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The novels of Joan Grant
Life began on earth four billion years ago, perhaps even earlier than the earth: depends on how you define life. Since the first human was created there have been 6000 generations of mankind, about whom we know almost nothing. But our achievements today are based on those of our ancestors, as Carl Sagan expressed it in Cosmos: a Personal Odyssey, his inspirational and profound survey of humanity and the sciences, made in 1980. Can any of these lost and unknown lives ever be recreated?
In fiction it’s a genre known as historical fiction but you have to be careful in defining the term, as it is one where fantasy collides with romance, and it includes just plain adventure stories too. You can be talking about so called Sword and Sorcery, or heroic fantasy, or equally about Mills and Boon love stories. I use the term, ‘fiction set in the past’ to exclude these sub genres (without prejudice). Here is a look at writers who have written fiction set in the past, and attempted to recreate past lives. Joan Grant’s books can be considered just as novels, but there was something else about them that once gathered her a lot of attention: reincarnation.
British writer Joan Grant was a best selling novelist of the 1940s, whose books were translated into 15 languages and who attained enormous popularity. It wasn’t until 1956, in her autobiography Far Memory, that Grant revealed just how her ‘past lives’ books had been written. She entered a hypnotic or trance state, instigated by her husband at her request (each of Grant’s three husbands seemed able to do this). While in a trance state Grant dictated short scenes vividly evoking place and times other than her own and sometimes events involving herself and others. These were then transcribed from shorthand to long hand, and Grant strove to make sense of them and weave them into a continuous narrative. Both she and her husband(s) believed she was experiencing past life regression, retrieving memories from previous reincarnations.
There are people who believe in reincarnation and those who don’t. For some it is irreligious, for others very religious. My problem in believing it possible to recall past lives is about the ‘self’ that remembers. What is the self? Is it a quality of mind, the ego? Is it the immortal soul? My current belief is that it is a creation of the brain made to synchronise sense data. In so far as it is a function of the brain it is an illusion to believe it has an independent reality. Therefore when the body ceases to function, or dies, so does the self. This is not to say there is not an immortal part of a human being. It may be the material elements out of which the body is made, which are conserved as long as there is a universe. Or it might be a soul, whatever a soul may be.
But memory, whether of the present reality or a perception of another, is a function of the brain. It exists while the brain is active, ceases to exist when the brain ceases to exist. Nobody knows anything about this of course. This is just my belief. But it seems reasonable to me. So if what remembers lives and dies with the body, how can the memory recall lives in previous existences? Perhaps we have previous existences, but how can we remember them when we have nothing to remember with?
There is a lot more to memory than we think. There are memories. And there is an interpreter, the brain. The brain processes data, but not all data. Typically it selects data in order to make a logical whole. What we call the world. It makes sense of the senses. Part of this coherence comes from filtering memories. It might not be apparent, but we remember the same things differently each time we remember them. We often remember memories of memories so as to obtain consistency of recall. That is, an uncomfortable recall of an incident might be replaced with a more reassuring one. We often substitute memories evoked by a photo for a ‘real’ memory.
Memory is not just recall. It involves other little known qualities of mind that draw on memory such as intuition, imagination, prescience. We can combine different memories to form one, as when we fantasise, substituting a heroic ‘self’ for the hero of an adventure we’ve seen or read. We can see similarities between past and future which prompt us to forecast.
Reflections such as these make me think that Grant’s far memories may be rooted in her own life, and in particular in her childhood. Unresolved childhood issues, particular a parent who is absent in some way, can often generate a protest in adulthood that takes the form of creative output. It could be significant that Grant’s fiction can be divided into types. Novels, which formed her first two published works. Didactic works in the form of novels, which made up her next three books, and straightforward advocacy of reincarnation, which made up the rest of her fiction and non fiction. Grant had a definite creative gift, but her message soon became more important, though expressed at first as fiction.
Grant’s first novel was called Winged Pharaoh, published in 1937. Set in Egypt in 3500 BC, before the first dynasty was established, the book tells the story of a princess called Sekeeta, who became a priestess before succeeding to a throne, and so a ‘winged pharaoh’: but her position is put at risk when she falls in love. The book was a bestseller, and was highly praised by critics for its attention to detail and the wisdom with which ancient religious truths were expressed. Grant had married in 1927, to a man who worked as an amateur Egyptologist and excavated there. Grant travelled with him, and was familiar with current knowledge of ancient Egyptian history. Scholars nevertheless pointed out several ‘errors’ in her account: later research proved her to have been correct. A second Egyptian book was The Eyes of Horus, published 1942. Set in a period a thousand years later than her first book, the transition from the First Intermediate Period to the Middle Kingdom, it is the story of Ra-ab, heir to the rule of a Nome, who has to fight the prevalence of the rule of the evil god Set established by other Nomarchs. The story is continued in Lord of the Horizon, 1943, as Ra-ab strives to educate the new Pharaoh in the principles of right rule. The story has aspects of an anti war, anti Hitler novel (as does Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which was also written over the 1940s war time period, and was emphatically set in the past). A collection of short stories for children, The Scarlet Fish, was published in 1949, re written from material edited from The Eyes of Horus.
