We first encounter Jenny Flower, the titular child of Lucifer and the Child, on a Sunday School excursion to a forest for the first time in her life.
Coming from a grey, lifeless 1930s London council estate, where the few trees planted in deference to the public good are sooty and stunted by their surroundings, the sheer abundance of nature has a magical otherworldly quality.
We’re told “she found herself beside a little pool half covered with small water-lilies and speared by rushes and bannered with wild yellow iris, and it was pure enchantment”.
Immediately, this charming scene of the child in a forest glade takes a sinister quality.
Jenny is presented almost as prey as a tall dark figure stands watching her from afar.
The stranger emerges from the trees. We are never told his name, but Jenny comes to think of him as Lucifer. When she first sees him he is horned, though he later removes these adornments.
His power over her is immediate, and stronger even than the enchantment the forest placed her over her.
He reveals the secrets of the natural world around her, but also the supernatural one as well. He shows her fairy rings in the grass, and tells her about the Little People who made them by moonlight.
Lucifer identifies Jenny too as part of this supernatural world, greeting her with a “Hullo, witch!”, setting her on her path towards the occult, which is referred to in the book as the “Goetic life”. Though he only appears again at intervals through Jenny’s life, his hold over her is fixed from this moment.
The author, Ethel Mannin, was a prolific writer until her death in 1984, with a varied body of work, which includes fiction, journalism, autobiography and travel writing. She was also an active socialist. The supernatural leanings of Lucifer and the Child are something of an anomaly in her body of work.
Born in London in 1900, Mannin lived in Ireland for a time in the 30s and 40s, moving as part of the set that included Maud Gonne, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and WB Yeats. It is her relationship with Yeats, and other famous men like George Orwell and Bertrand Russell, that she might be most remembered for. Her own writing is largely overlooked.
Lucifer and the Child was banned in Ireland when first published by the Censorship of Publications Board, but it is Dublin-based publishers Swan River Press who are bringing the novel back into print for the first time in decades.
It is not surprising that this book was deemed unsuitable for 1940s Ireland. The allure of Lucifer and the occult would certainly have been deemed inappropriate, as would the depictions of female sexuality.
The absence of maternal feeling in Jenny’s biological mother Nell, who gives her child to her brother and sister-in-law to adopt, would have seemed a most unnatural representation of femininity, especially when coupled with her complete lack of shame around sex, or what she calls the “natural feeling” that brought Jenny to the world.
Jenny too fails to settle into the docility that her adoptive mother Ivy had longed for in a daughter, instead continually shaming her. Jenny refuses to have the fear of God beaten into her and is constantly striving for freedom from the confines of the society that surrounds her, both intellectual and physical. She shows clearly that it is often women who most harshly judge other women who stray from societal norms.
Mannin’s own feminist beliefs infuse the novel, and though Jenny may be descended from a group of women who were burned at the stake for witchcraft, it is clear Mannin would not have ascribed to the type of liberal feminism that has been encapsulated in the twee addition of “we are the granddaughters of the witches you could not burn” tote bags and t-shirts. Mannin was aware that we could just as easily be descended from the women lighting the pyres.
Jenny turns to local outcast Ma Beadle to develop her understanding of the occult. She is awed by her books of magic and cauldron brewing with unknown concoctions, but when her mother Ivy comes to hear of the visits she exclaims, “That horrible old woman! Dirty old troll! She ought to be locked up”.
She also declares that Jenny’s birth mother Nell ought to be locked up, in her case for the crime of being a “dirty little slut”.
Mannin was also acutely aware of the importance of the intersections of class and feminism. When she describes some of the local feminists it is clear that they look down on the working-class women they are supposed to be helping, viewing them almost as children. But these feminists are women who “never doubted, since they read Time and Tide and the New Statesman and voted ‘Labour’, that they were ‘progressive’”.
When Marian Drew is introduced as the vicar’s daughter and schoolteacher who will fight for Jenny’s soul against the influence of the stranger, Mannin warns against any preconceived ideas of what we might expect from such a woman.
“To say that Marian Drew was the daughter of a country vicar is to state a truth which nevertheless suggests something untrue – the picture of a dull pious home life, narrow, conventional, smothering.”
Though Marian has something of a missionary spirit, she aims to improve the lives of the women and children of London’s slums though birth control and sex education.
When she too encounters the stranger, she is drawn to him almost as strongly as she wishes to pry Jenny from his clutches. Her passion for him is tempered by theological and intellectual debates over what is best for the child.
She wants to save Jenny from “going to the devil” but never can fully let herself believe that it is really the Devil that she is up against.
Jenny never seems in danger of being rescued by Marian, and the reader may be ambivalent over whether we want Jenny to be “saved”, until it is clear that the development of her powers may be a risk to innocent people around her.
There is also a point where Marian questions her efforts to help Jenny, not because she doesn’t care for the child, but because it seems such a small effort against evil when the whole world is racing towards World War II.
She wonders, “What could it matter that a child called Jenny Flower was doomed and damned when a whole generation was everywhere?”
It seems unsurprising that a novel finished in 1944 ends with scenes that truly seems to present a type of hell on earth. But what remains ambiguous to the end is whether there is truly a hell beyond it, and if so whether it might present a welcome escape for some.