Richard Hughes 
by Richard Perceval Graves.
Deutsch, 491 pp., £20, May 1994, 0 233 98843 2
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There is a definite but at the same time indefinable category of writer who can in some way be thought of as ‘English’, in inverted commas. The concept would only apply in the twilight of Empire, between 1900 and 1950, a mere fifty years of elusive but positive literary ‘Englishness’. Four possible candidates, varying in attainments, would be T.E. Lawrence, Robert Graves, Peter Fleming (perhaps both Flemings) and Richard Hughes. It makes no difference that Lawrence was half-Irish, the Flemings mostly Scottish, and Hughes partly Welsh. The presidential or father figure of the group would be John Buchan, another Scot, whose innings was over before the younger ones started to play, although he was still around as they became famous.

This English angle was partly suggested to me at the time when Hughes’s penultimate novel, intended as the first of a trilogy, was being considered in 1962 for the Prix Formentor. One of the jury, the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, told me he had enjoyed The Fox in the Attic, but thought it very much an ‘English’ view of the Continent, of Germany more specifically, the sort of view that Germans associated with English gentlemen, an admired class of persons who could not help but patronise everything outside their own immediate circle, even though they were great travellers and took a keen interest in other peoples. I saw what he meant, and he suddenly smiled and said, ‘Greenmantle, you know,’ as if mention of the Buchan title was the best he could do to suggest a highly elusive brand of sensibility.

His view seemed to be that of most of the Continental jurors, who awarded the prize, quite a prestigious one in those days, to the Italian novelist Gadda for A Horrible Mess on Via Merulana. I am sure they were right, but The Fox in the Attic was very generally praised and admired at the time, and the author of this excellent biography tells us in his last paragraph that he is sure Hughes’s books ‘live on, though now shamefully neglected’. Perhaps. I was certainly gripped for days by A High Wind in Jamaica, at about the age of 15, and I can still remember sentences from it which seemed to me specially haunting. ‘But for the life of him Captain Johnsen could think of nothing else but that house in quiet Lübeck with the green porcelain stove.’ I think I liked that precisely because it gave a sort of ‘English’ view of the Continent, although I had no idea of this at the time. Johnsen was the captain of the pirates who had accidentally kidnapped the children, thus providing Hughes with his plot; and at that moment a wholly undeserved nemesis is about to catch up with him.

I reread the novel not so long ago, and while I still admired it I found the old magic rather eclipsed. Unfair to make a verdict out of that. But the casual expertise, the calculated shocks, the stylish knowledgeability that now seemed rather less than convincing, all suggested a talent that could be perceived as historically and socially determined, rather than as ever fresh and new.

Hughes knew both T.E. Lawrence and Robert Graves and knew them quite well, to the point, probably, of being a good deal influenced. He had their flair, too, for being a man of letters who could take up all sorts of unlikely projects, as if they were a gamble that might pay off, and sometimes did. Two that remained abortive were his attempt before the war to produce a version of D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Daughter-in-Law’ for the stage, and after it – in 1953 – to do a screen version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The Board of Censors sat on that one: sexual intercourse, in the Larkinian sense, had not yet quite arrived.

Sex played a not unambiguous part in Hughes’s own life, which was no doubt in keeping with his English persona. His siblings and his father died young, and he was left in straitened circumstances with his mother, who had literary leanings, and who had tried to write stories to earn money for the family. He got a scholarship to Charterhouse and another to Oxford, where he engaged in conventional literary activities, helping to found little magazines and writing poems for them. He also wrote, ‘at a single 12-hour sitting’, a play called The Sisters’ Tragedy, which was staged at John Masefield’s house on Boar’s Hill – Masefield was a great and benevolent patron of aspiring young poets and playwrights – and afterwards at the Adelphi Theatre in London by Lewis Casson, husband of the young Sybil Thorndike: he was producing a series of short Grand Guignol plays, and she saw herself in the melodramatic role of the eldest sister.

