In her column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be. This month, she examines an anomalous work, They, in Kay Dick’s already anomalous oeuvre.
Kay Dick is a name all but forgotten today, but in the midtwentieth century she was at the heart of the London literary scene. A list of the guests regularly entertained by her and her partner, the novelist Kathleen Farrell, at their Hampstead home—they lived together from 1940 to 1962—includes a host of successful and popular writers of the era, including C. P. Snow, Pamela Hansford Johnson, Brigid Brophy, Muriel Spark, Stevie Smith, Olivia Manning, Angus Wilson, and Francis King. I mention them here, because it was the scathing description of Dick’s treatment of her friends, as detailed in her obituary in the Guardian in 2001, that first attracted my attention.
“For many years,” wrote the writer and journalist Michael De-la-Noy, “the novelist Kay Dick, who has died aged 86, was at the centre of literary intrigue and gossip.” The claim he then makes—that she “expended far more energy in pursuing personal vendettas and romantic lesbian friendships than in writing books”—is cutthroat enough to smack of a vendetta all of its own. He describes her as a failed artist, “a talented woman bedeviled by ingratitude and a kind of manic desire to avenge totally imaginary wrongs.” De-lay-Noy’s obituary is less a celebration of Dick’s life and more an all-out character assassination, one that details a litany of grudges maintained, ambitions thwarted, and friendships cruelly smashed to smithereens. Needless to say, I was intrigued enough to immediately hunt down Dick’s books.
Initially, I was slightly disappointed by what I found. Her first four novels—By the Lake (1949), Young Man (1951), An Affair of Love (1953), and Solitaire (1958)—which tell stories of romantic or familial entanglements against the backdrop of refined European settings, were elegant but not especially memorable. Her fifth work, Sunday (1962), proved more absorbing, especially in its psychological astuteness. It’s a loosely autobiographical novel about her childhood (Dick was born in England in 1915, but educated in Geneva, then at the Lycée Française in London, before leaving home at the age of twenty “to mix with a louche set,” as she later put it in an interview) and her relationship with her glamorous single mother. “She must have had great courage,” wrote Dick in an autobiographical piece that detailed the story of her birth, “because illegitimacy in the First World War was a very unpleasant business to be mixed up with, especially for a woman brought up in a reasonably privileged fashion.” But then, almost out of nowhere, I found myself completely bowled over by Dick’s penultimate novel, They: A Sequence of Unease (1977). This disquieting, lean, pared-back dystopian tale, which won the now defunct South-East Arts Literature Prize, is a complete departure from her previous volumes. Reading it was like reading the work of an entirely different writer.
At less than a hundred pages, They is either a novella consisting of nine chapters, or a collection of nine interlinked short stories. The Times’s critic Philip Howard opted to describe it as the latter, and I’m inclined to agree, not least because the final episode, “Hallo Love,” was originally published as a stand-alone piece two years earlier, in 1975. Set amid the countryside and the beaches of coastal Sussex, They depicts a world in which plundering bands of philistines prowl England destroying art, books, sculpture, musical instruments and scores, punishing those artistically and intellectually inclined outliers who refuse to abide by this new mob rule.
Given that the actions of Ray Bradbury’s book-burning “firemen” are not dissimilar to that of Dick’s titular unnamed collective marauders, Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is an obvious point of comparison. As, of course, is Orwell’s 1984. Yet in its style and tone, They is actually much more reminiscent of the work of experimental British writer Ann Quin (is it just a coincidence, I wondered, that one of Dick’s characters is named “Berg,” the same as the eponymous protagonist of Quin’s 1964 debut?) and Anna Kavan’s enigmatic, almost psychedelic final novel, Ice (1967). Kavan’s book, in which a man pursues a silver-haired woman across a snowy, postapocalyptic wasteland, reads like a strange, eerie dream sequence; a description that could also be applied to the unsettling, cryptic episodes of They. Kavan’s much mythologized midlife reinvention was brilliantly summarized by Emma Garman on the Daily: “Once a wholesome young English housewife who wrote conventional women’s fiction, so the story goes, in her thirties she was confined to an insane asylum and emerged as a chic, emaciated bottle-blonde heroin addict, wielding a bleak and anarchic new literary voice,” and it explains the austere nihilism of Ice. Quin—whose struggle with mental illness also suffused her work—never modulated her writing voice. They, however, is all the more fascinating because it’s a complete anomaly in Dick’s oeuvre: a surreptitious late-career aberration, whose genesis is unclear, and which does not seep into what she writes after.
