Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Sissy's Progress

Another book review for Gay Community News, published sometime in 1985.

The Journals of Denton Welch
edited by Michael De-la-Noy
Dutton,New York
380 pp., $22.50 hardcover

Maiden Voyage
by Denton Welch
(first published in 1943)
Dutton, New York
284 pp., $8.95 paper

In Youth Is Pleasure
by Denton Welch
(first published in 1945)
Dutton/Obelisk, 1985
154 pp., $7.95 paper

A Voice Through a Cloud
by Denton Welch
(first published in 1950)
Dutton, New York
256 pp, $7.95 paper

Browsing in a bookstore, I find, is a lot like cruising. One is looking, if not for excitement, at least for stimulation, an interesting new face, someone who might be worth getting to know better. And how does one decide? As often as not, by the cover -- how else? But that's only the beginning: next one reads the dust-jacket blurb, leafs through the pages to see if the first superficial impression is confirmed by indications of intelligence or character. Is this the kind of author I want to take home with me? Will I feel like kicking him out after reading him once? Or is there a basis for a long-term -- not monogamous of course, this is the twentieth century -- relationship?

While checking out the New Arrivals shelves in the bookstore under his apartment, the Promiscuous reader noticed The Journals of Denton Welch. Do wha? he wondered, and pulled the volume out for a closer look. He noticed the self-portrait on the dust-jacket (a classic wimp, just his type), read the blurb: hot young 1940s British writer, hit by car in 1935 (fractured back, kidney problems, TB of the spine, catheter, partial impotence), died in 1948 at 33. Well, the chronically ill were not ordinarily his idea of a good time, but then the word "his loving relationship with a young man named Eric Oliver" caught his eye. Another contact (in a lifetime tally of thousands, Dr Kinsey) had been made.

Once again, more slowly: the youngest of four sons, Maurice Denton Welch was born in 1915 in Shanghai to a well-to-do British father and American mother. His early childhood was largely spent traveling with his mother, whom he adored, until her death when he was eleven. After two years at a public school in England, which he hated, he ran away: no sooner had his relatives persuaded him to return to school for one more term than his father, still in China, proposed an extended visit to Shanghai. At seventeen he entered art school in England.

The next few years were extremely important for Welch. Unlike his father and older brothers, who were apparently quintessential English public school jocks, Denton was a quintessential English sissy: a willowy, prissy, high-strung artistic mama's boy, fascinated by antiques, old churches, dollhouses, and strapping young men. His first two novels, written out of his understandably painful and confused early adolescence, have established a picture of his weakness of which his later disability seems to most commentators merely the logical continuation. Yet it is clear that once he escaped from his father's and brothers' shadows and from the ambivalent schoolboy machismo of public school, Welch began (while remaining no less a sissy) to discover his strengths. It wasn't just that he did well in art school, for despite his recognized talent he wasn't sure he had found what he really wanted to do. Rather he began to strengthen his body with walking tours, and although living more or less on his own, he began to acquire the courage to be himself, even to realize that other people might be interested in him just as he was. 

These beginnings were shattered when, at twenty, he was knocked from his bicycle by a careless motorist. He never fully recovered. For the remaining thirteen years of his life he was often bedridden, frequently in great pain. The accident and his ensuing hospitalization are the subject of his last novel, A Voice Through a Cloud, which is as painful to read as it must have been to write:
I must have screamed again, for all I can remember is a shriek of pain invading my whole body. The shriek seemed to be following the pain into every limb. I was nothing but a shriek and a pain. I was sweating. Everything was wet. I was crying. Saliva dribbled out of my mouth.

In the middle of the furnace inside me there was a clear thought like a text in cross-stitch. I wanted to warn the nurses, to tell them that nothing was real but torture. Nobody seemed to realize that this was the only thing on earth. People didn't know that it was waiting for them quietly, patiently.

I felt that if I bore the agony a moment longer it would split my skin. It was such a growing and powerful thing; it would burst out of the tightness of my body....

But the moment [the nurse] pricked me so heartlessly, pushing the needle right in with vicious pleasure, I had faith; I knew that it was magic. It was like the Sleeping Beauty magic.... The pain did not abate at all. It was still there, eating me up; but in the hundred years' sleep it would die. It couldn't live for a hundred years. And brambles would grow and everything turn marble-grey. The dust would be as thick and as exquisite to the touch as moleskin; and there would be moonlight always {Chapter I, end}.
Once again Welch was in the power of others, helpless and dependent. His body, which he had begun to enjoy and trust, had failed him, even if not by its own fault. For the rest of his life he would mourn the strength and freedom he had found briefly, then lost. Even so, he made the most of his times of near-health: he resumed artistic work, walked and cycled when he could, and in 1940 began to write.

In 1942 he sold a story, "Sickert at St. Peter's", to Horizon. His first novel, Maiden Voyage, was published in 1943 with a laudatory foreword by Dame Edith Sitwell, who hailed Welch as "not only a born writer, but a very considerable one." Maiden Voyage was a sort of novel/memoir based on the teenaged Welch's flight from school and his holiday with his father in China. Welch's precise and vivid prose won praise not only from Dame Edith but from Elizabeth Bowen and E. M. Forster, among others, and the book sold well.Surprisingly, this account of a teenaged sissy who, between antique-shopping jaunts and satirical encounters with other Westerners in China, wanders about striking up conversations with and buying drinks for rough-hewn soldiers and sailors who attract him, seems to have drawn little homophobic hostility:
...As I walked between the bamboo groves, I stopped to watch a soldier who was carrying a bright red blanket. First, he shook it, then he threw it over a clothesline and began to beat it with a stick. He must have seen me through the fence, for, dropping the stick and lighting the cigarette, he ambled over to me and said, "Hullo, mate."

