Notes & Commentary: The Key Above the Door (1926)

Maurice Walsh, The Key Above the Door (Chambers 1926): SUMMARY: Tom King, gentleman crofter, is involved in a poaching escapade with his Irish friend Alan Quinn and another, Monroe; they are seized by the tenant of Lady Mary Clunis’s house (Reroppe), called Edward Leng, a large man and a Southerner of enormous private means, who tries to exact legal compensation and arrests the culprits. In saving his colleagues from the barn where they are held, King is detected by Leng’s companion, Agnes de Burc, a very beautiful young lady, who observes his ‘ploy’ but holds her tongue. Through the mediation of Lady Clunis, who is fond of King as her death husband’s best friend - and perhaps fonder than that - peace is established between the parties. On his side, Leng has illegally gaffed one of his own salmon, and has the less moral ground to stand on for that fact.

In the following weeks, King grows close to Agnes whom Leng is content to leave alone while he pursues his shooting on the moor. King professes his love to Agnes briefly when the party is shipwrecked on an island in the loch. He perceives, with help from Leng’s disaffected friend Murray and his own Highland chums, that Leng is an egotistical, selfish, and sensual man who has somehow got Agnes in his power. Agnes and Leng leave suddenly in his yacht. Striken with love for her, Tom King goes to visit Quinn at Skye, and there meets up again with Leng and Agnes, whose boat unexpectedly moors there. King seeks an interview with Agnes in Leng’s presence, and boldly tells her not to become the Englishman’s mistress if only for the sake of some sense of guilt for what may have already happened between them. He also foreswears his own love for her, and represents himself impartially as a friend.

After he has left, Agnes quits Leng, and seeks help from Alan to escape the island. Quinn drives her in his sidecar to the ferry. Leng descends on King and Quinn’s house - they are staying at the distillery as caretakers of sorts - and a fight with Quinn ensues, in which Quinn is bettered. King realises where Agnes has gone, and with it, where Leng has gone in quest of her. Earlier, when she so admired his cottage, he had told her that the key would always be above the door for her. When he reaches the cottage, he is only a little ahead of Leng.

Horrified to find both men descend upon her, Agnes cries out to them to leave her alone - indeed, for all men to leave her alone. King challenges him to a fight. In the course of it, he completely overwhelms the stronger man whose trained skills in boxing which have been so damaging to Quinn. King’s victorious weapon is a sort of ‘berserk’ fit of scrabbling energy which overwhelms and exhausts his opponent. After Leng has been physically and pyschologically vanquished and removed from the scene in this way, Lady Clunis steps in to mediate between King and Agnes, knowing from her recent interview with Agnes how they feel towards one another. When King visits Agnes for the last time, he confesses his love for her and discovers that she loves him too: ‘I am loving you, loving you, loving you,’ she says, as she slips into the arms of her ‘strong man’.

Throughout the novel, Leng is treated as an oriental - but not, it is expressly remarked, a Jew - and King as a Westerner. Yet Leng is also a Southerner, which is to say, a Saxon and a Sassenach: and thus the battle is joined between the Saxons and the Celts. Leng embodies material power by his very stature, and militaristic power by his trained pugilistic skills. King represents a modern refinement of the Celtic tradition - a man in touch both with nobility and nature. The Highland setting of the novel is one in which bloody battles have been fought in every quarter during the ‘quietening of the clans’, and this story is in a sense a reprise. Agnes, bearing a Norman Irish name, is explicitly compared with Deirdre of the Sorrows, as with Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, while her share in Norman Irish nobility is attested by her family name.

Much emphasis is placed upon ‘clean’ love, represented by the chivalrous King as opposed to the lascivious and sensual love of Leng - who is explicitly portrayed as an infidel. Thus, on the island, when King looks after Agnes, she is said to feel ‘the clean care that men were taking of her’ [84], while Leng is selfishly engaged in looking after his own needs. Again, when she writes in parting from King the first time, she says: ‘go on living your clean life ..,’ implying that hers is already soiled through association with Leng. And when King goes to join his Irish pal, Alan Quinn, it is for ‘a month of fine clean intercourse ..’ [107] - that is, manly pursuits in the open air with a well-suited boon companion who shares the same chivalrous codes. (You do not catch a salmon you kill a salmon.) And finally, when Agnes comes round to is the necessity for attempting to face up to ‘clean love’ again, she redeems herself from Quinn’s prognosis: ‘She feels she must go to destruction with him [Leng] rather than yield to clean love.’ [121] In another application of the term, moreover, ‘clean’ is used as part of the old/new dialect by which relationship between the worlds of traditional and of modern values is transacted, vide ‘clean newspapers’ [110].

