sonetka (sonetka) wrote,

"The Devil Is An English Gentleman" by John Cournos (1932)

In her essay on John Cournos in American Writers In Europe: 1850 To The Present, Marilyn Schwinn Smith comments on a general lack of Cournos scholarship, stating that "although the quantity and quality of his publications testify to an ambition and and aspiration no less energetic than that of his better known, compatriot friends and colleagues … He is remembered today, most frequently, as a translator from the Russian." (75) This is a polite half-truth, of course – Smith doesn't mention that the continuing popularity of Dorothy Sayers' novels has ensured that Cournos retains real, if unwelcome, literary immortality as the model for repellent murder victim Philip Boyes in Strong Poison. Sayers had a brief, bizarre, extremely unhappy liaison with Cournos in 1922, as a result of which each participant ended up giving birth to a revenge novel – Cournos's was The Devil Is An English Gentleman.

Philip Boyes has a good deal in common with Cournos – a literary man who's well-reviewed but whose books sell poorly, someone who's vain, entitled, defensive, "apt to think people were in league to spoil his chances", inclined to sneer at any sort of art he considers lowbrow, and of course possessed of unusually advanced views with regard to sex – he claims not to believe in marriage and later on reveals that he does, but only after a woman has demonstrated that her love is real by having no-strings-attached sex with him. However, Sayers did change a few basic attributes: her Boyes is an Englishman brought up in reasonably comfortable circumstances, and who has no noted gift for languages or translating; furthermore, he can't really support himself on his writings. He receives an allowance from his impoverished father, and also depends financially on the woman he's living with – furthermore, he demands not just sex from her (as Cournos did) but an entire year of living together in a time when that could be considered social suicide. Cournos was a Russian-Jewish emigrant to America who was poor enough as a child to be selling newspapers on the street and who started working in a newsroom in his early teens – in one of Sayers' letters to her parents, she mentions his family dunning him for money. Unlike Philip, he couldn't count on respectable relatives to bail him out, and if you look at the amount of work he did he was clearly very industrious, regardless of what you may think of the quality of his output. As it happens, on at least one occasion, Cournos was entirely correct in thinking that that someone wanted to spoil his chances – there's a long sequence of letters in The Letters Of T.S. Eliot (v. 4) in which Richard Aldington tries to get Eliot to can Cournos from his job writing about recent Russian books, because Aldington thought that Cournos had put a version of himself into a novel. (Eliot refused, incidentally, on the grounds that it would be incredibly unprofessional to fire him over a personal grudge, and it's not clear whether Cournos ever actually knew about the attempt, but it seems only fair to mention it).

The Devil Is An English Gentleman, Cournos's ninth novel, came out two years after Strong Poison, when Cournos was just over fifty. It's over twice as long as Strong Poison (the publisher issued it in two volumes), and the second half is clearly intended as a rebuttal to Sayers' book in which he tells the real story of their relationship. And if it's anything like his other novels, the field of Cournos scholarship is going to lie fallow for a long time to come, because it is appallingly, unbelievably dreadful – if someone had quoted some of the passages to me without showing a source I would have assumed they were a parody aimed at a tin-eared, self-delighted Literary Man. I don't just mean that it's badly written – although it is – but the egotism and total lack of perception exhibited by the leading characters is so astounding that, far from making me think that there might have been another side to the affair, it made me think that Sayers hadn't been hard enough on him.

