Authors: Dennis Parry
Also Available By Dennis Parry
SEA OF GLASS
With a new introduction by
Sea of Glass
by Dennis Parry
First published London: Hamish Hamilton,
First Valancourt Books edition
by Dennis Parry
by Simon Stern
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Published by Valancourt Books, Richmond, Virginia
Cover by Henry Petrides
Sea of Glass
, Dennis Parry’s tenth and last novel, met with widespread enthusiasm from the reviewers when it first appeared, sixty years ago, and has been included in several lists of unduly neglected novels (including one by Edward Gorey, for
), but is only now being reprinted for the first time. To say that Parry’s novel is a comedy of manners might imply that it does not have much to offer by way of a plot—but while the outlines of its plot are quite simple, Parry manages to fit a significant amount of action into the novel’s compact space. Featuring an inheritance dispute, a conniving schemer with kleptomaniac tendencies, an exotic rival claimant from Chinese Turkestan (by turns noble savage and femme fatale), a possible murder, and a back-story featuring a swashbuckling, gun-running entrepreneur with a fondness for posing as a
Boy’s Own Paper
hero, the tale is narrated by David Lindley, a Cambridge law student whose retiring personality makes him an excellent observer of the others’ maneuverings, and whose legal knowledge leads nearly all of the major characters to seek his advice at some point (about settlements, powers of appointment, and the like), thus providing a natural means of allowing them to confide in him or to appeal to his expertise while unwittingly revealing their motives. The ensemble also includes a semi-invalid grandmother, her censorious nurse, and a bibulous butler—and while this latter group may sound like a routine and predictable cast, Parry makes each of them original and intriguing. The result is a well-plotted, inventive, and urbane story, written in a style that keeps surprising the reader all the way down the page and onto the next one.
Set primarily over David’s summer holiday in
, the novel begins with David’s arrival at Mrs. Ellison’s house, where her granddaughter, Varvara (or ‘Barbara,’ as Mrs. Ellison insists), has only recently arrived from Doljuk (located in northwestern China, near the borders with Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, according to the geography lesson in chapter two). Parry’s invented address for the Ellison household,
Aynho Terrace, is somewhere in ‘West London, one of a row built in the last century,’ possibly in the same area as his own house in Earl’s Court, at
Collingham Gardens, which was built in the early
s. (The street’s name also bears some resemblance to that of David’s friend and sometime rival, Andrew Callingham.) Almost as soon as he arrives, David has a dramatic confrontation with Varvara that makes him fear for his own safety and her sanity, but he eventually concludes that her ‘persecution mania’ is well-founded, at least with respect to her uncle Cedric, Mrs. Ellison’s son. Intent on keeping Varvara from inheriting under his mother’s will, Cedric tries various tactics, and even resorts to stealing evidence. This rivalry animates much of the plot, which is punctuated by Varvara’s stories about her birthplace, where death may come in the form of a venomous bite from a barking spider, and one of the periodic rebellions resembles ‘a circus as much as a military operation,’ conducted with an array of weapons ranging from ‘Genoese crossbows to bronze cannon,’ to pebbles wrapped in ‘small pieces of paper … inscribed with highly damaging curses.’ Once these discordant characters have been set in motion, much of the plot centers on how they interact, as David looks on and occasionally intervenes.
The novel was greeted with very positive reviews. John Davenport, in the
, praised it as exhibiting ‘the classic novelist’s virtues.’ John Betjeman, in the
, wrote that Parry had a ‘clear legal head,’ and described him as a writer ‘not to miss in future.’ The
Sea of Glass
‘preposterous, often wonderfully funny’ and singled out Turpin, the butler, for praise, as a character who is ‘magnificent in unexpected speech.’ (The
also admired him: ‘Turpin is as round and fruity a character as his own port.’) The
Illustrated London News
observed that the novel ‘
might be described as marginal—or a long anecdote, which means the same thing. But an amazingly original and brilliant anecdote’ with remarkable ‘
wit, farce, penetration
summarized the author’s talents in the same fashion, observing that ‘Mr. Parry writes with wit, ingenuity, and even a gift for surrealistic fantasy.’
likened the novel’s ‘humour and scenes of high comedy’ to the
stories of ‘the early Isherwood.’
