It has often been erroneously assumed that the function of art were to hold up a mirror to Nature and the common Life of Human Society. But, if such were truly the spectator’s primary field of interest, then he would surely look not in the playhouse, or the gallery, or the reading room, but rather fix his eyes on Nature itself, and on the common Life of Human Society itself, and seek no greater mirror than his own eyes and his own mind upon which to reflect it. Think you, however, on the illusion of the playhouse: it is that its painted doors open out onto a World, wherein the Characters go about their lives when not upon the Stage. Think you upon the illusion of the Novel: it is that the lives of the Characters extend beyond those events which have been specifically delineated by the Author; that their lives surround the Plot, as it were, just as the lives of all the City surround and interpenetrate that of one of its denizens. A child looks upon a mirror and wonders if it contains a world infinitely extended, as vast as the one of which it reflects but a portion, accessible only through the mirror, and invisible all around it. This is the function of art: the intimation that our lives are piecemeal, painted reflections, indicating the wider, invisible world around us, that we might gain ingress to, if only we could tell the real from counterfeit doors.
W.E. Pusey, The Mirror and the Function of the Arts.
W.E. (William Edward) Pusey is as little read today as he was during his own lifetime; yet there has always been a small coterie of admirers who esteem his work something very special indeed. To these aficionados, Pusey was the progenitor of what is sometimes called the “Door in the Wall” story, a type of fantastic narrative perhaps most famously exemplified by the central device of Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Though Pusey was undoubtedly the first to employ the commonplace of the mundane door providing access to a fantastic otherworld, he has received only desultory attention from the academy, and is virtually unknown among the currently burgeoning marketplace for fantasy literature. His books are so long out of print that they have assumed a kind of talismanic aura to his admirers; they are treasures to be patiently sought out in the nooks and crannies of antique stores and second-hand book markets. It is perhaps perfectly apt that W.E. Pusey should retain the same fiercely cherished obscurity in posterity which he seemed so disposed to maintain while living; and yet it is sad that when one hears of him today, it is only in relation to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his eventual disappearance. A kind of glib anecdotal myth has grown up around this subject, and I fear that Pusey’s admirers have been chiefly to blame for its propagation.
Pusey grew up in the Westminster district of Pimlico, where his father, the Rev Anthony Pusey, ministered to the Anglo-Catholic parishioners of St Saviour’s church in St George’s Square. Anthony Pusey was passionately involved in the political and commercial life of the district, and seemed to venerate men of vigour and industry to a far greater degree than those of merely exemplary conscience. In this regard, he was destined to be disappointed with William, born the youngest of five children in 1865, a timid, passive child prone from a very young age to illnesses of a psychosomatic nature. Despite showing considerable ability and promise as a student, William’s early attempts to cement a career for himself ended disastrously. He first tried to follow in his father’s footsteps, and after that briefly studied medicine, but it seems that William had been buoyed into each of these endeavours by the weight of societal expectation alone, and both fell rapidly into abeyance owing to his crippling sense of social anxiety. He lived in the family home until his twenty-sixth year, and would doubtless never have left it, had not his relationship with his father deteriorated to an intolerable degree. Anthony had come by this time to regard his son as an effete and degenerate creature, and William was effectively banished from the Pusey household, albeit with a modest monthly allowance, his father’s disdain not quite sufficient to leave him wholly destitute. William remained on cordial if rather distant terms with his siblings, but it is supposed that he never spoke to his father again, and would not, according to his biographer, “have seen his mother, otherwise than by chance on the street, in the years prior to his disappearance.”
Although the address of his initial lodgings away from home remains obscure, we know it was during this period that William began writing in earnest, and discovered the great passion of his life, the single abiding companion to his solitary and guarded soul. This passion and companion was the city of London itself. He became an inveterate street walker, rambler, and explorer of the city, of her teeming public thoroughfares, her backstreets, her bright facades and forgotten nooks and crannies, every place under her sun and street light, well-trodden and commonplace or hidden and strange, as the case fell. His particular fondness was reserved for the antique stores, the curiosity shops, and the carts of the rag-and-bone men – he appeared wholly unable to pass by any random assortment of time-worn furniture and bric-a-brac without pausing to make a most assiduous perusal of the wares in question. Though he rarely had funds sufficient to purchase anything, it was noted that his browsing was peculiarly methodical, with its focus primarily tending towards grandfather clocks, curio cabinets, certain types of antique wardrobe, and old books, especially those pertaining to heraldry and alchemy. What hold these particular items had over his imagination we are not given to know.
