Analysis of Walter de la Mare’s Novels

Walter De la Mare (25 April 1873 – 22 June 1956) published only five novels, one of which, At First Sight, is more a long short story than a true novel. His fiction is metaphorical and resembles his poetry in its concerns. Much of what he wanted to communicate in his writing is best suited to short works, and therefore his novels are haphazardly successful. In spite of the difficulties of the novels of de la Mare, his contemporary critics in general had a high regard for him as a novelist. Edward Wagenknecht, an important historian of the novel, ranked Memoirs of a Midget as one of the best twentieth century English novels. Indeed, in his essay on de la Mare in Cyclopedia of World Authors (1958), Wagenknecht emphasizes Memoirs of a Midget at the expense of de la Mare’s other writings.


De la Mare’s novels, however, were not as widely read in their time as his poetry and short fiction, and today they are seldom read at all. The lack of modern attention to de la Mare’s novels is caused less by any absence of merit than by the predictable drop in reputation which many authors undergo in the literary generation after their deaths. Although his novels are unlikely to regain their popularity with a general readership, serious students of twentieth century English literature will almost certainly return to de la Mare’s novels as his generation’s writings are rehabilitated among scholars.

Walter de la Mare’s novels are diverse in structure, although unified by his recurring themes. Henry Brocken is episodic, with its protagonist moving from one encounter to another. The Return has all the trappings of the gothic, with mysterious strangers, supernatural events, and unexplained happenings. The Three Mulla-Mulgars is a children’s story, with a direct narrative and a clear objective toward which the novel’s actions are directed. Memoirs of a Midget is Victorian in structure and is filled with incidents and coincidences; it emphasizes character over the other aspects of novel-writing. At First Sight: A Novel is really a long short story, what some might call a novella; its plot is simple, the problem its protagonist faces is straightforward, and it has only the barest attempt at a subplot.

Henry Brocken

Early in his literary career, de la Mare concluded that there were two ways of observing the world: inductive and deductive. Induction was a child’s way of understanding his environment, through direct experience, whereas deduction was associated with adolescents and adults—the environment was kept at an emotional and intellectual distance. De la Mare believed that reality is best understood in relation to the self and best interpreted through imagination; childlike—as opposed to childish— observation is subjective, and childlike imagination can make and remake reality according to the imaginer’s desires. Henry Brocken, the eponymous protagonist of de la Mare’s first novel, is such a childlike observer. Critics are often confused by his adult behavior; they fail to understand that Brocken is intended to be childlike rather than childish.

Dreams are a part of the human experience that can be made and remade according to the subjective dictates of the self; de la Mare believed that dreamsrevealed a truer reality than that which is found in the waking experience. Given de la Mare’s beliefs, Brocken’s use of dreams to meet with famous literary characters seems almost natural. Brocken is able to converse with characters from the works of such authors as Geoffrey Chaucer, Jonathan Swift, and Charlotte Brontë. The characters are often living lives that were barely implied in their original author’s works. Jane Eyre, for instance, is with Rochester long after the conclusion of Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Henry Brocken is about imagination and what it can do to reality. Great literary characters can seem more real than many living people. De la Mare represents this aspect of the imaginative response to literature by showing characters maturing and changing in ways not necessarily envisioned by their creators. Chaucer’s Criseyde, for example, is not only older but also wiser than in Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385). What is imagined can have a life of its own, just as dreams can be more alive than waking experience.


The Three Mulla-Mulgars

The Three Mulla-Mulgars seems to be an interruption in the development of de la Mare’s themes of imagination, dreams, and reality. In it, three monkeys—called “Mulgars”—search for the Valley of Tishnar and the kingdom of their uncle Assasimmon. During their travels, the three—Nod, Thimble, and Thumb—have adventures among the various monkey species of the world and encounter danger in the form of Immanala, the source of darkness and cruelty. Although a children’s story, and although humorous and generally lighthearted, The Three Mulla-Mulgars contains the spiritual themes typical of de la Mare’s best work. Nod, although physically the weakest of the three monkeys, is spiritually gifted; he can contact the supernatural world in his dreams and is able to use the Moonstone, a talisman; Immanala is essentially a spiritual force; it can strike anywhere and can take any form; it can make dreams—which in the ethos of de la Mare are always akin to death—into the “Third Sleep,” death. The quest for the Valley of Tishnar is a search for meaning in the Mulla-Mulgars’ lives; their use of dreams, a talisman, and their conflict with Immanala make the quest spiritual as well as adventurous.