It’s apt then that much of the novel’s power lies in its mystery. The narrator—if, indeed, we’re listening to the same single voice throughout—seems to be a writer, who lives in a book-filled ex-coastguard’s cottage, alone apart from their dog. They are never named. Nor is his or her gender revealed, something that’s in line with what Kris Kirk, in an interview with Dick in the Guardian in 1984 described as Dick’s “androgynous mental attitude.” Dick had just finished explaining why the “overall tone” of the personal relationships depicted in her books is always bisexual, which is how she herself identified. She also notes that although she’s sexually attracted to both men and women, there’s “something extra” in her relationships with the latter; “this love, this emotion,” she clarifies. “I have certain prejudices and one of them is that I cannot bear apartheid of any kind—class, colour or sex,” she tells Kirk. “Gender is of no bloody account and if anything drives me round the bend it’s these separatist feminist lessies.” Given that Dick made a habit of loosely fictionalizing her own experiences, I’ve come to think of her protagonist in They as female. Even more inscrutable though are the “they” of the book’s title; “omnipresent and elusive,” as Howard describes them, extremely dangerous and violent, but also strangely vacant and automaton-like. “They” are rarely distinguished as individuals, which situates them in stark contrast to the narrator and her acquaintances.
In the opening episode, “Some Danger Ahead,” the narrator goes to visit the first of these; a man called Karr and a woman called Claire (perhaps husband and wife, we’re never told). Claire, a painter, is working in her studio, and Karr has an impressive library of books. Walking home later that day, the narrator stops by the village shop. “It’s the books at Oxford now,” she’s informed, in the manner of the latest gossip being relayed. No explanation follows. All we’re told is that she feigns disinterest in the news. We’re left in the dark as to what’s being discussed, but the narrator herself clearly knows what’s going on. “It must be possible…” she begins to ask Karr when she returns to his house the following day. “To be missed?” he finishes the question for her. “We shall all be reached,” he tells her. Later still, when she returns to her cottage, she notices that her copy of Middlemarch is missing from her bookshelf. “They took another book last night,” she tells Claire the next morning.
A new servant appears at Karr’s house. “They sent him,” Karr tells the narrator. “They cleared the National Gallery yesterday,” Claire reports shortly thereafter. Karr, it’s explained, is “training” a young boy named Jake (possibly his and Claire’s son, possibly not, Jake’s relationship to the adults is never explained) to remember that which is being destroyed, including scores composed by a man named Garth—who’s in love with Claire—and poems written by the narrator.
As the days pass, more books disappear from the narrator’s shelves. One evening, the friends sip champagne on Karr’s terrace, looking out over the estuary. When, the group later goes inside, they discover that Karr’s library has been stripped of books and the pictures have been removed from the walls. “Claire stroked the spaces where each painting had hung,” then she tells the others she has one more piece to finish and retires to her studio to work. Later that night, the narrator and Karr watch her being led away by “them.” What will happen to her, the narrator asks:
“They will blind her, and return her to me,” Karr said. “She went beyond the accepted limit. She continued to paint.”
Garth raced after them.
“And to him?” I asked.
“They will make him deaf,” Karr said.
“And to me, if?” I was ice all over.
“They would amputate your hands and cut out your tongue,” Karr said. “You’d better destroy the letters you’ve written. One must not leave them any possible opening for confrontation.”
As these vicious acts of retribution are described, a chill just as glacial as that assaulting the narrator descends over the reader. Later we learn that as well as corporal punishment, psychological torture is also employed. Those who resist are taken to treatment centers housed in tall, imposing, jail-like towers, where they’re purged of their memories and emotions.
One element that makes the book especially disturbing is that “they,” whoever they are, are not a government-sanctioned group like Bradbury’s firemen or Orwell’s all-pervading government surveillance, but rather an unsanctioned multitude, the strength of which appears to lie not in official mandates, but rather in the swell of their ever-increasing numbers. “Loners,” as “they” refer to the narrator and her kind, are more at risk than couples or families—“None-conformity is an illness. We’re possible sources of contagion,” another character explains. Television, for example, is compulsory. In a later episode, great bands of “them” march across the downs, “each one holding a pole to match his height.” Disinterest is the narrator and her friend Julian’s only defense. “Don’t look back,” he tells her. “We must not appear inquisitive.” So, too, excessive displays of emotion are forbidden. Love itself has been outlawed. In the final story, the narrator is “permitted” a fortnight of expressing pain after she falls and sprains her ankle: “I allowed myself the luxury of going utterly to pieces for forty-eight hours, moving like one demented through the hours, flooding my mind with old memories, metaphorically wailing at the wall of my loss.” She wonders what other injury she might inflict upon herself so as to be allowed similar “relief” in the future. It’s chilling, but compellingly so. All the more so because of the seamless way in which Dick stitches together what’s an evocatively drawn portrait of otherwise idyllic rural England with this shadow landscape of fear and violence. As Howard concludes in his review, They is “strong stuff, beautifully written, to make a man look behind him in fear and dread when walking down a leafy lane.”