Pusey developed and later elucidated two peculiar doctrines regarding the city which are worth briefly noting here. The first of these was a kind of faith that if you surrendered yourself wholly to the whims of the city, then it would lead you, by virtue of a serendipity intrinsic to its own nature, to precisely those places or people of which you are most in need. “One should never” he wrote, “walk with any purpose, structure, plan, or overriding goal in a city. It was perhaps needful for our ancestors in the wilderness to walk in such a manner, for to walk capriciously in the wilderness might lead one inadvertently away from all human fellowship, to places where no sign or policeman pointed the way back, and where one incurred the risk of starvation and utter disaster. Such, however, is not the case with the city, wherein one can walk everywhere certain of signs and fellow travellers. The city, being designed after the principles of human reason and composed everywhere of human activity, is an engine so constructed as to produce serendipities and meaningful coincidences. You will weary yourself to an early grave attempting to impose your will upon the city; but only surrender yourself to its true and hidden currents, and you will be lead precisely to those things which you were scarcely even cognisant of needing.” It is not certain how seriously or literally Pusey intended this doctrine to be taken, but there is ample evidence to indicate that his own habits adhered closely enough to it. Arthur Conan Doyle, who knew Pusey and admired his writings, later wrote: “One never met Pusey by appointment, only by happy accident. He was, I am told, extremely reluctant to make appointments of any kind, and made perhaps two or three annually pertaining to the publication of his books, and no more. Yet, for all that, one met him frequently enough; he was as native to the streets as the gaslight, and one suspected that the horses knew him.”
The second of Pusey’s suppositions regarding the city is more difficult to summarise. In his novella The Path Out of Malkuth, he writes: “The natural world is a strange and alternate order that keeps its own council and pursues ever its own course. Our primitive ancestors, being themselves only freshly cleaved from a full participation in the natural world, had a better grasp of it than we do. They understood that it was not uniform in character, but rather possessed of certain places wilder than others, some more dangerous, and others more powerful and potentially fortuitous to he who knew the proper usage of such places. They understood that the natural world was populated by intelligences and spirits, or Things which might best be evoked under such a description. The city, then, is built over the natural world, over its shifting topography of wild and dangerous and powerful places, over its native spirits and intelligences and nameless Things. The natural world and its old gods have never been vanquished, but merely overlaid with a veneer or a façade, like a canvas whose original image has been obscured by a secondary sketch; the original image remains, and its lurid potency and terror is still discernible to those who would look with sufficient acuity. The madman and the seer are subject at times to witness the old and ultimate order of things impinging itself over our modern world in all its protestations of geometry and reason. They will see the foliage of the old oaken bowers stirring momentarily on the reflective surfaces of shop windows, or overhanging the roofs of arched alleyways; they will see toadstools, moss, and glinting streams flicker through the cobblestones beneath their feet; they will see the face of Pan, livid and preternatural, overtake for an instant that of an inebriated youth on a passing carriage. To understand that the elder commonwealths still assert their inscrutable customs and influence over certain parts of the city would elucidate a great deal which is mysterious to us regarding city life: we would know the source of many strange, fugitive notions that pass through our minds as though from somewhere other than our own lives and memories; we would find the cause underlying many abrupt and inexplicable reversals of character and fortune which befall the city-dweller; we would know the true nature of the figure that the murderer’s career traces across the map.” To ascertain whether or not Pusey really believed such notions, we must explore his attitude towards his writing in general: did he regard it as purely fictional, or something else?
In answering this question, even his more sober commentators must concede that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Pusey did not regard his work as fictional at all. Between the years of 1887 and ’99, Shadwell’s published the whole of Pusey’s body of work – six slender volumes, containing two novellas, eighteen short stories, four essays, and a handful of poems. (This mixed form of collection was relatively unconventional, and the Shadwell firm seems to have shown Pusey a considerable degree of indulgence, both for his personal eccentricities and the comparatively meagre sales of his work. The reason for this was simply that Pusey was greatly admired in literary circles, and avowed by many to be an epitome of the Decadent and Aesthetic movements which were then in considerable vogue.) In all of Pusey’s work, we find the reiteration of a single idea and a single motif: the notion that his world is in itself insufficient and incomplete, but contains within it certain doors and gateways that lead into more fantastic and ennobling kingdoms or dimensions. In the classic type of the Pusey story, a young man sets out on an important assignment, often taking the form of a rite of passage or transformation, such as the preparatory stages of a romance, marriage, or career. The youth is in a state of considerable uncertainty and reluctance regarding the course of action he must undertake, and finds himself momentarily distracted by an arresting piece of architecture, a back-street he has never noticed before, or a peculiar trinket in the window of one of Pusey’s beloved antique stores. By a subsequent chain of events, he is lead through one of the author’s many interdimensional doors into worlds of ideality and wonder, outside the cycles of time and the fragility and impermanence of ordinary matter. In a frequently utilized twist, just as a mundane door in our world leads into the fantastic otherworld, so in the otherworld an exotic and particularly enticing doorway leads back to the mundane world of earthly drudgery and impermanence. It should be noted that these stories frequently have an ambiguous or even mournful conclusion. Once returned to the ordinary world, the protagonist experiences an extreme effect of time dilation, familiar from the folk-tales of the Faery otherworld. He himself will have aged dramatically, or the world he left will be many, many years advanced into its future; either way, he is now fundamentally out of step with the world around him. He will have lost both the magic of the otherworld, and the thing he sought to do in this world before discovering the doorway.