The Return

The Return represents a major shift in de la Mare’s approach to fiction, both long and short. Before The Return, he presented his iconoclastic views in the guise of children’s stories and allegories—as if his ideas would be more palatable in inoffensive fantasies than in the form of the adult novel. In The Return, de la Mare took an important step toward his masterpiece, Memoirs of a Midget, by creating a novel featuring adult characters with adult problems.

The Return seems gothic on its surface. Arthur Lawford, weak from a previous illness, tires while walking in a graveyard. He naps beside the grave of NicholasSabathier, a man who committed suicide in 1739. Lawford awakens refreshed and vigorous, but to his dismay he discovers that his face and physique have changed. Later, a mysterious stranger, Herbert Herbert, reveals that Lawford resembles a portrait of Sabathier, and Herbert’s sister Grisel becomes a powerful attraction for Lawford—she seems to be an incarnation of the lover who may have driven Sabathier to kill himself. The plot, when examined by itself, seems trite and melodramatic, yet de la Mare makes the events frightening, in part because he imbues the novel with genuine metaphysical questions and in part because he believes in his story.

Belief is always a problem in fiction, particularly fantastic fiction. Part of what makes hackwork poor literature is insincerity in the author; the author does not believe that his work is valid, important, or worthy of belief. De la Mare clearly believes that the love story in The Return is important, that the novel’s themes are valid, and that its events can be believed. His sincerity endows the novel’s events with poetic power. Thus, the question of Lawford’s identity becomes disturbing for the reader: De la Mare is saying that no one’s identity is certain. Soon after Lawford’s physical metamorphosis, his speech takes on a dual sound, as if he and Sabathier were speaking simultaneously. His conversations with Grisel are discussions between the corporeal Lawford and Grisel and between Sabathier and his past love.

In The Return, de la Mare’s notions about the human spirit being part of two coexistent worlds are made graphic. Lawford becomes a citizen of everyday reality and of the greater reality of the spirit. He can see the world out of time, past and present; he battles both corporeal and supernatural foes; he is at once Sabathier and an ordinary, middle-aged Englishman. Although a part of two realities, he is accepted by neither. His friends and neighbors want him jailed or locked up in a madhouse; Grisel tells him that he cannot have her, although she shares his love, because he is not free of the burdens of his old world. The dilemma of Lawford, trapped as he is between the two worlds, is representative of the human condition: Everyone is trapped between two realities because everyone, whether he chooses to recognize it or not, is spiritual as well as physical. So thick with double meanings and disturbing confusions is The Return that its almost too convenient resolution—on All Angels Eve, the night on which Sabathier had committed suicide, Lawford is freed of Sabathier’s spiritual tug—is a relief. Lawford is free to pretend that what he sees is all that exists, and so is the novel’s reader.

Memoirs of a Midget

Greeted from its publication with praise for its characterization and graceful prose, Memoirs of a Midget is generally regarded by critics as de la Mare’s masterpiece. The novel allows multiple readings; most critics readily recognize de la Mare’s unusually successful development of a character’s point of view, and they note the subtlety of his social commentary, but they often fail to recognize the novel’s informing purpose. The story is simple on its surface. Miss M., also known as Midgetina, is a perfectly formed midget. The novel describes her childhood and emergence as an adult. Her point of view as a small adult is carefully created. The bulk of the novel is devoted to her twentieth year, during which she confronts her selfhood and comes to understand that there is a world of the spirit that is greater than the physical one in which she is a social amusement.

The novel has a Victorian flavor, and many of the characters have a Dickensian vitality. One of the most memorable characters is Mr. Anon, a misshapen hunchback who is only a little taller than Miss M. Mr. Anon transforms Miss M. from a social manipulator into a thoughtful person. He loves her—probably, he says, because she isone of the few people close to his size. His ugliness is repulsive, and Miss M. wants to keep him as a friend, but not as a lover. She joins a circus in order to become independent and quickly becomes a main attraction. In order to save Miss M. from possible recognition when Mrs. Monnerie, Miss M.’s former patroness, attends the circus, Mr. Anon takes her place in a pony-riding act. He is thrown from the pony and later dies in Miss M.’s arms. Some critics contend that at Mr. Anon’s death Miss M. finally loves him. What is probable is that she believes that his inner self—his spirit—is beautiful and more real than his ugly physical form. Later, Miss M. disappears from a locked room. Her housekeeper, Mrs. Bowater, who commands the only entrance and exit to the room, hears a male voice from within, even though no one had entered through the door. Upon investigation, Mrs. Bowater finds a note which reads “I have been called away.”