Grant’s second book was Life as Carola, published 1939, a much more unconventional tale of a travelling musician in Renaissance Italy. The story of Carola is full of exquisitely rendered details of a young girl growing up in a neglected yet privileged position in a noble house in Perugia, her exile, and her life as a minstrel. Somehow it seems autobiographical, and it probably is in some way, for Grant came from an unconventional household, with eccentric but wealthy parents, and was allowed to live as she pleased.
The didacticism noticeable in Grant’s third book, The Eyes of Horus, can also be seen in her next book, set among native Americans, Scarlet Feather, 1943. This time Piyanah, a chief’s daughter, fights for equality with the tribe’s Braves. Other stories from the period, set in 1000 BC, were re written for children and published as Redskin Morning in 1949.
Return to Elysium, 1947, is about Lucina, a pupil of an Athenian philosopher and physician. The book is set in the second century BC, and is a defence of past life regression or far memory. Lucina’s guardian does not believe in personal immortality, and thinks that convincing his patients of this will cure their illnesses. Lucina persuades him that past lives exist and that she can access them, and departs for a new career in ancient Rome. Grant’s last novel of past lives is So Moses is Born, 1952. Told by a brother of Rameses II it is about that pharaoh’s illegitimate son, Moses.
Grant also published a ‘modern romantic comedy’ called The Laird and the Lady in 1949, and a travel book, Vague Vacation, about a trip to post war France, in 1947. A second book about travel in France, A Lot to Remember, followed in 1962. In 1956 Grant published her autobiography, Far Memory, and in 1968 Many Lifetimes, a book about reincarnation and her experience of it. Her husband, a psychiatrist, was co author. In 2007 a collection of essays and other writings, Speaking From the Heart, was published. Grant’s main work in her later years was as a therapist.
Life as Carola begins as a memoir of childhood, a tale told by a six year old girl that reminds me strongly of Colette’s book about her mother, Sido, published in 1930, both books full of sense memories. The story is not unlike that of Leonardo da Vinci’s in Florence in a slightly earlier time, 1460, which was about 50 years before the events of Life As Carola. Told from a child’s point of view, a servant woman is made pregnant by an Italian nobleman, the child is bought up in seclusion in his castle, then mother and daughter are expelled when he marries, and forced to earn a living. They become travelling musicians. It is hard to avoid the impression that Grant herself has experienced some of these scenes as a reality. Not the facts of the story, but the places. Childhood memories are retrieved by her method of composition with an amazing vividness. The reader feels there, with the child. The story does include anomalies, such as the inset children’s stories apparently present in all her works (though later published separately). And editorial comments by the author concerning her time as Carola. There is also just a trace of sentimentality in the depiction of relationships, perhaps ascribable to the child’s point of view Grant has adopted. The narrative style is simple and direct and the events depicted rooted in everyday life. Carola has a detailed knowledge of life on a farm for instance. There is very little historical background, and no major historical figures are introduced.
What becomes more and more prominent as the story progresses though is Grant’s ethical viewpoint, given at times an almost seer like resonance. In her second novel the advocacy of reincarnation is taking over from the initial need to tell a story. Perhaps this was part of the ‘editorial’ process Grant used to assemble her far memories into a narrative. The second half of Life as Carola introduces more arcane matters. There is astral travel, visitations by demons, possession by the devil, and rather portentous ethical statements from a figure from Egyptian antiquity who is an earlier reincarnation of Carola. She loses her friends, most dying in plagues, rioting or shipwreck, and enters a nunnery, where she becomes the victim of an evil and tyrannical Abbess. This long section seems stolen from an 18th century Gothic novel. The novel seems to lose its initial vividness and become a rather lurid melodrama interspersed with ethical platitudes. Carola as a child or as a wandering minstrel is a vibrant figure, but becomes lost in the editorial figure of Joan Grant later in the book. Carola ends her days married to a wealthy merchant, and dies aged 27. There is a strong sense of a candle in the wind about the ending. Her audience loved the tale, and so did I on first reading. Rereading it as an adult qualified my admiration. It seemed half historical fiction, half something else.
Any attempt at painting a picture of a past life will only work if it also paints one of contemporary life, one that readers will recognise. Grant turns out to be talking about her main concern, reincarnation, rather than just recreating the past. Perhaps that makes her a more significant novelist than a mere story teller’s books would. People of the past rarely if ever encountered what we think of as ‘historical’ figures. They led their lives, sought food, shelter and someone to love, and died. But they felt the same emotions we do today. Conveying that makes for a great historical novel, especially if it links past and present.
Reading Joan Grant’s novels gave me the idea that someone very like Joan Grant, with her ethical standards, belief in reincarnation, and simplicity, once lived long ago. To me this seems like Grant was writing autobiography in an historical setting. To her, it meant she was reliving previous reincarnations. It is a subject on which we have no certain knowledge, so readers can take their pick which interpretation they want to adopt. Grant, it becomes apparent, was not just writing historical fiction, but expounding doctrines of reincarnation. That parts of her books bought the past vividly to life was a byproduct of her chief intention. For some it made the doctrines palatable. I think the intrusion of exposition and doctrine into the fascinating narrative interrupts the novels, and makes their recreation of past lives flawed. But to be fair to Grant, this was not apparently her intention in writing. She had a message, and delivered it all her life, with the fervour of a believer, at first with fiction, then a strange mixture of exposition and fiction, finally as non fiction. It met the mood of the moment and inspired an enormous following.
More information about Joan Grant is at her website: http://joangrant.net.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.