Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562
In 1935, Denton Welch, then twenty years old, was struck by a car while riding his bicycle. The injuries he sustained—a broken spine and damage to his internal organs—left him partially crippled and permanently susceptible to fevers, hemorrhaging, and the spinal tuberculosis that would eventually result in his death thirteen years later. The psychological effects of the accident were as catastrophic as the physical effects and were compounded as Welch grappled not only with his bodily ills but also with his limitations as a painter and with his homosexuality. The journal he began in 1942 and continued keeping until 1948 deals much less with his anguish over the accident and his long convalescence than with their aftermath. During those years, Welch developed into a writer of autobiographical novels and short stories, and he formed the second most important emotional bond of his life, with Eric Oliver. (The first was with his mother, who died in 1926.)
Given that Welch’s slender reputation rests almost entirely on three largely unread novels (Maiden Voyage, 1943; In Youth Is Pleasure, 1945; A Voice Through a Cloud, 1950), the publication of his journals may seem a curiosity of little interest to anyone other than the literary scholar. One may read the journals sentimentally for the pathos of a life circumscribed by a crippling accident and of an artistic career cut tragically short. These facts, coupled with the posthumous neglect of Welch’s work, add up to a portrait of maudlin Romanticism: Welch as a Shelley or a Keats. Alternatively, one may read the journals as an example of gay literature; in dealing with his homosexuality Welch was far more open than, for example, A. E. Houseman, whose poems of a generation before Welch greatly admired, or, for that matter, many of his own contemporaries. One may choose to read the journals as a more or less factual record of the last seven years of Welch’s life, though here the journals will necessarily disappoint: Entries are often days, even weeks apart, and during periods of illness nonexistent.
Although the journals form a storehouse of the people and events Welch used in his thinly disguised autobiographical fictions, they include extraordinarily little direct discussion of his writing and painting, of his dealings with editors and publishers, of exhibitions and sales of his paintings. Moreover, the journals are incomplete in yet another way. Neither Jocelyn Brooke’s 1952 edition nor Michael De-la-Noy’s 1984 version includes the thirty-five-thousand-word sketch separately published in 1958 under the title I Left My Grandfather’s House or any of Welch’s poems (admittedly the least successful of his aesthetic efforts). Although De-la-Noy does restore approximately seventy-five thousand words omitted from the earlier edition, including the actual names of people to replace Brooke’s circumspect dashes, he himself omits two passages on the grounds of their being possibly libelous.
In his introduction, De-la-Noy, who has also written a biography of Welch, contends rather lamely that Welch intended the journals for publication and that because he was “among the most fastidious and self-disciplined” of fiction writers, the fact that the journals are often repetitious and long-winded may be excused as “a perfectly justified self-indulgence.” Yet to make such a claim is to sidestep the crucial question in any discussion of Welch and his work, the journals in particular: What saves Welch from the narcissistic self-indulgence of which he has so often been accused?