Out of the Deep by Walter de la Mare

Walter de la Mare

Walter de la Mare is most famous as a poet. He was born in 1873 in Charlton in south-east London not far from Greenwich. It was then part of the county of Kent but has now been gobbled up by Greater London. 

He was offered a knighthood twice but declined.

De La Mare died in 1956, aged 83, in Middlesex.   He had a heart attach in 1947 and was left unwell until his death of another in 1956. He was highly regarded as a poet and  T. S. Eliot wrote a poem for his funeral service. His ashes are buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.  His writings were a favourite reading matter of H P Lovecraft and admired by Robert Aickman and Ramsey Campbell.

His family were originally French, from the Protestant Huguenots who fled persecution by the Catholic King of France. His ancestors had been silk merchants, but his father was a banker and his mother was the daughter of a Scottish naval surgeon.

He disliked the name Walter and his friends called him Jack.

When he was 17, he went to work for Standard Oil in the statistics department, but he was already writing and his first volume of work was published when he was twenty-nine.

He married his wife, who was impoverished after meeting her the amateur dramatic society of which they were both members. They lived in Anerley, where I once lived, a rather nondescript part of South London next to the more famous Crystal Palace. They were apparently great entertainers and hosted many parties.

Most of the fiction he wrote was supernatural fiction.

His style is elegant but his sentences are complex with lots of sub-clauses making him nearly has hard to read out as Henry James. This is a story written to be read rather than read out, I think.

Out of The Deep

The story unfolds slowly. Jimmie, an orphan boy has not been ill-treated by his uncle and aunt from what we hear, but he disliked their characters and was tormented by their butler Soames. It appears, though were are not told, that after he became a man, he left them and the hated house where he had been so unhappy and was reluctant to go back even after he inherited the house. 

As well as the physical torment of his time in the attic he had memories of things coming out of the wardrobe and the crab patterned paper that came alive. (Like the Yellow Wallpaper). He seems to have hated everything about his boyhood, including going to church, fatty meat and the ugly old-age of his relatives.  We learn from his aunt that he’s always suffered from anxiety and is timid. There is some tension between him wanting to be good little boy and feeling he never quite managed it. Although in his adulthood, he doesn’t seem to do much that’s bad. He seems to do his best. But he never rises above the pointless misery of the house. It’s all miserable and suffuses the story.

He lies awake thinking like a fountain. He has little human company and appears to have cut off what friends he had before moving into the house as he if knew he was preparing for his death.

He has his charwoman Mr Thripps who considers the house unpleasant and doesn’t want to sleep a night there for a plate of sovereigns, even though she would out of duty to Jimmie. I warmed to Mrs Thripps and though Victorian and Edwardian writers mostly portray the working-classes as idiots, thugs and criminals, there is a warmness to Mrs Thripps that makes her more likeable than Jimmie, though Jimmie does nothing to offend us really. I don’t know whether De La Mare intended that.

Jimmie uses his witty speech to deflect from the deep despair and unhappiness in him.  He is quite nice to the tradespeople he meets and gives the impression of wanting to be cheerful and good to make up for ht misery of his beginnings.  But ultimately it is a misery he can’t escape.

Sadly, the tale reminded me of the stories of many of the patients I encounter who have a childhood of abuse they struggle to overcome and struggle to achieve any real happiness.  The bell-pull to me suggested the suicide’s noose. When he pulls the bell pull he summons his own death.

What then to make of the ghosts who all seem to have a family resemblance to each other and Mrs Thripps even though they cannot be related. They are similar in kind. The young Soames 

The young Soames seems to be himself. The little servant girl is who? The piglike monster seems to represent the imagination of his past but was to me reminiscent of the pig demon in the Amityville Horror

They say that when you die your loved ones come to meet you and help you cross over. In this case these spirits come and he is not wanting them, he often tells them he has not called them and his hesitation and fear about pulling the bell pull seems to represent the fear of his death that he senses is imminent. 

These spirits are associated with servants.  They are ‘the Night Staff’. They are or should be subservient but there are hints that they are usurping this order of things. They quietly shrug off his authority over him. The second time the girl comes, she is almost like a psychopomp and both times she waits. 

The only purpose of his life was not to escape from the misery of his youth, it seems. Sad and quite terrifying too.

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