Filson Young’s novel of love, lucre and lighthouses

Filson Young was often a passionate being, and quite often, it seemed, a bit buttoned up. He had two marriages and many affairs. He had a very wide acquaintance, literary, military and political. He grew a big reputation very young, not least because of his affiliation with the lively publisher, Grant Richards. Their team-work produced his first novel, Sands of Pleasure in 1905. It concerns a lighthouse and rural society in Cornwall and chandeleers and courtesans in Pairs.Filson Young, Sands of Pleasure, Grant Richards, London, 1905
(Available with free access at The Internet Archive)
RDN essay on the novel, at c2000 words
RDN footnotes, c 1700 words

Filson Young’s first novel was something of a sensation in 1905, as Silvester Mazzarella notes in his biography of the author. (Silvester also writes with insight and brevity about the novel.) The Sands of Pleasure is about an engineer who is intensely romantic, with ideas about what exotic and sensual life might be like. He chafes at the proepect of British uxurial friendliness, granted that he’d rather be on fire .His profession, inculcated in him by his affectionate father, is not at odds with his deeper nature. Rather, he has been so preoccupied by his work that he has not fulfilled himself in his relations with women.

We meet Richard as he has all but completed his first great lighthouse project on the Lizard. All that is needed now is some optical glass and gear from France, which he must research. He is offered the chance to combine work and leisure in Paris, and be guided whilst there by a well-heeled, footloose man of the world. This is the cynical, artistic and affluent late-30s John Lauder, the brother of Margaret Lauder, a guest of the “young, attractive and friendly” Jane, Lady Killard, who is renting a summer cottage near Richard’s building project. Miss Lauder embodies the womankind he finds charming and friendly, but not enticing. She is sparky, alright, and a little mournful. She picks up on Richard’s pleasure in his profession and his anxiety that he has devoted himself to something which can’t offer affection or much chance of it. She says to Richard on their first meeting over tea cups: “I begin to suspect you are like me – you love things that don’t love you in return.”

FY later dubs Richard “an ascetic amorist” and a “Puritan epicure”, and Lauder a “Puritan rake”. FY explored the Parisian nightlife scene for himself in 1905, in preparation for writing the book. His young men plunge into the world of the demimonde. Lauder shows Richard that there are important gradings in the city’s nightlife. There are the grand restaurants such as La Tour d’Argent and the flashier Ritz. Then there is a wide stratum of venues open to young women who seek to sell themselves. Their hunting grounds usually involve a cabaret and a dance floor. The lively Maxims is frequented by artists as well as millionaires; the dives of Montmartre are where arty, including the aspirant, mix, but with far fewer seriously rich people. From the aristocratic and haute bourgeoisie to the bohemian and the plain indigent, cash is important. But Montmartre is where the demimonde go for recreation as much as for a living. It is where their own rules prevail and mutual support is offered. Lauder has largely outgrown the seduction of all these hotspots and their denizens, but remains almost anthropologically curious, whilst Richard is on a much more naive and dangerous mission. He wants give his heart away. He is naïve enough to think there may be takers.

In the 1920s, as Silvester Mazzarella’s biography of FY tells us, a critic wrote that Sands was not a traditional account of the issues it addresses. Richard is not a sordid man seeking a power- and cash-relation with a mercenary woman. He is looking for love and thinks the French understand pleasure and so Paris is more likely to provide it than anywhere else. He is betting that where love is a profession, there might real but sensual love also be found. But the novel is explicit that Richard wants to reconcile flesh and spirit. (It was a quest which informs the entire life of the thoughtful painter, Glyn Philpot, 1886-1937, as is captured in the 2022 show and book devoted to him.)

There have always been a large variety of pleasure spots where a man could meet women and pay for their time, attentions and bodies. But whether he was partying in the pleasure grounds of London’s Southwark and Cremona Gardens, or brothels in any country, or visiting Venice as the cherry on the cake of the Grand Tour, in past recent centuries a man had to decide whether he wanted to be a fly-by-night customer or to raise the stakes and become a protector of the object of his desire. Did he want a very temporary whore or somebody more long-term, perhaps a mistress, a kept woman, or even a wife?

Richard didn’t intend to go hunting amongst common street prostitutes or in a brothel. He was, perforce, looking amongst the courtesans, a breed who were expensive for whatever duration they lingered with a man but were capable of passing for respectable. Theirs is also a world in which women have money spent on them rather than, or as well as, given to them. They are kept women. In FY’s time, the courtesan deal was increasingly compared almost favourably with the marriage contract.

