Oompah and High-Wind: Dylan Thomas, Richard Hughes

Dylan-Caitlin

(Dylan and Caitlin Thomas)

On 16 May 1938, Dylan Thomas updated Henry Treece, the poet and novelist to whom he was writing regularly for a time – they later fell out over Dylan’s refusal to identify himself as an adherent of The New Apocalypse, a movement co-founded by Treece:

‘I’ve been moving house. That is, I’ve left, with trunks and disappointment, one charitable institution after another and have found and am now occupying, to the peril of my inside and out, my rheumatic joints, my fallen chest, my modern nerves, my fluttering knutted pocket, a small, damp fisherman’s furnished cottage—green rot sprouts through the florid scarlet forests of the wallpaper, sneeze and the chairs crack, the double-bed is a swing-band with coffin, oompah, slush-pump, gob-stick and almost wakes the deaf, syphilitic neighbours—by the side of an estuary in a remote village.’

I, the first named, am the ghost of this sir and Christian friend
Who writes these words I write in a still room in a spellsoaked house:
I am the ghost in this house that is filled with the tongue and eyes
Of a lack-a-head ghost I fear to the anonymous end.

Laugharne_Castle_2015

The remote village was of course Laugharne: not yet the Boat House but the cottage in Gosport Street found for Dylan and his wife Caitlin by the novelist Richard Hughes. In the same letter, Dylan wrote: ‘The village also contains bearded Richard High-Wind Hughes, but we move, in five hundred yards, in two or more different worlds: he owns the local castle, no roof and all, and lives in a grand mansion by its side and has a palace in Morocco.’

‘High-Wind’ refers to Hughes’ most famous novel, A High Wind in Jamaica, originally called The Innocent Voyage, a tale of pirates and children: you’d feel safer with the pirates. He was the author of the world’s first radio play, Danger, broadcast in 1924. After In Hazard (1938), there was a gap of over twenty years before he published The Fox in the Attic (1961), the first part of his unfinished trilogy, The Human Predicament, tracing the history of the years following the Great War and the rise of Nazism. The Wooden Shepherdess followed in 1973 but Hughes died three years later.

I read them about ten years ago, in old orange Penguins but then acquired the New York Review Books editions, with introductions by Hilary Mantel. They’re so damned attractive that you could go for a walk with one of them on your arm or, indeed, one on each arm (not literally, perhaps). Their edition of The Wooden Shepherdess includes the twelve chapters that Hughes completed of the planned third volume before his death.

Fox-in-the-Attic

The two volumes we have are a really impressive achievement, a brave tackling of the near-impossible task of weighting both individual and collective histories in a novel so that the balance is held: the context not skimped but the individuals still not pressed like flowers between the pages. The central character, Augustine, is certainly unobservant enough in some instances to be believable and Hughes has a good grasp of the sleight of hand by which great gaps can be left which are satisfactorily filled in by the pressure exerted on either side by existing material rather than needing the writer to shovel in ballast for dear life before the structure cracks. Still, the murky world of the rising Nazi party perhaps convinces even more – because it is less familiar (to the British reader, anyway), and because Hughes is so obviously thoroughly conversant with the historical sources, to an extent that renders it unnecessary for him to labour the fact.

Do we now need to labour the unsettling echoes of that time in this? Probably not: anyone likely to be able to hear them has probably already done so. Martin Kettle certainly has:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/16/brexit-britain-weimar-germany-far-right-democracy-contempt-politicians

Also on this day in 1791, in an edition of 1750 copies (two volumes quarto, price two guineas), James Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published. Many of Johnson’s remarks, so faithfully recorded by Boswell, are specific to his time, to his social, cultural and political context. Others are applicable to other times too:

‘Where a great proportion of the people (said he,) are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.—Gentlemen of education, he observed, were pretty much the same in all countries; the condition of the lower orders, the poor especially, was the true mark of national discrimination.’

‘The courage of a fly in the milk’

We’re approaching 16 May, which is—among other things (not least, the birthday of Stella Bowen: see previous post)—the two hundred and fifty-fourth anniversary of the first meeting, in the bookshop run by Tom Davies, in Russell Street, off Covent Garden market, of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. I’ve lately been reading Boswell’s London Journal, not because of the looming anniversary but because of Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose fiction is marvellous and whose letters are superb. To Leonard Bacon, the American poet and translator, she wrote: ‘The thing that struck me most about Boswell’s Dutch Diary was his desperate courage—the courage of a fly in the milk. I love him, of course, but I also esteem him. A man whose heart is a black pit of terror, black as a Geneva gown, and who yet can attend to the colour of the waistcoat he puts over it is a man after my own heart.’[1]