Alan’s intuitive view of Agnes is nicely contradictory. Referring to the distorted sense of honour which compels her to stay with Leng, she says: ‘The woman is a prude … this is an extreme form of prudery.’ [121]. King’s version, in his interview with Agnes, is based on that, but more conventionally logical: ‘I know that there is some austere spirit in you that impels you to sacrifce yourself for being once false to your ideals … having retraced it [the erroneous step] you will be more desirable than any austere virgin … ‘ 198].

When King pretends to adopt Leng’s attitude when facing up to him in the final battle, he tells Agnes that she is but the prize in the contention between two lustful males and ‘a chattel of the victor’ [163]. This pretense is the ethical crux of the fiction: the hero must at once disown but also powerfully appropriate those energies of maleness which make the fighter and the ardent lover. He must claim the woman, and at the same time avoid imposing on the her freedom. He must respect her integrity, while on the other his romantic intentions should be motivated by sheer virile passion. and so, at the end, he asserts that he is no saint - as she imagines, but a man ‘as other men - of the earth’ [162]. In evidence of this hormonal fact, he is overheard regretting the ‘cursed bony face’ which he inherits from his Celtic ancestors.

If King is an all-male Celtic type, Agnes is a predestined Celtic heroine. Thus King tells her that she is unavoidably the type of woman who attracts the good and bad attentions of men:

You possess in a high degree all the qualities that make men your slaves and your tyrants … I do not know what is to happen to you in the outside world. Women like you have no respite and no retreat. Your attraction and your own personal repulsion make up some punishment which the gods have inflicted on you since old times. These things are beyond your control, and unless you meet some strong man that you can love - little doubt that he will love you … I know one such man - ‘. [186]

Here his reference is to Murray, who has fled to Paris so as not to witness the violence of Leng’s ‘unmoral’ treatment of the woman. Of Leng, his long acquaintance on safaris and other manly outings, Murray says: ‘He is not a loose-liver in any sense of the word, but if a woman appealed to him she was merely to be won, enjoyed, and discarded.’ Murray speaks of ‘a terrible and ruthless power of attraction: a force of desire, an intensity that was wholly sincere and all-possessing until victory was won, after which soon followed satiety and carelessness.’ [93]

Conventionally religious ideas are touched on once only in the novel - in general the ‘religion’ of the book is Sportsmanship - and only then in connection with the marked Calvinism of the Highlanders. According to King and Quinn, Calvinism is the kind of religion that the Highlanders least need, considering the melancholic effect of the landscape they inhabit. Each has his own notion of the best alternative: King speculates that what is needed is is ‘an intellectual rationalism’; but Quinn, reflecting his own nationality and character, opts instead for ‘a genial Catholicity … a happy sort of faith encouraging lightheardness, gaiety, even fun.’ [171]

Yet neither of these opinions seem to have much purchase on the cheerful stoicism and canny good-nature of the characters Davy Thompson and Archibald MacGillivray, who lead the cast of lower-class players in the story. Nor is the plot is not encumbered with any evidence to support Quinn’s contention about the low-church Highlanders that, in the shadow of their gloomy religion, they ‘will sin secretly and shamelessly, knowing that damnation is inevitable’. Where it might have turned into a critique of Northerner puritanism, the novel rests in an attitude of sentimental affection for the dour Scots temperment.

Tom King himself embodies an idealised set of cross-class and cross-culture values: he is ‘a compound of gentleman and tramp, hermit and wanderer, scholar and ignoramus, realist and idealist and many other things as well - in short, a seeker of beauty and a believer in the dominion of reason over imagination.’ [6] Somewhere in the this thicket of identities is the double-identity of British-Irishman. Most striking, perhaps, is the insistance in the preface (where this description of King occurs) upon the subordinate of imagination to reason. It appears that this motif chiefly functions as the explanation why he has remained a bachelor so long, making him a fitting knight-errant in the story. Thus, much later, we are told that reason has once again asserted itself over imagination when King has managed to dismiss the melancholia caused by his disappointed love for Agnes [114].

Nevertheless, the application of this distinction (reason v. imagination) in the novel remains somewhat somewhat puzzling. Is it a vote against the unruly emotions of Romanticism, or - more specifically - against the Celtic Twilight? Is it a measure of the ideal man’s controlled participation in the rationally acknowledged facts of sexuality? (There are hints of Freudian consciousness in the novel.) Is it more closely involved with the critique of Leng’s brutal sensuality and egoism, seen as manifestations of the tyranny of sensual and essentially auto-erotic fantasies? Sharing in all of these discourses, if seems to belong to the polarity of passion and reflection, sex and friendship, dream and reality, egoism and altruism - contraries between which King tries to find the proper ratio of harmony.

