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The Sea Priestess by Dion Fortune.
on 30 May 2016
A shame - I so wanted to fall in love with this novel and tried very hard to do so (I even visited the novel's real life location, as outlined later on) but, ultimately, it proved to be a disappointment.
Having consumed and enjoyed most of Dion Fortune's non-fiction over the last 20 years or so, I thought it about time I had a look at her novels of occult fiction. 'The Sea Priestess', being the most highly acclaimed, seemed like a good place to start. I'm a longstanding aficianado of late Victorian, fin de siècle and early to mid 20th century weird/occult/horror literature, and this, along with my existing appreciation of Fortune as a writer and occultist, led me to presume that this novel would become an instant favourite of mine. Unfortunately, that didn't happen.
I have a few issues with 'The Sea Priestess'. The main one is this - on the evidence of this novel, I don't think that Dion Fortune had any particular talent at writing fiction beyond that which any well-educated person from the early 20th century could display. She excelled at demystifying complicated magical systems and religious doctrines and at elucidating her ideas on all manner of esoteric subjects, and she consistently presented them in a way which, to this day, remains lively, compelling and thought-provoking. It is these qualities that make her non-fiction so impressive, but I think it is these very same qualities, combined with the rather schoolmarmish will to teach that lies beyond them, which hinder her attempts at fiction.
In her brief introduction to the novel, Dion Fortune writes that 'The Mystical Qabalah', her classic work of occult theory, is best appreciated when read in conjunction with 'The Sea Priestess'. The former is the theory and the latter is the practice. One without the other is not the full picture. She writes that she wants her students to take the novel seriously. It's a noble idea but I think that, in wanting to have the novel used as a teaching tool, it acted as a barrier to simply writing good fiction. For all her wisdom and her will to impart knowledge and share ideas, she appears to have had no great understanding of what actually makes a good novel. Non-fiction was clearly her forte and my opinion is that she should have stuck to it. Exactly the same can be said for that other giant of 20th century occultism, Aleister Crowley, whose two novels, 'Moonchild' and 'Diary Of A Drug Fiend' are so appealing in theory but are, for the most part, quite tedious to read.
Considering the relative obscurity of Dion Fortune and occult fiction in general, I would imagine that a lot of the reviews for this novel come from the partisan crowd, i.e. existing practitioners, adherents and explorers of various forms of spirituality, mysticism and witchcraft. Bearing this in mind, you may be able to see beyond what is to my mind forced prose, stiff and rather priggish characters and many hard-going, unsuccessful attempts at generating the tension that any good novel requires. If this is the case, then 'The Sea Priestess' is undoubtedly full of insight regarding magic ritual, male and female archetypes, the spiritual rebalancing of the genders, visualisation skills and the astral world, and numerous other esoteric subjects that will be of interest to the dedicated seeker. Although I have an interest in the above, I also have a interest in enjoying novels that captivate and thrill and flow and carry the reader along effortlessly towards their conclusion, and in the case of 'The Sea Priestess', the deficiencies of the latter certainly outweigh the value of the former. Dion Fortune's sense of humour and sharp wit, of which there is much evidence in this novel, her vast erudition, and the occasional sense of pathos she generates (e.g. the scene where the 'mooncalf' slips into the sea and is never seen again) are not enough to rescue the novel as a whole.
The one really good thing I got out of 'The Sea Priestess'? When I was about halfway through and struggling to feel the love, I visited Brean Down, which is a promontory on the Somerset coast just south of Weston-super-Mare. This is the novel's setting and a place that Dion Fortune knew well. To anyone reading the novel, I strongly recommend doing the same. As well as being a beautiful stretch of coastline and an exhilarating, awe-inspiring walk along a headland that extends out into the sea for over a mile, it will undoubtedly enhance your experience of the novel, whatever that may be. For me, the visit brought to life 'The Sea Priestess' in ways that, sadly, Dion Fortune's prose couldn't.