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Come Again? The Contexts of Bryher's Visa for Avalon

Elizabeth Lloyd-Kimbrel


'Avalon? ... It's very unfashionable these days.'


'A novel should be an impression, not an argument.'

~ Thomas Hardy, 1892 Preface to TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES

In 1965 the then well-known British historical novelist Bryher wrote an atypical novella, an ostensible 'science fantasy' titled Visa for Avalon that was published in the United States but never in the United Kingdom. Bryher's British publishers considered the book inappropriate, claiming it was too great a departure from her usual work and the British reading public wouldn't buy it, literally and figuratively [1]. More on point, though, the parallels - topographical, social, and otherwise - to life in Britain were a bit too close for comfort. Tight, compelling, and deftly humorous, the book is a near-contemporary story about the impbending end of a comfortable and inattentive way of life, of people caught between an uncaring, impotent status quo (the Government) and an uncaring, destructive avant-garde (the Movement). Apart from Bryher's use of the word 'Avalon' in the book's title, however, the mythic elements in her recounting of ordinary lives turned desperate initially seem ancillary, if noticed at all. But Bryher's story plays on several levels, and she trusts her readers will be more aware than her characters. In her deceptively simple fable, Bryher's variation on a theme is a subtle rumination on 'the matter of - and what's the matter with - Britain,' and thereby, through the particular, offers a cautionary tale for all.

The writer born Annie Winifred Ellerman and known as Bryher - the pen name she chose in honour of her beloved Isles of Scilly - believed in the importance of origins. In her 1958 memoir The Heart to Artemis, Bryher comments that:

The original 'Matter of Britain' goes back to our remote past when traces of religions brought in by foreign traders under the Romans still existed in isolated Welsh and Cornish valleys. Most scholars now work on the later versions that arose after the Norman Conquest and that were deeply affected by the Christianity of that time. To like and study one or the other is a matter of individual preference but it is unscientific to ignore the fact that the first tales belong to an age when Norman Christianity was unknown in Britain. [2]

To Bryher the Matter of Britain was Britain's story first, and then Arthur's. Arthur and his cohorts came to be the principal embodiment of the Matter of Britain, but many of its elements were in place before Arthur even had his name. In her historical novels Ruan, The Fourteenth of October, This January Tale, The Player's Boy, and Beowulf, Bryher recounted the story of Britain from ground level, from the sixth century to the twentieth, without enchantments, without supernatural manifestations - without Arthur himself - but with those qualities of identity, honour, hope, tenacity, and tragedy that make the tradition timeless and adaptable. So, when she decided to write Visa for Avalon, her 'science fantasy,' Bryher took a well-known, complex, and highly elaborated-upon idea and brought it down to earth, simultaneously de-mystifying it and making it magical in a different way. Visa for Avalon is, in a way, 'a folktale of migration', to use Bryher's assessment of The Swiss Family Robinson, a story that had profound influence on her as a child. [3] Indeed, one of the main characters is named Robinson (a name which also recalls the original shipwreckee, Robinson Crusoe). And the Matter of Britain itself is, in a way, an emigre exemplum - over the centuries its elements have travelled from west to east and into the west again, from Wales and Cornwall to Brittany and back, with sojourns to Ireland and Scotland, leaving and returning, picking up baggage of variable value and import. Bryher understood such travels.

Visa for Avalon is a small fiction, just 120 pages. It tells the story of a single week in late summer leading up to one fateful and frantic day and night in the lives of seven people. Its dedication page says 'For Norman, who first led me into the paths of Science Fantasy.' And that is the only explicit indication that science fiction or fantasy is anywhere on the author's radar (her sonar is another matter). 'Norman' was Norman Holmes Pearson, the chair of the American Studies Department at Yale University, Bryher's good friend and literary executor who was also a member of X-2, the counter-intelligence branch of the OSS during World War II. Bryher herself, starting in 1933, wrote desperately to anyone and everyone warning that invasion and war were on the European horizon. From her vantage point in Switzerland she watched the build-up of Fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany. And while her words, Cassandra-like, were being ignored, she took action. Using her inheritance for financing and her Swiss home as a conduit, she managed to shepherd over a hundred refugees to Portugal and on to England until, in 1940, she herself had to run or risk imprisonment as an illegal foreign national. Bryher's personal experiences of idyllic islands, encroaching eminent domain, harrowing escapes, tea rooms, administrative inertia, and bureaucratic interior decorating coalesced to inform the society of Visa for Avalon. Her scholarly training, literary skill, and economy of language led her to create a cool yet compassionate look at a possible domestic future.

In Visa for Avalon what there is that is futuristic or fantastic is 'slant' - as in Emily Dickinson's inclination to tell the truth but tell it slant. As a result, the feeling of the novel is a combination of the familiar and the strange, with the world of Visa for Avalon being a parallel universe that is just a little ahead of the one we know. There are computers, for example, which come in for some humorous commentary regarding the inaccurate scanning of grocery items - quite prescient on Bryher's part, given that Visa for Avalon first appeared in 1965 when computers were the size of ocean liners and not part of everyday life. But they also appear more ominously in a seeming throwaway response by the sardonic Roger Lawson, the Avalon consul, to his subordinate Alex Magnus:

'But they can't abandon all the people who have trusted in them here! They can't fling them like this to the...' [said Alex.]

'Not wolves, Magnus, that's terribly out of date. Let's say to a computer.' [4]

But all that is still just a matter of course. The day-to-day ordinariness of existence is unremarkable until you notice that Robinson, the retiree who worries that his age may be a deterrent to getting a visa, himself considers Mrs. Blunt the widow to be 'elderly' at the age of fifty. (Bryher was 70 when she wrote Visa for Avalon.) And Owen, the pilot made redundant because of his age, wants to emigrate to Avalon not because of the Movement, but because he still has skill and talent that his homeland no longer values. Beyond computers and pensioners, there is an inordinate amount of linoleum in Visa for Avalon. This is simultaneously funny and disturbing. Linoleum invades everything, including women's clothing. Is the future that unimaginative, that plastic, that dull? Actually, as things appear in Visa for Avalon, yes. And finally there is, of course, Avalon itself, an actual but little visited country with its own consul in the City. In this look at the Matter of Britain, Avalon is a matter of fact, and an ordinary one at that.

The first mention of Avalon comes when Lilian Blunt, distressed beyond measure that her Rose Cottage is shortly to succumb to asphalt, blurts out:

'I wish I were younger,' Lilian tilted back in her chair as she had always been scolded for doing as a child. 'I would emigrate.'

'...Which country would you have chosen, Mrs. Blunt?' [asked Alex]

'Well, a lot of my friends went to America and some went to New Zealand but I had a fancy it might be just like it was here, the same problems in a different landscape. ... Now I should like to go to a place they say is utterly different. I want to go to Avalon.'

'Avalon?' Alex was so startled that he looked at her almost rudely. 'It's very unfashionable these days.'

'As if I care! It sounds, as I just said, different.' ...

'I think you would miss your own country, you know.'

'Of course I shall miss my own country but when an odious little man walks in with hardly a by your leave, and turns you out of the house you've lived in all your life, what can it mean to you any longer? A country ought to be the same as a home.' [5]

For his part, Robinson finds it curious that Mrs. Blunt has ever even heard of Avalon, commenting that he himself as a child heard stories from old sailors that no one who landed there ever returned, giving the narrative a nod to legend. But Alex Magnus undercuts any developing mystery by revealing that he works for Avalon's consulate in the City and, not only that, but he's also lived in Avalon itself. Avalon may be shrouded in mist, but that's due more to meteorology than myth. The island is not a secret; it is simply not important anymore. And there starts the critique of the Matter of Britain - that what it represents no longer matters in the world of Visa for Avalon.

The introduction to the 2004 reprint edition of Visa for Avalon compares the book to Brave New World and 1984, calling it a political allegory. [6] Visa for Avalon does fit lightly within the category of prophetic, futuristic fiction - although, interestingly, such direct literary connections were not made when the book first appeared in 1965. (Visa for Avalon's current reprinting was spurred by its publisher's concern about the direction the United States government was taking, especially as manifested in the Patriot Act. [7]) And Visa for Avalon is political, although its politics are somewhat circumspect and not necessarily absolute; in a way it is as much about ethics (and etiquette) as politics. What Visa for Avalon more especially has in common with Huxley and Orwell - and possibly more so with Gulliver's Travels and Fahrenheit 451 - is that it and they are all books that work and survive from generation to generation because they can transcend their genre and their politics, because they are good and well-written stories.

But Visa for Avalon is not an allegory in science fantasy/fiction guise; it is too particular in its identity. A closer literary cousin than Orwell or Huxley is James Hilton's Lost Horizon, which also, obliquely, has its roots in the Matter of Britain. Both Visa for Avalon and Lost Horizon share a delicacy of touch that cushions some sharp observations of human foibles and failings; both share the hint and shadow of something wrong rather than its full display; both draw on themes of discontent, of refuge, of escape. (Both might also be seen as precursors of the magic realism style that blossomed with Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.) Like war hero and diplomat Hugh Conway in Lost Horizon, several of the characters in Visa for Avalon 'are like the men who have been wounded by a civilization they can no longer abide.' [8] Bryher's Avalon, like Hilton's Shangri-La, is sought because it is believed to be different from the untenable here and now; it's 'somewhere else,' a possibly better place, but not necessarily.

Forty-five years ago, the critic and poet Horace Gregory credited Bryher's 'instinctive art in storytelling: [her] economy of phrasing..., an unforced union of atmosphere, action and meaningful imagery.' [9] He further noted that her technique involves 'short, highly charged analogies to situations and problems that bedevil our days and nights.' [10] And Visa for Avalon is impressionistic - almost cinematic. There are set scenes and shifting perspectives from character to character - characters who don't know everything about one another and who sometimes make wrong assumptions about each other. In her historical fictions, Bryher uses the past as a prism through which some present might be viewed; with Visa for Avalon, she uses days of future past to glance at the nearly present. Her science fantasy is also unusual within its alleged genre because it is a 'before' story - the fall, the terror, the loss, the change is impending but it has not yet happened; there is only the threat of violence.

Throughout Visa for Avalon there are deliberate, interlaced literary, historical, and personal resonances and references that the wary may catch - although British readers may be more adept at the catching, which, at least for a start, is how it should be since Bryher is addressing matters and manners in Britain. The country where Visa for Avalon's action takes place is not named because it needn't be - it is Britain, a shadow Britain, but a wholly and deliberately identifiable Britain. And not merely Britain, but Cornwall especially (with its deep Arthurian and Celtic connections). Every place mentioned in the story actually exists. (Anyone familiar with Cornwall, the British rail system, 'the City' - as London's financial centre is commonly called - London's suburbs, and/or British geography would, upon reading the novella, have immediately recognized where and what Bryher was writing about.) Similarly, all the main characters' names echo figures in literature, Arthurian legend, and British and classical history. In addition, certain conventions that tend to be considered particularly British - proper manners, rose gardens, stiff-upper-lips, seaside holidays, dry humour, tea's ability to solve nearly all difficulties - are used both as narrative shorthand and as commentary beyond the stereotype. These are things readers may notice or not, or at least not initially. Bryher does not explain a lot. She plops the reader right into ongoing, ordinary lives wherein ordinary matters begin to take on a sinister mien: the anxious rudeness of a girl separated from her group, the discourtesy of entering a gated garden without knocking, road building, bad taste in fashion, traffic jams, airports closing at midnight.... This specificity grants the story a timelessness as well as a timeliness. Bryher has a point to make, but she knows that lessons are more palatable (and more lasting) if they aren't too obviously presented as lessons and also if they aren't thuddingly dull.

In this way, then, Bryher offers her take on the Matter of Britain and its Arthurian aspects. Visa for Avalon is not an Arthurian story in that it's not an extension or retelling of established tales, but it is Arthurian by drawing on elements of those tales as subliminal commentary. The tradition's aspects are used as touchstones, not absolutely required for appreciation of the basic story but still integral to its theme, enhancing the meaning as well as the ambiguity of the tale. Visa for Avalon is very much a novel of echoes, more parable or fable than allegory, about a Britain that is acting as itself, but devoid of much knowledge of its past. Robinson's sudden awareness of 'How old the landscape was!' [11] is as close a sense of appreciation of the past as we get. While Alex's muted response, 'They can ... but not the day it breaks out' to the statement 'Nobody can foresee a revolution' [12] is the closest acknowledgement that such things may have happened before. And there lies the heart of the matter - that there is something the matter but few have noticed because there is no frame of reference.

Most of the protagonists of Visa for Avalon seem to have little historical sense or memory except of their immediate personal experience (Roger Lawson and Alex Magnus being exceptions). There are passing references to things having felt 'dark' for some time and the observation that 'one day Nature will send another Black Death to adjust the proportions'[13], but the comments are generalized, imprecise, the way we are when we speak about things that we haven't paid attention to. Nobody remarks on the name 'Avalon'; its mysterious quality finds no place in the country's history; it's just a story sailors tell; it's accepted as real. And it is not just the Movement that should make us uneasy. The Movement is still separate from the Government - otherwise it would not be calling for a General Strike; and it is the Government, not the Movement, that is declaring eminent domain over Lilian Blunt's cottage. Bryher hints at how, indirectly, the behaviours of good people can contribute to the breakdown of order and liberty. Bryher's own wartime experience further informs her depiction of unexpected and unplanned upheaval with both its trivialities and its unformed fear. In writing about that time, Bryher noted, 'Ironically enough, my refugees were the cream of Germany's citizens. If there was a weakness in them, it was overcivilization. They could not imagine brutality and kept repeating over and over in bewildered voices, "How could we even know that this persecution was possible?"' [14]. Robinson, Mrs. Blunt, and Sheila Willis suffer from just such unawareness in Visa for Avalon.

In Arthurian legend, Arthur is taken to Avalon only after he has fought hard against the evil that would destroy his ideal. The principal protagonists in Visa for Avalon do not fight back against the Movement or the Government. There is no heroic Arthur-figure, but there are several ordinary people who put themselves in jeopardy to help others - Lawson the consul for Avalon, who seems very by-the-book (ergo, Law's son, perhaps) but who knows what the situation requires; Bert the canny cabdriver, who risks his safety for two strangers and who may be the anticipation of an underground organized against the Movement; Alex, who plays fast and loose with the rules and earns but also must choose his return to Avalon; Augier, who manipulates the airport authorities; and Owen who can 'see through the sky.' [15] And their names are not accidental.

In her descriptions of places, persons, and actions in Visa for Avalon, Bryher evokes the commonplace with precision. And in her namings of persons and places, she invokes a memory of history and legend, of defiance and independence. It is in the names themselves that the Matter of Britain is covertly resurrected. Avalon, of course, is a given, but what is given can be a matter of debate; its climate suggests it could be the Scilly Isles, which were also the Isles of the Dead in Celtic legend. But there is also Trelawney, Lilian Blunt's seaside village, whose name is one of great import in Cornwall, a legendary symbol of defiance and independence. Building on this are the names of the two airplane pilots, Augier and Owen. Augier's name echoes that of Ogier the Dane, a national hero and Charlemagne's undefeatable paladin, who late in his life visits Arthur on Avalon and is rejuvenated there, according to the romances; who sleeps beneath Elsinore awaiting Denmark's call, according to Danish legend; and who lives happily ever after with his faery wife 'in the happy land of Avallon,' according to William Morris's The Earthly Paradise. (In all tellings, Ogier's great adversary is the Saracen champion Br�hier - which looks quite like "Bryher" and may be another inside joke on the author's part. [16]) In Visa for Avalon, Augier is a pilot impatient of bureaucrats and protocols, a native of Avalon who does not like being away from it or his wife for too long. But he is dutiful and he is willing to risk danger to ferry complete strangers to safety. With Owen, the pilot made redundant because of his age, an even stronger connection is made to matters of Britain. His name recalls not only the redoubtable Welsh hero Owen Glendower, who is said to be sleeping in the Black Hills waiting for Wales to call him again, but also that of Madog ab Owain Gwynedd, the Welsh prince who disappeared into the West and never returned, although he's alleged to have discovered and settled North America in the twelfth century. Then there is the restless Alex Magnus, with 'Magnus' echoing roving and scholarly Northmen, but his classical translation is also redolent of impatient action and more telling - 'Alexander the Great'. And there is Lilian Blunt. Her wedded surname, so definite and solid, partly defines her character. But her given name sounds gentle and meandering, fitting her character too. In addition, Blunt is a British family name that goes back to the Norman Conquest, while - as ascribed in Bryher's novel Beowulf - Lilian is the 'inevitable' name of a quintessential type of British matron. [17] By combining these aural and traditional aspects, Mrs. Blunt becomes almost as iconic as Colonel Blimp ... or Arthur.

Why does Bryher employ such esoteric allusions, knowing that most of them are fairly obscure? Simply for fun on one level - because she knows Cornwall, Arthurian legend, and British history and geography intimately and can make a game for herself and some of her readers. (I do think Bryher was, to a certain extent, creating an ordnance survey riddle with Visa for Avalon, as well as a love note to the Scilly Isles and Cornwall.) But she was also buttressing her approach to 'the Matter of Britain,' or more precisely 'what's the matter with Britain,' and by extension any and all countries where complacency, apathy, and laziness block a clear view of what's developing. The references to past legends and recent history follow on Saroyan's comment that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. 'Once and future' can mean two different kinds of second coming - Arthurian or Yeatsian, saviour or destroyer. Alex Magnus raises such doubts - about Avalon, about emigrating, about complicity:

[Alex] knew, as the others did not, about the difficulties of re-adaptation and acceptance, the little details that were and were not like their habitual life, the values that counted in Avalon and that were different from the ones, say, in Trelawney. 'You were too impulsive,' they had said, 'you must think things out.' Oh well, he had made his mistakes but as he had often grumbled to Lawson, 'Nobody there understands how a man feels.' Suppose he slipped out to the garage, took his car and drove to the country, couldn't he find a quiet place where he could appear to swim along with the Movement without actually joining it and live out his life in peace? He had a bundle of notes in the pocket of his overcoat and they would be of no use to him anywhere else. 'Nobody understood... it was all so dull.' [18]

In counterpoint is Lilian Blunt's epiphany:

'I shall miss Trelawney till I die,' she started to say and then, it [her distress] was worse because the very memory of the place seemed to be fading.... By a terrific effort of will ... she stammered, but who heard her against the roar of the engines, 'I wanted to be out on the Seven Seas, I never wanted to be in Rose Cottage at all.' [19]

Visa for Avalon provides a transit across a might-be Britain that's ceding control to bureaucracies and Luddites toward an obsolete island, a place more curiosity than mystery. This no-longer-mythic Avalon - this Island of Apples as Celtic mythology has it, a visual image that Bryher calls up - is still a place of escape, of refuge, as Britain itself was to refugees from the Nazi terror. The characters in Visa for Avalon do not know or remember this, but readers will, just as readers will know some form of the legend of Avalon. But remember, too, in Arthurian legend it is Camelot, not Avalon, that is the utopia that becomes a dystopia following internal dissension. Avalon is pre-Arthurian; it is not a place of conflict, but a paradisiacal way station for the valiant but defeated king of the Britons - just as the bucolic Scilly Isles were the burial place of Celtic kings. It is a place to rest and heal or a place to die. As such, it begs the question of what is actually meant by 'resting place'. As Bryher knew, pre-Christian Celtic beliefs held that mortals could come to visit the otherworld and its shades.

You may have noticed that the main title of this talk was COME AGAIN with a question mark. The phrase is a play on words, of course, a multiple entendre - echoing the theme of Arthurian legend, of Arthur's journey to and possible return from Avalon, but also questioning that idea, as in, is a return possible or even wanted? It is also slang for indicating deafness or scepticism or disbelief. And it is what tour guides and airline stewards and hosts of every ilk say to visitors upon leaving - but do they really mean it? At one point in the novel Robinson says 'Life is a journey.' And Lilian Blunt responds, 'Really...I'd have said it was a waiting room.' [20] The question then follows, in Visa for Avalon, is Avalon a final destination or a limbo? The end - or a beginning - or something in-between? A better place or just a different place? Does Bryher mean Avalon to be the healing place or the dying place of the chronicles and romances or something even older? Is this an open return, a welcome or a farewell?

Early on Robinson flippantly announces that he does not want a 'straw death', calling up an old Saxon belief that there is no worse fate than to die from old age or illness. [21] And then, later, in contemplating emigration, he muses that:

People would call them crazy to leave for a new country at their age rather than give up 'a bit of independence.'... It was, however, almost a moral question. If an individual's right to a place of his own were not respected, it was the first link in a chain that would ultimately lead to the elimination of the unwanted by any group that happened to be in power. 'We have to take a stand, I suppose,' he said. [22]

That 'I suppose' speaks volumes. The heroes of legend took a stand and were granted Avalon; the Matter of Britain as a definition of national character and its heroic tradition is both justification and admonition, something to live up to when admirable and to learn from when less so. No absolute stand is taken in Visa for Avalon; there is no returning Arthur on the horizon. Yet there are small moments of true courage. And this not-quite-lost horizon does offer an island respite, not least because of the intercession of someone thought obsolete. Even though they cannot be the Resistance, Bryher grants her refugees a soft landing amongst the apple blossoms. What happens next is left to them - and to the reader's imagination about what may, or may not, come again.

'Ice and fog are the last ordeas on the sea.... What happens when you reach the island is another story and I may not speak of it.'

- Bryher, RUAN, 117


Grateful acknowledgement and profound thanks go to Dr William Kimbrel of the University of Balamand (Lebanon) for presenting this paper in Glasgow on my behalf and to Dr Farah Mendlesohn and SFF for agreeing to the 'substitution' when circumstances prevented my attending Worldcon in person. Appreciation and gratitude also go to R. Allison Ryan, photographer of the haunting image that is the cover of the 2004 edition of Visa for Avalon, and to Jan Freeman of Paris Press (met through Dr Ryan's auspices), who in 2004 coerced me into 'giving the Arthurian side of the story' at a reading and discussion of Visa for Avalon that then grew into this paper.


1 Susan McCabe, 'Introduction', Visa for Avalon [VFA], xiv-xv; see also, Bryher to Adrian House of Wm. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 5 July 1965, Bryher Papers, Yale University. (Note: For the purposes of this paper, pagination for Visa for Avalon is taken from the 2004 edition of the work.)

2 Bryher, The Heart to Artemis, 137.

3 Artemis, 279.

4 Bryher, VFA, 66.

5 VFA, 20-21, 26.

6 Susan McCabe, VFA 'Introduction', xi, and VFA 'About Bryher', 154.

7 Jan Freeman, 'A Note from the Publisher', VFA, vii.

8 P. Albert Duhamel, 'Civilization Leaves Its Wounds', 4.

9 Horace Gregory, 'The Adventures of Running Water', 4.

10 Gregory, 'Then There Were Barbarians in the Rose Garden', 5.

11 VFA, 22.

12 Ibid., 116-117.

13 Ibid., 18.

14 Artemis, 279.

15 VFA, 148.

16 Ameer Ali's A Short History of the Saracens was preferred childhood reading for the young Miss Ellerman. See Artemis, 66.

17 Bryher, Beowulf, 175-176.

18 VFA, 132.

19 Ibid., 144.

20 Ibid., 111.

21 Ibid., 19.

22 Ibid., 32.


Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine, 1953.

Bryher. Beowulf. New York: Pantheon, 1956.

__________. The Heart to Artemis: A Writer's Memoirs. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962; London: Collins, 1963.

__________. Bryher Papers. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. <;

__________. Ruan. New York: Pantheon, 1960.

__________. Visa for Avalon. New York: Harcourt, Brace, World, 1965; Ashfield, Massachusetts: Paris Press, 2004 (reprint with Introduction and Biographical Note by Susan McCabe and Publisher's Note by Jan Freeman).

Duhamel, P. Albert. 'Civilization Leaves Its Wounds.' [Rev. of Visa for Avalon by Bryher.] New York Times Book Review (25 Apr 1965): 4.

Gregory, Horace. 'The Adventures of Running Water.' [Rev. of Ruan by Bryher.] New York Times Book Review (6 Nov 1960): 4.

__________. 'Then There Were Barbarians in the Rose Garden.' [Rev. of Gate to the Sea by Bryher.] New York Times Book Review (14 Sept 1958): 5.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D'Urbervilles. London: Macmillan, 1892.

Hilton, James. Lost Horizon. New York: William Morrow, 1933.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. London: Chatto & Windus, 1932.

Morris, Willam. The Earthly Paradise: A Poem in Four Parts. (Part II: Summer: August: Ogier the Dane.) London: Ellis & White, 1884.

Orwell, George. 1984. London: Secker & Warburg, 1949.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. London: J. M. Dent, 1896 [1726].

Weston, Jessie L. The Legend of Sir Gawain. London: David Nutt, 1897.

Wyss, Johann David. The Swiss Family Robinson [alt. title The Family Robinson Crusoe, or Journal of a Father Shipwrecked, with his Wife and Children, on an Uninhabited Island]. London: T. Nelson, 1890 [ca. 1812].


  • Date of birth: 2 September 1894, in Margate, Kent, England - Date of death: 28 January 1983, in Vevey, Switzerland.

  • Birth name: Annie Winifred Ellerman - daughter of Sir John Reeves Ellerman, a shipping magnate and reputedly the wealthiest man in Britain - travelled extensively as a child with her parents throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East.

  • Legally changed her name to 'Bryher', the smallest of the inhabited Isles of Scilly - Bryher had a lifelong association with and affection for the Scilly Isles and Cornwall - her other principal residence was Switzerland.

  • Greatly influenced in her youth by the works of Jessie L. Weston, esp. Weston's work on Gawain; initially trained as an archaeologist before turning to publishing, philanthropy, politics, and writing historical fiction - admired William Morris - dismissed Tennyson's "historical/military [in]accuracy" in Idylls of the King.

  • Husbands: Robert McAlmon (American writer/publisher) and Kenneth Macpherson (Scottish novelist/experimental filmographer).

  • Long-time companion: H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, American imagist poet) - Bryher and Macpherson formally adopted H.D.'s daughter Perdita, whose biological father was the composer Cecil Gray.

  • Financially independent, broadly philanthropic, and multilingual - friend, associate, and often financial supporter of many of the Paris ex-patriates and others of the 1920s and 1930s, including Sylvia Beach, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, etc., as well as of the 'literati' in U.S. and Britain throughout her life - also connected to the European psychoanalytic community and movement, offering financial and moral support as well as undergoing analysis - essentially, Bryher knew practically everybody who was or would be anybody in American and Continental literary, artistic, intellectual, and political circles.

  • In 1923, Bryher and McAlmon's Paris press, Contact Editions (financed by Bryher), published Ernest Hemingway's first book, Three Stories & Ten Poems in a limited edition of 300 copies - McAlmon and Hemingway were friends who later had a falling out - Contact Editions published many of the notable ex-pat writers of the day.

  • With second husband Macpherson and inamorata H.D., founded, financed, and edited Close Up (1927-1933), the first journal ever 'devoted to film as art'.

  • In 1930, H.D., Macpherson, and Bryher made Borderline, an experimental, German Expressionist-influenced film featuring H.D. and Paul Robeson (in his second movie role), with Bryher in an uncredited but intriguing role as the concierge of a scruffy cafe/boarding-house

  • Founded, financed, and edited the 1930s-1940s literary magazine Life and Letters Today ('having bought enough paper to last through the war').

  • During the build-up to World War II, Bryher helped over a hundred refugees escape Nazi Germany - her home in Switzerland was the conduit until she too had to decamp to Britain via Portugal - her anti-Fascism efforts had begun in 1933.

Bryher's books -

AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVELS: Development (1920), Two Selves (1923)

MEMOIRS: West (1924), The Heart to Artemis: A Writer's Memoir (1962), The Days of Mars: A Memoir, 1940-1946 (1972)

POETRY: The Region of Lutany (1914), Arrow Music (1922)

NON-FICTION: Amy Lowell: A Critical Appreciation (1918), A Picture Geography for Little Children: Part One - Asia (1925), Film Problems of Soviet Russia (1929), The Light-hearted Student: I German (1930 - grammar text)

FICTION: Civilians (1927 - London during World War I), Beowulf (1948 - the London Blitz), The Fourteenth of October (1952 - Saxon view of 1066), The Player's Boy (1953 - Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre), Roman Wall (1954 - 3rd century Switzerland), Gate to the Sea (1958 - Greek colony in 4th century BCE Italy), Ruan (1960 - 6th century Wales, Cornwall, Scilly Isles), The Coin of Carthage (1963 - the Punic Wars), Visa for Avalon (1965 - 'science fantasy'), This January Tale (1966 - Britain after Hastings), The Colours of Vaud (1969 - 18th century Switzerland)



All the main characters' names either echo, reflect, or hint at figures in history, literature, and/or myth. Sussing out the hidden references - and the reasons for them - can be part of the puzzle and appeal of VFA.


Avalon - The �migr�s' destination; a mythical island in Celtic and Arthurian legend. In Arthurian legend, it is either where Arthur goes to be healed for eventual return (Geoffrey of Monmouth) or where he goes to die (Thomas Malory), depending on which version of the legend you prefer. 'Avalon' is possibly a conflation of Annwn, the Celtic Otherworld, with the Welsh Ynys Afallach, the 'Isle of Apples' or 'Affallach's Island,' Afallach being a Welsh god of healing. ('Apple' is 'aval' in Cornish and Breton and 'afal' in Welsh; all three languages are linguistic cousins.) The first formal association of Avalon with King Arthur is in Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain, circa 1136 CE.

The Alps, America, New Zealand, Treworthen, Carrick, Porth, The City, Mitcham Terrace, Puffin Bay - Regions, countries, towns, and locations mentioned in the novel. All are real places. The village of Treworthen, the region of Carrick, and the city of Porth are all in Cornwall. 'The City' is the common name for London's centre and financial hub. Mitcham Terrace is a geological (as opposed to residential) configuration in the Wandle River between the village of Mitcham (which started as a Pre-Roman Celtic settlement) and the town of Croydon are both part of London's Borough of Croydon, which has an airport that was widely used until the late 1960s. And Puffin Bay is part of Handa Island, off-shore from Scourie, Scotland.

Cornwall - Cornwall is steeped in Arthurian legend, not least of which being that Arthur's alleged birthplace is Tintagel Castle at Land's End.

Isles of Scilly - Annie Winifred Ellerman took her nom de plume 'Bryher' (which also became her legal name) from the smallest of the five people-inhabited Isles of Scilly (56 islands in all), which are clustered about 30 miles off Land's End at the tip of Cornwall. The islands are often referred to as the Isles of the Dead in Celtic legends. (There are an unusual number of ancient burial barrows on the islands; see Bryher's historical novel Ruan.) Puffins congregate in the Scilly Isles, esp. around uninhabited Annet. The islands are also preternaturally subtropical because of their proximity to the Gulf Stream (as are the Summer Isles of north-western Scotland, which are not far from Puffin Bay on Handa Island).

Trelawney - The name of Mrs. Blunt's village. A real village in Cornwall (although actually spelled 'Trelawne'). 'Trelawny' (with and without the 'e') is a Cornish family name going back to Saxon times; an important historical and cultural touchstone for the novel, calling to mind regional independence and resistance to oppression and authority. 'Trelawney, or The Song of the Western Me' is Cornwall's national anthem - written in support of Jonathan Trelawny who, in 1688 CE and with six other Church of England bishops, defied King James II and was imprisoned in the Tower of London for protesting against the Declaration of Indulgence toward Catholics.


The Matter of Britain - The name given collectively to the stories (legends, folktales, chronicles, romances - both pre- and post-Roman/Christian/Norman elements) that comprise the history of the British Isles, centring for the most part on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Tied to Britain's national identity - its idea of self and of honour. The phrase first appears in the 12th century Breton chanson de geste, 'Chanson de Saisnes': 'There are but three literary cycles that no one should be without: the matters of France, of Britain, and of great Rome.' The Matter of France was the story of Charlemagne and his paladins, particularly the Song of Roland. Since the Charlemagne stories were about the beginnings of France and the Arthurian stories were about the beginnings of England, the analogy was an obvious and useful one for the 12th century. Eleanor of Aquitaine made both terms popular by using the stories to strengthen the proprietary positions of each of her husbands (first Philip of France, then Henry of England), stressing their respective illustrious 'ancestors'. (The versions of the legend in which Arthur dies would appeal to up-and-coming British rulers in that they could claim some murky familial lineage to a noble past as well as dispel ideas of rebellion any belief in a 'returning' Arthur might foment.)

The once and future king - T.H. White's translation of REX QUONDAM, REXQUE FUTURUS - the Latin phrase allegedly carved upon Arthur's tomb at Glastonbury, according to Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur (1470 CE): 'Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place.... Many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus.' As counterpoint, the Glastonbury Cross (allegedly discovered in 1193 CE upon the urging of Henry II, husband to Eleanor of Aquitaine) had a different inscription, usually given as: 'HIC IACET SEPULTUS INCLITUS REX ARTURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA: Here Lies the Tomb of the Famous King Arthur on the Isle of Avalon.'


The Arthurian 'biggies' = Geoffrey of Monmouth's HISTORY OF THE KINGS OF BRITAIN, 1138; Chr�tien de Troyes' prose romances, esp. THE KNIGHT OF THE CART and LE CONTE DU GRAAL, late-1100s; Layamon's BRUT, circa 1205; Thomas Malory's THE BOOK OF KING ARTHUR AND HIS NOBLE KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE, ca. 1451 (LE MORT D'ARTHUR was the title Caxton applied to the printed version, 1485 ); Alfred Tennyson's THE IDYLLS OF THE KING, 1859-1885; and T. H. White's THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, 1958 (on which the 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical CAMELOT was based)

AVALON in Visa for Avalon

References to and information about Avalon can be found on these pages in the 2004 edition of the novella:

21 ('unfashionable', 'different'), 24, 26,27, 42, 47, 49, 51, 53, 55, 62 ('obsolete'), 63, 65, 67, 68, 71, 72, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 105, 106, 112, 113, 124, 126, 128, 129, 130, 131, 132 ('dull'), 138, 140, 143, 146, 149


If 'The City' is London, Puffin Bay is on Handa island in Scotland, and the plane needs to re-fuel at Puffin Bay, then the distance from London's Croydon Airport to Handa Island determines how far they can fly before running out of gas. If one does a radius centred on Puffin Bay of the distance between it and London, then the only islands on the map where Avalon Airlines' plane could land that fit the description of a semi-tropical environment and 'apple trees and white sand' are the Isles of Scilly.


All the main characters' names in VFA either echo or hint at figures in history, literature, and/or myth. Determining the hidden references - and the reasons for them, which may be 'just for fun' - can be part of the intrigue of VFA. Here are some suppositions, educated guesses, and flights of fancy to play with and expand/expound upon (actual authorial confirmation being, of course, impossible)....

MAIN CHARACTERS (in order of appearance)

ROBINSON - retired businessman; echoes of The Swiss Family Robinson (a favourite childhood book of Bryher's; cf. also Bryher's Swiss residency connection) and Robinson Crusoe (which Bryher didn't enjoy as much as SFR; Robinson suggests Alex might like to be stranded on a desert island as a way to avoid going back to work).

LILIAN BLUNT - widow with seaside cottage; plain-speaking (blunt); in her novel Beowulf Bryher comments that 'Lilian' is quintessentially English; also echoes British history via family name "Blunt," which can be traced back to the Norman Conquest; might also echo the intrepid Victorian traveller Lady Anne Noel Blunt, the only known descendant of Lord Byron and wife of poet and diplomat Wilfrid Scawen Blunt.

ALEX MAGNUS - on staff of Avalon consulate and a former resident of Avalon; possibly hinting at Norse legend and exploration with Nordic family name 'Magnus'; more pointedly, since 'magnus' means 'great,' a spin on 'Alexander the Great'; also perhaps alluding to Avalon's being among the 'Fortunate Islands of the Greeks' in some sources.

SHEILA WILLIS - secretary at Avalon consulate; 'Sheila' is Irish for 'Cecilia', which means 'blind' (Alex comments on her blind devotion to Lawson).

ROGER LAWSON - Avalon's consul in the City (i.e., London) and a high-ranking Avalonian; an off-chance wordplay on law-legality and/or 'law-hlaw' which means burial mound in Welsh, but more likely recalling Nordic/Viking names/history.

AUGIER - the pilot for Avalon Airlines and an Avalonian who doesn't like being away from home for too long; name echoes the word 'augur,' as in foreboding, of course, but more directly recalls Ogier the Dane, a hero in mediaeval French Charlemagne romances who, when he is 100 years old (according to one story), is brought to Avalon by Morgan le Fay to be rejuvenated and while there meets King Arthur thereby providing a Matter of France/Matter of Britain link; generally regarded as synonymous with Holger Danske, the Danish national hero who grew homesick and walked all the way from southern France back to Denmark and who still sleeps under Elsinore, waiting to arise when Denmark needs him; William Morris wrote a version of Ogier's story (the 'August' entry in The Earthly Paradise), as did Hans Christian Andersen.

BERT - the cab driver; a popular Cockney name; Cockney element and attitude may indicate salt-of-the-earth/common people aspect (as well as a certain skill at the con); may also represent budding underground movement.

OWEN - the other 'migr'/refugee, a former ('redundant') pilot; very Welsh name - Wales and Cornwall linked linguistically and thru Arthurian legend; echoes Owen Glendower (ca. 1359-1416), the Welsh hero who, like Arthur, is said not to have died but is waiting to return; perhaps also recalling another Welsh hero, Owain ap Madoc [Madog ab Owain Gwynedd], who disappeared into the west (ca. 1170), never to return, but who may have discovered and settled in North America; possibly an echo too of 'Olwen' in Culwch and Olwen (from the collection of tales, The Mabinogi) which is the earliest full-fledged Arthurian romance.

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