The episodes described thus far read as windows onto a broader, single narrative of “we”—the narrator and her various cultured, artistic friends—versus “them.” Others, however, while set in the same milieu, have the feel of stand-alone tableaux, ending, as they do, on cliff edges of horror. The most arresting of these is “Pocket of Quietude,” in which the narrator travels to visit a man called Hurst who lives in a mill full of his artist son’s paintings, though the son himself is ominously absent. Two more refugees arrive, Russell and Jane—he plays the piano, and she’s a poet, though she’s recently had to learn to write with her left hand, her right having been badly burned, held over an open fire for eight minutes while “they” destroyed her work in the flames below. The mill initially seems like a safe haven, but underneath the surface, dark forces are at work. Hurst is a man “enriching” his “tomb”; he adds to his treasure trove, but in doing so he has to sacrifice those who bring him their work.
There are many ways to read the book: as a straightforward Orwellian dystopia, a sequence of vividly drawn nightmares, or, if we’re to believe De-la-Noy’s portrait of a writer who never fulfilled her potential, perhaps even as a metaphor for artistic struggle.
De-la-Noy’s obituary is ruthless, but a more equitable, less hyperbolic appraisal of Dick’s life and work reveals an utterly beguiling woman, one whom, although undoubtedly spiky, actually produced a large body of important work while also living an extremely full, free life in the company of many dear friends. Pierrot (1960), for example, Dick’s study of the commedia dell’arte is considered something of a definitive work on the subject. Then, during the fifteen-year gap between Sunday (1962) and They (1977), she published two absorbing volumes of literary interviews: Ivy and Stevie (1971), and Friends and Friendship (1974). Writing in the Times in 1974, A. S. Byatt declared that the former “would always be required reading” for anyone interested in either of its subjects, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Stevie Smith. Dick’s obituary in the same newspaper attributed her success as an interlocutor to the fact that she was a woman of “sympathy and perception,” one who’d “persuaded two naturally reticent women writers […] to reveal more about their inner lives than they had ever done to anyone, except obliquely through their writings.”
In the forties and fifties, we see in Dick a writer learning her craft. During this time she also worked in bookselling and publishing: aged only twenty-six, she became the first woman director in English publishing, at P. S. King & Son, and later she was the editor of The Windmill (under the pen name Edward Lane), a short-lived but acclaimed literary periodical. But it’s in the latter half of her career that she comes into her own as a writer. The flashes of brilliance found in Sunday are a more permanent fixture in her subsequent autobiographically inspired project, The Shelf (1984), the novel that followed They, and the final book Dick published. The Shelf is intriguing enough that I toyed with making it the subject of this column, before They won out. Written as a letter to her intimate friend Francis (presumably Francis King) it relates the story of a brief sexual affair Dick had with a married woman in the mid-’60s, not long after the breakdown of her relationship with Farrell. With its echoes of Jean Rhys’s stories of unhappy love affairs, what begins as a “wonderfully wanton adventure” swiftly turns into a tragedy when the narrator’s lover commits suicide. As Elaine Feinstein wrote in the Times, this “short, fierce, intelligent novel is as subtly accurate about the aphrodisiac effects of Lesbian love as it is about the pain of loss: and forgetting: and the fear of death.”
“I think,” Dick as her narrator, Cass, movingly writes, “that it is right and renewing to remember acts of love because, in the relative brevity of our lives, there is not time enough for loving. Until I brought myself back to recall that exuberant pleasure, I had almost forgotten about it, placed it, as I said, on the shelf, somewhere in my memory. One should be less mean with one’s memory of love, bring it out now and then, let it glow inside one as a positive element of our experiences to be cherished and to be grateful for. It is all too easy in troubled and preoccupied times to forget the blessings.” This spoke to me, that final line in particular, in our own troubled contemporary times. And here, as in moments in They—“Karr and I sat in the library, which was also a way of loving”—Dick shows herself to be a masterful writer, both more candid and more compassionate than De-la-Noy appreciated. Like any strong allegory, They can be read many ways, but is perhaps best, and most accurately, read as a plea for individual and intellectual freedoms by a woman artist who refused to refused to live by many of society’s rules. As Dick writes in Friends and Friendship, “it is an extremely courageous act to be a writer, painter, composer, because you are out on your own, in limbo, totally unprotected, not much encouraged, driven only by some inner conviction and strength, and the discipline is yours alone.”
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, The Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.