Chrysalid: Growing up With John Wyndham

When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was.1

When I was quite small I would often dream of Labrador, before I knew where Labrador was. It wasn’t the real Labrador, of course, but that of John Wyndham’s 1955 novel, The Chrysalids, and even that was tempered by my own experience around the village in which I grew up. I suspect that The Chrysalids may have been the most influential piece of fiction that I have ever read.
I had been ill. I spent about three months in hospital aged 4-5 with tuberculosis, and some more time convalescing afterwards. As a result of this I was a little behind the other kids in terms of physical development, and didn’t join in the playground games of soccer and catch so much. On the other hand, I was taught to read in hospital, and was quickly ahead of my peers in that respect. And I was hooked. I exhausted the Milnthorpe Primary School
Library’s selections at around one a day. The names I’m sure will be familiar to any of that generation: not just the Enid Blyton’s and her ilk, but Henry Treece, Ian Seraillier, Andre Norton, etc. Then there was Narnia, that magical land that was probably my earliest taste of fantasy. (I remember the dying world of The Magician’s Nephew frightened me, and I don’t think I ever re-read that volume as I did the others.)
At home I began to search my father’s bookshelf, which to this day is an eclectic mix of Jack Higgins and Henry Williamson, Agatha Christie and John Steinbeck. And there I found a small handful of books I could read even at age 7 or 8. The Chrysalids was one, another was Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and something called Romany’s Caravan Returns. Each was devoured as quickly as the rest. Unlike the others though, I returned to Wyndham, perhaps because it was at home and hence always available. I think there were stronger reasons, however. The cover, Brian Kneale’s simple, effective six-fingered inky hand print, purple against the orange Penguin livery, was a part of it. The times I was reprimanded by my mother for trying to replicate that! And those dreams were important, too. I had made a friend, Timothy, who shared my new love of sf. This was the era of classic TV sf like UFO, The Tomorrow People and Jon Pertwee’s Dr Who; and British Marvel comics featuring Spiderman, The Avengers and The Fantastic Four. Tim and I roamed the fields and woods around Milnthorpe walking his dog, Paddy, and playing games. His elder brother had a fair collection of sf, and the mobile library came each week, so I was not stuck for material. For a month or more we were Lensmen, later X-men, and so on. At night I would fall asleep reading, and in the morning half-wake to a dream of what I had left off the night before, only with me involved somehow.

