THE GREENWOOD FAUN by Nina Antonia. Book review

THE GREENWOOD FAUN by Nina Antonia, Egaeus Press, h/b, £32.00,

Reviewed by Sandra Scholes

When August Clairmont, proprietor of The Spirit Lamp antique shop finds a dirty old manuscript in a desk he had bought, his mind turns to reading it, then having the book republished as ten copies, one for himself and one for his friend. He thinks he will find a new and willing readership if he does this and as he is a reclusive type, he sees this as an opportunity to give his life some meaning and credibility. The original author of the book, Lucian Taylor had laboured with his book and in doing so gained the interest of Amber Seabrook, his landlady, writing her in as a character in it. Amber could see Lucian was not the sort of young man who would live long, not after drinking what I thought was laudanum. Despite Lucian’s talent, his book never got to see the light of day, remaining in the drawer of the desk August had bought until he had the sense to read it.

This book is more about the effect The Greenwood Faun has on those who have read it. August sends the manuscript to be published, sending one copy to his friend Theodore Leacock-Jones and kept the rest. As there was still no interest in the book, August buys an expensive bottle of laudanum, ending his life from the disappointment in a similar way the author had. For him, it was as if he was at the pinnacle of his findings and nothing more had interested him during his humdrum life. As a fantasy novel, it seems to have an adverse effect on most people who read it and as such it is likened to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is a book of agony and ecstasy as well as debauchery, but as the readers find out, it ends up bringing only one ending, death.

Nina Antonia tells a strange, if otherworldly and unusual tale with characters who have read the book after it is published and we see how the book eventually destroys their life. I found it a promising literary work, dreary, fuelled by opium dreams and filled with accounts of how they felt during the Victorian era and beyond. The link between The Greenwood Faun and The Picture of Dorian Gray becomes rather obvious in that Oscar Wilde had met a young man called Lord Alfred Douglas (known as Bosie to his friends) and the rumour was he read Oscar’s novel several times, revelling in the book’s decadence and romanticism of the time, his interest had them both in a romantic relationship that shocked London when it surfaced, ending in Wilde’s incarceration in Reading Gaol and Lord Alfred Douglas being ostracised by his father. The Picture of Dorian Gray was life imitating art for the both of them, being about a young aristocrat, Dorian who is manipulated and eventually ruined by Henry Wooton, a man who has done and seen everything in life and wants to corrupt his young mind. The public as well as many of their acquaintances thought the same of Oscar with Lord Alfred.

The Greenwood Faun has been passed now from original author, to August and then falls into the hands of a Giles Gorse who decides it would be a good idea to re-publish it as his own work and as the book has hardly been heard of, no one would know he had stolen it from the original author. Gorse sets to work removing the cover art when he finds out a curious quirk with it when he holds it to the light. The actual book cover by Nina Antonia perfectly represents the one by Lucian Taylor with the faun and his woman in absinthe green with gold leaf decoration. It and the book’s contents bring the decadence and Pan references to life for a new readership. It also gives us an idea of what life was like in those days and what was on the minds of those people without the constraints of the technology we have today. It is honest in a way I have not read before and enjoyed its contents thoroughly.