Penguin New Writing 38: John Lehmann loses his judgement

P1010912There is full-on puffery in John Lehmann’s Foreword to Penguin New Writing in this 1949 issue. It’s been only a few issues since he sent out a plea for someone to contribute something funny; he’s lost all sense of proportion now. His Foreword begins with the question of how can we know ‘if a man has the true instincts and equipment of a writer, he will sooner or later win through to recognition, however great the obstacles that confront him at the beginning of his career’. He notes the great artists and writers who died young, having already achieved greatness, citing Keats and Shelley. He then moves to an encomium of Denton Welch (1915-48), ‘whose recent death was perhaps the greatest loss that the future of literature has suffered since the deaths of Alun Lewis and Sidney Keyes‘.

The reputation and memory of the work of all three authors have not survived their times. Lehmann sticks his neck out praising Welch, in particular, so extravagantly as to make me rush for the internet and encyclopaedic help. There is very little of it. Welch published some novels and short stories, painted a few very good paintings, and suffered from a painful spinal injury for over ten years. I doubt that anyone has heard of him without these references. Lehmann’s Foreword, perhaps desperately trying to pre-empt such a forgetting, goes full Lady Catherine de Bourgh and loses all sense of proportion. ‘Let us remember, rather, [Welch’s] astonishing feeling for words, the incredibly sensitive response to atmosphere, the rapidly growing subtlety of characterisation which, under other circumstances, with normal opportunities, might have brought within his power a range of achievement as great and diverse as any mature master of this century.’

Naturally, my interest was piqued. The first prose piece in this issue is a Denton Welch short story, ‘The Visit’. It is dreadful. At first, I thought it was a joke, a story narrated in drag as a nasty rebuke to women who write fan letters to men who want nothing to do with them. We are to accept that the narrative voice is female because she calls her desk and her kitchen ‘little’, and has coffee and a boiled egg for supper (just like a Barbara Pym character, only Pym was affectionate and warm in this recognition, Welch just sneers). The narrator is writing a letter of fervent appreciation to an author whose novel she has just finished reading, and remarks (in para 2) ‘What would an author think at receiving such a letter from an unknown woman? It was quite clear to me that he would probably be contemptuously amused’. So we are also to assume that this is the correct attitude for a male author to take, and for a woman to humbly accept.

Welch continues to delineate the woman’s character by describing her clothes (but as if she were being observed, not as she might have felt about them, or felt wearing them: bit of a giveaway, that). He gives her menial tasks to do in the house of the admired writer. She is invited to tea, stays for supper, trotting about setting the table and is complimented on her ability to mix a salad correctly by ripping lettuce leaves apart in oil (Pymlike, again, and again for the wrong reasons), and she stays the night.

This is clearly now a fantasy: NO woman of the niminy-piminy character given her by Welch would visit the house of a stranger and stay all evening and for the night without anything to sleep in. Yet she does: and entertains the men in her room wearing only an eiderdown. The young author is bedridden, and has a male live-in friend, who cooks, collects, and disturbs the narrator in bed at night, and probably rapes her but the events of his intrusion into her room are rather passed over. She leaves in the morning, slinking back to her home as if she is in disgrace, feeling like an unwanted toy. This story feels painfully cathartic; and is so vengeful against women as to make the experience of reading it an exercise in anger management. What was Lehmann thinking, to publish such misogynistic tripe? The answer is in the passionate Foreword, in which Lehmann’s judgement is overridden by grief at his friend’s death.

P1010913Reading the rest of the issue was sadly coloured by my fury at the Welch story. There is an Edith Sitwell poem (also a Welch fan), and James Stern’s story ‘The Woman Who Was Loved’ is a bizarre addition to the governess story subgenre. Saul Bellow contributes a story, ‘The Thoughts of Sergeant George Flavin’, but I couldn’t get past the first page of rollicking first-person narrative meanderings.  Rupert Croft-Cooke’s ‘Ear and Bracelet’ is about Neville, a sensitive soul who unaccountably goes to Spain and quivers in agony at the sound of the bull-fights, the roar of the crowd, the thought of cruelty to animals. Then he hangs out with a bullfighter called Ignacio, who succeeds in the ring, and offers Neville the ear of his first kill, which is screechingly rejected. Bad move, to insult your friend so. Neville: why did you go to Spain?

P1010914The artwork is mostly disjointed and ugly, without beauty or grace, but I did like these costume designs by James Bailey for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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Issue 39






14 thoughts on “Penguin New Writing 38: John Lehmann loses his judgement

  1. “Pymlike” might equally be rendered as “Welchlike” given the fact of Pym’s fascination with Welch (she even purchased his will). Welch should be judged by his novels, these being his best work, and, upon being acquainted with them what you dismiss as hyperbole could perhaps be considered more a case of mild overstatement, given Welch’s considerable talent and the loss his early death thus constituted.


  2. I am sad you don’t like Denton Welch and had never heard of him. His novels, particularly In Youth Is Pleasure, are extraordinary. A great failing of his though is, perhaps, his use of insufficiently worked through autobiographical material. I think it slightly dangerous to write that NO woman of however niminy piminy a character would sleep over without nightclothes. There was a war on. In his Journals a lot of people arrive for dinner and end up staying the night, however it can’t be denied he was a tricky character streaked with misogyny like bacon. But name an English Male Writer of the time who wasn’t. His early death is a great pity for the English novel though.


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