I meant to choose a Sylvia Townsend Warner to take on holiday with me, but I forget, and then didn't really read much whilst I was away anyway, so I suppose forgetting didn't make much difference. Because of this my choice for A Gallimaufrys reading week was the shortest novel with the largest print.
If that's not the best way to choose a book in the general way of things, it did at least work out well for me this time. I bought the book when I was busily collecting older Virago Modern Classics and before I failed so badly with 'Lolly Willows'. The blurb for 'Mr. Fortune's Maggot' didn't particularly inspire me, so without this prompt and slight deadline anxiety I might never have got round to reading it - but it turned out to be a magical book. My time for Sylvia has finally arrived.
"The Reverend Timothy Fortune, ex-clerk of the Hornsey Branch of Lloyds Bank" has spent a decade as a missionary in the South Seas, mostly doing accounts, when he feels a call to try and convert the remote island of Fanua. He sets off for a three year stint but his only apparent convert is a boy called Lueli. Lueli loves his mentor and "this love, and the sensuous freedom of the islanders produces in Mr Fortune a change of heart which is shattering..."
There was a point where I wasn't quite sure I knew where Sylvia would take us, and was a bit nervous about finding out, not least because of so many scandals about dodgy priests between 1927 and now. Mr Fortune isn't that kind of priest though - he's a genuinely kind and humble man determined to do his best to bring god to the islanders.
The islanders aren't particularly interested, but they're an easy going lot and they clearly like Mr Fortune both for the novelty he provides, and his good nature. In turn he takes their lack of interest in good part, happy with his one convert.
The relationship between Mr. Fortune and Lueli is a complex one. It's not physical, but it's not quite platonic either; it might be described as a drawn out, innocent sort of courtship, at least on the part of Mr Fortune who hasn't ever really had anybody to love before. We don't see much from Lueli's point of view, but there's enough to show that his affection is genuine and deep. The difference is perhaps that Lueli will have other loves, Timothy Fortune will not.
The 'change of heart' when it comes is shattering, and not what I expected. I don't want to give spoilers here which makes it hard to go on. I hope it isn't to much to say that this is the story of a kind man who when he finally finds happiness, understands that he has to give it up to protect everything he has come to love.
It's a gem of a book, quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, and devastating by the end. I feel stupid for taking this long to understand just how good Sylvia Townsend Warner was, but at least have the pleasure ahead of reading through the rest of her books.