Monday, September 24, 2012

The Dancing Floor by John Buchan

On this side of a law degree, now that I have the mental energy to read some good books again, I've found myself revisiting a number of the books I swallowed whole as a teenager with so little discernment or real enjoyment. Mansfield Park and Emma were two of these, and Buchan's The Dancing Floor is the latest. I devoured it in a matter of hours one afternoon right at the beginning of my acquaintance with Buchan--about ten years ago--and never re-read it. For all that, it made a deep impression on me: like other books, like The Chronicles of Narnia and Jane Eyre, I'd say it was one of the essential books of my education (if you define education, with Charlotte Mason, as "the training of the affections", learning to love what is true, good, and beautiful).

This re-read was long overdue, and just as with the Austen books I've been re-reading lately, The Dancing Floor seemed almost a different book, with so much more to enjoy and digest in it than I remember.

The story, narrated by Sir Edward Leithen, a respected barrister, follows his friendships with two very different people and the peculiar, terrifying scenes they end up dragging him into. Vernon Milburne is still in his teens when Leithen meets him and is immediately struck by his unusual quality. Vernon, a wealthy orphan, comes from extremely prosaic English stock; he has embraced his parents' evangelical Calvinist religion and lives a life of strict physical and mental discipline.
For all his urbanity he had a plain, almost rugged, sagacity in ordinary affairs, a tough core like steel harness under a silk coat. That, I suppose, was the Calvinism in his blood.
His air of detachment, purpose and maturity stands in stark contrast to the other young men Leithen knows, but he seems to shroud himself with a suave politeness that mystifies everyone.
On inquiry I found that none of his friends forecast any special career for him; it would have seemed to them almost disrespectful to condescend upon such details. It was not what Vernon would do that fired their sluggish imaginations, but what they dimly conceived that he already was.
The secret of Vernon Milburne's strange character is one which he's closely guarded since early childhood. But he finds in Leithen someone he can confide in. Every year on the same night, Vernon Milburne dreams that he is waiting in a long suite of rooms for something, still far off, to come through the door. And every year he finds that the mysterious thing is one room closer; by now, he knows it is only a few years before he'll stand face to face with some terrible experience that will test him to the utmost and launch him upon the calling of his life.

The two friends both fight in the Great War, and emerge to find a world that has gone mad.
You remember that curious summer of 1919 when everybody was feverishly trying to forget the war. They were crazy days, when nobody was quite himself. Politicians talked and writers wrote clotted nonsense, statesmen chased their tails, the working man wanted to double his wages and halve his working hours at a time when the world was bankrupt, youth tried to make up for the four years of natural pleasure of which it had been cheated, and there was a general loosening of screws and a rise in temperature.
The whole thing revolts Vernon's conventional soul (he is "like an Israelitish prophet at a feast of Baal") but nothing revolts him as much as the rude, frivolous flapper he and Leithen meet at the house of a friend. Miss Kore Arabin--under-dressed, over-painted, and barbarically ignorant of the graces of civilised society--antagonises both the friends. But then, surprisingly, she turns to Leithen for help. As he discovers more about her past, he begins to see Kore in a new and kinder light.

On the tiny island in the Aegean where her family ruled for three generations of cruelty and wickedness, Kore is now feared and hated as a witch. The villagers, ripe for any mischief, have turned away from Christianity to the half-remembered paganism of their forefathers: not the erudite Platonism of classical Greece but its original religion of blood in the moonlight. Kore's friends try to persuade her, but to no avail. Why is she bent on returning to Plakos? And what fate awaits her there at the hands of an angry people?

The Dancing Floor is a really wonderful book, rich in themes and imagery. The characters are among the most subtle and well-drawn in Buchan's bibliography: both Vernon and Kore are very unique and interesting to read about. I particularly liked Vernon, whose blend of devout, prosaic Calvinism with maturity, urbanity, and a visionary sense of divine calling is akin to something I've seen (surprisingly enough) in some fellow homeschoolers.