Filson Young sees – and writes – Richard as a man who is drawn to the heart of the courtesan problem. His intense nature will not suffer to do things by halves. Until he encounters Toni, a flighty courtesan, he probably hadn’t any experience of the breed and had no conception that she is way out his league. She recognises that he is a cut above, and poorer than, the men she normally consorts with. He’s sexually and spiritually her type alright, but his spending power doesn’t cut it. He is a luxury she can’t afford just as he can’t afford her. He can’t afford to be a decent customer, and  she can’t afford male companionship. She knows he is very unlikely to replace the rich and racy German aristocrat she was once well-established with.

The novel hinges on Richard becoming aware of things about Toni – her person and position in society – that cut him off from her. She knows the worst from the start. He is, after all, an artistic English middle class professional. Toni is German-Polish: she is much more exotic in her attitudes than an English or even a French female is likely to be. She is not like any other of her small group of demimondaine friends Richard and Lauder hang out with, for instance when the men take the girls for a weekend at the no-longer artistically fashionable Barbizon. Toni is somehow out of the pages of a Sybille Bedford memoirist novel, complete with a Mittel Europ cynicism. The mark of her character is that she is plain wayward, as the most famous European courtesans have always been. But, whilst many of Edith Wharton’s young women unconsciously over-play their hand, Toni seems more obviously self-destructive as she throws her hand away.

Filson Young half posits that Toni’s soul and tastes have been corrupted by her variety of higher prostitution. But he definitely posits her as intermittently intelligent and sort of brilliant. Richard takes her to the 1905 Salon and as a game she dresses up as a respectable English female. And her guard is down. Amongst modish painting such as John Singer Sargent’s Duchess of Sutherland or Antonio de La Gandara’s Mlle Polaire (a portrait of a successful chansoniere and danseuse), Toni is seriously enraptured only by a strange painting by the Spaniard, Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945). It is Mes Cousines. Even so, whilst thrilled by the painting she dismisses – banishes – it from her mind, saying, “I shall never see that again.” She has not been transformed, derailed, or reformed. She knows she will never succumb to being a middle class Englishman’s mistress. She is quite like a drug-user: the absurdity and glamour of Paris night spots is her court and scene, her niche and milieu, and she seems to accept that she is doomed to inhabit them until burnt-out. Equally, like a mafiosi, she is committed to “The Life”.

These matters are shown clearly in her finding only irritation in a dinner with Richard at La Tour d’Argent. It is perhaps the best restaurant in town, but she has never heard of it and is shocked that the customers are not the last word in style. She equates expense and the latest style with stylishness. She is not committed enough to have worked out what really good taste is like and why she needs to affect it if she is to progress in her chosen career.

Her one attempt to be forward-looking is to accumulate a small stock of jewels from grateful clients. She only knows or cares about the gemstone value of this haul. When Richard gives her a really generous gift, it is in the very expensive form of a beautiful antique paste diamond necklace. She is angered and bewildered by this useless bauble. She seeks fungible, portable assets not bulky museum pieces.

Toni has a more bewildering quality than vulgarity or short-termism. At one point, in Maxim’s, just as she looks like being in clover with a rich client, she ups and aways from his table to dance with a gorgeous young, harmless acquaintance. That should have been saved for an after-hours dive. She can no more afford these rebellions than friendly excursions with Richard and John.

In fact, though she could technically make a successful grand courtesan, and even handle the dimensions of converting herself into a chatelaine, she is too deeply committed to bohemianism to strike a long term bargain with a single man.

For Richard, Toni is not a choice. She simply thrills him. But of course, he is not of her world and, equally of course, he wants to take her away from hers. More, he wants to go on loving her and to be loved by her, exclusively. 

I should say that Sands of Pleasure is at times a little repetitive; it is perhaps over-argued; it is too long for the work it does. But it is a fine work – I mean it is an entertaining and serious read – because Richard is convincing as a man wrestling with the Puritanism which informs his sensuality, and Toni and her friends are persuasive in their various Faustian pacts. FY does not quite inhabit Toni. She irritates us a bit, perhaps; but then so do lots of tantalizing people, on and off the page. I don’t at all mind that we don’t know how Richard’s dilemmas work out.

