Maiden Voyage, 1943
In Youth Is Pleasure, 1944
A Voice Through a Cloud, 1950 (unfinished)
Brave and Cruel, 1948
A Last Sheaf, 1951
The Stories of Denton Welch, 1985
Dumb Instrument: Poems and Fragments, 1976
I Left My Grandfather’s House, 1958
The Journals of Denton Welch, 1984
To Dame Edith Sitwell, one of his earliest admirers, Maurice Denton Welch was “a born writer.” To Maurice Cranston, he was “a born solipsist,” to C. E. M. Joad, he was a latter-day decadent, and to Julian Symons, the harshest of his critics, he was “a pathetic rather than a tragic figure” whose writings betray the author’s “complete narcissistic self-absorption” and “the poverty of his subjects.” Welch saw himself as a monk dedicated to a single task, devoted to an art forged in his own image–an art that is not so much narcissistic as self-exploring, perhaps even self-creating. The intense and often sensuous subjectivity of his writing, especially of the later works, is its most distinguishing feature. Situated at the very center of his writing and his world, his “I” exists as the author’s attempt to reconstitute the self–both physical and psychological–that had been largely destroyed as a result of a near-fatal accident in 1935. His “I” exists less as a participant in the events described than as a spectator, as a presiding, recording consciousness. What distinguishes Welch’s subjectivity from mere narcissism and his gaze from mere voyeurism is the manner in which he manages to transform them to narrative advantage. His preoccupation with his own subjective self constitutes his attempt to fill the emptiness he felt within. As he wrote in his journal, “Now I am alone here in the afternoon, with freezing mist outside, and nothing in me.” Although his self-absorption may be traced to more or less specific physiological and psychological causes, the results extend well beyond the merely pathological to the forging of a decidedly new form of narrative art that is all the more surprising given just how derivative and unexceptional his poems and paintings are.
Welch was born on March 29, 1915, in Shanghai, China. Never close to his father, a well-to-do businessman, he was devoted to his American-born mother, from whose death in 1927 he never entirely recovered. In 1935, Welch sustained injuries in a bicycle crash; it would eventually cause his death thirteen years later. Trained as an artist, Welch soon turned to writing and in 1940 published an article about a visit to painter Walter Sickert in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon. In 1942, he began keeping a journal of considerable literary merit as well as biographical interest. His first novel appeared the following year. Maiden Voyage is, as are all Welch’s novels and many of his stories, autobiographical in subject and episodic in form. “After I had run away from school,” the novel begins, “no one knew what to do with me.” The narrator-protagonist hardly knows what to do with himself. He leaves Repton, then leaves England for China, then leaves his father’s house to explore that strange land, and then returns to England, where he enrolls in art school. Written in a simple style suggestive of the narrator-protagonist’s own youthfulness, Maiden Voyage proves a surprisingly mature work, one in which (as poet W. H. Auden has noted) “scientific objectivity” and “subjective terror” are strangely combined. Welch’s second novel, In Youth Is Pleasure, was less well received. Only half as long as Maiden Voyage, its action and cast of characters more condensed, In Youth Is Pleasure focuses more narrowly and relentlessly on the sexual–or, rather, the homosexual–aspect of the search for self-knowledge by the protagonist, Orville Pym, in a largely hostile, at times even terrifying, world surrounding the hotel where Pym goes between school terms with his father and two brothers. A number of reviewers found it difficult to sympathize with a character so narcissistic and “desperately miserable” as Pym. However, the more important reason the novel fails is the use of a third-person narrator, which, as critic Maurice Cranston has pointed out, “demanded an interest in the external world which Denton Welch could not sustain.”
Welch did not live to complete his third–and many contend, his best–novel, A Voice Through a Cloud. In part, the reason was physical: Pain began to make it difficult for him to write for more than a few minutes at a time. Also, Welch turned to the writing of short stories that would bring him the income he sorely needed following the death of his father. Many of these stories of failed sexual encounters Welch collected in Brave and Cruel, while others appear in A Last Sheaf, compiled by Eric Oliver, Welch’s companion during his final years. Even in its unfinished state, A Voice Through a Cloud is a remarkable work. Narrated by “Maurice,” the novel deals with Welch’s accident and recovery, but in a way that is, as John Updike pointed out, as much metaphorical as it is autobiographical. The novel proclaims the human being’s “terrible fragility” and the author’s painstaking effort “to reconstitute human experience particle by particle.” Here the metaphorical maiden voyage from illness to recovery ends with yet another beginning as Maurice, well if not quite whole, goes to live on his own, no longer needing the help of Dr. Frawley, on whom he had come to depend both as patient and as son. Maurice is, as his journals show Welch was, free but unfulfilled, at least until he came to terms with his feelings for Oliver, at long last entering into precisely the kind of relationship that he, like so many of his narrators and characters, had previously only observed.
What Welch depicted in his writing–his novels and stories as well as his journals–is not a world such as one finds in the realistic fiction written by the majority of other English writers during the 1940’s. It is instead a sensibility marked by the intensity of his perception, and marked, too, by its power to evoke rather than merely narrate or (despite the brilliance of Welch’s startling imagery) describe. Freely mixing candor with guilt, subjective desire with clinical detachment, he broke free of the upper-middle-class prejudices and perspective for which his work has at times been attacked to forge in his writing what he could not in his life: a new form, one which (as critic Ruby Cohn has noted) prefigures the slightly later New Novel in France and the works of the Angry Young Men in England. If his scale was small–smaller in fact than that of Jane Austen, a writer he greatly admired–the intensity of his vision and the scrupulous honesty with which he portrayed his limited world were inversely great.