Another thing that interested me very much was the depiction of World War I. Modernists of the war-is-hell school popular these days tend to depict World War I as a cataclysmic event which deeply traumatised everyone who had anything to do with it. The people who actually went through it, however--people like Tolkien and Lewis, for example--had a somewhat more nuanced approach. Buchan, who was never in good enough health to enlist but who spent time in the trenches as a correspondent, who lost a brother in the War and whose friends had all seen it closely, acknowledges the horrors in The Dancing Floor: Leithen comments:
I had had this feeling once or twice in the war--that I was faced with something so insane that insanity was the only course for me.
But, for Leithen at any rate, insanity was not the overriding impression the War left on him:
There has been a good deal of nonsense talked about the horror of war memories and the passionate desire to bury them. The vocal people were apt to be damaged sensitives, who were scarcely typical of the average man. There were horrors enough, God knows, but in most people's recollections these were overlaid by the fierce interest and excitement, even by the comedy of it. At any rate that was the case with most of my friends, and it was certainly the case with me.
This aside, there are two major themes that tie The Dancing Floor together--and yet they are closely related, almost the same theme. The first is the theme of the War and its aftermath. This was something Buchan spent a lot of time discussing in his novels. A student of human nature and history, he was fascinated by the way the War had transformed English society; this was a theme he explored most memorably in The Three Hostages, The House of the Four Winds, and his autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door. Buchan believed the War had stripped the world of its humanist pretensions, of the societal mores and delicate philosophies that had allowed the upper and middle classes to hide their sins under a veneer of urbanity. With this stripped away, a raw, disillusioned, barbaric youthfulness was left which, he believed, had an immense power for good if directed into the right channels. Kore herself represents the postwar world. Her evil father probably represents everything that was worst about the prewar world: an aristocrat with a refined and sophisticated genius for perversion, whose very refinement and sophistication gave him shreds of respectability and prevented his worst crimes from coming to light. "He had a huge success in the half-world," one society guru tells Leithen. The Victorian demi-monde was the vast, sprawling, seamy underbelly of a society that looked so sweet and wholesome on the surface. For Buchan, who's been called "the last Victorian", the War's great success was the stripping away of the sweet and wholesome surface that made it impossible to go on ignoring the demi-monde.

Kore--possibly the novel's main protagonist--is thus poised between two kinds of evil: the civilised kind of her father, and the barbarous kind of the postwar world. Her reaction against civilised evil causes her to look barbarous in English society. In her own home, however, against a different backdrop, she looks different. In Plakos, the inhabitants have embraced a real barbarism complete with old gods and human sacrifice. They have had a cold winter and a long period of oppression under the Arabin family, and now they have gone mad in just the same way that English postwar society has gone mad. The book is titled "The Dancing-Floor," and although that is the name of the field on which the pagan rites of Spring are celebrated, both Vernon and Kore are introduced to the book on dancing-floors: Vernon standing aloof even from the civilised dancing-floor of prewar England, but Kore entirely a creature of the post-war dancing-floor.

Kore--like postwar youth--has her own good points. Leithen muses:
I remembered a phrase which Vernon had once used about "the mailed virgin." It fitted this girl, and I began to realize the meaning of virginity. True purity, I thought, whether in woman or man, was something far more than the narrow sex thing which was the common notion of it. It meant keeping oneself, as the Bible says, altogether unspotted from the world, free from all tyranny and stain, whether of flesh or spirit, defying the universe to touch even the outworks of the sanctuary which is one's soul. It must be defiant, not the inert fragile crystal, but the supple shining sword. Virginity meant nothing unless it was mailed, and I wondered whether we were not coming to a better understanding of it. The modern girl, with all her harshness, had the gallantry of a free woman. She was a crude Artemis, but her feet were on the hills. Was the blushing, sheltered maid of our grandmother's day no more than an untempted Aphrodite?
But she is also a prisoner, trapped betwen the sophisticated evil of her past and the barbarous insanity of the pagan present; too much a child of both to escape. It's Christendom that comes to her rescue.

This brings us to the second theme in the book: the interplay of Christendom and paganism. (I'm sure CS Lewis, a Buchan fan, must have loved this book). Buchan, a classical scholar, was at least on nodding terms with most of the writings of medieval Christendom and of classical Greece and Rome. In The Three Hostages a desperately obscure Latin tag from a desperately obscure Renaissance mystic provides an essential clue to the villain's plans. In The Dancing Floor, a Greek term found in the writings of Basil of Caesarea likewise provides important information; Vernon, meanwhile, is (like his author) something of an expert on Greek pagan rites.

But that is only window-dressing. The main meat of the book is a contrast of at least two and more likely three worldviews. There is the Christianity, firmly Calvinist and evangelical in tone, of Vernon Milburne. Nevertheless this is not a denominational Christianity: this is the holy catholic Church of the Apostles' Creed: Vernon is clearly familiar with Basil of Caesarea, for instance, and the priest of the village on Plakos is clearly of the Greek Orthodox persuasion. Vernon himself is described as "Sir Galahad crossed with the low-church parson and the 'Varsity don"! Despite the scepticism of Leithen, the book's narrator, Buchan was himself a Presbyterian. Likely he portrayed Vernon, the embodiment of Christendom in the book, as a Calvinist evangelical because he believed this was the strongest and purest form of Christianity.

Vernon's Christianity is a fascinating study in the book. It calls him to maturity and to a vocation for which he spends his youth preparing (though without a clear idea of what that is). During the War, Vernon makes an excellent soldier because he believes that he won't die for the next six years until his last dream finally comes--but he doesn't make any progress in the army as a profession because the war isn't his main object: he remains detached from it, his eyes on the main calling of his life.

On Plakos, by contrast, the villagers have forsaken their faith and drifted back into paganism. Interestingly, the reader comes away with a faint sense of the similarity between the Greek Orthodox Easter celebration and the pagan rites of Spring, complete with rising gods, and even the sceptical (though Calvinist-born) Leithen feels bound to assure us that partaking of the former involved no image-worship for him. Yet despite the syncretistic elements of the island Christianity, the protagonists and the village priest are on the same side, all spiritual warriors in a desperate battle for the souls of the people.