The Cornish scenes which bookend the story match the Parisian; the brilliance of the new lighthouse’s beam prefigures the glittering jewels (paste and real) and chandeliers of French nightspots. We are shown aspects of the musical and artistic modernism which excite Richard in London and Paris. There is a telling if ambiguous scene from Richard’s return to England: he takes overnight shelter from a storm in a Trappist monastery. We believe Filson Young when he describes Cornish waves and rocks or the animal spirits his hero finds in the forest of Fontainebleu. We believe his lighthouse and its building, done in the spirit of the Stevenson family. Indeed it is attractive to guess that FY saw Robert Louis Stevenson’s romantic defection from the family business as an ideal model for part of Richard Grey’s dilemma. RLS tried to be an engineer and became a writer of adult and sometimes gothic romances. FY is supposing that Richard Grey hopes not to abandon lighthouses, but to combine them with his romantic and sensitive self. His inherited and quite exotic profession involves the inter-knitting of mighty carved granite blocks, the smooth reliability of machinery and the faceting of glass optics. Paris seems to offer much of what Richard Grey seeks. His lighthouse glass will come from there. There he finds the antique necklace with which he hopes to dazzle Toni. There he learns that the demimondaine didn’t value its sparkle, any more, probably, than she’d like life in a drizzly Cornish cottage.

FY was in his late 20s when he wrote this book. He had in previous years visited a real Cornish lighthouse, and Melleray, a famous Irish Cistercian monastery, and was well aware of the ascetic romantic within himself, moved as he was by his own music-making. He loved the waters and coastlines of Cornwall and Strangford Lough. I have seen no evidence that he paid for sex or particularly liked to be amongst the fast set. He was perhaps bisexual. He knew artistic and aristocratic worlds though he was deeply curious about plenty of others.

Footnote: Feminists and marriage

It is important to note that accounts of the transactional underpinning of the relations between men and women had become more and more frank long before Filson’s Sands of Pleasure. Feminists and their male followers had seen to that, not least since, most famously, Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings.

I like FY’s novel because it takes all its women quite seriously but its point of view is the character of Richard. It isn’t a feminist novel. To be fair, even in 1905 feminists weren’t quite like the feminists of 1955, let alone of 1975 or now. They had imbibed Mary Wollstonecraft and wondered whether the Rights of Man might not be extended to the Rights of Woman. But what that equality looked like or amounted to was a matter of dispute. Not all early 20th Century  suffragists admired the proto-feminism of, say, the American Margaret Fuller and her Woman of the Nineteenth Century (1843) whose view  seemed to be that women needed to free themselves of their inherited but partly self-imposed bonds of spiritual and intellectual inadequacy, the better to help men break free of theirs.

In the 1890s Shaw had written a great deal about the corrupting marriage contract of the day and wrote his first major play, Mrs Warren’s Profession (club performance in 1902, West End run in 1925) on the subject. He followed it with Getting Married (1908) and Misalliance (1910). Shaw had written that the public, especially the play-going or novel-reading public, were not very shocked by anything: it was journalists and politicians who pandered most to outmoded views.

Bernard Shaw had probably written Mrs Warren  play precisely to scandalise. FY was even more obviously self-seeking as an out and out commercialist: he was always committed to quality, but he was also determined to make money. Sands of Pleasure courted scandal, and FY didn’t flinch from the prospect. But that doesn’t at all mean that his heart wasn’t in the project as a serious deliberation on a serious dilemma.

A friend and lover of Filson Young’s, Elisina Richards, a Continental aristocrat and the wife of FY’s publisher, in 1909 allied herself strongly with the views of Cicely Hamilton’s Marriage as a Trade which Elisina reviewed in her own magazine. This argued that the law ought to catch up with years of existing modern opinion. Unfortunately, in a way, this amounted to little more than an update of Fuller’s view, with the twist that women should be offered the chance to take on other trades than marital whoredom. In effect, they should be freed of the servitude of marriage.

Footnote: Courtesan economics

At the beginning of the 20th Century, it seemed obvious to any sentient Westerner that women’s rights were the coming thing. It wasn’t yet the case that women would be seen as economic players in the job markets in the way that men were. It was still quite rare for a woman to be rich or even solvent in her own right. But it was clear that women could not for much longer be regarded as chattels and they would soon be voters. Indeed, it was becoming possible to see a woman as a person with choices not unlike those enjoyed or loathed, and successfully negotiated or not, by men.

The courtesan, oddly, prefigures the idea. Whether a courtesan starts as a common prostitute or a smart courtier, she was a social climber with the ambition of building a future, and not always as a wife. She had always been a fascinating figure. Aptly derived from the idea of the single women who were dangled before royalty in their courts, usually by ambitious families, and who might progress toward marriage into the aristocracy or even royalty, the quintessential courtesan seems to have hung on to freedom. That is what is so tantalising about the type. To take Nell Gwynne as a case: she was born into the world of more or less squalid market trading in greengrocery, but parlayed her looks, sharp wit and commercial acumen into, first, a career on the stage, and thence via aristocratic lovers, to being an acknowledged mistress to King Charles II. She was the mother of some his children. It is moot whether she turned tricks before her ascent, and if so, at what age.