The plot has numerous digressions but at its heart it's fairly simple: we see three generations of the ancient Thorley family (owners of a vaguely-situated rural estate called Ravenford) attempt to find a beloved worthy of themselves, while in the process showing their dimwitted contemporaries that they just happen to be the smartest, most attractive, most sensitive, and most compassionate men ever to roam the planet. The eldest Thorley, William, kicks off the events of the book by bringing home a mysterious Russian bride named Olga, daughter of a fiery Cossack, "lovely as she was alien, with strangely fair hair and dark, almost raven-black eyes, with long curling lashes, and pale white skin scarcely perceptibly flushed a faint rose." Unfortunately, he brings her back to England at the beginning of the rainy season and for some reason she starts getting lonely and depressed and complaining that the place is draining the life out of her. "The men who came to the house, friends of her husband's, dignified and reserved like himself, lacked the fire which men of her race bred in the Caucasus had taught her to look for in men." William looked much more attractive in Russia, where his comparative restraint led her to think of him as "a half-god, a centaur held to earth by his earthly fetters," but now that they're in Britain it's back to running the estate and dealing with tenants, which is something of a comedown from being a centaur bound by earthly fetters. William has no idea what's wrong with her and after many sobbing arguments and tantrums in which she says "I shall go mad, I tell you!" (yes, she really does say that), he finally throws up his hands and says that he thinks their unhappiness "must be the work of the devil."

"But my dear Will," she responds, "You are quite right. But don't you know that the devil is an English gentleman?" And we have the title drop! After this, Olga doesn't have much more to do except pine and finally die after giving birth to a boy named Henry. "She had no will to resist the Reaper," her distraught husband thinks, and cedes the stage to Henry, whose career is now remorselessly followed for three hundred pages of watching him be superior to every single person in the universe. Beginning with a heroic episode at prep school where he offers to take a whipping in place of a downtrodden "pathetic-looking boy" called Peter Smallpiece (remember that name, it will turn up later), he proceeds to finish his education elsewhere, travel in Germany, and attract scores of inadequately fiery and independent women with his brooding Russian-derived charm. Sadly, none of them live up to his standards: "In his too energetic quest of [his ideal woman], he made experiments and often fell in love, nearly always at first sight. For the most part, these `affairs' were brief, all too brief. There was no woman who answered his purpose, no woman whose charms outlasted his passion."

He does pick up a few platonic acquaintances, most notably a couple named James and Marjorie Wilson, who exist largely to set up Henry's conversational punchlines. James is a shallow-minded businessman who says he believes in Progress with a capital P and also that belief in evolution and God can coexist, and naturally Henry knows better. "I do know that there is an eternal conflict between [God and the devil], between the forces of good and evil, light and darkness. The conflict may go on eternally. It's hard to tell. At this moment the devil appears to have the upper hand. Undoubtedly he rejoices in the existence of this human faith in evolution, for it is a weapon in his hand with which he may counter God!"

God and Henry are shortly on the outs, as one depressing evening, having failed yet again to find any woman really worthy of him, he walks home in an "eternal fog of discontent … in this fog he had snatched at love, snatched at life … Yes, he had snatched, snatched …. It was terrible to have this yearning in one's soul, and always to snatch … A terrible anger rose up in him, full of challenge, of defiance! Against what? Against whom?"

Against the Almighty, as it turns out. Henry shrieks "I curse you, God!" This "wild, unheard-of blasphemy" (so unheard of it turns up in Job, but I digress) will keep turning up in his thoughts for the rest of his life, even though he doesn't suffer any sort of divine retribution that the reader can see. In fact, it's not long after that he finally meets the woman of his dreams, one Elaine Hopkinson – mentioned by another character earlier as being notably primarily because she's been married twice and both her husbands committed suicide. For a moment I had hope that Henry had just fallen for a serial poisoner, but unfortunately for the plot it turns out that her husbands both killed themselves because they realized that they couldn't really light her fire sexually and were so devastated that they killed themselves rather than continue their hollow existence. Elaine has naturally been made somewhat gun-shy by this experience and when Henry, flinging aside all consideration for life and limb, proposes to her, she makes a counter-proposal: "Meredith's Trial Marriage." They'll live together for six months, and if they still get along after that, they'll get married. To avoid public censure they head off to the continent on a six-month pre-honeymoon, during which they indulge in tourism by day and some really, really terrible dialogue by night.

"Do you know," she went on, "I had really at one time thought there was something wrong with me. And because I could not respond in the way a woman should, I used to feel such utter shame in receiving my husband's embrace. But with you, I feel no shame at all, but such naturalness, such joy, and such pride! The very memory of my earlier experiences fills me with shame and horror. That is why I wish I had come a virgin to you!"

