In Volume XVI, December 1947, of his literary magazine Horizon, Cyril Connolly published the replies he had received to a questionnaire asking recipients to name the three best books of the year. ‘The replies are not to be taken as a vote of popularity,’ he said, ‘but as an indication of which books some of our best critics have derived real satisfaction from . . .’ He notes a tendency to choose those later in the year and so fresher in the memory, and also that the response to a book may be influenced by mood and circumstances: holiday books might fare better than ones read in a cold spell.
This last is an interesting observation, although it might be that a book enjoyed by the fire in wintry conditions is relished equally as well as one on a beach. To take an extreme example, Apsley Cherry-Garrard recorded in The Worst Journey in the World (1922) the glee with which the Antarctic expedition he was part of encountered a book “encased in ice” in a previous foray’s hut. It was ‘an incomplete copy of Stanley Weyman’s My Lady Rotha; it was carefully thawed out and read by everybody, and the excitement was increased by the fact that the end of the book was missing’. The book, subtitled, A Romance of the Thirty-Years War, is one of the author’s popular swashbucklers: he was compared to Stevenson and Dumas in his day.
Some of Connolly’s respondents declined to play by the rules. T S Eliot said, ‘I do not get round to reading books so quickly as that’ and instead nominated two, both non-fiction books on Christianity, from the previous year. George Orwell said, ‘Writing this in bed—very unwell. Have read a lot this year but nothing of any value except old books . . .’: and so he nominated classics by Conrad, Henry James and Trollope instead. Of fiction that was published in 1947, L P Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda was chosen by a few, while Hartley himself included in his choice Connolly’s own The Rock Pool and Elizabeth Jenkins’ Young Enthusiasts.
The book chosen most often, however, by four respondents (Lord Berners, Arthur Koestler, John Russell, and Edward Sackville-West), was Philip Toynbee’s Tea With Mrs Goodman. Koestler added a parenthetic comment: ‘(It breaks the ice, or rather the polished parquet floor, of the contemporary English novel).’ This title was published by Connolly himself at his Horizon imprint. It is an experimental novel, which includes on page 5 an explanatory ‘Notation of the Book’, with a tiresome diagram showing the plan of the book along a vertical axis (lettered a to g) and a horizontal axis (numbered 1 to 11). This, I think, has the unfortunate effect of suggesting a sort of game, like three-dimensional chess, and the note has the plaintive but still rather opaque quality often found in instruction booklets for board games or household devices, where the writer knows what they mean but can’t quite get it across.
In fact, all the preamble is trying to explain is that the novel presents the same scene, a tea table, from the perspective of seven different characters in turn. The first section is from the viewpoint of, and inside the thoughts of, a cautious, almost timorous professor; the second that of his bolder, decisive explorer brother; and other parts follow a rather fey young woman, a dingy low comedian, a greedy little boy and a religiose spinster. The seventh overlaps two figures, a dancer, the brother of the young woman, and a priest: they perhaps epitomise Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter.
The introductory apparatus is likely to daunt the reader, and that would be a pity because the prose itself, once you get past the diagram, is resonant and rich. We are offered a sequence of scenes which seem infused with rare significance, using timeless symbols and fresh, startling imagery. Read simply as an album of prose episodes the book is an exquisite creation, alternating lyrical charm with pungent grotesquerie. I suspect this was what attracted the aesthetes Berners and Sackville-West to it, rather than its avant-garde structure.
But there is another dimension to Toynbee’s work which also makes it worth perseverance from all its angles: it is an exploration of the Grail legends. That is made more explicit in its American title, Prothalamium: A Cycle of the Holy Graal (New York: Doubleday, 1947), and on the dustjacket flaps of the British edition, which tell us: ‘But behind the conventional scene of this extraordinary book lurks an older story, of a siege perilous, a land laid waste, a sick Fisher King and his jester, a dead knight in a chapel, another who fails in the quest, and a hero who at last refreshes the land, marries the King’s daughter and receives the long-sought Graal.’ Similarly, the US version explains: ‘This is a story of the Holy Graal set in a London drawing room at a tea party. Joy awaits at the end of the prothalamium but only for the one person who bends his will to human love.’
Without doubt, Toynbee must have been influenced in his choice of theme by Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (itself influenced by Jessie L Weston’s 1920 Grail study From Ritual to Romance), but I suspect two other books may have been known to him too: Charles Williams’ War In Heaven (1930), a metaphysical thriller in which the Grail is discovered in a quiet country church and pursued by a suave diabolic villain; and Armed With Madness (1928) by Mary Butts, a modernist novel involving a group of quarrelsome bohemians on the Dorset coast who fish out an agate cup from an old well. He also uses Arthur Machen’s preferred spelling of ‘Graal’ to ‘Grail’, and may have known the Welsh mystic’s writings on the holy vessel.
In Toynbee’s book, as the American dustjacket says, ‘the breaking of a tea cup brings out diabolical agencies and preternatural forces which affect the party as they see each other in the distorted vision of their own fears and needs and dance the opposite of everything they wished’. The cup is a surrogate for the Grail, and the demonic forces possess almost all the characters, and expose their brutish aspects: and this is mingled with images that hint at Merlin and Nimue, and explicitly reference Prospero and Caliban.
We are things of darkness and light, we are reminded, and must seek to balance these instincts and forces within us. I like the fact that the Grail is here inherent in a tea cup, not an ancient holy relic, because, as Mary Butts particularly knew, it must be understood as a presence, a spiritual force, rather than one particular sacred object. It can be contained in one small thing, certainly: or it can descend on a whole tract of country, as she thought it was descending on Sancreed, in Cornwall.
Philip Toynbee later wrote an equally poetic and provocative prose experiment, this time using the myth of Eden, in The Garden By the Sea (1953), and this redeploys three of the archetypal figures from Tea With Mrs Goodman, as aspects of Adam: the dancer Noel as ‘the Voice of his Innocence’; the explorer Tom as ‘the Voice of his Fall’; and the comedian Charley as ‘the Voice of his Punishment’. This was followed, amongst other things, with Pantaloon, or, The Valediction (1961), a novel in verse. There were several sequels to this. His work is always original and rich in symbol and both personal and universal myth, and beautifully crafted.
Inspired by the book’s rather cubist deployment of differing perspectives, I am picking up copies of it wherever they might occur and comparing their different fates and characteristics. The nature of the book would make it likely to be owned in the main by interesting or at least adventurous readers. What can we tell about them, and therefore the fate of the book, by what they have left behind of themselves in each copy? Here is a signature; there a bookplate; here a smudge of ash; there a pencilled note; here, in unconscious allusion to the title, a tea-cup mark; there, a slash in the cloth, witness of who knows what drastic act? The tea party never ends, the cup still falls.
Mark Valentine's essays on obscure authors and outré subjects may be found in Haunted By Books (2015), A Country Still All Mystery (2017) and A Wild Tumultory Library (2019), all from the independent North Yorkshire imprint Tartarus Press. He also writes poetry and ghost stories.