Friday, 16 October 2015

Charles Morgan and his contemporaries

After discovering an interesting link to the period of the mid-1920's, a literary epoch which has long fascinated me, I post the following.


The Fountain, by Charles Morgan

This is a really peculiar book. It won the Hawthornden Prize in 1932.

Charles Morgan was more famous during his lifetime than after his demise. You can find a very brief biography on Wikipedia.

You may well ask, why did you read this book?

The connection derives from my interest in Vera Brittain. Charles Morgan was born in January 1894, a bare month after Vera, and is of the same generation in more ways than by mere accident of birthdate. Like Vera, he was a survivor of the First World War, and like Vera, permanently marked thereby.

Perhaps, like Vera, he would have forever remained a nonentity had it not been for the experiences of the First World War. And that Vera would have, is recorded in her own words, in a letter to her dear friend, Winifred Holtby, in which she decided that, her previous attempts at gaining recognition as a writer having failed, she would give her draft of "Testament of Youth" everything she had. If this failed, she recorded resignedly, "I shall remain silent." Fortunately, the book became an international best-seller, re-read and re-published regularly to this day.

Morgan's book "The Fountain", is not his first novel, but the first to gain important recognition. It draws heavily on his experience of being interned in Holland after capture in the early part of the War. Holland was neutral, and was not invaded, unlike the situation in which it found itself during WWII.

The Fountain does not appear in the book. Perhaps it is an allusion to sex. The book describes a rather spiritual love-affair, but the love-affair is absolutely not the heart of the book. The heart of the book is found in the search of the hero, Lewis Alison, for spiritual fulfilment.

It is impossible to imagine a book even finding a publisher, today, when the opening chapters are replete with such statements as:

"The struggle for some kind of stillness within oneself seems to run right through history........What I want is stillness of spirit....."

The common soldiery, to whom these statements are addressed, would, in today's parlance, be likely to utter imprecations such as "FFS!" if such words were to fall upon their ears.

Whilst shut up in the fortress in which he has been interned, Lewis welcomes the distance from his old life, (running a publishing business forced upon him by the early death of his father, the only means of support of his mother and sister). He looks upon the internment as a holiday, a time of complete peace and freedom from responsibilities, where he can write his book, which is to be "A history of the contemplative life."

After a time, the inmates of the fort are dispersed, and Lewis is placed in a castle, home of a Dutch aristocrat, which happens to be furnished with a magnificant library. The library is a place of seductive power, as well as great beauty, and much of the development of the love affair takes place in this setting.

The love affair itself, is completely incredible. There is no convincing description of how a person who would like most of all to become stiller and stiller until he enters a sort of hypnotic trance of introspection, embarks on a passionate affair. Indeed, as the affair approaches its physical consummation, the lover writes to his beloved a complicated analysis of love which he describes as "hypostasis" and their potential relationship as "a perdurable essence".

The library has a secret stairway to a tower, in which the "princess" sleeps, a tower to which the lover has secret access at night from the library. After a year or so of these nocturnal visitations, the girl's husband, a badly wounded German aristocrat, returns to the castle to convalesce. The affair is suspended, the war ends, the German husband finds out about the affair and dies, Alison is sent away by the girl's mother, to preserve the family honour. The ugly stepsister (who always knew, but found it impossible hitherto to tell about the affair) now finds it possible to tell all, so the girl runs away with a few jewels and a passport to join her lover and the book ends contemplating their embarkation on middle-class married life.

What did the contemporary literay scene find so enthralling, I wonder?

The beautiful girl, who is only 20, married far too young by her mother for social standing and to preserve a way of life, has no voice of her own. She is portrayed through the prism of men who find her beautiful: her stepfather, the Dutch baron, (who buys her jewels as a way of expressing affection) her lover's two interned friends, (who would do anything for her, so besotted are they by her beauty), her dying husband, (a very sympathetically drawn picture of a remnant of a now extinct German social class), who loves her and realizes that his love is not returned. What she saw in Alison is apparently his noble mind, and there is, conveniently, no accidental pregnancy to worry about. None of this is realistic to a full-blooded married woman of the late twentieth century and the new millenium.

I can only conclude that the book is the expression of a dying class system and that the people who read at all in the early thirties, who would have been the remnants of the dying upper middle class before it faced the final onslought of WWII, recognized themselves. And of course, that did not include women, who still had little or no voice in public life at the time. Vera Brittain's book was published the following year, 1933.


Other writers who were active during this time and all knew each other and referred to each other in their letters and autobiographies include:

Winifred Holtby
Storm Jameson
Phyllis Bentley
May Sinclair
Rose Macaulay

I have books by all these ladies on my shelves.  All were born within the same ten years (1888 to 1898).  All were indelibly marked by the First World War.  Three  of them saw active service in that war (although poor May Sinclair was shipped home from Belgium almost immediately as being completely unsuitable, even as an ambulance driver).

All the five listed above remained single, although Rose Macaulay had in interesting 25-year affair with an unfrocked, married Catholic priest.  All their lives were fascinating.

I will post more in due course.


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