Denton Welch Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Denton Welch was born in Shanghai, China, into a family of wealth and privilege. His father was a prosperous rubber merchant, and his American-born mother a devoted Christian Scientist. He spent much of his youth traveling back and forth between Asia and Europe in the company of his mother, to whom he was inordinately devoted because of his father’s absence. To his great disappointment, he was enrolled in one of England’s finest boarding schools, Repton, which his two older brothers attended. The typical lifestyle of an English boys’ school brought traumatic change in the young boy’s life, especially in the wake of the casual days spent with his mother traveling throughout the world. He so detested Repton that he ran away, preferring to visit well-known cathedrals at Salisbury and Exeter. He finally found satisfaction at the Goldsmith School of Art in London, where he was able to develop his considerable talent as a painter and where he enjoyed the relaxed and open atmosphere of an art school.

Two experiences profoundly altered Welch’s relatively secure and happy life: The first was the death of his beloved mother when he was eleven years old, and the second, at age twenty, was a catastrophic bicycle accident that left him a permanent invalid and contributed to his early death at the age of thirty-three. The last thirteen years of his life were spent in great pain and discomfort but were, ironically, his most artistically productive years.

From his early published writings, Welch found great and encouraging praise from Edith Sitwell, who called him “a born writer.” Renowned literary editors such as Cyril Connolly and Sir Herbert Read found his work fresh and completely original. In an age that rarely allowed mention of sexual matters, Welch’s candor about his homosexuality disturbed a number of England’s conservative literary intelligentsia. More disturbing to them, however, was the originality of his writing style and its apparent artlessness and absence of any discernible literary influences.