The interest of The Sisters’ Tragedy, the idea for which Hughes had probably picked up from some story gossiped about by his new friends, the Clough Williams-Ellises, is its early demonstration of his lifelong preoccupation with the psychology of young girls, and with their pristine lack of conventional moral feeling. That interest takes a more sophisticated form in A High Wind in Jamaica, but in the play it is concerned to make a simple sensation. The three sisters live in a country cottage with their retarded brother, a deaf-mute. The youngest, who is 13, is horrified to see her sister kill a rabbit the cat had got, but is then persuaded that it is right ‘to put suffering creatures out of their pain’. So she tries to smother her handicapped brother, and eventually manages to drown him. She thinks this will be a good thing all round; but her middle sister’s fiancé abandons the family in horror, and the eldest, who had vowed to devote her life to her brother’s care, runs away in hysterics. The 13-year-old, who might have been expected to hang herself, merely goes mad.

This is fairly crude stuff, though it went down well at the time, but it shows the eye for strong effects and rather self-consciously powerful situations which Hughes was to construct in his last unfinished trilogy, and in ideas for the films and plays which he kept attempting to write throughout his career. What constitutes a Jamesian clou, even in that crudely dramatic situation, is the difference between those who need a moral universe and those who don’t: the latter usually being below the age of puberty. In A High Wind in Jamaica neither the pirates nor the children require such a universe, but live indifferently together in a state of innocence, disturbed only by the coming to sexual maturity of the eldest and the almost accidental murder of the Dutch captain.

Of course the novel does not hold up under scrutiny, any more than the play does. Hughes’s effects, good as they are, depend on the workings of the thriller or mystery story, something that Enzensberger may have spotted when he spoke of an ‘English’ view of the Continent. Many Englishmen, in that last period of authority and empire, were conditioned to see life as an adventure story, with themselves in a casually dominant role. For all Hughes’s throwaway manner and air of untroubled expertise (he sometimes reads like William Empson trying his hand at a tale of adventure), there is, as with Kipling, a kind of innocence which is part of the charm. When Amabel Williams-Ellis, who read the first draft of A High Wind for him, sensibly objected that there could not but have been lots of ordinary sex around in such a situation, Hughes added the unspecified seduction of the eldest girl, Margaret, who goes to live in the pirates’ quarters and is duly despised by them. Hughes appears to endorse their feeling: the great success of the book must have depended on the way it brought Peter Pan up to date, but not too much up to date. A reader can usually tell, too, when a novelist is secretly a little excited by something in his subject; and there seems no doubt that Hughes’s lifelong interest in children was at least partially sexual; and that he was not much interested emotionally in the sex lives or personalities of older women.

But in a sense he was not much concerned with the characters and situations, the patterns and technical problems, that are of absorbing interest to most intelligent novelists. Indeed he strikes one as not being a born writer at all, any more than T.E. Lawrence was. He suffered horribly from writer’s block, and everything he wrote has a kind of deprecatory self-consciousness about it, as if he would rather be doing something else – sailing a boat or exploring the Atlas Mountains. William Golding, who probably learned a good deal from him, is a far more natural writer, just as Typhoon remains an unchallenged masterpiece, while Hughes’s In Hazard, which was widely saluted when it came out as being a still greater masterpiece, now looks decidedly diminished.

Like A High Wind, it was based on something that had really happened: in this case a Caribbean hurricane that had seized the Holt Line steamer Phemius in November 1932, and sucked her into its destructive path across the sea for five days and nights. Technically the book has a surer foundation than Typhoon, for Hughes concentrates on what actually goes wrong on a modern steamer in that situation, and how a loss of power leads rapidly to its becoming a derelict, saved only by the oil which the officers manage to dribble out in primitive fashion onto the waves. But the human actors are not, so to speak, up to the technology, a point noted with characteristic sharpness by Virginia Woolf in a letter to Hughes. ‘It’s full of remarkable things. What I’m not sure is whether they coalesce ... on the one hand there’s the storm: on the other the people. And between them there’s a gap, in which there’s some want of strength.’

There is indeed a gap. Conrad has a deep knowledge of the people he deals with; and it is noticeable that Hughes tries to follow his lead, down to the no-good officer who loses his nerve (though there was such a one on the actual Phemius) and the comic potential of a chief engineer called Ramsay Macdonald, ‘a distant cousin’, he said, ‘of the statesman’.

