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Review by Llewelyn Powys of

The Sailor's Return by David Garnett

New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

 Like a Clear Stream

One of Guy de Maupassant's short stories describes an old French peasant coming to a railway-station to meet his son and his son's sweetheart, only to make the startling discov­ery that his prospective daughter-in-law is a Negress. The happy pair get up into his farm cart and rattle away toward the family home, and the aged parent, watching their depar­ture from the gate of the platform, is made to express his peasant's surprise at so anoma­lous an alliance, his peasant's discomfiture;, his peasant's bewildered consternation, by the simple words, "Good luck to them!" It is just such an exclamation of a countryman's inarticulate outraged conservatism in the face of what is strange that might be taken as the keynote of Mr. David Garnett's latest story, which has to do with the sudden ap­pearance in a Dorset village of William Targett, mariner, and his wife Tulip, a Ne­gress from Africa.

Let it be acknowledged at once that no fault can be found with Mr. Garnett's man­ner of writing. It would seem to be impossi­ble for this author to write badly. As in that incomparable little masterpiece "Lady Into Fox" and as in that less interesting, though none the less admirable fantasy "A Man in the Zoo", this young master never for a single moment departs from his high standard of simple but extremely lucid English. His power of making fiction appear to be fact he would seem to have inherited directly from Daniel Defoe. On my soul, I feel that he might be a bastard of that old ruffian, perhaps by one of those aristocratic Portuguese La­dies that Robinson Crusoe made merry with after he had escaped from his island. For if Defoe's imagination is the sturdier, David Garnett's imagination is the more re­fined and subtle. It may lack, and I am of the opinion that it does lack, that deep inspiration, like the music of waves breaking against blackened ledges or the sound of thunder in mountains, which characterizes the great passages of English prose. But on a more surface level the thing is unequalled in its flawless meanderings: like a clear stream, let us say, with sticklebacks and water boatmen casting shimmering shadows through silver ripples that are making their way by hedge­row and foot-bridge path, and thatched cot­tage, down and down, past meadowsweet and purple-tinted water mint, down to the beached margin of the sea.

But when I use the word "refined" or "subtle" or "aristocratic" in connection with Mr. Garnett's work I do not mean to imply that it has anything precious about it. Throughout these three books one feels that one is in the company of an honest writer, of a writer devoid of affectations and prejudice, of a writer who possesses the particular kinds of spiritual generosity and tolerance that be­long to the best traditions of English litera­ture. In every sentence one feels that his sympathies are in the right place - are where Henry Fielding's or Oliver Goldsmith's or Charles Dickens's sympathies would be un­der like circumstances.

The actual setting of this story is, one suspects, no other place than East Chaldon, where a hundred yards back from the village green a tavern stands displaying on a swing­ing signpost the title of this book. And to any one who knows this most beautiful and most hidden away of all Dorset villages certain passages of "The Sailor's Return" come to his ears with the actual cawing of the rooks of Madder, with the actual clattering of the buckets of the old women at the well of Madder, with the actual tip-tap, tip-tap of the dairy-house knocker, where one goes to fetch his milk each afternoon through summer and winter. These particular passages, I say, are stored away in one's memory, together with his actual experience of the place, until, as can happen only with exceptional books, fact and fiction becomes mingled in one's mind.

Whenever David Garnett refers to the Ne­gress something magnanimous in him is touched and he writes with the utmost deli­cacy. "William had called her Tulip because she had seemed to him like that brilliant flower, swaying upon its slender, green, cylin­drical and sappy stalk," and again portraying her when she was disguised as a boy he says, "His savage bones were small and delicate; one might have fancied them light as a bird's, and, like a bird's bones, filled with air." The mere mention of Tulip brings from him ten­der sentences, just as the mere thought of the evil spite and meanness of the village public opinion, which he draws "so true to life", gives to his pages a new stinging quality, like nettles come upon unexpectedly among bluebells and pink-campions. "Young Mr. Stingo" (the brewer who had threatened to evict Targett from his public house because of his illicit relationship with Tulip) "was as much surprised as he was pleased when Mr. Cronk wrote and told him of the approaching marriage; for, though glad to keep his tenant, he had never known that vice could get such a hold on a man as to make him marry a coloured woman rather than part from her." Think of selecting such a name as Cronk for the clergyman of the village! There is genius in that alone. The Rev. Adrian Cronk! And how truly humorous is the description of Mr. Cronk's hasty retreat into the ditch behind the cowshed!

