The Greater Trumps, by Charles Williams

Teresa Edgerton

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This was another case of revisiting a book I have read before, and more than once.

It is hard, even after multiple readings, to categorize The Greater Trumps. Much of this author’s work has been labelled “supernatural thrillers.” I am not sure that is a good description of this particular novel. While the plot may deal with occult themes and concepts, William’s brand of mystical Christianity comes through with greater and greater effect (and I think more overtly here than in a book like his War in Heaven) as the story develops.

Lothair Coningsby is a well-off, middle-aged civil servant. He has everything that it is possible for such a man to want. (Another person in his position might want more: be ambitious for advancement in his profession, for instance, greedy for greater riches, or hungering for a more meaningful life. He, however, is too small-minded for any of that.) And yet, having all that he is capable of wanting, Coningsby is satisfied with none of it and perpetually resentful of any source of contentment or happiness that those around him might attain or aspire to.

His older sister, Sybil, is exactly the opposite. Everything and everyone is a source of delight to her. After many long years of prayer and spiritual struggles (we never find out what those struggles were, but we are told that they were at times quite agonizing) she has reached a state of acceptance which brings her total contentment. Sybil, with her circumscribed and narrow life, keeping house for her disagreeable widowed brother, raising his children, and wanting nothing more, might seem to be a pathetic figure. In this story she is no such thing, but instead a woman of deep insight and power. It is just because she is always aware of higher realities beyond the mundane that she is content with her circumscribed life. An embodiment of that divine love which philosophers, churchmen, and saints over the ages have sought (successfully or unsuccessfully) to understand and become at one with, she goes about her life quietly, preaching to no one.

Her niece, Nancy (Lothair’s daughter), is recently engaged to Henry Lee, a young barrister of gypsy descent. Nancy experiences love as a series of physical thrills (By this I mean an emotional state which stirs her on a physical level. There is no indication of a sexual relationship between Nancy and Henry. It is simply being in the presence of the man she loves, her anticipation of what their life together might be after marriage, that exhilarates and excites her.) Yet part of her recognizes that this sort of love is somehow lacking, that there should be something more, something she doesn’t yet understand—though perhaps dimly recognizes in her elderly aunt—that she yearns for and hopes for. On the surface she is a shallow young woman, disrespectful to her father, yet content to remain at home under his authority, pursuing no vocation or career, nor even considering one, waiting like others of her time, gender, and class for her life to finally begin and gain purpose through marriage. Yet she has the potential for so much more.

Henry, on the other hand, is keenly aware of higher realities, of further possibilities for and through their love, which he plans to use in a series of occult experiments as a path to power. Power, that is, for him. Though he may actually be in love with Nancy, at least in his own selfish way, we understand that he basically sees her as a tool and a vessel, not as an equal partner in whatever he hopes to summon up between them.

Lothair has recently inherited a collection of rare and (in some cases) quite valuable Tarot decks. The bequest came with a request to keep the collection together, and—on his own death—to bequeath it in its entirety to a museum. However, Lothair has no intention to do so, hoping to sell some of the more valuable packs, when the initial publicity surrounding the bequest dies down. He wants the money—has no need for it, probably wouldn’t be satisfied with it if he did acquire it, but wants it anyway—and in his typical fashion feels a vague resentment that after his death someone else (though it be a museum, rather than an individual) might possess this rare and precious collection that he in incapable of understanding or enjoying himself.

When Henry asks Nancy and her father to show him the collection, one unusual pack immediately catches his attention: he believes it to be the original Tarot deck, a guide to the mysteries that was once in the keeping of his family, but which was stolen for them long ago, and which they have been searching for ever since. If it is the deck he thinks it is, it could provide a path to the power that he longs for.

Lothair, of course, has no idea of any of this, but when Henry offers to buy the deck from him, he refuses—partly out of his usual peevish possessiveness, and partly out of prejudice against Henry for his gypsy blood. Though he merely hints at it in conversation, his thoughts about Henry and his family are basically a series of racial slurs. He thinks of Henry as a thief and con-man. Henry is neither. But in concentrating on these nonexistent threats Lothair fails to see the real danger, which is Henry’s ruthless ambition.

