The Education of Uncle Paul by Algernon Blackwood (1909)
Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) is probably best known for his horror short stories, including two of the best ever written, "The Willows" and "The Wendigo", as well as the six adventures of John Silence, one of the early "psychic detectives" in literature. Blackwood moved from England to Canada when he was twenty, staying there for almost two decades; these years seem to have formed much of his personality. He had two sides to his personality. One was a extraordinary love of and appreciation for the outdoors; the other embodied his interest in the occult. He was a member of the Ghost Club, a paranormal research society. The two halves of his personality merged into his interest in mysticism. He dabbled in Roscrucianism and Buddhism and the Cabala and was a member of one branch of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It is through nature that one can expand one's consciousness and get a better perception of reality, he felt -- or, at least this was the theory behind a number of his novels and stories, including the one at hand.
The Education of Uncle Paul was the second novel that Blackwood published. Uncle Paul is Paul Rivers, a man who left England when he was 25 for America, where he soon found a solitary, outdoor job with a large lumber corporation. While he was gone, his best friend in England married Paul's sister. Now, after twenty years in America, he gets word of two important happenings: first, that his brother-in-law has died and, second, that an aunt has also passed away and has left him a comfortable bequest. Taking a year's leave of absence, Paul returns to England to settle affairs and to check on his sister and her four young children.
Paul had led a lonely and isolated life, mostly in the woods, while in America. Because of that, he had never really "grown up"; rather, he had a childlike innocence and vivid imagination. His study of the forest and of nature had helped him get closer to the reality (or, perhaps, the uber-reality) of the universe. The question that has plagued him all his life was, Is Reality God, or is God Reality? To approach the answer, his inner being had to remain a child in both innocence and imagination. To return to England in this state of mind would lead to ridicule and ostracism from the adult world, he felt. To compensate, he determined to "act" adult and stifled his childlike sense of wonder. He discovers, however that, by doing this, he really is not a part of either world.
To complicate matters, his nephew and two older nieces are completely in touch with nature and with their many pets. Slowly the trio work on Paul, eventually allowing him initiation and entry into their "lodge." Suddenly, Paul feels a type of completeness. With the help of his eldest niece, Nixie, he is able to have "aventures" -- he can give visible shape and form to the wind, for example, and can share dreams with the children and their pets. Of course, this is all done through imagination. Or is it?
The Education of Uncle Paul is an interesting, albeit slow-moving, book. The one disturbing aspect to the modern reader will be the relationship between Paul and Nixie. Nixie is not given an age, although one supposes her to be (roughly) between eleven and thirteen. She appears to be much wiser and older in many ways. Hints of a sexual attraction (and perhaps relationship) between the two seem to overt to ignore. I'm sure this was not Blackwood's intention; in fact, this type of avuncular relationship (she climbs on his knees, bounces up and down, gives him kisses, and sometimes enters his bedroom) appears common in fiction from that time. And Blackwood himself appears to have been an ascetic. So, I'm probably a dirty-minded old man who is too influenced by what we know can happen around us in the 21st Century. But, as the father of two daughters and the grandfather of three, damned if that relationship didn't bother me.