Where the Blue Begins by Christopher Morley ~ 1922. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1934. Hardcover. 215 pages.
My rating: 6.5/10
“I am not free—
And it may be
Life is too tight around my shins;
For, unlike you,
I can’t break through
A truant where the blue begins.
“Out of the very element
Of bondage, that here holds me pent,
I’ll make my furious sonnet:
I’ll turn my noose
To tightrope use
And madly dance upon it.
“So I will take
My leash, and make
A wilder and more subtle fleeing
And I shall be
More escapading and more free
Than you have ever dreamed of being!”
It took my two tries to get this one finished, as I kept putting it aside for other things more immediately pressing, but finished it is, and what an odd – and oddly diverting – story it was.
It starts off predictably enough. Here we have a decently prosperous, almost middle-aged bachelor, one Gissing, whose private income is just sufficient to allow him a life of leisure, with a country house staffed by a manservant, and scope for mild entertainment and some local travelling.
Gissing lived alone (except for his Japanese butler) in a little house in the country, in that woodland suburb region called the Canine Estates. He lived comfortably and thoughtfully, as bachelors often do. He came of a respectable family, who had always conducted themselves calmly and without too much argument. They had bequeathed him just enough income to live on cheerfully, without display but without having to do addition and subtraction at the end of the month and then tear up the paper lest Fuji (the butler) should see it.
He had no responsibilities, not even a motor car, for his tastes were surprisingly simple. If he happened to be spending an evening at the country club, and a rainstorm came down, he did not worry about getting home. He would sit by the fire and chuckle to see the married members creep away one by one. He would get out his pipe and sleep that night at the club, after telephoning Fuji not to sit up for him. When he felt like it he used to read in bed, and even smoke in bed. When he went to town to the theatre, he would spend the night at a hotel to avoid the fatigue of the long ride on the 11:44 train. He chose a different hotel each time, so that it was always an Adventure. He had a great deal of fun.
But having fun is not quite the same as being happy…
Gissing is occasionally disturbed by vague yet compelling yearnings to see and understand his purpose in the world. What’s it all about, and what should we do with it, this thing called “Life”? What’s over the next horizon, “where the blue begins”?
Gissing was increasingly disturbed. Even his seizures of joy, which came as he strolled in the smooth spring air and sniffed the wild, vigorous aroma of the woodland earth, were troublesome because he did not know why he was so glad. Every morning it seemed to him that life was about to exhibit some delicious crisis in which the meaning and excellence of all things would plainly appear. He sang in the bathtub. Daily it became more difficult to maintain that decorum which Fuji expected. He felt that his life was being wasted. He wondered what ought to be done about it.
Casting about the April countryside, Gissing one night comes upon three abandoned infants, and his immediate impulse is to take them home and raise them as his own. This he successfully does, and in the turmoil of surrogate fatherhood his larger questions for the moment are answered, until Fuji rebels, gives notice, and leaves Gissing to manage on his own.
Consternation! What to do now? It’s suddenly all too much! Luckily there is motherly Mrs. Spaniel, Gissing’s laundress, who can be persuaded to give over her other duties and come to care for the children, allowing Gissing some breathing space once again. And once he has time to collect his thoughts, his mind returns to its original track. What’s out there? What is it all about?
Leaving Mrs. Spaniel in charge, Gissing departs for the city, in order to further explore his possible destiny. There he finds employment as a floorwalker in a large department store, and through his superior intellect and with a goodly dose of bravado, he soon rises to the position of store manager. But though this is financially rewarding, Gissing’s spiritual life is still unfulfilled, and he abandons his position, breaking the heart of his elderly sponsor as he goes.
A stint as a lay reader in a church follows, and a promising romance with the appealing and prosperous Miss Airedale seems for a while to still Gissing’s wandering soul, but this too comes to naught, and he runs away to sea, a stowaway on the steamship Pomerania, where he is discovered and adopted by the gruff Captain Scottie, a fellow deep thinker and theological debater. Gissing rises to Staff-Captain, and despite having no previous knowledge of seamanship, proceeds to steer the ship at will, following his whims, to the mute distress of the helpless crew.
He himself had fallen into a kind of tranced felicity, in which these questions no longer had other than an ingenious interest. His heart was drowned in the engulfing blue. As they made their southing, wind and weather seemed to fall astern, the sun poured with a more golden candour. He stood at the wheel in a tranquil reverie, blithely steering toward some bright belly of cloud that had caught his fancy. Mr. Pointer shook his head when he glanced surreptitiously at the steering recorder, a device that noted graphically every movement of the rudder with a view to promoting economical helmsmanship. Indeed Gissing’s course, as logged on the chart, surprised even himself, so that he forbade the officers taking their noon observations. When Mr. Pointer said something about isobars, the staff-captain replied serenely that he did not expect to find any polar bears in these latitudes.
As crew and passengers grow increasingly restive, Gissing eliminates them by one bold move, and sails on alone, until he reaches an intriguing landfall, whereupon all his questions are at last answered.
Now, if you’ve read this far, you may be noticing a certain theme with the names and all. For the characters are indeed all canine. This is the world as we know it, but it is peopled entirely with anthropomorphized dogs. They walk on two legs, wear clothes, drive motorcars, dwell in houses, but the canine instinct continually makes itself known. Aromas madden these creatures; they occasionally tear off their clothes and run madly through the countryside, to return apologetically to their dwellings when the mood passes. They snap and snarl when taunted, and the pack instinct is strongly present, as Gissing finds to his discomfort when he falls afoul of a church congregation and must flee madly from their sharp white teeth, escaping through the Sunday-peaceful countryside until refuge presents itself in an unattended steamroller, with bizarrely hilarious results.
It’s beyond weird, this whole conceit, but it works surprisingly well, and Morley is obviously enjoying himself thoroughly the whole way through this very odd book. It was a bestseller in its time, and was produced in numerous editions. And yes, this is the Christopher Morley of The Haunted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels, and if I was expecting something along those lines when I first picked up Where the Blue Begins, I was soon shaken out of my complacency.
Here it is, if you want to read it yourself, courtesy of the ever-helpful Project Gutenberg.
And here is a quite recent review, at Flayrah, which gives a good overview, though it contains some spoilers.
Amazing what one finds in the dusty vintage stacks!
Here are several examples of the Arthur Rackham illustrations, made for a very rare limited edition printing. Rackham’s vision of the characters is rather disturbingly creepy, I think, but I’m not really sure how I see them myself, so can’t be too critical!