The Grey World (Presentation Copy)
London: William Heinemann, 1904.
London: William Heinemann, 1904. First edition. Original gray publisher's cloth binding embossed in gilt and black. A pleasing, square copy with some sunning to spine and light foxing to the closed edges of the text block and title page. Signed presentation slip adhered to the front endpaper: "For Mrs. Reynolds with much love & most humble respect from her friend Evelyn." The first novel by the prolific writer, pacifist, and philosopher, it has become quite scarce with no other copies on the market and OCLC reporting holdings at only 6 institutions in the U.S.
"Evelyn Underhill was a prolific writer who published 39 books and more than 350 articles and reviews. In her early years she wrote about mysticism; in her latter years on the spiritual life as lived by ordinary people...Underhill began writing before she was sixteen, and her first publication (a collection of humorous verse about the law) appeared in 1902" (Evelyn Underhill Society). Only two years later, she released her first novel The Grey World. Drawing on tropes of Greek mythological heroes' missions to the underworld, and referencing Dante's Divine Comedy, Underhill's narrative is a psychological study that begins with the hero's death, moves through reincarnation and finally beyond the "grey world" to a space of happy reflection and peace. For her, it was a call for individuals to choose to appreciate the temporal beauty of the every day that so often goes unnoticed. "It seems so much easier these days to live morally rather than to live beautifully. Lots of us manage to exist for years without ever sinning against society, but we sin against loveliness every hour of the day."
Among the most important English female religious writers of her time, Underhill was also "the first woman to lecture at Oxford...and the recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Aberdeen" (Greene). Her ideas about individual freedom as it applied to religion and politics even became a cornerstone of her debates with her contemporary C.S. Lewis. In their correspondence she argued that Lewis' "ideas about salvation depended too much on animals being 'tame.' This is perhaps why Lewis later emphasized that Aslan [in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardobe] was not tame" (Armstrong). Her work, so focused on the human spiritual connection to others and the world, eventually led a previously apolitical writer to embrace pacifism and speak out at the rise of the Second World War. The Grey World, which remains under-studied compared to her later philosophical texts, gives insight into her evolution. "Her early insights deepen and mature and take on new expression. Her thought shifts from illumination of the mystic way to an exploration of the spiritual life and how it is to be lived in the world. This redirection follows from her early work and results in writing which eloquently argues for the importance of the spiritual life and how it is to be lived...The issue of war forces an articulation of one's most fundamental assumptions about reality...she calls for a deeper, more profound understanding of what it means to be a religious person in the mid-twentieth century" (Greene). (Item #4109)