"I wish you had," he said solemnly, "though somehow, every time I come to you, you make me feel strangely virginal, as if I had never known a woman before. Each experience is a new experience, and every delight is a new delight!"

"I feel much the same way," she said fervently. "Each time you love me, it seems as if I'd never been loved before. Or rather," she laughed, "it is as if each time another man loved me. You are, you must know, so many men to me. Variety, they say, is the spice of life. That's why I shall never leave you. And don't you try to leave me. I shall pursue you to the ends of the earth!"

He laughed. "Have no fear of that! I find myself in the same boat. In loving you, I feel as though I were being a terrible polygamist! For you are several kinds of woman to me."

… What a man he was at loving! When he loved her, her whole being seemed attuned to his pulsating tenderness.

The natural result of all this loving is discovered five months and three weeks into their trial marriage, when Elaine breaks the news that she's pregnant. Henry is delighted – an heir for Ravenford, the estate he hasn't thought of more than once for about ten years! – and tries to marry her there and then, but she "laughingly" insists on waiting out the full six months. So they marry and return to Ravenford, which has become somewhat depleted in the past few years by debts and selling off a few parcels of land. Henry is convinced that they'll turn it around thanks to his social philosophy, which boils down to never being deliberately unkind to anyone, but after she gives birth to a son (named Richard) Elaine, like Olga before her, starts becoming depressed. "They loved each other as much as before, yet loving was not enough. Why not? The question vexed Henry to madness …. And oh, what irony of ironies that the rapturous trial marriage should have led them both to a wretched legal marriage … He had cursed God, and he was now the accursed of God." It never crosses either Henry's or Elaine's mind that six months of responsibility-free travel is naturally going to be somewhat easier to cope with than living out in the middle of nowhere while trying to shore up a tottering estate. Their marriage recuperates, however, when Elaine insists that Ravenford itself is cursed (by Olga's death, it's implied) and they go traveling again. Eventually she dies of cancer, just in time for the story to shift its focus to their son, Richard.

Two notes before we move on to him. First, James and Marjorie Wilson also have a son (Jimmy) born on the same day as Richard, and as they'll be seeing each other again later on I wanted to mention it here. Second, Henry's tenure at Ravenford isn't all despair, since he has an encounter with Peter Smallpiece and learns that his intervention for Smallpiece at school had a profound effect on the latter. Smallpiece calls him "Perfect! Simply perfect! Why sir, my whole life emanates from that one perfect action! It changed my life. 'Twas in its way a miracle … Perhaps the only kind of miracle still possible nowadays." Smallpiece has now become a solicitor who specializes in helping the downtrodden, and has also been saddled with such a gratuitously nasty backstory that I can't help but wonder if Cournos was taking a smack at a certain other fictional character named Peter. In short, Smallpiece fell in love and was married, but he and his wife were unable to have children. Smallpiece generously advised her to go find "some hefty fellow" who could get her pregnant, since a baby would make her happy, but after trying it once she became unaccountably angry at him. Eventually he brought home an abandoned toddler boy for them to adopt, but his wife said she'd prefer a girl and after a while went out and brought a girl home as well; not long after, the boy died in a mysterious house fire, implied to have been set by the wife. We never see Smallpiece again after this, and while we're told over and over of how he benefited from Henry's youthful intervention in his life, it's hard to see that it's really done him much good.

Richard Thorley, son of Henry and Elaine, is led by his one-quarter "Rooshian blood!" (as the servants call it) to move to Russia in 1904 and spend the next nine years brooding about how cruel the world is and being come on to by legions of women. Returning to England just in time for the war, he joins up when compelled to do so, but makes sure always to aim his gun too high when shooting from a trench, so that he never knowingly kills anyone except once, by total accident, when he orders a subordinate to take up a certain position and the subordinate is killed by a shell. Richard broods about it. After the Armistice, he busies himself with brooding, saving random derelict soldiers being hassled by street crowds, and being solicited by both a showgirl and a widowed prostitute – "A strange, unquenchable desire was driving her to yield, submit … she wanted him, he vaguely perceived, as an ancient vestal virgin might, in a moment of adoration, crave to surrender to her patron saint. There was apparent worship in her submission." Both women are completely insulted at the idea that he would offer them money, but he gives some to the widow over her protests when he wakes the baby up during their session and he has an orgasm and thinks profound thoughts about the confluence of life and death while she's rocking the baby's cradle with her free hand. I am not exaggerating in the slightest here, I should mention.

