Caroline Coon reviews ‘The Greenwood Faun’

January 2018

The Greenwood Faun by Nina Antonia*

This is what I imagine happened once upon a time: Nina Antonia, my friend, went to the grave of the solitary poet Lionel Johnson (1867-1902) about whom she was writing a scholarly essay. As she stood wondering whether she should have brought lilies, Johnson’s favourite flowers, rather than chrysanthemums, she thought “What if?” In sympathy with the booze addled poet’s thwarted life, she decided to raise her hero from the dead in order to give him the erotic fulfilment he sadly never had in life, a companion of his dreams, a beautiful youth called Conrad. The story she narrates of this ghostly, doomed love affair is one thread in a cleverly constructed, many layered novel. The youth, Conrad (or ‘Connie’ in his feminine persona), with honey brown hair and sublime features like a Simeon Solomon portrait, has been seduced by the spirit of Pan “God of all there is” who haunts an ethereal, magic book, The Greenwood Faun. 

Conrad reads The Greenwood Faun only to become more like its fictional author, Lucian Taylor, another young writer, dazzling but self-destructive who, before his work was published or acclaimed, mysteriously dies.

Conrad’s respectable parents, the Hartington Leacock-Jones’, reside in a home that brings to my mind the ‘Aesthetic interior’ or ‘House Beautiful’ style of Sambourne House at 18 Stafford Terrace, Kensington, W 8. They represent the ‘straights’, fixed in law abiding rationality, as the story develops into a dastardly plot of queer, metaphysical revenge. Conrad’s sister Violet reads the book that is then found and read by her fiancé, one of the novel’s vivid villains, a lauded literary critic who decides to plagiarise and pass it off as his own. As the fictional The Greenwood Faun passes from hand to hand the book’s prankish spirit possess readers and creates savage mayhem. 

Reading the real book is an opulent experience as Antonia describes for us “roasted songbirds wrapped in vine leaves”, exotic velvets, green carnations, smoke and incense, the perfume Hamman that William Penhaligon created in 1872 inspired by the Turkish baths of Jermyn Street. She leads us through interweaving time periods that conjure deeply considered worlds where people like Oscar Wild, Paul Verlaine, Lord Alfred Douglas, Vesta ‘Burlington Bertie’ Tilly and Carl Van Vechten mingle with magic and shape-shifting characters who haunt and enchant. One minute we are taken through West London streets and places Antonia knows very well – shops that sell bric-a-brac and rare books, Goldhawk Road, Kensal Green Cemetery, Kensington Gardens – and then we are plunged into wild nature, fantasy forests in hyperrealist colours, like those in Symbolist or Pre-Raphaelite painting.

In fact, irrationality and super-clarity, two crucial elements in the works of English Victorian narrative artists, also inform Antonia’s novel. Like a literary Pre-Raphaelite painter, Antonia handles the delicate mental balance between reality and illusion in a way that is totally convincing. While reading her novel I felt as if I was in a dream within a dream, transported to an art gallery to stand beside her gazing, as we often have, at our favourite paintings. Her description of nature has all the loving detail on display in a painting like ‘The 

Woodman’s Child’ (1860) by Author Hughes. Violet resembles ‘The Bridesmaid’ (1851) by John Everett Millais. Amber Seabrook, who succours Violet with rituals and spells, resembles ‘Morgan le Fay’ (1864) by Frederick Sandys. Both the real and imaginary poets, Lionel and Lucian, conjure the image of ‘Chatterton’ (1856) by Henry Wallis. Reality, fantasy, myth, paganism, Abrahamic religions and mystical thinking such as William Blake’s – he believed that Christ was the divine materialisation of our human imagination – are all woven into The Greenwood Faun. 

The rational purpose of fairy stories such as this is to provide a framework for interpreting and making sense of the world. In the shadows of rational knowledge and understanding is imagination helping to throw light upon our human fears and despair. Although as an atheist I do not share Antonia’s religious belief, I wholeheartedly admire the way she expresses her awe of existence. Furthermore, the power of Antonia’s make-believe is anchored by psychological insight into human nature that is all too real. 

Underlying Antonia’s writing, journalism and poetry is profound compassion. Her life experience has enabled her to understand those, like rock musicians Johnny Thunders and Pete Doherty, whose need for comfort and healing is greater than any human can provide and for whom drugs are a relief and a pleasure. She understands how an artist, perhaps wounded as a child by adult cruelty, “reaches too far and is prone to madness and addiction”. She is drawn to explaining the biographical conditions that might lead a person to “dash themselves to pieces for the sake of their art”, the fraught circumstances that can destroy lives of artists not gifted or mentally strong enough to thrive and survive. In the he-she character of Conrad she has created an iconic portrait of a dreamer, an avatar for those who flee from convention with fatal consequence. For a time, Conrad/Connie is locked in an asylum, like so many who try to escape orthodox society or a father’s vengeful control. Here I am reminded of the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington whose supressed fury at her father, for demanding police arrest her lover, Max Ernst, because his paintings “corrupted public morals”, sent her insane. Carrington, with the help of friends, survived her stay in an asylum but, what of Antonia’s spectral teenager now addicted to opium? Just when we have settled into a passage of deadpan seriousness Antonia startles us with some Joe Ortonish burlesque. Frying kippers pop up beside silk underpants. Conrad tips the beef soup his mother insists will cure his dissipation into her prized aspidistra – the aspidistra thrives, the boy continues to decline.

The novel’s tragic climax takes place as if it were set in a moonlit, winter cityscape painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw. But for all the shivery vengeance, melodrama and death in this ravishing novel, Antonia’s primary writing voice is gentle, wreathed in a poetic ‘Georgian’ style perfectly attuned to the telling of a timeless ghost story that lingers in the mind, glittering like a frosted cobweb. 

* ‘The Greenwood Faun’ by Nina Antonia, 2017, Egaeus Press. A Limited Edition of 420. £32.00. (The book is exquisitely published with an embossed, gilded cover, endpapers from a design by Maurice Pillard Verneuil c.1896, and black and white 19c and early 20th century illustrations)