Like Steam Escaping
- Denton Welch: Writer and Artist by James Methuen-Campbell
Tartarus, 268 pp, £30.00, March 2002, ISBN 1 872621 60 0
In 1936 Denton Welch, who was then an art student at Goldsmiths College and had no thoughts of becoming a writer, suffered an appalling accident. He was bicycling from Greenwich down the main Brighton road, on a Whitsun holiday, when a car ran into him, fracturing his spine and leaving him a permanent invalid, till his death in 1948 at the age of 32.
It is of course a tragic tale, but also an inspiring and encouraging one. You might say that the hero of the story is writing. That puts the point clumsily, but if you are to write a biography of Welch, it is what it will have be about.
Before catastrophe overtook him, he was, after all, not a very impressive character. One can loosely describe him as a ‘narcissist’, a very wide label but one that he would have used himself. He was an incorrigible poker into other people’s cupboards and belongings, had a passion for antiques and a mild tendency to theft. His mother, of whom he was passionately fond, died when he was 11, and this loss no doubt reinforced his fetishistic feeling for objets d’art. We read in his In Youth Is Pleasure (1944) of how, to quiet his terror at going to a new school, he rubs a Chinese agate chicken, given to him by his mother, and then pops it into his mouth and sucks it like a sweet. It was no doubt the loss of his mother which prompted him, in bewilderment more than for any more definite reason, to run away from his public school (Repton) and then to agree, without much resistance, to return. His life as an art student was lonely and aimless, and though he had charm and a malicious wit, there would come times when any friend of his would be rebuffed, for interfering with his solitude.
He had, at all events, a certain inner toughness, so that the horror of his awakening in hospital, in agonising pain, with his legs paralysed and his battered face almost unrecognisable, did not completely overwhelm him. He was still observant and curious: he studied the effect of his grotesque appearance on his visitors’ faces. His long stay in hospitals and nursing homes, lasting more than a year, would, however, be an endless, directionless saga of mood changes: he would be overcome with tides of irritation, disgust and childish resentments (though not of self-pity). He would seethe against nurses, matrons and doctors, resenting their friendly overtures or exhortations to be stoical. Whole days would pass for him, too, in deliberately organised daydreams, in which he would minutely explore an imaginary 18th-century house. When at last he finds a doctor he can be friendly with, he falls madly and unmanageably in love with him. He feels his own absurdity and finds it impossible to think of the future; though just occasionally he has an inkling of unused power. At last, by a strong instinct of self-preservation, he decides to escape from medical care, and his erstwhile landlady, from his Greenwich days, comes to share a flat with him and to help look after him.
All this is described in great detail in his last major piece of writing, the poignant novel A Voice through a Cloud (1950). His first year or so of independence was, in fact, a time of extreme unhappiness for him, though much of what happened remains obscure. But what is plain is that, at this time, he discovered the potentialities of writing and surprised himself by the seriousness and ambition with which he approached it.
Vol. 24 No. 21 · 31 October 2002
From R.B. Russell
P.N. Furbank is entitled not to like Denton Welch’s ‘queer’ ‘fusty’ ‘doodlings’ (LRB, 17 October), but I am not sure that he ought to escape comment for the many contradictions in his review of James Methuen-Campbell’s new biography of Welch, published by this firm. He claims that Welch was too much of a ‘solitary’ for us to learn anything from those around him. However, as Furbank admits, Methuen-Campbell interviewed ‘a very wide range of Welch’s acquaintances’ for this biography. He points out that Welch’s own ‘autobiographical’ writing cannot be taken as literal truth, but fails to realise that it is because of Methuen-Campbell’s research that we know just how much of Welch’s writing cannot be trusted. Then, Methuen-Campbell is criticised for suggesting that Welch was besotted with Eric Oliver (which can be backed up by Welch’s journals). Furbank quotes a generalisation from Welch that suggests that he was too ill to have been able to love anybody, then goes on to say that generalisations cannot be made about Welch and that Welch fell ‘madly and unmanageably’ in love with his doctor earlier in his life.
Leyburn, North Yorkshire
Vol. 24 No. 23 · 28 November 2002
From Jeffrey Frankland
P.N. Furbank's review of Denton Welch: Writer and Artist (LRB, 17 October) and the subsequent letter from the book's publisher (Letters, 31 October) reminded me that I had requested the book from my library in June. The librarian, having failed to find it in an Internet search of books in print, had given up. At my prompting, she eventually located a copy in the British Library. I then asked about a couple of other recent requests that had elicited no response. An edition of Heart of Darkness together with Conrad's African diaries from Hesperus Press (a new imprint featured on Front Row and advertised in the LRB): no copy in the British Library and a total of only four copies in public libraries in the whole of the British Isles. The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant (another LRB advertisement), edited by Elisabeth Jay: no copy in the British Library, no copy in any public library.
Buying a book is no easier. The assistant at Ottakars freaked out when I ordered The Illustrated Zuleika Dobson (widely reviewed): Yale University Press! Books are often difficult to get hold of from the States! Fortunately, her computer was able to tell her that the wholesaler (covering the entire UK) had four copies in stock.
Bookshops are full of books I don't want to read and libraries stuffed with videos I don't want to watch. Meanwhile, the many books that I do want to read are increasingly difficult to lay hands on.
From Andrew Stilwell
The LRB is opening a bookshop in the spring.
Manager, London Review Bookshop
From P.N. Furbank
Apropos R.B. Russell’s attack on my review of James Methuen-Campbell’s biography of Denton Welch (Letters, 31 October), I was hoping that readers would take the point that at the time of Welch’s intense infatuation with ‘Dr Farley’ he was, as is stressed in A Voice through a Cloud, a very sick man, prone to wildly unbalanced behaviour. This was not his normal style in his relationships. I ought perhaps to have spelled this out.
Vol. 24 No. 24 · 12 December 2002
From Anne Summers
Jeffrey Frankland (Letters, 28 November) is incorrect in stating that the British Library holds neither the Hesperus Press edition of Heart of Darkness nor Elisabeth Jay’s edition of The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant. Both can be found in our automated catalogue – go to http://blpc.bl.uk/ and click on ‘search’.
Vol. 25 No. 1 · 2 January 2003
From Jeremy Hawthorn
After reading Jeffrey Frankland’s letter (Letters, 28 November 2002) complaining about how hard it is to buy books nowadays, I turned over a few pages and found an advertisement from Hesperus books offering a 20 per cent discount on online sales. Wanting to order one of the books advertised, I accessed the publisher’s web page (very slow to come up), registered myself (even slower), and then attempted to go back to the catalogue. The page froze. I then went out of Netscape, re-entered the page, signed in, and again attempted to access the catalogue. After five minutes I was ‘timed out’. Repeated this several times. Gave up and tried to find the book on Amazon’s web page. couldn’t find it. Gave up. Please open your bookshop soon.
From R.B. Russell
I am sorry that Jeffrey Frankland had problems tracking down a copy of James Methuen-Campbell's biography of Denton Welch. It sold out after six months of being widely available, but a paperback reprint is being prepared for the spring by I.B. Tauris.