STW_via_NYRB

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via New York Review Books)

This was the direct, traceable cause of my picking up a secondhand copy of Boswell in Holland 1763-1764 in Lyme Regis six months ago. It was like a recommendation from a friend. On the matter of waistcoats, at the end of the volume, the editor has included a list, translated from the original French, compiled by François Mazerac, Boswell’s servant:

‘Clothes and linens that I found on entering the service of Monsieur Boswell

1 coat, waistcoat, and breeches, with silver lace

1 red coat, waistcoat, and breeches, with gold lace

1 rose-coloured coat and waistcoat, with gold buttons

1 blue coat, waistcoat, and breeches, with white buttons’

and so on for another two dozen lines, enumerating stockings, lace ruffles, silk handkerchiefs, night-caps, garter-buckles, breeches and much else.[2]

Boswell-in-Holland

The London Journal covers the two years preceding Boswell’s trip to Holland, so when I came across a copy of that in the Oxfam Bookshop recently, I grabbed it. Both of these volumes are in what’s called the ‘trade edition’, derived from the great ‘Yale Edition of the Private Papers of James Boswell’. There is also a ‘research edition’ of these and other Boswell writings, which offer complete texts and much more extensive annotation, while also preserving the spelling and capitalisation of the original manuscripts. The ‘trade’ edition is also termed the ‘reading’ edition, surely not without cause. That’s the one I have.

The London Journal is hugely diverting and gives a very vivid and complex sense of a man who is often ridiculous, sometimes silly, snobbish, prone to melancholia, afraid of ghosts, veering frequently from remorse to vigorous self-regard, yet always honest, or at least candid. I’m a newcomer to this Boswell, though I’d read his Life of Johnson years ago and found it as extraordinary an achievement as it’s generally acknowledged to be. For a long time after the biography was first published, though, Boswell himself was poorly regarded. He was seen as having been lucky in meeting Johnson when he did; and having simply recorded, in a rather naïve and straightforward manner, whatever he could of Johnson’s doings and sayings. The case was altered by the discovery of the ‘colossal hoard’ of Boswell papers, manuscripts of the Life and other writings, journals and letters. From being viewed as ‘a little man who wrote a great book’, Boswell’s reputation and standing changed quite radically. He ‘came to be seen as an important literary figure, a pioneer of modern biography — and of autobiography, for the focus of academic interest has shifted from subject to author’. He was, it became clear, ‘a much more careful and ambitious writer than anybody had supposed.’[3] The long, complex story of the discovery of Boswell’s papers and their tortuous journey into safe, scholarly hands was also new to me.[4]

Boswell-London-Journal

Boswell had left Scotland for his second sojourn in London on 15 November 1762, so he’d only just passed his twenty-second birthday (he was born on 29 October 1740). His father, the Laird of Auchinleck, wanted him to pursue the law but Boswell had conceived a desire to serve in the Guards, believing that a commission in that regiment would enable him to live permanently in London.[5]

A good deal of his time was spent in soliciting the help of powerful people in the cause of securing that commission, among them the Duke of Queensberry and the Countess of Northumberland. There are some wonderful moments of comedy when Boswell congratulates himself, such as the occasion of a ‘rout’, a large party which was ‘full of the best company’. Boswell had secured the attention of the Countess, who approached him ‘with the greatest complacency and kindness’: ‘I could observe people looking at me with envy, as a man of some distinction and a favourite of my Lady’s. Bravo! thought I. I am sure I deserve to be a favourite. It was curious to find of how little consequence each individual was in such a crowd. I could imagine how an officer in a great army may be killed without being observed. I came home quiet, laid by my clothes, and went coolly to bed. There’s conduct for you.’[6] Just a few months later, he entertains severe doubts about Lady Northumberland’s sincerity: ‘O these Great People! They are a sad set of beings. This woman who seemed to be so cordially my friend and promised me her good offices so strongly is, I fear, a fallacious hussy.’ A moment later: ‘However, let me not yet be too certain. She may perhaps be honest’ (238).

Elizabeth_Percy_Reynolds

(Sir Joshua Reynolds, portrait of Elizabeth Percy Northumberland)

On another occasion, turning over in his mind the complications inextricable from having too little money and too many ways of making life pleasant, his thoughts move from economics to artistry and, again, he finds strong cause for satisfaction. ‘How easily and cleverly do I write just now! I am really pleased with myself; words come skipping to me like lambs upon Moffat Hill; and I turn my periods smoothly and imperceptibly like a skilful wheelwright turning tops in a turning-loom. There’s fancy! There’s simile! In short, I am at present a genius: in that does my opulence consist, and not in base metal’ (187).