Perhaps because of that opening line, quoted above, this seemed to work even more with The Chrysalids. Perhaps I felt an affinity with David Strorm through that common dreaming of wondrous faraway places. It was also easy to visualise the places David explored, they were similar to the places Tim and I played. There is an old railway embankment which runs by the village, half-wooded and overgrown now. I always assumed that the high bank that David plays on when he first meets Sophie must have been some kind of old road or railway too. Like Waknuk, Milnthorpe is a centre for a community of farms, broken up by streams and woodland. It was easy to pretend that Hazelslack woods were Labrador when I was a child, and the limestone bluffs beyond were Wild Country.
The Chrysalids, then, was a romantic adventure: a bunch of slightly different kids escaping the restrictions of home life. And in my dreams I joined them; helping Sophie flee through the Fringes, travelling back with Michael to rescue Rachel, or other such scenarios. Later, I learned the term ‘cosy catastrophe’ and began to view things differently.
When I was 15 my O-Level English class was set The Chrysalids as our text for the exam. At first I was thrilled, I already knew the book well though I probably hadn’t reread it in a couple of years at that point. It may well have been that familiarity which helped me scrape a pass in that exam, because my English teacher and I did not get on. I recall him stressing that Wyndham had written ‘an allegory’ with the implication that that raised it above ‘sci-fi’ somehow. The accepted reading, and this extends beyond my English class, is that The Chrysalids is Wyndham’s response to post-war conservatism and the fear of new ideas, and that it is, in part, balanced by his succeeding novel, The Midwich Cuckoos, wherein the new breed are a threat. I believed that.
In a letter to Vector 211, I argued that The Chrysalids was a socialist novel of its time, and specifically placed him in a tradition that included H.G.Wells and Ken Macleod. I stated that whilst the scenario was ‘cosy’ it was also more than that. In response, a letter from Cy Chauvin pointed out some not-so-cosy elements of the book. Although not stated, hindsight tells me I was thinking of cosiness in terms of a sense of complacency in the views of
Waknuk’s society, and that this was a target of Wyndham’s allegory.
Chauvin also commented that ‘the evocative dreams of New Zealand and the coming rescue had an equally strong appeal when I was a boy’, which brings me back to that romantic adventure story again. This, clearly, was important to Cy Chauvin and to myself.
The Chrysalids is an allegory on intolerance; it is a ‘cosy’ catastrophe, albeit with dark moments – although the collective mind of The Chrysalids is generally a tolerant, open and democratic viewpoint when contrasted with the brutal, totalitarian collective of The Midwich Cuckoos, there is a disturbingly Fascist overtone to Michael’s comment after Anne’s death: ‘One of us Has been found not strong enough.’ (p103) Equally dark, though in a different way, is the passage where Sally describes Katherine’s torture, and the line: ‘Her feet, Michael – oh, her poor, poor feet…’ (p131) remains for me one of the most moving, sad and unforgettable passages in sf. Its lasting influence on readers such as myself lie there, in part, but mainly in this: The Chrysalids is a classic tale of growing up, a coming-of-age story.
All the elements are there: the span of the novel takes David from 9 years old to about twenty, through a series of archetypal events that shape him, with guidance from his worldly-wise uncle Axel. David’s relationship with Sophie is a kind of puppy love until the encounter with Alan Ervin when Sophie’s secret is discovered. Consider this exchange:
‘Ho!’ said Alan, and there was a gleam in his eye that I did not like. ‘Who is she?’ he demanded again.
‘She’s a friend of mine,’ I told him.
‘What’s her name?’
I did not answer that.
‘Huh, I’ll soon find out, anyway,’ he said with a grin. (p44)
Could that not easily be the initial sparrings of two boys with an eye for the same girl? David is protective of Sophie because he cares for her; to him, the extra toe is a detail rather than the whole.
Subsequent chapters see repeated lectures from Uncle Axel to David which, in several cases, I have considered to be direct lectures from Wyndham to the reader. In particular a long passage quoting an explorer, Marther, in Chapter 6, is concluded by Axel asking ‘Do you understand why I’m telling you this?’ more than once. It is clearly the reader who is targeted.
At the same time, this occurs when David is around 12 years old, early puberty, and one of the questions Axel asks is ‘What do you think it is that makes a man a man?’ (p79) and although Axel is talking in terms of the mind, this is effectively a ‘facts of life’ talk.
David goes on to learn about death (his mother’s sister’s suicide); family secrets (his father’s mutant brother); sex and forbidden love (with Rosalind); and collective responsibility (when Anne marries). Finally, when their secrecy is broken, he has to escape, leave the family home and enter the world.
Although the events leading up to The Chrysalids’ flight from Waknuk and arrival in the Fringes take up over two-thirds of the novel, it may be that one event which happens there holds the key. After capture by the people of the Fringes, David comes face to face with his first love, Sophie. It is a scene which Wyndham uses to make several points explicit. Sophie’s man, coincidentally the mutant brother of David’s father, wants Rosalind because she is not sterile. Sophie is jealous, but there also remains a bond between her and David. A few pages earlier (pp149-150) David had expounded lyrically on his love for Rosalind, and on how she has hidden her real self behind an armour of aloof practicality that only he has seen beneath. Now, that love faces its first real challenge. Sophie now is an adult, and one less restricted by upbringing than Rosalind. Her clothing does not bear the stitched cross that all the other women David has known have borne; she is, in that respect, a ‘loose’ woman. In another scene she casually undresses in front of David and Rosalind to bathe. This alien attitude shocks David, but he still has feelings for the little girl he knew, and he is forced to reconsider.
As she explains about Gordon to David, Sophie says, ‘You’ve got to have as little as I have to know what that means.’ (p167) She is referring to emotions, but later David recalls these words in the light of Sophie’s material poverty (p169), allowing Wyndham to make explicit the existence of a secondary meaning in some of his speeches and lectures. And in recognising this, David is recognising a new view of the world, an adult world out side the emotional cocoon of Waknuk.
So for the adolescent I was, The Chrysalids is a useful guide to growing up; a credible adventure and a lesson told with subtle skill. In that letter to Vector I made a further point:
Wyndham goes to great lengths in the early chapters to identify the Strorm family with society as a whole. Their village grew around their house, both are named Waknuk; Joseph Strorm is not just David’s father, he is the magistrate, preacher and major landowner, and explicitly the most powerful man around. Defying him is defying society. (V213, p3)
The obvious corollary to this is that if The Chrysalids is the story of David’s coming-of-age, and David, as scion of the Strorm family, is representative of society’s future, then the novel itself is a story of societal maturing. Joseph’s hidebound views are rejected, literally destroyed in the end, in order that the new tolerant, loving generation may flourish. The UK title, Wyndham’s preferred version, is clear on this: Rather than the Re-Birth of the US edition, the Chrysalid is the next stage of a life-form, a progression all must go through. And perhaps, for the ugly duckling teenager, that too was a part of the appeal, and a part of the dream.

Originally published in Steam-Engine Time 3
1 page numbers from Penguin edition

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About Kev McVeigh

Review of literary matters, mostly but not all SFF , and digressions into music and other arts. Engagement welcomed.
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