Madness, Pegwell Bay and The Bird of Night

Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 by William Dyce

Painted after a trip Dyce made in the autumn of 1858 to Pegwell Bay near Ramsgate, on the east coast of Kent, this picture is supposed to show various members of his family gathering fossils.  He has carefully recorded the flint-encrusted strata and eroded faces of the chalk cliffs; in the sky is the barely visible trail of Donati’s comet! But the shell pickers have their eyes on the ground, not necessarily understanding or perceiving their transitory place in the universe!  The location is interesting because it is the supposed site of Christianity first coming to Britain and it is a famous location for fossil hunting.  In the book, The Bird of Night,  the painting is a great source of interest for poor, mad Frances who thinks he understands the painter’s intent!  If you study the painting for a while it becomes haunting and, for me, so was this book!

The Bird of Night is the story of the relationship between Egyptologist Harvey Lawson and poet Francis Croft.

Francis is not just a poet but a brilliant poet, writing works that mark him as a genius and the foremost poet of his age. He also suffers bouts of crippling madness.

I loved this book with its metaphors of birds and landscape – owls as good and evil and the wonderful and wicked Venice.  No wonder Francis calls his poem Janus – he of the two faces! I had not read a gothic novel quite like it. The turbulent descriptions of madness were as frightening as thunder storms. The black notebooks delicately picked out the poet’s life – thank goodness for Moleskin!

I loathed the dry, faithful Harvey and I loved mad, dangerous and fragile Francis.  How could he deal with his intoxicating gift and his guilt for wanting to kill his brother for his cruelty and  his guilt, probably,  for his homosexuality? He has lived through the First World War which he seems to have found oddly comforting!

Apparently Susan Hill, herself, had doubts about the book even though it won her the Whitbread Novel Award in 1972.  She remarked in 2006 that “it was a book I have never rated. I don’t think it works, though there are a few good things in it. I don’t believe in the characters or the story.”  I don’t think I believed in the characters, they were not really rounded out, but for me the two characters worked brilliantly as counterpoints.

I found the two characters almost reminiscent of Charles and Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited.  I had a picture of Anthony Andrews (from the TV dramatisation) in mind whenever I thought of Francis – the cover picture for me was of Harvey!  Waugh wrote of Brideshead Revisited that the novel “deals with what is theologically termed ‘the operation of Grace”.  For me, to some extent, The Bird of Night deals with the absence of Grace and it is not surprising that Frances chooses to make his end in a church with a pair of secateurs.

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