"The gods who rule in this world over the individual fates soon discover whose legs they can pull, and they must derive much enjoyment from the entertainment," we're told ominously as the year 1922 arrives, along with a new character whom Sayers fans will recognize: Stella Thurston, Girton girl, social worker, and soon to be torment for Richard since she obstinately refuses to recognize that his "passion for doing the right thing" might make him act in ways that seem bizarre to ordinary people. Stella is "fair and good-looking in an Italian madonna sort of way, but sturdy, athletic, and heavy-ankled … He remembered that she had both attracted and repelled him." (For some reason, Stella's ankles are a particular preoccupation of his).

Barbara Reynolds gives a good summary of this section of the book in her biography of Sayers, but since not everyone will have read that, I'll give mine as well. Richard is much taken with Stella, despite her ankles, and they flirt over the course of several teas and private dinners.

She pressed the advantage of her being a Girton girl. "Don't you know, Mr. Thorley, that to want to be simple is the surest indication of sophistication and decadence!"

"Quite. I understand. A barbarian wants to be civilized. And a civilized man wants to be a barbarian. You see," he laughed, "I've no real objection to being called a civilized man who's trying to become a barbarian … Perhaps," he added, with a twinkle in his eyes, "most men haven't arrived at a sufficient degree of civilization to want to be barbarians!"

"You are clever, Mr. Thorley, to turn it on me like that!"

"I don't mean to be rude!"

"In my generation," she countered, "girls prefer men who are rude to them."

Despite his scorn for Stella's love of motorcycles and movies (he thinks they're all vulgar trash – except for Charlie Chaplin, for some reason) they keep meeting and crossing swords – Stella expressing shock when he says the stigma should be removed from giving birth out of wedlock, and calling him "a Bolshevik" which he rejects on the grounds that he's not in favour of any kind of violence and will not worship "Jehovah Marx." Despite calling him a Bolshevik, she doesn't mind kissing him and playing with his hair, but despite her own inclination to continue, is holding back merely because she wants to stay respectable – she wants to be married first. Richard scorns this line of reasoning.

He was troubled by this. He was not going to take unfair advantage of a girl afraid. If she were only not afraid … He loved recklessness in a woman, the Mary Magdalen lavish touch … the giving freely and abundantly, with no calculations of what might happen tomorrow or the day after …. To such a one he would, of his own accord, – for the sake of worldly appearances – present the absurd scrap of paper … the woman he would marry must not be afraid. From Stella he wanted the generous gesture. In the long run, it was fairer to the girl too. Thus he argued. It was the fundamental basis of his own justice.

As the months go by they proceed, in a series of painful and infuriating scenes, to get closer and closer, but "he waited for the generous gesture, for a token of abandonment on her part … Love was giving out of abundance; if she did not give freely of herself, she did not love him." The fact that this "giving out of abundance" required a considerable risk on her part, but absolutely none of his, is something that doesn't seem to bother him much, even after she points it out. When finally tells her that he's not the marrying sort, but she might be his mistress and "if we pull along right for a space we can discuss marriage," he's already decided that she's not the woman for him. Any woman who can be so sordid as to think about pregnancy, or social disgrace, obviously isn't deep or giving enough for him. When she finally offers to sleep with him right there, no strings attached, he decides he's done. "I want nothing! No sacrifices! I'd only do you harm." And he leaves, with her calling for him to come back.

