Mr Fortune’s Maggot was Sylvia Townsend Warner’s second published novel, and is according to the blurb on the back on my lovely old VMC green – her best loved novel.
A maggot as defined by Warner in the front of this book is a fancy or whimsy – Mr Fortune, or Rev Timothy Fortune to give him his correct title, an idealistic former bank clerk, is a missionary. Following a decade in the south-seas Mr Fortune’s particular fancy is to go to Fanua, a remote, volcanic island and convert the people there to Christianity. Mr Fortune has been warned that he faces an impossible task, the people of Fanua are certainly not savages or cannibals, they are in fact more like unruly children. Mr Fortune is a good and humble Christian, wishing only to share the joy of his faith with those poor souls he considers to be the heathen. When he first arrives on Fanua the people accept him immediately, he is made welcome, allowed to make an abandoned hut his home. Mr Fortune embraces his new home, delights in seeing it gently lit up after dark, lovingly arranging his small store of possessions inside it; they include a harmonium, a sewing machine and a silver teapot.
“Except for the lamp, the sewing machine, and the harmonium, Mr. Fortune’s house had not an European appearance, for while on the island he wished to live as its natives did. His bowls and platters and drinking vessels were made of polished wood, his bed (Ori’s gift) was a small wooden platform with many white mats. When everything was completed he gave each of the islanders a ginger-bread nut and made a little formal speech, first thanking them for their gifts and their assistance, and going on to explain his reasons for coming to Fanua. He had heard, he said with pleasure how happy a people they were, and he had come to dwell with them and teach them how they might be as happy in another life as they were in this.”
After three years on Fanua Mr Fortune has made only one covert – or so he believes for a time. His precious convert is a young boy Lueli, who loves Mr Fortune purely, with an honest childlike devotion. Mr Fortune quickly comes to love Lueli, opens his home to him, and tries to teach him so much of his faith, and later, rather comically, mathematics, for which of course Mr Fortune has a particular aptitude.
The people of Fanua don’t follow a recognised religion; each person has their own personal god, a carved figure of which they keep for life, paying homage to it, decorating it with flowers. This is not a practise of which Mr Fortune approves, but so far he has failed to free the Fanua people of their idols. Mr Fortune has however, learned to appreciate the life that he has found on Fanua – he begins to feel that he shall live the rest of his life on this tiny Polynesian island. He worries rather about the nubile, young women who try to attract his attention – ‘the bevies’ as he terms them, their irrepressible joy and lack of clothing slightly shock the gentle hearted Mr Fortune. When the long dormant volcano erupts, Mr Fortune’s home is destroyed – and poor Lueli who had been hiding his god from Mr Fortune is devastated when his idol is destroyed. That volcanic eruption is possibly an obvious, but nonetheless powerful metaphor for the upheaval, Mr Fortune has brought to the life of his adored young Lueli. On this very same night, a night of momentous change, Mr Fortune loses his own god – and with that loss of faith his vision begins to clear.
“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.”
Sylvia Townsend Warner writes superbly, her descriptions of an idyllic island really quite lovely, but for me it is her knowledge of how as human beings, we so often end up destroying what we think we love, when we seek to change it, that is so moving. This is a difficult lesson for Mr Fortune, but it is one he learns, and his final act is one of great love and understanding, and one that leaves the reader with a lump in their throat. This is a beautiful little novel about faith, and friendship, it is written with great affection, wit and imagination.