The character of Miss M. is well suited to de la Mare’s purposes. She is small and treated like a child by other characters, and thus her perspective is like that of a child. Reared in seclusion by indulgent parents, she emerges into society with much of her childlike ability to experience the world inductively still intact. She is an adult with an adult’s thinking capacity, enabling her to understand as well as know the world. She is an excellent vehicle for de la Mare’s ideas about the nature of the human spirit. She observes the best and worst in people, and she sees that the unhappiest people are those who see the world as something to be manipulated, who take without giving. Mr. Anon gives all he has without expectation of receiving what he wants, Miss M.’s love. Memoirs of a Midget is more than a story of a social outcast’s view of society; it is a depiction of spiritual conflict and revelation.

De la Mare was a seeker, a questioner, and an observer; the endings of his novels are suggestive but provide few answers. A skilled and demanding craftsman, he never failed to entertain his readers, but he employed his storyteller’s gift in the service of the lifelong spiritual quest which animated all of his works.


Principal long fiction
Henry Brocken, 1904; The Return, 1910; The Three Mulla- Mulgars, 1910 (reprinted as The Three Royal Monkeys: Or, The Three Mulla-Mulgars, 1935); Memoirs of a Midget, 1921; At First Sight: A Novel, 1928.

Other major works
Short Fiction: Story and Rhyme: A Selection, 1921; The Riddle andOther Stories, 1923; Ding Dong Bell, 1924; Broomsticks and Other Tales, 1925; Miss Jemima, 1925; Readings, 1925-1926 (2 volumes); The Connoisseur and Other Tales, 1926; Told Again: Traditional Tales, 1927; Old Joe, 1927; On the Edge, 1930; Seven Short Stories, 1931; The Lord Fish, 1933; The Nap and Other Stories, 1936; The Wind Blows Over, 1936; Animal Stories, 1939; The Picnic, 1941; The Best Stories of Walter de la Mare, 1942; The Old Lion and Other Stories, 1942; The Magic Jacket and Other Stories, 1943; The Scarecrow and Other Stories, 1945; The Dutch Cheese and Other Stories, 1946; Collected Stories for Children, 1947; A Beginning and Other Stories, 1955; Ghost Stories, 1956.
Play: Crossings: A Fairy Play, pr. 1919.
Poetry: Songs of Childhood, 1902; Poems, 1906; The Listeners and Other Poems, 1912; A Child’s Day: A Book of Rhymes, 1912; Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes, 1913; The Sunken Garden and Other Poems, 1917; Motley and Other Poems, 1918; Flora: A Book of Drawings, 1919; Poems 1901 to 1918, 1920; Story and Rhyme, 1921; The Veil and Other Poems, 1921; Down-Adown-Derry: A Book of Fairy Poems, 1922; Thus Her Tale, 1923; A Ballad of Christmas, 1924; Stuff and Nonsense and So On, 1927; Self to Self, 1928; The Snowdrop, 1929; News, 1930; Poems for Children, 1930; Lucy, 1931; Old Rhymes and New, 1932; The Fleeting and Other Poems, 1933; Poems 1919 to 1934, 1935; This Year, Next Year, 1937;Memory and Other Poems, 1938; Haunted, 1939; Bells and Grass, 1941; Collected Poems, 1941; Collected Rhymes and Verses, 1944; The Burning-Glass and Other Poems, 1945; The Traveller, 1946; Rhymes and Verses: Collected Poems for Young People, 1947; Inward Companion, 1950; Winged Chariot, 1951; O Lovely England and Other Poems, 1953; The Complete Poems, 1969.
Nonfiction: Rupert Brooke and the Intellectual Imagination, 1919; The Printing of Poetry, 1931; Lewis Carroll, 1932; Poetry in Prose, 1936; Pleasures and Speculations, 1940; Chardin, J.B.S. 1699-1779, 1948; Private View, 1953.
Edited Texts: Come Hither, 1923; The Shakespeare Songs, 1929; Christina Rossetti’s Poems, 1930; Desert Islands and Robinson Crusoe, 1930; Stories from the Bible, 1930; Early One Morning in the Spring, 1935; Animal Stories, 1939; Behold, This Dreamer!, 1939; Love, 1943.

Atkins, John. Walter de la Mare: An Exploration. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1973.
Duffin, Henry Charles. Walter de la Mare: A Study of His Poetry. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.
Hopkins, Kenneth. Walter de la Mare. London: Longman, 1954.
McCrosson, Doris Ross. Walter de la Mare. New York: Twayne, 1966.
Reid, Forrest. Walter de la Mare: A Critical Study. St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1970.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Seven Masters of Supernatural Fiction. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991
.Whistler, Theresa. Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare. London: Duckworth, 1993.

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