This week’s bit of weird fiction is odder than usual.
Review: “The Curate’s Friend”, E. M. Forster, 1911.
This story is unusual in two ways. Its narrator is self-deprecating. The concluding tone is not of menace but joy.
Our narrator is, in fact, the curate. His friend is a faun. Fauns are not, we’re told right in the first paragraph, “particularly classical”. Any country with “beech clumps and sloping grass and very clear streams” can have them.
But, the curate tells us, you have to be sharped eyed to see one, and he doesn’t have a clue how he came to make friends with one. He is something of a fool, “facetious without humour and serious without conviction”. His sermons are pompous. He professes, as an unmarried man, to give advice to women on their duties as wives and widows. His “straight talks to my lads” – presumably a sort of sex ed – “led straight past anything awkward”.
However, there is Emily, his fiancé. She listens carefully to his sermons. She laughs at his jokes. She is an excellent wife, corrective of her husband’s faults yet defender of his reputation, and a good mother to her children. But Emily doesn’t become the narrator’s wife, and the why of that is where the faun comes in.
On a picnic in Wiltshire with Emily, her mother, and “a little friend” — never given a name — who seems to be a youth interested romantically in Emily, the narrator first meets the faun.
Making some tea on the picnic, the narrator hears a “little cry”. But no one else does. And then he hears a voice say “Silent, indeed”, a response to Emily saying it was so quiet in the country.
But it doesn’t sound quiet to the narrator, “the loudest noise came from beside Emily herself”. It reminds the narrator of a crowded room of strangers expecting him.
The faun is described as looking like a horrifying man if you don’t notice the ears or tail.
Thinking he’s being bothered by one of his parishioners, the curate says “Go away, bad boy, go away!”
This increases the party atmosphere since there has been a lot of joking and playacting between Emily’s mother and the curate, and the former just thinks the narrator’s speech to the faun is part of this.
The faun grabs a hold of the curate’s hand which leads him to noticing the faun’s tale, shrieking, and running into the woods.
The curate begins to think a “great crisis in my life was approaching”. If he fails it, he’ll lose his self-esteem. The faun tells him to mellow out. Nobody else, not Emily, her mother, or the “little friend” has seen him. He also tells the curate he’ll see him until his dying day, and, until he dies, the faun will always be his friend.
The curate seems at first to think this encounter is satanic. He tells the faun, “Get thee behind me!” The curate is not going to be diverted from his life of bringing happiness to others.
The faun asks “What is to tempt?”
The curate sort of apologizes. He shouldn’t expect a “poor woodland creature” to know about self-denial. If only he could “reach” the faun, “touch” the faun. Suggesting the faun is part of a larger, sentient nature, the faun would understand. The voice of a hill responds that the curate has reached and touched the faun.
Then the curate, after hearing the faun’s promise to serve him for life, suggests he serve the curate by helping the curate serve others. They can start with Emily.
On returning to the picnic, the curate comically discovers that Emily and the “little friend” have found they are soulmates and embrace, their “great solitude” ended.
The curate shouts at the faun to stop touching Emily. But, since she can’t see the faun, she thinks he’s referring to the “little friend”.
Emily then tells him off. She doesn’t like his silly jokes. He was a buffoon at the picnic. “She must be treated seriously.”
Emily and her new love leave, but not before the curate calls her a “wretched girl” and tells the pair they are “helpless puppets” – presumably of the faun’s manipulations.
The picnic ended, the curate lays down on the hill, despondent.
‘Does he cry?’ said the Faun.
‘He does not cry,’ answered the hill. ‘His eyes are as dry as pebbles.’
My tormentor made me look at him. ‘I see happiness at the bottom of your heart,’ said he.
‘I trust I have my secret springs,’ I answered stiffly. And then I prepared a scathing denunciation, but of all the words I might have said, I only said one and it began with ‘D.’
He gave a joyful cry, ‘Oh, now you really belong to us. To the end of your life you will swear when you are cross and laugh when you are happy. Now laugh!’
Then everything changes. The curate stops trying to hide thoughts from himself. He laughs when “little friend” slips while hauling away the big picnic basket. He hears the chalk downs singing to each other.
In the final paragraph of the story, he tells us how he tries to communicate his new joy in sermons to his varied parishioners. He is well thought of, receives gifts. He would like to explain how this joy came to him, but he really can’t, and he might lose his job if he did. After all, he’s claiming happiness came from an encounter with a pagan faun.
The story concludes with:
Therefore in the place of the lyrical and rhetorical treatment, so suitable to the subject, so congenial to my profession, I have been forced to use the unworthy medium of a narrative, and to delude you by declaring that this is a short story, suitable for reading in the train.’
What is that truth he can’t communicate? Is it embracing simple pagan pleasures in life as symbolized by the faun? Is it to be more demonstrative of emotion”?
There is also an interesting metaphor Forster uses, a “great chalk spider” that straddles England.
For here is the body of the great chalk spider who straddles over our island—whose legs are the south downs and the north downs and the Chilterns, and the tips of whose toes poke out at Cromer and Dover. He is a clean creature, who grows as few trees as he can, and those few in tidy clumps, and he loves to be tickled by quickly flowing streams. He is pimpled all over with earth-works, for from the beginning of time men have fought for the privilege of standing on him, and the oldest of our temples is built upon his back.
But that seems to be a retrospective view of England colored by his meeting the faun. For the narrator also says,
But in those days I liked my country snug and pretty, full of gentlemen’s residences and shady bowers and people who touch their hats. The great sombre expanses on which one may walk for miles and hardly shift a landmark or meet a genteel person were still intolerable to me.
Forster seems to mean this metaphorically but is he also talking about ley lines? No. 1911 is too early for the modern concept of ley lines which seemed to have gotten started in 1921. Forster may have been inspired by the carvings in chalk hills in England, or he may just have came up with the entire image himself.