Unlike the other women in the story, who sink into poetic depressions, Stella is infuriated and decides that she's going to seek out the company of Jimmy Wilson, son of Marjorie and James, who's married but still looking and against whom Richard warned her earlier. Showing his essential villainy by willingly taking her to the movies, she and Jimmy sleep together and Stella becomes pregnant. Seeking out help from a friend from her secretarial job, she names the baby after Richard, places him in a home and manages to hide his existence from everyone except Jimmy himself, who ponies up one pound a week for the baby's maintenance, and none too graciously at that. Richard, however, is having a much better time (surely to the relief of the reader, for who wouldn't want such a principled young man to receive his reward?) He's been invited to stay with a notorious Communist writer named Max Hendy, with whom he's corresponded in the past, and every evening they dine together and make long speeches. Richard tells Max of his guilt over his non-affair with Stella, and Max explains why he feels this way. "From what I know of women, you have committed the unforgivable sin! … A woman will far more easily forgive rape than inaction in a lover. For she can understand rape, but never resistance to her submission, be the cause ever so noble!" Richard "felt [this] to be the truth" and has poetic agonies for a while about how cruel he's been to Stella, but fortunately his ideal woman at last comes into view, in the form of mine host's wife, Ruth Hendy. "He thought he had divined the Mother, Sister, Bride, the Eternal Feminine of Goethe in her eyes." It transpires that Ruth and Max have a mariage blanc and when Max sees that Ruth returns Richard's affections, he generously urges her to take advantage of this and not to mind his own feelings. Ruth refuses, but after Richard's visit is concluded, she turns up on his doorstep not long after, explaining that Max "sent" her (the exact word) since he could see how they felt about each other. Shortly afterwards, Max dies (Ruth having rushed to his side on learning he was ill) and with his dying breath tells her that she and Richard should marry, and they do.

Their idyll is broken up temporarily when Richard receives the news that Stella has had a baby, and overcome yet once more with guilt he rushes around to see her and explain how very, very sorry he is and ask her why on earth she named the baby after him. Quoting extensively and unforgivably from Sayers' letters, Cournos has Stella rebuking Richard when he tries to explain how his treatment of her was all in service of his ideals – "You cheat! You cheat" she screams on discovering that he's married after all, despite his scorn for that "bit of paper" which he had expressed earlier. Ruth generously tells Richard that if his sleeping with Stella at last would make her feel better, Ruth isn't going to stand in his way, but he decides against it after seeing that in her volatile state, there's no guarantee that this wouldn't make Stella feel worse, and he leaves her again.

In the epilogue, we're treated to a happy ending as neatly tied up – and even more wildly unlikely – than the one in the Harry Potter series. Stella has married her boss and he's adopted her child, and Richard and Ruth have had their own son. The two couples get along so well now that they play mixed doubles on the weekends – Richard and Stella paired together, and almost always thrashing the other two. "Where's the justice of it?" Richard wonders of life in general, and he can't answer the question.

This is Cournos's revenge for Philip Boyes, and if I've been too detailed in my summary, it's only because I know how unlikely it is that most people will ever read this book. (The reprint on Amazon appears to consist only of the first volume, which doesn't contain Stella Thurston at all). It makes a dismal and enraging read, especially when you remember that this book was written when Sayers' real son was eight years old and his relationship to her was very much not for public knowledge – and in fact, never was while she was alive. He shredded her physical appearance and quoted extensively from her real letters to him, and all the while he must have known that she could never dare to call him on it publicly; after all, if she had identified herself as the original of Stella Thurston, there would have been the possibility that the existence of her child would have been exposed. For all that, though, Stella is by far the most interesting woman in the book. The rest – Elaine, Ruth, and the various others who throw themselves at the feet of the Thorley men – are monotonously similar. They live to give, and submit to, the men in their lives. Elaine thinks rapturously at one point that all she wants is to "Submit! Submit! Submit!" to Henry, and Ruth is "sent" by one man to be the lover of another because the first man has somehow divined that she would like it. Olga is a minor exception, but she dies so early that she barely counts. Besides Stella, the only really recalcitrant woman in the book is the unnamed wife of Peter Smallpiece, who is perversely insulted when he suggests she take a lover and shows her lack of femininity later on by burning his adopted son to death. Over six hundred pages of dreadful prose, the moral is bleakly clear: good women are women who do exactly what men want them to, and expect nothing in return. By this only are they proved worthy.
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