We find Pusey’s clearest and most detailed exposition of his ideas regarding the nature of fiction in The Mirror and the Function of the Arts, a lengthy, manifesto-like essay which was first published in his 1889 collection The Way Out of the Park that Wasn’t and Other Stories. Pusey begins by arguing against the commonplace that art serves to reflect, or bring into a heightened and poetized focus, the concerns and character of the real world. If art was really about the real world, Pusey reasons, then it would have no incentive to exist in the first place: the art-object of reality is all around us at all times, and we need only open our eyes to freely imbibe of it. “Why go to the pain-staking effort of creating,” he asks “a smaller-scale model of that which is already infinitely extended, ever-present, and effortless to peruse and enjoy? Why a piecemeal and imperfect copy of an original which is already infinitely perfect by its mere presence and conformity to its own ineffability? It would be like turning one’s back from a great, thunderous shoreline, in order to hollow out a pretty puddle in the sand in its honour. Why turn away from life and the world (as every artist must do in the solitude and impracticality of his labours), in order that one might show life and the world as it truly is? Is not all the time the artist spends cultivating his work ultimately a time in which he is divorced from the ordinary concerns of men and all the common dictates and consequences of the natural world, the sculptor toiling in a world of solid forms that remain ever stationary, the painter in a world of lissome, reclining voluptuaries which can never be ravished by any touch, the author in a world of men and women who live and die in the phantasmagorical spaces between abstract symbols and grammars? Do we as the audience of these artists not share to some degree in their solitude, their great migration away from the world of reality and ordinary men? No, the function of art cannot relate to the world in which we live and breathe and toil and suffer; in fact, by its very nature it must relate to the opposite of this; its true concerns must always lie elsewhere.” Pusey completes the first rhetorical salvo of his argument with the image of the mirror: we do not look at a reflection of the world in the mirror of art, but rather become transfixed by the mirror itself. We look at a door reflected in the mirror, and wonder if it leads off into an alternate world which is like the real world in scale, yet somehow different in some essential fashion.
Pusey continues by exploring the distinction between what he labels fantastic and journalistic art. “What is currently labelled the fantastic in art is merely art in its purest, natural condition. In their inception, dreams, art, and the religious imagination are indistinguishable from one another. They are the same force, the same tendency at work in man. Hence, the art of Homer, of Aeschylus, of Dante, of all the venerated giants of the past, is what we might derisively label the art of the fantastic or the decadent today. The journalistic is the primary mode of art in the modern world, being a type of art concerned with verisimilitude, with what is deemed to be the factual conditions of human society and human intercourse. The venerated giants of our literary heritage went to the deep crucible of their being to pry out the underlying forms and iconographic figures of the Imagination; the artists of the journalistic present merely skim the surface of their five senses to provide a supplement to the newspaper and the photographic plate.” Thus far, Pusey’s essay reads as a fairly typical aesthete’s broadside against the increasing tendency of the arts towards realism; however, he now commences to make a boldly counter-intuitive suggestion: it is precisely in turning away from the world that the artist begins to approach the true nature of reality.
