My copy of A Short Walk in Williams Park, from British author C.H.B. Kitchin (1895-1967) includes a marvelous introduction from the author’s close friend, L.P. Hartley. This is a wonderfully written essay which gives a sense of the author’s character, life and work, but since it includes some detail about the story, I recommend saving it until you’ve finished the book. Hartley acknowledges that A Short Walk in Williams Park isn’t Kitchin’s best novel, and on the surface, the story, running about 120 pages, seems simple enough, but there’s a richer vein to be tapped here–a sense of not taking life, love and the glories of nature for granted.
Francis Norton, a wealthy bachelor who’s “retired from active business,” fills his days “exploring the London parks.” He has his favourite spots, and one of those is Williams Park:
It was so unexpected-a gem in a setting of down-at-heel gentility struggling against destitution. On the whole, he liked his parks small, and shunned the wide open spaces of Hampstead Heath, Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common. It was exquisite. The officials from the curator (if there was such a person) to the men who swept up litter and dead leaves, must have been experts and enthusiasts. It had a lake (which all true parks should have), a gothick band-stand of singularly intricate beauty and a fine statue of William IV, in whose reign the park was conceived. The king’s outstretched right hand now directs one’s gaze to a neo-Georgian tea-room, built of red brick, with an enclosed garden of its own, bordered by an artificial stream that washed the feet of willows and in due season generated a display of water-loving irises, primulas and hydrangeas. The trees are noble and never too dense, though they give shade enough to those who seek shade.
On one of his excursions, Francis overhears a conversation that takes place between two people–an unhappily married man and a young woman. Circumstances occur which lead Francis to take a role in the lives of Edward Harness, a teacher who’s married out of his class, and Miranda who works as a supervisor in a large shop. The extra-marital romance is complicated by Mrs Barbara Harness’s jealousy and also her “expectations.”
While the story would seem to be about the young lovers, it’s really not; it’s about Francis, his sense of “vicarious romance” through his involvement with the couple, and also some vague sense of loss which Francis never specifies. But above all, there’s a sense of “ecstasy” as L.P. Hartley describes it–taking joy in the physical world.
He loved the moments of increasing lethargy-the astral body half emerging from the physical-when moral problems dissolve into an ethergic sensuality and even the inner mathematics of the brain transform themselves into purple and pink anemones or perfume the consciousness with hyacinths and carnations,-when a small cloud passing over the sun suggests images altogether unsorted by the optic nerve, and the quiver of a breeze against one’s hand cheers the self-doubting soul with a caress such as only a lover can give.
This is not a perfect novel, but in spite of its flaws, the book has something that I was drawn to. You know how it is–you sometimes run across an author who’s not perfect, but you connect with the work and its themes.
I didn’t quite understand Francis’s categorization of people into pigs or birds. Pigs seemed to be an unflattering categorization–although I’m not sure it was meant to be. Hartley says that Francis acts as a “deux ex machina” in the novel, and since I can’t put it better, I’m quoting Hartley on this one. But once again, there’s a lot here under the fairly simple plot thread. Miranda adores her married lover, and while Edward is certainly handsome, he’s also weak. And then what of Barbara, who’s described as a rather common woman, a domestic tyrant, and yet when confronted, she’s not altogether unsympathetic.
Ultimately, the novel argues for appreciating what we have and not taking anything for granted. Again that hint that this is a mistake that Francis made.
He paced for a while among the lime-trees, watching them walk together down the hill-side, and when they were out of sight, turned his gaze to the deserted tea-garden and the ruffled waters of the desolate lake. And with a sadness which refused to leave him, he thought, “They have gone down the slope to the level, conventional plain. And she, who would now be in tears if he were two minutes late, will soon be saying, ‘Why can’t he be punctual?’ and moan about the spoiling of a soufflé. And when he comes in, perhaps she’ll nag him a little. But does that mean everything’s gone? Or do these rare and precious ecstasies, which give a new shape and meaning to the universe, never die, but somehow survive in themselves, leaving us the hope that some day we shall recapture them?
Francis also ruminates on the nature of love–love that grows through familiarity and habit which he sees as a fairly common thing (“mate any dog with any bitch, and let them share the same quarters, and they will become devoted –after a fashion,“) and the much rarer love that few of us are fortunate enough to find–the “love of two burning souls–two indestructible atoms of passionate desire, who have sought one another from all eternity.” There is also a hint about homosexual love in the sentence “to be safe, you must link love to procreation–the production of cannon fodder.”