The idea of a novel, or indeed a series of novels, based on tarot artist Pamela Colman Smith intrigued me, not least because I met the author, Susan Wands, earlier this year, at Pamela’s gravesite in Bude, where ‘Pixie’ died in 1951.
Pamela’s life story is patchy; the evidence pertaining to some parts of her life, notably the early years and later years, is scant.
Fiction is therefore the perfect vehicle to bring her back to life; highly researched fiction, but fiction nonetheless. There is scope within fiction to imagine, to fantasise, and to elaborate in a way that factual writers cannot. It sets the imagination soaring – what was Pamela really like as a person?
Some of the mythology surrounding Pamela Colman Smith is that she was Jamaican, that she was a lesbian, and that she was extremely close to the main characters of the Lyceum Theatre, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. The novel casts serious doubt on all these suggestions. The facts do, too.
There is a gentle, descriptive start to the book, the powerful part of the story being its dialogue. Through speech and actions, we learn far more than through simple narrative description. Susan Wands, an American author, has written plays, and it shows. Her dialogue and scene setting are rich. The book would easily convert and maybe this is the plan.
As a teenager, I read about Aleister Crowley, finding him extremely frightening. In this novel he is absolutely terrifying, with his evil beginning coming to the fore in the chapter, Aleister and Martha. From thereon, the plot weaves together even more coherently, as the Bohemian theatre crowd mixes with the occult leaders of the mysterious Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, though we are never quite sure why. and what magic they had in common.
Pamela Colman Smith, something of an outsider, forged an artistic career for herself in the late Victorian era, a tough ask of any woman at that time. She mingled with the glitterati of the day. Ellen Terry and Henry Irving were the equivalent of modern day celebrities. She kept society with Bram Stoker, William Butler Yeats, and musicians/artists such as Debussy/Whistler. Her circle was immensely talented.
Her appearance was exotic. She told stories she had learned in Jamaica, spoken in the local patois. Her curious oddness fascinated the unconventional free spirits, as the opal hush, the amethystine drink (claret and lemonade) beloved by Irish poets, flowed at their soirees. Arthur Ransome, one of the many visitors to these events wrote:
It was very good, and as I drank I thought of those Irish poets, whose verses had meant much to me, and sipped the stuff with reverence as if it had been nectar from Olympus. – Arthur Ransome, Bohemia in London, 1907
We glean some insight into Pam’s peripatetic upbringing within the novel, given over as she was into the care of servants in Jamaica. Her mother is presented as disinterested or at least detached, a parlour-actress from Brooklyn, her father a rather younger, lovable irresponsible kind of a guy. Both died when Pamela was a young woman, leaving her to make her own way. The struggle/tension in the book is over the tarot deck Pamela is asked to produce for the Golden Dawn. We learn why she labelled her cards (the most popular deck to this day) with her initials PCS, and hazard a guess about the curse that ‘damaged her reputation for ever’.
If you enjoy a fantasy historical novel, this is worth a read. If you are a fan of Miss Smith, this is also worth a read. Fact mingles with fiction but in a satisfying way. Depending upon your own belief systems, certain aspects will appeal more to you.
While many of us are pursuing more factual narratives and lines of inquiry, it seems Ms Wands has captured the heart of the young (ish) Miss Smith story in fiction.