“The defining characteristic of the human mind,” he writes, “as against that of everything else extant, lies in its awareness, however dim, of having been deposed from its true and natural estate or condition. The average person is scarcely conscious of the life he leads and all the bountiful world around him; but only incarcerate a man in some prison-cell, and the awareness of what it means to move freely through the world will immediately impose itself on his every waking moment. It is for this reason that the human being, alone among all earthly creatures, has become highly self-consciousness: it is because we are prisoners here. Think you on how we gradually learn our way around and become familiar with a new place. The more we know this place, the less conscious we become when moving about it. But should, however, we come through some lane or alleyway, and find ourselves in some place utterly unlike that which we were expecting, a vertiginous shock is instantly delivered to our nervous constitution. Walk through a familiar door into something utterly unexpected, and we immediately awake to a heightened state of consciousness. Thus is the peculiar and unique nature of human consciousness: the shock of finding ourselves where we did not expect and do not belong. There is simply no good reason why beings born in the marrow of physical bodies that exist and have physical existence alone should conceive of things that do not and have never existed; the conception of the immaterial, the stirring of the religious imagination, the arts and the dream-life of the species, are all but a garbled attempt to remember our prior and true estate; the Imagination, then, though composed of partial and incomplete memories, is nevertheless the true reality, or at any rate the best trail of crumbs to lead us back the way we came.”
This then, was Pusey’s distinctly gnostic or Platonic philosophy, and a close reading of this essay in conjunction with other evidences has persuaded many of Pusey’s admirers that he not only believed the substance of his stories to be true, but indeed that the true object of his endless exploration of the London streets was nothing other than the Door in the Wall adumbrated in his tales. (Another theory holds that Pusey, while still living in his family home, developed a romantic obsession with a friend of his sister, a nurse named Helen Margaret Cameron. It is supposed that Pusey was passionately attached to the women, but refused to pursue her in any conventional or calculated fashion, choosing instead to trust in the providence of the winding street and the chance encounter, and hence he constantly walked, waiting for the city itself to affect the longed-for reunion with his beloved.) I have, however, no objection to the supposition that Pusey sought a real and literal door into the otherworld. What I am troubled by is the suggestion that he found it.
Owing to his eccentric personal habits, we cannot date the disappearance of W.E. Pusey with even remote precision. We know that on the 4th of March, 1902, Pusey’s sister Charlotte received a letter from a Miss Molloy Hodgson . Miss Hodgson identified herself as the landlady of a boarding house situated near King’s Cross railway station. She was looking for any information regarding the whereabouts of William E. Pusey, whom she claimed had absconded two weeks previously from her lodgings, considerably in arrears both for rent and the extra charge levied on guests receiving “the good meat” for supper. Charlotte and her brother Winfred then went to investigate the situation, and were horrified to discover that their sibling had lived for four years in rented accommodation “most decrepit in condition, and deeply unpleasant and almost sinister in atmosphere”. Whether this sentiment reflected the offense of an exaggerated middle-class delicacy, or a true appraisal of Miss Hodgson’s digs, we are not given to know. Pusey’s possessions were found to have been meagre: a few peculiar trinkets he had picked up in the antique shops, a few books, and a manuscript which contained “an unfinished tale of the type he was given to writing for Shadwell’s.” This manuscript was subsequently lost, but the last line Pusey wrote is recorded in the correspondence of Charlotte Pusey: “Be careful and be alert, for you thread now in places wherefrom you may never return; every detail is significant, and all Paths have Consequences”.
This, then, is the whole of the story, such as it is. Pusey was never seen again by anybody who knew him, and no one has yet found a record of him emerging elsewhere in the world. The folklorist and scholar Robert Kirk was famed for his collection of data concerning fairies, witchcraft, and clairvoyance in the Scottish Highlands in the 17th century, published a century after his death as The Secret Commonwealth. Though his death had been occasioned by entirely natural causes, a folk-myth quickly emerged that he had not died at all, but rather been “taken” to the Otherworld to act as the “Chaplain to the Fairy Queen”. In such a fashion did his lifework become imaginatively jumbled up with the mundane facts of his demise, and something similar happened with Pusey. His more fanciful admirers have asserted that he did indeed find the Door in the Wall after nearly a decade of searching. Others have suggested that perhaps he left England and adopted a new identity somewhere else in the world. Perhaps, they speculate, the living ghost of London’s thoroughfares, its starving and impoverished Platonic idealist, became in the end an utterly different person, a successful man of the world, and left nobody the wiser. But this is scarcely more likely than he became the Chaplain to the Fairy Queen. In today’s world, Pusey would doubtless be diagnosed both as autistic and a sufferer of clinical depression. He cannot, we must imagine, have been as disinterested in his material circumstances as his conduct seemed to imply. He had written that the city would always lead its true supplicants to their ultimate prize. Yet, where had it lead him, the most devoted and trusting of its disciples? He had never found Mary Margaret Cameron, if indeed he had ever sought her in the first place. He had found no success as a writer, and hence no material independence that might have healed the rift between himself and his father. Sadly, the greatest likelihood remains that W.E. Pusey took his own life, in such a fashion whereby, whether by accident or design, his earthly remains were never subsequently discovered.