Several important questions arise when one reads a journal. Did the diarist intend his recorded thoughts to be published? Are they worth publishing? If so, has the editor prepared the journals with intelligence and skill? Although the life described in The Journals of Denton Welch will not interest all readers, one must answer all three questions in the affirmative. As Michael De-la-Noy demonstrates, Welch would have wanted his journal published. Welch’s early death, at age thirty-three, prevented his own revision of his journals, and an edition published in 1952 was flawed by major deletions. De-la-Noy undertook the job of editing the journals almost simultaneously with his writing of Welch’s biography. He draws upon the one for the other and demonstrates convincingly that reading the journals will add to a reader’s appreciation of the novels and stories by an “exclusively autobiographical writer,” one obsessed with the key incidents of his life and likely to turn those events into fiction, journal entries, and letters.
The formative event of Welch’s adult life occurred on June 7, 1935. A man of twenty at the time, he was struck and knocked off his bicycle by a passing motorist. Chief among the resultant injuries was a fractured spine. Spinal damage led to an infected bladder, kidney failure, and tuberculosis; for the next thirteen years, Welch would live with the repercussions of “that obscene accident.” Although much of his pain found relief in his writing, his posthumously published novel A Voice Through a Cloud (1950) most explicitly grapples with the experience of invalidism. Not surprisingly, a constant refrain in his journals is the desire for health: “How I longed to be strong and lusty, not ill.” One of the aspects of illness Welch most resented was the isolation it produced. Pain could be endured, but loneliness was another thing altogether. Welch found writing the best antidote for isolation. He particularly enjoyed writing and receiving letters and gloated over rich epistolary harvests such as that of September 17, 1942, when the post brought news of one of his pictures rented for an exhibition, a request for poems to be published in the Adelphi, a poem to proof for publication in The Spectator, and best of all a four-page fan letter from Edith Sitwell. To be called a born writer by the high priestess herself was truly an anodyne, and the very welcome congratulatory letter began a friendly correspondence punctuated by occasional visits.
Sitwell aside, though, the reader who expects regular edification by Welch’s experiences with the Bloomsbury set, as promised by the book jacket, is going to be disappointed. “Welch’s sharpest observations,” the reader is told, “are reserved for the writers he met during this time: Edith Sitwell, Herbert Read, Harold Nicolson, and Vita Sackville-West.” The last entry in Welch’s diary describes his first meeting with the Nicolsons and his disappointment with Sissinghurst Castle. It is a fascinating six pages, one of the rare times that Welch gives the concrete particulars of a woman’s appearance. Unfortunately the entry, like the meeting itself, comes too late—for readers and for the rapidly failing diarist.
In fact, book-jacket promises aside, Denton Welch preferred the daily company of less intellectual companions to a life filled with the roar of literary lions. “For I wish for communication with the inarticulate,” he wrote, “and can only fray and fritter with the quick.” His two most important adult relationships, both of which receive full treatment in the journals, were with quite ordinary people. Evelyn Sinclair was first Welch’s landlady and then his housekeeper. As the diaries reveal, the two of them bullied and depended on each other. When “Evie” departed in high dudgeon to take another post, Welch was both saddened and relieved, and his feelings were similarly mixed when she asked to return. Even more important to Welch was Eric Oliver, whom he met in 1943. After some stormy preliminaries, the two forged a relationship that would endure for the remaining five years of Welch’s life, a steadying bond that made Welch’s final years happy and immensely creative.
Because Welch’s movements and activities were so often curtailed in the years following his bicycle accident, he frequently drew upon incidents from his childhood and school days in his fiction. Luckily his journals depict these long-past experiences with colorful intensity that belies the passing years. In the journals, the reader glimpses the real-life details that have been transmuted into the short stories and novels on which Welch’s reputation as a “writer’s writer” is based. These early reminiscences, unlike the later records confined to rural Kent, span...