Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Warden in Lunacy

Almost a year ago (how time flies!), I read The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams. It is a book about the glorious movement of the Fool on the edge of the abyss. About Tarot cards, domination and surrender. About rising to adore the mystery of Love.

It is also specifically about people. And these people are like Tarot cards: once you get to know them, you do not easily forget them. There is Nancy, the girl who has fallen in love. There is her brother (or not, because he’s mostly absent). And their aunt Sybil, who is holy, but in such a way that you don’t really notice it unless you know the signs. And their father. He is the one to whom the title of this post refers, and the one with whom the book starts – as follows:

“…perfect Babel,” Mr. Coningsby said peevishly, threw himself into a chair, and took up the evening paper.

He then proceeds to ignore his smart-alecky daughter (whispering that Babel never was perfect); to disturb his sister, Aunt Sybil, because she looks comfortable and interested in her book; and to complain about the government raising taxes. He forbids Nancy from telling her brother to ‘Go to hell’, at least within his house. He also forbids her from answering back to Aunt Sybil, who at least is ‘a lady’ – at which Nancy throws back, in a spirit of hyperbole, that she’s a saint.

Lothair Coningsby does not like to be disturbed. Mania, whether heavenly or chaotic, is not allowed a place in his house. How appropriate, therefore, that he is ‘a legal officer of standing, a Warden in Lunacy’ (with the privilege of going in to dinner before the elder sons of younger sons of peers). He has an interest in trivial arguments. His hand’s line of life stops at forty, but (as Nancy remarks) ‘here he is still alive’. He also happens to be the legatee of the original pack of Tarot cards, which draws his family into a mystery tale that he never becomes conscious of.

Mr. Coningsby is a creature of habit. He happens to have the laudable religious habit of going to church on Christmas Day. Fortunately, when the family spends Christmas elsewhere, his host provides a car and chauffeur to enable him to go:

Mr. Coningsby held strongly that going to church, if and when he did go, ought to be as much a part of normal life as possible, and ought not to demand any peculiar demonstration of energy on the part of the churchgoer.
Sybil, he understood, had the same view; she agreed that religion and love should be a part of normal life.

One should read The Greater Trumps if only to sharpen one’s dialectical sense. The church scene, by the way, is unforgettable; a marvellous example of that ecstastic ‘actual.participation’ which a recent Council has encouraged. Put more simply, reading this book might make your heart larger.

And if it does, perhaps you will even come to appreciate the Warden in Lunacy. For the author views him several times through Aunt Sybil’s eyes, and then affirms that he is ‘as generous as he knew how to be’ – which would be damning with faint praise if it were damning. But his generosity is real. And at church Nancy sees him in a different Light:

He seemed no more the absurd, slightly despicable, affected and pompous and irritating elderly man whom she had known; all that was unimportant. He walked alone, a genie from some other world, demanding of her something which she had not troubled to give. If she would not find out what that was, it was no good blaming him for the failure of their proper relation. She, she only, was to blame; the sin lay in her heart whenever that heart set itself against any other.

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