|Born||8 October 1938
Darlington, County Durham
|Died||16 August 2005
Sarlat, Aquitaine, France
Corlett was born in Darlington, County Durham. He was educated at Fettes College, Edinburgh, then trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He worked as an actor while embarking on a literary career during the 1960s, and wrote plays and adult novels as well as the children's novels for which he is particularly remembered. Several of his works were adapted for the screen.
Corlett's first novel, The Gate of Eden (1974), appeared before publishers began using labels such as "Young Adult" to categorise novels that seem suitable for middle to late adolescence. The Gate of Eden is an apparently simple story about a mid-teenage schoolboy who makes friends with an eccentric retired bachelor school teacher. This is the boy's first step beyond the confines of home and school. By the end of the book the boy has found his first girlfriend and rejects the old man's fussy, demanding friendship in favour of the young woman.
The character of the vulnerable old man, Tom Falcolner, is presented as vividly as that of the boy who is the un-named first person narrator. He tells the story, recalling, quoting from letters and commenting on his own memories and failings, long after the events revealing himself in breathtakingly painful detail. Tom is also a fascinating character: grubby, used to his loneliness, yet keen to share his love of literature with the boy who wants to be a writer. The balance of interest between youth and old age is equal part of the reason for it not being a Young Adult book and the point of view is strictly adult, tinged with bitter sweet nostalgia and regret, poetically told, ending with a poem.
The book is also an account of first love and (implicitly) first sex. But this is tarnished with rumours of scandal (probably homosexual) associated with the old man having been fired from a school. However, despite such sexual matters, treated in a very low-key way, the overall feeling matches that of the A.E. Houseman poems which are quoted when Tom introduces them to the boy. What is the significance of the title? Unreligious old Tom defends his unkempt garden, saying, "Nature must take care of itself …. Besides the weeds are as beautiful as the flowers! Were there weeds in Eden?" (p 15). Near the end, the young man remembers walking very slowly to a fateful appointment, but doubts his memory: "As like as not I bounded towards the gate of Eden and the land beyond" (p 158).
The second volume, The Land Beyond (1975), takes the un-named young man through the aftermath of a three-year relationship with a different girl. Although the end of a non-marital affair can be of interest to teenagers, all the characters are adult. The narrative progresses through several different styles and levels: stream of consciousness, notebook, diary, TV screen play, meditation, dream, memory, a time-slip narrative as the man explores the temples at Delphi, and metaphysical speculation about life and the last page contains a poem. The reader must work with this rich mass of narrative and emotional material. Certainly Corlett makes demands on the reader. But young adults will be stimulated by the challenge.
Reflecting on his affair with the young woman called Gilly, the man wonders about the nature of his "love" and the way people relate. "How little we understand one another. Maybe that's what it is all about - just understanding" (p 151). He realises a paradox of loving: "I love you and I must let you go" (p 152). Near the end he recognises the limitations, even the trap-like nature of his "love": "I can't struggle any more, Gilly. I give up. I can only live" (p 168). Pondering existence, he muses: "Life, trapped in matter, yearning for release" (p 113); "There is nowhere that I wish to be … I just want time to pass … The whole of existence seems pointless" (p 128). It is a crisis similar to that in Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, hinting at the overall theme of the whole trilogy:
For Man's cry to be heard he must create a God; only then can compassion arise; only then can Man's suffering be understood, can Man's cry be answered … "HELP ME." Thus Adam cried at the gate of Eden ... The first words that [the children of Adam] utter on the great journey back to Eden and the return to the gate. (p 114)
The main story of the rebirth of the young man after the death of the affair links with a confrontation or mutual haunting between the young man and the young Greek who was the model for the famous statue of the Charioteer of Delphi. The central character experiences the death of the charioteer, and then is "reborn" after terrible struggles on Apollo's holy mountain. This use of time fantasy and living mythology links the book with the recently popular (children's) genre of a modern story being haunted by the presence of ancient mythology. However the experimental nature of the writing or narrating demands far more than is usual with children's books. Appropriately, the third volume of the trilogy is called Return to the Gate (1975). It presents the un-named narrator as an old man, surviving alone in an era (after North Sea Oil?) of political collapse and economic scarcity. The old man, a relic of the lost old world, meets a young woman who is a drop-out from the new alternatives. They establish a tentative relationship and help each other try to cope with the violence of the authoritarian society they live in. This subtly reworks the structure of relationships in The Gate of Eden.
