Clemence Housman is difficult.
Of all the women writers I’ve written about for this column, Housman is far and away the one I have struggled with most. It’s not about what I know of her character. It’s not about the quality of her writing, her themes, her modes of imagination. It is, quite simply, that I find her difficult.
I suspect I’m not alone in this. With one exception, her work does not seem to have received great attention when it was first published. During the years of excited rediscovery of women writers in the 1970s and 1980s, Housman’s work remained ignored. In recent years her books have been reproduced in digital editions, but to little apparent fanfare or notice. With the occasional exception of people with an interest in early horror writing, no one I have ever mentioned her to seems to have heard of her. She is a little better remembered amongst scholars of art and engraving—she was a gifted engraver in addition to being a writer, but even then attention and awareness is confined to a handful of critics. Most often, the only way she is recalled at all is in relation to a man, one of her brothers, the poet A. E. Housman. This latter is a fate not confined to Housman: too many women are mainly recognised via the achievements of their male kin—their own achievements assessed in the context of indebtedness or inferiority to that same kinsman. It is almost always unfair; it is arguably particularly unfair in the case of Housman, because for many many years she has mostly been remembered solely in terms of A. E. Housman’s objections to her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement. A difficult woman, a confrontational woman, a challenge. And an important woman, too, in the history of fantasy and women’s writing.
Housman’s literary output was small: two novels (The Unknown Sea  and The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis ) plus the novella The Were-wolf (1896), and it is only the latter that seems to be remembered by any modern readers. The reason for this is, it must be admitted, fairly clear—it is not only the shortest of her works, it is the most accessible. Because, as I said at the start of this piece, Housman is undeniably difficult, and much of this is down to her writing style.
She was a talented writer, and a powerful depicter of the complex inner life of her characters. But to modern eyes, her style is a considerable challenge. Unlike her younger contemporary Dion Fortune, she had no fluency with the demotic voice. Her models are deliberate, studied, consciously archaic. Her writing is formal, sometimes remote, ornate and complex: it reminds me of E. R. Eddison (who post-dated her), of the translations into English of Norse sagas by William Morris, and, somewhat, of George MacDonald. It takes time to get used to the rhythm of her prose, her sometimes complex grammar, and her deliberate stateliness. Her characters can seem overblown in their passionate reactions, yet at the same time she avoids the clichés of melodrama. These are people who agonise over the ethics of their actions and their effects on the world around them, who second-guess their every response, and feel powerful, sometimes damaging levels of responsibility to others. If Housman has a central theme, it is sacrifice, and sacrifice is hard to read about.
Like Fortune, and like Elizabeth Goudge, she was concerned with the life of the spirit and questions of faith. Like Goudge, her focus was Christian, but Christianity is not the quiet daily experience that Goudge’s characters find. It is, rather, closer to the intense spirituality of Fortune, who dealt in goddesses and ancient rituals. All three of her protagonists—two of whom have the same name, which carries in both cases an allegorical weight—experience religion through a succession of trials, agonies, visions, and mysteries. Her antagonists—the woman White Fell in The Were-wolf; the strange half-human, half mermaid Diadyomene in The Unknown Sea; and Gaheris and others in Sir Aglovale commit challenging, even evil acts, but they are not themselves evil. Rather, they act according to their natures and circumstances, and can be redeemed, either through their own actions or with the help of others. These are extremely weird books indeed. Goudge is mistress of the liminal, but Housman’s descriptive prose touches on fugue states and on the visionary experiences of mediaeval mystics. There is something compulsive, hypnotic, for instance, in her descriptions of the undersea world of Diadyomene, of the long pursuit by Christian of White Fell through the bleak winter forest, in the grim self-exile of Aglovale. There is something here, despite the formal prose and the layers of allegory, that feels very primal, very old. Her characters knowingly offer themselves up as sacrifices for others, endure exile and contempt, accept suffering, without pride in this or any apparent sense that this makes them somehow better than others. And as a result, they are vastly sympathetic, even moving, and very human.
This is particularly true of Sir Aglovale, which is her masterpiece and a book that deserves a far higher reputation. Aglovale lives out his life in the shadow of his far more famous and successful brothers, Lamorak and Percevale, and in early life drifts into acts of cruelty and brutality which leave him with a lifelong negative reputation. Step by step, he becomes almost the sin-eater for Camelot and the knights of Arthur’s court, a situation exacerbated by his own nature. If this were a modern book, it would end with him committing some act of great heroism and being restored to a high place with pomp, ceremony, and many apologies from those who have wronged him. It does not: Aglovale’s early resentment transforms slowly into a quiet compassion and concern for others that does not need reparations, only to know he has done what he can. And Housman achieves this without preaching. It would be easy for such a narrative to become cloying or smug (and she does slip into the former mode a few times in The Unknown Sea, her first novel) but Sir Aglovale is neither. Rather, it is elegiac, elegant, quietly tragic. It is one of the most original and most transformative retellings of the Arthurian stories I have ever read (and I have read an awful lot of these).
It is drawn mainly from the Morte d’Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory, but its closest sympathies lie with the stranger, mainly earlier texts of the Welsh Arthurian tales, Chrétien de Troyes’ Percivale and perhaps the Parsifal of Wolfram von Eschenbach. Much of the text is occupied with the fringes of the Grail quest, and Housman excels in depicting Mystery (this is true of her other work, also). Aglovale’s absence from the quest becomes both a penance and a down payment for his brother’s success, and he is rewarded in the end with a strange visionary experience of his own. This paralleling of experience runs throughout Housman’s work: in The Were-wolf, Christian is content to be in the shadow of his charismatic twin, Sweyn, and to become the scapegoat that saves his brother. The second Christian, in The Unknown Sea, endures exile, contempt, illness, and disgrace for the sake of Diadyomene, not to win her love but to save her from her weird half-life. In all three books, the protagonists are, or become, devout, but their devotion is a long way from Victorian muscular Christianity. It reminds me far more of the descriptions of ecstatic ritual found in Dion Fortune or in some of the writings of the Golden Dawn (and the strange, dream-like alternative realities of George MacDonald). This is allegory, yes, but it is also powerfully fantastical, mystical, atmospheric. If Elizabeth Goudge is in the kind and open tradition of Julian of Norwich, Clemence Housman is a literary heir to Margery Kempe. It would be interesting to know if Tolkien read her: The Were-wolf in particular is steeped in that atmosphere that he referred to as “Northern-ness,” and Housman must have been familiar with some version of the Norse sagas or eddas. It is perhaps fitting that it is through the fans of weird and supernatural fiction that she is best remembered, because, as I seem to keep saying in this piece, she is wonderfully, deeply, forcefully weird.
And difficult. She does not compromise, nor does she seem to bow to reader expectation. (The epilogue of The Unknown Sea is a triumph of what is likely over what is romantic or expected.) At the beginning of the twentieth century, she turned her artistic skills over to the suffrage movement and with her brother Lawrence founded the Suffrage Atelier and made suffragette banners. She was arrested for participating in tax protests as a suffragette and spent time in Holloway. Her books cannot be described as fully feminist—all three have male protagonists—but they contain well-drawn female characters with agency (most especially Rhoda, in The Unknown Sea). She makes her readers think, and consider, and criticise—themselves, I suspect, as well as others. She makes demands.
And she is all the better for it. Try The Were-wolf. It isn’t the easiest read. But it—and Housman—will repay you for your attention.