"Hullo!" I gulped, rather taken aback....

I thought for a moment; then I found myself saying rather primly, "Would you like to come to tea this afternoon? If you're at a loose end. I live quite near."

He looked at me soberly, through the separating fence. "What would your Mum and Dad say to a stranger?" he asked.

"I've only got a father and he won't be there," I answered {pp. 188f}.
Welch's second novel, In Youth Is Pleasure, drew more fire. Pervaded by an astonishing Gothic masturbatory teenage homoeroticism, the novel was almost too much for Welch's publisher. Indeed, considering such scenes as the following, in which the young hero, on holiday at a hotel on the Thames, meets a rather eccentric schoolmaster-missionary during a rainstorm, it is amazing that the book found a publisher in those days at all.
"Hold out your hands," the man said suddenly.
Orvil did so, and in a moment the man had tied them tightly together.

He threw the other end of the long cord over a metal strut in the roof and then began to pull.

In this way he hoisted Orvil to his feet and soon had him standing on tiptoe, his arms stretched to their utmost, his body, as it lost balance, eddying and turning slightly, like a corpse on a gibbet....

With the same surprise tactics, the man suddenly let go of the cord, so that Orvil crumpled into a heap on the floor. The man went up to him, quietly undid his wrists and offered his own. "Now it's your turn," he said; "you can tie me up exactly as you like." He seemed to be contrite after so much teasing {pp. 78f.}.
While working on In Youth Is Pleasure and the stories which were to be collected in Brave and Cruel (1949) and A Last Sheaf (1951), Welch had met Eric Oliver, the young man who was to remain with him until his death. He had also begun to keep journals. (When one considers that he was also writing and publishing poetry, painting, and doing illustrations for magazines, his productivity despite his illness becomes quite impressive.) An edited and expurgated edition of his journals was published in 1952; now an essentially complete version, edited by Michael De-la-Noy, has been issued in this country by Dutton, along with paperback reissues of Maiden Voyage and A Voice Through a Cloud. The journals are almost as well-written as his fiction, and reflect much the same interests, with a slight edge in frankness about Welch's sexuality. (Unfortunately, they are badly printed, with many typos, paragraphs skewed on the page, and at the top of one page--368--a line or more of missing text.)

It is not clear from his writings whether Denton Welch ever had sex with anyone, even before his accident, but lest any enterprising champion of cold showers try to claim (as Justin Kaplan did for Walt Whitman) that Welch only looked, never touched, I cherish the following remark from his journals (page 167): a correspondent complained that
Professorial people are cold. 'They talk about classical philosophy and then want to whip you into bed.' (This doesn't sound cold to me at all.)
Comments such as this suggest to me that Freudian readings of Welch's work, like those in Robert Phillip's homophobic Twayne English Authors Series study of Welch (1974), which understand his homoeroticism to symbolize decadence, corruption, castration, and the like, misrepresent Welch's intent. Despite his uncertainties about his personal lovability, he never expresses any doubts whatever about the rightness of his queerness; the question simply never comes up in his writings. Because of this his writings have hardly dated at all, indeed they still seem pretty daring. Maiden Voyage and In Youth Is Pleasure are not about a neurotic youth who fails to achieve heterosexuality; they make much more sense as portraits of a boy who has not yet achieved -- though he will achieve, and on his own terms! -- homosexuality.

Their imagery of the frustration and weakness of a sissy in a jock's world does not illustrate the failure of the sissy to measure up, but his quite reasonable alienation from a world hostile to him. (Like any member of a minority, he's not always sure whether he wants to belong or not.) In the stories about his art-school years these motifs are diminished or missing altogether, but the protagonist is still alone, a detached observer of the quirks of others. Not until A Voice Through a Cloud does Welch's artistic world admit other people as full participants, and even that novel never finds a satisfactory end -- partly because of the narrator's declining health, but mostly (I believe) because one character was still missing. A Voice Through a Cloud ends with the convalescent Welch and his housekeeper/companion Miss Hellier looking for a house to live in. But the right house had to have Eric Oliver -- the Friend -- living in it; and that would have been another novel, which Denton Welch didn't live to write.

All this, of course (reflected the Promiscuous Reader) had little to do with why Denton Welch's work was worth reading. Though it didn't hurt to find 1940s gay fiction in which fulfilment consists of finding Mr. Right rather than embracing the Masculine Role and heterosexual marriage, the fact that fulfilment must occur off-scene kept the books from being fully satisfying. While the Promiscuous Reader found Welch's eroticism excitingly diffuse and suggestive, he recognized that readers for whom eroticism means explicit descriptions of organs and acts would find Welch's work steamy but frustrating. Finally it was the combination of these factors with Welch's carefully crafted style -- eruptions of almost magical imagery into sharply observed descriptions of English middle-class life -- that made his fiction and his journals rewarding and worth returning to, and made their republication now something of an event in gay literature.