ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

prose fiction:

i saw water The novel is set on Ménec, an island off the coast of Brittany. The narrator is a novice at the Ianua Vitae Convent. The Order she belongs to, the Sisters of the Parthenogenesis, is broadly Catholic, but features of its worship are heterodox and incorporate pagan elements; many ceremonies take place at the Shrine of the Triple Well. Nor is the narrator a model nun. A number of her actions, which include defecating in church behind the altar and having a lesbian relationship, would be unlikely to command Papal support. It is only as the story unfolds that it becomes clear that Ménec is the island of the dead and that the Convent is a receiving-house for recently departed spirits. In truth, there are clues for the knowledgeable right from the title page. The title itself is a translation of Vidi Aquam, the scriptural verses traditionally recited at Easter. The epigraph gives an extended and slightly modified extract from the text: I saw water coming forth from the Temple from the right side, alleluia: and all those were saved to whom that water came, and they shall say alleluia. The name of the convent emphasises the nature and function of the location. It is taken from an old Latin proverb mors ianua vitae: death is the portal to life. At the convent, visitors continue to behave as they did in material existence, and to build round themselves the illusion of time and space. Death is a threshold, but the boundary between the living and the dead is not a sharp divide. Gradually, however, the characters adapt to their circumstances and the narrator achieves a measure of calm before leaving the island. The inner truth towards which the Rule of the Parthenogenesists is directed will be a familiar one to Colquhoun’s alchemically inclined readers: [it] was no less than the mystery of parthenogenesis, wherein the lunar soul that perceives and feels is fertilised – a long eclipse over – by the rays from its own inner sun, to bring forth at last the radiant Child. Similarly, her concern for earth-bound spirits will be remembered from the pages of Goose of Hermogenes. Other elements – the scourging of the heroine, the scene in a brothel, the journeying through monstrous vegetation, the island setting and the attempt to steal her treasure – are also found in the earlier novel. When the narrator passes her frequent comments on the Catholic Church and its liturgy, the reader can be confident that her views are those of Colquhoun: for example, her observations on the importance of participating in ritual and on the power of language in religious experience are also those expressed by Colquhoun in 1962 in a Carmelite publication, the Aylesford Review. As in Goose of Hermogenes, the hermetic is embedded in the novel’s structure. In Goose of Hermogenes, progress through the chapters reflected progress through the stages of alchemical transformation. In I Saw Water, the author’s original intention was for the heroine to ascend, chapter by chapter, through the sephiroth of the Tree of Life, from Chapter 1 (Malkuth) to Kether in the final chapter. Other drafts show that she considered associating the chapters with the Stations of the Cross. In the final typescript, every chapter was now associated with one of the alchemical elements. Colquhoun planned that, when published, chapters would be printed on appropriately coloured paper: those attributed to elemental Air would be on yellow paper, whilst those attributed to elemental Fire would be printed on red. Working notes demonstrate the extent to which Colquhoun’s dreams provided the source material. She began work on the novel in about 1967, selecting dreams from her dream diaries from as far back as 1939. In the sense that she selected, edited and re-arranged her dreams, I Saw Water is a collage novel, comparable in certain respects to the collage novels of Max Ernst. However, whereas Ernst generated visual images by cutting up his source material – engravings and woodcuts – and linking them with a text, for Colquhoun, the origin lay in the visual imagery of her dreams, transformed into words and then assembled into a narrative. In Ernst’s Rêve d’une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel, he tells the story of a fictional dream. In I Saw Water Colquhoun tells a fictional story created from real dreams. For Ernst, the underlying theme is the seduction fantasy; for Colquhoun, it is the spiritual development of the heroine. Unpublished during her lifetime, I Saw Water has now appeared in print, in a scholarly edition with introduction and end notes. Further information here.
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