She was being called out in The Sunday Express. The British novelist and poet, Margery Lawrence had been identified as a leading contributor to society’s ills, in print. Being a feminist critical of marriage in 1920s England marked you as a troublemaker. Take Lawrence’s novel, which was quickly turned into the film Madonna of the Seven Moons, as an example. The story deals frankly with the lasting trauma caused by sexual assault. The moralists at the time promoted a sort of saccharine piety, and her far more realistic depiction of the messiness and pain of people interacting with each other was definitely not that. Lacking the bright squeak of an idealized reality, authors like Lawrence, so their logic went, were utterly opposed to all that is good and wholesome. You can tell by the title James Douglas gave his 1929 piece, “Women Novelists Who Go Too Far,” where he came down on the issue. Lawrence’s response to Douglas, published in the next week’s paper, had an equally blunt title: “It is Not My Business to Preach.”

It is an amazing and irritating thing — but a fact — that a writer is often taken to task for the moral effect of his writings! It is not our business to try to be preachers and uplift merchants as well as story-tellers! It is hard enough, goodness knows, to be a good story-teller; then why in the wide world should we be expected to wear the mantle of pastor and guide to Heaven as well?

She has a point, and reinforces that idea with the seriousness she takes her responsibilities — and yours — individually and collectively. There is a raw, immediate, heart-wrenching awareness of it in her work, a deep need for justice. We see this most clearly in her poetry, which can sound, at times, like imprecatory psalms. The opening stanza of “Transport of Wounded in Mesopotamia, 1917” greets you with an unnerving, soul-deep stare, and it doesn’t get any lighter.

You who sat safe at home
And let us die
You who said ‘all was well’
And knew the lie….
(Fever and flies and sand
Sand and fever and flies
Till the end of each weary day
Saw the wearier night arise!)
You who sat safe at home
And let us die!

After experiencing some profound relief from emotional trauma following an encounter with a psychic healer, “doctors of souls,” as she referred to them, she became a committed Spiritualist, writing and lecturing extensively on the subject. Her interest in the supernatural informed much of her fiction, which was where I was introduced to her, via her occult detective stories. Think less Anton LaVey in a deerstalker, more Hodgson’s Carnacki, Wellman’s John Thunstone, or Barker’s Harry D’Amour. Lawrence’s Miles Pennoyer is a psychic detective after her own heart. Using his extensive knowledge of the powers (and players) of the unseen world, assisted by his Watsony chronicler, Jerome Latimer, he spends his time wrestling poor souls from the clutches of some past, present, and often cosmically-scaled evil. It’s a living.

There is a particular scene in The Case of the Haunted Cathedral, published in 1945, and recently republished in The Casebook of Miles Pennoyer, that I find incredible, particularly in light of what we have just read about Lawrence. The case centers around a brand-new cathedral, a dead architect, one or more ghosts, and a fainting bishop. You would have fainted, too, if you had seen “an Evil Force abroad in the Cathedral, and that it had tried to prevent the communicant — an elderly woman, a decent, pious body well known to the Dean — from touching the Cup. Questioned further by the perturbed clergy, the Bishop declared that he was holding the Cup out to the communicant when (to use his own words) ‘another face — a man’s face — seemed to slide over hers, to come down like a mask as it were, as though to try and prevent her lips reaching the rim of the Cup — or to get its own there first!’”

Now Lawrence’s unorthodox cosmology aside, we start to get a slow reveal of why this is happening at a freshly consecrated cathedral. The architect, Walter Gregg Hart, committed a horrific crime — don’t worry, no spoilers; the true horror is why he did it. He is now dead; there can be no justice for the victim, there can be no redemption. Mind you, this all happened during the construction of the cathedral. Pennoyer and one reluctant — but plucky — clergy professional know what has to be done. Not an exorcism, an absolution.

She pointed first to the kneeling shape that had once been a man, and then to the Cross above the altar. “Walter Gregg Hart,” said the Dean — and his voice quavered like a leaf in a wind, and I did not wonder. I, too, was almost at the end of my tether, for the whirlpool of emotion that had shaken me each night in this place had been nothing to the terrific intensity of that which I was passing through tonight. “Be thankful in your soul, and bow yourself with gratitude! The child you murdered grants you her forgiveness — and on your sincere repentance I herewith grant you the pardon of the Church. Down on your knees, and greet it humbly!”

The little man seemed somehow to grow immense, the whole Cathedral shook and throbbed about me like the beating of a great heart, and my dazed eyes seemed to see the childish shadow that still stood shyly clinging to the Dean’s side shine out suddenly into a blinding Glory above a dark shape bowed in humility — and high above the uproar and tumult in my ears I heard the great words of the Exorcism ring out.

“…Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to His Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in Him, of His great mercy forgive thee thine offences! And by His authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost! Amen.”

There was a mighty flash like a blaze of summer lightning as the Dean made the Sign of the Cross, and as he made it I saw that which is so rarely seen by man — the Sign itself remaining, hanging in the air, as it were, in pure white brilliance, for the space of a breath! Then as it vanished the whole world seemed to shake and split into a thousand pieces that went spinning round my head to the accompaniment of a terrific roaring like that of some colossal waterfall, and the last thing I knew before I lost consciousness was that above all the tumult I seemed to hear a distant sound, faint but glorious, of singing, high and triumphant, as though in welcome. And a childish voice was leading it. As I sank away into the darkness the words “there is more rejoicing over one sinner that repenteth” flashed across my mind…

So here is Margery Lawrence, the Spiritualist, the justice-loving realist, pointing at Christ on the cross as the fix for her carefully constructed, impossible-to-get-out-of situation. She not only points to it, she makes a whole big scene out of it! Even as Pennoyer is wrapping up his tale, while Lawrence still has time to backtrack, she draws thick lines under what just happened.

I saw what he didn’t at the finish—I saw the proof that Hart was pardoned. I saw the visible Cross of Light Itself, hanging in the air—and that is an experience that will temporarily knock out most psychics. The intense power, the almost terrible purity of it…well, there you have your explanation.

There is justice for the victim while celebrating the impossible: restoration and redemption snatched from beyond hope — a task unimaginable even for the hero of her own making.

Might not be her business to preach, but I think she just did.