DH Lawrence’s cautionary tale, The Man Who Loved Islands, concerning one man’s dream of avoiding the overcrowded cut-throat world, by founding a small island community over which he has complete control, is masterfully related.
It charts a disturbingly inexorable decline towards extreme alienation and may serve as a salutary warning to those who find pleasure in privacy that there is a certain safety in numbers.
Of the unnerving insecurities which may flare up through solitariness, Lawrence writes: ‘When, in the city, you wear spats and dodge the traffic with the fear of death down your spine, then you are safe from the terrors of infinite time.’
However, something far more unsettling may affect the lone human psyche, he suggests, for ‘once isolate yourself on a little island in the sea of space and the moment begins to heave and expand in great circles’, until the ‘souls of the dead are alive again and pulsating actively around you’.
Lawrence’s fluid, vigorous prose rolls and flows like waves over the shore, rising and swelling into hauntingly imaginative paragraphs.
He captures both the arresting beauty of nature in ‘the Celtic stillness’, as blackbirds make their ‘first long, triumphant calls’ in spring, when primroses follow the blackthorn, before there appears ‘the blue apparition of hyacinths, like elfin lakes’, and the sometimes overwhelming presence of ‘bygone years’, arousing mysterious ‘feelings and awarenesses’.
At a more mundane level, while resembling a hive of productivity, the island enterprise, presided over by Cathcart, ‘the Master’, haemorrhages his money.
Plus, there are accidents, illnesses (involving humans and livestock), storm damage to the yacht, squabbles and even signs of swindling.
From toasting the Master’s health, the island’s inhabitants take to despising him. Rumbles of discontent, like malevolent thunder, mingle with the fair morning and the scent of honeysuckle. Despite efforts at amelioration and balancing the books, the island is sold off to a hotel company and becomes, much to the Master’s chagrin, ‘a honeymoon-and-golf-island’.
Operations are scaled down on the second island, though problems escalate. The island feels ‘hateful to him, vulgar, a suburb’. Cathcart prepares to move, alone, to his tiny third island.
Although we witness the tide of life receding, the beguiling effect is sustained to the bleak and bitter ending.
Cathcart becomes dislocated to the point of losing recognition, unable to distinguish summer from winter, leaves from snow.