Sneaking in on the penultimate day of The 1924 Club, I have finished Mark Only by T.F. Powys – a rural novel from (of course) 1924, which I bought only recently and didn’t even realise was from 1924 until I got home. (Fab endpapers and previous owner’s bookplate to your left). Sorry The Crowded Street, sorry The Unlit Lamp, I definitely meant to read you – but that will have to wait for another time. (Do keep sending in your 1924 Club reads, of course!)
I don’t know whether it’s the Reader’s Block I’m feeling or something inherent in Mark Only, but I struggled a bit with this book. Every time I picked it up, I enjoyed reading it – his prose has a rhythmic simplicity that is enjoyable – but I would realise, after turning a dozen pages, that I had no idea what was going on. Even as I finished it, I feel like I might only have gathered the broad outline of the plot – but also a strong feel for what the novel is like, which is more important, I guess.
So why is it called Mark Only? Well, prepare yourself for a rib-tickling oh-no-he-didn’t opening scene: Mark’s baptism. It is all going a bit wrong because Hayball, the vicar, has spotted a dead centipede in the font.
My. Hayball knew that the cupful of water that Potten had brought would soon follow the other and be all run away, and there would only be the dead centipede left. He did not want to touch that. “It wouldn’t do,” he thought, “to baptize even the last child to be born in the earth with the decomposed body of a dead centipede.”
“What name?” he asked crossly.
“Mark,” replied Mr. Andrews, and then added a little louder, “Mark only.”
Mr. Hayball looked into the font. By putting his fingers to the bottom discreetly and warily, he might by good luck avoid the centipede.
“Mark Only, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
Lol, right? If you’re thinking ‘that’s a bit of a weak joke to hang a novel on’, then you’re not wrong. Apparently this slip of the tongue marks (ahaha geddit) Mark out for a life of misery. Because sure.
He’s not the sharpest tool in the box – but he’s a simple, well-meaning farm hand, more given to laughter than malice. Sad for him, he’s one of the few of this nature in Dodderdown. But before I go on, here’s another example of Powys’ prose:
Still looking over the gate, Mark saw Dodderdown with eyes that looked backwards. He had been down there when a child and had played with the kittens in the straw; he had run into the pond after the soft fluffy ducklings. His father had set him upon the great horse, with his little boots far from the ground as though they were lost to it. The other children used to throw mud at him because he had been baptized with “Only” for a name. That was a Dodderodwn not unkindly in all its aspects. There were pleasures in it, sugar pleasures, cake pleasures, and the sunshine that makes a child shout with joy when he sees a minnow a brook.
Not all bad, you see? For now…
I did a bit of googling, and came across an intriguing article that compares Powys to Tolstoy. Well, I’ve read two novels by Powys and none by Tolstoy, so am not best positioned to judge, but the article includes this extract from a contemporary review of Powys’ Mockery Gap, published in 1925, accusing Powys of
producing book after book (this last is the fifth in two years) depicting all rustics as dolts and rascals, bestially lustful and cruel, and all sophisticated characters as nervous wrecks and ineffectual sentimentalists.
Well, it’s not far out. Charles Tulk – a lame man who wanders the streets and earns his keep chiefly by stealing – is a bit of a Iago, maliciously trying to spoil the lives of those around him. Mark Only is singled out for poor treatment from him and from Mark’s own brother, James. Through some plot that I never quite disentangled, Mark Only is either led to believe that his wife has slept with James, or his wife has actually slept with James, or Mark is tricked into sleeping with someone else. Or possibly all of the above.
Part of the confusion comes from the fact that all the dialogue is dialect. We’re not in Mary Webb territory – thank goodness – because the prose doesn’t use dialect and is never overwritten, but every character thees and thous and thilks and thiks. There are SO many examples of bain’t. So many. I’m flicking the book open at random, looking for any dialogue, and…
“I be coming,” she said, “I be coming, thee best bide for I, Peter. ‘Twas ‘ee then, Peter, that did take granfer’s waistcoat to wear ‘en. Don’t ‘ee now be a-going off to fair without I, and mind out I bain’t going to be late home, for they lanes be dark at night-time, an’ ’tis a pressing boy that ‘ee be.”
(I stopped typing before she got to the topic of cows, but it came soon.)
So, there are some pretty unpleasant people around. It gets a bit rapey at times, which is of course rather horrific. There is some comic relief in the form of two men who are scared of their wives, and spend their time commiserating with each other for marrying. Yep, that’s the comic relief. But for the most part, miserable things happen and Powys has a very gloomy view of rural life. It’s nice not to get unrealistically cheery village folk, but going the other way isn’t any more realistic: I wish he’d tempered his perspective a little more.
Having said that, I still enjoyed reading the prose, as Powys writes very well, and I’ll certainly get around to the other novels by him that I have on the shelf at some point. And, since rural novels were so popular in the 1910s and 1920s, I’m glad to have been able to add something representative of that vogue to The 1924 Club.