Comment

The witty, cynical lost novel that reflects on the big questions

Philip Trower

It is generally agreed that something happened to the culture in the 1960s. Immediately during the post-war period, higher education was still in the hands of the mandarin classes and deference was paid to their superior knowledge and authority. There was even a popular advertising poster of the 1950s which read “Top People take The Times” showing men in formal dress.

I make this comment as I have just been reading the first novel of a young member of this mandarin class, published in 1951. Tillotson by Philip Trower, who died aged 95 in January this year and about whom I have subsequently blogged, is available on Amazon and is worth resurrecting, partly because it is an elegant and accomplished piece of writing for a young man in his twenties and partly because it assumes an educated and cultured readership. It is thus dated, with echoes of EM Forster – especially as it is set in an invented country somewhere in “the Levant” – and the high-minded frivolity of the Bloomsbury Group.

In later life, Philip described it as a “children’s story.” I see what he means; it is essentially a fable about adult children – that is, a caste somewhat removed from real life by their inherited incomes and their leisure. A group of upper-class aesthetes and others meet up in a town called Tortola in a country called Doria, drawn together by a mysterious personality – Tillotson – who is never seen. A famous art historian who has invented the concept of “unique vitality” to distinguish great sculpture from its imitations, he is linked to the other characters through romance (a faded duchess), feigned friendship (with a Swedish art collector), itemising his collection (a young secretary) and so on.

The author, educated at Eton and Oxford and who fought in the War in Italy, was, at the time he wrote the novel, a nominal member of the Church of England. To be civilised was to be respectful to a major religious faith, even if you did not take its truths seriously. His alter-ego in the novel is a young baronet, Sir Jacob D’Albey, who is seeking a sentimental and aesthetic education abroad in the villa of his uncle, Uther Pendragon; the latter, worldly and sophisticated, acts as his mentor.

Pendragon, in the witty, cynical tone of the novel, reflects on the big questions of life: “It takes time to be good. Is it worth beginning? Suppose he were to put all his money on a Christian way of life and then found that God didn’t exist, would he not have wasted his life in pointless unselfishness?” He sees that for Jacob, these thoughts have the urgency of youth: “He can’t avoid the questions, “What are we doing? Where are we going? Are we put here to enjoy ourselves, or are we put here to be good? Somehow an answer must be found. God does not provide one, and next to God is Art.”

Warming to his theme, Pendragon continues: “As a religion, art has two advantages. It demands sensitivity and intelligence, but none of the unpleasant virtues like self-sacrifice. It is a religion for the elect, combining mystery with limitless speculation…” Later in the novel, Jacob himself comes to realise that, “Although, if enjoyed for their own sakes, the arts can give comfort, they cease to do so when by them men try to come nearer an understanding of God and death.”

Soon after finishing the book, Philip turned his back on writing this kind of fiction. He had realised the limitations of high culture just as Jacob had, and had become a Catholic. And then came the 1960s, when only a serious faith could withstand – just – the deluge that followed.