So you have Christendom opposed to ancient paganism. And yet there are also elements of a third thing: modernity. Modernity is Leithen's own creed, a rationalist creed ultimately powerless to defeat the surging tide of paganism. Leithen, interestingly, remains the most passive character in the book: assaulted on one hand by a compulsion to worship with the excited pagan crowd, and kept sane only by a brief reversion to the prayers of his childhood. Later, in Sick Heart River--the last novel Buchan wrote before his death--Leithen will undergo a more substantial conversion.

The Dancing Floor is thus about the three-way struggle of ancient barbarism, medieval and Reformation Christendom, and modernist rationalism over the reeling wreck of postwar Europe. The novel's astounding, eucatastrophic finish doesn't tie the question up in a neat bundle with all the ends tucked in; it stops to explain very little. But what there is seems clear: Christ arisen, the bride in submission to the bridegroom, the forces of darkness routed. How this happens, I'll leave you to find out for yourselves.

Gutenberg etext


Lady Bibliophile said...

I can't believe it! I didn't think I had read this book, but I actually have! :) Reading your review brought it all back, and I recall enjoying Vernon very much indeed.

I particularly liked Vernon, whose blend of devout, prosaic Calvinism with maturity, urbanity, and a visionary sense of divine calling is akin to something I've seen (surprisingly enough) in some fellow homeschoolers.

Hehe, I have too. :)

Excellent review; you've inspired me to pick up Edward Liethen!

Suzannah said...

Yes! I think Buchan would have been fascinated by some of the unique personalities coming out of homeschooling.

The Edward Leithen books are:

The Power-House (a novelette which can be thought of as a "dress rehearsal" for The Thirty-Nine Steps, and is strongly reminiscent, in my mind, of GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, which I HIGHLY recommend!)

The Dancing Floor

John MacNab (one of the funniest books Buchan wrote, which I reviewed here)

The Gap in the Curtain (I often think that Buchan wrote some of his most "experimental", unusual books about Edward Leithen. This one is Exhibit A. Fate, predestination, and precognition.)

Sick Heart River (another very unusual book, chronicling a spiritual and physical journey at the end of Leithen's - and Buchan's - life. Deeply profound and meditative.)

Kim Marsh said...

Presents a quite different view of Greek paganism to the essentially benign one in Patrick Leigh Fermor's classic travel book Mani. I wonder if they were using the same scource though. J.C lawson Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion ,Cambridge( UK) 1910.. Only connect.Regards Kim

Suzannah said...

It may be that Mr Fermor was dealing with the less bloody paganism of classical Greece? I get the impression that Buchan was dealing with something coming a bit earlier than the classical period. I remember one of the impressions I came away with from Plato's Last Days of Socrates was that the Greek gods hadn't been taken seriously for quite a while by the time of Socrates. And of course by the time of the Neo-Platonists "the gods" were believed to have nothing at all to do with human affairs. So, there were different phases, if you will, of Greek paganism :).

Sarah said...

First time commenting, although I've enjoyed your reviews and opinions for some time. I find Buchan's works fascinating- I just read John Macnab for the first time this week. His description of Janet Raden sounded very familiar so I went back and reread Mr. Standfast. Mary and Janet are both described at times looking boy like, or like a pretty boy. Now, I greatly admire the sturdy femininity of his women and their ability to come alongside their men- but, I wonder if this boy like description was not the effect of the raging feminism of his day influencing his standard of beauty?
Please forgive me if you have already touched on this and I missed it. Sarah

Suzannah said...

Thanks so much for commenting, Sarah. I do enjoy hearing from my readers!

I haven't touched on this before, but I had noticed it. It's a very interesting point.

I think everyone is a child of his or her times, susceptible to the regnant follies; including us, and including Buchan. The standard of feminine beauty during Buchan's time was indeed very "boyish".

Embracing the current standard of beauty doesn't necessarily mean embracing the worldview behind the standard. I think that Buchan's real opinion of the Modern Girl and everything she represents is shown pretty well in The Dancing Floor and others: Buchan thought the new Modern Girl had a lot of good points, and hoped she would go in the right direction. He saw her, not as a being independent of men, but as a being more useful to men by reason of her mental and physical toughness.

In addition, I believe "boyish" has historically been used to describe active, thin young women in their late teens and early twenties.

Finally, Buchan was a writer who definitely admired physical and mental discipline in both men and women. Many of his characters are fearless outdoor types, including many of the women.

So I think it was probably a mixture of things: an admiration for physical and mental toughness in women, that makes them worthy and capable of adventuring with their men, plus the reigning aesthetic of the day.

morningmusicmaniac said...

I'd always assumed the descriptions were based on his wife Sarah mixed with the modes of the day although the way he describes Lombard's wife in The Three Hostages does support your view.


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