These terms of praise also recall the traits of a slightly earlier writer in the English comic tradition—Saki. The merits of Parry’s novel rival those of Saki in many respects: the events, the cast of characters, and the prose that describes them are strongly reminiscent of his fiction. Saki would have envied many of Parry’s epigrams. David observes, about his aunt, that ‘she had the true Britannic hatred of ill-defined queerness; at a pinch she would rather have been put down in an unequivocal brothel than a place where one could only say that something funny went on upstairs.’ On Varvara’s difficulty in adapting to the chic modes of
, he remarks, ‘However carefully Varvara put on her smart garments she always looked as if she had burst her way forcibly into them and was about to attempt an equally violent exit.’ Having eloped with a paramour who contracted a mysterious fever, Varvara’s mother ‘carried faithfulness so far as to catch the same disease.’ A cat, deliberate in its choice of method when stalking birds, sounds like any number of Saki’s cats (particularly the one in ‘The Reticence of Lady Anne’): rather than ‘getting down on the belly and relying on stealth, … this cat strolled towards the prey with an air of disengaged benevolence.’ Saki would also have relished the plot, with its concoction of outlandish elements, precipitated into a world where most of the characters (including, not infrequently, David himself) are concerned with keeping up appearances. The only feature missing, to complete the analogy, is the surprise ending that was Saki’s trademark. Indeed, some reviewers complained that the conclusion does not adequately redeem the plot that effectuates it; the
, for example, commended Parry’s ‘
fine, intelligent, and amusing style’ and called the opening chapters ‘astonishingly good,’ but found the ending ‘highly unsatisfactory.’ While perhaps this objection is formulated too strongly, some readers will probably agree with its spirit.
The air of mystery at the story’s end has a certain logic, but one cannot help thinking that a more dramatic reversal, or a revelation that changes the reader’s understanding of the events, would have carried the story to a more fitting close.
David’s perspective on the events is a familiar one in Parry’s novels, but it is used to especially good effect in
Sea of Glass
. Born in London in
, Parry was educated at Rugby School and King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied classics, graduating with a first-class degree in
. He then read Law and qualified as a Chancery Barrister, and spent four years in law practice before joining the civil service. Beginning as secretary to the Vice-Chief of Air Staff, he ultimately became Permanent Under-Secretary to the Minister for Coal Production. He began his career as a novelist with
, and the plots of his first two novels are focused mainly on the kinds of characters who form the back-story to
Sea of Glass
, featuring adventurous figures in exotic settings. Mark Valentine rightly compares
to John Buchan’s novels; another candidate might be David Footman, whose novel
The Yellow Rock
) is also set in Chinese Turkestan. Parry’s later novels, by contrast, usually have a lawyer, or a legally trained character (and often a Cambridge-educated one), as the protagonist. In
), the goings-on of a highly variegated group of eccentrics are described by a solicitor who provides, as one review noted, the ‘entirely normal’ foil for these figures, and who shares ‘his author’s turn of glancing humour’ and ‘happy economy in words.’ Mark Tillott, the protagonist of
Fair House of Joy
), is an ageing solicitor who regrets his choice of occupation (‘
Some of his friends said that, with his brain, he should have been a specialist, a
barrister perhaps’); his romantic involvement with a much younger woman ultimately leads to the destruction of his career. In
Sea of Glass
, David’s efforts to ‘practice his legal caution’ whenever anyone consults him, and Parry’s integration of legal details into the plot, make the lawyer-narrator a particularly effective figure. Indeed, although David explains that ‘sea of glass’ is the translation of Doljuk’s Chinese name, the phrase might at least as readily be taken to refer to the narrator himself. Parry evidently found the title in the Book of Revelations (‘I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire’), and it is David’s calming, if not glacial, presence, with its cool astringency, that holds the story together.
Tragically, Parry did not live to write another novel. Less than two months after
Sea of Glass
was published, Parry was injured in a car accident, and he died a few days later. He would probably be much better known today if not for his early death. The mid-twentieth century features few comic writers of Parry’s caliber, and having already published ten novels at the age of
, he would doubtless have kept up the same pace over the following decades, and might even have turned to writing as a full-time career. Although it’s unlikely that this new edition, sixty years on, will gain
a place in the canon of twentieth-century English authors, it will be welcomed by discerning readers who may agree with Edward Gorey that it has been unjustly—and inexplicably—neglected.
received his Ph.D. in English literature from Berkeley and his J.D. from Yale and is an associate professor at the University of Toronto, where he is a member of the Faculty of Law and the Department of English.
That afternoon I had called for a few minutes at the house in Aynho Terrace to leave my luggage, and I knew the way up to my bedroom. It was after eleven when I returned from an evening spent with a Cambridge friend. Turpin, the butler, again opened the door, grinning amiably in spite of the late hour.
‘Good night,’ I said.
‘And the same to you, sir,’ he replied heartily. ‘God wot!’
Young and innocent though I was, it struck me as an unusual response from a butler. I wondered if he had been drinking. (Not to keep anybody in suspense on this point, the answer was yes, of course.) Turpin wore a claret-coloured livery with brass buttons, and under that a waistcoat striped like a wasp. What I liked about him, next to his amiability, was his dirtiness, which was of the boyish, not the insanitary adult kind. His collar was slightly grubby and one cheek of his broad coarse-skinned face carried a smear of soot.
