The Aloneness of Mrs. Chatham, as its title suggests, is about how Sheila Chatham, newly widowed, desires to live unto herself alone. “Aloneness” is different from “loneliness”.
“I’m determined to be myself,” says Sheila, a doctor’s widow. “I’m determined to know myself, realise myself, feel that I’m alive in a living, positive way. And to do this I must act on my own, and in my own way, I must tread my own path – alone.”
Her attempts to live literally alone are thwarted by her neighbours: Archie Chiffers, a likeable homosexual, and his partner, Finey; Mary Heathcote, CND supporter and anti-vivisectionist, therefore a figure of fun to Edgar, but I feel that she was based on his impressions of my mother whom I know to have been a sincere and deep thinker, who shared our spiritual interests (or mine at least, for she was not much in communication with Edgar). Other characters, neighbours of Sheila, were: Whitley Scanlan, a publisher, his sister, Diana, and his schizophrenic wife, Susan. These play a significant part in the story (particularly Susan), but most significant of all are the Lessier family who arrive from New Zealand, and move into a house in the lane (in the earlier version of ... Mrs. Chatham they were from Barbados).
Herbert is like a Guru to Shelia, and helps her to find her way on the spiritual path. He backs up his brother, Harpo, by justifying capital punishment in the following rather original way. Harpo is the character who expresses Edgar’s views on crime and punishment. Herbert says:
“You see, our minds and spirits have been firmly and rigidly moulded by conventional religious teaching. ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ It’s one of the ten commandments. But the trouble, my dear, is that this cosmic scheme of things that we call life, existence, isn’t as simple as that. If we could stand aside and view the universe dispassionately, we’d realise that many of the things we consider horrible are only so because our own limited minds have been conditioned into seeing them as such. Death is not horrible. It’s merely a switch-over from one nature of cosmic vibration to another. Or to try to put it more conventionally, a change of state of being. If I kill a fly or a bird, or a dog or a man, I haven’t really snuffed out a life ... ”
True, a criminal murderer also could justify himself like this, but Herbert goes on:
“Now, the trouble about love is that we generally make the mistake of being sentimental in our conception. We think of love as being associated only with tenderness, compassion, kindliness. Love can, and does, cover these things. But they are only one department, so to speak, of a fluid element. The truth is this. Love is simply harmony. When we act in harmony with the laws of the cosmos we are acting with love. When we act in disharmony we put ourselves out of tune with the great all-swamping flood of love and things go wrong.”
Edgar may describe this as “all-swamping”, but it is surely limited. Certainly Love is about acting in harmony. However, it is still Love. That is the meaning of the word, whether in a human way, or on a spiritual level. Punishment in the form of a deterrent could be part of it, but I feel only if in the form of helping also the offender to reform. Retributive punishment is not Love.
“ ... In the spirit world it’s love (that) counts, and the grand people there are the people who shine most with the light of love ... we ought to try and feel loving towards everyone, be they ever so humble or ever so wicked ... “
(The Boy Who Saw True, p.193, ed. Cyril Scott, see below).
... Mrs. Chatham contains passages that conflict so that, despite the author’s distinctive style, one might not know that they had issued from the same mind. There are the sensitive ones that recognise the life that had been in the “corpses of the leaves”. And there are the insensitive ones, such as a passage referring to the “bleating of .... (an) R.S.P.C.A official” as if even the very moderate form of protection to animals represented by the R.S.P.C.A. should be stamped out and animals not recognised as sentient, vulnerable creatures at all. And yet Edgar said that he loved “the birds and wild creatures”, but did he? Only as part of the landscape perhaps - and the songs. There is a sentence in A Tinkling in the Twilight where he says that he (or rather, Brian) likes the bird songs, but not the birds. This would be because he was thinking of bird droppings, and also untidiness in the eaves!
However, A Tinkling ... was written before the days when we used to feed the birds on the sill outside our window. A passage in Uncle Paul (1963) seems to be based on this:
“The chaffinches returned. ‘Twee-cheet! Twee-cheet!’ they cried.
He patted her wrist and glanced towards the window, smiled, murmured: ‘Lovely, aren’t they. Like you. So untroubled and serene.”
Uncle Paul is one of the last books that Edgar wrote.
He was interested in the book called The Boy Who Saw True. This is claimed to be the true diary of a boy, written in Victorian times, who can see auras and spirits of the departed, and so on. At first he does not realise that he is different from anyone else – that everyone cannot see these things. As a young child, he refers to the auras he sees around people as their “lights”. His innocence may have been inspiration for a child – a small girl in The Wounded and the Worried - who sees Fanny’s grandfather and does not realise that this is a ghost or spirit. There are many child characters in Edgar’s books, and he was fond of children.
“He who hath a great brain may nevertheless have an evil heart, but he who hath a great heart will never have an evil brain, even though it may be lacking in forcefulness.”
(The Boy who Saw True, p.31)
I think Edgar knew this really. Once he said that he would be happy if a companion was “with him in spirit” even if she did not share his intellectual capacity.
Cyril Scott, the editor of The Boy Who Saw True, was a Theosophist, and Edgar referred to Theosophy in The Wounded and the Worried. While we lived in Farnham, I belonged to the Theosophical society, but Edgar was not a “joiner” of any society. He came once to a meeting at the Farnham Lodge, as it was called, and in his usual outspoken fashion, he made remarks about the possible fraudulence of Madame Blavatsky, the well known co-founder of the society. It was as if he had attended a Christian evangelical meeting and denied the Divinity and saving power of Jesus, and there was uproar. He did not get on well with the lady at whose house the meeting was held – she kept a vast number of cats! An elderly spinster, she became dark pink in the face with anger and distress at his forceful comments on Blavatsky, and others were deeply disturbed also. The meeting was so disrupted that it had to be held again at a later date.
To end this chapter on a more uplifting note:
“I can see that - ,” says Sheila Chatham, about spiritual truth, “but as though at a distance.”
“One day,” Herbert tells her, “you’ll travel towards it and reach it.”
And at the end of the book she says:
“Now I know I have it in me to crash through to the Light straight as a rod.”
However, I believe that Edgar chose Mrs. Chatham and her forerunner, Angela Vimiero, for their feminine, receptive approach - different from his own approach at least outwardly, even though he, too, was a student of spiritual teachings. Sheila Chatham says that she wonders what “radiant essence” she will finally draw out of all the experiences and ideas that, even in her aloneness, or perhaps because of it, are being poured into her.