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  • Possession and Gothic Horror: David Storey’s Use of The Idiot in Radcliffe
  • Gary Adelman (bio)

David Storey’s Radcliffe (1963) is a Gothic novel in which a metaphysical dimension to the spiritual horror develops out of the novel’s uncanny correspondence with The Idiot. Radcliffe easily brings to mind Dostoyevsky; it has all the elements—the drama of a split psyche; exaggerated characters; sadism, masochism, rape; incest, murder, and madness; a focus on isolated suffering through dreams and hallucinations; and analyses by the characters of one another and of issues related to the theme—so that most of the early reviewers inevitably mention Dostoyevsky. “For his organization here, as for other things, Mr. Storey also leans heavily on Dostoyevsky.” 1 “[I]t is a little as though Dostoevsky had set his hand to rewriting The Fall of the House of Usher.” 2 None of the reviewers, however, pursues the parallels with Dostoyevsky. The Dictionary of Literary Biography treats Radcliffe as an amalgam of the best and worst elements of Dostoyevsky, 3 and Malcolm Pittock, who has written the best commentary on the novel, considers the Dostoyevskian presence as a rather extraneous literary overlay beneath which lies a powerful novel of homosexual relationships. 4

In The Idiot, the attraction between opposites, the spiritual Myshkin and the physical Rogozhin, is evoked in their rivalry for the love of Nastasya. In Radcliffe, Storey removes the female proxy and focuses on the relationship between Leonard Radcliffe and Victor Tolson, making the attraction explicitly sexual.

In interviews Storey has explained that he had been living a kind of body-soul split during the 1950s, playing professional rugby, in its violent proletarian form, for one of the best Rugby League clubs in industrial Yorkshire, and studying art first in Wakefield and then at [End Page 181] the famous art school, the Slade, in London. The hostility of his teammates—“They thought it was absurd to be carrying on as a painter. To them, all artists were homosexuals”—exaggerated the two extremes of his experience. “I was a moody, introverted young man. . . . During the week I was living with flighty, artistic nonentities in London, and then traveling 200 miles to play with plumbers on Saturday.” When he got back to Slade on Monday, his fingers were so swollen he was unable to draw. 5 It was the conflicts arising from these irreconcilable allegiances which produced the novels.

Radcliffe was the third in a planned sequence of four novels that were to help Storey integrate the two halves of his divided life:

In the first [This Sporting Life] I tried to isolate and come to terms with the physical side in the footballer Machin. In Flight into Camden I isolated the other half, the spiritual, interior and—as I conceived it—feminine part of my nature by writing a first-person narrative in which the narrator is a woman. In Radcliffe I bring the two halves face to face embodied in two separate characters, and then in the fourth, the key work. . . I am trying to reconcile them into one person: the conflict moves inside, and is fought out in one man’s brain. 6

The fourth novel was never written.

This integration appears to have been the germ of Radcliffe, the author’s fantasy of bringing together the separate entities of his torn psyche, in which Leonard Radcliffe seems based on Myshkin, even to being afflicted with fits and being called “a Prince,” and “a wise fool,” and frequently “an idiot.” Victor Tolson seems to answer as Rogozhin. The parallels between the novels go deep. Storey not only recreates “the really extraordinary psychology and the characterization, the relationship between those characters” 7 (Storey speaking of Dostoyevsky), but he also compounds the nihilism of The Idiot by endowing Radcliffe with sexual desire, which is inextricably bound up with sadomasochism and rage. That is, he is engaged with the idea of Dostoyevsky’s novel, and in his retelling there is even less chance for redemption; the presumably humanized Myshkin is driven to murder and insanity.

The opening chapters of Radcliffe form a prologue establishing the hero’s identity before the action proper (his adult life); like Myshkin, he...

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pp. 181-188
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