When Henry invites the Coningsby family to visit his grandfather at his country house for several days at Christmas, Lothair, surprisingly agrees. His son, Ralph—who we’ve barely seen so far—has declared his intention to spend that Christmas with his friends. This upends Lothair’s plans for celebrating the holiday in their usual way (which, going by what we have seen of his character, was probably indescribably boring for everyone else, and Ralph does well to absent himself), and feeling that his idea of a traditional family Christmas is spoiled, Coningsby thinks he might as well accept Henry and Aaron Lee’s invitation. Also, Henry has convinced Nancy to bring the original Tarot deck along—and again Lothair agrees. Why give in so easily? I think it is because this will provide him with something else to resent and complain about, without first having put out even the small effort required to actively resist.

And so the stage is set for a house party which meets nobody’s expectations, being far beyond anything that any of the participants—even elderly Aaron, scholar of ancient mysteries, Henry the aspiring magician, and Henry’s great-aunt, long since driven mad by the failure of her own occult ambitions—could have imagined.

When Henry uses the Tarot cards to call forth elemental powers, and loses control of them, unleashing a terrifying blizzard which not only endangers the country house and its inhabitants, but which has the potential to destroy the entire world, the Lees and the Coningsbys must battle supernatural phenomena within and without the house if they are to have any hope of surviving. It is during this time that Sybil’s true power becomes most obvious, as it up to her, and Nancy as her disciple, to save the rest—supposing that is, it is not already too late.

This is a book where it takes a while for the fantastic to fully reveal itself. But when it does it is power and peril on a cosmic level, and the characters face spiritual tests which might lead as easily to salvation as to damnation.

(A warning for modern readers: This book is very much a product of its time. While Williams elevates his female characters, as is customary when putting women on a pedestal, he also confines them within the gender limitations typical of the early twentieth century. For all their greater insight and wisdom, they understand and accept their place in the domestic sphere, and stand by their men, whether those men are worthy or not. Although, to be fair, it may also be that Williams sees them as ministers of divine grace, whereby even fallible humanity may be forgiven and saved. )
 
(A warning for modern readers: This book is very much a product of its time. While Williams elevates his female characters, as is customary when putting women on a pedestal, he also confines them within the gender limitations typical of the early twentieth century. For all their greater insight and wisdom, they understand and accept their place in the domestic sphere, and stand by their men, whether those men are worthy or not. Although, to be fair, it may also be that Williams sees them as ministers of divine grace, whereby even fallible humanity may be forgiven and saved. )
I think that's really well put. I hadn't thought that through in this way at all.

The main point of interest in the book for me was the sheer power of the elemental forces of the four suits. I realised I'd greatly underestimated the Minor Arcana (and this seems to be true of those Tarot commentators I've read, all of whom seem to prefer to focus on the Major Arcana) . As Williams was close to A.E. Waite for some years and a member of his Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, I think it very likely Waite was a significant influence on this perspective on the elements
 
I think it very likely Waite was a significant influence on this perspective on the elements
It's quite possible that Waite influenced Williams on the importance of the Minor Arcana; certainly Waite put more emphasis on them in designing the Rider Waite deck with Pamela Coleman than had been traditional. However, Williams aligned the four elements and the four suits somewhat differently than Waite and others writing on the subject, which is a considerable departure. Pentacles remain earth and cups water, but he's reversed swords and wands.
 
It's quite possible that Waite influenced Williams on the importance of the Minor Arcana; certainly Waite put more emphasis on them in designing the Rider Waite deck with Pamela Coleman than had been traditional. However, Williams aligned the four elements and the four suits somewhat differently than Waite and others writing on the subject, which is a considerable departure. Pentacles remain earth and cups water, but he's reversed swords and wands.
Thank you for clarifying that.

Curiously - I only realised this a few years ago - Pamela drew/painted some of the cards close to where I live - in Winchelsea (25 minutes away, a place I know well) and Smallhythe (50 minutes away, where you can look round the house, and some of her cartoons are on show). Both are rural idylls.
 

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