The Lair of the White Worm
London: Collins Classics, 2015
VIII + 208 pp.
This is quite a difficult book for me to review – there is so much obvious racism and sexism that it seems extraordinary that it was published in the twentieth century. This is not just the prejudice of the age as it might be argued was the case for H.P. Lovecraft or T.S. Eliot, this is a spray of n-words used about a poor African chap who is associated with all kinds of stereotypical beliefs and attributes. The women, on the other hand, are either virtuous and demure (like Mimi, the young Burmese woman who seems to have been brought up in Siam) or else full of feminine wiles and probably somewhat Satanic with it, like Lady Arabella March, who does not have the decency to stay married and live in her castle like Lady Bountiful:
“… but being feminine, she will probably over-reach herself. Now, Adam, it strikes me that, as we have to protect ourselves and others against feminine nature, our strong game will be to play our masculine against her feminine. Perhaps we had better sleep on it. She is a thing of the night; and the night may give us some ideas (p.125).”
Other novels also published in 1910 include Clayhanger, Psmith in the City, Howards End and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.
Well, the book continues to be published and to have, apparently, a favourable reception so what is the positive aspect? It is a work of gothic horror, set in Derbyshire. My experience of Derbyshire, limited though it is, is that the elevation is quite high, it was cold and rather windswept. It is quite possible to imagine, therefore, stone castles pointing like stiff little fingers into the sky and rooted in the rocky hills beneath. Small and remote cottages would dot the estate but be distant from each other and their denizens forced to become reliant on the castle owners. This is, indeed, the case here for the small list of characters have no opportunities to meet or interact with anyone else and there are no telephones or even telegrams to use to apply for help.
Into this somewhat bleak landscape (my advice is, given the choice, be born into the castle-owning class) comes Adam Salton, newly returned from Australia where, it is suggested, he has done great physical things on the ranch and in the outback (where, famously of course, there are no women to distract a man bent on physical dominance of the landscape). He has been summoned by his great-uncle, of whom he had previously been unaware, so as to be offered the position of son and only heir of Castra Regis, the Derbyshire estate. The only problem with this plan – the great-uncle immediately accepts Adam as his long-lost boy and no more need to be said about the arrangement – is the presence of the aforementioned Lady Arabella and her sinister associate, Edgar Caswall, who is perhaps a mesmerist or some kind of a magician able to have his wicked way with other people purely by the force of his personality. These two are utterly inimical to Adam and his household for no particular reason. The Lady – the front cover shows quite clearly her ophidian nature – is something of a prodigy. She is malignant and repugnant in a sort of quasi-modern way. Described as being very thin and customarily wearing a sheer white dress, she is the antithesis to the maternal or womanly ideal and is compared directly with the two orphans of empire, Lila and Mimi. Their skin colour is not mentioned and, indeed, they are described very little – perhaps imagination is all that is required in this case or perhaps coming to Britain has emphasized their imperial heritage. Clearly, there can be no peaceable settlement.
Despite its shortcomings, this is still an interesting book and it moves along rapidly. It is not surprising that versions have appeared on the screen, for the story is as much visual as verbal in nature. Which is to say, I suppose, that the language and particularly the dialogue used is not very interesting. I cannot, under the circumstances, really recommend the book but I am quite glad to have had the chance to read it.