Leng’s chauvinistic attitude is precisely characterised in King’s imitation of it, which he addresses dramatically enough, to Agnes, before the final battle:

It is because we are men … and men in the raw too, for things have come to that pass where you are no longer to be wooed, but only to be won. Edward Leng, the oriental barbarian, will have it so, and I, the Celtic one, am no better. You have proclaimed your very splendid ideals and given us an unmistakeable dismissal, but the ultimate and lustful savage in us has no use for these things. We are going to fight for you … and you will be the chattel of the victor. [170-71]

Leng replies, ‘You have proclaimed by philosophy better than I could;’ to which King retorts, ‘I know that … It was your philosophy I proclaimed.’ [171] Yet it remains in question whether those attitudes are not a necessary component of King’s sexuality, and the vision of the complete lover that Walsh projects in the novel.

If a revised code of Chivalry is the moral purpose of the fable, this ethical quest is worked out in the context of a feisty conflict between Celtic and Saxon races. And this, in turn, bespeaks a more than hypothetical deeper antagonism between the central and the peripheral regions of British culture, in which the peripheral regions are characterised as Celtic (Scots Celtic and Irish Celtic.) One way of assessing the differences between the two cultures adumbrated is in the description of their respective relations with the lower classes. King and Lady Clunis are unfailingly friendly towards the men on the estate, whereas Leng treats his employees such as the chauffeur as servants only - which is apparently what they merit, being ‘respectable English menial[s] descended from generations of menials’ [175-76]. In other words, the fit inhabitants of this Scottish world of traditional loyalties are essentially feudal in their reciprocal relations of mutual respect. And with that, they are also clannish towards outsiders.

They are the autochtonous people of Britain - the original Britons. In this context, Thomas King is a type of King Arthur, the ancient British hero from the age when Britain meant Celtic rather than Anglo-Saxon. Of the expressly Celtic elements abounding in in the topography of the book (much of which is conducted in a sophisticated version of Gaelo-English), the nearest approach to a precise literary allusion is the mention of Deirdre and Queen Maeve as points of comparison with the heroine:

That woman up at my cottage, in spite of numberless generations of what is called gentle breeding, was throw-back to the days when Deirdre grew in beauty amongst the Dalriada hills, when Maeve was Queen of Connacht and mistress of red kine and white; and I could not make up my mind whether I was Cormac, that old king of desire, or Naisi, who had thrown happiness away with both hands. [162-63]

It is noticeable, too, that when Agnes declares: ‘I am loving you’ to King, she resorts to a Gaelic rather than an English verb-form to express her deep-felt sympathy with the racial type that the hero represents, and her own share in that privileged sensibility of timeless Celtic romances. Indeed, in one aspect the story might be considered as a revision of Deirdre and Naisi [‘the exile of the sons of Uisneach’] in which Conchobar is killed by Naisi: ‘you are paying now, you lascivious dog! [142]’, cries King at the point where Leng begins to be undone by his own unchivalric code of values. (Dog is, incidentally, the recurrent insult that the men throw at each other: vide 166, 170, 173, etc).

An interesting feature of King’s character is the berserker fit that he experiences in his final struggle with the Saxon Leng. Though a Danish coinage, is certainly intended as an equivalent of Celtic Cuchulain’s gaebolg, the ‘body-warp’ by which he destroys his enemies in the last extremity of heroic force. this is Cuchulain’s ‘warp spasm’, and if King is Arthurus redivivus on the one hand, he is also Cuchulain returning to the Celtic homelands on the other. By combining both these characters with that of a modern country gentleman, he comes to represents a recrudescence of the moral energies associated with the Irish literary revival yet set in the Scottish landscape that he loved so deeply and in such a romantic way. At the same time, Celtic Arthur is a figure for the true tradition of British - and therefore English - gentility, whereas Leng represents the violent corruption of this tradition through fiscal rapacity that supervenes after the age of chivalry has departed. This Celtic chivalry, embodied by a character very like a fleshed-out version of Yeats’s ‘fisherman’, is represented as a redeeming contribution to the British character in a pattern familiar from the lectures of Matthew Arnold in Celtic literature - though there refering to imagination and here to social and ethical understanding in relationships between men and women, masters and servants, and finally between man and the environment.

[BS]

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