THE MIGHTY ATOM
The spirit, or soul, of a person is non-material, and so a factor ‘beyond the range of ordinary knowledge’; which quotation comes from the definition of the word ‘occult’ as given in the Oxford Dictionary. Upon these grounds I feel justified in including this book by Marie Corelli in our Library; for it is the story of a young boy grappling with the problem of whether he has, or has not, a soul.
I must be frank. As was so often the case in this, then bestselling, author’s day, the story, first published in 1896, positively drips with sentiment; but nevertheless it is well worth reading.
Lionel is the son of John Valliscourt Esq. of Valliscourt, the squire of a village in Somerset. He is typical of a great many Victorian fathers in that he is a grave man who considers it to be his natural right to dominate his household, and not even his beautiful wife dares to question his will. In that he was like my own father, who was always known in the household as ‘the Master’; although, unlike Lionel’s father who terrorised him, mine was very kind to me.
On the other hand, unlike most Victorian fathers, John Valliscourt was an atheist and his unbelief amounted to a fanatical hatred of all religions. No morning prayers for him, no church on Sundays; he would not even have a Bible in the house.
His one passion was the acquisition of knowledge, and Lionel, his only child, was the victim of it. Under a succession of tutors the poor boy swotted many hours every day. He was allowed no recreation, he was forbidden to go outside the grounds of the house, and mercilessly grilled every evening on his day’s studies by his stern parent. Naturally, in learning, he became years beyond his age; but the price for it was poor health, a frail body and a joyless life.
He accepted both his lot and his father’s atheism without complaint because he did not realise that either were unnatural. But one sunny day he did play truant. Scrambling through a hole in the garden hedge he crossed the fields to the village. Entering the churchyard he came upon the sexton, a Mr. Dale, digging a grave. With him was a lovely child – his little daughter Jessamine.
The sexton was a kindly, simple man and after the three of them had chatted for a while he asked the ‘young gentleman’ deferentially if he would like to go home with them for the evening meal. Lionel happily accepted and never in his life had he enjoyed anything so much as that high tea.
A few days later Jessamine crawls through the hedge bounding the Valliscourt garden to bring Lionel a bunch of wild flowers she has picked for him. Unknown to his father Lionel develops a clandestine friendship with the Dales. He falls in love with Jessamine and she with him. Love is the only word for it, although he is only eleven years old and she still a toddler; so it is the purest form of love. I have always found the use of dialects or unusual pronunciation in books tiresome, and never use it in my own if it can possibly be avoided; but Marie Corelli’s rendering of little Jessamine’s prattle is superb. By it she portrays the personality of a little child with positively astounding clarity, and it is one of the principal joys of the book.
Naturally the Dales are regular church-goers and have an unshakable belief in the Christian faith. Little Jessamine is happy and fearless from her certainty that angels are always looking after her.
Lionel’s association with the Dales leads to his beginning to secretly question his father’s atheism and the fanatical dogma that no one has a soul. Could it possibly be that he, Lionel, really has got a soul? He must find out – he must. Eventually he does.