However the three books, taken together do not obviously constitute a trilogy. The cover blurb describes them as an "emotional trilogy", which is partly true. But there are large gaps in time between the school student, the traveller to Delphi, and the old man in the future. Corlett does not attempt to fill these gaps. Instead he sketches a sense of continuity of character, this man who became a writer, who once read A.E. Houseman, who once visited Greece, and lived with a woman called Gilly. A man who fell apart emotionally at the end of the affair, and has been alone ever since. It is better described as a triptych.
Another of Corlett's novels, Bloxworth Blue (1984), named after a species of rare butterfly, explores many of Corlett's usual themes through five related strands of story. There is a medieval legend of two Imps and Lincoln Cathedral; memories of the very elderly uncle; marital crisis of the mother; first sexual encounter of the seventeen year old daughter; and adventures of the thirteen year old son as he explores the cathedral, relives the Imp legend, recalls an trauma from his early childhood, and discovers his uncle's bitter secret under tragic circumstances. All of this is strongly held together by the narrative drive, the intense sense of location and time hot summer in a crowded medieval town and the imagery of a brilliant rare blue butterfly. Guilt, death, love, betrayal, murder, pain, lust, youth, old age, time and god: Bloxworth Blue is a strong mixture.
The Secret Line (1988), tackles quite different issues. Illegitimacy, an unknown father and a new step-father, adolescence, strained relations between mother and daughter, problems at school, murdering hooligans all of these bubble at the surface, while beneath there is the problem of race and madness! Fifteen year old Jo Carson is mixed-race: American Negro father and English mother. He was a soldier. They fell in love, Jo was conceived and he was killed in Vietnam before they could marry. Jo’s mother, Anne, has never been able to talk to Jo about this. Knowing nothing about her natural father, Jo is resentful and antagonistic towards her step-father, a film-maker. Ironically an image from a film, Casablanca, begins the book, as Jo starts to grow into adulthood, confronting her racial anxiety, and her sexual anxiety.
This theme twists further in the linking of other characters. Jo dreams about the room where her mother and father made love. She finds that this dream has been made into a painting by a dead artist, a painting of a room where the artist and his wife also made love. What is the borderline between fiction and truth? madness and sanity? does the sea crash invisibly on the other side of the glaring shutters in the dream and the painting? Paintings are dreams, and are also openings that lead to other worlds. At times it seems that Corlett is writing a book that moves from our real world to some strangely surrealistic other world.
Jo has a friend called Mit, the only other coffee-coloured person she has ever met. Strangely, she only meets Mit when she is on her own. He shows her a secret underground train-line, which gives the title of the book, and together they explore the strange worlds that exist outside the stations of this line, including Lakeside, Beyond, Waterway and Jungle. Jo also meets an old lady, the wife of the dead painter, and a young man who wants to become a painter. And there is the vicious racist teenage thug, Straker, who threatens them all, and precipitates the final crisis.
With the sequence of four novels, collectively called "The Magician's House" (1990 - 1992), Corlett deliberately sought a younger audience (from 8 to 80, instead of from 15 to 75). The fantasy link between contemporary characters in a modern world and events from the past irrupting into the present, which had existed in The Land Beyond and Bloxworth Blue, becomes explicit in "The Magician's House". At first glance this, and other matters in the tetralogy, resemble Susan Cooper's sequence "The Dark is Rising". Without giving too much of the story away, Cooper's Gandalf-like figure, Merriman Lyon, has his counterpart in Corlett's Stephen Tyler, the Magician of the title, who lived around 1550 in the time of Elizabeth the First, and studied alchemy in Golden House, a very old house in the remote English countryside, near the Forest of Dean. (This setting also resembles Holdstock and Edward's account of the journals of a magus, claimed to have been found in Ruckhurst Manor in 1977, although Corlett avoids using any hint of Black Magic with his mage.)
