers who have been neglected, or in some cases neglected works by writers like Muriel Spark, who have received fairly wide attention. The series is edited by two academics, Bonnie Landers Johnson and Julia Meszaros. Dr. (I assume) Meszaros was the presenter for two sessions of the seminar, and on the basis of that I am very happy to say that all is not lost in academia.
I should mention, too, something very dear to my old-fashioned paper-book-loving heart: the physical production of the book is lovely and should be durable. At my age that latter quality isn't so important to me personally, but if anyone wants to read my copy after I'm gone it should be in good shape.