"Good day, Targett," said the clergyman. William grinned again, turned and dis­covered Tulip, who had been eavesdrop­ping, behind the door. There was in her face an expression of great alarm, min­gled with relief, and, coming on her sud­denly like that, William burst out laugh­ing, caught her by both hands and whirled her out onto the doorsteps of the inn. As he did so the parson turned and looked back, and Tulip, catching sight of him, gave a scream and ran into the house... William laughed and laughed again; he found he could not stop and leaned up again at the door-post weakly. While he laughed the Rev. Adrian Cronk looked about him in terror lest he should have been seen leaving the inn. People would think Targett was laughing at him. The parson didn't dare to walk into the village, and on the spur of the moment jumped down into the ditch and crawled behind the carrier's cartshed... anything was preferable to walking through the village with that sailor laughing at him, and he was always happiest when only the eye of God was looking... The rever­end gentleman had, of course, been observed taking cover, but it did not sur­prise either of the old women who wit­nessed it. They put his retirement behind the cartshed down to another reason, one which may apply to every one, irrespec­tive of the color of his cloth. How, too, he hits off these villagers, these ignoble men and women who look upon any­thing out of the common, with the pale, vi­cious, "rafti" eyes of frightened carnivorous sheep! When Targett and Tulip came riding back together after their midnight bath at the foot of the White Nore "Tulip riding in front with her bare feet thrust into the leathers of Harry's stirrups, William's jacket hanging loosely in folds round her naked body, and her wet woolly head shining," the village peo­ple remain sullen to the sailor's cheerful greeting "until he turned towards them in the saddle." When Targett rides back unexpect­edly to find an angry mob at the door of the inn demanding that Tulip shall be given up to them, and asks with his hunting crop in his hand what all the nonsense is about, "he found that the crowd seemed just as big as ever but it was composed of his friends."

The farm laborers in the hot cornfields had rejoiced at first to see each noble supplies of good liquor coming into the village, being drawn by stout horses of The Trade: "the horses were fat and shiny, and moved with that slightly tipsy, dancing gait which is the sign of all good brewery horses." Eventually the ominous thundercloud breaks and William Targett is murdered in a fight in his back orchard by an unscrupulous prize-ring "pug" hired to "beat him up."

There is real pathos in the words that the brave, heartbroken Tulip calls down to Targett's young brother from the upstairs room, "Tell the doctor William's skull is bro­ken," she said. "I can feel the edges of the bone," just as there is authentic humor in the observation of the licensed retailer who suc­ceeds Targett when he remarks in condoling with the Princess Gundemey of Dahomey, reduced now to a glasswasher called Two Lips, on the death of her husband: "A villain like that deserves no mercy - murdering a licensed man." 

(from New York Herald Tribune, 1925)

A New Edition (2011)



 With an Introduction by J. LAWRENCE MITCHELL

Frank Kibblewhite with THE SAILOR'S RETURN outside The Sailor's Return in East ChaldonIn the summer of 1858 an English mariner, William Targett, returns to his homeland from a voyage to western Africa, disguising his black princess wife as a boy and pretending their young child, concealed in a basket, is a parrot. The amusingly preposterous beginning of The Sailor’s Return gives little hint of the tragedies that lie in store. In a sleepy Dorset village Targett rents a pub and sets about building a life for his family, but the local residents and even his own relatives have other ideas.

Garnett’s story, first published in 1925, was the first significant work in British literature to feature a black female as a major character. This study in human pettiness and prejudice, delineated with a tragic power reminiscent of Thomas Hardy and T.F. Powys, has lost none of its power to shock and disturb, as events unfold to their stark and brutal conclusion. It is a story that, once read, is never forgotten.


Included here for the first time as an appendix, TARGETT’S PRIZE-FIGHT was originally scrapped because the introduction of prize-fighting destroyed the unity of the story. Described by Larry Mitchell as “in my opinion, quite the most vivid and accurate description of a bare-knuckle prizefight since Hazlitt's 1822 essay, The Fight."

Price: £8.99   Softback   ISBN-13: 978-1-908274-00-7   Book Dimensions: 198 × 129 mm   Publication date: 29 July 2011 AVAILABLE

From the Introduction to THE SAILOR'S RETURN by J. Lawrence Mitchell:

Upon first publication in September 1925, The Sailor’s Return earned laudatory reviews in a wide variety of newspapers and weeklies. Reviewers saw it as a breakthrough, a new direction in David Garnett’s work; as The Scotsman phrased it, ‘it emerges from the realm of mere fantasy and becomes a profoundly moving tragedy.’ The Glasgow Evening Times assured its readers that ‘the emotional unity is amazingly confirmed by the unbroken tenor of his prose. It is limpid, cool, and classic in its precision,’ while The Empire News declared unequivocally: ‘it is a masterpiece.’ Defoe, Swift, Voltaire – the usual masters of satirical prose style – are frequently cited as models. The very substantial review by ‘Affable Hawk’ (Desmond McCarthy) in The New Statesman lauded Garnett as ‘first of all a good storyteller’ and drew comparison with Hardy and Stevenson. Edwin Muir, in Vogue, recalled that ‘Virginia Woolf has said of him that he is a true storyteller as compared with Mr. Masefield, who is merely an interesting one.’ Some reviewers, it is true, were puzzled by the novel’s restraint or ‘reticence’ – a term that recurs. The TLS reviewer, for example, praised the ‘beautifully precise writing’ but regretted that the author ‘had not shown more courage in revealing the precise extent of his vaguely implied satire’ – a characteristic The Manchester Guardian more accurately dubbed ‘satirical slyness’. Surprisingly, only the Nation reviewer – quite possibly Virginia Woolf – was reminded of Guy de Maupassant’s tale ‘Boitelle’, in which a young man with a taste for the exotic (as evidenced by his fascination with parrots and macaws) cannot overcome local prejudices when he brings home ‘a little black-skinned maid’ and reluctantly abandons plans to marry her. On the other side of the Atlantic, The Dial quickly identified the critical thrust of the novel and its emotional impact, admitting that it ‘moves you to tears … with the desire to compel poor humanity to shed its bigotry.’

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