Friday 29 May 2015

In Search of the Miraculous #9: This Book Might Just Change Your Life

Seriously, it'll change everything...
Every so often someone thrusts a book into your hand, and they say something like, "Seriously, read this. It could change your life." The student evangelist handing you a snappily packaged Mark's Gospel. The preppy couple with broad smiles and a hunted, slightly desperate look in their eyes trying to give you a copy of Dianetics. The wanker in the fedora trying to make you buy yourself a copy of Atlas Shrugged.

I never understood that. The most powerful intellectual and spiritual experiences I've had have been when I've been baring my soul to an audience. Still, after finishing Dion Fortune's occult novel The Sea Priestess on Monday night, by Tuesday morning I was texting a mate to say, "You really have to read this because it's really powerful and special and..."

And it might just change your life. 

I stopped myself before I said that and after five minutes of communication, I realised that actually, The Sea Priestess was not actually a life changing book. For me, anyway.

But for a short while, it had me. I am still uncommonly well disposed towards it.

I got hold of my copy of Dion Fortune's book (her real name, Violet Firth) because I read that Fortune wrote a bit about Atlantis, and, not really knowing where to start, picked this one up because Atlantis was in the blurb (Edit: since writing this, I discovered that it was Murry Hope's favourite Dion Fortune book, which pleases me for reasons I don't fully understand myself).

Also, it's short, and after fiftyelevenhundred pages of Phylos the Thibetan I thought, let's try something less arduous.

It's less arduous.

In fact, it's remarkably easy reading,  containing easily the best prose of any of the occult books I've read while doing the research for this project.

Parts of it are beautiful in a lyrical, lilting way, evoking the smells and sounds and terror of the sea with power and grace. It's a novel, which is something I should have mentioned before. 

Now, as you probably know, there are two ways in which fictions with an evangelistic philosophical agenda try to get their ideologies into your head. They either allegorise the hell out of it, like CS Lewis and Philip Pullman do, or they have an important character in the novel act as a mouthpiece for the author, the most famous case of this being, once more, Atlas Shrugged, so beloved of smelly losers in hats and rich white Americans who have never done an honest day's work.

The Sea Priestess falls into the latter category. Wilfred Maxwell, an asthmatic estate agent, meets the mysterious, ageless and devastatingly gorgeous LeFay Morgan (do you see what the author did there?), who, he discovers, has Important but Vague Cosmic Powers and who, in a previous life in Atlantis, officiated over his being sacrificed to the sea. They become closer until the night when they do a magic working together, and, well. The end of the book is dedicated to the working out of the, um, working, heavily spiced with bits of past life regression. 

Where The Sea Priestess wins over Ayn Rand's interminable rantings is that Miss Morgan's inevitable lectures are presented with a light touch, and, more vitally, Dion Fortune could actually write. 

I'm not going to lie, the plot sometimes glides to a gentle halt when all that stuff about goddesses and religion and gender comes out, but it's never a chore to read. The writing is lyrical and dreamy. It evokes the sounds and smells of a doomed homeland. It dwells on the sea and makes you feel you are there. Some passages of it are flat-out beautiful, breathtakingly so. And more importantly, there's no way of knowing what's going to happen next. 

The book has a sense of danger to it, and even though all it amounts to is a man and a woman hanging out and occasionally chanting a bit, you genuinely don't know what's going to happen. Is she going to love him, leave him or kill him? For the first time in ages I couldn't predict how it would end. 

It's not perfect. The Big Magical Working ensures that the end of the book hinges on a deus ex machina. Parts of it are very much of their time (the time being the 1920s), so Miss Morgan wears furs and Wilfred smokes loads, even when a slave to the asthma. Also, some things have dated in different ways. 

OK. Let's just get it out there. The fictional English village in which the story is set is called Dickmouth.

Which is situated on a river called the Narrow Dick.

Which river ends at Bell Head. 

If you can read the three preceding sentences without sniggering, you are better than me.

Juvenile sniggering at dated names, aside, if Fortune's Atlantis, what very little of it there is, is problematic, it's problematic in a somewhat different way to my other books. Unexamined slavery and human sacrifice presented as if it's a perfectly natural way to run a religion don't sit well with me (although the idea that Atlantis might, as the seas close in, start to become ok with it as a Thing is well within my own setting's assumptions). A boy with a developmental disability dies in an accident, and he's seen as an acceptable sacrifice for the building of a home. I don't want to think too hard about that.

But with all that, the book is peculiarly beautiful. And the most interesting thing about it is that it's largely about presenting to the reader the (female) author's ideas about Ideal Womanhood, through the point of view of a male narrator. A woman pretending to be a man writing about women.

Dion Fortune's perfect woman is strong, intellectally and spiritually powerful, dominant, and, crucially, neither functionally a man in makeup and a dress nor a male's dominatrix fantasy. In many ways her strong woman has more relevance to ideas of feminism prevalent today (I'm talking about intersectional feminism here) than to those in her own time or among the radical feminists of the 60s and 70s. 

Apparently The Sea Priestess was influential on the first wave of feminist science fiction, and I can believe that. It's a dangerous, subversive book, the sort they tell you at church that You Must Never Read.

I know, because for a short time I thought it might just change someone's life.