While A Dream Journey may not be Hanley’s finest single achievement in fiction, it is certainly the most accessible book for readers unfamiliar with his work. Since publication of the sea novels Drift (1930), Boy (1931), and Ebb and Flood (1932), Hanley has focused on the lives of men and women emerging from working-class to lower-middle-class status. Like Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence, of whose books his early novels are reminiscent, Hanley is ambivalent about the change. He sees that the lives his protagonists make for themselves are often as crippling as the ones they struggle to leave behind.
That is certainly his point about Clem and Lena Stevens in A Dream Journey, although it is not the conclusion Hanley drew about them when they appeared in No Directions (1943). In the earlier short novel, which appears as the “Yesterday” section of A Dream Journey, Clem and Lena are minor characters. The focus is on Richard Jones, the air raid warden, and his wife, Gwyn, and the other tenants of the house in Chesil Place share the Joneses’ terror at the bombing. Hanley appears to have recognized that Clem and Lena are different. Because their dream is of artistic transcendence over circumstance, their story is both more heroic and more tragic than those of the other men and women in No Directions. The factors which limit their lives, as Hanley suggests in A Dream Journey, are as much of their own making as anything else.
Elements of the novel suggest the influence of Joyce Cary’s portrait of an artist in The Horse’s Mouth (1944) and of the artist’s muse in Herself Surprised (1941). Where Cary stresses the vitality of his Gulley Jimson and Sara Munday, however, Hanley shows how much life has taken from Clem and Lena Stevens. The portrait of the artist in A Dream Journey is a deeply pessimistic one, and it is hard to resist the temptation to see Hanley’s characterization of Clem Stevens as a portrait of himself.