A dying boy, a grieving town and a divided Church

Caryll Houselander: writer and artist

“While he was with us, we were given a chance to serve and comfort Christ in him.” In the final chapter of Caryll Houselander’s 1947 novel The Dry Wood, the priest of Riverside, a poor docklands parish in London, consoles his listeners for the loss of their terminally ill child, Willie Jewel.

Houselander (1901-1954) was an English writer, artist and mystic who wrote short stories and numerous spiritual works on Mary and the Passion. The Dry Wood is her only novel. Although no longer in print, it is one of the most important Catholic novels of the 20th century, offering both a rare depiction of post-war London Catholicism and a genuine contribution to the broader literary movements emerging at the time.

Willie’s young parents, Art and Martha, had cared for him in their one-room dwelling for the few years of his short life, but he was the delight of the whole parish. Houselander’s depiction of the boy’s influence on those around him is an impassioned assertion of how much the weak and disabled can offer society.

When Willie was born, his father had watched the struggle for survival in that tiny creature “whom the doctor thought better dead”. He had seen his own eyes looking back at him from the face of his dumb child, “not with reproach for his life, but with love”. In those eyes he saw “the terrifying joy of innocence crucified”.

Art begins to find he has a reason to work all day, loading and unloading the ships, bringing what little he earns back to his wife and child. For Willie’s mother there is no slow dawn of love; she had fought for the baby before he was even born. In the hospital she was told that it was her life or the child’s; she demanded the boy survive. “That’s religion for you,” the doctor whispered to the nurse before he looked up to see Martha’s eyes burning like black stars into his soul. In silence he fought for them both to live.

Art and Martha have little to give their baby when they take him home. A floral sheet for his crib, an old box sanded and painted blue. A crystal chime that dances when the breeze comes up from the river, delighting the boy with light beams and bells. But the people of Riverside bring Willie Jewel their gifts each day as they pass from the dock: a posy of wild flowers, a playing card, an orange.

As the child declines, his eyes looking out from a body perpetually still, the Riversiders begin a novena for his life to be saved. But their vociferous prayers and vigils are unseemly to some, including the local monsignor, an Anglican convert.

We learn that he had been safe and satisfied in the Church of England, a mother always polite, beautiful and discreet. But he suddenly awoke to the appalling truth that she was instead merely his kindly, aristocratic aunt. His real mother was a gypsy with a virgin heart and “the riff-raff of the whole world clinging to her flamboyant skirts”.

He acknowledges his real mother, “submits to her devastating love” and learns to take joy in her demands on his virtue. But he cannot accept her vulgarity and sets about filling her pews with converts of culture and influence. It is concern for the views of this, his chosen flock, that drives the monsignor to request that his archbishop put a stop to Riverside’s public displays of grief.

But the archbishop is not so blinkered to the real importance of what is happening. Christian hope is radical hope. It trusts in the possibility of miracles and does not allow itself to be tarnished by decorum or the reasoned acceptance of worldly limitation.

The archbishop loves the Riversiders and wishes he could be among them again. Now all he sees when he looks down from his window are the City workers hurrying out to their clean houses built for one-child or childless marriages.

Those houses, he thinks, are more terrible than the visibly rotting houses of Riverside, because “the neat rows of cultivated flowers standing against the new white walls are pretty sepulchres of the murdered unborn children”. To him, these men of comfort and attainment have forfeited all adventure, all risk, all romance, and even in their security they are still afraid of life.

The archbishop watches as the novena draws people in from neighbouring boroughs. At the appointed time each day they fall to their knees – mothers at the stove or the chapel, fathers at the shipside, children in the street, their hearts burning with desire for a miracle. Their eyes are set on heaven but they are drawn by the “natural emotions that have sustained and integrated them from generation to generation; motherhood, fatherhood, pity for weakness, the cherishing of children, the instinct for life”.

On the final day of the novena, Willie dies. Houselander’s own voice addresses the loss and injustice felt by those left behind. For this child,

… love had overcome the world, life had overcome death. He had passed through brief poverty and pain in the dark womb of time, and come to his true birth. Behind him, before ever he came into the world, were generations of greed and power and lust and murder. Before him, unimaginable joy, everlasting Life.

Dr Bonnie Lander Johnson is a fellow, lecturer and director of studies in English at Selwyn College, Cambridge