Historically the courtesan stood – or lay – halfway between the common prostitute and the wife. She was not for rent by the hour and she wasn’t usually the creature of a brothel-keeper or a pimp. But she lacked respectability and the protection – such as it was – of patriarchic law. In exchange for cashing-in her respectability, she had independence. Some courtesans seem to have managed quite well with their enterprising and even entrepreneurial approach to sexual and romantic relations. So did their conventional counterparts, the young women who banked on conventional decency, often by hanging on to their virginity and thus leveraging themselves in the marital stakes. Even for respectable girls, the game was a high stakes and high-wire matter. Time was not on their side. If girls were not always hard-nosed in the pursuit of marriage, or canny, their mothers famously often were, though mothers could overreach and end up crashing their daughters’ prospects.

It doesn’t do to stereotype courtesans. Diana Mitford was quite perversely determined to be a kept women in Paris, with no hope of marriage to her afternoon partner. Like Toni, Mitford does not seek domesticity, and still less permanence, even on the scale of a grand chatelaine.

One should not stereotype the marriage game either. As Nathalie Livingstone writes, early Rothschild wives were a 19th Century continuance of a tradition of the Middle Ages whereby trades and crafts – and tyro banking houses – depended on a trusted, watchful wife at home keeping the books straight, and probably offering invaluable advice too. It was only as the many houses of Rothschilds thrived across Europe that the husbands reined in their wives and turned them into indispensible hostesses, dispensing the largesse of the drawing room and dining table to gain political, economic and social favour. When that role seemed insufficiently stretching, the wives augmented it with campaigning on several fronts, including feminism, the alleviation of poverty and various Jewish causes.

Aristocratic and merchant wives had living husbands to deal with. But the widows and daughters of rich or powerful men often enjoyed affluence and authority in their own right.

Nowadays, things are a little different. Young women give away their virginity and what would once have been called their virtue with varying degrees of deliberation. But most of them sooner or later (often in their late 30s or early 40s) opt either for marriage or something very like it, and their longer-term partners seem to be picked for the same complex reasons (some agreed ratio of romantic and economic compatibility) which often looks very like the bloodstock deals which have underpinned such matters since the beginning of time.

Feminism in fiction
The emerging feminism was a mainstream subject for fiction. Big careers were built on fictionalizing the choices facing young men and women: the Brontes, EM Forster, Edith Warton and Henry James are just the brightest stars of many and all look with great sympathy at the predicaments of both sexes but with special care for the female point of view. The lists of Persephone and Virago are all rich in lesser-known female writers of the mid-20th Century, many seeing the world through the eyes of female characters, though few crudely denigrate men.  

Jean Rhys and The Sands of Pleasure
Filson Young’s courtesan book has been discussed as though it were about prostitutes. Jean Rhys is cited by Silvester Mazzarella quipping in those terms. Oddly enough, that is about the one type of female deal-making which isn’t in the book. Equally oddly, one might say, Sands of Pleasure does not show Richard resolving his problems. The Lauder family, worldly, kindly, clever and quite unconventional, seem to stand ready for him to help him turn into a husband. But FY does not even sketch that possibility. It’s in the air, is all. 

FY and The Sands of Pleasure
Perhaps  FY didn’t want to make tidy conclusions. He married twice, was a serial adulterer and in some ways a failure as a husband. FY perhaps didn’t want to have Richard Grey capitulate to marriage, as a token of his wish that he himself had not.

In 1918 he would marry Vera North (nee Rawnsley, and artist and poet who had within a few years from 1911 married, been separated from and finally divorced, Stanley North (my grandfather) a Bohemian working class artist whose lifestyle did not agree with her. Clifford Bax, an affluent man of letters, would marry her within days of her divorce from FY in 1927. In 1920, whilst Vera was married to FY, Bax had published a poem dedicated to “VR” (Vera’s maiden name initials). It had her as bewitching, “many-lovered” and some sort of exotic sprite. In 1927 Bax put her in a collection of short stories as someone tired of her Bohemian and socialist husband and dazzled by upper class masquerades. In 1928 ,Vera and Clifford’s second Christmas together, her husband’s Christmas card was a booklet, Eight Poems, which republished “The Flirt”.

I say the above to point out that North, Young and Bax were all drawn to a young woman who was creative, perhaps manipulative, but who had her own struggles as she negotiated her own identity and survival in a world of men who were romantic in a complicated way. Vera was a devoted mother, and that was complicated too. She once declared that FY was the best of her three husbands.

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Publication date

15 March 2023


Mind & body; On books