Mr Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Mr Fortune's Maggot cover

Previously I had only read Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s Lolly Willowes, and enjoyed it although I suspect not quite as much as many people did. But when I saw this old paperback in an Edinburgh bookshop I decided to buy it although I had never heard of it before.

Mr Fortune’s Maggot was published in 1927, the second book by the author. It’s not a very attractive title, but apparently in this case ‘maggot’ means a fad, a whimsical or perverse fancy.

Mr Fortune is a bachelor, he had worked in a bank for years before he decided to become a vicar, he was drawn to missionary work and eventually found himself on a Pacific island called Fanua, hoping to convert the inhabitants to Christianity. I have to say that my heart sank when I realised the subject matter of this book but it ended up being a good read.

Mr Fortune’s endeavours get off to a good start as he inadvertently makes a convert on his first day on the island. A young boy has become attached to him and helps him build his home and shows him how to survive on the island. He makes no more headway in converting the rest of the islanders who are a relaxed and welcoming lot, happy with their own form of worship, each has a small wooden god of their own, a sort of lucky totem.

Mr Fortune thinks he is taking care of Lueli (whom he has christened Theodore) but really it’s the opposite and Lueli sees Mr Fortune as a responsibility. A volcanic eruption changes everything with Mr Fortune losing his faith. Eventually it dawns on Mr Fortune that he is an interloper and that he is doing harm, has no right to try and change the way the islanders live or to meddle with their religious beliefs.

Considering this book was published in 1929 that’s quite an amazing thing for an author to write. Sylvia Townsend Warner was decades ahead of the times in thinking that colonialism was an evil. Thankfully the UK gave it up long ago. Sadly there are still people who believe that they should go out and become missionaries and I have a nasty feeling that a lot of the inter-tribal violence in places like Africa nowadays is the upshot of that.

Anyway, it turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable read. It may seem like sacrilege to some people but I liked it more than Lolly Willowes.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes cover

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner is one of a bunch of Virago books which have been languishing unread on a shelf for years, so when I saw that quite a few bloggers seemed to have read it recently I thought I should get around to it too.

I have to say that I didn’t love this book as much as I had expected to. It’s a book of two halves really. When her father dies Lolly Willowes has to move in with her brother and his wife and their family. She has been left money of her own but nobody expects her to strike out on her own and have an independent life. She’s one of those maiden aunts, handy for when the children need to be looked after, but otherwise unwanted.

After years of living her life to suit other people she eventually decides to move out to Great Mop, a rural village, where she’s able to learn more about nature and the plants and potions that have always attracted her. The book changes completely, just as Lolly did, and it seemed apt that I got to this point in the book on Halloween, as the village turns out to be full of witches.

You might be interested in reading this Guardian article about Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer.