Noughts and Crosses: a study


Immediately following the publication of the novel The Blue Pavilions in 1891, Cassell brought out a collection of Q’s short stories called Noughts and Crosses. According to Brittain many of the tales were written on the train between Cornwall and London. They were first printed in magazines, especially The Speaker, a radical paper. A letter written in September 1890 shows Q overloaded with requests for short stories at a time when he was intent upon novel writing (Brittain, 1947, pp. 21-22).

Many but by no means all have a Cornish setting. The first story, ‘The Omnibus’, is set in London, as is ‘The Paradise of Choice’ and much of ‘The Small People’. Two stories are set on the coast of ‘Bleakirk’ in the North Riding of Yorkshire, while a third is set at Haworth in the West Riding. ‘Psyche’ is a Devon story, as is possibly ‘Beside the Bee-Hives’ and ‘The Doctor’s Foundling’. ‘Old Aeson’, ‘The Magic Show’ and ‘Yorkshire Dick’ have no identifiable locations. As with The Blue Pavilions, which has no Cornish material at all, Q appears to be positioning himself less as a Cornish writer than as a London writer from Cornwall.

At the conclusion of the Fowey/Troy story ‘ “Doubles” and Quits’, Q places a footnote claiming that the truth of the incident described can be verified by reference to Robert Hunt’s Romances and Drolls of the West of England (1864). Hunt was born at Devonport in 1804. He became a leading mineralogist and mining engineer. During his journeys through Devon and Cornwall he collected folk material. In the introduction to Romances and Drolls, he acknowledges a debt to William Bottrell of Penzance and Thomas Q. Couch of Bodmin, Q’s father. Both Bottrell and Couch published material of their own.

William Bottrell (1816-1879) must have known Drs. Richard and John Q. Couch from their medical practice in Chapel Street at Penzance, while Robert Hunt and Richard Q Couch were important members of the Miners’ Association of Cornwall and Devon. It is possible that Q met Hunt at his father’s house in Bodmin and Bottrell while staying with his relations in Penzance. Behind the Cornish stories of Noughts and Crosses and subsequent collections, there appears to lie a hinterland of folk material and family relationships.

Q was not the only member of the family to be influenced. In 1914 Q’s sister, Mabel Quiller Couch, published her own collection of folk stories under the title Cornwall’s Wonderland. There is the same conversational tone as though the writer is addressing an audience, the only difference being that Mabel’s audience appears to be made up of young people while Q is addressing adults.

A number of stories contain dialect words and idioms – toteling for senile, wisht for ailing, chall for cowshed and she where we would expect to find her. All of these dialect words can be found in the Courtney and Couch Glossary of Words in Use in Cornwall (London, 1880). It was compiled by Q’s father and Margaret Courtney of Penzance. As much of Q’s youth was spent being educated outside of Cornwall, he must have relied in his early writings on what had come to him from his father. After moving to Fowey Q’s written dialect became more secure and varied.

A Tradition of Storytelling

There can be little doubt that behind Noughts and Crosses lies the figure of Thomas Quiller Couch. One can well imagine the young Q sitting by the fireside during his vacations, listening to his father’s latest story, just as ‘Kit’ sat by the quay at ‘Troy’ listening to the sailors’ tales in ‘The Boy by the Beach’. Thomas was the narrator, with the family as audience. This is the structuring of Q’s short stories. In some the tale comes directly from the narrator, while in others the narrator is delivering what he has been told. The tone is conversational, the delivery is important and there is the assumption of an audience.

The ‘Statement of Gabriel Foot, Highwayman’ gives us the voice of the main actor. In the ‘Countess of Bellarmine’ the action is conveyed by the fisherman Seth Truscott, in ‘ “Doubles” and Quits’ by the boatman Simon Hancock, in ‘The Mayor of Gantick’ by an old tin-streamer and in ‘The Gifts of Feodor Himkoff’ by Mrs. Lenine of Nare Head. No moral judgement is imposed, there is no description of place and human emotion is related only at its most basic. The weight of the story is carried by the plot and the inferred performance.

Q is presenting himself, consciously or otherwise, as the exponent of an unbroken ‘droll’ tradition stretching back to the bards and troubadours of the Middle Ages. A discussion of this tradition by R. Morton-Nance can be found in the foreword to Cornish Drolls by S.L. Enys. According to Morton-Nance, ‘droll’ derives from the Cornish ‘daralla’ and relates to the performances of Celtic story-tellers. At another level ‘daralla’ draws upon themes common throughout Europe.

It is possibly a coincidence but the last known Cornish bard, the harpist William ‘Sir Tristram’ Winslade or Wideslade, came from Tregarrick in the parish of Pelynt. Talland, the parish of the Couch family, lies to the immediate south. The Winslades lost their lands for supporting the Catholic cause. William’s sister, Grace Winslade or Wideslade, took refuge with the Bevils and Grenvilles of Killigarth above Polperro (Derriman, 1994, pp. 23 & 24). Sir Bevil Grenville, who carries both names, was one of the heroes of Q’s novel The Splendid Spur. On his election to Parliament in December 1620, he gave Killigarth as his residence. Grace was still living there in 1622.

The register of Cornish wills gives a ‘Tristram Couch’ of Talland in 1669. It is not impossible that Tristram Couch’s father or grandfather heard ‘Sir Tristram’ perform at Killigarth. We know of the harpist from Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall of 1602. Carew appears to have stayed at Killigarth in the 1590s, a residence noted for its hospitality. Maybe it was at Killigarth that Carew heard ‘Sir Tristram’, although, being a Puritan, without much pleasure.

Following the demise of these sixteenth century harpists and the triumph of Puritanism in a civil war that saw the death of people like Sir Bevil Grenville (a Royalist who died at Lansdown on 5 July, 1643), performances moved down the social scale and the harp was abandoned. The rise of Methodism in the eighteenth century resulted in the loss of the wandering storyteller, as Hunt relates in his introduction. The telling of ‘drolls’ became simply a pastime in cottage evenings and is not totally extinct even today.

(A note on the Cornish word ‘daralla’: Morton-Nance (1990) and Ken George (2009) give ‘daralla’ as the word used by Cornish speakers for a spoken story or play with a folk element as heard by Edward Lloyd in 1700. Morton-Nance sees it coming from ‘drolla’, plural ‘drollys’.

F. Jago in Glossary of the Cornish Dialect (1882) gives ‘droll-teller’ as a story teller and fiddler. Jago suggest that two such still existed in 1829 – over 200 years after the death of Winslade.)

Classical Influences

Another tradition can be discerned in Noughts and Crosses, one coming from classical civilisation. Q was a classical scholar, with a mind steeped in antiquity. In his inaugural lecture as King Edward VII Professor of English Literature in the University of Cambridge, delivered on 29 January, 1913, Q commenced with Plato, and moved through Socrates, Cleinies, Megillus and Minos, before referring to anything quintessentially English. Even then Lucien, the Parthenon, Pheidias, Pericles and again Plato appeared before the lecture was brought to a close with a quotation from Sainte-Beuve.

Q was not the first member of his family to be concerned with Latin and Greek. His grandfather, Dr Jonathan Couch of Polperro, was taught Latin by an émigré priest, M. Arzell, who had found refuge from the French Revolution with Sir Harry Trelawney at Trelawne. Jonathan almost certainly had some knowledge of New Testament Greek.

The classical influence can be most obviously seen in ‘Fortunio’, the second story of the collection, as it is steeped in classical references – Aeneas, Dido, Virgil and Horace. Fortunio is an impecunious scholar who takes it upon himself to teach the narrator Latin. He believes that even a boy from the moors has a right to classical wisdom. As Fortunio lies dying, an Anglican priest is called to his bedside, but the scholar still sees Virgil as an equal to the Anglican liturgy for the dying.

The influence of Greek thought is also evident in the sixth story ‘Psyche’ and in the twelfth ‘Old Aeson’. Aeson was the father of Jason who sailed with the Argonauts. It is about an old man who rejuvenates himself at the expense of a younger one. This theme is developed more fully in a later short story, ‘The Mystery of Joseph Laquedem’, from Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts of 1900, which looks back to the Byzantines.

In Greek mythology, ‘Psyche’ is the personification of the soul. It is feminine and can be transformed into a butterfly. Q links this to a Devon superstition, which he must have heard when staying with his Ford grandparents, that to fail to kill the first butterfly of the season results in ill-luck. He also links it to a second superstition that spirits can take the form of a butterfly or moth. This superstitious idea also underlies his poem ‘The White Moth’, which appears in Brittain’s Q Anthology (1948) directly after ‘Psyche’.

In the short story, an engine-driver loses his wife in a fire and feels haunted by her soul in the form of a white moth. When he sees a butterfly or moth in danger he becomes violent in its defence, although to those around his actions appear motiveless. Eventually, he observes a moth being consumed in the candle-flame on an Anglican altar. The man, religious by nature, abandons any further belief in divine providence and is consigned to a mental institution.

The rejection of an ultimate good by the engine-driver stands in opposition to an affirmation of the same by Dr. Beckerleg in The Blue Pavilions. This suggests that at this troubled time in Q’s life, when he was facing something of a breakdown, the question had a relevance for him personally.

‘Psyche’ is subtly related to the final story of the collection, ‘The Magic Shadow’. A child runs to his mother with news of a green butterfly. In the sunlight of an August day the mother sees a male child with a female shadow. The story ends in a three sentence paragraph explaining that poets possess a soul made up of masculine and feminine aspects, but these have to be united before poems can result. This almost certainly gives us an insight into Q’s creative dynamic, with his own unity only being achieved once he had settled in Fowey with his wife and son.

A further exploration of consciousness, but with more obscure classical allusions, can be found in ‘Yorkshire Dick’. Yorkshire Dick has gypsy blood and introduces the narrator to a wisdom within nature as important as the wisdom of organised religion. In the novella Ia, this wisdom is embodied in the person of Asenath Cara, the witch, and in The Splendid Spur in the ‘wise-woman’ from Warleggan. Their wisdom derives from a time when the Greeks and Phoenicians first traded with the Cornish tin merchants. This ancient link with the Eastern Mediterranean was important to Q, none more so than when he was studying the Classics at Oxford.

Q employs this link in the short story ‘The Mystery of Joseph Laquedem’. At the centre of the story are the set of Byzantine frescoes which were uncovered in Talland church during renovation in 1848. Before their disintegration they were viewed by Dr. Box, presumably William Henry Box, surgeon of East Looe (P.O. Directory). Box’s description can be found in Jonathan Couch’s The History of Polperro (1871, pp. 66 – 68) and in the journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall for 1849. Themes from ‘Joseph Laquedem’ were used in the novel Sir John Constantine of 1906 and in Q’s last and unfinished novel Castle Dor. In ‘Joseph Laquedem’ Q makes the connection between traditions stemming from Greece and from Israel, as Joseph was a Jew and the frescoes were Christian.


Noughts and Crosses makes demanding and possibly disquieting reading. For readers who are familiar with Troy Town and The Splendid Spur, it may appear to be the product of another author. For those familiar with the writings where he extols the basic goodness of man, as in Memories and Opinions (1944, p. 40), it may appear as an aberration at a time of personal difficulty. Yet the issues he raises were not those simply of a moment. The problem of human irrationality, folly and wickedness remained with him for the rest of his life and informed his literary and political thinking.

Many of the stories first appeared in The Speaker, a radical publication. Q’s radicalism was not of a utopian or theoretical kind, and he had no time for Marxist dogma. His concern was with the identification and amelioration of abuses. Unscrupulous ship-owners, bankers, landowners and industrialists were attacked in his novels, and his other writings attacked the exponents of rationalism, scientism and religious fundamentalism.

In his short stories he exposes the cruelties and follies of men – women rarely merited his exposures, being seen more often as victims than as victors. Nowhere is this brought out more forcefully than in ‘The Outlandish Ladies’, ‘The Mayor of Gantick’ and ‘A Dark Mirror’. Only in ‘The Return of Joanna’ and to a lesser extent ‘These-an’-That’s Wife’ does Q shine a light on female cruelty.

Q’s novels and short stories frequently deal with the theme of adult cruelty and insensitivity to children. In Noughts and Crosses it appears in ‘The Boy by the Beach’, where it is the lack of insight into a young and singular mind. That children should be treated and educated as individuals is also a theme in The Blue Pavilions. Q’s educational ideas stand in marked contrast to those promulgated today. The boy in the story might have fared no better in a contemporary educational establishment than in a late nineteenth century institution for orphans.

Although Q exposes cruelties and follies he avoids heavy moralising. His understanding of the complexities of moral issues is no more in evidence than in ‘The Gifts of Feodor Himkoff’. Q faced moral complexity at its most severe in 1914 and endeavoured to work through it in the novel Nicky-Nan Reservist (1915), although not with a result which fully satisfied him (Brittain, 1947, p.78; Rowse, 1988, p.132). In 1891 such a catastrophe was scarcely imaginable.

Brittain regarded Noughts and Crosses as Q’s best collection of short stories. That may be an over-estimate. The stories show Q exploring human consciousness to an unusual degree. Easy assumptions and conventional wisdom have been abandoned in favour of a new synthesis, whose foundations he was to build upon in his later works. Noughts and Crosses is a foundational work.



Bibliography: Noughts and Crosses

Q Anthology.

Brittain, F. (ed.)
Q Anthology.

Cornish Drolls.

Enys, S.L.
Cornish Drolls.
Mayflower Press.