NPG 4452; James Boswell by Sir Joshua Reynolds

(James Boswell by Sir Joshua Reynolds; oil on canvas, 1785
762 mm x 635 mm © National Portrait Gallery)

One of his preoccupations is, of course, sex—an often risky business in eighteenth-century London. When Boswell’s father had fetched him back from London in 1760, and Boswell reluctantly returned to his law studies, he had already contracted ‘the first of many venereal infections’.[7] Ten days after leaving Scotland, though ‘determined to have nothing to do with whores’, he picks up a girl in the Strand ‘and went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour [a prophylactic sheath]. But she had none. I toyed with her, She wondered at my size, and said if I ever took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak.’ No consummation, then, but the girl gets a shilling and Boswell gets a boost to his ego. He resolves ‘to wait cheerfully’ till he can find ‘some safe girl’ or is ‘liked by some woman of fashion.’[8] On numerous occasions, that cheerful waiting melts like summer snow. Sometimes he berates himself, sometimes just shrugs: ‘then came to the Park, and in armorial guise performed concubinage with a strong, plump, good-humoured girl called Nanny Baker’ (237). He frequently determines to be better—gravity, restraint, abstinence, seriousness—and such determination as frequently falters. Just as he humanised Johnson, recording Johnson’s flaws and faults and weaknesses as faithfully as he did the evidences of Johnson’s greatness, so the candour, the recognition of blunders and failures in his own life and character humanise the fallible and endearing Boswell.

The journal became extremely important to him: his father deprecated the habit and his old friend William Temple said that: ‘he imagined that my journal did me harm, as it made me hunt about for adventures to adorn it with, whereas I should endeavour to be calm and studious and regular in my conduct, in order to attain by habit a proper consistency of conduct. No doubt consistency of conduct is of the utmost importance. But I cannot find fault with this my journal, which is far from wishing for extravagant adventures, and is as willing to receive my silent and serious meditations as my loud and boisterous rhodomontades.’[9] Crucially, the journal habit is supported by Samuel Johnson. Even before he knows that Boswell keeps one, he suggests that he do so. ‘No former solicitations and censures could tempt me to lay thee aside,’ Boswell addresses his journal, ‘and now is there any argument which can outweigh the sanction of Mr. Samuel Johnson?’ (305)

He tells Johnson that he puts down ‘all sorts of little incidents’ in his journal and notes Johnson’s reply, which will find its way into the Life: ‘“Sir,” said he, “there is nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great knowledge of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.”’[10]

Doctor Samuel Johnson ?1772 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792

(Sir Joshua Reynolds, portrait of Samuel Johnson, ?1772: © Tate Gallery)

And indeed, in addition to the larger issues and events, Boswell records not only the little things but those days when there seems to be nothing much at all: ‘FRIDAY 11 FEBRUARY. Nothing worth putting into my journal occurred this day. It passed away imperceptibly, like the whole life of many a human experience’ (188); ‘THURSDAY 7 APRIL. I breakfasted with [William Johnson] Temple. This day was afterwards passed in dissipation which has left no traces on my brain’ (235); ‘Thursday 21 July 1763. ‘I remember nothing that happened worth relating this day. How many such days does mortal man pass!’ (316).

There’s a fine cast of characters: apart from those Boswellian friends and relations whose names are not generally known, the ones that are include Charles Churchill, David Hume, Oliver Goldsmith, John Wilkes, David Garrick—and, of course, Doctor Johnson.

I look forward to Holland in Jamie Boswell’s company.

 

References

[1] Letter of 18 October 1953: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 131.

[2] Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), 383-384.

[3] Adam Sisman, Boswell’s Presumptuous Task (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000), xviii-xix.

[4] Apart from Sisman’s account in his final chapter, ‘Posterity’, there’s a good account in Ian Hamilton’s chapter, ‘Boswell’s Colossal Hoard’, in his Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography (1992; London: Pimlico, 1993), 63-84. Frederick A. Pottle, who edited both the London and Holland journals, published a detailed account in Pride and Negligence: The History of the Boswell Papers (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982).

[5] Pottle’s introduction to the London Journal, with its biographical outline, notes on the recurring figures in Boswell’s story and eighteenth-century background, is very helpful for those not overly familiar with the history of the period.

[6] Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1950), 71: any bracketed page numbers in the text refer to this.

[7] Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, 12.

[8] Boswell’s London Journal, 49-50.

[9] Boswell’s London Journal, 269—now usually ‘rodomontade’: boastful or inflated talk or behaviour.

[10] Boswell’s London Journal, 305; see Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 307.