He contrasted oddly with his surroundings. From the little which I had seen of No.
Aynho Terrace it appeared to be most scrupulously kept. It was a huge old-fashioned house in West London, one of a row built in the last century at the zenith of England’s commercial prosperity. Even at the end of the
s (which is the time I am writing about) only very rich persons like Mrs. Ellison could afford to live in them. Now they have been broken up into slummy flats and stand there looking like elephants in a knacker’s yard.
I began to go up the stairs which were rather steep and narrow for so splendid a mansion. My feet sank into the deep pile of the carpet and the plaster on the ceiling leant down towards me in a heavy pattern of grapes and cornstalks and curlicues.
On the first landing I noticed the sculptured bust of a fine old man who slightly resembled Field-Marshal von Hindenburg, except that he had been hewn out in some stone the colour of toffee. Above him spread a potted palm and at his side was a model of a mechanical pump in a glass case.
I paused for a moment, suspecting that the sculpture must represent the late Mr. Ellison and the pump was one of the products of his engineering skill. If I had then known more about this formidable character I might not have dallied; I should have been aware that he intensely disliked any kind of waste—in which he included burning electric light on stairways whilst they were not in use. Accordingly he had installed at his home a device which is more common in lodging-houses and offices. It was a switch like a large button which one depressed in the hall in order to light up the stairs; as one ascended, the button, which was on a slow spring, gradually worked its way back to the original position; when this happened the light went out. The time-interval had been carefully calculated to allow a fit adult to go from the hall to the attic in good light, but no allowance was made for cripples, dotards, or persons who mooned about. It was not the policy of Mr. Ellison’s widow to remove any signs of his genius.
Darkness overtook me just as I reached the third floor, where my room was situated. I was a little taken aback but I thought I could find the way to my own door which was in an enclave at the far end of the landing. It was very dark, however, and I had not gone more than a few paces before I bumped into the wall on one side. At the same moment I became aware of someone breathing within a few inches of me. The shock immediately sent up my own rate of respiration; and for an instant my unseen companion and I joined in making a noise like a kettle near the boil.
Turpin, who had been locking up, must have realized that light might still be needed upstairs. At any rate he again manipulated the time-switch, and a lamp hanging just above my head sprang into life.
I found that I was facing a door in the left-hand wall of the corridor. It was open and in the gap stood a large girl with tawny hair and fierce blue eyes which, despite the sudden change of light, were fixed on me with unblinking hostility. In her right hand, raised shoulder-high, she held a long knife with a curved tip. It was pointed towards myself, and it may have been this which prevented me from obtaining full value from another of her circumstances. Never thereafter could I remember how she looked without a stitch of clothing.
Turpin had made rather a mess of his last essay with the switch. Evidently he had given it a glancing thrust which depressed it only a fraction of the way; with the result that the illumination lasted no more than a few seconds. At this second plunge into darkness my nerve failed. I scuttled for my own door and practically beat my way in through the panels. Once inside I promptly turned the key.
In bed I recovered my composure, and even began to think how, with a little reshaping, the incident might provide that element of romantic madness which had so far been lacking in my reminiscences. I knew several undergraduates, quieter and duller than myself, whose eyes would pop at the story—provided of course that they could be induced to believe it. It seems odd, but I did not speculate much about the identity of the girl or the reason why she went armed by night. Once I had rejected a theory that Mrs. Ellison might have a daughter who was a homicidal maniac, I was content with the certainty that next day could be made to reveal the answer.
This wise resignation was helped by the comfort of my surroundings. I lay in an old-fashioned bed which had curtains strung on a couple of movable brass rails. If it was winter or one wished to exclude the world, the rails could be swung out so that their draperies formed two parallel walls joined by a canopy. Now, however, they were bunched together above the pillows and the sleeper looked up into the stiff convolutions of the fabric as into the groyning of a cathedral roof.
Through the open window came a breeze smelling of jasmin. Before going to bed I had discovered that my room looked down onto a flat roof of the storey below, which projected further than the top part of the house. The roof was laid out with flowers in boxes and wicker chairs and potted shrubs. Below, the cliff-like bulk of the house fell away to a garden proper. All the houses in the terrace were so provided, and though the individual strips were narrow they added up, by moonlight, to a seemingly limitless vista of park and coppice.
I was on the verge of sleep when midnight struck. This was not the usual commonplace event. At
Aynho Terrace it began with a mellifluous chirring noise as if a flock of doves were about to take wing. Then chimes broke out from all over the house, striking every note on the keyboard and running in and out of each other like linked cascades. There were big clocks with fruity episcopal voices, and little ones that pinged like mosquitoes. The confusion of sound had—for me, at any rate—a curiously concrete effect. I felt that I was riding up and down on a sea of some tenuous but highly buoyant material.