He resembled his ‘cousin’ very closely indeed, in face and moustaches; and it astonished me at first to see what appeared to be the Prime Minister, in a suit of overalls, crawling out of a piece of dismantled machinery with an air of real authority knowledge and decision.

The smart but empty personification, with its side crack at the real statesman, is not untypical of Hughes’s way with his characters, which puts effectiveness a long way before affection, or real understanding. Unexpectedly perhaps, for Golding never appears to be trying to humanise them, the children in Lord of the Flies seem more alive than Hughes can make his characters, even the children in A High Wind. Indeed it is precisely their ‘mechanical’ quality – their untroubled and instinctive ruthlessness and lack of heart – which gave the appropriate shock effect to the first readers of Hughes’s most famous novel.

And Hughes deals with his chief engineer precisely as his children feel about and deal with each other. After the hurricane is over Macdonald, who has had to perform prodigies of ingenuity and endurance, cannot rest, still less sleep. Perched on the rail, he smokes and wonders if he might retire from the sea, something he has often speculated about. At last he comes to an absolute decision to do so, and as he does his tension abruptly relaxes. Asleep instantly, he falls off the rail into the sea. ‘The shock of the water woke him of course, and he swam quite a long time.’ The annoying thing about that sort of smartness is its lack of any inner necessity. Hemingway or Flaubert might use the same sort of device (like the famous last sentence of Flaubert’s story in which the man carrying John the Baptist’s head in a bag keeps transferring the bag from one hand to the other, because it’s heavy). Hughes has not earned that kind of hardness. He seems to be just showing off.

After the war, during which he worked in the Admiralty, he was still something of a legend in literary circles, and he devoted care and effort to keeping it up. He began what was designed as a trilogy with the then rather fashionable title. The Human Predicament, but it proceeded so slowly that his publishers were often in despair. It seems clear that the whole project was quite unsuited to Hughes’s undoubted but idiosyncratic skills. He was a sincere Christian, and he wanted Good versus Evil on a very ambitious scale, with the blind convent girl Mitzi opposing her mysterious but practical forces to Hitler’s diabolic rise to power. There is, of course, something of the good old adventure story heroes-and-villains thing at the back of this, but in such a project it can’t be allowed to obtrude too much; and hence the whole story has an inhibited air, seeking compensation and refuge in detail, and in scenes and flashes of great and undoubted fascination. The glimpses of Hitler and the figures around him are masterly, combining Hughes’s gift of vivid suggestiveness with an intimacy in relation to the manifestations of power and evil, which historians and political commentators are usually quite unable to give.

The second volume, The Wooden Shepherdess, is much weaker, and cost even more trouble and indecision to write. Its American scenes, reflecting Hughes’s pre-war experiences, in which he fascinated but frustrated a number of girls by declining to make love to them in what was then the free and easy American style, are remarkably compelling and memorable but have also become too surrealistic, in a stylised way. The third book only survives as an unpublished fragment. Meanwhile Hughes was having to make ends meet – he lived not grandly but patriarchally by the sea in North Wales – by doing filmscripts, most of which were never made.

His biographer, whose last subject was Robert Graves, has done an excellent job, but it was clearly not easy to sustain the interest over a long and thorough study, packed with family detail. Unlike his friend Graves, Hughes had no great excitements or complications in his domestic career. He was rejected by Nancy Stallybrass (who afterwards married Peter Quennell) and was long and happily wedded to Frances Bazley; had many children; and sought, as he freely acknowledged, any opportunity of slipping away to indulge in those manly pursuits – sailing and exploring. He would far rather be weeding the garden or building a little canal for his boats than trying to write; but that trait is both common and endearing among writers who are not really intellectuals or, like Virginia Woolf, fanatically dedicated to their craft. Her comment remains the truest: Hughes’s work is full of remarkable things, but one is not at all sure that they coalesce. His pungency – that of a colourful gentleman-eccentric – lacks body behind it, a point neatly illustrated by nice anecdote told by a film producer who worked with him. When asked in a pub what he would like to drink he replied: ‘A Worcester Sauce.’ ‘Do you mean a Bloody Mary?’ he was asked. He did not, and ‘silence fell in the bar as this undrinkable drink was poured out and Diccon drained the glass.’

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