Introduction

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Hughes, Richard 1900–1976

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Hughes was an Anglo-Welsh novelist, dramatist, poet, short story writer, and author of children's books. His prose is noted for its lack of stylistic complexity, a technique that allows Hughes to present an honest and credible depiction of the psychology and motivation of his characters, notably the children characterized in A High Wind in Jamaica, his best known work. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 65-68.)

Goronwy Rees

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The Wooden Shepherdess is the second instalment of Richard Hughes's long historical novel, The Human Predicament, of which the first volume, The Fox in the Attic, was published in 1961. So long a gap in publication presents the reader with its own difficulties, particularly as The Human Predicament is designed, Mr Hughes tells us, as a single continuous novel, and not as a trilogy or a quartet…. The most a reviewer can do, therefore, in considering the present volume, is to report progress, rather than pass any final judgment. For Mr Hughes is a very conscious and deliberate artist, and if there are certain episodes in the present volume whose significance we do not entirely grasp, we can be confident that it will not be concealed by the time the novel is completed.

The first thing to say, perhaps, is that Mr Hughes triumphantly surmounts the difficulties he has imposed on himself by his method of publication. He is … a very slow writer…. But slowness has its rewards as well as its penalties, and in Mr Hughes's case one of them is that the novel's long process of gestation has given birth to certain scenes of almost hallucinatory vividness and power. It is as if the writer had sunk into some profound slumber in which, as in a dream, the imagination was set free to conjure up visions and images unaffected by the passage of time. Such a gift makes Mr Hughes almost unique among contemporary novelists, but like so many precious gifts, it also has its dangers, of which one is that certain scenes stand out so sharply in our minds that we are not always able—as yet—to see how they are related to what comes before and after….

Mr Hughes surrounds his hero [Augustine] with the historical personages of his period;… he has as deep a passion for history as he has for literature, and he records it with … accuracy and respect for truth….

In Augustine's case, the sinister spirit who presides over his destiny, as of the other characters in the novel, is … Hitler; in one sense indeed one might say that Hitler rather than Augustine is the true hero of The Human Predicament…. In The Fox in the Attic Augustine stood on the fringe of the events which culminated in Hitler's abortive putsch of 1923, and Mr Hughes's account of the putsch itself was a remarkable feat of historical imagination. (p. 504)

Mr Hughes practises something akin to the arts of the magician and the necromancer. Behind the veil of an unobtrusively natural style he traffics with unseen spirits and the powers of darkness; who knows, perhaps they speak with the voice of history herself, the owl which only flies by night? Throughout The Wooden Shepherdess there recur incidents of harsh and unexpected violence, which convey the feeling that something has gone wrong at the very heart of things. But the evil which pervades them only reveals itself in the concluding section of the novel, which is a quite brilliant reconstruction of Hitler's Night of the Long Knives.

Mr Hughes himself, in a note to The Wooden Shepherdess, points out that whereas, in his account of Hitler's Munich putsch, he was able to depend on good historical sources, there are no reliable witnesses to the events of 30 June 1934, because all those most closely concerned were liars. Thus he has felt free to exercise a greater degree of choice and selection, in effect a greater degree of imagination, in his narrative of what happened on that appalling night and the subsequent days. His account is wholly convincing, and his picture of Hitler, stirred out of indecision into abrupt and bloodthirsty action by the prospect of direct confrontation with the Reichswehr, is an unforgettable one. (p. 505)

Goronwy Rees, "Night Owl," in New Statesman (© 1973 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 6, 1973, pp. 504-05.

Ronald De Feo

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[Upon publication of the first volume of The Human Predicament, titled The Fox in the Attic, Richard Hughes] was called a genius, compared to Tolstoy and generally treated as a great modern novelist who had set out to produce the great English novel of the decade. There are many things in the world I will never understand; this response is one of them…. The book maddeningly jumped from one scene, character, country to another, trying to appear big and vast; moved, despite the constant shifting, at a snail's pace; and was so mannered that the reader was nearly suffocated by style. The Wooden Shepherdess is the perfect sequel: it is as impossible as its predecessor…. Hughes has the strange notion … that by recording one disconnected scene after another, thinly sketching a host of wooden characters and tossing in references to historical events,… he is producing some statement about our century. What he is actually producing is one incredibly rambling and pointless novel…. Hughes has been an impressive stylist, but here style does him in for he composes scene after scene in the same lapidary manner, with the result that all scenes seem equally important, whether they be major or minor, and the novel grows hopelessly static. Some critics have decided to reserve judgment on Hughes's series until it is completed, but I fail to find any significant pattern emerging and also fail to understand how a volume three or four will alter the hodgepodge effect of the first two books. (pp. 779-80)

Ronald De Feo, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74.

Walter Sullivan

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[Richard Hughes] is anything but a flashy writer, and I must confess that I am mildly put off by his style. This, however, is only a matter of taste, and whatever polish his prose may lack is vastly compensated for by the certainty of his vision. (pp. 142-43)

Readers of The Fox in the Attic, the first novel in Hughes's projected trilogy, will encounter many of the characters they met there in The Wooden Shepherdess. The early sequences of this novel occur in the United States in the 1920s…. Hughes develops, subtly and in a low key, a reversal of the old clash of cultures theme that was so dear to the heart of Henry James. In a way Hughes's Americans are not convincing. The obvious surface details seem wrong from time to time, though the speech patterns are right and Hughes knows a great deal about the clothes and the cars and the houses. What seems wrong is something about the spirit of the time: the looseness, the irresponsibility are not quite the same that we have seen in Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Faulkner and Cowley. But this is finally of little consequence. Augustine is an Englishman, and it is largely through his eyes and according to his point of view that the vagaries of the New World are conveyed to us. (p. 143)

Writing about historical figures and hewing the line of historical fact are not easy. The novelist is bound by the dimensions of what was: his imagination is strictly circumscribed by reality. The case of Nazi Germany is a special problem; good writers, such as Katherine Anne Porter, have failed in trying to write about it out of an excess of feeling against the material they seek to employ. Hughes succeeds. His dramatization of the Night of the Long Knives is masterful—cleanly written, balanced, totally convincing, and moving in a way that no adjective can describe. (p. 144)

The joining of the public and private themes is [in the final scene] extrapolated, enlarged, transfigured into a melding of the metaphysical and the mundane. All of our realities are encompassed in a scene that is absolutely successful. We could not legitimately ask for more. (pp. 144-45)

Walter Sullivan, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Winter, 1974.

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Hughes, Richard (Vol. 1)