The modern narrative of The Magician's House centres on three children: thirteen year old William Constant and his sisters, eleven year old Mary, and eight year old Alice. While both Constant parents are working as doctors in a famine relief camp in Ethiopia, the children go from their boarding schools to stay at Golden House through the Christmas holidays with their maternal uncle Jack Green and his pregnant de facto wife Phoebe Taylor. This appears to be a typical hackneyed genre setting, but Corlett plays with it in his own way. The three Constant children are not Blytonesque clones (nor imitations of Cooper's Drew children, or Lewis's Pevensie children). They squabble, are confronted by Phoebe's vegetarianism (Alice calls Jack and Phoebe "vegetables"), shocked by Phoebe's unwedded pregnancy, and affronted by the seeming "rudeness" of birth, breast feeding, bottoms, pooping and farting. These may be minor aspects of the children's character, but they give a gritty sense of modern childhood which is often lacking in similar fantasy novels. Rapidly the children find that the old house and the whole of the Golden Valley is threatened. Stephen Tyler's magic enables him to travel forward from his own time to the time of the children, seeking their help against his evil assistant Matthew Morden. Revealing more would spoil the overall story, or each of the four stories, for while Corlett works out the large conflict through the sequence, each book contains its own key stage in the larger scheme, and each can be read separately.
Stephen Tyler explains to the children that alchemy is partly concerned with the quest to turn base metal into gold, and even to be able to travel through time. But far more importantly, he says, it tries to focus on finding the "gold" within the person, a quest in which physical gold, lead and mercury are merely symbols: "to take the first step on the journey to [a person] becoming gold ... stop the [Mercury] mind from buzzing here and there, pursuing every little thought that enters the head, every little idea, every little craving or sensation. Stop the mind ... and hold it still ... the next stage is, little by little, to warm the Mercury; warm the Mind … with the heat of the heart" (The Door in the Tree p 179). "For, at the heart of us all … there is a grain of pure Gold. That Gold is the Self. That Gold is called Love. It is everyman's birth-right" (pp 104 - 105).
Corlett also uses in his own way the shared experience of an animal's point of view, such as Merlin provides for young Wart, in T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone (1938). In Corlett's hands this becomes archetypal encounters between child and animal: Cinnabar the fox, Sirius the dog, Jasper the Owl, Merula the blackbird, Lutra the otter, Falco the kestrel, Bawson the badger, Corvus the crow, Pica the magpie, Rus the red squirrel, Mustel the weasel and Cervus the deer. In The Bridge in the Clouds Corlett also introduces Rattus Rattus, a noble, brave, swaggering and most appealing rat, a worthy companion to Graham's Ratty, Masefield's Rat the cellarman (in The Midnight Folk), Lewis's Reepicheep, and Hoban's Manny Rat. Indeed there are hints of Wind in the Willows in the badgers of The Door in the Tree and the rats, weasels, stoats and ferrets in the final conflict of The Bridge in the Clouds.
Exploiting the fantasy genre of good-versus-evil conflict genre, while avoiding the dangers of poorly used fantasy, especially time travel with its logical imperatives and potential paradoxes, The Magician's House works well. Corlett makes the small local victory around Golden Valley, and the impact of Stephen Tyler's death in his own time, resonate powerfully beyond the immediate locale without trying to claim that the entire universe has been saved by one brief bloody battle. Indeed his focus on humans, and issues of being human, (which include Ethiopia, Chernobyl, ozone layers, global warming, and like matters), gives the sequence an appealing and sobering humility that similar fantasies frequently fail to achieve because of the super-human nature of their characters and their huge deeds.
Also Corlett's animal characters behave like real animals, red in tooth and claw sometimes shockingly, as when Pica the friendly magpie eats a shrew who is also on the magician's side (The Bridge in the Clouds pp. 216 - 217). While the humans are central to the narrative, Corlett makes it absolutely clear that there is no natural superiority of humans over other species, and indeed the humans are responsible for the dire situations all the species find themselves in. Few, if any other, fantasy sequences take this most commendable point of view. Imagine if the heroes in Alan Garner's 'Weirdstone' sequence had to cope with palug cats being an endangered species!
- Another Round (1963)
- The Gentle Avalanche (1964)
- Return Ticket (1966)
- The Gate of Eden (1974)
- The Land Beyond (1974)
- Return to the Gate (1975)
- The Dark Side of the Moon (1977)
- Bloxworth Blue (1984)
- The Steps Up the Chimney (1990)
- The Door in the Tree (1990)
- The Tunnel behind the Waterfall (1991)
- The Bridge in the Clouds (1992)
- The Summer of the Haunting (1993)
- The Secret Line (1995)
- Now and Then (1995)
- Two Gentlemen Sharing (1997)
- Kitty (2004)
- The Hindu Sound (1978)
- The Christ Story (1978)
- The Islamic Space (1979)
- Tucker, Nicholas (23 August 2005), "William Corlett, writer: born Darlington, Co Durham 8 October 1938; died Sarlat, France 16 August 2005.", The Independent, retrieved 2007-07-09