Sylvia Townsend Warner is an author that, up until recently, I knew nothing about except that there were a lot of VMC titles by her. However, Simon has enlightened me a lot and several of the quotes I’ve read from her are quite lovely. Mr. Fortune’s Maggot was the first STW book I managed to find, albeit in a modern version, and it’s been sitting on my tbr for a while. However, when Youngest Child came back from town with a nice old green version, I figured I really must read it rather than hide it away.

I have to say I approached this book with a little trepidation – I wasn’t sure if the subject matter was really something I would normally choose, but then all STW’s stories seem to be a little outre, so I set off! The book tells the tale of Mr. Fortune, who starts life as a bank clerk with an aptitude for figures, until a legacy enables him to train as a missionary and head off to the South Seas to convert the heathen. His ‘maggot’, defined as a “whimsical or perverse fancy”, is to go off on a solo venture to the island of Fanua where white men are virtually unknown, and attempt to bring Christianity to the natives. Mr. Fortune spends three years on the island, loses his faith and goes through a number of crises before finally leaving for we know not where.

The crux of the story is the relationship between Fortune and the young native boy Lueli, who becomes his friend, what he thinks is his first convert, and his pupil in all things Mr. Fortune thinks fit to impart. The two love each other in what seems to be a pure way, though Lueli wants nothing from Fortune but that love, although Fortune is desperate to civilise Lueli.

The book is beautifully written, as I would expect from those parts of STW’s prose I’ve read before, and I found myself sucked in and gripped by her narrative in a way I didn’t expect. She conjures up the island, its people and their way of life vividly and the descriptions are remarkable. The sequence with the earthquake and volcano had me on the edge of my seat and I ended up reading the book rapidly in a couple of sittings.

“Mr. Fortune’s Maggot” is a very thought-provoking book – our hero comes to the island convinced of the righteousness of his mission, but is powerless to covert the islanders from their wooden idols and their way of life. Although some of their stories have roots in the same kind of tales he knows from the bible, their way of life is too entrenched, dictated by the climate and the surroundings, for him to make any impact on them. Fortune’s attempts to teach Lueli mathematics are hilarious and sad at the same time – there is a total cultural gap between them that can never be bridged and Lueli is incapable of grasping any of what his teacher is attempting to convey. In the end, the islanders help, care for and tolerate the white man in their midst but will never really understand his beliefs. It is they who will retain their way of life intact and Mr. Fortune who changes. He loses his faith quite dramatically (and in fact ends up wondering quite how strong it was in the first place) and eventually comes to an understanding of how important the islanders’ beliefs are to them – to such an extent that he creates a new wooden idol for Lueli.

Once he has given Lueli a new god, which perhaps replaces the kind of god Fortune had become to the boy, the missionary realises it is time to leave Fanua. What happens to him after that, we will never know – and it seems from her “Envoy” that STW did not know what would happen to her character either. This is a remarkable book, striking and memorable, and I understand now why STW is rated so highly by many.

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