Mr. Fortune's Maggot (New York Review Classics) - Sylvia Townsend Warner I’m happy to say that my third encounter with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s prose has been as happy as those with Kingdoms of Elfin and Lolly Willowes - see reviews: and, respectively. Once again I was often swept away by the rhythms of the prose and found myself rereading passages – not because I couldn’t understand what was happening but because I wanted to figure out how she did it. How Warner was able to build such complex sentences (both grammatically and in content) that flow so smoothly into my conscious that I hardly felt it. I wish I could write so unself-consciously (I know – it’s likely Warner spent many long hours crafting the prose but the effect appears effortless).

The story of Mr. Fortune’s Maggot is similar to Lolly Willowes in that the protagonist is someone who’s operated in society, conforming to its expectations, but has never been comfortable in that role. In Timothy Fortune’s case, that discomfort is more unconscious than in Lolly’s but it’s there. When he volunteers to go to the island of Fanua as a missionary and meets the people there, he finds his entire world turned upside down. Where Lolly Willowes' rebellion is played as a comedy, the results of Fortune’s is definitely played as tragedy.

Timothy Fortune begins life as a bank clerk in England. When his godmother dies and leaves him a modest inheritance, he uses the money to enter the seminary and become a missionary in the South Pacific. After several years working with the main mission in the Raritongan Archipelago, he seizes the opportunity to evangelize the remote island of Fanua, where he’ll be the only Westerner. His initial conception of the islanders is embodied in Raritonga’s Archdeacon’s description of them: “No, no! But they are like children, always singing and dancing, and of course immoral. But all the natives are like that. I believe I have told you that the Raritongan language has no word for chastity or for gratitude?” Arriving on the island, he attempts to interest the Fanuans in Christianity, and though they accept him good-naturedly, they otherwise ignore him. In three years on Fanua, Fortune makes a single convert, or so he believes – Lueli, a young man who attaches himself to Fortune and appears to absorb all of his teachings on Christian faith. And that conversion is unprompted by anything Fortune does. The boy appears while Fortune is celebrating a solitary Mass:

“He had waited, but after all not for long. The years in the bank, the years at St. Fabien, they did not seem long now, the time of waiting was gone by, drowsy and half-forgotten like a nightwatch. A cloud in the heavens had been given him as a sign to come to Fanua, but here was a sign much nearer and more wonderful: his first convert, miraculously led to come and kneel beside him a little after the rising of the sun. His, and not his. For while he had thought to bring souls to God, God had been beforehand with His gift, had come before him into the meadow, and gathering the first daisy had given it to him.

Thus begins an odd friendship that grows but is plagued with incomprehension on both sides.

Incomprehension that takes a tragic turn when Fortune discovers that Lueli has kept his personal god and continues to make offerings to it. (The Fanuans each have a totem that they worship – in a sense, they already worship “one god,” it happens to be a god unique to each islander. I don’t know if such a cult exists in the South Pacific or whether Warner invented it as part of the novel.) While Fortune confronts Lueli and demands that he destroy the idol, the island’s volcano erupts. In the ensuing earthquakes and conflagrations, Lueli’s god is physically destroyed but Fortune’s “superior” God is also lost. Searching for a way to assuage Lueli’s grief that respects him, the missionary realizes:

“Yes, that’s the sort of thing to say, but he felt a deep reluctance to saying it. It seemed ungentlemanly to have such a superior invulnerable God, part of that European conspiracy which opposes gun-boats to canoes and rifles to bows and arrows, which showers death from the mountains upon Indian villages, which rounds up the Negro in an empire and tricks him of his patrimony….

“Still he looked about him. But he was not looking for anything now nor did he need to raise his eyes to heaven or close them before any presence unseen. The God who had walked with him upon the island had gone. He had ascended in the flames that had burst roaring and devouring from the mountain-top, and hiding His departure in clouds of smoke, He had gone up and was lost in space.

"Mr. Fortune no longer believed in a God.”

The realization is not a happy one for Fortune but it does free him to recreate Lueli’s god and restore his desire to live (Lueli attempts suicide at one point), and it leads to the second profound realization in the novel – the nature of Fortune’s love for his “protégé”:

“I’d had a poor meager turnpike sort of life until I came here and found Lueli. I loved him, he was a refreshment to me, my only pleasant surprise. He was perfect because he was a surprise. I had done nothing to win him, he was entirely gratuitous. I had had no hand in him, I could no more have imagined him before-hand than I could have imagined a new kind of flower. So what did I do? I started interfering. I made him a Christian, or thought I did, I taught him to do this and not to do the other, I checked him, I fidgeted over him. And because I loved him so for what he was I could not spend a day without trying to alter him. How dreadful it is that because of our wills we can never love anything without messing it about! We couldn’t even love a tree, not a stone even; for sooner or later we should be pruning the tree or chipping a bit off the stone. Yet if it were not for a will I suppose we should cease to exist. Anyhow it is in us and while we live we cannot escape from it; so however we love and whatever we love it can only be for a few minutes, and to buy off our will for those few minutes we have to relinquish to it for the rest of our lives whatever it is we love. Lueli has been the price of Lueli. I enslaved him. I kept him on a string. I robbed him of his god twice over – first in intention, then in fact. I made his misery more miserable by my perpetual interference. Up until an hour ago I was actually tormenting him with that damned geometry. And now he is dead…Yes, parrot! You may well whistle. But be careful. Don’t attract my attention too much lest I should make a pet of you, and put you in a cage, and then in the end, when you had learnt to talk like me instead of whistling like a wise bird, wring your neck because you couldn’t learn to repeat Paradise Lost."

The novel ends with Fortune leaving Fanua in order to save the Lueli he loves (though there’s a bleak admission that Lueli and all his people are an “endangered species” with the continued advance of the modern world into their lives – Fortune’s sacrifice will come to naught eventually). And as the missionary returns to civilization, Warner expresses her own fears for the man: “My poor Timothy. Good-bye! I do not know what will become of you.”